Hello, readers, and welcome to This Week in Space. Arianespace’s Vega-C rocket made an unplanned aquabraking maneuver in December, crashing into the ocean and destroying the vehicle and its payload satellites. Now, ESA officials report that they know why. Alas, the hydrogen-fueled rocket is in good company; JAXA had to detonate its own new H3 lift vehicle just minutes into its inaugural flight. However, there are some bright spots, literally and figuratively. NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover spotted some beautiful iridescent clouds on Mars. And a new seismic study of the Earth has concluded that deep down, our planet really is 100% hard-core heavy metal.
Artemis 2 Mission to Launch in November 2024
After the success of Artemis 1, NASA is looking ahead toward launching the next mission in the Artemis project. In a press conference this week, agency officials confirmed that Artemis 2 is currently slated to launch in late 2024.
Even though agency spokespeople are optimistic about the Artemis project timeline, some parts of the first Artemis flight didn’t go as planned. For one, the SLS rocket launch significantly damaged the launch tower. The Orion capsule’s heat shield also took more ablative damage than the team expected as the capsule descended through the atmosphere. According to agency officials, the damage was still within spec for the capsule; it’s an ablative heat shield, and it did its job. However, to some Artemis team members, it was still too close for comfort.
Inbound Comet May Outshine All the Stars in the Sky
Next year, an inbound 20-km comet will make a close pass by Earth. It poses no threat to the planet — but it might put on the show of a lifetime. Experts predict that the comet will be visible to the unaided eye by June 2024. However, the comet will continue to brighten through the summer and into the autumn. By September, some models predict that the comet will be brighter than any other star in the sky, save the Sun.
Curiosity Spots Sunbeam, Iridescent ‘Feather’ in Martian Sky
Curiosity recently spotted its very first Martian sunbeam. The rover captured the scene during its most recent twilight cloud survey, which itself builds on Curiosity’s 2021 observations of noctilucent clouds. While most Martian clouds are composed of water ice, the clouds in this latest batch of images appear to be at a much higher — and colder — altitude. Instead of water, these noctilucent clouds are probably made of ultra-fine crystals of dry ice. The beams form in a phenomenon we also see on Earth called crepuscular rays.
The rover also captured a twilight panorama containing an iridescent cloud shaped like a feather. Its colors can teach scientists more about how clouds develop and change on Mars.
“Where we see iridescence, it means a cloud’s particle sizes are identical to their neighbors in each part of the cloud,” said Mark Lemmon, an atmospheric scientist with the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “By looking at color transitions, we’re seeing particle size changing across the cloud. That tells us about the way the cloud is evolving and how its particles are changing size over time.”
NASA Revives IBEX Satellite by Rebooting From ‘Safe Mode’
Through a combination of overbuilding and ingenious software design, NASA can often coax their spacecraft into mission lifetimes well beyond their original length. That’s what happened with the agency’s wildly successful Mars helicopter Ingenuity, which started out as a “tech demo.” Ingenuity’s ‘Lazarus circuit’ allowed it to struggle back to life after freezing in the Martian winter. Now, the agency’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) mission team has successfully used just such a power cycle to reboot the probe, after a software failure brought the whole spacecraft down for the count.
In a blog update, NASA officials explained that the decision took advantage of a “favorable communications environment around IBEX’s perigee” – the point in the spacecraft’s orbit where it comes closest to Earth.
Juno Snaps Beauty Shots of Io
During a close flyby last week, NASA’s Juno Jupiter probe captured a series of detailed photos of Io, the planet’s innermost and third-largest Galilean moon.
Montage of all 5 images of Io taken by @NASAJuno‘s JunoCAM instrument during the PJ49 encounter on March 1, 2023.
Credit: NASA / SwRI / MSSS / Jason Perry pic.twitter.com/o2G7DUASbd
— Jason Perry (@volcanopele) March 4, 2023
These are easily the clearest images of Io that we’ve captured since the New Horizons flyby in 2006.
Roman Telescope Will Do in Months What Would Take Hubble a Lifetime
NASA’s upcoming Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope is currently under construction at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Right now, the agency is planning to launch the telescope aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket sometime in 2027.
ExtremeTech’s Ryan Whitwam notes that when it’s done, the Roman telescope will have two instruments: a coronagraph for visualizing exoplanets and a 300-megapixel wide-field camera. The latter will allow the telescope, which will use a 2.4-meter mirror like Hubble, to perform both wide-field and deep-sky surveys.
