Category Archives: Space flight

NASA plans to retire the ISS by crashing it into the ocean

NASA plans to keep operating the station until 2030, after which the ISS would be crashed into a remote part of the Pacific Ocean. Still, its next and (probably) last decade will be very important.  

Image credit: Flickr / NASA.

The space laboratory was launched in 2002 and has orbited 227 nautical miles above Earth, welcoming 200 astronauts from all around the world. From 2031 onwards, the ISS will be replaced by commercially operated space platforms – what NASA described as a venue for collaboration and scientific research with the private sector.

“The private sector is technically and financially capable of developing and operating commercial low-Earth orbit destinations, with NASA’s assistance. We look forward to sharing our lessons learned and operations experience with the private sector to help them,” Phil McAlister, director of commercial space at NASA, said in a press statement.

The news comes as part of NASA’s ISS Transition Report, which was delivered to Congress. The space agency said it plans for the ISS to fall in an area known as the South Pacific Oceanic Uninhabited Area, also known as Point Nemo – the farthest point in the ocean from land and a usual watery grave for many other spacecraft.

Point Nemo

The area is located 2,000 miles north of Antarctica and 3,000 miles of New Zealand. About 300 chunks of space debris have been sunk there since 1971, mostly of US or Russian origin, according to a study from 2019. NASA said the space station would carry out thrusting maneuvers that would ensure “safe atmospheric entry” to Earth.

The upcoming decade

While decommissioning it in less than ten years, NASA still has ambitious plans for the ISS. The most important goal is carrying out research to benefit humanity, while also leading international cooperation and helping the US private spaceflight expand and enabling deep-space exploration. The ISS would be used as an “analog for a Mars transit mission,” NASA said.

“The ISS is entering its third and most productive decade as a groundbreaking scientific platform in microgravity,” Robyn Gatens, director of the ISS, said in a statement. “This third decade is one of results, building on our successful global partnerships to verify exploration and human research technologies to support deep space exploration.”

NASA has been working on the transition for the ISS for a while now. The first phase involved agreements with Blue Origin, Nanoracks, and Northrop Grumman, three companies that want to build private space stations in Earth orbit. NASA also holds a deal with Axiom Space, which will launch modules to the ISS that will form a free flyer.

The first phase is expected to last through 2025. The second phase will be similar to the approach taken by NASA with private crew transportation services to and from the ISS, the report reads. Back in 2014, the agency awarded contracts to Boeing and SpaceX, which launched multiple missions with its Falcon 9 rocket since May 2020.

The ISS has been home to many scientific studies over the years. In 2016, astronaut Kate Rubins sequenced DNA in space for the first time. The first space-grown salad with lettuces and greens was eaten by astronauts in 2015. An item was 3D-printed on the space station for the first time in 2014. And there’s more to come soon. 

China builds the world’s first artificial moon

Chinese scientists have built an ‘artificial moon’ possessing lunar-like gravity to help them prepare astronauts for future exploration missions. The structure uses a powerful magnetic field to produce the celestial landscape — an approach inspired by experiments once used to levitate a frog.

The key component is a vacuum chamber that houses an artificial moon measuring 60cm (about 2 feet) in diameter. Image credits: Li Ruilin, China University of Mining and Technology

Preparing to colonize the moon

Simulating low gravity on Earth is a complex process. Current techniques require either flying a plane that enters a free fall and then climbs back up again or jumping off a drop tower — but these both last mere minutes. With the new invention, the magnetic field can be switched on or off as needed, producing no gravity, lunar gravity, or earth-level gravity instantly. It is also strong enough to magnetize and levitate other objects against the gravitational force for as long as needed.

All of this means that scientists will be able to test equipment in the extreme simulated environment to prevent costly mistakes. This is beneficial as problems can arise in missions due to the lack of atmosphere on the moon, meaning the temperature changes quickly and dramatically. And in low gravity, rocks and dust may behave in a completely different way than on Earth – as they are more loosely bound to each other.

Engineers from the China University of Mining and Technology built the facility (which they plan to launch in the coming months) in the eastern city of Xuzhou, in Jiangsu province. A vacuum chamber, containing no air, houses a mini “moon” measuring 60cm (about 2 feet) in diameter at its heart. The artificial landscape consists of rocks and dust as light as those found on the lunar surface-where gravity is about one-sixth as powerful as that on Earth–due to powerful magnets that levitate the room above the ground. They plan to test a host of technologies whose primary purpose is to perform tasks and build structures on the surface of the Earth’s only natural satellite.

Group leader Li Ruilin from the China University of Mining and Technology says it’s the “first of its kind in the world” that will take lunar simulation to a whole new level. Adding that their artificial moon makes gravity “disappear.” For “as long as you want,” he adds.

In an interview with the South China Morning Post, the team explains that some experiments take just a few seconds, such as an impact test. Meanwhile, others like creep testing (where the amount a material deforms under stress is measured) can take several days.

Li said astronauts could also use it to determine whether 3D printing structures on the surface is possible rather than deploying heavy equipment they can’t use on the mission. He continues:

“Some experiments conducted in the simulated environment can also give us some important clues, such as where to look for water trapped under the surface.”

It could also help assess whether a permanent human settlement could be built there, including issues like how well the surface traps heat.

From amphibians to artificial celestial bodies

The group explains that the idea originates from Russian-born UK-based physicist Andre Geim’s experiments which saw him levitate a frog with a magnet – that gained him a satirical Ig Nobel Prize in 2000, which celebrates science that “first makes people laugh, and then think.” Geim also won a Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010 for his work on graphene.

The foundation of his work involves a phenomenon known as diamagnetic levitation, where scientists apply an external magnetic force to any material. In turn, this field induces a weak repulsion between the object and the magnets, causing it to drift away from them and ‘float’ in midair.

For this to happen, the magnetic force must be strong enough to ‘magnetize’ the atoms that make up a material. Essentially, the atoms inside the object (or frog) acts as tiny magnets, subject to the magnetic force existing around them. If the magnet is powerful enough, it will change the direction of the electrons revolving around the atom’s nuclei, allowing them to produce a magnetic field to repulse the magnets.

Diamagnetic levitation of a tiny horse. Image credits: Pieter Kuiper / Wiki Commons.

Different substances on Earth have varying degrees of diamagnetism which affect their ability to levitate under a magnetic field; adding a vacuum, as was done here, allowed the researchers to produce an isolated chamber that mimics a microgravity environment.

However, simulating the harsh lunar environment was no easy task as the magnetic force needed is so strong it could tear apart components such as superconducting wires. It also affected the many metallic parts necessary for the vacuum chamber, which do not function properly near a powerful magnet.

To counteract this, the team came up with several technical innovations, including simulating lunar dust that could float a lot easier in the magnetic field and replacing steel with aluminum in many of the critical components.

The new space race

This breakthrough signals China’s intent to take first place in the international space race. That includes its lunar exploration program (named after the mythical moon goddess Chang’e), whose recent missions include landing a rover on the dark side of the moon in 2019 and 2020 that saw rock samples brought back to Earth for the first time in over 40 years.

Next, China wants to establish a joint lunar research base with Russia, which could start as soon as 2027.  

The new simulator will help China better prepare for its future space missions. For instance, the Chang’e 5 mission returned with far fewer rock samples than planned in December 2020, as the drill hit unexpected resistance. Previous missions led by Russia and the US have also had related issues.

Experiments conducted on a smaller prototype simulator suggested drill resistance on the moon could be much higher than predicted by purely computational models, according to a study by the Xuzhou team published in the Journal of China University of Mining and Technology. The authors hope this paper will enable space engineers across the globe (and in the future, the moon) to alter their equipment before launching multi-billion dollar missions.

The team is adamant that the facility will be open to researchers worldwide, and that includes Geim. “We definitely welcome Professor Geim to come and share more great ideas with us,” Li said.

China wants Elon Musk to keep his satellites away from its space station

SpaceX’s Starlin satellites are once again at the forefront of controversy. China claims that the satellites have twice approached its Tiangong space station, prompting the Chinese shuttle to perform avoidance maneuvers. China has complained to the UN, while SpaceX claims there was no danger as its satellites are prepared to avoid collisions.

“For safety reasons, the China Space Station implemented preventive collision avoidance control,” Beijing said in the document published on the agency’s website. “The manoeuvre strategy was unknown and orbital errors were hard to assess,” Beijing said of the satellite involved in one of the incidents

Credits: Starlink.

