NASA is calling the flight its first ‘operational’ mission for a rocket and crew-vehicle system that was 10 years in the making.
SpaceX, the rocket company of high-tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, was due on Sunday to launch four astronauts on a flight to the International Space Station, NASA’s first full-fledged mission sending a crew into orbit aboard a privately owned spacecraft.
The company’s newly designed Crew Dragon capsule, which the crew has dubbed Resilience, was set for liftoff atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at 7:27pm Eastern time (00:27 GMT on Monday) from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida in the United States.
The 27-hour ride to the space station, an orbiting laboratory some 400km (250 miles) above Earth, was originally scheduled to begin on Saturday.
But the launch was postponed for a day due to forecasts of gusty winds – remnants of Tropical Storm Eta – that would have made a return landing for the Falcon 9’s reusable booster stage difficult, NASA officials said.
NASA is calling the flight its first “operational” mission for a rocket and crew-vehicle system that was 10 years in the making. It represents a new era of commercially developed spacecraft – owned and operated by a private entity rather than NASA – for sending Americans into orbit.
“This is the culmination of years of work and effort from a lot of people, and a lot of time,” Benji Reed, SpaceX senior director of human spaceflight programmes, told reporters on Friday. “We have built what I would call one of the safest launch vehicles and spacecraft ever.”
A trial flight of the SpaceX Crew Dragon in August, carrying just two astronauts to and from the space station, marked NASA’s first human space mission to be launched from US soil in nine years, following the end of the space shuttle programme in 2011.
In the intervening years, US astronauts have had to hitch rides into orbit aboard Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft.
The Resilience crew includes commander Mike Hopkins and two fellow NASA astronauts, mission pilot Victor Glover and physicist Shannon Walker. They will be joined by Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, making his third trip to space after previously flying on the US shuttle in 2005 and Soyuz in 2009.
Musk, the billionaire SpaceX chief executive who is also CEO of electric carmaker and battery manufacturer Tesla Inc, will likely not be watching the liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center launch control room as usual, NASA officials said. Musk said on Saturday that he “most likely” has a moderate case of COVID-19.
SpaceX and NASA have conducted contact-tracing and determined that Musk had not come into contact with anyone who interacted with the astronauts.
“Our astronauts have been in quarantine for weeks, and they should not have had contact with anybody,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said on Friday. “They should be in good shape.”
NASA contracted SpaceX and Boeing in 2014 to develop competing space capsules aimed at replacing its shuttle programme and weaning the US off dependence on Russian rockets to send astronauts to space.
Japan's Hayabusa2 Asteroid Journey Ends With a Hunt in Australia's Outback – The New York Times
Japan’s space agency is nearing the end of a journey of discovery that aims to shed light on the earliest eons of the solar system and possibly provide clues about the origins of life on Earth.
But first, it is going to have to go on a scavenger hunt in the Australian outback.
This weekend, bits of an asteroid will land in a barren region near Woomera, South Australia. These are being ferried to Earth by Hayabusa2, a robotic space probe launched by JAXA, Japan’s space agency, in 2014 to explore an asteroid named Ryugu, a dark, carbon-rich rock a bit more than half a mile wide.
The success of the mission and the science it produces will raise Japan’s status as a central player in deep space exploration, together with NASA, the European Space Agency and Russia. JAXA currently has a spacecraft in orbit around Venus studying that planet’s hellish climate and is collaborating with the Europeans on a mission that is on its way to Mercury.
But the immediate challenge will be searching in darkness for a 16-inch-wide capsule containing the asteroid samples somewhere amid hundreds of square miles in a region 280 miles north of Adelaide, the nearest large city.
“It’s really in the middle of nowhere,” said Shogo Tachibana, the principal investigator in charge of the analysis of the Hayabusa2 samples. He is part of a team of more than 70 people from Japan who have arrived in Woomera for recovery of the capsule. The area, used by the Australian military for testing, provides a wide open space that is ideal for the return of an interplanetary probe.
The small return capsule separated from the main spacecraft about 12 hours before the scheduled landing, when it was about 125,000 miles from Earth. JAXA will broadcast live coverage of the capsule’s landing beginning at 11:30 a.m. Eastern time on Saturday. (It will be pre-dawn hours on Sunday in Australia.)
The capsule is expected to hit the ground a few minutes before noon.
In an interview, Makoto Yoshikawa, the mission manager, said there is an uncertainty of about 10 kilometers, or about six miles, in pinpointing where the capsule will re-enter the atmosphere. At an altitude of six miles, the capsule will release a parachute, and where it will drift as it descends will add to the uncertainty.
