James Webb Might be Able to Detect Other Civilizations by their Air Pollution

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), launched last December, has been slowly powering up its instruments and unfurling its sunshield, and is now in the process of aligning its mirrors in preparation for operation. Within a few months, the most powerful space telescope ever built is going to set its sights on the stars. Astronomers are hoping that what JWST sees will change the way we understand our universe, just as the Hubble Space Telescope did decades before.

One tantalizing capability that JWST offers that Hubble could not is the opportunity to directly image planets orbiting distant stars, and maybe, just maybe, detect signs of life.

Continue reading “James Webb Might be Able to Detect Other Civilizations by their Air Pollution”

The Object About to Hit the Moon isn’t a SpaceX Booster After All

Last month, astronomers reported that a discarded upper stage of a Falcon 9 rocket, launched 7 years ago, was on a collision course with the Moon. The rocket in question carried NASA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) to the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange point, where the still-operating observatory provides advance warning on solar wind activities. The leftover rocket stage, meanwhile, became a floating piece of space junk orbiting the Sun. Its ultimate fate was unknown, until last month, when astronomer Bill Gray predicted that it was bound for an impact with the Moon sometime on March 4th, 2022.

This week, Gray, who has been tracking the object ever since, released an update on the situation. He confirmed that there is indeed a rocket stage on course to crash into the far side of the Moon, but it’s not a SpaceX rocket at all. Instead, it’s a Chinese booster: the upper stage of the rocket that carried China’s Chang’e 5-T1 mission to the Moon in 2014.

Continue reading “The Object About to Hit the Moon isn’t a SpaceX Booster After All”

Astronomers Finally Find a Second Asteroid in Earth’s Trojan Belt

Using the 4.1-meter SOAR (Southern Astrophysical Research) Telescope on Cerro Pachón in Chile, astronomers have confirmed that an asteroid discovered in 2020 by the Pan-STARRS1 survey, called 2020 XL5, is an Earth Trojan (an Earth companion following the same path around the Sun as Earth does) and revealed that it is much larger than the only other Earth Trojan known. In this illustration, the asteroid is shown in the foreground in the lower left. The two bright points above it on the far left are Earth (right) and the Moon (left). The Sun appears on the right. 

Earth has a new companion. Asteroid 2020 XL5, a newly discovered kilometer-wide carbonaceous space rock, has been discovered at Earth’s L4 Lagrange point – a place where the gravitational forces of Earth and the Sun balance out, creating a stable point in which objects can become trapped. A new paper published this week in Nature Communications confirms that 2020 XL5 will be stuck at L4 for at least another 4000 years, shepherded silently through the Solar System by the gravitational tug of our home planet.

Continue reading “Astronomers Finally Find a Second Asteroid in Earth’s Trojan Belt”

With Webb Safely Launched, Focus Shifts to the Ariane 6

Déchargement LLPM et ULPM au port Pariacabo, le 17/01/2022. | LLPM and ULPM unloading at Pariacabo harbor. 17/01/2022.

Last month, an Ariane 5 rocket carried the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) safely to space, the latest of 112 total launches for the European Space Agency’s (ESA) primary workhorse rocket. With a 95.5% success rate, the Ariane 5 has been a reliable ride to space for decades, but its story is about to come to an end. ESA is no longer building new Ariane 5 vehicles, instead developing its next-generation rocket, the Ariane 6, which is intended to provide cheaper access to space. This week, the first completed core stage of a new Ariane 6 rocket arrived at the spaceport outside Korou in French Guiana for testing.

Continue reading “With Webb Safely Launched, Focus Shifts to the Ariane 6”

Now we Know why Spaceflight Affects Your Eyes

70% of astronauts who spend time on the International Space Station (ISS) experience swelling at the back of their eyes, causing blurriness and impaired eyesight both in space and when they return to Earth. Sometimes, it’s permanent. Understanding the way microgravity affects the eyes, and the human body as a whole is an essential part of preparations for future long-duration spaceflights to the Moon and Mars. In an effort to understand the cause of these eye problems, researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina used MRI scans of twelve ISS astronauts to measure the intracranial venous system (veins that circulate blood to the brain) before and after flight. They’ve determined that there is a strong connection between the swelling of these veins and the onset of eye trouble.

