NASA officials on Tuesday broke ground on a new antenna for communicating with the agency's farthest-flung robotic spacecraft, according to a statement from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).
As part of the Deep Space Network, the 34-meter-wide antenna dish being built represents a future in which more missions will require advanced technology, such as lasers being needed to transmit vast amounts of data from astronauts on the surface of Mars.
NASA will send the first woman and next man to the Moon by 2024, which is part of its Artemis program, and apply lessons learned there to send astronauts to Mars.
When completed in two-and-a-half years' time, the new antenna could achieve 10-times higher the data rates of current tech and support future missions to the Moon and Mars, according to JPL.
"This new antenna, the fifth of six currently planned, is another example of NASA's determination to enable science and space exploration through the use of the latest technology," said Badri Younes, NASA's deputy associate administrator for Space Communications and Navigation.
Managed by JPL, the world's largest and busiest deep space network is clustered in three locations -- Goldstone, California; Madrid, Spain; and Canberra, Australia -- which are positioned about 120 degrees apart around the globe to enable continual contact with spacecraft as the Earth rotates.
Europe and NASA's Solar Orbiter rocketed into space Sunday night on an unprecedented mission to capture the first pictures of the sun's elusive poles.
The $1.5 billion spacecraft will join NASA's Parker Solar Probe, launched 1 1/2 years ago, in coming perilously close to the sun in order to unveil its secrets.
While Solar Orbiter won't venture close enough to penetrate the sun's corona, or crown-like outer atmosphere, like Parker, it will maneuver into a unique out-of-plane orbit that will take it over both poles, never photographed before. Together with powerful ground observatories, the sun-staring space duo will be like an orchestra, according to Gunther Hasinger, the European Space Agency's science director.
"Every instrument plays a different tune, but together they play the symphony of the sun," Hasinger said.
Solar Orbiter was made in Europe, along with nine science instruments. NASA provided the 10th instrument and arranged the late-night launch from Cape Canaveral.
Nearly 1,000 scientists and engineers from across Europe gathered with their U.S. colleagues under a full moon as United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket blasted off, illuminating the sky for miles around. Crowds also jammed nearby roads and beaches.
The rocket was visible for four full minutes after liftoff, a brilliant star piercing the night sky. Europe's project scientist Daniel Mueller was thrilled, calling it "picture perfect." His NASA counterpart, scientist Holly Gilbert, exclaimed, "One word: Wow."
Within an hour, the satellite separated neatly from the upper stage and was flying on its own.
Solar Orbiter — a boxy 4,000-pound (1,800-kilogram) spacecraft with spindly instrument booms and antennas — will swing past Venus in December and again next year, and then past Earth, using the planets' gravity to alter its path. Full science operations will begin in late 2021, with the first close solar encounter in 2022 and more every six months.
At its closest approach, Solar Orbiter will come within 26 million miles (42 million kilometers) of the sun, well within the orbit of Mercury.
Parker Solar Probe, by contrast, has already passed within 11.6 million miles (18.6 million kilometers) of the sun, an all-time record, and is shooting for a slim gap of 4 million miles (6 million kilometers) by 2025. But it's flying nowhere near the poles. That's where Solar Orbiter will shine.
The sun's poles are pockmarked with dark, constantly shifting coronal holes. They're hubs for the sun's magnetic field, flipping polarity every 11 years.
Solar Orbiter's head-on views should finally yield a full 3-D view of the sun, 93 million miles (150 million kilometers) from our home planet.
"With Solar Observatory looking right down at the poles, we'll be able to see these huge coronal hole structures," said Nicola Fox, director of NASA's heliophysics division. "That's where all the fast solar wind comes from ... It really is a completely different view."
To protect the sensitive instruments from the sun's blistering heat, engineers devised a heat shield with an outer black coating made of burned bone charcoal similar to what was used in prehistoric cave paintings. The 10-foot-by-8-foot (3-meter-by-2.4-meter heat shield is just 15 inches (38 centimeters) thick, and made of titanium foil with gaps in between to shed heat. It can withstand temperatures up to nearly 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit (530 degrees Celsius).
