Archive for September, 2017

Chinese cargo spacecraft completes automated fast-docking with space lab.
Credit: CCTV

China’s intent to put in place a permanent space station in the 2020’s was bolstered late Tuesday by an automated fast-docking between the Tianzhou-1 cargo ship and the uncrewed Tiangong-2 space lab.

According to China’s Xinhua news agency, this third docking between the two craft took six and a half hours. Two previous dockings took about two days.

The Tianzhou-1 supply ship was lofted on April 20 of this year. It performed the first and second docking with the orbiting Tiangong-2 space lab on April 22 and June 19, respectively.

China’s cargo ship right approaches Tiangong-2 space lab in artist’s view.
Credit: CMSE

Refueling ahead

The cargo spacecraft will conduct the third refueling of the space lab before nose-diving to Earth.

Tiangong-2 has been orbiting Earth since launch on September 15, 2016.

As Xinhua explains, China is the third country, after Russia and the United States, to master refueling techniques in space, “which is crucial in the building of a permanent space station.”

Credit: CCTV

Visitation rights at Mars Society’s Desert Research Station in Utah.
Credit: IKEA

The world’s largest furniture retailer, IKEA, has turned its eyes to the skies and is delving into “space pod” furnishings – such as creature comforts within a Mars habitat.

IKEA specialists spent three days at the Utah-situated Mars Desert Research Station, a program created and managed by The Mars Society. The IKEA idea is to explore how spaceship thinking can be applied to tiny apartments in mega cities around the world.

Creative Leader at IKEA, Michael Nikolic, heading into the Desert Research Station habitat.
Credit: IKEA

Boundaries and restraints

Marcus Engman, Design Manager at IKEA Range and Supply, explains: “Small space living is a fact in space and we want to learn from that as this is a reality to more and more people. We are curious to see what makes a space travel homey, what boundaries and restraints you need to work with and bring that knowledge into our product development…to use space knowledge for a better everyday life on Earth.”

According to IKEA, for the first time in history, more people live in cities than in the countryside. Another data point comes from the United Nations that says this number will be 70 percent in 2050.

Therefore, urban challenges such as small living spaces will lead to changes in the home, IKEA’s website explains. “Already today downsizing and micro living is a reality in big cities. Hence, more people are and will be in need of new solutions for their homes.”

Architect and expert in spaceport planning, Constance Adams.
Credit: IKEA


Life on Earth

In human space travel, small spaces are at the max by necessity.

IKEA saw the space connection as a way to learn what scientists and engineers are considering for spaceflight to Mars, and apply the lessons learned to products and methods for everyday life at home, here on Earth.

Credit: IKEA

“When you design for life in a space craft or planetary surface habitat on Mars, you need to be creative yet precise, find ways to repurpose things and think carefully about sustainability aspects,” says Michael Nikolic, creative leader at IKEA Range and Supply. “With urbanization and environmental challenges on Earth, we need to do the same.”

Sketching out the future.
Credit: IKEA




Curious collection

IKEA designers are now sketching out how best to solve the interior of the Mars habitat, drawing upon their expertise and visiting the Mars Desert Research Station to make an extraterrestrial home feel like home to people, even if it is on the Red Planet.



The organization says they’ll be unveiling their “curious collection on Space” in 2019.

BTW: Interesting factoid: IKEA is derived from founder’s initials and hometown – Ingvar Kamprad Elmtaryd Agunnaryd.


Check out this IKEA furniture for space video at:

Also, go to IKEA’s informative website on the Mars habitat research and other efforts at:

Credit: ESA/NASA



China’s blossoming robotic moon exploration agenda appears to be in a state of flux. Due to a July launch failure of the country’s most powerful rocket on its second flight, the Long March 5, a readjustment of China’s lunar program is seemingly underway.

Apollo 15 image captures landing locale of China’s Chang’e-5 Moon lander – the Mons Rümker region in the northern part of Oceanus Procellarum.
Credit: NASA






There are consistent and bubbling rumors from inside and outside China that a Chang’e-5 sample return moon mission is now on months, perhaps years of hold. Instead, next up would be a planned lunar lander and rover to plop down on the lunar farside in 2018. That spacecraft would be hurled moonward on a different booster, not a Long March-5. All this would be prelude to China’s already stated intent to dispatch moon missions to lunar polar sites.

China’s Chang’e 3 lander.
Chinese Academy of Sciences/China National Space Administration/The Science and Application Center for Moon and Deepspace Exploration






Scientific bonanza

The apparently delayed Chang’e-5 moon sampling task is surely a tougher-to-do enterprise – but primed to offer a big and globally recognized scientific bonanza.






