NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Is About to Bring Asteroid Pieces Back to Earth

Seven years after it left for the near-Earth asteroid Bennu, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is returning with a celestial souvenir. On the morning of Sunday, September 24, as it passes by Earth the probe will release a canister holding about 9 ounces of space rock. The container will plummet through the atmosphere, its parachute will unfurl, and it will touch down in the Utah desert at about 8:55 am Mountain time.

Assuming its contents survive the journey unscathed, the return will mark a tantalizing step forward for planetary science. Researchers have long salivated over the prospect of examining pristine asteroid fragments. While meteorites—which are often broken chunks of asteroids—fall from the sky all the time, they’re immediately contaminated by the ground they smash into. This will be a rare look at an untainted rock from space, and it will help scientists understand what Bennu is made of and where it came from. If the mission is successful, it will be only the third asteroid sample return in history—following Japanese space agency missions to Ryugu and Itokawa.

To planetary scientist Dante Lauretta, the mission’s principal investigator, it’s also “a little bittersweet,” because the program is now coming to an end. Still, he says, “I’m excited to get it into the laboratory, so we can do all this amazing science.” His University of Arizona team will study the composition of the dust and rock fragments in the container and trace any organic molecules they may harbor. The scientists will also be able to compare samples of Bennu to Ryugu.

But first, the capsule, which is circular and about the size of an ice chest, has to make it safely down to Earth. That will mean slowing from 28,000 miles per hour to just 11. Lockheed Martin built the spacecraft for NASA and is responsible for the capsule recovery. “We have done sample returns before, so we have that experience,” says Sandra Freund, a systems engineer at Lockheed and the OSIRIS-REx program manager, referring to previous NASA missions that collected materials from a comet and the solar wind. “We know we can do this, but there’s always a risk when you’re bringing something back to Earth. You’ve got atmospheric reentry, which is a very fiery experience. You’ve got parachutes that need to deploy. So there are a number of things that need to go just right.”

The capsule’s built-in heat shield is designed to save it from burning up at 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, as a meteor or unprotected satellite that size hurtling through the atmosphere would. “Any time you want to bring a payload through the atmosphere, you need protection for it. It can be pretty gnarly,” says Todd White, a scientist at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, who worked on the spacecraft’s thermal protection system. The heat shield is made of a lightweight chopped carbon fiber infused with resin, and it’s ablative, meaning that it slowly burns off. “It looks nice and brown on the back and white on the front—but when it lands it’ll look charred and crispy,” White says.

First, the capsule will deploy a small drogue chute to keep itself stable. Then seven minutes into its descent, it will open its main parachute and drift to the ground for six more minutes. Recovery helicopters will get the first view of its rapid descent. Relatively soft soil should cushion the impact when it lands within the Department of Defense’s remote Utah Test and Training Range and Dugway Proving Grounds. It’s an active range, though, so before NASA personnel make their approach to retrieve the container, a military representative will check the area to make sure there’s no unexploded ordnance.

via Wired Top Stories

September 22, 2023 at 07:03AM

OpenAI’s Dall-E 3 Is an Art Generator Powered by ChatGPT

OpenAI has announced Dall-E 3, its latest AI art tool. It uses OpenAI’s smash-hit chatbot, ChatGPT, to help create more complex and carefully composed works of art by automatically expanding on a prompt in a way that gives the generator more detailed and coherent instruction.

What’s new with Dall-E 3 is how it removes some of the complexity required with refining the text that is fed to the program—what’s known as “prompt engineering”—and how it allows users to make refinements through ChatGPT’s conversational interface. The new tool could help lower the bar for generating sophisticated AI artwork, and it could help OpenAI stay ahead of the competition thanks to the superior abilities of its chatbot.

AI Art Courtesy of OpenAI

Take this image of the potato king, for example.

This kind of quirky AI-generated art has become commonplace on social media thanks to a number of tools that turn a text prompt into a visual composition. But this one was created with a significant amount of artistic assistance from ChatGPT, which took a short prompt and turned it into a more detailed one, including instructions about how to compose it correctly.

That’s a big step forward not just for Dall-E, but for generative AI art as a whole. Dall-E, a portmanteau of the Pixar character Wall-E and the artist Salvador Dalí that was announced in 2021 and launched in 2022, consists of an algorithm that’s fed huge quantities of labeled images scraped from the web and other sources. It uses what’s known as a diffusion model to predict how to render an image for a given prompt. With sufficiently huge quantities of data this can produce complex, coherent, and aesthetically pleasing imagery. What’s different with Dall-E 3 is in the way humans and machines interact.

AI Art Courtesy of OpenAI

via Wired Top Stories

September 20, 2023 at 12:03PM

Polaris Spaceplanes wraps up MIRA-Light prototype flight tests

Polaris Spaceplanes, a German aerospace company, has successfully completed a 15-flight test campaign of its MIRA-Light prototype vehicle. 

