Join the National Space Society for ‘A Day in Space,’ a celebration of spaceflight, this week

On July 16, 2020, a unique online presentation from the National Space Society (NSS) will bring the solar system to your doorstep. “A Day in Space” is a day-long virtual forum that promises some truly unique spaceflight and exploration experiences. The presentation will be co-hosted by Geoffrey Notkin, president of the National Space Society and television personality, and Dr Sian Proctor, college professor, geoscientist and NASA astronaut finalist.

In an exclusive interview Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin will take you back into the heady years of the Space Race and plunge you into the future of the exploration of our solar system. Planetary scientist Alan Stern will take you on a journey to Pluto and beyond to tiny Arrokoth (formerly known as Ultima Thule). NASA engineer and NSS Senior Operating Officer Bruce Pittman tells us about the merging of Wernher von Braun and Gerard O’Neill’s visions to form the National Space Society. Billionaire NewSpace financier Steve Jurvetson tells the thrilling tale of investing in SpaceX in some of their darkest moments, supporting disruptive innovation with Planet Labs, and the future of orbital space tourism and investing in the space business. Jet Propulsion Laboratory chief engineer Rob Manning and space author Rod Pyle square off for a smackdown over the character of Mars.

The UAE wants to rewrite what we know about weather on Mars

A nagging problem with planets is that they are just so large: Send a spacecraft to one patch of a planet and inevitably, some of the things you learn will apply only right there. That struggle is particularly difficult when scientists ponder a planet’s atmosphere and weather. By definition, these are global phenomena, and they interact with other global phenomena in intricate ways. That conundrum is why, despite a rich history of spacecraft observations of Mars, scientists are still puzzling over how the planet’s atmosphere really works — from top to bottom, pole to pole, and dawn to dusk and back again.

If all goes well, a mission from a country that’s a newcomer to planetary science will soon begin to gather the data scientists need for a truly global understanding of the Martian atmosphere. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) plans to launch its first interplanetary spacecraft, called the Emirates Mars Mission or Hope, on Tuesday (July 14), with lift-off scheduled for 4:51 p.m. EDT (2051 GMT). Then, the $200 million mission will embark on a seven-month cruise to Mars, slipping into orbit around the Red Planet in early 2021. Hope is scheduled to observe Mars for at least a full Martian year (a bit less than two Earth years) as it works to understand the Martian atmosphere. If the spacecraft successfully arrives — which the team well knows is a difficult proposition — the UAE will become the fifth or sixth entity to orbit Mars, depending on how the mission’s timeline compares with that of China’s Tianwen-1 Mars lander, also launching this summer.

A dozen orbiters have worked at Mars before, and Hope was purposefully designed with an eye to the half-century-long history of spacecraft sent to Mars. Nevertheless, mission personnel wanted to avoid the risk of staying within the limits of what other projects have done. “We always learn from previous missions,” Mariam Al Shamsi, director of the space science department at the UAE’s Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center, which runs the Hope mission, told Space.com. “There is no perfect mission, so every mission that comes up learns from the previous missions.” In the case of Hope, the mission learned particularly from NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) orbiter, scientists said. “The science of the mission is very complimentary to other missions that went to Mars,” Hessa Al Matroushi, science data and analysis lead for the mission at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center, told Space.com. “But it complements them, it adds more understanding to the gaps that had been shown.”

NASA astronaut Stephanie Wilson on going to the moon, Mars and leading the next generation

NASA astronaut Stephanie Wilson is ready and excited for the future of space exploration. Earlier this year (before the COVID-19 pandemic) Space.com met up with NASA astronaut Stephanie Wilson, a veteran of three spaceflights who has logged more than 42 days in space, at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Long Island, New York. Wilson, who is one of 17 NASA astronauts eligible to become the first woman to step foot on the moon in 2024 as part of NASA’s Artemis program, shared her thoughts on the future of space exploration and her advice for new explorers dreaming of joining the Artemis generation.

With regard to her lunar prospects, Wilson said, “I am of course excited to be included among the group and look forward to whoever the first woman is and the women who follow as part of the Artemis program to continue our studies of the moon, continue to descend down to the surface in a lander and hopefully to build a lunar base there on the moon and continue our journey from the Gateway orbiting laboratory.” The “Gateway,” Wilson refers to the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, a proposed NASA program that would orbit around the moon and allow astronauts to more easily travel back and forth from the lunar surface. She added that the fact that Artemis explicitly includes women is “a wonderful testament to the progress that women have made” in human spaceflight since women were first allowed to apply to the astronaut corps in 1978.

