Ariane 6 Rocket’s Debut Puts Europe Back in the Launch Game

Ariane 6 liftoff
The European Space Agency's Ariane 6 rocket rises for the first time from its launch pad in French Guiana. Credit: ESA via YouTube

Europe’s next-generation Ariane 6 rocket rose today for the first time from its South American spaceport, ending a yearlong launch gap caused by the Ariane 5’s retirement.

The heavy-lift launch vehicle’s demonstration flight began with liftoff at 4 p.m. local time (19:00 GMT) from the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana, and continued with satellite deployments in orbit.

“A completely new rocket is not launched often, and success is far from guaranteed,” Josef Aschbacher, the European Space Agency’s director general, said in a statement. “I am privileged to have witnessed this historic moment when Europe’s new generation of the Ariane family lifted off – successfully – effectively reinstating European access to space.”

Continue reading “Ariane 6 Rocket’s Debut Puts Europe Back in the Launch Game”

The First Space War Is Here: Find Out How the Next One May Play Out

Illustration: Satellites in orbit
An artist's conception shows satellites that are part of the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program. (Space Force Illustration)

Wars in space are no longer just science fiction. In fact, Space War I has been raging for more than two years, with no quick end in sight. This isn’t the kind of conflict that involves X-wing fighters or Space Marines. Instead, it’s a battle over how satellites are being used to collect imageryidentify military targets and facilitate communications in the war between Ukraine and Russia.

“As I looked at Ukraine in the early months, it was obvious to me: This is the first space war,” says David Ignatius, a journalist who lives a double life as a foreign-affairs columnist for The Washington Post and a spy-thriller novelist.

In the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, Ignatius delves into the potential national-security threats posed by satellite-based warfare — and how he wove those threats into the plot threads of a new novel titled “Phantom Orbit.” The tale lays out a scenario in which Space War I tips toward a potentially catastrophic Space War II.

Continue reading “The First Space War Is Here: Find Out How the Next One May Play Out”

Happy Asteroid Day! Schweickart Prize Spotlights Planetary Defense

Vapor trail from 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor
This vapor trail was left behind by an asteroid that zoomed over the Siberian city of Chelyabinsk in 2013. (Credit: Alex Alishevskikh via NASA)

Every year on June 30, Asteroid Day marks the anniversary of a meteor airburst in 1908 that leveled hundreds of square miles of Siberian forest land. But a more recent meteor blast — and a new plan for getting advance warning of the next one — is receiving some added attention for this year’s Asteroid Day.

The first-ever Schweickart Prize, named in honor of Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart, is going to a researcher who has proposed a system for spotting potentially threatening asteroids coming at us from a difficult-to-monitor zone between Earth and the sun. It was just such an asteroid that blew up over the Siberian city of Chelyabinsk in 2013, spraying debris that injured about 1,500 people and caused an estimated $33 million in property damage.

The proposal from astronomy Ph.D. student Joseph DeMartini calls for setting up a consortium of ground-based observatories, anchored by the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile, to focus on the twilight sky just after sunset and just before sunrise. Those are the times of day when astronomers have the best chance of finding sunward near-Earth objects (NEOs) that spend much of their time within Earth’s orbit.

“It’s a very interesting proposal that we hope gets picked up,” Rusty Schweickart said.

Continue reading “Happy Asteroid Day! Schweickart Prize Spotlights Planetary Defense”

How Commercial Satellites Could Track Spy Balloons and Other UFOs

Chinese spy balloon tracked on satellite imagery
Crosses indicate the apparent position of a spy balloon over Missouri as seen in different spectral bands. (Credit: Planet Labs / Keto and Watters)

It turns out that you don’t need the Men in Black to spot unidentified anomalous phenomena, which are also known as UAPs, unidentified flying objects or UFOs. Researchers have shown how the task of detecting aerial objects in motion could be done by analyzing Earth imagery from commercial satellites.

They say they demonstrated the technique using one of the most notorious UAP incidents of recent times: last year’s flight of a Chinese spy balloon over the U.S., which ended in a shootdown by an Air Force fighter jet above the Atlantic Ocean. They also analyzed imagery of a different spy balloon that passed over Colombia at about the same time.

“Our proposed method appears to be successful and allows the measurement of the apparent velocity of moving objects,” the researchers report.

Continue reading “How Commercial Satellites Could Track Spy Balloons and Other UFOs”

China’s Chang’e-6 Probe Drops Off Samples From Moon’s Far Side

Chang'e-6 sample return capsule and Chinese flag
A Chinese flag flies next to the Chang'e-6 sample return capsule after its landing in Inner Mongolia. (Credit: CCTV / CNSA via Weibo)

Three weeks after it lifted off from the far side of the moon, China’s Chang’e-6 spacecraft dropped off a capsule containing first-of-its-kind lunar samples for retrieval from the plains of Inner Mongolia.

The gumdrop-shaped sample return capsule floated down to the ground on the end of a parachute, with the descent tracked on live television. After today’s touchdown, at 2:07 p.m. local time (0607 GMT), members of the mission’s recovery team checked the capsule and unfurled a Chinese flag nearby.

