NASA Is Finally Removing This Creepy And Broken Robot Astronaut From The ISS


The International Space Station is a science facility, so it’s no surprise that experiments occasionally fail.

Most of the time, however, they don’t involve weird robots – like Robonaut, the robotic astronaut NASA sent up with the STS-133 mission in 2011.

The golden-helmeted figure has been out of action since 2015 after its hardware went awry. And now, finally, it’s being sent back to Earth for repairs.

A project NASA has worked on since 1996, Robonaut – developed with General Motors – is quite a marvel.

Originally, it consisted of a humanoid torso (and wears an astronaut-style helmet, neatly eliminating the uncanny valley), with five jointed fingers on each hand so that it can complete tasks like humans do.

robonaut aboard the iss 2(NASA)

Initially the torso was doing stationary work in the Destiny laboratory, performing simple tasks such as taking air flow readings and cleaning hand rails.

But NASA never planned that Robonaut would remain still, and in 2014 the robot was fitted with a pair of new, wiggly climbing legs designed to let it move around the space station – which somehow made it look very disconcerting.

The problems started because Robonaut wasn’t designed for easy modularity; putting the legs on required significant core hardware upgrades and a new wiring interface – work the astronauts weren’t trained to do.

It was expect that the operation would take them 20 hours, all up. It ended up taking them 40, and almost immediately things started going wrong.

First, when Robonaut was rebooted, Johnson Space Center couldn’t see its live feed.

A loose wire was fixed and everything seemed OK, but then the legs stopped working.

Then, the robot’s sensors started failing, or its communications systems, or its processors. In a fictional scenario, this would be the point at which you’re screaming at the crew to jettison the failing creation to prevent a horrific mass space robomurder.

robonaut mobility upgrdeRobonaut 2 being upgraded. (NASA)

“We would start losing power to our computers within our operational window, and it got more and more severe as time went on,” Robonaut project manager Julia Badger told IEEE Spectrum.

“A power cycle would in general bring it back, just for a little while. The problem was that since it was intermittent, sometimes we’d be able to turn it on and sometimes it would just fail right away as it degraded, we weren’t necessarily able to trust the data – it was very confusing.”

To further complicate matters, the five robonaut copies kept on Earth are a slightly different model, which made coordinating troubleshooting tricky.

Eventually the team figured out that Robonaut was missing a ground cable, which meant electrical currents were finding other routes through its body – providing too much power to some parts and not enough to others. This was slowly degrading the machine.

Although the robot has been booted up a few times since it went down in 2015, it’s become clear that the problem will not be fixed in space.

NASA astronauts Joseph Acaba and Mark Vande Hei have now packaged the robot up in anticipation of its return to Earth. It will be sent back in the space freed up after an upcoming resupply mission.

Once it gets back to Earth, NASA roboticists will have to figure out whether Robonaut can be repaired, or whether it will need to be replaced by one of the newer models currently here on Earth.

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These Record Breaking Pics Were Snapped Further Out in Space Than Any Picture Ever Taken


The NASA New Horizons probe just set a new interstellar exploration record, taking pictures from further out in space than ever before – it snapped the shots you see above some 6.12 billion kilometres (3.79 billion miles) away from Earth.

That’s about 6 million kilometres (3.7 million miles) further out than the Voyager 1 spacecraft was when it captured the famous Pale Blue Dot image of Earth back in 1990. Since Voyager 1’s cameras were turned off shortly after that shot was taken, the record has stood for the past 27 years.

The new record-breaking photos show two Kuiper Belt objects, 2012 HZ84 and 2012 HE85. As fuzzy as they are, they’re the closest look we’ve ever got at any objects inside this vast icy ring, which circles the Sun about 30 to 55 times further out than Earth.

“New Horizons has long been a mission of firsts – first to explore Pluto, first to explore the Kuiper Belt, fastest spacecraft ever launched,” says New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

“And now, we’ve been able to make images farther from Earth than any spacecraft in history.”

In fact, New Horizons broke the record twice in quick succession, first snapping a shot of a group of distant stars called the Wishing Well, around 1,300 light-years away from our planet. That was followed up with the shots of the Kuiper Belt two hours later.

