By Reuters | Updated: 1 May 2023
Conservation groups sued the Federal Aviation Administration on Monday, challenging its approval of expanded rocket launch operations by Elon Musk’s SpaceX next to a national wildlife refuge in South Texas without requiring greater environmental study.
The federal court lawsuit comes 11 days after SpaceX made good on a newly granted FAA license to send its next-generation Starship rocket on its first test flight, a mission that ended with the vehicle exploding over the Gulf of Mexico after blasting the launchpad to ruins on liftoff.
The shattering force of the launch hurled large chunks of reinforced concrete and metal shrapnel thousands of feet from the launch site, located adjacent to the Lower Rio Grand Valley National Wildlife Refuge near Boca Chica State Park and Beach in Texas.
The blast also ignited a 3.5-acre (1.4-hectare) fire on nearby grounds and sent a cloud of pulverized concrete drifting 6.5 miles to the northwest, raining over surrounding tidal flats and the nearby town of Port Isabel, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
SpaceX hailed the launch as a qualified success that will yield valuable data to advance development of its Starship and Super Heavy rocket, designed as major components in NASA’s newly inaugurated Artemis program for returning astronauts to the moon.
But Monday’s lawsuit said the April 20 incident marked the latest in a series of at least nine explosive mishaps at Boca Chica in recent years that are disrupting a haven for federally protected wildlife and vital habitat for migratory birds.
Intense noise and light pollution, construction and road traffic also have degraded the area, home to two endangered feline predators — the ocelot and jaguarundi — as well as nesting sites for the endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, and critical habitat for the piping plover, a threatened shorebird, the plaintiffs say.
The area and its wildlife are also considered sacred to the people of the Carrizo/Comecrudo Nation, an indigenous group in South Texas.
The disturbances show that the FAA violated federal law by permitting expanded operations at Musk’s Starbase in Boca Chica without mandating the full environmental impact study (EIS) normally required for major projects, the lawsuit asserts.
There was no immediate comment on the court case available from the FAA or SpaceX.
Short-cut environmental review?
Such EIS reviews typically take years, even decades, to complete. They involve extensive analysis of the project at stake and alternatives, along with mitigation plans to curb or offset harmful impacts. The process also entails public review and comment and often re-evaluation and supplemental study.
Instead, the FAA granted its license on the basis of a far less thorough environmental assessment and a finding that SpaceX activities at Boca Chica pose “no significant impact” on the environment.
The lawsuit highlights a history of tension between environmentalists, who have sought to limit development at Boca Chica, and Musk, the billionaire SpaceX founder and CEO known as a hard-charging entrepreneur willing to take risks.
“This case concerns whether the nation’s commitment to preserving our critical wildlife habitat and treasured coastal landscapes must be sacrificed as we reach out to explore the cosmos,” the lawsuit said.
The 31-page suit was brought in federal court in the District of Columbia by the Center for Biological Diversity, the American Bird Conservancy, Surfrider Foundation, Save RGV (Rio Grand Valley), and the Carrizo/Comecrudo Nation.
The plaintiffs seek a court order vacating the finding of no significant impact and requiring a full EIS before further launches are conducted.
© Thomson Reuters 2023
ISRO’s Aditya L1 Solar Mission Begins Studying Solar Wind, Collects Data on Energetic Particles
By Press Trust of India | Updated: 20 September 2023
After India’s solar mission, Aditya L1 began its journey towards Lagrange point 1 following a key manoeuvre, it has started studying energetic particles in the solar wind from space and will continue to do so for the rest of its life, a senior astrophysicist said. The study of the solar wind, the continuous flow of charged particles from the sun which permeates the solar system, will be carried out with the help of a device named Supra Thermal & Energetic Particle Spectrometer (STEPS), a part of the Aditya Solar wind Particle Experiment (ASPEX) payload.
“STEPS is now working from space. However, it was not sitting idle earlier. It has started functioning from within the magnetic field of the Earth since September 10 when Aditya was 52,000 kilometres above our planet,” Dr Dibyendu Chakrabarty, professor of Space and Atmospheric Sciences at the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) said.
