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The $400 billion space industry is bracing for coronavirus, as two NASA employees test positive

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The Atlas V 431 rocket rolled out to the SLC-41 pad December 17 in preparation for the EchoStar XIX satellite launch December 18.

Lockheed Martin and United Launch Alliance

While schedule delays are nothing new in the business of space, companies in the estimated $400 billion industry are largely bracing for widespread work from home policies that could grind production and development to a halt.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Blue Origin are just a few of the organizations that have begun to limit business travel, reschedule events and move some workers to remote set-ups. But building complex spacecraft, developing software with high-powered computers and working in research teams will likely be out of the question if the conronavirus pandemic continues to worsen. Johns Hopkins University reported the U.S. has at least 3,244 confirmed cases and the CDC on Sunday urged organizers to cancel in-person events with 50 people or more in attendance throughout the country.

“We have a lot of ambiguity at this moment,” Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen, the leader of NASA’s science division, said at a meeting on Thursday.

Two NASA employees test positive so far

The agency’s Marshall center in Huntsville, Alabama reported on Friday that a NASA employee tested posted for coronavirus. Marshall is now in a “Stage 3” response status, meaning that it is requiring employees telework and saying that “access to the center will be restricted to mission-essential personnel only.”

“More guidance will follow for those who do not have equipment to work from home or who work in labs or other facilities requiring similar technical equipment that is a fixed asset,” Marshall director Jody Singer said in a statement.

Marshall joins NASA’s Ames center in Silicon Valley in a “Stage 3” status. Ames had an employee test positive for coronavirus a week ago, although NASA said at the time it believed “exposure at the center has been limited.”

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

NASA

Additionally, the privately-run visitor complex at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida said it will be closed Mar. 16 until further notice, with no visitors allowed.

Two of the space industry’s biggest conferences were affected by preventive measures taken in response to coronavirus. The Satellite 2020 conference in Washington, D.C. was cut short early last week and had lighter than expected attendance, while the 36th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado at the end of the month was postponed indefinitely. Both conferences typically draw tens of thousands of attendees.

The months ahead have a full roster of planned launches, many of which require NASA or U.S. military personnel to move forward. The Department of Defense halted even domestic travel for personnel through May 11, although exceptions may be granted for “mission-essential” travel. NASA spokesperson Bettina Inclán told CNBC on Friday that the agency is “proactively monitoring” the situation and has “plans in place to address issues as they arise.”

“Currently, the coronavirus has not significantly affected NASA’s operations and work continues on track, such as preparations for the upcoming launches of the Mars Perseverance rover mission and NASA’s Commercial Crew flight test (SpaceX’s Demo2) to the International Space Station, and construction of our James Webb Space Telescope targeted for launch next year,” Inclán said in a statement.

SpaceX’s first astronaut flight coming up

The SpaceX Demo-2 mission is just a few weeks away, with the company’s president saying earlier this week that it aims to launch in May. It would be the first time the company flies astronauts, with two NASA astronauts visiting ISS for at least a few days.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches a test of the company’s Crew Dragon capsule.

SpaceX

“As the coronavirus situation continues, we’ll make adjustment as appropriate,” Inclán said.

SpaceX appears to be moving forward with its operations largely unchanged so far. CEO Elon Musk wrote in a tweet last week that “the coronavirus panic is dumb” and reportedly told employees in an email on Friday that “the risk of death from C19 is *vastly* less than the risk of death from driving your car home.”

However, Musk reportedly did tell employees that if they’re “feeling ill” that “it’s always better to stay home and take care of yourself.”

SpaceX employees in the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California are continuing to work in the meantime. It is unclear how the company’s satellite production facility in Redmond, Washington — just outside of Seattle, one of the worst coronavirus hot spots in the U.S. — has been affected. SpaceX did not respond to CNBC’s request for comment on measures it is taking in response to the pandemic.

Blue Origin, the space venture of Jeff Bezos, is based in Kent, Washington — another city just outside of Seattle. The company told CNBC it has yet to see an impact to its core operations as a result of coronavirus but that it was prepared if more extensive changes to its business are necessary.

