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SpaceX explosion: Behind the causes of Starship launch explosion

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SpaceX launches first integrated Starship rocket from Texas

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SpaceX launches its first integrated Starship rocket, complete with the Super Heavy booster, from Starbase, Texas, on Thursday, April 20, 2023. It failed to reach orbit, but did clear the pad.

SpaceX

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Shortly after SpaceX’s massive Starship launched from Texas on its first full test early Thursday, the 400-foot stack of hardware began to tumble until it broke apart in a fiery explosion over the Gulf of Mexico.

The overall demonstration mission – a test of the new rocket’s ability to ignite and clear the pad’s 500-foot tower – was successful. At liftoff, however, several of the rocket’s 33 Raptor engines failed to fire up as planned. Then came the more than minute-long tumble at roughly three minutes into flight, which kicked off just after the rocket’s Starship upper stage and Super Heavy booster failed to separate.

Some experts and spectators were left wondering if the test flight’s explosive conclusion was the result of aerodynamic forces shearing the vehicle apart or if it was purposefully blown up by the flight termination system, or FTS. SpaceX did later confirm the rocket’s breakup was triggered by FTS.

Flight termination systems are essentially explosives built into key areas of rockets and are, at least on newer vehicles, automatically triggered if a hardware failure is detected. They’re a safety and licensing requirement and are especially important if a rocket appears to veer off course.

Starship launch: Explosion ends SpaceX Starship launch, but mission still successful

Starship background: In Texas, SpaceX is ready to bet the house on Starship’s first orbital launch

Rocket launch schedule: Upcoming Florida launches and landings

But Thursday’s launch from Starbase, a SpaceX-operated facility near Brownsville, Texas, was unique. Not only was it a test flight of a brand new vehicle, meaning slightly different parameters for termination, but it also flew from an area entirely new to launching orbital missions — previous Starship test flights ended explosively, but did not attempt to reach high altitudes. A launch of the same magnitude from Florida might have had stricter parameters meaning the rocket wouldn’t have been allowed to tumble as long, for example.

“Every range has what’s called impact limit lines,” Mike Leinbach, NASA’s former space shuttle launch director, told FLORIDA TODAY. “That’s the theoretical limit that the vehicle can fly within. They’re boundaries projected on a map that if the vehicle goes out of those boundaries, the flight termination system kicks in.”

Why Flight Termination Systems are used

In Florida, the Eastern Range — Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and Kennedy Space Center — is overseen by the Space Force’s Space Launch Delta 45, which is also partially responsible for certifying termination systems. At SpaceX’s facility in Texas, however, there is no Space Force presence there, so the Federal Aviation Administration plays a larger role.

Abhi Tripathi, director of mission operations at the University of California, Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory, said there are many reasons why a rocket’s termination system is triggered: loss of thrust, unplanned acceleration, failures with certain components, off-course trajectories, and more.

“I’m venturing to guess it already didn’t have enough thrust even before FTS kicked in because, like everyone else, I could see several engines were out. So at that point, some software trigger also said, ‘Sorry, don’t have enough juice to get to space anymore’ and FTS kicked in,” Tripathi said.

Starship’s auto-destruct triggers likely would have been different for the Texas-based liftoff in comparison to more commonly seen Falcon 9 launches from Florida. Tripathi said if Starship had launched from Kennedy Space Center instead, the triggers likely would have been modified to fit an already existing system like Falcon 9.

“I would assume the triggers would be entirely consistent with Falcon 9’s (SpaceX’s workhorse rocket) triggers … in terms of the narrowness of the corridor and other related things,” Tripathi said.

Sometimes termination is intentional as SpaceX showed

Pasts incidents involving FTS are few and far between, but it’s a potential factor during every launch. One of the more recent, high-profile incidents involving FTS was actually intentional: in January 2020, SpaceX purposefully simulated the loss of a Falcon 9 rocket to test an uncrewed Crew Dragon capsule’s escape system performance. The mock emergency saw the capsule successfully detect an anomaly, then rapidly propel away from the exploding rocket below — a move that would have saved astronaut lives had they been on board.

Another factor when it comes to Florida launches is population and development. During NASA’s first launch of the Space Launch System rocket from pad 39B in November 2022, for example, the rocket’s flight termination system was a big topic of discussion: what if it had to be triggered shortly after liftoff, sending debris raining down over the Atlantic Ocean?

