Space Stories: Congressional Space Medal, Asteroid Rings, and Dancing Exoplanets

Image (Credit): Former NASA astronauts Robert Behnken, left, and Douglas Hurley, right, and are seen after being awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor by Vice President Kamala Harris during a ceremony in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

Here are some recent stories of interest.

NASA: “VP Awards Former NASA Astronauts Congressional Space Medal of Honor

On behalf of President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris awarded former NASA astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken the Congressional Space Medal of Honor Tuesday for their bravery in NASA’s SpaceX Demonstration Mission-2 (Demo-2) to the International Space Station in 2020. Hurley and Behnken are the first recipients of the honor since 2006 and accepted the awards during a televised event in Washington.

CNET: “NASA Webb Telescope Zooms in on One of Solar System’s Oddest Objects

Scientists using NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope say they’ve been able to get a closer look at an asteroid that also hosts just the fifth ring system to be discovered in our solar system (the others circle Saturn, Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune).  Astronomers initially discovered the rings in 2013 while watching Chariklo occult, or pass in front of, a distant star. To their surprise, two other smaller objects also appeared to pass in front of the background star for an instant. These turned out to be two thin rings around Chariklo. 

Northwestern University: “Watch Distant Worlds Dance Around their Sun

In 2008, HR8799 was the first extrasolar planetary system ever directly imaged. Now, the famed system stars in its very own video. Using observations collected over the past 12 years, Northwestern University astrophysicist Jason Wang has assembled a stunning time lapse video of the family of four planets — each more massive than Jupiter — orbiting their star. The video gives viewers an unprecedented glimpse into planetary motion. 

Space Mission: What’s Up with Juno?

Image (Credit): Image from “Where is Juno” earlier today showing its approximate location in relation to other bodies in the solar system. (NASA)

Are we witnessing the slow blinding of the Juno spacecraft? NASA is having trouble receiving images from the spacecraft’s solar-powered JunoCam. As a result, of the 258 images recently obtained by NASA, only 44 were usable. NASA is still investigating this issue and hopes to come up with a way to mitigate it.

Launched in August 2011, Juno has been a reliable workhorse studying the secrets of Jupiter while also capturing amazing images of the planet and its 80+ moons since it entered into Jovian orbit on July 4, 2016. Its extended mission was supposed to last until September 2025, harvesting additional data to assist NASA’s upcoming Europa Clipper mission as well as the European Space Agency’s Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) mission.

While Juno has numerous scientific instruments that are still plugging away producing key data on Jupiter and its surroundings, the images were an important link between the mission and the public. The images shown below are just a small sample of what has been sent back (click here for more). It will be a sad day when we can no longer see the Jovian neighborhood in this way.

Image (Credit): The shadow of the moon Io on Jupiter. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS)
Image (Credit): The surface of Jupiter’s moon Ganymede. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS)
Image (Credit): Jupiter’s south pole. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/John Landino)

SpaceX Agrees to Work with Scientists to Reduce Impact of its Satellites

Image (Credit): Artist’s rendering of a Starlink satellite in orbit. (SpaceX)

Earlier this month, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and SpaceX came to an agreement to “mitigate potential interference” from its Starlink satellites. These satellites have been impacting ground-based radio, optical, and infrared astronomy facilities.

Basically, SpaceX agreed to continue working on recommendations and best practices from the scientific community, ensure the second generation of Starlink satellites are darker and less intrusive in the night sky, continue to assist with studies on the satellites impact on astronomy facilities, and improve overall coordination with these scientific facilities.

It is a tall order, but any company pumping thousands of satellites into the night sky should have some responsibilities to others using that same sky. SpaceX is just the first of many companies with big plans for the night sky, so maybe this will set a precedent for the satellites that follow, or at least the U.S. satellites. I am note sure we can do anything about the Chinese and others, but the United Nations cans certainly create similar standards at the international level.

In the agreement, the NSF stated:

NSF and SpaceX have collaborated from the beginning on how best to meet the goals of protecting astronomy while also providing maximum internet access for communities across the United States. The mitigation steps taken can and should serve as a model for coordination among satellite operators and the astronomy community within the United States and beyond.

Let’s hope the NSF is right.

Even George Will is Excited about the JWST

Image (Credit): JWST image of the central region of the Chamaeleon I dark molecular cloud. (NASA, ESA, CSA)

George Will, political commentator, wrote an article for his Washington Post column this week that praised the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). I am accustomed to his conservative politics and baseball trivia, but he was showing a whole new side in this piece. He was almost giddy in his praise of the telescope. I guess no one can avoid being fascinated with the images we have seen since July of last year, as well as what we are learning from these images. The universe has plenty of secrets to share.

Mr. Will was just as impressed with the engineering that went into the JWST, noting that:

To function, each mirror must, after being hurled into space on a shuddering rocket, retain this exquisite precision: If each mirror were the size of the continental United States, each should not vary more than 2 inches from perfect conformity with the others.

That is impressive.

It is just nice to see astronomy bleeding into everyday conversations, which is what is needed given the rest of the Earth-bound news these days. Yes, it is time to look up and look back in time to understand our place in the universe. Talk about science, be it astronomy or engineering, should replace the political talk from time to time.

There is nothing new under the sun when it comes of silly politicians, but the night sky always has something new to share with us. We just have to pay attention.

Space Quote: Getting Ready for Mars

Image (Credit): The surface of Mars. (NASA)

“The space domain is critical to modern commerce, scientific discovery, and national security. The ability to accomplish leap-ahead advances in space technology through the DRACO nuclear thermal rocket program will be essential for more efficiently and quickly transporting material to the Moon and eventually, people to Mars.”

Statement by Dr. Stefanie Tompkins, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), regarding its partnership with NASA on the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program to design and develop a nuclear thermal rocket engine that can bring a crewed mission to the Red Planet. It’s another encouraging step as we eventually move from the Moon to Mars.