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SpaceX Crew Dragon Capsule With NASA Astronauts Returns Safely to Earth

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The space capsule with Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley inside being pulled out of water in the Gulf of Mexico
By Reuters | Updated: 3 August 2020

US astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, who flew to the International Space Station in SpaceX’s new Crew Dragon, splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday after a two-month voyage that was NASA’s first crewed mission from home soil in nine years.

Behnken and Hurley, tallying 64 days in space, undocked from the station on Saturday and returned home to land their capsule in calm waters off Florida’s Pensacola coast on schedule at 2:48 pm ET (12:18 am Monday, IST) following a 21-hour overnight journey aboard Crew Dragon “Endeavor.”

“This has been quite an odyssey,” Hurley told senior NASA and SpaceX officials at a homecoming ceremony at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. “To be where we are now, the first crewed flight of Dragon, is just unbelievable.”

The successful splash-down, the first of its kind by NASA in 45 years, was a final test of whether SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk’s spacecraft can transport astronauts to and from orbit — a feat no private company has accomplished before.

“This day heralds a new age of space exploration,” Musk said. “I’m not very religious, but I prayed for this one.”

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said the successful mission marked “a new era of human spaceflight where NASA is no longer the purchaser, owner and operator of all the hardware” but one of many future customers of space travel.

“Today we really made history,” Bridenstine told an earlier press conference.

Despite Coast Guard restrictions and safety risks, spectators in private boats surrounded the splash-down site dozens of miles from shore as SpaceX and NASA recovery teams used a crane to hoist the spacecraft out of the water and onto a boat.

The crew’s retrieval from Crew Dragon was delayed slightly as the teams worked to flush its fuel tanks after sensing traces of nitrogen tetroxide fumes outside the capsule, a toxic gas from one the spacecraft’s flammable fuels.

Hurley, giving a thumbs up as he was wheeled out of the spacecraft on a stretcher, a normal procedure as astronauts adjust to Earth’s gravity, said, “I’m just proud to be a small part of this whole effort to get a company and people to and from the space station.”

“Thanks for doing the most difficult parts and the most important parts of human spaceflight – getting us into orbit and bringing us home,” Behnken told SpaceX mission control in Hawthorne, California, as the hatch door was opened.

For the return sequence, on-board thrusters and two sets of parachutes worked autonomously to slow the acorn-shaped capsule, bringing Behnken and Hurley’s speed of 17,500 miles per hour in orbit down to 350 mph upon atmospheric re-entry, and eventually 15 mph at splash-down.

The pair were to undergo medical checks onshore in Pensacola ahead of a flight to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
Flag captured

NASA officials have said Crew Dragon, a pod with seven astronaut seats, was in a “very healthy” condition while docked at the space station, where astronauts conducted tests and monitored how the spacecraft performs in space.

Behnken and Hurley undocked from the orbital station late on Saturday to begin their trip home, waking at 7:40 am Sunday to a recorded wakeup call from their sons.

“Good morning Dragon Endeavor,” Hurley’s son said in a recorded message sent to the capsule. “I’m happy you went into space but I’m even happier that you’re coming back home.”

NASA, aiming to galvanise a commercial space marketplace, awarded nearly $8 billion (roughly Rs. 59,985 crores) to SpaceX and Boeing collectively in 2014 to develop dueling space capsules, experimenting with a contract model that allows the space agency to buy astronaut seats from the two companies.

Billionaire entrepreneur Musk’s SpaceX became the first private company to send humans to orbit with the launch of Behnken and Hurley.

“Congratulations SpaceX & NASA on completing first crewed Dragon flight!!,” Musk wrote on Twitter after the splash-down, adding a US flag emoji followed by “returned” — referring to a rivalry with Boeing over which company’s astronaut crew would be the first to retrieve an American flag left on the space station in 2011, when the last crewed mission launched from US soil.

