Rocket Lab launches US Space Force satellite after its failed mission in May

Rocket Lab has successfully launched a US military satellite in its first mission since its 20th Electron launch ended up in failure back in May. The company's Electron rocket made its way to space from its New Zealand launch site, carrying a small demonstration satellite from the US Space Force called the Monolith. Peter Beck, Rocket Lab founder and CEO, tweeted shortly after the event that the payload was deployed and praised the team for a "flawless" launch.

Monolith's target location is in low-Earth orbit around 370 miles above our planet. The satellite will demonstrate the use of a deployable sensor, "where the sensor's mass is a substantial fraction of the total mass of the spacecraft, changing the spacecraft’s dynamic properties and testing ability to maintain spacecraft attitude control," Rocket Lab explained in the official mission webpage. The results from the demonstration will help companies build more affordable satellites within shorter timeframes.

Rocket Lab's 20th mission failed in May when it suffered an "anomaly" after the second stage ignition. The company lost both its Electron rocket and BlackSky's Earth observation satellite payloads as a result of its second launch failure within the span of a year. After investigating the issue, Rocket Lab determined that the root cause was a problem with the second stage engine igniter system that "induced a corruption of signals within the engine computer." The company says it has since implemented fixes "to prevent any future reoccurrence."

How to watch Rocket Lab’s US Space Force satellite launch

The US Space Force is gearing up to launch a research and development satellite on Thursday with the help of Rocket Lab. The company's Electron rocket is scheduled to launch from a site in New Zealand sometime between 2AM and 4AM ET (6PM-8PM local time) to take the Monolith satellite into low Earth orbit.

The aim of the mission, which is called "It's a Little Chile Up Here" (a reference to the green chile from the Space Test Program's New Mexico home), is to test small satellites for the Department of Defense. Monolith will help determine whether it's large deployable sensors are feasible. Such sensors account for a significant proportion of a spacecraft's total mass. Since the sensor may alter the spacecraft’s dynamic properties, the mission will examine whether it's possible to maintain altitude control after the sensor has been deployed.

"Analysis from the use of a deployable sensor aims to enable the use of smaller satellite buses when building future deployable sensors such as weather satellites, thereby reducing the cost, complexity, and development timelines," Rocket Lab wrote in a statement. "The satellite will also provide a platform to test future space protection capabilities."

You can watch the launch as it happens on the Rocket Lab website. A stream may also be available on Rocket Lab's YouTube channel.

Hubble finds evidence of water vapor on Jupiter’s largest moon

Scientists have discovered the first evidence of water vapor on Ganymede, Jupiter's largest moon. They used new and archival datasets from the Hubble Space Telescope to find the vapor, which forms when ice on the surface sublimates and turns from solid to gas.

A team led by Lorenz Roth of the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden examined data captured by Hubble's Cosmic Origins Spectrograph in 2018 and images the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph obtained between 1998 and 2010. Ultraviolet images captured by the STIS in 1998 showed “colorful ribbons of electrified gas called auroral bands,” according to NASA (which launched Hubble as a joint project with the European Space Agency).

Researchers previously believed that atomic oxygen may have caused discrepancies between UV images that were captured over time. However, using data from the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, Roth's team found that there was barely any atomic oxygen in the moon's atmosphere. As such, there had to be another reason for the discrepancies.

The temperature at Ganymede's equator may become warm enough for surface ice to release some water molecules. When they re-examined the relative distribution of the aurora in the UV images, Roth's team found that differences between them match up with where water would be expected in the moon's atmosphere.

Previous research indicated that Ganymede may hold more water than in all of our oceans. The moon's ocean is believed to be around 100 miles below the surface, so the vapor isn't from there. Water on the surface is frozen due to the moon’s temperatures.

The finding arrived ahead of the ESA's wonderfully named upcoming mission, JUICE, or JUpiter ICy moons Explorer. The mission should launch in 2022 and arrive at Jupiter in 2029. It will then spend at least three years examining the planet and three of its largest moons. JUICE will pay special attention to Ganymede, both as a planetary body and possible habitat. 

"Our results can provide the JUICE instrument teams with valuable information that may be used to refine their observation plans to optimize the use of the spacecraft," Roth said in a statement

NASA's Juno mission has also been studying Ganymede and Jupiter's environment (aka the Jovian system) since 2016. The agency says examining the Jovian system and understanding its history "will provide us with a better understanding of how gas giant planets and their satellites form and evolve. In addition, new insights will hopefully be found on the habitability of Jupiter-like exoplanetary systems."

