This Week in Space: Star Wars Day, Black Hole Week, and IRIS²
Hi there, fellow space nerds, and welcome to a Week in Space that is nerdy indeed—for this Thursday was Star Wars Day, smack in the middle of international Black Hole Week 2023. The Czech Republic signed the Artemis Accords. We've got updates from the International Space Station and a meteor shower made of debris from Halley's Comet. SpaceX wants to launch Starship within a few months, but the FAA may see that timeline differently. We'll also read reports of a new pan-European Starlink competitor, water in a distant exoplanet's atmosphere (sort of), and a zillion tiny Big Bangs.
Black Hole Week 2023
For a little scientific levity, every year, scientists around the world celebrate Black Hole Week. It's a chance to contemplate the truly awe-inspiring forces at work near the very edges of the laws of physics—and to make scientific puns of dad-joke caliber. This year, just in time for the party, astronomers announced new work speculating that primordial black holes throughout deep time could have created their own tiny Big Bangs. And Thursday, NASA posted a video sizing up the largest single objects in the universe: supermassive black holes.
SpaceX Wants to Relaunch Starship in Six Weeks
Starship's launch a few weeks back caused significant damage to SpaceX's launch pad in Boca Chica, but the company plans to finish repairs sooner rather than later. Over the weekend, Elon Musk noted that work began three months ago on a water-cooled steel plate that would sit underneath Starship's launch mount. Musk described the system as "a water-jacketed sandwich that's two layers of plate steel that are also perforated on the upper side" and compared it with a "massive, super-strong steel shower head pointing upward."
With an improved cooling system already under construction, SpaceX hopes to launch Starship in 6-8 weeks rather than the 4-6 months it would take to build a solution from scratch. The exact launch schedule won't be entirely up to SpaceX, however. There are two obstacles potentially standing in the way.
First, the FAA is currently investigating SpaceX over problems with Starship's Flight Termination System, or FTS. SpaceX detonated Starship only a few minutes after launch after engine failures made the mission impossible. Unfortunately, it took 40 seconds for the rocket to explode after the termination command was sent. The delay harmed no one, but a 40-second gap is far too long for an out-of-control rocket moving at hundreds of miles per hour. How quickly Starship launches will depend partly on what the FAA's investigation finds and its recommended remedial actions.
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Another factor that could impact Starship's launch schedule is various environmental groups' recent lawsuit against the FAA. As my colleague Ryan Whitwam discussed earlier this week, five organizations have sued the FAA—not SpaceX—for allegedly violating the National Environment Policy Act. The plaintiffs allege that the FAA failed to conduct a detailed environmental impact statement, or EIS, before it allowed Starship to launch. Instead, the FAA allegedly bowed to SpaceX's preference and required a programmatic environmental assessment (PEA), which is a much less thorough analysis.
If a judge agrees with the plaintiffs, it could delay future Starship launches for quite a while. According to a 2020 report from the Department of Energy, only a few projects manage to complete the process in under two years. The median time to complete an EIS across all federal agencies was nearly twice that long.
Starlink Quietly Ditches Data Cap as Europe Mulls Competing Service
Last year Starlink announced it would introduce data caps and per-gigabyte overage fees. But, possibly in response to user outcry, the switch from the current unlimited usage was then delayed to February 2023—and has now been canceled. Starlink customers report receiving emails informing them that their subscription service will remain unlimited rather than being "deprioritized after 1TB of data use."
Starlink hasn't publicly commented on the shift back toward an unlimited model, but we can think of one reason why the company might have made this change. It's not unusual for ISPs to impose data ceilings, throttling bandwidth. But Starlink has one primary satellite ISP competitor in the United States whose name is practically synonymous with the term data cap: Hughesnet. The Hughesnet satellite service offers high latency and low performance (25Mbps up, 3Mbps down), but what it's really known for is charging through the nose for relatively tiny amounts of data. Starlink's vastly higher speeds obviously matter to its customer base—but so does that unlimited data cap, especially for those of us living out in the boondocks who have previously been stuck using Hughesnet because the cable company won't run cable out that far. (Ask me how I know.)
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While Starlink scrambles to straighten out its congestion issues, several European satellite companies have formed a consortium that announced a joint plan this week to create a Starlink competitor in low Earth orbit. Last November, the EU announced its intention to build the Infrastructure for Resilience, Interconnectivity, and Security by Satellite (IRIS²). "IRIS² establishes space as a vector of our European autonomy, a vector of connectivity, and a vector of resilience," said EU Commissioner Thierry Breton at the time. "It heightens Europe's role as a true space power. With a clear ambition and sense of direction." This Tuesday, the consortium—nearly every European satellite company, including Airbus Defence and Space, Deutsche Telekom, Orange, SES, and Thales Alenia Space—announced it had collectively bid on the project. If there were doubts about the utility of services like Starlink, Russia's invasion of Ukraine permanently put them to rest. The EU doesn't want to rely on a foreign service provided by SpaceX or Amazon's theoretical Project Kuiper, preferring to develop its own system instead.
