From The Editors Science

Rocket Lab Launches 13 CubeSats on its First NASA Mission – Its Third Orbital Launch in 2018

An Electron launch vehicle belonging to California startup Rocket Lab lifted off on Dec 16 from the company’s Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula at 07:33 pm local time (01:33 am EST).

It was carrying with it a payload of as many as 13 small satellites for NASA’s  ELaNa (Educational Launch of Nanosatellites) program.

The Sunday launch was not only the company’s first NASA mission but also the space agency’s first launch under its Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) program.

NASA is currently in contract with three space companies, including Rocket Lab, Firefly Aerospace and Virgin Orbit – a spinoff of British space company Virgin Galactic – to provide dedicated launch vehicles for the VCLS initiative.

“The NASA Venture Class Launch Service contract was designed from the ground up to be an innovative way for NASA to work and encourage new launch companies to come to the market and enable a future class of rockets for the growing small satellite market,” said ELaNa-19 mission manager Justin Treptow in a Dec 4 press release.

“Matching ELaNa-19 with the Electron rocket gives these advanced scientific and educational satellites first-class tickets to space while providing valuable insight for potential NASA missions in the future,” Treptow added.

While the mission itself was called ElaNA-19, the Electron that made it happen was named “This One’s for Pickering” in honor of the late New Zealand-born scientist, Sir William Pickering, who immigrated to California as a young man, headed the NASA team that developed the United States’ first satellite called Explorer 1, and also served as the director of the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in Pasadena, California.

After MECO (Main Engine Cut-Off), the first-stage booster separated and dropped back towards Earth for an intended plunge into the Pacific Ocean.

Meanwhile, the second-stage continued on with its payload, propelled by a single Rutherford engine that fired for about six minutes to give the rocket the required speed to beat the planet’s gravity and enter orbit.

Developed in-house by Rocket Lab, all of the Rutherford’s primary components are 3D-printed and it uses battery-powered pumps – all of which translates to reduced manufacturing time and, more importantly, reduced costs.

Nine minutes into the launch, the Curie kick-stage separated from the second-stage Electron booster and entered coast phase, flying for about forty minutes before firing its main engine, which uses a “green” monopropellant to produce 120 N, or 27 lbf, of thrust (1 lbf = 4.44822 Newton.

After a 90-second burn, which stabilized the kick-stage’ trajectory, the thirteen nanosatellites were deployed in an elliptical orbit at an inclination of 85 degrees, some 500 kilometers above Earth.

“All payloads deployed!! Perfect mission,” Beck tweeted, confirming the release of the nanosats.

The thirteen nanosats that are now orbiting Earth include those built by American academic institutions as well as NASA-developed ones, including the Compact Radiation Belt Explorer (CeREs) satellite from the space agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and the Advance Electrical Bus (ALBus) from NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

While the CeREs will study how energized electrons escape from the Earth’s radiation belts, the ALBus will demonstrate an advanced power management and distribution system and solar array deployment technologies.

Also among them is a US Naval Academy-developed RSat that will test robotic arms designed for future spacecraft that will service orbiting satellites.

The Sunday launch was Rocket Lab’s third orbital mission of the year, having successfully put three small satellites into orbit on behalf of Spire Global and Planet in January, and six small satellites as recently as last month.

The November mission, nicknamed “It’s Business Time,” saw the successful launch of two Lemur-2 satellites, two Proxima satellites, a CICERO 10 satellite, and an Irvine01 Cube Sat.

It also launched a NABEO drag sail built by Germany’s HPS GmbH (High-Performance Space Structure Systems GmBH) for the purpose of testing a technique that will help reduce space junk by deorbiting small satellites at the end of their operating lives with the help of atmospheric drag.

Speaking to Spaceflight Now last month, Beck said that despite the launch delays this year, Rocket Lab had laid the groundwork for a faster launch manifest.

“With the motor controller, we haven’t rushed to get back to the pad,” he said at the time.

“What we’ve, in fact, done is taken our time to really set the business up to succeed in a high volume kind of way,” Beck said.

With a new high-volume factory in Auckland and one in Huntington Beach, California, Rocket Lab is looking at a production capability of one new launch vehicle every week.

Between its New Zealand launch site and an under-construction launch pad at Wallops Island, Virginia – expected to be operational by the third quarter of 2019 – Rocket Lab has up to 16 Electron launches planned for 2019, according to Beck.

“Our goal by the end of next year is to be launching once every two weeks, and as we move into 2020, launching once a week,” Beck said, adding that the company was “tracking a pretty big pipeline of customers, and we’ve been very fortunate that people have put their trust in us.”

With its growing backlog, the company is contemplating more launch sites, including one in Scotland and a second in the U.S.

On Nov 15, Rocket Lab announced it had managed to raise $140 million, closing a Series E funding round led by Future Fund – Australia’s independently managed sovereign wealth fund.

The Series E round was also joined by other existing investors, including Khosla Ventures, Bessemer Venture Partners, DCVC (Data Collective), Greenspring Associates, Promus Ventures and K1W1, as well as new investor, Accident Compensation Corporation of New Zealand.

“This funding also enables the continued aggressive scale-up of Electron production to support our targeted weekly flight rate,” Beck said at the time.

“It will also see us build additional launch pads and begin work on three major new R&D programs,” promising to unveil the specifics sometime “in the new year.”

From The Editors Science

NASA’s ORISIS-REx Finds Evidence of Water on Asteroid BENNU

It took NASA’s NORISIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer) more than two years to reach asteroid Bennu, but just about a week to make a stunning discovery that has got mission scientists excited earlier than expected.

The spacecraft reached the proximity of Bennu on Dec 3, and by Dec 10, spectroscopic surveys of its surface revealed the presence of hydrated minerals, signifying that the space rock had interacted with the ‘elixir of life’ at some point in its past.

Although NORISIS-REx’s onboard spectrometers didn’t detect water per se, they did find hydrogen and oxygen bonds called hydroxyls trapped in clay-bearing material all over Bennu’s rock-strewn topography.

Speaking at a press conference at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting in Washington DC, on Dec 10, Amy Simon, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said the discovery was “evidence of liquid water in Bennu’s past.”

