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Space and all it's facinating asspects

May 18th 2018

A newfound black hole is so mighty, it eats suns like ours for breakfast.

Well, sort of. According to a new paper published online May 11 in the preprint journal arXiv, astronomers have discovered the fastest-growing black hole known in the universe. The supermassive object is estimated to be more than 12 billion years old, have a mass greater than 20 billion suns and could be growing at a rate of about 1 percent every 1 million years.

And, like all growing boys, this supermassive black hole has a hefty appetite. The newly described object consumes roughly the mass of Earth's sun every two days, the researchers wrote — and all that guzzling is leaving a mark on the surrounding galaxy. [Stephen Hawking's Most Far-Out Ideas About Black Holes]

"This black hole is growing so rapidly that it's shining thousands of times more brightly than an entire galaxy, due to all of the gases it sucks in daily that cause lots of friction and heat," lead study author Christian Wolf, an astronomer at the Australian National University (ANU), said in a statement.

"If we had this monster sitting at the center of our Milky Way galaxy, it would appear 10 times brighter than a full moon," Wolf added. "It would appear as an incredibly bright pin-point star that would almost wash out all of the stars in the sky."

When the light around a supermassive black hole shines as bright as the stars, the resulting glare is called a quasar. These massive, black-hole-powered beacons sit in the middle of galaxies that are billions of years old, and billions of light-years away from Earth. In a sense, studying the ancient light emitted by these quasars is like studying the early "dark ages" of the universe, the researchers wrote.

To thoroughly describe this new quasar, Wolf and his colleagues combined visible and infrared light wave measurements from ANU's SkyMapper telescope with observations taken from several previous space surveys, including the massive new data release from the European Space Agency's Gaia satellite. (If you haven't seen Gaia's new map of the Milky Way, you really should.) Through these observations, the team determined that this newfound quasar is stationary, perhaps the most luminous one ever discovered, and somehow managed to grow very large (it started at roughly the size of 5,000 suns, Wolf told CNN) within about 1 billion years following the Big Bang.

Wolf said he doesn't know how this supermassive black hole could've gotten so big, so fast in the dark days of the universe. But now that scientists know about it, they can use the quasar as a giant backlight for studying nearby galaxies in much greater detail than would otherwise be possible.

"Scientists can see the shadows of objects in front of the supermassive black hole," Wolf said. "Fast-growing supermassive black holes also help to clear the fog around them by ionizing gases, which makes the universe more transparent."

May 8th 2018

NASA’s Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) spacecraft is on its way to Mars. InSight launched on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 401 rocket at 4:05 a.m. PDT (7:05 a.m. EDT) this morning, May 5, from Space Launch Complex-3 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

There were no weather constraints at the time of rocket liftoff. Launch occurred at the beginning of the two-hour launch window.

NASA Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, Thomas Zurbuchen, center, and NASA Chief Financial Officer, Jeff DeWit, watch the launch of NASA’s InSight spacecraft on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas-V rocket Saturday, May 5, 2018 at NASA Headquarters in Washington. InSight, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, is a Mars lander designed to study the “inner space” of Mars: its crust, mantle, and core. Photo Credit: (NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine spoke to the mission team at Vandenberg by phone. “This has been years of work by a whole host of people, for a very long time, including JPL, and of course the launch crew at Vandenberg,” Bridenstine said. “I want to give a special thanks to ULA and congratulate them on 128 total successful launches in in a row, 78 specifically for the Atlas V. I want to thank our international partners, CNES and DLR, for their hard work.”

“It’s been an incredible day,” said Tim Dunn, NASA Launch Director for Insight. “It was a smooth countdown. The mighty Atlas rocket performed very well.”

Following two separate engine burns of the ULA Centaur upper stage, NASA’s InSight spacecraft separated from the Centaur to fly freely for the first time about 1.5 hours after liftoff. The spacecraft now is on its six-month, 300-million-mile voyage to the Red Planet. InSight will land on Mars on Nov. 26, 2018.

InSight is the first interplanetary mission to launch from the West Coast, and will be the first mission to look deep beneath the Martian surface. It will study the planet’s interior by measuring its heat output and listening for marsquakes. InSight will use the seismic waves generated by marsquakes to develop a map of the planet’s deep interior. The resulting insight into Mars’ formation will provide a better understanding of how other rocky planets, including Earth were created.

The InSight lander is equipped with two science instruments that will conduct the first “check-up” of Mars, measuring its “pulse,” or internal activity; its temperature and its “reflexes,” or the way the planet wobbles when it is pulled by the Sun and its moons.

JPL manages InSight for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. InSight is part of NASA’s Discovery Program, managed by the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The InSight spacecraft, including cruise stage and lander, was built and tested by Lockheed Martin Space in Denver. NASA’s Launch Services Program at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida is responsible for launch service acquisition, integration, analysis, and launch management. United Launch Alliance of Centennial, Colorado, is NASA’s launch service provider.

The science payload comprises two instruments: the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), provided by the French Space Agency, with the participation of the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris (IPGP), the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Imperial College and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The second instrument, the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3), is provided by the German Space Agency. Also, the Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment (RISE), led by JPL, will use the spacecraft communication system to provide precise measurements of planetary rotation.

Hitching a ride with InSight was NASA’s technology experiment, Mars Cube One (MarCO), a separate mission of its own, also headed to Mars. The two mini-spacecraft, called CubeSats, launched one at a time from dispensers mounted on the aft bulkhead carrier of the Centaur second stage. They were designed and built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and are the first test of CubeSat technology in deep space. Their purpose is to test new communications and navigation capabilities for future missions, and may provide real-time communication relay to cover the entry, descent and landing of InSight on Mars.

“This is a big day. We’re going back to Mars; we did it from the West Coast, which is a first ever,” Bridenstine said. “And of course, the launch of our CubeSats into deep space. This is an extraordinary mission with a whole host of firsts.”

Mission Details

InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) is a NASA Discovery Program mission that will place a single geophysical lander on Mars to study its deep interior. But InSight is more than a Mars mission - it is a terrestrial planet explorer that will address one of the most fundamental issues of planetary and solar system science - understanding the processes that shaped the rocky planets of the inner solar system (including Earth) more than four billion years ago.

By using sophisticated geophysical instruments, InSight will delve deep beneath the surface of Mars, detecting the fingerprints of the processes of terrestrial planet formation, as well as measuring the planet's "vital signs": Its "pulse" (seismology), "temperature" (heat flow probe), and "reflexes" (precision tracking).

Why Mars?

Previous missions to Mars have investigated the surface history of the Red Planet by examining features like canyons, volcanoes, rocks and soil, but no one has attempted to investigate the planet's earliest evolution - its building blocks - which can only be found by looking far below the surface.

Because Mars has been less geologically active than the Earth (for example, it does not have plate tectonics), it actually retains a more complete record of its history in its own basic planetary building blocks: its core, mantle and crust.

By studying the size, thickness, density and overall structure of the Red Planet's core, mantle and crust, as well as the rate at which heat escapes from the planet's interior, the InSight mission will provide glimpses into the evolutionary processes of all of the rocky planets in the inner solar system.

In terms of fundamental processes that shape planetary formation, Mars is a veritable "Goldilocks" planet, because it is big enough to have undergone the earliest internal heating and differentiation (separation of the crust, mantle and core) processes that shaped the terrestrial planets (Earth, Venus, Mercury, Moon), but small enough to have retained the signature of those processes over the next four billion years. Within its own structural signature, Mars may contain the most in-depth and accurate record in the solar system of these processes.

The InSight mission will follow the legacy of NASA's Mars Phoenix mission and send a lander to Mars, which will delve deeper into the surface than any other spacecraft - to investigate the planet's structure and composition as well as its tectonic activity as it relates to all terrestrial planets, including Earth.

Objectives

The InSight mission will seek to understand the evolutionary formation of rocky planets, including Earth, by investigating the interior structure and processes of Mars. InSight will also investigate the dynamics of Martian tectonic activity and meteorite impacts, which could offer clues about such phenomena on Earth.

Spacecraft and Payload

The InSight mission is similar in design to the Mars lander that the Phoenix mission used successfully in 2007 to study ground ice near the north pole of Mars. The reuse of this technology, developed and built by Lockheed-Martin Space Systems in Denver, CO, will provide a low-risk path to Mars without the added cost of designing and testing a new system from scratch.

The InSight lander will be equipped with two science instruments that will conduct the first "check-up" of Mars in more than 4.5 billion years, measuring its "pulse", or internal activity; its temperature; and its "reflexes" (the way the planet wobbles when it is pulled by the Sun and its moons). Scientists will be able to interpret this data to understand the planet's history, its interior structure and activity, and the forces that shaped rocky planet formation in the inner solar system.

The science payload is comprised of two instruments: the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), provided by the French Space Agency (CNES), with the participation of the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris (IPGP), the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS), Imperial College and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL); and the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3), provided by the German Space Agency (DLR). In addition, the Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment (RISE), led by JPL, will use the spacecraft communication system to provide precise measurements of planetary rotation.

Mission Details

The InSight mission is part of NASA's Discovery Program. It will rely on proven technologies used on NASA's Mars Phoenix mission, and will send a lander to the Martian surface that will spend two years investigating the deep interior of Mars - as well as the processes that not only shaped the Red Planet, but also rocky planets throughout the inner solar system.

 

May 8th 2018

Giant waves on sun act like those in Earth's atmosphere

The sun is a swirling, spitting mass of incredibly hot charged particles called plasma. But that motion isn't all random—and scientists have just confirmed new details about one of the phenomena that control the movement of the sun's contents.

That phenomenon is called a Rossby wave, and scientists have been looking for it in the sun for decades. Now, a new study published in the journal Nature Astronomy found these waves can last several months and reach more than 1,000 miles below the sun's surface.

The first evidence for solar Rossby waves came last year, when scientists tracking bright spots in the outermost layer of the sun watched them gradually drift. The team behind the new paper used six years worth of observations to track the sun's activity to identify and measure the impact of Rossby waves.

These waves are caused by the rotation of a star or planet and create patches that rotate in the opposite direction. Unusually, the new paper only found evidence for Rossbly waves directly over the sun's equator, not further to the north or south.

Scientists wanted to better understand what's happening on the sun because some of those phenomena have effects reaching far beyond the sun. For example, giant ejections of plasma out into space can impact communication and navigation satellites orbiting Earth.

Rossby waves also occur here on Earth in the upper atmosphere and in the ocean. In the atmosphere, they shape weather patterns like the jet stream and distribute heat more evenly between the equator and the poles.

The marine versions can take months to cross the Pacific near the equator but travel much more slowly farther to the north and south. While they move the surface of the ocean just a few inches, they can be as tall as 300 feet deep below, where warm and cool water meet.

And chances are, there are plenty more places in our solar system where scientists can find these waves lurking in the atmosphere. In particular, they think the distinctive hexagon of clouds that covers Saturn's north pole may also be caused by the phenomenon.

May 4th 2018

Physicists zoom in on mysterious 'missing' antimatter

When the Universe arose some 13.7 billion years ago, the Big Bang generated matter and antimatter particles in mirroring pairs. So the reigning physics theory goes.

Yet everything we can see in the Cosmos today, from the smallest insect on Earth to the largest star, is made of matter particles whose antimatter twins are nowhere to be found.

On Wednesday, physicists at Europe's massive underground particle lab said they have taken a step closer to solving the mystery through unprecedented observation of an antimatter particle they forged in the lab -- an atom of "antihydrogen".

"What we're looking for is (to see) if hydrogen in matter and antihydrogen in antimatter behave in the same way," said Jeffrey Hangst of the ALPHA experiment at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN).

Finding even the slightest difference may help explain the apparent matter-antimatter disparity and would rock the Standard Model of physics -- the mainstream theory of the fundamental particles that make up the Universe and the forces that govern them.

But, somewhat disappointingly, the latest, "most precise test to date", has found no difference between the behaviour of a hydrogen atom and that of an antihydrogen one. Not yet.

"So far, they look the same," Hangst said in a video prepared by CERN.

The Standard Model, which describes the makeup and behaviour of the visible Universe, has no explanation for "missing "antimatter.

It is widely assumed that the Big Bang generated pairs of matter-antimatter particles with the same mass but an opposite electric charge.

Trouble is, as soon as these particles meet, they annihilate one another, leaving behind nothing but pure energy -- the principle that powers imaginary spaceships in "Star Trek".

Within reach?

Physicists believe matter and antimatter did meet and implode shortly after the Big Bang, which means the Universe today should contain nothing but leftover energy.

Yet, scientists say that matter, which makes up everything we can touch and see, comprises 4.9 percent of the Universe.

Dark matter -- a mysterious substance perceived through its gravitational pull on other objects -- makes up 26.8 percent of the Cosmos, and dark energy the remaining 68.3 percent.

Antimatter, for all intents and purposes, does not exist, except for rare and short-lived particles created in very high-energy events such as cosmic rays, or produced at CERN.

Some theoretical physicists believe the "missing" antimatter may be found in hitherto unknown regions of the Universe -- in anti-galaxies comprised of anti-stars and anti-planets.

At ALPHA, physicists are trying to unravel the mystery using simplest atom of matter -- hydrogen. It has a single electron orbiting a single proton.

The team creates hydrogen mirror particles by taking antiprotons left over from the CERN's high-energy particle collisions and binding them with positrons (the twins of electrons).

The resulting antihydrogen atoms are held in a magnetic trap to prevent them from coming into contact with matter and self-annihilating.

The team then studies the atoms' reaction to laser light.

Atoms from different types of matter absorb different frequencies of light, and under the prevailing theory, hydrogen and antihydrogen should absorb the same type.

So far, it seems they do.

But the team will hope for differences to emerge as the experiment is fine-tuned.

"Although the precision still falls short for that of ordinary hydrogen, the rapid progress made by ALPHA suggests hydrogen-like precision in antihydrogen (measurements)... are now within reach," said Hangst.

April 17th 2018

National Space Council Will Deliver Space-Junk Plan to Trump, VP Pence Says

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The United States is getting serious about space junk, according to Vice President Mike Pence. 

In a speech today (April 16), Pence announced that the National Space Council will soon send President Donald Trump new recommendations to address the growing threat of space junk circling Earth. 

"President Trump knows that a stable and orderly space environment is critical to the strength of our economy and resilience of our national security systems," Pence told a crowd of space and military officials here at the 34th Space Symposium. "And that's why the National Space Council has developed the first comprehensive Space Traffic Management Policy, which we will soon be sending to the president's desk for his approval." [7 Wild Ways to Clean Up Space Junk]

There are more than 1,500 active satellites in orbit today, along with tens of thousands of "dead" satellites and spacecraft fragments, Pence added. In fact, the U.S. military's Space Surveillance Network regularly tracks about 40,000 objects in space, including active satellites, defunct spacecraft and debris. 

"And as commercial companies continue to send even more satellites into orbit, the volume of space traffic will only increase in the years ahead," Pence said. 

There have been two major space-debris events in recent history. In 2007, China intentionally destroyed its Fengyun 1C weather satellite as part of an anti-satellite missile test, creating a debris cloud in orbit. And in 2009, a collision between an American Iridium satellite and a defunct Russian satellitespawned even more debris. 

Pence mentioned the 2009 satellite collision in his speech, adding that the new Space Traffic Management Policy is aimed at safeguarding U.S. assets in space. 

"This new policy directs the Department of Commerce to provide a basic level of space situational awareness for public and private use, based on the space catalog compiled by the Department of Defense, so that our military leaders can focus on protecting and defending our assets in space," he said. [Worst Space Debris Events of All Time]

"The policy will also encourage the commercial space industry to partner and develop data-sharing systems, technical guidelines and safety standards to apply domestically, and be promoted internationally, that will help minimize debris, avoid satellite collisions during launch and while in orbit."

