Archive for the ‘Space News’ Category

Credit: Boeing


The word from a global network of satellite watchers is that the secretive Air Force X-37B space plane on its Orbital Test Vehicle-5 (OTV-5) mission has been spotted.

OTV-5 ‘s flight began September 7, 2017, when the robotic spacecraft launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Chance sighting

Skywatcher Cees Bassa from The Netherlands reported a chance sighting of a bright satellite of unknown identity, observed early on April 11. He estimated a circular orbit of about 54.5 deg inclination and 220 miles (355 kilometers) altitude.

Bassa alerted the satellite observing network and others that this could be OTV-5.

The object seen had been observed last October by another satellite spotter, Russell Eberst in Edinburgh, United Kingdom, who had reported a satellite of similar brightness and similar orbit.

Credit: Boeing/screengrab

Close correlation

“I produced rough search elements, that proved too rough to recover the object,” said Ted Molczan, a Toronto-based satellite analyst. “I found, with very slight tweaks, the preliminary orbit that Cees had posted could be made to fit both his and Russell’s observations,” he told Inside Outer Space.

Bassa noted the close correlation of the orbit with the launch of OTV-5.

Meanwhile, another satellite tracker, Marco Langbroek, also in The Netherlands, made note that the U.S. Air Force had earlier announced that the inclination of OTV-5 would be the highest of the series to-date.

“The fifth OTV mission will also be launched into, and landed from, a higher inclination orbit than prior missions to further expand the X-37B’s orbital envelope,” explained the Air Force in a pre-launch statement.

This orbit also passes very close, within 2 degrees longitude from Cape Canaveral, at the time of the OTV-5 launch. “Looks like a pretty probable identification,” Langbroek reports.

Ground track

“Cees recovered the object, which can now be identified beyond reasonable doubt as OTV-5,” Molczan said. “As Cees cautions, further tracking may reveal a bit more eccentric orbit, but the mean altitude is about 355 kilometers, and the inclination is close to 54.5 degrees.”

“I estimate that the ground track nearly repeats at intervals of about 31 revolutions, or about two days,” Molczan explains. “Similar behavior has been seen during portions of all previous OTV missions. If it carries an imaging payload, then the orbit affords frequent revisit of targets, but it could serve some other operational purpose that I cannot guess.”

The U.S. Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle 4 is seen after landing at NASA ‘s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility in Florida on May 7, 2017.
Credit: U.S. Air Force courtesy photo

Rapid space access

When OTV-5 will return to Earth is anybody’s guess. The X-37B program completed its fourth mission on May 7, 2017, landing after 718 days in orbit and extending the program’s total number of days spent in orbit to 2,085.

The Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office is running the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle program.

“The fifth OTV mission continues to advance the X-37B’s performance and flexibility as a space technology demonstrator and host platform for experimental payloads,” explained the Air Force in its pre-launch statement. “This mission carries small satellite ride shares and will demonstrate greater opportunities for rapid space access and on-orbit testing of emerging space technologies.”

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle mission 4 (OTV-4), the Air Force’s robotic reusable space plane landed at the NASA Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility May 7, 2017.
Credit: USAF

Many firsts

The current mission is hosting the Air Force Research Laboratory Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader payload to test experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipe technologies in the long duration space environment.

“The many firsts on this mission make the upcoming OTV launch a milestone for the program,” said Randy Walden, the director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office. “It is our goal to continue advancing the X-37B OTV so it can more fully support the growing space community,” prior to the space plane’s liftoff.

For more details on this current mission, go to my earlier story:

Secretive X-37B Military Space Plane Wings Past 200 Days in Orbit

April 6, 2018 05:17pm ET

Also, Boeing, the maker of the robotic Air Force X-37B space plane, issued this video as prelude to the program’s Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV-5) mission.

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Credit: EDF/TED Talks

The Environmental Defense Fund is eyeing its own satellite – MethaneSAT — to collect data from around the world about methane pollution and make it publicly available. Doing so would allow companies, governments, investors, and concerned citizens to target pollution control efforts where they’re most needed.

According to the EDF, cutting methane emissions is the fastest, cheapest thing that can be done to slow the rate of warming today, even as we continue to attack carbon dioxide emissions.

A 45% reduction in methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by 2025 would deliver the same 20-year climate benefit as closing one-third of the world’s coal-fired power plants, notes the EDF.

Single-purpose platform

“Our new MethaneSAT will help empower this generation of environmental advocates by providing global high-resolution coverage of methane emissions,” according to EDF. “As a single-purpose platform, it will be quicker and less expensive to launch than the complex multifunction satellites built by government space agencies, so we can get data sooner.”

