Wednesday, May 4, 2011

News: Phantom Ray To Prowl Skies; Closing In On Asteroid; NASA Studies Gas Stations In Space

Science / Technology in the News

Boeing drone jet completes maiden flight

By Matthew Knight for CNN

Boeing's "Phantom Ray" makes maiden flight.


(CNN) -- A computer-controlled air vehicle capable of gathering intelligence and carrying out military surveillance has completed its first test flight, according to U.S. aerospace company Boeing.

The Phantom Ray unmanned airborne system (UAS) took off from NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, California on April 27, according to Boeing, and flew for 17 minutes reaching a height of 7,500 feet (2286 meters) while traveling at speeds of over 322 kph (200 mph).

Craig Brown, Boeing's Phantom Ray program manager said in a statement: "Autonomous, fighter-sized unmanned aircraft are real, and the UAS (unmanned airborne system) bar has been raised. Now I'm eager to see how high that bar will go."

The delta-shaped aircraft has a wingspan of 50 feet (15.2 meters) and is 36 feet (10.9 meters) long -- similar in size to a fighter jet -- and is designed to reach speeds of more than 965 kph (600 mph) and altitudes of 40,000 feet (over 12,000 meters).

The flight has established the "basic airworthiness" of the aircraft, says Boeing, and paves the way for further flight tests in the coming weeks.

The Phantom Ray project was launched back in 2008 and the plane was unveiled to the public at a ceremony in St Louis, Missouri in May last year.

Boeing envisage the aircraft would support military combat missions providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance services, as well as being used for the "suppression of enemy air defenses" and autonomous re-fueling.

Darryl Davis, president of Boeing Phantom Works (a division of the company which produces advanced prototypes) said in a statement: "It's the beginning of providing our customers with a test bed to develop future unmanned systems technology, and a testament to the capabilities resident within Boeing."

The Phantom Eye is one of several unmanned prototypes being developed by Boeing which include the Phantom Eye -- a hydrogen-fueled endurance aircraft -- and the A160T Hummingbird -- a high-altitude endurance helicopter.

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Note:  Perhaps some of the more recent triangle sightings stem from test flights of this UFO look-a-like? -SW


NASA Spacecraft Closing in On Huge Asteroid Vesta

Artist's concept of NASA's Dawn spacecraft, which is closing in on the huge asteroid Vesta.


Space.comA NASA spacecraft has reached a new phase of its mission to Vesta, the second-largest asteroid in the solar system, and is on track to arrive at the huge space rock in July.

The probe, NASA's Dawn spacecraft, is now using cameras for the first time to aid its approach to Vesta, a massive asteroid that many astronomers classify as a protoplanet. If all goes well, the ion-propelled probe should enter orbit around Vesta on July 16 to begin a year-long study of the mysterious space rock.

"We feel a little like Columbus approaching the shores of the New World," said Christopher Russell, Dawn principal investigator at UCLA, in a statement. "The Dawn team can't wait to start mapping this terra incognita." [Photos: Asteroid Vesta and Dawn

 Closing in on Vesta

At 329 miles (530 kilometers) wide, Vesta is the second-biggest object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. It appears to have layers – a core, mantle and crust – just as planets such as Earth, Venus and Mars do.

 But Vesta isn't large enough to be classed as a "dwarf planet" like the other behemoth of the asteroid belt Ceres – hence the "protoplanet" designation.


Currently, Dawn is about 752,000 miles (1.21 million km) from Vesta, or about three times the distance from the Earth to the moon, researchers said. [5 Reasons to Care About Asteroids]

Until now, Dawn has been navigating by measuring radio signals between itself and Earth, and using several other methods that didn't involve Vesta. But as Dawn closes in on Vesta during its approach phase, the spacecraft will use cameras to analyze where Vesta appears relative to the stars.

This method should allow mission scientists to pin down and refine Dawn's trajectory very precisely, researchers said.

During the approach phase, Dawn will use its ion engine to match Vesta's orbit around the sun, spiraling gently into orbit around the asteroid. When Dawn reaches a point about 9,900 miles (16,000 km) from Vesta, the asteroid's gravity should capture the spacecraft, placing it in orbit. [Photos: Asteroids in Deep Space]

"After more than three and a half years of interplanetary travel, we are finally closing in on our first destination," said Dawn chief engineer Marc Rayman, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "We're not there yet, but Dawn will soon bring into focus an entire world that has been, for most of the two centuries scientists have been studying it, little more than a pinpoint of light."

 Studying Vesta and Ceres

During the approach phase, Dawn will train its various instruments on Vesta. For example, the spacecraft will snap photos that may reveal moons around the space rock. None of the images from ground-based and Earth-orbiting telescopes have seen any moons, but Dawn will give scientists much more detailed images, researchers said.

