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FEATURED STORIES - July 2020

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'Astro' Dave: David Reneke is one of Australia's most well known and respected astronomers and lecturers with links to some of the world's leading astronomical institutions

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Australia's Bowen Space Hub 'awesome' news for aspiring rocket scientists

Launch of rocket at Woomera in South Australia, the countries other rocket test facility.(Supplied: Australian Department Of Defence © Commonwealth Copyright)
Launch of rocket at Woomera in South Australia, the countries other rocket test facility.(Supplied: Australian Department Of Defence © Commonwealth Copyright)
Year 6 student Hayden Blines is excited about what could be coming to his backyard.(ABC Tropical North: Ollie Wykeham)
Year 6 student Hayden Blines is excited about what could be coming to his backyard.(ABC Tropical North: Ollie Wykeham)

For Year 6 student Hayden Blines, the Queensland Government's $8 million investigation into a proposed space hub near Bowen is "awesome" news.

Key points:

  • Bowen has been named as the State Government's preferred site for a space facility
  • An $8 million technical and feasibility study of the site has been commissioned
  • The launch pad could be built next to the Abbot Point coal terminal and may be operational by 2022

Hayden fell in love with aviation after he was invited into the cockpit of an Airbus A380 by a pilot who spotted his excitement when he got on board. "It's the biggest passenger plane in the world, so he invited me to see the controls and get a photo," the youngster said. "I've loved everything aviation ever since."

But up until now, Hayden thought he would have to travel a world away to pursue his dream career. "I love aviation, engineering, space, anything to do with going up and I was worried I was going to have to move to America to continue that kind of education. "But now it's right in my backyard, right there, it's pretty cool."

Aiming for the stars

Defence expert Neil Hart said the site offered a huge opportunity, not just for local kids, but all of Australia. "Queensland has excellent geography for launching rockets, looking at satellites and handling big infrastructure." he said. "We all use space every day but most of us don't realise it and most of those space services come from overseas. "It's really exiting, there is a really big opportunity for Queensland and Australia."

Mr Hart says Bowen is perfectly placed because it is close to the equator and the coast. "Most of the big rocket sites like Cape Canaveral are on the water because it's much easier to make sure every rocket launch is safe," he said. "This location means we can grow into big rockets that will aim towards a range of orbits."

Open by 2022

Whitsunday Regional Council Mayor Andrew Wilcox said the Bowen site may be able to launch satellites and other small rockets as early as 2022. "All the experts that we've had said Bowen is a go because of the latitude, clear skies, and we've got the open water there at the state development area right next door to Abbot Point," he said. "It turns out it's location, location, location.

"We've got the area there, 16,000 hectares of land available, next to the highway so we can bring gear in - we've got all that going for us. "I don't think the average man in the street from Bowen is going to be NASA technician, but it will create jobs in the way of construction."

NASA  Launches Its 'Perseverance' Mars 2020 Mission

On Thursday morning, NASA launched its fifth Mars rover: A robotic scientist the size of an SUV. The $US2.4 billion, nuclear-powered vehicle, named Perseverance ("Percy" for short) is designed to trundle along the Martian surface, mine for signs of ancient life, capture high-quality video and audio, and collect rock and soil samples for an eventual return trip to Earth.

In preparation for future human landings on Mars, the rover will also carry an experimental device that converts carbon dioxide from the planet's thin atmosphere into oxygen, and test samples of potential space suit material to see how well they hold up against Mars' radioactivity. And if that wasn't enough, the rover's belly contains a helicopter named Ingenuity.

The liftoff marks the third Mars-bound mission to begin this month. It follows the launch of the United Arab Emirates' Hope probe, which aims to orbit Mars to chart a global map of its climate. China's Tianwen-1 mission, meanwhile, is expected to put a rover on Mars that will use radar to detect underground pockets of water and also put a spacecraft into orbit to study Mars' atmosphere.

The launches were all scheduled closely together in order to hit a critical window in Mars's orbit: The period when its path aligns most closely with that of Earth. That window comes in February 2021, which is when the spaceships are expected to arrive at Mars. Because of fuel and weight constraints, missing the chance to launch now would have required space agencies to wait until 2022.

This Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image shows the Jezero Crater delta region.   NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/JHU-APL
This Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image shows the Jezero Crater delta region. NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/JHU-APL

Perseverance is scheduled to land at Mars's Jezero Crater on February 18. The crater, once flooded with water, was selected after five years of careful study by planetary scientists because its rock and clay have the potential to contain electrochemical signatures of former life. The same features that make the Jezero crater appealing for study make it a difficult place to land a rover, however: The site's varied terrain is full of dips, ridges, and boulders.

