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Big News for SpaceX: Static Fire Today, Hop Test This Weekend? – Universe Today



For years, SpaceX founder Elon Musk has talked about what he will do once his company’s super heavy-lift launch system is finally ready to go! While tidbits of information were shared between 2011 and 2015, it was not until September of 2017 that Musk began to share detailed plans for this system. By 2018, Musk announced that work on the Starship and Super-Heavy (formerly known as the BFR) was underway.

In the past year, progress on the Starship has advanced by leaps and bounds (despite a few explosions). This reached a high point on Dec. 9th, 2020, when the SN8 prototype conducted a hop test where it reached an altitude of 12.5 km (7.8 mi) and did a “belly-flop” on the way down. According to recent indications, the SN9 may be making a hop test by the end of this week!

As with previous tests, early indications included Cameron County announcing road closures for State Highway 4 and around Boca Chica Beach for Monday, Jan. 4th to Wednesday, Jan. 6th. This coincided with news that the ground crews at the South Texas Launch Facility (near the village of Boca Chica) would be conducting a static fire test with the SN9 prototype on Wednesday, Jan. 6th.

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This test happened earlier today at 04:07:13 P.M. CST (02:07:13 P.M. PST; 05:07:13 P.M. EST), which a short-duration fire that lasted only a few seconds. Nevertheless, the test was successful and opens the door to a high-altitude flight test, which is likely to happen later this week. This is based on recent Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs) that were issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The NOTAMs were posted on Tuesday, Jan. 5th, advising air traffic to avoid the airspace around Jacksonville, Texas, from Friday, Jan. 8th to Sunday, Jan. 10th. This is in keeping with SpaceX’s iterative and rapid-prototyping approach, where the lessons learned from the last test are quickly being parlayed into the next one less than a month later.

During the previous hop test with the SN8, both the ascent and the belly-flop maneuver were carried out without a hitch. This latter test involved shutting off the engine once the SN8 was near its maximum altitude, then turning the spacecraft sideways so it could test its maneuvering fins and aerodynamic surfaces (which will come into play during atmospheric re-entry).

The SN8 performing its “belly flop” maneuver. Credit: SpaceX

Unfortunately, a glitch occurred after the SN8 brought its tail back around and reignited one of its engines. Due to a problem with the fuel header tank, the single Raptor did not have enough fuel pressure. As a result, the SN8 did not shed enough speed before landing and exploded on the launchpad. However, Musk tweeted his approval with the overall test and vowed that the data from it would prevent future accidents.

Luckily, the ground crews were able to quickly refurbish the landing pad, which was left a little scorched and debris-strewn! Engineering teams were also able to replace two damaged aerodynamic surfaces on the SN9, which resulted from the SN9 falling over in the High Bay on Dec. 13th. In the meantime, the SN10 has been stacked and integrated inside the High Bay and will be ready to roll out as soon as the SN9 is ready for its hop test.

The SN11 and SN12 are also being assembled inside the facility’s Mid Bay, with the SN11 almost finished and just in need of its nosecone. From all this, it’s safe to say that SpaceX has accelerated their rapid-prototyping and testing process. With any luck, they just might be ready to conduct the first orbital flight test before 2021 is over!

Further Reading: NASASpaceFlight

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NASA will test-fire its 1st SLS megarocket for moon missions today. Here's how to watch. –



NASA will attempt to fire the engines on its Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket for the first time today and you can watch the fiery action live online.

As part of a critical test before the rocket behemoth  lifts off for the first time, the agency plans to ignite the four main engines on its heavy-lift core booster this afternoon (Jan. 16). The test, which is designed to simulate the core stage’s performance during launch, will take place at the agency’s Stennis Space Center, in Mississippi. 

You can watch the test live here and on the homepage, courtesy of NASA, beginning at 4:20 p.m. EST (1920 GMT). You’ll also be able to watch the test directly from NASA here.

Today’s engine test is the final step in the agency’s “Green Run” series of tests designed to ensure the SLS rocket is ready for its first launch — called Artemis 1 — that will send an uncrewed Orion spacecraft around the moon. That first flight is scheduled to blast off later this year.

Video: How NASA’s SLS megarocket engine test works

NASA’s first Space Launch System Core booster undergoes a fueling test on the B-2 Test Stand at the Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi on Dec. 21, 2020. The rocket’s four main engines will be test fired today. (Image credit: NASA)

The SLS is NASA’s next-generation heavy-lift rocket that will ferry astronauts to the moon as part of the agency’s Artemis lunar program. Launching by the end of this year, Artemis 1 will be the first in a series of missions that will culminate in NASA’s first crewed lunar landing since the Apollo era. That mission,  called Artemis 3, could happen as soon as 2024 if all goes as planned. 