Currently, the system is budgeted to cost roughly six billion euros, with global coverage available by 2027. It's an ambitious timeline for this kind of project, especially given the number of companies involved. Undoubtedly, the EU has the expertise to create this kind of system, but Ariane 6 won't fly until 2024 at the earliest, and it'll take more than one launch to deploy a global satellite constellation.
The JUICE Is Obtuse
Not so long ago, we reported that the ESA's new Jovian ice probe, JUICE, had launched on its merry way to survey Jupiter and its frostbound moons. But as it turns out, JUICE is having some problems. According to the ESA (as detailed by the redoubtable Ryan), the 16m Radar for Icy Moons Exploration (RIME) antenna is stuck and refusing to deploy. Instead of properly releasing from its mounting bracket, the antenna moves a small amount and then stops again. Based on telemetry, ESA engineers believe the antenna assembly is hung up on a tiny metal pin.
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RIME is designed to study the surface and subsurface of Jupiter's icy moons and can penetrate ice to a depth of 9km. Europa is the obvious target for this kind of radar, but both Ganymede and Callisto are comprised of roughly 50 percent water ice by mass. Previous measurements have indicated water ice is ubiquitous on both moons, even though Europa is the Jovian satellite most famous for its water. RIME probably won't be able to see the whole way through Europa's candy shell unless that shell is much thinner than we think, but its 9km range could still peer deep into Europa's icy "crust."
ESA experts intend to try "shaking" the antenna using JUICE's attitude control thrusters. They'll also be rotating the recalcitrant antenna toward the Sun, hoping that a little heat will help the mechanism actuate.
Cosmonauts Complete Airlock Installation With 7-Hour Spacewalk
In a spacewalk lasting more than seven hours this week, Roscosmos cosmonauts Dmitry Petelin and Sergey Prokopyev finished relocating an airlock on the International Space Station. Andrey Fedyaev, a flight engineer from Expedition 69, ran the European Robotic Arm to assist in the procedure from within the station.
With this spacewalk, the airlock project has required past and present ISS crew members to spend dozens of hours outside the station. The airlock launched to the station in 2010 on NASA's STS-132 shuttle mission. At that time, personnel mounted the airlock to the Rassvet "mini-research module." Indeed, the airlock is much smaller than the one on the Russian Poisk module, through which the cosmonauts exited the station for this most recent spacewalk. Researchers will now be able to pass equipment and experiments through the fully functional airlock, which the cosmonauts moved from Rassvet to the Nauka science module.
Petelin and Prokopyev will also conduct a spacewalk next Friday, May 12, to connect and deploy a new radiator for the Nauka module.
Now Showing: the Eta Aquariids
Halley's Comet comes around about every 75 years; its last visit was in 1986, and we won't see it again until about 2061. But every year, we pass through the comet's trail of debris. This creates the eta Aquariid meteor shower (and its sister shower, the Orionids, in October). Technically, the eta Aquariids peaked in the wee hours of this morning—but this remarkable meteor shower is active throughout April and May.
“A meteor shower is like a normal rain shower, with 50-60 meteors per hour,” said Bill Cooke, lead of NASA's Meteoroid Environments Office at the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center. "An outburst is like a thunderstorm." 2023 is an outburst year, with some 120-160 meteors per hour visible overnight.
The eta Aquariids are #6 on NASA's list of the best meteor showers, partly because they're so prone to creating brilliant, streaking fireballs. NASA experts explain that since the meteors are moving at ludicrous speed (148,000 mph!), some of these fireballs leave glowing “trains” in their wake that last for several seconds to minutes.
Webb Spots a Strangely Steamy...Something?
Astronomers from Johns Hopkins used the James Webb space telescope to find water vapor in a planetary system just a couple dozen light-years from Earth—but they're not entirely sure if it's from the planet, which orbits perilously close to its red dwarf star, or the star itself.
The planet is called GJ 486 b. It's a rocky planet, perhaps three times the mass of Earth, and it whips around its parent star in just over 15 Earth days. Because it's so close to its star, the planet is probably tidally locked, meaning one side always faces the Sun. On the Sun side, the planet's surface temperature is a toasty 800 F (430 C) or so—enough to melt lead.
"We see a signal, and it's almost certainly due to water," said astronomer Sarah Moran, lead author on the study reporting the discovery. "But we can't tell yet if that water is part of the planet's atmosphere, meaning the planet has an atmosphere, or if we're just seeing a water signature coming from the star." According to NASA, if it's from the planet, it would be the first time we've ever detected water vapor in the atmosphere of a rocky exoplanet.
