Hello, readers, and welcome to This Week in Space. It’s been a tough one for space agencies and private startups alike, with multiple launch failures, one of which wrecked its launchpad. China also lost its Zhurong rover to the bitter Martian winter.
You’d think it was Friday the 13th or something.
However, we’ve got an update on the crew stranded aboard the International Space Station — and it’s all good news. The James Webb Space Telescope has been busy finding out the deepest secrets of distant galaxies and rocky exoplanets. The Pentagon’s UFO analysis office also published its unclassified yearly report. (Spoiler: For better or worse, we still don’t have evidence of aliens.) We’ll wrap up with a word on Mars, which goes retrograde tonight.
Russia Will Send an Uncrewed Soyuz Capsule to Rescue Stranded Astronaut, Cosmonauts
Last September, a Soyuz MS-22 capsule carried NASA astronaut Frank Rubio and Roscosmos cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin to the International Space Station. That same capsule was supposed to be their ride home. But in December, the Soyuz capsule took a direct hit from a micrometeoroid. The debris strike punctured the capsule’s external radiator coolant loop, emptying the coolant tank into space. Shortly thereafter, NASA and Roscosmos confirmed that the capsule could no longer safely carry the trio home at the end of their mission.
The two agencies and SpaceX immediately put their heads together to find the stranded crew a ride home. Ultimately, they decided that Roscosmos would send up an un-crewed Soyuz MS-23. That capsule will bring Rubio, Prokopyev, and Petelin back to Earth. Meanwhile, the crew on the ISS will jettison the MS-22, which will burn up in the atmosphere during its descent.
NASA is also working with SpaceX to see whether the company could scramble a Crew Dragon capsule, to bring additional crew members home in case something else happens before the MS-23 gets to the station.
Perseverance Rover Marks One Mars Year On Mars
Perseverance landed on Mars on Feb. 8, 2021. That’s nearly two Earth years ago. But on Mars, the wheel of the year turns slowly. Just a few days ago, Perseverance marked its one-Mars-year anniversary.
Sols (days on Mars) are less than an hour longer than days on Earth. However, there are 687 Earth days — just shy of 669 sols — in a Mars year. Mars’ orbital eccentricity also means that its seasons vary in length. Thankfully, the winter is much shorter than the warm season on Mars.
Right now, Perseverance is sifting through baby sand dunes for regolith samples. The rover recently began to assemble caches of sample tubes it has collected, for retrieval by the upcoming Mars Sample Return mission.
Happy first (Mars) birthday, little dude.
China’s Zhurong Rover Fails to Wake Up After Martian Winter
Winter on Mars can hit -200F: cold enough to freeze carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere into dry-ice snow. It’s a real hazard for the spacecraft we send there. At those temperatures, even the minute warmth of electrical current through a circuit board can create enough of a thermal differential to crack the board. So, when the seasons began to change, Earth’s space agencies sent ‘hibernate’ commands to their various rovers and landers. Perseverance woke up successfully after hibernation when spring came. Unfortunately, China’s Zhurong Mars rover did not.
The Zhurong team expected to hear from the rover by the spring equinox on Dec. 26. Alas, that date came and went, without so much as a ping. Currently, the team believes that the rover met the same fate as NASA’s InSight lander, with dust covering the rover’s solar panels, preventing it from gathering enough power to wake up. Even so, Zhurong had a full Earth year to carry out its directives on Mars — and the rover has already done everything the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) hoped it would.
Known Unknowns: Pentagon Releases 2022 UFO Report
Thursday, the Pentagon’s Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) published its unclassified “2022 Annual Report on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.” Mandated by the Pentagon’s new UFO investigation office, the All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO), the document catalogs 510 UAP reports, most of which came from personnel in the Navy and Air Force.
366 of the UAP reports were filed after AARO was created, so the ODNI report gave them a bit more attention. Of these, ODNI identified 26 UAPs as uncrewed aircraft systems (UAS) — that is, drones — and 163 as balloons or “balloon-like entities.” Six others turned out to be “clutter” in the air column, like birds or plastic bags. In all, the report leaves 171 UAP sightings still “uncharacterized and unattributed.”
“Some of these uncharacterized UAP appear to have demonstrated unusual flight characteristics or performance capabilities,” the report adds, “and [will] require further analysis.”
Carefully avoiding sensationalism, ODNI’s report points out that UAPs are much more likely to turn out to be enemy surveillance technology than they are to be flying saucers with little green men inside. Moreover, it’s not clear whether we’re only seeing more blips on the radar because we’ve got lots more radar sensors. While UAPs “continue to represent a hazard to flight safety and pose a possible adversary collection threat,” the report concludes, many UAP reports “lack enough detailed data to enable attribution of [the] UAP with high certainty.”
NASA Funds 14 Futuristic Space Exploration Concepts, Including a Seaplane for Titan
Thursday, we reported that NASA has issued a round of Phase I blue-sky research grants to develop 14 futuristic space exploration concepts, some of which sound like they’re straight out of science fiction.
As my colleague Ryan Whitwam wrote, “The 14 newly designated Phase 1 projects envision technologies that don’t currently exist but are reasonably plausible — no far-future concepts like warp drives or artificial gravity. For example, there are several notions for next-gen propulsion, like the Pellet-Beam Propulsion system proposed by the University of California. This concept would use a stream of microscopic hypervelocity particles propelled by laser ablation to push a spacecraft to incredible speeds. The proposal says such a system could reach the edge of the solar system in just three or four years.”
Another project would field a seaplane named TitanAir, capable of flying through Titan’s nitrogen atmosphere or soaring across its oceans of liquid hydrocarbons. As it flies, the plane would collect samples from the atmosphere using vents on the leading edge of its wings.
Webb Telescope Reveals Secrets of Distant Galaxies
The James Webb Space Telescope has been open for scarcely six months, but it’s already challenging long-held beliefs about the early universe. A team from the University of Texas has used NASA’s new space telescope to take a peek at some extremely distant, and therefore ancient, galaxies.
Webb’s extraordinary clarity revealed that they were barred spiral galaxies, like the Milky Way. This challenges the current assumption that such structures could not have formed when the universe was a mere 25% of its current age.
Green Peas… In Space?
Meanwhile, a separate analysis of three distant galaxies imaged by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) shows that they share characteristics with a rare class of galaxies called “green peas,” found right in our cosmic backyard. We didn’t even know about these galaxies until astronomers with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) found them in 2009. But thanks to gravitational lensing, these extremely distant galaxies get a natural 10x magnification from a galaxy in front of them called SMACS 0723.
Astronomers working with Webb’s NIRSpec instrument discovered that one of these “green peas,” which existed when the universe was just 5% of its current age, may be one of the most “chemically primitive” galaxies astronomers have ever seen. Where galaxies like ours contain an abundance of “metals” (that is, anything heavier than hydrogen and helium), these ancient and venerable galaxies have just a fraction of the oxygen that we see in the Milky Way.
“We’re seeing these objects as they existed up to 13.1 billion years ago, when the universe was about 5% its current age,” Sangeeta Malhotra, a researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Center and a member of the research team, said in a statement. “And we see that they are young galaxies in every sense — full of young stars and glowing gas that contains few chemical products recycled from earlier stars.”
“One of them contains just 2% the oxygen of a galaxy like our own,” said Malhotra, “and might be the most chemically primitive galaxy yet identified.”
JWST Confirms Its First Exoplanet
For the first time, researchers working on the JWST have confirmed the presence of a rocky exoplanet orbiting another star.
The exoplanet, formally named LHS 475 b, is almost exactly the same size as Earth, clocking in at 99% of Earth’s diameter. However, it appears to be hundreds of degrees hotter than Earth. If future observations find clouds, it may mean that the planet is more like Venus, with its choking clouds, and an atmosphere hot enough to melt lead.
OMg: Astronomers Spot Supernova Strangely Rich in Oxygen, Magnesium
During a deep-sky survey, a team of astronomers found a strangely colorful supernova, rich in unexpected elements. The progenitor star’s violent explosion could teach us about how massive stars shed their stellar envelopes when they die.
“The spectrum looked like nothing we have seen before. It had strong features of oxygen and magnesium, and the object was unusually long-lasting and blue,” says research fellow Hanindyo Kuncarayakti, from the University of Turku, Finland.
The team found the exotic supernova using the 8.2-m European Southern Observatory (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile.
133 Days on the Sun
According to NASA, this hypnotic video chronicles solar activity from Aug. 12 to Dec. 22, 2022, as captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). With its triad of instruments, SDO captures an image of the sun every 0.75 seconds. The Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA) instrument captures images every 12 seconds, at 10 different wavelengths of light.
The video is a time-lapse composite of SDO photos taken at a wavelength of 17.1 nanometers: an extreme ultraviolet wavelength that shows the Sun’s outermost atmospheric layer, its corona. It condenses observations from 133 days into 59 minutes of lovely ambient music and solar fields.
Launches and Landings
It’s been a rough week for space startups. Two different rockets suffered a failure shortly after launch, for two different reasons — and one of them had explosive consequences.
Virgin Orbit Air-Dropped Rocket and Payloads Burn Up
Virgin Orbit, Richard Branson’s smallsat launch company, suffered a destructive failure of its LauncherOne rocket on Monday.
The rocket took off from Spaceport Cornwall, a launch facility in the southwestern part of England. The company’s Boeing 747 carrier aircraft flew out over the Atlantic Ocean to deploy the 70-foot-long (21-meter) LauncherOne rocket.
