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NASA Returns To Space In 2014

For an organization that was supposedly going the way of the dodo bird, NASA sure is in the news a lot lately.  They’re announcing new solar sails experiments, working on tractor beams, and (maybe?) getting what funding they still have slashed some more.  Well, here’s another NASA news item:  an unmanned test flight of the Orion spacecraft in 2014, three years earlier than originally planned.  Yes, it’s an unmanned flight, but one with great implications for future human deep space exploration.  The Exploration Flight Test (EFT-1) features a new Space Launch System (SLS), which the NASA press release says “will take astronauts farther into space than ever before, create U.S. jobs, and provide the cornerstone for America’s future human spaceflight efforts.”

Orion will be launched into space, orbit twice “to a high-apogee” (basically, to a good distance from the Earth), then bust back through the atmosphere at high speeds.  Orion will launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla, and make a water landing after re-entry.  The hope with EFT-1 is that it will provide essential data in figuring out how to design a spacecraft that can survive speeds upwards of 20,000 mph and return astronauts safely from greater distances outside of Earth’s orbit.  NASA says it’s developing Orion to bring humans to the moon, asteroids, Mars, “and other destinations” via SLS, but being able to travel at high speeds and still re-enter safely is also a basic requirement for any kind of craft for manned deep space exploration.

It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster ride for space exploration and NASA nerds of late, but moving a test flight up instead of postponing it might show there is hope yet.

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Obama Killing What’s Left Of NASA, Shutting Down Planetary Exploration?

Earlier this week I opined the death of NASA, and a lot of you responded by insisting that even though they were no longer well funded enough to do manned space exploration, their new mandate of exploration of the solar system’s planets by robot was as good or better than anything they could have done with manned missions. Bad news: That may be dead too.

The Washington Times reports that the Obama administration plans to end all planetary exploration by NASA and the United States of America, by the year 2013. Worse, word is that they plan to position the space astronomy program for destruction too. American won’t just stop exploring outer space, we aren’t even going to look at it anymore.

The story published in the Washington Times doesn’t cite any sources and merely says that this “leaked out” in the Obama administration’s budget, so we’ll need more details before we can call this a done deal. But, this move isn’t entirely unexpected, and seems pretty much in keeping with the Obama administration’s overall attitude towards space exploration in recent years.

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German ROSAT Satellite Hurtling Towards Earth Will Crash As Early As Tomorrow

When we as Earthlings put satellites in space it’s usually to further our race and improve the technology we use to survive. Rarely do we expect to wind up in an extra-terrestrial game of chicken with pieces of said satellite once it’s outlived its use, but that’s the situation we currently find ourselves in with ROSAT.

ROSAT, a German satellite that was launched in 1990 and retired in 1999, and used to expand our knowledge of black holes and neutron stars, is on its way back to Earth but not in any sort of controlled manner. It has been out of commission for over a decade and its decaying orbit has finally diminished enough for the satellite to begin reentry into our atmosphere. According to the Huffington Post, experts don’t know where exactly the pieces will come down, but they don’t expect them to hit in the U.S. or Europe…because they have their fingers crossed.

Andreas Schuetz was able to give some super vague details about where it will hit and what exactly will make its way to the surface and not burn up in the atmosphere. Anyone between 53 north and 53 south longitude could potentially get whacked with ROSAT’s heat resistant mirror, which will likely be the largest piece to make it to the surface. And since 53N to 53S comprises just about all of the world aside from the arctic and antarctic zones, we are all targets.

Does this not feel a little irresponsible to anyone else, just letting 1.87 tons of metal and glass smash into the Earth and hoping for the best? Currently the satellite is traveling at 17,400 miles per hour, and of course that will slow down drastically once it enters the atmosphere, but this could still potentially cause a fair amount of damage, injury or death. Recently, a NASA satellite splashed down in the Pacific ocean, but even then pieces of the satellite were strewn about a 500-mile stretch of Earth. Should they not have gone up to get it?

Moving forward I’d like to think that a multi-billion dollar government program would be able to make this process a little more safe. But until then, your chances of being struck by one of these is about 1 in 14 trillion, but still be ready to duck and cover this weekend just in case.

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Russia Planning A Moon Colony Built Inside Lunar Lava Tubes

The United States may have won the first leg of the space race, but the Russians are winning the space marathon. While America mothballs its space program and cuts funding, the Russians are not only continuing on with theirs… they’re making plans to be the first country to establish a base on the moon.

Researchers have recently discovered volcanic tunnels on the moon and Russia is considering using those tunnels to house a moon colony. The head of Russia’s Star City cosmonaut training center outside Moscow tells Reuters that this discovery could make establishing a permanent colony easier. He explains, “There wouldn’t be any need to dig the lunar soil and build walls and ceilings. It would be enough to use an inflatable module with a hard outer shell to — roughly speaking — seal the caves.”

It sounds like this plan is still in early stages but Russia’s cosmonauts seem to think they can get this done by as soon as 2030. Remember, unlike the United States they still have a space fleet. This may seem far fetched, but while they’re still running missions to the International Space Station, American scientists are forced to do little more than hitch rides on their ships. The idea makes a lot of sense, and with America out of the picture, Russia may be the only nation in the world which can actually pull it off.

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Start Planning A Trip To Space: World’s First Commercial Spaceport Opens Today

Spaceport AmericaIf things go as Richard Branson hopes, today will go down as one of the most important days in human history. This afternoon in New Mexico Branson and the state’s governor Susana Martinez opened Spaceport America. This is the first of Virgin Galactic’s planned spaceports from which they’ll launch actual, commercial flights which will take passenger’s outside Earth’s atmosphere.

As reported by Virgin, flying overhead during the dedication ceremony were two of their craft, WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo. The first, WhiteKnightTwo will be used to prepare passengers for the rigors of space travel using atmosphere aerobatics. It also functions as sort of a mothership for their spacecraft, SpaceShipTwo. SpaceShipTwo is the actual vehicle meant to take people in to space.

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Sci-Fi In Real Life: Droid Astronaut Robonaut 2 Awake And Tweeting Aboard ISS

This is the age we live in. We’ve successfully put a cybernetic droid in space to help with missions at the ISS and possibly go on space walks, and the first thing we do is give him a Twitter account. Yesterday, after waiting since February to be powered up, Robonaut 2 has booted and aptly tweeted, “Those electrons feel GOOD! One small step for man, one giant leap for tinman kind.” At least he’s got a sense of humor, or rather the engineers tweeting for him do.

The bot, also referred to as R2 for not only its name but also it’s blatantly obvious nerd cred implications, won’t be fully juiced until next week on September 1st when the ISS crew will start the robot moving it’s appendages and working with the rest of the team. According to Space.com, vigorous tests are being run to ensure that R2 is safe to operate and will remain stable during tasks.

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