The test-flights took place over the course of three days, between Aug. 22 and Sep. 8, and were meant to demonstrate the vehicle’s aerodynamics and flight control systems in preparation for a larger-scale spaceplane prototype the company plans to equip with a linear aerospike rocket engine.

MIRA-Light measures just 8.2 feet (2.5 meters) long, and flies using four electric fans. For 10 of MIRA-Light’s 15 flights, the mini-spaceplane was equipped with a mock aerospike engine to simulate its impact on vehicle performance. In total, the prototype accumulated about 40 total minutes of flight time, according to a report from European Spaceflight.

Now, engineers at Polaris Spaceplanes plan to use data collected during the MIRA-Light flights to move forward with a scaled-up, larger MIRA vehicle, which measures nearly 14 feet (4.25 meters). MIRA will be equipped with an actual linear aerospike engine for testing of the vehicle’s integrated flight systems. 

Related: Dream Chaser: Sierra Space’s design for spaceflight

Both MIRA spaceplanes are precursor prototypes to the company’s ultimate demonstration model, NOVA. 

Polaris Spaceplanes plans to scale up the vehicle again after testing MIRA, this time to a length of 22 feet (6.7 meters). NOVA will fly using four kerosene-fueled jet engines, in addition to its functional aerospike engine. This vehicle’s test campaign will involve full rocket-powered flights in Earth’s upper atmosphere happening at supersonic speeds. 

If all goes well with MIRA’s upcoming demonstration missions, Polaris Spaceplanes expects to begin flying NOVA sometime in 2024.

MIRA-Light, MIRA and NOVA succeed three other prototypes that flew from 2020-2022. Polaris Spaceplanes hopes to culminate them all into its multipurpose, hypersonic transport vehicle, AURORA. 

Polaris Spaceplanes’ website markets AURORA’s future design as capable of transporting a payload up to 22,000 pounds (10,000 kilograms) to suborbital velocities, and up to 2,200 pounds (1,000 kilograms) to an orbit of any inclination, according to the company’s website

Polaris Spaceplanes hopes to begin flying AURORA sometime in 2026 or 2027.

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via Space

September 19, 2023 at 11:07AM

Stoke Space gets closer to 100% reusable rocket with successful ‘Hopper’ test flight (video)

Stoke Space successfully landed its reusable second stage rocket system this week, an important demonstration of the company’s innovative engineering concepts.

The test, dubbed Hopper2, saw Stoke Space’s Hopper launch vehicle lift off about 30 feet off the ground and safely return to the ground, landing in its targeted landing zone after flying for about 15 seconds. The test was meant to demonstrate the soundness of several of the rocket’s systems and design elements, including its hydrogen/oxygen engine, coolant-based heat shield and a propulsion system that maneuvers the rocket by throttling its different engines.

Stoke Space is confident that the successful test moves the company towards its goal of  developing fully-reusable rockets. “We’ve also proven that our novel approach to robust and rapidly reusable space vehicles is technically sound, and we’ve obtained an incredible amount of data that will enable us to confidently evolve the vehicle design from a technology demonstrator to a reliable reusable space vehicle,” the company said in a statement.

Related: US Space Force grants 4 companies launch pads at Cape Canaveral

Stoke Space conducts a flight and landing test of its Hopper second-stage rocket. (Image credit: Stoke Space)

Among the features tested were the rocket’s differential throttle, which is used for attitude control of the vehicle and isn’t widely used in the modern space industry, as well as its regeneratively cooled heat shield, which uses pressurized coolant passing through metal pores in the exterior of the rocket to cool its surface during reentry. 

The latter is especially interesting since this type of shielding was the type of heat shield that Elon Musk originally wanted for SpaceX’s Starship before that plan was abandoned in favor of a more traditional design. While the design has a lot of proponents, no spacecraft has ever attempted reentry into Earth’s atmosphere using the design, so it is still unproven. 

Still, Stoke Space says that “although this vehicle didn’t directly experience the heat from hypersonic atmospheric re-entry, it has successfully operated at 100% of the expected heat load in a simulated environment.”

While the test of the second stage rocket has been a success, Stoke Space has a way to go before reaching its goal of building a 100% reusable rocket with a turnaround time of just 24 hours. Still, the company says it is encouraged by the results so far, and will now turn its attention to developing a reusable first stage rocket.

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at:

via Space

September 19, 2023 at 02:34PM

PC Games Could Be Coming To More Players With Xbox Cloud Gaming, Court Docs Show

The FTC vs. Microsoft trial has a new chapter. Since the courtroom clash in July, Microsoft and Activision Blizzard extended their agreement to October 18 deadline to buy more time. Now, court documents leaked to the public reveal important insights into Microsoft’s future plans in the gaming industry.

