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Arecibo Telescope in Puerto Rico to Be Decommissioned After 57 Years of Service

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 20 November 2020

The renowned Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico will be dismantled after 57 years of service due to the rupture of cables that have led to the threat of collapse, the US National Science Foundation announced Thursday.

Two cables supporting the 900-ton instruments for the telescope above a radio dish 1,000 feet (305 metres) in diameter broke on August 10 and November 6.

Engineers are concerned other cables could also break at any time, making any attempt at repair excessively dangerous.

The telescope is one of the largest in the world and has been a tool for many astronomical discoveries.

The foundation “prioritises the safety of workers, Arecibo Observatory’s staff and visitors, which makes this decision necessary, although unfortunate,” said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan.

“For nearly six decades, the Arecibo Observatory has served as a beacon for breakthrough science and what a partnership with a community can look like.”

Using the hashtag “WhatAreciboMeansToMe”, messages of sadness at the news spread on Twitter from both professional and amateur astronomers who have used the telescope for their work in observing the cosmos for decades.

“More than a telescope, Arecibo is the reason I am even in astronomy,” local astronomer Kevin Ortiz Ceballos wrote on Twitter.

Karen Masters, astrophysics professor at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, posted a photo of herself and her baby daughter near the radio dish in 2008 and said she was “heartbroken and disappointed.”

An action scene from the James Bond film GoldenEye takes place above the telescope, and in the film Contact an astronomer played by Jodie Foster uses the observatory in her quest for alien signals.

The engineering company that examined the structure concluded that the remaining cables were possibly weaker than expected and recommended controlled demolition, which the foundation accepted.

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Japan’s Hayabusa2 Space Probe to Bring Asteroid Dust to Earth

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 4 December 2020

Call it a special delivery: after six years in space, Japan’s Hayabusa2 probe is heading home, but only to drop off its rare asteroid samples before starting a new mission.

The fridge-sized probe, launched in December 2014, has already thrilled scientists by landing on and gathering material from an asteroid some 300 million kilometres (185 million miles) from Earth.

But its work isn’t over yet, with scientists from Japan’s space agency JAXA now planning to extend its mission for more than a decade and targeting two new asteroids.

Before that mission can begin, Hayabusa2 needs to drop off its precious samples from the asteroid Ryugu, “dragon palace” in Japanese.

Scientists are hoping the capsule will contain around 0.1 grams of material that will offer clues about what the solar system was like at its birth some 4.6 billion years ago.

The samples could shed light on “how matter is scattered around the solar system, why it exists on the asteroid and how it is related to Earth,” project manager Yuichi Tsuda told reporters ahead of Sunday’s drop-off.

The material is in a capsule that will separate from Hayabusa2 while it is some 220,000 kilometres above Earth and then plummet into the southern Australian desert.

They were collected during two crucial phases of the mission last year.

In the first, Hayabusa2 touched down on Ryugu to collect dust before firing an “impactor” to stir up pristine material from below the surface. Months later, it touched down to collect additional samples.

“We may be able to get substances that will give us clues to the birth of a planet and the origin of life… I’m very interested to see the substances,” mission manager Makoto Yoshikawa told reporters.

Protected from sunlight and radiation inside the capsule, the samples will be collected, processed, then flown to Japan.

Half the material will be shared between JAXA, US space agency NASA and other international organisations, and the rest kept for future study as advances are made in analytic technology.

Two new asteroid targets
After dropping off its samples, Hayabusa2 will complete a series of orbits around the sun for around six years, recording data on dust in interplanetary space and observing exoplanets.

It will then approach the first of its target asteroids in July 2026.

The probe won’t get that close to the asteroid named 2001 CC21, but scientists hope it will be able to photograph it as it completes a “high speed swing-by”.

Getting so close could also help develop knowledge about how to protect Earth against asteroid impact.

Hayabusa2 will then head towards its main target, 1998 KY26, a ball-shaped asteroid with a diameter of just 30 metres. When the probe arrives at the asteroid in July 2031, it will be approximately 300 million kilometres from Earth.

And the target poses significant new challenges, not least because it is spinning rapidly, rotating on its axis about every 10 minutes.

