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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 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, 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.


NASA astronaut Jeanette Epps to make rookie spaceflight aboard Boeing’s Starliner

NASA has added a third astronaut to the crew preparing to fly aboard the first operational mission of Boeing’s Starliner capsule to the International Space Station: Jeanette Epps.

The mission’s departure date will depend on the progress of the vehicle’s certification process; Starliner must ace two test flights before Epps’ mission, the capsule’s first operational flight, can blast off to the space station. The trip will be Epps’ first spaceflight; she had been assigned to launch in 2018 but was reassigned without public explanation. Epps will join NASA astronauts Sunita Williams and Josh Cassada, who were assigned to the flight in 2018.

“I’m super excited to join Suni Williams and Josh Cassada on the first operational Boeing crew mission to the International Space Station,” Epps said in a video posted to Twitter today (Aug. 25). “I’ve flown in helicopters with Suni flying and I’ve flown in the backseat of a T38 with Josh flying and they are both wonderful people to work with, so I’m looking forward to the mission.”

Epps holds a doctorate in aerospace engineering and worked for the CIA for seven years before joining the astronaut corps as part of the class of 2009, according to a NASA statement. Since becoming a full-fledged astronaut, she has worked with space station crews from the ground, including as lead CAPCOM, responsible for communicating between mission control and astronauts in flight.


Blue Origin-led team delivers Lunar Lander engineering mockup To NASA

The Blue Origin-led Human Landing System (HLS) National Team, comprised of Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper, delivered an engineering mockup of a crew lander vehicle that could take American astronauts to the Moon. The lander is set up in the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility (SVMF), NASA Johnson Space Center’s (JSC) iconic Building 9. The full-scale engineering mockup showcases two elements of the National Team’s multi-element architecture – the Ascent Element (AE) and Descent Element (DE). Standing at more than 40 feet, it is the Blue Origin National Team’s update to Apollo’s Lunar Module (LM) and will be used to validate the National Team’s approaches for getting crew, equipment, supplies, and samples off and on the vehicle.

The team will collaborate with NASA organizations including JSC’s Astronaut Office to perform engineering and crew operations tests with astronauts aiming to fly the final system within several years. “Testing this engineering mockup for crew interaction is a step toward making this historic mission real,” said Brent Sherwood, vice president of Advanced Development Programs, Blue Origin. “The learning we get from full-scale mockups can’t be done any other way. Benefitting from NASA’s expertise and feedback at this early stage allows us to develop a safe commercial system that meets the agency’s needs.”

The National Team HLS design leverages significant prior work, flight heritage, and a modular solution. Modular solutions help to enable faster progress due to the independent development and testing of each element, which permits ongoing improvements and evolution without impacting the full system. This also provides flexibility in the use of different launch vehicles and different concepts of operations.


SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule for next NASA astronaut launch arrives in Florida

SpaceX is forging ahead with preparations for its next NASA astronaut mission, currently slated for a late October launch. The Crew Dragon capsule that will launch the Crew-1 flight to the International Space Station arrived in Florida on Tuesday (Aug. 18), NASA officials said in an update Friday (Aug. 21). The spacecraft made the trip from SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California, and is now being processed at company facilities at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Crew-1 will lift off from NASA’s nearby Kennedy Space Center no earlier than Oct. 23 atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

Crew-1 is the first operational crewed mission that SpaceX will fly to the station for NASA under a $2.6 billion contract that Elon Musk’s company signed with the agency in 2014. The flight will carry four astronauts: NASA’s Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, and Japanese space flyer Soichi Noguchi. SpaceX already has one crewed mission under its belt — the recent Demo-2 test flight, which sent NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the orbiting lab for a two-month stay. Crew-1 will last about six months, the usual stint for astronauts on the station.


NASA investigating small air leak on International Space Station

NASA is tracking down the source of a minor air leak on the International Space Station but NASA officials stressed that there is no threat to crew safety. Crewmembers of the station’s current Expedition 63 are in no immediate danger and will spend the weekend in the orbiting laboratory’s Russian segment, inside the Zvezda service module, NASA officials said in an update today (Aug. 20). Astronauts can work in a shirtsleeve environment inside the station, but the orbiting lab is never completely airtight; a little bit of air always leaks over time, requiring routine repressurization from nitrogen tanks that are sent up during cargo missions, NASA added in the update.

While the leak rate is higher than usual, it is still within specifications for the station and poses no immediate danger to the crew, NASA officials emphasized. Astronauts also deal with leak simulations during training for their stays on the space station, which typically are about six months long. This leak was first spotted in September 2019, when there were “indications of a slight increase above the standard air leak rate,” NASA said in the statement. “Because of routine station operations like spacewalks and spacecraft arrivals and departures, it took time to gather enough data to characterize those measurements. That rate has slightly increased, so the teams are working a plan to isolate, identify and potentially repair the source.”


Mysterious gamma-ray ‘heartbeat’ detected from cosmic gas cloud

A cosmic gas cloud has a mysterious gamma-ray “heartbeat” that appears to be in sync with a neighbouring black hole. Using data from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, an international team of researchers found the “heartbeat” in a cosmic gas cloud in the constellation Aquila, the eagle. The cloud “beats” in rhythm with a miniature black hole located roughly 100 light-years away, suggesting the objects are connected in some way, according to a statement from the DESY national research center in Germany.

The black hole is part of a micro quasar system known as SS 433, which includes a giant star that is approximately 30 times the mass of the sun. A micro quasar is just a small quasar, the brightest type of object in the universe, which consists of a large black hole that emits extraordinary amounts of light as it gobbles up its stellar neighbours. As the two objects in SS 433 orbit each other, the black hole pulls in matter from the giant star, creating an accretion disk around the black hole.

