A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket successfully launched a pair of U.S.-German science satellites and five commercial communications satellites into orbit from California on Tuesday.
The rocket roared off from a pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base at 12:47 p.m. and arced over the Pacific Ocean west of Los Angeles as it headed toward the South Pole.
Its upper stage deployed the research satellites minutes after reaching orbit. The satellites for Iridium Communications' next-generation fleet were released in a process completed a little more than an hour after liftoff.
The Falcon 9′s first stage was previously used for a launch from Florida in January. SpaceX did not attempt to recover it this time.
The science payload from NASA and the German Centre for Geosciences included two identical satellites for the agencies' Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment-Follow On mission, continuing the work of two predecessor spacecraft that spanned 15 years ending last October.
Called GRACE-FO, for short, the mission will detect the movement of Earth's water masses and changes in mass within the planet by measuring variations in gravity through tiny fluctuations in the distance between the two satellites as they orbit 137 miles (220 kilometers) apart -- roughly the distance between Los Angeles and San Diego -- at an altitude of about 304 miles (490 kilometers).
The constant mapping of the gravity field reveals changes in Earth's ice sheets, aquifers, lakes and sea level.
"GRACE was really a revolutionary mission for us understanding the water cycle and how the climate behaves and the trends which are taking place over the last 10 or 15 years," Frank Webb, GRACE-FO project scientist, told a pre-launch press conference.
The technique, for example, has shown reductions of mass in Greenland and Antarctica due to enormous losses of water into the oceans each year. GRACE also showed how central California was affected by recent years of drought as water was pumped from a major aquifer, Webb said.
"During that drought California lost weight -- water weight -- as farmers and agriculture pumped out more water to meet the needs that weren't being met by the snowpack in the mountains with the rainfall," Webb said.
There was some recovery in the amount of mass -- water in the ground -- due to heavy rains just as the original GRACE mission was ending, but despite the gap in measurements, the new mission will allow scientists to see how much water stayed in the ground and how much ran off into the ocean, Webb said.
NASA contributed $430 million to the new mission and the German contribution was 77 million euros, officials said.
The commercial side of the launch was the sixth in Iridium Communications' $3 billion campaign to replace its entire fleet of globe-circling satellites for mobile communications.
The McLean, Virginia, company now has 55 Iridium NEXT satellites in orbit. Two more launches will increase the number to 75, including 66 operational satellites and nine spares. An additional six spares will remain on the ground until needed.
The Iridium satellites also provide platforms for a space-based air traffic management system from joint venture Aerion LLC. The United Kingdom's public-private air traffic management partnership known as NATS announced last week that it has invested $69 million in Aerion, worth about 10 percent equity.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's meetings on school violence and safety promised to wade into the thorny issue of gun control with the next round, even though the Republican has been a staunch supporter of gun rights and worked to expand them in the state in recent years.
Abbott called for a series of high-level policy meetings after a high school near Houston became the latest to have a mass shooting. Eight students and two teachers were killed last week at Santa Fe High School and more than a dozen wounded.
Wednesday's meeting will include representatives of gun control group Texas Gun Sense and the Texas State Rifle Association, which is affiliated with the National Rifle Association. A Texas Gun Sense official has said the group will press for tougher background checks for gun sales, and "red flag" laws that keep guns away from people deemed a danger to themselves or others.
But the gun-related groups are just two of the two dozen invited to attend. Like Tuesday's meeting, Wednesday looks to have a heavy discussion on tracking student mental health.
Abbott says he wants to keep guns away from people "who would try to murder our children." But critics say Texas isn't serious about changing its gun-loving culture.
The governor has long championed expanding gun rights in Texas, signing bills in recent years that reduced the cost and training to get a handgun license, and allowing the state's 1.2 million license holders to openly carry their weapons in public. Texas also allows rifles to be openly carried in public. Those bills were strongly supported by the NRA affiliate attending Wednesday's meeting.
Police have said the 17-year-old suspect in the Santa Fe High School shooting used his father's shotgun and .38-caliber handgun.
The reaction in Texas to the shooting stands in sharp contrast to the response after the Feb. 14 rampage at a high school in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people. Three weeks after that mass shooting, Florida politicians defied the NRA and passed a gun-control package after a lobbying campaign led by student survivors of the attack.
The stories seem as tall as the lake is deep. For hundreds of years, visitors to Scotland's Loch Ness have described seeing a monster that some believe lurks in the depths.
