The Week in Space: Breakthroughs for the James Webb Space Telescope, Vega-C Rocket
What a week! Hello, everyone, and welcome back to your favorite Friday-morning roundup of space news great and small. Let’s start with the big story: After weeks of suspense, we finally have the first science images from the fully commissioned James Webb space telescope! We also have updates from Psyche, Ingenuity, Vega-C, and SpaceX. Then, we’ll look at the intersection between aerospace and geopolitics — a no man’s land that has heretofore remained blissfully, literally, above the fray. Finally, to wash away the bitter taste of Earthly realpolitik, we’ll look back to the night sky for this week’s skywatching opportunities.
So let’s jump right in. First things first:
James Webb Space Telescope Sees ‘First Light,’ Celebrates With Astonishing Science Images
It’s a rare thing indeed when a bombshell news story turns out to be good news. But this week, that’s exactly what we’ve got. Tuesday, in a joint press conference, NASA, CSA, and the ESA released the first glamour shots from the James Webb space telescope, which is now open for science. There are five breathtaking images in the set released during the conference, and every one of them was lovingly designed to show off what Webb can do. But five images don’t tell the whole story. We combed through the data release to show you the best of the best. Here’s a peek:
You could shave the fuzz off a peach with the edge of that nebula. To see this and other superlatively beautiful images from the James Webb telescope’s official debut, check out our full-length analysis here.
Realpolitik Reaches Up the Well
You know that line from Alien, “In space, no one can hear you scream”? In a perfect vacuum, sound doesn’t travel. However, even interplanetary space isn’t a perfect vacuum. The moon has no atmosphere to speak of, but it still has a few dozen metric tons of various gases clinging by the atom to its surface. And in low-earth orbit (LEO), the atmosphere is still dense enough to produce significant drag on satellites like the ISS.
That must be why there’s so much noise coming from the ISS and the moon, these days.
Dmitry Rogozin, to whom I resent having to cede column inches, has yet again turned up the temperature on his rhetoric. And geopolitics has finally crept aboard the ISS, with Russian cosmonauts Oleg tktktk and tktktk posing last week behind an anti-Ukraine propaganda flag. Better yet, Monday morning greeted us with an interview between NASA administrator Bill Nelson and German newspaper Bild, wherein Nelson voiced official concern that China intends to mount a military takeover of the moon.
China’s Foreign Propaganda Office (I am not making a joke at China’s expense, that is its real name) promptly dispatched a spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, who responded to Nelson’s comments with a solemn and dignified “no u.”
Space stations dropped from LEO? Zero. Bases on the dark side of the moon? Zero. Treaties revoked? None so far. All this brinkmanship is exhausting. Instead, may we suggest that Mr. Rogozin and Mr. Zhao scream within their hearts?
Vega-C Takes Flight
Wednesday, the European Space Agency’s Vega-C lift vehicle made its inaugural flight — a success on all counts. The launch saw Vega-C deploy six CubeSats. It also deployed a science payload for LARES-2, an orbital physics experiment which the Italian Space Agency will use to test predictions of relativity.
ESA’s Director of Space Transportation, Daniel Neuenschwander, said before the launch that Vega-C will work alongside the Ariane 6 heavy lift vehicle to ensure Europe’s access to “flexible, competitive – and, critically, autonomous – launch capabilities.” In fact, two or four of Vega-C’s improved first-stage engine, the P120C, will serve as side boosters to the Ariane 6 rocket when it launches in 2023.
“With Vega-C and Ariane 6, Europe will have a flexible, independent solution for a fast-changing launch market,” Neuenschwander said.
“And, these two systems are the foundation of a development plan that will serve European institutions and commercial partners, opening a new chapter of European services.”
Check out the ESA’s highlights reel from the launch:
SpaceX Launches 25th Commercial Resupply Flight
After a five-week delay, SpaceX launched its 25th commercial resupply mission from Kennedy Space Center aboard a Cargo Dragon. The rocket took flight bearing some 5,800 lbs of supplies, bound for the International Space Station (ISS). The launch was originally scheduled for early June, but officials scrubbed the flight after SpaceX found a hydrazine leak in one of the rocket’s propellant lines.
