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NASA astronauts will test new SpaceX capsule, execute spacewalks

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ORLANDO, Fla., May 25 (UPI) — Astronauts heading to space from U.S. soil for the first time in nine years will test SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule and perform spacewalks on the International Space Station.

The spacecraft, which will carry people for the first time, is scheduled to lift off at 4:33 p.m. EDT Wednesday and fly for 19 hours before docking at the space station.

Weather remains an uncertainty that day, however, with rain and a heavy cloud cover predicted. If the launch is postponed, NASA has said the next opportunity would come Saturday.

The capsule could make it to the space station quicker than in 19 hours, but astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are to conduct several tests, including flying Crew Dragon manually with its unique, high-tech touchscreen panel.

“This is a test flight. There are checkouts that we’re doing along the way,” said Kathy Leuders, NASA’s manager of the Commercial Crew Program. “So we picked a day and time when we can do that on the way to the ISS. This is a really, really important flight for us, and we’ve got two great test pilots.”

The first manual test will occur on the evening of the launch. Astronauts are to conduct another manual test briefly as they approach the space station for docking the next morning.

Astronauts also will try out various life-support features on the capsule, including meals — unheated, according to NASA.

“Bob and Doug are gonna get the chance to try sleeping in the Dragon, also,” said Benjamin Reed, SpaceX’s director of crew mission management.

Upon return, the astronauts will pack the capsule with a few space experiments that have been aboard the space station, and then experience the first splashdown of a capsule carrying humans since the Apollo era, in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida.

The mission originally called for only a few days aboard the space station, but NASA announced that would be extended due to necessary space station maintenance. Behnken and Hurley will be there for one to four months, depending on how quickly the work is accomplished.

Behnken is set to participate in five spacewalks with astronaut Chris Cassidy, who already is on the space station with two Russian cosmonauts. Hurley will support the two by controlling robotic systems while inside orbiting laboratory.

Four of the spacewalks are required to replace the space station’s nickel-hydrogen batteries, which are charged by immense solar panels.

Cassidy and Behnken also are to install new equipment onto the European Space Agency’s module, preparing it for a new platform that will host scientific experiments.

A fifth spacewalk will install new communications upgrades on the European module.

A sixth spacewalk is possible later in the summer, NASA said.



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Antarctic sea ice loss is good news for the continent’s penguins

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June 25 (UPI) — While climate scientists worry about the loss of sea ice in Antarctica, penguins are flapping their flippers in applause. According to a new study, published this week in the journal Science Advances, many penguins prefer the Southern Ocean unfrozen — the less sea ice, the better.

Researchers had previously illuminated a link between sea ice extent in Antarctica and breeding success among Adelie penguin colonies, but a correlation doesn’t prove causation, and so scientists decided to investigate further.

To find out what might explain the positive impact of reduced sea ice coverage on breeding success, scientists strapped a trio of instruments to several dozen penguins. The combination of GPS trackers, accelerometers and video cameras helped scientists track how the movements and behaviors changed over the course of several years, as sea ice extents waxed and waned.

“What is new in this study is that we used a variety of electronic tags to record penguin foraging behavior in the greatest detail yet, and found mechanistic link among sea ice, foraging behavior, and breeding success,” lead researcher Yuuki Watanabe, scientist at the National Institute of Polar Research, told UPI in an email.

The novel data revealed the ways in which ice coverage in Antarctica affects the way penguins move across their environs and access food resources.

“In the ice-covered seasons, penguins traveled slowly by walking and needed to find cracks in the ice, where they dived repeatedly,” Watanabe said. “They were able to dive only through cracks, which also means that the competition among penguins was severe.”

The data also showed that, not surprisingly, penguins move much more efficiently in the water than on ice. Adelie penguins travel four times faster by swimming than by walking.

When sea extent was minimal, data showed the penguins were able to travel more easily, swimming and diving wherever they pleased.

“They came back to the nest quickly, which means that chicks waiting at the nest had food more often,” Watanabe said. “Overall, foraging conditions improved by the loss of sea ice, which directly linked to improved breeding success. Put very simply, penguins are happier with less sea ice because they swim.”

Less sea ice also allows more sunlight to enter the ocean, fueling larger krill blooms. Krill serve as the main source of food for Adelie penguins.

