On Tuesday the Planetary Science Institute (PSI) and XCOR Aerospace signed an agreement to one day fly PSI's human-operated Atsa Suborbital Observatory aboard XCOR's Lynx spacecraft, as seen above in an artist's concept.
"NASA has been flying suborbital observatories for decades, on unmanned, disposable rockets," Atsa co-inventor and PSI affiliate scientist Luke Sollitt said in a statement released by XCOR. "The new manned, reusable commercial platforms will allow us to make repeated observations with a single instrument, but without the need to refurbish it between flights."
From suborbital heights of around 330,000 feet (100,000 meters), Atsa—which means "eagle" in Navajo—will be better able to study objects relatively close to the sun, which are almost impossible to target with either ground-based telescopes or current orbital instruments such as the Hubble Space Telescope. It's unclear when Atsa will make its first flight.
After spending more than six hours working on upgrades and maintenance outside the ISS, Garan and fellow crew member Mike Fossum (not pictured) completed the very last spacewalk that will ever happen during a U.S. shuttle mission.
Photograph courtesy NASA
The launch plume of the space shuttle Atlantis towers over the Florida coast as seen from a NASA Shuttle Training Aircraft (STA) on July 8. Despite fears of bad weather, Atlantis lifted off almost on schedule for the final space shuttle mission.
The STA was used by NASA to help pilots feel what it's like to land an orbiter. Although they were designed to launch using powerful solid rocket boosters, the shuttles land as gliders—giving pilots just one chance to get it right.
"We use the very slick, sports car-like feel of the STA to simulate the 'falling brick' of the space shuttle," research pilot Triple Nickel said in a NASA feature.
Photograph courtesy Dick Clark, NASA
The decaying exhaust plume of the space shuttle Atlantis zigzags up through the stratosphere in a picture taken July 8 by a high-altitude weather balloon outfitted with HD cameras.
The balloon was launched with student assistance as part of a project by the California-based nonprofit Quest for Stars, which aims to get schoolchildren interested in careers in science, math, and engineering.
Iridescent like an oil slick, clouds swirl in shades of teal, violet, and crimson in a false-color picture of a huge storm spied on Saturn by NASA's Cassini spacecraft. The storm wraps around the planet, stretching 186,000 miles (300,000 kilometers) and spanning about 9,000 miles (15,000 kilometers).
The bottom frame is a mosaic of 84 near-infrared images of the whole storm captured over about 4.5 hours on February 26. The two top pictures are enlargements of the mosaic showing the head of the storm (left) and part of its turbulent middle.
Diagram courtesy SSI/Caltech/NASA
A comet takes aim at the sun in a picture from NASA's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory taken on July 5. The main body of the sun is hidden behind a dark circle in the SOHO picture so that scientists can study the sun's much fainter upper atmosphere, or corona.
The icy body is most likely part of the Kreutz sun-grazers, a family of comets that come so near the sun they occasionally fall into the star.
But this event had scientists excited, because it was also captured by the Solar Dynamics Observatory, which was able to watch as the comet disintegrated over about a ten-hour period—an event that's never been observed before.