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This news service is emailed out each week to all requesting radio stations across Australia.  David Reneke ('Astro Dave') is one of Australia's most well known and respected astronomers and lecturers with links to some of the world's leading astronomical institutions. 

David is radio savvy, well experienced talking to the media and presents information in an easy to understand, up to date and informative manner. Enquiries for interviews or info Ph: (02) 6585 2260 Mobile: 0400 636 363 Email:

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Perseverance rover has successfully landed on Mars

NASA's Perseverance rover has safely landed on Mars after its 292.5 million-mile journey from Earth, the agency confirmed. The rover sent back its first images of the landing site immediately after landing. The spacecraft's heat shield endured peak heating of 2,370 degrees Fahrenheit. Perseverance targeted a 28-mile-wide ancient lake bed and river delta, the most challenging site yet for a NASA spacecraft landing on Mars.

Rather than being flat and smooth, the small landing site is littered with sand dunes, steep cliffs, boulders and small craters. The spacecraft has two upgrades -- called Range Trigger and Terrain-Relative Navigation -- to navigate this difficult and hazardous site. Range Trigger told the 70.5-foot-wide parachute when to deploy based on the spacecraft's position 240 seconds after entering the atmosphere. 

After the parachute deployed, the heat shield detached. Perseverance will do things no rover has ever attempted on Mars - and pave the way for humans. The rover's Terrain-Relative Navigation acts like a second brain, using cameras to take pictures of the ground as it rapidly approaches and determines the safest spot to land. It can shift the landing spot by up to 2,000 feet, according to NASA. The back shell and parachute separated after the heat shield was discarded. 

The Mars landing engines, which include eight retrorockets, fired to slow the descent to 1.7 miles per hour -- or the average walking speed of a human. Then, the famed sky crane maneuver that landed the Curiosity rover occurred. Nylon cords lowered the rover 25 feet below the descent stage. After the rover touched down on the Martian surface, the cords detached and the descent stage flew away and landed at a safe distance. NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter relayed data from the rover throughout landing.

Perseverance as it looks on Mars now
Perseverance as it looks on Mars now
FIRST raw image of the new landing site
FIRST raw image of the new landing site

Meet the orbiters that help rovers on Mars talk to Earth the orbiters around Mars can also send back any images, either taken by the rover or the orbiters, to Earth. Now that the rover has landed, Perseverance's two-year mission will begin. First, it will go through a "checkout" period. The long road to returning first-ever samples from Mars Perseverance will capture images of its surroundings and send them back, unfold its "head" and take more pictures while going through some health checkups with engineers.

Teams on Earth will go through a month of inspections, software downloads and preparations for roving. Over a process that takes about 10 days, the rover will drop the helicopter on the surface of Mars and roll away from it. The little 4-pound helicopter will have to survive frigid nights on Mars, keep itself warm and charge itself using solar panels. Then, it will be ready for its first flight, which will last about 20 seconds. 

Perseverance will do things no rover has ever attempted on Mars - and pave the way for humans. "The Ingenuity team will be on the edge of our seats with the Perseverance team on landing day," said MiMi Aung, the Ingenuity project manager. "We can't wait until the rover and the helicopter are both safely on the surface of Mars and ready for action."Perseverance will search for evidence of ancient life and study Mars' climate and geology and collect samples that will eventually be returned to Earth by the 2030s."

Perseverance's sophisticated science instruments will not only help in the hunt for fossilized microbial life, but also expand our knowledge of Martian geology and its past, present, and future," said Ken Farley, project scientist for Mars 2020, in a statement. The helicopter team will make sure Ingenuity is safe, healthy and ready to fly, "a true extraterrestrial Wright Brothers moment," according to Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorat

During landing, the rover will plunge through the thin Martian atmosphere at more than 20,000 kph. A parachute and powered descent will slow the rover down to about 3 kph). During what is known as the sky crane maneuver, the descent stage will lower the rover on three cables to land softly on six wheels at Jezero Crater.

