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.

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.”

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.”

‘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.”