China unveils ambitious plan for space exploration
December 30th, 2011
12:57 PM ET

China unveils ambitious plan for space exploration

China plans to put laboratories in space, collect samples from the moon and prepare to build space stations over the next five years, according to an ambitious plan released this week aimed at putting the country on the global map for space exploration.

China also plans to launch manned-vessels and freighters into space during the coming half-decade, according to a government white paper. The country's eventual goal in the longer term is a manned lunar landing.

"With economic progress, also comes the need for scientific development and exploration," said Jiao Weixin, a professor at the School of Earth and Space Sciences at Beijing University. "By investing in space exploration, China wants to contribute and be a major player in the world on more than one level."

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Filed under: In Space
Four astronauts look back on shuttle experience
Jan Davis, Robert S. Kimbrough, Sandra Magnus and William McArthur Jr. all participated in NASA's space shuttle program.
December 30th, 2011
11:25 AM ET

Four astronauts look back on shuttle experience

We say goodbye this weekend to 2011, the year that marked the close of NASA's space shuttle program.

The Georgia Institute of Technology recently honored alumni who have participated in the space program at its annual football game against the University of Georgia. CNN Light Years caught up with four Tech alumni astronauts, who reflected on their space experiences:

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Filed under: In Space • People in Orbit
The 'same time next year' calendar
December 29th, 2011
09:56 AM ET

The 'same time next year' calendar

Imagine a future in which you always know the date of baseball's opening day. Or that your birthday is always on a Tuesday (sorry). Or that New Year's Eve is always on a Saturday.

As the people of the world prepare to hang their 2012 calendars, two professors at Johns Hopkins University are proposing one you can keep forever, as each date falls on the same day of the week as it did the year before.

Christmas might always be celebrated on a Sunday, for instance, and Memorial Day Monday could always be on May 28.

Astrophysicist Richard Conn Henry and applied economist Steve Hanke devised the new calendar after years of research and planning. They say their calendar would make it easy to plan annual activities, from holidays to academic schedules to financial calculations.

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Filed under: On Earth
GRAIL to reach lunar orbit for new year
Although the moon is familiar to everyone on the planet, there's still a lot we don't know about it.
December 28th, 2011
04:43 PM ET

GRAIL to reach lunar orbit for new year

NASA is kicking off the new year by getting twin spacecraft into lunar orbit this weekend.

GRAIL, which stands for Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory, is a set of two orbiters that launched on September 10. GRAIL-A will get to its destination of circling the moon on the afternoon of December 31, with GRAIL-B following the next day at 5:05 p.m. ET.

They will arrive about 25 hours apart, giving breathing room in between these important milestones, says GRAIL project manager David Lehman.

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Filed under: In Space
Space idea factory & brainstorming school
A nuclear fuel production facility in space might power a nuclear rocket, seen here in an artist's rendering, to Mars.
December 27th, 2011
09:01 AM ET

Space idea factory & brainstorming school

You might call it an idea factory for space exploration. A unique program at the University of Southern California asks students at the Graduate Space Concepts Studio of the Department of Astronautical Engineering to dream up humanity’s next big space adventure.

Program graduates include George Whitesides, a top exec at commercial space outfit Virgin Galactic. Others have worked at SpaceX, NASA, Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin joined graduates this month to unveil their amazing ideas. Here are just a few:

