Gigantic changes keep space technology hot

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From budget battles and getting commercial spacecraft off the ground to a private moon landing competition and new outer space missions it is clear there are a ton of activities going on now that will reshape the space industry. Here we have gathered 13 of the most recent and important activities shaping the space realm.

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NASA satellite primed for first ever Mercury orbit

If all goes well NASA this week will send a spacecraft to a place it has never been, the planet Mercury's orbit. NASA's satellite MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging) will become the first spacecraft to actually orbit Mercury, about 730 times, beaming back pictures and never before available pictures and information on the planet. On March 17 2011, MESSENGER will become the first spacecraft ever to enter Mercury's orbit. The probe will continue to orbit the planet once every 12 hours for the duration of its mission.

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Prolific NASA Mars satellite keeps Mars in focus

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has passed some significant milestones in recent weeks. This month it celebrated its five-year anniversary buzzing around the red planet. In December it set the record for longest exploration of the red planet having been watching Mars for 3,340 days. The mission's key scientific achievements include creating the most detailed maps ever made of the red planet, detecting hydrogen just below the surface throughout Mars' high latitude region and determining radiation levels around the planet from solar flares and cosmic rays are two to three times higher than around Earth.

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Pending retirement

Space shuttle Endeavour's STS-134 mission is slated to blast off on April 19. During the 14-day mission, Endeavour will deliver among other things, the particle physics detector Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. The final launch, STS-135 Atlantis is scheduled for June 28. The NASA Authorization Act of 2010 directs NASA to conduct the STS-135 mission, but it could be cut depending on what Congress does with the money. Atlantis will carry the Raffaello multipurpose logistics module to deliver supplies, logistics and spare parts to the station.

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Signing on the Russians

With the shuttle's retirement on mind, NASA this week signed a $753 million modification to the current International Space Station contract with the Russian Federal Space Agency for crew transportation, rescue and related services from 2014 through June 2016. The modification covers comprehensive Soyuz support, including all necessary training and preparation for launch, flight operations, landing and crew rescue of long duration missions for 12 individual space station crew members, NASA said.

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Environmental crash

It hasn't been a perfect month for Orbital Sciences Corporation or NASA as the agency's environmental satellite failed to separate from its rocket and crashed into the Pacific Ocean. NASA said telemetry indicated the fairing, the protective shell atop the Taurus XL rocket, did not separate as expected about three minutes after launch. The Glory satellite was to join the fleet of satellites that orbit the Earth known as the Afternoon Constellation or "A-train" of satellites. The A-Train satellite formation includes other NASA environmental tracking satellites Aqua, CloudSat, CALIPSO and Aura.

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The Pentagon and future outer space exploration

It obviously leans heavily on the military's concerns for outer space exploration but the National Security Space Strategy released today by the Department of Defense outlines concerns like protection from space junk and system security that all space travellers in theory would want addressed. The NSSS document emphasises the Obama administration's desire to protect space assets and to further commercialise space, but also to ensure that the US and international partners have unfettered access to outer space.

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Groundwork

NASA in January said it was looking to morph the the Kennedy Space Center's unique space rocket facilities into a new more commercial role after the shuttles stop flying. While its facilities would likely rise far above others, NASA could find some competition in any commercial launch venture. You may recall that Masten Space Systems and Space Florida has inked an agreement to perform demonstration launches of the space company's suborbital reusable launch vehicle from Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

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Sneak attack

The US Air Force this month launched a second secretive spaceship, the X-37B. The first X-37B, known as Orbital Test Vehicle 1, launched April 22 last year and stayed in space conducting experiments for some 220 days. The ship fired its orbital maneuver engine in low-Earth orbit to perform an autonomous reentry before landing, the Air Force stated. The X-37B carries a super-secret payload, but provides what the Air Force calls a flexible space test platform to conduct various experiments with network satellite sensors, subsystems, components and associated technology.

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The X Prize $30 million private race to the moon

The competition masters at X Prize Foundation are at it again. In February the group announced the 29 international teams that will compete for the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize, the competition to put a robot on the moon by 2015. To win the money, a privately funded team must successfully place a robot on the Moon's surface that explores at least 500 meters and transmits high definition video and images to Earth. The first team to do so will claim a $20 million Grand Prize, while the second team will earn a $5 million.

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Out there

The satellite the furthest away as any spacecraft has been from Earth are looking to solve a question: In which direction is the sun's stream of charged particles banking when it nears the edge of the solar system? To enable Voyager 1's Low Energy Charged Particle instrument to gather these data, the spacecraft performed a maneuver on March 7 that it hadn't done for 21 years: It rolled 70 degrees counterclockwise as seen from Earth from its normal orientation and held the position by spinning gyroscopes for two hours, 33 minutes.

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Space tourist

To celebrate its launch, TripAlertz, a private, members-only travel site is offering the chance to win a "Free Epic Journey into Space!" The prize is offered via a partnership with XCOR Aerospace, builder of the Lynx Suborbital reusable space plane and provider of rocket technology to leading global companies. The TripAlertz Epic Journey into Space Package customarily sells for $95,000.

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NASA budget battles

The past two years have been a constant budget struggle for the administration and NASA. As it tries to move into 2012, restrictions from the as yet solidified 2011 budget remain a stumbling block. The agency's chief, Charles Bolden recently stated: "NASA's successes and, yes, even its failures over the past 50 years have inspired countless people to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers and the outcome of NASA's endeavours, both in technology advancements and intellectual capital has transformed our world."

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NASA gets space exploration marching orders

The community and team of scientists that help NASA prioritise space missions has come out with its exploration recommendations for the next decade: get to Mars, explore one of Jupiter's moons and study Uranus. The scientists from the National Research Council who authored the wish list were mindful of the budgetary challenges facing the space programme.

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