Rocket Lab has successfully launched NASA's 55-pound CAPSTONE cubesat that will eventually orbit the moon if all goes to plan. It's a small but important step in NASA's Artemis mission that aims to send humans to the moon for the first time since 1972.
The launch proceeded nominally according to NASA's broadcast, reaching low-Earth orbit at about 'T' plus 10 minutes. An Electron launch is much like any other, except that it's the first rocket to be electrically powered by batteries rather than a gas turbine. As such, there's a phase called "battery ejection" which happens near the end of the launch cycle.
Rocket Lab used an Electron rocket with a special addition called the Lunar Photon upper stage with enough power to send it into deep space. It's one of the smallest rockets to attempt to launch a payload to lunar orbit, the company said. It launched from Rocket Lab's site on New Zealand's Mahia Peninsula, and is "the highest mass and the highest performance Electron has ever had to fly by quite some margin," the company told TechCrunch earlier.
CAPSTONE will orbit Earth for nine days to build up enough speed for a trans lunar injection (TLI) that will allow it to eventually orbit the moon. The primary objective is to verify a type of highly elliptical lunar orbit called "near rectilinear halo" that's planned for the Gateway space station. Gateway will eventually be delivered to lunar orbit by SpaceX with a science lab and living quarters for astronauts, along with ports for future spacecraft.
Rocket Lab was supposed to launch CAPSTONE yesterday but delayed it until today "to perform final system checks," NASA tweeted. Regardless of the launch date, it's scheduled to arrive at the moon on November 13th. To see a replay of the livecast, check here.
There are , whether it’s from or , or . And is death by radiation.
Those same energetic emissions from our local star that give you a tan can if it doesn’t . While today’s low Earth orbit crew and cargo capsules may not come equipped with miniature magnetospheres of their own, tomorrow’s might — or maybe we’ll just protect humanity’s first deep space explorers from interstellar radiation by .
Types of Radiation and what to do about them
Like strokes and folks, there are different types and sources of radiation both terrestrial and in space. Non-ionizing radiation, meaning the atom doesn’t have enough energy to fully remove an electron from its orbit, can be found in microwaves, light bulbs, and Solar Energetic Particles (SEP) like . While these forms of radiation can damage materials and biological systems, their effects can typically be blocked (hence sunscreen and microwaves that don't irradiate entire kitchens) or screened by the Ozone layer or .
Earth’s radiation belts are filled with energetic particles trapped by Earth’s magnetic field that can wreak havoc with electronics we send to space. Credits: NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio/Tom Bridgman
Ionizing radiation, on the other hand, is energetic to shed an electron and there isn’t much that can slow their positively-charged momentum. Alpha and beta particles, Gamma rays, X-rays and Galactic Cosmic Rays, “heavy, high-energy ions of elements that have had all their electrons stripped away as they journeyed through the galaxy at nearly the speed of light,” . “GCR are a dominant source of radiation that must be dealt with aboard current spacecraft and future space missions within our solar system.” GCR intensity is inversely proportional to the relative strength of the Sun’s magnetic field, meaning that they are strongest when the Sun’s field is at its weakest and least able to deflect them.
Despite their dissimilar natures, both GCR and SEP along with our biological bodies themselves. Their continued bombardment has a cumulative negative effect on human physiology resulting not just in cancer but cataracts, neurological damage, germline mutations, and acute radiation sickness if the dose is high enough. For materials, high-energy particles and photons can cause “temporary damage or permanent failure of spacecraft materials or devices,” Zicai Shen of the Beijing Institute of Spacecraft Environment Engineering notes in 2019’s .
“Charged particles gradually lose energy as they pass through the material, and finally, capture a sufficient number of electrons to stop,” they added. “When the thickness of the shielding material is greater than the range of a charged particle in the material, the incident particles will be blocked in the material.”
How NASA currently protects its astronauts
To ensure that tomorrow’s astronauts arrive at Mars with all of their teeth and fingernails intact, NASA has spent nearly four decades collecting data and studying the effects radiation has on the human body. The agency’s (SRAG) at Johnson Space Center is, according to its website, “responsible for ensuring that the radiation exposure received by astronauts remains below .”
, “the typical average dose for a person is about 360 mrems per year, or 3.6 mSv, which is a small dose. However, International Standards allow exposure to as much as 5,000 mrems (50 mSv) a year for those who work with and around radioactive material. For spaceflight, the limit is higher. The NASA limit for radiation exposure in low-Earth orbit is 50 mSv/year, or 50 rem/year.”
SRAG’s Space Environment Officers (SEOs) are tasked with ensuring that the astronauts can successfully complete their mission without absorbing too many RADs. They take into account the various environmental and situational factors present during a spaceflight — whether the astronauts are in LEO or on the lunar surface, whether they stay in the spacecraft or take a spacewalk, or — combine and model that information with data collected from as well as , to make their decisions.
The at Goddard Space Flight Center, serves much the same purpose as SRAG but for mechanical systems, working to develop more effective shielding and more robust materials for use in orbit.
“We will be able to ensure that humans, electronics, spacecraft and instruments — anything we are actually sending into space — will survive in the environment we are putting it in,” Megan Casey, an aerospace engineer in the REAG said in a . “Based on where they’re going, we tell mission designers what their space environment will be like, and they come back to us with their instrument plans and ask, ‘Are these parts going to survive there?’ The answer is always yes, no, or I don’t know. If we don’t know, that’s when we do additional testing. That’s the vast majority of our job.”
NASA’s research will continue and expand throughout the upcoming Artemis mission era. , both the SLS rocket and the Orion spacecraft will be outfitted with sensors measuring radiation levels in deep space beyond the moon — specifically looking at the differences in relative levels beyond the Earth’s Van Allen Belts. Data collected and lessons learned from these initial uncrewed flights will help NASA engineers build better, more protective spacecraft in the future.
And once it does eventually get built, crews aboard will maintain an expansive radiation sensor suite, including the , designed to carefully and continually measure levels within the station as it makes its week-long oblong orbit around the moon.
“Understanding the effects of the radiation environment is not only critical for awareness of the environment where astronauts will live in the vicinity of the Moon, but it will also provide important data that can be used as NASA prepares for even greater endeavors, like sending the first humans to Mars,” Dina Contella, manager for Gateway Mission Integration and Utilization, said in .
NASA might use magnetic bubbles in the future
Tomorrow’s treks into interplanetary space, where GCR and SEP are more prevalent, are going to require more comprehensive protection than the current state of the art passive shielding materials and space weather forecasting predictions can deliver. And since the Earth’s own magnetosphere has proven so handy, researchers with the European Commission's (CORDIS) have researched creating one small enough to fit on a spaceship, dubbed the Space Radiation Superconducting Shield (SR2S).
The €2.7 million SR2S program, which ran from 2013 to 2015, expanded on the idea of using superconducting magnets to generate a radiation-stopping magnetic force field first devised by ex-Nazi aerospace engineer Wernher von Braun in 1969. The magnetic field produced would be more than 3,000 times more concentrated than the one encircling the Earth and would extend out in a 10-meter sphere.
“In the framework of the project, we will test, in the coming months, a racetrack coil wound with an MgB2 superconducting tape,” Bernardo Bordini, coordinator of CERN activity in the framework of the SR2S project, . “The prototype coil is designed to quantify the effectiveness of the superconducting magnetic shielding technology.”
It wouldn’t block all incoming radiation, but would efficiently screen out the most damaging types, like GCR, which flows through passive shielding like water through a colander. By lowering the rate at which astronauts are exposed to radiation, they’ll be able to serve on more and longer duration missions before hitting NASA’s lifetime exposure limit.
“As the magnetosphere deflects cosmic rays directed toward the earth, the magnetic field generated by a superconducting magnet surrounding the spacecraft would protect the crew,” Dr Riccardo Musenich, scientific and technical manager for the project, told in 2014. “SR2S is the first project which not only investigates the principles and the scientific problems (of magnetic shielding), but it also faces the complex issues in engineering.”