But engineers have made advances in landing technology, including the development of a more precisely timed landing parachute, since NASA's last rover, Curiosity, arrived on Mars in 2012. Most recently, the agency successfully dropped its InSight lander on Mars in November 2018.

If all goes well, Perseverance will be the fifth Mars rover mission managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and also the fifth successful Mars rover landing overall (unless China's lands first). Yet another Mars rover called Rosalind Franklin - a collaboration between the European Space Agency and the Russia's Roscosmos - is scheduled to launch in 2022.

STAGE 1: A stowaway helicopter on NASA's Mars attempting the first flight on another world

An artistic rendering of Ingenuity deployed on Mars. Image: NASA
An artistic rendering of Ingenuity deployed on Mars. Image: NASA

When NASA's latest Mars rover, Perseverance, launched this week, the robot will have a tiny stowaway on board: a small box-shaped helicopter. If the copter manages to successfully hover above the Martian terrain, it'll be the first time that a human-made vehicle has ever flown on another world - and it could open up a whole new way of exploring the Solar System in the future.

The helicopter, named Ingenuity, is not the main focus of the rover. Perseverance's biggest goal is to look for signs of life on Mars and dig up samples of dirt that could one day be returned to Earth for study. But engineers managed to find room under the rover's belly to stow the tiny helicopter. At some point during Perseverance's journey, the rover will deploy Ingenuity onto the surface of Mars, where it will spin up its rotor and attempt to take off.

This interplanetary experiment hopes to provide a new vantage point for exploring Mars, beyond the current - limited - options. Mars orbiters can't get the high-resolution imagery that a spacecraft can get near the ground. Landers can only get information from a fixed location, while rovers can only move so far, with limited information about what lies ahead. But a helicopter can act as a scout, doing reconnaissance for other spacecraft or reaching hard to access areas.

That scouting ability could be super helpful if humans ever make it to the Martian surface. "Really flying ahead and then getting high definition images to inform humans and rovers for traverses will really advance the exploration of the world," says MiMi Aung, the project manager for the Mars helicopter at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "Being able to fly will add an entirely new dimension to exploration."

There's still a very big hurdle to flying on Mars: the atmosphere. The air surrounding the planet is just 1 percent the thickness of Earth's atmosphere. With so little air to move around, achieving lift on Mars will be very difficult. The low gravity on the surface of Mars helps; it's about 38 percent that of Earth's gravity. But even with that assist, a vehicle still can't fly on Mars with the same technologies we use to fly on our planet. For anything to get off the ground in that environment, it has to be super lightweight, and the propellers must be moving incredibly fast.

STAGE 2: Mars rover is carrying a device that turns CO2 into oxygen 

A breakdown of the components inside the MOXIE oxygen generator. BatteryIncluded on Wikimedia Commons
A breakdown of the components inside the MOXIE oxygen generator. BatteryIncluded on Wikimedia Commons

NASA's brand-new Mars rover carries a device that will produce oxygen from carbon dioxide in Mars' thin atmosphere.Perseverance rover is equipped with a scientific instrument called the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE: an effort to produce oxygen on a planet where it exists only .2% in the atmosphere.

Like a tree, MOXIE works by absorbing carbon dioxide, though it's organized specifically for the thin Martian atmosphere. It then electrochemically cuts the molecules into oxygen and carbon monoxide, and combines the oxygen molecules into O2.

It examines the O2 for purity, shooting for about 99.6% O2. Then it lets out both the breathable oxygen and the CO (carbon monoxide) back into the planet's air. Upcoming scaled-up devices, however, would stock the oxygen created in tanks for eventual purpose by humans and rockets.

MOXIE is a small evidence-of-concept research project, it won't produce much oxygen - if all goes well, it should be releasing about 10 grams per hour, which is only the amount of oxygen in 1.2 cubic feet of Earth air. For context, human being needs about 19 cubic feet of air per day.

MOXIE will test its abilities by producing oxygen in one-hour and it will increase the time period if very everything goes well, according to NASA. The device should begin working soon after the rover lands on February 18, 2021.

STAGE 3. Returning a piece of Mars to Mars!

A slice of a meteorite scientists have determined came from Mars. A similar slice is being returned to Mars on NASA's Perseverance rover as part of the SHERLOC calibration target. (Image credit: NASA/JPL)
A slice of a meteorite scientists have determined came from Mars. A similar slice is being returned to Mars on NASA's Perseverance rover as part of the SHERLOC calibration target. (Image credit: NASA/JPL)

This mission is also a sample return mission, though not in the traditional sense of the term. The lander has the tools needed to collect and cache samples for their later return to Earth by a future spacecraft. The samples may help answer if ancient life existed on Mars.