The space race is heating not just technologically, but also diplomatically. “The US… ignores its obligations under international treaties, posing a serious threat to the lives and safety of astronauts,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a routine briefing in late 2021.

“The United States should take immediate measures to prevent the recurrence of such incidents, and adopt a responsible attitude to safeguard the lives of astronauts in orbit and the safe and stable operation of space facilities,” the foreign ministry spokesman added.

China claims that on two separate occasions (one in July, and one in October), Starlink’s satellites passed too close to its station. The Starlink network has been expanding rapidly, reaching 1,700 satellites in 2021, and set to reach over 4,000 by 2024. This Starlink constellation promises to bring low-cost internet for millions, but it’s also been criticized — not just for its performance, but also because of the light pollution it is causing, making it more and more difficult for astronomers to make observations.

It’s not the first time the problem of space clutter has come up. As more and more objects are sent into orbit, the margin for error is becoming thinner and thinner — and sometimes, accidents do happen. In November 2021, a Russian junk satellite knocked out Chinese satellite. Starlink is actively contributing to the clutter around our planet, and in this regard, it’s not hard to understand China’s concerns.

The Starlink website states that all satellites feature autonomous collision avoidance technology, which enables them to duck out of the way if they detect a potential crash with an oncoming piece of space junk, a space station or any other space-faring object. However, without international coordination, it’s nerve-wracking to have to rely on the satellites’ avoidance system.

However, China stepped up the rhetoric, calling out the US on what it sees as a “double standard”.

“Bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space … whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities,” China said in the note.

“It is a typical double standard for the United States to claim the so-called concept of responsible conduct in outer space,” Zhao said, adding that the US was ignoring its obligations under international treaties on outer space and posing a threat to astronauts’ lives.

According to the BBC, this triggered a series of virulent social media responses, with some classic satellites as “just a pile of space junk” or “American space warfare weapons”.

Addressing reporters who asked about this, US State Department spokesman Ned Price declined to comment on the Chinese accusations.

“We have encouraged all countries with space programs to be responsible actors, to avoid acts that may put in danger astronauts, cosmonauts, others who are orbiting the Earth or who have the potential to,” Price said.

China itself is not innocent in the space problems discussion. In 2007, China carried out anti-satellite missile test that created substantial debris, forcing the International Space Station to maneuver its way out of debris several times. Earlier this year, China’s space activity also came under fire after its space station crashed uncontrolled onto Earth, in the Indian Ocean.

Problems like this are a sign that the near-Earth space is becoming much tenser and potentially, a new space race is heating up.

Earth might develop ‘junk’ rings — but engineers are working to prevent that

Earth may one day have its own ring system — one made from space junk.

Rendering of man-made objects in Earth’s orbit. Image via ESA.

Whenever there are humans, pollution seems to follow. Our planet’s orbit doesn’t seem to be an exception. However, not all is lost yet! Research at the University of Utah is exploring novel ideas for how to clear the build-up before it can cause more trouble for space-faring vessels and their crews.

Their idea involves using a magnetic tractor beam to capture and remove debris orbiting the Earth.

Don’t put a ring on it

“Earth is on course to have its own rings,” says University of Utah professor of mechanical engineering Jake Abbott, corresponding author of the study, for the Salt Lake Tribune. “They’ll just be made of space junk.”

The Earth is on its way to becoming the fifth planet in the Solar System to gain planetary rings. However, unlike the rock-and-ice rings of Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, and Uranus, Earth’s rings will be made of scrap and junk. It would also be wholly human-made.

According to NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office, there are an estimated 23,000 pieces of orbital debris larger than a softball; these are joined by a few hundreds of millions of pieces smaller than a softball. These travel at speeds of 17,500 mph (28,160 km/h), and pose an immense threat to satellites, space travel, and hamper research efforts.

Because of their high speeds, removing these pieces of space debris is very risky — and hard to pull off.

“Most of that junk is spinning,” Abbott added. “Reach out to stop it with a robotic arm, you’ll break the arm and create more debris.”

A small part of this debris — around 200 to 400 — burns out in the Earth’s atmosphere every year. However, fresh pieces make their way into orbit as the planet’s orbit is increasingly used and traversed. Plans by private entities to launch thousands of new satellites in the coming years will only make the problem worse.

Abbott’s team proposes using a magnetic device to capture or pull debris down into low orbit, where they will eventually burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere.

“We’ve basically created the world’s first tractor beam,” he told Salt Lake Tribune. “It’s just a question of engineering now. Building and launching it.”

The paper “Dexterous magnetic manipulation of conductive non-magnetic objects” has been published in the journal Nature.

Russia just destroyed a satellite with a space missile strike — and it’s a problem

While we were all focused on the climate change summit in the UK, another environmental problem was unfolding in space. Russia sent a missile to destroy a Soviet satellite as part of a test. In the process, it created a lot of space junk and debris that can cause problems for the International Space Station (ISS) or other satellites.

It’s not the first time this happens and it won’t likely be the last one.

Image credit: Flickr / Stevep

Much of the scientific community and the United States government condemned the anti-satellite test, describing it as reckless and dangerous. Meanwhile, Russia said the thousands of pieces of debris don’t represent a threat to space activity, arguing the debris cloud moved away from the ISS orbit, which is about 400 kilometers above Earth. 

The test created about 1,500 pieces of debris, according to the US Space Command. Still, it’s not the first time a country does this sort of thing and blasts its own satellite. Back in 2007, China also tested its missile system against weather satellites in orbit – creating more than 3,000 pieces of debris the size of a golf ball and more than 100,000 much smaller pieces.

As a legacy of over 60 years of space activity, there’s now a jungle of junk floating around space – from flecks of paint from space vehicles to old rocket bodies and satellites. The European Space Agency estimates there are about 10,000 tons of debris objects orbiting our planet, plenty of which are defunct. 

According to a report published by NASA earlier this year, about 26,000 of the pieces of debris are the size of a softball or even larger, more than 500,000 are marble-sized and over 100 million are the size of a grain of salt. And as these fragments crash into each other as they float in space they can also create more pieces of smaller size, posing even more of a threat for other satellites. 

All this junk travels at several kilometers per second, which is enough to become damaging projectiles to an operational space mission. In fact, this was the case in 2009 when an active communications satellite run by a US company and a defunct Soviet-era communications satellite clashed in orbit. Imagine the risk if a human mission would be involved. 

Tension at the ISS

The cloud of debris passed close to the International Space Station, raising the alarm among crew members – who were told to put their spacesuits and shelter in the Crew Dragon and the Soyuz spacecrafts. In case the ISS was damaged by fragments from the Russian satellite, they could detach and come back to Earth without any major risks.

Nevertheless, Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, posted a message on Twitter downplaying the danger to the ISS from the debris.  “The orbit of the object, which forced the crew today to move into spacecraft according to standard procedures, has moved away from the ISS orbit. The station is in the green zone,” Roscosmos wrote.

The astronauts at the ISS, four Americans, one German, and two Russians, spent two hours in the spacecrafts, emerging from time to time to close and reopen hatches to the ISS’ individual labs on every orbit. In a statement, the Russian military said the test wasn’t dangerous and it was part of their efforts to fortify its defense capabilities. 

The explanation didn’t seem sufficient for the other governments. France described the missile test as “destabilising, irresponsible and likely to have consequences for a very long time in the space environment and for all actors in space,” while the German government said to be “very concerned” and asked for new rules on space behaviour. At the moment, there are no clear regulations on managing satellites and clearing out space junk.

Cluster of satellites in Earth's orbit.

Space junk is becoming a problem and we need to talk about it

When we think about junk, things like garbage bins or landfills come to mind — but there’s another junk problem, one that’s hard to see with the naked eye from the Earth. Space junk, researchers warn, is a growing problem, and if we don’t address it quickly, it may soon be too much to handle.

Satellites revolving around the earth. Image credits: ESA

There are a total of 6,542 satellites that are currently occupying Earth’s orbit, but only half of them are actually doing something. The other half are inactive — they’re simply junk. To make matters even more problematic, over 1,200 satellites were launched in 2020 — this marks a record, but generally speaking, we could expect more and more satellites to be plopped into orbit.

