Issue No. 155

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 155 | Feb 9, 2022

🚀 🌍 🛰

A first wandering black hole. A new (yet-to-be-peer-reviewed) paper has found what is likely the first confirmed rogue stellar-mass black hole—an isolated object that is neither at the center of a star cluster nor is found slurping up matter from a nearby star. Locating this type of isolated black hole is exceptionally difficult, with gravitational microlensing (when a large gravitational mass passes between the viewer and a more distant star, bending light around it and magnifying the distant object) being one of the only detection methods currently known. The authors analyzed data from an event in 2011 that was observed by the Microlensing Observations in Astrophysics (MOA) mission and the Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment (OGLE), along with supporting imaging from Hubble. The seven-solar-mass black hole microlensed a star in the galactic center, peaking at 370x in brightness over the course of ~270 days. Based on the observations, it appears to be moving at 45 km/s across our line of sight and is about 5,000 light-years away—so not an existential threat this million years or so. It was likely ejected at high speed from the supernova explosion that formed it. The Roman Space Telescope (previously WFIRST), launching in ~2027, is being built specifically for detecting microlensing events and could find many more of the 100 million+ theorized rogue black holes in the Milky Way. 🕳

Imaging captured by Hubble of a distant star as it is microlensed by the passing rogue black hole.

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SpaceX update. There’s been lots of recent activity across all three main project areas at the company:

Ship 20 with Booster 4 in the background. Chopsticks are poised and ready to perform the first lift of a Starship using the orbital launch tower. Credit:

China’s 5-year space plan. China’s State Council Information Office recently released their quinquennial white paper detailing the country’s space ambitions over the next five years. The report highlighted recent successes, including the initiation of a LEO space station and the completion of the BeiDou navigation and CHEOS EO constellations. It also highlighted successful deep space missions such as the Tianwen-1 Mars lander and rover, the Chang'e 4 lunar far-side rover, and the Chang'e 5 lunar sample return. Self-congratulations are absolutely warranted for this string of successes. It goes on to list the many things in the works, including super-heavy launch vehicles, more on-orbit servicing missions, continued spaceplane development (hopefully not for FOBS), along with a greater emphasis on commercial activities and international space governance collaboration through the UN. Upcoming deep space missions include the Chang’e 6 lunar south pole sample return mission, the complex Chang’e 7 mission (with a relay satellite, an orbiter, a lander, a rover, and a small flying probe), a comet rendezvous and asteroid sample return mission, and mission development work on both a Jupiter mission (maybe with a Callisto lander!) and a Mars sample return. The next five years will also see further development of crewed lunar orbit and landing capabilities and technology development for exploring cislunar space, all working towards a possible end-of-decade crewed lunar landing and eventually a lunar base in collaboration with Russia, starting with the Chang’e 8 lunar base ISRU precursor mission. The paper notably does not mention satellite internet mega-constellations, which are also purported to be in the works, and has oddly specific provisions to prioritize communications satellites for Pakistan, and the development of the Pakistani Space Center and the Egyptian Space City (noted by the excellent Dongfang Hour).
Meanwhile, in celebration of the Chinese New Year, Tianwen-1’s orbiter took a timelapse selfie as it traversed the Martian north pole. The craft uses its shape memory alloy selfie stick to observe craft status and material aging as the mission progresses. The short video is worth checking out. 🛰🧧

News in (actual) brief. The International Astronomical Union is establishing a center to coordinate astronomy’s response to the threat of mega-constellationsAstra scrubbed two attempts of their Cape launch due to a range radar malfunction and then a telemetry issue—when it happens, it will be the first launch under the FAA’s new streamlined Part 450 licensing process—the scrubs took 14% off their market cap because being a publicly-traded company sucks Virgin Galactic appears to have been able to block that proposed New Mexico suborbital tourism taxJWST’s instruments have been successfully powered up and mirror calibration has begun using the bright star HD 84406ICEYE raised a $136M Series D for deploying more of their SAR satellites.


The Earth and Moon as seen by Chang’e 5 on Oct 28, 2014.

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