Space Sunday: Tenacity, Betelgeuse and a short round-up

The first Dream Chaser Cargo, set to fly in 2021, now has a name – Tenacity. Credit: SNC Inc

Dream Chaser Cargo is an uncrewed version of Sierra Nevada Corporation’s (SNC) Dream Chaser space plane, and it is drawing closer to commencing operations ferrying supplies and experiments to and from the International Space Station (ISS), with operations due to start in mid-to-late 2021.

The world’s only non-capsule private orbital spacecraft, Dream Chaser Cargo is designed to be launched atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V booster, and land like a conventional aircraft. Once operational, it will be capable of lifting some 900 kg of material within its cargo space, and a further 4,500 kg in a detachable and disposable module called Shooting Star that attaches to the rear of the space plane and includes a docking system for linking to the ISS, as well as supplying electrical power to the Dream Chaser.

SNC’s uncrewed Dream Chaser Cargo, the Shooting Star module bearing the external cargo “box” for unpressurised loads. Credit: SNC Inc

Shooting Star can carry cargo both inside it, and in an external unpressurised unit. In addition, it can be used to hold some 3,500 kg of waste from the ISS, the module being jettisoned to burn-up in Earth’s atmosphere prior to Dream Chaser Cargo (which can also carry experiments back to Earth) making an atmospheric re-entry towards the end of a mission.

Now the first Dream Chaser vehicle has its wings and a name: Tenacity. The wings were delivered to SNC’s fabrication facility in spring 2020, and with work now cautiously resuming, the wings  – sans­ their outer skins – will be mounted on the vehicle’s air frame. During flight, the wings are folded against the fuselage so they can be contained within the payload fairings that protect the vehicle and its module during launch. After the fairings are jettisoned, the wings swing into their “flight” position so they can give Dream Chaser Cargo aerodynamic lift once back in Earth’s atmosphere.

Capable of fully automated flight, Dream Chaser Cargo has a significant advantage over the other ISS resupply vehicles capable of returning material to Earth – Dragon and Progress – in that it uses relatively “safe” fuels. This means ground crews can access the vehicle without having to wait for extensive safety checks to be completed, allowing delicate or time-sensitive cargo to be removed from the vehicle more quickly.

Betelgeuse’s Dimming: Explained But Still Mysterious

The orange giant Betelgeuse caused excitement in late 2019 / early 2020 when it went through a period of unprecedented dimming, even for a star as variable as it can at times be, its apparent magnitude (brightness as seen from Earth) reducing by a factor of 2.5 (or roughly 25-30%).

Side-by-side comparison of Betelgeuse’s dimming, as seen by the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope. Credit: ESO/M. Montargès et al.

At the time, the dimming sparked speculation the star may have gone supernova, and we might be about to see the light of that event – it having taken some 700 years to reach us. Most astronomers doubted this was the case, and were confident the star would return to its more natural brightness, as indeed it did 2020 (see: Space Sunday: an exoplanet, a star and an asteroid).

Now, examinations of observations made by the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) in late 2019 suggest the star’s dimming was most likely caused by the ejection and cooling of dense hot gases. What’s more, additional observations suggest Betelgeuse may be going through another dimming period out-of sync with its usual cycles.

Between October and November 2019, HST observed dense, heated material moving outward through Betelgeuse’s extended atmosphere at 320,000 km/h, and it was following these observations that the more dramatic dimming of the star was seen from Earth, notably around the star’s southern hemisphere. It’s now believed that jet stream of hot gas reached a point millions of kilometres from the star and rapidly cooled to form a cloud of dust between the star and Earth-based observers, giving rise to the star’s apparent dimming.

An artistic rendering of the outflow of plasma from Betelgeuse cooling into a cloud of dust that contributed to the star’s dimming. Credit: NASA, ESA, and E. Wheatley (STScI)

However, study of the HST data revealed something surprising: the stream of ejected gas did not originate at the star’s rotational poles, as current stellar models would suggest. Rather, the Hubble data indicates that Betelgeuse can drive off material from any part of its surface. The data also revealed that during the event, the star lost a considerable amount of mass – around twice the “normal” amount it loses in a given period, just from its southern hemisphere. This in itself makes what happened to Betelgeuse unique: nothing like it has been previously seen in 150 years of observations.

Whether or not this means we’re seeing a new stage in Betelgeuse’s life cycle is unclear, but the mystery doesn’t end there. This is because data gathered by NASA’s Sun-orbiting Solar TErrestrial RElations (STEREO) satellite appear to suggest the star is again dimming, and outside of its more cycles. Until now, Betelgeuse has had two cycles of dimming and brightening. The first runs for around 25 years, the other runs through 425 days. Both coincided during the 2019/2020 dimming, contributing it. Thus for the star to be dimming now puts it well inside the 425 day cycle. Exactly what all this means isn’t exactly clear, but it has sparked considerable interest and observers will continue to monitor it through the rest of the year.

Quick Round-up

The last week saw the 2020 Perseids meteor shower reached its peak as the Earth passes through debris left by the comet Swift-Tuttle. As is usual, the event resulted in many outstanding photos, including the one below.

August 11th/12th: a Perseid meteor streaks toward the bright planet Jupiter (to the right of the windmill) and its dimmer companion Saturn (to the left) in the countryside near Las Vegas. Credit: Tyler Leavitt


The next flight of the SpaceX Crew Dragon vehicle has been announced. Crew-1, the first “operational” flight will now targeted for October 23rd, 2020, when it well carry NASA astronauts Shannon Walker, Victor Oliver and Mike Hopkins, together with JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi as the nucleus of the Expedition 64 crew.

Originally scheduled for a late September / early October launch, the mission has been pushed back to allow additional time for the Russian Soyuz MS-17 mission to launch and rendezvous with the ISS.

The astronauts who will fly the NASA / SpaceX Crew-1 mission on or after October 23rd: NASA astronauts Shannon Walker, mission specialist; Victor Oliver, pilot; and Mike Hopkins, Crew Dragon commander; and JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi
After its 150m “hop”, Starship prototype SN5 has been rolled back for inspection and re-fit – possibly with the lengthened landing legs I mentioned in me previous space Sunday update. In the meantime, it appears that the next vehicle to make a test flight will be Starship prototype SN6. A further prototype, dubbed SN7.1, and comprising just a single fuel tank that uses new alloy end caps, is being prepared for a deliberate over-pressurisation test. This test vehicle has been dubbed SN7.1 in recognition of the SN7 tank section that was also tested to destruction earlier in the year.

However, most attention has turned towards prototype SN8, as it has been confirmed this will be the first of the prototype to be fitted with the upper section, nose cone and aerodynamic “wing” surfaces, and so will likely be used for the 20-km flight tests.

The Starship SN8 prototype elements: within the mid-bay building, the upper section and nose cone; arrowed the forward aerodynamic canards. Credit: RGV Aerial


Whilst still 7 months from Mars, NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter drone, a part of the Mars 2020 mission and stowed under the Perseverance rover, had its batteries charged up to 35% capacity on August 7th, one week after launch. The 8 hour trickle-charge operation marked the first time the helicopter’s batteries have been charged in the space environment, allowing the vehicle to be powered-up.

The action was taken so that mission managers could check-out the drone’s electrical systems following launch and allow it to report on its overall status. The battery level will be maintained at the 35% charge level throughout the cruise phase, with routine re-charges, in order to allow the helicopter’s electronics to be warmed by a regular flow of electrical power.

Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) – due to hunt for exoplanets potentially orbiting hundreds of thousands of stars around us. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/CI Lab

On July 4, NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) finished its primary mission, imaging about 75% of the starry sky as part of a two-year-long survey. In capturing this giant mosaic, TESS has found 66 new exoplanets, or worlds beyond our solar system, as well as nearly 2,100 candidates astronomers are working to confirm.

During the first year of operations, TESS observed the southern sky, while in the second year, it turned its attention to the northern skies.  Allowing the way, the mission team has been able to introduce numerous improvements. Among other things, these now allow the satellite to capture a high-resolution image of the stars around us once every 10 minutes, three times faster than at the start of the mission, while it can now measure the comparative brightness of thousands of stares every 20 seconds, rather than every two minutes. These latter captures will more readily reveal changes in brightness that might be the result of a star “wobbling” in its spin due to the presence of planetary bodies (although TESS’s primary means of locating possible exoplanets is via the transit method) or the results of outbursts like coronal mass ejections (CMEs).

With the completion of its primary mission, TESS is into an extended mission, the first phase of which will run through until September 2020.

Virgin Galactic’s Supersonic Ambitions

As if flying tourists into space wasn’t enough, Virgin Galactic has announced it has entered into an agreement with Rolls Royce to build a new supersonic airliner aimed at the “premium” flight market.

The new aircraft – as yet unnamed – will, the company claim, fly some 50% faster than the Anglo-French Concorde, with a cruising speed of Mach 3 – allowing a crossing of the Atlantic in around 2 hours. If realised, the aircraft will cruise at an altitude of 18 km (60,000 ft) and will be capable of carrying up to 19 passengers.

An artist’s impression of the Virgin Galactic Mach 3 airliner. Credit: Virgin Galactic / Rolls Royce

Yes, that’s right. 19. The aircraft is intended to capture a modest percentage of the premium (business and first class) air travel market, with Virgin Galactic CEO Sir Richard Branson stating the company only need to capture 5% of that market to turn a profit. Currently, the aircraft has completed a “mission concept” review study involving Virgin Galactic, Rolls Royce (building of the engines that powered Concorde), aviation experts and NASA.

No details on when the aircraft might fly have been given, with the craft’s overall shape, size, dimensions, etc., yet to move out of conceptual drawings.