Geoff Brumfiel | KERA News

Geoff Brumfiel

Updated at 6:55 p.m. ET

NASA astronauts are heading to space from U.S. soil for the first time in nine years, aboard SpaceX's Dragon capsule, the maiden crewed flight of the innovative spacecraft.

The mission, which is sending Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space Station, is a bold new venture for the space agency's plan to allow commercial companies to take its astronauts into low-Earth orbit.

This week, NASA and the commercial company SpaceX are set to launch two astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) in a new capsule. This is the first launch by NASA of astronauts from U.S. soil in nearly a decade, but it's happening in the middle of a pandemic.

Here are some of the ways that the coronavirus will, and won't, change the plans for the space agency's latest launch.

Astronauts have been quarantining since before it was cool.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

If you want to visit the Great Pyramids or the Great Wall or the Taj Mahal, forget it.

Egypt, China and India are just a few of the dozens of countries that have imposed strict travel restrictions to keep visitors, and the coronavirus, out. An analysis by NPR based on data from the International Air Transport Association found that more than three-quarters of the world's nations and territories have suspended travel from at least one other place.

Virus researchers say there is virtually no chance that the new coronavirus was released as result of a laboratory accident in China or anywhere else.

The assessment, made by more than half-a-dozen scientists familiar with lab accidents and how research on coronaviruses is conducted, casts doubt on recent claims that a mistake may have unleashed the coronavirus on the world.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Trump is ready to reopen America - at least parts of it where the coronavirus appears to be less of a problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

Updated at 10 a.m. ET

It's a strange and tragic pattern in some cases of COVID-19: The patient struggles through the first week of illness, and perhaps even begins to feel a little better.

Then suddenly they crash.

North Korea appears to be expanding a key rocket launch facility it once pledged to dismantle, according to new satellite imagery shared exclusively with NPR.

The imagery, taken by commercial company Planet and shared via the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, shows new roads under construction at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station.

Stay inside, don't meet with friends, don't go to work — these are the messages coming from public health officials at every level of government. But increasingly, experts say they believe those stark warnings must be augmented with another message:

If you think you might be sick, even a little sick, get tested for coronavirus.

People infected with the coronavirus can spread it easily, even if they're not yet experiencing severe symptoms of the disease, according to virologists watching the pandemic unfold in Europe.

The fragile peace deal taking shape in Afghanistan could spell the end of an era of for the U.S. military, one marked by efforts at nation-building and winning hearts and minds.

It appears that the Pentagon is also intent on ending a research program from that era — to fund social science for the military.

Acclaimed physicist Freeman Dyson, who pondered the origins of life, interstellar travel and many other topics, died Friday at the age of 96.

His daughter Mia Dyson told NPR that her father died after a short illness.

Freeman Dyson was known for groundbreaking work in physics and mathematics but his curiosity ranged far beyond those fields.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The U.S. has begun deploying a new type of low-yield nuclear warhead aboard some ballistic missile submarines, according to a report by an independent monitor.

When the USS Tennessee, an Ohio-class submarine, went on patrol in the final weeks of 2019, it carried "one or two" of the new weapons, according to a post by the Federation of American Scientists.

A rocket from the commercial company SpaceX lifted off on Wednesday morning with some 60 satellites aboard. Once they reached low Earth orbit, the satellites were released and began to fan out like a deck of cards.

They follow predictable paths around the Earth, but along the way those paths can cross with other things in orbit — satellites from other companies, old rocket stages, loose bits of metal — and cause a catastrophic collision.

New imagery from commercial satellites that was shared with NPR suggests Iran is making repairs and preparing for a space launch, following a recent string of failed attempts.

The imagery, taken Sunday by the commercial firm Planet and shared via the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, shows vehicles parked at a building used to assemble Iran's space rockets at the Imam Khomeini Space Center in northern Iran. A second group of vehicles is visible at a circular launch pad that was heavily damaged during failed launch preparations last year.

On the same night that Iran launched a ballistic missile strike against bases used by U.S. troops in Iraq, a Ukrainian jetliner crashed near Tehran, killing all 176 people onboard. Iranian authorities have said the plane suffered a mechanical failure, but the U.S. and other Western governments believe it was shot down, possibly by mistake.

"The evidence indicates the plane was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile," Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said during a news conference Thursday. "This may well have been unintentional."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

As Franco just mentioned, the president said he wanted to try and persuade remaining partners of the Iran nuclear deal to abandon it. So how far is Iran from actually developing such a weapon? Joining me to parse that out is NPR's Geoff Brumfiel.

Updated at 2:45 p.m. ET

Satellite photos taken Wednesday show that an Iranian missile strike has caused extensive damage at the Ain al-Assad air base in Iraq, which hosts U.S. and coalition troops.

The photos, taken by the commercial company Planet and shared with NPR via the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, show hangars and buildings hit hard by a barrage of Iranian missiles that were fired early Wednesday morning local time.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's listen to some sound from Iran's state media.

(SOUNDBITE OF BALLISTIC MISSILES LAUNCHING)

North Korea doesn't really do Christmas cards, but if it did, its card would probably have a picture of the nation's leader, Kim Jong Un, riding a white horse through a snowy wilderness. In fact, North Korean state media released those exact images this month, and the message was clear: Kim, frustrated with how things were going, was pondering a new direction.

A comet from another star will swing by our sun Dec. 8.

Known as 2I/Borisov, it is the first comet to ever be seen coming from interstellar space. But despite its alien origins, astronomers say it actually looks pretty familiar.

"Borisov is a comet very like what we have in our own solar system," says Michele Bannister, a planetary astronomer at Queen's University Belfast told NPR's Short Wave. Whatever planetary system it formed in, "it's a lot like our own."

Fifty years ago, astronaut Pete Conrad stepped out of the lunar module onto the surface of the moon.

His first words were: "Whoopie! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that's a long one for me."

Conrad, who stood at just 5 feet 6 inches tall, was only the third human to set foot on the lunar surface. He did it on November 19, 1969, just four months after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made the first lunar landing. However, unlike Armstrong and Aldrin, Conrad and fellow astronaut Alan Bean are not household names.

SpaceX successfully launched 60 communications satellites on Monday using a single rocket.

It's the second time in less than a year that Elon Musk's company has made such a launch, marking a dramatic increase in the number of satellites in orbit.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This year's Nobel Prize in physics has gone to three scientists for furthering humanity's understanding of our place in the universe. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has this report on how these scientists brought the very big picture into clearer focus.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

On Sept. 14, a major Saudi oil processing plant was rocked by a series of explosions. The facility, and another oil field to the south, had been attacked from the air. Here's what we know — at this time — about the attacks based on physical evidence.

The strike was large and sophisticated

On the face of it, NASA's newest probe sounds incredible. Known as Dragonfly, it is a dual-rotor quadcopter (technically an octocopter, even more technically an X8 octocopter); it's roughly the size of a compact car; it's completely autonomous; it's nuclear powered; and it will hover above the surface of Saturn's moon Titan.

Iran almost certainly had some role in a major attack on an oil production facility in Saudi Arabia, according to independent analysts reviewing the available evidence.

The question is how big.

The attack came on Sept. 14. Multiple drones or missiles struck Saudi Aramco's Abqaiq facility, causing massive damage and crippling the nation's oil production. The production of 5.7 million barrels of crude oil per day had to be suspended, according to the company.

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