SpaceX made history in May when its Dragon capsule became the first privately-built spacecraft to dock at the International Space Station. Now, the company has released a YouTube video that follows its historic journey through space, from liftoff to its return drop in the Pacific Ocean.
The video begins with footage from SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launch on May 22 that carried the Dragon spacecraft into orbit from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. It also features footage of it orbiting the Earth, U.S. astronaut Don Pettit opening Dragon’s hatch and SpaceX’s reaction to the successful mission.
Not only was the Dragon the first privately developed vehicle in history to ever successfully attach to the International Space Station, only four governments — the United States, Russia, Japan and the European Space Agency — had previously achieved this feat.
SpaceX — which has a $1.6 billion contract to fly 12 supply missions — is gearing up for more launches in the near future. The first contracted cargo flight is scheduled for September.
What do you think of the video? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.
A MQ-9 Reaper drone, armed with GBU-12 Paveway II laser guided munitions and AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, piloted by Col. Lex Turner during a combat mission over southern Afghanistan.
Image: AP Photo/Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt, US Air Force/Associated Press
In an unprecedented decision, a federal appeals court ordered the U.S. government to release a memo detailing the legal justification behind the killing of American citizens by drone strikes overseas.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Monday that the government can’t claim the memo needs to be secret anymore, because various U.S. officials have repeatedly acknowledged the so-called targeted drone strikes program in general and the killings of three American citizens in Yemen in 2011 in particular. This is an addition to a U.S. Department of Justice White Paper, leaked by NBC News and confirmed by DOJ, which explained the legal rationale behind drone strikes.
“Whatever protection the legal analysis might once have had has been lost by virtue of public statements of public officials at the highest levels and official disclosure of the DOJ White Paper,” wrote Judge Jon O. Newman in a decision (embedded below), that was made unanimously by a three judge panel in Manhattan.
Monday’s decision overturns a January 2013 lower court ruling that allowed the Department of Justice to keep secret a memorandum that provided the legal justification for the drone strikes that killed three United States citizens in Yemen: Anwar al-Awlaki, a cleric who allegedly had become a prominent Al-Qaeda spokesperson, his 16-year-old son Abdulrahman, and Samir Khan.
At the time, U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon ruled in favor of secrecy despite the fact that she found herself in a “paradoxical situation” of letting the government claim it was legal to kill Americans outside of declared war zones, while also claiming it can’t reveal the legal reasoning behind that decision.
“The Alice-in-Wonderland nature of this pronouncement is not lost on me,” she wrote.
The lawsuit in Monday’s decision was filed by The New York Times, which has filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see the legal memo, with the support of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
It’s unclear whether the DOJ will now appeal the decision, and, for now, there’s no timetable for the release of the documents.
Both the Times and the ACLU, however, celebrated the ruling.
“This is a resounding rejection of the government’s effort to use secrecy and selective disclosure to manipulate public opinion about the targeted killing program,” ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer said in an emailed statement. “The public has a right to know why the administration believes it can carry out targeted killings of American citizens who are located far away from any conventional battlefield.”
“The court reaffirmed a bedrock principle of democracy: The people do not have to accept blindly the government’s assurances that it is operating within the bounds of the law; they get to see for themselves the legal justification that the government is working from,” David McCraw, the Times‘ lawyer, said in a statement.
Here’s the full ruling from the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Air traffic controllers, from left, Kristen Karcz, Bob Francis and Ross Leshinsky work in the tower at Logan International Airport in Boston, Friday, Nov. 15, 2013.
Image: Michael Dwyer/Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Air traffic controllers are still working schedules known as “rattlers” that make it likely for them to get little or no sleep before overnight shifts, more than three years after a series of incidents involving controllers sleeping on the job, according to a government report released Friday.
A report by the National Research Council expressed concern about the effectiveness of the Federal Aviation Administration’s program to prevent its 15,000 controllers from suffering fatigue on the job, a program that has been hit with budget cuts. The 12-member committee of academic and industry experts who wrote the report at the behest of Congress said FAA officials refused to allow them to review results of prior research the agency conducted with NASA examining how work schedules affect controller performance.
