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SpaceX Says It Will Fly Humans Past the Moon in 2018 (But It Still Must Meet NASA’s Needs)

Illustration of a Falcon Heavy launch from KSC’s Pad 39A, the first of which is planned for summer 2017. (Credit: SpaceX)

On Monday, Feb. 27, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced plans for his company to send two privately-paying “space tourists” on a trip around the Moon in late 2018. According to Musk it’s a voyage that would send them, aboard SpaceX’s still-in-development Dragon 2 spacecraft, on a “long loop” past the Moon and out to about 400,000 miles before returning—farther than any of NASA’s Apollo missions and even farther into space than any humans have ever traveled.

This announcement came as a surprise to many people, especially those who know the amazingly enthusiastic nature of a late 2018 target and how much work yet remains for a crewed version of the Dragon spacecraft, especially considering SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy has yet to launch.

SpaceX’s news release on Monday was quickly met by one from NASA, with whom the company is currently under contract to develop human transportation capabilities for transport to the Space Station and whose taxpayer-provided funding is paying for development of the Dragon vehicle. SpaceX has yet to launch Dragon 2 or achieve human rating from NASA, even though it was slated to begin flying astronauts to Station next year.

“We will work closely with SpaceX to ensure it safely meets the contractual obligations to return the launch of astronauts to U.S. soil and continue to successfully deliver supplies to the International Space Station,” said NASA’s representatives—somewhat pointedly—in a responsive press release.

This news also happened to come just a couple of weeks after a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) suggested that delays by SpaceX and Boeing—the two companies contracted to provide astronaut transportation to the ISS for NASA—will likely push any U.S. launches past 2018, requiring yet more Soyuz seats for American astronauts.

I don’t have any insider information from either SpaceX or NASA, but I can’t help but wonder how the former plans to achieve a 2018 launch of a crewed Dragon 2, and if the latter wonders if its needs—and the needs of the country—are being overlooked in favor of additional profit (which, admittedly, SpaceX as a privately-funded company relies upon.) In addition, is this putting Dragon 2 in direct competition with NASA’s Orion spacecraft?

“By putting forth the idea that its Dragon spacecraft could essentially fly the same mission as Orion for much, much less than the government, SpaceX is boldly telling the Trump administration that the private sector could get the job done if Orion were axed from the space agency’s budget to cut costs,” writes space journalist Eric Berger on Ars Technica.

Read more in this story from Eric Berger here: SpaceX plans to send two people around the Moon in late 2018

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Seeds From Space: The Moon Trees of Apollo 14

Splashdown of Apollo 14 in the Pacific Ocean on Feb. 9, 1971 (NASA)

Splashdown of Apollo 14 in the Pacific Ocean on Feb. 9, 1971. (NASA)

On Feb. 9, 1971, Apollo 14 astronauts Alan Shepard, Jr., Stuart Roosa, and Edgar Mitchell returned to Earth, their command module Kitty Hawk splashing down in the Pacific Ocean at 21:05 UT (4:05 p.m. EST). They were recovered by the USS New Orleans (LPH-11) and returned to the U.S. by way of American Samoa. But the three men weren’t the only living creatures to return from space that day… in fact, human astronauts were in the minority.

Al, Stu, and Ed also shared their lunar voyage with nearly 500 trees.

Read the full story on Universe Today here.

The “Front” Side of Tethys

Color-composite image of Tethys from Feb. 1, 2017 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/J. Major)

Color-composite image of Tethys from Feb. 1, 2017 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/J. Major)

This is a color image of Saturn’s moon Tethys I made from raw images acquired by Cassini on Feb. 1, 2017 in visible-light color channels. It shows the moon’s sunlit leading side—the face that aims in the direction that it moves in its orbit around Saturn. (Click image for a larger version.)

While this icy moon is mostly monochromatic—appearing quite grey even in a color image—there are some subtle variations over large parts of its surface. Here you can just make out a slightly darker bluish band that runs across Tethys’ equatorial region. This is the result of surface weathering by high-energy electrons within Tethys’ orbit. The pale pinker regions to the north and south of the band are thought to be a coating of small ice particles that have been expelled from nearby Enceladus.

Also visible along the terminator is part of the 1,200-mile long, 60-mile-wide Ithaca Chasma, an enormous and ancient canyon system that runs almost all the way from Tethys’ north to south poles.

Tethys is 662 miles (1,065 km) in diameter and composed mostly of water ice and rock. It orbits Saturn at a distance of 183,000 miles (295,000 km) and takes 45.3 hours to complete one orbit. Read more about Tethys here.

On This Day in 1966 We Got the First Picture from the Moon

The first image from the lunar surface, taken by the Soviet Luna 9 in 1966

The first image from the Moon’s surface taken by the Soviet Luna 9  lander on Feb. 3, 1966 (EST)

On Feb. 3, 1966 the Soviet Luna 9 spacecraft made the first successful robotic soft landing on the Moon. Seven hours later it transmitted its first images of the lunar surface back to Earth. The image above is Luna 9 lander’s first view—the first time humans had ever seen a picture from the surface of another world.

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Yes, Obi-Wan, That’s a Moon

Composite image of Mimas made from raw Cassini images acquired on Jan. 30, 2017. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/J. Major)

Composite image of Mimas made from raw Cassini images acquired on Jan. 30, 2017. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/J. Major)

Saturn’s 250-mile-wide icy moon Mimas shines in direct sunlight and reflected light from Saturn in this image, a composite of raw images acquired by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft on Jan. 30, 2017 and received on Earth today, Feb. 1. This is a bit of a “Frankenstein” job I made, assembled from five separate narrow-angle camera images taken in various wavelengths so the proportions are slightly off here and there, but the general placement of surface features are about right and the lighting is accurate to the scene. Mimas’ south pole is within the deeply shadowed area at the bottom; north is up.

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NOAA’s Newest Satellite Sends Its First Pictures of Earth…and the Moon!

GOES-16 image of the Moon beyond Earth's limb taken Jan. 15. GOES-16 uses the Moon for calibration purposes. (NASA/NOAA)

GOES-16 image of the Moon beyond Earth’s limb taken Jan. 15. GOES-16 uses the Moon for calibration purposes. (NASA/NOAA)

America’s newest next-generation Earth observing weather satellite, NOAA’s GOES-16, has returned its first high-definition images of Earth—one of which even includes the Moon!

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