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NASA-SpaceX crew splashes down after return from International Space Station

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Four astronauts strapped inside a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule splashed down safely in the Gulf of Mexico off the Florida coast on Monday, capping a six-month NASA science mission aboard the International Space Station and a daylong flight home.

The Dragon vehicle, dubbed Endeavour, parachuted into the sea as planned just after 10:30 p.m. EST on Monday (0330 GMT Tuesday), following a fiery re-entry descent through Earth’s atmosphere carried live by a NASA webcast.

Live thermal video imaging captured a glimpse of the capsule streaking like a meteor through the night sky over the Gulf minutes before splashdown.

Applause was heard from the flight control center as the four main parachutes inflated above the capsule as it drifted down toward the Gulf surface, slowing its speed to about 15 miles per hour (24 kph) before dropping gently into the calm sea.

“Endeavour, on behalf of SpaceX, welcome home to planet Earth,” a voice from the SpaceX flight control center in suburban Los Angeles was heard telling the crew as a safe splashdown was confirmed.

“It’s great to be back,” one of the astronauts radioed in reply.

Operating autonomously, the spacecraft began its eight-hour return voyage earlier in the day with a 90-minute fly-around of the space station as the crew snapped a series of survey photographs of the orbiting outpost, circling the globe some 250 miles (400 km) high.

The Crew Dragon then proceeded through a series of maneuvers over the course of the day to bring it closer to Earth and line up the capsule for its final nighttime descent.

INTENSE RE-ENTRY HEAT

Propelled by one last ignition of its forward rocket thrusters for a “de-orbit burn,” the capsule re-entered the atmosphere at about 17,000 miles per hour (27,359 kph) for a free-fall toward the ocean below, during which crew communications were lost for several minutes.

Intense friction generated as the capsule plunges through the atmosphere sends temperatures surrounding the outside of the vehicle soaring to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,927 degrees Celsius). The re-entry friction also slows the capsule’s descent before parachutes are deployed.

The astronauts’ flight suits are designed to keep them cool if the cabin warms up, while a heat shield protects the capsule from incinerating on re-entry.

Recovery vessels were shown headed toward the water-proof Crew Dragon as it bobbed upright in the water. The astronauts and their capsule were expected to be hoisted out of the sea within about an hour, NASA said.

The crew, which spent 199 days in space during this mission, was made up of two NASA astronauts – mission commander Shane Kimbrough, 54, and pilot Megan McArthur, 50 – along with Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, 52, and fellow mission specialist Thomas Pesquet, 43, a French engineer from the European Space Agency.

They were lofted to orbit atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that lifted off on April 23 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

It was the third crew launched into orbit under NASA’s fledgling public-private partnership with SpaceX, the rocket company formed in 2002 by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, who also founded electric car maker Tesla Inc.

The returning team was designated “Crew 2” because it marks the second “operational” space station team that NASA has launched aboard a SpaceX capsule since resuming human spaceflights from American soil last year, after a nine-year hiatus at the end of the U.S. space shuttle program in 2011.

The replacement team, “Crew 3,” was originally slated to fly to the space station at the end of October, but that launch has been delayed by weather problems and an unspecified medical issue involving one of the four crew members.

One irregularity confronting the returning Crew 2 was a plumbing leak aboard the capsule that put the spacecraft’s toilet out of order, requiring the astronauts to relieve themselves in their spacesuit undergarments if nature called during the flight home, according to NASA.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Richard Chang, Peter Cooney and Ana Nicolaci da Costa)

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Citing debris risk, NASA delays spacewalk to fix space station antenna – Financial Post

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A spacewalk planned for Tuesday to repair a faulty antenna on the International Space Station was postponed indefinitely, NASA said, citing a “debris notification” it received for the orbiting research laboratory.

Two U.S. astronauts had been scheduled to venture outside the space station at 7:10 a.m. Eastern time (1210 GMT) to begin their work, facing what NASA officials had called a slightly elevated risk posed by debris from a Russian anti-satellite missile test this month.

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But about five hours before the outing was to have commenced, NASA said on Twitter that the spacewalk had been called off for the time being.

“NASA received a debris notification for the space station. Due to the lack of opportunity to properly assess the risk it could pose to the astronauts, teams have decided to delay the Nov. 30 spacewalk until more information is available,” the space agency tweeted.

It was not made clear how close debris had come to the space station, orbiting about 250 miles (402 km) above the Earth, or whether it was related to the Russian missile test.

