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Cosmic Space

Russian anti-satellite test creates space station hazard

A Russian anti-satellite test sparked an orbital-debris emergency aboard the International Space Station today, followed by sharp protests from NASA’s administrator and other U.S. officials.

The incident, which involved the deliberate destruction of an obsolete Russian spy satellite known as Cosmos 1408, is likely to spur renewed debate over military rules of engagement in space and the nature of Russian (and Chinese) anti-satellite maneuvers.

The U.S. Space Command said Russia struck the one-ton satellite with a direct-ascent, anti-satellite missile, breaking it into more than 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris and what’s thought to be hundreds of thousands of smaller bits.

“The debris created by Russia’s DA-ASAT will continue to pose a threat to activities in outer space for years to come, putting satellites and space missions at risk, as well as forcing more collision avoidance maneuvers,” U.S. Army Gen. James Dickinson, commander of the Space Command, said in a news release. “Space activities underpin our way of life, and this kind of behavior is simply irresponsible.”

The trajectories for the debris cloud and the International Space Station come close to each other every 90 minutes, and that required the space station’s seven crew members to take cover today.

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Cosmic Space

Astronomers detect first hints of extragalactic planet

A blip recorded by the NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory has pointed astronomers to what might be the first planet detected passing across a star in a galaxy beyond our own — but we may not know for sure anytime soon.

The observation of an X-ray transit in the spiral galaxy M51, about 28 million light-years away in the northern constellation Canes Venatici, is reported in the journal Nature Astronomy.

Even if the detection of a planet in M51 goes unconfirmed, the Chandra observations demonstrate that X-ray transits could become a new method for tracking planets far beyond our solar system.

“We are trying to open up a whole new arena for finding other worlds by searching for planet candidates at X-ray wavelengths, a strategy that makes it possible to discover them in other galaxies,” Rosanne Di Stefano of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, lead author of the newly published study, said in a news release.

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Cosmic Space

Ride, Sally Ride! Pluto landmarks honor pioneers of flight

Two women pioneers of flight now have places of honor on Pluto, thanks to the International Astronomical Union and the team behind NASA’s New Horizons mission.

The IAU has formally approved naming a huge cliff near the southern tip of Pluto’s heart-shaped Tombaugh Regio after Sally Ride (1951-2012), who became the first American woman in space in 1983.

“Sally loved space exploration,” Tam O’Shaughnessy, Ride’s life partner, said in a NASA news release. “Even after her NASA years, she dreamed of joining a mission to the moon or Mars or Pluto. Sally also loved the debate about whether or not Pluto was a true planet. And she appreciated the new criteria for classifying a planet. After all, how else can a planetary scientist decide? Sally would be over the moon — or Pluto — with the honor of having Ride Rupes named after her.”

Not far from Ride Rupes is Coleman Mons, an ice volcano that’s named after Bessie Coleman (1892-1926) the first African-American woman and first Native American to hold a pilot’s license. She earned her license in France in 1923, at a time when U.S. flight schools didn’t admit women or Black people.

“Sally Ride and Bessie Coleman were separated by generations, but they are forever connected by their great achievements, which opened doors for women and girls around the world,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said. “In breaking barriers they motivated so many women to pursue dreams and careers they didn’t think were possible, and their sheer persistence and pursuit of equality inspire people to this day.”

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Cosmic Space

Dynetics keeps working on lunar lander despite setback

It’s been two and a half months since Blue Origin and Dynetics lost out to SpaceX in NASA’s program to commission commercial lunar landers for the first crewed mission to the moon since Apollo.

Both companies are appealing NASA’s decision, and the Government Accountability Office is due to rule on their protests by Aug. 4. The GAO could force NASA to revisit its decision to give SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract for a moon-lander version of its Starship super-rocket — or let the decision stand as is.

We’ve already talked about why this is an important program for Blue Origin and its billionaire founder, Jeff Bezos, as well as for Blue Origin’s partners in the “National Team”: Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper.  But it’s also important for Alabama-based Dynetics, a Leidos subsidiary that worked on its bid with more than two dozen partners and subcontractors including Sierra Space, Draper and Thales Alenia Space Italy.

NASA gave Dynetics a lower rating than SpaceX and the National Team in its assessment for the initial phase of the Human Landing System program, a.k.a. HLS Option A. Nevertheless, Dynetics is continuing to work on its lunar lander concept.

In connection with our story about Blue Origin, we sent Dynetics a few questions about the status of its lander development program — and company spokeswoman Kristina Hendrix sent back these answers:

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Cosmic Space

Confirmed! Black holes and neutron stars collide

Gravitational-wave astronomers are confident that they’ve filled out their repertoire of cataclysmic collisions, thanks to the detection of two cosmic crashes that each involved a black hole and a neutron star.

Over the past five years, astronomers have used the twin LIGO gravitational-wave detectors in Washington state and Louisiana, plus the Virgo detector in Italy, to pick up signals from more than 50 violent mergers of black holes with black holes, or neutron stars with neutron stars.