Behnken and Hurley brought the flag back to Earth, stowed as cargo in Crew Dragon.

The landmark mission, which took off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on May 31, marked the first time the US space agency launched humans from American soil since its shuttle program retired in 2011. Since then, the United States has relied on Russia’s space program to launch its astronauts to the space station.

“It was a great relief when I saw Bob and Doug come out of the capsule, smiling, thumbs up, looking very cheerful,” SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell told reporters. “That was the good moment.”


© Thomson Reuters 2020

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NASA’s Halted Rocket Test Could Stall Moon Shot, Redo Possible

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By Assoicated Press | Updated: 20 January 2021

NASA is considering a second firing of its Moon rocket engines after a critical test came up short over the weekend, a move that could bump the first flight in the Artemis lunar-landing programme into next year.

The space agency had aimed to launch its new Space Launch System, or SLS, rocket and an empty Orion capsule by the end of this year, with the capsule flying to the Moon and back as a prelude to crew missions. But that date could be in jeopardy following Saturday’s aborted test.

“We have a shot at flying it this year, but we need to get through this next step,” said Kathy Lueders, head of NASA’s human spaceflight office.

All four engines fired for barely a minute, rather than the intended eight minutes, on the test stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. The countdown rehearsal for the 212-foot (65-metre) core stage — made by Boeing — included the liquid hydrogen and oxygen tanks, as well as the all necessary computers and electronics.

On Tuesday, NASA attributed the automatic shutdown to the strict test limits meant to protect the core stage so it can be used on the first Artemis flight. The hydraulic system for one engine exceeded safety parameters, officials said, and flight computers shut everything down 67 seconds into the ignition.

Two other engine-related issues also occurred.

NASA said it can adjust the test limits if a second test is deemed necessary, to prevent another premature shutdown. Engineers will continue to analyse the data, as managers debate the pros and cons of proceeding with a second test firing at Stennis or shipping the rocket straight to Florida’s Kennedy Space Center for launch preparations. Some of that Kennedy work might be able to be streamlined, Lueders said.

This core stage can be loaded with super-cold fuel no more than nine times, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters Tuesday evening. A second full-blown test firing would reduce the remaining number of fill-ups.

The Artemis programme is working to put astronauts back on the Moon by 2024, a deadline set by the Trump administration. It’s uncertain how the incoming White House will approach that timeline.

In its annual report Tuesday, the Aereospace Safety Advisory Panel urged NASA to develop a realistic schedule for its Artemis Moon programme and called into question the 2024 date for returning astronauts to the lunar surface.

On the eve of his departure from NASA, Bridenstine, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma, stressed that key programmes like Artemis need to encompass multiple administrations, decades and even generations. It’s crucial , he said, that “we’ve got buy-in and support from all of America and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.”

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China’s Retrieved Lunar Samples From Chang’e-5 Probe Weigh Less Than Targeted

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By Reuters | Updated: 19 January 2021

Lunar rocks retrieved by a historic Chinese mission to the Moon weighed less than initially targeted, but China is still willing to study the samples with foreign scientists, the mission’s spokesman said on Monday.

China became the third country ever to secure lunar samples when its unmanned Chang’e-5 probe, named after the mythical Moon goddess, brought back 1.731 kg (3.8 lb) of samples last month, falling short of the 2 kg (4.4 lb) planned.

The probe had estimated the lunar rocks to have a density of 1.6 grams per cubic millimetre, based on data from past missions by other countries, said Pei Zhaoyu, the mission spokesman.

Going by that figure, the probe stopped taking samples after just 12 hours, apparently assessing that the target had been reached.

“However, from tests, the actual density might not be that high,” Pei told reporters. “We originally planned to use 22 hours to complete the work of surface sampling, but, in fact, we stopped after 12 hours.”

But China is still open to cooperating with all nations in studying the samples, he said, including the United States.

For years, US laws have limited its space agency NASA from directly cooperating with China.

