NASA is refusing to release records of any investigations into their astronauts.
The secrecy of the U.S. space agency has reemerged as an issue after the international news coverage of a possible crime committed on the International Space Station by Astronaut Anne McClain. McClain was accused of hacking her wife’s banking information during a nasty custody fight.
Dolcefino Consulting requested five years of completed investigative reports in a formal request under the Freedom of Information Act.
The NASA Office of Inspector General says in their mission statement that they, “independently report to the Administrator, Congress, and the public,” and that the Office of Investigations, “investigates allegations of crime, cyber-crime, fraud, abuse or misconduct having an impact on NASA programs, personnel and resources.”
In a letter dated November 8, 2019, James Ives, Assistant Inspector General for Investigations denied our request for any completed investigations to protect the “privacy interest of third parties.”
“This agency is given tens of billions of dollars from taxpayers every year and that makes them accountable to the public, period,” says Wayne Dolcefino, President of Dolcefino Consulting. “The OIG’s job is not to protect NASA from scandal, but to protect the public.”
NASA has not been immune from scandal. In 2007, Astronaut Lisa Nowak was arrested in Florida and charged with attempted kidnapping, burglary with assault and battery.
The fight between Summer Worden and Astronaut Anne McClain became national news this year. McClain dropped her attempt to gain rights for a child that was born before the couple met, but Judge Dunson has refused to sign the order ending the dispute.
It has been more than a month since Judge Dunson got a simple order to sign and she has refused. “We think the judge is abusing the power of her office to punish Summer for speaking out about decisions in that court,” says Dolcefino. “Summer is having to fight courthouse retaliation and NASA secrecy at the same time and that is outrageous for this mother.”
The OIG has failed to disclose the status of the McClain investigation. The media has described the allegations against her as the first possible crime in space.
“If the OIG tries to hide the results of its work, we may be forced to go to federal court to let the sunshine in,” says Dolcefino.
NASA is investigating a claim that an astronaut accessed the bank account of her estranged spouse from the International Space Station (ISS), in what may be the first allegation of a crime committed in space.
The New York Times reports that Anne McClain acknowledges accessing the account from the ISS but denies any wrongdoing.
Her estranged spouse, Summer Worden, reportedly filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.
Anne McClain has since returned to Earth.
She told the New York Times through a lawyer that she was merely making sure that the family’s finances were in order and there was enough money to pay bills and care for Summer Worden’s son – who they had been raising together prior to the split.
Her lawyer, Rusty Hardin, said: “She strenuously denies that she did anything improper,” adding that Ms McClain was “totally co-operating”.
Anne McClain and Summer Worden, who is an Air Force intelligence officer, married in 2014 and Worden filed for divorce in 2018.
Investigators from NASA’s Office of Inspector General have contacted both over the allegation, the New York Times reported.
Anne McClain graduated from the prestigious West Point military academy and flew more than 800 combat hours over Iraq as an Army pilot. She went on to qualify as a test pilot and was chosen to fly for NASA in 2013.
The astronaut spent six months aboard the ISS and had been due to feature in the first all-female spacewalk, but her role was canceled at the last minute over what NASA said was a problem with availability of correct suit sizes.
There are five national or international space agencies involved in the ISS – from the US, Canada, Japan, Russia and several European countries – and a legal framework sets out that national law applies to any people and possessions in space.
So, if a Canadian national were to commit a crime in space, they would be subject to Canadian law, and a Russian citizen to Russian law.
Space law also sets out provisions for extradition back on Earth, should a nation decide it wishes to prosecute a citizen of another nation for misconduct in space.
As space tourism becomes a reality, so might the need to prosecute space crime, but for now the legal framework remains untested.
NASA officials told the New York Times that they were not aware of any crimes committed on the space station.
The White House proposal, which was released on February 12, says: “The budget proposes to end direct US financial support for the International Space Station in 2025, after which NASA would rely on commercial partners for its low Earth orbit research and technology demonstration requirements.”
According to the document, the US government would create a $150 million program to help prepare private companies to take over space station operations over the next seven years.
The budget requests $19.6 billion for NASA in 2019, an increase of $500 million from this year.
According to a NASA review, it also calls for $10.5 billion for “an innovative and sustainable campaign of exploration” leading to “the return of humans to the moon for long-term exploration and utilization followed by human missions to Mars and other destinations”.
A record seven Earth-sized planets orbiting a single star have been detected.
The astronomers say that all seven exoplanets could potentially support liquid water on the surface, depending on the other properties of those planets.
However, only three are within the conventional “habitable” zone where life is considered a possibility.
The compact system of exoplanets orbits Trappist-1, a low-mass, cool star located 40 light-years away from Earth.
The planets, detected using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and several ground-based observatories, are described in the journal Nature.
Lead author Michaël Gillon, from Belgium’s University of Liège, said: “The planets are all close to each other and very close to the star, which is very reminiscent of the moons around Jupiter.
“Still, the star is so small and cold that the seven planets are temperate, which means that they could have some liquid water – and maybe life, by extension – on the surface.”
Co-author Amaury Triaud, from the University of Cambridge, UK, said the team had introduced the “temperate” definition to broaden perceptions about habitability.
Image source NASA
Three of the Trappist-1 planets fall within the traditional habitable zone definition, where surface temperatures could support the presence of liquid water – given sufficient atmospheric pressure.
However, Dr. Amaury Triaud said that if the planet furthest from the parent star, Trappist-1h, had an atmosphere that efficiently trapped heat – a bit more like Venus’s atmosphere than Earth’s – it might be habitable.
The six inner planets have orbital periods that are organized in a “near-resonant chain”. This means that in the time that it takes for the innermost planet to make eight orbits, the second, third and fourth planets revolve five, three and two times around the star, respectively.
This appears to be an outcome of interactions early in the evolution of the planetary system.
