NASA to launch a deep-space atomic clock tonight

NASA is set to launch an incredible new atomic clock into orbit on a Falcon Heavy today (June 24) in a technology demonstration mission that could transform the way humans explore space.

The Deep Space Atomic Clock, developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is a space-ready upgrade to the atomic clocks we use here on Earth and to the clocks that already fly on satellites like those that provide GPS.

Ideally, this new atomic clock will make spacecraft navigation to distant objects in space — on the journey to Mars, for example — more autonomous, NASA said in a statement. The precision in measurement of the spacecraft’s position that scientists hope to get with the Deep Space Atomic Clock will allow spacecraft traveling in deep space to act on their own, without much communication with Earth. It’d be a huge improvement to how spacecraft are currently navigated, NASA said.

Related: This Is What 2 Dozen Satellites Look Like Packed for Launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy

But how does it work?

Astronomers already use clocks to navigate in space. They send a signal to the spacecraft, which sends it back to Earth. The time of that round trip tells scientists the spacecraft’s distance from Earth. That’s because the signal is traveling at the speed of light, so armed with the time it took to go to the spacecraft and back, finding distance is but a simple calculation away. By sending multiple signals over time, scientists can calculate a spacecraft’s trajectory — both where it was and where it’s going.

But in order to know a spacecraft’s location within a small margin of error, astronomers need very precise clocks that can measure billionths of a second, according to NASA. They also need clocks that are extremely stable. “Stability” here refers to how consistently a clock measures a unit of time. While you’d think that clocks always measure the same length of time as a “second,” clocks have a tendency to drift and slowly mark longer and longer times as a “second.” For measuring the locations of spacecrafts in distant space, astronomers need their atomic clocks to be consistent to better than a billionth of a second over days and weeks.

Modern clocks, from those we wear on our wrists to those used on satellites , most often keep time using a quartz crystal oscillator. These take advantage of the fact that quartz crystals vibrate at a precise frequency when voltage is applied to them, NASA said in the statement. The vibrations act like the pendulum in a grandfather clock.

But, by the standards of space navigation, quartz crystal clocks aren’t very stable at all. After six weeks, they may be off by a full millisecond, which translates at the speed of light to 185 miles (300 kilometers). That much error would have a huge impact on measuring the position of a fast-moving spacecraft, NASA said.

Atomic clocks combine quartz crystal oscillators with certain types of atoms to create better stability. NASA’s Deep Space Atomic Clock will use mercury atoms and be off by less than a nanosecond after four days and less than a microsecond after 10 years. It would take 10 million years for the clock to be wrong by a whole second, according to NASA.

Related: A NASA Atomic Clock on SpaceX’s Next Falcon Heavy Will Pioneer Deep-Space Travel Tech

It may not be surprising to learn that atomic clocks take advantage of the structure of atoms, which are composed of a nucleus of protons and neutrons surrounded by electrons. The atoms of each element have a distinct structure, with a different number of protons in the nucleus. While the number of electrons each type of atom has can vary, the electrons occupy distinct energy levels, and a jolt of exactly the right amount of energy can cause an electron to jump to a higher energy level around the nucleus.

The energy required to make an electron do this jump is unique to each element and consistent to all atoms of that element. “The fact that the energy difference between these orbits is such a precise and stable value is really the key ingredient for atomic clocks,” Eric Burt, an atomic clock physicist at JPL, said in the statement. “It’s the reason atomic clocks can reach a performance level beyond mechanical clocks.”

In essence, atomic clocks can correct themselves. In an atomic clock, the frequency of the quartz oscillator is transformed into the frequency that is applied to a collection of atoms from a specific element. If the frequency is correct, it will cause many electrons in the atoms to jump energy levels. But if it’s not, fewer electrons will jump. That tells the clock that the quartz oscillator is off-frequency and how much to correct it. On the Deep Space Atomic Clock, this correction is calculated and applied to the quartz oscillator every few seconds.

But that’s not all that makes the Deep Space Atomic Clock special. This clock doesn’t just use mercury atoms, it also uses charged mercury ions.

Because ions are atoms that have electric charge, they can be contained in an electromagnetic “trap.” This keeps the atoms from interacting with the walls of a vacuum chamber, a common problem with the neutral atoms used in regular atomic clocks. When they interact with the vacuum walls, environmental changes such as temperature can cause changes in the atoms themselves, and lead to frequency errors.

The Deep Space Atomic Clock won’t be subject to such environmental changes, according to NASA, and so will be 50 times more stable than the clocks used on GPS satellites. After the clock launches today, scientists will be able to begin testing the clock’s precision as it spends days, then months in orbit.

The Deep Space Atomic Clock will launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket as one of two dozen payloads. The 4-hour launch window opens at 11:30 p.m. EDT (0330 June 25 GMT); visit Space.com tomorrow for complete coverage of the launch.

Voracious black holes could feed alien life on rogue worlds

Supermassive black holes lurk in the hearts of most galaxies. (Credit: NASA/SOFIA/Lynette Cook)

Supermassive black holes lurk in the hearts of most galaxies. (Credit: NASA/SOFIA/Lynette Cook)

Black holes are engines of destruction on a cosmic scale, but they may also be the bringers of life. New research on supermassive black holes suggests that the radiation they emit during feeding frenzies can create biomolecular building blocks and even power photosynthesis.

The upshot? Far more worlds roaming the Milky Way and beyond could be suitable to life, the researchers speculated.

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For their new study, published May 24 in the Astrophysical Journal, scientists created computer models to look at the radiating disks of gas and dust called active galactic nuclei, or AGN, that swirl around supermassive black holes. Some of the brightest objects in the universe, AGN form as a black hole’s gravity binds matter. As that matter swirls around a black hole, it releases incredible amounts of light and radiation. [9 Ideas About Black Holes That Will Blow Your Mind]

Since the early 1980s, scientists have suspected that this radiation would create a dead zone around an AGN. Some researchers even proposed that such an AGN could explain why we haven’t seen any complex extraterrestrial life towards the center of the Milky Way. Our galaxy has a monstrous black hole at its center, called Sagittarius A*. Previous studies have found that within 3,200 light-years of a Sagittarius A*-sized AGN, X-rays and ultraviolet light could strip the atmospheres from Earth-like planets. (The Milky Way is nearly 53,000 light-years across.)

“People have mostly been talking about the detrimental effects [of black holes],” Manasvi Lingam, lead author on the study and an astronomer at Harvard University, told Live Science. “We wanted to reexamine how detrimental [the radiation] is … and ask ourselves if there were any positives.”

The researchers’ models suggest that worlds with atmospheres that are thicker than Earth’s or those far enough away from an AGN to retain their atmospheres might still stand a chance of hosting life. At certain distances, there exists a galactic Goldilocks zone that gets just the right amount of ultraviolet radiation.

At this level of radiation, the atmosphere wouldn’t be stripped away, but the radiation could break apart molecules, creating compounds that are necessary for building proteins, lipids and DNA — the cornerstones to life, at least as we know it. For a black hole the size of Sagittarius A*, the Goldilocks region would extend approximately 140 light-years from the black hole’s center, where 1 light-year is 93 million miles (150 million kilometers).

The scientists also looked at the effects of the radiation on photosynthesis, the process by which most plants utilize the sun’s energy to create sugars. And AGN emit enormous amounts of that key ingredient — light. This would be particularly important for plants on free-floating planets, which have no nearby host star to provide a light source. Astronomers have estimated there could be around 1 billion such rogue planets drifting in the Goldilocks zone of a Milky Way-like galaxy, according to Manasvi.

Calculating the area over which AGN could power photosynthesis, the scientists found that large portions of galaxies, particularly those with supermassive black holes, could have AGN-powered photosynthesis. For a galaxy similar to our own, this region would extend around 1,100 light-years out from the center of the galaxy. In small, dense galaxies called ultracompact dwarfs, more than half of the galaxy could reside in that photosynthetic zone.

