Cape Canaveral, Sep 26 (AP/UNB) — NASA's Mars rover, Opportunity, has been seen, but still not heard.
A spacecraft around Mars has sent back a photo of Opportunity, which has been silent ever since a massive dust storm engulfed the red planet in late spring. The rover appears in the photo as a pale dot.
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took the picture last week from 166 miles (267 kilometers) up. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory released the photo Tuesday.
The global dust storm prevented sunlight from reaching Opportunity's solar panels, and the rover fell silent in June. Although the skies have cleared considerably, Opportunity has yet to send word to flight controllers. NASA has stepped up efforts to contact Opportunity, but acknowledge the nearly 15-year-old rover may not have survived the prolonged power outage.
Tokyo, Sep 23 (AP/UNB)— An unmanned Japanese space capsule is headed to the International Space Station filled with cargo including food, experiments and new batteries.
The craft was launched Sunday at 2:52 a.m. from the Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan. It will take 4 ½ days to reach the space station.
The launch was delayed for about two weeks because of bad weather and a mechanical problem.
The delay has led NASA to postpone two space walks to install the six lithium-ion batteries until new crew members arrive next month. They will replace aging nickel-hydrogen batteries for the station's electric power, enabling an extension of its operations.
The supply ship is a 9-meter- (30-foot-) long cylinder that will be retrieved by the space station's robotic arm. It is named Kounotori, which means white stork.
The 5,500 kilograms (12,000 pounds) of cargo includes racks and equipment for experiments and an experimental re-entry capsule to try to demonstrate a novel technology to bring back samples from the space station.
Once it is unloaded, the supply craft will be filled with trash and sent Earth-ward. It will be destroyed when it re-enters the atmosphere.
Tokyo, Sep 19 (AP/UNB) — The Japanese billionaire who Tesla chief Elon Musk says plans to blast off on the first-ever private commercial space trip aboard the SpaceX Big Falcon Rocket often makes headlines in Japan. The SpaceX mission, set for takeoff in 2023, is just the latest exploit in tycoon Yusaku Maezawa's colorful and ambitious career:
Maezawa, 42, is the chief executive of Start Today Co., which he founded in 1998 as a CD sales business when he was still in his 20s. The company pioneered e-commerce in Japan and now runs the popular fashion mall Zozotown, selling various, relatively affordable clothing brands. Annual sales totaled more than 98 billion yen ($890 million) in the fiscal year that ended in March.
Forbes magazine estimates Maezawa's wealth at $2.9 billion. In a nation where billionaires are relatively rare, he gets attention for his celebrity friends and for zipping around in a private jet and fleet of sports cars. Such flamboyance is uncommon in a country where even very rich men often keep a low profile.
Maezawa's trademark defiant but disarming style may be rooted in his start as a musician, playing drums in indie rock bands. The punk band he was in, called Switch Style, signed with a major Japanese record label. He opted out of attending prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo to pursue music and then started his own business selling imported CDs. The name of his company was inspired by the title of an album by the American punk band Gorilla Biscuits.
Maezawa has invested lavishly in art, collecting works by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol, among others, and in designer-brand furniture from abroad. He paid $110.5 million for Basquiat's 1982 painting of a graffiti-like black and blue rendition of a human skull, a record price for an American artist, at a Sotheby's auction last year. "When I saw this painting, I was struck with so much excitement and gratitude for my love of art," Maezawa said at the time. He had set the previous auction record for a Basquiat, in 2016, when he paid $57.3 million.
Maezawa recently has been dating Japanese actress Ayame Goriki. He previously had a widely publicized relationship with model and actress Saeko, the ex-wife of major league baseball player Yu Darvish. In a recent tweet, when someone asked whether he was going to get married soon, Maezawa replied, "No."
Maezawa has recently shown off a wearable technology called the Zozosuit, the centerpiece of his Zozo fashion brand. Customers first order a black, body-hugging outfit covered with white dots. They then take a smartphone photo wearing the outfit which is used to do a full body scan, determining shapes and sizes with a special app. Choices are still limited to basic pants and shirts for now, but that could change.
Maezawa says the planned trip to space is a way "to inspire the dreamer in all of us." He plans to take six or eight artists, architects and designers with him. He hasn't said who they might be or how much he is paying for the trip. The idea is for those creative minds to see the moon up close and planet Earth from afar. Maezawa says he has often wondered what Basquiat might have drawn if he had traveled into space. "I choose to go to the moon, with artists," Maezawa tweeted both in Japanese and English.
Tokyo, Sep 18 (AP/UNB) — Electric drones booked through smartphones pick people up from office rooftops, shortening travel time by hours, reducing the need for parking and clearing smog from the air.
This vision of the future is driving the Japanese government's "flying car" project. Major carrier All Nippon Airways, electronics company NEC Corp. and more than a dozen other companies and academic experts hope to have a road map for the plan ready by the year's end.
"This is such a totally new sector Japan has a good chance for not falling behind," said Fumiaki Ebihara, the government official in charge of the project.
For now, nobody believes people are going to be zipping around in flying cars any time soon. Many hurdles remain, such as battery life, the need for regulations and of course safety concerns. But dozens such projects are popping up around the world.
A flying car is defined as aircraft that's electric, or hybrid electric, with driverless capabilities, that can land and takeoff vertically, according to Ebihara.
They are often called EVtol, which stands for "electric vertical takeoff and landing" aircraft. All the flying car concepts, which are like drones big enough to hold humans, promise to be better than helicopters, which are expensive to maintain, noisy to fly and require trained pilots, Ebihara and other proponents say.
"You may think of 'Back to the Future,' 'Gundam,' or 'Doraemon,'" Ebihara said, referring to vehicles of flight in a Hollywood film and in Japanese cartoons featuring robots. "Up to now, it was just a dream, but with innovations in motors and batteries, it's time for it to become real," he said.
