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NASA certifies SpaceX's Crew Dragon for astronaut flights, gives 'go' for Nov. 14 launch – Space.com

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SpaceX’s next astronaut flight for NASA is “go” for launch this weekend, agency officials announced Tuesday (Nov. 10), followed by the news that SpaceX has been certified for regular flights to and from the International Space Station.

NASA and SpaceX completed a critical flight readiness review (FRR) for the Crew-1 mission Tuesday afternoon, putting the company’s Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft on track to launch four astronauts to the International Space Station on Saturday (Nov. 14). The mission is scheduled to lift off at 7:49 p.m. EST (0049 GMT Sunday, Nov. 15) from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, weather permitting.

After the FRR, NASA completed the signing of the Human Rating Certification Plan for SpaceX’s crew transportation system, which includes Crew Dragon, Falcon 9 and their associated ground systems. This means SpaceX is now certified to regularly launch astronauts to and from the ISS for NASA. Crew Dragon will be the first NASA-certified crew spacecraft to launch since the space shuttle program ended in 2011.

“This is a big day,” NASA’s human spaceflight chief Kathy Lueders said in a news conference after the FRR. “But the next few days are going to be big days, too, and we’re going to have to be stepping carefully through our final readiness for the flight. This thorough review today and everyone’s approval to move forward was a great first step towards flight.”

Video: SpaceX crew transport system certified by NASA
In photos: SpaceX’s Crew-1 mission to the International Space Station

NASA and SpaceX officials participate in a flight readiness review for the SpaceX Crew-1 mission at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, on Nov. 9, 2020.  (Image credit: Kim Shiflett/NASA)

Crew-1 will not only be the first mission to launch astronauts on a NASA-certified, commercial spacecraft; it’s also the first time the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued a launch license for a crewed space mission. 

“So we in the FAA look forward to this historic event,” Randy Repcheck, the FAA’s acting director of operational safety, said in the news conference. “We’ve licensed suborbital launches with flight crew, but not not orbital launches, and certainly none with NASA.”

Launching on board the Crew Dragon spacecraft will be NASA astronauts Victor Glover, Mike Hopkins and Shannon Walker and Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Soichi Noguchi. The four-person crew will spend about 8.5 hours flying to the International Space Station (ISS), where they will spend the next six months as members of the Expedition 64 crew.

The Crew-1 astronauts, including NASA astronauts Shannon Walker, Victor Glover and Michael Hopkins and JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi, pose in front of their Dragon capsule, “Resilience,” at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California.  (Image credit: SpaceX)

Although the Crew-1 mission will be the first operational flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, it’s not the first time astronauts have flown on a Crew Dragon. The first Crew Dragon passengers were NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, who spent about two months at the ISS earlier this year as part of the Crew Dragon Demo-2 test flight. 

Starting with the Crew-1 mission, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon will be making regular trips to and from the ISS, providing an alternative to the Russian Soyuz spacecraft that has transported NASA astronauts for the last decade. (NASA has also contracted Boeing to fly astronauts to the ISS on its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, which has not yet successfully completed a demonstration mission and is scheduled to take a second stab at an uncrewed test flight in 2021.)

“For the next 15 months, we will fly seven crew and cargo Dragon missions for NASA. That means that, starting with Crew-1, there will be a continuous presence of SpaceX Dragons on orbit,” Benji Reed, senior director of human spaceflight at SpaceX, said in the post-FRR news conference. “And starting with the cargo mission CRS-21, every time we launch a Dragon, there will be two Dragons in space simultaneously for extended periods of time.”

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Falcon 9 rocket are pictured in the hangar at Launch Complex 39A, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, ahead of the planned launch of the Crew-1 mission to the International Space Station. (Image credit: SpaceX/Twitter)

“We are honored to be the nation’s launch provider for crew missions and take seriously the responsibility that NASA has entrusted to us to carry American astronauts to and from the space station,” Reed added. “Honestly, we couldn’t be more proud of what we’ve already accomplished together.” 

Email Hanneke Weitering at hweitering@space.com or follow her on Twitter @hannekescience. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Earth is 2000 light years closer to supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy than we thought – CTV News

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A new map of the Milky Way by Japanese space experts has put Earth 2,000 light years closer to the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy.

This map has suggested that the center of the Milky Way, and the black hole which sits there, is located 25,800 light-years from Earth. This is closer than the official value of 27,700 light-years adopted by the International Astronomical Union in 1985, the National Observatory of Japan said.

What’s more, according to the map, our solar system is traveling at 227 kilometers per second as it orbits around the galactic center — this is faster than the official value of 220 kilometers per second, the release added.

These updated values are a result of more than 15 years of observations by the Japanese radio astronomy project VERA, according to an announcement released Thursday from the National Observatory of Japan. VERA is short for VLBI Exploration of Radio Astrometry and refers to the mission’s array of telescopes, which use Very Long Baseline Interferometry to explore the three-dimensional structure of the Milky Way.

Because the Earth is located inside the Milky Way, it’s difficult to step back and see what the galaxy looks like. To get around this, the project used astrometry, the accurate measurement of the position and motion of objects, to understand the overall structure of the Milky Way and Earth’s place in it.

