But if the rocket were to fall near an inhabited area, authorities would have only “very few hours” to give people warning, Thomas Reiter, an astronaut and the interagency coordinator for the ESA told Insider on Friday.
A large section of a rocket launched by China on April 29 is currently orbiting the Earth and falling toward the atmosphere. But because the rocket is not controlled, it is not clear where or when it will reenter the atmosphere.
“A large part is covered by oceans. Another large part is covered by desert,” Reiter said.
He said that for this reason, “we can say that the risk that something hits inhabited area is comparable to a person getting hit by a lightning.”
However, he said, because it won’t be clear where the rocket will land until the last moment, “unfortunately it’s very difficult to give warning to those areas, if it would, for example, fall down inhabited areas.”
“The pre-warning would be within very few hours, probably even less,” Reiter said.
Reiter said most of the rocket is likely to burn up in the atmosphere, where the temperatures upon reentry are more than 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit, Reiter told Insider.
But he said it is likely that some parts of the rocket are built with materials that can sustain these high temperatures, the likelihood that those parts of the rocket could hit Earth is “very high,” Reiter said.
If someone in France wants to sign up for Starlink, they put their address in the box and the next page will tell them when they can expect the service to be available in their area. Currently, it says Starlink will arrive in France between mid to late 2021, but subscribers can pay a €99 deposit to secure the service – around $120.
Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, and areas of the US where Starlink isn’t live yet also provide the option of preordering the internet service in exchange for a deposit.
Musk tweeted in February the cost of Starlink is “meant to be the same price in all countries. Only difference should be taxes & shipping.”
Since Starlink’s “Better Than Nothing Beta” test launched in October, the service has amassed more than 10,000 beta testers globally and has blasted over 1,350 satellites into orbit. The company’s goal is to have up to 42,000 satellites in orbit by mid-2027.
The most recent Starlink launch was on Tuesday when SpaceX sent 60 satellites into orbit via its reusable Falcon 9 rocket.
Elon Musk on Friday said his aerospace company SpaceX may attempt another blast off of its fifth Starship rocket soon, following its successful landing on Wednesday.
Starship serial No. 15, or SN15, lifted off from SpaceX’s launch facilities in Boca Chica, Texas, and flew to high altitude, before plunging back down to Earth and landing smoothly back on the landing pad.
The latest version of the mega-spaceship was the only version to not explode, taking SpaceX closer to adding another reusable launch vehicle to its collection. The previous four Starship prototypes burst into flames either during or shortly after landing.
These prototypes are the upper stage of a two-part system. SpaceX want to add on a Super Heavy booster, which will fire the rocket towards orbit, the moon and eventually Mars. The idea is that Starship will return to Earth so the mission can be repeated again and again.
A final version of the 16-story tall Starship rocket is set to land the first humans on the moon since 1972 under an exclusive contract with NASA. The spaceship will send two astronauts to the moon as early as 2024.
Space-Track, a website run by the 18th Space Control Squadron, a branch of the US military that tracks space debris, said in a tweet on Friday that the rocket will reenter around 11:13 PM UTC, or 7:13 PM ET, on Saturday.
According to the coordinates given in the tweet, the rocket would fall over Turkmenistan.
That is because the rocket currently hurtling around the Earth on an orbit at about 18,000 mph, as it lowers towards the Earth at around 0.3 mph, Harvard Astronomer Jonathan McDowell said in a tweet.
That means if the estimates of when the rocket would reach the atmosphere are off by even a half an hour, the rocket could be almost on the other side of the Earth.
As of early Friday, the margin of error for Space-Track’s estimate was at least 18 hours either way.
Another body tracking the rocket, the Aerospace Corporation, a not-for profit-company that receives US funding, predicted on Thursday that the rocket would reenter the atmosphere on May 9 at 3:43 AM UTC, which is Sunday, at 11:43 PM, ET time.
-The Aerospace Corporation (@AerospaceCorp) May 6, 2021
The rocket could hit the atmosphere anywhere along the yellow lines in the map above at that time, they say.
