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Astronomers Discover Two Super-Earths Orbiting a Star 11 Light-Years Away

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Astronomers have discovered two super-Earth exoplanets orbiting a star 11 light-years away from Earth, according to a new study. There is also a potential third planet orbiting a bit further away from the star, according to the researchers.

The proximity of this intriguing nearby planetary system will enable it to be studied more in the future, the researchers said.

The star, Gliese 887, is a small, dim red dwarf star with about half the mass of our sun. But given its proximity, it’s the brightest red dwarf in the sky. It’s also one of the closest stars to our sun, even though it’s far from the reach of any spacecraft technology we have today.

A team of astronomers working on the Red Dots project, which is attempting to find terrestrial exoplanets closest to our sun, observed the star using the European Southern Observatory in Chile. The team observed the star every night for three months. The High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher, known as the HARPS spectrograph, detected two planets around Gliese 887.

The spectrograph was able to detect the planets using a technique astronomers call the “Doppler wobble” or radial velocity method. This so-called wobble occurs when the star moves back and forth due to the gravitational pull of the planets orbiting it. The HARPS instrument can measure these tiny wobbles.

This data was combined with other archival data including measurements of the star that went back 20 years.

The astronomers dubbed the planets Gliese 887b and Gliese 887c. The first planet completes one orbit around the star every 9.3 Earth days, while the second takes 21.8 Earth days to complete one orbit.

They also detected a signal further out that could correspond to a planet that takes 50 Earth days to complete an orbit around the star.

This study published Thursday in the journal Science.

The planets are referred to as super-Earths because they are larger than Earth but still smaller than planets like Uranus and Neptune. And both of them are close to the habitable zone of the star, a place where terrestrial planets can support liquid water on their surfaces.

Since the star is much cooler than our sun, its habitable zone is much closer in range to the star — meaning that the planets closely orbiting it are also potentially within that range. The two super-Earths, however, are a little too close for comfort, meaning they’re too hot to maintain liquid water.

Both receive between 2.5 and eight times more energy from their star than Earth receives from the sun.

FAVOURABLE CONDITIONS

But the third potential planet, which could also be a super-Earth, could exist in the star’s habitable zone.

In observing and studying the star, the researchers discovered some good news.

“The host star is the best star that is in close proximity to the Sun because it is an unusually quiet star,” said Sandra Jeffers, lead study author and lecturer at the Institute for Astrophysics at the University of Göttingen in Germany, in an email to CNN. “By a quiet star, I mean that it doesn’t have the dark starspots or the energetic outbursts [flares] that we see on the Sun.”

If the star was as active as our sun, its stellar wind would erode and sweep away the atmospheres of the planets. The researchers believe that since the star is quiet, the planets around it could have retained their atmospheres. They may have atmospheres thicker than Earth’s.

“If someone had to live around a red dwarf, they would want to choose a quieter star like GJ 887,” wrote Melvyn Davies, professor of astronomy at the department of astronomy and theoretical physics at Lund University in Sweden, in a related Perspective article. Davies was not involved with the study.

The star’s brightness is also very constant, which means it might be easier to detect the potential atmospheres of these planets, making them perfect targets for upcoming missions like NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. The telescope, expected to launch next year, can peer through the atmospheres of exoplanets and help characterize their compositions.

“By studying the atmospheres of these planets scientists will be able to understand if the conditions are amenable for life,” Jeffers said.

Previously, the Red Dots team found other exoplanets close to our sun, like the planets orbiting Proxima Centauri and Barnard’s star. Studying these nearby exoplanets could help astronomers learn more about the formation and evolution of stars and planets, as well as search for life beyond Earth.

In the future, Jeffers and her team want to observe Gliese 887 more to determine if the third signal belongs to a planet.

“If further observations confirm the presence of the third planet in the habitable zone, then GJ 887 could become one of the most studied planetary systems in the Solar neighborhood,” Davies wrote.

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International Space Station Thrown Out of Control by Russian Module Misfire: NASA

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By Reuters | Updated: 30 July 2021

The International Space Station (ISS) was thrown briefly out of control on Thursday when jet thrusters of a newly arrived Russian research module inadvertently fired a few hours after it was docked to the orbiting outpost, NASA officials said.

The seven crew members aboard – two Russian cosmonauts, three NASA astronauts, a Japanese astronaut, and a European space agency astronaut from France – were never in any immediate danger, according to NASA and Russian state-owned news agency RIA.

But the malfunction prompted NASA to postpone until at least August 3 its planned launch of Boeing’s new CST-100 Starliner capsule on a highly anticipated uncrewed test flight to the space station. The Starliner had been set to blast off atop an Atlas V rocket on Friday from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Thursday’s mishap began about three hours after the multipurpose Nauka module had latched onto the space station, as mission controllers in Moscow were performing some post-docking “reconfiguration” procedures, according to NASA.

The module’s jets inexplicably restarted, causing the entire station to pitch out of its normal flight position some 250 miles above the Earth, leading the mission’s flight director to declare a “spacecraft emergency,” US space agency officials said.

An unexpected drift in the station’s orientation was first detected by automated ground sensors, followed 15 minutes later by a “loss of attitude control” that lasted a little over 45 minutes, according to Joel Montalbano, manager of NASA’s space station programme.

‘Tug-of-war’

Flight teams on the ground managed to restore the space station’s orientation by activating thrusters on another module of the orbiting platform, NASA officials said.

In its broadcast coverage of the incident, RIA cited NASA specialists at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, as describing the struggle to regain control of the space station as a “tug of war” between the two modules.

At the height of the incident, the station was pitching out of alignment at the rate of about a half a degree per second, Montalbano said during a NASA conference call with reporters.

The Nauka engines were ultimately switched off, the space station was stabilised and its orientation was restored to where it had begun, NASA said.

Communication with the crew was lost for several minutes twice during the disruption, but “there was no immediate danger at any time to the crew,” Montalbano said. He said “the crew really didn’t feel any movement.”

Had the situation become so dangerous as to require evacuation of personnel, the crew could have escaped in a SpaceX crew capsule still parked at the outpost and designed to serve as a “lifeboat” if necessary, said Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s commercial crew programme.

What caused the malfunction of the thrusters on the Nauka module, delivered by the Russian space agency Roscosmos, has yet to be determined, NASA officials said.

Montalbano said there was no immediate sign of any damage to the space station. The flight correction maneuvres used up more propellant reserves than desired, “but nothing I would worry about,” he said.

After its launch last week from Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome, the module experienced a series of glitches that raised concern about whether the docking procedure would go smoothly.

Roscosmos attributed Thursday’s post-docking issue to Nauka’s engines having to work with residual fuel in the craft, TASS news agency reported.

“The process of transferring the Nauka module from flight mode to ‘docked with ISS’ mode is underway. Work is being carried out on the remaining fuel in the module,” Roscosmos was cited by TASS as saying.

The Nauka module is designed to serve as a research lab, storage unit, and airlock that will upgrade Russia’s capabilities aboard the ISS.

A live broadcast showed the module, named after the Russian word for “science,” docking with the space station a few minutes later than scheduled.

“According to telemetry data and reports from the ISS crew, the onboard systems of the station and the Nauka module are operating normally,” Roscosmos said in a statement.

“There is contact!!!” Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, wrote on Twitter moments after the docking.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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Jeff Bezos Offers NASA $2 Billion in Exchange for Blue Origin Moon Mission Contract

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By Reuters | Updated: 27 July 2021

Fresh off his trip to space, billionaire businessman Jeff Bezos on Monday offered to cover up to $2 billion in NASA costs if the US space agency awards his company Blue Origin a contract to make a spacecraft designed to land astronauts back on the moon.

