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GeekWire

The year in aerospace: Why 2022 could be Year One

A few years from now, we just might look back at 2022 as Year One for a new age in aerospace: It was the year when NASA’s next-generation space telescope delivered the goods, when NASA’s moon rocket aced its first flight test, and when an all-electric passenger plane built from the ground up took to the skies.

I’ve been rounding up the top stories in space on an annual basis for 25 years now (starting with the Mars Pathfinder mission in 1997), and 2022 ranks among the biggest years when it comes to opening up new frontiers on the final frontier. The best thing about these frontier-opening stories — especially the James Webb Space Telescope and the Artemis moon program — is that the best is yet to come.

Check out my top-five list for the big stories of the past year, plus five aerospace trends to watch in the year ahead.

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GeekWire

NASA calls an end to Mars InSight lander’s mission

Four years after engineers cheered the landing of the robotic InSight spacecraft on Mars, NASA today declared an end to the $830 million quake-detecting mission.

In a mission update, NASA said the control team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory failed to contact the lander in two consecutive attempts — which had previously been set as the criterion for ending the mission. Dust had been building up on the probe’s solar panels, and mission planners concluded that the batteries finally ran out of power. The last time NASA heard from Mars InSight was on Dec. 15.

JPL’s Deep Space Network will continue to listen for signals from the spacecraft, but further contact is considered unlikely.

Those involved in the mission chose to concentrate on InSight’s achievements rather than its setbacks. InSight’s primary purpose was to record seismic readings emanating from the Red Planet’s interior. The mission detected 1,319 Marsquakes in all, including quakes caused by meteor impacts. In May, the spacecraft’s seismometer recorded the largest quake ever detected on a planet other than Earth.

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GeekWire

Orion’s round-the-moon odyssey ends with splashdown

NASA’s uncrewed Orion capsule passed its final exam today, surviving a fiery atmospheric re-entry and splashing down in the Pacific Ocean at the end of a round-the-moon test flight.

The 25.5-day Artemis 1 mission set the stage for future moon trips with astronauts aboard, 50 years after the last Apollo moon mission.

“From Tranquility Base to Taurus-Littrow to the tranquil waters of the Pacific, the latest chapter of NASA’s journey to the moon comes to a close,” NASA spokesman Rob Navias said as Orion settled in the waters off the coast of Baja California at 9:40 a.m. PT. “Orion, back on Earth.”

Orion’s odyssey began in mid-November with the first-ever launch of NASA’s giant Space Launch System rocket, and traced a route that came as close as 80 miles to the lunar surface and ranged as far out as 40,000 miles beyond the moon. Orion traveled 1.4 million miles in all.

On the way back to Earth, cameras mounted on the spacecraft’s solar array wings sent back spectacular imagery of our planet looming larger in Orion’s metaphorical windshield. Once the spacecraft jettisoned its European-built service module, a set of thrusters built at Aerojet Rocketdyne’s facility in Redmond, Wash., controlled the capsule’s orientation for atmospheric re-entry.

Mission managers said Orion’s descent ranked among the sternest tests of the mission. As the spacecraft hit the top part of the atmosphere at a velocity of nearly 25,000 mph, Orion’s heat shield had to weather temperatures around 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. After that trial by fire, parachutes slowed the descent further, allowing the spacecraft to hit the ocean at about 20 mph.

Navias said it was a “textbook entry.”

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Universe Today

Japanese billionaire reveals his round-the-moon crew

Four years after announcing that he’d lead an around-the-moon mission aboard SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has named the eight people he wants to fly with him.

In 2018, Maezawa said he’d fund a mission aimed at letting creative artists on the level of the late Pablo Picasso or Michael Jackson experience a trip beyond Earth orbit. Some of the people he’s picked are making use of creative channels that didn’t exist when Picasso was in his prime.

The eight crew members — and two alternates — were chosen out of more than a million people from 249 countries and regions who registered their interest via Maezawa’s DearMoon website.

“I’m very thrilled to have these amazing people join me on my journey to the moon and excited to see what inspiring creations they come up with in space,” Maezawa said as he announced his selections.

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GeekWire

Orion spacecraft takes its last close look at the moon

NASA’s Orion capsule fired its main engine for three and a half minutes today during a close approach to the moon, executing a maneuver that’s meant to put the spacecraft on course for a splashdown in six days.

Orion came within 80 miles to the lunar surface during what’s expected to be the final large maneuver of its 25.5-day Artemis 1 mission. Today’s maneuver had to succeed in order to bring the uncrewed spacecraft back to Earth intact. The only other firings on the schedule are aimed at making tweaks in the trajectory.

Artemis 1, which began with the first-ever liftoff of NASA’s giant Space Launch rocket on the night of Nov. 15, is a test flight designed to blaze a trail for future crewed missions to the moon. The SLS sent Orion on a looping course that took advantage of the moon’s gravitational pull and ranged as far as 40,000 miles beyond the moon.

Although there are no astronauts aboard Orion this time, the seats are filled by three mannequins that have been hooked up with sensors to monitor radiation exposure, temperature levels and other factors that might affect future fliers.

There’s also an experimental, Alexa-style AI assistant code-named Callisto, which was built for NASA by Amazon in collaboration with Cisco and Lockheed Martin. Ground controllers and VIPs, including “Hidden Figures” actress Taraji P. Henson, have been using Callisto to check in with the capsule during the mission.

Debbie Korth, NASA’s Orion deputy program manager, said Callisto’s users found the system to be “very interactive, very engaging in terms of being able to talk to the spacecraft, turn lights on and off, write notes, play music, ask questions.”

