Space

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Sorry Pluto, We Might Have a Real 9th Planet After All.

Our cosmic backyard is still a mostly undiscovered place. Sure we know of all the major planets that share the same orbital plane as us but discoveries like the dwarf planets in the asteroid and kuiper belts are still recent events. Indeed the more we look at the things that are right next door to us the more it leads us to question just how some of these things came to be. It was the strange orbits of a few kuiper belt objects that led to the most recent discovery: the potential existence of a 9th planet orbiting our sun.

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Why, I hear you ask, if we have a 9th planet have we not come across it before? Well, if confirmed, the reasons for us not seeing this planet before are simple: it’s just too damn far away. Pluto, which was discovered in 1930, is some 7.4 billion kilometers away from the sun at its closest approach whilst Planet 9 (as it is being called) is 5 times that distance at the same point in its orbit. Since planets don’t produce their own light we can only see them when they reflect light of their parent star and, that far out, our sun is a dim speck that barely illuminates anything. That, coupled with the fact that its orbit is perpendicular to ours, makes detection rather difficult and we’ve only found it now due to the effect it’s having on other kuiper belt objects.

The researchers who made the discovery, Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown (previously credited with the discovery of a dwarf planet, Sedna), were first intrigued by a group of kuiper belt objects that all shared relatively similar orbital properties. Now due to the sheer number of objects that happen to be in the area it’s likely that this will occur by chance sometimes however they often result in unstable orbits. These objects seemed to be quite happy in their strange orbits however so there either had to be a large body, likely a planet, keeping them in line or some other force was at play. In order to verify this one way or the other a planetary model was developed and then simulated to see what other effects a planet might have.

Their simulations predicted that there should also be other kuiper belt objects with orbits that were perpendicular to Planet 9’s orbit. Looking at the data gathered on the numerous objects that exist within the kuiper belt the researchers found 5 objects that matched the simulation’s predictions, a good indicator that a planet is responsible for both them and the other peculiar orbits. This also helped to confirm some attributes of the planet like it’s potential mass (10 times that of earth) and its likely orbital period (10,000+ years). Interestingly enough this helps to fill in a gap in our solar system’s construction as current models predict the most common type of planet is one of Planet 9’s mass.

The researchers are now looking to directly image the planet in order to confirm that it exists. There’s potential for it to show up in data already collected however that will only work if it was currently close to the sun. If it was further out then time will be required on some of the larger ground based or potentially one of the space based telescopes in order to observe it. Either way direct confirmation is some way off but is surely forthcoming.

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An Explosion so Great that the Laws of Physics Can Barely Contain It.

We humans were born in stars. Our elements were forged in the crucible of exploding stars, ones that had come to the end of their life and then erupted in a single cataclysmic event. This process has been going on for billions of years which is why we find our universe full of many of the elements that make up the periodic table and not just a melange of hydrogen. Like stars supernovae come in a variety of shapes and sizes and a recently observed one, dubbed ASASSN-15lh, sets the record for the brightest one ever observed. In fact it was so bright that we’re just barely able to explain how it might have happened.

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ASASSN-15lh was first observed just over a year ago and initially showed up as a transient spot on observations conducted by the All Sky Automated Survey for SuperNovae. Further observations, conducted by the du Pont Telescope in Chile and the South African Large Telescope, confirmed that it was a noteworthy event that required further investigations. The final observation was then conducted by the Swift Space Telescope which then resulted in Central Bureau of Astronomical Telegrams designating it SN 2015L. The observations confirmed that this was the most luminous supernova ever to occur, something which pushes the boundaries of our understanding about how big events like this can get.

Now most blips don’t warrant the level of scrutiny that ASASSN-15lh received however the spectrum of the supernova, provided by the du Pont Telescope, was incredibly unusual. The spectrum would match that of a previously seen superluminous supernova but only if the light had been significantly red-shifted (I.E. that it happened so far from Earth that the wavelengths of light had been stretched by the expansion of space to look more red). This is where the observation from the African Large Telescope comes into play as it confirmed that the light had undergone significant redshifting. This then meant that they were looking at an incredibly bright supernova, 3 times brighter than the previous record holder.

How supernova can get this bright is an incredibly interesting process. Essentially it relies on the star shedding its outer layers first and then forming whats called a Magnetar core. These neutron star variants are shrouded in a magnetic field so powerful that it’s lethal to life at distances even up to 1000km away from it. This magnetar would then have to spin incredibly fast, completing a full revolution every millisecond (the theoretical maximum for these kinds of stars). Then, as the star began to slow, giant magnetic winds would billow forth, slamming into the outer hydrogen layers and producing a shockwave of incredible luminance.

