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Intuitive Machines' moon lander didn't survive lunar night

Plus, a view of the magnetic fields around our supermassive black hole

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In this week’s space news:

Plus, you might have missed

Goodbye, Odysseus: Intuitive Machines’ lander didn’t survive lunar night

Well, we have some bad news from the little lander Odysseus on the lunar surface. This week, Intuitive Machines announced that they tried to revive the lander — and failed.

Intuitive Machines’ lander famously broke its landing gear on the way down and toppled over sideways after landing on February 22. But it persevered for seven days, sending back engineering and science data. Before it went dark and the sun stopped shining on its solar panels, though, engineers put Odysseus into a configuration such that if it survived the cold, dark lunar night, after the sun charged it back up, it would turn on its radio and call home.

Credit: Intuitive Machines

Well, that time has come and gone. Odysseus did not call home, and engineers have determined that the lander didn’t make it. Note that the lander was never designed to survive the harsh temperatures of night at the lunar south pole — which can be some of the coldest temperatures in our solar system.

It’s disappointing, but not unexpected. Intuitive Machines is scheduled to launch another Nova-C lander to the moon later this year as part of NASA’s Artemis program.

A new view of the galaxy center highlights the Milky Way’s magnetic fields

The Event Horizon telescope released a cool new photo of the center of our galaxy this week.

Sagittarius A*, as seen by the Event Horizon Telescope in 2022, credit: Event Horizon Telescope ream

This is a photo of the supermassive black hole at the heart of the Milky Way called Sagittarius A*. Of course, you can’t directly observe a black hole because not even light can escape it, but we can see here the event horizon surrounding it; it’s a bright emission ring from the superheated accretion disk surrounding our supermassive black hole. The image above was released in 2022.

Now below is the new image. The lines are magnetic fields spiraling around the black hole aren’t really there — as in, this isn’t a direct observation. Instead, scientists observed SgrA* in polarized light and added these field lines over an image from the Event Horizon Telescope. 

Credit: Event Horizon Telescope team

Polarized light is specifically important because light waves can be oriented in any direction. And when they are, they’re unpolarized. Polarized means the light is oriented in a specific direction. That’s crucial here because measuring the polarized light can show us how SgrA*’s magnetic field is controlling the direction the light waves move. This allowed researchers to measure the structure, strength, and direction of this black hole’s magnetic field.

Credit: Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration

These lines show us how the magnetic fields are moving around the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, as well as the fact that they have a clearly defined structure. The magnetic field is generated by the motion of matter circling around the black hole in the accretion disk.

These magnetic fields, and how they’re structured, are very important to how black holes interact with the glowing gas and dust that surrounds them. Studying these magnetic fields will help scientists determine how exactly black holes launch jets of matter from their event horizons and accretion disks. These studies, which were published in Astrophysical Journal Letters, also tell us that strong magnetic fields may behave similarly around other black holes. The movement here also suggests that our own neighborhood supermassive black hole may be emitting jets we haven’t detected yet.

SpaceX is well on its way to Starship’s fourth test flight

It feels like we just got finished with the third test flight of Starship, but SpaceX is already getting ready for the megarocket’s fourth test flight. This week SpaceX not only rolled Starship the first stage out to the launch pad in Boca Chica, Texas, but they also conducted a static fire test of the six Raptor engines.

Starship for IFT-4, credit SpaceX

A static fire test occurs when the rocket is held down by clamps on the launch pad, but all the engines are fired — basically, the engines are fired but the rocket remains static and doesn’t go anywhere. It’s a routine part of pre-launch testing.

It’s not clear exactly when the fourth test of Starship will occur. SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell said at the Satellite 2024 conference last week (video embedded above, discussion is at timestamp 1 hour and 13 minutes) that they will aim for a fourth test flight of Starship in early May, which would be a six-week turnaround. Shotwell also said that they likely wouldn’t deploy Starlink satellites on this fourth test. Instead, the focus will be on two things SpaceX hasn’t successfully accomplished yet with Starship: re-entry and landing.