The astronomers say it should be possible to study the planets’ atmospheric properties with telescopes.
However, the astrophysicist also warns that we must remain extremely careful about inferring biological activity from afar.
Some of the properties of cool, low mass stars could make life a more challenging prospect. For example, some are known to emit large amounts of radiation in the form of flares, which has the potential to sterilize the surfaces of nearby planets.
In addition, the habitable zone is located closer to the star so that planets receive the heating necessary for liquid water to persist. But this causes a phenomenon called tidal locking, so that planets always show the same face to their star.
This might have the effect of making one side of the planet hot, and the other cold.
Dr. Amaury Triaud said UV light might be vital for producing the chemical compounds that can later be assembled into biological systems. Similarly, if life emerges on the permanent night side of a tidally locked planet, it might be sheltered from any flares.
However, he said the Trappist-1 star was not particularly active, something it has in common with other “ultra cool dwarfs” the team has surveyed.
“It is fair to say there is much we don’t know. Where I am hopeful is that we will know if flares are important, we will know if tidal locking is relevant to habitability and maybe to the emergence of biology,” he explained.
“Many of the arguments in favor or disfavor of habitability can be flipped in that way. First and foremost we need observations.”
In addition to the Spitzer observations, astronomers gathered data using Very Large Telescope in Chile, the Liverpool Telescope in La Palma, Spain, and others.
NASA’s Cassini mission has sent back the first views from its new orbit around Saturn.
In November, Cassini spacecraft began a new phase of its mission – one that involves making a series of daredevil maneuvers over the next nine months.
The phase will end with Cassini being destroyed in the atmosphere of a planet it has been studying for 12 years.
The new photos show the hexagon-shaped storm in Saturn’s northern hemisphere.
Cassini began what are known as its ring-grazing orbits on November 30. Each of these week-long orbits – 20 in all – lifts the spacecraft high above Saturn’s northern hemisphere before sending it hurtling past the outer edges of the planet’s main rings.
Image source Wikimedia
NASA said that it would release images from future passes that included some of the closest-ever views of the outer rings and small moons that orbit there.
Head of Cassini’s imaging team Carolyn Porco said: “This is it, the beginning of the end of our historic exploration of Saturn.
“Let these images – and those to come – remind you that we’ve lived a bold and daring adventure around the Solar System’s most magnificent planet.”
The destructive ending being planned for Cassini is a result of the spacecraft having nearly exhausted its fuel.
However, NASA is also concerned about the small, yet important possibility that the probe will crash into one of Saturn’s moons at some point in the future.
Given that some of these bodies, such as Enceladus, are potential targets in the search for extra-terrestrial life, it has the potential to contaminate these bodies with terrestrial microbes borne on Cassini.
Starting from April 2017, Cassini will begin its grand finale, in which it will make the first of 22 dives through the 2,400km gap between the planet and its innermost ring.
Cassini will make its final plunge into the atmosphere of Saturn on September 15, 2017.
NASA’s Juno probe has successfully arrived in Jupiter’s orbit.
The satellite, which left Earth five years ago, had to fire a rocket engine to slow its approach to Jupiter and get caught by its gravity.
A sequence of tones transmitted from the spacecraft confirmed the braking maneuver had gone as planned.
Receipt of the radio messages prompted wild cheering at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
“All stations on Juno co-ord, we have the tone for burn cut-off on Delta B,” Juno Mission Control had announced.
“Roger Juno, welcome to Jupiter.”
NASA scientists plan to use Juno to sense Jupiter’s deep interior. They think the structure and the chemistry of the planet’s insides hold clues to how this giant world formed some four-and-a-half-billion years ago.
Engineers had warned in advance that the engine firing was fraught with danger.
No previous spacecraft has dared pass so close to Jupiter; its intense radiation belts can destroy unprotected electronics.
One calculation even suggested the orbit insertion would have subjected Juno to a dose equivalent to a million dental X-rays.
Jumo is built like a tank with titanium shielding, and the 35-minute rocket burn appeared to go off without a hitch.
While the radiation dangers have not gone away, the probe should now be able to prepare its instruments to start sensing what lies beneath Jupiter’s opaque clouds.
July 5 orbit insertion has put Juno in a large ellipse around the planet that takes just over 53 days to complete.
A second burn of the rocket engine in mid-October will tighten this orbit to just 14 days. It is then that the science can really start.
This will involve repeat passes just a few thousand of miles above the cloudtops.
At each close approach, Juno will use its eight remote sensing instruments – plus its camera – to peer down through the gas planet’s many layers, to measure their composition, temperature, motion and other properties.
A priority will be to determine the abundance of oxygen at Jupiter. This will be bound up in its water.
The probe will also try to settle old arguments over whether the planet hosts a solid core or whether its gases go all the way down to the centre in an ever more compressed state.
It will look for the deep swirling sea of liquid metallic hydrogen that theory suggests is the driver behind Jupiter’s immense magnetic field and its spectacular auroras.
NASA plans to run Juno through to February 2018, assuming any radiation damage has not made it inoperable by then. The performance of the camera is expected to degrade rapidly within a few months.
In line with the practice on many previous planetary missions, Juno will be commanded to end its days by ditching into the atmosphere of Jupiter.
This ensures there is no possibility of Juno crashing into and contaminating the gas giant’s large moons, at least one of which, Europa, is considered to have the potential to host microbial life.
Edgar Mitchell, who was the sixth man to walk on the Moon, has died at the age of 85.
The astronaut passed away at a hospice in West Palm Beach, Florida, one day before the 45th anniversary of his Moon landing, his family said.
As part of the Apollo 14 mission in 1971, Edgar Mitchell spent more than nine hours on the Moon conducting experiments.
He said he had undergone an epiphany in space and in later life revealed a belief that aliens had visited Earth.