Taking a fresh look at the negative effects of the ultraviolet and X-ray radiation in these zones, the scientists in the new study further found that the adverse consequences of an AGN neighbor have been exaggerated in the past. Bacteria on Earth have created biofilms to protect themselves from ultraviolet rays, and life in ultraviolet-heavy areas could have developed similar techniques.

X-rays and gamma-rays, which AGNs also spew in enormous quantities, are also readily absorbed by Earth-like atmospheres and would likely not have a large influence on life, the researchers said.

The scientists estimated that the damaging effects of AGN radiation likely would end at around 100 light-years out from a Sagittarius A*-size black hole.

“Looking at what we know about Earth, it does suggest that maybe the positive effects seem to be extended over a larger region than the negative effects,” Lingam told Live Science. “That was definitely surprising.”

Senators get classified briefing on UFO sightings

Senators get classified briefing by Pentagon on UFO sightings.

Three more U.S. senators received a classified Pentagon briefing on Wednesday about a series of reported encounters by the Navy with unidentified aircraft, according to congressional and military officials — part of a growing number of requests from members of key oversight committees.

One of them was Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, whose office confirmed the briefing to POLITICO.

“If naval pilots are running into unexplained interference in the air, that’s a safety concern Senator Warner believes we need to get to the bottom of,” his spokesperson, Rachel Cohen, said in a statement.

The interest in “unidentified aerial phenomenon” has grown since revelations in late 2017 that the Pentagon had set up a program to study the issue at the request of then-Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Officials interviewed multiple current and former sailors and aviators who claim to have encountered highly advanced aircraft that appeared to defy the laws of aerodynamics when they intruded on protected military airspace — some of which were captured on video and made public.

The Navy has played a prominent role in light of the testimony of F/A-18 pilots and other personnel operating with the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier battle group off California in 2004 and the USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Atlantic in 2015 and 2016.

The growing congressional interest is credited for playing a major role in the service’s recent decision to update the procedures for reporting such unexplained sightings, which POLITICO first reported in April.

“Navy officials did indeed meet with interested congressional members and staffers on Wednesday to provide a classified brief on efforts to understand and identify these threats to the safety and security of our aviators,” spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Daniel Day said in a statement.

He said “follow-up discussions with other interested staffers” were also scheduled for Thursday. “Navy officials will continue to keep interested congressional members and staff informed. Given the classified nature of these discussions, we will not comment on the specific information provided in these Hill briefings.”

The briefings come several days after President Donald Trump told ABC News that he, too, had been briefed on the reports. “I did have one very brief meeting on it,” he said. “But people are saying they’re seeing UFOs. Do I believe it? Not particularly.”

But several current and former officials with direct knowledge describe the Capitol Hill briefing as the latest for members of Congress and their staff representing the Intelligence, Armed Services and Defense Appropriations panels.

“There are people coming out of the woodwork,” said one former government official who has participated in some of the meetings.

A current intelligence official added: “More requests for briefings are coming in.”

The sessions have been organized by the Navy but have also included staff from the under secretary of Defense for Intelligence, the sources said. Both were not authorized to talk publicly about the briefings.

Advocates for giving the mystery greater attention say they hope Congress will take more formal steps, such as requiring the Department of Defense to collect and complete a detailed analysis of data collected by satellites and other means of unidentified craft intruding into military airspace or operating under the sea.

NASA’s Cassini reveals New Sculpting in Saturn Rings

As NASA’s Cassini dove close to Saturn in its final year, the spacecraft provided intricate detail on the workings of Saturn’s complex rings, new analysis shows.


A false-color image mosaic shows Daphnis, one of Saturn’s ring-embedded moons, and the waves it kicks up in the Keeler gap. Images collected by Cassini’s close orbits in 2017 are offering new insight into the complex workings of the rings.Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

As NASA’s Cassini dove close to Saturn in its final year, the spacecraft provided intricate detail on the workings of Saturn’s complex rings, new analysis shows.

Although the mission ended in 2017, science continues to flow from the data collected. A new paper published June 13 in Science describes results from four Cassini instruments taking their closest-ever observations of the main rings.

Findings include fine details of features sculpted by masses embedded within the rings. Textures and patterns, from clumpy to strawlike, pop out of the images, raising questions about the interactions that shaped them. New maps reveal how colors, chemistry and temperature change across the rings.

Like a planet under construction inside a disk of protoplanetary material, tiny moons embedded in Saturn’s rings (named A through G, in order of their discovery) interact with the particles around them. In that way, the paper provides further evidence that the rings are a window into the astrophysical disk processes that shape our solar system.

The observations also deepen scientists’ understanding of the complex Saturn system. Scientists conclude that at the outer edge of the main rings, a series of similar impact-generated streaks in the F ring have the same length and orientation, showing that they were likely caused by a flock of impactors that all struck the ring at the same time. This shows that the ring is shaped by streams of material that orbit Saturn itself rather than, for instance, by cometary debris (moving around the Sun) that happens to crash into the rings.

“These new details of how the moons are sculpting the rings in various ways provide a window into solar system formation, where you also have disks evolving under the influence of masses embedded within them,” said lead author and Cassini scientist Matt Tiscareno of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California.

Enduring Mysteries

At the same time, new puzzles have arisen and old mysteries have deepened with the latest research. The close-up ring images brought into focus three distinct textures — clumpy, smooth and streaky — and made it clear that these textures occur in belts with sharp boundaries. But why? In many places the belts aren’t connected to any ring characteristics that scientists have yet identified.

“This tells us the way the rings look is not just a function of how much material there is,” Tiscareno said. “There has to be something different about the characteristics of the particles, perhaps affecting what happens when two ring particles collide and bounce off each other. And we don’t yet know what it is.”

The data analyzed were gathered during the Ring Grazing Orbits (December 2016 to April 2017) and the Grand Finale (April to September 2017), when Cassini flew just above Saturn’s cloud tops. As the spacecraft was running out of fuel, the mission team deliberately plunged it into the planet’s atmosphere in September 2017.

Cassini’s Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) uncovered another mystery. The spectrometer, which imaged the rings in visible and near-infrared light, identified unusually weak water-ice bands in the outermost part of the A ring. That was a surprise, because the area is known to be highly reflective, which usually is a sign of less-contaminated ice and thus stronger water ice bands.

The new spectral map also sheds light on the composition of the rings. And while scientists already knew that water ice is the main component, the spectral map ruled out detectable ammonia ice and methane ice as ingredients. But it also doesn’t see organic compounds — a surprise, given the organic material Cassini has discovered flowing from the D ring into Saturn’s atmosphere.

“If organics were there in large amounts — at least in the main A, B and C rings — we’d see them,” said Phil Nicholson, Cassini VIMS scientist of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. “I’m not convinced yet that they are a major component of the main rings.”

The research signals the start of the next era of Cassini science, said NASA’s Ames Research Center’s Jeff Cuzzi, who’s been studying Saturn’s rings since the 1970s and is the interdisciplinary scientist for rings on the Cassini mission.

“We see so much more, and closer up, and we’re getting new and more interesting puzzles,” Cuzzi said. “We are just settling into the next phase, which is building new, detailed models of ring evolution — including the new revelation from Cassini data that the rings are much younger than Saturn.”

The new observations give scientists an even more intimate view of the rings than they had before, and each examination reveals new complexities, said Cassini Project Scientist Linda Spilker, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

“It’s like turning the power up one more notch on what we could see in the rings. Everyone just got a clearer view of what’s going on,” Spilker said. “Getting that extra resolution answered many questions, but so many tantalizing ones remain.”

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. JPL designed, developed and assembled the Cassini orbiter. The radio antenna was built by JPL and the Italian Space Agency, working with team members from the U.S. and several European countries.

More information about Cassini can be found here: https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/cassini


Story Source:

Materials provided by NASA/Jet Propulsion LaboratoryNote: Content may be edited for style and length.

Astronomers spot moon ‘flashing at us’ and no one can explain why

A new study suggests that a ‘large body,’ perhaps an ancient planet or asteroid, crashed into the Moon and gave it its distinctive features.

