NASA Prepares for First Ever All Female Space Walk

The all-women mission team will make history this month.

NASA Prepares for First Ever All Female Space Walk

NASA’s first ever all-female spacewalk outside the International Space Station (ISS) will take place on March 29. NASA astronauts Anne McClain and Christina Koch will undertake the seven-hour extravehicular mission.

Canadian Space Agency and NASA flight controller Kristen Facciol, will be providing support from the ground. The walk was planned to take place last year, but was delayed and will now take place during Women’s History Month. A month-long celebration of contributions by women through historical and modern times.

The future is female

McCain has been onboard the ISS since December 2018 and Koch will arrive at the ISS on March 14 via the Roscosmos Soyuz spacecraft. She will be joined on the Russian craft with fellow NASA astronaut Nick Hague and cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin.

This is the first time a spacewalk outside the ISS has been completed by women only. It will be the first ISS spacewalk for McClain and the first spaceflight for Koch.

NASA becomes more gender balanced

McCain and Koch have a long history. The two astronauts were part of NASA’s astronaut class of 2013, the first in NASA’s history to have an equal number of men and women. The spacewalk will be made possible by a large group of talented women.

Jackie Kagey will serve as the lead EVA flight controller, while lead flight director Mary Lawrence and Kristen Facciol will provide support on the ground. Facciol shared the news of the historic walk on her personal Twitter saying: “I just found out that I’ll be on console providing support for the FIRST ALL-FEMALE SPACEWALK with @AstroAnnimal and @Astro_Christina and I can not contain my excitement!!!!”

Women overlooked for too long

The spacewalk is historic in that it is the first time an all-female all NASA crew will head outside of the vehicle together. It isn’t the first time female astronauts have been involved in an extravehicular mission.

Cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya became the for women to walk in space in 1984 when she worked outside the Salyut 7 space station. Soon after NASA astronaut Kathryn Dwyer Sullivan took the title as the first American women to undertake an extra-vehicular task during Space Shuttle Challenger mission.

In the entire history of space exploration, less than 11% of the more than 500 people who have been to space have been female. Spacewalks prior to this month’s historical walk, other missions have always been either all-male or male-female.

In the last six decades of spaceflight, there have only been four times when missions included two female members trained for spacewalks.

Finding Alien Life May Require Giant Telescopes Built in Orbit

Scientific American reports on new efforts from NASA and other federal agencies seeking to service and assemble large structures—such as life-finding telescopes—in space

Finding Alien Life May Require Giant Telescopes Built in Orbit
Astronauts repair and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope during the first servicing mission to that orbital observatory, in 1993. NASA is now studying how telescopes far larger than Hubble might someday be assembled and serviced in space by astronauts or robots. Credit: NASA

After snapping the final piece into place with a satisfying “click” she feels through her spacesuit gloves, the astronaut pauses to appreciate the view. Her reflection swims before her in a silvery disk the size of three tennis courts; for a moment she feels like a bug floating on a darkened pond. Composed of hundreds of interlocking metallic hexagons like the one she has just installed, the disk is a colossal mirror 30 meters wide, the starlight-gathering eye of the largest space telescope ever built. From her perch on the robotic arm of a small space station, Earth is a tiny blue and white orb she could cover with an outstretched thumb, dwarfed by the bright and silent moon spinning thousands of kilometers below her feet.

Although this scene remains the stuff of science fiction, an ad hoc assemblage of scientists, engineers and technocrats now say it is well on its way to becoming reality. Under the auspices of a modest NASA-sponsored initiative, this diverse group is gauging how the space agency might build bigger, better space telescopes than previously thought possible—by constructing and servicing them in space. The effort, formally known as the “in-Space Assembled Telescope” study (iSAT), is part of a long trend in which science advances by piggybacking on technologies created for more practical concerns.

For example, the development of surveillance satellites and warhead-carrying rockets during the 20th-century cold war also catalyzed the creation of robotic interplanetary probes and even NASA’s crewed Apollo lunar missions. Similarly, in the 21st century a soaring military and industrial demand for building and servicing satellites in orbit could lead to dramatically enhanced space telescopes capable of definitively answering some of science’s biggest questions—such as whether or not we are alone. “The iSAT is a program that can be NASA’s next Apollo,” says study member Matt Greenhouse, an astrophysicist at the space agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “And the science enabled by the iSAT would likely include discovery of extraterrestrial life—an achievement that would eclipse Apollo in terms of impact on humanity.”

Ready for Prime Time

In some respects, building and repairing spacecraft in space is a revolution that has already arrived, merely kept under the radar by a near-flawless track record that makes it seem deceptively routine. Two of NASA’s pinnacle projects—the International Space Station (ISS) and the Hubble Space Telescope—owe their existence to orbital construction work. Assembled and resupplied in orbit over two decades, the ISS is now roughly as big as a football field and has more living space than a standard six-bedroom house. And only space-based repairs allowed Hubble to become the world’s most iconic and successful telescope, after a space shuttle crew on a first-of-its-kind servicing mission in 1993 fixed a crippling defect in the observatory’s primary mirror. Astronauts have since conducted four more Hubble servicing missions, replacing equipment and upgrading instruments to leave behind an observatory reborn.

