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NASA’s Artemis Launch Just Kicked Off a New Age in Space Exploration

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Human spaceflight has suffered a significant lull since the groundbreaking Apollo missions of the 1960s and 70s. But that looks set to change following the successful launch of NASA’s Artemis I mission, a crucial first step towards taking astronauts back to the moon.

Since the space shuttle made its final outing in 2011, NASA has relied on Russian Soyuz capsules, and more recently SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, to get its astronauts into space. And manned missions have been fairly unambitious, typically just ferrying crew to and from the International Space Station.

But this Wednesday the agency took a major step towards reinvigorating its human spaceflight program. At 1:47 AM Eastern Time, NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) successfully blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida for the first time carrying an uncrewed Orion spacecraft, which will eventually take humans back to the moon and on to Mars later this century.

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It’s taken a lot to get here, but Orion is now on its way to the moon,” Jim Free, NASA deputy associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate, said in a press release. “This successful launch means NASA and our partners are on a path to explore farther in space than ever before for the benefit of humanity.”

The launch has been a long time coming. The SLS—the most powerful rocket ever built—was initially supposed to be ready by 2017, but has experienced years of delays and billions of dollars of budget overruns.

Even after being cleared for launch, the system suffered repeated setbacks, with launch attempts on August 29 and September 4 called off due to a faulty temperature sensor and a liquid hydrogen leak, respectively. Wednesday’s launch also had to contend with some last-minute snags, with crews having to fix a leaky valve and a faulty ethernet switch in the hours before take-off.

Ultimately everything went to plan though, with the SLS successfully lofting the Orion capsule to an altitude of about 2,500 miles before separating and falling back to Earth. The unmanned spacecraft will now travel 40,000 miles beyond the moon and then return to Earth over the next 25 days, giving NASA a chance to evaluate the performance of its systems before it has to ferry astronauts.

One of the most crucial tests will be to see how the vehicle’s heat shield holds up against temperatures as high as 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit as it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere. It will also be transporting several mannequins loaded with sensors designed to measure the forces and radiation that human astronauts will be exposed to while aboard.

Assuming everything goes to plan, the mission will set the stage for Artemis II, which will take a human crew around the moon without landing in 2024, according to current timelines. That will then be followed in 2025 by Artemis III, which will land the first woman and first person of color on the moon.

That third mission will rely on more than just NASA, though. The space agency has contracted SpaceX to create a modified version of the Starship spacecraft it is currently developing to act as a lander. A crew of four astronauts will fly to the moon aboard Orion, but two will then transfer to the so-called “Human Landing System” in orbit before descending to the surface.

By then, NASA is also hoping to have a small space station called the Lunar Gateway orbiting the moon. The plan is for both spacecraft to dock with the station during the crew transfer, though it’s also possible for the two to dock directly in case the Gateway isn’t ready in time. Either way, the station is likely to play an important role for future missions, as a stopover for astronauts headed for the lunar surface and eventually as a staging post for journeys to Mars.

There are still question marks over whether NASA can really meet its ambitious goals for a return to the moon, with its watchdog recently telling lawmakers that development delays in key systems mean that Artemis III will actually launch by 2026 at the earliest. And missions to Mars aren’t likely to be in the cards until at least the late 2030s, according to NASA administrator Bill Nelson.

But the launch of Artemis I is nonetheless a significant milestone in space exploration, and marks the beginning of an exciting new era of human spaceflight that could ultimately lead us further into the solar system than we’ve ever gone before.

Image Credit: NASA

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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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