"Professor Goddard does not know the relation between action and reaction and the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react. He seems to lack the basic knowledge ladled out daily in high schools."
--1921 New York Times editorial about Robert Goddard's revolutionary rocket work.

"Correction: It is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum. The 'Times' regrets the error."
NY Times, July 1969.

— New York Times

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Dozens of Robots Competed to Race Through Underground Caves

Universe Today - Wed, 09/29/2021 - 12:22pm

America’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is well known for its challenges.  It held a series of autonomous driving competitions back in the early 2000s that directly led to today’s self-driving cars.  Now that Grand Challenge has evolved into a new one – the Subterranean (SubT) challenge, which took place last week.  This new one also happens to be directly applicable to technologies that would be useful in space exploration.

Ostensibly, DARPA’s SubT challenge is to develop a robotic system capable of identifying and, and even potentially helping, victims of a natural disaster or other catastrophe.  The contest was broken into two overarching categories, and each category tackled three different types of terrain.  The two categories were the Systems track, which utilized physical robots, and the Virtual track, which concentrated on developing algorithms for searching a given area.

Video recap of Day 3 of the Cave Circuit Challenge.
Credit – DARPAtv YouTube Channel

The robots or algorithms for each category were then subject to three different terrains they had to master: a Tunnel Circuit, an Urban Circuit, and a Cave Circuit.  The Tunnel Circuit competition took place in August of 2019 in some abandoned mining tunnels around Pittsburgh, while the Urban Circuit was held in February 2020 at an abandoned power plant in Washington State.

Covid-19 threw a wrench into plans for the Cave Circuit, which was initially scheduled to take place in the fall of 2020.  Due to the pandemic, the competition, which was planned to take place in the Louisville Mega Cavern in Kentucky, was rescheduled to September of this year.

Unique “rollocopter” design from CoSTAR, a NASA-sponsored team, utilizes the capabilities of both a quadcopter and a two-wheeled rover.
Credit – NASA / JPL-Caltech

The goal in all three terrains, and for each category, is the same – find and identify as many targets of interest (i.e., potential victims) as possible and flag them for follow-up by first responders.  Accomplishing this is not as easy as it sounds and requires coordination by many robots scouting around the environment and talking to one another.  

Teams from all over the world took place in the competition. Some were funded by DARPA itself, while others were entirely self-funded. Ultimately, DARPA-funded CERBERUS won the systems competition. Team CERBERUS is a collaboration between various universities, including the University of Nevada, Reno, ETH Zurich, and UC Berkeley.  Their score of 23 tied another DARPA-funded team (CSIRO Data61) but they ultimately took home the $2 prize offered for winning the competition.  The Virtual Competition was led by Dynamo, a self-funded effort that took home the $750,000 prize for winning its virtual competition. 

Testing of the challenge robots has been ongoing for almost two years.
Credit – NASA / JPL-Caltech

Over the past two years, the technologies used in the systems have advanced dramatically.  CoSTAR, a team, partially run by roboticists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, was particularly happy about new AI and navigation systems that could be used in entirely different environments.

Those environments include lunar or Martian caves that could offer the most habitable places in those inhospitable locations.  If the original Autonomous Driving Grand Challenge is anything to go by, these new cave exploration technologies might be ready when they are needed for those lunar or Maritan exploration missions.

Learn More:
JPL – NASA Robots Compete in DARPA’s Subterranean Challenge Final
DARPA – Subterranean Challenge
DARPA – Stage is Set for DARPA’s Subterranean Challenge Final Event
DARPA – Team CERBERUS and Team Dynamo Win DARPA Subterranean Challenge Final Event
UT – MIT Claims they are Programming Humanoid Robots to help Explore Mars. But we all Know It’s Cylons!

Lead Image:
CoSTAR robot exploring a cave.
Credit – NASA / JPL-Caltech

The post Dozens of Robots Competed to Race Through Underground Caves appeared first on Universe Today.