The aerial deployment went fine. However, LauncherOne’s second stage failed just a few minutes after it got clear of the 747, southwest of Ireland. The rocket and its nine smallsat payloads re-entered the atmosphere and burned up near the Canary Islands.
First Launch By ABL Space Systems Fails Shortly After Takeoff
California-based startup ABL Space Systems also had an early failure after launching their two-stage RS1 rocket — but things went explosively wrong. RS1 was supposed to fly south over the Pacific from its spaceport on Alaska’s Kodiak Island, eventually deploying its payload satellites into a polar orbit. However, during the launch attempt the rocket fell back on its launchpad, damaging the pad and destroying the rocket.
“Early in today’s flight, all nine of RS1’s E2 engines shut down simultaneously,” ABL said in a statement. “RS1 impacted the pad and was destroyed.”
As expected in this scenario, there is damage to the launch facility. All personnel are safe, and fires have subsided. We'll plan our return to flight after investigations are complete. Thanks to our stakeholders and the space community for the expressions of support.
— ABL (@ablspacesystems) January 11, 2023
Later, a Lockheed Martin spokesperson replied sympathetically:
Space is hard.
But this week’s lauch attempt was a step forward and an opportunity to collect and analyze data to be leveraged for the future. We remain committed to supporting @ABLSpaceSystems as it develops these vehicles, including for the UK’s first vertical launch.
Lockheed Martin is ABL’s primary backer and customer, with nearly sixty different missions queued up once the startup gets its feet under itself. ABL is also one of the companies in NASA’s list of venture-class launch service providers, and it has a contract with NASA to launch an upcoming smallsat tech demo.
Saturday evening, Jan. 14, SpaceX is scheduled to launch a Falcon Heavy rocket from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The rocket will begin the US Space Force’s USSF67 mission, deploying a military communications satellite and a “rideshare satellite hosting multiple experimental payloads.”
Then, at 11:18 a.m. EST (8:18 a.m. Pacific) on Sunday the 15th, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will launch from Complex 4E at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. The rocket will carry another 51 Starlink satellites into orbit. Afterward, its first-stage booster will land itself on a drone ship in the Pacific Ocean.
Elon Musk now says that SpaceX’s next-gen rocket, Starship, will head into space for the first time in February. If not then, it’s a lock for March.
We have a real shot at late February. March launch attempt appears highly likely.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 8, 2023
NASA Swears in New Chief Technologist
Speaking of NASA’s cultivation of new technologies: NASA just swore in a new chief technologist, A. C. Charania. He will serve as principal advisor to NASA administrator Bill Nelson.
To give his oath, Charania stood between the flags of America and NASA, in front of a panorama of what the Perseverance rover sees in situ at Three Forks. Befitting the chief technologist at America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration, he laid his hand on a textbook: Technology Roadmapping and Development. (As a mathematician who has had the thought of delivering a proof with one hand laid on my differential equations textbook, I appreciate this.)
Outgoing chief technological officer Thomas Zurbuchen said in a statement, “Leading NASA’s Science Mission Directorate has been the job I’ve loved most. Nowhere is there a role that offers more exciting missions or has more potential to affect how we understand the Universe and the world we live in. It was a very difficult decision to resign. But I believe it is the best decision for the agency, for the collaborators, educators, and trainees in the NASA science community, and for me.”
All through January, five planets — Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn — will be visible in the sky at the same time.
Because of their different orbits, our planets sometimes appear to move “backward” in the sky. This is called retrograde motion, and it’s why classical astronomers landed on the idea of epicycles. Some planets go retrograde more often than others; Mercury zips around the sun so fast that it’s in retrograde practically every other week. For its part, Mars has been in retrograde for some weeks. But the Red Planet goes prograde again tonight.
Mars will be in the constellation of Taurus as it leaves retrograde motion. However, it will appear low in the sky, just because of Earth’s orbital inclination. To find it, look for Orion; Taurus is over his head. Observers on the East coast should look to the eastern horizon in the wee hours of the morning, before the planet sinks below the skyline.
Feature image of Soyuz courtesy of NASA.
NASA’s CAPSTONE Moon Probe Is Tumbling After Unknown Error
The CAPSTONE probe, which launched in June aboard a Rocket Lab Electron rocket, is tumbling and partially disabled. It's currently in safe mode, but it's going to be a challenge to recover the spacecraft.
Toys ‘R’ Us Is Selling Its Stash of Previously Unknown Adult Domains
Close your eyes and repeat, loudly: "I DON'T WANNA GROW UP..."
Engineers Are Using AI to Predict How New, Unknown Materials Will Perform
Researchers at MIT have used AI to predict the behavior of materials. This approach could yield substantial dividends in the long term.
Stanford Car Can Learn How to Handle Unknown Driving Conditions
Performance driving isn't just for race cars. If autonomous vehicles are going to be truly safe, they'll need to be able to perform at the safe maneuvering limits under a variety of conditions. A team of Stanford researchers has just brought us one step closer.