Lunar eclipse marks Moon landing’s 50th anniversary

Fifty years to the day since mankind launched the first mission to set foot on it, the Moon is set to treat Earthlings to a partial lunar eclipse on Tuesday.

Britain’s Royal Astronomical Society said in a statement the event would be visible from parts of northern Europe, Asia, Africa, South America and Western Australia.

Lunar eclipses happen when the Earth gets aligned in between the Sun and the Moon.

Tuesday’s eclipse should see around 60 percent of the Moon’s visible surface obscured by the Earth’s shadow, known as the umbra, the RAS said.

Best viewing conditions in Britain will be around 2230 (2130 GMT), it added.

Unlike solar eclipses, lunar eclipses can be seen by the naked eye without risk of damage. Experts recommend those seeking to take photos of the phenomenon use a tripod.

More than 400,000 people worked on NASA’s Apollo 11 mission, which launched on July 16, 1969 and put the first humans on the Moon four days later.


India to launch second mission to moon tomorrow

Eleven years after its maiden successful unmanned mission to the moon which found traces of water there, India is all set for the launch of the second one in the wee hours tomorrow (July 15).

The mission has an objective of studying the lunar surface looking for possible presence of minerals, energy and the evolution of the entire solar system, reports our New Delhi correspondent.

The Chandrayaan-2 will be launched from Indian Space Research Organization’s launch pad at Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh, by Geosynchronized Launch Vehicle Mark III at 2.51 Indian time for India’s most ambitious space mission so far and all preparations are going on for this, according to the space agency’s chairman K Sivan.

This will be the first time that a moon mission will land in the hitherto unexplored south pole region of the celestial body because all previous missions by other countries had landed in the equatorial region of the moon.

The objective of the nearly Rs 1,000-crore Chandrayan 2 mission is to take up a detailed study on understanding of the origin and evolution of the moon and composition of its soil and rocks, according to ISRO.

The moon mission will consist of Orbiter, Lander (Vikram) and Rover. The lander is expected to start operations after touch down on the lunar surface in the first week of September.

ISRO Chairman K Sivan said the lander would make a soft landing in the lunar south pole of the moon, an uncharted territory so far, on September 6 while the orbiter of the Chandrayan 2 will go round the moon for a year.

Chandrayaan-2 is an advanced version of the previous Chandrayaan-1 mission which had 11 payloads — five from India, three from Europe, two from the US and one from Bulgaria. 

India’s first mission to the moon had the credit for discovering water on the lunar surface, something that had earlier remained in the realms of speculations.

In fact, the finding of traces of water in the lunar surface by India’s first maiden mission had sparked a renewed global interest in the moon.

India’s second moon mission will carry 14 instruments which are expected to throw light on the quantity of water that could be present in the lunar surface and rocks, possible presence of Helium-3 which is considered a key source of energy and any seismic activity in the lunar surface.

India’s mission will also try to map a detailed topography of the moon’s surface, study if there is any presence of mineral in the lunar surface and examine solar radiation.

The ISRO is expected to undertake two more unmanned missions, the first in December 2020 and the second in July 2021 before India puts its astronauts in space in December 2022,” according to ISRO.

According to P Sreekumar, Director of ISRO’s Space Science Programme office, the finding of the trapped water in lunar rocks by India’s first mission was important and the very thin atmosphere of the moon also showed water content.

The second mission will try to look for presence of water below the moon’s surface as it is essential for sustained human presence out there, he said.

India’s second unmanned mission to the moon was earlier planned for March last year but had to be pushed back in order to make changes in the design of the lander and the orbit in which it would reach the lunar surface.


Man’s first steps on the Moon, reported live by AFP

It was 10:56 pm at mission control in Houston on July 20, 1969 when Neil Armstrong became the first person to step onto the Moon.

AFP despatched several journalists to cover the exploit, which was broadcast live from the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility to NASA’s Johnson Space Center and on to televisions around the world.

This is their summary from that day 50 years ago, translated from the original French. The quotes have been crosschecked against the NASA transcript.

