From the makers of the moon lander…

Golden Spike Lunar LanderThe recently formed Golden Spike company, focusing on commercial space exploration and exploitation, announces a contract with aerospace company Northrup Grumman – whose engineers designed and built NASA’s Apollo lunar landers in the 1960s – to do a design study for a new generation of lunar landing hardware. The contract only covers a design, which will need to be finalized so companies hoping to build the lander can bid on the actual construction contract.

SOFIA spots a black hole

The black holeNASA reveals that its Boeing-747-mounted SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) telescope, during a 2011 flight in which its sensitive infrared sensors were aimed at the center of the Milky Way galaxy, captured an image of the super-massive black hole at the heart of the galaxy. A disc of dust and gas circling the center of the galaxy – seven light years across – lights up the image. The black hole is believed to have a mass of over four million times that of Earth’s sun.

ESA to provide Orion service modules

OrionThe European Space Agency and NASA sign an agreement allowing ESA to provide service modules for the upcoming Orion manned spacecraft, with the first module flying as part of an unmanned test scheduled to take place in 2017. While the Orion command module capsules will be built for NASA by contractor Lockheed Martin, the service modules to which the capsules will be connected are to be provided by ESA and customized for each mission (which could include long-duration flights to the moon, asteroids, or Mars). The service module’s “X-wing solar panel” design is derived from ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicle cargo ferries dispatched to the International Space Station; ESA’s commitment to Orion will replace its obligation to provide further unmanned freighters to the space station.

A Deep look into Comet ISON

Comet ISONNASA’s Deep Impact probe, already a veteran explorer of comets, turns its camera eye toward Comet ISON, a recently-discovered comet expected to put on a spectacular show even to the naked eye in late 2013. Originally launched in 1995 to study Comet Tempel 1 at close range, Deep Impact has since used its cameras to study other comets passing through the solar system. The distance between Deep Impact and Comet ISON at the time the 36-hour photo sequence is taken is roughly 493 million miles.

Atari files for bankruptcy

AtariThe 21st century iteration of Atari, now owned by the French video game company formerly known as Infogrames, files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection as it tries to disentangle itself from its parent company’s descent into insolvency. Revealed in the filing is that, despite numerous modern games distributed under the Atari “label”, licensing of the 1970s Atari logo accounts for almost one-fifth of Atari’s current revenue. The classic Atari game portfolio dating back to such games as Pong and Asteroids is put up for sale in an effort to raise funds for the troubled company.

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Abrams to direct Star Wars Episode VII

Star WarsWord breaks across Hollywood that Disney has secured the services of J.J. Abrams, co-creator of Lost and director of the 2009 and 2013 movies set in a re-imagined Star Trek universe, to direct the much-anticipated Star Wars Episode VII, the first new movie in the series since Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm at the end of 2012. With a locked-in release date in 2015, Abrams is expected to start work on Episode VII as soon as post-production and promotion for Star Trek Into Darkness are complete for that movie’s May 2013 release.

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Saturn V F-1 engine revived for tests

Saturn V engineNASA recalls an actual 1960s F-1 engine – of which clusters of five once launched the mighty Saturn V rockets during the Apollo lunar program – from the Smithsonian for refurbishment and, for the first time in over four decades, re-firing on a test stand at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. NASA engineers examine the properties of the F-1 engine – whose performance still outrates the engines used during the Space Shuttle program – to learn how to improve the J-2X engines planned for use in the first stage of the SLS (Space Launch System) booster that will launch Orion vehicles.

NASA will launch huge solar sail in 2014

SunjammerNASA announces plans to launch an experimental uncrewed test vehicle called Sunjammer into orbit in 2014, as a test of solar sail technology. Though not the first solar sail ever launched, Sunjammer be will the largest by far, its mainsail being incredibly thin Kapton with a surface area of 13,000 feet. The objective of the flight is to unfurl the sail and then use the solar wind to propel it to the L1 Earth-Sun LaGrange point nearly 2,000,000 miles from Earth. Sunjammer will be lifted into orbit by a SpaceX rocket in 2014, with both NASA and NOAA keeping a close eye on the results.

Star Wars “character” movies in works

Han SoloDisney announces that it has an entire empire of Star Wars movies in mind, including two movies built around the early days of specific fan-favorite characters, with Han Solo and Boba Fett being the first two characters to have movies centered around them. The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders Of The Lost Ark screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan – obviously no stranger to the exploits of Han Solo – is among those developing the storylines for these spinoff movies.

