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NASA

NASA Spends 72 Cents of Every SLS Dollar On Overhead Costs, Says Report (arstechnica.com) 32

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

No One Knows What To Do With the International Space Station (popsci.com) 185

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

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

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

Supermassive Black Hole Rocketing Out of Distant Galaxy At 5 Million MPH (blastr.com) 78

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

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

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

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

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

Mars Rover Spots Clouds Shaped By Gravity Waves (sciencemag.org) 56

sciencehabit writes from a report via Science Magazine: NASA's Curiosity rover has shot more than 500 movies of the clouds above Mars, including the first ground-based view of martian clouds shaped by gravity waves, researchers reported this week at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. The shots are the best record made so far of a mysterious recurring belt of equatorial clouds known to influence the martian climate. Understanding these clouds will help inform estimates of ground ice depth and perhaps recurring slope lineae, potential flows of salty water on the surface, says John Moores, a planetary scientist at York University in Toronto, Canada, who led the study with his graduate student, Jake Kloos. "If we wish to understand the water story of Mars's past," Moores says, "we first need to [separate out] contributions from the present-day water cycle." Using Curiosity's navigation camera, Moores and Kloos recorded eight-frame movies of this wispy cloud belt for two martian years. They've used two angles to capture the clouds: one pointed directly up, to see wind direction and speed, and another that keeps the rover's horizon in the frame, allowing a view into the clouds' depth. Given the limited water vapor, solar energy, and atmosphere, the martian clouds lack the variety of shapes seen on Earth. But during one day of cloud gazing -- Curiosity's 1302th martian day, to be precise -- the team got lucky and saw something unusual. That day, when Curiosity looked to the horizon, it saw a sequence of straight, parallel rows of clouds flowing in the same direction: the first ground-based view of a gravity wave cloud. Similar to the waves that follow a pebble tossed into a pond, gravity waves are created when some unknown feature of the martian landscape causes a ripple in the atmosphere that is then seen in clouds. Such waves are common at the edge of the martian ice caps, but thought to be less frequent over its equator.
Earth

'Extreme and Unusual' Climate Trends Continue After Record 2016 (bbc.com) 372

From a report on BBC: In the atmosphere, the seas and around the poles, climate change is reaching disturbing new levels across the Earth. That's according to a detailed global analysis from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). It says that 2016 was not only the warmest year on record, but it saw atmospheric CO2 rise to a new high, while Arctic sea ice recorded a new winter low. The "extreme and unusual" conditions have continued in 2017, it says. Reports earlier this year from major scientific bodies - including the UK's Met Office, Nasa and NOAA -- indicated that 2016 was the warmest year on record. The WMO's State of the Global Climate 2016 report builds on this research with information from 80 national weather services to provide a deeper and more complete picture of the year's climate data.
Space

A New Definition Would Add 102 Planets To Our Solar System -- Including Pluto (washingtonpost.com) 150

The Grim Reefer quotes a report from The Washington Post: Is Pluto a planet? It's not a question scientists ask in polite company. "It's like religion and politics," said Kirby Runyon, a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University. "People get worked up over it. I've gotten worked up over it." For years, astronomers, planetary scientists and other space researchers have fought about what to call the small, icy world at the edge of our solar system. Is it a planet, as scientists believed for nearly seven decades? Or must a planet be something bigger, something more dominant, as was decided by vote at the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in 2006? The issue can bring conversations to a screeching halt, or turn them into shouting matches. "Sometimes," Runyon said, "it's just easier not to bring it up." But Runyon will ignore his own advice this week when he attends the annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston. In a giant exhibit hall crowded with his colleagues, he's attempting to reignite the debate about Pluto's status with an audacious new definition for planet -- one that includes not just Pluto, but several of its neighbors, objects in the asteroid belt, and a number of moons. By his count, 102 new planets could be added to our solar system under the new criteria. USA Today reports: "In the mind of the public, the word 'planet' carries a significance lacking in other words used to describe planetary bodies," the proposal states. "In the decade following the supposed 'demotion' of Pluto by the International Astronomical Union, many members of the public, in our experience, assume that alleged 'non-planets' cease to be interesting enough to warrant scientific exploration."
Mars

