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Russian rocket puts satellite into orbit, 1st since failure

October 25, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — A Russian Soyuz rocket put a military satellite in orbit on Thursday, its first successful launch since a similar rocket failed earlier this month to deliver a crew to the International Space Station.

The Russian military said a Soyuz-2 booster rocket lifted off from the Plesetsk launch facility in northwestern Russia. A Soyuz-FG rocket carrying NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Roscosmos’ Alexei Ovchinin failed two minutes into the flight on Oct. 11, sending their emergency capsule into a sharp fall back to Earth. The crew landed safely, but the Russian space agency Roscosmos had suspended all Soyuz launches until Thursday, pending a probe.

The official panel is yet to produce its formal verdict, but investigators have reportedly linked the failure to an element jettisoning one of the rocket’s four side boosters from the main stage that apparently had been damaged during final assembly at the Russia-leased Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Russian space officials plan to conduct two other unmanned Soyuz launches before launching a crew to the space station. No date for the crew launch has been set yet, but it’s expected in early December.

The current space station crew — NASA’s Serena Aunon-Chancellor, Russian Sergei Prokopyev and German Alexander Gerst — was scheduled to return to Earth in December after a six-month mission. A Soyuz capsule attached to the station that they use to ride back to Earth is designed for 200 days in space, meaning that their stay in orbit could only be extended briefly.

Flight controllers could operate the station without anyone on board in case the Russian investigation drags into next year, but NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has said earlier this month that he expects Roscosmos to launch the next crew in December.

The Russian Soyuz spacecraft is currently the only vehicle for ferrying crews to the space station following the retirement of the U.S. space shuttle fleet. Russia stands to lose that monopoly with the arrival of SpaceX’s Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner crew capsules.

The crew launch failure dealt another blow to the Russian space program, which has been dogged by a string of failed satellite launches in recent years. The Oct. 11 accident marked the first aborted manned launch for the Russian space program since 1983, when two Soviet cosmonauts jettisoned and landed safely after a launch pad explosion.

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Europe, Japan send spacecraft on 7-year journey to Mercury

October 20, 2018

TOKYO (AP) — European and Japanese space agencies said an Ariane 5 rocket successfully lifted a spacecraft carrying two probes into orbit Saturday for a joint mission to Mercury, the closest planet to the sun.

The European Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said the unmanned BepiColombo spacecraft successfully separated and was sent into orbit from French Guiana as planned to begin a seven-year journey to Mercury.

They said the spacecraft, named after Italian scientist Giuseppe “Bepi” Colombo, was in the right orbit and has sent the first signal after the liftoff. ESA says the 1.3 billion-euro ($1.5 billion) mission is one of the most challenging in its history. Mercury’s extreme temperatures, the intense gravity pull of the sun and blistering solar radiation make for hellish conditions.

The BepiColombo spacecraft will have to follow an elliptical path that involves a fly-by of Earth, two of Venus and six of Mercury itself so it can slow down before arriving at its destination in December 2025.

When it arrives, BepiColombo will release two probes — Bepi and Mio — that will independently investigate the surface and magnetic field of Mercury. The probes are designed to cope with temperatures varying from 430 degrees Celsius (806 F) on the side facing the sun, and -180 degrees Celsius (-292 F) in Mercury’s shadow.

The ESA-developed Bepi will operate in Mercury’s inner orbit, and JAXA’s Mio will be in the outer orbit to gather data that would reveal the internal structure of the planet, its surface and geological evolution.

Scientists hope to build on the insights gained by NASA’s Messenger probe, which ended its mission in 2015 after a four-year orbit of Mercury. The only other spacecraft to visit Mercury was NASA’s Mariner 10 that flew past the planet in the mid-1970s.

Mercury, which is only slightly larger than Earth’s moon, has a massive iron core about which little is known. Researchers are also hoping to learn more about the formation of the solar system from the data gathered by the BepiColombo mission.

“Beyond completing the challenging journey, this mission will return a huge bounty of science,” said Jan Wörner, ESA Director General, in a statement. JAXA President Hiroshi Yamakawa, who earlier managed the project, said, “We have high expectations that the ensuing detailed observations of Mercury will help us better understand the environment of the planet, and ultimately, the origin of the Solar System including that of Earth.”

It is the second recent cooperation between the Europeans and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. JAXA’s Hayabusa2 probe dropped a German-French rover on the asteroid Ryugu earlier this month.