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ISS in standard orbit, Captain…

Commander Chris HadfieldCanadian-born International Space Station Commander Chris Hadfield, following up on a brief communication via Twitter that caught the attention of Star Trek fans and space exploration afficionados alike, conducts a live video chat from orbit with Star Trek star William Shatner (speaking from Earth). The two discuss the risks of space exploration and the technological leaps forward (including means of communication that were strictly science fiction in Star Trek’s heyday), though Shatner can’t convince Hadfield to confirm rumors that the astronaut has volunteered to head up a mission to Mars.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Collection

Star Trek: Deep Space NineSoundtrack specialty label La-La Land Records releases a 4-CD box set containing selections of soundtrack music from all seven seasons of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, including variations on the series’ Emmy-winning main theme and several popular fan-requested pieces of music from the show’s seven year history, including a “lost album” assembled in 2000 but never released.

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Another near-miss for Russia

2013 Russian MeteorIn broad daylight over Chelyabinsk, Russia, a meteor likely less than ten feet in diameter unexpectedly appears in the sky and explodes in mid-air. The resulting sonic boom and shockwave break hundreds of windows, causing several hundred minor injuries and collapsing part of a building. Unsettlingly, the meteor is confirmed to be completely unrelated to the much-anticipated asteroid 2012 DA14, which is over 16 hours away from its closest approach to Earth.

2012 DA14’s close shave

Asteroid 2012 DA14One of the closest asteroid encounters since the beginning of intensive asteroid tracking, asteroid 2012 DA14 swings past Earth at a distance of only 17,200 miles – putting it closer to Earth than most weather and communcations satellites in geosynchronous orbit. Despite this, the asteroid is well outside the orbit of such low-Earth-orbit structures as the International Space Station. Discovered in February 2012, 2012 DA14 has a diameter of approximately 150 feet and is moving at a speed of over 17,000 miles per hour. 2012 DA14’s next closest approach will take place in 2046, but it will not make another passage this close until 2110. The asteroid is unrelated to a meteor airburst event earlier the same day over Russia.

Raymond Cusick, designer of Daleks, dies

Raymond CusickThe original designer of the seemingly immortal Dalek casings seen throughout the history of Doctor Who (and its associated merchandising), Raymond Cusick dies at the age of 84. A young staff designer at the BBC in 1963, Cusick landed the assignment of originating the Dalek design by chance when another staff designer originally assigned to Doctor Who, Ridley Scott, changed assignments. Years later, after quietly enquiring about sharing some of the windfall from Dalek merchandising, Cusick received a thank you note from the BBC, along with a check for 250 pounds. Despite this, he continued as a television production designer for the BBC through the late 1980s.

Messenger: Mercury has been mapped

Mercury mapped by MessengerThe unmanned Messenger space probe, the first spacecraft ever to orbit Mercury, completes the mapping of the tiny planet with its MDIS (Messenger Dual Imaging System), having completed full coverage of the entire planet from pole to pole in both visible and infrared light, allowing a much more accurate topographical map to be created. This represents the most complete set of mapping data available on Mercury. Messenger’s mission is slated to end in March unless it is extended a second time.

Hubble spots a Space Invader

Space InvaderTo allay public fears that the next level might not be reached, NASA offers an explanation for an enigmatic 2010 image from the Hubble Space Telescope, showing a galaxy cluster, Abell 68, approximately 2,000,000,000 light years away. In the middle of that cluster, however, is what appears to be an alien from the video game Space Invaders. NASA explains that it’s a visual artifact of gravitational lensing caused by the gravity influence of the foreground galaxies upon the light of galaxies further away in the image. Earth breathes easy once more.

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SpaceShipTwo’s test drive

SpaceShipTwoSpace passenger line Virgin Galactic tests the Burt Rutan-designed suborbital SpaceShipTwo spacecraft VSS Enterprise at an altitude of over ten miles, reaching a speed of over Mach 1. Virgin’s official report is that the test flight was a complete success; no date is set for a suborbital test flight yet. Virgin is expected to build four more vehicles of the SpaceShipTwo class before moving on to a more advanced design, SpaceShipThree.

Doctor Who: The Krotons soundtrack

Doctor Who: The KrotonsSilva Screen Records releases a CD of music from the 1960s Doctor Who story The Krotons, composed and performed by Brian Hodgson of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. A rare example of a pre-80s soundtrack scored entirely by the Workshop, The Krotons’ release catches fans off-guard as part of the label’s series of classic soundtrack releases celebrating 50 years of Doctor Who.

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