Gaia is so Accurate it Can Predict Microlensing Events

ESA/Gaia/DPAC; CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO. Acknowledgement: A. Moitinho.

The ESA’s Gaia Observatory continues its astrometry mission, which consists of measuring the positions, distances, and motions of stars (and the positions of orbiting exoplanets) with unprecedented precision. Launched in 2013 and with a five-year nominal mission (2014-2019), the mission is expected to remain in operation until 2025. Once complete, the mission data will be used to create the most detailed 3D space catalog ever, totaling more than 1 billion astronomical objects – including stars, planets, comets, asteroids, and quasars.

Another benefit of this data, according to a team of researchers led by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), is the ability to predict future microlensing events. Similar to gravitational lensing, this phenomenon occurs when light from background sources is deflected and amplified by foreground objects. Using information from Gaia‘s third data release (DR3), the team predicted 4500 microlensing events, 1664 of which are unlike any we have seen. These events will allow astronomers to conduct lucrative research into distant star systems, exoplanets, and other celestial objects.

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China Set Up a Tiny Farm on the Moon in 2019. How Did it Do?

A 3D reconstruction based on image processing and data analysis shows two cotton leaves grown in the Chang’e-4 lander on the far side of the moon. Image Credit: Chongqing University.

On January 3rd, 2019, China’s Chang’e-4 lander touched down on the far side of the Moon and deployed the Yutu rover. In addition to its many instruments, the rover carried an important science experiment known as the Biological Experiment Payload (BEP). Over the next eight days, this payload conducted a vital experiment where it attempted to grow the first plants on the Moon. Included in the payload were cotton, potato, arabidopsis, and rape seeds, along with fly eggs, yeast, and 18 ml (0.6 fluid oz) of water, which was kept at a constant atmospheric pressure.

The results of this experiment will help inform future Bioregenerative Life Support System (BLSS), which will prove vital to habitats and missions beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO). A team of scientists from China recently released a study that reviewed the experiment, its results, and its potential implications for future missions to the Moon, Mars, and other deep-space locations. As they concluded, the experiment demonstrated that plants can grow on the Moon despite the intense radiation, low gravity, and prolonged intense light.

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China Showcases its Lunar Exploration Plans

A bootleg video appeared online that provides a detailed look at China's future plans for lunar exploration. Credit: Chen Junlong/Youtube

The China National Space Agency (CNSA) has drawn a lot of attention to its space programs in recent years. In addition to their Tiangong space station and crewed missions to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), there’s also been a lot of buzz surrounding the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) and its Human Lunar Space Program. The high points have included the announcement of the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) – a joint operation with Roscosmos – and shared concept art for their next-generation spacecraft and lunar lander.

As always, what we know about China’s plans for space exploration is limited to snippets of news, public statements, and the occasional video, which are the direct result of state-controlled media and tight secrecy regarding the country’s space program. The latest is a bootleg video that recently appeared online, which shows a video presentation that provides some insight into China’s long-term plans for crewed lunar exploration. The video is captioned with the words “China’s lunar space station and development of lunar molten cave base plan,” and it certainly lives up to that description!

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China is Planning to Double the Size of its Space Station

Artist's rendering of the completed Tiangong space station. Credit: Shujianyang/Wikimedia

The International Space Station (ISS) will be retired in 2030 after more than thirty-two years of continuous service. Naturally, there are questions regarding what will replace this station, which has served as a bastion for vital research and inter-agency cooperation in space. In the past, China has indicated that their Tiangong (“heavenly palace”) space station will be a successor and rival to the ISS, offering astronauts from other nations an alternative platform to conduct research in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). As part of this plan, China recently announced plans to double the size of Tiangong in the coming years.

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Chinese Astronauts May Build a Base Inside a Lunar Lava Tube

Lava tubes are natural shelters and could serve as Moon bases. These images from the Lunar Reconaissance Orbiter show pits on the lunar surface. The images are each 222 meters (728 feet) wide. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

Caves were some of humanity’s first shelters. Who knows what our distant ancestors were thinking as they sought refuge there, huddling and cooking meat over a fire, maybe drawing animals on the walls. Caves protected our ancient ancestors from the elements, and from predators and rivals, back when sticks, stones, furs and fire were our only technologies.

So there’s a poetic parallel between early humans and us. We’re visiting the Moon again, and lunar caves could shelter us the way caves sheltered our ancestors on Earth.

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China Reveals Its Lunar Lander Design

Visualization of the ILRS, from the CNSA Guide to Partnership (June 2021). Credit: CNSA

Last May, as part of the nation’s growing presence in space, the China National Space Agency (CNSA) announced that it had established a Human Lunar Space Program that would send crewed missions to the Moon and culminate in the creation of a lunar base. This came shortly after China and Russia announced that they would be collaborating on future lunar missions, which included the creation of a base around the southern polar region. In June 2022, they announced that this base would be named the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) and released a guide explaining how international partners could join.