NASA describes the Perseverance rover as "the first leg of a round trip to Mars," but the six-wheeled vehicle is already equipped with everything it needs to carry out the first "Mars sample return," even before reaching Mars.

Perseverance is carrying pieces of Mars that were delivered naturally to Earth. Two small slices of Martian meteorites are on board. A museum provided a sample known as Sayh al Uhamiyr 008 (SaU 008), which was found in Oman in 1999 and has been in its care since 2000.

The piece that we are sending was specifically chosen because it is the right material in terms of chemistry, but also it is a very tough rock.  One of the onboard instruments 'SHERLOC' will target the slice, which will be used to determine how well the mapping spectrometer's scanning mirror is working. 

Located on the end of the rover's robotic arm, SHERLOC will help determine which samples to take so that they can be sealed in tubes and left on the Martian surface for future return to Earth. 

Perseverance will be collecting samples that are 5 centimeters by 1 centimeter [2 by 0.4 inches], putting them in tubes, sealing them and then a future rover is going to come pick them up and bring them back to Earth.

William Shatner of 'Star Trek' fame hints at a private trip to space

But will Captain Kirk really "beam up?"
But will Captain Kirk really "beam up?"

The actor who played astronaut Captain Kirk on "Star Trek" hinted during an online San Diego Comic-Con panel that he may be interested in going to space after all, although he wants to make sure it's safe.

William Shatner, moderating a panel about NASA's future in space, appeared to step back from previous statements in 2013 about Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson's private space tourism company, then saying he was so scared of human spaceflight that he would never venture on a rocket himself.

That said, in May of this year Shatner tweeted at NASA, tongue-in-cheek, asking if he could join the SpaceX Crew Dragon Demo-2 commercial spaceflight to the International Space Station (ISS). "Just in case; the suit does fit!" he tweeted with a picture of himself added to a photo of a SpaceX suit. So perhaps the 89-year-old actor is changing his mind.

"There's a possibility that I'm going to go up for a brief moment and come back down," Shatner said during the Comic-Con panel Saturday (July 25), which was focused on NASA's Artemis program that aims to put people on the moon in 2024, referring to going on a commercial suborbital flight in the future.

Shatner added, however, that the "O-ring problem" still keeps him worried about seeking astronaut wings for real. He was referring to the 1986 Challenger space shuttle explosion, which killed seven astronauts. Its numerous causes included a failure in a solid rocket booster seal, called an "O-ring."

NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren, who was also on the Comic-Con panel, reassured Shatner that NASA takes safety very seriously. "All of those mishaps greatly inform how we do business at NASA," he said. "We are always trying to improve ... so we take those accidents very seriously. We take the lessons that we learned very seriously, and apply those lessons to how we do business now and how we plan to do business in the future."

New Zealand Opens the First Maori Astronomy School

In an attempt to find the empirical reason behind every phenomenon and event, often the natural and indigenous ways and methods get overlooked. The first Maori astronomical school, which opened on Jul 13 in Bay of Plenty at Matata in New Zealand, shows how important it is to preserve and study indigenous scientific knowledge and techniques.

The school aims to train people in the role of traditional astronomers who lead their people by the messages from the stars.

In recent decades, the UN has underlined the importance of preserving ancient indigenous methods and philosophies. "This knowledge is integral to a cultural complex that also encompasses language, systems of classification, resource use practices, social interactions, ritual and spirituality," says UNESCO.

Similar to indigeous knowlede systems across the world, the Maoris have a wealth of astronomical knowledge which is important for many aspects of their lives, from growing food, to navigating, telling time and the change of seasons. With the arrival of Europeans, a lot of this knowledge was lost, or misinterpreted by Western colonisers as mythology or history. And the real science behind it was gradually lost as the elders who preserved it passed away.

Thanks to a worldwide movement to preserve and resurrect these knowledge streams, several such indigenous schools are gaining international traction.

A space race to Mars? Not quite - here's why.

With the successful launch of NASA's Mars 2020 Perseverance rover Thursday (July 30), three countries now have craft barreling towards the Red Planet.

So is this a Martian space race? Not exactly. But it is an exciting coincidence for planetary science.

The Perseverance rover's launch marks the third mission to blast off for Mars in the last two weeks. First, the United Arab Emirates launched its "Hope" orbiter to Mars atop a Japanese rocket on July 19. The orbiter that will arrive at Mars' orbit in February 2021.

