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Boeing’s Starliner capsule makes launch debut, but hits snag – Toronto Star

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CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA.—Boeing’s new Starliner capsule ran into trouble and went off course in orbit minutes after blasting off Friday on its first test flight, a crucial dress rehearsal for next year’s inaugural launch with astronauts.

Everything went flawlessly as the Atlas V rocket soared with the Starliner just before sunrise. But a half-hour into the flight, Boeing reported that the capsule didn’t get into the position needed to get it to the International Space Station.

Officials said flight controllers were looking into all their options and stressed that the capsule was in a stable orbit.

The Starliner was supposed to reach the space station and stay for a week. The United Launch Alliance rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and was visible for at least five minutes, its white contrail a brilliant contrast against the dark sky.

Thousands of spectators jammed the area, eager to witness Starliner’s premiere flight.

This was Boeing’s chance to catch up with SpaceX, NASA’s other commercial crew provider that successfully completed a similar demonstration last March. SpaceX has one last hurdle — a launch abort test — before carrying two NASA astronauts in its Dragon capsule, possibly by spring.

A successful Starliner demo could have seen Boeing launching astronauts by summer.

The U.S. needs competition like this, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said Thursday, to drive down launch costs, boost innovation and open space up to more people.

The space agency handed over station deliveries to private businesses, first cargo and then crews, in order to focus on getting astronauts back to the moon and on to Mars.

Commercial cargo ships took flight in 2012, starting with SpaceX. Crew capsules were more complicated to design and build, and parachute and other technical problems pushed the first launches from 2017 to now next year.

It’s been nearly nine years since NASA astronauts have launched from the U.S. The last time was July 8, 2011, when Atlantis — now on display at Kennedy Space Center — made the final space shuttle flight.

Since then, NASA astronauts have travelled to and from the space station via Kazakhstan, courtesy of the Russian Space Agency. The Soyuz rides have cost NASA up to $86 million apiece.

Chris Ferguson commanded that last shuttle mission. Now a test pilot astronaut for Boeing and one of the Starliner’s key developers, he’s assigned to the first Starliner crew with NASA’s Mike Fincke and Nicole Mann. All three were at control centres to watch the launch.

Built to accommodate seven, the white capsule with black and blue trim will typically carry four or five people. It’s 16.5 feet (5 metres) tall with its attached service module and 15 feet (4.5 metres) in diameter.

For the test flight, the Starliner carried Christmas treats and presents for the six space station residents, hundreds of tree seeds similar to those that flew to the moon on Apollo 14, the original air travel ID card belonging to Boeing’s founder and a mannequin named Rosie in the commander’s seat.

The test dummy — named after the bicep-flexing riveter of World War II — wore a red polka-dot hair bandana just like the original Rosie and Boeing’s custom royal blue spacesuit.

The flight was designed to test all systems, from the vibrations and stresses of liftoff to the Dec. 28 touchdown at the Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Parachutes and airbags will soften the capsule’s landing. Even the test dummy is packed with sensors.

On the eve of the flight, Bridenstine said he’s “very comfortable” with Boeing, despite the prolonged grounding of the company’s 737 Max jets. The spacecraft and aircraft sides of the company are different, he noted. Boeing has long been involved in NASA’s human spacecraft program, from Project Mercury to the shuttle and station programs.

Boeing began preliminary work on the Starliner in 2010, a year before Atlantis soared for the last time.

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In 2014, Boeing and SpaceX made the final cut. Boeing got more than $4 billion to develop and fly the Starliner, while SpaceX got $2.6 billion for a crew-version of its Dragon cargo ship.

NASA wants to make sure every reasonable precaution is taken with the capsules, designed to be safer than NASA’s old shuttles.

“We’re talking about human space flight,” Bridenstine cautioned. “It’s not for the faint of heart. It never has been, and it’s never going to be.”