The FAA-NASA research results “have remained in a ‘for official use only’ format” since 2009 and have not been released to the public, the report said.
The committee stressed its concern that controllers are still working schedules that cram five eight-hour work shifts into four 24-hour periods. The schedules are popular with controllers; at the end of their last shift, they have 80 hours off before returning to work the next week. But controllers also call the shifts “rattlers” because they “turn around and bite back.”
An example of the kind of schedule that alarmed the report’s authors begins with two consecutive day shifts ending at 10 p.m. followed by two consecutive morning shifts beginning at 7 a.m. The controller gets off work at 3 p.m. after the second morning shift and returns to work at about 11 p.m. the same day for an overnight shift — the fifth and last shift of the workweek.
When factoring in commute times and the difficulty people have sleeping during the day when the human body’s circadian rhythms are “promoting wakefulness,” controllers are “unlikely to log a substantial amount of sleep, if any, before the final midnight shift,” the report said.
“From a fatigue and safety perspective, this scheduling is questionable and the committee was astonished to find that it is still allowed under current regulations,” the report said. The combination of “acute sleep loss” while working overnight hours when circadian rhythms are at their lowest ebb and people most crave sleep “increases the risk for fatigue and for associated errors and accidents,” the report said.
FAA officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the report.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association defended the scheduling, citing the 2009 study that hasn’t been publicly released. The union said in a statement that NASA’s research showed that “with proper rest periods,” the rattler “actually produced less periods of fatigue risk to the overall schedule.”
In 2011, FAA officials and then-Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood promised reforms after a nearly a dozen incidents in which air traffic controllers were discovered sleeping on the job or didn’t respond to calls from pilots trying to land planes late at night. In one episode, two airliners landed at Washington D.C.‘s Reagan National Airport without the aid of a controller because the lone controller on the overnight shift had fallen asleep. In another case, a medical flight with a seriously ill patient had to circle an airport in Reno, Nevada, before landing because the controller had fallen asleep.
Studies show most night shift workers, not just controllers, face difficulties staying awake regardless of how much sleep they have gotten. That’s especially true if they aren’t active or don’t have work that keeps them mentally engaged. Controllers on night shifts often work in darkened rooms with frequent periods of little or no air traffic to occupy their attention, conditions scientists say are conducive to falling asleep.
“We all know what happens with fatigue,” said Mathias Basner, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania medical school and the sleep expert on the committee. “The first thing you expect to see is attention going down, reaction time slows, you have behavioral lapses or micro-sleeps. … If you have to react quickly in that situation, that is problematic.”
After the 2011 incidents with falling asleep, the FAA stopped scheduling controllers to work alone on overnight shifts at 27 airports and air traffic facilities and increased the minimum time between work shifts to nine hours.
Another change was the creation of a “fatigue risk management program” for controllers. However, budget cuts “have eliminated the program’s capability to monitor fatigue concerns proactively and to investigate whether initiatives to reduce fatigue risks are providing the intended benefits,” the report said.
Basner said the FAA was making no effort to determine whether there is a correlation between work schedules and controllers errors. For example, there were near collisions between airliners near Honolulu and Houston recently.
On April 25, 2014, a controller failed to notice when two airliners were on a collision course in Honolulu. The pilot of one of the aircrafts had to initiate an abrupt dive to avoid an accident.
In Houston, two planes almost collided during takeoff — the aircraft came within a few hundred feet of each other when a controller told one plane to turn right when it was supposed to turn left.
The FAA and the controllers’ union have established a program that encourages controllers to report errors by promising they won’t be penalized for honest mistakes. The reports are entered into a database that the agency is supposed to use to spot trends or problem areas. But controllers are sometimes too busy to file reports, and the report forms don’t seek information on the controller’s schedule or other details that might be used to determine whether schedules are contributing to errors, Basner said.
