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The five: space missions for 2021

The mirrors of the James Webb space telescope, due to launch in October, undergo cryogenic testing. Photograph: Alamy
The mirrors of the James Webb space telescope, due to launch in October, undergo cryogenic testing. Photograph: Alamy

James Webb space telescope

This Nasa telescope, which is to replace the Hubble, has been subject to many delays - its first planned launch was in 2007. A March 2020 takeoff was delayed due to Covid, while its initial $500m budget has spiralled to more than $10bn (£7.4bn). It is a more sensitive telescope than the Hubble and once operational it will be able to observe the formation of some of the first galaxies. It will be launched on a European Ariane 5 rocket on 31 October.

Mars missions

Three missions that have already launched will have a Martian encounter in 2021. On 9 February, the UAE's Hope probe should arrive and begin orbiting the planet in order to study its atmosphere and weather. A few days later, China's Tianwen-1 orbiter will arrive to look for a potential landing site before depositing a lander on the surface a couple of months later. Also in February, Nasa's Mars 2020 is due to join the party and release its Perseverance rover on 18 February, to search for signs of microbial life and drill for rocks that could be returned to Earth by a future mission.

Artemis 1

Last year, Nasa announced plans to take astronauts back to the moon in 2024. The first stage in this programme - to send an unmanned craft to orbit the moon - is due to launch in November. However, further delays are likely and the cost of the programme will be scrutinised by the incoming Biden administration.

Chinese space station

The first module of this long-planned project is due to be launched in the first half of the year. The construction should take around two years and 18 taikonauts have been selected to crew the craft once it is in orbit about 240 miles (380km) above Earth.

In July, Nasa will kick off its Double Asteroid Redirection Test. A probe will be fired into space with the aim of visiting the asteroid Didymos in 2022; it will then strike the asteroid's moonlet, Dimorphos. Two European craft will monitor the impact and its effect on the rock's orbit.

Dart mission

In July, Nasa will kick off its Double Asteroid Redirection Test. A probe will be fired into space with the aim of visiting the asteroid Didymos in 2022; it will then strike the asteroid's moonlet, Dimorphos. Two European craft will monitor the impact and its effect on the rock's orbit.

Cheers! French wine, vines headed home after year in space

The makers say future explorers to the moon and Mars will want to enjoy some of Earth's pleasures.
The makers say future explorers to the moon and Mars will want to enjoy some of Earth's pleasures.

The International Space Station bid adieu Tuesday to 12 bottles of French Bordeaux wine and hundreds of snippets of grapevines that spent a year orbiting the world in the name of science.

SpaceX's Dragon cargo capsule undocked with the wine and vines - and thousands of pounds of other gear and research, including mice - and aimed for a splashdown Wednesday night in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Tampa. The Atlantic had been targeted, but poor weather shifted the arrival to Florida's other side. SpaceX's supply ships previously parachuted into the Pacific.

The carefully packed wine - each bottle nestled inside a steel cylinder to prevent breakage - remained corked aboard the orbiting lab. Space Cargo Unlimited, a Luxembourg startup behind the experiments, wanted the wine to age for an entire year up there.

None of the bottles will be opened until the end of February. That's when the company will pop open a bottle or two for an out-of-this-world wine tasting in Bordeaux by some of France's top connoisseurs and experts. Months of chemical testing will follow. Researchers are eager to see how space altered the sedimentation and bubbles.

Agricultural science is the primary objective, stresses Nicolas Gaume, the company's CEO and co-founder, although he admits it will be fun to sample the wine. He'll be among the lucky few taking a sip. "Our goal is to tackle the solution of how we're going to have an agriculture tomorrow that is both organic and healthy and able to feed humanity, and we think space has the key," Gaume said from Bordeaux.

With climate change, Gaume said agricultural products like grapes will need to adapt to harsher conditions. Through a series of space experiments, Space Cargo Unlimited hopes to take what's learned by stressing the plants in weightlessness and turn that into more robust and resilient plants on Earth.

There's another benefit. Gaume expects future explorers to the moon and Mars will want to enjoy some of Earth's pleasures. "Being French, it's part of life to have some good food and good wine," he said. Private investors helped fund the experiments, its not revealed the project cost.

The wine hitched a ride to the space station in November 2019 aboard a Northrop Grumman supply ship. The 320 Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon vine snippets, called canes in the grape-growing business, were launched by SpaceX last March.

SpaceX is the only shipper capable of returning space station experiments and other items intact. The other cargo capsules are filled with trash and burn up when reentering Earth's atmosphere.