Humans have been noticing flashes of light coming from the Moon for thousands of years but we still don’t understand why this happens or what causes it.

The strange occurrence is known as a transient lunar phenomenon (TLP) and an astronomer from Germany thinks he’s on the cusp of solving this moon mystery.

Hakan Kayal from the University of Würzburg in Bavaria is working on a project that might reveal what causes the quick shifts of light and darkness on the Moon.

He is using a brand new type of telescope system that is based in Spain and it’s already making progress, despite only being used since April.

Kayal describes the TLP flashes as bursts of light that last for seconds but Popular Science notes that some ‘flashes’ have been observed lighting up the Moon surface for hours at a time.

Some other experts describe the light spikes as sparkly and red or pink.

TLP is often observed a few times a week and can sometimes leave dark spots on the Moon.

Popular explanations for them include meteorite impacts and gas released from moonquakes reflecting light abnormally.Video

The first confirmed sighting of TLP was made by a Russian astronomer in 1958 and the European Space Agency has since made a special telescope, called NELIOTA, which discovered that the flashes happen far more often that people first thought.

This is why explaining the flashing Moon is so hard because it happens so often and there could be multiple reasons for it.

Kayal’s new telescope system, which is still being developed, is fairly low budget and involves two telescopes that constantly observe the Moon with cameras and relay what they see to computers powered by artificially intelligent software.

This AI software is tasked with distinguishing lunar flashes from other bright phenomenon, like meteorites, so the possible causes of TLP can be whittled down.

Astronomers think it is important to understand what causes the phenomenon before humans reach the Moon again as some of the explanations for TLP could be dangerous.

Sun could unleash violent ‘superflare’ in the next century, researchers warn

Earth’s aging sun could produce a massive superflare in the coming century.

Superflares are explosive bursts of energy on stars that are visible across hundreds of light years. If a particularly strong one erupted from our sun, it would wipe out all technology on Earth, lead to widespread blackouts and cause trillions of dollars in economic damage.

Lloyd’s of London, the insurance company, estimates the damage from such an event would last between one and two years and cost in the range of $600 billion and $2.6 trillion, The Sun reported.

“Our study shows that superflares are rare events,” Yuta Notsu, a researcher in Colorado University-Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, said in a statement. “But there is some possibility that we could experience such an event in the next 100 years or so.”

Artist's impression shows a superflare near a distant star.

Artist’s impression shows a superflare near a distant star. (NASA, ESA and D. Player)

The data used in the study come from NASA’s Kepler space telescope, which has searched the sky for distant planets. The space agency saw the activity of stars and noticed starlight that would briefly brighten before getting dim. Those occurrences are known as superflares.

They also utilized the European Space Agency’s Gaia spacecraft and the Apache Point Observatory in Mexico, observing 43 superflares that came from stars similar in age and size to our own sun.

“If a superflare occurred 1,000 years ago, it was probably no big problem. People may have seen a large aurora,” Notsu said in a published statement, referencing phenomena like the Northern Lights. “Now, it’s a much bigger problem because of our electronics.”

Despite not knowing exactly when a superflare could happen, scientists advised people to do more to prepare for the possibility by protecting electronics from space radiation.

The results of the study were published in The Astrophysical Journal.

NASA set to visit mysterious metal dead planet

NASA is preparing for a mission that could see it visit a mysterious, dead planet in deep space.

Set for a target date of Jan. 31, 2026, the government space agency is preparing to send a spacecraft to the asteroid Pysche. Unlike most asteroids, which are largely comprised of rock and ice, researchers believe Pysche is made up of mostly iron and nickel, much like the Earth’s core.

“They [scientists] wonder whether Psyche could be the nickel-iron heart, or exposed core, of an early planet maybe as large as Mars that lost its rocky outer layers through violent collisions billions of years ago,” NASA wrote in a statement on its website. “If so, it would provide a unique look into the solar system’s distant past, when the kind of high-speed protoplanet encounters that created Earth and the other terrestrial planets were common.”

This artist's-concept illustration depicts the spacecraft of NASA's Psyche mission near the mission's target, the metal asteroid Psyche. The artwork was created in May 2017 to show the five-panel solar arrays planned for the spacecraft. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State Univ./Space Systems Loral/Peter Rubin)

This artist’s-concept illustration depicts the spacecraft of NASA’s Psyche mission near the mission’s target, the metal asteroid Psyche. The artwork was created in May 2017 to show the five-panel solar arrays planned for the spacecraft. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State Univ./Space Systems Loral/Peter Rubin)

Part of the asteroid belt, the 125-mile-wide Pysche orbits the Sun between Mars and Jupiter. It’s believed Pysche weighs 49 billion billion pounds, making it 0.03 percent the size of our Moon, according to Live Science. That would make it the 11th largest known asteroid in the solar system.

The largest asteroid in the solar system is Ceres, which is one-quarter the size of the Moon; it’s also considered the only dwarf planet in the inner solar system.

The mission is about to begin its Phase C, where the final design and fabrication are locked in, after an extensive review by NASA Headquarters.

“The Psyche team is not only elated that we have the go-ahead for Phase C, more importantly, we are ready,” said Principal Investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton in the statement. “With the transition into this new mission phase, we are one big step closer to uncovering the secrets of Psyche, a giant mysterious metallic asteroid, and that means the world to us.”

Despite the excitement surrounding the mission, it still has to go through three more phases, including Phase D, which will start sometime in early 2021.

If all goes well, the craft would launch in August 2022, fly past Mars in 2023 and eventually arrive at the asteroid in 2026.

Astronomers Find a “Massive, Dense Structure” Beneath the Largest Crater on the Moon

“The dense mass—”whatever it is, wherever it came from”—is weighing the basin floor downward by more than half a mile…”

Astronomers have recently found a strange, humongous deep mass structure beneath the largest crater in our solar system; the Moon’s South Pole Aitken basin.Advertisement

There, researchers discover an anomaly with a massive unexpected mass.

And although it’s not aliens, astronomers say that the mysterious mass may very well contain the metallic remnants from the asteroid that slammed into the moon, forming the crater.

“Imagine taking a pile of metal five times larger than the Big Island of Hawaii and burying it underground. That’s roughly how much unexpected mass we detected,” said lead author Peter B. James, Ph.D., assistant professor of planetary geophysics in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences.

Photo taken from Apollo 8 during the 1968 mission on their first approach to the Moon. Credits: NASA.
Photo taken from Apollo 8 during the 1968 mission on their first approach to the Moon.
Credits: NASA.

An oval crater

The crater located on the far side of the moon is an oval-shaped region around 2,000 kilometers wide.Advertisement

Measurements throughout th years have revealed it is several miles deep.

The new, anomalous mass beneath the crater is detailed in the study “Deep Structure of the Lunar South Pole-Aitken Basin” — is published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

To spot the anomaly, astronomers analyzed data from NASA’s Grail Mission which allowed them to accurately measure the changes in gravity strength around the moon.

“When we combined that with lunar topography data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, we discovered the unexpectedly large amount of mass hundreds of miles underneath the South Pole-Aitken basin,” James said.

“One of the explanations of this extra mass is that the metal from the asteroid that formed this crater is still embedded in the Moon’s mantle.”

The location of the underground structure circled in the South Pole-Atiken basin. Image Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/University of Arizona.
The location of the underground structure circled in the South Pole-Atiken basin. Image Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/University of Arizona.

Mysterious structure

The researchers revealed that the dense mass of the structure –“whatever it is, wherever it came from” is causing the entire basin floor to weigh in by more than half a mile.

The team of researchers revealed through computer simulations of asteroid collisions into the moon that under the right conditions, iron-nickel cores from asteroids could have been dispersed into the upper mantle of the moon during collisions.