The “exact entry point of the rocket into the Earth’s atmosphere cannot be pinpointed until within hours of its reentry,” US Space Command, a branch of the US military that is tracking the object, said in a statement on Tuesday.
During a close flyby of the planet Venus on July 11, 2020, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe detected something odd.
As it dipped just 517 miles above the Venusian surface, the probe’s instruments recorded a low-frequency radio signal – a telltale sign that Parker had skimmed through the ionosphere, a layer of the planet’s upper atmosphere.
This was the first time an instrument had been able to directly record measurements of Venus’ upper atmosphere in nearly three decades, and the data gives us a new understanding of how Venus changes in response to cyclic changes in the sun.
“I was just so excited to have new data from Venus,” Glyn Collinson, an astronomer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a press release.
According to a recent study by Collinson’s team, Venus’ upper atmosphere was an order of magnitude thinner last year than it was in 1992 – the last time scientists were able to collect data from the planet’s atmosphere.
Venus’ thick, hot atmosphere makes it hard to explore
Venus is similar to Earth in size and composition, yet crucially different: It’s a toxic, scorching hot hell-world that is likely completely inhospitable to life as we know it.
How the two planets could have developed into such radically different beasts is of profound interest to planetary scientists and astrobiologists searching for other habitable worlds in the galaxy.
Yet missions to explore Venus have been relatively few. There’s not much point sending landers; they can’t survive the planet’s 864-degree-Fahrenheit (462-degree-Celsius) surface.
Sending orbiting probes is also considered problematic due to the incredibly thick atmosphere of carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid rain clouds that make it hard to tell what’s happening on the surface.
For these reasons, Venus hasn’t been a popular target for dedicated missions in some time (Japan’s Akatsuki orbiter being the recent exception), and a lot of our recent data has come piecemeal, from instruments with other primary objectives, like the Parker Solar Probe.
As the Parker probe conducts its mission to study the sun in close detail, it’s been using Venus for gravity assist maneuvers – slingshotting around the planet to alter its velocity and trajectory. It was on one of these gravity assist flybys that the probe’s instruments recorded a radio signal.
Collinson, who has worked on other planetary missions, noted an odd familiarity that he couldn’t quite place in the shape of the signal.
“Then the next day, I woke up,” he said, “and I thought, ‘Oh my god, I know what this is!'”
It was the same kind of signal recorded by NASA’s Galileo probe when the space skimmed through the ionospheres of Jupiter’s moons. The ionosphere is a layer of atmosphere where solar radiation ionizes atoms, resulting in a charged plasma that produces low-frequency radio emission that scientists can detect.
Once the researchers realized the signal was ionospheric plasma, they were able to use the signal to calculate the density of the Venusian ionosphere, and compare that density to similar measurements taken in 1992. Fascinatingly, the ionosphere was an order of magnitude thinner in 2020 than it was in 1992.
The sun wreaks havoc on Venus
The team believes that thinning has something to do with solar cycles. Every 11 years, the sun’s magnetic poles swap places: south becomes north and north becomes south. It’s not clear what drives these cycles, but we do know that the poles switch when the magnetic field is at its weakest.
When the sun’s magnetic field is weak, there’s fewer instances of sunspots, solar flares, and coronal mass ejections – when the sun releases plasma and bits of its magnetic field into space. This period of minimal activity is aptly called the solar minimum.
Once the poles have switched, the magnetic field strengthens, and solar activity increases to a maximum before subsiding again for the next polar switch.
Measurements of Venus from Earth suggested that Venus’ ionosphere was changing in sync with the solar cycles, growing thicker at solar maximum and thinner at solar minimum. But without direct measurements, it was difficult to confirm – until the Parker probe’s recent flyby.
The 1992 measurement was taken at a time close to solar maximum; the 2020 measurement close to solar minimum. They were both consistent with the Earth-based measurements.
“When multiple missions are confirming the same result, one after the other, that gives you a lot of confidence that the thinning is real,” Robin Ramstad, an astronomer from the University of Colorado, Boulder, said in the release.
