From asteroids and (interstellar) comets to black holes and the sun, 2019 has been full of amazing space science.
This past year has been a fantastic one for astronomy and planetary science. On New Year’s Day, two spacecraft reached their targets, and things took off from there. Join us as we review some of the hottest science news from the last 12 months.
Farthest flyby kicks off year
On New Year’s Day, 2019, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft zoomed by its target, 2012 MU69. This Kuiper Belt Object, which has since been officially named ‘Arrokoth,’ is the most distant object ever to ever be observed by a flyby from a spacecraft from Earth.
New Horizons revealed that Arrokoth looked like a flat snowman, with two pancake-like lobes joined together. The incredible object immediately revealed new information about how planets and other objects formed in the early solar system, thanks to its near-pristine characteristics. While New Horizons moves onward on a journey that will eventually take it out of the solar system, it continues to send information back to Earth about Arrokoth and will do so until mid-2020.
Visiting an asteroid
Also on New Year’s Eve this year, NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (or the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft) entered into orbit around the asteroid Bennu. The craft arrived at Bennu in early December, and rang in the new year by firing its thrusters, which pushed it into the asteroid’s orbit, making Bennu the smallest object ever orbited by a spacecraft. With this maneuver, OSIRIS-REx also set a world record for closest orbit of an object, a record the craft later broke again this past year.
But the spacecraft didn’t spend the last 12 months just sitting in orbit around the asteroid. It began an in-depth study of the diamond-shaped object, searching for an ideal target area to grab a piece of Bennu in 2020. That spacecraft will then return the rocky sample to Earth for more in-depth study.
From what the craft has found so far, it seems like Bennu displays some surprising activity, like jetting material from its surface. OSIRIS-REx has also found an interesting ridge and some intriguing boulders on the asteroid. As the year came to a close, mission scientists selected a landing place, ‘Nightingale’, as the sample return site. OSIRIS-REx will continue to orbit Bennu until 2021, when it will collect a sample and return to Earth.
Bennu wasn’t the only asteroid that was visited by spacecraft in 2019. The Japanese mission Hayabusa2 was already orbiting the asteroid Ryugu when 2019 dawned. In February, the spacecraft used a sampler horn attached to its belly to gather material blown up from the surface by a bullet fired into the asteroid.
In April, a free-flying, single-shot ‘gun,’ known as the Small Carry-on Impactor, fired a second bullet into the asteroid’s surface after Hayabusa2 dropped a deployable camera and moved to the far side of the object. A third bullet shot into the asteroid in July, which excavated subsurface material that the spacecraft later collected in its horn.
On Nov. 12, packed with precious space rocks, Hayabusa2 bid Ryugu farewell and began its return trip to Earth. The spacecraft is expected to bring samples of the asteroid to Earth in late 2020. That may not be the end for Hayabusa2, however, as it has the potential to continue to study other asteroids.
A comet from another star
In late August, astronomers caught a glimpse of a new comet, named Borisov. for its discoverer. The fast-moving object was quickly characterized as an interstellar comet, originally born around another star and making a quick tour around our sun. Unlike fellow interstellar visitor ‘Oumuamua, which was only visible for a few short weeks, Borisov was discovered before it made its pass behind the sun and should be visible until late spring 2020, giving astronomers plenty of time to study it. Also unlike ‘Oumuamua, a mysterious object scientists had trouble characterizing, Borisov is clearly a comet with observable surface activity and a glowing tail.
Not only is Borisov another interstellar treat for planetary scientists – it also suggests that interstellar objects may be more common than previously suspected. After ‘Oumuamua’s 2017 visit, astronomers didn’t anticipate catching a sight of another interstellar object until the early-2020s, when the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) goes online. The LSST should be capable of catching more faint objects, allowing it to better spot interstellar interlopers than current instruments.
Photographing a black hole
The year wasn’t all about small bodies and planetary science. In 2019, astronomers made history by photographing a black hole.
Using the Event Horizon Telescope, an instrument made up of multiple telescopes spread around the globe, astronomers snapped a photo of the supermassive black hole at the center of the nearby galaxy M87, which lies 53.5 million light-years away. The monster black hole weighs in at about 6.5 billion times the mass of our sun, and is even larger than the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way.
Because the gravity of black holes swallows even light, the scientists didn’t capture a picture of the black hole itself. Instead, they photographed the it’s boundary, the event horizon, mapping out the black hole’s silhouette against the background radiation of the material swirling around it. These researchers hope to photograph the Milky Way’s own black hole in the near future.
