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Triton, Neptune’s largest moon contains many mysteries yet to be discovered. Its attributes have long been unknown to scientists. Photographic images taken by Voyager 2 in 1989 showed glimpses of its true uniqueness. However, still to this day, further investigation is required to greater our understanding. Therefore, it would be the most suitable moon to send a robotic spacecraft to.

In the past, we have only been able to see half of what this moon contains. Through the eyes of Voyager 2 passing by on its mission to study the outer planets, images of a grey, brown moon were taken. In these photos, we saw that the surface contained a thin layer of frozen nitrogen with occasional volcanic plains. It also had scattered geysers which erupted nitrogen gas. Data sent back by Voyager 2 showed that the atmosphere contained mainly nitrogen, although there was a small percentage of methane, mainly due to its volcanic activity. Its mantle is made of ice with a core believed to be a combination of rock and metal; however, this is still undetermined.

‘Ring of fire’ solar eclipse of 2020 dazzles sky watchers across Africa and Asia

During the solar spectacle, known as an annular solar eclipse, the moon covered most — but not all — of the sun. During this type of eclipse, a bright “ring of fire” of the sun remains visible around the edge of the moon. The eclipse began at 11:45 p.m. EDT Saturday, June 20 (0345 GMT Sunday) and went until 5:34 a.m. EDT (1034 GMT) this morning. The crown jewel of the event, the “ring of fire” section of the eclipse when the moon, sun and Earth lined up just so to create the brilliant effect (also known as maximum eclipse), occurred at around 2:40 am EDT (0640 GMT).

While not everyone around the world was able to view the event, it was visible either in its entirety or as a partial solar eclipse to potentially millions of spectators across the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Sudan, Ethiopia, the Red Sea, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Oman, the Gulf of Oman, Pakistan, India, China, Taiwan, the Philippine Sea (south of Guam) and northern Australia had a front-row seat for the stellar performance. The eclipse, crossing two continents and 14 total countries, covered a wide path but the path of greatest visibility was actually quite narrow. Unfortunately, especially with travel restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic, many people will not be able to witness the extravagant display in person. Luckily, a number of webcasts held live, online watch parties so that people could enjoy the event remotely.

While most eclipse seasons typically have two eclipses — one lunar and one solar — this eclipse season actually has three. This solar eclipse was the second of that trio. The first, a lunar eclipse, came on June 5, and the final of the three, another lunar eclipse, will happen late on the night of July 4-5. These lunar eclipses are what are known as penumbral lunar eclipses. These types of eclipses are very slight and not as flashy as, say, the “ring of fire.”

Count the stars in the Southern Cross during winter solstice and map light pollution in your suburb

Winter is the best time to see the rich beauty of the sky when we look straight into the centre of the Milky Way. And Sunday night is the longest night of the year in the Southern Hemisphere, which makes it perfect for counting the stars in the Southern Cross. If you do, you’ll contribute to a world record attempt to map light pollution across Australia.

Whether or not you get to see full beauty of the Milky Way — or even the Southern Cross — depends upon where you live, says astronomer Fred Watson. If you’ve struggled to find the Southern Cross from your backyard during COVID you’re not alone. In areas that have high levels of light pollution you can see only four — or even three — of the constellation’s main stars. While satellites can detect raw points of light across the globe, there is very little data about how Australians are affected by light at ground level.

But if you count how many stars you can see in the Southern Cross this Sunday night, during the winter solstice you could help fill in some of the gaps. The information collected contributes to the Globe At Night international citizen science program, which measures light pollution around the globe. There were only six readings from Australia until April, when the Australasian Dark Sky Alliance, ran its first star count during lockdown. Now there are 770. The idea is to do the star count again on a much larger scale to get a baseline across Australia and New Zealand, says Marnie Ogg, who heads the Alliance.

Counting stars in the Southern Cross for this weekend’s world record attempt is easy and no special equipment is needed. All you need to do is count how many stars you can see using just your eyes (not binoculars or a telescope) and match it to the maps on the website that best represents what you can see. These maps provide an approximation for the star’s magnitude, and the Bortle Scale. You can also note cloud conditions and nearby light sources. And don’t let any cloud cover — even rain — put you off. “Even if your sky is cloudy … it doesn’t negate the entry,” Professor Watson says.