These photos were captured in December by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on board New Horizons, and were shot just before it went back into hibernation.

New Horizons first left Earth in 2006 with the aim of flying by Pluto, which it did in 2015, taking some dramatic photos along the way. Since then it’s been heading into the Kuiper Belt, and will carry out a flyby of Kuiper Belt object (KBO) 2014 MU69 in January 2019.

new horizons kbo 2The Wishing Well star cluster.

By that time 2014 MU69 should have a catchier name attached to it – NASA is asking for suggestions.

The probe continues to cover around 1.1 million kilometres or 700,000 miles of deep space every day, and is only the fifth man-made object in history – after Pioneer 10, Pioneer 11, Voyager 2, and Voyager 1 – to be on course to fly beyond the reaches of our Solar System.

As anyone who’s ever tried to keep a camera steady will know, taking pictures at that speed is an impressive feat.

Before we eventually lose touch with New Horizons, it’s hoped that it will tell us plenty more about the Kuiper Belt. The probe is measuring levels of plasma, dust, and gases as it travels, and will eventually take a look at more than 20 other KBOs.

New Horizons is going to get nudged out of hibernation again on the 4th of June. In the meantime, we can marvel at these record-breaking deep space photographs.

This Flat-Earther Has Failed to Launch His Rocket Again And Now We’re Almost Sorry For Him


We’d highly recommend a weather balloon.

When NASA, pretty much every scientist, and all of the available evidence doesn’t convince you that we are on a globular planet, apparently the only thing to try is to leave Earth to find out for yourself.

But Mike Hughes, the infamous flat-Earth conspiracy theorist, is currently Earth-bound for at least a little bit longer.

If you haven’t been following this crazy saga, you are in for a treat.

Hughes came onto the scene back in late 2017 when he was about to launch his homemade rocket. His aim was to launch himself around 550 metres (1,800 feet) into the air, travel 1.6 kilometres (1 mile), and then parachute out of the flying wreckage.

Intended as a publicity stunt, this was supposed to be the first step in his project to build a rocket and launch himself way up into the atmosphere to take photographic evidence of our flat home planet.

We’re assuming no one has been able to convince him that he’d get the same view by simply strapping a camera to a high-altitude balloon.

“They have not put a man in space yet,” Hughes said in a 2016 Kickstarter video.

“There are 20 different space agencies here in America, and I’m the last person that’s put a man in a rocket and launched it.”

But alas – Hughes has been plagued with issue after issue trying to get the stunt off the ground.

First, there was the alleged problem with getting government permission to conduct the flight on public land.

“It’s still happening. We’re just moving it three miles down the road,” Hughes told The Washington Post.

“This is what happens anytime you have to deal with any kind of government agency.”

In January this year, he was all geared up for another attempt, in a brand new green rocket with “Flat Earth” emblazoned across the side.

However, on February 3, the day for take-off, Hughes strapped himself to his rocket, but never left the ground.

In interview footage uploaded to YouTube, Hughes claims that the failure was due to a faulty plunger or blown o-ring.

In that same video, Hughes also states that the launch could still happen in the next few days, but notes that he has to be in court on Tuesday because he’s suing a number of Californian officials, including the governor of California, Jerry Brown.

There’s an 11 minute livestream recording of the event, but if you’re looking for something more wholesome, check out this amazing video of Giles Academy students in Old Leake, England, doing their own experiment to show just how beautiful Earth actually is.

Perhaps the most impressive experiment that even schools can do today is to send a camera up in a high-altitude balloon.

The footage will show that from a high-enough vantage point you can see the curvature of Earth. This is what Mike Hughes will find if he ever makes his rocket work.

Ultimately, arguing on the internet is not the best way forward for any scientific endeavour. We need to provide the means for people to test these theories themselves and to understand the results they get.

Using AI to Discover the Moon’s Hidden Treasures


With the help of artificial intelligence, NASA’s Frontier Development Lab and Intel are mapping the moon’s craters to find hidden lunar resources.

Scientists believe the moon is rife with natural resources that could help space explorers settle the lunar landscape – much like early settlers did on earth.

But before they can access those resources, they need to find them.

