Webb is fully operational again, Rolls-Royce is building a nuclear reactor for the Moon, and the space debris worst-case scenario almost happened.
James Webb is Back
Last week was tough for James Webb Space Telescope news when we learned that NASA had taken the Near Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS) instrument offline on January 15th. The instrument was experiencing communications errors and software delays, so NASA put the instrument into safe mode. After some analysis, they discovered that the device was hit by a galactic cosmic ray that messed up its memory. They turned it off and back on again, and it was good as new, ready for more science.
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Rolls-Royce Nuclear Reactor
Rolls-Royce revealed new details about their micro-nuclear reactor that could provide both rocket propulsion in space and power generation at remote locations like the Moon and Mars. The reactor is being developed through a partnership with the UK Space Agency and could provide power in various scales, from “watts to megawatts.” They claim to keep the uranium fuel safe by encapsulating each particle in multiple protective layers that act as an a. containment system.
Almost a Very Nasty Space Collision
This week we got close to a space disaster. Two pieces of debris almost collided at an altitude of about 1000 km. They got as close as 6 meters! Collisions at these high orbits are a very big problem. A cloud of debris that is created will be coming to lower orbits, where most satellites and space stations are, causing even more collisions. It also takes much more time for debris to deorbit from high orbits due to less air resistance. So, we were lucky that any of that didn’t happen after all.
Drag Sail Success
A new experiment is hoping to mitigate the problem of space debris using an orbital drag sail. The European Space Agency tested the Drag Augmentation Deorbiting System (ADEO) from an ION satellite carrier. At its current altitude, the ION spacecraft should have taken 4-5 years to deorbit and re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere. The 3.6-meter drag sail provides a larger cross-section and will deorbit the spacecraft in only 15 months. It’s hoped that all future spacecraft will have some space debris mitigation system on board like this.
More about drag sails on satellites.
Destroying Rubble Pile Asteroids
Astronomers have found several examples of “rubble pile” asteroids across the Solar System. These aren’t single monolithic rocks but a collection of smaller chunks held together by their mutual gravity. These asteroids are recognizable by their boulder-covered surface, which is mainly free of craters. If one of these asteroids were on a collision course with Earth, we’d find it almost impossible to destroy since it would reform itself after being blasted apart.
More about rubble pile asteroids.
12-Year Exoplanets Timelapse
Astronomers first captured images of the multi-planet system HR8799 in 2008. They originally discovered three planets, but follow-up observations revealed a fourth planet. Astronomers have been continuously observing the system for 12 years and recently published a timelapse that shows the planets orbiting the star. These are actual photographs and not an artist’s illustration. The closest world to the star takes about 45 Earth years to complete an orbit, while the most distant one takes 500 years.
More about direct imaging of exoplanets.
Huge Pop III Stars
The Sun is a third-generation star, containing the heavier elements from previous generations of stars that lived and died. But first-generation stars must have formed from the primordial hydrogen and helium left over from the Big Bang. Astronomers haven’t been able to detect them yet, but a new simulation predicts that they might be extremely massive, with some reaching 100,000 times the mass of the Sun.
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