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter has flown a total of one mile on Mars

NASA's Ingenuity Mars helicopter just marked an important milestone. Space.comreports that Ingenuity crossed the one-mile mark for total distance flown with its 10th flight on July 24th, when it traveled over the Jezero Crater's "Raised Ridges" area. That may not sound like a lot of flying, but NASA was only planning a few test flights for Ingenuity before expanding the vehicle's role — the robotic aircraft wouldn't have covered nearly as much ground otherwise.

This was also the most ambitious flight to date. The helicopter had to swing past 10 different waypoints, and flew to a record-high altitude of 40 feet during the 310-foot journey. It also had to capture enough images to help NASA produce stereoscopic images of Raised Ridges and help inform a potential visit from the Perseverance rover.

It's not clear just how many more miles Ingenuity can rack up. The helicopter is the first of its kind, and tends to push limits with each new flight. The one-mile threshold is significant by itself, though — it suggests the aircraft might accomplish a lot during Perserverance's planned two-year mission, and possibly more.

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter has flown a total of one mile on Mars

NASA's Ingenuity Mars helicopter just marked an important milestone. Space.comreports that Ingenuity crossed the one-mile mark for total distance flown with its 10th flight on July 24th, when it traveled over the Jezero Crater's "Raised Ridges" area. That may not sound like a lot of flying, but NASA was only planning a few test flights for Ingenuity before expanding the vehicle's role — the robotic aircraft wouldn't have covered nearly as much ground otherwise.

This was also the most ambitious flight to date. The helicopter had to swing past 10 different waypoints, and flew to a record-high altitude of 40 feet during the 310-foot journey. It also had to capture enough images to help NASA produce stereoscopic images of Raised Ridges and help inform a potential visit from the Perseverance rover.

It's not clear just how many more miles Ingenuity can rack up. The helicopter is the first of its kind, and tends to push limits with each new flight. The one-mile threshold is significant by itself, though — it suggests the aircraft might accomplish a lot during Perserverance's planned two-year mission, and possibly more.

SpaceX will launch NASA’s Europa Clipper mission to Jupiter’s moon

A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket will be launching NASA's long-awaited mission to Europa, Jupiter's icy moon that may have the conditions to support life. The agency has been planning to send a probe to the Jovian moon for years and finalized its plans in 2019. In its announcement, NASA said the Europa Clipper spacecraft is scheduled to launch in October 2024 on top of a Falcon Heavy rocket from Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 39A. It has also revealed that the contract will cost the agency approximately $178 million — a bargain, compared to what it would've cost to launch the mission on top of NASA's Space Launch System rocket.

As Ars Technica notes, Congress originally urged NASA to use the SLS to launch the Europa Clipper. At the time, though, the White House estimated a single SLS launch to cost a whopping $2 billion. Far from ideal, especially since the SLS would need gravity assist from Venus and travel farther to be able to reach its goal, whereas the Falcon Heavy wouldn't. In addition, NASA told Ars that the SLS would need $1 billion worth of additional modifications to be able to complete the mission. 

If Europa Clipper launches in October 2024 as planned, it will reach Jupiter's orbit in April 2030. The probe will then investigate whether the icy moon truly has conditions suitable for life. It'll capture "high-resolution images of Europa's surface, determine its composition, look for signs of recent or ongoing geological activity, measure the thickness of the moon's icy shell, search for subsurface lakes, and determine the depth and salinity of Europa's ocean."

SpaceX will launch NASA’s Europa Clipper mission to Jupiter’s moon

A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket will be launching NASA's long-awaited mission to Europa, Jupiter's icy moon that may have the conditions to support life. The agency has been planning to send a probe to the Jovian moon for years and finalized its plans in 2019. In its announcement, NASA said the Europa Clipper spacecraft is scheduled to launch in October 2024 on top of a Falcon Heavy rocket from Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 39A. It has also revealed that the contract will cost the agency approximately $178 million — a bargain, compared to what it would've cost to launch the mission on top of NASA's Space Launch System rocket.

As Ars Technica notes, Congress originally urged NASA to use the SLS to launch the Europa Clipper. At the time, though, the White House estimated a single SLS launch to cost a whopping $2 billion. Far from ideal, especially since the SLS would need gravity assist from Venus and travel farther to be able to reach its goal, whereas the Falcon Heavy wouldn't. In addition, NASA told Ars that the SLS would need $1 billion worth of additional modifications to be able to complete the mission. 

