Hexbyte Glen Cove 2021: A year of space tourism, flights on Mars, China’s rise

Hexbyte Glen Cove

Credit: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain

From the Mars Ingenuity helicopter’s first powered flight on another world to the launch of the James Webb telescope that will peer into the earliest epoch of the Universe, 2021 was a huge year for humanity’s space endeavors.

Beyond the science milestones, billionaires battled to reach the final frontier first, an all-civilian crew went into orbit, and Star Trek’s William Shatner waxed profound about what it meant to see the Earth from the cosmos, as tourism finally came into its own.

Here are selected highlights.

Red Planet robot duo

NASA’s Perseverance Rover survived its “seven minutes of terror,” a time when the craft relies on its automated systems for descent and landing, to touch down flawlessly on Mars’ Jezero Crater in February.

Since then, the car-sized robot has been taking photos and drilling for samples for its mission: determining whether the Red Planet might have hosted ancient microbial life forms.

A rock sample return mission is planned for sometime in the 2030s.

With its state-of-the-art instruments, “Percy,” as the helicopter is affectionately known, can also zap Martian rock and chemically analyze the vapor.

Percy has a partner along for the ride: Ingenuity, a four-pound (two kilogram) rotorcraft that in April succeeded in the first powered flight on another celestial body, just over a century after the Wright brothers’ achieved the same feat here on Earth, and has performed many more since.

“Perseverance is sort of the flagship mission, it’s doing a long-term detailed investigation of this fascinating area of Mars,” Jonathan McDowall, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told AFP.

By contrast, “Ingenuity, is one of these cute, small, cheap little technology demos that NASA can do so well,” he added.

The insights gained from Ingenuity could help scientists develop Dragonfly, a planned thousand-pound drone copter, to search for signs of life on Saturn’s moon Titan in the mid-2030s.

Private spaceflight takes off

An American millionaire became the world’s first space tourist in 2001, but it took 20 more years for the promise of private space flight to finally materialize.

In July, Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson faced off against Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos to be the first non-professional astronaut to complete a suborbital spaceflight.

While the British tycoon won that battle by a few days, it was Blue Origin that raced ahead, launching three more flights with paying customers and celebrity guests.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX entered the fray in September with a three-day orbital mission around the Earth featuring an all- on Inspiration 4.

“It’s really exciting that finally, after so long this stuff is finally happening,” said space industry analyst Laura Seward Forczyk, author of the forthcoming book “Becoming Off-Worldly,” intended to prepare future space travelers.

But it was William Shatner, who played the swashbuckling Captain Kirk on the 1960s TV series “Star Trek,” who stole the show with a moving account of his experience.

“What you’re looking down on is Mother Earth, and it needs protecting,” he told reporters.

A Russian crew shot the first feature film in space aboard the International Space Station (ISS) in 2021, and Japanese tourists made their own visit there on a Russian rocket.

For a few minutes on December 11, there were a record 19 humans in space when Blue Origin carried out its third crewed mission, the Japanese team were on the ISS along with its normal crew, and Chinese taikonauts were in position on their station.

The sight of wealthy elites gallivanting in the cosmos hasn’t been to everyone’s liking, however, and the nascent sector triggered a backlash from some who said there were more pressing issues to face, such as climate change, here on Earth.

Globalization of space

During the Cold War, space was dominated by the United States and the former Soviet Union.

Now, in addition to the explosion of the commercial sector, which is sending up satellites at a dizzying pace, China, India and others are increasingly flexing their space flight muscles.

China’s Tiangong (Palace in the Sky) space station—its first long-term outpost—was launched in April, while its first Mars rover, Zhurong, landed in May, making it the only the second country to achieve such an exploit.

“In the past 20 years since China finally decided to go big on space, they’ve been in catch up mode,” said McDowall. “And now they’re kind of there, and they’re starting to do things that the US hasn’t done.”

The UAE placed a probe into Martian orbit in February, becoming the first Arab nation and fifth overall to reach the planet.

Russia meanwhile launched a missile at one of its own satellites, becoming the fourth country to hit a spacecraft from the ground, in a move that reignited concerns about the growing space arms race.

Washington slammed Moscow for its “reckless” test, which generated over 1,500 pieces of large orbital debris, dangerous for low Earth orbit missions such as the ISS.

