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September 2018: Phoenix

September 2018

An episode of beginnings! In the show this time, we talk to Emily Drabeck-Maunder about forming habitable planets, Mateusz Malenta rounds up the latest news, and we find out what we can see in the September night sky from Ian Morison and Gaby Perez.

The News

This month in the news: NASA goes all-American - again, the launch of the Parker solar probe, and getting in touch with Opportunity.

NASA is going back to all-American space with the August introduction of a new group of astronauts, who will be the first to fly from US soil, using US-built spacecraft since STS 135 in July 2011, which was the final flight of the Space Shuttle Atlantis and the final mission of the entire program. Since then, NASA had to rely on the help of its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, to ferry its astronauts to the International Space Station and back onboard the Soyuz spacecraft. For many years, this has been seen as a less-than-ideal solution, with international and national pressures increasing even more in recent years to finally bring the capability to launch US astronauts from American soil. Initial plans involved launching an Orion spacecraft on top of the Ares I rocket, but they had to be revisited after the cancellation of the Constellation program in 2010. This meant that NASA was left with no replacement to the Space Shuttle, a situation it's been in for more than 7 years now.

Since then, more power and resources have been given to private contractors, small and big alike, with Boeing and SpaceX arguably the biggest winners to build and launch the first manned orbital spacecraft since the Space Shuttle, with their CST-100 Starliner and Crew Dragon 2 capsules respectively. Nine astronauts have been chosen to participate in 4 launches in total - 1 fight test and 1 mission flight for each of the capsules. These crews are made of both experienced astronauts and complete rookies.

The first Starliner mission will have a crew of three, including Eric Boe, who piloted Space Shuttles Endeavour and Discovery during the STS-126 and STS-133 missions respectively. He will be joined by another experienced pilot, Christopher Ferguson who flew and piloted a Space Shuttle on three separate occasions, during STS-115, STS-126, and STS-135. Ferguson officially left NASA in 2011 and joined Boeing, to become the first commercial astronaut. These two will be joined by Nicole Aunapu Mann, an Marine Corps test pilot, who is scheduled to go to space for the first time during that mission. Sunita Williams, a veteran NASA astronaut who was a commander of the ISS expedition 33 and is one of the most experienced spacewalkers from NASA, will fly onboard the Starliner during its second mission. She will share her duties with Josh Cassada on his first trip to space.

SpaceX's Crew Dragon 2 maiden crewed flight will have Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley behind the wheel. Both are experienced NASA astronauts, with Behnken flying to space twice, during STS-123 and STS-130 and also performing multiple spacewalks. Hurley was a pilot during STS-127 and STS-135 missions. The second Dragon capsule launch will ferry Victor Glover, a Navy test pilot and astronaut rookie and Michael Hopkins, who spent 166 days in space during the Expedition 37/38 at the International Space Station.

The exact launch dates are still unknown, as both capsules are still under construction, with the first uncrewed flights expected at the end of this year or at the beginning of 2019, but some sources close to NASA say that these launches may slip as far back as late 2020. Additionally, NASA requires additional booster certification to prove they are safe for launching humans, which can move the ultimate launch of the first crewed mission an extra year or two into the future. This can be an extra challenge for SpaceX, with the company using a novel and slightly controversial 'load-and-go' method of fuelling their boosters minutes before the launch, meaning the crew would have to be already in the capsule, while the fuel tanks are being filled with a highly-explosive mixture. Due to the obvious safety concerns, NASA requires the company to successfully complete this procedure at least five times using the full uncrewed configuration before the first manned flight is allowed.

It's going to get warm for the Parker Solar Probe, launched aboard the Delta IV in the middle of the night on 12th August. If everything goes according to the plan, it will become the first spacecraft to fly through the solar corona, travelling at a distance as small as 6.2 million kilometres, less than a tenth of the largest distance between the Sun and Mercury, the planet closest to it in our Solar System. The close proximity to our star means that the spacecraft will have to withstand temperatures exceeding thousands of degrees Celsius and will be protected by more than 10 centimetres of shielding, made out of carbon composites.

Contrary to popular belief, sending payloads towards the Sun is more difficult than trying to get away, and this is reflected in the duration and complexity of the operations that will finally put the Probe on a stable orbit around the Sun. It will take around 7 years of Venus flybys, providing a necessary gravitational assist. During that time, the spacecraft will complete 24 orbits around the Sun, with speeds exceeding 700,000 kilometers per hour at its closest approach, which will make it the fastest spacecraft ever made. The instruments onboard the spacecraft cover a wide suite of measurements and will allow scientists to measure the strength and shape of the Sun's magnetic field, measure the velocity, density and temperature of electrons, protons and helium ions leaving the solar surface, and a camera to image ejecta originating at the Sun. The hope is that this mission will allow us to better understand the environment inside the Sun's atmosphere and explain why it is hundreds of times hotter that its surface. The examination of matter ejected from the Sun will help us to better understand the effect it has on space weather and the implications for the Earth's weather and climate patterns, as well as the effect the energetic solar particles have on the electronics in space as well as on the surface of our planet.

