From The Editors Science

NASA Mobilizes Eleven US Companies to Develop Lunar Lander Prototypes

In a bid to expedite its ambitious Artemis moon program, NASA has shortlisted eleven US companies, including the likes of Northrop Grumman and Sierra Nevada, to research, design and develop lunar lander prototypes capable of landing humans on the lunar surface, the agency announced in a May 17 press release.

As part of its Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP), NASA is awarding a combined amount of more than $45 million to these companies.

However, since NextSTEP is a public/private partnership program, the companies will have to shell out twenty percent of the overall project cost from their own coffers, which would not only reduce the taxpayer’s burden but also attract private investment in the potentially lucrative lunar business.

“To accelerate our return to the Moon, we are challenging our traditional ways of doing business,” Marshall Smith, director for human lunar exploration programs at NASA Headquarters, said in the press release.

“We will streamline everything from procurement to partnerships to hardware development and even operations,” he added.

“Our team is excited to get back to the Moon quickly as possible, and our public/private partnerships to study human landing systems are an important step in that process,” he also said.

Since time is of the essence to NASA, it is putting into effect what it calls “undefinitized contract actions,” which essentially means the awardees will be paid in advance to start part of the work even before a final contract is agreed upon and signed.

“We’re taking major steps to begin development as quickly as possible, including invoking a NextSTEP option that allows our partners to begin work while we’re still negotiating,” Greg Chavers – human landing system formulation manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama – said in the release.

“We’re keen to collect early industry feedback about our human landing system requirements, and the undefinitized contract action will help us do that,” he added.

While NASA has not provided any design specifications to the awardees, it does plan to issue a “formal solicitation” this summer, laying down its requirements for the lunar lander.

It will then be up to the awardees to “propose innovative concepts, hardware development and integration.”

“This new approach doesn’t prescribe a specific design or number of elements for the human landing system,” Chavers said.

“NASA needs the system to get our astronauts on the surface and return them home safely, and we’re leaving a lot of the specifics to our commercial partners.”

Since the lunar lander will be based on three main elements – transfer, descent and refueling – each partner has been assigned specific areas to work on.

Here’s a list of the eleven awardees and their areas of responsibility

  1. Aerojet Rocketdyne – Canoga Park, California: One transfer vehicle study
  2. Blue Origin – Kent, Washington: One descent element study, one transfer vehicle study, and one transfer vehicle prototype
  3. Boeing – Houston: One descent element study, two descent element prototypes, one transfer vehicle study, one transfer vehicle prototype, one refueling element study, and one refueling element prototype
  4. Dynetics – Huntsville, Alabama: One descent element study and five descent element prototypes
  5. Lockheed Martin – Littleton, Colorado: One descent element study, four descent element prototypes, one transfer vehicle study, and one refueling element study
  6. Masten Space Systems – Mojave, California: One descent element prototype
  7. Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems – Dulles, Virginia: One descent element study, four descent element prototypes, one refueling element study, and one refueling element prototype
  8. OrbitBeyond – Edison, New Jersey: Two refueling element prototypes
  9. Sierra Nevada Corporation, Louisville, Colorado, and Madison, Wisconsin: One descent element study, one descent element prototype, one transfer vehicle study, one transfer vehicle prototype, and one refueling element study
  10. SpaceX – Hawthorne, California: One descent element study
  11. SSL – Palo Alto, California: One refueling element study and one refueling element prototype

Earlier this week, in a bid to arouse public interest in its ‘Moon2024′ mission, NASA released a video trailer, voiced-over by none other than William Shatner – the man most of us know as Captain Kirk, from Star Trek.

The short clip highlights the agency’s trailblazing Apollo success five decades ago; the challenges faced in cutting through the fictions of science then; and the challenges ahead as it works toward putting humans back on the moon by as early as 2024 – this time, to stay.

“Our charge is to go quickly, and to stay, to press our collective efforts forward with a fervor that will see us return to the moon in a manner that is wholly different than 50 years ago,” Shatner narrates.

“Our greatest adventures remain ahead of us. We are going.”

The video came on the heels of Monday’s christening of the mission, which the agency has decided to name ‘Artemis,’ the Greek mythology goddess of the moon and the twin sister of Apollo, after whom the lunar missions of the sixties and seventies were named.

It was definitely not a random choice, considering the agency’s plan to put the first woman on the lunar surface as part of the Moon2024 mission, or should we say the Artemis mission.

So important is the Moon2024 mission to the Trump administration that it has proposed a revised 2020 budget, seeking a further $1.6 billion to add to NASA’s $21 billion 2020 budget request.

The additional funding would go towards accelerating the program to meet the 2024 deadline for the mission, which was earlier planned for 2028.

From The Editors Science

NASA‘s New Hype Video “We are Going” is Meant to Pique Public Interest in its Moon2024 Mission

In a bid to arouse public interest in its ‘Moon2024′ mission, NASA on Tuesday (May 15) released a video trailer, voiced-over by none other than William Shatner – the man most of us know as Captain Kirk, from Star Trek.

The 3 min 49-second clip highlights the agency’s trailblazing Apollo success five decades ago; the challenges faced in cutting through the fictions of science then; and the challenges ahead as it works toward putting humans back on the moon by as early as 2024 – this time, to stay.

“Our charge is to go quickly, and to stay, to press our collective efforts forward with a fervor that will see us return to the moon in a manner that is wholly different than 50 years ago,” Shatner narrates.

“Our greatest adventures remain ahead of us. We are going.”

The video comes close behind Monday’s christening of the mission, which the agency has decided to name ‘Artemis,’ the Greek mythology goddess of the moon and the twin sister of Apollo, after whom the lunar missions of the sixties and seventies were named; how can we forget!

The choice of name was certainly not arbitrary, considering the agency’s plan to put the first woman on the lunar surface as part of the Moon2024 mission.

So important is the Moon2024 mission to the Trump administration that it has proposed a revised 2020 budget, seeking a further $1.6 billion to add to NASA’s $21 billion 2020 budget request.

The additional funding would go towards accelerating the program to meet the 2024 deadline for the mission, which was earlier planned for 2018.

“Under my Administration, we are restoring @NASA to greatness and we are going back to the Moon, then Mars,” Trump bragged in a Monday tweet, adding: “I am updating my budget to include an additional $1.6 billion so that we can return to Space in a BIG WAY!”

In Dec 2017, Trump signed a momentous order, the “Space Policy Directive – 1,” authorizing NASA to send American astronauts to the moon again.

