This Week in Space: SOFIA Takes One on the Nose
Good afternoon, folks, and happy Friday! Holy heat wave. We’re not the only ones experiencing these torrid temperatures; another “canyon of fire” has opened up on the sun. Its associated solar flare let go when it was pointed directly at the Earth. In fact, much of this week’s space news is actually about Earthly developments. This may be because so many of NASA’s spacecraft are either in hibernation or experiencing power supply problems.
Nevertheless, this week we’ve got updates aplenty. Apparently, everything that happened this week happened on Thursday. An international team of astronomers reported this week that they used images from the James Webb space telescope to find the oldest galaxy in the universe. An astronaut and a cosmonaut conducted a successful cooperative spacewalk yesterday, on the International Space Station. NASA officials went on the record with a tentative launch date for the Artemis 1 mission, just as Northrop Grumman test fired the SLS rocket’s FSB-2 solid rocket boosters. And SpaceX is putting up the curtains on its new launchpad at Kennedy’s fabled Launch Complex 39. However, two SpaceX launches got scrubbed or delayed, respectively. And NASA’s flying observatory, SOFIA, took one on the nose in New Zealand.
‘Canyon of Fire’ Unleashes Plasma Filament Straight at Earth
The current heat wave feels like we’re standing on the surface of the sun. But on the actual sun, the usual stellar inferno is flaring to a crescendo. Another “canyon of fire” opened up on the sun last week. When its solar flare let go, it was pointing more or less straight at Earth. Now, it’s here. Welcome to Canyon of Fire II: Electric Boogaloo.
“The long snake-like filament cartwheeled its way off the Sun in a stunning ballet,” Tamitha Skov, a space weather physicist, said in a Tweet after the eruption. “The magnetic orientation of this Earth-directed solar storm is going to be tough to predict. G2-level (possibly G3) conditions may occur if the magnetic field of this storm is oriented southward!”
This is a developing situation, but we’ll know more as the day goes on. In any case, the geomagnetic storm isn’t going to become a Carrington-level disruption. Solar flares like this one can cause fluctuations in power grids and certain satellite functions (like cell service and GPS). But it shouldn’t be dramatic. Instead, it may bring the aurora borealis as far south as Michigan and Maine.
That’s not very far south.
See what I mean?
Scientists Spot Oldest Galaxy in the Universe in Images from James Webb
Just ten days ago, the James Webb space telescope opened for science. But its images are already coming into use. An international team of astronomers reported this week that they had used deep-field images from Webb to identify the oldest galaxy in the observable universe. Meet GLASS-z13, a deeply redshifted collection of stars that formed just 300 million years after the Big Bang:
The ancient galaxy comes with a slightly less redshifted sidekick, GLASS-z11. Based on their mass, spectral characteristics, and redshift, these ancient galaxies would have formed during the Universe’s re-ionization epoch. And at just 1300 and 2600 light years across, they’re relatively quite small. In comparison, our sun formed about nine billion years after the Big Bang, and the Milky Way is about ten thousand light years from side to side.
Astronaut and Cosmonaut Conduct Successful Spacewalk
Europe and America are both operating at an epic trust deficit with Russia. That makes it all the more relieving to know that astronauts and cosmonauts still know how to cooperate aboard the International Space Station. Yesterday, ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti and cosmonaut Oleg Artemyev conducted a cooperative spacewalk, in order to make repairs to the station’s new robotic arm.
Tether or no tether, it takes guts to suit up and walk out an airlock. But the new arm is on the outside of the space station’s chassis. Moreover, the two also had to hand-deploy some satellites. So, the pair did their work with the assistance of the station’s robotic Kibo Arm and Canadarm-2… and their own nerves of steel. Artemyev and Cristoforetti were outside the station for a total of seven hours and five minutes.
NASA Grounds Their SOFIA Flying Telescope After Storm Damage
The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) is adjusting its science observation plans and canceling the remainder of its Southern Hemisphere deployment following damage to the aircraft caused by severe weather on Monday, July 18. Nobody was injured. However, high winds caught the plane’s access ladder, damaging the ladder itself as well as the nose of the plane.
New stairs are on the way. However, the SOFIA team has determined that the repairs will take at least three weeks. Unfortunately, this means that they won’t be able to conduct the rest of this mission’s science observation flights.
SOFIA is currently operating out of Christchurch International Airport in New Zealand, to better observe celestial objects in the southern skies.
NASA Officials Set Tentative Launch Date for Artemis 1 Maiden Flight
NASA officials said Wednesday that the agency is tentatively targeting Aug. 29 for the maiden flight of their moon rocket, the Space Launch System. The Artemis team is trying to launch the rocket within launch period 25, which runs from August 23 through September 6. However, their current “no-earlier-than” launch window opens Aug. 29, at 8:33 a.m. EDT.
The mission’s launch window is narrow, and the moon rocket’s schedule is precarious. The most recent delay was a hardware failure in one of the rocket’s hydrogen lines, explained Jim Free, NASA director of exploration. It took longer than the team expected, partly because they had to crawl inside the rocket’s first-stage engine. But this is characteristic of the beleaguered SLS program as a whole.