Jordans reported from Berlin.

NASA astronaut describes close call following failed launch

October 16, 2018

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — The NASA astronaut who survived last week’s failed launch and emergency landing knew he needed to stay calm. Air Force Col. Nick Hague on Tuesday described the closest call of his career: His space capsule violently ripped from his damaged rocket shortly after liftoff, then with lights flashing and alarms sounding, plunged steeply back to Earth with punishing force.

Hague said he and his commander, Russian Alexei Ovchinin, were flung from side to side and shoved back hard into their seats, as the drama unfolded 50 kilometers (31 miles) above Kazakhstan last Thursday. One of the four strap-on boosters failed to separate properly two minutes into the flight to the International Space Station and apparently struck the core rocket stage, resulting instantaneously in a rare launch abort.

It was the first aborted launch for the Russians in 35 years and only the third in history. Like each one before, the rocket’s safety system kept the crew alive. Hague — the first American to experience a launch abort like this — communicated in Russian throughout the more than half-hour ordeal.

“All of my instincts and reflexes inside the capsule are to speak Russian,” said Hague, who had two years of training in Russia. “We knew that if we wanted to be successful, we needed to stay calm and we needed to execute the procedures in front of us as smoothly and efficiently as we could,” Hague told The Associated Press from Houston.

The astronauts experienced a few moments of weightlessness after their Soyuz capsule catapulted away from the rocket. Hague, making his first launch, saw the curvature of Earth and the blackness of space.

Between the abort and touchdown, Hague looked out the window to make sure the capsule’s systems were operating properly and to check their landing. They braced for the extreme force — seven times the force of gravity — of the unusually steep descent and the shock of the parachutes popping open.

They landed on the smooth, flat terrain of Kazakhstan. “You can imagine the scene,” Hague said. “We’re kind of hanging upside-down from our straps … and we looked at each other, big grins. He holds out a hand. I shake his hand. And then we start cracking a few jokes between us about how short our flight was.”

Neither man was injured. Hague, 43, said he’s dealt with in-flight emergencies during his Air Force career, but nothing like this. “Any time you’re launching yourself into space and your booster has a problem when you’re going 1,800 meters per second, things are pretty dynamic and they happen very fast,” he said.

He’s grateful the emergency system worked despite the fact it hadn’t been called into action for decades. His emotions bubbled up once he was reunited with his wife, their two young sons and his parents, back at the launch site. His youngest wanted to know when he was going back to space.

Hague said he has no clue as to when he’ll get a second shot, but is ready as soon as he gets the go-ahead. A Russian accident investigation is continuing, with all crew launches to the space station on hold. The space station, meanwhile, is managing for now with a crew of three.

“What can you do? Sometimes you don’t get a vote,” Hague said. “You just try to celebrate the little gifts that you get, like walking the boys to school this morning.”

The Associated Press Health & Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Russia’s launch failures affect manned, unmanned spacecraft

October 11, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — The booster rocket failure that forced an emergency landing for two astronauts headed to the International Space Station was the first launch accident for Russia’s manned-space program in 35 years. But several launches of unmanned Progress cargo ships have not gone as planned in the past decade.

The astronauts, a Russian and an American, were reported safe, but the failed launch Thursday throws off the schedule for sending crew to the International Space Station. Russia’s Soyuz capsules currently are the only way for humans to reach the orbiting laboratory.

The next manned launch was planned for December. Russia has suspended manned flights pending an investigation of the latest failure.

A look at past failures of Russian space launches:

Dec. 1, 2016: A Progress ship carrying food, fuel, air, water and other supplies failed to reach orbit after launching from Russia’s space complex in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. It separated from the third stage of the rocket early and fell to Earth in Russia’s Tuva region.

April 28, 2015: A Progress ship reached low Earth orbit, but it was spinning and could not be controlled. It burned up while re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean on May 8.

Aug. 24, 2011: An onboard computer terminated a Soyuz flight about five minutes into the launch after detecting an engine failure, resulting in the loss of a Progress ship. Russia’s space agency Roscosmos said a blocked fuel duct was at fault.

