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NASA

NASA Inspector Says Agency Wasted $80 Million On An Inferior Spacesuit (arstechnica.com) 69

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Ars Technica: When NASA began developing a rocket and spacecraft to return humans to the Moon a decade ago as part of the Constellation Program, the space agency started to think about the kinds of spacesuits astronauts would need in deep space and on the lunar surface. After this consideration, NASA awarded a $148 million contract to Oceaneering International, Inc. in 2009 to develop and produce such a spacesuit. However, President Obama canceled the Constellation program just a year later, in early 2010. Later that year, senior officials at the Johnson Space Center recommended canceling the Constellation spacesuit contract because the agency had its own engineers working on a new spacesuit and, well, NASA no longer had a clear need for deep-space spacesuits. However, the Houston officials were overruled by agency leaders at NASA's headquarters in Washington, DC. A new report released Wednesday by NASA Inspector General Paul Martin sharply criticizes this decision. "The continuation of this contract did not serve the best interests of the agency's spacesuit technology development efforts," the report states. In fact, the report found that NASA essentially squandered $80.6 million on the Oceaneering contract before it was finally ended last year.
Google

Sergey Brin Is Reportedly Building 'Massive Airship' In NASA Research Center (bloomberg.com) 119

Google co-founder Sergey Brin is secretly building a "massive airship" inside of Hangar 2 at the NASA Ames Research Center, according to a report from Bloomberg. "It's unclear whether the craft, which looks like a zeppelin, is a hobby or something Brin hopes to turn into a business," reports Bloomberg. When asked about further details, Brin wrote in an email: "Sorry, I don't have anything to say about this topic right now." From the report: The people familiar with the project said Brin has long been fascinated by airships. His interest in the crafts started when Brin would visit Ames, which is located next to Google parent Alphabet Inc.'s headquarters in Mountain View, California. In the 1930s, Ames was home to the USS Macon, a huge airship built by the U.S. Navy. About three years ago, Brin decided to build one of his own after ogling old photos of the Macon. In 2015, Google unit Planetary Ventures took over the large hangars at Ames from NASA and turned them into laboratories for the company. Brin's airship, which isn't an Alphabet project, is already taking shape inside one. Engineers have constructed a metal skeleton of the craft, and it fills up much of the enormous hangar. Alan Weston, the former director of programs at NASA Ames, is leading Brin's airship project, according to the people, who asked not to be named discussing the secretive plans. Weston didn't respond to requests for comment.
Earth

'Detergent' Hydroxl Molecules May Affect Methane Levels In The Atmosphere (caltech.edu) 68

An anonymous reader quotes Caltech's announcement about the results of a study funded by NASA and the Department of Energy: During the early 2000s, environmental scientists studying methane emissions noticed something unexpected: the global concentrations of atmospheric methane -- which had increased for decades, driven by methane emissions from fossil fuels and agriculture -- inexplicably leveled off. The methane levels remained stable for a few years, then started rising again in 2007... New modeling by researchers at Caltech and Harvard University suggests that methane emissions might not have increased dramatically in 2007 after all. Instead, the most likely explanation has less to do with methane emissions and more to do with changes in the availability of the hydroxyl radical, which breaks down methane in the atmosphere... If global levels of hydroxyl decrease, global methane concentrations will increase -- even if methane emissions remain constant, the researchers say...

Tracking decadal trends in both methane and hydroxyl, Christian Frankenberg and his colleagues noted that fluctuations in hydroxyl concentrations correlated strongly with fluctuations in methane... "Think of the atmosphere like a kitchen sink with the faucet running," Frankenberg explains. "When the water level inside the sink rises, that can mean that you've opened up the faucet more. Or it can mean that the drain is blocking up. You have to look at both."

So what's changing the level of hydroxl in the atmosphere? The researchers say they have no idea.
Space

Broadband Expansion Could Trigger Dangerous Surge In Space Junk (theguardian.com) 129

A new study from the University of Southampton warns that expanding broadband networks via launching "mega constellations" of thousands of communications satellites could increase catastrophic crashes of dangerous space junk in Earth's orbit. "Dr Hugh Lewis, a senior lecturer in aerospace engineering at the University of Southampton, ran a 200-year simulation to assess the possible consequences of such a rise in orbital traffic," reports The Guardian. "He found it could create a 50% increase in the number of catastrophic collisions between satellites." From the report: Such crashes would probably lead to a further increase in the amount of space junk in orbit, he said, leading to the possibility of further collisions and potential damage to the services the satellites were intended to provide. The European Space Agency, which funded Lewis's research, is calling for the satellites planned for orbital mega-constellations to be able to move to low altitudes once their missions are over so they burn up in Earth's atmosphere. They must also be able discharge all batteries, fuel tanks and pressure tanks to prevent explosions that would scatter debris. Lewis is presenting his research this week at the European conference on space debris at the ESA's center in Darmsadt, Germany. Krag said he expected some of the companies planning launches to attend.
Input Devices

RIP, Robert Taylor, The Innovator Who Shaped Modern Computing (sfgate.com) 37

"Any way you look at it, from kick-starting the Internet to launching the personal computer revolution, Bob Taylor was a key architect of our modern world," says a historian at Stanford's Silicon Valley Archives. An anonymous reader quotes the New York Times: The Internet, like many inventions, was the work of many inventors. But perhaps no one deserves more credit for that world-changing technological leap than Mr. Taylor. The seminal moment of his work came in 1966. He had just taken a new position at the Pentagon -- director of the Information Processing Techniques Office, part of the Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as Arpa -- and on his first day on the job it became immediately obvious to him what the office lacked and what it needed. At the time, Arpa was funding three separate computer research projects and using three separate computer terminals to communicate with them. Mr. Taylor said, No, we need a single computer research network, to connect each project with the others, to enable each to communicate with the others... His idea led to the Arpanet, the forerunner of the Internet.

A half-decade later, at Xerox's storied Palo Alto Research Center, Mr. Taylor was instrumental in another technological breakthrough: funding the design of the Alto computer, which is widely viewed as the forerunner of the modern personal computer. Mr. Taylor even had a vital role in the invention of the computer mouse. In 1961, at the dawn of the Space Age, he was about a year into his job as a project manager at NASA in Washington when he learned about the work of a young computer scientist at Stanford Research Institute, later called SRI International... Mr. Taylor decided to pump more money into the work, and the financial infusion led directly to Engelbart's invention of the mouse, a computer control technology that would be instrumental in the design of both Macintosh and Microsoft Windows-based computers.

Taylor had become fascinated with human-computer interactions in the 1950s during his graduate work at the University of Texas at Austin, and was "appalled" that performing data calculations required submitting his punch cards to a technician running the school's mainframe computers. Years later, it was Taylor's group at PARC that Steve Jobs visited in 1979, which inspired the "desktop" metaphor for the Macintosh's graphical user interface. And Charles Simonyi eventually left PARC to join Microsoft, where he developed the Office suite of applications.

Taylor died Thursday at his home in Woodside, California, from complications of Parkinson's disease, at the age of 85.
NASA

Nearby Ocean Worlds Could Be Best Bet For Life Beyond Earth, Says NASA (cnn.com) 59

NASA has new evidence that the most likely places to find life beyond Earth are Jupiter's moon Europa or Saturn's moon Enceladus. In terms of potential habitability, Enceladus particularly has almost all of the key ingredients for life as we know it, researchers said. From a report: New observations of these active ocean worlds in our solar system have been captured by two NASA missions and were presented in two separate studies in an announcement at NASA HQ in Washington today. Using a mass spectrometer, the Cassini spacecraft detected an abundance of hydrogen molecules in water plumes rising from the "tiger stripe" fractures in Enceladus' icy surface. Saturn's sixth-largest moon is an ice-encased world with an ocean beneath. The researchers believe that the hydrogen originated from a hydrothermal reaction between the moon's ocean and its rocky core. If that is the case, the crucial chemical methane could be forming in the ocean as well.
Earth

Large Near-Earth Astroid Will Fly Past Earth On April 19 (phys.org) 44

William Robinson quotes a report from Phys.Org: A relatively large (650 meters) near-Earth asteroid discovered nearly three years ago will fly safely past Earth on April 19 at a distance of about 1.1 million miles (1.8 million kilometers), or about 4.6 times the distance from Earth to the moon. The asteroid will approach Earth from the direction of the sun and will become visible in the night sky after April 19. It is predicted to brighten to about magnitude 11, when it could be visible in small optical telescopes for one or two nights. For comparison, Chelyabinsk meteor was 20m. Small asteroids pass within this distance of Earth several times each week, but this upcoming close approach is the closest by any known asteroid of this size, or larger, since asteroid Toutatis , a 3.1-mile (five-kilometer) asteroid, which approached within about four lunar distances in September 2004. The April 19 encounter provides an outstanding opportunity to study this asteroid, and astronomers plan to observe it with telescopes around the world to learn as much about it as possible.
Earth

NASA Puts the Earth Up For Adoption (cnn.com) 60

An anonymous reader shares a report: Wondering how to show that special planet some affection this Earth Day? Adopt it. NASA has sectioned off 64,000 individual pieces of Earth to be "adopted" by supporters on their website. The pieces are about 55 miles wide and assigned randomly. Similar to adopting a highway or naming a star, participants do not get legal or property rights to their section. So whether you get the 55-mile section that contains the Taj Mahal or the one that is square in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, you benefit the same.
NASA

ARCA Plans 2018 Launch For Revolutionary Single-Stage Rocket (newatlas.com) 44

An aerospace company is building a cheap, simple, lightweight rocket that they hope will redefine the microsatellite industry. Eloking quotes New Atlas: New Mexico-based ARCA Space Corporation has announced that it is developing the world's first Single Stage to Orbit (SSTO) launch vehicle that can deliver both a small payload and itself into low Earth orbit, at a cost of about US$1 million per launch. Dubbed the Haas 2CA after the 16th century rocket pioneer Conrad Haas, the new booster uses a linear aerospike engine instead of conventional bell-shaped rocket engines to do away with multiple stages. [YouTube video]
They're working with six different NASA centers and have scheduled their first launch for 2018. The rocket will be 53 feet tall (16 meters) with a diameter of just 4.95 feet (1.5 meters), and will weigh 1,210 pounds when empty, but 35,887 pounds when fueled, "thanks to ACRA's proprietary composite materials for the propellant tanks and other components."
Space

Public Crowd-sourcing Finds New Exoplanets (abc.net.au) 15

brindafella writes: A participant in a TV program "Stargazing Live" on Australia's ABC TV channel has found four planets closely orbiting a star, using an online database. Astrophysicist Dr Chris Lintott, the principal investigator of Zooniverse, reported on Thursday's show that four "Super Earth" planets had been identified in the data. They orbit closer to their star than Mercury does to our Sun. The person responsible for the find, Andrew Grey, is a mechanic by day and amateur astronomer in his spare time, and lives in the city of Darwin, Northern Territory. The data is sourced from NASA's Kepler Space Telescope. "Stargazing Live" host Professor Brian Cox said he could not be more excited about the discovery. "In the seven years I've been making Stargazing Live this is the most significant scientific discovery we've ever made. The results are astonishing."
Space

NASA's Cassini Spacecraft Begins Its Final Mission Before Plunging Into Saturn (popsci.com) 86

NASA has announced that their Cassini spacecraft will begin its final mission before slamming into Saturn on April 23rd. The "final mission" consists of a series of dives through a 1,500-mile-wide gap between Saturn and its rings. "No spacecraft has ever gone through the unique region that we'll attempt to boldly cross 22 times," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "What we learn from Cassini's daring final orbits will further our understanding of how giant planets, and planetary systems everywhere, form and evolve. This is truly discovery in action to the very end." The spacecraft will then dive into the gas giant's atmosphere, where it will "break apart, melt, vaporize, and become a part of the very planet it left Earth 20 years ago to explore," Cassini project manager Earl Maize said. Popular Science explains in its report why Cassini has to die: Some space probes are allowed to keep orbiting their targets in perpetuity after their mission ends -- like the Dawn spacecraft at the dwarf planet Ceres. But things are a lot more complicated around Saturn. Whereas Ceres is essentially just a really big rock with no moons, Saturn has 62 satellites, at last count. The gravitational push and pull from those moons -- especially the largest, Titan -- wreak havoc on Cassini's trajectory, which it normally corrects by burning fuel. But the spacecraft's fuel is running out, and ultimately its fate is sealed by its own discoveries; scientists don't want to risk the spacecraft crashing into Titan and Enceladus, which may be capable of supporting life. Although Cassini launched 20 years ago, experiments on the Space Station have suggested microbes can survive for years in the extreme temperatures, radiation, and airless vacuum of space. If NASA were to accidentally put water bears on Enceladus, the tiny Earthlings could potentially wipe out any native lifeforms that the moon may harbor, and/or complicate the search for those alien organisms later. This is why Cassini must die now, while NASA can still control its last swan dive.
Space

SpaceX Makes Aerospace History With Successful Launch, Landing of a Used Rocket (theverge.com) 260

Eloking quotes a report from The Verge: After more than two years of landing its rockets after launch, SpaceX finally sent one of its used Falcon 9s back into space. The rocket took off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, this evening, sending a communications satellite into orbit, and then landed on one of SpaceX's drone ships floating in the Atlantic Ocean. It was round two for this particular rocket, which already launched and landed during a mission in April of last year. But the Falcon 9's relaunch marks the first time an orbital rocket has launched to space for a second time. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk appeared on the company's live stream shortly after the landing and spoke about the accomplishment. "It means you can fly and refly an orbital class booster, which is the most expensive part of the rocket. This is going to be, ultimately, a huge revolution in spaceflight," he said. "It's been 15 years to get to this point, it's taken us a long time," Musk said. "A lot of difficult steps along the way, but I'm just incredibly proud of the SpaceX for being able to achieve this incredible milestone in the history of space."
Education

Ivanka Trump To Take Coding Class With 5-Year-Old Daughter (hollywoodlife.com) 366

theodp writes: Speaking about women in STEM at a Women's History Month event at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, new [unpaid] federal employee Ivanka Trump revealed she'll be taking a computer coding class with her 5-year-old daughter. "On a very personal level, as a mom I'm trying to do my part as well," Ivanka told the crowd. "My daughter Arabella and I are enrolling in a coding class this summer." Parroting supermodel Karlie Kloss (the girlfriend of Ivanka's brother-in-law), the first daughter added, "We're excited to learn this incredibly important new language together. Coding truly is the language of the future."
NASA

NASA Launches Massive Digital Library For Space Video, Photos and Audio (space.com) 48

earlytime quotes a report from Space.com: NASA on Tuesday (March 28) unveiled a new online library that assembles the agency's amazing space photos, videos and audio files into a single searchable library. The NASA Image and Video Library, as the agency calls it, can be found at http://images.nasa.gov/ and consolidates space imagery from 60 different collections into one location. The new database allows users to embed NASA imagery in websites, includes image metadata like date, description and keywords, and offers multiple resolution sizes, NASA officials said. According to the NASA statement, other features include: Automatic scaling to suite the interface for mobile phones and tablets; EXIF/camera data that includes exposure, lens used and other information (when available from the original image); Easy public access to high resolution files; Downloadable caption files for all videos. The new NASA archive is not meant to be a complete archive of all of the space agency imagery. But it does aim to showcase what the space agency has to offer.
NASA

NASA Spends 72 Cents of Every SLS Dollar On Overhead Costs, Says Report (arstechnica.com) 166

A new report published by the nonpartisan think tank Center for a New American Security shows us where a lot of NASA's money is being spent. The space agency has reportedly spent $19 billion on rockets -- first on Ares I and V, and now on the Space Launch System rocket -- and $13.9 billion on the Orion spacecraft. If all goes according to plan and NASA is able to fly its first crewed mission with the new vehicles in 2021, "the report estimates the agency will have spent $43 billion before that first flight, essentially a reprise of the Apollo 8 mission around the Moon," reports Ars Technica. "Just the development effort for SLS and Orion, which includes none of the expenses related to in-space activities or landing anywhere, are already nearly half that of the Apollo program." From the report: The new report argues that, given these high costs, NASA should turn over the construction of rockets and spacecraft to the private sector. It buttresses this argument with a remarkable claim about the "overhead" costs associated with the NASA-led programs. These costs entail the administration, management, and development costs paid directly to the space agency -- rather than funds spend on contractors actually building the space hardware. For Orion, according to the report, approximately 56 percent of the program's cost, has gone to NASA instead of the main contractor, Lockheed Martin, and others. For the SLS rocket and its predecessors, the estimated fraction of NASA-related costs is higher -- 72 percent. This means that only about $7 billion of the rocket's $19 billion has gone to the private sector companies, Boeing, Orbital ATK, Aeroject Rocketdyne, and others cutting metal. By comparison the report also estimates NASA's overhead costs for the commercial cargo and crew programs, in which SpaceX, Boeing, and Orbital ATK are developing and providing cargo and astronaut delivery systems for the International Space Station. With these programs, NASA has ceded some control to the private companies, allowing them to retain ownership of the vehicles and design them with other customers in mind as well. With such fixed-price contracts, the NASA overhead costs for these programs is just 14 percent, the report finds.
ISS

No One Knows What To Do With the International Space Station (popsci.com) 236

An anonymous reader shares a report: In 2024 the clock will run out on the International Space Station. Maybe. That's the arbitrary deadline that Congress imposed back in 2014, at which point they'll have to decide whether or not to keep funding the ISS. And yeah, that's a whole seven years away. But then again...it's only seven years away. The ISS takes up half of NASA's human exploration budget -- half of the pile of money allotted for things like sending humans to Mars or to an asteroid. And if they want to push further into space exploration, NASA can't keep sinking three to four billion dollars a year into the ISS. Not that it's really their decision. Congress -- specifically the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology -- decides how much money NASA will get. And because politicians aren't experts in space travel, they keep holding hearings to discuss what they could possibly do with the ISS in seven years' time. Let private industry take it over? Let it crash and burn into the South Pacific? Let the program keep running? The latest hearing took place last week. These are hard questions, in part because people have very different opinions on what's valuable about NASA, and therefore about whether the ISS is still useful. Maybe you think that NASA should really be about exploration, about pushing the boundaries of what we know and where we can travel. In that case, the ISS might not be your first priority. That's a huge chunk of the budget that goes toward bringing things back and forth to low Earth orbit instead of venturing to other planets.
ISS

17-Year-Old Corrects NASA Mistake In Data From The ISS (bbc.com) 79

"A British teenager has contacted scientists at NASA to point out an error in a set of their own data," writes the BBC. An anonymous reader quotes their report. A-level student Miles Soloman found that radiation sensors on the International Space Station (ISS) were recording false data... The correction was said to be "appreciated" by NASA, which invited him to help analyse the problem... The research was part of the TimPix project from the Institute for Research in Schools (IRIS), which gives students across the UK the chance to work on data from the space station, looking for anomalies and patterns that might lead to further discoveries. What Miles had noticed was that when nothing hit the detector, a negative reading was being recorded. But you cannot get negative energy... It turned out that Miles had noticed something no-one else had -- including the NASA experts. NASA said it was aware of the error, but believed it was only happening once or twice a year. Miles had found it was actually happening multiple times a day.
There's a video of the student -- and his teacher -- describing the discovery, a story which Miles says his friends at high school listen to with "a mixture of jealousy and boredom"
Space

Supermassive Black Hole Rocketing Out of Distant Galaxy At 5 Million MPH (blastr.com) 80

The Bad Astronomer writes: Astronomers have found a supermassive black hole barreling out of its home galaxy at 5 million miles per hour. The 3 billion solar mass behemoth formed from the merger of two slightly smaller black holes after two galaxies collided and themselves merged. The resulting blast of gravitational waves is thought to have been asymmetric, causing a rocket effect which launched the resulting black hole away. It's currently 40,000 light years from the galaxy's core. Source: ESA/Hubble
Earth

Sea Ice Extent Sinks To Record Lows At Both Poles (sciencedaily.com) 211

According to NASA, Arctic sea ice appears to have reached on March 7 a record low wintertime maximum extent. On the opposite side of the planet, Antartica ice hit its lowest extent ever recorded by satellites (since satellites began measuring sea ice in 1979) on March 3 at the end of summer in the Southern Hemisphere. Science Daily reports: Total polar sea ice covered 6.26 million square miles (16.21 million square kilometers), which is 790,000 square miles (2 million square kilometers) less than the average global minimum extent for 1981-2010 -- the equivalent of having lost a chunk of sea ice larger than Mexico. The ice floating on top of the Arctic Ocean and surrounding seas shrinks in a seasonal cycle from mid-March until mid-September. As the Arctic temperatures drop in the autumn and winter, the ice cover grows again until it reaches its yearly maximum extent, typically in March. The ring of sea ice around the Antarctic continent behaves in a similar manner, with the calendar flipped: it usually reaches its maximum in September and its minimum in February. This winter, a combination of warmer-than-average temperatures, winds unfavorable to ice expansion, and a series of storms halted sea ice growth in the Arctic. This year's maximum extent, reached on March 7 at 5.57 million square miles (14.42 million square kilometers), is 37,000 square miles (97,00 square kilometers) below the previous record low, which occurred in 2015, and 471,000 square miles (1.22 million square kilometers) smaller than the average maximum extent for 1981-2010.
Mars

SpaceX Disappointed In Lack of NASA Mars Funding; Starts Looking For Landing Sites For Its Own Mars Missions 103

frank249 writes: Elon Musk says that the new NASA authorization legislation "changes almost nothing about what NASA is doing. Existing programs stay in place and there is no added funding for Mars." From a report via Ars Technica: "Musk is absolutely correct on two counts. First, an 'authorization' bill does not provide funding. That comes from appropriations committees. Secondly, while Congress has been interested in building rockets and spacecraft, it is far less interested in investing in the kinds of technology and research that would actually enable a full-fledged Mars exploration program." In other news, SpaceNews reports that "SpaceX has been working with NASA to identify potential landing sites on Mars for both its Red Dragon spacecraft (starting in 2020) and future human missions." From the report: "Paul Wooster of SpaceX said the company, working with scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and elsewhere, had identified several potential landing sites, including one that looks particularly promising -- Arcadia Planitia. Those landing sites are of particular interest, he said, for SpaceX's long-term vision of establishing a human settlement on Mars, but he said the company wouldn't rule out sending Red Dragon spacecraft elsewhere on the planet to serve other customers. 'We're quite open to making use of this platform to take various payloads to other locations as well,' he said. 'We're really looking to turn this into a steady cadence, where we're sending Dragons to Mars on basically every opportunity.' The Red Dragon spacecraft, he said, could carry about one ton of useful payload to Mars, with options for those payloads to remain in the capsule after landing or be deployed on the surface. 'SpaceX is a transportation company,' he said. 'We transport cargo to the space station, we deliver payloads to orbit, so we're very happy to deliver payloads to Mars.'" Fans of the book/movie "The Martian" would be happy if SpaceX does select Arcadia Planitia for their first landing site as that was the landing site of the Ares 3.

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