TIME space travel

NASA’s Antares Rocket Explodes During Take-Off

The cargo delivery rocket was unmanned

NASA’s unmanned Antares rocket exploded unexpectedly Tuesday seconds after it took off in an attempt to deliver cargo to the International Space Station (ISS).

A fireball filled the night sky after the explosion, which destroyed the rocket supplied by Orbital Sciences Corp., at the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

NASA officials said on the broadcast of the launch that no personnel appear to be in danger, and the damage to the facility appears to be limited after the burning rocket crashed to the ground. The agency will begin an investigation into the rocket’s failure that includes officials from NASA, Antares’ developer Orbital Sciences Corporation and launch site Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Wallops, Va.

The Antares rocket had been scheduled to launch on Monday to deliver over 5,000 pounds of cargo to the ISS, but was postponed because a boat was too close to the launch area.

NASA had awarded to Orbital Sciences in 2008 a contract for the rocket company to demonstrate successful cargo delivery to the ISS. The explosion was the rocket’s first unsuccessful launch out of its five launches to date.

TIME anniversary

SpaceShipOne’s Dubious Birthday

Going somewhere? The start of SpaceShipOne's maybe-historic flight in 2004
Going somewhere? The start of SpaceShipOne's maybe-historic flight in 2004 HECTOR MATA; AFP/Getty Images

A decade ago the first private spacecraft crossed the boundary of space and big promises followed. But there've been big disappointments too.

What’s the most important thing to keep in mind when you achieve something great? Easy: don’t start promising more greatness to come. It’s fine to hoist a Super Bowl trophy, but that’s not the time to predict a threepeat over the next couple years. Ditto the first-time Oscar winner who goes public about buying a new mantlepiece for all the statuettes to come; ditto too the one-hit wonder who’s already boasting about one day joining the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

That’s just the hubris that afflicted Burt Rutan, Paul Allen and the other folks behind SpaceShipOne a decade ago when their little rocket plane won the $10 million Ansari X-Prize, beating 25 other teams from 10 nations competing to be the first private group to pull off a piloted suborbital space flight twice within two weeks. After that mission was accomplished, Rutan, the ship’s designer, publicly predicted that the big aerospace players like Boeing would realize they had just lost out in the most promising new market of all: space tourism. “I think they’re looking at each other now and saying, ‘We’re screwed,'” he averred.

Almost immediately, he and Allen—the co-founder of Microsoft—licensed the SpaceShipOne technology to Virgin Atlantic’s Sir Richard Branson, who predicted a five-ship fleet with a five-person capacity on each vehicle within three years. So how’s all that working out?

SpaceShipOne, for all of the understandable applause its gutsy mission earned, was always overhyped. The ship was required to achieve an altitude of at least 100 km (62.5 mi.)—which it beat slightly—then arc over in three minutes of weightless flight and return safely to earth. Nifty stuff, but it’s also something the U.S. accomplished with the flight of Alan Shepard as long ago as 1961, and the old Soviet Union didn’t even bother with since they were capable of achieving orbit—where you can get some real flying done.

The scientific applications for SpaceShipOne are limited too. Yes, there are some basic experiments that can be run during the brief cosmic toe-dip of a suborbital flight, involving testing hardware in space conditions, studying the behavior of fluids and other substances, and making brief atmospheric measurements. But if popgun missions like that could do the really substantive stuff, we wouldn’t have built a massive orbiting lab like the International Space Station (ISS).

Instead, the promise has always been space tourism—offering paying passengers the chance to experience space and, after a fashion, call themselves astronauts. There are now up to 20 companies around the world competing in this new game—including big names like Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Branson’s Virgin Galactic—but none have flown so much as a single paying customer.

Branson’s Virgin Galactic is the closest to delivering. His SpaceShipTwo is the direct descendant of the original Rutan-Allen ship, and he has signed up a long list of potential passengers who have all put down deposits toward their $200,000 fare. Last year, TIME attended something of a pep rally at the outfit’s Mojave Desert headquarters, during which hundreds of those passengers-on-standby gathered, mingled, ate high-end finger food and cheered speeches and videos hyping the ride to come. But a promised test flight of the ship was scrubbed due to high winds and that day’s much-repeated pledge that the spacecraft’s maiden space trip would occur before the end of the year has slipped—as it has so many times before—this time to what Branson describes only as “earlyish in the new year.” As recently as August, he said he’d be “bitterly disappointed” if he didn’t make his before-2015 deadline.

