Asteroid-assaulting spacecraft to take 10-year cruise to a new space rock – CNET

1023-hayabusa2

An illustration of Hayabusa 2

JAXA

Japan's Hayabusa 2 successfully shot the asteroid Ryugu with a specially designed bullet in 2019 before briefly landing on it to scoop up some of the disturbed gravel. The sample will be returned to Earth, with a planned landing in Australia this December. But now the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) is sending the spacecraft on a long voyage to another target. 

After dropping off the sample of Ryugu at Earth, Hayabusa 2 will set a course for another asteroid: 1998 KY26, which is a spherical rock with a diameter a little larger than a tennis court. 

This asteroid's orbit takes it between the orbits of Venus and Mars, meaning it's relatively close to Earth, but Hayabusa 2 will take a somewhat roundabout path to visit it. 

As JAXA announced at a press conference Tuesday, the spacecraft will spend about five years between 2021 and 2026 or 2027 in a sort of long-term cruise control before performing a fly-by of another asteroid, 2001 CC21. It will then make a few swings by Earth in preparation for a mid-2031 arrival at 1998 KY26 where it will check out the fast-rotating micro asteroid and mission planners will weigh the possibility of trying to land on it. 

No word yet on if Hayabusa 2 will try and shoot 1998 KY26 as well, but it seems likely that the spacecraft is all out of ammunition at this point. 

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Asteroid-assaulting spacecraft to take 10-year cruise to a new space rock – CNET

1023-hayabusa2

An illustration of Hayabusa 2

JAXA

Japan's Hayabusa 2 successfully shot the asteroid Ryugu with a specially designed bullet in 2019 before briefly landing on it to scoop up some of the disturbed gravel. The sample will be returned to Earth, with a planned landing in Australia this December. But now the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) is sending the spacecraft on a long voyage to another target. 

After dropping off the sample of Ryugu at Earth, Hayabusa 2 will set a course for another asteroid: 1998 KY26, which is a spherical rock with a diameter a little larger than a tennis court. 

This asteroid's orbit takes it between the orbits of Venus and Mars, meaning it's relatively close to Earth, but Hayabusa 2 will take a somewhat roundabout path to visit it. 

As JAXA announced at a press conference Tuesday, the spacecraft will spend about five years between 2021 and 2026 or 2027 in a sort of long-term cruise control before performing a fly-by of another asteroid, 2001 CC21. It will then make a few swings by Earth in preparation for a mid-2031 arrival at 1998 KY26 where it will check out the fast-rotating micro asteroid and mission planners will weigh the possibility of trying to land on it. 

No word yet on if Hayabusa 2 will try and shoot 1998 KY26 as well, but it seems likely that the spacecraft is all out of ammunition at this point. 

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Best places in space to search for alien life – CNET

Looking close to home

The deeper we look into space, the more places we come across that maybe, just maybe, could host life. From our neighboring planets to distant galaxies sending out weird signals, the list of spots in space worth checking out just continues to grow.

The closest worlds we should check for signs of life are those next door that we've already been to, or at least our robots have

Originally published April 19, 2017.
Update, Sept. 16, 2020: Adds new slides.   

Read the article

Updated:Caption:Photo:NASA

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Life on Venus? Unexplained discovery in the clouds has scientists buzzing – CNET

Something unexpected has been discovered in the cloud decks of our nearest planetary neighbor, Venus. While no one is saying it's aliens just yet, some sort of alien microorganism is on the list of potential explanations for why a chemical that shouldn't be floating around above the planet has been observed there for the first time. 

The chemical is phosphine, or PH3, a compound made up of phosphorus attached to three hydrogen atoms. On Earth, certain microbes that thrive in oxygen-free environments, like at a sewage plant, are believed to produce the chemical. The gas is highly toxic to humans and smells like decaying fish.

It was identified in observations of Venus made with telescopes in Hawaii and Chile in 2017 and 2019. Specifically, phosphine was found about 33 to 39 miles (53 to 62 kilometers) above the surface of Venus, a world that is known for being brutally inhospitable, with both extremely hot temperatures and crushing pressures.

Interestingly, however, the altitude where the phosphine was detected is one of the more hospitable areas in the solar system beyond Earth, with temperatures and pressure comparable to the surface of our planet. There is still the problem of the sulfuric acid clouds, however, which would certainly be hostile to much of the life we know, and should also destroy phosphine.

