That said, the amazing success of the crewed SpaceX launch to the International Space Station (ISS), however, means the commercial crew programme is likely to keep running – taking the burden off NASA. Indeed, the first operational flight of the Crew Dragon by commercial company SpaceX is due for launch on November 14, with four astronauts bound for the ISS.
During the Trump administration, NASA also committed to the return of astronauts to the Moon in 2024 under the Artemis program. This is due for its first test launch (uncrewed) next year with Artemis-1. This builds on the Constellation program which was implemented by Republican president George W Bush in 2005 but was subsequently cancelled by Democratic president Barack Obama due to its high cost and difficulty.
The only substantial clue as to the direction of a Biden presidency with regard to astronaut flights to the Moon can be found in a document by the Democratic Party entitled “Building a Stronger, Fairer Economy”. In one paragraph, the Democrats state that they “support NASA’s work to return Americans to the Moon and go beyond to Mars, taking the next step in exploring our solar system.”
No detail is offered on possible timelines. But, with international cooperation now a major feature of the Artemis program, it would be difficult for a fledgling Biden administration to unilaterally withdraw from the project. For example, Canada, the European Space Agency and Japan are all formal partners in the construction of the Lunar Gateway – a lunar orbiting outpost designed to support multiple expeditions to the surface.
The programme is also rapidly advancing research, particularly in terms of building materials, power supplies and food production. Just this week, the European Space Agency awarded a contract to the British company Metalysis to develop techniques to simultaneously extract oxygen and metals from lunar soil.
The Trump administration also pushed for a first crewed mission to Mars in the 2030s – a much more difficult task due to the distances involved. The long journey would put astronauts at risk of high radiation exposure and psychological difficulties. Other huge challenges include weight restrictions and communication times.
One of the more questionable implementations by the Trump administration was the formation of Space Force – a branch of the armed forced in space. The move highlights that the US views space as a potential war zone rather than a domain of purely scientific venture. But US citizens aren’t too impressed with the Space Force, mocking the logo and the uniforms. Indeed, the programme has public approval rating of only 31%.
So will it be scrapped? The disbanding of a branch of the armed forces has not been performed in the US before and there are doubtlessly many difficulties of reintegrating this back into the US Air Force. It is therefore likely to stay, possibly with reduced focus.
A fresh start for NASA?
Can we expect anything new? Biden has already pledged to sign executive orders that will undo most of the Trump administration’s work – in the same way that Trump undid most of Obama’s work.
The biggest indication of change is Bridenstine stepping down. When he was appointed in 2018, it was something of a surprise to the scientific community – he had no scientific qualifications and had previously indicated that he had doubts about climate change (which he changed his mind about when accepting the role). Yet he has proved to be an able leader of NASA.
On stepping down, he said he wanted to let somebody with a “close relationship with the president” take over. Who this might be is still a question, and will depend largely on the new president himself. Most heads of NASA have at least a degree in engineering or physics and, in the past, have headed a space centre. This makes Jody Singer (the director of Marshall Space Flight Center), Mark Geyer (the director of Johnson Space Center), or Dennis Andrucyk (the director of Goddard Space Flight Center) potential candidates, as well as the current deputy administrator James Morhard. The field is thought to be largely open, though.
Biden has made it clear that tackling the climate emergency is a priority. While this is likely to be focused on industrial pollution limits and renewable energy sources, it does suggest that space policy could be more focused on Earth observation missions, such as the GOES (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite) programme.
Potentially we could be looking at more satellites of this type; monitoring oil spills, deforestation and carbon emissions. All of these possibilities are of course overshadowed by the financial crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. And, given that a sustained source of money to support long-term projects such as the Artemis program is vital to their success, it is probably a case of believing it when we see it.
Whatever the changes will be, it seems likely that there may be less funding for space missions. But, despite that, many scientists will be breathing a sigh of relief at the prospect of not having to fight the kind of anti-science tweets that we have seen from Trump during his time in office on topics ranging from Covid-19 and vaccinations to climate change.
According to a new map of the Milky Way galaxy, the Solar System’s position isn’t where we thought it was. Not only is it closer to the galactic centre – and the supermassive hole therein, Sagittarius A* – it’s orbiting at a faster clip.
It’s nothing to be concerned about; we’re not actually moving closer to Sgr A*, and we’re in no danger of being slurped up. Rather, our map of the Milky Way has been adjusted, more accurately identifying where we have been all along.
And the survey beautifully demonstrates how tricky it is to map a galaxy in three dimensions from inside it.
It’s a problem that has long devilled our understanding of space phenomena. It’s relatively easy to map the two-dimensional coordinates of stars and other cosmic objects, but the distances to those objects is a lot harder to figure out.
And distances are important – they help us determine the intrinsic brightness of objects. A good recent example of this is the red giant star Betelgeuse, which turned out to be closer to Earth than previous measurements suggested. This means that it’s neither as large nor as bright as we thought.
