UFO Buster Radio News – 353: SpaceX Lunar Gateway Missions, Starlink DarkSats, COVID-19 On Mars?
NASA’s eventual goal to send crewed missions to Mars will be easier to accomplish if we can return to the moon, but it won’t just be to visit this time. NASA intends to construct a space station in orbit of the moon called the Lunar Gateway, and SpaceX has the contract to supply that station.
The Gateway station is still in the very early planning stages, but its position in orbit of the moon rules out many of the launch platforms currently in use. So, it’s not terribly surprising that SpaceX would get the nod as it’s the only spaceflight operator with a flight-tested rocket capable of sending large payloads to the moon.
SpaceX says it will use the Falcon Heavy for Lunar gateway supply runs. This rocket is essentially three Falcon 9 rockets strapped together with some extra structural reinforcement on the center module. Most companies don’t need the super-heavy lift capabilities of the Falcon Heavy, so SpaceX has only launched a few commercial missions after the initial test flight that sent the first-ever car into outer space.
Missions to resupply the eventual Lunar Gateway station will make use of a modified Dragon capsule. This spacecraft will have more than five metric tons of cargo capacity, an upgrade over the current Dragon capsules.
Astronomers may have one less (satellite) constellation to worry about.
Late Friday, OneWeb announced it had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in a New York court. In a statement, the company said it had been in “advanced negotiations” since the beginning of the year to raise a new round of funding needed to complete its broadband satellite constellation. The company said it was close to completing that deal, but “the financial impact and market turbulence related to the spread of COVID-19” kept it from closing the deal.
Astronomers had started discussions with OneWeb about studying and potentially mitigating the effect those satellites would have on astronomical research. “We’ve had one telecon with OneWeb, and we hope to follow up with a second one shortly,” said Pat Seitzer, professor emeritus of astronomy at the University of Michigan and member of an American Astronomical Society (AAS) working group studying the effects of megaconstellations on astronomy, at a March 11 panel discussion on Capitol Hill on the issue. “They represent a different challenge.”
The primary concern of the American Astronomical Society working group, and many other astronomers, has been not OneWeb but instead SpaceX’s Starlink constellation. Since SpaceX launched the first batch of 60 Starlink satellites last May, many astronomers have been alarmed by the brightness of the satellites, which after launch are visible to the naked eye. The idea of a large constellation of such satellites—1,200 by the end of the year, growing to up to 12,000 and with proposals for 30,000 more satellites—led some astronomers to postulate doomsday scenarios for the field.
That session took place just a couple days after SpaceX launched its third set of 60 Starlink satellites. One of those 60, dubbed “DarkSat,” featured what Cooper called “various darkening treatments” to reduce its reflectivity. “The goal,” she said, “is to work with the astronomy community to observe and measure the effectiveness of these coatings.”
That couldn’t be done immediately after launch since DarkSat and the other Starlink satellites were deployed into a lower parking orbit and had to maneuver to their planned orbit of 550 kilometers, a process that takes weeks using their electric thrusters. By late February, DarkSat had reached its operational orbit, allowing for true comparisons with the other Starlink satellites.
SpaceX claimed earlier this month that the effort was at least partially successful. “Preliminary results show a notable reduction,” said Jessica Anderson, one of the hosts of SpaceX’s webcast of its latest Starlink launch March 18, said.
That “notable reduction,” though, may not be sufficient for astronomers. In a paper posted online March 17, astronomers said they estimated that DarkSat’s brightness had been reduced by about 55% compared to other Starlink satellites. That conclusion, they noted, was preliminary, and based primarily on a single night’s observations.
One of those other ideas is a “sunshade” of some kind that would be deployed from the satellite to block sunlight that might otherwise hit highly reflective surfaces of the satellite. In the launch webcast, SpaceX’s Anderson said the company was looking at testing the sunshade on a future Starlink satellite.
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk also mentioned the sunshade when he appeared at the Satellite 2020 conference in Washington March 9. “We are working with senior members of the science community and senior astronomers to minimize the potential for reflection from the satellites,” he said when asked about efforts to reduce the satellites’ brightness. “We’re running a bunch of experiments.”
Musk also said that the constellation will have no effect on astronomy, a claim most astronomers treat skeptically. “I am confident that we not cause any impact whatsoever in astronomical discoveries,” he said. “Zero. That’s my prediction. We will take corrective action if it’s above zero.”
Coronavirus Could Preview What Will Happen When Alien Life Reaches Earth
We are currently in the midst of a global near-panic over what, in some respects, is its own alien, or at least previously unknown, life-form: the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes the disease known as COVID-19. As of this writing, there have been close to 90,000 confirmed cases around the world, in 68 countries, leading to more than 3,000 deaths. Flights have been grounded, international business conventions canceled, the Tokyo Olympics are threatened, and a global recession looms. Last week in the U.S., the Dow Jones Industrial Average had its worst week since the recession of 2008 and 2009, shedding a third of its gains since the 2016 election, most of that due to fears of the impact of COVID-19.
On the one hand, there is almost no likelihood of any risk of contagion. As a column in Space.com pointed out last week, NASA has a long history of working to protect the Earth from biohazards from other planets and to protect other planets from biohazards from Earth. The space agency even has an entire division dedicated to that goal, formally known as the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance (OSMA), but more commonly and descriptively known as the Planetary Protection Office.
As OSMA puts it, its mission is to “carefully control forward contamination of other worlds by organisms and organic materials carried by spacecraft” and to “rigorously preclude backward contamination of Earth by extraterrestrial life.” If you have any question about which of those mission statements is the more important one, just consider the difference between a promise to “carefully control” something and to “rigorously preclude” it.
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