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Nov 21st 2017

An asteroid that visited us from interstellar space is one of the most elongated cosmic objects known to science, a study has shown.

Discovered on 19 October, the object's speed and trajectory strongly suggested it originated in a planetary system around another star.

Astronomers have been scrambling to observe the unique space rock, known as 'Oumuamua, before it fades from view.

Their results so far suggest it is at least 10 times longer than it is wide.

That ratio is more extreme than that of any asteroid or comet ever observed in our Solar System.

Using observations from the Very Large Telescope in Chile, Karen Meech, from the Institute for Astronomy in Honolulu, Hawaii, and colleagues determined that the object was about 400m long, rapidly rotating and subject to dramatic changes in brightness.

These changes in brightness were the clue to 'Oumuamua's bizarre shape.

"Looking at the asteroid light curve database, there are five objects (out of 20,000) that have light curves that would suggest a shape up to an axis ratio of about 7-8 to 1," Dr Meech told BBC News.

"Our errors are very small, so we are confident this is really elongated. Also, one has to realise we don't know where the rotation pole is pointed. We assumed that it was perpendicular to the line of sight. If it were tipped over at all, then there are projection effects and the 10:1 is a minimum. It could be more elongated.

But in other respects, 'Oumuamua (pronounced oh MOO-uh MOO-uh), appears to resemble objects we know from closer to home.

"We also found that it had a reddish colour, similar to objects in the outer Solar System, and confirmed that it is completely inert, without the faintest hint of dust around it," Dr Meech said.

These properties suggest that 'Oumuamua is dense, comprised of rock and possibly metals, has no water or ice, and that its surface was reddened due to the effects of irradiation from cosmic rays over long periods of time.

Although 'Oumuamua formed around another star, scientists think it could have been wandering through the Milky Way, unattached to any star system, for hundreds of millions of years before its chance encounter with our Solar System.

"For decades we've theorised that such interstellar objects are out there, and now - for the first time - we have direct evidence they exist," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for Nasa's science mission directorate in Washington DC.

"This history-making discovery is opening a new window to study formation of solar systems beyond our own."

If planets form around other stars the same way they did in the Solar System, many objects the size of 'Oumuamua should get slung out into space. The interstellar visitor may provide the first evidence of that process.Telescope in Chile was used for observations

As regards how 'Oumuamua became so elongated, Dr Meech explained: "There has been speculation among various team members about this. Sometimes very elongated objects are contact binaries... but even so, the pieces would be longer than most things in the Solar System, and our analysis shows that it is rotating fast enough that they should not stay together.

"One of our team wondered if, during a planetary system formation, if there was a large collision between bodies that had molten cores, some material could get ejected out and then freeze in an elongated shape.

"Another team member was wondering if there could be some process during the ejection - say if there was a nearby supernova explosion that could be responsible."

The cosmic interloper was discovered by Rob Weryk, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Astronomy and a co-author of the new study, which is published in Nature journal.

Weryk and fellow Institute for Astronomy researcher Marco Micheli realised it was going extremely fast (with enough speed to avoid being captured by the Sun's gravitational pull) and was on a very eccentric trajectory taking it out of our Solar System.

The asteroid's name, 'Oumuamua, means "a messenger from afar arriving first" in Hawaiian.

 

Also on Nov 15th 2017

On Saturday, private spaceflight company Sierra Nevada announced that its Dream Chaser spaceplane had successfully glided and landed on a runway after being released from a helicopter. The stunt, done at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California, is known as a free-flight test and is meant to test out the vehicle’s landing capabilities. It’s an important milestone in the Dream Chaser’s development, as Sierra Nevada readies the plane for spaceflight.

Resembling a mini Space Shuttle, the Dream Chaser will soon be used to send cargo to and from the International Space Station as part of NASA’s Commercial Cargo Program. Right now, two companies — SpaceX and Orbital ATK — hold contracts with NASA to periodically resupply the station through 2018. But last year, NASA awarded a second round of contracts, in order to cover cargo shipments to the ISS from 2019 through 2024. Sierra Nevada was picked for that round, along with SpaceX and Orbital ATK again. The company expects to start cargo missions sometime in 2020.

The Dream Chaser is a fairly unique vehicle compared to the other two companies’ spacecraft. Both SpaceX and Orbital ATK developed wingless cargo capsules that launch to the station on top of the companies’ rockets. Orbital ATK’s capsule — known as Cygnus — is then designed to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere once it leaves the station, while SpaceX’s Dragon cargo capsule can survive the descent to Earth, using parachutes to land in the ocean. The Dream Chaser, however, which is meant to launch on top of an Atlas V rocket, glides down to Earth like a plane after reentering the atmosphere, landing horizontally on a runway.

Originally, Sierra Nevada had hoped its Dream Chaser would carry astronauts, and not just cargo, to the ISS. Back in 2010, NASA awarded the company $20 million to develop the Dream Chaser as a crewed vehicle, and Sierra Nevada did a ton of tests over the next couples of years to prepare the spacecraft for carrying passengers. But in 2014, NASA didn’t pick the Dream Chaser to do crewed flights to the ISS, going with SpaceX and Boeing’s proposed vehicles instead. Since then, Sierra Nevada has been modifying the Dream Chaser to just carry cargo, though the company is leaving the option open to develop a crewed version of the vehicle in the future.

This weekend’s free-flight test was the second one that Sierra Nevada has done with Dream Chaser. The first one, back in 2013, didn’t go all that smoothly: the vehicle’s landing gears failed, causing the spaceplane to crash-land and then skid off the runway. This landing and flight, however, was deemed a success, according to Sierra Nevada. The test vehicle was dropped from an altitude of a little less than 12,500 feet and reached a maximum speed of 330 miles per hour during the 60-second flight. “Everything went very well for us,” Mike Sirangelo, corporate vice president of Sierra Nevada Corporation, said during a follow-up press conference this afternoon. “Overall our parameters in the test were met or exceeded in our minds.”

Sierra Nevada doesn’t expect to do any additional flights with this test vehicle if the data from this event is good, though the company says this particular Dream Chaser could fly again if needed. The data gathered from this test will then be used to refine the development of the company’s first vehicle that will go to orbit, which is currently under construction. That Dream Chaser will also go through extensive testing before its first flight to space, which will be the company’s first operational flight for NASA.

Though, it’s not just NASA that plans to use the spaceplane: the United Nations also has a deal with Sierra Nevada to fly payloads to orbit from other countries on the Dream Chaser, starting sometime in 2021. And Sierra Nevada hopes to find other customers for the vehicle in the future, too. So once this spaceplane is ready for spaceflight, it could have a lot of work to do.

Also on Nov 15th 2017

On November 16th, between 8PM and 10PM Eastern, SpaceX is sending a secret payload called "Zuma" beyond our atmosphere. The aerospace corporation test-fired a Falcon 9 rocket on November 11th with the intention of launching the mission on the 15th. While the latest target date was moved by a day, and it could be delayed again, Zuma needs to launch by November 30th. Why it absolutely needs to be in position by the end of this month isn't clear, though -- not when we know next to nothing about the mission.

According to Space, SpaceX is launching the payload, which was commissioned by defense technology company Northrop Grumman, for the US government. The publication tried to find out more about it, but a Northrop rep only had one thing to say: the payload is restricted. As Florida Today said, SpaceX is no stranger to launching top secret missions, including a spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office and another payload for the Department of Defense. However, no government agency has admitted to be the brains behind Zuma this time.

We do know, though, that the secret payload is headed to Low Earth Orbit and is blasting off from Kennedy Space Center's historic 39A Launch Complex. SpaceX will also attempt yet another landing and will guide the rocket's first stage to a landing site at Cape Canaveral. While Zuma is shrouded in mystery, you can at least watch it leave Earth live via SpaceX's webcast.

Nov 5th 2017

Astronomers have finally detected X-rays blazing from Jupiter's mysterious southern lights, a new study finds.

Unexpectedly, the giant planet's northern and southern lights do not pulse in time with each other, but beat out of sync, according to the new work. This finding raises questions about how these auroras are generated, the researchers said.

NASA's Voyager 1 probe first detected auroras on Jupiter in 1979, concentrated near the planet's north pole. Auroras occur when energetic winds of electrically charged particles — say, from the sun — get captured by a planet's magnetic field and collide with atoms in that world's atmosphere. This results in colorful streamers of light in the planet's sky, usually near the body's magnetic poles.

Jupiter's giant magnetic field is the strongest of all the planets in the solar system, at nearly 20,000 times the strength of Earth's, and the gas giant's auroras are similarly powerful and especially bright in X-rays. "It is really an entirely different, vaster, more energetic world," said study lead author William Dunn, an astrophysicist at University College London.

While a stream of charged particles from the sun generates Earth's rippling auroras, Jupiter can produce its own auroras, without the solar wind. "Jupiter has this tiny moon called Io, which is the most volcanic body in the solar system and fills Jupiter's space environment with sulfur, oxygen and other material at 1 ton per second," Dunn told Space.com. This material from Io can interact with Jupiter to generate auroras.

As researchers examined Jupiter, much remained uncertain about how the X-rays seen in the planet's northern lights were produced, Dunn said. To generate the specific colors of X-rays seen in those auroras, the planet needs to accelerate oxygen ions to a speed of about 3,000 miles (5,000 kilometers) per second. This is fast enough for all the electrons to get torn off the oxygen ions when they crash into Jupiter's atmosphere, thus emitting the kinds of X-rays that scientists have detected, he said.

To learn more about how Jupiter generates its northern X-ray auroras, scientists wanted to compare those lights with the planet's southern X-ray auroras. However, until now, researchers had seen X-ray auroras only in the planet's northern lights.

Using data collected by the XMM-Newton and Chandra X-ray space observatories in 2007 and 2016, the scientists produced maps of Jupiter's X-ray emissions and identified an X-ray hotspot at each pole. Each hotspot covered an area much wider across than Earth.

The researchers found that Jupiter's northern and the southern X-ray hotspots pulsate at different frequencies and intensities. In contrast, Earth's northern and southern lights broadly mirror each other in activity. "Maybe naively, I had assumed that Jupiter's northern and southern X-ray auroras would beat in time, but that's clearly not the case," Dunn said. [Jupiter's 7 Most Massive Mysteries]

The very high-energy X-ray emissions at Jupiter's south pole consistently pulsed every 11 minutes, while those at the north pole erratically increased and decreased in brightness, acting independently of the south pole. These results were extremely surprising, Dunn said, and not predicted by current models of how Jupiter's auroras are generated.

"I had to quadruple-check everything and ask some of my colleagues to do this, too, to ensure that I hadn't made any mistakes," Dunn said. "I think one of the coolest things about working in science is those moments where you realize you're the first human in all of human history to have seen a new aspect of nature. I think that buzz of discovery is one of many, many reasons that I am an astrophysicist."

There were two complementary ideas for how Jupiter generated its X-ray auroras, Dunn said. The first was that Jupiter produced huge electrical currents to keep the electrically charged particles around the planet rotating at the same speed that the gas giant spins.

"Just like electric circuits that you might study in school, the flow of current out from the planet has to return to the planet somewhere to complete the circuit," Dunn said. "This is expected to return to the planet from huge distances [of] 6 million km [3.7 million miles] away. Over these great distances, you would produce huge voltages — 8 megavolts, tens of thousands of times more voltage than is in your house. These voltages accelerate the particles very fast, fast enough to tear all the electrons off of oxygen when it hits the atmosphere."

The second idea was that part of this returning electrical current was perturbed by interactions between the solar wind and Jupiter's magnetosphere, the area of space dominated by Jupiter's magnetic field and captured electrically charged particles. These interactions could lead to "bursts of particles accelerated very fast into Jupiter's atmosphere, to produce bursts of bright emission," Dunn said.

However, each of these ideas fails to explain why the auroras at Jupiter's poles act independently of one another. One possible explanation is that conditions in Jupiter's magnetosphere can shift quickly, such that whatever influences one pole may not have the same effect whenever it reaches the other pole, the researchers said. Another possibility is that the two poles differ somehow in their general activity, the scientists added.

The researchers said NASA's Juno spacecraft, currently orbiting Jupiter, should collect data that will help solve the mystery of the giant planet's auroras. "NASA's Juno mission started undertaking these daredevil flights of Jupiter about a year ago and is really rewriting so much of what we thought we knew about the planet, while uncovering so many things that we hadn't even conceived of," Dunn said. He noted that only two weeks ago, Juno's JEDI instrument "announced the discovery of huge electric fields that undoubtedly play an important role in the X-ray aurora.

"Inevitably, some of the ideas we have proposed will be wrong. This is the nature of doing science — you propose an idea and then test it," Dunn said. "I'll be just as happy if we're proven wrong on some of these ideas if it gets us a little closer to the right answer or provokes some discussion that gets rid of a few more of the wrong answers."

The scientists detailed their findings online Oct. 30 in the journal Nature Astronomy.

Nov 2nd 2017

Spaceflight is known to take a toll on the human body, and now it seems that living in zero gravity can even reposition a person’s brain in their head. Brain scans of astronauts have revealed that long stays in space can cause the brain to shift upward in the skull and lessen the amount of protective fluid surrounding the brain. It’s unclear exactly how these brain changes affect an astronaut’s health, but the findings could have implications for how NASA keeps crew members healthy during deep-space missions.

The findings, detailed today in the New England Journal of Medicine, are from one of the biggest studies yet looking at the brains of astronauts. Scientists analyzed the MRI scans of 16 astronauts before and after spending a couple weeks on NASA’s Space Shuttle, as well as 18 astronauts before and after spending a few months on the International Space Station. The brain changes were more pronounced for those who stayed in space the longest, the researchers found.

It’s not the first time that brain changes have been seen in astronauts, but these new findings may help explain the cause of some bizarre health problems people experience when they go to space. Astronauts often complain of increased pressure in the head during missions, as well as changes in vision. It’s possible these brain changes may be contributing to those odd symptoms. “I definitely think this has a hand in that,” study lead author Donna Roberts, a radiologist at the Medical University of South Carolina, tells The Verge.

It’s not exactly clear how the brain changes correlate to any health problems, and how long the changes last once astronauts get back to Earth. More research is needed, especially since NASA wants to send astronauts to the Moon and Mars someday — missions that could last months, or even years. The space agency may need to consider ways to mitigate these changes during deep-space trips. “The implications would be whether or not there would be a requirement on a Mars mission to provide some type of artificial gravity,” says Roberts.

NASA already knows quite a bit about the health effects of zero gravity: astronauts’ bones and muscles weaken easily in space, for instance, because people aren’t working out these systems against gravity every day. Another big change is something called fluid shift. Without the force of gravity to pull bodily fluids downward, fluids tend to shift upward — toward the head.

Roberts thinks a similar effect may be happening to the brain. “One of our theories is that because there is no longer the force of gravity pulling the brain down, the brain moves upward,” she says. This shift may also affect the fluid inside the skull — known as cerebrospinal fluid — which buffers the brain from shocks. In the brain scans of astronauts after spaceflight, the scientists saw less of this fluid around the top of the brain, and more of it inside the brain’s cavities known as ventricles. They think the brain may be pushing the fluid away from the top of the skull, possibly leading to as-of-yet unknown cognitive changes.