An artist’s rendition of the upcoming Dragonfly mission, a collaboration between NASA and Space Systems Loral to demonstrate technologies required for orbital construction. Dragonfly’s robotic arm (inset) will assemble and deploy reflectors to create a large radio antenna when the mission launches sometime in the 2020s. Credit: NASA and SSL

Today multiple projects are carrying the momentum forward from those pioneering efforts, cultivating powerful new capabilities. Already NASA and the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as well as private-sector companies such as Northrop Grumman and Space Systems Loral (SSL) are building robotic spacecraft for launch in the next few years on lengthy missions to refuel, repair, re-position and upgrade governmental and commercial satellites. Those spacecraft—or at least the technologies they demonstrate—could also be used to assemble telescopes and other large structures in space such as those associated with NASA’s perennial planning (pdf) for human missions to the moon and Mars. Last year—under the auspices of a “partnership forum” between NASA, the U.S. Air Force and National Reconnaissance Office—the space agency took the lead on crafting a national strategy for further public and private development of in-space assembly in the 2020s and beyond.

These trends could end what some experts see as a “dark age” in space science and exploration. “Imagine a world where once your car runs low on fuel, instead of driving to the gas station you take it to the junkyard and abandon it. Imagine a world where once you’ve moved into your house for the first time you have no way of ever getting more groceries inside, having a plumber come to fix a leaky pipe or any way to bring in and install a new TV. Imagine a world where we all live in tents that we can carry on our backs and no one thinks to build anything larger or more permanent. That seems crazy, doesn’t it?” says iSAT study member Joe Parrish, a program manager for DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office who helms its Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) mission. “But that’s exactly the world we live in right now with our $1-billion–class assets in space. … I think we will look back on the era before on-orbit servicing and assembly the way we now look back on the era when leeches were used to treat diseases.”

Bigger Is Better

The fundamental reality behind the push for in-space assembly is easy to understand: Anything going to space must fit within the rocket taking it there. Even the very biggest—the mammoth 10-meter rocket fairing of NASA’s still-in-development Space Launch System (SLS)—would be unable to hold something like the ISS or even the space agency’s smaller “Gateway,” a moon-orbiting space station proposed for the 2020s. Launching such megaprojects piece by piece, for orbital assembly by astronauts or robots, is literally the only way to get them off the ground. And coincidentally, even though massive “heavy lift” rockets such as the SLS remain ruinously expensive, the midsize rockets that could support orbital assembly with multiple launches are getting cheaper all the time.

The forces demanding supersize space telescopes are straightforward, too: The larger a scope’s light-collecting mirror is, the deeper and finer its cosmic gaze. Simply put, bigger is better when it comes to telescopes—especially ones with transformative objectives such as tracking the coalescence of galaxies, stars and planets throughout the universe’s 13.8-billion-year history, learning the nature of dark matter and dark energy, and seeking out signs of life on habitable worlds orbiting other stars. Most of today’s designs for space telescopes pursuing such alluring quarry cap out with mirrors as wide as 15 meters—but only because that is the approximate limit of what could be folded to fit within a heavy-lift rocket like the SLS.

Astronomers have long fantasized about building space observatories even bigger, with mirrors 30 meters wide or more—rivaling the sizes of ground-based telescopes already under construction for the 2020s. Assembled far above our planet’s starlight-scattering atmosphere, these behemoths could perform feats the likes of which ground-based observers can only dream, such as taking pictures of potentially Earth-like worlds around a huge sample of other stars to determine whether those worlds are actually habitable—or even inhabited. If our own Earth is any example to go by, life is a planetary phenomenon that can transform the atmosphere and surface of its home world in clearly recognizable ways; provided, that is, one has a telescope big enough to see such details across interstellar distances.

A recent “Exoplanet Science Strategy” report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine said NASA should take the lead on a major new space telescope that begins to approach that grand vision—something capable of surveying hundreds (or at least dozens) of nearby stars for snapshots of potential exo-Earths. That recommendation (itself an echo from several previous prestigious studies) is reinforced by the core conclusion of another new Academies report which calls for the agency to make the search for alien life a more fundamental part of its future space exploration activities. These reports build on the growing consensus that our galaxy likely holds billions of potentially habitable worlds, courtesy of statistics from NASA’s recently deceased Kepler space telescope and the space agency’s newly launched Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. Whether viewed through the lens of scientific progress, technological capability or public interest, the case for building a life-finding space telescope is stronger than ever before—and steadily strengthening. Sooner or later it seems NASA will find itself tasked with making this longed-for giant leap in the search for life among the stars.

How big such a telescope must be to offer a reasonable chance of success in that interstellar quest depends on life’s still-unknown cosmic prevalence. With a bit of luck, one with a four-meter mirror might suffice to hit the jackpot, locating an inhabited exo-Earth around one of our sun’s nearest neighboring stars. But if the cosmos is less kind and the closest life-bearing worlds are much farther away, something in excess of the 15-meter limit imposed by near-future rockets could be necessary to sniff out any living planets within our solar system’s corner of the galaxy. In short, in-space assembly may offer the only viable path to completing the millennia-long effort to end humanity’s cosmic loneliness.

An artist’s rendition of the Large Ultraviolet/Optical/Infrared Surveyor (LUVOIR), a concept for a future life-finding space telescope under investigation by NASA. The largest version of LUVOIR would boast a primary mirror 15 meters wide, bringing it to the limit of what could fit within the world’s largest rockets. Credit: NASA and GSFC

Decadal Dreams

“Scientists have already hit a design constraint to achieve the science they want to advance,” says Nick Siegler, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and chief technologist of the space agency’s Exoplanet Exploration Program. “What if that particular constraint did not exist? This is what in-space assembly offers—the opportunity to push the boundaries, both in scientific discoveries and human exploration.” Along with Harley Thronson, a senior scientist at NASA Goddard, and Rudra Mukherjee, a JPL roboticist, Siegler formed what would become the Future Assembly and Servicing Study Team (FASST) in late 2016, organizing the group’s inaugural meeting at an astrophysics conference in Texas in early 2017.