Google, drone company Ehang and car manufacturer Geely in China, and Volkswagen AG of Germany have invested in flying car technology.
Nissan Motor Co. and Honda Motor Co. said they had nothing to say about flying cars, but Toyota Motor Corp. recently invested $500 million in working with Uber on self-driving technology for the ride-hailing service. Toyota group companies have also invested 42.5 million yen ($375,000) in a Japanese startup, Cartivator, that is working on a flying car.
The hope is to fly up and light the torch at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but it's unclear it will meet that goal: at a demonstration last year the device crashed after it rose to slightly higher than eye level. A video of a more recent demonstration suggests it's now flying more stably, though it's being tested indoors, unmanned and chained so it won't fly away.
There are plenty of skeptics.
Elon Musk, chief executive of electric car maker Tesla Inc., says even toy drones are noisy and blow a lot of air, which means anything that would be "1,000 times heavier" isn't practical.
"If you want a flying car, just put wheels on a helicopter," he said in a recent interview with podcast host and comedian Joe Rogan on YouTube. "Your neighbors are not going to be happy if you land a flying car in your backyard or on your rooftop."
Though the Japanese government has resisted Uber's efforts to offer ride-hailing services in Japan, limiting it to partnerships with taxi companies, it has eagerly embraced the U.S. company's work on EVtol machines.
Uber says it is considering Tokyo as its first launch city for affordable flights via its UberAir service. It says Los Angeles and Dallas, Texas, and locations in Australia, Brazil, France and India are other possible locations for its services.
Unlike regular airplanes, with their aerodynamic design and two wings, Uber's "Elevate" structures look like small jets with several propellers on top. The company says it plans flight demonstrations as soon as 2020 and a commercial service by 2023.
Uber's vision calls for using heliports on rooftops, but new multi-floored construction similar to parking lots for cars will likely be needed to accommodate so many more EVtol aircraft, once the service takes off.
Unmanned drones are legal in Japan, the U.S. and other countries, but there are restrictions on where they can be flown and requirements for getting approval in advance. In Japan, drone flyers can be licensed if they take classes. There is no requirement like drivers licenses for cars.
Flying passengers over populated areas would take a quantum leap in technology, overhauling aviation regulations and air traffic safety controls and major efforts both to ensure safety and convince people it's safe.
Uber said at a recent presentation in Tokyo that it envisions a route between the city's two international airports, among others. Savings in time would add up, it said.
"This is not a rich person's toy. This is a mass market solution," said Adam Warmoth, product manager at Uber Elevate.
Concepts for flying cars vary greatly. Some resemble vehicles with several propellers on top while others look more like a boat with a seat over the propellers.
Ebihara, the flying-car chief at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, says Japan is on board for "Blade Runner" style travel — despite its plentiful, efficient and well developed public transportation.
Japan's auto and electronics industries have the technology and ability to produce super-light materials that could give the nation an edge in the flying car business, he said. Such vehicles could be tested first in uncongested, remote areas or between islands, where public transport is less accessible and safety issues would be less of a problem.
Just as the automobile vanquished horse-drawn carriages, moving short-distance transport into the air could in theory bring a sea change in how people live, Ebihara said, pointing to the sky outside the ministry building to stress how empty it was compared to the streets below.
Flying also has the allure of a bird's eye view, the stuff of drone videos increasingly used in filmmaking, tourism promotion and journalism.
Atsushi Taguchi, a "drone grapher," as specialists in drone video are called, expects test flights can be carried out even if flying cars won't become a reality for years since the basic technology for stable flying already exists with recent advances in sensors, robotics and digital cameras.
A growing labor shortage in deliveries in Japan is adding to the pressures to realize such technology, though there are risks, said Taguchi, who teaches at the Tokyo film school Digital Hollywood.
The propellers on commercially sold drones today are dangerous, and some of his students have lost fingers with improper flying. The bigger propellers needed for vertical flight would increase the hazards and might need to be covered.
The devices might need parachutes to soften crash landings, or might have to explode into small bits to ensure pieces hitting the ground would be smaller.
"I think one of the biggest hurdles is safety," said Taguchi. "And anything that flies will by definition crash."
Vandenberg Air Force Base, Sep 16 (AP/UNB) — A NASA satellite designed to precisely measure changes in Earth's ice sheets, glaciers, sea ice and vegetation was launched into polar orbit from California early Saturday.
A Delta 2 rocket carrying ICESat-2 lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base at 6:02 a.m. and headed over the Pacific Ocean.
NASA Earth Science Division director Michael Freilich says that the mission in particular will advance knowledge of how the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica contribute to sea level rise.
The melt from those ice sheets alone has raised global sea level by more than 1 millimeter (0.04 inch) a year recently, according to NASA.
The mission is a successor to the original Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite that operated from 2003 to 2009. Measurements continued since then with airborne instruments in NASA's Operation IceBridge.
Built by Northrop Grumman, ICESat-2 carries a single instrument, a laser altimeter that measures height by determining how long it takes photons to travel from the spacecraft to Earth and back. According to NASA, it will collect more than 250 times as many measurements as the first ICESat.
The laser is designed to fire 10,000 times per second, divided into six beams of hundreds of trillions of photons. The round trip is timed to a billionth of a second.
In addition to ice, the satellite's other measurements, such as the tops of trees, snow and river heights, may help with research into the amount of carbon stored in forests, flood and drought planning and wildfire behavior, among other uses.
The launch was the last for a Delta 2 rocket, United Launch Alliance said.
The first Delta 2 lifted off on Feb. 14, 1989, and since then it has been the launch vehicle for Global Positioning System orbiters, Earth observing and commercial satellites, and interplanetary missions including the twin Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity.