October 31st 2021

During its closest approach, it was about 300,000 miles from Earth, or 1.3 times the average distance between Earth and the moon. So, it didn’t pose a threat to our planet. It was discovered by astronomers at Hawaii’s Pan-STARRS observatory only three weeks before the flyby, and it was given the official designation “2015 TB145.” 

But no one knew what it looked like until the day before Halloween, when the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico captured the first radar images. NASA called the asteroid the “Great Pumpkin,” while others called it the “Halloween Asteroid.”

Source: https://www.space.com/39251-on-this-day-in-space.html

October 25th 2021

Hubble telescope spots a pair of ‘squabbling’ galaxies locked in cosmic dance

The research may shed light on cosmic evolution.

The Hubble Space Telescope caught a pair of “squabbling” galaxies in action, according to the European Space Agency.

The pair of objects is known as Arp 86 and includes two galaxies roughly 220 million light-years away from Earth in the constellation Pegasus. They are known individually as NGC 7753 and the much smaller companion NGC 7752.

“The diminutive companion galaxy almost appears attached to NGC 7753, and it is this peculiarity that has earned the designation ‘Arp 86’ – signifying that the galaxy pair appears in the Atlas of Peculiar Galaxies compiled by the astronomer Halton Arp in 1966,” ESA officials wrote in a statement about the new research. 

“The gravitational dance between the two galaxies will eventually result in NGC 7752 being tossed out into intergalactic space or entirely engulfed by its much larger neighbor,” the added.

The Hubble Space Telescope observations were meant to shed light on how cold gas in the area contributes to the formation of young stars observed in the image. The observatory examined star clusters, gas clouds and dust clouds in several environments in the neighborhood, including other galaxies outside of Arp 86, ESA stated.

The space telescope’s work was combined with measurements from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), a set of telescopes in the Chilean Andes optimized to peer through galactic dust in young systems. Between ALMA and Hubble, the research team is seeking more information about how stars are formed.

The research will also assist with future work by the James Webb Space Telescope, which is set to launch late in 2021 to explore the origins of the universe. One of Webb’s research projects will be to look at dusty galaxies (such as Arp 86) to learn more about star evolution, ESA stated.

Source: https://www.space.com/hubble-telescope-squabbling-galaxies-photo

18th October 2021

China’s longest space mission ever is officially underway. 

The three astronauts of China’s Shenzhou 13 mission entered the country’s Tianhe module, the core of its Tiangong space station, on Saturday (Oct. 16) to kick off a six-month expedition to the fledgling orbital lab. The astronauts entered the station at 9:58 a.m. Saturday morning Beijing Time (8:58 p.m. Friday EDT, 0058 GMT) about eight hours after launching into orbit from the Jiuquan Satellite Launching Center in the Gobi Desert. Their arrival capped a smooth autonomous docking by the Shenzhou 13 spacecraft.

The Shenzhou 13 crew includes commander Zhai Zhigang, China’s first spacewalker; Wang Yaping, the first female astronaut to the new station who has also flown before; and first-time spaceflyer Ye Guangfu. Their Shenzhou 13 spacecraft docked at an Earth-facing port on the Tianhe module. Two other uncrewed cargo ships, Tianzhou 2 and Tianzhou 3, are also parked at the module at berths on opposite ends of the station.

Video of the Shenzhou 13 astronauts entering Tianhe show the crew floating inside a pristine white spacecraft as they began to settle into their months-long mission. During their flight, the astronauts will test the station’s systems, including a robotic arm. 

One of their tasks includes using a robotic arm to move a Tianzhou cargo ship between docking ports to rehearse in-space construction tasks ahead of the arrival of new modules in 2022, according to state media reports. Between two and three spacewalks are expected during the mission.

Source: https://www.space.com/china-shenzhou-13-astronauts-begin-space-station-work

11th October 2021

David Rothery, Professor of Planetary Geosciences, The Open University

The BepiColombo spacecraft – a joint project by the European and Japanese space agencies – swung by its destination planet Mercury in the early hours of Saturday, Oct. 2. Passing within just 124 miles (200 kilometers) of the surface of Mercury, it sent back some spectacular pictures.

For those of us who have worked for a decade or more on this mission, there could hardly be a way better to celebrate what would have been the 101st birthday of the mission’s namesake, Italian mathematician and engineer Giuseppe Colombo. His groundbreaking work in this area earned him the title of the grandfather of the planetary fly-by technique, now more often termed a “swing-by.”

BepiColombo’s cruise from Earth began in October 2018, and its journey is far from over. It will travel twice around the sun in the time it takes Mercury to orbit the star three times (around 264 days). This will allow it to rendezvous with the planet for another swing-by on June 23 2022.

After a total of six Mercury swing-bys, the cumulative effect of the planet’s gravity will reduce the spacecraft’s velocity to the point where it can fall into orbit with Mercury around the end of 2025.

BepiColombo is actually composed of two connected spacecraft and a propulsion unit. During its cruise through interplanetary space, the European orbiter (called the Mercury Planetary Orbiter or MPO) is attached on one side to the interplanetary propulsion unit (or Mercury Transfer Module). On the other, it carries a Japanese orbiter named Mio (or Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter), plus a sunshield to prevent Mio from overheating.

This stacked configuration obstructs the openings through which sophisticated visible, infrared and X-ray cameras inside MPO – capable of imaging and analysing Mercury’s surface in great detail – will operate once MPO finally becomes free-flying. In fact, most of BepiColombo’s science instruments will be wholly or partly inoperative until each orbiter is set free, around December 2025.

Adding the cameras

Until a relatively late stage in mission planning, it was accepted that BepiColombo would be “flying blind” during its whole cruise from Earth, including during swing-bys – meaning no images would be available until orbit around Mercury had been achieved.

But the level of public interest aroused in 2015 by images of comet 67P from the Rosetta mission led BepiColombo engineers Kelly Geelen and James Windsor to propose that low-cost lightweight cameras should be added to the spacecraft.

By the end of 2016, it was agreed that three small monitoring cameras – each only 2.6 inches (6.5 centimeters) in length – would be mounted onto the craft. These would snap planetary pictures during swing-bys.

It was decided to place these cameras on the Mercury Transfer Module, where they would also be able to monitor the deployment of the solar panels that provide the spacecraft with power, the magnetometer boom used for measuring magnetic fields, and the communication antennas.

What Bepi saw

During BepiColombo’s first Mercury swing-by, the fields of view of monitoring cameras two and three tracked across the planet. Camera three showed us part of the southern hemisphere, beginning with a view of sunrise over Astrolabe Rupes – a striking feature named after a French Antarctic exploration ship.

Astrolabe Rupes is a 155-mile (250 km) long “lobate scarp” – a long, curved structure marking where one part of the planet’s crust has been pushed over nearby terrain, due to the whole planet contracting as it slowly cooled.

There are some much smaller equivalent features on the moon, but Mercury is the only nearby celestial body where lobate scarps are known to occur on such a large scale.

Four minutes later, the perspective had changed enough to reveal a wider area: including the lava-flooded, 156-mile-wide (251 km) Haydn crater and Pampu Facula, one of many bright spots likely formed by explosive volcanic eruptions. Both of these features attest to Mercury’s long volcanic history, at its most active more than three billion years ago but probably persisting until around one billion years ago.

Meanwhile, camera two focused on Mercury’s northern hemisphere, including the region surrounding Cavino Crater: an important location for deciphering what lies in the layers of Mercury’s crust.

It also showed Lermontov crater: a region which appears bright because it is host to both volcanic deposits and “hollows”, where a currently unknown volatile ingredient of the crust is being lost to space via a mysterious process.

NASA’s MESSENGER mission orbited Mercury between 2011 and 2015, revealing a perplexing planet. We are still struggling to understand its composition, origin and history.

Why Mercury has features such as explosive volcanoes and strange, unique hollows on its surface is just one of the problems we hope further study will solve. Once in orbit, BepiColombo’s advanced payload of scientific instruments will help us understand more about how Mercury formed and what it’s made of.

In the meantime, these extraordinary swing-by pictures at least remind us that we have a healthy spacecraft heading to an exciting destination.

Source: https://www.space.com/first-close-up-mercury-pictures-bepicolombo-planet-secrets

4th October 2021

A cosmic hurricane shows its ‘eye’ in a new image from the Hubble Space Telescope.

The spiral galaxy NGC 5728 has quite a powerhouse at its center. This structure located 130 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Libra is in a unique cosmic category thanks to its active core. 