STEPS was developed by the PRL with support from the Space Application Centre (SAC) in Ahmedabad.
“During the travel time of four months (till Aditya L1 reaches its destination), it will study energetic particles in the solar wind. The data will help maintain the health and performance of our space assets in a better way,” Dr Chakrabarty told PTI.
The key aim of STEPS is to study the environment of energetic particles from the spacecraft’s position on the L1 point till it will function, he said. “The data from STEPS in the long term will also help us understand how space weather changes,” the space scientist said.
STEPS comprises six sensors, each observing in different directions and measuring supra-thermal and energetic ions. The data collected during the Earth’s orbits helps scientists to analyse the behaviour of particles surrounding the planet, especially in the presence of its magnetic field.
Aditya-L1, launched by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) on September 2, will go up to the First Lagrangian point, about 1.5 million km from the Earth ISRO on September 18 said on X: “Off to Sun-Earth L1 point! The Trans-Lagrangean Point 1 Insertion (TL1I) manoeuvre is performed successfully. The spacecraft is now on a trajectory that will take it to the Sun-Earth L1 point.” Lagrangian points are where gravitational forces, acting between two objects, balance each other in such a way that the spacecraft can ‘hover’ for a longer period of time.
The L1 point is considered the most significant of the Lagrangian points, for solar observations, which were discovered by mathematician Joseph Louis Lagrange.
Elon Musk’s Neuralink Receives Approval to Start Brain Implant Human Trial for Paralysis Patients
By Reuters | Updated: 20 September 2023 10:20
Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s brain-chip startup Neuralink said on Tuesday it has received approval from an independent review board to begin recruitment for the first human trial of its brain implant for paralysis patients.
Those with paralysis due to cervical spinal cord injury or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis may qualify for the study, it said but did not reveal how many participants would be enrolled in the trial, which will take about six years to complete.
The study will use a robot to surgically place a brain-computer interface (BCI) implant in a region of the brain that controls the intention to move, Neuralink said, adding that its initial goal is to enable people to control a computer cursor or keyboard using their thoughts alone.
The company, which had earlier hoped to receive approval to implant its device in 10 patients, was negotiating a lower number of patients with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after the agency raised safety concerns, according to current and former employees. It is not known how many patients the FDA ultimately approved.
Musk has grand ambitions for Neuralink, saying it would facilitate speedy surgical insertions of its chip devices to treat conditions like obesity, autism, depression and schizophrenia.
In May, the company said it had received clearance from the FDA for its first-in-human clinical trial when it was already under federal scrutiny for its handling of animal testing.
Even if the BCI device proves to be safe for human use, it would still potentially take more than a decade for the startup to secure commercial use clearance for it, according to experts.
© Thomson Reuters 2023
ISRO’s Aditya-L1 Solar Mission Performs TL1I Manoeuvre, on Track to Reach Sun-Earth L1 Point
By ANI | Updated: 19 September 2023
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) announced on Tuesday that its maiden solar mission — Aditya-L1 — has performed the Trans-Lagrangean Point 1 Insertion (TL1I) manoeuvre successfully and the spacecraft was now in a trajectory that will take it to the Sun-Earth L1 point. ISRO also informed that it marked the fifth consecutive time that the ISRO had successfully transferred an object on a trajectory toward another celestial body or location in space.
A post on the ISRO official handle on social media platform X read, “Aditya-L1 Mission | Off to Sun-Earth L1 point | The Trans-Lagrangean Point 1 Insertion (TL1I) manoeuvre is performed successfully. The spacecraft is now on a trajectory that will take it to the Sun-Earth L1 point. It will be injected into an orbit around L1 through a manoeuvre after about 110 days. This is the fifth consecutive time ISRO has successfully transferred an object on a trajectory toward another celestial body or location in space.”
Earlier, a launcher carrying the Aditya-L1 spacecraft blasted off from the Satish Dhawan Space Station at Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh. The primary objectives of India’s maiden solar mission include collecting scientific data and marking another milestone in India’s solar exploration efforts.