To put it in perspective just how bright ASASSN-15lh is if it were to have happened anywhere in our galaxy it would be visible by the naked eye during the day. If it happened in our cosmic backyard it would be as luminous as the moon. At its peak ASASSN-15lh shone 20 times brighter than all the stars in the Milky Way combined.

This explanation however relies on everything happening at a perfect maximum in order to produce something as bright as this. Whilst it’s quite possible that the magnetar explanation is sufficient it’s right on the edge of our understanding and so it’s very possible that there’s other mechanics at work here that influenced the final outcome. It’s taken a year of obsverations and research to get to this point so it’s likely that the data gathered on ASASSN-15lh has numerous more insights to give us on how such incredible events occur.

For me the incredible scale of things like this fill me with a sense of wonder and amazement. To think a single entity could dwarf an entire galaxy like that, even if for only a brief moment, gives you an incredible amount of perspective on all things. Indeed the fact that the atoms and molecules that constitute me were born in such places gives me a sense of connectedness to the universe and all the wonders that dwell within it.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Lands Successfully, Stands…Unsuccessfully.

If there’s one thing that SpaceX has shown us is that landing a rocket from space onto a barge in the middle of the ocean is, well, hard. Whilst they’ve successfully landed one of their Falcon-9 first stages on land not all of their launches will match that profile, hence the requirement for their drone barge. However that barge presents its own set of challenges although the last 2 failed attempts were due to a lack of hydraulic fluid and slower than expected throttle response. Their recent launch, which was delivering the Jason 3 earth observation satellite into orbit, managed to land successfully again however failed to stay upright at the last minute.

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Elon stated that the failure was due to one of the lockout collets (basically a clamp) not locking properly on one of the legs. Looking at the video above you can see which one of those legs is the culprit as you can see it sliding forward and ultimately collapsing underneath. The current thinking is that the failure was due to icing caused by heavy fog at liftoff although a detailed analysis has not yet been conducted. Thankfully this time around the pieces they have to look at are a little bigger than last times rather catastrophic explosion.

Whilst it might seem like landing on a drone ship is always doomed to failure we have to remember that this is what the early stages of NASA and other space programmes looked like. Keeping a rocket like that upright under its own strength, on a moving barge no less, is a difficult endeavour and the fact that they’ve managed to successfully land twice (but fail to remain upright) shows that they’re most of the way there. I’m definitely looking forward to their next attempt as there’s a very high likelihood of that one finally succeeding.

The payload it launched is part of the Ocean Surface Topography from Space mission which aims to map the height of the earth’s oceans over time. It joins one of its predecessors (Jason-2) and combined they will be able to map approximately 95% of the ice-free oceans in the world every 10 days. This allows researchers to study climate effects, providing forecasting for cyclones and even tracking animals. Jason-3 will enable much more high resolution data to be captured and paves the way for a future, single mission that will be planned to replace both of the current Jason series satellites.

SpaceX is rapidly decreasing the access costs to space and once they perfect the first stage landing on both sea and land they’ll be able to push it down even further. Hopefully they’ll extend this technology to their larger family of boosters, once of which is scheduled to be test flown later this year. That particular rocket will reduce launch costs by a factor of 4, getting us dangerously close to the $1,000/KG limit that, when achieved, will be the start of a new era of space access for all.

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Audi Backed Part Time Scientists Take Aim at Google’s Lunar X-Prize.

Announced back in 2007 Google’s Lunar X-Prize was an incredibly ambitious idea. Originally the aim was to spur the then nascent private space industry to look beyond low earth orbit, hoping to see a new lunar rover land on the moon by 2012. As with all things space though these things take time and as the deadline approached not one of the registered teams had made enough meaningful progress towards even launching a craft. That deadline now extends to the end of this year and many of the teams are much closer to actually launching something. One of them has been backed by Audi and have their sights set on more than just the basic requirements.

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The team, called Part Time Scientists (PTS), has designed a rover that’s being called the Audi Lunar Quattro. Whilst details are scant as to what the specifications are the rover recently made a debut at the Detroit Auto Show where a working prototype was showcased. In terms of capabilities it looks to be focused primarily on the X-Prize objectives, sporting just a single instrument pod which contains the requisite cameras. One notable feature it has is the ability to tilt its solar panels in either direction, allowing it to charge more efficiency during the lunar day. As to what else in under the hood we don’t yet know but there are a few things we can infer from what their goals are for the Audi Lunar Quattro’s mission.

