Cape Canaveral, Feb 23 (AP/UNB) — NASA and SpaceX on Friday approved a first test flight next week of the new commercial Dragon capsule designed for crew.
No one will be aboard, only an instrumented dummy in a white SpaceX spacesuit. But the capsule will still fly to the International Space Station, following its planned March 2 liftoff from NASA's Kennedy Space Center.
Officials gave the green light after conducting a safety review.
NASA's head of human exploration and operations, William Gerstenmaier, called the upcoming test flight "an absolutely critical first step" to eventually putting astronauts on board.
A phenomenal amount of work has gone into ensuring the capsule does not endanger the space station and its three occupants as it pulls up and docks, Gerstenmaier said. It will remain at the orbiting lab just under a week before aiming for a splashdown in the Atlantic off Florida. Radiation monitors and supplies are going up, and science samples and used equipment are coming down.
Human spaceflight is the company's core mission, said Hans Koenigsmann, a SpaceX vice president, and for now, there's nothing more important than this endeavor.
"It's a really big deal for SpaceX," he told reporters.
Space X has been making space station shipments since 2012. The private company had to overhaul its cargo capsule for astronauts. If the upcoming demo goes well, two NASA astronauts could strap in for the next test flight this summer. Officials stressed much work remains to be done, with problems possibly solved through redesign, before the capsule is qualified to carry humans.
It would be the first launch of NASA astronauts from U.S. soil in eight years, since NASA's shuttle program ended. They have been riding Russian rockets to get to and from the space station, costing NASA tens of millions of dollars per seat.
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket scheduled to soar at 2:48 a.m. EST on March 2 is brand new. NASA does not want recycled boosters for these crew capsule missions. SpaceX plans to conduct a high-altitude launch abort in April, reusing this same capsule.
Boeing is also in the commercial race to transport space station astronauts. Its first Starliner demo is targeted for April, and the second, with astronauts, no earlier than August.
Washington, Feb 19 (Xinhua/UNB) - An international team of scientists have decoded the entire genome of white shark and identified their superior cancer-protective abilities.
The study published on Monday in the the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that a plethora of genetic changes might be behind the evolutionary success of large-bodied and long-lived sharks.
The researchers found that the massive vertebrate's molecular adaptation in numerous genes helped maintain the genome stability and counteract the accumulation of damage to a species' DNA, thereby preserving the integrity of the genome.
The opposite phenomenon called genome instability, which results from accumulated DNA damage, is well known to expose humans to numerous cancers and age-related diseases, according to the study.
"Not only were there a surprisingly high number of genome stability genes that contained these adaptive changes, but there was also an enrichment of several of these genes, highlighting the importance of this genetic fine-tuning in the white shark," said Mahmood Shivji with Nova Southeastern University, who led the study.
Previously, scientists supposed that the risk of developing cancer should increase with both the number of cells (large bodies) and an organism's lifespan. The white shark has a huge size of genome, one-and-a-half times the size the the human genome.
But contrary to the expectation, the new study found that very large-bodied animals did not get cancer more often than humans.
The study showed that the white shark genome contained a very high number of "jumping genes" or transposons, which could represent a strong selective agent for the evolution of efficient DNA repair mechanisms.
Shivji's group also found evolutionary adaptations were linked to the white shark's rapid wound healing ability.
"Genome instability is a very important issue in many serious human diseases. Now we find that nature has developed clever strategies to maintain the stability of genomes in these large-bodied, long-lived sharks," said Shivji.
Shivji said the findings might be useful to fight cancer and age-related diseases, and improve wound healing treatments in humans.
Cape Canaveral, Feb 13 (AP/UNB) — NASA is trying one last time to contact its record-setting Mars rover Opportunity, before calling it quits.
The rover has been silent for eight months, victim of one of the most intense dust storms in decades. Thick dust darkened the sky last summer and, for months, blocked sunlight from the spacecraft's solar panels.
NASA said Tuesday it will issue a final series of recovery commands, on top of more than 1,000 already sent. If there's no response by Wednesday — which NASA suspects will be the case — Opportunity will be declared dead, 15 years after arriving at the red planet.
Team members are already looking back at Opportunity's achievements, including confirmation water once flowed on Mars. Opportunity was, by far, the longest-lasting lander on Mars. Besides endurance, the six-wheeled rover set a roaming record of 28 miles (45 kilometers.)
Its identical twin, Spirit, was pronounced dead in 2011, a year after it got stuck in sand and communication ceased.
Both outlived and outperformed expectations, on opposite sides of Mars. The golf cart-size rovers were designed to operate as geologists for just three months, after bouncing onto our planetary neighbor inside cushioning air bags in January 2004. They rocketed from Cape Canaveral a month apart in 2003.
It's no easier saying goodbye now to Opportunity, than it was to Spirit, project manager John Callas told The Associated Press.