NGC 5728 is a Seyfert galaxy, which means that one of its particular characteristics is the active galactic nucleus at its core that shines bright thanks to all the gas and dust that is hurled around its central black hole. Sometimes galactic cores are busy and luminous enough to outshine the rest of the galaxy in visible and infrared light. But Seyfert galaxies like NGC 5728 are a special Goldilocks treat, because human instruments can still view the rest of Seyfert galaxies clearly.

The European Space Agency (ESA) published this new image on Monday (Sept. 27). According to ESA, which jointly operates the Hubble Space Telescope with NASA, the spacecraft used its Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) to capture this view. Officials said in a statement that describes the photo that even as glorious as this cosmic scene appears here, there is also a lot going on near NGC 5728 that the camera doesn’t capture.

“As this image shows, NGC 5728 is clearly observable, and at optical and infrared wavelengths it looks quite normal,” ESA officials wrote in the description. “It is fascinating to know that the galaxy’s centre is emitting vast amounts of light in parts of the electromagnetic spectrum that WFC3 just isn’t sensitive to!”

It turns out that the iris of NGC 5728’s galactic ‘eye’ might in fact be emitting some visible and infrared light that the camera would otherwise detect if it weren’t for the glowing dust surrounding the core. 


20th September 2021

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — After three days in space, SpaceX’s first all-civilian crew returned to Earth tonight, splashing down off the Florida coast to end a historic mission. 

“It’s been an amazing ride for everyone,” Inspiration4 mission director Kip O’Keefe said in a post-splashdown news conference. “We couldn’t ask for a more successful mission.”

The SpaceX Crew Dragon Resilience gently landed in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida tonight (Sept. 18) at 7:06 p.m. EDT (2306 GMT) marking the end of the Inspiration4 mission, a private spaceflight that launched four civilians into orbit earlier this week. 

The flight was part of a massive fundraising effort for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Jared Isaacman, billionaire and four of Shift4 Payments, purchased the flight from SpaceX in order to raise $200 million for childhood cancer research. 

“Inspiration4, on behalf of SpaceX, welcome to planet Earth,” Kris Young, Space Operations Director at SpaceX mission control, told the crew after their successful splashdown. “Your mission has shown the world that space is for all of us, and that everyday people can make extraordinary impacts in the world around them. Thank you for sharing your leadership, hope, generosity and prosperity — and congratulations.”

“Thanks so much, SpaceX. It was a heck of a ride for us,” Isaacman replied. “We’re just getting started.”

Source: https://www.space.com/spacex-inspiration4-returns-to-earth

Sept 12th 2021

Sept. 12, 1992: Mae Jemison Becomes 1st African-American woman in space

On Sept. 12, 1992, NASA astronaut Mae Jemison became the first African-American woman to go to space.

In NASA’s early days, women and people of color were never selected to go to space. NASA didn’t send a woman to space until the seventh space shuttle mission in 1983. The first African-American man NASA launched into space flew on the following mission that same year.

Nine years later, NASA finally selected an African-American woman to fly on STS-47, the 50th space shuttle mission. Jemison was a trained engineer and licensed physician who served in the Peace Corps before applying to become an astronaut.

She worked as a mission specialist on STS-47 and logged over 190 hours in space. STS-47 was her only mission. In 1993, she retired from NASA and went on to found her own company, the Jemison Group, which is a technology consulting firm.

Source: https://www.space.com/39251-on-this-day-in-space.html

29th August 2021

The James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s next great observatory, passes final ground tests

By Tereza Pultarova 2 days ago

After years of delays, the most powerful space telescope ever built is ready for its trip to space.

NASA and its partners working on the James Webb Space Telescope have completed their final tests of the giant observatory and are now preparing it for a trip to a South American spaceport for a launch later this year.

Conceived more than 30 years ago as a successor of the then new Hubble Space Telescope, James Webb will be the largest observatory ever to be put in orbit. It is designed to use its infrared eyes to peer further into the universe’s history than ever before. With its 6.5-meter in diameter gold-plated mirror, the telescope will attempt to answer questions about the formation of first stars and galaxies out of the darkness of the early universe. 

At 44 feet (13.2 meters) long and 14 feet (4.2 m) wide, the telescope is about the size of a large tractor-trailer truck, fitted with intricate sun shades that could cover a tennis court once unfolded.

The program faced many delays, not just due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but seems finally on track to start producing ground-breaking astronomical observations. The testing, which took place at the facilities of prime contractor Northrop Grumman in California, made sure that nothing would go wrong with the more than $10 billion spacecraft during launch and once in space. 

“NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has reached a major turning point on its path toward launch with the completion of final observatory integration and testing,” Gregory Robinson, Webb’s program director at NASA headquarters in Washington, said in a statement. “We have a tremendously dedicated workforce who brought us to the finish line, and we are very excited to see that Webb is ready for launch and will soon be on that science journey.”

The engineering teams must now ensure that the 7.2-ton (6.5 metric tonnes) telescope makes it safely to the European Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. NASA said in the statement that shipping preparations will be completed in September. James Webb will then make the journey from California by sea, sealed in a 100-foot-long (30 meters) security container. It will pass through the Panama Canal and reach Kourou at least 55 days before the launch date, according to a statement by the European Space Agency (ESA). ESA, NASA’s partner in the James Webb Space Telescope project, is providing the launch aboard its seasoned Ariane 5 rocket, which is considered one of the most reliable launch vehicles currently available. 

In parallel with the transportation, teams at Webb’s Mission Operations Center (MOC) at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore will continue testing the complex communications network that will ensure that commands can be relayed to the precious telescope swiftly and seamlessly. 

Once in Kourou, the telescope will undergo further prelaunch checks before being fueled and then mated on top of Ariane 5. 

“After completing the final steps of the James Webb Space Telescope’s testing regimen, I can’t help but see the reflections of the thousands of individuals who have dedicated so much of their lives to Webb, every time I look at that beautiful gold mirror,” Bill Ochs, Webb project manager for NASA Goddard, said in the statement.

The telescope will observe the Universe undisturbed by any terrestrial influences from a vantage point around the so-called Lagrangian Point 2 (L2). Located some 900,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) away from Earth, L2 is one of five points around the sun and Earth where the gravitational forces of both bodies are in balance. A spacecraft located in one of those points orbits the sun together with Earth and maintains a stable position with respect to the planet. The famous Hubble, in comparison, orbits the Earth at the altitude of only 330 miles (545 km).

There is however, still one question standing in the way of the grand telescope’s mission: its name, given to honor the 1960s NASA administrator James Webb. Webb, who’s been largely credited with the success of the agency’s Apollo moon exploration program, was also a great proponent of science. But according to allegations, he also created another legacy —  that of homophobia and persecution of LGBT experts. The journal Nature recently reported that NASA is investigating Webb’s past transgression to see whether there is sufficient ground to remove the honour of having the greatest astronomical observatory of all time named after him. 

Source: https://www.space.com/james-webb-space-telescope-testing-complete

26th July 2021

On Feb. 18th, 2021, NASA’s Perseverance rover landed within the Jezero Crater on Mars. Like its predecessor, Curiosity, a fellow member of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program (MEP), the goal of Perseverance is to seek out evidence of possible life on Mars (past and present). A key part of this mission will be the first sample return ever performed on Mars, where samples obtained by Perseverance will be placed in a cache for later retrieval and return to Earth.

For the past five months, mission controllers at NASA have been driving the rover further from where it landed (Octavia E. Butler Landing Site) and conducting test flights with the Ingenuity helicopter. NASA is now in the midst of making final preparations for Perseverance to collect its first sample of Martian rock. This historic first is expected to begin by the end of the month or by early August and will culminate with the return of the samples to Earth by 2031.

This rock will come from an area known as the “Cratered Floor Fractured Rough,” a 4 km2 (1.5-square-mile) patch of crater floor that may contain Jezero’s deepest and most ancient layers of exposed bedrock. These rocks will also be the most significant sample return since the Apollo astronauts brought rocks back from the Moon. These samples are still teaching us things about the formation of the Earth-Moon System and the evolution of the Solar System.

Said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters, in a recent NASA press release:

“When Neil Armstrong took the first sample from the Sea of Tranquility 52 years ago, he began a process that would rewrite what humanity knew about the Moon. I have every expectation that Perseverance’s first sample from Jezero Crater, and those that come after, will do the same for Mars. We are on the threshold of a new era of planetary science and discovery.”

This time, procuring the first sample of Martian rock will take about 11 days to complete, compared to the 3 minutes and 35 seconds it took Armstrong needed to take the first lunar sample. Unlike the Apollo astronauts, Perseverance needs to receive instructions from mission controllers, subject to a 4- to 24-minute delay. Similarly, the process takes time because it relies on the most complex mechanism ever sent to space, Sampling and Caching System (SCS).

The sequence begins with the rover placing everything it needs from the SCS within reach of the 2 m (7 foot) robotic arm. An imagery survey will follow so the NASA science team can determine where exactly it will take the first sample from and a secondary target site in the same area for what is known as “proximity science.” As Vivian Sun, the science co-lead from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), said in a recent NASA press release:

“The idea is to get valuable data on the rock we are about to sample by finding its geologic twin and performing detailed in-situ analysis. On the geologic double, first we use an abrading bit to scrape off the top layers of rock and dust to expose fresh, unweathered surfaces, blow it clean with our Gas Dust Removal Tool, and then get up close and personal with our turret-mounted proximity science instruments SHERLOC, PIXL, and WATSON.”

Once the samples are procured, Perseverance will use its suite of advanced scientific instruments to examine them in stunning detail to learn more about their composition. These include the Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals (SHERLOC) instrument that will search for evidence of organic molecules that form in the presence of water and could be an indication of life.

This instrument is assisted by the Wide Angle Topographic Sensor for Operations and eNgineering (WATSON), a color camera for taking close-up images of rock grains and surface textures. There’s also the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL) that uses an X-ray spectrometer to identify chemical elements at a tiny scale. Perseverance will also use its SuperCam and Mastcam-Z instruments (both located on the rover’s mast) to study the local rocks and soil.

The SuperCam works by firing a laser at the surface of rocks and soils to produce a small plume, which it then examines with cameras and spectrometers to look for signs of organic compounds. The Mastcam-Z, meanwhile, will take high-resolution imagery and video of samples to enable a more detailed examination. Working together, these five instruments will allow for an unprecedented level of analysis of geological materials at the worksite.

Once the pre-coring science is complete, the mission team will give the rover a full Martian day (or Sol) to charge up its batteries for sample collection. This will begin the following day and start with the sample-handling arm within the Adaptive Caching Assembly (ACS) retrieving and heating a sample tube, inserting it into a coring bit, then transferring both to a rotatory-percussive drill on Perseverance‘s robotic arm.

The drill will fill the tube with a core sample, then transfer it and the coring bit back into the ACS to be measured, photographed, hermetically sealed, and stored. Once all the tubes are filled, they will be left behind in a cache that could be picked up by a joint NASA-ESA Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission, including an orbiter, lander, rover, and launch vehicle – which could launch as early as 2026.

The next time those samples are observed would be in a cleanroom facility back on Earth, where scientists would inspect them using instruments far too large to send aboard a spacecraft to Mars. However, as Perseverance project scientist Ken Farley (a W.M. Keck Foundation Professor of Geochemistry at Caltech) indicated, no one expects the samples to contain perfectly-preserved fossilized remnants of ancient life:

“Not every sample Perseverance is collecting will be done in the quest for ancient life, and we don’t expect this first sample to provide definitive proof one way or the other. While the rocks located in this geologic unit are not great time capsules for organics, we believe they have been around since the formation of Jezero Crater and incredibly valuable to fill gaps in our geologic understanding of this region – things we’ll desperately need to know if we find life once existed on Mars.”

Nevertheless, having Martian rock and soil samples available for analysis here on Earth will prove invaluable. Like the Apollo Moon rocks, generations of scientists will be able to examine them using increasingly sophisticated instruments to learn more about the formation and evolution of Mars, particularly how it transitioned from being a warmer, wetter environment where life could exist to the extremely cold and dry place it is today.

Most importantly, this research will pave the way for human missions to Mars, where astronaut crews will spend days or even weeks on the surface investigating Mars’ geology, climate, atmosphere, and surface environment.

Source: https://www.universetoday.com/151935/perseverance-is-about-to-collect-the-first-sample-on-mars-that-could-eventually-be-returned-to-earth/

July 18, 1980: India launches 1st indigenous satellite

On July 18, 1980, India launched its first satellite into orbit. This made India the seventh nation to launch an indigenously built satellite.

The Rohini RS-1 satellite lifted off from the Satish Dhawan Space Center at 8 a.m. local time. It was a small, experimental satellite weighing only about 77 lbs. (35 kilograms), and its primary purpose was to test out their new Satellite Launch Vehicle, or SLV-3 rocket.

This was a monumental mission for the Indian Space Research Organization, not just because they launched their own satellite, but also because they successfully launched the SLV-3 for the very first time.

Source: https://www.space.com/39251-on-this-day-in-space.html