CCtCap and More
This week NASA awarded the contracts for its CCtCap program — Commercial Crew transportation Capability — to SpaceX’s Dragon V2 and Boeing’s CST-100, unfortunately leaving Sierra Nevada Corp.’s space plane Dream Chaser out in the cold. The contracts are the latest stage in NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program, whose ultimate goal is to replace the Russian Soyuz as the sole means of transportation to and from the International Space Station by 2017, amounting to billions of dollars of investment in the private firms. Under the contracts, both SpaceX and Boeing will be tasked with one crewed test flight to the ISS and a further six crew launches — except where Boeing will be doing it for $4.2billion, SpaceX will be doing it for just $2.6billion. The basics of the math are simple: it’s what each company said they needed to get the job done. But it’s going to raise some eyebrows in the future, especially if Boeing can’t get their costs down. Sure, NASA wants a vibrant space economy that leaves them with options — but they also aren’t going to want to pay an extra $1.6billion for every half a dozen launches, either. For more on the awarding of the contracts, check out nasaspaceflight.com, and for more on the cost breakdown, check out spacenews.com.
But don’t count SNC out just yet. In July of this year it was announced that they would be working with JAXA, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, and the ESA may still be interested as well. Meanwhile Jeff Bezos’s space company Blue Origin looks to be teaming up with ULA (United Launch Alliance, the Boeing/Lockheed-Martin joint venture) to produce a new rocket engine — possibly as insurance against their current, Russian-supplied models.
And if you weren’t aware, another Boeing craft, the US Air Force’s tiny “secret” space shuttle and all-round useful solar-powered space drone the X-37B has just reached another milestone: 600 days in space.
A Parking Spot on Cherry-Gerry
This week the European Space Agency revealed its decision for the landing spot on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko for Rosetta’s little lander Philae: the unceremoniously-named “J.” Having entered orbit around the comet and mapped out a list of potential landing points (presumably including sites A through H), the team in charge of the probe have decided that an area on the “head” of the so-called “rubber ducky” is the least-worst place to try to land on the treacherous ball of ice. The scheduled date for touchdown is November 11, so keep checking back for more updates as they arise. You can also check out ESA’s website for more.
New research published this week in the American Journal of Psychiatry suggests that what has previously been referred to as a single neurological condition, schizophrenia, may in fact be a series of as many as eight or more related genetic disorders. By studying the genetic makeup of eight thousand people — 4200 diagnosed with schizophrenia and 3800 without — they were able to separate symptoms into groups associated with certain genetic expressions. For more on the study, see a very explanatory article over at io9, or if you’re feeling brave and can peek behind the paywall check out the original article.
Artificial Sweeteners and Diabetes
Every news channel and website this week dedicated at least some space to findings published this week in the journal Nature that suggest a link between the consumption of artificial sweeteners and glucose intolerance (the primary symptom of diabetes). Unfortunately there are some problems with the study that make its usefulness suspect: they lump all three major market sweeteners together (aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose), they fail to keep track of how much of each sweetener each mouse consumes (hint: it’s a lot), and the application of their findings to humans uses only seven participants — hardly enough to say anything definitive. Noted skeptic Dr. Stephen Novella over at NeurologicaBlog has an interesting article on the study, as does Kai Kupferschmidt over at the AAAS Science blog.
The first Formula E race was held this week in Beijing, where Brazilian driver Lucas DiGrassi grabbed the first-ever win for his team Audi Sport ABT. Until just moments before, the race had been led by Nick Prost until a collision with former F1 driver Nick Heidfeld sent both out of the running. The Formula E series is designed, like Formula 1, to serve as a test-bed for new automotive technologies, as well as to generate interest. In this first of its kind no-holds-barred electric car race, each driver has not one, but two cars at his disposal, to swap out in the middle of the race, and the amount of charge each receives is highly regulated. It is also the first racing competition where the fans play a role: the most popular drivers receive an extra boost — something that has caused consternation among some commentators. Keep track of the races (and give your favourites a fan boost) over at the official Formula E site. The next race is November 22 in Malaysia.
And in related news, the Brigham Young University team responsible for the last E1-class electric car land speed record, set in 2011, has beat their personal best again with a blistering 204.9 miles per hour. The E1-class is for cars under 1100lbs — other, heavier electric cars have posted speeds as high as the current all-round electric car land speed record of 314.958 mph, held by the class III/e Buckeye Bullet 1.
This morning at 1:52am EDT SpaceX succesfully launched their fourth ISS resupply mission atop a Falcon 9R partially-reusable rocket. This marks the company’s sixth launch this year, doubling last year’s record for the company. The Dragon capsule is expected to arrive at the station tomorrow, where it will berth for about a month before returning to Earth carrying completed experiments and waste. This particular shipment carries the first 3D printer to the station, which, it is hoped, will allow for greater flexibility and sustainability of operations aboard the ISS. Check nasa.gov for more on the mission as it progresses.
Great news this week in the fight against cancer as the first of a new class of immune-system-boosting chemotherapy drugs has been cleared for use by the FDA. Keytruda, a drug that uses the body’s immune system to fight malignant melanoma, the most serious kind of skin cancer. Apparently the drug was so successful in its Phase 1 trials that it was fast-tracked through the approval process. Here’s hoping it’s just the top of the iceberg of the new up-and-coming cancer drugs.
Finally, in about four and a half hours, NASA’s Martian atmospheric probe MAVEN will complete its long trip to the red planet with a sudden deceleration burn to bring it into an elliptical orbit to begin its mission to study Mars’s upper atmosphere. Check out NASA’s Mars Orbit Insertion event live on NASA tv.
Best of the Rest
There were a few other interesting things floating about the interwebs this week that are worth taking a look at, like this amazing to-scale comparison chart of telescope mirror sizes (including the forthcoming James Webb telescope set to be stationed at L2, and the E-ELT already under construction atop Cerro Armazones in Chile). Gizmodo’s Sploid blog also had some great shots of the old Russian space station Mir, and (although it’s a little old) I stumbled onto a tumblog worth sharing if you haven’t seen it: science described in the thousand words used most often in English, Ten Hundred Words of Science.