Hello readers, and happy Friday! This week we have great news about maps and asteroids, along with updates from the world’s largest space agencies. James Webb has finally turned on all his instruments. And it looks like NASA’s Lucy spacecraft has nine lives! We close with skywatching opportunities for the week as five celestial bodies align gracefully.
Gaia Project Releases Largest, Most Detailed Sky Map Ever
After weeks of suspense, the European Space Agency’s Gaia project has released its massive new sky map. It is the largest, most complete and most detailed multidimensional map of the Milky Way ever†
The 3D map is a rich dataset of nearly two billion stars and other objects in the Milky Way. During its research, the space telescope took pictures of three million other galaxies. But it turns out that Gaia can also image quasars and AGNs. The space telescope can even detect “starquakes” – small perturbations on the surface of stars. Since the scientists of the Gaia project released this data for public use, more such disclosures can be expected in the coming months.
Psyche finally shows his face
As Gaia mapped the Milky Way, a team of astronomers created 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 formed.
According to the report accompanying the card, 16-Psyche has a very varied surface of metal, sand and stone. 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, which launches later this year.
NASA Adds Ninth Asteroid to Lucy Mission
Asteroid enthusiasts may be happy to hear that NASA has added a ninth asteroid to the Lucy mission’s itinerary. Earlier this year, we reported that the Lucy spacecraft was not doing well. Part of his power array stubbornly refused to deploy. At the time, mission scientists suspected that a load-bearing cable had come loose, preventing the solar panels from opening. But it seems that the legendary ingenuity of NASA engineers has broken through again. Over the course of several interventions by mission scientists, Lucy has managed to unfold that second solar panel by about 96%. Now the solar panel delivers about 90% of the prescribed 18 kilowatts.
With so much power at her disposal, mission scientists are: confident that Lucy can complete her mission. In fact, the spacecraft is doing well enough that the science team is sending 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. At this point, Lucy’s science team has named the new space rock “Shaun”, after Shaun the sheep from “Wallace and Gromit”. So if all goes well, Lucy Shaun will be visiting in 2027.
James Webb Space Telescope finally comes online
From June 15, all of Webb’s instruments will be switched on and they will make their first images. And we won’t have long to wait for Webb to be fully open for business. On July 12, NASA plans to release a “series of tease observations” illustrating Webb’s capabilities. Marcia Ricke, an astronomer at the University of Arizona who operates one of Webb’s four cameras, said: in a message“These will show the beauty of Webb images and also give astronomers a real taste of the quality of the data they will receive.”
After July 12, the James Webb Space Telescope can finally begin science full-time. We don’t have a detailed schedule for next year yet, but the telescope is well booked for the whole thing. 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 moving 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. In 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 communications and navigation/GPS network ‘Moonlight’.
The two agencies are already partners in the Artemis lunar program. Europa provides power and propulsion for NASA’s manned Orion spacecraft, intended to move astronauts between Earth and the moon. ESA will also contribute module and tank technology to NASA’s Gateway, a “mini space station” destined for orbit around the moon. The agencies are also in talks about a large new cargo lander, to get supplies from lunar orbit to a future lunar base.
While Russian antagonism has propelled the world’s space agencies into displays of capitalist solidarity, Artemis continues to run NASA’s gauntlet of “shake, rattle, and roll” safety tests. The ship has a “wet dressrehearsal on Saturday. In a recent briefing on Artemis’ safety testing, Artemis spokesperson Lisa Bates explained to ExtremeTech that the spacecraft’s design includes a sort of omni-box, a black box containing a model for every other spacecraft NASA has ever deployed. Talk about making a list and checking it twice. If there’s a malfunction mode that’s physically possible, the Artemis team is determined to find it. (So diligent; very cooperative. Lots of business. Space!)
And now my favorite part…
June is strawberry season! This week’s spectacular full moon, the Strawberry Moon, seems like a tricky task to follow. But there’s been a beautiful and promising gathering of different naked-eye planets building for weeks, and next week it’s really going to steal the spotlight. We haven’t seen planets align like this in nearly twenty years. Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn danced in and out of conjunction in the sky before sunrise when this summer came into full bloom. Now the moon is preparing to join them as they drag along the orbital plane.
In this case, it is nice that the moon is in the waning crescent phase. Moonlight from a full moon could wash away the planets in the glowing sky. However, a cooperating crescent moon will align shortly before sunrise on June 23. He will fall between Venus and Mars. To see 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 all about what happened in space this week.
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