To make MethaneSAT turn into reality, Tom Ingersoll, a leading satellite entrepreneur with three decades of experience, has been hired to manage the project. Also, they have partnered with Harvard University and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory to get the science right.

MethaneSAT, shown in an artist’s rendering, aims to use new technology to map and measure human-made emissions globally, to help reduce methane pollution.
Credit: EDF

Why focus on methane?

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas. Human-made methane emissions account for a quarter of today’s global warming. Also, one of the leading sources of those emissions is the oil and gas industry.

To fully understand the problem – and drive the solutions – more and better data is required about: How large methane emissions are; Where they’re coming from; The biggest potential reductions; Progress of those reductions over time.

MethaneSAT will provide global high-resolution coverage, exceeding anything in orbit or on the drawing board today.

EDF President Fred Krupp announced this new initiative in a recent TED Talk that can be viewed here:

Reps. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.) and Mary Lynne Dittmar, president and CEO, Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, speak during the POLITICO Space Launch Event.


Last year, President Donald Trump signed an executive order reviving the National Space Council to help fuel a new space economy and harness government and private investments to return humans to the moon and on to Mars.

POLITICO staged on April 12 a deep-dive conversation about what the National Space Council has accomplished so far – and how Congress and the Administration can work together with industry – to ensure U.S. supremacy in the new space race.

Scott Pace, Executive Secretary of the National Space Council.
Credit: POLITICO/Screengrab

Expert panels

The event began with a conversation with Scott Pace, Executive Secretary of the National Space Council. Another panel featured Reps. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.) and Mary Lynne Dittmar, president and CEO, Coalition for Deep Space Exploration.

Also featured during the event was a conversation between Dennis Muilenburg, Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer of The Boeing Company and Robert Allbritton, Publisher and Executive Chairman of POLITICO to discuss strategic priorities of the aerospace industry.



Weekly briefing

This gathering marked the launch of POLITICO Space, the weekly briefing on the policies, programs, and personalities shaping the second Space Age in Washington, D.C. and beyond.

To view the event, go to:

POLITICO Live is an extension of POLITICO’s journalism. We convene global thought- leaders and influential experts to discuss key issues, big ideas and trends playing out at the intersection of local, national and international policy and politics.

For more details on POLITICO Live, go to:



Curiosity Navcam Left B image acquired on Sol 2020,April 12, 2018.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is now performing Sol 2021 tasks.

Reports Ken Herkenhoff, a planetary geologist at the USGS in Flagstaff, Arizona, a top science priority for researchers working the rover is to acquire all of the data needed to adequately characterize the rocks at the current location before the robot drives away.

Curiosity Navcam Left B image taken on Sol 2020,April 12, 2018.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Recently discussed are priorities of various proposed observations, including a Right Mastcam mosaic of the arm workspace and surrounding area. Also on tap is use of the robot’s Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) Laser-induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS) targets, and a mosaic of the mid-field terrain toward the south.

Desired observations

“Fortunately, power modeling indicated that the pre-drive science block could be lengthened to 2 hours, which made it much easier to fit all of the desired observations into the plan,” Herkenhoff explains.

Curiosity Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) photo produced on Sol 2019, April 11, 2018.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

First, ChemCam will measure the elemental chemistry of four nearby rock targets: “Ledmore 2,” “Minginish,” “Askival 3,” and “Tyndrum 3.”

Minginish has already been examined by Curiosity’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) and the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS).

Variety of rocks

Then the Right Mastcam will take images of Askival 3 and Ledmore 2, as well as a 9×1 mosaic of “Lorne Plateau” (the area to the south), a large mosaic to provide complete coverage of the area in front of the rover, named “Bressay,” and a 3×3 mosaic of the “Jedburgh” area closer the rover toward the south.

Curiosity ChemCam Remote Micro-Imager photo taken on Sol 2020, April 12, 2018.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL

“All these data will give the science team plenty to think about as we try to better understand the variety of rocks at Bressay,” Herkenhoff notes. “We are transitioning into restricted planning again, so the drive away from Bressay is planned on Sol 2020.”

The drive target is a conglomerate rock named “Waternish.”

Curiosity Mastcam Right image acquired on Sol 2019. April 11, 2018.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Post-drive duties

After the drive, early on Sol 2021, Mastcam will measure the amount of dust in the atmosphere and Navcam will search for clouds. Later that sol, Navcam will search for dust devils and Mastcam will measure dust opacity again.

This is to be followed by ChemCam acquiring calibration data and will use special software to autonomously select and acquire LIBS data on a target in the new arm workspace.