As reported by The Verge, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella discussed plans to offer PC games via Xbox Cloud Gaming with Xbox executives Phil Spencer, Sarah Bond, and Kareem Choudhry over email in 2021. It was a time when the now-defunct Google Stadia was a potential competitor, which Nadella brings up in the email chain.

“Seems like [Google] will have a leg up because their stuff is more generic Linux VMs + Network…. But I am assuming we will do the same for Game Pass PC–right?” Nadella asked.

Spencer summed up his thoughts on Stadia and confirmed that the team was working on a way to stream PC games using Azure, Microsoft’s own cloud platform. “From a cost to serve the generic point is right,” he told Nadella. “Google has the ability to reuse their Linux cloud hardware and yes as we stream PC native games from an Azure GPU SKU we would have more re-use scenarios to recoup costs.”

“Phil is correct. Sarah [Bond] and I in partnership with Jason’s [Zander] team are driving a suitable Azure SKU… as part of a series that will serve the customer demand we see externally for IAAS and to run our xCloud PC streaming stack,” Choudhry further explained.

Xbox Cloud Gaming already allows streaming for Xbox games, but not for PC games. While these emails prove that there were plans to stream PC games through Xbox Cloud Gaming, that might not necessarily be the case anymore. However, it’s still a believable plan based on Microsoft’s recent addition of keyboard and mouse support to Xbox Cloud Gaming.

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via GameSpot’s PC Reviews

September 20, 2023 at 09:19AM

A Concrete Crisis Has the UK Literally Crumbling

As it rolls from one political crisis to another, it’s hard not to think of Britain as metaphorically crumbling. Now, it seems, significant pieces of the country are literally structurally unsound. More than 150 schools, colleges, and nurseries in England have been ordered to close parts of their buildings due to the looming threat of collapse—just days before the start of the new school year. Twenty-seven health care facilities are being urgently reviewed; seven hospitals need to be rebuilt. The cause of the panic is Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete, whose acronym “RAAC” has suddenly entered the British political vernacular.

RAAC differs from conventional concrete mainly in that it is filled with air bubbles instead of aggregates such as gravel. It’s lighter, easier to build with quickly, and cheaper than other forms of concrete. The air bubbles also provide good thermal insulation, meaning that buildings containing RAAC are easier to heat and cool. It was widely used in postwar Britain all the way up to the 1990s to cast panels for roofs, floors, and walls, and was particularly popular in the public sector, where it was used to rebuild schools, hospitals, and other infrastructure.

But anything cheap and fast comes at a price. RAAC, being less durable than standard concrete, gradually weakens, and the bubbles allow water to seep in. While the steel bars that support the RAAC panels are usually coated with waterproof layers, a lack of maintenance can cause these to corrode, further weakening the panels and causing them to break apart. The lifespan of a RAAC structure is only between 30 and 50 years. That vulnerability has been known about for years. But over the past month, it has taken on the momentum of a present crisis, as it becomes clear just how many important buildings and pieces of infrastructure are well past the end of their shelf life. In addition to schools and hospitals, RAAC issues have been found in theaters, housing blocks, council buildings, and even in London’s two biggest airports, Heathrow and Gatwick. It has created a multimillion-dollar headache for the British government, and further illustrates the cost of underinvestment in public goods and of relying on quick fixes for long-term needs.

“The problem with these panels is not so much the material itself. It’s the fact that they’ve been used well beyond their expiry date,” says Juan Sagaseta, a reader in structural robustness at the University of Surrey. “Unfortunately, spending on new buildings and opening new schools or hospitals is often viewed in our society as more glamorous than spending on maintaining the old ones.”

The issues around RAAC were first investigated in the 1990s by the Building Research Establishment (BRE), an organization initially established as a government agency that now operates as a social enterprise. At the time, the removal of roof panels from some buildings had raised concerns, although there had been no conclusive evidence of immediate safety risks. It wasn’t until 2018 that the Department of Education finally took action, after the ceiling of a primary school in Kent, in Southern England, suddenly collapsed. Fortunately, the incident happened on a Saturday and no one was injured. The school had been rebuilt in 1979 using RAAC after a fire. School authorities were sent questionnaires to try to establish whether or not they had RAAC in their buildings, but, Sagaseta says, they (understandably) often didn’t have the expertise or resources to identify the material. Finally, in the fall of 2022, the Department of Education sent out professional surveyors to classify RAAC constructions as “critical” or “noncritical.”

The sudden decision to close schools this summer was triggered by three cases of RAAC panels that were considered noncritical but later failed. The first incident involved a commercial building, the second a school in a different country, and the third an English school in late August. The 150 or so institutions now known to be at greatest risk represent a tiny fraction of the 22,000 state-owned schools, colleges, and nurseries in England.

via Wired Top Stories

September 14, 2023 at 01:03AM