Posts with «space & astronomy» label

Blue Origin successfully sends tourists to the edge of space again after a long hiatus

Blue Origin is back in the space tourism game. Jeff Bezos’ spaceflight company successfully flew six paying customers to the edge of space and back this morning, breaking its nearly two-year-long hiatus from crewed missions. This was Blue Origin’s seventh trip with humans on board. The mission — a quick jaunt to cross the Kármán line, or the boundary of space, about 62 miles above Earth — lifted off from the company’s Launch Site One in West Texas shortly after 10:30AM ET.

The six people inside the New Shepard crew capsule included Ed Dwight, a former Air Force Captain who was the first Black astronaut candidate when he was picked for the training program in 1961. He went through training but ultimately wasn’t selected for NASA’s Astronaut Corps, and never made it to space until now. Also on board were Mason Angel, Sylvain Chiron, Kenneth L. Hess, Carol Schaller and Gopi Thotakura. The crew safely landed back on the ground about 10 minutes after launch. 

This article originally appeared on Engadget at

'Extreme' geomagnetic storm may bless us with more aurora displays tonight and tomorrow

The strongest geomagnetic storm in 20 years made the colorful northern lights, or aurora borealis, visible Friday night in areas of the US that are normally too far south to see them. And the show may not be over. Tonight may offer another chance to catch the aurora if you have clear skies, according to the NOAA, and Sunday could bring yet more displays reaching as far as Alabama.

The extreme geomagnetic storm continues and will persist through at least Sunday...

— NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center (@NWSSWPC) May 11, 2024

The NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center said on Saturday that the sun has continued to produce powerful solar flares. That’s on top of previously observed coronal mass ejections (CMEs), or explosions of magnetized plasma, that won’t reach Earth until tomorrow. The agency has been monitoring a particularly active sunspot cluster since Wednesday, and confirmed yesterday that it had observed G5 conditions — the level designated “extreme” — which haven’t been seen since October 2003. In a press release on Friday, Clinton Wallace, Director, NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, said the current storm is “an unusual and potentially historic event.”

The Sun emitted two strong solar flares on May 10-11, 2024, peaking at 9:23 p.m. EDT on May 10, and 7:44 a.m. EDT on May 11. NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory captured images of the events, which were classified as X5.8 and X1.5-class flares.

— NASA Sun & Space (@NASASun) May 11, 2024

Geomagnetic storms happen when outbursts from the sun interact with Earth’s magnetosphere. While it all has kind of a scary ring to it, people on the ground don’t really have anything to worry about. As NASA explained on X, “Harmful radiation from a flare cannot pass through Earth’s atmosphere” to physically affect us. These storms can mess with our technology, though, and have been known to disrupt communications, GPS, satellite operations and even the power grid.

This article originally appeared on Engadget at

How to watch NASA's first Boeing Starliner crewed flight launch today

Watch along today as NASA's Boeing Starliner Crew Flight Test finally — most likely — blasts off to the International Space Station (ISS). NASA should start streaming its coverage at 6:30PM ET on its YouTube channel, with the official launch set for 10:34PM ET. The spacecraft will carry two astronauts, Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore.

We say "most likely" because the road to this day has not been a smooth one. It was a decade ago that NASA first chose Boeing and Space X to construct spacecraft that would fly from the United States to the ISS. Boeing received a $4.2 billion contract, while NASA gave SpaceX $2.6 billion. Yet, the latter had its first successful crewed flight in 2020 and has replicated it about a dozen times since.

Boeing's Starliner failed to reach orbit during its first uncrewed orbital test flight in 2019 due to too much fuel burning. A follow-up flight was scheduled for August 2021 but was scrapped due to a valve issue, with Boeing finally reaching the ISS in spring 2022 with an uncrewed vessel. Two plans for crewed flights came and went, amongst faults in aspects such as the parachute system. Last August, Boeing announced it should have these issues straightened out by March 2024.

It's now two months later than that initial goal and Boeing, Williams and Wilmore seem prepared for take off. "We are ready, the spacecraft's ready and the teams are ready," Wilmore told the press. NASA associate administrator Jim Free added: "The first crewed flight of a new spacecraft is an absolutely critical milestone. The lives of our crewmembers Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore are at stake — we don't take that lightly at all."

