Meet Dream Chaser, America’s Next Space Shuttle

Dream ChaserAs you probably know, President Obama announced his decision to end NASA’s space shuttle program Constellation back in 2010. Since then, the US has been paying to transport astronauts to the ISS aboard Russian Soyuz capsules. NASA designed the four-person Space Launch System, a heavy launch vehicle, to replace the retired shuttles. So I’ve just been waiting patiently for that to come to fruition, somehow unaware of the Dream Chaser spacecraft, a commercial spaceflight transport system that will be able to take a crew of seven astronauts to the ISS, despite being about 1/3rd the size of a conventional shuttle.

The Dream Chaser will ride aboard an Atlas 5 rocket, which will propel the craft into low Earth orbit, potentially ferrying astronauts to the ISS. Service—or some kind of crewed mission—is expected to begin in 2017, with the first orbital crewless flight in late 2016. Dream Chaser’s first unmanned flight occurred in 2013, when it flew successfully but crashed due to a malfunction in its landing gear. Actually, the vehicle flipped over at the very end, coming to rest in an upright position, after which the malfunctioning left landing gear deployed. I like a spacecraft with a sense of humor. Despite the rocky ending, the flight was regarded as an overall success.


Why You Have NASA To Thank For The Super Bowl

Astronaut Rick Mastracchio talks Superbowl

Astronaut Rick Mastracchio talks Superbowl

In a few hours, an absurd number of people will watch the spectacle that is the Super Bowl. And they’ll probably watch a little football, too. I’ll be watching, but only out of an effort to be socially acceptable. I saw Richard Sherman go nutso on that reporter, so who knows what he’ll say and do tonight, and I’m all for celebrating the fact that the two teams playing are from two states that have legalized recreational marijuana. Beyond that…well, let’s just say I have a slight inclination for the Broncos, but only because my hometown college hockey team was the Western Michigan University Broncos. However, I just found another reason to get behind the Super Bowl—it indirectly owes its existence, or at least its widespread broadcast, to NASA.

Proponents of investing in NASA and space exploration often argue that technologies originally developed for some use in space have resulted in technological breakthroughs here on the ground. These are referred to as spinoff technologies. Neil deGrasse Tyson specifically cites to the Hubble telescope. The device had a bum lens for a few years, but when scientists tried out different technology to work around the lens problems, they realized that it could revolutionize mammogram imaging. Similarly, a number of aspects of tonight’s game arguably wouldn’t exist if not for space science.


Cosmos Trailer Invites You To Share The Wonders Of Our Universe

Last Friday night, I was at a bar and a woman I’d never met before joined our group. A little while later, I heard her referring to someone named Seth, but I didn’t pay much attention — until it became clear that she was talking about Seth MacFarlane. And not just talking about him, but referring to him as though they were friends. I waited until the next semi-polite break in conversation and then clarified that she was indeed talking about THE Seth MacFarlane, which she was — apparently she’s been working for him for three years doing script supervising (not that I knew script supervisor was an actual job title). I asked her if she by any chance had done any work on the new Cosmos, and she pulled up a picture on her phone of her and Neil deGrasse Tyson looking all chummy. “When does the show premiere?” I asked her, given that Fox had been pretty vague about its pilot date. “I’ll find out,” she said, and promptly started texting someone. I thought she was kidding. She wasn’t. “March 9,” she announced a minute later. Now, Fox has confirmed that, indeed, March 9 is the start date, and they’ve released a new trailer (see above — the original trailer is below) for the show. Between this conversation and the new trailer, I’m more excited than ever to see the new series. I hope everyone else is too.


Chinese Moon Rover Yutu May Be In Trouble

YutuChina’s moon rover Yutu landed on the moon on December 14, 2013, making China the third country to land a spacecraft on our favorite rock. Yutu, which means “jade rabbit” in Chinese, and the lander that brought it there, Chang’e-3, delivered some stunning photos and garnered plenty of global acclaim. But recent reports indicate that all is not well with Yutu. Xinhua news agency reported a “mechanical control abnormality” with the rover, and scientists are trying to figure out a way to fix it.

The State Administration of Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defence (SASTIND) pinpointed the cause of the problem as the “complicated lunar surface environment,” but didn’t elaborate. SASTIND did confirm that the abnormality occurred just before the rover was supposed to hibernate again for a two-week-long lunar night on Saturday. During a lunar night, temperatures plunge to about -180 Celsius and there’s no solar power to provide energy for the spacecraft, so they shut down to conserve energy. Both Yutu and Chang’e-3 hibernated for a couple weeks about a month ago, during the first lunar night since their arrival, and both woke up on schedule two weeks later. After awakening, tests confirmed that both vehicles were operating and communicating normally. They were expected to operate for about three months — the same length of time as NASA planned for Spirit and Opportunity to operate on Mars.


Happy Tenth Anniversary, Opportunity

Opportunity RoverTen years might not seem old, but for a rover that was only meant to conduct a three-month-long mission, a decade is milestone most scientists thought the Mars exploration rover Opportunity would never see.

Opportunity launched in July of 2003 and landed on Mars on January 25, 2004, three weeks behind its twin rover, Spirit. NASA sent the two rovers to kick off a long-term robotic exploration on Mars, largely focused on gathering information that would shed light on the presence of water on the Red Planet. NASA chose two sites on either side of the planet, both of which were thought to have contained large quantities of water at some point in the past. Spirit landed on January 3, 2004 in Gusev Crater, which may have housed a lake long ago, and Opportunity landed in the mineral deposits of Meridiani Planum.


Finding Water In Stardust Has Exciting Implications For Life Elsewhere In The Universe

star dustCarl Sagan enjoyed talking about “star stuff” and reminding us that we—and everything else in the cosmos—is made of it. “Star stuff” is really a synonym for stardust, which doesn’t sound quite as romantic, given the dust part. Regardless of what you call it, new findings show that stardust is even more enchanted and important than previously thought: it contains water.

A team of scientists from California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory wanted to investigate the much-debated question of where water comes from (it doesn’t just come from clouds, it turns out—that’s just what we Earthlings might think) and whether solar wind can produce it. They did what researchers before them have done, which is to simulate the chemical reaction that occurs when tiny grains of dust floating around in the cosmos are blasted with solar wind. Such experiments have before revealed that this dust does contain organic compounds such as carbon, but this time when the team trained their ultra-awesome microscopes on these specks of desk, they found something else, water. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, details the first time scientists have found water inside stardust.