To that end, NASA is putting the massive SLS rocket’s four RS-25 engines through their paces prior to launch. The agency has been systematically testing each engine and conducting launch-day procedures such as fueling to ensure all systems are working as expected. 

The upcoming hot-fire engine test, is the final step in the testing process. On Saturday, engineers will load the SLS core booster with over 700,000 gallons of superchilled propellant before igniting all four of its RS-25 engines at once. This will mark the first time that four RS-25 engines will fire at the same time. (The same engines powered the space shuttle but it took only three to make the orbiter fly.) 

Related: These are the space missions to watch in 2021

Burning for approximately 8 minutes — the duration they’ll burn during a launch to the moon — the RS-25 quartet will generate a whopping 1.6 million pounds of thrust during the test. 

“When we ignite the engines, the stage actually will think it is flying,” Ryan McKibben, NASA’s Green Run test conductor at Stennis Space Center, said during a pre-test media conference on Jan. 12. “That’s what it’s built to do. But of course, it won’t go anywhere because the stage is fastened at the same locations where the solid rocket boosters anchored would be anchored.”

As part of the agency’s “Green Run” testing schedule, the megarocket underwent two wet dress rehearsals, during which fuel was loaded, and subsequently drained. Officials said that the tests went well; however, they were not without issue. One of the fueling ops ended early, one was delayed due to temperature issues, and the campaign was also affected by multiple tropical storms as well as the global pandemic. As a result, the agency chose to delay the hot fire test

Photos: NASA’s 1st SLS megarocket core stage for the moon has its engines

The four main RS-25 engines of the Space Launch System core stage. (Image credit: NASA)

Agency officials explained that the delays proved fruitful as the team was able to revise procedures and update the terminal countdown sequence based on pre-flight testing. 

The test is scheduled to take place late Saturday afternoon, and that morning, the day will start with a go/no-go meeting where the team will decide to begin fueling procedures. Once that’s underway, a final poll will be conducted at T-10 minutes to determine if it’s safe to proceed with the hot fire test.

The engines will burn for 485 seconds, or roughly 8 minutes. Once the test is complete, a data review will begin, and is expected to take several days, according to NASA’s Julie Basser, program manager for SLS at Marshall Space Flight Center. 

“This is the first time we fired up this core stage and this is a huge milestone for us,” she said. We are doing everything we can to ensure that we get the most out of this hot fire test and we are ready for launch. Testing provides an opportunity to learn and make sure that the rocket is ready to fly astronauts to the moon.”

If all goes as expected the core stage will be refurbished and then shipped to Kennedy Space Center to prepare for launch. Its expected arrival is slated for sometime in February, where it will be integrated with the rest of the vehicle already on site. 

Currently, the massive rocket’s solid rocket booster segments are being stacked one by one in the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. 

Along with the four RS-25 engines, the SLS will be powered by two solid rocket boosters that consist of five segments fitted together. (Each booster is made from recovered segments that were used on NASA’s space shuttle program.) 

Once fully assembled, each of the two solid rocket boosters will stand 177-feet-tall (54-meters) and produce more than 3.6 million pounds of thrust at liftoff — the bulk of the power during the first two minutes of launch and flight.

Related: Coronavirus delays key tests of NASA’s new SLS megarocket

This first SLS rocket will be used for the  Artemis 1 mission, which is an uncrewed flight that will send  NASA’s Orion space capsule on a trip around the moon, helping pave the way for an eventual planned lunar landing near the moon’s south polar region.

Orion is the third vehicle NASA currently has in development that will eventually fly NASA astronauts to low-Earth orbit and beyond. The first, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule entered service in 2020 as it ferried astronauts to the space station in May and November. 

Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule is expected to launch astronauts later this year, following a successful second orbital flight test. Starliner first launched in 2019, on an uncrewed flight to the space station but failed to reach the orbital outpost following a series of software anomalies. It’s next test flight is scheduled for no earlier than March and if all goes well, then it will carry a crew of three astronauts to the space station later this year. 

Having three different astronaut-toting capsules will provide NASA with the flexibility to routinely send astronauts to low-Earth orbit while also exploring the moon and eventually Mars. 

Follow Amy Thompson on Twitter @astrogingersnap. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.

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From extension cords to a homemade barge, two Edmonton buddies try everything to extract a petrified stump –



Inside the Paleontology Museum at the University of Alberta, past the giant fish skull at the entrance, you’ll find a relic from the time of the dinosaurs.

