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How engineers are operating space missions from their homes – The Verge

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How engineers are operating space missions from their homes – The Verge_5e9e24ec936ed.jpeg

Last Tuesday, a team of engineers sat huddled around their computer screens, monitoring a spacecraft as it maneuvered around a rocky asteroid more than 140 million miles from Earth. They were conducting an important interplanetary dress rehearsal, running the spacecraft through many of the operations it will do in August when it attempts to snag a tiny sample of rocks from the asteroid’s surface. This dress rehearsal has been in the works for years, and the team had expected to be gathered together for it in a mission center in Colorado.

Instead, most of them kept tabs on the event from home. “It was a skeleton crew that was supporting the event in person, compared to what was originally planned,” Mike Moreau, deputy project manager for the mission at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, tells The Verge. “More than three-quarters of the team was doing it from home and monitoring remotely.”

Moreau is part of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, tasked with grabbing a sample of the asteroid Bennu and bringing it back to Earth for study. The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft launched in 2016, and the team had planned for this particular dress rehearsal for more than a decade. They hadn’t counted on a pandemic occurring during one of the most highly anticipated checkpoints of their mission — but the show had to go on.

“We were all going to be there together in the mission operations area, and we actually had rehearsed that even before this checkpoint rehearsal; we had done a simulation,” Dante Lauretta, the principal investigator on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission at the University of Arizona, tells The Verge. “None of that happened. We were all in remote work conditions.”

Just like millions of workers all over the world, the engineers who operate spacecraft are grappling with how to do their jobs while working from home. All of NASA’s centers have instituted mandatory telework policies, with some exceptions for essential personnel. That includes many people who are tasked with calculating commands for interplanetary space probes and navigating rovers through harsh terrains on other worlds.

An artistic rendering of OSIRIS-REx at Bennu.
Image: NASA

For some, the transition was awkward at first since operating a spacecraft often relies on ample amounts of in-person communication. That’s been the case for Carrie Bridge, who works as a liaison between scientists and the engineers who operate NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars. Every day, she talks with scientists all over the country about the kind of science they’d like the rover to accomplish, and then she relays those desires to the engineers who actually navigate the robot. Normally, she just walks over to the engineering team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, to coordinate the rover’s movements for the day.

“My morning consisted of being on the phone with the scientists and then going in and sitting beside the rover planners at the computer,” Bridge tells The Verge. “And we look at the terrain and look at the targets. I then go and report back to the scientists and say, ‘Okay I think we can drive over here.’”

Now, that entire routine has been moved online. She says she has about 15 to 20 chat rooms open for all of the engineers and rover planners — not to mention telecons with scientists across the country. “The level of intensity has gone up because you’re kind of always watching things,” Bridge says. “I’m also not exercising anymore,” she jokes. “I used to walk around, and now I’m staring at a computer station for hours on end without moving.”

One of the lead rover planners that Bridge communicates with is Matt Gildner, who is also coordinating all the commands for Curiosity from his one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles. He and his team started testing how to work remotely back in mid-March when “the writing was on the wall” about the COVID-19 pandemic, he says. He started coordinating everything they’d need to have at home, including audio headsets, monitors, cables, and even 3D glasses. Curiosity sends back 3D images of the Martian terrain, which the rover planners and engineers observe as 3D meshes, allowing them to simulate how the rover will interact with the environment when it moves.

“I’m at home now, and I have all my headsets on as I talk to multiple audio channels, put on my red-blue glasses and evaluate parts of a drive that we’re planning for a few minutes as part of our planning day,” Gildner tells The Verge. “I have a nice desk set up and I’ve got all my houseplants around me, dual monitors, and a good keyboard and mouse headset stand. And this is working out just fine.”

Matt Gildner at his home work station with his 3D glasses.
Image: NASA

Someone does need to physically be at mission control at JPL in order to send Curiosity the commands that Gildner and his team develop. That person sends commands out to the Deep Space Network, an array of large radio antennas here on Earth, which then beam commands to interplanetary space probes like the rover.

Other spacecraft operators have figured out a way to send commands to their spacecraft without actually having anyone in a mission control center. The Space Dynamics Laboratory in Utah is responsible for operating two small NASA satellites — HARP and CIRiS — which are both observing Earth. The team there typically goes into a mission control center to send commands to the spacecraft via a ground station in Virginia. But in a weird twist of fate, operators at the lab came up with a way to actually send the commands from their laptops at home just before everyone went into lockdown.

“We were preparing and testing out our working from home techniques right before the pandemic hit,” Ryan Martineau, an SDL engineer and spacecraft operator, tells The Verge. “We frequently have to operate our spacecraft in the middle of the night, and so we didn’t have to have the same two people driving into work every day, we were getting ready to test a secure solution.”

Martineau and his colleagues essentially took the software they use at their mission control centers that allows them to connect with the Virginia ground station, and they put it in their local computers. “We run a [virtual] Linux machine inside of our Windows laptop that has all the software we need to run the spacecraft,” he says. Thanks to this arrangement, Martineau can control the spacecraft around Earth from his home for the foreseeable future. And that means juggling other responsibilities while maintaining the satellites.

“I have a three year old and a three month old,” Martineau says. “There have been a couple of cases where I had to hurry up with a diaper change real quick before I needed to send some commands to the spacecraft.”

The presence of children and pets has been a mainstay for many at NASA’s workforce at home. “One of our dogs [a Great Dane] has this habit of squeaking his toys when he wants attention,” Amber Straughn, the associate director for the astrophysics science division at Goddard, writes in an email to The Verge. “He’s definitely done that a couple times when I’ve been in telecons.”

New work companions have also been present for the OSIRIS-REx team as they prepared for their big dress rehearsal last week. Many of the team managers have had to juggle family responsibilities, such as remote learning, as they prepared for the event. “For some of the managers it has been really stressful because we obviously wanted to see this go forward,” Moreau says. “But we were also very concerned about how our people were holding up.”

Ultimately, everyone made it to the day of the rehearsal. But with most of the team away from Lockheed Martin’s mission control center in Colorado, some adjustments needed to be made. “There’s no substitute for being in the same building; being on the same floor; being able to walk over to somebody’s office and say, ‘Hey, now I was just thinking about this. How does it look on your side?’” Lauretta says. “We couldn’t really do any of that.”

Lauretta says the team made do with calls, which mostly worked, though there were a few technical difficulties. “For some reason my phone kept going on mute,” he says. “I’d be dialed in, and I would be talking and nobody would be hearing me.” While that was frustrating, he said everyone was in good spirits. “Actually everybody was just happy to be talking to each other on the group chat.”

Despite the added challenges, the rehearsal went off without a hitch. During the practice session, OSIRIS-REx got closer to Bennu than it’s ever been before. It was a key maneuver that paves the way for OSIRIS-REx to get right next to Bennu’s surface in August and scoop up 60 grams of rocks from a crater called Nightingale. The engineers are thrilled with the result, though there was definitely some sadness over the unexpected circumstances.

“I would say it was bittersweet in the sense that it was a great day; everything went according to plan. But we didn’t get to celebrate it as a team,” says Lauretta, who notes that they’ve been waiting for this big test for over a decade. “We’re hopeful that by August, we’ll all be able to gather together and actually celebrate the actual sample collection event.”

For now, it’s unclear exactly when extreme social distancing will be over, allowing everyone — not just spacecraft operators — to return to their normal daily routines. But until that time arrives, the people in charge of operating spacecraft are making the most of their new mission control centers at home. For Gildner, it’s even been a nice distraction from the daily cycle of news surrounding the virus.

“Work is a nice escape from everything that’s going on, especially when you’re working on a spaceflight project,” Gildner says “You feel like you’re doing something that is very worthwhile that humanity appreciates, and right now that’s important more than ever, I think.”

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Astronomers Detect a Suspiciously Shaped Galaxy Lurking in The Very Early Universe

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Astronomers Detect a Suspiciously Shaped Galaxy Lurking in The Very Early Universe_5ec5b2be6848e.jpeg

Around 13.8 billion years ago, somehow the Universe popped into existence. But it didn’t come fully equipped. At some point, the first stars formed, and the first galaxies. How and when this happened is still a mystery astronomers are trying to solve… but one galaxy could have a vitally important key.

 

It’s called DLA0817g – nicknamed the Wolfe Disk – a cool, rotating, gas-rich disc galaxy with a mass of about 72 billion times that of our Sun. And the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array has snapped it a massive 12.5 billion light-years away – when the Universe was just 10 percent of its current age.

It’s the earliest rotating disc galaxy astronomers have found yet, and its very existence changes our understanding of galaxy formation in the early Universe.

Most of the galaxies in the early Universe are a hot mess, literally. They’re all blobby, with stars flying every which way, and rather high temperatures. Astronomers have interpreted this to mean that they grew large by colliding and merging with other galaxies – a hot, messy process.

“Most galaxies that we find early in the Universe look like train wrecks because they underwent consistent and often ‘violent’ merging,” explained astronomer Marcel Neeleman of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany.

