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SpaceX launches 60 more Starlink satellites, but rocket misses landing – CNET

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A disturbance can be seen just off camera as a Falcon 9 first stage made a soft water landing next to the droneship.


Video capture by Eric Mack/CNET

SpaceX sent another batch of Starlink satellites into orbit Monday, but didn’t quite stick the landing of its Falcon 9 rocket.

Elon Musk’s space company did achieve its primary objective of sending 60 more flying nodes for its nascent global broadband service into space, bringing the total number of Starlink satellites in low-Earth orbit to nearly 300. 

A secondary goal for the fifth Starlink mission, as with most SpaceX launches, was to recover the first stage of the Falcon 9 by landing it on a droneship stationed in the Atlantic Ocean. But this time the rocket missed the mark by a smidge. At the time it was expected to land, the live webcast from the droneship showed smoke or steam just off camera as the Falcon 9 made a “soft water landing.” 

SpaceX reported during the webcast that the rocket appears to be intact and floating on the ocean, but it remains unclear whether it can be recovered. The booster had a useful life, having already launched three earlier SpaceX missions in 2019 before Monday’s Starlink mission. Had it landed successfully, it would have been the 50th successful booster landing for the company. Now we may have to wait until the next planned Falcon 9 launch on March 2 to see that milestone.


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Are SpaceX Starlink satellites ruining the night sky?

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As for the Starlink satellites, they were successfully deployed shortly after the missed landing. They’re likely to be at their most visible from the ground over the next few days as they begin the climb to their operational altitude. If you want to see the bright and controversial Starlink “trains” wending their way overhead, check out our primer on spotting them here

The brightness of the satellites has alarmed astronomers who say Starlink and other large satellite constellations pose a threat to their work. SpaceX has been working with astronomers to address the problem and recently Musk tweeted that the reflectivity of the satellites “will drop significantly on almost every successive launch.”

Musk and SpaceX haven’t responded to requests for more information. SpaceX launched a “DarkSat” with a dark coating as part of a Starlink launch earlier this year, but the effectiveness of the coating is unclear. 

The next Starlink launch is set for some time in March, following the March 2 Falcon 9 mission to resupply the International Space Station. 

Originally published Feb. 17, 8:50 a.m. PT. 

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New comet appears in pre-dawn sky above Cranbrook – Nelson Star

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Gary Boyle/The Backyard Astronomer

A bright comet is now in the evening sky and you can see it without a telescope. Comet F3 (NEOWISE) has been a fantastic object in the early morning pre-dawn sky but will be well placed below the Big Dipper to see and photograph over the next couple of weeks and hopefully into August. I have been following and imaging this comet since the first week of July and could see it even without binoculars (naked eye).

The comet was discovered on March 27, 2020, by the NEOWISE space telescope as it looks for near-earth objects that could potentially impact our planet. Measuring a little more than half the height of Mount Everest, this object falls into the category of a “once in a decade comet”.

Every year astronomers both amateur and professional observe 5 to 10 comets with telescopes. In most cases, they show a green nucleus from the sublimation of frozen chemicals such as ammonia and others. The extremely faint tail is seen when photographed but all comets are different in composition and appearance as Neowise does not appear green. The last bright comet that was visible to the naked eye for the whole world to see was Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997. And like Neowise, it too had a blue ion or gas tail and a fan-shaped dust tail created when comets round the sun as this one did on July 3 at a close distance of 43 million kilometres.

Neowise will be closest to earth on its way out of the solar system on July 22 at a safe distance of 103 million kilometres and will be starting to fade with a shortening tail as it retreats from the sun’s heat and back to the icy depths of space. Comet Neowise originates from the Oort Cloud, where long-period comets reside and will return close to 6,800 years from now. Halley’s Comet is a short period comet originating from the Kuiper Belt. Along with this chart of the comet’s path, many smartphone astronomy apps will also guide you to our celestial visitor. Enjoy this spectacular comet every chance you can as you never know when the next bright will come to visit.

Known as “The Backyard Astronomer”, Gary Boyle is an astronomy educator, guest speaker and monthly columnist for the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.Follow him on Twitter: @astroeducator or his website: www.wondersofastronomy.com

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Mars is about to be invaded by robots from planet Earth – CBC.ca

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Mars is about to be invaded by planet Earth — big time.