Edgar Mitchell’s mission to the Moon was the fourth in the US Apollo series, and the first to follow the ill-fated Apollo 13 which aborted its attempt to land after an oxygen tank explosion.
The astronaut and his crewmate, another Navy officer, Captain Alan Shepard, made it safely to the lunar surface. Their landing site was the Fra Mauro Highlands, a hilly area that was the target of the failed Apollo 13 mission.
During their 33 hours at the site, the two astronauts collected 94lb of Moonrock for examination back on earth and completed the longest moonwalk in history.
Capt. Alan Shepard also hit a golf ball he had stowed onboard for the purpose, reporting later that it traveled “miles and miles and miles” in the low lunar gravity. He later estimated it traveled up to 400 yards – still considerably further than his average Earthbound drive.
Edgar Mitchell brought home more than just Moonrock, telling reporters in the days after the mission that he said he had experienced an “epiphany” in space and returned with “an overwhelming sense of oneness, of connectedness”.
Years later the astronaut wrote in his autobiography: “It occurred to me that the molecules of my body and the molecules of the spacecraft itself were manufactured long ago in the furnace of one of the ancient stars that burned in the heavens about me.”
Edgar Mitchell left NASA in 1972 and set up the Institute of Noetic Sciences, which aimed to support “individual and collective transformation through consciousness research”.
Unlike his post-NASA life, Edgar Mitchell took a very traditional route to becoming an astronaut. He flew fighter jets for the Navy before becoming a test pilot – a profession from which many of the early Apollo crews were drawn.
He joined the astronaut corps in April 1966, five years before he went into space. Apollo 14 was his only spaceflight.
Of the 12 men who have set foot on the Moon, seven are still alive following Edgar Mitchell’s death, including Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong’s crewmate on the first mission in 1969.
NASA has warned that the effects of the current El Nino weather phenomenon could be as bad as those of 1998, the strongest on record.
That El Nino played havoc with world weather systems and was blamed for several extreme weather events.
The current El Nino has been linked to several floods and unusually warm conditions in the northern hemisphere.
The phenomenon sees warm waters of the central Pacific expand eastwards towards North and South America.
El Nino, which occurs every two to seven years, usually peaks late in the calendar year, although the effects can persist well into the following spring and last up to 12 months.
NASA says the current El Nino “shows no signs of waning”, based on the latest satellite image of the Pacific Ocean.
It bears “a striking resemblance” to one from December 1997, NASA says, “the signature of a big and powerful El Nino”.
This year’s El Nino has been linked to the worst floods seen in 50 years in Paraguay, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil.
The floods there have forced more than 150,000 people from their homes.
More than 100,000 of those have been in the Paraguayan capital Asuncion alone.
In the US, 13 people have died in Missouri as a result of flooded rivers after tornadoes and storms hit the region.
El Nino has also been cited as a factor in the floods that have hit northern parts of the UK, forcing thousands from their homes and leaving thousands more without power.
Storm Frank, which is expected to bring fresh rain and flooding to the UK this week, is part of a weather system which could see temperatures at the North Pole 50F higher than normal for this time of year.
Higher temperatures than the seasonal average have been noted in many parts of Europe and the US.
Average temperatures on Christmas Day in France were the second highest on record, just below those of 1997.
The mild weather has forced farmers to harvest crops such as salad, strawberries and asparagus early, with reports of large amounts of produce going to waste.
In Italy, experts say the unusually calm and dry weather has exacerbated pollution over the cities of Milan and Rome.
By contrast, in Mexico El Nino is being blamed for freezing temperatures in the north of the country, with snow seen in parts of the Sonoran desert for the first time in 33 years. Three deaths have been blamed on the cold in Sonora.
SpaceX has successfully landed an unmanned Falcon-9 rocket upright, after sending 11 satellites into orbit.
The Falcon-9 craft touched down on December 21, about 10km from its launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida.
It is not the first spacecraft to land a booster vertically; that feat was claimed by the much smaller New Shepard rocket in Texas last month.
Nonetheless the Falcon-9 flight, which also went twice as high as New Shepard, is a milestone towards reusing rockets.
SpaceX aims to slash the cost of private space operations with such reusable components – but the company has not launched a rocket since one exploded in June.
On that occasion an unmanned Falcon-9 broke apart in flames minutes after lifting off from Cape Canaveral, with debris tumbling out of the sky into the Atlantic Ocean.
The rocket, which had 18 straight successes prior to the fateful flight, was in the process of sending a cargo ship to the International Space Station (ISS).
SpaceX has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to send supplies to the ISS.
On Monday night, local time, the upgraded 23-storey-tall rocket took off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station with the main stage returning about 10 minutes later to a landing site about 6 miles south of the launch pad.
Near the peak of its flight, at an altitude of some 125 miles, it propelled the rocket’s first stage – laden with 11 communications satellites – into space.
The flawless launch on December 21 is a major success for privately-owned Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, the California-based company set up and run by high-tech entrepreneur Elon Musk.
Elon Musk has said the ability to return its rockets to Earth so they can be reused and re-flown would hugely reduce his company’s operational costs in the growing but highly competitive private space launch industry.
SpaceX employees broke out in celebration as they watched a live stream of the 156ft-tall white booster slowly descend to earth in the form of a glowing orange ball.
“Welcome back, baby!” Elon Musk said in a celebratory tweet.
SpaceX commentators described the launch and return – the first time an orbital rocket successfully achieved a controlled landing on Earth – as “incredibly exciting”.
“This was a first for us at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and I can’t even begin to describe the joy the team feels right now having been a part of this historic first-stage rocket landing,” the top officer at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Brig Gen Wayne Monteith, said in a statement.
SpaceX is aiming to revolutionize the rocket industry, which up until now has lost millions of dollars in discarded machinery and valuable rocket parts after each launch.
Several earlier attempts to land the Falcon 9’s first stage on an ocean platform have failed.
