Asteroids leaving the spotlight? No way!

Asteroids passing Earth

An artist’s concept shows asteroids zooming past Earth (NASA / Asteroid Day Illustration)

By Chelsey Ballarte and Alan Boyle

NASA may be closing down its grand plan to study a piece of an asteroid up close, but the researchers who focus on near-Earth objects aren’t turning their backs on massive space boulders.

They say it’s just a matter of time before we’ll be forced to head off a threatening asteroid. On Friday, they’ll be calling attention to the challenge — and what scientists and activists are doing to address it.

For the past two years, the organizers of Asteroid Day have focused on June 30 as a time to turn an international spotlight on planetary defense. The date marks the anniversary of the Tunguska explosion, a presumed asteroid strike that destroyed half a million acres of forest in Siberia in 1908.

This year, with the United Nations’ encouragement, 190 countries around the world are planning a total of more than 700 Asteroid Day events, ranging from planetarium shows and virtual reality tours to a 24-hour streaming video marathon.

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Spaceflight salutes India’s 31-satellite launch

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket wasn’t the only launch vehicle that took to the air today: India’s PSLV-C38 rocket sent an Earth-watching spacecraft called Cartosat-2E into a pole-to-pole orbit, along with 30 nanosatellites. Eight of those pint-sized satellites will be part of San Francisco-based Spire’s low-Earth-orbit constellation for tracking maritime traffic and monitoring the weather. Seattle-based Spaceflight played a role in getting Spire’s Lemur-2 satellites on the flight, and celebrated the successful liftoff from India’s Satish Dhawan Space Center.

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SpaceX re-launches and re-lands a rocket

SpaceX launch

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from its Florida launch pad, sending the BulgariaSat-1 satellite into space. (SpaceX via YouTube)

For the second time ever, SpaceX has sent a telecommunications satellite into orbit on a previously flown Falcon 9 rocket – but today’s launch of BulgariaSat-1 is notable for other reasons as well.

The first-stage booster landed successful at sea after liftoff, marking the first time the same rocket has made successful touchdowns off America’s East Coast as well as the West Coast.

And if the schedule holds, yet another SpaceX launch will take place two days from now, to put 10 more satellites into orbit for the Iridium NEXT telecom constellation.

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Amazon’s drone hive looks like sci-fi movie

Amazon drone hive

An illustration from a patent application for multi-level fulfillment centers shows drones swarming around the building. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)patent

If filmmakers ever decide to do a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” with drones instead of birds, they could use Amazon’s concept for a drone-dominated fulfillment center in their set design.

The artwork, included in a patent application published today, shows a nine-story hive that’s swarming with drones. I’d hate to be the stick figure standing beneath that swarm.

A team of six Amazon inventors filed the application in 2015 with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 2015. Their intent isn’t to stir up nightmares, but to secure the rights to a design that optimizes Amazon’s traditional fulfillment centers for drone deliveries in an urban environment.

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Stephen Hawking lays out space timetable

Stephen Hawking

Physicist Stephen Hawking addresses the Starmus Festival via video. (Starmus via YouTube)

British physicist Stephen Hawking has repeatedly warned us that we have just a century or two to move off Earth, and he just shared his vision for how to do it.

Hawking laid out a timetable this week during a lecture titled “The Future of Humanity,” presented to an audience of 3,000 attending the Starmus Festival in Trondheim, Norway.

He said a base could be established on the moon within 30 years to serve as a gateway to the rest of the solar system. Settlers could follow up with a Mars base within 50 years. But Hawking went on to call for setting an even speedier schedule for space exploration.

The 75-year-old, wheelchair-riding physicist recalled President John F. Kennedy’s vision of putting Americans on the moon by the end of the 1960s – a deadline that was met with the Apollo 11 mission in 1969.

“A goal of a base on the moon by 2020, and a manned landing on Mars by 2025 would reignite the space program and give it a sense of purpose in the same way that President Kennedy’s target did in the ’60s,” he said, using his computer-generated voice. “The spin-off to this would be an increase in the public recognition of science generally.”

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Scientists see hints of another unseen planet

Distant planet

An artist’s conception shows a hypothesized planet orbiting off the main plane of the solar system. The depicted orbits and planetary sizes are not shown to scale. (UA / LPL Illustration / Heather Roper)

Astronomers say they’ve found hints that an unseen planetary-mass object may lurk in the outer reaches of our solar system. And no, they’re not talking about Planet Nine, Planet X, Nibiru or any of the other previously hypothesized worlds out there.

Kat Volk and Renu Malhotra of the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory say their analysis points to an eight-degree tilt in the average planes of orbits for the most distant objects in the Kuiper Belt, a ring of icy mini-worlds that lie beyond the orbit of Neptune.

“The most likely explanation for our results is that there is some unseen mass,” Volk said in a news release. “According to our calculations, something as massive as Mars would be needed to cause the warp that we measured.”

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‘Kidney on a chip’ gets set for space

Kidney on a chip

The “kidney on a chip” is about the size of a credit card. (UW Photo / Alex Levine)

A stack of card-sized gizmos that test the effects of drugs, toxins and weightlessness on human kidney cells is due to take a ride to the International Space Station as early as next year – and researchers at the University of Washington can’t wait.

“Use of the human kidney-on-a-chip here on Earth has already taught us a lot about kidney function and kidney diseases,” Jonathan Himmelfarb, director of the Kidney Research Institute and a professor at the UW School of Medicine, said today in a news release.

“The opportunity to study how physical cues emanating from loss of gravitational forces affect kidney cellular function has the potential to improve the health of people living on Earth, as well as prevent medical complications that astronauts experience from weightlessness,” he added.

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