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SpaceX launches Dragon cargo ship to space station with fresh food, science gear and Girl Scout experiments – CBS News



Ending a two-month launch drought, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket boosted a Dragon cargo ship into orbit early Sunday for the company’s 23rd supply run to the International Space Station, this one carrying 4,300 pounds of equipment, science gear, food and other supplies.

Running 24 hours late because of stormy weather, the countdown ticked smoothly to zero and the nine Merlin engines in the Falcon’s first stage ignited on schedule at 3:14 a.m. EDT, pushing the rocket away from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center atop 1.7 million pounds of thrust.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lights up the pre-dawn sky as it climbs away from the Kennedy Space Center early Sunday, boosting a Dragon cargo ship into orbit for a supply run to the International Space Station.

William Harwood/CBS News

The first stage, making its fourth flight, powered the vehicle out of the thick lower atmosphere and then fell away, handing off to the rocket’s second stage to continue the climb to space.

A few seconds after separation, the first stage flipped around, restarted three engines to reverse course, plunged back into the lower atmosphere and landed on SpaceX’s new droneship, “A Shortfall of Gravitas,” the company’s third sea-going landing pad. Touchdown marked the 90th booster recovery for SpaceX, its 67th at sea.

For its first booster recovery, the new barge was towed to the touchdown point. But the ship is designed to carry out future recoveries on its own.

“It was designed and built to travel out to sea, find its position, receive the rocket and then actually secure the rocket to the ship, all robotically … and then travel back to port for it to be offloaded completely autonomously,” said Sarah Walker, SpaceX director of Dragon mission management.

“We’re in the final phases of testing out all of that capability,” she said. “I’m really excited to see this vehicle come online. We really need it.”

About one minute after the first stage landed, the Falcon 9’s second stage completed the climb to a preliminary orbit and released the Dragon cargo ship to fly on its own 11 minutes and 45 seconds after liftoff.

The capsule was launched directly into the plane of the space station’s orbit and if all goes well, the spacecraft will catch up with its quarry around 11 a.m. Sunday, gliding in for an automated docking at the lab’s forward port.

The Dragon is packed with 2,305 pounds of science gear, nearly 1,000 pounds of needed equipment and spare parts and 1,058 pounds of crew supplies, including “a pretty good amount of fresh fruit,” said Joel Montalbano, space station program manager at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

A camera on the Falcon 9’s second stage captures a view of the SpaceX Dragon cargo ship flying toward the rising sun moments after release into its initial orbit.

NASA/SpaceX webcast

“We have lemons, onions, some avocado, some cherry tomatoes,” he said. “We’re also flying some ice cream. That’s a big hit with our crew members.”

Science investigations being delivered to the station include experiments to study therapies to mitigate bone deterioration in weightlessness; a device to study eyesight problems caused by prolonged exposure to microgravity; experimental robot arm technology; and research to study the long-term effects of the space environment on a variety of building materials.

And in a bid to encourage interest in science among young women, three Girl Scout experiments are on board.

One will assess how ants tunnel in weightlessness, another will study how tomatoes, peppers and lemongrass grow in space, while the third will look into whether brine shrimp can be raised in microgravity to possibly serve as a source of protein for future astronauts on long-duration flights.

The Dragon is expected to remain attached to the station until the end of September. By then, the new supplies and equipment will have been offloaded and the ship re-packed with experiments and other material that will be returned to Earth, including footage shot from a high-resolution 3D camera system that will be shot during a planned September 12 spacewalk.

NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei and Japanese crewmate Akihiko Hoshide had planned to carry out the spacewalk this past Monday, but the excursion was put on hold when Vande Hei developed a pinched nerve.

The spacewalk has now been rescheduled for September 12, with French astronaut Thomas Pesquet taking Vande Hei’s place. That will ensure 3D camera footage of the outing can be returned to Earth aboard the cargo Dragon at the end of September. The photography is part of a commercial project to capture immersive scenes of life in orbit.

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Ancient Jordanian town destroyed by a meteor blast may have inspired Biblical stories, scientists say –



A thriving town in the Jordan River valley was utterly annihilated by the explosion of a meteor 3,600 years ago, which produced a flash and shock wave that scorched and shattered buildings, animals and people.

That’s the scenario painted by a large collaboration of archaeologists, earth and space scientists who have been studying the remains of the Bronze Age town at a site called Tall el-Hammam in Jordan, not far from the Dead Sea.

Before its destruction, Tall el-Hammam was a bustling town of perhaps 8,000 people, with mud-brick buildings and a four-story palace. There is evidence that the site of the town had been occupied for several thousand years.

Archaeologists have been excavating the ruins of the town for more than 15 years, revealing a rich history during its long occupation that included ruins from fires, warfare and earthquakes.  

Their findings were published this month in the journal Scientific Reports.

The ‘destruction layer’

But their excavations also revealed destruction that didn’t have any ordinary explanation: a one-and-a-half-metre-thick layer of debris the team dubbed the “destruction layer,” encompassing the whole settlement, and dated to 1650 BC. This layer showed signs of an incredibly violent event.

It included melted pottery and bricks, soot, melted plaster and metal, that only could have resulted from temperatures approaching 2,000 C. It also contained ruins of flattened buildings, including the town’s palace and four metre-thick outer wall.

“The city was built with millions of mud bricks, in the walls, the ramparts, the buildings,” space physicist Malcolm LeCompte, who was part of the research team, told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald. “Much of the mud brick was just disintegrated and blown away off the upper stories of these structures into the next valley.” 

Researchers stand at the Tall el-Hammam archaeological site in Jordan. (Phil Silvia)

Most gruesomely, the debris also contained the remains of humans and animals that had been burned and torn apart.

“The human remains and bones were abundant. There’s very few total skeletal remains. Those that do remain are pretty disarticulated — just shattered,” said LeCompte. “It’s pretty horrifying, actually.” 

The extreme temperatures and the widespread and violent destruction began to point the research team to a culprit. But microscopic examination of the debris also helped build the case. They found sand grains with unique cracks and fractures within them called “shocked quartz,” which are often found in the debris from super-high velocity impacts, like those generated by a meteor strike.

This led them to conclude that the best fit for what they were seeing was an “air burst” by meteor likely composed of rock and ice. The object, perhaps 50 metres across, would have hit the Earth’s atmosphere above the town travelling at perhaps 60,000 km/h. At that speed the atmosphere would have behaved as if it was almost solid, causing the meteor to explode violently.

“The evidence we have suggests that it was something like … a megaton-yield event in terms of its equivalent in atomic or nuclear bombs.” said LeCompte.

On the ground, the flash of heat from the explosion would have caused hair and textiles to burst into flame, and melted metal and brick. Moments later, a shock wave would have hit, causing winds that researchers estimate reached speeds of up to 1,200 km/h — knocking structures in the town flat and killing every living thing in the town.

“The shock wave would have come and just torn them apart,” said LeCompte.

Tall el-Hammam is located just north of the Dead Sea in the Joran River valley. (NASA)

It will happen again, LeCompte warns

The researchers point out that there are modern precedents for an event like this. In 1908 a similar-sized object is thought to have exploded in the atmosphere over Siberia, in what is known as the Tunguska event. It flattened 2,000 square kilometres of forest, and started a huge forest fire.

In 2013 a roughly 200-metre meteor exploded over Chelyabinsk in Russia, shattering windows and causing more than 1,000 injuries.

So far the team has found some material they think could be from the meteor, including tiny samples of rare metals often found in meteorites, but need to do more work to confirm their origin. LeCompte points out that excavation in the area can be difficult, particularly as much of the local landscape is currently occupied by Syrian refugees.

One intriguing, if speculative, possibility that the researchers have suggested is that the destruction of Tall el-Hammam might be the inspiration behind Biblical legends like the destruction of Sodom — in what is described as a “rain” of “fire and brimstone” — or the destruction of the walls of Jericho.

But LeCompte says those that look at Tall el-Hammam as a historical curiosity are missing the point. Instead, he said, they should look at it as a warning.

“The significance to its past pales in what it foretells for the future, because this is going to happen again,” he said. The Tunguska event shows that the Earth can still be struck by destructive objects from space, and if something similar were to happen over a city or populated region, the devastation would be enormous.

“It just took it out in an instant, so that’s a serious warning of what could happen — what will happen — in the future.”

Written by Jim Lebans. Produced by Mark Crawley.

