US renews space flights with Russia in rare cooperation

Hexbyte Glen Cove

Russia’s Soyuz MS-13 spacecraft carrying members of the International Space Station launches from Kazakhstan in July 2019.

The United States and Russia said Friday they would renew flights together to the International Space Station, preserving one of the last areas of cooperation amid Western attempts to isolate Moscow over the invasion of Ukraine.

“To ensure continued safe operations of the International Space Station, protect the lives of astronauts and ensure continuous US presence in , NASA will resume integrated crews on US crew spacecraft and the Russian Soyuz,” the US space agency said in a statement.

NASA said that astronaut Frank Rubio would fly with two Russian cosmonauts on a Soyuz rocket scheduled to launch on September 21 from Kazakhstan, with another astronaut, Loral O’Hara, taking another mission in early 2023.

In a first, Russian cosmonauts will join NASA astronauts on SpaceX’s new Crew-5 which will launch in September from Florida with a Japanese astronaut also on the mission.

Another joint mission on the SpaceX Crew-6 will fly out in early 2023, NASA said.

The move comes despite the European Space Agency earlier this week terminating its relationship with Russia on a mission to put a rover on Mars, infuriating Russian space chief Dmitry Rogozin who banned cosmonauts on the ISS from using a European-made .

But hours before NASA’s announcement, President Vladimir Putin dismissed Rogozin, a firebrand nationalist and ardent backer of the Ukraine invasion who once quipped that US astronauts should get to the on trampolines rather than Russian rockets.

Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, said the agreement with NASA was in the interests of both countries and “will promote cooperation” on space.

Russian space agency Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin walks prior to the launch of the Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft in Kazakhstan in October 2018.

“The agreement seeks to guarantee that in the event of an emergency caused by the cancellation or major delay in a Russian or American space launch, at least one Roscomos cosmonaut and one NASA astronaut will be present to service the Russian and American sections respectively,” it said.

NASA said that the ISS was set up for joint participation by the United States and Russia along with Europe, Japan and Canada.

“The station was designed to be interdependent and relies on contributions from each to function. No one agency has the capability to function independent of the others,” NASA said.

‘Dear friends’ in space

Soyuz rockets were the only way to reach the space station until SpaceX, run by the billionaire Elon Musk, debuted a capsule in 2020.

The last NASA astronaut to take a Soyuz to the station was NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei in 2021.

He returned to Earth in March this year alongside Russian cosmonauts, also on a Soyuz.

Speaking to reporters afterward, Vande Hei said that the cosmonauts remained his “very dear friends” despite their nations’ tense relationship.

Russian cosmonauts Pyotr Dubrov (right) and Anton Shkaplerov (center) and NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei (left) are seen inside the Soyuz MS-19 space capsule shortly after landing in Kazakhstan on March 30, 2022.

“We supported each other throughout everything,” he said. “And I never had any concerns about my ability to continue working with them.”

The United States has imposed sweeping sanctions on Russia after Putin on February 24 invaded Ukraine, defying Western warnings.

The sanctions, which include tough restrictions on financial interactions, have led to an exodus of leading US brands from Russia including Starbucks and McDonald’s.

But the International Space Station is unique. It was launched in 1998 at a time of hope for US-Russia cooperation following their Space Race competition during the Cold War.

The ISS is expected to wind down in the next decade.

Rogozin had warned that Western sanctions could affect cooperation.

“If you block cooperation with us, who will save the ISS from uncontrolled deorbiting and falling on US or European territory?” Rogozin wrote in a tweet earlier this year.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov did not indicate that his removal meant Putin was unhappy with Rogozin.

One independent media outlet said he would be promoted and could be put in charge of occupied territories in Ukraine.

© 2022 AFP

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Seen from space, the snow-capped Alps are going green

Hexbyte Glen Cove

A view of Piz Bernina.

The famous snow-capped peaks of the Alps are fading fast and being replaced by vegetation cover—a process called “greening” that is expected to accelerate climate change, a study said Thursday.

The research, published in Science, was based on 38 years of satellite imagery across the entirety of the iconic European mountain range.

“We were very surprised, honestly, to find such a huge trend in greening,” first author Sabine Rumpf, an ecologist at the University of Basel, told AFP.

Greening is a well-recognized phenomenon in the Arctic, but until now hadn’t been well established over a large scale in .

However, since both the poles and mountains are warming faster than the rest of the planet, researchers suspected comparable effects.

For their analysis, the team examined regions at 1,700 meters above sea level, to exclude areas used for agriculture. They also excluded forested areas and glaciers.

According to the findings, which covered 1984-2021, was no longer present in summer on nearly 10 percent of the area studied.

