Posts with «space & astronomy» label

Anemia could make space travel to Mars a challenge, study finds

A new Canadian study has found that "space anemia" caused by weightlessness is not a temporary issue as once thought, the CBC has reported. "As long as you are in space, you are destroying more blood cells than you are making," said the University of Ottawa's Guy Trudel, who led a 14-astronaut study carried out by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). 

Normally, the body destroys and replaces two million red blood cells per second. However, the new study found that the astronauts' bodies destroyed three million red blood cells per second during six month missions. "We thought we knew about space anemia, and we did not," said Trudel.

A full year after returning to Earth from the ISS, the astronauts' red blood cell levels had not returned to pre-flight levels, according to the study in Nature. "If you are on your way to Mars and... can't keep up" with red blood cell production, "you could be in serious trouble," said Trudel. That wouldn't necessarily cause problems in a zero gravity environment, but could become an issue once astronauts arrive on Mars or when they return to Earth. 

[Anemia] is a primary efffect of going to space.

The researchers said that anemia could even be an issue for space tourism, if the potential travelers are at risk for anemia. The study also noted that "current exercise and nutritional countermeasures of modern space travel did not prevent hemolysis and post-flight anemia" with the astronauts tested. 

The study, first announced in 2016, drew from data gathered during Expedition 10 and 11 missions aboard the International Space Station (ISS) in 2004 and 2005. Anemia is defined as a deficiency of red blood cells or hemoglobin in the blood, a condition that can result in pallor and weariness and affect endurance and strength.

The study didn't say how such issues could be directly resolved, but suggested that doctors focus on anemia-related issues when testing candidates. "Medical screening of future astronauts and space tourists might benefit from a preflight profiling of globin gene and modifiers," according to the study. It also suggested that post-landing monitoring should cover conditions affected by anemia and hemolysis.  

Hitting the Books: The first man to listen to the birth of stars

If the efforts of the 10,000-plus people who developed and assembled the James Webb Space Telescope are any indication, the age of the independent scientist are well and truly over. Newton, Galileo, Keppler, and Copernicus all fundamentally altered humanity's understanding of our place in the universe, and did so on their own, but with the formalization and professionalization of the field in the Victorian Era, these occurences of an amatuer astronomer using homebrew equipment all the more rare. 

In his new book, The Invisible World: Why There's More to Reality than Meets the Eye, University of Cambridge Public Astronomer, Matthew Bothwell tells the story of how we discovered an entire, previously unseen universe beyond humanity's natural sight. In the excerpt below, Bothwell recounts the exploits of Grote Reber, one of the world's first (and for a while, only) radio astronomers.

Oneworld Publishing

Excerpted with permissionfrom The Invisible Universe by Matthew Bothwell (Oneworld 2021).


The Only Radio Astronomer in the World

It’s a little strange to look back at how the astronomical world reacted to Jansky’s results. With hindsight, we can see that astronomy was about to be turned upside down by a revolution at least as big as the one started by Galileo’s telescope. Detecting radio waves from space marks the first time in history that humanity glimpsed the vast invisible Universe, hiding beyond the narrow window of the visible spectrum. It was a momentous occasion that was all but ignored in academic astronomy circles for one very simple reason: the world of radio engineering was just too far removed from the world of astronomy. When Jansky published his initial results he attempted to bridge the divide, spending half the paper giving his readers a crash-course in astronomy (explaining how to measure the location of things in the sky, and exactly why a signal repeating every twenty-three hours and fifty-six minutes meant something interesting). But, ultimately, the two disciplines suffered from a failure to communicate. The engineers spoke a language of vacuum tubes, amplifiers and antenna voltages: incomprehensible to the scientists more used to speaking of stars, galaxies and planets. As Princeton astronomer Melvin Skellett later put it:

The astronomers said ‘Gee that’s interesting – you mean there’s radio stuff coming from the stars?’ I said, ‘Well, that’s what it looks like’. ‘Very interesting.’ And that’s all they had to say about it. Anything from Bell Labs they had to believe, but they didn’t see any use for it or any reason to investigate further. It was so far from the way they thought of astronomy that there was no real interest.

After Jansky had moved on to other problems, there was only one person who became interested in listening to radio waves from space. For around a decade, from the mid-1930s until the mid-1940s, Grote Reber was the only radio astronomer in the world.

