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Virgin Galactic is ‘coming home’ to Spaceport America in New Mexico

Posted by on May 10, 2019 in richard branson, sir richard branson, Space, TC, Transportation, Virgin Galactic | 0 comments

Aspiring space tourism outfit Virgin Galactic has just announced its readiness to shift its operations to New Mexico’s Spaceport America, from which the company’s first commercial flights will take off. “Virgin Galactic is coming home to New Mexico where together we will open space to change the world for good,” said Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson at a press event.

The plan isn’t exactly a surprise, since Virgin Galactic and New Mexico collaborated on the creation of the spaceport, which at present is the only thing of its kind in the world. But moving from a testing and R&D hangar to a place where actual customers will board the spaceships is a major milestone.

I talked with George Whitesides, VG’s CEO, about what the move really means and, of course, when it will actually happen.

“We’re fulfilling the commitment that we made years ago to bring an operational spaceline to the world’s first purpose-built spaceport,” he told me. “So what does that mean? One, the vehicles are moving, and all the stuff that goes along with operating those vehicles. And all the people that operate the vehicles, and the staff that are so-called customer-facing. And you’ll have all the relevant supply chain folks and core infrastructure folks who are associated with running a spaceline.”

Right now, that rather complicated list really only adds up to about a hundred employees — a large part of the workforce will remain in Mojave, where R&D and new vehicle engineering will continue to be based in the form of The Spaceship Company.

“As we move towards commercial services, we’re thinking more about what comes next, like hypersonic and point to point spaceflight,” Whitesides said.

That said, VG isn’t finished with its existing craft just yet. You can expect a couple more, depending on what the engineers think is necessary. But it’s not a “huge number.”

Moving to Spaceport America from its Mojave facilities is being undertaken now for several reasons, Whitesides explained. In the first place, the craft is pretty much ready to go.

“The last flight we did, we basically demonstrated a full commercial profile, including the interior of the vehicle,” he said. “Not only did we, you know, go up to space and come down, but because Beth was in the back — Beth Moses, our flight instructor — she was sort of our mock passenger. She got up a couple times and moved around, she was able to verify our cabin conditions. So we started thinking, maybe we’re at a place where we could move.”

The paperwork from the FAA and other authorities is in order. The spaceport has been ready for some time, too, at least the difficult parts like the runway, fuel infrastructure, communications equipment and so on. Right now it’s more like they need to pick the color for the carpet and buy the flatscreens and fridges for inside.

“But the people perspective is a key part of this,” Whitesides continued. “These people have families, they have kids. We always thought, wouldn’t it be nice to move over the summer, so they don’t have to leave in the middle of a school year? If we start now, our employees can more easily integrate into the community in New Mexico. So we said, actually let’s just do this right now. It’s a bold choice and a big deal but it’s the right thing to do.”

And what about the vehicles, VMS Eve and VSS Unity? How will they get there?

“That’s the great thing about an air launch system,” said Whitesides. “It’s the easiest part, in a way. Once all the other stuff is down there we’ll look deep into each other’s eyes, and say ‘are we ready?’ And then we put together the spaceship and go. It’s built to fly longer distances than that — so we’ll start the day with our base of operations in Mojave, and end the day with our base of operations in New Mexico.”

And a lovely base it will be. The spaceport, designed by Foster & Partners in the U.K., is a striking shape that rises out of the desert and should have all the facilities necessary to run a commercial spaceline — it’s probably the only place in the world that would work for that purpose, which makes sense as it was built for it.

“Because we’re horizontal take-off and landing, operationally on the ground side, it basically looks like an airport. The coolest-looking airport ever, but an airport,” Whitesides said. “It’s got a big beautiful runway — but you’ll notice that it’s got Earth to space comms links, this special antenna, and instead of a tower we have a mission control, and of course there’s the special ground tankage — oxidizer tanks and that kind of propulsion related infrastructure.”