Pence's announcement comes on the heels of the April 1 crash of China's defunct Tiangong-1 space station and the April 2 launch of a novel space-junk-cleanup experiment called RemoveDebris, which will test several ways to clean up orbital debris. While unrelated to the announcement, the Tiangong-1 crash and RemoveDebris mission illustrate the growing importance of and interest in space debris mitigation. 

The Space Traffic Management Policy, once signed by Trump, would follow several other major space initiatives by the Trump administration. 

Last December, Trump signed the Space Policy Directive 1, directing NASA to return American astronauts to the moon based on recommendations by the National Space Council, which Pence chairs. Then, Pence and the National Space Council on Feb. 21 outlined more recommendations to streamline regulations for space launches to ease the red tape facing American commercial space companies

In March, Trump announced that the U.S. may need a military "Space Force" for national security. The administration then unveiled a new National Space Policy geared toward national security and the development of "conducive" environments for commercial and international partnerships in space, according to SpaceNews.

 

April 16th 2018

NASA's new planet-hunter to seek closer, Earth-like worlds

NASA is poised to launch a $337 million washing machine-sized spacecraft that aims to vastly expand mankind's search for planets beyond our solar system, particularly closer, Earth-sized ones that might harbor life.

The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, is scheduled to launch Monday at 6:32 pm (2232 GMT) atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Its main goal over the next two years is to scan more than 200,000 of the brightest stars for signs of planets circling them and causing a dip in brightness known as a transit.

NASA predicts that TESS will discover 20,000 exoplanets -- or planets outside the solar system -- including more than 50 Earth-sized planets and up to 500 planets less than twice the size of Earth.

"They are going to be orbiting the nearest, brightest stars," Elisa Quintana, TESS scientist at NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center, told reporters on Sunday.

"We might even find planets that orbit stars that we can even see with the naked eye," she added.

"So in the next few years we might even be able to walk outside and point at a star and know that it has a planet. This is the future."

 Follow-on to Kepler 

TESS is designed as a follow-on to the US space agency's Kepler spacecraft, which was the first of its kind and launched in 2009. Now, the aging spacecraft is low on fuel and near the end of its life.

Kepler found a massive trove of exoplanets by focusing on one patch of sky, which contained about 150,000 stars like the Sun.

The Kepler mission found 2,300 confirmed exoplanets and nearly 4,500 candidates. But many were too distant and dim to study further.

TESS, with its four advanced cameras, will scan an area that is 350 times larger, comprising 85 percent of the sky in the first two years alone.

"By looking at such a large section of the sky –- this kind of stellar real estate -- we open up the ability to cherry-pick the best stars to do follow up science," said Jenn Burt, a postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

"On average the stars that TESS finds observes be 30-100 times brighter and 10 times closer than the stars that Kepler focused on."

Since TESS uses the same method as Kepler for finding potential planets, by tracking the dimming of light when a celestial body passes in front of a star, the next step is for ground-based and space telescopes to peer closer.

The Hubble Space Telescope and the James Webb Space telescope, scheduled to launch in 2020, should be able to reveal more about planets' mass, density and the makeup of their atmosphere.

"TESS forms a bridge from what we have learned about exoplanets to date and where we are headed in the future," said Jeff Volosin, TESS project manager at NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center.

By focusing on planets dozens to hundreds of light-years way, TESS should be a stepping stone to future breakthroughs, he said.

"With the hope that someday, in the next decades, we will be able to identify the potential for life to exist outside the solar system."

Weather was expected to be 80 percent favorable for launch.

April 14th 2018

Rolls-Royce and Boeing invest in UK space engine

Sabre would work like a jet engine in the lower atmosphere and like a rocket motor in the high atmosphere

Reaction Engines Limited (REL), the UK company developing a revolutionary aerospace engine, has announced investments from both Boeing and Rolls-Royce.

REL, based at Culham in Oxfordshire, is working on a propulsion system that is part jet engine, part rocket engine.

The company believes it will transform the space launch market and usher in hypersonic travel around the Earth.

The new investments amount to £26.5m.

Included in this sum are contributions from Baillie Gifford Asset Management and Woodford Investment Management.

It lifts the total capital raised in the past three years to about £100m. The British government has already put in £60m. BAE Systems initially injected £20m in 2015 and has invested new funds in this latest financial round.

"Rolls-Royce and Boeing - these are really big names, and it's fantastic to be in this position," said REL CEO Mark Thomas.

"Rolls are super-positive about the technology. They want us to be independent and innovative, and to push our technology as hard as possible. And Boeing - that's amazing. They are the world's biggest aerospace company, have decades of expertise and future plans that, for us I'm sure, will be really exciting," he told BBC News.

REL is developing what it calls the Sabre engine. This power plant is designed to push a vehicle from a standing start all the way to orbit in a single step.

It would work like a conventional jet engine up to about Mach 5.5 (5.5 times the speed of sound) before then transitioning to a rocket mode for the rest of the ascent.

Key technologies include a compact pre-cooler heat-exchanger that can take an incoming airstream of over 1,000C and cool it to -150C in less than 1/100th of a second. This would permit Sabre to use oxygen direct from the atmosphere for combustion instead of carrying it in a tank with the weight penalty that implies.

Although Sabre is usually talked about in the context of an orbiting spaceplane, it could also be fitted to a vehicle that flies at very high speed from point to point on the Earth's surface.

This is an application that clearly interests Boeing, whose investment arm, HorizonX Ventures, is driving the tie-up in what is its first investment in a UK-based company.

"As Reaction Engines unlocks advanced propulsion that could change the future of air and space travel, we expect to leverage their revolutionary technology to support Boeing's pursuit of hypersonic flight," said HorizonX vice president, Steve Nordlund.

Those who have followed the REL story over the years will be aware that Rolls-Royce is not really a newcomer to the project. The aero-engine giant was involved in Sabre's precursor years - a spaceplane concept back in the 1980s known as Hotol.

When that hit technical difficulties, Rolls-Royce let its interest go, as did British Aerospace. Both are now back, the latter in its current guise as BAE Systems.

"We are delighted to become a strategic investor in Reaction Engines Limited, an innovative UK company that is helping push the boundaries of aviation technology," Rolls' CTO Paul Stein said in a statement.

"We look forward to working with REL and assisting with the development of their technology, and we plan to incorporate this technology into our own future products."

REL is approaching important demonstration milestones.

In Colorado this summer, it will begin further testing of the pre-cooler technology, confronting it with conditions that simulate the very hot airstreams encountered when vehicles move at hypersonic speeds.

This will be done under contract with the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Also this summer, REL should take control of its new test facility in the UK at Westcott in Buckinghamshire. It is here that the company will mount a demonstration in 2020 of the full Sabre cycle.

Assuming this goes well, REL would then look to put the technology on some kind of flight vehicle.

The company is expanding fast with more than 160 staff at its Culham HQ. The new investments will allow it to continue the recruitment.

"The team here is outstanding. We have some of the most talented engineers I've ever worked with, a high percentage of whom are women engineers; and we have a great apprenticeship programme. It feels like we're a good-news story and I want to keep it that way," said Mark Thomas.

 

April 13th 2018

China’s pioneers to the moon will be flowers and silkworms

Almost half a decade ago, the first human landed on the moon, marking “a giant leap for mankind.” This year, China is sending seeds of plants and insects there.

Seeds of potatoes and arabidopsis—a small flowering plant belonging to the mustard family—along with silkworm cocoons, will hitch a ride with the Chang’e-4 lander and rover on China’s first probe to the far side of the moon in December. China hopes to create a “mini lunar biosphere” as part of its research for building a lunar base and even the possibility of long-term residence on the moon.

The plants and insects, contained in an 18-cm-tall (7 inches) bucket-like tin with air, water, and soil, will create an ecological system. A tube inside the tin will direct natural light from the moon for photosynthesis, and the plants will then emit oxygen which feeds the silkworms once they hatch. The insects will then create carbon dioxide and waste, which in turn aids the plants’ growth, according to scientists at Chongqing University who are leading the project. The team hopes to live broadcast the progress of the organisms.

The team said that they chose the potato because it could become a major food source for space travel, while the relatively short growth period of arabidopsis makes it convenient for observation.

But serious difficulties await. The moon’s harsh environment, for example, poses challenges for temperature control—temperatures could drop more than -100 °C (-148°F), and the team needs to keep the tin’s temperature between 1 to 30 °C. The experiment will also explore how the moon’s gravity, which is about 16% of Earth’s, affects the survival of living creatures. Studies have demonstrated that microgravity has negative effects on human health.

Liu Hailong, the project’s director, didn’t respond to further queries about the probe.

Astronauts have been conducting similar experiments using arabidopsis and lettuce in the International Space Station (ISS), and have grown rice in China’s second space-lab Tiangong-2. But those experiments were conducted in a relatively low Earth orbit, rather than the complex lunar environment, noted state media Xinhua.

If it succeeds, China will be the first country to land on the far side of the moon, a central part of the country’s space ambitions. It’s also working on a self-sustaining system to support life in a spaceship for long-distance space exploration. The year-long experiment, which sent three batches of students to grow plants and survive by eating the potatoes and beans they cultivate in the cabins, is expected to finish next month.

China spends some $3 billion a year on its space project by one estimate, a small amount compared to America’s $21 billion. But China is catching up fast in space—for example, China could be the only country to have a space station in 2022 after the ISS retires in 2024, while NASA’s new space station won’t be ready until 2023.

April 11th 2018

‘Hole’ in the Sun Spawns Powerful Solar Wind; Could Amp Up Auroras

A massive "hole" on the surface of the sun has unleashed a strong solar wind that scientists say may amp up the northern lights in some areas of the U.S. and could disrupt satellite communications over the next few days.

Data from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory revealed a vast region where the sun's magnetic field has opened up, creating a gap in the sun's outer atmosphere, called the corona. This region, also known as a coronal hole, allows charged particles to escape and flow toward Earth in an increased solar wind. As a result, the U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) has issued a geomagnetic storm watch for today and tomorrow (April 10 and 11). 

"Arriving some hours earlier than expected, a stream of fast-moving solar wind has reached Earth," according to Spaceweather.com, which regularly monitors space weather. "The gaseous material is flowing from a wide hole in the sun's atmosphere, and could engulf our planet for several days." 

Space-weather forecasters predict that the class-G1 magnetic storm (a minor storm) may have a slight impact on Earth's power grid systems, spacecraft and satellite operations. In addition, skywatchers in areas of the northern United States — such as northern Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Michigan and Maine — could see amplified auroral displays, according to the SWPC. 

Images from the Solar Dynamics Observatory identify a dark patch on the sun's surface as the location from which the solar wind originated, according to Spaceweather.com. You can see more current views of the sun on the observatory's website here.

When solar material hits Earth's magnetic field and causes a disturbance — also known as a geomagnetic storm — it can trigger radio blackouts, interfere with power grids on Earth and affect satellites in orbit. Such a storm can also amplify Earth's auroras, making them visible in lower latitudes than usual.

April 7th 2018

Space hotel: Out of this world getaway to cost $800,000 a night

Looking for a getaway that offers unmatched views of sunrises and sunsets? Specifically, 384 of them in 12 days?

Try outer space.

Houston-based Orion Span hopes to launch the “first luxury hotel in space” — the 35-by-14 foot Aurora Station — by late 2021 and bring guests on board the following year. The hotel will accommodate up to four travelers and two crew members at a time, racing them around the planet at high speeds for 12 days, the company said in a news release.

Adventurers pay $9.5 million per person — or about $791,666 a night — and their $80,000 deposit can already be reserved online, company officials said. But don't fear: The deposit is fully refundable.

“We want to get people into space because it’s the final frontier for our civilization,” Orion Span’s founder and chief executive, Frank Bunger, told Bloomberg.

Bunger said that one reason Orion Span can aim for a price of less than $10 million per person is because of the declining price of launches.

“Everybody’s forecasting that [launch prices are] going to fall,” he told Bloomberg. “Almost every week there’s another rocket launch company that’s starting up with a new way to get to orbit cheaper, faster, better.”

Orion Span's announcement of a luxury hotel in space comes amid a revival of the commercial space industry. The launch of Elon Musk's Falcon Heavy from the Kennedy Space Center in February, for example, was the latest in a series of milestones that have renewed companies' interest in space.

The launch raised the question of whether SpaceX and other private enterprises could maintain their momentum and fulfill the promise of returning humans to space. That likelihood could increase as the Trump administration looks to restructure the role of NASA, allowing private enterprise and international partners to work closely with the space agency.

Orion Span's proposed hotel offers plenty of attractions: zero gravity flying throughout the station, views of patrons' home towns from space, the ability to take part in research experiments such as growing food while in orbit, and live-streams with friends and family at home through high-speed Internet.

Since commercial spaceflight has yet to launch humans into space, Aurora Station visitors will have three months of training, which would begin with online courses to better understand “basic spaceflight, orbital mechanics, and pressurized environments in space,” officials told Bloomberg. The guests will also have contingency training at the company's headquarters in Houston.

“Orion Span has ... taken what was historically a 24-month training regimen to prepare travelers to visit a space station and streamlined it to three months, at a fraction of the cost,” company officials said. “Our goal is to make space accessible to all, by continuing to drive greater value at lower cost.”

Bunger, a former software engineer, told Bloomberg that the experience won't be for everyone. The Aurora Station will mainly cater to those who are passionate about space and astronomical study.

“We're not selling a hey-let’s-go-to-the-beach equivalent in space,” Bunger said. “We’re selling the experience of being an astronaut. You reckon that there are people who are willing to pay to have that experience.”

April 3rd 2018

China's 'space dream': A Long March to the moon

The plunge back to Earth of a defunct Chinese space laboratory will not slow down Beijing's ambitious plans to send humans to the moon.

The Tiangong-1 space module, which crashed Monday, was intended to serve as a stepping stone to a manned station, but its problems highlight the difficulties of exploring outer space.

But China has come a long way in its race to catch up with the United States and Russia, which have lost spacecraft, astronauts and cosmonauts over the decades.

China's "taikonauts" have fared better and Beijing sees its military-run space programme as a marker of its rising global stature and growing technological might.

Here is a look at China's space endeavour through the decades, and where it is headed:

Mao's vow

Soon after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, Chairman Mao Zedong pronounced "We too will make satellites."

It took more than a decade but in 1970 China's first satellite lifted into space on the back of a Long March rocket.

Human space flight took decades longer, with the first successful mission coming in 2003.

As the launch of astronaut Yang Liwei into orbit approached, angst over the viability of the mission caused Beijing to cancel a nationwide live television broadcast at the last minute.

Despite the suspense, it went off smoothly, with Yang orbiting the Earth 14 times during his 21-hour flight aboard the Shenzhou 5.

Since then China has sent men and women into space with increasing regularity.

Space station and 'Jade Rabbit'

Following in the footsteps of the United States and Russia, China is striving to open a space station circling our planet.

The Tiangong-1 was shot into orbit in September 2011.

In 2013, the second Chinese woman in space, Wang Yaping, gave a video class from inside the space module beamed back to children across the world's most populous country.

The lab was also used for medical experiments and, most importantly, tests intended to prepare for the building of a space station.

The lab was followed by the "Jade Rabbit" lunar rover in 2013 which looked at first like a dud when it turned dormant and stopped sending signals back to Earth.

The rover made a dramatic recovery, though, ultimately surveying the moon's surface for 31 months, well beyond its expected lifespan.

