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NASA left its $50 billion moon rocket exposed to Hurricane Nicole’s powerful winds

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The SLS rocket stands at Launch Pad 39B, on November 11, 2022, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.NASA/Joel Kowsky
  • NASA left its Space Launch System (SLS) rocket on the launchpad during Hurricane Nicole.
  • The rocket sustained minor damage, and NASA still plans to launch it for the first time  Wednesday.
  • It’s risky to leave a rocket unsheltered on the Florida coast during a hurricane.

NASA left its prized new moon rocket exposed on its Florida launchpad as Hurricane Nicole battered the state with powerful winds.

The Space Launch System, or SLS, is 17 years — and an estimated $50 billion — in the making. NASA designed it to return astronauts to the moon for the first time since 1972 and to build a new permanent base on the lunar surface.

SLS hasn’t flown yet. It has suffered setbacks all year from technical issues to weather, and now its launch is delayed again — from Monday, November 14, to Wednesday, November 16 — as NASA addresses “minor damage” from the hurricane.

One of the engine’s rain covers was torn, an umbilical cord between the rocket and its Orion spacecraft came out of place, and some sealant was damaged around the spacecraft.

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orion spaceship with pointy top hanging in tall industrial buildingorion spaceship with pointy top hanging in tall industrial building
The Orion spaceship is lowered on top of SLS in the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on October 20, 2021.NASA/Frank Michaux

“Right now, there’s nothing preventing us from getting to the 16th,” Jim Free, an associate administrator at NASA, said during a briefing on Friday.

But it’s unusual for NASA to leave such a valuable rocket out on the launchpad in the middle of a hurricane. There was no guarantee that winds or flooding wouldn’t exceed the rocket’s design limits. AccuWeather meteorologists warned ahead of the storm that there was a 60% chance windspeeds would exceed those limits.

“This entire situation raises serious questions about NASA’s procedures for weather risk mitigation and preparation based upon available forecasts,” Jonathan Porter, a senior meteorologist at AccuWeather, said in a statement.

NASA rolled the rocket out with a storm on the horizon

satellite image tropical storm nicole west of floridasatellite image tropical storm nicole west of florida
Satellite imagery shows Tropical Storm Nicole on November 10, 2022.NOAA GOES-East

NASA rolled the rocket from its sheltered vehicle assembly building (VAB) to the launchpad on November 4, as the cyclone formed in the Atlantic Ocean. At the time, forecasts didn’t show the storm getting strong enough to exceed NASA’s safety constraints for the rocket.

“I think if we knew on the night before we were rolling out that it was going to be a hurricane, we probably would have stayed in the VAB,” Free said.

As Nicole closed in, forecasts looked worse. But it takes several days to plan and execute a roll back to the VAB. By then, winds would be too strong to safely spend nine hours rolling the rocket back to the building. That’s already a stress on the rocket’s hardware. Add powerful winds, and NASA risks serious damage.

“We could not make it back to the VAB and be safe,” Free said.

As it made landfall on Thursday, Nicole slammed SLS with powerful winds. Meters registered wind gusts of up to 100 mph near the top of the launchpad. None of this exceeded the rocket’s design limits, according to Free.

people walk down damaged beach boardwalk after hurricane nicolepeople walk down damaged beach boardwalk after hurricane nicole
People walk by a closed down damaged boardwalk following the passage of Hurricane Nicole in Vero Beach, Florida, November 10, 2022.Ricardo Arduengo/Reuters

“It is important to point out that the force of the wind increases exponentially, not linearly, so small increases in wind can result in substantial increases in damage potential,” Porter said.

Free said NASA officials spent hours assessing and discussing the risks of leaving the rocket on the launchpad, versus rolling it back to the VAB. Ultimately, it seems the risk paid off.

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An asteroid will whip by Earth tomorrow in one of closest approaches ever recorded

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An asteroid the size of a delivery truck will whip past Earth on Thursday night, one of the closest such encounters ever recorded.

NASA insists it will be a near miss with no chance of the asteroid hitting Earth.

The U.S. space agency said Wednesday that this newly discovered asteroid will zoom 3,600 kilometres above the southern tip of South America. That’s 10 times closer than the bevy of communication satellites circling overhead.

The closest approach will occur at 7:27 p.m. ET.

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Even if the space rock came a lot closer, scientists said most of it would burn up in the atmosphere, with some of the bigger pieces possibly falling as meteorites.