The airspace surrounding the spaceport is also restricted all the way from the surface up to infinity, which helps when your flights span multiple air traffic levels. “And it’s already a mile up, so that’s an asset,” Whitesides observed. A mile closer to space — more a convenience than a necessity, but it’s a good start.

The actual moving operations should take place over the summer. The remaining test flights aren’t yet scheduled, but I’m sure that will soon change — and you’ll definitely hear about it when the first commercial flights are put on the books.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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Blue Origin launches ‘Club for the Future’ to inspire a new generation of space exploration

Posted by on May 9, 2019 in Blue Origin, Space, TC | 0 comments

As part of his big reveal of Blue Origin’s new lunar lander, “Blue Moon,” Jeff Bezos announced Club for the Future, a new organization to inspire a new generation of space explorers and entrepreneurs.

The new organization, open to educators, parents and children in kindergarten through high school, seems designed to integrate educational lessons with Blue Origin missions.

“Club members’ ideas combined with a foundation of affordable, frequent, and reliable access to space, will help spark a future without limits,” reads the website’s exhortation to new members.” Dream. Experiment. Build. As we grow, look out for new activities, content, and opportunities to access space.”

The first project is to “receive a postcard from space.”

All participants need to do is draw or write a vision for the future of life in space on the blank side of a self-addressed, stamped postcard, and send it to “Club for the Future” at PO BOX 5759, KENT, WA 98064, U.S.A.

The first 10,000 postcards received before July 20, 2019 will be placed inside the Crew Capsule on a New Shepard flight, and then returned to senders with a stamped “flown to space” certification.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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Watch Rocket Lab’s first launch of 2019 lift a DARPA experiment into orbit

Posted by on Mar 28, 2019 in DARPA, launches, Rocket Lab, rockets, Science, Space | 0 comments

Rocket Lab, the Kiwi operation working on breaking into the launch industry with small but frequent launches, has its first launch of the year today, due to take off in just a few minutes. Tune in below!

The company recently, after the numerous delays endemic to the launch industry, made its first real commercial launches, which spurred a $140 million investment. It is now working on increasing launch cadence and building enough rockets to do so.

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck was on stage at Disrupt SF not long ago talking about the new space economy. I thought it was a great discussion. (But then, I was the moderator, so how could it not be?)

The client for today’s launch is DARPA, which has opted to use smaller launch providers for a series of experiments and deployments. Onboard the Electron rocket today is the “RF Risk Reduction Deployment Demonstration, or R3D2. It’s an experimental antenna made of “a tissue-thin Kapton membrane” that will deploy from its small package to a full 7 feet across once in orbit.

The earliest opportunities for the launch were well over a week ago, but in this business, delays are expected. But all the little warning lights are off and the weather is fine, so we should be seeing R3D2 heading skyward in a few minutes.

You can watch the whole thing live below. I’ll update the post if there are any major updates.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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Mars helicopter bound for the Red Planet takes to the air for the first time

Posted by on Mar 28, 2019 in drones, Gadgets, Government, Hardware, jpl, mars 2020, mars helicopter, NASA, Robotics, Science, Space, TC, UAVs | 0 comments

The Mars 2020 mission is on track for launch next year, and nesting inside the high-tech new rover heading that direction is a high-tech helicopter designed to fly in the planet’s nearly non-existent atmosphere. The actual aircraft that will fly on the Martian surface just took its first flight and its engineers are over the moon.

“The next time we fly, we fly on Mars,” said MiMi Aung, who manages the project at JPL, in a news release. An engineering model that was very close to final has over an hour of time in the air, but these two brief test flights were the first and last time the tiny craft will take flight until it does so on the distant planet (not counting its “flight” during launch).

“Watching our helicopter go through its paces in the chamber, I couldn’t help but think about the historic vehicles that have been in there in the past,” she continued. “The chamber hosted missions from the Ranger Moon probes to the Voyagers to Cassini, and every Mars rover ever flown. To see our helicopter in there reminded me we are on our way to making a little chunk of space history as well.”

