Update: The report on William Shatner flying on NS-17 has been revised to reflect the fact the launch has been pushed back 24 hours from Tuesday, October 16th, 2021 to Wednesday, October 17th, due to weather concerns.
One of the most ambitious robotic missions NASA has ever undertaken – in a long history of such missions – is due to be launched on Saturday, October 16th, 2021.
After lifting-off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station by a United Launch Alliance Atlas V-401 vehicle, the Lucy space vehicle – centrepiece of a US $981 million mission of the same name – will commence a 12-year mission that will carry it, by means of three Earth gravity assists, to explore some of the earliest remnants of the solar system.
These are the Jovian Trojan asteroids, the “leftovers” from the creation of the solar system. They orbit the Sun in two large clouds, one group, called the Greek Camp, leading Jupiter in its path around the Sun and that Jupiter-Sun L4 position, the other – the Trojan Camp – trailing behind the planet at the Jupiter-Sun L5 position.
The mission takes its name from the fossilised human ancestor (called “Lucy” by her discoverers) whose skeleton provided unique insight into humanity’s evolution. Likewise, it is hoped the Lucy mission will revolutionise our knowledge of planetary origins and the formation of the solar system.
The core element of the mission will be fly-bys of a total of asteroids, providing us with our first close-up view of all three major types of asteroids in the solar system. These are the D- and P-types that resemble those found in the Kuiper Belt of icy bodies that extends beyond the orbit of Neptune, and the D-type, which are found mostly within the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. All three types are thought to be abundant in dark carbon compounds, and that below an insulating blanket of dust, they might be rich in water and other volatile substances.
No other space mission in history has been launched to as many different destinations in independent orbits around our sun. Lucy will show us, for the first time, the diversity of the primordial bodies that built the planets. In order to do this, the mission will fly a complicated course: after launch, the craft will fly a circular orbit around the Sun close to Earth’s that will allow it use our gravity in 2022 to push it into a more elongated orbit, returning it to Earth once more in 2024, when it will again use our gravity to push it on toward the Greek Camp of Trojans.
Whilst on route, Lucy it will pass by the main asteroid 52246 Donaldjohanson, named for the discoverer of the Lucy hominin fossil. On reaching the Greek Camp in 2027, it pass through them, performing fly-bys of 3548 Eurybates and its companion Queta,15094 Polymele, 11351 Leucus, and 21900 Orus. Its orbit around the Sun will then bring it back to Earth in 2031, where it will once again use our gravity to swing it out into an orbit that will allow it to pass through the Trojan Camp of asteroids trailing behind Jupiter, which it will it 2033 and visit the binary asteroids 617 Patroclus and its satellite Menoetius. After this, the satellite will be in a stable 6-year orbit between the L4 and L5 clouds, and a mission extension will be possible.
The science payload for the mission comprises:
- L’Ralph – a panchromatic and colour visible imager (0.4-0.85 μm) and infrared spectroscopic mapper (1-3.6 μm). It will be used to measure silicates, ices, and organics at the surface.
- L’LORRI – a high-resolution visible imager that will provide the most detailed images of the surface of the Trojans.
- L’TES – a thermal infrared spectrometer (6-75 μm) that should reveal the thermal characteristics of the observed Trojans and so inform scientists of the composition and structure of the material on the surface of the asteroids.
- In addition, a radio science investigation will determine the mass of the Trojan asteroids by using the spacecraft radio telecommunications hardware and high-gain antenna to measure Doppler shifts.
In keeping with the Voyager and Pioneer missions, the spacecraft is also adorned with a golden plaque containing its launch date, the positions of the planets at the launch date, the continents of Earth at the time of launch, its nominal trajectory, and twenty speeches, poems, and song lyrics from people such as Martin Luther King Jr., Carl Sagan, The Beatles, and more.
It’s Space, Jim, But Not as You’ve Known it!
Whilst the Federation Aviation Administration may be looking into the recent allegations about the safety culture at Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, the company has confirmed rumours that the next flight of its New Shepard sub-orbital system will include none other than William Shatner – most famous for his TV and film roles as Captain James Tiberius Kirk, commanding officer aboard the USS Enterprise, NCC-1701 – among the crew.
As one of four passengers on NS-18, Shatner will lift-off on Wednesday, October 13th, 2021 (the launch being pushed back 24 hours due to anticipated weather over the launch / landing sites). He’ll fly alongside Blue Origin’s Vice President of Mission and Flight Operations Audrey Powers and Chris Boshuizen, co-founder of the Earth-observation company Planet, and Glen de Vries, co-founder of the medical software company Medidata Solutions.
Rumours started circulating about Shatner’s participation more than a week ago, and was confirmed just after the controversy about Blue Origin’s alleged faulty safety culture hit the media. After initially tweeting his participation in the flight in terms of becoming a “rocket man” – a reference to his 1978 cover of Elton John’s famous hit, Shatner appeared in a special panel at New York’s Comic Con and admitted he has some trepidations ahead of the flight.
I’m terrified! I know! I’m Captain bloody Kirk – and I’m terrified!