“This is going to be a really busy mission for us,” said Dana Weigel, NASA’s deputy space station program manager. “It’s packed with a lot of science. The planned duration is about 33 days.”
This will be the third flight for Dragon’s cargo capsule, and the fifth for its booster, tail number B1067. After it completes its resupply mission, the capsule will splash down off the coast of Florida, sometime in mid-August.
NASA Grounds Ingenuity Until Dust Storms Pass
Martian dust storms kick up so much regolith that it’s getting into Ingenuity’s moving parts. Worse, the dust can cover up solar panels, starving a spacecraft of power altogether. And it’s dust storm season. Consequently, mission scientists have grounded the space copter for a while. “The #MarsHelicopter is taking a break for the next few weeks. It’s winter and dust season on Mars, which means less sunlight to recharge Ingenuity’s batteries. But don’t worry, the team expects the rotorcraft to fly again in August,” JPL said in a tweet.
Mission scientists have added a bit more detail. Dust levels should decline later in July, they explained in a blog post. Therefore, NASA said, “the team has decided to give the helicopter’s batteries a break for a few weeks and build their daily state of charge back up. Weather permitting, Ingenuity is expected to be back in the air around the start of August.”
Psyche Mission Review
NASA announced Thursday that it would conduct a systematic review of its troubled Psyche asteroid-science mission. The probe missed its launch window in 2022, due to persistent software issues. Unfortunately, it’s going to be a major hassle to reschedule, because the Psyche launch was supposed to include a ride-along: Janus, a different mission to another asteroid, with its own launch windows. So, NASA and the JPL have convened a panel to “examine project and institutional issues that led to the Psyche mission missing its planned 2022 launch opportunity, and to review the mission’s path forward.” They’ll be considering all options, from delaying until the next viable launch window for both missions, to canceling Psyche altogether. Psyche’s launch window closes on October 11 of this year.
The review will begin work on July 19th, and should deliver its results sometime in September.
Fans of the Sweet Meteor of Death 2024 ticket may appreciate that late last night, a gigantic comet made its closest approach to Earth. We first discovered the comet in 2017 (hence its full name, C/2017 K2), when it flared into activity while it was still out beyond the orbit of Saturn. Astronomers are taking note of the comet, known to space scientists as K2, because it’s the first we’ve ever seen become active this far away.
K2 will pass about 1.8 AU from Earth (that’s almost twice as far out as we are from the sun). But it’s still inbound! While K2 is still too faint for the naked eye to perceive, it may continue to brighten after its close approach to Earth, as the comet draws in toward the sun.
Speaking of luminous objects brushing past Saturn — while K2 has crossed Saturn’s orbit heading inward for warmer climes, the moon will pass by Saturn, as it makes its monthly tour of the heavens. While passing Saturn, the moon will transition from Capricorn into Aquarius this afternoon and then into Pisces on Saturday.
Wednesday afternoon marked this month’s full moon, the first after this year’s summer solstice. And it’s a supermoon! While it first entered full phase in the middle of the week, the moon will appear full well into Friday. There are four supermoons this year — in May, June, July and August. However, this week’s supermoon is the biggest and brightest of the whole year. It will appear up to 6% larger and 16% brighter than normal.
What Does “Supermoon” Mean?
The term “supermoon” was coined by astrologer Richard Nolle in 1979 and refers to either a new or full moon that occurs when the Moon is within 90% of perigee, its closest approach to Earth. Since this full moon peaked less than ten hours after perigee, it’s definitely a supermoon.
Per the Maine Farmer’s Almanac, the Algonquin tribes of what is now the northeastern US referred to this moon as the Buck Moon. This time of the summer is when buck deer are just growing out their antlers, and scraping off the velvet. The Almanac also calls it the Thunder Moon, for the frequent thunderstorms that sweep across the Plains, through the Great Lakes and up the Atlantic coast.