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Cosmic Space

Scientists say we were caught in a black hole’s bull’s-eye

Nine months ago, astronomers observed a flash that they said came from a mysterious object that seemed to flare with the brilliance of a quadrillion suns, located 8.5 billion light-years from Earth.

Now they say they’ve figured out what that object was.

In a pair of studies published by Nature and Nature Astronomy, researchers report that the event was probably sparked when a supermassive black hole suddenly consumed a nearby star. The event’s violent energy was released in the form of a relativistic jet of blazing-hot material that headed in Earth’s direction.

The jet didn’t do us any damage. But its bull’s-eye directionality produced a phenomenon called “Doppler boosting,” also known as the headlight effect. That made the jet’s flash look brighter than it would have if the jet went in a different direction.

Scientists say the flash, which was designated AT2022cmc when it was detected by the Zwicky Transient Facility in February, is only the fourth known example of a Doppler-boosted tidal disruption event.

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Universe Today

Quantum data gets sent through a simulated wormhole

For the first time, scientists have created a quantum computing experiment for studying the dynamics of wormholes — that is, shortcuts through spacetime that could get around relativity’s cosmic speed limits.

Wormholes are traditionally the stuff of science fiction, ranging from Jodie Foster’s wild ride in “Contact” to the time-bending plot twists in “Interstellar.” But the researchers behind the experiment, reported in the Dec. 1 issue of the journal Nature, hope that their work will help physicists study the phenomenon for real.

“We found a quantum system that exhibits key properties of a gravitational wormhole, yet is sufficiently small to implement on today’s quantum hardware,” Caltech physicist Maria Spiropulu said in a news release. Spiropulu, the Nature paper’s senior author, is the principal investigator for a federally funded research program known as Quantum Communication Channels for Fundamental Physics.

Don’t pack your bags for Alpha Centauri just yet: This wormhole simulation is nothing more than a simulation, analogous to a computer-generated black hole or supernova. And physicists still don’t see any conditions under which a traversable wormhole could actually be created. Someone would have to create negative energy first.

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GeekWire

How data analysis is done on an orbiting satellite

For the past 10 months, Amazon Web Services has been running data through its cloud-based software platform on what’s arguably the world’s edgiest edge: a satellite in low Earth orbit.

The experiment, revealed today during AWS’ re:Invent conference in Las Vegas, is aimed at demonstrating how on-orbit processing can help satellite operators manage the torrents of imagery and sensor data generated by their spacecraft.

“Using AWS software to perform real-time data analysis onboard an orbiting satellite, and delivering that analysis directly to decision makers via the cloud, is a definite shift in existing approaches to space data management,” Max Peterson, AWS’ vice president of worldwide public sector, said today in a blog posting. “It also helps push the boundaries of what we believe is possible for satellite operations.”

AWS’ experiment was done in partnership with D-Orbit, an Italian-based company that focuses on space logistics and transportation; and with Unibap, a Swedish company that develops AI-enabled automation solutions for space-based as well as terrestrial applications.

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GeekWire

Orion watches a weird Earth eclipse from farthest frontier

Halfway into its 25.5-day uncrewed Artemis 1 mission, NASA’s Orion capsule today recorded a weird kind of Earth-moon eclipse, reached its farthest distance from our planet and began the trek back home.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson marveled at the milestones achieved in the Artemis program, aimed at sending astronauts to the lunar surface by as early as 2025.

“Artemis 1 has had extraordinary success and has completed a series of history-making events,” he told reporters at a news briefing. “For example, on Friday, for the first time, a human-rated spacecraft successfully entered that orbit for Artemis, one called a distant retrograde orbit. And then, on Saturday, Orion surpassed the distance record for a mission with a spacecraft designed to carry humans into deep space. … And just over an hour ago, Orion set another record, clocking its maximum distance from Earth, 270,000 miles.”

The mission evokes the spirit of the Apollo program, which sent NASA astronauts to the lunar surface 50 years ago. To cite just one example, Artemis 1 broke the distance record set by Apollo 13 back in 1970. “Artemis builds on Apollo,” Nelson said. “Not only are we going farther and coming home faster, but Artemis is paving the way to live and work in deep space in a hostile environment, to invent, to create, and ultimately to go on with humans to Mars.”

Cameras mounted on Orion’s solar array wings have been recording images of Earth, the moon and the spacecraft itself since the capsule’s Nov. 15 launch atop NASA’s giant Space Launch System rocket. Today, the orbital alignment was just right to capture pictures of the moon passing in front of Earth’s disk — which meant contact with Earth was temporarily cut off during the eclipse.

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GeekWire

Orion capsule sets a record with far-out lunar orbit

NASA’s uncrewed Orion capsule successfully executed an engine burn to enter an unusual type of orbit around the moon on the 10th day of the weeks-long Artemis 1 mission, and it set a distance record on the 11th day.

During the Nov. 25 course correction, the orbital maneuvering system engine on Orion’s European-built service module fired for 88 seconds as the capsule traveled more than 57,000 miles above the lunar surface.

“It looks like we had a good burn,” NASA spokeswoman Chelsey Ballarte said from Mission Control in Houston.

The firing ensured that Orion will trace what’s known as a distant retrograde orbit, ranging out as far as 268,552 miles from Earth. Today, the capsule broke the 248,655-mile record for the farthest distance from Earth traveled by spacecraft designed to carry humans to space and bring them home safely. The previous record was set by Apollo 13 in 1970.

After making half of a long-distance orbit, Orion will fire its engine again to start setting itself up for the homeward trip, ending with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 11.