Exactly why the solar cycle has this effect on Venus’ ionosphere is unclear, but there are two leading theories.
The first is that the upper boundary of the planet’s ionosphere could be getting compressed to a lower altitude during solar minimum, which prevents atoms ionized on the day side from flowing to the night side, resulting in a thinner night side ionosphere. The second is that Venus’ ionosphere leaks into space at a faster rate during solar minimum.
Neither of these mechanisms could be ruled out by the data collected by the new Parker probe, but Collinson’s team hopes that more observations and future missions to Venus might be able to clarify what’s going on.
SpaceX’s Starlink satellite-internet service has raked in more than 500,000 orders and deposits from customers, the company said Tuesday.
“To date, over half a million people have placed an order or put down a deposit for Starlink,” said Siva Bharadvaj, a SpaceX space operations engineer, during a broadcast of SpaceX’s latest launch of Starlink satellites. “With every launch, we get closer to connecting more people across the world.”
SpaceX did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the exact figure.
Starlink aims to use its fleet of more than 40,000 satellites to beam high-speed internet down to rural and remote areas where traditional service is poor or not available. SpaceX also plans to deliver internet to ships, planes, cars, and RVs.
The company on Tuesday launched 60 more Starlink satellites into orbit using one of its Falcon 9 rockets, completing its 10th Starlink mission of 2021 and its 26th mission overall. The latest launch brings the total number of Starlink satellites sent into orbit to somewhere around 1,500, though some of those have been deorbited.
SpaceX began offering Starlink as a beta service in October and has since amassed more than 10,000 beta testers, according to a February filing with the Federal Communications Commission. Starlink is currently available to a limited number of users in a given area, and customers can place refundable, $99 deposits to join a waitlist.
Of the many challenges astronauts will face in future missions to the Moon and Mars, keeping healthy is one of the most crucial.
But, in recent days, astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) found startling solutions to sustain them on long-lasting missions. They recently enjoyed a fresh supply of vegetables due in large part to the efforts of NASA’s SpaceX Crew-1 mission commander and Expedition 64 crew member, Michael Hopkins.
Insider spoke to two NASA scientists, Matt Romeyn and Gioia Massa, who work on the crop-production experiments, known as Veg-03Kand VEG-03L. Romeyn is the lead scientist on the experiments and Gioia is a Kennedy Space Centre plant scientist.
Veg-03Kand VEG-03L intended to test a new space crop, “Amara” mustard, also known as Ethiopian kale, and a previously grown crop, “extra dwarf” pak choi. Both yielded successful results. Since their harvest by Hopkins on April 13, the two crops grew for 64 days, the longest duration leafy greens have grown on the space station.
According to Romeyn, the pak choi germinated for so long that the plant began to flower as part of its reproductive growth cycle. This was thanks to Hopkins’ effort in using a small paintbrush to pollinate plant flowers.
They took the approach after Hopkins’ and Romeyn discussed multiple options for the pollination process, including allowing the flowers to self-pollinate themselves.
“We were very happy with his efforts to pollinate those flowers to look at the possibility of producing seeds from them,” said Massa.
She added that this approach “will also be very critical in the future to be able to produce new plants without getting seeds from Earth, so very important for long-duration missions such as a mission to Mars,” and the Moon.
Hopkins’ was hugely interested in crop production, said Romeyn and Massa, and he devoted much of his free time in space to caring for them. This meant monitoring and watering the plants every day, as well as determining the optimal time to harvest them.
“It’s a really challenging thing and so he had to check those plants pretty much every day and monitor their growth and adjust his approaches to growing them,” Massa said.
New methods of harvesting were also among Hopkins’ discoveries in space-crop production. This included a sustainable approach to harvesting, called “cut-and-come-again harvesting”, which entailed harvesting multiple times from the same plant Massa explained.
“He’s been just an incredible gardener and scientist for us,” she added.
Massa said the crew have been eating the pak choi as a side dish, by marinating the leaves in garlic paste and soy sauce, and then heating them up in a small food warmer.
