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US Air Force Pilot Wally Funk is Headed to Space. Finally!

Funk, who was born in 1939, began flying before her 20th birthday. In 1961, she volunteered for a Women in Space program to train privately with a team of medical experts from NASA’s astronaut program. The women went through the same training as men who were in the Mercury 7 program. Funk and 12 other women completed the training, which was called Mercury 13, but their program was canceled before any of the women could officially join NASA.

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Russia plans its own space station in 2025

As tensions simmer between Russia and a number of Western countries on the ground, the head of the Russian space agency has announced work has begun on a space station of its own. The International Space Station (ISS) was launched in 1998 by the Russian and US space agencies and has been hailed for its exemplary co-operation involving numerous countries. But Russian officials have indicated they could pull out of the ISS in 2025.

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Japanese space capsule carrying pristine asteroid samples lands in Australia

For the second time ever, humanity has brought asteroid samples down to Earth. A small capsule bearing pristine pieces of the near-Earth asteroid Ryugu touched down early this afternoon (Dec. 5) within the remote and rugged Woomera Prohibited Area, about 310 miles (500 kilometers) northwest of the South Australian capital of Adelaide. The samples were snagged millions of miles from Earth by Japan’s Hayabusa2 mission, which studied the 3,000-foot-wide (900 meters) Ryugu up close from June 2018 to November 2019.

Hayabusa2’s predecessor was the first to haul space-rock samples home, delivering pieces of the stony asteroid Itokawa in 2010. But the original Hayabusa (Japanese for “peregrine falcon”) returned less than 1 milligram of material. Hayabusa2’s bounty is expected to exceed 100 mg (0.0035 ounces), and its samples come from a very different kind of asteroid — a primitive “C-type” space rock rich in water and carbon-containing organic compounds. “The materials that formed the Earth, its oceans and life were present in the primordial cloud from which our solar system formed. In the early solar system, these materials were in contact and able to chemically interact within the same parent objects,” Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) officials wrote in an overview of Hayabusa2. “These interactions are retained even today in primitive bodies (C-type asteroids), so returning samples from these bodies for analysis will elucidate the origins and evolution of the solar system and the building blocks of life,” they added.

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On Mars, internal heat may have powered habitable hotspots long ago

If life emerged on ancient Mars, it may have had the planet’s internal heat to thank. The Martian underground may have been habitable billions of years ago even if the planet’s surface was a dry, frigid wasteland. Mars likely churned out enough geothermal heat in the ancient past to melt the bases of thick ice sheets, generating large amounts of potentially life-supporting groundwater, a new study suggests. The results could help scientists get a better handle on a decades-old mystery known as the faint young sun paradox. Four billion years ago, the sun was about 30% dimmer than it is today — too weak, seemingly, to support a continuously warm and wet Mars. Yet evidence of liquid water during that epoch abounds; NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity, for example, has spent the last eight years exploring an ancient lake-and-stream system. Hence the paradox.

“Even if greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and water vapor are pumped into the early Martian atmosphere in computer simulations, climate models still struggle to support a long-term warm and wet Mars,” study lead author Lujendra Ojha, an assistant professor at Rutgers University-New Brunswick in New Jersey, said in a statement. “I and my co-authors propose that the faint young sun paradox may be reconciled, at least partly, if Mars had high geothermal heat in its past,” Ojha said. He and his colleagues investigated whether the required internal heat — generated by the radioactive decay of elements such as thorium, potassium and uranium — did indeed flow during Mars’ Noachian era, which lasted from about 4.1 billion to 3.7 billion years ago. The researchers focused their attention on the Martian southern highlands, a region that likely supported large ice sheets at the time.

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Virgin Galactic prepares for low-key first spaceflight from New Mexico

When Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo takes to the skies above New Mexico later this month, it will do so without the crowds and publicity once expected for the historic flight. Virgin Galactic announced Dec. 1 that is had rescheduled a powered test flight of its SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceplane for a window that opens Dec. 11 from Spaceport America in New Mexico. Pilots CJ Sturckow and David Mackay will fly the vehicle on trajectory that will go above the 80-kilometer altitude that the company defines as space, based on the altitude U.S. government agencies use for awarding astronaut wings. The vehicle will then glide to a landing at the spaceport.|

Virgin had scheduled the launch for last month, but postponed it Nov. 16 when the state imposed a new stay-at-home order to address a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases. That order closed nonessential businesses and placed restrictions on those allowed to remain open. That stay-at-home order has been replaced with a “Red to Green Framework” that sets restrictions on a county-by-county basis. Nearly every county in New Mexico, though, is in the highest, or “red,” category, including where Spaceport America is located. That category does allow nonessential businesses to open, but at significantly reduced capacity. Virgin Galactic said it would proceed with the test flight using only “essential personnel” at the spaceport. “Only essential staff will be on-site to support the pre-flight operations ahead of the flight and the day of flight,” the company said in a statement, adding that there will be no guests or media at the spaceport to witness the flight.

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Fly over Jupiter in this stunning video from NASA’s Juno spacecraft

What if you could hitch a ride on NASA’s Juno spacecraft at Jupiter? We may be stuck on Earth, but the space agency has given us the next best option: a new video flyover of Jupiter based on photos from Juno’s recent flyby in June. The stunning video, which is made up of 41 images captured on June 2, gives us a glimpse of what we’d see if we were able to fly around Jupiter ourselves, combining pictures taken from different angles as the spacecraft sped by the solar system’s largest planet. Throughout the video, we see zoomed-in views of Jupiter’s upper atmosphere at Juno’s closest approach, when the spacecraft was about 2,100 miles (3,400 kilometres) above the planet’s cloud tops, as well as zoomed-out views. At the spacecraft’s closest point to Jupiter, the gas giant’s powerful gravity sped the spacecraft up to an impressive 130,000 mph (209,000 kph) relative to the planet, according to a NASA statement.

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Japanese asteroid mission to drop ancient samples in Australian desert

The Japanese space explorer Hayabusa2 is about to complete a six-year, 5.1-billion-kilometre journey, when it releases a capsule down to Earth in the Australian desert. And when the capsule, carrying precious samples of a 4.5-billion-year-old asteroid finally makes its landing at the Woomera test range in South Australia, a Japanese recovery team will be there waiting. The capsule will be released by the Hayabusa2 spacecraft into the upper atmosphere, where it is due to parachute into the Woomera test range on December 6. It’s expected to land within a 100-150km area where it will send a radio signal that the Japanese team will track down.

Launched on December 3, 2014, Hayabusa-2 is the second such “return exploration” mission by JAXA. It arrived at the Ryugu asteroid in June 2018, which it shadowed for a year and a half, deploying purposely built “hopping” rovers to explore the surface. Hayabusa-2, which means “peregrine falcon” in Japanese, then performed a delicate operation to take samples from Ryugu’s surface before departing on November 2019 for its return trip. After nearing Earth to drop the capsule, Hayabusa will fire its engines to adjust course to manoeuvre past our planet and continue its exploration of the solar system.

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