Hayabusa2 will observe and photograph the asteroid, but it is unlikely to land and collect samples, as it probably won’t have enough fuel to return them to Earth.

Still, just making it to the asteroid will be a feat, said Seiichiro Watanabe, a Hayabusa2 probe project scientist and professor of planetary science at Nagoya University.

“It’s like an athlete who scored two tries at a Rugby World Cup game attempting to compete in the Olympics, 10 years after switching over to figure skating,” he told reporters.

“We had never expected that the Hayabusa2 would carry out another mission… but it’s a scientifically meaningful and fascinating plan.”

The mission extension comes with risks, including that Hayabusa2’s equipment will degrade in deep space, but it also offers a rare, comparatively cost-effective way to continue research.

The probe is the successor to JAXA’s first asteroid explorer “Hayabusa”, which means falcon in Japanese.

That probe brought back dust samples from a smaller, potato-shaped asteroid in 2010 after a seven-year odyssey, and was hailed as a scientific triumph.

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China’s Chang’e 5 Probe Leaves Moon With Rock Samples for Return to Earth

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 4 December 2020

A Chinese space probe has lifted off from the surface of the Moon to return to Earth, an ambitious effort to bring back the first lunar samples in four decades.

Beijing is looking to catch up with the US and Russia after taking decades to match its rivals’ achievements and has poured billions into its military-run space programme.

The Chang’e 5 spacecraft, named after the mythical Chinese Moon goddess, left the Moon at 15:10 GMT Thursday (8:40pm Thursday IST), said China’s space agency.

A module carrying lunar rocks and soil was launched into orbit by a powerful thrust engine, officials said of the mission that landed Tuesday on the Moon.

Video footage from China’s state broadcaster CCTV showed the probe taking off from the surface of the Moon in a bright burst of light.

The space agency said that “before lift-off, the Chinese flag was raised on the moon’s surface”.

It added that this was the first time that China had achieved take-off from an extraterrestrial body.

The module then must undergo the delicate operation of linking up with the part of the spacecraft that is to bring the specimens back to Earth, official news agency Xinhua reported.

Scientists hope the samples will help them learn about the Moon’s origins, formation and volcanic activity on its surface.

If the return journey is successful, China will be only the third country to have retrieved samples from the Moon, following the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s.

Space dreams
This is the first such attempt since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission in 1976.

The spacecraft’s mission was to collect two kilograms (4.5 pounds) of material in an area known as Oceanus Procellarum, or Ocean of Storms, a vast, previously unexplored lava plain, according to the science journal Nature.

Xinhua, which called Chang’e 5 “one of the most complicated and challenging missions in Chinese aerospace history”, reported the probe worked for about 19 hours on the Moon.

The samples were to be returned to Earth in a capsule programmed to land in northern China’s Inner Mongolia region, according to US space agency NASA.

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

China hopes to have a crewed space station by 2022 and eventually send humans to the Moon.

China launched its first satellite in 1970, while human spaceflight took decades longer, with Yang Liwei becoming China’s first “taikonaut” in 2003.

A Chinese lunar rover landed on the far side of the Moon in January 2019 in a global first that boosted Beijing’s aspirations to become a space superpower.

The latest probe is among a slew of ambitious targets, which include creating a powerful rocket capable of delivering payloads heavier than those NASA and private rocket firm SpaceX can handle, a lunar base, and a permanently crewed space station.

China’s taikonauts and scientists have also talked up crewed missions to Mars.

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Singapore Approves Sale of No-Kill Lab-Grown Meat in World First

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By Reuters | Updated: 3 December 2020

Singapore has given US start-up Eat Just the greenlight to sell its lab-grown chicken meat, in what the firm says is the world’s first regulatory approval for so-called clean meat that does not come from slaughtered animals.

The meat, to be sold as nuggets, will be priced at premium chicken prices when it first launches in a restaurant in Singapore “in the very near term”, co-founder and CEO Josh Tetrick said.

Demand for alternatives to regular meat is surging due to concerns about health, animal welfare and the environment. Plant-based substitutes, popularised by the likes of Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and Quorn, increasingly feature on supermarket shelves and restaurant menus.