“The directive I am signing today will refocus America’s space program on human exploration and discovery,” he said, adding: “It marks an important step in returning American astronauts to the moon for the first time since 1972 for the long-term exploration and use.”

He also said:

“This time we will not only plant our flag and leave our footprint, we will establish a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars and, perhaps, someday to many worlds beyond.

“This directive will ensure America’s space program once again leads and inspires all of humanity.”

The presidential decree didn’t come as a surprise, as both the President and Pence had been talking about sending American astronauts back on a moon mission since their campaign days in 2016.

At a campaign event near the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Trump had spoken about paving the way for NASA to “refocus on space exploration” rather than being restricted to serve “ primarily as a logistical agency for low Earth-orbit activities.”

Then, during the first NSC meeting in October 2017, US Vice President Mike Pence said that the Trump administration was committed to the moon mission and beyond.

It must be said that the directive was well-timed to coincide with the 45th anniversary of Apollo 17, the last of NASA’s six manned missions to the moon.

Similar promises were made by three former presidents but political and financial challenges associated with deep space exploration had derailed their plans.

The Trump government’s space plans is not just restricted to sending manned missions to the moon and beyond; it is also serious about launching a space warfare service branch – the United States Space Force (USSF) – which will become the sixth branch of the US Armed Forces, if only the president could get Congress to see through his eyes.

“Separate but equal” is the phrase Trump used to compare Space Force with the Air Force, speaking about it in a June 2018 NSC (National Space Council) meeting.

Pence, on his part, described Space Force as “an idea whose time has come” in a Pentagon address in August last year.

“The next generation of Americans to confront the emerging threats in the boundless expanse of space will be wearing the uniform of the United States of America,” he said, going on to add that the ball was now in the Congress court for establishing and funding the mammoth project.

“Now the time has come to write the next great chapter in the history of our armed forces, to prepare for the next battlefield where America’s best and bravest will be called to deter and defeat a new generation of threats to our people, to our nation,” he also said.

Trump has already set the ball rolling by signing a directive –Space Policy Directive 4 (SPD-4) – in March this year, ordering the Department of Defense (DoD) to draft legislation for Congress to make Space Force a reality.

“America must be fully equipped to defend our vital interests. Our adversaries are training forces and developing technology to undermine our security in space, and they’re working very hard at that,” the president told reporters at the White House.

As for the funding, the government is requesting $14.1billion in its 2020 budget proposal for investing in space operations, a key part of which is the first allocation of $72 million to establish a Space Force headquarters.

As brilliant as the idea of having a dedicated military branch to secure the infinite deeps of space may seem to a lot of people, it is definitely not without its fair share of detractors.

Critics and naysayers, including National security specialists and US Armed Forces officials, have openly voiced their concerns against the creation of such an entity.

Their argument is based on the premise that creating a separate force for space-related activities of the US Armed Forces would encroach on the domain of the US Air Force Space Command, which currently manages that particular area of the nation’s security concerns.

From The Editors Science

NASA Says the Moon is Shrivelling Up like a Raisin, Causing Moonquakes in the Process

Scientists have known for the last decade, or so, that the moon has shrunk by at least 150 feet (50 meters) over the last several hundred million years as its interior kept losing heat.

Giving the analogy of a shrinking and wrinkling grape as it transforms into a raisin, NASA says that the moon also shrank and wrinkled up as it cooled down.

However, owing to the fact that the lunar crust is brittle, unlike the supple exterior of a grape, it broke up, creating “thrust faults” where sections of the crust got pushed up over adjacent parts.

A team of researchers analyzing new images from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) spacecraft has found evidence that suggests the moon is continuing to shrink even today, causing thrust faults which, in turn, produce moonquakes as they slip.

“Our analysis gives the first evidence that these faults are still active and likely producing moonquakes today as the Moon continues to gradually cool and shrink,” said Thomas Watters, a senior scientist at the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, and the lead author of the research, published Monday (May 14) in Nature Geoscience.

“Some of these quakes can be fairly strong, around five on the Richter scale,” Watters added.

The new research was based on seismic data from the 1960s and 70s, recorded by four out of five seismometers left on the lunar surface by astronauts during Apollo missions  11, 12, 14, 15, and 16.

Barring the Apollo 11 seismometer, which lasted a mere three weeks, the remaining four registered a total of 28 shallow moonquakes, ranging from two to five on the Richter scale, between 1969 and 1977.

Using an algorithm, Watters and his team were able to get a better estimate of the location and epicenter of the quakes.

The new location-estimates revealed that 8 of the 28 quakes were not more than 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) from the thrust faults seen in lunar images, which led them to “tentatively” conclude that the quakes were caused by fault slips.

The researchers also noticed that six of the eight quakes occurred when the moon was at or approaching its apogee, the farthest point in its orbit around Earth, where tidal stress from Earth’s gravity is at peak levels, making the thrust faults more prone to “slip-events.”

To give more veracity to their conclusion, the researchers ran 10,000 simulations to determine whether so many quakes near the faults at the time of maximum stress could be a coincidence, only to discover that it was less than a four percent probability.

The possibility of meteoroid impacts causing the quakes was also ruled out because their seismic signature is different from that of quakes caused by slipping faults.

“We think it’s very likely that these eight quakes were produced by faults slipping as stress built up when the lunar crust was compressed by global contraction and tidal forces, indicating that the Apollo seismometers recorded the shrinking Moon and the Moon is still tectonically active,” said Watters.

Further evidence of the faults being active comes from high-definition images from the camera onboard the LRO, which has photographed more than 3,500 fault scarps – step-like cliffs on the lunar surface that are generally tens of meters high and can extend for several kilometers.

A number of these images show boulders and landslides at the bottom of the fault scarp slopes or nearby areas, which are relatively brighter than the rest of the surroundings, indicating freshly exposed patches that have not been darkened by solar and space radiation.

Now, that could most likely be the result of moonquakes sending debris down the slopes of the fault scarps.

Further confirmation that these are recent lunar events comes from some of the other LROC images that show tracks made by boulders rolling down a scarp slope during a moonquake caused by slipping faults.

Had the tracks not been recent enough, they would have been obliterated pretty quickly, geologically speaking, by constant micrometeoroid bombardment that the lunar surface is exposed to.

Faults in the Schrödinger basin of the moon show boulder tracks that scientists say are the result of recent boulder falls caused by seismic activity.

Here’s what LRO project scientist John Keller of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, had to say about the latest findings.

“It’s really remarkable to see how data from nearly 50 years ago and from the LRO mission has been combined to advance our understanding of the Moon while suggesting where future missions intent on studying the Moon’s interior processes should go.”