Rumpf pointed out that can only verify the presence or absence of snow—but the first effect of warming is to reduce the depth of the snowpack, which can’t be seen from space.

Secondly, the researchers compared the amount of vegetation using wavelength analysis to detect the amount of chlorophyll present, and found plant growth increased across 77 percent of the zone studied.

Vicious cycle

Greening happens in three different ways: plants begin growing in areas they previously weren’t present, they grow taller and more densely due to favorable conditions, and finally particular species growing normally at lower altitudes move into higher areas.

“It is that is driving these changes,” said Rumpf.

“Warming means that we have longer vegetation periods, we have more benign conditions that foster , so plants can just grow more and faster,” she added.

The effect is additive: “The warmer it gets, the more precipitation falls as rain rather than snow.”

And there are several harmful consequences.

First, a large part of drinking water comes from melting snow. If water is not stored as snow, it disappears faster via rivers.

Next, the habitat species adapted specifically to the alpine environment is disrupted.

The snow’s disappearance also harms the , a key economic driver for the region.

“What we kind of tend to forget is the emotional aspects of these processes that the Alps are like a very iconic symbol and when people think about Switzerland, it’s usually the Alps that they think about,” stressed Rumpf.

While alpine greening could increase , are more likely to cause a net result of amplified warming, and thawing of permafrost, the researchers argue.

Snow reflects about 90 percent of solar radiation, vegetation absorbs much more, and radiates the energy back in the form of heat—which in turn further accelerates warming, , and more vegetation: a .

From green to brown?

The future of the Alps can’t be predicted with certainty.

“In terms of snow, it’s pretty straightforward,” said Rumpf. “I would expect the snow cover to disappear more and more, especially at lower elevations.”

For the time being, another phenomenon known as “browning”—in which the ground is no longer covered with either or vegetation—has only been detected in less than one percent of the area studied.

This is much less than what has been observed in the Arctic, or in the mountains of Central Asia.

It is fueled by two factors: the increase in episodes of extreme rain followed by droughts, and a reduction in water available to plants that was produced by annual snowmelt.

“We do not know for the future whether browning is going to occur more and more,” concluded Rumpf, who hopes to repeat the observations in a few years’ time.

More information:
Sabine B. Rumpf, From white to green: Snow cover loss and increased vegetation productivity in the European Alps, Science (2022). DOI: 10.1126/science.abn6697.

© 2022 AFP

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Space Blocs: The future of international cooperation in space is splitting along lines of power on Earth

No human has been on the Moon in 50 years, but in the next decade, both the U.S.-led Artemis Accords and a Chinese-Russian mission aim to establish Moon bases. Credit: NASA/Neil Armstrong

Even during times of conflict on the ground, space has historically been an arena of collaboration among nations. But trends in the past decade suggest that the nature of cooperation in space is shifting, and fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has highlighted these changes.

I’m an international relations scholar who studies power distributions in space—who the main players are, what capabilities they possess and whom they decide to cooperate with. Some scholars predict a future in which single states pursue various levels of dominance, while others foresee a scenario in which commercial entities bring nations together.

But I believe that the future may be different. In the past few years, groups of nations with similar strategic interests on Earth have come together to further their interests in space, forming what I call “space blocs.”

From state-led space efforts to collaboration

The U.S. and the Soviet Union dominated space activities during the Cold War. Despite tensions on the ground, both acted carefully to avoid causing crises and even cooperated on a number of projects in space.

As more countries developed their own space agencies, several international collaborative groups emerged. These include the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and the Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems.

In 1975, 10 European nations founded the European Space Agency. In 1998 the U.S. and Russia joined efforts to build the International Space Station, which is now supported by 15 countries.

These multinational ventures were primarily focused on scientific collaboration and data exchange.

The emergence of space blocs

The European Space Agency, which now includes 22 nations, could be considered among the first space blocs. But a more pronounced shift toward this type of power structure can be seen after the end of the Cold War. Countries that shared interests on the ground began coming together to pursue specific mission objectives in space, forming space blocs.

In the past five years, several new space blocs have emerged with various levels of space capabilities. These include the African Space Agency, with 55 member states; the Latin American and Caribbean Space Agency, with seven member states; and the Arab Space Coordination Group, with 12 Middle Eastern member states.

These groups allow for nations to collaborate closely with others in their blocs, but the blocs also compete with one another. Two recent space blocs—the Artemis Accords and the Sino-Russian lunar agreement—are an example of such competition.

