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SpaceX launches classified US spy satellite, sticks rocket landing to cap record year



CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX launched a clandestine U.S. spy  satellite into space for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO)  Saturday (Dec. 19) , marking its 26th rocket of the year.

The mysterious payload, called NROL-108, lifted off from Pad 39A here at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at  9 a.m. (1400 GMT) , during a planned three hour launch window.

A used two-stage Falcon 9 rocket carried the spy satellite aloft, as part of a government mission called NROL-108, marking SpaceX’s 26th launch of 2020, a new record for the company. Approximately nine minutes after liftoff, the booster’s first stage produced some dramatic sonic booms as it made its way back to terra firma, touching down at SpaceX’s Landing Zone-1 (LZ-1) at the nearby Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

Today’s flight was the fifth launch for this particular Falcon 9 first stage. The booster, designated B1059, previously lofted two commercial cargo missions to the International Space Station for NASA, delivered a batch of SpaceX Starlink satellites into orbit earlier this year, and most recently launched an Earth-observing satellite for Argentina.

Falcon 9 blasted off into a clear blue sky Saturday morning, a stark change from Thursday’s launch attempt. Thick clouds shrouded the rocket from view that day and ultimately an issue with the rocket’s second stage forced SpaceX to postpone the launch.

Several minutes after Falcon 9 leapt off the pad, the rocket’s first stage reappeared in the sky, with the iconic sonic booms you expect cracking overhead as the booster descended to the landing site.

B1059 is only the second booster to land on the ground at the Cape (as opposed to a drone ship at sea) this year. (A third landed on land at Vandenberg Air Force base in California following the launch of the Sentinel-6 Earth-observing satellite for NASA in November.) In fact, it’s now the third trip to LZ-1 for this booster, as the veteran Falcon 9 first stage also returned to land after delivering the CRS-20 mission into orbit earlier this year.

 A mystery payload

Today’s Falcon 9 launch carried a classified payload into orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), the government agency that oversees the country’s fleet of spy satellites. Not much is known about the satellite except for the fact that the NRO secured the ride for the top secret cargo through non-traditional means.

Typically, the reconnaissance agency will secure its rides to space via the U.S. Space Force’s National Security Space Launch Program, but this time went about it on its own, according to a report from Spaceflight Now.

“In some cases, the NRO uses alternative methods to procure launch services after making a cumulative assessment of satellite risk tolerance, needed launch dates, available launch capabilities, and cost — all with a purpose of ensuring satellites are safely and securely delivered to orbit in a timely manner,” the spokesperson told Spaceflight Now.

Another interesting twist is that SpaceX did not conduct a static fire test of its rocket before flight. Typically, the company holds the rocket down on the pad and briefly fires its nine first-stage engines to make sure their systems are working as expected prior to liftoff. It’s rare that SpaceX skips this routine test but is not unheard of.

The mission marks the sixth launch of the year for the NRO, and will be the second overall to fly aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9. The first was the NROL-76 mission back in May 2017.

Falcon’s flight

The NROL-108 mission is SpaceX’s 50th reflight of a Falcon 9 since the company recovered its first booster in 2015. It also marks the 70th landing of a Falcon 9. To stick the landing, the booster separated from its upper stage and conducted a series of orbital ballet moves, reorienting itself for landing. Then it conducted a series of three engine burns to slow itself enough to gently touch down on its designated landing pad, marking the 21st successful land landing for SpaceX.

To facilitate reuse, the company normally relies on its two massive drone ships, named “Of Course I Still Love You” and “Just Read the Instructions,” the floating platforms are typically stationed out in the Atlantic Ocean and have enabled SpaceX to launch and subsequently land more rockets.

“Of Course I Still Love You” is sidelined for this mission, since the booster is returning to land, while “Just Read the Instructions” is currently bringing back a booster from the company’s most recent launch on Dce. 13. For that mission, a Falcon 9 rocket launched for the seventh time, carrying a massive satellite into space for SIrius XM. That booster is one of two that have flown that seven missions and should be sailing back into port around the same time as today’s launch.

Once they return to Florida’s Port Canaveral, the landed boosters are transported back to SpaceX facilities, where they’re carefully inspected and repurposed to fly again.