“We didn’t set restrictions between countries,” Pei said. “Whether or not two countries could carry out related cooperation is a matter for two sides.”

China has not yet received any access request for samples, he said, adding that the rocks were still in a pre-treatment stage.

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit Reaches Space for the First Time With Its Air-Launched Rocket

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By Reuters | Updated: 18 January 2021

Billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit reached space for the first time on Sunday with a successful test of its air-launched rocket, delivering ten NASA satellites to orbit and achieving a key milestone after aborting the rocket’s first test launch last year.

The Long Beach, California-based company’s LauncherOne rocket was dropped mid-air from the underside of a modified Boeing 747 nicknamed Cosmic Girl some 35,000 feet over the Pacific at 11:39am PT (1:09am IST) before lighting its NewtonThree engine to boost itself out of Earth’s atmosphere, demonstrating its first successful trek to space.

“According to telemetry, LauncherOne has reached orbit!” the company announced on Twitter during the test mission, dubbed Launch Demo 2. “In both a literal and figurative sense, this is miles beyond how far we reached in our first Launch Demo.”

Roughly two hours after its Cosmic Girl carrier craft took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in southern California, the rocket, a 70-foot launcher tailored for carrying small satellites to space, successfully placed 10 tiny satellites in orbit for NASA, the company said on Twitter.

The rocket, a 70-foot launcher tailored for carrying small satellites to space, aimed to place 10 tiny satellites in orbit for NASA roughly two hours into the mission, though Virgin Orbit had not confirmed whether they were deployed as planned.

The successful test and clean payload deployment was a needed double-win for Virgin Orbit, which last year failed its attempt to reach space when LauncherOne’s main engine shut down prematurely moments after releasing from its carrier aircraft. The shortened mission generated key test data for the company, it said.

Sunday’s test also thrusts Virgin Orbit into an increasingly competitive commercial space race, offering a unique “air-launch” method of sending satellites to orbit alongside rivals such as Rocket Lab and Firefly Aerospace, which have designed small-launch systems to inject smaller satellites into orbit and meet growing demand.

Virgin executives say high-altitude launches allow satellites to be placed in their intended orbit more efficiently and also minimize weather-related cancellations compared to more traditional rockets launched vertically from a ground pad.

Virgin Orbit’s government services subsidiary VOX Space LLC is selling launches using the system to the US military, with a first mission slated for October under a $35 million (roughly Rs. 250 crores) US Space Force contract for three missions.

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin Aims to Fly First Space Passengers by April: Report

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By Reuters | Updated: 15 January 2021

Billionaire Jeff Bezos-owned space company Blue Origin aims to carry the first passengers on its New Shepard space vehicle as early as April, CNBC reported on Thursday, citing people familiar with the matter.

Blue Origin completed the fourteenth test flight of its New Shepard rocket booster and capsule on Thursday, marking one of the last remaining steps before the company flies its first crew to space, the report said.

Responding to a Reuters request for comment on the report, a company spokesperson said “this is rumour and speculative – not confirmed.”

The CNBC report said Blue Origin aims to launch the second test flight within six weeks, or by late February, and the first crewed flight six weeks after that, or by early April.

In December last year, Bezos said that Blue Origin will take the first woman to the moon’s surface.

“This (BE-7) is the engine that will take the first woman to the surface of the Moon,” Bezos said in a post on Instagram with a video of the engine test this week at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

The BE-7 engine, which Blue Origin has been developing for years, has tallied 1,245 seconds of test-fire time and will power the company’s National Team Human Landing System lunar lander.

Blue Origin leads a “national team” as the prime contractor that it assembled in 2019 to help build its Blue Moon lander. That team includes Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper.

Blue Origin has vied for lucrative government contracts in recent years and is competing with rival billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Dynetics, owned by Leidos Holdings, to win a contract to build NASA’s next human lunar landing system to ferry humans to the moon in the next decade.

