Aerospace


The mysterious, distant and yet unexplored by any probe world of Pluto and its moons, located on the edge of our solar system, is about to get visited.

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft on July 14 will perform the first ever close-up flyby of the fallen planet. Downgraded in 2006 to dwarf planet by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), Pluto holds key clues to our understanding of the formation of our solar system.
Balloons are common at childrens' birthday parties - we can thank Professor Michael Faraday of The Royal Institution for inventing "caoutchoucs" - but ever since the Montgolfier brothers took their lives in their hands and flew a hot air balloon over Paris in 1783, they have been common in science too.

They're affordable and they're reusable and since the 1950s, with the invention of the 'natural' shaped polyethylene balloon, there has been a surge in the quality and amount of science being performed with them. Researchers in everything from high-energy astrophysics (particle, x-ray and gamma-ray) to geospace uses them.

By Monica Grady, The Open University

Landing a spacecraft on a celestial body, whether it be the moon, Mars or a comet, is not easy. The European Space Agency found out the hard way in 2003 when its robot Beagle2, which was supposed to send back a signal after landing on Mars, didn’t do so.

But more than a decade after it went missing, the UK Space Agency has announced that the the elusive Beagle2 lander has been re-discovered.

The Beagle-2 Mars lander,hitched a ride on ESA’s Mars Express mission in 2003 and was released from the mothership on December 19th with a planned landing 6 days later.  

Then it was lost. Mars Express and NASA’s Mars Odyssey found nothing. 

But now the high-resolution camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has found it on the surface.  The good news is engineers now know that at least the entry, descent and landing sequence worked and it did indeed successfully 'land' on Mars on Christmas Day 2003. Beagle-2 was less than 2 meters across when fully deployed so catching sight of it was right at the limit of the resolution of cameras in orbit around Mars.

Credit: International Space Station

By Monica Grady, The Open University


Picture this scenario: A politician is appointed to run NASA who thinks its budget is too high and then half its money and a third of its workforce is on its way to evaporating. Public support for a mission to Mars is nonexistent.

It must be in late 2015, after anti-science Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas has control of NASA, if you read science media (and then whatever Huffington Post and Slate are).
In space no one can hear you bleed, but what about on a private spacecraft? 

The commercial aviation industry has medical care standards, as does NASA for traditional space missions. Eventually someone is going to tell Elon Musk and Richard Brandon that the commercial space transportation industry will need to define medical care practices as well.

There are well-known risks, of course, but there can be disclaimers 400 pages long and if an attorney stands in front of a jury and talks about what lax safety standards there are, someone with the passionate pleading skill of John Edwards will get a judgment that runs their companies into bankruptcy.

Giving it a go... EPA

By Angelo Niko Grubišić, University of Southampton

SpaceX is attempting a huge feat in spacecraft engineering.

It is seeking to land the first stage of its Falcon 9-R rocket on a floating platform at sea. Normally this would end up at the bottom of the ocean. If successful, SpaceX will shake the rocket launch market, by shaving millions of dollars off launch costs.

A new study shows that plasma waves buffeting the planet's radiation belts are responsible for scattering charged particles into the atmosphere, creating the most detailed analysis so far of the link between these waves and the fallout of electrons from the planet's radiation belts.

The belts are impacted by fluctuations in "space weather" caused by solar activity that can disrupt GPS satellites, communication systems, power grids and manned space exploration.


Despite a malfunction that ended its primary mission in May 2013, the Kepler spacecraft is still alive and working and its data has found a new "super-Earth".

NASA's Kepler spacecraft detected planets by looking for transits, when a star dims slightly as a planet crosses in front of it. The smaller the planet, the weaker the dimming, so brightness measurements must be precise and that requires maintaining a steady pointing. Kepler can't really do that any more, its primary functionality came to an end when the second of four reaction wheels used to stabilize the spacecraft failed. Without at least three functioning reaction wheels, Kepler couldn't be pointed accurately.