“It’s one of the things we were hoping to find,” she said. “This is really big news.”

“The presence of hydrated minerals across the asteroid confirms that Bennu, a remnant from early in the formation of the solar system, is an excellent specimen for the OSIRIS-REx mission to study the composition of primitive volatiles and organics,” Simon said in a NASA press release.

Dante Lauretta, the OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona in Tucson, said in the press release:

“Our initial data show that the team picked the right asteroid as the target of the OSIRIS-REx mission.

“We have not discovered any insurmountable issues at Bennu so far.

“The spacecraft is healthy and the science instruments are working better than required. It is time now for our adventure to begin.”

Over the coming months, the NASA spaceship, which is on an asteroid probe and sample-return mission to Bennu, will make increasingly closer passes of the asteroid, entering orbit on New Year’s Eve.

It will then begin mapping the asteroid to identify the best possible sample site before making a slow descent to the surface to collect samples using its robotic arm.

OSIRIS-REx is capable of making as many as three attempts at collecting the samples, after which it will have to begin its return journey, with its precious cargo of Bennu samples safely tucked away inside a Sample-Return Capsule (SRC).

The SRC is expected to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and land at the US Air Force’s Utah Test and Training Range on Sep 24, 2023.

“When samples of this material are returned by the mission to Earth in 2023, scientists will receive a treasure trove of new information about the history and evolution of our solar system,” Simon said in the press release.

Analysis of samples from Bennu may offer some clues to the origins
Analysis of samples from Bennu may offer some clues to the origins

Mission scientists believe that Bennu, which is just 500 meters across, is too small to have held liquid water on its own and is, likely, a broken-away part of a larger parent asteroid that actually hosted the water at some point.

“We targeted Bennu precisely because we thought it had water-bearing minerals and — by analogy with the carbonaceous chondrite meteorites that we’ve been studying — organic material,” quoted Lauretta as saying.

“That still remains to be seen — we have not detected the organics — but it definitely looks like we’ve gone to the right place,” she added.

“We have an awesome asteroid to explore,” Lauretta also said, adding that “it’s a dream come true, and an honor and a privilege to be able to lead a program like this for NASA and for the United States and, really, for the world.”

The OSIRIS-REx sample-return undertaking is the third planetary science mission in NASA’s New Frontiers program, after the New Horizons and Juno missions, launched in 2006 and 2011, respectively.

The $800-million mission does not include the $183.5-million Atlas V rocket, which lifted off with OSIRIS REx from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Sep 8, 2016, releasing the spacecraft 55 minutes later for its onward journey to where it is making exciting news now.

The five main objectives of the mission, as listed by Wikipedia, include:

  • Return and analyze a sample of pristine carbonaceous asteroid regolith in an amount sufficient to study the nature, history, and distribution of its constituent minerals and organic material.
  • Map the global properties, chemistry, and mineralogy of a primitive carbonaceous asteroid to characterize its geologic and dynamic history and provide context for the returned samples.
  • Document the texture, morphology, geochemistry, and spectral properties of the regolith at the sampling site in situ at scales down to millimeters.
  • Measure the Yarkovsky effect (a thermal force on the object) on a potentially hazardous asteroid and constrain the asteroid properties that contribute to this effect.
  • Characterize the integrated global properties of a primitive carbonaceous asteroid to allow for direct comparison with ground-based telescopic data of the entire asteroid population.
From The Editors Science

NASA’s Voyager 2 Becomes Second Human-Made Spacecraft to Enter Interstellar Space

Launched on August 20, 1977, NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft became the second human creation to break through the Sun’s heliopause and enter interstellar space, achieving the feat on Nov 5, 2018 – officially announced by the space agency on Monday (Dec 10).

While the heliopause is the boundary separating the Sun’s heliosphere from interstellar space, the heliosphere itself is a vast region surrounding the Sun that is dominated by its continuously expanding plasma known as the solar wind.

It is because of this solar wind that objects within this vast bubble of heliosphere, including Earth, are relatively better protected from the impact of galactic cosmic rays that are far more dominant beyond the heliopause – in interstellar space.

While most of the material inside the heliosphere originates from the Sun, a majority of those found outside the heliopause come from stars that exploded billions of years ago.

The sudden drop in Voyager 2’s plasma readings of the solar wind and the corresponding increase in hits from galactic cosmic ray particles were strong indicators of the Nov 5 crossover.

Voyager 1 experienced this transition on August 25, 2012, more than six years before Voyager 2, making it the first spacecraft to achieve the feat even though it was launched 16 days after (Sep 5, 1977) its twin – thanks to its superior speed.

Explaining the difference between the two heliopause crossings at a press conference, Voyager project scientist at Caltech and former JPL director, Ed Stone, said that the team would have been “ amazed” had both the crossings appeared the same.

“We’re in a different place — one is in the northern hemisphere and the other is in the southern hemisphere — and it’s a different time in the solar cycle,” he said.

“Comparing data from different instruments aboard the trailblazing spacecraft, mission scientists determined the probe crossed the outer edge of the heliosphere on Nov. 5,” said a NASA press release.

“This boundary, called the heliopause, is where the tenuous, hot solar wind meets the cold, dense interstellar medium,” said the release.

“Its twin, Voyager 1, crossed this boundary in 2012, but Voyager 2 carries a working instrument that will provide first-of-its-kind observations of the nature of this gateway into interstellar space,” it added.

Voyager 2 is now more than 11 billion miles from earth, getting farther and farther away as it hurtles through the interstellar void at 34,191 miles per hour (55,025 kph).

However, it is still 300 years short of entering the disc-shaped inner Oort cloud and another 30,000 years away from exiting the spherical outer Oort cloud, completely beyond the influence of the solar system.

“The boundary of the Solar System is considered to be beyond the outer edge of the Oort Cloud, a collection of small objects that are still under the influence of the Sun’s gravity,” NASA said.

“I think we’re all happy and relieved that the Voyager probes have both operated long enough to make it past this milestone,” Suzanne Dodd, Voyager project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), was quoted as saying in the Dec 10 release.