The New Horizons probe has captured the first color image of Pluto’s atmospheric hazes and shows them to have a blue tinge.
According to scientists, it is a consequence of the way sunlight is scattered by haze particles.
The NASA’s mission continues to downlink the information gathered during its historic flyby of the dwarf planet on July 14.
As this data arrives on Earth, the team processes it and studies it.
A black and white image of the hazes was previously released, showing them to be as high as 80 miles above Pluto’s surface.
That picture came from the Lorri camera and was acquired as New Horizons departed the dwarf, looking back to see sunlight skim the edge of the distant world.
This new view comes from the Ralph color camera system. Again, it is taken with Pluto backlit.
Like Earth, the dwarf has a predominantly nitrogen atmosphere (albeit much more spare).
It is the interaction of this nitrogen with the Sun’s ultraviolet light, in presence of another atmospheric constituent, methane, that is able to create the chunky haze particles.
“That striking blue tint tells us about the size and composition of the haze particles,” said New Horizons team member Carly Howett from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado.
“A blue sky often results from scattering of sunlight by very small particles. On Earth, those particles are very tiny nitrogen molecules. On Pluto they appear to be larger – but still relatively small – soot-like particles we call tholins.”
The principal investigator on the mission, Alan Stern, had teased Pluto fans in recent days, telling them to expect something special from this week’s regular Thursday release of new images.
“Who would have expected a blue sky in the Kuiper Belt? It’s gorgeous,” Alan Stern said in a NASA statement.
If you stood on Pluto and looked straight up, the sky would actually appear black because of the rarity of the atmosphere.
The other important piece of news to come out concerns the detection of water-ice at many locations on the 2,300km-wide dwarf’s surface.
More volatile ices tend to dominate the surface, so understanding why the water-ice is seen strongly in some places is an interesting observation that will need to be followed up, the team says.
“We expected water-ice to be there, but we’ve searched for water-ice in Pluto’s spectrum for decades and not seen it before now,” tweeted Alex Parker, also from SwRI.
Since July 14, New Horizons has moved more than 100 million km beyond Pluto. And this puts it about five billion km from Earth.
The vast separation makes for very low data rates. It will be well into 2016 before all the information is on the ground.
Skywatchers around the world are gearing up to spot a rare phenomenon, as a lunar eclipse coincides with a supermoon.
A supermoon occurs when the Moon is in the closest part of its orbit to Earth, meaning it appears larger in the sky.
The total lunar eclipse – expected to make the Moon appear red in color – will be visible in North America, South America, West Africa and Western Europe.
NASA claims a supermoon last coincided with a lunar eclipse in 1982 and is not expected to again until 2033.
However, the definition of a supermoon is debated among astronomers.
Skywatchers in the western half of North America, the rest of Europe and Africa, the Middle East and South Asia will see a partial eclipse.
In a total lunar eclipse, the Earth, Sun and Moon are almost exactly in line and the Moon is on the opposite side of the Earth from the Sun.
As the full Moon moves into our planet’s shadow, it dims dramatically but usually remains visible, lit by sunlight that passes through the Earth’s atmosphere.
As this light travels through our planet’s gaseous envelope, the green to violet portions get filtered out more than the red portion, with the result that light reaching the lunar surface is predominantly red in color.
Observers on Earth may see a Moon that is brick-colored, rusty, blood red or sometimes dark grey, depending on terrestrial conditions.
A supermoon occurs when a full or new moon coincides with a Moon that is nearing its minimum distance (perigee) to Earth.
The Moon takes an elliptical orbit around Earth, which means that its average distance changes from as far as 405,000km (its apogee) to as close as 363,000km at the perigee.
The coincidence between a supermoon and an eclipse means that Earth’s lone companion is expected to look 7-8% bigger.
The supermoon should also not be confused with the Moon Illusion, which causes the Moon to appear larger near the horizon than it does higher up in the sky.
The eclipse will begin at 00:11 GMT, when the Moon enters the lightest part of the Earth’s shadow, known as the penumbra, and adopts a yellowish color. At 02:11 GMT the Moon completely enters the umbra – the inner dark corpus of our planet’s shadow.
The point of greatest eclipse occurs at 02:47 GMT, when the Moon is closest to the centre of the umbra. The show will be over by 05:22 GMT on September 28.
Unlike the solar equivalent, a total lunar eclipse event is safe to watch and needs no special equipment.
Unmanned SpaceX rocket Falcon-9 has exploded minutes after lifting off from Cape Canaveral in Florida.
Rocket debris tumbled out of the sky into the Atlantic Ocean.
Falcon-9, which had 18 straight successes prior to Sunday’s flight, was in the process of sending a cargo ship to the International Space Station (ISS).
NASA says important supplies have been lost but the orbiting lab’s crew is secure.
Even now, the three astronauts have sufficient stores of food, water and equipment to operate until late October, and there should be visits from Russian and Japanese freighters before then.
The problem occurred 139 seconds into the flight, just before the first-stage of the rocket was about to separate from the upper-stage, or top segment of the Falcon-9.
“The vehicle has broken up,” said NASA commentator George Diller, as TV images showed the white rocket falling to pieces.
“We appear to have had a launch vehicle failure,” he added.
“There was an overpressure event in the upper-stage liquid oxygen tank,” tweeted SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.
“Data suggests counterintuitive cause. That’s all we can say with confidence right now. Will have more to say following a thorough fault tree analysis.”
SpaceX will now lead an investigation, overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and NASA, which contracts the California company commercially to resupply the station.
This means there will be no further Falcon-9 launches in the immediate future.
SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said: “Once we identify the issues we will submit that documentation to the FAA and it will be considered prior to the next flight.”
“I don’t have a timeline for that right now. It certainly isn’t going to be a year – (more likely) a month or so.”
NASA had loaded SpaceX’s Dragon freighter on the top of the Falcon with just over two tonnes of supplies.
