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PBS NewsHour

Rocket explosion raises questions about commercial space travel safety


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JUDY WOODRUFF: Let’s turn to some concerns being raised all over again about the privatization of the U.S. space program.

This follows the explosion last night of a rocket that was scheduled to go to the International Space Station. Seconds after launch, the rocket exploded at the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia owned by Orbital Sciences Corporation and contracted through NASA. It was supposed to deliver 5,000 pounds of supplies and experiments to the space station.

NASA reported no problems just before the launch. Now there are many questions about what went wrong and whether old engines are to blame.

Our science correspondent, and resident space expert, Miles O’Brien joins us from South Carolina tonight.

So, Miles, welcome back.

Problems with the engine. What’s known about what happened?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, we can’t say for certain, but all roads lead to suspicion about the engine.

You have to ask yourself, what is operating at that stage of flight? First, you know, 10 seconds, give or take, is the first-stage engines, which are these 40-year-old engines. And we’re not talking about 40-year-old technology. These are actually engines that go back to the Soviet era, were put in a warehouse, and were purchased by Orbital Sciences, refurbished, and put on this rocket.

So, these were old engines, old designs. And you see the rocket kind of lurch, almost stop in its tracks. You see something falling through the plume. You see a discoloration in the rocket plume. And then very shortly thereafter, things go bad very quickly. Not long after that, they pushed the red button, which terminates the vehicle, as they say, the destruct button.

So the suspicion is focused squarely on the engines.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Was there reason to suspect these engines ahead of time?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, they have had some difficulty with them on test stands, a couple of incidents, as they tested them, where they actually blew up with fuel line problems, and other issues. They date back to the Soviet effort to go to the moon with the giant N1 rocket, which had multiple launchpad failures.

So these rockets have had trouble, but all rockets have trouble. This is a very difficult business going from zero to 17,500 miles per hour in the span of about 8.5 minutes. So, if you have the tiniest little leak or a turbo pump that goes awry, you’re going to have problems. Things have to work perfectly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Miles, how typical is it that engines that old are being used in spaceflight?

MILES O’BRIEN: I don’t know of any other scenario where that has occurred, Judy. This is — this is unusual.

And this is — says a lot about overall policy. Orbital Sciences, when it came time to pick an engine, didn’t have a lot of places to go. There were no homegrown U.S. engines available to them. The Russians make another type of engine called an RD-180, a much bigger engine, but that engine was being purchased en masse by a consortium of Boeing and Lockheed Martin called the United Launch Alliance.

And they were precluded from purchasing those engines. So they really didn’t have any place to turn. This idea of taking these engines that were sitting in a warehouse, refurbishing them, and using them seemed to be the only alternative. And I think we can all agree it’s probably better to build your own engines if you can.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I noticed the Russians had a successful takeoff of one of their own rockets shortly after this — after this explosion and failure.

Miles, just quickly, no safety issue with regard to the space station?


And that launch points it out. There’s plenty of paths to the station. That Russian Progress freighter is on its way. California-based SpaceX is on the docks to launch in December and February. The station — nobody on the station is going to go hungry.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, commercial space travel, does this raise a question about its viability in the future? Or is this considered a one-off?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, it should raise questions, and rightly so. If you have an accident and you don’t ask questions, you’re never going to learn.

The real question is, you know, NASA never has built a rocket on its own. It’s always used contractors, Boeing and Lockheed Martin and their predecessor companies. What’s different now is the way they do the contracts. They’re not on the factory floor, as it were, watching how every bolt is turned and so forth.

Instead, they’re sort of, instead of being on the floor where the Ford is made, they’re purchasing the car in the showroom, but with setting some parameters. And working out the right balance there, how to set the safety standards and how to fine-tune the level of scrutiny, is kind of a work in progress.

And this will be one of the things that will come out of this investigation is, has the bar been set properly both on safety and the level of scrutiny that NASA is applying to these commercial entities?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, again, thankfully, no loss of life, no injuries.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Miles O’Brien, we thank you.

MILES O’BRIEN: You’re welcome, Judy.

The post Rocket explosion raises questions about commercial space travel safety appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

There’s a giant spot on the sun, and it’s acting weird

The bright light in the lower right region of the sun shows an X-class solar flare on Oct. 26, 2014, as captured by NASA's
         SDO. This was the third X-class flare in 48 hour. Image by NASA/SDO

The bright light in the lower right region of the sun shows an X-class solar flare on Oct. 26, 2014, as captured by NASA’s SDO. This was the third X-class flare in 48 hour. Image by NASA/SDO

By the time the giant spot on the sun rotated into view on October 18, it was already 80,000 miles wide, big enough to fit all of Jupiter, big enough to lay 10 Earths, side by side, across. It is the largest spot the sun has harbored in 24 years.