"These are conditions not exactly welcoming to life as we know it," says Brendan Burns, an astrobiologist at the University of New South Wales, Australia.

A team led by Jane Greaves from Cardiff University and the University of Cambridge in the UK lays out the discovery in a paper published Monday in Nature Astronomy. They sought to explain the mysterious presence of PH3 in the clouds, considering various atmospheric, chemical and geological processes. Lightning, volcanoes, the solar wind and even meteors were investigated as possible sources, but none fits the observations. 

"If no known chemical process can explain PH3 within the upper atmosphere of Venus, then it must be produced by a process not previously considered plausible for Venusian conditions," the paper reads. "This could be unknown photochemistry or geochemistry, or possibly life."

The scientists go on to "emphasize that the detection of PH3 is not robust evidence for life, only for anomalous and unexplained chemistry."

Figuring out what exactly is happening in the clouds of Venus may require sending new robotic probes, balloons or other spacecraft to explore and sample them. Meanwhile, the possibilities have many astronomers fired up.

Life on Venus? 

"It's tremendously exciting," said David Grinspoon, senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute. "It's a legitimate candidate biosignature (a piece of data that could indicate the presence of life) on another planet. Potentially the best we've found yet." 

Grinspoon is a widely respected expert on Venus who wasn't involved in the new discovery, but first wrote about the possibility of a cloud biosphere on Venus in 1997 and has been pushing the idea ever since. He points out that phosphine had been singled out as an ideal biosignature on rocky planets before this latest discovery.

"It's a molecule that should not be there by ordinary atmospheric chemical processes and should have a very short lifetime, which means if it's there, there's an active source. And then the question becomes what is that source? And there's no obvious non-biological source." 

ancient-venus-new.jpg

Ancient Venus may not have been so bad...

NASA

Astronomer Stephen R. Kane at the University of California-Riverside, who is also not involved in the work, points out that some research suggests Venus was habitable in the distant past, perhaps over a billion years ago. He suggests that any "biology in the atmosphere could be the last surviving members of a prior Venusian biosphere."

But Kane says there is reason to be skeptical that "life" in the clouds is the best explanation. 

"As noted in the paper, the biological interpretation is being suggested because we cannot currently model a geological solution. The chemistry of possible geological and biological signatures is vast and it is an ongoing effort to fully explore that parameter space. That means there are undoubtedly geological explanations that exist that have not yet been realized."

There's also the problem of how anything, even tiny microbes can make a lifestyle out of floating around in the sky indefinitely, generation after generation. Staying at a Goldilocks altitude above the extreme heat below and the cold, unforgiving transition to space above as a microbe likely floating in liquid droplets would seem very unlikely. 

Greaves is also co-author of a paper, published last month, which proposes a mechanism by which microbes above Venus may go into a sort of hibernation when they find themselves dried out at lower, hotter altitudes, only to reanimate and continue their life cycle when atmospheric processes lift them higher to be rehydrated again at the habitable zone above Venus. 

Kevin McGouldrick, an researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder who specializes in the clouds of Venus, says "it is one more bit of evidence that shows that we don't know as much as we thought we did about the Venus atmosphere."

He told me he sees the discovery as "less earth-shaking" but ultimately helpful in advancing the search for biosignatures and the unknown biology that might be behind them.

"These scientists have found solid evidence for the existence of a molecule that was not expected to be present. Unless the observations are in error, this means that our expectations were wrong. And if our expectations were wrong, then it represents a possibility for growth in knowledge."

cloudcity.png

NASA would eventually like to visit the clouds of Venus, where there could be signs of life.

NASA/HAVOC/SACD

What about Mars?

We've found ourselves in a very similar situation before. When NASA landed the Mars Viking spacecraft on the red planet in 1976, it carried an experiment that could detect chemical reactions in the soil. The experiment, known as the LR experiment, came back positive -- it showed signs the red planet did contain life.

But in the years since, planetary scientists have concluded the discovery was most likely an error. Mars doesn't have extant life on its surface, but it may have in the past. The problem, then, was that NASA put the alien cart before the alien horse. We didn't understand, completely, the geochemical processes occurring on Mars' surface. When we detected some funky chemistry, there was a groundswell of excitement, but we may have jumped the gun. 

