A team led by astronomers in Australia has discovered a brand new type of object in deep space that behaves in bizarre and mysterious ways never seen before.
Something about 4,000 light-years away, which is relatively close in our cosmic neighborhood, was seen spinning around and regularly blasting out a massive burst of energy that lasts a full a minute. Even weirder, that bright beam of radiation occurred like clockwork every 18 minutes.
The behavior is similar to that of a pulsar or magnetar, which spin around as they blast out pulses of energy that can be detected here on Earth. But pulsars pulse very quickly, usually every few seconds. An object that sends out longer bursts just a few times an hour has never been seen before.
Hurley-Walker led a team from the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research that made the discovery, with assistance from the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory. She’s also lead author on a paper detailing the find in this week’s issue of the journal Nature.
This odd object was originally spotted by Curtin student Tyrone O’Doherty using the Murchison Widefield Array telescope in outback Western Australia. The MWA is a radio observatory that can observe a wide swath of the sky over a wide range of frequencies.
“It’s exciting that the source I identified last year has turned out to be such a peculiar object,” said O’Doherty, who is working on his Ph.D.
The galactic peculiarity could be the collapsed core of a star with an ultra-powerful magnetic field. Hurley-Walker explains that it has the characteristics of something astrophysicists have theorized called an “ultra-long-period magnetar.”
“It’s a type of slowly spinning neutron star that has been predicted to exist theoretically,” she said. “But nobody expected to directly detect one like this because we didn’t expect them to be so bright. Somehow it’s converting magnetic energy to radio waves much more effectively than anything we’ve seen before.”
For now, the unusual object has stopped sending out pulses that we can see, but Hurley-Walker says she is continuing to monitor it with the Murchison Widefield Array telescope in case it starts up again.
“If it does, there are telescopes across the Southern Hemisphere and even in orbit that can point straight to it,” she added.
She also plans to go back into the MWA’s archives to see if this object is just one member of a larger family that’s gone unnoticed until now.
“More detections will tell astronomers whether this was a rare one-off event or a vast new population we’d never noticed before.”
Boeing’s crew taxi returned to Earth from the International Space Station on Wednesday, completing a repeat test flight before NASA astronauts climb aboard.
It was a quick trip back: the Starliner capsule parachuted into the New Mexico desert just four hours after leaving the orbiting lab, with airbags attached to cushion the landing. Only a mannequin was buckled in.
Aside from thruster failures and cooling system snags, Starliner appeared to clinch its high-stakes shakedown cruise, 2½ years after its botched first try. Flight controllers in Houston applauded and cheered the bull’s-eye touchdown.
NASA astronauts will strap in next for a trip to the space station. The space agency has long wanted two competing U.S. companies ferrying astronauts, giving it added insurance as it drastically reduced its reliance on Russia for rides to and from the space station.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX is already the established leader, launching astronauts since 2020 and even tourists. Its crew capsules splash down off the Florida coast; Boeing’s Starliner returns to the U.S. Army’s expansive White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
Boeing scrapped its first attempt to reach the space station in 2019, after software errors left the capsule in the wrong orbit and nearly doomed it. The company fixed the flaws and tried again last summer, but corroded valves halted the countdown. Following more repairs, Starliner finally lifted off from Cape Canaveral last Thursday and docked to the space station Friday.
Station astronauts tested Starliner’s communication and computer systems during its five days at the space station. They also unloaded hundreds of kilograms of groceries and other supplies that flew up in the Boeing capsule, then filled it with empty air tanks and other discarded gear.
A folded U.S. flag sent up by Boeing stayed behind, to be retrieved by the first Starliner crew.
“We’re a little sad to see her go,” station astronaut Bob Hines radioed as the capsule flew away.
Along for the ride was Starliner’s test dummy — Rosie the Rocketeer, a takeoff on the Second World War’s Rosie the Riveter.
The repairs and do-over cost Boeing nearly $600 million US.
NASA’s InSight Mars lander has sent back its last selfie of its dust-covered solar panels and deck, in an image taken on its 1,211th ‘sol’ or Martian day of the mission on April 24.
Insight has been roaming the red planet for the past 3.5 years, capturing images and data that allowed scientists to approximate its crust and core, and refine models of how planets evolved from dust circling the Sun.
Insight’s scientific mission is set to conclude in summer after which it will run out of power. The lander is solar-powered, but dust covering the seven-feet wide solar panels has reduced its production capacity from around 5,000 watt-hours per sol to 500 watt-hours per sol. Once these panels generated power equivalent to running an electric oven for 40 minutes, they now can only power one for 10 minutes. The lander is equipped with two 25 amp-hour lithium-ion rechargeable batteries for energy storage.
With those constraints, even taking a selfie requires some calculation to stay within the spacecraft’s power budget. The selfie arm will now go into the “retirement pose”, according to NASA.