  • Make nuclear fuel in space: Nuclear power may be the best viable solution for long-distance space travel. But where should the nuclear fuel be produced? Grad student Jake Dodd proposes a system to create it in space. This would avoid risks posed by creating it on Earth and use rockets to launch radioactive fuel through the atmosphere. Dodd named his idea SNAP: Space-based Nuclear Activision Plant. From a constant position in space, SNAP would “ingest fertile materials shipped from Earth, transmute them into useable nuclear fuels, and aid in the manufacture and distribution of space based nuclear fuel,” Dodd said. He suggests that SNAP might use nuclear power technologies such as molten salt reactors or nuclear-pumped lasers.
  • Build an industrial research park on the moon: The U.S. – especially the private sector – could provide communications, navigation and lunar ground infrastructure for China, India and other nations to send their own vehicles to the moon and back.
  • Use the space station to build space ships: Use the International Space Station as a scaffold to build the next-generation lunar orbiting station. Use the lunar station to develop and build a manned spacecraft called the Cosmic Mariner, which would journey to targets like Mars, the asteroid belt and the outer planets.
  • Build orbiting “filling stations” for rockets: Rockets could fill up at these floating “gas stations” so they could use their powerful engines to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere instead of the traditional method of “falling” through the atmosphere at high speeds.
  • Commercial astronauts build energy satellites: The private sector and NASA should develop a commercial astronaut corps program to start training crew who can go out on weekly missions to build, among other projects, satellites that would create microwave energy from the continually available sunlight and beam it to Earth. Such projects would create high-paying jobs and help bolster the sagging world economy.

This spring, development of the lunar research park idea will be shared with USC’s School of Architecture in a special graduate study topic called “Moon Studio.”

Follow @CNNLightYears on Twitter.

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Filed under: In Space • Mars • News
December 21st, 2011
12:42 PM ET

Expedition 30 Lifts Off

"The Soyuz TMA-03M rocket launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2011, carrying Expedition 30 Soyuz Commander Oleg Kononenko of Russia, NASA Flight Engineer Don Pettit and European Space Agency astronaut and Flight Engineer Andre Kuipers to the International Space Station."

Source: NASA

Filed under: Light up the screen
Discovery's final flight
December 21st, 2011
12:12 PM ET

Launches of 2011

It's been a big year for both manned and unmanned rocket launches.

NASA marked the end of the space shuttle program while launching several probes to study Jupiter, the moon and Mars.

There was the possibility that the International Space Station would have to be left unmanned after the Russian space agency lost a cargo craft, but that fear was unrealized as the agency, Roscosmos, launched not one, but two manned Soyuz rockets to the International Space Station.

Check out our gallery of some of the most memorable launches of 2011.

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Filed under: In Space • Light up the screen
On this day: December 21, 1968
December 21st, 2011
09:00 AM ET

On this day: December 21, 1968

On December 21, 1968, Apollo 8 launched for the Moon. Apollo 8 was crewed by commander Frank Borman, command module pilot James Lovell (who would also fly aboard Apollo 13), and lunar module pilot William Anders. They were the first humans to leave low-Earth orbit and see the dark side of the Moon.

The crew of Apollo 8 were also the first humans to look upon Earth as a whole planet. The crew took the famous Earthrise photo, seen above, on December 24.

The successful completion of Apollo 8 was an important milestone in the journey to land on the Moon.

More on Apollo 8.

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Filed under: On this Day
Kepler discovers more planets
An artist's concept of Kepler-20e.
December 20th, 2011
02:13 PM ET

Kepler discovers more planets

NASA scientists today announced the discovery of two Earth sized planets, named Kepler 20E and 20F. The planets were discovered by the Kepler space telescope team. "The first of the two planets has a diameter just 3 percent larger than the Earth, which makes it the closest object to Earth, in terms of size in the known universe," said Francois Fressin, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, during a conference call to announce the major discovery.

The two planets are believed to be too close to their sun and thus too hot to be habitable with temperatures ranging from 800 to 14
hundred degrees. Scientists speculate that Kepler 20F might have had liquid water at one time in its history and could have been habitable.

The Kepler science team says this is the first time humanity has been able to detect planets of Earth size in the Universe.

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Filed under: In Space • Kepler • News
December 19th, 2011
09:50 AM ET

Expedition 30 Soyuz Rolls to the Pad

"The Soyuz TMA-03M spacecraft is rolled out by train on its way to the launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Monday, Dec. 19, 2011. The launch of the Soyuz spacecraft with Expedition 30 Soyuz Commander Oleg Kononenko of Russia, NASA Flight Engineer Don Pettit and European Space Agency astronaut and Flight Engineer Andre Kuipers is scheduled for 8:16 a.m. EST on Wednesday, Dec. 21."

Source: NASA

Filed under: Light up the screen
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