The Milky Way is Actually Warped

For centuries, astronomers have been studying the Milky Way in order to get a better understanding of its size and structure. And while modern instruments have yielded invaluable observations of our galaxy and others (which have allowed astronomers to gain a general picture of what it looks like), a truly accurate model of our galaxy has been elusive.

For example, a recent study by a team of astronomers from National Astronomical Observatories of Chinese Academy of Sciences (NAOC) has shown that the Milky Way’s disk is not flat (as previously thought). Based on their findings, it appears that the Milky Way becomes increasingly warped and twisted the farther away one ventures from the core.

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There’s Life on the Moon! China’s Lander Just Sprouted the First Plants

China's Chang'e-4 lander on the lunar surface. Image Credit: CNSA/CLEP

It’s official, for the first time ever, scientists have found a living organism on the Moon! Well, not so much found, we put it there. But the implications are immense nonetheless! According to photos and a statement released by the China National Space Administration this week (Mon. Jan. 14th), the Chang’e-4 mission’s Lunar Micro Ecosystem (LME) experiment has produced its first sprouted plant.

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Incredible Descent Video of the Chinese Lander to the Lunar Far Side

China's Chang'e-4 lander on the lunar surface. Image Credit: CNSA/CLEP

On January 2nd, 2019, China’s Chang’e-4 lander made a successful landing on the far side of the Moon. The China National Space Administration (CNSA) and the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP) report that after 9 days on the surface, the mission is in good shape. The Yutu-2 rover has been deployed and has begun exploring the Von Karman crater.

CNSA has released some video of the mission, including a video of Chang’e-4’s historic descent. Thanks to the hard-working people at the Planetary Society, and to Andrew Jones who reports on the Chinese Space Program, we have a handful of new videos and images of the Chang’e-4’s mission to enjoy.

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China’s Chang’e-4 Lands on the Far Side of the Moon

Since the turn of the century, China has worked hard to become one of the fastest-rising powers in space. In 2003, the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) began sending their first taikonauts to space with the Shenzou program. This was followed by the deployment of the Tiangong-1 space station in 2011 and the launch of Tiangong-2 in 2016. And in the coming years, China also has its sights set on the Moon.

But before China can conduct crewed lunar missions, they must first explore the surface to locate safe landing spots and resources. This is the purpose behind the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (aka. the Chang’e program). Named after the Chinese goddess of the moon, this program made history yesterday (Thursday, Jan. 3rd) when the fourth vehicle to bear the name (Chang’e-4) landed on the far side of the Moon.

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China is Working on Their Own Reusable Rocket: the First Stage of the Long March-8, Which Could Launch in 2021

In recent decades, China’s space program has advanced considerably. In addition to deploying their first space station (Tiangong-1) and developing a modern rockets (the Long March 5), the nation has also sent robotic mission to the lunar surface and plans to conduct crewed missions there in the coming years. To this end, China is looking to create a new series of rockets that will enable them to explore the Moon and maybe even Mars.

One of the rockets they use to accomplish these goals is known as the Long-March 8, which is expected to make its maiden flight around 2021. According to a statement made by the chief rocket designer (Long Lehao) during a recent space conference in Harbin, China, the rocket will also include a reusable first stage. This latest announcement shows that China is also pursuing reusable launch vehicles to lower costs and increase their presence in space.

According to the China Space Report, the Long March 8 (Changzheng 8, or CZ-8) is a medium-lift vehicle intended for Sun-Synchronous Orbit (SSO) missions – i.e. where payloads are delivered to a nearly polar orbit around a planet. Consisting of two stages and two boosters, this rocket will reportedly have a payload capacity of 3000 to 4,500 kg (6600 to 9900 lbs) to SSO.

