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Jakob van Zyl, Key NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Engineer, Dies at 63

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By Associated Press | Updated: 28 August 2020

Jakob van Zyl, an engineer who held crucial positions at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and was involved in numerous space exploration missions over decades, has died. He was 63.

Van Zyl, who retired in 2019 after a 33-year career, suffered a heart attack on Monday and died Wednesday at a hospital in Pasadena, California, said Veronica McGregor, a spokeswoman for JPL.

Van Zyl’s roles included director for astronomy and physics, director for solar system exploration and associate director on a project to formulate a vision for JPL’s future.

“JPL and NASA are richer for his many technical and managerial contributions, and for his unwavering dedication and engaging personality,” JPL Director Michael Watkins said in a statement.

Van Zyl was involved in missions that sent the Juno spacecraft to Jupiter, Dawn to the asteroid belt, Cassini to Saturn, and the InSight Mars and its tying accompanying CubeSat spacecraft. He was also involved in the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission currently en route to the red planet, as well as development of future missions.

His early work in Earth sciences led to roles designing and developing missions using synthetic aperture radar.

A native of Namibia, van Zyl received a degree in electronics engineering from Stellenbosch University in South Africa and earned his master’s and doctorate in electrical engineering from the California Institute of Technology, which manages JPL.

JPL said van Zyl was passionate about encouraging young people in Namibia and South Africa to pursue science.

“His legacy will inspire many generations to come,” Lisa Johnson, U.S. ambassador to Namibia, said in a video tribute posted to the embassy Facebook page.

Van Zyl is survived by his wife, Kalfie, and two siblings.

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Back to Venus: Upstart Company Wants to Beat NASA in Search for Life

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 26 September 2020

Can a small American aerospace company get to Venus before NASA returns to our superheated planetary neighbour?

That’s what Peter Beck, the CEO of Rocket Lab, is hoping as he sets his sights on launching a low-cost probe in 2023.

Over the past decade his company has become very good at putting satellites in to orbit — and his dream of taking the next step, an interplanetary mission, has received a shot of adrenaline recently with the surprising discovery of a gas linked to living organisms in Venus’s corrosive, sulphuric atmosphere.

“What we’re looking for on Mars is signs of previous life,” Beck explains.

“Whereas Venus, it’s signs of potential life now.”

With its hellish landscape, Venus has been largely neglected by the major space agencies since the 1980s in favour of the Solar System’s more distant bodies.

Dozens of missions have notably been sent to Mars seeking signs of ancient microbes.

But the discovery by Earth-based radio telescopes of a gas called phosphine in Venus’ atmosphere, reported on September 14, sparked a new wave of enthusiasm among scientists who had for years defended the hypothesis that tiny organisms could live in the planet’s clouds.

Phosphine isn’t definitive proof of life. But it is possible its presence is linked to living organisms, as it is on our planet.

The finding led NASA to declare it was time to once more prioritise Venus.

Beck, however, has always been in the pro-Venus camp, and for two years has been contemplating sending an entirely privately-funded probe there, he said.

He calculated, with the help of a PhD student, that a small satellite called “Photon” that Rocket Lab developed in-house could be adapted into a spacecraft for an interplanetary voyage.

Such bids have historically been the domain of national space agencies, given the enormous costs involved — but Beck thinks he has developed a budget solution.

“I would expect a mission to Venus to be sort of $30 million,” he told AFP by video from Auckland, New Zealand.

“When you can measure interplanetary missions in tens of millions of dollars instead of billions, and months instead of decades, the opportunity for discovery is just incredible,” he said.

Free-falling
Rocket Lab’s specialty is sending small satellites into Earth orbit with its small 18-meter high rocket — a highly lucrative market in recent years as demand for microsatellites has exploded.

The company’s Venus probe will be very small, weighing around 80 pounds (37 kilograms) and just a foot (30 centimetres) in diameter.

The trip from Earth will take 160 days, then Photon will launch the probe into Venus’ clouds, where it will take readings as it falls, without a parachute, at almost 25,000 miles per hour (11 kilometres per second).

