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Why satellites are making astronomers furious

Plus, a SpaceX SNAFU |

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Dear readers,

Jeff is out this week, so I’m filling in. Don’t worry, there’s no risk that I’ll Wally Pipp him; I’m not even going to try. We’ll just jump straight into the non-essay part of the newsletter, which I’ll keep short, and Jeff will be back next week.

—Elijah Wolfson


IMAGE OF THE WEEK

As I’m writing this on Friday morning, astronauts Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency (ESA) and Andrew Morgan of NASA are spacewalking outside the International Space Station. It’s the second in a planned series of five spacewalks with the primary goal of making repairs to an instrument called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which is mounted on the outside the station. The AMS, a particle physics detector, is pretty cool in-and-of itself . But for us here at TIME, this particular spacewalk is especially exciting as Parmitano and Morgan have setup our virtual reality camera to record their spacewalk prep, the spacewalk itself, and their return back to the station. All in all, it’ll result in about six hours of footage that will be used in the VR project we’re working on with Felix & Paul Studios, called Space Explorers: The ISS Experience.

Here’s a photo of astronauts Jessica Meir (left) and Oleg Skripochka (right) prepping Morgan for his Nov. 22 spacewalk.

Nov. 22 spacewalk
NASA

And though haven’t gotten images back yet from the spacewalk itself, but I imagine it’ll look pretty similar to this photo of Morgan during the first spacewalk of this series, on Nov. 15. (The AMS is that thing on the bottom left of the photo, near Morgan’s right hand.)

ISS Spacewalk Nov. 15
NASA


WHAT WE’RE READING

Red Planet rocks will rock Earth

Science reports that a long-dreamed-about “Mars sample return” project is edging closer to fruition. NASA and the ESA have come up with a clear $7 billion plan to gather about half a kilogram (a little over a pound) of rocks from Mars, and bring them back to Earth for the sort of more nuanced study we can’t do on our neighboring planet. Sound easy? Think again: “It’s as complicated as sending humans to the Moon,” Brian Muirhead, lead MSR planner at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), told Science.

The most interesting moon in the world

Using data from the 2005-2017 Cassini mission, a team of scientists created a geologic map of the Saturnian moon Titan, and, man, it sounds awesome. “Titan has an atmosphere like Earth. It has wind, it has rain, it has mountains. It’s a really very interesting world, and one of the best places in the Solar System to look for life,” Rosaly Lopes, a JPL planetary scientist, told Nature. Titan doesn’t have water, but it is the only other known place in our star system that has bodies of liquid—in its case, liquid methane—on its surface.

Starship can’t enter skies

Not long ago, SpaceX accomplished a major advancement in its insane-sounding Starship project when its Starhopper craft successfully launched and settled safely back down on Earth. But earlier this week, Elon Musk’s company had some less-great news to report: a test version of Starship exploded during ground tests in Texas. SpaceX downplayed the SNAFU: “The purpose of today’s test was to pressurize systems to the max, so the outcome was not completely unexpected,” a company spokesperson told The Verge. “There were no injuries, nor is this a serious setback.”

Satellites not loved

In other SpaceX-related news, George Dvorsky at Gizmodo reports that astronomers are already getting frustrated by Musk’s Starlink satellite project. Clarae Martínez-Vázquez at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile tweeted that her team’s observations this week were compromised by a train of about 60 Starlink sats that entered into their observatory’s field of view. Cliff Johnson, a team member at Northwestern University’s Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics, echoed Martínez-Vázquez’s complaints. As Johnson told Gizmodo, at this point, it’s more “on the annoyance level rather than total disruption,” but SpaceX has plans to launch tens of thousands more of these satellites in the next half-decade.


CHART OF THE WEEK

SpaceX’s Starlink project feels inevitable, given the rapidly increasing rate of satellite launches over the past few years. The Union of Concerned Scientists has been tracking these launches, and the chart below shows the launch year of every satellite in the sky as of the end of 2018. Strangely enough, the total number of sats orbiting the Earth by the end of 2018 was…2,018.

Click here for a larger version of this chart.


THANKS FOR READING

TIME Space is (usually) written by Jeffrey Kluger, Editor at Large at TIME and the author of 10 books, including Apollo 13, Apollo 8 and two novels for young adults. Follow him at @jeffreykluger.

We welcome any feedback at space@time.com.

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Comments

Like!! Great article post.Really thank you! Really Cool.

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