NASA TV had planned to provide live coverage of the 6-1/2-hour “extravehicular activity,” or EVA, operation by astronauts Thomas Marshburn and Kayla Brown. The outing would be the fifth spacewalk for Marshburn, 61, a medical doctor and former flight surgeon with two previous trips to orbit, and the first for Barron, 34, a U.S. Navy submarine officer and nuclear engineer on her debut spaceflight for NASA.

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The objective is to remove a faulty S-band radio communications antenna assembly, now more than 20 years old, and replace it with a new spare stowed outside the space station.

According to plans, Marshburn was to have worked with Barron while positioned at the end of a robotic arm operated from inside the station by German astronaut Matthias Maurer of the European Space Agency, with help from NASA crewmate Raja Chari.

The four arrived at the space station Nov. 11 in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, joining two Russian cosmonauts and a NASA astronaut already aboard the orbiting outpost.

Four days later, an anti-satellite missile test conducted without warning by Russia generated a debris field in low-Earth orbit, and all seven crew members took shelter in their docked spaceships to allow for a quick getaway until the immediate danger passed, according to NASA.

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The residual debris cloud from the blasted satellite has dispersed since then, according to Dana Weigel, NASA deputy manager of the International Space Station (ISS) program.

But NASA calculates that remaining fragments continued to pose a “slightly elevated” background risk to the space station as a whole, and a 7% higher risk of spacewalkers’ suits being punctured, as compared to before Russia’s missile test, Weigel told reporters on Monday.

Although NASA has yet to fully quantify additional hazards posed by more than 1,700 larger fragments it is tracking around the station’s orbit, the 7% higher risk to spacewalkers falls “well within” fluctuations previously seen in “the natural environment,” Weigel said.

Still, mission managers canceled several smaller maintenance tasks under consideration for Tuesday’s spacewalk, Weigel added. (By Steve Gorman. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

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A new approach to flagship space telescopes – The Space Review

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The astrophysics decadal survey recommended a scaled-down version of a space telescope concept called LUVOIR as the first in a line of flagship space observatories to be developed over the next few decades. (credit: NASA/GSFC)

For much of this year, the biggest puzzle for astrophysicists had nothing to do with dark matter, dark energy, or discrepancies in the value of the Hubble Constant. Instead, the question at the top of their minds was: when was Astro2020 coming out?

Astro2020 was the shorthand for the latest astrophysics decadal survey, the once-a-decade review of the state of the field and recommendations for both ground- and space-based projects to pursue to answer the top scientific questions. The final report by the decadal survey’s steering committee, once expected in late 2020 as the name suggests, had slipped to some time in 2021 because of the pandemic, which forced a shift from in-person to virtual meetings just as work on the survey was going into high gear.

The decision to pick a concept between LUVOIR and HabEx was driven by science and budgets: big enough to do meet key science objectives like characterizing exoplanets, but also small enough to fit into a reasonable cost and schedule.

The committee itself kept quiet about its work, providing little specific guidance about when to expect the final report. At a meeting of NASA’s Astrophysics Advisory Committee in October, Paul Hertz, director of the agency’s astrophysics division, presented the results of an office pool from earlier in the year predicting when the report would be released. All but two thought the report would have already been released by the mid-October meeting of that committee; those two predicted it would be released the week of Thanksgiving.

Fortunately, they and the rest of the astrophysics community did not have to wait until last week’s holiday to get their hands on the report. The document, released November 4, provided astronomers with a long-awaited roadmap for not just the next decade but arguably through the middle of the century, endorsing a set of observatories that can peer back into the distant early universe and also look for habitable worlds close to home.

While the decadal survey makes a series of recommendations for smaller missions and ground-based telescopes, what gets the most attention is its recommendation for a large strategic, or flagship, space mission. That recommendation is just that—NASA isn’t bound to accept it—yet the agency has adopted the top-ranked flagship missions of previous decadals. That includes the one picked in the previous decadal in 2010, which became the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), renamed by NASA to the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope last year.

NASA, in preparation for Astro2020, commissioned detailed studies of four proposed flagship observatories, operating from far infrared to X-ray wavelengths (see “Selecting the next great space observatory”, The Space Review, January 21, 2019.) These studies offered detailed technical, scientific, and budgetary information for the concepts, which were effectively finalists for the being the next flagship mission—although the decadal survey was not under any obligation to pick one.

And, in the end, they didn’t pick one of the four. Instead, the recommended flagship mission was something of a compromise between two of the concepts. One, the Habitable Exoplanet Observatory, or HabEx, proposed a space telescope between 3.2 and 4 meters across optimized to search for potentially habitable exoplanets. The other, the Large Ultraviolet Optical Infrared Surveyor, or LUVOIR, proposed a large space telescope between 8 and 15 meters across for use in a wide range of astrophysics, from exoplanet studies to cosmology.

