Could There Be Microbes Floating in Venus' Clouds? New Research Paper Bolsters Incredible Possibility

Venus as seen in ultraviolet light by NASA’s Pioneer Venus Orbiter spacecraft in 1979. The dark patches in the upper atmosphere have been a mystery for nearly a century. Could they actually contain living microbes? Photo Credit: NASA

When it comes to searching for evidence of life elsewhere in the Solar System, certain places will always make the top of the list, such as Mars, Europa, Enceladus and Titan. They are considered to be the planet and moons most likely to biologically active, either now or in the distant past. But there is one more planet which, at first thought, would be one of the least likely environments – Venus. This hellish inferno has never been seriously considered a top contender, for obvious reasons. That view is starting to change now however, and it may just turn out that our first glimpse of alien life will come from Earth’s closest planetary neighbor. A new paper just published in Astrobiology supports this contention, that maybe we have been looking at unearthly life all along, and just didn’t recognize it at first.

Continue reading Could There Be Microbes Floating in Venus’ Clouds? New Research Paper Bolsters Incredible Possibility

CRS-14 Dragon Kicks Off Multiple-Mission Month of Launches for SpaceX

A reused Upgraded Falcon 9 first stage and a reused Dragon take flight at 4:30 p.m. EDT Monday, 2 April 2018. Photo Credit: John Kraus/AmericaSpace

Kicking off a planned month-long run of missions from the East and West Coasts, which could see as many as five Upgraded Falcon 9 boosters spear for the heavens in the next 28 days, SpaceX has successfully delivered the CRS-14 Dragon mission into orbit, as part of its ongoing Commercial Resupply Services commitment to NASA. Liftoff of the 230-foot-tall (70-meter) rocket occurred during an “instantaneous” window at 4:30:38 p.m. EDT on Monday, 2 April, from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.

The Dragon—which is laden with some 5,800 pounds (2,600 kg)—of payloads, experiments and supplies for the incumbent Expedition 55 crew, will arrive at the International Space Station (ISS) on Wednesday, 4 April, and remain for about a month. Both the Upgraded Falcon 9’s first stage and the Dragon itself were “used”, the former having seen previous service on the CRS-12 mission in August 2017 and the latter having visited the space station on CRS-8 in April 2016.

Continue reading CRS-14 Dragon Kicks Off Multiple-Mission Month of Launches for SpaceX

The Day the Saturn V Almost Failed: 50 Years Since Apollo 6

The all-white Apollo 6 spacecraft rises from Pad 39A on 6 April 1968 for the Saturn V’s second unmanned test-flight. Photo Credit: NASA

Throughout its stellar 13-flight career, between November 1967 and May 1973, the mighty Saturn V—which still retains a place as the largest and most powerful rocket ever to reach operational service—never once failed to complete its assigned mission. It boosted two unmanned and one manned Apollo spacecraft into low-Earth orbit, sent nine teams of explorers to the Moon and lofted America’s first space station, Skylab. None of those flights were entirely without incident, of course, with Skylab’s tortured ride to orbit leading to an all-out repair effort by its first crew and Apollo 13 suffering an engine-out situation during ascent. Yet one mission about which less is known was the unmanned Apollo 6 flight, launched 50 years ago this week, on 4 April 1968, whose difficult journey into space gave NASA pause to consider if the goal of landing a man on the Moon before the decade’s end was really achievable. Significantly, on the very same day in Memphis, Tenn., the acclaimed civil rights leader Martin Luther King was assassinated, casting a truly dark shadow across U.S. history.

Continue reading The Day the Saturn V Almost Failed: 50 Years Since Apollo 6

One Year, Ten Reflown Boosters: Iridium NEXT-5 Hitches Ride to Orbit on Used Falcon 9

Atop the noticeably charred first stage of its Upgraded Falcon 9, Iridium NEXT-5 takes flight on Friday, 30 March. This was SpaceX’s tenth flight out of Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., since September 2013. Photo Credit: SpaceX/Twitter

Today (Friday 30 March), SpaceX marks one year since it became the first launch provider to deliver a payload to orbit on a flight-proven booster. The triumphant success of the SES-10 mission in 2017 was further strengthened by the fact that its scorched first-stage hardware returned a second time to a smooth oceanic landing on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) and an intact splashdown of the bulbous payload fairing was achieved. Each of these steps forms part of SpaceX’s overall plan to enhance the reusability characteristics of its Upgraded Falcon 9 fleet in an effort to bring launch costs down.

Since then, several other boosters have completed repeat missions and at 7:13 a.m. PST today marks the tenth occasion in a single year that a “used” booster has been blasted back into orbit on a second occasion. In doing so, this morning’s mission from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., delivered the Iridium NEXT-5 batch of ten spacecraft aloft, bringing to 50 the total number of these global mobile communications satellites currently in orbit. With an expectation that SpaceX will launch 75 Iridium NEXT birds by August 2018, its delivery rate now stands at almost 67 percent of the full constellation already in space.

Continue reading One Year, Ten Reflown Boosters: Iridium NEXT-5 Hitches Ride to Orbit on Used Falcon 9

Curiosity Rover Celebrates 2,000 Sols on Mars As It Prepares to Examine Ancient Clays

Mosaic image of the current view towards Mount Sharp. The region rich in clay minerals cuts across the center of the image. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Time goes by quickly when you are exploring Mars. It may not seem like it, but NASA’s Curiosity rover has now passed the 2,000-sol mark since its landing way back in August 2012. In those 5+ years, the rover has discovered evidence that Gale crater used to be home to a large non-acidic lake or series of lakes, with conditions suitable for life to have existed. It is still not known whether any Martian critters, most likely microscopic, ever did live there or elsewhere on the planet, but thanks to Curiosity and other robotic explorers, we now know that they certainly could have.

