NASA

The James Webb Space Telescope Has Emerged From the Freezer (arstechnica.com) 40

The James Webb Space Telescope has emerged from a large vacuum chamber that was home to temperatures of just 20 degrees Celsius above absolute zero. Scientists have reviewed the data and given the instrument a clean bill of health. "We now have verified that NASA and its partners have an outstanding telescope and set of science instruments," said Bill Ochs, the Webb telescope project manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "We are marching toward launch." Ars Technica reports: The $10 billion telescope underwent tests inside Chamber A at Johnson Space Center, which was built in 1965 to conduct thermal-vacuum testing on the Apollo command and service modules. Beginning in mid-July, after the telescope was cooled down to a temperature range of 20 to 40 Kelvin, engineers tested the alignment of Webb's 18 primary mirror segments to ensure they would act as a single, 6.5-meter telescope. (They did). Later, they assessed the fine guidance system of the telescope by simulating the light of a distant star. The Webb telescope was able to detect the light, and all of the optical systems were able to process it. Then, the telescope was able to track the "star" and its movement, giving scientists confidence that the Webb instrument will work once in space. Webb still has a ways to go before it launches. Now that project scientists know that the optic portion of the instrument can withstand the vacuum of space, and the low temperatures at the Earth-Sun L2 point it will orbit in deep space, they must perform additional testing before a probable launch next year.
NASA

SpaceX and Boeing Slated For Manned Space Missions By Year's End (fortune.com) 62

schwit1 shares a report from Fortune, covering NASA's announcement last week that it expects SpaceX to conduct a crewed test flight by the end of the year: SpaceX's crewed test flight is slated for December, after an uncrewed flight in August. Boeing will also be demonstrating its CST-100 Starliner capsule, with a crewed flight in November following an uncrewed flight in August. NASA's goal is to launch crews to the ISS from U.S. soil, a task that has fallen to Russia's space program since the retirement of the U.S. Space Shuttle program in 2011. NASA began looking for private launch companies to take over starting in 2010, and contracted both SpaceX and Boeing in 2014 to pursue crewed launches. The push to restore America's crewed spaceflight capacity has been delayed in part, according to a detailed survey by Ars Technica, by Congress redirecting funds in subsequent years. The test flights could determine whether Boeing or SpaceX conducts the first U.S. commercial space launch to the ISS. Whichever company gets that honor may also claim a symbolic U.S. flag stuck to a hatch on the space station. Sources speaking to Ars describe the race between the two companies as too close to call, and say that a push to early 2019 is entirely possible. But in an apparent vote of confidence, NASA has already begun naming astronauts to helm the flights.
Moon

Scientists Think They've Discovered Lava Tubes Leading To the Moon's Polar Ice (sciencealert.com) 59

schwit1 quotes ScienceAlert: Small pits in a large crater on the Moon's North Pole could be "skylights" leading down to an underground network of lava tubes -- tubes holding hidden water on Earth's nearest neighbour, according to new research. There's no lava in them now of course, though that's originally how the tubes formed in the Moon's fiery past. But they could indicate easy access to a water source if we ever decide to develop a Moon base sometime in the future.

Despite the Moon's dry and dusty appearance, scientists think it contains a lot of water trapped as frozen ice. What these new observations carried out by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) show is that it might be much more accessible than we thought... Scientists have long been thinking about how to extract the ice reserves we think are up there -- solar power was originally out of the question, as it's the freezing shadowed areas of the Moon that have preserved the ice in the first place. Not only would natural skylights like these provide easier access to the underground ice, it would also mean solar power would be back on the table as an idea.

