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Universe Today

UFO panel says NASA needs better data about anomalies

A panel of independent experts took a first-ever look at what NASA could bring to the study of UFO sightings — now known as unidentified anomalous phenomena, or UAPs — and said the space agency will have to up its game.

The 16-member panel’s chair, David Spergel, said he and his colleagues were “struck by the limited nature of the data.”

“Many events had insufficient data,” said Spergel, an astrophysicist who is the president of the Simons Foundation. “In order to get a better understanding, we will need to have high-quality data — data where we understand its provenance, data from multiple sensors.”

During today’s public hearing, panelists said NASA could contribute to the UAP debate by setting standards for sighting data, creating a crowdsourcing platform for sightings, and reducing the stigma that has discouraged people from reporting and studying anomalous sightings. Some of that stigma was experienced by the panelists themselves.

“It’s disheartening to note that several of them have been subjected to online abuse due to their decision to participate on this panel,” said Daniel Evans, NASA’s assistant deputy associate administrator for research, who served as the space agency’s liaison to the panel. “A NASA security team is actively addressing this issue.”

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Universe Today

Virgin Galactic’s space plane aces its final flight test

After a two-year hiatus, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity resumed flying crew members beyond a 50-mile-high space milestone, marking the end of a years-long flight test program and setting the stage for the start of commercial service as soon as next month.

It was the first launch of the Unity rocket plane from its VMS Eve carrier airplane since July 2021, when company founder Richard Branson took a ride. Branson said he was “proud” to be watching from Spaceport America in New Mexico when Unity took flight.

During today’s suborbital flight test, known as Unity 25, the rocket plane sent two pilots and four other Virgin Galactic employees to a maximum height of 54.2 miles, at a top speed of Mach 2.94.

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Universe Today

SETI researchers are simulating alien contact

Is it a multimedia art project? Or a rehearsal for alien contact? Let’s call it both: Researchers specializing in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, are working with a media artist to stage the receipt of an interstellar message — and a global effort to decode the message.

The project, titled “A Sign in Space,” is orchestrated by media artist Daniela de Paulis in collaboration with the SETI Institute, the European Space Agency, the Green Bank Observatory and the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics (also known as INAF).

The metaphorical curtain rises on May 24, when ESA’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter transmits an encoded radio message from Martian orbit to Earth at 19:00 UTC / noon PDT.

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Universe Today

Astronomers want your help to identify risky asteroids

You, too, can be an asteroid hunter — thanks to a citizen-science project launched by the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. And you might even get a scientific citation.

The project is enlisting human spotters to verify potential detections of space rocks moving through the field of view of the Catalina Sky Survey’s telescopes. The NASA-funded survey is charged with keeping track of more than a million asteroids, with a principal goal of identifying near-Earth objects that could pose a risk to our planet.

More than 14,400 near-Earth objects, or NEOs, have been discovered by the Catalina Sky Survey during the past 30 years, including 1,200 that were identified just in the past year. That adds up to nearly half of the known NEO population.

The problem is, astronomers know there are still lots of unknown asteroids out there — too many for them to spot without an assist from amateurs. “We take so many images of the sky each night that we cannot possibly look through all of our potential real asteroids,” Carson Fuls, a science engineering specialist for the Catalina Sky Survey, said in a NASA news release.

That’s where the Daily Minor Planet can make a difference.

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Universe Today

Japanese company loses contact with its moon lander

A lunar lander built and operated by ispace, a Japanese startup, descended to the surface of the moon today after a months-long journey — but went out of contact and was presumed lost.

“We have to assume that we could not complete the landing on the lunar surface,” ispace CEO Takeshi Hakamada said during a webcast of the Hakuto-R mission’s final stages.

Ground controllers at the Hakuto-R Mission Control Center in Tokyo continued trying to re-establish communications nevertheless, and Hakamada said his company would try again.

“We are very proud of the fact that we have achieved many things during this Mission 1,” he said. “We will keep going. Never quit the lunar quest.”

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Universe Today

Starship has a glorious liftoff — but then breaks up

SpaceX’s Starship launch system lifted off on its first full-scale test flight today, rising majestically from its Texas launch pad but falling short of stage separation.

The uncrewed mission represented the most ambitious test yet for the world’s most powerful rocket — which eventually could send people to the moon and Mars, and even between spaceports on our own planet.

Liftoff from SpaceX’s Starbase complex at Boca Chica on the South Texas coast came at 8:33 a.m. CDT (9:33 a.m. EDT). The Starship system’s Super Heavy booster, powered by 33 methane-fueled Raptor rocket engines, rose into clear skies with a deafening roar and a blazing pillar of flame.

Hundreds of SpaceX employees cheered at the company’s California headquarters, but the crowd turned quiet three minutes into the flight when the Starship upper stage failed to separate from the booster as planned. The entire rocket spun in the air as a ground-based camera watched.

A minute later, SpaceX’s flight termination system destroyed both stages of the rocket as a safety measure. “Obviously, we wanted to make it all the way through, but to get this far, honestly, is amazing,” launch commentator Kate Tice said.

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Juice probe looks back on its way to Jupiter’s moons

As the European Space Agency’s Juice spacecraft headed out on an eight-year trip to Jupiter’s icy moons, it turned back to snap some selfies with Earth in the background — and those awesome shots are just the start.

The bus-sized probe is due to make four slingshot flybys of Earth and Venus to pick up some gravity-assisted boosts to its destination — and ESA mission managers plan to have the monitoring cameras running during those close encounters.

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AI produces a sharper image of M87’s black hole

Astronomers have used machine learning to sharpen up the Event Horizon Telescope’s first picture of a black hole — an exercise that demonstrates the value of artificial intelligence for fine-tuning cosmic observations.

The image should guide scientists as they test their hypotheses about the behavior of black holes, and about the gravitational rules of the road under extreme conditions.

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Meet the crew who’ll fly around the moon for Artemis 2

The four astronauts chosen for NASA’s Artemis 2 mission will check off a string of firsts during their flight around the moon, scheduled for next year. It’ll mark the first trip beyond Earth orbit for a woman, for a person of color and for a Canadian. Artemis 2 will represent yet another first for Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen: Based on the current crew schedule, it’ll be his first-ever space mission.

Commander Reid Wiseman, pilot Victor Glover and mission specialist Christina Koch round out the first crew for NASA’s Artemis moon program, which picks up on the legacy of the Apollo moon program. If all goes according to plan, they’ll be the first humans to circle the moon since Apollo 17 in 1972.

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Type One Energy raises $29M for a crazy fusion reactor

A Wisconsin-based startup called Type One Energy says it’s closed an over-subscribed $29 million financing round to launch its effort to commercialize a weird kind of nuclear fusion device known as a stellarator.

Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the $2 billion clean-energy fund created by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, partnered with TDK Ventures and Doral Energy Tech Ventures to co-lead the investment round. Other backers include Darco, the Grantham Foundation, MILFAM, Orbia Ventures, Shorewind Capital, TRIREC and Vahoca.

Stellarator fusion devices rely on a pretzel-shaped torus of magnets to contain the plasma where fusion takes place. They have a design that’s strikingly different from, say, the giant tokamak that’s being built for the multibillion-dollar ITER experimental fusion reactor in France, or the laser-blasting device at the National Ignition Facility in California that recently hit an energy-producing milestone. Some have gone so far as to call stellarators the “fusion reactor designed in hell.”