Newfound comet likely an ‘interstellar visitor,’ scientists say

Comet C/2019 Q4 is imaged by the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on Hawaii's Big Island September 10, 2019. NASA/JPL/Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope/Handout via REUTERS

By Joey Roulette

(Reuters) – A newly discovered comet hurtling toward the orbit of Mars has scientists scurrying to confirm whether it came from outside the solar system, a likely prospect that would make it the second such interstellar object observed in our planetary neighborhood.

The trajectory of the comet, first detected by Crimean astronomer Gennady Borisov, follows a highly curved path barreling in the sun’s direction at unusually high speeds, evidence that it originated beyond the solar system.

“On our team we’ve been scrambling here at the University of Hawaii to get observations to make position measurements,” said Karen Meech, an astronomer at the university whose team concluded that the object’s size and tail of gas classify it as a comet.

“Every time a new comet is discovered, everybody starts to try and get data so that you can get the orbit,” Meech told Reuters, adding that her researchers “all are 100 percent convinced that this really, truly is interstellar.”

The comet, an apparent amalgam of ice and dust, is expected to make its closest approach to the sun on Dec. 8, putting it 190 million miles (300 million km) from Earth, on a route believed unique to such objects of interstellar origin.

Once confirmed interstellar, the comet – dubbed C/2019 Q4 by astronomers – would become only the second such body ever observed by scientists.

The first was a cigar-shaped comet dubbed ‘Oumuamua – a name of Hawaiian origin meaning a messenger from afar arriving first – that sailed into our planetary neighborhood in 2017, prompting initial speculation that it may have been an alien spacecraft. Astronomers soon reached a consensus that it was not.

Unlike ‘Oumuamua, which visited the solar system for only a week, the newfound comet will linger near Mars’ orbit for almost a year, giving scientists ample time to characterize its chemical signatures and seek further clues about its origin.

“The high velocity indicates not only that the object likely originated from outside our solar system, but also that it will leave and head back to interstellar space,” said Davide Farnocchia, an astronomer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

(Reporting by Joey Roulette in Washington; Editing by Steve Gorman and Leslie Adler)

Plans detailed for first U.S. mission to land on moon since Apollo

FILE PHOTO: A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket lifts off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., August 8, 2019. REUTERS/Joe Skipper/File Photo

By Eric M. Johnson

SEATTLE (Reuters) – The first American spacecraft expected to land on the moon in nearly 50 years will be an unmanned robotic lander built by closely held Astrobotic Technology Inc and launched in two years by United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket, the companies told Reuters on Monday.

Astrobotic was one of nine companies chosen in November to compete for $2.6 billion to develop small space vehicles and other technology for 20 missions to explore the lunar surface over the next decade.

Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic picked Vulcan, being developed by a joint venture of Boeing Co and Lockheed Martin Corp, to launch its Peregrine lander from Florida’s Cape Canaveral in summer 2021. That launch will be Vulcan’s first, and a major test for a rocket that will become the backbone of ULA’s defense against rival boosters from billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX and other companies.

Barring schedule slips, Astrobotic said Peregrine would be the first American spacecraft to land on the moon since Apollo astronauts touched down in 1972.

The mission will ferry technology and experiments to the moon under a NASA program that will lay the groundwork for astronaut trips by 2024 under the optimistic schedule laid out by the Trump administration.

“Our first flight on Vulcan is also the first big step in going back to the moon,” United Launch Alliance Chief Executive Tory Bruno told Reuters ahead of the announcement.

Astrobotic said in May that NASA awarded it $79.5 million for the first mission, which will carry up to 28 payloads from eight different countries, including the United States and Mexico.

While the dollar value of the launch contract was not disclosed, it marks a high-profile victory for ULA’s flagship heavy-lift rocket, which Astrobotic said it chose over a rival bid from SpaceX.

While SpaceX has already slashed the cost of launches with its reusable rocket technology, Amazon.com Inc founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, whose BE-4 engines power the Vulcan, is also working on a heavy-lift booster.

MANY MOONSHOTS

NASA is pushing to outsource the design, development and operations for some space activities to private companies under a strategy championed by Trump-appointed administrator Jim Bridenstine. He wants NASA to be one customer of many in the low-Earth and lunar marketplaces to pave the way for deeper space exploration.

For ULA, the launch serves as the first of two certification flights for the U.S. Air Force. Vulcan will replace ULA’s legacy Delta and Atlas rocket families, synonymous with space missions for the U.S. military for decades.

ULA and Astrobotic acknowledge production problems or other factors could delay the launch schedule.

Other countries are also focused on the moon. A Chinese space probe successfully touched down on the far side of the moon in January, though Israel’s unmanned robotic lander Beresheet crashed on its final descent in April. India’s Chandrayaan-2 rover, launched in July, was on its way to the moon’s south pole, unexplored by any other nation.

“Everything that humans will do on the moon’s surface will be enhanced by robotic surface assets,” Astrobotic Chief Executive John Thornton told Reuters ahead of the announcement planned for Monday.

The Astrobotic deal marked the second time in a week that ULA beat SpaceX on a high-profile contract. On Wednesday, Sierra Nevada Corp picked Vulcan to launch its Dream Chaser space plane on cargo missions to the International Space Station, which will be the second Vulcan launch.

(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Additional reporting by Joey Roulette in Washington; Editing by Greg Mitchell and Cynthia Osterman)

Robots to install telescopes to peer into cosmos from the moon

University of Colorado Boulder director of NASA/NLSI Lunar University Network for Astrophysics Research Jack Burns points out locations on a lunar globe at the Fiske Planetarium in Boulder, Colorado, U.S., June 24, 2019. REUTERS/Michael Ciaglo

By Joey Roulette

BOULDER, Colo. (Reuters) – As the United States races to put humans back on the moon for the first time in 50 years, a NASA-funded lab in Colorado aims to send robots there to deploy telescopes that will look far into our galaxy, remotely operated by orbiting astronauts.

The radio telescopes, to be planted on the far side of the moon, are among a plethora of projects underway by the U.S. space agency, private companies and other nations that will transform the moonscape in the coming decade.

“This is not your grandfather’s Apollo program that we’re looking at,” said Jack Burns, director of the Network for Exploration and Space Science at the University of Colorado, which is working on the telescope project.

“This is really a very different kind of program and very importantly it’s going to involve machines and humans working together,” Burns said in an interview at his lab on the Boulder campus.

Sometime in the coming decade, Burns’ team will send a rover aboard a lunar lander spacecraft to the far side of the moon. The rover will rumble across the craggy and rough surface – featuring a mountain taller than any on earth – to set up a network of radio telescopes with little help from humans. 

Astronauts will be able to control the rover’s single robotic arm from an orbital lunar outpost called Gateway, which an international consortium of space agencies is building. The platform will provide access to and from the moon’s surface and serve as a refueling station for deep space missions.

The goal is to give astronauts control of the rover “in a quicker fashion and more like doing some sort of video game,” said Ben Mellinkoff, a graduate student at the university. His project is telerobotics, or using artificial intelligence to give users better control over robotic movements from afar.

“It has a lot of potential, especially applied toward space exploration,” he says.

The rover, being built at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., will plant the shoebox-sized telescopes on the moon’s regolith – the dust, soil and broken rock that covers its surface. Unfettered by the noisy radio interference and light that hinders Earth-bound space observations, the telescopes will peer into the cosmic void, looking back in time to the early formation of our solar system, Burns says.

University of Colorado Boulder PhD student Dan Prendergast participates in an experiment to test whether he operates a robot better in 2D or virtual reality at a lab in Boulder, Colorado, U.S., June 24, 2019. The team's findings may help determine what camera systems will be implemented on robots destined to perform tasks on the moon. REUTERS/Michael Ciaglo

University of Colorado Boulder PhD student Dan Prendergast participates in an experiment to test whether he operates a robot better in 2D or virtual reality at a lab in Boulder, Colorado, U.S., June 24, 2019. The team’s findings may help determine what camera systems will be implemented on robots destined to perform tasks on the moon. REUTERS/Michael Ciaglo

ROBOT PROTOTYPE

Working out of a small lab on the Boulder campus, Mellinkoff and two fellow graduate students have built a prototype of the robot named Armstrong (named for the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong). It is made from computer parts and powered by two modified portable cell phone chargers.