This article originally appeared on Engadget at

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft may finally take its first crewed flight next week

Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule, which has been plagued by years of setbacks and cost overruns amounting to roughly $1.5 billion, is about to take its first flight with humans on board. Boeing was chosen 10 years ago alongside SpaceX to develop a spacecraft that could ferry astronauts from US soil to the International Space Station (ISS), thus allowing NASA to end its reliance on Russia for crewed flights. The companies were each awarded a fixed-price contract under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program: $4.2 billion to Boeing for its CST-100 (Starliner) and $2.6 billion for SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.

Their initial deadline of 2017 proved to be a bit too ambitious. SpaceX managed its first crewed flight in 2020 — and about a dozen since — while Boeing has struggled to get its Starliner capsule off the ground. But as soon as May 6, it’ll finally have a crewed flight under its belt.

Starliner is now at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station’s Launch Complex-41 attached to the ULA Atlas V rocket that’ll send it on its way to the ISS. Liftoff is planned for 10:34PM ET on Monday, May 6. The capsule will be carrying two NASA astronauts: Butch Wilmore, the mission’s commander, and Suni Williams, who will serve as pilot.


Not only is it Starliner’s first crewed flight, but this test is only its third flight ever. The spacecraft (without anyone aboard) successfully demonstrated its ability to reach, dock and undock from the ISS in spring 2022 when it conducted its second Orbital Flight Test. On its previous attempt, in 2019, Starliner failed to make it all the way to the ISS thanks to a software issue that resulted in it burning too much fuel (one of a few problems Boeing missed after it opted at the time not to do end-to-end testing).

It’s suffered numerous other problems, too, in the years since Boeing bagged the NASA contract, causing the company to slip far behind SpaceX. There was a toxic fuel leak during a 2018 test. Then corrosion caused valves in the propulsion system to stick, waylaying Boeing’s plans for a 2021 launch, as Ars Technica reported earlier this year. Problems with the spacecraft’s parachute deployment system derailed plans for a launch last summer, and the team had to remove around a mile of flammable tape.

Boeing has also had its fair share of troubles beyond Starliner during this time, facing increased scrutiny into the safety of its airplanes — particularly the 737 Max line — after two fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019, on top of other less serious incidents. Most recently, a panel blew off a 737 Max 9 mid-flight in January, forcing it to make an emergency landing.

The May 6 flight marks a major step toward Starliner’s certification as a crew transport system that NASA can actually put into its rotation for trips to the ISS. That will give the space agency the redundancy it’s looking for; with both Crew Dragon and Starliner in operation, it’ll always have a backup option in case something happens to one of them. Both NASA and Boeing have been adamant that the capsule has been put through an exhaustive review process and is ready to support astronauts. NASA wrapped up its Crew Flight Test Readiness Review of Starliner on April 25.

“The first crewed flight of a new spacecraft is an absolutely critical milestone,” NASA associate administrator Jim Free said during a briefing on the completion of the review. “The lives of our crewmembers Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore are at stake — we don’t take that lightly at all.” The latest review is “the culmination of a detailed review season that has really thoroughly established that we are really ready to go on this flight,” said NASA chief flight director Emily Nelson.

NASA/Frank Michaux

It’s expected to take about 24 hours for Starliner to reach the ISS after it lifts off, and as this is a test flight, its onboard crew will have a lengthy task list of systems and equipment checks to complete across every phase of the journey. While Starliner can operate autonomously, the crew will test its manual controls and make sure it’s in good shape for manual abort scenarios. After Starliner docks to the space station, the astronauts will spend about a week there working with the current crew, Expedition 71.

Then, they’ll undock from the orbiting lab and head home — and put Starliner through the test of reentry and landing. A few potential landing sites in the southwest US have been picked out, including the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

Wilmore and Williams have been training for Starliner’s first flight for years. “They know the vehicle inside and out, and they’ve been part of the test environment that’s developed the Starliner capability,” said Steve Stich, manager for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. All involved in last Thursday’s briefing acknowledged that they may encounter some unexpected challenges, and that there’s much to be learned from this first crewed flight. “It’s a good reminder for all of us that the team has practiced, run sims, run models, but there’s nothing like flying in the space environment,” said Free.

The NASA and Boeing officials also expressed their confidence that the craft itself and the teams handling its journey are well-prepared for the job. The astronauts echoed these sentiments upon arriving at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t ready,” Wilmore said, addressing questions from the press. “We are ready, the spacecraft’s ready, and the teams are ready.”

