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Is it time to say goodbye to Voyager 1?

Also, here's what a Martian solar eclipse looks like.

Welcome to your weekly space news from Ad Astra!

This week’s space news:

Scientists found water molecules on an asteroid

You may have heard that for the first time, scientists have discovered water molecules on an asteroid. But you may be asking “haven’t we already found water on asteroids?” Let me break this discovery down for you.

Credit: ESA/Hubble, M. Kornmesser

Scientists using SOFIA data — which SOFIA, or the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, was a Boeing 747-SP that carried an infrared telescope into the stratosphere, at 38,000-45,000 feet above the Earth’s surface. The mission was retired in 2022, but scientists are still looking at the data we obtained from SOFIA and making new discoveries — like this one!

Credit: NASA/Jim Ross

Scientists looked at four silicate-rich asteroids within the asteroid belt, and found mid-infrared spectral signatures on two of them that indicate the presence of water molecules. These asteroids are called Iris and Massalia.

Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/Vernazza et al./MISTRAL algorithm (ONERA/CNRS)

This is the first time we’ve directly detected water on an asteroid. We’ve found possible evidence of water before — “hydroxyls” are molecules that contain hydrogen and oxygen atoms bonded together (OH), and they provide evidence that many asteroids once interacted with water. This is the 3 μm (micrometer) absorption line and it’s been found on hundreds of asteroids.

But according to the paper published in The Planetary Science Journal, this is the first detection of the 6 μm absorption line, which indicates specifically molecular water.

6μm line for two asteroids, credit: Arredondo et al.

Three of the four asteroids have a 3 μm feature, but only two have the 6 μm.

The 3μm feature, credit: Arredondo et al.

This has also been detected on the moon, and at the temperatures of asteroids and the moon, 6 μm is an emission peak and not just an absorption line like 3 μm. It’s complicated, but this is actually a new discovery, not just clickbait.

The water molecules take different forms on these asteroid. Some may be dissolved in silicate glass or absorbed into silicate.

Here’s the thing: this is also notable is because scientists didn’t think silicate-rich asteroids HAD water. Literally silicate asteroids are called anhydrous (or dry) silicate asteroids because they form close to stars.

Silicate asteroid 21 Lutetia, credit: ESA/Rosetta

Usually icy asteroids form further from the sun, and scientists assumed that any water on anhydrous asteroids would have evaporated, but that might not be the case.

Now, why is this significant? Well, the distribution of water within our solar system will help us understand where the water on our own planet came from, and where to potentially look for water (and possibly life) in other solar systems.

The team has already used JWST to take measurements of two more asteroids and hopefully will be studying even more in the future with the infrared-optimized observatory, so we’ll see what happens

Is it time to say goodbye to Voyager 1?

We’re having problems with the Voyager spacecraft again.

Illustration credit: NASA

Engineers have been working for months now to fix a communications issue with Voyager 1. Currently, the latest update is that we are able to talk to the spacecraft, and it’s receiving our communications.

Credit: NASA/Ludwig and Taylor

The original problem, which we learned about back in December, is that one of Voyager 1’s three onboard computers, called the FDS or flight data system, isn’t talking to a subsystem called the TMU or telemetry modulation unit. That means that we aren’t getting any science or engineering data back from the spacecraft because the FDS is designed to collect all the science data from instruments as well as information on the health of the spacecraft, combine it all into a package, and transmit it back to Earth via the TMU.

All of this is in binary code, so a pattern of zeroes and ones. But for months, all we have been getting back is a repeating zero-one pattern, which tells scientists and engineers that the TMU is stuck.

Credit: NASA

You can imagine that makes it hard to troubleshoot issues, and it doesn’t help that it takes 22.5 hours each way for communication because the spacecraft is about 15 billion miles away from us, outside the solar system in interstellar space. That means any sort of inquiry or troubleshooting takes 45 hours.

Credit: NASA

There have been a lot of false alarms about the impending doom about the Voyager spacecraft, but this might be the beginning of the end for Voyager 1. Suzanne Dodd, the project manager for Voyager at NASA-JPL, told reporter Stephen Clark at Ars Technica that at this point, it would be a miracle to get the spacecraft back.

They’re still trying, of course, and everyone is hopeful. But the spacecraft is almost 50 years old, and the end will come at some point (unless of course Voyager moves into its V’Ger era).

IM-1 is on its way to the moon

The Intuitive Machines lunar lander, called Odysseus or “Odie” for short, launched early Thursday morning aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

The launch was delayed a day due to a propellant issue — the Nova-C moon lander uses liquid methane and liquid oxygen, better known as methalox, as its fuel. Because these aren’t as stable as other propellants and require cryo temperatures, they can’t be pre-loaded before the lander is loaded onto the rocket, which is usually how this goes. They have to be loaded as close to launch as possible to prevent the fuel from boiling off.

That means that propellant is loaded into the Nova-C lander at the same time it’s loaded into a rocket — that’s a first. SpaceX actually had to modify its payload fairing on this Falcon 9 to allow for fueling on the launch pad. Bill Gerstenmaier said at a Feb 12 briefing (he’s the VP of Build and Flight Reliability at SpaceX) the propellant schedule means that coordinating the launch timeline is a little more of a challenge than usual.

