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NASA selects SpaceX as its sole provider for a lunar lander

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Enlarge / Rendering of SpaceX’s Starship vehicle on the surface of the Moon.

NASA

In an extraordinary announcement on Friday, NASA said that it has selected SpaceX and its Starship vehicle to serve as the lunar lander for its Artemis Program. This is NASA’s plan to return humans to the Moon later this decade.

About a year ago, NASA gave initial study and preliminary development contracts for Moon landers to SpaceX, Dynetics, and a team of aerospace heavyweights led by Blue Origin. The cost of SpaceX’s bid was about half that of Dynetics, and one-fourth the amount received by Blue Origin. That frugality, at least in part, led NASA on Friday to choose SpaceX as the sole provider of landing services during the down-select phase.

“We looked at what’s the best value to the government,” said Kathy Lueders, chief of the human exploration program for NASA, during a teleconference with reporters on Friday.

NASA said it will award SpaceX $2.89 billion for development of the Starship vehicle and two flights. One of these missions will be an uncrewed flight test of Starship down to the lunar surface and back. The second mission will be a crewed flight—the first one of the Artemis program—down to the Moon.

Starship offered several advantages, NASA officials said. It has a spacious cabin for astronauts, two airlocks, and ample payload capability to bring large numbers of experiments to the Moon and return samples to Earth. Significantly, the NASA engineers also praised the vehicle’s innovative design and future-looking technology that might also one day be used on Mars.

Ultimately, the selection criteria were based on a company’s technical proficiency, management, and cost. SpaceX scored well in all three. But budget appears to have been the biggest factor. The space agency has had difficulty securing funding from Congress for the lunar lander aspect of the program. For the current fiscal year, NASA said it needed $3.3 billion in funding to meet the goal of landing humans on the Moon by 2024. Congress provided just $850 million, and as a result, NASA acknowledged that 2024 was no longer a realistic target.

Making Artemis affordable

At the direction of the Trump administration, NASA formally created the Artemis Program about two years ago to send humans back to the Moon in a sustainable way and establish a base there. The goal was to move beyond the flags-and-footprints forays of the Apollo Program and gain the knowledge needed to eventually send humans to Mars. The Biden administration has endorsed this basic goal, and it’s working to update the Artemis Program with a more realistic timeline given the budget predilections of Congress.

Friday’s announcement is part of that process of making Artemis more affordable. A sole-source award to SpaceX for the Human Landing System will certainly not be particularly popular in Congress, where traditional space companies such as Lockheed Martin and newer entrants like Blue Origin have more established lobbying power. But it sends a clear message from NASA and the White House to budget writers in the House and Senate.

This award effectively says that NASA is serious about getting to the Moon with the funding it has. And if Congress were to fully fund the Human Landing System program, NASA could bring on a competitor. Ideally, of course, there should be competition. This approach has worked well for NASA’s commercial cargo and crew programs. But NASA is getting a small fraction of what it needs to run a lunar lander competition.

In addition to this development award, NASA said it would soon move to procure “recurring landing services” from industry. This contract will be for operational missions to the lunar surface, and it seems like SpaceX would have a significant advantage in winning the award. However, there may be an opening here, if Congress provides more funding for the Human Landing System, for either Dynetics or the Blue Origin-led team to play a role in human landings.

Self-funding Starship

SpaceX has largely self-funded development of the large Starship vehicle for about five years, with the intent of using it to settle humans on Mars one day. Starship is a fully reusable upper stage that will launch atop the Super Heavy rocket. SpaceX is in various states of testing and developing both of these vehicles at its facility in South Texas.

As part of the Artemis Program, SpaceX has proposed launching a modified version of its Starship vehicle to lunar orbit. Shortly afterward, a crew of NASA astronauts would launch inside an Orion spacecraft on top of a Space Launch System rocket, both of which were developed by NASA. Orion would rendezvous with Starship in lunar orbit, board the vehicle, and go down to the surface. Starship would then lift off from the lunar surface and link back up with Orion, and the crew would come back to Earth in the smaller capsule.

Left unsaid is the reality that SpaceX is also planning to launch humans on Starship from Earth. It does not seem like all that much of a stretch to question the need for the much more costly Orion and Space Launch System rocket, when lunar crews could simply launch in a Starship into low-Earth orbit, undergo refueling there from another Starship, and then go to the Moon and back. But NASA knows that Congress—which is heavily invested in Orion and the SLS rocket, and their jobs across all 50 states—would not support a SpaceX-only program.

The choice of SpaceX was applauded by some industry officials on Friday. “The selection of SpaceX as the sole-source developer of the Human Lander System is a sign of how far both the company and their relationship with NASA has come over the last ten-years,” said Lori Garver, a deputy administrator for NASA under President Obama. “SpaceX’s involvement in Artemis is sure to elevate public interest and will hopefully lead to our soonest possible return to the Moon.”