With a decade’s worth of LRO images at their disposal, Watters and his team are of the opinion that comparing images of specific fault areas from different times may provide more proof of recent moonquakes.

Study co-author Renee Weber, a planetary seismologist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, says that more seismometers should be put on the moon for a better insight into lunar events.

“Establishing a new network of seismometers on the lunar surface should be a priority for human exploration of the Moon, both to learn more about the Moon’s interior and to determine how much of a hazard moonquakes present,” he said.

The Team

Thomas R. Watters (lead author) – Center for Earth and Planetary Studies, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, USA

Renee C. Weber (co-author) – NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, AL, USA

Geoffrey C. Collins (co-author) – Physics and Astronomy Department, Wheaton College, Norton, MA, USA

Ian J. Howley (co-author) – NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, AL, USA

Nicholas C. Schmerr (co-author) – the University of Maryland, Department of Geology, College Park, MD, USA

Catherine L. Johnson (co-author) – Dept. of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada

From The Editors Science

Blue Origin Unveils Full-Scale Mock-Up of Lunar Lander ‘Blue Moon’

In an invitation-only event at the Washington Convention Center in Washington, DC., members of the press and space industry representatives witnessed the unveiling of a life-size mock-up of ‘Blue Moon’ – spaceflight company Blue Origin’s lunar lander.

The company’s founder and CEO Jeff Bezos says Blue Moon is capable of carrying 3.6 metric tons of large payloads, including rovers, satellites, and scientific equipment to the lunar surface.

Also, a subsequent “stretch tank” version with a 6.5-ton payload capacity will be able to put astronauts back on the moon by as early as 2024.

“This is an incredible vehicle, and it’s going to the Moon,” Bezos said after the historic reveal, adding: “If that does not inspire you, you are at the wrong event.”

Bezos also revealed a new BE-7 engine that will power both versions of the lander with a thrust of 10,000 lb using liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants, instead of a storable hypergolic propellant.

“It’s very high performance,” says Bezos. “Ultimately, we’re going to be able to get hydrogen from that water on the moon, and be able to refuel these vehicles on the surface of the moon.”

The advantage of using liquid hydrogen is manifold; not only can its boiloff be used as a coolant for the liquid oxygen, but it can also be fed into a fuel cell system where it can generate enough electricity to power the lander during the two-week long lunar nights.

“We chose hydrogen fuel cells for this vehicle rather than solar cells because we want to be able to survive the lunar night,” he said.

Blue Moon’s fuel-loaded lift-off weight of 33,000 lb will reduce to about 7,000 lb at the time of lunar touchdown.

Bezos has always had a fascination with space and the limitless possibilities it holds, with an early interest in the idea of “space hotels, amusement parks, colonies and small cities for 2-3 million people orbiting Earth.”

It was this obsession with space travel and exploration that led Bezos to found Blue Origin, back in 2000.

So, the Amazon billionaire didn’t really surprise anybody when speaking at the International Space Development Conference, in May last year, he said that his company Blue Origin was open to working with NASA, SpaceX or the European Space Agency (ESA) to realize his vision of colonizing space.

And, what better place to start than the moon, not only because of its proximity to Earth but also because of the presence of large deposits of water ice near its poles, not to mention the fact that the lunar surface gets plenty of sunlight.

Addressing a group of students at Seattle’s Museum of Flight, Bezos stressed upon the importance of moving equipment and supplies and assembling them on the surface of the moon with the help of advanced robotics and machine learning, before humans can actually populate the place.

“I think we should build a permanent human settlement on one of the poles of the moon, and it’s time to go back to the moon but this time to stay,” he said.

“And, there you’d want to preposition a whole bunch of equipment and supplies before the humans show up; and some of those things need to be assembled on the surface of the moon and that’s the kind of thing that could also be done by advanced robotics with machine learning systems on board,” Bezos added

There are other players, both private and government, who would likely be interested in partnering with Blue Origin, including SpaceX, although Elon Musk is more fixated on the red planet than the moon.

The European Space Agency’s ‘Moon Village’ vision is particularly appealing to Bezos, who says that the idea of building individual lunar outposts by different companies in close proximity to each other would lead to inter-lunar cooperation among different outposts, helping each other out in times of need.

“The Moon Village concept has a nice property in that everybody basically just says, look, everybody builds their own lunar outpost, but let’s do it close to each other,” Bezos said.

“That way, if you need a cup of sugar, you can go over to the European Union lunar outpost and say, ‘I got my powdered eggs, what have you got?’” he quipped.

“Obviously, I’m being silly with the eggs, but there will be real things, like, ‘Do you have some oxygen?’” he added.

Bezos is also convinced that there’s no better place than the moon for Earth’s heavy industry because in times to come, Earth will not remain the best place for it.

“The Earth is not a very good place to do heavy industry. It’s convenient for us right now, but in the not-too-distant future — I’m talking decades, maybe 100 years — it’ll start to be easier to do a lot of the things that we currently do on Earth in space because we’ll have so much energy,” he said.

The ever-increasing population and the resultant demand on the dwindling resources on Earth, plus the fact that there will be no dearth of solar-powered energy in space outposts, do give credence to Bezos lunar logic.

“We will have to leave this planet,” Bezos said. “We’re going to leave it, and it’s going to make this planet better,” he said, adding: “We’ll come and go, and the people who want to stay will stay.”

While the moon is where Bezos plans to start his space colonization from, for reasons already mentioned, his long-term vision encompasses solar-powered colonies in the solar-system with millions of people living and working in them. He even sees hollow asteroids as potential space outposts.

Bezos said that although he is committed to building the rockets and landers, he would be happy if other companies took over the responsibility of building rovers, habitable accommodation and all the other stuff necessary to colonize the moon on such a large scale.

“One of two things will happen,” he said. “Either other people will take over the vision, or I’ll run out of money.”

Considering he’s the richest man on Earth, it’s unlikely he’ll ever run out of money; on the contrary, he could end up becoming the richest man in space, as well.

From The Editors Science

Cambridge Scientists to Adopt Radical Methods to Avert Imminent Climate Catastrophe

As a climate catastrophe looms larger than ever before, scientists at the Cambridge University are working on setting up a research center to find radical ways of fixing the planet’s rapidly deteriorating environment, before it spells our doom.

Desperate times call for desperate measures!

As clichéd and dramatic as it may sound, it’s probably what the Cambridge scientists had in mind when they took the much-needed initiative, which is being coordinated by Prof Sir David King, former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

“What we do over the next 10 years will determine the future of humanity for the next 10,000 years,” Sir David told the BBC News, adding: “There is no major center in the world that would be focused on this one big issue.”

