WASHINGTON: NASA expressed doubts today over a theory floated in Russia that a tiny hole that caused an air leak on the International Space Station was the result of sabotage.
The breach detected on August 29-30 in a Russian spacecraft docked at the orbiting station was not the result of a manufacturing defect, according to the Russian space agency, which says it is investigating the possibility that it was drilled maliciously.
But NASA, the US space agency, countered in a statement that ruling out defects “does not necessarily mean the hole was created intentionally or with mal-intent.”
Russian space agency Roscosmos immediately launched an investigation into the hole, and its chief official Dmitry Rogozin went on television days later to say it could have been the result of foul play either back on Earth or by astronauts in space.
“Where it was made will be established by a second commission, which is at work now,” said Rogozin, a former Russian deputy prime minister who was placed under US sanctions over the Ukraine crisis in 2014.
The Russian daily Kommersant reported that an investigation at home was probing the possibility that US astronauts deliberately drilled the hole in order to get a sick colleague sent back home — something Russian officials later denied.
“NASA and Roscosmos are both investigating the incident to determine the cause,” NASA said on Wednesday.
ISS astronauts are planning a spacewalk in November to gather more information on the hole, which was quickly sealed.
An astronaut and cosmonaut are due to travel to the ISS on October 11 aboard a Russian Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine plans to meet Rogozin – their first in-person encounter — when he attends the launch.
The six-person ISS crew includes two Russians, two Americans and a German representing the European Space Agency.
Huawei’s new AI app enriches story time for deaf kids
BEIJING: Learning to read is hard work for any kid. For deaf and hard-of-hearing children, it is even more challenging.
Chinese mobile giant Huawei recently launched StorySign, a free mobile app that translates children’s books into sign language, so as to enrich family story times and enhance learning experiences for kids with hearing problems. StorySign “allows parents and children to learn to sign and read together, at their own pace,” Huawei said in a statement. When users open the app and hold the smartphone over the page, an animated girl named Star signs the text on the screen in real time as parents and kids flip the pages. And each printed word is highlighted as she goes.
According to the company, the app uses a combination of augmented reality and AI technologies. Image recognition enables StorySign to detect words even the phone is positioned at an angle and optical character recognition (OCR) increases accuracy. OCR refers to the electronic conversion of images of handwritten or printed text into machine-encoded text. The app became available to download for free on both Google Play and Huawei’s own AppGallery in 10 European markets on Dec. 4. The company did not say whether it would be available on iPhone.
Huawei said the app does not require a Huawei smartphone although it is optimized for its own AI-infused phones, such as the Huawei Mate 20 Pro. StorySign asks users to choose their preferred sign language variant. So far, it supports British, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, Irish, Belgian Flemish and Swiss-German sign languages.
Currently, each language only has one book. Where’s Spot, a classic children’s story published in 1980, is available for English users. Huawei is working with publishing partner Penguin Random House to bring more titles to the app library. The World Health Organization (WHO) said in March that around 466 million people worldwide have disabling hearing loss, including 34 million children. It noted that children with deafness should be given the opportunity to learn sign language along with their families to minimize the impact of hearing loss on their development and education.
However, few people know sign language outside the deaf community as 90 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents. StorySign is an example of AI technologies with the potential to bridge the gap between the hearing and non-hearing. “We believe AI can make a positive difference to the world,” Huawei said in a statement. StorySign was supported by charities including the European Union of the Deaf and the British Deaf Association.
“We’re very hopeful that it will make a significant impact in the deaf community, helping more deaf children learn how to read at the same level as hearing children,” said Mark Wheatley, executive director for European Union of the Deaf in a statement. “We also hope the launch of StorySign will support a wider conversation about ensuring equality in every aspect of their lives for deaf people across Europe.”
NASA’s InSight lander ‘hears’ wind on Mars
TAMPA: Humans can now hear the haunting, low rumble of wind on Mars for the first time, after NASA’s InSight lander captured vibrations from the breeze on the Red Planet, the US space agency said Friday.
The strong gusts of wind, blowing between 10 to 15 mph (five to seven meters a second), were captured as they moved over the solar panels on InSight, an unmanned lander that touched down on Earth’s dusty, desolate neighbor November 26.
Two sensors picked up the vibrations: an air pressure sensor inside the lander and a seismometer on the lander’s deck, waiting to be deployed to the surface by InSight’s robotic arm.
“This is the very first fifteen minutes of data that have come from the short period seismometer,” said Thomas Pike, lead investigator at Imperial College London, during a conference call with reporters.