For years, space industry leaders like Garver have advocated for NASA to increase support for commercial space companies that have sought to drive down the costs of spaceflight. After all, SpaceX’s bid for the entirety of its Human Landing System, $2.9 billion, is about what NASA spends each year on the Space Launch System and associated ground systems development. Now, the space agency appears to be boldly embracing such a future.

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China’s carbon pollution now surpasses all developed countries combined

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Carbon pollution from China’s bustling, coal-intensive economy last year outstripped the carbon pollution of the US, the EU, and other developed nations combined, making up a whopping 27 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

As China’s economy has grown in the last 30 years, so too have its emissions. While pollution from developed countries has largely been flat since 1990, it has more than tripled in China. The country’s soaring emissions and stable population mean that its per capita emissions have grown quickly, too. At 10.1 tons per person, emissions are just below the 10.5 ton average of the 37-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD.

The US still leads the world in per capita emissions, at 17.6 tons per person, according to Rhodium Group’s numbers, though President Joe Biden has pledged that the US will halve emissions by 2030. The other developed countries in the report include all 27 current EU member states: the UK, Australia, Canada, Chile, Iceland, Israel, Japan, Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, and Turkey.

China’s draconian lockdowns early in the COVID-19 pandemic allowed the country’s economy to bounce back relatively quickly, and as a result, Rhodium expects that China’s emissions per capita in 2020 will surpass the average of the OECD nations.

Over the last few years, China’s growing carbon emissions have drawn the attention of leaders from around the world. In 2018, the Communist Party lifted a ban on the construction of new coal plants, and its policies have become more generous in years since. Though China has installed a large number of solar panels and wind turbines, fossil fuels still power the vast majority of its industries and transportation modes. Its electrical grid is particularly carbon-intensive—half of the world’s coal is burned inside China’s borders.

China counters that it’s within its rights to burn such vast quantities of fossil fuels since developed countries did the same over the past few centuries. The country is not entirely wrong: developed economies have produced the most cumulative emissions since 1750, around 1,000 gigatons. But China’s rise means it has swiftly become the largest contributor in recent years. The country emitted 52 megatons of carbon dioxide and equivalent greenhouse gases in 2019, according to a report by the Rhodium Group, and has emitted a cumulative 200 gigatons since 1750.

China’s argument has merit, but it also elides the fact that renewable sources like wind and solar were not available on the same scale as fossil fuels for much of the last 300 years. Half the OECD’s cumulative carbon emissions were produced before 1980, when wind and solar were expensive compared with fossil fuels. Today, though, those numbers have largely flipped. In the US, it’s now more expensive to run 80 percent of the nation’s coal power plants than it would be to shut them down and install new wind farms and solar plants.

Wind and solar prices are dropping in China, too. They’re expected to undercut new coal plants this year, according to consultancy Wood Mackenzie, which could make the 247 GW of coal power the country has under development look not just archaic but unnecessarily expensive. It could imperil China’s investments elsewhere. The country is the world’s largest financier and developer of coal plants abroad, with over 100 GW funded by Chinese companies.

China’s pledge for the Paris Agreement states that it will hit its carbon pollution peak in 2030 and reach net zero 30 years later. Those targets appear achievable, according to the Climate Action Tracker, an independent analyst, but the group says the goals are “highly insufficient” to reach the 2˚ C warming target set forth in the agreement.

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Researchers peek at proprietary data of US particle physics lab Fermilab

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Multiple unsecured entry points allowed researchers to access data belonging to Fermilab, a national particle physics and accelerator lab supported by the Department of Energy.

This week, security researchers Robert Willis, John Jackson, and Jackson Henry of the Sakura Samurai ethical hacking group have shared details on how they were able to get their hands on sensitive systems and data hosted at Fermilab.

After enumerating and peeking inside the fnal.gov subdomains using commonly available tools like amass, dirsearch, and nmap, the researchers discovered open directories, open ports, and unsecured services that attackers could have used to extract proprietary data.

A naked FTP server

Among the exposed assets was Fermilab’s FTP server, ftp.fnal.gov, containing heaps of data that allowed “anonymous” login without a password.
Enlarge / Among the exposed assets was Fermilab’s FTP server, ftp.fnal.gov, containing heaps of data that allowed “anonymous” login without a password.

Sakura Samurai

The server exposed configuration data for one of the Fermilab’s experiments called “NoVa,” which concerns studying the purpose of neutrinos in the evolution of cosmos.

The researchers discovered that one of the tar.gz archives hosted on the FTP server contained Apache Tomcat server credentials in plaintext:

Sakura Samurai

The researchers verified that the credentials were valid at the time of their discovery but ceased experimenting further so as to keep their research efforts ethical.

