Astronews Recent Space News Discoveries (Chinese space station, SpaceX, Ingenuity, Europa & More)

Welcome to the seventh review of “Space and Astronomy” news, selected for you by Insane Curiosity Channel. The news, which will be weekly, will try to provide a quick overview of everything interesting happened in recent days in the field of astronomical research and space exploration. Keep following us! 1) Chinese space station under construction ready to receive visit from three takenauts in June Tiangong, the future Chinese space station, is taking shape. A Tianzhou-2 cargo craft – loaded with essentials such as food, equipment, and fuel – blasted off late on May 29 from the Wenchang launch site on the tropical southern island of Hainan, and a few hours later, on May 30, has successfully docked with the space station’s core module, named Tianhe (Harmony of Heavens). The supplies will be used by a crew of three astronauts, who from mid-June will occupy the space station for a three-month mission. When complete, Tiangong will consist of a core module attached to two laboratories with a total weight of nearly 70 tonnes. Tianhe, the central module of the station now in orbit is about the size of a bus, contain life support and control systems, and will be the station’s living quarters. At 22.5 tonnes, Tianhe is the biggest and heaviest spacecraft China has ever constructed. Tianhe is now sitting in low-Earth orbit (about 400 km above the ground), waiting for the first of the ten scheduled supply flights over the next 18 months that it will take to complete the station. 2 ) SpaceX: ocean launch platforms for Starship ready by next year At the beginning of this year, although there was no official communication from the company, the rumor was that SpaceX was beginning to plan the construction of new marine launch platforms for Starship. However, to avoid having to build such large and complex structures from scratch, Elon Musk’s company decided to take advantage of the sale of a couple of oceanic oil platforms to use them as a base for the new launch facilities. This would allow several advantages such as the ability to move away from populated areas and closer to the equator improving launch efficiency. Even NASA, in some documents, did not want to “force” commercial partners to launch their missions from Florida, leaving room for maneuver to companies like SpaceX. The first platform to be completed should be Deimos (name of one of the moons of Mars) while Phobos (name of the other moon) could arrive shortly after. There is no information yet on how it will be once completed, but we must consider that it will be able to launch the Starship vector that, with first stage (known as Super Heavy), will be about 120 meters high. Moreover, it must be considered that the launch tower will also be used to lock the first stage after the reentry allowing rapid refueling and reuse. This obviously will have to be tested in the field and we do not know if everything will go as in the plans of SpaceX. 3) Ingenuity barely avoids the plane crash! During its sixth flight on the red planet, the Ingenuity helicopter experienced a serious mishap – but, thanks to planning and built-in failsafes, it survived to fly another day. This is actually good news, because it demonstrates the multiple ways in which the vehicle is robust to errors – as well as giving engineers here at home an opportunity to patch them. The accident occurred on 22 May – the 91st Martian day of the Perseverance mission. The sky was clear and bright, perfect for Ingenuity’s task: demonstrating its ability to take aerial stereo images. This sequence of images – taken by the navigation camera aboard Ingenuity Mars Helicopter – depicts the last 29 seconds of the rotorcraft’s sixth flight. Frame rate is 3.3 frames per second until Ingenuity began its final descent to the surface, at which point it collected a frame every two seconds. The little helicopter was to vertically ascend to a height of 10 meters, then make a horizontal flight of three legs – southwest for 150 meters, at which point it would turn and move 15 meters in a southward direction while taking images, before turning northeast and flying for another 50 meters before landing, all at a speed of about 4 meters per second. But, just as it reached the end of that first 150-meter leg, Ingenuity started acting really weird. Ingenuity, in fact, began adjusting its velocity and tilting back and forth in an oscillating pattern. This behavior persisted throughout the rest of the flight. Before landing safely, onboard sensors indicated the rotorcraft encountered roll and pitch excursions of more than 20 degrees, large control inputs, and spikes in power consumption. The problem, the Ingenuity team found, had something to do with the way the helicopter navigates. Its main navigation system, the onboard inertial measurement unit, constantly tracks Ingenuity’s position, velocity, and attitude (orientation in three-dimensional space). To support this, it also has “eyes” – a navigation camera that constantly takes images of the ground below, at a rate of 30 images per second. The nav system looks at the timestamp of the image to know when it was taken, and uses this information to compare what the camera sees based on what it should have been seeing at that time. If this doesn’t stack up, the helicopter makes adjustments to its position, velocity, and attitude. This is where flight six went wrong. A glitch in the image delivery pipeline caused one – just one – of the nav-cam images to drop out before it could reach the nav system. This meant that every subsequent image had an inaccurate timestamp. So the information Ingenuity’s nav system was receiving about its surroundings was ever-so-slightly askew, causing the helicopter to want to correct for errors that weren’t actually there. This led to the wobbly flight – but Ingenuity was still able to land perfectly, within 5 meters of the planned location. This was partly because the helicopter’s engineers made the decision to have Ingenuity ignore nav-cam images below one meter in altitude, since they may be obscured by dust close to the ground, confusing the nav system. This ensures smooth take-off and landing – but it also meant that Ingenuity could stop oscillating during this critical moment. But… Ingenuity was also designed to have a “stability margin”, in which it can tolerate large errors – including errors in the image timestamps – without becoming unstable. So, flight Six ended with Ingenuity safely on the ground because a number of subsystems – the rotor system, the actuators, and the power system – responded to increased demands to keep the helicopter flying. In a very real sense, Ingenuity muscled through the situation, and while the flight uncovered a timing vulnerability that will now have to be addressed, it also confirmed the robustness of the system in multiple ways. Although the curious misadventure was not intentionally planned, NASA now has flight data probing the outer reaches of the helicopter’s performance envelope. That data will be carefully analyzed in the time ahead, expanding our reservoir of knowledge about flying helicopters on Mars. All’s well that ends well! “Hey, guys, just a moment before we continue… BE sure to join the Insanecuriosity Channel… Click on the bell, you will help us to make products of ever-higher quality!” 4) Europa’s Interior May Be Hot Enough to Fuel Seafloor Volcanoes New research and computer modeling show that volcanic activity may have occurred on the seafloor of Jupiter’s moon Europa in the recent past – and may still be happening. Scientists have strong evidence that Europa harbors an enormous ocean between its icy crust and rocky interior. The new work shows how the moon may have enough internal heat to partially melt this rocky layer, a process that could feed volcanoes on the ocean floor. The key to Europa’s rocky mantle being hot enough to melt lies with the massive gravitational pull Jupiter has on its moons. As Europa revolves around the gas giant, the icy moon’s interior flexes. The flexing forces energy into the moon’s interior, which then seeps out as heat (think of how repeatedly bending a paperclip generates heat). The more the moon’s interior flexes, the more heat is generated. Volcanic activity on Europa has been a topic of speculation for decades. By comparison, Jupiter’s moon Io is obviously volcanic. Hundreds of volcanoes there erupt lava fountains and eject volcanic gas and dust up to 400 kilometers high – activity that is due to the same kind of internal heating caused by Jupiter’s pull. But Europa is farther away than Io is from its host planet, so scientists have wondered whether the effect would be similar under the icy surface. Underwater volcanoes, if present, could power hydrothermal systems like those that fuel life at the bottom of Earth’s oceans. On Earth, when seawater comes into contact with hot magma, the interaction results in chemical energy. And it is chemical energy from these hydrothermal systems, rather than from sunlight, that helps support life deep in our own oceans. Volcanic activity on Europa’s seafloor would be one way to support a potential habitable environment in that moon’s ocean. NASA scientists will have the opportunity to put the new predictions to the test when Europa Clipper reaches its target in 2030. The spacecraft will orbit Jupiter and perform dozens of close flybys of Europa to map the moon and investigate its composition. Among the science data it collects, the spacecraft will survey the surface in detail and sample the moon’s thin atmosphere. The surface and atmosphere observations will give scientists a chance to learn more about the moon’s interior ocean if the water percolates up through the icy crust. Scientists believe in fact the exchange of material between the ocean and the crust would leave traces of seawater on the surface. They also believe the exchange may emit gas, and possibly even plumes of water vapor, with ejected particles that could contain materials coming from the seafloor. 5) Space Debris Has Hit And Damaged The International Space Station The inevitable has occurred. A piece of space debris too small to be tracked has hit and damaged part of the International Space Station – namely, the Canadarm2 robotic arm. The instrument is still operational, but the object punctured the thermal blanket and damaged the boom beneath. It’s a sobering reminder that the low-Earth orbit’s space junk problem is a ticking time bomb. Obviously, space agencies around the world are aware of the space debris problem. Over 23,000 pieces are being tracked in low-Earth orbit to help satellites and the Space Station avoid collisions – but they’re all about the size of a softball or larger. Anything below that size is too small to track, but traveling at orbital velocities can still do some significant damage, including punching right through metal plates. Canadarm2 – formally known as the Space Station Remote Manipulator System, designed by the Canadian Space Agency – has been a fixture on the space station for 20 years. It’s a multi-jointed titanium robotic arm that can assist with maneuvering objects outside the Station, including cargo shuttles, and performing station maintenance. It’s unclear exactly when the impact occurred. The damage was first noticed on 12 May, during a routine inspection. Despite the impact, results of the ongoing analysis indicate that the arm’s performance remains unaffected. The damage is limited to a small section of the arm boom and thermal blanket. Canadarm2 is continuing to conduct its planned operations.” Although the Space Station seems to have gotten lucky this time, the space debris problem does seem to be increasing. Last year, the ISS had to perform emergency maneuvers three times in order to avoid collisions with space debris at its altitude of around 400 kilometers. Ever since the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, space debris has been accumulating. According to a report from the European Space Agency, an estimated 130 million fragments of anthropogenic material smaller than a millimeter are orbiting Earth right now. That estimate does not include natural space dust. Really, a big problem. Robotics operations on the ISS using the Canadarm2 will continue as planned for the near future, but space agencies will continue to gather data in order to perform an analysis of the event, both to understand how it occurred, and to assess future risk. 6) Curiosity rover captures rare images of shimmering clouds on Mars While clouds exist on Mars, they aren’t as common an occurrence as they are here on Earth owing to the thin and dry atmosphere encircling the Red Planet. NASA’s Curiosity rover has captured a rare perspective of them at an unexpected time and location, which will help scientists better understand the reasons behind their formation. Clouds can usually be found during the coldest time of the Martian year at the planet’s equator, but two years ago, or one Martian year, NASA scientists spotted them forming earlier than usual. This time around the team had the necessary pieces in place to capture these uncommon cloud formations with Curiosity’s navigation and mast cameras snapping a series of black and white and color photographs as they moved across the Martian sky. These show “wispy puffs” packed with ice crystals that scatter sunlight and appear to glow against the sky behind them. That they glow brighter as they fill with crystals and then darken as the sunsets offers scientists an idea of how high these uncommon clouds are. Already this has led to one interesting discovery, with these early clouds forming at a higher altitude than typical Martian clouds, which hover at altitudes of no more than 60 km, and are made of water ice. Because it is much colder where these new clouds have been spotted, the scientists believe they are instead formed of frozen carbon dioxide or dry ice. Further analysis of these images will help scientists determine which clouds are formed of dry ice and which ones are water ice, and inform their broader understanding of how clouds form on the Red Planet. OK guys, we’re done for the week too. What do you think? What news struck you the most?

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