SpaceX astronauts will receive the Congressional Space Medal of Honor

Vice President Kamala Harris will today award the Congressional Space Medal of Honor for the first time since 2006. The recipients are Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, who became the first astronauts to fly to space on a crewed SpaceX mission in 2020. The pair, who traveled to the International Space Station and stayed there for almost two months, will receive the honor for their bravery.

Hurley and Behnken were part of the first crewed spaceflight from US soil since the last Space Shuttle mission in 2011. They both also flew on the Space Shuttle, and Hurley was on the program's final flight.

Hurley and Behnken's Demo-2 mission was the first crewed flight under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Five other SpaceX crews have since flown to the ISS.

The Congressional Space Medal of Honor is typically given to mark a first in space travel, as The Washington Post notes. Previous recipients include Neil Armstrong, Alan Shepard (the first American to travel to space), John Glenn (the first American in orbit) and Frank Borman (commander of Apollo 8, the first lunar orbit mission). The award was also granted posthumously to the crew of Apollo 1 and those who died aboard the Challenger and Columbia shuttles.

NASA and DARPA will test nuclear thermal engines for crewed missions to Mars

NASA is going back to an old idea as it tries to get humans to Mars. It is teaming up with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to test a nuclear thermal rocket engine in space with the aim of using the technology for crewed missions to the red planet. The agencies hope to "demonstrate advanced nuclear thermal propulsion technology as soon as 2027," NASA administrator Bill Nelson said. "With the help of this new technology, astronauts could journey to and from deep space faster than ever — a major capability to prepare for crewed missions to Mars."

Under the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program, NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate will take the lead on technical development of the engine, which will be integrated with an experimental spacecraft from DARPA. NASA says that nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) could allow spacecraft to travel faster, which could reduce the volume of supplies needed to carry out a long mission. An NTD engine could also free up space for more science equipment and extra power for instrumentation and communication.

As far back as the 1940s, scientists started speculating about the possibility of using nuclear energy to power spaceflight. The US conducted ground experiments on that front starting in the '50s. Budget cutbacks and changing priorities (such as a focus on the Space Shuttle program) led to NASA abandoning the project at the end of 1972 before it carried out any test flights.

There are, of course, risks involved with NTP engines, such as the possible dispersal of radioactive material in the environment should a failure occur in the atmosphere or orbit. Nevertheless, NASA says the faster transit times that NTP engines can enable could lower the risk to astronauts — they could reduce travel times to Mars by up to a quarter. Nuclear thermal rockets could be at least three times more efficient than conventional chemical propulsion methods.

NASA is also looking into nuclear energy to power related space exploration efforts. In 2018, it carried out tests of a portable nuclear reactor as part of efforts to develop a system capable of powering a habitat on Mars. Last year, NASA and the Department of Energy selected three contractors to design a fission surface power system that it can test on the Moon. DARPA and the Defense Department have worked on other NTP engine projects over the last few years.

Meanwhile, the US has just approved a small modular nuclear design for the first time. As Gizmodo reports, the design allows for a nuclear facility that's around a third the size of a standard reactor. Each module is capable of producing around 50 megawatts of power. The design, from a company called NuScale, could lower the cost and complexity of building nuclear power plants.

NASA and DARPA will test nuclear thermal engines for crewed missions to Mars

NASA is going back to an old idea as it tries to get humans to Mars. It is teaming up with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to test a nuclear thermal rocket engine in space with the aim of using the technology for crewed missions to the red planet. The agencies hope to "demonstrate advanced nuclear thermal propulsion technology as soon as 2027," NASA administrator Bill Nelson said. "With the help of this new technology, astronauts could journey to and from deep space faster than ever — a major capability to prepare for crewed missions to Mars."

Under the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program, NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate will take the lead on technical development of the engine, which will be integrated with an experimental spacecraft from DARPA. NASA says that nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) could allow spacecraft to travel faster, which could reduce the volume of supplies needed to carry out a long mission. An NTD engine could also free up space for more science equipment and extra power for instrumentation and communication.