Go to my new Scientific American story for details:

China’s Delayed Moon Mission Sparks Debate over Lunar Samples

The Chang’e 5 spacecraft could return invaluable new moon rocks to Earth, but who will get to study them?

Curosity Navcam Left B image acquired on Sol 1811, September 9, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


NASA’s Curiosity rover has just entered Sol 1812 operations on Mars.

The robot is exploring part of Vera Rubin Ridge.

Curiosity Front Hazcam Right B image taken on Sol 181, September 9, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Images taken by the rover show more rock and less soil. Some of the pebbles are relatively well rounded. The rock face up ahead is smooth and will mean easier driving.

Here are several new images indicating Curiosity is busily at work with its robotic arm outstretched. The rover’s Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam) instrument fires a laser and analyzes the elemental composition of vaporized materials.

Curiosity Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) photo taken on Sol 1811, September 9, 2017. MAHLI is located on the turret at the end of the rover’s robotic arm.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Curiosity ChemCam Remote Micro-Imager photo acquired on Sol 1810, September 8, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL

Planetary prowler – the NASA Mars 2020 rover – scouring the Red Planet to select samples for eventual return to Earth.
Credit: NASA/JPL


A battleground of debate is brewing regarding the search for life on Mars.

The crux of the discussion is whether or not planetary protection rules are stifling our exploratory space missions.

Special regions

Last month, in the August 11 issue of Science, staff writer Paul Voosen wrote about the fear of microbial taint that curbs Mars explorers.

NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE image of recurring slope lineae in Melas Chasma, Valles Marineris. Arrows point out tops and bottoms of a few lineae.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

In summary, the Science story explains: “In the coming years, NASA’s Curiosity rover will pass rocks on Mars that, seen from orbit, seem to host mysteriously intermittent dark streaks – perhaps marking seasonal water seeps that could host martian life. But NASA’s planetary protection office, charged with keeping earthly microbes from colonizing other bodies, has said it may nix a visit. It fears that Curiosity could contaminate this so-called special region because the rover was not fully sterilized before launch.”

Primed for a shakeup

The Science article summary explains that “many planetary scientists, however, believe that now is the time to loosen restrictions on visiting these areas, before human exploration contaminates the planet. And, after years of stasis, the planetary protection office seems primed for a shakeup, thanks to an internal move and potential change in leadership, along with outside review of its policies by independent scientists.”

Mars expedition probes the promise that Mars was home address for past, and possibly life today.
Credit: NASA


Humans on Mars: trouble ahead

Kicking up Mars dust on the topic is a forum article that has just been published in the journal Astrobiology. Lead author is Alberto G. Fairén, a visiting scientist at Cornell University.

Co-authors of the article are Victor Parro of the Centro de Astrobiologı´a (CSIC-INTA), Madrid, Spain; Dirk Schulze-Makuch of the Center of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Technical University Berlin, Berlin, Germany; and Lyle Whyte of the Department of Natural Resource Sciences, McGill University, Que´bec, Canada.

Titled “Searching for Life on Mars Before It Is Too Late” makes the case that planetary protection policies as we conceive them today “will no longer be valid as human arrival will inevitably increase the introduction of terrestrial and organic contaminants and that could jeopardize the identification of indigenous Mars life.”

Advocated in the article is need for a reassessment over the relationships between robotic searches, paying increased attention to proactive astrobiological investigation and sampling of areas more likely to host indigenous life, and fundamentally doing this in advance of crewed missions to Mars.

NASA’s Curiosity rover is now exploring Gale Crater/Mt. Sharp area since August 2012.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Wanted: twofold change of strategy

The forum article adds that “if we, the Mars community, are truly committed to determine whether life ever existed or still exists on Mars, we propose here a twofold change of strategy.”

  • First – allow immediate access to the Special Regions for vehicles with the cleanliness level of Curiosity, Mars2020, or Europe’s ExoMars.
  • Second – existing laboratory robotic technology must be made flight ready in the search for biochemical evidence of life, and in particular, the development of robotic nucleic acid sequencing instrumentations for future in situ detection and/or sample return.

This forum article is sure to ripple through the astrobiology community, the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) engaged in setting guidelines for planetary protection, as well as officials in planetary protection in the U.S. and in other countries.

To read this open access article in Astrobiology, Volume 17, Number 10, 2017, go to:

Curiosity Front Hazcam Right B image taken on Sol 1810, September 8, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


Now in Sol 1811, the Curiosity Mars rover has wheeled up to the steepest part of Vera Rubin Ridge that it will encounter along its climb and has unobstructed views across the lowlands of Gale crater to the rear of the rover.