Trump Adds To NASA Budget, Approves Crewed Mission To Mars (nbcnews.com) 310

An anonymous reader quotes a report from NBC News: President Donald Trump signed a law on Tuesday authorizing funding for a crewed NASA mission to Mars. The new bill (S.442) adds a crewed mission to the red planet as a key NASA objective and authorizes the space agency to direct test human space flight programs that will enable more crewed exploration in deep space. The space agency has $19.5 billion in funding for the 2018 fiscal year, which starts this October. Trump had allocated $19.1 billion for NASA in his budget, which is slightly down from the current year, but still an improvement from the past decade, which saw the end of the space shuttle program. The commander in chief signed the bill surrounded by astronauts and his former Republican rivals, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who both sponsored the bill. Getting to Mars, though, isn't expected to happen during the Trump presidency. NASA has its sights set on getting to the red planet in the 2030s. In the near term, NASA plans to test its Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket, in addition to visiting an asteroid and redirecting a chunk of it into orbit around the moon. Astronauts could later visit the boulder and use the mission to test some of the tools needed for a Mars mission.
Mars

Scientists Sent a Rocket To Mars For Less Than It Cost To Make 'The Martian' (backchannel.com) 180

Ipsita Agarwal via Backchannel retells the story of how India's underfunded space organization, ISRO, managed to send a rocket to Mars for less than it cost to make the movie "The Martian," starring Matt Damon as Mark Watney. "While NASA's Mars probe, Maven, cost $651 million, the budget for this mission was $74 million," Agarwal writes. In what appears to be India's version of "Hidden Figures" (a movie that also cost more to make than ISRO's budget for the Mars rocket), the team of scientists behind the rocket launch consisted of Indian women, who not only managed to pull off the mission successfully but did so in only 18 months. Backchannel reports: A few months and several million kilometers later, the orbiter prepared to enter Mars' gravity. This was a critical moment. If the orbiter entered Mars' gravity at the wrong angle, off by so much as one degree, it would either crash onto the surface of Mars or fly right past it, lost in the emptiness of space. Back on Earth, its team of scientists and engineers waited for a signal from the orbiter. Mission designer Ritu Karidhal had worked 48 hours straight, fueled by anticipation. As a child, Minal Rohit had watched space missions on TV. Now, Minal waited for news on the orbiter she and her colleague, Moumita Dutta, had helped engineer. When the signal finally arrived, the mission control room broke into cheers. If you work in such a room, deputy operations director, Nandini Harinath, says, "you no longer need to watch a thriller movie to feel the thrill in life. You feel it in your day-to-day work." This was not the only success of the mission. An image of the scientists celebrating in the mission control room went viral. Girls in India and beyond gained new heroes: the kind that wear sarees and tie flowers in their hair, and send rockets into space. User shas3 notes in a comment on Hacker News' post: "If you are interested in Indian women scientists and engineers, there is a nice compilation (a bit tiresome to read, but worth it, IMO) of biographical essays called 'Lilvati's Daughters.'"
Space

Astronomers Find Star Orbiting a Black Hole At 1 Percent the Speed of Light (sciencealert.com) 124

schwit1 writes: Astronomers have spotted a star whizzing around a vast black hole at about 2.5 times the distance between Earth and the Moon, and it takes only half an hour to complete one orbit. To put that into perspective, it takes roughly 28 days for our Moon to do a single lap around our relatively tiny planet at speeds of 3,683 km(2,288 miles) per hour. Using data from an array of deep space telescopes, a team of astronomers have measured the X-rays pouring from a binary star system called 47 Tuc X9, which sits in a cluster of stars about 14,800 light-years away. The pair of stars aren't new to astronomers -- they were identified as a binary system way back in 1989 -- but it's now finally becoming clear what's actually going on here. When a white dwarf pulls material from another star, the system is described as a cataclysmic variable star. But back in 2015, one of the objects was found to be a black hole, throwing that hypothesis into serious doubt. Data from Chandra has confirmed large amounts of oxygen in the pair's neighborhood, which is commonly associated with white dwarf stars. But instead of a white dwarf ripping apart another star, it now seems to be a black hole stripping the gases from a white dwarf. The real exciting news, however, is regular changes in the X-rays' intensity suggest this white dwarf takes just 28 minutes to complete an orbit, making it the current champion of cataclysmic dirty dancers. To put it in perspective, the distance between the two objects in X9 is about 1 million kilometers (about 600,000 miles), or about 2.5 times the distance from here to the Moon. Crunching the numbers, that's a journey of roughly 6.3 million kilometers (about 4 million miles) in half an hour, giving us a speed of 12,600,000 km/hr (8,000,000 miles/hr) - about 1 percent of the speed of light.
Government

