SpaceX Reveals the Beefed-Up Dragon That Will De-Orbit the ISS

Artist's impression of the U.S. Deorbit Vehicle currently being developed by SpaceX. Credit: NASA

The International Space Station (ISS) has been continuously orbiting Earth for more than 25 years and has been visited by over 270 astronauts, cosmonauts, and commercial astronauts. In January 2031, a special spacecraft designed by SpaceX – aka. The U.S. Deorbit Vehicle – will lower the station’s orbit until it enters our atmosphere and lands in the South Pacific. On July 17th, NASA held a live press conference where it released details about the process, including a first glance at the modified SpaceX Dragon responsible for deorbiting the ISS.

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NASA Stops Work on VIPER Moon Rover, Citing Cost and Schedule Issues

NASA VIPER rover in clean room
NASA’s VIPER rover sits assembled inside the clean room at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Texas. (Credit: NASA)

NASA says it intends to discontinue development of its VIPER moon rover, due to cost increases and schedule delays — but the agency is also pointing to other opportunities for robotic exploration of the lunar south polar region.

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New Images From Webb Reveal Jupiter's Complex Atmosphere

New observations of the Great Red Spot on Jupiter have revealed that the planet’s atmosphere above and around the infamous storm is surprisingly interesting and active. Credit: ESA

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has accomplished some spectacular feats since it began operations in 2021. Thanks to its sensitivity in the near- and mid-infrared wavelengths, it can take detailed images of cooler objects and reveal things that would otherwise go unnoticed. This includes the iconic image Webb took of Jupiter in August 2022, which showed the planet’s atmospheric features (including its polar aurorae and Great Red Spot) in a new light. Using Webb, a team of European astronomers recently observed the region above the Great Red Spot and discovered previously unseen features.

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Dune-Inspired Stillsuits Could Allow Astronauts to Recycle Their Urine Into Water

A Fremen from Dune wearing a stillsuit. Credit: DALL-E generated image

If history has taught us one thing, it is that science fiction often gives way to science fact. Consider the Star Trek communicator and the rise of flip phones in the late 1990s and early 2000s, or how 2001: A Space Odyssey predicted orbiting space stations and reusable space planes – like the International Space Station (ISS) and the Space Shuttle. And who can forget Jules Verne’s classic, From the Earth to the Moon, and how it anticipated that humans would one day walk on the Moon? Almost a century later, this dream would be realized with the Apollo Program.

The latest comes from Cornell University, where a team of researchers has developed a novel in-suit urine collection and filtration system inspired by the suits the Fremen wore in Frank Herbert’s Dune. Once integrated into NASA’s standard spacesuit—the Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU)—this system has the potential to provide astronauts with additional water while reducing the risk of hygiene-related medical events. In short, the stillsuit technology has the potential to enable longer-duration missions on the surface of the Moon, Mars, and orbit.

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Resources on Mars Could Support Human Explorers

Mineral map of Mars showing the presence of patches that formed in the presence of water. Credit: ESA

In the coming decades, multiple space agencies and private companies plan to establish outposts on the Moon and Mars. These outposts will allow for long-duration stays, astrobiological research, and facilitate future Solar System exploration. However, having crews operating far from Earth for extended periods will also present some serious logistical challenges. Given the distances and costs involved, sending resupply missions will be both impractical and expensive. For this reason, relying on local resources to meet mission needs – aka. In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) – is the name of the game.

The need for ISRU is especially important on Mars as resupply missions could take 6 to 9 months to get there. Luckily, Mars has abundant resources that can be harvested and used to provide everything from oxygen, propellant, water, soil for growing food, and building materials. In a recent study, a Freie Universität Berlin-led team evaluated the potential of harvesting resources from several previously identified deposits of hydrated minerals on the surface of Mars. They also presented estimates of how much water and minerals can be retrieved and how they may be used.

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A Moon Base Will Need a Transport System

Artist's impression of astronauts on the lunar surface, as part of the Artemis Program. How will they store power on the Moon? 3D printed batteries could help. Credit: NASA
Artist's impression of astronauts on the lunar surface, as part of the Artemis Program. How will they store power on the Moon? 3D printed batteries could help. Credit: NASA

Through the Artemis Program, NASA will return astronauts to the lunar surface for the first time since Apollo 17 landed in 1972. Beyond this historic mission, scheduled for September 2026, NASA plans to establish the infrastructure that will enable annual missions to the Moon, eventually leading to a permanent human presence there. As we addressed in a previous article, this will lead to a huge demand for cargo delivery systems that meet the logistical, scientific, and technical requirements of crews engaged in exploration.