Race to the Moon

The Artemis Accords were launched in October 2020. They are led by the U.S. and currently include 18 country members. The group’s goal is to return people to the Moon by 2025 and establish a governing framework for exploring and mining on the Moon, Mars and beyond. The mission aims to build a research station on the south pole of the Moon with a supporting lunar space station called the Gateway.

Similarly, in 2019, Russia and China agreed to collaborate on a mission to send people to the south pole of the Moon by 2026. This joint Sino-Russian mission also aims to eventually build a Moon base and place a space station in lunar orbit.

That these blocs do not collaborate to accomplish similar missions on the Moon indicates that strategic interests and rivalries on the ground have been transposed to space.

Any nation can join the Artemis Accords. But Russia and China—along with a number of their allies on Earth—have not done so because some perceive the accords as an effort to expand the U.S.-dominated international order to outer space.

Similarly, Russia and China plan to open their future lunar to all interested parties, but no Artemis country has expressed interest. The European Space Agency has even discontinued several joint projects it had planned with Russia and is instead expanding its partnerships with the U.S. and Japan.

The impact of space blocs on the ground

In addition to seeking power in space, countries are also using space blocs to strengthen their spheres of influence on the ground.

One example is the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization, which was formed in 2005. Led by China, it includes Bangladesh, Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan, Peru, Thailand and Turkey.

While its broad goal is the development and launch of satellites, the organization’s major aim is to expand and normalize the use of the Chinese BeiDou navigation system—the Chinese version of GPS. Countries that use the system could become dependent on China, as is the case of Iran.

The role of private space companies

There has been tremendous growth of commercial activities in space in the past decade. As a result, some scholars see a future of space cooperation defined by shared commercial interests. In this scenario, act as intermediaries between states, uniting them behind specific commercial projects in space.

However, commercial enterprises are unlikely to dictate future international cooperation in space. According to current international space law, any company that operates in space does so as an extension of—and under the jurisdiction of—its home nation’s government.

The dominance of states over companies in space affairs has been starkly exemplified through the Ukraine crisis. As a result of state-imposed sanctions, many commercial space companies have stopped collaborating with Russia.

Given the current legal framework, it seems most likely that states—not commercial entities—will continue to dictate the rules in space.

Space blocs for collaboration or conflict

I believe that going forward, state formations—such as space blocs—will serve as the major means through which states further their national interests in space and on the ground. There are many benefits when nations come together and form space blocs. Space is hard, so pooling resources, manpower and know-how makes sense. However, such a system also comes with inherent dangers.

History offers many examples showing that the more rigid alliances become, the more likely conflict is to ensue. The growing rigidity of two alliances—the Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance—at the end of 19th century is often cited as the key trigger of World War I.

A key lesson therein is that as long as existing space blocs remain flexible and open to all, cooperation will flourish and the world may yet avoid an open conflict in space. Maintaining the focus on scientific goals and exchanges between and within space blocs—while keeping political rivalries at bay—will help to ensure the future of international cooperation in .

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

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China’s ‘space dream’: A Long March to the Moon and beyond

The launch of a rocket carrying China’s Chang’e-5 lunar probe underlined how much progress Beijing had made towards its ‘space dream’

The return to Earth of three astronauts on Saturday after six months at China’s new space station marks a landmark step in the country’s space ambitions, ending its longest crewed mission ever.

The world’s second-largest economy has put billions into its military-run , with hopes of eventually sending humans to the Moon.

China has come a long way in catching up with the United States and Russia, whose astronauts and cosmonauts have decades of experience in .

Here is a look at the country’s programme, and where it is headed:

Mao’s vow

Soon after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, Chairman Mao Zedong pronounced: “We too will make satellites.”

It took more than a decade, but in 1970, China launched its first satellite on a Long March rocket.

Human spaceflight took decades longer, with Yang Liwei becoming the first Chinese “taikonaut” in 2003.

As the launch approached, concerns over the viability of the mission caused Beijing to cancel a live television broadcast at the last minute.

But it went smoothly, with Yang orbiting the Earth 14 times during a 21-hour flight aboard the Shenzhou 5.

China has launched seven crewed missions since.

Space station and ‘Jade Rabbit’

The Jade Rabbit lunar rover surveyed the moon’s surface for 31 months.

Following in the footsteps of the United States and Russia, China began planning to build its own circling the planet.

The Tiangong-1 lab was launched in 2011.

In 2013, the second Chinese woman in space, Wang Yaping, gave a video class from inside the space module to children across the world’s most populous country.

The craft was also used for and, most importantly, tests intended to prepare for the construction of a space station.

That was followed by the “Jade Rabbit” in 2013, which initially appeared a dud when it turned dormant and stopped sending signals back to Earth.

It made a dramatic recovery, however, ultimately surveying the Moon’s surface for 31 months—well beyond its expected lifespan.

