Virgin Galactic’s second SpaceshipTwo space plane, VSS Unity, soars over the Mojave Desert during an unpowered test flight in December 2016.
SEATTLE — Suborbital space tourism and research may be just the beginning for Virgin Galactic.
The private spaceflight company eventually aims to add superfast point-to-point passenger flights to its repertoire, which would dramatically reduce the time needed to get from Boston to Beijing or Sydney to San Francisco, according to Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides.
“What we see is this evolving to point-to-point travel,” Whitesides said here Thursday (Nov. 9) at The Economist magazine’s inaugural global space summit, called “A New Space Age.” [How Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Passenger Space Plane Works (Infographic)]
On such trips, Virgin Galactic’s vehicle would likely fly considerably faster than the now-defunct Concorde, which reached a top speed of about Mach 2, or twice the speed of sound, he added. (The speed of sound depends on temperature; at room temperature, it’s around 774 mph, or 1,246 km/h.)
“We think something that’s, you know, in the Mach 3 to [Mach] 5 space is really interesting, because you can really radically shorten those long-duration flights, but it’s not so fast — at a certain point, you may not need to go so fast,” Whitesides said.
Credit: Karl Tate, SPACE.com contributor
Whitesides’ comments echo recent remarks by Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson. Late last month, Branson said that a partnership with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will help Virgin Galactic “accelerate our program for point-to-point supersonic space travel,” among other things.
For now, however, the company is working to get its second six-passenger SpaceShipTwo space plane, known as VSS Unity, ready to fly customers on brief trips to suborbital space and back, for tourism and research purposes. (The first SpaceShipTwo, VSS Enterprise, crashed during a test flight in October 2014, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury and injuring pilot Peter Siebold.)
A carrier plane named WhiteKnightTwo hauls SpaceShipTwo aloft, then drops the space plane at an altitude of about 50,000 feet (15,000 meters). At that point, SpaceShipTwo’s rocket motor kicks on, blasting the vehicle to suborbital space. SpaceShipTwo then comes down to Earth for a runway landing.
Passengers will get to experience about 5 minutes of weightlessness and see the curvature of Earth against the blackness of space, company representatives have said. A ticket to ride the vehicle currently sells for $250,000, and more than 600 people have reserved a seat to date, Whitesides said.
VSS Unity has performed a number of unpowered “glide flights” so far and should start rocket-powered tests soon, company representatives have said. Commercial operations should begin shortly thereafter, but exactly when is unclear; Whitesides doesn’t announce predicted timetables.
“We’ll fly when it’s ready,” he said. “We’ll fly when it’s safe.”
Virgin Galactic isn’t the only spaceflight company with point-to-point travel on its mind. In late September, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said his company’s “BFR” Mars-colonization architecture may also be used to carry passengers on superfast trips from place to place on Earth.
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Mars Meteorite Will Return to the Red Planet with NASA Rover
Rohit Bhartia of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission holds a slice of a meteorite scientists have determined came from Mars. This slice will likely be used here on Earth for testing a laser instrument for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover; a separate slice will go to Mars on the rover.
A chunk of rock that was once part of Mars, but landed on Earth as a meteorite, will return to the Red Planet aboard a NASA rover set to launch in 2020.
The meteorite, known as Sayh al Uhaymir 008 (SaU008) was found in Oman in 1999, but geologists determined that it likely originated on Mars, according to a statement from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Scientists think collisions between Mars and other large bodies in the solar system’s early days sent chunks of the Red Planet into space, where they might wander for eons before falling onto Earth’s surface.
Now, NASA scientists are using the meteorite to calibrate an instrument that will fly on the Mars 2020 rover, which is scheduled to drop down on the Red Planet’s surface and collect rock samples that could one day be returned to Earth. One of the rover’s main goals is to evaluate the potential habitability of ancient and present-day Mars. [How NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover Will Work (Infographic)]
The meteorite is being used to calibrate an instrument called the SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals), which will use techniques often used in forensic science to identify chemicals in the Martian rock samples, in features as thin as a human hair.
A close-up of a meteorite that likely came from Mars.
The researchers will study the meteorite on Earth, where they are able to make sure their instruments are producing a correct analysis of the rock, and understand what features of the rock are perceptible to their instruments. When the rover settles onto Mars, researchers can once again use the rock to make sure their instruments are working as they should be, before pointing them at features of the Martian surface.
