So it Begins, Red Dragon Delayed 2 Years to 2020

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – With so many exciting projects competing for the finite time of SpaceX’s super talented engineers, something important had to give. And that something comes in the form of slipping the blastoff of SpaceX’s ambitious Red Dragon initiative to land the first commercial spacecraft on Mars by 2 years – to 2020.

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SpaceX Hopes for Falcon 9 Return to Flight in November; Shotwell

SpaceX is renovating Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center for launches of the Falcon Heavy and human rated Falcon 9.  Credit: Ken Kremer/

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL – Less than two weeks after a still mysterious launch pad explosion utterly destroyed a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket during testing on Sept. 1, the bold and seemingly undaunted firm is already setting its sights on a ‘Return to Flight’ launch as early as November of this year, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said Tuesday.

“We’re anticipating getting back to flight, being down for about three months, so getting back to flight in November, the November timeframe,” Shotwell announced on Sept. 13, during a panel discussion at the World Satellite Business Week Conference being held in Paris, France.

The catastrophic Sept. 1 launch pad explosion took place without warning at SpaceX’s Space Launch Complex-40 launch facility at approximately 9:07 a.m. EDT on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.

Both the $60 million SpaceX rocket and the $200 million AMOS-6 Israeli commercial communications satellite payload were completely destroyed in a massive fireball that erupted suddenly during a routine and planned pre-launch fueling and engine ignition test at pad 40 on Sept. 1.

Shotwell also stated that the launch would occur from SpaceX’s other Florida Space Coast launch pad – namely the former Space Shuttle Launch Complex 39A on the Kennedy Space Center.

“We would launch from the East Coast on Pad 39A in the November timeframe. And then Vandenberg would be available … for our other assorted customers,” Shotwell stated.

SpaceX has signed a long term lease with NASA to use Pad 39A.

Shotwell did not say which payload would be the first to launch.

The incident took place less than two days before the scheduled Falcon 9 launch of AMOS-6 on Sept. 3.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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NASA Estimates SpaceX 2018 Mars Mission Will Cost Only $300 Million

Artists concept for sending SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft to land propulsively on Mars as early as 2018.  Credit: SpaceX

Ever since Musk founded SpaceX is 2002, with the intention of eventually colonizing Mars, every move he has made has been the subject of attention. And for the past two years, a great deal of this attention has been focused specifically on the development of the Falcon Heavy rocket and the Dragon 2 capsule – the components with which Musk hopes to mount a lander mission to Mars in 2018.

Among other things, there is much speculation about how much this is going to cost. Given that one of SpaceX’s guiding principles is making space exploration cost-effective, just how much money is Musk hoping to spend on this important step towards a crewed mission? As it turns out, NASA produced some estimates at a recent meeting, which indicated that SpaceX is spending over $300 million on its proposed Mars mission.

These estimates were given during a NASA Advisory Council meeting, which took place in Cleveland on July 26th between members of the technology committee. During the course of the meeting, James L. Reuter – the Deputy Associate Administrator for Programs at NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate – provided an overview of NASA’s agreement with SpaceX, which was signed in December of 2014 and updated this past April.

In accordance with this agreement, NASA will be providing support for the company’s plan to send an uncrewed Dragon 2 capsule (named “Red Dragon”) to Mars by May of 2018. Intrinsic to this mission is the plan to conduct a propulsive landing on Mars, which would test the Dragon 2‘s SuperDraco Descent Landing capability. Another key feature of this mission will involve using the Falcon Heavy to deploy the capsule.

The terms of this agreement do not involve the transfer of funds, but entails active collaboration that would be to the benefit parties. As Reuters indicated in his presentation, which NASA’s Office of Communications shared with Universe Today via email (and will be available on the STMD’s NASA page soon):

“Building on an existing no-funds-exchanged collaboration with SpaceX, NASA is providing technical support for the firm’s plan to attempt to land an uncrewed Dragon 2 spacecraft on Mars. This collaboration could provide valuable entry, descent and landing (EDL) data to NASA for our journey to Mars, while providing support to American industry. We have similar agreements with dozens of U.S. commercial, government, and non-profit partners.”