In 2016, China launched its second orbital lab, the Tiangong-2. Astronauts who visited the station have run experiments on growing rice and other plants.

‘Space dream’

Under President Xi Jinping, plans for China’s “space dream” have been put into overdrive.

Beijing is looking to finally catch up with the United States and Russia after years of belatedly matching their milestones.

Besides a space station, China is also planning to build a base on the Moon, and the country’s National Space Administration said it aims to launch a crewed lunar mission by 2029.

But lunar work was dealt a setback in 2017 when the Long March-5 Y2, a powerful heavy-lift rocket, failed to launch on a mission to send communication satellites into orbit.

China has been carrying out experiments in a lab simulating a lunar-like environment in preparation for its long-term goal of putting humans on the moon.

That forced the postponement of the Chang’e-5 launch, originally scheduled to collect Moon samples in the second half of 2017.

Another robot, the Chang’e-4, landed on the far side of the Moon in January 2019—a historic first.

This was followed by one that landed on the near side of the Moon last year, raising a Chinese flag on the .

The unmanned spacecraft returned to Earth in December with rocks and soil—the first lunar samples collected in four decades.

And in February 2021, the first images of Mars were sent back by the five-tonne Tianwen-1, which then landed a rover on the Martian surface in May that has since started to explore the surface of the Red Planet.

Palace in the sky

A trio of astronauts docked successfully in October with the core Tianhe module of the Chinese space station, which was placed in orbit in April 2021.

The astronauts stayed at the station for six months before returning safely to Earth on Saturday, ending China’s longest crewed mission to date.

The Chinese space station Tiangong—meaning “heavenly palace”—will need a total of around 11 missions to bring more parts and assemble them in orbit.

Once completed, it is expected to remain in low Earth orbit at between 400 and 450 kilometres (250 and 280 miles) above our planet for at least 10 years—realising an ambition to maintain a long-term human presence in space.

While China does not plan to use its space for global cooperation on the scale of the International Space Station, Beijing said it is open to foreign collaboration.

It is not yet clear how extensive that cooperation will be.

© 2022 AFP

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Giant space telescopes could be made out of liquid

Hexbyte Glen Cove

Optical lens for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST). Credit: Farrin Abbott/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

The Hubble space telescope has a primary mirror of 2.4 meters. The Nancy Grace Roman telescope also has a mirror measuring 2.4 meters, and the James Webb Space Telescope has a whopping 6.5 meter primary mirror. They get the job done that they were designed to do, but what if… we could have even bigger mirrors?

The larger the mirror, the more light is collected. This means that we can see farther back in time with bigger mirrors to observe star and galaxy formation, image exoplanets directly, and work out just what dark matter is.

But the process for creating a mirror is involved and takes time. There is casting the mirror blank to get the basic shape. Then you have to toughen the glass by heating and slow cooling. Grinding the glass down and polishing it into its perfect shape comes next followed by testing and coating the . This isn’t so bad for smaller lenses, but we want bigger. Much bigger.

Enter the idea for using fluids to create lenses in space that are 10x–100x bigger. And the time it would take to make them would be significantly less than a glass-based lens.

FLUTE, or the Fluidic Telescope Experiment is run by principal investigator Edward Balaban at Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. Collaborators on the experiment include researchers at Ames at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, along with researchers from Technion, the Israeli Institute of Technology.

Their goal is to make possible the fabrication of fluid lenses in space that are not only bigger than their glass counterparts, but also just as high quality or better optically as making an earth-based lens. And this can be done in a fraction of the time.

In space, liquids eventually form a perfect spherical shape. In order to test the process first though, they stayed closer to home and used water as a medium to create fluid lenses. They had to make sure the water had the same density as the liquid polymers they were using to make the lenses so that the effects of gravity were effectively canceled out. Leaving out any mechanical processes, the polymers were injected into circular frames submerged in water and then solidified, creating comparable or better lenses than using standard techniques.

Next the team boarded two ZeroG parabolic flights to further test the process. Synthetic oils of varying viscosities were tested to determine which would work better. These oils were pumped into circular frames about the size of a dollar coin while the plane was in freefall, and again the researchers were able to make free-standing liquid lenses, though once the plane started lifting up again and the effects of gravity were felt the liquids lost their shape.

This experiment will be performed on the ISS (International Space Station) next and is already onboard, waiting for the arrival of Axiom-1 with Mission Specialist Eytan Stibbe slated to perform the experiment. There they will add the step of using either UV light or temperature to harden the liquid so that the lenses can be examined and tested by the researchers back at Ames on Earth.