The probe will have between just 270 and 300 seconds to analyse an atmosphere that is almost a hundred times denser than Earth’s before it disintegrates or crashes on the planet’s fiery surface, where temperatures are hot enough to melt lead (900 degrees Fahrenheit, or 480 degrees Celsius).

The hardest part is deciding on the scientific instrument: what molecules should it look for?

Miniaturisation is another problem. The probe will need to weigh seven pounds (three kilograms), which some experts doubt is possible, but Beck disagrees.

Rocket Lab will need help from leading scientists, and has already recruited MIT astronomer and planetary scientist Sara Seager.

The adventure is the latest chapter in a new era of space exploration fuelled not by governments but by individual curiosity and ambition, one that so far has been best symbolised by Elon Musk, the iconoclastic founder of SpaceX.

SpaceX revolutionised the sector through its reusable rockets that have now sent astronauts to the International Space Station, and has its sights set on colonising Mars.

NASA is no longer afraid to subcontract missions to privateers, and Rocket Lab will be paid $10 million to send a microsatellite into lunar orbit in 2021.

As for Venus, Beck would like to offer his services to NASA.

The space agency is considering returning to Venus, but not until 2026 at the earliest. Its last Venus orbiter was Magellan, which arrived in 1990, but other vessels have made fly-bys since then.

“We want to do many, many missions a year,” said the young CEO.

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NASA OSIRIS-REx Probe to Touch Down on Asteroid Bennu on October 20

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 25 September 2020

After a four-year journey, NASA’s robotic spacecraft OSIRIS-REx will descend to asteroid Bennu’s boulder-strewn surface on October 20, touching down for a few seconds to collect rock and dust samples, the agency said Thursday.

Scientists hope the mission will help deepen our understanding of how planets formed and life began and provide insight on asteroids that could impact Earth.

“Years of planning and hard work by this team are essentially coming down to putting the TAGSAM (Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism) into contact with the surface for just five to 10 seconds,” said Mike Moreau, OSIRIS-REx deputy project manager.

NASA has chosen a site called Nightingale, a rocky area 52 feet (16 meters) in diameter, for the spacecraft’s robotic arm to attempt to collect a sample, because it holds the greatest amount of unobstructed fine-grained material.

The spacecraft, about the size of a large van, will need to touch down in an area about the size of a few parking spots, taking care to avoid surrounding boulders.

Because the spacecraft and Bennu will be approximately 207 million miles (334 million kilometers) from Earth, it will take about 18.5 minutes for signals to travel between them.

This prevents the live commanding of flight activities, so the spacecraft will need to perform the sequence autonomously.

OSIRIS-REx is supposed to collect at least 2 ounces (57 grams) of Bennu’s rocky material to bring back to Earth, the largest sample return from space since the Apollo programme.

It will deliver its payload to Earth on September 24, 2023.

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Scientists Combat Anti-Semitism With Artificial Intelligence

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By Associated Press | Updated: 22 September 2020

An international team of scientists said Monday it had joined forces to combat the spread of anti-Semitism online with the help of artificial intelligence.

The project Decoding Anti-Semitism includes discourse analysts, computational linguists and historians who will develop a “highly complex, AI-driven approach to identifying online anti-Semitism,” the Alfred Landecker Foundation, which supports the project, said in a statement Monday.

“In order to prevent more and more users from becoming radicalised on the web, it is important to identify the real dimensions of anti-Semitism, also taking into account the implicit forms that might become more explicit over time,” said Matthias Becker, a linguist and project leader from the Technical University of Berlin.

The team also includes researchers from King’s College in London and other scientific institutions in Europe and Israel.

Computers will help run through vast amounts of data and images that humans wouldn’t be able to assess because of their sheer quantity, the foundation said.

“Studies have also shown that the majority of anti-Semitic defamation is expressed in implicit ways, for example through the use of codes (“juice” instead of “Jews”) and allusions to certain conspiracy narratives or the reproduction of stereotypes, especially through images,” the statement said.