Now, imagine one day Earth’s orbit becomes overcrowded and two such large satellites hit each other. Both the satellites would get broken into smaller pieces that would further clash with other satellites and trigger a series of unstoppable collisions and a lot of junk pieces flying around. This has happened a few times already.

Due to these collisions, our planet’s orbit gets more and more cluttered with debris, to the extent that eventually, we will end up having no room to launch more rockets and satellites. Such a situation in which Earth’s orbit becomes completely unusable because of large amounts of space junk is referred to as Kessler syndrome — a phenomenon first envisioned by NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler in 1978.

Fortunately, we’re not at that stage yet. For now, space junk does not seem like a big problem but aerospace experts suggest that in the coming years, the number of satellite launches and space missions could increase dramatically, and this is likely to add more junk to space and make Earth’s orbit more crowded than ever. Simply put, if we don’t start taking action quickly, it will soon be too late.

What is space junk and why it’s dangerous?

Space junk is a generic term. Unusable satellite parts, rocket components, and debris of man-made machines in space are called “space junk”. Until now, NASA has tracked 27,000 such items that are aimlessly moving in Earth’s orbit. This orbital debris can move at a speed of 24,000 km/h (15,000 mph), and therefore any such fast-moving piece of junk can hit and destroy a functional satellite or a passing by rocket at any time.  

A graphical representation of debris in Earth’s orbit. Image credits: NASA

We’re already seeing some of this damage in action. In March 2021, the 18th Space Control Squadron (18SPCS), a space control unit under the US Space Force confirmed that a small debris piece named Object 48078 hit China’s Yunhai 1-02 satellite. According to Astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, Object 48078 was a remnant of Zenet-2, a Russian rocket that was launched in the year 1996. McDowell further added that the “Yunhai 1-02 satellite broke up” after the collision. 

“Finding ways to remove at least some of all that space junk should be a top global priority.”

Donald Kessler, Retired NASA Scientist

However, such collisions due to space junk are still rare. Before the Yunhai 1-02 crash, the last collision reported was in 2009. Moreover, such collisions can be prevented by mission controllers by adjusting the position of a satellite. Every year many satellites are manoeuvered multiple times in order to avoid collision with space junk, even the International Space Station (ISS) has performed more than 20 junk avoidance maneuvers since its launch in 1998.

The space junk problem does not seem like a big issue for now but if not dealt with properly, it may lead to chaos in our planet’s orbit in the future — chaos that will be extremely difficult to address.

A small but growing problem

Before 2010, only around 100 satellites were launched every year but in the year 2020, for the first time, more than 1000 satellites were sent to space. The numbers continue to increase in 2021 as well because so far, 1400 new satellites have already been placed in orbit this year. 

Moreover, in the early days of space exploration, there used to be only a few agencies that would send satellites into space — like NASA, Roscosmos, and the European Space Agency. Nowadays, active private players like SpaceX and Blue Origin have created a boom in the aerospace industry and are launching more and more satellites. These companies are planning to launch mega-constellations (groups of satellites that cover large orbital area) in Earth’s orbit to provide wireless broadband internet services across the globe, in the coming years — an exciting project that is bound to help millions around the world, but which also poses new threats to the problem of space junk.

These mega-constellations would bring an unprecedented increase in the number of satellites revolving around Earth (a report suggests that the Earth’s orbit may have 100,000 satellites by 2030). With every launch, the amount of space junk will also increase making the orbit more congested. As a result, both the existing and new satellites will have to perform more collision avoidance maneuvers. 

Therefore, more fuel and resources would be spent on saving the satellites from space junk. Sooner or later, with an increasing number of space missions, the growing amounts of space junk might raise the frequency of outer space collisions and over the course of time, it could ultimately cause the Kessler syndrome.

Is it possible to free Earth’s orbit of space junk?

Cleaning up space junk is not as easy as it sounds. For starters, imposing a ban doesn’t seem like a promising idea.

Rockets are launched to explore space and collect information about other planets in our galaxy, whereas, man-made satellites are placed in Earth’s orbit in order to facilitate communication, navigation, military assistance, earth observation, weather forecast, mineral search, and many other activities that hold great importance for humans. Therefore, banning space missions and new satellite launches is obviously not a solution.

ELSA-d (End-of-Life Services by Astroscale-demonstration). Image credits: Astroscale/Wikimedia Commons

Cleaning our planet’s orbit is both an expensive and complicated process. However, researchers and space agencies are working on this and they keep coming up with new and interesting methods to remove space junk from Earth’s orbit.

Around 2012, a group of researchers working at EPFL (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) came up with the idea of a special satellite (called CleanSpaceOne) that could attach itself to a targeted piece of space junk and drag the same back towards earth. The researchers proposed that during its journey to Earth, both the satellite and space junk would be burnt by the atmospheric heat.

This idea sounds promising, but it will also be costly, and bringing down satellites one at a time will be very time-consuming.

In 2016, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency sent an electrodynamic tether in space that could direct space junk towards Earth’s atmosphere by using the planet’s magnetic field. A couple of years later, the Surrey Space Center in the UK launched the RemoveDEBRIS project in April 2018, this project was focused to encourage and demonstrate various space junk removal technologies. Under the RemoveDEBRIS initiative the effectiveness of methods involving net, harpoon, and drag sail for catching space junk was tested.

Researchers at Purdue University also developed a drag sail named Spinnaker3 in 2020. This powerful drag sail is an efficient and cost-effective way to deal with space junk as it does not require any fuel during its operation. Moreover, it can drag even rocket-sized space debris back to Earth’s atmosphere so that they get destroyed in peace. Spinnaker3 is expected to launch in November 2021 on a Firefly rocket.

A concept image of CleanSpaceOne chaser. Image credits: Lucpiguet/Wikimedia Commons

Astroscale, an orbital junk removal company from Japan, launched the ELSA-d (End-of-Life Services by Astroscale-demonstration) satellite in March 2021. This advanced debris removal system uses magnetic satellite catching technology to pick small inactive satellites from Earth’s orbit. ELSA-d successfully completed its first satellite capturing test on August 25, 2021, and it is now moving on to the next phases of its space junk removing process.  

The bottom line

As is generally the case, prevention is better than cure. In the case of space junk, it’s not yet a big problem — but by the time it becomes a big problem, it may be too big to handle efficiently, which is why it’s best to act as quickly as possible.

Aerospace experts are following this closely and if their research is supported, we’ll likely soon see effective waste-management strategies for space — and by the time we’re ready to go on our first interplanetary picnic, we’ll have a clean, green (hopefully), and beautiful orbital view.

NASA wants to deflect an asteroid to test our planetary defences

Although there’s no imminent threat, NASA wants to make sure we’re ready to deflect an asteroid should this problem ever arise. Next year, they want to accelerate an unmanned spacecraft to a speed of 15,000 miles per hour (24,000 kph) and crash into an asteroid to see if they can deflect it.

In the 1998 blockbuster Armageddon, an unlikely team sets out to deflect an asteroid on a collision course with Earth and save everyone on the planet. The movie is riddled with scientific inaccuracies, but the central premise is not absurd. Although there’s no imminent threat, the possibility of an asteroid crashing down on Earth is enough to keep NASA concerned.

“Although there isn’t a currently known asteroid that’s on an impact course with the Earth, we do know that there is a large population of near-Earth asteroids out there,” said Lindley Johnson, NASA’s Planetary Defense Officer.

Last month, NASA announced plans to deflect an asteroid to see if it can be done, and now, they’ve provided more details on the mission. The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) will carry a price tag of $330 million and will determine whether crashing a ship into an asteroid is an effective way to deflect it.

The DART spacecraft is scheduled to be launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on November 23. The rocket launch will take place at the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. The shuttle will fly to the target asteroid Dimorphos, which measures 160 meters (525 feet) in diameter, and is one of the smallest celestial objects that has its own name. The asteroid is not considered to pose a threat to Earth, it’s just a test.

Two different views of the DART spacecraft. The DRACO (Didymos Reconnaissance & Asteroid Camera for OpNav) imaging instrument is based on the LORRI high-resolution imager from New Horizons. The left view also shows the Radial Line Slot Array (RLSA) antenna with the ROSAs (Roll-Out Solar Arrays) rolled up. The view on the right shows a clearer view of the NEXT-C ion engine. Image credits: NASA.

