Space Stories: SpaceX ISS Launch, Israeli Space Telescope, and Japanese Asteroid Results

Image (Credit): Artist’s rendering of Israel’s ULTRASAT space telescope. (Weizmann Institute of Science)

Here are some recent stories of interest.

Reuters News: “SpaceX Ready to Retry Launching NASA’s Next Space Station Crew

Elon Musk’s rocket company SpaceX was ready to try again at sending NASA’s next long-duration crew of the International Space Station to orbit on Thursday, about 72 hours after a first attempt was scrubbed due to a clogged filter in the launch system. Two NASA astronauts will be joined by a Russian cosmonaut and an astronaut from the United Arab Emirates for a six-month science mission made up of experiments ranging from human cell growth in space to controlling combustible materials in microgravity.

NASA: “NASA to Launch Israel’s First Space Telescope

NASA will launch Israel’s first space telescope mission, the Ultraviolet Transient Astronomy Satellite (ULTRASAT). ULTRASAT, an ultraviolet observatory with a large field of view, will investigate the secrets of short-duration events in the universe, such as supernova explosions and mergers of neutron stars. Led by the Israel Space Agency and Weizmann Institute of Science, ULTRASAT is planned for launch into geostationary orbit around Earth in early 2026. In addition to providing the launch service, NASA will also participate in the mission’s science program.

Carnegie Science: “Organic Molecules Found on First Primitive Asteroid Sample Returned to Earth

Approximately 20,000 organic molecules composed of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, or sulfur were found in samples returned to Earth from the asteroid Ryugu by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Hayabusa2 mission, according to  new work published in two Science papers from an international team that included Carnegie’s George Cody, Jens Barosch, and Larry Nittler. Named after a Japanese folktale, Ryugu is a near-Earth object, half a mile across, shaped kind of like a spinning top that orbits the Sun every 16 months. Hayabusa2 was the first mission to bring material back to Earth from a primitive asteroid, offering unique insight into the building blocks from which our Solar System was formed and the possible origin of organic material that contributed to Earth’s habitability.

Space Stories: Europeans Not Joining Chinese Space Station, the Milky Way is Odd, and Lucy has a New Target

Image (Credit): A computer rendering of China’s new Tiangong space station in orbit. (Alejandro Miranda/Alamy Stock Photo)

Here are some recent stories of interest.

Royal Astronomical Society: “European Space Agency Says it has No Plans to Send Astronauts to China’s Tiangong Space Station

A top official with the European Space Agency said it had no plans to send European astronauts to the newly completed Chinese space station, making it clear for the first time that the agency is no longer committed to working with China in human space flight in the near future. “We are very busy supporting and ensuring our commitments and activities on the International Space Station,” ESA director general Josef Aschbacher told a press conference in Paris on Monday.

Royal Astronomical Society: “Milky Way Found to be More Unique than Previously Thought

Is the Milky Way special, or, at least, is it in a special place in the Universe? An international team of astronomers has found that the answer to that question is yes, in a way not previously appreciated. A new study shows that the Milky Way is too big for its “cosmological wall”, something yet to be seen in other galaxies. The new research is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Southwest Research Institute: “SwRI-Led Lucy Team Announces New Asteroid Target

NASA’s Lucy spacecraft will add another asteroid encounter to its 4-billion-mile journey. On Nov. 1, 2023, the Southwest Research Institute-led Lucy mission will get a close-up view of a small main belt asteroid to conduct an engineering test of the spacecraft’s innovative asteroid-tracking navigation system. The Lucy mission was already on course to break records by its planned visit of nine asteroids during its 12-year mission to tour the Jupiter Trojan asteroids, which orbit the Sun at the same distance as Jupiter. Originally, Lucy was not expected to get a close-up view of any asteroids until 2025, when it will fly by the main belt asteroid (52246) Donaldjohanson. However, the SwRI-led Lucy team identified a small, as-yet unnamed asteroid in the inner main belt as a potential new and useful target for the Lucy spacecraft.

Space Stories: ISS Leak, Revamped Space Council, and Asteroid Space Stations

Image (Credit): International Space Station. (Canadian Space Agency)

Here are some recent stories of interest.

