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Congress gives NASA a bigger budget

Image: Europa orbiter
An artist’s conception shows an orbiter at Europa, a moon of Jupiter. (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech)

The 2,009-page omnibus bill that’s been crafted by Congress for the current fiscal year boosts NASA’s budget to $19.3 billion, which is $756 million more than the White House asked for.

The big winners include NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System and its planetary science projects – particularly a mission to Europa, a mysterious ice-covered moon of Jupiter. The measure also provides as much as the Obama administration requested – $1.24 billion – for NASA’s commercial crew program. That suggests the space taxis that are being built for NASA by the Boeing Co. and SpaceX will remain on track for their debut in 2017.

The long-delayed spending plan for the budget year that started in October, released overnight, isn’t totally a done deal. The House and Senate still have to vote their approval, and that’s not expected to happen until Friday. Then President Barack Obama has to sign it into law. But all the pieces are in place, and on Wednesday the White House gave the deal its thumbs-up.

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Hubble catches supernova’s ‘instant replay’

Image: Hubble supernova
The red circles on this image from the Hubble Space Telescope indicate the three spots where flashes from Supernova Refsdal showed up at different times. The middle circle indicates the spot where it was last observed on Dec. 11. (Credit: NASA / ESA / GLASS / Frontier Fields / CLASH)

Astronomers traced one of the weirder twists in relativity to determine when they’d see an “instant replay” of a distant supernova, and now the Hubble Space Telescope has shown that their prediction was right. They say it marks the first time a supernova observation was predicted in advance.

The confirmation comes in the form of Hubble’s observations of the galaxy cluster MACS J1149.5+2223 over the course of more than a year. When scientists studied pictures taken in November 2014, they identified a supernova flash that had beensplit into four separate images, due to the cluster’s gravitational lensing effect.

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Space station gets its first ‘official’ Briton

Image: Tim Peake welcomed
British astronaut Tim Peake gets a space station welcome from NASA’s Scott Kelly. (Credit: ESA)

Today the International Space Station’s crew welcomed aboard its first “official” British astronaut, Tim Peake, just hours after he blasted off in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft alongside U.S. and Russian spacefliers.

Peake, NASA astronaut Tim Kopra and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko were lofted into orbit from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 5:03 a.m. local time (3:03 a.m. PT). They made a brisk 6.5-hour trip to the station and were greeted by three crewmates: NASA’s Scott Kelly and Russia’s Mikhail Kornienko and Sergei Volkov. Kelly and Kornienko are more than halfway through a yearlong tour of duty.

After a round of hugs and handshakes, the crew exchanged additional greetings with family members and VIPs via a video link. “I hope you enjoyed the show,” Peake told David Parker, chief executive of the U.K. Space Agency.

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Elon Musk explains why he favors a carbon tax

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Elon Musk, the billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, takes questions at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting in San Francisco. (Credit: AGU)

Policymakers have been debating – and dismissing – the idea of putting a tax on carbon emissions for more than a decade, but the way billionaire innovator Elon Musk sees it, the concept is a no-brainer.

The 44-year-old CEO of the SpaceX rocket venture and the Tesla electric car company laid out his rationale today in San Francisco during a webcast chat at theAmerican Geophysical Union’s fall meeting. He said not paying a carbon tax is like not paying for garbage collection.

Say what?

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120 teams will vie in Hyperloop pod contest

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A cutaway illustrates the Hyperloop concept. (Credit: Patrick Grimmel via SpaceX)

More than 120 student engineering teams, including a group from the University of Washington, have been chosen for a Hyperloop pod design competition backed by billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Tesla Motors.

Experts at SpaceX selected the teams from hundreds of entries to take part in a Design Weekend, scheduled for Jan. 29-30 at Texas A&M University. More than 1,000 students representing over 100 universities and three high schools will present their concepts to panels of judges at the event, the contest’s organizers said today in a news release. Check out the full list of registered teams.

The judges, representing SpaceX and Tesla as well as universities around the country, will decide which teams get a chance to build and test their design prototypes in the next round of the competition. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx will discuss the future of transportation with the teams at a private event. The design submissions will be put on public display on Jan 30 at Texas A&M’s Hall of Champions in advance of the judges’ decision.

The competition’s final round will take place next summer at a test track that’s being built by SpaceX next to its headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif.

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IAU reveals its first list of exoplanet names

Image: Hot Jupiter planet
An artist’s conception shows a “hot Jupiter” around an alien star. One of the first hot Jupiters to be detected, 55 Cancri b, has been given the name Galileo. (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech)

After a crowdsourcing campaign that lasted more than a year, the International Astronomical Union has issued its first-ever list of approved names for extrasolar planets – a lineup of 31 worlds, including some famous discoveries.

Among the new names to get to know are Aegir, also known as Epsilon Eridani b, one of the closest known exoplanets at a distance of 10 light-years; Dagon, a.k.a. Fomalhaut b, the first exoplanet to be detected directly in visible wavelengths; and Dimidium, a.k.a. 51 Pegasi b, the first exoplanet to be discovered around a sunlike star. Another crowd-pleaser is 55 Cancri b, a hot Jupiter-type planet that’s been named Galileo in honor of the famous 17th-century astronomer.

The spookiest name on the list may well be Poltergeist, which is more memorable than the planet’s scientific name, PSR 1257+12 c. It’s one of the first planets detected beyond the solar system, circling a pulsar in the constellation Virgo.

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$7 million contest boosts ocean discovery

Image: Submersible
An artist’s conception shows a submersible vehicle mapping the ocean depths. (Credit: XPRIZE)

The latest high-tech competition from XPRIZE is offering $7 million to promote new ways to map our planet’s final frontier: the depths of the ocean.

“Our oceans cover two-thirds of our planet’s surface and are a crucial global source of food, energy, economic security, and even the air we breathe, yet 95 percent of the deep sea remains a mystery to us,” Peter Diamandis, XPRIZE chairman and CEO, said in a news release. “In fact, we have better maps of the surface of Mars than we do of our own seafloor.”

The Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE is meant to accelerate innovation in deep-sea mapping. Diamandis unveiled the three-year competition today during the American Geophysical Society’s fall meeting in San Francisco. He was joined on stage by representatives of the contest’s sponsors, Shell and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The teams that enter the contest will have to complete a series of tasks, including making a map of the seafloor, producing high-resolution images of a specific object, and identifying archaeological, biological or geological features. The technologies have to work at depths of up to 4,000 meters (2.5 miles).

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TV crew gets inside look at Planetary Resources

Planetary Resources is known to show visitors around its headquarters in Redmond, Wash., but it’s not too often that an outside TV crew gets an inside look at the asteroid-mining venture. The Weather Channel shared such a look over the weekend – including a look through the window at the next microsatellite the company plans to put into orbit.

“So that’s it? That’s your spacecraft, right there?” correspondent Dave Malkoff asks Chris Lewicki, Planetary Resources’ president and chief engineer.

Yes indeed, that’s the Arkyd 6, a prototype satellite about the size of a cereal box that’s designed to beam down infrared images of Earth from orbit. The Arkyd 6 is due to launch next year as a secondary payload on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, through an arrangement with Seattle-based Spaceflight.

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The Force is strong with sci-fi shows on TV

Image: Cas Anvar
Like Han Solo, spaceship pilot Alex Kamal (played by Cas Anvar) has a complicated past in “The Expanse,” which has its TV premiere on Syfy tonight. (Photo by: Rafy/Syfy)

While you’re waiting for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” to invade theaters this week, you can tune in a couple of other star wars on TV – with settings and themes that hit much closer to home than the goings-on in a galaxy far, far away.

Starting tonight, the Syfy channel is bringing two classic science-fiction sagas to the small screen: Arthur C. Clarke’s “Childhood’s End,” a novel about space aliens that was written before dawn of the Space Age; and “The Expanse,” a series of future-looking novels and short stories by James S.A. Corey (the pen name for collaborators Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck).

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Sign up your drone, or else: FAA issues rules

Image: Parrot Bebop drone
The Parrot Bebop drone, weighing in at 14.6 ounces, would have to be registered under the FAA’s newly issued rules. (Credit: Parrot)

The Federal Aviation Administration has laid out the rules for registering recreational drones, starting Dec. 21, plus the penalties for those who don’t.

It’s not likely that drone police will be watching the skies, but if your unregistered drone gets into trouble, you could get into trouble as well: You’ll be required to have a registration certificate when you fly your drone outdoors, and the drone will have to be marked with a registration number.

Failure to do so could leave you open to civil penalties of up to $27,500, or criminal penalties including fines of up to $250,000 and three years in prison.

“Make no mistake: Unmanned aircraft enthusiasts are aviators, and with that title comes a great deal of responsibility,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a news release. “Registration gives us an opportunity to work with these users to operate their unmanned aircraft safely. I’m excited to welcome these new aviators into the culture of safety and responsibility that defines American innovation.”

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