Artist’s impression of how the helicopter will look when it’s flying on Mars.

A helicopter flying on Mars is much like a helicopter flying on Earth, except of course for the slight differences that the other planet has a third less gravity and 99 percent less air. It’s more like flying at 100,000 feet, Aung suggested.

It has its own solar panel so it can explore more or less on its own.

The test rig they set up not only produces a near-vacuum, replacing the air with a thin, Mars-esque CO2 mix, but a “gravity offload” system simulates lower gravity by giving the helicopter a slight lift via a cable.

It flew at a whopping 2 inches of altitude for a total of a minute in two tests, which was enough to show the team that the craft (with all its 1,500 parts and four pounds) was ready to package up and send to the Red Planet.

“It was a heck of a first flight,” said tester Teddy Tzanetos. “The gravity offload system performed perfectly, just like our helicopter. We only required a 2-inch hover to obtain all the data sets needed to confirm that our Mars helicopter flies autonomously as designed in a thin Mars-like atmosphere; there was no need to go higher.”

A few months the Mars 2020 rover has landed, the helicopter will detach and do a few test flights of up to 90 seconds. Those will be the first heavier-than-air flights on another planet — powered flight, in other words, rather than, say, a balloon filled with gaseous hydrogen.

The craft will operate mostly autonomously, since the half-hour round trip for commands would be far too long for an Earth-based pilot to operate it. It has its own solar cells and batteries, plus little landing feet, and will attempt flights of increasing distance from the rover over a 30-day period. It should go about three meters in the air and may eventually get hundreds of meters away from its partner.

Mars 2020 is estimated to be ready to launch next summer, arriving at its destination early in 2021. Of course in the meantime we’ve still got Curiosity and Insight up there, so if you want the latest from Mars, you’ve got plenty of options to choose from.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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FAA proposal aims to ‘streamline’ regulations for future space launches

Posted by on Mar 26, 2019 in commercial spaceflight, department of transportation, Elaine Chao, FAA, Federal Aviation Administration, mike pence, Space, spaceflight, TC, Trump administration, United States | 0 comments

On Tuesday, the FAA and Department of Transportation published a proposal that greases the wheels for the commercial space industry, long bound by outdated regulations that were not created with a modern vision of private spaceflight in mind.

Last May, the Trump administration signaled its intention to ease commercial spaceflight regulations with Space Policy Directive 2. That directive called on Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to “release a new regulatory system for managing launch and re-entry activity.” That system, released in draft form today, seeks to pave the way for an “industry that is undergoing incredible transformation with regulations that have failed to keep up.”

With less than a year of turnaround time, the FAA and DOT produced a document detailing “Streamlined Launch and Reentry Licensing Requirements” that will govern commercial space activity. As the document states:

This rulemaking would streamline and increase flexibility in the FAA’s commercial space launch and reentry regulations, and remove obsolete requirements. This action would consolidate and revise multiple regulatory parts and apply a single set of licensing and safety regulations across several types of operations and vehicles. The proposed rule would describe the requirements to obtain a vehicle operator license, the safety requirements, and the terms and conditions of a vehicle operator license.

“These rules will maintain safety, simplify the licensing process, enable innovation, and reduce costs to help our country remain a leader in commercial space launches,” Chao said of the 580-page document, embedded in full below.

The new regulatory guidance comes on the same day that Vice President Mike Pence declared that U.S. astronauts must return to the moon again within the next five years “by any means necessary.” That considerably hastened schedule would upend NASA’s existing timeline for a U.S. return to the moon at 2028 at the soonest.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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Opportunity’s last Mars panorama is a showstopper

Posted by on Mar 13, 2019 in Gadgets, Government, Hardware, jpl, mars, mars rover, mars rovers, NASA, Opportunity, Science, Space, TC | 0 comments

The Opportunity Mars Rover may be officially offline for good, but its legacy of science and imagery is ongoing — and NASA just shared the last (nearly) complete panorama the robot sent back before it was blanketed in dust.

