Issue No. 263

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 263 | Apr 3, 2024

🚀 🌍 🛰

Clipper could try to catch signs of life. NASA’s Europa Clipper mission has been in the news lately due to new work suggesting that its SUrface Dust Analyzer (SUDA) instrument will be able to test for components of life in even single grains of dust captured near the Jovian moon. SUDA is designed to scoop up and analyze ejecta created by interplanetary impactors, the rate of which is increased by Jupiter’s strong gravity. During a subset of Europa fly-bys that come within 50 km of the surface, SUDA should encounter thousands of sample particles large enough to be analyzed (>200 nm). The instrument’s metallic screens will detect the direction and velocity of samples as they enter the instrument, allowing the science team to associate samples with terrain features along the ground track—the likely source area radius of a particle is roughly the same as the altitude of the craft at the moment of collection (paper). After passing through the screens, ejecta impacts a metal target at the back of the instrument’s scoop at 4-6 km/s, ionizing the particles along with some of the metal target. Ionized material is then accelerated toward SUDA’s mass spectrometer with an electric field where it is analyzed based on ions' individual time of flight (which depends on their mass/charge ratios). SUDA is particularly good at analyzing salts that may be present in water samples, however recent work suggests that even single ice grains holding all or part of a cell could be detected based on the polarity of some of their ionized components, particularly amino and fatty acids (paper). In situ detection of ice particles in this manner could be attempted by Clipper with SUDA when it reaches Europa in 2030 or a similar mass spectrometer in a future fly-by of Enceladus (perhaps Orbilander or a potential ESA mission). Clipper, NASA’s largest-ever interplanetary spacecraft—fittingly equipped with a plaque carrying waveforms of the word ‘water’ in 103 languages—will do a Mars and then Earth slingshot on its way to Europa where it is planned to perform 49 fly-bys, getting as close as 25 km. The spacecraft recently completed environmental testing (vibe, shock, acoustics, temp, and vacuum) ahead of its launch in October and will ship to KSC later this spring. 

SUDA, open for business. The instrument shows off its metallic screens used for velocity and direction measurement of ejecta particles—its mass spectrometer can be seen faintly behind the screens. Credit: NASA/CU Boulder/Glenn Asakawa

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Total Eclipse Prep. Next week’s total solar eclipse has a ground track that passes over 43.8 million people, and with roughly another 100 million more living within 200 miles of totality, it is the most viewable total eclipse since 2009’s passed over India and China (although the weather at the time almost completely ruined viewing for the ~500 million people in totality). The next “mega” eclipse will be in 2027 when a ground track passes over southern Spain, northern Africa, and the Arabian peninsula. Its maximum totality stretches to ~6 ½ minutes (next week’s longest totality is 4 minutes 28 seconds) and covers almost 90 million people. Here are a few tidbits by way of preparing for next week’s event across North America:

NASA’s US Monday eclipse map.

Event Horizon strikes again. The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) released its latest image of a black hole. This time, it imaged polarized light from plasma near the Milky Way’s Sgr A*.  The result illuminates the magnetic nature of black holes. The supermassive black hole (SMBH) at the center of our galaxy shows similar polarization patterns to those of M87* (EHT image released in 2021), although it is (relatively) small in comparison (Sgr A* is ~4.3 million solar masses, M87* is ~6.5 billion). Researchers believe this may mean that all SMBHs have similar magnetic field structures and that the way they feed and throw out jets of material may be universal. The data also hints at the possibility of Sgr A* having a hidden jet, which could be the next objective of EHT. Related: EHT continues to grow by adding new observatories, growing the baseline of the array with the goal of stretching the effective aperture to roughly the size of Earth.

News in brief. Japan’s SLIM survived lunar night for the second time and is still mostly functioning ULA scrubbed the final launch of their Delta IV Heavy four minutes before liftoff due to an issue with a gaseous nitrogen pipeline that provides pneumatic pressure, and has postponed the launch to troubleshoot this issueESA’s Euclid had its sight restored after its team successfully de-iced one of the telescope's mirror by raising its temperature from -147°C to -113°C, causing built up water ice to sublimate  NASA resurrected the VERITAS mission to Venus after it was put on hold in Nov 2022 for budget and organizational reasons Boeing is suing Virgin Galactic for allegedly stealing trade secrets and owing one of its subsidiaries $25M Russia launched a remote sensing satelliteSpaceX hit a new monthly launch record as the company launched a Eutelsat satellite to GEO, and another batch of Starlink satellites, completing 12 launches in March Japanese iSpace raised $53.5M by selling stock to fund their US-subsidiary-developed M3 lunar lander mission Blue Origin shared an initial configuration diagram for Orbital Reef that has 91% of the pressurized volume of the ISS and can host 10 astronautsAs part of a multi-billion space strategic fund, Japan selected Interstellar Technologies as their primary launch provider and also formed agreements with SpaceOne, Space BD, and Mitsui Bussan Aerospace ESA/NASA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) discovered its 5,000th sungrazing comet, an achievement that wouldn’t be possible without citizen scientists’ contributions through the Sungrazer project.

SOHO’s 5,000th comet (circled) moving across the field relative to background stars. It was discovered by Hanjie Tan, studying in Prague, who has discovered 172 comets since joining the program at age 13. Images taken by the Large Angle and Spectrometric Coronagraph (LASCO) instrument aboard NASA/ESA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory spacecraft. 

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A new star is born in the FS Tau system. FS Tau B (Haro 6-5B) at the center-right of the image is obscured by its dark protoplanetary disk. The system is practically newborn at just 2.8 million years old. Credit: NASA/ESA/Gladys Kober

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