As far back as the 1940s, scientists started speculating about the possibility of using nuclear energy to power spaceflight. The US conducted ground experiments on that front starting in the '50s. Budget cutbacks and changing priorities (such as a focus on the Space Shuttle program) led to NASA abandoning the project at the end of 1972 before it carried out any test flights.

There are, of course, risks involved with NTP engines, such as the possible dispersal of radioactive material in the environment should a failure occur in the atmosphere or orbit. Nevertheless, NASA says the faster transit times that NTP engines can enable could lower the risk to astronauts — they could reduce travel times to Mars by up to a quarter. Nuclear thermal rockets could be at least three times more efficient than conventional chemical propulsion methods.

NASA is also looking into nuclear energy to power related space exploration efforts. In 2018, it carried out tests of a portable nuclear reactor as part of efforts to develop a system capable of powering a habitat on Mars. Last year, NASA and the Department of Energy selected three contractors to design a fission surface power system that it can test on the Moon. DARPA and the Defense Department have worked on other NTP engine projects over the last few years.

Meanwhile, the US has just approved a small modular nuclear design for the first time. As Gizmodo reports, the design allows for a nuclear facility that's around a third the size of a standard reactor. Each module is capable of producing around 50 megawatts of power. The design, from a company called NuScale, could lower the cost and complexity of building nuclear power plants.

The Webb Telescope’s first confirmed exoplanet is 99 percent the diameter of Earth

Having already returned visually stunning and scientifically spectacular results from its first six months in operation, the James Webb Space Telescope has recorded another inaugural milestone: its first exoplanet discovery confirmation. It peered 41 light years into the cosmos and found a planet in the Octans constellation with a diameter 99 percent that of Earth itself — say hello to LHS 475 b.

Specifically a team of astronomers from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, led by Kevin Stevenson and Jacob Lustig-Yaeger, first spotted evidence of the candidate exoplanet while digging through data generated from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). However it was Webb’s Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) that confirmed the planets existence by observing two transits in front of its parent star. “There is no question that the planet is there. Webb’s pristine data validate it,” Lustig-Yaeger declared in a NASA press release

As the space agency notes, among telescopes in operation today (both terrestrial and orbital), only the JWST possesses the resolving capabilities to accurately characterize the atmospheres of Earth-sized exoplanets. The research team is still working to determine what, if any, sort of atmosphere is sitting atop the rocky mass using by analyzing its transmission spectrum

There is a chance that the planet will be devoid of its critical gaseous insulation but at these distances, it could simply be hiding a very small atmo close to the surface. "Counterintuitively, a 100% carbon dioxide atmosphere is so much more compact that it becomes very challenging to detect,” said Lustig-Yaeger. 

They are confident that it does not possess an oppressive atmosphere similar to that of Saturn’s moon Titan, however. “There are some terrestrial-type atmospheres that we can rule out,” he said. “It can’t have a thick methane-dominated atmosphere.” 

That said, the surface of the planet does appear to be around 300 Celsius, several hundred degrees warmer than here on Earth. If cloud cover is discovered in subsequent studies, it could suggest a greenhouse world climate closer to Venus. The researchers have also confirmed that LHS 475 b maintains a tidal-locked orbit with its star of just two days — far too close to attempt with Sol but, because LHS circles a red dwarf that's producing less than half of our sun's energy, can theoretically maintain an atmosphere.

What an ‘oddball’ star in the Cygnus cluster can teach us about how masers are made

Like going to the store to buy dog food and coming back with a duck, researchers with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory may have uncovered a significant insight into how masers (nature's lasers) are formed while conducting a routine study of the "oddball" star MWC 349A using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). It came in the form of a previously unseen jet of ejected material being launched away from the star at "impossibly high speeds," according to the NRAO.