You wouldn't expect water vapor to be hanging around on a star, given that whole "surface temperature of millions of degrees" thing. But my colleague Adrianna Nine points out that we've found traces of water vapor on our Sun, in cooler places, like sunspots.
China's Tianwen-1 Makes a Map of Mars
In an event celebrating China's National Space Day, the China National Space Administration released several global maps of Mars, including orthographic, Mercator, and Robinson sphere-to-flat surface projections of Mars' eastern and western hemispheres. The maps were produced from data gathered over eight months and 284 Mars orbits by the country's triple threat Mars mission, Tianwen-1.
Tianwen-1 is an ambitious combined orbiter-lander-rover mission, the first mission in China's Tianwen (lit. Heavenly Questions) Series. China launched the mission during the July 2020 Mars launch window aboard a Long March 5 rocket. On May 14, 2021, the Tianwen-1 lander and Zhurong rover portions of the mission made a successful touchdown, making China the only other nation to have established communication after a soft landing on the surface of Mars. However, spokespeople from the CNSA recently confirmed that ultra-fine Martian dust had probably spelled the end for Zhurong.
"This full-color image of Mars not only provides a better-quality base map for our country's follow-up Mars exploration projects and scientific research but also for our international colleagues' Mars exploration projects and scientific research," said Zhang Rongqiao, chief designer of China's Mars exploration program, during an interview with Chinese broadcaster CCTV.
"I believe this is an important contribution Tianwen 1 made for deep space exploration, for all humankind,” Zhang said.
Czech Republic Signs Artemis Accords
This week, the Czech Republic became the twenty-fourth signatory to the Artemis Accords.
According to NASA, the Artemis Accords "establish a practical set of principles to guide space exploration cooperation among nations participating in NASA’s Artemis program." Based on the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, the agency intends the Accords to guide civil exploration of the Moon.
Principles of the Artemis Accords include, among others: transparency, use of space for peaceful purposes, mitigation of space debris, disposal of spacecraft, deconfliction of lunar activities, and registration of space objects. "Following these principles," the US Department of State said in a statement, "will help make civil space exploration safer and more predictable for all."
Skywatchers Skywalkers Corner
Yesterday was Star Wars Day (and may the Fourth be with you); today comes the Revenge of the 5th. In honor of the occasion, we're letting the eta Aquariids have their own section so that instead of just a corner, we can give Star Wars its own entire shelf.
To start off, Star Wars fans rejoiced this week to hear that Carrie Fisher finally got her very own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Billie Lourd, Fisher's daughter, accepted the long-awaited star on behalf of Fisher herself at a ceremony yesterday, May 4.
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Then, astronomers announced finding a "real-life Death Star": a sun-like star, engulfing and destroying one of its own planets. The star is in the red giant phase of its death throes. During this process, the star gets bigger and bigger, swelling inexorably outward until it burns through its hydrogen fuel altogether. Eventually, just as scientists expect our own Sun will do, the star consumes any hapless planets orbiting inside its eventual radius.
Astronomers caught the star red-handed (red-gianted?) when it let out a flash of light much too small to be from a star—but just right for a planet. "That means that whatever merged with the star has to be 1,000 times smaller than any other star we've seen," MIT astronomer Kishaley De said in a statement. "And it's a happy coincidence that the mass of Jupiter is about one-thousandth the mass of the Sun. That's when we realized: This was a planet, crashing into its star." De and coauthors' work appeared this week in Nature.
The self-aware space nerds at NASA also put together a travel agency-style poster for Star Wars Day—not for Tatooine, but a different and very real world with two suns: Kepler 16 b.
With a surface temperature cold enough for dry ice, Kepler 16 b isn't quite the sweltering desert planet Anakin so hated. It's a gas giant, so like Jupiter and Saturn, it wouldn't even have a proper, solid surface to stand on. Instead, the view above is of, and from, an imagined nearby moon. You can check out NASA's virtual guided tour here.
Even the little beans can get in on the Star Wars fun. For this year's Star Wars Day, Disney Plus and Disney Junior are launching a series of animated shorts geared toward preschool-age kids called "Star Wars: Young Jedi Adventures."
Young Jedi Adventures contains 25 episodes, in which younglings study the ways of the Force under Jedi Master Yoda. The series is set at a temple on the planet Tenoo during the time of the 'High Republic,' some 200 years before the Skywalker era.
There's also a newly released Star Wars deckbuilding game. It seems like a transparent cash grab, but Ars' Aaron Zimmerman assures readers in his review that Star Wars: TDG is "not a soulless exercise in marketing. It's a fantastic little two-player card brawler I feel confident in recommending to anyone who likes both card games and Star Wars."
That's all for this week. Have a great weekend, everyone, and we'll see you here next Friday!