A successful experiment will be the first time an optical component is made in space. If it succeeds, this will be the start of a new way to build telescopes, out in space. This would be a revolution in space-based manufacturing and the time needed to build one will be greatly reduced. And oh the sights we will see.

Giant space telescopes could be made out of liquid (2022, April 11)

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Space tourism: the arguments in favor

The Blue Origin NS-19 crew stand next to the New Shepard rocket after their successful launch on December 11, 2021.

To its many detractors, space tourism amounts to nothing more than joy-rides for the global super rich that will worsen the planet’s climate crisis.

But the nascent sector also has supporters, who, while not rejecting the criticism outright, argue the industry can bring humanity benefits too.

More research opportunities

The first argument is that private spaceflights, in addition to their customers, can send to that require microgravity environments.

In the past, national agencies “it used to take quite a long time to work within government grant channels, get approval, get the funding, get picked to be among the very select few that could go,” Ariel Ekblaw, of the MIT Space Exploration Initiative told AFP.

By contrast, it took Ekblaw just six months from signing a contract to sending her research project to the International Space Station on board the private Ax-1 mission, which blasted off Friday thanks to the private entrepreneurs paying for the trip.

Her experiment, called TESSERAE, involves smart tiles that form a floating robotic swarm that can self-assemble into space architecture—which might be how future space stations are built.

An earlier prototype was flown to space for a few minutes aboard a Blue Origin suborbital spaceflight, paving the way for the new test.

“The proliferation of these commercial launch providers does allow us to do riskier, faster and more innovative projects,” said Ekblaw.

Virgin Galactic, for its part, has announced plans to take scientists on future flights.

Better space technology

Space tourism, and the private space sector overall, also acts as an innovation driver for getting better at doing all things related to space.

Government agencies, which operate with taxpayers’ money, move cautiously and are deeply-averse to failure—while companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX don’t mind blowing up prototype rockets until they get them right, speeding up development cycles.

Where NASA focuses on grand exploration goals, private companies seek to improve the rate, profitability and sustainability of launches, with reusable vessels—and in the case of Blue Origin, rockets that emit only water vapor.

For now, spaceflight remains a risky and expensive endeavor.

“The more we go to space, the better we become at space, the more an industry base arises to support space technology,” said Mason Peck, an aeronautics professor at Cornell University who previously served as NASA’s chief technologist.

A parallel can be drawn with the early era of aviation, when flying was limited to the privileged few.

“We started out with lots of accidents, and lots of different companies with different kinds of ideas for how to build airplanes,” explained George Nield, former associate administrator for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) office of commercial space transportation.

“But gradually, we learned what works, what doesn’t work.” Today, commercial air travel is statistically the safest mode of transport.

But what will safer, more efficient spaceflight actually achieve?

According to experts, it is currently difficult to imagine the future impact space will have on transport.

“Just in the next 10 years, I’m pretty confident that we’re going to see companies that have systems that can have people take off from one point on the Earth, and travel to the other side of the Earth, in like an hour,” said Nield, who was on BlueOrigin’s last flight.

Such point-to-point travel would probably eventually happen anyway, but space tourism is speeding up its advent, he added.

Environmental benefit?

The last argument, paradoxically, has to do with the climate.

Many of those who have observed Earth from outer space have reported feeling deeply moved by how fragile the planet appears, and overwhelmed by a desire to protect it.

The phenomenon was dubbed the “overview effect” by space philosopher Frank White.

“It gives you a sense of urgency about needing to be part of the solution,” stressed Jane Poynter, co-founder of Space Perspective.

Her company plans to start flying tourists on a giant high-altitude balloon to observe the Earth’s curvature from a capsule with panoramic views.

The vessel was developed precisely for its minimal environmental impact, unlike some highly-polluting rockets.

The overall contribution to climate change from rockets is currently minimal, but could become problematic if the number of launches increases.

Increased activity in space can also help the planet in more concrete, less philosophical ways, say industry advocates.

“Because of the advances in space technology, terrestrial solar cells have become more efficient over the years,” said Peck.

© 2022 AFP

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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 Bringing space inside the lab: Researchers replicate the climates of exoplanets to help find extraterrestrial life

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The high-temperature and high-pressure conditions found on exoplanets can be recreated inside this instrument. Credit: University of Colorado at Boulder

Scientists do not need to travel light-years away to chart the atmospheres of exoplanets, thanks to research happening in the Paul M. Rady Department of Mechanical Engineering with scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

Ryan Cole (Ph.D.MechEngr’21) has developed an experiment that recreates the actual climate of planets beyond our solar system inside a 2,000 lb. instrument at Professor Greg Rieker’s lab on the University of Colorado Boulder campus. By reaching the same high-temperature and high-pressure conditions found on many exoplanets, the instrument can map the gasses in their atmospheres, which could one day help humanity find life on other planets.