In April, NASA’s InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) lander felt the ground move under its robotic feet as the spacecraft sensed its first confirmed marsquake. The Martian equivalent of earthquakes, marsquakes come from seismic waves traveling through the planet’s interior. Because Mars lacks tectonic plates, marsquakes occur less frequently than their terrestrial counterparts. Hopefully, the April marsquakes and other events will help the spacecraft on its eventual goal of tracing the interior of the Red Planet.
InSight also carried a mechanical mole with it to Mars. The instrument, a burrowing heat probe, was supposed to dig 10 to 16 feet (3 to 5 meters) beneath the planet’s surface. Shortly after its February deployment, however, the “mole” became stuck about 1 foot (0.3) meters down. It was designed to dig through sandy soils like those seen around Spirit and Opportunity, but the ground under Insight is different from other landing sites. So, even though the experiment isn’t going smoothly, it continues to teach scientists about the surface of Mars.
Probing the sun
Launched in 2018, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe is on a mission to “touch the sun” as it draws closer to the planet over its seven-year mission.
Ultimately, the spacecraft will come within 3.9 million miles (6.2 million kilometers) of the sun’s surface, though it hasn’t gotten that close yet. The spacecraft made its second solar flyby between March 30 and April 19, 2019. Data from the first two flybys were released to the public earlier this year. The spacecraft made its third flyby in September, 2019. The next flyby will come just after the New Year, in January of 2020.
The sample, collected near the rim of Lara Crater, was the first untouched Apollo sample opened since the 1970s. A corresponding tube will be opened in January 2020. Scientists hope that, with new instruments and techniques, they will be able to gain more insights about the lunar surface and the moon overall.
After January, only two tubes, one from Apollo 15 and one from Apollo 16, will make up the remaining untouched samples.
While 2019 had many firsts, it also boasted a few lasts. In February, NASA declared its Opportunity Mars rover “dead,” eight months after a massive Martian dust storm silenced the solar-powered rover. Scientists suspect that dust covering the rover’s solar panels kept it from recharging, bringing an end to the longest running Martian mission ever.
Along with its sister rover Spirit, Opportunity landed on Mars in 2004. Each rover embarked on what were to be 90-day missions. However, over a decade and a half, Opportunity covered more than a marathon’s worth of ground, finding conclusive evidence that Mars hosted large bodies of liquid water in the past.
Opportunity analyzed clay materials, determining that large, kilometer-scale bodies of water once existed on the now-dry planet. The hard-working rover also determined that the Martian water was neither acidic nor basic, establishing the physical habitability of Mars during the same period that life on Earth was evolving. Traveling 28.06 miles (45.16 km) over its lifetime, Opportunity holds the record for distance traveled by any vehicle, robotic or crewed, on the surface of another world.
Mercury transit of 2019
Astronomers also experienced a last of sorts in 2019. On Nov. 11, the tiny planet Mercury made its last transit of the sun until 2032.
Planetary transits occur when a planet moves between Earth and the sun, and provide Earth-bound astronomers the opportunity to study the atmosphere of a world like Mercury, however thin it may be. To get in-depth observations like this, astronomers require the orbits of both worlds to line up precisely, a relatively rare occurrence.
Astronomers used ground-based telescopes, as well as other space-based instruments to document and study the historic event.
A TV satellite is about to explode following 'irreversible' battery damage – Space.com
Following an unexplained accident, a satellite built by Boeing and operated by DirecTV is at risk of exploding in the coming weeks. To mitigate potential damage to other satellites, the U.S. government will allow the satellite TV provider to move the doomed craft to a higher orbit ahead of schedule.
The satellite, called Spaceway-1, has been orbiting some 22,000 miles (35,400 kilometers) above Earth since 2005, providing high-definition television coverage for many years before being demoted to a backup satellite. (Currently, it is not providing any coverage for customers.)
In December 2019, the craft experienced a “major anomaly” that resulted in “irreversible thermal damage” to its batteries, DirecTV officials wrote last week in a filing to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC). While Spaceway-1 has relied on its solar panels for power in recent months, the craft will soon enter its “eclipse season” — a period when the satellite hovers in Earth’s shadow — and the batteries must be activated. When this season begins on Feb. 25, company representatives wrote, the damaged batteries will likely explode upon activation, destroying the satellite and putting other nearby satellites at risk.
Related: The Top 10 Greatest Explosions Ever
The satellite follows a geostationary orbit (meaning it appears to stay put over one particular part of Earth as it rotates), which is the highest orbit possible for in-use satellites. Because of the craft’s high location, redirecting the craft downward — where other in-use satellites are circling — so that it may eventually burn up in the atmosphere is not a viable option. Instead, on Jan. 19, DirecTV requested that the FCC allow the company to relocate the satellite to a higher orbit known as the “graveyard orbit,” roughly 185 miles (300 km) above its current path, where, hopefully, Spaceway-1 can explode in peace.
