Hello readers and happy Friday! This week we’ve got some great map and asteroid news, plus updates from the world’s major space agencies. James Webb has finally powered up all his instruments. And it looks like NASA’s Lucy spacecraft has nine lives! We’ll end with skywatching opportunities for the week, as five celestial bodies gracefully align.
Gaia Project Releases Largest, Most Detailed Sky Map Ever
After weeks of suspense, the European Space Agency’s Gaia project has released its gigantic new map of the sky. It is the largest, most complete and most detailed multidimensional map of the Milky Way Galaxy. already.
The 3D map is a rich set of data on nearly two billion stars and other objects in the Milky Way. During its investigation, the space telescope captured images of three million other galaxies. But it turns out that Gaia can also image quasars and AGNs. The space telescope can even detect “starquakes” – tiny disturbances on the surface of stars. Since Project Gaia scientists released this data for public use, expect more such revelations in the coming months.
Psyche finally shows her face
As Gaia mapped the Milky Way, a team of astronomers produced the most detailed map yet of the surface of a single asteroid: 16-Psyche. Scientists believe the asteroid may hold clues to how our planets came to be.
According to the report accompanying the map, 16-Psyche has a very varied surface of metal, sand and rock. This surface terrain suggests that the asteroid’s history could include impacts and eruptions. 16 Psyche is the namesake and destination of NASA’s Psyche mission, slated for launch later this year.
NASA adds a ninth asteroid to the Lucy mission
Asteroid enthusiasts might be delighted to learn that NASA has added a ninth asteroid to the route of the Lucy mission. Earlier this year, we reported that all was not well with the Lucy spacecraft. Part of his power network stubbornly refused to unfold. At the time, mission scientists suspected that a load-bearing cable had unwound, preventing the solar panels from opening. But it seems that the legendary ingenuity of NASA engineers has revealed itself once again. During several interventions by mission scientists, Lucy managed to deploy this second solar array to approximately 96%. Now, the solar panel provides about 90% of its ordered 18 kilowatts.
With so much power at its disposal, the mission’s scientists are confident that Lucy can accomplish her mission. In fact, the spacecraft is doing well enough that its science team sends it on a scenic detour. One of Lucy’s observation targets is a Trojan asteroid called Polymele. But it turns out that Polymele has a partner: the asteroid appears to have its own 5 km satellite. For now, Lucy’s science team has dubbed the new space rock “Shaun,” after Shaun the sheep from “Wallace and Gromit.” So, if all goes well, Lucy will visit Shaun in 2027.
The James Webb Space Telescope is finally online
Since June 15, all of Webb’s instruments have been powered up and taking their first images. And we don’t have long to wait before Webb is fully open for business. On July 12, NASA plans to release a “preliminary suite of observations” that illustrate Webb’s capabilities. Marcia Ricke, an astronomer at the University of Arizona who operates one of Webb’s four cameras, said in a post“These will show the beauty of Webb images and also give astronomers a real insight into the quality of data they will be receiving.”
After July 12, the James Webb Space Telescope can finally start doing full-time science. We don’t have a detailed schedule for next year yet, but the telescope is mostly complete. In the blog post, Ricke added, “Astronomers around the world are eagerly awaiting the first data from the most powerful space telescope ever built.”
NASA and ESA join forces to reach the Moon
NASA and ESA (the European Space Agency) are preparing to further strengthen their transatlantic ties. On Wednesday, NASA and ESA officials signed an agreement that NASA will provide a launch vehicle for the Lunar Pathfinder satellite. During a press conference, NASA confirmed that the exchange will take place through its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS). Poetically, ESA calls their concept for a future lunar communication and navigation/GPS network “Moonlight”.
The two agencies are already partners on the Artemis lunar program. Europe provides power and propulsion for NASA’s crewed Orion spacecraft, intended to move astronauts between Earth and the Moon. ESA will also contribute a refueling module and technology to NASA’s Gateway, a “mini-space station” destined for lunar orbit. The agencies are also in talks about a new, full-size cargo lander, to deliver supplies from lunar orbit to a future lunar base.
While Russian antagonism has pushed space agencies around the world toward shows of capitalist solidarity, Artemis continues to throw NASA’s gauntlet of “shake, rattle and roll” safety tests. The ship has a “wet dress» rehearsal on Saturday. During a recent Artemis safety testing briefing, Artemis spokeswoman Lisa Bates told ExtremeTech that the spacecraft’s design includes a sort of omni-box, black box containing a model for all other spacecraft ever commissioned by NASA. Talk about making a list and double checking it. If there is a physically possible mode of failure, the Artemis team is determined to find it. (So diligent; very cooperative. Lots of business. Space!)
And now my favorite part…
Sky Watchers Corner
June is strawberry season! This week’s spectacular full moon, the Strawberry Moon, seems like a tough act to follow. But there’s been a lovely and auspicious gathering of several naked-eye planets in the works for weeks now, and next week it will really steal the show. We haven’t seen planets line up like this in almost twenty years. Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn danced in and out of conjunction in the pre-dawn sky as this summer entered into full bloom. Now the moon is preparing to join them as they drag along the orbital plane.
In this case, it’s actually nice that the moon is in its waning crescent phase. The moonlight of a full moon could wash out the planets in the illuminating sky. However, a cooperative crescent moon will drift into alignment shortly before sunrise on June 23. It will fall between Venus and Mars. To capture this unusual alignment of five celestial bodies, look southeast, about 45 minutes before sunrise.
That’s all for now, my friends, but we’ll be back on Friday to tell you everything that happened this week in space.
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