The agency had earlier posted on X, “Aditya-L1 Mission: Aditya-L1 has commenced collecting scientific data. The sensors of the STEPS instrument have begun measuring supra-thermal and energetic ions and electrons at distances greater than 50,000 km from Earth. This data helps scientists analyze the behaviour of particles surrounding Earth. The figure displays variations in the energetic particle environment, collected by one of the units.”
The Supra Thermal and Energetic Particle Spectrometer (STEPS) instrument, a part of the Aditya Solar Wind Particle Experiment (ASPEX) payload, also started its data-gathering operations earlier.
ISRO’s Aditya-L1 Solar Mission Begins Collecting Scientific Data in Earth’s Orbit
By Press Trust of India | Updated: 18 September 2023
India’s Aditya-L1 solar mission spacecraft has commenced collecting scientific data to help scientists analyse particles surrounding Earth, ISRO said on Monday.
The sensors on board India’s first solar observatory have begun measuring ions and electrons at distances greater than 50,000 km from Earth, ISRO announced in a post on X.
The national space agency said that the sensors on STEPS or the Supra Thermal & Energetic Particle Spectrometer instrument began measuring supra-thermal and energetic ions and electrons at distances greater than 50,000 km from Earth.
The instrument is a part of the Aditya Solar Wind Particle EXperiment (ASPEX) payload of Aditya L1.
Aditya-L1 has commenced collecting scientific data.
The sensors of the STEPS instrument have begun measuring supra-thermal and energetic ions and electrons at distances greater than 50,000 km from Earth.
This data helps scientists analyze the behaviour of… pic.twitter.com/kkLXFoy3Ri— ISRO (@isro) September 18, 2023
STEPS comprises six sensors, each observing in different directions and measuring supra-thermal and energetic ions ranging from 20 keV/nucleon to 5 MeV/nucleon, in addition to electrons exceeding 1 MeV. These measurements are conducted using low and high-energy particle spectrometers.
The data collected during Earth’s orbits helps scientists to analyse the behaviour of particles surrounding the Earth, especially in the presence of its magnetic field.
STEPS was activated on September 10 at a distance greater than 50,000 km from Earth. This distance is equivalent to more than eight times the Earth’s radius, placing it well beyond Earth’s radiation belt region.
After completing the necessary instrument health checks, data collection continued until the spacecraft had moved farther than 50,000 km from Earth.
These STEPS measurements will persist during the cruise phase of the Aditya-L1 mission as it progresses toward the Sun-Earth L1 point. They will continue once the spacecraft is positioned in its intended orbit.
Data collected around L1 would provide insights into the origin, acceleration, and anisotropy of solar wind and space weather phenomena.
STEPS was developed by the Physical Research Laboratory with support from the Space Application Centre in Ahmedabad.
Aditya-L1 was launched by ISRO on September 2.
The spacecraft carries seven different payloads to study the Sun, four of which will observe the light from the Sun and the remaining three will measure in situ parameters of the plasma and magnetic fields.
Aditya-L1 will be placed in a halo orbit around the Lagrangian Point 1 (L1), which is 1.5 million km from the Earth in the direction of the Sun. It will revolve around the Sun with the same relative position and hence can see the Sun continuously.
Supermassive Black Hole Spotted Eating Sun-Like Star in Nearby Galaxy
By Reuters | Updated: 9 September 2023
Black holes, celestial objects known for their gluttony, usually eat stars unlucky enough to stray too close to them in one big gulp, annihilating them with their enormous gravitational pull. But some, it turns out, tend to snack rather than gorge.
Researchers said they have observed a supermassive black hole at the center of a relatively nearby galaxy as it takes bites out of a star similar in size and composition to our sun, consuming material equal to about three times Earth’s mass each time the star makes a close pass on its elongated oval-shaped obit.
Black holes are extraordinarily dense objects with gravity so strong that not even light can escape.
The star is located about 520 million light years from our solar system. A light year is the distance light travels in a year, 5.9 trillion miles (9.5 trillion km). It was observed being plundered by a supermassive black hole at the heart of a spiral-shaped galaxy.
As such black holes go, this one is relatively small, estimated to have a mass a few hundred thousand times larger than the sun. The supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, called Sagittarius A*, possesses about 4 million times the mass of our sun. Some other galaxies harbor supermassive black holes hundreds of millions times the mass of the sun.
