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Earth’s next mini-moon might be space junk from the 1960s – The Verge

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Earth is about to get a temporary mini-moon — and this one might be space junk. Researchers are tracking an object that looks like it will be captured by Earth’s gravity for just a few months this winter before safely heading back out into the Solar System. It might be a standard asteroid, but some astronomers say that the mystery object’s path indicates that it could be a part of a 1960s era rocket.

“I’m pretty jazzed about this,” Paul Chodas, the manager of NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies told The Associated Press. Chodas is one of the world’s leading experts on asteroids and has been on the lookout for returning space debris for decades, he told the AP.

The object was first identified last month by researchers in Hawaii. They named it 2020 SO, and designated it as a near-earth asteroid.

But the object is a little weird for a typical asteroid. It’s moving relatively slowly, it’s on the same plane as the Earth, and it’s got a nearly circular orbit around the Sun, just like Earth. All those characteristics are “red flags,” according to Chodas, which could indicate that the object was once launched from Earth.

“That’s precisely the kind of orbit that a rocket stage separated from a lunar mission would follow, once it passes by the Moon and escapes into orbit about the Sun. It’s unlikely that an asteroid could have evolved into an orbit like this, but not impossible,” Chodas told CNN in September.

The object appears to be 26 feet long, about the same size as the upper stage of a Centaur rocket. That, plus its path through the Solar System, makes it a good match for the rocket booster that helped launch NASA’s Surveyor 2 Mission in 1966. The mission itself was a failure. After it launched successfully, one of the thrusters onboard the spacecraft malfunctioned, sending it careening into the Moon.

The booster that launched the ill-fated spacecraft kept going past the Moon, and out into the Solar System. Researchers will be able to determine if 2020 SO is the booster, and not a space rock once, the object gets a little closer. Boosters like this are made of relatively light metal — it won’t move the same way as a dense rock in space.

Whatever the object is, it’s expected to stay in Earth’s orbit for a few months this winter before continuing on its way. Only a few of these temporarily captured objects (or, informally, mini-moons) have been observed, including one that hung around between 2006 and 2008, and another one that lingered un-noticed for about a year, before departing in March 2020.

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NASA Spacecraft Osiris-Rex Extracts Samples From Asteroid Bennu, a First for US – The Daily Beast

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NASA Spacecraft Osiris-Rex Extracts Samples From Asteroid Bennu, a First for U.S.

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'Weird bat-winged' dinosaurs glided through treetops in attempt at flight: study – CTV News

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TORONTO —
A new study investigating the flight capabilities of two tiny dinosaurs with thin, bat-like wings is shedding light on the evolution of avian flight itself — an evolution that, it turns out, had a lot of dead ends and false starts along the way.

Published in the journal iScience earlier this week, the study looked at Yi and Ambopteryx, two dinosaurs who lived around 160 million years ago in the Late Jurassic era of China. Both were believed to have the potential for flight due to the thin membranes stretched between their arms and their bodies.

However, when researchers applied mathematical modelling to these prehistoric creatures, they found that they were nowhere near capable of propelling themselves through the air like birds, and instead would’ve used their small wings only to glide.

“We know some dinosaurs could fly before they evolved into birds,” Hans Larsson, a professor at McGill University and Director of McGill’s Redpath Museum, said in a press release. “What this shows us is that at least one lineage of dinosaurs experimented with a completely different mode of aerial locomotion.”

A ‘WEIRD BAT-WINGED’ PAIR

Researchers scanned fossils of Yi and Ambopteryx with lasers to pick out where the soft tissue would fall on their wings, details that couldn’t be seen under regular light.

Then they reconstructed the dinosaurs’ morphology with computer modelling to see whether they could power themselves to flight, whether by leaping from trees or from the ground. They also changed important variables like wingspan and body weight to assess different scenarios on how they might have flown.

In order to flap their wings with enough force to support their own body, the dinosaurs would’ve needed strong pectoral muscles, which were absent. Ambopteryx could only take off in flight at the lowest estimated body size and highest estimated power level, and Yi could not obtain any lift-off except at body weights researchers said were likely too small to be accurate. In almost all scenarios, the dinosaurs could not get off the ground under their own power.

Even with a running start to help them, the minimum take off speed for Yi would be between 1.1 and three times the maximum possible speed Yi would have been capable of. For Ambopteryx, the minimum take-off speed was even more out of reach, needing to be at least 2.3 to four times their top sprinting speed.

The two dinosaurs were capable of gliding if they leaped from trees — but not well. The research found that compared to other dinosaurs capable of gliding or flying, these two “show poorly developed gliding abilities.”

Both Yi and Ambopteryx would have to launch from higher points in trees at higher speeds than other creatures that glide, and they would be less precise when they landed.

They are thought to have spent most of their lives in trees, eating insects, seeds and plants.

AVIALANS AND THE EVOLUTION OF FLIGHT

Many modern creatures can glide, but only pterosaurs, bats and birds developed the structures necessary to fly by flapping their wings.

It’s well known that modern day birds are descendants of dinosaurs, but this new research adds a complication to the predominant theory of how avian flight came about.

The majority of dinosaurs with flying capabilities — called avialans — have had very similar characteristics and body types, and different families of dinosaurs who have evolved towards flight have started as ground-dwelling creatures and gone through similar body changes — such as a reduction in body size, getting an increased shoulder mobility and developing feathers on their four limbs — before gaining the ability to fly.

This has told a reasonably streamlined tale about the evolution of flight from dinosaurs to birds for the most part, the study explained.