Fortunately, that did not come to pass as the Artemis I mission was successful, but SLS was also a big rocket. The bigger the the vehicle, the bigger the potential for damages should things go wrong.

At KSC, meanwhile, SpaceX is still targeting no earlier than the evening of Wednesday, April 26, for its next launch: a three-core Falcon Heavy. The 230-foot rocket will fly from pad 39A with a communications satellite around 7:30 p.m. EDT, but the mission won’t include the usual side booster landings at Cape Canaveral. The rocket’s center core also won’t be recovered after liftoff due to the weight and destination of the satellite.

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Animation: SpaceX’s long-term plans for Starship

In this animated video, SpaceX shows its long-term exploration plans for the Starship and Super Heavy platform currently being prototyped at Starbase, Texas.

SpaceX

 

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NASA's Parker Solar Probe Plunges Into Fast Solar Wind and Discovers Its Mysterious Source – SciTechDaily

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NASA’s Parker Solar Probe (PSP) has detected the origin and structure of the solar wind close to the sun’s surface, observing high-energy particles aligned with flows in coronal holes. This discovery, indicating magnetic reconnection within these regions, improves our understanding and forecasting of solar storms impacting Earth. Credit: NASA GSFC/CIL/Brian Monroe

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe probe got close enough to sun’s surface to see hidden granular features.

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe (PSP) has flown close enough to the sun to detect the fine structure of the solar wind close to where it is generated at the sun’s surface, revealing details that are lost as the wind exits the corona as a uniform blast of charged particles.

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It’s like seeing jets of water emanating from a showerhead through the blast of water hitting you in the face.

In a paper published on June 7 in the journal Nature, a team of scientists led by Stuart D. Bale, a professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, and James Drake of the University of Maryland-College Park, report that PSP has detected streams of high-energy particles that match the supergranulation flows within coronal holes, which suggests that these are the regions where the so-called “fast” solar wind originates.

Coronal holes are areas where magnetic field lines emerge from the surface without looping back inward, thus forming open field lines that expand outward and fill most of space around the sun. These holes are usually at the poles during the sun’s quiet periods, so the fast solar wind they generate doesn’t hit Earth. But when the sun becomes active every 11 years as its magnetic field flips, these holes appear all over the surface, generating bursts of solar wind aimed directly at Earth.

Parker Solar Probe Spacecraft Approaching Sun

Artist’s concept of the Parker Solar Probe spacecraft approaching the sun. Launched in 2018, the probe is increasing our ability to forecast major space-weather events that impact life on Earth. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben

Understanding how and where the solar wind originates will help predict solar storms that, while producing beautiful auroras on Earth, can also wreak havoc with satellites and the electrical grid.

“Winds carry lots of information from the sun to Earth, so understanding the mechanism behind the sun’s wind is important for practical reasons on Earth,” Drake said. “That’s going to affect our ability to understand how the sun releases energy and drives geomagnetic storms, which are a threat to our communication networks.”

Based on the team’s analysis, the coronal holes are like showerheads, with roughly evenly spaced jets emerging from bright spots where magnetic field lines funnel into and out of the surface of the sun. The scientists argue that when oppositely directed magnetic fields pass one another in these funnels, which can be 18,000 miles across, the fields often break and reconnect, slinging charged particles out of the sun.

“The photosphere is covered by convection cells, like in a boiling pot of water, and the larger scale convection flow is called supergranulation,” Bale said. “Where these supergranulation cells meet and go downward, they drag the magnetic field in their path into this downward kind of funnel. The magnetic field becomes very intensified there because it’s just jammed. It’s kind of a scoop of magnetic field going down into a drain. And the spatial separation of those little drains, those funnels, is what we’re seeing now with solar probe data.”

Based on the presence of some extremely high-energy particles that PSP has detected — particles traveling 10 to 100 times faster than the solar wind average — the researchers conclude that the wind could only be made by this process, which is called magnetic reconnection. The PSP was launched in 2018 primarily to resolve two conflicting explanations for the origin of the high-energy particles that comprise the solar wind: magnetic reconnection or acceleration by <span class="glossaryLink" aria-describedby="tt" data-cmtooltip="

plasma
Plasma is one of the four fundamental states of matter, along with solid, liquid, and gas. It is an ionized gas consisting of positive ions and free electrons. It was first described by chemist Irving Langmuir in the 1920s.

” data-gt-translate-attributes=”["attribute":"data-cmtooltip", "format":"html"]”>plasma or Alfvén waves.

