TIME space travel

Virgin Galactic Spaceship ‘SpaceShipTwo’ Crashes During Flight Test

Reports say one person was killed and another seriously injured

A Virgin Galactic spacecraft crashed in the California desert during a test flight Friday, killing one test pilot and leaving another seriously injured, the Associated Press reports.

“We will work closely with relevant authorities to determine the cause of this accident and provide updates ASAP,” the company said in a tweet.

A witness told the AP that SpaceShipTwo, which is carried aloft by a separate aircraft called WhiteKnightTwo, exploded shortly after detaching from its carrier craft and igniting its rockets. Virgin Galactic has been testing the aircraft, known as SpaceShipTwo, in the Southern California desert in hopes that it could one day be used to shuttle tourists to space.

Officials from the Kern County Fire Department and the California Highway Patrol both responded to the incident, while local news helicopter footage of the scene showed debris clearly from SpaceShipTwo littering the test area. The National Transportation Safety Board said Friday it’s sending a “go-team” to investigate the incident.

Virgin Galactic recently changed SpaceShipTwo’s fuel mixture from a rubber-based solution to a plastic mix, but it’s unclear if that switch had anything to do with Friday’s explosion.

The SpaceShipTwo incident follows Tuesday’s loss of an unmanned Orbital Sciences Antares rocket shortly after liftoff from Virginia’s Wallops Flight Facility.

TIME space

The Great Lakes—a Billion Miles From Earth

This near-infrared, color mosaic from NASA's Cassini spacecraft shows the sun glinting off of Titan's north polar seas.
This near-infrared, color mosaic from NASA's Cassini spacecraft shows the sun glinting off of Titan's north polar seas. NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/University of Idaho

A new picture from the Cassini spacecraft reveals a dazzling vista on Saturn's moon Titan

Titan coulda’ been a contender. Saturn’s largest moon is a very distant, very cold place, -289º F (-179º C) worth of cold in fact. But even before the Cassini probe arrived in the Saturnian system in 2004, it was clear the giant world had unrealized potential. Its hydrocarbon atmosphere always suggested that had it been situated closer to the incubating warmth of the sun, it might have cooked up life. Indeed, astronomers long considered Titan a sort of flash-frozen version of the early Earth—back in the epoch when biology had yet to emerge but all of the ingredients for it were in place.

One other thing Titan was thought to share with Earth was the presence of oceans and lakes. The Titanian version would be filled with liquid methane and ethane instead of water, but the behavior of those bodies—freezing, evaporating, lapping up against shorelines—would be the same. When Cassini arrived, its radar scanners confirmed that these theories were true, and its infrared imagers have been returning better and better images of the lakes and seas—none so striking as the one above, just released by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which oversees the mission.

The image shows the region around Titan’s north pole, with the sun—more than 900 million miles (1.4 billion km) distant at the time the picture was taken—glinting off the sea known as Kraken Mare. Clouds farther north of the site are likely refilling the sea with rain—the methane and ethane variety again. Close analysis by JPL researchers has also revealed what they call a bathtub ring around Kraken Mare, the residue left over when some of the contents of the sea evaporated, reducing its overall size.

The north pole is not the only region of Titan that is home to lakes and seas; the southern extremes of the moon have them too, but not nearly as many. This, investigators believe, is due to greater volcanic activity occurring in the north, leaving the region scarred with divots. These then served as the basins that became the seas.

Nobody is seriously expecting to find life in the Titanian depths—unless it’s a form of life that needs no liquid water and can somehow survive the punishing temperatures of the deep solar system. But nobody minimizes the value of the science that’s coming back from Cassini either. If nothing else, studying Titan reminds us of how precise the conditions must be for biology to exist on any world—and how lucky we are that those conditions were met here.

TIME space

Operator in Rocket Blast Hit Self-Destruct When Problem Became Clear

The Antares rocket exploded and scattered debris over a wide area

The unmanned rocket that exploded seconds after liftoff Tuesday on its way to the International Space Station did so because the operator hit self-destruct once problems with the launch became apparent, the company that owns it said.