Continue reading Curiosity Rover Celebrates 2,000 Sols on Mars As It Prepares to Examine Ancient Clays

'All You See Are Red Lights': 25 Years Since Columbia's Dramatic Aborted Launch Attempt

Columbia’s engines flare to life on 22 March 1993, a quarter-century ago, this week, in the third Redundant Set Launch Sequencer (RSLS) abort of the shuttle program. Photo Credit: NASA

A quarter-century ago, in March 1993, shuttle Columbia stood ready on Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, awaiting liftoff on her 14th mission. Devoted to a variety of U.S. and German research investigations, the Spacelab-D2 payload had been delayed repeatedly in the aftermath of the Challenger tragedy and had already been postponed by more than a month, due to mechanical problems aboard Columbia herself. At last, on 22 March, the seven-man STS-55 crew—Commander Steve Nagel, Pilot Tom Henricks, Payload Commander Jerry Ross, Mission Specialists Charlie Precourt and Bernard Harris and Payload Specialists Ulrich Walter and Hans Schlegel—departed their quarters for the pad…and one of the most hazardous countdowns in shuttle history.

Continue reading ‘All You See Are Red Lights’: 25 Years Since Columbia’s Dramatic Aborted Launch Attempt

Soyuz MS-08 Crew Begins Two-Day Flight to Space Station; EVA Scheduled for Month's End

The Soyuz MS-08 crew, clad in their Sokol (“Falcon”) launch and entry suits. From left to right are Ricky Arnold, Oleg Artemyev and Drew Feustel. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

Three new crew members, boasting a combined total of seven months of spaceflight experience and nearly three full days of spacewalking time between them, have begun a half-year voyage to the International Space Station (ISS). Veteran Russian cosmonaut Oleg Artemyev, joined by educator astronaut Ricky Arnold and seasoned Hubble Space Telescope (HST) repairman Drew Feustel rocketed away from Site 1/5 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome at 10:44:25 p.m. local time (12:44:25 p.m. EDT) Wednesday, 21 March. Aboard their Soyuz MS-08 spacecraft, the three men will spend two days in transit, before docking at the station’s space-facing (or “zenith”) Poisk module at 2:41 p.m. EDT Friday, 23 March.

Continue reading Soyuz MS-08 Crew Begins Two-Day Flight to Space Station; EVA Scheduled for Month’s End

Vanguard 1, Oldest Manmade Satellite, Turns 60 This Weekend

Conception of Vanguard 1, which remains in Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) after a record-setting 60 years. Image Credit: National Space Science Data Center

These days, artificial satellites are built with longevity in mind. The latest NASA/NOAA Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES-S)—launched earlier this month—is expected to remain in active service for up to 15 years, until well into the 2030s, whilst Spain’s Paz radar-imaging spacecraft, lofted atop an Upgraded Falcon 9 in February, will endure for at least the next seven years. A raft of others, including the United States’ Pioneer 10 and 11 and Voyager 1 and 2 deep-space probes, to say nothing of SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s Falcon Heavy-boosted “Starman”, could last for millions of years in the cosmos. But none of them has been in space as long as Vanguard 1, a tiny satellite, launched 60 years ago, which is not expected to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere until the end of the 22nd century.

Continue reading Vanguard 1, Oldest Manmade Satellite, Turns 60 This Weekend

Astronauts Feustel and Arnold to Kick Off 5.5-Month ISS Expedition With 29 March Spacewalk

Veteran spacewalker Drew Feustel will serve as EV1 on the 29 March spacewalk outside the International Space Station (ISS). Photo Credit: NASA

Less than a week after their scheduled 23 March arrival at the International Space Station (ISS), Expedition 55/56 astronauts Drew Feustel (EV1) and Ricky Arnold (EV2) will participate in a 6.5-hour Extravehicular Activity (EVA) on Thursday, 29 March. According to NASA, the spacewalk—designated “U.S. EVA-49”—will involve Feustel and Arnold completing a series of tasks in support of an upcoming science payload and further enhancing the station’s communications envelope for upcoming Commercial Crew vehicles, via the Common Communications for Visiting Vehicles (C2V2) architecture.

Continue reading Astronauts Feustel and Arnold to Kick Off 5.5-Month ISS Expedition With 29 March Spacewalk

'To Fly the First One': 40 Years Since the First Space Shuttle Crews

In March 1978, a “pool” of crew members were announced for the first four Orbital Flight Tests (OFTs) of the shuttle. At their initial press conference (from left) are Gordon Fullerton, Vance Brand, Jack Lousma, Fred Haise, Richard Truly, Joe Engle, Robert Crippen and John Young. Photo Credit: NASA

In the coming months, the first crews will be named for the maiden voyages of America’s first wholly-new piloted spacecraft in more than a generation. Since September 2014, Boeing and SpaceX have been working to develop their CST-100 Starliner and Crew Dragon vehicles for a series of critical test-flights, before committing both to International Space Station (ISS) crew-rotation missions. In doing so, U.S. astronauts will once again journey into space, aboard U.S.-built spacecraft, and from U.S. soil, for the first time since the end of the Space Shuttle era. Yet as America awaits its return to regular human access to space, we are reminded that four decades have passed since another group of crews were named for another wholly-new piloted spacecraft. In March 1978, only weeks after the selection of a new class of 35 astronaut-candidates, the first set of pilots were announced to fly the inaugural missions of the shuttle program.

Continue reading ‘To Fly the First One’: 40 Years Since the First Space Shuttle Crews