The first Long March 5 rocket being rolled out for launch at Wenchang in late October 2016. Credit: Su Dong/China Daily

The first stages on this rocket are believed to be based on the first-stage of the Long March 7, which are powered by two single-chamber YF-100, 1,200 kN-thrust engines fueled by LOX/kerosene. Based on Long’s statement, the first stages and boosters are expected to be retrieved through vertical landing (similar to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets).

However, according to Bao Weimin, the director of the Science and Technology Commission of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, the Long March 8 will use different technologies that those employed by SpaceX. The purpose of this rocket will be to provide commercial launch services to customers from around the world.

As Long indicated during the course of the conference (according to China Daily):

“China’s aerospace industry is making efforts to develop low-cost vehicles that can enter space rapidly to support future large-scale space exploration and promote a commercial space industry.”

In addition, Long also emphasized that China will be making efforts to address an ongoing problem with its younger Long March rockets, which is controlling where they fall. Currently, landing areas have to be are evacuated at every launch since these rockets rely on toxic chemicals. And with launches becoming more frequent, controlling where these rockets fall is becoming a major priority.

Villagers gather around the debris of Long March 3A rocket carrier on December 31, 2014. Photo: Chinanews.com

“As the current Long March 2, 3, 4 series rockets are fueled by toxic propellants, they cannot be recycled,” said Long. “But we are developing technologies to precisely control the fall of the rocket remains to ensure safety.”

Lastly, Long indicated what lies ahead for China’s space program and commercial spaceflight. By 2025, he claimed, reusable carriers will be developed for conducting suborbital space flights. By 2030, China National Space Agency will be conducting launches with rockets that rely on two reusable stages and will have achieved complete reusability by 2035. He also hinted how by 2040, China will be using reusable carrier rockets that will rely on hybrid-power sources.

All of this will allow for cheaper and more efficient launch services, facilitate spaceflight for private citizens, and allow for the commercialization of Low Earth Orbit (LEO). These goals are in keeping with what space agencies like NASA and private aerospace companies like SpaceX have in mind for the coming decades. In this sense, China is indicating that it intends to parallel other major powers in space by following a similar path.

Further Reading: China Daily

Tiangong-1 Splashes Down in the Pacific Ocean

Over the weekend, multiple space agencies’ had their instruments fixed on the skies as they waited for the Tiangong-1 space station to reenter our atmosphere. For the sake of tracking the station’s reentry, the ESA hosted the 2018 Inter Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee, an annual exercise that consists of experts from 13 space agencies taking part in a joint tracking exercise.

And on April 2nd, 02:16 CEST (April 1st, 17:16 PST), the US Air Force confirmed the reentry of the Tiangong-1 over the Pacific Ocean. As hoped, the station crashed down close to the South Pacific Ocean Unpopulated Area (SPOUA), otherwise known as the “Spaceship Cemetery”. This region of the Pacific Ocean has long been used by space agencies to dispose of spent spacecraft after a controlled reentry.

The confirmation came from the Joint Force Space Component Command (JFSCC) on April 2nd, 0:400 CEST (April 1st, 19:00 PST). Using the Space Surveillance Network sensors and their orbital analysis system, they were able to refine their predictions and provide more accurate tracking as the station’s reentry time approached. The USAF regularly shares information with the ESA regarding its satellites and debris tracking.

Artist’s illustration of China’s 8-ton Tiangong-1 space station, which is expected to fall to Earth in late 2017. Credit: CMSE

As with the ESA’s coordination with other space agencies and European member states, JFSCC’s efforts include counterparts in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea, and the United Kingdom. As Maj. Gen. Stephen Whiting, the Deputy Commander of the JFSCC and Commander of the 14th Air Force, indicated in a USAF press release:

“The JFSCC used the Space Surveillance Network sensors and their orbital analysis system to confirm Tiangong-1’s reentry, and to refine its prediction and ultimately provide more fidelity as the reentry time approached. This information is publicly-available on USSTRATCOM’s website www.Space-Track.org. The JFSCC also confirmed reentry through coordination with counterparts in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea, and the United Kingdom.”

The information is available on U.S. Strategic Command’s (USSTRATCOM) website – www.Space-Track.org. Holger Krag, the head of ESA’s Space Debris Office, confirmed the reentry of Tiangong-1 shortly thereafter on the ESA’s Rocket Science Blog. As he stated, the reentry was well within ESA’s earlier reentry forecast window – which ran from April 1st 23:00 UTC to 03:00 UTC on April 2nd (April 2nd, 01:00 CEST to 05:00 CEST):

“According to our experience, their assessment is very reliable. This corresponds to a geographic latitude of 13.6 degrees South and 164.3 degrees West – near American Samoa in the Pacific, near the international date Line. Both time and location are well within ESA’s last prediction window.”

 

Artist’s illustration of China’s 8-ton Tiangong-1 space space station. Credit: CMSE.

China’s Manned Space Agency (CMSA) also made a public statement about the station’s reenty:

“According to the announcement of China Manned Space Agency (CMSA), through monitoring and analysis by Beijing Aerospace Control Center (BACC) and related agencies, Tiangong-1 reentered the atmosphere at about 8:15 am, 2 April, Beijing time. The reentry falling area located in the central region of South Pacific. Most of the devices were ablated during the reentry process.”

As Krag noted, the ESA’s monitoring efforts were very much reliant on its campaign partners from around the world. In fact, due to when the station entered the Earth’s atmosphere, it was no longer visible to the Fraunhofer FHR institute’s Tracking and Imaging (TIRA) radar, which provides tracking services for the ESA’s Space Debris Office (SDO).

Had the station still been in orbit by 06:05 CEST (21:00 PST), it would have still been visible to the institute’s TIRA radar. Some unexpected space weather also played a role in the station’s reentry. On March 31st, the Sun’s activity spontaneously dropped, which delayed the Tiangong-1’s entry by about a day.

“This illustrates again the dependence that Europe has on non-European sources of information to properly and accurately manage space traffic, detect reentries such as Tiangong-1 and track space debris that remains in orbit – which routinely threatens ESA, European and other national civil, meteorological, scientific, telecomm and navigation satellites,” said Krag.

While news of the Tiangong-1’s orbital decay caused its share of concern, the reentry happened almost entirely as predicted and resulted in no harm. And once again, it demonstrated how international cooperation and public outreach is the best defense against space-related hazards.

 

 

Further Reading: Vandenburg Air Force Base,

Here’s How to Follow the De-Orbit of Tiangong-1, now Estimated to Happen Between March 30 and April 2

China’s Tiangong-1 space station has been the focus of a lot of international attention lately. In 2016, after four and half years in orbit, this prototype space station officially ended its mission. By September of 2017, the Agency acknowledged that the station’s orbit was decaying and that it would fall to Earth later in the year. Since then, estimates on when it will enter out atmosphere have been extended a few times.

According to satellite trackers, it was predicted that the station would fall to Earth in mid-March. But in a recent statement (which is no joke) the Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA) has indicated that Tiangong-1 will fall to Earth around April 1st – aka. April Fool’s Day. While the agency and others insists that it is very unlikely, there is a small chance that the re-entry could lead to some debris falling to Earth.

For the sake of ensuring public safety, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Space Debris Office (SDO) has been providing regular updates on the station’s decay. According to the SDO, the reentry window is highly variable and spans from the morning of March 31st to the afternoon of April 1st (in UTC time). This works out to the evening of March 30th or March 31st for people living on the West Coast.

The possible re-entry region of the Tiangong-1 space station, indicated in green. Credit: ESA/SDO

As the ESA stated on their rocket science blog:

“Reentry will take place anywhere between 43ºN and 43ºS. Areas above or below these latitudes can be excluded. At no time will a precise time/location prediction from ESA be possible. This forecast was updated approximately weekly through to mid-March, and is now being updated every 1~2 days.”