Further to this agreement is NASA’s commitment to a budget of $32 million over the next four years, the timetable of which were partially-illustrated in the presentation: “NASA will contribute existing agency resources already dedicated to [Entry, Descent, Landing] work, with an estimated value of approximately $32M over four years with approximately $6M in [Fiscal Year] 2016.”

According to Article 21 of the Space Act Agreement between NASA and SpaceX, this will include providing SpaceX with: “Deep space communications and telemetry; Deep space navigation and trajectory design; Entry, descent and landing system analysis and engineering support; Mars entry aerodynamic and aerothermal database development; General interplanetary mission advice and hardware consultation; and planetary protection consultation and advice.”

For their part, SpaceX has not yet disclosed how much their Martian mission plan will cost. But according to Jeff Foust of SpaceNews, Reuter provided a basic estimate of about $300 million based on a 10 to 1 assessment of NASA’s own financial commitment: “They did talk to us about a 10-to-1 arrangement in terms of cost: theirs 10, ours 1,” said Reuter. “I think that’s in the ballpark.”

As for why NASA has chosen to help SpaceX make this mission happen, this was also spelled out in the course of the meeting. According to Reuter’s presentation: “NASA conducted a fairly high-level technical feasibility assessment and determined there is a reasonable likelihood of mission success that would be enhanced with the addition of NASA’s technical expertise.”

Such a mission would provide NASA with valuable landing data, which would prove very useful when mounting its crewed mission in the 2030s. Other items discussed included NASA-SpaceX collaborative activities for the remainder of 2016 – which involved a “[f]ocus on system design, based heavily on Dragon 2 version used for ISS crew and cargo transportation”.

It was also made clear that the Falcon Heavy, which SpaceX is close to completing, will serve as the launch vehicle. SpaceX intends to conduct its first flight test (Falcon Heavy Demo Flight 1) of the heavy-lifter in December of 2016. Three more test flights are scheduled to take place between 2017 and the launch of the Mars lander mission, which is still scheduled for May of 2018.

In addition to helping NASA prepare for its mission to the Red Planet, SpaceX’s progress with both the Falcon Heavy and Dragon 2 are also crucial to Musk’s long-term plan for a crewed mission to Mars – the architecture of which has yet to be announced. They are also extremely important in the development of the Mars Colonial Transporter, which Musk plans to use to create a permanent settlement on Mars.

And while $300 million is just a ballpark estimate at this juncture, it is clear that SpaceX will have to commit considerable resources to the enterprise. What’s more, people must keep in mind that this would be merely the first in a series of major commitments that the company will have to make in order to mount a crewed mission by 2024, to say nothing of building a Martian colony!

In the meantime, be sure to check out this animation of the Crew Dragon in flight:

Further Reading: NASA STMD
TOTH: SpaceNews

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Uh, We’re Going To Need A Bigger Landing Pad

The Falcon Heavy, once operational, will be the most powerful rocket in the world. Credit:

Since 2000, Elon Musk been moving forward with his vision of a fleet of reusable rockets, ones that will restore domestic launch capability to the US and drastically reduce the cost of space launches. The largest rocket in this fleet is the Falcon Heavy, a variant of the Falcon 9 that uses the same rocket core, with two additional boosters that derived from the Falcon 9 first stage. When it lifts off later this year, it will be the most operational powerful rocket in the world.

More than that, SpaceX intends to make all three components of the rocket fully recoverable. This in turn will mean mean that the company is going to need some additional landing pads to recover them all. As such, the company recently announced that it is seeking federal permission to create second and third landing zones for their incoming rockets on Florida’s Space Coast.

The announcement came on Monday, July 18th, during a press conference at their facility at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. As they were quoted as saying by the Orlando Sentinel:

“SpaceX expects to fly Falcon Heavy for the first time later this year. We are also seeking regulatory approval to build two additional landing pads at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. We hope to recover all three Falcon Heavy rockets, though initially we may attempt drone ship landings [at sea].”

