SpaceX gearing up for 12-mile-high test flight with Starship SN8 prototype

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 launch terminated during first-stage burn

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.

Pioneering gravity research snags $3 million physics Breakthrough Prize

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.

Report sees ways Artemis supports sustainable human Mars exploration

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.

Scientists spot a triple-star system shredding its planet-forming disk in a cosmic first

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.

Meet ‘Lunar Cruiser’: Japan’s big moon rover for astronauts gets a nickname

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 outline schedule of Starliner test flights

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.

Commercial crews and private astronauts will boost International Space Station’s science

A golden age may be coming for human spaceflight research as more astronauts than ever fly to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard commercial crew vehicles and through private companies, NASA officials said during an online conference Thursday (Aug. 27). “We’re going to have more people on the International Space Station than we’ve had in a long time, and [research and development] throughout is actually going to increase,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in opening pre-recorded remarks for the ISS Research & Development conference. Bridenstine was referring to a new era of human spaceflight that opened on May 30, when SpaceX launched its first-ever crewed mission, the Demo-2 test flight. Demo-2 sent NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the ISS for two months, ending on Aug. 2 when SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule made the first American ocean splashdown from orbit since 1975. Demo-2 was made possible by more than a decade’s worth of work across several presidential administrations. The goal was to spur the development of private American spaceships to fill the shoes of NASA’s space shuttle fleet, which retired in 2011 after 30 years of service.

The space shuttle typically ferried crews of seven astronauts to and from the space station. Russian Soyuz spacecraft, the only orbital crewed vehicle available for the past nine years until Crew Dragon came online, can carry just three people at a time. Crew Dragon and Boeing’s delayed (but forthcoming) CST-100 Starliner capsule will carry four astronauts apiece on their operational ISS missions for NASA. (Both companies won multibillion contracts from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program in 2014.) “For commercial crew vehicles, we’re continuing to work with the teams,” Montalbano added, saying the agency is aiming for a “steady cadence” between SpaceX and Boeing to send astronauts to the space station to perform science and research. The first operational SpaceX crewed mission is set to fly in late October, and NASA is accelerating crew announcements for future flights — such as when it recently named astronaut Jeanette Epps to the first operational Boeing Starliner mission to the space station, which is expected to launch next year.

Mars dust devil! Curiosity rover spots Red Planet twister

NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity has spotted a dust devil swirling through the parched Red Planet landscape. Curiosity photographed the dust devil on Aug. 9, capturing a spectral feature dancing along the border between dark and light slopes inside Mars’ 96-mile-wide (154 kilometres) Gale Crater. It’s no surprise that these dry whirlwinds, which we also get here on Earth, are cropping up inside the crater these days, Curiosity team members said. “It’s almost summer in Gale Crater, which puts us in a period of strong surface heating that lasts from early spring through mid-summer,” Claire Newman, an atmospheric scientist at the Arizona-based company Aeolis Research, wrote in a mission update on Wednesday (Aug. 26). (Gale lies about 4.5 degrees south of the Martian equator.)

“Stronger surface heating tends to produce stronger convection and convective vortices, which consist of fast winds whipping around low pressure cores,” Newman wrote. “If those vortices are strong enough, they can raise dust from the surface and become visible as ‘dust devils’ that we can image with our cameras.” Dust devils are typically quite faint, so Curiosity photos often must be processed before the features are visible, Newman added. But the Aug. 9 whirlwind showed up even in the raw, unprocessed rover imagery.

Submarine could explore seas of huge Saturn moon Titan

A submarine could explore alien seas just a few decades from now. Researchers have been crafting a concept mission that would send a submarine to Saturn’s huge moon Titan, which sports lakes and seas of liquid hydrocarbons on its frigid surface. Such a mission, if approved and funded by NASA, could be ready to launch in the 2030s, potentially paving the way for even more ambitious submarine exploration down the road, the concept’s developers said. “We feel that the Titan submarine is kind of a first step before you go do a Europa or Enceladus” sub mission, Steven Oleson, of NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Ohio, said last month during a presentation with the agency’s Future In-Space Operations working group. Europa and Enceladus — moons of Jupiter and Saturn, respectively — both harbour huge oceans of liquid water. But these two water bodies are buried under ice shells and would therefore be tougher to drop a sub into than Titan’s surface seas.

Most of what we know about Titan we’ve learned from the $3.2 billion Cassini-Huygens mission, which studied Saturn and its many moons up close from 2004 through 2017. The bulk of this work was done by NASA’s Cassini Saturn orbiter, but significant contributions also came from the Huygens lander, a European Space Agency-Italian Space Agency probe that touched down on Titan in January 2005. NASA is working on a Titan spacecraft of its own — an eight-rotor drone called Dragonfly, which is scheduled to launch in 2026. If all goes according to plan, Dragonfly will land on Titan in 2034, then study the moon’s complex chemistry and potential habitability at a number of different locations. A submarine could be the next step in Titan exploration. The agency has not selected the Titan sub idea as an official mission, but Oleson and his team did get two rounds of funding from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, which seeks to spur the development of potentially game-changing exploration ideas and technologies.

Report outlines measures to reduce impact of satellite constellations on astronomy

A new report offers ways both astronomers and satellite developers can reduce the effect mega constellations have on ground-based astronomy, but warned that no combination of measures can entirely eliminate the problem. The report released Aug. 25 by the American Astronomical Society and the National Science Foundation’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory, or NOIRLab, is the outcome of a four-day workshop called Satellite Constellations 1 (SATCON1) held nearly two months ago. That workshop brought together more than 250 people, including both astronomers and satellite operators, to evaluate how to minimize the effect satellite constellations would have on astronomy.

For more than a year, astronomers have expressed concern that constellations of thousands of satellites could interfere with their observations. The satellites, visible through reflected sunlight, can leave bright streaks as they pass through the fields of view of telescopes. The workshop concluded that while there are a number of ways to reduce the problem, there is no panacea. “No combination of mitigations will eliminate the impact of satellite constellations on optical astronomy,” said Connie Walker of NOIRLab, one of the co-chairs of the workshop, in an Aug. 25 press conference. The exception, she said, was not to launch such systems at all, but acknowledged “it’s not viable for industry.” Instead, the report offered a set of recommendations to mitigate the effects of mega constellations on astronomy, including ways for companies to reduce the brightness of their satellites and the amount of time they are visible in the night sky. Those steps include placing satellites in orbits no higher than 600 kilometres, as well as darkening them and controlling their attitude to reduce their reflectivity.