In other words, if any debris does fall to the surface, it could happen anywhere from the Northern US, Southern Europe, Central Asia or China to the tip of Argentina/Chile, South Africa, or Australia. Basically, it could land just about anywhere on the planet. On the other hand, back in January, the US-based Aerospace Corporation released a comprehensive analysis on Tiangong-1s orbital decay.

Their analysis included a map (shown below) which illustrated the zones of highest risk. Whereas the blue areas (that make up one-third of the Earth’s surface) indicate zones of zero probability, the green area indicates a zone of lower probability. The yellow areas, meanwhile, indicates zones that have a higher probability, which extend a few degrees south of 42.7° N and north of 42.7° S latitude, respectively.

The Aerospace Corporations predicted reentry for Tiangong-1. Credit: aerospace.org

The Aerospace Corporation has also created a dashboard for tracking Tiangong-1 (which is refreshed every few minutes) and has come to similar conclusions about the station’s orbital decay. Their latest prediction is that the station will descend into our atmosphere on April 1st, at 04:35 UTC (March 30th 08:35 PST), with a margin of error of about 24 hours – in other words, between March 30th to April 2nd.

And they are hardly alone when it comes to monitoring Tiangong-1’s orbit and predicting its descent. The China Human Spaceflight Agency (CMSA) recently began providing daily updates on the orbital status of Tiangong-1. As they reported on March 28th: “Tiangong-1 stayed at an average altitude of about 202.3 km. The estimated reentry window is between 31 March and 2 April, Beijing time.”

The US Space Surveillance Network, which is responsible for tracking artificial objects in Earth’s orbit, has also been monitoring Tiangong-1 and providing daily updates. Based on their latest tracking data, they estimate that the station will enter our atmosphere no later than midnight on April 3rd.

Naturally, one cannot help but notice that these predictions vary and are subject to a margin of error. In addition, trackers cannot say with any accuracy where debris – if any – will land on the planet. As Max Fagin – an aerospace engineer and space camp alumni – explained in a recent Youtube video (posted below), all of this arises from two factors: the station’s flight path and the Earth’s atmosphere.

Basically, the station is still moving at a velocity of 7.8 km/sec (4.8 mi/s) horizontally while it is descending by about 3 cm/sec. In addition, the Earth’s atmosphere shrinks and expands throughout the day in response to the Sun’s heating, which results in changes in air resistance. This makes the process of knowing where the station’s will make its descent difficult to predict, not to mention where debris could fall.

However, as Fagin goes on to explain, once the station reaches an altitude of 150 km (93 mi) – i.e. within the Thermosphere – it will begin falling much faster. At that point, it be much easier to determine where debris (if any) will fall. However, as the ESA, CNSA, and other trackers have emphasized repeatedly, the odds of any debris making it to the surface is highly unlikely.

If any debris does survive re-entry, it is also statistically likely to fall into the ocean or in a remote area – far away from any population centers. But in all likelihood, the station will break up completely in our atmosphere and produce a beautiful streaking effect across the sky. So if you’re checking the updates regularly and are in a part of the world where it can be seen, be sure to get outside and see it!

Further Reading: GB Times

China is Working on a Rocket as Powerful as the Saturn V, Could Launch by 2030

In the past decade, China’s space program has advanced by leaps and bounds. In recent years, the Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA) has overseen the development of a modern rocket family (the Long March series), the deployment of a space station (Tiangong-1) and the development of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP) –  otherwise known as the Chang’e Program.

Looking to the future, China plans to create new classes of heavy rockets in order to conduct more ambitious missions. These include the Long March 9 rocket (aka. the Changzheng 9), a three-stage, super-heavy rocket that would allow for crewed missions to the Moon. According to a recent story from Aviation Weekly, China hopes to conduct an engine demonstration of this rocket, and could do so as early as later this year.