Grote Reber’s story is unique in all of twentieth-century science. He single-handedly developed an entire field of science, taking on the task of building equipment, conducting observations, and exploring the theory behind his discoveries. What makes him unique is that he did all of this as a complete amateur, working alone outside the scientific establishment. His job, designing electric equipment for radio broadcasts, had given him the skills to build his telescope. His fascination with the scientific literature brought him into contact with Jansky’s discovery of cosmic static, and when it became clear that no one else in the world seemed to care very much, he took it upon himself to invent the field of radio astronomy. He built his telescope in his Chicago back garden using equipment and materials available to anyone. His telescope, nearly ten metres across, was the talk of his neighbourhood (for good reason – it looks a bit like a cartoon doomsday device). His mother used it to dry her washing.

He spent years scanning the sky with his homemade machine. He observed with his telescope all night, every night, while still working his day job (apparently he would snatch a few hours of sleep in the evening after work, and again at dawn after he was finished at the telescope). When he realised he didn’t know enough physics and astronomy to understand the things he was seeing, he took courses at the local university. Over the years, his observations painted a beautiful picture of the sky as seen with radio eyes. He detected the sweep of our Milky Way, with bright spots at the galactic centre (where Jansky had picked up his star-static), and again towards the constellations Cygnus and Cassiopeia. By this time he had learned enough physics to make scientific contributions, too. He knew that if the hiss from the Milky Way was caused by thermal emission – heat radiation from stars or hot gas – then it would be stronger at shorter wavelengths. Given that Reber was picking up much shorter wavelengths than Jansky (60 cm, compared to Jansky’s fifteen-metre waves), Reber should have been bombarded with invisible radio waves tens of thousands of times more powerful than anything Jansky saw. But he wasn’t. Reber was confident enough in his equipment to conclude that whatever was making these radio waves, it had to be ‘non-thermal’ – that is, it was something different from the standard ‘hot things glow’ radiation we discussed back in chapter 2. He even proposed the (correct!) solution: that hot interstellar electrons whizzing past an ion – a positively charged atom – will get sling-shotted around like a Formula 1 car taking a tight corner. The cornering electron will emit a radio wave, and the combined effect of billions of these events is what Reber was detecting from his back garden. This only happens in clouds of hot gas. Reber was, it turns out, picking up radio waves being emitted by clouds containing new-born stars scattered throughout our Galaxy. He was, quite literally, listening to stars being born. It was a sound no human had ever heard before. To this day, radio observations are used to trace the formation of stars, from small clouds in our own Milky Way to the birth of galaxies in the most distant corners of the Universe.

In many ways, Reber’s story seems like an anachronism. The golden age of independent scientists, who could make groundbreaking discoveries working alone with homemade equipment, was hundreds of years ago. With the passing of the Victorian era, science became a complex, expensive, and above all professional business. Grote Reber is, as far as I know, the last of the amateur ‘outsider’ scientists; the last person who had no scientific training, built his own equipment in his garden, and through painstaking and meticulous work managed to change the scientific world.

China's Chang'e-5 probe finds on-site evidence of water on the Moon's surface

China’s Chang’e-5 lunar lander has found water on the surface of the Moon, marking the first-ever time scientists have found on-site evidence of the substance on Earth’s satellite. In a study published in Science Advances, Chinese researchers claim the lander detected signs of water molecules or hydroxyl, a close chemical cousin of H2O. Chang’e-5 used a spectrometer to analyze the composition of regolith in close proximity to its landing site. It found that most of the soil had a water concentration of less than 120 parts per million, making the surface of Luna much drier than that of the Earth.

Honglei Lin et al.

Chinese scientists believe most of the molecules came to the Moon through a process called solar wind implantation. Charged particles from the sun drove hydrogen atoms to the lunar surface where they later bonded with oxygen to form water and hydroxyl. The study builds on findings NASA published in 2018 when it found evidence of water on the sunlit surfaces of the Moon using an airborne infrared telescope. For decades, scientists had believed the Moon was completely dry due to its almost nonexistent atmosphere. With no atmosphere, the thought was there was nothing there to protect water molecules from the sun’s harsh radiation.

NASA finishes deploying the James Webb Space Telescope

NASA is one large step closer to putting the James Webb Space Telescope into service. The agency has successfully deployed the JWST's signature gold-coated primary mirror, completing all major deployments for the instrument. The mission crew still has to align the telescope's optics by moving the primary mirror's segments (a months-long process), but it's a strong sign the $10 billion device is in good shape.

The JWST also requires a third course correction burn as it heads toward the L2 Lagrange point between the Earth and the Sun. Astronomers will use the point to study infrared light without interference, potentially offering insights into the early Universe that aren't possible with Hubble and other equipment.

First images from the telescope won't be available until the summer, and it could take much longer before those images translate to meaningful discoveries. Even so, the deployment is an achievement. JWST represents the first time NASA has unpacked a complex observatory in space — it shows projects like this are viable, even if they're unlikely to be commonplace in the near future.

#NASAWebb is fully deployed! 🎉

With the successful deployment & latching of our last mirror wing, that's:
50 major deployments, complete.
178 pins, released.
20+ years of work, realized.

Next to #UnfoldTheUniverse: traveling out to our orbital destination of Lagrange point 2! pic.twitter.com/mDfmlaszzV

— NASA Webb Telescope (@NASAWebb) January 8, 2022

United States extends ISS operations through 2030

The United States is extending its operations aboard the International Space Station through 2030, NASA confirmed Friday in a blog post. “The International Space Station is a beacon of peaceful international scientific collaboration and for more than 20 years has returned enormous scientific, educational, and technological developments to benefit humanity," NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement. 

Though it was never in doubt that the US would continue its near-term commitment to the ISS, NASA's announcement comes amid heightened tensions with Russia, one of several nations sharing access to the Space Station. 2021 also saw Russia deepen its cooperation in space with China, another US adversary, as The New York Timesnoted in June.

Fall 2021 saw multiple emergencies aboard the ISS, both of which the US blamed on Russia. In October, surprise test fire from a docked Russian spacecraft caused the ISS to tilt out of its normal position, leading personnel on board to briefly evacuate. (A fun footnote: The spacecraft that caused the incident had been in space so that a Russian crew could film the first feature film aboard the Space Station.) Then, in November, satellite debris forced ISS astronauts to seek shelter on the day as a Russian missile attack. The US condemned Russia for the attack. Russia did not acknowledge any wrongdoing. 

Later that month, in an unrelated episode, Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, left the door open for possible criminal charges related to a 2018 incident involving a hole in one of its spacecraft, which Russian media insinuated could have been the result of US sabotage. "These attacks are false and lack any credibility," Nelson told Ars Technica in November.

In its statement on Friday, NASA highlighted among its continuing projects sending humans to Mars, as well as Project Artemis, an effort to send the first woman and the first person of color to the Moon. Indeed, NASA underwent a reorganization in September that seemed to specifically reflect its priorities around the Moon and Mars.

NASA has finally launched the James Webb Space Telescope

At long last, NASA has launched the James Webb Space Telescope. On Christmas morning, the telescope launched from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana on an Arianespace Ariane 5 rocket after 14 years of development and a number of delays.

The JSWT will orbit the Sun, close to the second Lagrange point of the Earth-Sun system. It will take around a month to reach its destination, after which researchers will be able to peek into black holes, observe some of the oldest galaxies in the universe and evaluate the habitability of various exoplanets.

NASA partnered with the European and Canadian space agencies to develop the project. The JSWT has been beset by delays throughout its long history. NASA initially hoped to launch it in 2007, but spiraling costs prompted engineers to re-think the telescope in 2005. The JSWT was then declared ready in 2016, but the project was once again put on hold because of construction complications. The telescope was assembled in 2019, but then the COVID-19 pandemic struck, leading to delays to testing and shipping.

After the JWST finally reached the spaceport, NASA set a launch date of December 18th. However, it delayed the launch until today due to last-minute inspections and a lack of favorable weather. Still, what's a few days for such an important, long-in-the-works mission? The JWST is finally spacebound, and in the coming months, we'll start to learn some of its discoveries.

Watch the James Webb Space Telescope launch at 7:20 AM ET

After far too many delays over the years to count, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has a launch date. Provided there’s not another last-minute setback, the successor to Hubble Space Telescope is scheduled to take flight on Saturday, December 25th.

NASA expects the Ariane 5 rocket carrying the JWST to lift off no earlier than 7:20AM ET on Christmas Day from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana. You can watch the entire event unfold, beginning with pre-launch coverage, starting at 3AM ET. The space agency will broadcast the launch on its NASA Live website, as well as on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Twitch.

