Kepler Space Telescope Recovered from Emergency Mode

It was recently reported that the deep space telescope, Kepler had run into trouble and had forced itself to enter its emergency mode. Thankfully the planet-hunting spacecraft has since returned to a stable state.

NASA’s Kepler team engineers were able to direct the communications array aboard the craft towards Earth and have begun the long process of downloading the data that could reveal the cause of the emergency. Due to the spacecraft being 75 million miles from Earth, any signal to and from it takes a whole 13 minutes.

When the telescope was first found to have run into issues late last week, NASA had declared a mission emergency, providing the Kepler team with priority access to the Deep Space Network, which is used to contact distant spacecraft. Due to emergency mode consuming vastly more fuel than normal, restoring Kepler’s functionality was a race against time before it would be unable to complete its mission. Now that Kepler has returned to a stable state, access to the DSN has returned to normal priorities.

Whether Kepler will be returned to “science mode” is yet to be decided by the mission engineers and they are currently performing health checks on all data received from the craft. At the time of failure, the telescope was only 14 hours away from beginning the next section of its ongoing mission, however, the craft has until July 1st to complete this stage, should it be deemed fit to return to full operation.

Planet Hunting Spacecraft Kepler Enters Emergency Mode

NASA engineers have raised a mission emergency in regards to the exoplanet-hunting spacecraft Kepler, which has unexpectedly entered its emergency mode 75 million miles from Earth. This mode is the lowest level of operation for the craft and worryingly, also consumes the most fuel while in it.

The last time that NASA communicated with Kepler was on April 4th, where it was still fully operational and reporting no issues. Despite this, by the 7th, Kepler was reporting that it had been in emergency mode for a day and a half. This is certainly not good but as communication with the spacecraft is still possible, recovery from whatever went wrong may still be possible.

It won’t be easy to get Kepler back on track, though, as due to the enormous distance from Earth, any messages will take a whole 13 minutes in order to reach the craft. In order to have the best chance of getting Kepler back into normal operation, the mission support team have been granted priority access to NASA’s deep space telecommunications system and will provide updates on the craft’s status as it develops.

Kepler is no stranger to technical difficulties and its mission team have proven themselves capable of recovering the craft in the past. In July 2012 and later May 2013, Kepler lost one of its four reaction wheels used to steer the craft. Being down to half of these wheels should have proven fatal to the craft, which required precise directional control to search for planets. Despite this, a workaround using the pressure from the sun was found that allowed Kepler to continue its mission and has operated this way for almost 3 years.

NASA Begin Drop Tests of Orion Crew Module

The Orion module’s first mission may be five years away at the earliest, but this hasn’t stopped NASA from proceeding with its development well in advance. NASA’s impact tests for the module have already begun using a mockup of the spacecraft carrying a dummy crew aboard. This series of tests allows the engineers working on the craft to analyse how human bodies would be affected when the module lands in the ocean on its return to Earth.

Engineers at the Langley Research Center have been responsible for running the tests, where the module mockup has been dropped into a 20-foot deep Hydro Impact Basin from a height of 16-feet in the first of the tests. Contained within the capsule are a pair of test dummies, a 105-pound woman and a 220-pound man, which will allow the tests to show the effects of the landing on the different body types of those that could be aboard.

This is the first of a series of nine planned tests, with the remainder of the tests set to measure how the capsule holds up in a number of scenarios that could affect the capsule’s descent and landing. Future tests are set to include simulated factors such as wind and wave conditions as well as drops from different heights to see how it holds up. All of this data will then be fed back into the development of Orion in order to ensure that the capsule is safe for the astronauts that will ride it in future.

Orion is intended to be utilized on deep space trips to Mars and beyond along with the SLS rocket, which may be enough to kick-start a new era of manned space exploration within the next decade.

Elon Musk Says Sea Landed Falcon 9 Could Relaunch Soon

The Falcon 9 rocket that SpaceX successfully landed at sea yesterday could be the first of its kind to be relaunched into space revealed Elon Musk at a press conference held by NASA. The first rocket that was landed successfully back in December was kept in storage instead of reused with Musk wanting to keep it as it was the first vehicle they had ever landed and this made it “unique”. As a result, this re-launch will be the true test of the reusability of SpaceX’s rocket and help them gain some ground on Blue Origin, who already launched one of their rockets for the third time.

Firstly, the Falcon 9 must be retrieved, which will be a tricky process in itself and will involve welding the rocket onto the deck of the drone ship, Of Course I Still Love You. From there, it will be delivered to port by Sunday and once safely back on land it will be put through a series of engine test fires to see how well they are working. According to Musk, the rocket’s engines will be test fired as many as 10 times in a row, and if everything is working fully, the Falcon 9 could be well on its way to another mission by as soon as May or June. In future, SpaceX hopes to reduce the process of preparing a rocket for relaunch to as little as a couple of weeks.