But now the legend of "Nessie" may have no place left to hide. A New Zealand scientist is leading an international team to the lake next month, where they will take samples of the murky waters and conduct DNA tests to determine what species live there.
University of Otago professor Neil Gemmell says he's no believer in Nessie, but he wants to take people on an adventure and communicate some science along the way. Besides, he says, his kids think it's one of the coolest things he's ever done.
One of the more far-fetched theories is that Nessie is a long-necked plesiosaur that somehow survived the period when dinosaurs became extinct. Another theory is that the monster is actually a sturgeon or giant catfish. Many believe the sightings are hoaxes or can be explained by floating logs or strong winds.
Gemmell said that when creatures move about in water, they leave behind tiny fragments of DNA. It comes from their skin, feathers, scales and urine.
He said his team will take 300 samples of water from different points around the lake and at different depths. They will filter the organic material and extract the DNA, he said, sequencing it by using technology originally created for the human genome project.
He said the DNA results will then be compared against a database of known species. He said they should have answers by the end of the year.
"I'm going into this thinking it's unlikely there is a monster, but I want to test that hypothesis," Gemmell said. "What we'll get is a really nice survey of the biodiversity of the Loch Ness."
He said the real discoveries may come in determining things like the prevalence of invasive species.
Gemmell, 51, said he first visited Loch Ness in his late 20s while on vacation. Like thousands of tourists before him, he gazed out over the lake trying to catch sight of a monster. He said he first came up with the idea of testing DNA from the lake a couple of years ago and it resonated with many, including his children, aged 7 and 10.
Graeme Matheson, chief of the Scottish Society of New Zealand, said he, too, has visited Loch Ness and gazed out over the water, and that he wishes Gemmell all the best.
"I hope he and his cohorts find something, although I think they'll be battling," Matheson said. "Still, it's a good way to get a trip to Scotland."
Gemmell said that even if they don't find any monster DNA, it won't deter some Nessie believers. He said they've already been offering him theories, like that Nessie might be on vacation after swimming to the sea via hidden underwater caves, or that the creature might be extraterrestrial and not leave behind any DNA.
"In our lives we want there still to be mysteries, some of which we will ultimately solve," Gemmell said. "That's part of the spirit of discovery. And sometimes, what you find may not be what you were expecting."
The body of a 17-year-old Pakistani exchange student killed in a mass shooting at a high school in Texas arrived before dawn Wednesday in the port city of Karachi, where her family lived and where she was being buried.
Sabika Sheikh was among 10 students and staff slain Friday at Santa Fe High School. The alleged shooter is 17-year-old Dimitrios Pagourtzis, who is being held on capital murder charges.
Sabika had planned to return home in a few weeks for Eid al-Fitr, the three-day holiday marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
She was her family's oldest child and began classes at Santa Fe High School last August. She had hoped to one day join Pakistan's foreign service.
Her tearful father was there to receive the body at Karachi airport. Abdul Aziz Sheikh has said he hopes her death leads to stricter gun control in the United States.
Later, thousands of mourners, including the provincial governor, attended her funeral at city's mosque.
"Before her death, she was just my daughter, but now she is the daughter of Pakistan, and it is only because of the love of people, who mourned her killing," her father said.
The shooting reignited the debate over gun control in the United States. Pakistan requires gun owners to be licensed, but the rules are poorly enforced, particularly in the tribal regions along the border with Afghanistan. Heavily armed militant groups have carried out scores of attacks in recent years.
Homeowners around Nani Falcone Park on the Northwest Side of San Antonio say they have been hearing shots in the middle of the night coming from the park for several months.
Ken Cleghorn said he found shell casings and bullet holes in the park signs that have since been replaced.
"Neighbors have complained, we've had five, six incidents in the last year of someone in the back of the park shooting a firearm," he said.
Community members have taken to social media to report their complaints, because police have said there's no record of a problem.
San Antonio Fear Free Environment Officer Cynthia Celaya said people who hear or witness a crime in progress must report it directly to police if they want a solution.
"To see people call when the incidents are happening, that's our documentation. That's how we know there's a problem. If we go back and we can't see there's a problem, we don't know there's a problem," she said.
Cleghorn helped put together a community meeting with Councilwoman Ana Sandoval and the San Antonio Police Department to see what could be done.
Many of those in attendance will be taking a Citizens on Patrol Class in July to learn how to better report crime.
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