Two superconducting coils have already been constructed and tested, to build lightweight magnets but this is very preliminary research, mind you. The CORDIS team doesn’t anticipate this tech making it into space for another couple decades.
Researchers from University of Wisconsin–Madison's Department of Astronomy have recently set about developing their own version of CORDIS’ idea. Their (CREW HaT) project, which received prototyping funding from NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program in February, uses “new superconductive tape technology, a deployable design, and a new configuration for a magnetic field that hasn't been explored before," according to UWM associate professor and researches lead author, Dr. Elena D'Onghia told in May.
“The HaT geometry has never been explored before in this context or studied in combination with modern superconductive tapes,” she said in . “It diverts over 50 percent of the biology-damaging cosmic rays (protons below 1 GeV) and higher energy high-Z ions. This is sufficient to reduce the radiation dose absorbed by astronauts to a level that is less than 5 percent of the lifetime excess risk of cancer mortality levels established by NASA.”
Or astronauts might wear leaden vests to protect their privates
But why go through the effort of magnetically encapsulating an entire spaceship when really it’s just a handful of torsos and heads that actually need the protection? That’s the idea behind the (MARE).
Developed in partnership with both the Israel Space Agency (ISA) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), two of the MARE vests will be strapped aboard identical mannequins and launched into space aboard the Orion uncrewed moon mission. On their three-week flight, the mannequins, named Helga and Zohar, will travel some 280,000 miles from Earth and thousands of miles past the moon. Their innards are designed to mimic human bones and soft tissue, enabling researchers to measure the specific radiation doses they receive.
Its sibling study aboard the ISS, the (CHARGE), focuses less on the vest’s anti-rad effectiveness and more on the ergonomics, fit and feel of it as astronauts go about their daily duties. The European Space Agency is also investigating garment-based radiation shielding with the , an “emergency device that aims to protect astronauts from intense solar radiation when traveling out of the magnetosphere on future Deep Space missions.”
Or we’ll line the ship hulls with water and poo!
One happy medium between the close-in discomfort of wearing a leaded apron in microgravity and the existential worry of potentially having your synapses scrambled by a powerful electromagnet is known as .
“Nature uses no compressors, evaporators, lithium hydroxide canisters, oxygen candles, or urine processors,” Marc M. Cohen Arch.D, argued in the 2013 paper . “For very long-term operation — as in an interplanetary spacecraft, space station, or lunar/planetary base — these active electro-mechanical systems tend to be failure-prone because the continuous duty cycles make maintenance difficult.”
So, rather than rely on heavy and complicated mechanizations to process the waste materials that astronauts emit during a mission, this system utilizes osmosis bags that mimic nature’s own passive means of purifying water. In addition to treating gray and black water, these bags could also be adapted to scrub CO2 from the air, grow algae for food and fuel, and can be lined against the inner hull of a spacecraft to provide superior passive shielding against high energy particles.
“Water is better than metals for [radiation] protection,” Marco Durante of the Technical University of Darmstadt in Germany, told . This is because the three-atom nucleus of a water molecule contains more mass than a metal atom and therefore is more effective at blocking GCR and other high energy rays, he continued.
The crew aboard the proposed Inspiration Mars mission, which would have slingshot a pair of private astronauts around Mars in a spectacular flyby while the two planets were at their orbital closest in 2018. You haven’t heard anything about that because quietly went under in 2015. But had they somehow pulled off that feat, the plan was to have the astronauts poop into bags, sophon out the liquid for reuse and then pile the vacuum-sealed shitbricks against the walls of the spacecraft — alongside their boxes of food — to act as radiation insulation.
“It’s a little queasy sounding, but there’s no place for that material to go, and it makes great radiation shielding,” Taber MacCallum, a member of the nonprofit funded by Dennis Tito, told New Scientist. “Food is going to be stored all around the walls of the spacecraft, because food is good radiation shielding.” It’s just a quick jaunt to the next planet over, who needs plumbing and sustenance?