NASA in April awarded rival billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX a $2.9 billion (roughly Rs. 21,595 crores) contract to build a spacecraft to bring astronauts to the lunar surface as early as 2024, rejecting bids from Blue Origin and defense contractor Dynetics. Blue Origin had partnered with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper in the bid.

The space agency cited its own funding shortfalls, SpaceX’s proven record of orbital missions and other factors in a contract decision that senior NASA official Kathy Lueders called “what’s the best value to the government.”

In a letter to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, Bezos said Blue Origin would waive payments in the government’s current fiscal year and the next ones after that up to $2 billion, and pay for an orbital mission to vet its technology. In exchange, Blue Origin would accept a firm, fixed-priced contract, and cover any system development cost overruns, Bezos said.

“NASA veered from its original dual-source acquisition strategy due to perceived near-term budgetary issues, and this offer removes that obstacle,” Bezos wrote.

“Without competition, NASA’s short-term and long-term lunar ambitions will be delayed, will ultimately cost more, and won’t serve the national interest,” Bezos added.

A NASA spokesperson said the agency was aware of Bezos’ letter but declined to comment further, citing the protest Blue Origin filed with the US Government Accountability Office accusing the agency of giving SpaceX an unfair advantage by allowing it to revise its pricing.

The GAO’s decision is expected by early August, though industry sources said Blue Origin views the possibility of a reversal as unlikely.

A SpaceX spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

Before choosing SpaceX, NASA had asked for proposals for a spacecraft that would carry astronauts to the lunar surface under its Artemis program to return humans to the moon for the first time since 1972. Blue Origin’s lunar lander is called “Blue Moon.” Bezos and Musk are the world’s richest and third-richest people respectively, according to Forbes.

Bezos’ offer came six days after he flew alongside three crewmates to the edge of space aboard Blue Origin’s rocket-and-capsule New Shepard, a milestone for the company’s bid to become a major player in an emerging space tourism market.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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Blue Origin: Dutch Teen on Space Flight Told Jeff Bezos He Had Never Ordered From Amazon

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By Reuters | Updated: 24 July 2021

The Dutch teenager who became the world’s youngest space traveller this week surprised billionaire Jeff Bezos on the flight by telling him he’d never ordered anything on Amazon.com.

Oliver Daemen, an 18-year-old physics student, accompanied Bezos, his brother Mark Bezos and 82-year-old female aviator Wally Funk – the oldest person to go to space – on a 10-minute trip beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

Bezos funded exploration company Blue Origin by selling billions of dollars’ worth of stock in his online delivery business Amazon.

“I told Jeff, like, I’ve actually never bought something from Amazon,” Daemen told Reuters in an interview on Friday at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. “And he was like, ‘oh, wow, it’s a long time ago I heard someone say that’.”

Daemen, who was picked after another candidate bidding $28 million for the ride cancelled at the last minute, found out he would be joining the flight while on a family holiday in Italy.

“They called and said: Are you still interested?’ and we were like ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!'”

Daemen had dreamt of space travel since he was a kid, followed every development by space exploration companies like Blue Origin and got his pilot’s licence at a young age.

“We didn’t pay even close to $28 million (roughly Rs. 208.40 crores), but they chose me because I was the youngest and I was also a pilot and I also knew quite a lot about it already.”

Ping-pong in space
Reality still hasn’t sunk in three days after the journey.

“I don’t think I realised it until I was in the rocket: ‘wow, it’s really happening’,” he said. “It was my ultimate, ultimate goal … but I never thought it was going to be this soon.”

The crew received two days of safety training, but nothing very hard, said Daemen, who can be seen in a video of the trip tossing ping-pong balls in weightlessness with Jeff Bezos.

“That was super cool. It’s so weird to be weightless. It was easier than I had expected. It was kind of like being in water.”

Daemen, who is set to start at Utrecht University in September, said he was not sure what he wanted to do later in life, but would seriously consider a career in space travel.

Asked what it was like travelling in a rocket ship with a billionaire, he answered with a wide smile: “They were super fun and all down to earth, as funny as that may sound.”

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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After Richard Branson, Former Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides Will Fly to Space: Report

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By Reuters | Updated: 24 July 2021

Former chief executive officer of Virgin Galactic Holdings, George Whitesides, will fly to space on the aerospace company’s next test spaceflight, CNBC reported on Friday.

Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of Virgin Galactic, flew to space earlier this month, beating Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos to the final frontier. Branson announced the news about Whitesides during a party in New Mexico on July 11, following his own spaceflight, the report said.

Lori Garver, a former deputy administrator of NASA was present at the party and told CNBC that Branson said, “George will be leading our next flight.”

Branson, whose spaceflight marked a symbolic milestone for the venture he started 17 years ago, touted the mission as a precursor to a new era of space tourism.

Bezos, along with three others including the world’s oldest space traveler and astronaut, Wally Funk, flew into space just days later, aboard his own space company Blue Origin’s rocket.

Virgin Galactic did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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NASA Mars Rover Perseverance Preparing to Take First Rock Samples From the Red Planet

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 22 July 2021

The Perseverance Mars rover is preparing to collect its first rock sample from the site of an ancient lake bed, as its mission to search for signs of past life begins in earnest, NASA said Wednesday.

The milestone is expected to take place within two weeks in a scientifically interesting region of the Jezero Crater called the “Cratered Floor Fractured Rough.”

“When Neil Armstrong took the first sample from the Sea of Tranquility 52 years ago, he began a process that would rewrite what humanity knew about the Moon,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters.

“I have every expectation that Perseverance’s first sample from Jezero Crater, and those that come after, will do the same for Mars.”

Perseverance landed on the Red Planet on February 18, and over the summer moved about a kilometre to the south of its landing site, project scientist Ken Farley told reporters.

“Now we’re looking at environments that are much further in the past – billions of years in the past,” he said in a briefing.

The team believes the crater was once home to an ancient lake that filled and drew down multiple times, potentially creating the conditions necessary for life.

Analysing samples will reveal clues about the rocks’ chemical and mineral composition – revealing things like whether they were formed by volcanoes or are sedimentary in origin.

In addition to filling gaps in scientists’ geologic understanding of the region, the rover will also scour for possible signs of ancient microbes.

First, Perseverance will deploy its 7-foot (two-metre) long robotic arm to determine precisely where to take its sample.

The rover will then use an abrasion tool to scrape off the rock’s top layer, exposing unweathered surfaces.

These will be analysed by Perseverance’s turret-mounted scientific instruments to determine chemical and mineral composition, and look for organic matter.

One of the instruments, called SuperCam, will fire a laser at the rock and then take readings of the resulting plume.

Farley said that a small cliff that harbored fine-layered rocks might have been formed from lake muds, and “those are very good places to look for biosignatures,” though it will be a few more months before Perseverance reaches that outcrop.

Each rock Perseverance analyses will have an untouched geologic “twin” which the rover will scoop up, seal and store under its belly.

Eventually, NASA is planning a return mission with the European Space Agency to collect the stored samples and return them for lab analysis on Earth, sometime in the 2030s.

Only then will scientists be able to say with greater confidence whether they truly found signs of ancient life forms.

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Jeff Bezos Successfully Completes Suborbital Travel Aboard New Shepard, Does Back Flips in Zero Gravity

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By Reuters | Updated: 21 July 2021

Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest person, soared some 66.5 miles (107km) above the Texas desert aboard his company Blue Origin’s New Shepard launch vehicle on Tuesday and returned safely to Earth, a historic suborbital flight that helps usher in a new era of space tourism.

“Best day ever,” Bezos, accompanied by three crewmates including the world’s oldest and youngest space travelers, said after his capsule descended with three large parachutes and touched down, kicking up a cloud of dust.