*The spacecraft has onboard cameras and will hear and see it all happen on your screen as it all unfolds! (Allowing for signal lag due to distance)

Perseverance also is carrying a technology experiment - the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter - that will attempt the first powered, controlled flight on another planet. NASA is offering many ways for the public to participate and stay up to date on landing information, mission highlights, and interaction opportunities. 

See Video Below: Direct from America's space program to YouTube, watch NASA TV live streaming here to get the latest from our exploration of the universe and learn how we discover our home planet.

Astronomers: A comet fragment, not an asteroid, killed off the dinosaurs

Artist's rendering of a comet headed toward Earth.Public domain
Artist's rendering of a comet headed toward Earth.Public domain

Some 66 million years ago, a catastrophic event occurred that wiped out three-quarters of all plant and animal species on Earth, most notably taking down the dinosaurs. An errant asteroid from the asteroid belt has been deemed the most likely culprit. However, in a new paper published in Scientific Reports, Harvard astronomers offer an alternative: a special kind of comet-originating from a field of debris at the edge of our solar system known as the Oort cloud-that was thrown off course by Jupiter's gravity toward the Sun. The Sun's powerful tidal forces then ripped pieces off the comet, and one of the larger fragments of this "cometary shrapnel" eventually collided with Earth.

The most widely accepted explanation for what triggered that catastrophic mass extinction is known as the "Alvarez hypothesis," after the late physicist Luis Alvarez and his geologist son, Walter. In 1980, they proposed that the extinction event may have been caused by a massive asteroid or comet hitting the Earth. They based this conclusion on their analysis of sedimentary layers at the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary (the K-Pg boundary, formerly known as the K-T boundary) found all over the world, which included unusually high concentrations of iridium-a metal more commonly found in asteroids than on Earth. (That same year, Dutch geophysicist Jan Smit independently arrived at a similar conclusion.)

Since then, scientists have identified a likely impact site: a large crater in Chicxulub, Mexico, in the Yucatan Peninsula, first discovered by geophysicists in the late 1970s. The impactor that created it was sufficiently large (between 11 and 81 kilometers, or 7 to 50 miles) to melt, shock, and eject granite from deep inside the Earth, probably causing a megatsunami and ejecting vaporized rock and sulfates into the atmosphere. This in turn had a devastating effect on global climate, leading to mass extinction.

That hypothesis was further bolstered in 2016, when a scientific drilling project led by the International Ocean Discovery Program took core samples from the crater's peak ring, confirming that the rock had been subjected to immense pressure over a period of minutes. Just last year, a paper published in Nature Communications concluded that the impactor struck at the worst possible angle and caused maximum damage. It has been estimated that the impact would have released energy over a billion times higher than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

This latest theory came about when co-author Amir Siraj, an undergraduate in astrophysics at Harvard, began looking into the asteroid impact rates for Earth-like exoplanets, which in turn led him to study the comet impact rates on those systems. He ran numerical simulations to calculate the flux of so-called long-period comets in our own solar system, since scientists know much more about our system. "What I found most striking was that a significant fraction of Earth-crossing events were directly preceded by remarkably close encounters with the Sun, which came from a class of comets caught in high-eccentricity orbits due to their gravitational interactions with the Jupiter-Sun system," Siraj told Ars.

Further investigation revealed that comets within the size range of 10 to 60 kilometers (between 6 and 37 miles) would be torn apart into smaller fragments by sufficiently strong tidal forces, similar to what happened to the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 when it crashed into Jupiter in 1994. "Crucially, I found that these events happen so often and produce such a large number of fragments that they result in an impact rate of Chicxulub-size at Earth that is an order of magnitude higher than the background asteroid or comet populations," Siraj told Ars. "This was interesting because from a statistical standpoint, the K-Pg impact is at odds with the impact rates from background asteroid or comet populations but consistent with the rate I derived for this new dynamical pathway."

Siraj and co-author Avi Loeb concluded from their analysis that Jupiter's gravitational field was strong enough to bump many such long-period comets from the Oort cloud off course, bringing them very close to the Sun. Such comets are known as "sun grazers"; about 20 percent of long-period comets become sun grazers, per the authors. And the Sun's powerful tidal force in turn can break them into fragments.