This demonstration is part of a research effort intended to create engines for the first stage of the Long March 9. According to statements made by the Academy of Aerospace Propulsion Technology (AAPT) – part of the China Aerospace and Technology Corporation (CASC) and the one’s responsible for developing the hardware – these engines would be capable of delivering 3,500 to 4,000 metric tons (3,858 to 4,409 US tons) of thrust.

Launch of the modified Saturn V rocket carrying the Skylab space station. Credit: NASA

AAPT also indicated that work on a second-stage and third-stage engine – which would be capable of generating about 200 metric tons (440,000 lbs) and 25 metric tons (55,000 lbs) thrust, respectively – is also in progress. All told, this is roughly six times the thrust that China’s heaviest rocket (the Long March 5) can generate and would make it comparable to the Saturn V – the Apollo-era rocket that took the NASA astronauts to the Moon.

For starters, the Saturn V‘s engines delivered roughly 3,400 metric tons of thrust, and the rocket was capable of delivering 140 metric tons (310,000 lbs) to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and about 48 metric tons (107,100 lbs) to a Lunar Transfer Orbit (LTO). By comparison, the Long March 9 will reportedly have the ability to 140 metric tons to LEO and at least 50 metric tons (110,000 lbs) to LTO.

According to Li Hong, the head of the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (the CASC unit responsible for overall development and production of most Chinese space launchers), a massive turbopump has also been built for the main engine. A pump of this size is necessary, since the engine will generate four time the thrust of the largest Chinese rocket engine to date – AAPT’s YF-100, which generates 120 metric tons (265,000 lbs) of thrust.

While the full specifications of the rocket are not yet available, the China News Service has indicated that the rocket will measure 10 meters (33 ft.) in diameter. According to statements made by both Li and Lui, the first-stage engine will burn kerosene and achieve a thrust of 480 metric tons (529 US tons) – comparable to the Saturn V F-1 engine’s 680 metric tons (750 US tons) of thrust – while the second and third stage engines will likely burn hydrogen fuel.

At their current rate of progress, an engine demonstration could be taking place later this year. As AAPT President Liu Zhirang stated in an interview with Science and Technology Daily (part of the state-owned China News Service):

“A complete prototype for the engine in the 500-metric-ton class can be built and assembled this year… Because of the great parameter changes that come with rises in thrust, the current test and verification equipment cannot satisfy requirements [of the Moon rocket propulsion program]. We cannot always do 1:1 scale tests. As a result, only simulations and scaled-down tests can be done for some technology and hardware. This increases the degree of difficulty for the program.”

If successful, the Long March 9 will join the ranks of super heavy-lift launch vehicles, such as the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, the KRK rocket (currently under development in Russia), and the Space Launch System being developed by NASA. These and other rockets are being built for the purpose of bringing astronauts to the Moon, Mars, and even beyond in the coming decades.

Beyond a possible demonstration of the Long March 9′s engine technology, the CNSA has many other ambitious plans for 2018. These include a planned 35 launches involving the Long March series, fourteen of which will be carried out by the Long March-3A and six by the Long March-3C rockets. Most of these missions will involve the deployment of Beidou satellites, but will also include the launch of the Chang’e-4 lunar probe later this year.

Old Glory
Buzz Aldrin salutes the first American flag erected on the Moon, July 21, 1969. Credit: NASA/Neil A. Armstrong

This year is also when China hopes to conduct mission using its newest rocket – the Long March 5 –  in preparation for China’s lunar probe and Mars probe missions. This year is also expected to see a lot of developments in the Long March 7 series, which is likely to become the main carrier when China begins construction of its new space station (Tiangong-2, which is scheduled for completion in 2022).

Between all of these developments, it is clear that the age of renewed space exploration is upon us. Whereas the Space Race was characterized by two superpowers competing for dominance and “getting their first”, the current one is defined by both competition and cooperation between multiple space agencies and lucrative partnerships between the public sector and private industry.