Part of Cambridge university’s Carbon Neutral Futures Initiative, the Center for Climate Repair is being headed by climate scientist and mathematician Emily Shuckburgh, Director of Research at the University of Cambridge and Honorary Fellow at the British Arctic Survey.

“This really is one of the most important challenges of our time, and we know we need to be responding to it with all our efforts,” Shuckburgh told BBC News.

Concerns that the ongoing efforts alone will not make much of a difference in the fight against climate change has led to this new line of thinking, which is expected to stem the rot by drastically reducing CO2 emissions.

Some of the ideas that the researchers are looking forward to exploring include refreezing the polar regions, recycling carbon dioxide, and greening the oceans – collectively known as geoengineering.

Pole Refreezing

Conceptually, the approach is as simple as brightening/whitening the clouds above the polar regions to increase their ability to reflect heat back into space; it’s the implementation that may prove to be tricky.

The idea being proposed is to deploy unmanned ships with tall masts and pump seawater up the masts through special nozzles, thereby producing tiny salt particles that can then be sprayed into the clouds, making them more reflective.

Recycling Carbon Dioxide

If CO2 emissions from various sources could be harnessed and converted into synthetic fuel, a good portion of the world’s emission problems would be solved, but again, it’s the method that needs to be perfected.

Prof Peter Styring of the University of Sheffield – a researcher specializing in novel sorbents and processes for carbon dioxide capture, purification, and utilization – is working with Tata Steel on exactly such a pilot in Port Talbot in South Wales.

If all goes well, it would go a long way in making large-scale CO2 recycling a global reality.

“We have a source of hydrogen, we have a source of carbon dioxide, we have a source of heat and we have a source of renewable electricity from the plant,” Prof Styring told BBC News.

“We’re going to harness all those and we’re going to make synthetic fuels,” he added.

Ocean Greening

Greening the oceans by promoting the growth of vegetation such as algae and plankton on the surface is another approach under consideration.
The idea is to fertilize the oceans with iron salts which are known to stimulate such growth; the more the growth the more the absorption of CO2 from the air by way of photosynthesis.

Earlier attempts at ocean greening have shown that the amount CO2 absorbed is not enough to make the scheme worthy of the resources involved; plus, there’s the likelihood of upsetting the ecological balance.

But, don’t forget these are desperate times, and considering the enormity of the impending threat, all available options need to be revisited.

“Early in my career, people threw their hands up in horror at suggestions of more interventionist solutions to fix coral reefs,” Prof Callum Roberts of York University told BBC News.

“Now they are looking in desperation at an ecosystem that will be gone at the end of the century and now all options are on the table,” he said.

“At the moment, I happen to think that harnessing nature to mitigate climate change is a better way to go. But I do see the legitimacy of exploring [more radical] options as a means of steering us towards a better future,” added the professor.

A recent study, ranking the environmental targets of different countries, holds the climate change policies of dozens of them, including China, Russia, and Canada, responsible for the expected 5C-plus temperature rise by the end of the century.

Published in the journal Nature Communications in November last year, the paper reveals that these countries are not pursuing their climate change pledges to the United Nations sincerely enough to avoid an environmental catastrophe, which as of now is a foregone conclusion.

According to the Paris Agreement of December 2015, adopted within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), hundreds of countries pledged individual NDCs, or Nationally Determined Contributions, toward a collective environmental goal.

The NDC calls for member countries to ensure that their individual contributions to climate change are ambitious, progressive and Agreement-centric enough to achieve the “aspirational levels” of 1.5 °C – 2 °C by 2100.

However, the authors note that the NDCs are self-serving and not in keeping with the Paris Agreement, as a result of which the aspirational level targets have little chance of being met.

“Current NDCs individually align, at best, with divergent concepts of equity and are collectively inconsistent with the Paris Agreement,” writes study head and lead author Yann Robiou du Pont from the Australian-German Climate & Energy College, University of Melbourne, along with co-author and university colleague Malte Meinshausen.

If the existing state of affairs does not change soon enough, we could well be looking at a 2.3 °C increase in global temperatures by 2100,” say the authors.

“Extending such a self-interested bottom-up aggregation of equity might lead to a median 2100-warming of 2.3 °C,” they write.

Robiou du Pont and Meinshausen do, however, believe that “tightening the warming goal of each country’s effort-sharing approach to aspirational levels of 1.1 °C and 1.3 °C could achieve the 1.5 °C and well-below 2 °C-thresholds, respectively.”

Calling the suggested target revision a “new hybrid allocation,” the authors say that it’s a reconciliation between “the bottom-up nature of the Paris Agreement” and its “top-down warming thresholds and provides a temperature metric to assess NDCs.”

The UNFCCC objective of stabilizing GHG (Greenhouse Gas) concentrations, based on the principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities (CBDR-RC) to push global warming targets, is far from being met as portrayed by the NDCs.

“While the quest for a common understanding of what is a fair effort-sharing continues, rapidly falling technology costs of renewables and increasing mitigation co-benefits shift the attention away from effort-sharing considerations,” note the authors.

“However, current bottom-up NDCs do not add up to a global ambition consistent with the joint temperature goals,” they say, suggesting that “a 5-year stocktake requires all countries to pledge enhanced actions and support.”

Per the current NDCs, India is leading the pack with a warming target of 2.6 °C, which is rather impressive considering it only marginally exceeds the upper target threshold of 2C.

“The greenest countries on this assessment are the least developed,” The Independent quotes Robiou du Pont as having said.

“Given that they pollute so much less, have polluted so much less and have low per capita GDP, they could increase their emissions to some extent, and that would be fair,” Robiou du Pont told the online newspaper.

The industrialized nations, on the other hand, are the poor performers, with China and major energy exporters like Saudi Arabia, Canada and Russia among the top offenders with their NDCs leading to a potentially catastrophic 5C-plus warming.

“Many industrialized countries perform poorly. After all, we know that industrialisation brought climate change,” Robiou du Pont told The Independent, adding that it did not mean that these countries could not take corrective measures.

Among the countries pursuing policies that are likely to lead the planet to a 4C temperature jump, are Australia (heavily dependent on coal exports) and the United States, which is looking to balance its industry, energy and agricultural emissions by encouraging more renewables.

Slightly better-off are EU countries, with most of them producing emissions that would raise the planet’s temperatures by 3C.

“It is interesting is to see how far out some countries are, even those that are considered leaders in the climate mitigation narrative,” the Guardian quoted Robiou du Pont as saying.