After more than 5,000 days (or rather sols) on the Martian surface, Opportunity found itself in Endeavour Crater, specifically in Perseverance Valley on the western rim. For the last month of its active life, it systematically imaged its surroundings to create another of its many impressive panoramas.

Using the Pancam, which shoots sequentially through blue, green and deep red (near-infrared) filters, it snapped 354 images of the area, capturing a broad variety of terrain as well as bits of itself and its tracks into the valley. You can click the image below for the full annotated version.

It’s as perfect and diverse an example of the Martian landscape as one could hope for, and the false-color image (the flatter true-color version is here) has a special otherworldly beauty to it, which is only added to by the poignancy of this being the rover’s last shot. In fact, it didn’t even finish — a monochrome region in the lower left shows where it needed to add color next.

This isn’t technically the last image the rover sent, though. As the fatal dust storm closed in, Opportunity sent one last thumbnail for an image that never went out: its last glimpse of the sun.

After this the dust cloud so completely covered the sun that Opportunity was enveloped in pitch darkness, as its true last transmission showed:

All the sparkles and dots are just noise from the image sensor. It would have been complete dark — and for weeks on end, considering the planetary scale of the storm.

Opportunity had a hell of a good run, lasting and traveling many times what it was expected to and exceeding even the wildest hopes of the team. That right up until its final day it was capturing beautiful and valuable data is testament to the robustness and care with which it was engineered.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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SpaceX’s Crew Dragon makes its first orbital launch tonight

Posted by on Mar 1, 2019 in commercial crew, crew dragon, Gadgets, Government, Hardware, NASA, Space, SpaceX | 0 comments

After years of development and delays, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is ready to launch into orbit. It’s the first commercially built and operated crewed spacecraft ever to do so, and represents in many ways the public-private partnership that could define the future of spaceflight.

Launch is set for just before midnight Pacific time — 2:49 Eastern time in Cape Canaveral, from where the Falcon 9 carrying the Crew Dragon capsule will take off. It’s using Launchpad 39A at Kennedy Space Center, which previously hosted Apollo missions and more recently SpaceX’s momentous Falcon Heavy launch. Feel free to relive that moment with us, while you’re here:

The capsule has been the work of many years and billions of dollars: an adaptation of the company’s Dragon capsule, but with much of its cargo space converted to a spacious crew compartment. It can seat seven if necessary, but given the actual needs of the International Space Station, it is more likely to carry two or three people and a load of supplies.

Of course it had to meet extremely stringent safety requirements, with an emergency escape system, redundant thrusters and parachutes, newly designed spacesuits, more intuitive and modern control methods and so on.

Crew Dragon interior, with “Ripley”

It’s a huge technological jump over the Russian Soyuz capsule that has been the only method to get humans to space for the last eight years, since the Shuttle program was grounded for good. But one thing Dragon doesn’t have is the Soyuz’s exemplary flight record. The latter may look like an aircraft cockpit shrunk down to induce claustrophobia, but it has proven itself over and over for decades. The shock produced by a recent aborted launch and the quickness with which the Soyuz resumed service are testament to the confidence it has engendered in its users.

But for a number of reasons the U.S. can’t stay beholden to Russia for access to space, and at any rate the commercial spaceflight companies were going to send people up there anyway. So NASA dedicated a major portion of its budget to funding a new crew capsule, pitting SpaceX and Boeing against one another.

SpaceX has had the best of Boeing for the most part, progressing through numerous tests and milestones, not exactly quickly, but with fewer delays than its competitor. Test flights originally scheduled for 2016 are only just now beginning to take place. Boeing’s Starliner doesn’t have a launch date yet, but it’s expected to be this summer.

Tonight’s test (“Demo-1”) is the first time the Crew Dragon will fly to space; suborbital flights and landing tests have already taken place, but this is a dry run of the real thing. Well, not completely dry: the capsule is carrying 400 pounds of supplies to the station and will return with some science experiments on board.