This shift of the brain could also be pulling on the optic nerves, which could be why some astronauts experience vision changes, Roberts says. However, not everyone tested in this study had vision changes — only three of the long-term flyers did. So the brain shift may not be completely to blame. “Why aren’t the other ones demonstrating this? What’s going on?” Dorit Donoviel, the interim director of the Translational Research Institute for Space Health, who was not involved in the study, tells The Verge. “Well, there’s something else going on.”

That’s why the researchers think more study is needed, mostly to find out if the brain changes are actually linked to any known health problems. Roberts also wants NASA to do more follow-up MRIs of astronauts when they’re back on Earth, to see if these brain changes go away after a while. Plus, it’s still unknown how the brain may react to a reduced-gravity environment such as Mars. Missions to the Red Planet could last multiple years. “That’s a long time for humans to be in reduced gravity or one-third gravity,” says Roberts. “What will happen to the brain during that time?”

Donoviel says the findings aren’t too surprising given what we already know about human health in space. And she’s not worried: the human body is fairly resilient, she says. “We know the heart changes shape in space too; it becomes more spherical,” says Donoviel. “What’s more amazing is that we tolerate it pretty well.”

If necessary, there may be ways to halt these brain changes in space. There are methods to pull fluids away from the brain, such as vacuum devices that can pull on astronauts’ legs while they’re sleeping. That could potentially keep fluid pressure off the brain, says Donoviel, slowing its shift upward. “Is this a showstopper for spaceflight? No it’s not, because the changes are mild,” she says, “and I do think we’re going to be able to develop countermeasures for it.”

Oct 29th 2017

There's a toxic ice cloud lurking over Saturn's moon Titan.

The cloud, discovered by NASA's Cassini spacecraft, consists of hydrogen cyanide and benzene, according to a statement from the agency. The presence of those chemicals in Titan's atmosphere isn't a surprise, but this is the first time scientists have seen them condense together at the same time, to form one cloud rather than separate layers.

"This cloud represents a new chemical formula of ice in Titan's atmosphere," Carrie Anderson, a Cassini scientist, said in the statement. [Amazing Photos: Titan, Saturn's Largest Moon]

Titan is the only body in the solar system besides Earth with liquid on its surface; however, its lake, oceans and rivers are full of liquid methane instead of water. Researchers have found organic molecules on Titan (meaning those that are necessary to create life as we know it, but not necessarily a sign of life on their own), and a wealth of other complex chemicals. Researchers continue to probe Titan for clues about how life might emerge in alien environments.

Chemical clouds

The toxic cloud was spotted in three separate observations by Cassini between July and November 2015. It was located near Titan's south pole, in the moon's stratosphere, high above the thick methane clouds that make Titan look like an opaque yellow marble to the naked eye. (Cassini can see through these clouds to the moon's surface using different wavelengths of light.)

The cloud was identified by the Composite Infrared Spectrometer, or CIRS instrument, on Cassini, which uses a technique called spectroscopy to find out what chemicals are present in things like clouds on Titan. Spectroscopy takes the light from an object and spreads it so that the individual wavelengths of light are revealed. Every chemical has a unique spectral "fingerprint" that reveals its identity, but sometimes combinations of chemicals can produce new spectra. When the researchers looked at the cloud's spectra, they saw that it must be a combination of chemicals.

So, the researchers went to the lab and used a sealed chamber to make ice clouds from various gases known to be present on Titan. The best fit to the cloud's spectrum was a combination of hydrogen cyanide plus benzene, in which the gases had condensed into ice at the same time.

Titan's atmosphere is rich with different chemicals that can condense into icy clouds. In a simple atmospheric model, each type of chemical vapor could form a distinct layer of clouds, according to NASA. But because of complicating factors like the amount of vapor present, its temperature, and because an individual cloud will actually form across a range of altitudes, vapors of various chemicals can freeze together into clouds at the same height, creating a variety of chemical combinations, officials said in the statement.

Although the Cassini mission ended in September, when mission planners intentionally sent it hurtling through Saturn's atmosphere, researchers are still learning about the Saturn system using data from the probe.

The mixing is also encouraged by the seasonal cycles on Titan. During one hemisphere's summer season, a cycle of warm winds is pushed away from that hemisphere toward the opposite pole, where it is winter, according to the statement. As a result, there's a buildup of clouds in the winter hemisphere. The toxic cloud was spotted two years before the southern hemisphere's winter solstice. (Seasons on Titan last about seven Earth years).

"One of the advantages of Cassini was that we were able to flyby Titan again and again over the course of the 13-year mission to see changes over time," Anderson said. "This is a big part of the value of a long-term mission."

Oct 28th 2017

A small asteroid or comet that has been spotted racing through our solar system may have come from elsewhere in the galaxy, U.S. space scientists say, possibly marking the first such interstellar visitor observed from Earth.

The mystery object, so far known only as A/2017 U1, was discovered earlier this month by a researcher using a sophisticated telescope system at the University of Hawaii that continually scans the universe for such phenomenon.

"We have been waiting for this day for decades," said Paul Chodas, manager of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Center for Near Earth Object Studies at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

"It's long been theorized that such objects exist -- asteroids or comets moving around between the stars and occasionally passing through our solar system -- but this is the first such detection," Chodas said.

The mass, a quarter mile (400 meters) in diameter, quickly stood out for scientists because of its extreme orbit, coming from the direction of the constellation Lyra, almost directly above the elliptical plane where the planets and other asteroids orbit the sun.

It crossed under that plane just outside Mercury's orbit on Sept. 2 before being slung by the sun's massive gravity into a sharp turn under our solar system. The closest the object came to Earth was about 15 million miles away on Oct. 14.

"It is going extremely fast and on such a trajectory that we can say with confidence that this object is on its way out of the solar system and not coming back," NASA's Davide Farnocchia said. Astronomers were urgently tracking A/2017 U1 with telescopes as it makes its journey through our solar system, hoping to use that data to confirm the object's interstellar origins and learn what they can about its composition.

If the object is formally established as the first of its kind spotted from Earth, rules for naming it would have to be set out by the International Astronomical Union, NASA scientists said.

Oct 21st 2017

Two American astronauts floated outside the International Space Station Friday for the third spacewalk this month aimed at repairing the orbiting outpost's robotic arm and replacing old video cameras.

NASA's Joe Acaba and Randy Bresnik officially began the spacewalk at 7:47 am (1147 GMT) when they switched their spacesuits to battery power, then ventured outside the airlock into the vacuum of space.

The pair hope to replace a degraded camera at the end of the 57-foot (17-meter) robotic arm, finish lubricating its newly installed latching end and replace a blown fuse, among other tasks.

The aging arm, made by Canada and named the Canadarm, is used to move objects around outside the station and to grab incoming cargo ships.

Installed 16 years ago, its latching end lost its gripping ability in August. A key piece of equipment called the latching end effector was replaced during the October 5 spacewalk. 

Further lubrication work was done on the October 10 spacewalk, and a new high definition video camera was also installed outside the research lab.

On Friday, astronauts plan to replace another camera, nicknamed "Old Yeller" because it broadcasts in yellow hues.

The spacewalk is the 205th in the history of the space station, an international collaboration involving more than a dozen countries.

Bresnik, 50, a former Marine Corps aviator who goes by the nickname "Komrade," has led all three of the October spacewalks, and on Friday is making his fifth career excursion outside the space station.

His colleague Acaba, 50, is the first person of Puerto Rican heritage to become an astronaut, according to his NASA biography. 

The former hydro-geologist and educator became an astronaut in 2004 and spacewalked twice in 2009 during the space shuttle era.

Friday's outing is the ninth this year for NASA. Russian cosmonauts have ventured out on one spacewalk this year.

Don't know when

The Tiangong-1 was used for both types of space missions - manned as well as unmanned and was visited by Liu Yang, China's first female astronaut in 2012. Chinese space agency referred its space station as the "Heavenly Palace, " and it was launched with a hope to make China a superpower in space. Last year, Chinese officials revealed they had lost control of it, and that it would hit Earth within two years. According to British Guardian newspaper Michael Slazak, station's orbit is stable It breaks down by weakening. The space station's orbit has been decaying steadily since losing contact and in recent times it has reached into dense parts of the Earth's atmosphere and has started falling faster. Although much of the craft is expected to burn up in the atmosphere, McDowell says some parts might still weigh up to 100kg when they crash into the Earth's surface. Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist from Harvard University, told The Guardianthat he expected it to land in late 2017 or early 2018. These parts are unlikely to harm people, but China said in May that United Nations will continue to monitor decline of station in a statement to Committee on Peaceful use of outer space. As per the Guardian's report, in 2016, Jonathan McDowell had opined that it would be impossible to locate the exact point where the space station will land. "You really can't steer these things", he said in 2016. He also said that "we probably won't know better than six or seven hours, plus or minus, when it's going to come down". As McDowell said, even a trivial change in the atmosphere could push the landing site of the Chinese space station "from one continent to the next". "Not knowing when it's going to come down translates as not knowing where it's going to come down", he said. This isn't the first time that man-made space debris has had uncontrolled fall, but there haven't been any reported injuries. In 1991 the Soviet Union's 20-tonne Salyut 7 space station crashed to Earth while still docked to another 20-tonne spacecraft called Cosmos 1686. NASA's 77-tonne Skylab space station has had uncontrolled fall back in 1979 and some of the large pieces landed outside of Perth, Australia AliveForFootball http://aliveforfootball.com/2017/10/chinese-space-station-tiangong-1-to-crash-land-on-earth-soon/

Oct 19th 2017

Planet Nine is out there, and astronomers are determined to find it, according to a new statement from NASA. In fact, mounting evidence suggests it's hard to imagine our solar system without the unseen world.

The hypothetical planet is believed to be about 10 times more massive than Earth and located in the dark, outer reaches of the solar system, approximately 20 times farther from the sun than Neptune is. While the mysterious world still has yet to be found, astronomers have discovered a number of strange features of our solar system that are best explained by the presence of a ninth planet, according to the NASA statement.

"There are now five different lines of observational evidence pointing to the existence of Planet Nine," Konstantin Batygin, a planetary astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, said in the statement. "If you were to remove this explanation and imagine Planet Nine does not exist, then you generate more problems than you solve. All of a sudden, you have five different puzzles, and you must come up with five different theories to explain them." [The Evidence for 'Planet Nine' in Our Solar System (Gallery)]

In 2016, Batygin and co-author Mike Brown, an astronomer at Caltech, published a study that examined the elliptical orbits of six known objects in the Kuiper Belt, a distant region of icy bodies stretching from Neptune outward toward interstellar space. Their findings revealed that all of those Kuiper Belt objects have elliptical orbits that point in the same direction and are tilted about 30 degrees "downward" compared to the plane in which the eight official planets circle the sun, according to the statement.

Using computer simulations of the solar system with a Planet Nine, Batygin and Brown also showed that there should be even more objects tilted a whopping 90 degrees with respect to the solar plane. Further investigation revealed that five such objects were already known to fit these parameters, the researchers said.

Since then, the astronomers have found new evidence that further supports the existence of Planet Nine. With help from Elizabeth Bailey, an astrophysicist and planetary scientist at Caltech, the team showed that Planet Nine's influence might have tilted the planets of our solar system, which would explain why the zone in which the eight major planets orbit the sun is tilted by about 6 degrees compared to the sun's equator.

"Over long periods of time, Planet Nine will make the entire solar-system plane precess, or wobble, just like a top on a table," Batygin said in the statement.

Finally, the researchers demonstrate how Planet Nine's presence could explain why Kuiper Belt objects orbit in the opposite direction from everything else in the solar system.

"No other model can explain the weirdness of these high-inclination orbits," Batygin said in the statement. "It turns out that Planet Nine provides a natural avenue for their generation. These things have been twisted out of the solar system plane with help from Planet Nine and then scattered inward by Neptune."

Going forward, the researchers plan to use the Subaru Telescope at Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii to find Planet Nine, and then deduce where the mysterious world came from.

The most common type of planets discovered around other stars in our galaxy has been what astronomers call "super Earths" — rocky worlds that are larger than Earth but smaller than Neptune. However, no such planet has yet been discovered in our solar system, meaning that Planet Nine could be our missing "super Earth," the researchers said.

Oct 19th 2017 Also on this day

The moon — that cold, gray outpost that NASA last visited 45 years ago — is hot again.

The vice president says so. So do Elon Musk and Jeffrey P. Bezos. And as the Trump administration sets its sights on the lunar surface, a growing number of companies say they are ready for the challenge.

The latest is Bigelow Aerospace, the Las Vegas-based maker of inflatable space habitats. In an announcement Tuesday, the company that it is hoping to send one of its space stations to lunar orbit by 2022 in partnership with the United Launch Alliance, the joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

Bigelow, run by multimillionaire Robert Bigelow, the founder of Budget Suites of America, has spent hundreds of millions of dollars developing space habitats made from Kevlar-like material that are inflated once in space. One of its smaller habitats, known as the BEAM, is currently attached to the International Station, where it’s been tested for months.

Now Bigelow Aerospace proposes sending a much larger version, known as the B330, into orbit around the moon. If NASA goes for it, the $2.3 billion mission would go something like this:

The habitat would launch on ULA’s Vulcan rocket into low Earth orbit, where it would stay for a period of months, receiving supplies and cargo, while it underwent testing to make sure everything was working properly.

Then a space tug would ferry it from Earth orbit to lunar orbit, where it would essentially become a space station for the moon.

In laying out his plan during an interview Tuesday, Bigelow said he was well aware of the political and industry implications in such a mission. The Trump administration is looking for a first-term coup, and, he said, this “can actually be done within one administration.”

NASA also needs a destination for the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft it has been developing for years and at great expense, he said.

Furthermore, his plan could involve different sectors of the growing space industry — which the Trump administration has said it wants to help foster. While the ULA would launch the B330, Musk’s SpaceX could resupply it while in Earth orbit, Bigelow said.

Bezos’ Blue Origin has said it is developing a lunar lander that could ferry supplies to the surface of the moon. Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, has said “it’s time to go back to the moon — this time to stay.”

And during a recent speech, Musk said “it’s 2017. We should have a lunar base by now. What the hell has been going on?”

Other companies are interested as well. Moon Express says it plans on sending a lunar lander to the moon by next year. Astrobotic and Masten Space Systems are also working with NASA to develop vehicles that could touch down on the surface of the moon.

And during a recent speech, Vice President Pence vowed to “return American astronauts to the moon, not only to leave behind footprints and flags, but to build the foundation we need to send Americans to Mars and beyond.”

All of which adds up to a growing momentum for a return to the moon since Gene Cernan became the last man to walk on the lunar surface in 1972.

“We don’t want to see another 45 years go by,” Bigelow said. “Something needs to happen.”

The question now is, will NASA go for it?

Oct 18th 2017

Astronomers have directly measured a blazing-bright object on the opposite side of the Milky Way, almost doubling the record for the most distant object measured in our own galaxy.

The researchers used a system of 10 radio telescopes in New Mexico called the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) to pinpoint the distance to the glowing, star-forming region.

Humans have detected and measured objects 13.3 billion light-years away, at the very edge of the observable universe. (One light-year is the distance light travels in year, about 6 trillion miles, or 10 trillion kilometers.) So why is it so difficult to measure objects across the Milky Way, which is a mere 100,000 light-years wide? [Astronomically Far Away: How to Measure the Universe]

The answer has to do with location. Our solar system is positioned about halfway out on one of the galaxy's massive spiral arms, so the only view we get of the Milky Way is side-on. It's like trying to map a forest you're standing in by measuring the distances between the trees around you. Except, you can't walk around in these "woods," because the Earth isn't moving fast enough to give Earthlings much of a different perspective on a human timescale. This is why the constellations look the same today as they did thousands of years ago.

Dust, gas and stars in the galactic disk obscure our view of objects farther away, just as the trees obscure a person's view in the analogy, researchers said in a statementabout the new study from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). But we can twist and turn to get a better look at the woods around us and see how the features appear to move as we change our perspective, the researchers said. This phenomenon, called parallax, is what makes your finger seem to jump when you hold it in front of your nose and alternate which eye you use to look at it.

Most distances in astronomy are extrapolated from data about the brightness of different objects, said Tom Dame, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts and co-author on the new work. And often, scientists have to use one distance to calibrate for that of an object located farther out, and repeat that process multiple times. But using parallax cuts out that reliance on knowledge about other objects.

"The thing about parallax is it's just beautifully direct. It's just based on trigonometry," Dame told Space.com.

Dame's group used that technique to measure the distance to a star-forming region called G007.47+00.05 on the opposite side of the Milky Way. Researchers used the VLBA to measure the region's apparent shift in the sky when viewed from opposite points in Earth's orbit around the sun.

The resultant jump was roughly the angle that a baseball on the moon would take up in your field of vision, as viewed from Earth, according to the statement. This corresponds to a distance of more than 66,500 light-years. The previous record for a parallax measurement stood at about 36,000 light-years, researchers said in the statement.

"Most of the stars and gas in our galaxy are within this newly measured distance from the sun," Alberto Sanna, the study's lead author and a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Germany, said in the statement. "With the VLBA, we now have the capability to measure enough distances to accurately trace the galaxy's spiral arms and learn their true shapes."

G007.47+00.05 is a powerful source of microwaves, which pass through dust and gas relatively undiminished, Dame said. The region's incredible brightness confused scientists until they determined that molecules in the region resonate with and amplify the light of a young, massive star located nearby. The system functions like a microwave laser, called a maser. In this case, "we happen to be right along the beam," said Dame.

The measurement was part of a larger, five-year project called the Bar and Spiral Structure Legacy Survey (BeSSeL), which aims to map the far side of the Milky Way using parallax measurements of these maser sources, said Dame. This measurement came in the last year of the survey, when the team spent more time on a few objects of particular interest, Dame said. The BeSSeL survey measured about 200 maser sources in total.

"Within the next 10 years, we should have a fairly complete picture," Mark Reid, who heads the BeSSeL team from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said in the NRAO statement.

Oct 16th 2017

"Truly a eureka moment", "Everything I ever hoped for", "A dream come true" -- Normally restrained scientists reached for the stars Monday to describe the feelings that accompany a "once-in-a-lifetime" event. 

The trigger for this meteor shower of superlatives was the smash-up of two unimaginably dense neutron stars 130 million years ago, when T-rex still lorded over our planet. 

Evidence of this cosmic clash hurtled through space and reached Earth on August 17 at exactly 12:41 GMT, setting in motion a secret, sleepless, weeks-long blitzkrieg of star-gazing and number-crunching involving hundreds of telescopes and thousands of astronomers and astrophysicists around the world.

It was as if a dormant network of super-spies simultaneously sprung into action. 

The stellar smash-up made itself known in two ways: it created ripples called gravitational waves in Einstein's time-space continuum, and lit up the entire electromagnetic spectrum of light, from gamma rays to radio waves. 

Scientists had detected gravitational waves four times before, a feat acknowledged with a Nobel Physics Prize earlier this month. 

But each of those events, generated by the collision of black holes, lasted just a few seconds, and remained invisible to Earth- and space-based telescopes. 

The neutron star collision was different. 

It generated gravitational waves -- picked up by two US-based observatories known as LIGO, and another one in Italy called Virgo -- that lasted an astounding 100 seconds. Less than two seconds later, a NASA satellite recorded a burst of gamma rays. 

A true 'eureka' moment

This set off a mad dash to locate what was almost certainly the single source for both.

"It is the first time that we've observed a cataclysmic astrophysical event in both gravitational and electromagnetic waves," said LIGO executive director David Reitze, a professor at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena

Initial calculations had narrowed the zone to a patch of sky in the southern hemisphere spanning five or six galaxies, but frustrated astronomers had to wait for nightfall to continue the search.

Finally, at around 2200 GMT, a telescope array in the northern desert of Chile nailed it: the stellar merger had taken place in a galaxy known as NGC 4993.

Stephen Smartt, who led observations for the European Space Observatory's New Technology Telescope, was gobsmacked when the spectrum lit up his screens. "I had never seen anything like it," he recalled.

Scientists everywhere were stunned.

"This event was truly a eureka moment," said Bangalore Sathyaprakash, head of the Gravitational Physics Group at Cardiff University. "The 12 hours that followed are inarguably the most exciting of my scientific life."

"There are rare occasions when a scientist has the chance to witness a new era at its beginning -- this is one such time," said Elena Pian, an astronomer at the National Institute for Astrophysics in Rome.

LIGO-affiliated astronomers at Caltech had spent decades preparing for the off chance -- calculated at 80,000-to-one odds -- of witnessing a neutron star merger. 

Don't tell your friends

"On that morning, all of our dreams came true," said Alan Weinstein, head of astrophysical data analysis for LIGO at Caltech. 

"This discovery was everything I always hoped for, packed into a single event," added Francesco Pannarale, an astrophysicist at Cardiff University in Wales.

For these and thousands of other scientists, GW170817 -- the neutron star burst's tag -- will become a "do you remember where you were?" kind of moment.

"I was sitting in my dentist's chair when I got the text message," said Benoit Mours, an astrophysicist at France's National Centre for Research and the French coordinator for Virgo. "I jumped up and rushed to my lab."

Patrick Sutton, head of the gravitational physics group at Cardiff and a member of the LIGO team, was stuck on a long-haul bus, struggling to download hundreds of emails crowding his inbox.

Rumours swirled within and beyond the astronomy community as scientists hastened to prepare initial findings for publication Monday in a dozen articles spread across several of the world's leading journals.

"There have been quite a few pints and glasses of wine or bubbly -- privately, of course, because we haven't been allowed to tell anyone," Sutton told AFP.

But he couldn't resist telling his 12-year-old son, an aspiring physicist. 

"He's sworn to secrecy though. He's not allowed to tell his friends."

Also on Oct 16th 2017

The Tiangong-1 was used for both types of space missions - manned as well as unmanned and was visited by Liu Yang, China's first female astronaut in 2012. Chinese space agency referred its space station as the "Heavenly Palace, " and it was launched with a hope to make China a superpower in space. Last year, Chinese officials revealed they had lost control of it, and that it would hit Earth within two years. According to British Guardian newspaper Michael Slazak, station's orbit is stable It breaks down by weakening. The space station's orbit has been decaying steadily since losing contact and in recent times it has reached into dense parts of the Earth's atmosphere and has started falling faster. Although much of the craft is expected to burn up in the atmosphere, McDowell says some parts might still weigh up to 100kg when they crash into the Earth's surface. Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist from Harvard University, told The Guardianthat he expected it to land in late 2017 or early 2018. These parts are unlikely to harm people, but China said in May that United Nations will continue to monitor decline of station in a statement to Committee on Peaceful use of outer space. As per the Guardian's report, in 2016, Jonathan McDowell had opined that it would be impossible to locate the exact point where the space station will land. "You really can't steer these things", he said in 2016. He also said that "we probably won't know better than six or seven hours, plus or minus, when it's going to come down". As McDowell said, even a trivial change in the atmosphere could push the landing site of the Chinese space station "from one continent to the next". "Not knowing when it's going to come down translates as not knowing where it's going to come down", he said. This isn't the first time that man-made space debris has had uncontrolled fall, but there haven't been any reported injuries. In 1991 the Soviet Union's 20-tonne Salyut 7 space station crashed to Earth while still docked to another 20-tonne spacecraft called Cosmos 1686. NASA's 77-tonne Skylab space station has had uncontrolled fall back in 1979 and some of the large pieces landed outside of Perth.

Oct 14th 2017

The Moon hangs luminous, beautiful, and just out of humanity’s reach in the sky, just like it’s been for the past 45 years—since the last astronaut lifted his foot off the lunar surface and headed back down to Earth.

Earlier this month, Vice President Mike Pence announced the administration’s intentto send humans back to the Moon for an extended period of time, without outlining a specific plan for financing and equipping the expensive endeavor. NASA has 45 days to come up with a plan that includes lunar exploration.

This decision does not come without controversy. Some argue that the United States should keep to the path it's trod for years, slowly heading towards Mars without a Moon stopover. Others think that we should focus on the many issue on our own planet first.

Then there’s the track record. If you look back through history, presidential lunar aspirations haven’t had a decent success rate since Kennedy.

But lets say, just for a moment, that it all works out, and we do head back to the Moon. What’s left there for us to learn there?

“People have the notion that we've been to the moon and therefore we’ve explored it,” says David Kring, head of the Center for Lunar Science and Exploration at the Lunar and Planetary Institute. “That really is a concept that need to to be corrected or erased, because it's just wrong”

Kring points out that if Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong had landed on the National Mall, they would have only explored an area the size of the footprint of the Smithsonian Castle. They wouldn't have gotten anywhere close to the Capitol building or the White House, much less other parts of Earth. The moon is small, but not that small. It's over a quarter the size of our own planet.

Later moonwalks explored more of the Lunar surface, but were still relatively limited by time and technological constraints. Still, the Apollo-era samples of moon rocks, and of the Moon’s dusty blanket of regolith (the Moon doesn’t have soil) have informed decades of research telling us more about how our companion formed, what it is made of, and in the process, how we all got here.

“The moon is the best and most accessible place in the solar system to explore the question of the origins of the solar system, the evolution of planets, all the way up to the evolution of life itself,” Kring says.

With a surface that has been practically frozen in time, the moon is a geologist's dream. Its surface is free of vegetation that could obscure informative outcroppings of rock, and its crust isn’t being continuously recycled in a vast tectonic cycle like our own planet’s surface.

“The geologic record that is preserved on the Moon is completely unparalleled anywhere in the solar system,” Kring says.

But geologists aren’t the only ones itching to get more information out of the moon. The lunar surface holds records dating back to around 4 billion years ago, when the inner solar system was getting pounded by an influx of meteorites that created an environment hostile to life—not just on the Moon, but on Earth as well. Nonetheless, life emerged around that time.

Gathering more data about that era—we still don’t know the cadence with which large meteorites and asteroids smacked into our Earth-Moon system—could help inform the work of not just geologists, but evolutionary biologists, astrophysicists and astronomers, all seeking to understand more about how we got here.

Future missions would likely be a combination of robotic and human endeavors, with robots doing some of the initial scouting and humans either remotely guiding rovers, or working with them on the satellite’s surface.

In terms of where on the Moon would be best to answer some of those big questions, a few spots have already been singled out. Back in 1997, a report from the National Academies selected the Schrödinger and South Pole-Aitken basins (on the far side of the Moon) as places where future missions could both safely land, and look into many of our most pressing scientific questions.

Those locations had other benefits, too. From an exploration perspective, targeting the far side of the Moon would mean landing where no one has (softly) landed before. (Plenty of spacecraft have crashed in that area.)

In addition to scientific exploration—and exploration for exploration’s sake—there’s also resource exploration. Many different countries and corporations with the Moon in their eyes are especially interested in figuring out how to mine it for ices and gases that can be turned into fuel, water, or air for astronauts.

“It would make exploration of the solar system easier if you had resources outside of earth’s gravity well,” Kring says. "If, in fact, the Moon does have significant caches of water ice, that would greatly extend our ability to explore the rest of the solar system.”

The idea has captured the imaginations of groups around the world, from NASA and Roscosmos to Moon Express and Jeff Bezos. Projects like the international Deep Space Gateway, which would orbit around the Moon, are starting to take shape, and spacecraft are currently being built to get us there.

There’s still plenty to discover, and many worlds to explore. Including our neighbor, a short three-day rocket-ride away. All we have to do is figure out how to pay for it.

 

Oct 14th 2017 Also this day

Astronomers have finally solved a long-standing mystery about the origins of cosmic rays, the highly energetic particles that zoom throughout space. For half a century, scientists haven’t been able to pin down where the most energetic rays in our Universe come from. But thanks to more than a decade of detecting cosmic rays from South America, astronomers have confirmed that these super energetic particles are coming from outside our galaxy.

Space is filled with cosmic rays — tiny fragments of atoms — all with varying amounts of energies. Many of the low- or medium-energy ones are thought to originate from within our galaxy, likely from supernovae, or exploding stars, which hurl high-speed particles out into space when they die. Then there are what are considered ultra high-energy cosmic rays: particles with energies millions of times greater than any particle ever observed on Earth. These types of rays are puzzling, mostly because no one is quite sure what is causing the particles to get so energetic. “We don’t know of a mechanism that can accelerate particles up to the energies we observe,” Greg Snow, a professor of physics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and one of the collaborators on this research, tells The Verge.

“THIS IS SOLID EVIDENCE THAT THEY ARE NOT COMING FROM OUR GALAXY.”

Now, astronomers are significantly closer to getting an answer, thanks to new research detailed today in Science. International astronomers spent 12 years detecting cosmic rays at the Pierre Auger Observatory, a facility in Argentina specifically designed to pick up these particles when they reach Earth and pelt our atmosphere. After observing more than 30,000 of the most energetic particles, the researchers created a map of their distributions in the sky. Sure enough, they found that most of these particles seemed to come from a part of the sky away from the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. “This is solid evidence that they are not coming from our galaxy,” David Nitz, a professor of physics at Michigan Tech University and another researcher on the study, tells The Verge.

It still doesn’t explain what is producing these particles, but the research does point scientists in the direction they need to look. The patch of sky that these rays seem to be coming from is known to have a large clustering of galaxies. It’s still unclear exactly which galaxies may be sending these energetic particles our way, but now researchers can start learning more about this general region of the Universe. “I predict there will be a flurry of papers now that this result has been confirmed where people try to correlate where the rays are coming from,” says Thomas Gaisser, a physics professor and cosmic ray researcher at the University of Delaware, who was not involved with the study.

Figuring out the origins of cosmic rays is exactly what the Pierre Auger Observatory was built to do. The facility is home to 1,600 cosmic ray detectors that span an area of 1,200 square miles, all looking for traces of these particles when they mingle with our atmosphere. When the rays reach Earth, they slam into the gas molecules surrounding our planet, creating a whole bunch of secondary particles that then also collided with the molecules in our atmosphere. The results are called “air showers.” They’re made up of billions of little particles traveling at the speed of light that “rain” down on the Earth’s surface.