It is, therefore, heartening to know that initiatives like the Center for Climate Repair are being undertaken and that serious efforts are being made to save the planet from an imminent ecological disaster.

From The Editors Science

Blue Origin’s New Shepard Rocket Carries 38 Experimental Payloads to Space and Back

Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos got one step closer to realizing his long-time dream of ferrying paying passengers to space when on Thursday his spaceflight company Blue Origin launched and landed its retrievable New Shephard booster and capsule for the fifth consecutive time.

It also marked the Kent-Washington-headquartered company’s eleventh test launch, overall, since April 2015.

The rocket lifted off from the company’s west-Texas launch facility at 9:32 a.m. EDT (1332 GMT; 8:32 a.m. local time) on May 2, carrying 38 experimental payloads to an altitude of 65.5 miles – beyond the internationally recognized Kármán line at 62.13 miles above sea-level.

On reaching its apogee (the highest point in a rocket’s trajectory), the booster separated from the capsule to return back to Earth for a picture-perfect rocket-powered landing, touching down tail first on its designated concrete pad.

The capsule carrying the experimental payloads followed soon after, making a soft touchdown with the help of three parachutes it deployed on re-entry.

The entire sequence, right from launch to separation to landing and recovery of booster and capsule, took just over ten minutes.

“A beautiful, beautiful launch of the booster and capsule today. Incredible,”  said Ariane Cornell, Blue Origin’s director of astronaut and orbital sales. “This has been quite the morning.”

According to Blue Origin, the Crew Capsule 2.0 used for the mission boasts “the largest windows in space,” measuring 110 centimeters in height and 73 centimeters in width. The previous version had painted-on windows.

Considering the company’s future plan of carrying paying passengers to space, which could happen as early as next year, the windows bit does make a lot of sense.

As explained on the Blue Origin website, “the New Shepard capsule’s interior is an ample 530 cubic feet – offering over 10 times the room Alan Shepard had on his Mercury flight. It seats six astronauts and is large enough for you to float freely and turn weightless somersaults.”

Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000 and kept it away from the public eye until 2006 when he purchased a large tract of land in west Texas to build the infrastructure for launch and test purposes.

The company has been exploring and building technologies to enable humans to get access to space travel by lowering costs and increasing the reliability factor.

While last week’s launch involved the third iteration of the New Shephard launch vehicle (NS3), a fourth version is being built for the intended space tourism flights.

Here’s a quick look at all the eleven launches since April 2015, including the last five involving the third-gen New Shephard booster, the NS3, and the Crew Capsule 2.0.

New Shepard Test Flight 1 (April 19, 2015)

The first New Shepard (NS1) test flight, which saw the unmanned space vehicle reach its intended test apogee of 93.5 km at a top speed of Mach 3 (3675 km/h), was a partial success.

While the company was able to achieve a parachute-aided landing of the capsule, it failed to land the booster, which crashed due to hydraulic failure in the vehicle control system.

New Shepard Test Flight 2 (Nov 23, 2015)

After losing NS1, Blue Horizon built a second New Shephard, the NS2, launching it on Nov 23, 2015.

It went beyond the 100-kilometer mark and, both, booster and capsule returned safely back to Earth, marking Blue Horizon’s first ever successful retrieval of the reusable booster.

New Shepard Test Flight 3 (Jan 22, 2016)

NS2 was used again for the January 22, 2016 mission, effectively demonstrating the re-usability of the booster.

The rocket reached its apogee of 101.7 km, and again, booth booster and capsule returned back to base and were recovered for future use.

New Shepard Test Flight 4 (April 2, 2016)

In its third test flight, the NS2 went beyond the 62.5-mile mark and returned back to Earth without incident, with booster and capsule making their usual powered and parachuted landings, respectively.

New Shepard Test Flight 5 (June 19, 2016)

The fifth New Shepard launch – fourth for NS2 – took place on June 19, 2016, with the same success in terms of altitude reached and booster-capsule retrieval.

New Shepard Test Flight 6 (Oct 5, 2016)

NS2 was retired after its fifth and final test flight on October 5, 2016 – again a success as far as achieving test mission and returning safely back to the planet was concerned.

New Shepard Test Flight 7 (Dec 12, 2017)

In addition to the capsule, there were twelve commercial, research and education payloads on board, along with an “instrumented dummy” inside the capsule, appropriately dubbed Mannequin Skywalker.

After reaching an altitude of 61.75 miles – just shy of the Kármán line – the booster and capsule separated and returned to earth, executing their well-choreographed landing sequences to perfection, with Mannequin Skywalker apparently unharmed inside the ample space of Crew Capsule 2.0.

The seventh New Shepard mission, using a brand new booster and capsule – the NS3 and Crew Capsule 2.0 – was successfully accomplished on December 12, 2017, with both booster and capsule returning without incident.

New Shepard Test Flight 8 (April 29, 2018)

The NS3 booster and Crew Capsule 2.0 were deployed for a second time for the Apr 2018 mission, reaching an apogee of about 67 miles before separating for the return journey.

New Shepard Test Flight 9 (July 18, 2018)

This was the third mission involving the NS3 and Crew Capsule 2.0, which saw the booster and capsule separate at a 73.8-mile apogee.

New Shepard Test Flight 10 (Jan 23, 2019)

Earlier scheduled for Dec 18, 2018, the fourth test flight mission of the new booster-capsule combo carried eight experimental payloads provided by NASA to an altitude of about 67 miles.

New Shepard Test Flight 11 (May 2, 2019)

Last week’s mission, discussed earlier, was the 11th overall and the fifth for NS3 and Crew Capsule 2.0

From The Editors Science

Threat From Asteroid Strikes is Not Only about Movies; It’s for Real, Says NASA Chief

In his keynote address at the 2019 IAA Planetary Defense Conference in College Park, Maryland, USA, on Monday (April 29), NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine warned that the threat to Earth from asteroid strikes was as real as it gets.

He urged the international space community to create awareness among people that devastation from asteroid strikes was not only about what Hollywood shows us but about defending Earth – the only habitat we know of.

“We have to make sure that people understand that this is not about Hollywood, it’s not about movies,” Bridenstine was quoted by as having said at the conference.

“This is about ultimately protecting the only planet we know right now to host life, and that is the planet Earth,” said the NASA head.

As part of the  “National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan” announced in June last year, this gathering of NASA, FEMA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the International Asteroid Warning Network representatives, among others, will conclude on May 3.

