Posted Mar. 31, 2017 at 5:36 a.m.

Tech wrap: SpaceX recycled rocket launch (+ video); spuds for Mars; astronauts lose heat shield; Uber's diversity report

Published: 2017-03-31 05:36:05
Updated: 2017-03-31 05:36:05

Bulldog Bulldog

In today's Bulldog roundup of science and technology news:

  • SpaceX launches its first recycled rocket in historic leap
  • First on the Martian menu: spuds
  • Spacewalkers lose piece of shielding, use patch instead
  • Uber diversity: low on women, like other tech companies

The details:

  • SpaceX launches its first recycled rocket in historic leap

SpaceX successfully launched and then retrieved its first recycled rocket Thursday, a historic feat and the biggest leap yet in its bid to drive down costs and speed up flights.

It was the first time SpaceX founder Elon Musk tried to fly a booster that soared before on an orbital mission. He was at a loss for words after the Falcon 9 core landed on the bull's-eye of the ocean platform following liftoff with a broadcasting satellite, achieving what some had once told him was impossible.

[VIDEO: Watch the launch at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xsZSXav4wI8 ]

"This is a huge day. My mind's blown, frankly," Musk said. He called it an "incredible milestone in the history of space" and predicted, "this is going to be a huge revolution in spaceflight."

Musk foresees dozens if not hundreds of repeat flights for a booster and rocket turnarounds of as little as 24 hours, perhaps by next year. Land, refuel and then back up again, with everything leading to one day putting humanity "out there among the stars."

This particular first stage landed on an ocean platform almost exactly a year ago after a space station launch for NASA. SpaceX refurbished and tested the 15-foot booster, still sporting its nine original engines. It nailed another vertical landing at sea Thursday once it was finished boosting the satellite for the SES company of Luxembourg. SpaceX employees jammed outside Mission Control at the Hawthorne, California, company headquarters cheered loudly every step of the way — and again when the satellite reached its proper orbit.

  • First on the Martian menu: spuds

If human beings finally reach Mars, they may find themselves depending on the humble, if hardy potato.

Scientists in Peru have used a simulator that mimics the harsh conditions on the Red Planet to successfully grow a small potato plant.

It's an experiment straight out of the 2015 Hollywood movie "The Martian" that scientists say may also benefit arid regions already feeling the impact of climate change.

"It's not only about bringing potatoes to Mars, but also finding a potato that can resist non-cultivable areas on Earth," said Julio Valdivia, an astrobiologist with Peru's University of Engineering and Technology who is working with NASA on the project.

The experiment began in 2016 — a year after the Hollywood film "The Martian" showed a stranded astronaut surviving by figuring out how to grow potatoes on the red planet.

Peruvian scientists built a simulator akin to a Mars-in-a-box: Frosty below-zero temperatures, high carbon monoxide concentrations, the air pressure found at 6,000 meters (19,700 feet) altitude and a system of lights imitating the Martian day and night.

Though thousands of miles away from colleagues at NASA's Ames Research Center in California providing designs and advice, Peru was in many ways an apt location to experiment with growing potatoes on Mars.

  • Spacewalkers lose piece of shielding, use patch instead

Spacewalking astronauts carried out an impromptu patch job outside the International Space Station on Thursday, after losing a vital piece of cloth shielding when it floated away.

As the drama unfolded, Peggy Whitson set a record for the most spacewalks by a woman — eight — and the most accumulated time spent spacewalking — just over 53 hours.

The bundled-up shield somehow came loose as Whitson and Shane Kimbrough worked to install micrometeorite protection over a spot left exposed when a new docking port was relocated. Mission Control monitored the shield as it drifted away and, a couple hours later, determined it posed no risk to the 250-mile-high outpost. It was visible in the distance as a white dot.

As Whitson and Kimbrough installed the three remaining shields, Mission Control quickly came up with a TV MacGyver-like plan for a patch. The astronauts filled the gap using the cover that they had just removed from the relocated docking port.

The cover is made of the same material as the shielding, according to Mission Control, and just as capable of protecting against potential strikes by bits of space debris and providing thermal control. The entire space station is protected, in some fashion, against possible debris strikes.

It was not immediately clear how the shield got away, said NASA spokesman Dan Huot. It's supposed to be tethered to the station or spacewalker at all times. Frustration was evident in Whitson's voice as she told Mission Control about the mishap. She was delighted, though, by how well everything turned out.

  • Uber diversity: low on women, like other tech companies

Uber's first report on employee diversity shows low numbers for women, especially in technical positions. In that regard, the company is similar to other Silicon Valley giants such as Google, Facebook and Apple.

But Uber's report comes as pressure mounts on the company in light of sexual harassment claims by a former employee, the antics of its embattled CEO Travis Kalanick and ongoing criticisms of a boorish "brogrammer" culture. Management defections include that of the company's president, Jeff Jones, after just six months on the job.

Thirty-six percent of the company's worldwide employees are women, according to the report , which does not count drivers as employees. Google, in comparison, has 31 percent women and Apple, 32 percent. When it comes to technology jobs such as engineering, only 15 percent are women at Uber. At Google, it's 19 percent and Apple, 23 percent.

As with other tech companies , Uber is making some progress in diversifying its work force. The new hires at the company show a higher percentage of women — 41 percent — as well as more underrepresented minorities.

In the U.S., the largest ethnic group at Uber is white and the second largest is Asian. The report also shows that nearly 9 percent of the company's U.S. employees are black and almost 6 percent are Hispanic. At Google, a much larger company, the numbers are 2 percent and 3 percent, respectively.

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