SpaceX Soars

Private space flight company SpaceX made history on Monday, December 21, launching its Falcon 9 rocket into space and landing it intact back on Earth.

The launch took place at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. The rocket delivered 11 communications satellites into low Earth orbit for the Orbcomm-2 mission. The rocket was able to land intact through the use of vanes and boosters to lessen its return velocity.

“I do think it’s a revolutionary moment,” SpaceX founder Elon Musk said in a press conference. “No one has ever brought a booster, an orbital-class booster, back intact. We achieved recovery of the rocket in a mission that actually deployed 11 satellites. This is a fundamental step-change in technology compared to any other rocket that has ever flown.”

Reusable rocketry could help usher in a new age in space exploration by dramatically cutting the cost of space flight.

“I think it really quite dramatically improves my confidence that a city on Mars is possible,” Musk said. “That’s what all this is about.”

Check out a video of the landing below:


A Black Hole of a Beginning

Scientists have discovered a monstrous black hole that existed only 875 million years after the beginning of time, about six percent into the universe’s total lifespan.

An artist's conception of a quasar and supermassive black hole. (Zhaoyu Li/ Shanghai Astronomical Observatory)

An artist’s conception of a quasar and supermassive black hole. (Zhaoyu Li/ Shanghai Astronomical Observatory)

The find is significant not only due to the size of the black hole, which weighs as much as 12 billion suns, but also because black holes are generally thought to grow slowly over time as they absorb neighboring gas and sometimes stars.

The black hole was discovered by a team of astronomers led by Xue-Bing Wu of China’s Peking University. They used telescopes in Arizona, Hawaii, Chile and China to find a quasar, a luminous object that exerts light and energy as it tries to squeeze into the black hole. The newly discovered object is around 40,000 times as bright as the Milky Way galaxy. The black hole itself, of course, emits no light.

“This is the biggest monster we’ve ever detected in terms of luminosity,” said Avi Loeb, chair of Harvard’s astronomy department, who was not involved in the study.

Not all black holes are surrounded by heated gas, but all galaxies, including the Milky Way, have a black hole at their core.

“How could we have this massive black hole when the universe was so young?” Wu said. “We don’t currently have a satisfactory theory to explain it.”

Wu said that the scientists are using light from the quasar to find other space objects.

“Just like a lighthouse sitting in a dark, distant universe, it gives us a chance to see things between our own planet and the black hole by illuminating them,” he said. “It provides a unique chance to understand things between the distant galaxy and ours.”

The study was published Wednesday in the journal Nature.


A Star Is Born

Astronomers have captured some stunning new images of a star being born.

The ALMA observations (orange and green) show the star's gases moving away from Earth, while the visible jet of gas (pink and purple) is moving toward Earth (ESO/ALMA).

The ALMA observations (orange and green) show the star’s gases moving away from Earth, while the visible jet of gas (pink and purple) is moving toward Earth (ESO/ALMA).

You won’t see the young star in these images, rather large jets of gases like carbon monoxide and ionized oxygen dispersing from the forming star at speeds up to around 621,000 mph. The gases begin to glow as they impact the material surrounding the protostar, resulting in what is known as the Herbig-Haro effect. The pictures are of what is referred to as Herbig-Haro 46/47, located in the southern constellation Vela 1,400 light-years from Earth.

According to associate professor at Yale University and lead author of a study on Herbig-Haro 46/47, the gas outflows are caused by an interaction between the magnetic field of the protostar and the magnetic fields of the disk of material that surrounds it.

“The material in the disk spirals toward the star, and when it gets to be a certain distance away most of it goes to the protostar to help it grow,” he said. “But a fraction of that material is launched into an outflow, usually along the magnetic poles of the protostar.”

This is not the first time that Herbig-Haro 46/47 has been imaged by astronomers, but it is the first time it has been imaged by the powerful Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) telescope. And ALMA is still under construction.

The End Of Kepler

NASA has given up on efforts to save its $600 million Kepler Space Telescope, which has been used to search for signs of alien life.

An artist's interpretation of the Kepler Space Telescope (NASA).

An artist’s interpretation of the Kepler Space Telescope (NASA).

The news comes after months of testing after a second wheel aboard the telescope failed in May. The wheel was used to point the telescope toward the sun.

“Kepler has made extraordinary discoveries in finding exoplanets including several super-Earths in the habitable zone,” John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said. “Knowing that Kepler has successfully collected all the data from its prime mission, I am confident that more amazing discoveries are on the horizon.”