Thousands of documents and project tickets exposed

Likewise, in another set of unrestricted subdomains, the researchers found over 4,500 tickets used for tracking Fermilab’s internal projects. Many of these contained sensitive attachments and private communications.

Sakura Samurai

And yet another server ran a web application that listed the full names of users registered under different workgroups, along with their email addresses, user IDs, and other department-specific information.

A fourth server identified by the researchers exposed 5,795 documents and 53,685 file entries without requiring any authentication.

“I was surprised that a government entity, which has over a half a billion-dollar budget, could have so many security holes,” Willis, the Sakura Samurai researcher, told Ars in an interview. “I don’t believe they have even basic computer security after this engagement, which is enough to keep you up at night. I wouldn’t want a malicious actor to steal important data, which has cost the US hundreds of millions to produce, while also leaving the potential to manipulate equipment that could have a severe impact.”

Serious flaws resolved swiftly

The research activities performed by Willis, Jackson, and Henry were consistent with Ferminab’s vulnerability disclosure policy. Fermilab was quick to respond to the researchers’ initial report and squashed the bugs swiftly.

“Fermilab managed the interactions regarding the findings in a quick and positive way. They didn’t question the authenticity of our vulnerabilities and immediately dug in and patched—acknowledging the sense of urgency,” Jackson said. “The first thought that we had was about the possibility of a nation-state threat actor acquiring this data, especially because it’s no surprise that Fermilab works on groundbreaking scientific research.”

“We knew we had to act quickly and inform Fermilab. Nonetheless, still crazy to see the ease in which we acquired sensitive data, which included credentials to scientific equipment and servers,” he added.

This discovery of a US government-funded national lab having serious security flaws that are trivial to exploit comes as multiple US federal agencies continue to be targets of cyberattacks.

Just last week, Ars reported that threat actors had potentially hacked at least five US government agencies via Pulse Connect Secure VPN vulnerabilities. Separately, the FBI is investigating an extortion attempt by ransomware operators against the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, DC.

Fermilab declined to comment.

The researchers’ detailed findings related to the research are provided in their blog post.

Ax Sharma is a security researcher, engineer, and reporter who publishes in leading publications. His expertise lies in malware research, reverse engineering, and application security. He’s an active community member of the OWASP Foundation and the British Association of Journalists.

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Earliest known burial in Africa is that of a small, fragile child

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Mohammad Javad Shoaee

78,000 years ago, a child died two to three years into their life in the coastal highlands of what is now Kenya. Archaeological evidence suggests that survivors wrapped the small body tightly before laying it, curled on one side with the tiny head resting on a pillow, in a carefully dug pit in Panga ya Saidi cave. The child’s grave is now the oldest known example of people in Middle Stone Age Africa burying their dead.

A child called Mtoto

A thesaurus is a handy thing, but sometimes seemingly tiny differences in meaning can actually have a huge impact. Consider the implications of “disposing of bodies” versus “laying the dead to rest.” One of the things archaeologists are most interested in about the lives of the earliest members of our species—and our close relatives, now extinct—is when and how we first began to make that distinction.

When did early humans stop viewing a dead human body as something smelly to be removed from the living area before it attracted scavengers and sickness? When did they decide it needed to be treated carefully to ensure safe passage to an afterlife—or perhaps give peace for the living?

Short of time travel, the best way archaeologists can figure out when people started believing in concepts like a spirit or an afterlife is to figure out when people started burying their dead with, as paleoanthropologist Louise Humphrey of the National History Museum of London puts it, “an investment of time and resources beyond what is strictly required to dispose or make use of the corpse.” That could mean placing the body carefully in a particular position, wrapping it in a shroud or supporting it with pillows, or even burying objects in the grave.

Mtoto is what archaeologists named the 78,000-year-old toddler’s skeleton recently unearthed at Panga ya Saidi Cave in Kenya (Mtoto is a Swahili word for child). And Mtoto clearly received that kind of tender attention from their community.

The remains were located by paleoanthropologist Maria Martinon-Torres, of Spain’s National Research Center on Human Evolution, and her colleagues. They found the small grave pit dug into several older layers of sediment in the cave, with the pit filled in with a mix of sediment scooped up from the cave floor. Inside, a few “fragile and degraded” pieces of bone were all that remained: the base of the skull and part of the lower jaw, part of the spine and ribs, and some fragments of arm and leg bones. The remains were so fragile that archaeologists had to wrap the whole burial pit in plaster and bring the plaster-wrapped chunk of sediment back to a lab at the Museum of Kenya to excavate under better conditions.

Mtoto lay on the right side, with the legs curled up to the chest. The child’s right collarbone and upper ribs had been turned and pressed inward, exactly the way archaeologists would expect if someone had wrapped the child’s upper body tightly, perhaps with a cloth or hide, before burial. Sometime after burial, the head and neck had collapsed downward, as if a support—maybe a cushion or a wooden block—had decayed away underneath it. And a few large shells mixed in with the grave soil may (or may not) have been funeral offerings.

When Martinon-Torres and her colleagues examined a few of Mtoto’s teeth—a mixture of deciduous, or baby, teeth and adult molars that hadn’t emerged from the jaw yet—they saw that the child was clearly a member of our species, Homo sapiens. And optically stimulated luminescence, a dating technique that measures when rock or sediment last saw sunlight, placed the grave soil at around 78,000 years old. That makes Mtoto the oldest human with a formal, deliberate grave in Africa.

Life and death in the Middle Stone Age

What does that actually tell us about the lives and beliefs of ancient people or the gradual emergence of the first human cultures? The Middle Stone Age was a period when what archaeologists think of as “modern human behavior” started taking the world by storm. It had been going on for about 200,000 years when Mtoto died, and it lasted for at least another 50,000 years. Modern human behavior, in this case, includes things like using symbols, creating art, and making jewelry, and people at several places in Africa were definitely doing those things long before Mtoto’s people grieved their loss.

In Europe and the Levant, archaeologists have found evidence that people—both Homo sapiens and Neanderthals—buried their dead in or near their living spaces as early as 120,000 years ago. That’s also what seems to have happened with Mtoto at Panga ya Saidi.

“Burial in residential localities, such as at Panga ya Saidi, has been suggested to reflect mourning behavior and the intention to keep the dead nearby,” wrote Martinon-Torres and her colleagues. Of course, that’s an informed guess; archaeologists can’t really know what ancient people were thinking. But it fits what we know about similar choices in several modern cultures.

But all of that—burials dating to 120,000 years ago in the Levant, combined with evidence of symbolic thinking and art much earlier than that in Africa—makes it seem a little surprising that the earliest actual burial in Africa is just 78,000 years old. After all, burial seems like such a key piece of evidence about ancient spiritual beliefs, and people clearly had laid the cultural groundwork for those beliefs long before Mtoto’s time.

The key may be that “laying the dead to rest” doesn’t always mean “digging a hole and filling it up with dirt afterward.” A quick look at modern cultures around the world reveals lots of different ideas about the proper way to lay the dead to rest, and each culture has its own reasons for what it does. Many of those funeral practices wouldn’t be likely to leave archaeological traces tens of thousands of years in the future.

Burial just happens to be one of the practices that’s most likely to leave remains mostly intact for archaeologists to find, and it’s also relatively easy to recognize a deliberate burial. But in tropical settings like coastal Kenya, buried bones don’t always last millennia; even what was left of Mtoto’s skeleton was in a “fragile and degraded” state, after all. It’s reasonably likely that for every burial like Mtoto’s, there are others that have long since vanished without a trace—lives, deaths, and afterlives forever beyond knowing.

“The absence of a behavior does not necessarily imply that the capacity for such behavior was lacking,” wrote Martinon-Torres and her colleagues.

There’s more than one way to hide a body

People in Africa evidently laid their dead to rest very deliberately, although in other ways, perhaps for hundreds of thousands of years before Mtoto’s burial—and possibly before Homo sapiens had technically come into being. Paleoanthropologists Lee Berger and John Hawks contend that Homo naledi carried their dead through the narrow tunnels into the darkness of Rising Star Cave in South Africa around 300,000 years ago. Archaeologists are still debating that claim, but if Berger and Hawks are correct, Rising Star is an example of a funerary cache—a place where people put their dead without necessarily digging a hole to bury them in. Sima de los Huesos cave in Spain may have served a similar purpose for other hominins there around 400,000 years ago.

The other two earliest human “burials” in Africa are a 68,000-year-old grave in Taramsa, Egypt, and a 58-to 74,000-year-old one at Border Cave, South Africa. But they’re also technically funerary caches rather than burials, according to the researchers. Regardless of the technicalities, at both sites, people clearly took time and effort to lay the remains to rest with care; the infant at Border Cave was even interred with a perforated shell, painted with ocher.

And that’s the really unsettling thing all three of Africa’s oldest human graves have in common: they all belong to young children. It suggests, wrote Martinon-Torres and her colleagues, that “Homo sapiens populations were intentionally preserving the corpses of young members of their groups between about 78,000 and 69,000 years ago.” In fact, if we look at every known Homo sapiens or Neanderthal burial from 120,000 years ago to the end of the Pleistocene, slightly more than half belong to children.

Children’s bones are smaller, more fragile, and less likely to survive millennia in the ground or the recesses of a cave than those of adults. That may tell us something about ancient demographics; it could point to a higher percentage of children in the population, a higher child mortality rate, or likely a combination of both.

Nature, 2021 DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-03457-8  (About DOIs).

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