Astronaut Drops a Mirror During a Spacewalk. Now There’s Another Piece of Space Junk

Oops.

Dropping a mirror on Earth is only minor cause for concern, perhaps about the potential of some upcoming bad luck. Dropping a mirror while on a spacewalk means creating a potentially dangerous new piece of space junk, all while thousands of people watch it happen, streaming live.  

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China will begin constructing its space station in 2021

The Chinese space agency is building a brand new space station, and they’re going about it in a suitably impressive way: an ambitious schedule of 11 planned launches crammed into only two years. When it’s done, the 66-ton space station will host crews of three astronauts for up to six months at a time, lasting for a planned 10 years before de-orbiting.

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Crew Dragon Will Be Launching on May 27th

NASA and SpaceX are targeting May 27, 2020 for an historic mission: the launch of the first astronauts on the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft, with the destination as the International Space Station (ISS). The crew, NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley, are scheduled to launch on a Falcon 9 rocket at 4:32 pm EDT that day from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A. If all goes well, the Crew Dragon will autonomously dock with the space station about 24 hours later.

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Record-Setting Space Travelers Return to Earth

A trio of space travelers returned to Earth this morning from the International Space Station, including NASA astronaut Christina Koch, who set a record for the longest single spaceflight by a woman, at 326 straight days. Also coming home was ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano, who has now spent a total of 367 days in space (in two missions), more days than any ESA astronaut in history.

The crew of Expedition 61 also included Russian cosmonaut and Soyuz Commander Alexander Skvortsov, who completed his third mission for a total of 546 days in space, placing him 15th on the all-time time-in-space list.

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New Project Headed by Apollo’s Charlie Duke to Send Messages to Space

When astronaut Charlie Duke walked on the Moon in April of 1972 during the Apollo 16 mission, he brought along a very personal memento with a message he wanted to leave behind.   

“When I walked on the Moon, I took a photo of my family along and wrote a brief message on the back of the photo to leave on the Moon,” Duke said. “I wanted my family to be part of my mission and it was my way of taking them with me – to celebrate my family.”

Duke has now helped spearhead a project that allows people on Earth to send their message into space. He says this project, called AstroGrams, enables anyone to celebrate, commemorate or communicate in space in a truly unique way.

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China’s Tiangong 2 was Destroyed Last Week, Burning up in the Atmosphere Over the South Pacific Ocean

On Friday, July 19th, China’s Tiangong-2 (“Heavenly Palace”) space laboratory successfully entered Earth’s atmosphere under controlled conditions and burned up above the South Pacific Ocean. This marked the successful completion of all of Tiangong-2’s tasks, which constituted China’s second attempt at testing their capability to conduct research and human operations in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

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The Lunar Gateway Will be in a “Near-Rectilinear Halo Orbit”

After months of discussion, the space agencies behind the Lunar Gateway have decided how the space station will orbit the Moon. NASA and the ESA are developing the Lunar Gateway jointly, and the orbital path that it will follow around the Moon is a key part of mission design. It’ll affect all the vital aspects of the mission, including how spacecraft will rendezvous and land at the station.

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Gateway Foundation Shows off Their Plans for an Enormous Rotating Space Station

Since the end of the Apollo-era, one of the main goals of NASA, Roscosmos and other space agencies has been the development of technologies that will enable a long-term human presence in space. These technologies will also help when it comes time to mount renewed missions to the Moon, to Mars, and other locations in the Solar System. Over the past few decades, these efforts have yielded Mir and the International Space Station (ISS).

In the coming years, these efforts will also lead to the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway and commercial space stations – like the Bigelow B330. And if private aerospace companies like the Gateway Foundation get their way, we’ll also have a spaceport in orbit around Earth. The company recently posted a video showing exactly what this rotating wheel space station will look like, and how companies like SpaceX could help build it.

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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