The latest findings don’t hold for all of Antarctica, and in future studies, researchers hope to explore the effects of sea ice extent on different penguin species living in different parts of the continent.

“The relationship between sea ice and penguin reproductive success is apparently different in maritime Antarctica (e.g. Antarctic Peninsula) where sea ice is normally sparse,” Watanabe said. “There, penguins look happier with more sea ice, but mechanics are unclear. I would like to conduct research in that region to understand the general patterns over the whole Antarctica.”



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NASA, ESA, JAXA to track pandemic’s effects from space

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June 25 (UPI) — An international trio of space agencies has joined forces to track and visualize the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on air and water quality, climate change, economic activity and agriculture, officials said.

For the past few months, NASA scientists have been working with researchers at the European Space Agency, ESA, and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, JAXA, to compile and organize pandemic-relevant data from Earth observation satellites.

On Thursday, the team of scientists unveiled the COVID-19 Earth Observation Dashboard, an interactive interface featuring a combination of satellite data records and analytical tools that can be used to track the planet-wide impacts of the novel coronavirus on the environment and human society.

“Our teams are exhausted but very proud to have our work presented to a global audience,” Josef Aschbacher, director of ESA Earth Observation Programs, said during a teleconference on Thursday morning.

In the short-term, data amalgamated by the cooperating agencies can be used to better understand and combat the pandemic, but once the threat of COVID-19 has faded, researchers will be able to channel their collaborative energies toward other global issues.

“We have an obligation to offer our excellent space data to the citizens of the world,” Aschbacher said. “And there are many problems on our planet that also need global concerted action.”

In the weeks following the onset of the pandemic, much attention was paid to the reduction in air pollution in places. Scientists at NASA, ESA and JAXA have been working to quantify the impacts of the pandemic — and subsequent national and regional lock-downs — on fossil fuel emissions.

But while many have wondered how carbon emissions have been affected by the pandemic, scientists suggest the nature of the gas makes it quite difficult to track CO2 emissions over short time scales.

To measure changes in carbon emissions and air pollution using satellite data, climate scientists mostly rely on nitrogen dioxide.

“NO2 tracks very well with fossil fuel emissions and economic activity,” said Ken Jucks, program scientist for the OCO-2 and Aura missions with NASA’s Earth Science Division. “Unlike NO2, which has a lifetime of just a few hours, CO2 has a lifetime of a few centuries. That means the background concentrations for CO2 emissions are much higher and the short-term variations are much smaller.”

The newly unveiled COVID-19 Earth Observation Dashboard allows online users to view the drop in atmospheric NO2 that followed national and regional lock-downs — first in the air above China, and later, in the atmosphere above Europe and North America.

As the pandemic has cooled in some parts of the world and heated up in other places, like South America, NO2 signals have followed suit.

“We’re actually seeing the emissions change over time, and we’re seeing signals in the Southern Hemisphere now that we didn’t see early on,” Jucks said.

According to scientists, the measured drop in NO2 demonstrates how quickly changes in human behavior and economic patterns can impact global emissions, but the data also showcases how much work must be done to curb climate change.

“To reach either of the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] goals set by the Paris Agreement, whether limiting warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius, we’re going to need to reduce our carbon emissions by 50 percent or more,” Jucks said. “What we saw from COVID was emissions reductions anywhere from 5 to 30 percent over a few months, and then going back towards normal. This slowdown was just a blip. For real change, we need to figure out, as a species, how to completely alter how we operate.”

Still, researchers are hopeful that the effects of the pandemic on emissions and air pollution can be used as an experiment for climate modelers — an opportunity to improve the accuracy of climate model predictions and isolate the kinds of economic and societal changes that will have the greatest impacts on emissions and air quality.

In addition to tracking atmospheric gases, Earth observation satellites can look at other variables affected by the pandemic.

“Several international organizations have expressed concerns that the COVID-19 pandemic might turn from a health crisis into a global food crisis,” said Anca Anghelea, an open data scientist with ESA’s Earth observation programs.

Anghelea is one of several researchers working to compile satellite data that can be used to measure the impacts of the pandemic on food production around the world.

Researchers hope the new dashboard and the data compiled there can do more than just help scientists understand the impacts of the pandemic. Scientists want to see their data inspire problem solving.

“When we introduced the first set of this data, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, was using it to monitor the number of traffic jams along countries’ borders,” Aschbacher said during Thursday’s teleconference.

“We saw how long the queues have been of trucks and cars,” Aschbacher said. “This inspired policy makers to create what’s called a green lane, which allowed trucks with vital goods, such as foods and medicines to move through more efficiently.”

But more than just solve isolated problems, researchers at NASA, ESA and JAXA said they hoped the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic would inspire greater collaboration and cooperation across national borders — a spirit of working together that might last beyond the current crisis.

“On Earth, we are connected, we have truly global type of impacts from a crisis that began on another continent,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “What the dashboard really does, is it really shows us this connectivity. It demonstrates how we must really come together and apply the data and work together to study this connected planet.”



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Astronomers find massive black hole in the early universe

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June 25 (UPI) — With the help of a trio of Hawaiian telescopes, astronomers have imaged the 13-billion-year-old light of a distant quasar — the second-most distant quasar ever found.

Scientists gave the new quasar an indigenous Hawaiian name, Pōniuāʻena, which means “unseen spinning source of creation, surrounded with brilliance.” Researchers described the brilliant object in a new paper, which is available in preprint format online and will soon be published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Quasars are like lighthouses, their beams hailing from far away in the ancient universe. Powered by supermassive black holes at the center of galaxies, quasars are some of the brightest objects in the universe.

As astronomers peer deeper into the cosmos, they’re able to see what the universe was like during its earliest days. In this instance, the Pōniuāʻena’s lighthouse-like beacon hails from a period when the universe was still in its infancy — just 700 million years after the Big Bang.

The light of J1342+0928, a quasar spotted in 2018, is older and more distant, but the power and size of Pōniuāʻena is unmatched in the early universe. Spectroscopic observations of Pōniuāʻena, recorded by the Keck and Gemini observatories, revealed a supermassive black hole with a mass 1.5 billion times that of the sun.

“Pōniuāʻena is the most distant object known in the universe hosting a black hole exceeding one billion solar masses,” lead study author Jinyi Yang, postdoctoral research associate at the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory, said in a news release.

According to Yang and colleagues, for a black hole to grow to such a tremendous size so early in the history of the universe, it would have needed to start out as a 10,000 solar mass “seed” black hole, born no later than 100 million years after the Big Bang.

“How can the universe produce such a massive black hole so early in its history?” said Xiaohui Fan, associate head of the astronomy department at the University of Arizona. “This discovery presents the biggest challenge yet for the theory of black hole formation and growth in the early universe.”

The light of distant objects, including quasars and massive galaxies in the early universe, can help scientists pinpoint the reionization of the universe. Astrophysicists estimate reionization occurred between 300 million years and one billion years after the Big Bang, but astronomers haven’t been able to determine exactly when and how quickly it happened.

The phenomenon describes the ionization of hydrogen gas as the first stars, quasars, galaxies and black holes came into existence. Prior to the reionization, the universe was without distinct light sources. Diffuse light dominated, and most radiation was absorbed by neutral hydrogen gas.

“Poniua’ena acts like a cosmic lighthouse,” said study co-author Joseph Hennawi, a cosmologist and an associate professor in the department of physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “As its light travels the long journey towards Earth, its spectrum is altered by diffuse gas in the intergalactic medium which allowed us to pinpoint when the Epoch of Reionization occurred.”

Poniua’ena was initially spotted by a deep universe survey using the observations of the University of Hawai’i Institute for Astronomy’s Pan-STARRS1 telescope on the Island of Maui. Later, scientists used the Gemini Observatory’s GNIRS instrument, as well as the Keck Observatory’s Near Infrared Echellette Spectrograph, to confirm the identify of Poniua’ena.

“The preliminary data from Gemini suggested this was likely to be an important discovery,” said study co-author Aaron Barth, a professor in the physics and astronomy department at the University of California, Irvine. “Our team had observing time scheduled at Keck just a few weeks later, perfectly timed to observe the new quasar using Keck’s NIRES spectrograph in order to confirm its extremely high redshift and measure the mass of its black hole.”



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