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SpaceX reaches the promised land of launching every two weeks

Wed, 04/04/2018 - 10:03

Trevor Mahlmann/Special to Ars

SpaceX has long talked a good game about increasing its launch cadence, but the company now appears to be delivering in a big way. After two launches in four days, the California-based company has now flown seven rockets in 2018—six Falcon 9 missions and one Falcon Heavy. That breaks down to one launch every 13 days this year.

This is a significant number because it brings the company within its longstanding goal of launching a rocket every two weeks. Indeed, at this pace, SpaceX will launch a total of 27 rockets in 2018, which is consistent with expectations set by the company's president and chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell.

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“Nightmare” superbugs continue to lurk in US, but control efforts working

Wed, 04/04/2018 - 09:51

Enlarge / This 2014 CDC image shows two Petri dish culture plates growing bacteria in the presence of discs containing various antibiotics. The bacterial isolate on the left plate appears to be susceptible to the antibiotics on the discs; and is therefore; unable to grow adjacent to the discs. The plate on the right was inoculated with a Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE) bacterium that proved to be resistant to almost all of the antibiotics tested. (credit: CDC/James Gathany)

Several types of “nightmare” drug-resistant bacteria are lurking within healthcare settings across the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest surveillance data. But the data also suggests that recently implemented control efforts are helping to squelch the deadly germs.

The data, published Tuesday in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, focused on bacteria resistant to a group of antibiotics called carbapenems, which are often used as drugs of last resort. Carbapenem resistance often shows up in bacteria in the Enterobacteriaceae family, which includes common gut pathogens such as E. coli and Klebsiella. These carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE) burst onto the clinical scene starting in the early 2000s and they’ve tended to carry resistance to many or nearly all other antibiotics, in addition to carbapenems. In fact, CRE cause dreadful infections with mortality rates as high as 50 percent—aka, nightmare cases, as the CDC likes to call them. For this reason, CRE are considered among the biggest microbial threats by the CDC and the World Health Organization.

In 2009, the CDC created a CRE-specific guidance to try to monitor and effectively control and eliminate CRE cases from healthcare settings, where they often cause blood, catheter, and central line infections. The guidance instructs healthcare workers to do things like use laboratory testing to surveil clinical isolates, screen healthcare workers that may be asymptomatically carrying the deadly germs, place infected patients in single rooms and under contact precautions, and up hand-washing.

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Training plus a placebo may make a drug more effective

Tue, 04/03/2018 - 13:56

Enlarge (credit: Ben Harvey)

The placebo effect can be incredibly powerful, performing nearly as well as carefully designed and tested drugs, substituting for actual surgeries and even generating side effects. But it's a tricky thing to apply outside of experiments. After all, not everyone will have a strong placebo response, so it's unethical to use it in place of actual treatments.

Now, some researchers in Germany have figured out a way to harness the placebo effect to increase the impact of a normal drug treatment. The procedure involves getting patients to associate a taste with a powerful drug that has problematic side effects. Once the association is made, the patients were given a mix of normal drugs and a placebo, along with the flavor they'd associated with the drug. This experiment enhanced their response to the drug, providing an avenue to potentially reduce its dose and, thus, its side effects. And the whole thing worked despite the fact that the patients knew exactly what was going on.

The drug at issue, cyclosporine A, is a powerful suppressor of the immune system, which makes it useful for patients who have received organ transplants or who have a strong autoimmune disorder. But the immune system isn't the only system affected by this drug; it also kills off kidney and nerve cells and causes heart problems and hypertension. These effects are independent of any changes to the immune system, but nobody has figured out a way to target the body's response specifically to immune cells. As a result, people taking this drug have to carefully balance its useful features against its toxicity.

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“I don’t f—ing care”: In wooing $67M from big alcohol, NIH nixed critical study

Tue, 04/03/2018 - 07:15

Enlarge / Wine. (credit: Getty | FRANCOIS GUILLOT )

The National Institutes of Health is facing mounting criticism and questions amid a series of reports outlining what appears to be an all-too-cozy relationship with the alcohol industry.

