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NASA Postpones Astronaut Moon Landing to 2025 at Earliest, Missing Deadline by a Year

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By Associated Press | Updated: 10 November 2021

NASA on Tuesday delayed putting astronauts back on the moon until 2025 at the earliest, missing the deadline set by the Trump administration.

The space agency had been aiming for 2024 for the first moon landing by astronauts in a half-century.

In announcing the delay, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said Congress did not provide enough money to develop a landing system for its Artemis moon program and more money is needed for its Orion capsule. In addition, a legal challenge by Jeff Bezos’ rocket company, Blue Origin, stalled work for months on the Starship lunar landing system under development by Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

Officials said technology for new spacesuits also needs to ramp up, before astronauts can return to the moon.

NASA is still targeting next February for the first test flight of its moon rocket, the Space Launch System, or SLS, with an Orion capsule. No one will be on board. Instead, astronauts will strap in for the second Artemis flight, flying beyond the moon but not landing in 2024, a year later than planned. That would bump the moon landing to at least 2025, according to Nelson.

“The human landing system is a crucial part of our work to get the first woman and the first person of color to the lunar surface, and we are getting geared up to go,” Nelson told reporters. “NASA is committed to help restore America’s standing in the world.”

Nelson made note of China’s ambitious and aggressive space program, and warned it could overtake the U.S. in lunar exploration.

NASA’s last moon landing by astronauts occurred during Apollo 17 in 1972. Altogether, 12 men explored the lunar surface.

During a National Space Council meeting in 2019, Vice President Mike Pence called for landing astronauts on the moon within five years “by any means necessary.” NASA had been shooting for a lunar landing in 2028, and pushing it up by four years was considered at the time exceedingly ambitious, if not improbable.

Congress will need to increase funding, beginning with the 2023 budget, in order for NASA to have private companies competing for the planned 10 or more moon landings by astronauts, Nelson said.

The space agency also is requesting a bigger budget for its Orion capsules, from $6.7 billion (roughly Rs. 49,731 crore) to $9.3 billion (roughly Rs. 69,031 crore), citing delays during the coronavirus pandemic and storm damage to NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, the main manufacturing site for SLS and Orion. Development costs for the rocket through the first Artemis flight next year stand at $11 billion (roughly Rs. 81,650 crore).

Vice President Kamala Harris will convene her first National Space Council meeting, as its chair, on December 1. Nelson said he updated her on the latest schedule and costs during their visit to Maryland’s Goddard Space Flight Center on Friday.

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US Pentagon Creates New Office to Investigate UFO Reports

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 25 November 2021

The Pentagon is creating a new office to investigate unidentified flying objects amid concerns that after broad probes it cannot explain mysterious sightings near highly sensitive military areas.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks, working with the US director of national intelligence, ordered the new investigatory body to be established in the US Defense Department’s intelligence and security office, the Pentagon said late Tuesday.

The order came five months after a classified US intelligence report on possible alien UFOs came up inconclusive: it could explain some reported incidents but was unable to account for other phenomena, some filmed by pilots near military testing areas.

The new office will focus on incidents in, or near, designated “special use airspace” (SUA) areas strictly controlled and blocked from general aviation due to security sensitivities.
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The US military is worried some of the unidentified aerial phenomena spotted by military pilots in the past may represent technologies of strategic rivals unknown to US scientists.

“Incursions by any airborne object into our SUA pose safety of flight and operations security concerns, and may pose national security challenges,” the Pentagon said in a statement.

The Defense Department “takes reports of incursions — by any airborne object, identified or unidentified — very seriously, and investigates each one,” it added.

The new office was dubbed the Airborne Object Identification and Management Synchronization Group (AOIMSG), the successor to the US Navy’s Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force.

It will be overseen by a panel of experts from the military and intelligence community.

A mostly classified official review of UFO reports released in June determined that most of around 120 incidents over the past 20 years could be explained and had nothing to do with unknown or secret US or foreign technology.

But it could not explain some beguiling reports and videos made by military personnel.

Last year, the Pentagon released a still inexplicable video taken by navy pilots of objects moving at incredible speeds, spinning and mysteriously disappearing.

