Weekly Space Blog 6/22

Lots of great news this week

Herschel ends operations

This week the Herschel team send the final commands to shutdown the spacecraft following a series of tests that were performed on the spacecraft after the primary mission finished because of the depletion of the helium coolant that cooled the primary instruments.  Since April the team have been using the spacecraft to test control techniques that can’t normally be performed in flight.

For more on Herschel check out it page here.

ATV-4 Albert Einstein Docks to Space Station

The Albert Einstein cargo ship that successfully launched on two weeks ago arrived at the Space Station last Saturday.  Following a 10 day transit to the station it automatically docked to the Russian Service module and once leak checks were completed the six crew members were able to access the vehicle to begin unloading the cargo.

New Horizons News

Following a year of analysis the New Horizon’s and NASA teams have concluded that they do not need to change the trajectory of the spacecraft as it approaches Pluto.  Scheduled to arrive in 2015 they feared that the dust around Pluto could cause damage to the spacecraft and they launched an investigation to determine if anything needed to be done.

LEGO Curiosity on the way

Lego_CuriosityLEGO announced this week that they will be releasing a model of the Mars Rover Curiosity from there CUUSOO production line.  More information on the design can be found here, I wasn’t able to find an exact launch date yet but will update on a future blog once more details are available.

NASA Announces 2013 Astronaut Class

NASA announced the latest class of Astronauts candidates this week, the eight were selected from over 6100 applications the second largest ever.  They will begin preparing for low-Earth, Asteroid and Mars missions in the future.  Half the candidates are women a first for NASA.

The eight candidates are:-

Josh A. Cassada, Ph. D., 39. 
Victor J. Glover, 37, Lt. Commander, U.S. Navy. 
Tyler N. Hague (Nick), 37, Lt. Colonel, U.S. Air Force. 
Christina M. Hammock, 34. 
Nicole Aunapu Mann, 35, Major, U.S. Marine Corps. 
Anne C. McClain, 34, Major, U.S. Army. 
Jessica U. Meir, Ph.D., 35. 
Andrew R. Morgan, M.D., 37, Major, U.S. Army.

More info can be found here.

Mars Curiosity Billion Pixel View

PIA16919-mars-billion-pixel-945This week NASA released a Billion Pixel view of Mars taken from pictures that were beamed back by Curiosity.

Click on the Image to see the full picture and use the tools to look around the environment that Curiosity is currently operating in.

ISS 3D Printer Update

The 3D Printer that is destined for the International Space Station next year passed a series of Critical Microgravity Test flights recently.  The printer which will be used on the station to test 3D printing functionality on the station will allow future missions to create parts etc that have failed.

NASA begin SLS Preliminary Design Review

This review once complete will allow the SLS design to move from concept to actual design.  The review involved analysis of the complete concept to determine if there are any problems and how to address them.  The review is expected to take several weeks to complete and is an important milestone in the road to launch.  For more information check out the new feed here.

ARKYD Kickstarter Funded

The ARKYD Kickstarter project passed the $1m goal this week with more than 12,000 funders, to celebrate Planetary Resources announced additional stretch goals with the hope of raising a total of $2m with 8 days left to go.  Check out the project here and if you haven’t yet please join this exciting project.

NASA Asteroid Grand Challenge

This week NASA announced the Asteroid Grand Challenge to utilize multiple disciplines working together to identify threats to earth from Near Earth Asteroids.  Further information can be found here.

And Finally

This week the Pegasus XL rocket that will propel NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph spacecraft, or IRIS, into orbit to study how the sun’s atmosphere is energized, was attached to the L-1011 carrier aircraft that will air drop it on 6/26.  Once released the three stage solid fuel rocket will place the spacecraft in orbit.

Weekly Space Blog 6/15

This week SpaceX sign military agreement, Chinese Astronauts, Chris Hadfield, Opportunity and Kepler keep giving, and much more.

SpaceX

This week SpaceX signed a framework agreement for potential Military launches in the future.  Under the agreement the air force will evaluate the Falcon v1.1 rocket over at least three launches as well as all the processes, procedures etc involved in create the vehicles.  Once the evaluation period is complete SpaceX may have the chance to compete for future launches.