The iSAT study is the first NASA-funded FASST activity, but probably not the last. The team aims to be more than just another group of cloistered academics proffering pie-in-the-sky ideas. Its membership includes level-headed spaceflight veterans such as John Grunsfeld, a former astronaut and head of NASA’s science programs who served as an orbital repairman on three of the five Hubble servicing missions. The team’s intention, Grunsfeld and other participants say, is less to persuade the space agency to champion in-space telescope assembly, and more to clarify the approach’s potential benefits and drawbacks. “Assembly of telescopes in space will clearly yield bigger telescopes, but answers to the why, what, how, risk, cost and when to do in-space assembly do not yet exist,” says team member Ron Polidan, a now-retired expert in space technology development at NASA and Northrop.

What is already certain, though, is time is running out for the group to have a meaningful impact on NASA’s near-future plans. The team is now conducting frequent teleconferences, sprinting to complete a “proof of concept” study examining the in-space assembly of a hypothetical telescope with a 20-meter mirror. What would such a telescope’s modular components be, where in space would it be built and operated, which rockets and spacecraft would support it and how many launches would be required? Would the telescope’s pieces be assembled by astronauts or by robots? And, perhaps most importantly, could in-space assembly become a cost-competitive approach to building smaller space telescopes that would otherwise follow the tradition of being stowed and deployed from a single rocket? The iSAT team’s report will address such questions when it appears in the spring of next year.

A schematic illustration of the iSAT study’s “proof of concept” design, a hypothetical telescope with a 20-meter mirror designed for space-based robotic assembly and servicing. A starlight-blocking, telescope-cooling “sunshade” is shown behind the honeycomb-like segmented primary mirror as well as beneath the truss-mounted instrument bay. Such an observatory could be built in increments, progressively increasing in capability as new instruments and additional primary mirror segments are launched from Earth and installed. Credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech and R. Mukherjee et al.

That timing is important for potentially influencing the final design of NASA’s proposed lunar Gateway, which could be used as a deep-space construction platform. The iSAT study’s timing also overlaps with the onset of the astrophysics “Decadal Survey,” a once-every-10-year process in which the U.S. research community creates a prioritized list of recommended future projects for NASA and Congress to follow. The Decadal Survey’s most impactful recommendation would be a multibillion-dollar space telescope for the 2030s—a “flagship” project, the largest class of science mission the space agency undertakes.

Four NASA-sponsored Science and Technology Definition Team (STDT) studies are presently underway in anticipation of the Decadal Survey, each developing a unique flagship concept and associated suite of science objectives based on scientific, technological and budgetary considerations. According to Siegler and other NASA officials, the largest designs from two of the four STDT studies—both with exoplanet-imaging as a foremost goal—have already reached either the size or weight limitations of the most powerful version of NASA’s nascent SLS heavy-lift rocket. But as of yet none of the four studies have incorporated meaningful considerations of in-space assembly techniques.

Siegler, for one, is not surprised. “The STDTs are all doing a great job coming up with compelling science while also trying to minimize their mission cost,” he says. “[In-space assembly] has not yet shown how it can reduce cost, and from their perspective it may appear as an increase in complexity. The onus is on our study to show where the benefits are, if they actually exist.”

Polidan offers a blunter assessment. “A few community members have suggested to me personally that we wait and do the iSAT study until after the Decadal Survey,” he says. “All these comments are due to the current lack of a detailed definition of assembling telescopes in space, and a fear that it will look ‘too good,’ and somehow influence the Decadal committee to go down a path that is too risky or too costly for astrophysics.”

Webb’s Cautionary Tale

A new very large space telescope might be a hard sell for many in the U.S. astrophysics community, regardless of whether it is built on the ground or in space. Either approach could prove a bridge too far for NASA, based on the space agency’s problem-plagued flagship next in line to launch: the James Webb Space Telescope, which seeks to glimpse the universe’s very first stars and galaxies. “People are still traumatized by what happened with Webb, and rightfully so—they are worried that something similar will happen again,” says Scott Gaudi, an astronomer at The Ohio State University and co-author of the “Exoplanet Science Strategy” report.

The project hinges on the nail-biting self-deployment of a foldable 6.5-meter mirror and an even larger “sunshield”—each the largest ever launched—as the observatory travels to a dark, quiet point past the moon and beyond ready repair or servicing by NASA’s astronaut corps. Ensuring all will go as planned has proved enormously expensive. From a notional projected budget of $1.6 billion in 1996 and a potential launch date as early as 2007, Webb’s actual price tag has ballooned to nearly $10 billion, and the telescope’s launch is now slated for no earlier than 2021. The funds to pay for Webb’s overruns have come in part from cannibalizing many other worthy projects, to the overall detriment of NASA’s space-science portfolio and near-universal consternation of researchers.

The James Webb Space Telescope’s scientific instruments and optical elements—including its gold-plated 6.5-meter primary mirror—emerge from cryogenic testing at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston on December 1, 2017. Credit: NASA

“Going into the Decadal Survey, my fear is that the Decadal committee will be so frightened of cost that they won’t recommend any flagship,” says one prominent astrophysicist who asked to remain anonymous. “And if the Decadal—the community, really—is too shy and doesn’t recommend a large strategic mission, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that there simply will not be one.” That, in turn, could lead to the U.S. ceding its preeminence in the field of space-based astronomy to competing nations, namely China, which has plans of its own for in-space assembly—including taikonaut-tended orbital observatories. The resulting exodus of scientists and engineers for fairer international shores could devastate U.S. space science for generations, with far-reaching consequences for the nation’s continuance as a global superpower.