Blue Origin aims to fly first passengers into space as early as April

New Shepard lifts off on its 12th mission on Dec. 11, 2019.Blue Origin
New Shepard lifts off on its 12th mission on Dec. 11, 2019.Blue Origin

After years in development, Jeff Bezos' private space company Blue Origin aims to carry its first passengers on a ride to the edge of space in a few months. Blue Origin on Thursday completed the fourteenth test flight of its New Shepard rocket booster and capsule. Called NS-14, the successful test flight featured the debut of a new booster and an upgraded capsule.

Beyond the upgrades, CNBC has learned that NS-14 also marked one of the last remaining steps before Blue Origin flies its first crew to space. The flight was the first of two "stable configuration" test flights, people familiar with Blue Origin's plans told CNBC. Stable configuration means that the company plans to avoid making major changes between this flight and the next.

Additionally, those people said that Blue Origin aims to launch the second test flight within six weeks, or by late February, and the first crewed flight six weeks after that, or by early April.

This Startup Plans to Build a Space Hotel and Replace the International Space Station

An artist’s rendering of an AxStation. Axiom Space
An artist’s rendering of an AxStation. Axiom Space

The International Space Station is aging. According to one estimate, the ISS has only ten years left, at best, before it has to retire or undergo a major renovation in order to continue service. With monumental change now in sight, an entire industry has cropped up around providing the possibilities.

Future-minded space entrepreneurs are dreaming big to find a solution to this problem, floating creative proposals such as 3D-printing tools in space to do repair work, modifying dead rocket stages into space labs, and building a new space station from scratch.

The latest and most radical plan comes from a four-year-old startup called Axiom Space. Based in Houston, Texas, just a stone's throw from NASA's Johnson Space Center, the company was founded by NASA's former ISS manager Michael Suffredini (from 2005 to 2015). Its plan is to build a commercial space station on its own, with the first module to launch as soon as 2024.

To be sure, the initial versions of these space modules, dubbed "AxStation," won't be on the same scale as the ISS we have now. The one set to launch by 2024 will be a crew module attached to the existing ISS. Axiom plans to launch at least two similar modules-including a lab and a panoramic observatory-in the following year.

And after 2028, the year in which Suffredini expects the ISS to retire, those modules will detach from the ISS to form a free-flying space station. It will be able to support scientific research just as the ISS and double as a space hotel for deep-pocketed explorers who want to take a vacation from 250 miles above Earth. The ticket price is rumored at $55 million per person. And it's reported that Tom Cruise and director Doug Liman have reserved spots to shoot the first film in space inside an AxStation.

NASA and SpaceX will be involved in the process as well. Exactly a year ago, Axiom scored a $140 million "indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity" contract from NASA to attach one of its crew modules to a docking port on the ISS.

Late in 2021, Axiom will fly a crew of four private astronauts-including Michael López-Alegría, a former NASA astronaut who now works for Axiom, former Israeli fighter pilot Eytan Stibbe, and two yet-to-be-announced space tourists-in a SpaceX Dragon capsule for a short stay on the ISS. And when Axiom operates its own space hotel in the future, passengers can expect a full out-of-this-world experience in its designer-decorated vacation cabins.

Replacing the ISS with a commercial space station will be a huge money saver for NASA. NASA currently spends $3.5 billion every year to operate the ISS. "Not to mention what the other agencies are providing [to operate and maintain the ISS]," López-Alegría, now Axiom's head of business development, recently told Business Insider. "They'd like to spend some of that money on deeper-space exploration, with the Artemis program or whatever the next administration decides."

"Axiom's work to develop a commercial destination in space is a critical step for NASA to meet its long-term needs for astronaut training, scientific research, and technology demonstrations in low-Earth orbit," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement in January 2020. "We are transforming the way NASA works with industry to benefit the global economy and advance space exploration."

Astronomers Discover 10-Billion-Year-Old Multiplanet System

An artist’s rendition of the TOI-561 planetary system. Image credit: Adam Makarenko / W.M. Keck Observatory.
An artist’s rendition of the TOI-561 planetary system. Image credit: Adam Makarenko / W.M. Keck Observatory.

Astronomers using NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite and the High Resolution Echelle Spectrometer on the Keck I telescope at the W. M. Keck Observatory have discovered a system with three transiting exoplanets - including an ultra-short-period super Earth - around TOI-561, one of the oldest stars in our Milky Way Galaxy.

TOI-561 is a bright star located 280.5 light-years away in the constellation of Sextans. The star is approximately 10 billion years old, and has a mass and size about 80% that of the Sun. Otherwise known as TYC 243-1528-1, it belongs to a rare population of stars called the Galactic thick disk stars.

"Stars in this region are chemically distinct, with fewer heavy elements such as iron or magnesium that are associated with planet building," said University of Hawaii postdoctoral researcher Lauren Weiss and colleagues.

