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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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NASA announces discovery of water on moon’s sunlit surface

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Oct. 26 (UPI) — Lunar water isn’t relegated to the dark side of the moon. On Monday, NASA announced that scientists had discovered water molecules inside Clavius Crater, a massive lunar depression visible from Earth.

The discovery, detailed in the journal Nature Astronomy, was made possible by NASA’s research aircraft SOFIA, short for Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy.

Researchers previously found concentrations of hydrogen on the moon’s sunlit surface, but were unable to determine their origin.

“Today, we’re announcing the previously detected hydrogen found on the surface of the moon is located in water molecules,” Paul Hertz, director of the Astrophysics Division in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, told reporters Monday during a teleconference.

SOFIA measured water concentrations of 100 to 412 parts per million. For comparison, the Sahara Desert hosts water concentrations 100 times greater.

But the discovery raises new questions about the abundance and distribution of water on the moon, which scientists previously believed to be exclusively locked up in polar ice caps and at the bottom of only the moon’s deepest craters.

Because the moon has such a thin atmosphere, any unprotected water on the sunlit surface of the moon should be quickly lost to space, and yet, scientists have not found irrefutable evidence that the water molecules are there.

How it gets there and what keeps it there remain open questions, researchers said.

NASA’s announcement was made in conjunction with the publication of a second study in Nature Astronomy, showing tiny permanently shadowed cold traps may house small patches of water ice all over the moon’s surface.

NASA scientists are keen to understand the moon’s hydrological dynamics as they prepare for human missions to the moon. Astronauts need water to drink, of course, but water can also be used to synthesize oxygen, make fuel, water plants and more.

If there is a sustainable source of water on the moon, that makes packing for long stays on the moon a lot easier.

“It’s far easier to travel when don’t have to carry everything with you that you might need once you’re there,” Jacob Bleacher, chief exploration scientist for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, said during the teleconference. “You can be much more efficient with what you pack.”

“Water is heavy, therefore is expensive to launch from the surface if we don’t have take water with us,” Bleacher said. “We have an opportunity to take other things with us, for instance, payloads to do more science.”

NASA plans to continue using SOFIA’s instruments to look for water on sunlight portions of the lunar surface, but to solve the mysteries of the moon’s water supply, it’s likely more direct lunar exploration will be necessary, the scientists said.



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Moon’s smallest shadows may be hiding tiny patches of water ice

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Oct. 26 (UPI) — Water ice may be more abundant on the moon’s surface than previously thought.

New research, published Monday in the journal Nature Astronomy, suggests tiny patches of ice may be hiding inside lunar shadows as a small as a penny.

“If you can imagine standing on the surface of the moon near one of its poles, you would see shadows all over the place,” Paul Hayne, an assistant professor of astrophysical and planetary sciences at the University of Colorado, said in a news release. “Many of those tiny shadows could be full of ice.”

Hayne and his colleagues suggest many of the moon’s smallest shadows are permanent. Scientists predict many of these darkened pockets of the lunar surface, or “cold traps,” haven’t been hit with a ray of sunlight in billions of years.

“If we’re right, water is going to be more accessible for drinking water, for rocket fuel, everything that NASA needs water for,” said Hayne.

For a bigger example of a cold trap, the study’s authors looked to Shackleton Crater, a massive depression on the moon’s southern pole. Because much of crater remains permanently darkened, temperatures inside the 13-mile-wide depression remain a steady minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit all year long.

“The temperatures are so low in cold traps that ice would behave like a rock,” Hayne said. “If water gets in there, it’s not going anywhere for a billion years.”

To see how common cold traps are, researchers collected a wealth of data on the contours of the lunar surface and used models to simulate what the moon looks like at small scales. Their analysis showed the lunar surface is a lot like a golf ball, covered in tiny dimples.

The models showed many of these tiny bumps, ridges and crests are capable of keeping small portions of the lunar surface in permanent shadow. Though simulations suggest most of the moon’s cold traps measure no more than a centimeter wide, they combine to create 7,000 square miles of permanent shadow.

Scientists can’t be sure that these tiny cold traps hold water ice. To find out, a lunar mission will be necessary.

The finding was announced the same day NASA confirmed water molecules on the sunlit surface of the moon.

The discovery, researchers said, needs to be confirmed — the atmosphere of the moon is so thin that water molecules should be quickly lost to space, so how they would remain on the surface is unknown.

But finding water resources will be essential to establishing a human presence on the moon, they said.

If the cold traps identified by Hayne and his colleagues do indeed hold water, and water molecules are found across the sunlit side of the moon, NASA may have more flexibility in where they can base their human missions.



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Accessible healthcare could help slow climate change, reverse biodiversity losses

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Oct. 26 (UPI) — To protect forests and vulnerable ecosystems, erect healthcare clinics. That’s what nonprofit organizers did in Indonesia, where deforestation rates in neighboring Gunung Palung National Park declined dramatically during the first 10 years of the clinic’s operation.

The affordable healthcare clinic was set up in 2007 by a pair of nonprofits, Alam Sehat Lestari and Health In Harmony. Prior to the arrival of the clinic, the forests of Gunung Palung were shrinking annually as a result of uncontrolled illegal logging.

To curb the losses, the clinic offered discounted services to villages that enacted community-wide logging reductions and other conservation-minded reforms.

Researchers described the clinic’s environmental and public health successes in a new paper, published Monday in the journal PNAS.

“This innovative model has clear global health implications,” study co-author Michele Barry, senior associate dean of global health at Stanford University and director of the Center for Innovation in Global Health, said in a news release. “Health and climate can and should be addressed in unison, and done in coordination with and respect for local communities.”

In addition to offering community-wide discounts pegged to reductions in logging, the clinic also provided healthcare services for barter, allowing villagers to pay with tree seedlings, handicrafts and labor.

Health data collected by the clinic revealed a significant drop in infectious and non-communicable diseases between 2007 and 2017. Satellite data showed that deforestation rates in the forests surrounding the clinic and villages receiving service declined 70 percent compared to control plots far from the clinic.

“We didn’t know what to expect when we started evaluating the program’s health and conservation impacts, but were continually amazed that the data suggested such a strong link between improvements in health care access and tropical forest conservation,” said lead study author Isabel Jones, recent recipient of a doctoral degree in biology from Stanford.

Researchers found that the biggest reductions in logging occurred surrounding the villages that used the healthcare clinic the most.

More than a third of protected forests around the globe are either owned, managed, used or occupied by indigenous groups and local communities, but conservation planning and regulatory decision rarely involves input from these communities.

The opposite was true in West Kalimantan, Indonesia, where nonprofit leaders met regularly with local villages to come up with a strategy for protecting the environment while also meeting the region’s public health needs.

Researchers suggest the clinic’s success can serve as a model for conservation and public health initiatives all over the world.

“The data support two important conclusions: human health is integral to the conservation of nature and vice versa, and we need to listen to the guidance of rainforest communities who know best how to live in balance with their forests,” said Monica Nirmala, the executive director of the clinic from 2014 to 2018 and current board member of Health In Harmony.



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