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Webb space telescope’s launch makes Christmas merry

The most expensive telescope in the known universe has begun its journey to a vantage point a million miles from Earth with its launch from French Guiana.

Today’s liftoff of an Ariane 5 rocket from the European Space Agency’s South American spaceport, coming at 9:20 a.m. local time (4:20 a.m. PT), was just the first step of what’s expected to be a monthlong trip for NASA’s $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope.

“Everything fell together on this Christmas Day to send a new present to the world’s astronomers,” NASA launch commentator Rob Navias said.

Flight controllers broke into applause when the telescope separated from the Ariane 5’s second stage. “Go Webb!” range operations manager Jean-Luc Voyer cried.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson noted that the James Webb Space Telescope is designed to look back to an age when the first stars and galaxies formed, more than 13.5 billion years ago.

“It’s a time machine,” Nelson said. “It’s going to take us back to the very beginnings of the universe. We are going to discover incredible things that we never imagined.”

JWST is due to settle into a region of space known as the Sun-Earth Lagrange Point 2, or L2, where the gravitational pulls of Earth and the sun align to help keep spacecraft in a stable position within Earth’s shadow. Along the way, the telescope will have to unfurl its sunshield and its segmented mirror in a process that’s said to have 344 potential single points of failure.

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High hopes are riding on space telescope’s risky launch

The launch of NASA’s $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope from French Guiana could mark a triumph in a tale that thousands of astronomers have been following for a generation. Or it could result in the deepest tragedy.

Either way, the climax is due to unfold beginning on Christmas morning — making for a plot worthy of a holiday movie.

“I’ve been waiting 23 years for this telescope to launch,” University of Washington astronomer Eric Agol told GeekWire.

Agol has been waiting so long that the focus of his research changed completely during the wait. Back in 1998, when the Next-Generation Space Telescope was still on the drawing boards, he was studying gravitationally lensed quasars.

“I was doing some science at the time with ground-based telescopes and, and specifically the Keck Telescope up in Hawaii,” Agol said. “We were spending half a night looking at distant quasars, and then we calculated that with the James Webb Space Telescope, it would take a few milliseconds to do the same observation.”

Now he’s studying planets beyond our own solar system — with an intense focus on TRAPPIST-1, a potentially habitable planetary system 39 light-years from Earth. It’s a testament to the telescope’s versatility that it promises to have just as dramatic effect on that project.

“James Webb is just going to give phenomenal data on this system of transiting planets,” Agol said. “Each of the transits will yield spectral information if there are any signs of atmospheres in these planets. This is the first time where we have a really good chance of probing atmospheres on potentially Earthlike planets.”

But first, the telescope has to get settled at its location in deep space, a million miles from Earth, at a gravitational balance point known as Sun-Earth L2.

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SpaceX reports a ‘bug’ after satellite close call

Satellite paths
A computer-generated diagram shows the projected orbital paths of SpaceX’s Starlink satellite and the European Space Agency’s Aeolus satellite. (ESA Graphic via Twitter)

The European Space Agency says it performed a collision avoidance maneuver over the Labor Day weekend to head off a potential crash between its Aeolus wind-measuring satellite and one of SpaceX’s Starlink broadband data satellites.

In a series of tweets, ESA said the Sept. 2 event marked the first such maneuver taken to avoid an active satellite in what’s expected to become a “mega constellation” of thousands of satellites — and it warned that such maneuvers posed a grave challenge for future orbital traffic management.

“As the number of satellites in orbit increases … today’s ‘manual’ collision avoidance process will become impossible,” ESA tweeted.

The space agency said the maneuver was executed successfully about half an orbit before the close encounter.

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Experts share their visions for the moon in 2069

Moon base
The European Space Agency’s vision for lunar settlement includes habitats shielded by piled-up moon dirt. (ESA / Foster + Partners Illustration)

LAUSANNE, Switzerland — Fifty years ago this month, NASA’s Apollo 11 mission transformed the idea of putting people on the moon from science fiction to historical fact.

Not much has changed on the moon since Apollo, but if the visions floated by leading space scientists from the U.S., Europe, Russia and China come to pass, your grandchildren might be firing up  lunar barbecues in 2069.

“Definitely in 50 years, there will be more tourism on the moon,” Anatoli Petrukovich, director of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Space Research Institute, said here today during the World Conference of Science Journalists. “The moon will just look like a resort, as a backyard for grilling some meat or whatever else.”

Wu Ji, former director general of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ National Space Science Center, agreed that moon tourism could well be a thing in 2069.

“People will go there for space holidays, and come back,” Wu said. “The staff of the hotel will work there. So that will be permanent human habitability on the moon in 50 years.”

“Robotic staff?” Petrukovich asked.

“No, not necessarily,” Wu answered.

