New Shepard Second Launch

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.

New Shepard Second Launch

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.


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.


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.

iss nasa congress

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.

iss nasa congress

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.

The Sun’s Serenity.

Our sun is an incredibly violent thing, smashing atoms together at an incredible rate that results in the outpouring of vast torrents of energy into our solar system. Yet from certain perspectives it takes on a serene appearance, its surface ebbing and flowing as particles trace out some of its vast magnetic field. Indeed that’s exactly what the following video shows: a gorgeous composition of imagery taken from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Whilst not all of us have the luxury of a 4K screen it’s still quite breathtaking to behold and definitely worth at least a few minutes of your time.

SDO has been in orbit for 5 years now keeping an almost unbroken eye on our parent star. Its primary mission is to better understand the relationship that our earth and the sun have, especially those which have a direct impact on daily life. To achieve this SDO is observing the sun in multiple wavelengths all at once (shown as different colours in this video) and on a much smaller timescale than previous craft have attempted. This has led to insights into how the sun generates its magnetic field, what it looks like and how the complex fusion processes influence the sun’s varying outputs like solar wind, energetic particles and variations in its solar output. Those images aren’t just rich with scientific data however as they showcase the sun’s incredible beauty.

So, how’s the serenity? 😉


Aliens and Exoplanets.

As far as we know right now we’re alone in the universe. However the staggering size of the universe suggests that life should be prevalent elsewhere and we (or they) have the unenviable task of tracking it (or us) down. We’re also not quite sure to look for as whilst we have solid ideas about our kind of life there’s no guarantees that they hold universally true across the galaxy. So when it comes to observing phenomena the last reason researchers should resort to is “aliens did it” as we simply have no way of verifying that was the case. It does make for some interesting speculation however like with the current wave of media hysteria surrounding KIC 8462852, or Tabby’s star as it’s more informally called.


KIC 8462852 was one of 145,000 stars that was being constantly monitored by the Kepler spacecraft, a space telescope that was designed to directly detect exoplanets. Kepler’s planet detection method relies on a planet transiting (I.E. passing in front of) its parent star during its observation period. When the planet does this it ever so slightly drops the brightness of the star and this can give us insights into the planet’s size, orbit and composition. This method has proven to be wildly successful with the number of identified exoplanets increasing significantly thanks to Kepler’s data. KIC 8462852 has proved particularly interesting however as its variation in brightness is way beyond anything we’ve witnessed elsewhere.

Indeed instead of the tiny dips we’re accustomed to seeing, an Earth-like planet around a main sequence star like ours produces a chance of about 84 parts per million, KIC 8462852 has dipped a whopping 15% and 22% on separate occasions. Typically this isn’t particularly interesting, there are many stars with varying output for numerous reasons, however KIC 8462852 is a F-type main sequence star which is very similar to ours (which is a G-type if you’re wondering). These don’t vary wildly in output and the scientists have ruled out issues with equipment and other potential phenomena so what we’re left with is a star with varying output with no great explanation. Whatever is blocking that light has to be huge, at least half the width of the star itself.

There are a few potential candidates to explain this, most notably a cloud of comets on an elliptical orbit that happens to transit our observation path. How that exactly came to be is anyone’s guess, and indeed it would be a rare phenomenon, but it’s looking to be the best explanation we currently have. A massive debris field has currently been ruled out due to a lack of infrared radiation, something which would be present due to the star heating the debris field. This has led to some speculation as to what could cause something like this to happen and some have looked towards intelligent life as the cause.

How could an alien race make a star’s output dip that significantly you ask? Well the theory goes that any sufficiently advanced civilization will eventually require the entire energy output of their star in order to fuel their activities. The only way to do that is to encase the star in a sphere (called a Dyson Sphere) in order to capture all of the energy that it releases. Such a megastructure couldn’t be built instantly however and so to an outside observer the star’s output would likely look weird as the structure was built around it. Thus KIC 8462852, with its wild fluctuations of output, could be in the process of being encased in one such structure for use by another civilization.

Of course such a hypothesis makes numerous leaps that are not supported by any evidence we currently have at our disposal. The research is thankfully focused on finding a more plausible explanation, something which we are capable of finding by engaging in further observations of this particular star. Should all these attempts fail to explain the phenomena, something which I highly doubt will happen, only then should we start toying with the idea that this is the work of some hyper-advanced alien civilization. Whilst the sci-fi nerd me wants to leap at the possibility of a Dyson sphere being built in our backyard I honestly can’t entertain an idea when I know there are so many other plausible options out there.

It is fun to dream, though.


NASA Detects Flowing Water on Mars.

We’ve known for some time that water exists in some forms on Mars. The Viking program, which consisted of both orbiter and lander craft, showed that Mars’ surface had many characteristics that must have been shaped by water. Further probes such as Mars Odyssey and the Phoenix Lander showed that much of the present day water that Mars holds is present at the poles, trapped in the vast frozen tundra. There’s been a lot of speculation about how liquid water could exist on Mars today however no conclusive proof had been found. That was until today when NASA announced it had proof that liquid water flows on Mars, albeit in a very salty form.


The report comes out of the Georgia Institute of Technology with collaborators from NASA’s Ames Research Center, Johns Hopkins University, University of Arizona and the Laboratoire de Planétologie et Géodynamique. Using data gathered from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter the researchers had identified that there were seasonal geologic features on Mars’ surface. These dark lines (pictured above) were dubbed recurring slope lineae would change over time, darkening and appearing to flow during the warmer months and then fading during the colder months. It has been thought for some time that these slopes were indicative of liquid water flows however there wasn’t any evidence to support that theory.

This is where the MRO’s Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) comes into play. This instrument was specifically designed to detect water on Mars by looking at varying wavelengths of light emitted from the planet’s surface. Once the target sites were identified CRISM was then pointed at them and their surface composition analysed. What was found at the RSL sites were minerals called hydrated salts which, when mixed with water, would lower the freezing point of the water significantly. Interestingly these hydrated salts were only detected in places were the RSL features were particularly wide as other places, where the RSLs were slimmer, did not show any signs of hydrated salts.

These salts, called perchlorates, have been seen before by several other Mars missions although they’ve never been witnessed in hydrated form before. These perchlorates can potentially keep water from freezing at temperatures down to -70°C. Additionally some of these perchlorates can be used in the manufacturing of rocket fuel, something which could prove to be quite valuable for future missions to Mars. Of course they’re likely not in their readily usable form, requiring some processing on site before they can be utilized.

Data like this presents many new opportunities for further research on Mars. It’s currently postulated that these RSLs are likely the result of a shallow subsurface flow which is wicking up to the surface when the conditions are warmer. If this is the case then these sites would be the perfect place for a rover to investigate as there’s every chance it could directly sample martian water at these sites. Considering that wherever we find liquid water on Earth we find life then there’s great potential for the same thing to happen on Mars. If there isn’t then that will also tell us a lot which means its very much worth investigating.

The Solar System to Scale.

Scale is something that’s hard to comprehend when it comes to celestial sized objects. The sheer vastness of space is so far beyond anything that we see in our everyday lives that it becomes incomprehensible. Yet in such scale I find perspective and understanding, knowing that the universe is far greater than anything going on in just one of its countless planets. To really grasp that scale though you have to experience it; to understand that even in our cosmic backyard the breadth of space is astounding. That’s just what the following video does:

Absolutely beautiful.


Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin Selects Cape Canaveral as Launch Site.

You’d be forgiven for not knowing that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos had founded a private space company. Blue Origin, as it’s known, isn’t one for the spotlight as whilst it was founded in 2000 (2 years before SpaceX) it wasn’t revealed publicly until some years later. The company has had a handful of successful test launches however, focusing primarily on the suborbital space with Vertical Takeoff/Vertical Landing (VTVL) capable rockets. Indeed their latest test vehicle, the New Shepard, was successfully launched at the beginning of this year. Outside of that though you’d be hard pressed to find out much more about Blue Origin however today they have announced that they will be launching from Cape Canaveral, using the SLC-36 complex which used to be used for the Atlas launch system.


It might not sound like the biggest deal however the press conference held for the announcement provided us some insight into the typically secretive company. For starters Blue Origins efforts have thus far been focused on space tourism, much like Virgin Galactic was. Indeed all their previous craft, including the latest New Shepard design, were suborbital craft designed to take people to the edge of space and back. This new launch site however is designed with much larger rockets in mind, ones that will be able to carry both humans and robotic craft alike into Earth’s orbit, putting them in direct competition with SpaceX and other private launch companies.

The new rocket, called Very Big Brother (pictured above), is slated to be Blue Origin’s first entry into the market. Whilst raw specifications aren’t yet forthcoming we do know that it will be based off Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine which is being co-developed with United Launch Alliance. This engine is slated to be the replacement for the RD-180 which is currently used as part of the Atlas-V launch vehicle. Comparatively speaking the engine is about half as powerful when compared to the RD-180, meaning that if the craft is similarly designed to the Atlas-V it’s payload will be somewhere in the 4.5 to 9 tonne range to LEO. Of course this could be wildly different to what they’re planning and we likely won’t know much more until the first craft launches.

Interestingly the craft is going to retain the VTVL capability that its predecessors had. This is interesting because no sizeable craft has that capability. SpaceX has been trying very hard to get it to work with the first stages of their Falcon-9 however they have yet to have a successful landing yet. Blue Origin likely won’t beat SpaceX to the punch on this however but it’s still interesting to see other companies adopting similar strategies in order to make their rockets reusable.

Also of note is the propellant that the rocket will use for the BE-4 engine. Unlike most rockets, which either run on liquid hydrogen/liquid oxeygen or RP-1(kerosene)/liquid oxygen the BE-4 will use natural gas and liquid oxygen. Indeed it has only been recently that methane has been considered as a viable propellant as I could not find an example of a mission that has flown using the fuel. However there must be something to it as SpaceX is going to use it for their forthcoming Raptor engines.

I’m starting to get the feeling that Blue Origin and SpaceX are sharing a coffee shop.

It’s good to finally get some more information out of Blue Origin, especially since we now know their ambitions are far beyond that of suborbital pleasure junkets. They’re entering a market that’s now swarming with competition however they’ve got both the capital and strategic relationships to at least have a good go at it. I’m very interested to see what they do at SLC-36 as more competition in this space is a good thing for all concerned.


New Antenna Design Could Vastly Improve Mars Rover Communications.

The way we get most of the scientific data back from the rovers we currently have on Mars is through an indirect method. Currently there are four probes orbiting Mars (Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and MAVEN) all of which contain communications relays, able to receive data from the rovers and then retransmit it back to Earth. This has significant advantages, mostly being that the orbiters have longer periods with which to communicate with Earth. Whilst all the rovers have their own direct connections back to Earth they’re quite limited, usually several orders of magnitude slower. Whilst current rovers won’t have their communication links improved for future missions having a better direct to Earth link could prove valuable, something which researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) have started to develop.


The design is an interesting one essentially being a flat panel of phased antenna array elements using a novel construction. The reasoning behind the design was that future Mars rover missions, specifically looking towards the Mars 2020 mission, would have constraints around how big of an antenna it could carry. Taking this into account, along with the other constraint that NASA typically uses X-band for deep space communications like this, the researchers came up with the design to maximise the gain of the antenna. The result is this flat, phased array design which, when tested in a prototype 4 x 4 array, closely matched their simulated performance metrics.

With so many orbiters around Mars it might seem like a better direct to Earth communications relay wouldn’t be useful however there’s no guarantees that those relays will always be available. Currently mission support for most of those orbiters is slated to end in the near future with the furthest one out slated for decommissioning in 2024 (MAVEN). Since there’s a potential new rover slated to land sometime in 2020, and since we know how long these things can last once they’ve landed, having better on board communications might become crucial to the ongoing success of the mission. Indeed should any of the other rovers still be functioning at that time the new rover may have to take on board the relay responsibilities and that would demand a much better antenna design.

There’s still more research to be done with this particular prototype, namely scaling it up from its current 4 x 4 design to the ultimate 16 x 16 panel. Should the design prove to scale as expected then there’s every chance that you might see an antenna based on this design flying with an orbiter in the near future. I’m definitely keen to see how this progresses as, whilst it might have the singular goal of improving direct to Earth communications currently, the insights gleaned from this design could lead to better designs for all future deep space craft.


Information Might Not be Lost to Black Holes, Hawking Posits.

Black holes are a never ending source of scientific intrigue. They form when a star of appropriate mass, approximately 5 to 10 times the mass of our own star, reaches the end of its life and begins to fuse heavier and heavier elements. At this stage the outward pressure exerted by those fusion reactions cannot overcome the gravity from its mass and it slowly begins to collapse inwards. Eventually, in a calamitous event known as a supernova, it shrinks down to a point mass of infinite density and nothing, not even light, can escape its gravitational bounds. Properties like that mean black holes do very strange things, most of which aren’t explained adequately by current models of our universe. One such thing is called the Information Paradox which has perplexed scientists for as long as the idea as black holes has been around.


The paradox stems from the interaction between general relativity (Einstein’s description of gravity as a property of spacetime) and quantum mechanics (the processes that affect atoms, photons and other particles). Their interaction suggests that physical information about anything that crosses the black hole’s event horizon could be destroyed. The problem with this is that it violates the generally held idea that if we have information about a system in one point in time we should be able to determine its state at any point in time. Put simply it means that, when you’re looking at a black hole, if something falls into it you have no way of determining when that happened because the information is destroyed.

However renown physicist Stephen Hawking, whose work on black holes is so notable that one feature of them (Hawking Radiation) is named after him, has theorized that the information might not be lost at all. Instead of the information being lost or stored within the black hole itself Hawking states that the information is stored as a super-translation (or a hologram, a 2D representation of 3D data) in the event horizon. Whilst for all practical purposes this means that the information is lost, I.E. you likely wouldn’t be able to reconstruct the system state prior to the particles crossing the event horizon, it would solve the paradox.

The idea might not be as radical as you first think as other researchers in the area, like Gerard t’Hooft (who was present at the conference where Hawking presented this idea), have been exploring similar ideas in the same vein. There’s definitely a lot of research to be done in this area, mostly to see whether or not the idea can be supported by current models or whether it warrants fundamental changes. If the idea holds up to further scrutiny then it’ll solve one of the most perplexing properties of black holes but there are still many more that await.