Central to the concerns are how the federal research agency schmoozed industry executives into donating tens of millions of dollars for a study assessing the potential health benefits of daily drinking. Researchers and NIH officials pitched the study by strongly suggesting that it would end up endorsing moderate drinking as part of a healthy lifestyle, documents and interviews showed.

Amid that wooing, other researchers claimed for the first time Monday that they were scolded by agency officials for collecting data that appeared critical of the alcohol industry. They also suggest that the agency spiked a similarly critical research proposal, despite that it was highly ranked by scientific peers who evaluate proposals for funding purposes.

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SpaceX is (gasp) going to expend its fifth Falcon 9 in a row

Mon, 04/02/2018 - 14:23

Trevor Mahlmann/Special to Ars

In 2017, SpaceX launched 18 Falcon 9 rockets and recovered all 15 of the first stages it attempted to land. But this year, SpaceX has landed just one of the Falcon 9 boosters it launched—its first flight of the year on January 8. Since then, the rocket company has not sought to recover any of the four Falcon 9 rockets it has launched.

On Monday, at 4:30pm ET (20:30 UTC) SpaceX will attempt another Falcon 9 launch: a mission to deliver about three tons of supplies to the International Space Station for NASA. Although this booster will have plenty of fuel left over to attempt a land-based return along the Florida coast, it too will splash into the ocean.

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Satellite images from highly oblique angles are pretty mindblowing

Mon, 04/02/2018 - 11:21

Planet Labs, Inc.

Founded in 2010 by three former NASA scientists, Planet Labs has been among the forefront of several companies seeking to provide high-quality, commercially available imagery of planet Earth. As such, it has the capability to look all around the world, in real time.

In January, a senior data visualization engineer at the company began to survey the damage from mudslides in Southern California. As Robert Simmon looked at the area, which had been ravaged first by wildfires and then large debris flows, he realized he could not see all that much definition between the flat, coastal area and the nearby San Rafael and Santa Ynez mountain ranges. "The entire sense of mountain terrain was lost," Simmon told Ars.

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China’s “Heavenly Palace” returns to Earth and burns up

Sun, 04/01/2018 - 22:51

Enlarge / The Tiangong-1 space station broke up northwest of Tahiti on Sunday night, US time. (credit: US Department of State)

China's first space station burnt up in Earth's atmosphere on Sunday night, the US Joint Force Space Component Command reported. Using Space Surveillance Network sensors, US officials said the Tiangong-1 station reentered Earth's atmosphere at 8:16pm ET (00:16 UTC Monday). The station was over the southern Pacific Ocean, northwest of the island of Tahiti.

In recent weeks space agencies and satellite trackers have refined estimates for when the station, which Chinese engineers had lost control of, would lose enough altitude to begin plummeting rapidly toward Earth, and break apart in the atmosphere. It posed virtually no threat to anyone on the ground—and indeed it did break apart over the vast Pacific Ocean—but that didn't some pretty wild speculation in recent days.

Due to the track of the station it seems unlikely that anyone on land had much of a view of the reentry event. Also, there appear to have been few airplanes in the vicinity of the reentry. The best bet for any kind of imagery or video, therefore, is probably someone on board a ship. But the odds of even this seem fairly low.

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Coal, nuclear plant operator files for bankruptcy, asks Trump for a bailout

Sun, 04/01/2018 - 17:05

Enlarge / SHIPPINGPORT, PENNSYLVANIA - OCTOBER 27: A view of the inactive cooling towers at FirstEnergy Corporation's Bruce Mansfield coal-fired power plant October 27, 2017 in Shippingport, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images) (credit: Getty Images)

On Saturday, power corporation FirstEnergy placed its coal and nuclear generation units under chapter 11 bankruptcy. Although coal and nuclear plants across the country have struggled to compete with the low prices of natural gas, FirstEnergy's filing is unique because it stands to take on a political dimension. Just two days before FirstEnergy's bankruptcy filing, the company petitioned the Department of Energy (DOE) for an emergency bailout, citing concerns about reliability.

