Jan 12, 2021

Axios Space

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1 big thing: For the next big NASA rocket — its time has come

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

It’s a make-or-break moment for NASA’s next mega-rocket: the Space Launch System.

Why it matters: The rocket — about 10 years in development and billions of dollars over budget — is expected to launch for the first time this year. Its success is key for NASA’s plans to bring people and payloads to deep space destinations like the Moon.

  • “This is the year the SLS has to show that it can work,” the Planetary Society’s Casey Dreier told me. “It had better do something. It’s been 10 years now.”

Driving the news: NASA is expected to stage what will be one of the biggest tests of the SLS yet on Jan. 16.

  • That test will see the four engines of the huge rocket's core stage fire in unison without taking flight.
  • The rocket will light up for as many as eight minutes in order to see how the booster might behave during a real launch.

What's next: The SLS is expected to launch to space for the first time in November 2021, sending an uncrewed Orion capsule around the Moon and back to Earth.

But, but, but: Whether that happens on time remains to be seen.

  • There isn't much margin in the schedule for possible delays and fixes that may come about as a result of the test firing or other issues, according to a Government Accountability Office report published last month.
  • If the first flight of the SLS and Orion is delayed, it could have a cascade effect on NASA's future Moon missions, including the planned 2024 crewed lunar landing, William Russell, one of the authors of the GAO report, told me.

Context: Congress directed NASA to build the SLS in 2010.

  • Today, there are commercial space companies — including Blue Origin and SpaceX — working to develop rockets that could launch astronauts and payloads to the Moon and beyond for cheaper than the cost of an SLS.
  • Some have suggested NASA should buy a ride to the Moon aboard a commercial rocket instead of the SLS, at least at first.

The other side: Proponents of the SLS program say that even with these commercial heavy-lift rockets expected to come online, NASA still needs its own launcher in order to fulfill its unique needs as an exploration agency.

  • The entire system — including SLS and Orion — are built to work together, so swapping in some other kind of rocket isn't practical at this phase in development, Dreier said.
  • The SLS program has also brought much-needed jobs back to NASA and the contractors — Boeing, Aerojet Rocketdyne, and Northrop Grumman — responsible for building and testing the rocket.

The bottom line: NASA's future deep space exploration plans depend on the SLS succeeding — and soon.

2. An ancient planetary system

Artist's illustration of the planet TOI-561b. Image: W. M. Keck Observatory/Adam Makarenko

Scientists have discovered a rocky “super-Earth” planet in an ancient star system that likely formed 10 billion years ago, only a few billion years after our Milky Way galaxy came to be.

Why it matters: The newfound planet likely can't support life, but in general, researchers think older planetary systems have better odds of possibly harboring life because they're long-lived.

  • "Gosh, if we've only been around for 5 billion years, imagine what could have happened on a rocky world that's been around for 10 billion years. I'd sure like to find out," the University of Hawaii's Lauren Weiss said in a press conference on Monday at the American Astronomical Society annual meeting.

What they found: The planet — called TOI-561b — orbits its star in less than half an Earth day and is about 50% larger than our planet.

  • The world likely plays host to an ocean of magma on the side of the planet that faces its star, Weiss said.
  • Weiss also said that there are two other planets orbiting the star, which are thought to be gaseous and more distant than the rocky world.
  • Researchers used NASA’s TESS mission and the Keck Observatory to find and confirm the super-Earth, and a study detailing the find has been accepted to the Astronomical Journal.
3. InSight and Juno keep on trucking

Jupiter as seen by the Juno spacecraft. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA's InSight lander on Mars and the Juno orbiter at Jupiter have new leases on life.

Why it matters: The spacecraft are expected to continue gathering data about their respective planetary targets during their newly extended missions, allowing scientists to learn more about seismic activity on Mars and turn their attention to the moons of Jupiter.

Where it stands: Juno's mission has been extended to September 2025 or whenever its life ends with a crash into Jupiter's atmosphere.

  • InSight will continue its mission to study Mars' geology and seismic activity from the Martian surface through December 2022.

What's next: Both missions are expected to make good use of their extended time at Jupiter and Mars.

  • InSight's extra two years will see the spacecraft collect more data on marsquakes to help create a long-term dataset that scientists can refer to for years to come, according to NASA.
  • Juno will broaden the scope of its studies to observe Jupiter's rings and moons including flybys of Ganymede, Europa and Io.

The big picture: NASA often extends the missions of its satellites and spacecraft in space if they're functioning well and still beaming home useful data.

  • The Mars Opportunity rover, for example, landed on Mars in 2004 for a 90-day mission, but the little spacecraft managed to keep roaming the Red Planet for nearly 15 years, after being granted multiple extended missions.
4. Orbital wine comes back to Earth

Photo: NASA

Twelve bottles of red wine are making their way back to Earth after spending more than a year aboard the International Space Station.

Why it matters: The wine is more than just a frivolous novelty.

  • The researchers behind the wine experiments — which also involved sending grape vines to the station — are hoping to learn more about how plants respond to stress, with an eye toward how they might behave on a warmer Earth in the future.

How it works: The wine and grape vines will arrive back on Earth aboard a SpaceX cargo craft when it splashes down in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida tonight.

  • From there, the experiments will be transported to Bordeaux at the end of the month, where scientists will analyze the vines to see how they stood up to the space environment.

What's next: Space Cargo Unlimited, the startup that sent these experiments to space, "anticipates the plants growing in space will be more resilient to other kinds of lesser stress (increased salt level in the soils, etc.), and may unlock the potential of varieties better suited to a warmer Earth with less drinkable water," the company said in a statement.

  • The wine sent to space will be tasted during a private event in February.
5. Out of this world reading list

Nearly 10,000 galaxies seen in one part of the sky by the Hubble Space Telescope. Photo: NASA/ESA/STScI

Japanese asteroid-sampling probe begins long trek to next space rock (Mike Wall, Space.com)

A distant galaxy dies as astronomers watch (Ashley Strickland, CNN)

NASA to upgrade space station solar arrays (Jeff Foust, SpaceNews)

Scientists find the universe is 13.77 billion years old (Axios)

6. Your weekly dose of awe: A cosmic rose

Photo: ESO/TIMER survey

A burst of star formation encircles the center of the spiral galaxy NGC 1097, 45 million light-years away.

  • The dark streaks of gas and dust are being funneled into the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy.
  • That accretion causes the material around the black hole to heat up, creating what's known as a "star-bursting nuclear ring" surrounding it, according to the European Southern Observatory whose MUSE instrument took the photo. (The nuclear ring is the pink and purple tones in the image.)

Big thanks to Alison Snyder, David Nather and Sheryl Miller for editing this week’s edition. If this email was forwarded to you, subscribe here. 🚀