“This is what we’ve all been waiting for,” she said, adding that the team was “now looking forward to what we’ll be able to learn from having both probes outside the heliopause.”

Also, now that both the Voyagers are in interstellar space – beyond the range of the protective forces of the heliosphere – scientists are looking forward to doing a comparative analysis between readings from their onboard instruments and those from spacecraft and instruments that are currently within the heliosphere.

“I’ve been studying galactic cosmic rays for many years from within our heliosphere,” said Georgia Denolfo, a NASA space scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center.

“So it’s especially exciting to be able to think that we will be having a mission in the very same space that I have been studying, and many others, from afar,” she said.

Both the Voyagers have been operational for more than 41 years now, with Voyager 1 successfully achieving its primary objective of flybys of Jupiter and Saturn and the latter’s largest moon Titan, studying the planets’ weather, magnetic fields, and rings.

In fact, Voyager 1 was the first spacecraft to capture detailed images of the planets’ natural satellites.

Having completed its mission in November 1980, Voyager 1 made the historic heliopause crossing in 2012, as mentioned earlier.

It will continue traveling through the vastness of interstellar space until its radioisotope thermoelectric generators are no longer capable of keeping the onboard instruments operational, which is expected to happen sometime in 2025.

Traveling 4,000 miles per hour slower than its twin, Voyager 2 did take longer to reach Jupiter and Saturn but it achieved what no other spacecraft had done before; that is, explore the Uranus and Neptune systems, achieving the historic feat in 1986 and 1989, respectively.

And now, as we know, it has successfully made the second heliopause crossing in history and, like its twin, is flying through the galactic cosmic ray particles of interstellar space.

It continues to maintain contact through the NASA Deep Space Network (DSN) and has already started beaming data on interstellar plasma temperature and density.

“Both spacecraft are very healthy, if you consider them senior citizens,” said Dodd, adding that “they are operating just fine.”

As the power-generating capabilities of the two spacecraft continue to decline, mission officials may have to sacrifice some of the relatively less important instruments on them.

“The difficult decisions are going to be made by Dr. Stone and the science team on which instruments to turn off first,” she said, adding that “those decisions will be made with getting the most science value back.”

Dodd is looking forward to squeezing out, at least, ten more years from the two probes.

“My own personal goal would be to get these spacecraft to last 50 years,” she said, adding: “If we get out to 2027, that will be a 50-year mission. I think that would be fantastic.”

“I often get asked, ‘Is this it for Voyager?’” said Nicky Fox, director at NASA’s heliophysics division.

“Absolutely not. This is really for me the beginning of a new era of heliophysics science,” he said.

From The Editors Science

The “Sounds of Mars” – NASA’s InSight Lander “Hears” Martian Winds

Within a week of its picture-perfect landing on Mars, NASA’s InSight lander captured the first sounds from the Red Planet, pleasantly surprising the InSight team at the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

In the absence of a microphone, InSight’s supersensitive onboard seismometer called SEIS – the acronym for Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure – managed to pick up vibrations from gusts of Martian wind blowing across the lander’s solar panels at 10 mph to 15 mph (16 kph to 24 kph).

In time, the lander’s robotic arm will place SEIS on the ground where it will collect vibrations emanating from deep inside Mars, giving scientists unprecedented data that will help them learn more about the mysterious planet.

The sounds of the alien breeze were also detected and, in fact, directly recorded by the air pressure sensor on the Auxiliary Payload Sensor Subsystem (APSS) – another vital piece of mission hardware that’s designed to collect meteorological data.

The very low-pitch sounds released by NASA are barely audible until the agency pitches up the SEISS audio by a couple of octaves and speeds up the APSS data by a factor of 100, thereby increasing its frequency 100 times.

To be honest, it kind of spooks you somewhat; it’s the ideal background sound-effect for a horror movie – it’s, well, out of this world.

Check it out for yourself in this video here (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/CNES/IPGP/Imperial College/Cornell).

“Capturing this audio was an unplanned treat,” said Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator at JPL.

“But one of the things our mission is dedicated to is measuring motion on Mars, and naturally that includes motion caused by sound waves,” he said.

“To me, the sounds are really unworldly,” Banerdt also said.

“They do sound like the wind or maybe the ocean kind of roaring in the background. But it also has an unworldly feel to it,” he added.

Tom Pike, a sensor designer at Imperial College London and an InSight science team member, said:

“The InSight lander acts like a giant ear. The solar panels on the lander’s sides respond to pressure fluctuations of the wind.

“It’s like InSight is cupping its ears and hearing the Mars wind beating on it.
“When we looked at the direction of the lander vibrations coming from the solar panels, it matches the expected wind direction at our landing site.”

Pike gave the analogy of a flag in the wind to further explain the APSS recording, saying that when a flag obstructs the flow of wind, it causes fluctuations in air pressure that comes across to the human ear as the flapping sound that you associate with a flag in breezy conditions.

“That’s literally what sound is — changes in air pressure,” said InSight’s science lead for APSS Don Banfield (Cornell University in Ithaca, New York).

“You hear that whenever you speak to someone across the room.”

While this is a big first for NASA, it says we can expect even better sound from the planet in about two years when its Mars 2020 probe lands there with two onboard microphones.

One of the microphones will “specifically” record the sounds generated during the Mars landing, while the other, which is part of a SuperCam, “will be able to detect the sound of the instrument’s laser as it zaps different materials,” which “will help identify these materials based on the change in sound frequency.”

On Nov 26, after traveling for nearly seven months and more than 300 million miles through deep space, InSight finally entered the Martian atmosphere at 2:47 pm ET, beginning the entry, descent and landing (EDL) phase of the mission.

The EDL began with the lander plunging into the thin Martian atmosphere at 12,300 miles per hour, with just about seven minutes at its disposal to decelerate to a touchdown speed of 5mph.

Two minutes into the decent, InSight’s protective heat shield had reached peak heating of 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit (1,482 Celsius), causing a brief weakening of the lander’s radio signal.

Then began InSight’s decelerating maneuvers, with the parachute deploying first, followed by the heat shield jettisoning – all of this happening within three minutes of entry.

