The rocket billionaire discourse, heady as it is, can distract from the facts. Here’s one: NASA saved at least $548 million, and perhaps more, thanks to just one contract with Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
Last week, the US space agency tapped the company’s Falcon Heavy rocket to launch a space probe to one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa, in 2024. The much-awaited Europa Clipper mission will fly by and assess the evidence of water—and extra-terrestrial life—on the astronomical body. The mission was driven through Congress thanks in large part to the support of one former representative, John Culberson, a Texas Republican who navigated it through the sea of veto points and competing priorities that often stands between scientific hopes and their realization.
One way the mission avoided political pitfalls was a linkage with Boeing’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, a huge space vehicle designed to return humans to the moon or Mars. The rocket had just one problem: It was hastily assembled from the remains of a canceled NASA program, and there were no concrete plans for it. A decade ago, the folks behind each project joined forces to justify one another’s work. “Once built, SLS would be a rocket with nowhere to fly,” David W. Brown writes in The Mission, his account of the project. “Europa was a somewhere.”
The delayed SLS has yet to fly. Its first mission is expected around the end of this year. But since the SLS became central to the Trump administration’s Artemis program to return to the moon, NASA auditors have pointed out, in addition to the massive cost, that there would not be enough SLS rockets for both the moon and Europa missions.
In 2019, NASA’s inspector general sounded out the possibilities (pdf), and wasn’t bullish on any of them, particularly on price: Even accounting for the fact that the SLS could get the probe to Jupiter faster (saving money spent on the program back home), the system would cost about $726 million. Two other rockets available for purchase, the United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV and the Falcon Heavy, were forecast to cost $450 million each.
The Europa Clipper wound up with a cheaper ride
The deal NASA eventually made with SpaceX for the Falcon Heavy, however, will cost just $178 million. The drop in cost is directly traceable to SpaceX’s approach to designing reusable rockets, and to the partnership NASA struck with Musk’s space firm in its early days.
Think about that: In just two years, the price of launching a space probe fell by 75%; it’s less than the cost of the rocket that launched the latest Mars rover last year. This will enable NASA to direct more resources to other science programs (as well as getting the SLS off the ground).
“Having that launch capability at that price point just saves so much, particularly for the science part of NASA that just does not have the mega-budgets that human spaceflight does,” says Casey Dreier, a space policy analyst at the Planetary Society. “To see other future missions by NASA able to leverage the lift capability of the Heavy at that price point opens up a significant amount of space access.”
The Falcon Heavy, which didn’t even exist when the Europa mission was being planned, has only flown three times. But it will launch at least five more times, including for a NASA mission to an asteroid called Psyche, before the Europa mission is expected to get underway in late 2024.
This is a transformative period for the maturing space industry, as billionaire funders and new business models increase the capacity of private actors. The egos involved may take up a lot of oxygen, but the goals of the commercial space business are not mutually exclusive with NASA’s scientific pursuits; quite the opposite, in fact: They’re enabling more science than before.
A version of this story originally appeared in Quartz’s Space Business newsletter.
How to spot the International Space Station across the US this month | Curated – Daily Hive
Keep your eyes on the sky over the next several weeks, because if you look closely, you might catch a glimpse of the International Space Station.
According to Nasa and its Spot the Station tool, the station will be visible from now through early October, offering stargazers something new to search for as it travels through the night sky.
The space station looks like an “airplane or a very bright star.” It moves faster than the typical airplane and always travels in a straight line. It also doesn’t have any flashing lights.
Astronauts aboard the football-field-sized space station are conducting research in a microgravity lab that should benefit people on Earth.
Here’s when the space station will be visible near Seattle and Portland, but NASA also has information for smaller communities on its website.
Viewing opportunities with higher maximum heights are easier to spot because the space station won’t be blocked by surrounding trees or buildings.
