Space

Juno Spacecraft Reveals Spectacular Cyclones At Jupiter's Poles (arstechnica.com) 9

Joe Palca reports via NPR: NASA's Juno spacecraft has spotted giant cyclones swirling at Jupiter's north and south poles. That's just one of the unexpected and puzzling findings being reported by the Juno science team. Juno arrived at Jupiter last summer. It's the first spacecraft to get a close-up look at the planet's poles. It's in an orbit that takes it skimming close to the cloud tops of the gas giant once every 53 days. After each close pass, the spacecraft sends a trove of data back to Earth. Ultimately, scientists will want to understand how these cyclones change over time and whether they form differently in the north and south poles. Another puzzle that Juno is supposed to help solve is whether Jupiter, a gas giant, has a solid core. Another surprise from Juno is the concentration of ammonia in Jupiter's atmosphere. Scientists thought ammonia was most likely distributed evenly throughout the atmosphere. The data show there's more ammonia near the equator than there is at other latitudes.
Space

Boeing Will Make the Military's New Hypersonic Spaceplane (theverge.com) 83

The Department of Defense has selected Boeing to make a new hypersonic spaceplane that can be reused frequently over a short period of time to deliver multiple satellites into orbit. "DARPA, the agency that tests new advanced technologies for the military, has picked Boeing's design concept, called the Phantom Express, to move forward as part of the agency's Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) program," reports The Verge. From the report: The goal of DARPA's XS-1 program is to create a spacecraft that's something of a hybrid between an airplane and a traditional vertical rocket. The spaceplane is meant to take off vertically and fly uncrewed to high altitudes above Earth. From there, the vehicle will release a mini-rocket -- a booster with an engine that can propel a satellite weighing up to 3,000 pounds into orbit. As the booster deploys the satellite, the spaceplane will then land back on Earth horizontally just like a normal airplane -- and then be fueled up for its next mission. DARPA wants the turnaround time between flights to last just a few hours. But perhaps the most audacious goal is the price DARPA wants for each flight. The agency is aiming for the spaceplane to cost $5 million per mission, a significant bargain considering most orbital rockets cost tens to hundreds of millions of dollars to launch. And Boeing says it's up to the task. "Phantom Express is designed to disrupt and transform the satellite launch process as we know it today, creating a new, on-demand space-launch capability that can be achieved more affordably and with less risk," Darryl Davis, president of Boeing Phantom Works, said in a statement.
Space

Could Giant Alien Structures Be Dimming a Far Away Star? (sciencemag.org) 392

sciencehabit quotes a report from Science Magazine: Astronomers and alien life enthusiasts alike are buzzing over the sudden dimming of an otherwise unremarkable star 1300 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus. KIC 8462852 or "Tabby's star" has dimmed like this several times before, prompting some researchers to suggest that the megastructures of an advanced alien civilization might be blocking its light. And now -- based on new data from numerous telescopes -- it's doing it again. "This is the first clear dip we have seen since [2013], and the first we have ever caught in real time," says Jason Wright, an astronomer at Pennsylvania State University in State College. If they can rope in more telescopes, astronomers hope to gather enough data to finally figure out what's going on. "This could be the first of several dips about to come," says astronomer David Kipping of Columbia University. "Many observers will be closely watching." KIC 8462852 was first noticed to be dipping in brightness at seemingly random intervals between 2011 and 2013 by NASA's Kepler telescope. Kepler, launched to observe the stellar dimmings caused when an exoplanet passes in front of its star, revealed that the dimming of Tabby's star was much more erratic than a typical planetary transit. It was also more extreme, with its brightness sometimes dropping by as much as 20%. This was not the passage of a small circular planet, but of something much larger and more irregular.
Space

Scientists Claim 'Cold Spot' In Space Could Offer Evidence of a Parallel Universe (inhabitat.com) 124

