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

June 21st 2021

Two astronauts working outside the International Space Station successfully rolled out a new type of solar array, providing the orbiting outpost with its first power boost in decades.

NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough and French astronaut Thomas Pesquet of the European Space Agency conducted a six-hour and 28-minute extravehicular activity (EVA) on Sunday (June 20), to finish the installation and deployment of the first International Space Station (ISS) Roll-Out Solar Array (iROSA). The two Expedition 65 crewmates resumed work where they had left off on a spacewalk on Wednesday (June 16), by overcoming an interference issue that initially prevented them from unfolding the array fully.

“Yeah! It has been engaged! Woohoo!” Pesquet exclaimed after the array was aligned with its mounting bracket. At the advice of Mission Control, Pesquet and Kimbrough used wire ties and tethers to assist in fully extending the 20-foot-long (6 meter), 750-lb. (340 kilograms) assembly.

The astronauts then secured bolts and ran cables to the new array, the latter tying the iROSA into the same power channel (P6/2B) as the 20-year-old legacy array that it was installed to augment on the far left (port) side of the station’s backbone truss. For safety concerns, the spacewalkers waited until the space station was in a nighttime pass to connect the electrical cables.

The station’s eight original arrays have begun showing degraded power output as they have exceed their 15-year design life. The new roll-out solar arrays are being installed in front of, and partially overlaying, six of the older arrays. When used in tandem, the upgraded system will be capable of increasing the station’s electricity supply by 20 to 30 percent.

“These new ISS Roll-Out Solar Arrays are pretty fantastic. It is pretty incredible to see the material they are [made] out of, for one,” Kimbrough said in a recent NASA interview. “They are this lightweight, flexible composite blanket material that can get stowed very compactly, but when it is rolled out and deployed, it can bring in a lot of sunlight, which in our case will give us a lot of power for the station.”

The first pair of the new arrays were launched in the unpressurized “trunk” of the SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft that arrived at the space station on June 5. The IROSAs were built by Deployable Space Systems (DSS) and were configured for launch and installation on the station by Boeing.

Unlike the legacy arrays, no motor was needed to deploy the iROSA to its 63-foot (19 meter) length. After Pesquet released two final bolts, the potential energy held by the array’s rolled-up carbon composite booms was enough to unroll the array. The entire process took about six minutes.

“Good news you two. As you can probably see most of what we can see, we are tracking a full and good deploy of that solar array,” Jenni Sidey, a Canadian Space Agency astronaut serving as the ground intravehicular officer in Mission Control in Houston, radioed Pesquet and Kimbrough once the deployment was complete. “So well done both of you.”

“Congratulations to everyone involved in that project,” replied Pesquet.

In addition to ensuring that the space station has enough power, the iROSAs are also serving as a test for NASA’s Artemis Gateway to be deployed in orbit around the moon. The Gateway’s planned arrays will be longer and be deployed remotely but otherwise will use the same technology from the same company.

Sunday’s EVA was originally intended to install and deploy the second iROSA on the P6 truss’ 4B power channel array. With the first iROSA now extended, Kimbrough and Pesquet were able to work on some “get-ahead” tasks for their next spacewalk together, now scheduled for Friday (June 25) to install and deploy the second array.

This was the 240th spacewalk in support of space station assembly. The EVA, which began at 7:42 a.m. and ended at 2:10 p.m. EDT (1142 to 1810 GMT), was the eighth for Kimbrough and the fourth for Pesquet. The pair arrived at the station as members of SpaceX’s Crew-2 aboard Dragon Endeavour in April.

Kimbrough has now spent 52 hours and 43 minutes on spacewalks. Pesquet has logged 26 hours and 15 minutes.

Source: https://www.space.com/spacewalking-astronauts-roll-out-new-space-station-solar-arrays

June 6th 2021, Endeavour Launches On Mission To ISS

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.

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

May 9, 2003: Japan launches Hayabusa mission to asteroid

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.

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

3rd May 2021

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.”

RIP Micheal Collins

Proxima Centauri shoots out humongous flare, with big implications for alien life

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.”

Artist's conception of a stellar flare as seen from the planet Proxima Centauri b, a potentially Earth-like world.

“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.

Source: https://www.space.com/proxima-centauri-emits-largest-stellar-flare.html

On This Day in Space! April 19, 1971: World’s 1st space station launches into orbit

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.

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