At present, SpaceX relies on both drone ships and their landing site at Cape Canaveral to recover rocket boosters after they return to Earth. Which option they have used depended on how high and how far downrange the rockets traveled. But with this latest announcement, they are seeking to recover all three boosters used in a single Falcon Heavy launch, which could prove to be essential down the road.

Since December, SpaceX has managed to successfully recover five Falcon 9 rockets, both at sea and on land. In fact, the announcement of their intentions to expand their landing facilities on Monday came shortly after a spent Falcon 9 returned to the company’s landing site, shortly after deploying over 2268 kg (5000 lbs) of cargo into space during a nighttime launch.

But the planned launch of the Falcon Heavy – Falcon Heavy Demo Flight 1, which is scheduled to take place this coming December  – is expected to break new ground. For one, it will give the private aerospace company the ability to lift over 54 metric tons (119,000 lbs) into orbit, more the twice the payload of a Delta IV Heavy – the highest capacity rocket in service at the moment.

Foremost among these are Elon Musk’s plans to colonize Mars. These efforts will begin in April or May of 2018 with the launch of the Dragon 2 capsule (known as the “Red Dragon”) using a Falcon Heavy. As part of an agreement with NASA to gain more information on Mars landings, the Red Dragon will send a payload to Mars that has yet to be specified.

Beyond that, the details are a bit sketchy; but Musk has indicated that he is committed to mounting a crewed mission to Mars by 2024. And if all goes well with Demo Flight 1, SpaceX expects to follow it up with Falcon Heavy Demo Flight 2 in March of 2017. This launch will see the Falcon Heavy being tested as part of the U.S. Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) certification process.

The rocket will also be carrying some important payloads, such as The Planetary Society’s LightSail 2. This 32 square-meter (344 square-foot) craft, which consists of four ultra-thin Mylar sails, will pick up where its predecessor (the LightSail 1, which was deployed in June 2015) left off – demonstrating the viability of solar sail spacecraft.

Other payloads will include NASA’s Deep Space Atomic Clock and Green Propellant Infusion Mission (GPIM), the US Air Force’s Innovative Space-based radar Antenna Technology (ISAT) satellite, the six Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere and Climate (COSMIC-2) satellites, and Georgia Tech’s Prox-1 nanosatellite, which will act as the LightSail 2’s parent sattelite.

The Falcon Heavy boasts three Falcon 9 engine cores, each of which is made up of 9 Merlin rocket engines. Together, these engines generate more than 2.27 million kg (5 million pounds) of thrust at liftoff, which is the equivalent of approximately eighteen 747 aircraft. Its lift capacity is also equivalent to the weight of a fully loaded 737 jetliner, complete with passengers, crew, luggage and fuel.

Only the Saturn V rocket – the workhorse of the Apollo Program, and which made its last flight in 1973 – was able to deliver more payload into orbit. This is not surprising, seeing as how the Falcon Heavy was specifically designed for a new era of space exploration, one that will see humans return to the Moon, go to Mars, and eventually explore the outer Solar System.

Fingers crossed that everything works out and the Falcon Heavy proves equal to the enterprise. The year of 2024 is coming fast and many of us are eager to see boots being put to red soil! And be sure to enjoy this animation of the Falcon Heavy in flight:

Further Reading: Orlando Sentinel

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SpaceX Announces Plan to Launch Private Dragon Mission to Mars in 2018

Artists concept for sending SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft to land propulsively on Mars as early as 2018.  Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX announced plans today, April 27, for the first ever private mission to Mars which involves sending an uncrewed version of the firms Dragon spacecraft to accomplish a propulsive soft landing – and to launch it as soon as 2018 including certain technical assistance from NASA.

Under a newly signed agreement with NASA, the agency will provide technical support to SpaceX with respect to Mars landing technologies for the new spacecraft known as a ‘Red Dragon’ and possibly also for science activities.

“SpaceX is planning to send Dragons to Mars as early as 2018,” the company posted in a brief announcement today on Facebook and other social media about the history making endeavor.

