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  • Voyager 1 is showing signs of life! | Space news from Ad Astra

Voyager 1 is showing signs of life! | Space news from Ad Astra

Also, NASA budget cuts may mean the cancellation of a beloved observatory

This week’s space news:

Voyager 1 is showing signs of life

A few weeks ago, I delivered a pretty sad news update about Voyager 1. The spacecraft was sending gibberish of 1s and 0s back to Earth, and the team feared that this was the end for the historic spacecraft. Well, on March 13, NASA delivered an encouraging update about Voyager 1.

Credit: NASA

The issue has been with one of Voyager 1’s three onboard computers, the FDS or flight data system, which is what packages both the science and engineering data on the health of the spacecraft to send to Earth. The team sent a “poke” to Voyager on March 1 that was supposed to prompt it to try to reroute around any corrupted sections of its software. They received a response on March 3 (remember, it takes 22.5 hours each way to communicate with Voyager 1, now in interstellar space). One section of the FDS transmission received by the Deep Space Network was different than the rest of the garbled, unreadable binary of 0s and 1s.

They were able to figure out that it’s a readout of the entire FDS memory. By comparing this readout to previous signals, they may be able to figure out what the problem is with Voyager 1 and fix it. That means there may be hope yet for the spacecraft.

Pretty cool troubleshooting from 15 billion miles away, huh?

NASA’s budget cuts might mean cancellation of a beloved telescope

Given all the issues around budgets and spending bills in the U.S. Congress, NASA is only just learning about their budget for 2024 now — which is halfway through the fiscal year. (The fiscal year runs from October 1 through September 30.) It’s not very convenient, but now NASA is facing some hard decisions as their actual 2024 budget is 2 percent less than they thought it would be, and they’re not going to be receiving any dramatic increases for FY 2025. That means they have to make some budget cuts. Now we have NASA’s FY 2025 proposal, and there are some things that look a bit grim.

Credit: NASA

On the chopping block is, possibly, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, along with budget cuts to the Hubble Space Telescope. The document reads:

Keep in mind that as I talk about this, nothing is set in stone, but this is what’s going on right now.

These two observatories are the most expensive to operate, after JWST, and they’re also two of the oldest. Hubble launched in 1990 and Chandra in 1999.

The Chandra X-ray Space Telescope is currently the only high resolution X-ray telescope in the world. It’s still doing amazing science. If it’s shut down, there’s no replacement anytime soon, not for at least a decade. Part of the key here is that Chandra often works with JWST to give us more information on observations of the early universe, such as early universe galaxies that are more massive than we expect. It’s important, and we don’t have anything else like it.

But basically, what NASA says is that Chandra is aging, which means that operating the spacecraft is getting more harder and more expensive and the insulation on the spacecraft’s exterior is degrading. That means it’s warming, which makes it a lot harder to take observations. The proposed solution in NASA’s budget is to start stepping the Chandra team down until they’re at minimal operations. It’s not clear what happens after that, but it’s not hard to take it that extra step and interpret this as functional cancellation of the mission.

Hubble’s in better shape, NASA is not cancelling Hubble. But the budget has been reduced by 5 percent. Hubble doesn’t have the operational issues of Chandra — it’s functioning well and has three working gyroscopes, out of six. These are needed to point the telescope, and Hubble can work with just one gyro. There is a plan to keep this spacecraft operating for the next decade, at which point its orbit will likely have decayed below 500 km, and science operations will no longer be possible.

NASA estimates that this will happen by the mid-2030s, unless the spacecraft receives a boost. In 2022, NASA and SpaceX announced that they were embarking on a feasibility study of boosting Hubble’s orbit with a private mission (probably Polaris Dawn, a private SpaceX mission funded by Jared Isaacman, which is currently scheduled to launch sometime this summer). That is apparently still on the table, according to this budget document. NASA is currently reviewing the results of that feasibility study.

Both of these spacecraft will receive mini senior reviews in the next few months, according to a NASA science directorate town hall on the budget that was held this week. These occur when NASA wants to review whether a spacecraft has achieved its primary mission, and decide whether to extend it or not.

NASA’s in a tough spot here.

It’s easy to get a little worked up about this — these are people’s jobs and also it feels so wasteful and unnecessary to cut loose these observatories that are still doing great work. (I think at this point we all have an emotional attachment to Hubble, though don’t discount Chandra just because it doesn’t put out as many pretty photos!)

Type Ia supernova, Credit: Chandra

It’s interesting that we don’t have anything else like Chandra, and its loss would be devastating for global x-ray astronomy, but it’s on the chopping block, yet Hubble isn’t. I am NOT advocating for the cancellation of Hubble, so do NOT yell at me because that is definitely not what I’m saying — but I feel like NASA knows there would be tremendous public outcry if they cancelled Hubble due to budget cuts. Whereas Chandra is much less well known.

