Inside Space - March 16th, 2020

Inside Space (Mar 16th, 2020)

Starlink launch aborted / NASA to tighten ISS quarantine / Lunar Gateway postponed / Egypt plans sat constellation

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1. SpaceX aborted the launch of a Falcon 9 rocket loaded with 60 Starlink satellites. Elon Musk's space company said that a computer detected an issue with one of the rocket's nine Merlin engines seconds before liftoff on Sunday, at 9:22 a.m. EDT. SpaceX is yet to announce a new date for the launch. The Falcon 9's booster assigned to this mission has already flown four times. SpaceX has just over 300 Starlink satellites in orbit and plans to conduct two launches a month this year to continue increasing the size of the constellation. It envisions having around 1,500 Starlink sats by late 2021 or early 2022 – enough to beam a broadband signal to clients across the world. – SPACEFLIGHT NOW

2. NASA and Roscosmos are considering implementing additional measures to ensure that coronavirus does not reach the International Space Station (ISS). Ahead of a trip to the ISS, crew members are asked to self-quarantine for two weeks to reduce the chances of them catching an illness. But as coronavirus continues spreading, the U.S. and Russian space agencies are studying the possibility of tightening the quarantine to ensure that the next ISS crewmembers – NASA's Chris Cassidy and Roscosmos' Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner – are not carrying COVID-19. "We expect them to take additional measures to make sure that quarantine is a little tighter," said Kirk Shireman, ISS program manager at NASA. The agency is taking other measures to stop the spread of the virus. "This includes cleaning of surfaces, social distancing, emphasizing hand hygiene, encouraging NASA team members who are sick to stay home and limiting contact with crewmembers," said NASA spokeswoman Brandi Dean. – SPACE

3. NASA will no longer rely on the lunar Gateway to send astronauts to the moon in 2024, the head of the agency's human spaceflight program said last week. NASA is working around the clock to prepare a crewed mission to the moon by 2024. With less than five years left, the agency will need to eliminate all elements that may put the mission at risk, said Loverro. That includes the Gateway lunar station because there is a "high possibility" that it may run behind schedule, Loverro said. However, NASA remains committed to developing the Gateway so that it can be used in future lunar missions, he said. NASA is also considering changing its plan to develop a lunar lander composed of three modules – ascent, descent and transfer. "We’ve never done that before, so we’d like to try to avoid doing things we’ve never done before," Loverro said. – SPACE NEWS

4. NASA said that its efforts to dislodge the InSight lander's heat probe – a.k.a. "the mole" – appear to be working. The device is designed to penetrate 16 feet (5 meters) but it got stuck when it reached a depth of just 12 inches (30 centimeters) about a year ago. The InSight team has been trying different approaches to get the mole going, to no avail. In late February, they unveiled a plan to push down the mole with a scoop at the end of the lander's robotic arm. On Friday, the team tweeted that the approach seems to be working and that engineers will continue pushing down the mole over the next few weeks. – NASA INSIGHT / TWITTER

5. According to a new study, comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko may contain high amounts of nitrogen. Using a computer model to simulate space conditions, the researchers detected ammonium salt, which contains nitrogen, one of the building blocks of life. "The presence of these salts might considerably increase the amount of nitrogen that scientists had previously expected to find on this comet, and possibly on other comets as well," the European Space Agency (ESA) said in a statement. Other observations suggest that Jupiter’s moon Himalia and certain asteroids in the Asteroid Belt also contain ammonium salts. – UPI

6. Rocket Lab is buying Sinclair Interplanetary, a Canadian company that produces parts for small satellites. Rocket Lab said that it will use Sinclair hardware on the Photon satellite that it is developing and will invest in Sinclair so that it can continue supplying satellite parts for other clients. Rocket Lab plans to launch the first Photon for a technology demonstration mission in the second quarter of 2020. The Photon satellite will weigh up to 374 pounds (170 kg) and will come equipped with standards such as an in-flight computer, GPS and thrusters. It will be a satellite bus that will house whatever instruments customers want to send to space. Rocket Lab's CEO Peter Beck recently said that one of the company's main goals this year is the get the Photon into commercial service. – SPACE NEWS

7. The European Space Agency (ESA) has pre-ordered four more Ariane 6 launches to deploy navigation satellites for the Galileo constellation. Starting in 2024, these launches will transport a total of eight Galileo satellites – some of them will be additions to the constellation while others will replace aging satellites. There are currently 26 Galileo satellites in orbit; 14 of which were launched by Soyuz rockets and the remaining by Ariane 5 rockets. Ariane 6 has a total of 13 missions lined up, including the deployment of two scientific spacecraft for ESA and a French military satellite, as well as launches for OneWeb, Viasat and Eutelsat. – SPACEWATCH GLOBAL

8. Egypt plans to launch a constellation of satellites in the next decade. Egypt, which has nine satellites in orbit, has issued a 10-year space plan that calls for the launch of three more sats over the next three years. The goal is to develop a constellation "for surveillance and monitoring of the Egyptian borders," said Dr. Mohamed ElKoosy, CEO of the Egyptian Space Agency. The constellation will include satellites that will be built as part of a collaboration between Egypt and China. Egypt has received around $100 million in financing from China to develop a homegrown satellite industry. The countries are building an Earth-observation satellite called MisrSat-II that will be launched by a Long March rocket in late 2021, said ElKoosy. – AFRICA NEWS

9. Using data from 11 satellites, a research team led by NASA and ESA scientists has concluded that both Greenland and Antarctica are losing ice six times faster than in the 1990s. The rate of ice loss in Greenland and Antarctica increased to 475 billion tons per year in the 2010s, from roughly 81 billion tons per year in the 1990s, according to a study published in Nature last week. The study indicates that sea levels are set to rise 60 centimeters by the year 2100, what the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has long described as the "worst-case scenario." The findings "demonstrate the fundamental importance of using satellite data to monitor the evolution of ice sheets," said ESA's Director of Earth Observation, Josef Aschbacher. – UNIVERSE TODAY

10. Image of the Day: This image of the Martian north pole "looks much like a delicious slice of layered tiramisu," said NASA. It features the north polar layered deposits (NPLD), which are made up of water-ice and dust particles stacked on top of one another. It was taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRISE camera.

* If you have any cool images or videos of rockets, planetary bodies or starry nights, please send them, along with a short description, to 

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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