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Astronauts enter space station on historic SpaceX mission

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ORLANDO, Fla., May 31 (UPI) — Two NASA astronauts safely boarded the International Space Station on Sunday, capping a successful flight of SpaceX‘s historic Crew Dragon Demo 2 mission.

The capsule connected to the station at 10:16 a.m. EDT, slightly ahead of the scheduled time as the space station passed above the northern China-Mongolia border. Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken entered the station at 1:22 p.m.

NASA and SpaceX crews on the ground congratulated the astronauts, while astronaut Chris Cassidy — already on board the station — welcomed them.

“Bob and Doug, we here at SpaceX are honored to have been part of the ushering in of this new era of human spaceflight,” SpaceX engineer Anna Menon said.

Behnken, in turn, congratulated the teams at SpaceX and NASA.

“Their incredible efforts over the last several years to make this possible cannot be overstated,” he said of the SpaceX employees.

Just before docking, practiced flying the capsule manually. He congratulated SpaceX’s teams for successfully training him and building the capsule.

“It flew really well, very crisp,” Hurley said.

Behnken joked about Hurley’s brief manual piloting experience.

“I only had to twist Doug’s arm for two or three times to get him to allow me to deactivate the piloting controls,” Behnken said.

The mission lifted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Saturday afternoon — the first crewed launch from U.S. soil in nine years.

The successful 19-hour journey to the space station makes SpaceX the first private company to send astronauts into orbit. It also was the first time since the final space shuttle mission that NASA didn’t have to rely on Russia to get people into space.

After the launch on Saturday, Musk said he considers the launch a boost for SpaceX’s ultimate goal of traveling to Mars. The company has been testing prototypes of its next-generation rocket and habitat, Starship, in Texas.

“This is hopefully the first step on a journey toward a civilization on Mars, of life becoming multi-planetary,” Musk said. “That’s seeming increasingly real after what happened today, getting people to orbit, finally after 18 years.”

The astronauts slept for about eight hours before the approach to the space station.

No issues with the spacecraft have been reported — described by a SpaceX commentator as “pretty boring for the astronauts, but that’s what we wanted.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said the launch proved that NASA’s new approach of contracting with private companies for entire missions is successful.

“America is leading again in space,” Bridenstine said.

SpaceX secured a contract to provide ferry service to the space station for a fixed cost in 2014, and developed the rocket and capsule with NASA’s cooperation.

The Falcon 9 rocket had already been proven as a reliable workhorse for carrying supplies to the space station 250 miles above Earth in 20 flights.

The space station travels at more than 17,000 mph, so the capsule performed several orbits to match its speed and altitude. The capsule docked autonomously.

Behnken and Hurley don’t know how long they will be on the space station.

NASA has said it could be as little as six weeks and as much as 16 weeks, depending on how quickly the crew completes necessary maintenance on the space station and how favorable weather conditions are for spacecraft splashdown.

Behnken is scheduled to make several spacewalks with Cassidy, as Hurley monitors and controls instruments inside the station.

If the mission ultimately is successful, NASA plans to launch another SpaceX capsule to the space station Aug. 30, Bridenstine said.

Crew members for that mission are to be NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, along with Soichi Noguchi, an astronaut with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

Over the past decade, NASA astronauts only used Russian Soyuz rockets and capsules to reach the space station, at a cost of more than $70 million per seat.

Behnken, 49, and Hurley, 53, have been astronauts since their selection in 2000. They worked closely with SpaceX to develop the new spacecraft systems.

The return to Earth for the Demo 2 mission would mark the first splashdown of a U.S. space capsule carrying astronauts since the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975.



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NASA’s OSIRIS-REx touches down on asteroid Bennu to nab sample

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Oct. 20 (UPI) — NASA’s OSIRIS-REx touched down on asteroid Bennu on Tuesday evening in a mission to scoop a sample of rocks and dirt.

The spacecraft — the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer — made soft contact with the asteroid at 6:12 p.m. EDT.

The historic “touch and go” event featured animation displaying OSIRIS-REx’s sample collection activities in real time. It takes time for real images of the touchdown to travel back to the Earth, so they won’t be released to the public until Wednesday.

The craft executed a series of maneuvers over the course of several hours before making soft contact with the surface of the asteroid to collect regolith, or rocks and dirt.

“It will be four and a half hours of anxiousness,” Beth Buck, OSIRIS-REx mission operations manager at Lockheed Martin Space, said in a news conference ahead of the event.

Buck made a comparison to the descent of a spacecraft on Mars, when there is typically “seven minutes of terror.”

The goal is to learn more about the solar system’s history and help “planetary defense” engineers with missions to protect earth from rogue asteroids. Bennu is believed to be a window into the solar system’s past since it’s a pristine, carbon-rich body carrying building blocks of both planets and life.

At around 1:50 p.m. EDT, the spacecraft left orbit around the asteroid before executing a series of burns to position itself over a sampling area nicknamed Nightingale.

Once in position, the craft began its approach to the asteroid at 5:50 p.m. EDT. It then spent about 15 seconds attempting to collect the regolith sample before backing away again.

The area, which is 52 feet in diameter, will make for a more demanding landing than expected, Kenneth Getzandanner, OSIRIS-REx flight dynamics manager at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, said in the news conference.

The original mission called for a landing “zone” about 150% larger than Nightingale, at 82 feet, but that changed because Bennu was more rocky than expected.

The goal was to collect at least 1.7 ounces of fine-grained material, but the spacecraft can carry up to 4.4 pounds, Heather Enos, OSIRIS-REx deputy principal investigator at the University of Arizona said.

“I would love for that capsule to be completely full,” Enos said.

Though early images from the asteroid should hint at whether the mission succeeded, it will take engineers roughly 10 days to compare and analyze the mass before and after the maneuver to actually know how much dirt is inside the OSIRIS-REx.

If it failed, the spacecraft has enough fuel to attempt two more touch downs to collect material.

The spacecraft is expected to return to Earth, with the regolith sample from Bennu, in 2023.



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SpaceX scrubs Starlink launch until Thursday, if weather cooperates

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Oct. 21 (UPI) — Just three days after sending 60 more Starlink satellites into orbit, SpaceX is aiming to launch another batch of broadband satellites into space from Florida.

If the weather cooperates, Thursday’s launch will be SpaceX’s 15th Starlink mission.

Liftoff had been scheduled for 12:29 p.m. EDT Wednesday aboard a Falcon 9 rocket at Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, but controllers scrubbed the launch due to weather and rescheduled for 12:14 p.m. on Thursday.

With a launch Sunday, SpaceX increased the size of their Starlink constellation to nearly 800 satellites. The 15th mission will see another 60-odd satellites join the network.

“The goal of Starlink is to create a network that will help provide Internet services to those who are not yet connected, and to provide reliable and affordable Internet across the globe,” according to the Kennedy Space Center.

Weather for Wednesday’s planned launch had looked so-so and the Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron predicted a 60 percent chance of favorable conditions.

“A mid-level inverted trough and associated easterly wave currently across the Bahamas will meander into the state over the next few days, bringing enhanced moisture, cloud cover, and instability with a higher coverage of showers and storms,” Space Force forecasters wrote.

They said Thursday’s forecast looks quite similar to Wednesday’s.

Earlier this month, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk tweeted that Starlink’s constellation was big enough to begin beta-testing the Internet service system in both the United States and southern Canada.

SpaceX has already offered Starlink Internet services to emergency responders in wildfire-stricken areas of Washington State.

Washington’s Hoh tribe is also using the Internet service to provide their members online education and telehealth services.



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Chernobyl-level radiation harms bumblebee reproduction

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Oct. 21 (UPI) — Bees are more sensitive to radiation than scientists thought. Scientists found the reproduction rates of bumblebees declined significantly when exposed to Chernobyl-level radiation.

The research, published Wednesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, suggests radiation in Ukraine’s Chernobyl Exclusion Zone could impair pollination services, triggering wider ecological consequences than previously estimated.

Humans are not allowed to live in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the disaster area more directly impacted by the 1986 nuclear accident, the worst in history. However, the destroyed nuclear reactors are surrounded by forests that are populated by robust populations of birds, bears, bison, lynx, moose, wolves and more.

Efforts to gauge the effects of radiation contamination on insects have yielded mixed results in the past. While some studies have suggested insects are relatively radiation-resistant, others have demonstrated significant impairment.

When researchers exposed bumblebees in the lab to radiation dose of 100 µGyh-1, an amount approximating exposure inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, reproduction rates among the bees dropped between 30 and 45 percent.

Researchers found a direct correlation between the size of the radiation dose and reproduction rate declines. Lower levels of radiation had a smaller effect, while larger doses yielded greater declines.

Scientists were surprised to find they were able to detect reproductive rate declines at very small levels of radiation exposure.

“Our research provides much needed understanding as to the effects of radiation in highly contaminated areas and this is the first research to underpin the international recommendation for the effects of radiation on bees,” lead study author Katherine Raines, environmental scientist at the University of Stirling in Scotland, said in a news release.



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