Report outlines measures to reduce impact of satellite constellations on astronomy

A new report offers ways both astronomers and satellite developers can reduce the effect mega constellations have on ground-based astronomy, but warned that no combination of measures can entirely eliminate the problem. The report released Aug. 25 by the American Astronomical Society and the National Science Foundation’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory, or NOIRLab, is the outcome of a four-day workshop called Satellite Constellations 1 (SATCON1) held nearly two months ago. That workshop brought together more than 250 people, including both astronomers and satellite operators, to evaluate how to minimize the effect satellite constellations would have on astronomy.

For more than a year, astronomers have expressed concern that constellations of thousands of satellites could interfere with their observations. The satellites, visible through reflected sunlight, can leave bright streaks as they pass through the fields of view of telescopes. The workshop concluded that while there are a number of ways to reduce the problem, there is no panacea. “No combination of mitigations will eliminate the impact of satellite constellations on optical astronomy,” said Connie Walker of NOIRLab, one of the co-chairs of the workshop, in an Aug. 25 press conference. The exception, she said, was not to launch such systems at all, but acknowledged “it’s not viable for industry.” Instead, the report offered a set of recommendations to mitigate the effects of mega constellations on astronomy, including ways for companies to reduce the brightness of their satellites and the amount of time they are visible in the night sky. Those steps include placing satellites in orbits no higher than 600 kilometres, as well as darkening them and controlling their attitude to reduce their reflectivity.

NASA astronaut Jeanette Epps to make rookie spaceflight aboard Boeing’s Starliner

NASA has added a third astronaut to the crew preparing to fly aboard the first operational mission of Boeing’s Starliner capsule to the International Space Station: Jeanette Epps.

The mission’s departure date will depend on the progress of the vehicle’s certification process; Starliner must ace two test flights before Epps’ mission, the capsule’s first operational flight, can blast off to the space station. The trip will be Epps’ first spaceflight; she had been assigned to launch in 2018 but was reassigned without public explanation. Epps will join NASA astronauts Sunita Williams and Josh Cassada, who were assigned to the flight in 2018.

“I’m super excited to join Suni Williams and Josh Cassada on the first operational Boeing crew mission to the International Space Station,” Epps said in a video posted to Twitter today (Aug. 25). “I’ve flown in helicopters with Suni flying and I’ve flown in the backseat of a T38 with Josh flying and they are both wonderful people to work with, so I’m looking forward to the mission.”

Epps holds a doctorate in aerospace engineering and worked for the CIA for seven years before joining the astronaut corps as part of the class of 2009, according to a NASA statement. Since becoming a full-fledged astronaut, she has worked with space station crews from the ground, including as lead CAPCOM, responsible for communicating between mission control and astronauts in flight.

Blue Origin-led team delivers Lunar Lander engineering mockup To NASA

The Blue Origin-led Human Landing System (HLS) National Team, comprised of Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper, delivered an engineering mockup of a crew lander vehicle that could take American astronauts to the Moon. The lander is set up in the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility (SVMF), NASA Johnson Space Center’s (JSC) iconic Building 9. The full-scale engineering mockup showcases two elements of the National Team’s multi-element architecture – the Ascent Element (AE) and Descent Element (DE). Standing at more than 40 feet, it is the Blue Origin National Team’s update to Apollo’s Lunar Module (LM) and will be used to validate the National Team’s approaches for getting crew, equipment, supplies, and samples off and on the vehicle.

The team will collaborate with NASA organizations including JSC’s Astronaut Office to perform engineering and crew operations tests with astronauts aiming to fly the final system within several years. “Testing this engineering mockup for crew interaction is a step toward making this historic mission real,” said Brent Sherwood, vice president of Advanced Development Programs, Blue Origin. “The learning we get from full-scale mockups can’t be done any other way. Benefitting from NASA’s expertise and feedback at this early stage allows us to develop a safe commercial system that meets the agency’s needs.”

The National Team HLS design leverages significant prior work, flight heritage, and a modular solution. Modular solutions help to enable faster progress due to the independent development and testing of each element, which permits ongoing improvements and evolution without impacting the full system. This also provides flexibility in the use of different launch vehicles and different concepts of operations.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule for next NASA astronaut launch arrives in Florida

SpaceX is forging ahead with preparations for its next NASA astronaut mission, currently slated for a late October launch. The Crew Dragon capsule that will launch the Crew-1 flight to the International Space Station arrived in Florida on Tuesday (Aug. 18), NASA officials said in an update Friday (Aug. 21). The spacecraft made the trip from SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California, and is now being processed at company facilities at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Crew-1 will lift off from NASA’s nearby Kennedy Space Center no earlier than Oct. 23 atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

Crew-1 is the first operational crewed mission that SpaceX will fly to the station for NASA under a $2.6 billion contract that Elon Musk’s company signed with the agency in 2014. The flight will carry four astronauts: NASA’s Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, and Japanese space flyer Soichi Noguchi. SpaceX already has one crewed mission under its belt — the recent Demo-2 test flight, which sent NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the orbiting lab for a two-month stay. Crew-1 will last about six months, the usual stint for astronauts on the station.

NASA investigating small air leak on International Space Station

NASA is tracking down the source of a minor air leak on the International Space Station but NASA officials stressed that there is no threat to crew safety. Crewmembers of the station’s current Expedition 63 are in no immediate danger and will spend the weekend in the orbiting laboratory’s Russian segment, inside the Zvezda service module, NASA officials said in an update today (Aug. 20). Astronauts can work in a shirtsleeve environment inside the station, but the orbiting lab is never completely airtight; a little bit of air always leaks over time, requiring routine repressurization from nitrogen tanks that are sent up during cargo missions, NASA added in the update.

While the leak rate is higher than usual, it is still within specifications for the station and poses no immediate danger to the crew, NASA officials emphasized. Astronauts also deal with leak simulations during training for their stays on the space station, which typically are about six months long. This leak was first spotted in September 2019, when there were “indications of a slight increase above the standard air leak rate,” NASA said in the statement. “Because of routine station operations like spacewalks and spacecraft arrivals and departures, it took time to gather enough data to characterize those measurements. That rate has slightly increased, so the teams are working a plan to isolate, identify and potentially repair the source.”

Mysterious gamma-ray ‘heartbeat’ detected from cosmic gas cloud

A cosmic gas cloud has a mysterious gamma-ray “heartbeat” that appears to be in sync with a neighbouring black hole. Using data from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, an international team of researchers found the “heartbeat” in a cosmic gas cloud in the constellation Aquila, the eagle. The cloud “beats” in rhythm with a miniature black hole located roughly 100 light-years away, suggesting the objects are connected in some way, according to a statement from the DESY national research center in Germany.

The black hole is part of a micro quasar system known as SS 433, which includes a giant star that is approximately 30 times the mass of the sun. A micro quasar is just a small quasar, the brightest type of object in the universe, which consists of a large black hole that emits extraordinary amounts of light as it gobbles up its stellar neighbours. As the two objects in SS 433 orbit each other, the black hole pulls in matter from the giant star, creating an accretion disk around the black hole.

Their findings, published Aug. 17 in the journal Nature Astronomy, suggest the gas cloud’s emission, or “heartbeat,” is powered by the micro quasar. However, the two objects are located relatively far apart, at a distance of about 100 light-years. Therefore, further observations are needed to fully understand how the black hole powers the heartbeat in the gas cloud.

Japan’s final HTV cargo spacecraft leaves space station for fiery end

Japan’s “white stork” has taken flight from the International Space Station for the last time. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA) ninth H-II Transfer Vehicle, or HTV-9, was released from its temporary perch at the end of the space station’s robotic arm on Tuesday (Aug. 18) at 1:36 p.m. EDT (1736 GMT). The uncrewed cargo vehicle, which JAXA nicknamed the “Kounotori,” or “white stork,” will spend two more days in orbit before flight controllers in Tsukuba, Japan, command an engine burn that it will send the spacecraft plunging back into Earth’s atmosphere. Loaded with about 7,400 lbs. (3,400 kilograms) of used equipment and trash from the space station, the HTV will meet its fiery end, succumbing to the heat of re-entry and burning up over the Pacific Ocean.

The de-orbit will mark the end of 11 years of HTV missions. First launched on Sept. 10, 2009, atop Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ first H-IIB rocket from the Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan, the barrel-shaped HTV was Japan’s first spacecraft to service a space station and the first uncrewed vehicle to be berthed on the U.S. segment of the International Space Station (ISS). The 33-foot (10-meter) long and 14-foot (4.4-meter) wide, solar-powered spacecraft was also the first capsule to carry both pressurized and unpressurized cargo. “Over the past 11 years, the H-II Transfer Vehicle Kounotori has delivered over 40 tons of cargo, research, hardware and equipment to the International Space Station,” Joel Montalbano, NASA’s ISS program manager, said in a statement during NASA TV’s broadcast of the departure. “I want to congratulate Japan on the HTV missions.”

ESA sets stage for three-way competition to build next-generation Galileo constellation

The European Space Agency is preparing to select two companies to build the second generation of Galileo navigation satellites under contracts to be signed in early 2021.

The ESA-led competition, arranged on behalf of the European Commission, pits rising German manufacturer OHB against European heavyweights Thales Alenia Space and Airbus Defense and Space, Paul Verhoef, ESA director of navigation, told SpaceNews by email. “The intention is to retain two suppliers in a dual-source mode providing these satellites,” he said.

ESA will initially order two satellites apiece from the selected providers. Follow-on contracts will cover the next 12 satellites in a constellation that will eventually consist of 24 active satellites and up to six spares.

OHB, once a novice in satellite manufacturing, now finds itself in the role of the incumbent, having built 22 of the 26 Galileo satellites in orbit. Airbus and Thales Alenia Space Italy built the first four satellites, which were used to validate the concept for the larger constellation.

NASA powers up Ingenuity Mars helicopter in space for the 1st time

NASA’s Mars helicopter, named Ingenuity, successfully powered up for the first time in space last week and Ingenuity’s electronics are in good shape. Ingenuity is the first helicopter designed to fly on another planet. It is currently travelling to the Red Planet aboard NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover, which launched on July 30. On Aug. 7, the helicopter’s six lithium-ion batteries were powered up and charged for the first time in space. The 4-lb. (1.8 kilograms) Ingenuity, which is currently stowed beneath Perseverance’s belly, receives its charge from the rover’s power supply, according to a Thursday (Aug. 13) statement from NASA.

“This was a big milestone, as it was our first opportunity to turn on Ingenuity and give its electronics a ‘test drive’ since we launched on July 30,” Tim Canham, the operations lead for Mars Helicopter at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California, said in the statement. “Since everything went by the book, we’ll perform the same activity about every two weeks to maintain an acceptable state of charge.” Perseverance is scheduled to land on Mars on Feb. 18, 2021. At some point after that, Ingenuity will detach from the rover, descend to the Red Planet surface and take a few pioneering test flights. (After deployment on Mars, the helicopter’s batteries will be charged by its own solar panel.) If the experimental test flights go according to plan, Ingenuity will prove that robotic flight is possible on Mars, opening the door for extensive aerial exploration on future missions.

The bizarre dimming of bright star Betelgeuse caused by giant stellar eruption

Betelgeuse’s odd recent dimming was caused by a huge cloud of material that the supergiant star blasted into space, a new study suggests. The bright star Betelgeuse, which forms the shoulder of the constellation Orion (The Hunter), is about 11 times more massive than the sun but 900 times more voluminous. That bloated condition shows that Betelgeuse is near death, which will come in the form of a violent supernova explosion. In the fall of 2019, Betelgeuse began dimming significantly, losing about two-thirds of its brightness by February. This dramatic dip spurred speculation that the star’s demise may have been imminent — perhaps just weeks away. (From our perspective, anyway; Betelgeuse lies about 500 light-years from Earth, so everything we’re seeing with the star today happened centuries ago.)

But the dramatic sky show didn’t happen: Betelgeuse powered through the dimming episode and returned to its normal brightness by May of this year. The recovery sparked a new round of speculation, this time about the dimming’s cause. Some scientists attributed the doldrums to a light-blocking dust cloud, for example, whereas others said big star spots on Betelgeuse’s surface were likely to blame. A new study bolsters the dust hypothesis, but adds a twist — Betelgeuse itself apparently coughed up the cloud.

Meet ‘Tenacity’: 1st Dream Chaser space plane gets a name

The first orbital Dream Chaser space plane recently got its wings, and a name. Tenacity is scheduled to launch for the first time in late 2021. Dream Chaser, which is built by Colorado-based company Sierra Nevada Corp., is the world’s only non-capsule private orbital spacecraft. The winged vehicle will launch vertically atop a rocket but end its missions with runway landings, like NASA’s now-retired space shuttle orbiters used to do.

This spring, the company unboxed the wings for the first operational Dream Chaser vehicle, bringing it one step closer to delivering supplies and science to and from the International Space Station. Tenacity is scheduled to launch for the first time in late 2021, aboard a United Launch Alliance Vulcan Centaur rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Once it’s up and running, the space plane will carry cargo to and from the space station for NASA. Dream Chaser’s runway landings will allow efficient retrieval and removal of scientific gear coming back to Earth, which will also enjoy a relatively smooth ride down to the ground, Sierra Nevada representatives said.

Dream Chaser was originally designed to carry people, and Sierra Nevada won several rounds of funding from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program to develop the vehicle. However, the company lost out to Boeing and SpaceX when NASA awarded astronaut-ferrying contracts in 2014. But in 2016, NASA selected the space plane for its Commercial Resupply Services 2 contract, awarding Sierra Nevada a contract to fly six uncrewed cargo missions to the space station by 2024.

Sierra Nevada needed to change out only about 20% of Dream Chaser’s module to transition from a passenger vehicle to a cargo plane, said Anna Hare, a company communications representative. Sierra Nevada therefore hasn’t ruled out a crew-carrying future for the space plane at some point. “To go back to a crew ship wouldn’t be so hard,” Hare said.

Rocket Lab ready to attempt Electron booster recovery

Rocket Lab says it’s on track to test recovering an Electron booster later this year as it also improves the payload performance of the small launch vehicle. Rocket Lab announced last week it completed drop tests of a dummy Electron first stage at its New Zealand launch site, demonstrating that its parachute would deploy as expected and slow the booster after re-entry. “We basically simulated the highest load case, where we drop a fully weighted dummy stage out of the sky and accelerate it to the highest load point and then pop the canopy,” Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said during a company webcast Aug. 5 held during the 34th Annual Small Satellite Conference. Beck said that was the “final test” of the overall recovery system for the Electron first stage, part of an effort the company announced one year earlier to recover and reuse the boosters. Rocket Lab tested on earlier launches the ability of the stage to perform a controlled re-entry, as well as using a helicopter to catch the stage as it descends under a parachute.

With the tests complete, Beck said Rocket Lab intends to make its first effort to recover a first stage on an upcoming launch, known as Flight 17 and expected to take place later this year. “That is really the final signoff before we’re ready to go fly Flight 17,” he said. “Flight 17 is sitting in the hangar.”

Beck said Rocket Lab won’t attempt to catch the stage in mid-air on the Flight 17 mission, focusing instead on simply recovering the booster from the ocean. “We’ll fish it out of the ocean, bring it back, put it in the factory and then we’ll really see what we’ve got,” he said. “That will determine how much work we have ahead of us.” Rocket Lab said last year it decided to pursue reusability in order to increase its launch rate without having to make major investments in increased booster production.

This giant crater on Ceres with bright spots may be the most fascinating place in the solar system

For a few months in 2018, as NASA’s Dawn spacecraft used up its last drops of fuel, it gave scientists an incredibly detailed look at one of the strangest places in the solar system: Occator Crater. That’s the name of a massive impact site on the dwarf planet Ceres, tucked away in the asteroid belt. In the mission’s last months, Dawn flew just 22 miles (35 kilometres) above the dwarf planet’s surface and focused its energies on Occator Crater. Earlier observations from the mission had suggested that some sort of geological activity was bringing saltwater to the surface, and scientists wanted a closer look.

Now, initial analysis of those final months of science suggest that Ceres may have been active much more recently than scientists had dared to imagine, according to an article summarizing seven different research papers published on August 10 in the journals Nature Communications, Nature Geoscience and Nature Astronomy. “Dawn accomplished far more than we hoped when it embarked on its extraordinary extra-terrestrial expedition,” Mission Director Marc Rayman of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California said in a NASA statement. “These exciting new discoveries from the end of its long and productive mission are a wonderful tribute to this remarkable interplanetary explorer.”

The new research papers focus on a host of different intriguing findings about Occator Crater, which is about 22 million years old and about 57 miles across (92 km), as well as about Ceres more generally. Although Dawn’s final months revolutionized scientists’ view of the dwarf planet and its large crater, the new research doesn’t satisfy curiosity about this ocean world asteroid and may lay the groundwork for a new mission to Ceres, according to an overview paper released with the new findings.

Pentagon picks SpaceX and United Launch Alliance to remain its primary launch providers

The U.S. Department of the Air Force announced that incumbents United Launch Alliance (ULA) and SpaceX have been selected to receive five-year contracts totalling $653 million to launch national security satellites for the U.S. military and intelligence agencies. The companies beat Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman in the four-way competition known as the National Security Space Launch Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement.

Between 2022 and 2027 SpaceX and ULA will collectively fly as many as 34 missions for the Department of Defense and the National Reconnaissance Office under the firm-fixed-price, indefinite-delivery contracts. In Phase 2 ULA will get 60 percent of the missions, and SpaceX will get 40 percent. The Air Force will assign specific rockets on a yearly basis depending on the required missions. “Maintaining a competitive launch market, servicing both government and commercial customers, is how we encourage continued innovation on assured access to space,” Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, told reporters.

Roper said the Phase 2 awards mark a pivotal point in the transition of the national security launch program to take advantage of commercial innovation and private investments in launch vehicles. “Today’s awards mark a new epoch of space launch that will finally transition the Department of Defense off Russian RD-180 engines,” he said. The shift to new launch vehicles also is compelled by a legislative mandate to end the Pentagon’s reliance on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket which has the Russian RD-180 as its main engine. By law, Department of Defense will not be allowed to buy Atlas 5 launches after Dec. 31, 2022.