The 2018 Mars mission involves launching the ‘Red Dragon’ – also known as Dragon 2 – on the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket from Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The Red Dragon initiative is a commercial endeavor that’s privately funded by SpaceX and does not include any funding from NASA. The agreement with NASA specifically states there is “no-exchange-of-funds.”

As of today, the identity and scope of any potential science payload is undefined and yet to be determined.

Perhaps it could involve a suite of instruments from NASA, or other entities, such as cameras and spectrometers characterizing the Martian environment.

SpaceX CEO and billionaire founder Elon Musk has previously stated his space exploration goals involve helping to create a Mars colony which would ultimately lead to establishing a human ‘City on Mars.’

The 2018 liftoff campaign marks a significant step towards fulfilling Musk’s Red Planet vision. But we’ll have to wait another 5 months for concrete details.

“Red Dragon missions to Mars will also help inform the overall Mars colonization architecture that SpaceX will reveal later this year,” SpaceX noted.

Musk plans to reveal the details of the Mars colonization architecture later this year at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) being held in Guadalajara, Mexico from September 26 to 30, 2016.

Landing on Mars is not easy. To date only NASA has successfully soft landed probes on Mars that returned significant volumes of useful science data.

In the meantime a few details about the SpaceX Red Dragon have emerged.

The main goal is to propulsively land something 5-10 times the size of anything previously landed before.

“These missions will help demonstrate the technologies needed to land large payloads propulsively on Mars,” SpaceX further posted.

NASA’s 1 ton Curiosity rover is the heaviest spaceship to touchdown on the Red Planet to date.

As part of NASA’s agency wide goal to send American astronauts on a human ‘Journey to Mars’ in the 2030s, NASA will work with SpaceX on some aspects of the Red Dragon initiative to further the agency’s efforts.

According to an amended agreement signed yesterday jointly by NASA and SpaceX officials – that originally dates back to November 2014 – this mainly involves technical support from NASA and exchanging entry, descent and landing (EDL) technology, deep space communications, telemetry and navigation support, hardware advice, and interplanetary mission and planetary protection advice and consultation.

“We’re particularly excited about an upcoming SpaceX project that would build upon a current “no-exchange-of-funds” agreement we have with the company,” NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman wrote in a NASA blog post today.

“In exchange for Martian entry, descent, and landing data from SpaceX, NASA will offer technical support for the firm’s plan to attempt to land an uncrewed Dragon 2 spacecraft on Mars.”

“This collaboration could provide valuable entry, descent and landing data to NASA for our journey to Mars, while providing support to American industry,” NASA noted in a statement.

The amended agreement with NASA also makes mention of sharing “Mars Science Data.”

As of today, the identity, scope and weight of any potential science payload is undefined and yet to be determined.

Perhaps it could involve a suite of science instruments from NASA, or other entities, such as cameras and spectrometers characterizing various aspects of the Martian environment.

In the case of NASA, the joint agreement states that data collected with NASA assets is to be released within a period not to exceed 6 months and published where practical in scientific journals.

The Red Dragon envisioned for blastoff to the Red Planet as soon as 2018 would launch with no crew on board on a critical path finding test flight that would eventually pave the way for sending humans to Mars – and elsewhere in the solar system.

“Red Dragon Mars mission is the first test flight,” said Musk.

“Dragon 2 is designed to be able to land anywhere in the solar system.”

However, the Dragon 2 alone is far too small for a round trip mission to Mars – lasting some three years or more.

“But wouldn’t recommend transporting astronauts beyond Earth-moon region,” tweeted Musk.

“Wouldn’t be fun for longer journeys. Internal volume ~size of SUV.”

Furthermore, it would also have to be supplemented with additional modules for habitation, propulsion, cargo, science, communications and more. Think ‘The Martian’ movie to get a realistic idea of the complexity and time involved.

Whoever wants to land on Mars also has to factor in the relevant International treaties regarding ‘Planetary Protection’ requirements.

Wherever the possibility for life exists, the worlds space agency’s who are treaty signatories, including NASA, are bound to adhere to protocols limiting contamination by life forms from Earth.

