Mercury-Bound BepiColombo is About to Start Using the Most Powerful Ion Engines Ever Sent to Space

An artist's impression of the BepiColombo spacecraft as it approaches Mercury at the end of its 7 year journey. Image: spacecraft: ESA/ATG medialab; Mercury: NASA/JPL

A handful of spacecraft have used ion engines to reach their destinations, but none have been as powerful as the engines on the BepiColombo spacecraft. BepiColombo is a joint mission between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA.) It was launched on October 20, 2018, and has gone through weeks of in-flight commissioning. On Sunday it turned on its powerful ion thrusters for the first time.

“We put our trust in the thrusters and they have not let us down.” – Günther Hasinger, ESA Director of Science.

BepiColombo is a three-part spacecraft. It has two orbiters, the Mercury Planet Orbiter (MPO) built by the ESA, and the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO) built by JAXA. The third part is the Mercury Transfer Module (MTM), built by ESA. The MTM is the propulsion part of the spacecraft and contains the spacecraft’s four ion engines.

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The Draco Constellation

Welcome to another edition of Constellation Friday! Today, in honor of the late and great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at the dragon itself – the Draco constellation. Enjoy!

In the 2nd century CE, Greek-Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus (aka. Ptolemy) compiled a list of all the then-known 48 constellations. This treatise, known as the Almagest, would be used by medieval European and Islamic scholars for over a thousand years to come, effectively becoming astrological and astronomical canon until the early Modern Age.

One of the constellations included in this treatise was Draco, which is located in the northern hemisphere and contains the north pole of the ecliptic. Today, it is one of the 88 modern constellations recognized by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and is bordered by the constellations of Bootes, Camelopardalis, Cepheus, Cygnus, Hercules, Lyra, Ursa Minor, and Ursa Major.

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InSight’s Robot Arm is Ready to go to Work

This image was taken by the InSight Lander's Instrument Deployment Camera mounted on the lander's robotic arm. The stowed grapple on the end of the arm is folded in, but it will unfold and be used to deploy the lander's science instrument. The copper-colored hexagonal object is the protective cover for the seismometer, and the grey dome behind it is a wind and thermal shield, which will be placed over the seismometer after its deployed. The black cyliner on the left is the heat probe, which will drill up to 5 meters into the Martian surface. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Some new images sent home by the InSight Lander show the robotic arm and the craft’s instruments waiting on deck, on the surface of Mars. The lander is still having its systems tested, and isn’t quite ready to get to work. It’ll use its arm to deploy its science instruments, including a drill that will penetrate up to 5 meters (16 ft.) deep into the Martian surface.

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Astronomers Count all the Photons in the Universe. Spoiler Alert: 4,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 Photons

Imagine yourself in a boat on a great ocean, the water stretching to the distant horizon, with the faintest hints of land just beyond that. It’s morning, just before dawn, and a dense fog has settled along the coast. As the chill grips you on your early watch, you catch out of the corner of your eye a lighthouse, feebly flickering through the fog.

And – yes – there! Another lighthouse, closer, its light a little stronger. As you scan the horizon more lighthouses signal the dangers of the distant coast.
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On the Astronomy Trail in Nebraska

Nebraska

It’s a never-ending quest for observers, lovers of the night sky and astrophotographers. Where to go to get away from encroaching light pollution, and find truly dark skies?

Most of us think of distant sites such as Death Valley, the Kalahari Desert or the Canary Islands when it comes to dark skies. And while it’s true that many observers are now traveling farther and farther away from home in search of truly dark skies, that trip need not be as far as you think.

We had the opportunity to visit one such often overlooked dark sky gem: the state of Nebraska. From fossils to aeronautics and astronomy, there’s lots of science to explore in the Cornhusker State. Though the state has a rich science heritage, and an active amatuer astronomy community, Nebraska is an often overlooked dark sky haven. But science tourism is also becoming increasingly popular, and Nebraska has lots to offer.
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New SPECULOOS Telescope Sees First Light. Soon it’ll be Seeing Habitable Planets Around Ultra-Cool Stars

This first light image from the Callisto telescope at the SPECULOOS Southern Observatory (SSO) shows the famous Horsehead Nebula . First light for a newly commissioned telescope is a tremendously exciting time, and usually well-known astronomical objects such as this are captured to celebrate a new telescope commencing operations. Image Credit: SPECULOOS Team/E. Jehin/ESO

Our newest planet-hunting telescope is up and running at the ESO’s Paranal Observatory in the Atacama Desert in Chile. SPECULOOS, which stands for Planets EClipsing ULtra-cOOl Stars, is actually four 1-meter telescopes working together. The first images from the ‘scopes are in, and though it hasn’t found any other Earths yet, the images are still impressive.

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Good News: a SpaceX Cargo Resupply is Off to the Space Station. Bad News: Failed Hydraulics in the Grid Fins Caused the First Stage Booster to Crash Into the Ocean

It’s been a busy time for Elon Musk and SpaceX, lately. Earlier this week, the company launched 64 satellites (and a art project known as the Orbital Reflector) in what was the largest rideshare mission in history. The mission was also historic because it involved a booster making its third successful landing. And this was after Musk released more details about his proposed BFR, henceforth known as the “Starship

And earlier today (Wednesday Dec. 5th), SpaceX launched its sixteenth Commercial Resupply Services mission (CRS-16) to the International Space Station (ISS). While the deployment of the Dragon spacecraft was successful, the first stage booster did not make it back to the landing pad. After suffering from an apparent malfunction in one of its grid fins, the booster fell into the sea – but remained intact and will be retrieved.

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The Large Hadron Collider has been Shut Down, and Will Stay Down for Two Years While they Perform Major Upgrades

The Compact Muon Solenoid Detector on the LHC. Image Credit: CERN

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is getting a big boost to its performance. Unfortunately, for fans of ground-breaking physics, the whole thing has to be shut down for two years while the work is done. But once it’s back up and running, its enhanced capabilities will make it even more powerful.
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Weekly Space Hangout: Dec 05, 2018: Dr. Pamela Gay talks CosmoQuest Hangoutathon!

Hosts:
Guest Host Dr. Pamela Gay (astronomycast.com / cosmoquest.org / @starstryder)
Fraser Cain (universetoday.com / @fcain)
Dr. Paul M. Sutter (pmsutter.com / @PaulMattSutter)
Dr. Kimberly Cartier (KimberlyCartier.org / @AstroKimCartier )
Dr. Morgan Rehnberg (MorganRehnberg.com / @MorganRehnberg & ChartYourWorld.org)

Dr. Pamela Gay will be back to promote the CosmoQuest Hangoutathon coming up on Dec 22-24, live on https://www.twitch.tv/cosmoquestx.
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