The conquest of the Moon

SEA OF TRANQUILITY, July 20, 1969 (AFP) – On Sunday at 10:56 pm US time (0256 GMT), Armstrong — after seemingly never-ending suspense — steps on the Moon.

A few hours earlier the mission commander had suddenly announced to the world that he would exit the lunar module five hours earlier than planned.

The descent for man’s first steps on the Moon gets under way.

– 7:42 pm: The astronauts start preparations for the excursion. They put on double-visor helmets, boots, reinforced gloves and backpack-like life support gear, also checking that the pressure, radio communication and oxygen systems are working.

– 7:50 pm: NASA announces the preparations will take two hours. Armstrong will not exit before 10:00 pm.

– 9:55 pm: They depressurize the spacecraft, at the same time pressurizing their spacesuits.

– 10:00 pm: The lunar module empties.

– 10:15 pm: Their spacesuits are fully pressurized.

– 10:20 pm: Everything is going smoothly. The lunar module remains depressurized. The astronauts now rely entirely on their life support systems.

‘Giant leap’ 

– 10:56 pm. Armstrong puts his left foot on the surface of the Moon and declares: “That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.”

Before fully putting his foot down, the commander had carefully felt out the surface with his boot to check its solidity.

“I only go in a small fraction of an inch, maybe an eighth of an inch, but I can see the footprints of my boots and the treads in the fine, sandy particles,” he says, surprised, taking his first steps.

“There seems to be no difficulty in moving around — as we suspected. It’s even perhaps easier than the simulations… .”

He moves with seeming ease, millions of people back on Earth watching and listening as the images are beamed back live onto televisions in homes around the world.

They have seen the conqueror of the Moon come down the nine struts of the ladder leaving the module, test out the surface, let go of the handrail, take his first steps and collect the first samples of lunar soil.

Armstrong uses a bag on a telescopic stick that he takes from a pocket to scoop up the soil. He then seals the bag and tosses the stick — the first of several items of Earth litter to be left behind when the astronauts leave.

He pushes the bag into his thigh pocket, feeling blindly and guided by his teammate Edwin Aldrin who is watching over him from the height of the module’s hatch.

American flag

It is now 11:15 pm. Armstrong has already spent 19 minutes alone on the Moon, 19 minutes during which, in the indefinable solitude of the dead planet, he has demonstrated perfect composure.

At that moment Aldrin makes a bounding appearance. Reassured by Armstrong’s experience, he boldly jumps off the ladder, also putting down his left foot first.

The two men, in an act of patriotism, plant the US flag into the Moon. They then read aloud from a plaque, fixed to the spacecraft’s front landing gear, that is inscribed: “Here Men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”

Having accomplished this symbolic gesture, they go on to move a camera that is fixed to the module and streaming images of the white surface of the Moon, its horizon slanted on a very black background.

Armstrong first hangs it around his neck: on the small screens back on Earth, the image dances around.

The mission commander then takes a few steps and fixes the camera on a tripod.

It sends back a panoramic view: the lunar module against a background of countless miniscule craters with oversized shadows and, far off, the horizon, a clearly curved line demarcating the Moon’s surface, glittering under the Sun’s light, and the black abyss of the universe.

The image becomes clearer. One can make out the footprints of the astronauts on the grey-white surface, the firmly planted star-spangled banner.

The two men advance with surprising lightness, as if dancing. A strange ballet is taking place on the Moon. Their heavy spacesuits — fireproofed armour with reinforced joints and weighed down by the survival backpacks — seem no bother.

Nixon on the line

11:49 pm: Ground control announces that Richard Nixon is on the line. He is going to talk to the astronauts, as planned.

Immediately the screen divides. On the left is the US president reading, from the White House, a message over the telephone. On the right are Armstrong and Aldrin, motionless, listening to the voice coming from Earth, 380,000 kilometres (236,000 miles) away.

“For every American, this has to be the proudest day of our lives,” he says. “Because of what you have done, the heavens have become a part of man’s world.”

“Thank you, Mr President,” replies Armstrong. “It’s a great honor and privilege for us to be here.”

They resume their tasks, Aldrin unfolding a “solar wind collector” that consists of a thin aluminium foil sheet that opens up like a blind. It will gather particles of the various gases that make up the wind — helium, argon, neon, krypton, xenon — for analysis back on Earth.

Bouncing around in all directions in “kangaroo hops”, the astronauts have already spent more than an hour on the Moon. Their doctor Charles Berry, who has been watching their every movement from Houston, says they are in “perfect shape”.

They collect samples at random, putting them into plastic bags to be stored later in sealed metallic containers.

As they work, the astronauts make use of a range of tools that they pull out from the module’s trunk-like Modularized Equipment Stowage Assembly: pliers, pincers, shovels, picks, a hammer, sample tubes and scales.

These instruments are larger than those that would be used on Earth since the astronauts’ chunky reinforced gloves prevent them from handling small objects.

And as their spacesuits mean they cannot bend down, the instruments all come with long, telescopic handles.

Dead star?

At 00:15 am the collection of samples is over, the astronauts having gathered 27-28 kilogrammes (about 60 pounds) of Moon stones and rock.

The first mission accomplished, they now have to set up two instruments that will be left on the Moon: a seismograph and a laser reflector.

The most delicate is the sensitive seismograph, the most accurate ever built. It will record the slightest tremors to rattle the Moon and determine whether they are caused by the impact of meteorites that constantly bomb its surface or are of volcanic origin, like earthquakes.

Meant to function for a year, its installation is the astronauts’ main objective as its data should show whether the Moon is a dead star or not.

The laser reflector is made up of 100 prismatic mirrors composed of quartz crystals and intended to reflect the beams of rays reaching the Moon from various points of the Earth.

Set up in four minutes and intended to function for around 10 years, it will enable calculations to within a few centimetres (inches) of the distance between the Earth and Moon, which is now only known in metres (feet), as well as the exact shape of the Moon, its dimensions and oscillations on its core.

The reflector will also help to determine the speed at which the Moon is moving away from the Earth and collect information about the Earth itself.

This includes the exact distance between the continents; if they are drifting from each other; activity on the geographic North Pole; the speed of its rotation and oscillations on its axis.

The two instruments are in place. Working non-stop, the astronauts all the time continued to pass on to the Houston control center their impressions and observations.

Armstrong signals that he has spotted, around the module, endless small craters, which he compares to holes caused by a BB shot pellet gun.

Moon curse?

The mission comes to an end. The astronauts pack up, leaving on the Moon the 11,000-dollar camera which had so faithfully recorded their movements and transmitted them back to Earth, as well as the tools they used.

Their samples are hoisted back into the lunar module on a clothesline-like wire on a pulley inside the spacecraft. They fold up the “solar wind collector” and send it up along the wire.

Aldrin takes the ladder’s nine rungs back up into the module and grabs the items passed up by Armstrong, carefully stowing them inside.

Armstrong has now been outside for more than two hours and 10 minutes, Aldrin about 20 minutes less.

The operation has been without incident except for when Aldrin dropped a film pack. Armstrong picked it up immediately, easily, almost nonchalantly, showing again that all NASA’s worries about the difficulties the astronauts could face moving on Moon were unwarranted.

The incident also allowed Earth to hear the first lunar curse. Aldrin, furious at his own clumsiness, lets slips a resounding, “Damn.”

Aldrin enters the module. Armstrong takes a last look around, grabs the handrails of the ladder, climbs up, enters the craft and closes the hatch. It is 1:11 am Houston time. The first exploration of the Moon is over. A total success.

Just five minutes before they go back up the ladder, NASA had let the men know that the laser reflector was already functioning perfectly. A laser beam sent from California had already reached it and been reflected back.


All that remains for the two brave space explorers is to clean up. They sweep towards the hatch the film-less camera used to photograph their Moon rock collection, their boots, gloves and survival packs, as well as empty food bags and full urine ones.