Chinese Launch and Docking

On Tuesday this week three Chinese Astronauts successfully launched to Orbit aboard a Long March 2F rocket, once in orbit the spacecraft made it’s way to the Tiangong 1 space station arriving on Thursday.  Following a successful automated docking the three Astronauts made there way into the station to begin 15 days of work.  During their stay at the station they will perform a manual undock and redock as well as numerous scientific experiments before heading back to earth.

Opportunity News

This week the Mars Opportunity Rover team announced that they believe they have found clay minerals in a rock recently examined by the rover.  The team explained that their presence is an indication that the rock had been altered by long term exposure to water.  Although they have found indications of water since arriving on the planet they explained that this was different because it indicated a neutral pH balance where as previous examples had higher pH balances.

The Rover has been operating on Mars for 9+ years, over 35 times longer than originally designed and recently broke the US distance record on another planetary object.

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In this panorama, Solander Point is the near peak on the left of the horizon. It is more than a kilometre away from Opportunity’s current position and the rover would hope to arrive by August

More Kepler planet candidate announced

The Kepler team announced another 503 planet candidates this week, some which may be the right size and distance from their star to support life.

The Kepler team continue to analyze the vast amounts of data they have already received from the four+ years of operations.

The Kepler spacecraft is currently operating in a Point Rest State due to the failure of a second gyroscope that is used to stabilize the craft, and a team has been formed to determine what course of action can be taken to restore some if not all the scientific operations of the Vehicle.

Chris Hadfield announces resignation

This week Chris Hadfield announced his resignation from the Canadian Space Agency after 21 years at the agency.  Chris who recently returned from a six month mission to the space station the last part which was served as Commander, became well known for the amazing pictures that he tweeted from space.

Chris and his family have spent many years in Houston working with NASA and will be returning to his native Canada to enjoy his retirement.

Planetary Resources announce stretch goal

Planetary Resources announced via their Kickstarter ARKYD page an ambitious stretch goal for the campaign.  If they are able to raise $2 million by the 30th June they then will add ExoPlanet detection capabilities to the spacecraft.  Check out the project here.

And Finally

That’s all for this week, will be plenty more next week.

Touch Tomorrow festival

Yesterday we visited Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) for the Touch Tomorrow festival, there were lots of activities for the kids to do and some fun exhibits for everyone to learn about advances in robotics. The event sponsored by NASA was an opportunity for people to learn about the Space Launch System (SLS), visit a Moon Landscape and see various robots competing in the NASA Sample Return Robot Centennial Challenge, check out this video of the event. NASA setup a number of stamp stations around the campus and kids could win a prize if they collected 4 or more stamps.

There were various exhibits setup around the campus of WPI and in various buildings, as we walked around the site there were opportunities to learn by building or creating various items including Dome Structures made of Gum Drops and Toothpicks, Paper airplanes, Slime, etc. There were a number of different robotic technologies on display some created by WPI staff and students others created by NASA. A fall size model of Curiosity was on display in the main courtyard, it was amazing to see just how big it is and brought home to me just how challenging it was to land on the surface of mars.

The highlight of the day for me was getting the opportunity to hear Astronaut Captain Stephen G. Bowen, veteran of three spaceflights on the shuttle and seven spacewalks. Stephen showed two video’s during his talk from STS-132 and STS-133 as well as talked about his work on the space station. During the talk he told us that during one of his spacewalks Houston told him to hold for a moment as they needed to assess something, he knew it would take a while before they got back to him so had time to just look down at the Earth below. At one point he showed a picture with four astronauts two who were holding coffee pouches which had Yesterday’s Coffee and Today’s Coffee written on them, he then went on to explain how they recycle ALL the water on the station which draw a number of Eww’s from the crowd. During the video’s we got to see the lighter side of the work the Astronauts do as they played games on the station/shuttle and enjoyed meals together. The question is did they ever find all those skittles that were floating around?

After his talk Stephen answered several questions from the crowd, including how did it feel to launch on the shuttle, he wasn’t really able to describe it except to say that you feel a lot of pressure as you go up, almost three G’s and then are suddenly weightless. However he did say the only way to really understand it was to experiencing it yourself.