US Federal Budget Proposal Cuts Science Funding (washingtonpost.com) 649

hey! writes: The U.S. Office of Management and Budget has released a budget "blueprint" which outlines substantial cuts in both basic research and applied technology funding. The proposal includes a whopping 18% reduction in National Institutes of Health medical research. NIH does get a new $500 million fund to track emerging infectious agents like Zika in the U.S., but loses its funding to monitor those agents overseas. The Department of Energy's research programs also get an 18% cut in research, potentially affecting basic physics research, high energy physics, fusion research, and supercomputing. Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E) gets the ax, as does the Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing Program, which enabled Tesla to manufacture its Model S sedan. EPA loses all climate research funding, and about half the research funding targeted at human health impacts of pollution. The Energy Star program is eliminated; Superfund funding is drastically reduced. The Chesapeake Bay and Great Lakes cleanup programs are also eliminated, as is all screening of pesticides for endocrine disruption. In the Department of Commerce, Sea Grant is eliminated, along with all coastal zone research funding. Existing weather satellites GOES and JPSS continue funding, but JPSS-3 and -4 appear to be getting the ax. Support for transfer of federally funded research and technology to small and mid-sized manufacturers is eliminated. NASA gets a slight trim, and a new focus on deep space exploration paid for by an elimination of Earth Science programs. You can read more about this "blueprint" in Nature, Science, and the Washington Post, which broke the story. The Environmental Protection Agency, the State Department and Agriculture Department took the hardest hits, while the Defense Department, Department of Homeland Security, and Department of Veterans Affairs have seen their budgets grow.
NASA

It's About Time Astronauts Got Healthcare For Life (mashable.com) 283

Miriam Kramer, reporting for Mashable: NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria flew to space four times for the space agency between 1995 and 2007. While in space, his eyesight deteriorated, a well-documented medical issue NASA's known about for years, and one that many astronauts have experienced first-hand. For many astronauts, their eyesight readjusts once they get back to Earth. That wasn't the case for Lopez-Alegria, though. His eyesight got significantly worse during his time in orbit, and NASA isn't paying for his contacts or doctor visits today, years after his retirement from the agency. However, he still travels to Houston, Texas once per year to allow the agency to gather data about his health, without any expectation that NASA will offer treatment for any conditions that may have developed because of his time in space. In other words, while Lopez-Alegria's eyesight deteriorates, NASA benefits from the data he provides to the American space program, without medical recompense to him today. The lack of health care for former astronauts has long been a sore spot at NASA, but now it threatens the agency's future. Deep space missions beyond the moon, like a mission to Mars, require a better understanding of how extended spaceflight affects the human body.
Space

Jeff Bezos' Spaceflight Company Blue Origin Gets Its First Paying Customer (nytimes.com) 32

Long-time Slashdot reader nickovs writes: Blue Origin was started as a "moon shot" company by Jeff Bezos and recently claimed that it would be offering an "Amazon-like" delivery service to the moon by 2020. In the mean time it seems their customers will be slightly closer to Earth: this week they announced that they now have a paying customer in the form of the satellite TV company Eutelsat. While this isn't a huge technical milestone, it is a major business milestone, turning Blue Origin from a hobby business into one which might eventually make a profit. According to a New York Times article, "The commercial partnership brings Blue Origin closer in line with SpaceX, created by Elon Musk, which has been launching satellites and taking NASA cargo to the International Space Station for several years."
Meanwhile, SpaceX announced last week that two space tourists have already put down "a significant deposit" for a week-long trip around the moon at the end of 2018, adding "Other flight teams have also expressed strong interest and we expect more to follow."
NASA

