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Cosmic Space

Moon rocket returns to launch pad for rehearsal rerun

NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket is back at Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39B for another dress rehearsal aimed at clearing the way for a round-the-moon mission.

This time, NASA hopes the full-up rehearsal will include a fill-up.

The SLS rocket had its first rollout to the pad in mid-March, and NASA went through several rounds of pre-launch tests in April. But the team wasn’t able to fill the rocket’s tanks with super-chilled hydrogen and oxygen propellants due to a series of problems.

NASA had to transport the 322-foot-tall, 3.5 million-pound rocket back to the Vehicle Assembly Building and fix the glitches. Early today, the rocket made the 4-mile, eight-hour journey back to the pad to begin preparations for another “wet dress rehearsal,” including the tank-filling operation.

If all goes according to plan, NASA will go all the way through the countdown to the moment of ignition in two weeks. And if the reviews of the rehearsal are sufficiently glowing, the first-ever SLS launch would send NASA’s Orion spaceship on an uncrewed mission around the moon and back in August.

That mission, known as Artemis 1, could be considered a robotic rehearsal for a crewed Artemis 2 mission around the moon. The Artemis 2 launch is scheduled for no earlier than 2024. NASA’s plan calls for the mission after that, Artemis 3, to land astronauts on the lunar surface for the first time since Apollo 17 — 50 years ago.

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Cosmic Space

See our galaxy’s black hole — and hear what’s next

After years of observation and weeks of rumor-mill rumblings, astronomers today unveiled their first image of the supermassive black hole at the center of our own Milky Way galaxy, Sagittarius A*.

Technically, the picture from the Event Horizon Telescope project doesn’t show light from the black hole itself. After all, a black hole is a gravitational singularity so dense that nothing, not even light, can escape its grip. Rather, the picture shows the “shadow” of a black hole, surrounded by the superheated, glowing gas that surrounds it.

And technically, the picture may not match what folks might see with their own eyes up close. Rather, the readings come from eight observatories around the world that combined their observations in radio wavelengths.

Nevertheless, the new view of Sagittarius A*, or Sgr A* for short (pronounced “sadge-ay-star”), serves to confirm in graphic terms what astronomers have long suspected: that our galaxy, like many others, has a supermassive black hole at its heart.

Today’s revelations follow up on the Event Horizon Telescope’s first-ever black hole image, which was released in 2019 and showed the supermassive black hole at the center of M87, an elliptical galaxy about 55 million light-years away.

Sgr A* is much closer — a mere 27,000 light-years from Earth, in the constellation Sagittarius. But there’s nothing to fear from this black hole: It’s relatively quiescent, in contrast to the galaxy-gobbling behemoths that are standard science-fiction fare.

Our galaxy’s black hole is thought to hold the mass of 4 million suns within an area that’s roughly as big around as Mercury’s orbit. Checking those dimensions against the image data serves as a test of relativity theory. Spoiler alert: Albert Einstein was right … again.

“We were stunned by how well the size of the ring agreed with predictions from Einstein’s theory of general relativity,” EHT project scientist Geoffrey Bower said in a news release. “These unprecedented observations have greatly improved our understanding of what happens at the very center of our galaxy and offer new insights on how these giant black holes interact with their surroundings.”

The EHT’s findings about Sgr A* are the subject of a special issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters — and to whet your appetite for all that reading material, here are three videos that summarize the past, present and future of black hole imaging:

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Cosmic Space

NASA rolls back its SLS moon rocket to make repairs

NASA brought its Space Launch System rocket back to one of the world’s biggest repair shops — the 526-foot-tall Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center in Florida — to fix some flaws that turned up during rehearsals for a mission beyond the moon.

It took 10 hours to roll the 322-foot-tall, 3.5 million-pound rocket on its mobile launch platform from Launch Complex 39B to the VAB. The 4-mile journey, which made use of a giant crawler-transporter handed down from the Apollo and space shuttle programs, was basically a rewind of the rocket’s trip to the pad on March 17-18.

NASA had hoped to conduct a “wet dress rehearsal” for the launch of the SLS and its Orion deep-space capsule on an uncrewed trip around the moon. That mission, known as Artemis 1, is meant to set the stage for a crewed round-the-moon mission in 2024 and the first crewed landing on the moon since the Apollo era in 2025 or 2026.

Unfortunately for NASA, the practice runs came across some issues that need to be addressed in the days and weeks ahead.

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Cosmic Space

Uranus and Enceladus top planetary scientists’ to-do list

Uranus has long been the butt of jokes, but the ice giant is finally getting its day in the sun, thanks to a recommendation in the National Academies’ newly released survey of potential interplanetary missions.

The decadal survey, drawn up by teams of scientists, serves as a roadmap for research in planetary science and astrobiology over the next 10 years. And the survey’s highest priority for multibillion-dollar flagship missions is to send an orbiter and a piggyback atmospheric probe to Uranus (preferably pronounced “urine-us,” not “your-anus”). Launch would come as early as 2031 or 2032, when the orbital mechanics are optimal for a multibillion-mile cruise.