What the decadal recommended was a telescope six meters across capable of observations in ultraviolet, visible, and infrared wavelengths: similar to LUVOIR but scaled down to a size between the smaller version of LUVOIR and HabEx.

The decision to pick a concept between LUVOIR and HabEx was driven by science and budgets: big enough to do meet key science objectives like characterizing exoplanets, but also small enough to fit into a reasonable cost and schedule. “We thought that six meters provides assurance of enough target planets, but it’s also a big enough gain in capability over Hubble to really enable general astrophysics,” said Robert Kennicutt, an astronomer at the University of Arizona and Texas A&M University who was one of the two co-chairs of the decadal survey committee.

“We realized that all of these are visionary ideas but they require timelines that are pan-decadal, even multi-generational,” said Harrison. “We really think a different approach needs to be taken.”

That telescope—not given a name by the decadal survey—will still be expensive and take a long time to build. The decadal’s estimates, which included independent cost and schedule analyses, projected the telescope would cost $11 billion to build, in line with the James Webb Space Telescope when accounting for inflation, and be ready for launch in the first half of the 2040s. But the original LUVOIR concept would have cost $17 billion and not be ready until the 2050s, according to those same analyses. HabEx, the decadal survey concluded, would have been cheaper but too small to meet many of those science goals.

That selection of a flagship mission was, alone, not that different than past decadal surveys. Even that compromise pick is not unprecedented, as the previous decadal’s recommendation of what would become Roman emerged from combining several concepts. What was different, though, was the realization that, after the delays and cost overruns suffered by past flagships, notably the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA needed a different approach to developing such missions.

“We realized that all of these are visionary ideas but they require timelines that are pan-decadal, even multi-generational,” said Fiona Harrison of Caltech, the other co-chair of the steering committee, referring to the four flagship concepts studied for the decadal. “We really think a different approach needs to be taken.”

What the decadal survey recommended was that the space telescope it recommended be just the first mission to emerge from a new Great Observatories Mission and Technology Maturation Program at NASA. That program would mature technologies for a series of flagship missions in a coherent fashion.

“The survey committee expects that this process will result in decreased cost and risk and enable more frequent launches of flagship missions, even if it does require significantly more upfront investment prior to a decadal recommendation regarding implementation,” the committee concluded in the report.

Specifically, it recommended that, five years after starting work on the large space telescope that was the report’s top priority, NASA begin studies of two other flagship missions, a far infrared space telescope and an X-ray observatory, at estimated costs of $3–5 billion each. Both are similar to the other two flagship mission concepts studied by NASA for this decadal survey, the Origins Space Telescope and Lynx X-ray Observatory.

Setting up studies of those future mission concepts, without committing to them, allows NASA to adapt if both technologies or science goals change, another member of the decadal survey steering committee noted. “If the progress appears to be stalled or delayed, then we can rapidly onramp another one of the compelling, exciting ideas,” said Keivan Stassun of Vanderbilt University. “We can be phasing in multiple great ideas.”

“We were tasked and encouraged by the funding agencies, including NASA, to really think big, bold, ambitious, and long-term,” Stassun said.

The idea that it takes a long time to develop flagship space telescopes is not new: the first studies of JWST, originally called the Next Generation Space Telescope, predate the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope more than three decades ago, and that spacecraft is only now about to launch. But the study’s proposal recognizes that the problems experienced by JWST and, to a lesser extent, Roman, require a different approach to managing such complex, expensive missions.

It also reflects the realization that some of the questions that astrophysics is seeking to answer can’t be easily fit into decade-long timeframes. “We were tasked and encouraged by the funding agencies, including NASA, to really think big, bold, ambitious, and long-term,” Stassun said. “We took that to mean that we should not be thinking only about that which can be accomplished in a ten-year period.”

NASA’s Hertz had, in fact, urged the decadal survey to be bold on many occasions before and during its deliberations. “I asked the decadal survey to be ambitious, and I believe they are certainly ambitious,” he said at a November 8 meeting of the Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board.

NASA is only starting to review the overall recommendations of the decadal, he said. That includes not just its analysis of flagship missions but endorsement of a new medium-class line of “probe” missions, with a cost of $1.5 billion per mission and flying once a decade. Such missions would be analogous to the New Frontiers line of planetary science missions that fall between planetary science flagships and smaller Discovery class missions.

