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On November 2, Virgin Galactic flew Unity 2 on the Galactic 05 mission. It carried two scientists, a private tourist, and an astronaut trainer on a sub-orbital trip flown by Pilots Mike Massuci and Kelly Latimer. It was the company’s sixth successful flight in six months and the last for 2023.

The scientists aboard were Dr. Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute (SWRI), joined by Kellie Gerardi, who was sponsored by the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences (IIAS) in Canada. Stern is also the principal investigator of the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt and is vice president at SWRI. He’s a long-time planetary scientist who has served on a number of missions. Stern has conducted suborbital research aboard NASA sounding rockets. He is the former board chair of the Commercial Space Flight Federation and a current member of the National Science Board.

Kelli Gerardi is active in aerospace, and bioastronautics and served as a payload specialist for this mission. She leads mission operations for Palantir Technologies, serves on the Defense Council for Truman National Security Project, and served on the board of directors for The Explorers Club. In addition, she is a prolific science communicator with several books and a Website to her credit. She also maintains an active social media presence.

During its almost four minutes in microgravity at apogee at 87.2 kilometers (54.2 miles) above Earth, the science team performed a series of biomedical experiments aimed at tracking human performance in space. Also included was a microgravity fluids experiment and a human-tended practice session with a mockup of a camera that will fly on future space missions.

Carrying Science to Apogee

During his brief time in microgravity, Stern used the Accutracker II heart and pulse monitor to collect physiological data on himself. “This particular version flew on the Shuttle many times,” he said. Stern and his co-investigator, Dr. Dan Durda have also flown with the harness on high-performance F-104 flights and parabolic missions aboard the so-called “Vomit Comet” aircraft. Stern described the flight on Galactic 05 as a risk-reduction mission to test the technology. “For me, this was mostly a training flight,” he said, noting that NASA will sign a contract with Virgin after 13 successful test flights like this one.

The Accutracker II harness worn by Alan Stern aboard Virgin Galactic's 05 expedition. Courtesy  Dan Durda/SWRI.
The Accutracker II harness worn by Alan Stern aboard Virgin Galactic’s 05 expedition. Courtesy Dan Durda/SWRI.

Their second experiment was a practice run learning to use a handheld Xybion wide-field visible and ultraviolet astronomical imager. “What we carried today was a mockup of the camera we’ll carry on the next flight,” he said. “It’s a training and learning experience, but this is part of the new era that it’s affordable enough that you can do that. I’m going to recommend to my colleagues in the funding agencies that they give these training flights to people.

Practicing for Future Flights

Essentially, the team has to show NASA that they can manipulate the camera in space efficiently. Stern’s aim was to learn to maneuver the camera in space. He had to stabilize it in microgravity and get the timing sequences down for a successful run with the real thing. “We now, as a result of Galactic 05 have videos of it in flight that tell us how long it took to do all the steps,” he said.

Other aspects of using the camera in space revolve around the transmissive nature of Unity’s windows on Unity. “What you don’t know is how glints affect the camera, how micro-abrasions and scratches on the windows produce flaws, what kind of exhaust film gets on them,” he said. ” “The only way to find that out is to get data through the windows in flight, to get data from three different windows, three geometries, and then compare it to Shuttle data that we have.”

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Starship | Second Flight Test

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On November 18, 2023, Starship successfully lifted off at 7:02 a.m. CT from Starbase on its second integrated flight test.

While it didn’t happen in a lab or on a test stand, it was absolutely a test. What we did with this second flight will provide invaluable data to continue rapidly developing Starship.

The test achieved a number of major milestones, helping us improve Starship’s reliability as SpaceX seeks to make life multiplanetary. The team at Starbase is already working final preparations on the vehicles slated for use in Starship’s third flight test.

Congratulations to the entire SpaceX team on an exciting second flight test of Starship!

Follow us on for continued updates on Starship’s progress

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For its Final Trick, Chandrayaan-3 Brings its Propulsion Module to Earth Orbit

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On August 23, ISRO’s Vikram lander detached from its propulsion module and made a soft landing near the Moon’s south pole region. The lander then deployed its Pragyan rover, and for two weeks the endearing little solar-powered rover performed marvelously, detecting water ice and characterizing the makeup of the lunar regolith before succumbing to the darkness and cold of the lunar night.

But since the rover mission ended, the propulsion module that brought it to the Moon has made a detour, performing a series of complex maneuvers that took it from a tight lunar orbit back to Earth orbit. This was possible because the module still had more than 100 kg of fuel, allowing scientists to conduct additional maneuvers and experiments.

Right now, the propulsion module (PM) is orbiting Earth at an altitude of 115,000 km (71,500 miles), well above geostationary orbit. ISRO said the mission team decided to use the available fuel in the propulsion module to derive additional information for future lunar missions. More specifically, this demonstration gave them the chance to test mission operation strategies for a future sample return mission.

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A graphic of the Chandrayaan-3 lander separating from the propulsion module. Credit: ISRO.