This week we have a lot of news

This week we have a lot of news related to Space, enjoy.
SpaceX Rocket Test
This week SpaceX CEO tweeted that they had tested fired their most powerful Rocket yet, with 1.3m lbs.
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Here is a copy of the image, looking forward to seeing this vehicle in flight.
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Boeing Marching on with CCiCap milestones
This week Boeing announced that it has completed another two milestones under their CCiCap agreement with NASA.  These two milestone bring the reality of Human Space flight for US closer with the completion of the wind tunnel tests on a scale model of the combined CST-100 and Atlas V rocket that will launch it.  The second milestone related to the propellant plumbing changes needed to support the two engine Centaur stage that will be used, all previous Atlas V flights have used a single engine Centaur.
Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corp. and SpaceX are all competing to bring Manned Space Flights to the International Space Station and LEO back to US soil.
In related news Sierra Nevada announced this week they they have successfully started the main testing for the Hybrid Rocket motor that will be used on the DreamChaser vehicle.
3D Printing in Space
There have been a number of exciting announcements about 3D printing recently, NASA announced they were funding a 3D food printer with the first focus on pizza.  This week NASA and Made in Space, Inc announced an agreement to fly a 3D printer to the space station next year to being testing the production of items.
3D printing techniques offer a number of opportunities to improve the cost of manufacturing and reduce the payload required.  Deep Space Industries and The Mars Foundation plan to use materials found in space to supply 3D printers that would allow in-situ manufacturing of parts, these could be used to build structures or even spacecraft and wouldn’t have the same restrains that we have on earth to do Payload mass limits on rockets.
ATV-4 (Albert Einstein) Launched
Following the successful launch aboard an Ariane 5 rocket the next ESA Automated Transfer Vehicle is currently on it’s way to the ISS.  Following a 10 day journey to the station it will dock and the cargo transfers will begin.  The ATV is the largest cargo vehicle available to the ISS with a capacity three times that of Progress and twice of the Dragon, included in the vehicle is fuel, air and water as well as the cargo.
Kepler keeps giving
While the Kepler spacecraft may not be able to continue it’s science mission (they haven’t given up on it yet and are planning ways to compensate for the recent failure), the science data that has already been received from the vehicle will keep scientist busy for years to come as they confirm the planet candidates.  <<ADD KEPLER STATS HERE>>
ARKYD Kickstarter Update
As of writing the Planetary Resources ARKYD Kickstarter project has raised more than $750,000 of the $1,000,000 needed to fund the project.  With more than 20 days remaining it is looking increasingly likely that they will exceed the required amount.  For the latest updates on the campaign check out the Kickstarter page here.
Curiosity Mars Rover Update
During this weeks Rover update teleconference NASA announced that the second drill investigation was complete and they were now heading towards Mount Sharp.  When asked how long it would take to arrive they stated that it would depend on what they found on the way and if it was worth stopping to investigate.   It could take as much as a year to arrive at Mount Sharp.  The Rover’s power supply is good for many years to come therefore they are going to take there time and do the science as they find the need.  Full details of the announcement including additional pictures are available here.
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Orion Update
After venting my frustration with the SLS/Orion program last week I thought it was only right to pass on the news that the Orion Capsule had completed stress tests this week that replicate the stresses that would be experienced during an actual mission.  The fixes they made to the designed after the cracks appeared before worked successfully and the vehicle passed all the tests.
And Finally
Today my family and I will be heading to Worchester to visit WPI for the Touch Tomorrow festival, this will be an opportunity for us to meet a NASA Astronaut and see some of the latest developments in Robotics.

Soyuz launch, ARKYD Kickstarter, Astronaut Abby

Welcome to my new weekly blog on all things Space, this week we take a look at the latest Soyuz launch to the International Space Station, the ARKYD Kickstarter project and Astronaut Abby a 15 year old with an amazing vision for STEM and Space.

Soyuz Launch

On Tuesday this week Karen Nyberg, Fyodor Yurchikhin, Luca Parmitano launched about there Soyuz TMA-09M spacecraft from Kazakhstan on an accelerated six hour journey to the space station.  This is the second time a Soyuz has used the express rendezvous to the station which cuts down the time spent in the Soyuz from two days.  They join current station crew members Chris CassidyAlexander Misurkin, and Pavel Vinogradov to complete the Expedition 36 crew.