New submitter LCooke writes: A international research team led by the University of Durham thinks a mysterious cold spot in the universe could offer evidence of a parallel universe. The cold spot could have resulted after our universe collided with another. Physicist Tom Shanks said, [...] "the cold spot might be taken as the first evidence for the multiverse -- and billions of other universes may exist like our own." From the report via Inhabitat: "NASA first discovered the baffling cold spot in 2004. The cold spot is 1.8 billion light years across and, as you may have guessed, colder than what surrounds it in the universe. Scientists thought perhaps it was colder because it had 10,000 less galaxies than other regions of similar size. They even thought perhaps the cold spot was just a trick of the light. But now an international team of researchers think perhaps the cold spot could actually offer evidence for the concept of a multiverse. The Guardian explains an infinite number of universes make up a multiverse; each having its own reality different from ours. These scientists say they've ruled out the last-ditch optical illusion idea. Instead, they think our universe may have collided with another in what News.com.au described as something like a car crash; the impact could have pushed energy away from an area of space to result in the cold spot." The study has been published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Earth

Humans Accidentally Made a Space Cocoon For Ourselves Out of Radio Waves (vice.com) 136

An anonymous reader shares a Motherboard article: Humans have accidentally created a protective bubble around Earth by using very low frequency (VLF) radio transmissions to contact submarines in the ocean. It sounds nuts, but according to recent research published in Space Science Reviews, underwater communication through VLF channels has an outer space dimension. This video explainer, released by NASA on Wednesday, visualizes how radio waves wafting into space interact with the particles surrounding Earth, and influence their motion. Satellites in certain high-altitude orbits, such as NASA's particle-watching Van Allen Probes, have observed these VLF ripples creating an 'impenetrable boundary,' a phrase coined by study co-author Dan Baker, director of the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. This doesn't mean impenetrable to spacecraft or asteroids, per se, but rather to potentially harmful particle showers created by turbulent space weather.
Power

How the Lights Have Gone Out For the People of Syria (bbc.co.uk) 126

dryriver shares an excerpt from a report via the BBC that shows what the impact of the Syrian war looks like from space: Six years of war in Syria have had a devastating effect on millions of its people. One of the most catastrophic impacts has been on the country's electricity network. Images from NASA, obtained by BBC Arabic, show clearly how the lights have gone out during the course of the conflict, leaving people to survive with little to no power. Each timelapse frame shows an average of the light emitted at night every month from 2012, one year after the war began. They show that the areas where Syrians can turn lights on at night, power their daily lives and get access to life-saving medical equipment, have shrunk dramatically. The city of Aleppo was Syria's powerhouse and home to over two million people. But the country's industrial hub became a battleground and remained so for more than four years. Russian airstrikes against Syrian rebels began in October 2015 and the timelapse shows the city in almost complete darkness at night throughout 2016, when the battle for Aleppo was at its peak. As mains power supplies dropped off, ordinary people had to be creative in finding alternative sources for light and power.
Moon

NASA Won't Fly Astronauts On First Orion-SLS Test Flight Around the Moon (space.com) 92

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Space.com: The first flight of NASA's next-generation heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), is now scheduled for 2019 and will not include a human crew, agency officials said today (May 12). As of 2016, NASA had planned for the SLS' first flight to take place in 2018, without a crew on board. But the transition team that the Trump administration sent to the agency earlier this year asked for an internal evaluation of the possibility of launching a crew atop the SLS inside the agency's Orion space capsule. Robert Lightfoot, NASA's acting administrator, said during a news conference today that, based on the results of this internal evaluation, a crewed flight would be "technically feasible," but the agency will proceed with its initial plan to make the rocket's first flight uncrewed. The internal evaluation "really reaffirmed that the baseline plan we had in place was the best way for us to go," Lightfoot said. "We have a good handle on how that uncrewed mission will actually help [the first crewed mission of SLS] be a safer mission when we put crew on there." SLS' first flight will be called Exploration Mission 1, or EM-1, and will send an uncrewed Orion capsule (which has already made one uncrewed test flight, aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket) on a roughly three-week trip around the moon. The first crewed flight, EM-2, was originally scheduled to follow in 2021.
ISS

Buzz Aldrin To NASA: Retire the International Space Station ASAP To Reach Mars (space.com) 349

