May 19, 2020

Axios Space

By Miriam Kramer
Miriam Kramer

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1 big thing: The astronauts bringing spaceflight back to the U.S.

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley (front) and Bob Behnken. Photo: SpaceX

Two people — NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken — are about to risk their lives in the name of bringing human spaceflight back to the U.S. for the first time since 2011. 

Why it matters: The first crewed SpaceX launch on May 27 is a huge moment for NASA and the U.S. as a whole. When the final test launch takes off, Hurley and Behnken are the ones taking on most of the immediate risk in this historic moment.

What's happening: The two astronauts are set to take flight from Florida aboard SpaceX's Crew Dragon, marking the first time the company has attempted to launch people and the first crewed launch from the U.S. since the end of the space shuttle program.

  • The loss of crew probability should be no more than 1 in 270 flights of the system, per the requirements NASA set as part of the Commercial Crew program.
  • While SpaceX and NASA have done a number of tests over the years to prove out all of the systems of the spacecraft, flying on the first crewed flight of a brand new ship is inherently risky.

Details: For two years, the astronauts have been the go-between with NASA and SpaceX as both the agency and company worked to get the Crew Dragon system ready to fly people.

  • Behnken and Hurley contributed to testing and general development of the system, telling SpaceX how astronauts feel about the way the craft operates.
  • It wasn't always smooth sailing. Behnken and Hurley had to walk the fine line between two masters that didn't necessarily always agree.
  • "It could be that really the company just wants to do it their way, for example, and we'd need to figure out whether or not that can be used to accomplish the mission," Behnken told Axios earlier this month.
  • Behnken added that their goal was to get to a compromise that would work for the company and agency.

Background: Both Behnken and Hurley are veteran astronauts, with multiple space shuttle flights under their belts.

  • The two former military test pilots were selected to become NASA astronauts as part of the space agency's 2000 class.
  • Hurley was also part of the crew of the final space shuttle flight.
  • Both will leave families on Earth in the midst of the pandemic.
"In some sense, to try to manage the pandemic is to do all the right things that we can technically, but at the same time, avoid it becoming a distraction from our mission preparation," Behnken told Axios.

Their families likely understand the risks of the astronauts' job better than most: Behnken and Hurley — who both have young children — are married to fellow astronauts.

What to watch: The flight Behnken and Hurley are launching on next week is SpaceX's final test before beginning regular missions to the space station.

  • “This is a big day for NASA and a big day for SpaceX, but we should not lose sight of the fact that this is a test flight,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a press conference this month. “We’re doing this to learn things.”
2. Spectators urged to stay home during historic launch

A crowd on a bridge in Florida watching the final space shuttle launch in 2011. Photo: NASA/Frank Michaux

NASA is trying to keep its people and the public on the ground safe during the historic launch to the International Space Station in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Why it matters: Thousands of people have shown up on Florida's beaches up and down the Space Coast to watch crewed launches in the past, and for this historic launch, NASA would typically expect more.

  • Many counties in Florida have lifted their stay-at-home orders, but there are cautions about gatherings of people, meaning NASA has to worry about both the safety of astronauts and the observers.

Details: Both Behnken and Hurley are now in quarantine ahead of the launch in order to protect them from potentially contracting the coronavirus or other illnesses.

  • "Our crew will be tested for coronavirus before they go. If that test were to come back positive, of course, we wouldn't send them to the International Space Station," Bridenstine said during a media roundtable last week.

At the same time, Bridenstine has urged members of the public not to travel to Kennedy Space Center for the launch, saying that the popular tourist destination will be closed to the public.

  • "We have other missions that need to go forward," Bridenstine added. "We don't want to risk the health of the people who work at Kennedy."

The big picture: Usually NASA welcomes a variety of special guests — occasionally including celebrities — to watch launches in person from Florida, but next week's mission will be slightly different.