“We have 50 years’ worth of NASA imagery from all sides of the moon,” said Shashi Jain, innovation manager at Intel’s Software and Services Group. “We’ve only recently begun to combine them and make one big, awesome map.”

Working with the NASA Frontier Development Lab (FDL), a team of Intel AI engineers and data scientists are tackling the challenge of building complex maps of the lunar poles.

Craters in the permanently shadowed polar regions of the moon are potentially filled with water, ice and other volatile resources that can be used to produce rocket fuel, an air supply for astronauts or other essential materials, according to Jain.

Shashi Jain

Intel’s Shashi Jain is working with NASA to create “one big awesome map” of the moon. 

The shadowy lunar surface creates artifacts in NASA images, which make it difficult to accurately map potential landing sites for lunar prospectors.

But that’s changing with the help of AI and new sensors that have been placed on the moon in the last 10 years, providing depth data and hyperspectral imagery.

Crews on long exploratory missions to outer space can’t carry all the resources they need, so finding things like water, hydrogen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen and methane may help NASA plan future missions to the moon or even to Mars.

Making Maps from Millions of Images

It turns out that making maps from lunar data is hard, said Jain. Planetary scientists get strips of imagery from orbiting satellites, which are at different lighting angles, scales and types. They have to manually line them up using craters and other features as landmarks. If any strips are out of alignment or too dark, the result is a poor quality map.

mapping the moon GIF

Rovers will soon return to the moon’s surface to investigate harvesting lunar water. Credit: NASA.

Deep learning, a branch of machine learning that uses neural network models to understand large amounts of data, could speed up the process of mapping the moon.

Whereas machine learning allows machines to act or think without being explicitly directed to perform specific functions, deep learning can accelerate processes like image recognition, quickly identifying and mapping craters and other obstacles on the moon.

“Space data is often massive, multidimensional and dynamic,” said James Parr, director of NASA FDL.

It’s critical for scientists to quickly process ever-evolving lunar data to help guide plans for future missions, according to Parr.

To get started, the team first needed to create a computer vision algorithm and train it to identify craters. NASA FDL and Intel built a crater image training set using 30,000 images. It took Jain six hours to manually find images containing a crater — but fully mapping the moon means looking at hundreds of millions of images.

Moon craters

Craters, formed by impactors plummeting into permanently shadowed regions at the south pole, may contain ice. 

In order to create detailed lunar maps, the team used two datasets from the NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) mission — one set with optical images and the other with elevation measure data. Overlaying the two datasets created highly accurate maps, said Jain.

Since lunar craters acted as critical registration points to align the two datasets into one unified map, the team developed a computer vision algorithm to quickly and reliably identify craters.

The team automated lunar crater detection with 98.4 percent accuracy. By running their algorithm on the Intel Nervana Cloud, it took only one minute to classify 1,000 images, which is 100 times faster than human experts. The algorithm is also available in GitHub for use by other research teams.

Partners in Space Research

The NASA FDL space resource project was completed during a whirlwind eight-week program at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California.

Moon craters in color

Current mapping quality is insufficient for rover mission planning. There is no GPS outside of Earth so rovers need to pre-plan safe traverses. 

The space resource team was just one of five teams that took part in challenges in the summer program. Other teams tackled planetary defense and space weather challenges, like long period comets, radar 3D shape modeling, solar-terrestrial interactions and solar storm prediction.

“It was the summer of exploration with artificial intelligence right here on Earth,” said Jain.

With AI-generated maps of the moon’s poles, soon NASA will have summers, winters and years of exploration on the moon and beyond.

NASA Has Invented an Incredible New Space Navigation Technique


NASA has invented a new type of autonomous space navigation that could see human-made spacecraft heading into the far reaches of the Solar System, and even farther – by using pulsars as guide stars.

 

It’s called Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology, or SEXTANT (named after an 18th century nautical navigation instrument), and it uses X-ray technology to see millisecond pulsars, using them much like a GPS uses satellites.

“This demonstration is a breakthrough for future deep space exploration,” said SEXTANT project manager Jason Mitchell of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

“As the first to demonstrate X-ray navigation fully autonomously and in real-time in space, we are now leading the way.”