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Archaeologists find oldest known human footprints in the Americas – HeritageDaily



Archaeologists conducting research in the White Sands National Park in New Mexico has identified the oldest known human footprints in the Americas.

The findings provide the earliest unequivocal evidence of human activity in the Americas from over 23,000 years ago, a period during the height of the last glacial cycle, known as the Last Glacial Maximum.

Archaeologists have debated for decades when the first people arrived in the Americas, but Vance T. Holliday from the UArizona School of Anthropology and Department of Geosciences said: “Few archaeologists see reliable evidence for sites older than about 16,000 years. Some think the arrival was later, no more than 13,000 years ago by makers of artefacts called Clovis points. The White Sands tracks provide a much earlier date. There are multiple layers of well-dated human tracks in streambeds where water flowed into an ancient lake. This was 10,000 years before Clovis people.”


The team used radiocarbon dating of seed layers above and below the footprints to determine their age, which showed human presence at the site lasting two millennia, and the oldest track dating back 23,000 years.

Kathleen Springer from the U.S. Geological Survey said: “Our dates on the seeds are tightly clustered and maintain stratigraphic order above and below multiple footprint horizons – this was a remarkable outcome”.

An analysis on the size of the human footprints suggests that they were mainly teenagers and younger children, whilst other tracks indicate that they were left by mammoths, giant ground sloths, dire wolves, and birds.

“It is an important site because all of the trackways we’ve found there show an interaction of humans in the landscape alongside extinct animals, like mammoths and giant sloths.” said Sally Reynolds of Bournemouth University. “We can see the co-existence between humans and animals on the site as a whole, and by being able to accurately date these footprints, we’re building a greater picture of the landscape.”


The University of Arizona

Header Image Credit : David Bustos – White Sands National Park

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Bird reports rose during lockdowns | Cornell Chronicle – Cornell Chronicle



Around 80% of bird species examined in a new study were reported in greater numbers in human-altered habitats during pandemic lockdowns, according to new research based on data from the eBird program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

In the paper, “Reduced Human Activity During COVID-19 Alters Avian Land Use Across North America,” published Sept. 22 in Science Advances, researchers compared online eBird observations from the United States and Canada from before and during the pandemic. They focused on areas within about 100 km of urban areas, major roads, and airports.

Vast amounts of data from a likewise vast geographic area were vital for this study. The researchers used more than 4 million eBird observations of 82 bird species from across Canada and the U.S.

“A lot of species we really care about became more abundant in human landscapes during the pandemic,” said study senior author Nicola Koper of the University of Manitoba, which led the research. “I was blown away by how many species were affected by decreased traffic and activity during lockdowns.”

Reports of bald eagles increased in cities with the strongest lockdowns. Ruby-throated hummingbirds were three times more likely to be reported within a kilometer of airports than before the pandemic. Barn swallows, a threatened species in Canada, were reported more often within a kilometer of roads than before the pandemic.

A few species decreased their use of human-altered habitat during the pandemic. Red-tailed hawk reports decreased near roads, perhaps because there was less roadkill when traffic declined. But far more species had increased counts in these human-dominated landscapes.

The authors filtered pandemic and pre-pandemic eBird reports so that the final data sets had the same characteristics, such as location, number of lists, and level of birdwatcher effort.

“We also needed to be aware of the detectability issue,” said co-author Alison Johnston, assistant director of the Center for Avian Population Studies and Ecological Data in the Lab of Ornithology. “Were species being reported in higher numbers because people could finally hear the birds without all the traffic noise, or was there a real ecological change in the numbers of birds present?”

The study tested whether better detectability might be a factor in the larger bird numbers reported. If it was, the scientists expected that to be more noticeable for smaller birds, which are harder to detect beneath traffic noise. However, effects were noticed across many species, from hawks to hummingbirds, suggesting that the increased numbers were not only caused by increased detectability in the quieter environments.

“Having so many people in North America and around the world paying attention to nature has been crucial to understanding how wildlife react to our presence,” says lead author Michael Schrimpf, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Manitoba. “Studies such as this one rely on volunteer birdwatchers, so if you enjoy watching wildlife, there are many projects out there, like eBird and iNaturalist, that can use your help.”

The study was funded by Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada with in-kind support provided by Environment and Climate Change Canada and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

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