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Universe Today

Rival billionaires both play roles in MethaneSAT

Billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are usually rivals on the final frontier, but they both have a role to play in MethaneSAT, a privately backed satellite mission aimed at monitoring methane emissions.

Last November, the Bezos Earth Fund made a $100 million grant to the Environmental Defense Fund to support the satellite’s completion and launch. That grant was part of a $791 million round that Bezos said was “just the beginning of my $10 billion commitment” to address challenges brought on by climate change.

Now MethaneSAT LLC — a subsidiary of Environmental Defense Fund — is announcing that it’s signed a contract with Musk’s SpaceX to send the satellite into orbit on a Falcon 9 rocket by as early as October 2022.

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Chinese probe delivers moon samples to Earth

A Chinese probe has delivered the first samples to be collected from the moon in more than 40 years, and its mission isn’t done yet.

The Chang’e-5 sample return capsule floated down to the snowy plains of Inner Mongolia, capping an odyssey that began less than a month ago with the launch of a nine-ton spacecraft from south China’s Wenchang Space Launch Center.

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Virgin Galactic’s first New Mexico space shot fizzles

Virgin Galactic lit up SpaceShipTwo’s rocket motor for the first time in the skies over New Mexico today, but only for an instant before the engine shut down and the plane glided back to a safe landing at Spaceport America.

The flight test team had hoped that the SpaceShipTwo craft known as VSS Unity might make it all the way to the 50-mile space milestone with two test pilots at the controls.

Unity has made it that high up twice before, in 2018 and 2019, when the test operation was based at Mojave Air and Space Port in California — but this was the first powered test flight planned since operations moved to Spaceport America.

Today’s outing followed up on two glide tests conducted in May and June of this year. All appeared normal during the flight’s early phases. VSS Unity was carried into the air by its twin-fuselage mothership, known as WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve, and was released to fly free at an altitude of more than 40,000 feet.

webcast provided via NASASpaceflight.com showed the flash of the plane’s hybrid rocket motor lighting up, but only for a second.

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Robotic Chinese spacecraft dock in lunar orbit

Two robotic Chinese spacecraft have docked in lunar orbit for the first time ever, in preparation for sending samples from the Moon to Earth.

The lunar ascent module for China’s Chang’e-5 mission was captured by the metal claws of the mission’s orbiter at 5:42 a.m. Beijing time Dec. 6 (1:42 p.m. PT Dec. 5), the China National Space Administration reported.

Over the half-hour that followed, a canister containing lunar material was safely transferred to the orbiter’s attached Earth-return capsule. In the days ahead, the ascent module will be jettisoned, and the orbiter will fire its thrusters to carry the return capsule back toward Earth.

If all proceeds according to plan, the orbiter will drop off the return capsule for its descent to Inner Mongolia sometime around Dec. 16, with the exact timing dependent on the mission team’s analysis of the required trajectory. That would mark the first return of fresh material from the Moon since the Soviet Luna 24 spacecraft accomplished the feat back in 1976.

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Japan’s Hayabusa 2 probe drops off bits of an asteroid

Japan’s Hayabusa 2 probe zoomed past Earth today and dropped off a capsule containing bits of an asteroid, finishing a six-year round trip.

But the mission is far from over: While Hayabusa 2’s parachute-equipped sample capsule descended to the Australian Outback, its mothership set a new course for an encounter with yet another asteroid in 2031.

Hayabusa 2’s prime objective was to deliver bits of Ryugu, an asteroid that’s currently 7.2 million miles from Earth. Mission controllers at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, cheered and laughed when word came that the capsule had survived atmospheric re-entry.

Imagery captured by tracking cameras — and from the International Space Station — showed the capsule streaking like a fireball across the sky as it decelerated from an initial speed of more than 26,000 mph.

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Chinese probe lifts off from the moon with a full load

For the first time in more than 40 years, a robotic spacecraft has blasted off from the moon – and for the first time ever, it’s a Chinese spacecraft, carrying precious lunar samples back to Earth.

The ascent vehicle for the Chang’e-5 mission fired its engine and rose a region called Oceanus Procellarum at 7:10 a.m. PT (11:10 p.m. Beijing time) today, the China National Space Administration’s China Lunar Exploration Project reported.

Imagery sent back from the moon provided a view of the blastoff from ground zero. It was the first successful lunar launch since the Soviet Luna 24 probe took off during a sample return mission in 1976.

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Here’s what China’s Chang’e-5 moon probe is seeing

China’s Chang’e-5 robotic moon lander is due to spend only two days collecting samples of lunar rock and soil before it sends its shipment on its way back to Earth, but it’s making the most of the time.

Just hours after landing on Dec. 1, the probe started using its robotic scoop and drill to dig up material at Mons Rümker, a lava dome in a region called Oceanus Procellarum, or the Ocean of Storms.

It’s also been sending back pictures and video, including this stunning view of the final minutes before touchdown. Watch how the camera tips straight down to focus on the target spot for the lander:

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Chinese probe lands on the moon to bring back dirt

For the third time in seven years, a Chinese robotic spacecraft has landed on the Moon — but now things will get really interesting: If the Chang’e-5 mission succeeds, the probe will deliver fresh samples from the moon to Earth for the first time in 44 years.

Chang’e-5’s paired lander and ascent vehicle touched down in a lunar region known as Oceanus Procellarium, near Mons Rümker, today at 11:13 p.m. Beijing time (7:13 a.m. PT). The landing came eight days after the 9-ton spacecraft was launched from Wenchang Space Launch Center, and three days after the craft settled into lunar orbit.

In preparation for touchdown, the lander and ascent vehicle separated from its orbiter and descended to the surface. Chinese state-run television tracked the descent, climaxing with what appeared to be a close-up view of the lunar surface from a camera aboard the lander. China’s Xinhua news service confirmed the landing minutes later.

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New index sizes up habitability of alien planets

Image: James Webb Space Telescope
NASA’s James Webb Telescope, shown in this artist’s conception, will provide more data about exoplanets. A new habitability index is aimed at helping scientists prioritize the search. (Credit: NASA)

Researchers at the University of Washington’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory have devised a new habitability index for judging how suitable alien planets might be for life, and the top prospects on their list are an Earthlike world called Kepler-442b and a yet-to-be confirmed planet known as KOI 3456.02.

Those worlds both score higher than our own planet on the index: 0.955 for KOI 3456.02 and 0.836 for Kepler-442b, compared with 0.829 for Earth and 0.422 for Mars. The point of the exercise is to help scientists prioritize future targets for close-ups from NASA’s yet-to-be-launched James Webb Space Telescope and other instruments.

Get the full story at Universe Today.

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New Horizons mission picks post-Pluto target

Image: New Horizons and KBO
An artist’s conception shows the New Horizons spacecraft flying past a Pluto-like object in the Kuiper Belt, the ring of icy material that lies billions of miles away from the sun. (Credit: Alex Parker / NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

NASA and the science team behind the New Horizons mission to Pluto and beyond have settled on the popular choice for the spacecraft’s next flyby: It’s 2014 MU69, an icy object a billion miles beyond Pluto that’s thought to be less than 30 miles (45 kilometers) wide.