But so-called clean or cultured meat, which is grown from animal muscle cells in a lab, is still at a nascent stage given high production costs.

Singapore, a city state of 5.7 million, currently only produces about 10 percent of its food but has set out ambitious plans to raise that over the next decade by supporting high-tech farming and new means of food production.

Josh Tetrick said the San Francisco-based firm was also talking to US regulators but that Singapore was a “good bit” ahead of the United States.

“I would imagine what will happen is the US, Western Europe and others will see what Singapore has been able to do, the rigours of the framework that they put together. And I would imagine that they will try to use it as a template to put their own framework together,” he said in an interview.

The Singapore Food Agency said it had reviewed data relating to process, manufacturing control and safety testing before granting approval.

Eat Just said it will manufacture the product in Singapore, where it also plans to start making a mung bean-based egg substitute it has been selling commercially in the United States.

Founded in 2011, Eat Just counts Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing and Singapore state investor Temasek among its backers. It has raised more than $300 million (roughly Rs. 2,200 crores) since its inception, Tetrick said, and is valued at roughly $1.2 billion (roughly Rs. 8,900 crores).

It is targeting profitability at an operating income level before the end of 2021 and hopes to go public soon after, he added.

Globally more than two dozen firms are testing lab-grown fish, beef and chicken, hoping to break into an unproven segment of the alternative meat market, which Barclays estimates could be worth $140 billion (roughly Rs. 10,34,400 crores) by 2029.

Competitors have also attracted some eye-catching investors.

US-based Memphis Meats raised funds this year in a deal led by Japan’s SoftBank and Temasek, and also counts Bill Gates and Richard Branson among its backers.

Singapore’s Shiok Meats, which aims to become the first company to sell lab-grown shrimp, is backed by Henry Soesanto of Philippines’ Monde Nissin, which also owns Quorn.

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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China’s Chang’e 5 Probe Completes Lunar Sample Collection, Prepares to Return

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 3 December 2020

A Chinese space probe sent to gather material from a previously unexplored part of the moon has completed its mission and is preparing to send back the world’s first lunar samples in four decades, Beijing said Thursday.

China has poured billions into its military-run space programme, with hopes of having a crewed space station by 2022 and eventually sending humans to the Moon.

The Chang’e 5 spacecraft, named after the mythical Chinese Moon goddess, landed on the moon Tuesday and has now completed its gathering of lunar rocks and soil, the China National Space Administration said.

The spacecraft had been due to collect two kilograms (4.5 pounds) of material from an area known as Oceanus Procellarum, or “Ocean of Storms,” a vast lava plain, according to the science journal Nature.

Scientists hope the samples will help them learn about the Moon’s origins, formation and volcanic activity on its surface.

State media said this week that the craft was preparing for “around 48 hours” of tasks on the lunar surface.

If successful, China will be only the third country to have retrieved samples from the Moon, following the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s.

This is the first such attempt since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission in 1976.

The CNSA on Thursday said the Chang’e 5 had completed the sampling and successfully packed the collected materials in a special container by Wednesday night.

“Scientific detection was carried out as planned,” the space agency said, without providing details.

The samples will be returned to Earth in a capsule programmed to land in northern China’s Inner Mongolia region in early December, according to US space agency NASA.

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Latvian Lab Developing Technology to Help Earth Dodge Asteroids

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 2 December 2020

In a corner of the campus at Riga Technical University, a team of scientists is working on technology that could one day stop asteroids from smashing into Earth.

The high-precision timers being built by hand in the lab of Latvian start-up Eventech are currently being used to track satellites.

This year, the company won a European Space Agency (ESA) contract to develop timers that will study the possibility of re-directing an asteroid before it comes too close to our planet for comfort.

NASA plans to launch the first part of the Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission, known as the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), on July 22, 2021 on a Falcon 9 rocket belonging to tech tycoon Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

The 500-kilogram (1,100-pound) camera-equipped probe will fly to an asteroid named Didymos and smash into it, trying to blow it off its current course that will see it pass near Earth sometime in 2123.