“We did the math and showed that a sufficiently dispersed core of the asteroid that made the impact could remain suspended in the Moon’s mantle until the present day, rather than sinking to the Moon’s core,” James said.Advertisement

But also in addition to coming from asteroid impacts, astronomers say that the origin of the mysterious structure could be related to the concentration of extremely dense oxides, left there by the last phases of lunar magma ocean solidification.

NASA’s Mars helicopter whirls through tests on way to 2020 launch

This image of the flight model of NASA's Mars Helicopter was taken on Feb. 14, 2019, in a cleanroom at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The aluminum base plate, side posts, and crossbeam around the helicopter protect the helicopter's landing legs and the attachment points that will hold it to the belly of the Mars 2020 rover. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech )

This image of the flight model of NASA’s Mars Helicopter was taken on Feb. 14, 2019, in a cleanroom at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The aluminum base plate, side posts, and crossbeam around the helicopter protect the helicopter’s landing legs and the attachment points that will hold it to the belly of the Mars 2020 rover. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech )

NASA’s first Mars helicopter is getting close to final approval for launch after passing several key tests.

The Mars Helicopter flight demonstration project will launch next summer with the Mars 2020 rover and touch down on the Red Planet in February  2021.

While the rover searches for signs of past life on the Red Planet and caches samples for future return to Earth, the helicopter will soar above Mars in a series of demonstration flights. Future missions could see such helicopters scouting ahead for where rovers could go next.

“Nobody’s built a Mars helicopter before, so we are continuously entering new territory,” MiMi Aung, project manager for the Mars Helicopter at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, said in a statement.

Back in January, the flight model flew in a simulated Martian environment at JPL’s Space Simulator, a vacuum chamber that has a diameter of 25 feet (roughly 8 meters). Then it was moved to a Lockheed Martin Space facility in Denver.

At its new location, the helicopter was tested for compatibility with the Mars Helicopter Delivery System. This system will carry the helicopter under the Mars 2020 rover’s belly during launch and cruise to Mars. The helicopter will separate from the rover after landing.

In Denver, the connections and mechanisms between the delivery system and helicopter were tested to make sure they fit together. The mated system experienced vibrations similar to what happens during launch and cruise. Also, the helicopter and delivery system were put into a thermal vacuum chamber to see how they performed in cold temperatures (minus 200 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 129 degrees Celsius), similar to the conditions they’ll experience in deep space and on the Martian surface.

With these tests complete, the helicopter went back to JPL on May 11 for several more procedures, including spinning up the rotor blades and installing a new solar panel. More testing is ahead, but the end is in sight — at least for work here on Earth

“We expect to complete our final tests and refinements and deliver the helicopter to the High Bay 1 clean room for integration with the rover sometime this summer,” Aung said, “but we will never really be done with testing the helicopter until we fly at Mars.”

Since the helicopter is a demonstrator, it has no science instruments on board; rather, its main purpose is to show that powered flight in the Martian atmosphere is achievable. The Red Planet’s air is just 1% as dense as that of Earth.

Even if the minicoptercan take flight, there are other obstacles to overcome, such as the time lag involved in controlling it from Earth. (It takes between 4 minutes and 24 minutes for signals to travel between Earth and Mars, depending on the positions of the two planets in space.) Imaging will also be tested to see the helicopter’s capabilities for transmitting high-resolution color photos.

“Future Mars missions could enlist second-generation helicopters to add an aerial dimension to their explorations,’ NASA officials added in the statement. “They could investigate previously unvisited or difficult-to-reach destinations such as cliffs, caves and deep craters, act as scouts for human crews or carry small payloads from one location to another. But before any of that happens, a test vehicle has to prove it is possible.”

Mysterious light flashes on the Moon have been baffling researchers for decades

Astronomers have been excited by the Moon for eons, a level that has grown considerably as technological advancements gave humanity access to its surface, and helped researchers make observations from afar. And though there have been several notable lunar-related discoveries since man first walked on the Moon in 1969, there is still one phenomenon that has perplexed researchers for decades.

Mysterious, random flashes of light coming from the Moon’s surface.

Known as “transient lunar phenomena,” these mysterious, bizarre flashes of light can occur randomly, sometimes several times a week. Often times, they last for just a few minutes but have also been known to last for hours.

There have been a number of explanations over the years, from meteors to moonquakes to UFOs, but none have ever been proven. A new telescope in Spain, though, may provide the answer.

This image of the moon is taken from the new telescope of JMU. (Credit: Universität Würzburg)

This image of the moon is taken from the new telescope of JMU. (Credit: Universität Würzburg)

The lunar telescope, built by Hakan Kayal’s team at Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg (JMU) in Bavaria, Germany, will be pointed at the lunar surface for 24 hours a day and take videos and pictures if both of its cameras register a luminous phenomenon.

“The so-called transient lunar phenomena have been known since the 1950s, but they have not been sufficiently systematically and long-term observed,” said Kayal, a professor of space technology at the university, in a statement.

Observations of the transient lunar phenomena go back even further, to 1787, according to CNET. The news outlet also noted that Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins told NASA in 1969 about the strange occurrence.

“There is an area that is considerably more illuminated than the surrounding area,” Collins told NASA mission control on July 15, 1969, one day prior to the landing on the Moon. “It just has — seems to have a slight amount of fluorescence to it. A crater can be seen, and the area around the crater is quite bright.”

The telescope will be in a private observatory in Spain, which Kayal said was chosen over Germany because it offers “simply better weather conditions for observing the Moon.”

Kayal also said observations from the remote-controlled telescope will be compared with those from the European Space Agency. “If the same thing was seen there, the event can be considered confirmed,” he added.

Professor Hakan Kayal next to the moon telescope. (Credit: Tobias Greiner / Universität Würzburg)

Professor Hakan Kayal next to the moon telescope. (Credit: Tobias Greiner / Universität Würzburg)

The astronomer also said that interest in the bizarre lunar flashes is high due to renewed interest in the Moon, thanks to a new “space race” from private companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, as well as advancements from domestic and foreign governments, including China.

“Anyone who wants to build a lunar base at some point must of course be familiar with the local conditions,” Kayal said in the release.

In January, China landed its Chang’e 4 lunar explorer on the far side of the Moon, becoming the first country to ever land on the side facing away from Earth.

More recently, Blue Origin, led by Jeff Bezos, announced plans to send its Blue Moon lander to the celestial satellite. “It’s time to go back to the Moon,” Bezos said in a press conference last month. “This time to stay.”

Football field-sized asteroid could hit Earth this year

According to a list of the most concerning space objects complied by the European Space Agency, an asteroid, known as 2006 QV89, with a diameter wider than a football field has a roughly one in 7,000 chance of hitting the Earth later this year. The ESA has 2006 QV89 ranked fourth on its top ten list. It is likely that the asteroid will pass Earth at a distance of more than 4.2 million miles, according to current modeling.

An enormous asteroid with a diameter wider than a football field has a roughly one in 7,000 chance of hitting the Earth later this year. However, it’s nothing to lose sleep over.

Known as asteroid 2006 QV89, the space rock, which has a diameter of 164 feet, could potentially hit the planet on Sept. 9, 2019, according to a list of the most concerning space objects compiled by the European Space Agency. The ESA has 2006 QV89 ranked fourth on its top ten list.

According to current modeling, it’s likely that 2006 QV89, which is on the risk list but not the priority list, will pass Earth at a distance of more than 4.2 million miles. The ESA does note that the likelihood of its model being off is less than one-hundredth of one percent.

A KILLER ASTEROID IS COMING — WE DON’T KNOW WHEN (SO LET’S BE READY), BILL NYE SAYS

The space rock was discovered on August 29, 2006, by the Catalina Sky Survey.

Although extremely rare, asteroids have hit the planet previously and caused significant damage.

In 1908, there was an enormous explosion near the Podkamennaya Tunguska River in Yeniseysk Governorate, Russia, that flattened roughly 770 square miles of forest, likely due to a meteorite. It is now known as the Tunguska event.