Then, on July 23, China's Tianwen-1 mission launched, sending an orbiter, lander and rover to the Red Planet for their own February 2021 arrival. Finally, today's Perseverance mission lifted off on a mission to land in the massive Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021.

So, with three craft barreling through space towards the Red Planet, it might seem like the most literal definition of a "space race." But, according to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, this is not 

China "launched a rover to Mars as well," Bridenstine said Wednesday (July 29) during a news conference. "And certainly, we welcome more science. We welcome more discovery," he said of China. "We encourage them to share what they learn with the entire world, just as NASA shares what it learns with the entire world, so we look forward to them doing that."

"I hear people frame it as though it's a race. I want to be really clear on this," Bridenstine added. "This is our ninth time to land a robot on Mars. So we've already done this a few times."

Bridenstine emphasized that the U.S., China and UAE missions are launching and landing (or arriving in Hope's case) at similar times but are not "racing" to get there first.

So, why are so many missions launching in such a small window of time?

There is a short period of time every 26 months when Earth and Mars come close together. This window of opportunity allows for the quickest and most efficient journey from Earth to Mars. This window closes mid-August so, if these missions decided to wait, they would have to delay until the next window, which is in 2022.

This would not only delay the mission and its objectives, but it could end up being extremely expensive. For example, Bridenstine said, if NASA had to delay the Perseverance launch to 2022, they would "have to put this robot into storage," he said. And "it will cost the American taxpayers half a billion dollars."

In fact, there was a fourth mission originally scheduled to launch to Mars this month by yet another team of countries. The European Space Agency (ESA) and Russia's Roscosmos agency had hoped to launch the ExoMars rover Rosalind Franklin to Mars in July, but parachute design problems and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic delayed the flight. That mission will now launch in 2022, ESA and Roscosmos have said.

And Bridenstine noted that not only is Perseverance NASA's ninth mission designed to land on Mars, but the agency also has a number of other, groundbreaking missions underway, including the OSIRIS-REx mission to asteroid Bennu, the New Horizons probe in the Kuiper Belt and a quickly growing commercial crew program. In other words, they're not "competing" for space accomplishments.

Comet NEOWISE Finally Comes 'Down Under'

(1) Kevin Parker - Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) from Slade Point Queensland, 23rd July. 6 seconds and 10 x 6 seconds unguided with a 135mm lens at F2.5, Pentax K-5."
(1) Kevin Parker - Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) from Slade Point Queensland, 23rd July. 6 seconds and 10 x 6 seconds unguided with a 135mm lens at F2.5, Pentax K-5."
(2) Scott Van Der Linden - "C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) from Mackay in Qld, Australia, 6:48pm 23rd July. Got about an hour of viewing after sunset. Canon 7D, 13s F4, ISO1250."
(2) Scott Van Der Linden - "C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) from Mackay in Qld, Australia, 6:48pm 23rd July. Got about an hour of viewing after sunset. Canon 7D, 13s F4, ISO1250."

Well, we were grumpy before but it appears that Comet NEOWISE has finally graced our Aussie skies for those with clear enough views to the western horizon.

Comet NEOWISE got its name from its discoverer, the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, a NASA project (satellite) that is currently dedicated to finding and observing near-earth objects, as its name implies.

NEOWISE was first discovered on March 27th of this year, and it raced towards our sun, reaching its closest point to our nearest star on July 3rd. (It got closer to the sun than the planet Mercury's average distance!)

Many "new" comets self-destruct when they pass close to a star, however, NEOWISE, apparently ~5km across at its nucleus, was more than substantial enough to survive its close pass and became very bright and visible to the naked eye shortly after passing around the sun and heading back past Earth.

For the Southern Hemisphere: The comet is reportedly dimming and also competing against the Sun and the first quarter moon. Initial observations form Australia report that it's not quite naked eye. Hopefully this will improve as it moves away from the Sun, but at the very least it should be observed in binoculars or captured with even a modest lens and camera.

As you can see from the pictures, it's best observed in the direction of the sunset and off to the right, which should make it easy to find.

Check out these first shots from Queensland by Scott Van Der Linden and Kevin Parker and get excited!  Credit: BINTEL

Against NASA Wishes, The Apollo 11 Joysticks Just Sold At Auction For A Huge Sum

Apollo 11 memorabilia fetch hefty sums whenever they come up for auction,
Apollo 11 memorabilia fetch hefty sums whenever they come up for auction,

Going against NASA's wishes for the artifacts to be donated to a museum, a collector just sold three control joysticks used on the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon. Selling for over $780,000 (£615,700), the joysticks included the main pilot control stick used by the first man on the Moon, Neil Armstrong, in the command module.

