China launches Chang’e moon mission to snag first lunar dirt in decades – CNET

Long March rocket with Chang'e 5 lander inside

The Long March rocket carrying Chang'e 5, prepared for launch.

CNSA

China's space agency launched its Chang'e 5 mission Monday atop of one of its Long March 5 rockets. The lunar-sample return mission aims to snag some moon dirt, the first time a country has done so in decades. 

The mission consists of a lunar orbiter, lander, ascent probe and re-entry module. According to NASASpaceflight.com, landing is expected Nov. 29 on Mons Rumker, a region of the moon that has seen volcanic activity in its past more recently than other parts of our natural satellite. This could mean that the area is home to some of the youngest moon rocks around, providing a new window into its geology.

The China National Space Administration says the Chang'e 5 lander will drill into the lunar surface "to collect underground rocks" and use a mechanical arm to scoop up samples of surface soil. The ascent probe will lift about 4.4 pounds (2 kilograms) of samples from the moon's surface for transport back to Earth. The sample will land on Dec. 15 in Inner Mongolia, where it will be collected for study.

The Soviets were the last to bring lunar dirt back home with the Luna 24 mission in 1976.

Chang'e 5 gets its name from the Chinese moon goddess and follows the Chang'e 4 mission, which sent a lander and rover to the far side of the moon, where they've been taking some interesting photos for almost two years now.

The spacecraft is expected to arrive at lunar orbit on Nov. 28. There is a live feed of the mission, which you can watch below.

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SpaceX launches new NASA satellite and lands with a boom – CNET

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Illustration of the Sentinel-6/Michael Freilich satellite in orbit.

ESA

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket sent a new NASA and European Space Agency satellite on its way to orbit from California on Saturday morning. The Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich satellite is the latest in a series of satellites that have provided critical data about sea level rise and climate change for almost three decades. It's named for the former director of NASA's Earth Science Division, Michael Freilich, who's considered a pioneer in conducting oceanography work from orbit.

The new ocean-spying bird will be able to measure sea levels within a few centimeters for 90% of oceans around the globe. A twin satellite named Sentinel-6B will join the effort when it launches in 2025. Instruments on the new satellites will also provide data on atmospheric temperature and humidity that'll help improve weather forecasts, according to NASA.

The mission began with the fairly rare launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base on the west coast of the US. A statement from Vandenberg sent out earlier in the week warned that multiple sonic booms might be heard in parts of California's Santa Barbara, Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties as the Falcon 9 first stage returned for a landing after lifting the satellite toward orbit. 

The loud booms could be heard on the mission webcast just before the Falcon 9 first stage made a successful landing ashore just a short distance from the launch pad. Check out the feed for yourself below.

It's just the beginning of a very busy day for SpaceX, which also plans to launch its latest batch of Starlink satellites from Florida.

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How SpaceX Starlink broadband will envelop Earth and transform the sky – CNET

When the call connects and I ask Angel Chavarin if I'm speaking to AWN-hell or AIN-gel, there's a familiar pause. I can hear the faint echo of my own words finally reach the cellphone's speaker on the other end of the line a few seconds later, and then a voice responds: 

"Yep, it sure is. AIN-gel works. No one around here calls me AWN-hell except my dad."

It's a delay I recognize from using satellite phone connections while on assignment on the Alaskan tundra and other remote areas. The signal carrying my words must travel over 22,000 miles (35,000 kilometers) to a satellite in geostationary orbit and then another 22,000 miles back to Earth to reach the person on the other end of the call. 

Robert Rodriguez/CNET

But Chavarin isn't speaking to me from a satellite phone in the Alaskan wilderness or any other end of the Earth. The 40-year-old is on a regular cellphone in the tiny Oregon community of McKenzie Bridge, about 50 miles east of Eugene, where he helps run the general store, writes fantasy novels and, until recently, looked after his father, who is at extremely high risk from COVID-19. 

"It's pretty rural. There's not a whole lot out here," he says. "There's little communities about every 10 miles or so, but about half of those have been destroyed."

That destruction was wrought by the Holiday Farm wildfire, which tore through the region in September. One person died as the fire torched over 170,000 acres and a few small towns, as well as a lot of fiber-optic and copper lines that kept communities in the area online and in touch.

So now Chavarin's cellphone might as well be a satellite phone. It's connected to a temporary, mobile cell tower that certainly sounds as though it's routing our conversation through geostationary orbit. 