Circumspect agency officials noted that they’re being cautious with their timelines. NASA won’t set a final launch date for the SLS until later this summer. If the rocket doesn’t make its deadlines for this launch, backup dates extend into October.
Northrop Grumman Test Fires FSB-2 Rocket Booster Ahead of Artemis Launch
With all the testing going on around here, you’d think it was Aperture Science. Yesterday, Northrop Grumman started up its Flight Support Booster 2 (FSB-2) solid rocket booster in a successful two-minute test fire. FSB-2 boosters will provide 75% of the total thrust for the SLS rocket during the crucial first two minutes after launch.
With these rockets, Northrop Grumman is moving away from hydrazine. While the FSB-2 boosters do use a solid propellant, it’s a mixture of fuel and oxidizer, combined into a rubbery substance called polybutadiene acrylonitrile, or PBAN for short.
Thursday’s tests took place at a former Thiokol facility in Promontory, Utah.
SpaceX Launches Delayed
SpaceX scrubbed its Thursday morning Falcon 9 launch at T-minus 46 seconds. There’s no indication it was inclement weather, but SpaceX didn’t specify a reason for the abort. Instead, they went back for another round, and lifted off from Vandenburg at 1:39 PM, EDT.
LAUNCH! SpaceX Falcon 9 B1071-4 launches Starlink Group 3-2 mission from SLC-4E at Vandenberg.
Overview:https://t.co/xqB4LMlrXF – by Trevor Sesnic (@124970MeV)
NSF Livestream:https://t.co/OnzwK0DBTE pic.twitter.com/X8V09GKCUv
— Chris Bergin – NSF (@NASASpaceflight) July 22, 2022
This launch is a Starlink mission. It will ferry 46 Starlink satellites into low-earth orbit (LEO). But as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew program, SpaceX also ferries astronauts to and from the International Space Station. That is, they will — in late September. NASA announced Thursday that Crew-5, the next SpaceX Commercial Crew mission, will launch some weeks later than intended.
“A launch at the end of September will allow SpaceX to complete hardware processing and mission teams will continue to review the launch date based on the space station’s visiting spacecraft schedule,” NASA officials wrote in a statement.
When it does launch, Crew-5 will include NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada, alongside Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata and Russian cosmonaut Anna Kikina.
Kikina’s presence in the cabin will be a milestone. Crew-5 will be the first SpaceX flight to carry a cosmonaut. NASA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos are also doing their own crew swap: cosmonaut Andrei Fedyaev is on the roster for Crew-6, which is targeting a launch in the spring of 2023. Meanwhile, American astronauts Loral O’Hara and Frank Rubio will each fly on separate Soyuz missions, between now and the end of the year.
It remains to be seen whether today’s geomagnetic storm will last long enough into the night to make the aurora visible against the brightness of the sky. But even if it fizzles out, this is sure to be far from the last turbulent space weather in our near future. We’re in the ascending phase of this solar cycle, which means that the solar flares are likely to intensify. But this cycle’s sunspot activity is already more intense than normal. Today’s solar storm is the second flare to hit us within 24 hours. It’s great news if you like the light show, and not necessarily great if you need your GPS to get to your skywatching site.
Even if you’re too far from the poles to see the aurora borealis or aurora australis, there’s abundantly enough lovely things to look at in the night sky this next week. There are three meteor showers currently active! Currently we have the alpha Capricornids, the Southern delta Aquariids, and the Perseids, all at the same time in the same sky as the waning crescent moon.
Catch a Shooting Star
Technically, the Perseids run from July 14 to September 1 this year. But like the boundaries of the debris cloud, those temporal boundaries are… porous. In fact, the cloud of comet debris that produces this shower has diffused somewhat, after we made a few planet-sized passes through it. Consequently, the light show begins and ends a bit outside its scheduled times — like how our sky begins to brighten before the sun is visible above the horizon.
Diffuse as it may be, the Perseids’ debris cloud is still thick enough to produce a beautiful show. This shower is already active, but it will reach a “strong maximum” on August 12-13, visible from anywhere in the Northern hemisphere. The Southern delta Aquariids come from a radiant in the southern hemisphere, meaning that viewers north of the equator will have a more difficult time catching them. But the alpha Capricornids are a different story altogether. The alpha Capricornids are a delight to the eye, because while the shower itself isn’t the strongest, large pieces of debris from the meteor shower’s parent comet 169P/NEAT tend to make brilliant, streaking fireballs.
Skywatchers in darker regions can expect to see perhaps 60-75 meteors per hour, most from the Perseids radiant in its eponymous constellation, Perseus. As always, viewers will have the most luck spotting meteors under clear, dark skies. The Perseids shower is also known for its fireballs, so even urban light pollution may not block out the glow of a few shooting stars. But skywatchers will have to contend with the brilliance of a 100% full moon at the time the Perseids peak.
That’s all for now, folks. I’m off to dump a few bags of ice into a kiddie pool, and sit in it like a Siberian husky. Wish me luck.