Normally, decommissioning a satellite involves releasing all of the satellite’s remaining propellant — a process that can take months, depending on how much fuel is left in the tank. Spaceway-1 doesn’t have months to spare; according to the FCC filing, there’s only enough time to release a “nominal” amount of the satellite’s remaining fuel if the craft is to be moved to that great graveyard in the sky before exploding.
The FCC approved DirecTV’s request to decommission Spaceway-1 ahead of schedule and gave the company a waiver to ignore the propellant-depletion rule. According to AT&T, the parent company of DirecTV, the soon-to-explode satellite “is a backup and we do not anticipate any impacts on consumer service as we retire it.”
RIP, Spaceway-1. May your broken body rust in peace in the quiet of space.
Originally published on Live Science.
Stennis Space Center sets stage for Artemis testing in 2020 – Space Daily
All eyes are on south Mississippi with this month’s delivery and installation of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket’s first core stage to Stennis Space Center for a milestone Green Run test series prior to its Artemis I flight.
The Green Run testing will be the first top-to-bottom integrated testing of the stage’s systems prior to its maiden flight. The testing will be conducted on the B-2 Test Stand at Stennis, located near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, and the nation’s largest rocket propulsion test site. Green Run testing will take place over several months and culminates with an eight-minute, full-duration hot fire of the stage’s four RS-25 engines to generate 2 million pounds of thrust, as during an actual launch.
“This critical test series will demonstrate the rocket’s core stage propulsion system is ready for launch on missions to deep space,” Stennis Director Rick Gilbrech said. “The countdown to this nation’s next great era of space exploration is moving ahead.”
NASA is building SLS as the world’s most-powerful rocket to return humans to deep space, to such destinations as the Moon and Mars. Through the Artemis program, NASA will send the first woman and next man to the Moon by 2024. Artemis I will be a test flight without crew of the rocket and its Orion spacecraft. Artemis II will carry astronauts into lunar orbit. Artemis III will send astronauts to the surface of the Moon.
The SLS core stage, the largest rocket stage ever built by NASA, stands 212 feet tall and measures 27.6 feet in diameter. It is equipped with state-of-the-art avionics, miles of cables, propulsion systems and propellant tanks that hold a total of 733,000 gallons of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen to fuel the four RS-25 engines during launch. The core stage was designed by NASA and Boeing in Huntsville, Alabama, then manufactured at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans by lead contractor Boeing, with input and contributions from more than 1,100 large and small businesses in 44 states.
“Delivering the Space Launch System rocket core stage to Stennis for testing is an epic historical milestone,” said Julie Bassler, the SLS stages manager. “My team looks forward to bringing this flight hardware to life and conducting this vital test that will demonstrate the ability to provide 2 million pounds of thrust to send the Artemis I mission to space.”
The stage was transported from Michoud to Stennis aboard the specially outfitted Pegasus barge. It arrived at the B-2 dock on Jan. 12 and was rolled out onto the test stand tarmac that night. Crews then began installing ground equipment needed for lifting the stage into a vertical position and onto the stand.
The lift was performed Jan. 21-22, which provided optimal weather and wind conditions. Crews now will fully secure the stage in place and to stand systems for testing.
NASA completed extensive modifications to prepare the B-2 stand for the test series. The stand has a notable history, having been used to test Saturn V stages that helped launch astronauts to the Moon as part of the Apollo Program and the three-engine propulsion system of the space shuttle prior to its first flight.
Preparing the stand for SLS core stage testing required upgrades of every major system on the stand, as well as the high pressure system that provides hundreds of thousands of gallons of water needed during a test. It also involved adding 1 million pounds of fabricated steel to the Main Propulsion Test Article framework that will hold the mounted core stage and extending the large derrick crane atop the stand that will be used to lift the SLS stage into place.
Once installed on the stand, operators will begin testing each of the stage’s sophisticated systems. Among other things, they will power up avionics; conduct main propulsion system and engine leak checks; and check out the hydraulics system and the thrust vector control unit that allows for rotating the engines to direct thrust and “steer” the rocket’s trajectory.
They also will conduct a simulated countdown, as well as a “wet dress rehearsal,” in which propellants are loaded and flow throughout the stage system. The rehearsal exercise will end just prior to engine ignition, with the full four-engine hot fire to come in subsequent days.
After the hot fire test, crews plan to perform refurbishment work on the stage and inspect and configure it for shipment to Kennedy Space Center. The stage will be removed from the stand, lowered to its horizontal position on the tarmac and reloaded into Pegasus for the trip to Florida.