– William Shatner joking about his nervousness at the New York Comic Con 2021
His participation in the flight at the age of 90 will mean Shatner is set to become the oldest human to date to fly into space, just a few months after the record was set by Mary “Wally” Funk, who participated in the first crewed flight of the New Shepherd vehicle at the age of 82.
Commenting on his presence on the flight, Powers noted that she feels like she will be flying with three of her heroes – Shatner and alter-egos of Kirk and Denny Crane, the role that again made him a household name as a Boston-based lawyer.
As with previous New Shepard flights, NS-17 will last around 10-11 minutes in total, with around 2-3 minutes spent in micro-gravity conditions.
Seeking Oceans on Distant Worlds
To date, we have discovered 4,525 planets orbiting 3,357 stars, either alone or in combination, with a further potential 7,761 candidates that may well prove to be planets as well. This is a lot of alien worlds that need to be characterised if we are to assess their potential as havens for life or life-supporting elements and conditions.
Currently, the primary method we have for characterising worlds beyond our solar system is via one of the two main methods used to detect them: the transit method: monitoring stars for periodic dips in brightness which indicate one or more planets are passing between the star and Earth. In particular, when the alignment is right, the transit method enables astronomers to obtain the spectra of the star’s light as it passes through the transiting planet’s atmosphere (if it has one). Comparing this data with direct spectral observations of the star can highlight differences that point to the chemical composition of the planet’s atmosphere.
This kind of indirect analysis is informative, but not necessarily complete. This will require direct observation of exoplanets – something that will become somewhat possible in the near future, thanks to the likes of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), due to be launched in December 2021, and the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), set to become the largest Earth-based telescope in the world when it commences operations at the European Southern Observatory, high in the Atacama Desert, Chile in 2026/27.
These will enable astronomers to determine the composition of atmospheres around far-flung worlds, including whether or not they might contain water vapour – an important discovery, given water is one of the essentials of life as we understand it. However, a pair of researchers from the Northern Arizona University (NAU) have proposed a method that in the future could actually reveal whether or not an exoplanet has ocean on its surface.
Dominick J. Ryan, a postdoctoral researcher and Professor Tyler D. Robinson state this would be possible by for so-called planetary “red crescents”:
In the same way that sunlight glinting off the ocean when viewing a sunset from a beach on Earth looks quite red, we propose that glinting oceans on exoplanets could cause the entire planet to appear very red at crescent phases … So, by looking for signs that a potentially Earth-like exoplanet becomes very reflective and red at crescent phases, we might be able to make a detection of an ocean on that world.
– Ryan and Robinson in a statement accompanying their work
Unfortunately, neither JWST and the ELT will be able to resolve images of exoplanets sufficiently for the technique to be used. However, two proposed missions that may launch in the 2030s may well be able to do so. These are the Habitable Exoplanet Observatory (HabEx), and the Large Ultraviolet Optical Infrared Surveyor (LUVOIR). In the meantime, the researchers have suggested that given their work is based on computer simulations. attempts are made to image the crescent Earth from far out in space on a future missions to verify their idea.
International Space Station Update
NASA has reassigned two astronauts destined for the International Space Station (ISS) from Boeing commercial crew missions to a SpaceXflight as the agency addresses delays in the development of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, whilst also trying to reach a seat barter agreement with Russia.
Nicole Mann, originally slated to fly on the three-person Crew Flight Test (CFT) mission with Starliner, will now command the SpaceX Crew Dragon Crew-5 mission, slated for launch in the latter half of 2022, alongside of mission pilot Josh Cassada, who had been assigned to Starliner-1, the CST-100 flight that will follow CFT. Due to the issues with the Starliner vehicle, neither the CFT nor Starliner-1 have been scheduled.
Commenting on the re-assignments, NASA stated that they wanted to give the two rookie astronauts flight experience “sooner rather than later”. However, the full line-up for Crew-5 has yet to be confirmed, but NASA hope Russia will take at least one of the two seats, opening the door to a “seat exchange” system that will see cosmonauts fly on the US vehicles and US / EU astronauts fly aboard Soyuz without the usual seat fee charges.
In the meantime, the SpaceX / NASA Crew-3 mission to the ISS is due to launch at the end of October 2021. This flight will be the first for the third Crew Dragon vehicle NASA will use in ISS operations, and the fourth and final vehicle is expected to enter service in 2022.
Ahead of that launch, Soyuz MS-19 arrived at the ISS on October 5th, carrying veteran cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, combining the role of flight commander and pilot, with Russian film director Klim Shipenko and actress Yulia Peresild.
The latter two will spend 12 days on the ISS filming scenes for Shipenko’s new movie Vyzov (“Challenge”), in which Peresild plays the role of a heart surgeon flown to the station to performing emergency surgery. Most of the filming will be to capture the “realism” of moving around in micro-gravity, rather than recording major scenes for the movie, with Shkaplerov and his fellow cosmonauts aboard the station appearing in cameo roles. The move to allow the director and actress fly to the Russian portion of the station is seen in some quarters as a means of trying to renew interest in the Russian space programme on the part of the general public in Russia.