If Starliner for whatever reason can’t launch on the 6th, it’ll have backup opportunities on May 7, 10 and 11. After the Crew Flight Test is complete and the astronauts are back home, NASA will get to work certifying the spacecraft for future missions bringing crews to and from the ISS. It’s currently targeting 2025 for Starliner to begin duty.

“I don’t want to get too far ahead because we still need to fly a successful mission,” said Free ahead of Starliner’s launch, “but when we do, and when we certify Starliner, the United States will have two unique human space transportations that provide critical redundancies for ISS access.”

This article originally appeared on Engadget at

ESA's Gaia mission discovers the biggest stellar black hole in our galaxy yet

In addition to the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way also serves as home to smaller stellar black holes that form when a massive star collapses. Scientists believe there are 100 million stellar black holes in our galaxy alone, but most of them have yet to be discovered. The ones that had already been found are, on average, around 10 times the size of our sun, with the biggest one reaching 21 solar masses. Thanks to the information collected by the European Space Agency's Gaia mission, though, scientists have discovered a stellar black hole that's 33 times the size of our sun, making it the biggest one of its kind we've ever seen in our galaxy so far. It's also relatively close to our planet at around 1,926 light-years away. 

Gaia BH3, as it's now called, was first noticed by a team of ESA scientists poring over data from the mission to look for anything unusual. An old giant star from the nearby Aquila constellation caught their attention with its wobbling, leading to the discovery that it was orbiting a massive black hole. BH3 was hard to find despite being so close — it's now the second closest known black hole to our planet — because it doesn't have celestial bodies close enough that could feed it matter and make it light up in X-ray telescopes. Before its discovery, we'd only found black holes of comparable size in distant galaxies. 

The ESA team used data from ground-based telescopes like the European Southern Observatory to confirm the size of the newly discovered celestial body. They also published a paper with preliminary findings before they release a more detailed one in 2025, so that their peers could start studying Gaia BH3. For now, what they know is that the star orbiting it has very few elements heavier than hydrogen and helium, and since stellar pairs tend to have similar compositions, the star that collapsed to form BH3 could've been the same. 

Scientists have long believed that it's the metal-poor stars that can create high-mass black holes after they collapse, because they lose less mass in their lifetimes. In other words, they'd theoretically still have a lot of materials left by the time of their death to form a massive black hole. This was apparently the first evidence we've found that links metal-poor stars with massive stellar black holes, and it's also proof that older giant stars developed differently than the newer ones we see in our galaxy. 

We'll most likely see more detailed studies about binary systems and stellar black holes that use data from BH3 and its companion star in the future. The ESA believes that BH3's discovery is just the beginning, and it's going to be the focus of more investigations as we seek to unravel the mysteries of the universe.

This article originally appeared on Engadget at

NASA confirms its space trash pierced Florida man’s roof

On March 8, a piece of space debris plunged through a roof in Naples, FL, ripped through two floors and (fortunately) missed the son of homeowner Alejandro Otero. On Tuesday, NASA confirmed the results of its analysis of the incident. As suspected, it’s a piece of equipment dumped from the International Space Station (ISS) three years ago.

NASA’s investigation of the object at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral confirmed it was a piece of the EP-9 support equipment used to mount batteries onto a cargo pallet, which the ISS’ robotic arm dropped on March 11, 2021. The haul, made up of discarded nickel-hydrogen batteries, was expected to orbit Earth between two to four years (it split the difference, lasting almost exactly three) “before burning up harmlessly in the atmosphere,” as NASA predicted at the time. Not quite.

The roof-piercing debris was described as a stanchion from NASA flight support equipment used to mount the batteries onto the cargo pallet. Made of the metal alloy Inconel, the object weighs 1.6 lbs and measures 4 inches tall and 1.6 inches in diameter.

Hello. Looks like one of those pieces missed Ft Myers and landed in my house in Naples.
Tore through the roof and went thru 2 floors. Almost his my son.
Can you please assist with getting NASA to connect with me? I’ve left messages and emails without a response.

— Alejandro Otero (@Alejandro0tero) March 15, 2024

Otero told Fort Meyers CBS affiliate WINK-TV that he was on vacation when his son told him that an object had pierced their roof. “I was shaking,” he said. “I was completely in disbelief. What are the chances of something landing on my house with such force to cause so much damage. I’m super grateful that nobody got hurt.”