Solar Orbiter spacecraft makes its 1st flyby of the sun

Solar Orbiter, a joint mission by NASA and the European Space Agency, has hit its first big milestone of its sun-watching mission — and the spacecraft will soon have pictures to prove it.

The probe is designed to give scientists a view of our sun unlike any they’ve ever seen before. That’s because Solar Orbiter carries technology to gather images of our star, and its trajectory will allow it to study the poles of the sun, which never align toward Earth. And the science starts now, with the spacecraft executing its first flyby of the sun, or perihelion, today (June 15). The orbital manoeuvre brought the probe to about half the distance between the Earth and the sun, or about 48 million miles (77 million kilometres).

Solar Orbiter launched in February and carries a total of 10 instruments: six telescopes and four instruments designed to study the spacecraft’s immediate surroundings. Mission team members have been powering up and checking each instrument since shortly after the spacecraft’s launch, but this week’s data-gathering will be a new test for the probe. According to the statement, the spacecraft’s first imaging campaign will occur in the week following this close approach, or perihelion. It will take the spacecraft another week to beam those images back to Earth given its current distance from home, and the mission team expects to publish the resulting images in mid-July.

Kathy Lueders Selected to Lead NASA’s Human Spaceflight Office

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has selected Commercial Crew Program Manager Kathy Lueders to be the agency’s next associate administrator of the Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate. Since 2014, Lueders has directed NASA’s efforts to send astronauts to space on private spacecraft, which culminated in the successful launch of Demo-2 from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida on May 30. “Kathy gives us the extraordinary experience and passion we need to continue to move forward with Artemis and our goal of landing the first woman and the next man on the Moon by 2024,” said Bridenstine. “She has a deep interest in developing commercial markets in space, dating back to her initial work on the space shuttle program. From Commercial Cargo and now Commercial Crew, she has safely and successfully helped push to expand our nation’s industrial base. Kathy’s the right person to extend the space economy to the lunar vicinity and achieve the ambitious goals we’ve been given.” The appointment takes effect immediately. Steve Stich is named Commercial Crew Program Manager, and Ken Bowersox returns to his role as HEO deputy associate administrator.

Lueders began her NASA career in 1992 at the White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico where she was the Shuttle Orbital Manoeuvring System and Reaction Control Systems Depot manager. She later moved to the International Space Station Program and served as transportation integration manager, where she led commercial cargo resupply services to the space station. She also was responsible for NASA oversight of international partner spacecraft visiting the space station, including the European Space Agency’s Automated Transfer Vehicle, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s H-II Transfer Vehicle, and the Russian space agency Roscosmos’ Soyuz and Progress spacecraft. She went to Kennedy as acting Commercial Crew Program Manager in 2013 and was selected as the head of the office in 2014.

Virtual reality will be a big part of Boeing’s Starliner astronaut training

Astronauts will get some next-gen training before they ride Boeing’s next-gen spacecraft, with the virtual reality gear due to ship to Florida in the next couple of weeks. Crewmembers preparing to fly on Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner capsule will train using virtual reality (VR) headsets provided by Finland-based Varjo, both companies announced recently. Varjo’s VR-2 devices will allow astronauts to simulate, in high resolution and with high fidelity, every aspect of a Starliner mission to the International Space Station (ISS), Varjo and Boeing representatives said.

“We are proud to be delivering the technology that is pushing industrial training applications to their furthest reaches — even to space,” Varjo co-founder and CEO Niko Eiden said in a statement. “With our devices, astronauts can see and virtually interact with the switches and control panels inside their Starliner capsule and read the real-time data on their crew displays,” Eiden said. “Advancements like this have the potential to transform the way any pilot is trained.”

Boeing has been developing Starliner with funding from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, most notably a $4.2 billion contract signed in 2014 that also covers six operational crewed missions to and from the ISS. SpaceX holds a similar deal, which Elon Musk’s company will fulfil with its Crew Dragon capsule. SpaceX just launched its first crewed mission, sending NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the ISS on a test flight called Demo-2. Starliner should follow suit relatively soon; Boeing plans to launch its version of Demo-2, called Crew Flight Test (CFT), early next year.

NASA delays launch of Mars rover Perseverance to July 20

NASA’s next Mars rover won’t get off the ground on July 17 after all.

The launch of the car-size Perseverance rover from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station has been pushed to July 20 because “additional time was needed for the team to repair an issue with the ground system equipment,” NASA officials said in an update today (June 11). It’s a 3-day delay, but there’s still a fair bit of wiggle room in Perseverance’s schedule as the rover’s launch window extends through August 11. But that end date is a hard deadline, marking the end of a lift-off opportunity that comes around only once every 26 months. Mars and Earth aren’t properly aligned for interplanetary missions very often.

Whenever Perseverance lifts off during the coming window, the six-wheeled robot will land inside Mars’ 28-mile-wide (45 kilometres) Jezero Crater on February 18, 2021 and perform many tasks including hunting for signs of ancient life in Jezero, characterising the area’s geology as well as collecting and caching dozens of Mars samples for future return to Earth. One of the rover’s instruments will generate oxygen from Mars’ carbon dioxide-dominated atmosphere. This tech, once scaled up, could aid human exploration of the Red Planet, NASA officials have said. A small helicopter scout, named Ingenuity, will be deployed to make some short flights in the thin Martian air, and if it performs well, aerial exploration could play a large role in future Mars missions.

Titan is drifting away from Saturn 100 times faster than scientists’ predictions

The Saturnian moon’s orbit around the planet is getting farther away faster than previously predicted: 100 times faster than scientists expected. According to a new study, Saturn’s largest moon Titan was “born” fairly close to the planet, but over the course of 4.5 billion years, it has migrated out to where it orbits currently, approximately 746,000 miles (1.2 million kilometres) away from the planet. “Most prior work had predicted that moons like Titan or Jupiter’s moon Callisto were formed at an orbital distance similar to where we see them now,” Jim Fuller, assistant professor of theoretical astrophysics at Caltech and co-author on the new study. “This implies that the Saturnian moon system, and potentially its rings, have formed and evolved more dynamically than previously believed.”

Moons exert a small gravitational pull on the planets they orbit, tugging at the planet. This gravitational interaction is what causes tides in the oceans here on Earth. On our planet, friction inside of Earth from this tugging creates heat, which alters the planet’s gravitational field. This gradually pushes the moon farther away from Earth, about 1.5 inches (3.8 centimetres) every year. Titan tugs on Saturn in a similar way, but the friction inside of Saturn is thought to be weaker than here on Earth because of the planet’s gaseous composition (compared to Earth’s rocky nature). Previous research has suggested that the moon should be moving away from Saturn at just 0.04 inches (0.1 cm) per year. But this new work suggests that Titan is actually moving away from its planet at a whopping 4.3 inches (11 cm) every year.

NASA sun observatory spies Comet Atlas in the solar wind, and Mercury too!

You’ll need a minute to take it all in, there’s a lot going on in this stunning view of the inner solar system, including a comet, Mercury and some solar weather. This view was captured by NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory A, or STEREO-A. The spacecraft launched in 2006 with its now-silent twin to study the sun, in particular from angles we can’t see from Earth.

The pale haze gusting in from the left of the image is the solar wind, the charged particles that constantly stream out of the sun and across the solar system, creating the bubble Earth and its neighbours move through. And of course there are countless stars, some that appear to be standing on bright stalks (the streaks are just flukes in the image). Near the end of the loop, Mercury crosses into view from the left side of the image, moving across the background of stars, according to a NASA statement.

And STEREO-A’s location was a perfect vantage point to catch sight of a comet that threw sky watchers into a frenzy this year, dubbed Comet ATLAS. Astronomers first spotted the object at the end of December 2019, and soon identified it as a comet new to Earth’s neighbourhood. This animation compiles images taken between May 25 and June 1 2020.

NASA issues contract to Northrop Grumman for Gateway module

NASA announced on June 5 that it awarded a contract to Northrop Grumman to begin work on a habitation module for the lunar Gateway, nearly a year after the agency announced its intent to sole-source that module to the company.