Such temporary infrastructure is his sole point of internet access, where the latency -- those delays in the conversation -- is also obvious. That made it hard for his father, who has a compromised immune system and has had pneumonia multiple times, to continue to work from home.

"Most everyone here was working from home anyway, and now they can't do that."

While 2020 has lumbered on in an epic conflagration of storms, fires, a global pandemic, recession and civil unrest, SpaceX has been scrambling to improve life a bit by creating a new kind of satellite service it calls Starlink. It's technology that could be just the thing for folks like Chavarin and his dad.

It's already been put to use by emergency responders helping with the rebuilding effort in the wildfire-torched town of Malden, in adjacent Washington state.

Elon Musk's space company, and competitors including Amazon, are aiming to send hundreds or even tens of thousands of small satellites into orbit. These so-called mega-constellations of flying routers could drape almost the entire planet in an invisible blanket of broadband connectivity.

To Musk, it's a way to both solve a problem on Earth and test systems that might eventually prove useful to his grander ambitions to set up human colonies on Mars. On our home planet, a system like Starlink could help mitigate the array of catastrophes that seem to be on the rise.

But what's good for the internet and local communities could pose some serious problems for astronomers and add significantly to the clutter of machines and debris enveloping the Earth.

SpaceX began launching its Starlink satellites in May 2019 in batches of about 60 at a time. The metal birds are much smaller than the large telecommunications satellites in use now, and they also circle our planet in low-Earth orbit, or LEO, at an altitude of 341 miles (550 kilometers), or less than 2% the distance of geostationary orbit. This allows for much lower latency and the ability to provide a broadband connection to just about any location on Earth, once everything is in place. 

A stack of SpaceX Starlink satellites being deployed in orbit.

SpaceX

Chavarin has followed the development of Starlink since before the wildfire in hopes it might offer an improvement on the DSL service he was previously using. His father had been living with him in remote McKenzie Bridge to avoid the risk of contracting the virus at the community college where he works in Eugene as library technology services coordinator. But when the fire destroyed broadband access, he had to find a newer living situation closer to work, and closer to the virus. 

Earlier this year, Chavarin registered his interest in being part of the Starlink beta test. SpaceX began sending out invites to its Better Than Nothing beta program in October. For an upfront investment of $499 to purchase an antenna/router and $99 per month, the program offers data speeds from 50 to 150 megabits per second and latency of 20 to 40 milliseconds. 

It certainly would be better than the temporary connection Chavarin's been using since the fire, which sometimes registers over 700 milliseconds of latency. 

So far, he hasn't received an invitation to join the beta test.

Waiting for LEO

I've heard from dozens of hopeful Starlink watchers online, as well as from neighbors, friends and family who are eager for a new alternative to mobile hotspots or subpar DSL.

"You have still 10 to 20% of the population, even in developed markets … you still have a significant chunk that have an average DSL or bad 3G connection, and therefore doing video or doing higher-requirement usage is a challenge," says Alexandre Menard, a senior partner at management consultancy McKinsey and a leader of the McKinsey Center for Advanced Connectivity.

For decades now, governments and companies have been looking to orbit for a solution to the challenges of connecting the more remote nooks and crannies of our planet, or at least to provide an option that can theoretically be accessed from anywhere. 

So far, the results have been less than revolutionary. Satellite phone and internet service providers including HughesNet, ViaSat, Iridium and Inmarsat offer connectivity for remote locations, but it often comes with sluggish speeds and high latency, made all the more frustrating by high prices and poor customer service. Not to mention the dreaded data caps that have become increasingly crippling in a world that now exists largely in videoconference calls and HD streams. 

The satellite internet landscape is also littered with ventures that have failed or run out of funds dating back to the 1990s. Projects like Teledesic and Celestri were among those abandoned around the turn of the century. Potential Starlink competitor Oneweb filed for bankruptcy earlier this year as the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic complicated the startup's financial situation. 

Menard says that until relatively recently McKinsey had been skeptical that broadband from LEO had any prospects.

"We thought that it was way too expensive to actually come to life at scale in the foreseeable future. … You need to design, manufacture, launch and then operate [hundreds of] satellites."

That's potentially billions in upfront costs before collecting any subscription revenue. 

But in the past half decade the advancement of some key technologies and the involvement of a few tech giants and other investors have changed the landscape of what's possible. 

