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Storms postpone return of human spaceflight from U.S.

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ORLANDO, Fla., May 27 (UPI) — NASA and SpaceX postponed the agency’s historic return to human spaceflight from U.S. soil Wednesday because of storms near Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Another attempt is scheduled for Saturday afternoon, when a 40 percent chance of unfavorable weather exists, according to the U.S. Space Force forecast.

Astronauts Bob Behnken and Douglas Hurley had been scheduled for launch to the International Space Station at 4:33 p.m. EDT in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

They left the capsule just before 6 p.m., about 1 1/2 hours after the flight was canceled for the day.

Heavy rains swept the area around the space center Monday, due to a system that moved north and became Tropical Storm Bertha near Georgia on Wednesday morning. Lightning also was a concern.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted Wednesday that he hoped the storm would clear out moisture and create quieter seas behind it, but that was not to be.

“This is a unique opportunity to bring all of America together at one moment in time and say, ‘look at how bright our future is,'” Bridenstine said Tuesday at a space agency briefing.

On Wednesday, after the postponement, he told the media, “We simply had too much electricity in the atmosphere.” He called it “a good day for NASA, a good day for SpaceX,” despite the three-day delay because the countdown proceeded without a hitch until bad weather forced a halt.

The historic launch would have marked the first time astronauts have flown inside the Crew Dragon space capsule, built by Elon’s Musk’s SpaceX.

They were to have flown on the Falcon 9 rocket, which has proven to be a reliable workhorse for carrying supplies to the space station 250 miles above Earth.

President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence had traveled to the space center Wednesday. The astronauts had suited up and were locked into the capsule, which was fueled and ready for liftoff when the launch was scrubbed.

Following the decision to postpone the mission, the astronauts stayed inside the capsule as the rocket was emptied of propellant. When that was accomplished, the abort system was disarmed and the door opened for them to exit.

To head east

The capsule’s flight path was to take it east over the Atlantic Ocean toward the United Kingdom, where viewers might have seen it for 15 minutes, according to the website MeteorWatch.org.

The astronauts entered SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule a little earlier than planned Wednesday afternoon.

Technicians strapped their spacesuit boots into place, harnessed them to their seats, and closed the capsule door after testing communications and other systems.

A small group saw the astronauts off as they got into a white Tesla Model X for a motorcade to Launch Complex 39A. Before they drove off, they received good wishes and virtual hugs from their families.

Pence, SpaceX founder Elon Musk and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine also offered words of praise before the astronauts’ departure to the pad.

Trump arrived in the area in Air Force One just after the capsule door was being closed. His plane flew close to the launch tower as it headed to a landing.

Musk, speaking to family members of both astronauts, said he felt a strong sense of responsibility for their safety.

“I said we’ve done everything we can to make sure your dads come back OK” in referring to each astronaut’s only child, Musk recalled at a NASA briefing.

He added: “What today is about is reigniting the dream of space and getting people fired up about the future.”

“This is a unique opportunity to bring all of America together at one moment in time and say, ‘look at how bright our future is,'” Bridenstine said Tuesday at a space agency briefing.

After launch, at the 12-minute mark, the Crew Dragon capsule was to separate from the second-stage booster, and the capsule’s nose cone was to open to prepare for docking at the space station.

After the capsule reached the same altitude as the space station and caught up to it, Crew Dragon was to inch closer very slowly and dock via a fully autonomous system. The astronauts could override the system, if necessary.

The spacecraft was due to arrive at the space station Thursday, with docking planned for 11:29 a.m. EDT.

When they got there, astronauts Behnken and Hurley would have remained in the capsule for almost two hours as it is locked in place and checks made on its systems.

Greeting new arrivals

Once the hatch opened, astronaut Chris Cassidy — already on board the space station — was to greet the new arrivals. He and Russians Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner arrived in April and are to stay there until October.

During the mission, called Demo 2, Behnken and Hurley were to conduct final tests of the Crew Dragon capsule before it is certified for regular ferry service to the space station.

The two planned to fly manually part of the way to the space station, using the capsule’s unique touchscreen controls.

“We’ve longed to be a part of a test mission, a test spaceflight,” Behnken said during a brief press conference Friday. “It’s something we dreamed about, flying something other than the space shuttle” to carry people into space.

Behnken and Hurley didn’t know how long they were to 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.

While the seas generally are not rough in the Atlantic during summer, it will be hurricane season, and tropical activity in the landing zone would delay the return.

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

Next crew

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

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

“Remember, this is a test flight,” Bridenstine said Tuesday. “And as such, if we have a good window to come home and [Hurley and Behnken] are not necessary on the International Space Station, we will be taking” the opportunity to return to Earth.