Pulsars are highly magnetised, rapidly rotating neutron stars – the result of a massive star’s core collapsing and subsequently exploding.

As they spin, they emit electromagnetic radiation. If an observer is in the right position, they can appear as sweeping beams, like a cosmic lighthouse.

They’re also extraordinarily regular – in the case of some millisecond pulsars, which can spin hundreds of times a second, their regularity can rival that of atomic clocks.

This is what led to the idea behind SEXTANT. Because these pulsars are so regular, and because they’re fixed in position in the cosmos, they can be used in the same way that a global positioning system uses atomic clocks.

SEXTANT works like a GPS receiver getting signals from at least three GPS satellites, all of which are equipped with atomic clocks. The receiver measures the time delay from each satellite and converts this into spatial coordinates.

The electromagnetic radiation beaming from pulsars is most visible in the X-ray spectrum, which is why NASA’s engineers chose to employ X-ray detection in SEXTANT.

To do so, they used a washing machine-sized observatory attached to the International Space Station. Called Neutron-star Interior Composition Explorer, or NICER, it contains 52 X-ray telescopes and silicon-drift detectors for studying neutron stars, including pulsars.

nicer attached to the issAn illustration of NICER attached to the ISS. (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)

They directed NICER to latch onto four pulsars, J0218+4232, B1821-24, J0030+0451, and J0437-4715 – pulsars so precise that their pulses can be accurately predicted for years into the future.

Over two days, NICER took 78 measurements of these pulsars, which were fed into SEXTANT. SEXTANT then used these measurements to calculate the position of NICER in its orbit around Earth on the International Space Station.

This information was compared to GPS data, with the goal being to locate NICER within a 10-mile (16 km) radius. Within eight hours, the system had calculated NICER’s position, and it remained below the 10-mile threshold for the remainder of the experiment.

“This was much faster than the two weeks we allotted for the experiment,” said SEXTANT system Architect Luke Winternitz. “We had indications that our system would work, but the weekend experiment finally demonstrated the system’s ability to work autonomously.”

It could take a few years for the technology to be developed into a navigation system suitable for deep-space vessels, but the concept has been proven.

Now the team is rolling up their sleeves to refine it. They will be updating and fine-tuning its software in preparation for another experiment in the second half of 2018. They also hope to reduce the size, weight, and power requirements of the hardware.

Eventually, SEXTANT could be used to calculate the location of planetary satellites far from the range of Earth’s GPS satellites, and assist on human spaceflight missions, such as the space agency’s planned Mars mission.

“This successful demonstration firmly establishes the viability of X-ray pulsar navigation as a new autonomous navigation capability,” Mitchell said.

“We have shown that a mature version of this technology could enhance deep-space exploration anywhere within the solar system and beyond.”

NASA Is Testing the Telescope That Will Revolutionize Our View of the Cosmos


IN BRIEF

The James Webb Space Telescope, the highly anticipated successor of Hubble, recently successfully completed cryogenic vacuum testing. This round of testing is one of the last major milestones before the telescope is finally launched.

TELESCOPE TESTING

In 2017, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) successfully completed cryogenic vacuum testing that lasted for over 100 days, solidifying the instrument’s capabilities and potential as a full observatory. In a NASA media briefing on January 10, officials at the Johnson Space Center in Houston discussed these efforts and the magnitude of this successful testing. The “world’s largest space freezer,” as described by Mark Voyton, Webb telescope Optical Telescope Element and Integrated Science Instrument Module (OTIS) manager at Goddard, allowed the team to successfully test the instrument and its pieces at the extreme temperatures it will endure in its missions.

Additionally, this testing showed that all mirrors and instrument models were aligned, with the primary mirror’s 18 segments all operating as one monolithic mirror. The tests also allowed NASA to exercise operations as they would occur in orbit, confirm that the integrated fine guiding system can track a star through the optical system, and ensure that the telescope could maintain correct observatory pointing. This laundry list of successful testing puts the JWST right on schedule to move forward and open our eyes to previously unseen corners of the universe.

