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What if Starship Didn’t Do a Landing Burn at All?

April 20th 2021 at 17:06

Thanks to Musk’s preference for sharing his ideas directly with the public, SpaceX is inundated with all kinds of proposals from citizen scientists and space-exploration enthusiasts – some of which are practical and some outlandish. This latest proposal definitely straddles these two categories! In an animation shared via Twitter, 3D digital artist Nick Henning offered an alternative vision for a SpaceX tower that could “catch” the Super Heavy.

For years, Musk has been keeping the public apprised of his company’s progress with the Starship super-heavy launch system. Once complete, this will be the first totally reusable rocket and the most powerful launch system ever built. This two-stage vehicle will consist of a spacecraft element (the Starship) and a first-stage rocket booster (Super Heavy).

A few months ago, Musk related via Twitter how he and SpaceX were investigating a special launch tower that could help retrieve the Super Heavy booster. This would set it apart from the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, which rely on their complement of Raptor engines to make a controlled descent, then land using a series of deployable legs.

This tower would “catch” the Super Heavy and lower it to slowly onto the landing pad. As Musk put it at the time:

“We’re going to try to catch the Super Heavy Booster with the launch tower arm, using the grid fins to take the load… Saves mass & cost of legs & enables immediate repositioning of booster on to launch mount—ready to refly in under an hour.”

Based on that description, another 3D designer (Youtube handle Mini3D) created the animation you see above. During a more recent exchange, Musk reiterated the idea in response to a tweet from a follower who was expressing admiration for SpaceX’s and its ongoing commitment to creating fully reusable launch systems.

“Starship booster, largest flying object ever designed, will be caught out of sky by launch tower,” Musk tweeted. “Big step forward, as reflight can be done in under an hour.”

Another user joined the thread and asked whether SpaceX would “catch” the Starship as well, or rely on a set of deployable landing legs. The question has been paramount since SpaceX began high-altitude flight tests with Starship prototypes. To date, all four prototypes (which rely on landing legs) have suffered mishaps and either exploded on the pad (SN8, SN9, and SN10), or in midair (SN11). In response, Musk tweeted the following:

“Ideal scenario imo is catching Starship in horizontal “glide” with no landing burn, although that is quite a challenge for the tower! Next best is catching with tower, with emergency pad landing mode on skirt (no legs).”

I had a crazy idea after @elonmusk recently tweeted,

"Ideal scenario imo is catching Starship in horizontal "glide" with no landing burn, although that is quite a challenge for the tower…"

This crazy big catch tower may be up to the challenge?

But probably not… pic.twitter.com/3L1NST6YeV

— Nick Henning (@nickhenning3d) April 15, 2021

This inspired a bold response from 3D digital artist Nick Henning, who posted a response a few days later (on April 15th, 2021). In a 3D animation that Henning made himself, he showed how a “crazy big catch tower” could cradle the Starship after it reoriented itself in the air (aka. the “belly-flop” maneuver) and made its horizontal descent. This would do away with the tricky engine reignition and landing burn.

It is at this point that the Starship prototype swings its back end around and lowers itself onto the landing pad. Instead, Henning produced a variant of the launch tower that relied on a cradle and a counterweight. As you can see from the video (posted above), the Starship would land horizontally on the cradle (i.e., no landing burn), which would absorb the force of the fall and come to a rest.

In practice, the concept looks a lot like a swing set, or possibly a reverse-trebuchet – but where the Starship is the missile. Henning himself expressed doubt that the concept would solve SpaceX’s current quandary. “This crazy big catch tower may be up to the challenge?” he wrote. “But probably not…” Nevertheless, it does illustrate how the challenges posed by reusable launch vehicles are leading to all kinds of innovative solutions.

It also shows how visualizations can help ideas from the theory stage to the point where they become standard practice. Other animations that have been contributed in recent years include a rendering of the Starship conducting the belly-flop maneuver and soft landing and the radical proposal known as the “artificial gravity Starship.”

The post What if Starship Didn’t Do a Landing Burn at All? appeared first on Universe Today.

Crew-2 Astronauts Head to Space Station to Conduct Microgravity Science

 







SpaceX & NASA - Dragon Crew-2 Mission patch.