“The arm needs to move several times in order to capture a full selfie. Because InSight’s dusty solar panels are producing less power, the team will soon put the lander’s robotic arm in its resting position (called the “retirement pose”) for the last time in May of 2022,” NASA JPL said.
InSight launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on May 5, 2018 and landed on Mars on November 26, 2018, six minutes after hitting the the Martian atmosphere at 12,300 mph (19,800 kilometers per hour), according to NASA. It was the eighth landing on Mars in human history.
Dust has played a significant role in the InSight lander’s capability to continue the mission. An epic dust storm on Mars in 2018 is believed to have been behind the demise of NASA’s Opportunity rover. A similar storm could have threatened InSight’s mission, too. The threat from dust is two-fold: dust storms obscure available sunlight, while dust directly on the solar panels reduce their capacity to absorb sunlight.
Located on the dark side of Mars at the time, dust on the solar panels was already restricting their power output. NASA used Insight’s robotic arm to sprinkle sand near one solar panel, hoping wind gusts would make the granules sweep off some of the dust. The plan worked.
Then on January 7, 2022, InSight went into safe mode after a major dust storm obscured sunlight from its solar panels. But by that stage, performing the ‘sand sweep’ technique had become difficult because of reduced available energy. InSight’s engineers were hoping a whirlwind would clear dust from the panels and had restricted the use of science instruments. By February 15, the solar panels’ output levels had returned to pre-storm levels.
InSight’s onboard computers for command and data handling are derived from NASA’s 2014 Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) and its 2011 Moon Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) missions. The system has two redundant computers. Its core is a radiation-hardened 115.5 MHz CPU with a PowerPC 750 architecture called RAD 750 that was made by BAE Systems.
Its flight software is written in C and C++ on the VxWorks real-time operating system, which monitors the spacecraft’s health, checks for commands to execute, and handles communications and controls. It also checks commands for faults and handles corrective steps when it detects irregularities.
The new Boeing Starliner capsule was due to descend back to Earth on Wednesday from its first uncrewed journey to the International Space Station (ISS), completing a high-stakes test flight as NASA’s next vehicle for carrying humans to orbit.
Less than a week after its launch from the Cape Canaveral U.S. Space Force Base in Florida, the CST-100 Starliner was scheduled to autonomously undock from the space station at 2:36 p.m. EDT (1836 GMT) to embark on a five-hour-plus return flight.
If all goes as planned, the mission finale will come with the gumdrop-shaped craft making a fiery atmospheric re-entry followed by an airbag-cushioned parachute landing on the desert floor near White Sands, New Mexico at 6:49 p.m. PDT (2249 GMT).
Starliner was lofted to orbit last Thursday atop an Atlas V rocket furnished by the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture United Launch Alliance and achieved its main objective, a rendezvous with the ISS, despite four of its multiple onboard thrusters malfunctioning along the way.
Boeing engineers also had to improvise a workaround for a thermal control defect during the final approach of the capsule to the space station, orbiting some 270 miles (430 kilometers) above Earth.
But NASA and Boeing officials said none of the problems encountered so far should preclude Starliner from safely returning, and they chalked up such snafus to the learning process of developing a new spacecraft.
A successful mission would move the Starliner, beset by repeated delays and costly engineering setbacks, a major step closer to providing NASA with a second reliable avenue for ferrying astronauts to and from the space station.
Since resuming crewed flights to orbit from American soil in 2020, nine years after the space shuttle program ended, the U.S. space agency has had to rely solely on Falcon 9 rockets and Crew Dragon capsules from billionaire Elon Musk’s private company SpaceX.
Previously the only other option for reaching the orbiting laboratory was by hitching rides aboard Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft, an alternative currently less attractive in light of heightened U.S.-Russian tensions over the war in Ukraine.
Much is also on the line for Boeing, as the Chicago-based company scrambles to climb out of successive crises in its jetliner business and space-defense unit. The Starliner program alone has cost the company nearly $600 million over the past 2 1/2 years.
An ill-fated first orbital test flight of Starliner in late 2019 nearly ended with the vehicle’s loss following a software glitch that effectively foiled the spacecraft’s ability to reach the space station.
Subsequent problems with Starliner’s propulsion system, supplied by Aerojet Rocketdyne, led Boeing to scrub a second attempt to launch the capsule last summer.
Starliner remained grounded for nine more months while the two companies sparred over what caused fuel valves to stick shut and which firm was responsible for fixing them.
The do-over test mission winding up on Wednesday could pave the way for Starliner to fly its first astronaut crew to the space station as early as the fall, NASA has said.
The orbiting outpost is currently home to a crew of three U.S. NASA astronauts, an Italian astronaut from the European Space Agency and three Russian cosmonauts. (Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Bradley Perrett)
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