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NASA launches test mission of asteroid-deflecting spacecraft

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A spacecraft that must ultimately crash to succeed was launched late on Tuesday from California on a NASA mission to demonstrate the world’s first planetary defense system, designed to deflect an asteroid from a potential doomsday collision with Earth.

The DART spacecraft soared into the night sky at 10:21 p.m. Pacific time on Tuesday (1:21 a.m. Eastern/0621 GMT Wednesday) from Vandenberg U.S. Space Force Base, about 150 miles northwest of Los Angeles, carried aboard a SpaceX-owned Falcon 9 rocket.

The launch was shown live on NASA TV.

The DART payload, about the size of a vending machine, was released from the booster a few minutes after launch to begin a 10-month journey into space, some 6.8 million miles (11 million km) from Earth.

Moments later the rocket’s reusable lower stage flew back to Earth and safely touched down on a landing vessel floating in the Pacific in what has become a routine part of the cost-cutting launch sequence pioneered by SpaceX.

DART will fly under the guidance of NASA’s flight directors until the last hours of its odyssey, when control will be handed over to an autonomous on-board navigation system.

The mission’s finale will test spacecraft’s ability to alter an asteroid’s trajectory with sheer kinetic force, plowing into it at high speed to nudge the space boulder off course just enough to keep our planet out of harm’s way.

Cameras mounted on the impactor and on a briefcase-sized mini-spacecraft to be released from DART about 10 days beforehand will record the collision and beam images of it back to Earth.

The asteroid that DART is aiming for poses no actual threat and is tiny compared with the cataclysmic Chicxulub asteroid that struck Earth some 66 million years ago, leading to extinction of the dinosaurs. But scientists say smaller asteroids are far more common and of greater theoretical concern in the near term.

DART’s target is an asteroid “moonlet” the size of a football stadium that orbits a chunk of rock five times larger in a binary asteroid system named Didymos, the Greek word for twin.

The team behind DART, short for Double Asteroid Redirection Test, chose the Didymos system because its relative proximity to Earth and dual-asteroid configuration make it ideal for observing the results of the impact.

BUMPING ASTEROID MOONLET

The plan is to fly the DART spacecraft directly into the moonlet, called Dimorphos, at 15,000 miles per hour (24,000 kph), bumping it hard enough to shift its orbital track around the larger asteroid.

Cameras on the impactor and on a briefcase-sized mini-spacecraft released from DART about 10 days beforehand will record the collision and beam images back to Earth. Ground-based telescopes will measure how much the moonlet’s orbit around Didymos changes.

The DART team expects to shorten Dimorphos’ orbital track by 10 minutes but would consider at least 73 seconds a success. A small nudge to an asteroid millions of miles away would be sufficient to safely reroute it.

DART is the latest of several NASA missions of recent years to explore and interact with asteroids, primordial rocky remnants from the solar system’s formation 4.6 billion years ago.

Last month, NASA launched a probe on a voyage to the Trojan asteroid clusters orbiting near Jupiter, while the grab-and-go spacecraft OSIRES-REx is on its way back to Earth with a sample collected last October from the asteroid Bennu.

The Dimorphos moonlet is one of the smallest astronomical objects to receive a permanent name and is one of 27,500 known near-Earth asteroids of all sizes tracked by NASA.

Although all none poses a foreseeable hazard to humankind, NASA estimates many more asteroids remain undetected in the near-Earth vicinity.

The DART spacecraft, cube-shaped with two rectangular solar arrays, is due to rendezvous with the Didymos-Dimorphos pair in late September 2022.

NASA put the entire cost of the DART project at $330 million, well below that of many of the space agency’s most ambitious science missions.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; editing by Gerry Doyle)

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SpaceX Tapped For 3 More Possible Commercial Crew Flights To Space – Forbes

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SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is just going to get busier shuttling astronauts in the coming years.

NASA announced it intends to issue a sole-source modification to SpaceX’s long-term contract to send astronauts to the International Space Station. This follows an agency call for proposals back in October for more flight options to send people to space.

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, which is the other major system, is not quite yet ready for humans following a difficult uncrewed test flight in 2019 that never saw the spacecraft reach the ISS. Starliner has spent some time fixing computer glitches and other issues (including a valve problem that delayed an expected 2021 launch) and is now expecting a second uncrewed test flight by 2022.

The October solicitation, NASA noted, confirms SpaceX is the only viable choice for the time being, given the agency’s safety requirements and the need to keep the space station staffed continuously in the coming years.

“It’s critical we begin to secure additional flights to the space station now so we are ready as these missions are needed to maintain a U.S. presence on station,” Kathy Lueders, associate administrator of NASA’s space 0perations mission directorate, said in a blog post. “Our U.S. human launch capability is essential to our continued safe operations in orbit and to building our low-Earth orbit economy.”