Eventech’s deep space event timers are being developed for the follow-up HERA mission, which is planned to launch five years later, to determine if the first mission succeeded.

‘To boldly go’
“Our new technology that will follow on the second ESA spacecraft named HERA will measure if the first impact steered the kilometre-sized Didymos off its previous course, avoiding harm to humanity,” Eventech engineer Imants Pulkstenis told AFP at the lab.

“It’s much more interesting to boldly go where no man has gone before than to manufacture some mundane consumer electronics for huge profit,” he added, borrowing the famous slogan from Star Trek, the cult 1960s sci-fi television series.

Eventech’s timers are part of a space technology tradition in the Baltic state stretching back to Soviet times when Sputnik, the first man-made satellite to orbit the Earth, was launched in 1957.

They measure the time needed for an impulse of light to travel to an object in orbit and back.

Eventech devices can record the measurement to within a picosecond, or one trillionth of a second, which allows astronomers to convert a time measure into a distance measurement with up to two millimetres of precision.

Sending timers into deep space
Around 10 of the timers are produced every year and they are used in observatories around the world.

They track Earth’s increasingly crowded atmosphere, filled with a new crop of private satellites alongside traditional scientific and military ones.

“Tracking them all requires tools,” Eventech chief operations officer Pavels Razmajevs said.

Although Latvia only became a full member of the ESA in 2016, its engineers have been tracking satellites since the Soviet-era.

The University of Latvia even has its own satellite laser ranging station in a forest south of Riga.

Eventech’s engineers said they use analogue parts as much as possible, mainly because microchips take nanoseconds to compute the signal, which is too long for incoming measurements ranging in picoseconds.

Even the physical length of the motherboard can affect how fast the signal travels from one circuit to another.

While these timers are used for calculations on Earth, a different appliance for deep space missions is being developed in another corner of the same lab to track planetary objects from a moving space probe.

“There is no GPS data coverage available on other planets so you have to take your own precision ranging with you,” Pulkstenis said.

Developing devices for deep space will be a complex task, but one Eventech’s engineers are relishing.

“Our updated technology has to withstand extreme temperatures in space and extreme cosmic radiation,” said Pulkstenis. “It’s a fun challenge”.

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Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory Telescope Collapses Ahead of Planned Demolition

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By Reuters | Updated: 2 December 2020

A massive radio telescope at Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory, one of the world’s largest, collapsed on Tuesday after sustaining severe damage since August, officials said, following 57 years of astronomical discoveries.

The deteriorating telescope’s 900-ton instrument platform, suspended by cables 450 feet (137 metres) above a 1,000-foot-wide (305 metres) bowl-shaped reflector dish, fell on Tuesday morning, the US National Science Foundation said. No injuries were reported, it added.

The telescope, which received radio waves from space, had been used by scientists around the world to hunt for possible signatures of extraterrestrial life, study distant planets and find potentially hazardous asteroids. It also gained fame after pivotal scenes in the 1995 James Bond film “GoldenEye” starring Pierce Brosnan were shot there.

Two cables supporting the reflector dish had broken since August, causing damage and forcing officials to close the observatory as engineering firms retained by the University of Central Florida, which manages the observatory, studied ways to repair the damage.

In November, the engineering reviews led the NSF and the university to conclude that efforts to repair the structure would be too dangerous and that it would have to be demolished.

The NSF said that initial findings indicated that the top section of all three of the telescope’s support towers broke off and that as the instrument platform fell, the telescope’s support cables also plummeted.

The observatory also includes other scientific assets such as a 40-foot (12-metre) telescope used for radio astronomy research and a facility used to study the Earth’s upper atmosphere and ionosphere. The observatory’s learning center, located next to the telescope, sustained significant damage from falling cables, the NSF said.

“We are saddened by this situation but thankful that no one was hurt,” NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan said in a statement. “Our focus is now on assessing the damage, finding ways to restore operations at other parts of the observatory, and working to continue supporting the scientific community, and the people of Puerto Rico.”

The NSF said it will authorise the university to continue paying Arecibo staff and to come up with a plan to continue research at the observatory. The agency said it has not determined the cause of the initial cable failure in August.

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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