The 65 to 75 million-year-old petrified tree stump is the latest addition to the museum, and is a point of pride in this small room in the basement of the university’s Earth Sciences building. 

But what impresses museum curator Lisa Budney most is the discoverers of the stump, Mike Lees and Jeff Penney, who went on a costly, arduous, month-long adventure to retrieve it.

“Their willingness to go the extra mile is exceptional,” said Budney. “But also their willingness and acceptance of going through the proper channels in order to make sure they’re collecting things properly.”

“That makes them great citizen scientists.”

The two friends stumbled on the rare find in the middle of Edmonton during a canoe ride down the North Saskatchewan River in October 2019.

The experts were excited, but didn’t have the resources to collect it. 

If these hockey dads didn’t move it, it was likely to wash away down the river by the following spring.

“I don’t think I would have ever forgotten if I just left it there and let it go downriver,” Penney said. 

Once the two men made it their mission to extract the fossilized tree, they refused to be stumped. 

Excitement over find

The day of the discovery, Lees asked Penney to join him for an after-work paddle.

An hour down the river, and a few drinks later, Penney needed to pull over for a pee break. 

The spot they chose is on a narrow muddy bank along the river. A steep cliff about 30 metres tall separates it from any walking trails. 

Lees liked this place because he would often find shells or fish skeletons here. A minute after they pulled over, he realized he was standing on top of something.

Mike Lees and Jeff Penney stumbled upon an 800-pound fossilized tree stump while canoeing down the North Saskatchewan River. They made it their mission to move it — but how? 1:22

“I was really excited at the time,” Lees said. “You could tell that there was a difference between what was on the outside of the tree and the inside of the tree. It looked like bark, but it was stone bark.”

They sensed this could be a major discovery, so they sent pictures of it to the University of Alberta.

Based on its fossilization and location, scientists were able to estimate the age of the stump: the tree was a conifer from the cretaceous period. 

A paleontologist at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alta., called Penney to tell him the news.

“I was thinking it’s like two million years old. He goes, ‘Jeff, it’s estimated it’s probably around 65 million years old. It’s a tree stump with the roots and the bark,'” Penney recalled.

A close-up of the petrified tree stump on the day Lees and Penney discovered it. (Submitted by Mike Lees)

Even though the tree had barely moved from its original place for millions of years, the area around the river is continuously changing in small ways.

By spring 2020, a large section of the muddy bank where the stump stood was largely washed away, which is why Lees and Penney feared it might have been lost if they didn’t move it before winter. 

The university couldn’t secure any funds to collect the stump without a clear research objective, but Budney, the curator they consulted with, was eager to put it on display at the museum.

“I’ve never seen anything this big come out of our river valley since I’ve been working here,” she said. 

University of Alberta museum curator Lisa Budney built a display in the paleontology museum for Penney and Lees’s Edmonton discovery. (Ariel Fournier/CBC)

No stone unturned

After hours of paperwork and e-mails between researchers at the university, paleontologists in Drumheller and Alberta Environment and Parks, they received permission from the province to move it, if they wanted to. 

To make sure the stump was still retrievable, Penney and Lees did some reconnaissance work. 

They found a path through the woods that led to the top of the cliff over the stump, which was faster than taking a canoe. 

On a sunny fall day, the two of them rappelled down the 30-metre bank, using extension cords from Penney’s truck. The stump was still there — as glorious as when they found it. 

On the first attempt to remove it, they borrowed a hunting boat. But even with several men to lift the stump, it was too heavy. They also worried the weight of the stump could sink the back of the boat. 

Lees even called Edmonton Fire Rescue Services, but ultimately, they weren’t able to help either. 

Then, Lees and Penney recruited some friends to build their own barge. They took a half-dozen 50-gallon plastic drums and strapped them to a deck they built over a few hours. But they worried that the barge would not be sturdy enough either. 

“We were using our best creative ideas to make it work, but it just wasn’t happening,” Penney said. 

By this time, it was November, and they were brushing snow off the stump. They realized they needed to bring in professionals. 

Penney called a company that did on-the-water and underwater repairs. 

“Usually when we’re picking something up, it’s a man-made problem, someone’s dropped a truck, people go out and sink boats,” said Bill Stark, a marine operations manager at Northern Underwater Systems. “It’s not someone who lost a rock.” 

“Once they explained what they had and the situation, it became more intriguing,” he said.

Penney spent his own money to pay Stark and his crew to remove the rock. 

A professional crew hired by Jeff Penney moves an ancient fossilized tree stump onto an industrial boat to transport it to the University of Alberta. 0:28

When the conditions were perfect, right before the river froze over, they loaded it onto an industrial boat and brought it to the museum. 