These included a new docking mechanism that will be needed when future astronaut vehicles – one of them based on the robotic Dragon itself – come into service later this decade.
The agency has a second mechanism that it will be sending up shortly, but it will now also have to build a third to replace the one lost in the Atlantic.
NASA’s associate administrator for human spaceflight, Bill Gerstenmaier, said:“I think this points out the challenges and difficulties we face in spaceflight.
“We are operating systems at the edge of their ability. This is a very demanding environment that requires tremendous precision and tremendous amounts of engineering skill – for hardware to perform exactly as it should.”
Star Wars Day has been celebrated aboard the International Space Station (ISS) with the screening of one of the franchise’s movies.
“Just watching @starwars. In space. No big deal,” NASA tweeted from one of its official accounts, adding the hashtag #Maythe4thBeWithYou.
Meanwhile, members of a forthcoming expedition to the ISS posed as Jedi knights for their official photo earlier this year.
The choice of film surprised some.
“You picked the wrong one!” tweeted Angel Dominguez, referring to the fact that a photo sent from the satellite shows Mace Windu’s battle with Supreme Chancellor Palpatine in the prequel Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, rather a scene from the original trilogy.
The ISS was recently fitted with a high-definition projector, which the astronauts also use for video conferences and displaying computer software.
Commander Scott Kelly revealed last month that the team on board had also used it to watch the space disaster movie.
The latest movie showing was timed to coincide with the date, which references the series’ most quoted line: “May the force be with you.”
The ISS was previously linked to the space opera in 2007, when character Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber prop was flown to the orbiting structure and back to mark 30 years of the franchise.
Such stunts only add to the series’ value by keeping it in the public eye. Disney is set to be the beneficiary of the latest publicity, having bought the rights to Star Wars from its creator George Lucas in 2012, along with other movie rights, for $4 billion.
Analysts are expecting that the first in a new series of films, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, will set a new box office record when it is released in December.
A large crater on the Earth-facing side of the Moon has been named after aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart – the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic.
This the first detection of its kind in at least a century, scientists said.
The 200km-wide buried crater was found in data from NASA’s Grail spacecraft, which mapped the Moon’s gravity field.
The results were presented at a major scientific meeting in Texas.
The discovery was the outcome of work by Rohan Sood, Loic Chappaz and Prof. H. Jay Melosh at Purdue University, where Amelia Earhart was a member of the academic faculty from 1935 until her death in 1937.
The find was made while the scientists were searching the data for evidence of hollow underground structures known as lava tubes.
Speaking at the 46th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) in The Woodlands, Prof. H. Jay Melosh said: “No-one to our knowledge has ever recognized this as the broken rim of a crater, and we wouldn’t have either except that gravity shows it up very clearly as a big circular anomaly [in the Grail data].”
The Serenitatis Basin is thought to have been created by a giant impact about 3.9 billion years ago. So Earhart crater, which lies partially buried under the debris, must be at least that age, but how much older is not known at this stage.
Grail measured variations in the acceleration of gravity, which can provide a window into the Moon’s internal structure.
The researchers used a mathematical correction that takes away the part that is due to the topography of the lunar surface, in order to show what was underneath.
Further mathematical modeling carried out by Loic Chappaz revealed that the signature picked up near the Serenitatis Basin could be best explained by a crater 200km in diameter.
The team members chose Amelia Earhart because of her association with Purdue and her contribution as a female aviation pioneer.
Amelia Earhart became the first woman to complete a solo transatlantic flight in 1932, piloting a single-engined plane from Newfoundland to County Derry in Northern Ireland.
She set many other records during her lifetime.
Amelia Earhart disappeared in 1937 during an attempt to circumnavigate the globe in a Lockheed Model 10 Electra aircraft.
The name is technically temporary, since the naming of astronomical objects and features needs to be approved by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). But the team is hopeful that the name will stick.
The LPSC runs from March 16 to 20 in The Woodlands, near Houston.
According to US scientists, 2014 was the warmest year on record, with global temperatures 0.68C (1.24F) above the long-term average.
The results mean that 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have occurred since the turn of the century.
NASA and NOAA researchers published the report on January 16.
Last month, the World Meteorological Organization released provisional figures that predicted the past 12 months were set to be record breakers.
“This is the latest in a series of warm years, in a series of warm decades,” said Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
“While the ranking of individual years can be affected by chaotic weather patterns, the long-term trends are attributable to drivers of climate change that right now are dominated by human emissions of greenhouse gases,” he added.
NASA and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) maintain two of the three global datasets of global temperatures. The UK’s Met Office maintains the third. Data from all three are used by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and formed the basis of its provisional figures in December.
Reviewing extreme weather during 2014, the WMO highlighted a number of record-breaking events:
In September, parts of the Balkans received more than double the average monthly rainfall and parts of Turkey were hit by four times the average.
The town of Guelmin in Morocco was swamped by more than a year’s rain in just four days.
Western Japan saw the heaviest August rain since records began.
Parts of the western US endured persistent drought, as did parts of China and Central and South America.
Tropical storms, on the other hand, totaled 72 which is less than the average of 89 judged by 1981-2010 figures. The North Atlantic, western North Pacific and northern Indian Ocean were among regions seeing slightly below-average cyclone activity. [youtube SstUwTtk6iQ 650]
NASA’s Orion space capsule that is set to get humans to Mars is about to make its maiden flight.
Orion will be launched on a Delta rocket out of Cape Canaveral in Florida on a short journey above the Earth to test key technologies.
The conical vessel is reminiscent of the Apollo command ships that took men to the Moon in the 1960s and 1970s, but bigger and with cutting-edge systems.
Given that this is a first outing, there will be no people aboard.
Nonetheless, the NASA describes the demonstration as a major event.
NASA has a window in which to launch Orion of about two-and-a-half hours, which began at 07:05 local time.