“A Damn Good Reason to Do It”

Whether all this makes Webb a testament for or against in-space assembly and servicing is a matter of debate. Any hiccups in the mirror’s or sunshield’s postlaunch deployments could render Webb a $10-billion hunk of inoperative space junk—and that assumes, of course, the telescope escapes Earth at all rather than falling victim to an unlikely-but-possible malfunction of its launch vehicle. In principle, building and testing the telescope in orbit could have reduced or nullified these and other threats—albeit potentially with a greater price tag. “In-space assembly would have completely relieved the requirement to fold and deploy Webb, and furthermore, a launch failure would not necessarily be a mission failure,” Siegler notes.

And even if all goes as planned with Webb, it has not been designed with servicing in mind (unlike its predecessor Hubble—or, for that matter, its successor, a planned post-Webb flagship called WFIRST). Within about a decade of reaching its deep-space destination Webb will run out of fuel, presumably sealing its space-junk fate. “That is astonishing,” says iSAT study member Gordon Roesler, the former head of DARPA’s RSGS program. “Wouldn’t it be nice if Webb could last a lot longer? The general thinking of [iSAT] is that something like Webb makes more sense as a 50-year mission, where we can plan from the outset to visit it, replenish consumables, replace parts and install new instruments with better technology.”

For all those reasons, despite Webb’s status as the premier facility for space-based astronomy in the 2020s and its associated wealth of new technologies that can feed in to even more advanced future observatories, many iSAT team members team see the project as an unsustainable “evolutionary dead end” whose time has in some respects already passed. Whatever arises from its fantastic-but-flawed legacy will depend not only on the outcomes of the iSAT study and the Decadal Survey, but also on the courage of scientists and policy makers to embrace bold, paradigm-shifting new approaches.

“The scientific community is sometimes its own worst enemy when it comes to understanding what it is that’s possible,” says Ken Sembach, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute. “Some of us now have the preconceived idea that it is not possible to build another telescope that is bigger and, yes, maybe more expensive than Webb. But I talk all the time to younger researchers, Congress and the public, and they all ask, ‘Why aren’t we thinking bigger?’ People want to support ambitious things. So it is possible—provided there is a damn good reason to do it.”

NASA scientist says space alien search should be more ‘aggressive’

Experts may have been too quick to discount the possibility that alien UFOs have paid Earth a visit.


Image of a fake UFO

What a UFO could look like.

Is Earth being visited by space aliens? A lot of people think so, although few of them are scientists. Professional researchers are not easily persuaded by eyewitness testimony, blobby photos or claims that evidence for itinerant aliens has been stashed away by a paranoid government.

Put more succinctly, academia doesn’t put a whole lot of credence in the incessant claims that some of the thousands of UFOs sighted every year are actually alien craft. But at least one scientist has recently gone on record suggesting that the clipboard-carrying crowd should be a little less sure.

That scientist is Silvano Colombano, a computer expert and roboticist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in the heart of Silicon Valley. He was a presenter at a conference about new approaches in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) held earlier this year at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. Colombano says the skeptical attitudes of most researchers might be too cramped. They could be throwing the infant out with the bath water.

He cited this example: If you approach your favorite astronomy professor and see what she has to say about interstellar rocketry, chances are she’ll roll her eyes. The energy required to accelerate an Enterprise-size starship to near the speed of light is greater than can be wrung from all the remaining fossil fuel on Earth. Fast travel between the stars is incredibly difficult (or impossible), she’ll say. So forget the idea of little gray guys piloting saucers in our airspace. Their home planet, wherever it might be, is just too far away.

But there’s an assumption here, as Colombano pointed out. Namely, that the aliens are biological, and require a fast transit between star systems to forestall dying en route. This small problem, after all, was the motive for Star Trek’s (fictional) warp drive.

However, there’s a fix for that: Get rid of intelligence that dies. Anyone who’s not a total troglodyte knows that artificial intelligence is on the way. By the end of this century, it’s possible that the smartest thing on Earth will be a machine. Since most star systems are billions of years older than our own, you can be sure that any clever inhabitants out there have long ago relegated biological brains to the history books, and are homes to very smart, and possibly very compact, thinking hardware.

As Colombano says in a new paper, “Given the fairly common presence of elements that might be involved in the origin of life… it is a reasonable assumption that life ‘as we know it’ was at least a common starting point, but our form of life and intelligence may just be a tiny first step in a continuing evolution that may well produce forms of intelligence that are far superior to our and no longer based on carbon ‘machinery.’”

Well, an obvious advantage of non-carbon machinery is that it needn’t be cursed with a short lifetime (this despite the experience you may have had with your laptop). Truly sophisticated devices can be self-repairing. Consequently, they can go great distances simply because they’re in no hurry to get to their destination.

This has a profound consequence. Earth has been trundling around the sun for more than 4 billion years. Even at the modest speed of a NASA rocket, that’s more than enough time to get to our planet from anywhere in the Milky Way Galaxy. If the passengers don’t mind spending billions of years in a middle seat, they could to it. Compact machines wouldn’t take much space, and wouldn’t groan at the long transit time.

So, what should we conclude? Clearly, it’s possible that some alien intelligence has decided to come to our solar system and check Earth off its bucket list. Doing so doesn’t violate physics. This might have happened 100 million years ago or a billion years ago, and we wouldn’t know.