Three countries — the United States, China and the United Arab Emirates — are sending unmanned spacecraft to the Red Planet in quick succession beginning this week, in the most sweeping effort yet to seek signs of ancient microscopic life while scouting out the place for future astronauts.

The U.S., for its part, is dispatching a six-wheeled rover the size of a car, named Perseverance, to collect rock samples that will be brought back to Earth for analysis in about a decade.

“Right now, more than ever, that name is so important,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said as preparations went on amid the coronavirus outbreak, which will keep the launch guest list to a minimum.

Each spacecraft will travel more than 483 million kilometres before reaching Mars next February. It takes six to seven months, at the minimum, for a spacecraft to loop out beyond Earth’s orbit and sync up with Mars’ more distant orbit around the sun.

Scientists want to know what Mars was like billions of years ago when it had rivers, lakes and oceans that may have allowed simple, tiny organisms to flourish before the planet morphed into the barren, wintry desert world it is today.

“Trying to confirm that life existed on another planet, it’s a tall order. It has a very high burden of proof,” said Perseverance’s project scientist, Ken Farley of Caltech in Pasadena, Calif.

Near-simultaneous launches aren’t a coincidence

The three nearly simultaneous launches are no coincidence: The timing is dictated by the opening of a one-month window in which Mars and Earth are in ideal alignment on the same side of the sun, which minimizes travel time and fuel use. Such a window opens only once every 26 months.

Mars has long exerted a powerful hold on the imagination but has proved to be the graveyard for numerous missions. Spacecraft have blown up, burned up or crash-landed, with the casualty rate over the decades exceeding 50 per cent. China’s last attempt, in collaboration with Russia in 2011, ended in failure.

China tests its Mars lander’s hovering, obstacle avoidance and deceleration capabilities in 2019. China will launch its Mars rover and an orbiter sometime around July 23, 2020, in a mission named Tianwen, or Questions for Heaven. (Andy Wong/The Associated Press)

Only the U.S. has successfully put a spacecraft on Mars, doing it eight times, beginning with the twin Vikings in 1976. Two NASA landers are now operating there, InSight and Curiosity. Six other spacecraft are exploring the planet from orbit: three U.S., two European and one from India.

The United Arab Emirates and China are looking to join the elite club.

The UAE spacecraft, named Amal, which is Arabic for Hope, is an orbiter scheduled to rocket away from Japan on Wednesday, local time, on what will be the Arab world’s first interplanetary mission. The spacecraft, built in partnership with the University of Colorado Boulder, will arrive at Mars in the year the UAE marks the 50th anniversary of its founding.

“The UAE wanted to send a very strong message to the Arab youth,” project manager Omran Sharaf said. “The message here is that if the UAE can reach Mars in less than 50 years, then you can do much more…. The nice thing about space, it sets the standards really high.”

Controlled from Dubai, the celestial weather station will strive for an exceptionally high Martian orbit of 22,000 kilometres by 44,000 kilometres to study the upper atmosphere and monitor climate change.

NASA aiming to touch down in Jezero Crater

China will be up next, with the flight of a rover and an orbiter sometime around July 23; Chinese officials aren’t divulging much. The mission is named Tianwen, or Questions for Heaven.

NASA, meanwhile, is shooting for a launch on July 30 from Cape Canaveral.

Perseverance is set to touch down in an ancient river delta and lake known as Jezero Crater, not quite as big as Florida’s Lake Okeechobee. China’s much smaller rover will aim for an easier, flatter target.

To reach the surface, both spacecraft will have to plunge through the hazy red skies of Mars in what has been dubbed “seven minutes of terror” — the most difficult and riskiest part of putting spacecraft on the planet.

Jezero Crater is full of boulders, cliffs, sand dunes and depressions, any one of which could end Perseverance’s mission. Brand-new guidance and parachute-triggering technology will help steer the craft away from hazards. Ground controllers will be helpless, given the 10 minutes it takes radio transmissions to travel one-way between Earth and Mars.

Hunt for hints of life

Jezero Crater is worth the risks, according to scientists who chose it over 60 other potential sites.

Where there was water — and Jezero was apparently flush with it 3.5 billion years ago — there may have been life, though it was probably only simple microbial life, existing perhaps in a slimy film at the bottom of the crater. But those microbes may have left telltale marks in the sediment layers.