Sept. 27, 1983: A Soyuz rocket that was to carry Vladimir Titov and Gennady Strekalov to a Salyut space station caught fire in the final seconds of the countdown at Baikonur. A “launch escape system” — a rocket mounted above the capsule — pulled the capsule away from the rocket seconds before an explosion. Titov and Strekalov landed several kilometers away, apparently uninjured despite being subjected to intense G forces.

April 5, 1975: Oleg Makarov and Vasily Lazarev were about four minutes into their flight to a Salyut space station when the second and third stages of the booster rocket failed to separate correctly. The space capsule landed near the Chinese border in deep snow about 20 minutes after launch.

Exoplanets where life could develop as on Earth

Cambridge UK (SPX)

Aug 03, 2018

Scientists have identified a group of planets outside our solar system where the same chemical conditions that may have led to life on Earth exist.

The researchers, from the University of Cambridge and the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology (MRC LMB), found that the chances for life to develop on the surface of a rocky planet like Earth are connected to the type and strength of light given off by its host star.

Their study, published in the journal Science Advances, proposes that stars which give off sufficient ultraviolet (UV) light could kick-start life on their orbiting planets in the same way it likely developed on Earth, where the UV light powers a series of chemical reactions that produce the building blocks of life.

The researchers have identified a range of planets where the UV light from their host star is sufficient to allow these chemical reactions to take place, and that lie within the habitable range where liquid water can exist on the planet’s surface.

“This work allows us to narrow down the best places to search for life,” said Dr. Paul Rimmer, a postdoctoral researcher with a joint affiliation at Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory and the MRC LMB, and the paper’s first author. “It brings us just a little bit closer to addressing the question of whether we are alone in the universe.”

The new paper is the result of an ongoing collaboration between the Cavendish Laboratory and the MRC LMB, bringing together organic chemistry and exoplanet research. It builds on the work of Professor John Sutherland, a co-author on the current paper, who studies the chemical origin of life on Earth.

In a paper published in 2015, Professor Sutherland’s group at the MRC LMB proposed that cyanide, although a deadly poison, was in fact a key ingredient in the primordial soup from which all life on Earth originated.

In this hypothesis, carbon from meteorites that slammed into the young Earth interacted with nitrogen in the atmosphere to form hydrogen cyanide. The hydrogen cyanide rained to the surface, where it interacted with other elements in various ways, powered by the UV light from the Sun. The chemicals produced from these interactions generated the building blocks of RNA, the close relative of DNA which most biologists believe was the first molecule of life to carry information.

In the laboratory, Sutherland’s group recreated these chemical reactions under UV lamps, and generated the precursors to lipids, amino acids and nucleotides, all of which are essential components of living cells.

“I came across these earlier experiments, and as an astronomer, my first question is always what kind of light are you using, which as chemists they hadn’t really thought about,” said Rimmer. “I started out measuring the number of photons emitted by their lamps, and then realized that comparing this light to the light of different stars was a straightforward next step.”

The two groups performed a series of laboratory experiments to measure how quickly the building blocks of life can be formed from hydrogen cyanide and hydrogen sulphite ions in water when exposed to UV light. They then performed the same experiment in the absence of light.

“There is chemistry that happens in the dark: it’s slower than the chemistry that happens in the light, but it’s there,” said senior author Professor Didier Queloz, also from the Cavendish Laboratory. “We wanted to see how much light it would take for the light chemistry to win out over the dark chemistry.”

The same experiment run in the dark with the hydrogen cyanide and the hydrogen sulphite resulted in an inert compound which could not be used to form the building blocks of life, while the experiment performed under the lights did result in the necessary building blocks.

The researchers then compared the light chemistry to the dark chemistry against the UV light of different stars. They plotted the amount of UV light available to planets in orbit around these stars to determine where the chemistry could be activated.

They found that stars around the same temperature as our Sun emitted enough light for the building blocks of life to have formed on the surfaces of their planets. Cool stars, on the other hand, do not produce enough light for these building blocks to be formed, except if they have frequent powerful solar flares to jolt the chemistry forward step by step. Planets that both receive enough light to activate the chemistry and could have liquid water on their surfaces reside in what the researchers have called the abiogenesis zone.

Among the known exoplanets which reside in the abiogenesis zone are several planets detected by the Kepler telescope, including Kepler 452b, a planet that has been nicknamed Earth’s ‘cousin,’ although it is too far away to probe with current technology. Next-generation telescopes, such as NASA’s TESS and James Webb telescopes, will hopefully be able to identify and potentially characterize many more planets that lie within the abiogenesis zone.

Of course, it is also possible that if there is life on other planets, that it has or will develop in a totally different way than it did on Earth.

“I’m not sure how contingent life is, but given that we only have one example so far, it makes sense to look for places that are most like us,” said Rimmer. “There’s an important distinction between what is necessary and what is sufficient. The building blocks are necessary, but they may not be sufficient: it’s possible you could mix them for billions of years and nothing happens. But you want to at least look at the places where the necessary things exist.”

According to recent estimates, there are as many as 700 million trillion terrestrial planets in the observable universe. “Getting some idea of what fraction have been, or might be, primed for life fascinates me,” said Sutherland. “Of course, being primed for life is not everything and we still don’t know how likely the origin of life is, even given favorable circumstances – if it’s really unlikely then we might be alone, but if not, we may have company.”

Source: Space Daily.

Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Exoplanets_where_life_could_develop_as_on_Earth_999.html.

Pair of colliding stars spill radioactive molecules into space

Charlottesville VA (SPX)

Aug 02, 2018

When two Sun-like stars collide, the result can be a spectacular explosion and the formation of an entirely new star. One such event was seen from Earth in 1670. It appeared to observers as a bright, red “new star.” Though initially visible with the naked eye, this burst of cosmic light quickly faded and now requires powerful telescopes to see the remains of this merger: a dim central star surrounded by a halo of glowing material flowing away from it.

Approximately 348 years after this event, an international team of astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) and the NOEMA (Northern Extended Millimeter Array) radio telescopes studied the remains of this explosive stellar merger – known as CK Vulpeculae (CK Vul) – and discovered the clear and convincing signature of a radioactive version of aluminum (26Al, an atom with 13 protons and 13 neutron) bound with atoms of fluorine, forming 26-aluminum monofluoride (26AlF).

This is the first molecule bearing an unstable radioisotope definitively detected outside of our solar system. Unstable isotopes have an excess of nuclear energy and eventually decay into a stable, less-radioactive form. In this case, the 26-aluminum (26Al) decays to 26-magnesium (26Mg).

“The first solid detection of this kind of radioactive molecule is an important milestone in our exploration of the cool molecular universe,” said Tomasz Kami?ski, an astronomer with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., and lead author on a paper appearing in Nature Astronomy.

The researchers detected the unique spectral signature of these molecules in the debris surrounding CK Vul, which is approximately 2,000 light-years from Earth. As these molecules spin and tumble through space, they emit a distinctive fingerprint of millimeter-wavelength light, a process known as “rotational transition.” Astronomers consider this the “gold standard” for molecular detections.

These characteristic molecular fingerprints are usually taken from laboratory experiments and then used to identify molecules in space. In the case of 26AlF, this method is not applicable because 26-aluminum is not present on Earth. Laboratory astrophysicists from the University of Kassel/Germany therefore used the fingerprint data of stable and abundant 27AlF molecules to derive accurate data for the rare 26AlF molecule.

“This method of extrapolation is based on the so-called Dunham approach,” explained Alexander Breier from the Kassel team. “It allows researchers to precisely calculate the rotational transitions of 26AlF with an accuracy far beyond the needs of astronomical observers.”

The observation of this particular isotopologue provides fresh insights into the merger process that created CK Vul. It also demonstrates that the deep, dense inner layers of a star, where heavy elements and radioactive isotopes are forged, can be churned up and cast into space by stellar collisions. “We are observing the guts of a star torn apart three centuries ago by a collision,” observed Kami?ski. “How cool is that?”

The astronomers also determined that the two stars that merged were relatively low-mass, with one being a red giant star with a mass somewhere between 0.8 and 2.5 times that of our Sun.

“This first direct observation of this isotope in a stellar-like object is also important in the broader context of galactic chemical evolution,” noted Kami?ski. “This is the first time an active producer of the radioactive nuclide 26Al has been directly observationally identified.”

It has been known for decades that there is about three entire Suns’ worth of 26Al spread across the Milky Way. But these observations, made at gamma-ray wavelengths, could only identify that the signal was there; they couldn’t pinpoint individual sources and it was unclear how the isotopes got there.

With current estimates on the mass of 26Al in CK Vul (about a quarter the mass of Pluto) and the rare occurrence of mergers such as this, it seems rather unlikely that mergers are solely responsible for this galactic radioactive material, the astronomers conclude.