Their findings, published Aug. 17 in the journal Nature Astronomy, suggest the gas cloud’s emission, or “heartbeat,” is powered by the micro quasar. However, the two objects are located relatively far apart, at a distance of about 100 light-years. Therefore, further observations are needed to fully understand how the black hole powers the heartbeat in the gas cloud.


Japan’s final HTV cargo spacecraft leaves space station for fiery end

Japan’s “white stork” has taken flight from the International Space Station for the last time. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA) ninth H-II Transfer Vehicle, or HTV-9, was released from its temporary perch at the end of the space station’s robotic arm on Tuesday (Aug. 18) at 1:36 p.m. EDT (1736 GMT). The uncrewed cargo vehicle, which JAXA nicknamed the “Kounotori,” or “white stork,” will spend two more days in orbit before flight controllers in Tsukuba, Japan, command an engine burn that it will send the spacecraft plunging back into Earth’s atmosphere. Loaded with about 7,400 lbs. (3,400 kilograms) of used equipment and trash from the space station, the HTV will meet its fiery end, succumbing to the heat of re-entry and burning up over the Pacific Ocean.

The de-orbit will mark the end of 11 years of HTV missions. First launched on Sept. 10, 2009, atop Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ first H-IIB rocket from the Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan, the barrel-shaped HTV was Japan’s first spacecraft to service a space station and the first uncrewed vehicle to be berthed on the U.S. segment of the International Space Station (ISS). The 33-foot (10-meter) long and 14-foot (4.4-meter) wide, solar-powered spacecraft was also the first capsule to carry both pressurized and unpressurized cargo. “Over the past 11 years, the H-II Transfer Vehicle Kounotori has delivered over 40 tons of cargo, research, hardware and equipment to the International Space Station,” Joel Montalbano, NASA’s ISS program manager, said in a statement during NASA TV’s broadcast of the departure. “I want to congratulate Japan on the HTV missions.”


ESA sets stage for three-way competition to build next-generation Galileo constellation

The European Space Agency is preparing to select two companies to build the second generation of Galileo navigation satellites under contracts to be signed in early 2021.

The ESA-led competition, arranged on behalf of the European Commission, pits rising German manufacturer OHB against European heavyweights Thales Alenia Space and Airbus Defense and Space, Paul Verhoef, ESA director of navigation, told SpaceNews by email. “The intention is to retain two suppliers in a dual-source mode providing these satellites,” he said.

ESA will initially order two satellites apiece from the selected providers. Follow-on contracts will cover the next 12 satellites in a constellation that will eventually consist of 24 active satellites and up to six spares.

OHB, once a novice in satellite manufacturing, now finds itself in the role of the incumbent, having built 22 of the 26 Galileo satellites in orbit. Airbus and Thales Alenia Space Italy built the first four satellites, which were used to validate the concept for the larger constellation.


NASA powers up Ingenuity Mars helicopter in space for the 1st time

NASA’s Mars helicopter, named Ingenuity, successfully powered up for the first time in space last week and Ingenuity’s electronics are in good shape. Ingenuity is the first helicopter designed to fly on another planet. It is currently travelling to the Red Planet aboard NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover, which launched on July 30. On Aug. 7, the helicopter’s six lithium-ion batteries were powered up and charged for the first time in space. The 4-lb. (1.8 kilograms) Ingenuity, which is currently stowed beneath Perseverance’s belly, receives its charge from the rover’s power supply, according to a Thursday (Aug. 13) statement from NASA.

“This was a big milestone, as it was our first opportunity to turn on Ingenuity and give its electronics a ‘test drive’ since we launched on July 30,” Tim Canham, the operations lead for Mars Helicopter at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California, said in the statement. “Since everything went by the book, we’ll perform the same activity about every two weeks to maintain an acceptable state of charge.” Perseverance is scheduled to land on Mars on Feb. 18, 2021. At some point after that, Ingenuity will detach from the rover, descend to the Red Planet surface and take a few pioneering test flights. (After deployment on Mars, the helicopter’s batteries will be charged by its own solar panel.) If the experimental test flights go according to plan, Ingenuity will prove that robotic flight is possible on Mars, opening the door for extensive aerial exploration on future missions.


The bizarre dimming of bright star Betelgeuse caused by giant stellar eruption

Betelgeuse’s odd recent dimming was caused by a huge cloud of material that the supergiant star blasted into space, a new study suggests. The bright star Betelgeuse, which forms the shoulder of the constellation Orion (The Hunter), is about 11 times more massive than the sun but 900 times more voluminous. That bloated condition shows that Betelgeuse is near death, which will come in the form of a violent supernova explosion. In the fall of 2019, Betelgeuse began dimming significantly, losing about two-thirds of its brightness by February. This dramatic dip spurred speculation that the star’s demise may have been imminent — perhaps just weeks away. (From our perspective, anyway; Betelgeuse lies about 500 light-years from Earth, so everything we’re seeing with the star today happened centuries ago.)

But the dramatic sky show didn’t happen: Betelgeuse powered through the dimming episode and returned to its normal brightness by May of this year. The recovery sparked a new round of speculation, this time about the dimming’s cause. Some scientists attributed the doldrums to a light-blocking dust cloud, for example, whereas others said big star spots on Betelgeuse’s surface were likely to blame. A new study bolsters the dust hypothesis, but adds a twist — Betelgeuse itself apparently coughed up the cloud.