THE OBSERVATORY CAN PICK UP THE MOST ENERGETIC PARTICLES, WITH ENERGIES GREATER THAN QUINTILLIONS OF ELECTRONVOLTS

To measure these showers, the observatory uses specialized water tanks instead of telescopes. Whenever the air showers reach the ground, they pass through the water in the detectors, creating electromagnetic shockwaves that produce a strange blue glow. This phenomena is then picked up by light-detecting tubes mounted on the tanks. By using this technique, the observatory can pick up signs of the most energetic particles, which hit the atmosphere with energies greater than quintillions of electronvolts — that’s 1 X 10^18. “If you have a particle that has an energy of that order, that’s a macroscopic amount of energy,” says Snow. “It could be compared to a professional tennis player serving a tennis ball at 100 miles per hour. That’s a lot of energy.”

Finding the origins of these particles took quite a while, since the highest energy rays don’t hit Earth very often. Just once a year, an area a little less than a square mile will get hit by such a particle. But after 12 years of observations, the researchers were able to plot the general distributions of these rays, finding they weren’t evenly distributed throughout the sky, but seemed to originate from one general direction.

Still, there are a lot of unknowns about these rays. For one, the researchers only have a general direction from which they originate, but even that has some uncertainty. When cosmic rays enter the Milky Way, they have to pass through our galaxy’s magnetic field, which bends their direction slightly. And it’s not clear how much their directions change when that happens. “Because of this unknown amount of bending ... we can’t say they’re coming from any one cluster of galaxies,” says Nitz.

Finally knowing that these super energetic rays don’t start as Milky Way residents is the first major step in figuring out what these particles are. “It’s something that people have long thought to be the case, but there was no proof of it,” says Gaisser. “It’s nice to have a real result that shows these particles are coming from outside our galaxy.”

 

Oct 13th 2017

An ice-encrusted moon orbiting Saturn appears to have the conditions necessary for life, NASA announced Thursday, unveiling new findings made by its unmanned Cassini spacecraft.

Cassini has detected hydrogen molecules in vapor plumes emanating from cracks in the surface of Enceladus, a small ocean moon coated in a thick layer of ice, the US space agency said.

The plumes have led scientists to infer that hydrothermal chemical reactions between the moon's rocky core and its ocean -- located under the ice crust -- are likely occurring on Enceladus.

On Earth, those chemical reactions allow microbes to flourish in hot cracks in the planet's ocean floors -- depths sunlight cannot reach -- meaning the moon could also nourish life.

"Now, Enceladus is high on the list in the solar system for showing habitable conditions," said Hunter Waite, one of the study's leading researchers.

The new research, published Thursday in the journal Science, "indicates there is chemical potential to support microbial systems," he said.

The hydrogen detection resulted from Cassini's October 2015 deep dive close to the surface of Enceladus.

Using a spectrometer, the spacecraft determined that the plumes are 98 percent water and one percent hydrogen, with traces of molecules including ammonia, carbon dioxide and methane.

Hydrogen had previously been "elusive," scientists said, but its detection shows the moon's life-supporting potential.

The hydrogen in the sub-surface ocean could combine with carbon dioxide molecules in a process known as "methanogenesis," which creates a byproduct of methane. If there are indeed microbes living in the moon's ocean, they could tap that energy source as sustenance.

Scientists said the moon appeared to have ample energy supplies to support life -- roughly the equivalent of 300 pizzas per hour, according to Christopher Glein, a geochemist at the Southwest Research Institute in Texas.

"This is the first time we've been able to make a calorie count of an alien ocean," he said.

 'Pushing the frontiers'

Though Cassini does not have instruments capable of actually finding signs of life, "we've found that there's a food source there for it," said Waite.

"It would be like a candy store for microbes."

Jeffrey Seewald of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution echoed those comments in a companion article to the study: "This observation has fundamental implications for the possibility of life on Enceladus."

"Chemical disequilibrium that is known to support microbial life in Earth's deep oceans is also available to support life in the Enceladus ocean."

In a separate study published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope again found what is likely a plume emitting from Europa, one of Jupiter's four largest moons, which also has an icy crust atop an ocean.

After first spotting the apparent plume in 2014, scientists in 2016 saw it in the same spot, which appears to be a particularly warm region of Europa where fissures occur in the icy crust.

Both studies are laying the foundation for the Europa Clipper mission, which is slated to launch in the 2020s.

The Europa Clipper will periodically fly past Jupiter's Europa moon to collect data and study the subsurface ocean.

"If there are plumes on Europa, as we now strongly suspect, with the Europa Clipper we will be ready for them," said James Green, NASA's Planetary Science Division Director.

Cassini has taken a death plunge into Saturn's atmosphere in September, after it takeing a final flyby of the giant moon Titan and a performs a series of 22 dives between the planet and its rings.

The decision to end the mission was made in 2010, in order to avoid damaging moons like Enceladus, which could be explored for signs of life in the future.

Researchers called its latest discovery a "capstone finding for the mission."

"We're pushing the frontiers. We're finding new environments," said Green.

"We're looking in a way that we never thought possible before for environments in our solar system which may harbor life today."

Oct 9th 2017

Mars and moon exploration is to be supported by new UK Space Agency grants worth more than £3 million.

The government money will go to scientists looking at questions surrounding the possibility of present or past life on Mars, and frozen water at the moon's poles.

Another £230,000 will fund International Space Station microgravity experiments to help pave the way for future human space exploration.

Science minister Jo Johnson, said: "Science enables and shapes the UK's future in space exploration.

"This government funding will play a vital role in ensuring UK academics can continue to study the secrets of our solar system, from the polar regions of the moon to the potential of life on Mars.

"Research and innovation are at the core of our Industrial Strategy, and by investing in these types of projects, we are reinforcing our position as a world leader in these important and exciting areas."

The £3 million from the UK Space Agency's Aurora Science Programme is to be shared between 17 teams working at UK research organisations.

One of the biggest grants, £346,592, will go to an Oxford University group led by Professor Peter Read looking at the impact of dust storms on the Martian climate.

Another funding package of £329,278 will help Open University scientists led by Dr Stephen Lewis study the Martian water cycle by analysing data from the ExoMars 2016 Trace Gas Orbiter spacecraft.

Oct 1st 2017

K2

A new image reveals a distant newcomer to our solar system: the farthest active comet ever spotted, heading toward the sun for the first time.

The Hubble Space Telescope captured a view of Comet C/2017 K2 (PANSTARRS), called K2 for short, as it came in from out beyond Saturn's orbit, 1.5 billion miles from the sun. As it approaches the sun and the temperature rises from minus 440 degrees Fahrenheit, the comet is developing a fluffy cloud of dust, called a coma, which surrounds its frozen body. While the comet's nucleus appears to be just 12 miles across, the coma stretches 10 times Earth's diameter.

According to a statement from NASA, K2 likely began its journey in the spherical Oort Cloud surrounding the solar system, which hosts hundreds of billions of comets and stretches almost a light-year across. Because it's the comet's first trip into the solar system, its composition could reflect conditions in the early system, before planets formed. [Photos: Spectacular Comet Views from Earth and Space]

The comet's fuzzy halo likely comes from substances such as oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide turning from solid to gas as the comet approaches the sun's warmth for the first time.

"I think these volatiles are spread all through K2, and in the beginning billions of years ago, they were probably all through every comet presently in the Oort Cloud," David Jewitt, lead author on the study and a researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, said in the statement. "But the volatiles on the surface are the ones that absorb the heat from the sun, so, in a sense, the comet is shedding its outer skin."

"Most comets are discovered much closer to the sun, near Jupiter's orbit, so by the time we see them, these surface volatiles have already been baked off," he added. "That's why I think K2 is the most primitive comet we've seen." Most comets' comas come from evaporating water and ice, but K2 is too far from the sun for that process to have begun.

Researchers first spotted K2 in May 2017 with data from the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS). The new Hubble view let Jewitt's team measure the size of K2's nucleus and confirm that it hasn't yet developed a comet's signature tail.

They also spotted K2 in earlier images, gathered in 2013 by the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) in Hawaii; at the time, nobody had noticed the incredibly faint object, according to the statement, but Jewitt's team was able to identify the comet and its growing coma of material.

"We think the comet has been continuously active for at least four years," Jewitt said. "In the CFHT data, K2 had a coma already at 2 billion miles from the sun, when it was between the orbits of Uranus and Neptune. It was already active, and I think it has been continuously active coming in."

"As it approaches the sun, it's getting warmer and warmer, and the activity is ramping up," he added.

Over the next five years, the comet will travel closer to the sun, allowing researchers to follow its journey — it will approach closest to the sun in 2022, just outside Mars' orbit.

"We will be able to monitor for the first time the developing activity of a comet falling in from the Oort Cloud over an extraordinary range of distances," Jewitt said. "It should become more and more active as it nears the sun and presumably will form a tail."

Also on this day

MELBOURNE, Fla. — Industrial superstar and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk took the stage during a conference in Australia early Friday to expand on his vision of humanity as a "multiplanetary species," introducing a new, multi-role rocket in the process.

Musk's speech at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide built on his presentation last year in Guadalajara, Mexico, where he detailed plans that envisioned a self-sustaining civilization on Mars in the not-too-distant future.

Spearheaded by a massive new rocket system, Musk on Friday admitted that cost was a major concern, prompting him to scale back its physical size — but not his ambitions — in favor of a new system known as the BFR.

New rocket: Reduced in size, but still big

During the 2016 IAC conference, Musk introduced the Interplanetary Transport System, a proposed 400-foot-tall rocket and attached vehicle that would take up to 100 people to the red planet. Citing cost concerns, Musk on Friday said SpaceX is seriously working on the development of BFR, a new two-stage rocket with a smaller diameter — 9 meters, or about 30 feet — and a height of nearly 350 feet.

For comparison, the storied Saturn V rocket of the Apollo era stood about 360 feet tall, but SpaceX's BFR would be more powerful, allowing it to take more to orbit and beyond.

"It's really quite a big vehicle," Musk said. "The booster is lifted by 31 Raptor engines."

Atop BFR would be a second spacecraft capable of being crewed by up to 100 people or filled with cargo. Much like first stages of the company's existing Falcon 9 rocket, the BFR would be fully reusable.

Musk said the first iteration could be ready as soon as 2022, which aligns with an Earth-Mars synchronization, or point at which the two planets are closest. The next wouldn't occur until two years later in 2024.

“I feel fairly confident that we can complete the ship and be ready for launch in about five years,” he said. “If not this timeframe, then soon thereafter.”

BFR: A multi-role system

Even compared to the previously planned ITS, the BFR is still a massive vehicle — but Musk thinks using it for all of SpaceX's needs will help reduce costs and eventually transport humans to Mars.

The BFR system, he said, would replace SpaceX's entire fleet of vehicles and perform tasks ranging from International Space Station resupply to lunar missions to Mars, streamlining production and development for the company. Thanks to its much wider second stage, the spacecraft would be capable of taking larger, heavier payloads to orbit.

"It'll be capable of doing what Dragon does today in terms of transporting cargo and what Dragon 2 will do in terms of transporting crew and cargo," he said. "It can also go much farther than that — for example, the moon."

The BFR system would play a role in and monetarily bolster SpaceX's ambitions in four ways: The launching of satellites, trips to the space station under NASA contracts, missions to the moon and, finally, the transportation of people to Mars.

Musk did not mention SpaceX's plans to build a constellation of thousands of satellites that would beam broadband Internet down to Earth, which could provide a major source of revenue if successful.

Mars plans are still ambitious

Be it ITS or BFR, plans for SpaceX's eventual vehicle for Mars colonization may have been slightly reduced in size, but long-term dreams are still out in full force.

Ideally, Musk said 2024 would be the year to fly four BFR ships to the red planet: two crewed, two loaded with cargo. This mission would enable the construction of a propellant depot to fuel return trips to Earth, as well as the establishment of a base that could see further expansion.

If the BFR is ready, an earlier uncrewed mission in 2022 would help set the stage for travelers by identifying hazards and delivering some infrastructure.

The colonization of Mars by hundreds and possibly even thousands of people is still very much an objective for Musk, who presented renderings of a slowly growing city on Mars. First, just ships and a few scattered outposts appeared; then, the development of a futuristic settlement primarily powered by solar panels, which meshes well with his experience as CEO of energy company Tesla.

"Over time, terraforming Mars and making it a really nice place to be," he said. "I think that's quite a beautiful picture."

Moon is now a destination

"It's 2017," a slightly frustrated Musk said during the conference. "I mean, we should have a lunar base by now. What the hell's going on?

Describing it as "pretty captivating," the billionaire CEO described how cargo would be handled on the moon, but didn't detail many other operations that would happen there, such as the size of the base or what its primary function would be.

The advantages of the BFR's capacity, however, means propellant production wouldn't be necessary on the moon, possibly freeing up more energy and time for other activities.

Musk referred to the settlement, which could serve as an effective launching point for trips to Mars, as "Moon Base Alpha."

Using BFR for Earth-based travel, too

Finally, Musk teased a not-so-new idea in the industry — using spacecraft to significantly reduce travel times around the globe.

SpaceX could, for example, transport passengers to any destination on Earth in under an hour using the BFR. Most trips between popular destinations would take fewer than 30 minutes, not counting time spent traveling to and from the rockets.

An animation released by the company shows passengers in New York City taking a boat to an offshore barge topped with a BFR and flying at 17,000 mph before landing vertically in Shanghai 39 minutes later.

Sept 29th 2017

NASA's on a mission to "touch" the sun.

The unmanned Parker Solar Probe, which is slated for liftoff next year, will be mankind's first-ever visit to our nearest star.

The probe "will travel through the sun’s atmosphere, closer to its surface than any spacecraft before it, facing brutal heat and radiation conditions — and ultimately providing humanity with the closest-ever observations of a star," NASA said in a statement. 

The spacecraft, which was recently on display for media at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Maryland, will explore the sun’s outer atmosphere and make observations that will answer decades-old questions about the physics of how stars work.

The $1.6-billion mission aims to improve forecasts of major space weather events that impact life on Earth, as well as astronauts in space, NASA said. Space weather can also change the orbits of satellites, shorten their lifetimes, or interfere with onboard electronics.

“Parker Solar Probe is going to answer questions about solar physics that we’ve puzzled over for more than six decades,” said project scientist Nicola Fox of the APL.

The probe will fly through the sun’s atmosphere as close as 3.9 million miles to the star’s surface, well within the orbit of Mercury. 

The project was first considered in 1958, making it the oldest NASA project still on the books, said Betsy Congdon, an aerospace engineer on the project. The challenge, she said, has always been how to protect such a craft from the sun's intense heat. 

Cutting-edge thermal engineering advances allowed the creation of a 4.5-inch thick, eight-foot diameter carbon shield that protects the spacecraft and its instruments against the heat and energy of the sun’s outer atmosphere, the corona, through which the spacecraft will fly.

At closest approach to the sun, the front of the probe's solar shield will endure temperatures approaching 2,500 degrees F. 

Six on-board instruments will measure the sun's electric and magnetic fields, as well as the solar winds and other phenomena. 

The heat shield was recently attached to the satellite, in preparation for an upcoming brutal regimen of testing at the APL and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. That testing will include extremes of vibration, heat, cold and sound, all to ensure the craft can withstand the rough conditions during the 8-minute launch and also the extreme temperatures of space. 

The launch window for lift off will be from July 31, 2018, to Aug. 19, 2018. It will blast off inside a Delta IV rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla. The mission is expected to include 24 orbits around the sun, over a period of 7 years. 