Although the lead scientists on the LR experiment still believe they did detect life in 1976, definitive proof has not been forthcoming -- and it's now 40 years since the announcement was made.

So our search for life outside of Earth continues. NASA and China have rovers en route to Mars to search for signs in the Martian soil. For now, it seems we can add the clouds of Venus to the list of potentially habitable nooks in the dark forest of the cosmos. 

Much work remains to elucidate the true nature of phosphine in its upper atmosphere. Not only will biologists be intrigued, but chemists and geologists will hope to learn more about the chemical, too. The one point everyone can agree on is this new compound, something that might resemble a microbial alien fart, demands a closer look.

"We have a responsibility to investigate further and determine what the true source of the phosphine is," Kane says, pointing to potential missions NASA is developing that could send orbiters, landers or atmospheric probes to our tempestuous neighbor. "It is through these kinds of missions that we will be able to fully answer this question of possible life in the Venusian clouds."

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Life on Venus? Unexplained discovery in the clouds has scientists buzzing – CNET

Something unexpected has been discovered in the cloud decks of our nearest planetary neighbor, Venus. While no one is saying it's aliens just yet, some sort of alien microorganism is on the list of potential explanations for why a chemical that shouldn't be floating around above the planet has been observed there for the first time. 

The chemical is phosphine, or PH3, a compound made up of phosphorus attached to three hydrogen atoms. On Earth, certain microbes that thrive in oxygen-free environments, like at a sewage plant, are believed to produce the chemical. The gas is highly toxic to humans and smells like decaying fish.

It was identified in observations of Venus made with telescopes in Hawaii and Chile in 2017 and 2019. Specifically, phosphine was found about 33 to 39 miles (53 to 62 kilometers) above the surface of Venus, a world that is known for being brutally inhospitable, with both extremely hot temperatures and crushing pressures.

Interestingly, however, the altitude where the phosphine was detected is one of the more hospitable areas in the solar system beyond Earth, with temperatures and pressure comparable to the surface of our planet. There is still the problem of the sulfuric acid clouds, however, which would certainly be hostile to much of the life we know, and should also destroy phosphine.

"These are conditions not exactly welcoming to life as we know it," says Brendan Burns, an astrobiologist at the University of New South Wales, Australia.

A team led by Jane Greaves from Cardiff University and the University of Cambridge in the UK lays out the discovery in a paper published Monday in Nature Astronomy. They sought to explain the mysterious presence of PH3 in the clouds, considering various atmospheric, chemical and geological processes. Lightning, volcanoes, the solar wind and even meteors were investigated as possible sources, but none fits the observations. 

"If no known chemical process can explain PH3 within the upper atmosphere of Venus, then it must be produced by a process not previously considered plausible for Venusian conditions," the paper reads. "This could be unknown photochemistry or geochemistry, or possibly life."

The scientists go on to "emphasize that the detection of PH3 is not robust evidence for life, only for anomalous and unexplained chemistry."

Figuring out what exactly is happening in the clouds of Venus may require sending new robotic probes, balloons or other spacecraft to explore and sample them. Meanwhile, the possibilities have many astronomers fired up.

Life on Venus? 

"It's tremendously exciting," said David Grinspoon, senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute. "It's a legitimate candidate biosignature (a piece of data that could indicate the presence of life) on another planet. Potentially the best we've found yet." 

Grinspoon is a widely respected expert on Venus who wasn't involved in the new discovery, but first wrote about the possibility of a cloud biosphere on Venus in 1997 and has been pushing the idea ever since. He points out that phosphine had been singled out as an ideal biosignature on rocky planets before this latest discovery.

"It's a molecule that should not be there by ordinary atmospheric chemical processes and should have a very short lifetime, which means if it's there, there's an active source. And then the question becomes what is that source? And there's no obvious non-biological source." 

ancient-venus-new.jpg

Ancient Venus may not have been so bad...

NASA

Astronomer Stephen R. Kane at the University of California-Riverside, who is also not involved in the work, points out that some research suggests Venus was habitable in the distant past, perhaps over a billion years ago. He suggests that any "biology in the atmosphere could be the last surviving members of a prior Venusian biosphere."

But Kane says there is reason to be skeptical that "life" in the clouds is the best explanation. 

