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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

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.

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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.

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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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Las Vegas Aces Rookie Kate Martin Suffers Ankle Injury in Game Against Chicago Sky

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Las Vegas Aces rookie Kate Martin had to be helped off the floor and taken to the locker room after suffering an apparent ankle injury in the first quarter of Tuesday night’s game against the Chicago Sky.

Late in the first quarter, Martin was pushing the ball up the court when she appeared to twist her ankle and lost her balance. The rookie was in serious pain, lying on the floor before eventually being helped off. Her entire team came out in support, and although she managed to put some pressure on the leg, she was taken to the locker room for further evaluation.

Martin returned to the team’s bench late in the second quarter but was ruled out for the remainder of the game.

“Kate Martin is awesome. Kate Martin picks up things so quickly, she’s an amazing sponge,” Aces guard Kelsey Plum said of the rookie during the preseason. “I think (coach) Becky (Hammon) nicknamed her Kate ‘Money’ Martin. I think that’s gonna stick. And when I say ‘money,’ it’s not just about scoring and stuff, she’s just in the right place at the right time. She just makes people better. And that’s what Becky values, that’s what our coaching staff values and that’s why she’s gonna be a great asset to our team.”

Las Vegas selected Martin in the second round of the 2024 WNBA Draft. She was coming off the best season of her collegiate career at Iowa, where she averaged 13.1 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game during the 2023-24 campaign. Martin’s integration into the Aces organization has been seamless, with her quickly earning the respect and admiration of her teammates and coaches.

The team and fans alike are hoping for a speedy recovery for Martin, whose contributions have been vital to the Aces’ performance this season.

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Asteroid Apophis will visit Earth in 2029, and this European satellite will be along for the ride

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The European Space Agency is fast-tracking a new mission called Ramses, which will fly to near-Earth asteroid 99942 Apophis and join the space rock in 2029 when it comes very close to our planet — closer even than the region where geosynchronous satellites sit.

Ramses is short for Rapid Apophis Mission for Space Safety and, as its name suggests, is the next phase in humanity’s efforts to learn more about near-Earth asteroids (NEOs) and how we might deflect them should one ever be discovered on a collision course with planet Earth.

In order to launch in time to rendezvous with Apophis in February 2029, scientists at the European Space Agency have been given permission to start planning Ramses even before the multinational space agency officially adopts the mission. The sanctioning and appropriation of funding for the Ramses mission will hopefully take place at ESA’s Ministerial Council meeting (involving representatives from each of ESA’s member states) in November of 2025. To arrive at Apophis in February 2029, launch would have to take place in April 2028, the agency says.

This is a big deal because large asteroids don’t come this close to Earth very often. It is thus scientifically precious that, on April 13, 2029, Apophis will pass within 19,794 miles (31,860 kilometers) of Earth. For comparison, geosynchronous orbit is 22,236 miles (35,786 km) above Earth’s surface. Such close fly-bys by asteroids hundreds of meters across (Apophis is about 1,230 feet, or 375 meters, across) only occur on average once every 5,000 to 10,000 years. Miss this one, and we’ve got a long time to wait for the next.

When Apophis was discovered in 2004, it was for a short time the most dangerous asteroid known, being classified as having the potential to impact with Earth possibly in 2029, 2036, or 2068. Should an asteroid of its size strike Earth, it could gouge out a crater several kilometers across and devastate a country with shock waves, flash heating and earth tremors. If it crashed down in the ocean, it could send a towering tsunami to devastate coastlines in multiple countries.

Over time, as our knowledge of Apophis’ orbit became more refined, however, the risk of impact  greatly went down. Radar observations of the asteroid in March of 2021 reduced the uncertainty in Apophis’ orbit from hundreds of kilometers to just a few kilometers, finally removing any lingering worries about an impact — at least for the next 100 years. (Beyond 100 years, asteroid orbits can become too unpredictable to plot with any accuracy, but there’s currently no suggestion that an impact will occur after 100 years.) So, Earth is expected to be perfectly safe in 2029 when Apophis comes through. Still, scientists want to see how Apophis responds by coming so close to Earth and entering our planet’s gravitational field.

“There is still so much we have yet to learn about asteroids but, until now, we have had to travel deep into the solar system to study them and perform experiments ourselves to interact with their surface,” said Patrick Michel, who is the Director of Research at CNRS at Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur in Nice, France, in a statement. “Nature is bringing one to us and conducting the experiment itself. All we need to do is watch as Apophis is stretched and squeezed by strong tidal forces that may trigger landslides and other disturbances and reveal new material from beneath the surface.”

The Goldstone radar’s imagery of asteroid 99942 Apophis as it made its closest approach to Earth, in March 2021. (Image credit: NASA/JPL–Caltech/NSF/AUI/GBO)

By arriving at Apophis before the asteroid’s close encounter with Earth, and sticking with it throughout the flyby and beyond, Ramses will be in prime position to conduct before-and-after surveys to see how Apophis reacts to Earth. By looking for disturbances Earth’s gravitational tidal forces trigger on the asteroid’s surface, Ramses will be able to learn about Apophis’ internal structure, density, porosity and composition, all of which are characteristics that we would need to first understand before considering how best to deflect a similar asteroid were one ever found to be on a collision course with our world.

