The London-based TV series and show producer Space Hero is planning to send the winner of a global reality TV competition to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2023, Space Hero announced last week. Space Hero has secured a seat on a 2023 mission to the ISS and launched what Space Hero describes as the world’s first global space casting show. Space Hero did not specify which mission it will use to send a civilian to space and launch its global reality TV contest. Space Hero was created in 2008 in Berlin and moved its headquarters to London in 2016. “Space Hero’s mission is to break barriers and create avenues for greater participation by the Public, bringing Millions of People into the New Space economy…Through new media, Space Hero will help advance humanity and continue the ground-breaking progresses in Space Exploration,” Space Hero says in its LinkedIn profile.
Rocket Lab is nearly ready to launch its first mission from American soil. The California-based company, which has launched 14 missions to date from its New Zealand site, just wrapped up a “wet dress rehearsal” at its Launch Complex 2 (LC-2), at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Wallops Island, Virginia. During the exercise, a Rocket Lab Electron booster was rolled out to the newly built pad, raised vertical and fuelled. Mission managers then took a simulated countdown all the way to 0, to verify that all procedures will work as planned on launch day.
“With this major milestone complete, the Electron launch vehicle, launch team and the LC-2 pad systems are now ready for Rocket Lab’s first launch from U.S. soil,” company representatives said in a statement on Thursday (Sept. 17). There is still one major box left to tick, however: NASA must finish certifying Rocket Lab’s autonomous flight termination system, which is designed to end a mission automatically if something goes wrong during launch. Indeed, a targeted launch date will not be set until this hurdle has been cleared, company representatives said.
We may now have direct evidence that planets can survive unscathed the violent churn that attends their host star’s death. Astronomers have spotted signs of an intact giant planet circling a super dense stellar corpse known as a white dwarf, a new study reports. The white dwarf in question, called WD 1856, is part of a three-star system that lies about 80 light-years from Earth. The newly detected, Jupiter-size exoplanet candidate, WD 1856 b, is about seven times larger than the white dwarf and zips around it once every 34 hours.
“WD 1856 b somehow got very close to its white dwarf and managed to stay in one piece,” study lead author Andrew Vanderburg, an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in a statement. “The white dwarf creation process destroys nearby planets, and anything that later gets too close is usually torn apart by the star’s immense gravity,” Vanderburg said. “We still have many questions about how WD 1856 b arrived at its current location without meeting one of those fates.”
The 2023 life-hunting mission will be just the beginning, if all goes according to plan. The California-based company aims to launch a private Venus mission in 2023 to hunt for signs of life in the clouds where scientists just spotted the possible biosignature gas phosphine. But that landmark effort will be just the beginning, if all goes according to plan. “We don’t want to do one mission — we want to do many, many missions there,” Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck told Space.com Monday (Sept. 14), hours after scientists unveiled the Venus phosphine discovery. Beck has long wanted to help explore Venus, which he thinks has not yet received the scientific attention it deserves. “Venus is well and truly undervalued,” he said.
Venus was once a temperate world like Earth, with plentiful surface water — including, many scientists believe, large oceans that may have persisted for much of the planet’s 4.5-billion-year history. But a runaway greenhouse effect eventually took hold on the second rock from the sun, baking out Venus’ water and transforming its surface into the scorched, high-pressure hellscape it is today. And “hellscape” really isn’t an exaggeration: Surface temperatures on Venus hover around 872 degrees Fahrenheit (467 Celsius), hot enough to melt lead. Learning exactly what happened to Venus, and why, is of great interest to planetary scientists. And the planet’s evolution serves as a sort of cautionary tale for Earth, where human activity has ushered in a period of dramatic warming, Beck noted.
Then there’s Venus’ astrobiological potential, which may not be restricted to the ancient past. Though the planet’s surface turned infernal, researchers think a pocket of potential habitability remained high in the clouds, about 30 miles (50 kilometres) up, and survived into the present day. Way up there, temperatures and pressures are quite similar to those found on Earth at sea level (though Venusian clouds are mostly made of sulfuric acid rather than water vapor). That cloud layer is where a team of scientists recently spotted the fingerprint of phosphine, a gas that here on Earth is produced only by microbes and human activity, as far as we can tell. And it’s the environment that Rocket Lab wants to probe with that 2023 mission and its hoped-for successors.
The next big leap for SpaceX’s Mars-colonizing Starship spacecraft appears to be right around the corner. Two full-size Starship prototypes, known as SN5 and SN6, recently performed 500-foot-high (150 meters) test hops at SpaceX’s South Texas facilities, near the village of Boca Chica. And the next vehicle in line is nearly ready to soar much higher, company founder and CEO Elon Musk said. “SN8 Starship with flaps & nosecone should be done in about a week. Then static fire, checkouts, static fire, fly to 60,000 ft [18,300 m] & back,” Musk said via Twitter on Saturday (Sept. 12).
Static fires are routine engine tests conducted while a vehicle is tethered to the ground. The engines that will be tested in this case are SpaceX’s next-generation Raptors — likely three of them, to get the SN8 up so high. SN5 and SN6 sported only a single Raptor, and those vehicles didn’t have nosecones or control-improving body flaps, either. (SN7 was a test tank that SpaceX intentionally burst during a pressure trial this past June, in case you were wondering.)
SpaceX is iterating toward a final version of Starship that will feature six Raptors and, Musk has said, be capable of carrying up to 100 people to the moon, Mars and other distant destinations. The 165-foot-tall (50 m) Starship will launch from Earth atop a gigantic rocket known as Super Heavy, which will be powered by about 30 Raptors of its own. The Starship vehicle will be powerful enough to blast itself off the moon and Mars, whose gravitational pulls are much weaker than that of our planet, Musk has said.
Astra launched its Rocket 3.1 vehicle late Sept. 11, but the flight ended during the small launch vehicle’s first-stage burn. The rocket lifted off from Pacific Spaceport Complex Alaska on Kodiak Island at 11:19 p.m. Eastern, according to a series of tweets by the company, which did not provide live video of the launch attempt. The lift-off took place after a previous attempt Sept. 10 was scrubbed because of a sensor issue.
The company later tweeted that the rocket successfully lifted off, but “the flight ended during the first stage burn.” The company did not immediately provide additional details about how long after launch the flight ended, or what terminated the flight. “It does look like we got a good amount of nominal flight time.” A video taken by an eyewitness showed the rocket’s engines shutting down while the vehicle was still in its early phases of ascent. According to industry sources, that shutdown took place about 30 seconds after lift-off. The rocket then fell to the ground near the pad and exploded. “Early in the flight, our guidance system appears to have introduced some slight oscillation into the flight, causing the vehicle to drift from its planned trajectory leading to a commanded shutdown of the engines by the flight safety system,” the company said in a Sept. 12 blog post.
A team of physicists just snared $3 million for testing the law of gravity like never before. Eric Adelberger, Jens Gundlach and Blayne Heckel won the 2021 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics “for precision fundamental measurements that test our understanding of gravity, probe the nature of dark energy and establish limits on couplings to dark matter,” Breakthrough Prize representatives announced on September 10. The trio, leaders of the Eöt-Wash research group at the University of Washington in Seattle, has built equipment sensitive enough to measure gravity, the weakest of nature’s four fundamental forces, at incredibly short distances. Such work has helped shape physicists’ big-picture understanding of the universe.
The Breakthrough Prize in science and math was founded in 2012 by Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, Sergey Brin, Anne Wojcicki, and Yuri and Julia Milner. The annual awards aim to spur ground-breaking research in the life sciences, mathematics and fundamental physics, and to inspire children to pursue careers in science and technology, Breakthrough Prize representatives have said. The Breakthrough Prize is the richest in science, with each one worth three times more than a Nobel Prize.
Four $3 million Breakthrough awards were granted this year in the life sciences, one in mathematics and two in fundamental physics. University of Texas physicist Steven Weinberg won the second physics award, a Special Breakthrough Prize honouring his “continuous leadership in fundamental physics, with broad impact across particle physics, gravity and cosmology, and for communicating science to a wider audience.”
3,200 megapixels! The camera heart of future Vera Rubin Observatory snaps record-breaking 1st photos
The camera core for the future Vera C. Rubin Observatory has snapped its first test photos, setting a new world record for the largest single shot by a giant digital camera. The imaging sensor array, which comprises the focal plane for Vera Rubin’s SUV-sized digital camera, snapped the 3,200-megapixel images during recent tests at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California. (“SLAC” stands for “Stanford Linear Accelerator Center,” the facility’s original name.) The photos are the largest single-shot pictures ever taken, SLAC officials said — so big that showing just one of them full-size would require 378 4K ultra-high-definition TVs. The resolution is so good that a golf ball would be visible from 15 miles (25 kilometers) away. The first images don’t show distant golf balls, however. The SLAC team that’s building Vera Rubin’s LSST (Legacy Survey of Space and Time) Camera focused on nearby objects, including a Romanesco broccoli, whose intricately textured surface allowed the sensors to strut their stuff. The newly released images are part of extensive, ongoing tests designed to vet the focal plane, which has not yet been installed on the LSST Camera. That integration step will happen in the next few months, as will the addition of the camera’s lenses and other key components, if all goes according to plan.
The camera should be ready for final testing by the middle of next year, SLAC officials said. It will then be shipped to the Chilean Andes, where the Vera C. Rubin Observatory is being built. The observatory, previously known as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, will use its 27.6-foot-wide (8.4 m) mirror and 3.2-billion-pixel camera to conduct a landmark 10-year study of the cosmos — the Legacy Survey of Space and Time for which the camera is named. The camera will generate a panorama of the southern sky every few nights, amassing an astronomical treasure trove that will include imagery of about 20 billion different galaxies.
NASA’s Artemis program of human lunar exploration can help pave the way for human Mars missions, according to a new report, although some tweaks to those plans may be required. The report, released by the space exploration advocacy group Explore Mars during its virtual Humans to Mars Summit, is based on a workshop held last November that brought together representatives of NASA, industry and academia to explore approaches for affordable human exploration of Mars.
The workshop identified 85 activities or functions associated with human Mars exploration, ranging from human health to landing technologies and surface systems. A “significant” number of them can benefit from the Artemis program or ongoing research on the International Space Station, the report concluded. That would be augmented by work on Mars-specific technologies. “We should be looking at retiring risks, proving technologies and living and working on the moon in parallel with developing those specific, unique technologies,” said Lisa May, chief technologist for civil and commercial space at Lockheed Martin, during a panel discussion at the conference Sept. 2.
One area of study panellists noted is gaining experience in partial gravity, such as that on the surface of the moon or Mars. “We don’t know what we don’t know about being in partial gravity,” said Michelle Rucker, Mars architecture lead at the Johnson Space Center. NASA’s experience, she noted, has been almost entirely been in either terrestrial gravity or microgravity. “One data point between zero and one would be good for us.” The workshop, though, said that some changes to the Artemis program may be needed so it can better serve Mars exploration. “Simply having humans on the surface of the moon doing their work, doing their exploration and science, and building up a sustained presence, is not adequate,” May said. One example of a change is having extended missions on the lunar Gateway, which NASA currently proposes to use for relatively short stays by astronauts. “We could emulate Mars missions, Mars transit durations, by having crews stay for a longer time on the Gateway,” she said.
Groups of stars can tear their planet-forming disk to shreds, leaving behind warped, misaligned rings, scientists find in a breakthrough study. Solar systems like ours generally form with their planets all orbiting in the same, flat plane. But, as an international team of scientists has found in a new study, this isn’t always the case. After 11 years of studying GW Orionis, a young triple star system 1,300 light-years away with a circumstellar disk (a planet-forming, ring-shaped disk made up of gas, dust planetesimals, asteroids and more), the team found the first direct evidence that groups of stars can actually tear apart their disks. This work reveals a disk that isn’t flat at all and is, instead, misaligned and broken.
“There have been a number of theoretical studies on disk-tearing effects, but this is the first direct evidence of effect occurring in a planet-forming disk,” study co-author Alison Young of the Universities of Exeter and Leicester in England, told Space.com in an email. “This demonstrates that it is possible for such disks to be warped and broken and raises the possibility that planets could form on highly inclined orbits around multiple star systems.” The warped ring, which is located in the inner part of the GW Orionis system’s disk, contains 30 Earth-masses of dust, the researchers also found. This means that the disk contains enough material to form planets. “It’s the best mechanism for forming planets on such extreme orbits, such as been found so far,” lead author Stefan Kraus, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Exeter in the UK, told Space.com, referring to the warping observed in GW Orionis. “But … from the planet-detection side, we don’t have a way of detecting these planets yet.” While the researchers have yet to detect planets within this system, the ground-breaking study confirms what scientists have suspected for years: that multi-star systems can break their own disks, leaving inclined, misaligned rings around its stars.
We now know what to call the crewed lunar rover being developed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and Toyota. The pressurized moon vehicle, which is expected to launch in the late 2020s, has been nicknamed “Lunar Cruiser,” JAXA and Toyota representatives announced in an update last week. The moniker, a nod to Toyota’s Land Cruiser SUV, “was chosen because of the familiar feeling it offers the people involved in the development and manufacture of the vehicle prototype as part of the joint research project as well as the familiarity it will provide the general public,” the update reads.
JAXA and Toyota signed an agreement last summer to develop the lunar rover, which will incorporate fuel-cell electric-vehicle technologies. This year, the partnership is working to build test parts for each major piece of the vehicle, and for a prototype of Lunar Cruiser itself. JAXA, Toyota and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries lead the Team Japan Working Group, which was established in August 2019 to study ways to help create a sustainable human presence on the moon. Making this ambitious goal a reality will almost certainly require international cooperation — with NASA, for example, which is working toward the same aim with its Artemis program.
NASA and Boeing announced an updated schedule of test flights of the company’s CST-100 Starliner commercial crew vehicle that would allow it to begin operational missions to the International Space Station at the end of 2021. In an Aug. 28 statement, NASA said it had scheduled a second uncrewed test flight, known as Orbital Flight Test (OFT) 2, for no earlier than December. That mission will be a repeat of the original OFT mission flown last December, which was cut short by technical problems that prevented the spacecraft from approaching and docking with the ISS.
The NASA statement confirmed recent comments by agency officials on the schedule for OFT-2. “The Boeing folks are working hard for their re-flight to be done by the end of the year, maybe early January,” Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations. The problems with the original OFT mission prompted a joint review by NASA and Boeing. That led to 80 recommendations involving testing and simulation, software requirements, process and operational improvements, software updates, and knowledge capture and modifications to Starliner hardware.
Assuming OFT-2 launches on the current schedule and is successful, NASA and Boeing will move on to the Crew Flight Test (CFT) mission, with NASA astronauts Mike Fincke and Nicole Mann and Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson. The CFT mission is scheduled for no earlier than June 2021.