The petition could reinvigorate a debate started by Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who proposed a rule last year to change how coal and nuclear plants are compensated for their power. The rule was denied by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which said that there was not enough evidence to justify changing how coal and nuclear are compensated.

FirstEnergy disparaged FERC's decision in its Thursday petition (PDF), claiming that "as a result of FERC’s and the RTO's [Regional Transmission Organization's] failure to address this crisis, swift and decisive action is needed now to address this imminent loss of nuclear and coal-fired baseload generation and the threat to the electric grid that this loss poses" (emphasis FirstEnergy's).

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Kepler caught strange supernova: Sudden surge, rapid decay

Sun, 04/01/2018 - 15:30

Enlarge / Kepler was made to find planets, but it's found other uses. (credit: Kepler)

The Kepler planet-hunting telescope was designed to do one thing: gather data from a single portion of the sky often enough to catch rare, brief events. The events it was looking for were slight dips in light that happened as a planet passed in between its host star and Earth. But it captured other transient events as well. Some of these other events were supernovae—the explosion of massive stars—and Kepler captured two just as the explosion burst through their surface.

But at least one of the brief events Kepler observed was so odd it wasn't originally recognized as a supernova. It was only after the observatory's data was released to the entire research community that people started proposing that something so bright was most likely a supernova. Now, researchers are offering an analysis of why this event looked so strange.

With their typical flair for the dramatic, the researchers have termed this event KSN 2015K. As mentioned above, it looked different enough from other supernovae that it wasn't picked up by a standard analysis. In addition, the researchers found that the same event was spotted by a couple of surveys dedicated to identifying supernovae at an early stage. Neither of those surveys identified it, either.

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Iceberg armadas boosted monsoon rains in a different hemisphere

Sat, 03/31/2018 - 09:00

Enlarge / If these walls could talk... they'd complain about the weather, too. (credit: Patty Ho)

Sometimes, Earth’s climate system seems a lot like a Rube Goldberg machine—those zany marbles-and-mouse-traps sequences that circuitously complete some simple action. The ocean can interact with the atmosphere, which can interact with ecosystems on land, which can turn back and affect the atmosphere, and end up interacting with the ocean again. It can seem too complex to keep track of at first, but scientists have become quite familiar with many well-worn tracks in this climate contraption.

Records of climate during the last “ice age” show us a number of these crazy connections. When the planet was around 5°C colder and ice sheets covered large areas of the Northern Hemisphere, the climate featured some impressive fluctuations that aren’t possible in today’s warmer world. One of those was a periodic cycle of colder periods called “stadials” that each lasted for hundreds of years.

When the cold periods caused ice sheets in North America and Europe to expand sufficiently, they sometimes spawned sudden and massive outpourings of Atlantic icebergs called “Heinrich events." These events are known from seafloor sediment cores, where you can find layers of pebbles and rocks that can only travel the open ocean by being trapped in icebergs.

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NOAA just prevented SpaceX from showing its rocket in orbit

Fri, 03/30/2018 - 12:52

Enlarge / SpaceX cut its webcast from space at T+ 9:00 on Friday, and went back to Michael Hammersley in Hawthorne, due to "NOAA restrictions." (credit: SpaceX)

On Friday morning, SpaceX successfully launched a Falcon 9 rocket into space and later deployed 10 Iridium communications satellites into low-Earth orbit as planned. But unexpectedly for most watching, the company's webcast was precluded from showing the mission in its entirety.

At T+ 9:00 minutes, just two seconds before the rocket's second-stage engine cut off from firing, the video from space ended. The launch commentator, SpaceX engineer Michael Hammersley, explained earlier in the broadcast that "[d]ue to some restrictions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, SpaceX will be intentionally ending live video coverage of the 2nd stage just prior to engine shutdown."

