This Week in Space: Pet Rocks, Russia Squeaks, and Cargo Dragon’s Fuel Line Leaks
Friends, countrymen, space nerds — lend me your ears! For we come not to retweet space news, but to enjoy it. This week we’ll hear about a surprise collision at the James Webb Space Telescope. We’ll also hear about less-surprising threats from Russian space agency Roscosmos. (They’re not even threatening the ISS this time!) There’s news from Mars, from both Ingenuity and Perseverance. Also, SpaceX had to scrub a launch after a hydrazine leak on the launchpad. And last but not least, we’ll tell you about the best skywatching targets for June.
Russia Threatens to Unilaterally Reactivate German Telescope
We’ve written before about tensions between the US and Russia over the long-term fate of the International Space Station. But other nations are stakeholders in the ISS. Furthermore, some EU nations have their own projects they jointly administer with Russia. One such project is the Spektr-RG space telescope, a collaboration between Russia and Germany.
The Spektr-RG observatory carries two instruments: eROSITA and ART-XC. ART-XC is an X-ray telescope of Russian manufacture, which captures high-energy photons in the 5-30 keV range. eROSITA was built by the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics and is designed to measure X-rays in the 2-10 keV range.
Germany turned off eROSITA earlier this year to protest Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Now, Dmitry Rogozin, swindler-in-chief of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, has declared that his agency will hijack the telescope and operate it alone.
“I gave instructions to start work on restoring the operation of the German telescope in the Spektr-RG system so it works together with the Russian telescope,” Rogozin said. “Despite Germany’s demand to shut down one of the two telescopes at Spektr-RG, Russian specialists insist on continuing its work. Roscosmos will make relevant decisions in the near future.”
He then added: “The people that made the decision to shut down the telescope don’t have a moral right to halt this research for humankind just because their pro-fascist views are close to our enemies.”
German scientists have expressed alarm about the potential damage Russia could do if it operates the device incorrectly, and have also pointed out that academic journals may not accept papers based on such data in the first place. Rogozin himself is known for making this kind of inflammatory statements, typically with little to show for it thereafter.
Sadly, Rogozin’s moral authority was unavailable for comment.
James Webb Telescope a Smashing Success, Literally
The James Webb Space telescope took an unexpected hit from a micrometeorite between May 23 and May 25. While the micrometeroid was reportedly larger than what NASA had modeled, the telescope was designed to cope with these impacts.
NASA can adjust the individual mirrors that make up the telescope’s lens. Furthermore, they have a suite of software tools designed to clean up and process images from the telescope. The system was designed to allow for the JWST’s output to “gracefully degrade” from micrometeroid strikes over time.
Somehow, this is not less stressful.
NASA Delays ISS Launch After Dragon Springs a Leak
NASA and SpaceX agreed to delay the launch of a Cargo Dragon for several weeks, while they work out what caused a fuel leak in one of the hypergolic propellant fuel lines. Technicians detected unacceptable levels of mono-methyl hydrazine in one of the Draco thrusters, while prepping the launch vehicle earlier this week. Both propellant and oxidizer were offloaded to allow the vehicle to undergo further inspection. SpaceX expects the launch to be delayed at least until the end of the month.
This particular Cargo Dragon, C208, previously flew two supply missions in 2021. Solving these kinds of problems with Cargo Dragon is important, given how much hardware is common to both the Crew Dragon and Cargo Dragon platforms.
SpaceX is optimistic that they’ll resolve the propellant leak in short order. Meanwhile, NASA expects no issues with keeping the ISS supplied as a result of this delay.
Perseverance Has a Pet Rock…
It’s lonely out there on Mars. Nevertheless, Perseverance has managed to find a friend: a pet rock! It’s been traveling with Perseverance for more than five miles.
This isn’t the first time a rover has picked up a rock — Spirit and Curiosity have done so in the past as well — but they tend to fall back out of the wheels before too long. Not so for Perseverance and its pet rock. This potato-sized hitch-hiker is on its way to the record books.
Perseverance is currently climbing to the top of the Three Forks river delta, part of the ancient crater lake that once filled Jezero Crater. As part of the rover’s six-month Delta Front science campaign, it will deliver pictures and video, do spectroscopy, and gather additional rock core samples.
…But Ingenuity Has Vertigo
Ingenuity, the space helicopter that traveled along with Perseverance, has had a fabulous run. It’s made dozens of flights and offered us an entirely new view of Mars from the air. The space copter came to Mars as a tech demo. NASA never expected Ingenuity to last as long as it already has. However, there are some signs it’s beginning to have mechanical problems. According to NASA scientists, Ingenuity’s inclinometer is not working properly. Ingenuity is acting like it has vertigo.
The inclinometer is actually two accelerometers, under the hood. Ingenuity uses the device to stay right side up during takeoff and landing. Without a working inclinometer, mission scientists will have to change Ingenuity’s takeoff and landing procedures, explained Håvard Grip, Ingenuity Mars Helicopter Chief Pilot at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
But all is not lost. There are actually other sensors aboard Ingenuity that can serve in the inclinometer’s stead. Elsewhere in the helicopter’s suite of instruments, the inertial measurement unit (IMU) has its own separate accelerometers. The IMU’s sensors can serve as a fall-back, so the helicopter can still take off and land safely.
Either way, the Ingenuity mission team isn’t panicking. On the contrary, they had planned for such a situation. Grip explained, “Anticipating that this situation could potentially arise, we prepared the required software patch prior to last year’s arrival on Mars and kept it on the shelf for this eventuality. We are therefore able to move quickly with the update, and the process of uplinking it to Ingenuity is already underway.”
Summer is coming into full flower, in the Northern Hemisphere. As the nights get warmer, summer constellations are drifting into view. It doesn’t cost a cent to wander outside and cast your eyes on the gentle night sky. (But you might regain some mana.) In this video, NASA experts overview skywatching standouts for the month of June.
From North America, just before dawn, skywatchers can see several planets in alignment. In May, Mars and Venus came into conjunction. This month, Mars and Jupiter will come into conjunction and then drift apart. But an hour before dawn, all this month, skywatchers will see Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, in elegant alignment across the southeastern sky. The Moon will join the show toward the end of the month.
That does it for this week. But next week, rumor has it that scientists will release a brand-new, gigantic, exquisitely detailed map of the entire Milky Way. Tune in and find out!