Having depressurized the cabin again, they open the hatch and shove the pile out onto the Moon. The module is closed and repressurized a last time, allowing the men to eat and sleep.

About 12 hours later, at 1:55 pm, they must takeoff from the Moon to return to the mothership. There command pilot Michael Collins awaits, one of the few Americans not to have seen the two spacemen in action live on television, although he was able to follow via radio.

Watching over them from above, when Collins learned that the expedition had concluded in triumph and his teammates were safe and sound aboard their module, he expressed his joy and relief with a single word: “Hallelujah!”


Scientists unearth ‘most bird-like’ dinosaur ever found

Researchers in Germany have unearthed a new species of flying dinosaur that flapped its wings like a raven and could hold vital clues as to how modern-day birds evolved from their reptilian ancestors.

For more than a century and a half since its discovery in 1861, Archaeopteryx — a small feathered dinosaur around the size of a crow that lived in marshland around 150 million years ago — was widely considered to be the oldest flying bird.

Palaeontologists from Ludwig-Maximilians University (LMU) in Munich and the University of Fribourg examined rock formations in the German region of Bavaria, home to nearly all known Archaeopteryx specimens.

They came across a petrified wing, which the team initially assumed to be the same species. They soon found several differences, however.

“There are similarities, but after detailed comparisons with Archaeopteryx and other, geologically younger birds, its fossil remains suggested that we were dealing with a somewhat more derived bird,” said lead study author Oliver Rauhut from LMU’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences.

They called the new bird-like dinosaur Alcmonavis poeschli — from the old Celtic word for a nearby river and the scientist who discovered the fossil, excavation leader Roland Poeschl.

The study, published in the journal eLife Sciences, said Alcmonavis poeschli was “the most bird-like bird discovered from the Jurassic”.

As well as being significantly larger than Archaeopteryx, the new specimen had more notches in its wing bones that pointed to muscles which would have allowed it to actively flap its wings.

Significantly, this “flapping” trait found in Alcmonavis poeschli is present in more recent birds, but not in Archaeopteryx.

“This suggests that the diversity of birds in the late Jurassic era was greater than previously thought,” Rauhut said.

The discovery is likely to fuel debate among dinosaur experts over whether birds and dinosaurs developed the ability to flap their wings from earlier gliding species.

“Its adaptation shows that the evolution of flight must have progressed relatively quickly,” said Christian Foth, from the University of Fribourg, and a co-author of the research.


Fraudster who used ice cream to lure seniors is sentenced

A New Jersey man who defrauded Medicare by using the promise of ice cream to lure senior citizens into genetic testing was sentenced Friday to more than four years in prison.

Seth Rehfuss had pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud. US District Judge Ann Thompson also ordered Rehfuss to pay restitution of about $435,000 and forfeit more than $66,000.

Prosecutors alleged the 44-year-old Somerset resident and others used a nonprofit, The Good Samaritans of America, to gain access to senior housing complexes where they would persuade residents to submit to genetic tests.

Rehfuss would advertise he was serving free ice cream to lure residents to the presentations, according to a criminal complaint. The seniors were told the tests would help them guard against heart attacks, cancer and other illnesses.

Rehfuss and his co-conspirators paid health care providers to authorize the tests even though the providers hadn’t examined the patients. Prosecutors alleged they found the providers by placing ads on Craigslist.

The group allegedly defrauded Medicare out of $430,000 and made more than $100,000 in commissions from laboratories.

Forty-seven-year-old Sheila Kahl, of Ocean County, New Jersey, and 39-year-old Kenneth Johnson of Lorton, Virginia, also have pleaded guilty and are scheduled to be sentenced this month.

According to the US attorney’s office, the group had planned to expand the scheme to other states.


Space-tourism enters ‘home stretch’ toward commercial flight

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson, gives a fist bump to Sonia Thorp, 9, of Carlos Gilbert Elementary at the beginning of an event at the state capital on Friday, May 10, 2019, in Santa Fe, N.M. Branson announced Friday that his company will begin shifting operations from California to a spaceport and specialized runway in the New Mexico desert in final preparations for commercial flights. Photo: AP/ Craig Fritz

Billionaire Richard Branson is moving Virgin Galactic’s winged passenger rocket and more than 100 employees from California to a remote commercial launch and landing facility in southern New Mexico, bringing his space-tourism dream a step closer to reality.