Finally, Curiosity’s Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) will take an image of the ground under the rover during twilight, to sample the terrain once again, Herkenhoff concludes.

Chang’e-4 Moon lander and rover.

China is readying its Chang’e-4 lunar probe for liftoff later this year.

While attempting the first landing on the Moon’s far side – it’s got a “seedy side” too.

According to the state-run Xinhua news agency, the probe will carry a tin containing seeds of potato and arabidopsis, a small flowering plant related to cabbage and mustard. It may also tote along silkworm eggs to conduct the first biological experiment on the Moon.


This “lunar mini biosphere” experiment was designed by 28 Chinese universities, led by southwest China’s Chongqing University, The cylindrical tin, made from special aluminum alloy materials, weighs roughly 7 pounds (3 kilograms).

The tin also contains water, a nutrient solution, and air. A tiny camera and data transmission system allows researchers to keep an eye on the seeds and see if they blossom on the Moon.

Von Karman Crater as viewed by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera, or LROC.
Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

Long-term lunar residence

“We have to keep the temperature in the ‘mini biosphere’ within a range from 1 degree to 30 degrees, and properly control the humidity and nutrition. We will use a tube to direct the natural light on the surface of Moon into the tin to make the plants grow,” said Xie Gengxin, chief designer of the experiment, in the Xinhua story.

Added Liu Hanlong, chief director of the experiment and vice president of Chongqing University: “Our experiment might help accumulate knowledge for building a lunar base and long-term residence on the Moon.”

The Moon-bound mini biosphere experiment was selected from more than 200 submissions, according to the China National Space Administration (CNSA).

The Von Karman Crater in the Moon’s Aitken Basin is the anticipated landing site for Chang’e-4.

Credit: SWF

The Secure World Foundation (SWF) has issued a new report – Global Counterspace Capabilities: An Open Source Assessment – that focuses on space security.

“Over the last several years, there has been growing concern from multiple governments over the reliance on vulnerable space capabilities for national security, and the corresponding proliferation of offensive counterspace capabilities that could be used to disrupt, deny, degrade, or destroy space systems,” explains a SWF statement.

Global security

The impressive report of nearly a 150 pages is a compilation of publicly-available information for various countries developing counterspace capabilities across several categories: direct ascent, co-orbital, directed energy, electronic warfare, and cyber.

Included in the report are reviews of efforts by the People’s Republic of China, the Russian Federation, the United States, as well as the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Republic of India, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

“Our global society and economy is increasingly dependent on space capabilities,” explains SWF, “and a future conflict in space could have massive, long-term negative repercussions that are felt here on Earth.”

Editors of the document are: SWF’s Brian Weeden, Director of Program Planning and Victoria Samson, Washington, D.C. Office Director.

For the report, go to:

Support for a return to the Moon.
Photo Credit: NASA/GSFC

A letter signed by 72 leading lunar researchers from academia and the private sector has been sent to key congressional lawmakers in support of President Trump’s Space Policy Directive 1. That policy document refocuses NASA to rekindle human Moon exploration to enable eventual footprints on Mars.

“The U.S. lunar community is excited not only about the return to the Moon, but the new paradigm of private sector involvement that will begin to bring the Moon into our economic sphere of influence, while producing extremely significant lunar and Solar System science results,” Clive Neal, Professor in the Department of Civil Engineering & Geological Sciences at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, told Inside Outer Space.

Credit: NASA

Budget request

The grass roots effort is tied to gaining support for the FY 2019 Budget Request for NASA’s Lunar Exploration and Discovery Program.

Also advocated in the April 10 letter is a request to fully fund the ongoing Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) mission, and restore America’s technical capability to access the lunar surface and to once again lead lunar exploration.

U.S. President Donald Trump holds up the Space Policy Directive – 1 after signing it, directing NASA to return to the Moon, alongside members of the Senate, Congress, NASA, and commercial space companies in the Roosevelt room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Dec. 11, 2017.
Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

“With the proposed Lunar Exploration and Discovery Program, NASA, in coordination with American universities, research institutions, and commercial companies will be empowered to address decades-long objectives on the Moon,” the letter, in part, explains.

Prospect for resources

“The new Lunar Exploration and Discovery program will give the United States the chance to, at long last, systematically prospect for resources on the Moon’s surface,” the letter continues, “gather comprehensive new samples from all over the surface, explore lunar lava tubes, investigate magnetic anomalies, and address a long list of unanswered geophysical questions whose answers have deep implications for understanding formation of the Solar System and planetary science.”

China’s Chang’e 3 Moon lander, imaged by Yutu lunar rover.

Lunar lander market

The start of a new lunar program could not be more timely for the United States, the letter notes.

