This Week in Space: May the Fourth Be With You

Hello and welcome to This Week in Space, our weekly roundup of all the space news that’s fit to print — or at least, distract you from doomscrolling.

First off, May the Fourth be with you: this week we marked Star Wars Day, a nerd-culture staple. Any reason to try out that new banana bread recipe, amirite?

But there’s more good news. The new Star Trek series, Strange New Worlds, debuted Thursday on Paramount+. Initial reviews suggest that the series follows close in the footsteps of TOS and TNG, embracing its monster-of-the-week format. By starting with some characters we’ve already “met” (Spock, Uhura, Christopher Pike), Strange New Worlds may well avoid the more awkward aspects of backstory-building. (We’re looking at you, Voyager.)

Crew-3 Splashes Down After Extended Mission

Early this morning, Crew-3 astronauts splashed down safely off the Florida coast. After their six-month stay on the International Space Station, Crew-3 returned to Earth aboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule named Endurance. The crew of four included NASA astronauts Thomas Marshburn, Kayla Barron and Raja Chari, along with Matthias Maurer of the ESA.

Taking up the baton, Crew-4 arrived at the ISS a week ago to debrief. They will remain in residence on the ISS for four months or more. Crew-4 is the first of its kind to include equal numbers of men and women. The mission roster also includes Jessica Watkins, who will become the first Black woman to stay on the ISS for a long-term mission.

Perseverance Creates ‘Accidental Zen Art’

Mars is a lonely place. Covered in rocks and regolith that vary in color from dusty orange to orangey dust, it nevertheless sparks joy for a certain type of person. And not all of us hate sand. So if you like Mars and/or Zen gardens, you may enjoy (as I did) finding out that Perseverance created some “accidental Zen art” on its way toward Three Forks.

Currently, Perseverance is moving toward the foot of its long-sought scientific target, the Three Forks river delta. Currently, Ingenuity is scouting a path for Perseverance to follow. While the space copter can opt out of obstacles on the ground, only two of the delta’s three forks look passable to the rover. Once mission scientists pick a route, the rover’s six-month Delta Front science campaign will begin.

NASA Solicits Public Comments on Mars Sample Return Mission

Speaking of NASA, they’re once again asking for your support commentary. This time, it concerns the joint NASA-ESA Mars Sample Return mission. In a virtual public meeting Thursday, NASA delivered a briefing on the Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission, including its environmental impact.  To wit: the samples that Perseverance picks up on Mars have to get home somehow. NASA is proposing to land the returning MSR spacecraft at the Air Force Test and Training Range in Utah.

The MSR mission’s timeline has recently taken a bit of a stumble. Concerns about the size and mass of a single jack-of-all-trades spacecraft led NASA to split the mission into an orbiter and a lander. That pushed its launch date out another two years, to 2028.

In a statement, NASA wrote, “Comments will be accepted through the mail and online through Monday, May 16, 2022.”

The Front Fell Off

Boeing’s Starliner caused a moment of consternation Thursday when what appeared to be a protective window cover fell off the capsule on its way to Cape Canaveral’s Pad 41. CBS space news reporter William Harwood captured video of the incident.

The Starliner is slated to launch for its second Orbital Flight Test on May 19th. If all goes well, the un-crewed capsule will dock with the ISS about eight hours later.

Boeing later confirmed that the renegade was, in fact, a protective window cover. Harwood reports that there’s “no problem for the spacecraft.” Still. Americans have a cultural memory about this. You see, there was this other time that some protective bit fell off a spacecraft before launch. The thing that fell off ended up being really important. Don’t scare me like this, Boeing. You owe me coffee.

“Put Dmitry Rogozin on ‘ignore’”

One great thing about being too school for cool is that you learn early how to deal with cheap bullies. The only way to win is not to play. And besides, what makes a bullying attempt go limp faster than being profoundly unbothered? That’s why Eric Berger at Ars Technica rightly points out that “the Western space community should put Dmitry Rogozin on ‘ignore.’”

Last weekend, Rogozin got to talking on Russian state TV, and by Monday reports had surfaced that Russia had quit the ISS. But “Russia is quitting the ISS” is like Rogozin’s second favorite thing to say lately, right behind “Daddy, can I have my job back?”

The man is a paper tiger. Despite his escalating war of words, cooler heads have prevailed when it comes to the relationship between NASA and Roscosmos. NASA astronauts just handed off the ISS to a cosmonaut, Oleg Artemyev, on their way home. Moreover, the international coalition managing the ISS has already committed to keeping it aloft through 2024. So let’s leave Rogozin on read.

Skywatcher’s Corner

Finally, May promises a movable feast of skywatching opportunities. Mark your calendar for an upcoming total lunar eclipse on the night of May 15, which will be visible from most of North America. The evening’s festivities will begin at about 10:30 PM EDT (9:30 Central), when the leading edge of the eclipse first becomes visible. The total eclipse begins at 11:30PM EDT. Viewers in the Eastern and Central time zones should be able to see the eclipse from start to end. Skywatchers on the west coast should still be able to catch the total phase, which will begin around 8:30PM Western time.

This eclipse will be a long one — the total phase will last nearly an hour and a half. It’s a follow-up to the partial solar eclipse of April 30. Chicago’s Adler Planetarium explains, “Eclipses don’t happen often. When they do, they come in pairs about two weeks apart.” After the eclipse winds itself down in the wee hours of May 16, look eastward to observe Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn roughly aligned along the ecliptic. Mars and Jupiter will be just a few degrees apart, reaching conjunction at the end of the month.

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