MWC 349A, which resides 3,900 light years away from us in the Cygnus constellation, earned its oddball moniker by being 30 times larger than our own star as well as one of the brightest radio sources in the sky. It's also one of the only observed celestial objects that's known to have a hydrogen maser. Those are as cool as they sound, being radio wavelength analogs to lasers that emit powerful, narrow beams of radiation instead of coherent light. Naturally occurring masers are valuable research tools as they amplify radio wave emissions which enables researchers to study processes that are too far or obscured to observe visually — think star-sized bullhorns in space.   

“A maser is like a naturally occurring laser,” Sirina Prasad, primary author of the study and an undergraduate research assistant at the Center for Astrophysics, said in a release Monday. “It’s an area in outer space that emits a really bright kind of light. We can see this light and trace it back to where it came from, bringing us one step closer to figuring out what’s really going on.”  

The scientific community has been aware of MWC 349's existence since 1989 when they observed that it had, "some of the characteristics of a molecular maser source: It was extremely bright, and it varied in time, the result of sensitivity to changes in the detailed excitation processes," Ignacio Diaz Bobillo at the Center for Astrophysics wrote in 2013.  

He notes that the maser source offered three valuable features: 

The first is that the excited atoms produced a series of masers at a series of wavelengths from the corresponding set of hydrogen lines – some even at wavelengths short enough to be trumpeted as being natural lasers. The second is that the numerous lines allowed scientists to model the emitting region in detail. It is an edge-on disk rotating in so-called Keplerian fashion, that is, like the planets orbit in the solar system with those near the Sun orbiting faster than those far from the Sun (very different from the rotation of a solid disk). The final, mysterious point was that this first hydrogen maser source seemed to be unique.

No one understands why, but despite decades of searching for other hydrogen maser sources, only two other possible examples have been proposed, though they remain uncertain at best.

“Our previous understanding of MWC 349A was that the star was surrounded by a rotating disk and photo-evaporating wind," Prasad continued. "Strong evidence for an additional collimated jet had not yet been seen in this system." But that is what they stumbled upon this time around.

The collimated jet is streaking away from the star and its gas disk at a blistering 500km/s — at those speeds you can get from San Diego, California to Phoenix, Arizona faster than you can say "please, no, anywhere but Phoenix." Literally. Prasad's team believes that the material is accelerating to such high speeds with the help of the star's immensely powerful magnetic field which is generating powerful magnetohydrodynamic winds.

"Although we don’t yet know for certain where it comes from or how it is made, it could be that a magnetohydrodynamic wind is producing the jet, in which case the magnetic field is responsible for launching rotating material from the system," Prasad noted. "This could help us to better understand the disk-wind dynamics of MWC 349A, and the interplay between circumstellar disks, winds, and jets in other star systems."

What an ‘oddball’ star in the Cygnus cluster can teach us about how masers are made

Like going to the store to buy dog food and coming back with a duck, researchers with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory may have uncovered a significant insight into how masers (nature's lasers) are formed while conducting a routine study of the "oddball" star MWC 349A using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). It came in the form of a previously unseen jet of ejected material being launched away from the star at "impossibly high speeds," according to the NRAO.

MWC 349A, which resides 3,900 light years away from us in the Cygnus constellation, earned its oddball moniker by being 30 times larger than our own star as well as one of the brightest radio sources in the sky. It's also one of the only observed celestial objects that's known to have a hydrogen maser. Those are as cool as they sound, being radio wavelength analogs to lasers that emit powerful, narrow beams of radiation instead of coherent light. Naturally occurring masers are valuable research tools as they amplify radio wave emissions which enables researchers to study processes that are too far or obscured to observe visually — think star-sized bullhorns in space.   

“A maser is like a naturally occurring laser,” Sirina Prasad, primary author of the study and an undergraduate research assistant at the Center for Astrophysics, said in a release Monday. “It’s an area in outer space that emits a really bright kind of light. We can see this light and trace it back to where it came from, bringing us one step closer to figuring out what’s really going on.”  

The scientific community has been aware of MWC 349's existence since 1989 when they observed that it had, "some of the characteristics of a molecular maser source: It was extremely bright, and it varied in time, the result of sensitivity to changes in the detailed excitation processes," Ignacio Diaz Bobillo at the Center for Astrophysics wrote in 2013.  