The three joysticks were sold separately and included two rotational attitude controllers and a translation hand controller. One of the rotational attitude controllers used by Armstrong fetched the highest bid at $370,000.

In the official description from Julien's Auctions, the joysticks were dubbed "some of the most important pieces in space exploration history," and rightfully so - the Moon landing is the most well-known space mission ever undertaken.

Inside the Apollo 11 Flight command module, where the joysticks can be seen in the center of the image. The joysticks on display are replicas of the original. Credit: Smithsonian
Inside the Apollo 11 Flight command module, where the joysticks can be seen in the center of the image. The joysticks on display are replicas of the original. Credit: Smithsonian

According to Space.com, the joysticks were reportedly meant to be given to the three astronauts but were refused and put in a safe where they remained for many years.

"According to the former NASA employee who managed the safe, prior to his retirement in 1985, he asked his supervisor what to do with the controllers and was told to throw them out; however, he instead took the three controllers home," NASA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) wrote in an audit of NASA's historical property. "Years later, the former employee sold the controllers at auction to a collector of space memorabilia."

NASA has tried desperately over the last decade to prevent these items from falling into private collectors' hands. After the joysticks went up for auction in Boston back in 2013 alongside other Apollo 11 memorabilia, a NASA inquiry into the true ownership of the items prevented the sale. NASA requested that the items be donated to a museum, but have since given up.

Apollo 11 memorabilia fetch hefty sums whenever they come up for auction, with two 50th anniversary auctions last year selling various items for up to $5 million. Items for sale have included the flight timeline manual that was used by the astronauts during the mission and Neil Armstrong's gold medallion keepsake.

Tom Cruise's $200 Million Space Movie -Streamers in Favor of Theatrical Event 

The actor could earn a paycheck between $30 and $60 million for the upcoming space movie.
The actor could earn a paycheck between $30 and $60 million for the upcoming space movie.

In case anyone needs proof that Tom Cruise remains one of the biggest A-list movie stars in Hollywood, here comes word from Variety that Universal Pictures is circling the actor's buzzy space movie with a budget at $200 million. Sources close to production tell Variety the $200 million price point is an optimistic projection given the space travel involved and therefore the budget could be much higher. Cruise is also expected to receive a paycheck between $30 and $60 million, covering "his services as a producer and star and also significant first-dollar gross participation."

News broke May 4 that Cruise would be partnering with NASA and Elon Musk's aerospace manufacturing company SpaceX for a new project that would bring the actor to space and film aboard the International Space Station. Cruise's "Edge of Tomorrow" director Doug Liman is helming the project. The script for the film has yet to be written.

Variety confirms part of the film to be shot in space includes major action sequences, which has never been done before - space tourism itself having had a limited history to date. Additionally, Variety reports that "at least two of the major streaming platforms were not invited to bid on the project" because Cruise and Liman have "a strong preference to roll out the film as a splashy theatrical event with a traditional studio."

Spending $200 million or more on an original action property is almost unheard of these days in Hollywood. Christopher Nolan got that kind of budget for "Tenet," while the Russo Brothers are receiving the same budget for their upcoming Netflix movie "The Gray Man," starring Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans. At $200 million, "The Gray Man" will be the most expensive Netflix original film produced to date.

While spending $200 million is a risk for Universal, the movie comes with the built-in publicity of sending Cruise to space. As Variety noted, "Similar to the recent historic launch of SpaceX's Dragon crew vessel, the entire world will watch as Cruise is rocketed into space, forcing natural curiosity around the results." Pre-release buzz doesn't get more extreme then a media blitz centered around an actor rocketing into space.

NASA Administrator James Bridenstine said in May that inspiration is the key behind the project. "There was a day when I was in elementary school and I saw 'Top Gun,'" he said. "From that day, I knew I was going to be a Navy pilot. It's just the way it was. The goal here [is similar]. If we can get Tom Cruise to inspire an elementary kid to join the Navy and be a pilot, why can't we get Tom Cruise to inspire the next Elon Musk? That's what we need. We need a new generation of many Elon Musks. That's what we're doing with our launch [and the film]. It's all about the next generation."

Before Cruise heads to space, he'll finish production on the next two "Mission: Impossible" movies.