On a recent visit, Mellinkoff controlled the robotic arm using an X-box gaming controller, driving it toward an assortment of shoe-sized objects created with 3-D printing and resembling the radio telescopes to be planted on the moon.

“It’s really going to be a platform for us to start different science studies that we couldn’t do from the surface of Earth,” said Keith Tauscher, a physics graduate student.

Tauscher is working on a lunar orbiter designed to take advantage of the radio silence of the far side of the moon to discover when the first stars and black-holes formed during the formation of the universe. “The lab has dubbed this mission ‘the Dark Ages Polarimeter Pathfinder, or “DAPPER.’ ”

The work in Boulder and elsewhere underscores NASA’s plan to build a lasting presence on the moon, unlike the fleeting Apollo missions in the 1960s and ’70s.

Vice President Mike Pence in March announced an accelerated timeline to put humans on the moon in 2024 “by any means necessary,” cutting the agency’s previous 2028 goal in half and putting researchers and companies into overdrive in the new space race.

The Americans are not alone in their latest moon quest, unlike a half-century ago. In January, the China National Space Administration landed a spacecraft on the far side of the moon, with a long-term aim of building a base on the moon. India was scheduled to send a rover to the moon this month.

Another key difference between the Apollo program and the Artemis program, as NASA chief Jim Bridenstine named the new lunar initiative in May, is bringing in help from commercial partners such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. Those companies are working to slash the cost of rocket launches with a longer-term ambition of doing their own projects on the moon and eventually Mars.

“It’s a new way of operating in which the private sector is intimately entangled with NASA,” Burns said.

He predicts that in roughly 20 years, the moon will be dotted with inflatable hotels for deep-pocketed tourists and mining sites where robotic drills dig under the moon’s south pole for frozen water that can be synthesized into rocket fuel for missions back to Earth or further out to Mars.

 

(Reporting by Joey Roulette; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Dan Grebler)

Space crew survives plunge to Earth after Russian rocket fails

The Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft carrying the crew of astronaut Nick Hague of the U.S. and cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin of Russia blasts off to the International Space Station (ISS) from the launchpad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

By Shamil Zhumatov

BAIKONUR COSMODROME, Kazakhstan (Reuters) – The two-man U.S.-Russian crew of a Soyuz spacecraft en route to the International Space Station was forced to make a dramatic emergency landing in Kazakhstan on Thursday when their rocket failed in mid-air.

U.S. astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexei Ovchinin landed safely without harm and rescue crews who raced to locate them on the Kazakh steppe quickly linked up with them, NASA, the U.S. space agency, and Russia’s Roscosmos said.

It was the first serious launch problem experienced by a manned Soyuz space mission since 1983 when a fire broke out at the base of the booster rocket while the crew was preparing for lift-off. The crew narrowly escaped before a large explosion.

Thursday’s problem occurred when the first and second stages of a booster rocket, launched from the Soviet-era cosmodrome of Baikonur in the central Asian country, were separating, triggering emergency systems soon after launch.

The Soyuz capsule carrying the two men then separated from the malfunctioning rocket and made what NASA called a steep ballistic descent to Earth with parachutes helping slow its speed. A cloud of sand billowed up as the capsule came down on the desert steppe.

Rescue crews then raced to the scene to retrieve them with reports of paratroopers parachuting to their landing spot.

The failure is a setback for the Russian space program and the latest in a string of mishaps.

Moscow immediately suspended all manned space launches, the RIA news agency reported, while Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin said he had ordered a state commission to be set up to investigate what had gone wrong.

Unnamed Russian space industry sources cited by news agencies said it would be hard to establish what had caused the incident because the booster rocket segments involved had been badly damaged in their fall.

Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator who was in Kazakhstan to witness the launch, said in a statement that the failure had been caused by an anomaly with the rocket’s booster.

“A thorough investigation into the cause of the incident will be conducted,” he said, saying the safety of the crew was the utmost priority for NASA.

Photographs released by Roscosmos after the rescue showed the two astronauts smiling and relaxing on sofas at a town near their landing site as they underwent blood pressure and cardiac tests.

Footage from inside the Soyuz had shown the two men being shaken around at the moment the failure occurred, with their arms and legs flailing.

Ovchinin, the Russian cosmonaut, can be heard saying: “That was a quick flight.”

International Space Station (ISS) crew members astronaut Nick Hague of the U.S. and cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin of Russia board the Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft for the launch at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan October 11, 2018. Yuri Kochetkov/Pool via REUTERS

International Space Station (ISS) crew members astronaut Nick Hague of the U.S. and cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin of Russia board the Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft for the launch at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan October 11, 2018. Yuri Kochetkov/Pool via REUTERS

U.S. SPACE PLANS

For now, the United States relies on Moscow to carry its astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) which was launched 20 years ago. NASA tentatively plans to send its first crew to the ISS using a SpaceX craft instead of a Soyuz next April.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the most important thing was that the two men were alive.

The ISS, launched in 1998, is a habitable artificial satellite in low Earth orbit which is used to carry out scientific and space-related tests.

It can hold a crew of up to six people and at present has three people aboard, two men — a German and a Russian – as well as one female U.S. astronaut.

“Rescue services have been working since the first second of the accident,” Rogozin wrote on Twitter. “The emergency rescue systems of the MS-Soyuz spacecraft worked smoothly. The crew has been saved.”

A Russian space industry source was cited by the Interfax news agency as saying that there was enough food onboard the ISS to last until April of next year.

The next re-supply run was meant to happen on Oct. 31, the source was quoted as saying, but that was now in doubt since the Progress supply ship was propelled by the same kind of rocket used in Thursday’s incident.

Questions are now likely to be asked about how efficiently Russia’s space program is running.

In August, a hole appeared in a Soyuz capsule already docked to the ISS which caused a brief loss of air pressure and had to be patched. Rogozin has said it could have been “sabotage”.

And in November last year, Roscosmos lost contact with a newly-launched weather satellite – the Meteor-M – after it blasted off from Russia’s new Vostochny cosmodrome in the Far East.

Rogozin said at the time that the launch of the 2.6 billion-rouble ($39.02 million) satellite had been due to an embarrassing programming error.

($1 = 66.6315 roubles)

(Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov in Kazakhstan and by Christian Lowe, Tom Balmforth, Polina Nikolskaya, Polina Ivanova, Polina Devitt in Moscow; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Cigar-shaped interstellar visitor ‘Oumuamua classified as comet

This artist’s impression shows the first interstellar asteroid, `Oumuamua as it passes through the solar system after its discovery in October 2017. European Southern Obervatory/M. Kornmesser/Handout via REUTERS

By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The reddish cigar-shaped object called ‘Oumuamua spotted last year tumbling through space is a comet, scientists said on Wednesday, solving the mystery over how to classify the first interstellar object found passing through our solar system.

Astronomers said they closely examined the trajectory of ‘Oumuamua, which measures about a half-mile (800 meters) long, as it speeds through our cosmic neighborhood after being evicted somehow from a distant star system.

They found that it is deviating slightly from a path that would be explained purely by the Sun’s gravitational pull because of what apparently is a very small emission of gas from its surface, indicative of a comet.

‘Oumuamua (pronounced oh-MOO-uh-MOO-uh) initially was pegged as a comet, but it lacks the tail of gas and dust characteristic of many comets, and some scientists argued that it was perhaps a dry asteroid.

“It does not display any tail in any observation we obtained,” said astronomer Marco Micheli of the European Space Agency’s SSA-NEO Coordination Centre in Italy, who led the study, published in the journal Nature.

“However, our analysis shows that the amount of emitted gas that is needed to generate this extra force we see would have been so small as to be invisible in our observations,” he said in an email.