But the more appealing thought for many people is that we’re being visited now. Of course, a scientist would consider such a suggestion of interest only if it could be corroborated by observation. Bright ideas are nice, but evidence rules.

So Colombano suggests that massive computers be applied to finding such evidence among the many thousands of UFO sightings. Maybe there’s a gold nugget in all those reports. As Colombano points out, if there’s something to be discovered, we won’t find it unless we look.

Parker Solar Probe Snaps Hellscape Photo From Inside the Sun’s Corona

In August, NASA launched the Parker Solar Probe with a lofty goal: to touch the sun. Okay, “touch” is a bit of an overstatement, but they are getting close. In November, the probe actually got close enough to snap a photo from within a particularly hellish portion of the sun’s atmosphere. The first time you see it, it looks like a hot mess, but if you look more closely, there’s actually a distinguishable feature or two.

Eventually, the Solar Probe will get within 4 million miles of the sun. This photo was taken on November 8 at 1:12 a.m. Eastern about 16.9 million miles from the sun itself, which is within the solar corona — the outermost area of the sun’s atmosphere that’s actually hundreds of times hotter than the sun itself. This is by far the closest a human-made object has ever gotten to the sun, says Russ Howard, Ph.D., the principal investigator behind the Wide-field Imager for Solar Probe (WISPR), the instrument that captured the image. But he also tells Inverse that this photo is really just a taste of way more interesting things to come. In the near future, the probe is going to fly right into the heart of the structure seen in this picture.

NASA helmet streamer
A photo from inside the solar corona, showing Jupiter and a helmet streamer.

If you look closely at the left side of the image, there are actually two distinct “rays,” which Howard explains are extensions of structures formed by the sun’s magnetic field called “helmet streamers.” Helmet streamers are formed along specific boundaries in the sun’s magnetic field and are sometimes carried far out into the solar system by solar winds.

“The inclination of that streamer is actually the plane that the probe is flying through,” Howard says. “So we know that in a few days, or maybe less than a day, we’re going to flying through that structure. We’re so close, so what we’ll be able to do is look at the detailed structure of what’s inside that. It’s really going to be impressive then.”

Getting a deeper look into the structure of these streamers could help illuminate what happens inside the sun’s magnetic field in detail. Occasionally, these streamers can give rise Coronal Mass Ejections, says Therese Kucera, Ph.D., an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Solar Physics Laboratory. These are bursts of activity that can affect earth if they travel far enough, so it’s in our best interest to learn as much as we can about them.

“Coronal Mass Ejections are when you get this big eruption that riffs off the sun and goes out into the solar system,” she explains. “They’re interesting because they can actually affect us here on earth. They interact with our magnetic field and can cause issues with communications systems.”

Howard expects the probe to transmit these detailed images to Earth sometime in April or May. “This is really kind of a teaser,” he says. “It’s a precursor of what we’ll see in a few months when the data come down.”

The World’s First Space Telescope

50 years ago, astronomers launched the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory, whose descendants include the Hubble, Spitzer and James Webb telescopes

The World's First Space Telescope
Credit: NASA

In July 1958, an astronomer at the University of Wisconsin–Madison named Arthur “Art” Code received a telegram from the fledgling Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences. The agency wanted to know what he and his colleagues would do if given the opportunity to launch into Earth’s orbit an instrument weighing up to 100 pounds.

Code, newly-minted director of the University’s Washburn Observatory, had something in mind. His department was already well known for pioneering a technique for measuring the light emitted by celestial objects, called photoelectric photometry, and Code had joined the university with the intent of adapting it to the burgeoning field of space astronomy.

He founded the Space Astronomy Laboratory at UW–Madison and, with his colleagues, proposed to launch a small telescope equipped with a photoelectric photometer, designed to measure the ultraviolet (UV) energy output of stars—a task impossible from Earth’s surface. Fifty years ago, on December 7, 1968, that idea culminated in NASA’s launch of the first successful space-based observatory: the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory, or OAO-2.

With it was born the era of America’s Great Observatories, bearing the Hubble, Spitzer, Chandra and Compton space telescopes, a time during which our understanding of the universe repeatedly deepened and transformed. Today, dwindling political appetite and lean funding threaten our progress. Contemporary projects like the James Webb Space Telescope flounder, and federal budgets omit promising projects like the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST).

In celebrating the half century since OAO-2’s launch, we are reminded that major scientific achievements like it become part of the public trust, and to make good on the public trust, we must repay our debt to history by investing in our future. Advances like those made by Hubble are possible only through sustained, publicly-funded research.

These first investments originated in the late 1950s, during the space race between the U.S. the USSR. They led to economic gains in the private sector, technological and scientific innovations, and the birth of new fields of exploration.

Astronomer Lyman Spitzer, considered the father of the Hubble Space Telescope, first posited the idea of space-based observing seriously in a 1946 RAND Corporation study. By leaving Earth’s atmosphere, he argued, astronomers could point telescopes at and follow nearly anything in the sky, from comets to galaxy clusters, and measure light in a broader range of the electromagnetic spectrum.

When Code pitched Wisconsin’s idea to the Space Board, the result was NASA funding to create part of the scientific payload for OAO. The agency went to work planning a spacecraft that could support these astronomical instruments. The Cook Electric Company in Chicago and Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation in New York won contracts to help pull it off.

The payload, named the Wisconsin Experiment Package (WEP), bundled five telescopes equipped with photoelectric photometers and two scanning spectrophotometers, all with UV capabilities. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology created a package of X-ray and gamma detectors.

