This Week In Space: We Can Still Have Nice Things
Good morning, gentle reader, and welcome to your Friday roundup of the best stories and images from This Week in Space. This week, it’s all good news. The James Webb Space Telescope is fully aligned and sailing through its commissioning phase. And the JWST isn’t the only thing that’s aligned in a most auspicious way. Read on for specifics on how to observe a total lunar eclipse of the full moon on Sunday night — during an uncommon, and lovely, alignment of four planets.
James Webb Space Telescope Takes Off the Training Wheels
Since its launch in 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has knocked out every objective NASA set up for it. It’s fully unfolded, fully aligned, and patrolling the Sun-Earth L2 point at its ordained mission temperature of 6K. Now, NASA has released the first gorgeous, crystal-clear images from Webb. They compare what Webb and other space telescopes each see when they look at the same spot in the sky. And the difference is astonishing. Webb’s clarity of vision makes Spitzer look decidedly 8-bit. Here’s an example of the difference between what Spitzer saw, and what Webb now sees:
In a press conference Monday, JWST project scientists briefed the public on the telescope’s mission milestones thus far. The shiny new telescope is in its final “commissioning” phase, calibrating and testing its instruments as though it was stretching out its wings for the first time. And the metaphor works; last week, Webb unfurled its delicate five-layer sunshield for an in-situ stress test. In a careful series of slewing maneuvers, mission engineers spun the telescope in place, exposing the shield’s sunward surfaces to thermal extremes. Now it’s time to bring the telescope’s four science instruments into collective harmony. Once the Webb team approves the elaborate, 17-mode testing phase, the James Webb Space Telescope will be ready for its scientific debut.
First Direct Images of Sagittarius A*
Speaking of scientific debuts, Thursday was a red-letter day. Scientists from the Event Horizon Telescope revealed the first direct evidence of Sagittarius A* (abbreviated Sgr A*, pronounced “sadge-ay-star”), the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy. Headlining the show was this image of Sgr A*, wreathed in the glowing remains of two itinerant stars it’s in the process of devouring:
The black hole’s accretion rate is uneven. The incandescent streaks of star-stuff falling into Sgr A* are moving at near-lightspeed, in an orbit that takes mere minutes to complete. This, combined with long exposure times required by the EHT, may explain the fact that we see blurry streaks of light, instead of an even, symmetrical halo.
The EHT triangulates between multiple radio arrays around the globe, to create one giant radio telescope, the size of the Earth. Eight observatories participated in this groundbreaking research, including ALMA and APEX, long-wave radio telescope arrays located at the European Southern Observatory, in the sere and silent heights of the Atacama Desert. In this breathtaking fly-through video, the ESO starts at ALMA and zooms in the whole way to Sgr A*. Warning: they do a bit of a barrel roll.
When the EHT Collaboration announced their capture of the first images of Sagittarius A*, they open-sourced all their data on the spot. That’s right — the earth-shaking thud you heard around 9:15 EDT was the EHT Collaboration dropping petabytes of invaluable data. Michael Janssen, of the EHT Collaboration, explained that the data the team used to construct these images is “fully public, on multiple levels.” Janssen added that the EHT Collaboration released their raw data, along with their algorithms and their cleaned-up data set, “so anyone can reproduce what we did, from scratch.”
Nevertheless, They Persevered
NASA’s Perseverance rover is a year into its exploration of Mars, and it has been a smashing success in almost every way. This rockstar rover is bristling with advanced instruments that could teach us about the geology of other planets, and even help reveal evidence of ancient life on the Red Planet. Even so, Ingenuity has stolen the spotlight. The Martian smol-icopter started out as a mere technology demo, practically a stowaway along for the ride. But since it arrived, Ingenuity has absolutely crushed all expectations.
NASA extended Ingenuity’s mission because of its outstanding performance. But the space helicopter is facing some problems. After a recent power issue, NASA suspended the rover’s mission in hopes of saving the helicopter. Their Hail Mary worked, but winter is coming. Hopefully this isn’t the end for the history-making helicopter.
Perseverance is based on the Curiosity chassis, which we know from experience can survive years of bitter Martian winters. But Ingenuity is composed of off-the-shelf hardware, like a Snapdragon 801 smartphone processor and conventional Li-ion batteries. We don’t know how well it’s going to do over this winter, but we’re about to learn on the fly. Mission engineers have powered Ingenuity down for the winter months. The helicopter will wake up in the Martian spring, once temperatures rise to -40C (also -40F).
Last week, we teased a total eclipse of the full moon on the night of May 15, which will be visible from most of North America. Now it’s time to break out the lawn chairs, blankets, and car hoods. This eclipse will be a long one — the total phase will last nearly an hour and a half.
The show will begin at about 10:30 PM EDT (9:30 Central), when the leading edge of the eclipse first becomes visible on the East coast. 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. Check out the NASA livestream here:
This eclipse is a follow-up to the partial solar eclipse of April 30. Due to orbital dynamics between the Earth, Moon and Sun, Chicago’s Adler Planetarium explains, “Eclipses don’t happen often. When they do, they come in pairs about two weeks apart.”
If you’re still awake after the eclipse winds itself down in the wee hours of May 16, look eastward before dawn breaks to observe Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn aligned roughly along the ecliptic. Mars and Jupiter will be just a few degrees apart, reaching conjunction at the end of the month. #lookup
That’s all for this week. Tune in next Friday for our space news roundup, same bat time, same bat channel.