And finally an update on the status of the little rover that could, Opportunity, which has been silent since 10th June, when it went into hibernation mode due to a massive dust storm, a situation we have already talked about during our June Jodcast episode. At the end of July and beginning of August, the amount of dust in the Martian atmosphere decreased sufficiently for the JPL engineers to be hopeful that the rover would wake up and ping them. Unfortunately Opportunity has not phoned home yet.

This is not the first dust storm that the rover had to endure, but this is was one of the largest dust storms since it touched down on the surface of Mars more than 14 years ago, and it is not getting younger, with solar panels constantly covered by dust and deteriorating batteries. It is possible that this dust storm was one too many for Opportunity and it entered one of the fault modes with either the electric power system, internal clock or the communication systems giving up. The scientists are not losing hope just yet, as the rover is equipped with redundant systems which could help it to wake up and send signals back to Earth. Currently the efforts are concentrated on listening to the rover and all the signals coming from Mars across a large bandwidth. Engineers are also trying to talk to the rover multiple times per week in the hope of pinging it at a right time and starting the waking-up procedure. If all these efforts are in vain, NASA will continue to talk and listen to the rover on a regular basis for few months, until at least January 2019 when they will become more sporadic and eventually cease if Opportunity is considered to be in a permanent state of sleep.

Interview with Emily Drabeck-Maunder

Emily Drabeck-Maunder from the University of Cardiff discusses how habitable planets might form within stellar disks, and how their signatures can be detected at radio wavelengths. In particular, the PEBBLES survey (of which Jodrell Bank is a part of) is looking to spot pebbles as they accrete into protoplanets, in order to gain insight into how our own Solar System might have come into being.

The Night Sky

Northern Hemisphere

Ian Morison tells us what we can see in the Northern Hemisphere night sky during September 2018.

The Planets

Southern Hemisphere

In her final Night Sky segment, Gaby Perez from the Carter Observatory in New Zealand speaks about the Southern Hemisphere night sky during September 2018.

Odds and Ends

Currently, the Lovell telescope is down for an extended period of maintenance, returning to full operations later this year. In the meantime we've been timing a small subset of our usual hoard of pulsars using the smaller Mark II telescope. Mostly we time each pulsar about once per fortnight, but with Mark II we've been able to get observations much more frequently because we're timing fewer sources. As a consequence the pulsar group recently discovered two pulsar glitches had occured a mere two weeks apart in the pulsar PSR J0631+1036. Glitches are rare events in which a pulsar spontaneously increases its rotation rate. Their rarity makes them difficult to study and most pulsars that have glitched have been seen to do so only once. It's been some years since PSR J0631+1036 last glitched, so it's something of a surprise that 2 events occurred so close together in time. Had we been timing with our usual observing regime with Lovell, we would not have seen this as two small glitches but one larger glitch. This begs the question, how many other double glitches have we missed because of our observing limitations?!

We discuss the recent appearance of a hole in the International Space Station, which is currently (at time of recording) of unknown origin. The 2mm-diameter hole caused a small pressure fluctuation in the station on the evening of the 29th August, and was initially dealt with by an astronaut placing their thumb over the breach. The hole has now had a more permanent fix, but investigations are currently underway as to how it got there in the first place. One thing that has been ruled out is a meteorite or space junk impact, and it looks like the hole had been drilled... but by who?

What would happen if you fired Mars at the Earth-Moon system? Josh describes a new Martian ejection hypothesis, in which Mars and Venus formed at a similar distance from the Sun (allowing Mars to have an atmosphere and liquid water), but then has Mars expelled from its position via gravitational interaction to where it is now. Simulations put this possibility at around 10% - a low chance, but perhaps we're just living in the 10%?

Show Credits

News:Mateusz Malenta
Interview:Emily Drabeck-Maunder and (the real) Josh Hayes
Night sky:Ian Morison and Gaby Perez
Presenters:Emma Alexander, Josh Hayes and Benjamin Shaw
Editors:Alex Clarke, Jake Staberg Morgan and Tom Scragg
Segment Voice:Mike Peel
Website:Jake Staberg Morgan and Stuart Lowe
Producer:Jake Staberg Morgan
Cover art:An ALMA image of the young star TW Hydrae, with associated protoplanetary disk. CREDIT: ALMA

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