“We’re studying things on such a fine scale that slight misalignments, caused by changes in temperature or even the rover settling into sand, can require us to correct our aim,” said Luther Beegle, principal investigator for SHERLOC, in the statement. “By studying how the instrument sees a fixed target, we can understand how it will see a piece of the Martian surface.”
There are only about 200 confirmed Martian meteorites that have been found on Earth, according to the statement. The SaU008 meteorite comes from London’s Natural History Museum, which lends out hundreds of meteorites (most of them not from Mars) every year for scientific studies. The SHERLOC team needed a Martian meteorite that was robust enough to endure the journey to Mars without flaking or crumbling. (Launch from Earth and entry into the Martian atmosphere are both very strenuous events for everything on board.) The rock also “needed to possess certain chemical features to test SHERLOC’s sensitivity. These had to be reasonably easy to detect repeatedly for the calibration target to be useful,” according to the statement.
A slice of a Martian meteorite undergoes oxygen cleaning to remove organics. This slice will remain on Earth to be used for testing and calibrating instruments.
Usually, instruments like SHERLOC are calibrated with a variety of materials including rock, metal and glass. And Mars meteorites have been used for instrument calibration in the past. In fact, another instrument aboard the Mars 2020 rover, called SuperCam, will be adding a Mars meteorite to NASA’s calibration target, according to the statement. And while this would be the first Mars meteorite to return to the surface of the Red Planet, NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor, which orbits the Red Planet, carries a chunk of a Martian meteorite.
SHERLOC will carry other materials from Earth in addition to Su008, including materials that could be used to make a spacesuit for use on Mars. Observations of how the material withstands the radiation, atmosphere and temperature variations on Mars will provide valuable information for possible crewed trips to the Red Planet.
“The SHERLOC instrument is a valuable opportunity to prepare for human spaceflight as well as to perform fundamental scientific investigations of the Martian surface,” Marc Fries, a SHERLOC co-investigator and curator of extraterrestrial materials at Johnson Space Center, said in the statement. “It gives us a convenient way to test material that will keep future astronauts safe when they get to Mars.”
Kepler Space Telescope Discovers 95 More Alien Planets
Planets around other stars are the rule rather than the exception, and there are likely hundreds of billions of exoplanets in the Milky Way alone. NASA’s Kepler space telescope has found more than 2,400 alien worlds, including a new haul of 95 planets announced on Feb. 15, 2018.
The exoplanet discoveries by NASA’s Kepler space telescope keep rolling in.
Astronomers poring through data gathered during Kepler’s current extended mission, known as K2, have spotted 95 more alien planets, a new study reports.
That brings the K2 tally to 292, and the total haul over Kepler’s entire operational life to nearly 2,440 — about two-thirds of all the alien worlds ever discovered. And more than 2,000 additional Kepler candidates await confirmation by follow-up observations or analysis. [7 Greatest Exoplanet Discoveries by NASA’s Kepler (So Far)]
Kepler launched in March 2009, on a mission to help scientists determine just how common rocky, potentially habitable worlds such as Earth are throughout the Milky Way. For four years, the spacecraft stared continuously at about 150,000 stars, looking for tiny dips in their brightness caused by the passage of planets across their faces.
This work was highly productive, as noted above. But in May 2013, the second of Kepler’s four orientation-maintaining “reaction wheels” failed, and the spacecraft lost its superprecise pointing ability, bringing the original mission to a close.
But mission managers figured out a way to stabilize Kepler using sunlight pressure, and the spacecraft soon embarked on its K2 mission, which involves exoplanet hunting on a more limited basis, as well as observing comets and asteroids in our own solar system, supernovas and a range of other objects and phenomena.
For the new study, researchers analyzed K2 data going all the way back to 2014, zeroing in on 275 “candidate” signals.
“We found that some of the signals were caused by multiple star systems or noise from the spacecraft,” study lead author Andrew Mayo, a Ph.D. student at the Technical University of Denmark’s National Space Institute, said in a statement. “But we also detected planets that range from sub-Earth-sized to the size of Jupiter and larger.”
Indeed, 149 of the signals turned out to be caused by bona fide exoplanets, 95 of which are new discoveries. And one of the new ones is a record setter.
“We validated a planet on a 10-day orbit around a star called HD 212657, which is now the brightest star found by either the Kepler or K2 missions to host a validated planet,” Mayo said. “Planets around bright stars are important because astronomers can learn a lot about them from ground-based observatories.”
The new study was published today (Feb. 15) in The Astronomical Journal.
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