SpaceX intends to takes planetary protection seriously. Under the joint agreement, SpaceX is working with relevant NASA officials to ensure proper planetary protection procedures are followed. One of the areas of collaboration with NASA is for them to advise SpaceX in the development a Planetary Protection Plan (PPP) and assist with the implementation of a PPP including identifying existing software/tools.

Red Dragon is derived from the SpaceX crew Dragon vehicle currently being developed under contract for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) to transport American astronauts back and forth to low Earth orbit and the International Space Station (ISS).

SpaceX and Boeing were awarded commercial crew contracts from NASA back in September 2014.

Both firms hope to launch unmanned and manned test flights of their SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft to the ISS starting sometime in 2017.

The crew Dragon is also an advanced descendent of the original unmanned cargo Dragon that has ferried tons of science experiments and essential supplies to the ISS since 2012.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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Three Words: SpaceX… Mars… 2018

Artistic concepts of the Falcon Heavy rocket (left) and the Dragon capsule deployed on the surface of Mars (right). Credit: SpaceX

Fans of Elon Musk and commercial space exploration are buzzing over the news! Back in 2002, when Musk first established the private aerospace company SpaceX, he did so with the intent of creating the technologies needed to reduce the cost of space transportation and enable crewed missions to Mars. And for the past few years, industry and the general public alike have been waiting on him to say when missions to Mars might truly begin.

Earlier this morning, Elon Musk did just that, when he tweeted from his company account that SpaceX plans to send a Dragon capsule to Mars by 2018. Despite talking about his eventual plans to mount crewed missions to Mars in the coming decades, and to even build a colony there, this is the first time that a specific date has been attached to any plans.

What was also indicated in the announcement was that the missions would be built around the “Red Dragon” mission architecture. As a modified, unmanned version of the Dragon capsule, this craft was conceived back in 2013 and 2015 as part of the NASA Discovery Program – specifically for Mission 13, a series of concepts which are scheduled to launch sometime in 2022.

Though the idea was never submitted to NASA, SpaceX has kept them on hand as part of a proposed low-cost Mars lander mission that would deploy a sample-return rover to the Martian surface. The mission will be deployed using a Falcon Heavy rocket, based on the mission profile and the illustrations that accompanied the announcement.

This mission would not only demonstrate SpaceX’s ability to procure samples from the Martian environment and bring them back to Earth – something that only federal space agencies like NASA have been able to do so far – but also test techniques and equipment that human crews will be using to enter the Martian atmosphere.

And if all goes well, we can expect that Musk will push forward with his plans for both crewed missions, and the development of all the necessary architecture to being work on his Mars Colonial Transporter, which he hopes to use to begin ferrying people to Mars to build his planned colony.

Stay tuned for more in-depth analysis of this announcement from our resident expert, Ken Kremer!

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What’s Ahead for Recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 Booster?

Falcon 9 first stage in pad 39A hangar at Kennedy Space Center following upright landing recovery from launch  on Dec. 21, 2015.  Credit: SpaceX

Now that SpaceX has successfully and safely demonstrated the upright recovery of their Falcon 9 booster that flew to the edge of space and back on Dec. 21 – in a historic first – the intertwined questions of how did it fare and what lies ahead for the intact first stage stands front and center.

Well the booster is apparently no worse for the wear of the grueling ascent and descent and will live to fire up again one day in the not so distant future at a former shuttle launch pad at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, following thorough inspections by SpaceX engineers.

“No damage found, ready to fire again,” reports SpaceX billionaire founder and CEO Elon Musk.

“Falcon 9 back in the hangar at Cape Canaveral.”

To prove his point about the recovered boosters viability, Musk has released new wide angle and up close photos of the first stage, pictured above and below.

Musk’s space vision is to radically slash the costs of launching people and payloads to space by recovering and reflying rockets – built individually at great expense – rather than completely discarding them after a single use.

