It’s like Grand Central Station lately

JISHOU, HUNAN — It’s been busy in space lately. First the Chinese succeed in their first orbital spacewalk, then businessman Elon Musk sends the Falcon 1 into orbit. The Falcon 1 is the first privately developed and financed rocket to reach orbit. Three previous attempts failed. Musk’s company, SpaceX, hopes to slash costs to low-earth orbit by a third, to approximately US$10 million. It also plans to develop heavier launch vehicles to ferry supplies to the International Space Station, and launch the company’s own astronauts into orbit. Musk is the founder of PayPal, the Internet payment system. He sold it to eBay in 2002 for $1.5 billion, founding SpaceX the same year. He’s also the chairman of Tesla, an electric-car manufacturer in San Jose, California. (The car is pretty cool: a fast, sleek sports car. Jay Leno took it on a test drive and was impressed.) Here’s a picture of the Falcon 1 rocket nozzle from orbit. The private exploitation of space has so far been all talk and no show. SpaceX has a contract with NASA to supply the ISS once the venerable Space Shuttle fleet is mothballed in 2010, so it will have income — a necessary part ...

MESSENGER successfully flies by Mercury

The MESSENGER probe zipped past Mercury yesterday in the first of three flybys needed before it settles into a regular orbit. NASA scientists say the probe survived the encounter, which brought it to within 200 km (124 miles) of the planet’s surface. MESSENGER is the first probe to visit Mercury in 30 years, so planetary scientists are excited to see what new data the new probe returns. MESSENGER (short for “MErcury Surface Space ENvironment GEochemistry and Ranging” — NASA must have a special office to devise names like this one) will investigate Mercury in ways that were not possible when Mariner 10 paid it two flyby visits in 1974. Mariner 10 was able to image only one side of Mercury. Here’s an image of Mercury taken by MESSENGER on its approach Sunday, from 760,000 kilometers away (about twice the distance from the Earth to the Moon). (Click on the image to see a larger version.) After two more flybys this year and next, MESSENGER will settle into a regular orbit in 2011 when it will begin a longterm study of the innermost planet, the first in its history. The peculiar trajectory is a fuel-saving measure, to enable the probe to ...
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