After launch, it should take about 11 minutes for the capsule to detach from the first and second stages of the Falcon 9 rocket. It docks about 27 hours later, early Sunday morning, and the crew will be able to get at the goodies just in time for brunch, if for some reason they’re operating on East Coast time.

SpaceX will be live streaming the launch as usual starting shortly before takeoff; you can watch it right here:


Source: The Tech Crunch

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Ubiquitilink advance means every phone is now a satellite phone

Posted by on Feb 25, 2019 in Gadgets, Hardware, Mobile, Science, Space, Startups, TC, ubiquitilink | 0 comments

Last month I wrote about Ubiquitilink, which promised, through undisclosed means, it was on the verge of providing a sort of global satellite-based roaming service. But how, I asked? (Wait, they told me.) Turns out our phones are capable of a lot more than we think: they can reach satellites acting as cell towers in orbit just fine, and the company just proved it.

Utilizing a constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit, Ubiquitilink claimed during a briefing at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona that pretty much any phone from the last decade should be able to text and do other low-bandwidth tasks from anywhere, even in the middle of the ocean or deep in the Himalayas. Literally (though eventually) anywhere and any time.

Surely not, I hear you saying. My phone, that can barely get a signal on some blocks of my neighborhood, or in that one corner of the living room, can’t possibly send and receive data from space… can it?

“That’s the great thing — everybody’s instinct indicates that’s the case,” said Ubiquitilink founder Charles Miller. “But if you look at the fundamentals of the RF [radio frequency] link, it’s easier than you think.”

The issue, he explained, isn’t really that the phone lacks power. The limits of reception and wireless networks are defined much more by architecture and geology than plain physics. When an RF transmitter, even a small one, has a clear shot straight up, it can travel very far indeed.

Space towers

It’s not quite as easy as that, however; there are changes that need to be made, just not anything complex or expensive like special satellite antennas or base stations. If you know that modifying the phone is a non-starter, you have to work with the hardware you’ve got. But everything else can be shaped accordingly, Miller said — three things in particular.

  1. Lower the orbit. There are limits to what’s practical as far as the distance involved and the complications it brings. The orbit needs to be under 500 kilometers, or about 310 miles. That’s definitely low — geosynchronous is 10 times higher — but it’s not crazy either. Some of SpaceX’s Starlink communications satellites are aiming for a similar orbit.
  2. Narrow the beam. The low orbit and other limitations mean that a given satellite can only cover a small area at a time. This isn’t just blasting out data like a GPS satellite, or communicating with a specialized ground system like a dish that can reorient itself. So on the ground you’ll be looking at a 45 degree arc, meaning you can use a satellite that’s within a 45-degree-wide cone above you.
  3. Lengthen the wavelength. Here simple physics come into play: generally, the shorter the wavelength, the less transparent the atmosphere is to it. So you want to use bands on the long (lower Hz) side of the radio spectrum to make sure you maximize propagation.

Having adjusted for these things, an ordinary phone can contact and trade information with a satellite with its standard wireless chip and power budget. But there’s one more obstacle, one Ubiquitilink spent a great deal of time figuring out.

Although a phone and satellite can reach one another reliably, a delay and Doppler shift in the signal due to the speeds and distances involved are inescapable. Turns out the software that runs towers and wireless chips isn’t suited for this; the timings built into the code assume the distance will be less than 30 km, since the curvature of the Earth generally prevents transmitting farther than that.

So Ubiquitilink modified the standard wireless stacks to account for this, something Miller said no one else had done.

“After my guys came back and told me they’d done this, I said, ‘well let’s go validate it,’ ” he told me. “We went to NASA and JPL and asked what they thought. Everybody’s gut reaction was ‘well, this won’t work,’ but then afterwards they just said ‘well, it works.’ ”

The theory became a reality earlier this year after Ubiquitilink launched their prototype satellites. They successfully made a two-way 2G connection between an ordinary ground device and the satellite, proving that the signal not only gets there and back, but that its Doppler and delay distortions can be rectified on the fly.