The collision will take place 6.8 million miles (11 million km) from Earth, sometime between September 26 and October 1 of next year. The mission won’t destroy the asteroid — it’ll just nudge it a bit and deflect it from its current trajectory, says Nancy Chabot of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, which built the DART spacecraft.

“It’s only going to be a change of about one percent in that orbital period,” Chabot said, “so what was 11 hours and 55 minutes before might be like 11 hours and 45 minutes.”

In the case of an asteroid on a trajectory to Earth, a small nudge would also be enough — provided that we detect the asteroid quickly enough. This is the key to planetary defense, researchers say: detecting threats early on.

“The key to planetary defense is finding them well before they are an impact threat,” Johnson said. “We don’t want to be in a situation where an asteroid is headed towards Earth and then have to test this capability.”

“If there was an asteroid that was a threat to the Earth, you’d want to do this technique many years in advance, decades in advance,” Nancy Chabot, a planetary scientist and the DART coordination lead at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, said during a prelaunch news conference held on Thursday (Nov. 4). “You would just give this asteroid a small nudge, which would add up to a big change in its future position, and then the asteroid and the Earth wouldn’t be on the collision course.”

DART team members carefully lower the DART spacecraft onto a low dolly in SpaceX’s payload processing facility on Vandenberg Space Force Base. Image Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman.

The main focus of this experiment is to understand how much momentum is needed to deflect an asteroid, just in case one would be found to be on a collision course with Earth. Dimorphos is a great target for such an experiment. It’s the most common type of asteroid — a chondritic (stony, non-metallic) meteorite that has been floating about the solar system for around 4.5 billion years.

Researchers aren’t exactly sure just how much Dimorphos will be deflected because there are still uncertainties regarding how dense and porous it is, but they will target the impact to cause the biggest possible deflection, Chabot said.

NASA’s Asteroid Watch program is keeping track of near-Earth asteroids. So far, NASA has identified over 27,000 such asteroids, with 30 new ones being added each week. While no known asteroid larger than 140 meters in size has a significant chance to hit Earth over the next century, NASA estimates that only 40% of those asteroids have been found to date. This is why the space agency is also building an infrared telescope that could detect dangerous asteroids.

The most dangerous asteroid NASA has identified so far is called Bennu. Bennu is 500 meters across (1650 feet), and it’s estimated to pass relatively close to the Earth (within half the distance of the Earth to the Moon) in 2135. The probability of a collision is very low.

Astronaut captures stunning photos of an aurora above Earth

While it might not be as well-known as the northern lights (or Aurora Borealis), the Aurora Australis can be just as spectacular, especially if you’re looking at it from space. Thomas Pesquet, a photographer and an astronaut from the European Space Agency shared an impressive photo of the southern lights taken about 250 miles (402km) above Earth.

Credit image: Thomas Pesquet / Flickr.

The photo, which Pesquet published on his Flickr account and on other social media networks, is among the best images of the aurora ever captured from the International Space Station (ISS), where he’s based. It shows green ribbons across the Earth going high up in the atmosphere and then fading away into spikes of red light in the distance.

“I don’t know why we saw so many in the span of a few days, when I barely saw one during my entire first mission, but these last ones came with something extra,” Pesquet wrote on Facebook. “As the Moon was high and bright, it lit up the clouds from above, which created a distinct atmosphere and almost turned the aurora blue.”

Pesquet was selected by ESA as a candidate in 2009 and successfully completed his basic training in 2010. He was sent to space first in 2016 for six months and then again in April on board of the SpaceX Crew Dragon, both times staying at the ISS. He frequently posts photos and videos on social media, including him running at the ISS.

Anyone going to space is very likely to see the northern or southern lights just like Pesquet. In fact, the recent SpaceX first tourist crew saw just that while orbiting Earth earlier this month. The mission’s commander, Jared Isaacman, replied to Pesquet’s photo on Twitter, saying he and his crew had seen the aurora but “not like that.”

The impressive auroras

While best seen at night, auroras are actually caused by the Sun. They are the result of charged particles reaching our planet. The particles are channeled to the poles by Earth’s magnetic field and then interact with particles in the atmosphere. This is always happening, but sometimes the Sun sends bigger particles, producing striking auroras. 

The Aurora Australis, the one seen by Pesquet from space, is the southern hemisphere counterpart to the more famous Aurora Borealis. It takes shape of a curtain of light, or a sheet, or a diffuse glow, mostly red and green. It’s strongest on the south magnetic pole, making Antarctica the best place to see them happening, especially at night. 

When the solar cycle is near its maximum, the Aurora Australis can be visible in New Zealand (especially the South Island), southern Australia (especially Tasmania), southern Chile and Argentina and sometimes in South Africa too. They are typically 100 to 300 kilometers high, but sometimes can reach up to 500 kilometers high. 

So, if going to space as a tourist isn’t something for you, with tickets still a bit steep and only for billionaires, better think of making a visit to some of the southern or northern countries to check the aurora. Either if it’s the australis or the borealis, they are both equally impressive and worth planning a trip to check them out. 

SpaceX capsule returns to Earth with all-civilian orbital crew

Four amateur astronauts returned to Earth after a three-day space excursion on board of the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, the first flight to Earth’s orbit done entirely by tourists. The launch and return of the mission is the latest in recent expeditions financed by billionaire passengers and marks a milestone in the nascent astro-tourism industry.

The capsule as it lands on the ocean. Image credit: Space X.

Following an automated reentry to the Earth’s atmosphere, the group of unlikely astronauts that comprised the SpaceX Inspiration4 mission safely splashed down in the Atlantic near the coast of Florida last Saturday evening. Parachutes slowed the capsule’s descent before landing in the water, where boats from SpaceX were waiting for its retrieval. 

The crew members were seen emerging from the capsule, visibly happy after the experience. They stood on the deck of a SpaceX recovery vessel, waved, and gave thumps-up before being taken to a medical station for checkups. Then they were flown by helicopter back to Cape Canaveral, where they were received by their families. 

SpaceX, the spacecraft and rocket manufacturing company owned by billionaire Elon Musk, provided the spacecraft used for the mission, controlled the flight and managed the recovery of the capsule. The mission was funded by Jared Isaacman, an e-commerce entrepreneur, who paid for the four seats and was also the commander of the crew. 

Isaacman was joined by three strangers he selected: geoscientist Sian Proctor, physician assistant Hayley Arceneaux, and Air Force veteran Chris Sembroski. The mission was conceived to raise awareness and donations for St. Jude’s Children Research Hospital, which works to defeats childhood cancer and other life-threatening diseases. So far $160 million were raised, including $100 million donated by Isaacman. 

During the mission, the crew members chat with their families, admired the amazing views from space, and listened to some music. During a live stream on Friday, Proctor showed some artwork he did during her stay with metallic markers, while Sembroski played an ukulele that will soon be auctioned to raise further funds for St. Jude’s hospital. 

 A new era for space flights

The mission wasn’t scheduled to approach the International Space Station (ISS) but instead to carry out a “free flight” to an altitude of 575 kilometers (360 miles). The crew circled the Earth more than 15 times each day. During the trip, experts collected data on all their vital signs to study the impact of space travel on non-professionals. 

The crew after their return from space. Image credit: SpaceX

SpaceX’s human-spaceflight chief, Benji Reed, said the flight run without any major inconveniences. He mentioned two minor and easily resolved problems, a malfunctioning fan in the toilet’s system, as well as a faulty temperature sensor. The four astronauts had similar levels of vertigo and motion sickness as NASA astronauts, he added, which raises intriguing questions about the future of space travel.

This was the third private spaceflight so far this summer, following the flights by Jeff Bezos on a Blue Origin spacecraft and by Richard Branson on a Virgin Galactic one. Still, the Inspiration4 was the first mission to orbit the planet. Another four private orbital missions are scheduled over the next year, including new ones by Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

Mission director Todd Ericson told a press conference “welcome to the second space age,” claiming that after this mission space travel will become “much more accessible to average men and women.” Still, that will likely take some time, with Time magazine estimating that Isaacman paid about $200 million for the four seats for the recent mission. 

It’s a date: SpaceX set for world’s first all-civilian spaceflight

Four private individuals will orbit the Earth on SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule on September 15th, making it “the first all-civilian human spaceflight mission.” They will launch next week from NASA’s Kennedy Center in Florida, spend three days in space and then reenter Earth’s atmosphere for a splashdown near the coast of Florida. 