Branson said Friday at a news conference that Virgin Galactic’s development and testing program has advanced enough to make the move to the custom-tailored hangar and runway at the taxpayer-financed Spaceport America facility near the town of Truth or Consequences.

Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said a small number of flight tests are pending. He declined to set a specific deadline for the first commercial flight.

An interior cabin for the company’s space rocket is being tested, and pilots and engineers are among the employees relocating from California to New Mexico. The move to New Mexico puts the company in the “home stretch,” Whitesides said.

The manufacturing of the space vehicles by a sister enterprise, The Spaceship Company, will remain based in the community of Mojave, California.

Taxpayers invested over $200 million in Spaceport America after Branson and then-Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, pitched the plan for the facility, with Virgin Galactic as the anchor tenant.

Virgin Galactic’s spaceship development has taken far longer than expected and had a major setback when the company’s first experimental craft broke apart during a 2014 test flight, killing the co-pilot.

Branson thanked New Mexico politicians and residents for their patience over the past decade. He said he believes space tourism — once aloft — is likely to bring about profound change.

“Our future success as a species rests on the planetary perspective,” Branson said. “The perspective that we know comes sharply into focus when that planet is viewed from the black sky of space.”

Branson described a vision of hotels in space and a network of spaceports allowing supersonic, transcontinental travel anywhere on earth within a few hours. He indicated, however, that building financial viability comes first.

“We need the financial impetus to be able to do all that,” he said. “If the space program is successful as I think … then the sky is the limit.”

In February, a new version of Virgin Galactic’s winged craft SpaceShipTwo soared at three times the speed of sound to an altitude of nearly 56 miles (99 kilometers) in a test flight over Southern California, as a crew member soaked in the experience.

On Friday, that crew member, Beth Moses, recounted her voyage into weightlessness and the visual spectacle of pitch-black space and the earth below.

“Everything is silent and still and you can unstrap and float about the cabin,” she said. “Pictures do not do the view from space justice. … I will be able to see it forever.”

The company’s current spaceship doesn’t launch from the ground. It is carried under a special plane to an altitude of about 50,000 feet (15,240 meters) before detaching and igniting its rocket engine.

“Release is like freefall at an amusement park, except it keeps going,” Moses said. “And then the rocket motor lights. Before you know it, you’re supersonic.”

The craft coasts to the top of its climb before gradually descending to earth, stabilized by “feathering” technology in which twin tails rotate upward to increase drag on the way to a runway landing.

Branson previously has said he would like to make his first suborbital flight this year as one of the venture’s first passengers on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20. But he made no mention of timelines on Friday.

Pressed on the timeframe, Whitesides said he anticipates the first commercial flight within a year.

Three people with future space-flight reservations were in the audience.

“They’ve been patient too,” Branson said. “Space is hard.”

Hundreds of potential customers have committed as much as $250,000 up front for rides in Virgin’s six-passenger rocket, which is about the size of an executive jet.

Space tourism has not been a complete novelty since millionaire U.S. engineer Dennis Tito in 2001 paid $20 million to join a Russian space mission to the International Space Station. Branson’s goal has been to “democratize” space by opening travel up to more and more people.

The endeavor began in 2004 when Branson announced the founding of Virgin Galactic in the heady days after the flights of SpaceShipOne, the first privately financed manned spacecraft that made three flights into space.

Space sector analyst Adam Jonas, a managing director of equity research at Morgan Stanley, said Branson’s venture could have an outsized impact in the age of social media on how the public visualizes space as a domain for scientific and commercial exploration.

“You bring them back to earth and they explain what they saw — that’s a story, put through the velocity of social media, people want to hear,” he said. “Sometimes you need some distance to gain a perspective, seeing the earth from space, seeing how thin that layer of atmosphere is that protects us.”