The crew have a very busy increment coming up with a number of visiting vehicles and five space walks as well as the hundreds of science experiments that are performed each day.

ARKYD Kickstarter

On Wednesday this week Planetary Resources announced the launch of there ARKYD: A Space Telescope for Everyone Kickstarter project.  The goal of the project is to raise $1,000,000 to provide a Space Telescope for citizen science, as of writing they had already raised $600,000+ with 6000+ backers.  There are multiple sponsorship levels available from $25 for a photo from the spacecraft or yourself with the Earth in the background to $10,000 for a very neat package (check out the page).

I have signed on to this project at the $65 level and would encourage anyone who has dreamed of being involved in space to get involved.

Astronaut Abby

And finally this week we meet Astronaut Abby who has just completed an amazing trip to Russia and Kazakhstan to watch the Soyuz launch.  She recently raised $35,000 through the RocketHub CrowdFunding site to “Inspire Future Generations”, she will be using the money raised to provide classroom visits and share her vision to be the first Astronaut on Mars.

In addition she has been selected to be Astronaut Luca Parmitano’s Earth Liason while he is on the space station.  Abby will be communicating regularly with Luca and will be posting updates about his adventure.  When asked Luca said that he selected Abby for her passion for space and reaching her dream and that one day he would be training her to be an Astronaut.

And Finally

This week I wanted to vent my frustration about the SLS/Orion project at NASA, here we have a new rocket system that current estimates say will cost in excess of $41B for four launches by 2025 for the 70 metric tonne version, the 130 metric tonne version isn’t expected to be ready until 2030.  Next year SpaceX is expected to launch the Falcon Heavy which will cost significantly less money and will be capable of launching 53 metric tonnes, it seems very likely that by 2025 SpaceX could have greater launch capacity then SLS will have.

In addition the Orion Space capsule which has already had structure problems during pressure testing only has a four person crew capacity which while being one more than Soyuz and other current space capsules is three less than the planned Dragon Crew Capsule, the Dreamchaser vehicle or the Boeing CST-100.  The first planned uncrewed launch for the capsule will be next year and the first crewed mission isn’t expected until 2021.  Again by this time one or more of the capsules mentioned above will have already launched multiple crews to the ISS and I know SpaceX have plans to go beyond LEO with Dragon.

It seems at this point it would be more logically to invest some of the $41B in SpaceX, Sierra Nevada and Boeing to improve their vehicles and the rest of the money in Planetary Science to go explore the Europa or Titan.

Liftoff of Falcon 9 with Dragon

This morning SpaceX successfully launched their latest Falcon 9 witth Dragon towards the international space station.  Following an aborted launch on Saturday that was traced back to a faulty value on engine 5 SpaceX successfully fixed, validated and prepared for launch this morning.

After the 9 minute ride to orbit which was performed flawlessly by Falcon 9 the Dragon spacecraft was successfully separated and deployed it’s Solar Array’s.  This was the first of many new systems on Dragon which will be tested during this mission.  During the press conference after launch NASA and SpaceX confirmed that Dragon has also performed it’s first burn procedure successfully as it starts it journey to catch up with the space station.

Over the next few days they have a lot more work to complete including the critical opening of the bay door that contains the probes and capture device used by the station’s robotic arm to grapple Dragon when it is close enough to the station.  Once Dragon arrives at the station on Thursday it will perform a number of procedures under the COTS Demo 2 mission plan to confirm that it can operate successfully near the station without cause danger to the station or it’s crew.  Upon successful completion of these objectives and with approval from NASA Dragon will then proceed to the COTS Demo 3 objectives which include berthing at the station.

The next few days are going to be very exciting for the Commercial Cargo program at NASA but incredible nerve racking as SpaceX execute all the tests needed for a successful mission.

3 Weeks and Counting to SpaceX Launch

In just over three weeks SpaceX is scheduled to launch their second and hopefully last COTS demo mission.  Today we are going to take a look in detail at the Dragon spacecraft and what a successful mission will mean for SpaceX and the US space industry in general.

Dragon

Designed and built by SpaceX the Dragon space capsule which has already flown one successful mission, upon completion of that mission SpaceX were the first commercial company to launch a spacecraft and successfully return it to earth.  While the initial missions for Dragon are for cargo, the craft has been designed from the beginning to allow crewed missions too.