“These hot mergers make it difficult to form well-ordered, cold rotating disks like we observe in our present Universe.”

 

Under this scenario, it takes a long time for the galaxies to cool down and smooth out into the more orderly rotating disc galaxies like the Milky Way. We don’t generally start seeing them until about 4 to 6 billion years after the Big Bang.

This is the “hot” mode of galaxy formation. But astronomers had also predicted and simulated another way – the “cold” mode. 

First, you need to start with the primordial soup, an ionised quark-gluon plasma that filled the Universe before the formation of matter. To go from this homogeneous plasma to a Universe filled with stuff, astrophysicists have run simulations that suggest dark matter is responsible.

We don’t know what dark matter is. We can’t detect it directly, but it interacts gravitationally with normal matter. It helps to hold galaxies together, and we believe that it could be crucial to galaxy formation, clumps of it pulling together gas and stars into galaxies.

Supercomputer simulations have shown that a massive network of dark matter in the early Universe could have facilitated the formation of cool galaxies. If the gas was cool to start with, it could have been fed along filaments of the network into the dark matter clumps, accreting into large, cool, orderly disc galaxies.

 

But the only way to confirm this model is through observational evidence, so the researchers went looking, using the light of even more distant galaxies, called quasars, to illuminate the way.

Distant galaxies are very hard to see, but quasars are among the most luminous objects in the Universe – galaxies lit by an active supermassive black hole, the space around it blasting out radiation as it feeds. The team turned ALMA’s powerful capabilities to these distant quasars, looking for signatures in their light that showed that it had passed through a gas-filled galaxy on the way.

They found it. The light from one of the quasars they imaged had passed through a region rich with hydrogen – the signature of the Wolfe Disk.

And there was something else. The light on one side of the disc was compressed, or blueshifted. We see this when something is moving towards us. And the light from the other side was stretched, or redshifted – moving away from us. The object was rotating.

Those Doppler shifts, as they are known, then allowed the researchers to calculate the velocity of the galaxy’s rotation: around 272 kilometres per second.

What’s even more wild is that the team believes the Wolfe Disk isn’t one of a kind. 

“The fact that we found the Wolfe Disk using this method, tells us that it belongs to the normal population of galaxies present at early times,” Neeleman said.

“When our newest observations with ALMA surprisingly showed that it is rotating, we realised that early rotating disk galaxies are not as rare as we thought and that there should be a lot more of them out there.”

The team will continue their search for these galaxies to find out just how common cold accretion was in the early Universe.

The research has been published in Nature.

 

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NASA’s head of human spaceflight abruptly resigns, citing ‘mistake’ – CNN

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His departure was effective on Monday.

The incident in question was related to the Artemis Program, a source familiar with the matter told CNN Business.
The Artemis Program seeks to return astronauts to the moon by 2024, which was announced by the Trump administration last year and has been criticized as unrealistic. The source familiar with the reason for Loverro’s departure said the issue centered on contracts that were awarded earlier this year for development of lunar landers, or vehicles that can carry astronauts to the moon’s surface.

When reached by phone Tuesday evening, Loverro declined to comment on the reason for his departure.

Loverro began serving in his role as the head of NASA’s human spaceflight programs in December, replacing William Gerstenmaier, who served in the role for more than a decade. In his nearly 700-word note, Loverro told NASA workers only that leaders are “called on to take risks” and added that, “I took such a risk earlier in the year because I judged it necessary to fulfill our mission.”

“Now, over the balance of time, it is clear that I made a mistake in that choice for which I alone must bear the consequences,” Loverro wrote. “And therefore, it is with a very, very heavy heart that I write to you today to let you know that I have resigned from NASA effective May 18th, 2020.”

NASA’s Office of the Inspector General announced an audit of the agency’s acquisition strategy for the Artemis program in March, though it’s unclear if that review was related to Loverro’s departure. It’s also unclear exactly what role Loverro played in the selection process.
The source familiar with the matter, who asked to remain anonymous because the space agency has not yet publicized details, told CNN Business that the incident in question was unrelated to NASA’s historic milestone next week when SpaceX, NASA’s partner in the Commercial Crew Program, launches two astronauts to the International Space Station. That mission will mark the first time since 2011 that humans have launched into orbit from US soil, and Loverro was slated to preside over a final technical review meeting on Thursday, ahead of launch on May 27. Steve Jurczyk, NASA’s associate administrator, will take over Loverro’s role at that meeting, according to NASA.

Ken Bowersox, NASA’s acting deputy associate administrator for human exploration and operations, will become NASA’s interim head of human spaceflight.