Asked about this on Friday morning, a NOAA spokesman was not aware of the situation. "I can only think it's an error," Chris Vaccaro told Ars. "I would double check with them (SpaceX)." NOAA has promised more information will be forthcoming.

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Frogs make a comeback, beat fungus

Fri, 03/30/2018 - 12:40

Enlarge / In the US, biologists are keeping watch for the amphibian-killing fungus. (credit: USGS)

Epidemics proceed with different dynamics. Sometimes they spike rapidly and disappear gradually; sometimes they ramp up slowly; sometimes they have multiple waves. What they all do at some point is end, usually with neither the pathogen nor the host going extinct. But we don’t usually understand how or why.

Chytridiomycosis is an epidemic that has been killing amphibians the world over for at least a decade. It is caused by a fungal pathogen called Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd), and it can cause limb deformities and skin abnormalities. Since amphibians absorb water and electrolytes through their skin rather than their mouths, such abnormalities can be fatal. But now we have some evidence that, as with past epidemics, Bd isn't a one-way ticket to extinction.

Between 2004 and 2007, Bd decimated frog populations in Panama. About five years later, however, frog populations rebounded. Bd was still around, although it was not nearly as prevalent. Scientists collected frog and fungus samples from the start of the outbreak, in 2004, and after the recovery, in 2013, in order to figure out what factors went into making this particular epidemic subside. They hypothesized that either (a) the later Bd samples would be less pathogenic to the frogs; (b) the later frog samples would be more resistant to Bd; or (c) both.

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Lidar system images bullet in flight

Fri, 03/30/2018 - 10:05

The GE Energy controls lab in Niskayuna used to be the home of some laser gear. They kept the sign (presumably to scare off visitors).

Lidar imaging has been around for almost as long as the technology it's based on, the laser. But unlike its more famous cousin, radar, it was mostly used for research purposes. The reason scientists know so much about the density of aerosols in the upper atmosphere is largely due to the practice of shooting powerful lasers into the atmosphere and examining the return signal. That sums up the key difference between lidar and radar: lidar operates with a shorter wavelength so it can, in principle, detect and (sometimes) image smaller objects, like aerosol particles.

This difference has now been given a spectacular demonstration, with researchers imaging the profile of an air rifle bullet in flight with a resolution of about one micrometer (an air rifle bullet is about 5mm long). While air rifles have a rather low muzzle velocity, the researchers could have imaged the bullet from a firearm with a very high muzzle velocity and still had a resolution of about 10 micrometers.

Two lasers that are not quite twins

Old-fashioned lidar systems (and even newer lidar ones) work on the tried-and-true principle of time of flight. Basically, you send out a pulse of light and record the time it takes to receive an echo. This is a pretty simple system, provided you don't want very good distance accuracy.

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Video: Chris Hadfield on the complexities of music in microgravity

Fri, 03/30/2018 - 09:31

Video shot and edited by CNE. Click here for transcript.

Astronaut Chris Hadfield’s cover of Bowie’s “Space Oddity” is thought-provoking, visually fascinating, and absolutely worth watching—but it’s far more than just a great cover of a classic song. It’s an inherently human video, because it demonstrates the fundamental truth that we are a species of storytellers—and that we remain so whether or not we’re on Earth.

Music is both one of the oldest human traditions and also one of the oldest astronaut traditions. We’ve been taking songs into orbit with us since the 1960s, first transmitted from the ground and then later via tape, CD, and electronic formats. What we sing in space is similar to what we sing on the ground—music fills in the gaps of a day, helps boredom, focuses the mind, diffuses anger, and does a million other things to soothe the homesick spaceman.

Ground control to Lionel Hutz

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hadfield’s cover ran into legal trouble almost immediately after its release, because copyright doesn’t particularly care how popular or viral a song is. In spite of having explicit permission from David Bowie and his attorneys, Hadfield’s “Space Oddity” was pulled from YouTube not too long after it went up.