But it’s also the reality that the next great observatories — the Roman telescope, and Habitable Worlds scheduled for the 2040s — need funding as well, and NASA’s doing great work with less money than expected. We’ll see what happens, but let’s hope this isn’t as bad as it seems.

And if you’re wondering how Mars Sample Return, which I talked about in a previous news roundup, fared, well — it’s not even in the budget right now. Which means if the independent review board comes back with its alternative (and hopefully more cost-effective) mission designs, they’re going to have to carve out that money from the planetary science budget, which is a different budget than the astrophysics I’ve been talking about — but it’s a clear sign we might not be done with tradeoffs yet.

The Hubble constant and Hubble tension

Did you see news this week that JWST’s measurements of the Hubble constant have thrown a wrench in our understanding of the universe? Basically, JWST confirmed that the Hubble Space Telecope’s measurements of the Hubble constant were accurate, and not observation error. It really is fascinating stuff, and I did an entire post and video on what it means, so check that out if you’re so inclined.

JWST studied young stars in a nearby galaxy, and the photo is pretty epic

The Triangulum galaxy is located about 2.73 million light years away, and it’s host to a star-forming region called NGC 604, which is churning out the hottest, most massive stars.


Here’s the photo, which is pretty breathtaking. It’s taken by JWST’s NIRCam, in near-infrared, and it’s about 1,700 light years across. This region of space has a concentration of 200 B-type and O-type stars, which can be 100 times more massive than our Sun. Finding this many supermassive stars in one place is rare, which is part of why scientists are so interested in this region. It’s a rare peek into how these supermassive stars are born.

The orange filaments in the image correspond to a carbon based molecule called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, while the red is molecular hydrogen. The bluish white you see is hydrogen ionized by UV radiation. You can see holes here and there where these stars and their stellar winds are carving up that gas.


There’s another cool view of this galaxy — this is the MIRI, or mid-infrared image. The first thing that’s noticeable about this photo, in comparison to the NIRCam image, is that there are significantly fewer stars visible. That’s because these bright, hot stars don’t emit as much mid-infrared light as they do near-infrared. This time, the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are the blue gas, which appears almost ghostly.

The first eclipse weather forecast is here

As we get closer to the April eclipse, the first weather forecasts for the event are trickling out. Now remember that forecasts before a week out are relatively unreliable, but if you’re one of those people who wants every speck of information, then here you go.

Credit: Accuweather

Accuweather’s long-range meterology team put out this map. It doesn’t tell you what the weather will like look, but it does show viewing conditions — so, basically, cloud cover based on predicted El Nino activity and a predicted cold front that will be moving across the U.S.

The best viewing conditions, according to this map, will be southwest Texas, parts of the Ohio Valley, and the Great Lakes. North of Syracuse, things aren’t looking good.

I wouldn’t immediately start trying to change your eclipse plans if the area you’re heading might not have the best viewing conditions (for one, there’s not much left in terms of lodging in the path of totality), but this preliminary look at cloud cover is worth keeping in mind.

Starship, Crew Dragon, and Boeing Starliner updates

Credit: SpaceX

There are a couple of big flight announcements — of course Starship successfully had its third test flight on March 14. They lost Starship during re-entry, but it was a pretty spectacular flight over all. Check out my post if you want to know more about how that went, and a breakdown of my thoughts on its success.

Credit: Boeing

Boeing Starliner’s first flight has been pushed to early May, but for once it’s no fault of the spacecraft or Boeing’s. There’s a bit of a spaceship traffic jam at the International Space Station, and NASA wants to let that clear before the test happens.

Also, Crew-7’s mission to the International Space Station is finally over. Their Crew Dragon splashed down safely on March 12; the crew spent a total of 199 days in orbit.

Stratolaunch took to the skies

There’s one more flight to talk about — Stratolaunch. The company had its first successful test flight of the Talon-A1, or T-A1. It’s a hypersonic craft (so Mach 5, or 5 times the speed of sound) launched from the world’s largest airplane. This test achieved “speeds close to hypersonic flight,” so didn’t quite get there, but they’re happy with the results apparently. The main objectives were successful release of the T-A1 craft, and then acceleration and maintaining control until a splashdown in the ocean.

Credit: Stratolaunch

Initially, founder Paul Allen (the late Microsoft co-founder) wanted to use the plane to launch satellites, but after his death, Stratolaunch was acquired by Cerberus Capital Management. They reorganized the company to focus on hypersonic craft.