The crew members in a recent photo. Image credit: SpaceX

The crew will board SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and a Dragon capsule and then take off, reaching an altitude of 335 miles – 75 higher than the International Space Station and on par with the Hubble Space Telescope. The exact flight time will be chosen a few days before the launch, taking into account the weather conditions and the flight trajectory. 

SpaceX named the mission Inspiration4, with the “4” referencing the number of crew members. These are commander Jared Isaacman, pilot Sian Proctor, medical officer Hayley Arceneaux and mission specialist Chris Sembroski. The project is funded by Isaacman, an entrepreneur behind the US payment processing startup Shift4Shop

Isaacman pledged to donate $100 million to St. Jude hospital as part of a push to raise $200 million more dollars for the organization. He holds several world records, has flown in over 100 airshows and co-founded the world’s largest private air force, Draken International, which trains pilots for the United States Armed Forces. Arceneaux is a physician at St. Jude’s hospital, where she battled bone cancer, while Sembroski is an aerospace industry employee and an Air Force veteran. Also joining the launch, Proctor is an entrepreneur, educator, and trained pilot, born in Guam, where her father worked at NASA’s tracking stations during the Apollo missions.

Upcoming steps

In a press release, Space X said the four crew members will arrive in Florida on Thursday for the mission’s final preparations. They have been training hard for months after the team was officially announced in March. Their preparation included centrifuge training, Dragon simulations, Zero-G plane training, and medical testing. 

“Inspiration4’s goal is to inspire humanity to support St. Jude here on earth while also seeing new possibilities for human spaceflight,” Isaacman said in March. “Each of these outstanding crew members embodies the best of humanity, and I am humbled to lead them on this historic and purposeful mission and the adventure of a lifetime.”

US multimillionaire Dennis Tito was the first tourist to go into space, launching to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2001 on an eight-day trip. Space tourism didn’t pick up much after that, with just six other private citizens flying. Still, the industry is expected to expand soon, with big plans of companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin. 

Space X has repeatedly said it would be willing to sell seats to tourists on its Crew Dragon capsule, which has been mainly used so far to send NASA astronauts to and from the ISS. The company’s founder, billionaire Elon Musk, has expressed interest in going to space, but reports said he might be doing that with a Virgin Galactic flight. 

Musk made a deal in 2018 with billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and a group of artists to fly on the Starship rocket on a trip around the moon in 2023. According to Musk, Starship is meant to be “an interplanetary transport system that’s capable of getting from Earth to anywhere in the solar system.” For now, the all-civilian spaceflight will already be a big step. 

The International Space Station was briefly knocked out of position by a Russian module

On Thursday, Russia’s new science lab module docked with the International Space Station. One accidental firing of its thrusters later, however, and the station was knocked out of position.

Image credits NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

The ISS’s brief escapade lasted a total of 47 minutes, during which the crew lost control of the craft’s orientation. Since the ISS needs to maintain a certain orientation to keep its solar panels well illuminated and its antennas in contact with Earth, ground control further reports that communications with the station were completely cut off twice, for a few minutes each time, during the whole adventure.

A space odyssey

“We haven’t noticed any damage,” space station program manager Joel Montalbano said in a late afternoon press conference. “There was no immediate danger at any time to the crew.”

The ISS moved 45 degrees out of attitude, which is one-eighth of a complete circle, and never entered a spinning pattern. The crew themselves didn’t feel any movement or shaking of the ship, according to NASA. Flight controllers eventually re-positioned the station using the thrusters on other Russian components docked to the ISS, the agency explains, which ties this whole story arc up in a neat little bow.

The perpetrator of this whole story is Russia’s long-delayed 22-ton (20-metric-ton) lab module Nauka. It arrived at the station on Thursday, eight days after being launched from a facility in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. Nakua is meant to give the crew more space to live and carry out experiments in, and has been scheduled to reach the station in 2007. However, technical issues have repeatedly delayed its launch. While these issues were addressed, various modernizations and structural repairs were also carried out.

Still, Nakua has the distinction of being the first Russian element of the ISS to be added since 2010. The Pirs spacewalking compartment, an older Russian element, was undocked from the ISS to make room for Nakua. The lab is 43 feet (13 meters) long. Multiple spacewalks and work hours will be needed to have it fully up and running, as is the case with most such modules.

“Spaceflight is hard, and when we bring on new capabilities there can be glitches, which is why we prepare and train for these contingencies,” said Kathy Lueders, associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.

Blue Origin picks teenager to fly to space with Jeff Bezos

The 18-year-old Dutch teenager Olivier Daemen will be the fourth passenger to ride with Jeff Bezos on this space company’s suborbital rocket next Tuesday. Daemen, the son of a private equity executive, will fill in for the winner of last month’s $28 million auction — who will have to pass on this flight due to “scheduling conflicts.”

Olivier Daemen. Image credit: Blue Origin

The launch, scheduled for July 20th, will be Blue Origin’s first crewed missions to the edge of space. Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark, aviation icon and astronaut candidate Wally Funk, and Daemen will launch aboard the company’s suborbital New Shepard rocket from Texas for a few minutes in microgravity. 

Daemen marks Blue Origin’s first paying customer, but it’s unclear how much the ticket cost. A spokeswoman at the company told The Verge they are not disclosing the price paid. “He was a participant in the auction and had secured a seat on the second flight. We moved him up when this seat on the first flight became available,” she added. 

The teenager, 18, would be the youngest person to go to space, while Funk, 82, would be the oldest.

Space goes brrr

Olivier Daemen is the son of Joes Daemen, the founder and CEO of Somerset Capital Partners. He had secured a seat on the second flight but was moved up when the seat on the first flight became available, the spokeswoman at Blue Origin explained. 

Flying on New Shepard will fulfill a lifelong dream for Daemen, who has long been fascinated by space and rockets since he was four, Blue Origin said. He graduated from high school in 2020 and took a gap year before continuing his studies to obtain his private pilot’s license. He will attend the University of Utrecht to study physics and innovation management.

“I am super excited to go to space and joining them on [the] flight,” Daemen said in a video posted by Bright, a Dutch media brand. “I’ve been dreaming about this all my life, and I will become the youngest astronaut ever, because I’m 18 years old.”

A race to space

Blue Origin received Federal Aviation Administration approval to fly passengers last Monday, a week before launch. The flight will be just nine days after billionaire Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson flew to space from New Mexico aboard his company’s SpaceShipTwo spaceplane with three other company employees.

Branson was accompanied by pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci, chief astronaut Beth Moses, operations engineer Colin Bennett and VP of government affairs Sirisha Bandla. VSS Unity can take up to six passengers and two pilots, and the flights won’t go empty anytime soon. The company already has 600 reservations for tickets on future flights, sold between $200,000 and $250,000 each. 

Branson wasn’t previously expected to fly just now, as Virgin had said the company planned to fly the founder on its second to last test flight. But after fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos announced his own plan to fly on his company Blue Origin’s first passenger flight on July 20, Virgin decided to rearrange the schedule to secure an early lead in the “billionaire space race.”

Global space tourism is projected to reach just $1.7 billion by 2027, according to a report published earlier this year. Virgin already has some big names on its list of confirmed customers, from Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis to Justine Bieber and Rihanna – who have allegedly paid the ticket for a seat on future flights. 

The billionaire space race is upon us — and there’s an early leader

With billions spent over more than a decade, a small group of billionaires (just three, actually) are competing against each other to send commercial shuttles into space and eventually capture the large, untapped space tourism market — and one of them has already secured the first trip.

Image credit: Virgin Galactic.

Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Galactic, outraced fellow billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk by reaching the edge of space, reaching 55 miles (88km) above the Earth’s surface – after 17 years of development and $1 billion invested. Speaking from the spacecraft, he called the flight “the experience of a lifetime” and said he had dreamt about it since he was a child.

The spacecraft VSS Unity launched above the skies of New Mexico, with two pilots guiding the vehicle that carried Branson and three employees. VSS Unity performed a slow backflip in microgravity and the crew floated around the cabin. The vehicle then returned through the atmosphere in a glide, landing where it took off from. All in all, the flight went exactly as planned.

The Virgin flight

Branson was accompanied by pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci, chief astronaut Beth Moses, operations engineer Colin Bennett and VP of government affairs Sirisha Bandla. VSS Unity can take up to six passengers and two pilots, and the flights won’t go empty anytime soon. The company already has 600 reservations for tickets on future flights, sold between $200,000 and $250,000 each. 

“We’re here to make space more accessible to all at all,” Branson said In a press conference after the flight. “The mission statement that I wrote inside my spacesuit was to turn the dream of space travel into a reality for my grandchildren … and for many people who are alive today, for everybody.”

This was the fourth flight to date for Virgin Galactic, its second so far this year, and the first carrying more than one passenger. As well as flying Branson, the company has other goals, as it aims to begin its commercial service in early 2022. The crew members are testing the spacecraft’s cabin and Virgin’s training program, as well as doing research experiments. 

After landing back on Earth, Branson announced that Virgin Galactic partnered with sweepstakes company Omaze to offer a chance at two seats on “one of the first commercial Virgin Galactic spaceflights” early next year. The billionaire said he will put on his “Willy Wonka hat” to give the winners a guided tour of Spaceport America.

Image credit: Virgin Galactic

Branson founded Virgin Galactic in 2004 to fly passengers to space. He started the company to buy spacecraft built by aerospace designer Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites, which created the SpaceShipOne vehicle. The company then built VSS Unity and began testing it in 2016 – reaching space in 2018 for the first time.

The company got a license expansion last month from the US Federal Aviation Administration, allowing it to fly passengers on future spaceflights. To get the license, Virgin had to complete a verification and validation program for the FAA. The last two regulatory milestones were met with the most recent spaceflight test in May. With all the hurdles passed, Branson was free to rush to the edge of space — and that he did.

Branson wasn’t previously expected to fly on last weekend’s spaceflight, as Virgin had said the company planned to fly the founder on its second to last test flight. But after fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos announced his own plan to fly on his company Blue Origin’s first passenger flight on July 20, Virgin decided to rearrange the schedule to secure an early lead in the “billionaire space race.”

A fast-moving race

Launching ahead of Bezos or Elon Musk, a symbolic win, turned Branson into the first of the billionaire space company founders to ride on his own spacecraft. The three are competing in the realm of suborbital space tourism, with the goal of carrying passengers to the edge of space and experience microgravity for a few minutes. Business hasn’t even started, and it’s already booming.

Global space tourism is projected to reach just $1.7 billion by 2027, according to a report published earlier this year. Virgin already has some big names on its list of confirmed customers, from Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis to Justine Bieber and Rihanna – who have allegedly paid the $250,000 ticket for a seat on future flights. 

Jeff Bezos. Image credit: Blue Origin

Founded by Bezos in 2000, Blue Origin recently announced its first passenger flight for July 20. Coincidentally or not, Bezos also announced he would step down as CEO of Amazon beforehand. This means Bezos can now be more focused on his space projects without the stress of Amazon operations.

“On July 20th, I will take that journey with my brother,” Bezos wrote in a recent Instagram post. “The greatest adventure, with my best friend. To see the Earth from space, it changes you. It changes your relationship with this planet, with humanity. It’s one Earth. I want to go on this flight because it’s a thing I’ve wanted to do all my life.”

The flight will officially kick off Blue Origin’s space tourism business. Although the company hasn’t yet released details about how one could book tickets (and how much it would cost), there are speculations that the announcements will be coming soon. For now, Bezos is reading for the July 20th flight, with three minutes of weightlessness.

Meanwhile, fellow billionaire Elon Musk is not staying idle. A Galactic spokesman told the Wall Street Journal that Musk had bought a ticket for his own space ride with Virgin Galactic. It’s not clear when he would fly or how extensive is the waiting list. Branson’s company plans to do two more symbolic flights this year and open them to the public in 2022. 

Musk, the SpaceX CEO who wants to colonize Mars, and Branson are known to be friends, while Musk and Bezos share a frosty rivalry. Hours before Branson’s flight, Musk had said that he would be there to wish him the best and see him off. He kept his word, posting a photo with the two of them together before Branson’s flight. 

A new push for space tourism

It might seem like a new thing, but space tourism actually has a long history. The first space tourist was Dennis Tito, who paid $20 million a ticket. He flew on a Russian spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) in April 2001. His net worth is one billion, so it can be argued he beat fellow billionaires Bezos, Branson, and Musk to space by 20 years. But then again, this is a different type of race.

Tito was then followed by other six wealthy private citizens that visited the ISS. The list included the first female space tourist, Iranian-American engineer Anousheh Ansari. Hungarian-American software billionaire Charles Simonyi, who flew twice, and Canadian billionaire Guy Laliberté – the co-founder of the Cirque du Soleil. 

But after these first few attempts, orbital space tourism ended abruptly in 2010 due to an increase in the ISS crew size. In the meantime, space entrepreneurs started pursuing the rocket plane concept. The space company Scaled Composites flew in October 2004 an experimental space place to 112 kilometers above Earth’s surface.

The company later merged with Branson’s Virgin Galactic, establishing a waiting list for $250,000 space flights. Branson promised tourism flights as soon as 2008 but there were many setbacks in the way, including a fatal accident. These derailed the timetable but Virgin is now much closer to taking tourists to the edge of space. 

But Bezos poked a bit at Branson, alluding that the latter didn’t fly into “true” space. Basically, Virgin Galactic’s flight soared at nearly 300,000 feet (57 miles) in altitude — enough to reach what NASA and the US government defines as the beginning of space (50 miles above sea level), but not enough to reach the Kármán line — the boundary set by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. The Kármán line is defined at 100 kilometers or 62 miles above sea level, and Blue Origin pointed out that this is what “96 percent of the world’s population” recognizes as the beginning of outer space. Blue Origin will fly to the Kármán line in subsequent rides, a spokesperson said.

After decades of space tourism being little more than science fiction, it’s finally becoming a reality. With Branson in the lead for now and Bezos and Musk hot on his trail, the billionaire space race is just beginning. Who knows what it will bring us?

Flying on Mars: NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter is the gift that keeps on giving

A nail-biter of a flight saw Ingenuity take to the Martian skies for 166.4 seconds and reaching a maximum speed of 5 m/s (or 10 mph, the speed of a brisk run). During this flight, Ingenuity covered about 625 meters (2,050 feet), showcasing the advantages that flight missions can offer for exploring new planets.

Image credits: NASA.

NASA’s Mars helicopter Ingenuity is the first aircraft ever to fly on a celestial body other than the Earth. Ingenuity was only meant to serve as a proof of concept, showing that flight on Mars (in a thin, rarefied atmosphere) can be done. It was only meant to carry out three flights as a proof of concept — but now, Ingenuity just completed its ninth flight, and a daring one at that.

For its latest flight, Ingenuity flew from the Perseverance rover, taking a shortcut to the Séítah region (meaning “amidst the sand” in Diné Bizaad, the Navajo language). Séítah is interesting to researchers but is difficult to cover by land due to its sandy ripples. Flying Ingenuity over the area was a risk and NASA acknowledged it was pushing the vehicle past its limits — but the risk paid off.

An image of Ingenuity’s shadow captured by the helicopter itself. Image credits: NASA.

Flying across the Martian dunes 183 million miles from the Earth, Ingenuity clearly showed its worth, not just by exploring otherwise inaccessible terrain, but also through the distance it covered on Mars.

The distance covered by Ingenuity in this single flight is comparable to what the Spirit rover has explored in its entire mission on the Red Planet.

“We believe Ingenuity is ready for the challenge, based on the resilience and robustness demonstrated in our flights so far,” NASA said in a press release. “Second, this high-risk, high-reward attempt fits perfectly within the goals of our current operational demonstration phase. A successful flight would be a powerful demonstration of the capability that an aerial vehicle, and only an aerial vehicle, can bring to bear in the context of Mars exploration.”

Until now, Ingenuity has kept close to its terrestrial exploration partner — the Perseverance rover. This is the main operation NASA is looking at (the ability of a flying craft to accompany an extraterrestrial rover) but Ingenuity is increasingly showing that it can do a lot of things on its own.

Ingenuity helicopter flight path and Perseverance traverse path showing their locations as of July 7, 2021. Live NASA link here.

The flight was a nerve-wracking one, though. Ingenuity’s navigation system wasn’t meant to deal with this type of fluctuating topography, so the team had to work around this difficulty.