In 2016, China launched its second station, the Tiangong-2 lab into orbit 393 kilometres (244 miles) above Earth, in what analysts say will likely serve as a final building block before China launches a manned space station.

Astronauts who have visited the station have run experiments on growing rice and thale cress and docking spacecraft.

'Space dream'

Under President Xi Jinping, plans for China's "space dream", as he calls it, have been put into overdrive.

The new superpower is looking to finally catch up with the US and Russia after years of belatedly matching their space milestones.

The ambitions start with a space station of its own, slated to begin assembling pieces in space in 2020 with manned use to start around 2022 -- China was deliberately left out of the International Space Station effort.

China is also planning to build a base on the moon, the state-run Global Times said in early March, citing the Communist Party chief of the China Academy of Space Technology.

The outpost will initially be controlled by artificial intelligence robots until humans are sent to occasionally manage it, the official said.

But lunar work was dealt a setback last year when the Long March-5 Y2, a powerful heavy-lift rocket, failed to launch in July on a mission to send communication satellites into orbit.

The failure forced the postponement of the launch of lunar probe Chang'e-5, originally scheduled to collect moon samples in the second half of 2017.

The official Xinhua news agency quoted a China Lunar Exploration Programme designer as saying last week that the Chang'e 5 is now slated to land in 2019 and then bring back moon samples to Earth.

Another robot, the Chang'e-4, is still due to land in 2018 for the "first-ever soft landing and roving survey on the far side of the moon", said Zuo Wei, deputy chief designer of the CLEP Ground Application System.

China's astronauts and scientists have also talked up manned missions to Mars as it strives to become a "global space power".

April 2nd 2018

China's Tiangong-1 space lab plummets to Earth, breaks up over Pacific

(CNN)It was a fiery end to what was once one of China's highest-profile space projects.

The Tiangong-1 space lab re-entered Earth's atmosphere Monday morning, landing in the middle of the South Pacific, China Manned Space Agency said.

"Most parts were burned up in the re-entry process," it added.

The space lab, its name translating to "Heavenly Palace," was launched in September 2011 as a prototype for China's ultimate space goal: a permanent space station is expected to launch around 2022.

Its demise, though ultimately uneventful, captured public attention in recent weeks, as scientists around the world tracked its uncontrolled descent.

"It did exactly what it was expected to do; the predictions, at least the past 24 hours' ones, were spot on; and as expected it fell somewhere empty and did no damage," said Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

McDowell said there was unlikely to be any amateur images of the vessel's re-entry, given it was daytime in the Pacific when it crashed to Earth. Scientists had earlier said it might be possible to see the spacecraft burn up in a "series of fireballs streaking across the sky."

It landed about 8:15 a.m. Beijing time (8:15 p.m. ET Sunday), China's Manned Space Agency said.

Leroy Chiao, a former US astronaut who flew on four space missions, told CNN he would be "surprised if any major pieces survived the re-entry, as the Tiangong-1 was not that big of a spacecraft as they go, and it did not have a heat shield."

Anything that did make it through the atmosphere "will be at the bottom of the ocean by now," he added.

The Tiangong-1 was last used by astronauts in 2013, when a three-strong team spent 12 days on the vessel conducting experiments.

Female astronaut Wang Yaping delivered a lecture from space lab to students back on Earth. During its lifespan, it successfully docked with three spacecraft.

The Chinese government told the United Nations in May 2017 it had "ceased functioning" in March 2016, without saying exactly why.

The uncontrolled re-entry of the space lab has been a blot on China's space program, as it goes against international best practice.

Chiao said the original plan was to guide the space station down in a controlled manner, "much like the Mir space station was."

"There's a specific location in the ocean known as the spacecraft graveyard where nations try and put down into," he said.

The space lab's fate hasn't delayed China's bold plans. In September 2016, China launched its second space lab, Tiangong-2.

Both vessels are part of the preparation for a permanent Chinese presence in space, which is likely to come into operation just as funding for the International Space Station is expected to end.

China said last week training is underway for astronauts who will use the space station, state news agency Xinhua reported. It said it plans to assemble it in space in 2020 and will become fully operational in 2022.

China also plans to put a man on the moon and send a rover to Mars.

While it's not uncommon for debris such as satellites or spent rocket stages to fall to Earth, large vessels capable of supporting human life are rarer.

The first US space station, the 74-ton Skylab, fell to Earth in an uncontrolled reentry in 1979. Some debris fell in sparsely populated western Australia, causing no problems except for a $400 fine for littering.

The last space outpost to drop was Russia's 135-ton Mir station in 2001, which made a controlled landing with most parts breaking up in the atmosphere.

 

March 24th 2018

High-Tech Harpoon Could Help Clean Up Space Junk

STEVENAGE, England — A space harpoon test went off without a hitch in a lab of European aerospace company Airbus last Thursday (March 15), suggesting that the technology could be on track to help clean up the ever-growing cloud of debris

Engineers at Airbus' site here in Stevenage, a small town north of London, fired the 3.3-foot-long (1 meter) harpoon at about 56 mph (90 km/h) into a breadboard placed 5 feet (1.5 m) away. By the end of this year, the team plans to demonstrate a full-scale setup, firing a harpoon at a target 82 feet (25 m) away, as if it were capturing a real satellite in space.

"We are trying to demonstrate that we can successfully capture a piece of spacecraft with our harpoon design," said Alastair Wayman, advanced projects engineer at Airbus Defence and Space. "We have a really good basis for a flight design here to go to the next steps with the harpoon. It's one of the technologies that is easier to make next steps for."

ESA's Luisa Innocenti, who leads the Clean Space program, said last year that the agency is currently more inclined to use a robotic arm, as this technology could also be used for in-orbit servicing. 

However, Wayman said that commercial opportunities for the harpoon technology will likely be plentiful even if it isn't used to deorbit Envisat.

"We are designing the harpoon around Envisat because it's the largest piece of debris," Wayman said. "If you can capture Envisat, you can capture everything. Active space-debris removal is getting more and more important. Every year that we don't achieve the target of deorbiting five large pieces of space debris, the situation gets worse, and we are more likely to have more collisions."

The world's space agencies agree that five large defunct satellites need to be removed from LEO every year to help prevent the Kessler syndrome, the unstoppable cascade of orbital collisions predicted by NASA scientist Donald Kessler in the late 1970s.

Wayman and his colleagues also designed and built a smaller harpoon system for the RemoveDEBRIS mission, an active debris-removal demonstration to be launched next month. As part of the mission, the harpoon will be fired into a fixed target extended from the main spacecraft on a boom. Wayman said the harpoon test is expected to take place in late 2018 or early 2019.

March 18th 2018

Here's where we're actually looking for intelligent life

Ever wish E.T. would phone your home? The scientists at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute do. They seek unnatural variations in light and radio waves that may indicate alien civilizations. Some scientists even hope to send signals of our own out to the black, but it’s not easy to be seen and heard over all the stars, asteroids, and interstellar dust. We don’t have beacons powerful enough to reach the whole universe, nor receivers capable of monitoring the entire expanse. Other civilizations might, but there’s no way to tell until they finally hail us. All we know is how far our strongest signals could travel. Here’s where we’re searching—and where we fall short.

Start simple</h2>

Life doesn’t have to be intelligent. By looking for planets with out-of-whack atmospheres (like ours, with its imbalance of oxygen and methane), we could figure out what worlds may have developed life. That narrows the search for interstellar smarties.

Laser

If aliens use light-propelled spacecraft—like those proposed by the Breakthrough Starshot program—we might spot flashes from across the galaxy. We could also shine a laser of our own, hoping to strike where an alien is paying attention.

We are here

“We joke that the first message extraterrestrials will pick up is I Love Lucy,” says SETI’s Jill Tarter—it was among the first big broadcasts. But Lucy’s light-speed antics are pretty garbled by now. If whatever signal remains has reached anyone, it clearly hasn’t inspired a reply

Radio nowhere

You can make a radio outburst travel farther by narrowing its beam. Radio telescopes send out pointed broadcasts that should persist halfway to the center of the galaxy (we’re near the edge) before blending into the noise of cosmic radiation.

March 13th 2018

15 new planets discovered near solar system

Astronomers have discovered 15 new alien worlds near our very own solar system. The new exoplanets were found orbiting small, cool stars, also called red dwarf stars. Among these exoplanets, three were discovered to be super-Earths, which are slightly bigger in size than our own planet.

One of the 15 newly discovered planets was found orbiting one of the brightest red dwarf stars, called K2-155, located about 200 light years away from Earth. Scientists uncovered that this alien world, designated K2-155d, has a radius of 1.6 times that of Earth and could be a super-Earth located within the habitable zone.

"In our simulations, the atmosphere and the composition of the planet were assumed to be Earth-like, and there's no guarantee that this is the case,” Teruyuki Hirano, the lead researcher of the new study, from the Tokyo Institute of Technology, said in a statement. "Large planets are only discovered around metal-rich stars and what we found was consistent with our predictions. The few planets with a radius about three times that of Earth were found orbiting the most metal-rich red dwarfs."

One of the primary outcomes of the new research highlighted that the planets surrounding red dwarf stars may have exceptionally similar characteristics to planets orbiting solar system stars.Photo: Tokyo Institute of Technology

Scientists also believe that K2-155d could have liquid water in its surface. The planet’s location as well as the possibility of the presence of liquid water could make it an ideal candidate to host alien life. However, scientists will need to conduct further studies on both the planet as well as its host star in order to conclusively determine whether the planet is habitable or not.

The discoveries are based on data form NASA’s Kepler spacecraft’s K2 mission and follow up observations from ground-based telescopes including the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii and the Nordic Optical Telescope (NOT) in Spain.

One of the primary outcomes of the new research highlighted that the planets surrounding red dwarf stars may have exceptionally similar characteristics to planets orbiting solar system stars.

"It's important to note that the number of planets around red dwarfs is much smaller than the number around solar-type stars," said Hirano. "Red dwarf systems, especially coolest red dwarfs, are just beginning to be investigated, so they are very exciting targets for future exoplanet research."

Researchers also discovered that planets orbiting red dwarf stars have a similar so-called radius gap that planets around solar-type stars are supposed to possess.

"This is a unique finding, and many theoretical astronomers are now investigating what causes this gap," Hirano added.

Hirano hopes that NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), slated to be launched in April 2018, will help alien planet-hunters discover more new planets.

"TESS is expected to find many candidate planets around bright stars closer to Earth," Hirano said. "This will greatly facilitate follow-up observations, including investigation of planetary atmospheres and determining the precise orbit of the planets."

The findings of the new research were published in two papers in the Astronomical Journal.

Tiangong1

March 9th 2018

It launched as a potent symbol of Chinese ambitions in space, but in the coming weeks the nation’s first orbital outpost will come crashing down to Earth in a fireball that could scatter debris over thousands of kilometres.

The Chinese space agency lost control of its Tiangong-1, or Heavenly Palace, spacecraft in 2016, five years after it blasted into orbit to make China only the third nation to operate a space station after the US and Russia.

The defunct module is now at an altitude of 150 miles and being tracked by space agencies around the world, with the European Space Agency’s centre in Darmstadt predicting a fiery descent for it between 27 March and 8 April.

Hurtling around the Earth at about 18,000mph, the module ranks as one of the larger objects to re-enter the atmosphere without being steered towards the ocean, as is standard for big and broken spacecraft, and cargo vessels that are jettisoned from the International Space Station (ISS), to reduce the risk to life below.

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The spacecraft’s orbit ranges from 43° north to 43° south, which rules out a descent over the UK but includes vast stretches of North and South America, China, the Middle East, Africa, Australia, parts of Europe – and great swaths of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

Western analysts cannot be sure how much of the spacecraft will survive re-entry, because China has not released details of the design and materials used to make Tiangong-1. But the spacecraft may have well-protected titanium fuel tanks containing toxic hydrazine that could pose a danger if they land in populated areas.

“To make any sensible statement about what will survive, we’d need to know what’s inside,” said Stijn Lemmens, a space debris analyst at the ESA’s Darmstadt centre. “But the only ones who know what’s onboard Tiangong-1, or even what it’s made of, are the Chinese space agency.”

As a prototype space station, Tiangong-1 is far smaller than the ISS. Constructed over decades, the ISS is the size of a football field and has the living space of a five-bedroom house. It weighs more than 400 tonnes. Tiangong-1, by comparison, weighs about 8.5 tonnes and is a mere 10 metres long and 3 metres wide. While it has two sleeping berths, the eating area and toilet appear to be aboard the Shenzhou module that docks with the station when Chinese spacefarers arrive.

“When people hear ‘space station’ they tend to think of the International Space Station or the Mir space station, but this is a lot smaller than those,” Lemmens said. “What we can say from size and shape and mass is that it’s in the same category as the cargo vehicles used to provide services to ISS, such as the Progress modules and the European ATV.” In 2015, a 7.5-tonne Russian Progress vessel that broke down en route to the ISS fell back to Earth and burned up over the Pacific, with only a few small pieces thought to have survived.

Though bijou by space station standards, Tiangong-1 hosted several taikonauts, including China’s first female astronaut, Liu Yang, in 2012. The interior of the spacecraft has white panelled walls and a dark floor to help visiting spacefarers build up a sense of up and down and so feel less disoriented.

Many space agencies perform a risk assessment before spacecraft are launched, in case of malfunctions in orbit. If the chances of someone being injured by debris that survives re-entry are greater than one in 10,000, a “controlled re-entry” is used to steer the spacecraft into a patch of the South Pacific known as the “spacecraft graveyard”. It is not known whether the Chinese space agency performed such a risk assessment.

Presented with the uncontrolled re-entry of Tiangong-1, 13 space agencies are using the event to test new tracking models and equipment, including radar, lasers and optical telescopes. Over the coming days and weeks, the agencies will pool their data in a bid to sharpen their predictions of where and when the object will fall.

The vagaries of re-entry mean it is impossible to say with much accuracy where Tiangong-1 will hit until its final moments. Only in the final hours will analysts be able to exclude the vast majority of the planet’s surface, but this will leave long, thin tracks that can circle the Earth. “Along one of these tracks, the breakup itself can spread fragments over thousands of kilometres,” Lemmens said. The tracks are narrow, however, reaching tens of kilometres wide at most.

With so much of Earth’s surface covered in water, the chances are high that Tiangong-1 will re-enter over an ocean, and it may not even be seen. And while pieces of space debris fall to Earth every day, only one person is known to have been hit by space junk, and she was not injured.

Richard Crowther, chief engineer at the UK Space Agency, said: “Given Tiangong-1 has a larger mass and is more robust, as it is pressurised, than many other space objects that return uncontrolled to Earth from space, it is the subject of a number of radar tracking campaigns. The majority of the module can be expected to burn up during re-entry heating, with the greatest probability being that any surviving fragments will fall into the sea.” 

March 3rd 2018

NASA’s next space telescope is running out of time

The world’s next great space telescope is falling behind.

The James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s successor to the famed Hubble, is at risk of experiencing significant delays in development, according to a new report from a government agency that audits federal programs.

Webb is an $8.8 billion project two decades in the making. Last September, NASA announced it was delaying the telescope’s launch by at least five months, from October 2018 to between March and June 2019. At the time, NASA officials said the change wasn’t due to any problems with the hardware, but because assembling the telescope’s many complex parts was “taking longer than expected.”

That delay may not be the last, according to the Government Accountability Office. “Based on the amount of work NASA has to complete before JWST is ready to launch, we found that it’s likely the launch date will be delayed again,” the office said in its 31-page report, released Wednesday.