Musk said that it hadn’t been decided whether this next launch would be for a paying customer or not, saying that “We think it’ll be a paying customer, but we have to have discussions on it.” He was also positive about the amount of reuse the rockets were capable of, with each Falcon 9 potentially being usable for 10 to 20 missions and even up to 100 with minor refurbishments made to it during its lifespan.

New Exoplanet Hunting Instrument Being Developed by NASA

NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF) have recently been constructing a team of astronomers as part of a project to construct a powerful new exoplanet-hunting tool. The selection process involved a national competition, with the team chosen to be led by Penn State University assistant professor Suvrath Mahadevan. The next three years will now be spent developing and constructing the $10 million instrument, named NN-EXPLORE Exoplanet Investigations with Doppler Spectroscopy or NEID for short. NEID, once completed, will then be installed atop the WIYN observatory located at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona.

NEID will be the first piece of equipment that will allow astronomers to search for exoplanets from the Earth instead of an orbital telescope. The instrument works by detecting Earth-like planets that orbit stars by measuring the ‘wobble’ of a star, which is often indicative of an orbiting planet and the size of the ‘wobble’ making it possible to determine how big the planet may be. Once these potential exoplanets are discovered, powerful space telescopes can then be committed to the task of searching for these planets in more detail.

The goal of NEID is to assist in finding proof of life on other worlds, which is a discovery that has so far eluded us, should it exist. Whether NEID will help us find the aliens that so many of us hope to find is unknown, but should life exist out there, tools like this make it all the more reasonable that we discover it.

NASA To Offer Virtual Mars Walks Using Hololens

We may be a number of years off the first humans walking on Mars, but NASA plans to give us a sneak peek at what it may be like to walk on the Red Planet. Their new exhibit, named “Destination: Mars” has them teaming up with Microsoft to let visitors take a virtual walk across the surface of Mars thanks to the power of the Hololens augmented reality headset.

Destination: Mars will be powered by the OnSight mission operations tool, a cooperative development between Microsoft and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It is capable of taking data recorded by the Curiosity rover, which has been roaming the Red Planet since 2012 and transfers the images to the Hololens which can make any room appear like it is actually the surface of Mars.

OnSight is already in use by NASA scientists, who use it to virtually experience Mars for themselves so they can better select future destinations for the Curiosity rover to visit. This new exhibit will be the first time that the experience will be available to the general public, allowing them to see the alien world in just the way a NASA mission scientist would.

The exhibition will be open at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida this summer where visitors will be able to virtually travel to a number of locations on Mars, accompanied by holographic guides like Aldrin and rover driver Erisa Hines who will point out the sites of key discoveries.

Electromagnetic Drive Research is Undergoing Peer Review

That NASA’s Advanced Propulsion Physics Laboratory, named Eagleworks, have been working on an electromagnetic propulsion drive is nothing new, however, it is far from the power of the ‘warp drive’ from popular sci-fi series such as Star Trek. This EM drive is built on a theoretical method of generating propulsion in space by making use of microwaves contained within a small chamber to create thrust.

Whether or not this drive truly works, a post in NASA’s spaceflight forum by an Eagleworks researcher, Paul March, had him stating that they had developed a method of propulsion that required no propellant, but the lack of peer-reviewed studies to back up their research made confirmation of its existence difficult. Now, in a response to a thread on the same forum regarding the fate of Eagleworks and the EM drive, March asked that they “please have patience about when our next EW paper is going to be published.” He continued to state that “Peer reviews are glacially slow…” which would imply that a paper on the topic is currently in the process of being reviewed.

Should the EM drive be proven to work, it would give cause to reconsider some of our laws of physics, as the conservation of momentum would be broken by propellant-less thrust. After all, without something to push back, there can be no thrust, so even if this isn’t the lightspeed-busting warp-drive we would like, it will certainly be a big deal.

NASA to Test Inflatable Living Modules on The ISS

When sending something into space, it is important to consider how big it is. Something large may be useful in space, but it is no good if it can’t be carried up there by rocket after all. Now NASA is hoping to make the best use of the limited space available by testing expandable modules on the ISS in the hopes that they can be used on future missions to Mars as living and working habitats. These inflatable modules will be getting a lift to the ISS as part of SpaceX’s next resupply mission aboard their Dragon cargo capsule.

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, once in space, will be attached to the ISS and then filled with air, causing it to inflate from its packed size of just over five feet in-depth and almost eight in diameter to a far roomier 12 feet deep and over 10 feet in diameter, with pressure equalized with the rest of the station. The deployment won’t be quick, however, as it is the first of its kind and very experimental and a slow inflation will allow any faults to be detected before they become critical.

In order to be considered a success and considered for more deep-space missions, the module will first have to survive two years on the ISS. This won’t be easy and will test the module’s resistance to cosmic radiation, durability and long-term resistance to leaking. To get a taste of what the deployment will look like, NASA has released an animation displaying the inflation of the module (but at a much higher speed than reality.)