Scientists and engineers had to make the instruments on OAO both programmable and capable of operating autonomously between ground contacts. Because repairs were impossible once in orbit, they designed redundant systems and operating modes. Scientists also had to innovate systems for handling complex observations, transmitting data to Earth digitally (still a novelty in those days), and for processing data before they landed in the hands of astronomers.

The first effort, OAO-1, suffered a fatal power failure after launch in 1966, and the scientific instruments were never turned on. But NASA reinvested, and OAO-2 launched with a new WEP from Wisconsin, and this time a complementary instrument from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, called Celescope, that used television camera technology to produce images of celestial objects emitting UV light. Expected to operate just one year, OAO-2 continued to make observations for four years.


Numerous “guest” astronomers received access to the instruments during the extended mission. Such collaborations ultimately led to the creation of the Space Telescope Science Institute, which Code helped organize as acting director in 1981.

And the data yielded many scientific firsts, including a modern understanding of stellar physics, surprise insights into stellar explosions called novae, and exploration of a comet that had far-reaching implications for theories of planet formation and evolution.

To be responsible beneficiaries of such insights, we must remember that just as we are yesterday’s future, the firsts of tomorrow depend on today. We honor that public trust only by continuing to fund James Webb, WFIRST, and other projects not yet conceived.

In the forward of a 1971 volume publishing OAO-2’s scientific results, NASA’s Chief of Astronomy Nancy G. Roman wrote: “The performance of this satellite has completely vindicated the early planners and has rewarded … the entire astronomical community with many exciting new discoveries and much important data to aid in the unravelling of the secrets of the stars.”

Let’s keep unraveling these stellar secrets.

China Launches First-Ever Mission to the Moon’s Farside

In late December or early January the Chang’e 4 spacecraft will touch down at a site near the lunar south pole within the solar system’s largest-known impact crater

China Launches First-Ever Mission to the Moon's Farside
A view of the lunar far side based on data from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. The Chang’e 4 spacecraft’s planned landing site is within the moon’s South Pole-Aitken Basin, an ancient, giant impact crater visible as a slightly darkened region near the bottom of this image. Credit: NASA, GSFC and Arizona State University

China has successfully launched its Chang’e 4 spacecraft toward the moon, a daring mission to land on the lunar farside for the first time in history.

The launch took place from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan Province on a Long March 3B rocket today, December 7, at 1:23 pm Eastern time (2:23 am local time in China). The spacecraft will now begin a three-day journey to the moon before remaining in polar lunar orbit until a landing attempt is made by the end of the year at the earliest. “They are talking about around December 31 or January 1,” says Bernard Foing, director of the European Space Agency’s International Lunar Exploration Working Group, who was part of a European collaboration with the China National Space Administration (CNSA) on the mission. So far, the spacecraft appears to be in good health.

China will use the preceding three weeks in lunar orbit to take images of the surface, and ensure the landing site is clear of obstacles. Whenever it occurs, the seven-step landing process—which will be entirely autonomous—will last just 11 minutes from the deorbit burn to touching down on the surface. Chang’e 4 is intended to land in the 186-kilometer-wide Von Kármán Crater in the South Pole–Aitken Basin on the moon; the latter feature is the moon’s largest-known impact crater at about 2,500 kilometers across. This scientifically fascinating region could yield invaluable data about how the moon formed and evolved, owing to exposed mantle at this location.

Although located near the moon’s south pole, Chang’e 4’s target crater is still subjected to extreme temperature changes as the moon rotates once every 28 days. The crater experiences about 14 days of sunlight with average temperatures up to 110 degrees Celsius, before plummeting to some –173 degrees C for about 14 days of night. These temperature swings proved too much for Chang’e 4’s predecessor, Chang’e 3, which landed on the moon on December 14, 2013. The two missions are almost identical in design; the former was originally built as a backup for the latter. Both include a large lander weighing about 1,200 kilograms, and from this a smaller rover about one meter across and weighing 140 kilograms is deployed on the lunar surface.

But the key difference this time is Chang’e 3 landed on the moon’s nearside that always faces Earth. Chang’e 4 will instead head for the farside, long seen as a scientific milestone for lunar exploration. “A farside landing is a big deal, because nobody’s ever done it,” says Roger Launius, NASA’s former chief historian. A major challenge, however, is the farside is never in sight of Earth, making direct communication impossible. So in May 2018 China launched a relay satellite called Queqiao to a gravitationally stable lunar synchronous orbit about 65,000 kilometers beyond the moon, where the gravity of both Earth and the moon keep the relay satellite moving in a halolike motion that ensures it is continuously in sight of both the lunar farside and Earth. All communication with the lander and rover must be relayed via this satellite.

Onboard the Chang’e 4 mission is a suite of instruments primed for a diverse series of scientific studies. It includes a ground-penetrating radar to look up to 100 meters beneath the surface, three cameras, radio astronomy experiments to study the Milky Way unhindered by Earth-based interference and an intriguing experiment to grow biological samples on the lunar surface. Also onboard are two European-led experiments, one from Christian Albrechts University of Kiel in Germany and another from the Swedish Institute of Space Physics, which will study cosmic rays and solar wind hitting the surface. European scientists also helped China choose the Chang’e 4 landing site.

It is unclear how long the mission will last, but Foing says China expects the rover to endure for at least one Earth month—which includes one lunar day and night. The landing is scheduled as close to the start of lunar day in the region as possible, which begins on December 30, giving the rover ample sunlight to feed its solar panels. The lander could survive much longer, though; whereas the Chang’e 3 rover died after a single Earth day, its lander is still operational today after more than five years.

Even if it survives just a single Earth day, this farside mission will be historic. “You’re opening up half a world that wasn’t accessible before,” says Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. If it all goes well, China hopes to return samples from the moon in 2019 and 2024 with Chang’e 5 and Chang’e 6, before ultimately landing human explorers there.

Why Did NASA Wake Up This Interstellar Spacecraft After 37 Years?

Since it left Earth 40 years ago, NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft has had an enviable adventure across the solar system — and beyond. Though it hasn’t made headlines in a while, the spacecraft delighted space nerds Friday night when news broke that it fired up its backup thrusters for the first time in 37 years.

The question is, why? Scientists from NASA and the University of Arkansas tell Inverse it’s actually a great new boost for the ol’ spacecraft, especially since the thrusters it’s been using since 2014 aren’t doing so well.

“The attitude control thrusters on Voyager 1 are showing degradation, meaning they appear to be reaching their end of life,” NASA’s Voyager project manager Suzanne Dodd tells Inverse. “We did a test of the [trajectory correction maneuver (TCM)] thrusters to see if they would operate, and could replace the attitude control thrusters. By using the TCM thrusters we will gain two to three additional years of lifetime for the mission.”

Jupiter's Great Red Spot
(March 1, 1979) As Voyager 1 flew by Jupiter, it captured this photo of the Great Red Spot.

Back in its heyday, Voyager 1 visited Jupiter and Saturn — and took exquisite photos of its journey. In fact, according to NASA, the spacecraft hasn’t needed to use its TCM thrusters since November 8, 1980. But even though the Voyager 1 is about 13.1 billion miles from Earth — and was half-asleep for a few decades — its TCM thrusters worked perfectly during this test. It took 19 hours and 35 minutes for the spacecraft’s signal to reach Earth, confirming the experiment worked.

“Having a signal and firing its thrusters? That’s incredible with 21 billion kilometers from Earth in ultra freezing temperatures in the vacuum of space!” Caitlin Ahrens, an astronomer at the University of Arkansas tells Inverse. “Voyager 1, in essence, has no limits to its travel!”

Since this recent test went over swimmingly, the space agency says it will switch Voyager 1 to the TCM thrusters sometime in January. It’ll likely perform a similar test on Voyager 2’s TCM thrusters down the line. In a few years, that spacecraft will join its twin, Voyager 1, in interstellar space. We love a happy ending!

Space junk is a huge problem, but this high-tech satellite net just might help

Experts hope to eliminate the debris before it becomes too risky to launch new satellites.

Image: The REMDEB satellite deployed in June from the International Space Station

The REMDEB satellite deployed in June from the International Space Station.NanoRacks, ISS and NASA

As some scientists try to clean up the world’s oceans and remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, others are tackling the problem of pollution in space. Defunct satellites, spent rocket parts and thousands of other pieces of human-made debris have accumulated in orbit around Earth in recent decades — and the problem is getting worse.

Now a consortium of universities and aerospace companies has begun testing a suite of technologies that could address the growing problem of space junk. On Sept. 16, scientists with the consortium successfully tested a net designed to snag orbiting debris and drag it down into Earth’s atmosphere, where it would burn up harmlessly.

The consortium’s refrigerator-sized RemoveDebris satellite deployed the spring-loaded net and captured a tiny cubesat that had been released for the experiment. Footage of the test shows the web-like net shooting out and trapping the mock space debris.

Guglielmo Aglietti, director of the Surrey Space Centre in England, said he was “very happy” with the test, adding that the net and the cubesat are expected to burn up in the atmosphere within a couple of months. The center leads the consortium, which also includes Airbus, ArianeGroup and other partners in Europe and South Africa.

In last week’s test, the RemoveDebris satellite released the net as it was deployed. But in a real space debris-grabbing mission, Aglietti said, the net would remain tethered to a “mothership” satellite, which would then reel it in and de-orbit it via some mechanism yet to be determined.

In February, Aglietti and his colleagues will use the satellite to test another debris-removal idea: a tethered harpoon that could latch onto space junk and remove it from orbit.

The RemoveDebris mission is focused on eliminating old satellites and other large debris — objects about the size of a bus and weighing a few tons — because they pose the biggest threat to the International Space Station and satellites in low-Earth orbit.

“If they collide with other things, they can explode and break into thousands of fragments,” Aglietti said of these objects. “Rather than trying to remove smaller bits, which would be technologically very challenging, we think the best thing is to remove large pieces — especially those in busy orbits.”

The U.S. Department of Defense tracks more than 500,000 pieces of space junk in orbit around Earth, including about 20,000 objects larger than a softball. As rocket launches continue and more debris is created, experts worry that we could reach a point where it’s too risky to launch new satellites.

Low Earth orbit (LEO), the region of space within 2,000 km of the Earth's surface, is the most concentrated area for orbital debris.
Low-Earth orbit, the region of space within 2,000 kilometers of the Earth’s surface, is the most concentrated area for orbital debris.NASA

“We’re at the tipping point,” said John Crassidis, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University at Buffalo, who is not involved with the RemoveDebris mission. “If we don’t do something, it’s not going to be that much longer before there’s so much space junk and the probability of a collision is so great that nobody is going to want to insure satellites anymore.”

Crassidis called the recent test “fabulous,” but added that the RemoveDebris scientists must eventually show they can control debris after it’s been captured without destabilizing the RemoveDebris satellite itself.

“If you have an object that is rotating, that is going to affect your own satellite,” he said. “So, if the net is tethered, you have this momentum transferred between the two objects, and that can cause issues with trying to keep your satellite stable.”