Embedded in the heat shield are five peepholes of varying sizes that will stay open just long enough for the science instruments to take measurements in X-ray, ultraviolet, visible and other wavelengths.
The observations will shed light on other stars, providing clues as to the potential habitability of worlds in other solar systems.
Closer to home, the findings will help scientists better predict space weather, which can disrupt communications.
"We need to know how the sun affects the local environment here on Earth, and also Mars and the moon when we move there," said Ian Walters, project manager for Airbus Defence and Space, which designed and built the spacecraft. "We've been lucky so far the last 150 years," since a colossal solar storm last hit. "We need to predict that. We just can't wait for it to happen."
The U.S.-European Ulysses spacecraft, launched in 1990, flew over the sun's poles, but from farther afield and with no cameras on board. It's been silent for more than a decade.
Europe and NASA's Soho spacecraft, launched in 1995, is still sending back valuable solar data.
Altogether, more than a dozen spacecraft have focused on the sun over the past 30 years. It took until now, however, for technology to allow elaborate spacecraft like Parker and Solar Orbiter to get close without being fried.
Fox considers it "a golden age" for solar physics.
"So much science still yet to do," she said, "and definitely a great time to be a heliophysicist."
The Institute of Astrophysics and Space Sciences (IA) announced Friday that the first image transmitted by the European Space Agency (ESA) CHEOPS space telescope is "intentionally blurred" to allow "maximized measurement accuracy," Portuguese Lusa News Agency reported.
The image captured a star field centered on HD 70843, which is a yellowish-white star 150 light years away, because it has the ideal brightness and location for the tests, according to the IA.
"CHEOPS produces purposely out-of-focus images of the stars, in order to be able to distribute the light of each star over several pixels of the detector. This increases the accuracy of the measurements, as each measurement is less sensitive to variations in the response of each individual pixel or in the way how the telescope is aimed," according to the institute.
In a statement, the IA said that the protective cover of the space telescope opened on Jan. 29 and that since then, all systems have been prepared for the acquisition of this first image.
Investigator Sergio Sousa told reporters in Porto, a city in northern Portugal, that the image "brings prospects far better than those expected before launch," according to the statement.
"It may not be breathtaking or (have) the potential to inspire the public's imagination, but for those inside the project, it brings perspectives much better than those expected before launch, to achieve the scientific objectives of the mission," he was quoted as saying.
Antonio Gutierrez Pena, a director at Deimos, a company involved in the mission, said that everything seems to be "working perfectly."
"We are very excited and we hope that the mission will be fully operational within a short time," he said.
The mission of CHEOPS, or CHaracterising ExOPlanet Satellite, is to detect exoplanets, allowing for the estimation of their mass, density, composition and formation, as well as the time it takes to orbit their star.
The project is a joint endeavor of 11 European countries, with scientific participation in Portugal being led by the IA.
Defective software could have doomed Boeing's crew capsule during its first test flight, a botched trip that was cut short and never made it to the International Space Station, NASA and company officials said Friday.
The Starliner capsule launched without astronauts in December, but its automatic timer was off by 11 hours, preventing the capsule from flying to the space station as planned. This software trouble — which left the capsule in the wrong orbit just after liftoff — set off a scramble to find more possible coding errors, Boeing officials said.
Hours before the Starliner's scheduled touchdown, a second software mistake was discovered, this time involving the Starliner's service module. Flight controllers rushed to fix the problem, which could have caused the cylinder to slam into the capsule once jettisoned during reentry.
Such an impact could have sent the Starliner into a tumble, said Jim Chilton, a senior vice president for Boeing. In addition, damage to the Starliner's heat shield could have caused the capsule to burn up on reentry, he noted.
He also conceded they wouldn't have found the second problem without the first.
"Nobody is more disappointed in the issues that we uncovered ... than the Starliner team," said Boeing program manager John Mulholland.
These latest findings stem from a joint investigation team formed by NASA and Boeing in the wake of the aborted test flight. The capsule returned to Earth on Dec. 22 after just two days, parachuting down to a landing in New Mexico.
The mission was supposed to be the company's last major hurdle before launching the first Starliner crew.
NASA has yet to decide whether Boeing should conduct another test flight without a crew, before putting astronauts on board. Just in case, Boeing reported last week that it took a $410 million charge in its fourth-quarter earnings, to cover a possible mission repeat.
Douglas Loverro, head of NASA's human exploration and operations mission directorate, said Boeing needs to check and verify all of its flight software before any decisions are made on a possible reflight. He told reporters NASA shares some of the blame for the software problems.
"Our NASA oversight was insufficient. That's obvious and we recognize that," he said.
The investigation team also is looking into a third problem, an intermittent space-to-ground communication problem that hampered controllers' ability to command and manage the capsule early in the flight. Interference from cellphone towers may have exacerbated the matter, Boeing officials said.
NASA said the independent review should be completed by the end of February.
Outside of this ongoing review, NASA is taking an extensive look at Boeing's culture, according to Loverro. He said it was prompted in part by software issues elsewhere in the company, an apparent reference to the grounded 737 Max fleet.
A second private company is on track to launch astronauts for NASA as early as this spring. SpaceX successfully completed a launch abort test last month at Cape Canaveral.
NASA astronauts have not launched from home soil since the space shuttle program ended in 2011, instead riding Russian rockets to get to the space station. The Soyuz seats go for tens of millions of dollars apiece.
NASA has been paying billions of dollars to Boeing and SpaceX to develop capsules capable of transporting astronauts to and from the space station. Even before Boeing's software issues, the commercial crew flights were years behind schedule. The space agency deliberately opted for two companies for redundancy, an advantage cited repeatedly Friday by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.
Chinese scientists say they have more evidence that the new virus that recently emerged in China likely originated in bats. In two papers published Monday in the journal Nature, scientists report that genome sequences from several patients in Wuhan show the virus is closely related to the viruses that cause Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.
In one study, Shi Zhen-Li and colleagues at the Wuhan Institute of Virology reported that genome sequences from seven patients were 96% identical to a bat coronavirus. SARS is also believed to originate in bats, although it jumped to civet cats before infecting people in the 2002-2003 international outbreak. Although scientists suspect the latest virus outbreak in China began at a seafood market in Wuhan where wild animals were on sale and in contact with people, the animal source has not yet been pinpointed.
"In essence, it's a version of SARS that spreads more easily but causes less damage," said Ian Jones, a professor of virology at the University of Reading who was not connected to the two studies. "The virus also uses the same receptor, the door used to get into human cells, which explains transmission and why it causes pneumonia," he said in a statement.
A cruise ship industry group says its members will ban anyone, including guests or crew, who has traveled from or through mainland China in the previous 14 days, the maximum incubation period for a new virus that originated in China.
The Cruise Lines International Association, which says it represents more than 50 cruise lines and is the world's largest cruise industry trade association, said its members have suspended all crew movements from mainland China.
Last week, a scare over a woman with flu-like symptoms led Italian authorities to keep 6,000 passengers and 1,000 crew members on a cruise ship docked north of Rome. The Costa Crociere cruise line said the woman and her partner, who had no symptoms, were put into isolation Wednesday. The passengers were allowed to disembark on Thursday after tests for the new virus came back negative.
The number of people infected by the virus globally has topped 17,000. It has killed more than 360 people, all but one in China.
The head of the World Health Organization says it's working with Google to ensure that searches about the new virus from China turn up information from the United Nations health agency first, part of efforts to fight "rumors and misinformation" about the outbreak.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the opening of WHO's executive board meeting on Monday that social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Tencent and TikTok "have also taken steps to limit the spread of misinformation" about the virus and outbreak that first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late December and has now spread to 23 other countries.
The number of people infected by the virus globally has topped 17,000. It has killed more than 360 people, all but one in China.
Russia's Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin says the country may start deporting foreigners infected with the new coronavirus.
Mishustin said at a Cabinet meeting Monday that it is one of the measures outlined in a government-approved plan of action for preventing the virus from spreading in Russia.
On Friday, Russia reported its first two confirmed cases of coronavirus — two Chinese nationals were hospitalized in two different regions of Siberia. It wasn't immediately clear from Mishustin's statement whether they would be deported.