“Our first tests demonstrated that we offset the Doppler shift and time delay. Everything else is leveraging commercial software,” Miller said, though he quickly added: “To be clear, there’s plenty more work to be done, but it isn’t anything that’s new technology. It’s good solid hardcore engineering, building nanosats and that sort of thing.”

Since his previous company was Nanoracks and he’s been in the business for decades, he’s qualified to be confident on this part. It’ll be a lot of work and a lot of money, but they should be launching their first real satellites this summer. (And it’s all patented, he noted.)

Global roaming

The way the business will work is remarkably simple given the complexity of the product. Because the satellites operate on modified but mostly ordinary off-the-shelf software and connect to phones with no modifications necessary, Ubiquitilink will essentially work as a worldwide roaming operator that mobile networks will pay to access. (Disclosure: Verizon, obviously a mobile network, owns TechCrunch, and for all I know will use this tech eventually. It’s not involved with any editorial decisions.)

Normally, if you’re a subscriber of network X, and you’re visiting a country where X has no coverage, X will have an agreement with network Y, which connects you for a fee. There are hundreds of these deals in play at any given time, and Ubiquitilink would just be one more — except its coverage will eventually be global. Maybe you can’t reach X or Y; you’ll always be able to reach U.

The speeds and services available will depend on what mobile networks want. Not everyone wants or needs the same thing, of course, and a 3G fallback might be practical where an LTE connection is less so. But the common denominator will be data enough to send and receive text at the least.

It’s worth noting also that this connection will be in some crucial ways indistinguishable from other connections: it won’t affect encryption, for instance.

This will of course necessitate at least a thousand satellites, by Miller’s count. But in the meantime, limited service will also be available in the form of timed passes — you’ll have no signal for 55 minutes, then signal for five, during which you can send and receive what may be a critical text or location. This is envisioned as a specialty service at first, then as more satellites join the constellation, that window expands until it’s 24/7 and across the whole face of the planet, and it becomes a normal consumer good.

Emergency fallback

While your network provider will probably charge you the usual arm and leg for global roaming on demand (it’s their prerogative), there are some services Ubiquitilink will provide for free; the value of a global communication system is not lost on Miller.

“Nobody should ever die because the phone in their pocket doesn’t have signal,” he said. “If you break down in the middle of Death Valley you should be able to text 911. Our vision is this is a universal service for emergency responders and global E-911 texting. We’re not going to charge for that.”

An emergency broadcast system when networks are down is also being planned — power outages following disasters are times when people are likely to panic or be struck by a follow-up disaster like a tsunami or flooding, and reliable communications at those times could save thousands and vastly improve recovery efforts.

“We don’t want to make money off saving people’s lives, that’s just a benefit of implementing this system, and the way it should be,” Miller said.

It’s a whole lot of promises, but the team and the tech seem capable of backing them up. Initial testing is complete and birds are in the air — now it’s a matter of launching the next thousand or so.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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Space Force will be a Marines-like branch under Air Force authority

Posted by on Feb 19, 2019 in Air Force, america, army, department of defense, Donald Trump, military, pentagon, Space, Space Force, star wars, TC, trump, Trump administration, United States | 0 comments

President Trump is expected to sign into creation the Space Force today, as a special branch of the military overseen by the Air Force Department, according to a report in The Washington Post.

The president’s decision is considered a win for the Air Force and Defense Department broadly, which had argued against setting up an independent military department based on their concerns that it would add new layers of bureaucracy, according to the Pentagon .

Speaking at an event at The Brookings Institute, Air Force chief of staff Gen. David L. Goldfein discussed the decision-making process around the creation of the Space Force — saying that Defense Department officials had discussed a range of options, from creating an entire department to establishing a smaller, professional core of personnel, like the Army’s Medical Corps.