Over 100 years later, in an occurrence now known as the Chelyabinsk Event, a meteor entered the Earth’s atmosphere on February 15, 2013, over Russia and crashed. The damage from the explosion caused the damage to more than 7,200 buildings and resulted in nearly 1,500 injuries, though none of them were fatal.

NASA has recently expanded its planetary defense protocols, including last year’s unveiling of a bold new plan to protect Earth.

Last June, NASA unveiled a 20-page plan that details the steps the U.S. should take to be better prepared for near-Earth objects (NEOs) such as asteroids and comets that come within 30 million miles of the planet.

ANCIENT ASTEROID STRIKES ON MARS MAY HAVE ‘PRODUCED KEY INGREDIENTS FOR LIFE’

Lindley Johnson, the space agency’s planetary defense officer, said at the time that the country “already has significant scientific, technical and operational capabilities” to help with NEOs, but implementing the new plan would “greatly increase our nation’s readiness and work with international partners to effectively respond should a new potential asteroid impact be detected.”

In addition to enhancing NEO detection, tracking and characterizing capabilities and improving modeling prediction, the plan also aims to develop technologies for deflecting NEOs, increasing international cooperation and establishing new NEO impact emergency procedures and action protocols.

According to a 2018 report put together by Planetary.org, there are more than 18,000 NEOs.

Exomoons may be home to extra-terrestrial life

ew research looks at the possibility of moons outside our solar system causing gaps in the rings of planets.


Artist’s concept of a moon orbiting a ringed planet (stock image).Credit: © marcel / Adobe Stock

Moons orbiting planets outside our solar system could offer another clue about the pool of worlds that may be home to extra-terrestrial life, according to an astrophysicist at the University of Lincoln.

Exoplanets are planets outside our solar system and up to this point nearly 4,000 have been discovered. Only a small proportion of these are likely to be able to sustain life, existing in what is known as the habitable zone. But some planets, especially large gas giants, may harbour moons which contain liquid water.

Dr Sutton said: “These moons can be internally heated by the gravitational pull of the planet they orbit, which can lead to them having liquid water well outside the normal narrow habitable zone for planets that we are currently trying to find Earth-like planets in. I believe that if we can find them, moons offer a more promising avenue to finding extra-terrestrial life.”

This interest has inspired Dr Sutton’s latest research, which looked at the possibility of moons orbiting the exoplanet J1407b, analysing whether they may have caused gaps in the planet’s ring system.

Because of their size and distance from Earth, exomoons are very difficult to detect. Scientists have to locate them by looking for the effect they have on objects around them, such as planetary rings.

Dr Sutton ran computer simulations to model the rings around J1407b, which are 200 times larger than those around Saturn. Gravitational forces between all particles were calculated and used to update the positions, velocities and accelerations in the computer models of the planet and its ring system. He then added a moon that orbited at various ratios outside of the rings to test whether this caused gaps to form where expected over 100 orbital periods.

Findings revealed that while the orbiting moon did have an effect on the scattering of particles along the ring edge, the expected gaps in the ring structure were unlikely to be caused by the gravitational forces of a currently unseen moon orbiting outside the rings.

UFOs are real, But don’t assume they’re alien spaceships

In 2014 and 2015, pilots with the U.S. Navy reported multiple UFO sightings during training maneuvers.

In 2014 and 2015, pilots with the U.S. Navy reported multiple UFO sightings during training maneuvers. (Copyright History 2019)

UFOs are very real, as we have recently seen — but that doesn’t mean E.T. has been violating our airspace.

“UFO” refers to any flying object an observer cannot readily identify. And pilots with the U.S. Navy saw fast-moving UFOs repeatedly off the East Coast throughout 2014 and 2015, in one case apparently nearly colliding with one of the mysterious objects, The New York Times reported earlier this week.

Those incidents were reported to the Pentagon’s Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP), whose existence the Times and Politico revealed in December 2017. (Interestingly, those 2017 stories cited Pentagon officials as saying that AATIP had been shut down in 2012.)

Former AATIP head Luis Elizondo, by the way, is involved with a new six-part series called ” Unidentified: Inside America’s UFO Investigation,” which premieres tonight (May 31) on The History Channel.

The Navy pilots said some UFOs reached hypersonic speeds without any detectable exhaust plumes, suggesting the possible involvement of super-advanced propulsion technology. Still, Defense Department officials aren’t invoking intelligent aliens as an explanation, according to this week’s Times story — and they’re right to be measured in this respect, scientists say.

There are multiple possible prosaic explanations for the Navy pilots’ observations, said Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI ( Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence ) Institute in Mountain View, California.

He pointed out, for example, that the sightings occurred off the coast, as did a similar 2004 observation unveiled in conjunction with the December 2017 stories. (That previous sighting occurred near San Diego).

Coastal regions are where you might expect to find a rival nation’s advanced reconnaissance craft, Shostak said, because incursions over the continental United States would be more obvious and easily detected.

He also noted that, according to the recent Times story, the Navy pilots began spotting the UFOs after their jets’ radar system was upgraded. That detail suggests the sightings might stem from some sort of software bug or instrument issue, he said.

“As anybody who uses Microsoft products knows, whenever you upgrade any technical product, there are always problems,” Shostak said.

Such reasoning is bolstered by the current tendency of UFOs to manifest as blobs or blurs on the displays of advanced instruments rather than as crisply defined objects in cellphone photos.

“The sightings always recede to the edge of what technology allows you to do,” Shostak said. “The aliens are kind of keeping pace with technology.”

Common sense also argues against jumping to the E.T. conclusion. If these UFOs are indeed alien spacecraft, what exactly are they doing? Why were they sent here, across the vast gulfs of space and time?

“If the aliens are here, you gotta say they’re the best houseguests ever, because they never do anything,” Shostak said. “They just buzz around. They don’t address climate change; they don’t steal our molybdenum.”

Related: UFO Watch: 8 Times the Government Looked for Flying Saucers

But such skepticism should not be taken as a dismissal of the E.T. possibility, Shostak stressed.

“It’s not trivial to say what these things are,” he said. And Shostak applauded a newly enacted classified Navy policy, as reported by the Times, instructing pilots on how to report UFOs (which the military, and many other people, now call “unexplained aerial phenomena,” likely in an attempt to dodge the tinfoil-hat stigma associated with the term “UFO.”)

“That’s a good policy,” he said. “Let them do it.”

After all, we’ve learned over the past decade or so that our Milky Way galaxy is home to huge numbers of potentially habitable worlds. Observations by NASA’s Kepler space telescope, for example, suggest that at least 20% percent of the galaxy’s 200 billion or so stars likely harbor a rocky planet in the “habitable zone,” that just-right range of distances where liquid surface water could exist.

So, while the odds may be long that any UFO witnessed to date was an extraterrestrial craft, it’s far from crazy to suspect that intelligent aliens are out there somewhere (or at least were out there somewhere, at some point during the Milky Way’s 13-billion-year history). That’s why people like Shostak keep listening for signals from the sky.

‘Double asteroid’ zooming by Earth at 43,000 mph captured in amazing photo

A unique “double asteroid” was photographed by a powerful telescope as it whizzed by Earth last month at over 43,000 mph.

The asteroid, classified as 1999 KW4, is made up of two components — a larger body orbited by a smaller one separated by about 1.6 miles. It got as close as 3.2 million miles to Earth on May 25 — about 14 times the distance from Earth to the Moon, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) said in a news release Monday.

The double asteroid, which has an orbit well known to scientists, is not an impact threat to Earth, ESO officials said. Scientists with the ESO and the International Asteroid Warning Network worked together to predict the flyby and make appropriate preparations for observing the object.

The left-hand image shows SPHERE observations of Asteroid 1999 KW4. The angular resolution in this image is equivalent to picking out a single building in New York — from Paris. An artist's impression of the asteroid pair is shown on the right. (ESO)

The left-hand image shows SPHERE observations of Asteroid 1999 KW4. The angular resolution in this image is equivalent to picking out a single building in New York — from Paris. An artist’s impression of the asteroid pair is shown on the right. (ESO)

The organization said it used its Very Large Telescope (VLT) to spot the passing asteroid. The VLT was able to capture images sharp enough to distinguish the two parts of the asteroid thanks to its Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet Research (SPHERE) instrument. SPHERE’s main purpose is to observe exoplanets — planets located outside our Solar System.