NASA’s impact hazard assessment system, called Scout, quickly ruled out a strike, said its developer, Davide Farnocchia, an engineer at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

“But despite the very few observations, it was nonetheless able to predict that the asteroid would make an extraordinarily close approach with Earth,” Farnocchia said in a statement.

“In fact, this is one of the closest approaches by a known near-Earth object ever recorded.”

Asteroid spotted by amateur astronomer in Crimea

Discovered Saturday, the asteroid known as 2023 BU is believed to be 3.5 to 8.5 metres across.

It was first spotted by Gennady Borisov, the same amateur astronomer in Crimea who discovered an interstellar comet in 2019.

Within a few days, dozens of observations were made by astronomers around the world, allowing them to refine the asteroid’s orbit.

The asteroid’s path will be drastically altered by Earth’s gravity once it zips by. Instead of circling the sun every 359 days, it will move into an oval orbit lasting 425 days, according to NASA.

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Nuclear-powered spaceships? U.S. plans for 2027

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WASHINGTON –

The United States plans to test a spacecraft engine powered by nuclear fission by 2027 as part of a long-term NASA effort to demonstrate more efficient methods of propelling astronauts to Mars in the future, the space agency’s chief said on Tuesday.

NASA will partner with the U.S. military’s research and development agency, DARPA, to develop a nuclear thermal propulsion engine and launch it to space “as soon as 2027,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson said during a conference in National Harbor, Maryland.

The U.S. space agency has studied for decades the concept of nuclear thermal propulsion, which introduces heat from a nuclear fission reactor to a hydrogen propellant in order to provide a thrust believed to be far more efficient than traditional chemical-based rocket engines.

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NASA officials view nuclear thermal propulsion as crucial for sending humans beyond the moon and deeper into space. A trip to Mars from Earth using the technology could take roughly four months instead of some nine months with a conventional, chemically powered engine, engineers say.

That would substantially reduce the time astronauts would be exposed to deep-space radiation and would also require fewer supplies, such as food and other cargo, during a trip to Mars.

“If we have swifter trips for humans, they are safer trips,” NASA deputy administrator and former astronaut Pam Melroy said Tuesday.

The planned 2027 demonstration, part of an existing DARPA research program that NASA is now joining, could also inform the ambitions of the U.S. Space Force, which has envisioned deploying nuclear reactor-powered spacecraft capable of moving other satellites orbiting near the moon, DARPA and NASA officials said.

DARPA in 2021 awarded funds to General Atomics, Lockheed Martin and Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin to study designs of nuclear reactors and spacecraft. By around March, the agency will pick a company to build the nuclear spacecraft for the 2027 demonstration, the program’s manager Tabitha Dodson said in an interview.

The joint NASA-DARPA effort’s budget is US$110 million for fiscal year 2023 and is expected to be hundreds of millions of dollars more through 2027.

Reporting by Joey Roulette; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and David Gregorio

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The green comet ZTF returns to the solar system 50,000 years later… and it will be visible from Earth

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For astronomy enthusiasts, February 1 is marked in red on their calendars. The reason: it is not every day that there is a chance to see a green comet.

In fact, it is the first time in 50,000 years that C/2022 ZTF will return to the solar system. And it will be early next month when it will reach its closest position to Earth.

Specifically, the green comet ZTF will pass 42 million light years from our planet. Experts are not 100 percent sure whether it will be visible from the surface without the use of any instrument. However, if we have specific astronomy binoculars or telescopes, we will be able to see it without any problem.

As usually happens in these cases, the best places to observe the comet, this one or any other, are places with little artificial light. That is to say, we should move away from urban centres and it is preferable to do so in the hours before dawn.

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Un cometa brillante, visto desde California.Getty

Why is comet ZTF green?

Comet ZTF has a brightness and a colour that, although not unique, is clearly distinctive. Its hue is due to the fact that it is composed, among other materials, of diatomic carbon.

When it comes into contact with sunlight, the decomposition of this element causes the gas to acquire this spectacular colour.

Comet ZTF was discovered in March 2022

Un telescopio apunta al cielo.
Un telescopio apunta al cielo.Getty

Frank Masci and Bryce Bolin of the Palomar Observatory in California were responsible for spotting the striking comet ZTF in the sky. It is so named because its discovery is part of the Zwicky Transient Facility surveillance programme, which uses the powerful Schmidt telescope at the facility.

Initially, the scientists responsible for the discovery thought it was an asteroid, but they quickly realised that this was not the case. Despite the striking colour of this comet, experts advise keeping expectations low. In any case, it is an event that has aroused great interest in the community.

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