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Space.com: If NASA and its partner agencies are serious about putting boots on Mars in the near future, they should pull the plug on the International Space Station (ISS) at the earliest opportunity, Buzz Aldrin said. "We must retire the ISS as soon as possible," the former Apollo 11 moonwalker said Tuesday (May 9) during a presentation at the 2017 Humans to Mars conference in Washington, D.C. "We simply cannot afford $3.5 billion a year of that cost." Instead, Aldrin said, NASA should continue to hand over activities in low Earth orbit (LEO) to private industry partners. Indeed, the space agency has been encouraging that move by awarding contracts to companies such as SpaceX, Orbital ATK and Boeing to ferry cargo and crew to and from the ISS. Bigelow Aerospace, Axiom Space or other companies should build and operate LEO space stations that are independent of the ISS, he added. Ideally, the first of these commercial outposts would share key orbital parameters with the station that China plans to have up and running by the early 2020s, to encourage cooperation with the Chinese, Aldrin said. Establishing private outposts in LEO is just the first step in Aldrin's plan for Mars colonization, which depends heavily on "cyclers" -- spacecraft that move continuously between two cosmic destinations, efficiently delivering people and cargo back and forth.
Space

After Almost Two Years, The Air Force's Mysterious X-37B Space Plane Lands (space.com) 116

An anonymous reader quotes Space.com: The record-shattering mission of the U.S. Air Force's robotic X-37B space plane is finally over. After circling Earth for an unprecedented 718 days, the X-37B touched down Sunday at the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida -- the first landing at the SLF since the final space shuttle mission came back to Earth in July 2011... The just-ended mission, known as OTV-4 (Orbital Test Vehicle-4), was the fourth for the X-37B program... The 29-foot-long (8.8 meters) X-37B looks like NASA's now-retired space shuttle orbiter, only much smaller; indeed, two X-37Bs could fit inside a space shuttle's cavernous payload bay...

Most of the X-37B's payloads and activities are classified, leading to some speculation that the space plane could be a weapon of some sort, perhaps a disabler of enemy satellites... But Air Force officials have always strongly refuted that notion, stressing that the vehicle is simply testing technologies on orbit. "Technologies being tested in the program include advanced guidance, navigation and control; thermal-protection systems; avionics; high-temperature structures and seals; conformal, reusable insulation, lightweight electromechanical flight systems; and autonomous orbital flight, re-entry and landing," Captain AnnMarie Annicelli, an Air Force spokeswoman, told Space.com via email in March.

NASA

What NASA Found Beyond The Rings Of Saturn (omaha.com) 48

NASA's Cassini spacecraft explored the inner edge of the rings of Saturn for the first time, and Phys.org reports that it made a surprising discovery: nothing. "Scientists have been surprised to find that not all that much -- not even space dust -- lies between Saturn's iconic rings." After the first pass, the NASA official managing the project described the the region between the rings and Saturn as "the big empty." An anonymous reader quotes the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Cassini also beamed back pictures and other essential data as it maneuvered the 1,500-mile-wide space between the solar system's second largest planet and its icy rings. The images, which take 78 minutes to make the billion-mile trip back to Earth, reveal a blazing, mysterious process of alternating light and darkness in the rings that scientists will be working for years to understand. That seems only fair since it has already taken 20 years for Cassini to be in a position to do what it is doing so far.

Between now and September, Cassini will make 22 dives between Saturn's rings and the planet, clocking at an impressive 76,800 mph each time. The end result should be a treasure trove of stunning images of the planet and its diverse and mysterious rings, along with detailed maps of the gas giant's gravity, magnetic fields and atmospheric conditions. On Sept. 15, it will plunge into Saturn's atmosphere, streaming data back to Earth as it makes its descent of no return.

Government

California Seeks To Tax Rocket Launches, Which Are Already Taxed (arstechnica.com) 417

The state of California is looking into taxing its thriving rocket industry. The Franchise Tax Board has issued a proposed regulation for public comment that would require companies that launch spacecraft to pay a tax based upon "mileage" traveled by that spacecraft from California. Ars Technica reports: The proposal says that California-based companies that launch spacecraft will have to pay a tax based upon "mileage" traveled by that spacecraft from California. (No, we're not exactly sure what this means, either). The proposed regulations were first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, and Thomas Lo Grossman, a tax attorney at the Franchise Tax Board, told the newspaper that the rules are designed to mirror the ways taxes are levied on terrestrial transportation and logistics firms operating in California, like trucking or train companies. The tax board is seeking public input from now until June 16, when it is expected to vote on the proposed tax. The federal government already has its own taxes for commercial space companies, and until now no other state has proposed taxing commercial spaceflight. In fact most other states, including places like Florida, Texas, and Georgia, offer launch providers tax incentives to move business into their areas.
NASA