China’s July test of a globe-circling hypersonic vehicle that was able to launch a separate missile while traveling at more than five times the speed of sound alerted Washington that Beijing might have technologies the United States has yet to develop.

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NASA Launches DART Mission Aboard SpaceX Rocket to Kick an Asteroid Off Course

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 24 November 2021

NASA is preparing a mission to deliberately smash a spacecraft into an asteroid — a test run should humanity ever need to stop a giant space rock from wiping out life on Earth.

It may sound like science fiction, but the DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) is a real proof-of-concept experiment, blasting off at 10:21pm Pacific Time Tuesday (11:51am IST Wednesday) aboard a SpaceX rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

The goal is to slightly alter the trajectory of Dimorphos, a “moonlet” around 525 feet (160 metres, or two Statues of Liberty) wide that circles a much larger asteroid called Didymos (2,500 feet in diameter). The pair orbit the Sun together.

Impact should take place in the fall of 2022, when the binary asteroid system is 6.8 million miles (11 million kilometres) from Earth, almost the nearest point they ever get.

“What we’re trying to learn is how to deflect a threat,” NASA’s top scientist Thomas Zuburchen said of the $330 million (roughly Rs. 2,460 crore) project, the first of its kind.

To be clear, the asteroids in question pose no threat to our planet.

But they belong to a class of bodies known as Near-Earth Objects (NEOs), which approach within 30 million miles.

NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office is most interested in those larger than 460 feet in size, which have the potential to level entire cities or regions with many times the energy of average nuclear bombs.

There are 10,000 known near-Earth asteroids 460 feet in size or greater, but none has a significant chance to hit in the next 100 years. One major caveat: scientists think there are still 15,000 more such objects waiting to be discovered.

15,000mph kick

Planetary scientists can create miniature impacts in labs and use the results to create sophisticated models about how to divert an asteroid — but models are always inferior to real world tests.

Scientists say the Didymos-Dimorphos system is an “ideal natural laboratory,” because Earth-based telescopes can easily measure the brightness variation of the pair and judge the time it takes the moonlet to orbit its big brother.

Since the current orbit period is known, the change will reveal the effect of the impact, scheduled to occur between September 26 and October 1, 2022.

What’s more, since the asteroids’ orbit never intersects our planet, they are thought safer to study.

The DART probe, which is a box the size of a large fridge with limousine-sized solar panels on either side, will slam into Dimorphos at just over 15,000 miles an hour.

Andy Rivkin, DART investigation team lead, said that the current orbital period is 11 hours and 55 minutes, and the team expects the kick will shave around 10 minutes off that time.

There is some uncertainty about how much energy will be transferred by the impact, because the moonlet’s internal composition and porosity are not known.

The more debris that’s generated, the more push will be imparted on Dimorphos.

“Every time we show up at an asteroid, we find stuff we don’t expect,” said Rivkin.

The DART spacecraft also contains sophisticated instruments for navigation and imaging, including the Italian Space Agency’s Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging of Asteroids (LICIACube) to watch the crash and its after-effects.

“The CubeSat is going to give us, we hope, the shot, the most spectacular image of DART’s impact and the ejecta plume coming off the asteroid. That will be a truly historic, spectacular image,” said Tom Statler, DART program scientist.

Nuclear blasts

The so-called “kinetic impactor” method isn’t the only way to divert an asteroid, but it is the only technique ready to deploy with current technology.

Others that have been hypothesised include flying a spacecraft close by to impart a small gravitational force.

Another is detonating a nuclear blast close by — but not on the object itself, as in the films Armageddon and Deep Impact — which would probably create many more perilous objects.

Scientists estimate 460-foot asteroids strike once every 20,000 years.

Asteroids that are six miles or wider — such as the one that struck 66 million years ago and led to the extinction of most life on Earth, including the dinosaurs — occur around every 100-200 million years.

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NASA Seeks Ideas for a Nuclear Reactor on the Moon: All You Need to Know

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By Associated Press | Updated: 20 November 2021

If anyone has a good idea on how to put a nuclear fission power plant on the Moon, the US government wants to hear about it.

NASA and the nation’s top federal nuclear research lab on Friday put out a request for proposals for a fission surface power system.