Once in orbit around the sun, it will also break the record for fastest man-made object ever invented, with top speeds estimated at 500,000 mph. That's fast enough to get from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., in one second.

The mission was named after Eugene Newman Parker, a physicist who proposed a number of concepts about how stars give off energy. The probe will be the first NASA project named for a living scientist. Parker, 90, recently visited the craft that bears his name.

Sept 28th 2017

Setting up a permanent village on the moon is the first step towards exploring Mars, the European Space Agency said Thursday as plans to reach and colonise the Red Planet gathered pace.

At an annual gathering of 4,000 global space experts in Adelaide, the ESA said the Moon was the "right place to be" as humans expand economic activities beyond low-Earth orbit, even while Mars remained the "ultimate destination".

"We have been living in low-Earth orbit for the last 17 years on board a space station and we are on our journey to Mars for the first human mission," ESA's Piero Messina told AFP at the congress.

"In between, we believe that there is an opportunity to create a permanent... sustainable presence on the surface of the Moon."

Reaching and colonising Mars has been viewed by private and public interests as the next stage in exploring the final frontier, and has been a key part of this year's International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide.

Messina said the more immediate goal was to have a permanent presence on the Moon, even if it was just a robot, by the end of the next decade.

"There are a series of missions planned to the moon over the next 10 years, and all these missions will create a movement, a momentum, and will create a wealth of data that will enable building the village," he added.

"I think it's the right time now to start discussing, start planning for something which is as inspiring as the space station but on a truly global, international-cooperation basis."

The space agency has been touting the permanent lunar colony as a replacement for the orbiting International Space Station, which is due to be decommissioned in 2024.

Also on the cards is a NASA-led project to build the first lunar space station as part of a programme called the Deep Space Gateway.

The Russian space agency Roscosmos and NASA Wednesday signed a cooperation agreement to work on the station, building the systems needed to organise scientific missions in lunar orbit and to the surface of the Moon.

The congress in the southern Australian city is set to conclude on Friday with new details from Lockheed Martin on its Mars Base Camp, the defence giant's plans to send humans to the planet by 2028.

SpaceX's Elon Musk on Friday will also outline a new design for an interplanetary transport system to take humans to the Red Planet.

25.9.17

Australia on Monday committed to creating a national space agency as it looks to cash in on the lucrative and fast-evolving astronautical sector.

The announcement came at a week-long Adelaide space conference attended by the world's top scientists and experts including SpaceX chief Elon Musk.

It brings Canberra -- which already has significant involvement in national and international space activities -- into line with most other developed nations, which already have dedicated agencies to help coordinate the industry and shape development.

"The global space industry is growing rapidly and it's crucial that Australia is part of this growth," acting science minister Michaelia Cash said in statement.

"A national space agency will ensure we have a strategic long-term plan that supports the development and application of space technologies and grows our domestic space industry." 

According to the government, the global space sector -- encompassing innovation, defence, and telecommunications -- has been growing annually since the late 1990s at almost 10 percent, driving revenue each year of US$323 billion.

Thousands of the world's top scientists and space experts are attending the week-long International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide.

SpaceX chief Musk is set to give an update on his ambitious vision of establishing a Mars colony.

Also among those presenting is defence giant Lockheed Martin, which is working with NASA on plans to reach the Red Planet.

Lee Spitler, from Macquarie University's astronomy department in Sydney, said Australia's space industry currently operated "as a grassroots movement across a small number of companies, university groups and the defence sector".

"It will help bring to the forefront all the great work that has been going on in Australia in the space sector, and increase the potential for our country to play a key role in the international space scene in the future," said Spitler.

Australia's commitment to an agency follows the government in July ordering a review of the country's space industry capability, with a fuller strategy to underpin the work of the new body to be unveiled next year.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Australia launching its first satellite, the only country at the time to achieve the feat after the United States and Russia.

It has played a vital part in many space missions in the decades since then, with its Deep Space Communication Complex outside Canberra one of only three sites in the world capable of tracking NASA's deep space assets.

Australian National University's Penny King, who worked on the Mars "Curiosity Rover", mission, said the agency would improve opportunities for local scientists.

"Australians will be on the world stage, asking questions such as: How can we best care for Earth? How should we look for life beyond Earth? Where should we go?," she said.

Sept 9th 2017

A brand new radio telescope in Canada just started searching space for digitized signals that can help the instruments measure the expansion of the universe. The telescope called the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment, or CHIME, uses the digitized signals it collects to create a three dimensional map of hydrogen density to measure the expansion of the universe, according to the CHIME website.

The telescope was developed through a collaboration of 50 scientists from the co-leading universities: University of British Columbia, McGill University, University of Toronto and Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory. These universities and other universities from across North America will be working together on the telescope and the data it collects.

Originally the telescope was designed to be used for the hydrogen detection and the expansion of the universe but the design ended up being the most ideal one for collecting fast radio bursts as well. The telescope can monitor fast radio bursts and is perfect for monitoring pulsars, said the site. It started collecting data on Thursday but it’s unknown when it will record its first fast radio burst. They happen to be rare and difficult to predict, but scientists don’t even know where they come from. The goal with CHIME is to monitor a large swath of sky that can capture the bursts whenever they do occur. As the Earth turns the telescope will be exposed to more of the night sky, meaning it could potentially record a few to a dozen fast radio bursts a night.

The pulses stretch out when they travel through space, so in addition to detection, astronomers are working on a way to recreate the split-second pulse as it occurred, rather than as it was recorded. The telescope will notify other astronomers around the world when it picks up a new chime as well, so that they can turn their telescopes to the point where it was detected to hopefully record more data on it,  according to a video from McGill University.

The telescope is  made of half pipes, kind of like those you’d see at a skate park. Four of these half pipes that are 20 meters by 100 meters each are placed adjacent to one another, making sort of a wave-like structure, rather than one long half pipe. Each of those half pipes has antennas that can collect data on the entire Northern sky as the Earth turns and the shape of the half pipes helps focus the radio waves to those antennas that sit at the center. It’s situated at the DRAO  near the border between Washington state and Canada.

In addition to collecting information on the fast radio bursts CHIME will also be examining hydrogen gas in other galaxies that were affected by dark energy or the believed accelerant of the universe’s expansion. The Hydrogen Intensity Mapping technique will be used to create the map of the distribution of matter is fast and allows for a lot of data to be collected at once.

Sept 3rd 2017

Peggy Whitson

The 57-year-old American astronaut landing safely back on Earth as planned.

Sept 2nd 2017

Without much fanfare, NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson will return to Earth on Saturday night—it will be Sunday morning on the steppes of Kazakhstan—aboard a Soyuz spacecraft. Quietly, she will have spent 288 days in space, or nearly 10 months. The duration of her spaceflight will fall short of only one other US astronaut, Scott Kelly, who returned to Earth in 2016 with a lot more attention after 340 days.

Whitson is known around NASA's Johnson Space Center as perhaps the agency's most efficient astronaut in space, regularly getting ahead of her timelines, research, and maintenance tasks for each day. Mission controllers typically have to come up with extra work. Partly because of this, she is one of only a handful of NASA astronauts to have been selected to serve three rotations on the International Space Station.

As a result of these three long duration spaceflights, the biochemist has now logged 665 days in space. This cumulative time in space easily ranks her as the American flier with the most experience in orbit, far above the 534 days tallied by NASA's Jeff Williams and 520 days of Scott Kelly. Whitson only lags behind seven Russian men, several of whom spent time both on the International Space Station as well as Russia's Mir station.

Those aren't all of her accolades, either. In 2008, Whitson became the first female commander of the International Space Station. She is also the oldest woman, aged 57, to fly. And with 10 spacewalks totaling more than 60 hours, she ranks as the third most accomplished spacewalker. Only Russian Anatoly Solovyev and NASA's Michael Lopez-Alegria have spent more time outside their spacecraft.

Some of these records were only made possible because, to save money, the Russians decided to begin launching fewer crew members to the station in 2017. (Fewer Russian crew meant the need for fewer Russian supply ships). Whitson had been originally scheduled to fly back to Earth this spring, but to maintain a three-person presence on board after June 2, NASA and the Russians agreed to extend Whitson’s mission. That kept three crew on board for almost two months to handle research and maintenance before a July launch restored the station's full six-crew complement. For Whitson, no problem.

It is not clear what Whitson will do upon returning to Earth. All NASA astronauts have a lifetime radiation allotment, after which they're not allowed to fly again. Whitson has almost certainly met or exceeded this, so she is unlikely to fly again. Regardless, it seems likely that her duration records will hold up for a very long time.

 

Aug 9th 2017

The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) has reissued a notification by China on the future uncontrolled re-entry of the country's robotic Tiangong-1 space lab, which is expected to take place in the next eight months. A follow-up update from the Aerospace Corporation predicted the space lab could fall to Earth as soon as February.

Tiangong-1, which has been orbiting Earth since September 2011, ceased functioning on March 16, 2016. To date, the spacecraft has maintained its structural integrity. 

The space lab's operational orbit is under constant and close surveillance by China. Its current average altitude is 217 miles (349 kilometers), but its orbit is decaying at a daily rate of approximately 525 feet (160 meters), according to the U.N. notification. [Gallery: Tiangong 1, China's First Space Laboratory]

Re-entry date

The lab's re-entry is expected between October 2017 and April 2018, according to the U.N. The Aug. 2 notice from the Aerospace Corporation pegged re-entry as occuring in January 2018, with a margin of two months on either side. According to the calculations and analysis that have been carried out, most of Tiangong-1's structural components will be burned up during the craft's re-entry into Earth's atmosphere.

"The probability of endangering and causing damage to aviation and ground activities is very low," the notification adds.

Taking measures

The notice advises that China attaches great importance to the re-entry of Tiangong-1 and will take the following measures to monitor its fall and provid public information:

— China will enhance monitoring and forecasting and make strict arrangements to track and closely keep an eye on Tiangong-1 and will publish a timely forecast of its re-entry

— China will make use of the international joint monitoring information under the framework of the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee in order to be better informed about the descent of Tiangong-1.

— China will improve the information reporting mechanism. Dynamic orbital status and other information relating to Tiangong-1 will be posted on the website of the China Manned Space Agency in both Chinese and English. In addition, timely information about important milestones and events during the orbital decay phases will be released through the news media.

— As to the final forecast of the time and region of re-entry, China will issue the relevant information and early warning in a timely manner and bring it to the attention of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs and the Secretary-General of the United Nations through diplomatic channels.

Possible leftovers

Tiangong-1 was launched into Earth orbit on September 29, 2011. It conducted six successive rendezvous and dockings with the spacecraft Shenzhou-8 (uncrewed), Shenzhou-9 (crewed) and Shenzhou-10 (crewed) as part of China's human space exploration activities. The vehicle weighed 18,740 lbs. (8,500 kilograms) at launch.

According to the Aerospace Corporation, based on Tiangong-1's inclination, the lab will re-enter somewhere between 43 degrees north and 43 degrees south latitudes. As for leftovers, "it is highly unlikely that debris from this reentry will strike any person or significantly damage any property," Aerospace Corporation representatives wrote in a Tiangong-1 re-entry FAQ.

They added: "Potentially, there may be a highly toxic and corrosive substance called hydrazine on board the spacecraft that could survive re-entry. For your safety, do not touch any debris you may find on the ground nor inhale vapors it may emit."

The Aerospace Corporation will perform a person and property risk calculation for the Tiangong-1 re-entry a few weeks prior to the event.

Editor's note: This story was updated Aug. 6 to include new re-entry predictions from the Aerospace Corporation.

Leonard David is author of "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet," published by National Geographic. The book is a companion to the National Geographic Channel series "Mars." A longtime writer for Space.com, David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. 

July 30th 2017

U.S. astronaut Randy Bresnik, right, Russian cosmonaut Sergey Ryazanskiy, centre, Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli, members of the main crew of the expedition to the International Space Station (ISS), walk prior the launch of Soyuz MS-05 …more

A three-man space crew from Italy, Russia and the United States on Friday arrived at the International Space Station for a five-month mission Friday.

Footage broadcast by Russia's space agency Roscosmos showed the Soyuz craft carrying NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik, Russian cosmonaut Sergey Ryazansky and Paolo Nespoli of the European Space Agency take off into the dusky sky from Kazhakstan's Baikonur cosmodrome.

Six hours later, after orbiting Earth four times, the Soyuz docked with the space station. The hatches between them were to open later, after pressurization and leak checks are carried out, according to the US space agencyNASA.

The arrival of the three astronauts boosted the ISS back up to its full capacity of six for the first time since April, after Russia decided to cut the number of its cosmonauts to two.

NASA has responded to Russia's reduction by boosting the number of astronauts that will operate in its half of the ISS.

In total, four astronauts—Peggy Whitson, Jack Fischer, Bresnik and Nespoli—will now conduct experiments in the NASA-run segment, with Ryazansky joining Fyodor Yurchikhin to man the Russian section.

'Ton of science'

Bresnik said at a pre-launch press conference on Thursday that the extra member would help the crew conduct experiments and carry out repairs.

"There is a ton of science to do," he said ahead of the flight.

Bresnik—who is on his second flight—also praised the work of Whitson, Fischer and Yurchikhin, already aboard the orbital lab.

"They've really got their groove on. They are working very, very well. They have good technique and tempo," he said.

Ryazansky, 42, who is embarking on his third stint aboard the ISS said at the press conference that he would be taking a small gnome into space in tribute to a song beloved by his family.

Live footage broadcast on Roscosmos's website showed the toy gnome hanging inside the capsule as the trio prepared for takeoff.

At 60 years old and with 174 days logged in space, Nespoli is the most experienced of the three fliers, but the Italian made it clear his love for space travel hasn't faded over time with a tweet showing him pulling his space suit on Friday.

"Beam me up S...oyuz! Hitching another ride soon to the @Space_Station," he wrote.

Nespoli became the oldest astronaut onboard, edging Fyodor Yurchikhin, 59 and Whitson, 57.

But Whitson is the oldest female astronaut in the history of space exploration and has broken other records during her latest mission at the ISS.

In April, Whitson became the NASA astronaut with the most cumulative time spent in space, having already broken the record for spacewalks by a woman the month before.

Whitson was expected to return home in June with Russian Oleg Novitsky and Frenchman Thomas Pesquet, but had her mission extended into September by NASA in a decision connected to the Roscosmos crew reduction.

Roscosmos has said its two-man crew format will help it save costs while the ISS waits on the arrival of a long-delayed Multipurpose Laboratory Module that will generate enough work on board to justify a third cosmonaut on board.

The $100 billion ISS space laboratory has been orbiting Earth at about 28,000 kilometres (17,000 miles) per hour since 1998.

Space is one of the few areas of international cooperation between Russia and the US that has not been wrecked by tensions over Ukraine and Syria.

 

July 20th 2017

Elon Musk tamped down expectations about Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s new rocket designed to carry private citizens into space, saying whoever chooses to be among the first passengers will need to be "brave."

The SpaceX Falcon Heavy, a rocket with two extra boosters attached and a total of 27 engines that must fire simultaneously, will have enormous stresses and has been difficult to test on the ground, Musk said Wednesday in Washington.

He jokingly urged attendees of a conference on the International Space Station to watch the first attempted launch.