Mars

Ice Cliffs Spotted On Mars (sciencemag.org) 83

sciencehabit writes from a report via Science Magazine: Scientists have discovered eight cliffs of nearly pure water ice on Mars, some of which stand nearly 100 meters tall. The discovery points to large stores of underground ice buried only a meter or two below the surface at surprisingly low martian latitudes, in regions where ice had not yet been detected. Each cliff seems to be the naked face of a glacier, tantalizing scientists with the promise of a layer-cake record of past martian climates and space enthusiasts with a potential resource for future human bases. Scientists discovered the cliffs with a high-resolution camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, revisiting the sites to show their subsequent retreat as a result of vaporization, and their persistence in the martian summer. The hunt should now be on, scientists say, for similar sites closer to the equator. The findings have been reported in this week's issue of Science.
Moon

John Young, Legendary Astronaut, Dies at Age 87 (cbsnews.com) 41

Legendary astronaut John Young -- who walked on the moon and piloted the first space shuttle -- died Friday at the age of 87. schwit1 shares a nice profile from CBS News: A naval aviator and test pilot, Young logged more than 15,275 hours flying time in a variety of aircraft, including 9,200 hours in T-38 jets. He spent 835 hours in space across his six NASA flights, serving as co-pilot of the first Gemini mission in 1965, commander of a second Gemini flight in 1966, lunar module pilot for Apollo 10 in 1969, commander of Apollo 16 in 1972 and commander of the first shuttle flight in 1981... Young was the first man to fly in space six times and the only astronaut to fly aboard Gemini and Apollo capsules and the space shuttle... He also brought a legendary cool nerve to an inherently dangerous job that amazed his compatriots. "I found out from the flight surgeon later on that my heartbeat was 144 at liftoff," Charlie Duke, one of Young's crewmates on the Apollo 16 moon landing mission, said of his reaction to launch atop a Saturn 5 rocket. "John's (heartbeat) was 70".
On one space shuttle flight, two of the ship's three auxiliary power units actually caught on fire, and exploded just minutes after touchdown. But Young always kept his cool. In 2010 Slashdot remembered the first manned Gemini mission in 1965. When it reached orbit, Young surprised his fellow astronaut Gus Grissom by pulling a fresh corned beef sandwich out of his pocket.

An anonymous Slashdot reader writes:
Andrew Chaikin, author of "A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts", remembers that Young "used to talk about how if we stay on this planet for too long, something's going to get us, whether it was a super volcano or whatever. He really was a true believer." NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot added that Young's career "spanned three generations of spaceflight; we will stand on his shoulders as we look toward the next human frontier."

In 2012 -- when he was in his 80s -- Young published a memoir titled Forever Young: A Life of Adventure in Air and Space. "My life has been long, and it has been interesting. It's also been a lot of fun, and a lot of hard, challenging work. If I could do it over, I would do it over the very same way.

Space

NASA Tests a Drone To Explore Jupiter's Moon in Antarctica (popularmechanics.com) 65

Three months of research in Antarctica is just the beginning for one Georgia Tech researcher, according to an article shared by schwit1: The waters beneath our planet's ice sheet are fascinating, turning up species few people have ever laid eyes on. But they are not the final target of this chase. Icefin [a 10-foot-long subsea drone] is meant to search for alien life -- a "bug hunt," as some scientists cheerfully call it. It is bound for the icy waters of Jupiter's moon, Europa, possibly as soon as 2030...

The new equipment includes sensors to monitor for organics and measure environmental factors like the presence of dissolved oxygen and levels of acidity, all to see if Europa could (in theory) support life in its subterranean seas... The subsea drone is also smarter than its prototype predecessor, and that high-IQ autonomy would be needed on Europa. The probe must not only operate 400 million miles from Earth but also navigate all by itself under alien ice.

Earth

NASA Launches a Mission To Study the Border of Earth and Space (arstechnica.com) 45

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Ars Technica: A new NASA mission, the first to hitch a ride on a commercial communications satellite, will examine Earth's upper atmosphere to see how the boundary between Earth and space changes over time. GOLD stands for Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk, and the mission will focus on the temperature and makeup of Earth's highest atmospheric layers. Along with another upcoming satellite, called ICON, GOLD will examine how weather on Earth -- and space weather caused by the sun -- affects those uppermost layers. GOLD, which will inspect the ultraviolet radiation that the upper atmosphere releases, will also be the first to take comprehensive records of that atmospheric layer's temperature. The satellite carrying GOLD will orbit 22,000 miles (35,400 kilometers) above Earth in a geostationary orbit, which means GOLD will stay fixed with respect to Earth's surface as the satellite orbits and the world turns. GOLD will pay particularly close attention to Earth's thermosphere, which is the gas that surrounds the Earth higher than 60 miles (97 km) up, and the layer called the ionosphere, which forms as radiation from the sun strips away electrons from particles to create charged ions. And although solar flares and other interactions on the sun do have a strong impact on those layers, scientists are learning that Earth's own weather has an impact on the layers, too.
Space

The Alien Megastructure Around Mysterious 'Tabby's Star' Is Probably Just Dust, Analysis Shows (theguardian.com) 75

An analysis by more than 200 astronomers has been published that shows the mysterious dimming of star KIC 8462852 -- nicknamed Tabby's star -- is not being produced by an alien megastructure. "The evidence points most strongly to a giant cloud of dust occasionally obscuring the star," reports The Guardian. From the report: KIC 8462852 is approximately 1,500 light years away from the Earth and hit the headlines in October 2015 when data from Nasa's Kepler space telescope showed that it was dimming by unexplainably large amounts. The star's light dropped by 20% first and then 15% making it unique. Even a large planet passing in front of the star would have blocked only about 1% of the light. For an object to block 15-20%, it would have to be approaching half the diameter of the star itself. With this realization, a few astronomers began whispering that such a signal would be the kind expected from a gigantic extraterrestrial construction orbiting in front of the star -- and the idea of the alien megastructure was born.

In the case of Tabby's star, the new observations show that it dims more at blue wavelengths than red. Thus, its light is passing through a dust cloud, not being blocked by an alien megastructure in orbit around the star. The new analysis of KIC 8462852 showing these results is to be published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. It reinforces the conclusions reached by Huan Meng, University of Arizona, Tucson, and collaborators in October 2017. They monitored the star at multiple wavelengths using Nasa's Spitzer and Swift missions, and the Belgian AstroLAB IRIS observatory. These results were published in The Astrophysical Journal.

Space

The Biggest Rocket Launches and Space Missions We're Looking Forward To in 2018 (theverge.com) 112

Loren Grush, writing for The Verge: Next year is already overflowing with exciting missions to space. NASA is launching a new lander to Mars, as well as a spacecraft that will get closer to the Sun than ever before. And two of NASA's vehicles already in space will finally arrive at their intended targets: one will rendezvous with a nearby asteroid, while another will pass by a distant space rock billions of miles from Earth. But it's not just NASA that has a busy year ahead; the commercial space industry has a number of significant test flights planned, and the launch of one of the world's most anticipated rockets, the Falcon Heavy, is slated for early 2018. And if all goes well, people may finally ride to space on private vehicles. Here's the complete list.
NASA

NASA Begins Planning For An Interstellar Mission In 2069 (nypost.com) 143

Long-time Slashdot reader cold fjord writes: During the 2017 Geophysical Union Conference, scientists from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory revealed that they are planning an interstellar exploration mission for the year 2069. The goal is to send a probe to Alpha Centauri, some 4.3 light years away. NASA is working on technology to allow a spacecraft to reach 10% of the speed of light, which might allow them to reach Alpha Centauri in as soon as 44 years.

A number of technologies are being explored, although there are many practical hurdles. The New Scientist adds that the 2016 NASA budget directed NASA to study interstellar travel that could reach 10% of the speed of light by 2069.

Space

Wired Publishes Fake Christmas Letter By Elon Musk (wired.com) 32

Wired's transportation editor just published what he's calling "Elon Musk's Christmas letter" touting the accomplishments of Musk's "family" of companies, "thanks to an anonymous tipster." (Though the story's photo caption suspiciously calls it "an absolutely real and totally not made up holiday message," and at the very bottom of the piece it's tagged as "satire" -- a word which also appears at the end of its URL.)

SpaceX (age 15) Man these companies grow up fast. SpaceX didn't just successfully launch its 12th resupply mission to the International Space Station this summer, it upped its ambitions with a pretty detailed plan for colonizing Mars. (OK, as long as it comes home for Thanksgiving and Christmas!) The scheme involves an Interplanetary Transport System the company calls the BFR, or Big Fucking Rocket (you wonder where they get their sense of humor!), which it will definitely have built in just five years.

Tesla (age 14) After promising to start deliveries of its affordable Model 3 sedan this summer, my little automaker went all the way to production hell to make it happen. And boy is the car a wonder, with its huge glass roof, innovative touchscreen interface (so long, dashboard), and all the acceleration you know to expect from Tesla. I'm sure the 400,000 people who have pre-ordered one will agree whenever they get theirs...!

OpenAI and Neuralink (ages 2, 1) I've always thought we should merge our brains with computers, and I'm so glad two of my youngest are dedicated to making it happen... Maybe it'll even find the time to help big brother Tesla with that AI chip it's making for Autopilot.

The Boring Company (age 1) Celebrated its first birthday this month...! Boring knows my views on public transit, and has reassured me these tunnels will be for fancy hyperloops and private cars on electric sleds, only...

So, my friends and fans, comrades and competitors, investors short and long, my best tidings. May your lives be as rich, electrifying, and ambitious as ours.

For its 13th resupply mission of the ISS on December 15th, (the real) SpaceX used a recycled rocket, and Friday (the real) Elon Musk jokingly tweeted a video of the weird trail left behind by SpaceX's latest rocket launch with the caption, "Nuclear alien UFO from North Korea." By late Saturday he'd posted an update. "Having a sinking feeling that most people actually do think it was aliens..."

"So strange that people often believe things inversely proportionate to the evidence."
NASA

Elon Musk Shows Off Near-Complete Falcon Heavy Rocket (newatlas.com) 150

Eloking quotes a report from New Atlas: SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket has been a long time coming. The successor to its Falcon 9 and the vehicle hoped to carry humans to Mars, this booster will be one of the most powerful ever. And we've just gotten our best look at it yet, with CEO Elon Musk tweeting out photos of an almost complete Falcon 9 Heavy in the hangar ahead of a planned maiden launch next month. The Falcon Heavy is essentially three Falcon 9 first stages rolled into one, with a second stage sat atop the middle one. The nine engine cores in each first stage work together to provide thrust equal to eighteen 747 aircraft, making it the most powerful rocket currently in operation and the most powerful since the Saturn V rocket last lifted off in 1973. In a series of tweets, Musk revealed that when the Falcon Heavy does lift off for the first time, it will do so from the same pad used by the Saturn V rocket at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. Musk has said recently that the Falcon Heavy will carry his own cherry-red Tesla Roadster as its first payload, but as an earlier tweet professing his love for floors has shown, it's not always easy to tell how serious he is about such matters.
NASA

NASA Advances Missions To Land a Flying Robot on Titan or Snatch a Piece of a Comet (washingtonpost.com) 49

Sarah Kaplan, writing for the Washington Post: NASA's newest mission will either land a quadcopter-like spacecraft on the surface of Saturn's moon Titan or collect a sample from the nucleus of a comet. (Editor's note: the link may be paywalled; alternative source.) The two proposals were selected from a group of 12 submitted to the New Frontiers program, which supports mid-level planetary science missions. The first, called Dragonfly, would be an unprecedented project to send a flying robot to an alien moon. Equipped with instruments capable of identifying large organic molecules, the quadcopter would be able to fly to multiple locations hundreds of miles apart to study the landscape on Titan. This large, cold moon of Saturn features a thick atmosphere and lakes and rivers of liquid methane, and scientists believe that a watery ocean may lurk beneath its frozen crust. [...] The Comet Astrobiology Exploration SAmple Return, or CAESAR, mission would circle back to the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which was visited by the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft from 2014 to 2016. After rendezvousing with the Mount Fuji-size space rock, CAESAR would suck up a sample from its surface and send it back to Earth, where it would arrive in November 2038 (mark your calendars!).
NASA

NASA Uses Its First Recycled SpaceX Rocket For a Re-Supply Mission (nypost.com) 93

An anonymous reader quotes the New York Post: SpaceX racked up another first on Friday, launching a recycled rocket with a recycled capsule on a grocery run for NASA. The unmanned Falcon rocket blasted off with a just-in-time-for-Christmas delivery for the International Space Station, taking flight again after a six-month turnaround. On board was a Dragon supply ship, also a second-time flier. It was NASA's first use of a reused Falcon rocket and only the second of a previously flown Dragon.

Within 10 minutes of liftoff, the first-stage booster was back at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, standing upright on the giant X at SpaceX's landing zone. That's where it landed back in June following its first launch. Double sonic booms thundered across the area. At SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, cheers erupted outside the company's glassed-in Mission Control, where chief executive Elon Musk joined his employees.

The Dragon reaches the space station Sunday. The capsule last visited the 250-mile-high outpost in 2015. This time, the capsule is hauling nearly 5,000 pounds of goods, including 40 mice for a muscle-wasting study, a first-of-its-kind impact sensor for measuring space debris as minuscule as a grain of sand and barley seeds for a germination experiment by Budweiser, already angling to serve the first beer on Mars.

Also onboard were several hundred Star Wars mission patches created by a partnership between Lucasfilm and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (the non-profit organization managing the ISS National Lab). Space.com reports that Elon Musk named the Falcon X after the original Millennium Falcon in Star Wars.
Google

NASA, Google Spot Eighth Planet in Solar System Rivaling Ours (cnet.com) 69

An anonymous reader shares a report: Google isn't just good for finding cat videos on the internet. The search giant's machine learning technology is also helping search the universe for planets outside our solar system. NASA on Thursday revealed the discovery of blazing-hot exoplanet Kepler-90i thanks to the use of a Google neural network trained to identify planets from the NASA Kepler space telescope's data. It's the eighth planet discovered in the Kepler-90 system, which ties it with our own solar system for the most known planets around a single star. Kepler-90 is a sun-like star located around 2,545 light-years from us.
NASA

President Trump Is Sending NASA Back To The Moon (npr.org) 307

President Trump has formally told NASA to send U.S. astronauts back to the moon. From a report: "The directive I'm signing today will refocus America's space program on human exploration and discovery," he said. Standing at the president's side as he signed "Space Policy Directive 1" on Monday was Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt, one of the last two humans to ever walk on the moon, in a mission that took place 45 years ago this week. Since that time, no human has ventured out beyond low-Earth orbit. NASA doesn't even have its own space vehicle, having retired the space shuttles in 2011. Americans currently ride up to the international space station in Russian capsules, though private space taxis are expected to start ferrying them up as soon as next year.
NASA

Google's Machine Learning Is Analyzing Data From NASA's Kepler Space Telescope (nasa.gov) 27

NASA writes: NASA will host a media teleconference at 1 p.m. EST Thursday, Dec. 14, to announce the latest discovery made by its planet-hunting Kepler space telescope. The discovery was made by researchers using machine learning from Google. Machine learning is an approach to artificial intelligence, and demonstrates new ways of analyzing Kepler data... When Kepler launched in March 2009, scientists didn't know how common planets were beyond our solar system. Thanks to Kepler's treasure trove of discoveries, astronomers now believe there may be at least one planet orbiting every star in the sky.
Space.com adds: Kepler spots alien worlds by noticing the tiny brightness dips they cause when they cross the face of their host star from the spacecraft's perspective. Kepler is the most accomplished planet hunter in history. It has found more than 2,500 confirmed alien worlds -- about 70 percent of all known exoplanets -- along with a roughly equal number of "candidates" that await confirmation by follow-up observations or analyses. The vast majority of these discoveries have come via observations that Kepler made during its original mission, which ran from 2009 to 2013. Study of these data sets is ongoing; over the past few years, researchers have used improved analysis techniques to spot many exoplanets in data that Kepler gathered a half-decade ago or more.
Space.com describes Thursday's announcement as an exoplanet discovery. (Earlier they reported on the discovery of "a possibly habitable alien world" about 2.2 times the size of earth orbiting a dwarf star "within the range of distances where liquid water could exist on a world's surface".)

