A NASA Funding Act, Some Rocketry News, and a Space Pierogi! | Vol. 4 / No. 20

NASA gets a budget — kind of | Photo: Billy Brown, CC BY 2.0

It’s a big space news week this week, with NASA getting kind-of funded, Blue Origin and SpaceX moving forward (in different ways), and a GIANT SPACE PIEROGI orbiting in Saturn’s rings. It’s the news roundup for Sunday, March 12, 2017!


NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017

This week, the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 was passed by the US House of Representatives, following up on the February 7 passage of the bill by the Senate. Among other things, it authorizes the government to spend $19.5 billion on NASA in fiscal year 2017, which is great. The Planetary Society supported the passage of this bill from its inception way back in 2016, and (even if it’s imperfect — it doesn’t mention Earth sciences at all) it was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, which speaks to the current House and Senate’s combined enthusiasm for NASA’s work. That said, authorization acts only authorize spending; it takes an appropriation act to actually fund NASA. So, yes, let’s celebrate the likely continuation of the Orion and SLS programs, and the likelihood that a Europa mission really is coming. Let’s celebrate that we do, almost all of us, want to go to the moon and to Mars. But let’s also be a little wary of the potential side effects of a massive, across-the-board budget cut. It can’t all come from things Trump and his climate-change-denying cronies don’t like, whether they like it or not. You can read more over at Space News.


New Glenn (rendering) | Photo: Blue Origin, Eutelsat

This Week in Rocketry

Two bits of news out of the private rocketry industry this week. First, there’s Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, which has revealed a few details about its planned satellite launch vehicle, the New Glenn. Bezos said this week that it could launch by 2020 or 2021, that it would be reusable “up to 100 times,” and that two companies, Eutelsat and OneWeb, have booked flights on it. Now, Blue Origin has indeed demonstrated that they can (a) build a rocket that can (b) take off and land, but they haven’t yet demonstrated the ability to build a rocket that does the lion’s share of the actual work, which is sending payloads sideways at the roughly 17,000 miles per hour necessary to stay in orbit. On top of that, they haven’t demonstrated they can slow back down from that speed to then come in for a safe landing. So while I fully applaud Bezos’s ability to instill confidence, let’s just repeat to ourselves the first rule of rocketry: space is hard. You can read more about that story over at Spaceflight Now.

Meanwhile in SpaceX land, they’re preparing for what looks to be one of the final “expendable” flights of the Falcon 9. The Echostar 23 launch has already undergone its “static fire” test and is targeting a 1:34am to 4:04am (eastern) launch window on Tuesday the 14th. The targeted geostationary transfer orbit means the rocket will use up too much fuel to come back for a landing. That said, the final form of the Falcon 9, the “block 5” version, is coming in Q2 or Q3 of 2017, and it should be able to handle GTO launches and returns to base, so the number of expendable flights are looking pretty limited. Check out r/spacex’s Echostar 23 launch campaign thread for more details.


Space Pierogi | Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Space Pierogi!

As the Cassini space probe comes closer to its final date with destiny, crashing into Saturn’s atmosphere at the end of April, it’s also coming closer to the planet itself, which means getting to see things we’ve never seen up close before. And this week we got to see Saturn’s moon Pan — and what an odd moon it is. The shape has been described variously as a flying saucer and a pancake, but to my mind it looks the most like an enormous space pierogi. At its longest, it’s about 22 miles end-to-end, and it’s more like a flying “ice dune,” and it’s what’s responsible for a 200-mile-wide gap in the rings called the Encke Gap. There’s not a ton of story here, just some awesome images you can check out over at NASA’s website. And if you want to actually learn something you could go over to Phil Plait’s new home at Syfy and read more there.



In case you weren’t playing along from home all week, here’s what we got up to here!

If you missed any of those, go check them out!


Best of the Rest

And because we can’t cover everything, here it is, your weekly linkspam:

That’s all for today — have a great week.


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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as Deputy Managing Editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.