ESO astronomer Olivier Hainaut said data obtained will help in evaluating effective strategies to deflect potential asteroids on a collision course with Earth.

“In the worst possible case, this knowledge is also essential to predict how an asteroid could interact with the atmosphere and Earth’s surface, allowing us to mitigate damage in the event of a collision,” he said.

The ESO noted that 1999 KW4 is similar to a binary asteroid called Didymos and its smaller orbiting companion, Didymoon, which could become a threat to Earth in the distant future.

Former US defense official: We know UFOs are real – here’s why that’s concerning

‘Unidentified’ gives military personnel on the frontlines a voice about what they are encountering in the skies.

After a bombshell report detailing near-daily interactions with unidentified flying objectsby Navy pilots in 2014 and 2015, Christopher Mellon has argued that this information is nothing new, and the government needs to do something about it.

Mellon, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, is involved with a new History Channel series, ‘Unidentified,’ which will expand on topics discussed in a recent New York Times article. In numerous interviews, Navy pilots revealed that they saw UFOs moving at hypersonic speeds, performing acts “beyond the physical limits of a human crew,” and emitting “no visible engine or infrared exhaust plumes.”

In a Wednesday morning interview with “Fox & Friends,” Mellon, who has written extensively on the topic before, outlined the reasons the Navy is concerned about these sightings.Video

“We know that UFOs exist. This is no longer an issue,” he said. “The issue is why are they here? Where are they coming from and what is the technology behind these devices that we are observing?”

There are indications, Mellon said, that the objects reported by Navy pilots in 2014 and 2015 were doing things that aren’t possible in this physical realm.

The speeds being reported (about 5,000 miles per hour, according to Mellon) were only sustainable for about an hour by an aircraft in the air, and these objects would be flying around all day long, the pilots said.

“Pilots observing these craft are absolutely mystified and that comes through clearly in their public statements,” Mellon continued.

Fascination turned to fear one day, however, when a Super Hornet pilot said he almost collided with one of the objects — which he described as a sphere encasing a cube. An official report was filed, and the incident shattered the previous theory by Navy pilots that the objects were a part of some sort of extremely classified drone operation.

“These are reactions between intelligently controlled vehicles operating in and around U.S. military facilities, hence the concern,” Mellon explained.

“One: there have been near mid-air collisions so there is a safety issue. Two, there is a vital national security issue which is that our sovereignty is being violated by vehicles of unknown origin,” he continued.

Although all of this information is old news to Mellon, it’s taken America by storm, and he says we’re hardly the only country to have interactions with these objects. Having written extensively about UFO sightings before, Mellon said he’s frustrated with the lack of action being taken by the government, as are the Navy pilots who experienced the sightings.

He decided that the only way to make progress was to release this information to the public in the form of his new show, and television interviews.

“We are giving military personnel on the front line a voice,” he said. “We are helping them get out the message of what it is they are encountering and why they are so concerned about it.”

Incredible images show lightning bolt hitting Russian rocket during launch

Talk about a charge.

Incredible images show a Russian Soyuz rocket being hit with a bolt of lightning 10 seconds into its flight.

The lightning bolt hit the rocket on its nose fairing, as well as its third-stage booster segment, according to the Daily Mail, which cited the spacecraft’s on-board instruments.

Despite the frightening occurrence, the Russian Ministry of Defense said the spacecraft was functioning normally and was continuing its trek to low-Earth orbit, where it successfully delivered a navigation satellite.

Soyuz rocket hit by lightning. (Credit: East2West)

Soyuz rocket hit by lightning. (Credit: East2West)

“A stable telemetric connection is established and maintained with the spacecraft,” the government agency wrote in a post. “The on-board systems of the Glonass-M spacecraft are functioning normally.”

Dmitry Rogozin, the Director General of Roscosmos, posted a video of the strike to Twitter and said not even “[l]ightning is not an obstacle for you,” according to a translated version of the tweet.

Поздравляем командование Космических войск, боевой расчёт космодрома Плесецк, коллективы РКЦ “Прогресс” (Самара), НПО имени С.А.Лавочкина (Химки) и ИСС имени академика М.Ф.Решетнёва (Железногорск) с успешным запуском КА ГЛОНАСС!
Молния вам не помеха3,1266:24 AM – May 27, 20191,492 people are talking about thisTwitter Ads info and privacy

Although the image of the Roscosmos Soyuz 2-1b rocket, which took off from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome on May 27, being hit may be startling to some, it’s not an uncommon occurrence.

LiveScience reports that airplanes routinely get hit by lightning and the Apollo 12 mission that carried the Saturn V rocket was also hit by a lightning bolt in November 1969.

According to a 1970 NASA investigation, the Apollo 12 vehicle was hit twice by lightning during its launch, once at 36.5 seconds and the other at 52 seconds.

“As a result, many temporary effects were noted in both the launch vehicle and spacecraft,” the report said. “Some permanent effects were noted in the spacecraft and involved the loss of nine non-essential instrumentation sensors. All noted effects were associated with solid-state circuits, which are the most susceptible to the effects of a discharge.”

The report added that lightning “can be triggered by the presence of the long electrical length created by the space vehicle and its exhaust plume in an electric field which would not otherwise have produced natural lightning.”

A few instruments were knocked offline, including fuel cells, displays and telemetry, however, some innovative thinking from flight controller John Aaron and astronaut Alan Bean saved the mission, according to Science Alert.

Today, NASA has stringent weather guidelines for launches. If there is a chance of lightning within 5 miles of the launch pad, NASA will postpone a launch, the space agency said on its website.

All space agencies around the world also have lightning protection built into spacecraft, as well as their launch pads.

‘Wow, What Is That?’ Navy Pilots Report Unexplained Flying Objects

“These things would be out there all day,” Lt. Ryan Graves said. “Keeping an aircraft in the air requires a significant amount of energy. With the speeds we observed, 12 hours in the air is 11 hours longer than we’d expect.”CreditTony Luong for The New York Times

“These things would be out there all day,” Lt. Ryan Graves said. “Keeping an aircraft in the air requires a significant amount of energy. With the speeds we observed, 12 hours in the air is 11 hours longer than we’d expect.”CreditCreditTony Luong for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — The strange objects, one of them like a spinning top moving against the wind, appeared almost daily from the summer of 2014 to March 2015, high in the skies over the East Coast. Navy pilots reported to their superiors that the objects had no visible engine or infrared exhaust plumes, but that they could reach 30,000 feet and hypersonic speeds.

“These things would be out there all day,” said Lt. Ryan Graves, an F/A-18 Super Hornet pilot who has been with the Navy for 10 years, and who reported his sightings to the Pentagon and Congress. “Keeping an aircraft in the air requires a significant amount of energy. With the speeds we observed, 12 hours in the air is 11 hours longer than we’d expect.”

In late 2014, a Super Hornet pilot had a near collision with one of the objects, and an official mishap report was filed. Some of the incidents were videotaped, including one taken by a plane’s camera in early 2015 that shows an object zooming over the ocean waves as pilots question what they are watching.

“Wow, what is that, man?” one exclaims. “Look at it fly!”

No one in the Defense Department is saying that the objects were extraterrestrial, and experts emphasize that earthly explanations can generally be found for such incidents. Lieutenant Graves and four other Navy pilots, who said in interviews with The New York Times that they saw the objects in 2014 and 2015 in training maneuvers from Virginia to Florida off the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, make no assertions of their provenance.