In preparation for this decadal survey, a team of scientists led by NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory drew up preliminary plans for a mission to Uranus or its ice-giant neighbor, Neptune.  Separately, Purdue University researchers developed a mission concept called OCEANUS (Observatory Capture Exploring the Atmospheric Nature of Uranus and Neptune) that included a Saturn flyby as well as a years-long study of Uranus.

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Cosmic Space

Private astronauts get down to work on the space station

Axiom Space’s first quartet of private astronauts settled in on the International Space Station today after dealing with a glitch that cropped up during their approach.

The crew’s arrival aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule had to be delayed about 45 minutes while mission controllers at SpaceX and NASA sorted out an issue with a video system designed to monitor the docking using a camera aboard the space station.

After the video signal was re-routed, docking took place at 8:29 a.m. ET (5:29 a.m. PT). “We’re happy to be here, even though we’re a bit late,” said Michael Lopez-Alegria, the former NASA astronaut who’s commanding the mission for Houston-based Axiom Space.

A little less than two hours after docking, Lopez-Alegria and Axiom’s three customers — Larry Connor, Mark Pathe and Eytan Stibbe — floated through the hatch to become the first completely private-sector crew to visit the space station.

The seven long-term residents of the space station — representing the U.S., Russia and the European Space Agency — greeted them with hugs and handshakes. Then the full complement of 11 faced the cameras for a welcome ceremony that incorporated a new tradition.

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Cosmic Space

SpaceX sends first all-private crew to space station

For the first time ever, a non-governmental spaceship is taking a fully non-governmental crew to the International Space Station.

Axiom Space’s quartet of spacefliers blasted into orbit at 11:17 a.m. ET (8:17 a.m. PT) aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon, riding SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“Zero-G and we feel fine,” said Michael Lopez-Alegria, the former NASA astronaut who’s commanding the Ax-1 mission for Axiom. That comment echoed what space pioneer John Glenn said 60 years earlier when he became the first American in orbit.

The launch marked another milestone in the move toward privately supported space missions. It was the first mission flown under the provisions that NASA drew up three years ago for hosting private astronauts on the space station.

Three millionaire investors from three different countries — American Larry Connor, Canadian Mark Pathy and Israeli Eytan Stibbe — paid fares estimated at $55 million to spend about 10 days in orbit. They’ll conduct more than two dozen science experiments and technology demonstrations, do some outreach activities, and spend leisure time enjoying the view and experiencing the zero-G environment.

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Cosmic Space

The stage is set for NASA moon rocket’s rehearsal

For the first time in nearly 50 years, a NASA rocket capable of sending humans to the moon is sitting on its launch pad.

The overnight rollout of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, topped by an Orion capsule, evoked memories of the Saturn V rocket launches that sent Apollo astronauts to the moon from Kennedy Space Center in Florida between 1968 and 1972.

The SLS is being prepared for a monthlong test mission known as Artemis 1, which will send the Orion on an uncrewed flight around the moon and back. That flight, currently set for the May-June time frame, is due to be followed by a crewed round-the-moon mission in 2024, and then a mission to send astronauts to lunar surface in 2025.

The precise timing of all these missions depends on the outcome of on-the-ground tests of the multibillion-dollar rocket. Those tests are due to take place over the next couple of weeks and come to a climax next month with a dress rehearsal for launch.

The stage for the rehearsal was set when the 322-foot-tall, 3.5 million-pound rocket rolled out of Kennedy Space Center’s giant Vehicle Assembly Building on a crawler-transporter that was retooled from the space shuttle era. After a trek that took nearly 11 hours, the rocket was fixed in place at around 4:15 a.m. ET (1:15 a.m. PT) today at Launch Complex 39B, which was first used for Apollo 10’s launch in 1969.

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Cosmic Space

‘Martian Flower’ blooms in a Red Planet menagerie

A weird shape spotted on the surface of Mars may look like an agave plant, a starfish, fossilized coral or even an infant Demogorgon, but experts say there’s a perfectly natural explanation for the object that’s been dubbed a “Martian Flower.”

The tiny multi-branched shape was captured in images from the ChemCam and Mars Hand Lens Imager on NASA’s Curiosity rover, which has been operating for nearly 10 years in Gale Crater on Mars.

It’s the latest in a succession of weird bits of stuff that have turned up amid the thousands of pictures sent back to Earth by robotic Red Planet probes. Other examples include a skull-shaped rock, an alien footprint (actually, a wheelprint), the Mermaid on Mars, the Mars rat, Martian macaroni (a.k.a. rover rotini) Curiosity’s plastic shred, Phoenix’s sprung spring and Opportunity’s bunny ears.

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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.