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Universe Today

UFO update says Pentagon’s case count is rising rapidly

new report to Congress says the Pentagon’s task force on UFOs — now known as unidentified aerial phenomena, or UAPs — has processed more reports in the past couple of years than it did in the previous 17 years. But that doesn’t mean we’re in the midst an alien invasion.

The unclassified report was issued this week by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, or ODNI, in collaboration with the Department of Defense’s All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office, or AARO. The office was created by congressional mandate, and this week’s report serves as an update to a preliminary assessment of the Pentagon’s UAP reports issued in 2021.

That assessment said there were 144 reports relating to aerial anomalies sighted by military service members between 2004 and 2021. “There have been 247 new reports and another 119 that were either since discovered or reported after the preliminary assessment’s time period,” the newly released report says. That brings the total to 510 UAP reports as of last Aug. 30.

The authors of the report say the increase in the reporting rate “is partially due to a better understanding of the possible threats that UAP may represent, either as safety of flight hazards or as potential adversary collection platforms, and partially due to reduced stigma surrounding UAP reporting.”

Either way, U.S. intelligence and military officials say they see that as a good thing. “This increased reporting allows more opportunities to apply rigorous analysis and resolve events,” the report says.

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Universe Today

Webb pioneer gives advice to future telescope builders

After a quarter-century of development, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is a smashing success. But senior project scientist John Mather, a Nobel-winning physicist who’s played a key role in the $10 billion project since the beginning, still sees some room for improvement.

Mather looked back at what went right during JWST’s creation, as well as what could be done better the next time around, during a lecture delivered today at the American Astronomical Society’s winter meeting in Seattle.

The seeds for JWST were planted way back in 1989, a year before the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope. Mather said the scientists who were planning for what was initially known as the Next Generation Space Telescope took a lesson from the problems that plagued Hubble — problems that required an on-orbit vision correction.

“No. 1 lesson from Hubble program was, figure out how you’re going to do this before you do it, and make sure the technologies are mature,” he said.

The JWST team designed a segmented mirror that could be folded up for launch, and then unfolded in space to create a 21-foot-wide reflective surface. An even wider sunshade blocked out the sun’s glare as the telescope made its observations from a vantage point a million miles from Earth.

Mather cycled through the new space telescope’s greatest hits — including a deep-field view with a gravitational-lensing galaxy cluster that brought even more distant objects into focus. “There is actually a single star which is magnified enough that you can recognize it in the image,” Mather said. “When we talked about this in the beginning, I thought the odds of this happening are too small. … I am completely stunned with this result.”

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Universe Today

Tech star supports a tribute to Star Trek’s Leonard Nimoy

Efforts to create a memorial celebrating the legacy of Leonard Nimoy, the actor who played a pointy-eared alien named Spock on “Star Trek,” have shifted to warp speed nearly eight years after his death.

A six-figure contribution from Rich Miner, the co-founder of Android, is energizing the campaign to create an illuminated 20-foot-high sculpture depicting Spock’s famous “Live Long and Prosper” hand gesture. The sculpture would be placed at Boston’s Museum of Science, near the West End neighborhood where Nimoy grew up.

Nimoy’s daughter, Julie Nimoy, and her husband David Knight are working with the museum to hit a $500,000 fundraising goal for the project. Thanks to Miner’s contribution, Knight said that the stainless-steel monument, designed by artist Tom Stocker and sculptor David Phillips, could begin taking shape as early as this year.

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Universe Today

Fusion breakthrough raises hopes — and questions

For the first time ever, physicists have set off a controlled nuclear fusion reaction that released more energy than what was put into the experiment.

The milestone laser shot took place on Dec. 5 at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. The fact that there was a net energy gain qualified the shot, in technical terms, as ignition.

“Reaching ignition in a controlled fusion experiment is an achievement that has come after more than 60 years of global research, development, engineering and experimentation,” said Jill Hruby, under secretary of energy for nuclear security and the administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration.

However, officials acknowledged that it’s still likely to be decades before commercial fusion power becomes a reality. They said the most immediate impact of the breakthrough will be felt in the field of national security and the stewardship of America’s nuclear weapons stockpile.

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Japanese billionaire reveals his round-the-moon crew

Four years after announcing that he’d lead an around-the-moon mission aboard SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has named the eight people he wants to fly with him.

In 2018, Maezawa said he’d fund a mission aimed at letting creative artists on the level of the late Pablo Picasso or Michael Jackson experience a trip beyond Earth orbit. Some of the people he’s picked are making use of creative channels that didn’t exist when Picasso was in his prime.

The eight crew members — and two alternates — were chosen out of more than a million people from 249 countries and regions who registered their interest via Maezawa’s DearMoon website.

“I’m very thrilled to have these amazing people join me on my journey to the moon and excited to see what inspiring creations they come up with in space,” Maezawa said as he announced his selections.

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Quantum data gets sent through a simulated wormhole

For the first time, scientists have created a quantum computing experiment for studying the dynamics of wormholes — that is, shortcuts through spacetime that could get around relativity’s cosmic speed limits.

Wormholes are traditionally the stuff of science fiction, ranging from Jodie Foster’s wild ride in “Contact” to the time-bending plot twists in “Interstellar.” But the researchers behind the experiment, reported in the Dec. 1 issue of the journal Nature, hope that their work will help physicists study the phenomenon for real.

“We found a quantum system that exhibits key properties of a gravitational wormhole, yet is sufficiently small to implement on today’s quantum hardware,” Caltech physicist Maria Spiropulu said in a news release. Spiropulu, the Nature paper’s senior author, is the principal investigator for a federally funded research program known as Quantum Communication Channels for Fundamental Physics.

Don’t pack your bags for Alpha Centauri just yet: This wormhole simulation is nothing more than a simulation, analogous to a computer-generated black hole or supernova. And physicists still don’t see any conditions under which a traversable wormhole could actually be created. Someone would have to create negative energy first.

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Artemis 1 snaps pictures of Earth as it heads for the moon

As it heads for the moon, NASA’s Orion space capsule is sending back snapshots of Earth that evoke the “blue marble” pictures taken by Apollo astronauts five decades earlier.

This time around, the photographer is basically a robot, built into the camera system for the uncrewed Artemis 1 mission. The round-the-moon odyssey got off to a spectacular start early today with the first launch of NASA’s Space Launch System, and over the next 25 days it’s due to blaze a trail for future crewed trips to the lunar surface.

Hours after liftoff, a camera mounted on one of Orion’s four solar arrays pivoted around to capture a view of the spacecraft’s European-built service module in the foreground — with our half-shadowed planet set against the black background of space.

“Orion looking back at Earth as it travels toward the moon, 57,000 miles away from the place we call home,” NASA’s Sandra Jones intoned as the imagery came down.

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How to see the bigger picture from the Webb Telescope

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Side-by-side pictures from NASA’s 32-year-old Hubble Space Telescope and the brand-new James Webb Space Telescope may draw oohs and ahhs, but they don’t give you a full sense of just how much more astronomers are getting from the new kid on the cosmic block.

Fortunately, new tools for data visualization can get you closer to the sense of wonder those astronomers are feeling.

“The public is just presented with these beautiful pictures, and they think, ‘Oh, wow, that’s great,’” says Harvard astronomer Alyssa Goodman. “But in my opinion, they could learn a lot more from these images.”

Goodman laid out strategies for getting a better appreciation of JWST — and a better appreciation of the technologies that are transforming modern astronomy — this week at the ScienceWriters 2022 conference in Memphis.

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America’s first space tourist signs up for a moon trip

Twenty-one years after becoming the first paying passenger to visit the International Space Station, California financial analyst Dennis Tito and his wife, Akiko Tito, are taking on a new space adventure: a trip on SpaceX’s Starship super-rocket around the moon and back.

The Titos are the first customers to be named as crew members for what’s slated to be SpaceX’s second crewed round-the-moon mission. A time frame for that flight hasn’t been announced, but it’s due to come after the Polaris Program’s first flight of Starship in Earth orbit and the “dearMoon” lunar mission planned by Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa. If the Starship development program proceeds as SpaceX hopes, those first two flights could lift off by the mid-2020s.

Dennis Tito, an 82-year-old former NASA engineer who made his fortune in finance, would be in line to become the oldest human to go into orbit. He would beat the record set by senator-astronaut John Glenn when he flew on the shuttle Discovery at the age of 77. (Star Trek actor William Shatner, who rode a Blue Origin spaceship last year at the age of 90, holds the record for suborbital spacefliers.)

Tito is already in the history books by virtue of his flight to the ISS in 2001. Russia’s Roscosmos space agency had previously flown privately funded travelers to the Mir space station, but Tito was the first American to buy his own ticket for a spaceflight, and the first commercial passenger to visit the ISS.

Most private-sector spacefliers would bristle at the term “space tourist,” but Tito’s status during the 2001 flight comes closest to fitting that description. “I spent most of my time in Zvezda, the service module, where I listened to opera, shot video and stereographic photos of the Earth out of the porthole, helped prepare food and talked with the crew during meals,” he recalled at a congressional hearing.

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DART probe’s effect on an asteroid wows astronomers

NASA says its DART spacecraft caused a larger-than-expected change in the path of its target asteroid when they collided two weeks ago — marking a significant milestone in the effort to protect our planet from killer space rocks.

Ten months after it was launched, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test’s refrigerator-sized robotic probe crashed into a 560-foot-wide asteroid called Dimorphos on Sept. 26, as it circled a bigger asteroid known as Didymos. The paired asteroids were 7 million miles from Earth at the time, and posed no threat to Earth before or after the smashup.

Before the crash, DART’s science team said they expected the collision to reduce the time it took for Dimorphos to go around Didymos by about 10 minutes. NASA would have regarded any change in excess of 73 seconds as a success.

After the crash, detailed observations from ground-based observatories showed that the orbit was actually 32 minutes shorter — going from 11 hours and 55 minutes to 11 hours and 23 minutes. That’s three times as much of a change as scientists were expecting. Scientists also said Dimorphos appears to be slightly closer to Didymos.

“This is a watershed moment for planetary defense, and a watershed moment for humanity,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said today. “All of us have a responsibility to protect our home planet. After all, it’s the only one we have.”