CBS News: “Soyuz Ferry Ship Temperatures Remain Within Limits Despite Major Coolant Leak

Temperatures in a Russian Soyuz crew ferry ship docked at the International Space Station — a lifeboat for three of the lab’s seven crew members — remain within safe limits despite a dramatic overnight leak in the spacecraft’s cooling system, officials said Thursday. The leak developed around 7:45 p.m. EST Wednesday amid preparations for a planned 6-hour and 40-minute spacewalk by cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin to move a radiator from the Rassvet module, where the Soyuz MS-22/68S spacecraft is docked, to the new Nauka laboratory module. “White House Revamps Membership of National Space Council Advisory Group

The White House announced the new membership of an advisory group of the National Space Council Dec. 16 with wholesale changes in the roster reflecting a new emphasis on climate change and workforce issues. Vice President Kamala Harris, chair of the National Space Council, announced a roster of 30 members of the Users’ Advisory Committee (UAG), the advisory group that supports the council on various space topics. Their membership on the committee is pending a formal appointment by the NASA administrator, a formality linked to NASA’s role in hosting the UAG. “Rubble Pile Asteroids Might be the Best Places to Build Space Habitats

There has long been a dream of building a massive rotating space station to call home, such as the one featured in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but the challenges of construction are huge, not to mention the logistics of lifting such large quantities of steel and other materials into space. A rotating station would need to be at least hundreds of feet across to make artificial gravity practical The bigger the better. So engineers have proposed spinning up asteroids as a kind of ready-built station. We would need to dig out the interior, but this would give us materials we could use.

Podcast: Solar Sailing to the Stars

Image (Credit): NEA Scout sail fully deployed. (NASA)

On a recent episode of the Clear + Vivid podcast, Alan Alda interviewed NASA engineer Les Johnson about his efforts to develop a solar sail that can take us to the stars. He is the Principal Investigator for the NEA Scout, which was launched into space during the Artemis I mission and is now heading towards a near-Earth asteroid via solar sails (see above).

During the interview, Mr. Johnson discussed the NEA Scout as well as his hopes for future human travel to the stars using solar sails, noting that while slow, the sails can outperform modern rocket engines in the long-run. He also pointed out that a solar sail may be able to get us to Proxima Centauri, the closest neighboring star, in hundreds of years versus the 70,000 years it will take the Voyager spacecraft to travel that same distance. I like how he puts such a mission in perspective, pointing out it took hundreds of years to build some of the great cathedrals.

Messrs. Alda and Johnson also discussed the ethics of space travel considering astronauts will be spending generations in space with many humans never seeing either the Earth or the destination in their lifetime. Mr. Johnson said space lasers may be another option for interstellar travel at some point in the future, reducing the travel time to Proxima Centauri to 40-50 years. Given the time spans, he said it may make sense to initially send robots into space first.

Finally, the podcast covered missions closer to Earth, such as mining asteroids for water and minerals, as well as 3D printing to create what we need in space. It sounded a lot like the situation in find in the science fiction TV series The Expanse.

Overall, it was a great conversation worth a few minutes of your day. Check it out.

Extra: Mr. Johnson is also the author of several books, including the co-authored Saving Proxima. Here is a quick summary of that tale:

2072. At the lunar farside radio observatory, an old-school radio broadcast is detected, similar to those broadcast on Earth in the 1940s, but in an unknown language, coming from an impossible source—Proxima Centauri. While the nations of Earth debate making first contact, they learn that the Proximans are facing an extinction-level disaster, forcing a decision: will Earth send a ship on a multiyear trip to render aid? 

Interstellar travel is not easy, and by traveling at the speeds required to arrive before disaster strikes at Proxima, humans will learn firsthand the time-dilating effects of Einstein’s Special Relativity and be forced to ponder ultimate questions: What does it mean to be human? What will it take to share the stars with another form of life? What if I return younger than my own children? The answers are far from academic, for they may determine the fate of not one, but two, civilizations.

Credit: Baen Publishers

Look Up, Again: An Asteroid is Really Coming

Image (Credit): Artist’s version of the Chicxulub crater at the time of the meteorite’s impact. (NASA)

Yes, you have heard it all before – a “planet killer” asteroid is coming our way. Well, in this case it appears to be true, but the 1.1km to 2.3km asteroid will only cross our path rather than hit us, at least for now.

The asteroid, named the ever-boring 2022 AP7, is among the top 5 percent of the potentially hazardous asteroids ever found.’

Scott Sheppard from the Carnegie Institution for Science, and one of the authors of a recent paper on 2022 AP7, stated in The Guardian:

Any asteroid over 1km in size is considered a planet killer…The Earth’s surface would likely cool significantly from sunlight not getting to the planet. It would be a mass extinction event like hasn’t been seen on Earth in millions of years.

Fortunately, we should have a few centuries to watch this asteroid before we start worrying about a collision.

Let’s hope we have a Super DART spacecraft sweeping the solar system by then keeping us clear from this asteroid and any other.

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming.