Two good articles have been published in the last few days. The first, from Air & Space magazine describes the proposed AVIATR Titan plane proposal. The article provides more background on this concept than I've seen before and provides images of the current design. (See this blog entry for a description and pictures of previous designs.) Unlike proposals for Mars airplanes, the AVIATR design doesn't require folded wings. Deployment following entry into Titan's atmosphere is gentle. “The clamshell’s heat-resistant bottom drops away, AVIATR is released, and the airplane noses into the airstream and levels off. Its speed at deployment is leisurely—a mere 25 mph. (A Mars airplane, by contrast, separates from its parachute at nearly the speed of sound, then has to unfold and begin flying in a matter of seconds. Lemke calls it the “death plunge.”)” You can check out the article at http://www.airspacemag.com/space-exploration/Titan-Air-.html#
The second article from the journal Nature describes the hope that the Falcon 9 launcher nearing it’s first test flight will fill a critical hole in NASA's plans. As I discussed in a previous blog entry, NASA will soon lose its workhorse moderate cost Delta II launcher. As the article states, “’We're almost reaching the stage of desperation for launch vehicles,’ says Jack Burns, a space scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a member of NASA's science advisory committee. NASA science chief Edward Weiler adds, ‘If there is no replacement ever for the Delta II, that would take away a critical capability.’ He hopes that in three or four years the Falcon 9, developed by SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, will emerge as a low-cost replacement. ‘Very much hoping, I might add.’” The article is posted at http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100518/full/465276a.html
Correction: I should have also pointed out that the Nature article discusses Orbital Sciences' Taurus II launcher which could fill the gap for small lunar and planetary missions.