"It’s guaranteed to be exciting,” he said. When asked whether the risks would make potential customers pause before signing up for a flight, he said: "I want to make sure we set expectations accordingly."

SpaceX has an ambitious agenda for the cosmos in coming years. The company began taking deposits from private citizens for a trip around the moon on the Falcon Heavy rocket. And it is working with NASA to carry astronauts to the International Space Station. But the company has only transported cargo so far, and Musk said shifting to carrying passengers is “a huge step up.”

Getting certified to carry NASA astronauts has been a challenge for SpaceX, as there is a much higher bar than transporting hardware for the agency, Musk said. He called NASA’s oversight for "really tough" but justified because of the potential risks to humans.

"It’s the right motivation,” he said.

SpaceX and NASA are now working through some “small technical bones of contention" for certification to carry passengers, he said. Meanwhile, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates commercial space flight separately from NASA, hasn’t yet set certification standards for carrying private citizens for hire.

The company continues its attempts to reuse more of its rockets and launch equipment, a more-efficient approach that has been the biggest innovation in space flight in recent years, Musk said.

SpaceX has successfully landed its rocket boosters and used them again. It’s now "quite close" to being able to reuse the fairing that clamps over the rocket’s payload, a relatively light-weight aerodynamic cover, he said.

The fairing costs between $5 and $6 million. "Imagine we have a pallet of cash worth $6 million dollars falling through the sky," Musk said he has told his staff. "Would we try to catch it? I say we do."

He didn’t provide details about how the fairing would be captured.

Musk’s talk on Wednesday was to an overwhelmingly friendly audience of scientists as eager as he is to explore space. Topics ranged from how his project to build tunnels to stem the Los Angeles region’s traffic congestion might help colonize Mars to the health risks of traveling beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

He downplayed the potential for human conflict on Mars, calling it "pretty open territory" where competing entities could find plenty of room without challenging each others’ claims. After praising NASA and noting it stood to get increased federal funding, he drew applause.

The billionaire entrepreneur said development of the Falcon Heavy had been much tougher than he imagined. By adding two additional boosters to each side of a rocket, it added to the vibrations, created new stresses to the main rocket and was difficult to test without an actual launch.

"There is a lot of risk associated with Falcon Heavy, a real good chance that that vehicle doesn’t make it to orbit," he said. "I’m saying full disclosure here, man."

Government reviews have echoed some of his concerns. The Government Accountability Office found earlier this year that SpaceX and competitor Boeing Co. must contend with potential safety hazards that may postpone approvals for transporting astronauts until 2019. A U.S. contract with Russia for transportation to the space station expires that year.

The GAO’s findings follow a September report by NASA’s Office of Inspector General, which warned of “multiple challenges that will likely delay the first routine flight carrying NASA astronauts to the ISS until late 2018.” Agency funding challenges, delays in NASA’s evaluation process and technical challenges with spacecraft designs have all contributed to the program falling behind schedule.

There have been two major mishaps with its rockets since 2015, a sign of how difficult rocket science can be.

On June 28, 2015, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket disintegrated shortly after launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Another Falcon 9 blew up on the ground in Florida.

But SpaceX has also had numerous successes, making it one of the most formidable companies in the space market. It has pioneered reusable rockets, for example, which it has successfully landed in Cape Canaveral and on an ocean barge.

July 8th 2017

Scientists have looked back in time, further than they usually can with the instruments available to them, at a faraway galaxy composed of bright clumps of newborn stars. The great distance and the time it takes light to travel that far mean the galaxy appears to these Earth-bound humans as it was 11 billion years ago, or just 2.7 billion years after the Big Bang.

"When we saw the reconstructed image we said, 'Wow, it looks like fireworks are going off everywhere,'" astronomer Jane Rigby of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in a statement.

Astronomers have used the Hubble Space Telescope, taken advantage of a natural phenomenon and applied new computational methods to capture closer-up and more detailed images—about 10 times sharper than they could with the telescope alone. The findings were published in three papers: One in  The Astrophysical Journal Letters and two in  The Astrophysical Journal.

Hubble was aimed in the direction of galaxies that would normally appear “smooth and unremarkable,” according to NASA. But from this angle, the clusters of stars in between Hubble and the galaxy in question have so much mass that they act as a second, natural telescope, magnifying it and making it brighter.

“The gravity from all that mass has distorted the image that we see of the background galaxy,” like a telescope or a “funhouse mirror,” Rigby tells  Newsweek, explaining that it’s an effect that Albert Einstein predicted and that has been proven over and over again since. All of the red and orange clusters in the images are the intermediaries that act as a gravitational lens to make the blue-tinged clusters visible. The main target here—which appears as an arc, like a smile flipped on its side—is magnified by a factor of 28, Rigby says.

However, the double telescope also warps the image. In this case, it stretches out the arc and makes it appear multiple times. A new computational technique developed by Traci Johnson, a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan and lead author on two of the three papers, helped researchers figure out how the galaxy was warped and undo it. They’ve reconstructed what they believe the image would look like without the distortions.

The new images provide a view of the faraway stars as they would appear with a telescope nearly 33 feet in diameter; Hubble is 8 feet in diameter, Rigby says. She adds that it helps offer a “sneak preview of what universe would look like if we could build a much larger telescope than Hubble.”

The James Webb Space Telescope, which has a 21.3-foot diameter and is scheduled to launch in October 2018, will offer views even farther out and through dust that may be obscuring Hubble’s view. With Webb, researchers will be able to observe older stars and galaxies as they appeared in the first billion years after the Big Bang, which will help them continue studying how star formation evolved over time.

Hubble and Webb, Rigby says, “see so far out in the universe that they're acting like time machines.”

July 8th 2017

Rare hypervelocity stars tearing through the Milky Way galaxy are runaway suns that have escaped neighbouring galaxies, according to research presented at this year’s National Astronomy Meeting in Hull, England.

Hypervelocity stars are travelling between 300 and 700 kilometers (186 and 435 miles) per second faster than our galaxy’s escape velocity. Only 20 cases have been confirmed so far, most of them late B‑type stars that are larger than our sun.

There has been some debate around the origin of these breakaway stars. Scientists believed a portion of them might have been lobbed from the Milky Way’s central rotational center.

But a paper published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society in March makes the argument that all the hypervelocity stars are actually foreign objects. The research was presented at the National Astronomy Meeting in Hull on Wednesday.

The idea is that these ultra-fast stars were part of a binary system and escaped their original home – the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) – a neighbouring satellite galaxy. A supernova explosion made the orbit between both stars unstable, and the schism caused the smaller one to be booted far away like a ball in a slingshot.

A group of researchers from the University of Cambridge in the UK dug into data taken from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey to build computer simulations of runaway stars escaping from the LMC to the Milky Way.

They started by modelling the stellar evolution of the birth and death of stars in the LMC over the past two billion years, and focused on every runaway star. The gravitational interactions between these stars were also simulated so that they could reproduce and track the trajectory of the stars. They predict that there are 10,000 runaway stars spread across the sky.

There should also be about a million runaway neutron stars or black holes, since some of the massive blue stars reach the end of their lives on their way out of the LMC. They should collapse to neutron stars or black holes that continue zipping through the Milky Way.

Only half of the simulated stars that escape the LMC are fast enough to escape the gravity of the Milky Way, making them hypervelocity stars. If the confirmed hypervelocity stars are runaways, it would also explain their position in the sky.

'Hypervelocity stars did not satisfy me'

“Earlier explanations for the origin of hypervelocity stars did not satisfy me,” said Douglas Boubert, lead author of the paper and a PhD student at Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy.

“The hypervelocity stars are mostly found in the Leo and Sextans constellations – we wondered why that is the case.”

The closer stars in a binary system are, the faster they orbit one another, and they’re more likely to reach speeds fast enough to become hypervelocity stars. Runaway stars starting out in the Milky Way are too slow to become hypervelocity stars because the blue B‑type stars can’t orbit close enough to their companion star in the binary system without merging, the researchers argue.

But fast-moving galaxies like the LMC could give rise to these swift stars. The LMC also has 10 per cent of the mass of the Milky Way, so the fastest runaways can easily escape the galaxy’s pull.

Like a bullet fired from a moving train, the speed of these escaping stars would be the velocity they were booted at plus the velocity of the LMC. This boost increases the likelihood that these stars become hypervelocity ones when they stream through the Milky Way.

“These stars have just jumped from an express train – no wonder they’re fast,” said Rob Izzard, co‑author of the paper and a Rutherford fellow at the Institute of Astronomy. “This also explains their position in the sky, because the fastest runaways are ejected along the orbit of the LMC towards the constellations of Leo and Sextans.”

“We’ll know soon enough whether we’re right,” said Boubert. “The European Space Agency’s Gaia satellite will report data on billions of stars next year, and there should be a trail of hypervelocity stars across the sky between the Leo and Sextans constellations in the North and the LMC in the South.”

Another independent group of researchers are also hoping to study hypervelocity stars by trying to find more specimens through data with the help of artificial neural networks. ®

 

June 17th 2017

Pairs of entangled photons created on a satellite orbiting Earth have survived the long, perilous trip from space to ground stations. Crucially, they are still linked despite being picked up by receivers over 1,200km (745mi) apart – the longest link ever seen before.

“This is a scientific breakthrough,” says Rupert Ursin, a quantum physicist at the Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Information in Vienna, Austria, who was not involved in the research.

Many teams around the world are duking it out to create secure quantum communication technology. Unlike securing messages from prying eyes with classical encryption, securing with quantum methods means any tinkering would leave a trace.

One idea is to send linked, or “entangled,” photons whose behavior changes when you try to tinker. The special “polarization” property (you could think of the direction of a bar magnet) of either correlated photon could act like both a secure encryption and decryption key.

Previously, researchers have been able to teleport entangled photons that remained correlated at distances of around 100km – demonstrating “spooky action at a distance,” as Einstein put it. For example, in 2012 researchers transported entangled photons about 146km apart from one another in the Canary Islands. The problem is that if you try sending quantum bits through the air or through fiber cables, losses are high, so the maximum distance for still being able to measure a correlation between photons has been limited, Ursin says.

In the new study, Chinese researchers used the custom-built “Micius” satellite at an orbit of approximately 500km to create six million entangled photons and blast them at ground stations in China that were continuously checking for matching photon pairs. The magic is that there’s less signal loss if you distribute the paired photons through space via satellite.

Chao-Yang Lu, a quantum physicist at the University of Science and Technology in China who worked on the data analysis for the project, says it was difficult to pull the experiment off because of diffraction as well as absorption and turbulence in the atmosphere. Aiming is also a challenge because of the high speeds of the satellite and its distance to the ground.

How are correlated photons created?

The two correlated photons are created when a laser shines through a crystal. Eventually, by verifying a correlation test between two photons known as Bell’s inequality (if two photons are correlated, they violate it), the team discovered that the ground stations – separated by 1,203km – could detect a single pair of correlated photons every second.

“The data rate is still low,” Ursin says. If you wanted to encrypt a 5,000-bit email message using this proof of concept experiment, that would take 5,000 seconds. But it’s still a big step forward for the field, he says.

Christoph Marquardt, a quantum physicist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light in Erlangen, Germany, says: “It’s kind of surprising how well it worked,” given the experimental conditions.

But he still thinks it’s decades off from practical application for encryption. One of his latest papers on quantum communication, which appears in Optica, shows that if you were willing to trust a third party to store your quantum keys (instead of having that third party have no knowledge in the entangled photon scenario), you could measure "quantum states" on satellites 38,000km away in space. He believes that this sort of quantum communication is much closer to practicality.

Still, Lu says he wasn’t too worried about the practical applications just yet. At some level he says he would have been alright if the experiment didn’t work and the team would discover new physics. He says a next step is trying to make the satellite work during the day – the team ran the experiment around midnight to limit the noise from stray light. He added they also hope to explore higher orbits.

June 12th 2017

Update for June 12, 7 a.m. ET:  Scientists and engineers at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility now aim to launch a Terrier-Improved Malemute sounding rocket tonight between 9:04 p.m. EDT and 9:19 p.m. EDT (0104-0119 GMT). NASA's live webcast will begin at 8:30 p.m. EDT (0030 GMT). Our preview story can be seen below.

A small NASA rocket will launch to create colorful artificial clouds on Sunday night (June 11), and you can watch all the action live. Weather permitting, the launch could be visible to spectators on the U.S. East Coast from New York to North Carolina, NASA officials said.

The two-stage Terrier-Improved Malemute sounding rocket is scheduled to lift off from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia between 9:04 p.m. and 9:19 p.m. EDT Sunday (0104 to 0119 GMT on Monday, June 12). You can watch it live here on Space.com, courtesy of NASA; coverage begins at 8:30 p.m. EDT (0030 GMT on Monday). 

You can also follow the flight on the Wallops Ustream site: http://www.ustream.tv/channel/nasa-tv-wallops.

About 5 minutes after liftoff, the rocket will deploy 10 soft-drink-size canisters, which will release barium, strontium and cupric-oxide vapor to form blue-green and red artificial clouds.

"These clouds, or vapor tracers, allow scientists on the ground to visually track particle motions in space," NASA officials wrote in a mission update. "The clouds may be visible along the mid-Atlantic coastline from New York to North Carolina."

If you live near the Wallops Island area in Virginia and would like to watch the sounding rocket launch in person, NASA's Wallops Flight Facility Visitors Center will open to the public at 8 p.m. EDT. Because the launch is weather dependent, local spectactors and online viewers can recieve the latest updates from NASA via the Wallops center Facebook and Twitter sites.

·          ·          ·        MORE

02:39

04:16

Update for June 12, 7 a.m. ET:  Scientists and engineers at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility now aim to launch a Terrier-Improved Malemute sounding rocket tonight between 9:04 p.m. EDT and 9:19 p.m. EDT (0104-0119 GMT). NASA's live webcast will begin at 8:30 p.m. EDT (0030 GMT). Our preview story can be seen below.

A small NASA rocket will launch to create colorful artificial clouds on Sunday night (June 11), and you can watch all the action live. Weather permitting, the launch could be visible to spectators on the U.S. East Coast from New York to North Carolina, NASA officials said.

The two-stage Terrier-Improved Malemute sounding rocket is scheduled to lift off from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia between 9:04 p.m. and 9:19 p.m. EDT Sunday (0104 to 0119 GMT on Monday, June 12). You can watch it live here on Space.com, courtesy of NASA; coverage begins at 8:30 p.m. EDT (0030 GMT on Monday). 

You can also follow the flight on the Wallops Ustream site: http://www.ustream.tv/channel/nasa-tv-wallops.

Artificial clouds should be visible shortly after 9 p.m. EDT on June 11 from New York to North Carolina if a NASA sounding rocket launches on time from the agency's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

Credit: NASA

About 5 minutes after liftoff, the rocket will deploy 10 soft-drink-size canisters, which will release barium, strontium and cupric-oxide vapor to form blue-green and red artificial clouds.

"These clouds, or vapor tracers, allow scientists on the ground to visually track particle motions in space," NASA officials wrote in a mission update. "The clouds may be visible along the mid-Atlantic coastline from New York to North Carolina."