As implicit anti-Semitism is harder to detect, the combination of qualitative and AI-driven approaches will allow for a more comprehensive search, the scientists think.

The problem of anti-Semitism online has increased, as seen by the rise in conspiracy myths accusing Jews of creating and spreading COVID-19, groups tracking anti-Semitism on the Internet have found.

The focus of the current project is initially on Germany, France and the UK., but will later be expanded to cover other countries and languages.

The Alfred Landecker Foundation, which was founded in 2019 in response to rising trends of populism, nationalism and hatred toward minorities, is supporting the project with EUR 3 million (roughly Rs. 26 crores), the German news agency dpa reported.

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Apple CEO Tim Cook Says Fires, Storms Show Impact of Climate Change

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 22 September 2020

Apple chief Tim Cook said Monday he views the recent increase in fires, hurricanes and floods as strong proof that climate change is real.

The disasters should sway those denying science that shows greenhouse gases are dangerously changing weather patterns, Cook said in a talk streamed during an online event by The Atlantic magazine.

Cook reasoned that wildfires raging on the US West Coast, hurricanes slamming the South, and flooding in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions make a compelling case for climate change.

“All of these together, I do believe will convince the people that are not currently convinced about climate change,” Cook said.

His remote interview with Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg was recorded last week, when smoke from wildfires turned day to night in California and ash fell like snow in some places.

“It’s horrendous,” Cook said.

“It’s a reminder of how serious climate change is and what’s at stake.”

Cook declined to answer whether he had any luck convincing US President Donald Trump that climate change is real during any of their conversations, saying those exchanges were private.

“I don’t want to talk about it in detail, but if you sort of back up from it, my whole philosophy is engagement,” Cook said.

“I think it’s even more important to engage when you disagree on something.”

Trump suggested global warming will reverse itself and dismissed climate change as a cause of ferocious fires engulfing swathes of the West Coast during a briefing with local officials in California last week.

The president, who flew into Sacramento in central California during a reelection campaign swing, pushed back against state leaders who said that climate change underlies the ever-stronger blazes.

On arrival in McClellan Park, near Sacramento, Trump repeated his argument that the wildfires are due instead to insufficient maintenance of forest areas to make them less combustible.

But at the briefing, California governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, countered that the fires are driven mostly by global warming.

“It will start getting cooler. You just watch,” Trump insisted to Wade Crowfoot, the head of the California Natural Resources Agency.

The official responded: “I wish science agreed with you.”

“I don’t think science knows, actually,” Trump said.

It was Trump’s first visit to California since the devastating blazes began there and in the states of Washington and Oregon.

Democratic challenger Joe Biden has branded Trump a “climate arsonist” whose policies contribute to natural disasters.
Microscope merited

The Apple chief also said he hoped his testimony in July to a House of Representatives panel investigating market dominance put to rest worries that the iPhone maker wields monopoly power of any sort.

Big Tech executives faced an onslaught of criticism from US lawmakers at the high-stakes antitrust hearing, which could lay the groundwork for tougher regulation of the major internet platforms.

CEOs Cook, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Sundar Pichai of Google were grilled for more than five hours in the unprecedented joint appearance by video.

“I have no issue at all in Apple being put underneath the microscope,” Cook said.

“My hope is that as people heard our story and as they continue to hear our story, that it will become as apparent to them as it is to us that we have no monopoly.”

Cook diplomatically responded when asked his thoughts on the response to Covid-19, saying the virus “took the world by surprise” and recounting Apple efforts to help with masks and more.

He said that some 85 percent of Apple employees are working remotely due to the pandemic, and it remained unclear when they would be able to return to company headquarters in Cupertino, California.

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NASA Plans for Return to Moon to Cost $28 Billion

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 22 September 2020

NASA on Monday revealed its latest plan to return astronauts to the Moon in 2024, and estimated the cost of meeting that deadline at $28 billion (roughly Rs. 2,05,787 crores), $16 billion (roughly Rs. 1,17,592 crores) of which would be spent on the lunar landing module.

