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SpaceX’s Crew Dragon slated to bring NASA astronauts home for the first time this weekend – The Verge



This weekend, two NASA astronauts are slated to return home to Earth inside SpaceX’s new passenger capsule, the Crew Dragon. It’ll be the first time that the Crew Dragon carries passengers back to the planet’s surface, ultimately proving if the vehicle can safely transport people to space and back.

Veteran astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will be aboard the spacecraft. The duo made history at the end of May when they launched to the International Space Station inside the Crew Dragon, marking the first time a privately made vehicle carried people to orbit. The launch heralded the return of human spaceflight in the US. The last time people flew to orbit from the United States was in 2011, with the last flight of the Space Shuttle. For nine years, NASA relied on Russian rockets to get astronauts to the ISS — but now the agency can use SpaceX’s vehicles instead.

While the launch received lots of fanfare, getting the astronauts home is an equally critical part of this mission. “From the laws of physics standpoint, we’re only halfway done,” Garrett Reisman, a former NASA astronaut and SpaceX consultant who used to work on the Crew Dragon, tells The Verge. “All that energy you put in [during launch], you have to take every bit of that energy out when you come home.” The Crew Dragon, with Behnken and Hurley inside, will have to undock from the station and plunge itself into Earth’s thick atmosphere. A heat shield should protect the crew from the intense heat created during the descent, which can reach up to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Eventually, the Crew Dragon will deploy a suite of parachutes, slowing the vehicle down so that it can splash down relatively gently in the Atlantic Ocean.

SpaceX has brought multiple spacecraft back from space before, but all of those vehicles were cargo versions of the Crew Dragon, which are different in shape and overall function. The Crew Dragon is more asymmetrical than its predecessor, thanks to the inclusion of an emergency abort system. The company has brought the Crew Dragon back to Earth from space before — but only once, during an uncrewed test flight of the vehicle in March 2019.

“Bringing a spaceship home, that’s a really big deal,” Benji Reed, director of crew mission management at SpaceX, said during a press conference on the landing. “And it’s very important, as part of that sacred honor that we have, for ensuring that we bring Bob and Doug back home to their families, to their kids, and making sure that they’re safe.”

This landing is the last big test for SpaceX as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, an initiative aimed at developing private spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from low Earth orbit. But before those flights can get started in earnest, SpaceX has to prove to NASA that its Crew Dragon vehicles are safe. The company had to do an uncrewed test flight of the Crew Dragon — sending it to the station and then back home again — as part of a mission called Demo-1. Behnken and Hurley are part of SpaceX’s first crewed test flight, a mission dubbed Demo-2.

The Crew Dragon has remained docked since arriving at the station on May 31st. The astronauts and NASA have done tons of analysis on the Crew Dragon to see how it’s held up in the space environment, and the vehicle seems to be doing just fine. “The systems on Dragon are doing very well,” Steve Stich, the manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said during the conference. “The spacecraft is very healthy.”

Right now, Behnken and Hurley are scheduled to undock from the space station at around 7:34PM ET on Saturday, August 1st. The capsule will then slowly distance itself from the ISS over the next several hours. Then on Sunday, August 2nd, the Crew Dragon is scheduled to fire up its thrusters at around 1:56PM ET, taking the vehicle out of orbit. The capsule should touch down in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida about an hour later at around 2:42PM ET. There are seven different landing sites where the Crew Dragon can potentially touch down.

This is all subject to change, as weather is a big limiting factor. The Crew Dragon is the first human-carrying spacecraft, since the Apollo missions, designed to land in water when it comes back to Earth, which means good weather at the landing site is key. NASA doesn’t want the astronauts landing in choppy water after pulling extra G forces on the way down to Earth. If things are too rough, the capsule could tip over, making it difficult for the astronauts to get out.

So for this landing, NASA wants calm waters and winds below 10 miles per hour at the landing site. The mission team doesn’t want rain or lightning in the area either. Originally, things weren’t looking good for a landing this weekend, as Hurricane Isaias was projected to track up the east coast of Florida on Saturday and Sunday. However, SpaceX has the option to land on the western coast of Florida if necessary, and NASA said it is moving forward with the schedule after a recent weather check.