The Antares rocket, operated by Orbital Sciences Corp., crashed in a large fire Tuesday night, scattering debris over a wide area. It was carrying more than 5,000 pounds of scientific instruments, food and other supplies for the astronauts aboard the space station when down with the rocket. NASA says the space station is equipped with plenty of food to last while additional resupply missions are organized.

Orbital spokesperson Barron Beneski told CNN the crash was initiated by the flight termination system. Such an order is typically given after it’s clear the rocket will not meet its intended trajectory in order to ensure that it goes down over a relatively small and unpopulated area. No injuries were reported in the crash.

The problem occurred in the first stage of launch, Orbital said late Thursday, in a possible sign that its vintage, Russian-designed engines could have been the cause.

[CNN]

TIME natural disaster

9 Photos of Molten Lava Destruction From Hawaii’s Kilauea Volcano

Lava flow from the Kilauea Volcano on Hawaii's Big Island flowed close enough to residents this week that officials warned of evacuations. See how the lava continues to creep closer to civilization and threaten the village of Pahoa

TIME space

Asteroid in a Bag? Bag it, Says MIT Space Scientist

Bad trip? Solar electric propulsion would help redirect an asteroid to lunar orbit
Bad trip? Solar electric propulsion would help redirect an asteroid to lunar orbit NASA

NASA's next great manned mission has always sounded like something of a fever dream. There may be a better way to do the same work.

MIT planetary scientist Richard Binzel calls himself an “asteroid guy.” He’s been studying the rocky planetoids for decades now, so you might think he’d be thrilled with NASA’s plan to snag a very small asteroid in a very large bag and tow it into lunar orbit for astronauts to visit.

In fact, he’s anything but. At a talk last summer, Binzel called the Asteroid Return Mission (or ARM) “the emperor with no clothes, or at best with very thin cloth.” And now he’s written a commentary in the latest issue of Nature laying out his objections in greater detail, but also proposing an alternative. Instead of bringing one of the solar system’s uncounted asteroids to us, he says, we should send astronauts to visit them in a program that could ultimately lead to the goal people have been looking toward since the Space Age began: sending astronauts to Mars.

“In fairness,” Binzel says, “NASA doesn’t really know what to do with its hardware.” That’s never a good thing. Back in 2010, President Obama officially killed the plan to send astronauts back to the Moon and began pushing instead for a visit to an asteroid by 2025. “NASA took that as a mandate,” says Binzel. When they realized they couldn’t pull it off by then with the available budget, he says, they came up with ARM, which quickly became known as “Asteroid in a Bag”—a term that suggests the space community didn’t exactly take it seriously.

But asteroids are whizzing by Earth all the time, and we don’t know about most of them. “The ones we’ve detected so far,” says Binzel, “aren’t the tip of the iceberg. They’re the snowflake on the tip of iceberg.” An asteroid a few miles across can cause the sort of planetwide catastrophe that played a big part in ending the dinosaurs’ dominance of the Earth. And even a smallish one, like the 60-foot rock that fell near Chelyabinsk, Russia last year (and which Binzel helped investigate) can do plenty of damage.

The first part of Binzel’s proposed three-part program, therefore, is to mount an exhaustive telescopic search for Near-Earth Asteroids, or NEO’s, ten meters (33 ft.) across or bigger. He estimates there are about ten million of them—so many, he says, that “at least one passes by as close as the Moon every week (NASA is searching for them already, but there are still plenty of rocks going undetected).

ID’ing the NEO’s that pose a threat is a good thing on its own merits, but these are also the ones that would be easiest for astronauts to visit. The idea, says Binzel: spot a likely candidate as it approaches the Earth and send astronauts out to match its orbit—something like the way relay runners start sprinting before their partner arrives so they’re going at the same speed at the point of baton handoff. “They’d go out and greet it,” he says, “and follow alongside for a few days.” Then the astronauts would peel off and circle back to Earth.

While hanging out with the asteroid, astronauts could do all sorts of exploration. They couldn’t land themselves, because a small asteroid has too little gravity to keep a human from floating off, but they could use robotic landers to beam back all sorts of information, bring samples back for study in Earthly labs, and even prospect for minerals. Astronauts could also test deflection technologies that could someday be used to push a killer asteroid off course to keep Earth safe.