The Dragon space capsule has a launch cargo capacity of 6,000 kg in cargo version and can support up to 7 crew in the crew version.  The payload capacity is split between pressurized and unpressurized as shown in the image on the right.  Once the craft reaches orbit the solar panels will deploy from the unpressurized section ( the blue area at the bottom ) and provide power to the craft.

Recently NASA performed a crew equipment interface test (CEIT), this allowed NASA astronaut Megan McArthur to work inside the pressurized part of the craft as part of her training for a future mission to the station.  SpaceX also completed their own Wet Dress rehearsal where the fully configured Falcon 9 with the Dragon capsule were taken out to the Launch pad, erected into launch position and fully fueled before the countdown proceeded to T-5 seconds.

Assuming there are no problems found during the Flight Readiness review on April 16th then SpaceX are scheduled to be launching on April 30th, once in orbit Dragon will complete a series of tests as it approaches the station culminating in a capture and docking.  For this mission Dragon is scheduled to stay at the station for around 30 days as the crew unload cargo and then place items due to be returned to earth.  Unlike the other cargo vehicles that visit the station Dragon will actually return all the way to earth initial in the pacific ocean, with plans to use the thrusters in the future to land back on land.

While the last demo flight for Dragon was well over a year ago now, SpaceX have not been sitting around doing nothing, they have had a lot of work to do to make sure Dragon operates correctly when approaching the Space Station and ensuring a save and successful mission.

In addition to that they have been very busy working on the crew version including testing the unique crew escape system which will be built into the side of the vehicle and will for the first time allow escape all the way to orbit, and can be used for powered landing on earth or other destinations.  SpaceX recently completed their first NASA Crew trail where 7 crew entered the vehicle and strapped in as they would for launch, as the pictures below show there is plenty of room inside.

I believe the future both for SpaceX and the US Launch industry looks very bright.  In additional to all these activities the company is also working on their Falcon Heavy launcher, working towards fully reusable launch vehicles, have a large manifest of launches already booked and have been profitable.  In addition Elon Musk recently said that he believes eventually they will be able to launch people to Mars for $500,000.

In the meantime all eyes will be on Kennedy Space Center for the rest of this month as SpaceX enter the final countdown towards their launch.

The information in this article is the personal opinion of the author and any future statements are based on information that is freely available on the internet.

Copyright Notices: All the images used in this article are the property of Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and are also available on there website www.spacex.com.

More Delays

Last year Russia suffered from the lose of a Progress vehicle that resulted in several delays to manned launches and the possibility of having to de-man the Space Station which has been constantly occupied since November 2000. Thankfully they were able to resolve the problems and the station returned to a full crew before the end of the year. unfortunately that wasn’t the end of the problems as this year during vehicle certification one of the Soyuz vehicles used for manned launches was damaged beyond repair and again manned missions have been delayed. The delay this time is not as serious as another vehicle was almost complete.

Too add to this ESA announced today that the next Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) has been delayed to allow more time to ensure the mission will succeed.  At the present time they haven’t announced a new launch date but will have to ensure it doesn’t conflict with the other launches to the station.

With the US still reliant on Russia, Japan and ESA to launch cargo and crew to the station these delays show just how important it is that US companies quickly complete there work to bring US launch capabilities online. SpaceX are the closes to achieving this with a success Wet Dress Rehearsal yesterday for there COTS demo launch scheduled for April 20th.

Orbital are moving forward but announced that they are having problems completing there launch pad and will have to delay first launch of Antares.

Latest News from ISS

Today Mike Suffredini, the Manager of the International Space Station made several announcements today during a teleconference aired live on NASA’s web site.  Here is a summary of them.

Computer Hardware/Software Upgrade

Mike confirmed today that they had just completed a comprehensive upgrade of the Computer Software and Hardware used to control the space station systems.  These upgrades included process and memory upgrades as well as changes to the software to utilize the new hardware.  The upgrades where performed by the crew over the last couple of months and where completed after the docking of the latest Progress vessel last weekend.