Musk’s long term dream is to enable “A City on Mars” – as I reported earlier here.
The Dec. 21 upright landing recovery of the intact Falcon 9 first stage counts as a game changing achievement in the history spaceflight on the once fantastical road to rocket reusability and “A City on Mars.”

“I think quite vital to that goal is reusability of an orbit class rocket. It’s really fundamental to that goal, without which it would be unaffordable,” Musk said at a post launch and landing media telecon on Dec. 21.

Furthermore, Musk indicated at the media briefing that the near term fate of the recovered booster would likely be to serve as a pathfinder stage for use in a full fledged hold down, static hot fire test at historic Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center.

“We want to confirm that all systems are good, and that we’re able to do a full thrust hold down firing of the rocket,” Musk explained.

Sometime later this year, the booster will be rolled out from the hanger with a newly constructed transporter- erector and moved up the ramp to pad 39A. Technicians have already begun exercising the transporter- erector, practicing back and forth movements and raising the assembly to launch position.

The Falcon 9 first stage will be recycled to test out equipment, propellant loading, launch procedures and first stage ignition of the boosters upgraded Merlin 1D engines.

SpaceX is refurbishing pad 39A under a long term lease from NASA for use as a launch site starting in 2016 for the firms Falcon Heavy and Falcon 9 vehicles.

Following its spectacular blastoff from the Florida space coast on Dec. 21, the 156 foot tall booster gently touched down vertically with a rocket assisted soft landing some ten minutes later at Landing Zone-1 (LZ-1) on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.

The entire out of this world event was webcast live by SpaceX and looked like a scene cut straight out of a science fiction movie – only it was real and thrilled on-site spectators and webcast viewers worldwide.

Soon after touchdown, Musk and his team visited LZ-1 for a preliminary assessment of the boosters fiery race to space and back. Workers used a crane to tilt the spent booster horizontally, cradle it onto a lengthy multi-wheeled trailer and tow it some ten miles north to its temporary home at a spanking new hanger just built by SpaceX at historic Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center.

The video below shows the booster as its about to enter the gigantic new processing hanger that SpaceX has just constructed at the front entrance to Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center.

Video caption: SpaceX Falcon 9 chance sighting as it was being transported to the new SpaceX Hanger located at the former LC39A Shuttle Launch Facility. Credit: Shannon Gordon

The huge new SpaceX hanger at Launch Complex 39A is intended to process both the existing medium lift Falcon 9 rocket and the new heavy lift Falcon Heavy rocket – which is essentially a tripled barred Falcon 9.

Furthermore SpaceX also intends to use pad 39A to launch astronauts on the commercial crew version of the firms Dragon spacecraft staring in 2017, under a Commercial Crew Program (CCP) development contract with NASA.

Musk added that he prefers to save this first recover Falcon booster for historical reasons and likely put it on display somewhere.

“I think we’ll probably keep this one on the ground just because it’s kind of unique. It’s the first one that we brought back.”

The Falcon 9 booster landed nearly dead center at LZ-1.

The primary goal of the Dec. 21 ‘Return to Flight’ launch was carrying a constellation of 11 ORBCOMM OG2 commercial communications satellites to low Earth orbit.

About 3 minutes into the flight the first stage separated from the upper stage which continued to orbit with the 11 Orbcomm satellites. Engineers then reignited a first stage Merlin 1D engine several times to successfully make the propulsive ground landing about 10 minutes later at LZ-1 at the Cape, some six miles south from the SpaceX launch pad at Space Launch Complex-40 (SLC-40).

Video caption: Mobius remote video camera positioned at launch pad showing blastoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 Orbcomm-2 mission on December 21, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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Weekly Space Hangout – May 15, 2015: Finding, Studying and Visiting Other Worlds!

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain) Guests: Jolene Creighton (@jolene723 / Brian Koberlein (@briankoberlein / Dave Dickinson (@astroguyz / Morgan Rehnberg ( / @MorganRehnberg ) Alessondra Springmann (@sondy) (…)Read the rest of Weekly Space Hangout – May 15, 2015: Finding, Studying and Visiting Other Worlds! (501 words) © Fraser for Universe Today, 2015. | […]