Image credit to NASA

Astronomers Observe Exploding Star for the First Time

For the first time ever, astronomers have recorded the moment at which a star started to explode – known as the “shock breakout” – within the optical wavelength of NASA’s Kepler space telescope.

The astronomy team, led by Peter Garnavich, Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, USA, monitored the light levels emitted by sources within 500 galaxies – around 500 trillion stars – over a three-year period in order to detect the early signs of a supernova. The observations led to Kepler monitoring two stars in particular – both red supergiants – that were on the verge of exploding. The massive stellar bodies, KSN 2011a and KSN 2011d, were around 1.2 billion light years away.

“To put their size into perspective, Earth’s orbit about our sun would fit comfortably within these colossal stars,” Garnavich explained on the NASA website.

KSN 2011a and KSN 2011d were then observed exploding. While the Type II supernovae of both stars matched known mathematical models of the phenomena, the explosion KSN 2011a was not preceded by the expected shock breakout.

“In order to see something that happens on timescales of minutes, like a shock breakout, you want to have a camera continuously monitoring the sky,” Garnavich said. “You don’t know when a supernova is going to go off, and Kepler’s vigilance allowed us to be a witness as the explosion began.”

The video below shows KSN 2011d exhibiting the shock breakout prior to its supernova:

“That is the puzzle of these results,” Garnavich added. “You look at two supernovae and see two different things. That’s maximum diversity.”

SpaceX to Resume Supplying the ISS

The date of SpaceX’s next resupply mission to the ISS has been announced by NASA to take place on April 8th. SpaceX will be delivering the cargo onboard one of their Falcon 9 rockets, launching from Cape Canaveral, Florida at around 4:43 PM Eastern Time.

This will be the first time that SpaceX have made a launch to resupply the ISS in almost a year, the last cargo mission taking place in July 2015 ending in failure. On that launch, the Falcon 9 rocket exploded just minutes after launch, which was later reported by SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk, to be caused by overpressure in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank. Following this, the Falcon 9 returned to service in December last year, where it was also able to land successfully. Since then, there have been a number of Falcon 9 launches, and while a number of those have also exploded, it was only when they were attempting to land at sea following the mission, with one attempt coming very close to success.

Once again, SpaceX plans to attempt one of their famous rocket landings following the upcoming mission. Refusing to admit defeat and repeat the previously successful ground landing, they plan to land the rocket on a drone ship at sea and, this time, Musk is confident that the landing will succeed. Should a successful sea landing happen, it will not only be another historic feat for SpaceX, but it will also allow the company to recover and reuse an increasing number of their rockets that are launched. As well as delivering much-needed supplies and experiments for the astronauts aboard the ISS, the Dragon cargo capsule that the Falcon 9 carries will also have some important cargo to carry back to Earth, though in a far less impressive fashion than landing a rocket.

Like any SpaceX launch, this could have a very interesting result for the space industry, or at the very least an impressive explosion for those watching the event that will likely be live streamed. Musk and many others will certainly be hoping for the fifth time to be the charm for the sea landing, as well as a successful launch marking the resuming of their ISS resupply runs.

Image credit to SpaceX

New Horizons Spacecraft Paints a New Picture of Pluto

The dwarf planet on the edge of our Solar System, Pluto, is one of the most enigmatic and unknown to us. Now, a newly published report based on data taken by the New Horizons spacecraft has allowed researchers to get a far clearer picture of the true nature of Pluto.

Pluto’s geology is one of great variety and beauty, including vast crevices, craters and large valleys that stretch across much of its surface. As a contrast to this, there is a 1,000 kilometer long flat plain in the northern hemisphere named the Sputnik Planum. This area is surrounded by enormous icy mountains and large glaciers that flow into the plain. Those studying the plain believe that Pluto’s surface must be constantly reshaping as it is completely unblemished by craters or other features, with Jeffery Moore, a New Horizons co-investigator at NASA Ames Research Center stating that “it can’t possibly be more than 10 million years old; it could also be a day old.” This is before even considering the unusual mountainous protrusions that are believed to be cryo-volcanoes.

Pluto’s atmosphere is also very cold, even colder than researchers believed it would, despite its distance from the sun. Near the surface, the atmosphere is a chilly -233 degrees Celcius, warming to -163 at higher altitudes. The temperature drops off drastically in the upper atmosphere however, with gasses cooling to -202 Celcius. These cold temperatures mean that few gasses escape Pluto’s atmosphere, despite its low gravity, as they are unable to gain the energy to move and end up trapped close to the planet.

This new analysis of the flyby of Pluto that took place in July last year has been published by the journal Science and despite all this new knowledge, there is still so much more to discover. These amazing landscapes also make you wonder just what other unearthly beautiful landscapes exist out there on other bodies in the Solar System. Who knows what else could still be out there?