“China has ramped up its lunar science and exploration program as a precursor to human missions, and the U.S. must move quickly, starting with missions in 2020, to regain its historic lead in lunar science and exploration. Other countries, like Japan, have committed nearly $1 billion towards the development of a commercial lunar lander to compete with emerging American systems. It is vital for our future in space that we not cede the lunar lander market and leadership to other countries,” the letter explains.

Among the over 70 individuals signing the letter, Apollo 17’s Harrison Schmitt, as well as Bob Richards, head of the commercial Moon Express and Dan Hendrickson, vice president of business development for Astrobotic that is also offering lunar lander services.

To take a view of the actual letter, go to:

China space travelers, Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong, onboard Tiangong-2 space lab.
Credit: CCTV


As China’s space station era draws closer, the country’s astronauts are receiving comprehensive training to assure longer stints in space, as well as carry out space walking tasks for in-orbit assembly and repair of the station.

An April 8 China Central Television (CCTV) interview with Chen Dong – who flew on the Shenzhou 11 mission in October 2016 to board the Tiangong-2 space lab – detailed the challenges ahead. Chen said the space station era has set higher requirements for the astronauts.

Inside Tiangong-2 as crew members carry out experiments. Mission lasted 33-days.
Credit: CCTV

More tasks

“The manned space program has entered the space station era, which means that the astronauts will stay in space for a longer time with more tasks to be performed. This has set higher requirements for our physical condition, knowledge, mental status and skills, and brought more challenges,” Chen explained.

Putting in place China’s space station will offer many new challenges.
Credit: CCTV/screengrab

The missions for the space station, Chen said, will feature long in-orbit stays, regular extra-vehicular activities, in-orbit assembling and repair of the station, which means more challenges for the astronauts.

“For example, during the Shenzhou-11 mission, we spent 33 days in space. We may stay three months, or even half a year in our follow-on missions, with more extra-vehicular activities to assemble and maintain the space station. So with so many new situations and new changes, we have also improved our current trainings,” Chen told CCTV.

The Tianhe core module for China’s Space Station undergoes ground testing.
Credit: CCTV/Screengrab

Station technology

According to Chen, China’s astronauts have begun the study of space station technology, mechanical arms and extra-vehicular activities. They have also gone through diving training for adaptation, and intensified their strength and stamina training.

“So all of these are prepared for the space station. I think the change is newer knowledge, harder operation and higher requirements. But we have the confidence and capability to fulfill the tasks,” Chen said.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

New Curiosity traverse map through Sol 2017:

This map shows the route driven by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity through the 2017 Martian day, or sol, of the rover’s mission on the Red Planet (April 09, 2018).

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 2014 to Sol 2017, Curiosity had driven a straight line distance of about 16.34 feet (4.98 meters), bringing the rover’s total odometry for the mission to 11.60 miles (18.68 kilometers). The rover landed on Mars in August of 2012.

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

Meanwhile, the Mars robot is now carrying out Sol 2018 science duties.

Curiosity Front Hazcam Left B image acquired on Sol 2017, April 9, 2018.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Eclectic mix of targets

“An eclectic mix of rock targets has kept our team’s attention for another sol today,” reports Scott Guzewich, an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “The sheer number of possible science investigations led us to initially oversubscribing our science plan and thus needing to prioritize.

A full contact science sol is in the works to study targets “Hopeman” and “Askival”, “Tyndrum2” and “Ledmore.”

What is especially unusual about the plan, Guzewich adds, is use of the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) MAHLI’s to shine a (UV) light on the situation and image “Askival” after sunset. Also a depth profile at Askival is on tap.

Curiosity Navcam Right B photo taken on Sol 2017, April 9, 2018.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A depth profile, Guzewich explains, is where the rover’s Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) shoots its laser at the same spot 150 times to measure how the composition changes with depth into the rock or soil.

“Last, but certainly not least to me as the environmental science theme lead today, is to conduct a dust devil survey around local solar noon. We are seeing a great deal of dust devil activity lately with a noticeable increase over the last few weeks as we move closer to the start of southern hemisphere spring,” Guzewich concludes.


Credit: NASA


Take a virtual tour of the Moon in all-new 4K resolution, thanks to data provided by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) spacecraft.

This visualization moves around the near side, far side, north and south poles, highlighting interesting features, sites, and information gathered on the lunar terrain.

Music Provided By Killer Tracks: “Never Looking Back” – Frederick Wiedmann. “Flying over Turmoil” – Benjamin Krause & Scott Goodman.

This video comes courtesy of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Scientific Visualization Studio.

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Griffith Observatory Event