“The landing place depends on the wind on that day,” Dr. Yoshikawa said. The area that searchers might have to cover could stretch some 60 miles, he said.
The trail of the fireball of superheated air created by the re-entering capsule will help guide the recovery team, as will the capsule’s radio beacon. The task will become much more difficult if the beacon fails or if the parachute fails to deploy.
There is a bit of a rush, too. The team hopes to recover the capsule, perform initial analysis and whisk it back to Japan within 100 hours. Even though the capsule is sealed, the worry is that Earth air will slowly leak in. “There is no perfect sealing,” Dr. Tachibana said.
Once the capsule is found, a helicopter will take it to a laboratory that has been set up at the Australian air force base at Woomera. There an instrument will extract any gases within the capsule that may have been released by the asteroid rocks as they were shaken and broken during re-entry. Dr. Yoshikawa said the scientists would also like to see if they can detect any solar wind particles of helium that slammed into the asteroid and became embedded in the rocks.
The gases would also reassure the scientists that Hayabusa2 did indeed successfully collect samples from Ryugu. A minimum of 0.1 grams, or less than 1/280th of an ounce, is needed to declare success. The hope is the spacecraft brought back several grams.
In Japan, the Hayabusa2 team will begin analysis of the Ryugu samples. In about a year, some of the samples will be shared with other scientists for additional study.
To gather these samples, Hayabusa2 arrived at the asteroid in June 2018. It executed a series of investigations, each of escalating technical complexity. It dropped probes to the surface of Ryugu, blasted a hole in the asteroid to peer at what lies beneath and twice descended to the surface to grab small pieces of the asteroid, an operation that proved much more challenging than expected because of the many boulders on the surface.
Small worlds like Ryugu used to be of little interest to planetary scientists who focused on studying planets, said Masaki Fujimoto, deputy director general of the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, part of JAXA. “Minor bodies, who cares?” he said. “But if you are serious about the formation of planetary systems, small bodies actually matter.”
Studying water trapped in minerals from Ryugu could give hints if the water in Earth’s oceans came from asteroids, and if carbon-based molecules could have seeded the building blocks for life.
Part of the Ryugu samples will go to NASA, which is bringing back some rocks and soil from another asteroid with its OSIRIS-REX mission. The OSIRIS-REX space probe has been studying a smaller carbon-rich asteroid named Bennu and it will start back to Earth next spring, dropping off its rock samples in September 2023.
Ryugu and Bennu turned out to be surprisingly similar in some ways, both looking like spinning tops and with surfaces covered with boulders, but different in other ways. The rocks on Ryugu appear to contain much less water, for one. The significance of the similarities and differences will not become clear until after scientists study the rocks in more detail.
“When the OSIRIS-REX sample comes back, we will have lessons learned from the Hayabusa2 mission,” said Harold C. Connolly Jr., a geology professor at Rowan University in New Jersey and the mission sample scientist for OSIRIS-REX. “The similarities and differences are absolutely fascinating.”
Dr. Connolly hopes to go to Japan next summer to take part in analyzing the Ryugu samples.
Hayabusa2 is not Japan’s first planetary mission. Indeed, its name points to the existence of Hayabusa, an earlier mission that brought back samples from another asteroid, Itokawa. But that mission, which launched in 2003 and returned in 2010, faced major technical problems. So did JAXA’s Akatsuki spacecraft, currently in orbit around Venus, which the Japanese agency managed to restore to a scientific mission after years of difficulty. A Japanese mission to Mars also failed in 2003.
By contrast, operations of Hayabusa2 have gone almost flawlessly, even though it retains the same general design as its predecessor. “Actually, there are no big issues,” Dr. Yoshikawa, the mission manager, said. “Of course, small ones.”
He said the team studied in detail the failures on Hayabusa and made changes as needed, and also conducted numerous rehearsals to try to anticipate any contingencies it might encounter.
The Japanese missions generally operate on smaller budgets than NASA’s and thus often carry fewer instruments. Hayabusa2’s cost is less than $300 million while OSIRIS-REX’s price will run about $1 billion.
Dropping off the Ryugu samples is not the end of the Hayabusa2 mission. After releasing the return capsule, the main spacecraft shifted course to avoid a collision with Earth, missing by 125 miles. It will now travel to another asteroid, a tiny one designated 1998 KY26 that is only 100 feet in diameter but spinning rapidly, completing one rotation in less than 11 minutes.
Hayabusa2 will use two flybys of Earth to fling itself toward KY26, finally arriving in 2031. It will conduct some astronomical experiments during its extended deep space journey, and the spacecraft still carries one last projectile that it may use to test that space rock’s surface.
Watch unreal drone footage of Arecibo Observatory's catastrophic collapse – CNET
The National Science Foundation released stunning video footage Thursday capturing the exact dramatic moment theinto the 1,000-foot wide dish below. A drone happened to be performing an up-close investigation of the cables that still held the platform above the dish as the cables snapped on Tuesday.
The video of the massive radio telescope shows both the drone footage and the view from a camera in the visitor center that shows the platform falling into the dish just above the jungle floor in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. Two massive chunks of the cement towers that the cables were attached to can also be seen falling.
Two of the cables had previously broken, one in August anddestabilizing the telescope.
A drone was inspecting the site atop one of the towers, where one of the previous cable breaks had occurred, when the rest suddenly snapped.
The NSF had recently decided to decommission the telescope after a second cable broke in November.
“It was a dangerous situation,” John Abruzzo, who is with an engineering consulting firm called Thornton Tomasetti that was contracted by the NSF, told reporters Thursday. “Those cables could have failed at any time.”
On Tuesday, they did.
The NSF reports that no one was injured in the collapse and that the visitor center sustained only minor damage.
The telescope, which functioned for nearly 60 years, was the backdrop to a dramatic fight scene in the 1995 James Bond movie GoldenEye with Pierce Brosnan. It also appeared in the 1997 Jodie Foster movie Contact. But Arecibo’s true legacy lies in the many scientific discoveries it made possible. It explored pulsars, expanded our knowledge of Mercury, spotted exoplanets and found fast radio bursts.
Unfurling China's flag on moon_china.org.cn – China.org.cn
The China National Space Administration Friday released images showing China’s national flag unfurled from the Chang’e-5 probe on the moon.
The images were taken by a panoramic camera installed on the lander-ascender combination of the probe, before the ascender blasted off from the moon with lunar samples late Thursday.
In one of the images, a robotic arm to collect lunar samples can be seen next to the flag.
On Dec. 15, 2013, color images showed the Chinese flag on the country’s first moon rover Yutu, the first time the five-star red flag had been pictured on an extraterrestrial body.
Unlike the flags in China’s previous lunar missions, the flag on Chang’e-5 was made of real fabric, rather than a spray coating. Chinese engineers and technicians revealed the advanced engineering behind the special flag.
A flag made from traditional fabrics would most likely lose color and disintegrate in the harsh lunar environment of abrasive dust, unfiltered cosmic rays and solar flares.
The flag must also be as light and compact as possible, as the spacecraft has very little room for anything more than scientific equipment.
Last but not least, how to make the flag stay perfect en route to the moon and look good on camera?
The flag team from China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation Ltd. chose a scroll design, so the flag unfurls smooth and flat and not wrinkled and drooping.
It took them more than a year to find a new composite material that could stand the harsh environment and be dyed in China’s vivid national colors. After being rolled up, the fabric will not stick together in temperatures ranging from 150 degrees Celsius to 150 degrees below zero. The flag made from the fabric only weighs 12 grams.
Li Yunfeng, director of the flag system, said the flag system used a mechanical structure that has been applied to the unfolding of solar panels on satellites and spacecrafts. The structure also makes the system weighing no more than 1 kg.
At the top is a hollow ball structure to fix the flag. Engineer Huang Min and lathe operator Liao Guangheng were inspired by Gashapon capsule toys in making it so light.
A flag represents the dignity and honor of a country, said Huang and Liao: “We have to make sure it’s spotless and infallible.”
A detonator unfurls the flag. To make sure it unfurled in one second sharp, the team simulated the lunar environment with a massive temperature difference between day and night, and carried out dozens of tests.
Liu Haigang, a veteran milling machine operator, said the parts he was responsible for were the most difficult challenge of his career.
He said he felt so proud when he finally put the finished pieces in the box as it was like looking at a work of art.
“When it lands on the moon, I’ll tell my grandson ‘Grandpa made this’.”
China’s Chang’e-5 probe was launched on Nov. 24, and its lander-ascender combination touched down on the north of the Mons Rumker in Oceanus Procellarum, also known as the Ocean of Storms, on the near side of the moon on Dec. 1.
After the samples were collected and sealed, the ascender of Chang’e-5 took off from the lunar surface late Thursday, and is expected to carry out unmanned rendezvous and docking with the orbiter-returner in lunar orbit, an unprecedented feat.
Chang’e-5 is one of the most complicated and challenging missions in Chinese aerospace history, as well as the world’s first moon-sample mission in more than 40 years.
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