Categories: Astronomy

DeepMind AI can accurately predict if it will rain in next 90 minutes

New Scientist Space - Cosmology - Wed, 09/29/2021 - 12:00pm
AI software developed by DeepMind and the Met Office in the UK can predict whether it will rain within 90 minutes more accurately than current forecasting models
Categories: Astronomy

DeepMind AI can accurately predict if it will rain in next 90 minutes

New Scientist Space - Space Headlines - Wed, 09/29/2021 - 12:00pm
AI software developed by DeepMind and the Met Office in the UK can predict whether it will rain within 90 minutes more accurately than current forecasting models
Categories: Astronomy

The deepest canyons on Mars were rapidly formed by devastating floods

New Scientist Space - Cosmology - Wed, 09/29/2021 - 12:00pm
While most riverbeds on Earth are formed via slow erosion by running water, many of Mars’s deepest canyons appear to have been carved by sudden, catastrophic floods
Categories: Astronomy

The deepest canyons on Mars were rapidly formed by devastating floods

New Scientist Space - Space Headlines - Wed, 09/29/2021 - 12:00pm
While most riverbeds on Earth are formed via slow erosion by running water, many of Mars’s deepest canyons appear to have been carved by sudden, catastrophic floods
Categories: Astronomy

On This Day in Space! Sept. 29, 1977: Soviet Union launches Salyut 6 space station

Space.com - Wed, 09/29/2021 - 11:58am
On Sept. 29, 1977, the Salyut 6 space station launched into orbit. See how it happened in our "On This Day in Space" video series!
Categories: Astronomy

Pictures from space! Our image of the day

Space.com - Wed, 09/29/2021 - 11:36am
The first images of the International Space Station with the Nauka module attached, taken during a relocation of the Russian Soyuz capsule on Tuesday (Sept. 28)
Categories: Astronomy

Cassiopeia Cornucopia — Pretty Little Clusters All in a Row

Sky & Telescope Magazine - Wed, 09/29/2021 - 11:28am

See nine unique open clusters in Cassiopeia while barely moving your telescope.

The post Cassiopeia Cornucopia — Pretty Little Clusters All in a Row appeared first on Sky & Telescope.

Categories: Astronomy

Lunar Landers Could Spray Instant Landing Pads as They Arrive at the Moon

Universe Today - Wed, 09/29/2021 - 11:21am

Space exploration requires all kinds of interesting solutions to complex problems.  There is a branch of NASA designed to support the innovators trying to solve those problems – the Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC).  They occasionally hand out grant funding to worthy projects trying to tackle some of these challenges.  The results from one of those grants are now in, and they are intriguing.  A team from Masten Space Systems, supported by Honeybee Robotics, Texas A&M, and the University of Central Florida, came up with a way a lunar lander could deposit its own landing pad on the way down.

Lunar dust poses a significant problem to any powered landers on the surface.  The retrograde rockets needed to land on the moon’s surface softly will also kick dust and rock up into the air, potentially damaging the lander itself or any surrounding human infrastructure. A landing pad would lessen the impact of this dust and provide a more stable place for the landing itself.

Graphic showing the difference between landing with or without the deposition system.
Credit – Masten Space Systems

But constructing such a landing pad the traditional way would be prohibitively expensive.  Current estimates put the cost of building a lunar landing pad using traditional materials at approximately $120 million.  Any such mission also suffers from a chicken and egg problem.  How to get the materials to build the landing pad land in place if there is no landing pad, to begin with?

The technology Masten has developed is an ingenious solution to both of those problems.  Depositing a landing pad while descending would allow spacefarers to have a landing pad in place before a spacecraft ever touches down there.  It would also cost much less to install as all that is needed is a relatively simple additive to the rocket exhaust already being blasted into the surface.