At Kennedy, the stage will be joined with other SLS elements and prepared for launch. The next time its four RS-25 engines fire, Artemis I will be taking flight.
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Russia to supply US with six RD-180 rocket engines this year
Moscow (Sputnik) Jan 23, 2020
Russian rocket engine manufacturer NPO Energomash plans to ship six RD-180 rocket engines to the United States this year, government procurement website data shows.
The RD-180 engines will be used to power the first stage of the Atlas V launch vehicles.
In December, Energomash said that it shipped a total of six RD-180 rocket engines to the United States in 2019.
In October, Roscosmos subsidiary Energomash was preparing to deliver three more RD-180 engines for use with Atlas V launch v … read more
IceCube rules out last Standard Model explanation of ANITA's anomalous neutrino events – Tdnews
The IceCube Neutrino Observatory is possibly the strangest telescope on Earth. From its home at the South Pole, it sits and waits for fundamental particles called neutrinos to pass through its 5,160 optical detectors buried in the ice. When a neutrino interacts with a hydrogen or oxygen atom in the ice, it produces a signal that IceCube can detect.
But IceCube isn’t the only neutrino experiment in Antarctica. There is also the ANITA (the ANtarctic Impulsive Transient Antenna) experiment, which flies a balloon over the continent and points radio antennae toward the ground. ANITA searches for radio waves because extremely high-energy neutrinos—those hundreds of times more energetic than the ones that IceCube commonly detects—can produce intense radio signals when they smash into an atom in the ice.
From its balloon flights, ANITA claimed to have detected a few events that appear to be signals of these extremely high-energy neutrinos, so the IceCube Collaboration decided to investigate. In a paper submitted today to The Astrophysical Journal, they outline their search for an intense neutrino source in the direction of the events detected by ANITA. The collaboration found that these neutrinos could not have come from an intense point source. Other explanations for the anomalous signals—possibly involving exotic physics—need to be considered.
When ANITA reported signals that looked like extremely high-energy neutrinos, physicists were puzzled. These neutrinos had arrived at an angle that suggested they had just traveled through most of the planet, which is not expected for neutrinos at these energies.
“It’s commonly said that neutrinos are ‘elusive’ or ‘ghostly’ particles because of their remarkable ability to pass through material without smashing into something,” says Alex Pizzuto of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, one of the leads on this paper. “But at these incredible energies, neutrinos are like bulls in a china shop—they become much more likely to interact with particles in Earth.”
Many scientists have since come up with potential explanations for these weird signals, and one possibility is that a really intense neutrino source produced them. After all, if a source produced huge numbers of neutrinos, it is more plausible that one or two made it to ANITA.
So Pizzuto and his collaborators decided to see whether there was an intense neutrino source shooting a beam of neutrinos toward Earth—a point source. To do this, the researchers took eight years of IceCube data and looked for correlations between the locations of the ANITA events and the locations of the IceCube events.
Since the researchers could not know how long a potential point source might have been emitting neutrinos, their analyses used three different and complementary approaches equipped to find coincidences on different timescales. Their analyses also had to account for uncertainty in the ANITA events’ directions because the events do not have definite positions on the sky.
Once they had addressed those challenges, the researchers simulated neutrinos passing through Earth to see how many incident neutrinos would be necessary for ANITA to see one event, and they then did the same for IceCube.
In all three searches, they found no evidence for a neutrino source in the direction of the strange ANITA events. This is particularly intriguing because, due to a process called tau neutrino regeneration, the extremely high-energy events that don’t make it all the way to ANITA should still be detectable by IceCube.
“This process makes IceCube a remarkable tool to follow up the ANITA observations, because for each anomalous event that ANITA detects, IceCube should have detected many, many more—which, in these cases, we didn’t,” says Anastasia Barbano of the University of Geneva in Switzerland, another lead on this paper. “That means that we can rule out the idea that these events came from some intense point source, because the odds of ANITA seeing an event and IceCube not seeing anything are so slim.”
When the ANITA events were detected, the main hypotheses were an astrophysical explanation (like an intense neutrino source), a systematics error (like not accounting for something in the detector), or physics beyond the Standard Model. “Our analysis ruled out the only remaining Standard Model astrophysical explanation of the anomalous ANITA events,” says Pizzuto. “So now, if these events are real and not just due to oddities in the detector, then they could be pointing to physics beyond the Standard Model.”
Ibrahim Safa of UW–Madison, another lead on this paper, says that while it has been an exciting time for physicists trying to explain these events, “it looks like we’ll have to wait for the next generation of experiments, which will increase exposure and sensitivity, to get a clear understanding of this anomaly.”
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