"It's just like a loved one who's gone missing, and you keep holding out hope that they will show up and that they're healthy," he said. "But each passing day that diminishes, and at some point you have to say 'enough' and move on with your life."
Deputy project scientist Abigail Fraeman was a 16-year-old high school student when Opportunity landed on Mars; she was inside the control center as part of an outreach program. Inspired, Fraeman went on to become a planetary scientist, joined NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and ended up deputy project scientist for Opportunity.
"It gives you an idea just how long this mission has lasted," she said. "Opportunity's just been a workhorse ... it's really a testament, I think, to how well the mission was designed and how careful the team was in operating the vehicle."
Rather than viewing the dust storm as bad luck, Callas considers it "good luck that we skirted so many possible storms' over the years. Global dust storms typically kick up every few years, and "we had gone a long time without one." Unlike NASA's nuclear-powered Curiosity rover still chugging along on Mars, Opportunity and Spirit were never designed to endure such severe weather.
Cornell University's Steve Squyres, lead scientist for both Opportunity and Spirit, considers succumbing to a ferocious storm an "honorable way" for the mission to end.
"You could have lost a lot of money over the years betting against Opportunity," Squyres told the AP Tuesday.
The rovers' greatest gift, according to Squyres, was providing a geologic record at two distinct places where water once flowed on Mars, and describing the conditions there that may have supported possible ancient life.
NASA last heard from Opportunity on June 10. Flight controllers tried to awaken the rover, devising and sending command after command, month after month. The Martian skies eventually cleared enough for sunlight to reach the rover's solar panels, but there was still no response. Now it's getting colder and darker at Mars, further dimming prospects.
Engineers speculate the rover's internal clock may have become scrambled during the prolonged outage, disrupting the rover's sleep cycle and draining on-board batteries. It's especially frustrating, according to Callas, not knowing precisely why Opportunity — or Spirit — failed.
Now it's up to Curiosity and the newly arrived InSight lander to carry on the legacy, he noted, along with spacecraft in orbit around Mars.
As for Opportunity, "It has given us a larger world," Callas said. "Mars is now part of our neighborhood."
Cape Canaveral, Feb 12 (AP/UNB) — The faraway space snowman visited by NASA last month has a surprisingly flat — not round — behind.
New photos from the New Horizons spacecraft offer a new perspective on the small cosmic body 4 billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers) away. The two-lobed object, nicknamed Ultima Thule, is actually flatter on the backside than originally thought, according to scientists.
Pictures released late last week — taken shortly after closest approach on New Year's Day — provide an outline of the side not illuminated by the sun.
When viewed from the front, Ultima Thule still resembles a two-ball snowman. But from the side , the snowman looks squashed, sort of like a lemon and pie stuck together, end to end.
"Seeing more data has significantly changed our view," Southwest Research Institute's Alan Stern, the lead scientist, said in a statement. "It would be closer to reality to say Ultima Thule's shape is flatter, like a pancake. But more importantly, the new images are creating scientific puzzles about how such an object could even be formed. We've never seen something like this orbiting the sun."
Project scientist Hal Weaver of Johns Hopkins University, home to New Horizons flight control center, said the finding should spark new theories on how such primitive objects formed early in the solar system.
Ultima Thule — considered a contact binary — is the most distant world ever explored. New Horizons zipped past it at high speed, after becoming the first visitor to Pluto in 2015. Mission managers hope to target an even more distant celestial object in this so-called Kuiper Belt, on the frozen fringes of the solar system, if the spacecraft remains healthy.
New Horizons is already 32 million miles (52 million kilometers) beyond Ultima Thule. It will take another 1 ½ years to beam back all the flyby data.
The spacecraft rocketed from Florida in 2006.
Cape Canaveral, Feb (AP/UNB) — It turns out our Milky Way galaxy is truly warped, at least around the far edges.
Scientists in China and Australia released an updated 3D map of the Milky Way on Tuesday. They used 1,339 pulsating stars — young, newly catalogued stars bigger and brighter than our sun — to map the galaxy's shape.
The farther from the center, the more warping, or twisting, there is in the Milky Way's outer hydrogen gas disc. Researchers say the warped, spiral pattern is likely caused by the spinning force of the massive inner disc of stars.
"We usually think of spiral galaxies as being quite flat, like Andromeda, which you can easily see through a telescope," Macquarie University's Richard de Grijs, who took part in the study, said in a statement from Sydney.
Lead researcher Xiaodian Chen of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing said it's difficult to determine distances from the sun to the Milky Way's fringes, "without having a clear idea of what that disc actually looks like." The stars on which his team's map is based — known as classical Cepheids — provided substantial measuring accuracy.
At least a dozen other galaxies appear to have warped edges in a similar spiral pattern, so in that respect, we're hardly unique.
The study appears in the journal Nature Astronomy.