Finished my Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy cross stitch!

I was inspired by the whale of a time  pattern in Etsy, which I quickly purchased, embroidered, and created a design to surround it based on my favorite line in literature. 

Of course, I did not forget the bowl of petunias!

NASA Tells Space Cowboy Concept To Mount Up

by Michael Keller

Earlier this month, NASA awarded $100,000 to a Washington-based company to develop their concept for a cowboy spacecraft. The firm, Tethers Unlimited, has up to a year to develop a proposal for a craft that can deploy a net and tether attached to a winch to capture an asteroid and stop it from spinning.

The nanosatellite-scale system, envisioned in the artist’s concept above, is called the Weightless Rendezvous And Net Grapple to Limit Excess Rotation (WRANGLER, of course). The proposed system will use two technologies to stop a much larger and more massive asteroid from spinning: the Grapple, Retrieve, And Secure Payload (GRASP) Technology for Capture of Non-Cooperative Space Objects that uses inflatable tubes to deploy a net; and a winch-mounted tether that can exchange angular momentum with the object.

If it works, it could be an important element to decrease the complexity and risk of NASA’s long-term plan to collect and redirect an asteroid. Once caught and despun, the celestial object would then be moved to a stable orbit beyond the moon so that astronauts can explore it.

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SpaceX Restartable Thrusters Pass Early Tests

SpaceX completed qualification testing for its SuperDraco thruster late last month. The engine will eventually be mounted on the manned version of the Dragon spacecraft as part of its launch escape system. It will also help the vehicle touch down on its return to Earth or on whatever other planet it visits.

SpaceX says the engine produces 16,000 pounds of thrust and can be fired multiple times. In an emergency, eight SuperDracos built into the Dragon will provide 120,000 pounds of thrust to propel the crew a safe distance from the rest of the vehicle.

The thruster’s engine chamber is made through the industrial 3-D printing process called direct laser metal sintering. It is composed of Inconel, a strong nickel-chromium superalloy able to withstand high temperatures. 

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July 2, 2014 — A United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket launches with the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) satellite onboard from Space Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. OCO-2 will measure the global distribution of carbon dioxide, the leading human-produced greenhouse gas driving changes in Earth’s climate.

Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Venus Express gets ready to take the plunge

After eight years in orbit, ESA’s Venus Express has completed routine science observations and is preparing for a daring plunge into the planet’s hostile atmosphere.

Venus Express was launched on a Soyuz–Fregat from the Russian Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on 9 November 2005, and arrived at Venus on 11 April 2006.

It has been orbiting Venus in an elliptical 24-hour loop that takes it from a distant 66 000 km over the south pole – affording incredible global views – to an altitude of around 250 km above the surface at the north pole, close to the top of the planet’s atmosphere.

With a suite of seven instruments, the spacecraft has provided a comprehensive study of the ionosphere, atmosphere and surface of Venus.

“Venus Express has taught us just how variable the planet is on all timescales and, furthermore, has given us clues as to how it might have changed since its formation 4.6 billion years ago,” says Håkan Svedhem, ESA’s project scientist.

“This information is helping us decipher how Earth and Venus came to lead such dramatically different lives, but we’ve also noticed that there are some fundamental similarities.”

Image credit: ESA–C. Carreau

Meet the Couple Who Could Be the First Humans to Travel to Mars [Wired]

Jane Poynter and Taber MacCallum are planning a trip to Mars. They’ve been hashing out the details for 20 years now, and alternate between being extremely excited and utterly terrified by the prospect, refusing to discuss it after 5 p.m. to avoid nightmares.

The couple’s far-out dreams of space travel differ from those of many others because theirs could, potentially, come true. They founded a private space company called Paragon Space Development Corporation to find the most feasible way to send two people on a round-trip flyby of the Red Planet. Even the best possible plan will be extremely challenging. The list of things they still need to figure out is long and includes how to protect themselves against deadly radiation, how much food, water, and air to bring, and how to store their waste. Meanwhile, they must wait for Congress to agree to fund the project and allow the use of the NASA Space Launch System and Orion crew vehicle for transport.

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Learn about the progress of SLS and the Orion Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle in 2014.

And they need to figure this all out soon: They have only a brief window of time at the end of 2021 when Mars and Earth will align in such a way to make this trip possible.

The mission—called Inspiration Mars and spearheaded by millionaire space tourist Dennis Tito—is the most ambitious of Paragon’s many projects. The company is also one of the country’s leading designers of life support systems and body suits for extreme environments, and they are currently developing a vehicle for commercial balloon trips to the stratosphere and technology for private moon landings. But they have the most grandiose hopes for Mars: They say sending the first humans into the orbit of another planet could ignite a 21st century “Apollo moment” that will propel American students back into the sciences and inspire young innovators.