“If we looked at Earth’s atmosphere, we would know that life is here because we see methane, carbon dioxide, all these different markers that say something is living here,” Rieker said. “We can look at the chemical signatures of exoplanets as well. If we see the right combination of gasses, it could be an indicator that something is alive there.”

Rieker and Cole’s work can contribute to exoplanet transit spectroscopy—a research method to observe the composition of an exoplanet’s atmosphere. Scientists use a telescope to look at the light passing through it. As the light interacts with gasses in the atmosphere, those gasses absorb the photons as they move through.

A view of the instrument, built by Ryan Cole (PhDMechEngr’21), as the experiment replicates the conditions on exoplanets, causing the experiment to glow with heat. Credit: University of Colorado at Boulder

“Scientists need a map for how to interpret what the light is telling us when it gets here,” Rieker said. “That is where Ryan’s experiment comes in. As we create this little microcosm of that exoplanet’s atmosphere in our lab, we send in our own characterized light with lasers and study the photons that come out. We can measure the changes and map how the light is absorbed.”

In collaboration with scientists at JPL, Cole and Rieker’s experiment combines sensor measurements with computational models to help detect the different gasses on exoplanets. While Cole built the instrument that replicates the exoplanets’ climates and measures how light is being absorbed at those exotic conditions, JPL’s Deputy Section Manager Brian Drouin’s lab supplied the tool that interprets the measurements.

Their research could optimize telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope, which as of mid-December, is set to launch Dec. 24 from the European Space Agency’s site in French Guiana.

“The James Webb Space Telescope and others like Hubble are looking at the ultimate horizon of what humans can see,” Cole said. “Greg and I are trying to make their visions a little clearer. Our laboratory measurements can help to interpret the telescopes’ observations of distant planetary atmospheres.”

There are endless expanses of the universe for these telescopes to explore—more than 4,800 confirmed exoplanets and about 7,900 more that NASA says could be planets. With Rieker and Cole’s experiment factored into the expedition, our understanding of exoplanets and the gasses in their atmospheres can be improved—and therefore, it also advances the search for extraterrestrial life.

How the instrument works

“There really are not many systems out there that can reach the high-temperature, high-pressure conditions that we reach,” Cole said. “Not only do we need to reach those conditions, we also need the temperature and pressure to be extremely uniform and well-known. Achieving these criteria is one of the most unique aspects of our experiment.”

The size and scope of the instrument Cole developed is what allows them to reach the high-temperatures and high-pressures that are seen on exoplanets. The experiment inside the piece of equipment can get up to 1,000 degrees Kelvin, which is about 1,340 degrees Fahrenheit.

The 2,000 lb. instrument also has thick steel walls that are designed to reach 100 atmospheres. To put that into context, Earth’s mean pressure at sea level is one atmosphere.

Starting in 2016, when he joined Rieker’s lab, Cole had to work through about five iterations of the high-temperature, high-pressure cell before getting it right.

“Ryan is the first one to do it,” Rieker said. “He has created datasets that are really close to perfect.”

Once the conditions are reached inside Cole’s instrument, the team sends light through the experiment from frequency comb lasers, a technology that was the basis of Nobel-Prize winning research at the University of Colorado Boulder and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The laser has hundreds of thousands of wavelengths of light that are very well-behaved, making it an ideal tool to study light-matter interactions.

“We pass the laser through this environment and in doing so, we record how the laser light interacts with the gas that we have confined in the core of this unique experiment,” Cole said. “We measure how the light has been absorbed at different frequencies, which can be used to interpret observations of actual exoplanetary atmospheres.”

Those measurements then go through JPL’s interpretation tool. That computational model extracts the fundamental quantum parameters that enable the team to map how the atmosphere’s gas molecules will interact with light at any condition.

Rieker compared the relationship between the measurements they attain and the parameters that JPL supplies to a JPEG, the standard format for image data. While we see the photo, the JPEG data is the code, or set of instructions, for the image.

In this case, the equipment in Rieker’s lab provides the photo—the exoplanet conditions and light passing through its atmosphere. The JPL tool provides the JPEG code—the data that describes how the light is interacting with gasses in the atmosphere.

Looking inside the instrument when the experiment reaches high-temperatures and high-pressures. Credit: University of Colorado at Boulder

Applications for sustainability on Earth

Rieker’s work did not start with the goal of mapping exoplanet’s atmospheres. The original objective was to understand the combustion inside a rocket or . He had set out to chart the emissions coming from those engines, which can help society find more efficient ways to burn fuel.