The descent slowed, but not enough, as the probe was still doing around 180 miles per hour.

This is when the lander deployed its tripod legs, got rid of the back shell and fired the retro rockets, coming to rest on the equatorial plane of Elysium Planitia at 2:54 p.m. ET, successfully completing the EDL sequence.

In addition to SEIS and APSS, there’s a plethora of other scientific instruments, including the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package, featuring a “self-hammering nail” capable of penetrating 5 meters into the planet’s crust to read the heat flow pattern inside Mars.

“Landing was thrilling, but I’m looking forward to the drilling,” an excited Banerdt had said in a post-landing statement.

“When the first images come down, our engineering and science teams will hit the ground running, beginning to plan where to deploy our science instruments,” he said.

Also on board were two experimental CubeSats – MarCO-A and MarCO-B – that actually beamed back data about InSight as it entered the Martian atmosphere last week.

The windy soundbite captured on Dec 1 is more than what Banerdt and his team were hoping for.

Nasa’s acting director of planetary science Lori Glaze couldn’t have put it better when she said:

“We’re all still on a high from the landing last week…and here we are less than two weeks after landing, and we’ve already got some amazing new science. It’s cool, it’s fun.”

From The Editors Science

Truth Behind NASA Scientist’s Claim That Aliens May Have Visited Earth

Silvano Colombano, a scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffet Field, California, on Tuesday (Dec 4) published a white paper on the space agency’s website entitled NEW ASSUMPTIONS TO GUIDE SETI RESEARCH.

While the paper does talk about the likelihood of aliens having visited Earth and that scientists should take serious cognizance of that possibility, the essence of what Colombano was actually trying to convey may have been misrepresented by various news channels.

At least, that’s what Colombano is claiming after Fox News, Yahoo, New York Post, Russia Today, Evening Standard, The Sun, and others presented the story in a way that reflected their individual interpretations of the author’s observations.

“It is not accurately represented,” Colombano was quoted by Live Science as saying.

“My perspective was simply that reports of unidentified aerial phenomena should be the object of serious study, even if the chance of identification of some alien technology is very small,” he told the science news website.

While there is no denying the fact that Colombano is open to the idea that aliens “may” have visited us, it is, by far, not an attempt to convince people that evidence to that effect actually exists; it’s not as if he is paranoid about us being surrounded by undetectable aliens – an impression you’re likely to get from some of the articles on the internet.

All Colombano is trying to say is that it is a theoretical possibility and should, therefore, be subjected to thorough scientific investigation and scrutiny, which would either establish it as a factor or eliminate the idea altogether.

“The context was a presentation delivered last spring at a meeting of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute,” he told Live Science, adding that “the meeting was to get feedback from scientists as to future directions for the Institute’s research program.”

So, in fact, the paper was a documentary backup of his presentation at the SETI meet, which, as he said, was aimed at urging scientists to systematically research and evaluate all available data on UFO sightings and radio signals from space – and whatever else they can access – even if the work was akin to finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.

To put it another way, Colombano’s piece was not an attempt at debating whether or not extraterrestrial life forms have actually paid us a quiet visit; it was rather a reflection of his position on the subject – that even the remotest possibility of that having happened should not go unexplored.

Colombano is of the opinion that the existing guidelines on which SETI researches are based are somewhat obsolete and calls for a more robust approach.

“In light of our most recent understanding of the age of the planetary systems that might support life I discuss the set of assumptions that currently guide SETI research and make recommendations for a new, more “aggressive” approach,” he says in the paper.

Recent discoveries have identified planetary systems that are 6 billion years older than our own planet – thanks to the Kepler project.

Also, if you take into account that the beginning of some form of technology on Earth can be traced back to about 10,000 years in the past at most, and the fact that advancement in “scientific methodologies” has seen a rise only in the last 500 years, or so, it can be safely said that it’s beyond us to predict “technological evolution even for the next thousand years, let alone 6 million times that amount,” Colombano notes.

Hence, he thinks it’s imperative that scientists adopt a different approach to the four main assumptions that SETI basically works on.

“Interstellar travel is impossible or highly unlikely”

The general belief is that since our “present understanding of physics” and existing technologies are near-insurmountable problems when it comes to interstellar travel, the same may not hold true for other intelligent life forms – if at all they do exist.

He suggests that we should not be held back because of our limitations but should rather “fathom possibilities of achieving much greater understanding and control of matter-energy and space-time.”

“Engage physicists in what might be called “speculative physics”, still grounded in our most solid theories but with some willingness to stretch possibilities as to the nature of space-time and energy,” he recommends.

“Radio waves continue to be the major form of communication for thousands or millions of years”

Until we conquer the speed of light, scanning for radio signals from the outer reaches of space is the only way of going about it – as ineffective as it may be, considering the number of signals coming in and our limited ability to make sense of everything.

“I suspect that, even if the radio medium continues to be used, the packing of information inside it would be so much greater than we would not be able to recognize any “structure” and would not be able to distinguish it [from noise, unless a civilization would in fact decide to use it as a beacon,” Colombano explains.

He thinks artificial intelligence is the likely answer to this limitation and here’s what he recommends.

“Engage technologists in futuristic exploration of how technology might evolve, especially w/r Artificial Intelligence, “Evolvable Robotic Systems” and symbiosis of biology with machines.”

“Intelligent civilizations would be based on carbon life”

Colombano does not agree with the generally accepted assumption that any intelligent life that is likely to exist elsewhere in the vastness of space has to have a carbon-based origin like ours.

“Our typical life-spans would no longer be a limitation (although even these could be dealt with multi-generational missions or suspended animation), and the size of the “explorer” might be that of an extremely tiny super-intelligent entity. And how might this change our assumptions about openness or desire to communicate with other civilizations,” he says.

He recommends that sociologists should speculate on the kinds of societies likely to exist elsewhere, based on the assumption that they don’t have a carbon-based evolution, and if they do want to communicate with us what would be the likely method they would adopt.

