Inside Space - March 18th, 2020

Inside Space (Mar 18th, 2020)

Falcon 9 deploys sats, fails landing / NASA asks staff to telework / Lynk sends text from space

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1. A Falcon 9 sent 60 Starlink satellites into orbit on Wednesday morning, but the rocket's booster ended up in the ocean after failing to land on a drone ship. Meanwhile, one of the rocket's Merlin engines suffered a "shutdown on ascent," tweeted SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. However, Musk noted that the engine problem did not affect the mission. "Shows value of having 9 engines!," he said. Musk said he was not surprised about the anomaly, given that the Falcon 9 booster used for the mission "has seen a lot of wear" – this was its fifth flight. Some Twitter users speculated that an engine issue that forced SpaceX to abort the launch on Sunday could be linked to the malfunction. Musk said that SpaceX would conduct an investigation ahead of its next launch. The two halves that make up the rocket's nosecone were recovered after landing on the Atlantic Ocean. – SPACEX /TWITTER

2. In a bid to halt the spread of coronavirus, NASA has asked its employees to work from home – with the exception of mission-essential personnel. "Although a limited amount of employees have tested positive for COVID-19, it is imperative that we take this pre-emptive step to thwart further spreading of the virus among the workforce and our communities," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement. NASA's response to the pandemic is now at Stage 3, the statement noted. If the pandemic worsens, NASA will elevate the emergency to Stage 4, meaning that the nearly 17,000 people working for the agency won't be allowed to enter NASA buildings "except to protect life and critical infrastructure." – SPACE

3. Satellite startup Lynk has successfully sent a text message to an off-the-shelf smartphone using an orbital instrument that acts as a "cell tower." The message was sent on February 24 using a Lynk device attached to a Cygnus cargo module that has been orbiting Earth since late January. Lynk's CEO, Charles Miller, told The Verge that following the successful test – and providing that regulators give it permission to operate – his company will likely start providing commercial services by the end of the year. Lynk, which was previously called UbiquitiLink, aims to launch a constellation of satellites to provide connectivity to mobile phones across the world. A few dozen satellites will be enough to start operations, but to provide connectivity at 4G speeds, Lynk will need to launch thousands of satellites. Ultimately, Lynk's constellation "will be able to turn all existing mobile phones into satellite phones, without requiring consumers to purchase any extra add-ons," writes Loren Grush. – THE VERGE

4. Astronomers say that, to make groundbreaking discoveries, the U.S. will need to build at least one large telescope over the next decade. They have put forward two projects: the Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii and the Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile — either one would be roughly three times larger and ten times more powerful than any other existing observatory. They argue that either telescope will allow American scientists to compete with their European counterparts who, starting in the late 2020s, will be able to study the universe using the European Extremely Large Telescope. If the National Academy of Sciences finds that either or both of the telescopes are needed, it will provide funding for them through the National Science Foundation. The Thirty Meter telescope is expected to cost $2.4 billion and the Magellan $2 billion. U.S. universities and international collaborators would also provide funding for the projects. – THE NEW YORK TIMES

5. NASA has named four finalists for the agency's next astrophysics missions. Two Small Explorer (SMEX) missions will receive $2 million in funding, each, to conduct concept studies: ESCAPE, a mission to study nearby stars, and COSI, which would conduct a survey of the Milky Way galaxy, searching for cosmic explosions. NASA has also selected two Missions of Opportunity (MO) proposals that will receive $500,000 each to complete concept studies: the Gravitational-wave Ultraviolet Counterpart Imager Mission, which proposes sending two smallsats to search for signatures from gravitational-wave events, and the Large Area Burst Polarimeter to study the energetic jets launched by star explosions. From these four finalists, NASA will choose two missions that will launch in 2025. – SPACE NEWS

6. The sun's heat helps create some of the ice detected in Mercury's craters, researchers say. According to a new study published in Astrophysical Journal Letters, this happens after the sun's heat breaks down hydroxyl groups on Mercury's surface. Energized by the heat, the resulting molecules smash into one another, producing water molecules and hydrogen. According to the research, some of these water molecules land in craters that receive no sunlight and where temperatures can reach -170 °C (-274 °F). Once there, they add up to the planet's ice reservoir. Study authors estimate that about 10 percent of Mercury's ice deposits are formed this way. – UNIVERSE TODAY

7. The Orion capsule that will fly around the moon for the Artemis 1 mission has passed its space-environment tests. The vehicle, which can transport up to four astronauts, has been subjected to thermal vacuum and electro-magnetic interference tests at NASA’s Plum Brook Station in Ohio. The tests show that Orion can withstand the extreme temperatures and high levels of electromagnetic radiation that it will encounter while in orbit, the European Space Agency said in a statement. The spacecraft will soon be transported to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Once there, technicians will attach solar panels and subject the capsule to further tests in preparation for the Artemis 1 mission, which is slated for 2021. – POPULAR MECHANICS

8. On Thursday, the 2020 vernal equinox will bring the earliest spring to the U.S. in 124 years. At 11:49 p.m. EDT, the sun will be shining directly on the equator, marking the beginning of the spring in the Northern Hemisphere and the autumn in the Southern Hemisphere. The vernal equinox typically falls on March 20 or 21, but it will occur earlier this year due to the uneven amount of days fitting into a calendar year. "The complicated reasons for 2020's earlier equinox involve leap years, centuries and the length of time it takes Earth to revolve around the sun," CBS News explained earlier this month. – USATODAY

9. Social isolation can be challenging, but for space enthusiasts, it can be a blessing in disguise. Nancy Atkinson has compiled a list of space and astronomy-related activities to do at home and online:

  • You can relive the Apollo 11 and  Apollo 13 missions thanks to the online recreations put together by Ben Feist, a contractor at NASA's Johnson Space Center.
  • Readers can also participate in astronomy-related citizen science activities at ZooniverseCosmoQuest and Citizen Science.
  • In addition, you can try to spot the International Space Station, and other spacecraft like the Hubble Space Telescope – check the Heavens Above for instructions.
  • Atkinson also has recommendations for podcasts and books, including her own, "Eight Years to the Moon."


10. Image of the Day: This stunning image of Jupiter's south pole was captured by NASA's Juno in late February. The image that you see on your screen is actually a composite of four pictures processed by citizen scientist Kevin M. Gill. They were taken when Juno was at a distance of between 30,700 and 62,400 miles (49,500 and 100,400 km) from the planet’s clouds. 

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. 

Edited by Sheena Vasani, staff writer at Inside.

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