Most galaxies have such black holes at their center, and the environment around them can be among the most violent places in the universe.
Most of the data used by the scientists in the new study came from NASA’s orbiting Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory.
The star was observed orbiting the black hole every 20 to 30 days. At one end of its orbit, it ventures near enough to the black hole to have some material from its stellar atmosphere sucked away, or accreted, each time it passes — but not so close as to have the whole star shredded. Such an event is called a “repeating partial tidal disruption.”
The stellar material that falls into the black hole heats up to around 3.6 million degrees Fahrenheit (2 million degrees Celsius), unleashing an immense amount of X-rays. Those were detected by the space observatory.
“What’s most likely to happen is the star’s orbit will gradually decay and it will get closer and closer to the supermassive black hole until it gets close enough to be completely disrupted,” said astrophysicist Rob Eyles-Ferris of the University of Leicester in England, one of the authors of the study published this week in the journal Nature Astronomy.
“That process is likely to take years at least — more likely decades or centuries,” Eyles-Ferris added.
This marked the first time that scientists had observed a sun-like star being repeatedly snacked upon by a supermassive black hole.
“There are lots of unanswered questions about tidal disruption events and exactly how the orbit of the star affects them,” Eyles-Ferris said. “It’s a very fast-moving field at the moment. This one has shown us that new discoveries could come at any time.”
© Thomson Reuters 2023
Japan ‘Moon Sniper’ SLIM Lunar Spacecraft Launched Into Space Two Weeks After Chandryaan-3 Moon Landing
By Reuters | Updated: 7 September 2023
Japan launched its lunar exploration spacecraft on Thursday aboard a homegrown H-IIA rocket, hoping to become the world’s fifth country to land on the Moon early next year. Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) said the rocket took off from Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan as planned and successfully released the Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM). Unfavorable weather led to three postponements in a week last month.
Dubbed the “Moon sniper”, Japan aims to land SLIM within 100 meters of its target site on the lunar surface. The $100-million (roughly Rs. 831 crores) mission is expected to start the landing by February after a long, fuel-efficient approach trajectory.
“The big objective of SLIM is to prove the high-accuracy landing … to achieve ‘landing where we want’ on the lunar surface, rather than ‘landing where we can’,” JAXA President Hiroshi Yamakawa told a news conference.
The launch comes two weeks after India became the fourth nation to successfully land a spacecraft on the Moon with its Chandrayaan-3 mission to the unexplored lunar south pole. Around the same time, Russia’s Luna-25 lander crashed while approaching the Moon.
Two earlier lunar landing attempts by Japan failed in the last year. JAXA lost contact with the OMOTENASHI lander and scrubbed an attempted landing in November. The Hakuto-R Mission 1 lander, made by Japanese startup space, crashed in April as it attempted to descend to the lunar surface.
SLIM is set to touch down on the near side of the Moon close to Mare Nectaris, a lunar sea that, viewed from Earth, appears as a dark spot. Its primary goal is to test advanced optical and image processing technology.
After landing, the craft aims to analyse the composition of olivine rocks near the sites in search of clues about the origin of the Moon. No lunar rover is loaded on SLIM.
Thursday’s H-IIA rocket also carried the X-Ray Imaging and Spectroscopy Mission (XRISM) satellite, a joint project of JAXA, NASA, and the European Space Agency. The satellite aims to observe plasma winds flowing through the universe that scientists see as key to helping understand the evolution of stars and galaxies.
Mitsubishi Heavy Industries manufactured the rocket and operated the launch, which marked the 47th H-IIA rocket Japan has launched since 2001, bringing the vehicle’s success rate close to 98 percent.
JAXA had suspended the launch of H-IIA carrying SLIM for several months while it investigated the failure of its new medium-lift H3 rocket during its debut in March.
Japan’s space missions have faced other recent setbacks, with the launch failure of the Epsilon small rocket in October 2022, followed by an engine explosion during a test in July.
The country aims to send an astronaut to the Moon’s surface in the latter half of the 2020s as part of NASA’s Artemis program.
© Thomson Reuters 2023
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