“Delicious, plus the texture or crunch,” Hopkins wrote in experiment notes after tasting the “Amara” mustard plant grown in space.
According to Massa, the crew have also put the leafy greens on tacos or cheeseburgers that they’ve made. In the past, Massa saw crew members enjoy the “Amara” mustard plant as lettuce wraps. “I know the Russians had canned lobster salad and so they made lettuce wraps with the canned lobster salad,” she added.
For now, the astronauts are focusing on the “pick-and-eat salad” crops, which don’t require cooking or processing, because there’s not that much capability to do that type of work on the space station.
Next year, there are plans to grow ‘dwarf tomatoes,’ which Massa likened to cherry tomatoes.
Romeyn explained that NASA scientists on the crop-production project look to grow crops high in Vitamin C and Vitamin K for astronauts in space. This is because research at Johnson Space Centre found the nutritional value of food stored in space ultimately deteriorates.
“The vitamins and the quality can break down for some of the food items,” Massa said.
This is why a lot of the work being done in space agriculture, from a nutritional and supplemental perspective, is to feed crews travelling to and from Mars, Romeyn explained. “We may not have full nutrition without supplementing with the fresh crops,” he said, in regards to a future Mars mission.
NASA officials are certainly hopeful that a future crewed mission to Mars is on the cards. When the agency announced its partnership with SpaceX to return to the moon by 2024, it said in a press release that a trip to the moon would be an important step toward an eventual mission to the Red Planet.
“It’s something I hoped I would see,” said Scott Hubbard, a SpaceX advisor who formerly led NASA’s Mars program, previously told Insider in an interview.
The Biden administration on Saturday appointed Vice President Kamala Harris to chair the National Space Council, according to senior administration officials.
Harris confirmed her new position on Twitter, writing: “As I’ve said before: In America, when we shoot for the moon, we plant our flag on it. I am honored to lead our National Space Council.”
According to an official, Kamala intends to put her own personal stamp on the council. Her priorities are focused on policies including the advancement of STEM education, cybersecurity, supporting the long-term sustainability of commercial space activity, and diversity in the workforce, CNN reported.
The council was first created by the executive order by President George H.W. Bush. Following the Bush administration, the council was essentially demobilized until it was reestablished by another executive order from President Donald Trump in 2017, per Politico.
The Biden administration plans to operate the work under that same executive order from 2017 but intends to review it to see if changes are necessary, according to CNN.
Following the announcement, Bill Nelson will be instated as the 14th NASA administrator.
Nelson welcomed the news in a statement released by NASA: “The Vice President is the perfect person to lead the federal government’s space policy, which is increasingly complex, with many nations in space.”
Harris recently showed her interest in US spaceflight when making two calls to astronauts aboard the International Space Station. Harris virtually spoke with astronauts, Shannon Walker and Kate Rubins, to mark Women’s History Month, CNN reported.
Commenting on the likely differences between Harris’ and Pence’s approach, an official told CNN: “I’ll just say without drawing too much of a contrast, I think her approach to this is just going to be to get the job done and use this to lead our space policy. And not really focus, perhaps, as much on big displays, but on getting the work done.”
Scientists around the world have been bamboozled this week by a fictitious asteroid heading toward Earth.
A group of experts from US and European space agencies attended a week-long exercise led by NASA in which they faced a hypothetical scenario: An asteroid 35 million miles away was approaching the planet and could hit within six months.
With each passing day of the exercise, the participants learned more about the asteroid’s size, trajectory, and chance of impact. Then they had to cooperate and use their technological knowledge to see if anything could be done to stop the space rock.
The experts fell short. The group determined that none of Earth’s existing technologies could stop the hypothetical asteroid from striking given the six-month timeframe of the simulation. In this alternate reality, the asteroid crashed into eastern Europe.
As far as we know, no asteroids currently pose a threat to Earth in this way. But an estimated two-thirds of asteroids 460 feet in size or bigger – large enough to wreak considerable havoc – remain undiscovered. That’s why NASA and other agencies are attempting to prepare for such a situation.
“These exercises ultimately help the planetary-defense community communicate with each other and with our governments to ensure we are all coordinated should a potential impact threat be identified in the future,” Lindley Johnson, NASA’s planetary defense officer, said in a press release.
6 months is not enough time to prepare for an asteroid impact
The fictitious asteroid in the simulation was called 2021PDC. In NASA’s scenario, it was first “spotted” on April 19, at which time it was thought to have a 5% of hitting our planet on October 20, six months after its discovery date.
But Day 2 of the exercise fast-forwarded to May 2, when new impact-trajectory calculations showed that 2021PDC would almost certainly hit either Europe or northern Africa. The participants in the simulation considered various missions in which spacecraft could try to destroy the asteroid or deflect it off its path.
But they concluded that such missions wouldn’t be able to get off the ground in the short amount of time before the asteroid’s impact.
“If confronted with the 2021PDC hypothetical scenario in real life, we would not be able us to launch any spacecraft on such short notice with current capabilities,” the participants said.
They also considered trying to blow up or disrupt the asteroid using a nuclear explosive device.
“Deploying a nuclear disruption mission could significantly reduce the risk of impact damage,” they found.
Still, the simulation stipulated that 2021PDC could be anywhere from 114 feet to half a mile in size, so the chance that a nuke could make a dent was uncertain.
Day 3 of the exercise skipped ahead to June 30, and Earth’s future looked grim: 2021PDC’s impact trajectory showed it headed for eastern Europe. By Day 4, which fast-forwarded to a week before the asteroid impact, there was a 99% chance the asteroid would hit near the border between Germany, the Czech Republic, and Austria. The explosion would bring as much energy as a large nuclear bomb.
All that could be done was evacuate the affected regions ahead of time.
Most asteroids fly under the radar, and many are spotted too late
It’s tempting to assume that in the real world, astronomers would spot an asteroid akin to 2021PDC with much more notice than six months. But the world’s ability to surveil near-Earth objects (NEOs) is woefully incomplete.
Any space rock with an orbit that takes it within 125 million miles of the sun is considered an NEO. But Johnson said in July that NASA thinks “we’ve only found about a third of the population of asteroids that are out there that could represent an impact hazard to the Earth.”
Of course, humanity hopes to avoid a surprise like the dinosaurs got 65 million years ago, when a 6-mile-wide asteroid crashed into the Earth. But in recent years, scientists have missed plenty of large, dangerous objects that came close.
Comet Neowise, a 3-mile-wide chunk of space ice, passed with 64 million miles of Earth in July. Nobody knew that comet existed until a NASA space telescope discovered it approaching four months prior.
In 2013, a meteor about 65 feet in diameter entered the atmosphere traveling 40,000 mph. It exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, without warning, sending out a shock wave that broke windows and damaged buildings across the region. More than 1,400 people were injured.
That’s because currently, the only way scientists can track an NEO is by pointing one of Earth’s limited number of powerful telescopes in the right direction at the right time.
To address that problem, NASA announced two years ago that it would launch a new space telescope dedicated to watching for hazardous asteroids. That telescope, named the Near-Earth Object Surveillance Mission, along with the European Space Agency’s newly launched Test-Bed Telescope and the Flyeye Telescope that’s being built in Italy, should eventually bolster the number of NEOs we can track.
NASA is testing ways to stymie an asteroid
NASA has investigated the options scientists would have if they were to find a dangerous asteroid on a collision course with Earth. These include detonating an explosive device near the space rock, as the exercise participants suggested, or firing lasers that could heat up and vaporize the asteroid enough to change its path.
Another possibility is sending a spacecraft up to slam into an oncoming asteroid, thereby knocking it off its trajectory. This is the strategy NASA is most serious about: Later this year, the agency is scheduled to launch a test of such a technology. The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) will send a spacecraft to the asteroid Dimorphos and purposefully hit it in the fall of 2022.
NASA hopes that collision will change Dimorphos’s orbit. While that asteroid isn’t a threat to Earth, the mission could prove that redirecting an asteroid is possible with enough lead time.