The Webb testing was completed in Chamber A, a thermal-vacuum test facility that was first made famous in testing the Apollo spacecraft. While the Apollo tests were completed with both extreme heat and cold in mind, the chamber was heavily modified for the JWST. The Apollo craft were tested at temperatures as low as 100 Kelvin, but with these modifications, testing commenced at temperatures as low as 40 Kelvin with no high-temperature testing.

The success of this testing is not only a significant milestone for the James Webb Space Telescope and its highly-anticipated 2019 launch; it’s also a testament to the human spirit. This cryogenic testing occurred 24/7 throughout Hurricane Harvey, uninterrupted, as its international teams worked together in a collaborative effort.

MOVING FORWARD

After the success of this testing, the JWST will be transported for integration into a complete observatory and to undergo final environmental testing before traveling to its launch site. While there was a delay that pushed the launch from 2018 to 2019, the telescope is currently right on track to successfully make its launch window.

Artist conception of the James Webb Space Telescope observing the cosmos.
Artist conception of the James Webb Space Telescope observing the cosmos. 

The capabilities of the JWST will far surpass anything that has been created before. This mammoth telescope, described by Voyton as “the world’s most magnificent time machine,” proved a piece of this capability in testing: it detected, with all four instruments, the light of a simulated star for the first time. The fine guidance subsystem was successful in not only generating the position of the light, but also in tracking its movement. This was a first in testing, and it shows the remarkable applications that this telescope will have.

Because it is an infrared telescope, as opposed to a visual light telescope like Hubble, the James Webb Space Telescope requires a cold environment such as the one it was tested in. This will allow it to observe light from some of the earliest moments of the universe. Additionally, it will give us clarity in viewing exoplanets that we’ve only before dreamed of, closely observing Earth-like planets that could hold the promise of solidifying the existence of extraterrestrial life.

It hasn’t even left Earth yet, but this phenomenal instrument continues to inspire.

NASA Safety Panel Raises Concerns Over SpaceX and Boeing Spacecraft


 Safety Concerns

The goal of NASA’s commercial crew transportation program is to allow astronauts to be routinely transported into orbit by private spacecraft; slated to be developed and operated by Boeing and SpaceX.  Initially, these missions were to begin last year, but the program’s trips to the ISS have now been pushed to between 2019 and 2024. The shift in timeline comes in light of recent concerns expressed by NASA’s outside safety panel regarding the spacecraft. Depending on the outcome of the panel’s investigation, the new date to be set for the missions could extend even later than 2024.

The safety panel raised questions on Thursday about the dangers of the program as it stands now. The group’s annual report made mention of several major issues, including those with unconventional rocket fuel systems as well as micrometeoroids and orbital debris (MMOD) that have the potential to bombard and harm the capsules.

There are mandates that inspections must be conducted in-orbit, which allows the team to watch for and mitigate collision damage and reduce the associated risks. However,  the safety panel agreed that at this point in time, “the likelihood remains that the providers will not meet all” of their requirements.

NASA managers will not only have to take these issues into account, but the uncertainty around additional issues as well. From there, they’ll have to determine if the statistical risk is low enough to allow the project to move ahead. As the panel wrote in their report, we are “at a critical juncture in human spaceflight development,” and it is essential that NASA “maintain a sense of urgency while not giving in to schedule pressure.”

Delayed Launch

While Boeing has not yet commented on the report, a spokesperson from SpaceX told the Wall Street Journal that the company is “revising a fuel-system component and methodically demonstrating the safety of its overall fueling process.” In reference to the revised timeline, the company stated that together, the Falcon 9 rockets and Dragon capsules are “one of the safest and most advanced human spaceflight systems ever built–and we are set to meet the additional milestones needed to launch our demonstration missions this year.”

But could the goal of creating increased, cost-effective transport to low-Earth orbit be too ambitious? While there was an overall positive tone to the safety panel’s review, they urged NASA to reconsider the original launch date with these safety concerns in mind. Though the agency had hoped for the earlier launch date, if the risk is deemed to be high, the safety of the crew would necessitate continued efforts to update and revise the spacecraft’s designs and plans for the missions.