This “extra force” acting on the object’s trajectory amounts to only about 0.1 percent of the Sun’s gravitational attraction.

‘Oumuamua was first detected last October by the University of Hawaii’s Pan-STARRS1 telescope. Its name refers in the native Hawaiian language to a messenger arriving from a great distance.

It previously slingshot past the Sun traveling at roughly 196,000 miles per hour (315,000 km per hour) and is heading out of the solar system in the direction of the constellation Pegasus. ‘Oumuamua as of last month was roughly the same distance from the Sun as Jupiter.

Astronomers suspect that more visitors from other star systems will be discovered passing through our solar system.

“The discovery of ‘Oumuamua is an absolute first in the field, and it provided our first opportunity to study an object coming from another star and planetary system,” Micheli said. “The existence of these objects was expected, but seeing one for the first time, and being able to study it in detail, is a unique chance to know more on these distant systems, and how they formed.”

(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket soars in debut test launch from Florida

A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off from historic launch pad 39-A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., February 6, 2018.

By Joey Roulette

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) – The world’s most powerful rocket, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, roared into space through clear blue skies on its debut test flight on Tuesday from a Florida launch site in another milestone for billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s private rocket service.

The 23-story-tall jumbo rocket, carrying a cherry red Tesla Roadster from the assembly line of Musk’s electric car company as a mock payload, thundered off its launchpad in billowing clouds of steam and rocket exhaust at 3:45 p.m (2045 GMT) from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, where moon missions once began.

Boisterous cheering could be heard from SpaceX workers at the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California, where a livestream feed of the event originated. At least 2,000 spectators cheered the blastoff from a campground near Cocoa Beach, 5 miles (8 km) from the space center.

Within three minutes, the Falcon Heavy’s two side boosters separated from the central rocket in one of the most critical points of the flight.

Then, capitalizing on cost-cutting reusable rocket technology pioneered by SpaceX, the two boosters flew themselves back to Earth for safe simultaneous touchdowns on twin landing pads at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, about eight minutes after launch. Each rocket unleashed a double sonic boom as it neared the landing zone.

The center booster rocket, which SpaceX had predicted was less likely to be salvaged, slammed into the Atlantic at about 300 miles per hour (483 kph), showering the deck of the nearby drone landing vessel and destroying two of the ship’s thrusters, Musk told a post-launch news conference.

‘CRAZY THINGS COME TRUE’

Still, the Silicon Valley mogul known for self-deprecating understatement hailed the launch as a victory and “a big relief.”

“I had this image of this giant explosion on the pad, with wheels bouncing down the road and the logo landing somewhere with a thud. But fortunately, that’s not what happened,” he said. “Crazy things come true.”

While the Falcon Heavy’s initial performance appeared, by all accounts, to have been near flawless, it remained to be seen whether the upper stage of the vehicle and its payload would survive a six-hour “cruise” phase to high Earth orbit through the planet’s radiation belts.

The launch, so powerful that it shook the walls of the press trailer at the complex, was conducted from the same site used by NASA’s towering Saturn 5 rockets to carry Apollo missions to the moon more than 40 years ago. SpaceX has said it aspires to send missions to Mars in the coming years.

The successful liftoff was a key turning point for Musk’s privately owned Space Exploration Technologies, which stands to gain a new edge over the handful of rivals vying for lucrative contracts with NASA, satellite companies and the U.S. military.

Falcon Heavy is designed to place up to 70 tons into standard low-Earth orbit at a cost of $90 million per launch. That is twice the lift capacity of the biggest existing rocket in America’s space fleet – the Delta 4 Heavy of rival United Launch Alliance (ULA), a partnership of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co- for about a fourth the cost.

The demonstration flight put the Heavy into the annals of spaceflight as the world’s most powerful rocket in operation, with more lift capacity than any space vehicle to fly since NASA’s Saturn 5, which was retired in 1973, or the Soviet-era Energia, which flew its last mission in 1988.