“We have not been, and are not being… visited”

Colombano lists three reasons why SETI has not taken the UFO angle as seriously as it should have, including the assumption that interstellar travel is almost impossible; the belief that most UFO phenomena, if not all, are the result of “hoaxes, mistaken perceptions or even psychotic events”; and the scientific community’s reluctance to broach the subject.

He recommends that UFO phenomena should be considered “worthy of study” and the scientific community could take a leaf out of the SETI book and start looking for those elusive signals in the large amount of noise in UFO reporting.

He recommends” “Consider the UFO phenomenon worthy of study in the context of a system with very low signal to noise ratio, but nevertheless with the possibility of challenging some of our assumptions and pointing to new possibilities for communication and discovery.”

From The Editors Science

NASA’s Mars Probe InSight Lands After 7 Minutes of Nerve-Shattering Terror Through the Martian Atmosphere

After traveling for nearly seven months and more than 300 million miles through deep space, NASA’s Mars Probe, InSight, finally entered the Martian atmosphere on Nov 26 at 2:47 pm ET, beginning the entry, descent and landing (EDL) phase of the mission.

The EDL began with the lander plunging into the thin Martian atmosphere at 12,300 miles per hour with just about seven minutes at its disposal to decelerate to a touchdown speed of 5mph.

Two minutes into the decent, InSight’s protective heat shield had reached peak heating of 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit (1,482 Celsius), causing a brief weakening of the lander’s radio signal.

Then began InSight’s decelerating maneuvers, with the parachute deploying first, followed by the heat shield jettisoning – all of this happening within three minutes of entry.

The descent slowed, but not enough, as the probe was still doing around 180 miles per hour.

This is when the lander deployed its tripod legs, got rid of the back shell and fired the retro rockets, coming to rest on the equatorial plane of Elysium Planitia at 2:54 p.m. ET, successfully completing the EDL sequence.

“We hit the Martian atmosphere at 19,800 kilometers per hour, and the whole sequence to touching down on the surface took only six-and-a-half minutes,” said Tom Hoffman – InSight project manager at JPL.

“During that short span of time, InSight had to autonomously perform dozens of operations and do them flawlessly — and by all indications that is exactly what our spacecraft did,” said Hoffman.

No sooner had the landing confirmation “beep” reached NASA, the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory erupted into applause and cheers, and high-fives, and hugs – a deeply satisfying conclusion to the seven-minute-agony of anticipation they had to endure during the EDL.

“Today, we successfully landed on Mars for the eighth time in human history,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said at the post-landing presser.

“InSight will study the interior of Mars and will teach us valuable science as we prepare to send astronauts to the Moon and later to Mars,” Bridenstine said.

“This accomplishment represents the ingenuity of America and our international partners, and it serves as a testament to the dedication and perseverance of our team,” said the NASA administrator, adding that “the best of NASA is yet to come, and it is coming soon.”

The first picture captured by InSight shows nothing more than a lot of black dirt spots on the camera’s lens-covering, which will be taken off this week.


The probe’s main mission is still two to three months away from actually starting because that’s how long it will take the robotic arm to deploy all the mission equipment on the surface – the process having already begun with the unfurling of the spacecraft’s 7-feet solar arrays.

Meanwhile, NASA scientists will have to make do with photographs that the lander can capture from its current position before meaningful science data starts coming in sometime in March.

That said, the fact that InSight is sitting pretty on the planet’s surface after its stressful descent is more than half the battle won, as a thousand things could have gone wrong during the six and a half-minute EDL.

For example, the parachute could have failed to deploy; malfunctioning of the landing legs was a possibility; the heat shield could have failed to jettison or it could have grazed the lander as it dropped; a surface obstruction could have botched the landing; and so on.

But no such thing happened and the relief was evident in Hoffman’s statement.

“The InSight team can rest a little easier tonight now that we know the spacecraft solar arrays are deployed and recharging the batteries,” he said.

“It’s been a long day for the team. But tomorrow begins an exciting new chapter for InSight: surface operations and the beginning of the instrument deployment phase,” Hoffman added.

Among the myriad scientific instruments is the InSight’s seismometer called SEIS (Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure) – a round, dome-like instrument that will monitor seismic vibrations on the Red Planet.

Also included is the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package, featuring a “self-hammering nail” capable of penetrating 5 meters into the planet’s crust to read the heat flow pattern inside Mars.

“Landing was thrilling, but I’m looking forward to the drilling,” InSight’s principal investigator Bruce said.

“When the first images come down, our engineering and science teams will hit the ground running, beginning to plan where to deploy our science instruments,” said an excited Banerdt.

“Within two or three months, the arm will deploy the mission’s main science instruments, the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) and Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) instruments,” he said.

Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, better known as InSight, was launched aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 5, 2018.

Also on board were two experimental CubeSats, MarCO-A and MarCO-B, which actually beamed back data about InSight as it entered the Martian atmosphere on Monday.

Although launched with the lander, they flew separately to Mars and have proved that CubeSats can hold their own in deep space.

They were not designed to land but do a flyby of the Red Planet, instead, and wait for their short operational lives to end, which is exactly what they are presently doing, now that their mission is over.

“Every Mars landing is daunting, but now with InSight safely on the surface, we get to do a unique kind of science on Mars,” said Michael Watkins, director at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

“The experimental MarCO CubeSats have also opened a new door to smaller planetary spacecraft,” Watkins said.

“The success of these two unique missions is a tribute to the hundreds of talented engineers and scientists who put their genius and labor into making this a great day,” he added.

From The Editors Science

NASA Concerned About Elon Musk’s Weed-Smoking Ways: Orders Safety Review of SpaceX

NASA has reportedly ordered a workplace safety review of Space X and Boeing – two companies it has major dealings with.

As a matter of fact, both companies have signed multi-billion-dollar contracts with the space agency to fly astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).

Therefore, it does make a lot of sense to carry out a thorough assessment of the workplace safety culture, especially if the companies are contracted to undertake assignments where human lives and billions of dollars of equipment are involved – where razor-sharp precision is the name of the game.

First reported by The Washington Post, the review is due to begin next year and will entail extensive scrutiny of “everything and anything that could impact safety,” William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration, was quoted by the daily as saying.