None of this is to say that space tourism is doomed, but it is to say that the thinking behind it has always been flawed. The Ansari XPrize was modeled after the 1919 Orteig Prize, which offered $25,000 (the equivalent of $344,000 in 2014) to the first person who could fly nonstop from New York to Paris. Charles Lindbergh won that one in 1927 and before long, his historic trip became one anybody could make. But air travel is not space travel—an exponentially harder, riskier and costlier proposition. SpaceShipOne—despite the decade-old hoopla—was never the achievement of a dream, it was merely the beginning of one. Its true fulfillment is still many years away.

TIME space travel

India Has Sent a Spacecraft Into Mars Orbit

The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle rocket lifts off carrying India's Mars spacecraft from the east-coast island of Sriharikota, India, Nov. 2013.
The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle rocket lifts off carrying India's Mars spacecraft from the east-coast island of Sriharikota, India, Nov. 2013. Arun Sankar K—AP

That makes it the first Asian country to achieve the feat and the only country to do so on a first attempt

Indian spacecraft Mangalyaan (also called the Mars Orbiter Mission or MOM) entered Mars orbit at approximately 10.30 p.m. E.T. on Tuesday, making India the first Asian country to accomplish the feat.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is now the fourth space agency to have successfully completed a Mars mission — joining those of the U.S., Russia and Europe — and the South Asian nation is the only country to enjoy success on a maiden mission to Mars.

Another superlative: Mangalyaan has set a record for the cheapest Mars mission, costing just $67 million. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier claimed that it was less expensive than the Oscar-winning film Gravity, Indian news channel NDTV reported.

In comparison, NASA’s MAVEN, which entered Mars’ orbit a day earlier, cost 10 times as much.

ISRO announced the news of Mangalyaan with this tweet:

Modi was monitoring the mission’s progress at ISRO headquarters as the team behind Mangalyaan — which simply means “Mars craft” — broke into cheers. He commended the Indian scientists who worked on the mission.

TIME space

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos: Space Case

Just because you're a Master of the Universe on Earth doesn't mean the real universe will agree. Rich boys playing with space toys have a lot to learn

Time was, billionaires had no shortage of bling to buy—a yacht here, a Learjet there, a professional football team if you happen to have your Sundays free. But that’s all so yesterday. The must-have, 21st-century toy for the man with real cash to burn is fast becoming a spanking new spacecraft company.

That’s the way is seems at least, with Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch Systems, Elon Musk’s SpaceX and, most enigmatically of all, Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos and his double super-secret, my-lips-are-sealed Blue Origin. While the other boys are anything but press shy, Bezos has kept his operation under a comparative cone of silence. The company is based in Kent, Washington, and while it doesn’t have any actual spaceships yet, it does have a website, some cool graphics and a very nifty coat of arms featuring what appear to be two turtles holding a shield with the Earth below them, the cosmos above and the motto Gradatim Ferociter (by degrees, ferociously) inscribed beneath. Really.

The last few days have been big ones for Bezos, however, with the announcement on Sept. 17 that he was partnering with United Launch Alliance (ULA)—itself a partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing—to produce a new engine for ULA’s workhorse Atlas V booster. Currently, ULA uses a Russian-made RD-180 engine in the first stage of the Atlas. That became both politically and logistically untenable last spring, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Western sanctions against Moscow and an announcement from Russia that it would tighten sales of the engine in retaliation.

So it’s good news that ULA is swapping out its hardware, but huge news—at least judging by the media response—that the universe’s biggest bookseller is part of the deal. The Washington Post—which is owned by . . . oh, let me check my notes. Ah yes, Jeff Bezos—declared the news “a historic partnership between ‘Old Space’ and ‘New Space.’” Bloomberg News and Businessweek, noting the bad blood that has long existed between Musk and Bezos in the race for the high ground, declared it a “battle of the billionaires” and even ran a madcap little graphic showing the two lads jousting on the backs of cartoon rockets, because why not?

But let’s sweep away the packing peanuts and see what’s really inside this latest shipping box. First of all, this may be a Musk-Bezos cage match, but if so, Bezos really should have been part of the undercard. It is a not inconsequential fact that he has yet to fire so much as a push pin into space, while Musk’s SpaceX is already flying satellite payloads for paying customers and is about to make its fourth unmanned cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS). Bezos has been talking for a while about taking paying tourists to suborbital space—a dream Branson is chasing too—but he is vague about when this will happen and shows no signs at all of having the wherewithal to do it.