The black hole is known as Sagittarius A* or Sgr A* and is 4.2 million times more massive than our sun. The supermassive hole and its enormous gravitational field governs the orbits of stars at the center of the Milky Way. Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez earned the 2020 Nobel prize for physics for its discovery. There are several types of black holes, and scientists believe the supermassive ones may be connected to the formation of galaxies, as they often exist at the center of the massive star systems — but it’s still not clear exactly how, or which form first.

MORE PRECISE APPROACH

In August, VERA published its first catalog, containing data for 99 celestial objects. Based on this catalog and recent observations by other groups, astronomers constructed a position and velocity map. From this map, the scientists were able to calculate the center of the galaxy, the point that everything revolves around.

VERA combines data from four radio telescopes across Japan. The observatory said that, when combined, the telescopes were able to achieve a resolution that in theory would allow the astronomers to spot a United States penny placed on the surface of the Moon.

To be clear, the changes don’t mean Earth is plunging toward the black hole, the observatory said. Rather, the map more accurately identifies where the solar system has been all along.

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Russia hails launch of China’s lunar probe – TASS

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MOSCOW, November 24. /TASS/. Moscow welcomes China’s achievements in space exploration and regards this field as very promising for bilateral cooperation, Russian presidential spokesman, Dmitry Peskov said about China’s launch of the moon sample return mission, which will for the first time in the history of China’s space exploration bring samples of lunar soil and rock to the Earth.

“Naturally, we welcome the achievements of our allies – our Chinese colleagues – in the field of space exploration,” the Kremlin official said. “Cooperation in space exploration is one of the areas that has the broadest potential for bilateral interaction.”

The China National Space Administration (CNSA) on Tuesday launched a moon sample return mission Chang’e, which will bring lunar soil and rock samples to the Earth.

It is expected that the project will become a landmark event in China’s lunar program as it will put the correctness of Beijing’s lunar exploration strategy to test. Also, it will provide valuable information that will give a boost to Chinese space technologies.

Peskov said nothing about Russia’s plans for sending a mission to Mars. “The program was discussed, but as far as the details of and outlook for its implementation are concerned, Roscosmos will provide the necessary explanations,” he said.

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Study finds Neanderthals may have used their hands differently from humans – CTV News

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If you were to greet a Neanderthal with a handshake, it might feel a little awkward.

The digits of the Stone Age people, who went extinct about 40,000 years ago, were much chunkier than ours. What’s more, a Neanderthal’s thumb would have stuck out from his hand at a much wider angle.

“If you were to shake a Neanderthal hand you would notice this difference,” said Ameline Bardo, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Kent’s School of Anthropology and Conservation in the United Kingdom.

“There would be confusion over where to place the thumb, and for a thumb fight I think you would win in terms of speed and movement!” she said via email.

The Neanderthals did use their hands differently from us, a new study published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports has suggested. Our archaic relatives, lead study author Bardo said, would have been more at ease with “squeeze grips” — the grip we use when we hold tools with handles like a hammer.

To find out how Neanderthals used their hands, Bardo and her colleagues had what they said was a unique approach.

Other studies have quantified how shapes in thumb bones vary in Neanderthals and modern humans, as well as other fossil human relatives. Most research to date, however, has only looked at the bones in isolation — until now.

ANALYSIS OF JOINT MOVEMENT

The researchers used 3D mapping to analyze the joints between the bones responsible for movement of the thumb — referred to as “the trapeziometacarpal complex” — of the remains of five Neanderthal individuals. The scientists then compared the results to measurements taken from the remains of five early modern humans and 50 recent modern adults.

“Our study is novel in looking at how the variation in the shapes and orientations of the different bones and joints relate to each altogether,” she said.

“Movement and loading of the thumb is only possible by these bones, as well as the ligaments and muscles, working together so they need to be studied together,” she said.

While their meatier hands perhaps suggest a lack of dexterity, Neanderthals were definitely able to use a precision grip — like we would hold a pencil, Bardo said.

“The joint at the base of the thumb of the Neanderthal fossils is flatter with a smaller contact surface between the bones, which is better suited to an extended thumb positioned alongside the side of the hand,” she explained. “This thumb posture suggests the regular use of power ‘squeeze’ grips.”

By contrast, human thumbs have joint surfaces that are generally larger and more curved, “which is an advantage when gripping objects between the pads of the finger and thumb, a precision grip,” she said.

Neanderthals made specialized tools, painted caves, threaded seashells to wear as jewelry and made yarn — but they may have found precision grips “more challenging” than we do, Bardo said.

The powerful squeeze grip would have helped Neanderthals grasp spears while hunting and use stone scrapers or knives to work wood or animals skins. It might have been harder for Homo neanderthalensis, though, to use strong precision grips such as using flakes of stone between the pads of the finger and thumb to cut meat, Bardo said.

However, she noted that there is a big variation among modern humans when it comes to dexterity — and that could also have existed among Neanderthals.

Neanderthals walked the Earth for a period of about 350,000 years before they disappeared, living in what’s now Europe and parts of Asia. It’s thought they overlapped with modern humans geographically for a period of more than 30,000 years after humans migrated out of Africa.

“Their hand anatomy and the archaeological record makes abundantly clear that Neanderthals were very intelligent, sophisticated tool users and used many of the same tools that contemporary modern humans did,” Bardo said.

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