The current iteration of the Falcon 9 was finalized in 2018. Known as the Block 5, it features 1.7 million pounds of thrust as well as some other upgrades that make it capable of rapid reuse. SpaceX says that each of these boosters can fly as many as 10 times with minor refurbishments in between, and potentially as many as 100 times before retirement.

To date, SpaceX has launched and landed the same booster a maximum of seven times. According to company founder and CEO, Elon Musk, each Falcon 9 booster is capable of flying at least 10 times with minimal refurbishments in between flights. We have yet to see one fly that many times, but could see it next year.

Rocket fairing recovery

Ahead of today’s launch, SpaceX deployed one of its twin fairing catchers, GO Ms. Tree, to fetch the fairing pieces after today’s launch. GO Miss Chief, the company’s other fairing recovery vessel, stayed in port for the second mission in a row. These two boats act as giant, mobile catcher’s mitts, snagging payload fairings — the protective nose cones that surrounds satellites during launch — in their attached nets as they fall back down to Earth.

To that end, SpaceX has installed parachutes and special software in its payload fairings, which consist of two joined pieces. The fairings are designed to guide themselves to the recovery zone where Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief can wait to snag them as they fall back to Earth. If the boats miss or the weather is too poor to attempt a catch, the duo has on board equipment to scoop the fairing pieces up out of the water and carry them back to port for refurbishment.

The company has been successfully reusing the payload fairings, and the last mission — which launched the Sirius XM-7 satellite — was the first flight to feature a refurbished fairing on a non-SpaceX payload. Typically the company has been reusing fairings on its own Starlink missions. One of the fairing pieces that shrouded the Sirius XM-7 payload as it traveled through the atmosphere previously flew on the Anasis-II mission earlier this summer, which launched a communications satellite for South Korea’s military.

Today’s mission will mark the end of a busy launch year for the Cape. In total 31 missions have launched from the area this year, and 26 of those have been on SpaceX rockets. Next year, SpaceX is expected to continue to fill in its fleet of Starlink satellites, launch two more astronaut missions, and one of its heavy-lifters, the Falcon Heavy.

Follow Amy Thompson on Twitter @astrogingersnap. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.


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NASA Declares The Mars InSight Digger Dead After Two Years! – Mashable India



NASA announced on Thursday that a “mole” on Mars has ended its mission after landing on the Red Planet nearly two years ago.

The mole — also called a digger, drill, and probe — was built by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and deployed by NASA’s InSight lander. Its purpose was to drill 16 feet into Martian soil to take its temperature and…well, it never managed to do that. 

The digger had drilled down merely 14 inches before getting stuck in the first month of its mission. Months later in Oct. 2019, NASA engineers made a plan to put the digger back on track by using a robotic scoop to help refill the 14 inches and support the digger in its next attempt at burrowing down 16 feet. The team at NASA was confident that the probe was finally ready to go, but they were wrong.

NASA’s next idea, in Feb. 2020, was to direct the InSight lander to push on the probe with its robotic arm.

That didn’t work, either. After attempting to use the scoop on InSight’s robotic arm once again on Jan. 9, 2021, the probe made 500 additional hammer strokes with no progress. At that point, the team declared the probe dead. 

“We’ve given it everything we’ve got, but Mars and our heroic mole remain incompatible,” said DLR’s Tilman Spohn in NASA’s announcement. 

There is good news, however. Spohn said that the work on this probe will benefit future missions, as they’ve learned a lot about the surface of Mars. 

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA’s Washington headquarters, said he was proud of the mission’s team — and that their work was purposeful. “This is why we take risks at NASA — we have to push the limits of technology to learn what works and what doesn’t,” he said.

“In that sense, we’ve been successful: We’ve learned a lot that will benefit future missions to Mars and elsewhere,” Zurbuchen continued, “and we thank our German partners from DLR for providing this instrument and for their collaboration.”

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Study highlights human activity in Tanzania 2 million years ago – SlashGear



A new study was recently published by principal investigators from Canada and Tanzania working with partners in Africa, North America, and Europe. The entire team is working together to describe a large assemblage of stone tools, fossil bones, and chemical proxies obtained from dental and plant materials. Researchers on the study also examined tiny microscopic bits of silica left by plants, ancient pollen, and airborne charcoal resulting from natural fires retrieved from an ancient riverbed and Lake outcrops on the Serengeti plains.