Then too there was the timing of his big announcement, which occurred on the very day that NASA announced the companies it had chosen—after a years-long competition—to take over the business of flying astronauts to the ISS. The two winners were Boeing and, yes, Musk. It’s true that nobody knew exactly the day or time that NASA would be revealing its picks, but everybody in the space world did know it was coming sometime in mid-September. Bezos may or may not have intended to spit in the other guys’ soup, but that’s what he wound up doing.

In fairness to Bezos, the engine he is developing, dubbed the BE4 (for Blue Engine), sounds like a real gem. Most rocket engines run on a combination of liquid oxygen and a fuel known as RP1—which sounds a little less nifty when you realize it stands simply for Rocket Propellant 1, and a lot less nifty when you realize that means kerosene. Bezos plans to replace that with far cleaner liquefied natural gas. He also makes the very good point that most of the engines flying today (excluding Musk’s) were designed in the 50s, 60s and 70s and it really is time to bring 21st century materials and computer models into the mix. One BE4 could produce 550,000 lbs. (250,000 kg) of thrust. That’s less than a Russian RD-180 and much more that Musk’s Merlin. But engines are routinely bundled—Musk’s biggest working booster has 9 Merlins and NASA’s historic Saturn V moon rocket had five massive F-1 engines—so thrust is by no means a deal-breaker.

But the thing is, the F-1’s were real, as is the Merlin and as is the RD-180. The BE4, like so much in the space billionaire’s toy box, is either vaporware or hardware that has yet to actually do anything. Bezos and ULA do promise their engine will be flying by 2018—unless, of course, it’s not.

That uncertainty is the biggest message that guys who fancy themselves Masters of the Universe (albeit on Earth) have to learn. Space travel is hard—exceedingly, often lethally hard. You can’t negotiate with physics or bully orbital mechanics. You can’t delete gravity’s Buy button. Elon Musk—so far—is making a real go of things. The rest are little more than dreamers until proven otherwise. It’s not business, fellas, it’s science.

TIME space

Experts Say Fireball Above Rockies Was Russian Spy Satellite

It's a meteor, it's an unknown celestial body... it's a Russian spy satellite?

A fireball that broke apart in the sky above the Rocky Mountains on Sept. 2 was not a meteor, as witnesses first believed. It was likely a Russian spy satellite.

What was originally described as three “rocks” glowing red and orange as they moved slowly northward across the night sky between New Mexico and Montana was in fact Russia’s Cosmos 2495 reconnaissance satellite, experts told the Associated Press. A meteor would have burned too rapidly and couldn’t have been seen over such a wide swath of the United States, said the American Meteor Society’s operations manager Mike Hankey. The fragments were big enough to be registered as a weather event on radar near Cheyenne.

The Russian Defense Ministry appeared to deny that its satellite had burned up in the atmosphere, with a spokesman saying its military satellites are operating normally. “One can only guess about the condition representatives of the so-called American Meteor Society were in when they identified a luminescent phenomenon high up in the sky as a Russian military satellite,” said the spokesman, Igor Konashenkov.

[AP]

TIME space travel

Boeing and SpaceX Win Major NASA Space Taxi Contract

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk Unveils The Dragon V2 Space Taxi
Seats rest inside the Manned Dragon V2 Space Taxi in Hawthorne, California, U.S., on Thursday, May 29, 2014. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

NASA will rely on them to send astronauts to the International Space Station

Updated at 5:26 p.m.

NASA awarded Tuesday aeronautical firms Boeing and SpaceX with contracts totaling $6.8 billion to launch astronauts into low Earth orbit under its Commercial Crew Program.

Proposals by Boeing and NASA were selected by NASA to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), with the goal of certifying crew transportation capability by 2017, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a news conference.

Boeing was awarded a $4.2 billion contract, while SpaceX was awarded a $2.6 billion contract, said Kathryn Lueders, Program Manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

“These contracts highlight what commercial companies can accomplish and we are counting on them to deliver our most precious cargo: the crew who will perform vital science research on the ISS,” Lueders said. “Two contracts give us the necessary mechanisms to assure we’re on the right track.”

The contracts are subject to the completion of safety certifications and development efforts for Boeing’s CST-100 capsule and SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, according to Lueders. Specifically, both Boeing and SpaceX will conduct five certification milestones: a baseline review, a design review, a flight test readiness review, an operational readiness review, and certification review.