The scene is improving as the air becomes clearer heading into the colder seasons, reports Roger Wiens, a geochemist at the Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico. He is the Principal Investigator for Curiosity’s Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam) instrument.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

This Curiosity Navcam Right B image from Sol 1807 captures a cliff face just to the left of the rover. The image is tilted due to the to the unusually high 15.5 degree tilt of the rover as it climbs the ridge. Part of Mount Sharp is in the background.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech



New map

Meanwhile, a new Curiosity traverse map through Sol 1809 has been issued showing the route driven by the rover since landing in August 2012.

Numbering of the dots along the line indicate the sol number of each drive. North is up. The scale bar is 1 kilometer (~0.62 mile).

From Sol 1807 to Sol 1809, Curiosity had driven a straight line distance of about 28.90 feet (8.81 meters), bringing the rover’s total odometry for the mission to 10.79 miles (17.36 kilometers).

Curiosity Rear Hazcam Right B image acquired on Sol 1810, September 8, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The base image from the map is from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment Camera (HiRISE) in NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Curiosity Mastcam Right image taken on Sol 1809, September 7, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Curiosity Mastcam Left image acquired on Sol 1809, September 7, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Technicians tend Air Force X-37B space plane after tarmac touchdown.
Credit: U.S. Air Force

This one-day symposium on September 6, 2017 was hosted by the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) Aerospace Security Project.

As both the U.S. military’s dependence on space and the threats posed to space systems have grown, some in Congress and the space community have called for sweeping changes in how space forces are organized, trained, and supported within the military.

Both the House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2018 contain language that would significantly reorganize military space forces and authorities.

Credit: U.S. Air Force

Warfighting domain

The symposium explored how the military space enterprise should be organized given the increasing importance of space as a warfighting domain.

Speakers examined previous efforts to reorganize military space forces, problems that need to be addressed, and the pros and cons of different organizational models that have been tried in other parts of the military.

The Symposium agenda includes talks by Deborah Lee James, former Secretary of the Air Force and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), leading advocate for a Space Corps and General Robert Kehler, USAF (ret.).

To view the program, go to this video at:


Image showing where transits of our Solar System planets can be observed. Each line represents where one of the planets could be seen to transit, with the blue line representing Earth; an observer located here could detect us.
Credit: 2MASS /A. Mellinger/R. Wells


There are thousands of known exoplanets. That raises the question, is Earth under the watchful eye of other starfolk?

A group of scientists from Queen’s University Belfast and the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany have turned exoplanet-hunting on its head.

Their new study takes a look at how an alien observer might be able to detect Earth using methods now in use.

Transits of Earth

They find that at least nine exoplanets are ideally placed to observe transits of Earth, in the new research published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The team identified sixty-eight worlds where observers on those planets would see one or more of the planets in our Solar System transit the Sun.

Nine of these planets are ideally placed to observe transits of Earth. But none of the worlds are deemed to be habitable.

Undiscovered worlds

However, the research team estimated that there should be approximately ten (currently undiscovered) worlds that are favorably located to detect the Earth and are capable of sustaining life as we know it.

Still, to date, no habitable planets have been discovered from which a civilization could detect the Earth with our current level of technology.

Diagram of a planet (e.g. the Earth, blue) transiting in front of its host star (e.g. the Sun, yellow). Left: The lower black curve shows the brightness of the star noticeably dimming over the transit event, when the planet is blocking some of the light from the star. Right: How the transit zone of a Solar System planet is projected out from the Sun. The observer on the green exoplanet is situated in the transit zone and can therefore see transits of the Earth.
Credit: R. Wells

Best viewing

The team identified parts of the distant sky from where various planets in our Solar System could be seen to pass in front of the Sun – so-called ‘transit zones’ — concluding that the terrestrial planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars) are actually much more likely to be spotted than the more distant ‘Jovian’ planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune), despite their much larger size.

In a press statement, lead author Robert Wells, a PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast said: “Larger planets would naturally block out more light as they pass in front of their star. However the more important factor is actually how close the planet is to its parent star – since the terrestrial planets are much closer to the Sun than the gas giants, they’ll be more likely to be seen in transit.”

Future work

The team’s plans for future work include targeting transit zones to search for exoplanets, in the hopes of finding some which could be habitable.

The new work “Transit Visibility Zones of the Solar System Planets”, R. Wells, K. Poppenhaeger, C.A. Watson, R. Heller, is published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

A copy of the paper is available from:

U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine

President Trump’s nomination of Congressman James Bridenstine to lead NASA has sparked both praise and criticism from various quarters.

For example, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness said: “I applaud President Trump for nominating Rep. Jim Bridenstine to be the next NASA administrator,” the lawmaker said.

“I am confident that as the next NASA administrator, Jim will work hard to advance our national space policy goals, expand human space exploration and secure America’s leadership in space,” Cruz said.

