Masking out a star to see its planets

Masking out the intense bright light a star so that the dim reflected light of its planets, especially small earth-like ones, can be seen is no easy task. As mentioned in an earlier post, a starshade is a specially designed occulter that blocks a star’s light in a way that greatly reduces the diffraction around its edges. A starshade would be placed in space so that a telescope thousands of kilometers from it could observe planets around a distant star.

New Worlds Mission is a starshade project that has done early studies but has not been funded for implementation of an exoplanet observation system. This article provides more details on starshades: Incredible Technology: Giant Starshade Could Help Find an Alien Earth |

As it stands now, the assumed $1 billion mission would be able to target about 55 bright stars in a three-year span. [Sara Seager], the chair of NASA’s science and technology definition team for the starshade project, thinks it’s possible to find Earth-like planets orbiting 22 of those 55 stars targeted by the mission. 

One major advantage to the starshade is that astronomers won’t need to couple it with a large, extremely expensive space telescope. By blocking out the light of a star before that light ever reaches the telescope, the starshade eliminates the need for a huge telescope, Seager said.

“You don’t need a very fancy telescope that’s highly thermally and mechanically stable,” Seager told “You can use any old space telescope. We can buy a telescope. That’s what we’re thinking of. … It sounds a little funny, but any telescope will do.”

More at

Inspiration Mars student design contest finalists selected

The Mars Society has selected finalists for the  International Student Design Competition for concepts related to the proposed Inspiration Mars Mission: Inspiration Mars Student Design Contest Finalists Announced – The Mars Society

The Mars Society announced today 10 finalists chosen from 38 engineering student teams competing in its International Inspiration Mars Student Design Contest. The requirement of the global competition is to design a two-person Mars flyby mission for 2018 as cheaply, safely and simply as possible. All other design variables are open. 

Each team competing was required to submit a 50-page design report, which provided the basis for a down-select first to 21 semifinalists and then to 10 finalists. The finalist teams will be invited to present and defend their designs before a panel of six judges chosen (two each) by the Mars Society, Inspiration Mars and NASA. The presentations will take place during a public event at NASA Ames Research Center in April 2014.

The finalists and their proposals are shown here. 

Commenting on the designs submitted by the competing teams, Mars Society President Dr. Robert Zubrin said, “I expected an excellent response from the world’s engineering students to this challenge, but even so, I am amazed at the extraordinary strength and quality of the work set forth by these teams. Where some people have said that a low-cost two-person Mars flyby mission can’t be done in 2018, many of these teams have shown very clearly that it can. These designs will be of enormous benefit to Inspiration Mars or anyone else who is willing to step up and take on this challenge. They also show beyond question that around the world a new generation of terrific young engineers is waiting in the wings, ready to pick up and carry forward the banner of human space exploration when the time comes for them to take their turn. I look forward to final face-off between the teams at NASA Ames with great excitement. Let the best ideas win!” 

The first place team will receive a prize of $10,000, an all-expenses paid trip to the 2014 International Mars Society Convention to be held August 4-7 in Houston, Texas and a trophy to be presented by Dennis Tito at that event. Prizes of $5,000, $3,000, $2,000 and $1,000 will also be awarded for second through fifth place.  

Space policy roundup – March.26.14 [Update]

A new selection of space policy/politics related links:

Update: The President’s Science Adviser John Holdren testified this morning to the House subcommittee on science and technology. Notes on the hearing can be found at:

Update on the Chinese Yutu lunar rover and Chang’e 3 lander

Leonard David obtains some details on the problems with the Chinese Yutu rover from  Yong-Chun Zheng, an associate researcher at the National Astronomical Observatories, Chinese Academy of Sciences : China’s Moon Landing Mission: A Status Check – Inside Outer Space

The primary failure is in the “driving electronics section”:

“The rover cannot move again,” Yong-Chun said. In addition to that, the solar wings of the Yutu rover cannot be folded to keep the inside of the robot warm during lunar night. All other functions of the rover are working properly, he said.

Yong-Chun said that the Yutu rover has experienced very low temperatures during the last three lunar nights. According the designed procedures, the rover has entered into the mode of long-term management.

Meanwhile, Yutu’s panoramic camera and its ground penetrating radar “are working normally,” Yong-Chun reported.

Soyuz docking with ISS delayed for two days

A Soyuz rocket took off on Tuesday to the ISS:

Expedition 39/40 Soyuz Commander Alexander Skvortsov of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), Flight Engineer Steve Swanson of NASA and Flight Engineer Oleg Artemyev of Roscosmos launched on the Russian Soyuz TMA-12M spacecraft on March 25, Kazakh time from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to begin a six-hour journey to the International Space Station. Once aboard the orbital outpost, the trio will start a six-month mission.

However, the  docking will be delayed until Thursday due to a thruster problem:

Expedition 39/40 Trio’s Arrival at Space Station Delayed

The next trio of crew members destined for the International Space Station is now looking forward to a Thursday arrival at the orbiting laboratory after their Soyuz spacecraft was unable to complete its third thruster burn to fine-tune its approach.

Soyuz Commander Alexander Skvortsov and Flight Engineers Oleg Artemyev of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) and Steve Swanson of NASA are in good spirits aboard the Soyuz TMA-12M spacecraft, and their colleagues already aboard the station were informed of the new plan. Expedition 39 Commander Koichi Wakata of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and Flight Engineers Rick Mastracchio of NASA and Mikhail Tyurin of Roscosmos were expecting their new crewmates to dock at 11:05 p.m. EDT Tuesday night, but now will need to wait a little longer.

Flight controllers in the Mission Control Center outside Moscow are now reverting to a backup 34-orbit rendezvous, which would result in an arrival and docking at 7:58 p.m. Thursday, March 27. Rendezvous experts are reviewing the plan, and may update it later as necessary. Docking will be at the station’s Poisk docking module.

This longer rendezvous and docking pattern was the standard rendezvous profile until last year; this would have been the fifth rendezvous using the accelerated timeline. The last two-day rendezvous was Expedition 34, which launched on Dec. 19, 2012, and docked to the station on Dec. 21, 2012. That Soyuz crew included NASA’s Tom Marshburn, the Canadian Space Agency’s Chris Hadfield and Roscosmos’ Roman Romanenko. The first same-day rendezvous and docking was Expedition 35, which launched on March 28, 2013, and docked to the station March 29. That crew included NASA’s Chris Cassidy and Roscosmos’ Pavel Vinogradov and Alexander Misurkin.

Flight controllers in Moscow are reviewing data to determine the reason the third thruster burn did not occur. In conversations between flight controllers in Moscow and Houston, initial information indicates the problem may have been the spacecraft was not in the proper attitude, or orientation, for the burn.

Swanson, Skvortsov and Artemyev are scheduled to return home in September as Expedition 40 crew members. They will officially become Expedition 40 when Expedition 39 crew members Wakata, Mastracchio and Tyurin end their mission and undock in their Soyuz TMA-11M spacecraft in May for their return to Earth.