samedi 1 avril 2023

A Failure to Launch Appears to Sink Virgin Orbit


Virgin Orbit logo.

April 1, 2023

(This article is unfortunately not an April Fool's Day joke)

Richard Branson’s satellite launch company, which hasn’t recovered since a January mishap in Britain, has laid off nearly all its employees.

The failure in January of what was to be the first launch of a satellite from Britain was a mighty disappointment for a fledgling British space program. Now, it seems like the botched flight may lead to the demise of Virgin Orbit, the launch company.

In a U.S. securities filing on Thursday, the California company, part of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, said it was laying off 675 employees, or about 85 percent of its work force. Virgin Orbit said it was acting because of “inability to secure meaningful funding.”

Launch of LauncherOne rocket (Illustration). Image Credit: Virgin Orbit

Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit’s chief executive, had been scrambling to find additional money since the company’s rocket failed to reach orbit after its launch from Cornwall, England.  A spokeswoman for the company declined to comment beyond the filing.

Virgin Group has apparently decided against further major funding of the company, although it is covering most severance payments. Some Virgin Orbit employees may find jobs at Virgin Galactic, Mr. Branson’s other space company.

The company’s stock, whose value has largely evaporated in recent months, plummeted 40 percent on Friday.

Virgin Orbit’s woes may raise doubts about the company’s unusual method of putting satellites in orbit. The company used a converted Boeing 747 aircraft that would carry aloft a satellite-packed rocket under its wing. Once airborne, the rocket would detach and fire its engine, climbing upward into orbit before releasing the satellites.

This launch format had the advantage of being more flexible and cheaper than vertical rocket launchers because it could operate from airstrips around the world. For that reason, it is likely to remain of interest to governments including the United States, some analysts say.

“I can’t believe the whole idea of horizontal launch will go away,” said John Beckner, chief executive of Horizon Technologies, a Reading, England, company that lost a satellite in January’s launch.

Still, the method so far has failed to establish itself as reliable. Virgin Orbit’s underwing rocket also had less capacity than more conventional systems like Elon Musk’s SpaceX. It was always likely to be more of a niche product than those of competitors.

Virgin Orbit's "Cosmic Girl" Boeing 747 during a test flight. Image Credit: Virgin Orbit

Virgin Orbit’s woes leave a hole in Britain’s ambitions to be a space power. Britain has a robust satellite-manufacturing industry that has felt hampered by the lack of a launching site at home.

The company’s troubles also may be a hard blow for the fledgling space industry taking shape around Virgin Orbit’s launch site in Cornwall, in southwest England. Investments of 21 million pounds (about $26 million) had been made at the Newquay airport so that satellites could be loaded onto rockets there. But there are other sites under development in Britain for launching satellites.

The January launch was a high-profile event in Britain that was enthusiastically supported by the country’s space community. Britain’s satellite builders were delighted that they would no longer need to go to New Zealand or Kazakhstan to launch their vehicles.

The 747 took off successfully, but after the 70-foot rocket was launched and climbed higher, the second-stage engine suffered an “anomaly” about 110 miles above the earth and failed to reach orbit. The nine satellites on board were lost, a blow to their owners. An investigation has been underway. Virgin Orbit has not issued a full disclosure of the causes of the crash, although a malfunctioning fuel filter appears to have played a key role.

Virgin Orbit’s previous launches had been from the Mojave Desert in California, and four out of five had been successful. But the failed launch in Cornwall wound up being disastrous for the company. Along with being a poor advertisement for prospective future customers and funders, the launch crew, normally based in California, spent far longer than they anticipated in Britain, burning up slim financial resources.

Related articles:

Virgin Orbit Update on UK Mission Anomaly

Virgin Orbit - Failure of a historic space mission

Virgin Orbit - LauncherOne launches “Start Me Up”

Related link:

Virgin Orbit:

Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: Virgin Orbit/The New York Times/By Stanley Reed.


vendredi 31 mars 2023

UAE Mars orbiter creates stunning new map of the Red Planet


Emirates Mars Mission (EMM) - Hope probe patch.

March 31, 2023

The map reveals stunning geological features on Mars in three dimensions.

A new map of Mars shows the Red Planet in stunning detail, revealing a wealth of fascinating geological features as seen from orbit.

Image above:  The United Arab Emirates' Hope mission orbits Mars on a elliptical orbit that provides the spacecraft with unique views. Image Credit: NYU Abu Dhabi.

The high-resolution map could help scientists answer a number of pressing questions about Mars including how it came to be a dry, arid, and barren landscape despite once being abundant with liquid water.

The Martian map was created by a team of scientists led by New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Center for Space Science (opens in new tab). The researchers used data collected from orbit around Mars by the Emirates Mars Mission (EMM), also known as Hope or Al-Amal.

The map shows the Red Planet through the eyes of Hope's state-of-the-art onboard imaging system, the Emirates Exploration Imager (EXI), and is a testament to the growing influence of the UAE in science. In a statement, NYUAD wrote (opens in new tab) that it hopes the new Mars map will motivate young people in the UAE to pursue careers in STEM disciplines.

"We plan to make our map available to the entire planet, as part of the new and more advanced Atlas of Mars, which we have been working on, and will be available in both English and Arabic once published," NYU Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) group leader and research scientist Dimitra Atri said in the statement. "The hope is that this accessibility will make it a great tool for researchers, and also students to learn more about Mars, and showcase the possibilities that the space sector in the UAE can offer."

To create the map, Atri and the team took over 3,000 observations from EXI taken over one Mars year,a period equivalent to two years here on Earth, and stitched them together to build a color composite. The resultant map shows many of the major geological features of the Red Planet in high resolution. 

Mars: As seen with the Hope probe

The map reveals polar ice caps, mountains, and long inactive volcanoes, as well as remnants of ancient rivers, lakes, and valleys that around 3.5 billion years ago overflowed with liquid water. As such, the map could help planetary scientists better understand how the climate of Mars has changed over billions of years resulting in the dry and barren world we observe today.

"The complete Mars map also brings the UAE and the Arab world another step closer to achieving EMM's ambitious mission goal to provide a complete global picture of the Martian climate," Atri added. "More than 30 previous spacecraft have only managed to capture a snapshot of the Mars weather, whilst EMM will follow the seasonal changes throughout a Martian year."

By allowing scientists to study the distribution of impact craters across the planet's arid surface, the map also reveals the history of early asteroid bombardment of Mars. As such the composite of EXI images could also help researchers better understand the conditions in the tumultuous early solar system when space rock impacts were far more common than today.

Emirates Mars Mission (EMM) - Hope probe. Image Credit: NYUAD

The Hope orbiter is the first interplanetary mission from the UAE and from the Arab world as a whole. Commissioned by UAE leaders in 2014, the spacecraft was launched from Japan on July 20, 2020. After a journey of around seven months, Hope reached orbit around Mars on February 9, 2021.

"The Hope probe is helping researchers to create this global image of the planet due to its strategic position," Atri said. "Hope circles Mars in an elliptical orbit that allows it to observe from much further away than any other spacecraft. This strategic position is helping researchers to create a global image of the planet."

Related links:

NYUAD statement:

Center for Space Science - NYU Abu Dhabi (NYUAD):

Emirates Mars Mission (EMM):

Images (mentioned), Video, Text, Credits: Center for Space Science - NYU Abu Dhabi/ Robert Lea.

Best regards,

CASC - Long March-4C launches Yaogan-34-04


CASC - Long March-4C / Yaogan-34-04 (遥感三十四号04星) patch.

March 31, 2023

Long March-4C carrying Yaogan-34-04 liftoff

A Long March-4C launch vehicle launched the fourth Yaogan-34 remote-sensing satellite from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, Gansu Province, China, on 31 March 2023, at 06:27 UTC (14:27 local time). 

Long March-4C launches Yaogan-34-04

According to official sources, the remote sensing satellite Yaogan-34-04 (遥感三十四号04星) entered its predetermined orbit and “will be used in areas such as land resources survey, urban planning, crop yield estimation, and disaster prevention and mitigation”.

For more information about China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), visit:
Image, Video, Text, Credits: China Central Television (CCTV)/China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC)/SciNews/ Aerospace/Roland Berga.


Cardiac Study, Robotics Work, and Light Duty Day for Astronauts


ISS - Expedition 69 Mission patch.

March 31, 2023

Heart research and robotics were the top objectives for the Expedition 69 crew aboard the International Space Station on Friday. Cargo work and lab maintenance also kept the orbital residents busy despite a light-duty day for some of the crew members.

One of the orbiting lab’s newest experiments is looking at how microgravity affects cardiac cells and the drugs that may protect astronaut health. Flight Engineers Frank Rubio of NASA and Sultan Alneyadi of UAE (United Arab Emirates) took turns on Friday servicing heart cell and tissue samples for the Cardinal Health 2.0 study recently delivered aboard the newest SpaceX Dragon cargo mission. Results could help identify and prevent the cardiovascular risks of living in space as well as treat heart ailments on Earth.

Image above: The SpaceX Dragon resupply ship approaches the station above the Indian Ocean near Madagascar on March 16, 2023. Image Credit: NASA.

The duo also continued unpacking some of the 6,200 pounds cargo the Dragon resupply ship delivered to the crew on April 16. In the midst of the science and cargo work, Rubio and Alneyadi also managed to relax for half-a-day on the orbiting lab.

NASA Flight Engineers Stephen Bowen and Woody Hoburg had the day off at the end of the week following a busy week of science activities. However, Bowen did spend a few moments after lunchtime reviewing procedures and gathering hardware for the Foam and Emulsions physics study that may benefit commercial Earth-bound and space industries.

Image above: The Prichal docking module is attached to the Nauka multipurpose laboratory module, both recent additions to the International Space Station from Roscosmos, in this photograph from the orbiting lab as it soared 266 miles above a cloudy southern Indian Ocean. Image Credit: NASA.

The European robotic arm saw action on Friday as Roscosmos Flight Engineer Andrey Fedyaev trained on and tested its operations while attached to the Nauka multipurpose laboratory module. Flight Engineer Dmitri Petelin worked throughout Friday on life support maintenance tasks. At the end of the day he spent a few moments studying how international crews and mission controllers from around the world can communicate better with each other. Commander Sergey Prokopyev spent his day working on batteries, ventilation gear, and orbital plumbing components.

Related links:

Expedition 69:

Cardinal Health 2.0:

Foam and Emulsions:

Nauka multipurpose laboratory module:

Space Station Research and Technology:

International Space Station (ISS):

Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Mark Garcia.

Best regards,

Hubble Views an Intriguing Active Galaxy


NASA / ESA - Hubble Space Telescope (HST) patch.

March 31, 2023

This luminous image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows Z 229-15, a celestial object that lies about 390 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Lyra. Z 229-15 is one of those interesting celestial objects defined as several different things: sometimes as an active galactic nucleus (an AGN); sometimes as a quasar; and sometimes as a Seyfert galaxy. Which of these is Z 229-15 really? The answer is that it is all these things all at once, because these three definitions have significant overlap.

An AGN is a small region at the heart of certain galaxies (called active galaxies) that is far brighter than just the galaxy’s stars would be. The extra luminosity is due to the presence of a supermassive black hole at the galaxy’s core. Material sucked into a black hole doesn’t fall directly into it, but instead is drawn into a swirling disk, from where it is inexorably tugged towards the black hole. This disk of matter gets so hot that it releases a large amount of energy across the electromagnetic spectrum, and that’s what makes AGNs appear so bright.

