SLS finally launches to the Moon. SpaceX gets another contract from NASA. James Webb gets a protection plan from micrometeoroids. A Chinese booster shreds in low-Earth orbit. A secret space plane returns.
Space Bites are here to get you all the latest space and astronomy news in a convenient bite-size format. This week it’s a lot of huge stories about the Moon as well as some other important spaceflight updates.
NASA’s Plan to Protect James Webb From Micrometeoroids
JWST has been dinged more than a dozen times by tiny space dust. Most of these have been harmless, causing almost no damage to the space telescope, but one was surprisingly large and noticeably deformed the segment it hit. NASA will fly JWST differently during its next science cycle to minimize the damage from future micrometeoroids. It’ll mostly be looking behind itself in orbit, decreasing the relative velocity of space dust that hits its mirrors, causing less damage.
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Fiery Hourglass by Webb
This week’s incredible image from JWST shows a brand new protostar, likely within the first 100,000 years of life. The object, named L1527, is located in the Taurus Molecular Cloud about 430 light-years away. It’s so young in its stellar evolution that it probably only has 20-40% of the Sun’s mass. It’s still pulling in more material from the surrounding molecular cloud and has spun up an accretion disc around itself where planets will eventually form.
Artemis I Launched. SLS Finally Did It!
This isn’t an artist’s illustration. NASA’s Space Launch System finally blasted off, carrying the Artemis I mission to the Moon. This is the first time in 50 years that a human-rated spacecraft is going to lunar orbit. There were a few minor delays with a piece of networking equipment, but at 1:47 am EST, the giant rocket lept away from Launch Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. After a weeklong journey to the Moon, it’ll pass within 100 km of the lunar surface, then fly farther than any human-rated spacecraft has ever been. It’s expected to return to Earth and splash down in the Pacific Ocean on December 11.
More Lunar Starship Landings for NASA
This week NASA activated Option B in SpaceX’s HLS contract. Previously SpaceX needed to do one uncrewed demo landing and one crewed landing for NASA. With the contract extension, SpaceX will perform another crewed landing as part of the Artemis IV. NASA will pay SpaceX an additional $1.15B for this mission on top of what’s already been paid within the HLS contract. So, more Lunar Starships for NASA.
BlueWalker-3 Unfolds, Brightens One-Hundredfold
Although the Starlink constellation of space satellites has been trouble for astronomers, they’re too dim to see with the unaided eye when in their final operational orbit. But a new communications satellite called BlueWalker-3 will be dramatically brighter. We’ve been nervous about this satellite since it first launched, and this week it finally unfurled, appearing as bright in the sky as Venus. AST Space Mobile plans to launch 110 satellites, creating a worldwide network of satellites to provide cellphone coverage.
Secret Space Plane Returns to Earth
After 908 days in orbit, the Space Force’s X-37B spaceplane is back on Earth. This is the 6th mission for the X-37B, the longest at almost three years. What was it doing up for all that time? Because it’s a classified military spacecraft, we don’t have any details. However, NASA did have two experiments on board, testing various materials in space and the impact of space radiation on seeds. I’d suspect the other experiments on board had a similar purpose.
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