Siraj and Loeb's calculations showed that there was an increase in the likelihood of long-period comets impacting Earth by a factor of 10, and that new rate jibes with the age of the Chicxulub impactor, making this a viable theory of its origin. "Our paper provides a basis for explaining the occurrence of this event," Loeb said. "We are suggesting that, in fact, if you break up an object as it comes close to the Sun, it could give rise to the appropriate event rate and also the kind of impact that killed the dinosaurs." Each such event would produce "a collection of smaller fragments that cross the orbit of the Earth," the authors wrote.

Their findings also offer evidence that the unusual composition of the Chicxulub impactor-carbonaceous chondrite-indicates it originated from the Oort cloud and not from the main asteroid belt. It's a rare composition for main-belt asteroids, but it's common among long-period comets. .

One alternative theory that Siraj and Loeb have yet to address is known as the multiple impact hypothesis. There are several other, smaller craters about the same age as Chicxulub that have since been discovered, suggesting that there may have been more than one comet fragment that hit the Earth 66 million years ago. "It is an interesting question," Siraj told Ars. "Future work will be required to better understand if there are any implications of this model for the multiple impact hypothesis."

Next, the pair will look toward future observations from the Vera Rubin Observatory in Chile-which will see first light next year-to confirm their theory, hoping that data will yield evidence of comets experiencing tidal disruption. "We should see smaller fragments coming to Earth more frequently from the Oort cloud," said Loeb. "I hope that we can test the theory by having more data on long-period comets, getting better statistics, and perhaps seeing evidence for some fragments."

How Mathematician Katherine Johnson Helped Make Human Space Flight Possible

She helped to calculate the trajectory for America’s first trip to space in 1961, and for the first moon landing in 1969.
She helped to calculate the trajectory for America’s first trip to space in 1961, and for the first moon landing in 1969.

Computers were considered bewildering new technology in the early 1960s, when astronaut John Glenn was preparing to become the first American to orbit the Earth. His flight preparations occurred right around the time that Atlas first came online, showcasing what some people believe was the first real operating system, and just after the first-ever mass-produced industrial robot started work at General Motors.

That type of thing apparently felt a little too much like science fiction to Glenn, who didn't quite believe the "new electronic" computations his team said he could trust. So, before he flew Friendship 7, Glenn insisted that an employee named Katherine Johnson double-check the math. "Call her," Glenn said. "And if she says the computer is right, I'll take it."

Much of the world learned that story-and the fact that Johnson even existed-more than a half-century later, when Taraji P. Henson portrayed her in the 2016 film Hidden Figures (as part of the Screen Actors Guild Award-winning cast). The film told the story that author Margot Lee Shetterly detailed in her book by the same name, about Black female mathematicians who worked at NASA during the space race.

Johnson started working at NASA in 1953, back when it was still called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Engineers would assign her mathematical problems to solve, which she did while challenging the status quo and asking them why and how they were assigning the problems in the first place. As NASA puts it today, "None of the other women had ever asked questions before, but by asking questions, Johnson began to stand out."

Johnson received NASA’s Silver Snoopy from astronaut Leland D. Melvin in 2016, a year after receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from then-President Barack Obama.  Courtesy NASA
Johnson received NASA’s Silver Snoopy from astronaut Leland D. Melvin in 2016, a year after receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from then-President Barack Obama. Courtesy NASA

Johnson soon found herself as the lone woman sitting in rooms full of white men during meetings and briefings, with her abilities impressing more and more people every day. At some point, the men simply got used to her being in the room and asking questions. By the time President Kennedy decided to send a man to the moon, Johnson was so respected that she was asked to join the team. She helped to calculate the trajectory for America's first trip to space in 1961, and for the first moon landing in 1969.

After that, Johnson did calculations that helped with the start of the Space Shuttle program. She also was involved with planning for a mission to Mars. In 2015, President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is given to people who have made "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors." In 2016, NASA astronaut Leland D. Melvin presented her with the Silver Snoopy Award, which is given for outstanding achievements related to human flight safety or mission success.

