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Boeing Wins Manned Spacecraft Bid—We Think

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Boeing-capsule-CST-100When President Obama announced the end of the Constellation program, many people worried about the U.S. not having a method of transport for its own astronauts. Since then, American astronauts have been buying rides to the ISS on Russian Soyuz capsules. Given that Russia will soon be bowing out of the ISS, it’s now particularly important that NASA figures out another way to transport its astronauts. Hence the Commercial Crew Program, NASA’s way of soliciting transportation services from private companies. The three contenders were SpaceX’s Dragon, Sierra Nevada’s Dreamchaser, and Boeing’s CST-100. This morning, the Wall Street Journal reported that NASA “is poised” to award the $3 billion to Boeing.

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NASA Renews Seven Planetary Missions

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Mars Odyssey

Mars Odyssey Orbiter

Here’s an all to rare thing: a post to celebrate the extension of seven planetary missions. I’m exercising cautious optimism regarding NASA, but I’m happy to hear that some of the agency’s most famous (and most awesome) programs won’t be getting the axe any time soon.

The space agency just finished the 2014 senior review of its currently operating planetary science missions and decided not to cancel any of them. Color me surprised—and delighted. Still, NASA’s Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green did say that some of the missions will have to operate “leaner and meaner” as they deal with some cutbacks. A report of their findings will be released sometime this week.

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NASA’s Asteroid Capture Program Has Haters

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asteroid

Near-Earth asteroid Eros

For all the man-made catastrophes humans have to fear, there are natural ones too, like volcanic explosions, earthquakes, and asteroids. They’ve all caused widespread chaos and extinctions throughout Earth’s history. And while we can predict and prepare for these occurrences, to some degree, the general stance on these phenomena is that humans can do nothing about them—they’re products of nature at its most powerful and undiscriminating. But recently, NASA and other space agencies around the world have discussed various strategies for avoiding a direct hit by an asteroid. They’ve got a spacecraft specifically devoted to hunting these space rocks–both to identify threats and to look out for mining possibilities–guidelines for protection, a space cannon to blast away any that are too close for comfort, solar-powered laser plans, and something called the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). This last one is a plan to guide a near-Earth asteroid into orbit around the moon for future exploration.

While capturing one would prove our ability to manipulate the trajectory of a big hunk of space rock, which could be a starting point for asteroid redirection, this mission probably isn’t going to save us from one on a collision course with Earth. ARM involves blowing off a small chunk (just over 30 feet in diameter) from an asteroid and towing that into lunar orbit in a bag. The program is less focused on cataclysm avoidance, which some people take issue with, and more centered on what we can learn, especially stuff that might apply to putting humans on Mars. It’s becoming clear that most experts believe ARM is basically a bad excuse for sucking up resources.

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NASA Funds Tumbling Robotic Cubes

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tumbling cubesAs NASA debates whether to send more people to the moon, as well as whether, how, and when to try a manned mission to Mars, it has decided to fund a new kind of robot for space exploration: tumbling cubes.

Self-assembling robots aren’t a new idea, and engineers have already developed a number of different kinds, from robots that assemble in mid-air to small cubes that can assemble on the ground.

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NASA’s New Horizon Probe Captures Its First Images Of Pluto And Charon

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Pluto may not be an official planet anymore—revoking a celestial body’s planet hood still seems a bit harsh—but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth taking a closer look at, and that’s exactly where NASA’s New Horizon probe is headed. The craft is still a year or so away from arriving at its final destination, but it’s already sending back impressive footage and breaking existing records.

The craft isn’t scheduled to be close enough to close up shots of the dwarf planet and its largest moon Charon until July 14 of next year, but while it’s on the way, the team at NASA has pointed its telescope at the target and captured this film of the two bodies in orbit. Comprised of a dozen images taken from July 19 through July 24, this clip shows the moon revolve around the dwarf planet in a way we’ve never seen before.

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Watch Footage Of NASA’s Flying Saucer, The Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator

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A few months ago we reported on the NASA’s new Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD), which looks like a flying saucer and is designed to land large payloads on places such as Mars. The first flight test of the LDSD happened in June at the Kauai Pacific Missile Range Facility, and NASA has just released footage of that flight as recorded by cameras on the craft.

Many aspects of this test flight were unusual. Because the parachute on the LDSD is so large, NASA can’t conduct any testing in a wind tunnel. So this time, they launched the craft with a gigantic, 34-million-cubic-foot balloon, which pulled the it to approximately 120,000 feet. The device’s thrusters then started it spinning, which, while somewhat nausea-inducing, actually improves stability. Then a rocket took over, catapulting the craft to over 180,000 feet in just over a minute. When everything was ready, the decelerator deployed (which looks totally awesome in the high-resolution, high-definition footage).

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