Branson’s plans have gradually advanced amid a broader surge in private investment in space technology with cost-saving innovations in reusable rockets and microsatellite technology.

Amazon tycoon Jeff Bezos announced Thursday that his space company Blue Origin will send a robotic spaceship to the moon with aspirations for another ship that could bring people there along the same timeframe as NASA’s proposed 2024 return. Bezos has provided no details about launch dates.


First ever black hole image released

The first ever photo a black hole, taken using a global network of telescopes, conducted by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) project, to gain insight into celestial objects with gravitational fields so strong no matter or light can escape, is shown in this handout photo released April 10, 2019. Photo: Event Horizon Telescope (EHT)/National Science Foundation/Handout via REUTERS

An international scientific team on Wednesday announced a milestone in astrophysics – the first-ever photo of a black hole – using a global network of telescopes to gain insight into celestial objects with gravitational fields so strong no matter or light can escape.

The team’s observations of the black hole at the center of Messier 87, a massive galaxy in the nearby Virgo galaxy cluster, lend strong support to the theory of general relativity put forward in 1915 by physicist Albert Einstein to explain the laws of gravity and their relation to other natural forces.

The research was conducted by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) project, an international collaboration begun in 2012 to try to directly observe the immediate environment of a black hole using a global network of Earth-based telescopes. The announcement was made in simultaneous news conferences in Washington, Brussels, Santiago, Shanghai, Taipei and Tokyo.

“We have achieved something presumed to be impossible just a generation ago,” said astrophysicist Sheperd Doeleman, director of the Event Horizon Telescope at the Center for Astrophysics, Harvard & Smithsonian.

This black hole resides about 54 million light-years from Earth. A light year is the distance light travels in a year, 5.9 trillion miles (9.5 trillion km).

Black holes, phenomenally dense celestial entities, are extraordinarily difficult to observe despite their great mass. A black hole’s event horizon is the point of no return beyond which anything – stars, planets, gas, dust and all forms of electromagnetic radiation – gets swallowed into oblivion.

“This is a huge day in astrophysics,” said US National Science Foundation Director France Córdova. “We’re seeing the unseeable.”

The fact that black holes do not allow light to escape makes viewing them difficult. The scientists look for a ring of light – disrupted matter and radiation circling at tremendous speed at the edge of the event horizon – around a region of darkness representing the actual black hole. This is known as the black hole’s shadow or silhouette.

Astrophysicist Dimitrios Psaltis of the University of Arizona, the EHT project scientist, said, “The size and shape of the shadow matches the precise predictions of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, increasing our confidence in this century-old theory.”

“Imaging a black hole is just the beginning of our effort to develop new tools that will enable us to interpret the massively complex data that nature gives us,” Psaltis added.

The project’s researchers obtained the first data in April 2017 using telescopes in the US states of Arizona and Hawaii as well as in Mexico, Chile, Spain and Antarctica. Since then, telescopes in France and Greenland have been added to the global network. The global network of telescopes has essentially created a planet-sized observational dish.


After the Moon in 2024, NASA wants to reach Mars by 2033

NASA has made it clear they want astronauts back on the Moon in 2024, and now, they are zeroing in on the Red Planet — the US space agency confirmed that it wants humans to reach Mars by 2033.

Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator, said Tuesday that in order to achieve that goal, other parts of the program — including a lunar landing — need to move forward more quickly.

“We want to achieve a Mars landing in 2033,” Bridenstine told lawmakers at a congressional hearing on Capitol Hill.

“We can move up the Mars landing by moving up the Moon landing. The Moon is the proving ground,” added the former Republican congressman, who was appointed by President Donald Trump.

NASA is racing to enact the plans of Trump, who dispatched Vice President Mike Pence to announce that the timetable for once again putting man on the Moon had been cut by four years to 2024.

The new date is politically significant: it would be the final year in Trump’s eventual second term at the White House.

Many experts and lawmakers are concerned that NASA cannot make the deadline, especially given the major delays in development of its new heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System, which is being built by aerospace giant Boeing.

Any mission to Mars would take at least two years, given the distance to be traveled. Getting there alone would take six months, as opposed to the three days needed to reach the Moon.

A round trip to Mars can only take place when the Red Planet is positioned on the same side of the Sun as Earth — that occurs about every 26 months, so the dates are 2031, 2033, and so on.

In 2017, a NASA budget bill set 2033 as the target date for the first manned mission to Mars, but NASA itself has talked about the “2030s” in its roadmap.

NASA wants to learn how to extract and use the tons of ice at the Moon’s south pole.

“Water ice represents air to breathe, it represents water to drink, it represents fuel,” Bridenstine said.

“The intent of course is to not just get humans to the surface of the Moon but prove that we can live and work on another world.”

Democratic lawmaker Eddie Bernice Johnson, the chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, asked Bridenstine to put a price tag on the new schedule.

The NASA chief said he would make his updated budget request by April 15.


India’s ASAT weapons test a terrible thing: NASA

NASA said the creation of orbital debris has led to new dangers for astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

Amid warnings and concerns of space debris following India’s anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons test, the head of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on Tuesday branded India’s destruction of one of its satellites a “terrible thing” that had created 400 pieces of orbital debris and led to new dangers for astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

Jim Bridenstine was addressing employees of NASA after India shot down a low-orbiting satellite in a missile test to prove it was among the world’s advanced space powers.

Not all of the pieces were big enough to track, Bridenstine explained. “What we are tracking right now, objects big enough to track – we’re talking about 10 centimetres or bigger – about 60 pieces have been tracked.”

The satellite was destroyed at a relatively low altitude of 300 kilometres, well below the ISS and most satellites in orbit.

But 24 of the pieces “are going above the apogee of the International Space Station,” said Bridenstine.

“That is a terrible, terrible thing to create an event that sends debris at an apogee that goes above the International Space Station,” he continued, adding: “That kind of activity is not compatible with the future of human spaceflight.”

“It’s unacceptable and NASA needs to be very clear about what its impact to us is.”

The US military tracks objects in space to predict the collision risk for the ISS and for satellites. They are currently tracking 23,000 objects larger than 10 centimetres.

That includes about 10,000 pieces of space debris, of which nearly 3,000 were created by a single event: a Chinese anti-satellite test in 2007 at 530 miles from the surface.

As a result of the Indian test, the risk of collision with the ISS has increased by 44 per cent over 10 days, Bridenstine said.

But the risk will dissipate over time as much of the debris will burn up as it enters the atmosphere.

Hours after Prime Minister Narendra Modi last week announced that India had become the fourth country in the world to become a space superpower capable of taking out an enemy satellite in space, the US expressed concern over the issue of space debris.

According to a report in Reuters, acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan had warned any nation contemplating anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons tests like the one India carried out on Wednesday that they risk making a “mess” in space because of debris fields they can leave behind.

In the Mission Shakti operation, the indigenously-built anti-satellite ASAT missile successfully destroyed a target satellite in the Low Earth Orbit (LWO), the PM announced.

Though the message was clear to all of India’s adversaries, the PM assured the global community that the technology will not be used “against anyone”.

The Ministry of External Affairs in its statement said that India’s space capabilities do not threaten any country nor are they directed against anyone.

The MEA had also said the test was done in the lower atmosphere to ensure there is no space debris.

The government also came out with a 10-point explainer to say the anti-satellite missile test was carried out to verify India’s capability to safeguard space assets and that it was not directed against any country.

Copyright: The Statesman/ Asia News Network


Robo-journalism gains traction in shifting media

A text-generating “bot” nicknamed Tobi produced nearly 40,000 news stories about the results of the November 2018 elections in Switzerland for the media giant Tamedia — in just five minutes.

These kinds of artificial intelligence programs — available for nearly a decade — are becoming more widespread as news organizations turn to them to produce stories, personalize news delivery and in some cases sift through data to find important news.