Astronomers, astronauts and other near-Earth object experts from around the world are gathering next week in Luxembourg to talk about asteroids. If you tune in to the Asteroid Foundation’s live event on International Asteroid Day (which is June 30), you can hear about the latest in space rock research. The four hour event will consist of panel discussions on future missions, advances in technology, how scientists track and discover asteroids and what resources might be gleaned from asteroids. It will be moderated by Gianluca Masi of the Virtual Telescope Project, the astronomer Phil Plait, Asteroid Day’s editorial director Stuart Clark and Patrick Michel, director of research at CNRS of the Côte d’Azur Observatory.
“Asteroid Day reminds the world of just how important these celestial objects are. They hold the keys to understanding the formation of the Solar System, provide stepping stones we will utilize to explore our solar system, and occasionally they hit our planet,” said Dr Dorin Prunariu, Vice-Chair of the Asteroid Foundation in a press release. The Asteroid Day event will also feature pre-recorded interviews from NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, which is currently on its to Earth after collecting samples from the asteroid Bennu.
Detecting asteroids is a tricky science, and scientists still manage to that are potentially dangerous. NASA has detected nearly 16,000 near-Earth objects, which are objects within approximately 45 million kilometers of our planet's orbit. As notes, while extinction-level asteroids are very rare, smaller space rocks such as the one that hit Tunguska, Siberia in 1908 or the 10,000-ton space rock that hit the Russian city of Chelyabinsk are also capable of doing damage. And there have been plenty of near misses. Scientists that in 2029, a 1,120 feet asteroid known as Apophis will miss Earth by a mere 19,000 miles.
You can stream Asteroid Day’s program on June 30 at 11 am CET (or 5 am EDT) on Asteroid Day’s , TwitchTV or YouTube.
and the Department of Energy have awarded contracts to three companies that are designing concepts to . The agencies will award Lockheed Martin, Westinghouse and IX around $5 million each to fund the design of a fission surface power system, an idea that NASA has been working on for .
The three companies are being tasked with developing a 40-kilowatt class fission power system that can run for at least 10 years on the lunar surface. NASA hopes to test the system on the Moon as soon as the end of this decade. If the demonstration proves successful, it could lead to nuclear energy powering long-term missions on the Moon as part of the Artemis program. "Developing these early designs will help us lay the groundwork for powering our long-term human presence on other worlds," Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate, .
Under the 12-month contracts, Lockheed Martin will partner with BWXT and Creare. Westinghouse will team up with Aerojet Rocketdyne, while IX (a joint venture of Intuitive Machines and X-Energy) will work with Maxar and Boeing on a proposal.
Lockheed Martin was one of three companies by the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency last year to develop nuclear-powered spacecraft. The Defense Department has also nuclear propulsion systems for spacecraft.
NASA encountered a couple of issues while conducting the Artemis 1 "wet dress rehearsal," but it still checked off a major milestone by the time the test had ended. The agency was able to fully fuel all the Space Launch System's propellant tanks for the first time and was able to proceed to terminal launch countdown. "Wet dress rehearsals," as they're called, are tests that simulate a rocket launch without the rocket actually lifting off. The launch team had to cut short three previous attempts at fueling the SLS earlier this year due to various leaks and other issues that have already been corrected.
This attempt wasn't flawless either: NASA had to put fueling on hold a couple of times since the rehearsal started on Saturday. Fueling was first put on hold on early Monday morning due to an issue with the rocket's backup supply of gaseous nitrogen. The team was able to repair the valve for the gaseous nitrogen line, however, and fueling recommenced a couple of hours later. As CNN notes, though, a few issues popped up just as the team was finishing up the fueling process on Monday afternoon. They discovered a hydrogen leak and had to find options to seal it after their first solution didn't work. Plus, the flare stack, which burns excess liquid hydrogen from the rocket, caused a small fire in the grassy area around the launch site.
