Inside Space - December 13th, 2019

Inside Space (Dec 13th, 2019)

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1. NASA has created a map of wind circulation in Mars's upper atmosphere. The map uses data from NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft collected over the past couple of years. It shows that some upper atmospheric winds – at an altitude of about 125 miles (200 km) – are consistent, while others change in a matter of hours. The winds vary with location and evolve throughout the Martian year. The map will help scientists understand the workings of the Martian climate, "giving them a more accurate picture of its ancient past and its ongoing evolution," NASA said in a statement. MAVEN has been orbiting Mars since September 2014, studying – among other things – how the red planet was stripped of its atmosphere by solar winds. – NASA / YOUTUBE

2. NASA has chosen a site on asteroid Bennu from which the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will collect a sample. Dubbed "Nightingale," the site is located in a crater high in Bennu’s northern hemisphere. In mid-2020, OSIRIS-REx will briefly touch down on Nightingale and collect a sample that will be transported to Earth in late 2023. After studying four possible sites for months, researchers chose Nightingale because it has plenty of fine-grained material and lacks big boulders. But the area deemed safe for landing is approximately 52 feet (16 meters) in diameter, meaning that the spacecraft has to perform an accurate landing to stay clear of the surrounding rocks. OSIRIS-REx launched on Sept. 8, 2016, and arrived at asteroid Bennu on Dec. 3, 2018. – NEW YORK TIMES

3. A record number of countries are building spaceports and increasingly partnering with state governments and private companies to do so, according to a report by the Space Foundation. Worldwide, there are 40 active spaceports, 10 in development and at least 13 proposed. Citing NASA data, the report says that launch costs have been reduced by a factor of 20, thanks in large part to increased competition among commercial rocket companies. While in 2000 the average price per kilogram of payload was $18,500, by 2018 SpaceX was charging $2,719 to send one kilogram to low-Earth orbit. Another sign of how fast the space industry is growing is that nearly $24.6 billion has been invested in space companies in the last ten years, with more than 20 percent of that coming in 2018, according to Space Angels. – SPACE FOUNDATION

4. During a recent flyby, ESA's Mars Express spacecraft snapped detailed images of the Martian moon Phobos. Using 41 of those images, researchers at the German space agency (DLR) have produced an animation showing features that have never been seen in such detail before, including impact craters and kilometer-long linear markings and furrows. During the flyby, the Mars Express was at a distance of approximately 2,400 km from Phobos. DLR and the French space agency CNES plan to build a rover that will be transported to one of Mars' two moons to collect samples by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). This mission is called Martian Moons eXploration and is scheduled for launch in 2024. – NEW ATLAS

5. NASA has given Boeing the green light for a Starliner test flight on Dec. 20. The decision follows a Flight Readiness Review, a process during which mission managers from NASA and Boeing ensured that there are no issues that might jeopardize the mission. The Starliner will be lifted into orbit by a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket and will spend a week attached to the International Space Station. NASA also gave Boeing the all-clear to launch the mission on Dec. 21 or Dec. 23, as well as Dec. 25 through 28. The only tripulant of the mission will be a sensor-laden test dummy named "Rosie the Rocketeer" that will gather data to determine if the spacecraft is safe to fly humans. – SPACE

6. Since arriving on the red planet in November 2018, NASA's InSight lander has recorded 322 Marsquakes. The rate of quakes has been increasing over time, from just a few sporadic tremors after landing to the current pace of two a day. Mission scientists don't know why. Most of the tremors are small and would not have been felt on Earth, but a couple of them were strong, the equivalent of a magnitude 4 earthquake. Scientists have been able to trace back the strongest tremors to a geologically active area known as Cerberus Fossae, which lies about 1,600 kilometers east of InSight. Scientists believe that those quakes may have been caused by the buildup of stress along geological faults within the Martian crust. – NATURE

7. German startup Isar Aerospace has raised $17 million to develop a small launch vehicle. Isar is developing Spectrum, a two-stage rocket designed to launch up to 1,000 kilograms to low-Earth orbit. Spectrum's maiden flight is slated for late 2021. It will compete against other forthcoming small-launch vehicles, including Firefly Aerospace’s Alpha and Relativity Space’s Terran 1, both of which are set to start flying in the next couple of years. However, Isar's customers are likely to be European firms, since the company will launch the Spectrum from a European spaceport. Spectrum will be an expendable rocket but Isar said that, going forward, it may redesign the first stage to make reusable. – SPACE NEWS

8. NASA's Juno spacecraft has discovered a new cyclone in Jupiter's south pole. The discovery occurred during Juno's 22nd flyby of Jupiter, when the solar-powered vessel was approximately 2,175 miles (3,500 km) above the planet's clouds. After arriving at Jupiter in July 2016, Juno's infrared and visible-light cameras discovered giant cyclones encircling the planet's poles. Unlike Earth's cyclones, which last for short periods of time, these storms seem to be permanent fixtures. Juno spotted five storms swirling in a pentagonal pattern near the south pole, with a sixth one in the middle. But last month Juno discovered that another cyclone. "This new addition is smaller than its six more established cyclonic brothers: It's about the size of Texas," said Alessandro Mura, a Juno co-investigator at the National Institute for Astrophysics in Rome. – CNET

9. On its maiden flight, Northrop Grumman's OmegA rocket will transport satellites for a startup called Saturn Satellite Networks. For the flight, scheduled for the spring of 2021, the medium-lift rocket will carry one or two NationSats, small geostationary satellites developed by Saturn. The launch is part of the certification process that would allow OmegA to win national security launch contracts. Northrop is competing with Blue Origin, SpaceX and United Launch Alliance for the National Security Space Launch program. Under this program, the Air Force will award five-year launch contracts to two of the companies that have submitted bids. – TECHCRUNCH

10. Image of the Day: This image taken by the Hubble space telescope shows interstellar comet 2I/Borisov in front of a distant background spiral galaxy. The galaxy’s bright central core is smeared because Hubble was tracking Borisov, which is moving at a speed of over 175,000 kilometers per hour. NASA says that Borisov is one of the fastest comets ever seen.

Written and curated by Eduardo Garcia in New York. Eduardo is a graduate of the Columbia Journalism School M.A. Science program and writes regularly for the New York Times Climate Fwd: newsletter. In one of his previous lives, Eduardo worked as a Reuters correspondent in Latin America for nearly a decade. 


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