We’re accustomed to astronauts pulling off their missions without a hitch. They head up to the International Space Station for months at a time and do what they do, then come home. But upcoming missions to the surface of the Moon, and maybe Mars, present a whole new set of challenges.
One way astronauts are preparing for those challenges is by exploring the extreme environment inside caves.
Next week, asteroid researchers and spacecraft engineers from all around the world will gather in Rome to discuss the latest in asteroid defense. The three-day International AIDA Workshop, which will run from Sept. 11th to 13th, will focus on the development of the joint NASA-ESA Asteroid Impact Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission.
The purpose of this two-spacecraft system is to deflect the orbit of one of the bodies that make up the binary asteroid Didymos, which orbits between Earth and Mars. While one spacecraft will collide with a binary Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA), the other will observe the impact and survey the crash site in order to gather as much data as possible about this method of asteroid defense.
Is there a more complicated and sophisticated technological engineering project than a spacecraft? Maybe a particle accelerator or a fusion power project. But other than those two, the answer is probably no.
Spacecraft like the ESA’s JUICE don’t just pop out of the lab ready to go. Each spacecraft like JUICE is a singular design, and they require years—or even a decade or more—of work before they ever see a launch pad. With a scheduled launch date of 2022, JUICE is in the middle of all that work. Now its cameras are capturing images of Jupiter and its icy moons as part of its navigation calibration and fine-tuning.
Jupiter’s moon Europa continues to be a source of wonder and scientific intrigue. As one of the four Galilean Moons (so-named because of their founder, Galileo Galilee), Europa is one of Jupiter’s largest satellites and is considered one of the best bets for finding extraterrestrial life in the Solar System. And recently, it joined its cousins (Io and Callisto) in passing in front of a star.
This type of rare event (a stellar occultation) allows astronomers to conduct unique observations of a celestial body. In Europa’s case, the occultation took place in 2017 and allowed astronomers to make more precise measurements of Europa’s size, its position relative to Jupiter, and its true shape. All this was made possible by the ESA’s Gaia Observatory, which let astronomers know exactly when and where to look for the moon.
Despite the many advancements made in the field of astronomy, astronomers still struggle to get an accurate assessment of the Milky Way Galaxy. Because we are embedded in its disk, it is much more difficult to assess its size, structure, and extent – unlike galaxies located millions (or billions) of light-years away. Luckily, thanks to improved instruments and tireless efforts, progress is being made all the time.
For instance, a team of astronomers recently combined the latest data obtained by the ESA’s Gaia observatory with the infrared and optical observations of other telescopes to start mapping the bar-shaped collection of stars at the center of our Milky Way. This constitutes the first time in history that astronomers have been able to make direct measurements of this barred structure.
The ESA is helping a group of students from Zurich test and develop their hopping exploration robot. Called SpaceBok, the robot is designed to operate on low-gravity bodies like the Moon or asteroids. It’s based on the concept of ‘dynamic walking’, something that animals on Earth use.
The ESA has announced a new mission to explore a comet. The Comet Interceptor mission will have a spacecraft wait in space until a pristine comet approaches the inner Solar System. Then it will make a bee line for it, and do some ground-breaking science.
It seems like the stuff of dreams, the idea that humanity will one day venture beyond the Solar System and become an interstellar species. Who knows? Given enough time and the right technology (and assuming there’s not some serious competition), we might even be able to colonize the entire Milky Way galaxy someday. And while this seems like a far-off prospect at best, it makes sense to contemplate what a process like this would entail.
That’s what a think tank from the ESA’s Advanced Concepts Team (ACT) managed to do recently. As part of the tenth annual Global Trajectory Optimization Competition (GOTC X), they created a simulation that showed how humanity could optimally colonize the Milky Way. This was in keeping with the competition’s theme of “Settlers of the Galaxy“, which challenged teams to find the most energy-efficient way of settling as many star systems as possible.
There’s no denying it, we are facing an orbital debris problem! As of January 2019, the ESA’s Space Debris Office estimates that there are at least 34,000 pieces of large debris in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) – a combination of dead satellites, spent rocket stages, and other assorted bits of space junk. And with thousands of satellites scheduled to be launched in the next decade, that problem is only going to get worse.
This is a situation that cries out for solutions, especially when you consider the plans to commercialize LEO and start sending crewed missions to deep space in the coming years. A team of scientists from the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M) has come up with a simple but elegant idea: equip future satellites with a tether system so they can de-orbit themselves at the end of their lives.