Understandably, there’s a lot of excitement for the JWST to finally make its way into space. Not only will a successful launch represent the end of a tumultuous 14-year development cycle, but the telescope, with its far more advanced sensors than Hubble, will afford astronomers to glimpse at black holes and early galaxies in a way they haven’t been able to do in the past.

NASA's $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope will study the universe's origins

For the past 31 years the Hubble Space Telescope has been an invaluably versatile observation platform for astronomers but it’s begun showing its age of late. Last serviced in 2009, the telescope has had to enter the partial-shutdown “safe mode” multiple times over the last few years — most recently, this October. And while optimistic estimates suggest that the Hubble could remain in operation through the end of the decade, NASA, with its ESA and CSA partners, have already spent more than a dozen years developing a successor, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). When the Webb launches — currently set for liftoff on Christmas Day — it will take over as humanity’s preeminent eye in the sky for decades to come.

The 7.2-ton JWST will be the largest telescope NASA has ever put into orbit. Its 6.5-meter primary mirror array — composed of 18 gold-plated hexagonal segments — is more than twice the size of the Hubble’s and nearly 60 times larger in area than the Spitzer Telescope, which retired in 2020. The sun shield it uses to protect its delicate infrared sensors is nearly as long as a tennis court, and the telescope apparatus as a whole stands three stories tall. The 458 gigabits of data collected daily will be first routed through NASA’s Deep Space Network, then transmitted to the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, which will collate and disseminate that information to the greater astronomy community.

When it reaches its orbital home at the L2 Lagrange point 930,000 miles from Earth, the JWST will begin its four-point mission: searching for light from the earliest post-Big Bang stars; studying the formation and development of galaxies, examining the evolution of stars and planetary systems; and seeking out the origins of life.

To do so, the Webb will take a different approach from the Hubble before it. While the Hubble looked at the universe in the visible and ultraviolet spectrums, the JWST will see in infrared, just as the Spitzer used to but with far greater resolution and clarity. Using this infrared is critical to the Webb’s mission as that wavelength can peer through clouds of interstellar gasses and dust to see otherwise obscured objects beyond.

NASA/Chris Gunn

The Webb’s camera suite is made up of four individual components: the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec), and the Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph/Fine Guidance Sensor (NIRISS/FGS). These instruments are actually so sensitive that they can detect their own heat radiation when they’re operating. To minimize these infrared emissions, three of the sensors are chilled to negative 388 degrees Fahrenheit (-233 degrees C). The especially sensitive MIRI is cooled even further to -448 degrees F (-266 degrees C) — that’s a mere 7 degrees Kelvin above absolute zero.

Getting the MIRI that cold is no easy feat. After the JWST makes its way into orbit, the telescope will spend weeks slowly chilling the sensor to its optimal operating temperature using a helium-based refrigeration system.

“It’s relatively easy to cool something down to that temperature on Earth, typically for scientific or industrial applications,” said JPL cryocooler specialist Konstantin Penanen in a recent NASA blog post. “But those Earth-based systems are very bulky and energy inefficient. For a space observatory, we need a cooler that is physically compact, highly energy efficient, and it has to be highly reliable because we can’t go out and repair it. So those are the challenges we faced, and in that respect, I would say the MIRI cryocooler is certainly at the cutting edge.”

The extra effort that MIRI requires will be well worth it as ground-based infrared telescopes — especially those operating within the mid-infrared spectrum as MIRI is, are largely hampered by heat emissions from the devices themselves and the surrounding atmosphere.

“With the other three instruments, Webb observes wavelengths up to 5 microns. Adding wavelengths out to 28.5 microns with MIRI really increases its range of science,” George Rieke, professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona, said earlier this month in a NASA blog. “This includes everything from studying protostars and their surrounding protoplanetary disks, the energy balance of exoplanets, mass loss from evolved stars, circumnuclear tori around the central black holes in active galactic nuclei, and a lot more.”

NASA

Given the JWST’s highly specific low temperature needs, keeping the telescope’s sensor suite out of direct sunlight (and blocked from other light sources like the Moon and Earth) is crucial. To ensure that those cameras are perpetually shaded, NASA engineers have built a five-layer sunshield made from aluminum-coated Kapton film to keep them in the cold, cold dark.