NASA says it will investigate the equipment dump’s jettison and re-entry to try to figure out why the object slammed into Otero’s home instead of disintegrating into flames. “NASA specialists use engineering models to estimate how objects heat up and break apart during atmospheric re-entry,” the space agency explained in a news release. “These models require detailed input parameters and are regularly updated when debris is found to have survived atmospheric re-entry to the ground.”

Most space junk moves extremely fast, reaching up to 18,000 mph, according to NASA. It explains, “Due to the rate of speed and volume of debris in LEO, current and future space-based services, explorations, and operations pose a safety risk to people and property in space and on Earth.”

This article originally appeared on Engadget at

The White House tells NASA to create a new time zone for the Moon

On Tuesday, The White House published a policy memo directing NASA to create a new time standard for the Moon by 2026. Coordinated Lunar Time (LTC) will establish an official time reference to help guide future lunar missions. It arrives as a 21st-century space race emerges between (at least) the US, China, Japan, India and Russia.

The memo directs NASA to work with the Departments of Commerce, Defense, State, and Transportation to plan a strategy to put LTC into practice by December 31, 2026. International cooperation will also play a role, especially with signees of the Artemis Accords. Established in 2020, they’re a set of common principles between a growing list of (currently) 37 countries that govern space exploration and operating principles. China and Russia are not part of that group.

“As NASA, private companies, and space agencies around the world launch missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond, it’s important that we establish celestial time standards for safety and accuracy,” OSTP Deputy Director for National Security Steve Welby wrote in a White House press release. “A consistent definition of time among operators in space is critical to successful space situational awareness capabilities, navigation, and communications, all of which are foundational to enable interoperability across the U.S. government and with international partners.”

Einstein’s theories of relativity dictate that time changes relative to speed and gravity. Given the Moon’s weaker gravity (and movement differences between it and Earth), time moves slightly faster there. So an Earth-based clock on the lunar surface would appear to gain an average of 58.7 microseconds per Earth day. As the US and other countries plan Moon missions to research, explore and (eventually) build bases for permanent residence, using a single standard will help them synchronize technology and missions requiring precise timing.

“The same clock that we have on Earth would move at a different rate on the moon,” NASA space communications and navigation chief Kevin Coggins told Reuters. “Think of the atomic clocks at the U.S. Naval Observatory (in Washington). They’re the heartbeat of the nation, synchronizing everything. You’re going to want a heartbeat on the moon.”


The White House wants LTC to coordinate with Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), the standard by which all of Earth’s time zones are measured. Its memo says it wants the new time zone to enable accurate navigation and scientific endeavors. It also wants LTC to maintain resilience if it loses contact with Earth while providing scalability for space environments “beyond the Earth-Moon system.”

NASA’s Artemis program aims to send crewed missions back to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo missions of the 1960s and 70s. The space agency said in January that Artemis 2, which will fly around the Moon with four people onboard, is now set for a September 2025 launch. Artemis 3, which plans to put humans back on the Moon’s surface, is now scheduled for 2026.

In addition to the US, China aims to put astronauts on the Moon before 2030 as the world’s two foremost global superpowers take their race to space. Although no other countries have announced crewed missions to the lunar surface, India (which put a module and rover on the Moon’s South Pole last year), Russia (its mission around the same time didn’t go so well), the United Arab Emirates, Japan, South Korea and private companies have all demonstrated lunar ambitions in recent years.

In addition to enabling further scientific exploration, technological establishment and resource mining, the Moon could serve as a critical stop on the way to Mars. It could test technologies and provide fuel and supply needs for eventual human missions to the Red Planet.

This article originally appeared on Engadget at

Moon mining startup Interlune wants to start digging for helium-3 by 2030

A budding startup called Interlune is trying to become the first private company to mine the moon’s natural resources and sell them back on Earth. Interlune will initially focus on helium-3 — a helium isotope created by the sun through the process of fusion — which is abundant on the moon. In an interview with Ars Technica, Rob Meyerson, one of Interlune’s founders and former Blue Origin president, said the company hopes to fly its harvester with one of the upcoming commercial moon missions backed by NASA. The plan is to have a pilot plant on the moon by 2028 and begin operations by 2030, Meyerson said.

Interlune announced this week that it’s raised $18 million in funding, including $15 million in its most recent round led by Seven Seven Six, the venture firm started by Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian. The resource it’s targeting, helium-3, could be used on Earth for applications like quantum computing, medical imaging and, perhaps some day down the line, as fuel for fusion reactors. ​​Helium-3 is carried to the moon by solar winds and is thought to remain on the surface trapped in the soil, whereas when it reaches Earth, it’s blocked by the magnetosphere.

Interlune aims to excavate huge amounts of the lunar soil (or regolith), process it and extract the helium-3 gas, which it would then ship back to Earth. Alongside its proprietary lunar harvester, Interlune is planning a robotic lander mission to assess the concentration of helium-3 at the selected location on the surface. 


“For the first time in history,” Meyerson said in a statement, “harvesting natural resources from the Moon is technologically and economically feasible.” The founding team includes Meyerson and former Blue Origin Chief Architect Gary Lai, Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt, former Rocket Lab exec Indra Hornsby and James Antifaev, who worked for Alphabet’s high-altitude balloon project, Loon. 

This article originally appeared on Engadget at

Watch SpaceX's third Starship test launch here, set for takeoff at 9:25AM ET

SpaceX will be hoping the third time's the charm as it attempts another test launch of its Starship rocket. The previous two efforts ended in failure, though Starship did reach space on the second go-round. A 110-minute launch window for the latest attempt opens at 8AM ET. A livestream covering the launch just kicked off at about 8:50AM ET, and you can follow it here on X. According to the SpaceX X feed, the current target liftoff is set for 9:25AM ET. 

The Starship team is go for prop load but keeping an eye on winds, now targeting 8:25 a.m. CT for liftoff →

— SpaceX (@SpaceX) March 14, 2024

The Federal Aviation Authority authorized the SpaceX Starship Super Heavy Orbital Flight Test 3 on Wednesday afternoon. The agency said in a statement to Engadget that Space X "met all safety, environmental, policy and financial responsibility requirements." 

The FAA grounded Starship for several weeks before the second test flight until the company took 63 "corrective actions." The first launch caused a fire in a state park and led to a lawsuit from environmental groups.

Along with building on top of the previous tests, there are a number of "ambitious" goals SpaceX has in mind for this launch. The company is aiming to carry out the first re-light of a Raptor engine in space, along with ensuring the successful ascent burn of both stages, opening and closing the payload door and conducting a controlled reentry. The spacecraft will fly on a new trajectory and it's expected to splashdown in the Indian Ocean. SpaceX says the updated flight path will afford it the chance to try out new things like engine burns in space while prioritizing public safety.

This article originally appeared on Engadget at

Japan's Space One rocket launch attempt ends in a fiery explosion

A startup company called Space One launched a rocket earlier in hopes of becoming the first private entity in Japan to put a satellite in orbit. Unfortunately, its attempt ended in a fiery explosion, mere seconds after lift off at 11AM local time. Its 60-foot-long rocket Kairos launched from the company's Space Port Kii in Wakayama, a prefecture south of Osaka in Japan's Kansai region. Space One director Mamoru Endo told reporters at a conference that the rocket's automated system detected an anomaly five seconds after liftoff and triggered its self-destruct function. The company has yet to figure out what that anomaly is and will be investigating the incident for answers. 

Kairos was carrying payload for the Cabinet Satellite Intelligence Center, which collects and analyzes imagery information for the Japanese government. That satellite was supposed to be an alternative to an existing Japanese satellite monitoring military facilities in and rocket launches from North Korea. Masakazu Toyoda, the company's president, said during the conference that Space One is "prepared to take up the next challenge." He also emphasized how common failed launches are in space travel. And that is true — SpaceX, for instance, lost several Starship vehicles over the past few years when they blew up during testing. 

Space One, backed by Canon and aerospace manufacturer IHI, eventually hopes to offer satellite launch services using small rockets, which it says "offer greater scheduling flexibility than large ones." It's also aiming to provide the "world's shortest lead time from contractual engagement to launch, as well as the world's most frequent launching schedule" while also minimizing the costs of putting satellites into orbit. Since the company must be able to stage a successful launch before customers come knocking on its doors, it will most likely announce its next attempt in the near future. 

Last year, Japanese company ispace also failed to become the first private company to land on the moon when it lost contact with its Hakuto-R lander. But the country's space agency, JAXA, is doing better than its private counterparts: Its SLIM lunar lander successfully touched down in January and is expected to resume its operations in late March after the lunar night is over. 

This article originally appeared on Engadget at