Besides assisting in protecting Earth, learning about Apophis will give scientists further insights into how similar asteroids formed in the early solar system, and, in the process, how  planets (including Earth) formed out of the same material.

One way we already know Earth will affect Apophis is by changing its orbit. Currently, Apophis is categorized as an Aten-type asteroid, which is what we call the class of near-Earth objects that have a shorter orbit around the sun than Earth does. Apophis currently gets as far as 0.92 astronomical units (137.6 million km, or 85.5 million miles) from the sun. However, our planet will give Apophis a gravitational nudge that will enlarge its orbit to 1.1 astronomical units (164.6 million km, or 102 million miles), such that its orbital period becomes longer than Earth’s.

It will then be classed as an Apollo-type asteroid.

Ramses won’t be alone in tracking Apophis. NASA has repurposed their OSIRIS-REx mission, which returned a sample from another near-Earth asteroid, 101955 Bennu, in 2023. However, the spacecraft, renamed OSIRIS-APEX (Apophis Explorer), won’t arrive at the asteroid until April 23, 2029, ten days after the close encounter with Earth. OSIRIS-APEX will initially perform a flyby of Apophis at a distance of about 2,500 miles (4,000 km) from the object, then return in June that year to settle into orbit around Apophis for an 18-month mission.

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Furthermore, the European Space Agency still plans on launching its Hera spacecraft in October 2024 to follow-up on the DART mission to the double asteroid Didymos and Dimorphos. DART impacted the latter in a test of kinetic impactor capabilities for potentially changing a hazardous asteroid’s orbit around our planet. Hera will survey the binary asteroid system and observe the crater made by DART’s sacrifice to gain a better understanding of Dimorphos’ structure and composition post-impact, so that we can place the results in context.

The more near-Earth asteroids like Dimorphos and Apophis that we study, the greater that context becomes. Perhaps, one day, the understanding that we have gained from these missions will indeed save our planet.

 

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McMaster Astronomy grad student takes a star turn in Killarney Provincial Park

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Astronomy PhD candidate Veronika Dornan served as the astronomer in residence at Killarney Provincial Park. She’ll be back again in October when the nights are longer (and bug free). Dornan has delivered dozens of talks and shows at the W.J. McCallion Planetarium and in the community. (Photos by Veronika Dornan)

Veronika Dornan followed up the April 8 total solar eclipse with another awe-inspiring celestial moment.

This time, the astronomy PhD candidate wasn’t cheering alongside thousands of people at McMaster — she was alone with a telescope in the heart of Killarney Provincial Park just before midnight.

Dornan had the park’s telescope pointed at one of the hundreds of globular star clusters that make up the Milky Way. She was seeing light from thousands of stars that had travelled more than 10,000 years to reach the Earth.

This time there was no cheering: All she could say was a quiet “wow”.

Dornan drove five hours north to spend a week at Killarney Park as the astronomer in residence. part of an outreach program run by the park in collaboration with the Allan I. Carswell Observatory at York University.

Dornan applied because the program combines her two favourite things — astronomy and the great outdoors. While she’s a lifelong camper, hiker and canoeist, it was her first trip to Killarney.

Bruce Waters, who’s taught astronomy to the public since 1981 and co-founded Stars over Killarney, warned Dornan that once she went to the park, she wouldn’t want to go anywhere else.

The park lived up to the hype. Everywhere she looked was like a painting, something “a certain Group of Seven had already thought many times over.”

The dome telescopes at Killarney Provincial Park.

She spent her days hiking the Granite Ridge, Crack and Chikanishing trails and kayaking on George Lake.  At night, she went stargazing with campers — or at least tried to. The weather didn’t cooperate most evenings — instead of looking through the park’s two domed telescopes, Dornan improvised and gave talks in the amphitheatre beneath cloudy skies.

Dornan has delivered dozens of talks over the years in McMaster’s W.J. McCallion Planetarium and out in the community, but “it’s a bit more complicated when you’re talking about the stars while at the same time fighting for your life against swarms of bugs.”

When the campers called it a night and the clouds parted, Dornan spent hours observing the stars. “I seriously messed up my sleep schedule.”

She also gave astrophotography a try during her residency, capturing images of the Ring Nebula and the Great Hercules Cluster.

A star cluster image by Veronika Dornan

“People assume astronomers take their own photos. I needed quite a lot of guidance for how to take the images. It took a while to fiddle with the image properties, but I got my images.”

Dornan’s been invited back for another week-long residency in bug-free October, when longer nights offer more opportunities to explore and photograph the final frontier.

She’s aiming to defend her PhD thesis early next summer, then build a career that continues to combine research and outreach.

“Research leads to new discoveries which gives you exciting things to talk about. And if you’re not connecting with the public then what’s the point of doing research?”

 

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