But the objects have gotten the attention of the Navy, which earlier this year sent out new classified guidance for how to report what the military calls unexplained aerial phenomena, or unidentified flying objects.Video1:08‘Look at That Thing’: Footage Shows Pilots Spotting Unknown ObjectVideos filmed by Navy pilots show two encounters with flying objects. One was captured by a plane’s camera off the coast of Jacksonville, Fla., on Jan. 20, 2015. That footage, published previously but with little context, shows an object tilting like a spinning top moving against the wind. A pilot refers to a fleet of objects, but no imagery of a fleet was released. The second video was taken a few weeks later.CreditCreditU.S. Department of Defense

Joseph Gradisher, a Navy spokesman, said the new guidance was an update of instructions that went out to the fleet in 2015, after the Roosevelt incidents.

“There were a number of different reports,” he said. Some cases could have been commercial drones, he said, but in other cases “we don’t know who’s doing this, we don’t have enough data to track this. So the intent of the message to the fleet is to provide updated guidance on reporting procedures for suspected intrusions into our airspace.”

The sightings were reported to the Pentagon’s shadowy, little-known Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, which analyzed the radar data, video footage and accounts provided by senior officers from the Roosevelt. Luis Elizondo, a military intelligence official who ran the program until he resigned in 2017, called the sightings “a striking series of incidents.”Navy pilots from the VFA-11 “Red Rippers” squadron aboard the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt in 2015. The squadron began noticing strange objects just after the Navy upgraded the radar systems on its F/A-18 fighter planes.CreditAdam Ferguson for The New York Times

Navy pilots from the VFA-11 “Red Rippers” squadron aboard the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt in 2015. The squadron began noticing strange objects just after the Navy upgraded the radar systems on its F/A-18 fighter planes.CreditAdam Ferguson for The New York Times

The program, which began in 2007 and was largely funded at the request of Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who was the Senate majority leader at the time, was officially shut down in 2012 when the money dried up, according to the Pentagon. But the Navy recently said it currently investigates military reports of U.F.O.s, and Mr. Elizondo and other participants say the program — parts of it remain classified — has continued in other forms. The program has also studied video that shows a whitish oval object described as a giant Tic Tac, about the size of a commercial plane, encountered by two Navy fighter jets off the coast of San Diego in 2004.

Leon Golub, a senior astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said the possibility of an extraterrestrial cause “is so unlikely that it competes with many other low-probability but more mundane explanations.” He added that “there are so many other possibilities — bugs in the code for the imaging and display systems, atmospheric effects and reflections, neurological overload from multiple inputs during high-speed flight.”

Lieutenant Graves still cannot explain what he saw. In the summer of 2014, he and Lt. Danny Accoin, another Super Hornet pilot, were part of a squadron, the VFA-11 “Red Rippers” out of Naval Air Station Oceana, Va., that was training for a deployment to the Persian Gulf.

Lieutenants Graves and Accoin spoke on the record to The Times about the objects. Three other pilots in the squadron also spoke to The Times about the objects but declined to be named.

Lieutenants Graves and Accoin, along with former American intelligence officials, appear in a six-part History Channel series, “Unidentified: Inside America’s U.F.O. Investigation,” to air beginning Friday. The Times conducted separate interviews with key participants.

The pilots began noticing the objects after their 1980s-era radar was upgraded to a more advanced system. As one fighter jet after another got the new radar, pilots began picking up the objects, but ignoring what they thought were false radar tracks.

“People have seen strange stuff in military aircraft for decades,” Lieutenant Graves said. “We’re doing this very complex mission, to go from 30,000 feet, diving down. It would be a pretty big deal to have something up there.”

But he said the objects persisted, showing up at 30,000 feet, 20,000 feet, even sea level. They could accelerate, slow down and then hit hypersonic speeds.

Lieutenant Accoin said he interacted twice with the objects. The first time, after picking up the object on his radar, he set his plane to merge with it, flying 1,000 feet below it. He said he should have been able to see it with his helmet camera, but could not, even though his radar told him it was there.

A few days later, Lieutenant Accoin said a training missile on his jet locked on the object and his infrared camera picked it up as well. “I knew I had it, I knew it was not a false hit,” he said. But still, “I could not pick it up visually.”

At this point the pilots said they speculated that the objects were part of some classified and extremely advanced drone program.

A spotlight on the people reshaping our politics. A conversation with voters across the country. And a guiding hand through the endless news cycle, telling you what you really need to know.SIGN UPLieutenant Graves with Navy flight log books.

But then pilots began seeing the objects. In late 2014, Lieutenant Graves said he was back at base in Virginia Beach when he encountered a squadron mate just back from a mission “with a look of shock on his face.”

He said he was stunned to hear the pilot’s words. “I almost hit one of those things,” the pilot told Lieutenant Graves.

The pilot and his wingman were flying in tandem about 100 feet apart over the Atlantic east of Virginia Beach when something flew between them, right past the cockpit. It looked to the pilot, Lieutenant Graves said, like a sphere encasing a cube.

The incident so spooked the squadron that an aviation flight safety report was filed, Lieutenant Graves said.

The near miss, he and other pilots interviewed said, angered the squadron, and convinced them that the objects were not part of a classified drone program. Government officials would know fighter pilots were training in the area, they reasoned, and would not send drones to get in the way.

“It turned from a potentially classified drone program to a safety issue,” Lieutenant Graves said. “It was going to be a matter of time before someone had a midair” collision.

What was strange, the pilots said, was that the video showed objects accelerating to hypersonic speed, making sudden stops and instantaneous turns — something beyond the physical limits of a human crew.

“Speed doesn’t kill you,” Lieutenant Graves said. “Stopping does. Or acceleration.”

Asked what they thought the objects were, the pilots refused to speculate.

“We have helicopters that can hover,” Lieutenant Graves said. “We have aircraft that can fly at 30,000 feet and right at the surface.” But “combine all that in one vehicle of some type with no jet engine, no exhaust plume.”

Lieutenant Accoin said only that “we’re here to do a job, with excellence, not make up myths.”

In March 2015 the Roosevelt left the coast of Florida and headed to the Persian Gulf as part of the American-led mission fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The same pilots who were interacting with the strange objects off the East Coast were soon doing bombing missions over Iraq and Syria.

The incidents tapered off after they left the United States, the pilots said.

Why Are Two Stars in Our Galaxy Suddenly Acting Very Strange?

This illustration shows what a binary star system with a red giant feeding material into a white dwarf might look like.

This illustration shows what a binary star system with a red giant feeding material into a white dwarf might look like.(Image: © European Southern Observatory)

There’s a binary star system out there in the Milky Way, and it’s acting very weird.

“AG Draconis,” as astronomers call it, is made up of two stars: a relatively cool giant and a relatively hot white dwarf — the stellar corpse of a low- to medium-size star. They’re 16,000 light-years away from Earth. (A light-year is the distance light travels in a year, meaning everything we see happening on these stars happened 16,000 years ago). And that distance makes them difficult to observe in detail. But we do know some things about them.

The two stars are probably interacting, with material flowing off the surface of the big, cool star and onto the surface of the small, hot star. And every once in a while, about once every nine to 15 years dating back to the 1890s, they become active — going through a period of several years where, once a year, they get much brighter in certain wavelengths that Earth’s telescopes can detect. They’re in an active period now, with flashes (or “outbursts” of energy) detected in April 2016, May 2017 and April 2018. (The 2016 outburst was a bit weird itself, having two peaks two weeks apart.) Researchers expect another outburst in April or May of this year, though it’s too soon for any reports to have been published.

But there’s something weird about this period of activity, as researchers reported in a paper uploaded May 10 to the preprint server arXiv, which has not yet been through peer review. [15 Amazing Images of Stars]RECOMMENDED VIDEOS FOR YOU…CLOSEVolume 0%This video will resume in 7 seconds 

In the past, AG Draconis’ active periods almost always followed a simple pattern: The first couple of outbursts are “cool,” with the temperature of the white dwarf appearing to drop during each of its outbursts. Then, sometimes, the next set of outbursts are “hot,” with the star’s temperature rising. Cool outbursts tend to be much brighter than hot ones.