Like other countries, Russia has halted most of its air and train traffic with China, shut down its land border with China and Mongolia and temporarily stopped issuing work visas to Chinese citizens.
On Monday, authorities announced Russia was suspending the last operating train that connects Moscow and Beijing and all trains between Russia and North Korea.
Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova also said that several Russian planes would fly to China on Monday to evacuate Russian citizens. Golikova said there are currently around 130 Russian nationals in Hubei province, the epicenter of the outbreak.
Hong Kong's leader Carrie Lam announced the city will shut almost all land and sea border control points to the mainland from midnight to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus from China.
Lam said in a briefing Monday that only two border checkpoints — at Shenzhen Bay and the bridge to Macau and Zhuhai — will remain open.
Lam denied that the move was due to pressure from medical workers who threatened a five-day strike to demand the government shut all borders to the mainland. Public broadcaster RTHK reports that some went on strike Monday and more threatened to walk out on Tuesday if their demands were not met.
Lam said the border closures had "absolutely nothing to do with the strike" and was instead simply a measure to stem the spread of the virus which has infected 15 people in Hong Kong. Lam urged Hong Kong residents to "stand united" in combating the outbreak.
The Czech Republic has plans to suspend all flights to and from China in an effort to prevent the new coronavirus from spreading.
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis says the ban will take effect on Sunday. The lag gives 100 Czechs in China a chance to return home.
About 620,000 Chinese tourists visited the Czech Republic last year. The first direct flight connection between Prague and China was established in 2015. Three Chinese airlines operate flights to Prague from Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu and Sian (Xi'an).
Dubai's long-haul carrier Emirates says it will continue flying to mainland China amid the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, but will fly smaller aircraft on many routes.
The airline said Monday it would swap out its double-decker Airbus A380 for a Boeing 777 on several routes to Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai.
The decision comes after Western and Arab airlines stopped flying to China over the outbreak. The UAE has pushed for more Chinese tourists and investment amid an economic slowdown.
The United Arab Emirates also instituted a new rule Monday that any school staff or student returning to the country from China needed to spend 14 days at home before returning to class.
The Shanghai Composite index has lost nearly 8% as Chinese regulators moved to stabilize markets jolted by a virus that has spread to more than 20 countries, slamming regional tourism and threatening global growth.
The outbreak of the virus in China has prompted governments around the world to step up surveillance and quarantine requirements as airlines cancel hundreds of flights. Millions of Chinese remained in lock-down as the number of people infected by the virus topped 17,000 as of Sunday night. It has killed more than 360 people, all but one in China.
The Shanghai benchmark dropped almost 9% after markets opened on Monday after a week-long Lunar New Year holiday that was extended by three days. It was its worst day since August 2015, despite the central bank's effort to put billions of dollars of extra cash into the markets through short-term securities purchases.
Many analysts have dropped their forecasts for China, the world's second-largest economy, to near 5% from earlier forecasts of 6% economic growth for the year.
Aviation authorities say that two flights carrying dozens of Pakistani students, Chinese and other passengers landed in Pakistan days after Islamabad suspended all flights with Beijing amid the outbreak of a new virus there.
The passengers on Monday were permitted to leave the airport after their medical examinations.
Civil Aviation Authority spokesman Abdul Sattar Khokhar says the ban on flights to and from China ended Sunday night and that the government health department had made "special arrangements" for screening incoming passengers.
Last week's ban on flights with China affected 22 weekly flights.
So far, Pakistan has no plans to evacuate some 30,000 nationals, including students, living in China.
Authorities say that so far four Pakistani students in China have been diagnosed with the new virus and their conditions are listed as stable. About 500 Pakistani students were in Wuhan — the site of the outbreak — at the time it surfaced.
South Korea's defense ministry says about 800 South Korean soldiers have been placed under quarantine as a precaution against a new coronavirus from China.
Ministry spokeswoman Choi Hyunsoo told reporters Monday that the soldiers either recently visited China, Hong Kong or Macau, or contacted people who visited those countries.
She says 450 of them are quarantined at their military bases and the remaining 350 at their homes.
South Korea has so far reported 15 cases of the new coronavirus, but none of them is affiliated with the country's 600,000-strong military.