Boeing is headed for the wild blue yonder — with an emphasis on blue. Just this week Boeing showcased a new line of sleek spacesuits made to go with its Starliner spacecraft, designed to take astronauts to the ISS. They’re a good deal less rigid than NASA’s current spacesuit in some key places, and they’ve got a shiny new helmet with a wide angle of view for peripheral vision. Also, they’re touchscreen-friendly, because everybody who’s anybody tweets from space. The new suits will be for takeoff, ascent, and re-entry, and they’re in Boeing’s signature shade of blue.
Boeing and SpaceX both show up in a forthcoming report from the US Government Accountability Office, but the report focuses most closely on SpaceX. The Congressional report says that it has observed a “pattern of problems” with SpaceX’s Merlin rocket. In specific: Investigators found that the turbine blades inside the rocket fuel turbopumps tended to crack. Those turbopumps deliver fuel into the combustion chamber of the engine, and if one of them were to fail during operation, it would be catastrophic. NASA may require a redesign before permitting crewed flights, but they’re confident that this won’t be a major setback. There might be problems, but NASA’s Robert Lightfoot told the WSJ that “we know how to fix them.”
SpaceX’s CRS-10 launch, bound for the ISS and originally scheduled for today, was scrubbed and rescheduled for late February, when they’ll have an instantaneous launch window. They’ve also got a launch scheduled for Valentine’s Day. (Am I the only one who’d totally consider watching a rocket launch to be a couple-appropriate V-day activity?) Iridium also just announced that in early 2018, five of its Iridium NEXT satellites will be hitching a ride to space on a Falcon 9, and they’ll be buckled in beside two of NASA’s GRACE-FO spacecraft for the flight. GRACE-FO is a mission to map Earth’s gravitational field.
NASA earth sciences satellites
NASA earth sciences satellites
In January, the ESO announced a pair-up with Breakthrough Starshot to upgrade some of the VLT’s hardware with new, streamlined planet-hunting bling. Not to be outdone, a new imaging tool at the Keck Observatory has just delivered its first batch of snapshots of young planetary systems. Under the hood, the imaging tool is a vortex coronagraph, installed on the Near Infrared Camera 2 at Keck. NIRC2 is itself a CCD detector under the hood, but CCDs are vulnerable to overexposure. “Stars outshine planets by a factor of [a] few thousand to a few billion, making the dim light of planets very difficult to see, especially for planets that lie close to their stars,” NASA said in a statement. To overcome this challenge, the vortex coronagraph redirects light away from the IR camera “using a technique in which light waves are combined and canceled out.”
“The instrument is called a vortex coronagraph because the starlight is centered on an optical singularity, which creates a dark hole at the location of the image of the star,” explains Dmitri Mawet of the JPL. “Hurricanes have a singularity at their centers where the wind speeds drop to zero — the eye of the storm. Our vortex coronagraph is basically the eye of an optical storm where we send the starlight.”
Speaking of Breakthrough Starshot, how will all those tiny spacecraft manage to put on the brakes, metaphorically speaking? How do we make sure our starshot doesn’t overshoot? The answer is simple, according to prognosticators: pull a 180. By reorienting their solar sails, the craft could use the incoming photons from Alpha Centauri as a photonic “headwind,” slowing them down to the right speed to make a leisurely survey of the Centauri system.