TWP says that three officials with inside knowledge have confirmed that the NASA decision was driven by Elon Musk’s recent tryst with weed.

In a podcast streamed live on Sep 7, the Space X CEO was seen smoking marijuana and sipping whiskey with podcast host Joe Rogan.

Although NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs didn’t explicitly attribute the probe to Musk’s reefer (or him sipping whiskey) he did tell TWP that it would help determine if the companies were on par with NASA’s workplace safety standards, “including the adherence to a drug-free environment.”

“We fully expect our commercial partners to meet all workplace safety requirements in the execution of our missions and the services they provide the American people,” Jacobs continued. “As always, NASA will ensure they do so.”

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is believed to have said in an interview that the review was a reflection of the agency’s commitment to its business partners and to the American people, who ought to know that NASA is serious about the safety of its astronauts.

“If I see something that’s inappropriate, the key concern to me is what is the culture that led to that inappropriateness and is NASA involved in that,” TWP quoted him as saying.

“As an agency we’re not just leading ourselves, but our contractors, as well. We need to show the American public that when we put an astronaut on a rocket, they’ll be safe,” Bridenstine said.

Bridenstine expressed his confidence in the SpaceX team, but also went on to say that the example of “culture and leadership” should start at the top, adding that “anything that would result in some questioning the culture of safety, we need to fix immediately.”

Both Space X and Boeing issued statements proclaiming their commitment to the highest safety standards.

“Human spaceflight is the core mission of our company,” said the Space X statement.

“There is nothing more important to SpaceX than this endeavor, and we take seriously the responsibility that NASA has entrusted in us to safely and reliably carry American astronauts to and from the International Space Station,” the statement continued.

“SpaceX actively promotes workplace safety and we are confident that our comprehensive drug-free workforce and workplace programs exceed all applicable contractual requirements,” it said

Boeing, for its part, said that the culture at the company “ensures the integrity, safety and quality of our products, our people and their work environment”

The statement added: “As NASA’s trusted partner since the beginning of human spaceflight, we share the same values and are committed to continuing our legacy of trust, openness and mission success.”

NASA announces the launch date for Space X spacecraft Crew Dragon’s maiden test flight

NASA announced Wednesday (Nov 21) that Space X’s first Crew Dragon was being prepared for a Jan 7 launch.

The Crew Dragon will be launched atop a Falcon 9 rocket, which will put the capsule into the target orbit for its maiden uncrewed test flight, or Demo-1, to the International Space Station.

After separation, the Dragon will begin its journey to the orbiting lab, docking on arrival at the recently overhauled forward port.

After a short stay, the spacecraft will disengage itself from the lab for its return journey to Earth for an Ocean landing.

The Crew Dragon spacecraft pictured at NASA’s Plum Brook Station test facility. Credit: SpaceX
The Crew Dragon spacecraft pictured at NASA’s Plum Brook Station test facility. Credit: SpaceX

If all goes well with the test flight, we could well see a crewed launch of the Dragon (Demo-2) as early as June 2019.

However, between the two demos the Crew Dragon will be tested for its “crew escape capability during an actual on-pad, or ascent emergency,” NASA said in a blog post.

Demo-2 will be one of the crewed test flights before NASA certifies the Dragon for actual astronaut rotation missions to the ISS.

Meanwhile, things are also in full swing at Boeing as it develops its version of the Crew Dragon – the CST-100 Starliner.

Starliner will have to go through the exact same test sequence as the Dragon, with its Demo-1 and Demo -2 equivalent being Boeing Orbital Flight Test (OFT) and Boeing Crew Flight Test (CFT), respectively.

Both OFT and CFT have been tentatively scheduled – the former for a March 2019 test flight and the other for August 2019; and, of course, the in-between crew escape test.

Starliner’s launch vehicle will be United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rockets.

Ever since NASA scrapped its space shuttle program in July 2011, it has depended on Russian Soyuz rockets and spacecraft to carry its astronaut to and from ISS.

Well, the Russian monopoly is about to end; it’s just a matter of how soon Space X and Boeing manage to get that NASA certification.

However, despite the pace of work at both Space X and Boeing, the two companies are experiencing their fair share of stumbling blocks – not insurmountable ones, NASA would like to believe, and so would the other two stakeholders.

From The Editors Science

International Space Station (ISS) Has Come of Age – Celebrates 20th Anniversary

The International Space Station – the pride and joy of five partnering space agencies, including NASA (USA), Roscosmos (Russia), JAXA (Japan), ESA (Europe), and CSA (Canada) – is celebrating its twentieth anniversary today.
Here’s how it all began.

On this twentieth day of November in 1998, a Russian Proton rocket blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, carrying in its payload fairing a control module named ‘Zarya’ – the first component of the International Space Station (ISS).

Thus began the piece by piece assembly of the ISS, culminating with the installation of the final planned module in 2011.

Unity, a passive NASA module, became the second cog in the ISS wheel, joining Zarya on Dec 4, 1998, having been launched aboard Space Shuttle flight STS-88.

Ever since the first resident crew arrived on the ISS in Nov 2000, the space station has never been left unmanned, with rotating teams of astronauts from different countries occupying the space station at any given time.

The three-member team of Expedition 1, including American astronaut and former Navy SEAL Bill Shepherd and Russian cosmonauts Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko, reached the ISS aboard the Soyuz TM-31 spacecraft.

They would go on to spend the next 136 days of their lives on the space station before returning back to Earth on a Space Shuttle in March 2001.

Twenty years on, what started off as a Russian-built piece of equipment has grown into a six-bedroom orbital lab in the sky, with two bathrooms, a gym, and a 360-degree observatory module called Cupola to go with it, not to mention the array of equipment and state-of-the art gadgetry.

With its crew of up to six astronauts, this lab in the sky travels at a speed of 17,227 miles per hour (27,724 kilometers per hour), completing one Earth orbit in 93 minutes, which adds up to nearly 16 orbits per day.