Slashdot reader schwit1 points out that other less-credible sites speculate NASA's announcement will be "a major discovery about life beyond earth."
Mars

Boeing CEO Says Boeing Will Beat SpaceX To Mars (space.com) 128

Boeing's CEO says the megarocket his company is helping to build for NASA will deliver astronauts to the Red Planet before billionaire Elon Musk's SpaceX. Space.com reports: According to Fortune, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg was speaking on CNBC today when host Jim Cramer asked whether Boeing or SpaceX would "get a man on Mars first." "Eventually we're going to go to Mars, and I firmly believe the first person that sets foot on Mars will get there on a Boeing rocket," Muilenburg said, according to Fortune. Boeing is the main contractor for the first stage of NASA's giant Space Launch System , which is designed to launch astronauts on deep-space missions using the space agency's new Orion spacecraft. (United Launch Alliance, Orbital ATK and Aerojet Rocketdyne are also SLS contractors.) NASA hopes to build a "Deep Space Gateway" near the moon before using SLS and Orion vehicles to send explorers to Mars. The first test launch is scheduled for 2019. "Do it," Musk tweeted.
Earth

Silicon Valley Billionaires Award $22 Million in 'Breakthrough Prizes' (theguardian.com) 23

An anonymous reader quote The Guardian: The most glitzy event on the scientific calendar took place on Sunday night when the Breakthrough Foundation gave away $22 million in prizes to dozens of physicists, biologists and mathematicians at a ceremony in Silicon Valley. The winners this year include five researchers who won $3 million each for their work on cell biology, plant science and neurodegenerative diseases, two mathematicians, and a team of 27 physicists who mapped the primordial light that warmed the universe moments after the big bang 13.8 billion years ago. Now in their sixth year, the Breakthrough prizes are backed by Yuri Milner, a Silicon Valley tech investor, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and his wife Priscilla Chan, Anne Wojcicki from the DNA testing company 23andMe, and Google's Sergey Brin. Launched by Milner in 2012, the awards aim to make rock stars of scientists and raise their profile in the public consciousness. The annual ceremony at Nasa's Ames Research Center in California provides a rare opportunity for some of the world's leading minds to rub shoulders with celebrities, who this year included Morgan Freeman as host, fellow actors Kerry Washington and Mila Kunis, and Miss USA 2017 Kara McCullough...

Life sciences prizewinner, Joanne Chory at the Salk Institute in San Diego, was honoured for three decades of painstaking research into the genetic programs that flip into action when plants find themselves plunged into shade. Her work revealed that plants can sense when a nearby competitor is about to steal their light, sparking a growth spurt in response. The plants detect threatening neighbours by sensing a surge in the particular wavelengths of red light that are given off by vegetation. Chory now has ambitious plans to breed plants that can suck vast quantities of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere in a bid to combat climate change. She believes that crops could be selected to absorb 20 times more of the greenhouse gas than they do today, and convert it into suberin, a waxy material found in roots and bark that breaks down incredibly slowly in soil. "If we can do this on 5% of the landmass people are growing crops on, we can take out 50% of global human emissions," she said.

The Mercury News published a list of all the winners, pointing out they were chosen from more than 11,000 entries (from 178 countries). And Wired notes that the top prize winners get $2 million more than Nobel prize winners.
NASA

Voyager 1 Fires Up Thrusters After 37 Years (nasa.gov) 127

If you tried to start a car that's been sitting in a garage for decades, you might not expect the engine to respond. But a set of thrusters aboard the Voyager 1 spacecraft successfully fired up Wednesday after 37 years without use. NASA announces: Voyager 1, NASA's farthest and fastest spacecraft, is the only human-made object in interstellar space, the environment between the stars. The spacecraft, which has been flying for 40 years, relies on small devices called thrusters to orient itself so it can communicate with Earth. These thrusters fire in tiny pulses, or "puffs," lasting mere milliseconds, to subtly rotate the spacecraft so that its antenna points at our planet. Now, the Voyager team is able to use a set of four backup thrusters, dormant since 1980. "With these thrusters that are still functional after 37 years without use, we will be able to extend the life of the Voyager 1 spacecraft by two to three years," said Suzanne Dodd, project manager for Voyager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

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