China launched an ambitious mission on Tuesday to bring back rocks and debris from the moon’s surface for the first time in more than 40 years — an undertaking that could boost human understanding of the moon and of the solar system more generally.
Chang’e 5 — named for the Chinese moon goddess — is the country’s boldest lunar mission yet. If successful, it would be a major advance for China’s space program, and some experts say it could pave the way for bringing samples back from Mars or even a crewed lunar mission.
The four modules of the Chang’e 5 spacecraft blasted off at just after 4:30 a.m. Tuesday atop a massive Long March-5Y rocket from the Wenchang launch centre along the coast of the southern island province of Hainan.
Minutes after liftoff, the spacecraft separated from the rocket’s first and second stages and slipped into Earth-moon transfer orbit. About an hour later, Chang’e 5 opened its solar panels to provide its independent power source.
Spacecraft typically take three days to reach the moon.
The launch was carried live by national broadcaster CCTV which then switched to computer animation to show its progress into outer space.
The mission’s key task is to drill 2 metres beneath the moon’s surface and scoop up about 2 kilograms of rocks and other debris to be brought back to Earth, according to NASA. That would offer the first opportunity for scientists to study newly obtained lunar material since the American and Russian missions of the 1960s and 1970s.
The Chang’e 5 lander’s time on the moon is scheduled to be short and sweet. It can only stay one lunar daytime, or about 14 Earth days, because it lacks the radioisotope heating units to withstand the moon’s freezing nights.
The lander will dig for materials with its drill and robotic arm and transfer them to what’s called an ascender, which will lift off from the moon and dock with the service capsule. The materials will then be moved to the return capsule to be hauled back to Earth.
Canada is on the hunt for coronavirus variants — but may not be able to keep up with outbreaks – CBC.ca
This is an excerpt from Second Opinion, a weekly roundup of health and medical science news emailed to subscribers every Saturday morning. If you haven’t subscribed yet, you can do that by clicking here.
Canada is on the hunt for highly contagious strains of the coronavirus, but experts say they could already be spreading across the country and we may not be able to keep up with surveillance as more outbreaks occur.
Only five per cent of virus samples in Canada are tested for coronavirus variants, including those first identified in South Africa, Brazil and the U.K. — with the latter estimated to be at least 56 per cent more transmissible than the main coronavirus and potentially more deadly as well.
There have been at least 34 cases of variants confirmed in Canada in recent weeks, but several have no known link to travel and have prompted concerns the variants could be already driving outbreaks undetected.
“To ensure that virus variants that can spread more easily do not take hold, there is even greater urgency to suppress COVID-19 activity in Canada,” Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said Wednesday.
First variant outbreak in Canada a ‘wake-up call’
Canada’s first outbreak due to a coronavirus variant was identified this week at the Roberta Place long-term care home in Barrie, Ont., where at least 81 staff and almost all 130 residents have been infected with COVID-19 since the outbreak was declared on Jan. 8, including 27 who have died.
Local public health officials suspected the outbreak was caused by the variant first identified in the U.K., also known as B117, and sent samples to public health laboratories for further testing earlier this week.
Six preliminary samples have since tested positive for a variant, but it will take days to determine whether the outbreak was caused by B117 or a different strain.
“Barrie has become ground zero for what is likely a [coronavirus] variant of concern, which has spread rapidly throughout Roberta Place and we are concerned that it will spread into our community and into other long-term and retirement homes,” said Dr. Charles Gardner, Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit’s medical officer of health.
“This is a race against time and we need to use the COVID-19 vaccine as our most effective means to protect these residents. We have to do what we can to prevent other outbreaks.”
Local public health officials said Friday night they were accelerating the vaccine rollout in light of the outbreak and will begin vaccinating residents and staff at the long-term care home this weekend.
Prof. Robyn Lee, a genomic epidemiologist at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said the situation at Roberta Place should be “another wake-up call that we really need to be doing something to stop transmission in the community and to test people to make sure that this doesn’t come into long-term care facilities.”
Lee is awaiting the full results from the Public Health Ontario laboratory to see which variant specifically was spreading at Roberta Place, but says it’s likely we’ll see more outbreaks across Canada in the near future.
“These variants appear to be more transmissible, which means we’re going to see more cases — especially if they do kind of kick off,” she said.
Lee says Canada needs to “very seriously crack down” with public health measures and speed up vaccination rollouts across the country in response to the threat posed by variants.
“What we’re seeing in Roberta Place is what happens when these get in and how aggressive they can be,” said Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious diseases physician at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton and an associate professor at McMaster University.
“The whole concern about this variant is it getting into care facilities and places with vulnerable people — and it did exactly that.”
Chagla said the Roberta Place outbreak has also raised concerns that variants could be the driving factor behind other recent COVID-19 outbreaks in Canada with unusually high numbers of cases in a short period of time.
“There certainly is a worry that some of those were actually related to coronavirus variants,” he said.
“There’s probably a bigger burden out there.”
