SpaceX completed Friday the last drop test of the Dragon crew capsule’s parachutes before the first launch of astronauts on the human-rated ship May 27, while technicians at Cape Canaveral have mated the spacecraft’s crew module with its unpressurized trunk section.
The drop test from a C-130 cargo plane Friday was the 27th and final test of the “Mark 3” parachute design SpaceX will use for the Crew Dragon spacecraft. Drogue parachutes and then four main chutes unfurled from a test vehicle designed to mimic the Crew Dragon’s weight during return to Earth.
SpaceX said in a tweet that the parachute test moves the Crew Dragon “one step closer” to flying NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station, “and safely returning them back to Earth.
Meanwhile, SpaceX’s Dragon processing team at Cape Canaveral have connected the spaceship’s pressurized crew module with the spacecraft’s rear trunk, which generates electricity through body-mounted solar panels and houses radiators for thermal control in orbit.
The parachute and spacecraft processing milestones kick off a busy month of preparations ahead of the the Crew Dragon’s launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket set for May 27 from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The test flight will head for the International Space Station, where Behnken and Hurley will live and work for one-to-four months before returning to Earth for a splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean just off Florida’s East Coast.
The launch later this month will mark the first time astronauts have flown into Earth orbit from a U.S. spaceport since the retirement of the space shuttle in July 2011.
“My heart is sitting right here (motioning to throat), and I think it’s going to stay there until we get Bob and Doug safely back from the International Space Station,” said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, in a press conference Friday. “But between now and then, there’s still work to do.”
NASA has awarded SpaceX more than $3.1 billion since 2011 to develop, test and fly the Crew Dragon spacecraft. SpaceX has put in its own funding, but Shotwell could not provide a figure Friday for the level of internal funds SpaceX has spent on developing the crew capsule.
The public-private partnership is a hallmark of NASA’s strategy since the end of the space shuttle program to commercialize transportation to and from low Earth orbit, beginning with cargo services for the space station pioneered by SpaceX’s Dragon capsule and the Cygnus supply ship owned by Northrop Grumman, formerly known as Orbital ATK.
“This is a new generation, a new era in human spaceflight,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “And when I say it’s new what I mean is, NASA has long had this idea that we need to purchase, own and operate hardware to get to space. In the past that has been true, but now, in this new era … NASA has an ability to be a customer, one customer of many customers in a very robust commercial marketplace in low Earth orbit.”
NASA selected Boeing alongside SpaceX in 2014 to design and build new commercial spaceships to ferry astronauts to and from the space station. Boeing’s Starliner ship is unlikely to fly with astronauts until early 2021 after an unpiloted test flight in December encountered software trouble, preventing the capsule from docking with the space station.
Bridenstine said NASA and SpaceX are continuing preparations for the Crew Dragon test flight — designated Demo-2 — amid the coronavirus pandemic while introducing new physical distancing guidelines for the astronauts and support teams.
“We’re going to do it in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic,” Bridenstine said. “I’m going to tell you that this is a high-priority mission for the United States of America. We, as a nation, have not had our own access to the International Space Station for nine years.”
In the time since the last shuttle flight, all astronauts traveling to the space station have flown aboard Russian Soyuz capsules. In the most recent agreement with Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, NASA paid the Russian government more than $80 million per round-trip seat on the Soyuz spacecraft.
NASA’s inspector general last year reported the agency is paying SpaceX approximately $55 million per Crew Dragon seat.
Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s commercial crew program, said Friday that NASA and SpaceX engineers are “making sure that all the Is are dotted and Ts are crossed” in preparation for the Crew Dragon launch.
In parallel with hardware preparations at the Kennedy Space Center, SpaceX and NASA engineers are completing pre-flight data analyses, safety assessments and readiness reviews.
The work in the coming weeks will make sure SpaceX and NASA “are ready for this important mission to safely fly Bob and Doug up to the International Space Station, serve as a lifeboat, and return them to their families,” Lueders said.
“This is a humbling job,” she said. “I think we’re up to it.”
Behnken, 49, will serve as joint operations commander for the Demo-2 mission, responsible for rendezvous, docking, undocking and other activities at the International Space Station. Hurley, 53, will be the spacecraft commander, responsible for launch, landing and recovery, according to NASA.
Both astronauts joined NASA’s astronaut corps in 2000, and each has flown twice on space shuttle missions. Behnken and Hurley are also both married to other astronauts.
“I think we have a different perspective of the importance of coming to Florida, launching again on an American rocket from the Florida coast,” Behnken said. “And generations of people who maybe didn’t get a chance to see a space shuttle launch, getting a chance again to see human spaceflight in our own backyard, if you will, is pretty exciting to be a part of.
“I think that’s the thing that’s most exciting for me, as well as on my first flight, I didn’t have a small child,” he said. “I didn’t have a son, so I’m really excited to share the mission with him and have him have a chance to be old enough at six to see it and share it with me when I get home and while I’m on orbit.”