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Municipalities look to Elon Musk for improved internet – Hanna Herald

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The Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities’ board  of directors passed a resolution Sept. 15 in support of Starlink, Elon Musk’s satellite internet project.
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images


Sarah Cooke, Local Journalism Initiative

Internet access and remote/rural communities usually don’t go together well in a sentence, but Elon Musk’s satellite internet project  aims to fix that.
The Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities’ board  of directors passed a resolution Sept. 15 in support of Starlink —  which is a low Earth orbit satellite system which can provide improved  upload/download speeds and response times for rural residents.
“We know today our citizens require greater connectivity than 50/10  megabits per second,” says Danny Whalen, president of FONOM. “FONOM  believes that the Starlink program is our best option.”
The resolution also calls on the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to permit the company a basic international telecommunications service licence (BITS).
Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) is the parent company of Starlink and it applied for a BITS licence May 1.
On July 6, the CRTC published the procedural letter on  its website which states that it “received a number of  interventions, both in support of and in opposition” to SpaceX’s request  for a licence.
The letter further states that the CRTC provided SpaceX the opportunity to reply to these interventions.
The interventions and replies are available on the commission’s website under “closed BITS licenses.”
Discussions surrounding broadband and connectivity dominated much of  FONOM’s recent board meeting, according to a release issued Sept. 16.,  as the federation is looking to work with municipal organizations and  governments to bring improved internet services to its 110 communities.
SpaceX launched 180 satellites last month to grow the  “mega-constellation” and Starlink has allegedly begun private beta  testing.
A tweet from Musk on June 24 stated that, “Canada is a major priority for Starlink!”
Those interested in signing up for the potential to beta test Starlink can do so on the company’s website.
FONOM said it will not be communicating with its partners to seek additional support for the Starlink program.


Sarah Cooke is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter with muskokaregion.com. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

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Municipalities look to Elon Musk for improved internet – The North Bay Nugget

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The Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities’ board  of directors passed a resolution Sept. 15 in support of Starlink, Elon Musk’s satellite internet project.
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images


Sarah Cooke, Local Journalism Initiative

Internet access and remote/rural communities usually don’t go together well in a sentence, but Elon Musk’s satellite internet project  aims to fix that.
The Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities’ board  of directors passed a resolution Sept. 15 in support of Starlink —  which is a low Earth orbit satellite system which can provide improved  upload/download speeds and response times for rural residents.
“We know today our citizens require greater connectivity than 50/10  megabits per second,” says Danny Whalen, president of FONOM. “FONOM  believes that the Starlink program is our best option.”
The resolution also calls on the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to permit the company a basic international telecommunications service licence (BITS).
Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) is the parent company of Starlink and it applied for a BITS licence May 1.
On July 6, the CRTC published the procedural letter on  its website which states that it “received a number of  interventions, both in support of and in opposition” to SpaceX’s request  for a licence.
The letter further states that the CRTC provided SpaceX the opportunity to reply to these interventions.
The interventions and replies are available on the commission’s website under “closed BITS licenses.”
Discussions surrounding broadband and connectivity dominated much of  FONOM’s recent board meeting, according to a release issued Sept. 16.,  as the federation is looking to work with municipal organizations and  governments to bring improved internet services to its 110 communities.
SpaceX launched 180 satellites last month to grow the  “mega-constellation” and Starlink has allegedly begun private beta  testing.
A tweet from Musk on June 24 stated that, “Canada is a major priority for Starlink!”
Those interested in signing up for the potential to beta test Starlink can do so on the company’s website.
FONOM said it will not be communicating with its partners to seek additional support for the Starlink program.


Sarah Cooke is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter with muskokaregion.com. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

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The detection of phosphine in Venus' clouds is a big deal – here's how we can find out if it really is life – The Conversation US

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On Sept. 14, 2020, a new planet was added to the list of potentially habitable worlds in the Solar System: Venus.

Phosphine, a toxic gas made up of one phosphorus and three hydrogen atoms (PH₃), commonly produced by organic life forms but otherwise difficult to make on rocky planets, was discovered in the middle layer of the Venus atmosphere. This raises the tantalizing possibility that something is alive on our planetary neighbor. With this discovery, Venus joins the exalted ranks of Mars and the icy moons Enceladus and Europa among planetary bodies where life may once have existed, or perhaps might even still do so today.

I’m a planetary scientist and something of a Venus evangelical. This discovery is one of the most exciting made about Venus in a very long time — and opens up a new set of possibilities for further exploration in search of life in the Solar System.