NASA Runs Competition To Help Make Old Fortran Code Faster (bbc.com) 205

NASA is seeking help from coders to speed up the software it uses to design experimental aircraft. From a report on BBC: It is running a competition that will share $55,000 between the top two people who can make its FUN3D software run up to 10,000 times faster. The FUN3D code is used to model how air flows around simulated aircraft in a supercomputer. The software was developed in the 1980s and is written in an older computer programming language called Fortran. "This is the ultimate 'geek' dream assignment," said Doug Rohn, head of NASA's transformative aeronautics concepts program that makes heavy use of the FUN3D code. In a statement, Mr Rohn said the software is used on the agency's Pleiades supercomputer to test early designs of futuristic aircraft. The software suite tests them using computational fluid dynamics, which make heavy use of complicated mathematical formulae and data structures to see how well the designs work.
Government

Unmanned US Air Force Space Plane Lands After Secret, Two-Year Mission (reuters.com) 14

Irene Klotz, reporting for Reuters: The U.S. military's experimental X-37B space plane landed on Sunday at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, completing a classified mission that lasted nearly two years, the Air Force said. The unmanned X-37B, which resembles a miniature space shuttle, touched down at 7:47 a.m. EDT (1147 GMT) on a runway formerly used for landings of the now-mothballed space shuttles, the Air Force said in an email. The Boeing-built space plane blasted off in May 2015 from nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station aboard an Atlas 5 rocket built by United Launch Alliance, a partnership between Lockheed Martin and Boeing. The X-37B, one of two in the Air Force fleet, conducted unspecified experiments for more than 700 days while in orbit. It was the fourth and lengthiest mission so far for the secretive program, managed by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office.
NASA

Trump Has Grand Plan For Mission To Mars But Nasa Advises: Cool Your Jets (theguardian.com) 444

Donald Trump would like to see Americans walk on Mars during his presidency. Nasa would love to get there that quickly, too. The reality of space travel is slightly more complicated, however. From a report: On Monday, during a call with astronaut Peggy Whitson, who was aboard the International Space Station, Trump pressed her for a timeline on a crewed mission to Mars, one of Nasa's longest standing and most daunting goals. "Tell me, Mars," he asked her from the Oval Office, "what do you see a timing for actually sending humans to Mars? Is there a schedule and when would you see that happening?" Whitson answered by pointing out that Trump, by signing a Nasa funding bill last month, had already approved a timeline for a mission in the 2030s. She added that Nasa was building a new heavy-launch rocket, which would need testing. "Unfortunately space flight takes a lot of time and money," she said. "But it is so worthwhile doing." Trump replied: "Well, we want to try and do it during my first term or, at worst, during my second term, so we'll have to speed that up a little bit, OK?" It was not clear whether the president meant the remark as a quip or something more serious.
NASA

SpaceX Successfully Launches Its First Spy Satellite (arstechnica.com) 65

SpaceX successfully launched NROL-76, a classified U.S. intelligence mission, from NASA's Kennedy Space Center Monday. Sunday's launch attempt was scrubbed due to a sensor issue. From a report: Not much is known about the National Reconnaissance Office's NROL-76 satellite, a classified payload, which will liftoff into low Earth orbit from Launch Complex 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Space

NASA Launches Super Balloon To Detect Cosmic Particles From Near Space (nzherald.co.nz) 11

"After seven unsuccessful attempts NASA has launched a stadium-sized balloon in Wanaka," reports the New Zealand Herald, adding that the super-pressure balloon will collect data from "near space" over the next 100 days. Reuters reports: The balloon, designed by NASA to detect ultra-high energy cosmic particles from beyond the galaxy as they penetrate the earth's atmosphere, is expected to circle the planet two or three times. "The origin of these particles is a great mystery that we'd like to solve. Do they come from massive black holes at the centre of galaxies? Tiny, fast-spinning stars? Or somewhere else?" Angela Olinto, a University of Chicago professor and lead investigator on the project, said in a statement.
NASA