‘Detective work’ identifying variants is slow
Testing for the variants is done through a time-consuming process called genomic sequencing, which requires highly specialized staff and equipment and takes days to return results — precious time when variants could spread more widely.
“We need to increase our surveillance of the virus in Canada,” said Art Poon, an associate professor in the department of pathology and laboratory medicine at Western University in London, Ont.
“We need the resources to do more sequencing so that we have better capability of tracking the spread of not only variants of concern, but other variants that may be arising in Canada.”
Catalina Lopez-Correa, executive director of the Canadian COVID Genomics Network (CanCOGen), which was formed in April 2020 to track variants and co-ordinate viral genome sequencing across Canada, said that while the number of samples tested in Canada is low, the testing efforts are focused on very specific samples.
“It’s not about the numbers, it’s about the strategy,” she said. “It’s about prioritizing the right samples and co-ordinating efforts.”
Lopez-Correa said CanCOGen’s strategy for testing for variants in Canada includes targeting fast-spreading outbreaks; geographic regions with an unusually high growth in cases; younger patients with very severe disease; reinfections; and those infected after being vaccinated.
There are currently eight labs across Canada testing virus samples for the variants, including the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg and seven other provincial labs.
“Some people are calling us genomic detectives and that’s exactly what we are,” said Lopez-Correa. “It’s detective work trying to figure out where those variants are and how to trace them.”
But although scientists are working around the clock to test the samples, they can only move as fast as the results will allow — meaning scaling up surveillance in the face of faster spreading variants isn’t easy.
WATCH | Coronavirus variant first detected in U.K. may have higher death risk: Boris Johnson
“If you have a contained outbreak in a specific geographical region, you don’t need to sequence everybody that’s infected in that outbreak, because most of them will have the same variant of the virus,” Lopez-Correa said. “But, of course, it’s a challenge to increase the amount of samples we’re doing.”
CanCOGen was created with initial federal funding of $40 million, half of which was allocated specifically for sequencing the virus, but Lopez-Correa said Canada could divert more money to staff and resources to test for the variants faster.
Lee said even with increased funding there is only a certain amount of surveillance Canada can reasonably do, given that the labs work on samples for all kinds of different viruses across the country.
“Ideally, we would be sequencing more, and I know there are efforts to do this, but there are some limitations,” she said, including the time it takes to collect samples, transport them to specific labs, sequence them and analyze the results.
“That involves a lot of different people and a lot of different resources. So, while it would be great to keep scaling up, there are going to be limits on what can be done.”
Canada ‘way behind’ on sharing data on variants
The World Health Organization called on countries around the world to increase their capacity to test for variants earlier this month, but also underscored the need to share the data internationally.
Poon said Canada is “way behind” in sharing data on variants around the world, partly because our public health system is understaffed and doesn’t currently have the resources to keep up with genomic surveillance.
“We are conservative about data sharing … I think that concerns about privacy have overridden calls to share data with other countries,” he said.
“Since this is a global pandemic, getting a clear picture of what’s going on requires open sharing of data between countries. But that’s not something that’s been happening with Canada.”
Lopez-Correa said Canada could improve its capacity to share data across the country and internationally. She said data is first shared domestically before being sent overseas.
“We could do better, but we’re submitting the data,” she said. “If you look at regions like Africa, Latin America, they’re not generating that data. They don’t have the capacity.”
Without effective international sharing of data, Canada could continue to see new variants arise in the future that are only identified after they’ve spread around the world.
WATCH | Vaccinations a race against coronavirus variants:
In the meantime, Lee said, the emergence of variants in Canada further underscores the need to vaccinate those most at risk of severe illness and death as soon as possible.
“Vaccination is going to play a critical role in this. We need to get everyone vaccinated who is in those long-term care facilities and all of the staff as well as their primary caregivers,” she said.
“I think that has to be the No. 1 priority at the moment.”
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Building Earth's largest telescope on the far side of the moon – CBC.ca
NASA engineers are studying the feasibility of building a massive, kilometre-wide radio telescope on the moon that would dwarf anything we could build on Earth.
The telescope, which would be constructed by robots, would take the form of a huge, wire-mesh antenna in a dish shape that would hang suspended in a three-kilometre-wide crater on the far side of the moon.
The Lunar Crater Radio Telescope would provide a unique perspective on the early universe, though it likely won’t be built for decades, according to NASA robotics engineer Saptarshi Bandyopadhyay, who is leading the project.
“We all want to know what happened. How did the universe evolve? What happened after the Big Bang?” Bandyopadhyay told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald.
In the 14 billion years since that event, the light waves from that era have been stretched out from tiny fractions of a millimetre to more than 10 metres as the universe expanded. They’re now extremely long radio waves, and those can’t be seen on Earth “because the ionosphere absorbs it,” said Bandyopadhyay.
“So we want to go somewhere away from [Earth] so that we can get a picture of the Big Bang and evolution of the universe.”
