Can We Send a Probe to Proxima Centauri? Yes, But it May Get Banged Up On the Way There

Artist's conception of a Starshot spacecraft, a tiny circuit board-like wafer attached to a solar sail. Image Credit: breakthroughinitiatives.org

Artist’s conception of a Breakthrough Starshot spacecraft, a tiny circuit board-like “wafer” attached to a lightsail. Image Credit: Breakthrough Initiatives

Now that we know that the closest star system to us has at least one planet, an Earth-mass and potentially habitable one at that, there is one big question that a lot of people are asking: can we go there? Could we send a probe to Proxima Centauri? The answer is … maybe. There have long been ideas and plans for such a mission, but now that at least one planet has been verified there, interest is at an all-time high. It’s doable, but not necessarily easy.

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Pale Red Dot: Astronomers Discover Potentially Habitable Exoplanet Orbiting Nearest Star

Artist's conception of what Proxima b might look like. It is just slightly more massive than Earth and orbits in its star's habitable zone. Temperatures might allow liquid water to exist on its surface. A potentially habitable world, it is also now the closest known exoplanet. Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Artist’s conception of what Proxima b might look like. It is just slightly more massive than Earth and orbits in its star’s habitable zone. Temperatures might allow liquid water to exist on its surface. A potentially habitable world, it is also now the closest known exoplanet. Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Astronomers today announced one of the most exciting exoplanet discoveries yet: an Earth-mass rocky world orbiting the nearest star to the Sun, Proxima Centauri. There had been hints before of such a world, but nothing was confirmed, until now. The planet, called Proxima b, is not only just slightly more massive than Earth, it orbits within the star’s “habitable zone.” The estimated temperatures of the planet could allow liquid water to exist on its surface. Not only is this planet potentially habitable, depending on other factors, it is also now the closest known exoplanet.

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NASA's Europa Mission Facing Possible Budget Cuts in 2017

Artist's conception of the Europa Clipper spacecraft near Europa. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Artist’s conception of the Europa Clipper spacecraft near Europa. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

For a long time now, there has been growing interest in sending a mission back to Jupiter to better study one moon in particular: Europa. Previous missions such as Voyager and Galileo showed us this world up close for the first time, revealing a place that maybe, just maybe, is home to some kind of life. On the outside, Europa is cold and frozen, like an airless version of Antarctica, with its surface completely composed of ice. But deeper down, as those probes found, there is a global ocean of water deeper than any oceans on Earth. In more recent years and months, a new NASA mission to Europa has finally started to take shape, with a launch tentatively scheduled for 2022. As often happens, however, the mission is facing possible budget cuts in 2017.

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Record-Breaker Jeff Williams to Become America's Most Experienced Astronaut Tomorrow

In the wee hours of tomorrow morning (Wednesday), Jeff Williams will become the United States' most flight-experienced astronaut. Photo Credit: NASA

In the wee hours of tomorrow morning (Wednesday), Jeff Williams will become the United States’ most flight-experienced astronaut. Photo Credit: NASA

At 4:56 a.m. EDT tomorrow (Wednesday, 24 August), NASA astronaut Jeff Williams—the incumbent skipper of Expedition 48, aboard the International Space Station (ISS)—will officially become the United States’ most seasoned spacefarer. He will eclipse the previous record-holder, Scott Kelly, as he passes a cumulative total of 520 days, 10 hours, and 30 minutes in space, across four flights. Williams, who last week also became the United States’ oldest spacewalker, is scheduled to return to Earth late on 6 September, wrapping up a career total of 534 days in space. When placed into context, this elevates Williams from his current place as the United States’ second most-experienced astronaut into first place and on the “world list” from No. 19 to No. 14. Standing ahead of him are a cadre of Soviet and Russian cosmonauts, with 878-day veteran Gennadi Padalka topping the list.

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'An Even Better Friend': 45 Years Since the Apollo 17 Decision (Part 2)

Forty-five years ago, this month, the names of the final crew of lunar explorers of the 20th century were announced. Photo Credit: NASA

Forty-five years ago, this month, the names of the final crew of lunar explorers of the 20th century were announced. Photo Credit: NASA

Forty-five years ago, this month, NASA made the decision which would close out human exploration of the lunar surface for more than two generations: the selection of the final crew to journey to the Moon. As outlined in yesterday’s AmericaSpace history article, scathing budget cuts in the wake of Apollo 11—and finally realized after the Apollo 13 near-disaster—saw the final “H-series” and final “J-series” exploration missions deleted from the manifest. When the remaining missions were renumbered Apollos 15 through 17, this led to the two “lost” missions being popularly (but incorrectly) remembered as Apollos 18 and 19.

And the loss of Apollo 18 dealt a specific blow to the three men who might have formed its prime crew: the Apollo 15 backup crew of Commander Dick Gordon, Command Module Pilot (CMP) Vance Brand, and Lunar Module Pilot (LMP) Harrison “Jack” Schmitt. For Schmitt was the only geologist-astronaut in NASA’s corps at the time and NASA had found itself under intense pressure from the scientific community to fly him on one of the lunar landing missions. With Apollo 18 gone, the only way to do that was to place Schmitt onto the final planned flight, Apollo 17 … which spelled particularly ugly news for the LMP of that mission, Joe Engle.

