Week in Space 7/31 – 8/6: Cygnus, Crosstalk, and Cartwheels
This week in space, we learn that Russia isn’t quite as ready to be done with the ISS as it might have indicated a few weeks ago. We’ll also hear that NASA’s Lucy spacecraft is in much better shape after successfully hauling its dodgy solar panel into proper alignment. Well, sort of. Close enough for government work. But the James Webb telescope also continues to impress. And NASA wants YOU to help spot space spirals on Jupiter.
Russian official confirms Russia’s commitment to ISS
In this week’s installation of geopolitical ping-pong, a Russian official confirmed Russia’s commitment to the International Space Station through 2024. Last week, Yuri Borisov, the new head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, declared (and then un-declared) that Russia would leave the ISS consortium in 2024. Or 2028. Or something.
But this week, Sergei Krikalev, executive director of human spaceflight for Roscosmos, clarified Borisov’s remarks. Krikalev is well known to NASA; he’s flown on the shuttle twice, made six separate space flights, and spent more than 800 days in space. And he’s a man of many talents because now he’s apparently doing damage control.
“Cooperation is very important in a program like this for all partners,” Krikalev said through a translator at a joint press conference with NASA. “As far as the statement about 2024, perhaps something was lost in translation. But the statement actually said that Russia will not pull out of the program until after 2024. This means up until the end of 2024, there will be no change. And after 2024, maybe 2025, maybe 2028 or 2030, a concrete decision about termination of the program will be made based on the technical condition of the station and the consensus of all partners.”
Atlas 5 rocket lifts off from Canaveral at daybreak
Thursday morning at the crack of dawn, United Launch Alliance (ULA) successfully launched an Atlas 5 rocket from pad 41 at Cape Canaveral.
After yesterday’s launch, ULA has 21 more Atlas 5s in its inventory. ULA, a 50-50 collaboration between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, is developing the Vulcan Centaur heavy lift vehicle to replace the Atlas and Delta rocket families.
ULA has been working to get this spacecraft human-ready and flight capable for some time. Once it’s in the air, Vulcan Centaur will be one of three American lift vehicles capable of carrying humans (not just cargo or CubeSats). Between ULA, SpaceX, and Boeing, commercial space enterprises are dramatically reducing American reliance on Russian launch vehicles and spaceports.
Lucy’s Power Array Fully Unfurled (Sort Of)
NASA’s Lucy spacecraft is sailing merrily on its way to visit several groups of asteroids in our solar system. But after its launch last October, the spacecraft’s solar panels got stuck while trying to unfurl. NASA’s intrepid engineers have been troubleshooting since then, trying to get Lucy’s power budget back. Eventually, they identified the culprit: a stuck lanyard that should have helped spread Lucy’s solar sails. Instead, it got jammed. So, the Lucy team performed a highly technical “jiggle it back and forth a bit” maneuver. And it worked! Lucy’s solar array is now at full deployment.
Well, almost. It’s close enough for government work.
Lucy’s solar sails are 360-degree circles. NASA says the solar array is now between 353 and 357 degrees open. But since the spacecraft is getting above 90% of its power budget, mission scientists are confident that Lucy will do just fine with the solar array as-is.
NASA Wants YOU to Help Spot These Beautiful Vortices on Jupiter
Gas giants like Jupiter can host storms of mind-boggling size. Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is a giga-storm, ten thousand miles from side to side. It could swallow the Earth whole. But there are tons of smaller storms on Jupiter. Studying them can teach us about how Jupiter formed, and what it’s made of. That’s why a new NASA citizen science project, the Jovian Vortex Hunter, is inviting anyone and everyone to help NASA spot the swirling vortices of storms on Jupiter.
Anyone who’s interested can participate. Just swipe through images, and when you see a spiral like these, tag it. And you don’t need any training, money, or special equipment — a laptop or cell phone will do.
James Webb Space Telescope
The Cartwheel Galaxy is one of our best windows into what happens after one galaxy slams into another. It’s a fate of particular interest to astronomers because our own galaxy is set to collide with Andromeda in four billion years or so. The Cartwheel Galaxy is thought to have undergone its own collision within the past several hundred million years, and it’s oriented towards us like a bullseye as opposed to at an oblique angle or on edge. As a result, we have an unparalleled view of how the disruption affected it.
Scientists have known about the Cartwheel Galaxy for some time and have previously imaged it with the Hubble Space Telescope. But while Hubble has provided us with an unparalleled view into the heavens, it has a fraction of the JWST’s imaging potential.
The advanced perspective offered by the JWST allows us to visualize the large-scale structures of the galaxy like never before. As my colleague Ryan Whitwam wrote:
“Astronomers have noted the smoother distribution of older star populations in the core versus the clumpy nature of younger populations in the expanding ring. Neither of these was discernible in Hubble’s data. The red veins weaving through the galaxy are also much sharper in Webb’s image — you can barely see them with Hubble. NASA says these are like the skeleton of the Cartwheel Galaxy, composed mainly of hydrocarbons and silicate dust (similar to Earthside dust).”
This month, the dramatic fireball streaks of the Perseids are lighting up the evening skies. The Perseids are a yearly meteor shower that peaks on August 12th this year. However, just as the meteor shower reaches its peak, the waxing moon turns to full. Still, because this meteor shower tends to produce tons of lovely fireballs, don’t give up on the show!
Elsewhere in the night sky, there are still more skywatching opportunities. One lovely August constellation is Cygnus, the swan. Soaring Cygnus contains a formation we sometimes call the Northern Cross.
The swan’s tail, Deneb, is the brightest star in Cygnus. Deneb is the northernmost of the three stars in the Summer Triangle, and it’s visible even to viewers under bright city skies. The swan’s outstretched ‘beak’ is double star Albireo. NASA skywatching expert Preston Dyches says that Albireo is a stargazing favorite, as it dazzles with blue and gold colors through “even a modest telescope.”
That’s all for today. We’ll see you next week: same time, same station. Stay frosty!