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Watch live: SpaceX to launch 10 satellites, attempt a fairing recovery

Fri, 03/30/2018 - 07:35

Enlarge / This launch of the PAZ mission, in February, marked the first payload fairing recovery attempt by Mr. Steven. (credit: SpaceX)

About five weeks ago, SpaceX launched the PAZ radar imagery satellite from its California-based site at Vandenberg Air Force Base. A few minutes after the launch, once the Falcon 9 rocket had pushed the satellite into outer space, the protective fairing around it separated. Typically these payload fairings, valued at about $6 million, are lost after falling back to Earth, where they sink in the ocean.

Not only does this cost money, of course, but the construction of new payload fairings takes up valuable real estate and workforce attention at SpaceX's factory in Hawthorne, California. Several large rooms are given over to the task. So in recent years the company had tested options for safely returning the payload fairings to the ocean, and then "catching" them with a boat.

With the PAZ launch, the company tried this for the first time. The payload fairing returns through Earth's atmosphere at a very high velocity, about eight times the speed of sound. To account for this, SpaceX had installed on-board thrusters, and a guidance system, to help steer it through the atmosphere. Near the surface, a parafoil would deploy to help arrest its descent, potentially allowing the fairing to be captured in a ship modified for this task—Mr. Steven.

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EPA to its employees: Ignore science when talking about climate change

Thu, 03/29/2018 - 16:50

Enlarge / NEW YORK: Scott Pruitt, administrator of US EPA speaks at the 2017 Concordia Annual Summit at Grand Hyatt New York. (credit: Riccardo Savi/Getty Images for Concordia Summit)

On Wednesday, an internal Environmental Protection Agency memo was leaked to the Huffington Post. Under the guise of developing "consistent messages about EPA's climate adaptation efforts," the memo suggests a number of talking points the agency's employees can use if asked about adaptation. Most of them are general statements about how the EPA would like to help citizens and local governments manage adaptation. But there are two that directly address what we know about our changing climate, and both of them do a pretty awful job with the subject.

The memo, which has been confirmed as authentic by the EPA, is from Joel Scheraga, a senior advisor on climate adaptation. In it, Scheraga says that the EPA's Office of Public Affairs has developed a set of talking points on climate issues. While he's pleased that many of them focus on adaptation, it's striking that they describe nothing but adaptation. Scheraga describes them as general "talking points about climate change," yet they don't contain a single mention of greenhouse gasses or any action by the EPA that might limit greenhouse gas emissions.

But that's hardly the only issue with the talking points, given that one is largely false and a second is questionable at beast.

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Researchers “heal” destructive dendrite growth in lithium-metal batteries

Thu, 03/29/2018 - 15:12

These photos show dendrites after pulses of different current densities are applied, from lowest density at the top to highest at the bottom.

Dendrites—branching structures that look like tree limbs—are fun to draw, good on neurons, but generally to be avoided in lithium-ion batteries. As ions are exchanged between the anode and cathode over several charge and discharge cycles, lithium electrodes will sometimes grow dendrites that can expand through the electrolyte that separates the anode and cathode. These dendrites can reduce the battery's capacity, shorten the life of the battery, or even start fires as the dendrites heat up. (Dendrites were found in the batteries related to the Boeing 787 battery fires that happened in 2014, for example.)

But researchers from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, have proposed a way to ameliorate this dendrite growth. They've done this not by fighting against the dendrites and trying to contain them (as many researchers have attempted), but by using the tendency of dendrites to heat up in response to high current density to make those electrode growths smaller.

By applying a high-current pulse to a lithium-metal anode, the researchers were able to produce heat that wasn't enough to melt the lithium metal but was enough to encourage "extensive surface migration" of the lithium atoms. That essentially "healed" the lithium-metal anode of newly-growing dendrites, which smoothed out the surface of the lithium anode again.