He notes that the maser source offered three valuable features: 

The first is that the excited atoms produced a series of masers at a series of wavelengths from the corresponding set of hydrogen lines – some even at wavelengths short enough to be trumpeted as being natural lasers. The second is that the numerous lines allowed scientists to model the emitting region in detail. It is an edge-on disk rotating in so-called Keplerian fashion, that is, like the planets orbit in the solar system with those near the Sun orbiting faster than those far from the Sun (very different from the rotation of a solid disk). The final, mysterious point was that this first hydrogen maser source seemed to be unique.

No one understands why, but despite decades of searching for other hydrogen maser sources, only two other possible examples have been proposed, though they remain uncertain at best.

“Our previous understanding of MWC 349A was that the star was surrounded by a rotating disk and photo-evaporating wind," Prasad continued. "Strong evidence for an additional collimated jet had not yet been seen in this system." But that is what they stumbled upon this time around.

The collimated jet is streaking away from the star and its gas disk at a blistering 500km/s — at those speeds you can get from San Diego, California to Phoenix, Arizona faster than you can say "please, no, anywhere but Phoenix." Literally. Prasad's team believes that the material is accelerating to such high speeds with the help of the star's immensely powerful magnetic field which is generating powerful magnetohydrodynamic winds.

"Although we don’t yet know for certain where it comes from or how it is made, it could be that a magnetohydrodynamic wind is producing the jet, in which case the magnetic field is responsible for launching rotating material from the system," Prasad noted. "This could help us to better understand the disk-wind dynamics of MWC 349A, and the interplay between circumstellar disks, winds, and jets in other star systems."

NASA is funding ideas for a Titan seaplane and faster deep space travel

NASA is still willing to fund unusual concepts in its bid to advance space exploration. The agency is handing out $175,000 initial study grants to 14 projects that could be useful for missions in and beyond the Solar System. The highlight may be TitanAir, a seaplane from Planet Enterprises' Quinn Morley that could both fly through the nitrogen-and-methane atmosphere of Saturn's moon Titan and sail its oceans. The "flying boat" would collect methane and complex organic material for study by sucking it in through a porous leading edge.

A project from UCLA's Artur Davoyan, meanwhile, could speed up missions to the outer edge of the Solar System and even interstellar space. His design (shown at middle) would propel spacecraft by producing a "pellet-beam" of microscopic particles travelling at very high speed (over 74 miles per second) using laser blasts. The concept could dramatically shorten the time it takes to explore deep space. Where Voyager 1 took 35 years to reach interstellar space (the heliopause, roughly 123AU from the Sun), a one-ton spacecraft could reach 100AU in just three years. It could travel 500AU in 15 years.

Pellet-beam spacecraft propulsion concept
Artur Davoyan

Other efforts are sometimes similarly ambitious. MIT's Mary Knapp has proposed a deep space observatory that would use a swarm of thousands of tiny satellites to detect low-frequency radio emissions from the early universe, not to mention the magnetic fields of Earth-like exoplanets. Congrui Jin from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln has envisioned self-growing habitat building blocks that could save space on missions to Mars, while Lunar Resources' Peter Curreri has devised pipelines that could shuttle oxygen between Moon bases.

These are all very early initiatives that aren't guaranteed to lead to real-world tests, let alone missions. However, they illustrate NASA's thinking. The administration is funding the projects now in hopes that at least one will eventually pay off. If there's even partial success, NASA could make discoveries that aren't practical using existing technology.

NASA is funding ideas for a Titan seaplane and faster deep space travel

NASA is still willing to fund unusual concepts in its bid to advance space exploration. The agency is handing out $175,000 initial study grants to 14 projects that could be useful for missions in and beyond the Solar System. The highlight may be TitanAir, a seaplane from Planet Enterprises' Quinn Morley that could both fly through the nitrogen-and-methane atmosphere of Saturn's moon Titan and sail its oceans. The "flying boat" would collect methane and complex organic material for study by sucking it in through a porous leading edge.

