Reused SpaceX rocket carries satellite into orbit

Oct. 11 (UPI) — A used Falcon 9 rocket landed on a droneship in the Atlantic ocean Wednesday after launching a communications satellite into orbit.

It was the third time SpaceX depended on a used Falcon 9 rocket to carry out a launch mission.

The rocket blasted off at 6:53 p.m. from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The Falcon 9 rocket previously was used to deliver cargo to the International Space Station in February. This time, the rocket carried a high-powered, hybrid communications satellite shared by SES and EchoStar. The satellite is expected to support the delivery of high-definition television broadcasts to viewers across North America.

After carrying SpaceX’s Dragon capsule to the edge of space last winter, the rocket’s first stage detached and fell back to Earth before executing a controlled landing at SpaceX’s ground-based Landing Zone 1. This time, the rocket detached from the payload, fell back to Earth, then slowed its descent for a controlled landing.

“Falcon 9 first stage has landed on “Of Course I Still Love You” — third successful mission with a flight-proven orbital class rocket,” SpaceX said on Twitter.

“The satellite will be deployed approximately 36 minutes after liftoff,” SpaceX said.

The space company hopes to fly more used rockets in the coming months as it works to further reduce the cost of space travel. SpaceX successfully flew a mission with a used rocket for the first time in March. A second attempt in June also proved successful.

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Scientists discover remains of an ancient bobcat-sized predator in Tanzania

Oct. 12 (UPI) — Paleontologists have discovered a new species of extinct hyaenodont in Tanzania. The fossil offers new insights into the disappearance of hyaenodonts — once Africa’s top predator — during the Paleogene.

Hyaenodonts were cat-like in appearance, but walked on flat feet. After the dinosaurs bit the dust at then end of the Cretaceous period 66 million years ago, hyaenodonts became Africa’s most dominant carnivore.

Scientists named the newly discovered species Pakakali rukwaensis. “Pakakali” is a Swahili term meaning “fierce cat,” and “rukwaensis” is the Swahili name for the Rukwa Rift region in Tanzania’s Great Rift Valley, where the species’ remains were discovered.

Researchers described their discovery in a new paper, published on Wednesday, national “Fossil Day,” in the journal PLOS One.

The reign of the hyaenodonts was relatively short-lived. Around the time of Pakakali rukwaensis, between 23 and 25 million years ago, the earliest relatives of dogs, cats and hyenas emerged. These new carnivores eventually won the evolutionary race and hyaenodonts joined the dinosaurs in extinction.

“The shift from hyaenodonts to modern carnivores in Africa is like a controlled experiment,” Matthew Borths, a paleontologist at Ohio University, said in a news release. “We start with only hyaenodonts. Then the relatives of cats and dogs arrive. They coexist for a few million years, then the hyaenodonts are driven to extinction and we’re left with ‘The Lion King.'”

Because Pakakali rukwaensis arrived on the scene around the time the trajectory of the hyaenodonts began to take a turn southward, researchers believe the species could offer clues to the demise of its family.

“With Pakakali, we can start to unravel that extinction,” Borths said. “Were the lineages competing? Were they adapting differently to a drier, more open landscape?”

The new species’ fossilized skull was discovered among the same 25-million-year-old rock strata that revealed the split between Old World monkeys and apes. At the time, Africa was colliding with Eurasia, forming the East African Rift System. The tectonic shifts underpinned dramatic climate change.

At the time of Pakakali rukwaensis emergence, the bobcat-sized predators were struggling to adapt to a drier, more wide-open environment. As a result of increased competition, hyaenodonts were also forced to specialize in the consumption of meat. They weren’t able to adapt quick enough, and ultimately, they died out.

“The environment containing Pakakali reveals a fascinating window into extinction,” said Nancy Stevens, a paleontologist at Ohio University. “It highlights the vulnerability of carnivorous species to rapid environmental change, a topic we are grappling with on the African continent today.”

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Mars offers insights into the origin of life on Earth

Oct. 9 (UPI) — The discovery of ancient hydrothermal deposits on Mars could offer insights into the origin of life on Earth, according to a team of NASA scientists.

Scientists have previously suggested hydrothermal vents on the ocean floors of early Earth would have offered ideal conditions for the emergence of life. Now, scientists have found evidence of such conditions on Mars.

Researchers discovered the signs of underwater hydrothermal activity while analyzing observations of a basin on southern Mars made by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

“Even if we never find evidence that there’s been life on Mars, this site can tell us about the type of environment where life may have begun on Earth,” Paul Niles, a scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, said in a news release. “Volcanic activity combined with standing water provided conditions that were likely similar to conditions that existed on Earth at about the same time — when early life was evolving here.”

Mars is now dry and dormant, but it once hosted water and volcanic activity. Scientists estimate the basin deposits surveyed by MRO were formed roughly 3.7 billion years ago.

Another study published this week argued methane outflows warmed Mars’ atmosphere during the time period, melting the planet’s ice and allowing water to flow across the Martian surface.

Mars’ seas burned off millions of years ago, but hydrothermal activity is still common on the floor of Earth’s oceans. Scientists have found complex communities of microbes and other types of organisms uniquely adapted to the niche environment.

Scientists have previously observed signs of hydrothermal activity inside Europa, one of Jupiter’s icy moons, as well Enceladus, one of Saturn’s 62 moons. Some planetary scientists believe the activity makes them ideal targets in the quest to find extraterrestrial life.

“This site gives us a compelling story for a deep, long-lived sea and a deep-sea hydrothermal environment,” Niles said. “It is evocative of the deep-sea hydrothermal environments on Earth, similar to environments where life might be found on other worlds — life that doesn’t need a nice atmosphere or temperate surface, but just rocks, heat and water.”

The MRO data suggests the Martian impression was once filled with water, making it the largest sea to grace the Red Planet’s surface. Younger lava deposits in the basin prove the region was volcanically active. MRO’s spectrometer identified deposits of serpentine, talc and carbonate, minerals created by underwater hydrothermal activity.

Researchers detailed their discovery this week in the journal Nature Communications.

“Ancient, deep-water hydrothermal deposits in Eridania basin represent a new category of astrobiological target on Mars,” scientists wrote. “Eridania seafloor deposits are not only of interest for Mars exploration, they represent a window into early Earth.”

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Mercury map renders the innermost planet's geology in color

Oct. 9 (UPI) — Scientists with the European Space Agency have rendered the dull, gray world of Mercury in bright colors as part of a new mapping effort in preparation for next year’s BepiColombo mission launch.

Using data collected by NASA’s Messenger mission between 2010 and 2015, scientists plotted a color-coded map of the Victoria Quadrangle, a crater-filled region in Mercury’s northern hemisphere.

Researchers used colors to distinguish different types of craters and geological features. Crater characteristics — like levels of degradation — helped scientists estimate the density and age of the surrounding surface. categorize

The entirety of the Victoria Quadrangle features 1,789 craters wider than three miles. In the image released this week by ESA, 867 craters are showcased — 268 in the newly mapped section are wider than 12 miles.

Scientists detailed their plotting project in the Journal of Maps.

The maps developed by ESA researchers will be used to inform the BepiColombo mission, scheduled to launch next year. The mission is a joint effort between ESA and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency.

The mission will feature a pair of probes, programmed to study Mercury. The duo will follow up on geologic features first identified by Messenger, as well as measure the innermost planet’s magnetic field, magnetosphere and interior structure.

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Study: Dads relax, play while mom works around the house

Oct. 9 (UPI) — New data suggests dads are more likely to relax or have fun while mom is working around the house or handling child-rearing duties than vice versa.

When scientists at Ohio State University surveyed the work-play patterns of 52 couples with newborns — mostly highly educated, white, dual-income earners — they found 20th century gender patterns among 21st century families.

Though women still shouldered a slightly larger load, men and women tended to split household chores and childcare duties fairly evenly on workdays. But on weekends, or days when neither parent works, dad was more likely to engage in leisure activities while mom continues to work around the house and take care of the infant.

“When there is more time available on the weekend and parents are not so pressed to get everything done, then we see the emergence of gendered patterns and inequality where women do a lot more housework and childcare while he leisures,” researcher Jill Yavorsky, now an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said in a news release.

Parents who participated in the study completed detailed time diaries for three months after the birth of their first child. The data showed dads were relaxing 46 percent of the time that mom spent taking care of their newborn, while mom only relaxed 16 percent of the time dad was helping out with childcare. The numbers were similar, though not as stark, for work around the house.

Researchers acknowledged that their findings — detailed this week in the journal Sex Roles — are limited by their sample’s size and homogeneity.

“It is not the definitive answer, and is mostly relevant to similar couples,” said lead study author Claire Kamp Dush, an associate professor of human sciences at Ohio State. “But we need to look into this further and understand how dual-earner couples are sharing housework and child care.”

“I was expecting to see a lot more minutes where the couple was doing some kind of housework or child care together,” Kamp Dush added. “I suspect the situation may be even less equitable for women who don’t have all the advantages of the couples in our sample.”

Kamp Dush said she hopes her ongoing research will inspire new parents to talk more about how they will share household and childcare responsibilities. Patterns of inequality, once established, can last.

“At the time we studied them, these couples were setting up routines that may last several years as the kids grow,” she said. “Couples need to be having these conversations from the first few months.”

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Watch live: NASA streams first of three October spacewalks

Oct. 5 (UPI) — NASA TV is streaming the first of three October spacewalks on Thursday morning. Coverage began at 6:30 a.m. EDT, but the spacewalk didn’t commence until 8:05 a.m.

“Two NASA astronauts switched their spacesuits to battery power this morning at 8:05 a.m. EDT aboard the International Space Station to begin a spacewalk planned to last about 6.5 hours,” NASA announced.

The first of the three spacewalks is being carried out by Expedition 53 Commander Randy Bresnik and Flight Engineer Mark Vande Hei, both NASA astronauts.

Bresnik will lead all three of the scheduled spacewalks. The second spacewalk is scheduled for Oct. 10, and the third for Oct. 18.

Bresnik and Vande Hei are working to replace one of the two Latching End Effectors on Canadarm2, the space station’s robotic arm. The effectors serve as a grappling mechanism, allowing the space stations arm to receive and manipulate visiting cargo vehicles and payloads. The effectors, or LEEs, also field and transmit telemetry data to the rest of the Mobile Base System, or MBS. Canadarm2 is anchored to the MBS and can be moved along the base’s truss by the LEEs.

Last month, one of the effector’s mechanical latches stalled. The malfunction hasn’t impacted any operations, but it needs to be replaced. A spare LEE is located along the side of the station’s truss.

On the second and third spacewalks, astronauts will lubricate the new effector and replace several cameras.

The trio of spacewalks will be Bresnik’s third, fourth and fifth, while Vande Hei will experience his first two spacewalks.

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