McKinsey cites advances in efficient use of the radio spectrum in the bands where the LEO constellations will operate, improved antennas and processing, and the development of artificial intelligence algorithms to help manage what could be tens of thousands of satellites in a constellation.

The reusable SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is powering the revolution in LEO so far.

SpaceX/CNET

Menard also calls the pace of launches that's now possible "phenomenal."

Most of those launches so far have come via SpaceX and its workhorse Falcon 9 rockets, which are quickly closing in on 1,000 total Starlink satellites launched over about 18 months. OneWeb managed to launch 74 satellites out of a planned 650-bird constellation before its bankruptcy filing. SpaceX and OneWeb didn't respond to a request for comment for this story.

Amazon's Project Kuiper and Canada's Telesat are still working toward their initial launches. 

Amazon didn't make anyone available for an interview, but directed us to its recent FCC filings. On July 29, the FCC approved its application for a LEO constellation made up of 3,236 satellites. Telesat has recently signed an agreement with the government of Canada to move forward with its own constellation. 

There have been rumblings that Apple and Facebook also have ambitions to launch their own satellite systems. Apple didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. A Facebook spokesperson said the company launched a lone experimental satellite but doesn't plan to launch a constellation or become a provider of satellite connectivity. 

On top of this, in recent weeks there have been rumors of a Chinese venture aiming to launch over 12,000 satellites of its own to serve the global broadband market. 

A bright idea with a brightness problem

Given that they're taking up residence in LEO, these nascent constellations have wandered into the fields of view of many astronomers -- literally. 

Almost immediately after SpaceX launched its first big batch of Starlink satellites, some scientists began gasping in horror at what they were seeing from observatories around the world.

Victoria Girgis of the Lowell Observatory in Arizona posted an image to Twitter that showed 25 diagonal lines marring an observation of a distant galaxy cluster, each line coming from the orbital path of a Starlink satellite as it moved across the exposure. At the same time, people around the world reported naked-eye sightings of the bright "trains" of Starlinks moving across the evening sky.

This image of a distant galaxy group from Arizona's Lowell Observatory is marred by diagonal lines from the trails of Starlink satellites shortly after their launch in May 2019.

Victoria Girgis/Lowell Observatory

And that was with just 60 of the satellites in the sky. SpaceX has since filed paperwork for plans to eventually expand its Starlink system to over 40,000.

Earlier this year, scientists and representatives from the satellite industry came together at a special workshop to address the coming era of new, huge satellite constellations. An ensuing report, released in August, suggested that a new phase of astronomy requiring intense collaboration with satellite operators may be the inevitable result.

"Existing and planned large constellations of bright satellites in low-Earth orbit will fundamentally change astronomical observing," the report begins. 

There are a handful of options that could reduce the impact on astronomy, such as limiting the altitude of the satellites, making them less reflective, increasing and improving image processing, and coordination to avoid pointing telescopes at the satellites. 

But none of these will totally eliminate the effects of adding thousands of orbiting robots to the sky. Particularly affected will be the upcoming generation of giant telescopes designed to have a very wide view of the cosmos like the Vera C. Rubin observatory now being built in Chile. 

"There is no place to hide," Phil Puxley of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy said in August.

The comprehensive report did suggest one drastic approach that would keep Starlink and other coming constellations from tainting our view of deep space:

"Launch fewer or no LEO sats. However impractical or unlikely, this is the only option identified that can achieve zero astronomical impact."

Unlikely indeed. New SpaceX Starlink batches are lifting off from Earth every few weeks. The company's permit from the FCC to operate a broadband constellation actually requires that it have its first 2,212 satellites orbiting and operational by 2024.

But SpaceX, Oneweb, Amazon and others have been working closely with the scientific community to address the problem. SpaceX has experimented with ways to make its satellites less reflective. 

"We set out two goals," SpaceX's vice president of satellite government affairs, Patricia Cooper, said in October during a webinar organized by the Satellite Industry Association and the American Astronomical Society. "One of them was to reduce brightness. … The second goal was to make the satellites invisible to the naked eye."

Cooper says that over 350, or close to half, of the Starlink satellites deployed are equipped with VisorSats, a sort of shield to reduce the reflectivity of a satellite. SpaceX can also change the orientation of satellites to reduce brightness.

"SpaceX is doing more than promises, they have taken some real actions, which is nice," says astronomer Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. "I think they have done enough to ensure the naked-eye sky will be preserved, but I'm still worried about the impact on professional observations."

Traffic jams are coming to orbit

The United Nations' Online Index of Objects Launched into Outer Space lists over 10,000 objects that have been lifted beyond Earth's gravity well since the start of the Space Age. Of those, maybe half remain, and closer to a quarter are operational. 

So it's possible that if all the planned broadband constellations come to full fruition, the total number of objects launched to space by humanity will quintuple over the next decade or so. 

That rising volume means an unprecedented new risk of collision. There's probably no reason to worry about a dead Starlink falling on your head. (The small satellites that occupy LEO are designed to easily reenter Earth's atmosphere and burn up completely.) But it does present a threat to other satellites.

The second stage of a Falcon 9 releases a batch of Starlink satellites above Earth.

SpaceX

In September 2019, the European Space Agency performed an emergency maneuver to move one of its weather data satellites out of the way of a Starlink satellite to avoid a potential collision. SpaceX later blamed the incident on "a bug in our on-call paging system."

"There will be accidents and collisions if the really big (30,000-100,000) version of these constellations happen, and it will be bad," McDowell said via email.

SpaceX has long touted Starlink's autonomous collision avoidance system. To its credit, hundreds more Starlinks have been launched, without incident, since the ESA near-miss. But the real risk may come, as McDowell notes, when thousands of competing satellites are also sharing nearby space. Imagine an operator going bankrupt and leaving hundreds of abandoned robots whipping around Earth at high speed like a driver asleep at the wheel. 

Bringing it down to Earth and the next planet

Starlink currently leads the way with its ongoing beta test, while Oneweb is now reorganizing itself under new ownership, with the British government and Indian conglomerate Bharti holding the largest stakes. 

Project Kuiper and Telesat have yet to begin launching their respective constellations, though Telesat launched a single prototype demonstration satellite in 2018. But both have the means to do so, so there's reason to take all four leading players seriously. 

"We think that at least one or two of these are going to come to life in the next two years and start offering concrete services to customers," Menard says.

He says the demand is there for the services the companies hope to offer. If you spend time in rural parts of the world, you don't have to ask around much before you'll meet potential customers. 

"No hope of ever getting fiber here and the best we get is 4 MB ADSL," says Matthew Vermeulen from the small town of Ugie in South Africa via an online chat. "I personally am a huge gamer and do all my work through the internet so being able to have the speeds and ping that people in the cities and overseas get to have would be great."

In Ector County in West Texas, many residents find themselves in a similar situation. The county comprises the city of Odessa and the stark, dry, often treeless flatlands to the west of town. Nearly 40 percent of households responding to a survey said they had unreliable broadband service or none at all, according to Mike Adkins, director of communications for the Ector County Independent School District. 

The dire state of connectivity came to a head when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and schooling in the county went online. As of October, nearly a third of students were still attending online.

Over the summer, the district connected with SpaceX, which offered to run a pilot test of Starlink in Ector County next year, starting with 45 families and later expanding to 135 households. 

"It's just a moral imperative that we find solutions," says Adkins, "because we have so many kids who can't connect with school once they leave the school building."

And for Mars-obsessed Elon Musk, it may be a small step toward solving the problem of how to create an Earth-like environment on the red planet someday.

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Melting glacier threatens to trigger a catastrophic tsunami in Alaska – CNET

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The dangerous slope as of June 2019.

NASA/Valisa Higman

A glacier in Alaska is threatening to trigger a potentially deadly and historic tsunami as it retreats under the overheated stress of climate change. 

A glacier flowing into the Barry Arm of Prince William Sound has been receding rapidly in recent years, and the result is that some adjacent slopes held in place by the glacier for centuries have been destabilized. One in particular has been slumping downward in slow motion since at least 2010. Researchers fear that if it were to completely collapse into the sound, it could trigger a mega-tsunami.

"If the slope fails at once, it would be catastrophic," said Bretwood Higman, a geologist with Ground Truth Alaska and co-author of a study published Oct. 29 in Geophysical Research Letters.

In the study, researchers modeled different scenarios to find that such a collapse could produce a tsunami moving at up to 90 miles per hour (145 kilometers per hour) across the sound, which is frequented by large cruise and cargo ships as well as fishing boats and kayakers. They report that waves could reach heights of 33 feet (10 meters) in the nearby town of Whittier. 

"It was hard to believe the numbers at first," said lead author Chunli Dai from Ohio State University. "We calculated that a collapse would release sixteen times more debris and eleven times more energy than Alaska's 1958 Lituya Bay landslide and mega-tsunami." 

That event was set off by a 7.8 earthquake and produced what is thought to be the tallest wave in modern history at 1,700 feet (about a third of a mile or half a kilometer) that destroyed millions of trees around the remote bay. 

A similar quake, significant rain or other factors could trigger a slide at Barry Arm at just about any time. In 2017, a similar but smaller situation yielded a tsunami in western Greenland that killed four people.

"People are working on early-detection warnings, so if a landslide happens, people in nearby communities might at least get a warning," said hydrologist Anna Liljedahl, another co-author.

It's just one of the many less obvious ways the warming of the planet threatens to damage or destroy lives and property.  In the Andes of Peru, landslides into glacial lakes threaten to cause outburst floods that can devastate large cities downstream. 

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"These are fairly unusual events, and scientists have only started studying the connections between glacial retreat and landslide tsunamis in the past few decades," Higdon said. "We don't have a very long or deep record to look at yet."

New data continues to come in from Prince William Sound, however. On Tuesday, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources reported satellite images showed renewed movement of the unstable slope in the form of "eight inches of downslope creep between October 9 and October 24."     

State officials are asking everyone to avoid the area of Prince William Sound near the Barry Arm.

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How to see the fireball-fueled Northern Taurid meteor shower peak Wednesday – CNET

figure-3

A Taurid fireball captured in 2015. 

P. Spurny/Czech Academy of Sciences

One of the most explosive meteor showers of the year is active and set to hit an apex of activity soon -- good news if you're into seeing fire in the sky. 

The Southern Taurid and Northern Taurid showers are active now and tend to produce a lot of sizzle in the form of fireballs that light up the skies. The Southern Taurid branch has already peaked, but can continue to contribute to the overall fireball count. The Northern Taurids are expected to reach maximum activity Wednesday night and into the following morning, according to the American Meteor Society, or AMS.    

The Taurids are produced when Earth drifts through a cloud of debris left behind by Comet 2P/Encke around this time each year. Small chunks of dust might be seen burning up in our upper atmosphere as "shooting stars," while larger bits of space rock can produce more dramatic fireballs.   

The Taurids aren't as well known as other meteor showers like the Perseids or even the Leonids, which are also active in November. They don't produce as many meteors per hour as those more famous showers, but the Taurids are well known for generally adding a healthy dose of fireballs to the night sky in late October and early November.

About every seven years the Taurids are especially active, but we aren't due to see that again until 2022. Still, you could see a handful of shooting stars and perhaps even a fireball per hour if you venture out around midnight with ideal conditions. 

It's possible to see them earlier in the evening, if a little less likely. Closer to dusk you may be able to see a rare "Earth-grazer" along the horizon, however.

Whenever you go Taurid hunting, start by getting as far away from light pollution as you can and find a spot with a broad, unobstructed view of the sky. Bundle up if needed, and then just lie back, let your eyes adjust, relax and watch.

Taurids can appear to emanate from near the constellation Taurus the bull, which is also next to the famed star cluster, the Pleiades. There's no need to focus on this part of the sky, however, as the Taurids can be visible in other parts of the night sky, but they'll generally be headed away from Taurus. 

Enjoy a little fire in the sky and pass along any epic fireball photos you happen to catch to me, @EricCMack, on Twitter. 

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Rocket Lab will try splashdown recovery on the way to dramatic midair grab – CNET

electron-2

The booster will deploy a parachute on its return to Earth.

Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab is following in the footsteps of SpaceX by going to some pretty dramatic lengths to recycle its rockets.

The startup with facilities in the US and New Zealand will attempt to recover the first-stage booster from one of its Electron rockets for the first time during a mission set for Nov. 15.

After boosting a number of small satellites toward orbit for the mission, appropriately dubbed Return to Sender, the first stage will separate and head to a controlled soft water landing in the Pacific Ocean using parachutes. From there, the floating rocket will be retrieved by a recovery vessel. 

Recovering a rocket using parachutes is hardly a new concept. It's something NASA has pursued in the not-too-distant past. And it's arguably not as dramatic as the propulsive landing system that SpaceX uses, but this is just a steppingstone to bigger plans that involve plucking a used Electron booster out of midair during its descent using a helicopter. 

"What we're trying to achieve with Electron is an incredibly difficult and complex challenge, but one we're willing to pursue to further boost launch cadence and deliver even more frequent launch opportunities to small satellite operators," Peter Beck, Rocket Lab's founder and CEO, said in a statement.

Rocket Lab demonstrated a midair capture of a mock rocket stage with a helicopter in April.

Snatching the booster out of the air prevents the possibility of damage from a water landing and floating around in salt water for a period. 

"Bringing a whole first stage back intact is the ultimate goal, but success for this mission is really about gaining more data, particularly on the drogue and parachute deployment system," Beck explained. "Regardless of the condition the stage comes back in, we'll learn a great deal from this test and use it to iterate forward for the next attempt."

The launch window for the Return to Sender mission from the company's New Zealand launch facility starts Nov. 15 at 5:44 p.m. PT. There's a three-and-a-half-hour launch window that day and throughout the following two weeks, meaning we could see it as soon as the 15th, but it might be pushed back to another day in that two-week period. 

Whenever it happens, we'll be sure to have a live feed for you to watch right here. 

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Rocket Lab will try splashdown recovery on the way to dramatic midair grab – CNET

electron-2

The booster will deploy a parachute on its return to Earth.

Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab is following in the footsteps of SpaceX by going to some pretty dramatic lengths to recycle its rockets.

The startup with facilities in the US and New Zealand will attempt to recover the first-stage booster from one of its Electron rockets for the first time during a mission set for Nov. 15.

After boosting a number of small satellites toward orbit for the mission, appropriately dubbed Return to Sender, the first stage will separate and head to a controlled soft water landing in the Pacific Ocean using parachutes. From there, the floating rocket will be retrieved by a recovery vessel. 

Recovering a rocket using parachutes is hardly a new concept. It's something NASA has pursued in the not-too-distant past. And it's arguably not as dramatic as the propulsive landing system that SpaceX uses, but this is just a steppingstone to bigger plans that involve plucking a used Electron booster out of midair during its descent using a helicopter. 

"What we're trying to achieve with Electron is an incredibly difficult and complex challenge, but one we're willing to pursue to further boost launch cadence and deliver even more frequent launch opportunities to small satellite operators," Peter Beck, Rocket Lab's founder and CEO, said in a statement.

Rocket Lab demonstrated a midair capture of a mock rocket stage with a helicopter in April.

Snatching the booster out of the air prevents the possibility of damage from a water landing and floating around in salt water for a period. 

"Bringing a whole first stage back intact is the ultimate goal, but success for this mission is really about gaining more data, particularly on the drogue and parachute deployment system," Beck explained. "Regardless of the condition the stage comes back in, we'll learn a great deal from this test and use it to iterate forward for the next attempt."

The launch window for the Return to Sender mission from the company's New Zealand launch facility starts Nov. 15 at 5:44 p.m. PT. There's a three-and-a-half-hour launch window that day and throughout the following two weeks, meaning we could see it as soon as the 15th, but it might be pushed back to another day in that two-week period. 

Whenever it happens, we'll be sure to have a live feed for you to watch right here. 

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SpaceX will stream potentially fireworks-filled Starship test flight – CNET

starship-mk1-night-v2-1

SpaceX assembled the shiny pieces of its planned Starship orbital prototype in late 2019. This wasn't a launch-ready version, but it shows what the spacecraft will probably look like when it's finally ready for testing.

SpaceX

The latest prototype of Elon Musk's planned Mars rocket has been coming together at the SpaceX development facility in Boca Chica, Texas. SN8 looks more like an actual rocket than previous iterations, and it could be the first to make an actual high altitude flight, though Musk has been quick to lower expectations.

Previous versions have managed a few short "hops" of nearly 500 feet (150 meters) in altitude before making controlled landings not far from where they lifted off. Now Musk hopes to fly SN8 to over 9 miles (15 kilometers) high, but he also isn't guaranteeing it'll make it far off the launchpad.

"A RUD (rapid unscheduled disassembly, AKA an explosion) right off launchpad is also possible. Fortunately, SN9 is almost ready," Musk said in a tweet Saturday.

Some previous prototypes have burst during tests on the ground, but so far the handful of attempted short flights done over the past two years have all been rousing successes. Most recently, grain silo-shaped SN6 made a successful short hop in September that mirrored the fight of SN5 in August, itself almost a year after the smaller "Starhopper" did the same thing.

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But again, Musk is by no means confident SN8 will stick its first landing attempt.

"If it fails right at the end, some landing pad repair will be needed to fill in the crater," the SpaceX founder tweeted.

If SN8 is destroyed during its flight attempt, however, that won't necessarily be considered a failure. Whatever data is gathered from whatever happens will be used to iterate on later versions, and there's likely to be many more versions before a Starship that finally makes it to orbit, let alone Mars. Musk has said minor alterations will be made to each new prototype up through at least SN20.

It's not clear when SN8 will attempt its first flight and landing. Though what looks like a fully formed Starship has taken shape at Boca Chica, more tests are still required on the ground. The Federal Aviation Administration has issued an airspace closure for the region around the test facility, which is valid for the rest of the year, but this applies only from the surface up to 1,800 feet (549 meters) and therefore is meant as a safety precaution for ground tests, not for the actual test flight itself.

Whenever the next big flight attempt does come, Musk has promised to stream the whole thing, "warts & all."

"You will see every frame that we do," Musk says.

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SpaceX and Space Force set to launch long-delayed GPS mission – CNET

spacexspaceforceoct2020

SpaceX shared this scenic view of the Falcon 9 that will carry Space Force's GPS satellite into orbit. 

SpaceX

More than a month after a last-second scrub, SpaceX says it's now ready to launch the latest US Space Force mission atop a Falcon 9 rocket later this week.

The payload is a third-generation military GPS satellite that was initially set for blastoff in late September but then got pushed back a few days. It came close to launching on Oct. 2, but the launch was aborted with just two seconds to go on the countdown clock.

The unexpected issue led to a few other delays, notably of NASA's Crew-1 mission to send four astronauts to the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, out of concern that the issue could crop up on other Merlin engines.

An investigation revealed that a bit of "masking lacquer" had blocked a relief valve line, causing two of the rocket's nine Merlin engines to attempt to fire early. The suspect engines were swapped out and new launch dates set.

Now the static test fire for the rocket that will launch the GPS III Space Vehicle (SV) 04 has been completed, and SpaceX says it expects liftoff from Cape Canaveral in Florida Thursday evening.

The first-stage booster for this mission will be making its first flight and will attempt to land on a droneship in the Atlantic less than 10 minutes after liftoff. It's not clear whether SpaceX will try to recover the nose cone halves as well.

The launch is set for a 15-minute window that opens at 3:24 p.m. PT (6:24 p.m. Florida time), and you can watch it unfold via the feed above.

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With SpaceX engine issue sorted, NASA ready to send four astronauts to orbit – CNET

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NASA astronauts Shannon Walker, Victor Glover and Mike Hopkins, and astronaut Soichi Noguchi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, who constitute the crew of NASA's Crew-1 mission, inside SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft.

SpaceX

SpaceX and NASA say they've sorted out a hiccup seen recently in a Falcon 9 rocket and are aiming to send four astronauts to the International Space Station aboard a Crew Dragon spacecraft on Nov. 14.

On Oct. 2, a planned Falcon 9 launch of a US Space Force GPS satellite was automatically aborted just a few seconds before liftoff. An ensuing investigation revealed that two of the rocket's nine Merlin engines had attempted to start early, triggering the automatic abort.

In a call with reporters on Wednesday, Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX vice president for build and flight reliability, explained that the abort prevented a "hard start" that could've done some damage to the engines.

The engines were removed from the rocket for testing, and some blockage in a tiny relief valve line was discovered. A red masking lacquer, similar to something like nail polish, was apparently dislodged during cleaning and washed into a tiny hole, about one-sixteenth of an inch (1.57 millimeters) across, where it then hardened and blocked the line. 

Koenigsmann said SpaceX "found the same tendencies" on engines to be used for the Crew-1 launch as well as the planned Nov. 10 launch of NASA's Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich satellite to monitor sea levels worldwide. 

The suspect engines have been swapped out, and NASA and SpaceX now say they expect to be ready to launch on Nov. 14.

Now playing: Watch this: SpaceX's Crew Dragon launches to the ISS

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The Crew-1 mission marks the first crewed flight to the ISS since the Demo-1 flight of a Crew Dragon carried NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken there; that landmark flight was the first crewed flight from US soil since the end of the Space Shuttle program.

When Crew-1 delivers NASA astronauts Michael HopkinsVictor Glover and Shannon Walker, along with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's Soichi Noguchi, to the ISS, it'll expand the space station's crew size to seven people, allowing for more research to be done in orbit.

Crew-1 is set to launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Nov. 14 at 4:49 p.m. PT (7:49 p.m. ET).

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