January 21

Robotic Lunar Observatory Studied

A private commercial space mission has been blueprinted in the form of a robotic observatory to conduct astronomy and astrophysics from the Moon.

The International Lunar Observatory (ILO) initiative envisions a multi-wavelength observatory that would stand about 10-feet (three-meters) in height, with communications and solar power gathering capabilities.

Engineering studies of the idea point to a modest $35 million to $50 million needed to plant ILO on the Moon. If those funds were soon available, the observatory could be parked on the Moon in the mid-2007 time frame. SpaceDev, Inc. of Poway, California has worked out the logistics of the mission, finding it realistic with a worthy goal in an achievable timeframe.

The ILO's feasibility was detailed by a SpaceDev study team under contract with the Lunar Enterprise Corporation, an arm of Space Age Publishing Company (SPC) with offices in Kamuela, Hawaii and Palo Alto, California.

A pre-deployed lunar-based navigation beacon system would enable the ILO to fly to and softly set down at a specific lunar site with the accuracy of about 330 feet (100 meters) - made possible by using currently available commercial Global Positioning System (GPS) technology.

An ILO Advisory Committee has been formed, with members hailing from Canada, Japan, India, Russia, Europe, and across the United States. Additional members are currently being identified in China as well as other key global space and astrophysics centers.

This year, the ILO group will scope out the most meaningful scientific return possible from placement of a small robotic telescope at the lunar South Pole. The newly-formed ILO Advisory Committee "is challenged to establish a toe-hold for lunar base build-out," says SPC founder Steve Durst.

-- Leonard David

January 20

China Plans Next Manned Space Shot

BEIJING (AP) -- China said Thursday its second manned space mission will take place in September or October 2005, and will involve two astronauts orbiting for up to five days.

The official Xinhua News Agency said Shenzhou 6 will have a four- or five-day flight with two astronauts aboard, citing Sun Laiyan, director of China National Space Administration. The astronauts will carry out unspecified scientific tests while in orbit, Xinhua said. The government said earlier it hoped to carry out the flight before the end of 2005.

If it occurs, it will come two years after China became the third nation to launch a human into space on its own, firing Yang Liwei into orbit. In October 2003, Yang circled the Earth 14 times and landed by parachute in China's northern grasslands after a 21 1/2-hour flight.

China attaches enormous national pride to its space program, and Yang has become a celebrity. In addition to China, only Russia and the United States have sent humans into space on their own.

State media has said 14 astronauts - all military pilots - were in training for the flight.

-- Associated Press

January 18

IGNITE Auctioning NASA Tour for Hospitalized Children

Your bid on a tour-for-two of Kennedy Space Center could lead to bringing an astronaut to Boston to visit seriously ill children.

The Ignite Foundation, a Massachusetts-based non-profit (501c3) organization that develops and supports education enrichment programs, working with the Starlight/ Starbright Foundation of New England, is auctioning a KSC travel package to fund an astronaut's visit to a Boston-area children's ward, as part of Starlight's Hospital Happenings Programs.  

The auction, which opened Saturday for 10 days of bidding on collectSPACE.com, includes two round-trip AirTran Airways tickets, 3 nights at the DoubleTree Hotel Cocoa Beach Oceanfront, a car rental voucher, tickets to the KSC Visitor Complex and a private, astronaut-led tour of the NASA center.  

As of Monday morning, the high bid was $300. To place your bid now, visit: http://www.collectspace.com/auction/ignite/http://www.collectspace.com/auction/ignite/

January 14

Blue Origin Rocketeers Establish Texas Test Site

Texas could play a role in shaping suborbital space tourism.

The Seattle-based Blue Origin group, led by billionaire Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com fame, has picked a site near Van Horn, Texas to construct, test, and fly a privately-built passenger-carrying suborbital vehicle.

According to Thursday's Internet Edition of The Van Horn Advocate, Blue Origin has confirmed plans to establish a testing and operations center on the Corn Ranch, north of Van Horn.

The Advocate was briefed by Bezos and other team members in the newspaper's offices regarding details of the rocket program. Bezos said that some of his younger days were spent on his grandfather's ranch in South Texas, and looked forward to future family experiences at the newly acquired West Texas ranch.

While details of Blue Origin's rocket remain secretive, it is widely believed that Bezos and his colleagues are blueprinting a suborbital passenger vehicle capable of vertical takeoff and landing. The approach is similar to that taken by the Delta Clipper program sponsored by NASA and the Pentagon in the 1993 to 1996 time period.

