This Week in Space: NASA, NOAA, and Long March 9

Hello, everyone, and welcome back to This Week in Space. We’ve got the best of this week’s space news, as usual. But first, we’d like to start with a note in celebration of Veterans’ Day.

It takes great courage to put yourself on the line for your country and your fellow citizens. It also takes great courage to put an end to the fighting. This holiday has its roots in another holiday, Armistice Day, which commemorates the end of the first World War. We might have kept calling it Armistice Day, but war broke out again, just 20 years after the end of the Great War. After World War II, a veteran named Raymond Brooks organized a National Veterans Day gathering on Nov. 11 to honor all veterans, and the name Veterans’ Day took hold. So, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, at the eleventh hour, we celebrate the end of a period of war that gouged a terrible scar into the world’s collective memory. To those who have served, then and now: We salute you.

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Apart from the holiday, we’ve got our regular Friday roundup of news from the world’s space agencies. Artemis 1 and the SLS have been a prominent topic of discussion this week, in light of Hurricane Nicole. But NASA is also scrambling to figure out what to do about an independent review that found major problems throughout the agency’s Jet Propulsion Lab. Meanwhile, China advances its own space program by way of the newly completed Tiangong space station. We’ve also got some of this week’s best space images, including one of an evolving supernova — and another, of a “star factory” that the ESO released to celebrate its sixtieth anniversary. We’ve got beauty shots of Tuesday’s total lunar eclipse over Canaveral. Finally, we’ll wrap up with some skywatching tips for the Leonid meteor shower.

Artemis 1 May Now Launch Nov. 16

Beyond the saga of the SLS rocket’s hydrogen system problems, this year’s Atlantic hurricane season has been hard on the timeline for Artemis 1. Hurricane Ian forced a rollback to the Vehicle Assembly Building for the rocket and its Orion capsule. But that happened because NASA had enough warning, and the forecast didn’t change too much.

Hurricane Nicole (now, thankfully, Tropical Storm Nicole) has been another story altogether. The storm defied predictions, intensifying late and quickly. NASA didn’t have enough time to roll Artemis back to the VAB, this time around. When Nicole made landfall as a Category 1 storm, the winds at Kennedy Space Center were actually higher than they’d been during Ian. Nevertheless, the rocket and capsule had to ride out the storm on the launchpad.

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket with the Orion spacecraft aboard is seen atop a mobile launcher as it rolls out of the Vehicle Assembly Building to Launch Pad 39B, Friday, Nov. 4, 2022, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Image: NASA/Joel Kowsky

As late as last Friday, Artemis was slated to launch on Nov. 14. However, Nicole has thrown a wrench in that plan. NASA spokespeople said this week that Artemis might — might — launch on Nov. 16. As long as nothing else goes wrong.

Before it missed its Aug. 29 launch, NASA administrator Bill Nelson said of Artemis 1, “This is a test flight, so I just want to bring everybody back to earth a little bit.” How prescient.

Tuesday morning’s total lunar eclipse, as seen over NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Image: NASA/Joel Kowsky

Review Of Psyche Mission Uncovers Trouble Throughout the JPL

NASA convened an independent review board to review the Psyche asteroid mission, after it and Artemis 1 both missed their August 29 launch window. Among other issues, the understaffed and underfunded mission had to contend with guidance, navigation, and control (GNC) flight software delivered late and unfinished. The pandemic also made just about everything worse. But the review found that Psyche’s problems are symptoms of a much larger series of cultural and practical issues throughout NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. In short, JPL can scarcely fund — let alone staff — the many projects it’s currently managing for NASA.

In its desperation to staff the Psyche mission, NASA is poaching its own personnel from other projects. Despite not falling afoul of its schedule, the agency’s VERITAS mission to Venus will now be three years late, as its staff transfer to the Psyche project. Read our breakdown of the agency’s response to the review.

Launches and Landings

Cygnus CRS18 launched atop an Antares rocket at 5:32 a.m. EST Monday, Nov. 7 from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. NASA astronauts Nicole Aunapu Mann and Josh Cassada captured Cygnus using the station’s Canadarm2 robotic arm. Currently, there are five vehicles attached to the ISS: Cygnus, the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endurance, Russia’s Soyuz MS-22 crew ship, and the Progress 81 and 82 resupply ships.

Cygnus CRS18 atop an Antares rocket, during its November 7 launch. Image: NASA/Jamie Adkins

Cygnus delivered a new mounting bracket that astronauts will attach to the station’s exterior during a spacewalk later this month. In a blog post, NASA explained that the mounting bracket will enable space station personnel to install a pair of new solar arrays. Cygnus will remain at the space station until late January before it casts off from the station and burns up in Earth’s atmosphere.

NOAA’s new JPSS-2 satellite launched Thursday, Nov. 10 at 4:25ish a.m. from Vandenberg, aboard a ULA Atlas V 401 rocket. The weather forecasting satellite is now in a sun-synchronous, polar low-Earth orbit.

The same flight that launched JPSS-2 was carrying a NASA technology demonstration, Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID), which also went as planned. This inflatable module may one day help slow massive payloads on their way to Earth — or even Mars. The LOFTID team successfully retrieved the mission’s ejectable data modules Thursday, from where they splashed down in the Pacific.