In the end, the launch controllers came up with a plan to mask data associated with the leak so as not trigger a hold by the launch computer. That wouldn't fly in a real launch scenario, but they wanted to get as far into the countdown as possible to gather the data they need. They were successfully able to resume the 10-minute final launch countdown after an extended hold and got to T-29 seconds before they had to end the test completely. The launch team originally planned to let the countdown get to until T-33 seconds before the launch is supposed to occur. They then intended to restart the timer and repeat the countdown until around T-9 seconds before launch.
Regardless, they successfully performed several critical operations needed for launch during the test, including handing over control from the ground launch sequencer to the automated launch sequencer controlled by the rocket's flight software. NASA will now assess the data collected from the test to determine whether it can finally set an official launch date for Artemis 1, which will send an unmanned Orion spacecraft on a mission to fly around the Moon, with the earliest possible date being sometime in August. The agency will hold a conference about the test today, June 21st, at 11AM, and you can watch the stream live on its website.
.@NASAGroundSys teams ended the #Artemis I wet dress rehearsal today at 7:37 p.m. at T-29 seconds in the countdown.
With repairs complete and the rocket , NASA is ready to once again attempt a critical fueling test of its next-generation . Per , the Artemis 1 “wet dress rehearsal” will begin at 5PM ET today with a call to stations for ground personnel at Kennedy Space Center.
Over the next 48 hours, technicians will attempt loading the rocket’s first and second stages with cryogenic fuel. Provided there aren’t major setbacks, they will then try to load it with propellant starting Monday morning. If the test is successful, the Artemis 1 mission could get underway as early as .
For the oft-delayed SLS, this is its second trip to historic Launch Pad 39B. Following an initial attempt at the wet dress rehearsal on April 1st, NASA tried to complete a modified version of the fueling test on , but that was cut short after the agency discovered a hydrogen leak in the rocket’s mobile launch tower. NASA eventually decided to move the SLS back to the Kennedy Space Center’s Vehicle Assembly Building for repairs and to give a critical nitrogen supplier time to complete capacity upgrades.
Once the wet dress rehearsal is complete, NASA can finally move forward with Artemis 1. The mission will send an unmanned Orion capsule on a flight around the Moon. The next two Artemis missions would feature human astronauts, with an eye toward a lunar landing sometime in 2025 or 2026.
The situation is this: Plans for the primary launchpad SpaceX wants in Boca Chica, Texas for the upcoming Starship rocket is already facing lengthy regulatory delays (though the review phase is expected to wrap up next week). The Army Corps of Engineers in April also denied the company's application to expand Galveston-area launch site after SpaceX failed to provide required documentation.
The company has also been rapidly constructing a secondary launch pad at its Cape Canaveral facility but those plans are now on hold. The problem is that SpaceX's new Starship launch pad sits just a few hundred feet from NASA's launchpad 39A, you know, the only NASA launch pad currently in existence that SpaceX's Dragon Crew is approved to launch from. Should another Starship — which relies on an mix of liquid nitrogen and methane as fuel that is unfamiliar to regulators — go kablooey, the explosive force and ship shrapnel could damage launch complex 39A. And with no 39A, we have no more crewed missions to the ISS until it gets fixed.
"We all recognize that if you had an early failure like we did on one of the early SpaceX flights, it would be pretty devastating to 39A," Kathy Lueders, NASA's space operations chief, told Reuters.
SpaceX, which has already invested heavily in the construction of its now-paused platform, has offered to try to "harden" pad 39A against the forces imparted by both successful and unsuccessful Starship launches as well as build up launch complex 40, located about 5 miles away, with crew launching capabilities. Both of those options would still require agency approval as well as months if not years of construction to get ready.
Astronomers everywhere have high hopes for NASA's James Webb telescope. It's supposed to give us an insight into the first stars and galaxies that ever formed and into the atmospheres of potentially habitable exoplanets. That is why NASA and its partners had engineered it to be able to withstand harsh situations, such as being bombarded by micrometeroids flying at extremely high velocities. Between May 23rd and May 25th, a micrometeoroid that's larger than expected hit one of the telescope's primary mirror segments. The event was significant enough for NASA to pick up a "marginally detectable effect in the data," but not enough to affect the telescope's performance.
