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NASA is conducting pioneering research into flying taxis
by Paul Hill
NASA has announced that it has begun trials with Joby Aviation’s all-electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft. The flight testing is being done under the space agency’s Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) National Campaign and will run until September 10 at Joby’s Electric Flight Base near Big Sur, California. The work being done by NASA now could unlock flying taxis as a means of transport in the not-too-distant future.
With these flight tests, NASA is collecting data about the vehicle’s performance and acoustics. This data will be used for modelling and simulation of how this technology could be used on a wide scale in the future and will help to highlight any gaps in the Federal Aviation Administration’s regulations. Plugging these regulatory gaps will ensure flying taxis can take to the skies in the years to come.
Commenting on the news, Davis Hackenberg, NASA AAM mission integration manager, said:
As an end result, NASA wants to see AAM providing an efficient and affordable system for passenger and cargo transportation that’s fully compatible with FAA regulations. It would enable applications such as flying taxis, package delivery drones, and medical transport vehicles. NASA said that the testing campaign will run for several years at different locations before aircraft are ready for prime time.
TWIRL 25: SpaceX getting closer to Starship orbital mission
by Paul Hill
Before we get onto next weeks launches, it's worth mentioning that SpaceX just took another big step with its Starship rocket yesterday. While no launches were performed as we’ve seen in the last couple of months, the company did finally stack the upper stage, called Starship, to the lower stage dubbed Super Heavy.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk posted images of the rocket at various stages throughout the stacking process and none of them really allow you to appreciate just how tall the rocket stands. Once stacked, Starship stands at around 120 metres which is taller than the 111 metre Saturn V rocket which NASA used to send men to the Moon decades ago.
Tuesday, August 10
This week, there are just two launches. The first takes place on Tuesday at 9:56 p.m. UTC from Wallops Island, Virginia. A Northrop Grumman Antares 230+ will launch a Cygnus spacecraft, once in space, Cygnus, which will be carrying operational cargo, will make its way to the International Space Station. The launch should be available on NASA’s YouTube livestream.
Thursday, August 12
The second and final launch of the week is the GSLV Mk.II rocket carrying Earth Observation Satellite 3 (EOS 3) into orbit. We have mentioned this mission several times in the past but it has suffered several delays. The satellites will be in geostationary orbit over the Indian subcontinent and will monitor natural hazards and disasters that will be able to assist government responses to incidents. You can learn more about the mission over on the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) website.
Last week were expecting United Launch Alliance to send up the Starliner spacecraft but this launch was delayed even though the rocket was put in place on the launchpad.
A Long March 6 rocket delivering two KL microsats into orbit for the Shanghai Engineering Center was also launched. These geostationary satellites will help test laser communications, electric thruster technology, and new interference suppression technology for Ka-band mobile communication satellites.
A Long March 3B successfully launched the Zhongxing 2E satellite which will be used for military communications.
Finally, NASA performed another test of the Space Launch System’s RS-25 engine.
Jeff Bezos gives NASA an offer it can't refuse to win the moon mission contract
by Chandrakant Isi
In Godfather-like fashion, billionaire Jeff Bezos has made NASA an offer it can't refuse. In a bid to secure a manned lunar lander mission for Blue Origin, its Founder who also happens to be the wealthiest man on the planet has offered to waive $2 billion of payments.
For those not in the know, this is a reaction to NASA's decision to award a $2.9 billion lunar lander contract to Elon Musk's SpaceX. Blue Origin has already managed to put this program on hold by filing a complaint with the Government Accountability Office (GOA) claiming favorable treatment to SpaceX.
In a letter to NASA's Administrator, Bill Nelson, Bezos emphasizes how "meaningful competition" is crucial to take the Americans back to the moon, perhaps making you wonder how he feels about Amazon's monopoly in e-commerce. Bezos highlights that in April, only SpaceX was given a chance to revise their pricing, which led to their selection. The billionaire called it a "mistake" but stated it is "not too late to remedy".
As a solution, Bezos has offered to waive payments of up to $2 billion. Mind you, it is not like Amazon Buy Now, Pay Later scheme. As mentioned in the letter, it is an outright and permanent waiver of those payments. Blue Origin is willing to accept a fixed-price contract and will take care of any cost overruns.
Bezos believes that his offer takes care of "NASA's near term budgetary issues". As a result, the space agency can now afford to go ahead with the "dual-source" strategy for the Artemis program.
NASA and Bezos' rival billionaire Elon Musk, have not yet commented on this offer. It will be interesting to see if $2 billion are enough to influence a decision at the most prolific space agency in the world.
SpaceX to fly NASA's reconnaissance mission to Jovian moon Europa
by Chandrakant Isi
Elon Musk's SpaceX has bagged another contract from NASA. The private space exploration company has been awarded approximately $178 million to fly the upcoming Europa Clipper mission on its Falcon Heavy rocket. That's significantly cost effective compared to NASA's in-house Space Launch System (SLS) that burns around $2 billion per launch. The Europa Clipper mission is expected to take off in 2024 from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Europa is one of the most fascinating heavenly bodies in our solar system. The Jovian moon has been on the radar of astronomers due to the vast ocean underneath its icy shell. It is one of the most likely places in our solar system to harbor life as we know it. Hence, NASA has been planning the Europa Clipper mission to closely study this Jovian moon and scout for possible landing sites for future lander missions.
The Europa Clipper spacecraft will be equipped with several instruments to study if this icy moon harbors conditions suitable for life. The reconnaissance mission will focus on capturing high-resolution images of Europa's surface and detect signs of geological activity. The onboard spectrography sensors will try to determine the moon's composition. NASA also hopes to measure the thickness of Europa's icy shell and the depth and salinity of the sub-surface ocean.
Based on current data, Europa's ice shell probably has a depth of 10 to 15 miles. Below that lies an ocean with depths of whopping 40 to 100 miles. To put things in perspective, although Europa's diameter is only one-fourth to that of Earth, it may hold twice as much water compared to our home planet.
In addition to this latest contract, SpaceX recently won a $2.9 billion contract from NASA to build a lunar lander. However, it has been put on hold after Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin filed a complaint with the Government Accountability Office (GOA) over NASA's favorable treatment to SpaceX among other things.
NASA Crew-1 Dragon set to return to Earth with Saturday splashdown
by Paul Hill
The American space agency NASA has announced that it will be live streaming the return to Earth for the NASA SpaceX Crew-1 mission from the International Space Station. NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker, and JAXA’s Soichi Noguchi are set to splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico at 11:36 a.m. EDT on Saturday, May 1.
The Crew Dragon spacecraft which will be returning the astronauts is dubbed Resilience and will undock from the ISS at 5:55 p.m. following the hatch closure at 3:50 p.m. NASA TV will stream the hatch closure from 3:30 p.m. and the undocking from 5:30 p.m. It will then provide continuous coverage until the following morning when the craft finally lands back in the gulf. Following the return, NASA will hold a news conference from the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston at 1:30 p.m. You can find the NASA TV stream on the agency’s website.
According to NASA, the undocking and splashdown were originally slated for Wednesday, April 28, but due to weather conditions expected in the splashdown zones, the return has been delayed. The agency and its commercial partner SpaceX will continue to monitor the weather forecasts to ensure that the return can still go ahead on Friday night.
There are currently 11 people on the space station which is several more than we usually see up there at any one time. This is because the SpaceX vehicles take four astronauts up at a time rather than the three that Soyuz vehicles are able to carry and the arrival of two crews in quick succession. The latest crew arrived at the ISS on April 21 aboard the Crew-2 Dragon.