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'I Didn't Feel Any Obligation': 45 Years Since the Apollo 17 Decision (Part 1)

As Project Apollo wore on, the intensity of lobbying by the scientific community to get geologist-astronaut Jack Schmitt to the Moon increased. Originally assigned to the Apollo 15 backup crew, Schmitt might have flown Apollo 18, prior to a sweeping cancelation of the final missions in the program. Photo Credit: NASA

As Project Apollo wore on, the intensity of lobbying by the scientific community to get geologist-astronaut Jack Schmitt to the Moon increased. Originally assigned to the Apollo 15 backup crew, Schmitt might have flown Apollo 18, prior to a sweeping cancelation of the final missions in the program. Photo Credit: NASA

For almost five decades, we humans have been forced to content ourselves with the knowledge that, despite living on a blue-white marble with seven billion other souls, a mere handful of our number—just 12—have traveled across the 240,000 miles (380,000 km) cislunar gulf to walk on the dusty surface of the Moon. From Neil Armstrong’s “one small step” to Buzz Aldrin’s “magnificent desolation” and from Pete Conrad’s “Whoopie” to Jack Schmitt singing about his stroll on the Moon, it is hard to imagine that almost a half-century has passed since human voices last crackled back to Earth from our closest celestial neighbor. And 45 years ago, this month, only days after the triumphant return of the Apollo 15 crew, the names of the last human explorers to visit the Moon for at least the next two human generations were announced to the world.

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Space Station Open for Commercial Crew, As EVA-36 Team Installs IDA-2

The International Docking Adapter (IDA)-2 was installed onto Pressurized Mating Adapter (PMA)-2, at the forward end of the space station's Harmony node. Image Credit: NASA

The International Docking Adapter (IDA)-2 was installed onto Pressurized Mating Adapter (PMA)-2, at the forward end of the space station’s Harmony node. Image Credit: NASA

More than sixty months since it last saw the arrival of a human-piloted vehicle, Pressurized Mating Adapter (PMA)-2 at the extreme forward “end” of the International Space Station (ISS) has taken a step closer to soon accommodating another manned spacecraft. On Friday, 19 August, Expedition 48 Commander Jeff Williams and Flight Engineer Kate Rubins—assisted from inside the station by their Japanese crewmate Takuya Onishi—installed the first of two Boeing-built International Docking Adapters (IDAs). These will provide primary and backup docking capabilities for NASA’s Commercial Crew partners, which should see SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner returning U.S. personnel to low-Earth orbit, aboard U.S.-built spacecraft, and from U.S. soil, for the first time since the end of the Space Shuttle era.

Williams and Rubins moved with impressive briskness through their tasks, working ahead of the timeline, and after the IDA-2 installation was completed they were assigned a number of “get-ahead” tasks. However, a slight loss of communications capability in Williams’ suit prompted Mission Control to call it a day and U.S. EVA-36 came to an end after five hours and 58 minutes.

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AFSPC-6 Launch Helps Form Extraordinary New US Space Defense Foundation

The successful launch August 19, 2016 of two new U.S. Air Force Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP) spacecraft on a ULA Delta- IV 4,2 rocket joins two sister satellites in forming an extraordinary new U. S. space defense foundation in geosynchronous orbit. Photo Credit: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace

The successful launch Aug. 19, 2016, of two new U.S. Air Force Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP) spacecraft on a ULA Delta- IV 4,2 rocket joins two sister satellites in forming an extraordinary new U. S. space defense foundation in geosynchronous orbit. Photo Credit: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace

The successful launch Aug. 19, 2016, of two new U.S. Air Force Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP) spacecraft on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV rocket joins two sister satellites in forming an extraordinary new U. S. space defense foundation in geosynchronous orbit.

The new ability to inspect disabled U.S. satellites and deter critical U.S. and allied geosynchronous satellites from Russian and Chinese interference and outright attack removes from Russia and China the ability to blind and deafen the U.S. by the stealthy physical take-down of vital missile warning, eavesdropping, and communications spacecraft while staging ground and naval attacks.

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Delta IV Set for GEO 'We See All' Mission

Air Force graphic depicts two GSSAP spacecraft operating in geosynchronous orbit at 22,300 mi. altitude. Photo Credit Air Force Space Command.

Air Force graphic depicts two GSSAP spacecraft operating in geosynchronous orbit at 22,300-mile altitude. Image Credit Air Force Space Command.

The U.S. Air Force is poised to double its geosynchronous orbit space situational awareness and satellite-to-satellite imaging with the planned Aug. 19 predawn launch of two Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP) satellites on board a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Medium 4,2 vehicle with two solid rocket boosters. 

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'Weird Object' Discovered Beyond Neptune: A Clue in the Quest for Planet Nine?

The newly discovered object called Niku is a real oddity (artist's conception). It is also part of a group of many such objects far past Neptune in the outer Solar System. Image Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/Nick Risinger

The newly discovered object called Niku is a real oddity (artist’s conception). It is also part of a group of many such objects far past Neptune in the outer Solar System. Image Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/Nick Risinger

For the most part, the Solar System seems to be a rather well-ordered place; the planets, dwarf planets, and asteroids keep circling the Sun in regular orbits, the moons keep orbiting the planets, and so on. There are exceptions, however, such as how Uranus rotates “on its side” as compared to other planets and how Venus rotates in the opposite direction to most other planets. Now, astronomers have discovered another similar oddity, in the outer fringes of the Solar System: a small, asteroid-like object whose orbit is not only highly tilted against the orbital plane of the planets, but is also orbiting backwards compared to them. And it’s not alone. It appears to be part of a larger group of objects all doing the same thing. Weird …

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