NASA Delays First Flight of New SLS Rocket Until 2019 (arstechnica.com) 115

schwit1 writes: Despite spending almost $19 billion and more than thirteen years of development, NASA today admitted that it will have to delay the first test flight of the SLS rocket from late 2018 to sometime in 2019. "We agree with the GAO that maintaining a November 2018 launch readiness date is not in the best interest of the program, and we are in the process of establishing a new target in 2019," wrote William Gerstenmaier, chief of NASA's human spaceflight program. "Caution should be used in referencing the report on the specific technical issues, but the overall conclusions are valid." The competition between the big government SLS/Orion program and private commercial space is downright embarrassing to the government. While SLS continues to be delayed, even after more than a decade of work and billions of wasted dollars, SpaceX is gearing up for the first flight of Falcon Heavy this year. And they will be doing it despite the fact that Congress took money from the commercial private space effort, delaying its progress, in order to throw more money at SLS/Orion.
NASA

NASA Inspector Says Agency Wasted $80 Million On An Inferior Spacesuit (arstechnica.com) 76

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Ars Technica: When NASA began developing a rocket and spacecraft to return humans to the Moon a decade ago as part of the Constellation Program, the space agency started to think about the kinds of spacesuits astronauts would need in deep space and on the lunar surface. After this consideration, NASA awarded a $148 million contract to Oceaneering International, Inc. in 2009 to develop and produce such a spacesuit. However, President Obama canceled the Constellation program just a year later, in early 2010. Later that year, senior officials at the Johnson Space Center recommended canceling the Constellation spacesuit contract because the agency had its own engineers working on a new spacesuit and, well, NASA no longer had a clear need for deep-space spacesuits. However, the Houston officials were overruled by agency leaders at NASA's headquarters in Washington, DC. A new report released Wednesday by NASA Inspector General Paul Martin sharply criticizes this decision. "The continuation of this contract did not serve the best interests of the agency's spacesuit technology development efforts," the report states. In fact, the report found that NASA essentially squandered $80.6 million on the Oceaneering contract before it was finally ended last year.
Google

Sergey Brin Is Reportedly Building 'Massive Airship' In NASA Research Center (bloomberg.com) 119

Google co-founder Sergey Brin is secretly building a "massive airship" inside of Hangar 2 at the NASA Ames Research Center, according to a report from Bloomberg. "It's unclear whether the craft, which looks like a zeppelin, is a hobby or something Brin hopes to turn into a business," reports Bloomberg. When asked about further details, Brin wrote in an email: "Sorry, I don't have anything to say about this topic right now." From the report: The people familiar with the project said Brin has long been fascinated by airships. His interest in the crafts started when Brin would visit Ames, which is located next to Google parent Alphabet Inc.'s headquarters in Mountain View, California. In the 1930s, Ames was home to the USS Macon, a huge airship built by the U.S. Navy. About three years ago, Brin decided to build one of his own after ogling old photos of the Macon. In 2015, Google unit Planetary Ventures took over the large hangars at Ames from NASA and turned them into laboratories for the company. Brin's airship, which isn't an Alphabet project, is already taking shape inside one. Engineers have constructed a metal skeleton of the craft, and it fills up much of the enormous hangar. Alan Weston, the former director of programs at NASA Ames, is leading Brin's airship project, according to the people, who asked not to be named discussing the secretive plans. Weston didn't respond to requests for comment.
Earth

'Detergent' Hydroxl Molecules May Affect Methane Levels In The Atmosphere (caltech.edu) 68

An anonymous reader quotes Caltech's announcement about the results of a study funded by NASA and the Department of Energy: During the early 2000s, environmental scientists studying methane emissions noticed something unexpected: the global concentrations of atmospheric methane -- which had increased for decades, driven by methane emissions from fossil fuels and agriculture -- inexplicably leveled off. The methane levels remained stable for a few years, then started rising again in 2007... New modeling by researchers at Caltech and Harvard University suggests that methane emissions might not have increased dramatically in 2007 after all. Instead, the most likely explanation has less to do with methane emissions and more to do with changes in the availability of the hydroxyl radical, which breaks down methane in the atmosphere... If global levels of hydroxyl decrease, global methane concentrations will increase -- even if methane emissions remain constant, the researchers say...

Tracking decadal trends in both methane and hydroxyl, Christian Frankenberg and his colleagues noted that fluctuations in hydroxyl concentrations correlated strongly with fluctuations in methane... "Think of the atmosphere like a kitchen sink with the faucet running," Frankenberg explains. "When the water level inside the sink rises, that can mean that you've opened up the faucet more. Or it can mean that the drain is blocking up. You have to look at both."

So what's changing the level of hydroxl in the atmosphere? The researchers say they have no idea.

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