Space news weekly recap: NASA’s Artemis I, James Webb Space Telescope and dark energy

By | August 28, 2022

After a gap of close to 50 years after the last Apollo mission, NASA plans to herald a new age of space exploration by returning to the Moon with the Artemis program, starting with the Artemis I launch scheduled for August 29. But that is not the only news that will interest space buffs. Here is our weekly recap of the most exciting space news.

Ingenuity mars helicopter This image of NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter was taken by the Mastcam-Z instrument of the Perseverance rover on June 15, 2021, the 114th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS)

Ingenuity to get back in action

After being grounded temporarily for a short period due to it being winter and dust season on the red planet, the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter took to the skies for its 30th flight. The rotorcraft performed a short hop to check system health after it survived more than 101 Martian sols (days) of winter. During the flight, it will also collect landing delivery data to support NASA’s future Mars Sample Return Campaign.

To make sure that Ingenuity was flight ready, the mission team performed a 50 rpm spin on August 6, followed by a high-speed spin on August 15. During the high-speed spin, the rotor system sped up to flight-like speeds of 2,573 rpm. The telemetry data from both tests indicate that the helicopter on Mars is ready for takeoff, giving the team a green flag.

An image of Jupiter obtained by the James Webb Space Telescope on July 27. (NASA)

Webb captures brilliant new images of Jupiter

For the longest time, the image of Jupiter in our minds has been the same as the yellowish-orange sphere that could be found in school textbooks and encyclopedias. But NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope has literally captured the gas giant in a new light with its infrared image.

The new images released by NASA show Jupiter with a greenish-blue tint, complete with all its signature elements including giant storms, auroras and regions of extreme temperature. A second image released by NASA also neatly marks many of the various features of the gaseous planet, including its rings and moons.

Engineers working on NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft Engineers working on NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft on March 23, 1977. (Image credit: NASA/JPL)

Voyager 2 completes 45 years in space

Voyager 2, the first of the two spacecraft that were part of the Voyager mission lifted off on August 20, 1977, taking advantage of a rare planetary alignment that used the gravity of one planet to propel itself to another. Even though the mission initially only targeted Jupiter and Saturn, Voyager 2 went on to explore Uranus and Neptune as well.

Currently, the Voyager 2 spacecraft is more than 19 billion kilometres away from our planet. It is so far away, in fact, that it takes 18 hours for radio signals from it to reach back to us. It is a remarkable scientific achievement that it can continue to return data despite being so far away from the Sun and our planet.

Sharpest ever image of R136ai, the most massive known star. Sharpest ever image of R136ai, the most massive known star. (Image credit: International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA)

Sharpest image of most massive star

R136a1 is the most massive star known to us but until recently, it was very difficult to isolate the star from others in the cluster it’s part of and capture an image. But scientists used the 8.1-metre Gemini South Telescope in Chile to produce the sharpest known image of the star. The research led by researchers at the US National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab suggests that R136a1 may not be as massive as previously thought.

Previous observations of the star had suggested that its mass was somewhere between 250 to 230 times that of the Sun. But the most recent observations made by the NOIRLab scientists using the Zorro instrument of the Gemini South Telescope suggest that it might only be between 170 and 230 times the mass of the Sun. Even with this lower estimate, R136a1 continues to be the most massive star that we know.

Test for dark energy yields nothing

One of the greatest mysteries in modern physics is the fact that our universe is expanding at an accelerating rate. According to NASA, this would be like if we thorough an Apple in the air and it kept accelerating upwards, getting faster and faster. The cause of this phenomenon has been attributed to something called “dark energy,” an enigma that we know little about.

The most recent effort to understand it better came from the Dark Energy Survey (DES), an international collaborative effort that maps hundreds of millions of galaxies, detects thousands of supernovae and finds patterns of cosmic structure. The DES’ latest study used the 4-metre Victor M Blanco Telescope in Chile to conduct what was one of the most precise tests yet of Albert Einstein’s theory of gravity. The observations made during the study matched what is predicted by Einstein’s theory, and thereby, dark energy continues to be a phenomenon with no explanation.

NASA, NASA James Webb Space Telescope, James Webb telescope, Exoplanet, Explonet atmosphere This illustration shows what exoplanet WASP-39 b could look like, based on current understanding of the planet. Because it is so close to its star, WASP-39 b is very hot and is likely to be tidally locked, with one side facing the star at all times. (Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and J. Olmsted (STScI))

Webb detects carbon dioxide in an exoplanet atmosphere

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has captured what is the first-ever evidence of the presence of carbon dioxide in an exoplanet’s atmosphere. WASP-39b, the planet in question orbits a star very similar to our Sun and is 700 light years away from the planet. Before Webb, the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes had revealed the presence of water vapour, sodium and potassium in the planet’s atmosphere.

The new discovery helps the space agency understand the planet’s origin and composition better. Scientists can also better understand the proportion of solid and gaseous material that was part of the formation of the planet. According to NASA, WASP-39 b is an ideal target for transmission spectroscopy.

A render of the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft taking off for the Artemis I mission. A render of the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft taking off for the Artemis I mission. (Image credit: NASA)

NASA’s Artemis I: Why we need to go back to the moon

Ahead of the Artemis I mission to the Moon, The New York Times reported on the importance of humanity returning to Earth’s lone natural satellite with the NASA program. Apart from the program’s importance as a proving ground for the technologies needed to make the much longer trip to Mars and beyond, NASA also hopes to jump-start private companies that are getting into the space technology industry.

Apart from that, there is also the question of competing with China’s ambition of creating a lunar base in the 2030s. Even putting all those reasons aside, the renewed focus on the moon could provide scientists with great amounts of important data in the coming year, including about the presence of water and other resources on the satellite.

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