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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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Ryugu’s rubble suggests its short life has been rather turbulent

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Sept. 21 (UPI) — The asteroid Ryugu is a loose assemblage of fragments from a collision between two asteroids, according to new research published Monday in the journal Nature Astronomy.

Some asteroids are composed of large, solid pieces of rock, but Ryugu is more like a rubble pile than a rock. It is too small and fragile to have remained intact for very long — scientists estimate Ryugu formed between 10 million to 20 million years ago.

“Ryugu is too small to have survived the whole 4.6 billion years of solar system history,” Seiji Sugita, professor of planetary sciences at the University of Tokyo in Japan, said in a news release. “Ryugu-sized objects would be disrupted by other asteroids within several hundred million years on average.”

“We think Ryugu spent most of its life as part of a larger, more solid parent body,” Sugita said. “This is based on observations by Hayabusa-2 which show Ryugu is very loose and porous. Such bodies are likely formed from reaccumulations of collision debris.”

For the latest study, scientists used images collected by Hayabusa-2 to identify the different types of rock on Ryugu. Researchers were able to uncover clues to the asteroid’s violent past by analyzing the ratios of different rock types.

“Ryugu is considered a C-type, or carbonaceous, asteroid, meaning it’s primarily composed of rock that contains a lot of carbon and water,” said postdoctoral researcher Eri Tatsumi. “As expected, most of the surface boulders are also C-type; however, there are a large number of S-type, or siliceous, rocks as well. These are silicate-rich, lack water-rich minerals and are more often found in the inner, rather than outer, solar system.”

The presence of siliceous rocks suggests Ryugu was formed from the rubble created by a collision between between a small S-type asteroid and a larger C-type asteroid.

“We used the optical navigation camera on Hayabusa2 to observe Ryugu’s surface in different wavelengths of light, and this is how we discovered the variation in rock types. Among the bright boulders, C and S types have different albedos, or reflective properties,” said Tatsumi.

Once Hayabusa-2 returns rock samples to Earth, scientists plan to compare the asteroids geochemical composition to meteorites samples found on Earth.

“This could in turn tell us something new about the history of Earth and the solar system as a whole,” Tatsumi said.



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Study highlights carbon sequestration services provided by U.S. forests

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Sept. 21 (UPI) — Forests in the United States currently sequester approximately three decades worth of carbon dioxide emitted by the American fossil fuel industry, according to a new a study.

What’s more, forests and harvested wood products uptake approximately 14 percent of economy-wide CO2 emissions in the United States annually.

Despite declining carbon emissions in the United States, the contribution of forests to emissions offsets has remained stable. This, researchers say, suggests the ability of U.S. forests to absorb new carbon — an ability driven largely by forest regrowth — is slowly declining.

To better understand the ability of afforestation and reforestation activities to improve carbon sequestration capabilities, researchers analyzed data from more than 130,000 national forest inventory plots.

The findings — published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences — confirmed that there is potential for U.S. forests to capture and store more carbon.

Researchers used forest inventory plots to estimate the total carbon storage capabilities provided by forests in the United States. Their analysis showed each acre of forest in the United States stores nearly 700 metric tons of CO2. But the data also showed forests are underperforming.

“There are opportunities on existing forestland to increase the contribution of forests to climate change mitigation,” researchers wrote in their paper.

Researchers found nearly 82 million acres of productive forestland in the U.S. are understocked with trees, characterized by tree coverage of less than 35 percent.

“Currently, there is federal infrastructure to produce and plant approximately 65 million seedlings per year, and state and private capacity is approximately 1.1 billion tree seedlings per year,” researchers wrote.

These efforts sequester between 16 and 28 million metric tons of CO2 annually.

According to the study’s authors, concentrating tree-planting efforts on understocked forest acreage could significantly increase carbon sequestration capacity in the United States.



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Bobcat fire threatens historic Mount Wilson Observatory

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Sept. 21 (UPI) — Days after officials declared the historic Mount Wilson Observatory in Los Angeles County safe from an aggressive fast-moving blaze, firefighters on Monday were attempting to beat back the Bobcat fire as it attempted to work its way up the mountain.

The Angeles National Forest said Sunday that the fire, which has grown to be one of the largest in the county’s history, was “threatening all of the values” on Mount Wilson. Officials had said Friday said it was safe after crews deployed strategic firing to protect the iconic observatory in the San Gabriel Mountains.

Strong winds and low humidity overnight helped the blaze to grow a few thousand acres to 105,345 acres as of 8 a.m. Monday, the Angeles National Forest said in a statement. It was 15% contained.

Engines, hand crews and aircraft on Monday were deployed to the north side of Mount Wilson to extinguish spot fires, the service said.

“Bobcat fire is making a hard push at Mount Wilson,” the Angeles National Forest said on Twitter. “Defensive strategic operations are beginning from Mount Wilson to the west.”

Thomas Meneghi, the observatory’s executive director, told the Los Angeles Times, that on Sunday eight additional strike units were seen being dispatched to the area after it was deemed safe two days prior.

“Just when I thought the danger was over — it wasn’t,” he said.

The observatory said on its Facebook Page Monday evening that the fire has picked up and is making its way toward the Mount Wilson drainage on the northwestern slope.

The Times reported that it’s the second time the observatory, historic for its role in space exploration, has been under threat of fire with crews protecting it from the Station fire of 2009, which holds the title for the county’s largest blaze at some 160,000 acres.

Due to the Bobcat fire encroaching on communities, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office issued evacuations orders Monday for those who live in south and west of Upper Big Tujunga and east and north of Angeles Forest Highway, while the Los Angeles County Office of Emergency Management ordered residents of Camp Colby to leave the area immediately.

“This warning has been upgraded to an evacuation ordered,” the service announced via Twitter. “If you are in the identified area GO NOW! EVACUATE.”

Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby told reporters and residents during a virtual press conference Monday evening that firefighters “scratch and claw” to protect every property they can.

Osby said this year has been a record fire season for California, with thousands of firefighters battling some 27 blazes, but added “the scary thing about all this” is that the fire season for Southern California wasn’t near finished.

Cal Fire said more than 3.6 million acres have been burned in nearly 8,000 fires, resulting in 7,097 structures impacted and at least 26 deaths.

Gov. Gavin Newsom called the wildfire season “historic” in a press conference on Monday, stating that last year, there were only 5,316 fires burning some 157,000 acres.

The Democratic governor said evictions have forced 23,154 people from their homes, adding that more than 6,400 structures have been wholly destroyed.

Six major fires continue to burn in the state, he said, including the August fire, the largest in the state’s history at 846,000 acres, which was at 34% contained.

In Plumas and Lassen counties, the North Complex fire, the fifth-largest ever in the state at 294,000 acres was at 64% contained, compared to 36% on Wednesday.

The Creek fire, in Fresno and Madera counties, was the seventh-largest fire in state history, and was at 278,000 acres and contained at 27%.

Concerning the Bobcat fire, he said they were deploying as many resources as possible to battle the blaze.

“We’re putting all the resources we possibly can on all these complexes but focusing, as we should, on that Bobcat fire,” he said.

Nationally, 78 large fires have consumed some 3.9 million acres this season, according to the national interagency Fire Center.

In Oregon, the Department of Forestry said some 7,500 personnel have been assigned to 10 major fires in the state.

The state’s Office of Emergency Management has confirmed nine people have died in the fires and five people were missing as of Monday.

Some 1 million acres have been burned statewide, destroying 2,268 residences and an additional 1,556 instructions, it said in a statement.

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