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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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Scientists Publish Most Precise Measurements of Dark Matter Ever Made

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 30 September 2020

A team of US astrophysicists has produced one of the most precise measurements ever made of the total amount of matter in the Universe, a longtime mystery of the cosmos.

The answer, published in The Astrophysical Journal on Monday, is that matter accounts for 31.5 percent, give or take 1.3 percent, of the total amount of matter and energy that make up the Universe.

The remaining 68.5 percent is dark energy, a mysterious force that is causing the expansion of the Universe to accelerate over time, and was first inferred by observations of distant supernovae in the late 1990s.

Put another way, this means the total amount of matter in the observable Universe is equivalent to 66 billion trillion times the mass of our Sun, Mohamed Abdullah, a University of California, Riverside astrophysicist and the paper’s lead author, told AFP.

Most of this matter, 80 percent, is called dark matter. Its nature is not yet known, but it may consist of some as-yet-undiscovered subatomic particle.

The latest measurements correspond well with values previously found by other teams using different cosmological techniques, such as measuring temperature fluctuations in the low-energy radiation left over from the Big Bang.

“This has been a long process over the course of 100 years where we’re gradually getting more and more precise,” Gillian Wilson, the study’s co-author and a professor at UCR told AFP.

“It’s just kind of cool to be able to make such a fundamental measurement about the Universe without leaving planet Earth,” she added.

So how exactly do you weigh the Universe?

The team honed a 90-year-old technique that involves observing how galaxies orbit inside galaxy clusters, massive systems that contain thousands of galaxies.

These observations told them how strong each galaxy cluster’s gravitational pull was, from which its total mass could then be calculated.
Fate of the Universe

In fact, explained Wilson, their technique was originally developed by the pioneering astronomer Fritz Zwicky, who was the first person to suspect the existence of dark matter in galaxy clusters, in the 1930s.

He noticed that the combined gravitational mass of the galaxies he observed in the nearby Coma galaxy cluster was insufficient to prevent those galaxies from flying away from one another, and realised there must be some other invisible matter at play.

The UCR team, whose research received money from the US National Science Foundation and NASA, refined Zwicky’s technique, developing a tool they called GalWeight that determines more accurately which galaxies belong to a given cluster and which do not.

They applied their tool to the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, the most detailed three-dimensional maps of the Universe currently available, measuring the mass of 1,800 galaxy clusters and creating a catalogue.

Finally, they compared the number of clusters observed per unit volume in their catalogue against a series of computer simulations, each of which was fed a different value for the total matter of the Universe.

Simulations with too little matter had too few clusters, while those with too much matter had too many clusters.

The “Goldilocks” value they found fit just right.

Wilson explained that having a more precise measure of the total amount of matter in the Universe may take us a step closer to learning the nature of dark matter, because “we know just how much matter we should be looking for” when scientists carry out particle experiments, for example at the Large Hadron Collider.

What’s more, “the total amount of dark matter and dark energy tells us the fate of the Universe,” she added, with the current scientific consensus being that we are headed for a “Big Freeze” where galaxies move further and further apart, and the stars in those galaxies eventually run out of fuel.

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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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