Beyond this capacity for delivering crews and cargo, there is also the need for transportation systems that will address logistical needs and assist in exploration efforts. These requirements were outlined in a 2024 Moon to Mars Architecture white paper titled “Lunar Mobility Drivers and Needs.” Picking up from the concurrently-released “Lunar Surface Cargo,” this whitepaper addresses the need for lunar infrastructure that will enable the movement of astronauts and payloads from landing sites to where they are needed the most. As usual, they identified a critical gap between the current capabilities and what is to be expected.

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NASA's Skyrocketing Need for Cargo Deliveries to the Moon

Artist's impression of astronauts on the lunar surface, as part of the Artemis Program. Credit: NASA
Artist's impression of astronauts on the lunar surface, as part of the Artemis Program. Credit: NASA

NASA has big plans for the Moon. Through the Artemis Program, NASA plans to create a program of “sustained exploration and lunar development.” This will include the creation of the Lunar Gateway, an orbital habitat that will facilitate missions to and from the surface, and the Artemis Base Camp that will allow for extended stays. Through its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, NASA has contracted with commercial partners like SpaceX and Blue Origin to deliver scientific experiments and crew to the lunar surface.

However, these efforts are expected to culminate in the creation of a permanent outpost and human presence on the Moon. This will require far more in the way of crew and payload services to ensure crews can be sustained in the long run. In a recent white paper, “Lunar Surface Cargo,” NASA researchers identified a significant gap between current cargo delivery capabilities and future demand. The paper indicates that this growing cargo demand can only be met by creating a “mixed cargo lander fleet.”

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The Space Station Now Has Blisteringly Fast Internet

A collage of the pet photos sent over laser links from Earth to LCRD (Laser Communications Relay Demonstration) to ILLUMA-T (Integrated LCRD Low Earth Orbit User Modem and Amplifier Terminal) on the space station. Credit: NASA/Dave Ryan
A collage of the pet photos sent over laser links from Earth to LCRD (Laser Communications Relay Demonstration) to ILLUMA-T (Integrated LCRD Low Earth Orbit User Modem and Amplifier Terminal) on the space station. Credit: NASA/Dave Ryan

NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation programme (SCaN) has demonstrated the first two way end-to-end laser relay system, deployed through an innovative network. To test SCaN, they sent data to the International Space Station at the impressive speed of 1.2 gigabits per second. Using bandwidth that would normally be reserved for more important communications, the chosen message for the test was a set of adorable images and videos featuring the pets of NASA astronauts and staffers.

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Making Rocket Fuel Out of Lunar Regolith

An illustration of a Moon base that could be built using 3D printing and ISRU, In-Situ Resource Utilization. Credit: RegoLight, visualisation: Liquifer Systems Group, 2018
An illustration of a Moon base that could be built using 3D printing and ISRU, In-Situ Resource Utilization. Credit: RegoLight, visualisation: Liquifer Systems Group, 2018

In the coming years, NASA and other space agencies plan to extend the reach of human exploration. This will include creating infrastructure on the Moon that will allow for crewed missions on a regular basis. This infrastructure will allow NASA and its international partners to make the next great leap by sending crewed missions to Mars (by 2039 at the earliest). Having missions operate this far from Earth for extended periods means that opportunities for resupply will be few and far between. As a result, crews will need to rely on In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU), where local resources are leveraged to provide for basic needs.

In addition to air, water, and building materials, the ability to create propellant from local resources is essential. According to current mission architectures, this would consist of harvesting water ice in the polar regions and breaking it down to create liquid oxygen (LOX) and liquid hydrogen (LH2). However, according to a new study led by engineers from McGill University, rocket propellant could be fashioned from lunar regolith as well. Their findings could present new opportunities for future missions to the Moon, which would no longer be restricted to the polar regions.

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Matched Twin Stars are Firing Their Jets Into Space Together

This artist’s concept shows two young stars nearing the end of their formation. Encircling the stars are disks of leftover gas and dust from which planets may form. Jets of gas shoot away from the stars’ north and south poles. Credit: NASA

Since it began operating in 2022, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has revealed some surprising things about the Universe. The latest came when a team of researchers used Webb‘s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) to observe Rho Ophiuchi, the closest star-forming nebula to Earth, about 400 light-years away. While at least five telescopes have studied the region since the 1970s, Webb’s unprecedented resolution and specialized instruments revealed what was happening at the heart of this nebula.

For starters, while observing what was thought to be a single star (WL 20S), the team realized they were observing a pair of young stars that formed 2 to 4 million years ago. The MIRI data also revealed that the twin stars have matching jets of hot gas (aka stellar jets) emanating from their north and south poles into space. The discovery was presented at the 244th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (224 AAS) on June 12th. Thanks to additional observations made by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), the team was surprised to notice large clouds of dust and gas encircling both stars.

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