NASA and SpaceX will continue to evaluate if they need to move the undocking. But ultimately, undocking can be called off right at the last minute. “Literally, we have about an hour period where we can undock and if at the last minute we thought that the weather or something wasn’t okay, the SpaceX team could command the vehicle and Bob or Doug could stop and stop the whole undock sequence,” Reed said.

Once the Crew Dragon does undock from the station, that means the spacecraft is most likely going to splash down, according to Reisman. “Once you separate from the space station, you’re committed to coming back,” he says. “Because you are using up consumables on board the vehicle — like propellant, oxygen, and so forth.” SpaceX does have flexibility over when that splashdown occurs. Most of the landing opportunities occur about 15 or 17 hours after undocking, according to Reed. But SpaceX can delay the splashdown until two days later if necessary. The Crew Dragon also has enough resources on board — such as food, oxygen, and more — to last up to three days.

Once in the water, Behnken and Hurley will wait inside the Crew Dragon until SpaceX’s two recovery boats arrive. The first vessel is designed to pull the Crew Dragon out of the water, while a crew of more than 40 people on board will help the astronauts out of the capsule. A second boat will recover the Crew Dragon’s parachutes, which will detach from the capsule after landing. If for some reason the astronauts are experiencing some kind of emergency, there is a helipad on board the main recovery boat, enabling a helicopter to evacuate Behnken and Hurley quickly from the splashdown site. But if that’s not necessary, the boat will take everyone to shore.

A successful landing should help pave the way for SpaceX to start doing routine missions to the ISS. A new Crew Dragon is already slated to fly in late September, carrying a crew of four to the space station for a longer mission. And then in spring of 2021, the Crew Dragon is scheduled for another flight with a crew of four. In fact, that mission next year will use the same Crew Dragon that Behnken and Hurley are coming home in. Just after SpaceX launched this Crew Dragon, NASA approved the company to reuse the capsules on future flights. And SpaceX says it won’t take long to turn them around. “We should be able to have Dragon refurbished and ready to go in just a matter of a couple months — two months,” Reed said.

But before Crew Dragon can be fly again, it has to come home. All eyes are on Behnken and Hurley’s return, and anxiety is high as the two attempt a safe landing. “Until they’re on the boat or even until they’re on shore and I see them get out of the Gulfstream [jet] in Houston, waving to the crowd, I’m still going to be nervous,” Reisman says.

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In space, bacteria is even more deadly and resilient to antibiotics – The Next Web



China recently launched its Tianwen-1 mission to Mars. A rocket holding an orbiter, lander and rover took flight from the country’s Hainan province, with hopes to deploy the rover on Mars’s surface by early next year.

Similarly, the launch of the Emirates Mars Mission marked the Arab world’s foray into interplanetary space travel. And on July 30, we saw NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover finally take off from Florida.

For many nations and their people, space is becoming the ultimate frontier. But although we’re gaining the ability to travel smarter and faster into space, much remains unknown about its effects on biological substances, including us.

While the possibilities of space exploration seem endless, so are its dangers. And one particular danger comes from the smallest life forms on Earth: bacteria.

Bacteria live within us and all around us. So whether we like it or not, these microscopic organisms tag along wherever we go – including into space. Just as space’s unique environment has an impact on us, so too does it impact bacteria.

[Read: Why are scientists trying to manufacture organs in space?]

We don’t yet know the gravity of the problem

All life on Earth evolved with gravity as an ever-present force. Thus, Earth’s life has not adapted to spend time in space. When gravity is removed or greatly reduced, processes influenced by gravity behave differently as well.

In space, where there is minimal gravity, sedimentation (when solids in a liquid settle to the bottom), convection (the transfer of heat energy), and buoyancy (the force that makes certain objects float) are minimized.

Similarly, forces such as liquid surface tension and capillary forces (when a liquid flows to fill a narrow space) become more intense.

It’s not yet fully understood how such changes impact lifeforms.

NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover will be launched later this month. Among other tasks, it will seek out past microscopic life and collect samples of Martian rock and regolith (broken rock and dust) to later be returned to Earth. NASA/Cover Images

How bacteria become more deadly in space

Worryingly, research from space flight missions has shown bacteria become more deadly and resilient when exposed to microgravity (when only tiny gravitational forces are present).

In space, bacteria seem to become more resistant to antibiotics and more lethal. They also stay this way for a short time after returning to Earth, compared with bacteria that never left Earth.

Adding to that, bacteria also seem to mutate quicker in space. However, these mutations are predominately for the bacteria to adapt to the new environment – not to become super deadly.

More research is needed to examine whether such adaptations do, in fact, allow the bacteria to cause more disease.

Bacterial teamwork is bad news for space stations

Research has shown space’s microgravity promotes biofilm formation of bacteria.

Biofilms are densely-packed cell colonies that produce a matrix of polymeric substances allowing bacteria to stick to each other, and to stationary surfaces.

Biofilms increase bacteria’s resistance to antibiotics, promote their survival, and improve their ability to cause infection. We have seen biofilms grow and attach to equipment on space stations, causing it to biodegrade.

For example, biofilms have affected the Mir space station’s navigation window, air conditioning, oxygen electrolysis block, water recycling unit, and thermal control system. The prolonged exposure of such equipment to biofilms can lead to malfunction, which can have devastating effects.

Another effect of microgravity on bacteria involves their structural distortion. Certain bacteria have shown reductions in cell size and increases in cell numbers when grown in microgravity.

In the case of the former, bacterial cells with the smaller surface areas have fewer molecule-cell interactions, and this reduces the effectiveness of antibiotics against them.

Moreover, the absence of effects produced by gravity, such as sedimentation and buoyancy, could alter the way bacteria take in nutrients or drugs intended to attack them. This could result in the increased drug resistance and infectiousness of bacteria in space.

All of this has serious implications, especially when it comes to long-haul space flights where gravity would not be present. Experiencing a bacterial infection that cannot be treated in these circumstances would be catastrophic.

The benefits of performing research in space

On the other hand, the effects of space also result in a unique environment that can be positive for life on Earth.

For example, molecular crystals in space’s microgravity grow much larger and more symmetrically than on Earth. Having more uniform crystals allows the formulation of more effective drugs and treatments to combat various diseases including cancers and Parkinson’s disease.

Also, the crystallization of molecules helps determine their precise structures. Many molecules that cannot be crystallized on Earth can be in space.

So, the structure of such molecules could be determined with the help of space research. This, too, would aid the development of higher-quality drugs.

Optical fiber cables can also be made to a much better standard in space, due to the optimal formation of crystals. This greatly increases data transmission capacity, making networking and telecommunications faster.

As humans spend more time in space, an environment riddled with known and unknown dangers, further research will help us thoroughly examine the risks – and the potential benefits – of space’s unique environment.

This article is republished from The Conversation by Vikrant Minhas, PhD candidate, University of Adelaide under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Annual Perseid meteor shower peaks this week: How you can catch some 'shooting stars' –



Looking for a fun, physical-distancing activity in the coming days? The best meteor shower of the year is upon us. 

The Perseid meteor shower is one of the best summertime treats. Under optimal conditions — clear, moonless dark skies — at its peak, the shower can produce up to 100 meteors an hour.

The meteor shower runs from July 17 to Aug. 26, with the peak occurring this year on the night of Aug. 11–12.

Meteor showers occur when Earth, as it orbits the sun, plows through debris left over from a passing comet or asteroid. These small, grain-sized pieces of debris burn up in our atmosphere, produce beautiful streaks of light, often referred to as “shooting stars.”

In this case, Earth is passing through a stream left from comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle. 

Try out this interactive map showing how Earth passes through the meteor shower:

When and where to watch

While last year’s shower was hampered by an almost full moon, the good news is that this year, the moon will only be 44 per cent illuminated and rise after midnight.

The biggest key to enjoying a meteor shower is getting away from light sources. That means finding a good, dark-sky location, such as a park or a beach. Also, stay away from your cellphone. As it takes our eyes some time to adjust to the dark, the phone’s bright light will make it more difficult to do so. Typically, it can take 30 minutes or longer for your eyes to adjust.

The greatest thing about meteor showers is that everyone can enjoy them. There’s no need for a telescope or even binoculars. All you need to do is grab a blanket or two, find a good location and look up.

A Perseid meteor in 2014 streaks over Starfest, a star party held annually in southwestern Ontario each August. This year, the Perseid meteor shower will peak on the night of Aug. 11-12. (Submitted by Malcolm Park)

See some ‘Earth-grazers’

Meteor showers are named after the constellation from which the meteors seem to originate, called the radiant. In this case, the radiant is in the constellation Perseus, hence the name.

The constellation rises in the northern sky at about 9:30 p.m. local time and continues to rise in the northeast. But you don’t have to look exactly in that direction to see the meteors. You can simply look up. 

In fact, if you’re doing your meteor-gazing at that time of night, the meteors will leave much longer trains — or streaks — in the sky as they skim the upper atmosphere. These are called “Earth-grazers” and can be seen low in the east moving from north to south. Though earlier in the night isn’t the most active time for meteors, the ones that you will see will likely be more spectacular as a result.

And you don’t have to look straight up because more meteors will be seen at somewhat lower elevations.

As the constellation rises higher in the sky, you will likely see more meteors. Of course, as the constellation rises, so, too, does the moon. That means that only the brightest meteors will be visible. The good thing is, the Perseids do tend to put on a show with some brilliant meteors seen even over urban areas. 

Now, if the weather doesn’t look like it’ll hold up, you can try watching on either side of the peak night, on Monday or Wednesday when meteor activity will still be high.

And, if you’re willing to go the distance, you can pull an all-nighter or wake up very early in the morning, as the best time to see meteors will be in the few hours before sunrise on Wednesday.

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NASA's Rover Is Taking a Tree-Like Device That Converts CO2 Into Oxygen to Mars – ScienceAlert



NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on 30 July, carrying a host of cutting-edge technology including high-definition video equipment and the first interplanetary helicopter.

Many of the tools are designed as experimental steps toward human exploration of the red planet. Crucially, Perseverance is equipped with a device called the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE: an attempt to produce oxygen on a planet where it makes up less than 0.2 percent of the atmosphere.

Oxygen is a cumbersome payload on space missions. It takes up a lot of room, and it’s very unlikely that astronauts could bring enough of it to Mars for humans to breathe there, let alone to fuel spaceships for the long journey home.

That’s the problem MOXIE is looking to solve. The car-battery-sized robot is a roughly 1 percent scale model of the device scientists hope to one day send to Mars, perhaps in the 2030s.

Like a tree, MOXIE works by taking in carbon dioxide, though it’s designed specifically for the thin Martian atmosphere. It then electrochemically splits the molecules into oxygen and carbon monoxide, and combines the oxygen molecules into O2.

It analyses the O2 for purity, shooting for about 99.6 percent O2. Then it releases both the breathable oxygen and the carbon monoxide back into the planet’s atmosphere. Future scaled-up devices, however, would store the oxygen produced in tanks for eventual use by humans and rockets.

A breakdown of the components inside the MOXIE oxygen generator. (NASA/Wikimedia Commons)

The toxicity of the carbon monoxide produced isn’t a worry, according to Michael Hecht, a principal investigator for MOXIE. The gas reenters the Martian atmosphere but won’t alter it very much.

“If you release the carbon monoxide into the Mars atmosphere, eventually it will combine with a very small amount of residual oxygen that’s there and turn back into carbon dioxide,” Hecht previously told Business Insider.

For that reason, the carbon monoxide also wouldn’t hinder a potential biosphere on Mars – a closed, engineered environment where Earthly life could thrive.

Because MOXIE is a small proof-of-concept experiment, it won’t produce much oxygen – if all goes well, it should be producing about 10 grams per hour, which is roughly the amount of oxygen in 1.2 cubic feet of Earth air. For context, humans need about 19 cubic feet of air per day.

MOXIE will test its capabilities by producing oxygen in one-hour increments intermittently throughout the duration of Perseverance’s mission, according to NASA. The device should start working soon after the rover lands on 18 February 2021.

This article was originally published by Business Insider.

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