The launch preparations had to be stopped shortly before the opening of the window because a boat strayed into the eastern part of the launch range. After that, the countdown had to be held because of strong winds and a technical issue.
Orion is being developed alongside a powerful new rocket that will have its own debut in 2017 or 2018.
Together, they will form the core capabilities needed to send humans beyond the International Space Station to destinations such as the Red Planet.
For Thursday’s flight, the Delta IV-Heavy rocket – currently the beefiest launcher in the world – is being used as a stand-in.
It will send Orion twice around the globe, throwing the ship up to an altitude of almost 3,600 miles.
This will set up a fast fall back to Earth, with a re-entry speed into the atmosphere close to 20,000mph – near what would be expected of a capsule coming back from the Moon.
It should give engineers the opportunity to check the performance of Orion’s critical heat shield, which is likely to experience temperatures in excess of 4,000F.
They will also watch how the parachutes deploy as they gently lower the capsule into Pacific waters off Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula.
India has successfully put the Mangalyaan robotic probe into orbit around Mars, becoming the fourth country to do so.
The Mangalyaan robotic probe, one of the cheapest interplanetary missions ever, will soon begin work studying the Red Planet’s atmosphere.
A 24-minute engine burn slowed the probe down enough to allow it to be captured by Mars’ gravity.
Indian PM Narendra Modi said the country had achieved the “near impossible”.
Speaking at the mission control centre in the southern city of Bangalore Narendra Modi said: “The odds were stacked against us. Of 51 missions attempted in the world only 21 have succeeded. We have prevailed.”
Only the US, Europe and Russia have previously sent missions to Mars, but India is the first country to succeed on its first attempt.
The latest US satellite, Maven, arrived at Mars on September 22.
NASA congratulated its Indian counterpart, the Indian Space and Research Organization (ISRO), on Wednesday’s success.
“We congratulate @ISRO for its Mars arrival! @MarsOrbiter joins the missions studying the Red Planet,” NASA tweeted.
From early in the morning, there was an atmosphere of excitement and tension at the Indian Space Agency’s Mission Tracking Centre in Bangalore.
Mangalyaan was launched from the Sriharikota spaceport on the coast of the Bay of Bengal on November 5, 2013
Scientists, many of them women and several of them young, were seated in front of their computer monitors tracking the progress of Mangalyaan.
Giant screens above their heads fed a steady stream of data, graphics and sequence of operations. The first whoops broke out when Mangalyaan successfully fired up its liquid engine, the first in a series of critical moves to make sure that the spacecraft was able to launch into the planet’s gravitational pull.
Then there was an agonizing 20 minutes, when Mangalyaan disappeared behind Mars and beyond contact.
But there was no mistaking the moment, when the scientists all rose as one, cheered, clapped, hugged each other and exchanged high fives – confirmation that Mangalyaan was now on an elliptical orbit around Mars.
After PM Narendra Modi’s congratulations, they poured out into the open and the bright sunlight, beaming as they took in the adulation.
Narendra Modi congratulated the scientists and said: “Today all of India should celebrate our scientists. Schools, colleges should applaud this.”
“If our cricket team wins a tournament, the nation celebrates. Our scientists’ achievement is greater,” he said.
The total cost of the Indian mission has been put at 4.5 billion rupees ($74 million), which makes it one of the cheapest interplanetary space missions ever.
NASA’s recent Maven mission cost $671 million.
The Mangalyaan probe will now set about taking pictures of Mars and studying its atmosphere.
One key goal is to try to detect methane in the Martian air, which could be an indicator of biological activity at, or more likely just below, the surface.
NASA has put four robot rovers on Mars since 1997 – the latest and biggest of them all, the one-tonne vehicle known as Curiosity, landed on the Red Planet in August 2012. Unlike Curiosity, the Indian probe will not land on Mars.
Mangalyaan – more formally referred to as Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) – was launched from the Sriharikota spaceport on the coast of the Bay of Bengal on November 5, 2013.
A NASA study revealed that West Antarctica’s key glaciers are in an irreversible retreat.
The study analyzed 40 years of observations of six big ice streams draining into the Amundsen Bay and concluded that nothing now can stop them melting away.
Although these are abrupt changes, the timescales involved are likely measured in centuries, the researchers add.
If the glaciers really do disappear, they would add roughly 1.2 m to global sea level rise.
The new study has been accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union, but NASA held a teleconference on Monday to brief reporters on the findings.
Prof. Eric Rignot said warm ocean water was relentlessly eating away at the glaciers’ fronts and that the geometry of the sea bed in the area meant that this erosion had now entered a runaway process.
The NASA study revealed that West Antarctica’s key glaciers are in an irreversible retreat (photo NASA)
“We present observational evidence that a large section of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has gone into a state of irreversible retreat; it has passed the point of no return,” the NASA glaciologist explained.
“This retreat will have major consequences for sea level rise worldwide. It will raise sea levels by 1.2 m, or 4ft, but its retreat will also influence adjacent sectors of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet which could triple this contribution to sea level.”
The Amundsen Bay sector includes some of the biggest and fastest moving glaciers on Earth.
Pine Island Glacier (PIG), over which there has been intense research interest of late, covers about 160,000 sq km.
Like the Thwaites, Smith, Haynes, Pope, Smith and Kohler Glaciers in this region – the PIG has been thinning rapidly.
And its grounding line – the zone where the glacier enters the sea and lifts up and floats – has also reversed tens of km over recent decades.
What makes the group vulnerable is that their bulk actually sits below current sea level with the rock bed sloping inland towards the continent. This is a geometry, say scientists, that invites further melting and further retreat.
The new study includes radar observations that map the underlying rock in the region, and this finds no ridge or significant elevation in topography that could act as a barrier to the glaciers’ reverse.
“In our new study, we present additional data that the junction of the glaciers with the ocean – the grounding line – has been retreating at record speeds unmatched anywhere in the Antarctic,” said Prof. Eric Rignot.
“We also present new evidence that there is no large hill at the back of these glaciers that could create a barrier and hold the retreat back. This is why we conclude that the disappearance of ice in this sector is unstoppable.”
The researcher, who is also affiliated to the University of California, Irvine, attributed the underlying driver of these changes to global warming.
This, together with atmospheric behaviors influenced by a loss of ozone in the stratosphere, had created stronger winds in the Southern Ocean that were now drawing more warm water towards and under the glaciers.
Dr. Tom Wagner, the cryosphere program scientist with NASA, said it was clear that, in the case of these six glaciers, a threshold had been crossed.
“The results are not based on computer simulations or numerical models; they are based on the interpretation of observations,” he told reporters.
“And I think this is an important point because this sometimes can get lost on the general public when they’re trying to understand climate change and the implications.”
Prof. Eric Rignot and colleagues put no real timescales on events, but a paper released by the journal Science to coincide with the NASA media conference tries to do just this.
It does include computer modeling and was led by Dr. Ian Joughin, a glaciologist at the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory. The study considers the particular case of Thwaites Glacier.
In the model, Dr. Ian Joughin’s team is able to reproduce very accurately the behavior of the glacier over the past 20 years.
The group then runs the model forwards to try to forecast future trends.
This, likewise, indicates that a collapse of the glacier is inevitable, and suggests it will most likely occur in the next 200 to 500 years.
NASA’s Kepler telescope has identified 715 new planets beyond our Solar System.
In the nearly two decades since the first so-called exoplanet was discovered, researchers had claimed the detection of just over 1,000 new worlds.
Kepler’s latest bounty orbit only 305 stars, meaning they are all in multi-planet systems.
The vast majority, 95%, are smaller than our Neptune, which is four times the radius of the Earth.
Four of the new planets are less than 2.5 times the radius of Earth, and they orbit their host suns in the “habitable zone” – the region around a star where water can keep a liquid state.
NASA’s Kepler telescope has identified 715 new planets beyond our Solar System
Whether that is the case on these planets cannot be known for sure – Kepler’s targets are hundreds of light-years in the distance, and this is too far away for very detailed investigation.
The Kepler space telescope was launched in 2009 on a $600 million mission to assess the likely population of Earth-sized planets in our Milky Way Galaxy.
Before Wednesday, the Kepler spacecraft had confirmed the existence of 246 exoplanets. It has now pushed this number up to 961. That is more than half of all the discoveries made in the field over the past 20 years.
According to some specialists, Comet ISON appears to have survived a close encounter with the Sun that had threatened to vaporize it.
The remnant could now go on to be visible from Earth in December, but astronomers do not know how bright it might become.
Travelling at more than 200 miles per second, ISON passed 730,000 miles above the sun’s 6,000C surface on Thursday evening. This would have heated the comet to almost 3,000°C, enough to vaporize rock as well as ice.
The hope was that the comet would remain sufficiently bright to be visible with the unaided eye throughout December. However, as ISON sped towards the sun, it faded dramatically from view. This led some experts to assume it had disintegrated.
“I’m not seeing anything that emerged from behind the solar disc. That could be the nail in the coffin,” said astrophysicist Karl Battams, from the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, during a live broadcast on NASA TV.
Yet, rumors of the comet’s demise may have been greatly exaggerated. Overnight, something following ISON’s orbit re-emerged on the opposite side of the sun. Now it is brightening as it plunges back into deep space.
Comet ISON appears to have survived a close encounter with the Sun that had threatened to vaporize it
“To all intents and purposes it looked like it had gone, and then amazingly this thing appears out the other side,” said Professor Tim O’Brien, associate director of the University of Manchester’s Jodrell Bank observatory.
“What we don’t know is whether the whole thing fell apart and whether the dust that was embedded within the ice is just basically in a big cloud and that is continuing to orbit,” he explained.
“The question is, is it just a cloud of dust … or is there still either one or more remnants of the nucleus.”
The nucleus, a huge lump of rock and ice, was several miles wide on its approach to the sun, and brightened as the sun heated it to create an atmosphere, or coma, of ice and dust which was blown away from the sun to form a tail.
But radiation pressure, extreme heat and gravitational forces could have ripped the comet apart.
If the remnant is a cloud of dust it will rapidly dissipate. If it is solid the sunlight will continue to vaporize its ice, creating a tail that may be visible from Earth.
The orbiter was launched on an Atlas V rocket from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 13:28 local time.
Assuming the $671million mission stays on track, the probe will have a 10-month cruise to the Red Planet.
MAVEN is going to study Mars’ high atmosphere, to try to understand the processes that have robbed the world of most of its air.
Evidence suggests the planet was once shrouded in a thick blanket of gases that supported the presence of liquid water at its surface. Today, the air pressure is so low that free water would instantly boil away.
MAVEN was released from the Atlas V’s upper-stage some 53 minutes after leaving the Cape Canaveral pad. The probe then had to open its solar panels and orientate itself into a cruise configuration.
“During cruise, we perform four planned trajectory correction manoeuvres where we fire thrusters to tweak the trajectory so that we arrive at the right place and time to go into orbit around Mars. At that point, we will fire a set of thrusters to slow down the spacecraft and get captured into orbit,” explained Guy Beutelschies, the spacecraft’s programme manager at manufacturer Lockheed Martin.
The present-day atmosphere of Mars, composed mostly of carbon dioxide, is extremely thin, with atmospheric pressure at the surface just 0.6% of the Earth’s surface pressure.
NASA’s MAVEN mission has set off for Mars
The Martian landscape, though, retains channels that were evidently cut by abundant, flowing water – proof that the planet had a much denser atmosphere in the past.
Some of the air would certainly have reacted with, and been incorporated into, minerals at the surface.
But the most likely explanation for its loss is that the solar wind – the great outflow of energetic particles from the Sun – has simply eroded it through time.
This has been possible because, unlike Earth, the Red Planet lacks a protective global magnetic field, which is capable of deflecting the abrasive assault from our star.
MAVEN (the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN spacecraft) is equipped with eight instruments – some to understand the Sun’s influence at Mars; others to investigate the composition and behavior of the atmosphere. The intention is to measure the rates at which different air molecules are being lost today, distinguishing between the various processes responsible.
Scientists will use this information to get some insights into the history of the Martian climate – from the time billions of years ago when it was warmer and wetter, and potentially habitable to life, to the present environment which is cold and desiccated.
“Most of the loss is thought to have occurred early in Mars’ history when the Sun and the solar wind were more intense,” said Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN’s principal investigator from the University of Colorado at Boulder.
“The loss rates today are low enough that we’re probably not going to see the loss of the entire atmosphere. The reason we are studying it today, even though the loss rates are so much lower, is that we can understand the specific processes that are going on and learn how to extrapolate them back in time.”
Arrival at Mars is timed for September 22, 2014.
“MAVEN will be in an elliptical orbit that ranges as far away as 6,220 km and as close as 150 km,” said Guy Beutelschies.
“We will also execute a set of operations to dip down into the tenuous upper reaches of the atmosphere to do some direct sampling for approximately a week at a time. These are called ‘deep dips’ and we do five of them during the primary mission.”
That primary mission lasts one Earth year (half a Mars year), after which the science team will need additional funding to continue their investigations.
NASA, though, fully intends to keep operating MAVEN long into the future as a data-relay platform for surface rovers like Curiosity.
“If things go nominally, we should have fuel left onboard to keep the vehicle flying for years beyond its design life,” according to NASA.
“As a reference, Mars Odyssey was launched in 2001 and is still operating.”
India launched its Mangalyaan mission to Mars on November 5 but is taking a less direct trajectory to the Red Planet than MAVEN, which means the US mission should get into orbit just a few days before the other orbiter.
NASA has reported that its Curiosity rover has made another significant discovery on Mars.
Curiosity has drilled into a rock that contains clay minerals – an indication of formation in, or substantial alteration by, neutral water.
Scientists say the find is one more step towards showing conditions on Mars in the distant past could have supported life.
Many rocks studied previously were probably deposited in acidic water.
While this would not have precluded the possibility of micro-organisms taking hold on Mars, it would have been more challenging, scientists believe.
Identifying clays shows there were at least some locations on the planet billions of years ago where environments would have been much more favorable.
“We have found a habitable environment that is so benign and supportive of life that probably if this water was around and you had been there, you would have been able to drink it,” said John Grotzinger, Curiosity’s project scientist.
Curiosity rover drilled a powdered sample from a mudstone at its exploration site in Gale Crater, a deep impact bowl on Mars’ equator.
This was delivered to the two big onboard laboratories, Sam and Chemin, for analysis.
The rock sample was found to contain 20-30% smectite – a particular group of clay minerals.
Their high abundance and the relative lack of salt are strongly suggestive of a fresh-water environment for the mudstone’s formation.
The presence of calcium sulphates, rather than the magnesium or iron sulphates seen in previous rock analyses at other locations on the planet, adds to the evidence that the sampled rock in Gale was deposited in a neutral to mildly alkaline pH environment.
Mars Curiosity rover has drilled into a rock that contains clay minerals, an indication of formation in, or substantial alteration by, neutral water
Scientists think Curiosity probably drilled into an ancient lakebed.
The analysis also identified sulphur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon – some of the key chemical elements for life.
Additionally, it found compounds in a range of oxidized states, meaning there were electrons moving through the environment. Those could have been co-opted as an energy source by simple life-forms, if they ever existed in Gale.
“What we’ve learned in the last 20 years of modern microbiology is that very primitive organisms – they can derive energy just by feeding on rocks,” explained Prof. John Grotzinger.
“Just like on [a] battery – you hook up the wires and it goes to a lightbulb and the lightbulb turns on. That’s kind of what a micro-organism would have done in this environment, if life had ever evolved on Mars and it was present here.”
Curiosity rover is assembling quite a catalogue of water evidence in the crater.
Already, it has seen the remains of an ancient riverbed system, where water once flowed perhaps a metre deep and quite vigorously.
The picture that seems to be emerging is one where sediments were transported downhill from the eroding crater rim into a network of streams that then flowed into the lake environment represented by the mudstone.
Curiosity is currently working in a small depression known as Yellowknife Bay, about half a kilometre from the location where it touched down last August.
NASA’s original mission plan was to head towards the big mountain that dominates the centre of Gale Crater, but the fascinating science at Yellowknife Bay has delayed this journey somewhat.
In recent days, operations have been slowed by a software glitch, requiring the vehicle to be run off its reserve computer.
There is also the imminent issue of solar conjunction, which will see Mars move behind the Sun as viewed from Earth, blocking communications.
All this means that Curiosity will be at Yellowknife Bay for a while yet.
“Basically, we can’t talk to the rover and the rover [can’t] talk to us for most of the month of April,” said Michael Meyer, the lead scientist on NASA’s Mars exploration programme.
“We’ll do some more science activities though the end of this month, [provided] the engineers confirm it’s safe for us to do those operations. But we will not do a second drill hole until after solar conjunction.”
When the rover does finally get to the mountain, known as Mount Sharp, the expectation, based on satellite imagery, is that it will again find clay minerals.
This will enable the robot to compare and contrast past environments.
The US space agency’s Opportunity rover, which continues to work nine years on from its landing, is also believed to be sitting on top of clay-bearing rocks at its exploration site far to the west of Gale. Opportunity, however, does not have Curiosity’s capability to assess those rocks.