Quasars are a particular type of AGN; they are typically both extremely bright and extremely distant from Earth – several hundred million light-years is considered nearby for a quasar, making Z 229-15 positively local. Often an AGN is so bright that the rest of the galaxy cannot be seen, but Seyfert galaxies are active galaxies that host very bright AGNs (quasars) while the rest of the galaxy is still observable. So Z 229-15 is a Seyfert galaxy that contains a quasar, and that, by definition, hosts an AGN. Classification in astronomy can be a challenge!

Hubble Space Telescope (HST)

For more information about Hubble, visit:

Text Credits: European Space Agency (ESA)/NASA/Andrea Gianopoulos/Image, Animation Credits: ESA/Hubble & NASA, A. Barth, R. Mushotzky.


Space Station Science Highlights: Week of March 27, 2023


ISS - Expedition 69 Mission patch.

March 31, 2023

Crew members aboard the International Space Station conducted scientific investigations during the week of March 27 that included studying how cardiovascular and respiratory adaptations to space affect blood pressure regulation, analyzing fluid flow through membranes in microgravity, and evaluating in-space bioprinting of knee cartilage tissue.

Image above: A storm brews in the South Pacific as the International Space Station orbits 230 miles above. Image Credit: NASA.

Here are details on some of the microgravity investigations currently taking place aboard the orbiting lab:

Under Pressure

Changes that astronauts experience in their cardiovascular and respiratory systems during spaceflight can affect their ability to maintain adequate blood pressure when standing after return to Earth. CARDIOBREATH, an investigation from CSA (Canadian Space Agency), studies how cardiovascular and respiratory adaptations to spaceflight affect blood pressure regulation. Results could provide a better understanding of the mechanisms of these adaptations and support development of ways to assess cardiovascular and respiratory effects on blood pressure before and after spaceflight. These changes parallel many associated with aging and this research could contribute to better health care and improved quality of life for the elderly on Earth. During the week, crew members wore the bio-monitor during multiple exercise sessions for the investigation.

Making Medicines in Microgravity

Animation above: NASA astronaut Warren “Woody” Hoburg works on Ampli Space Pharmacy, an investigation sponsored by the ISS National Lab that studies the chemical reactions of fluids flowing through membranes in microgravity. Results could support development of a platform for producing pharmaceuticals in space. Animation Credit: NASA.

Ampli Space Pharmacy, sponsored by the ISS National Lab, studies the chemical reactions of fluids flowing through membranes in microgravity. Results could lead to a better understanding of how microgravity affects this fluid flow and could support development of a lightweight, passive, modular platform for producing pharmaceuticals. Crews could use such a platform to create medications on future space missions, freeing up cargo space used to store a supply of drugs that the crew may never use. Such a tool also could provide medicines to those in isolated or underdeveloped areas on Earth. Crew members performed sample operations for the investigation during the week.

Custom Cartilage Capabilities

Image above: NASA astronaut Warren “Woody” Hoburg works on BFF-Meniscus-2, an investigation that evaluates using the station’s BioFabrication Facility (BFF) to 3D print a meniscus, or knee cartilage tissue. Image Credit: NASA.

BFF-Meniscus-2 evaluates using the station’s BioFabrication Facility (BFF) to 3D print a meniscus-like construct, similar to knee cartilage tissue, and assess its mechanical properties compared to one bioprinted on Earth. Musculoskeletal injuries, including tears in the meniscus, are a leading health issue in the U.S. military, and the capability to bioprint tissue such as knee cartilage also could benefit crew members who experience musculoskeletal injuries on future missions. Demonstration of further capabilities for tissue fabrication in space also supports continued and expanded commercial use of the space station as a facility for tissues and organs that are needed for transplant on the ground. The investigation is sponsored by the ISS National Lab. During the week, crew members inserted tissue cassettes for printing operations.

Other Investigations Involving the Crew:

- Vascular Aging, an investigation from CSA, monitors changes to the arteries of astronauts during spaceflight. Results could help assess risk to astronaut health and point to mechanisms for reducing that risk and provide insight into prevention and treatment for the aging population on Earth.

- Engineered Heart Tissues-2, sponsored by the ISS National Lab, assesses human cardiac function in microgravity and tests new therapies to prevent potentially harmful changes that can occur during spaceflight. Results could help protect crew members on future missions and support diagnosis and treatment of cardiac dysfunction on Earth.

- Rhodium DARPA Biomanufacturing 01 sponsored by the ISS National Lab, examines gravity’s effect on production of drugs and nutrients from bacteria and yeast. Results could help improve biomanufacturing in space to supply future missions.

- Cardinal Heart 2.0, sponsored by the ISS National Lab, tests drugs to reduce changes in heart cell function in space. Results could support development of effective drug combinations to improve the health of astronauts and patients on Earth.

Image above: Sample exchange for Foam Coarsening, an investigation from ESA (European Space Agency) that investigates bubble size and arrangement dynamics for wet foams. Image Credit: NASA.

- Foam Coarsening, an investigation from ESA (European Space Agency), investigates bubble size and arrangement dynamics for wet foams, which have potential applications such as firefighting and water cleaning systems in space and in industry on the ground.

- ISS Ham Radio provides students, teachers, and others the opportunity to communicate with astronauts using amateur radio units. Before a scheduled call, students learn about the station, radio waves, and other topics, and prepare a list of questions based on the topics they have researched.

Space to Ground: Setting the Stage: March 31, 2023

The space station, a robust microgravity laboratory with a multitude of specialized research facilities and tools, has supported many scientific breakthroughs from investigations spanning every major scientific discipline. The ISS Benefits for Humanity 2022 publication details the expanding universe of results realized from more than 20 years of experiments conducted on the station.