Another is the object CK Vulpeculae, a star that exploded 350 years ago. It’s actually much farther away, which means that the explosion was brighter and more energetic, and requires a new explanation, since previous analyses were performed under the assumption it was relatively low energy.
But we’re getting better at calculating those distances, with surveys using the best available technology and techniques working hard to refine our three-dimensional maps of the Milky Way, a field known as astrometry. And one of these is the VERA radio astronomy survey, conducted by the Japanese VERA collaboration.
VERA stands for VLBI (Very Long Baseline Interferometry) Exploration of Radio Astrometry, and it uses a number of radio telescopes across the Japanese archipelago, combining their data to effectively produce the same resolution as a telescope with a 2,300 kilometre- (1,430 mile-) diameter dish. It’s the same principle behind the Event Horizon Telescope that produced our very first direct image of a black hole’s shadow.
VERA, which started observing in 2000, is designed to help us calculate the distances to radio-emitting stars by calculating their parallax. With its incredible resolution, it observes these stars for over a year, and watches how their position changes relative to stars that are much farther away as Earth orbits the Sun.
(National Astronomical Observatory of Japan)
This change in position can then be used to calculate how far a star is from Earth, but not all parallax observations are created equal. VLBI can produce much higher resolution images; VERA has a breathtaking angular resolution of 10 millionths of an arcsecond, which is expected to produce extraordinarily high precision astrometry measurements.
And this is what astronomers have used to refine our Solar System’s position in the Milky Way. Based on the first VERA Astrometry Catalog of 99 objects released earlier this year, as well as other observations, astronomers created a position and velocity map of those objects.
From this map, they calculated the position of the galactic centre.
In 1985, the International Astronomical Union defined the distance to the galactic centre as 27,700 light-years. Last year, the GRAVITY collaboration recalculated it and found it closer, just 26,673 light-years away.
(National Astronomical Observatory of Japan)
The VERA-based measurements bring it closer still, to a distance of just 25,800 light-years. And the Solar System’s orbital speed is faster, too – 227 kilometres (141 miles) per second, rather than the official velocity of 220 kilometres (137 miles) per second.
That change may not seem like much, but it could have an impact on how we measure and interpret activity in the galactic centre – ultimately, hopefully, leading to a more accurate picture of the complex interactions around Sgr A*.
Meanwhile, the VERA collaboration is forging ahead. Not only is it continuing to make observations of objects in the Milky Way, it’s joining up with an even larger project, the East Asian VLBI Network. Together, astronomers hope, the telescopes involved in this project could provide measurements of unprecedented accuracy.
Great news! It turns out scientists have discovered that we’re 2,000 light-years closer to Sagittarius A* than we thought.
This doesn’t mean we’re currently on a collision course with a black hole. No, it’s simply the result of a more accurate model of the Milky Way based on new data.
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Over the last 15 years, a Japanese radio astronomy project, VERA, has been gathering data. Using a technique called interferometry, VERA gathered data from telescopes across Japan and combined them with data from other existing projects to create what is essentially the most accurate map of the Milky Way yet.
By pinpointing the location and velocity of around 99 specific points in our galaxy, VERA has concluded that the supermassive black hole Sagittarius A, at the center of our galaxy, is actually 25,800 light-years from Earth — almost 2,000 light-years closer than what we previously believed.
In addition, the new model calculates Earth is moving faster than we believed. Older models clocked Earth’s speed at 220 kilometers (136 miles) per second, orbiting around the galaxy’s centre. VERA’s new model has us moving at 227 kilometers (141 miles) per second.
VERA is now hoping to increase the accuracy of its model by increasing the amount of points it’s gathering data from by expanding into EAVN (East Asian VLBI Network) and gathering data from a larger suite of radio telescopes located throughout Japan, Korea and China.
Researchers have effectively confirmed one of the most important theories in star physics. NBC Newsreports that a team at the Italian National Institute for Nuclear Physics has detected neutrinos traced back to star fusion for the first time. The scientists determined that the elusive particles passing through its Borexino detector stemmed from a carbon-nitrogen-oxygen (CNO) fusion process at the heart of the Sun.
This kind of behavior had been predicted in 1938, but hadn’t been verified until now despite scientists detecting neutrinos in 1956. Borexino’s design was crucial to overcoming that hurdle — its “onion-like” construction and ongoing refinements make it both ultra-sensitive and resistant to unwanted cosmic radiation.
It’s a somewhat surprising discovery, too. CNO fusion is much more common in larger, hotter stars. A smaller celestial body like the Sun only produces 1 percent of its energy through that process. This not only confirms that CNO is a driving force behind bigger stars, but the universe at large.
That, in turn, might help explain some dark matter, where neutrinos could play a significant role. Scientist Orebi Gann, who wasn’t involved in these findings, also told NBC that an asymmetry between neutrinos and their relevant antiparticles might explain why there isn’t much known antimatter in the universe. To put it another way, the findings could help answer some of the most basic questions about the cosmos.
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