Coming soon…

The year closed out with the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, a $10 billion marvel that will make use of infrared technology to peer back 13 billion years in time.

“It’s arguably the most expensive, single scientific platform ever created,” said Casey Drier, chief advocate of the Planetary Society.

“To push the boundaries of our knowledge about the cosmos, we had to build something capable of accessing that ancient past,” he added.

It will reach Lagrange Point 2, a space landmark a million miles from Earth, in a matter of weeks, then gradually start up and calibrate its systems, coming online around June.

Also next year, the launch of Artemis 1—when NASA’s giant Space Launch System (SLS) will carry the Orion capsule to the Moon and back, in preparation for America’s return with humans later this decade.

NASA plans to build lunar habitats and use lessons learned there for forward missions to Mars in the 2030s.

Observers are encouraged that the program launched by former president Donald Trump has continued under Joe Biden—even if he hasn’t been as vocal in his support.

Finally, sometime next fall, NASA’s DART probe will smash into an asteroid to kick it off course.

The proof-of-concept test is a dry run should humanity ever need to stop a giant space rock from wiping out life on Earth, as seen in Netflix’s new hit film “Don’t Look Up.”

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Hexbyte Glen Cove ‘Snow guns’ spewing man-made Beijing Olympics snow raise concerns

Hexbyte Glen Cove

Beijing 2022 will rely on man-made snow.

Bright yellow turbines line the slopes of the Beijing Winter Olympics, spraying out the artificial snow needed for the Games to take place.

Man-made has been used to varying degrees since the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York.

But February’s Beijing Games will depend almost entirely on artificial snow because they are happening in one of the driest parts of China.

With just five weeks until the Games begin, organisers are racing to coat the pistes in high-quality snow—a vast and complex task that critics say is environmentally unsustainable.

The venues use automated snow-making systems that monitor air temperature and humidity to maximise production.

Fed by local reservoirs, about 300 turbines—known as “snow guns”—mix water with compressed air before propelling the droplets into the air to form snow.

Workers then use truck-like vehicles called “snowcats” to spread the snow onto the pistes and sculpt jumps and turns.

Venues must ensure the snow meets precise standards of depth, hardness and consistency.

“The biggest challenge for us is maintaining uniform snow quality,” said Li Xin, deputy chief of mountain operations at the National Alpine Skiing Centre in Yanqing, about 80 kilometres (50 miles) from Beijing.

Variations in the snow-making process “can cause snow quality to be too hard in some places and too soft in others, which could be dangerous for the athletes”, he told a press event at the site.

A skier at the Genting Snow Park, a venue for the Beijing Olympics.

Water shortages

The stark white patches stand out vividly against Yanqing’s brown mountains, which see minimal natural snowfall.

An International Olympic Committee evaluation report said that Zhangjiakou and Yanqing—the Games zones hosting alpine skiing and snowboarding, among other outdoor events—”would rely completely on artificial snow”.

A 2020 study in science publication Nature warned that groundwater depletion in northern China was a “critical issue” and among the highest globally, due to intensive agricultural irrigation, rapid urbanisation, and a dry climate.

This has meant for millions of Beijing residents and the water supply is likely to worsen in the future, researchers said.

Organisers at the Winter Olympics say the snow-makers are powered by renewable energy and will not damage mountain ecosystems, while the water they use will return to local reservoirs as the snow melts in spring.

The equipment’s automated systems reduce the kind of human error that can lead to wastage, said Florian Hajzeri, the China general manager for TechnoAlpin, the Italian company that supplies the machines.

An IOC evaluation report said that Zhangjiakou and Yanqing ‘would rely completely on artificial snow’

With resorts worldwide turning to artificial snow to operate smoothly through the winter, “no matter which Olympics, there will always be snow-making systems for all of the venues”, he told AFP.

But experts say the reliance on man-made snow undermines Beijing’s pledge to hold a “green” Games.

Using large quantities of power and resources to create snow in the water-scarce region is “irresponsible”, said Carmen de Jong, a geography professor at France’s University of Strasbourg.

“We could just as well hold the Olympics on the Moon or on Mars,” she said.

© 2021 AFP

‘Snow guns’ spewing man-made Beijing Olympics snow raise concerns (2021, December 30)
retrieved 30 December 2021
from https://phys.org/news/2021-12-guns-spewing-man-made-beijing-olympics.html

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Hexbyte Glen Cove India saw record 126 tiger deaths in 2021: data

Hexbyte Glen Cove

India recorded the deadliest year in a decade for tigers, with 126 deaths in 2021.

India’s tiger conservation body said 126 of the endangered big cats died in 2021, the most since it began compiling data a decade ago.

The previous highest number of deaths per year before the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) began compiling data in 2012 was in 2016, when 121 perished.

India is home to around 75 percent of the world’s tigers.

It is believed there were around 40,000 tigers at the time of independence in 1947 but hunting and habitat loss has slashed the population to dangerously low levels.

In 2010, India and 12 other countries signed an agreement to double tiger numbers by 2022.

Last year, the government announced that it had reached the target ahead of schedule, with an estimated 2,967 tigers in 2018 versus a record low of 1,411 in 2006.

The number is still lower than 2002 when the tiger population stood at around 3,700 but Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailed it as a “historic” achievement.

The 2018 data may have been partly down to the survey size, however, which used an unprecedented number of camera traps to identify individual tigers using stripe pattern recognition software.

‘Natural causes’

Over the past decade the biggest reason for deaths recorded by the NTCA was “natural causes”, but many also fell victim to poachers and “human-animal conflict”.

Human encroachment on tiger habitats has increased in recent decades in the country of 1.3 billion people.

Nearly 225 people were killed in tiger attacks between 2014 and 2019, according to government figures.

Kartick Satyanarayan, founder of Wildlife SOS, told AFP deaths due to human-animal conflict were driven by “the fragmentation of the tiger’s natural habitat.”

“Tigers range over large jungle areas and find it impossible to migrate to other forests without crossing human habitations, increasing chances of conflict,” he said.

Critics say that the government has also loosened environmental regulations for projects including mining.

Satyanarayan also said increasing demand for tiger skins and use of tiger body parts in traditional Chinese medicine were some of the major reasons for poaching.

The government has made efforts to manage the tiger population better, however, reserving 50 habitats across the country for the animals.

Conservation group WWF said in a report last year that tigers were making a “remarkable comeback” in much of South Asia as well as Russia and China.

But tigers were still under threat from poaching and habitat destruction and the wild animal populations had fragmented, increasing the risk of inbreeding, the WWF said.

“This has reached critical levels in much of Southeast Asia, where a snaring crisis is decimating wildlife, including tigers and their prey,” the group said.

The Indian government’s 2020 report meanwhile warned that many tiger populations were confined to small protected areas.

Many of the “habitat corridors” enabling the animals to roam between these areas were at risk due to human activity and development, it warned.

© 2021 AFP

India saw record 126 tiger deaths in 2021 (2021, December 30)
retrieved 30 December 2021

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Hexbyte Glen Cove Three large natural gas plants would wipe out climate gains from recent shutdowns of coal-fired plants in Illinois

Hexbyte Glen Cove

Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Shunning climate-changing fossil fuels is turning out to be more difficult than promised in Illinois.

Two weeks after Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a law billed as the nation’s most aggressive mandate for , the Chicago Democrat’s administration tentatively approved a major new source of heat-trapping pollution.

A draft state permit for a new natural gas power plant, planned for a small town south of Springfield, would allow the proposed Lincoln Land Energy Center to emit more than 800,000 automobiles every year.

Combined with CO2 emitted by two other gas approved during Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s single term in office, the downstate generator would wipe out climate benefits from closing four of the state’s coal-fired power plants last year.

During 2019, the now-shuttered emitted 7.8 million tons of carbon dioxide, federal records show.

State permits for soon-to-be-operating gas plants near Elwood and Morris and the draft permit for Lincoln Land enable the new gas-burners to release 63% more CO2 into the atmosphere—up to 12.7 million tons annually.

“That certainly appears to be inconsistent with the path Illinois has chosen to move toward carbon-free energy,” said James Gignac, senior Midwest energy analyst for the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists.

Unlike power plants built during the last century by state-regulated utilities, companies behind the three new gas plants aren’t required to demonstrate their projects are necessary to meet demand for electricity.

Instead, private investors financing the projects are betting natural gas prices will remain low enough for them to profit as dirtier, less-efficient coal and gas plants are retired. Another way the companies can make money is through annual capacity auctions held by the regional grid operator to guarantee enough electricity is available during hot days and other times when the grid is challenged.

One of Pritzker’s top aides deferred to career state employees when asked why a governor who promotes himself as a clean energy champion would allow a big new source of climate pollution to be built under his watch.

“IEPA (the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency), not the governor, is authorized to act on permit applications such as this,” Jordan Abudayyeh, Pritzker’s chief spokeswoman, said about the proposed Lincoln Land gas plant. “In doing so, the IEPA must follow applicable statutory and regulatory provisions governing that process.”

At least one other state is considering the impact of climate change now rather than years in the future. In October, the same month Illinois signaled it would approve the Lincoln Land project, New York denied a permit for a new gas-fired unit at an existing power plant, declaring it “would be inconsistent with or interfere with” a state law demanding carbon-free electricity by 2040.

Environmental groups are citing the New York decision in comments urging Illinois to withdraw the Lincoln Land permit. But it appears they are outgunned.

Backed by unions for construction workers, gas-plant developers had enough clout in Springfield during the summer to block Pritzker’s clean energy initiatives until the governor and his legislative allies stripped out provisions that would have required the facilities to steadily reduce carbon emissions during years leading up to 2045, when they would either need to find a way to eliminate heat-trapping pollution altogether or shut down.

In the final version of the Clean Energy Jobs Act, the new gas plants can operate without climate-focused restrictions until the 2045 deadline for carbon-free electricity in Illinois. The law also extends a lifeline to a pair of municipally owned coal plants, including the Prairie State Generating Station southeast of St. Louis, which last year was the nation’s seventh-largest industrial source of carbon dioxide.

J.C. Kibbey is a clean energy advocate at the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council who was involved in negotiations that brokered the deal. He lamented having to compromise to protect a handful of fossil fuel interests for a quarter century, but suggested a dramatic increase in wind and solar power demanded by the Illinois law, along with advances in industrial-scale battery storage, will end up erasing competitive advantages enjoyed by new gas plants.

“Renewables with storage are far more economical than any fossil fuel,” Kibbey said. “While we’re scaling that up and bringing prices down, gas will probably fill gaps when the sun isn’t shining or wind isn’t blowing. What I fear is these developers are pursuing a world where their gas plants run 24/7, and we just can’t allow that if we want to avoid catastrophic climate change.”

In interviews and public comments, companies building or seeking to build gas plants in Illinois contend their projects will help ease the transition from to renewable energy.

Some are investing in both. Competitive Power Ventures, a Maryland-based company building the 1,250 megawatt Three Rivers gas plant near Morris, also is developing a 350 megawatt solar array in Livingston County.

“We build based on what we think the system is going to need and because of that people will pay for it,” said Tom Rumsey, the company’s senior vice president for external and regulatory affairs.

Rumsey ticked off one of the gas lobby’s latest talking points: Deadly power outages during a Texas cold snap last winter showed the nation can’t rely on just wind and solar power.

“If you get too far over your skis on renewables and don’t pay attention to what you need to manage the system you run into reliability issues,” he said.

The main problem in Texas, though, was an electrical grid dominated by gas-fired power that hadn’t been weatherized, and according to the state’s largest generator, still isn’t.

Reliability hasn’t been an issue in Illinois as climate-changing pollution from the state’s industries declined by 30% during the past decade, in part because several coal-fired power plants closed.

Another variable involves the state’s fleet of six nuclear . Planning for the large gas-fired generators began when it appeared Chicago-based Exelon might close some of its nukes, which generally operate around the clock. Since then state lawmakers have approved two rounds of subsidies for Exelon, including $700 million during the next five years provided in the new clean energy law.

From a health and climate perspective, continuing to operate the carbon-free plants should help block additional gas-fired generation and stabilize the grid as more wind and solar power comes online.

Some analysts think gas plants intended to operate near full capacity will soon become obsolete if the cost of renewable energy and storage continues to fall at its current pace. That could limit Three Rivers and the other Illinois projects to being used only when demand peaks.

A new study by Stanford researchers found that a 100% renewable energy grid is feasible by 2050. Moving to wind, water and solar , the researchers concluded, would save money, create jobs and cut pollution.

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