Thanks to the delay announced in September, the project now has just one-and-a-half months of “schedule reserves,” time allocated to address delays or unexpected problems, the report said. If Webb runs over that time, it comes dangerously close to exceeding the cost cap Congress set for the project in 2011.

This is a disheartening forecast for many parties, including NASA; Northrop Grumman, the telescope’s main contractor; and the European and Canadian space agencies, contributors to the telescope’s design and construction. There’s no question that the Webb will launch. After 20 years of development and construction, most of the money has already been spent and the hardware rigorously tested. But the road to the launchpad may be bumpier than everyone expected.

NASA was already thinking about the Webb telescope when Hubble had barely left the ground in 1990. The space agency’s dream for its next-generation space observatory was a telescope that could see in infrared wavelengths to reveal the faint light from the most distant stars and galaxies.

Webb is both a tremendous feat of human engineering and an incredibly beautiful object. With a 22-foot-tall honeycomb arrangement of 18 mirrors, fashioned out of lightweight beryllium and plated in gold, the Webb looks more like a piece of modern art than a space robot.

Once completed, the telescope will be an amalgamation of several complex pieces of hardware. Most of the assembly for Webb took place at NASA’s facility in Maryland, the Goddard Space Flight Center, where it underwent a barrage of tests. In January 2016, scientists and engineers dunked the telescope’s sensitive instruments into a cylindrical chamber that simulates the extreme conditions of outer space. By November 2017, the delicate mirrors and instruments were joined together, and mission members put them through the ringer to make sure they could survive the vibrations and sounds of a powerful rocket launch. They bolted the telescope to metal plates and shook it violently, then wheeled it into an acoustic chamber and blasted it with noise through giant, vuvuzela-shaped speakers.

At the end of every test run, scientists and engineers stepped back and reviewed the data to check for any anomalies. They found one in February 2017 during vibrations testing. The GAO report said fixing the problem, which was never described publicly, took more than a month and delayed other tests by several weeks.

Other issues in April took up another month, this time with the spacecraft, which will house the observatory’s computers and solar panels, and the sunshield, the tennis court-sized layers that will protect the technology from the sun. Both are being constructed in California, where Northrop Grumman is based. The GAO’s description of what happened is pretty excruciating. “A contractor technician applied too much voltage and irreparably damaged the spacecraft’s pressure transducers, components of the propulsion system, which help monitor spacecraft fuel levels,” the report explains. “The transducers had to be replaced and reattached in a complicated welding process.”

In May, Webb was packed into a shipping container and flown on a C-5 military transport plane to NASA’s sprawling facility in Texas, the Johnson Space Center. Engineers dipped the telescope into a massive, cryogenic testing chamber that exposed the hardware to the frigid temperatures of space. The telescope survived the test, as well as the devastating wrath of Hurricane Harvey, which flooded the streets of Houston and forced some of Webb’s guardians to hunker down and sleep in offices or conference rooms at Johnson until the storm passed.

Webb will eventually be flown to California, where it will receive its sunshield and spacecraft hardware and undergo still more tests. When its many parts are finally assembled, Webb will be too massive to transport by plane, so it will sail by ship to French Guiana. There, it will take off from a European-operated launch facility, aboard an Ariane 5 rocket built by the European Space Agency. The Ariane fleet recently sparked some readiness concerns of its own when a rocket launched its payload, two communications satellites, into the wrong orbits. NASA has joined the European Space Agency in its investigation of the anomaly. The agencies have a full year to troubleshoot and implement fixes, but there’s no doubt the situation has rattled the nerves of the Webb team.

The GAO report starts out by praising the Webb mission for making “considerable progress” in the last few months in hardware integration, but things go downhill from there.

The GAO places blame on Northrop Grumman for delays. “For several years, the prime contractor has overestimated workforce reductions, and technical challenges have prevented these planned reductions, necessitating the use of cost reserves,” the report said. Northrop Grumman did not respond to a request for comment about this assessment.

GAO says Northrop Grumman ate up three months of reserve time “due to lessons learned from conducting deployment exercises of the spacecraft element and sunshield,” but doesn’t say what those are.

This sounds particularly ominous when you consider just how complicated Webb’s deployment process is going to be. When the telescope launches, Webb will be folded up like a flower before spring. As it travels to its orbit around the sun, Webb will spend about two weeks blooming, unfurling solar arrays, antennas, the sunshield, and other components, all the while making course corrections so it ends up in the right place. The automated process involves about 180 deployments. Very, very little can go wrong. NASA officials have said Webb can only withstand the failure of about six steps in this sequence. If the telescope experiences a glitch that prevents it from opening up completely, it will become just another piece of abandoned space junk. Unlike Hubble, the Webb is not designed to received repair crews, and at nearly 1 million miles from Earth, it’s too far for astronauts to reach with current U.S. spaceflight technology.

Webb risks running out of money, too. In total, the project will cost $8.8 billion: $8 billion for development and construction and $837 million for operations. When Webb was first proposed, estimates suggested the project would require between $1 billion to $3.5 billion. Costs ballooned significantly over the years, prompting Congress to instruct NASA not to go over $8 billion for development and construction. The latest and potential future launch delays put Webb “at risk of breaching” this cap, GAO said. Webb’s expensive price tag has made government officials skittish about the space telescope NASA wants to launch after Webb. The Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), which will study exoplanets and mysterious dark energy, is still in the early stages of development. Last year, NASA headquarters instructed the WFIRST team to reduce the budget by $400 million. Last month, the Trump administration proposed canceling WFIRST, citing budget constraints.

If the GAO report is any indication, there may be more troubling news for Webb to come. An independent review board for the Webb mission will conduct its own audit of the project early this year to determine whether it will make its new 2019 launch target.

In the meantime, the Webb team has been reviewing and selecting research proposals for its first year of operations. The telescope, 100 more times powerful than Hubble, will be able to see deeper into the universe than ever before. Hundreds of astronomers, from many countries, want their time on it. In its first few months, Webb will target nearby targets—the planets in our solar system—and distant ones—glittering galaxies way out in the cosmos. It will return stunning images of it all in tremendous clarity and color. Perhaps then, when we lay eyes on these photographs, the long wait will have seemed worth it.

Feb 27th 2018

Alien life in our Solar System? Study hints at Saturn's moon

Humanity may need look no further than our own Solar System in the search for alien life, researchers probing one of Saturn's moons said Tuesday. 

The icy orb known as Enceladus may boast ideal living conditions for single-celled microorganisms known as archaeans found in some of the most extreme environments on Earth, they reported in the science journal Nature Communications.

A methanogenic (methane-producing) archaean called Methanothermococcus okinawensis thrived in laboratory conditions mimicking those thought to exist on Saturn's satellite, the team said.

On Earth, this type of archaean is found at very hot temperatures near deep-sea hydrothermal vents, and converts carbon dioxide and hydrogen gas into methane.

Traces of methane were previously detected in vapour emanating from cracks in Enceladus' surface.

"We conclude that some of the CH4 (methane) detected in the plume of Enceladus might, in principle, be produced by methanogens," the researchers in Germany and Austria wrote.

They also calculated that sufficient hydrogen to support such microbes could be produced by geochemical processes in Enceladus' rocky core.

The authors had set out to test the hypothesis that conditions on the satellite may be good for hosting methanogenic archaea.

The data, based purely on laboratory study, showed this "could be" so, said Simon Rittmann of the University of Vienna who co-authored the scientific paper.

But the results provide "no evidence for possible extraterrestrial life," he underlined to AFP.

"Our study only concerns microorganisms. I would like to avoid any speculation about intelligent life," he said.

Saturn is the sixth planet from the Sun, separated from Earth only by Mars and Jupiter.

It has dozens of moons.

Previous research suggested that Enceladus sports an ocean of liquid water -- a key ingredient for life -- beneath its icy surface.

The moon is also thought to contain compounds such as methane, carbon dioxide, and ammonia, and its south pole sports hydrothermal activity -- a combination of traits that makes it a key target in the search for extra-terrestrial life.

Further research is needed to exclude the possibility that Enceladus' methane may come from non-biological, geochemical processes, the authors said.

Feb 25th 2018

Nasa reveals spacecraft's final images before smashing into Saturn

Before smashing into Saturn last September, Nasa’s Cassini spacecraft sent back some of the most spectacular images of the planet ever seen.

Now Nasa has revealed an image showing the spot on the planet’s surface where the probe met its end.

Stitched together from some of the very last images captured by Cassini’s cameras, the mosaic shows the location where the spacecraft would enter the planet’s atmosphere just hours later.

Setting off from Earth in 1997, the craft spent two decades exploring the solar system, first entering orbit around Saturn in 2004 and later embarking on a seven-year mission to explore the planet and its 60-plus moons, some of which were previously unknown.

Cassini’s mission was extended twice during its 20-year life, but the probe was sent to its final resting place in September last year, burning up on the surface of Saturn to stop it spreading alien bacteria carried there from Earth.

But while the majority of the probe was destroyed, Nasa revealed in December that one small piece of the craft - an aluminium cover for the Cosmic Dust Analyzer (CDA) - became detached and discarded early in the mission and is still floating somewhere in the solar system, possibly in a vague orbit around the Sun. 

The view of Saturn released by Nasa this week looks towards the planet’s night side, lit by sunlight reflected from the rings.

The series of images was taken with the craft’s wide-angle camera on 14 September, 2017 – just one day before its final dive – at a distance of approximately 394,000 miles from the planet’s surface.

According to Nasa, this is as close to Saturn as any probe has ever come.

The images were taken using red, green and blue spectral filters and combined to show the scene in near natural colour.

Data and images sent by the probe before its dramatic end continue to be a rich source of information about the solar system’s second largest planet.

Scientists expect to be analysing the data for several years to come.

"This is the final chapter of an amazing mission, but it’s also a new beginning," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's science mission directorate at NASA headquarters in Washington, shortly after the completion of the mission.

"Cassini’s discovery of ocean worlds at Titan and Enceladus changed everything, shaking our views to the core about surprising places to search for potential life beyond Earth."

Feb13th 2018

The solar system’s strange cigar-shaped visitor 'Oumuamua—Hawaiian for “scout” or “messenger”—is tumbling chaotically as the result of a violent collision. And the interstellar object will continue to spin for billions of years as it journeys through space, scientists have reported in a study published in Nature Astronomy.

This is the latest of several revelations following the first-ever discovery of a solar system invader last October. Initially believed to be a comet, then an asteroid, scientists think the wandering “interstellar object” is a hunk of ice wrapped in organic sun-blocking material.

"At some point or another it's been in a collision," Queen's University, Belfast, research fellow and lecturer Wes Fraser told the BBC.

The research team watched 'Oumuamua’s brightness change over time to model exactly how it was spinning.

'Oumuamua “appears to be in an excited rotational state undergoing non-principal axis rotation” the study authors wrote. This unusual “excited” movement is better known as “tumbling.”

“Tumbling is an unusual state of rotation,” Fraser said during Sunday’s episode of the BBC’s long-running Sky at Night show. “It quickly starts to wobble around chaotically.”

The icy cigar was probably knocked askew by a violent collision with another object. The researchers don’t know exactly when this happened, but suspect it took place before 'Oumuamua left its home stellar system.

"It's hard to know if it was during planet formation or after the planet formation process," Fraser said during the show. "Certainly, more collisions happen while planets are growing than afterwards, so that’s a very good guess. But unfortunately we can’t get a high-resolution image of this thing to see what kind of crater is on it that might be attributed to the collision that caused it to start tumbling."

The team think 'Oumuamua may eventually move less chaotically.

"The tumbling actually causes stresses and strains internal to the object, and that slowly but surely squeezes and pulls on the object just like tides on the Earth to remove energy from the spin," Fraser said.

But, at least for the next few billion years, the space invader is destined to continue its topsy-turvy spin.

Pinpoint-landings

Feb 5th 2018

Congratulations to spaceX on the successful launch of its heavy lifter carrying the space X new spaceman/tourist driving his cherry red open top sports car, it was truly inspiring to watch the landing of the two boosters on their return to Earth at exactly the same time.

What a shame the day was marred by the failure of the centre core to find its way back and successfully land on the floating platform.

Thank you Mr Musk for a truly inspiring and certainly entertaining experience.

Spaceman-tourist

Feb 6th 2018

Since its 1977 launch, the Voyager 1 probe has passed gas-giant planets, beamed back the famous Pale Blue Dot picture of Earth from afar, and is now passing through the limits of the solar wind's reach. Its sister craft, Voyager 2, took the first pictures of the outer gas giants, Uranus and Neptune. Likewise, it's leaving the solar system.

Despite the Voyagers' incredible distance and its 1970s hardware, scientists can still communicate with them. But how much longer will they be able to talk to the first man-made crafts to venture so far? Turns out, nobody is totally sure.

"We thought we might not be able to go beyond where we are right now," says Jim Hodder, the operations manager in charge of the arrays of antennae responsible for Voyager communications. "But because we advanced our ground systems over the past few decades, I think right now it's about another 10 years."

Distance isn't such a big problem. Technological advances since the 1977 launch have made our antenna arrays incredibly powerful, Hodder says. For example, the a series of three antenna arrays strategically placed in rural locations around the world—can send and receive messages to and from the areas well outside our solar system. Cooling the 70-meter antennas to 18 degrees Kelvin ( minus 427 F) reduces noise, and the radio waves transmit data from probes and satellites loud and clear.

The real reason scientists can't communicate with Voyager indefinitely is that the pioneering probes' fuel supply is not infinite. Eventually they will run out of juice and be left to wander the galaxy alone.

Suzanne Dodd, the Voyager project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, says the Voyager spacecraft are powered by a couple of nuclear reactors sitting on the back of the probe, but they will soon run out of steam. "The nuclear power sources lose about 4 watts of power a year," she says. At this rate, Dodd says, Voyager should have enough power to communicate with Earth until 2022 or maybe 2025.

The fact that Voyager is still sending back data today is a feat in itself. When the Voyager probes were launched in 1977, no one thought they would still be in operation today. The missions were initially set up to get a better idea of the geography of Jupiter and Saturn, but the researchers in control of the mission didn't want to stop there. Dodd and the rest of the team have extended Voyager's life using the few improvised tactics they have available to them.

The scientists turned off Voyager 1's cameras in 1990 to conserve energy (but not before they turned Voyager back toward home to take the Pale Blue Dot photo). Last fall, they turned off the heaters on the backup thrusters. This means that the backup fuel lines will eventually freeze. It's a risk the team was willing to take to extend the viability of the primary thrusters. Dodd thinks that in 2016, the team will probably have to turn off the gyros responsible for maneuvering the probe, and its movements will be left to the whims of deep space.

Voyager 1 also has a few built-in fail-safe devices to keep it talking to Earth. "If it doesn't hear from us, it will go into a set pattern of activities," Dodd says. "It will still send things to us even if it doesn't get information from home. It assumes its receiver failed."

Still, hearing from the explorers will grow more difficult. Voyager 1 is now 11 billion miles from the sun and getting 330 million miles farther away each year. At it current distance, a round-trip message from Voyager I to Earth and back again takes a little more than 33 hours. And Voyager scientists are allotted only 6 to 8 hours per day on the Deep Space Network, meaning there may not be somebody listening when Voyager is talking. (In fact, when Voyager first ventured into the heliosheath—the last layer between deep space and the sun's wind—another group of researchers was using the array to monitor another mission. The data was saved, and the Voyager team got the exciting news a few hours later.)

That doesn't dampen Dodd's enthusiasm. "We want to see it get into interstellar space. We want to see it continue sending data back even if we can't send it to them."