But while most erupting sunspots lob chunks of plasma outward in events called coronal mass ejections, this one’s keeping its plasma close to the surface.

To rewind, a sunspot is a darker, cooler area on the sun’s visible surface that stores intense magnetic energy. (Note: Cooler, in this case, means roughly 7,500 degrees Fahrenheit, down from about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit.)

A close-up of AR12192 takenon October 21, 2014 from Langkawi Nagtional Observatory, Malaysia. Image by Karzaman Ahmad
         and shared at

A close-up of AR12192 taken on Oct. 21, 2014, from Langkawi Nagtional Observatory, Malaysia. Image by Karzaman Ahmad and shared at

The sun is not a solid body. It’s a ball of hot, hot gas called plasma that’s threaded with magnetic field, created by charged particles moving around. The sun spins faster at its equator, and the result is that some of that magnetic field drags, getting twisted and knotted up in the process. As this happens, these knots of magnetic field gain energy, pressure and buoyancy, and some of them float to the surface, and penetrate it, popping out.

“It’s kind of like having a rubber band that you twist and twist, and it starts to knot up,” said C. Alex Young, associate director for science at NASA Goddard’s Heliophysics Science Division. “The same sort of thing is happening with magnetic fields. They become more twisted, they get more concentrated, and eventually you have to get rid of that energy.”


The result: a spewing forth of ionized gas.

Releasing this pent-up energy typically takes two forms: a solar flare or a coronal mass ejection, and this is key to what makes the behavior here unusual. A coronal mass ejection is made up of balls of gas ejected from the sun’s outer atmosphere, consisting of charged particles and magnetic field. The fastest CME’s travel up to 93 million miles a day, or millions of miles per hour. A solar flare is a burst of x-rays and energy, typically smaller and shorter-lasting than a CME, and rather than being launched out into space, it is caused by material accelerated back into the sun.


This latest sunspot is producing lots of flares — really, really, big ones — but hardly any coronal mass ejections. (Though it did produce one single CME before it rotated into our field of view.)

“I can’t remember ever seeing a sunspot producing so many solar flares and so few CME’s,” said Michael Hesse, director of NASA Goddard’s Heliophysics Science Division, the team that stares at the sun 24 hours a day. “It wants to get rid of this energy, but we don’t understand why it does it through a flare and not a CME.”

But it’s produced 10 major solar flares, Hesse said. Six of these were rated X-class, which is equivalent to 100,000 times the amount of energy produced by humans in one year. Also, a billion Hiroshima-sized nuclear weapons.

A view the full-sun observed by SDO/HMI from Oct. 16-22, 2014

About 20 percent of all of the X-class flares produced so far in this 11-year solar cycle have come from this sunspot, said Dean Pesnell, a project scientist with NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, which takes about 100,000 pictures of the sun every day.

When a solar flare erupts, it lights up the side of the Earth that’s facing the flare, and heats up the Earth’s upper atmosphere, or ionosphere, which can temporarily change its properties. Solar flares pose less danger than CME’s, but they can affect short-wave radio communication used by pilots and ships, since the radio waves are bounced off the upper atmosphere.

Sunspots, first seen through a telescope by Galileo, are classified by how complex they are. Similar to a mole, a clean, round sunspot is of less interest to sun watchers.

“Imagine the doctor says you’ve got a nice little round mole,” Young said. “But when it starts to break up into pieces and change color and get jagged and complicated, that’s when you start to become concerned.”

Likewise, a more complicated structure means a sunspot contains more potential energy. And as this sunspot goes, it’s a funky one, large and complex, slightly surpassing in size the two spots that existed in fall 2003.

That was a time of extreme solar activity, known as the Halloween Storms. And those 2003 spots produced the biggest flares we’ve seen in modern times, Young said.

But this spot has its own mystery, and Hesse expects it to feature prominently at upcoming science conferences.

“The fact that this sunspot has been nicely in front of the sun where we can watch it gives us an unprecedented opportunity to study this question: How can we have flares and no CMEs,” Hesse said. “We don’t know that at all. We can look at the sunspot and see that there’s energy stored in it. We can see the complexity and know if it’s more likely to produce eruptions. But we don’t know when the eruptions will occur, and we don’t know what they will look like. And we have no clue as to whether it will produce a flare or a CME. We simply don’t understand this.”

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The newest addition to Lowe’s toolkit: a robot sales associate

Photo courtesy Fellow Robots

Lowe’s Innovation Labs developed a robot sales associate, which will debut at the end of November. Photo courtesy Fellow Robots

Lowe’s newest employee is its most groundbreaking power tool yet. Say hello to OSHbot the robot sales associate.

At the end of November, OSHbot will be wheeling around an Orchard Supply Hardware in San Jose, Calif., guiding shoppers to specific screwdrivers or saws.

The lightbulb innovation came from Lowe’s Innovation Labs. They collaborated with Singularity University and Fellow Robots to create OSHbot in under a year.

Customers can hold a conversation with OSHbot, a five-foot-tall white bot, in English or Spanish. The robot is outfitted with front and back touch screens that also respond to hand gestures.

Photo courtesy Fellow Robots

The retail robot can read hand gestures and help customers find old or broken items that need to be replaced. Photo courtesy Fellow Robots

Even if customers can’t express exactly what they’re looking for, OSHbot knows the drill. Its head is equipped with a 3D scanner. Customers can bring in a burned out lightbulb or rusted nail, and OSHbot will lead them to new, purchasable counterparts.

Is OSHbot hammering another nail into the human worker’s coffin? According to Kyle Nel, executive director of the Innovation Lab, the robot will give human employees more time to help customers plan home improvement projects.

“What our sales associates are amazing at doing and what they love spending time on are consulting and helping customers with their projects and solving their problems,” Nel told Ad Age. “We can let the robots answer questions like, ‘where are the hammers?’”

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Protecting the African lion from trophy hunters


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JUDY WOODRUFF: And now to the story of a very different kind of power struggle.

The African lion, known for its beauty and strength, is one of the most recognizable creatures on the planet.  But their numbers are shrinking.  And, today, the U.S. government took a step aimed at protecting their future.

Jeff has our conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today, there are thought to be little more than 30,000 African lions remaining on the continent, and about 70 percent of those live in just 10 major strongholds.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing that the African lion now be listed as an endangered species following a years-long push from a coalition of advocacy groups.

A representative from one of them joins us now: Jeff Flocken of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

Well, welcome to you.

The Wildlife Service says the three main threats facing African lions are habitat loss, loss of prey base, and increased human-lion conflict.  Explain what that means for us.  What exactly is the threat?

JEFF FLOCKEN, International Fund for Animal Welfare: Sure.

Today’s announcement was very important for lions.  It not only said that this — in fact, the species is endangered with extinction, but that it deserves protection.  You mentioned the threats that include habitat loss, and when there’s conflict with local people and the lions are killed in retaliation, also loss of prey base.

But in addition to those, unsustainable trophy hunting have been a problem.  When the government made an announcement today, they went out of their way to include a new system to monitor and regulate imports of trophy-hunted lion into the U.S.  And that’s our best way to protect them here in the U.S.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, they did call for a new requirement for a permit, but they also said sport hunting was not found to be a threat to the species at this time.  It’s a little confusing.  Explain that.


Studies actually have shown in areas where there has been the most intense sport hunting, there have been the steepest declines of lions in those populations.  Lions have a unique social pattern and structure, where if you were to kill the largest dominant male, it disrupts the whole pride and can result in deaths of other males when a new male comes in to take over.

Females can die protecting their young.  And then a new leader of the pride can in fact kill all the cubs as a way to reassert itself.  This has caused a problem in different areas where sport hunting has happened.  And by cutting back on sport hunting and finding a more sustainable way, this can help the species in surviving.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Wildlife Service though is calling more attention — even more attention to the issue of the encroachment of humans and development.  That means just too much contact, humans taking away the land, taking away the prey, the other wildlife that lions would eat.

JEFF FLOCKEN: Absolutely.

Lions face a number of threats.  But, honestly, stopping trophy hunting is the most easily addressed.  Today’s decision went out of its way to start regulating permits.  Americans are responsible for over 60 percent of all African lions killed for sport in Africa.

And this new system will help to monitor and better regulate how these trophies come back into the U.S.  It’s our best way to help protect these species abroad.

JEFFREY BROWN: And very briefly, is that why this would be on a U.S.-designated list? What is the issue for a U.S. agency looking at this?

JEFF FLOCKEN: Absolutely.

The U.S. Endangered Species Act actually has provisions that allow us to list foreign species.  It currently has under 600 — just under 600 species listed.  And by doing that, we regulate the trade that Americans bring back and forth or within the country of these animals that Americans have found worthy of protecting.

A recent poll showed that over 90 percent of 1,000 Americans polled wanted to see the U.S. government ban trophy hunting if it would help to save African lions.  And that species is in trouble.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Jeff Flocken of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, thank you.

JEFF FLOCKEN: Thank you.

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