The five-day event will see the participants conduct an “asteroid impact exercise,” playing out mock impact scenarios to enhance preparedness for the real thing if, or should we say when, it does happen.

Asteroid expert Andrew Rivkin – a planetary astronomer at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, told NBC News MACH in an email that “exercises like this have been run at several conferences over the years, and government agencies have also ​had them.”

“It’s definitely worth doing, if only so people are aware of the issues and how complex some of them are,” he wrote.

Comparing the exercise to a fire drill, Rivkin said that the aftermath of a major asteroid hit would be catastrophic if what happened to the dinosaurs is anything to go by.

He was, obviously, referring to the six-mile-wide asteroid that hit our planet some 65 million years ago, wiping out the dinosaurs from the face of the Earth – or, so it is believed.

But. we need not end up like the dinosaurs, or the other species that went with them, because we have the necessary resources at our disposal; we just have to make the most of them.

“We know for a fact that the dinosaurs did not have a space program. But we do, and we need to use it,” Bridenstine said.

But, why go so far back in time to emphasize the threat we’re exposed to, when the recent Chelyabinsk Event is scary enough to justify all the good things, including the ongoing conference, being done to minimize the probabilities of a repeat.

The 66-foot-wide supersonic meteor smashed into the atmosphere above the city of Chelyabinsk in the Ural Mountains, sending shockwaves so powerful that at least 1,500 people were injured and more than 7,000 buildings in six cities were damaged.

“I wish I could tell you that these events are exceptionally unique, but they are not,” Bridenstine said about the Chelyabinsk Event.

“These events are not rare — they happen. It’s up to us to make sure that we are characterizing, detecting, tracking all of the near-Earth objects that could be a threat to the world,” he added.

The aforementioned Federal ‘preparedness strategy and action plan’ notwithstanding, there’s a lot that still needs to be done in terms of increased monitoring systems across the globe, for which international cooperation is the need of the hour, says Bridenstine.

“We’re only about a third of the way there,” he said, adding: “We want more international partners that can join us in this effort.

“We want more systems on the face of the Earth that can detect and track these objects, and we want to be able to feed all of that data into one single operating system so that ultimately, we have the best, most accurate data that we can possibly get.”

NASA knows that merely chasing these potential threats is not going to save Earth from another mass extinction and, probably, thousands of years of ice-age, should one of them slam into us.

The good news is that the agency has been working on a planetary-defense mission called DART, an acronym for Double Asteroid Redirection Test, to save us from exactly such an eventuality.

DART is essentially an impactor spacecraft that NASA plans to crash into an asteroid satellite at 13,500 miles per hour in an effort to change its course.

The idea is to find out how much the car-sized impactor can change the trajectory of the target space rock and whether it’s enough to redirect an Earth-bound asteroid safely away from us.

The space rock that NASA has in its crosshairs for the planned Oct 2022 hit is, in fact, a satellite moonlet nicknamed Didymoon, about seven million miles away from Earth.

Measuring 150 meters across, the moonlet orbits an 800-meter-wide asteroid called Didymos, from where it derives its nickname.

While Didymoon is not on a collision course with Earth and poses no threat to us whatsoever, a detailed study of the space object, and then slamming into it to bump it off its bearings, should provide the DART team with useful data that can come in handy in averting a real asteroid threat, if ever it came to that.

Not only will ground telescopes track the new course of the twin objects post-impact, but an Italian Space Agency CubeSat called ‘Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging of Asteroids’ will accompany the mission to keep an eye on proceedings.

Additionally, as part of an international Asteroid Impact Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission, the European Space Agency (ESA) will launch two CubeSats, APEX (Asteroid Prospection Explorer) and Juventas, onboard the agency’s Hera spacecraft, in time to reach the binary asteroid system sometime in 2026 to record the effects of the DART collision, according to NASA.

To test potential techniques in “deflecting” an asteroid – one of the preferred methods for mitigating a threat – DART will travel to the Didymos binary asteroid system via its a xenon-based electric propulsion system, steering with an onboard camera and sophisticated autonomous navigation software,” says NASA.

DART is expected to send back a close-up shot of the Didymoon surface – its last transmission to Earth – just before it is pulverized into space dust.

For any Solar System body to qualify as a near-Earth object, its closest approach to the Sun has to be less than 1.3 astronomical units (AU), the equivalent of nearly 121 million miles.

Among the 20,000 near-Earth asteroids and comets orbiting the Sun is a 500-meter-wide asteroid called Bennu, which has a 1-in-2,700 chance of smashing into Earth sometime between 2175 and 2196, say scientists.

The potentially hazardous object (PHO), “listed on the Sentry Risk Table with the second-highest cumulative rating on the Palermo Technical Impact Hazard Scale,” is currently 54 million miles from Earth.

For all we know, Bennu might just turn out be the asteroid that NASA has to knock off-course to save the planet in the future; that’s when the knowledge gained from the DART mission will come in handy – unless the 500-meter rock, or some other NEO, hits us sooner.

Honestly, that’s unlikely, but time will tell.

From The Editors Science

Should Pluto’s Planet Status Be Reinstated? The Debate Still Rages in the Astronomical Community

Pluto, the icy body in the outer reaches of the solar system, was considered the ninth planet in the system from the time it was discovered in 1930 up until 2006, when it was controversially reclassified as a dwarf planet by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) – the global authority for naming and designating celestial objects.

The IAU has since been at the receiving end by many scientists and astronomers who disagree with the union’s decision and have fiercely advocated for Pluto’s planetary status to be reinstated.

The contentious decision was based on the definition of a planet, which many scientists argue has been inconsistently applied in the case of Pluto.

In a scientific paper published in the journal Icarus in September last year, a group of scientists, led by the study’s main author Philip Metzger – a planetary scientist at the University of Central Florida – maintain that the IAU’s definition of a planet is not in the interest of science and, hence, should be revisited.

“What we’re doing is fact-checking,” Metzger, was quoted by NBC News as having said.

“There are 120 examples I found of scientists in the recently published literature violating the IAU definition, calling something a planet even though the IAU definition says it’s not a planet,” he said.

“The reason planetary scientists do this is because the IAU definition is not useful for science,” Metzger added.

Pluto’s planetary status came into question in 2005 when astronomers at the California Institute of Astronomy (Caltech) –  a private doctorate-granting research university in Pasadena, California – discovered a Pluto-like celestial object in the distant solar system.

The object, which came to be known as Eres, was touted as a new addition to the planetary line-up at the time, but when more such objects were discovered in the Kuiper-belt neighborhood, the astronomical community was in a quandary over the definition of a planet.