And while the specter of renewed competition by space powers has a tendency to make many people nervous (especially those who are concerned about military applications), it is a testament to how humanity is growing as a space-faring species. By the time 2050 rolls around, we may just see many flags being planted on the Moon and Mars, and not just Old Glory.

Further Reading: Aviation Week, Popular Mechanics, Chinese Academy of Sciences

China Has a Plan to Clean Up Space Junk with Lasers

Orbital debris (aka. space junk) is one of the greatest problems facing space agencies today. After sixty years of sending rockets, boosters and satellites into space, the situation in the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) has become rather crowded. Given how fast debris in orbit can travel, even the tiniest bits of junk can pose a major threat to the International Space Station and threaten still-active satellites.

It’s little wonder then why ever major space agency on the planet is committed to monitoring orbital debris and creating countermeasures for it. So far, proposals have ranged from giant magnets and nets and harpoons to lasers. Given their growing presence in space, China is also considering developing giant space-based lasers as a possible means for combating junk in orbit.

One such proposal was made as part of a study titled “Impacts of orbital elements of space-based laser station on small scale space debris removal“, which recently appeared in the scientific journal Optik. The study was led by Quan Wen, a researcher from the Information and Navigation College at China’s Air Force Engineering University, with the help of the Institute of China Electronic Equipment System Engineering Company.

Graphic showing the cloud of space debris that currently surrounds the Earth. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/JSC

For the sake of their study, the team conducted numerical simulations to see if an orbital station with a high-powered pulsed laser could make a dent in orbital debris. Based on their assessments of the velocity and trajectories of space junk, they found that an orbiting laser that had the same Right Ascension of Ascending Node (RAAN) as the debris itself would be effective at removing it. As they state in their paper:

“The simulation results show that, debris removal is affected by inclination and RAAN, and laser station with the same inclination and RAAN as debris has the highest removal efficiency. It provides necessary theoretical basis for the deployment of space-based laser station and the further application of space debris removal by using space-based laser.”

This is not the first time that directed-energy has been considered as a possible means of removing space debris. However, the fact that China is investigating directed-energy for the sake of debris removal is an indication of the nation’s growing presence in space. It also seems appropriate since China is considered to be one of the worst offenders when to comes to producing space junk.

Back in 2007, China conducted a anti-satellite missile test that resulted in the creation over 3000 of bits of dangerous debris. This debris cloud was the largest ever tracked, and caused significant damage to a Russian satellite in 2013. Much of this debris will remain in orbit for decades, posing a significant threat to satellites, the ISS and other objects in LEO.

The chip in the ISS’ Cupola window, photographed by astronaut Tim Peake. Credit: ESA/NASA/Tim Peake

Of course, there are those who fear that the deployment of lasers to LEO will mean the militarization of space. In accordance with the 1966 Outer Space Treaty, which was designed to ensure that the space exploration did not become the latest front in the Cold War, all signatories agreed to “not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner.”

In the 1980s, China was added to the treaty and is therefore bound to its provisions. But back in March of 2017, US General John Hyten indicated in an interview with CNN that China’s attempts to develop space-based laser arrays constitutes a possible breach of this treaty:

“They’ve been building weapons, testing weapons, building weapons to operate from the Earth in space, jamming weapons, laser weapons, and they have not kept it secret. They’re building those capabilities to challenge the United States of America, to challenge our allies…We cannot allow that to happen.”

Such concerns are quite common, and represent a bit of a stumbling block when it comes to the use of directed-energy platforms in space. While orbital lasers would be immune to atmospheric interference, thus making them much more effective at removing space debris, they would also lead to fears that these lasers could be turned towards enemy satellites or stations in the event of war.

As always, space is subject to the politics of Earth. At the same time, it also presents opportunities for cooperation and mutual assistance. And since space debris represents a common problem and threatens any and all plans for the exploration of space and the colonization of LEO, cooperative efforts to address it are not only desirable but necessary.

 

Further Reading: Newsweek, Optik