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.
Through the Artemis Program, NASA plans to send the first astronauts to the Moon in over fifty years. Before the decade is over, this program aims to establish the infrastructure that will allow for a “sustained program of lunar exploration and development.” The European Space Agency (ESA) also has big plans, which include the creation of a Moon Village that will serve as a spiritual successor to the International Space Station (ISS). China and Roscosmos also came together in June 2021 to announce that they would build the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) around the lunar south pole.
In all cases, space agencies plan to harvest local resources to meet their construction and long-term needs – a process known as In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU). Based on samples returned by the fifth mission of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (Chang’e-5), a team of researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) identified indigenous glass fibers for the first time. According to a paper they authored, these fibers were formed by past impacts in the region and could be an ideal building material for future lunar bases.
Located near the summit of Maunakea, Hawaii, the 15-meter (~49 ft) James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) at the East Asia Observatory (EAO) is the largest telescope in the world designed to operate exclusively in the submillimetre-wavelength. In 2018, Molokai’i High School alumna Mallory Go was awarded time with the JCMT under the Maunakea Scholars program. With the assistance of EAO astronomer Dr. Harriet Parsons, Go obtained unique images of the Horsehead Nebula in polarized light, which revealed the nebula’s magnetic fields.
A lot has changed since the last Space Age. Unlike the days of Sputnik, Vostok, Mercury, and Apollo, the current era is not defined by two superpowers constantly vying for dominance and one-upmanship. More than ever, international cooperation is the name of the game, with space agencies coming together to advance common exploration and science goals. Similarly, there is the way the private space sector has become a major participant, providing everything from launch services and commercial payloads to satellite constellations and crews.
But in some ways, old habits die hard. Since the turn of the century, China has emerged as a major power in space, to the point of becoming a direct competitor with NASA’s human space programs. For the past few years, China has been developing a reusable autonomous spaceplane to compete with the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV). Known as Shenlong (“divine dragon”), this spaceplane recently concluded its second test flight after spending 276 days in orbit. Though the details are scant, the Chinese state media company Xinua declared the flight a breakthrough for the Chinese space program.
In a little over four years, NASA’s Dragonflymission will launch into space and begin its long journey towards Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. As part of the New Frontiers program, this quadcopter will explore Titan’s atmosphere, surface, and methane lakes for possible indications of life (aka. biosignatures). This will commence in 2034, with a science phase lasting for three years and three and a half months. The robotic explorer will rely on a nuclear battery – a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermal Generator (MMRTG) – to ensure its longevity.
But what if Dragonfly were equipped with a next-generation fusion power system? In a recent mission study paper, a team of researchers from Princeton Satellite Systems demonstrated how a Direct Fusion Drive (DFD) could greatly enhance a mission to Titan. This New Jersey-based aerospace company is developing fusion systems that rely on the Princeton Field-Reversed Configuration (PFRC). This research could lead to compact fusion reactors that could lead to rapid transits, longer-duration missions, and miniature nuclear reactors here on Earth.
Beginning in 1610, when famed Renaissance polymath Galileo Galilei observed the night sky using a telescope of his own manufacture, astronomers gradually realized that our Solar System is part of a vast collection of stars known today as the Milky Way Galaxy. By the 20th century, astronomers had a good idea of its size and structure, which consisted of a central “bulge” surrounded by an extended disk with spiral arms. Despite all we’ve learned, determining the true morphology of the Milky Way has remained a challenge for astronomers.
Since we, the observers, are embedded in the Milky Way’s disk, we cannot see through the center and observe what’s on the other side. Using various methods, though, astronomers are getting closer to recreating what a “birds-eye” view of the galaxy would look like. For instance, a team of researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) used the precise locations of very young objects in our galaxy (for the first time) to measure the morphology of the Milky Way. This revealed a multiple-arm morphology consisting of two symmetrical arms in the inner region and many irregular ones in the outer region.
With greater sensitivity, astronomers will be able to trace GW events back to their source and use them to probe the interiors of exotic objects and the laws of physics. As part of their Voyage 2050 planning cycle, the European Space Agency (ESA) is considering mission themes that could be ready by 2050 – including GW astronomy. In a recent paper, researchers from the ESA’s Mission Analysis Section and the University of Glasgow presented a new concept that would build on LISA – known as LISAmax. As they report, this observatory could potentially improve GW sensitivity by two orders of magnitude.
The surface of Mars is a pretty desolate place at first glance. The soil is many times as dry as the driest desert on planet Earth, the temperatures swing from one extreme to the other, and the air is incredibly thin and toxic. And yet, there’s ample evidence that the planet was once much warmer and wetter, with lots of flowing and standing water on its surface. Over time, as Mars’ atmosphere was slowly stripped away, much of this water was lost to space, and what remains is largely concentrated around the poles as glacial ice and permafrost.
For years, space agencies have been sending robotic landers, rovers, orbiters, and aerial vehicles to Mars to learn more about when this transition took and how long it took. According to China’s Tianwen-1 mission, which includes the Zhurong rover, there may have been liquid water on the Martian surface later than previously thought. According to new research from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), the Zhurong rover observed salt-rich dunes in the Utopia Planitia region that showed cracks and crusts, indicating the possible presence of water as recently as a few hundred thousand years ago.
According to the most widely-accepted cosmological model, the majority of the mass in our Universe (roughly 85%) consists of “Dark Matter.” This elusive, invisible mass is theorized to interact with “normal” (or “visible”) matter through gravity alone and not electromagnetic fields, neither absorbing nor emitting light (hence the name “dark”). The search for this matter is ongoing, with candidate particles including Weakly-Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs) or ultralight bosons (axions), which are at opposite extremes of the mass scale and behave very differently (in theory).
This matter’s existence is essential for our predominant theories of gravity (General Relativity) and particle physics (The Standard Model) to make sense. Otherwise, we may need to radically rethink our theories on how gravity behaves on the largest of scales (aka. Modified Gravity). However, according to new research led by the University of Hong Kong (HKU), the study of “Einstein Rings” could bring us a step closer to understanding Dark Matter. According to their paper, the way Dark Matter alters the curvature of spacetime leaves signatures that suggest it could be made up of axions!
The number of known extrasolar planets has exploded in the past few decades, with 5,338 confirmed planets in 4,001 systems (and another 9,443 awaiting confirmation). When it comes to “Earth-like” planets (aka. rocky), the most likely place to find them is in orbit around M-type red dwarf stars. These account for between 75 and 80% of all stars in the known Universe, are several times smaller than the Sun and are quite cool and dim by comparison. They are also prone to flare activity and have very tight Habitable Zones (HZs), meaning that planets must orbit very closely to get enough heat and radiation.
In addition, red dwarfs are highly-active when they are young, exposing planets in their HZs to lots of ultraviolet and X-ray radiation. As such, whether planets orbiting these stars can maintain or reestablish their atmospheres over time is an open question. Using the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), researchers from the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) observed an exoplanet known as GJ 486 b. As they stated in a recent study, the team detected traces of water vapor, though it is unclear if the signal was coming from the planet or its parent star.
Well, buckle up! The European multinational aerospace giant Airbus has thrown its hat into the ring! In a recently-released video, the company detailed its proposal for a Multi-Purpose Orbital Module (MPOP) called the Airbus LOOP. This modular space segment contains three decks, a centrifuge, and enough volume for a crew of four, making it suitable for future space stations and long-duration missions to Mars. The LOOP builds on the company’s long history of human spaceflight programs, like the ISS Columbus Module, the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), and the Orion European Service Module (ESM).