By then, Johnson was 97 years old. She received that honor during a ceremony that also saw a $30 million, 40,000-square-foot Computational Research Facility being named in her honor. Shetterly, the author of Hidden Figures, gave the keynote address. "She has such a towering talent, but she has gone out of her way to recognize talent in other people," Shetterly said at the time. 

Johnson died in February 2020, but her legacy continues to inspire people of all races and genders today. This month, Northrop Grumman named its NG-15 Cygnus spacecraft after her, and WVU will hold a panel discussion to "celebrate Black History Month and honor Katherine Johnson and the legacy of strong women she inspired."

Hidden Figures was swiftly followed by numerous accolades for Johnson, including honorary doctorates from universities as far away as South Africa. And today, universities closer to Johnson's hometown of White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, continue to honor her legacy, most recently with the creation of the Katherine Johnson Math Scholarship at West Virginia University.

European Space Agency's mission to get more women into space 

Only 11% of the 560 people who have traveled to space are women. /NASA via AP
Only 11% of the 560 people who have traveled to space are women. /NASA via AP

In nearly 60 years of space exploration, only 11 percent of the 560 people who have traveled beyond the Earth's atmosphere are women, according to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. But the the European Space Agency (ESA) is hoping to change this with its first recruitment drive in 11 years.

Women represent just 20-22 percent of the space industry workforce, a ratio that hasn't changed in 30 years, according to the UN's space body. In 1963, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to leave the Earth, two years after Yuri Gagarin's first human-crewed flight in space. But it would take another 19 years before the next women ventured beyond our planet and since then progress to make space travel more diverse has been slow.

But efforts are under way to change this. U.S space agency NASA announced plans last year to send the first female astronaut to the moon by 2024 through its Artemis moon program. And now the ESA is planning to enlist women and disabled astronauts. The ESA's Chief Diversity Officer Ersilia Vaudo told CGTN Europe there are several reasons why women are underrepresented in space, including the fact there are a limited number of women taking up STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), required for a career in space research and exploration.

Vaudo believes this is slowly changing and points out there are now more women than men doing STEM subjects in countries covered by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, "but they still don't go for the disciplines needed for jobs in space." There is also a tendency for women not to think of themselves as potential astronauts, according to Vaudo but this is changing. In the ESA's last intake, only 16 percent of applications came from women.

Vaudo said the key to improving diversity is changing the narrative: "If the narrative for space has been for very long relating to conquering, to race, now really we want to change this narrative and explain that for Europe, exploration is also about bringing our values into space. "The value of inclusion, the value of pursuing knowledge, the value of taking care of our planet and, in particular, inspiring the younger generation to be the new explorers."

The ESA is also looking for astronaut candidates with disabilities, which would be a world first. "As a space agency, we like to do things and to go places where no one has been before," said Vaudo. She is confident that once the agency's project achieves critical mass, progress to boost diversity in space will accelerate.

European Space Agency Seeking Astronauts

The European Space Agency (ESA) said Tuesday it is recruiting new astronauts for the first time since 2008 and encouraging women and people with disabilities to apply.

The announcement Tuesday came in a virtual news briefing that included ESA Director General Jan Worner and current agency astronauts. Worner said while ESA still has astronauts from the last selection process, it needs new astronauts to "secure a continuity" and ensure a smooth transfer of knowledge from one class to another.

Worner said the agency is looking to add up to 26 permanent and reserve astronauts. And it is strongly encouraging women to apply, as well as people with disabilities to its roster to boost diversity among crews. The agency has launched a "parastronaut" program designed to examine what is needed to get disabled astronauts onto the International Space Station.

ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti said if technology can allow other humans to work and thrive in space, it can do so for the disabled as well. "When it comes to space travel, we are all disabled. You know, we all have a disability because we were just not meant to be up there. So, what brings us from being, you know, disabled, to go to space to being able to go to space is technology."

Requirements for an astronaut job at ESA include a master's degree in natural sciences, engineering, mathematics or computer science and three years of post-graduate experience. But the agency says it is looking for "all-arounders," not specialists.

The application process begins March 31 with all details available on the ESA website. The period will run until May 28 of this year with the outcome expected to be announced in October 2022.


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