The 1st-ever Mars helicopter will start flying next year

Ingenuity could pave the way for extensive exploration of the Martian skies. NASA’s Perseverance rover will have a special passenger when it alights inside Mars’ Jezero Crater in February 2021 — the first helicopter ever to fly on another world. The 4-lb. (1.8 kilograms) chopper, named Ingenuity, will ride to Mars on Perseverance’s belly, squeezing into a spot that offers roughly 24 inches (61 centimetres) of ground clearance, including the helicopter delivery system. Ingenuity itself is only 5 inches (12 cm) shorter than the clearance area.

“That is not a lot of room to play with,” Chris Salvo, the helicopter interface lead of Mars 2020, the official name of Perseverance’s mission, said in a statement. “But we found if you attach the helicopter horizontally, there is enough to get the job done,” said Salvo, who’s based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

Ingenuity will continue clinging to Perseverance for about two months after the rover’s landing on Feb. 18, 2021. The two machines (with help from remote operators on Earth) will hunt for a flat, unobstructed area where Ingenuity can do test operations. The team will need to find a zone that is about 33 feet by 33 feet (10 by 10 metres) that Perseverance can monitor while parked about one American football field away, mission team members said. Ingenuity’s deployment will happen after Perseverance drives into the centre of the airfield. Operators will spend about six Earth days checking all systems before getting the helicopter ready to fly.

Rocket Lab Electron launch fails

A Rocket Lab Electron rocket failed to reach orbit during a July 4 launch after a problem during the rocket’s second-stage burn. The Electron rocket lifted off from the company’s Launch Complex 1 at Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand, at 5:19 p.m. Eastern. The launch was originally scheduled for July 3 but pushed back two days because of poor weather in the forecast, only for the company to move up the launch to July 4 based on a reassessment of the weather.

The initial phases of the launch appeared to go as planned, although the vehicle’s passage through “max-q,” or maximum dynamic pressure, appeared to be rougher than what was seen in previous launches. Onboard video taken shortly before first-stage separation showed material appearing to peel from the rocket, although it was not clear if it simply a decal applied to the rocket or something more substantial. The onboard video from the rocket froze about five minutes and 45 seconds after lift-off, or three minutes into the seconds stage burn. At six and a half minutes after lift-off, a launch controller on the company’s webcast of the launch said, “Initiating mishap response plan.” Telemetry from the rocket, displayed on the webcast, showed the rocket’s altitude falling from about 194 kilometres to less than 165 kilometres for about 90 seconds before that information was removed from the screen. The company ended the webcast 11 minutes after lift-off, two minutes after the rocket’s second stage should have shut down and the kick stage, carrying its payload of seven satellites, deployed.

Tiny, simple moon rovers will bring CubeSat science to the lunar surface

CubeSats have revolutionized orbital science, and a roving counterpart may soon do the same for surface science, beginning on the moon. Next year, as part of NASA’s lunar delivery orchestrated by the Pennsylvania-based company Astrobotic, the agency will launch a small rover to begin that revolution. That rover is called Iris and is the first of a new, small and simple design called CubeRovers to hearken back to CubeSats. These orbital predecessors are small, semi-standardized spacecraft that are cheap to build and launch.

NASA, Astrobotic and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh are all taking part in the CubeRover project targeting a 2021 launch date as part of the agency’s overall Artemis program, which aims to land humans on the moon in 2024. However, Iris would fly on a private delivery run, rather than an Artemis mission launched by NASA. “For such a tiny rover, Iris has a big mission to lead America back to the moon, and I’m so proud to lead this team of passionate students who are paving the way for future planetary robotic exploration,” Raewyn Duvall, deputy program manager for Iris and a doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon, said in a statement. “We’re all excited for Iris’s launch, to drive a rover on the lunar surface, and to see what we can discover!”

Exposed planetary core spotted circling distant star

Astronomers have spotted the exposed core of a massive alien world, an unprecedented find that could shed considerable light on planet formation, evolution and diversity. The planetary core, called TOI-849b, is unlike anything scientists have seen before, and it could hide a wealth of exciting information in its bizarre depths, researchers say. “The discovery of

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule looked ‘pretty awesome’ in spacewalk, astronaut says

NASA astronauts got a “pretty awesome” view of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon vehicle docked with the International Space Station during a spacewalk on Friday (June 26). Astronauts Chris Cassidy and Bob Behnken got the view of a lifetime when they stepped outside the space station to replace the outpost’s old solar array batteries. The star of that view was Endeavour, the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft that delivered Behnken and his fellow NASA astronaut Doug Hurley to the station May 30 on their Demo-2 mission.

Cassidy snapped a photo of the sight, with Endeavour clearly straight ahead and JAXA’s HTV-9 cargo vehicle also visible. In the photo, pictured just below the craft, you can see the stunning, blue curvature of the Earth. During a media conference from onboard the space station on June 29, they were asked about the most memorable moments from this spacewalk. Behnken noted this view as one of those moments. “Chris and I had a great event last Friday and a wonderful view of Dragon,” Behnken said. “It was just awesome to be able to look back and snap a picture and I think we got a good daylight shot that kind of showed HTV and Dragon all out there on the front of space station. It was pretty awesome.”

The pair stepped out for this spacewalk to swap out aging nickel-hydrogen batteries for new, more efficient, smaller lithium-ion batteries as part of a series of battery swap spacewalks. Behnken and Cassidy will venture out on another battery swap spacewalk Wednesday (July 1).

Scientists spot flash of light from colliding black holes. But how?

Black holes aren’t supposed to make flashes of light. It’s right there in the name: black holes. Even when they slam into each, the massive objects are supposed to be invisible to astronomers’ traditional instruments. But when scientists detected a black holes collision last year, they also spotted a weird flash from the crash. On May 21, 2019, Earth’s gravitational wave detectors caught the signal of a pair of massive objects colliding, sending ripples cascading through spacetime. Later, an observatory called the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) caught a blast of light. As scientists looked at the two signals, they realized both came from the same patch of sky, and researchers started wondering whether they had spotted the rare visible black hole collision.

Here’s what scientists think happened in this strange case. The two black holes that merged were locked in the disk surrounding a quasar, a supermassive black hole that shoots out blasts of energy. “This supermassive black hole was burbling along for years before this more abrupt flare,” Matthew Graham, an astronomer at Caltech and the project scientist for ZTF, said in a university statement. That in and of itself isn’t so strange, according to his colleague. “Supermassive black holes like this one have flares all the time,” co-author Mansi Kasliwal, an astronomer at Caltech, said in the statement. “They are not quiet objects, but the timing, size and location of this flare was spectacular.”

Scientists suspect, based on the pairing of gravitational waves and light, that the flare sprang from two small black holes merging within the accretion disk of the supermassive black hole. The supermassive black hole’s incredibly strong gravity affects the smaller stuff in the disk, even other black holes. The flash of light doesn’t come from the merger itself, the scientists think. Instead, the force of the merger sends the now-a-little-larger black hole flying off, through the gas surrounding it in the supermassive black hole’s accretion disk. The gas, in turn, produces the flare after a delay of days or weeks, the theory goes according to the statement. In the case of this event, scientists detected the flare about 34 days after the gravitational wave signal.

That’s not a guarantee that this explanation fits what happened, the researchers said. “The flare occurred on the right timescale, and in the right location, to be coincident with the gravitational-wave event,” Graham said. “We conclude that the flare is likely the result of a black hole merger, but we cannot completely rule out other possibilities.”

Launch of NASA’s next Mars rover delayed again by ‘contamination concern’ on the ground

The launch of NASA’s next Mars rover has been delayed to no earlier than July 22 due to a contamination issue with ground support equipment, the space agency said on June 24.

NASA’s Mars rover Perseverance was scheduled to launch toward the Red Planet on July 20 from a pad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. But a problem cropped up as engineers worked to encapsulate the rover in the nosecone of its Atlas V rocket, which was built by United Launch Alliance. “NASA and United Launch Alliance are now targeting Wednesday, July 22, for launch of the Mars 2020 mission due to a processing delay encountered during encapsulation activities of the spacecraft,” NASA officials said in an update. “Additional time was needed to resolve a contamination concern in the ground support lines in NASA’s Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHSF).”

The contamination issue marks the second delay in as many weeks for the Mars rover Perseverance. The mission was originally scheduled to launch July 17, but slipped three days to July 20 due to a ground system equipment issue that involved a faulty crane.