The PM has had a busy and productive mission. While in lunar orbit for about a month, it wasn’t just taking it easy.  After the separation of the lander, the PM operated an on-board experiment, the Spectro-polarimetry of HAbitable Planet Earth (SHAPE) payload, designed to observe the Earth. Specifically, this instrument also provided scientists and engineers experience for future missions and research as its purpose was to study habitable planet-like features of Earth. These observations will be used by ISRO for future studies of exoplanets. Additionally, there was a special operation of the SHAPE payload on October 28, 2023 during the solar eclipse.

But because the spacecraft had such a precise orbit injection and optimal burn maneuvers, the amount of leftover fuel meant the engineers could do even more with the PM than originally expected. The PM was commanded to execute an orbit-raising maneuver at the Moon and then perform a Trans-Earth injection burn, which placed the PM in an Earth-bound orbit.

ISRO said the first orbit raising maneuver at the Moon was performed on October 9, 2023 to raise apolune altitude to 5,112 km from 150 km.  The Trans-Earth injection (TEI) maneuver was performed on October 13, 2023, and as its orbit was slowly raised, the PM made four Moon flybys before departing Moon on November 10.

Currently, propulsion module is orbiting Earth with an orbital period of nearly 13 days, at 27 degrees inclination. Because of this high orbit, ISRO said there is no threat of close approach with any operational Earth orbiting satellites.

ISRO said these extra operations allowed them to plan and execute trajectory maneuvers to return from Moon to Earth, as well as develop software to plan and validate the maneuvers. They also planned and executed a gravity assisted flyby between two celestial bodies and, most notably they avoided an uncontrolled crash into the Moon’s surface at the end of the life of PM, which met the requirements of creating no debris on the Moon.

Will its current high geostationary orbit be the Chandrayaan-3 PM’s final trick? Who knows? The resourceful engineers might figure out another way to make use of this multi-purpose spacecraft.

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In 1872, a Solar Storm Hit the Earth Generating Auroras from the Tropics to the Poles

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Imagine a solar storm generating auroral displays across the entire sky. No, we haven’t quite seen them that strong in the current solar cycle. But, back in February 1872, people around the world reported seeing brilliant northern and southern lights. The culprit? A medium-sized sunspot group that unleased a torrent of charged particles in a coronal mass ejection directed toward Earth.

As with strong space weather storms today, the long-ago event not only sent aurorae dancing across most of Earth’s skies, but it disrupted technology. It affected telegraph communications on the submarine cable in the Indian Ocean between Bombay (Mumbai) and Aden for hours. Similar disturbances were reported on the landline between Cairo and Khartoum. That presaged the damage that such storms can do to today’s power grids and satellite communications.

Nowadays scientists know quite a bit more about the solar activity that causes these storms. Back in those days, however, solar science was still in its infancy. We didn’t have globe-girdling, interconnected communications systems. And, then as now, extremely strong solar storms were relatively rare, but they could still do damage. Today, we are well aware of the threat to modern technologies. Strong solar storms can shut down power stations, stop communications, threaten the world’s financial and trade systems, and harm life. “The longer the power supply could be cut off, the more society, especially those living in urban areas, will struggle to cope,” said Hisashi Hayakawa, the lead author of a group studying ancient solar storms. “Could we maintain our life without such infrastructure? Well, let us just say that it would be extremely challenging.”

Studying an Ancient Solar Storm

The 1872 solar event was named the Chapman-Silverman storm. Recently, an international team of 22 scientists, led by Hayakawa at Nagoya University in Japan, Edward Cliver at the US National Solar Observatory, and Frédéric Clette of the Royal Observatory of Belgium studied it in great detail. Their tools were historical records coupled with modern techniques to assess the Chapman-Silverman storm from its origins on the Sun to its impact on our planet.

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Sketches by Italian astronomer Angelo Secchi (Pontifical Gregorian University). The top shows the disk of the Sun, and the lower images show the 1872 sunspot group in more detail. Courtesy Osservatorio Astronomico di Roma.

How do you go about finding records for a storm that far back? First, you look at sunspot records. People have long sketched sunspot groups and records go back quite far. The team scoured Belgian and Italian records of sunspots during the period. For terrestrial impacts, they used geomagnetic field measurements recorded in places as diverse as Bombay (Mumbai), Tiflis (Tbilisi), and Greenwich. Those gave them insight into the temporal evolution and intensity of the storm. Finally, they examined hundreds of accounts of visual aurorae caused by the storm, written in different languages.

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A Japanese drawing of the aurorae triggered by the 1872 solar event. Courtesy Shounji Temple.

“Our findings confirm the Chapman-Silverman storm in February 1872 as one of the most extreme geomagnetic storms in recent history. Its size rivaled those of the Carrington storm in September 1859 and the NY Railroad storm in May 1921,” Hayakawa said. “This means that we now know that the world has seen at least three geomagnetic superstorms in the last two centuries.
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