NASA’s current statistical probability regarding fatal accidents is one per every 270 flights. While everyone at the agency works tirelessly to avoid any fatalities that could occur accidentally, even minor risks associated with spaceflight have the potential to be deadly. Luckily, the safety panel outlined specific guidelines that detailed where the companies could focus their energy to most improve.

For example, according to their report, SpaceX still needs to address potential hazards posed by the helium tanks used to maintain the pressure of supercooled liquid oxygen in the Falcon 9. This is especially critical, as issues with such containers caused dangerous explosions in two of their rockets within a two-year period.

Both companies appear to be dedicated to remedying the underlying issues that the safety panel brought up, but it remains to be seen whether or not the apparent need for additional testing and modification will push the launch of the program even further. Whether or not there is a delay, it was made clear by the safety panel that the issues will need to be addressed as soon as possible to ensure crew safety. It might seem like step back, but rectifying these issues now and taking steps to improve safety could lay the groundwork for a future with safe, frequent, and accessible space travel.

NASA Has Invented an Incredible New Space Navigation Technique


NASA has invented a new type of autonomous space navigation that could see human-made spacecraft heading into the far reaches of the Solar System, and even farther – by using pulsars as guide stars.

 

It’s called Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology, or SEXTANT (named after an 18th century nautical navigation instrument), and it uses X-ray technology to see millisecond pulsars, using them much like a GPS uses satellites.

“This demonstration is a breakthrough for future deep space exploration,” said SEXTANT project manager Jason Mitchell of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

“As the first to demonstrate X-ray navigation fully autonomously and in real-time in space, we are now leading the way.”

Pulsars are highly magnetised, rapidly rotating neutron stars – the result of a massive star’s core collapsing and subsequently exploding.

As they spin, they emit electromagnetic radiation. If an observer is in the right position, they can appear as sweeping beams, like a cosmic lighthouse.

They’re also extraordinarily regular – in the case of some millisecond pulsars, which can spin hundreds of times a second, their regularity can rival that of atomic clocks.

This is what led to the idea behind SEXTANT. Because these pulsars are so regular, and because they’re fixed in position in the cosmos, they can be used in the same way that a global positioning system uses atomic clocks.

SEXTANT works like a GPS receiver getting signals from at least three GPS satellites, all of which are equipped with atomic clocks. The receiver measures the time delay from each satellite and converts this into spatial coordinates.

The electromagnetic radiation beaming from pulsars is most visible in the X-ray spectrum, which is why NASA’s engineers chose to employ X-ray detection in SEXTANT.

To do so, they used a washing machine-sized observatory attached to the International Space Station. Called Neutron-star Interior Composition Explorer, or NICER, it contains 52 X-ray telescopes and silicon-drift detectors for studying neutron stars, including pulsars.

nicer attached to the issAn illustration of NICER attached to the ISS. (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)

They directed NICER to latch onto four pulsars, J0218+4232, B1821-24, J0030+0451, and J0437-4715 – pulsars so precise that their pulses can be accurately predicted for years into the future.

Over two days, NICER took 78 measurements of these pulsars, which were fed into SEXTANT. SEXTANT then used these measurements to calculate the position of NICER in its orbit around Earth on the International Space Station.

This information was compared to GPS data, with the goal being to locate NICER within a 10-mile (16 km) radius. Within eight hours, the system had calculated NICER’s position, and it remained below the 10-mile threshold for the remainder of the experiment.

“This was much faster than the two weeks we allotted for the experiment,” said SEXTANT system Architect Luke Winternitz. “We had indications that our system would work, but the weekend experiment finally demonstrated the system’s ability to work autonomously.”

It could take a few years for the technology to be developed into a navigation system suitable for deep-space vessels, but the concept has been proven.

Now the team is rolling up their sleeves to refine it. They will be updating and fine-tuning its software in preparation for another experiment in the second half of 2018. They also hope to reduce the size, weight, and power requirements of the hardware.

Eventually, SEXTANT could be used to calculate the location of planetary satellites far from the range of Earth’s GPS satellites, and assist on human spaceflight missions, such as the space agency’s planned Mars mission.

“This successful demonstration firmly establishes the viability of X-ray pulsar navigation as a new autonomous navigation capability,” Mitchell said.