“It’s a little like a flag waving in the wind,” he added.
“It really sounds otherworldly, and that is exactly what it is.”
InSight is designed to study the interior of Mars like never before, using seismology instruments to detect quakes and a self-hammering mole to measure heat escape from the planet’s crust.
Sensing the wind, which moved from northwest to southeast at around 5 pm local time, was “an unplanned treat,” said Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
NASA’s Viking 1 and 2 landers also picked up signals of the Martian wind when they landed in 1976.
They were measuring it at lower sampling rates, however, not frequencies that would be audible, and did not return sounds that people could listen to.
“Personally, listening to the sounds from the pressure sensor, reminds me of sitting outside on a windy summer afternoon, listening to the turbulent gusts come and go and whistle through your ears,” said Don Banfield, a researcher at Cornell University.
“In some sense, this is what it would sound like if you were sitting on the Insight lander on Mars.”
An audio track of the Martian wind is available on www.nasa/gov/insightmarswind.
China launches rover for first far side of the moon landing
BEIJING: China launched a rover early Saturday morning destined to land on the far side of the moon, a global first that would boost Beijing’s ambitions to become a space superpower.
The Chang’e-4 lunar probe mission – named after the moon goddess in Chinese mythology — launched on a Long March 3B rocket from the southwestern Xichang launch center in the pre-dawn hours, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
The successful launch marked the start of a long journey to the far side of the moon for the Chang’e-4 mission, which is expected to land around the New Year to carry out experiments and explore the untrodden terrain.
Unlike the near side of the moon that is “tidally locked” and always faces the earth, and offers many flat areas to touch down on, the far side is mountainous and rugged.
It was not until 1959 that the Soviet Union captured the first images of the heavily cratered surface, uncloaking some of the mystery of the moon’s “dark side”.
No lander or rover has ever touched the surface there, positioning China as the first nation to explore the terrain.
“China over the past 10 or 20 years has been systematically ticking off the various firsts that America and the Soviet Union did in the 1960s and 1970s in space exploration,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
“This is one of the first times they’ve done something that no one else has done before.”
It is no easy technological feat – China has been preparing for this moment for years.
A major challenge for such a mission is communicating with the robotic lander: as the far side of the moon always points away from earth, there is no direct “line of sight” for signals.
As a solution, China in May blasted the Queqiao (“Magpie Bridge”) satellite into the moon’s orbit, positioning it so that it can relay data and commands between the lander and earth.
Adding to the difficulties, Chang’e-4 is being sent to the Aitken Basin in the lunar south pole region – known for its craggy and complex terrain – state media has said.
The probe is carrying six experiments from China and four from abroad.
They include low-frequency radio astronomical studies – aiming to take advantage of the lack of interference on the far side – mineral tests, and experiments planting a potato and other seeds, local Chinese media reported.
Beijing is pouring billions into its military-run space programme, with hopes of having a crewed space station by 2022, and of eventually sending humans to the moon.
The Chang’e 4 mission is a step in that direction, significant for the engineering expertise needed to explore and settle the moon, McDowell said.
“The main thing about this mission is not science, this is a technology mission,” he said.
Chang’e-4 will be the second Chinese probe to land on the moon, following the Yutu (“Jade Rabbit”) rover mission in 2013.
Once on the moon’s surface, the rover faces an array of extreme challenges.
During the lunar night – which lasts 14 earth days — temperatures will drop as low as minus 173 degrees Celsius (minus 279 Fahrenheit), while during the lunar day, also lasting 14 earth days, temperatures rocket as high as 127 C (261 F).
Instruments must withstand those fluctuations and generate enough energy to sustain it during the long night.
Yutu conquered those challenges and, after initial setbacks, ultimately surveyed the moon’s surface for 31 months. Its success provided a major boost to China’s space programme.
Beijing is planning to send another lunar lander, Chang’e-5, next year to collect samples and bring them back to earth.
It is among a slew of ambitious Chinese targets, which include a reusable launcher by 2021, a super-powerful rocket capable of delivering payloads heavier than those NASA and private rocket firm SpaceX can handle, a moon base, a permanently crewed space station, and a Mars rover.
“Our country’s successful lunar exploration project not only vaults us to the top of the world’s space power ranks, it also allows the exploration of the far side of the moon,” said Niu Min, a booster and expert on China’s space programme.
The project, he said in an interview with local website Netease, “greatly inspires everyone’s national pride and self-confidence”.
