This week in space: Sophia takes one on the nose

Good afternoon, folks, and happy Friday! Holy heat wave. We are not the only ones facing these scorching temperatures; Another “valley of fire” has opened up on the Sun. Its corresponding solar flare goes away when it is pointed directly at Earth. In fact, much of this week’s space news is actually about earthly developments. This could be because many of NASA’s spacecraft are either in hibernation or experiencing power supply problems.

Still, we got a lot of updates this week. Apparently, what happened this week happened on Thursday. An international team of astronomers reported this week that they used images from the James Webb Space Telescope to find the oldest galaxies in the universe. An astronaut and an astronaut conducted a successful collaborative spacewalk on the International Space Station yesterday. NASA officials went on record with a tentative launch date for the Artemis 1 mission, just as the Northrop Grumman test fired the SLS rocket’s FSB-2 solid rocket boosters. And SpaceX is putting up curtains on its new launchpad at Kennedy’s False Launch Complex 39. However, two SpaceX launches have been scrubbed or delayed, respectively. And NASA’s Flying Observatory, Sophia, took one over the nose of New Zealand.

‘Canyon of Fire’ releases plasma filaments directly into Earth

The current heat wave looks like we are standing on the surface of the sun. But on the real Sun, the usual stellar inferno glows in a dazzling way. Another “canyon of fire” opened above the Sun last week. When its solar flare was gone, it was pointing more or less straight at Earth. Now, here it is. welcome Fire II Canyon: Electric Boogaloo.

“The cartwheel of long serpentine filaments moves toward the Sun in a stunning ballet,” said Tamitha Skov, a space weather physicist. He said in a tweet After the explosion “the magnetic orientation of this Earth-directed solar storm is going to be difficult to predict. G2-level (possibly G3) conditions could occur if the storm’s magnetic field is southward!

Watch the solar filament unwind in the Sun’s northern hemisphere. Photo: NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory

It’s a developing situation, but we’ll know more as the days go by. In any case, the geomagnetic storm will not develop into a Carrington-level disturbance. Such solar flares can cause fluctuations in the power grid and some satellite functions (such as cell service and GPS). But it shouldn’t be dramatic. Instead, it could bring the aurora borealis as far south as Michigan and Maine.

That’s not too far south.

See what I mean?

Scientists have discovered the oldest galaxy in the universe in James Webb’s images

Just ten days ago, the James Webb Space Telescope opened to science. But its images are already in use. An international team of astronomers reported this week that they used deep-field images from the web to identify the oldest galaxies in the observable universe. Meet GLASS-z13, a deeply redshifted collection of stars formed just 300 million years after the Big Bang:

Photo: Naidu et al, p. Osh, T. True, Glass-JWST, NASA/CSA/ESA/STScI

The ancient galaxy comes with a slightly less redshifted sidekick, GLASS-z11. Based on their mass, spectral properties, and redshift, these ancient galaxies formed during the reionization epoch of the universe. And at only 1300 and 2600 light-years across, they are relatively small. In comparison, our Sun formed about nine billion years after the Big Bang, and the Milky Way is about ten thousand light years across.

Astronauts and astronauts conduct successful spacewalks

Both Europe and America are dealing with an epic trust deficit with Russia. It makes it even more comforting to know that astronauts and astronauts still know how to cooperate on the International Space Station. Yesterday, ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti and cosmonaut Oleg Artemiev conducted a collaborative spacewalk to repair the station’s new robotic arm.

Aurora Borealis seen from the International Space Station. Photo: NASA/Marshall Space Center

Tether or no tether, it takes guts to get out of an airlock and walk. But the new arm is outside the chassis of the space station. Moreover, the duo also had to maneuver some satellites. So, the pair did their thing with the help of the station’s robotic Kibo Arm and Canadarm-2… and their own nerves of steel. Artemiev and Cristoforetti were out of the station for a total of seven hours and five minutes.

NASA grounded their SOFIA flying telescope after storm damage

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) is adjusting its science observing plans and canceling the remainder of its Southern Hemisphere deployment after aircraft were damaged by severe weather on Monday, July 18. No one was injured However, strong winds caught the plane’s entry ladder, damaging the ladder itself as well as the plane’s nose.

Nichelle Nichols, beaming and holding a tribble. Nichols sits at his console aboard SOFIA, NASA’s flying telescope. Most of the cast of Star Trek: TOS found a way to get themselves into space for real. Here, Nichols (who played Uhura) is with Sophia in the Stratosphere. Telescopes flying at that height can make clearer observations than on the ground. Photo: NASA/Nichelle Nichols

New stairs on the way. However, the Sophia team determined that repairs would take at least three weeks. Unfortunately, this means that they will not be able to conduct science observation flights for the remainder of this mission.

SOFIA is currently operating from New Zealand’s Christchurch International Airport to better observe celestial objects in the southern sky.

NASA officials have set a tentative launch date for the Artemis 1 maiden flight

NASA officials said Wednesday that the agency is tentatively targeting Aug. 29 for the first flight of its moon rocket, the Space Launch System. The Artemis team is trying to launch the rocket by the 25th, which runs from August 23 to September 6. However, their current “no-before” launch window opens at 8:33 a.m. EDT on August 29.