In NASA's announcement, it said that the James Webb team performed an initial analysis and found that it still performs at a level that "exceeds all mission requirements." The space agency explained that its engineers relied on simulations and did actual test impacts on mirror samples when it was building the telescope to make sure it was adequately fortified. For instance, the telescope's flight teams can perform maneuvers to turn its optics away from known meteor showers. The recent impact it sustained was classified as an unavoidable chance event, though, and the micrometeoroid was larger than what engineers could have tested on the ground.
The good news is that James Webb has the capability to adjust mirror positions in order to correct and minimize the results of impacts like this. Its engineers have already made the first of several adjustments to make up for the damage on the affected segment. The agency has also formed a team of engineers to look into ways to mitigate effects of hits this scale in the future. Seeing as James Webb is meant to be Hubble's replacement and is expected to provide us invaluable data over the next 10 years — or 20, if everything goes well — NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency will most likely do the best they can to protect the space telescope.
Lee Feinberg, Webb optical telescope element manager at NASA Goddard, said:
"With Webb’s mirrors exposed to space, we expected that occasional micrometeoroid impacts would gracefully degrade telescope performance over time. Since launch, we have had four smaller measurable micrometeoroid strikes that were consistent with expectations and this one more recently that is larger than our degradation predictions assumed. We will use this flight data to update our analysis of performance over time and also develop operational approaches to assure we maximize the imaging performance of Webb to the best extent possible for many years to come."
China’s Shenzhou-14 mission has successfully docked with the country's Tiangong space station on Sunday. According to , the three-person crew of the spacecraft arrived at the “Harmony of the Heavens” crew module at 5:42PM local time after launching from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert earlier in the day. The arrival marks the start of a six-month stay at the station for the mission’s astronauts that will see China attempt to make significant progress toward the completion of Tiangong.
The country hopes to finish building the station by the end of the year. Next month, it will launch the first of two lab modules that will expand Tiangong’s capabilities, with the latter to follow in October. The modules will allow Chinese astronauts to conduct microgravity and life science research. After the country completed its first-ever , the Shenzhou-14 crew will conduct multiple EVAs to prepare the station for expansion. Among the three astronauts is Liu Yang, the first Chinese woman to make it to space nearly a decade ago during the country’s Shenzhou-9 mission.
Once complete, the entire t-shaped structure will be about a fifth of the size of the , with long-term accommodation for three astronauts. According to Reuters, China is exploring the possibility of allowing commercial space flights to visit Tiangong. It has also invited international space agencies to visit the station. The successful launch of Shenzhou-14 caps off a busy week in space travel, with NASA preparing to begin testing its and Blue Origin successfully flight on Saturday.
Weeks after NASA decided to postpone testing of its next-generation Space Launch System to , it’s ready to try again. Starting at 12:01AM on June 6th, technicians at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida will begin rolling out the spacecraft from the facility’s Vehicle Assembly Building. It will take approximately eight to 12 hours for NASA to transport Artemis 1 along the four-mile road to Launch Pad 39B, with the agency planning to livestream part of the event on YouTube.
As , the overnight rollout is a concession toward utility. Moving the vehicle at night means NASA can avoid subjecting it to the worst of Flordia’s hot and humid daytime weather. Once Artemis 1 is back at Pad 39B, NASA plans to restart the rocket’s “wet dress rehearsal” on June 19th. The test is designed to replicate the countdown procedure it will undergo when the hopefully gets underway later this year.
Following an initial attempt on April 1st, NASA attempted to complete a modified version of the trial on , but that was cut short after technicians discovered a hydrogen leak in the SLS mobile launch tower. NASA eventually decided to roll the rocket back to the Vehicle Assembly Building to fix the issues that had come up in its previous test attempts and give a critical gaseous nitrogen supplier time to complete capacity upgrades.
Provided there aren’t further setbacks, the June 19th fueling trial will take about 48 hours to complete. If all goes according to plan, the earliest Artemis 1 could get underway is on , though it’s among dozens of potential launch dates NASA has plotted out between now and the end of 2022, with more dates available next year.