China rolled out a Long March 7 Yao-6 rocket to its pad at the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island. The rocket will carry Tianzhou 5, a cargo spacecraft, to the country’s Tiangong space station when it launches Saturday morning, local time. Meanwhile, the uncrewed Tianzhou 4 will burn up in the atmosphere, after its Wednesday release from the space station. Tiangong is currently hosting the Shenzhou 14 mission’s three astronauts: Chen Dong, Liu Yang, and Cai Xuzhe.

SpaceX is targeting no earlier than Saturday, Nov. 12 for the launch of Intelsat G-31 and 32 aboard a Falcon 9 rocket. These satellites are the latest in a series that Intelsat is launching to replace its Galaxy network, as part of the FCC’s ongoing effort to clear the C band of the radio spectrum for use by 5G networks.

China Moves Toward Reusable Rockets for Long March 9

We ferry people and supplies between the ground and the International Space Station using reusable rockets more and more often these days. Even so, the US let tons of garbage and multiple Cygnus modules burn up in the atmosphere this year. China has the same problem, especially with spent stages from its workhorse Long March rocket. So it came as welcome news when Liu Bing, director of the general design department at the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), announced this week that the CSA is scrapping the expendable Long March 9 boosters in favor of a reusable design.

Liu confirmed the new design direction in a Monday interview with China Central Television. Ideally, the new rocket will be ready for a test flight around 2030. A recent Chinese air show demonstration suggests that the new rocket may use kerosene, like Soyuz. However, Liu noted that there will almost certainly be design changes between now and then, so the timeline may change.

Relativity in Action: Hubble Captures Evolving Supernova

This week, Hubble provided us with a lovely demonstration of general relativity. The space telescope managed to capture three separate moments from an evolving supernova — in the same frame. The progenitor star was a red supergiant, with a radius 500 times that of our Sun.

Image credit: NASA, ESA, STScI, Wenlei Chen (UMN), Patrick Kelly (UMN), Hubble Frontier Fields

Gravitational lensing made this possible. The galaxy cluster Abell 370 created three separate paths for the light from this supernova to travel. Because those paths were of different lengths, the ESA said in a statement, when Hubble took this photo, “the supernova appeared at three different stages of evolution.”

ESO Marks 60th Anniversary with Photo of Cone Nebula Star Factory

To celebrate its 60th anniversary, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) released this beautiful photo of a “star factory” in the Cone Nebula.

Credit: ESO

The image is from the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), atop Cerro Paranal in Chile. Telescopes like the VLT can obtain these beautiful images because they take advantage of a technique called interferometry. This allows astronomers to sync up two or more telescopes, to achieve an effective aperture equal to the distance between the telescopes. However, the VLT’s four optical telescopes can also operate independently.

ESO also posted a companion video to the photograph: a deep zoom through space toward the place we see in the glamour shot above.

Specifically, we’re looking at a star-forming region within the Cone Nebula. These pillars of cold molecular gas and dust lie about 2500 light-years from Earth.

Scientists Discover Closest Known Black Hole to Earth

Sagittarius A*, the black hole at the center of our galaxy, gets a lot of press. But it’s not the closest black hole to Earth. As of this week, that honor belongs to Gaia BH 1, a dormant, invisible black hole in the constellation Ophiuchus.

The ESA’s Gaia spacecraft is on a mission to create an ultra-detailed 3D map of the galaxy.

Gaia first identified this invisible object by the wobble of a visible, sun-like star. Follow-up observations with the Magellan Baade and Gemini North telescopes confirmed that Gaia BH 1 is a binary pair of a star and a stellar-mass black hole.

Before this, the closest black hole to us was about three thousand light years away. At 1600 light years from us, the new black hole should be easier to image. It could also change our understanding of binary stars.

Skywatchers Corner

This week featured a full moon — and a total lunar eclipse. In this composite time-lapse, you can see what the eclipse looked like as it unfolded above the Vehicle Assembly Building Kennedy Space Center.

Image: NASA/Joel Kowsky

Tuesday morning’s total eclipse was the last one we’ll see until 2025. However, there will be a partial lunar eclipse on Oct. 28, 2023. For the curious: The next solar eclipse will happen less than two weeks prior. An annular eclipse on Oct. 15, 2023 should be visible from every city in the US.

November features a night sky full of shooting stars. The Leonids will be active all through November, but they peak on Nov. 18. Right now, the waning moon currently rises at about midnight. That means your best chance to catch the Leonids at their peak will come just before midnight on the 18th. At their peak, we might see 10-25 meteors per hour.

The Leonids come from the debris trail of Comet Tempel-Tuttle. Like other meteor showers, the Leonids are named for the constellation from which they appear to originate — in this case, the asterism of Leo, the lion. For the best chance of seeing a long, streaking fireball, instead of looking straight at Leo, lay on your back and look straight up.

That’s all for this week. But since the Leonids peak next Friday night, we’ll make sure to remind you next week… in space.

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Jennifer R. Kelley

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