“We have shown that a mature version of this technology could enhance deep-space exploration anywhere within the solar system and beyond.”

SpaceX’s Secret “Zuma” Mission Is Successful


Fourth time’s a charm: SpaceX’s secret “Zuma” mission finally got underway Sunday night as Elon Musk’s aerospace company completed its first mission of 2018.

 

Zuma is a Northrop Grumman Corporation-made spacecraft, and it was sent into low-Earth orbit, but that’s all SpaceX or the defense contractor has released about the mission, calling Zuma “restricted payload.” Zuma is the third classified mission SpaceX has performed for the U.S. government. (The first was to launch a spy satellite in May and the second was to launch the X-37B spy plane in September.)

A little after 8 p.m. Sunday, precisely as many Americans might have been sitting down to watch the Golden Globes, this rocket was taking off in Florida:

Northrop Grumman has a long history making technology for the military and NASA. It has also made the B-2 stealth bomber, the Global Hawk surveillance drone, and the James Webb Space Telescope, which is undergoing testing ahead of its launch into space in 2019.

Zuma’s inside this payload fairing, seen here in the pre-launch webcast.

The Falcon 9 launched from the SLC-40 launchpad in Cape Canaveral, Florida, after being moved from its original launch site, Launchpad 39A, which is currently booked with the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, the rocket system that will test launch in late January. The first stage of the rocket separated from the second and headed back to Earth, while the second stage continued on to put the Zuma payload into orbit. The SpaceX webcast cut out video for this part of the mission.

A few minutes later the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket booster landed safely at LZ-1 near Cape Canaveral, as can be seen in this video from a camera mounted on the rocket:

“And the Falcon has landed,” said Brian Mahlstedt, a SpaceX software engineer who was hosting the Zuma webcast.

The rocket landing was the 21st by SpaceX. The first was on December 21, 2015, also at LZ-1. In addition to LZ-1, SpaceX has landed first-stage boosters on the drone ships Of Course I Still Love You, in the Atlantic Ocean, and Just Read the Instructions, in the Pacific Ocean.

The Zuma mission was first scheduled to launch on November 15 and experienced subsequent delays that led to the launch on Sunday.

How the whalers of Moby-Dick could help put humans on Mars


In the 45 years since the Apollo 17 astronauts placed the last boot prints on the Moon, Mars has loomed as the next target for human exploration of the solar system. NASASpaceX and other spacefaring enterprises have repeatedly declared their intentions to go there in the coming years and decades. A crewed mission to Mars will demand expertise from a wide range of disciplines, including physics, engineering, psychology and geology. Less obvious, it will also require us to scrutinise any antecedents that could help us to prepare for one of the most difficult undertakings in history.

Perhaps nothing better prefigures this most daunting and ambitious of quests than the whaling industry of the 18th and 19th centuries. The South Seas fishery hit its peak between roughly 1820 and 1860. Powered by an insatiable desire for whale oil and other whale-based commodities such as umbrellas, corsets and perfume, the industry was at the forefront of the American, British and French economies until petroleum was discovered mid-century. Whaling developed its own maritime practices, its own culture, even its own language and art forms.

The parallels between the whaling industry and deep human spaceflight are striking. Voyages to the South Seas usually lasted between two and four years, mirroring almost exactly the timeframes associated with a roundtrip journey to Mars. Whalers worked in confined conditions aboard their floating factories, often going months at a time without setting foot on land, prefiguring the cramped space capsules being considered for Mars missions.

Finally, whalers and their Mars-bound counterparts share a place in the great pantheon of human exploration – individuals who accepted steep risks in the name of what Ishmael, the most famous fictional whaler in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), calls ‘honour and glory’. In that way, whaling voyages more closely parallel the anticipated Mars missions than other superficially similar confined endeavours, such as serving on a submarine crew or working on a remote oil platform.

