Long Lovejoy and Little Dumbbell : Buffeted by the solar wind, Comet Lovejoys crooked ion tail stretches over 3 degrees across this telescopic field of view, recorded on February 20. The starry background includes awesome bluish star Phi Persei below, and pretty planetary nebula M76 just above Lovejoys long tail. Also known as the Little Dumbbell Nebula, after its brighter cousin M27 the Dumbbell Nebula, M76 is only a Full Moons width away from the comets greenish coma. Still shining in northern hemisphere skies, this Comet Lovejoy is outbound from the inner solar system some 10 light-minutes or 190 million kilometers from Earth. But the Little Dumbbell actually lies over 3 thousand light-years away. Now sweeping steadily north toward the constellation Cassiopeia Comet Lovejoy is fading more slowly than predicted and is still a good target for small telescopes. via NASA

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Why SpaceX’s failure’s such a big deal:

After the Columbia disaster, President George W. Bush ordered the oncoming retirement of NASA’s space shuttle program. President Barack Obama completed this order and in 2011, NASA’s Atlantis space shuttle completed its last mission.

Since then, NASA’s had no vehicle with which to send astronauts to space. America had completed its retreat back to Earth.

NASA now pays Russia $70,000,000 per astronaut to allow Russia to put aside a seat for them when they launch to orbit.

Both pride, progress and the Ukrainian crises has led to pressure on NASA to finally develop a means to get astronauts to space again.

The political stance the U.S. adopted during the Russian annexation of Crimea led to intense tension between the two countries. NASA, Congress decided, could no longer consider them a reliable ally in their endeavors.

Soon after this tension built up, one of NASA’s most-used rockets, the ULA’s Atlas V rocket, was found to be using rocket engines from Russia known as RD-180′s.

NASA’s reliance on Russia went deeper than most people realized.

What’s worse is that the Air Force had only certified one company to launch their payloads to space: The United Launch Alliance (ULA).

Yes, the Air Force got their material to space due exclusively to Russian rocketry.

So you see this issue is really bad from a political standpoint, but all this…

…is actually good news.

If the ULA had been using entirely American rockets for the Air Force, I’m not sure Congress would’ve been under pressure to allow changes to the launch market. A lot of the people in Congress get lots of money from the aerospace industry (like Boeing and Lockheed Martin, the two parent companies of the ULA). 

The fact that one company had sole access to Air Force contracts for decades (yes, it was a monopoly) meant that the price to launch things to space ever since the Apollo era have only gone up. Rocket technology hasn’t really changed nor have prices dropped despite the fact that the ULA has been subsidized by U.S. taxpayers in addition to them being the only company allowed to launch Air Force (and most of NASA’s) payloads to orbit.

A month ago, SpaceX won their lawsuit against the Air Force and broke the ULA monopoly.

Both the ULA and their friends in Congress (People like Senator Shelby from Alabama) aren’t happy about this.

Additionally, NASA had to start seeking an alternate and independent method to get to space.

…and they had to do it without any significant raise in their budget.

Right now NASA’s budget is about 0.4% of the United States federal budget.

Together, President Obama and NASA came up with a plan to get NASA some new vehicles to carry their astronauts to space again - without an increased budget.

This plan is known as the Commercial Crew Program. The idea is that NASA would put some money aside to help companies seeking to make their own astronautical spaceships.

The ones showing promise would continue to get some funding and move on to the next “stage”. Eventually, NASA selected the top two competitors, Boeing and SpaceX, and awarded them contracts that contain sufficient funding to both finish their spacecrafts and carry NASA astronauts to space again.

The cost of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is about $69,000,000. This rocket will be bringing the Dragon V2 to space, a new space shuttle capable of carrying 7 astronauts. This is 1/10th the price of what NASA pays Russia to carry us into orbit.

What’s more, SpaceX has been working towards lowering the overall cost to get to space by doing something no one thought possible:

By turning their rockets into reusable vehicles, just like we reuse our cars and airplanes.

If they succeed at this then the cost will go from $10,000,000 per astronaut to get into orbit…

to just $28,571 per astronaut (the cost of fuel per person on a Falcon 9)

Yes. This would change the world.

Now, do you remember those Congresspeople and their funders from the Aerospace community?

Many of those people, for reasons beyond me, are vigorously opposed to anything the President tries to do. In addition to this, many of them aren’t happy about SpaceX’s intrusion into the previous cash cow that was the ULA monopoly on Air Force contracts.

Until SpaceX’s rocket exploded, they had an essentially perfect record and no one could stop them. Now, there’s a chink in their armor so to speak.

It’s not a big one, as space is hard and even NASA’s had their share of disasters, but I don’t expect SpaceX and the president’s political enemies to play fairly.

Even now NASA’s budget for the commercial crew contracts (which they’ve already awarded!) was cut down from the minimum requirement of $1.2 billion to $1 billion by the House and then by the Republican Senate (led largely by Ted Cruz) to $900 million.

That was before the explosion. We’ll have to see what sort of political fallout occurs now.

I’m personally still optimistic that they will make a comeback from all this, though I fully expect there to be political consequences to this setback.

(Image credit: NASA)

NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day 2015 July 1 

Venus, Jupiter, and Noctilucent Clouds 

Have you seen the passing planets yet? Today the planets Jupiter and Venus pass within half a degree of each other as seen from Earth. This conjunction, visible all over the world, is quite easy to see – just look to the west shortly after sunset. The brightest objects visible above the horizon will be Venus and Jupiter, with Venus being the brighter of the two. 

Featured above, the closing planets were captured two nights ago in a sunset sky graced also by high-level noctilucent clouds. In the foreground, the astrophotographer’s sister takes in the vista from a bank of the Sec Reservoir in the Czech Republic. She reported this as the first time she has seen noctilucent clouds. Jupiter and Venus will appear even closer together tonight and will continue to be visible in the same part of the sky until mid-August.

Meeting the neighbours

There are many galaxies in the Universe and although there is plenty of room, they tend to stick together. The Milky Way, for example, is part of a large gathering of over fifty galaxies known as the Local Group. Galaxy groups like this come together to form even larger groups called clusters which can congregate further still to create mammoth superclusters.

The sphere of space surrounding our galaxy is known as the Local Volume, a region some 35 million light-years in diameter and home to several hundred known galaxies. The subject of this new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image, a beautiful dwarf irregular galaxy known as PGC 18431, is one of these galaxies.

This image shows PGC 18431 smudged across the sky, but it wasn’t imaged purely for its looks. These Hubble observations were gathered in order to probe how Local Volume galaxies cluster together and move around. Hubble’s high resolution allows astronomers to explore star populations within these moderately distant galaxies — specifically, stars known as tip of the red-giant branch stars — in order to get an idea of the galaxy’s composition and, crucially, its distance from us. Knowing galactic distances enables us to accurately map a galaxy sample in three dimensions, a method key to understanding more about our cosmic neighbours, and to dismiss perspective and line-of-sight illusions.

Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA
Source: http://www.spacetelescope.org/images/potw1523a/

Asteroid Day Raises Awareness About Asteroid Threat

The Asteroid Day campaign kicked off its inaugural celebration on Tuesday marking the 107th anniversary of the Tunguska Event. The campaign was formed on Dec. 3, 2014 with the goal of creating a global day of awareness around the threat posed by near-Earth objects.

Read more: http://www.penny4nasa.org/2015/06/30/asteroid-day-raises-awareness-about-asteroid-threat/