"The shape and design also direct heat out the sides, around the perimeter, between the layers," said James Cooper, the JWST’s Sunshield Manager at Goddard Space Flight Center. "Heat generated by the Spacecraft bus at the ‘core,’ or center, is forced out between the membrane layers so that it cannot heat up the optics."

Measuring 69.5 feet by 46.5 feet by .001 inches, the kite-shaped sun shield is stacked five layers high so that energy absorbed by the top layer radiates out into space between them, making each successive layer slightly cooler than the one above it. In fact, the temperature difference at the outermost (383K, or 230 degrees F) and innermost layers (36K, about -394 degrees F) is roughly an order of magnitude.

NASA

In order to collect enough light to view the fainest, most distant stars possible — some as far as 13 billion light years away — the JWST will rely on its massive 6.5m primary mirror array. Unlike the Hubble, which utilized a single 2.4m-wide mirror, the Webb’s mirror is divided into 18 individual segments, each weighing just 46 pounds thanks to their beryllium construction. They’re coated in gold to enhance their reflection of infrared light and hexagonal in shape so that, when fully assembled in orbit, they’ll fit together snugly enough to act as a single, symmetrical, gapless reflective plane. Their small size also allows them to easily be split up and folded down in order to fit within the tight confines of the Ariane 5 rocket they’ll ride into orbit.

ESA

The role of coordinating these segments to focus on a single spot in a distant galaxy falls to the mirrors’ actuator assembly. Seven small motors sit on the backside of each mirror segment (one at each corner and a seventh in the middle), enabling precise control of their orientation and curvature. "Aligning the primary mirror segments as though they are a single large mirror means each mirror is aligned to 1/10,000th the thickness of a human hair,” said Webb Optical Telescope Element Manager, Lee Feinberg.

After 20-plus years of development and delays, costing $10 billion and involving the efforts of more than 10,000 people, the Webb Telescope is finally ready for launch — and hopefully this time it’ll actually take. The program has seen delay, after delay, after delay to its launch schedule. NASA abandoned the initial date of March 2021 in the wake of the initial COVID-19 outbreak and its associated lockdowns — though, to be fair, the GAO in January 2020 had only given the JWST a 12 percent chance of getting off the ground by the end of this year — and set a vague “sometime in 2021” timetable for its launch.

NASA

NASA later revised that estimate to a firm “sometime in October 2021,” eventually settling on a Halloween launch window, only to delay it again to late November/early December. Of course, early December quickly became late December, specifically the 22nd, which was then nudged back once again to its current date of December 24th. Actually, make that the 25th.

These delays have been caused by the myriad factors that go into getting an instrument of this size and sensitivity ready for launch. After completing its construction, the JWST had to undergo an exhaustive battery of tests, then be gently loaded into a shipping container and transported to its launch site in Kourou, French Guiana. Once there, the actual task of prepping, fueling, and loading the JWST onto an Ariane 5 rocket took another 55 days.

That timeline was further extended due to an “incident” on November 9th wherein, “a sudden, unplanned release of a clamp band — which secures Webb to the launch vehicle adapter — caused a vibration throughout the observatory,” per NASA. The Webb’s anomaly review board initiated an additional round of testing to ensure that those vibrations didn’t damage other components or knock anything important out of alignment.

NASA

Now that the telescope has been deemed A-OK, final preparations are underway. Barring any more setbacks, the JWST will launch at 7:20 ET on Christmas Day (watch here live!) to begin its 30-day, 1.5 million kilometer-long journey out the Lagrange 2 where it will spend the net two weeks slowly unfurling its mirrors and sunshield, then begin exploring the depths of the early universe.

NASA delays James Webb telescope launch due to poor weather

The James Webb Space Telescope is finally ready for launch after 14 years in development. NASA cleared its launch readiness review and gave it the go-ahead for launch, which was supposed to take place on December 24th. Unfortunately, poor weather conditions have prompted the agency to delay its launch yet again. James Webb will be lifting off from Europe's Spaceport in French Guiana on an Arianespace Ariane 5 rocket with the new target date of December 25th and a launch window of between 7:20 AM and 7:52 AM Eastern time.

This is the closest the telescope has ever gotten to starting its month-long journey towards its destination. It's been delayed numerous times in the past due to one reason or another — NASA targeted an October launch date after its development was delayed by the pandemic, but it determined that the telescope wouldn't be ready until November or December. 