TOI-561 hosts at least three small transiting planets, named TOI-561b, c, and d, and is one of the oldest, most metal-poor planetary systems discovered yet in the Milky Way. The inner planet, TOI-561b, is a so-called super-Earth with an orbital period of only 0.44 days.

"For every day you're on Earth, this planet orbits its star twice," said co-author Dr. Stephen Kane, a planetary astrophysicist at the University of California, Riverside. "Part of the reason for the short orbit is the planet's proximity to its star, which also creates incredible heat."

"Its estimated average surface temperature is over 1,727 degrees Celsius (2,000 degrees Kelvin) - much too toasty to ost life as we know it today, though it may once have been possible." TOI-561b has a mass and a radius of 3.2 and 1.45 times that of the Earth, and a density of 5.5 g/cm3, consistent with a rocky composition.

"We calculated its density to be the same as our planet," Dr. Kane said. "This is surprising because you'd expect the density to be higher. This is consistent with the notion that the planet is extremely old." "TOI-561b is one of the oldest rocky planets yet discovered," Weiss said.

"Its existence shows that the Universe has been forming rocky planets almost since its inception 14 billion years ago." The two outer planets, TOI-561c and d, have masses of 7 and 3 times that of the Earth, radii of 2.9 and 2.3 Earth radii, respectively. They orbit their host star once every 10.8 and 16.3 days. "Thanks to the bright host star, this multiplanet system is amenable to atmospheric follow-up with space-based telescopes," the astronomers said.

"TOI-561b is expected to be a good eclipse target, while planets TOI-561c and d are promising targets for transmission spectroscopy." "Comparative atmospheric properties for the planets in this very metal-poor system would provide a unique test for planet formation scenarios."

What would Earth look like to alien astronomers?

This artist's concept depicts Kepler-186f, a potentially habitable planet discovered by NASA's Kepler Space Telescope.
This artist's concept depicts Kepler-186f, a potentially habitable planet discovered by NASA's Kepler Space Telescope.

So far, the researchers say they've identified five exoplanets that are near enough to Earth that extrasolar astronomers could theoretically see us. From those worlds, Earth would appear as a tiny blob of shadow passing in front of our Sun.

And although five exoplanets is just a tiny fraction of all the worlds out there, Pepper says their list might be a good starting point for researchers involved with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI. "This could be a target list for SETI searches," he says. "Any aliens on those planets would be uniquely positioned to know about the Earth."

From many light-years away, Earth wouldn't look all that impressive (barring some sort of futuristic telescope technology, of course). Anyone watching Earth as a transiting exoplanet wouldn't see our world as a verdant oasis suffused with blue, green, and tan, as we do in up-close satellite images. They'd simply see a lump of rock getting in the way of the Sun.

But astronomers still glean plenty of information by watching exactly how a planet dims its star. They can estimate how big the world is; how quickly it orbits its star; and even the planet's density, which tells them if it's a gas giant like Jupiter or a rocky planet like Earth. For example, we already know this information about the five planets that Pepper and Kaltenegger think might be able to see us - they're estimated to be super-Earths, larger than our planet but smaller than Uranus and Neptune.

As a planet passes in front of its star, astronomers also have a rare opportunity to peer into its atmosphere (if it has one). When a thin sliver of starlight passes through the world's gaseous envelope, it picks up information about what the atmosphere is made of.

"When it emerges, that light is imprinted with the molecular signature of the gases that were in the atmosphere," Pepper says. Using this information, astronomers are able to piece together the composition of exoplanet atmospheres. And while that's a difficult task, the tactic offers astronomers one of the best ways of looking for life in the universe. That's because the presence of oxygen, or other molecules unlikely to exist without biological life, would be a good sign of extraterrestrials on another world.

Earth, for example, would look pretty interesting to an alien astronomer parsing the detailed contents of our atmosphere. Relatively high levels of oxygen, methane, carbon dioxide, and other gases could serve as a strong hint that our planet teems with life. "As far as we know, [an] atmosphere like the Earth [has], there's really no way to mimic that without life," Pepper says.

An even stronger sign of extraterrestrial life could come from electromagnetic signals, like the radio waves that emanate from our telecommunications equipment. Those signals are what SETI is currently looking for elsewhere in the universe.

Those efforts have yielded a couple of candidate signals over the years - though nothing approaching convincing evidence. For example, earlier this month, press reports surfaced of an intriguing signal discovered by the Breakthrough Listen project, appearing to originate from the star Proxima Centauri. However, the researchers have carefully noted that although they can't explain the source of the signal yet, the most likely source is humanmade interference.

However, if extraterrestrials were to train an equivalent to the Green Bank Observatory on Earth, they'd see a planet abuzz with electromagnetic activity. It would be a fairly slam-dunk sign that our planet holds far more than mere rocks and water.

Another planet wouldn't need to see Earth pass in front of the Sun to pick up our electromagnetic radiation. But Pepper says their work focuses on those planets that are most likely to find Earth. And seeing us silhouetted in front of our star is one of the best ways to do that.

Whether we want another planet to find us, of course, is another question entirely.

Hubble Captures a Rare Metal Asteroid Worth 70,000 Times the Global Economy

The metallic rarity is valued at $10,000,000,000,000,000,000.
The metallic rarity is valued at $10,000,000,000,000,000,000.

Humans just got one more reason to journey to outer space. There's a rare asteroid the size of Massachusetts orbiting between Mars and Jupiter, and it's worth an estimated $10,000 quadrillion.

The rarity, known as 16 Psyche, was actually discovered back in 1852, but NASA's Hubble Telescope has finally given earth-dwellers a closer look. The new study, which was published this week in The Planetary Science Journal, indicates that asteroid's composition is key to its astronomical value.

To put this touted figure into perspective, when written out in full it boasts a line of zeros that could nearly stretch to the asteroid itself. That's $10,000,000,000,000,000,000. This makes Psyche 70,000 times more valuable than the global economy, worth about $142 trillion in 2019, or enough to buy and sell Jeff Bezos, whose net worth is just shy of $200 billion, about 50 million times. That's all thanks to some heavy metal.

Psyche, which spans 140 miles in diameter, appears to made entirely of iron and nickel. This metallic construction sets it apart from other asteroids that are usually comprised of rock or ice. "We've seen meteorites that are mostly metal, but Psyche could be unique in that it might be an asteroid that is totally made of iron and nickel," said Dr. Tracy Becker, a planetary scientist and author of the new paper, said in a statement.

So, how did the pricey asteroid come to be? According to Becker, it's possible that Psyche is the leftover core of a planet that never properly formed because it was hit by objects in our solar system and effectively lost its mantle and crust.

The asteroid is currently about 230 million miles from Earth in the Solar System's main asteroid belt, orbiting between Mars and Jupiter. And, unsurprisingly, NASA is planning to visit it again. In 2022, the administration plans to launch a Psyche spacecraft to further study the asteroid.

If they could just kindly bring the asteroid back, every person on the planet-all 7.5 billion of us-would get roughly $1.3 billion.

Japan developing wooden satellites to cut space junk

Wooden satellites would burn up without releasing harmful substances into the atmosphere or raining debris on the ground
Wooden satellites would burn up without releasing harmful substances into the atmosphere or raining debris on the ground

A Japanese company and Kyoto University have joined forces to develop what they hope will be the world's first satellites made out of wood by 2023. Sumitomo Forestry said it has started research on tree growth and the use of wood materials in space.

The partnership will begin experimenting with different types of wood in extreme environments on Earth. Space junk is becoming an increasing problem as more satellites are launched into the atmosphere. Wooden satellites would burn up without releasing harmful substances into the atmosphere or raining debris on the ground when they plunge back to Earth.

"We are very concerned with the fact that all the satellites which re-enter the Earth's atmosphere burn and create tiny alumina particles which will float in the upper atmosphere for many years," Takao Doi, a professor at Kyoto University and Japanese astronaut, told the BBC. "Eventually it will affect the environment of the Earth."

"The next stage will be developing the engineering model of the satellite, then we will manufacture the flight model," Professor Doi added. As an astronaut he visited the International Space Station in March 2008. During this mission, he became the first person to throw a boomerang in space that had been specifically designed for use in microgravity.

Sumitomo Forestry, part of the Sumitomo Group, which was founded more than 400 years ago, said it would work on developing wooden materials highly resistant to temperature changes and sunlight. The wood it is using is an "R&D secret" a spokesman for the company told the BBC.

Experts have warned of the increasing threat of space junk falling to Earth, as more spacecraft and satellites are launched. Satellites are increasingly being used for communication, television, navigation and weather forecasting. Space experts and researchers have been investigating different options to remove and reduce the space junk.

Space junk is becoming an increasing problem as more satellites are launched into the atmosphere.
Space junk is becoming an increasing problem as more satellites are launched into the atmosphere.

There are nearly 6,000 satellites circling Earth, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF). About 60% of them are defunct (space junk). Research firm Euroconsult estimates that 990 satellites will be launched every year this decade, which means that by 2028, there could be 15,000 satellites in orbit.

Elon Musk's SpaceX has already launched more than 900 Starlink satellites and has plans to deploy thousands more. Space junk travels at an incredibly fast speed of more than 22,300 mph, so can have cause considerable damage to any objects it hits. In 2006 a tiny piece of space junk collided with the International Space Station, taking a chip out of the heavily reinforced window.

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