If you live near the Wallops Island area in Virginia and would like to watch the sounding rocket launch in person, NASA's Wallops Flight Facility Visitors Center will open to the public at 8 p.m. EDT. Because the launch is weather dependent, local spectactors and online viewers can recieve the latest updates from NASA via the Wallops center Facebook and Twitter sites.

The ampoule doors on the sounding rocket payload are open during testing at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The Terrier-Improved Malemute rocket is scheduled to launch at 9:04 p.m. EDT on June 11, 2017.

Credit: Berit Bland/NASA

The mission is designed to test a new multicanister ejection system that should allow researchers to gather data over a wider area than has been possible, agency officials added.

The rocket's total flight time will be about 8 minutes. The mission's main payload will hit the Atlantic Ocean about 90 miles (145 kilometers) off the Virginia coast and will not be recovered, NASA officials said.

The mission was originally supposed to lift off late last month, but it has been delayed several times by weather and once by a boat straying into the launch zone.

Editor's note: If you capture an amazing image of the sounding rocket launch or the colorful artificial clouds that you would like to share with Space.com and its news partners for a story or photo gallery, send photos and comments to: spacephotos@space.com.

 

June 4th 2017

A refurbished robotic Dragon spaceship rocketed into orbit from Florida on Saturday aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 launcher, hauling nearly 6,000 pounds of crew provisions and biological, astrophysics and space technology experiments on a two-day trip to the International Space Station.

The unpiloted capsule soared into a late afternoon sky from launch pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at 5:07:38 p.m. EDT (2107:38 GMT) Saturday, two days later than planned after a thunderstorm prevented liftoff Thursday.

Nine Merlin 1D engines, generating a combined 1.7 million pounds of thrust, powered the 213-foot-tall (65-meter) Falcon 9 rocket through a high-altitude cloud deck as the launcher arced to the northeast, aligning with the space station’s orbital track.

It was the 100th launch from historic pad 39A, the previous home to Saturn 5 moon rockets and space shuttles. SpaceX began launch operations there in February, and has now flown six rockets from the seaside launch complex.

The Falcon 9’s first stage engines shut down and deployed the rocket’s second stage more than 40 miles (65 kilometers) over the Atlantic Ocean, then the booster activated nitrogen cold gas thrusters to flip around and fly tail first.

While the upper stage accelerated into orbit, three of the Merlin’s first stage engines ignited to begin maneuvers to return the first stage to Landing Zone 1, and two more braking burns slowed the 156-foot-tall (47-meter) for a smooth vertical touchdown around 9 miles (14 kilometers) from where the mission started.

The landing marked the fifth time SpaceX has returned a rocket booster to Cape Canaveral — all successful. The commercial launch company has recovered 11 rockets in 16 tries overall, a figure that includes landings at sea.

SpaceX aims to reuse the first stages, an initiative the company says will slash launch costs. The rocket that launched on the space station resupply run Saturday was entirely new, but the primary structure of the gumdrop-shaped Dragon cargo capsule on top previously flew on a 34-day orbital mission in September and October 2014, another first for SpaceX.

Engineers examined and stripped the spacecraft’s structure after it splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on Oct. 25, 2014, following a visit to the space station, but the “majority” of the Dragon cargo capsule is the original article, according to Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s director of flight reliability.

He said engineers compared the structural loads and shaking components inside the Dragon capsule experienced on its 2014 flight with their design limits.

“That tells us how much life the component has, and we make sure that the component has enough life for the next round,” Koenigsmann said. “There is a statistical variation, so you have to make a worst-case assumption, basically, to be on the safe side.”

SpaceX goes through a similar review of parts on Falcon 9 boosters before clearing them for a re-flight, he said.

Kirk Shireman, NASA’s program manager for the International Space Station, said before Saturday’s launch that the space agency expects to approve SpaceX plans to re-fly more Dragon capsules and Falcon 9 boosters on future cargo missions to the orbiting research outpost.

SpaceX has two multibillion-dollar contracts with NASA to ferry equipment to and from the space station. The terms of the deal call for at least 26 missions, and 10 of those are in the books, including a failed cargo launch in 2015.

A close-up view of the Dragon cargo craft on top of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket before Saturday’s launch. Credit: SpaceX

NASA has also contracted with SpaceX to develop a Crew Dragon vehicle capable to ferrying astronauts to and from the space station beginning as soon as next year.

Officials said SpaceX’s next cargo mission to the station, scheduled for launch some time in August, will employ a newly-manufactured Dragon capsule.

“We share the results with NASA, and review them together, and we conclude that we can either fly a component, or in some cases, we have to make a swap with a new component,” Koenigsmann said, adding that such occurrences were “very few.”

According to Koenigsmann, SpaceX technicians replaced several items that were exposed to salt water after splashdown, such as batteries and the capsule’s heat shield. But the hull, thrusters, harnessing, propellant tanks, and some avionics boxes are original, he said.

“I can tell you the majority of this Dragon has been in space before,” Koenigsmann said.

Officials did not say if NASA was compensated for its approval of SpaceX’s plans to launch a refurbished Dragon capsule to approach the space station.

Without specifying details, Shireman said the agreement is part of a normal back-and-forth between the government and the commercial operator, in which one party barters with the other.

The Dragon spacecraft is on a two-day voyage to the space station, where it is scheduled to arrive at 10 a.m. EDT (1400 GMT) Monday, when astronauts Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer will grapple the approaching capsule with the station’s Canadian-built robotic arm.

“The space station is in excellent shape, ready to receive Dragon,” said Ven Feng, manager of the space station transportation integration office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

An on-board camera on the Falcon 9 rocket’s second stage captured this view of the Dragon supply freighter deploying in orbit. Credit: SpaceX

The robot arm will move the Dragon supply ship to a berthing port on the station’s Harmony module, where it is scheduled to stay for nearly one month.

The station crew, reduced to three after the landing of a Russian cosmonaut and French astronaut Friday, will unpack 3,761 pounds (1,665 kilograms) of equipment and experiments loaded inside the Dragon capsule’s previously-flown pressurized module.

Some food and provisions for the station’s crew are strapped inside the Dragon freighter, but research investigations take up the bulk of the ship’s volume.

“Really, the utility of this SpaceX mission is science,” Feng said. “We have literally tons and tons of science going up on this mission.”

Three payloads stowed inside the Dragon’s external rear trunk will be be removed robotically.

One of the unpressurized experiments, NASA’s Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer, will study the super-dense leftovers from violent supernova explosions. Made of 56 individual X-ray telescopes, the NICER instrument will observe neutron stars, the collapsed city-sized remnants of stars that have used up all of their nuclear fuel.


June 2nd 2017


CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX is taking recycling to a whole new realm — all the way to orbit.

On this week’s supply run to the International Space Station, SpaceX will launch a Dragon capsule that’s already traveled there. The milestone comes just two months after the launch of its first reused rocket booster for a satellite.

“This whole notion of reuse is something that’s very, very important to the entire space industry,” NASA’s space station program manager Kirk Shireman said at a news conference Wednesday.

While the concept is not new — the space shuttles, for instance, flew multiple times in orbit — it’s important for saving money as well as technical reasons, he noted.

This particular Dragon flew to the station in 2014. SpaceX refurbished it for Thursday evening’s planned launch, providing a new heat shield and fresh parachutes for re-entry at mission’s end. There were so many X-rays and inspections that savings, if any, were minimal this time, said Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of flight reliability for SpaceX.

The vast majority of this Dragon has already been to space, including the hull, thrusters and tanks. It’s packed with 6,000 pounds of station cargo, including mice and flies for medical research.

While this Falcon booster is new, SpaceX will attempt to land it at Cape Canaveral following liftoff so it, too, can be reused. So far, first-stage boosters have flown back and landed vertically four times on the designated X at the Air Force station; even more touchdowns have occurred on ocean platforms, all part of an effort to save time and money.

The private SpaceX and NASA are discussing the possibility of flying a reused booster on an upcoming delivery mission.

Koenigsmann told reporters more and more reused capsules will carry cargo to the space station, each possibly flying three times. Dragon capsules are being developed to carry astronauts to the space station as early as next year; it’s too soon to say whether those, too, will be recycled, he said.

Wednesday marked the fifth anniversary of the return of the first Dragon capsule to visit the space station. This will be the 12th Dragon visit overall and the 11th under NASA contract. The Dragon is the only unmanned supply ship that returns to Earth; the others are filled with trash and burn up on re-entry.

And by SpaceX’s count, this will be the 100th launch from NASA’s historic Launch Complex 39-A at Kennedy Space Center. It’s the same exact spot from which men flew to the moon and shuttles soared until their retirement in 2011. SpaceX is leasing the pad from NASA.

Fairly good weather is forecast for the 5:55 p.m. liftoff.

Two of the space station’s five residents, meanwhile, are scheduled to return to Earth on Friday via a Russian Soyuz capsule. A Russian and Frenchman will be headed home, leaving two Americans and one Russian in orbit.

April 19th 2017

Scientists sounded the alarm Tuesday over the problems posed to space missions from orbital junk -- the accumulating debris from mankind's six-decade exploration of the cosmos.

In less than a quarter of a century, the number of orbiting fragments large enough to destroy a spacecraft has more than doubled, a conference in Germany heard.

And the estimated tally of tiny objects -- which can harm or degrade spacecraft in the event of a collision, and are hard to track -- is now around 150 million.

"We are very much concerned," said Rolf Densing, director of operations at the European Space Agency (ESA), pleading for a worldwide effort to tackle the mess.

"This problem can only be solved globally."

Travelling at up to 28,000 kilometres (17,500 miles) per hour, even a minute object impacts with enough energy to damage the surface of a satellite or manned spacecraft.

In 1993, monitoring by ground-based radar showed there to be around 8,000 manmade objects in orbit that were larger than 10 centimetres (4.5 inches) across, a size big enough to inflict catastrophic damage, said Holger Krag, in charge of ESA's space debris office.

"Today, we find in space roughly 5,000 objects with sizes larger than 1 metre (3.25 feet), roughly 20,000 objects with sizes over 10 centimetres... and 750,000 'flying bullets' of around one centimetre (half an inch)," he said.

"For objects larger than one millimetre (0.04 inch), 150 million is our model estimate for that."

Risks of collision are statistically remote, but rise as litter increases and more satellites are deployed.

"The growth in the number of fragments has deviated from the linear trend in the past and has entered into the more feared exponential trend," Krag warned.

The conference in Darmstadt, whose opening was broadcast online, is the biggest-ever gathering dedicated to space debris.

Experts will spend four days discussing debris and measures to mitigate space litter such as by "de-orbiting" satellites after their working lives.

- Debris fields -

Krag pointed to two events that had badly worsened the problem, creating debris fields that may generate further junk as pieces smash into each other.

The second was in January 2007, when China tested an anti-satellite weapon on an old Fengyun weather satellite.

The other was in February 2009, when an Iridium telecoms satellite and Kosmos-2251, a Russian military satellite, accidentally collided.

With enough warning, satellites can shift position to avoid a collision, but this uses fuel and potentially shortens operational life.

ESA receives a high-risk collision alert every week on average for its 10 satellites in low-Earth orbit, Krag said. Each has to resort to "one or two" avoidance manoeuvres per year.

In a message from the International Space Station, French astronaut Thomas Pesquet said the station was shielded for objects up to 1 cm across.

The ISS often has to make manoeuvres to avoid debris, but needs 24 hours' warning to do this, using onboard thrusters, he said.

If there is less time, "our crew will have to close all the hatches and enter the safe haven which is our Soyuz spacecraft so that we can depart the ISS in the case of a collision," he said. "This has happened four times in the history of the ISS programme."

- Space junkyards -

Experts pointed to two once-pristine sites that have become worryingly cluttered since the space age dawned in 1957.

One is low Earth orbit -- generally defined as less than 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) from Earth -- which is used by satnav satellites, the ISS, China's manned missions and the Hubble telescope, among others.

The other is in geostationary orbit, a coveted zone 35,000 km (22,000 miles) away used by communications, weather and surveillance satellites that must maintain a fixed position relative to Earth.

The trash ranges from fuel tanks and Soviet-era nuclear-powered satellites, dripping sodium and potassium coolant from decrepit hulls, to nuts, bolts and tools dropped by spacewalking astronauts.

The items ironically include a 1.5-metre (five-feet) debris shield that floated off as it was being installed on the ISS on March 30. Lost in low orbit, the shield will eventually be plucked into Earth's atmosphere and burn up.

April 14th 2017

Enceladus

An ice-encrusted moon orbiting Saturn appears to have the conditions necessary for life, NASA announced Thursday, unveiling new findings made by its unmanned Cassini spacecraft.

Cassini has detected hydrogen molecules in vapor plumes emanating from cracks in the surface of Enceladus, a small ocean moon coated in a thick layer of ice, the US space agency said.

The plumes have led scientists to infer that hydrothermal chemical reactions between the moon's rocky core and its ocean -- located under the ice crust -- are likely occurring on Enceladus.

On Earth, those chemical reactions allow microbes to flourish in hot cracks in the planet's ocean floors -- depths sunlight cannot reach -- meaning the moon could also nourish life.

"Now, Enceladus is high on the list in the solar system for showing habitable conditions," said Hunter Waite, one of the study's leading researchers.

The new research, published Thursday in the journal Science, "indicates there is chemical potential to support microbial systems," he said.

The hydrogen detection resulted from Cassini's October 2015 deep dive close to the surface of Enceladus.

Using a spectrometer, the spacecraft determined that the plumes are 98 percent water and one percent hydrogen, with traces of molecules including ammonia, carbon dioxide and methane.

Hydrogen had previously been "elusive," scientists said, but its detection shows the moon's life-supporting potential.

The hydrogen in the sub-surface ocean could combine with carbon dioxide molecules in a process known as "methanogenesis," which creates a byproduct of methane. If there are indeed microbes living in the moon's ocean, they could tap that energy source as sustenance.

Scientists said the moon appeared to have ample energy supplies to support life -- roughly the equivalent of 300 pizzas per hour, according to Christopher Glein, a geochemist at the Southwest Research Institute in Texas.

"This is the first time we've been able to make a calorie count of an alien ocean," he said.

 'Pushing the frontiers'

Though Cassini does not have instruments capable of actually finding signs of life, "we've found that there's a food source there for it," said Waite.

"It would be like a candy store for microbes."

Jeffrey Seewald of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution echoed those comments in a companion article to the study: "This observation has fundamental implications for the possibility of life on Enceladus."

"Chemical disequilibrium that is known to support microbial life in Earth's deep oceans is also available to support life in the Enceladus ocean."

In a separate study published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope again found what is likely a plume emitting from Europa, one of Jupiter's four largest moons, which also has an icy crust atop an ocean.

After first spotting the apparent plume in 2014, scientists in 2016 saw it in the same spot, which appears to be a particularly warm region of Europa where fissures occur in the icy crust.

Both studies are laying the foundation for the Europa Clipper mission, which is slated to launch in the 2020s.

The Europa Clipper will periodically fly past Jupiter's Europa moon to collect data and study the subsurface ocean.

"If there are plumes on Europa, as we now strongly suspect, with the Europa Clipper we will be ready for them," said James Green, NASA's Planetary Science Division Director.

Cassini is slated to take a death plunge into Saturn's atmosphere in September, after it takes a final flyby of the giant moon Titan and a performs a series of 22 dives between the planet and its rings.