Graphic showing the whole system process of the FAST particle injector.
Credit – Master Space Systems

Masten’s general idea is easy enough to understand.  Adding solid pellets into the rocket exhaust would allow that material to partially liquefy and deposit onto the exhaust’s blast zone, potentially hardening it to a point where dust is no longer a factor as it is encapsulated in a hard external shell.  Masten believed it could find the right material to add to rocket exhaust to do exactly that.

Success or failure would come down to the physical properties of the additive pellets.  Any additive with too much heat tolerance wouldn’t melt appropriately in the rocket exhaust, essentially bombarding the surface with tiny bullets.  On the other hand, any additive with too little heat tolerance could be completely melted by the rocket exhaust and vaporized into a useless cloud.

Example of how much dust can be kicked up even on Earth as one of Masten’s rockets is test fired.
Credit – Masten Space Systems

To find the perfect balance, Masten developed a two-tiered system, with relatively large (.5mm) alumina particles used to create a base layer of 1mm of melted lunar surface combined with alumina.  Then, as the lander got closer to the base layer, the additive would switch to a .024mm alumina particle, which would deposit at 650 m/s onto the base layer and create a 6m diameter landing pad that would cool in 2.5 seconds.

That all sounds like a pretty impressive idea, but it is still early days.  Like many federal grants, the NIAC grant focused on developing this depositable landing pad idea takes a phased approach. Most of the Phase I, which has just been completed, focused on proving the idea is feasible, which Masten believes it is.  

Example of the effects of an alumina plate, similar to what would be deposited on the moon’s surface in a fully scaled up system. An infrared image of the rocket exhaust can be seen to the right.
Credit – Masten Space Systems

Feasible is not the same as functional, but that is precisely what NIAC grants are supposed to support – wild ideas that might just fundamentally change some aspect of space exploration.  If Masten is correct and the approach is possible and can be scaled up, landing pads might be seen cropping up all over the lunar surface.  And eventually all over Mars as well.

Learn More:
MSS – Mitigating Lunar Dust: Masten Completes FAST Landing Pad Study
NASA – Instant Landing Pads for Artemis Lunar Missions

Lead Image:
Artist depiction of a lunar lander utilizes the FAST landing pad deposition technology.
Credit – Masten Space Systems

The post Lunar Landers Could Spray Instant Landing Pads as They Arrive at the Moon appeared first on Universe Today.

Categories: Astronomy

Elon Musk scorns Jeff Bezos' lawsuit on NASA moon lander

Space.com - Wed, 09/29/2021 - 11:18am
SpaceX founder Elon Musk isn't impressed by his rival Jeff Bezos' legal approach to a moon shot.
Categories: Astronomy

Aging White Dwarfs Become Even More Magnetic

Universe Today - Wed, 09/29/2021 - 11:13am

In a few billion years the Sun will end its life as a white dwarf. As the Sun runs out of hydrogen to fuse for energy it will collapse under its own weight. Gravity will compress the Sun until it’s roughly the size of Earth, at which point a bit of quantum physics will kick in. Electrons from the Sun’s atoms will push back against gravity, creating what is known as degeneracy pressure. Once a star reaches this state it will cool over time, and the once brilliant star will eventually fade into the dark.

Most stars in the universe will end as a white dwarf. Only the largest stars will explode as supernovae and become neutron stars or black holes. There are lots of white dwarfs in the Milky Way, but many of them can be difficult to study.

For one thing, white dwarfs don’t produce energy in their cores as regular stars do. They cool and fade as they age, so we tend to see the youngest and brightest white dwarfs. Observations of white dwarfs are also biased toward those with the smallest mass. That’s because the more massive a white dwarf is, the smaller it is. The reason for this has to do with the balance between electron degeneracy pressure and gravity. In a white dwarf, the electrons act as a sort of quantum gas. The more massive the white dwarf, the more tightly its gravity can squeeze the electrons, hence a smaller volume.