In April, NASA awarded a lunar lander development contract to Blue Origin’s team worth $579 million (roughly Rs. 4,300 crores), as well as two other companies: SpaceX which received $135 million (roughly Rs. 1,000 crores) to help develop its Starship system and Leidos-owned Dynetics which won $253 million (roughly Rs. 1,900 crores).

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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NASA InSight Mars Digger Bites the Dust After Two Years on Red Planet

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By Associated Press | Updated: 15 January 2021

NASA declared the Mars digger dead Thursday after failing to burrow deep into the red planet to take its temperature.

Scientists in Germany spent two years trying to get their heat probe, dubbed the mole, to drill into the Martian crust. But the 16-inch-long (40-centimetre) device that is part of NASA’s InSight lander couldn’t gain enough friction in the red dirt. It was supposed to bury 16 feet (5 meters) into Mars, but only drilled down a couple of feet (about a half metre).

Following one last unsuccessful attempt to hammer itself down over the weekend with 500 strokes, the team called it quits.

“We’ve given it everything we’ve got, but Mars and our heroic mole remain incompatible,” said the German Space Agency’s Tilman Spohn, the lead scientist for the experiment.

The effort will benefit future excavation efforts at Mars, he added in a statement. Astronauts one day may need to dig into Mars, according to NASA, in search of frozen water for drinking or making fuel, or signs of past microscopic life.

The mole’s design was based on Martian soil examined by previous spacecraft. That turned out nothing like the clumpy dirt encountered this time.

InSight’s French seismometer, meanwhile, has recorded nearly 500 Marsquakes, while the lander’s weather station is providing daily reports. On Tuesday, the high was 17 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 8 degrees Celsius) and the low was minus 56 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 49 degrees Celsius) at Mars’ Elysium Planitia, an equatorial plain.

The lander recently was granted a two-year extension for scientific work, now lasting until the end of 2022.

InSight landed on Mars in November 2018. It will be joined by NASA’s newest rover, Perseverance, which will attempt a touchdown on February 18. The Curiosity rover has been roaming Mars since 2012.

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Scientists Create ‘Bluebot’, Underwater Robots That Swim Like Schools of Fish

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 14 January 2021

Inspired by how schools of fish intuitively synchronise their movements, Harvard scientists have engineered miniature underwater robots capable of forming autonomous swarms.

Each robotic fish, known as a Bluebot, is equipped with cameras and blue LED lights that sense the direction and distance of others inside water tanks.

They swim using flapping fins rather than propellers, which improves their efficiency and maneuverability compared to standard underwater drones.

“It’s definitely useful for future applications — for example a search mission in the open ocean where you want to find people in distress and rescue them quickly,” said Florian Berlinger, the lead author of a paper about the research that appeared in Science Robotics on Wednesday.

Other applications could include environmental monitoring or inspecting infrastructure.

Existing underwater multi robot systems rely on individual robots communicating with each other over radio and transmitting their GPS positions.

The new system moves closer to mimicking the natural behavior of fish, which show complex, coordinated behavior without following a leader.

The 3D printed robots are about 10 centimetres (4 inches) long, and their design was partly inspired by Blue tang fish that are native to the coral reefs of the Indo-Pacific.

The robots use their camera “eyes” to detect other robots in their peripheral vision, then engage in self-organising behaviour, which include flashing their lights simultaneously, arranging themselves in a circle, and gathering around a target.

Berlinger described a test in which the robots were spread out across a water tank to seek out a light source.

When one of the robots found the light, it sent out a signal to the others to gather around, in a demonstration of a search-and-rescue mission.

“Other researchers have reached out to me already to use my Bluebots as fish surrogates for biological studies on fish swimming and schooling,” said Berlinger, explaining that the robot collectives can help us learn more about collective intelligence in nature.

He hopes to improve the design so that it doesn’t require LEDs and can be used outside laboratory settings such as in coral reefs.

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