NASA is collaborating with the US Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory to establish a Sun-independent power source for missions to the Moon by the end of the decade.

“Providing a reliable, high-power system on the Moon is a vital next step in human space exploration, and achieving it is within our grasp,” Sebastian Corbisiero, the Fission Surface Power Project lead at the lab, said in a statement.

If successful in supporting a sustained human presence on the Moon, the next objective would be Mars. NASA says fission surface power could provide sustained, abundant power no matter the environmental conditions on the Moon or Mars.

“I expect fission surface power systems to greatly benefit our plans for power architectures for the Moon and Mars and even drive innovation for uses here on Earth,” Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said in a statement.

The reactor would be built on Earth and then sent to the Moon.

Submitted plans for the fission surface power system should include a uranium-fueled reactor core, a system to convert the nuclear power into usable energy, a thermal management system to keep the reactor cool, and a distribution system providing no less than 40 kilowatts of continuous electric power for 10 years in the lunar environment.

Some other requirements include that it be capable of turning itself off and on without human help, that it be able to operate from the deck of a lunar lander, and that it can be removed from the lander and run on a mobile system and be transported to a different lunar site for operation.

Additionally, when launched from Earth to the Moon, it should fit inside a 12-foot (4-meter) diameter cylinder that’s 18 feet (6 meters) long. It should not weigh more than 13,200 pounds (6,000 kilograms).

The proposal requests are for an initial system design and must be submitted by February 19.

The Idaho National Laboratory has worked with NASA on various projects in the past. Most recently, the lab helped power NASA’s Mars rover Perseverance with a radioisotope power system, which converts heat generated by the natural decay of plutonium-238 into electrical power.

The car-sized rover landed on Mars in February and has remained active on the red planet.

The Energy Department has also been working to team up with private businesses on various nuclear power plans, notably on a new generation of smaller power plants that range from small modular reactors to small mobile reactors that can quickly be set up in the field and then removed when not needed.

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NASA Says Russian Anti-Satellite Missile Test Endangered International Space Station Crew

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By Reuters | Updated: 16 November 2021

An anti-satellite missile test Russia conducted on Monday generated a debris field in low-Earth orbit that endangered the International Space Station and will pose a hazard to space activities for years, US officials said.

The seven-member space station crew – four US astronauts, a German astronaut, and two Russian cosmonauts – were directed to take shelter in their docked spaceship capsules for two hours after the test as a precaution to allow for a quick getaway had it been necessary, NASA said.

The research lab, orbiting about 250 miles (402km) above Earth, continued to pass through or near the debris cluster every 90 minutes, but NASA specialists determined it was safe for the crew to return to the station’s interior after the third pass, the agency said.

The crew was also ordered to seal off hatches to several modules of the International Space Station (ISS) for the time being, according to NASA.

“NASA will continue monitoring the debris in the coming days and beyond to ensure the safety of our crew in orbit,” NASA chief Bill Nelson said in the statement.

Experts say the testing of weapons that shatter satellites in orbit pose a space hazard by creating clouds of fragments that can collide with other objects, setting off a chain reaction of projectiles through Earth orbit.

Thousands of fragments

The Russian military and ministry of defense were not immediately available for comment. A message posted on Twitter by the Russian space agency Roscosmos downplayed the danger.

“The orbit of the object, which forced the crew today to move into spacecraft according to standard procedures, has moved away from the ISS orbit,” Roscosmos tweeted. “The station is in the green zone.”

The direct-ascent anti-satellite missile fired by Russia into one of its own satellites generated more than 1,500 pieces of “trackable orbital debris” and would likely spawn hundreds of thousands of smaller fragments, the US Space Command said in a statement.

“Russia has demonstrated a deliberate disregard for the security, safety, stability and long-term sustainability of the space domain for all nations,” space command chief US Army General James Dickinson said.

The debris from the missile test “will continue to pose a threat to activities in outer space for years to come, putting satellites and space missions at risk, as well as forcing more collision avoidance maneuvers,” he said.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the missile test as “reckless and irresponsible.” At the Pentagon, spokesman John Kirby said the test showed the need to firmly establish norms of behavior in space.