NASA stated it would use these new flights “as early as 2023”, and that the contract (in securing flights and allowing the agency to task personnel elsewhere) will help them get Boeing’s Starliner system ready to fly astronauts once it’s been certified.

“NASA and Boeing will provide additional updates on the status of Starliner’s next mission as we work through the investigation and verification efforts to determine root cause and effective vehicle remediation,” said Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight at NASA, in the same statement.

The latest issue holding up the flight was an oxidizer isolation valve that was found in August, and NASA and Boeing together elected to pull the spacecraft back to the hanger to figure out how to fix the issue before sending the spacecraft aloft.

Another pressing issue for NASA’s future will be extending the planned retirement of the ISS from 2024 to at least 2028, which the agency has said for years it wants to do. It is in negotiations with Congress and with its international partners to do this, and in the meantime, last week the agency also announced it has secured three early-stage contracts for future private space stations to fly late in the 2020s.

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See what food challenges astronauts face in space – CGTN America

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For the first time ever, NASA and the Canadian Space Agency hosted the Deep Space Food Challenge. 

The competition brought universities and companies together to propose solutions on how to feed astronauts on a long mission. Last month, NASA announced that the winners and one of the international winners of the Phase 1 competition came from a group of students in a university in South America. 

CGTN’s Michelle Begue reports Colombia.

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Deaf researchers are advancing the field of science — but barriers still hold many back – CBC.ca

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In a scrubby patch of forest near Halifax, Saint Mary’s University professor Linda Campbell and her master’s student, Michael Smith, squelch through mud, looking for lichens. The lichens they’re after can be used as natural biological monitors of pollutants from former gold-mining sites, like this one. 

Smith lifts one piece from a branch. It’s usnea, or beard lichen, which the researchers can use to assess levels of arsenic and mercury in the air. That’s because it absorbs nutrients — and pollutants, if they’re present — from the atmosphere rather than through roots.

Campbell notes that there were once industrial devices used to crush gold-bearing ore at the site where this lichen is now growing. The lichen is absorbing mercury initially released from the ore many years ago, that is still percolating out into the environment. “What took place 100 years ago is still being reflected in the lichen,” she said.

Campbell is a freshwater ecologist — one of a handful of experts in Canada who’s studied how contaminants move through ecosystems, and how to deal with them.

But she’s also part of another minority. Campbell is Deaf, and uses American Sign Language, or ASL, making her part of a group that continues to be underrepresented in science.

WATCH | ASL interpretation of Quirks & Quarks’ Deaf in science: Beyond the range of hearing documentary:

Deaf in science: Beyond the range of hearing [ASL]

5 days ago

American Sign Language interpretation of Deaf in science: Beyond the range of hearing , a radio documentary from Quirks & Quarks about the underrepresentation of deaf researchers in science, and how they’re bringing their unique perspective to the lab and the field. 20:39

Transcript of Quirks & Quarks’ Deaf in science: Beyond the range of hearing documentary

A report from earlier this year by the Royal Society in the U.K., for instance, noted that while about one per cent of the population is deaf, the percentage of STEM undergraduates in that country who are deaf has stagnated at just 0.3 per cent for the past decade. And, a 2017 U.S. study by the National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes found that, overall, Deaf people obtain lower levels of education than their hearing peers.

In Canada, there is little formal data, but, anecdotally, Campbell knows of only five other deaf STEM university faculty members.

Campbell attributes the underrepresentation to barriers erected by attitudes among hearing people. 

“When science looks at that as an added cost, and added labour, to include people with disabilities, they’re not recognizing the differences and the successes that can be brought — that diverse thinking can be successful.” 

Barriers rooted in education

Alex Lu recently graduated with a PhD in computer science from the University of Toronto, where he studied Artificial Intelligence, or AI. Lu is Deaf, and uses sign language and lip reading, as well as his own voice.

Growing up, Lu says he always felt comfortable as a Deaf person, but found that hard to reconcile with the attitudes he encountered in his university education. He found people were used to teaching and learning science a certain way — which didn’t always involve working with Deaf people or ASL interpreters.

“I think I’m the first Deaf person in my program. So there was a whole bunch of confusion about how you get ASL interpreters and how they work in classes. There were a lot of professors that had never interacted with an ASL interpreter, or a student that uses an ASL interpreter,” he said.

AI researcher Alex Lu, who is deaf, said that he faced obstacles in his PhD studies at the University of Toronto due to the complications of getting ASL interpreters and instructors who were inexperienced in interacting with deaf students. (Submitted by Alex Lu)

“And then when you start looking into that, you start realizing, well, here are all of the barriers in the way that we’ve been educating deaf people.”

Some of those barriers can be traced back to the fact that, from the late 19th century to the early 1960s, sign language was often forbidden in education, as people believed it prevented Deaf children from learning speech. 