A project from UCLA's Artur Davoyan, meanwhile, could speed up missions to the outer edge of the Solar System and even interstellar space. His design (shown at middle) would propel spacecraft by producing a "pellet-beam" of microscopic particles travelling at very high speed (over 74 miles per second) using laser blasts. The concept could dramatically shorten the time it takes to explore deep space. Where Voyager 1 took 35 years to reach interstellar space (the heliopause, roughly 123AU from the Sun), a one-ton spacecraft could reach 100AU in just three years. It could travel 500AU in 15 years.

Pellet-beam spacecraft propulsion concept
Artur Davoyan

Other efforts are sometimes similarly ambitious. MIT's Mary Knapp has proposed a deep space observatory that would use a swarm of thousands of tiny satellites to detect low-frequency radio emissions from the early universe, not to mention the magnetic fields of Earth-like exoplanets. Congrui Jin from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln has envisioned self-growing habitat building blocks that could save space on missions to Mars, while Lunar Resources' Peter Curreri has devised pipelines that could shuttle oxygen between Moon bases.

These are all very early initiatives that aren't guaranteed to lead to real-world tests, let alone missions. However, they illustrate NASA's thinking. The administration is funding the projects now in hopes that at least one will eventually pay off. If there's even partial success, NASA could make discoveries that aren't practical using existing technology.

NASA’s 38-year-old science satellite falls safely to Earth

NASA's 38-year-old dead satellite has returned to Earth without incident. The Defense Department has confirmed that the Earth Radiation Budget Satellite (ERBS) reentered the atmosphere off the Alaskan coast at 11:04PM Eastern on January 8th. There are no reports of damage or injuries, according to the Associated Press. That isn't surprising when NASA said there was a 1-in-9,400 chance of someone getting hurt, but it's notable when officials said there was a possibility of some parts surviving the plunge.

ERBS had a storied life. It travelled to aboard Space Shuttle Challenger in 1984, and pioneering woman astronaut Sally Ride placed it in orbit using the robotic Canadarm. Crewmate Kathryn Sullivan performed the first spacewalk by an American woman during that mission. The satellite was only expected to collect ozone data for two years, but was only retired in 2005 — over two decades later. The vehicle helped scientists understand how Earth absorbs and radiates solar energy.

You might not see much ancient equipment fall to Earth in coming decades. The FCC recently proposed a five-year cap on the operation of domestically owned satellites that aren't in geostationary orbits. The current guidelines suggest deorbiting within 25 years. While there could be waivers for exceptional cases, future satellites like ERBS (which was in a non-Sun synchronous orbit) might bow out long before they're reduced to space junk.

NASA’s 38-year-old science satellite falls safely to Earth

NASA's 38-year-old dead satellite has returned to Earth without incident. The Defense Department has confirmed that the Earth Radiation Budget Satellite (ERBS) reentered the atmosphere off the Alaskan coast at 11:04PM Eastern on January 8th. There are no reports of damage or injuries, according to the Associated Press. That isn't surprising when NASA said there was a 1-in-9,400 chance of someone getting hurt, but it's notable when officials said there was a possibility of some parts surviving the plunge.

ERBS had a storied life. It travelled to aboard Space Shuttle Challenger in 1984, and pioneering woman astronaut Sally Ride placed it in orbit using the robotic Canadarm. Crewmate Kathryn Sullivan performed the first spacewalk by an American woman during that mission. The satellite was only expected to collect ozone data for two years, but was only retired in 2005 — over two decades later. The vehicle helped scientists understand how Earth absorbs and radiates solar energy.

You might not see much ancient equipment fall to Earth in coming decades. The FCC recently proposed a five-year cap on the operation of domestically owned satellites that aren't in geostationary orbits. The current guidelines suggest deorbiting within 25 years. While there could be waivers for exceptional cases, future satellites like ERBS (which was in a non-Sun synchronous orbit) might bow out long before they're reduced to space junk.