“I think it is interesting that you can tie the applications of the instrument from a jet engine at the Denver International Airport to the atmosphere of a distant an exoplanet far from Earth,” Cole said.

The range of the technology’s function still allows the team to mimic the inside of a jet engine and map the gasses being emitted, but while building the equipment, Cole recognized that the conditions inside the simulated engine were very similar to conditions on the surface of Venus—high-temperature and high-pressure.

“Venus is a really interesting planet because physically, Venus and Earth are very similar in terms of size and density,” Cole said. “There is an ongoing question in the planetary science community that says you can draw an interesting comparison between Venus and Earth. Does Venus give us another data point for how Earth-like planets evolve?”

Venus has an atmosphere that is almost 860 degrees Fahrenheit and is 95-times the pressure of Earth’s atmosphere. The planet is completely inhospitable largely due to a runaway greenhouse effect driven by the high amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The potent greenhouse gas traps heat in Venus’s atmosphere, leading to extremely high surface temperatures.

While Earth’s atmosphere is nowhere near the levels of carbon dioxide found on Venus, studies of Venus’s atmosphere could advance climate change research.

“Our equipment can help scientists better understand Venus and the evolution of atmospheres that are increasingly burdened with carbon dioxide,” Cole said. “The experiment can help our understanding of the atmospheres of Earth-like planets with a sample size of two planets, instead of just one.”

From the inside of an engine to the surface of Venus and distant exoplanets, the fundamental goal of Rieker and Cole’s work is to understand how light interacts with gas molecules. However, no matter the scope, the applications of Rieker and Cole’s research all have the same theme—to promote life. One day soon, that might include life elsewhere, not just on Earth.

Bringing space inside the lab: Researchers replicate the climates of exoplanets to help find extraterrestrial life (2021, December 23)
retrieved 25 December 2021

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Hexbyte Glen Cove New space telescope to uncover secrets of Universe’s origins

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Credit: NASA

The NASA-led James Webb Space Telescope, which includes hardware designed and built at UCL and which will image the very first stars to shine in the Universe, is scheduled to be launched into space later this month.

The telescope, one of the great observatories following Hubble, will be launched on-board the Ariane rocket from Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana on or after Friday 24 December. It will take 30 days for the telescope to reach the Lagrange point 2, about a million miles from Earth, where it will begin operating. UCL astronomers will be among the first to analyse its observations of the Universe.

The mission—a partnership between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) – is expected to make breakthrough discoveries in all fields of astronomy by investigating the light of the Universe at (invisible) .

A team at the UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory designed and built a key piece of hardware for one of the telescope’s four instruments, a near-infrared spectrometer called the NIRSpec. About the size of a double bed, the NIRSpec measures light split into different wavelengths.

The UCL-built component, called the Calibration Source, consists of 11 mini-telescopes projecting light into a sphere, the output of which produces an even illumination of the NIRSpec detectors.

This reference illumination reveals the sensitivity and arrangement of every part of NIRSpec’s optics and detectors to different wavelengths of light, allowing astronomers to more precisely measure the properties of light emitted by planets, stars and galaxies.

Professor Mark Cropper (UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory) said: “The launch of James Webb is a landmark moment for science. UCL’s contribution took place over 14 years, between 1997 and 2010. Our unit, the Calibration Source, aims to ensure astronomers can measure the faintest signals from the early Universe as precisely as possible. It does this by flooding the NIRSpec optics and detectors with uniform light, revealing the varying sensitivities of different parts of the detectors to different wavelengths. In doing so, it will help astronomers determine the age and motions of the oldest stars we can see and the properties of the oldest galaxies.”

Chris Brockley-Blatt (UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory), who managed the project at UCL, said: “I am delighted that a component built at our laboratory will be playing a role in one of the major scientific endeavours of the 21st century.”

The final work to design and build the component took place between 2005 and 2010. UCL scientists and engineers, supported by researchers at Durham University, also built a larger replica of the unit together with other equipment so that NIRSpec could be rigorously tested on Earth at minus 30 degrees.

Meanwhile, two UCL astronomers, Professor Richard Ellis and Dr. Aayush Saxena, will be analysing the first cycles of observations from James Webb to probe the evolution of the , galaxies and black holes.

Professor Ellis (UCL Physics & Astronomy), who was the only Europe-based member of the 1995 “HST and beyond” strategic committee that proposed what would later be known as the James Webb Space Telescope, said: “This is a hugely exciting development! After 25 years of hard work by hundreds of scientists and engineers, we are about to witness a revolution in observational astronomy comparable to that achieved by the famous Hubble Space Telescope. One of the key goals of James Webb is to witness and characterise ‘cosmic dawn’ – the time when galaxies and stars first emerged from darkness. We believe this important event occurred between 250 and 350 million years after the Big Bang, when the universe was only 2% of its present age and that James Webb is capable of directly observing it.”