Once NASA approves that Boeing’s and SpaceX’s systems meet its requirements, the systems will be certified for two to six human missions to deliver cargo and a crew of up to four to the ISS. The missions will enable NASA to nearly double today’s scientific research potential, Lueders said. The capsules will also serve as a “life boat,” capable of holding crew members safe up to 210 days in the event of an emergency.

Bolden emphasized that the contracts are intended to end by 2017 America’s sole reliance on Russia, whose government charges the U.S. $71 million a seat for rides to the ISS. NASA had previously been able to transport crew to the ISS with its Space Shuttle, but retired the vehicle in 2011. Its replacement craft, the Orion, isn’t set for manned missions until after 2020.

A third contender in the space race, Sierra Nevada, did not secure a piece of the deal with its winged spacecraft, the Dream Chaser. Boeing, with its decades of experience supplying parts and expertise to NASA, was widely considered a favorite among the three companies vying for the NASA contract. SpaceX founder and billionaire Elon Musk had previously criticized Boeing for being too close to NASA.

TIME space

Spacecraft Snaps Casual Selfie With Passing Comet

The Rosetta spacecraft snapped a ‘selfie’ with comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko on Sept. 7, 2014. Two images with different exposure times were combined to bring out the faint details in this very high contrast situation. ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA

Selfies are no longer just a human trend

The Mars Curiosity Rover isn’t the only lunar explorer that knows how to take a selfie these days.

The first of its kind—the Rosetta Spacecraft was designed to orbit and land on a comet in outer-space. This mission, which was launched by the European Space Agency in 2004, has finally approached the comet it was set to land on, and was at a distance of approximately 50 kilometers away from the comet when the selfie was snapped.

A special camera onboard Rosetta’s Philae Lander called CIVA (Comet Nucleus Infrared and Visible Analyzer) captured the image above using multiple exposures to bring out the fine details in both the comet and spacecraft.

Come November, the Rosetta Spacecraft will deploy its Philae Lander and attempt history’s first comet landing.

TIME space travel

Watch a 3,500-Pound Spaceship Burn Up in the Atmosphere

When the Cygnus supply ship arrived at the International Space Station in July with cargo that included food, science equipment and mini-satellites, the astronauts aboard knew it would be making a dramatic exit.

Cygnus was released on August 15 from the ISS carrying more than 3,000 pounds of garbage, and was catapulted through the atmosphere with the plan of having it burn its way into oblivion.

And burn its way into oblivion it did. The commercial cargo ship separated from the ISS and dropped into the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean two days later. A Vine posted Friday by one of the ISS’s current six astronauts, Reid Wiseman, shows Cygnus reentering the atmosphere and flaring up into a crisp.

TIME space travel

Watch: SpaceX Rocket Detonated Mid-Flight During Test

A SpaceX rocket detonated automatically when a problem was detected during a test flight

A SpaceX rocket exploded over McGregor, Texas during a test flight Friday, though no one was injured in the incident.

A problem was detected during a test of a three-engine version of SpaceX’s F9R vehicle, the company said, and the flight’s termination system then automatically self-destructed, bringing the mission to a sudden end.

“Today’s test was particularly complex, pushing the limits of the vehicle further than any previous test,” SpaceX said in a statement.

SpaceX is a space transport company founded by PayPal founder and Tesla executive Elon Musk. The company has been working closely with NASA, and its Dragon capsule has been used to send unmanned resupply missions to the International Space Station.

SpaceX’s F9R rocket is reusable, and could make spaceflight 100 times cheaper, Musk has said, NBC reports.

Musk said in a Twitter post that there were no “near injuries” in the explosion.

TIME space travel

NASA’s Hubble Finds Supernova Star System Linked to Potential ‘Zombie Star’

The two inset images show before-and-after images captured by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope of Supernova 2012Z in the spiral galaxy NGC 1309. The white X at the top of the main image marks the location of the supernova in the galaxy. NASA

Thankfully, there are no brains anywhere around this particular zombie

Less like The Walking Dead and more like The Floating Dead: Astronomers believe they have identified the remnants left from an exploded white dwarf, otherwise known as a “zombie star,” about 110 million light-years from Earth.

Images like this one, shot with NASA’s Hubble Telescope, reveal the onset and aftermath of a “weaker” supernova, which happens when something changes in the core of a star and sets off a nuclear reaction.

The discovery of one of these less robust supernovas is a rare find in the world of interstellar study, and can help “to measure vast cosmic distances and the expansion of the universe,” said Rutgers University scientist Saurabh Jha, who’s part of the team that put together findings on the zombie star for Thursday’s edition of Nature.

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