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ULA on track to launch new Vulcan rocket in early 2021

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ORLANDO, Fla., June 5 (UPI) — United Launch Alliance, a leading launch provider to the U.S. government for 14 years, is on schedule to launch its next-generation rocket, the Vulcan Centaur, in early 2021, CEO Tony Bruno said.

The new rocket is designed to provide a more efficient, more powerful launch vehicle than ULA’s workhorse rockets, Atlas and Delta, with engines produced in the United States. The company previously bought Russian rocket engines, which Congress outlawed in a bill passed in 2014.

The work on Vulcan proceeds amid a recession and workplace restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We decided at the beginning of March we were going to jump on coronavirus prevention,” Bruno told UPI. “We are not actually missing any milestones.”

Bruno said the company, like many, transitioned to a high level of remote work where possible, with sanitation, masks and social distancing in manufacturing areas. The result, he said, was far fewer absences than in a normal flu season.

“Unfortunately, you just can’t build a rocket from your couch in your pajamas,” he joked.

ULA is locked into a four-way battle with Elon Musk‘s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos‘ Blue Origin and legacy defense firm Northrop Grumman to provide military launch services, without a Russian-made engine.

Last week, SpaceX became the first private company to send astronauts into orbit with the launch of its Crew Dragon from the United States to the International Space Station.

ULA has agreed to buy engines made by Blue Origin, the BE-4, which gives those two companies a partial alliance in the competition.

The Vulcan rocket being assembled in Decatur, Ala., would provide from 1.1 million pounds of thrust to 3.4 million dependent on configuration, starting with two BE-4 engines. That compares to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket with 1.7 million pounds of thrust on liftoff.

As a private company developing new technology, the company doesn’t reveal how much it is spending on Vulcan development.

“It generally takes several billion to develop a new rocket from scratch. This is mostly completely new,” Bruno said.

The Air Force (now Space Force) Space and Missile Systems Center announced in 2019 that it would accept only two of the four rocket systems under development, at some point in 2020. Some members of Congress, though, have suggested funding a third company to maintain competition.

The government has committed $967 million to ULA through 2024 for the development of the rocket, but it may not ultimately be chosen for missions. ULA is funding three-quarters of the rocket development budget, Bruno said.

Analysts have postulated that SpaceX and ULA will win the competition, said Marco Cáceres, an analyst at the Virginia-based Teal Group.

“ULA is the legacy company that’s provided launch service to the Air Force for so long,” Cáceres said. “They have an incredible record for reliability, but they’re still not going to be competitive with SpaceX on price.”

SpaceX’s big advantage is that it is flying the Falcon 9 rocket on many missions for the government, while its three competitors still work on new rocket models. SpaceX also says it lowered the cost of launch by making its rocket’s largely reusable.

SpaceX recovers the first-stage booster and the fairing halves, or nose cone, for many launches and reuses those.

ULA has a plan to reuse the engines by catching them with helicopters and grappling hooks, midair, as they fall back to Earth. While that has been done with rocket parts in the past, ULA still needs to prove that can work, Cáceres said.

“They are trying to be more reusable, but they don’t have that track record,” he said. “It’s hard to change corporate culture overnight, though.”

ULA has two additional customers signed up for Vulcan launches, including California-based Sierra Nevada, which has developed the new Dreamchaser spaceplane to launch cargo to the ISS.

Analysts believe ULA would struggle to bring Vulcan to market without the major Space Force contracts, said Chris Quilty, founder of Quilty Analytics based in the Tampa, Fla., area.

ULA must bring Vulcan to market quickly and safely, either way, Quilty said.

“Imagine what happens the first time ULA blows up something. The program would shut down for two years,” he said. “I don’t think they have the culture or risk tolerance that would allow them to quickly pivot from a failure.”

Astronauts return to space from U.S. soil

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley (L) and Bob Behnken, who flew the Crew Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station, brief mission controllers about their experience in the new vehicle on June 1. Photo courtesy of NASA



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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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Space companies use Earth-imaging satellites to combat climate change

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The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft carrying four astronauts is pictured approaching the International Space Station for docking on November 16, 2020. The trip from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida took 27 and a half hours. Photo courtesy of NASA | License Photo



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