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Humans walked on a Canadian beach 13,000 years ago

Thu, 03/29/2018 - 14:44

Enlarge / Track #20, showing a slip mark. (credit: Douglas McLaren)

Thirteen thousand years ago, a small group of people walked on a beach on one of the thousands of low islands off the coast of British Columbia. These walkers were some of the first humans to settle here.

A team of archaeologists led by Duncan McLaren of the Hakai Institute and the University of Victoria unearthed 29 footprints on the shore of Calvert Island, British Columbia, embedded in a layer of light-brown clay 60cm below today’s sandy beach. Radiocarbon dating of a small piece of wood embedded in the clay puts the footprints at 13,317 to 12,633 years old, making them some of the earliest clear evidence of human presence this far north on Canada’s Pacific Coast.

The footprints offer proof that people were on the west coast of Canada in the final stages of the last glacial period, when a huge expanse of ice called the Cordilleran Ice Sheet stretched to Canada’s Pacific Coast. The ice sheet seems to have receded from the shoreline in patches, creating small areas of thawed land called refugia, just large enough to support plants and large animals—including humans, if they could get there. It’s possible that the first North Americans made their way south along the edges of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet after crossing the Beringia Land Bridge.

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This spacecraft will get closer to the Sun than any before it—without melting

Thu, 03/29/2018 - 11:55

Enlarge / Artist’s concept of the Parker Solar Probe spacecraft approaching the Sun. Launching in 2018, Parker Solar Probe will provide new data on solar activity and make critical contributions to our ability to forecast major space-weather events that impact life on Earth. (credit: NASA)

It has taken 60 years, but scientists and engineers are finally ready to reach for the stars—our star, that is. And they’re confident they won’t get burned.

This summer, NASA will launch the Parker Solar Probe, an impressively heat-resistant spacecraft destined to glide closer to the surface of the Sun than any spacecraft before it. It will fly within about 6 million kilometers of the searing surface, more than seven times closer than earlier craft. If all goes to plan, the craft will be hurtling at 724,205 km per hour and have its one-of-a-kind heat shield perfectly facing the surface as it makes those closest approaches. In about seven years, it will complete 24 orbits around the Sun and pass by Venus seven times.

All the while, the Parker probe will collect a constellation of data to help answer scientists’ burning questions—and solve some sizzling mysteries—about the orb of hot plasma that lights up our Solar System. Namely, it will try to help us finally understand why the Sun’s atmosphere is 300 times hotter than its surface, which itself is a balmy 5,727°C. This fact defies basic physics and to this day is unexplained. One of the leading hypotheses to account for the heat shift comes from famed physicist Eugene Parker, after whom the probe is named. In the mid-1950s, Parker theorized that the Sun’s super-heated corona could be explained by a complex system of plasma, magnetic fields, and energetic particles that spark solar explosions called “nanoflares.”

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SpaceX has a busy weekend ahead of it

Thu, 03/29/2018 - 09:45

The booster to be used at early as Monday for CRS-14 flew last August during the CRS-12 mission. (credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX has launched five rockets so far during the first quarter of 2018, but now the company will amp up that pace by going to go for two launches in four days. If successful with these flights, the cadence would put the company two months ahead of 2017's record pace, when SpaceX launched a total of 18 rockets. Last year, SpaceX didn't launch its seventh rocket until June 3.

The company's first attempt comes Friday, when SpaceX is scheduled to lift a batch of satellites for the Iridium NEXT mobile communications fleet. This is the fifth set of 10 satellites in a series of 75 total satellites SpaceX will launch for Iridium. This flight will occur from the company's launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Southern California. Then, on Monday, SpaceX plans to launch its 14th cargo supply mission to the International Space Station, from Cape Canaveral in Florida.


After engineers with Iridium solved an issue with the payload of communications satellites, SpaceX set a launch date of March 30, with an instantaneous launch window of 10:13am ET. The 10 communications satellites and their dispenser, combined, weigh just under 10 metric tons and are bound for low-Earth orbit. A backup launch window is available on Saturday.

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