Telescope size presents challenges
The problem, however, is that in order to capture those wavelengths, not only does this telescope need to be on the moon, it needs to be very large, which makes it hard to build.
There are giant radio telescopes on Earth, which observe shorter radio wavelengths that do penetrate the atmosphere. The 300-metre-wide Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico — recently demolished in a catastrophic accident — or the 500-metre-wide FAST telescope in China represent significant engineering challenges.
Standalone, self-supporting, dish-shaped radio telescopes can only get to a certain size, based on the strength of the materials they’re made from and the need to resist wind loads. To avoid these issues, the largest radio telescopes are built into natural features in the terrain. Arecibo and FAST, for example, were built in natural, dish-shaped sinkholes.
Building such a telescope on the moon is, in one sense, easier. The lower gravity on the moon means a larger structure can be built with lighter materials. No atmosphere means no windstorms or other earthly environmental risks, though there are challenges from the moon’s harsh temperatures.
According to Bandyopadhyay, the moon also has no shortage of appropriately shaped terrain structures in the form of ubiquitous impact craters.
“These craters seem like natural places to put this dish-shaped telescope because the crater also looks like a bowl.”
To find a crater candidate, Bandyopadhyay and his team combed over detailed pictures taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and discovered more than 80,000 suitable craters on the far side of the moon.
Origami-inspired transport and construction
While the location would provide advantages, there are unique and significant challenges to building on the moon, in particular the harsh working conditions and the difficulty of transporting materials.
The team studied a range of scenarios for how a telescope might be constructed and transported to the moon. The one they have arrived at is inspired by Japanese paper folding, said Bandyopadhyay.
“Origami is the art of folding paper into smaller and more interesting designs. But in space, origami is extensively used to take these large structures, like a large dish of one kilometre, and we can literally fold it multiple times and make it into a pretty small structure.”
The antenna would be built on Earth in the form of a large, but extremely lightweight net-like structure made of conductive aluminum wire. It would be carefully folded into a package that would fit inside the nose cone of a large rocket, possibly the Space Launch System that NASA is currently developing.
Once launched, the antenna would be carried to the moon and land on the floor of the crater into which it would be installed. Then it would need to be deployed.
“We will have these robots that will go down … to the lander and then pull lift wires that will connect to the lander sitting at the crater floor,” Bandyopadhyay said.
These lift wires would be anchored on the crater rim and as they are winched up, the antenna would unfold and deploy. Ultimately the net-like antenna would be suspended over the crater floor, looking a little like a dish-shaped spider web.
The tension in the wires would be adjusted to result in the appropriate dish shape to receive radio signals from space and reflect them to a receiver.
All of this technology (the launch rocket possibly excepted) is available today, said Bandyopadhyay.
The robots, for example, are currently being tested at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
“These robots are called DuAxel, and they are actively being built at JPL for over a decade now. And these robots have the speciality that they can go down almost steep terrain like just cliff faces.”
For now, this is an early stage engineering feasibility study, rather than a fully developed mission proposal, but Bandyopadhyay suggests it would certainly be expensive and would be a very high-profile endeavour for NASA.
“Cost is a big uncertainty right now. Right now, all I can say is we think this will be a flagship-class mission.”
Given that, it’s likely decades away, at least.
“Space is hard,” said Bandyopadhyay. “I would be surprised if I could see this launched and deployed before I retired, and I’m a young scientist.”
Written and produced by Jim Lebans
SpaceX's first 'rideshare' mission will launch a record number of satellites – Engadget
The SpaceX Transporter-1 mission set to launch today will put 133 commercial and government spacecraft, as well as 10 more Starlink satellites, in orbit. SpaceX says that’s “the most spacecraft ever deployed on a single mission” — the previous record holder, an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, ferried only 104 satellites to space. In addition to having a record-breaking payload, Transporter-1 is also the first dedicated launch under the SmallSat Rideshare Program SpaceX announced back in 2019.
Launching many small satellites for a wide range of customers tomorrow. Excited about offering low-cost access to orbit for small companies! https://t.co/NrXmBML747
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 22, 2021
The SmallSat program offers companies and government agencies an affordable way to get their CubeSats, microsats and other small spacecraft to orbit. Its prices start at $2.5 million for payloads up to 150 kg (330 lbs). The program’s customers typically just hitch a ride on other Falcon 9 launches, and this is the first time they’re the main point of a mission. As for the Starlink satellites aboard the flight, they’ll be the first in the constellation to deploy to a polar orbit.
On Twitter, SpaceX chief Elon Musk said Transporter-1 “is getting even more scrutiny than a Starlink flight” because so many companies are depending on it to go off without a hitch.
Given so many other companies are depending on this mission, it is getting even more scrutiny than a Starlink flight
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 23, 2021
SpaceX will open Transporter-1’s launch window later today, January 23rd, at 9:40AM Eastern. The mission will lift off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, and the company will livestream the event starting about 15 minutes before liftoff. You’ll be able to watch the launch as it happens in the video below:
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