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Cosmic Space

NASA’s moon rocket test ends early, raising questions

NASA’s first full-up, on-the-ground test for the main engines on its heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket ended prematurely today due to an automated shutdown.

“Today was an important day,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said after the test. “I know not everybody is feeling as happy as we otherwise could, because we wanted to get eight minutes of a hot fire, and we got over a minute.”

Despite the early shutdown,  NASA said the “Green Run” engine test produced valuable data in preparation for the first honest-to-goodness SLS launch, currently set for late this year.

That launch would kick off an uncrewed round-the-moon trip for NASA’s Orion spacecraft. The mission, known as Artemis 1, is a key step in the plan to send astronauts around the moon on NASA’s Artemis 2 mission in the 2023 time frame, and then put them on the lunar surface by as early as 2024 during the Artemis 3 mission.

Today’s test at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi focused on the SLS rocket’s core stage and its four Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-25 engines. The engines are refurbished leftovers from the space shuttle program, and had been used on shuttle missions going as far back as 1998.

Each of the engines delivers more than 400,000 pounds of thrust, adding up to 1.6 million pounds of thrust when all four engines are firing. When the Artemis 1 mission lifts off, the SLS’ solid rocket boosters will bring total thrust to more than 8 million pounds. In comparison, the Saturn V moon rocket’s first stage delivered 7.6 million pounds of thrust back in the 1960s and 1970s.

NASA’s SLS team put months of work into the preparations for today’s test. More than 700,000 pounds of super-chilled hydrogen and oxygen were loaded into the core stage’s tanks for the engine firing. When the countdown reached zero, all four engines roared into life on cue, sending giant clouds of steam billowing into the air.

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Cosmic Space

Intel office enlists AI to analyze satellite images

U.S. intelligence officials today launched a program to develop new satellite image analysis tools that use machine learning and other tricks of the artificial intelligence trade.

In a news release, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity announced that contracts for the Space-based Machine Automated Recognition Technique program, or SMART, have been awarded to teams led by BlackSky Geospatial Solutions, which has offices in Seattle as well as Herndon, Va.; Accenture Federal Services, with offices in Arlington, Va.; Kitware, headquartered in New York; and Systems & Technology Research in Woburn, Mass.

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Cosmic Space

Jupiter and Saturn pair up to make a Christmas Star

Are you ready for a remake of the Christmas Star story? Depending on how much stock you put in historical hypotheses, this year’s solstice on Dec. 21 could bring a replay of the phenomenon that the Three Kings saw in the Gospel of Matthew.

That’s when Jupiter and Saturn can be seen incredibly close together in the night sky. If the skies are clear, the two planets will be hard to miss in southwest skies just after sunset, as seen from mid-northern latitudes. Jupiter will sparkle brighter, and Saturn will be shining only a tenth of a degree to the upper right. With a small telescope, you might be able to see both planets and their moons in a single field of view.

“Some astronomers suggest the pair will look like an elongated star, and others say the two planets will form a double planet,” NASA says in a blog posting about the Dec. 21 conjunction. “To know for sure, we’ll just have to look and see. Either way, take advantage of this opportunity because Jupiter and Saturn won’t appear this close in the sky until 2080!”

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Cosmic Space

OneWeb adds 36 satellites to revived constellation

Less than a month after emerging from bankruptcy, OneWeb resumed its campaign to provide global satellite internet access today with the successful launch and deployment of 36 satellites.

The satellites were sent into low Earth orbit by a Soyuz rocket that lifted off from Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Russian Far East at 12:26 GMT (4:26 a.m. PT). Nine batches of satellites were dropped off in their target orbits over the course of nearly four hours, and OneWeb confirmed signal acquisition for all 36 satellites.

This was the first fully commercial launch from Russia’s Vostochny complex. Europe’s Arianespace consortium managed launch logistics.

Today’s operation brings OneWeb’s constellation to 110 satellites, with hundreds more due for launch in the months ahead. OneWeb says it’s back on track to provide broadband data services to customers in northern latitudes — including Alaska, Britain, Canada and northern Europe — during 2021, with global service to follow in 2022.

OneWeb’s prime rivals in the market for satellite internet services from low Earth orbit are SpaceX, which has already launched nearly 1,000 satellites and is offering limited beta service; Telesat, a Canadian satellite operator targeting the start of service in 2022; and Amazon’s Project Kuiper, which is aiming for a debut in the mid-2020s.

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Cosmic Space

President Trump boosts nuclear power in space

In what’s likely to be one of the last space policy initiatives of his administration, President Donald Trump today issued a directive that lays out a roadmap for nuclear power applications beyond Earth.

Space Policy Directive 6 calls on NASA and other federal agencies to advance the development of in-space nuclear propulsion systems as well as a nuclear fission power system on the moon.

“Space nuclear power and propulsion is a fundamentally enabling technology for American deep space missions to Mars and beyond,” Scott Pace, the executive secretary of the National Space Council, said in a White House news release. “The United States intends to remain the leader among spacefaring nations, applying nuclear power technology safely, securely and sustainably in space.”

Space-based nuclear power isn’t exactly a new idea: NASA and the Atomic Energy Commission considered thermal nuclear propulsion – a concept that would have involved heating up propellants with a nuclear reactor – way back in the 1970s as part of Project NERVA.

A different kind of nuclear power, which relies on using the heat from radioactive decay to generate electricity, has been used to power space hardware ranging from Apollo lunar surface experiments to the Curiosity rover on Mars. (NASA’s Perseverance rover, which is due to land on Mars in February, also has a radioisotope power system.)

NASA once considered putting a nuclear electric propulsion system on a spacecraft known as the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter, but that mission was canceled in 2005. Now there’s renewed interest in missions that require more power than can be generated by solar arrays – and that’s reviving interest in nuclear power for space applications.

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Cosmic Space

How to watch the pandemic solar eclipse online

Total solar eclipses are typically magnets for world travelers with a scientific bent — but when it comes to the eclipse that’ll be visible from Chile and Argentina on Dec. 14, the coronavirus pandemic has put a damper on the dreams of eclipse-chasers.

Fortunately, there are lots of ways to see the solar eclipse online, and this way at least you don’t have to worry about hurting your eyes.

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Cosmic Space

Geminids could be a gem of a meteor shower

The stars have aligned for this weekend’s peak of the annual Geminid meteor shower. Now let’s hope that the weather aligns as well.

Skywatchers rank December’s Geminids alongside August’s Perseids as the year’s highlights for meteor shows. Under peak conditions, sharp-eyed observers can see two meteors a minute. NASA notes that the shooting stars are bright and fast, and tend to be yellow in color.

But the strength of the show is highly dependent on viewing conditions. In some years, the moon’s glare washes out the night sky so that few meteor streaks stand out.

One of the few good things about 2020 is that the moon won’t interfere this year. It’s nearly a new moon, which means skywatchers will see only a thin crescent that rises in the east just before dawn.

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Cosmic Space

Collapse delivers death blow to Arecibo radio dish

The Arecibo radio telescope’s 900-ton instrument platform fell into the 1,000-foot-wide antenna dish this morning, adding to previous damage and putting Puerto Rico’s iconic scientific structure beyond repair.

The National Science Foundation, which funds the Arecibo Observatory through a management contract with the University of Central Florida, said no injuries were caused by the collapse.

“We are saddened by this situation but thankful that no one was hurt,” NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan said in a statement. “When engineers advised the NSF that the structure was unstable and presented a danger to work teams and Arecibo staff, we took their warnings seriously and continued to emphasize the importance of safety for everyone involved.”

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Cosmic Space

China launches mission to bring back moon samples

China launched a robotic probe today on a mission that could bring back the first samples of moon rocks and dirt in more than 40 years.

The Chang’e-5 spacecraft was sent into space from south China’s Wenchang Space Launch Center at 4:30 a.m. local time Nov. 24 (12:30 p.m. PT Nov. 23) atop a heavy-lift Long March 5 rocket.

Like China’s previous lunar probes, Chang’e-5 is named after a moon goddess in Chinese mythology. This probe consists of an orbiter, a lander, an ascent vehicle and a re-entry capsule.

The 9-ton craft went into an Earth-moon transfer trajectory that should get it to lunar orbit in five days. On Nov. 29 or so, the paired lander and ascent vehicle are expected to separate from the orbiter and touch down on a lava dome known as Mons Rümker.

The mound is thought to contain rocks that formed relatively recently in geological terms — 1.2 billion years ago. Samples from such a region could yield the youngest rocks ever brought back from the moon, and shed new light on recent phases of lunar geology.

Chang’e-5’s lander is designed to study its surroundings with cameras and scientific instruments, including a ground-penetrating radar and a spectrometer. The most important scientific payloads are a mechanical scoop and a drill that can go 7 feet beneath the surface.

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Cosmic Space

The long goodbye begins for iconic radio dish

The radio telescope at Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory is on its way to extinction after 57 years of sparking dreams of alien contact — and after a grim three years of weathering nature’s blows.

Two of the cables supporting the telescope’s 900-ton instrument platform have slipped loose, ripping through the 1,000-foot-wide web of aluminum panels and steel cables that’s spread 450 feet below.

Engineers assessed the damage and determined that the risk of a catastrophic failure was too great to attempt repairs. If more cables snap, the entire platform could crash down, potentially causing the dish’s collapse and life-threatening injuries to workers.

“Although it saddens us to make this recommendation, we believe the structure should be demolished in a controlled way as soon as pragmatically possible, ” Thornton Tomasetti, the engineering firm that made the structural assessment, said in its recommendations to the National Science Foundation and the University of Central Florida, which manages operations at Arecibo on the NSF’s behalf.

“It is therefore our recommendation to expeditiously plan for decommissioning of the observatory and execute a controlled demolition of the telescope,” the firm said.

After consulting with other engineering firms and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, NSF decided to go ahead with the decommissioning.

“NSF prioritizes the safety of workers, Arecibo Observatory’s staff and visitors, which makes this decision necessary, although unfortunate,” NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan said in a statement.