In the end, although NASA hasn’t released any data from the flight, the mission proved to be a success. Not only did Ingenuity manage to take photos of previously unexplored terrain, but it also showed that its operational limits can be stretched even further. We have likely not seen the full range of what the brave little helicopter can accomplish.

China wants to practice deflecting an asteroid with rockets

A government-funded study from China says that by using 23 Long March 5 (CZ-5) rockets (the largest China has in its fleet), we could break up rocky objects in our solar system and save the Earth from potentially catastrophic asteroids. The country wants to put the hypothesis to the test.

Asteroid Bennu: a carbonaceous asteroid in the Apollo group discovered by the LINEAR Project on 11 September 1999. It is a potentially hazardous asteroid. Image credits: NASA / Goddard / University of Arizona.

Asteroids come in many shapes and sizes. Many are as small as pebbles, while others are kilometers or even hundreds of kilometers across. A kilometer-wide asteroid strikes the Earth on average once every 600,000 years, and would have global consequences, but even a 500-meter asteroid, which hits the Earth once every 10,000 years, can easily kill millions.

If there’s anything we’ve learned from science fiction, it’s that having an insurance policy against such an asteroid could come in handy. At China’s National Space Science Center, researchers simulated just that.

The researchers analyzed how Long March rockets could help deflect such an asteroid on a course for our planet. They found that 23 such rockets hitting simultaneously could deflect a large asteroid from its original path by a distance of 1.4 times the Earth’s radius — more than enough to avoid catastrophic damage.

The technology is at our doorstep “[It is] possible to defend against large asteroids with a nuclear-free technique within 10 years,” said author Li Mingtao and colleagues in a June paper published in Icarus

According to Reuters, China would also test the idea by turning away a sizable asteroid, although details on this are still scarce at this point.

China is far from the only country looking at this type of technology. In less than two years’ time, NASA will also look at asteroid-deflecting technology. The space agency will launch a robotic spacecraft to intercept two small asteroids relatively close to the Earth and see how much their trajectory changes. This will be humanity’s first attempt at deflecting the course of a celestial body.

However, while it’s encouraging that several countries are working on asteroid-deflecting programs, whether or not space powers would collaborate in a potential doomsday scenario is anyone’s guess.

“The problem is, when the doomsday threat comes, politics may override science and lots of time may be wasted on debates to decide which country should take the lead,” said an unnamed space researcher at Beijing’s Tsinghua University for SMCP. The researcher did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.

China’s CZ-5 rockets are also a bit concerning. Due to their size, their descent back onto the Earth can become quite hazardous and difficult. In May, one such rocket crashed traveling at thousands of miles an hour. While the debris didn’t hit any human settlement, it showcased that China needs to up its game as a responsible space power.

Bezos picks aerospace pioneer Wally Funk to join him on space flight

Female pilot Wally Funk wanted to be an astronaut in the earliest days of spaceflight. But she was denied the job in the 1960s because of her gender. Now, she’ll finally have the opportunity to fulfill her dream of going to space. 

Bezos and Funk. Image credit: Blue Origin.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced on Instagram that Funk will be part of a four-person crew that will be launched into space by Blue Origin during a 10-minute flight later this month. This will make Funk, 82-years-old, the oldest person to ever travel to space, after the late John Glenn set the record at age 77 when boarding the Discovery shuttle. 

“I like to do things that nobody’s ever done. I didn’t think I’d ever get to go up” Funk said in a video. “I can’t tell people that are watching how fabulous I feel to be picked by Blue Origin to go on this trip.”

Funk grew up in the western United States in Taos, New Mexico. She was passionate about aviation from an early age, taking her first flying lessons at age nine. She wasn’t allowed to take mechanics at high school as the subject was still reserved for boys. Still, she obtained her pilot license and graduated from Oklahoma State University’s aviation program. 

Funk was one of the Mercury 13 pilots, a program in 1961 created to train women for NASA’s astronaut program. She graduated third in her class after taking rigorous mental and physical tests. But the program was abruptly canceled when the US government decided women shouldn’t use military facilities needed for space training. Her dreams — along with the dreams of all her colleagues — were shattered.

None of the women from program ever made it into space. But now, Funk will have the opportunity to do so on 20 July. She’ll be part of a four-person crew launched into space on the New Shepard rocket. They will experience a few minutes of weightlessness and marvel at the planet’s curvature before returning to Earth. 

Image credit: Blue Origin

Funk applied to become an astronaut at NASA on four occasions but was rejected every time. One of the reasons given was that she didn’t have an engineering degree and had not completed the flight program on a military fighter jet, which couldn’t be done by women at the time. She was essentially rejected because of her gender.

Nevertheless, Funk has never lost her love of flying. “I’ve been flying forever and I have 19,600 flying hours,” she said, also citing her experience teaching more than 3,000 people to fly. She recalled the disappointment when NASA’s program was shut down. “They told me I had completed the work faster than any of the guys,” she said. 

Bezos will also be a passenger on the flight, along with his brother Mark and the as-yet-unnamed buyer of a seat auctioned off in June. Bezos will be stepping down as chief executive of Amazon on 5 July, dedicating more of his time to his space endeavors. He’s been vying with billionaires Elon Musk and Richard Branson to become the first to travel into space on privately owned rockets. 

Branson is set to fly on July 11th, according to a recent announcement by space tourism company Virgin Galactic – which means he’ll be flying before Bezos. “I’ve always been a dreamer. My mum taught me t never give and reach for the stars. It’s time to turn that dream into a reality abord the next Virgin Galactic spaceflight,” Branson tweeted. 

China just launched three astronauts to its new space station module

China successfully launched three astronauts into space in what’s a step closer to finishing its new space station. The Shenzhou-12 spacecraft (or the Divine Vessel) was launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China’s Gobi Desert, sending the crew to the core module of the planned space station. 

The three astronauts at the press conference before the launch. Image credit: China’s National Space Administration

The spacecraft will dock with the core module on the planned space station, called Tiangong (or Heavenly Palace), which is still under construction in a low Earth orbit. The astronauts will stay in orbit for three months, during which the life support system and maintenance will be tested. It’s China’s first manned mission in almost five years.

The Tianhe module is 16.6 meters long and 4.2 meters across at its widest point. Inside, the astronauts will have to test equipment and technology, some of which have never been used before in a manned space flight. The module also has a set of tools to help the astronauts, including a robotic arm that can move to any location on the station’s surface.

The mission is led by Nie Haisheng, who is also the oldest member of the team and has a background as a fighter pilot. He was recruited to the space program in 1998 and this was his third trip into space. He was aboard China’s first mission with more than one astronaut in 2005 and then was part of the 2013 mission to test its docking technology. 

The second crew member is Liu Boming. He joined China’s 2008 space mission, helping Zhai Zhigang become the first Chinese astronaut to conduct a spacewalk. Now, he will have a key role during outside cabin operations. Tang Hongbo is the crew’s youngest member and the only one of the three that hasn’t traveled to space yet.

“This mission will be the first manned flight as part of the China space station’s construction. I’m very fortunate to kick off the first leg of the space station’s construction,” Nie said at a press conference. “China’s space exploration development has crystallized the Chinese people’s thousand-year dream of flying to the sky.”

A new space station

Over the years, the International Space Station (ISS) has housed more than 200 astronauts from 19 different countries — but not China. Its astronauts can’t access the ISS because of political objections coming from the United States. This is why China has had the long-time goal of building a space station of its own, a plan that is now starting to take shape. 

In April, China launched the first module of the space station – which will have to be assembled from several modules launching at different times. The station is expected to be finished by 2022 and is supposed to operate for 10 years. It will the largest artificial structure in space when the ISS is eventually retired. 

The module holds living quarters that will house astronauts for up to six months at a time. In the future, two laboratory modules will also be sent up, followed by four cargo shipments and four rockets laden with crew. Roughly 12 astronauts are currently in training in preparation for missions aboard the Chinese Space Station.

China’s National Space Administration has already selected experiments to be run onboard the station, including work with ultracold atoms to research quantum mechanics, materials science research and work on medicine in microgravity. It also has several international partners that will send experiments onto the space station.

The new station and Russia’s intention to leave the ISS could spell an end to an era of international cooperation in space. Zhou Jianping, chief designer on China’s manned space program, said in a press conference that while China is not considering foreign astronaut participation at this stage of the station’s development, non-Chinese astronauts will “certainly” be welcome into the years ahead. Whether or not that becomes the case, however, remains to be seen.

