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A new space race? China adds urgency to US return to moon

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By: Associated Press, Washington | September 15, 2022

It’s not just rocket fuel propelling America’s first moonshot after a half-century lull. Rivalry with China’s flourishing space program is helping drive NASA’s effort to get back into space in a bigger way, as both nations push to put people back on the moon and establish the first lunar bases.

American intelligence, military and political leaders make clear they see a host of strategic challenges to the U.S. in China’s space program, in an echo of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry that prompted the 1960s’ race to the moon. That’s as China is quickly matching U.S. civil and military space accomplishments and notching new ones of its own. On the military side, the U.S. and China trade accusations of weaponizing space.

Senior U.S. defense officials warn that China and Russia are building capabilities to take out the satellite systems that underpin U.S. intelligence, military communications and early warning networks. There’s also a civilian side to the space race. The U.S. is wary of China taking the lead in space exploration and commercial exploitation, and pioneering the technological and scientific advances that would put China ahead in power in space and in prestige down on Earth.

“In a decade, the United States has gone from the unquestioned leader in space to merely one of two peers in a competition,” Sen. Jim Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, declared this week at a Senate Armed Services hearing. “Everything our military does relies on space.”At another hearing last year, NASA administrator Bill Nelson brandished an image transmitted by a Chinese rover that had just plunked down on Mars. “The Chinese government … they’re going to be landing humans on the moon” soon, he said. “That should tell us something about our need to get off our duff.”

NASA, the U.S. civilian space agency, is awaiting a new launch date this month or in October for its Artemis 1 uncrewed test moonshot. Technical problems scrubbed the first two launch attempts in recent weeks.China likewise aims to send astronauts to the moon this decade, as well as establish a robotic research station there. Both the U.S. and China intend to establish bases for intermittent crews on the moon’s south pole after that. Russia has aligned with China’s moon program, while 21 nations have joined a U.S.-initiated effort meant to bring guidelines and order to the civil exploration and development of space.

The parallel efforts come 50 years after U.S. astronauts last pulled shut the doors on an Apollo module and blasted away from the moon, in December 1972. Some space policy experts bat down talk of a new space race, seeing big differences from John F. Kennedy’s Cold War drive to outdo the Soviet Union’s Sputnik and be the first to get people on the moon. This time, both the U.S. and China see moon programs as a stepping stone in phased programs toward exploring, settling and potentially exploiting the resources and other untapped economic and strategic opportunities offered by the moon, Mars and space at large.

Beyond the gains in technology, science and jobs that accompany space programs, Artemis promoters point to the potential of mining minerals and frozen water on the moon, or using the moon as a base to go prospecting on asteroids — the Trump administration in particular emphasized the mining prospects. There’s potential in tourism and other commercial efforts. And for space more broadly, Americans alone have tens of thousands of satellites overhead in what the Space Force says is a half-trillion dollar global space economy.

Satellites guide GPS, process credit card purchases, help keep TV, radio and cell phone feeds going, and predict weather. They ensure the military and intelligence community’s ability to keep track of perceived threats. And in a world where China and Russia are collaborating to try to surpass the U.S. in space, and where some point to private space efforts led by U.S. billionaires as rendering costly NASA rocket launches unnecessary, the U.S. would regret leaving the glory and strategic advantages from developing the moon and space solely to the likes of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Tesla magnate Elon Musk, Artemis proponents say.

The moon programs signal that “space is going to be an arena of competition on the prestige front, demonstrating advanced technical expertise and know-how, and then also on the military front as well,” said Aaron Bateman, a professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University and a member of the Space Policy Institute.“People who are supportive of Artemis and people who see it as a tool of competition, they want the United States to be at the table in shaping the future of exploration on other celestial bodies,” Bateman said.

There’s no shortage of such warnings as the Artemis program moves toward lift-off. “Beijing is working to match or exceed U.S. capabilities in space to gain the military, economic, and prestige benefits that Washington has accrued from space leadership,” the U.S. intelligence community warned this year in its annual threat assessment.

A Pentagon-commissioned study group contended last month that “China appears to be on track to surpass the U.S. as the dominant space power by 2045.” It called that part of a Chinese plan to promote authoritarianism and communism down here on Earth. It’s sparked occasional heated words between Chinese and U.S. officials. China’s space program was guided by peaceable principles, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in July. “Some U.S. officials are constantly smearing China’s normal and reasonable outer space undertakings,” Zhao said.

