This Week in Space: Orion, Tomato and Wolf Moons

Hello readers, and Happy New Year! Welcome to this week’s first edition of Space in 2023. It’s the twelfth day of Christmas — and the first full moon of the year, the Wolf Moon, rises tonight. And TGIF, am I right?

Today, we’ve got updates from Project Artemis, and a fun video tour of a Falcon 9 rocket into space and back. But this week also held an event of what could be singular importance, as Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Al), chairman of the Senate subcommittee that controls NASA’s budget, resigned from office.

The Orion spacecraft has returned to NASA for “de-servicing.”

After Artemis 1, the Orion capsule splashed into the Pacific Ocean on December 11. It then spent two weeks en route from Naval Base San Diego, California to KSC’s multi-payload processing facility. Orion carries tons of miscellaneous science material™ into orbit. Now, it’s time to unpack.

Beyond the astronaut Snoopy plushies, Girl Scout badges, pins, flags, patches and other odd flotsam in Orion’s legally mandated official flight kit (PDF), Orion carried three important passengers into orbit. Three mannequins, one male and two female-bodied, wear and carry new safety equipment that NASA is field-testing for the next generation of Artemis astronauts. We’ll know more about the results when NASA releases them.

Mission technicians are also going over the Orion capsule, removing “heat shields and other components” for further analysis. The Artemis team is also carefully removing the parts and components they will use for Artemis II from the Orion capsule.

Senator and space policy powerbroker Richard Shelby has resigned

As NASA unpacks Orion, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala) is packing up to leave the Senate. Shelby was chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which controls NASA’s budget, and was instrumental in the development of the Space Launch System rocket and the Orion capsule. He fought for decades to bring aerospace jobs — and money — to Alabama. In 2019, after then-NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine suggested that a Falcon Heavy could make SLS work faster and cheaper, Shelby framed him for a political smear. Now that Artemis 1 has flown, Shelby hands down the baton.

Artemis 1 launched from Pad 39B at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Photo: NASA/Joel Kowsky

It’s hard not to have mixed opinions about SLS. The project must have delivered as a job program. “The program is an economic engine for America,” said former senator and current NASA administrator Bill Nelson. “In 2019 alone, it supported 70,000 good-paying jobs across the country.” But it also kept NASA out of the deal a lot Less expensive private-sector launch services, and then turn around and spend the rest of the budget more NASA is already doing great work on deep space exploration, paying Americans better wages to develop hardware and software.

Now that Shelby, one of SLS’s staunchest advocates, has resigned, it’s unclear how US space policy will change. Since NASA’s inception, the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center has been (and will undoubtedly remain) an essential part of American spaceflight. But without Shelby’s advocacy, the SLS itself might not have had the same sympathetic audience in Congress.

Ride into space (and back!) with this Falcon 9.

SpaceX, meanwhile, has occupied itself with launching dozens of satellites into orbit. On Tuesday of this week, during a flight called Transporter-6, the company fielded about 114 different small sats and orbiters, including dozens for the Starlink fleet. Transporter-6 also carried 36 Planet Superdome high-resolution-spectrum imaging satellites, providing data for environmental monitoring groups and US government intelligence agencies. But a few Superdome satellites have brought more warm-hearted elements to the skies. According to Planet, Superdive has five artworks and inscribed with quotes, in respect per Star Trek Creator Gene Roddenberry.

After launch, the first stage stowed itself away at Canaveral’s Landing Zone 1. Tuesday’s flight number was 15 for a Falcon 9 first stage — tail number B1060 — tying a SpaceX reusability record. It was also SpaceX’s 200th launch. In celebration, the company uploaded a video of Tuesday’s launch and landing to YouTube, from Rocket’s point of view

In praise of Space Tomato

Being an astronaut takes a lot. To go into space, NASA requires astronauts to be academics, strong swimmers, and experienced pilots, in addition to falling within a strict range of physical attributes, including physical fitness and standing height. (Only those between 5’2″ and 6’3″ need apply.) But recent blog posts from the International Space Station have really drawn attention to the fact that ISS astronauts and astronauts need to be polymaths to thrive there.

In addition to being a regular renaissance woman, Cmdr. Nicole Mann is also absolutely *killing* in that hideous ugly sweater. Shine on you crazy diamond. From left, NASA astronauts Josh Kasada, Nicole Mann, and Frank Rubio and JAXA astronaut Koichi Wakata. Image: NASA

During the past four weeks, people on the ISS have performed and/or studied, in no particular order: phlebotomy, chromatography, botany, physics, immunology, microbiology, ergonomics, polymer chemistry, and 12K photography. And that is a conservative list. Then there’s spacesuit maintenance, spacewalks and piloting the ISS itself. It’s a little surreal. Everyone on the ISS is studying things like bone density maintenance, foam thickening and consolidation, and future piloting systems — all with an eye toward putting humans on Mars. And all the while, they take turns watering a little patch of dwarf tomatoes. For science.

NASA officially asks SpaceX if it can bring home astronauts stranded in space

After a coolant leak from the Soyuz MS-22 capsule currently docked with the International Space Station, an astronaut and two astronauts are stranded in space — sort of. Last September, NASA astronaut Frank Rubio and Roscosmos cosmonauts Sergei Prokopiev and Dmitry Petlin visited the ISS aboard the Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft. Then, on December 14, the capsule leaked a coolant.

Earth observations taken during an overnight stay by the Expedition 49 crew aboard the International Space Station (ISS). You can see the Soyuz in the foreground here, with the Progress in the background, the solar-panel wings aligned with the horizon.

Looking closer, the ISS crew found a crater with “discoloration” that looked like a possible micrometeoroid impact punched directly through the capsule’s external radiator cooling loop. If the Soyuz capsule is inoperable, its passengers have no clear way to the edge of the planet before March, when Russia can scram an uncrewed Soyuz capsule to bring them home. This week NASA officially approached SpaceX about bringing the trio back in a Crew Dragon capsule. However, right now the agency says it’s mostly focused on working with Roscosmos to figure out what Soyuz MS-22 can do in its current state.

Skywatchers Corner

January is a great time for stargazing as the bitter cold creates beautifully clear skies. If you’ve got dark skies (and can bundle up enough), sometimes the coldest part of winter is best for stargazing. If it cools high enough, the moisture will condense out of the air, leaving the sky with an ethereal clarity and sharpness. Unfortunately, tonight is a full moon, so the glare may interfere with skywatching.

January’s full moon is called the Wolf Moon, according to the Farmer’s Almanac. But this full moon is also a so-called “micromoon,” the opposite of a supermoon. Luna is currently at its farthest point from Earth, so it appears at its smallest.

Throughout this month, we’ll be treated to a “planetary parade,” with five planets visible in the sky at the same time. But we’re also treated to a visitor the world hasn’t seen since the Holocene: A rare comet called C/2022 E3 (ZTF).. The last time this comet came ’round, it was during the time of the Neanderthals. Now modern eyes will get another chance to see it.

Feature image courtesy of SpaceX.

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