China became the third country to independently make a soft landing on the Moon in October 2003, launched a pair of experimental single-module space stations, and have collaborated closely with other countries in the field of space exploration. It also launched an unmanned rover to the dark side of the moon.

Space pups: mouse sperm stored on International Space Station produces healthy offspring

Mouse sperm was frozen and stored on the International Space Station for six years — exposed to high levels of cosmic radiation. The sperm was stored in freeze-dried form, and then rehydrated after it was brought back to Earth. Now, Japanese researchers have found that the sperm produced a brood of healthy pups that don’t seem at all different from their earthbound brethren.

This September 11, 2020, image courtesy of Teruhiko Wakayama, University of Yamanashi, shows healthy offspring and next generation of mice derived from space preserved spermatozoa.

Remarkably unremarkable

The experiment started in 2013, when developmental biologist Teruhiko Wakayama and colleagues launched three boxes to the International Space Station (ISS) for a study. The boxes contained samples of freeze-dried mouse sperm, and the goal of the study was to see whether exposure to cosmic radiation would have any effects on offspring produced with the sperm. In particular, the researchers were looking to see if any genetic mutations would be passed on.

Freeze-dried sperm was used because it can be preserved at room temperature (rather than requiring a freezer), and it only requires a small amount of space, thus reducing the costs of flying to and storing aboard the ISS. The entire setup was about the size of a pencil.

Radiation can damage DNA within cells, and space radiation has been a concern for astronomers for a while now, with astronauts from countries like the US and Japan being engaged in lengthy missions in low orbit — and even longer missions on the horizon. Space agencies are looking at developing systems that could protect astronauts from the long-term effects of radiation, which can damage the DNA within cells and cause mutations.

This is where the space pups come in. After the sperm was returned to Earth, it was rehydrated and used for fertilization. There appeared to be no difference between the offspring obtained thusly, and the control group. When the space mice reached adulthood, they were randomly mated and the next generation appeared normal as well.

“All pups had normal appearance,” Wakayama told AFP, and when researchers examined their genes “no abnormalities were found.”

From SciFi to reality

Wakayama was inspired by the science fiction of Heinlein and Asimov and once wanted to be an astronaut. He shifted paths somewhat and opted for a science career, working to turn the concepts described in fiction works into reality.

If humanity wants to carry on exploring the solar system and eventually even move beyond that, we’ll need to have a safe way of ensuring long-term space flight. If this happens, we’ll need ways to ensure the genetic diversity of space colonizers — as well as their pets and animals. According to the team’s calculations, freeze-dried sperm can be safely stored for up to 200 years on board an orbital ship as the process of freeze drying increases its tolerance.

“In the future, when the time comes to migrate to other planets, we will need to mantain the diversity of genetic resources, not only for humans but also for pets and domestic animals,” Wakayama and colleagues wrote in their paper.

“For cost and safety reasons, it is likely that stored germ cells will be transported by spaceships rather than by living animals.”

While the results are encouraging though, they don’t guarantee that humans can freely travel to the stars now. The same findings would need to be replicated on humans, and in addition, the effects of space radiation on frozen female eggs and fertilized embryos would also have to be investigated. The human space age isn’t here quite yet. But it may not be long now.

Journal References: Sayaka Wakayama et al, Evaluating the long-term effect of space radiation on the reproductive normality of mammalian sperm preserved on the International Space Station, Science Advances (2021). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abg5554

NASA’s Juno to make closest flyby to Jupiter’s largest moon

NASA’s Juno spacecraft will fly at only 1,038 kilometers (645 miles) from the surface of Jupiter’s largest moon, Ganymede, tomorrow, June 7. It will be the closest-known flyby since the Galileo spacecraft made its penultimate close approach more than a decade ago and it’s expected to yield valuable insights into Jupiter’s moon. 

Left to right: The mosaic and geologic maps of Jupiter’s moon Ganymede were assembled incorporating the best available imagery from NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft and NASA’s Galileo spacecraft. Image credit: NASA

Juno’s science instruments will start gathering data about three hours before the spacecraft’s closest approach. The measurements will provide valuable information into the Moon’s composition, ionosphere, magnetosphere, and ice shell. They will also benefit future missions to the Jovian system, which includes Jupiter, its rings and moons. 

“Juno carries a suite of sensitive instruments capable of seeing Ganymede in ways never before possible,” Scott Bolton, Juno’s main investigator, said in a statement. “By flying so close, we will bring the exploration of Ganymede into the 21st century, both complementing future missions with our unique sensors and helping prepare for the next generation of missions to the Jovian system.”

Juno’s flyby is powered by solar energy and will send the information and images about this moon to Earth. Due to the speed of the flyby, the moon will go from being a point of light to a viewable disk, then back to a point of light in about 25 minutes. Ganymede is larger than the planet Mercury and it’s the only moon in the solar system with its own magnetosphere.

With an ultraviolet spectrograph, a microwave radiometer, and an infrared mapper, Juno will peer into Ganymede’s water-ice crust, gathering data on its composition and temperature. Bolton said the MWR will provide information of how the composition of how the composition and structure of the moon’s ice shell varies with depth. 

NASA will also use the signals from Juno’s wavelengths to perform a radio occultation experiment to probe the moon’s tenuous ionosphere – the outer layer of an atmosphere where gases are excited by solar radiation to form ions. This will help to understand the connection between the moon’s ionosphere, its magnetic field, and Jupiter’s magnetosphere. 

At the same time, Juno’s navigation camera, originally tasked to help the orbiter on course, will be in charge of collecting information on the high-energy radiation environment in the region near Ganymede. Heidi Becker, Juno’s radiation monitoring lead, explained that a special set of images will be collected as part of that experiment. 

Exploring Jupiter

Juno’s main goal is to understand the origin and evolution of Jupiter. Underneath its dense cloud cover, Jupiter safeguards secrets to the fundamental processes and conditions that governed our solar system during its formation. As the main example of a giant planet, Jupiter can also provide critical knowledge for understanding the planetary systems being discovered around other stars.

The mission is the second spacecraft designed under NASA’s New Frontiers Program. The first was the Pluto New Horizons mission, which flew by the dwarf planet in July 2015 after a nine-and-a-half-year flight. Juno will investigate the existence of a solid planetary core, map Jupiter’s magnetic field, measure the amount of water in the atmosphere and observe the planet’s auroras. 

Just like the sun, Jupiter is mostly hydrogen and helium, so it must have formed early, capturing most of the material left after our star came to be. But it’s so far unclear how this happened. Jupiter’s giant mass allowed it to hold onto its original composition, providing with a way of tracing our solar system’s history.

Two new NASA missions earmarked for ‘lost habitable’ planet Venus

NASA’s new administrator, Bill Nelson, has announced that the agency is going back to Venus. Their goal — to understand how Venus turned from a mild Earth-like planet to a boiling, scorching, acid hellscape.

An enhanced image of Venus, via NASA. Image credits J.Gabás Esteban / Flickr.

Two new robotic missions will be visiting Venus, according to Bill Nelson’s first major address to employees, on Wednesday. Machines will carry them out for us, as Venus is the hottest planet in the solar system. The goal of both will be to better understand the history of the planet, and how Venus came to be what it is today.

Knowing our neighbors

“These two sister missions both aim to understand how Venus became an inferno-like world capable of melting lead at the surface,” Nelson said.

The two missions will be named DaVinci+ (Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging) and Veritas (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy). The first will see a ‘small craft’ plunging through Venus’ atmosphere, taking measurements of its physical and chemical properties, while also analyzing the make-up of its clouds. The second will attempt to map out Venus’ surface in a bid to understand its geologic history.

These will be the first missions to Venus that NASA has attempted in over three decades. The last — mission Magellan — reached the planet in 1990.

Both upcoming missions will help us get a better understanding of Venus, from its atmosphere down to the core, NASA scientist Tom Wagner explained.

“It is astounding how little we know about Venus,” he said. “It will be as if we have rediscovered the planet.”

We don’t yet have an exact launch date for these missions, but they’ll both likely take off sometime between 2028 and 2030. Each will receive around $500 million in funding for development (under NASA’s Discovery program). Sadly, although we are going back to Venus, two other proposed missions — to Jupiter’s moon Io and Neptune’s icy moon Triton — didn’t make the cut.