NASA Develop Sonic Boom Monitoring Probe

NASA are fully invested in the development of craft that is capable of achieving supersonic speeds in a way more subtle than the typical sonic boom. Having already invested $20 million in a prototype X-plane designed by Lockheed Martin, now NASA has a better way of gathering data that may make the development of quiet supersonic aircraft much easier, the Eagle Aero Probe.

Previously, the pressure sensors mounted on F-15 aircraft used to monitor sonic booms were located 15-feet away, on the aircraft’s radome, which caused a problematic delay in measuring the shockwave generated by breaking the sound barrier. Developed by Eagle Aeronautics of Hampton, Virginia, this new probe should alleviate this issue by measuring the shockwave far closer to the pressure ports located on the nose cone of the aircraft.

The probe is capable of both obtaining air data measurements from the underside of the F-15B, as well as measuring the strength of the shockwave generated from a currently unspecified part of the F-15B. Currently, the probe is attached to the F-15B’s test fixture directly underneath the fuselage in order to draw comparisons with the traditional NACA probe affixed to centerline instrument pylons, with future plans to move the probe to the nose of the craft, where it will replace the current nose boom used for shockwave probing flights.

Hopefully, the data gathered by this new probe will be highly useful in making supersonic passenger flights viable for use once again, which will be a welcome change for globe-trotters wishing to cut hours off their flights.

Images Of Saturn’s Moon Titan Reveal Magic Island

The human race can do amazing things, we’ve discovered how the universe works, figured out the theory of black holes and even set foot on the Moon. With plans ahead to land and even live on Mars, it’s no surprise we are also paying attention to other objects in space. Saturn’s moon, Titan, is one such object.

The surface of Titan is cold, as in around -180ºC. This means that only a few things can be liquid on its surface, and yet thanks to a selection of images that were taken since 2007, we may have an idea of just what happens on its surface.

The “lake” shown in the images, Ligeia, is seen dimming and brightening, the result of what scientists have concluded could be the result of waves at or beneath the surface. The Cassini spacecraft that took the photos will be doing a final run looking for these “magic island”s when it flys by Titan in 2017.

If this wasn’t enough during the 2016 budget, the US Congress created the Ocean Worlds explortation program. With the aim of exploring cold, icy moons of the solar system, the project would see us looking for water on other planets and understanding how it’s interacted with the planet.

The hope is that places like Titan which have the fundamental building blocks of life could be our first chance of seeing “wierd life” in the universe.

NASA to Spend $20 Million on New Supersonic X-Plane

In a bid to develop a plane that could fly over land at supersonic speeds without disturbing those on the ground, NASA has awarded $20 million to Lockheed Martin to develop the concept. This craft will be known as the “low boom” flight demonstration aircraft and will be part of a plan to reintroduce commercial supersonic flights, which have not taken place since Concorde was retired in 2003. The award was announced by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden at an event on Monday at the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia.

In his speech, Bolden harked back to the first ‘X-Plane’, the Bell X-1, which, piloted by Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier almost 70 years ago. Now we’re continuing that supersonic X-plane legacy with this preliminary design award for a quieter supersonic jet with an aim toward passenger flight.” said Bolden.

This award is the comes after a year of NASA soliciting designs from a number of companies across the US for an aircraft that would be able to break the sound barrier, without the typical large sonic booms. Instead, the designs should result in more of a supersonic “heartbeat”, which is closer to a soft thump than a violent boom, also known as Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST).

The Lockheed team chosen by NASA will receive $20 million over the next 17 months in order to develop the prototype QueSST design, including drawing up baseline aircraft requirements and a preliminary aircraft design, with specifications, as well as provide supporting documentation for concept formulation and planning. This documentation would then be used going forward with the final design, building and testing of the first QueSST jet, which would be subject to another future contract competition run by the NASA Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate’s Integrated Aviation Systems Program.

We have seen many crazy designs for “Concorde 2” and the like, which seek to bring supersonic passenger jets back to the air. The timescale on this new X-Plane is long, however, the development of quiet supersonic technology could overcome one of the main issues with supersonic flight which has seen it banned over land in some parts of the world. Whether this design is successful or joins many other X-Planes as amazing prototypes of technology for their time remains to be seen, but there really could just be a ‘new Concorde’ on the horizon.

NANOGrav Astronomers Use Pulsars to Spot Gravitational Waves

Earlier this month, the discovery of the gravitational waves shook the scientific community as it confirmed one of Einstein’s theories that it took us a century to develop the technology to prove. Now a team of astronomers known as NANOGrav believe that we can more easily track the effects of these gravitational waves rippling across the Earth using stable pulsar signals. Stephen Taylor from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory believes that “Detecting this signal is possible if we are able to monitor a sufficiently large number of pulsars spread across the sky,” and that “The smoking gun will be seeing the same pattern of deviations in all of them.”

A pulsar is a spinning, highly magnetized neutron star, a remnant left behind after stars go supernova. Some of these neutron stars spin incredibly fast, performing as many as thousands of rotations per second, which send a signal out on each rotation, which can be picked up on Earth. As a result, millisecond pulsars have a predictable arrival time on their signals, with NANOGrav’s instruments able to measure them as precisely as to within a ten-millionth of a second according to NANOGrav’s Maura McLaughlin. “Because of that, we can use them to detect incredibly small shifts in Earth’s position.”

Right now the team is already monitoring 54 pulsars, most of which are in the northern hemisphere of the planet. This has caused NANOGrav to reach out to teams in Australia and around the globe “in order to get the all-sky coverage this search requires,” according to JPL’s Michele Vallisneri. With proper coverage, the team believes that low-frequency gravitational waves could be proven within 10 years, ahead of the 2028 eLISA space mission, which would be capable of detecting the higher frequency waves. We live in an exciting time, and who knows what the myriad efforts of scientists worldwide may discover about the universe we live in next.

Image credit to NASA

Amazing Space Ready 3D Printer Unveiled by NASA

Living in space faces many challenges, such as the availability of critical spare parts. Supply trips to the ISS are somewhat uncommon, so getting a replacement part for a broken piece of equipment is both slow and expensive. NASA’s newest revelation from its research park in Silicon Valley helps to tackle just such a problem, a 3D printer that works in space. Not just a proof of concept either, with it planning to be launched to the ISS on the 23rd of March, where it will be used to build both spare parts and parts for experiments.

This isn’t the first 3D printer to be used in space, a prototype printer had already been trialled by the crew of the ISS previously. This new printer will be more than the previous prototype and, in fact, be a fully operational model for use by ISS crew members.

Andrew Rush, the chief executive of Made In Space, the NASA-funded startup developing the technology stated: “You can bring us a USB stick with your file, and we can digitally send it to space.” “Via 3D printing we can make that object and completely avoid putting it on a rocket.”

This is just the start of space manufacturing too, with Made In Space being given $20 million to work on a project named Archinaut. The system would allow the construction of huge structures in space, manufactured and assembled automatically by robots. Rush believes that Archinaut could construct “giant radio dishes that could service many people, or do amazing science and peer deep into the universe’s past.” The success of this project could revolutionize space construction and say goodbye to the current method of sending “flat packed” structures to space on rockets where they are then unfolded and constructed, allowing structures too fragile to survive the launch to space or other logistically problematic structures.

For now, the ambitions remain small-scale with the 3D printer, however, far more exciting things are in the near future. Made In Space estimate it will be 3 to 4 years before the truly big projects take root, and the technology is planned to be licensed out to commercial enterprises, of which Tesla may for one be very interested. Making the 3D printing no longer reliant on the Earth’s resources is another step on the road to the self-sufficiency of space. The raw materials that can be found in space, from asteroids to the surfaces of moons and planets are being explored as resources to be used for 3D printing, with the end goal of not just removing reliance on Earth, but even allowing for the construction of things that are impossible with only materials from the Earth’s environment.

Image credit to Made In Space

This New NASA Telescope is so Much Better Than Hubble

Since it was launched in low Earth orbit in 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope has been proving us with crucial information about space and time, and it even helped determine the rate of expansion of the universe. However, this brand new telescope developed by NASA hopes to blow Hubble out of the water, as it comes with a field of view 100 times larger than that of Hubble. Dubbed WFIRST (Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope), it can also block the glare of individual stars, which will help scientists determine the chemical makeup of other planets. Unfortunately, sources indicate that WFIRST won’t be launched until the mid-2020s, but this should come as no surprise considering its complexity.

The next big telescope launch that we can look forward to is that of the James Webb telescope, which will also feed crucial information about the Milky Way and the universe to thousands of astronomers from around the world. When WFIRST will finally end up in space, it will build on this information and will allow us to improve our overall understanding of the universe and its shape, not to mention the fact that it will support the research of dark matter and dark energy, both of which are still regarded as mysteries right now.

NASA Discovers ‘Super-Earth’ Exoplanet With an Atmosphere

Astronomers from NASA and ESA have, for the first time, been able to analyse the atmosphere of an exoplanet that is classified as a ‘Super-Earth’. Exoplanet 55 Cancri e, which is located around 40 light-years from Earth was observed by the Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) and found to have a dry atmosphere comprising mainly of hydrogen and helium with no signs of water vapour.

A ‘super-Earth’ is quite simply a solid rocky planet with a greater mass than the Earth and are thought to be one of the most common types of planet in our galaxy. 55 Cancri e is an unusual super-Earth, being held in a very close orbit to its parent star. While this results in years on the exoplanet taking only 18 hours and an utterly inhospitable surface temperature of around 2000 degrees Celsius. This close orbit did allow the astronomers to employ new analysis techniques to examine the planet and gather information as it passes in front of the star.This finding is groundbreaking as it marks the first time that the spectral fingerprints that give away gasses present in the atmosphere have been discovered on a super-Earth.

This finding is groundbreaking as it marks the first time that the spectral fingerprints that give away gasses present in the atmosphere have been discovered on a super-Earth. “This result gives a first insight into the atmosphere of a super-Earth. We now have clues as to what the planet is currently like and how it might have formed and evolved, and this has important implications for 55 Cancri e and other super-Earths,” said Giovanna Tinetti, of  University College London.

While 55 Cancri e is certainly not a planet that anyone would want to live on, between extreme heat and a toxic atmosphere, the discovery of some of its features have proven the ability to detect the atmospheric qualities of other planets. It may still be a few years until a new generation of infrared telescopes prove the current discoveries correct, it is exciting that we develop more and more ways to learn about the nature of our neighbours in the universe.

Image credit to NASA

Aerospace Scientists Says Goodbye to Philae Lander

The German scientists behind the intrepid Rosetta space mission have given up hope of re-establishing communications with its Philae lander. The probe, which landed on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, has been silent since July 2015, and the team from the German Aerospace Center are now pessimistic that it will be able to wake it up.

“Unfortunately, the probability of Philae re-establishing contact with our team at the DLR Lander Control Center is almost zero, and we will no longer be sending any commands,” Stephan Ulamec, Philae Project Manager of the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR), said in a statement. “It would be very surprising if we received a signal now.”

While DLR has ceased any further attempts to communicate with Philae, the Rosetta mothercraft will continue to orbit 67P until September. So, if the little lander does wake up in the next seven months, Rosetta will still be listening:

The Rosetta space mission was overseen by the European Space Agency (ESA), with help from NASA. Rosetta chased 67P across our solar system for ten years, eventually rendezvousing with the comet in August 2014. Philae was launched at the comet on 12th November, 2014, and, despite its harpoon system failing, the probe successfully landed on its surface.

“The Philae mission was one-of-a-kind – it was not only the first time that a lander was ever placed on a comet’s surface, but we also received fascinating data,” Pascale Ehrenfreund, Chair of the DLR Executive Board and a participating scientist on the mission, added. “Rosetta and Philae have shown how aerospace research can expand humankind’s horizon and make the public a part of what we do.”

JAXA to Launch Astro-H X-Ray Satellite

This Friday, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) will be launching their new X-Ray observatory satellite into space, where it will observe space phenomena such as black holes and galaxy clusters. This is the sixth of its kind to be launched by JAXA and will be carrying a number of scientific tools and monitors along with it, with monitors able to detect X-rays as many as 10 times fainter than predecessor satellite, Suzaku.

The main instrument equipped aboard Astro-H is the Soft X-Ray Spectrometer (SXS), fitted with a “microcalorimeter.” Built in cooperation between Goddard and a number of Japanese research institutions, the spectrometer will make use of the addition in order to detect and measure the colours of X-rays. Two other SXS telescopes will also be aboard, equipped with NASA Goddard built mirror assemblies designed to pick up on X-rays as weak as 300 electron volts. These mirrors work in concert with the other onboard instruments, one dedicated to directing light into a wide-field camera in order to record images and the other directing light into the SXS devices, which are required to be kept at -459.58 degrees Fahrenheit due to cooling from liquid helium.

Joining the Soft X-Ray instruments, Astro-H also carries an array of Hard X-Ray imagers with a detection range of 5 to 80 KeV. The last of the tools is a pair of Soft Gamma-ray Detectors (SGDs) which add coverage of low energy gamma-rays to the imaging suite. These SGDs are capable of recording in the energy range of 60 to 600 KeV.

During its lifespan, Astro-H will be dedicated to finding and imaging materials entering black holes and other high-energy and X-ray emitting phenomena. With black holes currently making headlines, it will be fascinating to see what this new observatory will allow astronomers to discover and further unravel the mysteries of the universe. The launch will even by live streamed on Youtube by JAXA, which is currently scheduled to be at 5:45-6:30 p.m JST (08:45 GMT) for those avid space fans.

Image via NASA/JAXA

Ceres Looks Amazing in NASA’s New Fly-By Video

NASA released a beautiful new video that shows a fly-by of the dwarf planet Ceres, so if you came here hoping for a video on the Danish beer named Ceres, you’re out of luck. This is however much better and shows a very close fly-by of this tiny planetary object. The new video is composed out of images made with NASA’s Dawn spacecraft and the simulated flyover was made by the mission’s camera team at Germany’s national aeronautics and space research center.

Before any of the conspiracy theorists come out and try to tell that the photos used to make this video have been manipulated, I can tell you that they have. The colours have been enhanced to make it more pleasant to watch and to show the subtle differences on the surface materials. The original non-enhanced photos would be quite boring to look at and scientists believe areas with shades of blue contain younger, fresher material, including flows, pits and cracks.

The images were captured during a phase that lasted from August 2015 to October 2015 where the spacecraft orbited Ceres at an altitude of just 1450 kilometers. Ceres is the largest object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, but it wasn’t Dawn’s first stop. Dawn has previously orbiting the asteroid Vesta for 14 months back in 2011 and 2012 before it arrived at Ceres in March 2015.

While the photos for the video were taken from a very low orbit, the spacecraft is currently flying even lower while it is on its final mapping trip at about 385 kilometers height from the surface. That’s closer than the international space station is to earth.

“The simulated overflight shows the wide range of crater shapes that we have encountered on Ceres. The viewer can observe the sheer walls of the crater Occator, and also Dantu and Yalode, where the craters are a lot flatter,” said Ralf Jaumann, a Dawn mission scientist at DLR.

Icebergs on Pluto Discovered by NASA

There are some truly amazing things that we’ve found in space. Last month, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft sent back images that revealed that Pluto was home to the Wright Mons cryovolcano. Now, scientists have determined from images taken by the very same craft that Pluto’s surface also contains enormous icebergs, spanning several miles of a region of the planet now known as Sputnik Planium.

The large floating ice hills discovered by NASA scientists are believed to be smaller parts of Pluto’s rugged icy uplands that have broken away. After breaking free, the water ice hills are carried into the nitrogen glaciers of Sputnik Planium on flowing seas of liquid nitrogen due to the water icebergs being less dense than the nitrogen-based ice. The floating hills follow the flow paths of the glaciers into the center of Sputnik Planium where they become subject to the convection forces of the nitrogen ice and pushed towards the shores of the nitrogen cells where they cluster together. These clusters of floating hills can reach up to 12 miles across with a feature named Challenger Colles seeming to be an extremely large collection of the hills, measuring 37 by 22 miles. Located away from the cellular terrain, the hills appear to have beached on the shallow shores of the nitrogen ice.

It is discoveries like this that show the true worth of space exploration, as we seek to understand more of the universe we live in. We may never get to see these amazing environmental features up close and in person during our lifetimes, but it is amazing to think of what else could be out there just waiting for us to discover.

AnonSec Hacks NASA – Tries to Crash $222m Drone

Hackers from AnonSec have reportedly hacked NASA, leaking 276GB of private data and attempting to crash a $222m drone into the ocean, according to InfoWars.  The data dump includes 631 videos from aircraft and weather radars, 2,143 flight logs, and the e-mail addresses and phone numbers of 2,414 NASA employees.

After purchasing an “initial foothold” into NASA’s network from someone familiar with its internal security, AnonSec began experimenting with hacking into various systems, eventually brute forcing its way into the networks for the Glenn Research Center, Goddard Space Flight Center, and the Dryden Flight Research Center, through which it was able to access aircraft flight logs from each centre’s network-attached storage (NAS) device.

Soon after, AnonSec realised that some of these flight paths were instructions sent to NASA’s Global Hawk drone. AnonSec then replaced NASA’s sanctioned flight paths with its own malicious version (see map below) in an effort to crash it into the Pacific Ocean. NASA ground control noticed the discrepancy during the Global Hawk’s flight, however, and prevented the crash.

“Nasa has been breached more times than most people can honestly remember… However, this hack into Nasa wasn’t initially focused on drones [sic] data and upper atmosphere chemical samples. In fact the original breach into Nasa systems wasn’t even planned, it was caught up in a gozi virus spread,” AnonSec wrote. “People might find this lack of security surprising but its [sic] pretty standard from our experience. Once you get past the main lines of defense, its [sic] pretty much smooth sailing propagating through a network as long as you can maintain access.”

NASA has yet to comment on the incident.

Breathtaking Images From an Astronaut Aboard the ISS

Space has always provided a glimpse into many a fascinating world over the years, from research that has been undertaken by NASA to the Astronauts who have boarded the International Space Station as well as successfully landing on the moon. One such Astronaut, Scott Kelly, has been posting breathtaking images on social media that have included Twitter (1,158 photos and counting) and Instagram (684 posts and counting) during his yearlong visit to the ISS, below is a snapshot of these images.

The first image represents the massive blizzard passing over Chicago on Saturday 23rd January 2016, the image looks awe-inspiring.

The next image below is of what is known as “thundersnow” from the blizzard and was captured, again, on the 23rd January 2016.

The next image below, wow, is of an aurora and was captured on the 27th August 2015, this looks akin to a science fiction film.

The next image below is of Spain, well, more specifically Barcelona and was captured on the 28th July 2015, this is both a stunning and a detailed image.

The next image below is the Astronauts latest Twitter post as of writing (26th January 2016) and has the caption “Day 304. That’s 4,864 orbits a’round’ our beautiful planet #Earth. #GoodNight from @space_station! #YearInSpace”, it is certainly a brilliant image.

The last image is of Scott Kelly undertaking a Q&A on Reddit from space, well, yes, as you do, this image was posted on the 23rd January 2016

Could Hypersonic Air Travel Become a Reality?