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The couple’s drive to explore space was born in a giant glass dome on Earth called Biosphere 2 in the early 90s. Eight people, including Poynter and MacCallum, lived for two solid years from 1991 to 1993 inside the dome near Tucson, Arizona as part of a prototype space colony. The eccentric, privately funded science experiment. contained miniature biomes that mimicked Earth’s environments, including jungle, desert, marshland, savannah and an ocean all crammed into an area no larger than two and a half football fields. The crew subsisted on a quarter-acre agricultural plot and went about their lives while medical doctors and ecologists observed from outside.

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Watch Jane Poynter’s TED Talk as she discusses “Life in Biosphere 2”

Six months into Biosphere 2, the couple began to think about life after the experiment and channeled their waning energy into a business plan. They wanted to build on the skills and ecological knowledge they were accruing during the experiment, while also playing off Biosphere 2’s space-oriented goals, and finally landed on building life support systems for an eventual trip to Mars. MacCallum blogged about this from inside the dome, and managed to sign up Lockheed Martin aerospace engineer Grant Anderson as a co-founder, and signed legal papers with Poynter to incorporate Paragon.

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Read the Space News interview between Jane Poynter and Taber MacCallum on Paragon, R&D, and space exploration.

Neither MacCallum nor Poynter had gone to college or had any formal training in science, engineering, or business. But their trajectory toward space began early in their lives, long before entering Biosphere 2. MacCallum’s father was an astronomer and his grandfather helped build propellers for the Wright brothers. Poynter, who grew up in England and came to the U.S. after high school, says her deep fascination with space sprouted from reading Isaac Asimov and other science fiction authors as a kid. Their eyes had long been tilted toward the sky.

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Taber MacCallum and Jane Poynter.

After high-school, both began training with other Biosphere 2 candidates in remote conditions, including on a ranch in the Australian Outback and an ocean-research vessel that sailed around the world, both organized by the privately-funded Institute of Ecotechnics that invented Biosphere 2. MacCallum and Poynter met during this time and sparked a friendship that turned to romance and led to marriage 9 months after leaving Biosphere 2.

MacCallum, now 49 years old, says he wouldn’t necessarily advocate for others to skip college, but the path had worked out well for him. He and Poynter dabbled in classes after Biosphere 2, but ended up dropping them to work with a group from NASA to test an ecological experiment on the Russian Space Station MIR. Paragon’s co-founder and chief engineer Grant Anderson had valuable experience in developing space flight hardware with Lockheed Martin, and MacCallum and Poynter had extensive experience running closed ecological systems from their time in Biosphere 2. The team proved for the first time that small aquatic invertebrates, including amphipods and copepods, could complete entire life cycles in space, within a small, sealed-off Paragon-designed tube called the Autonomous Biological System.

In December 2012, Paragon teamed up with commercial space flight company Golden Spike to build a space suit, thermal control, and life support technologies for commercial trips to the Moon aimed to launch in 2020. In December 2013, they named former astronaut and personal friend Mark Kelly as the director of flight crew operations on World View, an effort to bring tourists on a balloon ride to the middle of the stratosphere by 2016.

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Learn more about Paragon’s World View Experience.

Over the past two decades, their company has grown to employ about 70 engineers and scientists and is still growing today, Poynter says. They hire for attitude and train for skill (within reason) in order to maintain good teamwork and creativity — things Poynter felt the Biosphere 2 community lacked at times, due to conflicting personalities and lackluster attitudes. Jonathan Clark, Inspiration Mars’ chief medical officer and former space shuttle crew surgeon who collaborates with Paragon describes the couple as “enablers, the kind of bosses you would love to work for.

Still, despite Paragon’s best efforts and accomplishments, many do not believe their ambitions to bring humans — perhaps themselves — to Mars by the 2020s will pan out. Former NASA astronaut Thomas Jones, told WIRED he thinks that humans won’t reach Mars orbit until the 2030s, and will struggle to do so without the financial and infrastructural support of NASA.

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Dennis Tito, Inspiration Mars’ organizer, originally hoped to finance the project entirely independently. He looked to crowd-sourced funds and philanthropy, and had aimed to get the project off the ground in 2017, when Earth and Mars would align in such a way that a rocket could slingshot to and from Mars in just 501 days. But with further analysis, Tito and Paragon realized they did not have the resources or money to pull off the mission by 2017. They identified another planetary alignment in 2021 that would allow for a slightly-longer 580-day trip, but they still doubt they can achieve this without a bit of government support.

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Dennis Tito’s 2021 Human Mars Flyby Mission Explained (Infographic)

There was really no way that we could find to practically use existing commercial rockets, MacCallum said. We were hoping we could pull together a mission using existing hardware, but you just don’t get to go to Mars that easy.

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NASA’s SLS (Space Launch System) revealing the compartment and structure for feasible capability regarding the Inspiration Mars mission configuration.

But regardless of whether Inspiration Mars is successful in 2021, Jones believes these commercial space efforts will help stir momentum and public interest in space that could ultimately help NASA build new infrastructure and convince Congress to allocate the money needed to complete missions like these.

I think it is going to lead to an explosion of ideas of how we can use space to make a buck, and that’s all to the good, Jones said. And so if these companies can develop a track record of success, and people have greater confidence that they can personally experience space, then it may become more relevant to our society and country, and then the U.S. may have a broader base of support for funding for NASA.

By this logic, Paragon’s involvement in an array of different space endeavors that embed space in the American consciousness could improve their chances of getting Inspiration Mars off the ground.

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And so they keep moving toward their goal. At the end of last year, the team successfully completed the major components of the life support system for Inspiration Mars. They did a full test of all the major systems together in the lab. They recycled urine, made oxygen, and removed carbon dioxide from the system — all things they would need to do to keep a crew alive for an Inspiration Mars mission, MacCallum said.

MacCallum believes a trip to Mars that would use these life support systems could inspire the next great generation of innovators. He turned five on July 20th, 1969, the day that Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, and cites that mind-boggling occasion as the major driver of his fascination in space and ultimate decision to enter Biosphere 2. What we learned from Apollo was that a very difficult and inspiring technical program that involves humans exploring new worlds that create new heroes and role models inspires people into the sciences, MacCallum said.

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Coinciding with the legacy of the Apollo missions, Inspiration Mars will serve to stimulate ambition and the curiosity to explore new frontiers beyond LEO, reminiscent of the iconic Apollo moon landing.

Though they hadn’t originally intended to be space pioneers themselves when they founded Paragon — they simply planned to facilitate space travel, not necessarily partake in it — MacCallum and Poynter both say that they would throw their hat in the ring as candidates for Inspiration Mars. At the very least, they meet the basic credentials of being a fit middle-aged couple—in their late 50s by 2021—with experience living in isolation.

When their hearts aren’t racing with thoughts of tumbling along the empty black path to Mars, MacCallum imagines calling back to students on Earth and describing the scene as he watches the Pale Blue Dot drift away and the Red Planet approach. “That would have completely blown my mind as a middle schooler,” MacCallum said. “And we would have 500 days to have these conversations with students all around the world.

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Visit Inspiration Mars Foundation to learn more.

Source: Wired

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Droid #326

Spaceships, droids and drones of the Outer Planets Guild of Prospectors.

Loving building this little fleet of ships and droids, got a little story brewing in my head about them too. 

All drawn on various bits of paper, with pigment liners, Copic markers and a little bit of orange from a cheap office highlighter pen.

We on Cassini received wonderful news today. In a review this past summer of all the 7 NASA missions seeking to extend their operations for several more years and requesting additional funding to do so, Cassini was the only one of them receiving an unqualified `Excellent’ for its science and future plans. So, we are now gratefully anticipating another 3 years of exploration, with mission operations ending on September 15, 2017 with a dramatic nose-dive into the planet.

How wonderful it is to know that we will live out the full, unabridged promise of this extraordinary mission. For many of us, for the past quarter century, it has been a way of life. For many of us, its end will mirror the end of a major portion of our life’s work.

But this is no time to get sentimental. We now are looking forward to 3 more glorious years of new discoveries and insights, three more close flybys of Enceladus, flights over the Saturn pole and through the rings, and, of course, many more of the most soul-stirring, magnificent vistas there are to be seen anywhere this side of the Oort cloud.

Enjoy!

Science/AAAS: NASA extends seven planetary missions

15 Most Toxic Places to Live: Earth’s Orbit

Space contains copious amounts of pollution. An estimated 4 million pounds of space debris — nuts, bolts, metal and carbon, even whole spacecraft — currently orbit the Earth, threatening satellites, communication and even the lives of our astronauts. This computer-generated NASA graphic shows objects of space junk in Earth’s orbit that are currently being tracked. 

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