But Yi and Ambopteryx are outliers, showing that dinosaur flight went through some bumps on the road.

Both are therapods, a categorization of carnivorous dinosaurs with hollow bones that includes the T-rex and birds, but they’re also part of a little-understood group called Scansoriopterygidae, which are climbing and gliding dinosaurs.

It’s been posited before that scansoriopterygids could represent an interim stage before avialans, an early model of bird flight that then evolved to support more powered flying. But researchers say this was far more likely an independent attempt at flight, a “failed experimental lineage of early arboreal gliders” unconnected to the evolution of avialan flight.

“Given the large number of independent occurrences of gliding flight within crown mammals, this should perhaps be unsurprising, but it does create a more complex picture of the aerial ecosystem,” the study stated.

“We used to think of birds evolving as a linear trend from their ground-dwelling dinosaur ancestry,” Larsson said in the release.

“We can [now] revise this textbook scenario to one that had an explosive diversity of experimentation, with dinosaurs evolving powered flight several times independently from birds, many having fully feathered wings but with bodies too heavy or wings too small to have gotten off the ground, and now, a weird bat-winged group of dinosaurs that were not only the first arboreal dinosaurs, but ones that glided.”

He added that he feels like researchers are “still just scratching the surface,” of dinosaur biodiversity.

Yi, Ambopteryx and others scansoriopterygids had a short-lived existence, unable to compete with the mammalian gliders and avialan fliers that were evolving around them.

Both dinosaurs went extinct after only a few million years, according to the press release.

“Once birds got into the air, these two species were so poorly capable of being in the air that they just got squeezed out,” lead author Thomas Dececchi, an assistant professor of biology at Mount Marty University, said in the release. “Maybe you can survive a few million years underperforming, but you have predators from the top, competition from the bottom, and even some small mammals adding into that, squeezing them out until they disappeared.”

Gliding isn’t an efficient way to get around, as you have to climb to a great height first to travel any sort of distance, he explained.

“It’s not efficient, but it can be used as an escape hatch. It’s not a great thing to do, but sometimes it’s a choice between losing a bit of energy and being eaten. Once they were put under pressure, they just lost their space.

“They couldn’t win on the ground,” he said. “They couldn’t win in the air. They were done.”

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SpaceX Starship Passes Static Fire Test With Three Raptor Engines, Finally Gets Nose Cone! – Universe Today

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It’s beginning to look like SpaceX will attempt to make the 15 km (9.3 mi) hop test before Christmas! After two successful 150 m (~500 ft) hops with the SN5 and SN6 prototypes, engineers at SpaceX’s Boca Chica launch facility in South Texas rolled out the SN8 – the first Starship prototype to have three Raptor engines. But before the SN8 can conduct a high-altitude test flight, the engineers needed to run a static fire test.

This test is crucial to ensuring that the Starship‘s interior plumbing can handle its cryogenic propellants, and is the last milestone before the Starship can conduct a high-altitude flight. On the evening of Tuesday, October 20th, that’s exactly what they did! At 3:13 AM local time (01:13 AM PDT; 04:13 AM EDT), the SN8 fired up its three Raptor engines and kept firing them for several seconds straight.

Although SpaceX has not yet released a statement about the test, footage captured near the launch facility by NASA Spaceflight’s Mary McConnaughey (aka. @BocaChicaGal) would suggest that it was a success. The video of the event (posted below) shows the engine being ignited at 2h27m12s after several minutes of venting and remaining lit for several seconds.

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With this milestone achieved, the company appears ready to conduct the historic 15 km (9.3 mi) hop test. At this point, that seems likely to happen before the end of October or in early November. While the SN8 was receiving its three Raptor engines and preparing to test fire them, another team was busy assembling the nose cone in another part of the facility.

Not since the Starhopper test vehicle was in active service has a Starship prototype come with a nose cone. However, this segment was removed shortly after the Starhopper blew over in high winds in January of 2019. What remained, the single-engine lower section, went on to conduct a tethered hop test, followed by a first free-flight hop test to 20 meters (~65 ft).

In August of 2019, these tests culminated in a 150 meter (~500 ft) hop test, a feat that would not be accomplished again until a year later with the SN5 and SN7 prototype. Since then, the development of the SN8 has proceeded apace, which began with the core undergoing a series of proof tests (from Oct. 6th to Oct. 8th) to validate its stainless steel propellant tanks in preparation for its static fire test.

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What followed was the addition of the large maneuvering flaps to the core section and nose cone. The nose cone was then attached by crane to the SN8 fuselage on Thursday (Oct. 22nd), an event that was witnessed by multiple observers who took pictures and footage. Above is a time-lapse video of the stacking operation recorded by @LabPadre, which was made using their 24-hour live-coverage of the Boca Chica launch facility.

With the nose cone and flaps installed, the vehicle now looks like the finalized Starship design for the first time. With its three engines, nose cone, and maneuvering flaps integrated, the SN8 is about ready to attempt its 15 km (9.3 mi) hop test, which will include a “belly-flop” maneuver that will test its ability to glide back to its landing site using its maneuvering surfaces alone.

According to past statements by Musk, SpaceX hopes to conduct a suborbital hop test to an altitude of 200 km (~125 mi) sometime next year. For this final test, the Starship will be equipped with six Raptor engines – three optimized sea-level thrust and three optimized for the vacuum of space. The company is also busy working on the Super Heavy element of the launch system, which will have no less than 28 Raptor engines.

Further Reading: ArsTechnica

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