Researchers suspect that a cool outburst happens when the white dwarf starts to expand, its outermost, atmosphere-like region growing and cooling at the same time. That doesn’t happen during hot outbursts, which are less well-understood.

But this current cycle is weird. Occurring just seven years after a minor outburst in 2008, it’s been made up entirely of “hot” outbursts.

“Such behavior is considerably peculiar in [the] almost 130-year history of [the] observing of this object,” the researchers wrote, offering no explanation for why it might be happening.

Why does any of this “outbursting” happen at all? No one knows for sure.

The researchers pointed to a paper from 2006 posted to arXiv that offers one popular explanation, derived from a different star system. As the white dwarf’s gravity captures material from its giant twin, an “accretion disk” forms — made up of material circling the dwarf and waiting to fall onto its surface. But the disk is unstable, with the giant sometimes feeding more material into it and sometimes less.

Every once in a while, too much material falls onto the dwarf’s surface and there’s a spike in thermonuclear burning on the outside of the star, where there should be fairly little. That hellish blaze spits material out into the system, forming a brief, hot shell around the white dwarf. From Earth, this all looks like a slight tweak in the light across a few wavelengths.

“The future evolution of AG Dra[conis] is an open question,” the researchers wrote. In 2019, they asked, “can we expect (finally) a major, cool or (again) minor, hot outburst?”

It’s also possible, the researchers suggested, that this period of minor outbursts will simply end. That happened once before, during the relatively minor activity period of 1963 to 1966.

Long term, they said, this illustrates the importance of keeping a careful eye on stars like these, so that astronomers may one day crack the code of their behavior. It also demonstrates the difficulty of parsing events in solar systems light-years away.

Real Heroes! Mario Lopez Hosts Wounded Warrior Project Courage Awards

Real Heroes! Mario Lopez Hosts Wounded Warrior Project Courage Awards

“Extra’s” Mario Lopez helped pay tribute to America’s true heroes as host of the 2019 Wounded Warrior Project Courage Awards.

One of the honorees, Michael Carrasquillo, shared his story with “Extra.”

Michael, who received the Courage Award, revealed he was a high-school kid living in New York City when 911 happened. Afterward, he wanted to defend and protect his country, so he joined the Army.

Carrasquillo revealed, “I was an Airborne infantryman. Straight out of basic training and airborne training, I was deployed to Iraq… did a year there, back to my unit, then a year in Afghanistan.”

He continued, “In Afghanistan I was wounded, shot five times and barely survived… spent about two years in the hospital recovering from my injuries…over 44 surgeries, died twice, and very lucky to survive… Now, I’m a wounded warrior.”

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Watch the video above for more of the patriotic and passionate night in NYC.

NASA Has Just Revealed Images Of An Enormous Asteroid That Could Destroy The Earth

NASA Has Just Revealed Images Of An Enormous Asteroid That Could Destroy The Earth An asteroid with the destructive power of thousands of nuclear warheads could collide with Earth – so NASA is hunting it down. Deep in outer space, a diamond-shaped asteroid is hurtling towards Earth. If the two bodies collide, the space rock – known as Bennu – is big enough to extinguish life on our planet.

A NASA spacecraft that will return a sample of a near-Earth asteroid named Bennu to Earth in 2023 made the first-ever close-up observations of particle plumes erupting from an asteroid’s surface. Bennu also revealed itself to be more rugged than expected, challenging the mission team to alter its flight and sample collection plans, due to the rough terrain. 

Bennu is the target of NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission, which began orbiting the asteroid on Dec. 31. Bennu, which is only slightly wider than the height of the Empire State Building, may contain unaltered material from the very beginning of our solar system.

“The discovery of plumes is one of the biggest surprises of my scientific career,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “And the rugged terrain went against all of our predictions. Bennu is already surprising us, and our exciting journey there is just getting started.”

Shortly after the discovery of the particle plumes on Jan. 6, the mission science team increased the frequency of observations, and subsequently detected additional particle plumes during the following two months. Although many of the particles were ejected clear of Bennu, the team tracked some particles that orbited Bennu as satellites before returning to the asteroid’s surface.

The OSIRIS-REx team initially spotted the particle plumes in images while the spacecraft was orbiting Bennu at a distance of about one mile (1.61 kilometers). Following a safety assessment, the mission team concluded the particles did not pose a risk to the spacecraft. The team continues to analyze the particle plumes and their possible causes.

“The first three months of OSIRIS-REx’s up-close investigation of Bennu have reminded us what discovery is all about — surprises, quick thinking, and flexibility,” said Lori Glaze, acting director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We study asteroids like Bennu to learn about the origin of the solar system. OSIRIS-REx’s sample will help us answer some of the biggest questions about where we come from.”

OSIRIS-REx launched in 2016 to explore Bennu, which is the smallest body ever orbited by spacecraft. Studying Bennu will allow researchers to learn more about the origins of our solar system, the sources of water and organic molecules on Earth, the resources in near-Earth space, as well as improve our understanding of asteroids that could impact Earth.

The OSIRIS-REx team also didn’t anticipate the number and size of boulders on Bennu’s surface. From Earth-based observations, the team expected a generally smooth surface with a few large boulders. Instead, it discovered Bennu’s entire surface is rough and dense with boulders. 

The higher-than-expected density of boulders means that the mission’s plans for sample collection, also known as Touch-and-Go (TAG), need to be adjusted. The original mission design was based on a sample site that is hazard-free, with an 82-foot (25-meter) radius. However, because of the unexpectedly rugged terrain, the team hasn’t been able to identify a site of that size on Bennu. Instead, it has begun to identify candidate sites that are much smaller in radius.

The smaller sample site footprint and the greater number of boulders will demand more accurate performance from the spacecraft during its descent to the surface than originally planned. The mission team is developing an updated approach, called Bullseye TAG, to accurately target smaller sample sites.

“Throughout OSIRIS-REx’s operations near Bennu, our spacecraft and operations team have demonstrated that we can achieve system performance that beats design requirements,” said Rich Burns, the project manager of OSIRIS-REx at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Bennu has issued us a challenge to deal with its rugged terrain, and we are confident that OSIRIS-REx is up to the task.” 

The original, low-boulder estimate was derived both from Earth-based observations of Bennu’s thermal inertia — or its ability to conduct and store heat — and from radar measurements of its surface roughness. Now that OSIRIS-REx has revealed Bennu’s surface up close, those expectations of a smoother surface have been proven wrong. This suggests the computer models used to interpret previous data do not adequately predict the nature of small, rocky, asteroid surfaces. The team is revising these models with the data from Bennu. 

This image shows a view across asteroid Bennu’s southern hemisphere and into space, and it demonstrates the number and distribution of boulders across Bennu’s surface. The image was obtained on Mar. 7 by the PolyCam camera on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft from a distance of about 3 miles (5 km). The large, light-colored boulder just below the center of the image is about 24 feet (7.4 meters) wide, which is roughly half the width of a basketball court.

The OSIRIS-REx science team has made many other discoveries about Bennu in the three months since the spacecraft arrived at the asteroid, some of which were presented Tuesday at the 50th Lunar and Planetary Conference in Houston and in a special collection of papers issued by the journal Nature. 

The team has directly observed a change in the spin rate of Bennu as a result of what is known as the Yarkovsky-O’Keefe-Radzievskii-Paddack (YORP) effect. The uneven heating and cooling of Bennu as it rotates in sunlight is causing the asteroid to increase its rotation speed. As a result, Bennu’s rotation period is decreasing by about one second every 100 years. Separately, two of the spacecraft’s instruments, the MapCam color imager and the OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer (OTES), have made detections of magnetite on Bennu’s surface, which bolsters earlier findings indicating the interaction of rock with liquid water on Bennu’s parent body. 

Goddard provides overall mission management, systems engineering, and the safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, Tucson, is the principal investigator, and the University of Arizona also leads the science team and the mission’s science observation planning and data processing. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built the spacecraft and is providing flight operations. Goddard and KinetX Aerospace are responsible for navigating the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program, which is managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.