Dec 10, 2019

Axios Space

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1 big thing: Stopping a Mars mission from messing with the mind

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Space agencies and scientists are testing new ways to mitigate the psychological effects of a trip to Mars.

Why it matters: One of the major limiting factors for a mission to Mars will be the human mind, experts agree.

  • In order to fly to the red planet, live there and return home, astronauts will need to deal with long bouts of isolation and delayed contact with mission control and family back on Earth.

What's happening: IBM, Airbus and the German Aerospace Center just launched CIMON-2 — an upgraded robotic assistant that can read a person’s tone of voice — to the International Space Station.

  • CIMON-2's creators think the robot could act as a sounding board for astronauts who are feeling stressed but don't necessarily want to talk to their crewmates about it during a trip in deep space, developer Matthias Biniok told Axios.

Researchers are also studying how the brain and body might change during long trips in space, affecting a person's cognition.

  • A group of eight polar explorers experienced changes in their brains that may have been brought about by 14 months in isolation, according to a small study co-authored by psychologist David Dinges of the University of Pennsylvania and published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine.
  • Other scientists are looking into how radiation — considered by some to be the most serious health risk for astronauts going to Mars — might affect space explorers on a cognitive level.

The big picture: "From Mars, the Earth is seen as a dot, basically — a small dot; greenish, blue dot. So everything that is important to you, your history, your family, your culture, your country, becomes an insignificant point in the universe," University of California, San Francisco psychiatrist Nick Kanas told Axios in August.

  • Mission researchers emphasize the importance of a diverse crew to try to stave off psychological impacts. The thinking is they can work together well and keep each other interested and even entertained for months if not years at a time.
  • "We know that even in a high-fidelity simulation, when it goes long enough that if the agencies aren't very careful about who they select ahead of time ... I would expect that we're going to see maybe up to 50% or more of the crew develop some significant behavioral problems, psychological problems and physical problems during the mission," Dinges told Axios.

What's next: NASA may consider using its Gateway — the small space station the agency plans to place in orbit around the Moon in the coming years — as a simulation for a Mars mission in space.

Editor's note: This piece was corrected to show Nick Kanas is a psychiatrist (not a psychologist).

2. What's next for the Parker Solar Probe

Illustration of the Parker Solar Probe in front of the Sun. Photo: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

A new series of studies based on data beamed back from the Sun-studying Parker Solar Probe could help scientists better predict dangerous space weather.

Why it matters: Streams of charged particles sent out by the Sun create space weather that can affect satellites, electrical grids on Earth and even people in orbit.

  • By learning more about how space weather works, scientists could craft better predictions and keep assets in space and on Earth safer.

Details: A new study published last week as part of a Parker Solar Probe-focused package in the journal Nature is shedding light on why the Sun's atmosphere gets hotter as you move farther from the star's surface.

  • The probe found that strong magnetic waves — called Alfvén waves — in the solar wind near the Sun could help explain that heating.
  • "They [the waves] were organized into these individual, really powerful waves that would wash over the spacecraft," one of the study's authors Justin Kasper, of the University of Michigan, told Axios.
  • While these types of waves have been seen in the solar wind before, finding them organized in such a way was surprising and could help unravel the mystery of the Sun's hot atmosphere with more data.

What's next: The Parker Solar Probe is expected to make 21 more close flybys of the Sun, three of which will bring it just 3.83 million miles from the star's surface, closer than any spacecraft has been before.

  • Mission managers are also gearing up for the probe to make a flyby of Venus this month, giving researchers a new look at the cloud-covered world from relatively close range.
  • Scientists will use the data already gathered by the probe to add more information into models that explain how the solar wind and stellar atmosphere work.
3. Tracking planes from orbit

Ocean water from orbit. Photo: NASA

A new satellite launched to orbit last week will track planes traversing Earth’s oceans from space.

Why it matters: Experts have said that a space-based aircraft tracking system could make flights safer, on time and more fuel efficient.

How it works: The satellite — called TRSI Sat and developed by MyRadar — will be able to track aircraft even when they’re out over the oceans, far from the ground tracking stations that are typically used for this kind of work.

  • The tiny satellite is designed to pick up pings from aircraft as they fly, relaying them back to Earth and allowing people on the ground to see where aircraft are when they're within range of the satellite.
  • While this kind of satellite-based tracking has been done before, the creators of the new satellite say it cost less than $1,000 to build, and its instrumentation could be deployed on other satellites, potentially leading to global coverage.
  • “It is our intention to build the tracking sensors into our future weather-based imaging satellites,” Andy Green, CEO of MyRadar, told Axios via email.

Background: The satellite was launched by a Rocket Lab Electron rocket on the company’s 10th mission last week.

  • The rocket carried six other satellites to orbit, including a Japanese payload designed to create an artificial meteor shower.
  • Rocket Lab also tested a guided re-entry of the first stage of its rocket in order to prove out the system’s reusability in the future.
4. Out of this world reading list

Enceladus seen by Cassini. Photo: NASA/ESA/JPL-Caltech/CICLOPS

How Saturn’s moon Enceladus got its stripes (Monica Young, Sky & Telescope)

European Space Agency to launch space debris collector in 2025 (Hannah Devlin, The Guardian)

No one knows why rocks are exploding from Asteroid Bennu (Daniel Oberhaus, Wired)

New dates set for Commercial Crew test flights (Jeff Foust, Space News)

5. Your weekly dose of awe: New stars and a black hole

Photo: X-ray: NASA/CXC/INAF/R. Gilli et al.; Radio NRAO/VLA; Optical: NASA/STScI

A supermassive black hole's influence can stretch far beyond its immediate surroundings.

  • A newly released photo from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and other telescopes reveals a black hole in the middle of a galaxy 9.9 billion light-years from Earth that's spurring on star formation in four other galaxies around it, according to a new study in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.
  • A radio jet emitted by the black hole likely heated up a bubble of hot gas, causing it to expand and creating a shock wave that sparked star formation in other galaxies.
  • Scientists have found plenty of examples of black holes that impede star formation, but this is one of the first examples of a supermassive black hole that's actually instigating it, NASA said.

Go deeper: Check out the annotated version of the photo.

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