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Watch live: NASA astronauts on way to space station

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ORLANDO, Fla., May 30 (UPI) — NASA and SpaceX ended a nine-year absence of human spaceflight from U.S. soil Saturday when two astronauts lifted off toward a rendezvous with the International Space Station.

The 3:22 p.m. EDT launch, under overcast skies, from Kennedy Space Center in Florida marked the first time since the final space shuttle mission in 2011 that NASA astronauts didn’t have to rely on Russia to get into space.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, in comments earlier this week, called the launch a beacon of hope to a nation troubled by the COVID-19 pandemic and social strife, much in the same way the Apollo moon program boosted the nation’s morale.

The successful launch began a 19-hour journey for astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, who are to dock with the International Space Station. It also is a final test for the Crew Dragon space capsule made by Elon Musk‘s SpaceX.

SpaceX confirmed the capsule successfully reached orbit, and separated from the second stage booster. The first-stage rocket booster landed successfully on a barge in the Atlantic Ocean.

“It was incredible. Appreciate all the hard work and thanks for the great ride into space,” Behnken said over the communication link to ground crews.

Bridenstine said he’d been praying for the astronauts and their families at liftoff.

“I’ve felt that rumble before, but it’s a whole different feeling when you’ve got your own team on that rocket,” Bridenstine said. “And they are our team, they are America’s team. … This is everything that America has to offer in its purest form.”

Both President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence returned for the launch after Wednesday’s postponement.

In a speech at the space center’s Vehicle Assembly Building after the launch, President Donald Trump called for an end to violence following the death of Minnesotan George Floyd during an arrest Monday.

He then praised NASA and SpaceX for recent advances, as well as plans to return to the moon and eventually Mars.

“Today as we mark a new commitment to an American future in space — a tremendous commitment it is — let us all commit to a brighter future for all our citizens right here on Earth,” Trump said.

NASA and SpaceX defied iffy weather forecasts to begin the mission. Storms in the east-central Florida area created “no go” conditions about two hours before launch. But the weather cleared as the countdown neared liftoff time.

Storm clouds and precipitation had forced a postponement of the launch Wednesday afternoon.

Astronauts Behnken and Hurley announced from the capsule that they had chosen the name Endeavour for it, which was the name of Behnken’s first space vehicle, the space shuttle Endeavour.

The launch is the first time a private company has sent astronauts into orbit, under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

SpaceX secured a contract to provide ferry service to the space station for a fixed cost, 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.

Musk, speaking to family members of both astronauts on Wednesday, 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,” he recalled telling each astronaut’s only child Wednesday before the launch was called off.

Heading east

After launch, the capsule headed east over the Atlantic Ocean and toward the United Kingdom.

The capsule was to orbit the Earth until it reaches the altitude of the space station and catches up to it.

Crew Dragon will inch closer and dock slowly. The capsule is to dock autonomously, but Hurley will demonstrate flying it manually for a brief test.

The spacecraft is scheduled to arrive at the space station Sunday, with docking planned for 10:29 a.m. EDT. Hurley and Behnken are to remain in the capsule for almost two hours as it is locked in place and checks are made on its systems.

Once the hatch opens, astronaut Chris Cassidy — already on board the space station — will 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 will conduct final tests of the Crew Dragon capsule before it is certified for regular ferry service to the space station.

Flying manually

One of the biggest tests will be flying the capsule manually for brief periods, using Crew Dragon’s touchscreen controls.

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

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

Veteran astronauts

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 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. He flew aboard two space shuttle flights as a mission specialist.

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 was brand 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.



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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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