The ISS Benefits for Humanity 2022:

Related links:

Expedition 69:


Ampli Space Pharmacy:

BioFabrication Facility (BFF):


ISS National Lab:

Spot the Station:

Space Station Research and Technology:

International Space Station (ISS):

Images (mentioned), Animation (mentioned), Video (NASA), Text, Credits: NASA/Carrie Gilder/John Love, ISS Research Planning Integration Scientist Expedition 69.

Best regards,

Antarctic ice melt could disrupt the world’s oceans: Study


CSIRO - Australia’s national science agency logo.

March 31, 2023

A major ocean circulation that forms around Antarctica could be headed for collapse, risking significant changes to the world’s weather, sea levels and the health of marine ecosystems, scientists say, offering a stark warning about the growing impacts of climate change.

Image above: Global warming is accelerating the melting of ice in Antarctica. Photo Credit: REUTERS.

Global warming is accelerating the melting of ice in Antarctica, and the increased amount of fresh water flooding into the ocean is disrupting the flow of the Antarctic overturning circulation, according to a study published on Wednesday in the journal Nature.

The Antarctic overturning circulation is part of a global network of currents that shift heat, oxygen and nutrients around the globe.

Near Antarctica, cold salty water sinks to depths of more than 4,000m. The sinking of dense, oxygenated water helps drive the deepest flow of the overturning circulation. The water flows north, carrying oxygen and nutrients to the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic oceans. A similar process also occurs off Greenland.

“Changes that happen in one location, such as Antarctica, can then have a global influence because those waters move all throughout the planet,” said study co-author Adele Morrison, a research fellow from the Research School of Earth Sciences at the Australian National University in Canberra.

But there are signs the overturning circulation is slowing, disrupted by the increasing amount of meltwater from Antarctica that is making the waters less salty, and therefore less dense and not sinking with the same force. 

And the melting is increasing as growing amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, mainly from burning fossil fuels, are heating up the atmosphere and oceans.

“Our modelling shows that if global carbon emissions continue at the current rate, then the Antarctic overturning will slow by more than 40 per cent in the next 30 years – and on a trajectory that looks headed towards collapse,” said co-author Matthew England, deputy director of the ARC Centre for Excellence in Antarctic Science at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

The international team of scientists modelled the amount of Antarctic deep water produced under a high-emissions greenhouse scenario until 2050.

A collapse of the deep ocean current would cause the oceans below 4,000m to stagnate.

“This would trap nutrients in the deep ocean, reducing the nutrients available to support marine life near the ocean surface,” Professor England said in a statement.

Meaning, marine ecosystems at the surface would slowly starve.

Melting of polar ice in Antarctica and Greenland will also accelerate sea-level rise.

Why are massive ocean currents slowing down?

“Our study shows that melting of the ice affects the ocean in a way that can accelerate the pace of sea-level rise, that is, a positive feedback,” co-author Steve Rintoul told The Straits Times.

“As the fresh water added by melting ice slows the formation of cold, dense bottom water, warmer water at shallower depths shifts south to replace it. The shift of warm waters closer to Antarctica means more heat is available to drive even more melting,” said Dr Rintoul, an oceanographer and climate scientist at Australia’s national science agency CSIRO in Hobart.

Other impacts from a slowdown mean less heat and carbon could be stored in the ocean, driving more rapid climate change.

“The effects can extend far from Antarctica; other studies have shown that a slowdown of the Antarctic overturning shifts tropical rain bands away from their usual position,” he said.

The world’s oceans store vast amounts of heat, absorbing more than 90 per cent of the warming that has occurred in recent decades due to increasing greenhouse gases. Much of the heat is in the top surface layers, but the deep ocean is slowly warming up as well. The oceans also absorb about a quarter of all carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from human activity.

The ocean super highway

“The study shows that climate change is already affecting all of the globe, even Antarctica and the deepest parts of the ocean,” said Dr Rintoul, adding that the changes to the deep ocean were surprisingly large and rapid.

Decisions to make deep and rapid cuts in greenhouse gas emissions can limit the damage.

“If emissions are lower, the impacts will be lower, and this is an important point,” Dr Rintoul said.

“Every 0.1 deg C of warming we can avoid lowers the risk of damaging changes to climate. The sooner and stronger we act, the lower the risk,” he said.

Related links:

Australia’s national science agency - CSIRO:

University of New South Wales in Sydney:

Image (mentioned), Animation, Video, Text, Credits: The Straits Times/David Fogarty/CSIRO/Dr Rintoul/Royal Meteorological Society/University of New South Wales/Australian Academy of Science.


Gaia discovers a new family of black holes


ESA - Gaia Mission patch.

March 31, 2023

In brief

ESA’s Gaia mission has helped discover a new kind of black hole. The new family already has two members, and both are closer to Earth than any other black hole that we know of.

A team of astronomers studied the orbits of stars tracked by Gaia and noticed that some of them wobbled on the sky, as if they were gravitationally influenced by massive objects. Several telescopes looked for the objects, but no light could be found, leaving only one possibility: black holes.


New population of black holes

Using data from ESA’s Gaia mission, astronomers have discovered not only the closest but also the second closest black hole to Earth. The black holes, Gaia BH1 and Gaia BH2, are respectively located just 1560 light-years away from us in the direction of the constellation Ophiuchus and 3800 light-years away in the constellation Centaurus. In galactic terms, these black holes reside in our cosmic backyard.

The two black holes were discovered by studying the movement of their companion stars. A strange ‘wobble’ in the movement of the stars on the sky indicated that they are orbiting a very massive object. In both cases, the objects are approximately ten times more massive than our Sun. Other explanations for these massive companions, like double-star systems, were ruled out since they do not seem to emit any light.

Gaia’s black holes

Until recently, all the black holes astronomers knew of were discovered by emission of light – usually at X-ray and radio wavelengths – produced by material falling in. The new black holes are truly black and can only be detected by their gravitational effects. The distance of the stars to the black hole, and the orbits of the stars around them, are much longer than for other known binary systems of black holes and stars. Those closer star-black hole pairs, called X-ray binaries, tend to be very bright in X-ray and radio light, and thus easier to find. But the new discoveries suggest that black holes in wider binaries are more common.

“What sets this new group of black holes apart from the ones we already knew about is their wide separation from their companion stars. These black holes likely have a completely different formation history than X-ray binaries,” explains Kareem El-Badry, discoverer of the new black holes and researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in the US and the Max-Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany.

Movement of billions of stars

The black holes were discovered using Gaia data. Gaia accurately measures the positions and motions of billions of stars. The movement of stars against the sky can give essential clues about objects that gravitationally influence these stars. These objects can include other stars, exoplanets, and also black holes.

Image above: The 'wobble' of stars on the sky is caused by the gravitational attraction from other stars, exoplanets or black holes. In this image the attracting object is an exoplanet.

“The accuracy of Gaia’s data was essential for this discovery. The black holes were found by spotting the tiny wobble of its companion star while orbiting around it. No other instrument is capable of such measurements,” says Timo Prusti, ESA’s Gaia project scientist.

Gaia provided accurate measurements of the movement in three directions, but to understand more precisely how the stars moved away and towards us, additional radial velocity measurements were needed. Ground-based observatories provided these for the newly found black holes, and this gave the final clue to conclude that the astronomers had detected black holes.

Gaia discovers a unique black hole

Invisible black holes

Black holes are often not completely invisible. When material falls onto them, they may emit light in radio and X-ray. For Gaia’s second black hole, NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the South African MeerKAT radio telescope on the ground looked for this light, but they were not able to spot any signal.

“Even though we detected nothing, this information is incredibly valuable because it tells us a lot about the environment around a black hole. There are a lot of particles coming off the companion star in the form of stellar wind. But because we didn't see any radio light, that tells us the black hole isn't a great eater and not many particles are crossing its event horizon. We don’t know why that is, but we want to find out!” says Yvette Cendes who helped discover the second black hole and is an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in the US.

The new type of black hole does not emit any light, making them practically invisible, probably because they are much further away from their companion stars. Gaia BH1 and Gaia BH2 have the most widely separated orbits of all known black holes .The fact that they are also the closest known black holes to Earth suggests that many more similar black holes in wide binaries are still waiting to be discovered.

“This is very exciting because it now implies that these black holes in wide orbits are actually common in space – more common than binaries where the black hole and star are closer. But the trouble is detecting them. The good news is that Gaia is still taking data, and its next data release (in 2025) will contain many more of these stars with mystery black hole companions in it,” Yvette explains.

ESA’s Gaia mission

Gaia’s next data release will be based on 66 months of observations and will contain improved information on the orbits of stars. In the meantime, astronomers will be busy figuring out where these black holes in wide orbits come from.

Kareem El-Badry points out: “We suspected that there could exist black holes in wider systems, but we were not sure how they would have formed. Their discovery means that we must adapt our theories about the evolution of binary star systems as it is not clear yet how these systems form.”

“Gaia’s Data Processing and Analysis Consortium is developing methods to identify astrometric binaries with compact companions. We expect to provide a good sample of candidates in the next Gaia data release,” says team member Tsevi Mazeh from the Tel Aviv University. The scientific community looks forward to further expand this new population of dormant black holes.

Notes for editors:

“A red giant orbiting a black hole” by Kareem El-Badry et al., is published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS):

“Image of the week: Gaia’s first black hole discovery: Gaia BH1” by Tineke Roegiers:

On 13 June 2022 Gaia released, for the first time, results from its non-single star processing. The Gaia binary star survey surpasses all the work on binary stars from the past two centuries. These two black holes were found by investigating two of the solutions from this catalogue of more than 813 000 binary star systems. Gaia Data Release 4 is expected to further increase the accuracy of binary star solutions, possibly revealing many more exciting candidates for follow-up.

Related links:

Gaia binary star survey:


Images, Animation, Video, Text, Credits: ESA/Gaia/DPAC; CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO.


jeudi 30 mars 2023

Cargo, Research Work Ongoing as Commercial Crew Missions Announced


ISS - Expedition 69 Mission patch.

March 30, 2023

The Expedition 69 crew members continue unpacking the SpaceX Dragon resupply ship in the midst of human research and pharmaceutical studies aboard the International Space Station. NASA and its commercial crew partners have also announced upcoming missions to the station.

Flight Engineers Frank Rubio of NASA and Sultan Alneyadi of UAE (United Arab Emirates) took turns working inside the SpaceX Dragon cargo craft on Thursday. The duo has been offloading some of the 6,200 pounds new research gear and crew supplies packed inside the Cargo Dragon. The U.S. commercial space freighter will remain docked to the Harmony module’s forward port until mid-April when it will return to Earth filled with completed science experiments and other cargo for retrieval and analysis.

Image above: UAE (United Arab Emirates) astronaut Sultan Alneyadi poses with a free-flying AstroBee robotic helper inside the space station’s Kibo laboratory module. Image Credit: NASA.

Rubio started his day pedaling on the station’s exercise bike while attached to sensors to measure his aerobic capacity in microgravity. Afterward, he performed research work in the Columbus laboratory module to understand how the different gravity levels of the Moon, Mars, and beyond may affect the biomanufacturing of pharmaceuticals.

Alneyadi’s first task of the day was to install an incubator in the Kibo laboratory module and later activate it in the afternoon. He also collected surface samples throughout the space station for microbial analysis back on Earth.

International Space Station (ISS). Animation Credit: ESA

Station Commander Sergey Prokopyev was joined by Rubio and Roscosmos Flight Engineer Dmitri Petelin during the morning checking their Soyuz launch and entry suits for leaks. Prokopyev and Petelin then tested communications with the ISS Progress 83 cargo craft docked to the Zvezda service module’s rear port. Flight Engineer Andrey Fedyaev worked throughout Thursday on computer maintenance and orbital plumbing tasks.

NASA and Boeing now are targeting no earlier than Friday, July 21, for the agency’s Boeing Crew Flight Test (CFT) to the International Space Station, pending coordination for the U.S Eastern Range availability. The new target date provides NASA and Boeing the necessary time to complete subsystem verification testing and close out test flight certification products and aligns with the space station manifest and range launch opportunities.

Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft. Animation Credit: Boeing

NASA and SpaceX are targeting mid-August for the launch of Crew-7, the next rotational mission to the International Space Station.

Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus space freighter attached to the Unity module’s Earth-facing port fired its engines today for over 15 minutes today boosting the station’s orbit. The orbital reboost is the first of three that is positioning the orbiting lab for the upcoming launch and docking of the ISS Progress 84 cargo craft planned for late May. The maneuver also continues the certification process for using the Cygnus vehicle as an additional reboost capability.

Related links:

Expedition 69:

Harmony module:

Station’s exercise bike:

Columbus laboratory module:

Biomanufacturing of pharmaceuticals:

Kibo laboratory module:

Zvezda service module:

Space Station Research and Technology:

International Space Station (ISS):

Image (mentioned), Animations (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Mark Garcia.

Best regards,

NASA’s Psyche Has an Updated Mission Plan


NASA - Psyche Mission logo.

March 30, 2023

NASA’s Psyche mission, which will explore a metal-rich asteroid of the same name, is on track to launch in October 2023 after a one-year delay to complete critical testing. The launch period will open Oct. 5 and close Oct. 25. The asteroid, which lies in the outer portion of the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, may be the remains of a core of a planetesimal, a building block of a rocky planet.

Due to the new launch date, Psyche has a new mission plan, which includes a flyby of Mars for a gravity assist and arrival at the asteroid in August 2029. The mission then will enter its 26-month science phase, collecting observations and data as the spacecraft orbits the asteroid at different altitudes.

The redesigned flight plan gives the mission more flexibility in how the spacecraft uses its electric propulsion thrusters to reach the asteroid, move between orbits, and remain in orbit.

Psyche explore a metal-rich asteroid. Image Credit: NASA

Unlike many other bodies in our solar system, the asteroid Psyche rotates on its side. Mission planners needed to take this unusual rotation into account as they mapped out the spacecraft’s observation orbits around the asteroid. Another challenge is that the spacecraft will reach Psyche at a different point in the asteroid’s orbit around the Sun than it would have in the previous mission plan. In the original plan, the spacecraft was to sequentially orbit the asteroid at four different altitudes, starting at the highest altitude (referred to as Orbit A) and working its way down to the lowest (Orbit D). In the new mission plan, Psyche will initially enter Orbit A, then descend to Orbit B1, then Orbit D, back out to Orbit C, and finally it will move out to Orbit B2 (the second portion of Orbit B).

This new orbital design ensures that imagers on the spacecraft will have the lighting they need during Orbits B1 and B2. The other orbits are designed to best enable the observations needed by Psyche’s Gamma Ray Neutron Spectrometer, magnetometer, and telecommunications system, which is used for the gravity science experiment.

Engineers and technicians now are completing the final verification and validation of the system-level elements of the fully integrated spacecraft. During this time, tests are performed on the spacecraft as well as in the mission’s three system test beds.

Later this spring, engineers will run a series of “day in the life” tests, when they use test beds to operate Psyche for five to seven days at a time with the same commands that they will use when it is in flight. They will run scenarios in which operations go as planned as well as when operations meet challenges.

The spacecraft is currently in a clean room at Astrotech Space Operations Facility near NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In June, the mission begins its final assembly, test, and launch operations, and engineers and technicians from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California will return to Astrotech and work there until launch. Assembly of the spacecraft is complete except for the installation of the solar arrays and the imagers, which may be reinstalled before June. A final suite of tests will be run on the spacecraft, after which it will be fueled and then mated to the launch vehicle just prior to launch. Psyche will launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket from Kennedy’s Launch Complex 39A. NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communications technology demonstration, intended to test high-data-rate laser communications, remains integrated into the spacecraft.

Related articles & link:

NASA Continues Psyche Asteroid Mission

NASA Announces Launch Delay for Psyche Asteroid Mission

For more information about the Psyche mission, visit:

Image (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Tony Greicius.


NASA-enabled AI Predictions May Give Time to Prepare for Solar Storms


NASA - Space Weather logo.

March 30, 2023

Like a tornado siren for life-threatening storms in America’s heartland, a new computer model that combines artificial intelligence (AI) and NASA satellite data could sound the alarm for dangerous space weather.

The model uses AI to analyze spacecraft measurements of the solar wind (an unrelenting stream of material from the Sun) and predict where an impending solar storm will strike, anywhere on Earth, with 30 minutes of advance warning. This could provide just enough time to prepare for these storms and prevent severe impacts on power grids and other critical infrastructure.

Image above: NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory captured this image of a solar flare on Oct. 2, 2014. The solar flare is the bright flash of light at top. A burst of solar material erupting out into space can be seen just to the right of it. Image Credits: NASA/SDO.

The Sun constantly sheds solar material into space – both in a steady flow known as the “solar wind,” and in shorter, more energetic bursts from solar eruptions. When this solar material strikes Earth’s magnetic environment (its “magnetosphere”), it sometimes creates so-called geomagnetic storms. The impacts of these magnetic storms can range from mild to extreme, but in a world increasingly dependent on technology, their effects are growing ever more disruptive.

For example, a destructive solar storm in 1989 caused electrical blackouts across Quebec for 12 hours, plunging millions of Canadians into the dark and closing schools and businesses. The most intense solar storm on record, the Carrington Event in 1859, sparked fires at telegraph stations and prevented messages from being sent. If the Carrington Event happened today, it would have even more severe impacts, such as widespread electrical disruptions, persistent blackouts, and interruptions to global communications. Such technological chaos could cripple economies and endanger the safety and livelihoods of people worldwide.

In addition, the risk of geomagnetic storms and devastating effects on our society is presently increasing as we approach the next “solar maximum” – a peak in the Sun’s 11-year activity cycle – which is expected to arrive sometime in 2025.

Animation above: This movie, captured by NASA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), shows two eruptions from the Sun called coronal mass ejections, which blasted charged particles into space on Oct. 28 and 29, 2003. Some of these high-energy particles hit SOHO’s camera, creating what looks like snow. These blasts were part of a string of solar storms around Halloween of that year, which triggered a blackout in Sweden and caused disruptions to communications, aircraft, and spacecraft (including SOHO). In SOHO’s view, a disk blocks direct light from the Sun so that fainter features near it can be seen, while the white circle represents the location and size of the Sun. Image Credits: NASA/ESA.

To help prepare, an international team of researchers at the Frontier Development Lab – a public-private partnership that includes NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the U.S. Department of Energy – have been using artificial intelligence (AI) to look for connections between the solar wind and geomagnetic disruptions, or perturbations, that cause havoc on our technology. The researchers applied an AI method called “deep learning,” which trains computers to recognize patterns based on previous examples. They used this type of AI to identify relationships between solar wind measurements from heliophysics missions (including ACE, Wind, IMP-8, and Geotail) and geomagnetic perturbations observed at ground stations across the planet.

From this, they developed a computer model called DAGGER (formally, Deep Learning Geomagnetic Perturbation) that can quickly and accurately predict geomagnetic disturbances worldwide, 30 minutes before they occur. According to the team, the model can produce predictions in less than a second, and the predictions update every minute.

The DAGGER team tested the model against two geomagnetic storms that happened in August 2011 and March 2015. In each case, DAGGER was able to quickly and accurately forecast the storm’s impacts around the world.

Image above: DAGGER’s developers compared the model’s predictions to measurements made during solar storms in August 2011 and March 2015. At the top, colored dots show measurements made during the 2011 storm. Colors indicate the intensity of geomagnetic perturbations that can induce currents in electric grids, with orange and red indicating the strongest effects. DAGGER’s 30-minute forecast for that same time (bottom) shows the most intense perturbations in approximately the same locations around Earth’s north pole. Image Credits: V. Upendran et al.

Previous prediction models have used AI to produce local geomagnetic forecasts for specific locations on Earth. Other models that didn’t use AI have provided global predictions that weren’t very timely. DAGGER is the first one to combine the swift analysis of AI with real measurements from space and across Earth to generate frequently updated predictions that are both prompt and precise for sites worldwide.

“With this AI, it is now possible to make rapid and accurate global predictions and inform decisions in the event of a solar storm, thereby minimizing – or even preventing – devastation to modern society,” said Vishal Upendran of the Inter-University Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics in India, who is the lead author of a paper about the DAGGER model published in the journal Space Weather.

The computer code in the DAGGER model is open source, and according to Upendran, it could be adopted, with help, by power grid operators, satellite controllers, telecommunications companies, and others to apply the predictions for their specific needs. Such warnings could give them time to take action to protect their assets and infrastructure from an impending solar storm, such as temporarily taking sensitive systems offline or moving satellites to different orbits to minimize damage.

With models like DAGGER, there could one day be solar storm sirens that sound an alarm in power stations and satellite control centers around the world, just as tornado sirens wail in advance of threatening terrestrial weather in towns and cities across America.

Related links:

The journal Space Weather:

ACE (Advanced Composition Explorer):

Space Weather:


Images (mentioned), Animation (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Vanessa Thomas/GSFC/By Vanessa Thomas.

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Soyuz-2.1v launch vehicle launched from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome



March 30, 2023

On March 29, at 22:57 Moscow time, from the Plesetsk State Test Cosmodrome of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation in the Arkhangelsk Region, combat crews of the Space Forces of the Aerospace Forces launched a Soyuz-2.1v light-class launch vehicle with a spacecraft in the interests of the Russian Ministry of Defense.

The launch of the carrier rocket and the launch of the satellite into the calculated orbit took place in the normal mode. After the launch, the Soyuz-2.1v launch vehicle was taken for escort by means of the ground-based automated control complex of the Main Test Space Center named after G.S. Titov.

At the estimated time, the spacecraft was launched into the target orbit and taken under control. A stable telemetry connection has been established and maintained with it. The onboard systems of the satellite are operating normally. The spacecraft was assigned the serial number Kosmos-2568.

After launching into orbit, officers of the Main Center for Space Intelligence of the Space Forces of the Aerospace Forces entered information about the satellite into the main catalog of space objects of the Russian space control system and began to analyze and process information about the new space object.

Related links:

ROSCOSMOS Press Release:



Ministry of Defence:

Image, Text, Credits: ROSCOSMOS/Ministry of Defence (of Russia)/ Aerospace/Roland Berga.


Hubble Finds Saturn's Rings Heating Its Atmosphere


NASA / ESA - Hubble Space Telescope (HST) patch.

March 30, 2023

The secret has been hiding in plain view for 40 years. But it took the insight of a veteran astronomer to pull it all together within a year, using observations of Saturn from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and retired Cassini probe, in addition to the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft and the retired International Ultraviolet Explorer mission.

The discovery: Saturn's vast ring system is heating the giant planet's upper atmosphere. The phenomenon has never before been seen in the solar system. It's an unexpected interaction between Saturn and its rings that potentially could provide a tool for predicting if planets around other stars have glorious Saturn-like ring systems, too.

Image above: This composite image shows the Saturn Lyman-alpha bulge, an emission from hydrogen which is a persistent and unexpected excess detected by three distinct NASA missions, namely Voyager 1, Cassini, and the Hubble Space Telescope between 1980 and 2017. A Hubble near-ultraviolet image, obtained in 2017 during the Saturn summer in the northern hemisphere, is used as a reference to sketch the Lyman-alpha emission of the planet. The rings appear much darker than the planet's body because they reflect much less ultraviolet sunlight. Above the rings and the dark equatorial region, the Lyman-alpha bulge appears as an extended (30 degree) latitudinal band that is 30 percent brighter than the surrounding regions. A small fraction of the southern hemisphere appears between the rings and the equatorial region, but it is dimmer than the northern hemisphere. North of the bulge region (upper-right portion of image), the disk brightness declines gradually versus latitude toward the bright aurora region that is here shown for reference (not at scale). A dark spot inside the aurora region represents the footprint of the spin axis of the planet. It's believed that icy rings particles raining on the atmosphere at specific latitudes and seasonal effects cause an atmospheric heating that makes the upper atmosphere hydrogen reflect more Lyman-alpha sunlight in the bulge region. This unexpected interaction between the rings and the upper atmosphere is now investigated in depth to define new diagnostic tools for estimating if distant exoplanets have extended Saturn-like ring systems. Image Credits: NASA, ESA, Lotfi Ben-Jaffel (IAP & LPL).

The telltale evidence is an excess of ultraviolet radiation, seen as a spectral line of hot hydrogen in Saturn's atmosphere. The bump in radiation means that something is contaminating and heating the upper atmosphere from the outside.

The most feasible explanation is that icy ring particles raining down onto Saturn's atmosphere cause this heating. This could be due to the impact of micrometeorites, solar wind particle bombardment, solar ultraviolet radiation, or electromagnetic forces picking up electrically charged dust. All this happens under the influence of Saturn's gravitational field pulling particles into the planet. When NASA's Cassini probe plunged into Saturn's atmosphere at the end of its mission in 2017, it measured the atmospheric constituents and confirmed that many particles are falling in from the rings.

"Though the slow disintegration of the rings is well known, its influence on the atomic hydrogen of the planet is a surprise. From the Cassini probe, we already knew about the rings' influence. However, we knew nothing about the atomic hydrogen content," said Lotfi Ben-Jaffel of the Institute of Astrophysics in Paris and the Lunar & Planetary Laboratory, University of Arizona, author of a paper published on March 30 in the Planetary Science Journal.

"Everything is driven by ring particles cascading into the atmosphere at specific latitudes. They modify the upper atmosphere, changing the composition," said Ben-Jaffel. "And then you also have collisional processes with atmospheric gasses that are probably heating the atmosphere at a specific altitude."

Ben-Jaffel's conclusion required pulling together archival ultraviolet-light (UV) observations from four space missions that studied Saturn. This includes observations from the two NASA Voyager probes that flew by Saturn in the 1980s and measured the UV excess. At the time, astronomers dismissed the measurements as noise in the detectors. The Cassini mission, which arrived at Saturn in 2004, also collected UV data on the atmosphere (over several years). Additional data came from Hubble and the International Ultraviolet Explorer, which launched in 1978, and was an international collaboration between NASA, ESA (European Space Agency), and the United Kingdom's Science and Engineering Research Council.

But the lingering question was whether all the data could be illusory, or instead reflected a true phenomenon on Saturn.

The key to assembling the jigsaw puzzle came in Ben-Jaffel's decision to use measurements from Hubble's Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS). Its precision observations of Saturn were used to calibrate the archival UV data from all four other space missions that have observed Saturn. He compared the STIS UV observations of Saturn to the distribution of light from multiple space missions and instruments.

"When everything was calibrated, we saw clearly that the spectra are consistent across all the missions. This was possible because we have the same reference point, from Hubble, on the rate of transfer of energy from the atmosphere as measured over decades," Ben-Jaffel said. "It was really a surprise for me. I just plotted the different light distribution data together, and then I realized, wow – it's the same."

Hubble Space Telescope (HST)

Four decades of UV data cover multiple solar cycles and help astronomers study the Sun's seasonal effects on Saturn. By bringing all the diverse data together and calibrating it, Ben-Jaffel found that there is no difference to the level of UV radiation. "At any time, at any position on the planet, we can follow the UV level of radiation," he said. This points to the steady "ice rain" from Saturn's rings as the best explanation.

"We are just at the beginning of this ring characterization effect on the upper atmosphere of a planet. We eventually want to have a global approach that would yield a real signature about the atmospheres on distant worlds. One of the goals of this study is to see how we can apply it to planets orbiting other stars. Call it the search for 'exo-rings.'"

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and ESA. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, in Washington, D.C.

Related links:

Planetary Science Journal:

Hubble Space Telescope (HST):


Image (mentioned), Animation, Text, Credits: ESA/NASA/Andrea Gianopoulos/Space Telescope Science Institute/Ray Villard/Institut d'Astrophysique de Paris, Paris, France/Lunar and Planetary Laboratory–University of Arizona/Lotfi Ben-Jaffel.

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