NASA said it issued a contract to Northrop Grumman valued at $187 million for the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) module, which will serve as an initial habitat for crews visiting the lunar Gateway. The module, described by NASA as the size of a small studio apartment, will be able to support short stays by crews arriving on Orion spacecraft.

The contract does not cover all the work needed for HALO. Instead, the award announced June 5 funds design of the module through a preliminary design review late this year. The contract also allows Northrop Grumman to issue subcontracts for hardware with long lead times. A contract modification will come later to fund full development and testing of HALO.

The only surprise about the contract is the time it took NASA to formally issue it. In a July 2019 procurement filing, NASA announced its intent to issue a sole-source award to Northrop Grumman after concluding that the company was the only one who would have a module ready to support the agency’s plans to return humans to the moon by 2024.

Northrop’s module is based on its Cygnus spacecraft used to transport cargo to the International Space Station. “The success of our Cygnus spacecraft and its active production line helps to enable Northrop Grumman to deliver the HALO module,” said Steve Krein, vice president of civil and commercial satellites at Northrop Grumman, in a company statement.

Northrop, though, will make significant modifications to the Cygnus design for HALO, such as installing several docking ports to accommodate Orion spacecraft or other Gateway elements. It will also have new command and control systems and an enhanced life support system to support visiting crews.

“This contract award is another significant milestone in our plan to build robust and sustainable lunar operations,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in an agency statement. “The Gateway is a key component of NASA’s long-term Artemis architecture and the HALO capability furthers our plans for human exploration at the moon in preparation for future human missions to Mars.”

Colonizing Mars may require humanity to tweak its DNA

Genetic engineering may be a big part of our future on Mars. If humanity is ever going to settle down on Mars, we may need to become a little less human.

Crewed missions to Mars, which NASA wants to start flying in the 2030s, will be tough on astronauts, exposing them to high radiation loads, bone-wasting microgravity and other hazards for several years at a time. But these pioneers should still be able to make it back to Earth in relatively good nick, agency officials have said.

It might be a different story for those who choose not to come home, however. If we want to stay safe and healthy while living permanently on Mars, or any other world beyond our home planet, we may need to make some tweaks to our species’ basic blueprint, experts say.

Genetic engineering and other advanced technologies “may need to come into play if people want to live and work and thrive, and establish their family, and stay on Mars,” Kennda Lynch, an astrobiologist and geomicrobiologist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, said on May 12 during a webinar hosted by the New York Academy of Sciences called “Alienating Mars: Challenges of Space Colonization.”

Martian moon’s orbit suggests the Red Planet had a ring

A cycle of moon formation could explain the slightly tilted orbit of Mars’ moon Deimos.

Mars has two moons circling the planet, called Phobos and Deimos. For many years, scientists supposed that both of these moons were captured asteroids, or space rocks. But new research shows the orbit of Deimos would not make that possible.

Deimos is very slightly tilted to the Martian equator, by only two degrees. Initially, the difference was so small that many scientists overlooked the matter.

“The fact that Deimos’ orbit is not exactly in plane with Mars’ equator was considered unimportant, and nobody cared to try to explain it,” study lead author Matija Cuk, a research scientist at the SETI Institute, said in a statement. “But once we had a big new idea and we looked at it with new eyes, Deimos’ orbital tilt revealed its big secret.”

The secret came from looking at the motions of Phobos, which orbits closer to the Martian surface and is slowly spiralling into the planet. Eventually, Phobos will drop so close to Mars that the gravity of the much larger planet will pull the moon into pieces — forming a ring.

Study co-authors David Minton, a professor at Purdue University, and Andrew Hesselbrock, who was his graduate student at the time of the research, suggest that Phobos’ future is not a one-off event. Instead, after the moon is pulled apart, eventually the pieces will reform into another moon. This not only will happen to Phobos, but has happened already other times in the Martian past.

This breaking up and reforming of moons would in turn explain how Deimos’ orbital tilt happened.

Demo-2 astronauts get to work on ISS

After making history on the first crewed flight of an orbital spacecraft launched from the United States in nearly nine years, two NASA astronauts are settling in on the International Space Station. Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley arrived at the ISS May 31, 19 hours after the Crew Dragon spacecraft they were on launched