¶Branson beats Bezos to space. On Sunday, Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity flew above 80 km in the company’s fourth test flight, carrying Richard Branson and 5 others into space. This flight, briefly, set a new record of 16 humans simultaneously in space. Unlike SpaceShipOne, its predecessor which won the Ansari X Prize by crossing the 100 km Kármán Line (the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale’s definition of space), VSS Unity “only” climbs to 80 km, the altitude that the US Air Force and NASA consider to be the boundary of space. While Blue Origin’s marketing team disputes this altitude being truly “Space”, there isn’t a significant difference between 80 and 100 km. And ultimately, it doesn’t really matter—they went above (most of) the atmosphere and achieved weightlessness for a few minutes—and it sounded like fun. The flight was not without risks though—a pilot was killed in 2014 when VSS Enterprise broke up during a test flight. Whether the view and a couple of minutes of microgravity are worth the $250,000, which purportedly 600+ people are signed up to pay, is entirely subjective. (Personally, we’d rather go to orbit.) Virgin Galactic hopes to start commercial service in early 2022 and is raffling off two seats on a flight as part of their launch marketing. Virgin’s next challenge is proving its ability to conduct rapid turnarounds between flights. Blue Origin, meanwhile, is scheduled to attempt their first crewed launch of their suborbital New Shepard, which should reach 100km with Bezos and company on board at the end of the month—the company just received licensing from the FAA for the launch. (Please note: Jeff Bezos would like you to stop referring to it as a “space race”.)
Branson in microgravity. Credit: Virgin Galactic
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- Proxima b is the closest confirmed exoplanet to Earth, orbiting Proxima Centauri, a red dwarf star in the Alpha Centauri system. (This three-star system is confusing—here’s a summary we wrote when news came out about a possible planet orbiting Alpha Centauri A, one of the two Sun-like stars in the trinary system.) Proxima b may be tantalizingly close (in astronomical terms), but like most red dwarf stars, it’s not a happy place for life as we know it. This was demonstrated by a Proxima Centauri megaflare observed in 2019 (paper). “The star went from normal to 14,000 times brighter when seen in ultraviolet wavelengths over the span of a few seconds. If there was life on the planet nearest to Proxima Centauri, it would have to look very different than anything on Earth.”
- It’s previously been predicted that hydrogen and helium should separate into layers at the temperatures and pressures that exist inside gas giant planets like Jupiter and Saturn. However, until now, we couldn’t reproduce these conditions in a lab. A new Nature paper presents results from extreme laboratory tests at the University of Rochester's Laboratory for Laser Energetics where a mixture of hydrogen and helium were compressed to 4 gigapascals between diamond anvils, then further compressed and heated by 12 intense lasers to a final pressure of 60-180 GPa. The researchers found a range of pressures and temperatures at which the hydrogen and helium mixture became unstable and separated, as predicted. Conditions like these in the Giants could potentially produce helium rain systems. 🎈🌧
- The ASIM experiment on the ISS has detected a ‘blue jet’—upward shooting lighting—that climbed to the interface between the stratosphere and the ionosphere, and an ‘elve’ of expanding optical and UV light at the bottom of the ionosphere (paper). (Kind of like the villain in Neal Stephenson’s short Atmosphæra Incognita.)
| ¶News in brief. Initially planned for launch in 2007, Russia’s Nauka ISS science lab module is finally scheduled to launch on July 21 on a Proton booster, with docking to the nadir port of the Zvezda module scheduled for July 29 ● JWST passed its final launch review, although its name may get changed due to pressure over accounts of Webb discriminating against (and firing) LGBTQ NASA staffers during his time as administrator in the early 1960s ● NASA awarded a $935 million contract to Northrop Grumman to build and integrate the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) module for the lunar Gateway, based off their Cygnus cargo craft, targeting a launch on a Falcon Heavy in late 2024—this module will house astronauts and provide command, control and power, plus three docking ports and mounting hardware for Canadarm3 ● In other robot arm news, the European Robotic Arm (ERA) will fly with Nauka to the Russian segment of the ISS ● Rocket Lab is now producing a new rocket every 20 days ● Dava Newman, an MIT astronautics professor and former NASA Deputy Administrator known for her design of the BioSuit, will lead the renowned MIT Media Lab ● The space SPAC pack grows again—Satellogic (deck; valued at $1.1 billion) and Planet Labs (deck; valued at $2.8 billion) both announced SPAC mergers, while Astra completed its own last week.|
- Become a Citizen Astronaut with Space for Humanity (S4H is the recipient of charitable contributions when you enter Virgin Galactic’s recently announced raffle).
- Starlink is filling out three more orbital planes this week, bringing the service close to full global coverage (excepting polar regions). The exceptionally detailed starlink.sx coverage tracker shows this and a huge amount more. (Related: Chile will become the first country in Latin America to offer Starlink service.)
- The Blue Origin-ULA relationship is showing some signs of strain.
- Wang Xiaojun of China’s state-owned China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology talked a couple of weeks ago about China's plans to send crewed missions to Mars in 2033 (and 2035, 2037, 2041 & 2043). Given that their plans for the International Lunar Research Station with Russia have crewed landings around 2035 (pdf), this very ambitious schedule would have them on Mars before the Moon. Take all of this with a hunk of NaCl. Meanwhile, China is seriously considering a production, gigawatt-level geostationary solar power generation station by mid-century, with small-scale testing starting in 2022. Also crazy ambitious; supplement with further interest and NaCl. In the nearer term, they have lunar ISRU, Mars sample return, and Jovian probe ambitions to boot.
- From a recent issue of The Prepared: “Duct tape is really important in space—among other things it was used by the crew of Apollo 13 to build their improvised carbon monoxide scrubber (called “gray tape” in the transcript). Amazingly, up until 2021 astronauts on the ISS just stuck it to the wall and had to remember where it was; SpaceX Crew-1 finally brought a duct tape dispenser which can be operated with one hand, allowing an astronaut to stabilize themselves with the other. Even more amazingly, the dispenser was designed by high school students as part of NASA HUNCH, a program that farms out tactical engineering problems to high schoolers.” (See also the item about the French Space Agency’s tasty astronaut food in the same linked issue.)
- Researchers have taught a drone to recognize and hunt down meteorites autonomously.
- A new study found that 70% of Americans have less than $1,000 saved to go to space. 🧅
Curiosity took this picture shortly after sunset on January 31, 2014. The Martian rover was 160,000,000 km from Earth at the time. Earth is faintly visible just left of center.