Another UCL astrophysicist, Professor Michael Barlow (UCL Physics & Astronomy) is a member of the European Science Team for James Webb’s mid-infrared imager (MIRI), which involves advising the instrument team and planning how to use 450 hours of MIRI’s observation time. He is co-leading a programme of observations of the remnant of Supernova 1987A, one of the brightest exploding stars astronomers have ever seen.

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Hexbyte Glen Cove James Webb Space Telescope: A giant leap towards ‘other Earths’?

Hexbyte Glen Cove

One of the James Webb telescope’s missions is to look for conditions that could sustain life outside our solar system.

There is only one Earth… that we know of.

But outside our own solar system, other stars give warmth and light to planets and, possibly, life.

Soon to offer a better look at these so-called exoplanets is NASA’s new James Webb telescope, which is set to launch this month and become the largest and most powerful observatory in orbit.

One of its major missions is to look for conditions that could sustain life outside our solar system, where scientists have only recently been able to look for it.

The first exoplanet observed—51 Pegasi b—was discovered in 1995 and since then nearly 5,000 others have been noted, from gas giants similar to our solar system’s Jupiter or Neptune to like Earth.

Some are a habitable distance from their suns, in a range fancifully named the Goldilocks Zone.

But beyond being neither too close to, nor too far from the stars they orbit, little is known about these planets or what they are made of.

They are too far away to be observed directly and rocky planets, which are more susceptible to be capable of sustaining life as we know it, tend to be even smaller and harder to observe.

So far, astronomers have detected them as they pass in front of the stars they orbit, capturing tiny variations in luminosity.

This has allowed them to determine their size and density but the rest—their , what’s going on on their surfaces—is left to discover.

The Mid-Infrared Instrument will use a camera and a spectrograph to see mid-infrared light invisible to the human eye.

‘Look at their innards’

Astrophysicists hope the Webb telescope will help fill in some of these gaps.

Equipped with a new piece of technology called the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), it will use a camera and a spectrograph to see light in the mid-infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum, invisible to the human eye.

“It will revolutionise how we see planets’ atmospheres. We’re going to get a look at their innards!” said Pierre-Oliver Lagage of the French space agency who worked on MIRI with a US and European team.

Pierre Ferruit, a Webb project scientist at the European Space Agency, explained that MIRI will be able to read the infrared signature of light filtered through various substances in planets atmospheres as they pass in front of their stars.

In this way, Ferruit told AFP, scientists should be able to tell whether they contain molecules like , carbon monoxide and methane.

Those three substances are present in Earth’s and could potentially signal biological activity on a planet’s surface.

“To think that twenty years ago we knew of almost no exoplanets and now we are about to find out what their atmospheres are made of—it’s huge,” Ferruit said.


Rene Doyon is head of the Institute for Research on Exoplanets in Montreal and main scientist on another of the Webb’s instruments, the Near Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph.

Scientists should be able to tell whether exoplanets’ atmospheres contain molecules like water vapor, carbon monoxide and methane.

“My dream would be to find an atmosphere around a rocky planet in a with ,” Doyon told AFP, describing three conditions that would make life as we know it on Earth possible.

But there are pitfalls: on Venus for example scientists recently thought they found phosphine, associated with biological activity on Earth.

Subsequent research, however, showed there were no traces of the gas.

Doyon said finding the origins of biological molecules will probably be “beyond the capabilities” of the Webb telescope.

“That will be for later,” confirmed Ferruit. “For now we are looking for conditions that are favourable to life, like the presence of liquid water.”

Such clues will narrow the focus of future missions that aim to discover “whether the Earth is one of a kind, or not”.

Webb is already set to probe a system around the planetary system Trappist-1, around 40 light years from Earth, which was discovered by Belgian scientists who named it after famous beer-brewing monks.

It has seven , of which three are in a Goldilocks zone and orbit a dwarf star, whose not-too-bright light will make it easier to detect the composition of the atmosphere.

Other instruments for will allow Webb to examine the atmospheres of “hot Jupiters” or “mini Neptunes”, said Doyon.

He said he expects new categories of exoplanets could be discovered along with plenty of surprises.

“Surprise is what exoplanet discovery is made of,” he said.

© 2021 AFP

James Webb Space Telescope: A giant leap towards ‘other Earths’? (2021, December 10)
retrieved 10 December 2021

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