Why Japan is emerging as NASA's most important space partner

Conceptual art of JAXA's proposed lunar rover with Toyota. TOYOTA/JAXA
Conceptual art of JAXA's proposed lunar rover with Toyota. TOYOTA/JAXA

The first time the US went to the moon, it put down an estimated $283 billion to do it alone. That's not the case with Artemis, the new NASA program to send humans back. Although it's a US-led initiative, Artemis is meant to be a much more collaborative effort than Apollo. Japan is quickly emerging as one of the most important partners for this program-perhaps the most important.

Although NASA has teased for quite some time the idea of a pretty ambitious role for Japan in Artemis, that talk finally became real on July 9, when the two countries signed a formal agreement regarding further collaboration in human exploration. It gives NASA a much-needed partner for Artemis-without which the agency would find it much more difficult to meet the long-term goals of establishing a sustainable permanent presence on the moon.

The US-Japanese space relationship goes back a long time, says John Logsdon, a space policy expert at George Washington University: "Japan has been basically our best international partner over the last 40-plus years." It may have declined to work on the space shuttle program in the 1970s, but it reversed course in the early 1980s and signed on with the International Space Station program.

Since then, Japan's space capabilities have progressed rapidly. The country found a reliable launch vehicle in the H-IIA rocket, built by Mitsubishi, and JAXA, its space agency, has found success in a number of high-profile science missions, like HALCA (the first space-based mission for very long baseline interferometry, in which multiple telescopes are used simultaneously to study astronomical objects), Hayabusa (the first asteroid sample return mission), the lunar probe SELENE, IKAROS (the first successful demonstration of solar sail technology in interplanetary space), and Hayabusa2 (expected to return to Earth with samples from the asteroid Ryugu in December). Since 1990, 12 Japanese astronauts have been in space.

So the country has a spaceflight pedigree superior to that of most other American allies, and is more than capable of building and deploying the types of spaceflight technologies that could push a lunar exploration program forward (NASA, after all, is working on an Artemis budget that is much slimmer than Apollo's). In return, Japan gets to participate in a major human exploration program and likely send its own astronauts to the moon via NASA missions, without having to pay for and develop a lunar mission of its own.

What exactly will Japan do for Artemis? 

Specific details about the new agreement were not released, but we already know the country is sending a couple of science payloads on Artemis 1 (an uncrewed mission around the moon) and Artemis 2 (crewed, but only a flyby). Back in January, Yoshikazu Shoji, the director of international relations and research at JAXA, told the public that JAXA wanted to help in the development of Gateway, NASA's upcoming lunar space station that will facilitate deep space exploration. JAXA could contribute to the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) module, developing life support and power elements, said Shoji. It can also help in delivering cargo, supplies, and parts to Gateway as it's being built, through its upcoming HTV-X spaceflight vehicle (the successor to the current HTV that supports the ISS).

The biggest thing Japan might contribute, however, is a pressurized lunar rover that astronauts could use to cruise around the moon. Last week, Mark Kirasich, acting director of NASA's Advanced Exploration Systems, unveiled some of NASA's plans for Artemis, outlining specific proposals for the agency to work with JAXA and its commercial partner, Toyota, to build out this RV-like vehicle for astronauts to use in some of the later lunar missions. Japan's strong auto industry means the country already has expertise in developing technologies like this, Kirasich said. JAXA and Toyota would like to have this platform ready for launch by 2029.

It also gives the US a trusted ally that can act as a bulwark against another burgeoning space power in the region: China. According to Kaitlyn Johnson, an aerospace security expert at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, Japan can provide more regional stability that offsets China's influence, both in space and in related technology sectors like defense. While the civilian and defense sides of the US space program are almost completely split from one another, that's not so much the case in countries like Japan. "There's a lot of technological sharing between agencies within other countries," she says. It's likely that work on Artemis will fill some basic knowledge gaps in space defense for Japan too, such as how to identify a stalking satellite.

The relationship between the two countries in space, says Johnson, is similar to what we see for intelligence sharing among the Five Eyes nations (the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the UK). "That relationship has extended beyond intelligence into a lot of areas in national security, including space," she says. "We're seeing Japan get the similar trusted-ally treatment."

Defense benefits aside, space exploration is simply more achievable with partners, and Japan is just a natural fit. "Japan has been at the forefront of technological change for a long time," says Johnson. "If the world is really serious about exploring space and establishing a presence on other bodies like the moon, I do believe we have to go at those goals together, and share the burdens and resources together."

Right NOW's The Best Time To View Saturn!