When FAA officials were asked about this, they indicated “they didn’t see the necessity to analyze the data that way,” he said.
The committee also thought it was “a bit strange” that FAA officials wouldn’t show them their 2009 study conducted with NASA, Basner added.
“You would think you would get 100% support, but we didn’t get it.”
NASA wants to create a robotic gas station in space.
While that might call to mind visions of interstellar starships, the unmanned depot won’t actually be used to refuel rockets leading to the outer solar system or other worlds. Instead, it will service satellites orbiting Earth.
Thousands of satellites currently circle the Earth, transmitting everything from GPS navigation signals to weather forecasts to television shows, and all of them need fuel to maneuver in orbit. Without a way to refuel these aging machines, many satellites that could otherwise provide many more years of service break down and are retired.
NASA’s Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland teamed with the Kennedy Space Center (in Florida) in 2011 to concoct a way to refuel satellites as they zip around the planet. Under their solution, this refueling will be carried out robotically.
By creating this new technology, “NASA hopes to add precious years of functional life to satellites and expand options for operators who face unexpected emergencies, tougher economic demands and aging fleets,” NASA’s Bob Granath wrote in a statement.
This robotic technology is not limited to fueling, though. NASA can also use it to fix malfunctioning satellites and build entirely new structures in outer space.
The partnership between Goddard and Kennedy has been fruitful thanks to each organization’s special capabilities. Kennedy’s long history of preparing spacecraft for launch, for instance, meant that it had a lot of experience with loading propellant. In addition, because of Kennedy’s involvement, “project participants were able to use existing equipment, facilities and excess Space Shuttle Program hardware, saving millions of dollars in development costs,” NASA said.
Goddard, meanwhile, focused on the robotics. In fact, they recently shipped a robotic arm to Kennedy, 800 miles (1,287 kilometers) away, to test the system’s remote-control capability. During the test, the remote robot operator, located at Goddard, connected the end of the robot arm to a valve on the side of a simulated satellite, which was located at Kennedy. The Kennedy team then made sure that the nitrogen tetroxide, a substance commonly used in spacecraft, flowed smoothly through the valve.
One beneficial side effect of refueling satellites in orbit is that it lessens the amount of dangerous space junk in the area just above Earth’s atmosphere. Instead of having dead satellites floating around uncontrolled, engineers on the ground can extend their lives with refueling, putting off costly launches and slowing the rate of material sent into space. At the geosynchronous orbit level, a region 22,236 miles (35,786 km) above Earth, there are more than 100 government-owned spacecraft and 360 “commercial communication satellites.”
Therefore, “the capability to refuel and repair satellites at this orbit could make GEO [geosynchronous Earth orbit] more sustainable and help mitigate orbital debris problems,” officials with NASA’s Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office wrote on their website.
The sun fired off a spectacular eruption last weekend, and a NASA spacecraft captured amazing video of the violent solar outburst.
A super-hot solar filament erupted in grand style Saturday (Aug. 4), arcing into space and connecting two huge sunspots. NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) spacecraft had a front-row seat for the action, and its video footage of the sun eruption is both bizarre and beautiful.
The filament appears pinkish-purple through SDO’s ultraviolet filters, and it stands out against a solar surface of mottled green, yellow and dark purple hues.
The tendril’s hot plasma snakes between the sunspots AR 1538 and AR 1540. Sunspots are temporary blotches on the sun that appear dark because they’re cooler than the rest of the solar surface. Solar flares and massive blasts of plasma called coronal mass ejections (CMEs) often erupt from sunspots, which can be many times larger than the Earth’s diameter.
The Aug. 4 outburst also propelled an enormous CME into space. CMEs that hit Earth directly can wreak havoc, temporarily disrupting GPS communications, satellite navigation and power grids. But Saturday’s solar storm shouldn’t pose any serious problems, scientists said.
“The cloud is not heading directly toward Earth, but it could deliver a glancing blow to our planet’s magnetic field on August 7/8,” the website Spaceweather.com wrote. “High-latitude skywatchers should be alert for auroras on those dates.”
The sun is currently in an active phase of its 11-year solar cycle, and it should continue to fire off big storms for a while yet. Experts expect the current cycle, known as Solar Cycle 24, to peak in 2013.
The $850 million SDO spacecraft, which launched in February 2010, is the first in a fleet of NASA efforts to study our sun. The probe’s five-year mission is the cornerstone of a NASA science program called Living with a Star, which aims to help scientists better understand aspects of the sun-Earth system that affect our lives and society.
Dark energy, the mysterious substance thought to be accelerating the expansion of the universe, almost certainly exists despite some astronomers’ doubts, a new study says.
After a two-year study, an international team of researchers concludes that the probability of dark energy being real stands at 99.996%. But the scientists still don’t know what the stuff is.
“Dark energy is one of the great scientific mysteries of our time, so it isn’t surprising that so many researchers question its existence,” co-author Bob Nichol, of the University of Portsmouth in Engalnd, said in a statement. “But with our new work we’re more confident than ever that this exotic component of the universe is real — even if we still have no idea what it consists of.”
The Roots of Dark Energy
Scientists have known since the 1920s that the universe is expanding. Most assumed that gravity would slow this expansion gradually, or even cause the universe to begin contracting one day.
But in 1998, two separate teams of researchers discovered that the universe’s expansion is actually speeding up. In the wake of this shocking find — which earned three of the discoverers the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2011 — researchers proposed the existence of dark energy, an enigmatic force pushing the cosmos apart.
Dark energy is thought to make up 73% of the universe, though no one can say exactly what it is. (Twenty-three percent of the universe is similarly strange dark matter, scientists say, while the remaining 4% is “normal” matter that we can see and feel.)
Still, not all astronomers are convinced that dark energy is real, and many have been trying to confirm its existence for the past decade or so.
Hunting for Dark Energy
One of the best lines of evidence for the existence of dark energy comes from something called the Integrated Sachs Wolfe effect, researchers said.
In 1967, astronomers Rainer Sachs and Arthur Wolfe proposed that light from the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation — the thermal imprint left by the Big Bang that created our universe — should become slightly bluer as it passes through the gravitational fields of lumps of matter.
Three decades later, other researchers ran with the idea, suggesting astronomers could look for these small changes in the light’s energy by comparing the temperature of the distant CMB radiation with maps of nearby galaxies.
If dark energy doesn’t exist, there should be no correspondence between the two maps. But if dark energy is real, then, strangely, the CMB light should be seen to gain energy as it moves through large lumps of mass, researchers said.
This latter scenario is known as the Integrated Sachs Wolfe effect, and it was first detected in 2003. However, the signal is relatively weak, and some astronomers have questioned if it’s really strong evidence for dark energy after all.
Re-examining the Data
In the new study, the researchers re-examine the arguments against the Integrated Sachs Wolfe detection, and they update the maps used in the original work.
In the end, the team determined that there is a 99.996% chance that dark energy is responsible for the hotter parts of the CMB maps, researchers said.
“This work also tells us about possible modifications to Einstein’s theory of general relativity,” said lead author Tommaso Giannantonio, of Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich in Germany. “The next generation of cosmic microwave background and galaxy surveys should provide the definitive measurement, either confirming general relativity, including dark energy, or even more intriguingly, demanding a completely new understanding of how gravity works,” Giannantonio added.
The team’s findings have been published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Warning: If you are looking for a story about the romance of space travel — the adventure, the wonder, the transcendence of what we know in the name of exploring a great unknown — this is not that. Turn away now.
On Earth, we barely notice that process: Our skin cells molt and and gravity pulls them away from our bodies, conveniently and invisibly. In space, however, there is no gravity to pull the dead cells (technically: the detritus) away. Which means that the detritus, left to its own devices, simply floats. Which, given the fact that multiple astronauts live on the Space Station at the same time, and the fact that even highly trained space travelers might get skeeved out by floating clouds of dead skin, is less than ideal.
In the video above, former ISS denizen Don Pettit describes what happens when, in particular, you take your socks off on the Station. “This cloud, this explosion of skin particles — detritus — floats out,” he says. “And you’re in this weightless environment, and the particles have nowhere to go but out.”
That’s even true of foot calluses — which, after a few months of weightlessness, tend to soften. I’ll leave the details to Pettit, but the bottom line is this: If you ever find yourself living on a space station, make sure the station’s ventilation system works really, really well. Because, as astronaut Mike Massimino warns in the video: “This sounds actually pretty disgusting.”
“Well, it is,” Pettit replies. “But it’s part of being a human.”
When bacteria grows in a dish of fake urine in space, it behaves in ways never-before-seen in Earth microorganisms, scientists say.
A team of scientists sent samples of the bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa into orbit aboard NASA’s space shuttle Atlantis to see how they grew in comparison to their Earth-dwelling counterparts.
The 3D communities of microorganisms (called biofilms) grown aboard the space shuttle had more live cells, were thicker and had more biomass than the bacterial colonies grown in normal gravity on Earth as controls. The space bacteria also grew in a “column-and-canopy” structure that has never been observed in bacterial colonies on Earth, according to NASA scientists.
“Biofilms were rampant on the Mir space station and continue to be a challenge on the [International Space Station], but we still don’t really know what role gravity plays in their growth and development,” NASA’s study leader Cynthia Collins, an assistant professor in the department of chemical and biological engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., said in a statement. “Our study offers the first evidence that spaceflight affects community-level behaviors of bacteria, and highlights the importance of understanding how both harmful and beneficial human-microbe interactions may be altered during spaceflight.”
Most biofilms found in the human body and in nature are harmless, but some are associated with disease, NASA officials said.
The space bacteria were cultured in artificial urine on NASA’s Atlantis shuttle in 2010 and again in 2011 before the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle program. Collins and her team of researchers used fabricated urine because it can be used to study the formation of biofilm outside and inside the body. Understanding how to safely remove and recycle waste is particularly relevant because of its importance in long-term spaceflight, NASA officials said.
“The unique appearance and structure of the P. aeruginosa biofilms formed in microgravity suggests that nature is capable of adapting to nonterrestrial environments in ways that deserve further studies, including studies exploring long-term growth and adaptation to a low-gravity environment,” Collins said in a statement. “Before we start sending astronauts to Mars or embarking on other long-term spaceflight missions, we need to be as certain as possible that we have eliminated or significantly reduced the risk that biofilms pose to the human crew and their equipment.”
Scientists sent 12 devices with eight vials of P. aeruginosa — a bacterium that can be associated with disease on Earth — into orbit on Atlantis. Once in space, astronauts on the shuttle introduced the bacterium to the fake urine while scientists on the ground began the control experiment.
After the samples arrived safely on Earth, Collins and her team took a detailed 3D image of the biofilms to investigate their internal structure, and used other research methods to investigate the colony’s thickness and cell growth.
The study, published in the April 20 issue of the journal PLOS ONE, also could have implications for bacterial research on Earth. It’s possible that this kind of research could help scientists and doctors more effectively limit the spread of infection in hospitals, Collins said.
Did you hear about the new restaurant on the moon? Great food, but no atmosphere.
While that wisecrack has been floating about in space circles for decades, a NASA lunar orbiter will gather detailed information about the moon’s atmosphere next year, including conditions near its surface and environmental influences on lunar dust.
NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) is to depart the Earth for the moon in August 2013. LADEE is loaded with science gear, including instruments that can address a lingering question that’s rooted in space history: Are electrostatically lofted lunar dust particles present within the moon’s tenuous atmosphere?
Twilight Rays on the Moon
In the 1960s, several NASA Surveyor moon landers relayed images showing a twilight glow low over the lunar horizon persisting after the sun had set. Also, a number of Apollo astronauts orbiting the moon saw twilight rays before lunar sunrise or lunar sunset.
In addition, some have floated the theory that the glowing transient lunar phenomenon seen from Earth might stem from sunlight reflecting off of suspended lunar dust.
LADEE will investigate this moon magic trick of levitating lunar dust. The spacecraft has the tools it needs to address mysteries and questions that have been around since Apollo, said Rick Elphic, LADEE project scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.
Ames is responsible for managing the mission, building the spacecraft and performing mission operations.
Elphic told SPACE.com that among its duties, the LADEE mission can further investigate tantalizing hints about the dust and the moon’s exotic atmosphere.
“If we fly LADEE through the regions where the Apollo command module observations were made, we will know right away if there are small grains there or not,” Elphic said. LADEE’s Lunar Dust Experiment (LDEX) is a very sensitive dust-detecting instrument, he said, and scientists may be able to place new upper limits on the dust in the first week of the spacecraft’s orbiting operations.
Nagging Moon Question
“If LADEE never sees levitated dust, that settles the question for the high-altitude observations, at least for its mission time frame,” Elphic said.
Still, there’s the nagging question about what Surveyor saw, the near-surface horizon glow. “That might be something else entirely, and can only be addressed with a surface mission,” Elphic said.
“If LADEE does see dust, we will then have a basis for expecting the same phenomena at all other ‘nearly-airless’ bodies around the solar system,” Elphic added.
This dust may not pose much of a hazard, Elphic added, but the physics will need to be explained. Right now, no one has a good end-to-end model for getting dust to loft and secondly, stay suspended for long periods, he said.
“If LADEE observes levitated dust, then scientists will have to explain it. Right now, no one can,” Elphic said.
One-Way Trip Off the Moon
One scientist ready for the new data to be gleaned by LADEE is Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, Apollo 17 moonwalker and geologist. He and astronaut Eugene Cernan walked the lunar surface in December 1972 — the last mission of the Apollo moon landings.
“I do not know if LADEE will see lunar dust in the lunar atmosphere, but I will not be surprised if there is none,” Schmitt told SPACE.com. “We know about several transient gases in that atmosphere, and these may be what causes the horizon glow at sunrise and sunset.”
Moon dust, Schmitt added, was always been on his mind.
“My concern about levitated dust has always been that levitation, if it occurs at all, probably has to be a one-way trip off the moon … because many flat rock surfaces are essentially free of very fine dust, as I personally witnessed on Apollo 17.”
Schmitt said that if dust has been levitated and then dropped again, he would expect the rock surfaces to be covered with such dust.
“Nonetheless, LADEE data on this question, as well as various gases, should give us a lot to think about,” Schmitt said.
The Federal Communications Commission announced on Wednesday it will hold field hearings examining ways to keep communications systems up and running during natural disasters like Superstorm Sandy.
Lawmakers called for probes into communications outages after Sandy left as much as 25% of cell sites in its path inoperable when it hit the East Coast in October.
“This unprecedented storm has revealed new challenges that will require a national dialogue around ideas and actions to ensure the resilience of communications networks,” FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a statement.
The hearings will start in 2013, with the first round in New York and continuing in other disaster-prone areas of the country.
In the wake of Sandy, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called for the FCC to determine where system weaknesses exist and develop plans to make communications networks more resilient.
“Field hearings will increase our understanding of the problems encountered during Superstorm Sandy and harvest the best ideas to ensure that mobile phone service doesn’t fail after future storms,” he said in a statement after the FCC announced the hearings. “Mobile communication has become an essential part of our lives, and increasing its reliability must be a top priority.”
Several House Democrats have also called for a congressional hearing on the issue.
Harold Feld, senior vice president at the consumer group Public Knowledge, said he hopes the outages will lead to federal standards for communications networks.
“Hopefully, the experience with Sandy underscores how dependent we as a nation have become on these networks, and that the federal government does indeed have a role in setting minimum standards for preparedness and response,” he said.