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Signposts for future spaceflight

— An influential panel has issued a new long-range prescription for what ails NASA, and the space agency is testing a next-generation Internet protocol on the international space station. Meanwhile, the Rocket Racing League announces a new round of investments and a shift in its top management. Read on to glimpse the future of the final frontier:

  • A new report from the National Research Council says NASA should establish a new DARPA-like organization to develop advanced space technologies, and work with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to set up an international satellite system for monitoring global climate change. More generally, the report says the space agency has to align its priorities with the environmental, economic and strategic challenges facing the nation. This report focuses on long-range policy and stays away from the increasingly vigorous debate over the shape of NASA's next-generation spaceships. A completely different panel is focusing on that debate. Nevertheless, the council's 68-page report, titled "America's Future in Space," is notable because some big names are listed either as authors or reviewers - including Charles Bolden, President Obama's choice for NASA chief. Bolden and Lori Garver, the former NASA executive nominated as his deputy, are due to appear at a Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday.
  • Last November I noted that a new fault-tolerant communication protocol passed NASA's first deep-space test. The system is widely known as the Interplanetary Internet but is referred to more formally as Disruption-Tolerant Networking, or DTN. Now DTN is getting a workout on the international space station: The network protocol is being used to send down data about an orbital biology experiment as part of an effort led by NASA and the University of Colorado's BioServe Space Technologies. "With this new system, delays caused by spacecraft moving behind planets or solar storms disrupting communications are not a problem because the data packets are not discarded when the outages occur, but instead are stored as long as necessary until an opportunity arises that allows them to be transmitted," said Adrian Hooke, manager of NASA's Space DTN project. Hooke pointed me to a cool video demonstration involving zero-G crystal growth. (Feel free to click ahead on the video bar if your patience wears thin.)
  • As I mentioned last month, the Rocket Racing League has had to ease back on its plans to offer rocket-powered airplane races, due to the financial downturn. Last week, the league announced that it has completed a fresh $5.5 million round of financing that will "ensure the next phase of development." The league also named a new president and chief executive officer, Ramy Weitz. Weitz has been on the league's board since its inception in 2005, and is an aviator as well as an Israel-based "serial entrepreneur" in the gaming/simulation industry. (For example, he was creative director for the "Israeli Air Force" game developed by Pixel Multimedia.) League co-founder Granger Whitelaw stepped down amicably from the president/CEO post and will stay on as an adviser and a member of the board of directors. The league said it will officially kick off the manufacture of its next-generation Rocket Racer this month, following up on testing and federal certification.

More from the space frontier:


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