Blue Origin is opening its doors to students that are focused on careers in science and technology. A 10-week summer internship in space program is to start in early June and end in August of this year.

"You must be enrolled in an undergraduate or graduate degree program in science or engineering and must currently have Junior or higher standing. Students must be United States citizens, permanent residents, refugees, or asylees," the firm's web site declares.

Blue Origin is on the lookout for like-minded rocketeers. "We are building real hardware - not PowerPoint presentations," the company's web site at http://www.blueorigin.com/ declares.

-- Leonard David

January 13

Huygens Probe: Snapshots from Titan

Following a seven year sojourn to Saturn, Europe's Huygens probe is nearing its final destination. It will plunge into the atmosphere of Titan, a moon of Saturn, on January 14.

Fireballing and then parachuting its way toward Titan's mysterious surface, the two-hour dive will yield science data and a suite of panoramic images.

Huygens is outfitted with the Descent Imager- Spectral Radiometer (DISR). The DISR is the most sophisticated instrument aboard Huygens. It will take pictures of the surface as the probe descends on parachute. DISR will collect approximately 1,100 images as the probe spirals toward Titan's surface, producing mosaics of the ground and horizon in various resolutions.

Not Titan, but north of Tucson. Test image taken by Huygens camera system. Image Credit: University of Arizona/Lunar & Planetary Laboratory

Each of the cameras in the imaging system takes a picture of Titan's surface in a different direction and at a different resolution to produce a "triplet" collection of three images which may be combined with other triplets to create a mosaic of the surface.

What will the view from Huygens look like? DISR team members conducted field tests over Red Rock Arizona, just north of Tucson, to create a simulated descent mosaic.

Even though linear field arrangements in the test mosaic won't be seen, the quality of the image will be similar, said Katie Holso, a spokesperson for the DISR at the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson, Arizona.

The mosaic is made up of roughly 20 postage stamp-sized individual pictures taken from the three DISR cameras. These images are then combined and processed to create the mosaic, Holso told SPACE.com.

-- Leonard David

January 11

UFO Big Top

Something quite odd is making multiple appearances under European skies, taking on the looks of a hovering Unidentified Flying Object, or UFO.

But this UFO is identified, and comes courtesy of NoFit State Circus Company, based in the United Kingdom.

This specially-fabricated UFO tent measures some 125 feet (38 meters) in diameter, creating a 12,217 square feet (1,135 square meters) footprint.

An identifiable UFO.

By converting outer space to inner space means the huge tent can handle various venues, from product launches to hospitality events and all-star performances. Not only state-of-the-art in its structure, accompanying lighting, sound and digital video technology provides the very latest in special effects and dramatic staging.

"It is ideal for big-scale, need-to-be-noticed events," explains Rob O'Dowd, Managing Director of Euro Events, an Irish-based event production company who recently used the tent-for-hire to support BMW's 1-Series automobile launch.

While this UFO isn't quite up to speed in the sense of interstellar travel, it does give new meaning to pulling up stakes, folding up your tent and moving on!

-- Leonard David

January 10

Feel the Force: Ultra-tiny Magnetic Sensor

Engineers are attracted to the idea of building ever-smaller sensors. Now they've come up with a device to detect minuscule fluctuations in the pull of magnetic fields.

Researchers at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have demonstrated a low-power, magnetic sensor. About the size of a grain of rice, the device can detect magnetic field changes as small as 50 picoteslas - that's a million times weaker than the Earth's magnetic field.

Applications for a commercialized version of the new sensor could include hand-held devices for precision navigation, geophysical mapping to locate minerals or oil, use in medical instruments, and for sensing unexploded ordnance.

The sensor works by detecting minute changes in the energy levels of electrons in the presence of a magnetic field. A tiny sample of the element rubidium is heated within a sealed, transparent cell to form a rubidium vapor. Light from a semiconductor laser is transmitted through the atomic vapor. In the presence of a magnetic field, the amount of laser light that is absorbed by the atoms changes and this is detected by a photocell. Larger magnetic fields produce proportionally bigger changes in the atomic energy levels and change the absorption by the atom.

Described in the December 27 issue of Applied Physics Letters, the device can be powered with batteries and is about 100 times smaller than current atom-based sensors with similar sensitivities, which typically weigh roughly 6 pounds (about 3 kilograms).

The research was funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA-MTO).

-- Leonard David

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