But of course, that launch date is dependent on an FAA license. After the third test flight of Starship, which occurred on March 14, the FAA opened a routine mishap investigation into the flight. They have to issue it, and SpaceX will have to take any corrective actions they identify, before the FAA will issue a license for IFT-4. However, given that the third test launch of Starship achieved its intended trajectory for both stages, it’s likely that this investigation will be less of an issue than previous ones.

Why is NASA launching rockets during the eclipse?

One of the cool things about the solar eclipse is that it’s not just an amazing thing to witness (though it’s certainly that) — it’s also a unique chance to accomplish some science. NASA’s going to launch rockets into the shadow of the moon during the solar eclipse on April 8. Let’s talk about why.

The Sun suddenly disappearing from the sky during an eclipse does actually have a measurable impact on the Earth. You’ve probably heard about wildlife acting strangely, birds going silent — but what you might not know is that it has an impact on the Earth’s atmosphere as well. 

The ionosphere is basically the boundary between Earth’s breathable atmosphere and space, from 55 to 310 miles (or 90 to 500 km) up. It’s where a lot of low-Earth orbit satellites, including the International Space Station, are located. And it’s crucial for communication around the Earth, because radio waves bounce off the ionosphere and are directed back at Earth

Airglow, an ionosphere phenomenon, from the ISS, credit: NASA

The ionosphere is electrified because the sun heats up the gases in the upper atmosphere until they lose electrons. But that also means that this region of space is constantly changing. As the sun sets, the ionosphere thins out because the ionized particles recombine, regaining their electrons and neutralizing their charges. But then it all starts again when daylight hits. (It’s worth noting that space weather and solar storms also affect and change the ionosphere).

The rockets launched during the eclipse are going to specifically study this effect — as you can imagine, the sun going dark during a solar eclipse is going to have a similar effect on the ionosphere as night falling. The hope is we can understand more about how these changes in our ionosphere affect communication and what we can do to minimize disruption during these kinds of events.

It will involve three separate launches of sounding rockets from the NASA Wallops Facility in Virginia. They will be 45 minutes before the peak of the local eclipse (Virginia isn’t in the path of totality), during the peak, and 45 minutes after. If you’re in the Mid-Atlantic, you might be able to see these rocket launches on the day of the eclipse. Additionally, the Wallops Flight Facility’s Visitors Center will be open from 1 PM to 5 PM, in case you want to stop by and watch from there.

Polar ice melt is affecting the Earth’s rotation

A lot of times, climate change and Earth-based science can feel separate from space science, but a paper from the journal Nature this week emphasizes just how connected the two are. 

Apparently, the melting of our polar ice caps is actually affecting the Earth’s rotation. It’s not so bad that the days are going to get longer or the nights shorter.

An iceberg in Antarctic waters, credit: Swapna Krishna

But right now, we use the leap second is what scientists use to keep our clocks in sync with astronomical time, measuring the precise rotation of the Earth. It’s important for many reasons, including for things like GPS that need to know precisely where and when you are in order to tell you where you need to go.

In the 1970s, scientists discovered the Earth was slowing down mainly due to tidal friction (which you can think of as ocean tides, but across the entire planet). To keep our time in line with astronomical time, they added the leap second — one extra second at the end of the year. There were 27 leap seconds added between 1972 and 2016.

Except now, scientists have found the Earth is actually speeding up. Because meltwater from the poles is making its way to the equator, the Earth has shifted mass and has more of a bulge at the equator. Additionally, land that no longer has ice on it (Greenland and Antarctica mainly) is rising, and that’s making the Earth more spherical. 

So, now the Earth is actually speeding up because of climate change. While the paper posits that a leap second may need to be subtracted from the calendar to keep up, we’ll just have to see what happens.