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Artemis moonship returns to Earth with picture-perfect Pacific Ocean splashdown

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NASA’s Artemis 1 moonship returned to Earth Sunday, slamming into the upper atmosphere at more than 24,000 mph and enduring a 5,000-degree re-entry inferno before settling to a picture perfect splashdown in the Pacific Ocean to close out a 25-day 1.4-million-mile test flight to the moon and back.

Descending under three huge parachutes, the unpiloted 9-ton Orion capsule gently hit the water 200 miles west of Baja California at 12:40 p.m. EST, 20 minutes after encountering the first traces of the discernible atmosphere 76 miles up.

“I’m overwhelmed. This is an extraordinary day,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “It’s historic, because we are now going back into deep space with a new generation.”

NASA’s unpiloted Orion capsule descends to splashdown Sunday in the Pacific Ocean west of Baja California to close out 25-day test flight around the moon and back. The mission is expected to help pave the way toward the first piloted Artemis moon mission in 2024. 

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In an appropriate if unplanned coincidence, the splashdown came 50 years to the day after the final Apollo 17 moon landing in 1972 and just 10 hours after SpaceX launched a Japanese moon lander, the first sent up in a purely a commercial venture, from Cape Canaveral.

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“From Tranquility Base to Taurus-Littrow to the tranquil waters of the Pacific, the latest chapter of NASA’s journey to the moon comes to a close. Orion, back on Earth,” said NASA commentator Rob Navias at the moment of Orion’s splashdown, referring to the Apollo 11 and 17 landing sites.

Nelson also reflected on Apollo, saying President John F. Kennedy “stunned everybody with the Apollo generation, and said that we were going to achieve what we thought was impossible.”

“It’s a new day,” Nelson said. “A new day has dawned. And the Artemis generation is taking us there.”

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The Orion capsule is towed toward the flooded well deck of the USS Portland, an amphibious transport dock ship. Once inside, the deck will be sealed, the water pumped out and the spacecraft will be left on a protective cradle for the trip back to Naval Base San Diego.  

NASA

 

A joint Navy-NASA recovery team was standing by within sight of the Orion splashdown to inspect the scorched capsule and, after a final round of tests, tow it into the flooded well deck of the USS Portland, an amphibious dock ship.

After the sea water is pumped out, Orion will settle onto a protective cradle for the voyage back to Naval Base San Diego and, eventually, a trip home to the Kennedy Space Center.

Re-entry and splashdown were the final major objectives of the Artemis 1 test flight, giving engineers confidence the spacecraft’s 16.5-foot-wide Apollo-derived Avcoat heat shield and parachutes will work as designed when four astronauts return from the moon after the next Artemis flight in 2024.

Testing the heat shield was, in fact, the top priority of the Artemis 1 mission, “and it is our priority-one objective for a reason,” mission manager Mike Sarafin said Friday.

“There is no arc jet or aerothermal facility here on Earth capable of replicating hypersonic reentry with a heat shield of this size,” he said. “And it is a brand new heat shield design, and it is a safety-critical piece of equipment. It is designed to protect the spacecraft and (future astronauts) … so the heat shield needs to work.”

And it apparently did just that, with no obvious signs of any major damage. Likewise, all three main parachutes deployed normally as did airbags needed to stabilize the capsule in light ocean swells.

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A camera on one of the Orion capsule’s four solar wings captured spectacular images of Earth as the spacecraft closed in Sunday for re-entry and splashdown. This shot came down less than one our before re-entry. 

NASA

 

A successful test flight was “what we need in order to prove this vehicle so that we can fly with a crew,” said Deputy Administrator Bob Cabana, a former space shuttle commander. “And that’s the next step, and I can’t wait. … A few minor glitches along the way, but (overall) it performed flawlessly.”

Launched Nov. 16 on the maiden flight of NASA’s huge new Space Launch System rocket, the unpiloted Orion capsule was boosted out of Earth orbit and on to the moon for an exhaustive series of tests, putting its propulsion, navigation, power and computer systems through their paces in the deep space environment.