The delay in completing the decadal means it won’t have an impact on NASA’s next budget proposal for fiscal year 2023, which is already in active development for release in early 2022. Hertz said he’ll provide some initial comment on the decadal at a town hall meeting during the American Astronomical Society meeting in early January, particularly any recommendations that can be accommodated in the fiscal year 2022 budget. A complete, formal response will come later next year after a series of town hall meetings.

Those plans will depend on budgets. The first views Congress has on the decadal, including its flagship mission plans, will come Wednesday when the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee holds a hearing on the report.

Hertz was optimistic in general about the state of NASA’s astrophysics programs, citing the impending launch of JWST and Roman passing its critical design review. “I’m really excited. This is a great time for astrophysics,” he said. Astronomers hope the decadal’s recommendations, if implemented, can make it a great few decades for the field.


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AI Just Designed The World’s First Living Robots That Can Make Babies – Forbes

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Xenobots are the world’s first AI-designed biological robots that can self-repair and self-replicate.

The year was 1948 when Hungarian-American mathematician John von Neumann proposed the idea of an autonomous robot capable of using raw materials to reproduce itself. Today, Neumann’s vision is finally realized with one major twist: the self-replicating robot isn’t made of aluminum, plastics, spur gears or sprockets. The parent robot and its babies, a new lineage of organism called Xenobots, are entirely biological. “It was exciting to see that we could [make] this Von Neumann machine, but using cells instead of robot parts,” says co-author Sam Kriegman, computer scientist at the Wyss Institute at Harvard and co-author of the Xenobots paper published today in PNAS.

“People have philosophized about this forever,” says Joshua Bongard, senior author and computer scientist at the University of Vermont. “But now you can actually do experiments to create biological machines, or machines that make biology, which in turn make machines.” 

It’s okay to be confused. The researchers liberally refer to Xenobots as “machines” even though Xenobots don’t contain a single mechanical component. Science may be moving faster than our framework for talking and even thinking about this new category of machine life. “I think it challenges us to see that there may not be a clear dividing line between machine and organism,” says Bongard.

Artificial Intelligence

The self-replicating Xenobot was first “conceived” by an artificial intelligence (AI) program working on UVM’s supercomputer. The AI ran an evolutionary algorithm capable of testing billions of biological body shapes in a simulation. The goal was to discover which configuration of cells is capable of self-replication. The AI rendered a winning design: a cluster of cells shaped like Pac-Man from the 1980s arcade game.

Biologist Douglas Blackiston took the AI’s blueprint and used microcautery electrodes and surgical forceps to hand-sculpt the Xenobots, creatures made up of clusters of 4,000-5,000 frog cells swimming in a petri dish. Random frog cells added to the dish give the parent Xenobots raw material to make babies inside their Pac-Man-shaped mouths. The Xenobabies grow into parent Xenobots. By adding frog cells, self-replication continues generation after generation.

Biological Intelligence

Sculpting a bespoke shape out of stem cells is the “programming” that instructs cell clusters to develop a certain way. Shaping a cluster of frog cells in this specific configuration programs them to become a new self-replicating life form. “This is an AI designing life, or designing a robot, whatever you want to call it,” says Blackiston. “These are things that are not under the purview of [natural] selection.” 

New Definitions For Intelligence

Robots made of traditional robot parts that perform quite well in controlled environments often fail in the real world. “Once you move through the world, it’s unpredictable, things are messy,” says Kriegman, who was delighted by the possibility of using robotics materials that have biological intelligence built in. “Doug came up with the notion of building robots out of biological stuff,” says Kriegman. “You get this intelligence for free. And we were off to the races.”

When asked if Xenobots are intelligent, Blackiston has reservations. Of the two computer scientists and two biologists on the research team, Blackiston is more comfortable calling Xenobots programmed engineered organisms with intelligence happening at the design and programming level but not in the actual Xenobot. “My opinion is that they’re not intelligent,” says Blackiston. Though he agrees with the rest of the team that their work challenges scientific definitions. “[Definitions] are being driven into extinction because of these technologies,” says Bongard. “Xenobots are a product of AI and AI itself is helping to drive to extinction our standard definitions of intelligence.”

Intelligent Design

Definitions aside, Blackiston thinks society will have to grapple with many of the applications for, and implications of, this new technology—like the question of artificial intelligence designing replacement parts for humans. “What if an AI tinkers around and figures out it can design a better heart than the one that evolution has given us?” Asks Blackiston, who thinks it’s possible AI could give us blueprints to create superior organs to our current models. “I think we’re going to see these questions popping up all over the medical and environmental space in the next 10-15 years.”

Blackiston surgically shaping the first generation of AI-designed Xenobot:

Xenobots collect frog cells and shaping them into Xenobabies:

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