According to NASA, efforts will now focus on researching data the telescope collected throughout its life.

Launched in 2009, Kepler is the first NASA mission able to find Earth-size planets in or near the habitable zone. Kepler has discovered thousands of such planets since its launch.

“At the beginning of our mission, no one knew if Earth-size planets were abundant in the galaxy,” William Borucki, Kepler science principal investigator at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., said. “If they were rare, we might be alone. Now at the completion of Kepler observations, the data holds the answer to the question that inspired the mission: Are Earths in the habitable zone of stars like our sun common or rare?”

NASA plans to launch a second exoplanet hunting mission in 2017. The James Webb Space Telescope will also help with this endeavor.

A Sideways Grass-Hop

SpaceX’s ‘Grasshopper’ rocket has accomplished a number of feats throughout its test flights and now a different type of accomplishment has been added to the roster: going sideways.

The Grasshopper rocket successfully performed its sideways hop on Tuesday August 13 at SpaceX’s grounds in McGregor, Texas. A video of the hop was released on Wednesday August 14.

During the test flight, the Grasshopper rocket reached an altitude of 820 feet, then went into hover mode, moving 328 feet sideways. From that point, it descended and returned to the center of its launch pad. The flight lasted just over one minute. The Grasshopper rocket, officially known as the Falcon 9 test rig, is almost 10 stories tall, which presents a challenge in terms of sideways maneuvers. In a statement, SpaceX officials commended “the vehicle’s ability to perform more aggressive steering maneuvers than have been attempted in previous flights.”

“Diverts liks this are an important part of the trajectory in order to land the rocket precisely back at the launch site after re-entering from space at hypersonic velocity,” SpaceX officials said.

With reusable space vehicles like the Grasshopper rocket, SpaceX hopes to create a fleet of completely reusable rocket vehicles. If successful, the project would make space flight cheaper and more efficient, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said.

Stay tuned for more test flights involving the Grasshopper rocket. In June, the rocket reached its highest altitude so far, rising 1,066 feet in the air.

You can watch a video of the rocket’s sideways hop below.

Martian Munchies

A group of researchers has wrapped up a study examining what types of foods are best suitable for consumption on Mars.

Hi-SEAS/Sian Proctor

Hi-SEAS/Sian Proctor

The Hawaii Space Exploration Analog & Simulation (Hi-SEAS) crew spent four months in a remote part of Hawaii living and eating like astronauts, testing various recipes currently being used for space missions. They lived in a dome at Mauna Loa, a volcano located on Hawaii’s Big Island.

The project was spurred by risks pinpointed by NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. According to the Associated Press, crew members were selected by representatives from the University of Hawaii and Cornell University.

“This first mission will involve six astronaut-like (in terms of education, experience, and attitude) crew members living in the habitat for 120 days under Mars-exploration conditions (e.g. with communication latencies and blackouts, in close quarters, under strict water-use rules etc.),” Hi-SEAS’ website states.

Most food used in space is processed and lacking in fiber, the Associated Press states. Now that they have left the dome, the researchers will begin readjusting to their normal lives and go over the data collected during their mission. One request from the researchers was for a relaxing day at the beach.

So what sort of recipes did the researchers select? Individuals around the world submitted recipes online under the requirement that the recipes use processed foods that are readily available. For breakfast, the crew chose “Blueberry Lemon Pancakes and No-Crust Quiche Muffins” as the winning recipe. For a stew, they selected “Moroccan Beef Tagine” and the main dish selection was “Spam fried rice.” For desert, the crew selected “Dark Matter Cake.”

Snagging An Asteroid

Scientists have discovered a new class of asteroids that can be easily captured, leaving a new target for NASA and asteroid mining companies.

MIT Technology Review

MIT Technology Review

Researchers found the asteroids by sorting through the current database of about 9,00 near-Earth objects. They looked for asteroids whose orbits could be made accessible by altering their velocity by under 500 meters per second.

Only 12 were found that met the criteria and these are known as “Easily Retrievable Objects” (EROs). These asteroids could be brought to Earth’s orbit within three to 7.5 years.

This means that there are a number of asteroids out there that could be captured using current technology. That said, asteroid capture remains a risky endeavor.

“Regarding the safety of such a project, there could be a justified concern regarding the possibility of an uncontrolled re-entry of a temporary captured asteroid into Earth’s atmosphere,” the researchers said.