SpaceX is more than two years behind schedule for the launch. NASA awarded two finalist contracts in 2014 to certify new spacecraft to carry people by 2017 — Boeing received $4.2 billion for its Starliner capsule and SpaceX received $2.6 billion for Crew Dragon.

Starliner failed to reach the space station during a test flight in December, and is scheduled for another attempt in the third quarter of this year.

The planned launch is part of a rebirth of Kennedy Space Center, said Bob Cabana, the center’s director, following years of renovations and new infrastructure at Launch Complex 39A — now leased by SpaceX.

“We went to the moon from pad 39A, and 82 of the 135 shuttle missions launched off that pad, and now — rather than rusting away in the salt air — through our partnership with SpaceX, that pad is being used once again,” Cabana said.

$70 million a seat

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.

“I hope the nation can look at this [launch] and recognize this is still something we can accomplish and still something we can be successful at, and we’re going to do it in the face of the pandemic,” Behnken said.

The two men share similar life experiences. Both are married to female astronauts who have traveled into space, and both have one child. Both were military test pilots and hold the rank of colonel — Behnken with the U.S. Air Force and Hurley with the U.S. Marine Corps.

Behnken, originally from the St. Louis area, was a former chief of NASA’s Astronaut Office. Hurley, originally from upstate New York, flew on the last shuttle mission in 2011 and was the first Marine pilot to fly the F/A‐18 E/F Super Hornet.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is the first orbital launch vehicle to be fully reusable, although the rocket for this launch is new.

The Falcon 9 is just short of 230 feet tall, with a 12-foot diameter. Nine of SpaceX’s Merlin engines provide thrust of 1.7 million pounds upon liftoff. By comparison, a typical F-16 fighter jet emits 32,000 pounds of thrust.

The launch was to be the first such American liftoff of astronauts during a global pandemic. NASA has urged the public to watch the launch on TV or online, while the agency restricts access to the launch site at Kennedy Space Center to essential personnel only.



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Evidence of biodiversity losses found deep inside the rainforest

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Oct. 26 (UPI) — After decades of studying Amazonian ecosystems, scientists at Louisiana State University realized they were seeing fewer and fewer birds that forage on and near the forest floor.

“What we think is happening is an erosion of biodiversity, a loss of some of the richness in a place where we would hope biodiversity can be maintained,” Philip Stouffer, professor of conservation biology at LSU, said in a news release.

Since 1991, Stouffer has been leading research expeditions into some of the most remote parts of the Amazon rainforest, north of Manaus, Brazil. Around 2008, he and his graduate students started noticing that some of the birds they used to see in abundance were becoming hard to find.

Researchers set out to quantify their observations, collecting detailed observation data from 55 test sites. With the help of computer models, researchers compared their observations to datasets spanning 35 years.

Stouffer and company detailed their analysis in a new paper published Monday in the journal Ecology Letters.

“It’s a very robust dataset from a variety of places collected over many years. It’s not just some fluke,” said study co-author Stephen Midway.

“It looks like there’s a real pattern and it looks like it could be linked to things we know are happening with global climate change that are affecting even this pristine place,” said Midway, an assistant professor at LSU and an expert in computation biology.

The data showed the decline of floor-foraging birds has been slow but steady — and could have been easily overlooked.

“Our nostalgia was correct — certain birds are much less common than they used to be,” Stouffer said. “If animal patterns are changing in the absence of landscape change, it signals a sobering warning that simply preserving forests will not maintain rainforest biodiversity.”

Researchers found that bird species that have declined the most are those living and foraging near the forest floor, birds that feed on insects and small invertebrates — species like the wing-banded antbird, or Myrmornis torquata. The new data showed one of the Amazon’s most adept singers, the musician wren, or Cyphorinus arada, has suffered steady declines over the last three decades.

The white-plumed antbird, or Pithys albifrons, is one of the few floor foragers that remains easy to find. Scientists suspect its ingenious foraging technique has aided the species’ resiliency.

The white-plumed antbird follows colonies of marauding ants as they scare up other insects from soil, and it can adapt to different parts of the forest and eat a variety of insects.

Scientists also observed increases in the number of frugivores, or birds that eat fruit and insects, which suggests species with more diverse diets are better able to adapt to ecological shifts.

Stouffer plans to continue investigating the hidden signs of biodiversity loss in seemingly pristine portions of the Amazon.

“The idea that things are changing, even in the most pristine parts of our planet yet we don’t even know it, illustrates the need for us to pay more attention,” Stouffer 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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