Flying on the mightiest rocket ever built by NASA, Artemis 1 aims for a five-week demo flight that would put test dummies into lunar orbit. If all goes well with that, U.S. astronauts could fly around the moon in 2024 and land on it in 2025, culminating a program that will have cost $93 billion over more than a decade of work. NASA intends that a woman and a person of color will be on the first U.S. crew touching foot on the moon again.

Lessons learned in getting back to the moon will aid in the next step in crewed flights, to Mars, the space agency says. China’s ambitious space program, meanwhile, is a generation behind that of the United States. But its secretive, military-linked program is developing fast and creating distinctive missions that could put Beijing on the leading edge of space flight. Already, China has that rover on Mars, joining a U.S. one already there.

China carved out a first with its landing on the far side of the moon. Chinese astronauts are overhead now, putting the finishing touches on a permanent orbiting space station. A 1967 U.N. space treaty meant to start shaping the guardrails for space exploration bans anyone from claiming sovereignty over a celestial body, putting a military base on it, or putting weapons of mass destruction into space.“I don’t think it’s at all by coincidence or happenstance that it is now in this period of what people are claiming is renewed great-power competition that the United States is actually investing the resources to go back,” said Bateman, the scholar on space and national security.

“Time will tell if this turns into a sustained program.”Competition isn’t necessarily a bad thing, said Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.Does rivalry with the Chinese “ensure greater sustained interest in our space program? Sure,” Coons said. “But I don’t think that’s necessarily a competition that leads to conflict.“I think it can be a competition — like the Olympics — that simply means that each team and each side is going to push higher and faster. And as a result, humanity is likely to benefit,” he said.

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ISRO Mars Orbiter Mission Completes Eight Years in Orbit, Well Beyond Planned Six-Month Lifespan

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By Press Trust of India | Updated: 26 September 2022

India’s Mars orbiter craft has completed eight years in its orbit, well beyond its designed mission life of six months. Plans on a follow-on ‘Mangalyaan’ mission to the Red Planet, however, are yet to be firmed up.

The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) – a technology demonstration venture – is the maiden interplanetary mission of the national space agency, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

Launched on November 5, 2013, the probe was successfully inserted into Martian orbit on September 24, 2014 in its first attempt.

To mark the latest milestone, ISRO has organised a ‘National Meet on Eight Years of India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM)’ at its headquarters here on Tuesday with an inaugural address by its Chairman S Somanath.

Space Commission members K Radhakrishnan and A S Kiran Kumar would deliver special addresses at the meet, which would focus on themes ‘Mars Orbiter Mission Overview’, ‘Scientific Achievements’ and ‘Future Directions in the exploration of the inner solar system’.

As the then chairman of ISRO, Radhakrishnan had led the MOM (Mangalyaan) mission team.

ISRO came out with an ‘Announcement of Opportunity’ (AO) for future Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM-2) in 2016 but officials acknowledged that it’s still on the drawing board, with the coming ‘Gaganyaan’, ‘Chandrayaan-3’ and ‘Aditya – L1’ projects being in the space agency’s current priority list.

The AO had said: “It is now planned to have the next orbiter mission around Mars for a future launch opportunity. Proposals are solicited from interested scientists within India for experiments onboard an orbiter mission around Mars (MOM-2), to address relevant scientific problems and topics”.

“Not in the approved list as of now”, a senior ISRO official told PTI on Monday on being asked about an update on the MOM-2.

“We need to formulate the project proposals and payloads based on the wider consultation with the research community”, the official said on condition of anonymity. “It’s still on the drawing board. But needs some more details and international collaboration for finalising the mission”.

“It’s quite a satisfying and fulfilling moment”, MOM’s Programme Director M Annadurai told PTI today on the Mars orbiter craft completing eight years in orbit.

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NASA Aims to Redirect Asteroid in DART Mission’s First Attempt at Planetary Defence

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By Reuters | Updated: 26 September 2022

Ten months after launch, NASA’s asteroid-deflecting DART spacecraft neared a planned impact with its target on Monday in a test of the world’s first planetary defense system, designed to prevent a doomsday collision with Earth.