Best of all, says Binzel, a series of asteroid missions of longer and longer durations means you don’t have to jump to Mars all at once without practicing long-distance and long-duration spaceflight first. NASA can flex its exploratory muscles bit by bit, preparing for that ultimate leap. The image he keeps returning to is that of the Gateway Arch, in St. Louis—the great portal to America’s West. When Lewis and Clark returned with their maps of the vast spaces of still untouched mountains and prairies, says Binzel, who has a painting of the adventurers in his MIT office, “it triggered an enormous wave of exploration. Imagine,” he says, “that we knew of a thousand or even thousands of objects that were readily accessible to human spaceflight.” Retrieval gets you one object; a survey will find thousands at a fraction of the cost. What’s not to like?

Read next: Watch This Pilot’s Dramatic Midair Video of the Antares Rocket Explosion

TIME movies

Watch an Exclusive Interstellar Clip With Matthew McConaughey

Cooper faces some dubious realities in this exclusive first look at Christopher Nolan's space epic Interstellar

Of all of the conspiracy loonies currently at large — birthers, truthers and grassy-knollers, we’re looking at you — there are none quite as febrile as the folks who claim the Apollo moon landings were faked. The theory (with apologies to the word “theory”) presumes that all of the 400,000 people directly or indirectly involved in the moon landings schemed in perfect secrecy to pull off the greatest scam in history, and have maintained their silence for more than two generations since the lunar program ended in 1972. It would be easier just to go to the flipping moon.

But what’s preposterous in real life plays for poignant drama in the new film Interstellar — set sometime in the vaguely defined future, when Earth is slowly being suffocated by an unnamed blight and luxuries like space travel are out of the question. To keep people’s minds off the great things humanity once did so they can better accept their sadly reduced state, the U.S. government itself adopts the Apollo hoax story, writing it into all federally approved textbooks. In a movie in which so much takes place in the trackless expanse of space, one of the most affecting scenes plays out in a principal’s office, where a grounded astronaut (Matthew McConaughey) is being told that his daughter has gotten into trouble for spreading the purported lie that yes, in a different age, human boots indeed left prints on another world.

TIME space

See an Astronaut’s Minimalist Photo of a Sunrise

Sunrise seen from the International Space Station
Reid Wiseman—NASA/EPA

Ever wondered what sunrise looks like from space?

Following the explosion of the Antares rocket, Astronaut Reid Wiseman shot this picture of the sunrise, captured from the International Space Station (ISS).

“Not every day is easy,” Wiseman wrote. “Today was a tough one.”

He was referring to the failure of the Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft, moments after launch at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The Cygnus spacecraft was filled with about 5,000 pounds of supplies slated for the ISS, including science experiments, hardware, spare parts and crew provisions. The station crew is in no danger of running out of food or other critical supplies, NASA said.

TIME #TheBrief

#TheBrief: Ebola Quarantines Get Political

While the federal government works to contain Ebola in the U.S., states are taking matters into their own hands—and butting heads with the White House and the CDC in the process.

The attempt to contain the spread of Ebola in the United States is becoming political, with governors imposing varying, stringent, and sometimes unclear quarantine rules that are hard to enforce across state lines.

President Barack Obama spoke out against these policies Wednesday, saying, “We don’t want to discourage our health care workers from going to the front lines. They are doing God’s work over there, and they are doing it to keep us safe.”

Here’s your brief on the science and politics of Ebola.

TIME stocks

Space Company’s Stock Plummets to Earth After Rocket Explodes During Liftoff

The company whose rocket exploded in a massive fireball about 200 feet in the air Tuesday is taking a beating on the stock market. Shares for Orbital Sciences are down 15% in early morning trading after the company’s unmanned spacecraft, the Antares, malfunctioned just moments into its attempted journey to deliver supplies to the International Space Station. Orbital stock was trading at about $25.50 around noon.

As TIME’s Jeff Kluger points out, the failed launch could be devastating for Orbital, which has been launching spacecraft for decades. The company is competing fiercely with the likes of Elon Musk’s upstart SpaceX to win NASA contracts to deliver supplies to the International Space Station. Orbital is seeking to extend its contract, and this accident won’t help matters.

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