Propelled by 27 rocket engines, the Heavy packs more than 5 million pounds of thrust at launch, roughly three times the force of the Falcon 9 booster rocket that until now has been the workhorse of the SpaceX fleet. The new rocket is essentially constructed from three Falcon 9s bolted together side by side.

A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off from historic launch pad 39-A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., February 6, 2018.

A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off from historic launch pad 39-A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Thom Baur

‘NEW SPACE RACE?’

Going along for the ride in a bit of playful cross-promotional space theater was the sleek red, electric-powered sports car from Musk’s other transportation enterprise, Tesla Inc.

Adding to the whimsy, SpaceX planted a space-suited mannequin in the driver’s seat of the convertible Tesla Roadster.

Musk mused that “it may be discovered by some future alien race.” The white spacesuit was real, he said.

A third burn was successful, Musk Tweeted late on Tuesday, sending the Tesla Roadster into its planned trajectory.

“Exceeded Mars orbit and kept going to the Asteroid Belt,” he tweeted.

The roadster, which carries a plaque inscribed with the names of more than 6,000 SpaceX employees, could instead end up in perpetual Earth orbit.

The launch followed an impressive run of successful paid missions – 20 in all since January 2017, when SpaceX returned to flight following a 2016 launchpad accident that destroyed a $62 million rocket and a $200 million Israeli communications satellite that it was to put into orbit two days later.

Musk said he hoped Tuesday’s achievement would encourage a new “space race” by private ventures and other countries, an allusion to the 1960s Cold War contest between the United States and the Soviet Union.

“Space races are exciting,” he said.

SpaceX had previously announced plans to eventually use Falcon Heavy to launch two paying space tourists on a trip around the moon. Musk said on Monday he was now inclined to reserve that mission for an even more powerful SpaceX launch system, the Big Falcon Rocket, or BFR, whose development he said was proceeding more swiftly than expected.

(Additional reporting by Irene Klotz at Cape Canaveral, Fla. and Gregg Newton in Cocoa Beach, Fla.; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Will Dunham and Peter Cooney)

Orionid Meteor Shower, at its peak, will light up the skies this weekend

Orionid Meteor Shower, at its peak, will light up the skies this weekend

By Shirette Stockdall

The Heavens will be providing Earth with a beautiful show this weekend, the peak of the Orionid Meteor Shower. Multiple sources, including Accuweather, USA Today, and ABC 7, state that Saturday morning (just before dawn) will be the ideal time to watch the meteor shower. However, the meteor shower will still be visible Saturday and Sunday from midnight until dawn.

The eastern horizon should have the best views of meteor shower, but NASA reports that the entire Earth will be able to view the event. Bruce McClure of EarthSky told USA Today that the darkest areas should see a maximum of 10-15 meteors per hour. Also, no special equipment is needed to see the shooting stars.

The Orionid Meteor Shower happens as a result of Earth’s orbit intersecting with the path of the legendary Halley’s Comet, last seen in 1986. While Halley’s Comet is still very far away and won’t be seen again until 2061, it leaves behind debris and dust that strikes Earth’s atmosphere.

If the meteor shower originates from Halley’s Comet, why is it named the Orionid Meteor Shower? Despite its source, the meteor shower is named after the constellation, Orion, because the comets seem to radiate from Orion. Space.com suggests looking 30 degrees above Orion’s sword (or club, depending on the lore) to see the most shooting stars. Your fist at arm’s length is approximately the equivalent of 10 degrees, so measure three fist lengths above Orion.

Accuweather reports that clear skies are in the forecast for most of the Southwest, but the central and northwestern regions of the U.S. may have clouds blocking their views of the meteor shower.

If you do miss this weekend’s meteor shower, the Leonids Meteor Shower will take place in November and the Geminds Meteor Shower will light up the sky in December.

Scientists test warning system as asteroid flies by

Scientists test warning system as asteroid flies by

FRANKFURT (Reuters) – An asteroid the size of a school bus flew remarkably near Earth on Thursday, providing scientists with an opportunity to test the warning systems that would kick in if a space collision was coming.

