The Virgin Galactic doubters are eating their words after their soon-to-be low-Earth orbit spaceship made its third successful test flight on Friday. Each test flight has reached higher altitudes, with Friday’s flight making it 71,000 feet above the Mojave Desert.
Virgin Galactic’s White Knight Two airplane carried the six-passenger spaceship between its hulls to just over 45,000 feet and then released it, leaving the spaceship to use its impressive rocket motor to keep on soaring. The rocket burn lasted 20 seconds, achieving Mach 1.4. That part of the flight lasted 10 minutes, and the two pilots had landed the plane safely in the desert within an hour. Chief pilot David Mackay said that the craft “flew brilliantly.” Virgin Galactic happily tweeted the news, along with some pretty awesome photos.
If you watched Gravity, or any other space flick, you’ve undoubtedly noticed that while spacesuits are pretty damn important, they’re also bulky and cumbersome. Sandra Bullock can’t wait to shed hers every time she safely gets into an oxygen-rich environment. I remember seeing an awesome IMAX movie about the Hubble a few years back, in which an astronaut had to do some repairs that involved taking out, and later replacing, 117 screws. With those huge gloves, each turn of the screwdriver was a labor and thought that being an astronaut is perhaps more about achieving a state of zen-like patience than anything else. But in the future, that may not be an issue. In fact, astronauts may soon don space suits that make them look like space-faring sci-fi heroes.
I’m not sure if you knew that the International Space Station had a pre-planned death date. Maybe that’s being melodramatic. Let’s call it decommissioning and deorbiting. Whatever name you slap on it, the ISS’s final days were planned for 2020. While there are only a handful of people, robots, and private companies who will be directly affected when facility powers down, the significance and symbolism loom large. The ISS is a symbol of cosmic collaboration, as well as the first step of the realization of the dream that people will one day live and work in space. So let’s all celebrate because the station just received a four-year extension, and will be in service until 2024. If nothing else, that’s four more years of Chris Hadfield videos.
The Obama administration announced the plan to keep the ISS running until 2024, although obviously the current President will be long out of office by then and whoever comes next could potentially reverse that decision. But the next Chief of Staff is unlikely to do so, and not because he or she is a fan of the station, not only because the ISS cost about $100 billion to make and has prompted over 100 rocket launches and spacewalks, but also because getting it down safely is an undertaking.
Jupiter is set to give Mars and Saturn a run for their money when it comes to being the most talked-about planet in the coming years. The news that Jupiter’s moon Europa contains water vapor plumes helped solidify the Solar System’s biggest planet as a particularly important exploration target, especially when it comes to the search for life. A number of missions, including Juno, which is scheduled to arrive in 2016, have Jupiter in their sights, including the ESA’s JUICE (JUpiter ICy moon Explorer) probe, which is due to launch in 2022. Now it seems that Russia will join the fun, presumably by linking up with the JUICE mission by sending a probe to explore Jupiter’s moon Ganymede.
Robots in space — two great tastes that taste great together. They might go to Mars ahead of the humans to set up facilities, 3-D printed robotic spiders might build spacecraft, and robots might make isolated astronauts less lonely. Yet another robotics advancement at NASA pairs humans and robots, allowing humans to control the actions of robotic counterparts using a good ol’ Microsoft Kinect and something called the Oculus Rift.
The Kinect sensor provides the position tracking, while the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset allows for rotational tracking and the first-person experience one gets when playing a game in virtual reality. When the user has the view he needs, he can perform tasks which control the real-time movements of robotic arm. NASA has been using a JACO robotic arm developed by Kinova, a Canadian company that specializes in rehabilitation and research. The arm has three fingers, six degrees of freedom, and is designed to represent a “new generation of lightweight portable robotic manipulators.”