Credit: NASA/SpaceX

SpaceX did do two separate wet dress rehearsals, which is basically a practice run of the countdown and loading propellant into the launch vehicle and lunar lander, because this is definitely a challenge. But in the early hours of February 14, they called off the launch because of, and I quote, “off-nominal methane temperatures prior to stepping into methane load.” Basically it means that the temperatures of the liquid methane were off in advance of fueling, so they delayed the launch.

If you’re wondering what the point is of using this kind of fuel if it’s so finicky and hard to load, methalox does provide a lot of advantages. It’s very efficient, inexpensive, easy to produce, and it’s possible to create it on the moon or Mars with local resources.

Back to the IM-1 mission, it took off 1:05 am ET from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It’s part of NASA’s CLPS program which aims to partner with private companies to deliver payloads to the moon’s surface.

Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX confirmed successful deployment of the lander Odysseus. Over the next week, Odie will make three small attitude adjustments as it orients itself towards the moon. Its TLO, or translunar orbit, trajectory will take the spacecraft to the far side of the moon before it heads toward the Malapert A crater near the lunar south pole. The target landing site is near one of the candidate sites for the Artemis III crewed landing.

Credit: Intuitive Machines

The soft landing attempt, which comes on the heels of Japan’s successful precision soft landing a few weeks ago, as well as the failed Astrobotic Peregrine lander, is currently scheduled for February 22, and if it succeeds it will be the first private spacecraft to successfully soft land on the moon. I will provide updates as we have them, and will provide a rundown of the science instruments aboard the lander later on.

The total solar eclipse is coming

On April 8, 2024, parts North America will experience a full solar eclipse. If you haven’t made plans yet to get in the path of totality, or you’re on the fence about whether you should, I published a video as well as a newsletter issue earlier this week all about the eclipse, and why you should care, so check that out if you’re interested.

(Wondering why you received this news email, but not the eclipse email? That’s because you’re subscribed to the once-a-week version of this newsletter. If you’d like to switch, just reply to this email and let me know!)

Mars Perseverance caught a solar eclipse

Speaking of eclipses, the Mars rover Perseverance caught a solar eclipse on the red planet!

Phobos, credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

They’re really small, there are theories they’re just captured asteroids, so eclipses on the red planet don’t look like they do here.

Deimos, credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

We only get the amazingess that is a total solar eclipse because of a cosmic coincidence. The moon is 400 times smaller than the sun, and the sun is 400 times further than the moon is from the Earth, so they look approximately the same size in our sky. That’s why during a total eclipse, the moon can so completely block the face of the sun.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

Mars doesn’t have that. What it gets is this, captured by Perseverance with MASTCAM-Z, on February 8. This is Phobos, which is the larger of the two moons, and is about 17 by 14 x 11 miles. It orbits the red planet three times per day. One day, in about 50 million years, it’ll probably collide with Mars.

SHORT: Here’s what a solar eclipse looks like on Mars!

Was Jupiter flat once?

We’ve all heard about the flat Earthers. But what about the flat Jupiter-ers? A study suggests that our resident monster planet Jupe may have been flat once.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Betsy Asher Hall/Gervasio Robles

According to research that will be published in the Astronomy & Astrophysics Journal, new planets may not be spherical when they first form. These protoplanets may actually be flat, shaped sort of like the candy Smarties, or oblate spheroids, according to the release.

Left: top down view, Right: view from the side, Credit: Fenton and Stamatellos

Using computer models, the team wanted to test the theory of disk instability in planet formation. This theory says that protoplanetary disks, which are huge flat disks of gas and dust surrounding a star from which planets form, aren’t distributed evenly.

Protoplanetary disk around PDS 70, Credit: ESO, André B. Müller (ESO)

This means that the gas and dust within a protoplanetary disk is clumpy. These clumps might be big and dense enough to create their own gravitational centers, and they might collapse to form protoplanets. This contrasts with the theory of core accretion, that collisions of smaller bodies and sticking together of dust particles create planets. It’s possible that both are true—that disk instability leads to the formation of larger gas and ice giant planets and core accretion creates smaller rocky planets.

They specifically focused on the mechanics that might have created gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn, and when they ran simulations, the team found that most planets were oblate spheroids. Some were more spherical, and they posit that these might have been because of merger events. Additionally, they found that centrifugal forces meant that new material would fall towards the poles of the planet instead of their equators. This would mean that eventually the planets would become the spheres we know and love.

A new ultraviolet telescope will launch in 2030

NASA announced this week that a new telescope that is optimized for UV, or ultraviolet light, will launch in 2030.

Eta Carinae as taken by Hubble in UV, Credit: NASA, ESA, N. Smith (University of Arizona), and J. Morse (BoldlyGo Institute)

UVEX, or Ultraviolet Explorer, is a space-based telescope that will conduct a full-sky survey at UV wavelengths. It will quickly be able to respond to UV events, such as gravitational waves as the result of a neutron star merger. It will also study star explosions and the most massive stars in our universe.

Remember that JWST is infrared-optimized and Hubble operates mostly in visible and UV light. The Roman telescope is also infrared optimized, designed to study dark energy, and is scheduled to launch in 2027, so this telescope will fit right in.

And that’s it for this week! Thanks for tuning in. I’ll be back next week with updates on the IM-1 mission and more. See you then!