The Google Lunar X-Prize’s main objective is for a private company (with no more than 10% government funding) to land a rover on the moon, drive it 500m and stream the whole thing in real time back to earth in high definition. It’s likely that the large camera on the front is used for the video stream whilst the two smaller ones either side are likely stereoscopic imagers to help with driving it on the lunar surface. PTS have also stated that they want to travel to the resting site of the Lunar Roving Vehicle left behind by Apollo 17. This likely means that much of the main body of the rover is dedicated to batteries as they’ll need to move some 2.3KM in order to cover off that objective.

There’s a couple other objectives they potentially could be shooting for although the relative simplicity of the rover rules out a few of them. PTS have already said they want to go for the Apollo Heritage Prize so it wouldn’t be a surprise if they went for the Heritage Prize as well. There’s the possibility they could be going for the range prize as if their rover is capable of covering half the distance then I don’t see any reason why it couldn’t do it again. The rover likely can’t get the Survival Prize as surviving a Lunar night is a tough challenge with a solar powered craft. I’d also doubt its ability to detect water as that single instrument stalk doesn’t look like it could house the appropriate instrumentation to accomplish it.

One thing that PTS haven’t yet completed though, and this will be crucial to them succeeding, is locking in a launch contract. They’ve stated that they want to launch a pair of rovers in the 3rd quarter of 2017 however without a launch deal signed now I’m skeptical about whether or not this can take place. Only 2 teams competing for the Lunar X-Prize have locked in launch contracts to date and with the deadline fast approaching it’s going to get harder to find a rocket that has the required capabilities.

Still it’s exciting to see the Lunar X-Prize begin to bear fruit. The initial 5 year timeline was certainly aggressive but it appears to have helped spur on numerous companies towards achieving the lofty goal. Whilst it might take another 5 years past that original deadline to fulfill it the lessons learned and technology developed along the way will prove invaluable both on the moon and back here on earth. Whilst we’re not likely to see a landing inside of this year I’m sure we’ll something the year afterwards. That’s practically tomorrow, when you’re talking in space time.

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Crippled Kepler Probe’s Second Life Bears Fruit.

2 years ago the Kepler probe was dealt a critical blow. Out of 4 reaction wheels, the devices which keep the telescope pointed in the right direction, only 2 remained functioning. This meant that the telescope was no longer able to maintain the level of precision required to continue its planet hunting mission. However there was a bold plan to continue Kepler’s mission, albeit in rather different capacity. Kepler could use the solar pressure exerted by our sun as a third reaction wheel, allowing it to continue imaging the sky and looking for planets. It wouldn’t be able to look at the same piece of sky for the entire time however and would be limited to viewing periods of approximately 80 days each.

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Whilst this was a significant downgrade in Kepler’s abilities it was a far better option than just retiring the spacecraft completely. In its previous incarnation Kepler was able to track hundreds of thousands of stars continuously, allowing us to detect numerous planets orbiting their parent stars. In its current incarnation Kepler will only be able to detect planets with shorter orbits which are unlikely to be the Earth-like ones we’re all hoping for. Still even in that reduced capacity Kepler has been able to identify no less than 100 new exoplanets with over 200 additional candidates awaiting confirmation by other methods. For a telescope that may have been written off that’s an amazing accomplishment, but it doesn’t just stop there.

As the above diagram shows Kepler has to reorient itself every so often so that light from the sun doesn’t enter the telescope (this would damage its sensors). Not all of these orientations are good for looking for exoplanets however and so Kepler has been put to other uses. Several of the viewing periods have been dedicated to looking at planets within our own solar system, giving us insights into their behaviour like we didn’t have before. It recently spent 70 days observing the weather on Neptune and the motion of its moons, the longest observation of the planet to date. Additionally another observation period is being dedicated to doing a similar investigation on Uranus.

Like I’ve said before second chances with space missions are rare and it’s incredibly heartening to see Kepler producing these kinds of results 2 years after its reaction wheels failed. Whilst these might not be the exact results we’re after they’re still invaluable pieces of data that will help broaden our understanding of both our universe and galactic backyard. I’m sure that we’ll continue to see great things from Kepler and, hopefully, many more exoplanets.

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SpaceX Falcon-9 Sticks the Landing.

An efficient, cost effective reusable launch system has been the holy grail for all those seeking access to space. There have been numerous attempts, the most notable of which being the venerable Space Shuttle, however even that failed to achieve its goals of drastically reducing the cost of putting things into orbit. SpaceX has made significant headway into making orbital access cheaper however their lofty goals of a reusable system have eluded them thus far. However, just yesterday, they managed to hit a critical milestone: the first stage of their V1.1 Falcon-9 making a successful vertical landing at their site at Cape Canaveral.

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The mission was set to launch the day previous however it was delayed in order to increase the chance of a successful recovery landing by another 10% (which also gave us a spectacular night launch, depicted above). The payload aboard the Falcon-9 was 11 ORBCOMM satellites which are low earth orbit communications satellites designed for Machine to Machine communications (essentially tracking and sensor data primarily). After a successful launch into orbit the first stage begun preparations to bring itself back down to earth. Then, only 10 minutes after the initial launch, it landed successfully back on earth to much fanfare from the ground control crew at SpaceX.

Unlike previous first stage recovery attempts this one used an area of flat land rather than the sea based drone ship. This is something of a simpler challenge, since you’re not trying to track a moving target, however those initial tests provided significant risk mitigation should something have gone wrong. Whilst this is the first successful demonstration of the technology at an orbital scale it’s definitely not the first time SpaceX have managed to successfully land a rocket vertically (despite what Jeff Bezo’s tweet about it would lead you to believe). That achievement is held by SpaceX’s Grasshopper demonstration rocket which has been in operation for some years now.

This achievement allows SpaceX to continue development on their reusable launch system program. Whilst the rocket has made it successfully back to Earth it’s certainly worse for wear, showing significant discolouration along its entire fuselage. The challenge SpaceX faces now is how to refurbish the rocket in order to make it flight worthy again, something which has proved to be quite costly for other reusable systems. However SpaceX has said it is confident that the recovery process will make their Falcon-9 rocket either cheaper or more performant (or both, they hope). Whilst they’ve long since abandoned any plans to make the Falcon-9 fully reusable (the second stage is considered unrecoverable, for now) it will be very interesting to see how the first stage recovery affects the service SpaceX can provide.

This is an incredible achievement for SpaceX, demonstrating that they’re quite capable of pushing the envelope in launch system technology. It’s these kinds of improvements that help drive down the cost of access to space and will hopefully pave the way for NASA and other space faring nations to focus on what they do best.

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Akatsuki Reaches Venus, 5 years Late.

Second chances in space missions are exceedingly rare. When something goes wrong it often means either a total loss of the mission or a significantly reduced outlook for what the mission can accomplish. Primarily this comes down to the tight engineering challenges that space missions face, with multiple redundant systems only able to cope with so much. Still every so often they happen and sometimes a new mission is born out one that might have been a failure. Such is the story of JAXA’s Akatsuki craft, one that has been lying in wait for the last 5 years waiting for its chance to fulfill its mission.

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Akatsuki launched 5 years ago aboard JAXA’s H-IIA rocket. It was to be JAXA’s second interplanetary probe after their first, Nozomi, failed to reached its intended destination over a decade prior. The insertion burn was confirmed to have started on schedule, however after the communications blackout period where the probe was behind Venus it failed to reestablish communications at the expected time. It was found drifting away from Venus in safe mode, indicating that it had undergone some form of failure. In this state it was operating in a very low bandwidth mode and so it took some time to diagnose what had happened. As it turned out the main engine had fired for only 3 minutes before failing, not enough to put it in the required orbit.

However it was enough to put Akatsuki on a leading orbit with Venus, one that would eventually bring it back around to meet the planet some time in the future. It was then decided that JAXA would attempt recovery of the craft into a new orbit around Venus, a highly elliptical orbit with a period of almost 2 weeks (the originally intended orbital period was approximately 30 hours). Investigation into the craft’s damaged sustained during the first initial burn showed that the main engine was unusable and so the insertion burn would be performed by its attitude thrusters. JAXA had a lot of time to plan this as the next scheduled rendezvous would not happen for another 5 years.

Following some initial maneuvers back in July and September Akatsuki began its orbital insertion burn on the 7th of December. The small attitude thrusters, designed to keep the spacecraft oriented, fired for 20 straight minutes far beyond what they were originally designed for. They did their job however and 2 days later JAXA announced that they had successfully entered orbit around Venus, albeit in the far more elliptical orbit than they originally planned.