The Orion flew through half of a “distant retrograde orbit” around the moon that carried it farther from Earth — 268,563 miles — than any previous human-rated spacecraft. Two critical firings of its main engine set up a low-altitude lunar flyby last Monday that, in turn, put the craft on course for splashdown Sunday.

NASA originally planned to bring the ship down west of San Diego, but a predicted cold front bringing higher winds and rougher seas prompted mission managers to move the landing site south by about 350 miles, to a point just south of Guadalupe Island some 200 miles west of Baja California.

After a final trajectory correction maneuver early Sunday, the Orion spacecraft plunged back into the discernible atmosphere at an altitude of 400,000 feet at 12:20 p.m.

The re-entry profile was designed to ensure that Orion skipped once across the top of the atmosphere like a flat stone skipping across calm water before making its final descent. As expected, Orion plunged from 400,000 feet to an altitude of about 200,000 feet in just two minutes, then climbed back up to about 295,000 feet before resuming its computer-guided fall to Earth.

Within a minute and a half of entry, atmospheric friction began generating temperatures across the heat shield reaching nearly 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit — half the temperature of the sun’s visible surface — enveloping the spacecraft in an electrically charged plasma that blocked communications with flight controllers for about five minutes.

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The Orion spacecraft followed an unusual “skip entry” trajectory during its return to Earth, skipping off the top of the discernible atmosphere like a stone across calm water before a second plunge to splashdown. 

NASA

 

After another two-and-a-half minute communications blackout during its second drop into the lower atmosphere, the spacecraft continued decelerating as it closed in on the landing site, slowing to around 650 mph, roughly the speed of sound, about 15 minutes after the entry began.

Finally, at an altitude of about 22,000 feet and a velocity of just under 300 mph, small drogue parachutes deployed, pulling off a protective cover along with three pilot chutes. Finally, in a welcome sight to the nearby recovery crew, the capsule’s main parachutes unfurled at an altitude of about 5,000 feet, slowing Orion to a sedate 18 mph or so for splashdown.

Mission duration was 25 days 10 hours 52 minutes.

“It was an incredible mission. We accomplished all of our major mission objectives,” said Michelle Zahner, an Orion mission planning engineer. “The vehicle performed every bit as well as we hoped and even better in a lot of ways.

“This is the farthest any human-rated spacecraft has ever gone, and that required a lot of complex analysis and mission planning. To see it all come together and have such a successful test mission was amazing.”

While flight controllers ran into still-unexplained glitches with its power system, initial “funnies” with its star trackers and degraded performance from a phased array antenna, the Orion spacecraft and its European Space Agency-built service module worked well overall, achieving virtually all of their major objectives.

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Throughout the Artremis 1 mission, cameras aboard the Orion capsule beamed back spectacular images of the moon and Earth, giving flight controllers – and the public – a ringside seat during the 25-day test flight. 

NASA (both)

 

If all goes well, NASA plans to follow the Artemis 1 mission by sending four astronauts around the moon in the program’s second flight — Artemis 2 — in 2024. The first moon-landing would follow in the 2025-26 timeframe when NASA says the first woman and the next man will set foot on the lunar surface near the south pole.

While the 2024 flight seems achievable based on the results of the Artemis 1 mission, the Artemis 3 moon landing faces a much more challenging schedule, requiring good performance during the Artemis 3 mission and successful development and testing of the lunar lander NASA is paying SpaceX $2.9 billion to develop.

The lander, a variant of the company’s Starship rocket, has not yet flown to space. But it will require multiple robotic refueling flights in low-Earth orbit before heading to the moon to await rendezvous by astronauts launched aboard an Orion capsule.

SpaceX and NASA have provided few details about the development of the Starship moon lander and it’s not yet known when it will be ready to safely carry astronauts to the moon.

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Green comet making its closest approach to Earth in 50,000 years – Yahoo Movies Canada

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A rare green comet, that has not been seen for 50,000 years, is about to make its closest pass by Earth, becoming visible in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Called C/2022 E3 (ZTF), this celestial object hails from the Oort cloud at the outermost edge of the solar system.

Its green glow is a result of ultraviolet radiation from the sun lighting up the gases surrounding the comet’s surface.

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The icy ball orbits the sun once every 50,000 years, which means the last time it went past the planet was during the Stone Age – when Neanderthals roamed the Earth.

It is due to pass closest to the planet – still some 42 million kilometres away –  on Wednesday night, into the early hours of Thursday and in a very dark sky will appear as a faint smudge to those looking for it with the naked eye.

However, even if the moon is too bright for stargazers to spot the comet on Wednesday night, they might be able to catch a glimpse of it a week later when it passes Mars.

Professor Don Pollacco, from the department of physics at the University of Warwick, told the PA news agency: “Comet C/2022 E3 passes closest to Earth tonight, on 1 February.

“It has been christened the “Green Comet” as pictures show the head of the Comet to have a striking colour.

“We understand this as due to light emitted from carbon molecules ejected from the nucleus due to the increase in heat etc during its closest approach to the sun, which happened around 12 January.

“Some comets approach the sun much closer and are completely evaporated by the intense radiation.”

He added: “As the comet approaches Earth (it’s still 42 million km away, so no chance of a collision) it appears to move more quickly across the sky on a night-by-night basis.

“Tonight the comet is about halfway between the pole star and the bright star Capella, overhead about 11pm.

“However, the waxing moon will make the Comet much harder to spot. To see it you’ll need a clear sky, binoculars and a bit of luck.

“Alternately, if you wait a few days to around 10 February, the moon will be less bright and the comet will be clearer to see in the southern part of the sky, passing Mars.”

The Greenwich Royal Observatory says that from the northern hemisphere, the comet is already visible in the night sky using a telescope or some binoculars.

It adds: “Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) will be closest to Earth on February 1. This will also be the moment the comet appears at its brightest, and currently it is expected to reach a brightness magnitude of +6. That would mean it would be visible to the naked eye.

“It’s worth noting, however, that comets can be unpredictable, and it’s hard to say with accuracy how bright the comet will be or what it will look like ahead of time.

“The comet looks like a fuzzy green ball or smudge in the sky. This green glow is a result of UV radiation from the sun lighting up the gases streaming off of the comet’s surface.”

Advising on where the comet can be seen in the night sky, the Observatory says: “When it passes near Earth in February, the green comet will be in the constellation of Camelopardalis.

“After its closest approach, the green comet will move through Auriga and end up in Taurus mid-February.

“The comet will dim over the month as it moves away from us, and the time that it will be up in the sky during the night will get shorter and shorter.”

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New AI algorithm helps find 8 radio signals from space

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A new artificial intelligence algorithm created by a Toronto student is helping researchers search the stars for signs of life.

Peter Xiangyuan Ma, a University of Toronto undergraduate student and researcher, said he started working on the algorithm while he was in Grade 12 during the pandemic.

“I was just looking for projects and I was interested in astronomy,” he told CTV News Toronto.

The idea was to help distinguish between technological radio signals created by human technologies and signals that were potentially coming from other forms of life in space.

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“What we’re looking for is signs of technology that signifies if the sender is intelligent or not. And so unsurprised to us, we keep on finding ourselves,” Ma explained. “We don’t want to be looking at our own noisy signals.”

Using this algorithm, Ma said researchers were able to discover eight new radio signals being emitted from five different stars about 30 to 90 light years away from the Earth.

These signals, Ma said, would disappear when researchers looked away from it, which rules out, for the most part, interference from a signal originating from Earth. When they returned to the area, the signal was still there.

“We’re all very suspicious and scratching our heads,” he said. “We proved that we found things that we wanted to find … now, what do we do with all these? That’s another separate issue.”

Steve Croft, Project Scientist for Breakthrough Listen on the Green Bank Telescope, the institute whose open source data was the inspiration for Ma’s algorithm, said that finding radio signals in space is like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

“You’ve got to recognize the haystack itself and make sure that you don’t throw the needle away as you’re looking at the individual pieces of hay,” Croft, who collaborated on Ma’s research, told CTV News Toronto.

Croft said algorithms being used to discover these signals have to account for multiple characteristics, including the position they are coming from in the sky and whether or not the transmission changes over time, which could indicate if it’s coming from a rotating planet or star.

“The algorithm that Peter developed has enabled us to do this more efficiently,” he said.

The challenge, Croft says, is recognizing that false positives may exist despite a signal meeting this criteria. What could be signs of extraterrestrial life may also just be a “weirdly shaped bit of a haystack,” he added.

“And so that’s why we have to go back and look again and see if the signal still there. And with these particular examples that Peter found with his algorithm, the signal was not there when we pointed the telescope back again. And so we sort of can’t say one way or another, is this genuine?”

Researchers have been searching the sky for technologically-generated signals since the 1960s, searching thousands of stars and galaxies for signs of intelligent life. The process is called “SETI,” or “the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.”

But interference from our own radio signals has always proven to be a challenge. Croft says most pieces of technology have some kind of Bluetooth or wireless wave element that creates static, resulting in larger amounts of data needed to be collected.

“That’s a challenge but also computing provides the solution,” he said.

“So the computing and particularly the machine-learning algorithms gives us the power to search through this big haystack, looking for the needle of an interesting signal.”

Ma said that while we may not have found a “technosignal” just yet, we shouldn’t give up. The next step would be to employ multiple kinds of search algorithms to find more and more signals to study.

Peter Ma

While the “dream” is to find evidence of life, Ma says he is more focused on the scientific efforts of actively looking for it.

This sentiment is echoed by Croft, who said he is most fascinating in working towards answering the question of whether humans are alone in this universe.

“I don’t show up to work every day, thinking I’m going to find aliens, but I do show up for work. So you know, I’ve got sort of some optimism.”

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How to spot the green comet in Manitoba

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Space enthusiasts in the province will get the chance to potentially see a rare green comet over the next couple of days.

The comet was discovered by astronomers in southern California last year and it was determined the last time it passed Earth was around 50,000 years ago.

Mike Jensen, the planetarium and science gallery program supervisor at the Manitoba Museum, said the time between appearances and the colour of the comet makes this unique compared to others.

“The last time it would have appeared anywhere within the region of visibility to Earth, we’re talking primitive humans walking the Earth,” said Jensen. “And then yes, its colour. Most people associate comets, they’re often referred to as ghosts of the night sky because they often have a bit of a whitish-blue appearance. This one’s got a bit of green to it. Comets are all made up of different types of material, this just happens to have a bit more of some carbon elements in it.”

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Jensen notes the green tint on the comet will be subtle, comparing it to the subtle red that surrounds Mars in the night sky.

Wednesday and Thursday are the best days to see the comet as Jensen said that’s when it will be closest to Earth – 42 million kilometres away.

“That proximity to us means it does get to its best visibility for us. The added advantage is it’s also appearing sort of high up in the northern sky, which puts it amongst the circumpolar stars of our night sky. In other words, the stars that are circling around the North Star.”

Now, just because the comet is close enough to be visible doesn’t mean it will be the easiest to see in the night sky according to Jensen. He said there are a few factors that play into having a successful sighting.

First, he suggests getting out of the city and away from the lights, noting, the darker it is, the better. If people head outside city limits, Jensen recommends people dress warmly, saying comet watching in the winter is not for the “faint of heart.”

Secondly, he said even though it might be possible to see the comet with the naked eye, he still suggests bringing binoculars to improve people’s chances. He also recommends checking star maps before leaving to get the most accurate location of where the comet may be.

Lastly, even if all of that is achieved, Jensen notes people will have to battle with the light of the moon, as it is close to a full moon.

“I’m not trying to dissuade anybody from going out to see it, but certainly, there’s going to be some hurdles to overcome in order to be able to spot it on your own.”

If people don’t want to go outside to see it, he said there are plenty of resources online to find digital views.

 – With files from CTV News’ Michael Lee

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