The cube-shaped “impactor” vehicle, roughly the size of a vending machine with two rectangular solar arrays, was on course to fly into the asteroid Dimorphos, about as large as a football stadium, and self-destruct around 7pm EDT (4:30 IST) some 6.8 million miles (11 million km) from Earth.

The mission’s finale will test the ability of a spacecraft to alter an asteroid’s trajectory with sheer kinetic force, plowing into the object at high speed to nudge it astray just enough to keep our planet out of harm’s way.

It marks the world’s first attempt to change the motion of an asteroid, or any celestial body.

DART, launched by a SpaceX rocket in November 2021, has made most of its voyage under the guidance of NASA’s flight directors, with control to be handed over to an autonomous on-board navigation system in the final hours of the journey.

Monday evening’s planned impact is to be monitored in real time from the mission operations center at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland.

DART’s celestial target is an asteroid “moonlet” about 560 feet (170 metres) in diameter that orbits a parent asteroid five times larger called Didymos as part of a binary pair with the same name, the Greek word for twin.

Neither object presents any actual threat to Earth, and NASA scientists said their DART test cannot create a new existential hazard by mistake.

Dimorphos and Didymos are both tiny compared with the cataclysmic Chicxulub asteroid that struck Earth some 66 million years ago, wiping out about three-quarters of the world’s plant and animal species including the dinosaurs.

Smaller asteroids are far more common and pose a greater theoretical concern in the near term, making the Didymos pair suitable test subjects for their size, according to NASA scientists and planetary defense experts.

Also, their relative proximity to Earth and dual-asteroid configuration make them ideal for the first proof-of-concept mission o
f DART, short for Double Asteroid Redirection Test.

Robotic mission suicide

The mission represents a rare instance in which a NASA spacecraft must ultimately crash to succeed.

The plan is for DART to fly directly into Dimorphos at 15,000 miles per hour (24,000 kph), bumping it hard enough to shift its orbital track closer to its larger companion asteroid.

Cameras on the impactor and on a briefcase-sized mini-spacecraft released from DART days in advance are designed to record the collision and send images back to Earth.

DART’s own camera is expected to return pictures at the rate of one image per second during its final approach, with those images streaming live on NASA TV starting an hour before impact, according to APL.

The DART team said it expects to shorten the orbital track of Dimorphos by 10 minutes but would consider at least 73 seconds a success, proving the exercise as a viable technique to deflect an asteroid on a collision course with Earth – if one were ever discovered. A small nudge to an asteroid millions of miles away could be sufficient to safely reroute it away from the planet.

The test’s outcome will not be known until a new round of ground-based telescope observations of the two asteroids in October. Earlier calculations of the starting location and orbital period of Dimorphos were confirmed during a six-day observation period in July.

DART is the latest of several NASA missions in recent years to explore and interact with asteroids, primordial rocky remnants from the solar system’s formation more than 4.5 billion years ago.

Last year, NASA launched a probe on a voyage to the Trojan asteroid clusters orbiting near Jupiter, while the grab-and-go spacecraft OSIRIS-REx is on its way back to Earth with a sample collected in October 2020 from the asteroid Bennu.

The Dimorphos moonlet is one of the smallest astronomical objects to receive a permanent name and is one of 27,500 known near-Earth asteroids of all sizes tracked by NASA. Although none are known to pose a foreseeable hazard to humankind, NASA estimates that many more asteroids remain undetected in the near-Earth vicinity.

NASA has put the entire cost of the DART project at $330 million (roughly Rs. 2,700 crore), well below that of many of the space agency’s most ambitious science missions.

© Thomson Reuters 2022

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NASA’s Artemis 1 Launch Faces Another Obstacle, Next Launch Window in October

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 24 September 2022

NASA’s historic uncrewed mission to the Moon is facing fresh difficulties. After technical problems derailed two launch attempts several weeks ago, a new liftoff of the Artemis 1 mission scheduled for Tuesday is now threatened by a storm gathering in the Caribbean.

The storm, which has not yet been assigned a name, is currently located south of the Dominican Republic.

But it is expected to grow into a hurricane in the coming days and could move north to Florida, home to the Kennedy Space Center, from which the rocket is set to launch.

“Our plan A is to stay to course and to get the launch off on September 27,” Mike Bolger, NASA’s exploration ground systems manager, told reporters on Friday. “But we realised we also need to be really paying attention and thinking about a plan B.”

That would entail wheeling the giant Space Launch System rocket back to the Vehicle Assembly Building, known as VAB.

“If we were to go down to Plan B we need a couple days to pivot from our current tanking test or launch configuration to execute rollback and get back into the protection of the VAB,” Bolger said, adding that a decision should be made by early afternoon on Saturday.

On the launch pad the orange and white SLS rocket can withstand wind gusts of up to 137 kilometres per hour. But if it has to be sheltered, the current launch window, which runs until October 4, will be missed.

The next launch window will run from October 17 to 31, with one possibility of take-off per day, except from October 24-26 and 28.

A successful Artemis 1 mission will come as a huge relief to the US space agency, after years of delays and cost overruns. But another setback would be a blow to NASA, after two previous launch attempts were scrapped when the rocket experienced technical glitches including a fuel leak.

The launch dates depend on NASA receiving a special waiver to avoid having to retest batteries on an emergency flight system that is used to destroy the rocket if it strays from its designated range to a populated area.

On Tuesday the launch window will open at 11:37 local time and will last 70 minutes.

If the rocket takes off that day, the mission will last 39 days before it lands in the Pacific Ocean on November 5.

The Artemis 1 space mission hopes to test the SLS as well as the unmanned Orion capsule that sits atop, in preparation for future Moon-bound journeys with humans aboard.

Mannequins equipped with sensors are standing in for astronauts on the mission and will record acceleration, vibration and radiation levels.

The next mission, Artemis 2, will take astronauts into orbit around the Moon without landing on its surface.

The crew of Artemis 3 is to land on the Moon in 2025 at the earliest.

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Astronomers Spot Hot Gas Bubble Spinning Clockwise Around Milky Way Black Hole

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 22 September 2022

Astronomers said Thursday they have spotted a hot bubble of gas spinning clockwise around the black hole at the centre of our galaxy at “mind blowing” speeds.

The detection of the bubble, which only survived for a few hours, is hoped to provide insight into how these invisible, insatiable, galactic monsters work.

The supermassive black hole Sagittarius A* lurks in the middle of the Milky Way some 27,000 light years from Earth, and its immense pull gives our home galaxy its characteristic swirl.

The first-ever image of Sagittarius A* was revealed in May by the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration, which links radio dishes around the world aiming to detect light as it disappears into the maw of black holes.

One of those dishes, the ALMA radio telescope in Chile’s Andes mountains, picked up something “really puzzling” in the Sagittarius A* data, said Maciek Wielgus, an astrophysicist at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy.

Just minutes before ALMA’s radio data collection began, the Chandra Space Telescope observed a “huge spike” in X-rays, Wielgus told AFP.

This burst of energy, thought to be similar to solar flares on the Sun, sent a hot bubble of gas swirling around the black hole, according to a new study published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.

The gas bubble, also known as a hot spot, had an orbit similar to Mercury’s trip around the Sun, the study’s lead author Wielgus said.

But while it takes Mercury 88 days to make that trip, the bubble did it in just 70 minutes. That means it travelled at around 30 percent of the speed of light.

“So it’s an absolutely, ridiculously fast-spinning bubble,” Wielgus said, calling it “mind blowing”.

A MAD theory

The scientists were able to track the bubble through their data for around one and half hours – it was unlikely to have survived more than a couple of orbits before being destroyed.

Wielgus said the observation supported a theory known as MAD. “MAD like crazy, but also MAD like magnetically arrested discs,” he said.

The phenomenon is thought to happen when there is such a strong magnetic field at the mouth of a black hole that it stops material from being sucked inside.

But the matter keeps piling up, building up to a “flux eruption”, Wielgus said, which snaps the magnetic fields and causes a burst of energy.

By learning how these magnetic fields work, scientists hope to build a model of the forces that control black holes, which remain shrouded in mystery.

Magnetic fields could also help indicate how fast black holes spin – which could be particularly interesting for Sagittarius A*.

While Sagittarius A* is four million times the mass of our Sun, it only shines with the power of about 100 suns, “which is extremely unimpressive for a supermassive black hole, Wielgus said.

“It’s the weakest supermassive black hole that we’ve seen in the universe – we’ve only seen it because it is very close to us.”

But it is probably a good thing that our galaxy has a “starving black hole” at its centre, Wielgus said.

“Living next to a quasar,” which can shine with the power of billions of suns, “would be a terrible thing,” he added.

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Cyborg Cockroaches Powered by Solar Cells Could Help First Responders in Disaster Areas: Details

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By Reuters | Updated: 22 September 2022

If an earthquake strikes in the not too distant future and survivors are trapped under tonnes of rubble, the first responders to locate them could be swarms of cyborg cockroaches.

That’s a potential application of a recent breakthrough by Japanese researchers who demonstrated the ability to mount “backpacks” of solar cells and electronics on the bugs and control their motion by remote control.

Kenjiro Fukuda and his team at the Thin-Film Device Laboratory at Japanese research giant Riken developed a flexible solar cell film that’s 4 microns thick, about 1/25 the width of a human hair, and can fit on the insect’s abdomen.

The film allows the roach to move freely while the solar cell generates enough power to process and send directional signals into sensory organs on the bug’s hindquarters.

The work builds upon previous insect-control experiments at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and could one day result in cyborg insects that can enter hazardous areas much more efficiently than robots.

“The batteries inside small robots run out quickly, so the time for exploration becomes shorter,” Fukuda said. “A key benefit (of a cyborg insect) is that when it comes to an insect’s movements, the insect is causing itself to move, so the electricity required is nowhere near as much.”

Fukuda and his team chose Madagascar hissing cockroaches for the experiments because they are big enough to carry the equipment and have no wings that would get in the way. Even when the backpack and film are glued to their backs, the bugs can traverse small obstacles or right themselves when flipped over.

The research still has a long way to go. In a recent demonstration, Riken researcher Yujiro Kakei used a specialized computer and wireless Bluetooth signal to tell the cyborg roach to turn left, causing it to scramble in that general direction. But when given the “right” signal, the bug turned in circles.

The next challenge is miniaturising the components so that the insects can move more easily and to allow for mounting of sensors and even cameras. Kakei said he constructed the cyborg backpack with JPY 5,000 (roughly Rs. 2,700) worth of parts purchased at Tokyo’s famed Akihabara electronics district.

The backpack and film can be removed, allowing the roaches to go back to life in the lab’s terrarium. The insects mature in four months and have been known to live up to five years in captivity.

Beyond disaster rescue bugs, Fukuda sees broad applications for the solar cell film, composed of microscopic layers of plastic, silver, and gold. The film could be built into clothing or skin patches for use in monitoring vital signs.

On a sunny day, a parasol covered with the material could generate enough electricity to charge a mobile phone, he said.

© Thomson Reuters 2022

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SpaceX to Seek Iran Sanctions Exemption to Bring Starlink Satellite Internet Connectivity, Elon Musk Says

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 21 September 2022

SpaceX will apply for an exemption from US sanctions against Iran in a bid to offer its satellite internet service to the country, owner Elon Musk said on Monday.

“Starlink will apply for an exemption from sanctions against Iran,” Musk said in response to a tweet from a science reporter.

Musk had initially announced that the Starlink satellite internet service had been made available on every continent – “including Antarctica” – with the company planning to launch up to 42,000 satellites to boost connectivity.

Iranian-born science journalist Erfan Kasraie had said on Twitter that bringing the service to Iran could be a “real game changer for the future” of the country, which elicited Musk’s response.

Launched at the end of 2020, Starlink offers high-speed broadband service to customers in areas poorly served by fixed and mobile terrestrial networks through a constellation of satellites in low earth orbit.

The service received notoriety after supplying antennas and modems to the Ukrainian military to improve its communications capabilities in its war with Russia.

Starlink is monetised through the purchase of antennas, modems, and subscriptions with rates that vary by country.

Nearly 3,000 Starlink satellites have been deployed since 2019 and SpaceX is conducting about one launch a week, using its own Falcon 9 rockets to speed up its deployment.

Iran has been under a tightened US sanctions regime since former president Donald Trump terminated a 2015 agreement over its nuclear activities.

While current President Joe Biden supports a renegotiation of the deal, Iranian insistence on long-term guarantees from Washington has stalled discussions.

New rounds of sanctions were imposed on Iran this month after a Tehran-based company helped ship drones to Russia, and in response to a massive cyberattack targeting Albania in July allegedly carried out by Iran’s intelligence ministry.

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