The extended duration in space has likely taken its toll on Akatsuki and so JAXA is currently undertaking a detailed investigation of its current status. 3 of its 6 cameras have shown to be fully functioning with the remainder scheduled to be brought online very soon. Scientific experiments using Akatsuki’s instruments won’t begin until sometime next year however as an orbital correction maneuver is planned to reduce Akatsuki’s orbit slightly. However JAXA is confident that the majority of their science objectives can be met, an amazing boon to both their team and the wider scientific community.

It’s incredibly heartening to see JAXA successfully recover the Akatsuki craft after such a monumental setback. The research conducted using data from the Akatsuki craft will give us insights into why Venus is such a strange beast, rotating slowly in opposite direction to every other planet in our solar system. Whilst I’d never wish failure upon anyone I know the lessons learnt from this experience will bolster JAXA’s future missions and, hopefully, their next one won’t suffer a similar fate.

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Blue Origin’s New Shepard Has Second Successful Test Flight.

It seems that Blue Origin is ready to step out of the cloak of secrecy it has worn for so long. Once an enigmatic and secretive company they have been making many more waves as of late, setting the scene for them to become more heavily involved in the private space industry. Progress hasn’t been all that fast for them however although, honestly, it’s hard to tell with the small dribs and drabs of information they make public. Still they managed to successfully fly their current launch vehicle, New Shepard, at the end of April this year. That test wasn’t 100% successful however as, whilst the crew capsule was returned safely, the booster (which has the capability to land itself) did not fair so well and was destroyed. Today marks a pivotal moment for Blue Origin as their second flight of their New Shepard craft was 100% successful, paving the way for their commercial operations.

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The New Shepard craft isn’t your typical craft that we’ve come to expect from private space companies. It’s much more alike to Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo as it’s designed for space tourists rather than transporting cargo or humans to orbital destinations. That doesn’t mean it’s any less interesting however as they’ve already demonstrated some pretty amazing technology that few other companies have been able to replicate. It’s also one of the most unusual approaches to sub-orbital tourism I’ve seen, almost being a small scale replica of a Falcon-9 with a couple unusual features that enable it to be a fully reusable craft.

A ride on a New Shepard will take you straight up at speeds of almost Mach 4 getting you to a height of just over 100KM, the universally agreed boundary of Earth and space. However not all of the rocket will be going up there with you, instead once the booster has finished its job it will disconnect from the crew capsule, allowing the remaining momentum to propel the small cabin just a little bit further. The cabin then descends back down to Earth, landing softly with the aid of your standard drag chutes that are common in capsule based craft. The booster however uses some remaining fuel to soft land itself and appears to be able to do so with rather incredible accuracy.

The final part of the video is what failed on the previous launch as they lost hydraulic pressure shortly after the craft took off. In this video though it’s clear to see the incredible engineering at work as the rocket is constantly gimbaling (moving around) the thrust in order to make sure it can land upright and in the desired location. This is the same kind of technology that SpaceX has been trialling with its recent launches, although they have the slightly harder target of a sea barge and a much larger rocket. Still the fact that Blue Origin have it working, even on a smaller scale, says a lot for the engineering expertise that’s behind this rocket.

I’m hopeful that Blue Origin will continue being a little more public as, whilst they might be playing with the big boys just yet, they’ve got all the makings of yet another great private space company. The New Shepard is a fascinating design that has proven to be highly capable with its second test flight and I have no doubt that multiple more are scheduled for the near future. It will be very interesting to see if the design translates well to their proposed Very Big Brother design as that could rocket (pun intended) them directly into competition with SpaceX.

It certainly is a great time to be a space nut.

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Ancient Mars’ Earth-like Atmosphere Stripped by our Sun.

Mars is the most studied planet other than our own, currently playing host to no less than 7 different craft currently operating both in orbit and on its surface. It’s of interest to us due to its similarity to Earth, giving us an insight into how certain processes can affect planets differently. Mars is also the easiest of our sister planets to explore, being relatively close and having an atmosphere that won’t outright destroy craft that dare land on it. Still for all that research it still manages to surprise us, most recently by revealing the fact that liquid water still flows on it. We’re still far from done with it however and the MAVEN craft has just revealed some key insights into Mars’ atmosphere and the history behind its current state.

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Mars’ atmosphere is extremely thin, over 100 times less dense than the atmosphere here on Earth. To put that in perspective that’s about the same density as the air here is on Earth at an altitude of about 30KM, or about 3 times as high as your typical jet airliner flies. It’s also almost all carbon dioxide with a small smattering of nitrogen and other trace elements. However it wasn’t always this way as numerous studies have revealed that it must have held a much thicker atmosphere in the past. What has remained something of a mystery is just how Mars came to lose its atmosphere and whether those same processes were in effect today. MAVEN, a craft specifically designed to figure this out, has made some key discoveries and it seems that the long held belief that the sun is to blame is true.

For a planet to lose its atmosphere there’s really only two places it can go. In some cases the planet itself can absorb the atmosphere, driving chemical reactions that pull all the gases down into more solid forms. This specific scenario was investigated on Mars however the lack of the kinds of minerals we’d expect to see, mostly carbonates given Mars’ mostly carbon dioxide atmosphere, means that this was unlikely to be the case. The second way is for it to lose the atmosphere to the vacuum of space which can happen in a number of ways, usually through the planet being unable to hold onto its atmosphere. This latter theory has proved to be correct although it’s far more interesting than Mars simply being too small.

In the past Mars would have looked a lot like Earth, a small blue marble wrapped in protective gases. Back then the core of Mars was still active, generating a magnetic field much like that on Earth. However, after a time, the core began to cool and the engine behind the giant magnetic field began to fade. As this field weakened the solar wind began to erode the atmosphere, slowly stripping it away. Today Mars’ magnetic field is around 40 times weaker than Earth’s, no where near enough to stop this process which is still continuing to this day. For Mars it seems that its diminutive core was what sealed its fate, unable to sustain its protective magnetic shield from the relentless torment of our sun.

Whilst this has been the prevailing theory for some time its good to get confirmation from hard data to support it. Our two closest solar relatives, Venus and Mars, provide insights into how planets can develop and what changes produce what outcomes. Knowing things like this helps us to understand our own Earth and what impacts our behaviour might have on it. Mars might not ever see its atmosphere again but at least we now know what it might have looked like once, and where it has gone.

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Congress Passes Bill to Continue Support of Private Space Industry.

The last decade and a half has seen an explosion in the private space industry. We’ve seen multiple new companies started many of which have now flown successful missions to the International Space Station. This is partly due to the regulatory framework that the USA adopted to spur on the private space industry as previously it was impenetrable for all but a few giant multinationals. Today congress passed a bill that ensures this regulatory framework can continue as is for some time whilst also providing a few provisions that will see a few major space projects continue for a while longer. In short it means that the amazing progress we’ve seen from the private space industry is likely to continue for at least the next decade.

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Up until 2004 building and flying your own spacecraft (within the USA) was effectively illegal. Provisions were then made to allow commercial space flights by adopting a “learning period”, essentially preventing the FAA from enforcing flight regulations on private space companies. Whilst this doesn’t make them exempt from any law, ostensibly this transfers the responsibility onto any participants in private space flights, it does give private space companies the room they need to develop their technologies. That period was set to end next year however the recently passed bill will extend that for another 7 years before the Department of Transportation takes over and begins to fully regulate the industry.

There’s also further provisions for ensuring that private space companies can compete and innovate without unnecessary burdens. The first provision is the extension of the indemnification of commercial launches, essentially a risk sharing framework that ensures US based private space companies can compete with overseas launches. There’s also a directive to several government agencies to develop the proper oversight framework for commercial space activities. This will mean a formalization of the many ad-hoc processes that are currently used and should hopefully mean a reduction in some of the headaches that private space companies currently face.

Probably the biggest bit of news out of this bill however was the provision for extending the USA’s involvement in the International Space Station to 2024, a 4 year extension over the current mission time frame. The last time the deadline was extended was 6 years ago and nearly everyone thought that would be the end of it since that matched the originally intended lifespan of the station. Without a replacement forthcoming (Tiangong doesn’t count) this gives us a little more breathing room to come up with a replacement or better plan for the future of our only manned space station.

One interesting provision, and one I’m sure Planetary Resources is excited about, is the establishment of legal rights to resources recovered from space by a private entity. Essentially this means that if you were to say, mine an asteroid and send its resources down to Earth, you now have the same legal rights over them as you would if you mined them here. There’s also a directive in there for the president to pursue off-world resource exploration and recovery which will likely mean increased focus in this space. It’s still something of a nascent industry so it’s good to see it getting recognition at this level.

Of course all of this comes without additional budgetary measures for NASA et. al. to meet these goals however it does lay a firm groundwork for more funding to be put aside. Hopefully when the next budget rolls around these additional objectives will be taken into consideration as otherwise it could just end up putting more strain on NASA’s current projects. For the private space industry however it means a long extension for the conditions they’ve enjoyed over the past decade, conditions which have seen amazing progress. Hopefully the next decade is just as good as the first.