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, along with the Orion spacecraft, sits atop a mobile launcher at Launch Complex 39B. Photo credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

The mission’s launch window is narrow, and the moon rocket’s schedule is uncertain. The most recent delay was a hardware failure in one of the rocket’s hydrogen lines, explained Jim Free, NASA’s director of exploration. This took longer than the team expected, in part because they had to crawl inside the rocket’s first-stage engine. But this is characteristic of the doomed SLS program as a whole.

Circumspect agency officials noted that they are being careful with their timeline. NASA will not set a final launch date for the SLS until later this summer. If the rocket does not make its deadline for this launch, the backup dates extend to October.

Northrop Grumman test fired the FSB-2 rocket booster prior to the Artemis launch

With all the testing going on here, you’d think it was Aperture Science. Yesterday, Northrop Grumman began a successful two-minute test fire of its Flight Support Booster 2 (FSB-2) solid rocket booster. The FSB-2 boosters will provide 75% of the total thrust for the SLS rocket during the critical first two minutes after launch.

With these rockets, Northrop Grumman is moving away from hydrazine. Although the FSB-2 boosters use a solid propellant, it is a mixture of fuel and oxidizer, combined with a rubbery substance called polybutadiene acrylonitrile, or PBAN for short.

Thursday’s tests took place at a former Theocol facility in Utah’s Promontory.

SpaceX launch delayed

SpaceX scrubbed its Thursday morning Falcon 9 launch at T-minus 46 seconds. There was no indication of bad weather, but SpaceX did not specify the cause of the abort. Instead, they went back for another round and took off from Vandenberg at 1:39 PM, EDT.

This launch is a Starlink mission. It will carry 46 Starlink satellites into low-Earth orbit (LEO). But as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, SpaceX ferries astronauts to and from the International Space Station. That is, they will—late September. NASA announced Thursday that Crew-5, the next SpaceX commercial crew mission, will launch several weeks later than intended.

“A launch at the end of September will allow SpaceX to complete hardware processing and mission teams will continue to review the launch date based on the space station’s inspection spacecraft schedule,” NASA officials wrote in a statement.

When it launches, Crew-5 will include NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Kasada, Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, and Russian cosmonaut Anna Kikina.

Kikina’s presence in the cabin will be a milestone. Crew-5 will be the first SpaceX flight to carry an astronaut. NASA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos are also doing their own crew swaps: Cosmonaut Andrei Fedyaev is on the roster for Crew-6, which is targeting a spring 2023 launch. Meanwhile, American astronauts Laurel O’Hara and Frank Rubio each fly on separate Soyuz missions between now and the end of the year.

Skywatchers Corner

It remains to be seen whether today’s geomagnetic storm will last long enough into the night to make the aurora visible against the brightness of the sky. But if it fades, it’s certain that our near future is far from the end of turbulent space weather. We’re in the ascending phase of this solar cycle, which means solar flares are likely to intensify. But this cycle’s sunspot activity is already more intense than usual. Today’s solar storm is the second flare to hit us in 24 hours. That’s great news if you love light shows, and not so great if you need a GPS to get to your skywatching site.

I am 100% using this magnetic storm as an excuse to post a shot of the beauty of the aurora as seen from the ISS. Here, we see the aurora over the American Midwest. Photo: NASA/Marshall

Even if you’re too far from the poles to see the aurora borealis or aurora australis, there’s plenty of beautiful things to see in the night sky next week. Three meteor showers are currently active! Currently we have Alpha Capricornids, Southern Delta Aquarids and Perseids, all in the same sky at the same time as the waning crescent moon.

Catch a shooting star

Technically, the Perseids run from July 14 to September 1 this year But like the boundaries of debris clouds, those temporal boundaries are… porous. In fact, the cloud of cometary debris that makes up this shower has dissipated somewhat, after we’ve passed through it the size of a few planets. As a result, the light show begins and ends somewhat outside of its scheduled time—like how our sky begins to brighten before the sun is visible above the horizon.

In this ten-second exposure, a meteor streaks across the sky over Washington, DC during the annual Perseid meteor shower. Photo: NASA/Joel Kowsky

Widespread as it may be, Perseid’s debris cloud is still thick enough to make for a pretty show. This shower is already active, but it will reach a “strong peak” on August 12-13, visible from anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere. Southern Delta Aquarids come from a glow in the Southern Hemisphere, meaning visitors north of the equator will have a harder time catching them. But Alpha Capricornides are a completely different story. Alpha Capricornids are pleasing to the eye because, while the shower itself isn’t the most powerful, large pieces of debris from the meteor shower’s parent comet 169P/NEAT create a bright, flowing fireball.

Skywatchers in the dark region can expect to see perhaps 60-75 meteors per hour, most from the bright Perseids in its namesake constellation, Perseus. As always, viewers will have the best luck seeing meteors under clear, dark skies. The Perseids shower is also known for its fireballs, so even urban light pollution can’t block the glow of a few shooting stars. But skywatchers have to contend with 100% full moon brightness during Perseids’ peak.

That’s all for now, folks. I’m going to dump a few bags of ice in a kiddie pool, and sit like a Siberian husky. Wish me luck.

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