Sunday, December 21, 2014

Challenges for Orion and SLS: An Interview with Government Accountability Office Director Cristina Chaplain

GAO director Christina Chaplain testifying before the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee on Dec. 10, 2014. Credit: C-SPAN

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is the audit, evaluation, and investigative arm of Congress, which exists to support Congress in meeting its constitutional responsibilities and to help improve the performance and accountability of the federal government. On Dec. 10 the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee held a hearing on the progress of the nation’s next generation deep space exploration vehicle and heavy lift rocket. GAO Director of Acquisition and Sourcing Management Christina Chaplain testified on the progress of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion crew vehicle, which are being developed for deep space human missions that will take astronauts to the Moon and Mars. In an interview with astrowatch.net Chaplain discusses challenges that NASA's human space exploration programs have to face in order to successfully send U.S. astronauts beyond Earth.

Eta Carinae Is Gonna Blow

Eta Carinae. Credit: NASA/CXC/GSFC/K.Hamaguchi, et al.

Eta Carinae is about 7,500 light years away, and its going to explode any time now. Mind you, “any time now” means sometime over the next ten to twenty thousand years or so. But recently the star been in the news again as an existential threat to our planet. It must be that time of year again. Just to be perfectly clear, Eta Carinae is not a danger to Earth. Even if the star exploded as a hypernova it would simply outshine the Moon for a while. It might disrupt the sleeping and hunting habits of some terrestrial critters for a while, but it won’t mean the end of life on our planet.

Members of Russian Parliament Propose to Merge Roscosmos with United Rocket Space Corporation

Credit: ITAR-TASS/Marina Lysceva

Members of the State Duma, lower house of Russia’s parliament have proposed to unify the Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) with the United Rocket and Space Corporation (URCS), first deputy head of the house committee for industry Vladimir Gutenev told reporters on Friday. “The recent reform of Roscosmos with the division of functions of the customer and contractor, unfortunately, has not considerably improved the sector’s efficiency,” Gutenev said. According to him, serious shortcomings in the construction of the Vostochny (Eastern) spaceport in the Russian Far East that may disrupt the schedule of the state programme implementation, revealed by the Accounts Chamber inspections, are a typical example of this.

Active Sun Unleashes Significant Solar Flares

Image of the Sun on Dec. 20, 2014. Credit: NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory

The sun unleashed a massive solar flare on Dec. 19 (Dec. 20 UTC) that erupted from a sunspot region classified as Active Region 2242. Earlier in the week, another active sunspot region called AR 2241 fired off two intense M-class flares, on Dec. 16 registering as an M8.7-class, and the other on Dec. 18, an M6.9 solar flare. The latest solar flare was registered as an X1.8-class event, one of the most powerful types of flares possible. A pulse of X-rays and UV radiation from the flare reached Earth minutes after the explosion. This "solar EMP" ionized our planet's upper atmosphere and blacked out HF radio communications over Australia and the South Pacific. Below 10 MHz, transmissions were strongly attenuated for more than two hours.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

ESA's X-ray Spacecraft Spots Monster Black Hole Hidden in Tiny Galaxy

This image depicts the X-ray emission from dwarf galaxy J1329+3234 (centre in this image), and from a background AGN (lower right), measured by XMM-Newton in June 2013. The white bar indicates a width of 10 arcseconds, equivalent to 3.3 kpc at the distance of this galaxy. Credit: ESA/XMM-Newton/N. Secrest, et al. (2015)

The galaxy, an irregular dwarf named J1329+3234, is one of the smallest galaxies yet to contain evidence of a massive black hole. Located over 200 million light-years away, the galaxy is similar in size to the Small Magellanic Cloud, one of our nearest neighbouring galaxies, and contains a few hundred million stars. In 2013, an international team of astronomers was intrigued to discover infrared signatures of an accreting black hole within J1329+3234 when they studied it with the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). The same team has now investigated the galaxy further, using ESA's XMM-Newton to hunt for this black hole in X-rays – and found something very surprising. "The X-ray emission from J1329+3234 is over 100 times stronger than expected for this galaxy," says Nathan Secrest of George Mason University in Virginia, lead author of the new study published in The Astrophysical Journal. "We would typically expect to find low-level X-ray emission from stellar-mass black holes within the galaxy, but what we found instead was emission consistent with a very massive black hole."

SpaceX Conducts Static Fire Test and Completes First Milestone for CCtCap

SpaceX conducts static fire test of the Falcon 9 rocket on Dec. 19, 2014. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX on Friday completed a successful static fire test of the Falcon 9 rocket in advance of the CRS-5 mission for NASA. The test was conducted at SpaceX’s Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, and ran for the full planned duration. Meanwhile, NASA has approved the completion of SpaceX’s first milestone in the company’s path toward launching crews to the International Space Station (ISS) from U.S. soil under a Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contract with the agency. During the Certification Baseline Review, SpaceX described its current design baseline including how the company plans to manufacture its Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 v.1.1 rocket, then launch, fly, land and recover the crew. The company also outlined how it will achieve NASA certification of its system to enable transport of crews to and from the space station.

Orion Spacecraft Returns Home

NASA's Orion spacecraft is viewed by members of the media at the Launch Abort System Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Orion made the 8-day, 2,700 mile overland trip back to Kennedy from Naval Base San Diego in California. Analysis of date obtained during its two-orbit, four-and-a-half hour mission Dec. 5 will provide engineers detailed information on how the spacecraft fared. The Ground Systems Development and Operations Program led the recovery, offload and transportation efforts. Image Credit: NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis

After traveling more than 3,600 miles above Earth and 600 miles over sea, NASA’s Orion spacecraft completed the final leg of its 2,700 mile journey by land from Naval Base San Diego, arriving home Thursday at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. The NASA Ground Systems Development and Operations team transported the Lockheed Martin built spacecraft across the country by truck, and the entire trip took eight days. “Despite travelling a bit slower than what we’re used to, Orion made pretty good time,” said Michael Hawes, Lockheed Martin vice president and Orion program manager. “Most of the team hasn’t had eyes on the spacecraft since November, when we rolled to the launch pad, so we’re excited to take a look.” The spacecraft’s cross-country return sets the stage for in-depth analysis of data obtained during Orion’s trip to space and will provide engineers detailed information on how the spacecraft fared during its two-orbit, 4.5-hour flight test, completed on Dec. 5.