Astronomers Discover an Intermediate-Mass Black Hole as it Destroys a Star – Universe Today
Supermassive black holes (SMBH) reside in the center of galaxies like the Milky Way. They are mind-bogglingly massive, ranging from 1 million to 10 billion solar masses. Their smaller brethren, intermediate-mass black holes (IMBH), ranging between 100 and 100,000 solar masses, are harder to find.
Astronomers have spotted an intermediate-mass black hole destroying a star that got too close. They’ve learned a lot from their observations and hope to find even more of these black holes. Observing more of them may lead to understanding how SMBHs got so massive.
When a star gets too close to a powerful black hole, a tidal disruption event (TDE) occurs. The star is torn apart and its constituent matter is drawn to the black hole, where it gets caught in the hole’s accretion disk. The event releases an enormous amount of energy, outshining all the stars in the galaxy for months, even years.
That’s what happened with TDE 3XMM J215022.4-055108, which is more readily known as TDE J2150. Astronomers were only able to spot the elusive IMBH because of the burst of x-rays emitted by the hot gas from the star as it was torn apart. J2150 is about 740 million light-years from Earth in the direction of the Aquarius constellation. Now a team of researchers has used observations of the distant J2150 and existing scientific models to learn more about the IMBH.
They’ve published their results in a paper titled “Mass, Spin, and Ultralight Boson Constraints from the Intermediate Mass Black Hole in the Tidal Disruption Event 3XMM J215022.4?055108.” The lead author is Sixiang Wen from the University of Arizona. The paper is published in The Astrophysical Journal.
IMBHs are elusive and difficult to study. Astronomers have found several of them in the Milky Way and in nearby galaxies. Mostly they’ve been spotted because of their low-luminosity active galactic nuclei. In 2019 the LIGO and Virgo gravitational wave observatories spotted a gravitational wave from the merger of two IMBHs. As it stands now, there’s a catalogue of only 305 IMBH candidates, even though scientists think they could be common in galactic centers.
One of the problems in seeing them is their low mass itself. While SMBHs can be found by observing how their mass affects the stellar dynamics of nearby stars, IMBHs are typically too small to do the same. Their gravity isn’t powerful enough to change the orbits of nearby stars.
“The fact that we were able to catch this black hole while it was devouring a star offers a remarkable opportunity to observe what otherwise would be invisible,” said Ann Zabludoff, UArizona professor of astronomy and co-author on the paper. “Not only that, by analyzing the flare we were able to better understand this elusive category of black holes, which may well account for the majority of black holes in the centers of galaxies.”
It was the eruption of x-rays that made the event visible. The team compared the observed x-rays with models and was able to confirm the presence of an IMBH. “The X-ray emissions from the inner disk formed by the debris of the dead star made it possible for us to infer the mass and spin of this black hole and classify it as an intermediate black hole,” lead author Wen said.
This is the first time that observations have been detailed enough to be able to use a TDE flare to confirm the presence of an IMBH. It’s a big deal, because though we know that SMBHs lie in the center of galaxies like the Milky Way and larger, our understanding of smaller galaxies and their IMBHs is much more limited. They’re just really hard to see.
“We still know very little about the existence of black holes in the centers of galaxies smaller than the Milky Way,” said co-author Peter Jonker of Radboud University and SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research, both in the Netherlands. “Due to observational limitations, it is challenging to discover central black holes much smaller than 1 million solar masses.”
The mystery surrounding IMBHs feeds into the mystery surrounding SMBHs. We can see SMBHs at the heart of large galaxies, but we don’t know exactly how they got that massive. Did they go through mergers? Maybe. Through the accretion of matter? Maybe. Astrophysicists mostly agree that both mechanisms may play a role.
Another question surrounds SMBH “seeds.” The seeds could be IMBHs of tens or hundreds of solar masses. The IMBHs themselves could’ve grown from stellar-mass black holes that grew into IMBHs through the accretion of matter. Another possibility is that long before there were actual stars, there were large gas clouds that collapsed into quasi-stars, that then collapsed into black holes. These strange entities would collapse directly from quasi-star to black hole without ever becoming a star, and are known as direct collapse black holes. But these are all hypotheses and models. Astrophysicists need more actual observations, like in the case of TDE J2150, to confirm or rule anything out.