A day later and the river would have been filled with too much ice for the boat to travel on.

A place in history 

At around 800 pounds, there are very few petrified trees from this era that are this large and well-preserved, on display anywhere in the world, according to Budney. 

University paleobotanist Eva Koppelhus was able to take samples from the core of the tree and find evidence of pre-historic ferns growing on its base. 

“It’s a great find because it’s often that people find just smaller pieces of wood, but this was a stump and it looked like it was nearly in situ,” she said. 

Mike Lees looks at the downtown view from the water where he and Penney found the petrified stump. He still goes for a paddle whenever he can, whether or not there’s something to discover. (Ariel Fournier)

It’s a signpost of a time back when this wintry city was a hot muggy swampland along a seaway. 

The stump still sits on the pallets it was dragged in on since it’s too heavy to move without a lift. 

Lees and Penney have both brought their kids to see it in person. 

“I’ll be satisfied for a long time knowing that people are going to be able to appreciate this thing long beyond my life,” Lees said.

(Submitted by Ariel Fournier)

About the producer

Ariel Fournier is an associate producer at CBC Edmonton. She’s produced radio documentaries about a 70-year-old wrestler with a flashy hat, adult adoption and the lasting influence of autotune. 

This documentary was edited by Julia Pagel.

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NASA Pulls Plug On InSight Lander’s Mars Mole – Forbes



NASA has pulled the plug on its InSight lander’s Mars mole, more than two years after the lander touched down at Elysium Planitia. The German-built Mars mole heat probe could simply never penetrate the hard exterior surface of its landing site in order to make the kind of measurements necessary to give planetary scientists the first real clues as to the makeup of the Martian interior.

For nearly two years, the InSight, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy, and Heat Transport’s mole probe has been attempting to burrow into the Martian surface to take the planet’s internal temperature, says NASA. But the soil’s unexpected tendency to clump deprived the spike-like mole of the friction it needs to hammer itself to a sufficient depth, the team notes.

Part of the spacecraft’s Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3), the mole was intended to be a self-hammering probe that would burrow down to almost 16 feet (five meters) below Mars’ surface. This would have enabled planetary scientists to better understand whether Mars’ interior is radically different from Earth or our own Moon.

“We’ve given it everything we’ve got, but Mars and our heroic mole remain incompatible,” HP3’s principal investigator, Tilman Spohn of DLR said in a statement. “Fortunately, we’ve learned a lot that will benefit future missions that attempt to dig into the subsurface.”

The mole itself is a 16-inch-long spike designed to drag with it a ribbonlike tether that extends from the spacecraft, says NASA.  The idea was that Temperature sensors are embedded along the tether to measure the planet’s interior heat.

But InSight landed in an area with an unusually thick duricrust, or a layer of cemented soil, NASA reports.  Rather than being loose and sandlike, as expected, the dirt granules stick together, says the agency.

Unfortunately, to work properly, the mole needs friction from the soil in order to travel downward. Without it, says NASA, recoil from its self-hammering action causes it to simply bounce in place.  Paradoxically, it’s loose soil, not this cement-like duricrust that InSight has encountered at its landing site, that would ideally provide the needed friction as it falls around the mole.

The landing site at Elysium Planitia, a broad, equatorial volcanic plain, was selected in part because it has so few visible rocks, implying few large subsurface rocks.  Designed to measure heat flowing from the planet once the mole has dug at least 10 feet deep, the mole is strong enough to nudge small rocks out of its way, says NASA.   

But after repeated attempts to aid the mole in its actions over a two year period using the spacecraft’s robotic arm in ways that it was never intended, the team realized that they were in a no-win situation.

Meanwhile, the rest of InSight’s instruments are functioning and taking data. In fact, NASA says that the mission intends to employ the robotic arm in burying the tether that conveys data and power between the lander and InSight’s seismometer, which has recorded more than 480 marsquakes. Burying it will help reduce temperature changes that have created cracking and popping sounds in seismic data, the team notes.

The InSight mission itself has been recently extended to late next year. Along with hunting for marsquakes, the lander hosts a radio experiment that is collecting data to reveal whether the planet’s core is liquid or solid, says NASA. And InSight’s weather sensors are capable of providing some of the most detailed meteorological data ever collected on Mars, says the agency. Together with weather instruments aboard NASA’s Curiosity rover and the Perseverance rover, which lands on Feb. 18th, the team says that the three spacecraft will create the first meteorological network on another planet.

Could the problem simply be an ordinary rock?

“We don’t know for sure, because we can’t see underground,” Spohn said in a statement.  “[But] there’s also the possibility that we’ve hit a rock.”

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