Relevant: China’s Chang’e-4 lunar probe was launched in the early hours of Saturday, and it is expected to make the first-ever soft landing on the far side of the moon.
A Long March-3B rocket, carrying the probe including a lander and a rover, blasted off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China’s Sichuan Province at 2:23 a.m., opening a new chapter in lunar exploration.
Since the moon’s revolution cycle is the same as its rotation cycle, the same side always faces the earth. The other face, most of which cannot be seen from earth, is called the far side or dark side, not because it’s dark, but because most of it remains unknown.
The Chang’e-4 mission will be a key step in revealing the mysterious far side of the moon. “The soft landing and exploration of the far side, which has never been done before, will gain first-hand information about the terrain and lunar soil components and other scientific data, which will help enrich our understanding of the moon and the universe,” said Zhang He, executive director of the Chang’e-4 probe project.
The scientific tasks of the Chang’e-4 mission include low-frequency radio astronomical observation, surveying the terrain and landforms, detecting the mineral composition and shallow lunar surface structure, and measuring the neutron radiation and neutral atoms to study the environment on the far side of the moon, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) announced.
China has promoted international cooperation in its lunar exploration program, with four scientific payloads of the Chang’e-4 mission developed by scientists from the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and Saudi Arabia.
Three scientific and technological experiments, designed by Chinese universities, will also be carried out during the mission.
Nobody had ever seen the far side of the moon before the Soviet Union launched the Luna three probe in 1959, which was the first-ever mission to photograph the far side.
The United States Apollo 8 mission sent three astronauts to fly around the moon in 1968, the first time that people saw the moon’s far side with their own eyes.
Remote-sensing images show the far side is thickly dotted with impact craters and has much fewer lunar mares than the near side. Scientists infer that the lunar crust on the far side is much thicker than the near side. But why so is still a mystery.
“As no astronauts or rovers have ever landed on the far side, we know little about it except for speculation based on remote-sensing images,” Zhang said.
Astronomers are also seeking a completely quiet electromagnetic environment to detect the weak signals emitted from remote celestial bodies in deep space.
The far side is such a place, as the body of the moon shields against radio interference from the earth. From there, astronomers can study the origins and evolution of stars and galaxies, peering into the dawn of the universe.
The low-frequency radio astronomical observation will be one of the major scientific goals of the Chang’e-4 mission, said Zhang.
However, landing and roving there requires a relay satellite to transmit signals. China launched the relay satellite “Queqiao”, meaning Magpie Bridge, on May 21 to set up the communication link between the earth and the moon’s far side.
The satellite has successfully entered a halo orbit around the second Lagrangian (L2) point of the earth-moon system, about 455,000 km from the earth. It is the world’s first
communication satellite operating in that orbit, said Zhang Lihua, chief designer of the satellite from the China Academy of Space Technology.
In orbit, the relay satellite can “see” both the earth and the far side of the moon. The earth’s and moon’s gravity balances the orbital motion of the satellite and makes it very fuel-efficient.
A test on the satellite in November showed that it is in good condition, said Zhang. Named after Chinese moon goddess “Chang’e”, China’s lunar exploration program,
which began in 2004, includes orbiting and landing on the moon, and bringing samples back to earth.
The country’s first lunar probe, Chang’e-1, was launched in 2007, making China the fifth country to develop and launch a lunar probe on its own.
Chang’e-2, launched in 2010, created a full lunar map with a resolution of 7 meters, as well as images of the Sinus Iridium, or the Bay of Rainbows, with a resolution of 1.5 meters, showing the details of the proposed landing site of Chang’e-3.
After accomplishing its tasks, Chang’e-2 flew to the L2 point of the sun-earth system about 1.5 million km from earth to conduct scientific experiments. It was then tasked to fly by and observe the Toutatis asteroid, about 7 million km from the earth, and continued its journey into deep space.
Chang’e-3, launched in 2013, was the first Chinese spacecraft to soft-land on and explore an extraterrestrial object. The scientific instruments on its lander are still operating, making Chang’e-3 the longest working man-made probe on the moon.
China launched an experimental spacecraft in 2014 to test technologies to be used on Chang’e-5, which is expected to bring moon samples back to earth. The spacecraft re-entered the earth’s atmosphere at a speed of about 11.2 km per second.
The lunar program ushered in a new era for China to explore the universe and peaceful utilization of space. Saturday’s launch was the 294th mission of the Long March rocket series.