On June 5, 2002, the space shuttle Endeavour launched on the STS-111 mission from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to the International Space Station.
The launch was originally scheduled for May 30, but was delayed first by bad weather and then by technical issues on Endeavour. After a part was replaced, the shuttle was ready for launch on June 5.
The STS-111 crew included commander Kenneth Cockrell, pilot Paul Lockhart mission specialists Franklin Chang-Diaz and Philippe Perrin (of the French space agency CNES), as well as the Expedition 5 crewmembers Valeri Korzun of Roscosmos, Peggy Whitson of NASA and Sergei Treschev of Roscosmos.
Endeavour’s 14-day STS-111 mission delivered supplies to the ISS, and rotated the astronaut crew aboard the space station, exchanging three Expedition 4 crewmembers for three Expedition 5 crewmembers.
On May 9, 2003, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency launched the first-ever asteroid sample return mission, Hayabusa. This was also the first mission to land on an asteroid.
Hayabusa would spend about two years chasing down a near-Earth asteroid called 25143 Itokawa. It then landed on the asteroid, scooped up some samples, and returned to Earth in 2010. Hayabusa may have accomplished its mission, but it was also constantly plagued with technical difficulties.
The problems started six months after the launch, when a huge solar flare damaged the solar arrays. This reduced the amount of power the solar panels could supply to its ion engines, so it look an extra three months to reach the asteroid.
After finally getting there, Hayabusa tried to drop off a tiny robotic lander called MINERVA, but it drifted off into space without even touching the asteroid. Hayabusa itself made two separate landing attempts, both of which were riddled with problems that put the spacecraft into safe mode. But somehow it still managed to bring some asteroid dust back to Earth.
From Micheal Collins 1974 book, Carrying the Fire:
“I don’t mean to deny a feeling of solitude. It is there, reinforced by the fact that radio contact with the Earth abruptly cuts off at the instant I disappear behind the moon. I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life. I am it. If a count were taken, the score would be three billion plus two over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God only knows what on this side. I feel this powerfully ― not as fear or loneliness ― but as awareness, anticipation, satisfaction, confidence, almost exultation. I like the feeling. Outside my window I can see stars — and that is all. Where I know the moon to be, there is simply a black void; the moon’s presence is defined solely by the absence of stars. To compare the sensation with something terrestrial, perhaps being alone in a skiff in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on a pitch-black night would most nearly approximate my situation.”
The flare was around 100 times more powerful than those emitted by the sun.
Scientists have spotted one of the largest stellar flares ever recorded in our galaxy. The jets of plasma shot outward from the sun’s nearest neighbor, the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri. The flare, which was around 100 times more powerful than any experienced in our solar system, could change the way scientists think about solar radiation and alien life.
Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf — the smallest, dimmest and most common type of main sequence stars in the galaxy — located approximately 4.25 light-years from Earth. Its mass is only one-eighth of the sun’s, and it is orbited by two exoplanets. One of these planets, Proxima Centauri b, is considered to be Earth-like and lies within the star’s habitable zone — the distance from a star that could support the development of life, according to the researchers.
In a new study, researchers used nine ground and orbital telescopes — including the Hubble Space Telescope, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array and NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite — to closely monitor Proxima Centauri for a total of 40 hours over several months in 2019. On May 1, 2019, the team captured the mega flare, which shone for just 7 seconds and was mainly visible in the ultraviolet spectrum.
“The star went from normal to 14,000 times brighter when seen in ultraviolet wavelengths over the span of a few seconds,” lead author Meredith MacGregor, an astrophysicist at the University of Colorado Boulder, said in a statement.
The power of this flare and type of radiation it emitted could change what we know about red dwarfs and the chances of life developing on the planets that orbit them.
A humongous flare
Stellar flares are the result of a star’s strong magnetic fields. These fields — which are created by large amounts of electrically charged gas — can get twisted together and suddenly snap back into place to release an enormous amount of energy in the form of radiation, kind of like firing an elastic band at someone with your fingers.
The flare on Proxima Centauri was extremely powerful compared with those emitted by the sun. Unlike flares from the sun, this one also emitted different kinds of radiation. In particular, it produced a huge surge of ultraviolet light and radio waves — known as “millimeter radiation.”
“In the past, we didn’t know that stars could flare in the millimeter range, so this is the first time we have gone looking for millimeter flares,” MacGregor said in the statement.
This finding was possible only because the team monitored the star using such a wide variety of telescopes, each focused on a different part of the electromagnetic spectrum.
“It’s the first time we’ve ever had this kind of multiwavelength coverage of a stellar flare,” MacGregor said in the statement. “Usually, you’re lucky if you can get two instruments.”
The new findings suggest that stellar flares given off by red dwarfs are much more violent than previously expected and could reduce the likelihood of alien life developing around them.
Bad news for aliens
The type and amount of radiation given off by Proxima Centauri could make it very hard for life to survive on its orbiting exoplanets, which likely have no real atmosphere due to the powerful flares, according to the researchers. But it’s not impossible for alien life to exist there.
“If there was life on the planet nearest to Proxima Centauri, it would have to look very different than anything on Earth,” MacGregor said in the statement. “A human being on this planet would have a bad time.”
Other red dwarfs likely give off equally powerful flares, thus decreasing the chances that red dwarf-hosted planets could support life. They also flare “much more frequently” than the sun, further reducing the chances of finding life in that star system, according to the researchers.
“Proxima Centauri’s planets are getting hit by something like this not once in a century, but at least once a day, if not several times a day,” MacGregor said in the statement.
The researchers now hope to use the wide variety of telescopes to focus on other stellar flares across our galaxy.
“There will probably be even more weird types of flares that demonstrate different types of physics that we haven’t thought about before,” MacGregor said in the statement.
On April 19, 1971, the Soviet Union launched the world’s first space station, Salyut 1.
This space station was a modified version of the Soviet Union’s Almaz space station, which was part of a highly classified military program and was still under development at the time.
After NASA managed to put astronauts on the moon, the Soviet Union decided that its next big feat in the Space Race would be to put a crewed space station in orbit.
The first crew to visit Salyut 1 in orbit launched just four days after the space station did. However, that crew had some technical problems while trying to dock with the space station in their Soyuz spacecraft, so they went back home without ever actually entering the station.
Another crew launched two months later, and after a successful docking, they spent 23 days aboard the station.
On April 11, 1960, astronomers began the first scientific experiment that would search for extraterrestrial life.
Known as Project Ozma, this experiment looked for interstellar radio transmissions coming from other star systems. This was the first time that radio astronomy was used to look for aliens. The effort was led by an astronomer named Frank Drake at Cornell University. He used an 85-foot telescope at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia to check out two nearby stars called Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani. He first pointed the telescope at Tau Ceti, but he didn’t detect any signals.
When he pointed the telescope at Epsilon Eridani, he did see a signal, but it turned out to be a false alarm. He later found out that the signal was created by military radar equipment and was definitely not aliens.