Venus as seen in the infrared by the Japanese Akatsuki spacecraft. The warm colors are from the hot lower atmosphere glowing through the cooler cloud layers above. Image credit: JAXA/ISAS/DARTS/Damia Bouic.
JAXA/ISAS/DARTS/Damia Bouic

Atmospheric mysteries

First, it’s critical to point out that this detection does not mean that astronomers have found alien life in the clouds of Venus. Far from it, in fact.

Although the discovery team identified phosphine at Venus with two different telescopes, helping to confirm the initial detection, phosphine gas can result from several processes that are unrelated to life, such as lightning, meteor impacts or even volcanic activity.

However, the quantity of phosphine detected in the Venusian clouds seems to be far greater than those processes are capable of generating, allowing the team to rule out numerous inorganic possibilities. But our understanding of the chemistry of Venus’ atmosphere is sorely lacking: Only a handful of missions have plunged through the inhospitable, carbon dioxide-dominated atmosphere to take samples among the global layer of sulfuric acid clouds.

So we planetary scientists are faced with two possibilities: Either there is some sort of life in the Venus clouds, generating phosphine, or there is unexplained and unexpected chemistry taking place there. How do we find out which it is?

A model of the Soviet Vega 1 spacecraft at the Udvar-Hazy Center, Dulles International Airport. Vega 1 carried a balloon to Venus on its way to visit Halley’s Comet in 1985.
Daderot

First and foremost, we need more information about the abundance of PH₃ in the Venus atmosphere, and we can learn something about this from Earth. Just as the discovery team did, existing telescopes capable of detecting phosphine around Venus can be used for follow-up observations, to both definitively confirm the initial finding and figure out if the amount of PH₃ in the atmosphere changes with time. In parallel, there is now a huge opportunity to carry out lab work to better understand the types of chemical reactions that might be possible on Venus — for which we have very limited information at present.

Antennas of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array telescope, on the Chajnantor Plateau in the Chilean Andes. The telescope was used to confirm the initial detection of phosphine in Venus’ atmosphere.
ESO/C. Malin.

Once more unto the breach

But measurements on and from Earth can take us only so far. To really get to the heart of this mystery, we need to go back to Venus. Spacecraft equipped with spectrometers that can detect phosphine from orbit could be dispatched to the second planet with the express purpose of characterizing where, and how much, of this gas is there. Because spacecraft can survive for many years in Venus’ orbit, we could obtain continuous observations with a dedicated orbiter over a much longer period than with telescopes on Earth.

But even orbital data can’t tell us the whole story. To fully get a handle on what’s happening at Venus, we have to actually get into the atmosphere. And that’s where aerial platforms come in. Capable of operating above much of the acidic cloud layer – where the temperature and pressure are almost Earthlike – for potentially months at a time, balloons or flying wings could take detailed atmospheric composition measurements there. These craft could even carry the kinds of instruments being developed to look for life on Europa. At that point, humanity might finally be able to definitively tell if we share our Solar System with Venusian life.

A concept for an aerial platform at Venus. Two connected balloons could take turns to inflate, allowing the balloon to control the altitude at which it floats. An instrument package would then hang from below the balloons.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

A new dawn for Venus exploration?

Thirty-one years have elapsed since the United States last sent a dedicated mission to Venus. That could soon change as NASA considers two of four missions in the late 2020s targeting Venus. One, called VERITAS, would carry a powerful radar to peer through the thick clouds and return unprecedented high-resolution images of the surface. The other, DAVINCI+, would plunge through the atmosphere, sampling the air as it descended, perhaps even able to sniff any phosphine present. NASA plans to pick at least one mission in April 2021.

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I have argued before for a return to Venus, and will continue to do so. Even without this latest scientific discovery, Venus is a compelling exploration target, with tantalizing evidence that the planet once had oceans and perhaps even suffered a hellish fate at the hands of its own volcanic eruptions.

But with the detection of a potential biomarker in Venus’ atmosphere, we now have yet another major reason to return to the world ancient Greek astronomers called Phosphorus — a name for Venus that, it turns out, is wonderfully prescient.

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