However, ALMA and NOEMA can only detect the amount of 26Al bound with fluorine. The actual mass of 26Al in CK Vul (in atomic form) may be much greater. It is also possible that other merger remnants may have far greater amounts. Astronomers may also have underestimated the current merger rates in the Milky Way. “So this is not a closed issue and the role of mergers may be non-negligible,” speculated Kamiski.

Source: Space Daily.

Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Pair_of_colliding_stars_spill_radioactive_molecules_into_space_999.html.

Space, not Brexit, is final frontier for Scottish outpost

By Roland Jackson

Farnborough, United Kingdom (AFP)

July 20, 2018

Never mind Brexit: For a remote peninsula in the Scottish highlands, the buzz is all about hi-tech rocket launchers firing satellites into space.

In just three years’ time, rockets will send satellites into orbit from the rugged stretch of coastline, under British government plans unveiled this week.

The sleepy county of Caithness and Sutherland has been selected as the site of the country’s first ever space port, Britain announced at the Farnborough Airshow, a showpiece event for the global aerospace sector.

The UK Space Agency awarded a ?2.5-million ($3.3-million, 2.8-million-euro) grant towards the construction of a vertical space port facility in Sutherland, which will become operational in 2021.

The announcement has boosted hopes for an industry worried about the effects of Britain leaving the European Union and raised spirits in pro-EU Scotland, which was outvoted in the 2016 referendum.

“It is rocket science,” Roy Kirk, area manager for Caithness and Sutherland at Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), a development agency for Scotland’s devolved government, said in an interview with AFP at Farnborough.

The launchers, made by established player Lockheed Martin and startup business Orbex, will stand 17 meters (56 feet) tall and will fire rockets that take just eight minutes to get into orbit.

– Boost to local economy –

“We are delighted we have been selected as a spaceport for vertical launch,” said Kirk, adding that the site would also create tourism opportunities.

“The local economy will benefit.”

The space port would employ about 40 staff within three years of operation, but the supply chain around that would support nearer 400 jobs.

Satellite uses include navigation, weather forecasting, telecommunications and financial transactions, while they are also vital for defense and energy sectors.

The Sutherland facility will cost an estimated ?17.3 million to build, including some ?10 million from HIE.

The port will be well positioned geographically to launch satellite rockets over the North Pole.

– ‘No different than before Brexit’ –

Prime Minister Theresa May’s government is seeking to develop the UK space industry after its role in European space projects was called into question by Brexit.

Space is one of Britain’s fastest growing sectors and generates more than ?13 billion of income per year.

“Our ambition to grow the space sector is in no way any different than it was before Brexit,” Graham Turnock, head of the UK Space Agency, told AFP on the sidelines of Farnborough.

“We are actually looking to the opportunities for trade deals with the rest of the world after Brexit so we are very positive about that.

“We are still aiming to achieve 10 percent of the world space market by 2030. We are very confident that we can do that.”

He also sought to dispel concerns that Britain’s departure from the European Union in 2019 would hurt the industry.

“Obviously we are talking to the EU about our future participation in the space programs.

“We have said that we’d very much like to continue to participate in Galileo Copernicus, but it takes two sides to want to have that discussion.”

Britain wants continued participation in the EU’s Galileo satellite navigation system — but Brussels rejects the idea.

UK Transport Secretary Chris Grayling meanwhile appeared at Farnborough to champion the space investment.

“After pioneering the development of those small satellites over many years, adding our own space ports means we can now move to offering customers a one stop shop in the United Kingdom,” Grayling told delegates.

“A full package of services — from design to build, right up to launch.”

– Focus on strategy –

Brexit has sparked uncertainty but also opportunity, some academics argue.

“The main impact of Brexit right now is uncertainty,” said Martin Barstow, professor of astrophysics and space science at the University of Leicester, which is launching a government-backed global industry hub Space Park in the central English city in 2020.

“Having said that, there have been some positive consequences as a result,” he added, citing government investment in both Space Park Leicester and the Sutherland spaceport.

“The government suddenly needed to focus on industrial strategy and suddenly needed to focus on investment in the regions quite quickly.”

Source: Space Daily.

Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Space_not_Brexit_is_final_frontier_for_Scottish_outpost_999.html.

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