Scientists detect strange ‘fast radio burst’ from within our own Milky Way

Mysterious super powerful blasts of radio waves once seen only outside the galaxy have for the first time been detected within the Milky Way, new studies find. In addition, scientists have traced these outbursts back to a rare kind of dead star known as a magnetar, the strongest magnets in the universe, for the first time. Fast radio bursts, or FRBs, are intense pulses of radio waves that can release more energy in a few thousandths of a second than the sun does in nearly a century. Scientists only discovered FRBs in 2007, and because the bursts are so fast, astrophysicists still have many questions about them and their sources.

Scientists have dozens of theories about the causes of fast radio bursts, from colliding black holes to alien starships. Many theories suggest the bursts originate from neutron stars, which are corpses of stars that died in catastrophic explosions known as supernovas. (Their name comes from how the gravitational pulls of these stellar remnants are powerful enough to crush protons together with electrons to form neutrons). Specifically, previous research has suggested fast radio bursts might explode from a rare type of neutron star known as a magnetar. Magnetars are the most powerful magnets in the cosmos — their magnetic fields can be up to approximately 5,000 trillion times more powerful than Earth’s. “A magnetar is a type of neutron star whose magnetic fields are so strong, they squish atoms into pencil-like shapes,” Christopher Bochenek, an astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and lead author on one of the new studies, told Space.com.

OSIRIS-REx safely stores asteroid sample

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has secured material it collected from the asteroid Bennu into a sample return capsule, a process the mission accelerated after images showed material leaking into space. Project officials said they had stowed a sample collection device called the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) into a capsule on the spacecraft. A robotic arm moved the TAGSAM head into position within the capsule, which then sealed shut. That TAGSAM head touched down on the surface of the asteroid Bennu Oct. 20 for several seconds, and appeared to capture a large volume of material. However, officials said Oct. 23 that the TAGSAM had gathered so much material a Mylar flap designed to seal the material into place had been wedged open by several large rocks, causing some material to leak out, as seen in images from the spacecraft. NASA then decided to accelerate the process of stowing the TAGSAM head into the capsule that will return the material to Earth, skipping a manoeuvre to weigh the sample. Controllers spent about 36 hours on Oct. 26 and 27 to use the robotic arm to move the TAGSAM head into position in the sample return capsule and verify it was locked in place, and then sealed the capsule.

With the material collected form Bennu secured inside the sample return capsule, the mission is now focused on returning those samples to Earth. The window for the spacecraft’s maneuver to depart the vicinity of Bennu opens in early March 2021. Rich Burns, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said the window for that maneuver extends through May. The departure manoeuvre would bring the spacecraft back to Earth in September 2023.

Airbus ROXY reactor to turn lunar dust into oxygen

Airbus Defence and Space presented a technology to produce oxygen from lunar dust, the company announced. The breakthrough process and reactor invented by Airbus and named ROXY (Regolith to OXYgen and Metals Conversion) could revolutionize human space exploration and contribute to UN sustainability goals on Earth, the company said. The production of oxygen and metals from simulated lunar dust (regolith) was demonstrated by an international team led by Airbus Defence and Space (Friedrichshafen, Germany) with scientists from Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Technology and Advanced Materials IFAM (Dresden, Germany), Boston University (Massachusetts, USA) and Abengoa Innovación (Seville, Spain).

ROXY could be the heart of an integrated value chain using additive layer manufacturing to produce a wide range of products ‘Made on the Moon’, Airbus said. “These could include metals, alloys and oxygen. Combined with lunar ice, it would even be possible to produce rocket fuel from ROXY metal powder.” On Earth, Airbus thinks, “ROXY opens a new pathway to drastically reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases that result from production of metals” – “another example of how space technologies can improve life on Earth.”

NASA-ESA agreement a milestone in efforts to develop Artemis international partnerships

While NASA and the European Space Agency hailed an agreement this week to work together on the lunar Gateway, both agencies have work ahead to establish international cooperation on the overall Artemis program of human lunar exploration. NASA and ESA announced Oct. 27 that they had signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to cooperate on the lunar Gateway. The MOU extends the existing intergovernmental agreement for the International Space Station to the Gateway, a human-tended outpost in orbit around the moon intended to support crewed missions to the lunar surface.

Under the agreement, ESA will provide for the Gateway a habitation module called I-Hab and a telecommunications and refueling element called the European System Providing Refueling, Infrastructure and Telecommunications (ESPRIT). ESA will also build two additional service modules for the Orion spacecraft. In return, NASA will provide opportunities for European astronauts to fly to the Gateway. “This MOU marks a critical point in Europe’s trajectory: it confirms we are going forward to the moon, not just in terms of equipment and technology, but also with our people,” Jan Woerner, ESA director general, said in a statement. The announcement of the MOU did not mention how many European astronauts would fly to the Gateway. NASA spokesperson Gina Anderson said Oct. 28 that the agreement includes three “crew opportunities” to the Gateway, although specific missions and dates for them have not yet been determined. The agreement only addresses flights to the Gateway, she added, and not missions to the lunar surface.

NASA’s first attempt to sample an asteroid in space made a mess, but it’s the best mess ever, scientists say

A NASA spacecraft has really made a mess of things on the asteroid Bennu, and scientists are thrilled. The spacecraft, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe, briefly touched down on Bennu Tuesday afternoon (Oct. 21) in the space agency’s first-ever attempt to collect samples of an asteroid. It will take time to confirm if OSIRIS-REx did, in fact, collect pieces of Bennu, but so far everything appears to have gone as planned. “We really did kind of make a mess on the surface of this asteroid. But it’s a good mess,” OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta, of the University of Arizona, told reporters from the mission’s Lockheed Martin control center in Littleton, Colorado. “It’s the kind of mess we were hoping for.”

OSIRIS-REx touched a rocky region of Bennu called Nightingale with a spindly arm tipped with a hubcap-shaped collection plate. At the moment of contact, which lasted just 6 seconds, the spacecraft fired off a puff of nitrogen gas to essentially blow tiny pieces of the 1,640-foot-wide (500 meters) Bennu into its collection device. During Tuesday’s encounter, OSIRIS-REx could have crashed into Bennu, detected a problem and waved itself off or touched the surface but hit a big rock that made snatching smaller particles impossible. Any one of those scenarios could have spelled failure for the $800 million sample-return mission. But when the first images reached Earth in the wee hours of this morning, scientists were jubilant. “The spacecraft’s performance was phenomenal,” said Sandy Freund, OSIRIS-REx mission operations manager for Lockheed Martin, which built the spacecraft. The views from OSIRIS-REx showed a successful touchdown, a puff of rocky particles and a smooth departure from the asteroid Bennu.

Soyuz crew lands from space station ahead of ISS 20-year milestone

NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and cosmonauts Anatoli Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner are back on Earth. Chris Cassidy, a former U.S. Navy SEAL, left the space station and landed on the steppe of Kazakhstan with cosmonauts Anatoli Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner of the Russian federal space corporation Roscosmos on Wednesday (Oct. 21). Their Russian Soyuz MS-16 spacecraft touched down southeast of the Kazakh town of Dzhezkazgan at 10:54 p.m. EDT (0255 GMT and 8:54 a.m. on Oct. 22 Kazakh time). The trio’s landing came just 10 days before the 20th anniversary of the launch of the first crew to take up residency aboard the International Space Station (ISS), an expedition that was also comprised by one American and two Russians.

Cassidy, Ivanishin and Vagner’s departure from the space station marked the end of Expedition 63, with NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov of Roscosmos on board the ISS to start Expedition 64. Cassidy, Ivanishin and Vagner were met after landing by recovery forces, who helped them out of the Soyuz and provided initial medical checks as they began to readjust to the pull of gravity after 196 days off the planet. Cassidy, 50, has now logged 378 days in space over the course of his three missions, including a 2009 space shuttle flight and a previous ISS stay in 2013. He now ranks fifth among all NASA astronauts for total time in space. Ivanishin, 51, also completed his third spaceflight, adding to his previous ISS expeditions in 2012 and 2016 for a total of 476 days. This was the first spaceflight for Vagner, who is 35. Soyuz MS-16 was the 62nd Soyuz to launch for the International Space Station. It travelled 83 million miles (133.5 million km) spanning 3,136 orbits of Earth.

Astronaut requirements changing rapidly with private spaceflyers, long-duration missions

Being an astronaut of the 2020s will be completely different than it was for any astronaut that came before, a panel of spaceflyers told the virtual International Astronautical Congress Wednesday (Oct. 14). The spaceflight environment is rapidly changing due to several different factors. The International Space Station (ISS) is pushing harder into commercialization and will soon be welcoming more and larger space agency crews on commercial crew vehicles while bringing in a few private astronauts. Meanwhile, NASA and its international partners are preparing for the next phase of human spaceflight missions after the ISS, which they hope will include moon landings in 2024 and eventual astronaut excursions to Mars. Also in the next few years, private companies such as Virgin Galactic hope to send paying astronauts on suborbital flights, in a bid to open up space to more people besides professional astronauts.

NASA astronaut Ricky Arnold flew a space shuttle mission and the long-duration Expedition 55 mission in 2009 and 2018, respectively. It was an era when training in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) became especially important as astronauts learned more generic “expeditionary behavior” for long-duration missions, he said, rather than focusing on a few small specific skills. The newer shift in astronaut training, he added, is getting ready for the proliferation of new spacecraft — including SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, Boeing’s Starliner and NASA’s Orion spacecraft. This will add on to the Russian Soyuz spacecraft that currently ferries astronauts to space. “There is the potential for four different vehicles you have to figure out how to fly,” Arnold said, “and it’ll be interesting to see what the training team does with the next class of astronauts that will come on.” The skillset will change even further when private astronauts come on board the ISS or work on other spacecraft, said Michael López-Alegría, who flew three space shuttle missions and the long-duration Expedition 14 in the 1990s and 2000s. “We’re entering a new realm where you don’t have to be a professional astronaut to fly to space; it’s the era of democratizing that access,” López-Alegría said. “It’s very difficult right now, because the seats are few. And as a result, they’re quite expensive to go. But I’m quite confident that these prices will come down, just like [for aviation] in the 1920s and 1930s. Commercial aviation was only something that was reachable by the very, very wealthy.”

Elon Musk says SpaceX’s 1st Starship trip to Mars could fly in 4 years

SpaceX is almost ready to start building a permanent human settlement on Mars with its massive Starship rocket. The private spaceflight company is on track to launch its first uncrewed mission to Mars in as little as four years from now, SpaceX’s founder and CEO Elon Musk said Friday (Oct. 16) at the International Mars Society Convention. “I think we have a fighting chance of making that second Mars transfer window,” Musk said in a discussion with Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin. That window Musk referred to is a launch opportunity that arises every 26 months for mission to Mars. NASA, China and the United Arab Emirates all launched missions to mars in July of this year. The next window opens in 2022 with Musk referring to the 2024 Mars launch opportunity.

The mission will launch to the Red Planet on a SpaceX Starship vehicle, a reusable rocket-and-spacecraft combo that is currently under development at the company’s South Texas facility. SpaceX is also planning to use Starship for missions to the moon starting in 2022, as well as point-to-point trips around the Earth. Musk has long said that humans need to establish a permanent and self-sustaining presence on Mars to ensure “the continuance of consciousness as we know it” — just in case planet Earth is left uninhabitable by a something like a nuclear war or an asteroid strike. But SpaceX doesn’t have any plans to actually build a Mars base. As a transportation company, its only goal is to ferry cargo (and humans) to and from the Red Planet, facilitating the development of someone else’s Mars base.

Space industry rebounds from pandemic

Despite dire predictions just six months ago, space companies in general, and start-ups in particular, have survived the pandemic and its economic fallout in relatively good shape. In sessions at the three-day Satellite Innovation 2020 conference that concluded Oct. 8, executives and other industry observers concluded that the industry fared better than expected in the spring, when the pandemic caused a sharp drop in overall economic activity. “Despite my worst fears, we seemed to have rolled through this whole COVID thing with not nearly the amount of damage I thought we could have sustained,” said Chris Quilty, president of Quilty Analytics, during an Oct. 6 panel. He credited an economy that, at least in some sectors, rebounded faster than expected in the last several months. There has been some “roadkill” in the form of companies that filed for bankruptcy or laid off employees, he acknowledged, “but much less than I would have expected.”

Others noted that many companies in the space industry in the United States were classified as “critical infrastructure” by the federal government and could remain open during stay-at-home orders. Many also relied on the government as customers, which offered a stability not found in other sectors of the economy. “Many companies in space have not had to shut down completely for a long time during this terrible year that, overall, globally everybody has had, which has been helping a lot in having a very positive outlook right now,” said Marco Villa, president and chief operating officer of Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems. He noted there have been supply chain issues because some suppliers did shut down, “but they’re picking up again.”

Black hole kills star by ‘spaghettification’ as telescopes watch

Telescopes have captured the rare light flash from a dying star as it was ripped apart by a supermassive black hole. This rarely seen “tidal disruption event” — which creates spaghettification in stars as they stretch and stretch – is the closest such known event to happen, at only 215 million light-years from Earth. (For comparison, the nearest star system to Earth – Alpha Centauri — is roughly 4 light-years away, and the Milky Way is roughly 200,000 light years in diameter.) One light-year is the distance light travels in a year, about 6 trillion miles (10 trillion kilometres).

“The idea of a black hole ‘sucking in’ a nearby star sounds like science fiction. But this is exactly what happens in a tidal disruption event,” the new study’s lead author Matt Nicholl, a lecturer and Royal Astronomical Society research fellow at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, said in a European Southern Observatory statement. “When an unlucky star wanders too close to a supermassive black hole in the centre of a galaxy, the extreme gravitational pull of the black hole shreds the star into thin streams of material,” co-author Thomas Wevers said in the same statement. The team also estimated the size of the doomed star at about the same mass as our own sun. It didn’t have a chance against the black hole, which has a mass of more than 1 million times that of the sun.

James Webb Space Telescope getting closer to launch

The multi-billion dollar successor of the Hubble telescope, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, has completed a couple of crucial tests and is closer to its shipment to French Guiana for launch, NASA said. “With the completion of its latest series of milestone tests, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has now survived all of the harsh conditions associated with a rocket launch to space,” the U.S. space agency said.

The James Webb Space Telescope is the world’s largest, most powerful, and complex space science telescope ever built; the program – named after the second NASA Administrator in the sixties – is led by NASA, along with its partners ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency. “Webb is NASA’s next great space science observatory, which will help in solving the mysteries of our solar system, looking beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probing the mystifying structures and origins of our universe,” NASA said.

U.S. Transportation Command to study use of SpaceX rockets to move cargo around the world

The U.S. military command that oversees logistics operations has signed an agreement with SpaceX and XArc to study the use of space launch vehicles to transport supplies in an emergency. Army Gen. Stephen Lyons, commander of U.S. Transportation Command, announced the agreement Oct. 7 at a National Defense Transportation Association virtual conference. “Think about moving the equivalent of a C-17 payload anywhere on the globe in less than an hour,” Lyons said. The C-17 is a very large military cargo plane capable of transporting a 70-ton main battle tank.

Transportation Command has signed a cooperative research and development agreement, known as CRADA, with SpaceX and Exploration Architecture Corporation (XArc) to study concepts for rapid transportation through space. “There is a lot of potential here,” said Lyons He noted that one of the challenges of military logistics is the “tyranny of distance and time, and global access.” Space transportation is weight- and volume-constrained compared to airlift, and has limited options for launching and recovery operations. “As industry advances to overcome these challenges and decrease costs, a space transportation capability to put a crucial cargo quickly on target at considerable distances makes it an attractive alternative,” said U.S. TRANSCOM Deputy Commander Vice Adm. Dee Mewbourne.