EDITOR’S NOTE: Updated at 12:40 p.m. EDT with quote.
Gusty winds associated with a subtropical low pressure system prevented United Launch Alliance from sending an Atlas 5 rocket into orbit Saturday from Cape Canaveral with the U.S. Air Force’s clandestine X-37B spaceplane. ULA plans to try again Sunday, delaying a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch from a nearby pad to Monday.
ULA had reserved Sunday as a backup launch date for the Atlas 5 rocket weeks ago, before SpaceX requested the same day on the U.S. Space Force’s Eastern Range after delaying its launch from earlier in May. The range provides safety and other support functions for rocket launches from Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center.
The range typically operates on a first-come, first-served basis, so SpaceX’s Falcon 9 mission could only launch Sunday if the Atlas 5 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral’s Complex 41 launch pad Saturday.
The Atlas 5 and Falcon 9 rockets are standing about a mile-and-a-half apart on neighboring launch pads at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
After high winds and cumulus clouds prevented launch of the 197-foot-tall (60-meter) Atlas 5 rocket at 8:24 a.m. EDT (1224 GMT), ULA targeted Saturday’s back-up 10-minute launch window. The launch team proceeded with the terminal countdown for a potential liftoff of the Atlas 5 at 10:23 a.m. EDT (1423 GMT) in hopes weather conditions might improve.
In the end, the weather remained unfavorable and ground winds tripped the Atlas 5’s launch limit.
“The ground winds exceeded the limit of what we could safely fly through,” said Julie Arnold, a ULA spokesperson.
Officials called off the countdown at T-minus 1 minute, 40 seconds.
ULA’s launch director confirmed the Atlas 5 team would try again to send the launcher into space at 9:14 a.m. EDT (1314 GMT) Sunday, when there is a 70 percent chance of favorable weather.
The payload awaiting launch inside the Atlas 5’s nose cone is the U.S. Air Force’s reusable X-37B spaceplane, which takes off on top of a rocket and returns to Earth for landing on a runway. The military has two of the Boeing-built vehicles in its inventory to perform experiments and deploy small satellites in orbit.
The X-37B is about one-quarter the length of NASA’s retired space shuttle orbiters, but it can operate in orbit for years on each flight, significantly longer than the shuttle’s mission lifetime of a couple of weeks. This mission marks the sixth orbital flight of the X-37B program.
Military officials have disclosed several experiments on the upcoming flight, including two NASA investigations to study the effects of spaceflight on seeds and other materials. A Naval Research Laboratory experiment will demonstrate technology that could generate solar power in space, then beam the energy down to Earth for terrestrial use.
And a dishwasher-sized satellite from the U.S. Air Force Academy named FalconSAT-8 will deploy from the X-37B in orbit to perform propulsion experiments.
The spacecraft is also believed by analysts to host other classified experiments.
The Falcon 9 rocket scheduled to take off from Cape Canaveral’s Complex 40 launch pad is loaded with SpaceX’s next batch of around 60 Starlink satellites.
In a tweet Saturday, SpaceX confirmed the one-day slip in the Falcon 9 launch to Monday. Without mentioning the Atlas 5 launch scheduled by ULA, a rival of SpaceX, the company said the Falcon 9 delay was “due to a conflict on the range.”
The Falcon 9 launch time Monday is set for 3:32 a.m. EDT (0732 GMT). Forecasters predict favorable weather for a launch early Monday.
If the Atlas 5 and Falcon 9 take off as currently scheduled, the two flights would occur 18 hours, 18 minutes apart.
That would mark the shortest turnaround between two orbital launches from Cape Canaveral since September 1967 when Delta-G and Atlas-Centaur rockets took off within a 10-hour span from separate launch pads, according to a launch log maintained by Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who tracks global satellite and launch activity.
Last August, a Falcon 9 and an Atlas 5 rocket launched from Cape Canaveral in a period of less than 35 hours. That was the shortest span between two orbital missions at Cape Canaveral since May 1981.
In recent years, range teams at Cape Canaveral are working to reduce the time required between launches. In the last few decades, the range team needed up to 48 hours to reconfigure infrastructure between launches.
That was primarily driven by readying tracking radars, transmitters and other equipment to monitor the trajectory of rockets as they arced downrange, and to send a destruct command if the launcher flew off course.
The range now tracks rockets using the GPS satellite navigation network, and the Falcon 9 launches with an autonomous flight safety system, an on-board computer that would automatically terminate the flight in the event of a major problem.
Brig. Gen. Doug Schiess, commander of the 45th Space Wing that operates Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, said the range team for an Atlas 5 launch, which uses a ground-commanded flight termination system, numbers around 300 people, including range operations, security forces, the fire department and other support teams. That number is around 200 people for a typical commercial Falcon 9 launch, which uses an autonomous flight safety system.
“The fact that one is a flight termination system (with a human in the loop), and one is an autonomous flight safety system is what really gets us to the ability to do (two launches) within 24 hours,” Schiess said.
Schiess said earlier this week that the range recently assessed the possibility of launching two SpaceX missions within six hours from different launch pads. That appears feasible with two rockets that use autonomous flight safety systems, Schiess said.
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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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