Continue reading “Now we Know why Spaceflight Affects Your Eyes”

2029 Will be the Perfect Year to Launch a Mission to Sedna

Artist's conception of Sedna, the TNO that orbits in the outer edges of the Solar System. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Object 90377 Sedna – a distant trans-Neptunian object known best for its highly elliptical, 11,390-year long orbit – is currently on its way towards perihelion (its closest approach to the Sun) in 2076. After that, Sedna will swing out into deep space again and won’t be back for millennia, making this flyby a once-in-a-lifetime (or, once in ~113 lifetimes) opportunity to study an object from the far reaches of our solar system. There are no missions to Sedna in the works just yet, but astronomers are beginning to plan for the possibility, and the ideal launch date for such a mission is approaching fast, with two of the best launch windows coming up in 2029 and 2034.

Continue reading “2029 Will be the Perfect Year to Launch a Mission to Sedna”

Life Could Make Habitable Pockets in Venus’ Atmosphere

Venus' thick clouds mean that only radar imaging can reveal surface details. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The tantalizing possibility that life exists in the clouds of Venus is once again causing a stir amongst planetary scientists this week. Researchers out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cardiff University, and the University of Cambridge have proposed that some longstanding ‘anomalies’ in the composition of Venus’ atmosphere might be explained by the presence of ammonia. But ammonia itself would be a strange compound to discover there, unless some unknown process – such as biological life – was actively producing it. Perhaps more intriguingly, ammonia can remove the acidity from Venus’ hostile cloud-tops, suggesting that an airborne, ammonia-producing microbe might have evolved the ability to turn its hostile surroundings into something habitable.

Continue reading “Life Could Make Habitable Pockets in Venus’ Atmosphere”

NASA has 4 new Earth Science Missions Launching in 2022

Outer space is a great place to go if you want to study the Earth. Although outward-looking spacecraft like Hubble and the highly anticipated James Webb Space Telescope garner most of the attention from the public – understandably, given their spectacular imagery of distant astronomical phenomena – the large majority of satellite infrastructure in orbit is actually focused back on our home planet. The unparalleled view of the planet from space offers unique advantages to scientists hoping to measure changes and patterns here on Earth that just aren’t possible from the ground. In 2022, NASA will launch four new Earth science missions, each offering something unique, and adding a new way to understand, and protect, our home.

let’s take a look at the four missions, and what they hope to achieve in the coming years.

Continue reading “NASA has 4 new Earth Science Missions Launching in 2022”

If There are Water Plumes on Europa, Here’s how Europa Clipper Will Study Them

NASA’s Europa Clipper is one of the most anticipated missions of the coming decade, in large part because its target, the large Jovian moon Europa, is considered one of the most likely places in our solar system that extraterrestrial life might exist. If Europa is harboring alien microbes, however, they’re likely to be buried deep beneath the moon’s thick icy crust in a vast subsurface ocean. Unlocking the secrets of this water world isn’t going to be easy, but the Clipper team has a plan to make the most of the opportunity they have: If you can’t get to the ocean, let the ocean come to you.

Continue reading “If There are Water Plumes on Europa, Here’s how Europa Clipper Will Study Them”

It’s Time to Stop Doing Anti-Satellite Tests

This image from the ESA's MASTER (Meteoroid and Space Debris Terrestrial Environment Reference) risk-assessment tool shows the dangerous debris orbiting Earth. Image Credit: IRAS/TU Braunschweig

Earlier this month, the Russian military conducted an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test, launching a PL19 Nudol interceptor missile at a now-defunct Soviet-era intelligence satellite, KOSMOS 1408. The impact obliterated the spacecraft, creating a debris field consisting of approximately 1500 pieces of trackable debris, and potentially hundreds of thousands of pieces that are too small to monitor with ground-based radar. In the aftermath of the test, the debris field crossed the orbit of the International Space Station (ISS) repeatedly, causing the crew to take emergency precautions and shelter in their descent capsules, ready for a quick return to Earth in the event that the station was hit.

While the station and its crew escaped without harm this time around, the November 15 test demonstrated far too clearly that ASATs pose a real danger to human life. They can also wreak havoc on the rest of Earth’s space infrastructure, like communications satellites and other orbital systems. Debris from an ASAT test remains in orbit long after the initial incident is over (the higher the orbit, the longer lasting the debris), and if humanity’s space infrastructure is to be sustainable, the era of ASATs must come to an end, and soon.

Continue reading “It’s Time to Stop Doing Anti-Satellite Tests”