Cupola: The International Space Station’s 360-degree observatory module (Credit: NASA)
Cupola: The International Space Station’s 360-degree observatory module (Credit: NASA)

ESA astronaut and test pilot Tim Peake, who spent more than six months on the space station between Dec 2015 and June 2016, took to Twitter to wish the ISS a “Happy Birthday,” calling it “an incredible feat of engineering, a marvel of international cooperation and nearly 3000 scientific investigations completed.”

“The space station to me and the way we have put that program together with our international partners is absolutely the best example of how we can peacefully, successfully do complicated things,” retired NASA astronaut Nicole Stott told CNET’s Eric Mack earlier this year.

Scott has held a number of key positions in NASA and has been part of several important missions, including STS-128, Expedition 20, Expedition 21, STS-129, and STS-133 – to highlight a few of her achievements – among many – in a long and distinguished career spanning nearly three decades.

How ISS has benefited Humanity

In addition to serving science as an orbital space laboratory, Earth observatory, and as a platform for decades of scientific studies and research, all of which will potentially serve mankind in the long run, the International Space Station has also made some immediate contributions.

The healthcare sector has benefited tremendously from robotics originally designed and developed for the ISS, especially in the treatment of breast cancer.

For example, telerobotic technology – originally developed for robotics on the ISS – is being put to good use by Dr. Mehran Anvari, chief executive officer at the Centre for Surgical Invention and Innovation (CSii).

Dr. Anvari has developed a robotic procedure to provide MRI guided breast biopsies to women in remote areas.

According to Dr. Anvari only about 40 percent of women requiring MRI screening actually undergo the procedure.

“Part of the reason why women were not undertaking MRI screening was because of lack of access to the best radiologists locally,” says Dr. Anvari.

“Some women have to drive very long distance, like seven or eight hours, in snowstorm during the winter, sometimes risking their lives just to get their MRI breast biopsies,” says Dr. Nathalie Duchesne of Université Laval (Laval University) in Quebec, Canada.

To address issues like these, Dr. Anvari got in touch with MDA – a Canadian company that develops all robotic systems currently in use on the International Space Station.

MDA developed a system called IGAR (Image Guided Automated Robot), which is a teleoperated robot capable of performing biopsies under MRI guidance.

Basically, it allows radiologists to supervise MRI breast biopsies remotely, thereby eliminating the need for patients to travel to another city or a distant hospital to get access to specialists.

Another ISS technology that has found its way into our lives is a water-testing system, which on Earth comes in the form of a mobile app called mWater for testing water purity.

NASA says: “This handy tool, based in part on International Space Station technology, provides a global resource available for free download as an app or usable via the Web browser version of the app on most smartphones.

“Governments, health workers and the public all can make use of mWater to record and share water test results.

“During the first year of the beta release of mWater, more than 1,000 users downloaded it and mapped several thousand water sources.”

Imagery captured by the space station’s HDEV ( High Definition Earth Viewing) cameras help in natural disaster management.

Some Twitter reactions on the International Space Station’s 20th year in space.

From The Editors Science

NASA’s InSight Lander is Just 7 Days Away from a Mars Landing

The countdown has begun!

Well, almost.

On Monday (Nov 26), NASA’s InSight lander will plunge into the Martian atmosphere at a speed in excess of 12, 000 mph before landing on the planet it has been hurtling towards for the last six and a half months.

In the “seven minutes of terror” separating entry from touch down, the lander has to decelerate from that incomprehensible speed to a speed safe enough for landing without incident

To be able to do that, InSight will first deploy a parachute about three minutes after entry; and drop the heat shield.

The maneuvers will slow it down drastically, which is still not good enough, as three minutes later it will still be far from landing speed, the ground rushing at it at 180 mph.

This is when the lander deploys its tripod legs, gets rid of the back shell and fires the retro rockets, coming to rest on the equatorial plane of Elysium Planitia a minute later – thereby completing the entry, descent, and landing (EDL) sequence.

However, there are so many possibilities of something going wrong – for example, the parachute might fail to deploy; the landing legs could malfunction; the heat shield could fail to jettison or damage the lander as it drops; a surface obstruction could botch the landing; and so on.

“If the lander were to tip over, it doesn’t have the ability to right itself. says Rob Grover of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

“We would be stuck in that position. The science would be very difficult to do,” he says.

To add to the probable threats is the real one of dust storms; well, it’s that time of the Martian year.

“A global dust storm can blow up in a matter of days,” says Grover matter-of-factly.

“We’ve been rehearsing for that,” he says. “We’ll land successfully in just about any conditions thought possible during the season.”

“If Elysium Planitia were a salad, it would consist of romaine lettuce and kale — no dressing,” InSight principal investigator Bruce Banerdt said in a statement, emphasizing the monotony of the terrain of the landing site.

“If it were an ice cream, it would be vanilla,” he added.

From here on will begin the well-equipped landers science work of providing an InSight into the planet’s seismology and internal temperatures, and more.

But all of that is on paper, for now; come Monday and we’ll know if it translated into success, at least the EDL part of the mission.

Although there have been far more failures than successes when it comes to landing a craft on the Red Planet, NASA can take comfort in the knowledge that most of the failed attempts are dated, with a string of failures taking place in the latter part of the last century, including Mars 96, Mars Observer, Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander missions.

That said, Mars landings involve some of the most complicated and trickiest deep-space maneuvers, requiring “thousands of steps” to complete the EDL sequence.

“Although we’ve done it before, landing on Mars is hard, and this mission is no different,” says Rob Manning, chief engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

“It takes thousands of steps to go from the top of the atmosphere to the surface, and each one of them has to work perfectly to be a successful mission,” he says.

Coming back to the entry, descent, and landing phase of the mission, there are three areas of difficulty that makes landing a craft on Mars far more difficult than say a moon landing; one is distance and the other two are related to the Martian atmosphere.

Mars is way too far away for direct human intervention in a landing sequence; in fact, so far away that by the time a signal is received and responded to, the end result you’re trying to influence will have already happened – one way or another.

When a spacecraft is returning back to earth, the heat shield protects it from burning up from the friction of entry, while the same friction helps in slowing down the craft until a parachute can take over for the rest of the way down.