Feb 4th 2018

Japan has set a new spaceflight record -- and unlike most of these feats, it's defined by what wasn't involved. The country's Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has successfully launched the smallest-ever rocket to carry a satellite into orbit, a modest SS-520 sounding rocket modified with a third stage inside its nose cone to get its payload into orbit. As you might guess, the key to the record was the tiny cargo -- the rocket was carrying TRICOM-1R, a three-unit cubesat measuring just 13.6 inches long. You don't need a giant vehicle when the mission hardware would fit in the backseat of your car.

The success came just over a year after JAXA's original experiment with an SS-520 rocket ended in failure. Crews decided against igniting the second stage when the vehicle lost all telemetry data a mere 20 seconds after takeoff. An investigation later determined that the likely cause was a poorly protected electrical connection, and the agency decided to try again this year with a fix in place.

There are no known plans to launch similar SS-520 missions in the near future, so this probably won't become a regular occurrence for a while. It does take Japan one step closer to regular mini satellite launches, however. And Japan isn't alone -- companies like Rocket Lab are making progress on their own small rockets powerful enough for orbital delivery. Large rockets aren't going away any time soon, but they might not be nearly as vital as they used to be.

Also on Feb 4th 2018

Young stars shine in nearby stellar nursery Lupus 3

A new space picture shows brilliant blue stars shining from the gloom of a cosmic dust cloud called Lupus 3. The cosmic light show is taking place about 600 light-years from Earth, and shows how young stars are born from clumps of gas and dust.

The image is based on data from two European Southern Observatory (ESO) telescopes in Chile: the VLT Survey Telescope at Paranal Observatory, and the MPG/ESO 2.2-meter telescope at La Silla. In a statement, ESO said the new image is "the most detailed image taken so far of this region." [The Fabulous Lives of Nebulas]

Lupus 3 is an example of a nebula, a huge region of dust and gas that can sometimes be hundreds of light-years long. While some nebulas are very bright, Lupus 3 is an example of a "dark" nebula — a situation in which dust blocks the light of the objects within it.

"They [dark nebulas] are also known as absorption nebulae, because they are made up of cold, dense particles of dust that absorb and scatter light as it passes through the cloud," ESO representatives said in the statement.

Lupus 3, which looks a bit like a snake, is a powerhouse for star formation, just like many nebulas. Within the nebula are young stars and protostars — gas in the process of collapsing to form a star's core. 

Stars often form when a gravitational influence (such as a passing star) creates a disturbance in the nebula. Denser parts of the nebula condense and contract due to gravity, warming up and increasing the pressure inside the dust and gas. In the densest parts of the nebula, gravity can be strong enough to form protostars.

"The two brilliant stars in the center of this image underwent this very process," ESO stated. 

"Early in their lives, the radiation they emitted was largely blocked by the thick veil of their host nebula, visible only to telescopes at infrared and radio wavelengths," ESO representatives said. "But as they grew hotter and brighter, their intense radiation and strong stellar winds swept the surrounding areas clear of gas and dust, allowing them to emerge gloriously from their gloomy nursery to shine brightly."

The stars in the image, ESO noted, are too young to shine from nuclear fusion, the process that powers stars like our sun. The bright light instead comes from the cores of the young stars contracting as gravitational energy converts into heat.

Famous examples of dark nebulas include the Coalsack Nebula (in the constellation Crux, visible from the Southern Hemisphere) and the Great Rift (between the constellations Cygnus and Aquila in northern skies). Both of these dark nebulas are visible with the naked eye, ESO noted. Lupus 3, however, is one of the closest dark nebulas to Earth, and for this reason, astronomers often study it to better understand how star formation works.

Feb 2nd 2018

How Nasa could discover oceans on distant planets

Earth, Venus, Mars, the moon, and Pluto are very different worlds, but they have something in common: mountains. In fact, mountains occur on so many different bodies in the solar system that astronomers are pretty sure many exoplanets—planets orbiting other stars—also have them. And like planets and moons close to home, those mountains can tell us a lot about what’s going on with exoplanets. They might even help us discover how habitable these far-off worlds are.

But first, we have to see exoplanetary mountains. In a new paper to be published in the prestigious journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Columbia University astronomers Moiya A.S. McTier and David M. Kipping figured out what it might take to detect mountains on a world too far away to photograph even with our most powerful telescopes.

The trick is to see their shadows as the planet passes in front of its host star, a phenomenon known as “transiting.” During these brief eclipses, the planet cuts off some of the host star’s light, which lets astronomers measure the size of the planet and how quickly it orbits. McTier and Kipping showed that if they observe multiple transits, astronomers might be able to see smaller fluctuations in the light when mountains are on the “horizon.”

“My paper is, to my knowledge, the first work that’s ever been done to come up with a method for finding mountains on planets outside our solar system,” McTier told The Daily Beast. “We’ve found mountains inside our solar system, on Earth and on other planets like Mars. But we’ve never found [mountains] outside of our solar system, even though we’ve found thousands of these types of planets out there.”

Many exoplanets are gas giants like Jupiter or Neptune, without a solid surface to have any mountains at all. However, “super-Earths” are another extremely common type: planets bigger and more massive than Earth, but still made of rock. Since no planet in the solar system is like that type of planet, we don’t know much about them yet, including whether they could have mountains or make oceans of water. Though they’re harder to detect, Earth- or Mars-sized exoplanets are probably even more common.

Even a large mountain on a super-sized super-Earth won’t block out that much extra light during a transit. So, instead of trying to see individual topographic features, McTier worked out a way to measure the overall mountainousness of an exoplanet.

“We really wanted bumpiness—as we called it—to be a measure of how much an average feature sticks out from the surface of the planet,” she said. That’s better than looking for big standalone mountains, like Mauna Kea on Earth or Olympus Mons on Mars. “This method could find anything that sticks out from the surface, so it could be mountain ranges, it could be single mountains, it could be volcanoes.”

Here’s how the method works. As an exoplanet orbits its host star, it turns relative to astronomers on Earth. During that turning, we get a bit of a sunrise or sunset effect as the star’s light is blocked or unblocked by mountains, over the course of its transit. It’s not a huge effect, so McTier calculated we might need to see hundreds of transits to get an accurate measurement.

But the potential payoff is big: “If we’re able to actually detect bumpiness, then we could potentially learn something about oceans on an exoplanet, and whether or not it has tectonic plate movement,” McTier said.

Surface oceans are a particularly exciting possibility. Earth is the only world we know that has them, and we don’t know whether it’s a coincidence that we’re also the only world known to have life. (Icy moons like Europa and Enceladus have subsurface oceans, which are another intriguing possibility for life.)

Mars probably once had oceans, but doesn’t any more. That absence makes the planet “bumpier” than Earth: The difference between its highest peaks and deepest valleys aren’t hidden by water. Measuring bumpiness may allow us to distinguish between a watery world and a dry one. Saturn’s moon Titan, which has liquid (and very frigid!) hydrocarbon lakes, has a natural “sea level” like Earth—a potentially common feature of planets with surface liquids.

Similarly, Earth has plate tectonics, which makes our big mountain ranges, but doesn’t grow volcanoes as large as the ones on Mars.

“If it’s really bumpy (meaning there are a lot of features), we can do work from there to figure out what those features are,” McTier said.

The biggest bumps aren’t the mountains: They’re making the observations. Finding mountains is easiest for a very large planet orbiting a very small star, because transiting data depends on the ratio of the planet’s size to the star’s size. For that reason, McTier’s calculated example was a Mars-sized planet orbiting a white dwarf—the burned-out remnant of a star. A typical white dwarf is about the size of Earth, but with a mass comparable to the Sun, so the paper doesn’t describe a normal exoplanet system.

To measure bumpiness of a super-Earth orbiting a red dwarf star (one of the most common systems we see), McTier estimated we would need a huge telescope like the Colossus, which is still in the design stages.

To McTier, the potential science is worth the wait. “We could learn about the length of its day, which is really exciting and currently extremely difficult to do for these small rocky planets orbiting stars hundreds of light years away.”

“Habitability is what gets people excited about exoplanet science,” she added. “If we can overcome those challenges, we can learn exciting things about the planet.”

Jan28th 2018

Black holes could be source of three space particles

High-energy cosmic rays have captivated scientists since their discovery more than 50 years ago, but we've never known where they came from. Same goes for neutrinos and gamma rays. Now, new research suggests all three kinds of particles might originate at the same source: supermassive black hole jets.

Cosmic rays are the high-energy nuclei of space particles, according to the European Organization for Nuclear Research, more commonly known as CERN. They contain millions of times more energy than anything humans could manufacture in a particle accelerator, according to New Scientist. 

Neutrinos are chargeless, basically massless subatomic particles whose properties make them difficult to detect despite the fact that they're extraordinarily common throughout the universe, according to Scientific American. Gamma rays, meanwhile, are a kind of electromagnetic radiation, according to Live Science.

Researchers from the University of Maryland, Pennsylvania State University and Kyoto University became intrigued by the fact that neutrinos, gamma rays and cosmic rays all appeared to have comparable levels of energy, which seemed to indicate a shared bigger picture. Using numerical data from detectors like the Pierre Auger Observatory in Argentina, the IceCube neutrino observatory in Antarctica and the Telescope Array project, the team created a computational model of the path a cosmic ray takes from the middle of a galaxy cluster all the way to the detectors with which we measure them here on Earth. A paper describing the work was published in the scientific journal Nature Physics.

"Our model shows a way to understand why these three types of cosmic messenger particles have a surprisingly similar amount of power input into the universe," co-author Kohta Murase, an astrophysicist at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a university press release. "It demonstrates that the similar energetics of the three cosmic messengers may not be a mere coincidence."

The simulation is the first of its kind. It suggested that the particles get a boost from powerful plasma jets created by supermassive ​black holes, effectively turbo-charging them before they begin their journey to Earth. All kinds of matter in the path of the now-ultra-high energy cosmic rays can interact with them to create particles that ultimately decay into "daughter particles"—neutrinos and gamma rays—that inherit the energy of their "parent" particles. The simulated scenario the researchers created lined up with the known properties of all three particles. Still, the team will need to test it against other data, including from the IceCube, which studies high-energy neutrinos.

"This model paves a way to further attempts to establish a grand-unified model of how all three of these cosmic messengers are physically connected to each other," Murase said in the press release. "However, there also are other possibilities."

Jan 26th 2018

We’ve found 3,700 planets — but no Earth 2.0 yet

As of Jan. 1, we’ve found more than 3,700 planets; about 2,500 of those were discovered by NASA’s Kepler satellite missions. We’ve also found 2,794 planetary systems and 622 “multiple planet systems,” according to the Extra-solar Planets Catalog, which tracks humankind’s hunt for planets.

Despite the thousands of planets we’ve found, though, we don’t know a lot. We know sizes, masses… and that’s about it.

“If you take a step back and ask what do we know, we know there are thousands of planets out there,” Sara Seager, an MIT professor who’s one of the lead exoplanet researchers in the world, told The Daily Beast. “We don’t know a lot about them.”

At this point, those planets aren’t much more than a few points of numerical data. But soon we might know more, as astronomers prioritize quality over quantity of exoplanet discoveries and dive into their compositions in our hunt for the next Earth.

In 2016, astronomers announced the discovery of Proxima Centauri b, heralded as the closest we’d come to finding an Earth twin: It was found orbiting the closest star to Earth, was just a little more massive than Earth, and appeared to be in the habitable “Goldilocks zone” around its star where—if everything went right—it could hold liquid water in some areas and maybe, just maybe, life.

But Proxima b wasn’t found in a vast, census-like headcount like Kepler. It wasn’t discovered accidentally or as one small part of a larger campaign. It was discovered by focusing a team of researchers calling themselves Pale Red Dot on one star over a near-half-decade, looking and waiting for the star to move in just the right way that suggests a planet is ever-so-slightly tugging on it. It was only through those laborious hours of research and poring over the faint star that the planet emerged from the data.

“It was almost—but not quite—unheard of, but not a popular idea, to put all your eggs in one basket and that paid off, and I think we’re going to see more of that,” Seager said.

The planet, however, was later found to likely emit radiation to suck out life-necessary oxygen, according to a paper released in February 2017 in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. In fact, Proxima b illustrates the problem of why the quest of finding the next Earth is so hard: We don’t know a lot about what these planets actually are.

The next frontier of telescopes

Seager pointed out the example of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the Hubble successor NASA is sending out to the Moon next year. The tennis court-sized telescope will be tasked with imaging some of these exo-worlds and finding atmospheres around Earth-sized worlds, finding out if they’re truly habitable.

Technology has been a limiting factor in finding individual planets. One problem is that planets don’t emit light—they only reflect it. The few planets that do reflect enough light to be seen from on-or-near Earth are large, young, and very hot. Next generation telescopes like JWST will be able to finally get that down to (roughly) Earth-size, even if those planets will appear as a pixel or two.

Demand for JWST will be great, as gathering enough light to see a dim planet is a large undertaking. With time being split between exoplanets, distant galaxies, weird stars, and other demands of an orbital observatory, astronomers will have to be smart about what planets they go after, which will require finding the best places to do a star-by-star analysis.

But it’s got drawbacks. “Since direct imaging of these small worlds takes a long time, it is unlikely that JWST will observe a large sample of planets,” Fabo Feng, an exoplanet researcher at the University of Hertfordshire, said.

The first exoplanets were found by measuring how a planet tugged on a star in a process called radial velocity, and it only worked for very large planets. Kepler employed the transit method, which waits for a planet to pass in front of its star and blot the light just a bit. But not every planet transits, and radial velocity is only now getting to the point that it can find planets around the mass of Earth. (There are, of course, several other exoplanet hunting techniques, but they’ve yielded fewer results.)

Feng’s work on the Tau Ceti system last year stretched radial velocity to its absolute limits in order to find four planets around the nearby star. Feng had to build algorithms to find these four worlds—all between the mass of Earth and Neptune—based on weak “tug” signals that might otherwise have been written off as some kind of stellar activity. That study was the culmination of 10 years of work and more than 5,000 observations.

NASA plans instead to rely on information from the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, set for launch in March, to home in on the best worlds for JWST to study. It’ll look for the dimming caused by a planet passing in front of its star, just like Kepler. But unlike Kepler, it will specifically look for planets around bright stars ideal for study by the Webb telescope, ending up with a lower overall yield of exoplanets.

One of JWST’s first targets will likely be the TRAPPIST-1 star, a system of seven Earth-sized planets, some which may have the right conditions for liquid water. That planet is the end result of another survey that only looked at 50 stars. Michael Gillon, a project lead on the TRAPPIST telescope, said that TRAPPIST-1 was the only planet-bearing star found in four years of research. A recent extension of the mission added 50 more targets—and still only expects to yield a very small number of planets due to the low occurrence of transits.

“We don’t really expect [TRAPPIST] to find more planets, even if all ultracool stars have a planetary system similar to TRAPPIST-1,” Gillon said. Ultracool dwarfs are the smallest normal stars that have low temperatures, thus offering more temperate planets, referring to the temperature of the star and therefore its ability to potentially be near an Earth-like planet.

Next year, Gillon’s TRAPPIST follow-up, SPECULOOS (the Search for Habitable Planets Eclipsing Ultra-Cool Stars), will debut. TRAPPIST was meant as a prototype to find planets around small, “cool” stars. But if TRAPPIST was meant to find just a couple worlds, SPECULOOS—with a telescope in both hemispheres—is expected to find a few dozen at a rate of one or two per year.

Will we find another Earth?