Congress, which faces elections on November 3, will have to sign off on the financing for a project that has been set by President Donald Trump as a top priority. The $28 billion (roughly Rs. 2,05,787 crores) would cover the budgetary years of 2021-25.

In a phone briefing with journalists Monday on the Artemis mission to return human beings to the Moon, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine noted that “political risks” were often the biggest threat to NASA’s work, especially before such a crucial election.

Barack Obama cancelled plans for a manned Mars mission, after his predecessor spent billions of dollars on the project.

If Congress approves the first tranche of $3.2 billion (roughly Rs. 23,515 crores) by Christmas, “we’re still on track for a 2024 moon landing,” Bridenstine said.

“To be clear, we’re going to the South Pole,” he said, ruling out the sites of the Apollo landings on the Moon’s equator between 1969 and 1972. “There’s no discussion of anything other than that.”

Three different projects are in competition to build the lunar lander that will carry two astronauts, one of them a woman, to the Moon from their vessel Orion.

The first one is being developed by Blue Origin, founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, in partnership with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper. The other two projects are being undertaken by Elon Musk’s SpaceX and by the company Dynetics.

The first flight, Artemis I, scheduled for November of 2021, will be unmanned: the new giant rocket SLS, currently in its test phase, will take off for the first time with the Orion capsule.

Artemis II, in 2023, will take astronauts around the Moon but will not land.

Finally, Artemis III will be the equivalent of Apollo 11 in 1969, but the stay on the Moon will last longer, for a week, and will include two to five “extravehicular activities.”

“The science that we would be doing is really very different than anything we’ve done before,” said Bridenstine. “We have to remember during the Apollo era, we thought the moon was bone dry. Now we know that there’s lots of water ice and we know that it’s at the South Pole.”

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DRDO Sets Up Tech Centres to Research Futuristic Military Applications

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By Press Trust of India | Updated: 19 September 2020

India’s premier defence research institute DRDO has set up eight advanced technology centres to carry out research on futuristic military applications, the government said on Saturday. Minister of State for Defence Shripad Naik, replying to a question in Rajya Sabha, said these centres will also provide support to academia to undertake research on new technologies in niche areas for military use.

“The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has created eight advanced technology centres across India to carry out research activities in the identified futuristic/new technology areas,” he said.

In August, the DRDO had set in motion a long-awaited process to usher in mega reforms as well as to create enabling infrastructure for developing futuristic military weapons.

A committee headed by Prof V Ramagopal Rao, Director of Delhi IIT, has been appointed to suggest measures to improve efficiency of the DRDO laboratories across the country with an aim to boost the domestic defence production.

At present, the DRDO has over 50 laboratories across the country which are engaged in developing defence technologies covering disciplines like aeronautics, armaments, combat vehicles, engineering systems, missiles, advanced computing and naval systems.

The DRDO has contributed significantly in developing various key weapons and military platforms for all the three services in the last six decades.

However, there has been a view in the government that the DRDO should enhance its efficiency further in the sync with the government’s focus on making India self-reliant in defence manufacturing.

Replying to a separate question, Naik said the proposed corporatisation of the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) will improve its autonomy, accountability and efficiency. “The Cabinet Committee on Security in its meeting held on July 29 has approved to convert OFB, a subordinate office of ministry of defence, into one or more than one 100 per cent government-owned corporate entities,” he said.

The nearly 200-year-old OFB operates 41 ammunition production facilities across the country.
At present, the government has to shell out around Rs 5,000 crore annually to pay salaries of the OFB employees. Additionally, it gives around Rs 3,000 crore to OFB as operational cost, according to officials.

“An Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoM) has been constituted under the chairmanship of minister of defence to oversee and guide the entire process of corporatisation of OFB, including transition support and redeployment plan of employees while safeguarding their wages and retirement benefits,” Naik said.

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