Saturn, the ringed-wonder, imaged on 19 April 2020. The rings are still well open and tilted toward us by an angle of 21.6 degrees. The planet's north pole is on show. Image: Damian Peach/Chilescope team.
Saturn, the ringed-wonder, imaged on 19 April 2020. The rings are still well open and tilted toward us by an angle of 21.6 degrees. The planet's north pole is on show. Image: Damian Peach/Chilescope team.

The magnificent ringed planet Saturn, the jewel in the Solar System's crown, came to opposition on the night of 20/21 July. At around this time, the ringed wonder offers its best observing circumstances for 2020, as it's observable all night. Saturn comes to opposition about every 378 days, so opposition occurs about two weeks later every year.

If quizzed, most astronomers rate Saturn as the most alluring of all the planets through the eyepiece, as in our Solar System its' unique for hosting a marvellous system of rings that are easily seen through even a small telescope. When you see Saturn float into view through a high-powered eyepiece of a moderate- to large-aperture telescope, you'll swear nothing comes close to matching the thrill.

The ringed-wonder shines at magnitude +0.1, brighter than all of the stars currently visible in the sky apart from Arcturus, Vega and Capella. However, it will be overshadowed by the brilliance of Jupiter, its fellow gas giant planet nearby. If you can view Saturn's disc, you should notice it's not a perfect sphere but, like Jupiter, a distinctly flattened, or oblate, one.

Like Jupiter, Saturn does display dark belts and brighter zones. However, it lies twice as far away from the Sun as its fellow gas giant so it receives much less energy to enliven its atmosphere, resulting in a much more subtle effect. Today's startlingly good amateur images reveal their true extent, but all that's likely to be on show visually while Saturn lies at such a disappointing altitude is an equatorial belt and a dark polar hood.

When to look for it

The rest ofJuly, Saturn rises just as the Sun sets. Together with Jupiter, the unmistakable pair will be easy to see with the naked eye if you're looking out across an uninterrupted eastern horizon. Saturn is at opposition and seen close to Jupiter, low down among the stars of Sagittarius.

See Saturn's majestic rings

Saturn's overwhelming observational attraction is its stunning system of rings. From Earth, three distinct, major rings can be seen encircling Saturn's equator. The outer ring, Ring A, is divided about 20 per cent of the way in from its outer edge by the elusive 325-kilometre-wide Encke Gap, or Division. The middle ring, Ring B, is the broadest (width 25,500 km) and brightest ring and is separated from Ring A by the famous 3,000-kilometre-wide Cassini Division.

How to identify the features of Saturn's stunning rings.

A huge telescope isn't required to see the rings, as a small- to medium- sized telescope - say in the 70-150mm class - has sufficient power to give fine views, making this magical sight accessible to everyone. At this year's opposition, the resolving power of a 150mm (six-inch) telescope should be sufficient to see the Cassini Division, but a 250mm (ten-inch) 'scope may be required to bag the Encke Gap. Ring C is a notoriously difficult visual target at the best of times.

The ring's changing angle

The rings offer a changing aspect year on year. Over intervals of 13.75 and 15.75 years, alternately, the Earth passes through the plane of the rings and at such times when the rings are visible from Earth, they are presented very close to or precisely edge-on to our line of sight. The last time a so-called ring plane crossing occurred was in 2009 and the rings were last fully open (tilted by around 26 to 27 degrees towards us) not too long ago, in 2017.

The aspect of Saturn's rings is not set in stone. Year on year it's easy to follow their tilt as they open out and close up. In 2020, the rings and the planet's north pole are tilted towards us by 21.6 degrees (see image above). By 2022, the rings will have closed significantly on their way to an edge-on presentation by the ring plane crossing of 2025. After this, the rings will start to open out with the planet's south pole now on show. By 2028, the ring tilt will be at a similar degree to what it is now.

Since then the rings have been closing. Currently they, along with the planet's north pole, are titled towards us by a pretty healthy 21.6 degrees. The next ring plane crossing occurs in March 2025, but Saturn will then lie too close to the Sun to be visible.

Don't Panic, NASA Has Not Changed Your Star Sign

It's not unusual for people to panic over their star signs. But every few years or so, poor old NASA has to explain to the internet that no, they haven't suddenly changed your zodiac from Sagittarius to Scorpio - nor should this change who you are as a person.

Astronomers don't even have that power. Because astronomy and astrology are very different things and only one is considered the domain of scientists. To understand what the heck is going on we have to go back in time three thousand years to when the ancient Babylonians first invented the very concept of constellations.