With the decision, the Trump Administration is likely to establish a service that looks more like the Marine Corps, which is part of the Navy but unique within it, than an entirely new branch of the military. The Space Force will be led by a four-star general who will have a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but it will not have a secretary-level post, according to the Post report.

Perhaps more significantly, the Trump administration is reviving the U.S. Space Command, which will be headed by a four-star officer and will coordinate military operations in space.

These days, those operations consist of communications, surveillance and satellite defense, but as plans continue to set up more permanent bases on the Moon and eventually Mars, these efforts could expand to protect personnel as well.

The U.S. disestablished the Space Command in 2002 under the George W. Bush administration. Created in 1985 during the Reagan administration’s second term, when the “Star Wars” missile defense program was in full swing, the Space Command was tasked with defining strategic objectives for the U.S. in space, and executing them.

When President Trump announced the new Space Command in December, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said that the surge in threats to America’s space program warranted the resurrection of the program.

“We are shifting to a war fighting culture at the explicit recognition that it is a war fighting domain,” Wilson was quoted by Space News as saying at the time. “Adversaries are developing capabilities to deny us the use of space in crisis or war. The creation of a unified command puts focus on the ability to protect our assets on orbit and prevail if called upon.”


Source: The Tech Crunch

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Watch the historic first private mission to the Moon launch Thursday night

Posted by on Feb 19, 2019 in beresheet, Gadgets, google lunar x prize, Hardware, Israel, lunar landing, Moon, Robotics, Science, Space, spaceflight, TC | 0 comments

For the first time later this week, a privately developed moon lander will launch aboard a privately built rocket, organized by a private launch coordinator. It’s an historic moment in space and the Israeli mission stands to make history again if it touches down on the Moon’s surface as planned on April 11.

The Beresheet (“Genesis”) program was originally conceived as an entry into the ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful Google Lunar Xprize in 2010, which challenged people to accomplish a lunar landing, with $30 million in prizes as the incentive. The prize closed last year with no winner, but as these Xprize competitions aim to do, it had already spurred great interest and investment in a private moon mission.

SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries worked together on the mission, which will bring cameras, a magnetometer and a capsule filled with items from the country to, hopefully, a safe rest on the lunar surface.

The Beresheet lander ahead of packaging for launch

The launch plan as of now (these things do change with weather, technical delays and so on) is for takeoff at 5:45 Pacific time on Thursday — 8:45 PM in Cape Canaveral — aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. A live stream should be available shortly before, which I’ll add here later or in a new post.

Thirty minutes after takeoff the payload will detach and make contact with mission control, then begin the process of closing the distance to the Moon, during which time it will circle the Earth six times.

Russia, China and of course the U.S. are the only ones ever to successfully land on the Moon; China’s Chang’e 4 lander was the first to soft-land (as opposed to impact) the “dark” (though really only far — it’s often light) side and is currently functional.

But although there has been one successful private lunar flyby mission (the Manfred Memorial probe) no one but a major country has ever touched down. If Beresheet is a success it would be both the first Israeli moon mission and the first private mission to do so. It would also be the first lunar landing to be accomplished with a privately built rocket, and the lightest spacecraft on the Moon and, at around $100 million in costs, the cheapest as well.

Landing on the Moon is, of course, terribly difficult. Just as geosynchronous orbit is far more difficult than low Earth orbit, a lunar insertion orbit is even harder, a stable such orbit even harder and accomplishing a controlled landing on target even harder than that. The only thing more difficult would be to take off again and return to Earth, as Apollo 11 did in 1969 and other missions several times after. Kind of amazing when you think about it.

Seattle’s Spaceflight coordinated the launch, and technically Beresheet is the secondary payload; the primary is the Air Force Research Labs’ S5 experimental satellite, which the launch vehicle will take to geosynchronous orbit after the lunar module detaches.

Although Beresheet may very well be the first, it will likely be the first of many: other contenders in the Lunar Xprize, as well as companies funded or partnering with NASA and other space agencies, will soon be making their own attempts at making tracks in the regolith.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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