Aglietti said even if the technology works, the bigger challenge will be navigating the politics and finding the money to mount clean-up initiatives. The RemoveDebris satellite cost $15 million, he said, but a real mission designed to remove space junk would likely cost significantly more.

“Technologically, we can do these things, but the difficulty will be to find the necessary funding and the necessary world cooperation that we need for this,” Aglietti said. “I think honestly the organizational and administrative problems are the main challenges, and not the technical challenges.”

Pluto’s landscape is so complex that Nasa scientists aren’t sure how it got there, after New Horizons images could show huge field of dunes

How the dunes, craters and huge mountains on the dwarf planet could have been formed is ‘a head-scratcher’, say scientist.

This synthetic perspective view of Pluto, based on the latest high-resolution images to be downlinked from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, shows what you would see if you were approximately 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers) above Pluto’s equatorial area, loo NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

The surface of Pluto is so complex that scientists aren’t sure how it got there, they have said, after images beamed back from New Horizons show an incredibly complex landscape.

The pictures show that the dwarf planet might have huge fields of dunes, massive nitrogen ice flows and valleys that could have formed as materials flowed over its surface. The complexity has stunned scientists —they shouldn’t be there, since the atmosphere is so thin.

“Pluto is showing us a diversity of landforms and complexity of processes that rival anything we’ve seen in the solar system,” New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern said in a statement. “If an artist had painted this Pluto before our flyby, I probably would have called it over the top — but that’s what is actually there.”

This 220-mile (350-kilometer) wide view of Pluto from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft illustrates the incredible diversity of surface reflectivities and geological landforms on the dwarf planet

Now scientists are trying to work out what happened to get the stunning range of complexity of features onto Pluto.

“Seeing dunes on Pluto — if that is what they are — would be completely wild, because Pluto’s atmosphere today is so thin,” William B. McKinnon, part of New Horizons’ Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team said in a statement. “Either Pluto had a thicker atmosphere in the past, or some process we haven’t figured out is at work. It’s a head-scratcher.”

Scientists have also been surprised to find that the haze in Pluto’s atmosphere has more layers than they knew. That creates a kind of twilight effect, meaning that terrain is lit up at sunset and gives them a kind of visibility that they’d never expected.

Two different versions of an image of Pluto’s haze layers, taken by New Horizons as it looked back at Pluto’s dark side nearly 16 hours after close approach, from a distance of 480,000 miles (770,000 kilometers), at a phase angle of 166 degrees

Last weekend, New Horizons started sending images back to Earth after its flyby in July — a process that will take a year, in all. The new pictures have enabled the New Horizons team to see Pluto in much detail than before, giving resolutions as high as 400 meters per pixel.

NASA Is Finally Removing This Creepy And Broken Robot Astronaut From The ISS

The International Space Station is a science facility, so it’s no surprise that experiments occasionally fail.

Most of the time, however, they don’t involve weird robots – like Robonaut, the robotic astronaut NASA sent up with the STS-133 mission in 2011.

The golden-helmeted figure has been out of action since 2015 after its hardware went awry. And now, finally, it’s being sent back to Earth for repairs.

A project NASA has worked on since 1996, Robonaut – developed with General Motors – is quite a marvel.

Originally, it consisted of a humanoid torso (and wears an astronaut-style helmet, neatly eliminating the uncanny valley), with five jointed fingers on each hand so that it can complete tasks like humans do.

robonaut aboard the iss 2(NASA)

Initially the torso was doing stationary work in the Destiny laboratory, performing simple tasks such as taking air flow readings and cleaning hand rails.

But NASA never planned that Robonaut would remain still, and in 2014 the robot was fitted with a pair of new, wiggly climbing legs designed to let it move around the space station – which somehow made it look very disconcerting.

The problems started because Robonaut wasn’t designed for easy modularity; putting the legs on required significant core hardware upgrades and a new wiring interface – work the astronauts weren’t trained to do.

It was expect that the operation would take them 20 hours, all up. It ended up taking them 40, and almost immediately things started going wrong.

First, when Robonaut was rebooted, Johnson Space Center couldn’t see its live feed.

A loose wire was fixed and everything seemed OK, but then the legs stopped working.

Then, the robot’s sensors started failing, or its communications systems, or its processors. In a fictional scenario, this would be the point at which you’re screaming at the crew to jettison the failing creation to prevent a horrific mass space robomurder.

robonaut mobility upgrdeRobonaut 2 being upgraded. (NASA)

“We would start losing power to our computers within our operational window, and it got more and more severe as time went on,” Robonaut project manager Julia Badger told IEEE Spectrum.

“A power cycle would in general bring it back, just for a little while. The problem was that since it was intermittent, sometimes we’d be able to turn it on and sometimes it would just fail right away as it degraded, we weren’t necessarily able to trust the data – it was very confusing.”

To further complicate matters, the five robonaut copies kept on Earth are a slightly different model, which made coordinating troubleshooting tricky.

Eventually the team figured out that Robonaut was missing a ground cable, which meant electrical currents were finding other routes through its body – providing too much power to some parts and not enough to others. This was slowly degrading the machine.

Although the robot has been booted up a few times since it went down in 2015, it’s become clear that the problem will not be fixed in space.

NASA astronauts Joseph Acaba and Mark Vande Hei have now packaged the robot up in anticipation of its return to Earth. It will be sent back in the space freed up after an upcoming resupply mission.

Once it gets back to Earth, NASA roboticists will have to figure out whether Robonaut can be repaired, or whether it will need to be replaced by one of the newer models currently here on Earth.

%d bloggers like this: