¶Where will we point the largest space telescope ever built? The launch of the (questionably named) James Webb Space Telescope is getting closer—the telescope arrived after its slightly covert trip to French Guiana last month, was cleared for final launch after an Ariane 5 successfully launched two geostationary telecom satellites this past week, and is now being integrated with its own Ariane 5 vehicle. Integration is running ahead of schedule, leaving 11 days of margin for its December 18th launch date (this may be a first for the massive telescope—it’s 14 years past its initially-planned launch date). When it does launch, JWST will likely be the most expensive scientific instrument of all time. We’ve discussed the telescope and its potential science applications in the past, but here is a quick list of a few of its very first targets (and here’s a python tool for testing your own target for visibility):Much of the first wave of science and data from the telescope will follow a 6-month commissioning period and come from 13 approved early release science proposals (other Cycle 1 targets come from the General Observer and the Guaranteed Time Observations programs).
- The Chopsticks move. This past week saw the first articulation of the Super Heavy-catching “chopsticks” which have been being installed on SpaceX’s Boca Chica launch tower (video). The heavy-duty pincers will initially help stack Booster 4 and Ship 20 (which now has its full complement of Raptors installed) onto the orbital launch mount. In the future, the company is hoping to use the massive arms to catch returning Boosters (animation) and perhaps landing Starships (animation; although Starship has already demonstrated its unique belly flop, flip, and propulsively landing maneuver, making a catch perhaps too much additional risk). Meanwhile, the Quick Disconnect (QD) arm, mounted higher up the tower, has been seen swinging back from its normal outstretched position as it begins to practice launch procedures. Ground systems appear to be nearing completion all around, with eight new Starship-welded-stainless-style liquid methane and oxygen tanks and initial oxygen deliveries (perhaps due to the long lead time needed for LOx given the health system's increased COVID usage). No timeline for the first orbital launch has been announced, despite Musk’s refrain of “next month”—likely due to the ongoing environmental impact public process being conducted by the FAA (discussed in Issue 139). It seems that an orbital launch will not happen before the new year. (Related: Raptor 2, the simplified and improved version of Starship’s full-flow staged-combustion methalox engine, recently hit 321 Bar on the stand before ending the test ‘explosively’.)
| Spaceship catching chopsticks in their natural habitat. Image Credit: StarshipGazer|
- When high-energy gamma rays slam into our atmosphere, they create observable showers of secondary particles and glowing blue Cherenkov radiation. China’s new Large High Altitude Air Shower Observatory (LHAASO) on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau looks for these events and recently saw a shower from the highest energy photon ever seen, 1.4 petaelectronvolts (PeV). They reported in Nature on this and other high-energy photons seen coming from energetic regions of our galaxy, including the Cygnus Cocoon, where shock waves from massive stars may be accelerating particles—cosmic rays—to incredible velocities and emitting these gamma rays as a byproduct. Observing gamma rays sheds light on the origin of cosmic rays as well.
- The Sun’s solar wind helps to shield the solar system from these galactic and extragalactic cosmic rays. Paradoxically, this means that when radiation from the Sun is at maximum, cosmic rays are at a minimum. For voyagers heading to Mars, modeling suggests that for this reason, they should leave at the solar maximum (paper). The Mars-bound spacecraft would also ideally be shielded with lighter elements (like aluminum, or, even better, hydrogen-rich materials like water) rather than heavier elements like iron or lead, as subatomic particles slamming into the nuclei of denser elements cause secondary radiation which can be worse for the human body than the original particle.
- Remember those proposed liquid water lakes under the polar ice caps of Mars? Not so fast; they might just be clay. The previous work only looked at dielectric permittivity, which gave the impression of large bodies of water, but a recent study found that contrasts in electric conductivity, as between rock and layers of wet clay or ice, could also explain the observed radar reflections (paper), and seems more likely.
- NASA is looking for alien megastructures for the first time. Dyson Spheres (or Swarms), hypothetical attempts to completely surround a host star for energy capture, would be a sure sign of an alien civilization far in advance of our own. A current study is searching for both exocomets (likely!) and megastructures (unlikely!) in 2 years of TESS data, analyzing 60-150 million stars to find something not-quite-right in their light curves. This is one of at least four small studies funded by NASA at the moment related to technosignatures. 👽
The first hatch chiles grown in microgravity. These represent the most ambitious space produce cultivation experiment to date.
- 📅 On November 10th we’ll be hosting a roundtable discussion with three NewSpace founders: Yanni Barghouty (Cosmic Shielding Corporation), Jeremy Allam (Exo-Space), and Matt Villareal (Infinite Composites) will dive into their tech, talk about where they’re headed, and share how they got started. The discussion will be co-hosted by our friends (and sponsors) at Spaced Ventures where all three companies are currently raising. Sign up now and join us next Wednesday!
- Watch Perseverance drive autonomously 167 meters on Mars.
- Will Marshall, CEO of Planet, recently did a Reddit AMA.
- NASA just launched the OpenET tool to provide accessible satellite-based estimates of evapotranspiration (ET) for improved water management across the western United States at up to quarter-acre resolution.
- A small telescope past Saturn could solve some mysteries of the Universe better than giant telescopes near Earth.
- A critically important conference, the 15th UN biodiversity conference, was last week. The United States is the only country in the world besides the Vatican that is not a party to the underlying treaty.
- Meanwhile, the equally important COP26 is in Glasgow this week, determining our prospects for a livable planet.
- A goofy playlist of all sorts of 3D printed rocket engines from YouTuber Integza.
- Some scientists are pushing for the scientific delineation between planets and moons to be dropped (paper). Moons provide just as much potential for study as planets and are formed through similar processes, ergo they are roughly the same from a research perspective. 🌕
| This image was taken by the UAE Hope Mars orbiter in July when Mars was approaching its maximum orbital distance from the Sun, resulting in colder temperatures and clouds around the Red planet.|