Keen observers of the night, this ancient empire used the stars as a way to track time and explain themselves as people closely tied to the universe. Dividing the sky into a dozen equal parts to mimic their 12-month calendar, the Babylonians picked one constellation, or zodiac, to somewhat represent each slice.

As Earth orbits, the Sun passes through each zodiac, like the arm of a clock. But designating a slice of the sky to one constellation is difficult, and there's a bit of cross-over among dates. What's more, the Babylonians had identified 13 constellations in the zodiac, so one of them had to be left out to match the calendar. Opiuchus was unfortunately the loser.

All of this to say, while astrology is based on constellations, it's extremely arbitrary, especially since today, the sky has shifted because of a tilt in Earth's axis. In 2016, Space Place, an educational page for kids run by NASA, explained how outdated ancient zodiacs truly are.

"When the Babylonians first invented the 12 signs of zodiac, a birthday between about July 23 and August 22 meant being born under the constellation Leo," the blog reads. "Now, 3,000 years later, the sky has shifted because Earth's axis (North Pole) doesn't point in quite the same direction."

Adding in a thirteenth zodiac, astronomers then calculated new dates for our star signs:

Capricorn: Jan 20 - Feb 16

Aquarius: Feb 16 - March 11

Pisces: March 11 - April 18

Aries: April 18 - May 13

Taurus: May 13 - June 21

Gemini: June 21 - July 20

Cancer: July 20 - Aug 10

Leo: Aug 10 - Sept 16

Virgo: Sept 16 - Oct 30

Libra: Oct 30 - Nov 23

Scorpio: Nov 23 - Nov 29

Ophiuchus: Nov 29 - Dec 17

Sagittarius: Dec 17 - Jan 20

Of course, this wasn't suggesting any kind of official star sign change - it was just interesting math. But a lot of people take their zodiac signs seriously, and this was too much for some to handle. After this blog was published, rumours quickly started to spread that the US space agency had suddenly changed everyone's star signs.

Pretty much ever since, NASA has been trying to wash its hands of the matter, making it as clear as possible to the public that astrology doesn't concern astronomers. In fact, we already debunked the rumour way back in 2016.

Still, despite debunk after debunk, every few years, the rumours come circling around again, nearly as predictable as the constellations in our sky.

Astronomers Release The Largest Map Of The Universe In History!

After two decades of work, a giant team of astronomers unveiled their pièce de résistance: the most comprehensive map of the universe ever assembled.

The map spans back over 12 billion years into the history of the universe, CNET reports. To build it, astronomers relied on data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) and analyzed more than 4 million galaxies and quasars. And in doing so, they may help settle a major debate in the astronomy community over how fast the universe is growing.

Will Percival, a researcher from Canada's University of Waterloo who worked on the map, called the project "the complete story of the expansion of the universe" in an SDSS press release.

A key part of that story happened about six billion years ago, according to the project's data. The map suggests that right around that point in time, the rate at which the universe was expanding accelerated rapidly.

The rate of the universe's expansion, the Hubble Constant, is a touchy subject among astronomers: Theoretical calculations for the value have long disagreed with actual observations, puzzling experts. With this new map, the SDSS team believes they may have resolved that mismatch by determining that the universe actually sped up at a specific moment rather than expanding constantly.

"Only with maps like ours," University of Oxford researcher Eva-Maria Mueller said in the release, "can you actually say for sure that there is a mismatch in the Hubble Constant."

New type of supernova sends exploding star speeding across the Milky Way

Astronomers say they may have discovered a new type of supernova explosion, which sent a white dwarf star tearing across the galaxy at 560,000 miles per hour.

Scientists think a pair of stars underwent a partial supernova and survived, likely blasting themselves across the Milky Way in different directions in the process."It must have come from some kind of close binary system and it must have undergone thermonuclear ignition," Boris Gaensicke, physics professor at the University of Warwick, explained in a statement. "It would have been a type of supernova, but of a kind that that we haven't seen before."

Gaensicke is lead author of a paper on the discovery to be published Wednesday in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Finding evidence of a new type of supernova is already significant, but it also raises the possibility more stars might be ripping around on Thelma and Louise-style road trips. This would be a rarity among the billions of stars in the universe, most of which we presume are in motion but relatively stable like our sun.

The speeding star is designated SDSS J1240+6710 and was originally discovered in 2015. Scientists made additional observations with NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and measured the star's composition and speed to help reveal its explosive backstory.

"We are now discovering that there are different types of white dwarf that survive supernovae under different conditions, and using the compositions, masses and velocities that they have, we can figure out what type of supernova they have undergone," Gaensicke added. "There is clearly a whole zoo out there." 


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