"As noted in the paper, the biological interpretation is being suggested because we cannot currently model a geological solution. The chemistry of possible geological and biological signatures is vast and it is an ongoing effort to fully explore that parameter space. That means there are undoubtedly geological explanations that exist that have not yet been realized."

There's also the problem of how anything, even tiny microbes can make a lifestyle out of floating around in the sky indefinitely, generation after generation. Staying at a Goldilocks altitude above the extreme heat below and the cold, unforgiving transition to space above as a microbe likely floating in liquid droplets would seem very unlikely. 

Greaves is also co-author of a paper, published last month, which proposes a mechanism by which microbes above Venus may go into a sort of hibernation when they find themselves dried out at lower, hotter altitudes, only to reanimate and continue their life cycle when atmospheric processes lift them higher to be rehydrated again at the habitable zone above Venus. 

Kevin McGouldrick, an researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder who specializes in the clouds of Venus, says "it is one more bit of evidence that shows that we don't know as much as we thought we did about the Venus atmosphere."

He told me he sees the discovery as "less earth-shaking" but ultimately helpful in advancing the search for biosignatures and the unknown biology that might be behind them.

"These scientists have found solid evidence for the existence of a molecule that was not expected to be present. Unless the observations are in error, this means that our expectations were wrong. And if our expectations were wrong, then it represents a possibility for growth in knowledge."

cloudcity.png

NASA would eventually like to visit the clouds of Venus, where there could be signs of life.

NASA/HAVOC/SACD

What about Mars?

We've found ourselves in a very similar situation before. When NASA landed the Mars Viking spacecraft on the red planet in 1976, it carried an experiment that could detect chemical reactions in the soil. The experiment, known as the LR experiment, came back positive -- it showed signs the red planet did contain life.

But in the years since, planetary scientists have concluded the discovery was most likely an error. Mars doesn't have extant life on its surface, but it may have in the past. The problem, then, was that NASA put the alien cart before the alien horse. We didn't understand, completely, the geochemical processes occurring on Mars' surface. When we detected some funky chemistry, there was a groundswell of excitement, but we may have jumped the gun. 

Although the lead scientists on the LR experiment still believe they did detect life in 1976, definitive proof has not been forthcoming -- and it's now 40 years since the announcement was made.

So our search for life outside of Earth continues. NASA and China have rovers en route to Mars to search for signs in the Martian soil. For now, it seems we can add the clouds of Venus to the list of potentially habitable nooks in the dark forest of the cosmos. 

Much work remains to elucidate the true nature of phosphine in its upper atmosphere. Not only will biologists be intrigued, but chemists and geologists will hope to learn more about the chemical, too. The one point everyone can agree on is this new compound, something that might resemble a microbial alien fart, demands a closer look.

"We have a responsibility to investigate further and determine what the true source of the phosphine is," Kane says, pointing to potential missions NASA is developing that could send orbiters, landers or atmospheric probes to our tempestuous neighbor. "It is through these kinds of missions that we will be able to fully answer this question of possible life in the Venusian clouds."

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Space isn’t just a distraction. It could be our salvation – CNET

It was a bright spot in the long, dark tunnel that has been the year 2020. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe, SpaceX made history on May 31 by launching NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space Station from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in its sleek, modern Crew Dragon spacecraft.

While much of humanity yearned simply to go to a restaurant or just leave the house, two humans left the Earth, starting a new era of space travel. The mission called Demo-1 was the long-awaited demonstration of NASA's Commercial Crew program, a partnership of the space agency, Boeing and Elon Musk's SpaceX with the aim of kicking off a new era of human space exploration. Beyond being the first crewed space launch from US soil in nine years, the program will provide a big boost to science in orbit.

For more than six decades, space programs run by the US, other countries and now private companies have been developing technologies and making new discoveries in the service of solving hard problems. Some advancements, like satellite-based communications, are well known, and others, like a NASA-supported method of disarming landmines, might surprise those who see big space exploration budgets (NASA's 2020 budget is $22.6 billion) as a waste of money. But these solutions usually end up having applications that improve the day-to-day lives of Earth-bound humans, including breakthroughs that just might help save us from the ongoing pandemic and other major problems we face.

"On the International Space Station, researchers are taking advantage of microgravity to produce human tissue and develop new vaccines," says NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. "Because things behave differently in space, these are medical advancements that otherwise wouldn't be possible."