  • "We do intend to have a very small group of VIPs that would include members of Congress and senators and maybe some members of the National Space Council," Bridenstine said.
  • NASA has also limited the number of press on site allowed to cover the launch in person.
3. Listening to a star's heartbeat

Artist's illustration of a pulsating Delta Scuti star. Gif: NASA Goddard

Astronomers have found the heartbeat powering a class of pulsating stars in deep space for the first time.

Why it matters: The stellar heartbeats were detected using data from NASA's TESS spacecraft, which is designed to hunt for alien planets circling distant stars. The new discovery shows TESS' versatility and the spacecraft's ability to shed light on more than just far-off worlds.

How it works: Astronomers are able to see pulsations in a star's brightness caused by sound waves bouncing around inside of the star, allowing them to learn more about the star's internal structures, densities and composition.

  • That kind of investigation is difficult with Delta Scuti stars because of their quick rotation, but preplanned observations from TESS allowed scientists to parse out these signals more clearly, tracking a large sample of them.

What they found: TESS data helped astronomers find the patterns of the pulsations being emitted by about 60 of these stars, according to a study published last week in the journal Nature.

  • By clocking the patterns of these pulsing stars, scientists will be able to piece together their ages and other characteristics of the objects.
  • Until now, it was hard to understand the patterns of the stellar heartbeats due to the quick rotation of the stars. They complete a full rotation once or twice per day a dozen times faster than the Sun, according to NASA.
  • "This really is a breakthrough. Now we have a regular series of pulsations for these stars that we can understand and compare with models," Simon Murphy, one of the authors of the new study said in a statement.

Go deeper: Hear the heartbeat of a Delta Scuti star

Bonus: World of the week — Kepler-16b

Artist's illustration of a planet orbiting two stars. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

A planet orbiting two stars just 200 light-years away represents an inflection point where science fiction became fact in 2011.

Why it matters: The alien planet Kelper-16b was the first world found to orbit two stars, much like Luke Skywalker's famous homeworld in "Star Wars."

Details: Kepler-16b — which is about the size of Saturn — is likely too massive and enveloped in gas to be habitable, but a study in 2017 found these types of circumbinary planets, given the right conditions, could potentially support life.

  • The two stars the planet orbits are a mismatched pair.
  • One star is about 20% of the mass of the Sun, while the other is about 69% of the Sun's mass.
  • "Kepler-16b orbits around both stars every 229 days, similar to Venus' 225-day orbit, but lies outside the system's habitable zone, where liquid water could exist on the surface, because the stars are cooler than our sun," NASA said in a statement.
4. Out of this world reading list

A rocket carrying the mysterious X-37B space plane. Photo: United Launch Alliance

Mysterious space plane launches. Return date, TBD. (Andrea Leinfelder, Houston Chronicle)

Try to dock with the International Space Station with this SpaceX Crew Dragon simulator (Loren Grush, The Verge)

Mud volcanoes may spew on Mars (Mike Wall, Space.com)

Tesla dispute costs SpaceX state grant (Jeff Foust, SpaceNews)

Annie Glenn, John Glenn's widow, dies of coronavirus complications at age 100 (CBS News)

5. Your weekly dose of awe: A broken comet

Photo: NASA/ESA/D. Jewitt (UCLA)/Q. Ye (University of Maryland)

Comets are fickle cosmic beasts. Many are beautifully bright hundreds of millions of miles from the Sun before breaking apart as they get closer to the star.

What's new: The Hubble Space Telescope caught a rare glimpse as Comet ATLAS broke apart at the end of April.

  • "This is really exciting — both because such events are super cool to watch and because they do not happen very often. Most comets that fragment are too dim to see. Events at such scale only happen once or twice a decade," Quanzhi Ye of the University of Maryland said in a statement.

Why it matters: Some scientists think these comet breakups occur when ices rapidly change from solid to gas form, effectively tearing itself asunder, but without directly watching it happen, it's hard to know exactly why these comets die.

Miriam Kramer

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