Then there are comments from Florida’s senators Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Bill Nelson. They have questioned the nomination of Oklahoma Congressman Jim Bridenstine, explaining a “politician” shouldn’t lead the nation’s space program.

Space pedigree

“Mr. Bridenstine will advance the commercial space sector, often referred to as “new space,’” views Milton “Skip” Smith, co-chair of Sherman & Howard’s Space Law Practice. He is one of sixteen space industry leaders and lawyers on the Board of Directors of the International Institute of Space Law.

“Although he is sure to draw criticism from both parties due to his lack of a space ‘pedigree,’ he is one of the few people who can step into the NASA Administrator’s position and lead NASA further away from a large government bureaucracy and towards an organization that efficiently and effectively manages major space activities instead of doing them.”

NASA Administrator, James Webb.
Credit: NASA


Bridenstine as the next NASA Administrator “has raised questions about what qualifications are needed to serve in that position,” points out Marcia Smith of “Eleven men have served as Administrator of NASA since the agency was created in 1958. Some media sources are reporting that all of them had degrees in science or engineering or had served as an astronaut. That is not correct,” she explains.

Choice at hand

Noted Moon exploration expert, Paul Spudis, has also chimed in with thoughts on the job of NASA Administrator.

“To Senators Rubio and Nelson: Do you want a meaningful, productive and successful national space program? If so, you will support the President’s nomination of Jim Bridenstine for NASA Administrator,” Spudis suggests.

“However, if you are content with the debilitating and pointless status quo – the stagnation and withering of NASA – then it is understandable that you might want someone other than Jim Bridenstine at the helm. That is the choice at hand,” Spudis concludes.

NASA logo


Wanted: American space renaissance

Bridenstine is a former executive director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum & Planetarium and is author of the American Space Renaissance Act (H.R. 4945).

The mission of H.R. 4945 — The American Space Renaissance Act (ASRA) — is to permanently secure the United States as the preeminent spacefaring nation. The ASRA has three key objectives: Project military strength and protect our space based capabilities; provide certainty to encourage commercial space innovation; and promote stability, accountability, and mission clarity at NASA

Credit: NASA

Moon backer

Late last year, Bridenstine wrote a blog post, “Why the Moon Matters,” explaining that “from the discovery of water ice on the Moon until this day, the American objective should have been a permanent outpost of rovers and machines, with occasional manned missions for science and maintenance, in order to utilize the materials and energy of the Moon to drive down the costs and increase the capabilities of American operations in cis-lunar and interplanetary space.”

To read that post in full Moon status, go to:

To take a look at H.R.4945 – The American Space Renaissance Act, go to:

Also, go to:

Reading matters

As the Bridenstine nomination moves forward through Congress, here’s a collection of items worth a read:

  • Will Thomas of FYI from the American Institute of Physics: “NASA Nominee Jim Bridenstine Has Bold Vision for Space, Unclear Intentions for Science” Go to:

  • Marcia Smith of has created a new fact sheet summarizing the educational background and professional experience of previous NASA Administrators. Go to:

  • Marc Caputo of Politico: “Rubio, Nelson blast Trump’s NASA pick” Go to:

  • Paul Spudis essay: Thoughts on the job of NASA Administrator” Go to:




The Moon as seen from the International Space Station, taken by ESA British astronaut, Tim Peake.
Credit: NASA/ESA

A House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held today “Private Sector Lunar Exploration.”

The hearing’s purpose focused on NASA support of private sector exploration of the Moon through various programs.

The private sector is also investing their own funding in the hopes of serving a future market for transportation, cargo delivery, and surface operations – including on-the-spot resource utilization.

Cargo carrying Peregrine lander.
Credit: Astrobotic

Missions being readied

For example:

  • Moon Express plans to launch a mission to the Moon later this year or early next year.
  • Astrobotic recently announced a mission in 2019.
  • Blue Origin disclosed its “Blue Moon” concept last spring.
  • The United Launch Alliance and SpaceX have also indicated plans to operate in cislunar space in the near-future.

The Hearing reviewed these efforts, and NASA’s role, in order to better understand the challenges and opportunities that they present.


Here are the hearing witnesses and their respective written testimony:

  • Jason Crusan, Director, Advanced Exploration Systems, NASA

  • Bob Richards, Founder and CEO, Moon Express, Inc.

  • John Thornton, Chief Executive Officer, Astrobotic Technology, Inc.

  • Bretton Alexander, Director of Business Development and Strategy, Blue Origin

  • George Sowers, Professor, Space Resources, Colorado School of Mines

A statement of Space Subcommittee Chairman Brian Babin (R-Texas) on private sector lunar exploration is available here at:

The cost of propellant if shipped from earth (blue) or sourced in space (green).
Credit: ULA/Sowers

To watch the hearing video, go to: