SpaceX has spent 'hundreds of millions' extra in building astronaut capsule for NASA, Elon Musk says - CNBC - Canadanewsmedia
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SpaceX has spent 'hundreds of millions' extra in building astronaut capsule for NASA, Elon Musk says – CNBC

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SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule splashed into the Atlantic Ocean after completing its test flight for NASA.

NASA TV

LOS ANGELES — SpaceX is in the final stages of developing the capsule it will use to launch astronauts, a project that has commanded the company’s resources and even finances over the last few years.

Known as Crew Dragon, the spacecraft would carry as many as seven people to the International Space Station and more. But, while much of the spacecraft’s funding came from NASA’s award of $2.6 billion in 2014, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk noted in a briefing on Thursday that the company has also put a substantial sum of money itself to build and test the spacecraft.

“We’ve spent actually, I think, quite a lot more than than expected – probably on the order of hundreds of millions of dollars more,” Musk said.

Musk spoke alongside NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine at SpaceX’s headquarters in Los Angeles on Thursday, as the pair provided an update on Crew Dragon. The NASA funding for the capsule has come under the Commercial Crew program, which is the agency’s solution to once again launch U.S. astronauts from U.S. soil. Since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, astronauts have flown to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

While SpaceX has had to add funding to build Crew Dragon, according to Musk the company is now sticking closely to what it’s been allotted.

“The SpaceX program is within 1% of the [NASA] budget; it’s right on budget,” Musk added.

Musk further explained SpaceX putting additional money into Crew Dragon, as well as part of what he believes has caused delays in the Commercial Crew program’s progress.

“As Jim was was alluding to, the NASA request for Commercial Crew for several years was substantially reduced by Congress – I think, in some cases by 50%. So it’s pretty hard to stay on schedule if you’ve got half as much money. But we didn’t spend more money. It just took longer,” Musk said.

Bridenstine agreed with Musk’s point, saying Commercial Crew indeed did suffer setbacks from funding.

“It is absolutely true that there were certain years early, early on that set us back because we weren’t adequately funded,” Bridenstine said

“We’re past that. We are now focused like a laser on the right things to achieve the end state that we both desire, which is American astronauts launching on American rockets,” Bridenstine said.

Bridenstine further explained some of the behind-the-scenes for NASA’s funding process and how taxpayer dollars are spent towards programs such as SpaceX’s.

“It’s based on milestone payments,” Bridenstine said. “And of course, our contractors make proposals, and then we award based on those proposals. So all of that was agreed to up front.”

“What we’re trying to do is get back to a day where we have realistic costs and schedules,” Bridenstine added. “In order to achieve the diplomatic goals and the strategic goals of our country – to have our international partners with us and a coalition of nations to go to the moon to stay – in order to achieve that we have to have credibility in our programs. And, right now, the one program that we need the most credibility in the fastest is the Commercial Crew program. And SpaceX is a big part of that.”

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Elon Musk's satellites are starting to really annoy astronomers – Wired.co.uk

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Getty / Philip Pacheco / Contributor

Elon Musk’s space firm has grand plans. As well as going to Mars, SpaceX is set to launch up to 42,000 of its small Starlink satellites into orbit to provide worldwide internet access. This means launching more than ten times the number of satellites already in orbit into what is an already crowded part of space.

But since the launch of the first batch of satellites in May 2019, astronomers have worried about the impact the deluge of additional satellites will have on the night sky. This week, for the first time, a pair of astronomers saw first-hand the impact these ‘mega-constellations’ of satellites will have.

In the early hours of Tuesday morning in a remote observatory in Chile, Cliff Johnson and Clarae Martínez-Vázquez were going about their normal routine when something unusual and bright crept into their field of view.

The pair of astronomers were observing from the Dark Energy Camera (DECam), part of a four-meter telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Coquimbo, Chile. The telescope is part of the Dark Energy Survey, looking for answers about what the mysterious force is that’s ripping our universe apart.

While they were observing, the researchers saw a “huge amount” of Starlink satellites crossing their skies. “Our DECam exposure was heavily affected by 19 of them,” Martínez-Vázquez wrote on Twitter. “The train of Starlink satellites lasted for over five minutes!! Rather depressing… This is not cool!”

Johnson, who works for Northwestern University in Illinois, put together a raw photograph of the satellites. “The exposure was a six minute optical wavelength observation taken as part of the DELVE survey that is imaging the outskirts of the Magellanic Clouds and broadly mapping the southern sky in search of neighbouring dwarf galaxies” he says.

The bright light reflected from the sun by the satellites shone onto the camera and causes loss of pixels, meaning information that could have been captured has been lost. “This was a noticeable, but not hugely destructive impact” he says. It affected one image out of around 40 taken during their observing run which lasted for the night, and only a small fraction of the pixels in that image needed to be discarded.

But things could be about to get a lot worse. Only two batches of satellites have been launched so far, with the second lot of 60 going up on November 11. Twenty-four batches are needed before they can cover the whole globe. Although they aren’t providing a service yet, the satellites are already having an impact on the night skies.

As the satellites had only been launched on November 11, they had not yet reached their orbital altitude so were closer to Earth than they will be when they are operational. Currently, SpaceX has permission to launch 12,000 satellites, which are planned to be sent at a rate of 60 every two weeks until the mid-2020s, but last month it filed documents showing plans to launch 30,000 more. And it’s not the only one; OneWeb and Amazon have plans for similar fleets.

“This is the key,” says Johnson. “While this event was a relatively low-impact annoyance with relatively small impact on our science, the prospect of many thousands of satellites launching in the coming years could have a dramatic impact on observations.” He says he agrees with a recent statement from the International Astronomical Union, calling for regulation and consultation regarding the possibility of satellite constellations numbering in the tens of thousands.

“We are just seeing the tip of the iceberg after the first of many planned launches,” he says. ”It is important to have discussions now about how best to move forward, hopefully in cooperation with SpaceX and others.”

The average number of stars visible with the naked eye in areas of the lowest light pollution is about 5,000. Compared to the numbers of satellites proposed to be launched in the coming years, this is relatively small. Currently, satellite constellations like Iridium, owned by Motorola, provide communications like mobile data, but it only has a constellation of 66 satellites.

“Previously Iridium and other satellites were relatively few and had little effect on astronomy” says David Blanchflower, an astronomer and astrophotographer. With the numbers being discussed now, the satellites will be hard to avoid for astronomers, he says. According to researcher Cees Bassa from the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, once a constellation of 1600 satellites is launched, about 84 satellites would be above the horizon at any time.

“Astrophotographers will be especially affected” Blanchflower says, drawing on his own experiences of spending hours photographing the night sky. “Many hours of work could be spoiled by passing flashes of light.”

“When there will be more Starlink satellites, they impose two major problems” says Robin Mentel, who studies astronomy at the University of Leiden. “The problem with the StarLink satellites is not only that they will be numerous, but also that they will be very bright” he says.

SpaceX has previously said it will paint the base of its satellites black to minimise the amount of sunlight reflected by them during the night. However, in a recent photograph showing many of the satellites stacked up and ready for launch, they did not appear to have been painted black.

Another problem is the space they take up. “The space up there is finite, and the presence of space debris – used rocket stages, broken satellites, broken off satellite parts – already poses a certain threat to satellites” Mentel says. “Adding 12,000 satellites within a few hundred kilometers of height to each other, will dramatically exacerbate the problem: they basically will weave a web of satellites around the planet, each one endangering other satellites in the altitude and incoming spacecraft.”

Recently, the European Southern Observatory had to manoeuvre their satellite to avoid a collision with a Starlink satellite. This is something that was rare until now, says Mentel.

It’s not only research astronomers who will be impacted by the influx of satellites, either. In the future, it might become more common to see satellites in the night sky than stars. “Unless some way can be found to reduce their effects,” says Blanchflower, “I foresee problems for all night sky viewers.”

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An Entomologist Claims That Mars Is Covered in Bug-Shaped Things, And He Has 'Proof' – ScienceAlert

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The search for evidence of microbial life on Mars – whether fossil or extant – is ramping up, and it’s even being included in the mission statements of future Mars missions. According to one scientist, though, we may have already found life on Mars, and it’s not titchy microbes, but strapping great bugs.

Entomologist William Romoser of Ohio University has spent years poring over publicly released photos taken by Mars rovers, and he says that many of them show structures that look a heck of a lot like insects, in among the rocks – fossilised as well as living.

And he’s even spotted a few things that look like snakes. This body of evidence is, he said, a good justification for investigating further. He presented his findings, which have not been peer-reviewed, at the Entomological Society of America annual meeting in St Louis. You can view the full poster here.

“There has been and still is life on Mars,” Romoser claims.

“There is apparent diversity among the Martian insect-like fauna which display many features similar to Terran insects that are interpreted as advanced groups – for example, the presence of wings, wing flexion, agile gliding/flight, and variously structured leg elements.”

Photos from the Mars rovers – particularly Curiosity, which is the only rover still active after Opportunity met its sad fate in the form of a colossal sandstorm last year – are publicly released, and they show detailed views of the surface of Mars. Geologists can study these to try and understand the planet’s geological history.

(NASA/JPL; William Romoser/Ohio University)

It’s in these photos that Romoser has spotted his bugs. Many of the photos, he says, show evidence of insects – of carapaces, legs, wings, antennae and segmented bodies that seem distinct from the surrounding regolith.

He has made a careful visual examination of each photo, choosing those that show the forms most similar to insects. Criteria include a dramatic difference from surrounding rock, clarity and symmetry, segmentation, skeletal remains and groupings of more than one form.

He also took certain poses, evidence of motion or flight, apparent interaction with other forms, and apparently shiny eyes as evidence that the insect or snake might be alive.

“Once a clear image of a given form was identified and described, it was useful in facilitating recognition of other less clear, but none-the-less valid, images of the same basic form,” Romoser says.

However, there is another possibility: that the things identified by Romoser as insects are just… rocks.

bug2(NASA/JPL; William Romoser/Ohio University)

Humans who’ve been staring at pictures of Mars have a well-known history of a phenomenon called pareidolia. That’s when you look at something and see something else: when the human mind, searching for meaning in meaningless data, sees something that isn’t there.

It may be a face in a power socket. Or a face in a landscape (it’s usually faces. Face perception is pretty important for humans, social beasts that we are). Or a face on Mars, like the famous picture of a region called Cydonia on Mars, taken in 1976.

There’s also been the Mars Bigfoot, the Mars cannonball, the Mars spoon, the Mars warrior woman and the Mars “Assyrian god”. They all turned out to be normal, ordinary Mars rocks.

We’ve been sending missions to Mars since the 1960s, including four successful rovers and five successful landers, and there has never been a confirmed sighting – or, indeed, any sighting put forward by an actual scientist – of any type of insect on Mars.

So it’s entirely possible is that Romoser, who worked as an entomology professor for 45 years, and whose insect perception is perhaps more acutely tuned than that of the average human, is experiencing insect-related pareidolia.

bug3(NASA/JPL; William Romoser/Ohio University)

Whether he’s right or wrong, though, we may not have to wait too long for the answer. The Mars 2020 mission, equipped with more advanced equipment than Curiosity, is due to launch next year, reaching Mars in early 2021.

Part of its mission will involve the search for life on Mars. If there are bugs, maybe Mars 2020 will find them.

Meanwhile, Romoser advises a closer look at the photos he has identified.

“While any given image does not in itself prove anything, I believe the mosaic of what I have described is compelling,” he wrote in his abstract.

“I view the research reported here to be replicative and corroborative. It is very clear that much more study of the photos is needed.”

Romoser presented his research at Entomology 2019.

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Chinese Mars rover completes landing trial ahead of 2020 launch – Spaceflight Now

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A test model of China’s first Mars rover, set for launch in mid-2020, performs a landing test Nov. 14 inside a specially-built rig in northern China’s Hebei province. Credit: Xinhua

China has performed a hover and hazard avoidance test on a model the country’s first Mars rover, while engineers ready the real spacecraft for launch toward the red planet in mid-2020.

Comprising an orbiter, lander and rover, the mission aims to become the first Chinese spacecraft to reach Mars after lifting off aboard a Long March 5 rocket — the country’s most powerful launcher — during a several week window opening in July 2020.

The mission will launch from the Wenchang space center on Hainan Island, China’s newest spaceport.

China invited ambassadors and envoys from 19 countries, including the European Union, the African Union, France, Italy and Brazil, to visit a test rig in northern China’s Hebei province Nov. 14 to view a ground test of the Mars lander. The demonstration tested the rover’s ability to hover and autonomous avoid obstacles during descent under reduced gravity conditions, similar to those on Mars, according to the China National Space Administration.

Billed by China as the public unveiling of the Mars mission, the event last week verified the lander’s design, the Chinese space agency said.

If it launches next summer, the mission will reach Mars in early 2021 and release the landing module to enter the Martian atmosphere. After landing, the rover will drive off a ramp to begin exploring the surface with a suite of scientific instruments.

The orbiter will circle Mars to provide communications relay support for the rover and conduct its own scientific measurements.

The orbiting module carries high- and medium-resolution cameras, a radar instrument to probe the structure of the Martian subsurface, a spectrometer to analyze minerals in the Martian crust, and sensors to collect data on the interaction between the red planet’s tenuous magnetosphere and the solar wind.

Designed for three months of operation after arrival on Mars, the rover carries its own cameras and a radar to study underground layers below the mission’s landing site, along with a spectrometer and a Mars weather station, according to the National Space Science Center at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The three-part spacecraft China plans to send toward Mars in 2020 is seen here in launch configuration. Credit: CASC

China kicked off development of the Mars mission in 2016.

It will be the country’s second attempt to reach Mars with a robotic probe, following the Yinghuo 1 orbiter, which was stranded in Earth orbit after launch as a piggyback payload on Russia’s failed Phobos-Grunt mission.

China has landed two robotic spacecraft on the moon, and plans to launch a third lunar lander next year to attempt the first lunar sample mission in more than 40 years.

Like the Mars mission, the Chang’e 5 lunar sample return mission will launch on the Long March 5, one of the most powerful rockets in the world, and the heaviest in China’s inventory of launch vehicles.

While the Mars orbiter and rover launching next year will carry exclusively Chinese payloads, officials used the Nov. 14 test to herald the country’s cooperation with other countries on space projects.

According to a CNSA statement, China has signed more than 140 space cooperation agreements with 45 countries and international organizations.

The China-France Oceanography Satellite and the China Seismo-Electromagnetic Satellite were launched by China last year in partnership with scientists from France and Italy, respectively, to collect climate measurements and detect precursor signals that could help predict earthquakes. China has developed a series of Earth observation satellites in cooperation with Brazil, and Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and Saudi Arabia contributed to China’s Chang’e 4 lunar mission.

China has invited international proposals for small science instruments that could fly to the moon on the Chang’e 6 robotic mission in 2023. Earlier this month, Chinese and French space officials signed an agreement to fly a French instrument on the Chang’e 6 mission to measure the transport of volatiles, such as water molecules, in lunar dust.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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