Red Dots, the group formerly known as Pale Red Dots, recently widened their scope to Barnard’s Star and Ross 154, two stars near Proxima b. “There’s this thought now that the closest stars are of incredible value, and that it’s worth focusing on them especially now that we’ve shown that every star has something to show for itself,” Seager, who is not involved in the project, said.

But Red Dots is just one of a narrow searches out there. Project Blue aims to find a habitable planet around one of the stars in the binary pair of stars in Alpha Centauri; Proxima orbits both stars a significant distance away. There’s Seager’s own ASTERIA project, which launched a small satellite last year to figure out if you can send out mini-satellites to look for exoplanets on a star-by-star basis.

The hunt for the next Earth by surveying stars won’t go away by any means. But in order to find out anything about these planets and figure out if the smaller ones we see aren’t just Earth-size or Earth-mass, but truly Earth-like, will take a lot of work.

“Let’s say there’s an alien civilization not too far away looking at our solar system with the same tools we have, but maybe a little bit better,” Seager analogized. “They would see Venus and Earth, and they would be the same planet. They wouldn’t know if one planet was habitable or not. They’d probably be pretty excited, because they have two planets, possibly in the habitable zone, but they’re basically the same size and mass to within a few percent.”

Jan 21st 2018

Fast-moving stars may hold clues to Milky Way's bulge

Sun-like stars in the Milky Way galaxy's central hub are zipping along at different speeds depending on how they are made, according to new research.

Researchers looking at the bulge of stars near the Milky Way's center found that stars rich in heavier elements — those more massive than hydrogen and helium — move twice as fast as those without. The new findings may help answer questions about whether the bulge formed by the motion of the stars or from an ancient collision with another galaxy, or through some combination of the two.

"The Milky Way bulge is an important galactic component. It contains about 10 to 20 percent of the mass of the galaxy, yet its formation evolution is still not well understood," Will Clarkston said Thursday (Jan. 11) at the 231st meeting of the American Astronomical Society in National Harbor, Maryland. [Stunning Photos of Our Milky Way Galaxy (Gallery)]

Clarkston, an astronomer at the University of Michigan, was part of a study that combed through nearly a decade of data captured by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope to measure how fast the stars swirled around the center of the galaxy.

Whereas ground-based telescopes have measured the movement of the stars toward or away from the sun, the new research with Hubble reveals how they orbit the center of the galaxy sideways along the sky.

"Ours is the first study to show that, in the sideways part of that motion, there are differences," Clarkston said.

The birth of the bulge

The Milky Way is a classic spiral galaxy, with arms curving in a plane around its bulging center. But the formation of the bulge formation remains a mystery. In the past, astronomers thought that the bulge was made up of old stars, researchers said in a statement, but a growing body of evidence has revealed young stars, as well. Combined with other observations, this suggests that the Milky Way may have suffered a collision with another galaxy in its past. 

"There are many theories describing the formation of our galaxy and central bulge," Annalisa Calamida, a member of the Hubble research team at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Maryland, said in the statement. 

"Some say the bulge formed when the galaxy first formed about 13 billion years ago. In this case, all bulge stars should be old and share a similar motion," Calamida added. "But others think the bulge formed later in the galaxy's lifetime, slowly evolving after the first generations of stars were born."

To better understand how the bulge came to be, Clarkston, Calamida and their colleagues turned to nine years of archival Hubble data to track how about 10,000 of the bulge's normal sun-like stars moved. They then relied on spectra from the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope in Chile to help estimate those stars' chemical composition.

After comparing the two, the team discovered that the motions of bulge stars varied depending on a star's chemical composition. Stars high in metals — for astronomers, all elements other than hydrogen and helium are considered metals — circle the bulge at a higher speed than older, metal-poor stars. 

"We actually dissected chemically these stars into metal-rich and metal-poor," Clarkston said.

Charting the motion of the stars compared to one another revealed what Clarkston called the "fingerprints" of the two populations, a smeared graph that highlights their different velocities.

"There is a definite sense of rotation that seems a bit startling," Clarkston said.

A 3D bulge

Like fingerprints at a crime scene, the new results don't immediately indicate what happened in the past, but they provide strong clues to follow up on.

"The stars in our study are showing characteristics of both models," Calamida said. "Therefore, this analysis can help us in understanding the bulge's origin." Metal-rich stars could have formed from the material expelled by previous generations of stars, with different birth scenarios causing a difference in velocity, or they could have been brought in by a colliding galaxy, she said. 

The new data will help the scientists better understand the bulge's formation. According to Clarkston, other researchers are already plugging the discovery into models, which will make detailed predictions to test the observations.

"Having found the fingerprint, we want to develop the forensic science so we can develop in detail how the bulge actually worked," Clarkston said.

The new research will serve as a pathfinder for NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, set to launch in 2019. One of the new telescope's tasks will be to probe the archaeology of the Milky Way.

In the meantime, Clarkston's team plans to comb through the archival data for even more stars, comparing their chemistry to their rotation. 

"Hubble gave us a narrow, pencil-beam view of the galaxy's core, but we are seeing thousands more stars than those spotted in earlier studies," Calamida said. 

"We next plan to extend our analysis to do additional observations along different sight-lines, which will allow us to make a three-dimensional probe of the rich complexity of the populations in the bulge."

Jan 20th 2018

Neutron star merger afterglow surprisingly brighter now

Following the merger of two neutron stars, the gamma-ray burst that is produced would get brighter for a short period of time, and then fade away, according to other observations of short gamma-ray bursts. But that is not what happened in the case of GW170817, the first neutron star merger observed by scientists in August last year, an event that also sent gravitational waves rippling through the universe.

If anything, the X-ray emission from the merged object has continued to grow in intensity, as have radio emissions from it. Radio wave data from the merger was tracked since the event occurred, but X-ray observations had to be suspended just over two weeks after it happened because the object’s location in the sky was too close to the sun.

In a paper published Thursday, researchers led by a team from Canada’s McGill University considered the various theoretical models that would allow for the afterglow of the merger to keep getting brighter (it has become about four times brighter since the merger). They used data collected by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.

“When the source emerged from that blind spot in the sky in early December, our Chandra team jumped at the chance to see what was going on. Sure enough, the afterglow turned out to be brighter in the X-ray wavelengths, just as it was in the radio,” John Ruan, a postdoctoral researcher at the McGill Space Institute and lead author of the new paper, said in a statement Thursday.

“Usually when we see a short gamma-ray burst, the jet emission generated gets bright for a short time as it smashes into the surrounding medium — then fades as the system stops injecting energy into the outflow. This one is different; it’s definitely not a simple, plain-Jane narrow jet,” McGill astrophysicist Daryl Haggard, whose research group led the new study, said.

“We show that the X-ray light curve is a good match to predictions from outflow models, in which the outflow is a cocoon, dynamical ejecta, or a structured jet. Our observations thus support a scenario in which both the X-ray and radio emission are the afterglow of an outflow, although the exact origin of the outflow is still uncertain,” the researchers wrote in the study.

Jan 19th 2018

Accessible ice could lurk in moon's lava tubes

New images from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) suggest there is an underground network of lava tubes beneath the lunar surface that could offer astronauts easy access to water. 

The stunning new photos show multiple small pits in a large impact crater known as the Philolaus Crater, which is located near the north pole of the moon. Researchers said these pits are likely lava tube "skylights" — entrances to underground tunnels that were once filled with lava. 

The underground tunnels could also provide access to subsurface ice, and in turn, water. Astronauts would therefore be able to use this water resource during future missions to the moon, said a new study from the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute and the Mars Institute. [Photos: The Search for Water on the Moon]

"The highest-resolution images available for Philolaus Crater do not allow the pits to be identified as lava tube skylights with 100 percent certainty, but we are looking at good candidates considering simultaneously their size, shape, lighting conditions and geologic setting," Pascal Lee, planetary scientist at the SETI Institute and the Mars Institute, said in a statement. 

The Philolaus Crater is approximately 43 miles (70 kilometers) wide and located about 340 miles (550 km) from the moon's north pole. The pits appear to be small, rimless depressions, measuring between 50 and 100 feet across (15 to 30 meters), with completely shadowed interiors, according to the statement. 

The pits identified on the floor of the Philolaus Crater are located along sections of winding channels thought to be collapsed lava tubes, also known as sinuous rilles. 

Earlier research identified over 200 pits across the moon's surface, but the new images are the first to identify possible skylights located in the moon's polar region, where water ice accumulates, the study said. Therefore, the newfound skylights would offer easier access to subsurface ice, alleviating the need to excavate the lunar surface, the researchers said.

"This discovery is exciting and timely as we prepare to return to the moon with humans," Bill Diamond, president and CEO of the SETI Institute, said in the statement. "It also reminds us that our exploration of planetary worlds is not limited to their surface and must extend into their mysterious interiors."

Formed about 1.1 billion years ago, Philolaus Crater is relatively young, which makes it a great target for studying the moon's recent evolution, the researchers said in the statement. 

Also, the crater is located on the nearside of the moon, which means that it would offer future lunar missions the benefit of direct communications with Earth, according to the statement.

Going forward, the researchers plan to further investigate Philolaus Crater to confirm whether or not the pits are lava tube skylights, and if the underground network of tubes actually contains water ice. 

"This is an exciting possibility that a new generation of caving astronauts or robotic spelunkers could help address," Lee said. "Exploring lava tubes on the moon will also prepare us for the exploration of lava tubes on Mars. There, we will face the prospect of expanding our search for life into the deeper underground of Mars where we might find environments that are warmer, wetter and more sheltered than at the surface."

Their findings were presented Jan. 11 at NASA's Lunar Science for Landed Missions Workshop, which is held at the Ames Research Center. 

Jan 16th 2018

Space race 2018: getting ready for astronauts, then tourists

(Bloomberg) -- For the past seven years, American astronauts who need to get to the International Space Station have had only one option: Pay roughly $80 million to hitch a ride on a cramped Russian Soyuz rocket.

Now Boeing Co. and Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. are preparing to ferry Americans to space for the first time since the Space Shuttle program went dark in 2011. If all goes well during a flurry of testing over the coming months, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner will carry two astronauts to orbit in November, followed by SpaceX’s Crew Dragon in December. Those first manned flights by these companies would usher in the first-ever commercial taxi service to earth orbit in 2019, followed by a battle to tempt high-spending tourists to take a trip into space.

For SpaceX the stakes couldn’t be higher. The company’s first launch of 2018, a classified U.S. government mission dubbed “Zuma,” created a torrent of intrigue and wild conspiracy theories. The payload, a satellite built by Northrop Grumman, apparently crashed into the ocean on Jan. 7 despite a successful launch and first stage landing. Northrop and the Pentagon have so far refused to comment, while SpaceX released an extraordinary statement last week insisting its rocket “did everything correctly.”

The companies trying to put astronauts into space see it as a step towards a near-future in which space travel reaches beyond low-earth orbit. For Musk, proving that SpaceX can safely fly NASA personnel is an important step towards his ultimate goal of bringing human civilization to Mars. Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg has goals that are no less lofty than Musk: In speeches, he is fond of predicting that the first person to step foot on the Red Planet will get there in a Boeing rocket. Boeing’s roots in space are long and deep, from leading the Saturn rocket program in the 1960s to running the International Space Station.

The corporate space rivals also have dueling interests in tourism. SpaceX has said that it will fly paying sightseers around the moon in its Dragon shuttle once its crewed missions for NASA are operational. Boeing plans to market seats on its craft via Space Adventures, the firm that has helped wealthy civilians book rides to orbit on Russian craft.

Successfully launching demonstration missions in 2018 would also end America’s dependence on the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, to reach the space station before NASA’s current arrangement runs out in 2019. And President Trump has expressed interest in returning to the moon. “It’s a point of national pride,” said John Logsdon, former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. “You can’t be a space-faring country if you can’t send your machines and people into space. The Trump administration is emphasizing the idea of leadership. A country unable to send people into space on its own is not a leader.”

NASA awarded SpaceX and Boeing combined contracts worth up to $6.8 billion to fly American astronauts to the space station in 2014, choosing two companies for the unique public-private partnership to assure safe, reliable and cost effective access to space and avoid the perils of one provider having a monopoly. Congress is set to receive an update Wednesday (January 17) on the progress of this “Commercial Crew” program. John Mulholland, vice president and general manager of Boeing’s commercial crew program, and Dr. Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Build and Flight Reliability for SpaceX, are among those slated to testify.

The aggressive timeline this year, following delays building and testing new spacecraft by both companies, have already pushed the initial flights more than a year behind schedule. The U.S. Government Accountability Office warned in a May 2017 report that certifying the new vehicles to meet rigid safety guidelines to carry humans to space could easily slip into 2019. But when new crafts are being developed and human lives are potentially at risk, NASA, Boeing and SpaceX are all on the same page: better safe than sorry.

“Flying reliably and safely is more important than soon,” said Kathy Lueders, program manager for NASA’s Commercial Crew program. “Boeing and SpaceX have both done extensive testing in the face of a very stringent time frame. We want them to fly as fast as they can, understanding that when they fly they will be flying our nation’s crew members.”

The exterior of the Boeing capsule may look like a throwback to the Apollo era, when the Chicago-based company was a major NASA subcontractor, but the interior will be more reminiscent of Boeing’s most advanced jetliner, the 787 Dreamliner. It will be operated by touchscreen panels rather than dials, with astronauts searching tablets rather than paper manuals for detailed instructions.

The Starliner will take eight hours to reach the space station, Boeing’s John Mulholland said in an interview, rather than the two-day voyage that was typical for NASA’s shuttle voyages. And it will return to a western U.S. desert, cushioned by air bags and parachutes, rather than splash down in the ocean like its 1960s forebears.

Boeing is building three capsules: one to carry out the launch pad abort test this summer, a second for a dry run without crew, and a third for its first human mission. Mulholland said he expects to wrap up by mid-year tests of structural loads and propulsions systems on two already-built modules. While there’s a risk of costly retrofits that comes with building new craft before testing is completed, Boeing purposefully staggered the “major build sets” behind testing to give it time incorporate any changes.

Boeing is already studying how to expand its market beyond the NASA contract, whether it is spurring new destinations in space like Bigelow Aerospace’s inflatable hotel. The Starliner could also provide a ride to space for countries that aren’t part of part of the current coalition supporting the International Space Station.

“The job, I think, for our team right now, is to start the initial flight,” Mulholland said. “That I believe has held back the emergence of other destinations, other human space transportation.”

Musk, who is also the chief executive officer of Tesla Inc., designed SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft from the beginning with the goal of one day carrying humans. The company, based in Hawthorne, California, has already made several supply runs to the International Space Station for NASA. The SpaceX Crew Dragon includes several changes, such as an emergency escape system, first tested in 2015, designed to carry astronauts to safety in the case of a launch failure. The company has six Crew Dragon modules in various stages of production and testing.

“SpaceX continues to target 2018 for the first demonstration missions with and without crew under NASA’s commercial crew program,” said Eva Behrend, a spokeswoman for SpaceX. “In 2017, significant progress was made toward the production, qualification and launch of Crew Dragon — one of the safest and most advanced human spaceflight systems ever built — and we are set to meet the additional milestones needed to launch our demonstration missions this year.”

Aesthetics are also top of mind. Here’s the marketing copy from the SpaceX website, which highlights the luxurious appeal of its spacecraft for future tourists:

Dragon was designed to be an enjoyable ride. With four windows, passengers can take in views of Earth, the Moon and the wider Solar System right from their seats, which are made from the highest-grade carbon fiber and Alcantara cloth.

Unlike the vintage Soyuz rockets and capsules, which launch from Kazakhstan and can only carry three people at a time, Boeing and SpaceX have designed vehicles capable of carrying as many as seven people—and in far more comfort.