Several definitions were considered and reconsidered before IAU called a press conference in Prague, in 2006, to give a new meaning to the term “planet,” thereby stripping Pluto of its planetary status and downgrading it to a “dwarf planet.”

The new resolution stated that in order for a solar system object in to qualify as a planet, it needed to meet three conditions:

  • It has to orbit the sun
  • It has to be rounded by its own gravity, for which it has to be large enough to allow its gravitation pull to shape it into a sphere
  • It has to be pretty much the only object in its orbit, meaning it has to be gravitationally dominant-enough to have evicted most objects in its orbital vicinity.

While Pluto meets the first two criteria hands down, it falls short of qualifying as a planet when it comes to the third condition, because its orbit is littered with other icy bodies exerting their own gravitational forces.

Although thirteen years have passed since that eventful September day when Pluto ceased to be a planet and became a “dwarf planet,” the debate over the controversial definition and Pluto’s standing in the planetary hierarchy still rages on in the astronomical community.

NASA’s principal investigator for New Horizons mission to Pluto, Alan Stern, and other like-minded scientists have rubbished the revised definition, saying that it is flawed and needs to be reversed.

Writing in The Washington Post in May 2018, Stern and co-author of the article, David Grinspoon – an American astrobiologist and senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona – stated that the IAU’s definition of a planet was “deeply flawed.”

“The process for redefining planet was deeply flawed and widely criticized even by those who accepted the outcome,” wrote Stern and Grinspoon.

“For one thing, it defines a planet as an object orbiting around our sun — thereby disqualifying the planets around other stars, ignoring the exoplanet revolution, and decreeing that essentially all the planets in the universe are not, in fact, planets,” they said.

“To add insult to injury, they amended their convoluted definition with the vindictive and linguistically paradoxical statement that “a dwarf planet is not a planet.” This seemingly served no purpose but to satisfy those motivated by a desire — for whatever reason — to ensure that Pluto was “demoted” by the new definition,” they wrote.

In fact, Stern was scheduled to debate Ron Ekers – former IAU president (2003 to 2006) – at the Powell Auditorium at the Cosmos Club on the definition of a planet and Pluto’s classification in our solar system in Washington, DC, on Monday.

Kuiper Belt

Kuiper Belt is the ring-shaped accumulation of matter made up gas, dust, planetesimals, asteroids, or collision debris – also known as the circumstellar disk – in the far reaches of the solar system.

It is home to three known dwarf planets, including Pluto, Haumea, and Makemake, in addition to other icy objects.

Ultima Thule is the latest Kuiper Belt object (KBO), which NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew by as recently as New Year’s Day this year.

When it was thirty-three minutes past midnight in New York; when the ball had already dropped in Times Square to usher in 2019; when parties were in full swing across the city; history was made four billion miles out in space.

Technically, history happened in the blink of an eye, as NASA spacecraft New Horizons zipped past the tiny KBO at a lusty speed of 32,280 miles per hour – that’s 9 miles in a second, to put things in perspective.

However, confirmation of the historic flyby came only after an agonizing wait of six hours and eight minutes – that’s how long it took the radio signal from the robotic craft to travel through the void of space before it was plucked from the air by a NASA deep space radio dish in Madrid.

Coming back to the Pluto debate, Stern and Grinspoon summed it up extremely well when they wrote:

“The word “planet” predates and transcends science. Language is malleable and responsive to culture. Words are not defined by voting. Neither is scientific paradigm.”

From The Editors Science

New Study Says Our Universe is Expanding Much Faster Than Expected

A new study, published on April 25 in the Astrophysical Journal, has revealed that our universe is expanding alarmingly faster than expected, effectively raising more questions about one of the biggest mysteries in astronomy than answering them

Although astronomers have known all along that the universe has been expanding ever since the big bang more than 13 billion years ago, the fact that it is growing about nine percent faster than earlier predictions, as the new Hubble measurements suggest, calls for new theories to better understand the forces that have shaped the cosmos.

The difference in the expansion rate of the modern universe and the measurements of the early universe (based on estimates from the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite), has been the subject of many a scientific paper over the last several years.

However, the disparity reflected this time around is far too significant to pass it off as a fluke or blame it on different measurement techniques.
Hubble constant, or the rate at which the universe is expanding, is prone to discrepancies, depending on the method used by scientists to measure it, but the latest findings have reduced the probability of the disparity being a fluke from 1 in 3,000 to 1 in 100,000.

“The Hubble tension between the early and late universe may be the most exciting development in cosmology in decades,” said Nobel laureate Adam Riess of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) and Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, Maryland.

This mismatch has been growing and has now reached a point that is really impossible to dismiss as a fluke. This disparity could not plausibly occur just by chance,” Reiss, who is also the lead researcher of the study, added.

The Planck technique measures the expansion at around 67 kilometers (41.6 miles) per second per megaparsec, which means for every 3.26 million light-years farther away a galaxy is from us, the expansion of the universe is causing it to move 67 kilometers per second faster.

The technique involves mapping of the cosmic microwave background (CMB), or the condition of the universe as it was 380, 000 years after the big bang – “a relic afterglow” as NASA describes it.

The Hubble method calculated the Hubble constant at 74 kilometers (46 miles) per second per megaparsec – the difference between the two measurements being the nine percent disparity in question.

The Hubble Space Telescope method of calculating the Hubble constant involves three basic steps, all of which require building a “cosmic distance ladder.”

To start with, accurate distances to neighboring galaxies are measured, moving farther and farther away to distant galaxies, building the so-called “cosmic distance ladder” in the process.

“This “ladder” is a series of measurements of different kinds of astronomical objects with an intrinsic brightness that researchers can use to calculate distances,” explains NASA.

“Among the most reliable for shorter distances are Cepheid variables, stars that pulsate at predictable rates that indicate their intrinsic brightness,” says the space agency.

New observations of 70 Cepheid variables in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a nearby satellite galaxy, allowed the astronomers to compare the measurements of these Cepheid variables to those in more distant galaxies, including exploding stars called Type Ia supernovas.

Since supernovas are much brighter than Cepheids, astronomers use them as “milepost markers” to calculate the distance to galaxies that are farther away in the outer reaches of the universe.

Each marker represents a rung in the “cosmic distance ladder,” which can be extended by adding more reliable markers, thereby enabling astronomers to reach farther and farther away to far-flung galaxies.

The distances to these markers are then compared to measurements of the reddish glow emanating from an entire galaxy, the redness increasing with distance – a result of the uniform expansion of the universe.