Asteroid 2012 TC4 came close — passing Earth at a distance of only around 44,000 km (27,000 miles), which is nothing in Universe terms.

There was no actual risk of a hit, although the asteroid did come well inside the orbit of the Moon and that of some human-made satellites.

“Basically, we pretended that this is a ‘critical’ object with a high risk of impacting Earth … and exercised our communication channels and used telescopes and radar systems for observations,” Detlef Koschny of European Space Agency said in a blog post on the agency’s website.

The results were mixed.

Koschny said one big radar system in Puerto Rico did not work due to damage from Hurricane Maria but that another U.S. based radar system was used instead.

“This is exactly why we do this exercise – to not be surprised by these things,” he said.

Radar images showed the asteroid was about 10 to 12 meters (yards) wide, roughly the size of an asteroid that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia in 2013, leaving more than 1,000 people injured by flying glass and debris.

Koschny said the ESA now needed to update its predictions for how close 2012 TC4 will come to Earth on its next flyby, which has so far been forecast for 2079.

(Reporting by Maria Sheahan; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

Solar eclipse presents first major test of power grid in renewable era

FILE PHOTO -- An array of solar panels are seen in Oakland, California, U.S. on December 4, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/File Photo

By Ruthy Munoz

HOUSTON (Reuters) – As Monday’s total solar eclipse sweeps from Oregon to South Carolina, U.S. electric power and grid operators will be glued to their monitoring systems in what for them represents the biggest test of the renewable energy era.

Utilities and grid operators have been planning for the event for years, calculating the timing and drop in output from solar, running simulations of the potential impact on demand, and lining up standby power sources. It promises a critical test of their ability to manage a sizeable swing in renewable power.

Solar energy now accounts for more than 42,600 megawatts (MW), about 5 percent of the U.S.’s peak demand, up from 5 MW in 2000, according to the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC), a group formed to improve the nation’s power system in the wake of a 1964 blackout. When the next eclipse comes to the United States in 2024, solar will account for 14 percent of the nation’s power, estimates NERC.

For utilities and solar farms, the eclipse represents an opportunity to see how well prepared their systems are to respond to rapid swings in an era where variable energy sources such as solar and wind are climbing in scale and importance.

Power companies view Monday’s event as a “test bed” on how power systems can manage a major change in supply, said John Moura, director of reliability assessment and system analysis at the North American Electric Reliability Corp.

“It has been tested before, just not at this magnitude,” adds Steven Greenlee, a spokesman for the California Independent System Operator (CISO), which controls routing power in the nation’s most populous state.

CISO estimates that at the peak of the eclipse, the state’s normal solar output of about 8,800 MW will be reduced to 3,100 MW and then surge to more than 9,000 MW when the sun returns.

CISO’s preparation includes studying how German utilities dealt with a 2015 eclipse in that country. Its review prompted the grid overseer to add an additional 200 MW to its normal 250 MW power reserves.

“We’ve calculated that during the eclipse, that solar will ramp off at about 70 MW per minute,” said Greenlee. “And then we’ll see the solar rolling back at about 90 MW per minute or more.”

Power utilities say the focus will be on managing a rapid drop off and accommodate the solar surge post the eclipse. Utility executives say they do not expect any interruption in service, but are prepared to ask customers to pare usage if a problem arises.”We want to assure our customers that we have secured enough resources to meet their energy needs, even with significantly less solar generation on hand,” said Caroline Winn, chief operating officer at utility San Diego Gas & Electric Co.

In the Eastern United States, utilities will have more time to watch the results of their Western counterparts. PJM Interconnection, which coordinates electricity transmission among 13 states from Michigan to North Carolina, says non-solar sources such as hydro and fossil fuel can easily supplant the 400 MW to 2,500 MW solar loss, depending on the cloud cover.

For small-scale solar providers, the eclipse is a drop in the revenue bucket. Ron Strom, a North Carolina real estate developer, sells the power from a 58 kilovolt system atop a commercial property in Chapel Hill to Duke Energy.

“The event may cost me eighteen cents or thereabouts if my panels don’t produce solar for three hours,” said Strom.

(Additional reporting by Nichola Groom in Los Angeles; editing by Diane Craft)

Millions of Americans to gaze upon Monday’s once-in-a-lifetime eclipse

Millions of Americans to gaze upon Monday's once-in-a-lifetime eclipse

By Steve Gorman

(Reuters) – Twilight will fall at midday on Monday, stars will glimmer and birds will roost in an eerie stillness as millions of Americans and visitors witness the first total solar eclipse to traverse the United States from coast to coast in 99 years.

The sight of the moon’s shadow passing directly in front of the sun, blotting out all but the halo-like solar corona, may draw the largest live audience for a celestial event in human history. When those watching via broadcast and online media are factored into the mix, the spectacle will likely smash records.

“It will certainly be the most observed total eclipse in history,” astronomer Rick Fienberg of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) said last week.

The eclipse begins its cross-country trajectory over the Pacific Coast of Oregon in late morning. It will reach South Carolina’s Atlantic shore some 90 minutes later.

The total eclipse of the sun is considered one of the most spell-binding phenomena in nature but it rarely occurs over a wide swath of land, let alone one of the world’s most heavily populated countries at the height of summer.

In terms of audience potential, it is hard to top the United States, with its mobile and affluent population, even though the direct path is mostly over rural areas, towns and small cities. The largest is Nashville, Tennessee, a city of 609,000 residents.

Even so the advent of social media and inexpensive high-tech optics have boosted public awareness, assuring what many U.S. experts predict will be unprecedented viewership for the so-called “Great American Eclipse.”

Some might take issue with that prediction, citing a solar eclipse visible over parts of India, Nepal, Bangladesh and central China in July 2009. National Geographic estimated 30 million people in Shanghai and Hangzhou alone were in its path that day.

On Monday, the deepest part of the shadow, or umbra, cast by the moon will fall over a 70-mile-wide (113-km-wide), 2,500-mile-long (4,000-km-long) “path of totality” traversing 14 states. The 12 million people who live there can view the eclipse at its fullest merely by walking outside and looking up, weather permitting.

LIVESTREAMING AND PRICE-GOUGING

Some 200 million Americans reside within a day’s drive of the totality zone, and as many as 7 million, experts say, are expected to converge on towns and campgrounds along the narrow corridor for the event. Many are attending multi-day festivals featuring music, yoga and astronomy lectures.

Millions more could potentially watch in real time as the eclipse is captured by video cameras mounted on 50 high-altitude balloons and streamed online in a joint project between NASA and Montana State University. A partial eclipse will appear throughout North America.

Adding further to the excitement is the wide availability of affordable solar-safe sunglasses produced by the millions and selling so fast that suppliers were running out of stock.

The owner of one leading manufacturer reported price gouging by second-hand dealers who were buying up large supplies in and reselling them over the internet at a huge mark-up.

Not all the hoopla will unfold on dry land. Welsh pop singer Bonnie Tyler is slated to perform her 1983s hit single “Total Eclipse of the Heart” aboard a cruise liner as the vessel sails into the path of totality from Florida on Monday.

Back on the ground, forest rangers, police and city managers in the total eclipse zone are bracing for a crush of travelers they fear will cause epic traffic jams and heighten wildfire hazards.

“Imagine 20 Woodstock festivals occurring simultaneously across the nation,” Michael Zeiler, an AAS advisory panel member wrote on his website, GreatAmericanEclipse.com, referring to the famously chaotic 1969 outdoor rock extravaganza in upstate New York.

Zeiler, an avowed “eclipse chaser” who made the 650-mile (1,046 km) drive from his New Mexico home to Wyoming for a choice view, said South Carolina is likely to see the greatest influx as the destination state closest to the entire U.S. Eastern seaboard.

Monday’s event will be the first total solar eclipse spanning the entire continental United States since 1918 and the first visible anywhere in the Lower 48 states in 38 years.

The next one over North America is due in just seven years, in April 2024.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Frank McGurty and Sandra Maler)