If Europa Clipper launches in October 2024 as planned, it will reach Jupiter's orbit in April 2030. The probe will then investigate whether the icy moon truly has conditions suitable for life. It'll capture "high-resolution images of Europa's surface, determine its composition, look for signs of recent or ongoing geological activity, measure the thickness of the moon's icy shell, search for subsurface lakes, and determine the depth and salinity of Europa's ocean."

NASA clears Boeing Starliner for July 30th test flight to ISS

More than 18 months after its failed first attempt to make it to the International Space Station, Boeing’s Starliner is ready for a second shot. Following a flight readiness review, NASA is moving forward with the craft’s upcoming July 30th uncrewed orbital flight test. Unless there’s an unforeseen delay, the capsule will launch from the Space Force’s Cape Canaveral Station mounted on an Atlas V rocket at 2:53PM ET. Should NASA postpone the flight, it will again attempt to carry out the test on August 3rd at the earliest.

The purpose of the flight is for NASA to conduct an end-to-end test of Starliner’s capabilities. It wants to know if the capsule can handle every aspect of a trip to the ISS, including launch, docking as well as atmospheric re-entry. “[Orbital Flight Test-2] will provide valuable data that will help NASA certify Boeing’s crew transportation system to carry astronauts to and from the space station,” the agency said.

If the flight is a success, NASA will move forward with a crewed test of the Starliner. Steve Stich, commercial crew program manager at NASA, said that could happen “as soon as later this year.” Both Boeing and NASA have a lot invested in the viability of Starliner. For the aerospace company, its decision not to conduct an end-to-end test of the craft before its failed 2019 flight left the agency “surprised,” leading to questions about the project. Meanwhile, NASA is keen to have two capsules that can ferry its astronauts to the ISS. Right now, it’s limited to just SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. “It’s very important for the commercial crew program to have two space transportation systems,” Stich told reporters.

NASA clears Boeing Starliner for July 30th test flight to ISS

More than 18 months after its failed first attempt to make it to the International Space Station, Boeing’s Starliner is ready for a second shot. Following a flight readiness review, NASA is moving forward with the craft’s upcoming July 30th uncrewed orbital flight test. Unless there’s an unforeseen delay, the capsule will launch from the Space Force’s Cape Canaveral Station mounted on an Atlas V rocket at 2:53PM ET. Should NASA postpone the flight, it will again attempt to carry out the test on August 3rd at the earliest.

The purpose of the flight is for NASA to conduct an end-to-end test of Starliner’s capabilities. It wants to know if the capsule can handle every aspect of a trip to the ISS, including launch, docking as well as atmospheric re-entry. “[Orbital Flight Test-2] will provide valuable data that will help NASA certify Boeing’s crew transportation system to carry astronauts to and from the space station,” the agency said.

If the flight is a success, NASA will move forward with a crewed test of the Starliner. Steve Stich, commercial crew program manager at NASA, said that could happen “as soon as later this year.” Both Boeing and NASA have a lot invested in the viability of Starliner. For the aerospace company, its decision not to conduct an end-to-end test of the craft before its failed 2019 flight left the agency “surprised,” leading to questions about the project. Meanwhile, NASA is keen to have two capsules that can ferry its astronauts to the ISS. Right now, it’s limited to just SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. “It’s very important for the commercial crew program to have two space transportation systems,” Stich told reporters.

Astronomers spot possible moon-forming region for the first time

While scientists have found plenty of exoplanets over the years, they've yet to spot to moons orbiting those worlds outside our solar system. Now, a group of astronomers has discovered (PDF) what's believed to be a region with exomoons-in-the-making for the first time. Myriam Benisty and team from the University of Grenoble found the disk of dust — the moon-forming region — around a young exoplanet in a star system dubbed PDS 70 located 370 light years from Earth. 

The team found the first protoplanet (PDS 70b) in the system back in 2018 using European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope in Chile. A year later, they found another young gas giant (PDS 70c) using the same equipment. The astronomers believe based on the data they have that the star system is only 10 million years old and that both gas giants are several times bigger than Jupiter. To know more about the system, they focused all other possible instruments on it, including the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array. ALMA is made up of 66 short-wavelength radio dishes, and its observations made it possible to spot the dust around PDS 70c.

The disk of dust spans a distance slightly wider than that between Earth and the Sun, and there's enough mass in there for three moons the same size as ours. Benisty says the moons may have already formed, but there's no conclusive proof yet because they can't be seen with ALMA. According to Science, the Extremely Large Telescope, which will be the world's largest optical telescope when it's built, may have the power to see if the moons have already formed around the protoplanet. The telescope is still under construction, though, and scientific operations won't start until 2027 at the earliest.