ASL often not built for science

Today, there are few Deaf researchers working in academia, which has led to a problem: much of the technical and specialized language used in STEM hasn’t made its way into signed languages such as ASL.

When there are no signs, interpreters may use fingerspelling — spelling out each letter of a word — or the sign for the word in general English, which can be inaccurate.

Colin Lualdi, a fourth year PhD student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, studies photonic quantum information. He said the lack of useful signs can be frustrating and tedious for deaf students, and can produce misunderstandings.

One example was the term “degeneracy,” which he encountered as an undergrad. His ASL interpreter signed using the English word meaning to get worse over time. In fact, in physics this actually refers to two systems with the same amount of energy.

WATCH | Physicist Colin Lualdi defines the physics concept of ‘spin’ in ASL:

[embedded content]

“And by that time, I realized we needed a new sign for it, in order to support the concepts that were being communicated,” he said.

Since then, Lualdi has joined a collaboration between Harvard University and the Learning Center for the Deaf to create signs for terms in quantum science. One of the signs the team has worked on is for electron; the current sign has an index finger circling a closed fist, representing a nucleus.

“It implies that you have an electron always circling a nucleus, right? But that’s not always true,” he said.

Instead, Lualdi and other project members have proposed a sign with just the index finger moving in a circle. 

WATCH | Physicist David Spiecker demonstrates the proposed new ASL sign for the electron:

[embedded content]

They’re now in the process of disseminating this sign and others, as well as syntax the project has been working on to improve communication of physics concepts, to see if they’ll be adopted by the broader community.

Either way, Lualdi says they’ve already made his own work as a scientist easier.

“Everyone wins when we have an improved framework of language and, and the process becomes much more efficient.” 

Bringing a unique perspective to fieldwork

Outside of physics labs, being Deaf in science can present its own challenges and opportunities, as it did for Barbara Spiecker. She came to love fieldwork while pursuing her masters degree in marine biology.

Spiecker, who is now doing a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said her experience as a Deaf scientist, and a user of ASL, have honed her powers of observation, and provided her with a different lens to view the natural world. 

During her PhD fieldwork, marine biologist Barbara Spiecker said her advisor was concerned that because she was deaf, it would be unsafe for to work in wet and slippery intertidal beaches. (Submitted by Barbara Spiecker)

“It’s very 3D based, a lot of what I do, and ASL is a 3D language. So often hearing people, when they research, have a different frame of how they see and interpret the world, and what they research. So, that’s what I bring to the table,” Spiecker said.

But Spiecker says being Deaf hasn’t always been seen as a strength. For the first two years of her PhD program, she was not provided an interpreter, which meant she missed out on learning opportunities. Spiecker says she had to fight hard to not have the cost of the interpreter pushed on her lab, which would have cut into their research budget and discouraged them from hiring Deaf students.

“That was quite the battle — if that was allowed, then I wouldn’t have got my PhD.”

In fieldwork, too, she encountered attitudes that could present obstacles. At one point, her work involved extended time on the seaweed carpet of the potentially treacherous intertidal zone. Advisors and potential employers expressed doubt she could be safe in the water.

“I [was] like, ‘there’s really no difference, you probably aren’t relying on your hearing at that point, either.’ My eyes are very vigilant in these situations,” she said.”It just took a little education and explanation, to help them realize there’s really no difference.”

The value of different perspectives

But Alex Lu says there is a difference in once important way — in that Deaf scientists, by virtue of their life experiences, contribute different perspectives.

“The value of having disabled people in science, and marginalized people in science isn’t that you just want to get people who are uniformly going to be superheroes or anything like that,” he says. Instead, he says what’s important is that “we contribute perspectives that are different from mainstream science.”

Back at the former gold mining site, Linda Campbell says science is strengthened by having more people contributing diverse perspectives, such as the issues she works on, challenging legacy contaminants affecting ecosystems.

Beard lichen has no roots and absorbs nutrients from the atmosphere. Since it also will absorb airborne pollutants, ecologist Linda Campbell studies it to determine whether old industrial sites are continuing to emit toxins into the atmosphere. (Moira Donovan/CBC News)

“We’re building many lines of evidence for the research and the potential risks of the tailings and how to manage those risks,” she said. When barriers prevent Deaf scientists from contributing to these kinds of challenges, she said, “you’re losing that whole group of people who have such intense, powerful skills that can advance the field of science.”

And the fact that some Deaf scientists have managed to work and advocate their way into positions working on environmental issues and other aspects of STEM doesn’t mean that the barriers have been removed — instead, she said it should be seen as inspiration for work that is still to come.

“There are many, many more people that could be successful and could contribute to science and make the planet a more healthy place. But they just can’t, because of those very barriers imposed on them,” she said.

“‘If they can do it, you can do it’ — that’s not it. It’s more that ‘they could do it, so we can find a way for you to do it, too.'”

Written and produced by Moira Donovan

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