Although the Martian atmosphere is thick enough to make a heat shield necessary, it is too sparse for a parachute to do the job alone; hence, the need for retro rockets to slow the descent down to landing speed.

Another area of concern for a Mars lander is the erratic horizontal velocity caused by the Martian winds, which can be as unpredictable.

Moon offers no such worries, as there is no atmosphere to burn a lander and no air to check a parachutes descent.

All that you need to do is point some rockets downwards to offset the velocity with reverse thrust from the inverted rockets.

Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, better known as InSight, was launched aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 5, 2018.

Also on board were two experimental CubeSats, MarCO-A and MarCO-B, aimed at testing their capability in interplanetary space.

The two MarCOs are also expected to keep an eye out for InSight and beam back the lander’s data as it attempts the landing next week.

Although launched with the lander, they are flying separately to Mars and will not attempt to land – that’s for the InSights of the world to worry about – but will instead do a flyby of the Red Planet and wait for their short operational lives to end.

From The Editors Science

Antares Rocket Launches Spaceship Cygnus, Carrying NASA Cargo to the International Space Station

After two days of weather-related delays, a Northrop Grumman Antares 230 rocket climbed into orbit after a spectacular pre-dawn launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia at 4:01 a.m. EST (0901 GMT), on Saturday (Nov 17).

Propelled by a whopping 864,000 pounds of thrust from the Russian-built RD-181 engines, the rocket soared into the pre-dawn sky over Virginia’s Eastern Shore, veering southeast over the Atlantic to stay on course for its intended destination.

Perched atop the 139-foot launcher was a Cygnus spacecraft – also developed and owned by Northrop Grumman – loaded with 7,400 pounds worth of research hardware and supplies for the International Space Station (ISS).

Included in the provisions are some ice cream and fresh fruits for the three-member Expedition 57 team currently manning the orbital laboratory; they are NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor, European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Alexander Gerst and Russian cosmonaut Sergey Prokopyev.

As the first-stage of the Antares shut down and separated three and a half minutes into the launch, the upper-stage Castor 30XL rocket motor took over the next stage of the supply mission, accelerating Cygnus towards the intended point of the second separation.

Five and a half minutes later, the Antares upper-stage released the supply ship into a preliminary orbit for its two-day onward journey to the ISS.

“Not only was it a beautiful launch this morning, it put Cygnus exactly where we wanted it in orbit,” said Frank DeMauro, Northrop Grumman vice president of advanced programs.

“The spacecraft, after separation, we were able to communicate (with it) extremely quickly and start conditioning. We initialized the guidance system and the propulsion system. That all checked out really well,” DeMauro added.

If all goes according to plan, the un-manned Cygnus should make contact with the space station early Monday morning, at around 5:20 a.m. EST (1020 GMT).

Auñón-Chancellor and Gerst will be eagerly waiting to deploy the space station’s robotic arm to grab the goodies-laden Cygnus – nothing less than a treasure ship for the resident astronauts.

The Cygnus launch was the second ISS supply mission in a matter of a day, following the launch of Russia’s Progress 71 space vehicle aboard a Soyuz-FG rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Saturday (Nov 17) at 12:14 a.m. local time (1:14 p.m. EST, 1814 GMT on Nov. 16).

Progress 71 has been cruising with its three-ton cargo of food, fuel, and other essential supplies for more than forty hours now, and is expected to dock at the Russian section of the space station at around 2:30 p.m. EST (1930 GMT) on Sunday (Nov 18).

“While we were waiting on the weather out here at Wallops, we had an awesome Progress launch out of Baikonur, Kazakhstan on Friday,” said Joel Montalbano, deputy space station program manager at NASA

“We’re looking forward to both vehicles being attached to the International Space Station and the crew working on them getting the science, getting the research out, getting all the equipment that we’ve bought up on these vehicles, and continuing the great work we do on the International Space Station,” Montalbano added.

Cygnus will remain berthed at the orbiting lab until mid-February 2019, by which time it will have offloaded its cargo and taken on waste, before returning back to the Earth’s atmosphere for its intended burn up.

However, before the cargo hauler meets its fiery end, it will deploy two CubeSats (MYSat 1 and CHEFSat 2) at a higher orbit, some 500 kilometers (300 miles) above Earth, as well as a NASA-sponsored CubeSat called Kicksat 2 at a lower orbit roughly 325 kilometers (200 miles) above the planet.

Built by Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi, with support from Northrop Grumman and the UAE’s Al Yah Satellite Communications Company, MYSat 1 is a 1U CubeSat, roughly the size of a Rubik’s cube, with an onboard camera and lithion-ion coil cell battery.

The U.S. Naval Research Lab’s shoebox-sized CHEFSat 2 – a replica of the CubeSat launched in Nov last year, also aboard a Cygnus spaceship – “will test commercial off-the-shelf technologies to evaluate their performance in space, focusing on new radio communications capabilities,” reports Spaceflight Now.

The lower orbit KickSat 2 is equipped with 100 “sprites” that are, basically, 1,4-inch circuit boards with integrated power, computing, sensing and communication equipment.

KickSat 2 is designed to deploy the tiny sprites at a relatively low orbit to enable re-entry within a few weeks, rather than deploying them at a higher orbit where they are likely to become space debris and a threat to other satellites.

KickSat 2 is a continuation of the unsuccessful KickSat mission in 2014 when it failed to deploy the sprites in orbit.

The Cygnus space cargo hauler was Christened S.S. John Young, in honor of NASA astronaut John Watts Young who passed away on January 5 this year.

The veteran astronaut had the distinction of flying six space missions, including Gemini 3, Gemini 10, Apollo 10, Apollo 16, STS-1 and STS-9, in his 42 years of active service at NASA – a record in itself.

He also holds the record of being the only person to have piloted and commandeered four classes of spacecraft, including Gemini, the Apollo Command/Service Module, the Apollo Lunar Module, and the Space Shuttle.

He was one of just three people to have flown to the Moon on two occasions, in addition to becoming the first person to fly solo around the natural satellite.

He also drove the Lunar Roving Vehicle on the Moon’s surface during Apollo 16.