Good afternoon, readers, and welcome to This Week in Space: Your weekly roundup of news from here to the big empty. This week, a lot is going on with SpaceX and the International Space Station. Today we’ll hear those updates, plus a colossal solar flare, ‘beneficiated regolith,’ and a black hole that decided three’s a crowd.
For our fellow sci-fi nerds: This week also marks the 30th anniversary of the beloved sci-fi TV series Babylon 5. The show’s pilot aired on Feb. 23, 1993. Unfortunately, the recent reboot attempt (with J. Michael Straczynski at the helm!) has run aground upon the shoals of studio funding. Even so, we’ll be busting out the DVD box set this weekend.
Russia Launches Replacement Soyuz Capsule to International Space Station
Last December, a micrometeoroid or orbital debris (MMOD) punched a hole in Russia’s Soyuz MS-22 capsule, leaving two cosmonauts and an astronaut without an easy way home. A replacement Soyuz capsule, MS-23, took off for the International Space Station last night (Thursday, Feb. 23) at 7:24 p.m. EST from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. According to a NASA blog update, the uncrewed Soyuz spacecraft is safely in orbit headed for the ISS.
After a two-day journey, MS-23 will dock with the station’s Poisk module at 8:01 p.m. tomorrow (Saturday, Feb. 25). This new Soyuz will replace the Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft. NASA astronaut Frank Rubio and Roscosmos cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin would have returned on the Soyuz MS-22, but that MMOD strike wrecked the capsule’s coolant loop. The three crew members will return to Earth on the new Soyuz MS-23 later this year.
The damaged Soyuz MS-22 is scheduled to undock from the station in late March. When it does, it will parachute back to Earth, landing somewhere in Kazakhstan for post-flight analysis by Roscosmos.
…the MS-23 capsule will carry home the astronaut and cosmonauts currently semi-stranded in orbit.
Russia accelerated the launch of the Soyuz MS-23 spacecraft to the ISS to Thursday from a shifting target date somewhere in March. MS-23 was supposed to be just another routine crew rotation for personnel on the space station. However, the December coolant leak — and another coolant leak, this one from the Progress-82 cargo capsule docked at the station — set in motion a series of changes to the plan.
MS-23 was supposed to launch later this spring with three crew members on board. However, the MS-22 leak wrecked that schedule and left Prokopyev, Petelin, and Rubio looking for a different ride. Roscosmos determined that the damaged Soyuz could maybe carry two people safely home in the event of some emergency that demanded swift evacuation. In such a situation, Prokopyev and Petelin will entrust their lives to the MS-22 capsule. Rubio would take shelter aboard the four-person SpaceX Crew-5 capsule.
…meanwhile, SpaceX delayed its Crew-6 launch until Monday.
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that will carry Crew-6 to the International Space Station is upright on its launch pad at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in preparation for its scheduled Monday launch.
“An integrated static fire test and dry dress rehearsal with the crew will occur prior to liftoff,” NASA officials wrote in a blog post. If those tests go well, the rocket will take off Monday morning (Feb. 27) at 1:45 a.m. EST (0645 GMT) from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
Crew-6 is a four-person team, including the first United Arab Emirates astronaut to perform a long-duration mission, Sultan Al-Neyadi; NASA astronauts Warren “Woody” Hoburg and Stephen Bowen; and cosmonaut Andrey Fedyaev of Russian space agency Roscosmos.
According to NASA, this mission will be the fourth spaceflight for Bowen, who flew several space shuttle missions between 2008 and 2011. For Hoburg, Alneyadi, and Fedyaev, Crew-6 will be their first spaceflight. The quartet will spend up to six months in microgravity before returning to Earth.
…SpaceX also postponed its Starlink launch, giving priority to the Crew-6 mission.
SpaceX confirmed Thursday that the next batch of Starlink internet satellites will now launch no earlier than Sunday.
