On September 26th, at 23:14 UTC (07:14 PM EST; 04:14 PM PST), NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirect Test (DART) spacecraft successfully struck the 160-meter (525 ft) moonlet Dimorphos that orbits the larger Didymos asteroid. The event was live-streamed all around the world and showed footage from DART’s Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical navigation (DRACO) as it rapidly approached Dimorphos. In the last few seconds, DART was close enough that individual boulders could be seen on the moonlet’s surface.
About 38 seconds after impact, the time it took the signal to reach Earth, the live stream ended, signaling that DART had successfully impacted Dimorphos and was destroyed in the process. Meanwhile, teams of astronomers stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Arabian Peninsula watched the impact with their telescopes. One, in particular – the Les Makes Observatory on the island of Le Reunion in the Indian Ocean – captured multiple images of the impact. These were used to create a real-time video and show the asteroid brightening as it was pushed away, followed by material ejected from the surface.
On September 26th, NASA’s Double-Asteroid Redirect Test (DART) will rendezvous with the Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) Didymos. By 01:14 UTC (07:14 PM EDT; 04:14 PM PDT), this spacecraft will collide with the small moonlet orbiting the asteroid (Dimorphos) to test the “kinetic impactor” method of planetary defense. This method involves a spacecraft striking an asteroid to alter its orbit and divert it from a trajectory that would cause it to collide with Earth. The event will be broadcast live worldwide and feature data streams from the DART during its final 12 hours before it strikes its target.
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is the most complex and sophisticated observatory ever deployed. Using its advanced suite of infrared instruments, coronographs, and spectrometers – contributed by NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) – this observatory will spend the next ten to twenty years building on the achievements of its predecessor, the venerable Hubble. This includes exoplanet characterization, star and planet formation, and the formation and evolution of the earliest galaxies in the Universe.
However, one of the main objectives of the JWST is to study the planets, moons, asteroids, comets, and other celestial bodies here in the Solar System. This includes Mars, the first Solar planet to get the James Webb treatment! The images Webb took (recently released by the ESA) provide a unique perspective on Mars, showing what the planet looks like in infrared wavelengths. The data yielded by these images could provide new insight into Mars’ atmosphere and environment, complimenting decades of observations by orbiters, landers, rovers, and other telescopes.
Europe plans to have its own reusable spacecraft for cargo and crewed missions to LEO and beyond. It’s called SUSIE (Smart Upper Stage for Innovative Exploration). At first glance, it may look like Europe’s answer to SpaceX’s Starship, but it’s not that simple.
Artificial intelligence can do more than paint planets as bowls of soup. It’s now helping researchers acquire better climate change data by teaching Earth observation satellites how to measure ice thickness in the Arctic year-round.
The origin of Phobos and Deimos, the two Martian moons, has been a mystery to astronomers. These two bodies are a fraction of the size and mass of the Moon, measuring just 22.7 km (14 mi) and 12.6 km (7.83 mi) in diameter. Both have a rapid orbital period, taking just 7 hours, 39 minutes, and 12 seconds (Phobos) and 30 hours, 18 minutes, and 43 seconds (Deimos) to complete an orbit around Mars. Both are also irregular in shape, leading many to speculate that they were once asteroids that got kicked out of the Main Belt and were captured by Mars’ gravity.
There’s also the theory that Phobos and Deimos were once a single moon hit by a massive object, causing it to split up (aka. the “splitting hypothesis”). In a recent paper, an international team of scientists led by the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS) revisited this hypothesis. They determined that a single moon in a synchronous orbit would not have produced two satellites as we see there today. Instead, they argue, the two moons would have collided before long, producing a debris ring that would have created an entirely new moon system.
Within the next decade, several space agencies and commercial space partners will send crewed missions to the Moon. Unlike the “footprints and flags” missions of the Apollo Era, these missions are aimed at creating a “sustained program of lunar exploration.” In other words, we’re going back to the Moon with the intent to stay, which means that infrastructure needs to be created. This includes spacecraft, landers, habitats, landing and launch pads, transportation, food, water, and power systems. As always, space agencies are looking for ways to leverage local resources to meet these needs.
This process is known as in-situ resource utilization (ISRU), which reduces costs by limiting the number of payloads that need to be launched from Earth. Thanks to new research by a team from the Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech) in Estonia, it may be possible for astronauts to produce solar cells using locally-sources regolith (moon dust) to create a promising material known as pyrite. These findings could be a game-changer for missions in the near future, which include the ESA’s Moon Village, NASA’s Artemis Program, and the Sino-Russian International Lunar Research Station (ILRS).
Venus has almost been “the forgotten planet,” with only one space mission going there in the past 30 years. But the recent resurgence of interest in Earth’s closest neighbor has NASA and ESA committing to three new missions to Venus, all due to launch by the early 2030s.
ESA’s EnVision mission Venus is slated to take high-resolution optical, spectral and radar images of the planet’s surface. But to do so, the van-sized spacecraft will need to perform a special maneuver called aerobraking to gradually slow down and lower its orbit through the planet’s hot, thick atmosphere. Aerobraking uses atmospheric drag to slow down a spacecraft and EnVision will make thousands of passages through Venus’ atmosphere for about two years.
BepiColombo’s stunning close pass by Mercury on Thursday provides a prelude of what’s to come.
Welcome (briefly) to Mercury, with a planetary flyby hinting at more to come. The joint European Space Agency/Japanese Aerospace Agency’s BepiColombo spacecraft treated us to just that on Thursday, June 23rd, passing just 200 kilometers from the surface of the innermost world at 9:44 Universal Time (UT). During that brief encounter, BepiColombo got a brief glimpse of its final destination.
Comets, with their long, beautiful, bright tails of ice, are some of the most spectacular sightings in the night sky. This was most apparent when Comet NEOWISE passed by Earth in the summer of 2020, dazzling viewers from all over the planet while being mainly visible in the northern hemisphere. Even though the sky might look the same night after night, comets are a humble reminder that the universe is a very active and beautiful place.