This Week in Space: Ancient Texts, a Trillion Suns, and Starship Goes Kablooey

ARP 220, as Hubble sees it
Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI | Image processing: Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

ARP 220, as Hubble sees it

Hello, everyone, and welcome back to This Week in Space. We've got our usual crop of stories from the world's space agencies. We'll even hear this week that modern researchers have used the power of multispectral imaging to read an ancient astronomer's manuscript, long since thought destroyed. But first, let's start with the week's biggest headline news.

Starship Explodes Over the Gulf of Mexico

Thursday morning's test flight of SpaceX's gigantic heavy-lift rocket, Starship, ended in a "could've been worse" total vehicle loss.

It took almost fifteen seconds just to get the gigantic Starship off its launch pad. What we didn't know at first is that as the rocket ascended, before it reached its peak altitude of about 40km, up to eight of Starship's 33 Raptor engines would fail. About three minutes after launch, a plume of smoke began to stretch out after Starship in the sky. There may also have been problems with the hydraulics that should have separated the first stage. Shortly after, the ship "underwent a rapid, unscheduled disassembly," which is honestly on par with NASA's "unplanned lithobraking maneuver" for the best aerospace euphemism for "it blew up."

Space is hard; getting the thing off the pad in the first place is a success. But like the similarly gigantic Space Launch System, Starship left a mess in its wake. On its way off the launchpad, imaging shows that the rocket blasted a crater under its launch tower that will take a good bit of fixing before the tower is usable again. Before the next Starship launch attempt, SpaceX will probably need to decide between a deluge system, like what NASA used with Artemis 1 last fall, and a bigger, better system of dry canals designed to channel away the rocket engines' heat. Is a "success trophy" a thing?

SpaceX also launched a new batch of mini Starlink satellites from Canaveral. But let's be real—after a gazillion articles on how much everyone loves or hates these satellites, do you even open a new tab for a Starlink launch?

NASA Celebrates 33rd Anniversary of Hubble Launch

Happy early birthday, Hubble! On April 24, 1990, NASA launched the Hubble telescope on the space shuttle Discovery. The telescope didn't have the most auspicious beginning. Years late and over budget, it launched with a lens that had been improperly ground. This polishing error drastically reduced the quality of Hubble's images and its usefulness as a scientific instrument.

Luckily, NASA didn't just throw in the towel. The first service mission to Hubble repaired its optical errors and installed new solar panels, gyroscopes, and other components. The improvement in Hubble's image quality was dramatic. Things would improve even more with the installation of the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 3 (WFPC3) in 2009. For comparison, here's spiral galaxy M100 imaged in all three WFPCs:

Spiral galaxy M100, as Hubble sees it
Credit: NASA, ESA, STScI and Judy Schmidt

For its 33rd birthday, astronomers turned Hubble towards a nearby star-forming region, NGC 1333. This nebula is in the Perseus molecular cloud, some 960 light-years away.

Hubble image of NGC 1333, a star-forming region in the Perseus molecular cloud
Credit: NASA, ESA, and STScI; Image Processing: Varun Bajaj (STScI), Joseph DePasquale (STScI), Jennifer Mack (STScI)

NASA notes that the blackness in the image above is "not empty space, but filled with obscuring dust." (This type of lacuna is several light-years wide and common in Hubble images, so it cannot truly be said to contain nothing. But you may experience the emptiness with me, if you wish.) Our own sun may have emerged from this kind of chaotic stellar nursery billions of years ago.

Few telescopes have been as revolutionary or inspiring as the Hubble Space Telescope. NASA and SpaceX are jointly studying the feasibility of another repair mission to replace components and further upgrade the HGST's electronics. Telescopes like the JWST now push back the boundaries of human understanding in ways Hubble can't duplicate, but the JWST can't be serviced. Hubble can be, and that's an advantage we shouldn't lightly throw away.

After Further Ariane 6 Delays, the EU Wants to Hire SpaceX

The European Commission wants permission to hire private American companies like SpaceX rather than relying on Arianespace and the delayed Ariane 6 rocket. Politico reported on a draft document requesting "ad-hoc security arrangements" to launch the EU's Galileo satellites. Galileo is a high-precision global satellite navigation system that the EU began deploying several years ago. According to Politico, the EC thinks only two rocket systems can meet its needs: SpaceX and ULA's Vulcan-Centaur rocket family. It's not hard to see which company would likely get the nod since Vulcan-Centaur hasn't flown yet, and SpaceX's Falcon 9 has proven itself a reliable rocket.

European officials are stuck in the same position NASA found itself in a few years back. After the Space Shuttle retired, NASA could not lift or return astronauts from the ISS. At the time, NASA contracted with Russia to provide Soyuz services until our launch capabilities were back online. Europe might have gone this route before the invasion of Ukraine, but two Soyuz launches scheduled to carry Galileo satellites to orbit have been canceled since Russia's tanks started rolling (and, er, smoldering).

It's hard for us to throw many stones at this one. Ariane 6 is over budget and behind schedule, but any rocks we might lob in its direction would be returned at warp speed and aimed directly at the SLS.

ESA Wants Your Ideas on How to Live on the Moon

Everyone seems to be heading for the Moon these days. It's already expensive enough to get a few tons into orbit; building the International Space Station showed clearly that if we're going to establish a long-term human presence on the Moon, the lion's share of our building materials will have to come from right there on Luna. We recently reported on an American aerospace startup's plan to use solar panels to sinter out usable resources from lunar regolith directly. Now, the European Space Agency is asking you—yes, you—for your ideas on how to make gathering lunar resources easier so that humans can one day live on the Moon.

ESA ESRIC Call for Ideas
Credit: ESA

Categories in which the ESA is seeking input include the following:

  • Excavation, refining, and transportation – including regolith excavation and handling, feedstock preparation, and regolith transfer and delivery

  • Resource extraction and processing – including regolith processing for resource extraction, separation, and refinement of products with recycling and disposal of waste

  • Storage, distribution, and utilization – including cryogenic liquid storage of oxygen, spacecraft refueling, metal parts manufacturing, surface construction, and deliveries through space.

You can see more and get access to the idea submission form here.

JWST Spies Colliding Galaxies Shining With the Light of 'More Than a Trillion Suns'

The Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy are already next-door neighbors, but the two galaxies will collide in a few billion years. Alas, we won't be around to see it—but thanks to the James Webb Space Telescope, we still get to see galaxies colliding in our own time.

JWST annotated image of Arp 220, a merger between two spiral galaxies
Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI | Image processing: Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

Two spiral galaxies about 250 million light-years away, collectively named Arp 220, are merging. From Earth's perspective, the two galaxies fall within the constellation Serpens (the Serpent). Usually, we try not to call two different celestial objects by the same name—but Arp 220 has lore. It got its name because it's the 220th object in Halton Arp’s Atlas of Peculiar Galaxies. Initially, astronomers tossed it in the bin with other amorphous, irregularly shaped sky objects that still looked like galaxies. With the advent of modern telescopes, we can see that it's no blob but a pair of spiral galaxies whose collision triggered an enormous wave of star formation. Those newborn stars are the origin of this fascinating sky object's infrared glow.

Arp 220 is exceptionally bright, but not in a way the human eye can see without special equipment. It is the nearest ULIRG (ultraluminous infrared galaxy), and of the three galactic mergers closest to Earth, Arp 220 is also the brightest, shining forth with the light of "more than a trillion suns." By comparison, our own Milky Way galaxy has a much more modest luminosity, with the light output of only (only!) 10 billion suns. The blue tint toward the edges of the plate comes from faint "tidal tails," material drawn away from the galaxies by gravity. Orange tendrils represent organic (carbon-based) material, shining out around Webb's hallmark six-pointed star.

NASA, JAXA Collaborate on Upcoming Martian Moon Mission

NASA and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) have announced they will work together on JAXA's upcoming Martian Moon eXploration (MMX) mission. If all goes well, MMX will be the first robotic mission to return samples from a moon other than Earth. The mission is targeting Mars' tiny moon Phobos, but the probe will also spend some time observing the even dinkier moonlet Deimos.

As moons go, Phobos and Deimos aren't much to look at. They're both tiny, with a radius of 11km / 7 miles (Phobos) and 6.2km / 3.9 miles (Deimos). There are several theories on how the moons formed. They may be captured asteroids, the remains of a parent body that once orbited Mars, or loose clumps of accreted material flung initially into orbit by a catastrophic impact on Mars.

Stickney crater, Phobos. Imaged by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, 23 March 2008.
Stickney crater, Phobos. Imaged by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, 23 March 2008. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

JAXA's MMX mission was announced in 2015 and officially approved for development in 2020. The Japanese agency wants to perform another sampling mission to return material to Earth, as with Hayabusa and Hayabusa2, to asteroids Itokawa and Ryugu, respectively. If it launches, MMX will carry a variety of instruments and analysis equipment, including MEGANE (Mars-moon Exploration with GAmma rays and NEutrons), provided by NASA, a mass spectrum analyzer, a small rover designed by the French space agency CNES and the German Aerospace Center, and NASA's "pneumatic sampler" technology demonstrator.