The mission, Starlink 6-1, will put another group of SpaceX internet satellites into low-Earth orbit. (Trivia: Their 43-degree orbital inclination with respect to the equator will leave the satellites moving in a nearly perfect sine wave.) It was originally scheduled to launch yesterday from pad 40 at Canaveral aboard a Falcon 9 rocket. However, SpaceX and NASA officials said Wednesday that the Starlink 6-1 mission would be delayed from Thursday to “no earlier than Sunday.” Meanwhile, mission personnel are getting the Crew-6 Falcon 9 rocket ready for takeoff at the KSC.
Calling Ham Radio Operators: NASA Wants Your Help
You all know by now how much we love citizen science. An ‘amateur’ astronomer was instrumental in finding a recent impact that taught us much about what lies beneath Jupiter’s mysterious surface. And NASA also recognizes the great value of citizen scientists. In its most recent outreach, the agency has called on ham radio operators to help study upcoming solar eclipses in 2023 and 2024. From their site:
[Long-distance ham radio] communication is possible due to interactions between our Sun and the ionosphere, the ionized region of the Earth’s atmosphere located roughly 80 to 1000 km overhead. The upcoming eclipses (Oct. 14, 2023, and April 8, 2024) provide unique opportunities to study these interactions. As you and other HamSCI members transmit, receive, and record signals across the radio spectrum during the eclipse, you will create valuable data to test computer models of the ionosphere.
NASA plans to include measurements of the ionosphere and signal-spotting challenges in the eclipse events. Since the nearest eclipse is in October, you’ll have time to get your setup in order. This might also be a great way to bring hands-on science into the classroom once the school year starts. For more information, check out the solar eclipse page on HamSCI.org.
European Space Agency Launches Lunar Farming Study
If humans want to establish a long-term presence on the Moon, we’ll need to figure out how to get food once we’re there. In pursuit of that idea, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced this week that it has begun a year-long study on what it will take to create flourishing farms on the Moon.
My colleague Adrianna Nine writes that the project, “Enabling Lunar In-Situ Agriculture by Producing Fertilizer from Beneficiated Regolith,” will study various ways of extracting minerals from lunar soil for hydroponic farming. Lunar regolith has lots of nutrients, it turns out. Alas, it doesn’t have one crucial component Earthly plants all seem to need — nitrogen.
NASA Working to Develop a Battery That Could Survive on Venus
Venus is a deeply hostile place. Landers we try to drop onto its surface melt into slag, sometimes within minutes. However, NASA is working with a private company to develop a power system that will live on the planet’s oppressive surface for an incredible sixty days. However, not just any power system will do. My colleague Ryan Whitwam points out, “it has to be a battery. You can’t use solar panels due to the planet’s thick atmosphere. A radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) like the one used in the Perseverance rover would produce heat, and Venus is already hot enough to threaten the 22-pound lander.”
The heat-loving battery is based on the short-lived thermal batteries used in smart missiles, and this technology could be ideal for use on Venus. The 17-cell battery developed by ATB uses a special high-temperature electrolyte that is solid and inert at normal Earth temperatures. When heated to high temperatures, the battery instantly provides high power output, and there’s plenty of heat to spare on Venus.
The Worst Pile-Up Ever: Black Holes Discovered On Collision Course
Make a list of the most destructive phenomena in the universe, and black holes are likely to make an appearance near the top. We’ve learned a great deal about them in recent years, but they still occasionally delight in telling our understanding of physics to go lay an egg. Case in point: According to data from the Chandra Observatory, two black holes in distant dwarf galaxies are on a collision course with each other.
Many, if not most, galaxies have a supermassive black hole at their core. However, the dwarf galaxies we can see haven’t had black holes at their center — at least, not until now. Researchers have now found two sets of black holes in dwarf galaxies on collision courses, implying the scenario may be more common than we have observed to date.
“Astronomers have found many examples of black holes on collision courses in large galaxies that are relatively close by,” said Marko Micic of the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, who led the study. “But searches for them in dwarf galaxies are much more challenging and until now had failed.”
The researchers overcame the intrinsic difficulty of imaging these far-flung galaxies by combining optical observations from the Canada-France Hawaii telescope with data from the Chandra X-ray observatory and NASA’s Wide Infrared Survey Explorer. The two pairs of colliding black holes are located 760 million and 3.2 billion light-years from Earth, respectively. Both are in the process of merging. Astronomers believe that larger galaxies like the Milky Way formed through the collision of dwarf galaxies, which means we may be watching the same type of merger that gave rise to the Milky Way and its ecliptic: the backbone of night.
Webb Telescope Spies a Legion of Tiny Stars Hubble Couldn’t See
It’s easy to crow about the outstanding clarity of the James Webb space telescope’s vision. I myself have declared the JWST the victor over the Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes, comparing what they see when they look at the same part of the sky. But there’s a use to the comparison beyond gloating. In a recent NASA interview, astronomers tell how they used just such a comparison to find a huge population of cool, dim, low-mass stars with the JWST that Hubble couldn’t detect.
The astronomers explained that Webb is well-suited to finding very cool, low-mass stars of less than 0.1 solar masses. That’s very close to the threshold of mass beyond which a celestial body usually ignites fusion and begins to radiate light as a star. With Hubble, their faint points of light were lost in the noise. However, these small stars are apparently the most numerous in the universe. What we learn from them with the JWST has implications for our understanding of cosmic history.
Scientists Find Gargantuan “Runaway” Supermassive Black Hole
Looking elsewhere in the sky with Hubble, astronomers have spotted a “runaway” supermassive black hole with its own stellar entourage. It appears that the black hole was ejected from its home galaxy. It’s now racing away at ludicrous speed, with dozens of stars trailing in its wake as if it were some great celestial Pied Piper.
In a paper recently accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, astronomers present the observation as the first direct evidence that supermassive black holes can be flung from their home galaxies by some titanic force and cast into interstellar space.
The researchers discovered the runaway black hole by the light of its “entourage.” Black holes are invisible against the pure black of the deep sky. However, the researchers spotted a brilliant and unexpected streak of light while using the Hubble Space Telescope to observe the dwarf galaxy RCP 28, which lies about 7.5 billion light-years from Earth.
The next step is to figure out how this could possibly have happened. Pieter van Dokkum, the lead author of the paper, believes that a “gravitational slingshot” threw the black hole out into deep space. “The most likely scenario that explains everything we’ve seen is a slingshot, caused by a three-body interaction,” van Dokkum said. “When three similar-mass bodies gravitationally interact, the interaction does not lead to a stable configuration but usually to the formation of a binary and the ejection of the third body.”
The report is currently available on arXiv, while it awaits peer review and publication.
Normally we don’t report on solar flares unless they’re big enough to cause significant problems here on Earth. This was the case with a powerful X-class solar flare that released a shockwave on the surface of the Sun last weekend. The shockwave created a “solar tsunami” that experts believe approached sixty thousand miles in height. But the event occurred at a place on the Sun that left the outbound coronal mass ejection (CME) perfectly pointed at the Earth.
The CME “only” scraped past the Earth (instead of slamming into us head-on). However, it was still enough to create a geomagnetic storm that caused serious short-wave radio blackouts Wednesday across a huge swathe of the planet, including the southwestern US. The ion storm also lit up the night with a display of the aurora borealis visible as far south as Michigan and New York.
Amateur radio astronomer Thomas Ashcraft had his telescope pointing right at the sun when the flare let loose — and he caught a recording of the roar of radio noise when the flare hit our atmosphere. “The sun was right in my radio telescope beam when the flare occurred,” said Ashcraft, “and my spectrograph captured the full force of the resulting radio burst.”
Elsewhere in the sky — Monday night (Feb. 27), look to the southwest shortly after sunset. The Moon and Mars are in conjunction, and they will appear less than a degree apart.
Feature image credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky, via NASA HQ Flickr
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