One important lesson from the South Seas whaling industry is the need to prepare for a paradoxical combination of routine tedium and moments of exceptional danger. The art of scrimshaw arose to keep shipmates occupied during the long hours of waiting for a whale sighting. But when action arrived, killing sperm whales for a living was one of the deadliest professions of the 1800s. Consider this terrifying passage from an article in Harper’s Magazine in 1854:

The harpooner, especially, is liable to be entangled in coils of the line as it runs out after a whale is struck, and to be then dragged beneath the surface … Yet more appalling is the calamity which occasionally befalls an entire crew, when the struck whale is diving perpendicularly. It has happened repeatedly on such an occasion, that the line has whirled round the loggerhead, or other fixture of the beat; and that in the twinkling of an eye, almost ere a prayer or ejaculation could be uttered, the boat, crew, and all, have been dragged down into the depths of ocean!

In an extraordinary example of whaling’s dangers, a sperm whale attacked and sunk the Essex whaleship commanded by Captain George Pollard, Jr of Nantucket, leaving the crew stuck in three small whaling boats in one of the most remote stretches of ocean. Through quick thinking and perseverance, many of the Essex’s crewmembers made it to safety. Much like the astronauts of the near-catastrophic Apollo 13 mission, these whalers faced an unexpected calamity, and overcame it. Space agencies would be wise to ensure that individuals chosen to go to Mars have intense training in problemsolving without assistance from people back on Earth.

The Essex crew survived in part because of their high level of professionalism and camaraderie. Even in the direst of circumstances, they (mostly) maintained order. As Owen Chase, the first mate of the Essex, described in 1821: ‘We agreed to keep together, in our boats, as nearly as possible to afford assistance in cases of accident, and to render our reflections less melancholy by each other’s presence.’

Should a comparable calamity come to pass aboard a Mars spaceship, crewmembers should follow Chase’s example. Astronauts are often praised for their individualism and love of adventure. For Mars missions, those qualities will need to be tempered with compassion and patience.

Whalers often came from disparate cultures, stuck together for years with limited food, sanitation and entertainment. Nevertheless, they formed strong bonds with their co-workers. Whaling-ship officers carefully cultivated a sense of shared purpose and reward. Crewmen were tied together, rowed together, and died together. As Hester Blum, one of the foremost scholars of whaling culture, writes in The View from the Masthead(2008): ‘[T]he presence of a system, a transparent set of rules for conduct, was presumed to help prevent seamen from becoming overwhelmed by the natural environment and its frequently fatal indifference to the presence of humans.’

NASA and other spacefaring enterprises must develop comparable systems for Mars-bound vessels. What is perhaps most important is that those systems provide astronauts with dedicated alone time. Whalers achieved this in part by rotating shifts atop the masthead or crow’s nest of the ship. Manning the masthead gave whalers a break from their comrades, while also serving the purposes of the voyage. Mars mission-planners would do well to find analogous practices for their astronauts, to keep action-oriented individuals occupied yet not always socially engaged during their immense stretches of downtime.

One tactic employed by whalers was cerebral observation of the natural world. They became attuned to the weather, the condition of the water, and the behaviour of the whales. Whalers also actively consulted books and wrote their own narratives. According to Blum: ‘Mariners at rest spent time mending clothing, overhauling gear damaged by use or weather, writing letters home, reading, and telling stories or yarns.’

It’s safe to say that virtually all of world literature will be available to future Mars travellers in digital form. But mission planners might take further inspiration from whalers, and encourage astronauts to write about their experiences while on the mission. Maintaining real-time accounts would provide individual records of one of humanity’s most incredible undertakings. It would also fill low-intensity gaps during the long flights to Mars and back, and bolster the sense of accomplishment.

For whalers, the ocean voyages were not just a means of livelihood but a key to their identities. As Ishmael boasts in Moby-Dick: ‘Our grand master is still to be named; for like royal kings of old times, [whalers] find the head-waters of our fraternity in nothing short of the gods themselves.’ Large segments of the public were likewise fascinated by the process that brought whale-oil and its wonderful light to their homes. One can imagine that interest in the first Mars-bound voyages will surpass that of whaling, perhaps to a level hitherto unseen by human beings.

This time around, hopefully, the motivation will lie more with human glory and less with human profit, but much of the underlying spirit will remain the same. Through determination, daring and an intense focus on a shared goal, the first human beings will step on the Red Planet and join Ishmael’s exclusive fraternity.

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