NASA’s Perseverance rover, seen in an illustration, is set to touch down in an ancient river delta and lake known as Jezero Crater to hunt for rocks bearing signatures of life. ( NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Perseverance will hunt for rocks containing such biological signatures, if they exist.

It will drill into the most promising rocks and store a half-kilogram of samples in dozens of titanium tubes that will eventually be fetched by another rover. To prevent Earth microbes from contaminating the samples, the tubes are super-sterilized, guaranteed germ-free by Adam Stelzner, chief engineer for the mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

“Yep, I’m staking my reputation on it,” he said.

1st helicopter on Mars

While prowling the surface, Perseverance as well as China’s rover will peek below, using radar to locate any underground pools of water that might exist. Perseverance will also release a spindly, 1.8-kilogram helicopter that will be the first rotorcraft ever to fly on another planet.

Perseverance’s cameras will shoot colour video of the rover’s descent, providing humanity’s first look at a parachute billowing open at Mars, while microphones capture the sounds.

The rover will also attempt to produce oxygen from the carbon dioxide in the thin Martian atmosphere. Extracted oxygen could someday be used by astronauts on Mars for breathing as well as for making rocket propellant.

NASA wants to return astronauts to the moon by 2024 and send them from there to Mars in the 2030s. To that end, the space agency is sending samples of spacesuit material with Perseverance to see how they stand up against the harsh Martian environment.

The tab for Perseverance’s mission, including the flight and a minimum two years of Mars operations, is close to $3 billion US. The UAE’s project costs $200 million US, including the launch but not mission operations. China has not disclosed its costs. Europe and Russia dropped plans to send a life-seeking rover to Mars this summer after falling behind in testing and then getting slammed by COVID-19.

Perseverance’s mission is seen by NASA as a comparatively low-risk way of testing out some of the technology that will be needed to send humans to the Red Planet and bring them home safely.

“Sort of crazy for me to call it low risk because there’s a lot of hard work in it and there are billions of dollars in it,” Farley said. “But compared to humans, if something goes wrong, you will be very glad you tested it out on a half-kilogram of rock instead of on the astronauts.”

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Coronavirus: Llamas provide key to immune therapy – BBC News

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As Fifi the llama munches on grass on a pasture in Reading, her immune system has provided the template for a coronavirus treatment breakthrough.

Scientists from the UK’s Rosalind Franklin Institute have used Fifi’s specially evolved antibodies to make an immune-boosting therapy.

The resulting llama-based, Covid-specific “antibody cocktail” could enter clinical trials within months.

The development is published in Nature Structural and Molecular Biology.

It involves “engineering” llama antibodies, which are relatively small, and much more simply structured than the antibodies in our own blood. That size and structure means they can be “redesigned” in the lab.

Unlocking coronavirus

Professor James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute – and the lead researcher – described the technique as akin to cutting a key that fits the coronavirus lock.

“With the llama’s antibodies, we have keys that don’t quite fit – they’ll go into the lock but won’t turn all the way round,” he said.

“So we take that key and use molecular biology to polish bits of it, until we’ve cut a key that fits.”

Antibodies are part of what is known as the adaptive immune system; they are molecules that essentially morph in response to an invading virus or bacteria.

“Then if you get re-infected,” explained Prof Naismith, “your body looks for any [virus particles] with antibodies stuck around them and destroys them.”

This type of immune therapy essentially boosts a sick person’s immune system with antibodies which have already adapted to the virus.

There is already evidence that antibody-rich blood, taken from people who have recently recovered from the coronavirus, could be used as a treatment. But the key trick with this llama-derived antibody therapy is that the scientists can produce coronavirus-specific antibodies to order.

The small re-engineered part of the llama antibody is also known as a nanobody, said Prof Naismith.

“In the lab, we can make nanobodies that kill the live virus extremely well – better than almost anything we’ve seen,” he added. “They’re incredibly good at killing the virus in culture.”

The nanobodies do that by binding – or locking onto – what is known as the “spike protein” on the outside of the virus capsule; disabling that spike prevents it from gaining access to human cells.

“Essentially, we’re doing in the lab what all immune systems do in the body,” Prof Naismith explained.

“And we can do this very quickly, so if the virus changes suddenly, or we get a new virus, we can engineer new nanobodies in the lab.”

The team is aiming to test its prospective therapy in animal trials this summer, with a view to starting clinical trials later in the year.

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