“Roman will take around 100,000 pictures every year,” said Jeffrey Kruk, a research astrophysicist at Goddard. “Given Roman’s larger field of view, it would take longer than our lifetimes even for powerful telescopes like Hubble or Webb to cover as much sky.”
New Study Suggests That Deep Down, the Earth Is 100% Hard-Core Heavy Metal
A new study from Australia has used a map of Earth’s most violent earthquakes to create a new model of what lies at our planet’s core. Metalheads everywhere can rejoice: In their report, the study authors write that the Earth has a hidden innermost core of pure, solid, heavy metal.
Study authors Thanh-Son Phạm and Hrvoje Tkalčić present seismic evidence for another distinct layer at the center of the Earth: a solid ball of pure metal that makes up what they call the planet’s “innermost inner core.” These findings could expand our geological models of Earth to include five distinct layers instead of the traditional four.
Europe’s Vega-C Rocket Failure Traced to Faulty Engine Nozzle
Last December, instead of launching into a Sun-synchronous polar orbit aboard a Vega-C rocket, two Pléiades Neo Earth-imaging satellites and their rocket ended up in the Atlantic Ocean. The rocket and its payload satellites were all destroyed. However, an official European Space Agency inquest has confirmed that the cause was “an unexpected thermo-mechanical over-erosion of the carbon-carbon (C-C) throat insert of the nozzle, procured by Avio in Ukraine. Additional investigations led to the conclusion that this was likely due to a flaw in the homogeneity of the material.”
Upon close inspection, it turned out that the Vega-C rocket’s Zefiro 40 second-stage engine nozzle cracked and then gave way under the extreme temperature and pressure conditions of the rocket launch. Arianespace and the ESA released a joint statement, blaming the problem on substandard materials and voicing confidence in the Zefiro 40 design and the Vega lift vehicle as a whole.
Josef Aschbacher, ESA Director General, said in a statement, “ESA will fully engage its engineering and project management expertise to support Avio in the implementation of actions required to regain confidence in the launcher system. Restoring Europe’s independent access to space is ESA’s priority, and I am therefore glad that we can proceed with Vega launch campaigns while preparing Vega-C to safely return to flight.”
Japan’s H3 Rocket Destroyed During First Test Flight
Tuesday, Japan’s aerospace agency JAXA found itself in the unpleasant position of having to blow up its own rocket on live TV. The H3 lifted off with no problems from Japan’s Tanegashima spaceport, carrying the ALOS-3 land observation satellite. However, the hydrogen-fueled rocket’s second-stage engine failed to ignite. That left it in a wrong trajectory, with too much fuel still on board. Mission control was forced to manually destroy the vehicle 14 minutes into the flight.
“It was decided the rocket could not complete its mission, so the destruct command was sent,” JAXA said in a statement. Yasuhiro Funo, JAXA director for launch implementation, said that the debris would have splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, somewhere east of the Philippines.
After last month’s scrubbed launch attempt, this vehicle loss is a major setback. “Our top priority is to do everything we can to find the cause and regain the trust in our rockets,” said JAXA President Hiroshi Yamakawa at a news conference. “We need to figure out what we should do to successfully achieve the next launch.”
Japanese Startup Debuts Space Tourism Balloon
A Japanese company has invited would-be space tourists with a spare $175,000 to take a highly unconventional trip. Aerospace tourism startup Iwaya Giken is offering a several-hour ride in a balloon-borne “Earther” capsule that will seat two passengers. For just 24 million yen or so (roughly $177,800 at current exchange rates), passengers can spend an hour taking in the view from 15 miles (25 kilometers) above the ground.
Technically, that doesn’t get the whole way into space. Even so, it’s high enough to see the curvature of the Earth, with its atmosphere fading into the deep black sky.
“It’s safe, economical, and gentle for people,” said Iwaya Giken CEO Keisuke Iwaya during a Tokyo press conference. “The idea is to make space tourism for everyone.” Even so, Iwaya Giken says it’s also willing to sell one of its T-10 Earther capsules for a cool $735,000.
Starlink Satellite Constellation Photobombing More and More Telescope Images
Last year, OneWeb switched away from Russia’s Soyuz rockets, opting to buy launch services from SpaceX and Indian rockets, after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket from Canaveral on Thursday, carrying 40 more OneWeb satellites. Eight minutes later, the rocket’s first stage landed back at the Florida spaceport. This mission was OneWeb’s third and final Falcon 9 launch.
SpaceX’s Starlink satellites have caused great consternation among astronomers, whose observations are constantly at risk of photobombing by the satellites’ luminous trails. To better understand the magnitude of the problem, researchers recruited more than 11,000 citizen scientists from the Hubble Asteroid Hunter project. Participants looked at batches of Hubble images taken over 20 years and flagged the ones with satellite streaks. Then the researchers invoked machine learning in order to analyze the results and make predictions.
A Losing Streak
The researchers found that approximately 2.7% of all Hubble images likely have satellite streaks. They also noted that over the last 10 years, the probability of finding a satellite streak in any given image has increased to more than one in 20.
“The fraction of [Hubble] images crossed by satellites is currently small with a negligible impact on science,” astronomer Sandor Kruk and colleagues write in their report. “However, the number of satellites and space debris will only increase in the future.” The researchers go on to predict that within a decade, there will be a satellite moving across Hubble’s field of regard in up to half of its images.
Starlink now accounts for about half of all currently active satellites, and SpaceX isn’t stopping there. SpaceX, OneWeb, and other satellite telecom providers mean to send thousands more satellites into the same crowded 500km orbit as Hubble, the International Space Station, and the Chinese space station Tiangong. As a remedy, the researchers suggest moving our space telescopes further out. Who needs Kessler syndrome when you’ve got a zillion satellites orbiting at the same altitude? At this point, the satellites themselves could form an ersatz planetary defense grid.
Relativity Scrubs Wednesday Methane Rocket Launch Attempt
Relativity Space scrubbed its methane rocket launch countdown about a minute before liftoff Wednesday at Cape Canaveral. Sensors detected that liquid oxygen in the Terran 1 rocket’s second stage was at a temperature too high for a safe launch. Relativity’s launch team did initially reset the countdown clock, going for a second launch attempt before Wednesday’s launch window closed. However, at T – 1:10, Clay Walker, Relativity’s launch director, called off the countdown, saying, “All parties, we are scrubbing for the day. Thanks for playing.”
The scrub will delay the 3D-printed rocket’s test flight until Saturday. If the company succeeds in launching the rocket, playfully named GLHF for “good luck, have fun,” it will be the first successful methane rocket launch ever.
Canadian Elementary Schoolers Discover EpiPens Turn Toxic in Space
A group of Canadian students has reported that EpiPens may not be useful in space. EpiPens are a critical first-line treatment for severe allergic reactions. However, in orbit, cosmic rays can denature the epinephrine inside these life-saving devices — turning it into “extremely poisonous benzoic acid derivatives.”
Teaming up with faculty from the University of Ottawa, the students did “GC-MS analysis of both pure epinephrine and the solution from an EpiPen before and after flights. The ‘after’ samples showed signs that the epinephrine reacted and decomposed,” said Paul Mayer, professor at the University of Ottawa, in a statement.
“In fact, no epinephrine was found in the ‘after’ EpiPen solution samples,” added Mayer. “This result raises questions about the efficacy of an EpiPen for outer space applications, and these questions are now starting to be addressed by the kids in the PGL program.”
The students are now working on a protective capsule for the EpiPens. They will present their design this summer at Langley.
Dwarf planet Ceres is at opposition in March, which means it’s at its brightest for the year. Consequently, this is a great time to see if you can find Ceres in the sky. It will be visible throughout the night all month. Bonus: from now until the spring equinox, each day, the waning gibbous moon will present less of a problem in the form of stray light washing out other objects in the sky.
You can find Ceres using binoculars or a small telescope, with Leo the Lion as your guide. First, find Leo in the southeast after around 9 p.m. The lion’s heart is the bright, bluish-white star Regulus. Look eastward about 25 degrees to find Denebola, which represents the lion’s tail. Another 8 or 9 degrees farther east, you’ll see Ceres as a faint, starlike point of light. This appearance is why, when astronomers first discovered Ceres and objects like it, they dubbed them “asteroids” — which means “starlike.”
That’s all for this week, but we’ll see you here next Friday.
P.S.: Next Tuesday is Pi Day. Do you celebrate Pi Day, or are you a Tau Day purist? Inquiring minds would love to know.