NASA (and its partners, the European and Canadian space agencies) then targeted a December 18th launch date, before pushing it back to December 22nd. The James Webb team needed the extra time to inspect the telescope and make sure nothing was damaged during an incident that happened at testing. Its launch was delayed to December 24th after that because of a communication issue between the telescope and its Ariane 5 launch vehicle. This time, NASA had already conducted a news conference confirming that the telescope is ready for launch before announcing the new target date.

After the James Webb telescope arrives in its orbit near the second Lagrange point of the Earth-Sun system, researchers around the world will be able to use it to peer at some of the universe's earliest galaxies, look into black holes and assess exoplanets' habitability. NASA will confirm the new launch date this evening.

Due to adverse weather conditions at Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana, the James Webb Space Telescope’s launch is postponed from Dec. 24 to no earlier than Dec. 25. A weather forecast will be issued tomorrow to confirm this date: https://t.co/JCxIuDuCgJ#UnfoldTheUniversepic.twitter.com/c6v2UK2ZuL

— NASA Webb Telescope (@NASAWebb) December 21, 2021

In 2021, billionaires headed to the stars

We’re in the midst of a modern day space race. Where once the two most powerful empires on the planet vied to be first to the moon, we now have corporations led by billionaire barons — Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic — boasting a future filled with exo-planetary tourism. In 2021, the heads of these private companies finally made good on their myriad promises, successfully launching civilians, astronauts and, in two cases, themselves into the uppermost reaches of Earth’s atmosphere.

SpaceX continues to lead the burgeoning private spaceflight industry from the front. In January, the company successfully launched its first “rideshare mission” aboard its Falcon 9 rocket, ferrying 133 microsatellites into orbit along with 10 of its own Starlink satellites. SpaceX’s Starlink ISP service, which now serves more than 10,000 customers, has put some 1,475 of the microsats into orbit above the planet (with a total of 42,000 planned, offering global coverage by September), despite the vehement protests of astronomers who fear their presence will blind ground-based telescopes.

SpaceX’s endeavors to get its Starship prototype off the ground have not been nearly as successful as Starlink, mind you. The 100-passenger spacecraft, which was designed to help fulfill CEO Elon Musk’s dream of colonizing Mars and, presumably, titling himself God Emperor of the Red Planet (or some such), spectacularly exploded on the launchpad following a high-altitude test flight in March.

SN10 engine was low on thrust due (probably) to partial helium ingestion from fuel header tank. Impact of 10m/s crushed legs & part of skirt. Multiple fixes in work for SN11.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 9, 2021

A subsequent test of the SN11 Starship prototype later that month didn’t even get back to the landing pad. SN15, which launched in May, did however manage to land in one piece. The company is currently working on a plan to launch a Starship prototype into orbit, though no timetable is currently set for that launch — it was originally slated for July then pushed back to November, depending on regulatory approval, and is now set for January.

But those failed tests have done little to slow SpaceX’s roll over its competition. In February, NASA awarded SpaceX with a $331.8 million contract to bring its Gateway station into lunar orbit in 2024. And in April, NASA gave the company a $2.9 billion contract to ferry its Artemis lunar lander to the moon.

Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin responded to the Artemis contract by first protesting the “fundamentally unfair” decision with the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), which delayed progress on the project until July when the GAO dismissed the claims, even though Bezos offered NASA $2 billion to grant them the contract instead.

"We stand firm in our belief that there were fundamental issues with NASA's decision, but the GAO wasn't able to address them due to their limited jurisdiction," the company said following the GAO’s announcement.

Still seething from the GAO’s rebuke, Bezos then filed suit against NASA in Federal Claims court, essentially trying to “sue [its] way to the moon,” per Musk. Blue Origin claimed this was done "in an attempt to remedy the flaws in the acquisition process found in NASA's Human Landing System," a spokesperson for Blue Origin told Engadget in August. "We firmly believe that the issues identified in this procurement and its outcomes must be addressed to restore fairness, create competition, and ensure a safe return to the Moon for America." Blue Origin eventually lost that lawsuit as well.

And that’s when a prestige competition between the two richest men on Earth devolved into a middle school slap fight with SpaceX accusing Amazon of intentionally delaying proposals for its Starlink service while Amazon countered with incriminations that Musk and SpaceX “don’t follow the rules.”

“Whether it is launching satellites with unlicensed antennas, launching rockets without approval, building an unapproved launch tower, or re-opening a factory in violation of a shelter-in-place order, the conduct of SpaceX and other Musk-led companies makes their view plain: rules are for other people, and those who insist upon or even simply request compliance are deserving of derision and ad hominem attacks,” Amazon’s FCC filing reads.

This year, not only did SpaceX become the first private company to successfully transport astronauts to the ISS, it also offered its first orbital flight for civilians with the launch of the Inspiration4 mission in September. A quartet of amatuer astronauts spent three days circling the Earth in a Dragon Capsule before safely returning. And while Musk has not yet left the planet’s atmosphere aboard a rocket of his company’s design, he has reportedly made a $10,000 down payment on a trip aboard a future Virgin Galactic flight.

One notch Bezos has on his belt that Musk does not is the fact that he has, in fact, flown aboard his own spacecraft. Following successful test flights of Blue Origin’s upgraded New Shepard in both January and April, Jeff Bezos and his brother — along with 18-year old Oliver Daemen (whose parents spent $28 million for the honor) and 84-year-old Wally Funk — successfully traversed the Karman line on July 20th. Blue Origin followed up that feat in October when it shuttled William Shatner, of Star Trek fame, into space. During that flight, Shatner, who is 90, unseated 84-year-old Funk as the oldest person to go to space. Way to snatch the last few highlights from an old woman’s life, Captain Kirk.

Looking ahead, Blue Origin is working on a spacecraft capable of handling a Nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) system for DARPA — and competing against Lockheed Martin to successfully demonstrate it outside of low Earth orbit in 2025. The company also announced at the end of October that it hopes to build and deploy a commercial space station called the Orbital Reef — think, the ISS but with more intrusive advertising — by the second half of this decade. NASA has since awarded the project a Space Act Agreement, along with funding through the design phase, as part of its Commercial LEO Development program.

Virgin Galactic, on the other hand, started its 2021 off in a holding pattern. The company’s SpaceShip II test at the end of last December — its first major flight out of the Spaceport America site in New Mexico – ended in abruptly after the ship’s engine failed to ignite. A subsequent redo test scheduled for February was also delayed to May after the company opted to make additional “technical checks.”

While these aren’t major setbacks in the same vein as say an exploding StarShip, VG’s continued delays have pushed back the company’s goal of commercial space tourism flights to at least 2022. They did not, however, impact Virgin Galactic’s unveiling of SpaceShip III in March.

In May, VG’s perseverance paid off when SpaceShip II successfully completed its rocket-powered test flight, flinging a pair of pilots and a cargo hold full of NASA experiments into the very upper reaches of the atmosphere. The following month, Virgin Galactic received approval from the FAA to begin commercial operations, becoming the first such company to secure permission from the aviation industry. With the FAA’s blessing firmly in hand, Virgin Galactic decided to blast CEO Sir Richard Branson into space — heedless of Blue Origin’s derisions — the following month. On July 11th, Branson and his crew did just that — well, technically.

Buoyed by the success of their boss’ flight, Virgin Galactic began offering tickets to would-be space tourists for the low, low discount price of $450,000. As of the start of November, more than 100 tickets have been sold.

Branson’s flight was not flawless, however, and that raised the ire of the FAA. During SpaceShip II’s landing, the spacecraft “deviated from its Air Traffic Control clearance as it returned to Spaceport America,” per the FAA. In a subsequent statement from the company, Virgin disagreed with the FAA’s characterization.

“When the vehicle encountered high altitude winds which changed the trajectory, the pilots and systems monitored the trajectory to ensure it remained within mission parameters,” the company argued. “Our pilots responded appropriately to these changing flight conditions exactly as they were trained and in strict accordance with our established procedures. Although the flight’s ultimate trajectory deviated from our initial plan, it was a controlled and intentional flight path that allowed Unity 22 to successfully reach space and land safely at our Spaceport in New Mexico. At no time were passengers and crew put in any danger as a result of this change in trajectory.” A brief investigation by the FAA eventually cleared the company to resume test flights.

Despite these advances in private spaceflight systems, don’t expect the space tourism industry to take off before at least the start of the next decade. If Virgin Galactic’s recent price hike from $250,000 to $450,000 per ticket is any indication, very few people will be able to afford such a trip for the foreseeable future. So while two of the world’s richest men may have had the honor of temporarily escaping our gravity well, don’t think you’ll get your chance anytime soon — unless you can win it like a Golden Ticket like Keisha S did.