Astronomers can then work out the rate at which the universe is expanding.

“When Hubble uses precise pointing by locking onto guide stars, it can only observe one Cepheid per each 90-minute Hubble orbit around Earth. So, it would be very costly for the telescope to observe each Cepheid,” said Stefano Casertano, one of the co-authors of the study – also from STScI and Johns Hopkins.

“Instead, we searched for groups of Cepheids close enough to each other that we could move between them without recalibrating the telescope pointing,” he explained.

“These Cepheids are so bright, we only need to observe them for two seconds,” Casertano said, adding that the technique was allowing the team “to observe a dozen Cepheids for the duration of one orbit.”

As to why the universe is expanding at such a rapid pace is still a burning question for the astronomers which requires further research.

There are, however, a few “dark” theories, including the “early dark energy”, the “dark radiation” and the “dark matter” theories, that attempt to explain the disparity.

NASA’s April 25 article states:

“Astronomers have already hypothesized that dark energy existed during the first seconds after the big bang and pushed matter throughout space, starting the initial expansion.

“Dark energy may also be the reason for the universe’s accelerated expansion today. The new theory suggests that there was a third dark-energy episode not long after the big bang, which expanded the universe faster than astronomers had predicted.

“The existence of this “early dark energy” could account for the tension between the two Hubble constant values, Riess said.”

The other explanation for the mismatch is the presence of a new subatomic particle in space which travels close to the speed of light; collectively, these fast-moving particles are known as “dark radiation.”

Previously known particles, including neutrinos, (created in nuclear reactions and radioactive decays) are also part of this dark radiation.

As for “dark matter,” although it exists only in theory, scientists strongly believe that it is an all-pervasive reality in galaxy clusters, accounting for 85 percent of all matter in the known and unknown universe.

Their conviction is based on astrophysical observations such as unexplained gravitational forces, which, obviously, can’t come from anything.

Meaning, while they can see the powerful gravitational effects of the so-called dark matter, they can’t really see the matter itself; hence, the name.

A recent study, however, claims to have found a way to track the dark matter.

Using deep-space imagery captured by the Hubble Telescope, astronomers Mireia Montes (School of Physics, University of New South Wales, Australia) and Ignacio Trujillo (Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, La Laguna, Tenerife, Spain) were able to see the invisible matter in an unprecedented light, literally.

From The Editors Science

FCC Allows SpaceX to Launch its Starlink Internet Satellites in a Lower Earth Orbit

A major regulatory hurdle in the way of Elon Musk’s Starlink project – his ambitious plan to launch broadband services from space – has finally been overcome.

The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has approved his spaceflight company SpaceX’s application to modify its original approval, which allowed the company to operate 4,425 satellites at an orbital of altitude 1,150 km.

The revised application requested the Commission to let SpaceX reduce the number of its Starlink constellation of satellites to 4,409 and re-position 1,584 of them to a lower orbital altitude of 550 km.

Now that the modification request has got the FCC nod, SpaceX is expected to start launching its internet-beaming, non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) satellites from Florida, sometime next month.

Welcoming the FCC decision, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said: “This approval underscores the FCC’s confidence in SpaceX’s plans to deploy its next-generation satellite constellation and connect people around the world with reliable and affordable broadband service.”

The approval came despite apprehensions raised by companies like OneWeb and Kepler Communications – SpaceX’s competition in space broadband services – arguing that the Starlink satellites would interfere with their own satellites if allowed to fly at a reduced altitude.

However, the Commission overruled their petitions, noting in its approval that the proposed changes did not pose any interference threat to other satellites and that it was in the public interest.

In response to objections raised about collision risks, FCC said that SpaceX had provided the commission a detailed statement, explaining that the Starlink satellites were equipped with propulsion systems and had the maneuverability to avoid collisions.

“We find no reason to defer action on SpaceX’s modification request as requested by certain commenters,” the Commission wrote in clause 22 of the approval.

“Our rules do not prohibit SpaceX’s selection of an orbital regime that is also used by other satellite operators, but SpaceX must provide a detailed discussion of how it will avoid potential collisions,” the approval read.

“SpaceX has done so in this instance. SpaceX has stated that its satellites have propulsion and SpaceX will maintain the ability to maneuver the satellites to avoid collisions.”

Elon Musk’s foray into yet another business frontier got a major boost back in February last year when FCC Chairman Ajit Pai gave his nod of approval to SpaceX’s plan of providing broadband services using space technologies.

Pai urged his fellow commissioners to give their consent to the company’s application, highlighting the space internet technology’s potential to provide broadband services to rural America and remote parts of the country.

He said that innovative technologies were needed to “bridge America’s digital divide,” and that satellite technology could “help reach Americans who live in rural or hard-to-serve places where fiber optic cables and cell towers do not reach.”

“Following careful review of this application by our International Bureau’s excellent satellite engineering experts, I have asked my colleagues to join me in supporting this application and moving to unleash the power of satellite constellations to provide high-speed Internet to rural Americans,” Pai had said in a statement at the time.

“If adopted, it would be the first approval given to an American-based company to provide broadband services using a new generation of low-Earth orbit satellite technologies,” he said.

Pai’s words of encouragement came at the most opportune time for the Hawthorne, California-based company, as it was preparing to launch its first set of prototype satellites, Microsat-2a and Microsat-2b, in about a week’s time.

The prototypes were launched on Feb 22, 2018, atop a Falcon 9 rocket from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Nicknamed Tintin A and Tintin B for the mission, the satellites ultimately reached an altitude of 1,125 kilometers where they were supposed to the groundwork, or should we say spacework, for the Starlink constellation.

As a matter of fact, the decision to reduce the orbital altitude of 1,584 satellites was based on input provided by the two test satellites.

At the time, Telesat Canada and Kepler Communications, also a Canadian company, were slightly ahead in the race in so far as demo satellites were concerned, both having launched prototypes in January 2018.

While Telesat deployed its 168-kilogram smallsat with the help of an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, Kepler launched its smaller Cubesat atop a Chinese Long March 11 carrier rocket.

OneWeb, on the other hand, was supposed to launch its first ten operational satellites in May 2018, bypassing demo launches altogether.

The launch, however, happened on February 27 this year, and instead of ten, the Arlington, Virginia-based company put six satellites into orbit aboard a  Soyuz launch vehicle from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana.

According to OneWeb founder Greg Wyler, the company should have its next-gen constellation in place by 2021, ready to provide five times as much speed to consumers at 2.5 Gbps

As for the Starlink constellation, SpaceX is hopeful of making the space broadband service operational by 2025.