Scientists say that the data gathered presents the earliest evidence for human activity in the Olduvai Gorge, dating back to about 2 million years ago. Researchers say their study is an important step in filling the gap between fossils and environmental context, and cultural items left by extinct humans. The data used in the study was obtained during a survey of an unexplored western portion of the ancient basin in a locality called Ewass Oldupa.

Stone tools were uncovered at the site belonging to a culture identified by archaeologists as Oldowan. The discovery shows that ancient humans were using tools millions of years ago. Concentrations of both stone tools and animal fossils showed that humans and fauna were gathering around water sources. The study found that early humans carried rocks with them that they used as tools that were obtained from distant sources across the basin at a distance of 12 kilometers east.

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These ancient humans also have the flexibility to survive in changing environments. Research showed that humans continued to come to Ewass Oldupa to use local resources for over 200,000 years despite significant and rapid changes to the landscape. Artifacts discovered at the site are dated to the Early Pleistocene era about 2 million years ago. Researchers note that it’s not clear which species made the tools, and no hominid fossils were discovered in the study. However, younger sediments from a site 350 meters away did have Homo habilis fossils.

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NASA Test of Mega Moon Rocket Engines Cut Short Unexpectedly – Gadgets 360



NASA’s deep space exploration rocket built by Boeing briefly ignited all four engines of its behemoth core stage for the first time on Saturday, cutting short a crucial test to advance a years-delayed US government programme to return humans to the moon in the next few years.

Mounted in a test facility at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, the Space Launch System’s (SLS) 212-foot tall core stage roared to life at 4:27pm local time (3:57am IST) for just over a minute — well short of the roughly four minutes engineers needed to stay on track for the rocket’s first launch in November this year.

“Today was a good day,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said at a press conference after the test, adding “we got lots of data that we’re going to be able to sort through” to determine if a do-over is needed and whether a November 2021 debut launch date is still possible.

The engine test, the last leg of NASA’s nearly year-long “Green Run” test campaign, was a vital step for the space agency and its top SLS contractor Boeing before a debut unmanned launch later this year under NASA’s Artemis programme, the Trump administration’s push to return US astronauts to the moon by 2024.

It was unclear whether Boeing and NASA would have to repeat the test, a prospect that could push the debut launch into 2022. NASA’s SLS program manager John Honeycutt, cautioning the data review from the test is ongoing, told reporters the turnaround time for another hot fire test could be roughly one month.

To simulate internal conditions of a real liftoff, the rocket’s four Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-25 engines ignited for roughly one minute and 15 seconds, generating 1.6 million pounds of thrust and consuming 700,000 gallons of propellants on NASA’s largest test stand, a massive facility towering 35 stories tall.

The expendable super heavy-lift SLS is three years behind schedule and nearly $3 billion (roughly Rs. 22,000 crores) over budget. Critics have long argued for NASA to retire the rocket’s shuttle-era core technologies, which have launch costs of $1 billion (roughly Rs. 7,300 crores) or more per mission, in favor of newer commercial alternatives that promise lower costs.

By comparison, it costs as little as $90 million to fly the massive but less powerful Falcon Heavy rocket designed and manufactured by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and some $350 million (roughly Rs. 2,600 crores) per launch for United Launch Alliance’s legacy Delta IV Heavy.

While newer, more reusable rockets from both companies – SpaceX’s Starship and United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan – promise heavier lift capacity than the Falcon Heavy or Delta IV Heavy potentially at lower cost, SLS backers argue it would take two or more launches on those rockets to launch what the SLS could carry in a single mission.

Reuters reported in October that President-elect Joe Biden’s space advisers aim to delay Trump’s 2024 goal, casting fresh doubts on the long-term fate of SLS just as SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin scramble to bring rival new heavy-lift capacity to market.

NASA and Boeing engineers have stayed on a ten-month schedule for the Green Run “despite having significant adversity this year,” Boeing’s SLS manager John Shannon told reporters this week, citing five tropical storms and a hurricane that hit Stennis, as well as a three-month closure after some engineers tested positive for the coronavirus in March.

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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