Tobi wrote on vote results for each of Switzerland’s 2,222 municipalities, in both French and German, for the country’s largest media group, according to a paper presented last month at the Computation + Journalism conference in Miami.

A similar automated program called Heliograf has enabled The Washington Post daily to cover some 500 election races, along with local sports and business, since 2014.

“We’ve seen a greater acceptance of the potential for artificial intelligence, or robo-journalism, in newsrooms around the world,” said Damian Radcliffe, a University of Oregon professor who follows consumer trends and business models for journalism.

“These systems can offer speed and accuracy and potentially support the realities of smaller newsrooms and the time pressures of journalists.”

News organizations say the bots are not intended to displace human reporters or editors but rather to help free them from the most monotonous tasks, such as sports results and earnings reports.

Jeremy Gilbert, director of strategic initiatives at The Washington Post, said Heliograf was developed as a tool to help the newspaper’s editorial team.

“The Post has an incredible team of reporters and editors and we didn’t want to replace them,” Gilbert told AFP.

‘Is this something we can automate?’                  

Gilbert said the bot can deliver and update stories more quickly as they develop, allowing reporters to concentrate on other tasks, and that reaction has been generally positive.

“The surprise was that a lot of people came up and said, ‘I do this story every week; is this something we can automate?'” Gilbert said.

“These weren’t stories that anyone wanted to do.”

Similar conversations are going on in newsrooms around the world. The Norwegian news agency NTB automated sports reports to get match results delivered within 30 seconds.

The Los Angeles Times developed a “quakebot” that quickly distributes news articles on temblors in the region and also uses an automated system as part of its Homicide Report.

The Associated Press has been automating quarterly earnings reports for some 3,000 listed companies, allowing the news agency to expand from what had been just a few hundred, and this year announced plans with its partner Automated Insights to deliver computer-generated previews of college basketball games.

Rival news agency Reuters last year announced the launch of Lynx Insight, which uses automated data analysis to identify trends and anomalies and to suggest stories reporters should write.

Bloomberg’s computerized system called Cyborg “dissects a company’s earnings the moment they appear” and produces within seconds a “mini-wrap with all the numbers and a lot of context,” editor-in-chief John Micklethwait wrote last year, noting that one-fourth of the agency’s content “has some degree of automation.”

France’s Le Monde and its partner Syllabs deployed a computer program that generated 150,000 web pages covering 36,000 municipalities in the 2015 elections.

One advantage of using algorithmically generated stories is that they can also be “personalized,” or delivered to the relevant localities, which can be useful for elections and sports coverage.

Investigative robo-reporter?

While news professionals acknowledge the limits of computer programs, they also note that automated systems can sometimes accomplish things humans can’t.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution used a data journalism team to uncover 450 cases of doctors who were brought before medical regulators or courts for sexual misconduct, finding that nearly half remained licensed to practice medicine.

The newspaper used machine learning, an artificial intelligence tool, to analyze each case and assign a “probability rating” on sexual misconduct, which was then reviewed by a team of journalists.

Studies appear to indicate consumers accept computer-generated stories, which are mostly labeled as such.

A report prepared by researcher Andreas Graefe for Columbia University’s Tow Center said one study of Dutch readers found that the label of computer-generated “had no effect on people’s perceptions of quality.”

A second study of German readers, Graefe said, found that “automated articles were rated as more credible,” although human-written news scored higher for “readability.”

Robot apocalypse?            

Even though journalists and robots appear to be helping each other, fears persist about artificial intelligence spinning out of control and costing journalists’ jobs.

In February, researchers at the nonprofit center OpenAI announced they had developed an automatic text generator so good that it is keeping details private for now.

The researchers said the program could be used for nefarious purposes, including to generate fake news articles, impersonating others online, and automate fake content on social media.

But Meredith Broussard, a professor of data journalism at New York University, said she does not see any immediate threats of robots taking over newsrooms.

She said there are many positive applications of AI in the newsroom, but that for now, most programs handle “the most boring” stories.

“There are some jobs that are going to be automated, but overall, I’m not worried about the robot apocalypse in the newsroom,” she said.