Hurley piloted the shuttle Atlantis on the final space shuttle mission in July 2011.
“It’s well past time to be launching an American rocket from the Florida coast to the International Space Station, and I am certainly honored to be part of it,” Hurley said.
“We would be asked questions along the lines of, well, the space program is over because the shuttle is not flying,” Hurley said. “And that certainly was not the case. We’ve had people on board the International Space Station since the fall of 2000. And we continue to fly to the space station on Soyuz vehicles. So part of it was just a lack of understanding by the public as far as what we were continuing to do as an agency, but it was also the time it took to develop new vehicles in order to take their place, take the shuttle’s place, to get folks to and from the International Space Station from the United States.”
Once Behnken and Hurley return to Earth, NASA will formally certify the Crew Dragon for regular crew rotation flights to the space station, each carrying four astronauts. Another Crew Dragon is scheduled for launch later this year with three NASA astronauts and a Japanese space flier.
The Dragon crew has essentially been in quarantine since March, when the threat of coronavirus interrupted daily life for millions of Americans. Behnken and Hurley will begin a formal quarantine protocol next week, then spend a few days inside a controlled facility at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston before flying to Kennedy in a NASA aircraft May 20.
The astronauts will participate in a final integrated simulation Monday with NASA and SpaceX ground controllers and mission managers.
“Then we start a quarantine process which escalates as we get closer to launch,” Hurley said. “And we also get some off time to kind of get everything in our lives sort of squared away since we’ve been busy getting ready for this flight, and we are likely to be in space for a few months.”
“We have a few more sims with SpaceX, we’ll have some proficiency sims later on, before we go down to Kennedy,” Hurley said. “And then we’ll get down to Kennedy around six or seven days before launch and then spend the rest of the time (in Florida) prepping from that location in the astronaut crew quarters down there.”
SpaceX plans a flight test readiness review May 8, followed by a NASA-led test readiness review May 11.
Lueders said Friday that NASA has reviewed SpaceX’s investigation into an engine failure that occurred on a Falcon 9 launch in March. One of the rocket’s nine Merlin engines shut down prematurely during a launch with 60 Starlink Internet satellites, but the rocket overcame the malfunction and still delivered the payloads to their intended orbit.
“We’re finishing testing on some other launch vehicle components,” Lueders said. “We have reviewed the anomaly resolution of the Starlink launch and actually have cleared the engines on our vehicle for that failure, so that actually is behind us right now.
“But like everybody knows, the spacecraft is still processing, the launch vehicle is still processing, and as you’re processing vehicles there are little issues that come up that we have to work through,” Lueders said. “Most of our human certification activities are being completed with this mission, so the team is going through really about 95 percent of the human-rating certification on this mission.”
In mid-May the Dragon spacecraft is expected to be transferred from a processing facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to the nearby Kennedy Space Center, where the crew capsule will be attached to its Falcon 9 launcher inside a hangar near the southern perimeter of pad 39A.
Behnken and Hurley are scheduled to fly to Florida’s Space Coast on May 20.
A test-firing of the Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled around May 22, followed the next day by a “dry dress” rehearsal when the astronauts will put on their black and white SpaceX flight suits and strap inside the Crew Dragon spacecraft at the launch pad.
A launch readiness review is scheduled for May 25.
On May 27, Behnken and Hurley will again put on their flight suits inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building at Kennedy, the same facility where Apollo and shuttle astronauts prepared for launch. They will ride inside a Tesla Model X from the O&C Building to pad 39A, passing by the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building and the Press Site on the way to the seaside launch complex.
They will begin boarding the Crew Dragon spaceship around three hours before liftoff. SpaceX’s ground crew will close the Dragon’s side hatch and evacuate the pad before fueling of the Falcon 9 rocket with super-chilled kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants.
SpaceX’s sleek crew access arm, installed on pad 39A in 2018, will retract around 42 minutes before liftoff. The Dragon’s powerful abort engines will be armed 37 minutes prior to launch, giving the astronauts the ability to escape an explosion or other emergency during fueling of the Falcon 9 rocket.
Kerosene and liquid oxygen will begin flowing into the two-stage launcher 35 minutes before liftoff, which is timed for 4:32 p.m. EDT (2032 GMT) on May 27.
Assuming liftoff occurs May 27, the Crew Dragon is slated to autonomous dock with the International Space Station on May 28 at approximately 11:29 a.m. EDT (1529 GMT).
Hurley and Behnken will take over manual control of the spaceship at multiple points during the Dragon’s trip to the space station, testing out their ability to fly the capsule using novel touchscreen controls in the cockpit.
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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.
Astronomers Detect a Suspiciously Shaped Galaxy Lurking in The Very Early Universe
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.
NASA’s head of human spaceflight abruptly resigns, citing ‘mistake’ – CNN
His departure was effective on Monday.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
In an orange swirl, astronomers say humanity has its first look at the birth of a planet
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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