Air travel has become the norm within today’s fast past society, from the extremely affordable ticket prices coupled with the package holiday’s that have become part of many people’s yearly quest for adventure. But, what is next for air travel? Can it be developed to the point whereby consumers are able to fly to for example Australia from the UK in less than 22 hrs?

Well, a potentially sizeable development is on the horizon after Orbital in conjunction with NASA has developed and preliminarily tested what is known as a “3D printed hypersonic engine combustor at NASA’s Langley Research Centre in Virginia”. This could potentially facilitate air travel at amazing speeds of up to 3,425 mph (5,500km/h) or 4.5 times the speed of sound, which is fast.

Below is an image of a concept hypersonic plane which has been modelled within design software that is used for the purposes of aerodynamics, it certainly looks fascinating for a ground level design. The combustor was created through a manufacturing process known as “powder bed fusion” (PBF). Within this is a layer of “metal alloy powder that is printed before a laser fuses areas together based on the pattern which is fed into the machine by a software program

The combustor has as you would expect been put through a series of hypersonic flight conditions over the course of 20 days. Orbital have also stated that one of the most complex parts with which to develop is the Scramjet combustion system which needs to maintain stable combustion within an extremely volatile environment. This technique could also have the potential to be used within future versions of NASA’s X-43 experimental hypersonic aircraft which is pictured below alongside the Langley Research Centre in Virginia.

In case you’re wondering, the definition of a Scramjet is an air-breathing aircraft that carries only “hydrogen fuel, the aircraft pulls the oxygen needed and burns it from the atmosphere; this is instead of the traditional method of fuel and the required oxygen to provide acceleration

These developments could pave the way for a future whereby consumers could, in theory, be whizzing around the globe by hypersonic power.

Falcon 9 Sea Landing Meets an Explosive End

It was the first Falcon 9 launch by SpaceX of 2016, as well as the first since their successful rocket landing. It may have been a different rocket than the one that made the previous landing, but nonetheless, SpaceX planned to land this one too. The rocket wasn’t the only difference either, the landing target was a drone ship instead of solid ground. Sadly it wasn’t to be two great successes in a row, and while it was a close call, the rocket tipped over after landing resulting in a fiery end for the spacecraft.

The main objective of the launch was completed successfully, with NASA’s Jason-3 ocean monitoring satellite delivered into orbit where it will monitor sea levels and currents. The rocket even managed to return to the platform successfully after sending the second stage off into orbit. Problems only arose once the first stage had set down on the drone ship. Due the instability of the platform and a failure of one of the rocket’s four lockout collets, the landing was short-lived, as it slowly tipped over before exploding spectacularly. Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX posted a video on Instagram of the dramatic moment, as well as hinting that the cause of the failure could have been due to a buildup on ice on one of the rocket’s landing legs due to condensation from the fog at launch.

Despite being another failure in the SpaceX campaign to land a rocket on a platform at sea, it is clear that they are learning from their mistakes. Despite ending more dramatically that their other attempts, the landing itself showed that clear progress had been made towards a successful landing. Being able to land a rocket on a ship is important to SpaceX’s campaign for rocket reusability, as it allows for a wider variety of launch locations to be used, without requiring a ground landing site nearby.

Spacewalk Cut Short Due to Water Found in Helmets

Space can be a scary place, the only thing keeping you alive being a highly advanced suit tethered to a spacecraft or station. When a problem is found in these suits, it risks catastrophe for the astronauts in question. This is why Friday’s ISS spacewalk was cut short by mission control after US astronaut Tim Kopra found water was building up in his helmet. Thankfully, both Tim Kopra and his partner on the spacewalk, British astronaut Tim Peake made it back inside the space station safe and sound.

The water was first discovered by Kopra at 16:56 GMT, just over 4 hours into the 6.5 hour planned spacewalk, at which point mission controllers on the ground decided to terminate the EVA as a precaution. At this point, the two astronauts had already accomplished their primary objective, repairing a faulty power module, and had set about performing secondary tasks. By 17:31, both astronauts were safely back inside the International Space Station.

“I could definitely tell the sides were swollen,” Kopra stated in reference to his helmet’s moisture-absorbing pad. “The first time I noticed it was probably just about the same time that I saw the water start to come down from the top, and it was fairly noticeable. The difference between nominal and what I initially felt was pretty small.”

This isn’t the first time that water has found its way into the helmet of an astronaut on a spacewalk, with a similar case occurring in July 2013, to Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano. In that case, the leak was determined to stem from the space suit’s water-circulating cooling system, which had sprung a leak. Kopra’s issue was far less severe, with less water being present in his helmet. The water in Kopra’s helmet was cold, which would hint at it being from the cooling system, rather than a problem with the drink bag’s bite valve, which is kept at ambient temperature. NASA have ordered those onboard the ISS to take water samples from the helmets of the two astronauts in order to determine the cause of the leak.

Image credit to astronaut Tim Peake