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Oldest and Most Experienced US Female Astronaut Peggy Whitson Sets another Record in Orbit

About 27,000 pieces of orbital debris currently are being tracked by ground stations on Earth, according to Britain's Royal Astronomical Society

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U.S. astronaut Peggy Whitson, member of the main crew of the expedition to the International Space Station, speaks with her relatives prior the launch of Soyuz MS-3 space ship at the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Nov. 17, 2016. VOA

Nov 20, 2016: The International Space Station has gained three new residents, including the oldest and most experienced female astronaut ever to orbit the world.

A Russian Soyuz capsule carrying the fresh crew docked Saturday at the space station, 400 kilometers above Earth. The new arrivals at the orbital research laboratory — American astronaut Peggy Whitson, French astronaut Thomas Pesquet and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy — joined the three men already on board, one American and two Russians.

The Soyuz-FG rocket booster with Soyuz MS-03 space ship carrying a new crew to the International Space Station blasts off at the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Nov. 18, 2016. VOA
The Soyuz-FG rocket booster with Soyuz MS-03 space ship carrying a new crew to the International Space Station blasts off at the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Nov. 18, 2016. VOA

Whitson, who will be the mission commander once her team settles in orbit, already holds the record for time spent in space by a woman — over 400 days during her various missions. Over the course of the next six months, she will celebrate her 57th birthday in the weightless conditions of Earth orbit, as she extends her time-in-space record every day.

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Before their launch Thursday from Kazakhstan, Pesquet paid tribute to Whitson’s leadership and seniority, but said he was carrying with him a small piece of a meteorite from Mars that will become “the most experienced space traveler there is in the world.”

The French astronaut, making his first spaceflight, said his intention was to show that human and robotic explorers of outer space “are all working together.” He intends to bring the stone back to Earth next year and place it aboard a Mars rover for a return flight to its home planet.

Third space flight

Whitson, a biochemist by training, is making her third flight to the space station. Prior to this mission, no woman older than 55 had flown in space.

Novitskiy is making his second spaceflight.

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The new crew’s arrival at the space station Saturday coincided with the 47th anniversary of mankind’s second landing on the moon — on November 19, 1969, by American astronauts Charles Conrad and Alan Bean.

The past few days have been busy with space-related activities.

Chinese astronauts Jing Haipeng (left, in blue) and Chen Dong, who landed safely aboard China's Shenzhou 11 spacecraft's re-entry capsule in the northern region of Inner Mongolia, arrive in Beijing, China, Nov. 18, 2016. VOA
Chinese astronauts Jing Haipeng (left, in blue) and Chen Dong, who landed safely aboard China’s Shenzhou 11 spacecraft’s re-entry capsule in the northern region of Inner Mongolia, arrive in Beijing, China, Nov. 18, 2016. VOA

As Whitson and her crew were heading into orbit, two Chinese astronauts touched down safely in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia after a successful monthlong mission in orbit, demonstrating the progress China has made in its quest to establish a permanent space station.

Major General Jing Haipeng and Colonel Chen Dong spent 33 days in orbit, a new record for Chinese manned space missions. They lived aboard the Tiangong space lab, which is a prototype for a permanent orbital laboratory that China hopes to establish by 2020.

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While in orbit, the Chinese astronauts tested new hardware for use in space, including a remotely operated robotic arm to transfer cargo, and also released a microsatellite to fly around the Tiangong lab, inspecting and photographing it.

The small device also is said to be equipped to divert any space debris on a collision course with the main spacecraft.

In this photo taken with long time exposure the Soyuz-FG rocket booster with Soyuz MS-03 space ship carrying a new crew to the International Space Station blasts off at the Russian leased Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Nov. 18, 2016. VOA
In this photo taken with long time exposure the Soyuz-FG rocket booster with Soyuz MS-03 space ship carrying a new crew to the International Space Station blasts off at the Russian leased Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Nov. 18, 2016. VOA

First satellite launch

Since the first satellite was launched from Earth into orbit — the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1, in 1957 — space debris has been accumulating steadily. Some scientists estimate up to 100 million pieces of space junk are currently floating around Earth, posing an increasing threat to the safety of both manned and unmanned satellites high above.