“We are being accommodating to our workforce, financially supporting self-quarantine actions, and enabling those who can work from home to be able to do so. We are also implementing measures to social distance our workforce and keep our facilities clean and safe,” Blue Origin vice president of communications Linda Mills said in a statement.

Source: Boeing

Work on some of the nation’s most expensive space programs is continuing for the time being, with NASA and Boeing continuing to work in Louisiana on the Space Launch System (SLS). In a statement, NASA said work on SLS is considered “mission critical operations” but that the agency is continuing to closely monitor the coronavirus situation.

Boeing said in a statement that it “not made any changes to our operational engineering support for the International Space Station,” with engineers on-site. But the company’s Houston facility “is operating in accordance with Boeing’s Covid-19 policies,” with telecommuting encouraged and reduced face-to-face meetings.

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NASA releases highest resolution photos ever taken on the surface of Mars | Mapped – Daily Hive

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NASA’s Curiosity rover has taken its highest-resolution panorama image of the surface of Mars to date.

Made up of over 1,000 images captured over the Thanksgiving holiday back in 2019, later assembled over the following months, the photo includes 1.8 billion pixels of the landscape of the Red Planet, according to a post published on NASA’s website.

The image was taken by the rover’s Mast Camera, or Mastcam, with its telephoto lens while its medium-angle lens also captured a lower-resolution, almost 650-million-pixel panorama shot, which includes the deck and ‘arm’ of the rover.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The images, taken between November 24 and December 1, 2019, display an area on the side of the planet’s Mount Sharp called “Glen Torridon,” where the Curiosity rover has been exploring.

“Sitting still with few tasks to do while awaiting the team to return and provide its next commands, the rover had a rare chance to image its surroundings from the same vantage point several days in a row.” the post explains.

Viewers can even zoom in to inspect the panorama further through a unique tool offered on NASA’s website.

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According to the post, it took Curiosity six and a half hours over four days to capture all of the comprising shots to build the entire image.

Operators of the Mastcam programmed a specific task list, including maneuvering the mast of the rover to ensure that the images were in focus.

To make sure that the lighting was consistent, operators limited the time that the rover captured images to be between noon and 2 pm “local Mars time” every day.

“While many on our team were at home enjoying turkey, Curiosity produced this feast for the eyes,” Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity’s project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which leads the rover’s mission, stated in the post.

“This is the first time during the mission we’ve dedicated our operations to a stereo 360-degree panorama.”

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How were Supermassive Black Holes Already Forming and Releasing Powerful Jets Shortly After the Big Bang? – Universe Today

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In the past few decades, astronomers have been able to look farther into the Universe (and also back in time), almost to the very beginnings of the Universe. In so doing, they’ve learned a great deal about some of the earliest galaxies in the Universe and their subsequent evolution. However, there are still some things that are still off-limits, like when galaxies with supermassive black holes (SMBHs) and massive jets first appeared.

According to recent studies from the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) and a team of astronomers from Japan and Taiwan provide new insight on how supermassive black holes began forming just 800 million years after the Big Bang, and relativistic jets less than 2 billion years after. These results are part of a growing case that shows how massive objects in our Universe formed sooner than we thought.

Astronomers have known about SMBHs for over half a century. In time, they came to realize that most massive galaxies (including the Milky Way) have them at their cores. The role they play in the evolution of galaxies has also been the subject of study, with modern astronomers concluding that they are directly related to the rate of star formation in galaxies.

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Similarly, astronomers have found that SMBHs have tight accretion disks around them where gas and dust are accelerated to close to the speed of light. This causes the center of some galaxies to become so bright – what are known as active galactic nuclei (AGNs) – that they outshine the stars in their disks. In some cases, these accretion disks also lead to jets of hot material that can be seen from billions of light-years away.

According to conventional models, galaxies didn’t have enough time to develop central black holes when the Universe was less than a billion years old (ca. 13 billion years ago). However, recent observations have shown that black holes were already forming at the center of galaxies at the time. Addressing this, a team of scientists from SISSA proposed a new model that offers a possible explanation.

For their study, which was led by Lumen Boco – a Ph.D. student from the Institute for Fundamental Physics of the Universe (IFPU) – the team started with the well-known fact that SMBHs grow in the central regions of early galaxies. These objects, the progenitors of elliptical galaxies today, had a very high concentration of gas and an extremely intense rate of new star formation.

The first generations of stars in these galaxies was short-lived and quickly evolved into black holes that were relatively small, but significant in number. The dense gas that surrounded them led to significant dynamic friction and caused them to migrate quickly to the center of the galaxy. This is where they merged to create the seeds of supermassive black holes – which slowly grew over time.

Artist’s impression of the path of the star S2 as it passes very close to the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

As the research team explained in recent SISS press release:

“According to classical theories, a supermassive black hole grows at the centre of a galaxy capturing the surrounding matter, principally gas, “growing it” on itself and finally devouring it at a rhythm which is proportional to its mass. For this reason, during the initial phases of its development, when the mass of the black hole is small, the growth is very slow. To the extent that, according to the calculations, to reach the mass observed, billions of times that of the Sun, a very long time would be required, even greater than the age of the young Universe.”

However, the original mathematical model they developed showed that the formation process for central black holes could be very rapid in its initial phases. This not only offers an explanation for the existence of SMBH seeds in the early Universe but also reconciles the timing of their growth with the known age of the Universe.

In short, their study showed that the process of migration and mergers of early black holes can lead to the creation of an SMBH seed of 10,000 to 100,000 solar masses in just 50-100 million years. As the team explained:

“[T]he growth of the central black hole according to the aforementioned direct accretion of gas, envisaged by the standard theory, will become very fast, because the quantity of gas it will succeed in attracting and absorbing will become immense, and predominant on the process we propose. Nevertheless, precisely the fact of starting from such a big seed as envisaged by our mechanism speeds up the global growth of the supermassive black hole and allows its formation, also in the Young Universe. In short, in light of this theory, we can state that 800 million years after the Big Bang the supermassive black holes could already populate the Cosmos.”

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In addition to proposing a working model for observed SMBH seeds, the team also suggested a method for testing it. On the one hand, there are the gravitational waves that these mergers would cause, which could be identifiable using gravitational wave detectors like Advanced LIGO/Virgo and characterized by the future Einstein Telescope.

In addition, the subsequent development phases of SMBHs is something that could be investigated by missions like the ESA’s Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), which is expected to launch by around 2034. In a similar vein, another team of astronomers recently used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to address another mystery about galaxies, which is why some have jets and others don’t.

These fast-moving streams of ionized matter, which travel at relativistic speeds (a fraction of the speed of light), have been observed emanating from the center of some galaxies. These jets have been linked to a galaxy’s rate of star formation because of the way they expel matter that would otherwise collapse to form new stars. In other words, these jets play a role in the evolution of galaxies, much like SMBHs.

For this reason, astronomers have sought to learn more about how black hole jets and gaseous clouds have interacted over time. Unfortunately, it has been difficult to observe these kinds of interactions during the early Universe. Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), a team of astronomers managed to obtain the first resolved image of disturbed gaseous clouds coming from a very distant quasar.

Reconstructed images of MG J0414+0534, showing emissions from dust and ionized gas around a quasar (red) and carbon monoxide gas (green), which have a bipolar structure along the jets. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), K. T. Inoue et al.

The study that describes their findings, led by Prof. Kaiki Taro Inoue of Kindai University, recently appeared in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. As Inoue and his colleagues explained, the ALMA data revealed young bipolar jets emanating from MG J0414+0534, a quasar located roughly 11 billion light-years from Earth. These findings show that galaxies with SMBHs and jets existed when the Big Bang was less than 3 billion years old.

In addition to ALMA, the team relied on a technique known as gravitational lensing, where the gravity of an intervening galaxy magnifies light coming from a distant object. Thanks to this “cosmic telescope” and ALMA’s high resolution, the team was able to observe the disturbed gaseous clouds around MG J0414+0534 and determine that they were caused by young jets emanating from an SMBH at the center of the galaxy.