Today’s session in Lausanne, titled “The Moon and Beyond,” provided a status report on international space cooperation as well as speculative glimpses at the next 50 years of space exploration.

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Scientists narrow down source of Martian methane

Mars Express
The European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter has been circling Mars since 2003. (Spacecraft image credit: ESA / ATG Medialab; Mars: ESA / DLR / FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

It may sound like an April Fool’s joke about flatulent aliens, but this is serious: The scientists behind the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter think they know where a smelly outburst of Martian methane came from.

Any joke would fall flat, because the proposed explanation is purely geological rather than, um, biological.

The source of Martian methane has been a mystery for 15 years, thanks in part to earlier findings from Mars Express.

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BepiColombo begins marathon mission to Mercury

Ariane 5 launch
An Ariane 5 rocket rises from its launch pad in Kourou, French Guiana, sending the BepiColombo probe on the first leg of its journey to Mercury. (Arianespace via YouTube)

A mission to the planet Mercury got off to a flashy start with tonight’s launch of an Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket, but there’s a long way to go before the double-barreled BepiColombo probe gets to its destination.

Liftoff from the European Arianespace launch complex in Kourou, French Guiana, came off flawlessly at 10:45 p.m. (6:45 p.m. ET). The $1.5 billion mission, named after the late Italian astrophysicist Giuseppe “Bepi” Colombo, is a joint project of the European Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA.

Over the course of seven years, the spacecraft will trace a complex path with an Earth flyby in 2020, two Venus flybys and six Mercury flybys. All those close encounters are carefully designed to slow down BepiColombo’s speed enough to put it into a stable orbit around Mercury in 2025. (It was Colombo who suggested such a series of gravity-assist maneuvers could work for a Mercury mission.)

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Blue Origin and Airbus back ‘The Moon Race’

Moon balloon
Organizers of “The Moon Race” and their partners lift a moon-festooned balloon as they unveil their effort at a space conference in Germany. (The Moon Race via Twitter)

A new nonprofit organization is partnering with Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture, Airbus and other heavy-hitters to create a moon-centric prize program known as “The Moon Race.”

The contest’s goal is to boost technologies that could contribute to sustainable lunar exploration. A lot of the details, however, are still up in the air — including exactly what those technologies will be, and how much the prizes will amount to.

The project’s German organizers say more will be revealed next year, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 moon landing. Between now and then, they plan to nail down the details in league with Blue Origin and Airbus, as well as the European Space AgencyMexico’s space agency and Vinci Construction.

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Orbiter detects signs of hidden lake on Mars

Mars Express
The European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter, shown in this artist’s conception, has been circling Mars since 2003. (Spacecraft image credit: ESA / ATG Medialab; Mars: ESA / DLR / FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

Radar readings from the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter point to the location of what appears to be a 12-mile-wide lake of liquid water, buried under about a mile of ice and dust in the Red Planet’s south polar region.

The find is consistent with what scientists have been saying for years about the prospects for subsurface water on Mars, and is likely to give a boost to the search for Red Planet life.

“There are all the ingredients for thinking that life can be there,” Enrico Flamini, project manager for the MARSIS radar instrument on Mars Express, said today during a Rome news conference to discuss the results. “However, MARSIS cannot say anything more.”

The analysis of the MARSIS readings were published today by the journal Science.

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Scientists go gaga over Gaia’s galaxy survey

Gaia view of Milky Way
A newly released image from the European Space Agency’s Gaia star-mapping mission shows a full-sky view of our Milky Way galaxy and neighboring galaxies in color. (ESA / Gaia / DPAC)

The European Space Agency has released the world’s most exhaustive star catalog, pinpointing the positions of nearly 1.7 billion stars.

Today’s release, based on 22 months’ worth of data from ESA’s Gaia sky-mapping satellite, follows up on an initial version of the catalog that was released in 2016. This second release adds readings from the period between September 2015 and May 2016.

The Gaia mission’s second data release was presented at the ILA Berlin Air and Space Show in Germany. In addition to the positional data, the new catalog lists parallax and velocity readings for 1.3 billion stars — making it easy for astronomers to plot their distances and motions with respect to Earth.

“The observations collected by Gaia are redefining the foundations of astronomy,” Günther Hasinger, ESA’s director of science, said in a news release.

Astronomy fans agreed, and gushed over the treasure trove on Twitter.

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French astronaut enjoys sax in space

Thomas Pesquet
French astronaut Thomas Pesquet shows off his sax on the International Space Station. (NASA / ESA Photo)

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield had his guitar, and NASA astronaut Cady Coleman had her flute: Now French astronaut Thomas Pesquet has his sax in space.

The saxophone was included in the SpaceX Dragon cargo shipment that arrived at the International Space Station on Feb. 23, and Pesquet’s crewmates kept it hidden until his 39th birthday four days later.

Now the sax is out of the bag, thanks to a series of tweets that came out this week.

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