Nuclear Rocket In 2027, JWST Problems, Starship WDR

Starship completes its wet-dress rehearsal, another problem for Webb, a nuclear rocket test is coming, and more cool NIAC grants.

Starship Wet Dress Rehersal

SpaceX made another important step towards the first orbital test of Starship. This week they performed a full wet-dress rehearsal, meaning that both stacked Starship and Super Heavy booster were filled up with fuel, just as if they were going to launch. The test was successful. Now Ship 24 was taken off the booster and SpaceX are getting ready to perform a test fire of all the 33 Raptor v2 engines of Super Heavy.

Webb’s NIRISS Problems

This week NASA announced that they’re taking the James Webb Space Telescope’s Near Infrared IMager and Slitless Spectrograph offline. According to the agency, the instrument experienced an internal communications error that caused its software to time out. It doesn’t seem like the device is damaged in any way; just experiencing this internal error. NIRISS is a Canadian-built infrared instrument that can act like a camera but also has additional modes that let it characterize exoplanet atmospheres and the light of distant galaxies. We don’t know when the instrument will return to operation.

More about NIRISS going offline.

Webb’s First Occultation

Asteroid Chariklo is one of the few worlds in the Solar System that have rings. They were originally discovered back in 2013 but now Webb had a chance to have a look at them. This was made possible because of an event called an occultation. The asteroid crossed the path of a bright background star. So, by observing dips in the brightness of the star, astronomers were able to observe Chariklo’s rings and study them in more detail.

More about Chariklo’s rings by JWST.

DARPA Nuclear Rocket Test by 2027

Nuclear Thermal Propulsion rockets (NTPs) were first tested by NASA and the Department of Energy 50 years ago. They use a fission reactor to heat a propellant like hydrogen and blast it out the back of the rocket with high velocity. Although we know the technology works, we’ve never seen it tested in space before. NASA announced a partnership with DARPA that will construct a working NTP and launch it into space for a test in 2027. A rocket like this could decrease flight times to Mars by months, maybe even completing the journey within 45 days.

More about upcoming nuclear engine test.

How to Miniaturize Nuclear Batteries

One of the problems of deep space missions is power. Once you go past Jupiter, solar power is no longer enough. So, the solution that is currently available is an RTG powered by decaying Plutonium. However, they are big, expensive and not very efficient. One of the NIAC grants that were awarded this year aims to solve this problem. The plan is to shrink RTGs from 200 litres to about 0.2 litres and increase their efficiency. If this can be achieved, this can change future space missions forever. If RTGs will be available for cubesat-sized missions, we will definitely see much more exploration of our Solar System.

More about shrinking space RTGs.

Tiny Tractor Beam

Tractor beams are a staple in science fiction, with spacecraft pulling objects with a beam of light. Like most ideas in science fiction, there’s a grain of truth, and scientists are working on ways to make them a reality. You have to scale your expectations down, way down. There are microscopic tractor beams already in use in science labs called “optical tweezers,” using lasers to move tiny objects around like atoms and nanoparticles. Now researchers have demonstrated a larger version with three orders of magnitude more light pressure.

More about the real-life tractor beam.

Growing Structures on Mars

Travelling to Mars will require living off the land and harvesting the local resources to stay alive. There’s plenty of raw regolith to work with, but how can you turn it into valuable structures like roads, landing pads, and buildings? A new NIAC study is looking into a method for building bricks on Mars using a combination of cyanobacteria and fungi to serve as binding agents to hold the regolith together. The regolith is put into a mold inside a bioreactor, and the bacteria and fungi grow together into a living cement.

More about growing Mars habitats.

Light Pollution Is Getting Worse

A recent study by the Globe At Night program shows that light pollution on Earth is getting progressively worse. Fewer and fewer people have access to the proper night sky. For the past 11 years, the situation was getting about 10% worse each year. One of the main problems causing this trend is advancements in LED technology. Instead of saving power by using more efficient lights, people tend to use same amount of power and increase light output.

More about light pollution on Earth.

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