“Therefore, if we get a better handle of how many bona fide intermediate black holes are out there, it can help determine which theories of supermassive black hole formation are correct,” Jonker said.
The team of researchers was also able to measure the black hole’s spin, which has implications for black hole growth, and maybe for particle physics, too. The black hole is spinning quickly, but it’s not spinning as fast as possible. It begs the question, how did the IMBH attain a speed in this range? The spin opens up some possibilities and eliminates others.
“It’s possible that the black hole formed that way and hasn’t changed much since, or that two intermediate-mass black holes merged recently to form this one,” Zabludoff said. “We do know that the spin we measured excludes scenarios where the black hole grows over a long time from steadily eating gas or from many quick gas snacks that arrive from random directions.”
The spin rate may shed some light on potential particle candidates for dark matter, too. One of the hypotheses says that dark matter is made up of particles never seen in a laboratory, called ultralight bosons. These exotic particles, if they exist, would have less than one-billionth the mass of an electron. The IMBHs spin rate may preclude the existence of these candidate particles.
“If those particles exist and have masses in a certain range, they will prevent an intermediate-mass black hole from having a fast spin,” co-author Nicholas Stone said. “Yet J2150’s black hole is spinning fast. So, our spin measurement rules out a broad class of ultralight boson theories, showcasing the value of black holes as extraterrestrial laboratories for particle physics.”
This discovery will build toward a better understanding of dwarf galaxies and their black holes, too. But for that to happen, astrophysicists need to observe more of these IMBH tidal disruption events.
“If it turns out that most dwarf galaxies contain intermediate-mass black holes, then they will dominate the rate of stellar tidal disruption,” Stone said. “By fitting the X-ray emission from these flares to theoretical models, we can conduct a census of the intermediate-mass black hole population in the universe,” Wen added.
As is often the case in astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology, future telescopes and observatories should advance our knowledge considerably. In this, the Vera C. Rubin Observatory could play a role. The Rubin could discover thousands of TDEs each year.
Then we may finally be able to piece together the story of not only IMBHs but also SMBHs.
NASA splits human spaceflight unit in two, reflecting new orbital economy – CTV News
NASA is splitting its human spaceflight department into two separate bodies – one centred on big, future-oriented missions to the moon and Mars, the other on the International Space Station and other operations closer to Earth.
The reorganization, announced by NASA chief Bill Nelson on Tuesday, reflects an evolving relationship between private companies, such as SpaceX, that have increasingly commercialized rocket travel and the federal agency that had exercised a U.S. monopoly over spaceflight for decades.
Nelson said the shake-up was also spurred by a recent proliferation of flights and commercial investment in low-Earth orbit even as NASA steps up its development of deep-space aspirations.
“Today is more than organizational change,” Nelson said at a press briefing. “It’s setting the stage for the next 20 years, it’s defining NASA’s future in a growing space economy.”
The move breaks up NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, currently headed by Kathy Leuders, into two separate branches.
Leuders will keep her associate administrator title as head of the new Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate, focusing on NASA’s most ambitious, long-term programs, such as plans to return astronauts to the moon under project Artemis, and eventual human exploration of Mars.
A retired deputy associate administrator, James Free, who played key roles in NASA’s space station and commercial crew and cargo programs, will return to the agency as head of the new Space Operations Mission Directorate.
His branch will primarily oversee more routine launch and spaceflight activities, including missions involving the space station and privatization of low-Earth orbit, as well as sustaining lunar operations once those have been established.
“This approach with two areas focused on human spaceflight allows one mission directorate to operate in space while the other builds future space systems,” NASA said in a press release announcing the move.
The announcement came less than a week after SpaceX, which had already flown numerous astronaut missions and cargo payloads to the space station for NASA, launched the first all-civilian crew ever to reach orbit and returned them safely to Earth.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Leslie Adler)
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