The inauguration of the Crew Dragon spacecraft, which seats up to four more astronauts than the three-person Russian Soyuz craft NASA has used exclusively to ferry crews into orbit since 2011, also brings a research boost. More seats means more hands available to do more hours of science in space. And that science could have real-life implications.

"There is the expectation that the amount of time allocated for conducting science on station will approximately double," Patrick O'Neill, spokesperson for the International Space Station US National Laboratory, says of the coming Commercial Crew era. 

Some of those added crew hours may go to less life-critical experiments with commercial partners like Adidas, which has been studying how particle foam molding in microgravity could affect the performance and comfort of its shoes. (There's a Space Jam joke to be made there somewhere.)  

More importantly, more astronaut hours could assist the US government's multibillion-dollar effort to secure millions of doses of experimental coronavirus vaccines from big pharmaceutical companies like Sanofi Pasteur. The French multinational drug-maker has been working with NASA and the ISS National Laboratory to investigate how human immune cells change in the microgravity environment aboard the International Space Station. And with worldwide demand for doses of a vaccine to protect against COVID-19, insights from space could be the key to making the process cost-effective and delivering the vaccine to the masses sooner.

Astronaut Scott Kelly administers his own flu shot aboard the ISS in 2015 as part of research involving vaccines in microgravity.

NASA

Rachel Clemens, innovation manager of the ISS National Lab, wrote in March that life sciences research into how various cells and systems respond in microgravity could be particularly useful. The studies could lead to better methods of vaccine production and improved vaccine efficacy.

"Cells in culture change their physiology in interesting ways in microgravity," Clemens wrote. "While scientists are not studying COVID-19 in space, research on the International Space Station (ISS) does tell us a lot about microbes."

Out-of-this-world innovation

The dawn of Commercial Crew and the return of crewed launches to American shores is a culmination, of sorts, of a quiet renaissance in cutting-edge research that's been happening about 250 miles above our heads. Over the past decade, new, high-tech facilities available to both public and commercial interests on the ISS have driven a big increase in life sciences research.

Some of the newer resources on the space station include DNA sequencing, bio fabrication and autonomous equipment that supports research with minimal supervision from the crew. Recent research includes sending genetically edited "mighty mice" with almost twice the muscle mass of normal mice into orbit to help scientists investigate ways to fight muscle wasting and aging. Another effort aims to better understand human disease with the help of tissue-on-a-chip platforms that mimic human tissues and organs to study their reaction to microgravity.

There are even new robots on the ISS, including a humanoid helper named R2 in true Star Wars style and a cute/creepy smiling assistant on a screen named CIMON-2 that will remind space enthusiasts of a certain age of a certain HAL.

ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano works with the cheery robot CIMON-2 on the ISS.

NASA/ESA

The ISS, which was designated a federally sponsored National Lab in 2005, is the best place for doing hands-on research beyond the pull of gravity with an eye on applications meant for use back on Earth. It's been so successful as both a science lab and a symbol of international collaboration that the ISS is nominated for the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize

But the long, rich and sometimes surprising history of technology transfer from space to life below started more than 60 years ago, even before humans left the Earth for the first time. We continue to heavily rely on the advancements like satellite-based connectivity, Earth observation and global positioning systems. They all grew out of a singular desire to keep up with (and spy on) the Soviets during the Cold War era.

These are obvious examples, and there are many more.

"Space is part of the solution set, and when you deal with big problems, you want to have access to as many solution sets as possible," says Rich Cooper, vice president for strategic communications and outreach at the Space Foundation, a nonprofit education and advocacy group.

He pointed to the example of the flame retardant fabric and breathing system firefighters use when they enter a burning structure, both of which came from space research. Astronauts were the first to test heart monitors used in hospitals around the world. Neil Armstrong wore the then-nascent cardiac monitoring technology developed for NASA when he became the first person to walk on the moon in 1969.

NASA labs later pioneered the use of water hyacinths and other plants as a much more cost-efficient (and shockingly attractive) way of treating sewage, an advancement that major cities began adopting in the 1980s. You also can thank the space agency for your scratch-resistant lenses, cordless tools, Tempur-pedic mattress, LASIK eye surgery, and the insoles in many running and hiking shoes, just to name a few

Science aboard the ISS will ramp up when the first operational Commercial Crew mission sends four astronauts to the station in October.

NASA's Commercial Crew program is helping to expand science in orbit.

NASA

"Space is a force multiplier across every infrastructure, industry and community," Cooper says. "That creates opportunity as much as it creates inspiration."

The European Space Agency uses its Earth observation satellites to monitor all sorts of changes happening on our planet, from volcanic activity to oil spills, deforestation and urban development. Or as ESA Downstream Gateway Officer Donatella Ponziana described it, "We take the pulse of the Earth."

This year, ESA is measuring the planet's vitals to help officials glean new insights into the COVID-19 pandemic. That agency and the European Commission created the Rapid Action on Coronavirus Earth Observation dashboard that shows the pandemic's impact on dozens of economic, environmental and agricultural indicators such as construction activity, harvests and air quality.

Space tough

Hardware originally developed for space is also assisting in the fight against COVID-19 on the ground.

Cobham Advanced Electronic Solutions, an Arlington, Virginia-based company that's created circuits and other spacecraft components for a few decades, wants to bring its space solutions back to Earth.

"Space applications require a fairly significant complexity in the design. They also require certainty of results -- what you design actually has to do what it's supposed to do and it has to do it for a long time in space," says Chris Clardy, Cobham's vice president for space business development, strategy and technology. "And they typically are in very tight form factors. Size, weight and power matters, and they have to be very low-power."

Cobham designed the first breathing regulator used by John Glenn during Project Mercury, which sent the initial batch of US astronauts into space in the early 1960s. Today its components are on the ISS and power robotic probes scattered around the solar system, including NASA's Juno spacecraft circling Jupiter, the Parker Solar Probe and Osiris-Rex. Cobham components are also used in industrial settings, like airports, hospitals and other medical facilities for everything from scanning luggage to mining.

The application-specific integrated circuits, or ASICs, the company has modified for hospital equipment like computerized tomography scanners need to be reliable and hardened enough to survive constant exposure to radiation, just like spacecraft. They're now being used to detect and sequence the genome of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

"As a space technology developer, we select technology and we design all the way down to the transistor level to survive these radiation effects," Clardy says. "These contributions by our customers have been essential in the world's fight against the coronavirus."

Cobham and Clardy are also turning their attention to the future, when the company's space-proven technology will have the potential to help shape the future of communications, the internet of things and other areas where it matters that components are small, low-power and resilient.

Forget the sky. Imagination is the limit

It's not just robotic probes and projects in orbit that deliver benefits for us humans. Planned deep-space expeditions should bring about some innovations as well.

"As has been the case throughout NASA's history, investments in NASA and our ambitious missions, like the Artemis program, will lead to new technological capabilities for our nation and the world," Bridenstine says. The Artemis mission aims to land the first woman on the moon in 2024 and lay the foundation for a permanent presence on our natural satellite.

Take, for example, a current NASA challenge that asks university students to help solve the problem of highly abrasive lunar dust, which can wreak havoc on both astronauts' lungs and equipment. It's easy to imagine how working to solve this problem could lead to new ways of dealing with pollution and other airborne irritants on Earth.

And advancements won't come just from humans, either. I'll certainly be in line to own anything inspired by NASA's shape-shifting robot concept that looks even cooler than any Star Wars droid. The system is really a series of robots that can fly, swim, float and tumble over any terrain, abilities that could help locate victims trapped in debris because of natural disasters or other emergency situations.

Last month, NASA launched the Perseverance Rover on a seven-month journey to Mars carrying a tiny helicopter named Ingenuity in its belly. Ingenuity was completed in 2017, and the company that built it, AeroVironment, took lessons learned from working with NASA and has already applied them to products used here on Earth.

A drone called Quantix, introduced in 2018, allows farmers to scan their fields and identify different plant health issues. AeroVironment's chief marketing officer, Steve Gitlin, told NASA Spinoff this year that the agency's requirements for ruggedness "certainly taught us much about reliability in harsh environments, which serves our customers in the military and on the farm."

Space will save Earth… and humanity, too

Incremental improvements to life on Earth are one thing, but with climate change and the threat of future pandemics facing the planet, saving both it and our species are much more complicated. But two men with about a quarter trillion dollars in net worth between them have audacious plans to leverage space and their wealth to take them on.