On Thursday, August 31st, the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) released artists’ renderings of their next-generation spacecraft and lunar lander. The spacecraft will consist of two sections, a reentry capsule, and a service section, while the lunar lander will include a landing section and a propulsion section. According to a statement released by the Agency, these vehicles will deliver crews to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and allow China to send crewed missions to the lunar surface. The release of these images confirms what has been suspected for some time: that China fully intends to land taikonauts on the Moon before 2030.

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China Will Use Two Rockets to Put Humans on the Moon

Schematic diagram of China's proposed Lunar Lander. Credit: China Manned Space Engineering Office

As of 2019, China began conducting preliminary studies for a crewed lunar mission that would take place by the 2030s. Two years later, the China National Space Agency (CNSA) and Roscosmos announced a partnership to create an International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) around the South Pole-Aitken Basin. The proposed timeline for development came down to three phases: Reconnaissance (2021-25), Construction (2025-35), and Utilization (2035-onward). Earlier this year, China announced that its space agency would send the first crewed mission to the lunar surface by 2030.

On July 12th, during the 9th China (International) Commercial Aerospace Forum in Wuhan, China, Chinese officials offered additional information about its crewed lunar exploration program. This included Deputy chief engineer Zhang Hailian of the China Manned Space Engineering (CMSE) office announcing the preliminary plan for China’s first crewed lunar mission. As Zhang illustrated with a series of animations, the mission will consist of two carrier rockets launching all the necessary elements to the Moon, which will then rendezvous in orbit and land on the surface to conduct science operations.

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China Has Begun Launching its Own Satellite Internet Network

China launches a new satellite to test satellite internet technology at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, July 9th, 2023. Credit: CMG

Since 2019, Elon Musk and SpaceX have led the charge to create high broadband satellite internet services. As of May 2023, the Starlink constellation consisted of over 4,000 satellites operating in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and roughly 1.5 million subscribers worldwide. Several competitors began launching constellations years before Starlink began, and several companies have emerged since. This includes HughesNet, OneWeb, and Amazon’s Kuiper Systems. But Starlink’s latest challenger could be its most fearsome yet: a company in China backed by the Beijing government!

On Sunday, July 9th, a prototype internet satellite was launched aboard a Long March 2C carrier rocket from China’s Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Inner Mongolia. The satellite has since entered a predetermined orbit, where it will conduct several tests to validate the broadband satellite technology. The long-term aim of the project is to create a constellation of 13,000 satellites code-named “Guo Wang,” – which loosely translates to “state network” in Mandarin – reflecting Beijing’s vision for a state-run share of the satellite internet market.

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Mars Lacks a Planet-Wide Magnetosphere, but it Does Have Pockets of Magnetism

Mars has magnetized rocks in its crust that create localized, patchy magnetic fields (left). In the illustration at right, we see how those fields extend into space above the rocks. At their tops, auroras can form. Credit: NASA

The Zhurong rover has operated on the surface of Mars for over a year since it deployed on May 22nd, 2021. Before the rover suspended operations on May 20th, 2022, due to the onset of winter and the approach of seasonal sandstorms, Zhurong managed to traverse a total distance of 1.921 km (1.194 mi). During the first kilometer of this trek, the rover obtained vital data on Mars’ extremely weak magnetic fields. According to a new study by researchers from the Chinese Academy of Science (CAS), these readings indicate that the magnetic field is extremely weak beneath the rover’s landing site.

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China is Trying to Stop its Boosters From Randomly Crashing Into Villages

Chang'e-5 launch
China's Long March 5 rocket sends the Chang'e-5 probe on the first leg of its mission to the moon and back. (CNSA / CLEP Photo)

China’s space program has advanced by leaps and bounds in a relatively short time. However, it has suffered some bad publicity in recent years due to certain “uncontrolled reentries” (aka. crashes). On multiple occasions, spent first stages have fallen back to Earth, posing a potential threat to populated areas and prompting backlash from NASA and the ESA, who claimed China was taking “unnecessary risks.” To curb the risk caused by spent first stages, China has developed a parachute system that can guide fallen rocket boosters to predetermined landing zones.

According to the Chinese Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), which developed the system, the system was successfully tested on a Long March-3B (CZ-3B) rocket on Friday, June 9th. As they indicated in their statement, a review of the test data and an in-situ analysis of the debris showed that the parachute system helped narrow the range of the landing area by 80%. This could help pave the way for future parachute landing control technology applications, which could allow for controlled reentry, retrieval, and even reusability.

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