As Kouichiro Nakanishi, a project associate professor at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan/SOKENDAI, explained in an ALMA press release:

“Combining this cosmic telescope and ALMA’s high-resolution observations, we obtained exceptionally sharp vision, that is 9,000 times better than human eyesight. With this extremely high resolution, we were able to obtain the distribution and motion of gaseous clouds around jets ejected from a supermassive black hole.”

These observations also showed that the gas was impacted where it followed the direction of the jets, causing particles to move violently and become accelerated to speeds of up to 600 km/s (370 mps). What’s more, these impacted gaseous clouds and the jets themselves were much smaller than the size of a typical galaxy at this age.

Artist’s impression of MG J0414+0534, showing the powerful jets that disturb the surrounding gas in the host galaxy. Credit: Kindai University

From this, the team concluded that they were witnessing a very early phase of jet evolution in the MG J0414+0534 galaxy. If true, these observations allowed the team to witness a key evolutionary process in galaxies during the early Universe. As Inoue summarized:

“MG J0414+0534 is an excellent example because of the youth of the jets. We found telltale evidence of significant interaction between jets and gaseous clouds even in the very early evolutionary phase of jets. I think that our discovery will pave the way for a better understanding of the evolutionary process of galaxies in the early Universe.”

Together, these studies demonstrate that two of the most powerful astronomical phenomena in the Universe emerged earlier than expected. This discovery also provides astronomers with the opportunity to explore how these phenomena evolved over time, and the role they played in the evolution of the Universe.

Further Reading: SISSA, ALMA, Astrophysical Journal, Astrophysical Journal Letters

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NASA's webb telescope will shoot a lens into the early universe next year – Designboom

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our knowledge of the cosmos will change when NASA launches its $10 billion webb telescope

in exactly one year, NASA‘s james webb telescope — a tennis court-sized telescope covered in honeycomb mirrors — will make its way into space. on it’s list of duties, the device will study the solar system, directly image exoplanets, photograph the first galaxies, and explore the mysteries of the origins of the universe.

image courtesy of NASA/chris gunn

named after james E. webb, a NASA administrator during the apollo era, the webb telescope is a joint venture between NASA, the european space agency (ESA), the canadian space agency (CSA) and space telescope science institute (STSCI). its’ mission is to look back through time to when galaxies were young. webb will do this by observing galaxies that are very distant, at over 13 billion light years away.

our knowledge of the cosmos will change when NASA launches its $10 billion webb telescope

NASA/chris gunn

in order to do so, several innovative technologies have been developed for webb including a primary mirror made of 18 separate segments that unfold and adjust to shape after launch. made of ultra-lightweight beryllium — a metal that can endure extremely heat — this will ensure that the telescope holds its shape across a range of cryogenic temperatures, which is just what it would encounter in space on the webb telescope. this reflective surface will also act as the mirror needed to measure the light from these distant galaxies.

our knowledge of the cosmos will change when NASA launches its $10 billion webb telescope

NASA/MSFC/david higginbotham

the telescope’s four instruments – cameras and spectrometers – have detectors that are able to record extremely faint signals. one instrument (NIRSPEC) has programmable microshutters, which enable observation up to 100 objects simultaneously. webb also has a cryocooler for cooling the mid-infrared detectors of another instrument (miri) to a very cold 7k so they can work.

our knowledge of the cosmos will change when NASA launches its $10 billion webb telescope

NASA/chris gunn

on tuesday, march 30, 2021, webb will launch on a european ariane 5 rocket from the guiana space centre to the northwest of kourou in french guiana. after that, it will observe the universe from the second lagrange point (L2) around a million miles/1.5 million kilometers from earth, sending its images back to earth via NASA’s deep space network.

at least that is the plan. NASA administrator jim bridenstine recently announced that the work on the james webb space telescope had been paused because of the coronavirus crisis. the statement said that both nasa and northrop grumman are ‘suspending integration and testing operations’ on the multi-billion-dollar observatory, which is currently set for some testing at a northrop grumman plant in california.

project info

name: james webb telescope
agency: NASA

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