About 27,000 pieces of orbital debris currently are being tracked by ground stations on Earth, according to Britain’s Royal Astronomical Society, which met Friday in London to discuss the growing problem. Many bits of debris are too small to track accurately, but they nevertheless pose a risk to any other objects they encounter.

[bctt tweet=” A weather satellite called “America’s most advanced eye in the sky” was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida.” username=””]

“Tackling the problem of space debris is one of humankind’s greatest environmental challenges, but also perhaps the one that is the least known,” said Hugh Lewis, head of astronautics research at the University of Southampton in England.

“Every day we use and rely on services provided by satellites without ever realizing how vulnerable they are,” Lewis added.

Satellite launches

Meanwhile, the European space program launched four more Galileo satellites this week, moving a step closer to completing its own satellite-based navigation system, which will compete against the U.S. Global Positioning System, or GPS.

The four satellites — the most the European Union has sent aloft at one time — were carried into orbit Thursday by an Ariane rocket launched from a spaceport in French Guiana.

The upper stage and payload fairing containing the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-Series R (GOES-R) on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket is shown at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, Nov. 18, VOA
The upper stage and payload fairing containing the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-Series R (GOES-R) on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket is shown at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, Nov. 18, VOA

And as astronaut Whitson’s crew was maneuvering toward docking Saturday with the International Space Station, the U.S. space agency NASA was preparing to launch another rocket carrying a new weather satellite into orbit.

Also Saturday, a weather satellite called “America’s most advanced eye in the sky” was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The $1 billion satellite, part of an $11 billion effort to revolutionize forecasting, will be able to relay more frequent and higher-definition images of severe weather patterns, the U.S. space agency said.

The Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R Series (GOES-R) spacecraft launched Saturday is “really a quantum leap above any satellite NOAA has ever flown,” Stephen Volz, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s director of satellites, told The Associated Press. (VOA)

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Robot Equipped with Emotion-Sensing Heads to International Space Station

Emotion-sensing Robot Heads to Space Station to Help Astronauts

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Bret Greenstein, IBM Global Vice President of Watson Internet of Things Offerings, holds a clone of an artificial intelligence bot named CIMON, at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. VOA

An intelligent robot equipped with emotion-sensing voice detectors was headed to the International Space Station after launching from Florida on Thursday, becoming the latest artificial intelligence-powered astronaut workmate in orbit.

The Crew Interactive Mobile Companion 2, or CIMON 2, is a spherical droid with microphones, cameras and a slew of software to enable emotion recognition.

The droid was among 5,700 pounds (2,585 kg) of supplies and experiments aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, whose midday launch had been delayed from Wednesday because of high winds.

Create a companion

“The overall goal is to really create a true companion. The relationship between an astronaut and CIMON is really important,” Matthias Biniok, the lead architect for CIMON 2, told Reuters. “It’s trying to understand if the astronaut is sad, is he angry, joyful and so on.”

Based on algorithms built by information technology giant IBM Corp and data from CIMON 1, a nearly identical prototype that launched in 2018, CIMON 2 will be more sociable with crew members. It will test technologies that could prove crucial for future crewed missions in deep space, where long-term isolation and communication lags to Earth pose risks to astronauts’ mental health.

Robot companion
The overall goal of creating this robot is to create a true companion. (Representational Image). Lifetime Stock

While designed to help astronauts conduct scientific experiments, the English-speaking robot is also being trained to help mitigate groupthink — a behavioral phenomenon in which isolated groups of humans can be driven to make irrational decisions.

“Group-thinking is really dangerous,” Biniok said. In times of conflict or disagreement among astronauts, one of CIMON’s most important purposes would be to serve as “an objective outsider that you can talk to if you’re alone, or could actually help let the group collaborate again,” he said.

Inspired by Professor Simon, HAL

Engineers have said CIMON’s concept was inspired by a 1940s science fiction comic series set in space, where a sentient, brain-shaped robot named Professor Simon mentors an astronaut named Captain Future. CIMON 2 also parallels HAL, the sentient computer in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” film.

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SpaceX is the first private company to fly to the space station, a $100 billion project of 15 nations. Along with CIMON 2, the cargo aboard its 19th resupply mission to the orbital research lab included 40 live mice that will show scientists how muscles change in the microgravity of space. (VOA)