The 57-year-old American billionaire, donning a blue flight suit and cowboy hat, took a trip to the edge of space lasting 10 minutes and 10 seconds. After landing, Bezos and his crewmates exchanged hugs and popped champagne while roughly two dozen family members and company employees cheered.

“Astronaut Bezos in my seat – happy, happy, happy,” Bezos told mission control during a safety check after the passengers buckled back in following a few minutes of weightlessness in space.

The fully autonomous 60-foot-tall (18.3-meters-tall) gleaming white spacecraft, with a feather design on its side, ignited its BE-3 engine for a vertical liftoff from Blue Origin’s Launch Site One facility about 20 miles (32km) outside the rural town of Van Horn under mostly clear skies.

Bezos, founder of ecommerce company Amazon, and his brother Mark Bezos, a private equity executive, were joined by two others. Pioneering woman aviator Wally Funk, 82, and recent high school graduate Oliver Daemen, 18, became the oldest and youngest people to reach space.

“I want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer, because you guys paid for all of this,” Bezos told reporters afterward.

The flight came nine days after Briton Richard Branson was aboard his competing space tourism venture Virgin Galactic’s successful inaugural suborbital flight from New Mexico. The two flights give credibility and inject enthusiasm into the fledgling commercial space tourism industry, which Swiss bank UBS estimates will be worth $3 billion (roughly Rs. 22,380 crores) annually in a decade.

Bezos, who founded Blue Origin in 2000, said this first crewed space flight was a step toward developing a fleet of reusable spacecraft.

“We’re going to build a road to space so that our kids and their kids can build a future,” Bezos added. “… We need to do that to solve the problems here on Earth.”

Blue Origin plans for two more New Shepard passenger flights this year. Bezos said Blue Origin has not determined its pace of flights after that but is approaching $100 million (roughly Rs. 750 crores) in private sales.

“The demand is very, very high,” Bezos said, adding: “Big things start small.”

Bezos said his company is working “ferociously” toward being able to reuse New Shepard vehicles at least 100 times. The one used on Tuesday, twice previously flown to space, scored a bulls-eye landing on a nearby pad.

Back flips and skittles

New Shepard hurtled at speeds reaching 2,233 miles (3,595km) per hour, exceeding the “Kármán line” – 62 miles (100km) – set by an international aeronautics body to define the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space.

After the capsule separated from the booster, the crew unbuckled, performing back flips and tossing each other Skittles candy in weightlessness. The capsule then returned to Earth with parachutes, using a retro-thrust system expelling a “pillow of air” for a soft landing.

The launch represented another step in the fierce competition to forge a space tourism sector. In this “billionaire space race,” Branson pierced Earth’s atmosphere first, reaching an altitude of 53 miles (86 km) aboard his rocket-powered, pilot-flown spaceplane. Bezos flew higher in what experts called the world’s first unpiloted space flight with an all-civilian crew.

Another billionaire tech mogul, Elon Musk, plans to send an all-civilian crew on a several-day orbital mission on his Crew Dragon capsule in September.

“Well done,” Branson wrote on Twitter, congratulating Bezos and his crewmates.

Musk earlier wished Blue Origin’s crew “best of luck.”

The flight came on the 52nd anniversary of Americans Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin becoming the first humans to walk on the moon. New Shepard’s namesake Alan Shepard in 1961 became the first American in space.

Funk was one of the so-called Mercury 13 group of women who trained to become NASA astronauts in the 1960s but was passed over because of her gender.

“I’ve been waiting a long time,” Funk said afterward. “I want to go again – fast.”

Daemen, Blue Origin’s first paying customer, is set to study physics and innovation management at college in the Netherlands. His investment executive father embraced him after he emerged from the capsule.

“The most profound piece of it for me was looking out at the Earth and looking at the Earth’s atmosphere,” Bezos said, noting how the experience underscored the planet’s beauty and fragility.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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