Chang’e-6, which was launched in early May, is the first robotic mission to land and lift off again from the moon’s far side — the side that always faces away from Earth. It’s also the first mission to bring dirt and rocks from the far side back to Earth.

“The Chang’e-6 lunar exploration mission achieved complete success,” Zhang Kejian, director of the China National Space Administration, said from mission control. Chinese President Xi Jinping extended congratulations to the mission team, the state-run Xinhua news service reported.

Continue reading “China’s Chang’e-6 Probe Drops Off Samples From Moon’s Far Side”

Success! SpaceX’s Starship Makes a Splash in Fourth Flight Test

Starship blasts off from Texas launch pad
Starship rises from its Texas launch pad for SpaceX's fourth flight test. (SpaceX Photo)

SpaceX’s Starship earned high marks today in its fourth uncrewed flight test, making significant progress in the development of a launch system that’s tasked with putting NASA astronauts on the moon by as early as 2026.

Continue reading “Success! SpaceX’s Starship Makes a Splash in Fourth Flight Test”

Chinese Probe Collects Moon Samples and Heads for Earth

Chang'e-6 lander on the moon, as seen by a mini-rover nearby
An image captured by a camera-equipped rover shows China's Chang'e-6 lander with its robotic arm and a Chinese flag. (Credit: CLEP / CNSA)

China says its Chang’e-6 spacecraft has gathered up soil and rocks from the far side of the moon and has lifted off from the surface, beginning a journey to bring the samples back to Earth. The probe’s payload represents the first lunar samples ever collected from the far side.

In a status update, the China National Space Administration said the Chang’e-6 ascent module successfully reached lunar orbit, where it’s due to transfer the samples to a re-entry capsule hooked up to the probe’s orbiter. (Update: CNSA says the ascent module made its rendezvous with the orbiter and transferred the samples to the re-entry capsule on June 6.)

If all goes according to plan, the orbiter will leave the moon’s orbit, head back to Earth and drop off the re-entry capsule for retrieval in China’s Inner Mongolia region sometime around June 25.

Continue reading “Chinese Probe Collects Moon Samples and Heads for Earth”

Chinese Probe Lands on Moon’s Far Side to Collect Samples for Return

Image of lunar surface
An image captured during the Chang'e-6 probe's descent shows lunar terrain. (Credit: CLEP / CNSA)

After touching down on the moon’s far side, China’s Chang’e-6 lander is collecting samples to bring back to Earth — and sending back imagery documenting its mission.

Chang’e-6, which was launched May 3, went through weeks’ worth of in-space maneuvers that climaxed with its weekend landing in the moon’s South Pole-Aitken Basin region. The mission plan calls for the probe to collect samples of lunar soil and rock over the course of about two days, and then pack them up for the return trip.

If the operation is successful, Chang’e-6 would bring back the first fresh lunar samples ever collected on the moon’s far side — following up on the Chang’e-5 mission in 2020, which returned samples from the moon’s Earth-facing side.

Continue reading “Chinese Probe Lands on Moon’s Far Side to Collect Samples for Return”

Japanese Billionaire Calls Off His Starship Trip Around the Moon

Illustration: Starship flying over the moon
An artist's conception shows SpaceX's Starship flying over the moon. (Illustration via DearMoon)

Six years after he announced a grand plan to fly around the moon with a crew of artists in SpaceX’s Starship rocket, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa said he was canceling the project due to delays in Starship’s development.

In a series of postings to the X social-media platform, Maezawa said he signed his contract with SpaceX “based on the assumption that dearMoon would launch by the end of 2023.”

“It’s a developmental project, so it is what it is, but it is still uncertain as to when Starship can launch,” he wrote. “I can’t plan my future in this situation, and I feel terrible making the crew members wait longer, hence the difficult decision to cancel at this point in time. I apologize to those who were excited for this project to happen.”

Continue reading “Japanese Billionaire Calls Off His Starship Trip Around the Moon”

Starlink on Mars? NASA Is Paying SpaceX to Look Into the Idea

Starlink satellites in Earth orbit, under consideration for Mars
An artist's conception shows Starlink satellites in orbit. Credit: SpaceX

NASA has given the go-ahead for SpaceX to work out a plan to adapt its Starlink broadband internet satellites for use in a Martian communication network.

The idea is one of a dozen proposals that have won NASA funding for concept studies that could end up supporting the space agency’s strategy for bringing samples from Mars back to Earth for lab analysis. The proposals were submitted by nine companies — also including Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, United Launch Alliance, Astrobotic, Firefly Aerospace, Impulse Space, Albedo Space and Redwire Space.

Awardees will be paid $200,000 to $300,000 for their reports, which are due in August. NASA says the studies could lead to future requests for proposals, but it’s not yet making any commitment to follow up.

Continue reading “Starlink on Mars? NASA Is Paying SpaceX to Look Into the Idea”