Dawn's gamma ray and neutron detector instrument will also gather information on cosmic rays during the approach phase, providing a baseline for comparison when Dawn is much closer to Vesta. 

At the same time, the spacecraft's spectrometer will take early measurements to ensure it is calibrated and ready when the spacecraft enters orbit, researchers said.

Dawn launched on Sept. 27, 2007. By the time it reaches Vesta, it will have traveled about 3 billion miles (4.8 billion km). The probe will stay in orbit around Vesta for one year. After another long cruise phase, Dawn will arrive at its second destination, the dwarf planet Ceres, in 2015.

Studying these two icons of the asteroid belt should help scientists unlock the secrets of our solar system's early history, researchers said.

Dawn's mission will compare and contrast the two giant bodies, which were shaped by different forces. Dawn's instruments will measure surface composition, topography and texture, and the probe will also measure the tug of gravity from Vesta and Ceres to learn more about their internal structures.

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NASA Considering Gas Stations in Space


NASA is investigating novel approaches to spaceflight, such as in-orbit fuel depots, and rendezvous and docking with space gas stations such as the one imagined here.


Any road trip requires a pit stop or two. Soon, trips to space could be no different.

FoxNews- NASA has quietly put out feelers for what the space agency calls an “In-Space Cryogenic Propellant Storage and Transfer Demonstration.” It sounds far more interesting in civilian speak, however -- gas stations in space.

Since the beginning of manned space flight, NASA has utilized the “one-stop shop” approach; both the Apollo missions of the '60s and '70s and the more modern space shuttles carry all the fuel they need for the duration of a mission. But it would be next to impossible for a vehicle to carry all the fuel it would need on a venture into deeper space, said Chris Moore, deputy director of advanced capabilities division for NASA.

“Instead of sending the rockets fully fueled to asteroids or to Mars, we would launch them partially fueled to get more payload into orbit,” Moore told “Then we’d top off the propellant by docking with depots in lower Earth orbit."

The system would be set up ahead of time, he said, with depots drifting idly through the blackness while waiting for a rocket to dock. "All the fuel and the propellant depots would be launched before the human mission left for the asteroids or for Mars,” Moore said.

NASA is investigating novel approaches to spaceflight, such as in-orbit fuel depots, and rendezvous and docking with space gas stations such as the one imagined here. slideshow

NASA has quietly put out feelers for what the space agency calls an “In-Space Cryogenic Propellant Storage and Transfer Demonstration.” In civilian speak, that's gas stations in space.

He envisions large arrays of propellant tanks all joined together, with tanks that can be added or removed depending on the length of the deep-space mission.

To establish these zero-gravity way stations, NASA must overcome a number of obstacles. The propellant used for space flight requires extremely cold temperatures, and any solar flares or fluctuations in temperature could cause it to evaporate. So finding a means of maintaining the propellant is a top priority.

Engineers also need to come up with ways to transfer the propellant to the space flight vehicles upon docking. And plans also need to be made on how to get the gas up there in the first place -- which is potentially where private space companies could step in.

“We would launch propellants from Earth on expendable rockets,” Moore told “A commercial market could be established where companies could launch propellant into space to the depot. Then NASA could purchase propellant from those companies."

"We could create a small space economy in propellants and refueling,” he suggested.

Private companies such as SpaceX and United Launch Alliance have already launched rockets into lower Earth orbit and could potentially step up to the task of transporting gas to these hypothetical stations. Neither company would comment on future plans.

But private spaceflight companies have weighed in in the past. Boeing proposed it in 2007, for example. "If there were a fuel depot available on orbit, one capable of being replenished at any time, the Earth departure stage could, after refueling, carry significantly more payload to the Moon," reads one slide from a presentation the company made at a spaceflight conference.

Space policy advocates say that this idea has been a long time coming, noting that NASA entertained the concept as early as the '70s. James Muncy, a space policy consultant with PoliSpace, says space depots will soon become the norm when it comes to future space travel.

“We have to think of it in terms of setting up an infrastructure and looking for long-term efficient approaches,” Muncy told “People who think of space as a frontier say we should separate the idea of carrying propellant from that of carrying the spacecraft and people.”

Muncy goes so far as to say the concept is common sense, claiming the road trip analogy isn’t too far-fetched.

“Your car isn’t designed to carry 100 gallons of gas. We don’t design vehicles to do that anymore,” Muncy told “If we want to keep exploring forever, it has to be affordable and sustainable.”

“We will need the technologies eventually anyway,” added Muncy. “We can’t go to Mars without them.”

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