On the afternoon of May 5th, 2021, at 05:24 PM local time, SpaceX made its fifth attempt at a high-altitude test flight and soft landing with a Starship prototype. Given the outcomes of the previous test, this event had many people on the edge of their seats. In all four attempts, the prototypes managed to reach their maximum altitude and pull off the bellyflop maneuver, but then exploded during landing (or shortly thereafter).
Would the fifteenth iteration of the Starship prototype (SN15) succeed where the others had failed? As of 05:30 P.M. local time (06:30 P.M. EDT; 03:30 P.M. PDT), the answer to that question is, “WITH GUSTO!” On their fifth attempt, the SN15 not only managed to reach its target altitude of 10 km (6.2 mi) and pull off the belly-flop and controlled descent, it also stuck the landing and suffered no mishaps afterward.
Ah, dark matter, you continue to allude us. The stuff is incredibly difficult to study. It doesn’t interact with light, so our evidence of it is based upon its gravitational effects on light and visible matter. And the biggest difficulty is that we still don’t know what it is. Efforts to detect dark matter directly have come up empty, as have indirect methods such as looking for evidence of dark matter through things such as excess gamma-rays in the Milky Way. But astronomers continue to think up new ways to detect the stuff, such as a recent study published in Physical Review Letters.
Blasting out of Mos Eisley Space Port, the Millennium Falcon carries our adventurers off Tatooine bringing Luke Skywalker across the threshold into space. With Imperial Star Destroyers closing, Luke bemoans Han Solo’s delay in jumping to Hyperspace. It takes time to make these calculations through the Falcon’s “Navicomputer.” Han explains that otherwise they could “fly right through a star” or “bounce too close to a supernova.” (probably the same effect of each – also are supernovas bouncy?)
Celestial calculations are needed to figure out where you’re going. In Star Wars these are done by ship computers, or later by trusty astromech droids like R2-D2. But, for the first time, simulations have been conducted of an uncrewed ship’s ability to autonavigate through interstellar space. While not at Hyperspace speeds, the simulations do account for velocities at up to half the speed of light. Created by Coryn A.L. Bailer-Jones of the Max Plank Institute for Astronomy, these simulations may be our first step to creating our own “Navicomputers” (or R2-D2s if they have a personality).
Venus, aka. Earth’s “Sister Planet,” has always been shrouded in mystery for astronomers. Despite being planet Earth’s closest neighbor, scientists remained ignorant of what Venus’ surface even looked like for well into the 20th century, thanks to its incredibly dense and opaque atmosphere. Even in the age of robotic space exploration, its surface has been all but inaccessible to probes and landers.
And so the mysteries of Venus have endured, not the least of which has to do with some of its most basic characteristics – like its internal mass distribution and variations in the length of a day. Thanks to observations conducted by a team led from UCLA, who repeatedly bounced radar off the planet’s surface for the past 15 years, scientists now know the precise length of a day on Venus, the tilt of its axis, and the size of its core.
Rocks can tell us a lot about a planet. On Earth, the study of geology has been around for hundreds of years and has resulted in such scientific findings as the theory of plate tectonics and the discovery of dinosaur fossils. Geology on Mars has not had as long and storied a history, but with the rovers that have landed on the planet in the last few decades, Martian geology has started to bloom. Curiosity, one of those rovers, has done a particularly good job at documenting the rock formations in its neighborhood of Gale crater. Now researchers led by a team at Imperial College London have published a paper using data from Curiosity that detail a set of ancient dunes on Mars that provide some insight into the planet’s former habitability.
The outer reaches of the Milky Way galaxy are a different place. Stars are much harder to come by, with most of this “galactic halo” being made up of empty space. But scientists theorize that there is an abundance of one particular thing in this desolate area – dark matter. Now, a team from Harvard and the University of Arizona (UA) spent some time studying and modeling one of the galaxy’s nearest neighbors to try to tease out more information about that dark matter, and as a result came up with an all new way to look at the halo itself.
Project Artemis, NASA’s long-awaited plan for sending astronauts to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era, has taken many steps forward. Aside from the development of the Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion spacecraft, and the elements that will make up the Lunar Gateway, NASA recently awarded SpaceX with the contract to build the Human Landing System (HLS) that will transport astronauts to the lunar surface.
However, this decision didn’t sit well with the other two companies NASA was also considering. These included Blue Origin, the commercial space company founded by Amazon founder and former CEO Jeff Bezos, and Alabama-based aerospace company Dynetics. After protests were filed by both companies, NASA decided to issue a stop-work order on the HLS award to SpaceX while it reviews the complaints.
In the vastness of space, astronomers are likely to find instances of almost every astronomical phenomena if they look hard enough. Many planetary phenomena are starting to come into sharper focus as the astronomy community continues to focus on finding exoplanets. Now a team led by Yifan Zhou at UT Austin has directly imaged a gas giant still in formation.
If you’ve been following developments in astronomy over the last few years, you may have heard about the so-called “crisis in cosmology,” which has astronomers wondering whether there might be something wrong with our current understanding of the Universe. This crisis revolves around the rate at which the Universe expands: measurements of the expansion rate in the present Universe don’t line up with measurements of the expansion rate during the early Universe. With no indication for why these measurements might disagree, astronomers are at a loss to explain the disparity.
The first step in solving this mystery is to try out new methods of measuring the expansion rate. In a paper published last week, researchers at University College London (UCL) suggested that we might be able to create a new, independent measure of the expansion rate of the Universe by observing black hole-neutron star collisions.
Last weekend (April 24th), China celebrated its sixth “National Space Day” (aka. Aerospace Industry Achievement Exhibition) in Nanjing, an event that highlights advances China has made in space. Similar to Space Day that is held each year on the first Thursday in May (this year, it will be held on May 7th), the goal is to foster interest in space exploration and the STEMS so as to inspire the next generation of astronauts and aerospace engineers.
This year, the festivities focused on the Chang’e-5 mission (which showcased some of the lunar samples it brought back), and the name of China’s first Mars rover (Zhurong) – which will be landing on the Red Planet later this month. But another interesting snippet was a video presented by one of China’s main rocket manufacturers that showed demonstrated that they are working on a rocket similar to the Starship.