Musk and SpaceX are planning to travel far beyond the ISS, aiming to build a city on Mars and make humans a "multiplanetary" species, just in case some catastrophe should befall our home planet. This grandiose vision invites the quick retort that we ought to be solving climate change and the other big problems facing Earth before we go messing up another planet. But the process of making Mars habitable will almost certainly yield insights and innovations that will help make Earth more sustainable.

Elon Musk's goal is to establish a city on Mars.

SpaceX

"Very little that pertains to living on Mars in the early years will involve off-the-shelf equipment and supplies from Earth," wrote Stephen Petranek in his 2015 book How We'll Live on Mars.

Petranek imagines that new systems may be needed to extract the water and oxygen for supporting human life in the Martian environment. One such experiment is on its way to the red planet aboard the Perseverance rover. The instrument known as Moxie, for Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resources Utilization Experiment, aims to pull oxygen from atmospheric carbon dioxide. It's easy to imagine how insights gleaned from this effort might be put into use on other worlds where there's an excess of CO2, like say… Earth.

NASA Perseverance rover is on its way to Mars. 

NASA

Amazon CEO and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos has his own vision for using space to save Earth. Rather than going all the way to Mars, the sometimes-richest-human-on-Earth wants to move as many polluting industries as possible into orbit, onto asteroids and to the surface of the moon. The goal is to preserve Earth for life and to put activities that can hinder it somewhere else.

Of course, billionaires can afford to think big, and both visions are still a long way off. But the launch of a brand new spacecraft like Musk's Crew Dragon is a step forward and a welcome dose of uplifting news in trying times. Keeping an eye on the prize of technological progress might just help end this pandemic a little sooner, and give us fancy new space-foam shoes to wear when we can start eating out again. 

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Watch a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch and landing from a whole new vantage point – CNET

The roar of nine Merlin engines, precision blasts of gas thrusters and the surprisingly elegant sight of fire and fumes through grid fins. These are just a few of the highlights of a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch and landing from the point of view of the rocket itself. 

The company shared a new angle of its most recent launch of the Argentinean Saocom 1B satellite from the rocket's onboard camera. 

We've seen clips like this during the dozens of SpaceX launches that have been webcast, but seeing the beginning and end of the flight in their entirety provides a different perspective.

Now playing: Watch this: Watch Starlink 11 launch and Falcon 9 droneship landing

9:59

You can watch the whole thing at the top of this post. Keep in mind that the entire flight is closer to eight minutes -- the two-minute clip is just the launch and landing phase, with the main part that includes separation of the rocket's second stage omitted. (It wouldn't be visible from this camera angle anyhow.)

We could see another SpaceX launch as soon as next week with the company's next planned Starlink launch. 

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Summer snow on wildfires drives home the utter weirdness of 2020 – CNET

suominppsmokesept7

The NASA/NOAA Suomi NPP satellite caught sight of this massive blanket of wildfire smoke across the US on Sept. 7.

NOAA/NASA
For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO website.

During the first week of September 2019, my wife and I attended an outdoor music festival in a forest outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. At the time, it seemed like a crazy experience because it rained one night and some things got a bit muddy. A Prius may have even been stuck for a moment. Pretty wild, right?

Wild by 2019 standards, maybe. This year is whole new kinds of actual wild. Like everyone, I spend each day trying to wrap my head around living through a pandemic, a shattered economy and whatever you want to call politics in 2020. But it all hit me in a new way today, a routine Tuesday in 2020. 

A haze of smoke has been hanging over the valley where I live in northern New Mexico for the past few days, obscuring views of the nearby mountains and casting a brown tint over the horizon. Fires burning across the western US have created smoke so thick satellites are having a hard time distinguishing the acrid plumes from regular clouds

Of course, with the gusting winds whipping up sand and dirt from our drought-laden high desert environment, it's hard to tell where the smoky haze ends and the dust storm starts. The two seem to be joining forces in a kind of apocalyptic atmospheric hookah hit from hell. 

Weirder still, there's hope the ongoing western wildfires will be put out by the freak, late summer blizzard that's expected to drop up to 18 inches (46 centimeters) of snow on the Rocky Mountains tonight and tomorrow, following an extreme temperature drop of almost 70 degrees Fahrenheit (about 39 degrees of Celsius) in under 48 hours.

This marks only the 15th time in the past 12 decades a weather station in the US has seen temperatures over 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 Celsius) one day, followed by snow the next, according to climatologist Brian Brettschneider.

Yet this, somehow, seems almost less crazy than the rather banal encounter with a mud puddle did a year ago. 

This is the impressive desensitizing power of 2020. This is what it's like to live through history. Eventually, somehow, life will return to a state of such mundane comfort that pushing a vehicle out of a bit of mud will make for a lively anecdote. Years from now we will tell younger people about life in 2020, and it will seem like a foreign world to them -- the way we might think of the Great Depression-era US or wartime Europe today.  

But it seems we may have at least a few months if not a year or two to go before previously bizarre and unusual happenings live up to those terms again. For now, the best truism to live by is the one we have all learned in recent months: It can always get weirder, and it probably will. 

I'm so accustomed to unprecedented oddities I fully expect dragons to appear in the skies at any moment. The real question is whether their appearance would surprise anyone living in 2020. 

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Corrugated metal roofing material blown off a shed next to a New Mexico field and is now dancing across the road at bumper level. 

Eric Mack/CNET

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China launches secretive ‘reusable experimental spacecraft’ – CNET

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The Long March 5 carrying Tianwen-1 to Mars on July 22. A beefier version of the Chinese Long March rocket -- the 2F -- carried the suspected space plane to orbit Friday. 

CNSA

China says it has successfully launched a "reusable experimental spacecraft" under increased levels of secrecy. Space industry watchers believe it to be some sort of unmanned space plane similar to the X-37B operated by the US Air Force and Space Force in recent years. 

A short statement from China's state-run Xinhua media outlet announced the launch from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China on Friday.

"After a period of in-orbit operation, the spacecraft will return to the scheduled landing site in China. It will test reusable technologies during its flight, providing technological support for the peaceful use of space," the statement reads.

The mission was conducted under a veil of extra secrecy, with no official launch photos or even the time of launch made public. 

"That leads one to think this is not only a space plane, it's a military space plane," said Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics astronomer Jonathan McDowell on a European Space Agency sponsored Zoom conference Friday

China previously announced its intentions to test a space plane, in 2017, and there've been reports out of the country for months now that preparations were underway. 

The American X-37B has made autonomous flights lasting over two years. It's not clear how long this new Chinese spacecraft will stay in orbit. 

Satellite watcher Michael Thompson noted that if it's meant to be a short mission, it could come back to Earth in less than 24 hours:

We'll update this story once we have more information about the craft or its flight. 

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Elon Musk: SpaceX starting on ‘Super Heavy’ rocket booster to power Mars trip – CNET

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This dramatic render shows Starship, which was known as BFR at the time this image was released, in September 2018, blasting away from a cloudy Earth. SpaceX says the ship and rocket are designed to be fully reusable and will be able to service Earth orbit as well as the moon and Mars.

SpaceX

The latest prototype of Elon Musk's Starship prototype has only gotten about 500 feet (150 meters) high, but the SpaceX CEO said Monday his rocket company may start construction on a booster prototype to pair with Starship as soon as this week.

"That's gonna be pretty cool," Musk said in a keynote interview at the virtual Humans To Mars summit.  

Starship is SpaceX's platform for taking humans to the moon, Mars and beyond, but to reach those deep-space destinations, the plan is to pair Starship with a powerful first-stage booster called Super Heavy. So far we've only seen early prototypes of Starship make short test flights or "hops." 

Now playing: Watch this: SpaceX Starship prototype takes first 'hop'

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Musk added that Super Heavy may have fewer engines than originally planned -- possibly 28 Raptor engines rather than 31.

"That's still a lot of engines. we'll up cranking up the thrust on those engines." 

He mused that it might be possible for Raptor to eventually be able to lift 200 times its own weight. 

As for when we might see a Starship prototype fly higher than just a hop, Musk said "probably next year" and aimed to reduce expectations a bit.

"The first ones might not work," he said. "This is uncharted territory. Nobody's ever made a fully reusable orbital rocket ... and then having something twice the size of a Saturn V (the rocket that astronauts to the moon) that's also fully reusable... that's really something else, that's profound. That's the gateway to the galaxy or at least the solar system." 

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