“A Soyuz capsule is as small as you can be,” said retired astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent a year on the International Space Station and has flown on both the old NASA shuttle and its Russian counterpart. “You are elbow to elbow, and your knees are up to your chin,” he recalled of the Soyuz experience during a phone interview from his home in Houston. “One clear difference, when you look at these new vehicles, is that they are a lot more roomy and spacious inside.”

Astronauts may not need spacious digs. But the new capsules come outfitted with extra seats beyond the four mandated by NASA, since the space-faring public is expected to participate in the next generation of space travel. “When you start talking about space tourism,” Kelly said, “comfort is going to be important.”

Jan 10th 2018

NASA is going back to the moon — somehow, someway. The White House has ordered the agency to put American boots back on the lunar surface. The major unknowns at this point include the when, how, scale of the operation and cost. Also unclear is what exactly NASA would accomplish with such a mission and how it might affect plans for a human mission to Mars.

NASA put 12 astronauts on the moon between 1969 and 1972. With the death Friday of Apollo 16’s John Young, only five of those astronauts are still alive, and they range in age from 82 to 87. No human being has been beyond low Earth orbit since the end of the Apollo program.

NASA acting administrator Robert Lightfoot told The Washington Post that the agency will partner with other countries in the return to the moon, but he did not say which ones. He said the moon plan will be a public-private partnership, but did not name any companies that might be involved. Details will emerge with the president’s annual budget request to Congress, he said. He provided no specifics about the architecture of a moon program.

“We have no idea yet,” Lightfoot said.

NASA is trying to do this without additional funding or a permanent administrator — another top science position that hasn’t been filled in the Trump administration. NASA’s ongoing challenge in recent years has been reconciling the orders of politicians with the hard realities of flat budgets and the immutable laws of physics. This is the third time this century that NASA has been ordered to make a major shift in the focus of its human spaceflight program.

“We’re always asked to change directions every time we get a new president, and that just causes you to do negative work, work that doesn’t matter,” former astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent nearly a year on the International Space Station in his last spaceflight mission, told The Post. “I just hope someday we’ll have a president that will say, ‘You know what, we’ll just leave NASA on the course they are on, and see what NASA can achieve if we untie their hands.”

Scott Hubbard, former director of the NASA Ames Research Center, said he has heard grumbling in the space community about this latest change in NASA strategy. He said people are saying, “Please don’t push the reset button again, because you’re just going to waste billions of dollars of previous investment.”

NASA’s long-term human spaceflight strategy still includes a Mars mission in the 2030s, starting with a mission to orbit the planet and return home, followed by landing astronauts on Mars at an unspecified future date. Hubbard said that’s still doable — “but not if NASA does a major re-pivot and goes all-in on a base on the moon. Then clearly Mars is pushed way off into the future.”

But Lori Garver, the NASA deputy administrator during President Barack Obama’s first term, said the people who don’t want to see changes at NASA are “whiners.” She has experience with implementing a major strategic shift, because after she and her fellow political appointees arrived at NASA headquarters in 2009, they upended the plans of George W. Bush for a return to the moon.

“This is a democracy,” she said. “Elections matter.”

She noted that NASA is already building a jumbo rocket and crew capsule that could be used in a moon program. And she said NASA hasn’t built anything yet that’s specifically designed for a Mars mission.

“Mars was more of a talking point,” she said. “It’s out there as an aspirational goal.”

Although the moon and Mars have some superficial similarities (craters, dust, rocks, mountains, no sign of life, etc.), they are quite different in the ideas of an aeronautical engineer. The moon has no atmosphere. Mars has a thin atmosphere that is devilish for spacecraft — it’s too thin to be much help in braking a descending vehicle, but it’s thick enough to cause overheating and turbulence.

A flight to Mars would probably take the better part of a year and the round-trip mission would take more than two years. Astronauts would be exposed to radiation hazards and the psychological challenges of isolation in addition to the more obvious risks involved with trying to land safely on Mars and survive there.

The triumph of the Apollo program came during the Cold War, when the race to the moon sent NASA’s budget spiking. After Apollo, the agency shifted its focus to the development of the space shuttle, and later collaborated with other countries to build the International Space Station.

After the Columbia space shuttle disintegrated during reentry in 2003, President George W. Bush ordered a major shift in NASA strategy. The shuttle fleet would be retired once the space station was complete. NASA would instead build new rockets and a new capsule with the goal of returning to the moon and eventually going to Mars. Thus was born the Constellation program.

After President Barack Obama arrived in the White House, a presidential committee studied NASA’s program and declared it was “on an unsustainable trajectory” due to a mismatch between ambitions and funding. Obama killed Constellation and ordered NASA to visit an asteroid, with Mars still the horizon goal. Obama also boosted funding for the “commercial crew” program, started by his predecessor, that would use privately owned rockets and capsules to ferry astronauts to orbit.

When President Trump took office, people in the space community expected a pivot back to the moon, restoring the Bush-era goal. The administration resurrected something called the National Space Council, with Vice President Pence in charge. In October, Pence made a speech saying NASA would return to the moon. In December, President Trump made that goal the official U.S. space policy.

NASA conceivably could attempt a limited mission to the moon’s surface, akin to what the agency did with the Apollo program, but a mere “flags and footprints” mission could evoke opposition and derision from the been-there-done-that camp. NASA and its partners might instead attempt to create a permanently occupied research station similar to the ones in Antarctica.

But the moon lacks certain things that Antarctica has in abundance — not the least of which is air.

While NASA tries to piece together a moon program, commercial space companies are gathering momentum and threatening to fly circles around the venerable U.S. space agency. Elon Musk and his start-up SpaceX are getting ready to fly a jumbo rocket called the Falcon Heavy, launching from the famed Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, where Apollo 11 lifted off for the moon in 1969. Musk continues to promote his vision of putting people on Mars as soon as the next decade.

Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos has a space company, Blue Origin, which has emerged as a force in the commercial space world, with a suite of new rockets and ambitions to get involved in commercial lunar activity. Bezos has said he wants to see more people living and working in space. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

SpaceX and Boeing, meanwhile, have contracts to launch NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. The first flights are scheduled for later this year. These are “commercial” contracts, meaning SpaceX and Boeing own their spaceships and rockets fully and are charging NASA a fee, as opposed to the traditional approach in which NASA owns all the hardware, and the companies have cost-plus contracts.

This will end NASA’s embarrassing reliance on the Russians for travel to and from the ISS. Since the shuttle fleet was retired, the United States has paid hundreds of millions of dollars a year for seats on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft.

At NASA headquarters, officials are awaiting the arrival of a permanent administrator. In September, President Trump nominated Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), a member of the arch-conservative House Freedom Caucus, to be the NASA chief. The nomination drew criticism from the two Florida senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio, whose constituency includes a vast aerospace industry in and around NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on Cape Canaveral. NASA has long enjoyed bipartisan support, and Bridenstine’s critics said the top job shouldn’t go to a politician. The full Senate has yet to vote on his nomination.

Space policy experts said strong political leadership is essential when NASA wants to make a major change.

“The first year, which theoretically should be your strongest year, is gone,” said Garver. “We were really off and running by this point.”

Proponents say another lunar mission will open up commercialization of the moon and set up further exploration to Mars and beyond. But the future of NASA’s human spaceflight program will depend on money as much as on engineering prowess.

“If you only have a limited amount of money, maybe going to Mars is the better option rather than going back to the moon,” Kelly said.

He noted that NASA might save money if the mission to Mars was conceived as a one-way trip. But he’s not volunteering for such a mission.

“Having lived on the space station for a year, I would not want to live the last days of my life on Mars,” Kelly said.

Christian Davenport contributed to this report.

Jan 8th 2018

Supersize stars more common than previously thought: study

Heavyweight stars up to hundreds of times the mass of the sun may be more abundant than previously thought, a new study finds. 

These findings suggest that black holes and other exotic remnants of dead massive stars may also be more common than previously suspected, and that supersize stars may have played a bigger role in the evolution of the universe than previously predicted. 

Astronomers have long known of stars that are more than 10 times the mass of the sun. The most massive star currently known, R136a1, is about 300 times the sun's mass.

Massive stars are behind many of the most dramatic events and exotic objects in the universe. For example, when massive stars die, they do so in outbursts known as supernovas, which can briefly outshine all of the other stars in the massive stars' galaxies. In addition, the remnants of supernovas can include black holes and neutron stars. [Supernova Photos: Great Images of Star Explosions]

Furthermore, massive stars have played a major role in the evolution of the universe. For instance, stars are ultimately the source of the cosmos' "metals" — what astronomers call elements heavier than helium — and massive stars in particular contribute greatly to forging these "metals," study lead author Fabian Schneider, an astrophysicist at the University of Oxford in England, told Space.com. 

In addition, massive stars possess more fuel than smaller stars do, so they burn hotter, generating powerful radiation and strong winds of charged particles that can influence the fate of galaxies. Prior work suggested that such radiation played a key role in "the epoch of reionization," when the universe emerged from its dark ages. 

Right after the Big Bang, the universe was a rapidly expanding hot stew of ions, or electrically charged particles. About 380,000 years later, these ions cooled into neutral hydrogen gas. The universe stayed dark until gravity pulled matter together into the first stars. The intense ultraviolet light from this era caused this murky neutral hydrogen to ionize, and the gas has stayed in that state since that time. Once the universe became reionized, light could travel freely through space.

However, pinpointing exactly how important massive stars were to that transformation has proved tricky because of the difficulty in studying them. One reason for this is that massive stars are relatively rare — lower-mass stars are more common than higher-mass stars, Schneider said. Another reason is that massive stars have much shorter lives than lower-mass stars do, he added — because massive stars burn hot, they go through fuel quickly and die young. For instance, while the sun is about 4.6 billion years old and is expected to last another 5 billion years or so, the most massive stars may have lifetimes of only a few million years. 

To shed light on the lives and deaths of massive stars, Schneider and his colleagues focused on the Tarantula Nebula, located about 180,000 light-years from Earth in the neighboring galaxy known as the Large Magellanic Cloud. This nebula hosts the stars with the greatest masses yet detected, including R136a1. [Tarantula Nebula Unfurls in Stunning Hubble Telescope Image]

The scientists used the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope in Chile to analyze the masses and ages of about 800 massive stars in the Tarantula Nebula. This area, also known as 30 Doradus or 30 Dor, is the largest star-forming region in the nearby universe that astronomers can analyze in great detail, Schneider said. At more than 1,000 light-years wide, if it were only about 1,300 light-years distant, like the local Orion Nebula is, it would be as wide as 60 full moons and shine bright enough to cast shadows on Earth.

The researchers looked at stars greater than 30 solar masses in size, discovering that about 30 percent more of these were born in the nebula than long-standing models of star formation would predict. This discrepancy grows larger at the highest masses, the researchers said.

"Once we realized that 30 Dor hosts many more massive stars than previously thought, we were baffled and thought that we did something wrong," Schneider said. "I would say this was to some extent a chance finding while we were aiming at other questions."

The researchers suggested that prior estimates of the number of massive stars might be off because previous research focused mainly on stars of 30 to 40 solar masses or less. In contrast, Schneider and his colleagues examined large numbers of massive stars of up to 200 solar masses in size.

"In the past, it has been suggested that stars above 150 solar masses cannot form," Schneider said. But in light of the new study, "it seems likely that stars up to 200 to 300 solar masses can actually form."

There are two possible explanations for why there might be a greater number of massive stars than previously thought. One explanation is that the Tarantula Nebula has only 40 percent as much "metal" as the sun, and that lower metallicity can lead to a greater number of massive stars, Schneider said. Another is that the Tarantula Nebula is a so-called "starburst," a region with an extraordinarily high rate of star formation, and that previous generations of stars in the nebula may have heated the clouds in which later generations of stars are born, enabling the emergence of more massive stars, he added.

If massive stars make up more of the universe than previously thought, it could have a wide range of consequences across the cosmos, Schneider said. For instance, supernova explosions might happen 70 percent more often than previously thought, and the rate at which black holes form might be 180 percent greater than prior models predicted, he said. Supernovas might also give off three times as many elements as previously thought, he added. 

Furthermore, massive stars could give off four times as much ionizing radiation as previously thought, Schneider said. "During the reionization of the universe, massive stars most likely played a big role because of their enormous ionizing radiation," he added.

Future research should analyze other star-forming regions to see if these new findings hold there as well, Schneider said.

The scientists detailed their findings in the Jan. 5 issue of the journal Science.

Dec 29th 2017

The hunt for biomarkers on Mars often comes down to looking for the same sorts of fatty acids — even transfats — that make up a human diet on Earth. Finding fatty acids — organic molecules made up of chains of carbon and hydrogen — doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve found evidence for life itself. After all, these molecules can be produced without biology. 

But even finding abiotically-produced fatty acids would give astrobiologists a big leg up in knowing where to look for past habitable regions on Mars.

NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover and its Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument have found chlorobenzene (an organic ring molecule) in Gale Crater’s Sheepbed Mudstone. But, to date, no one has ever had a positive detection of a fatty acid on Mars.

Organic ring molecules found near the Martian surface suggest that they have survived high-energy radiation and abundant surface oxidants, both of which are capable of ripping such carbon chain compounds apart.

Determining which, if any, organic molecules are present in the near-Mars surface helps astrobiologists determine Mars’ possible prebiotic or biotic chemistry, Amy Williams, a member of the SAM instrument science team at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and an assistant professor of geology at Towson University in Maryland, told me.

Why are fatty acids so important to astrobiology?

Fatty acids are crucial to living organisms and comprise part of a given cell’s membrane and can also serve as fuel for the cell itself.

But here’s where it gets tricky.

Different carbon chain lengths are useful for different cellular processes, says Williams. And she notes that enzymes (proteins used by all living organisms to regulate biochemical reactions) are also used by organisms to regulate their carbon chain lengths. Thus by their very nature, enzymes are the result of biologic processes.

In contrast, fatty acids produced without biology do not use enzymes to regulate their carbon chain length. As a result, abiotic fatty acids tend to be fairly short and do not show a preference for even over odd chain lengths.

Even so, such organic molecules must survive Mars’ harsh space weather. With an atmosphere that is only two percent that of Earth and with little or no magnetic field, Mars has had some 3.5 billion years of constant bombardment by galactic and solar cosmic rays. Galactic cosmic rays are particularly difficult for organic molecules to survive as they can pierce a few feet below the Martian surface.

Thus, Earth-based researchers look to the toughest conditions on our own planet in hopes of finding organic molecules that can survive Mars-like conditions. Hyper-arid environments are a prime example, since low temperatures and very arid conditions, such as those found in Antarctica and Chile’s Atacama Desert tend to limit an organic molecule’s degradation.

For its part, NASA’s Curiosity rover SAM instrument is capable of analyzing atmospheric and solid samples for organic molecules. If they’re present, Williams says that by using mass spectrometry (the ability to break apart molecules based on their mass), the TMAH (tetramethylammonium hydroxide) wet chemistry experiment on the SAM instrument will be able to detect organic compounds that are normally not detectable. The TMAH experiment will be able to extract, detect and analyze fatty acids from by liberating fatty acids from cellular membranes.

Mars is called the Red planet because of the abundant oxidized iron on the surface, says Williams. So, to find an appropriate analog, she and colleagues turn to iron-rich environments such as Spain’s Rio Tinto mining region and California’s Iron Mountain.

Both areas contain many of the minerals we have identified on Mars; among them, hematite, goethite, and jarosite, says Williams. These minerals tell us that water was present on the surface of Mars in the past and that in some places this water was acidic and saline, she says.