“The big conclusion is that it’s magnetic reconnection within these funnel structures that’s providing the energy source of the fast solar wind,” Bale said. “It doesn’t just come from everywhere in a coronal hole, it’s substructured within coronal holes to these supergranulation cells. It comes from these little bundles of magnetic energy that are associated with the convection flows. Our results, we think, are strong evidence that it’s reconnection that’s doing that.”

The funnel structures likely correspond to the bright jetlets that can be seen from Earth within coronal holes, as reported recently by Nour Raouafi, a co-author of the study and the Parker Solar Probe project scientist at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University. APL designed, built, manages, and operates the spacecraft.

Plunging into the sun

By the time the solar wind reaches Earth, 93 million miles from the sun, it has evolved into a homogeneous, turbulent flow of roiling magnetic fields intertwined with charged particles that interact with Earth’s own magnetic field and dump electrical energy into the upper atmosphere. This excites atoms, producing colorful auroras at the poles, but has effects that trickle down into Earth’s atmosphere. Predicting the most intense winds, called solar storms, and their near-Earth consequences is one mission of <span class="glossaryLink" aria-describedby="tt" data-cmtooltip="

NASA
Established in 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is an independent agency of the United States Federal Government that succeeded the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). It is responsible for the civilian space program, as well as aeronautics and aerospace research. Its vision is &quot;To discover and expand knowledge for the benefit of humanity.&quot; Its core values are &quot;safety, integrity, teamwork, excellence, and inclusion.&quot; NASA conducts research, develops technology and launches missions to explore and study Earth, the solar system, and the universe beyond. It also works to advance the state of knowledge in a wide range of scientific fields, including Earth and space science, planetary science, astrophysics, and heliophysics, and it collaborates with private companies and international partners to achieve its goals.

” data-gt-translate-attributes=”["attribute":"data-cmtooltip", "format":"html"]”>NASA’s Living With a Star program, which funded PSP.

The probe was designed to determine what this turbulent wind looks like where it’s generated near the sun’s surface, or photosphere, and how the wind’s charged particles — protons, electrons, and heavier ions, primarily helium nuclei — are accelerated to escape the sun’s gravity.

To do this, PSP had to get closer than 25 to 30 solar radii, that is, closer than about 13 million miles.

“Once you get below that altitude, 25 or 30 solar radii or so, there’s a lot less evolution of the solar wind, and it’s more structured — you see more of the imprints of what was on the sun,” Bale said.

In 2021, PSP’s instruments recorded magnetic field switchbacks in the Alfvén waves that seemed to be associated with the regions where the solar wind is generated. By the time the probe reached about 12 solar radii from the surface of the sun — 5.2 million miles — the data were clear that the probe was passing through jets of material, rather than mere turbulence. Bale, Drake, and their colleagues traced these jets back to the supergranulation cells in the photosphere, where magnetic fields bunch up and funnel into the sun.

But were the charged particles being accelerated in these funnels by magnetic reconnection, which would slingshot particles outward, or by waves of hot plasma — ionized particles and magnetic field — streaming out of the sun, as if they’re surfing a wave?

The fact that PSP detected extremely high-energy particles in these jets — tens to hundreds of kiloelectron volts (keV), versus a few keV for most solar wind particles — told Bale that it has to be magnetic reconnection that accelerates the particles and generates the Alfvén waves, which likely give the particles an extra boost.

“Our interpretation is that these jets of reconnection outflow excite Alfvén waves as they propagate out,” Bale said. “That’s an observation that’s well known from Earth’s magnetotail, as well, where you have similar kinds of processes. I don’t understand how wave damping can produce these hot particles up to hundreds of keV, whereas it comes naturally out of the reconnection process. And we see it in our simulations, too. ”

The PSP won’t be able to get any closer to the sun than about 8.8 solar radii above the surface — about 4 million miles — without frying its instruments. Bale expects to solidify the team’s conclusions with data from that altitude, though the sun is now entering solar maximum, when activity becomes much more chaotic and may obscure the processes the scientists are trying to view.

“There was some consternation at the beginning of the solar probe mission that we’re going to launch this thing right into the quietest, most dull part of the solar cycle,” Bale said. “But I think without that, we would never have understood this. It would have been just too messy. I think we’re lucky that we launched it in the solar minimum.”

