We last heard about the Stratolaunch in August 2015, when Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's company Stratolaunch Systems announced plans for test flights with the massive airplane meant to help launch satellite-bearing rockets more efficiently. Those test flights apparently didn't happen, but Allen did tweet a picture of the huge aircraft coming out of its equally gigantic hangar today for "fuel testing." The Stratolaunch is the largest all-composite plane ever built, with six Boeing 747 engines, a payload capacity of over 500,000 pounds and a functional range of around 2,000 nautical miles. The idea is to attach rockets to the center of the craft and then let them perform an airborne launch, which minimizes the amount of fuel they need and will help rockets take off in inclement weather. The plane itself is being made by famed aerospace engineer Burt Rutan's company, Scaled Composites, at the Mojave Air and Space Port in the California desert with plans to be fully operational "by the end of this decade."
In the early hours of Saturday morning, NASA will send a spacecraft on a mission to fly where no probe has ever gone before – into the sun's scorching outer atmosphere. The $1.5 billion Parker Probe will blast off atop one of the most powerful rockets in the world, eventually hitting record-breaking speeds of up to 430,000 miles per hour as it completes 24 orbits of the sun over the course of seven years. During this time, the craft will swing around Venus seven times, using the planet's gravity to push it closer and closer to our star with each pass; eventually, the Parker probe will get within 3.8 million miles of the sun's surface. It will be subjected to temperatures of roughly 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit when it comes closer to the sun than any spacecraft in history – but, behind its thick heat shield, it will only feel like a hot summer day, with this sheltered region maxing out at about 85 degrees. The launch window at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida opens at 3:33 a.m.
A reused SpaceX first-stage, which will be used as a side booster on the Falcon Heavy's demonstration flight, is test-fired in May. It's been 44 years since the mighty Saturn V last thundered skyward from a launch pad at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The towering rocket, generating enough power to lift 269,000 pounds into orbit, had been the workhorse of the Apollo moon missions. Later this year, SpaceX plans to launch its most powerful rocket yet from the same pad. The long-awaited Falcon Heavy is key to the Hawthorne company's plans to ramp up its defense business, send tourists around the moon and launch its first uncrewed mission to Mars.
Did you know math could help NASA travel faster and farther? Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) mathematician Randy Paffenroth has been combining machine learning with 19th-century mathematics to make NASA spacecraft lighter and more damage tolerant. His goal is to detect imperfections in carbon nanomaterials used to make composite rocket fuel tanks and other spacecraft structures by using an algorithm he developed. The algorithm allows for higher resolution scans that provide more accurate images of the material's uniformity and potential defects. These yarns are wrapped around structures like rocket fuel tanks, giving them the strength to withstand high pressures.
Two months after a fueling failure caused a SpaceX rocket to burst into flames, the space launch company says it hopes its resume its launches as early as next month. In an interview with CNBC Friday, chief executive Elon Musk said the company had learned the reason for the explosion and that SpaceX rockets could return to flight by mid-December. "I think we've gotten to the bottom of the problem," Mr. Musk said. Investigators reportedly determined that the failure was caused by a fueling system malfunction that produced solid oxygen inside the rocket's upper stage tank, causing a reaction with a carbon composite bottle containing liquid helium that sits inside the oxygen tank, resulting in an explosion. The Sept. 1 explosion raised the question of whether the private space company, which aims to send colonists to Mars by 2024, has been pushing the boundaries of space exploration a little too hard.