No location on Earth can provide the perfect Mars analog, but some come close, particularly those with extremely cold temperatures, low humidity, and an iron-rich mineral environment.

Yellowstone National Park’s Chocolate Pots hot springs, located only a few miles southwest of the Norris Geyser Basin, is a good analog. The iron-rich water which bubbles to the surface here is just acidic enough and at the right temperature to allow for the proliferation of cyanobacteria (bacteria that use sunlight for energy).

“Studying the preservation of biogenic organics in iron-rich environments on Earth is very important for determining where we should land future astrobiology missions on Mars,” said Williams.

In a recent presentation at the Astrobiology2017 conference in Coyhaique, Chile, Williams noted that she and colleagues studied three hot springs sites in Iceland and found that found that organic fatty acid biosignatures are indeed preserved in siliceous sinter rock, a silica-rich rock that forms from certain hot springs. What’s more, they are detectable with a benchtop version of the Curiosity rover’s TMAH experiment.

Because these Icelandic results indicate that fatty acids are preserved at depth within this sinter environment, Williams says analogous sinter deposits may be good locations to search for signatures of life on Mars.

Two future Mars missions may do just that.

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) upcoming Exo-Mars rover will also be capable of searching for biotic organics; such as amino acids and fatty acids. And NASA’s Mars 2020 rover will also carry an instrument payload capable of seeking signs of habitable conditions on Mars and searching for signs of past microbial life.

As for Mars Curiosity?

Williams says the rover still has many years of life left to find just the right spot to sample for potential fatty acids. She notes that the SAM experiment only has two cups to perform the TMAH experiment with, so the idea is to find the best possible sample location.

Currently, Curiosity is at the Vera Rubin (hematite) Ridge, not far from a clay-bearing region of Gale Crater that Williams says may harbor organics in its substrates.

“This may be a good location to perform the TMAH fatty acid experiment,” said Williams.

Williams says even detecting an abiotic fatty acid would be huge. That would tell planetary scientists much about how organic molecules originate and/or are delivered to and preserved on the Martian surface.

Such fatty acid biomarkers might also be detectable in one of Enceladus’ plumes of water. If Saturn’s moon of Enceladus has fatty acids in sufficient concentrations, Williams says, then their characteristic and telltale carbon chain lengths should also be detectable. Thus, she says, it’s not a stretch to say that if we get lucky, on an Enceladus flyby, we may one day detect biosignatures in one of its plumes.

Meanwhile, the hunt for Martian fatty acids continues.

Dec 28th 2017

Two years ago, China launched a space probe into orbit around Earth. Scientists nicknamed it Wukong, or Monkey King, after the hero of a 16th-century novel about a Buddhist monk’s long journey to India to secure religious texts. The probe’s job was to track and record cosmic rays, the streams of high-energy particles that constantly bombard Earth’s atmosphere from all corners of the universe.

In its first 530 days of operation, the probe recorded more than 2.8 billion cosmic rays. When scientists looked at data, they found something unusual. Some of the cosmic rays—at least 1.5 million of them—were recorded at a different and higher energy level than the others. Plotted on a chart, they appeared as a cluster of tiny outliers suspended above the curve.

Though they don’t look like much, this blip is incredibly important to astrophysicists around the world who are trying to solve one of the biggest mysteries in science: the existence of dark matter. Scientists believe that dark matter makes up about a quarter of everything in the universe, but the tricky thing is that we can’t see dark matter. In fact, we don’t even know what it’s made of. The​ existence of dark matter ​is inferred in​directly from observational data. It shapes some important phenomena in the cosmos—like why galaxies form in the first place, and stick together instead of flying apart—that the physics we already understand cannot.

The top theory for dark matter suggests that the mysterious stuff is made of WIMPs, weakly interacting massive particles. Wukong, known formally as the Dark Matter Particle Explorer (DAMPE), is designed to detect the signal that comes from WIMPs. WIMPs are lazy, slow-moving particles that collide rarely, but when they do, they could form pairs of electrons and positrons—the antimatter counterparts of electrons—the particles that make up cosmic rays. An uptick in the number of these pairs would be detected as a distinct bump in a survey of cosmic rays—like the one Wukong identified.

The DAMPE findings, which were released last month in Nature, line up nicely with other space-based experiments on dark matter in the last decade, an exciting prospect in a field that depends on measuring the same thing more than once. But “that is not to say that this is an indication of dark matter,” said Douglas Finkbeiner, an astrophysicist at Harvard who studies dark matter. There are many possible interpretations. The signal detected by DAMPE and others come from all directions in the sky, so scientists can’t pinpoint a source. The unusual cosmic rays could come from supernovae, the powerful death of stars, or pulsars, bright, fast-rotating stars.

For now, the DAMPE result, while tantalizing, is inconclusive. For scientists, it provides another datapoint in the search for dark matter. But for China in particular, the findings mean something more. DAMPE is the country’s first mission dedicated exclusively to astronomy and astrophysics, and within two years it has returned a promising result. The successful showing makes China a fierce participant—or, depending on whom you ask, competitor—in the field.

“The way I see it, we are making strides towards solving this big cosmic puzzle,” said Priyamvada Natarajan, a theoretical astrophysicist at Yale. “I don’t feel restricted by international borders in that sense. But it doesn’t go unnoticed that it is a Chinese satellite that did it.”

When people talk about China’s ambitions in space, the discussion usually focuses on activities that have some military implications—like the launch of spy satellites—rather than scientific ones. Headlines shout about a “space race” between China and the United States, and some American defense officials rattle their sabers alongside calls for increased capabilities in low-Earth orbit. The thought of Chinese spacecraft near U.S. assets in orbit is, from a national-security perspective, far more unnerving than a science mission for a particle that may not even exist.

“Unless you’re in a really intense Star Trek fantasy, it’s not going to lead you into a weapons capability,” said Joan Johnson-Freese, a national-security affairs professor at the U.S. Naval War College who has studied space security for 20 years.

China has invested heavily in space science in recent years. The country started building the world’s most powerful radio telescope in 2011, edging the famed Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico out of the top spot. In the fall of 2016, the telescope, the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST) started making observations. It discovered two new pulsars in its first year of operations, and stands to be the leading instrument in the search for intelligent extraterrestrial life for years to come. In 2013, China landed a rover on the moon to poke around the surface. In June of this year, the Hard X-ray Modulation Telescope (HXMT), a space observatory to study black holes and neutron stars, joined DAMPE in orbit.

The choice to invest in these particular fields have been very deliberate, according to Johnson-Freese. “China likes to be in the record books like everyone else,” she said, but the country can’t compete in areas of space exploration where the U.S. and other countries have long dominated. Instead, the Chinese have gone after realms in which no country has yet made a definitive triumph—like the search for dark matter.

In March 2016, a few months after DAMPE launched, Chang Jin, the mission’s chief scientist, said the search for the mysterious substance is "tops the basic frontier projects of science listed by the U.S., Europe, China, and Japan."

“Any progress in dark matter research will probably bring a breakthrough in physics,” Chang said.

While a breakthrough by the Chinese—a breakthrough by any group of scientists in any nation, really—would be cause of celebration in the astrophysical community, the merriment would feel thorny for some.“If China were to get a Nobel prize in science, would that mean that the U.S. suddenly lost all of its lead? No,” Johnson-Freese said. “But I can see that there would be a lot of scientists who would say, well, this is going to become a Chinese matter of expertise. We’re going to depend on their science for us to do work.”

The isolation from a potential breakthrough likely will be felt most by American scientists, thanks to a law passed in 2011 that prohibits NASA from working with China’s space agency. There's some irony there, given that one of the earlier experiments that noticed the same, strange blip in a survey of cosmic rays—the signal that scientists hope betrays the existence of dark matter—came from a collaboration between China, the U.S., and other countries, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, mounted on the International Space Station just one month the Congress approved the ban.

China has found opportunities for collaboration elsewhere. Scientists from institutions in Geneva and Italy are working on the DAMPE mission, and Chinese officials are in talks with the European Space Agency about building an outpost on the moon together. “These congressional restrictions presume that forbidding contact will slow the pace of Chinese progress,” Gregory , a senior analyst and China project manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an American nonprofit group, said in an email. “Projects like FAST and DAMPE prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that presumption is mistaken.

Eventually, even China’s ambitions in particle physics will be subject to the scrutiny usually reserved for its more secretive, space-based military operations.“It seems no matter what China does in space, even if it is to make a significant scientific contribution to our understanding of the universe, some people in the United States will perceive it as a threat,” Kulacki said. But science is not a zero-sum game, he said, and the scientists themselves “understand who is to blame.”

After decades of looking for elusive dark-matter particles, the effort feels like it is at an impasse, Natarajan said. The hunt for WIMPs, the leading candidates, has repeatedly turned up empty, and astrophysicists are trying to broaden their search methods. Scientists are hopeful about more results from DAMPE, which is expected to last five years.

“We’ve all been thinking about this for so long, it’s such an embarrassment that anyone making progress is super exciting,” Natarajan said.

Dec 23rd 2017

There are various theories about how the solar system formed, but scientists haven't been able to agree on a single model that explains all the quirks of our corner of space as it exists today. Now, scientists at the University of Chicago have come up with a new model that explains an enduring mystery about the early solar system. They hypothesize that our solar system formed inside a massive space bubble, which was produced by a star 40 to 50 times the size of our sun. The research was published today in Astrophysical Journal.

These giant stars are called Wolf-Rayet stars and burn the hottest of any stars in our universe. This results in a stellar wind that envelops the star in the elements it's producing, which eventually forms a bubble around the star. Dust and gas become trapped inside the shell of this bubble, which is a great place for new stars to form.

The current prevailing hypothesis about the formation of our solar system is that it formed in the neighborhood of a supernova. However, this theory fails to explain the abundance of the isotope aluminum-26 in our early solar system, nor does it address our lack of the isotope iron-60. The proportions of these two elements in our early solar system, as compared to the rest of the galaxy, is something of a cosmic mystery. But the Wolf-Rayet theory may have provided a solution: While supernovae release both isotopes in some quantity, Wolf-Rayet stars produce aluminum-26, but not iron-60.

The giant star may be long gone (whether through a supernova explosion or direct collapse into a black hole), but before it died, the shell would have partially collapsed. The result was the birth of our solar system. While nothing is really for certain when it comes to what we know about space, it's certainly an interesting theory that deserves further study.

Dec 17th 2017

Nasa is refocusing its efforts to land on the moon, and this could mean building a settlement or a gateway to the rest of the solar system that can sustain human life.

Building a moon base might not be as simple as carrying construction material in a rocket and laying it out. Before even thinking of settling on the lunar surface, it is necessary to understand how the environment on the Moon works. In an interview with Newsweek (NW), Nasa senior technologist and expert in building planetary outposts, Robert P. Mueller, detailed how it might be possible to set up a permanent habitat on the Moon.

The first aspect of construction on the Moon, according, to Mueller is the building of the two-dimensional features like roads, parking lots, landing pads, and thermal areas that can hold warmth from the Lunar daytime. Then comes the three-dimensional projects like the hangars and habitats. Such structures are more than just sheds, they need to be pressurised and airtight to make it possible for people to live and work.

When asked about the design of these buildings, Mueller spoke about the extreme environment of the Lunar surface. Construction on the moon has got to be robotic as humans will not be there, in the beginning, he added. Robots will have to be sent up first, they begin basic construction and humans arrive later, to inhabit. He added that the technology required for this is not yet here and that in 10 to 20 years from now, it could be possible.

Buildings itself have to be made out of local materials, Mueller said. While in the beginning, it will be necessary to prefabricate shelters, eventually, construction will have to become Earth-independent, he added. There are vast quantities of "Regolith" or crushed rocks that can be used for construction on the Moon. After the first phase of construction is done, it will be possible to send only robots up and make use of energy from the Sun and building material from Mars for construction.

Of all the techniques that are being seriously studied, Mueller believes that 3D printing will lead the way in lunar construction. He spoke of a situation where small 3D printers print out the parts needed for a giant 3D printer on Moon. Then the big 3D printer, in turn, can print out more printers and entire buildings, setting up a number of robots and printers that can continue to function independently on the Moon.

Now that the shelters are sorted, Mueller went on to speak about food. LED lights are the key, he pointed out. Purple LEDs are known to be the best way to provide the needed warmth and light for plants to flourish, he said. He also spoke of the possibility of growing plants using local lunar soil. While lab made Martian soil has been proven to be able to sustain not just plants, but also worms, NW points out that this has not been proven with lunar soil yet.

Apart from being a source of food, there are physiological advantages for travellers to having plants in space, notes Mueller.

As far as water is concerned, there is plenty of it in on the Moon as well as Mars, said Mueller. It has to be mined from the soil. Once water is extracted from the soil, it has to be purified after which it can be consumed. Water is the most important resource in space, he noted.

It seems that after all, it might be possible to create a colony on the Moon before humans do so on Mars. CEO of SpaceX, a company that is eager to get to Mars and set up a colony there, has also shown interest in building one on the Moon as a sort of outpost to Earth.

The Japanese space agency, JAXA, has also identified a few caves on the Moon. The agency believes the caves are the right place to start building a lunar city.

Dec 15th 2017

The first scans for alien technology aboard a mysterious object that is barreling through the solar system have found no evidence it is the work of an intelligent civilisation.

The cigar-shaped object was spotted hurtling through the solar system in October and while astronomers suspected it was an interstellar asteroid, its curious shape led them to propose sweeping it for radio signals in case it happened to be an alien craft.

While the long, slender object may have been well suited to flying through clouds of interstellar gas at breakneck speed, as some researchers noted, the observation that the body was tumbling through space suggests any aerodynamic advantage was at best minimal.

Scientists on the Breakthrough Listen project, funded by the internet billionaire Yuri Milner, used the Green Bank telescope in West Virginia to eavesdrop on the 400m-long body named ‘Oumuamua, from the Hawaiian word for “messenger” or “scout”. The body is twice as far from Earth as the sun, but the telescope is so sensitive it could detect transmissions as weak as those produced by a mobile phone.

But on Thursday, the astronomers declared that the first observations across four bands of the radio spectrum had found no evidence that ‘Oumuamua is anything other than a long lump of space rock. Scientists on the project have released the data from the observations so anyone can study the information.

“This is a fishing expedition,” said Avi Loeb, professor of astronomy at Harvard University and an adviser to the Breakthrough Listen project. “We are most likely not to find anything, but it is worth checking steadily our fishing hooks. We will keep searching for artificial signals from ‘Oumuamua or any other interstellar object that will be discovered in the future.”

The first batch of four observations ran from 8.45pm UK time on Wednesday until 2.45am on Thursday morning and spanned a frequency range from 1 to 12 GHz. While the search for alien signals has so far found nothing in the 1.7 to 2.6GHz range, the rest of the data is still being processed.

Andrew Siemion, director of Berkeley Seti Research Center, told the Guardian that a review of all four bands observed Wednesday night had come up blank. “We don’t see anything continuously emitting from ‘Oumuamua,” he said. “We’re now digging into some of the intermittent candidates, and trying some new machine learning-based techniques we have been working on. We expect our next observation window to be scheduled for Friday or Saturday, when we should get a view of additional phases of ‘Oumuamua as it rotates.”

The interstellar asteroid was first spotted by researchers on the Pan-Starrs telescope project in Hawaii as it swept past Earth at 85 times the distance to the moon. As ‘Oumuamua sped towards the sun, it gathered speed, reaching 196,000mph. The body is moving so fast it will eventually leave the solar system completely.

 


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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