Soyuz mishap during testing and delay’s to next scheduled launch

During testing of the next Soyuz crew vehicle the craft was exposed to significantly higher pressures than planned which resulted in significant damage to the craft, after investigation it was deemed unusable for flight.  As a result of this failure the next flight to the station has been delayed until May, similarly to ensure that station is only reduced to a three man crew for two weeks the return of Dan Burbank, Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin has been moved to the end of April.  These delays will also impact the other crew rotations this year but they expect to be back to normal by the end of the year.

The Russians have created a commission to look into what happened and what changes are needed to ensure this doesn’t happen again.  Mike expressed confidence that they would quick identify the cause and correct it.

Dragon Tentatively Scheduled for March 20th Mission

Mike also announced that they were tentatively looked at March 20th for the SpaceX Dragon launch to the space station, however he did explain that this was still a very tight scheduled and felt that it may end up being in early April.  Mike explained that during testing a number of issues had been found and all of them had to be addressed before SpaceX would be allowed to fly.

When asked about impact on station Mike explained that they still had plenty of margin with what was on the station into 2013 and if it because necessary they would look to utilize Progress and other vehicles to transport payload until Commercial deliveries where ready.  They were not going to rush this and none of the partners would be flying until all parties where confident that they were ready.

Mike also explained that Orbital were addressing issues and believed that there first launch would slip, he wasn’t able to say by how much and didn’t go into details about what issues where being addressed.

More Soyuz Seats

During Q&A after the announcements Mike was asked about the potential of having to buy more seats on Soyuz due to the reduced funding for Commercial Crew, he explained that they were looking into the impact of this and working with the partners to determine when they believed they would be ready to fly.  Once they had that information they would then know what if any additional seats where needed after the end of the current contract.  Negotiations for these if needed would have to start in 2013 but only after the necessary legal blocks where handled, they have already started the process of dealing with these so that if needed they could proceed with the negotiations if needed.

The full teleconference can be heard here.

Pale Blue Dot

This week during the 219th meeting of the American Astronomical Society a number of announcements were made about recent discoveries, today we will take a looks at some of these.

One of the most significant is the announcement that almost every star in the galaxy has at least one planet orbiting it. Recently we discussed the results of the Kepler data that had been released to date that estimated that there could be as many as 7 sextillion planets in the universe. However with this new announcement this would increase to 300 sextillion planets at least and we know for certain that there are multi-planetary systems out there, including the one we live in. One estimate suggested there are 1.6 planets for every star; therefore we are looking at potentially 480 sextillion planets in the universe.

Based on this information we can speculate that there are 1500 planets within a 50 light-year radius of earth. While we still don’t have the technology to get to these any time soon we do have instruments powerful enough to start investigate these in a lot more detail. The next few years in planetary hunting are going to be very exciting as more and more of the Kepler candidates are confirmed and as more and more powerful telescope come online.

The Kepler team recently announced that they are finding that smaller planets are actually more common than the larger gas giant planets. Combined with the above announcements the possibility of finding other habitable worlds has increased significantly.

In another announcement astronomers at the California Institute of Technology announced the discovery of the smallest Explanets so far. Measuring 0.57 to 0.78 times the size of earth the three planets orbit the star KOI-961, which is 130 light-years away in the Cygnus constellation. The team used the Kepler data combined with additional observations of the star, due to the star’s similarity to Barnard’s star they were also able to use information gathered from previous observations of this year which is much closer at only 6 light-years from Earth.

Following the previous announcement of a circumbinary planet, one that orbit’s two stars. The Kepler team announced two additional circumbinary systems. It would seem that these systems are not rare exceptions, and one day we could well see a double sun-set just like Luke did in Star Wars. Again we don’t have the technology to visit these systems today but I believe one day humans will.

The final announcement we will look at today is the discovery of a ring like system similar to Saturn’s transiting a distant star. Unlike a planetary transit these are harder to detect because the light dip will be different depending on the structure of the rings. The team studied light curve data from SuperWASP (Wide Angle Search for Planets) and All Sky Automated Survey (ASAS).

So why the reference to The Pale Blue Dot, I am reminded as we discover more and more planets in the Universe that we live on a tiny island in the vast sea of the Universe.  As a christian I believe that we are the only intelligent species out there, however I also believe that there are many habitable worlds and one day we will go out from our tiny place and visit them.  I don’t know what the future holds for the discovery of planets but I believe within the next 5 years we will directly image planets orbiting other stars and be able to read their chemical signatures.