Matt Williams is a space journalist and science communicator for Universe Today and Interesting Engineering. He's also a science fiction author, podcaster (Stories from Space), and Taekwon-Do instructor who lives on Vancouver Island with his wife and family.
To quote NASA associate administrator Jim Reuter, sending crewed missions to Mars by 2040 is an “audacious goal.” The challenges include the distance involved, which can take up to six months to traverse using conventional propulsion methods. Then there’s the hazard posed by radiation, which includes increased exposure to solar particles, flares, and galactic cosmic rays (GCRs). And then there’s the time the crews will spend in microgravity during transits, which can take a serious toll on human health, physiology, and psychology.
But what about the challenges of living and working on Mars for several months at a time? While elevated radiation and lower gravity are a concern, so is Martian regolith. Like lunar regolith, dust on Mars will adhere to astronauts’ spacesuits and inflict wear on their equipment. However, it also contains harmful particles that must be removed to prevent contaminating habitats. In a recent study, a team of aerospace engineers tested a new electrostatic system for removing Martian regolith from spacesuits that could potentially remove harmful dust with up to 98% efficiency.
On Wednesday, February 21st, at 01:40 p.m. PST (04:40 p.m. EST), an interesting package returned to Earth from space. This was the capsule from the W-1 mission, an orbital platform manufactured by California-based Varda Space Industries, which landed at the Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR). Even more interesting was the payload, which consisted of antiviral drugs grown in the microgravity environment of Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The mission is part of the company’s goal to develop the infrastructure to make LEO more accessible to commercial industries.
For over a century, people have dreamed of the day when humanity (as a species) would venture into space. In recent decades, that dream has moved much closer to realization, thanks to the rise of the commercial space industry (NewSpace), renewed interest in space exploration, and long-term plans to establish habitats in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), on the lunar surface, and Mars. Based on the progression, it is clear that going to space exploration will not be reserved for astronauts and government space agencies for much longer.
But before the “Great Migration” can begin, there are a lot of questions that need to be addressed. Namely, how will prolonged exposure to microgravity and space radiation affect human health? These include the well-studied aspects of muscle and bone density loss and how time in space can impact our organ function and cardiovascular and psychological health. In a recent study, an international team of scientists considered an often-overlooked aspect of human health: our microbiome. In short, how will time in space affect our gut bacteria, which is crucial to our well-being?
It’s an exciting time in astronomy today, where records are being broken and reset regularly. We are barely two months into 2024, and already new records have been set for the farthest black hole yet observed, the brightest supernova, and the highest-energy gamma rays from our Sun. Most recently, an international team of astronomers using the ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile reportedly saw the brightest object ever observed in the Universe: a quasar (J0529-4351) located about 12 billion light years away that has the fastest-growing supermassive black hole (SMBH) at its center.
During the 1970s, inventor/environmentalist James Lovelock and evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis proposed the Gaia Hypothesis. This theory posits that Earth is a single, self-regulating system where the atmosphere, hydrosphere, all life, and their inorganic surroundings work together to maintain the conditions for life on the planet. This theory was largely inspired by Lovelock’s work with NASA during the 1960s, where the skilled inventor designed instruments for modeling the climate of Mars and other planets in the Solar System.
According to this theory, planets like Earth would slowly grow warmer and their oceans more acidic without a biosphere that regulates temperature and ensures climate stability. While the theory was readily accepted among environmentalists and climatologists, many in the scientific community have remained skeptical since it was proposed. Until now, it has been impossible to test this theory because it involves forces that work on a planetary scale. But in a recent paper, a team of Spanish scientists proposed an experimental system incorporating synthetic biology that could test the theory on a small scale.
The future of space exploration includes some rather ambitious plans to send missions farther from Earth than ever before. Beyond the current proposals for building infrastructure in cis-lunar space and sending regular crewed missions to the Moon and Mars, there are also plans to send robotic missions to the outer Solar System, to the focal length of our Sun’s gravitational lens, and even to the nearest stars to explore exoplanets. Accomplishing these goals requires next-generation propulsion that can enable high thrust and consistent acceleration.
Focused arrays of lasers – or directed energy (DE) – and lightsails are a means that is being investigated extensively – such as Breakthrough Starshot and Swarming Proxima Centauri. Beyond these proposals, a team from McGill University in Montreal has proposed a new type of directed energy propulsion system for exploring the Solar System. In a recent paper, the team shared the early results of their Laser-Thermal Propulsion (LTP) thruster facility, which suggests that the technology has the potential to provide both high thrust and specific impulse for interstellar missions.
Through the Artemis Program, NASA intends to send astronauts back to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era. But this time, they intend to stay and establish a lunar base and other infrastructure by the end of the decade that will allow for a “sustained program of lunar exploration and development.” To accomplish this, NASA is enlisting the help of fellow space agencies, commercial partners, and academic institutions to create the necessary mission elements – these range from the launch systems, spacecraft, and human landing systems to the delivery of payloads.
Ask any astronomer, and they will tell you that all of the planets in the Solar System (including those “dwarf planets”) have satellites, with the exception of Mercury and Venus. However, that is not entirely the case, as Venus has what is known as a “quasi-moon” – a large asteroid that orbits the planet but is not gravitationally bound to it. In 2002, astronomer Brian Skiff discovered this body using the Discovery Telescope at the Lowell Observatory (where Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto). Until recently, this object was known by its official designation, 2002VE68.
However, on February 5th, 2024, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) conferred a new name for the object: Zoozve. The name was announced in a bulletin (vol. 4, no. 5) issued by the IAU’s Working Group for Small Bodies Nomenclature (WGSBN). The IAU, which is responsible for naming celestial objects, traditionally prefers to assign names that come from mythological traditions to objects that cross Earth’s orbit. But in this case, the origins of Zoozve’s strange name are more of (to quote Bob Ross) a “happy accident,” where a children’s poster that showed the object led to a conversation and an official request.
According to our predominant cosmological models, Dark Matter makes up the majority of mass in the Universe (roughly 85%). While it is not detectable in visible light, its influence can be seen based on how it causes matter to form large-scale structures in our Universe. Based on ongoing observations, astronomers have determined that Dark Matter structures are filamentary, consisting of long, thin strands. For the first time, using the Subaru Telescope, a team of astronomers directly detected Dark Matter filaments in a massive galaxy cluster, providing new evidence to test theories about the evolution of the Universe.
NASA’s Plankton, Aerosol, Climate, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) satellite successfully launched and reached on Thursday, February 10th. The mission took off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, at 1:33 am EST 10:33 pm (PST) atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. About five minutes after launch, NASA confirmed that ground stations on Earth had acquired a signal from the satellite and were receiving data on its operational status and capabilities post-launch. For the next three years, the mission will monitor Earth’s ocean and atmosphere and study the effects of climate change.