This Week in Space: We Can Still Have Fun Things – ExtremeTech

Good morning, dear reader, and welcome to your Friday roundup of the best stories and images from This Week in Space. This week it’s all the good news† The James Webb Space Telescope is fully aligned and sailing through the commissioning phase. And the JWST isn’t the only thing aligned in a very favorable way. Read on for details on how to observe a total lunar eclipse of the full moon on Sunday evening – during an unusual and beautiful alignment of four planets.

James Webb Space Telescope takes the side wheels off

Since launching in 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has disabled every lens NASA has set up for it. It is fully deployed, fully aligned and patrolling the Sun-Earth L2 point at the mission set temperature of 6K. Now NASA has the first beautiful, crystal clear images from Webb† They compare what Webb and other space telescopes each see when they look at the same spot in the sky. And the difference is astonishing. Webb’s clear vision makes Spitzer look decidedly 8-bit. Here’s an example of the difference between what Spitzer saw and what Webb sees now:

This close-up of the Large Magellanic Cloud is one of Webb's first images.

Here we see a close-up of the Large Magellanic Cloud, our neighbor. The image blossoms to sparkling clarity as it changes from what Spitzer saw to what Webb sees. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech (Spitzer), NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI (Webb).

In a press conference Monday, JWST project scientists briefed the public on the milestones of the telescope’s mission so far. The shiny new telescope is in the final stages of “commissioning” and is calibrating and testing its instruments as if it were spreading its wings for the first time. And the metaphor works; Last week, Webb unfolded his delicate five-layer sunscreen for a on the spot stress test. In a careful series of pivotal maneuvers, the mission engineers turned the telescope into position, exposing the shield’s sunward surfaces to extreme temperatures. Now it’s time to bring the telescope’s four scientific instruments into collective harmony. Once the Webb team approves the extensive 17-position test phase, the James Webb Space Telescope will be ready for its scientific debut.

First direct images of Sagittarius A*

Speaking of scientific debuts, Thursday was a red letter day. Scientists at the Event Horizon Telescope have discovered the first direct proof of Sagittarius A* (abbreviated Sgr A*, pronounced “sadge-ay-star”), the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy. The show’s headliner was this image of Sgr A*, shrouded in the glowing remains of two itinerant stars he is devouring:

The accretion rate of the black hole is uneven. The glowing streaks of stardust falling into Sgr A* move at nearly the speed of light, in an orbit that takes just minutes to complete. This, combined with the long exposure times required by the EHT, may explain the fact that we see blurry streaks of light rather than an even, symmetrical halo.

The EHT triangulates multiple radio arrays around the world to create one giant radio telescope the size of Earth. Eight observatories participated in this groundbreaking research, including ALMA and APEX, long-wave radio telescope arrays located at the European Southern Observatory, in the serene and quiet heights of the Atacama Desert. In this breathtaking fly-through video, the ESO starts at ALMA and zooms all the way to Sgr A*. Warning: they do a bit of a barrel roll.

When the EHT partnership announced it was launching the… first images of Sagittarius A*, they have made all their data open source on site. That’s right — the earth-shattering thud you heard around 9:15 a.m. EDT was the EHT partnership dropping petabytes of priceless data. Michael Janssen, of the EHT collaboration, explained that the data the team used to create these images is “completely public, on multiple levels.” Janssen added that the EHT collaboration released their raw data, along with their algorithms and their sanitized dataset, “so everyone can reproduce what we’ve done, from scratch.”

Yet they persisted

NASAs Perseverance rover has been exploring Mars for a year and it has been a resounding success in almost every way. This rockstar rover is packed with advanced instruments that can teach us about the geology of other planets, and even help uncover evidence of ancient life on the Red Planet. Still, Ingenuity has stolen the spotlight. The Mars smol-icopter started out as a mere technology demo, practically a stowaway for the road. But ever since it arrived, Ingenuity has absolutely crushed all expectations.

NASA extended Ingenuity’s mission because of its outstanding performance. But the space helicopter has some problems† After a recent power problem, NASA the rover’s mission suspended in hopes of saving the helicopter† Their Hail Mary worked, but winter is coming. Hopefully this isn’t the end for the history-making helicopter.

In this image of Jezero Crater, we see the surface of Mars as Perseverance sees it. These images have been color corrected using a calibration palette on the Perseverance chassis. The orange string in the center left is the lander’s parachute. The Three Forks River Delta rises in the background. Three Forks is Perseverance’s ultimate scientific target. Image: NASA/JPL

Perseverance is based on the Curiosity chassis, which we know from experience can survive years of bitter Martian winters. But Ingenuity consists of out-of-the-box hardware, such as a Snapdragon 801 smartphone processor and conventional Li-ion batteries. We don’t know how well it will perform this winter, but we’re about to learn on the fly. Mission engineers have disabled Ingenuity for the winter months. The helicopter wakes up in the spring of Mars, once the temperature rises to -40C (also -40F).

Skywatchers Corner

Last week we teased a total eclipse of the full moon on the night of May 15, which will be visible from most of North America. Now it’s time to clean up the lawn chairs, blankets and car hoods. This eclipse will be long – the total phase will last almost an hour and a half.

The show begins at approximately 10:30 PM EDT (9:30 AM Central), when the leading edge of the eclipse first becomes visible on the East Coast. The total eclipse begins at 11:30 PM EDT. Viewers in the eastern and central time zones should be able to see the eclipse from end to end. West coast skywatchers should still be able to catch the total phase, which starts around 8:30 p.m. Western time. Watch the NASA livestream here:

This solar eclipse is a follow-up to the partial eclipse of April 30. Because of the orbital dynamics between the Earth, Moon and Sun, Chicago’s Adler Planetarium explains“Eclipses don’t happen very often. When they do, they come in pairs about two weeks apart.”

If you’re still awake after the solar eclipse ends in the wee hours of May 16, look east before dawn to observe Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are roughly aligned along the ecliptic† Mars and Jupiter will be just a few degrees apart, reaching conjunction at the end of the month. #to look up

That’s all for this week. Tune in to our space news feed this Friday, same bat time, same bat channel.

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