There were many remarkable space images published throughout 2015. However, perhaps one of the most memorable came at the end of the year, and coincided with the release of Disney’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, the image was immediately dubbed by the media as the “cosmic lightsaber” due to the manner in which part of the image resembles the double-sided lightsaber used by Darth Maul in an earlier Star Wars film.
It shows a new-born star laying within a cloud of dust, which is shooting out two beams of light from its poles and which seem to cut through the surrounding material and space.
The beams are no optical illusion, but the result of material from the surrounding dust cloud falling into the star, only to erupt into supersonic jets of material ejected up through the star’s poles and into space. As the jets travel outwards, so they encounter other dust and material, and distinctive arced shock waves form within the “beams”, which gradually give rise to knotted clumps of material called Herbig-Haro (HH) objects, and are ubiquitous in star-forming regions, although they are relatively short-lived in astronomical terms.
Given the nature of the HH object seen by Hubble (officially designated HH24), it is thought that the star causing it is very young – just a few thousand years old. It lies in a “stellar nursery” some 1,350 light-years away “in” the constellation of Orion, and which has one of the highest concentrations of HH objects yet found in our galaxy.
Monkeys to Mars?
There is a mounting effort to see humans set foot on Mars some time within the next 25 years; however, Russia is apparently set on getting “crew” to Mars by 2017, in the form of four macaque monkeys.
The simians have been selected on the basis of their cognitive and learning abilities, and have been undergoing 3 hours a day of training for a possible flight to Mars, with news of the proposal first reaching the public domain in October 2015. The training is has been taking place at the Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow, and initially comprised training the monkeys to operate a joystick system to “shoot” targets on a screen, as indicated by a cursor. Successful “hits” saw the monkeys rewarded with a sip of juice.
This has been followed by training the monkeys to solve simple puzzles and mathematical problems. “What we are trying to do,” Inessa Kozlovskaya, responsible for the team training the monkeys, “is to make them as intelligent as possible so we can use them to explore space beyond our orbit,”
The Russian plan is to send the monkeys on a six-month voyage to Mars, during which their heath and ability to function during a prolonged stay in zero gravity conditions will be assessed, together with their exposure to cosmic radiation. However, Russian officials have refused to indicate whether the mission will include a return trip to Earth.
Sending animals into space isn’t new. The very first animal to enter space was in fact a rhesus macaque called Albert. He flew a short-duration ballistic flight atop a US V2 in 1948, but died of suffocation mid-flight. His successors were no less fortunate. Alberts II, and IV were killed on impact when their capsule parachutes failed to deploy, and Albert III died when his V2 exploded on the edge of space.
It was left to Yorick, another rhesus macaque, to become the first primate to survive a space flight, in 1951 (together with 11 mice). That flight came shortly after Dezik and Tsygan, two Russian dogs, survived sub-orbital flights in July of that year.
The plan to fly the monkeys has come in for severe criticism from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), who regard the mission proposal as inhumane and out-of-step with modern thinking. In particular, they point out that trained astronauts find the stresses involved in space flight a challenge, so barely trained animals with no real conception of what is happening are liable to suffer even more.
PETA have written to Igor Komarov, the head of the Russian Federal Space Agency, asking him to call a halt to the training and the mission, pointing out that NASA and ESA have long since abandoned the use of animals in quite this way (although animals have been flown aboard the space shuttle), and the China is using robotic means to achieve the same goals.
Leaving aside the issue of animal welfare – which is important in and of itself – given the technology available to us, it is hard not to see the Russian plans as unnecessary and somewhat backward. But that said, Russia used rhesus macaques during the resumed Bion programme (1983 – 1996), which also featured NASA involvement; as such, it’s unlikely they will be swayed by PETA’s concerns, however justified.
NASA Directed to Develop Habitation Module for Deep Space Missions
At the end of December 2015, the US Congress passed an omnibus spending bill directing NASA to accelerate work on developing a habitation module for deep space missions.
The module is seen by NASA as a necessary adjunct to the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, the agency’s news crew-carrying craft which saw its first space launch take place in December 2014. While Orion can carry up to six people into orbit, and undertake missions to cislunar space and into lunar orbit, the vehicle itself is somewhat limited in terms of facilities for the crew. Thus, it has always been visualised as requiring an additional support module (or possibly modules) for long duration missions to the Moon and, eventually, to Mars.
In typical NASA three letter acronym form, the habitation module is referred to as the DSH, or Deep Space Habitat, and was originally seen by NASA are a modular system. However, the agency has stepped back from determining the format for the DSH, and instead has contracted for aerospace companies, Boeing, Orbital ATK, Bigelow Aerospace and Lockheed Martin, to come up with initial proposals for the system, which won’t actually be required until around the mid-2020s, when Orion is due to start cislunar operations.
However, some in Congress feel NASA’s approach to developing the DSH is too cautious. Under the new omnibus spending bill, NASA is effectively being order to accelerate the programme, and must spend at least US $55 million on initial DSH development in fiscal year 2016, with the overall aim that the agency should, “develop a prototype deep space habitation module within the advanced exploration systems program no later than 2018”. To cover the costs involved, NASA is receiving an additional US $350 million for exploration research and development (ironically, close to the amount Congress cut from NASA’s 2016 budget during 2015), and NASA must report back to Congress within 180 days of receipt of the funds, indicating the status of the project and how the US $55 million was spent.
What’s orbiting the Earth?
In 1957, the discarded rocket used to launch the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1 into orbit became the first piece of human space junk zipping around the planet. Sputnik 1 itself became the second piece of junk in orbit when it ceased communications 22 days after launch, on October 26th, 1957. Both the rocket and Sputnik 1 did re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up (on December 2nd, 1957 and January 4th, 1958, respectively).
Since that time, we’ve been lobbing things into orbit around the Earth with gay abandon, and while some of it does eventually re-enter the denser layers of Earth’s atmosphere, an awful lot more doesn’t – an estimated 500,000 items, in fact, ranging in size from a marble through to a small car. Among other things, a lot of this junk (200,000 items of which are larger than a tennis ball), presents a real threat to space operations, and is therefore tracked by the US and Russian military, and space agencies such as NASA and ESA.
One of the largest catalogues of orbital debris is Space Track, and Stuart Grey, a lecturer at the University College London, has used the data from that system to produce a stunning video cataloguing recently published a stunning video cataloguing the rising tide of space junk around the Earth, starting with Sputnik 1 and its booster in 1957 and progressing through until the end of 2015, encompassing everything from items in low Earth orbit (LEO) through those in polar orbits, right the way out to geosynchronous equatorial orbit.