Reference: “Interchange reconnection as the source of the fast solar wind within coronal holes” by S. D. Bale, J. F. Drake, M. D. McManus, M. I. Desai, S. T. Badman, D. E. Larson, M. Swisdak, T. S. Horbury, N. E. Raouafi, T. Phan, M. Velli, D. J. McComas, C. M. S. Cohen, D. Mitchell, O. Panasenco and J. C. Kasper, 7 June 2023, Nature.
DOI: 10.1038/s41586-023-05955-3

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ESA – Cheops explores mysterious warm mini-Neptunes – European Space Agency

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Brightest gamma-ray burst ever seen, the largest known explosion since Big Bang, has a unique jet structure unlike any other – Space.com

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Scientists may finally know what made the largest explosion in the universe ever seen by humankind so powerful.

Astronomers have discovered that the brightest gamma-ray burst (GRB) ever seen had a unique jet structure and was dragging an unusually large amount of stellar material along with it.

This might explain the extreme properties of the burst, believed to have been launched when a massive star located around 2.4 billion light-years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Sagitta underwent total gravitational collapse to birth a black hole, as well as why its afterglow persisted for so long.

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The GRB officially designated GRB 221009A but nicknamed the BOAT, or the brightest of all time, was spotted on October 9, 2022, and stood out from other GRBs due to its extreme nature. It was seen as an immensely bright flash of high-energy gamma-rays, followed by a low-fading afterglow across many wavelengths of light.

Related: A tiny Eastern European cubesat measured a monster gamma-ray burst better than NASA. Here’s how

“GRB 221009A represents a massive step forward in our understanding of gamma-ray bursts and demonstrates that the most extreme explosions do not obey the standard physics assumed for garden variety gamma-ray bursts,” George Washington University researcher and study lead author Brendan O’Connor said in a statement. O’Connor led a team that continued to monitor the BOAT GRB with the Gemini South Telescope in Chile following its initial discovery in Oct 2023.

Northwestern University doctoral candidate Jillian Rastinejad, who was also part of a team that observed the BOAT on Oct. 14 after its initial discovery,told Live Science that GRB 221009A is thought to be brighter than other highly energetic GRBs by a factor of at least 10. 

“Photons have been detected from this GRB that has more energy than theLarge Hadron Collider (LHC) produces,” she said. 

Even before the BOAT was spotted, GRBs were already considered the most powerful, violent, and energetic explosions in the universe, capable of blasting out as much energy in a matter of seconds as the sun will produce over its entire around ten billion-year lifetime. There are two types of these blasts, long-duration, and short-duration, which might have different launch mechanisms, both resulting in the creation of a black hole. 

Further examination of the powerful GRB has revealed that it is unique for its structure as well as its brightness. The GRB was surprisingly wide. So wide, in fact, that astronomers were initially unable to see its edges. 

“Our work clearly shows that the GRB had a unique structure, with observations gradually revealing a narrow jet embedded within a wider gas outflow where an isolated jet would normally be expected,”  co-author and Department of Physics at the University of Bath scientist  Hendrik Van Eerten said in a statement. 

Thus, the jet of GRB 221009A appears to possess both wide and narrow “wings” that differentiate it from the jets of other GRBs. This could explain why the afterglow of the BOAT continued to be seen by astronomers in multiple wavelengths for months after its initial discovery. 

Van Eerten and the team have a theory as to what gives the jet of the BOAT its unique structure.

“GRB jets need to go through the collapsing star in which they are formed,” he said. “What we think made the difference in this case was the amount of mixing that happened between the stellar material and the jet, such that shock-heated gas kept appearing in our line of sight all the way up to the point that any characteristic jet signature would have been lost in the overall emission from the afterglow.”

Van Eerten also points out the findings could help understand not just the BOAT but also other incredibly bright GRBs. 

Related stories:

“GRB 221009A might be the equivalent of the Rosetta stone of long GRBs, forcing us to revise our standard theories of how relativistic outflows are formed in collapsing massive stars,” O’Connor added. 

The discovery will potentially lay the foundation for future research into GRBs as scientists attempt to unlock the mysteries still surrounding these powerful bursts of energy. The findings could also help physicists better model the structure of GRB jets.

“For a long time, we have thought about jets as being shaped like ice cream cones,” study co-author and George Washington University associate professor of physics Alexander van der Horst said. “However, some gamma-ray bursts in recent years, and in particular the work presented here, show that we need more complex models and detailed computer simulations of gamma-ray burst jets.”

The team’s research is detailed in a paper published in the journal Science Advances.

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