The most massive white dwarf is a bit larger than the Moon. Credit: Giuseppe Parisi

Fortunately, we’re getting better at studying smaller and cooler white dwarfs, as a recent study shows. The team used data from the Gaia spacecraft to find white dwarfs within 20 parsecs of Earth. In addition to known white dwarfs, the team identified about 100 white dwarfs that had never been cataloged. They then looked at the spectrum of these white dwarfs using ISIS spectrograph and polarimeter on the William Herschel Telescope. Since the spectrum of a white dwarf is affected by its magnetic field, the team was able to measure the strength of their magnetic fields.

They found an interesting result. There is a correlation between the age of a white dwarf and its magnetic field. The older a white dwarf is, the more likely it has a strong magnetic field. In other words, white dwarfs tend to become more magnetic as they age. This suggests that white dwarf magnetic fields are created through the cooling process of the star.

We aren’t sure how the cooling process magnetizes white dwarfs. The magnetic fields of larger and younger white dwarfs might be explained by a dynamo mechanism, similar to the process that generates Earth’s magnetic field. But the magnetic fields of old white dwarfs are often much larger than we think can be produced by a dynamo. So something strange is going on, and it will take more research to solve this mystery.

Reference: Bagnulo, S., and J. D. Landstreet. “New insight into the magnetism of degenerate stars from the analysis of a volume limited sample of white dwarfs.” arXiv preprint arXiv:2106.11109 (2021).

The post Aging White Dwarfs Become Even More Magnetic appeared first on Universe Today.

Categories: Astronomy

The best space documentaries to watch in 2021

Space.com - Wed, 09/29/2021 - 11:10am
The best space documentaries let you travel to the furthest reaches of the universe without ever leaving your sofa. Discover the wonders of the cosmos with these mind-blowing films
Categories: Astronomy

Catastrophic floods shaped Mars more than previously thought, scientists suggest

Space.com - Wed, 09/29/2021 - 11:02am
Catastrophic floods from overflowing lakes on early Mars may have carved out many of the Red Planet's valleys, a new study finds.
Categories: Astronomy

Upcoming sci-fi movies for 2021 & 2022

Space.com - Wed, 09/29/2021 - 9:45am
We take a deep dive into the upcoming sci-fi movies coming to our screens in 2021 & 2022 that you’ll definitely want to add to your calendar.
Categories: Astronomy

32,000 mph fireball spotted soaring over North Carolina

Space.com - Wed, 09/29/2021 - 9:30am
The fireball’s bright streak was captured by a neighborhood porch camera.
Categories: Astronomy

Will the US or China win the race for global quantum dominance?

New Scientist Space - Cosmology - Wed, 09/29/2021 - 9:30am
Quantum computers are becoming a matter of national security, but is the US or China leading the race for global dominance?
Categories: Astronomy

Will the US or China win the race for global quantum dominance?

New Scientist Space - Space Headlines - Wed, 09/29/2021 - 9:30am
Quantum computers are becoming a matter of national security, but is the US or China leading the race for global dominance?
Categories: Astronomy

Should you get a covid vaccine booster shot if you're offered one?

New Scientist Space - Cosmology - Wed, 09/29/2021 - 9:00am
As the UK and US embark on large-scale coronavirus vaccine booster programmes, the evidence so far suggests it is a good idea to get a booster shot if you are offered one
Categories: Astronomy

Should you get a covid vaccine booster shot if you're offered one?

New Scientist Space - Space Headlines - Wed, 09/29/2021 - 9:00am
As the UK and US embark on large-scale coronavirus vaccine booster programmes, the evidence so far suggests it is a good idea to get a booster shot if you are offered one
Categories: Astronomy

Cryogenic Testing of the Webb Telescope's Primary Mirror Segment

NASA Image of the Day - Wed, 09/29/2021 - 8:57am
Project scientist Mark Clampin is reflected in the flight mirrors of the James Webb Space Telescope during testing at the Marshall Space Flight Center.
Categories: Astronomy, NASA