The decision to end the mission was made in 2010, in order to avoid damaging moons like Enceladus, which could be explored for signs of life in the future.

Researchers called its latest discovery a "capstone finding for the mission."

"We're pushing the frontiers. We're finding new environments," said Green.

"We're looking in a way that we never thought possible before for environments in our solar system which may harbor life today."

Space News

For most of its decades in service, the Kennedy Space Center has served the US as one of the federal government’s most important spaceports. Astronauts flew from Kennedy on missions to the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and in the 1980s the center was home to Nasa’s reusable space shuttles. Saturday’s launch was the first since that fleet retired, and part of the center’s transition to a spaceport open to public and private missions.

Over its years of competing with Boeing and Lockheed Martin for deals, SpaceX has secured $1.6bn in contracts with the US government for resupply missions, and hundreds of millions more in contracts with private companies seeking to deliver satellites into orbit.

 

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 19, 2017

The private spaceflight company was dealt a major setback in September 2016 when one of its rockets exploded on a Cape Canaveral launchpad, according to Musk, because its supercooled oxygen fuel became too cold – and solid – and ignited in reaction with other chemicals. The subsequent blast destroyed not only the hugely expensive rocket but also its cargo, which included a satellite project funded in part by Facebook.

The company successfully launched and landed a reusable Falcon 9 rocket in January, delivering 10 satellites for the telecoms and technology giant Iridium.

Musk has repeatedly said he hopes to launch manned missions, and last year announced an ambitious plan to reach Mars with the first ever private, unmanned mission. But on Friday, the SpaceX president, Gwynne Shotwell, told reporters that the company had delayed the project for a scheduled 2020 launch.

“We were focused on 2018, but we felt like we needed to put more resources and focus more heavily on our crew program and our Falcon Heavy program,” Shotwell she said.

Nasa currently relies on Russian spaceports to deliver astronauts to the ISS, and SpaceX has plans to modify its rockets and capsules for crewed flights by 2018, though a report by the Government Accountability Office suggested the schedule was overly optimistic. Nasa has also planned a rover mission to Mars in 2020.

SpaceX pulled off its fifth rocket landing in the last seven months early Monday morning (July 18), this time bringing a booster back during a successful cargo launch toward the International Space Station (ISS).

SpaceX's two-stage Falcon 9 rocket blasted off at 12:45 a.m. EDT (0445 GMT) Monday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, sending the company's robotic Dragon spacecraft speeding toward the ISS.

About 2.5 minutes after liftoff, the Falcon 9's first stage separated and performed a series of engine burns to head back to Cape Canaveral. At 12:53 a.m. EDT (0453 GMT), the booster touched down softly a few miles south of its launch pad, eliciting a huge round of cheers from the SpaceX personnel gathered at the company's headquarters in Hawthorne, California. [Photos: SpaceX Launches Cargo Mission, Lands Rocket Again]

Land, inspect, relaunch

SpaceX now has five successful rocket landings to its name. The first occurred in December 2015, when a Falcon 9 first stage came back to Cape Canaveral during a commercial satellite launch. The next three — one in April and two in May — featured sea landings, on a robotic ship named "Of Course I Still Love You."

Such "droneship" landings are necessary for missions that launch payloads to distant orbits, because the rockets involved generally cannot carry enough fuel to make it all the way back to land, SpaceX representatives have said.

All of these touchdowns are part of SpaceX's effort to develop fully and rapidly reusable rockets, which company founder and CEO Elon Musk has said could dramatically reduce the cost of spaceflight. Indeed, the company plans to launch most of its landed boosters multiple times, and the first such reflight could come as early as this autumn.

But the landed rockets are piling up fast now — so fast that SpaceX might soon have to procure storage space beyond the hangar it currently uses at Cape Canaveral.

"I don't know exactly what all our options are," Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of flight reliability at SpaceX, said during a prelaunch news conference Saturday (July 16). "I know that the team is working on that, and I believe that we're looking at different hangars in the vicinity."

"It's a good problem to have, right?" he added with a laugh.

Dragon is on its way

The rocket landing, while dramatic and exciting, was but a secondary objective of Monday's launch. The main goal — which the Falcon 9 also achieved — was sending Dragon on its way to the orbiting lab on a cargo mission for NASA.

If all goes according to plan, Dragon will arrive at the ISS early Wednesday morning (July 20).

The uncrewed cargo capsule is packed with about 3,800 lbs. (1,700 kilograms) of supplies, hardware and scientific gear, including 2,050 lbs. (930 kg) of research samples. Also onboard is an instrument designed to help manage maritime traffic on Earth, said Julie Robinson, chief ISS program scientist.

"From an overall perspective, this is just part of the rich stream of research going on on the space station, from human research, biology, physical sciences investigations and things for exploration technology," Robinson said during Saturday's briefing.

Dragon is also toting a crucial docking adapter, which will allow future crewed spacecraft — including the manned version of Dragon, which is scheduled to begin flying astronauts next year — to link up with the ISS more easily, NASA officials have said.

"I know how critical this is for NASA and the ISS in general, and also of course for SpaceX going forward with Crew Dragon," Koenigsmann said. "This is a really important piece of hardware."

This is the second attempt Dragon has made to bring such an adapter to the ISS. Another one was aboard the June 2015 Dragon mission, which was lost when the Falcon 9 broke apart less than three minutes after liftoff.

Follow Mike Wall on Twitter @michaeldwall and Google+. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook or Google+. Originally published on Space.com.

The wonders of the universe

March 13th 2017

Mars missions

Mars is the obvious next staging post for mankind's exploration of the solar system - it's only 140 million miles away after all - and there's more than one agency busy arranging trips to the planet. Here we'll run through some of the most high-profile planned missions.

And all of these missions are still at the planning stages, so it's going to be some time yet before any of them are given confirmed dates. It's still not clear who's going to be the first to make it to Mars with a human crew, but it might happen sooner than you think.

NASA continues to confirm its commitment to organising a manned mission to Mars, although there's nothing specific in the calendar just yet - the agency says it hopes to have humans in orbit around the Red Planet by the early 2030s.

Before that happens, several missions will take place somewhere closer to home but beyond the orbit of the moon, to try and give astronauts a chance to adapt to being further away from Earth (and to give scientists more of an opportunity to monitor how deep space living affects our minds and bodies).

NASA is upgrading its hardware in preparation for a manned Mars mission: the Space Launch System (SLS) will enable us to get rockets deeper into space than ever before, while the Orion spacecraft, still in development, is going to be the spacecraft that will eventually carry people to Mars.

Before we can land though, we need to know much more about the surface and the environment of the planet, and to that end NASA is launching another rover mission in 2020. The robot explorer will be based on the Curiosity rover that's already on the surface of Mars, but with a more advanced stack of scientific instruments.

Landing on the surface in February 2021, the new rover will be able to deal with a wider range of terrain and take more detailed measurements. One of the buggy's main objectives will be to assess what humans are going to need to be able to survive on Mars, setting the foundations for Orion's eventual arrival a decade later.

While there are tentative plans for a new NASA orbiter to make its way to Mars in 2022, nothing has been decided yet. Again, the purpose of the spacecraft would be to gather as much data as possible before humans make the trip.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has made no secret of his plans to colonise Mars, but just like NASA the company has to wait for the technology to catch up with the vision. The plans on the drawing board are very ambitious though - SpaceX has said it wants to get a million-strong Mars colony on the surface of the Red Planet with the next century.

Engineers are currently working on the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS), designed to carry astronauts much deeper into space than ever before, with a capacity capable of carrying 100 people at a time. While the roadmap continues to be tweaked, the bulk of the ITS could be built and ready to carry people as soon as 2024.

A lot of the technology SpaceX is working on, including rocket boosters that can return to Earth and refuel, will eventually find a use in the Interplanetary Transport System. The designs are still being worked on at SpaceX, but the early indications are that the spacecraft are going to be at least as impressive as anything NASA is working on.

What's perhaps even more interesting is what Elon Musk and SpaceX plan to do when we finally arrive on Mars (ticket prices are expected to be around $200,000 per person, by the way). The ambitious CEO has talked about terraforming the planet - artificially modifying the atmosphere to be more like Earth's - as well as farming methane from the atmosphere to power return trips.

Details on this and much of the rest of what SpaceX is planning are still thin on the ground, but Elon Musk hasn't left anyone in any doubt about how risky the trip is going to be for the first few travellers - in fact he says he himself won't be one of the first humans to see Mars because the chance of ever making it back is so low.

Testing for Mars-ready systems is going to begin in the next couple of years, SpaceX says, as the company looks to scale up its existing technologies to get us to the Red Planet. Aside from the official government-backed space agencies around the world, it's definitely the organisation to watch as far as Mars exploration goes.

While other space agencies and private companies have tentative plans to reach Mars one day - the European Space Agency is planning to send a rover to the planet in 2020, for example - the only other stated plans to get people to Mars that we know about at the moment come from private outfit Mars One. Whether those plans will actually become a reality remains to be seen.

Mars One certainly doesn't have the same kind of history behind it or the same high profile as SpaceX, but its plans are nevertheless very ambitious. The company wants to have its first human crew setting off for Mars in 2031 and doesn't expect them to return - this is very much a one-way mission for the first astronauts.

Making the trip one-way significantly reduces the costs of a Mars mission and means the whole operation can be sped up, although there have been questions asked over whether Mars One is actually a viable operation in terms of its finances and its technology - the backers of the project want to fund everything by securing private investment and earning money from broadcasting rights.

There are plenty of missions on the Mars One roadmap, including a demonstration test in 2022, a rover mission in 2026 to do some exploratory work, and a cargo mission currently scheduled for 2029. As with the other missions we've mentioned, there's a lot of groundwork to do (literally in some cases) before astronauts can set off.

And that astronaut selection process is another interesting aspect of the Mars One project - it's going to be turned into a kind of TV event according to the latest plans, with interested volunteers being asked to work through a series of physical and mental challenges to make the final shortlist. After the first crew is chosen, an intensive training regime will begin.

Unfortunately, at this stage it's not altogether clear whether the grand plans that the Mars One team has are going to be realised, with problems reported around funding and technology. At least the project has added to the conversation about getting humans to the Red Planet - and produced some very cool-looking concept art along the way.

Feb 19th 2017

For most of its decades in service, the Kennedy Space Center has served the US as one of the federal government’s most important spaceports. Astronauts flew from Kennedy on missions to the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and in the 1980s the center was home to Nasa’s reusable space shuttles. Saturday’s launch was the first since that fleet retired, and part of the center’s transition to a spaceport open to public and private missions.

Over its years of competing with Boeing and Lockheed Martin for deals, SpaceX has secured $1.6bn in contracts with the US government for resupply missions, and hundreds of millions more in contracts with private companies seeking to deliver satellites into orbit.

 — Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 19, 2017

The private spaceflight company was dealt a major setback in September 2016 when one of its rockets exploded on a Cape Canaveral launchpad, according to Musk, because its supercooled oxygen fuel became too cold – and solid – and ignited in reaction with other chemicals. The subsequent blast destroyed not only the hugely expensive rocket but also its cargo, which included a satellite project funded in part by Facebook.

The company successfully launched and landed a reusable Falcon 9 rocket in January, delivering 10 satellites for the telecoms and technology giant Iridium.

Musk has repeatedly said he hopes to launch manned missions, and last year announced an ambitious plan to reach Mars with the first ever private, unmanned mission. But on Friday, the SpaceX president, Gwynne Shotwell, told reporters that the company had delayed the project for a scheduled 2020 launch.

“We were focused on 2018, but we felt like we needed to put more resources and focus more heavily on our crew program and our Falcon Heavy program,” Shotwell she said.

Nasa currently relies on Russian spaceports to deliver astronauts to the ISS, and SpaceX has plans to modify its rockets and capsules for crewed flights by 2018, though a report by the Government Accountability Office suggested the schedule was overly optimistic. Nasa has also planned a rover mission to Mars in 2020.

July 18th

SpaceX pulled off its fifth rocket landing in the last seven months early Monday morning (July 18), this time bringing a booster back during a successful cargo launch toward the International Space Station (ISS).

SpaceX's two-stage Falcon 9 rocket blasted off at 12:45 a.m. EDT (0445 GMT) Monday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, sending the company's robotic Dragon spacecraft speeding toward the ISS.

About 2.5 minutes after liftoff, the Falcon 9's first stage separated and performed a series of engine burns to head back to Cape Canaveral. At 12:53 a.m. EDT (0453 GMT), the booster touched down softly a few miles south of its launch pad, eliciting a huge round of cheers from the SpaceX personnel gathered at the company's headquarters in Hawthorne, California. [Photos: SpaceX Launches Cargo Mission, Lands Rocket Again]

Land, inspect, relaunch

SpaceX now has five successful rocket landings to its name. The first occurred in December 2015, when a Falcon 9 first stage came back to Cape Canaveral during a commercial satellite launch. The next three — one in April and two in May — featured sea landings, on a robotic ship named "Of Course I Still Love You."

Such "droneship" landings are necessary for missions that launch payloads to distant orbits, because the rockets involved generally cannot carry enough fuel to make it all the way back to land, SpaceX representatives have said.

All of these touchdowns are part of SpaceX's effort to develop fully and rapidly reusable rockets, which company founder and CEO Elon Musk has said could dramatically reduce the cost of spaceflight. Indeed, the company plans to launch most of its landed boosters multiple times, and the first such reflight could come as early as this autumn.

But the landed rockets are piling up fast now — so fast that SpaceX might soon have to procure storage space beyond the hangar it currently uses at Cape Canaveral.

"I don't know exactly what all our options are," Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of flight reliability at SpaceX, said during a prelaunch news conference Saturday (July 16). "I know that the team is working on that, and I believe that we're looking at different hangars in the vicinity."

"It's a good problem to have, right?" he added with a laugh.

Dragon is on its way

The rocket landing, while dramatic and exciting, was but a secondary objective of Monday's launch. The main goal — which the Falcon 9 also achieved — was sending Dragon on its way to the orbiting lab on a cargo mission for NASA.

If all goes according to plan, Dragon will arrive at the ISS early Wednesday morning (July 20).

The uncrewed cargo capsule is packed with about 3,800 lbs. (1,700 kilograms) of supplies, hardware and scientific gear, including 2,050 lbs. (930 kg) of research samples. Also onboard is an instrument designed to help manage maritime traffic on Earth, said Julie Robinson, chief ISS program scientist.

"From an overall perspective, this is just part of the rich stream of research going on on the space station, from human research, biology, physical sciences investigations and things for exploration technology," Robinson said during Saturday's briefing.

Dragon is also toting a crucial docking adapter, which will allow future crewed spacecraft — including the manned version of Dragon, which is scheduled to begin flying astronauts next year — to link up with the ISS more easily, NASA officials have said.

"I know how critical this is for NASA and the ISS in general, and also of course for SpaceX going forward with Crew Dragon," Koenigsmann said. "This is a really important piece of hardware."

This is the second attempt Dragon has made to bring such an adapter to the ISS. Another one was aboard the June 2015 Dragon mission, which was lost when the Falcon 9 broke apart less than three minutes after liftoff.

Follow Mike Wall on Twitter @michaeldwall and Google+. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook or Google+. Originally published on Space.com.


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