In 2019, the astronomers picked up readings from two events that might have been caused by hot black-hole-on-neutron-star action. But one of those detections, on April 26, 2019, could plausibly have been nothing more than noise in the detectors. The other event, on Aug. 14, 2019, involved a crash between a black hole and an object that was either the heaviest known neutron star or the lightest known black hole. The gravitational-wave hunters couldn’t say definitively which.

In contrast, astronomers leave little doubt that the gravitational waves sparked by two separate events in January 2020 were thrown off by the merger of a black hole and a neutron star. They lay out their evidence in a paper published today by The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

“With this new discovery of neutron star-black hole mergers outside our galaxy, we have found the missing type of binary. We can finally begin to understand how many of these systems exist, how often they merge, and why we have not yet seen examples in the Milky Way,” Astrid Lamberts, a member of the Virgo collaboration who works at the Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur in France, said in a news release.

There’s still some mystery surrounding the detections.

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Cosmic Space

Tickets to the stratosphere go on sale

Florida-based Space Perspective is opening its ticket window for 20-mile-high balloon flights that provide an astronaut’s-eye view of Earth.

The list price for a six-hour trip up into the stratosphere and back is $125,000. Flights are scheduled to begin as soon as late 2024.

Space Perspective’s co-CEOs, Taber MacCallum and Jane Poynter, unveiled the outlines of their plan for trips in a balloon-borne capsule called Spaceship Neptune a year ago. Since then, the concept has matured. Just last week, the company announced that it conducted a successful uncrewed test of its Neptune One prototype over Florida.

The trial balloon lifted off from the Space Coast Spaceport, located next to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, and rose to a height of 108,409 feet during a 6-hour, 39-minute flight. An onboard camera captured spectacular views of Earth below the black sky of space.

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Cosmic Space

China’s Mars pictures fuel NASA’s funding pitch

The first pictures from a Chinese probe on the surface of Mars were released today, sparking a plea from NASA’s recently appointed chief for more funding to keep America in the lead on the space frontier.

China’s Zhurong rover, which landed on the Red Planet on May 14, sent back pictures as it sat atop its landing platform on the flat plain of Utopia Planitia. One picture provides a rover’s-eye view of the ramp that the six-wheeled robot will use to roll down onto the surface.

The probe also sent back video clips that were captured by China’s Tianwen-1 orbiter during the lander’s separation.

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Cosmic Space

Discovery unveils reality TV contest for space trip

More than 20 years after TV executives first floated the idea of doing a “Survivor”-style series with a trip to space as the reward, it looks as if such a show might actually happen as early as next year.

The eight-part series’ working title is “Who Wants to Be an Astronaut?” It’s slated to air on the Discovery TV channel, with bonus content on the Science Channel and the discovery+ streaming service.

Discovery put out the casting call today, and you can sign up to vie for a spot on the show — that is, assuming that you’re a U.S. citizen who’s 18 or older and in good enough shape to endure the rigors of spaceflight. Applicants will have to answer a questionnaire and submit photos and a short video as part of the screening process. If you go on to the next stage, you’ll have to undergo a background check as well as psychological and physical exams.

Contestants will be put through astronaut-style training and a variety of extreme challenges. In the end, expert judges will select one candidate to take a ride on a SpaceX Crew Dragon and spend eight days on the International Space Station as part of an Axiom Space mission.

Houston-based Axiom Space recently sealed the deal with NASA for its first private astronaut mission, known as Ax-1, and Discovery says it expects the reality-TV trip to be part of Ax-2.

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Cosmic Space

Chinese probe touches down safely on Mars

China scored another first for its space program today with the safe landing of the Tianwen-1 mission’s lander and rover on Mars.

“It is the first time China has landed a probe on a planet other than Earth,” China’s official Xinhua news agency reported.

The lander-rover spacecraft was brought to Mars aboard China’s Tianwen-1 orbiter, which was launched last July and made its Red Planet rendezvous in February. For weeks, scientists used the orbiter to scout out potential landing sites, and settled on Utopia Planitia, the same plain where NASA’s Viking 2 lander touched down in 1976.

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Cosmic Space

Japanese billionaire doubles down on space tours

For some people, once is not enough when it comes to traveling to space — even if each trip costs tens of millions of dollars. Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa is apparently one of those people.

Virginia-based Space Adventures announced today that Maezawa and his production assistant, Yozo Hirano, will be taking a 12-day trip to the International Space Station, and documenting the adventure for Maezawa’s YouTube channel.

The Japanese pair will fly to the station and back aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft that’s due for launch on Dec. 8, under the command of Russian cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin. All the medical checks have been made, and the trio is due to begin about three months of training at Russia’s Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City in June, Space Adventures said.

“I’m so curious, ‘what’s life like in space?'” Maezawa said in Space Adventures’ news release. “I am planning to find out on my own and share with the world on my YouTube channel.”