In an age of increasing “stuff” orbiting Earth one big concern is what happens if one satellite hits another. The result could be an explosion, or a chain reaction of collisions, or the closure of an orbit. That would be catastrophic. However, a small satellite called SBUDNIC just sent itself back to Earth earlier than expected. It’s goal: to demonstrate a low-cost way to take care of space debris.
SBUDNIC was the brainchild of a group of students at Brown University who were in a “Design of Space Systems” class taught by engineering Professor Rick Fleeter. It was a 3U CubeSat made of off-the-shelf components (including 48 Energizer batteries), a small camera, and a plastic drag sail. It joins a host of other CubeSats used (or proposed for use) at Earth and throughout the Solar System.
The team launched it aboard a SpaceX rocket on May 25, 2022. They communicated with it through a Ham radio-based Arduino prototyping platform. These are commonly used aboard 3U Cubesats due to their light weight and dependability. The idea was to show an affordable deorbit method.
A typical type of CubeSat on orbit like the one used by the Brown students for their orbital experiment in de-orbiting a satellite. Courtesy NASA.
“We were trying to prove that there are ways of deorbiting space junk after mission life has ended that are not super costly,” said Selia Jindal, who graduated from Brown in May and was one of the project leads. “This showed that we can do that. We were successfully able to deorbit our satellite so that it’s no longer taking up space in Earth’s orbit. More importantly, the project really helped show there are significant plans we can put in place to combat the space junk problem that are cost-effective.”
Gradually Leaving Orbit
Once in orbit at an altitude of 520 kilometers, the spacecraft’s sail popped open. Think of its drag sail almost like a drogue chute that slows down the spacecraft. That helped push the tiny spacecraft gradually back into Earth’s atmosphere. It turns out the sail was pretty efficient, which helped the satellite lose altitude. By March of this year, it had slipped to 470 kilometers. Later, on August 8, 2023, it had fallen to 147 kilometers, its last known position. Shortly after that, it burned up over Turkey due to the heat of re-entry.
This is a pretty quick re-entry and demonstrates a useful technology for other satellites. It used to be that these objects could stay in orbit for up to 25 years. But, in 2022, the Federal Communications Commission created a new 5-year rule for deorbiting satellites. It states that spacecraft ending up at altitudes less than kilometers must deorbit as soon as possible and no more than five years after the end of their missions.
One other thing to consider is solar activity. It causes Earth’s atmosphere to “puff up” during periods of solar maximum. That increases the drag on low-orbiting satellites. It’s a known problem that satellite operators face. The low-cost, off-the-shelf technology demonstrated by the Brown student SBUDNIC project offers a useful solution for unanticipated deorbits.
voiding Catastrophe through a Classroom Project
The idea of sudden deorbits and other catastrophes in near-Earth space is something that all satellite operators dread. That’s what inspired the student project in the first place. “These are horrible scenarios but unfortunately the numbers dictate probability-wise that this will happen eventually, so we need to be prepared,” said Marco Cross, who graduated from Brown last year with a master’s degree in biomedical engineering and served as chief engineer for SBUDNIC.
Creating the test satellite using a CubeSat as part of a class project provided a perfect chance for engineering students to put theory into practice. The project cost about $10,000 and allowed the students to practice fast “sketch to launch” turnarounds. “This was an unusual circumstance and we took advantage of it,” said Fleeter.
The successful proof of concept was supported by such industry partners as D-Orbit, AMSAT-Italy, as well as La Sapienza-University of Rome, and NASA Rhode Island Space Grant. The results could have a positive impact on efforts to cut down on space debris. “There are companies that are
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Spider Pulsars are Tearing Apart Stars in the Omega Cluster
Pulsars are extreme objects. They’re what’s left over when a massive star collapses on itself and explodes as a supernova. This creates a neutron star. Neutron stars spin, and some of them emit radiation. When they emit radiation from their poles that we can see, we call them pulsars.
In the last decade or so, astrophysicists have discovered many more millisecond pulsars, ones that rotate very rapidly. Not only is the number of known pulsars increasing, but researchers have also identified pulsar sub-types that have companions. These are called spider pulsars, and their companions face great peril. New research sheds light on how spider pulsars in Omega Centauri are tearing their companions to pieces with their powerful outflows.
The first spider pulsar ever discovered is PSR B1957+20, more widely known as the Black Widow Pulsar. It has a companion that’s either a brown dwarf or a super Jupiter. High-energy outflows from the Black Widow are destroying its companion. All pulsars that destroy their companions are known as spider pulsars, but there are two further sub-types of spider pulsars: redback pulsars and black widow pulsars.
Artist’s impression of the pulsar PSR B1957+20 (seen in the background) through the cloud of gas enveloping its brown dwarf star companion. Credit: Dr. Mark A. Garlick; Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics, University of Toronto
Researchers working with the Chandra Space Telescope have examined Omega Centauri to learn more about how spider pulsars destroy their binary companions. Their work will be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The title is “A Chandra X-ray study of millisecond pulsars in the globular cluster Omega Centauri: a correlation between spider pulsar companion mass and X-ray luminosity.” The authors are Jiaqi Zhao and Craig O. Heinke, both from the Physics Department at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada.
Omega Centauri is the largest globular cluster (GC) that we know of in the Milky Way. It’s almost 16,000 light-years away and contains about 10 million stars. Some of those stars are spider pulsars, a class of millisecond pulsars with companions.
Visualization of a fast-rotating pulsar. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab
Spider pulsars are terribly destructive neighbours. Their energetic winds methodically strip away their companions’ outer layers. To understand more about this phenomenon, the pair of researchers examined Chandra data from Omega Centauri, home to 18 recently discovered spider pulsars.
“Millisecond pulsars (MSPs) are faint X-ray sources commonly observed in Galactic globular clusters (GCs),” the researchers write. “In this work, we investigate 18 MSPs newly found in the GC Omega Centauri and search for their X-ray counterparts using Chandra observations.”
Out of the 18 millisecond pulsars, 11 of them emit x-rays that Chandra can see. Five of them are spider pulsars near Omega Centauri’s center. They combined these with Chandra’s observations of 26 spider pulsars in 12 other globular clusters. Using this data, the pair of researchers examined empirical correlations between X-ray luminosities and the minimum masses of their companions.
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Not Getting Enough Data From Mars? Set Up A Solar System Pony Express
Getting data in from deep space can be difficult. Almost all of our missions that have flown into deep space use the Deep Space Network, a system of transmitters and receivers that already imposes constraints on the amount of data we can transfer from the far reaches of space. So a team led by Joshua Vander Hook, then at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and now at a start-up called Outrider.ai, came up with a way to dramatically enhance the throughput of the DSN. In so doing, they gave it a very catchy name – the Solar System Pony Express.
Dr. Vander Hook was initially supported by a NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) grant in 2021. The basic concept utilizes what is known as a “cycler” orbit, where a spacecraft repeatedly orbits between two bodies in the solar system using their gravity wells to swing around in sync with when their orbits pass each other.
In this case, the spacecraft would consist of a communications relay module that would collect high-throughput data from an observer module parked in orbit around the other body. The observer module would consistently download data from the missions operating in its local area and then, when a relay module gets close, would rapidly send all of that data to the cycling spacecraft. The cycler then returns to Earth, where another rapid download process begins, and the cycle repeats itself.
Fraser discusses some of the problems of communicating with deep space probes – especially those going to other stars.
That sounds like the Pony Express – a system in the 1800s whereby mail carriers would ride physical ponies (or horses) to deliver mail occasionally to remote outposts in the American West. In another homage to that mail carrier heritage, the team named the cycling relay satellites “data mules.”
Those data mules would have a long trip between Earth and their target destination. It might come as no surprise that in much of the literature surrounding the idea that the target destination was Mars. Buzz Aldrin, the most famous proponent of cycler orbits, suggested that cycler “castles” could effectively shuttle people and goods between Mars and Earth. But in this new configuration, instead of physical things, it would be more beneficial to ship data.
Another Depiction of how the observer / data mule interaction would go.
Credit – Marc Sanchez-Net et al.
Calculations described in a paper released last year estimate that with as little as six data mules, the network could provide a bandwidth of 1 petabyte a year from the surface of Mars while only requiring a minor allocation of time on the DSN. That would potentially allow some real-time high-definition video from the red planet, which would undoubtedly be attractive to many of the inhabitants of its nearest neighbor.
However, such high data rates come at a cost. In the case of the Solar System Pony Express, that cost is latency. The high throughput data transfer possible between the observer and a data mule, and then again from the data mule back to a receiving station on Earth, is only possible if they are in physical proximity to each other, as the network would use a type of high-throughput optical communications network. And since cycler orbits can take years, it would be years after the data was collected on the red planet that anyone could use it.
That is not a show stopper – indeed, many people would be okay with waiting for over a year for a high-definition video from Mars if that is the only way for them to see it. But it makes funding such a mission more difficult given the immediate feedback culture prevalent in many of today’s media. Give the authors credit, though – they recognize this limitation and, as all good scientists do, mention that it would be a good topic for further study.
For right now, that further study seems to be on hold. Dr. Vander Hook has moved on to other non-space-related efforts. While there has been some interest from researchers elsewhere, such as a paper from the University of Illinois, there’s currently no clear path forward for the project. But, there will always be a desire for more data transfer from farther out in the solar system. If the Pony Express is the most cost-effective way to get it at the beginning of our explorations, then don’t be surprised if this concept is resurrected sometime in the future.
Pascarella et al – Low-thrust trajectory optimization for the solar system pony
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A Protoplanetary Disc Has Been Found… in Another Galaxy!
Astronomers have imaged dozens of protoplanetary discs around Milky Way stars, seeing them at all stages of formation. Now, one of these discs has been found for the first time — excitingly — in another galaxy. The discovery was made using the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile along with the , which detected the telltale signature of a spinning disc around a massive star in the Large Magellanic Cloud, located 160,000 light-years away.
“When I first saw evidence for a rotating structure in the ALMA data I could not believe that we had detected the first extragalactic accretion disc, it was a special moment,” said Anna McLeod, an associate professor at Durham University in the UK and lead author of the study published in Nature. “We know discs are vital to forming stars and planets in our galaxy, and here, for the first time, we’re seeing direct evidence for this in another galaxy.”
McLeod and her fellow researchers were doing a follow-up study on a system named HH 1177, which was located deep inside a gas cloud in the Large Magellanic Cloud LMC). In 2019, the researchers reported that in using the Very Large Telescope, they observed a jet emitted by a fledgling but massive star with a mass 12 times greater than our Sun. This was the first time such a jet has been observed in visible light outside the Milky Way, as they are usually obscured by their dusty surroundings. However, the relatively dust-free environment of the LMC allowed for HH 1177 to be observed at visible wavelengths. At nearly 33 light-years in length, it is one of the longest such jets ever observed.
This dazzling region of newly-forming stars in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) was captured by the Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope. The relatively small amount of dust in the LMC and MUSE’s acute vision allowed intricate details of the region to be picked out in visible light. Credit: ESO, A McLeod et al.
“We discovered a jet being launched from this young massive star, and its presence is a signpost for ongoing disc accretion,” McLeod said in an ESO press release. But to confirm that such a disc was indeed present, the team needed to measure the movement of the dense gas around the star.
The gas motion indicated that there is a radial flow of material falling onto a central disk-like structure. In their new observations, the team found that the disk exhibits signs of Keplerian rotation – which is a disk of material that obey’s Kepler’s laws of motion due to the dominance of a massive body at its center. Their observations revealed that “the rotating toroid [was] feeding an accretion disk and thus the growth of the central star,” the McLeod and team wrote in their paper. “The system is in almost all aspects comparable to Milky Way high-mass YSOs (young stellar objects) accreting gas from a Keplerian disk.
As matter is pulled towards a growing star, it cannot fall directly onto it; instead, it flattens into a spinning disc around the star. Closer to the center, the disc rotates faster, and this difference in speed is the clear evidence to show astronomers an accretion disc is present.
“The frequency of light changes depending on how fast the gas emitting the light is moving towards or away from us,” said Jonathan Henshaw, a research fellow at Liverpool John Moores University in the UK, and co-author of the study, in the ESO press release. “This is precisely the same phenomenon that occurs when the pitch of an ambulance siren changes as it passes you and the frequency of the sound goes from higher to lower.”
Massive stars like HH 1177 live fast and die hard. In the Milky Way, stars like this are challenging to observe because they are often clouded from view by the dusty material from which they form — which also obscures the disc that might be shaping around them.
“They form in heavily embedded regions full of gas and dust, such that the accretion phase typically occurs before the star has time to become exposed due to stellar feedback, whether internal or external,” the team wrote in their paper. “The primary reason for the lack of observations of extragalactic accretion disks around forming stars has been the limited spatial resolution of both ground- and space-based observatories.”
But the Large Magellanic Cloud is fundamentally different from because the stars that form there have a lower dust content than in the Milky
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