Ever wondered how the Tiangong-1 module of China’s in-progress space station measures up to, say, the International Space Station? Over at the astronomy blog Supernova Condensate, molecular astrophysicist Invader Xan has created an infographic comparing the sizes of various spacefaring vessels. It’s fun to see how different ships stack up next to each other, like the British spaceplane Skylon versus the U.S.’s recently retired spaceplane (i.e., the Space Shuttle). And Invader Xan also made a bonus image to demonstrate how our past may compare to the future, where no man has gone before.
[via Boing Boing]
It’s been a month of reminders that actually, yes, the US government has a lot of giant, high-tech toys that it’s not telling us about. Two weeks ago, it was, “Wait, we have a secret Hubble-sized space telescope? Wait, we have TWO of them?”
This week (especially if you missed the first one’s flight in 2010), it’s, “Wait, we have a secret space plane? Wait…TWO of them?!”
What’s the News: Virgin Galactic’s plans for taking tourists into space have inched closer to fulfillment: earlier this month, the company’s SpaceShipTwo successfully demonstrated the technique, called “feathering,” that will allow the ship to reenter Earth’s atmosphere. In this video, you can watch the ship, designed to behave like a badminton shuttlecock, tip and roll as the pilot flips the craft’s tail to a 65 degree angle, which will brake SpaceShipTwo while it’s still high in the atmosphere. This means the ship will descend slowly enough to keep from igniting as it reenters.
What’s the News: The many bits of space junk orbiting Earth, from foil scraps to lens caps to chunks of frozen urine, can damage satellites and spacecraft, which is why researchers have long sought methods to remove debris from orbit. Scientists at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory have proposed a new way of taking out the trash (in two senses): They want to pump 20 tons of tungsten dust into Earth’s orbit; this dust would exert drag on the junk’s orbit, slowing it down and gradually lowering it until Earth’s atmosphere can burn it up. This bid to protect Earth’s 900 active satellites is controversial because the dust could potentially harm solar panels on satellites and obstruct astronomical measurements, but it’s a handy fix because it doesn’t require ambitious new technology.
With the space shuttles soon bound for retirement homes, NASA is dreaming up the future of U.S. human space flight. Recently, NASA has divulged its interest in two new gadgets: rockets launched via lasers and reusable, manned, deep-space crafts. Now, all the agency needs is a plan to get more money from the government to actually build these things.
The lasers (or possibly microwaves) would be ground-based, and would shoot through the air to energize a rocket’s heat exchanger; elevating the rocket’s fuel to over 3,100 degrees Fahrenheit would give it more thrust.
“The objective is to reduce the cost of getting into space. The way this rocket works, it has a more energetic propulsive system than one where you have fuel and oxidizer that release energy,” Carnegie Mellon University’s Kevin Parkin, head of the Microwave Thermal Rocket project at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, told Discovery News. [Discovery News]
Although the laser-powered rocket system would be expensive to build, it would reduce launch costs in the long haul.
This summer, Japan’s golden solar sail unfurled in space, becoming the first successful mission to sail on the physical pressure of the sun’s radiation. Its success led dreamers like Planetary Society director Bill Nye to envision a future of machines pushed forward by the pressure of lasers to explore the cosmos. And now, down here on Earth, researchers say they have demonstrated one of the key principles needed to realize such a vision: a “lightfoil” that uses light to create lift.
The lightfoil described in Nature Photonics is only micrometers in scale, but lead researcher Grover Swartzlander argues that it shows scientists can create and control optical lift. It operates on the property of refraction–how glass bends light.
Optical lift is different from the aerodynamic lift created by an airfoil. A plane flies because air flowing more slowly under its wing exerts more pressure than the faster-moving air flowing above. But in a lightfoil, the lift is created inside the object as the beam shines through. The shape of the transparent lightfoil causes light to be refracted differently depending on where it goes through, which causes a corresponding bending of the beam’s momentum that creates lift. [Science News]
This neat trick could potentially be used to steer a spacecraft, the researchers say.
In a bit of good news for private citizens dreaming of trips to orbit, the Federal Aviation Administration has just declared that trips aboard private spaceships needn’t be one-way.
The private space company SpaceX received the FAA’s first-ever commercial license permitting the re-entry of a spacecraft into the Earth’s atmosphere from orbit, which will allow a December test of its “space taxi” to proceed. In June, SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon 9 rocket and a mock-up Dragon crew capsule. The next step is to send the rocket and capsule up to orbit, and then bring them safely back down to Earth with a splash-down landing in the Pacific Ocean. That test is currently scheduled for December 7.
The Dragon is controlled during descent using “Draco” rockets and SpaceX say it should be capable of landing within a small distance – say a few hundred metres – of a designated point. The company hopes to bring it down on land once initial flights have proved the system. [Register]
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Virgin Galactic has taken its suborbital spaceship, the VSS Enterprise, for its first spin. On Sunday, the Enterprise was carried to an altitude of 45,000 feet by a larger “mothership,” and was then successfully released for a long, slow glide back to the Mojave Air and Space Port. The solo test flight is a step towards the day when the Enterprise will carry not only test pilots but also six space tourists up to the edge of space, where they’ll experience a few precious moments of weightlessness and a killer view.
When it eventually enters service, Enterprise will be carried to its launch altitude by the “Eve” carrier plane before being released in mid-air. Enterprise will then ignite its single hybrid rocket engine to make the ascent to space. Although Eve and Enterprise have made several test flights together, Sunday was the first time the spaceplane had been released at altitude. [BBC News]
Hit the jump for more info and video footage of the historic flight.
China successfully launched its second lunar probe on Friday, taking another step towards its goal of becoming a full-fledged space power. The probe, named Chang’e-2, made several maneuvers over the weekend to correct its trajectory, and is expected to reach the moon’s orbit this week.
The first Chang’e probe (they’re named after a Chinese moon goddess) orbited the moon for 16 months before self-destructing in a controlled impact with the lunar surface. This second craft is expected to return better data, because it will orbit closer to the surface than its predecessor and carries a higher resolution camera.
Chang’e-2 will orbit 100 kilometers above the moon’s surface and drop down to 15 kilometers on a mission to take detailed pictures of a candidate landing area for a follow-on craft, Chang’e-3, that is expected to be launched toward the end of 2014 or early 2015. [Science Insider]
The area of interest is known as the Bay of Rainbows, and the head of China’s lunar exploration program, Wu Weiren, says it’s the top choice for a landing spot.
The fourth nation to put a person in space, after Russia/USSR, the United States, and China, could be… Denmark?
Denmark indeed. Kristian von Bengtson and Peter Madsen, the leaders of Copenhagen Suborbitals, plan to fire a test flight of their HEAT-1X rocket from the European nation early next week.
This upcoming flight will be an unmanned test flight, but if all goes well, Madsen hopes to be inside the single-passenger capsule named Tycho Brahe for a manned flight in the near future [Universe Today].
The capsule stands about 10 yards tall, and its top is a clear glass dome through which the standing passenger can enjoy the trip to space. (Or at least, try to enjoy it: The cramped passenger will have only minimal arm movement, just enough to operate necessities like a camera, escape hatch, and vomit bag.) The rocket would carry the capsule to the edge of space, where the passenger will be temporarily weightless, and then it will fall in a parachute-slowed descent.