Loverro’s exit immediately raised some eyebrows on Capitol Hill.

Meet the NASA astronauts who will fly on historic SpaceX mission

Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Democrat from Texas who chairs the House space and science committee, said in a statement that she was “shocked” by the news.

“I trust that NASA Administrator Bridenstine will ensure that the right decision is made as to whether or not to delay the launch attempt,” Johnson said. “Beyond that, Mr. Loverro’s resignation is another troubling indication that the Artemis Moon-Mars initiative is still not on stable footing. I look forward to clarification from NASA as to the reasons for this latest personnel action.”

Kendra Horn, a Democrat from Oklahoma who chairs a House subcommittee on space, said in a tweet Tuesday that she is “deeply concerned over this sudden resignation, especially eight days before the first scheduled launch of US astronauts on US soil in almost a decade.”

The timing of Loverro’s departure was related to when Jurczyk, the associate administrator, made a recommendation to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, the source said. It was unrelated to next week’s Crew Dragon launch, the source added.

Jurczyk was the source selection officer for the Artemis lunar lander contract awards, according to public documents.

In announcing Loverro’s appointment in October, NASA chief Jim Bridenstine called Loverro “a respected strategic leader in both civilian and defense programs” who “will be of great benefit to NASA at this critical time in our final development of human spaceflight systems for both Commercial Crew and Artemis.”

An agency-wide email sent on Tuesday said Loverro “hit the ground running” after his appointment in 2019 and had made “significant progress in his time at NASA.”

“His leadership of [NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations] has moved us closer to our goal of landing the first woman and the next man on the moon in 2024,” the email said. It said his resignation was effective immediately, though it did not provide details on the reason for his exit.

A NASA spokesperson declined to comment.

Loverro told CNN Business he is “100% confident” that leadership will be able to carry out the SpaceX mission. He added that he believes NASA’s ambitious human spaceflight goals are “doable.” “But,” he added, “it will take risk takers to get us there, and I hope folks who step in my shoes will continue to take risks.”

Next week’s SpaceX launch will mark the space agency’s highest-profile mission since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011. SpaceX, which has a multibillion-dollar contract under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, has worked for the better part of a decade to ready its Dragon spacecraft for crewed flights to the International Space Station. Since the Shuttle retired, NASA has had to rely on Russia for rides to the ISS.

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In an orange swirl, astronomers say humanity has its first look at the birth of a planet

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In an orange swirl, astronomers say humanity has its first look at the birth of a planet_5ec5b2aa94bef.jpeg

An image of a mesmerizing cosmic spiral, twisting and swirling around a galactic maw, may be the first direct evidence of the birth of a planet ever captured by humanity.

The European Southern Observatory released a picture Wednesday of what astronomers believe shows the process of cosmic matter at a gravitational tipping point, collapsing into a new world around a nearby star.

Astronomers said the dramatic scene offers a rare glimpse into the formation of a baby planet, which could help scientists better understand how planets come to exist around stars.

“Thousands of exoplanets have been identified so far, but little is known about how they form,” the lead author of a study detailing the discovery, Anthony Boccaletti, an astronomer at the Observatoire de Paris in France, said in a statement.

Planets are thought to form out of the massive discs of gas and dust that surround young stars. As tiny specks of dust circle a star and collide with one another, some material starts to fuse, much like how rolling a snowball through more snow will eventually yield a bigger snowball. After billions of years, the clumps of material become large enough that the force of gravity shapes them into planets.

The new image peers into the disc of material around a young star known as AB Aurigae, which is 520 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Auriga. Amid the hypnotic spiral arms is a “twist,” visible in the photo as a bright yellow region in the center, that is thought to be a sign of a planet being born, said Emmanuel Di Folco, a researcher at the Astrophysics Laboratory of Bordeaux in France, who participated in the study.

When a planet forms, the clumps of material create wavelike perturbations in the gas- and dust-filled disc around a star, “somewhat like the wake of a boat on a lake,” Di Folco said.

The bright region at the center of the new image is thought to be evidence of such a disturbance, which had been predicted in models of planetary birth.

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“The twist is expected from some theoretical models of planet formation,” said Anne Dutrey, an astronomer at the Astrophysics Laboratory of Bordeaux and co-author of the study, published Wednesday in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics. “It corresponds to the connection of two spirals — one winding inwards of the planet’s orbit, the other expanding outwards — which join at the planet location.”

The new observations of the baby planet were made in 2019 and early 2020 by the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. The research team, made up of astronomers from France, Taiwan, the U.S. and Belgium, said the images are the deepest observations of the AB Aurigae system made to date.

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