The Perseverance rover and its Atlas V rocket are in good health, according to NASA, and ULA successfully performed a “wet-dress rehearsal” (a test that included fuelling the Atlas V rocket) on Monday (June 22). But the new delay cuts deeper into a limited window in which to launch the mission.

WINNER: NASA Scientist for a Day Competition – Jordan Klos

Charon (discovered in 1978) is the largest satellite of the five known moons of the dwarf planet Pluto. The name Charon originated from Rome, meaning the mythological ferryman of the Underworld, who carried souls across Acheron a mythic river surrounding Pluto. Charon is the most compelling satellite of the three moons Miranda, Triton and Charon due to its distinct geological features and possibility for existence of life. If a spacecraft were to orbit Charon’s surface or potentially disembark, the rover could find an undiscovered landscape consisting of many exotic and pristine land factors that may result in life inaugurated.

Scientists just found the biggest neutron star (or smallest black hole) yet in a strange cosmic collision

Whatever it is, scientists are excited. Astrophysicists have spotted the strangest gravitational-wave signal yet, an observation that could force scientists to rewrite what they know about the cosmos. Gravitational waves form when massive objects distort spacetime surrounding them and send ripples out across the universe. Scientists caught the first-ever detection of such waves, formed by two colliding black holes, in 2015.

Since then, gravitational wave detections have only gotten stranger — and scientists have only gotten more excited. Now, a group of researchers has announced the first detection of a gravitational-wave signal created by a collision involving an object larger than the largest known neutron star but smaller than the smallest known black hole. Although the detection is too complicated for scientists to ever hope to pin down precisely what happened, the signal raises hopes for more strange observations to come. This detection could even herald a new understanding of how massive stellar explosions called supernovas happen. “It’s a fantastic event, it will really change how we understand the formation of black holes and neutron stars,” Christopher Berry, a gravitational wave astronomer at Northwestern University and the University of Glasgow and co-author on the new research, told Space.com. “It will remain a mystery until we can get more observations, but that doesn’t mean it’s not informative.”

WINNERS: NASA Scientist for a Day Competition

We believe that NASA should pick Charon, the largest moon of Pluto to explore further and to gain a greater understanding of the evolution of outer space. Specifically, how did the moon form and continue to evolve after (we think) it collided with Pluto? There might be life on this fascinating moon that we have not discovered yet. Perhaps not life as we know it as being so far away from the sun it is very cold, but where there is ice there is water! The discovery of water on Charon means that it could sustain forms of life, but further exploration is needed to confirm if any liquid water is actually available.

As we all know, the necessary ingredients (or building blocks for life) are: 1) water, which we know is there 2) gases (oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, sulphur and phosphorus) and 3) some kind of energy source. Also, if there is water on Charon, we could possibly be able to use the water on Earth and we would be able to fill up all water systems. From the pictures taken from Voyager 2 there is a reddish-brown cap on the north pole of Charon. This organic material is believed to be produced from gases released from the atmosphere of Pluto. Again, this shows that Charon could sustain life and suggests the second building block is already working. The third building block for life is energy. Charon is too far away from the sun to get heat and solar energy, but scientists could look into other ways to produce energy on Charon through movement or friction. Let us explore this great moon and find out new and exciting energy sources that may increase our understanding of outer space.

Surprise! Pluto may have had an underground ocean from the very beginning

Pluto may be a more habitable world than scientists had thought. Though Pluto is now famously frigid, it may have started off as a hot world that formed rapidly and violently, a new study finds. This result suggests Pluto may have possessed an underground ocean since early on in its life, potentially improving its chances of hosting life, researchers said.

Previous work assumed Pluto originated from cold and icy rock clumping together in the distant Kuiper Belt, the ring of objects beyond Neptune’s orbit. Although there is evidence that Pluto currently possesses a liquid ocean beneath its thick frozen shell, researchers have suggested this subsurface ocean developed long after Pluto formed, after ice melted due to heat from radioactive elements in Pluto’s core. Now scientists argue that instead of a cold formation, Pluto had a hot start, one full of explosive force. “When we look at Pluto today, we see a very cold frozen world, with a surface temperature of about 45 Kelvin [minus 380 degrees Fahrenheit, and minus 228 degrees Celsius],” study lead author Carver Bierson, a planetary scientist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told Space.com. “I find it amazing that by looking at the geology recorded in that surface, we can infer Pluto had a rapid and violent formation that warmed the interior enough to form a subsurface water ocean.”