NASA Finds Lunar Spacecraft That Vanished 8 Years Ago (cnn.com) 56

An anonymous reader shares a CNN report: It made history as India's first unmanned lunar spacecraft. Then it vanished. Nearly a decade later, NASA has located two unmanned spacecraft orbiting the moon, including India's Chandrayaan-1, which went quiet in 2009. Scientists used a new ground radar to locate the two spacecraft -- one active and one dormant, NASA said Thursday. "We have been able to detect NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter [LRO] and the Indian Space Research Organization's Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft in lunar orbit with ground-based radar," said Marina Brozovic, a radar scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "Finding LRO was relatively easy, as we were working with the mission's navigators and had precise orbit data where it was located."
Space

Stunning Close-up of Saturn's Moon, Pan, Reveals a Space Empanada (sciencemag.org) 63

sciencehabit quotes a report from Science Magazine: Astronomers have long known that Pan, one of Saturn's innermost moons, has an odd look. Based on images taken from a distance, researchers have said it looks like a walnut or a flying saucer. But now, NASA's Cassini probe has delivered stunning close-ups of the 35-kilometer-wide icy moon, and it might be better called a pan-fried dumpling or an empanada. Pan orbits Saturn in a gap in the planet's rings and pulls material from them, so the ridge around it likely started accumulating soon after the moon formed, researchers say. If material in the ridge is still loose, rather than somehow fused together, the ridge can maintain its steepness only because the moon's gravity is so low. The latest pictures were obtained as Cassini conducts its final (and riskiest) flybys past Saturn's moons and rings before it blazes into the planet's atmosphere later this year.
Mars

Study Suggests Potatoes Can Grow On Mars (phys.org) 198

The International Potato Center (CIP) has launched a series of experiments to discover if potatoes can grow under Mars' atmospheric conditions, as well as under extreme conditions on Earth. The CIP placed a potato inside a "specially constructed CubeSat contained environment" that simulates Mars temperature, air pressure, oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. They then used sensors and live-streaming cameras to record the soil and monitor the status of the potato. Preliminary results are positive as cameras inside the container show sprouts. Phys.Org reports: "We have been looking at the very dry soils found in the southern Peruvian desert. These are the most Mars-like soils found on Earth." Chris McKay of NASA ARC. "This [research] could have a direct technological benefit on Earth and a direct biological benefit on Earth," says Chris McKay of NASA ARC. From the initial experiment, CIP scientists concluded that future Mars missions that hope to grow potatoes will have to prepare soil with a loose structure and nutrients to allow the tubers to obtain enough air and water to allow it to tuberize. "It was a pleasant surprise to see that potatoes we've bred to tolerate abiotic stress were able to produce tubers in this soil," Amoros said. He added that one of the best performing varieties was very salt-tolerant from the CIP breeding program for adaptation to subtropical lowlands with tolerance to abiotic stress that was also recently released as a variety in Bangladesh for cultivation in coastal areas with high soil salinity. Amoros noted that whatever their implications for Mars missions, the experiments have already provided good news about potato's potential for helping people survive in extreme environments on Earth.
AI

Quantum Computer Learns To 'See' Trees (sciencemag.org) 116

sciencehabit writes from a report via Science Magazine: Scientists have trained a quantum computer to recognize trees. That may not seem like a big deal, but the result means that researchers are a step closer to using such computers for complicated machine learning problems like pattern recognition and computer vision. The team fed hundreds of NASA satellite images of California into a D-Wave 2X processor, and asked the computer to consider dozens of features -- hue, saturation, even light reflectance -- to determine whether clumps of pixels were trees as opposed to roads, buildings, or rivers. They then told the computer whether its classifications were right or wrong so that the computer could learn from its mistakes, tweaking the formula it uses to determine whether something is a tree. After it was trained, the D-Wave was 90% accurate in recognizing trees in aerial photographs of Mill Valley, California. The results demonstrate how scientists can program quantum computers to 'look' at and analyze images, and opens up the possibility of using them to solve other complex problems that require heavy data crunching.
Mars

NASA Proposes a Magnetic Shield To Protect Mars' Atmosphere (phys.org) 211

New submitter Baron_Yam writes: Apparently it is no longer necessarily science fiction to consider terraforming the red planet in a human lifetime. NASA scientists have proposed putting a magnetic shield at the Mars L1 Lagrange Point, diverting sufficient solar wind in hopes that the Martian atmosphere would thicken and heat the planet to the point of melting the ice caps, causing what remains of Martian water to pool on the surface. While not enough of a change to allow walking around without a space suit, this would make human exploration of the planet a much easier task.

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