What's Up on the International Space Station?

Astronauts Study Long-Term Health Effects of Space Flight, While on Long-Term Space Flight

This week, NASA astronauts studied the long-term effects of space flights on human eyes. Using an apparatus called ISAFE (Investigating the Structure And Function of the Eye), Stephen Bowen and Woody Hoburg studied scans of their brains, blood vessels, and eyes to learn more about a condition called Spaceflight Associated Neuro-Ocular Syndrome (SANS).

Due to the low gravity, astronauts' blood and cerebrospinal fluid drift upward more than the body expects, elevating pressure within the eyes and inside the skull. The ISAFE experiment will study whether SANS varies with mission length, whether these changes recover when crew members return to Earth, and if so, to what extent and over what duration. NASA hopes to use the results of the ISAFE experiment to help them protect astronauts on future long-duration spaceflights, such as trips to Mars.

Cosmonauts Conduct Major Spacewalk to Relocate Radiator

Monday night into Tuesday, Roscosmos cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin conducted an eight-hour spacewalk. Their primary objective: relocating a radiator from the Rassvet module to the Nauka science module, with cosmonaut Andrey Fedyaev running the European robotic arm.

Cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin conducting a spacewalk
Prokopyev is wearing an Orlan spacesuit with red stripes, while Petelin is wearing the suit with blue stripes. Credit: NASA TV

Next week, the pair will reprise their EVA, moving an airlock from Rassvet to Nauka. They'll install the radiator in early May and hook up its various lines and cables.

Ptolemy Text Finally Gives Up Its Secrets

Claudius Ptolemy was an astronomer of classical antiquity whose command of mathematics allowed him to translate his equations into his studies of the sky. Ptolemy's weighty portfolio includes all-time classics like Almagest and Geography. But despite his fame, despite the widespread scientific discussion of his works to this day, some of Ptolemy's writing languished unread. Alexander Jones, an expert on the history of the sciences, has used multispectral imaging to rescue one such treatise—on how to use a meteoroscope, an instrument something like an astrolabe, used to describe the path and duration of shooting stars.

The palimpsest was overwritten, then nearly destroyed in a failed attempt to read it, like invisible ink gone wrong. “The Meteoroscope (copy) was written in Greek on parchment sheets. Two centuries later, it was erased to write a manuscript in Latin called Etymologiae by Isidore of Seville. This kind of recycling was a pretty common practice in the Middle Ages as parchment was very expensive,” Jones said.

Jones and colleagues illuminated the parchment in various UV and visible light wavelengths. Then they took layer-by-layer images with a 240-megapixel camera as though the thing was an HDR MRI.

“Cardinal Angelo Mai, who discovered that the manuscript contained scientific text, applied chemicals hoping they would bring out the faint traces of ink,” Jones continued. "Now, those pages are big brown rectangles where you can hardly see anything. The new technology has done wonders to bring out the traces through the chemicals."

Skywatchers Corner

Point Nemo is a place in the Pacific Ocean where the people aboard the International Space Station are closer than any other human being on Earth. (I know—great, right? Two kinds of people.) Few other places on our blue marble can boast skies that get that dark. And for folks lucky enough to be hanging out near Point Nemo this week, skywatchers in the southwest Pacific had a chance to see a rare "hybrid" annular-total solar eclipse.

Total, annular, and partial solar eclipses
Credit: Total eclipse (left): NASA/MSFC/Joseph Matus; annular eclipse (center): NASA/Bill Dunford; partial eclipse (right): NASA/Bill Ingalls

Looking forward: Late April features a meteor shower called the Lyrids, named for the constellation from which they appear to emanate. While they're not quite as showy as the Perseids, which will appear later in the summer, the Lyrids are a lovely spring spectacle if you can spend enough time outdoors after dark to adjust your eyes. This shower is also historically prone to creating long, streaking fireballs. (Little comfort to those of us with seasonal allergies, but lovely nonetheless.)

The Lyrids result from Earth passing through a stream of dust and debris—called meteoroids—left in the inner solar system centuries ago by comet C/1861 G1 (Thatcher). Comet Thatcher makes a circuit about every 415 years. The last time it visited the inner solar system was in 1861, and we won't see the comet itself again until 2276.

Here are the phases of the Moon for the rest of April:

Moon phases for April 2023
Credit: NASA/Preston Dyches

That's all for this orbit, space cadets. See you here next Friday!

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