Welcome to our first newsletter of 2021. I would like to begin this issue with a Tribute to Tom Nolan. Tom was diagnosed with a most aggressive form of brain cancer one month after he retired from NASA JPL last January. The news was devastating. One Giant Leap Australia and Tom had worked together on some incredible plans and we were looking forward to building capacity of the ‘Space, STEM and Your Future’ program. Tom passed away 6 pm on 31st December 2020 from pneumonia. You can read his tribute and if you wish to contribute to the Australian Tom Nolan INSPIRE Scholarship fund you are very welcome to. Our thoughts are with his wife and family.
For the second time ever, humanity has brought asteroid samples down to Earth. A small capsule bearing pristine pieces of the near-Earth asteroid Ryugu touched down early this afternoon (Dec. 5) within the remote and rugged Woomera Prohibited Area, about 310 miles (500 kilometers) northwest of the South Australian capital of Adelaide. The samples were snagged millions of miles from Earth by Japan’s Hayabusa2 mission, which studied the 3,000-foot-wide (900 meters) Ryugu up close from June 2018 to November 2019.
Hayabusa2’s predecessor was the first to haul space-rock samples home, delivering pieces of the stony asteroid Itokawa in 2010. But the original Hayabusa (Japanese for “peregrine falcon”) returned less than 1 milligram of material. Hayabusa2’s bounty is expected to exceed 100 mg (0.0035 ounces), and its samples come from a very different kind of asteroid — a primitive “C-type” space rock rich in water and carbon-containing organic compounds. “The materials that formed the Earth, its oceans and life were present in the primordial cloud from which our solar system formed. In the early solar system, these materials were in contact and able to chemically interact within the same parent objects,” Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) officials wrote in an overview of Hayabusa2. “These interactions are retained even today in primitive bodies (C-type asteroids), so returning samples from these bodies for analysis will elucidate the origins and evolution of the solar system and the building blocks of life,” they added.
If life emerged on ancient Mars, it may have had the planet’s internal heat to thank. The Martian underground may have been habitable billions of years ago even if the planet’s surface was a dry, frigid wasteland. Mars likely churned out enough geothermal heat in the ancient past to melt the bases of thick ice sheets, generating large amounts of potentially life-supporting groundwater, a new study suggests. The results could help scientists get a better handle on a decades-old mystery known as the faint young sun paradox. Four billion years ago, the sun was about 30% dimmer than it is today — too weak, seemingly, to support a continuously warm and wet Mars. Yet evidence of liquid water during that epoch abounds; NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity, for example, has spent the last eight years exploring an ancient lake-and-stream system. Hence the paradox.
“Even if greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and water vapor are pumped into the early Martian atmosphere in computer simulations, climate models still struggle to support a long-term warm and wet Mars,” study lead author Lujendra Ojha, an assistant professor at Rutgers University-New Brunswick in New Jersey, said in a statement. “I and my co-authors propose that the faint young sun paradox may be reconciled, at least partly, if Mars had high geothermal heat in its past,” Ojha said. He and his colleagues investigated whether the required internal heat — generated by the radioactive decay of elements such as thorium, potassium and uranium — did indeed flow during Mars’ Noachian era, which lasted from about 4.1 billion to 3.7 billion years ago. The researchers focused their attention on the Martian southern highlands, a region that likely supported large ice sheets at the time.
When Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo takes to the skies above New Mexico later this month, it will do so without the crowds and publicity once expected for the historic flight. Virgin Galactic announced Dec. 1 that is had rescheduled a powered test flight of its SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceplane for a window that opens Dec. 11 from Spaceport America in New Mexico. Pilots CJ Sturckow and David Mackay will fly the vehicle on trajectory that will go above the 80-kilometer altitude that the company defines as space, based on the altitude U.S. government agencies use for awarding astronaut wings. The vehicle will then glide to a landing at the spaceport.|
Virgin had scheduled the launch for last month, but postponed it Nov. 16 when the state imposed a new stay-at-home order to address a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases. That order closed nonessential businesses and placed restrictions on those allowed to remain open. That stay-at-home order has been replaced with a “Red to Green Framework” that sets restrictions on a county-by-county basis. Nearly every county in New Mexico, though, is in the highest, or “red,” category, including where Spaceport America is located. That category does allow nonessential businesses to open, but at significantly reduced capacity. Virgin Galactic said it would proceed with the test flight using only “essential personnel” at the spaceport. “Only essential staff will be on-site to support the pre-flight operations ahead of the flight and the day of flight,” the company said in a statement, adding that there will be no guests or media at the spaceport to witness the flight.
What if you could hitch a ride on NASA’s Juno spacecraft at Jupiter? We may be stuck on Earth, but the space agency has given us the next best option: a new video flyover of Jupiter based on photos from Juno’s recent flyby in June. The stunning video, which is made up of 41 images captured on June 2, gives us a glimpse of what we’d see if we were able to fly around Jupiter ourselves, combining pictures taken from different angles as the spacecraft sped by the solar system’s largest planet. Throughout the video, we see zoomed-in views of Jupiter’s upper atmosphere at Juno’s closest approach, when the spacecraft was about 2,100 miles (3,400 kilometres) above the planet’s cloud tops, as well as zoomed-out views. At the spacecraft’s closest point to Jupiter, the gas giant’s powerful gravity sped the spacecraft up to an impressive 130,000 mph (209,000 kph) relative to the planet, according to a NASA statement.
The Japanese space explorer Hayabusa2 is about to complete a six-year, 5.1-billion-kilometre journey, when it releases a capsule down to Earth in the Australian desert. And when the capsule, carrying precious samples of a 4.5-billion-year-old asteroid finally makes its landing at the Woomera test range in South Australia, a Japanese recovery team will be there waiting. The capsule will be released by the Hayabusa2 spacecraft into the upper atmosphere, where it is due to parachute into the Woomera test range on December 6. It’s expected to land within a 100-150km area where it will send a radio signal that the Japanese team will track down.
Launched on December 3, 2014, Hayabusa-2 is the second such “return exploration” mission by JAXA. It arrived at the Ryugu asteroid in June 2018, which it shadowed for a year and a half, deploying purposely built “hopping” rovers to explore the surface. Hayabusa-2, which means “peregrine falcon” in Japanese, then performed a delicate operation to take samples from Ryugu’s surface before departing on November 2019 for its return trip. After nearing Earth to drop the capsule, Hayabusa will fire its engines to adjust course to manoeuvre past our planet and continue its exploration of the solar system.
Scientists want to build a telescope on the Moon to look at something even older: from the lunar surface, we’ll be able to look at the universe’ earliest stars
Ever since astronomers began staring at the sky using telescopes, they have worked to build bigger and better cosmic eyes to help them see deeper into the universe. Today’s telescopes range from large, ground-based telescope arrays to ones that orbit way above us in space. And a team of astronomers is looking to build a telescope like no other, one that looks out onto the very first stars — from the Moon.
Scientists from the University of Texas, Austin are proposing a telescope to be built on the Moon. This is not a new idea. The concept was first mooted in the year 2008 by a team of astronomers from the University of Arizona. But after examining the proposal, NASA decided not to pursue the project at the time. But now scientists want to revive the idea with a specific goal in mind — to be able to study the first stars in the universe that formed shortly after the Big Bang. These stars are known as population III stars. Elusive population III stars are believed to have formed when the universe was merely 100 million years old, before galaxies had started to form. These first stars are thought to be 100 times larger than the Sun, formed from an ancient cosmic mix of hydrogen and helium. But these first stars have never been observed before since current telescopes are not able to see that far into the universe. Therefore, they remain a theory.
Refuelling instead of graveyard: The Californian company Orbit Fab opens the first gas station in space, the company said. The San Francisco-based start-up agreed with Spaceflight, the rideshare and mission provider, to launch its first operational fuel depot, dubbed Tanker 001 Tenzing, into space next year. Tanker 001 Tenzing will provide fuel for the fast growing in-orbit servicing industry, Orbit Fab said, and is expected to launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 no earlier than in June 2021. Tanker 001 Tenzing will store propellant in sun synchronous orbit, where it will be available to satellite servicing vehicles or other spacecraft that need to replenish fuel supplies. Orbit Fab plans to provide a ubiquitous supply of satellite propellant in Earth orbit, expanding the operational potential of new and existing space assets, the company says. “In the future, valuable satellites will no longer be sent to the graveyard when they run out of fuel.”
A SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft, named Resilience, successfully docked with the International Space Station Nov. 16, a day after launch on the first operational commercial crew mission. Onboard the spacecraft were NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Vic Glover, Shannon Walker, and JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi on board. The four astronauts on Crew-1 have now joined NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and Roscosmos cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov, who have been on the ISS since arriving on a Soyuz spacecraft in October.
Crew-1 marks the beginning of operational flights to and from the ISS on commercial crew vehicles. The spacecraft will remain docked to the station for six months, with the four astronauts returning home shortly after the launch of the Crew-2 mission on another Crew Dragon spacecraft next spring. Besides ending reliance on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft for getting crews to and from the station, commercial crew vehicles like Crew Dragon will enable the station to support seven-person crews for long-duration missions. NASA has touted the additional science that the additional crewmember will be able to perform. “NASA, with American industry, has developed these commercial vehicles that will allow us to bring more people to low Earth orbit, bring more people to the International Space Station, allow us to do more science in low Earth orbit and allow more commercial opportunities,” Joel Montalbano, manager of the ISS program at NASA, said at a Nov. 13 prelaunch briefing.
The German Aerospace Center, DLR, has partnered with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) on a planned low-cost asteroid mission called Destiny+, expected to launch toward the asteroid 3200 Phaethon in 2024. DLR will build the Destiny Dust Analyzer instrument, which will measure the properties of cosmic dust during the spacecraft’s four-year cruise and its flyby of the 5.8-kilometer asteroid. The spacecraft will test innovative technologies that JAXA hopes to utilize in its future deep space exploration missions. “The objective of this mission is to make deep space exploration accessible with a small launcher,” Carsten Henselowsky, Destiny+ project manager at DLR, told SpaceNews. “The mission will also test advanced trajectory planning routines that will probe new ways of reaching the desired orbit, new lightweight solar cells and electric propulsion.”
JAXA is responsible for funding the mission, including its launch aboard Japan’s Epsilon rocket. Germany is the biggest contributor to the European Space Agency’s budget, but also has its own space program with international partnerships. During the online bilateral meeting, DLR and JAXA discussed more than 60 joint projects. The two have a comprehensive joint strategy agreement dating back to 2016.
A long-time Virgin Galactic executive will return to Australia to take over the country’s young space agency, the Australian government announced recently. In a statement, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that Enrico Palermo, chief operating officer of Virgin Galactic, will take over as head of the Australian Space Agency in January. Palermo will replace Megan Clark, who led the agency since it was formed in 2018 and will become chair of the agency’s advisory board.
Palermo is an Australian native who graduated from the University of Western Australia. He joined Virgin Galactic in 2006 as one of its first employees, originally based in London before moving to Mojave, California. He worked at The Spaceship Company, the Virgin Galactic subsidiary responsible for manufacturing the company’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceplane, rising to president of that unit in 2018. He became chief operating officer of Virgin Galactic in January 2020. “Palermo’s leadership will rocket Australia toward our goal of becoming a major player in the international space industry, while providing benefits across our economy,” Morrison said in the statement.
NASA’s newest Mars car will touch down on the Red Planet less than 100 days from now. The life-hunting Mars 2020 Perseverance rover, which launched on July 30, is scheduled to land inside the 28-mile-wide (45 kilometres) Jezero Crater on the afternoon of Feb. 18, 2021. The home stretch will be busy for the car-size