“It is unthinkable that Russia would endanger not only the American and international partner astronauts on the ISS, but also their own cosmonauts,” Nelson said. He said the cloud of debris also posed a threat to a separate Chinese space station under construction and the three-member crew of “taikonauts” aboard that outpost.

The incident came just four days after the latest group of four space station astronauts – Americans Raja Chair, Tom Marshburn and Kayla Barron of NASA and European Space Agency crewmate Matthias Maurer of Germany – arrived at the orbiting platform to begin a six-month science mission.

They were welcomed by three space station crew members already on board – US astronaut Mark Vande Hei and Russian cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov.

“Thanks for the crazy but well-coordinated day. We really appreciated all the situational awareness you gave us,” Vande Hei said in a Monday radio transmission to NASA posted online by Space.com. “It was certainly a great way to bond as a crew, starting off our very first workday in space.”

The space station, spanning the size of an American football field end to end, has been continuously occupied since November 2000, operated by an international partnership of five space agencies from 15 countries, including Russia’s Roscosmos.

Russia is not the first country to conduct anti-satellite tests in space. The United States performed the first in 1959, when satellites were rare and new.

In April Russia carried out another test of an anti-satellite missile as officials have said that space will increasingly become an important domain for warfare.

In 2019, India shot down one of its own satellites in low-Earth orbit with a ground-to-space missile.

These tests have raised questions about the long-term sustainability of space operations essential to a huge range of commercial activities, from telecommunications and weather forecasting to banking and GPS services.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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SpaceX Capsule With NASA, ESA Astronauts Docks With International Space Station

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By Reuters | Updated: 12 November 2021

Four astronauts, three from NASA and one from the European Space Agency, arrived at the International Space Station on Thursday and docked their SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule with the orbiting laboratory to begin a six-month science mission.

The rendezvous came about 21 hours after the team and its capsule were launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Wednesday night, following a string of weather delays that postponed the liftoff for a week and a half.

The docking took place about 6:30 p.m. EST (5am IST on Friday) while the Crew Dragon vehicle, dubbed Endurance, and the space station were flying about 260 miles (420 km) above the eastern Caribbean Sea, according to NASA.

The Endurance crew consists of three American NASA astronauts — flight commander Raja Chari, 44, mission pilot Tom Marshburn, 61, and mission specialist Kayla Barron, 34 — as well as German astronaut Matthias Maurer, 51, a mission specialist from the European Space Agency.

On arrival, the crew took inventory, conducted standard leak checks and pressurized the space between the spacecraft in preparation for opening the hatch to the space station about two hours later.

A live NASA video feed from the station showed the new arrivals floating headfirst through a padded passageway from their capsule into the orbiting outpost.

They were welcomed aboard with hugs from the three current space station occupants – Russian cosmonauts Pyotr Dubrov and Oleg Novitskiy and NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei, who shared a Soyuz flight with his Roscosmos crewmates to the complex.

Astronaut wings

Endeavor’s second-in-command, Marshburn — a medical doctor and former NASA flight surgeon — has logged two previous spaceflights to the space station and four spacewalks.

Maurer, a materials science engineer, was making his debut spaceflight, as were Chari, a US Air Force combat jet and test pilot, and Barron, a US Navy submarine officer and nuclear engineer. Shortly after coming aboard, Marshburn pinned astronaut wings to the collars of his three rookie colleagues amid handshakes and smiles.

Both Chari and Barron also are among the first group of 18 astronauts selected for NASA’s upcoming Artemis missions, aimed at returning humans to the moon later this decade, over a half century after the Apollo lunar program ended.

“I think we all loved the ride up here,” Chari said during brief remarks in a welcoming ceremony webcast from the station. “It was way smoother than we could have imagined.”

The SpaceX Dragon also delivered more than 4,000 pounds (1,800 kg) of hardware and research equipment, NASA said.

The crew arriving on Thursday was officially designated “Crew 3” – the third full-fledged “operational” crew that NASA and SpaceX have flown together to the space station after a two-astronaut test run in May 2020.

“Crew 2” returned safely to Earth from the space station on Monday with a splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico off Florida that capped a record 199 days in orbit.

SpaceX, the rocket company formed in 2002 by billionaire Elon Musk, founder of electric car maker Tesla, has logged a total of 15 human spaceflights in 17 months, including its astro-tourism launch in September of the first all-civilian crew sent to Earth orbit without professional astronauts.

The space station, spanning the size of an American football field end to end, has been continuously occupied since November 2000, operated by an international partnership of five space agencies from 15 countries.

An international crew of at least seven people typically lives and works aboard the platform while traveling 5 miles (8 km) per second, orbiting Earth about every 90 minutes.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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NASA, SpaceX Launch Crew-3 Astronauts to Orbit on Flight to International Space Station

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By Reuters | Updated: 11 November 2021

NASA and private rocket company SpaceX launched four astronauts into orbit late on Wednesday en route to the International Space Station, including a veteran spacewalker and two younger crewmates chosen to join NASA’s future lunar missions.

The SpaceX-built launch vehicle, consisting of a Crew Dragon capsule perched atop a two-stage Falcon 9 rocket, climbed into the night sky from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, as its nine Merlin engines roared to life at about 9 p.m. (7:30am IST on Thursday).

Liftoff of the Dragon spacecraft, named Endurance by the crew, was aired live from Cape Canaveral on NASA TV. Intermittent rain and clouds over the Cape earlier in the day had cast doubt on launch prospects, but the weather cleared by flight time, NASA said.

Live video footage webcast by NASA showed the four crew members seated calmly and strapped into the pressurized cabin of their gleaming white SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, wearing their helmeted white and black flight suits several minutes after liftoff.

Within about 10 minutes of liftoff, the rocket’s upper stage had delivered the crew capsule to Earth orbit, according to launch commentators. The rocket’s reusable lower stage separated from the rest of the spacecraft and flew itself back to Earth, touching down safely on a landing platform floating on a vessel in the Atlantic.

The three American astronauts and their European Space Agency crewmate were due to arrive at the space station, orbiting some 250 miles (400 km) above the Earth, on Thursday evening following a flight of about 22 hours.

The flight marks the third “operational” space station crew sent to orbit aboard a Dragon capsule since NASA and SpaceX teamed up to resume space launches from American soil last year, following a nine-year hiatus at the end of the US space shuttle program in 2011.

“Crew-3” includes two members of NASA’s latest graduating class of astronauts — Raja Chari, 44, a US Air Force combat jet and test pilot serving as mission commander, and mission specialist Kayla Barron, 34, a US Navy submarine officer and nuclear engineer.

The team’s designated pilot and second-in-command is veteran astronaut Tom Marshburn, 61, a medical doctor and former NASA flight surgeon who has logged two previous spaceflights to the space station and four spacewalks. Rounding out the crew is European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Matthias Maurer, 51, of Germany, a materials science engineer.

Chari, Barron and Maurer were making their debut spaceflights with Wednesday’s launch, becoming the 599th, 600th and 601st humans in space.

Both Chari and Barron also are among the first group of 18 astronauts selected for NASA’s upcoming Artemis missions, aimed at returning humans to the moon later this decade, over a half century after the Apollo lunar program ended.

NASA-SpaceX partnership

It is the fourth crewed flight overall in 17 months under NASA’s public-private partnership with SpaceX, the rocket company founded in 2002 by Musk, the billionaire chief executive of electric car maker Tesla Inc

The first was a two-astronaut trial run to the space station in May 2020, followed by the maiden NASA-SpaceX operational “Crew-1” in November of that year.

“Crew-2” was launched to the space station in April of this year, and just returned safely to Earth on Monday night with a splashdown capping a record 199 days in orbit.

The latest mission also follows a flurry of recent high-profile astro-tourism flights, including the SpaceX launch in September of “Inspiration 4,” the first all-civilian crew sent to orbit without a professional astronaut on board.

Earlier this month, 90-year-old actor William Shatner, famed for playing Captain James T. Kirk on the original 1960s “Star Trek” TV series, made headlines riding aboard a rocketship launched by billionaire Jeff Bezos’s company Blue Origin to become the oldest person to fly in space.

The “Crew-3” team, on arriving at the space station, will be welcomed aboard the orbiting laboratory by its three current occupants — two cosmonauts from Russia and Belarus and a US astronaut who shared a Soyuz flight to orbit with them earlier this year.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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