April 30, 2013 11:21 am
In an early morning flight yesterday, SpaceShipTwo, the passenger-carrying spacecraft of private spaceflight company Virgin Galactic rocketed through the sky above the Mojave Desert at a blistering mach 1.2 (around 913 miles per hour). It was the first rocket-powered test flight of the craft, an event heralded as the dawn of the commercial space age. More than 500 people have bought tickets to ride the ship, says the New York Times, and their wait, says Virgin Galactic owner Richard Branson, might nearly be over.
“We will be going to space at the end of this year,” Mr. Branson said in a telephone interview after the test flight over Mojave, Calif. Or, he added, possibly in the first quarter of next year.
Branson’s confidence, just like his ship, is soaring. He’s so confident, in fact, Virgin Galactic has decided to raise their rates: formerly $200,000, a trip to space with the company will now cost $250,000. But that confidence may be a bit misplaced, if the company’s track record in this regard is considered.
After years of work, the original SpaceShipOne, designed by the company Scaled Composites, took home the $10 million bounty of the Ansari X Prize.
Following that win, Richard Branson partnered with Scaled Composites to form Virgin Galactic, says CNN. At the time, the company announced that they planned to have people riding into space by 2007. Space Daily:
Addressing reporters in central London, Branson said that the new firm — Virgin Galactic — would launch its maiden flight in only three years, and that he would join the very first trip into space.
“Within five years, Virgin Galactic will have created over 3,000 new astronauts from many countries,” Branson said, speaking alongside US aviation pioneer Burt Rutan, who designed and built SpaceShipOne.
Talking to the BBC, Branson walked back his estimate a bit, now gunning for 2008. “Space tourism is less than three years away, Sir Richard Branson has claimed.”
The 2008 schedule came and went, and according to the BBC, the deadline for launch was pushed to 2010.
The first unveiling of SpaceShipTwo, the ship that underwent its first real test flight yesterday.
With construction of SpaceShipTwo complete, Richard Branson tells Agence France Press that “We are 18 months away from taking people into space.”
The year saw another bump, wrote this author in Discover Magazine: “Virgin Galactic refuses to set a date for when it will begin flying its paying customers to the edge of space, but some are hoping to see flights start as early as the end of 2011.” But 2011 came and went with no avail.
Flights should start by 2012, or early 2013 at the latest, says Aviation Explorer.
You see the pattern.
Getting into space is an incredibly difficult and expensive task, and delays are commonplace. Yesterday’s rocket-powered test was an achievement worth celebrating, but a skeptical eye can be cast on Branson’s claims that you’ll be riding the ship within the next year.
More from Smithsonian.com:
April 19, 2013 3:35 pm
Though a nearly-full Moon will brighten the dark sky, making conditions less than ideal, this weekend will see the peak of the annual Lyrid meteor shower, a dazzling display of comet dust burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere. Normally, the Lyrids will treat you to a couple dozen meteors an hour. A bright Moon will make the faint trails harder to pick out from the dark backdrop of space. EarthSky provides some detail:
The Lyrid meteor shower is expected to be active from April 16 to April 25, with an expected peak day of April 22. Unfortunately, this year there will be a waxing-gibbous moon (should be around 80% iluminated the night of the peak) which means there would only be a little more than an hour before sunrise with completely dark skies, and adding insult to injury, this would happen on the early hours of Monday, April 22.
If you can stay up late into Monday morning, between around 4 am when the Moon sets, and 5 am when the Sun comes up, you may catch quite a show, says EarthSky:
The Lyrids are known for uncommon surges that can sometimes bring the rate up to 100 per hour. Those rare outbursts are not easy to predict, but they’re one of the reasons the tantalizing Lyrids are worth checking out.
The western U.S., says Universe Today, has the best seats for this year’s Lyrids. If you’re an early riser, or a particularly devoted meteor watcher, you’d do well to look to the northeast. The meteors will stream from the constellation Lyra.
More from Smithsonian.com:
April 19, 2013 2:15 pm
“Seriously, can we wrap this up already?” Maryland resident James Alderman told reporters, echoing the thoughts of all 311 million Americans, who have just about reached their weekly goddamned quota for carnage, misery, confusion, heartbreak, and rage. “Because, you know, I’m pretty sure we’ve all had our hearts ripped out of our chests and stomped on enough times for one seven-day period, thank you very much.”
In case you share The Onion’s sentiments, a spot of good news from Science: astronomers have discovered the “most Earth-like” planets yet, orbiting a far off star. Two planets, says the BBC’s Jonathan Amos, are just a bit bigger than our rocky Earth, and orbit their star in about the right place to have liquid water. And, best of all for those wanting to get far, far away from this week: the planets, Kepler 62e and 62f, are around 1,200 light years away. NASA says that they also found another third potentially habitable planet, Kepler 69c, around a second star. According to the BBC:
“Statements about a planet’s habitability always depend on assumptions,” said Lisa Kaltenegger, an expert on the likely atmospheres of “exoplanets” and a member of the discovery group.
“Let us assume that the planets Kepler-62e and -62f are indeed rocky, as their radius would indicate. Let us further assume that they have water and their atmospheric composition is similar to that of Earth, dominated by nitrogen, and containing water and carbon dioxide,” the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg researcher went on.
“In that case, both planets could have liquid water on their surface.”
The scientists, says Nature, “theorize that the two water worlds are either liquid all the way down to their core or have a solid surface just beneath a shallower ocean. The latter model would be more conducive to life as we know it on Earth, where a recycling of material and energy from hydrothermal vents can sustain organisms, Sasselov says.”
The planets are there, we know that. But their potential habitability is still mostly educated guesswork. But, as this week continues to unfold, getting a closer look at Keplers 62e, 62 and 69c sounds just a little more tempting.
More from Smithsonian.com:
April 17, 2013 11:25 am
Usually, residents of Florida and California have a leg up over the rest of the country when it comes to one of America’s most favorite past times: watching rockets soar into the sky. But in the early evening today, the Northeast coast will be treated to a special show. At around 5 p.m., from Maine to South Carolina, look up in the sky and you just may see the brand new Antares rocket climbing into the sky on its maiden voyage as it blasts off from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility.
“We’ll lift off with approximately 750,000 pounds of thrust, weighing about 600,000 pounds,” said Frank Culbertson, a former shuttle commander who oversees Orbital’s advanced programs group. “So it’ll not race off the pad, but it will accelerate very quickly once it gets going.
For those not in the northeast, or if clouds mar your view, NASA will be streaming the show live starting at 4 pm.
The Antares rocket is a huge machine, a two-stage booster rocket that stands 131 feet tall, says Space.com. The rocket is designed to carry cargo to the International Space Station, and will be the first direct competitor of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket in the burgeoning private space race. This evening’s launch will be the rocket’s first.
According to CBS News, the weather may not play nicely with Orbital Science Corp’s test. If the launch is scrubbed, they’ll have openings to try again through the end of the week.
More from Smithsonian.com:
April 16, 2013 1:05 pm
The Kepler spacecraft is hunting down planets outside our solar system at a rapid clip. The total number of confirmed exoplanets is now at a whopping 861 and there are 2,903 more potential exoplanet candidates waiting in the wings. Space, it seems, is less of an empty void with each passing day.
The pace of discovery and the uncertainty in each finding—with exoplanets first being considered “candidates” before moving to full-fledged “discovered” status with subsequent observations—means that exoplanets are often given unwieldy placeholder names. Gliese 667Cc, for example, is the second planet around the third star in the Gliese 667 system. Gliese 581 g is the 6th planet around the star Gliese 581. But as useful as these names are for astronomers—more road map than moniker—they don’t exactly roll off the tongue.
A new organization—Uwingu–wants to fix this little dilemma. They’re offering a platform for you to suggest and vote on new planetary names. Their general goal is not to assign a specific name to a specific planet, but rather to tabulate a ready-made list from which astronomers can draw. They did, however, recently launch a contest to rename the planet Alpha Centauri Bb, the closest exoplanet to Earth. Drawing a wary eye from some, Uwingu wants you to back your votes with cash: one dollar, one vote.
Uwingu’s project to give exoplanets new names has drawn the ire of another group – the people who actually name exoplanets. The International Astronomical Union, says the CBC, wants to remind everyone that only they have the power to officially name extraplanetary bodies. Even if your exoplanet name of choice wins Uwingu’s contest, they say, it will have “no bearing on the official naming process.” Uwingu points out, however, that while the International Astronomical Union controls planets’ official names, they have no control over their common names. And, just because a name isn’t official doesn’t mean people won’t use it.
Back in October, The Weather Channel tried a similar trick when they unilaterally decided to start giving names to winter storms without first talking to the World Meteorological Organization or other large meteorological bodies. If you remember Winter Storm Nemo, thank The Weather Channel.
So while it may be true that you can’t vote your way to an official new planet name, the CBC adds that for many celestial objects their unofficial common name (say, the North Star) is used by many in place of the official name (Alpha Ursa minori).
Besides, says Phil Plait for his blog Bad Astronomy, the money being raised is going toward real science. Uwingu “will use the profits to fund scientific research. People will be able to submit proposals for the funding, which will be peer reviewed to ensure high-quality work. And it’s not just research: they hope to fund space-based projects, education, and other science-supporting ventures.”
Indeed, says Plait, even though only the IAU can make planet names official, the names on Uwingu’s list “will be seen by planetary astronomers, and eventually those planets are going to need names. Why not yours?”
More from Smithsonian.com: