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Stranded in Orbit: What's Next for Boeing's Starliner Capsule –



Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner won’t make it to the International Space Station (ISS) this weekend as planned, but the new crew capsule still has a busy few days ahead of it.

Starliner lifted off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket early this morning (Dec. 20), kicking off a critical uncrewed test mission to the ISS called Orbital Flight Test (OFT). The launch went well initially, but an issue with the capsule’s internal timing system prevented Starliner from performing the engine burns needed to meet up with the orbiting lab, NASA officials and Boeing representatives said.

“It’s safe to take off the table at this point, given the amount of fuel that we burned,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a news conference today, referring to the ISS docking and rendezvous operations that were a core part of the original OFT plan.

Related: Boeing’s 1st Starliner Flight Test in Photos

The timing problem apparently caused Starliner to believe, mistakenly, that it was performing an orbital insertion burn, Bridenstine added. This maneuver requires a precise orientation, so Starliner fired up its reaction-control thrusters to maintain that attitude — and kept firing them for a while.

“By the time we got that figured out, we had burned sufficient fuel that if we would’ve done an orbit-insertion burn to get to the International Space Station, it might not have been enough,” Bridenstine said. 

But all is not lost, Bridenstine stressed. Starliner is in a stable orbit and remains healthy, so the NASA-Boeing team is learning a great deal about how the capsule performs in space and ticking off some OFT milestones as well.

One big milestone Starliner’s handlers aim to achieve is a safe, controlled landing. The NASA-Boeing team still plans to bring Starliner down softly at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico and is already taking steps to make that happen.

Indeed, Starliner’s handlers have planned out two engine burns for today. Those maneuvers, which are scheduled for 1:40 p.m. EST and 2:25 p.m. EST (1840 and 1925 GMT), will raise the capsule’s orbit “to optimize the landing at White Sands,” Steve Stich, deputy manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said during today’s news conference. 

Starliner’s current, non-circular orbit takes it as close to Earth as 116 miles (186 kilometers) and as far away as 134 miles (216 km), Stich added. (For perspective: The ISS circles our planet at an altitude of about 250 miles, or 400 km.)

The earliest landing opportunity for Starliner would come Sunday (Dec. 22) around 7:30 a.m. EST (1230 GMT), Stich said. That’s six days earlier than the original OFT timeline, which envisioned a touchdown on Dec. 28.

But a Dec. 22 return is not set in stone. The team may decide to keep Starliner in orbit for a little longer to notch a few more milestones, such as stationkeeping performance, Bridenstine and others said. The team is still assessing the situation — both what exactly went wrong, and what the path forward should be — so the current thinking may well shift.

And it’s too soon to map out the next steps for the Starliner test campaign, Bridenstine said. For example, it’s unclear if NASA — which has funded Starliner’s development via the Commercial Crew Program — will want the capsule to ace a second version of OFT before astronauts ride the vehicle. In the original plan, OFT was to be followed by a crewed demonstration mission to the ISS in mid-2020, which would then clear the way for operational, contracted flights.

“I think it’s too early for us to make that assessment,” Bridenstine said. 

He also noted that, if astronauts had been on board Starliner today, they may well have been able to troubleshoot the timing issue and get the capsule on its intended way. (Bridenstine further stressed that today’s anomaly would not have posed a safety risk to crew.)

Starliner isn’t the only private astronaut taxi in development. SpaceX also holds a NASA commercial crew deal, which it will fulfill with its Crew Dragon capsule. Crew Dragon successfully flew its version of OFT, which was called Demo-1, back in March. (That capsule was destroyed the next month, however, during a ground test of its thruster systems.)

SpaceX is prepping for another crucial milestone next month, an in-flight abort (IFA) test that will demonstrate Crew Dragon’s emergency escape system. If all goes well with the IFA, SpaceX will be clear to proceed with Demo-2, its crewed demonstration flight to the orbiting lab.

Mike Wall’s book about the search for alien life, “Out There” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), is out now. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook

Need more space? Subscribe to our sister title “All About Space” Magazine for the latest amazing news from the final frontier! (Image credit: All About Space)

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Meet Qikiqtania, a fossil fish who stayed in the water while others ventured onto land – Big Think



Approximately 365 million years ago, one group of fishes left the water to live on land. These animals were early tetrapods, a lineage that would radiate to include many thousands of species including amphibians, birds, lizards and mammals. Human beings are descendants of those early tetrapods, and we share the legacy of their water-to-land transition.

But what if, instead of venturing onto the shores, they had turned back? What if these animals, just at the cusp of leaving the water, had receded to live again in more open waters?

A new fossil suggests that one fish, in fact, did just that. In contrast to other closely related animals, which were using their fins to prop their bodies up on the bottom of the water and perhaps occasionally venturing out onto land, this newly discovered creature had fins that were built for swimming.

Tom Stewart holds the Qikiqtania fossil. (Stephanie Sang / CC BY-ND)

In March 2020, I was at The University of Chicago and a member of biologist Neil Shubin’s lab. I was working with Justin Lemberg, another researcher in our group, to process a fossil that was collected back in 2004 during an expedition to the Canadian Arctic.

From the surface of the rock it was embedded in, we could see fragments of the jaws, about 2 inches long (5 cm) and with pointed teeth. There were also patches of white scales with bumpy texture. The anatomy gave us subtle hints that the fossil was an early tetrapod. But we wanted to see inside the rock.

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So we used a technology called CT scanning, which shoots X-rays through the specimen, to look for anything that might be hidden within, out of view. On March 13, we scanned an unassuming piece of rock that had a few scales on top and discovered it contained a complete fin buried inside. Our jaws dropped. A few days later, the lab and campus shut down, and COVID-19 sent us into lockdown.

The fin revealed

A fin like this is extremely precious. It can give scientists clues into how early tetrapods were evolving and how they were living hundreds of millions of years ago. For example, based on the shape of certain bones in the skeleton, we can make predictions about whether an animal was swimming or walking.

Although that first scan of the fin was promising, we needed to see the skeleton in high resolution. As soon as we were allowed back on campus, a professor in the university’s department of the geophysical sciences helped us to trim down the block using a rock saw. This made the block more fin, less rock, allowing for a better scan and a closer view of the fin.

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When the dust had cleared and we’d finished analyzing data on the jaws, scales and fin, we realized that this animal was a new species. Not only that, it turns out that this is one of the closest known relatives to limbed vertebrates – those creatures with fingers and toes.

We named it Qikiqtania wakei. Its genus name, pronounced “kick-kiq-tani-ahh,” refers to the Inuktitut words Qikiqtaaluk or Qikiqtani, the traditional name for the region where the fossil was found. When this fish was alive, many hundreds of millions of years ago, this was a warm environment with rivers and streams. Its species name honors the late David Wake, a scientist and mentor who inspired so many of us in the field of evolutionary and developmental biology.

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Skeletons tell how an animal lived

Qikiqtania reveals a lot about a critical period in our lineage’s history. Its scales tell researchers unambiguously that it was living underwater. They show sensory canals that would have allowed the animal to detect the flow of water around its body. Its jaws tell us that it was foraging as a predator, biting and holding onto prey with a series of fangs and drawing food into its mouth by suction.

But it is Qikiqtania’s pectoral fin that is most surprising. It has a humerus bone, just as our upper arm does. But Qikiqtania’s has a very peculiar shape.

Early tetrapods, like Tiktaalik, have humeri that possess a prominent ridge on the underside and a characteristic set of bumps, where muscles attach. These bony bumps tell us that early tetrapods were living on the bottom of lakes and streams, using their fins or arms to prop themselves up, first on the ground underwater and later on land.

Qikiqtania’s humerus is different. It lacks those trademark ridges and processes. Instead, its humerus is thin and boomerang-shaped, and the rest of the fin is large and paddle-like. This fin was built for swimming.

Whereas other early tetrapods were playing at the water’s edge, learning what land had to offer, Qikiqtania was doing something different. Its humerus is truly unlike any others known. My colleagues and I think it shows that Qikiqtania had turned back from the water’s edge and evolved to live, once again, off the ground and in open water.

Evolution isn’t a march in one direction

Evolution isn’t a simple, linear process. Although it might seem like early tetrapods were trending inevitably toward life on land, Qikiqtania shows exactly the limitations of such a directional perspective. Evolution didn’t build a ladder towards humans. It’s a complex set of processes that together grow the tangled tree of life. New species form and they diversify. Branches can head off in any number of directions.

Neil Shubin, who found the fossil, pointing across the valley to the site where Qikiqtania was discovered on Ellesmere Island. (Neil Shubin / CC BY-ND)

This fossil is special for so many reasons. It’s not just miraculous that this fish was preserved in rock for hundreds of millions of years before being discovered by scientists in the Arctic, on Ellesmere Island. It’s not just that it’s remarkably complete, with its full anatomy revealed by serendipity at the cusp of a global pandemic. It also provides, for the first time, a glimpse of the broader diversity and range of lifestyles of fishes at the water-to-land transition. It helps researchers see more than a ladder and understand that fascinating, tangled tree.

Discoveries depend on community

Qikiqtania was found on Inuit land, and it belongs to that community. My colleagues and I were only able to conduct this research because of the generosity and support of individuals in the hamlets of Resolute Bay and Grise Fiord, the Iviq Hunters and Trappers of Grise Fiord, and the Department of Heritage and Culture, Nunavut. To them, on behalf of our entire research team, “nakurmiik.” Thank you. Paleontological expeditions onto their land have truly changed how we understand the history of life on Earth.

COVID-19 kept many paleontologists from traveling and visiting field sites across the world these last few years. We’re eager to return, to visit with old friends and to search again. Who knows what other animals lie hidden, waiting to be discovered inside blocks of unassuming stone.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Hubble Space Telescope captures a dazzling star cluster –



Sure, the Webb telescope is getting most of the attention these days — and it should. It’s a monumental achievement!

But the James Webb Space Telescope‘s predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, is showing us why it shouldn’t be forgotten. 

NASA and ESA, who co-manage Hubble, have just released (opens in new tab) a new spectacular image of globular cluster NGC 6638, a star cluster in the constellation Sagittarius. The image was created from observations by Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 and the Advanced Camera for Surveys.

Related: Hubble Space Telescope: Pictures, facts & history

Prior to Hubble, it was nearly impossible to discern the individual stars in a globular cluster, which is a dense collection of ancient stars numbering in the tens of thousands to millions. Because ground-based telescopes have to peer through the Earth’s atmosphere in order to see the stars, their view can sometimes become distorted. 

That’s less of an issue for Hubble, which orbits Earth at 340 miles (547 kilometers) above the surface. By comparison, Webb is about 1 million miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth, far beyond though it primarily operates in the infrared spectrum, while Hubble operates in the visible-light spectrum.)

That means Hubble is technically located within the atmosphere, which extends out 6,200 miles (10,00 kilometers). In fact, it’s even close enough that astronauts can visit to perform repairs. (Or at least they could when the space shuttle flew.) But Hubble is located at a point in which the atmosphere is so thin that it doesn’t obscure the observatory’s view of the stars.

Related stories:

As such, Hubble has been instrumental in globular cluster research, and it continues to make new discoveries regularly. 

While Hubble is already more than 30 years old, the telescope still has quite a bit of life left in it, and scientists will continue to use it in conjunction with the James Webb telescope to answer the biggest questions about the cosmos.

The new image was released on Aug. 1.

Follow Stefanie Waldek on Twitter @StefanieWaldek (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) and on Facebook (opens in new tab). 

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Nunavut's ancient Qikiqtania fish fossil helps shed new light on evolution –



Nunavut’s rich fossil record has a new star, the roughly 365-million-year-old Qikiqtania Wakei.

It was named after the Qikiqtani region of Nunavut, where it was found, and the late David Wake, an acclaimed evolutionary biologist.

“Some of the fossils that are coming out of Ellesmere Island and northern Canada are so important for how we as scientists and people in general understand this period of life on earth,” said Tom Stewart, an assistant professor at Penn State, who recently reported about Qikiqtania in the journal Nature.

Millions of years back, it was a different world: When Qikiqtania lived in the polar region, the now-treeless land would have resembled today’s Amazon River delta.

Tom Stewart, assistant professor at Penn State, looks at the fossils of Qikiqtania. (Stephanie Sang)

In its waters were fish, some of which had started to move on to the land.

But, among those fish which left behind fossil traces, Qikiqtania has revealed itself to be a new creature.

“It’s exciting for a few reasons,” Stewart said.

They knew Qikiqtania was new and “also something very unusual,” he said.

“From a first impression, we could tell this was an animal that is closely related to the first animals that had fingers and toes. “

But Qikiqtania’s fins showed it was quite different from those first animals.

That’s because they didn’t see any muscles which would have needed to be move onto land.

“It was doing something very different. This fish was not [out of the water.] We think this was the evolution of a fish that used to live on the ground,” he said.

Looking at animals today, Stewart said it’s not “so crazy” to think of a fish transitioning from water to land or back and forth over time.

A portrait of a man pointing into the broad landscape around him.
Neil Shubin, professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy at the University of Chicago, stands in Ellesmere Island where he discovered both the Qikiqtania and Tiktaalik fossils days apart in 2004. (Edward Daeschler)

Some frogs also live wholly in the water, while others live mainly on the land, he said.

But to see a similar dynamic taking place so long ago, through Qikiqtania, was “really exciting and unexpected for us,” Stewart said.

But the revelation wasn’t immediate.

It started on a 2004 trip to Ellesmere near the eastern arm of Bird Fiord, where Neil Shubin, now at the University of Chicago, had picked up the fossil, which was lying exposed on the ground.

Members of the team would walk on the rocks on hillsides looking for a particular colour or texture that might indicate a fossil.

In the case of Qikiqtania, the scales of the fish were white and they had bumps on them, so they knew there was a fossil.

In 2004, the fossil was bundled up and taken south, along with hundreds of others, for painstaking study.

Finally two years ago, Stewart and his team brought the fossil to Shubin’s laboratory for a CT scan.

“We could look inside the fossil and see a whole lot of preserved parts of the animal that we didn’t know existed,” said Stewart, adding it was new but “also something very unusual.”

Pieces of the fish's fossils, including its jaw and scales are laid out in a row.
This image shows the preserved jaws and scales from the Qikiqtania fossil. (Tom Stewart)

Fossils of an ancient fish species Tiktaalik roseae were also found during that 2004 trip to Ellesmere.

Tiktaalik is one of the best-known ancient transitional species between fish and land-dwelling tetrapods, or animals with two pairs of limbs.

Both Qikiqtania and Tiktalik will remain at the Nunavut fossil collection of the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa until a museum facility can welcome them home.

Research on Qikiqtani took place thanks to people in Resolute Bay and Grise Fiord, the Iviq Hunters and Trappers of Grise Fiord, and Nunavut’s Department of Heritage and Culture.

To them— and on behalf of the entire research team, Stewart said “nakurmiik.”

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