April 20, 2021

NASA’s SpaceX Crew-2 mission is set to launch four astronauts to the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon on Earth Day, April 22. The four include NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur and, a first for the Commercial Crew Program, two international partners, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Akihiko Hoshide and ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Thomas Pesquet.

The Crew-2 astronauts will join the other members of Expedition 65, NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei and cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy and Pyotr Dubrov of Roscosmos, for a six-month mission conducting science experiments in low-Earth orbit. An important scientific focus on this expedition is continuing a series of Tissue Chips in Space studies. Tissue chips are small models of human organs containing multiple cell types that behave much the same as they do in the body.


Image above: NASA astronaut Kate Rubins conducts operations for the Cardinal Heart tissue chip investigation in December 2020. Image Credit: NASA.

These chips may make it possible to identify safe and effective therapeutics – drugs or vaccines – much more quickly than the standard process. In addition, many changes occurring in the human body during spaceflight resemble the onset and progression of aging and diseases on Earth but occur much more quickly in microgravity. Scientists use specialized tissue chips in space to model diseases that affect specific organs in the human body but that might take months or years to develop on Earth.

Tissue chips are one aspect of tissue engineering, which uses a combination of cells, engineering, and materials to restore, maintain, improve, or replace biological tissues. Tissues engineered on Earth require some sort of scaffold on which to grow and can only reach a thickness of at most 1 centimeter, or just over a quarter inch. But in microgravity, rather than growing in a flat layer, cells can grow into three dimensions that closely mimic tissues in the body.

“We know that cells communicate with each other and that this communication is critical for proper functioning,” says Liz Warren, senior program director at the ISS U.S. National Laboratory. “We don’t fully understand why, but in microgravity, cell-to-cell communication works differently than it does in a cell culture flask on Earth. Cells also aggregate or gather together differently in microgravity. These features allow cells to behave more like they do when inside the body. Thus, microgravity appears to provide a unique opportunity for tissue engineering.”


Animation above: This animation shows testing of the Roll-out Solar Array, or ROSA, from June 2017. The first solar panels with the new roll-out design travel to the space station on the Crew-2 launch. Animation Credit: NASA.

A partnership between the ISS National Lab and the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) has sent tissue chips to the space station to analyze the effects of microgravity on human health and translate that to improvements on Earth. Investigations are using tissue chips to study aging of the immune system, lung immune response, musculoskeletal disease, kidney function, muscle loss or sarcopenia, and more.

All tissue chip investigations are assigned two flights, Warren explains, with a number of these experiments launching for the second time during Expedition 65. “The first flight is a validation of the system. The second flight is generally intended to test a therapeutic or therapeutics.”


Image above: NASA and Boeing workers lift solar arrays into flight support equipment on April 2, 2021, in the Space Station Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The 63- by- 20-foot solar arrays will launch to the International Space Station later this year. Image Credits: NASA/KSC.

Another important element of Crew-2’s mission is updating the station’s solar power system by installing the ISS Roll-out Solar Array (iROSA) – compact panels that roll open like a huge yoga mat. The technology development dates back to 2009, benefiting from dozens of NASA Small Business Innovation Research awards and later ground demonstrations. In 2017, the basic design underwent testing on the space station to determine its strength and durability. The Expedition 65 crew is scheduled to begin preparations for supplementing the station’s existing rigid panels this summer with the first pair of six new arrays.

One research investigation flying aboard Crew Dragon with Crew-2, CHIME, studies possible causes for suppressed immune response in microgravity. Microgravity may cause changes to the human immune system, a possible concern for long-term space travel. The CHIME investigation could help identify potential causes of immune system dysfunction and lead to ways to prevent or counteract it, helping space travelers as well as those with compromised immune systems on Earth.


Image above: Crew-2 members pictured during a training session at the SpaceX facility in Hawthorne, California. From left, Thomas Pesquet of the ESA (European Space Agency), NASA astronauts Megan McArthur and Shane Kimbrough, and Akihiko Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). Image Credit: SpaceX.

Crew members remain incredibly busy between maintenance and upgrades to the station itself inside and out, daily activities to keep themselves healthy, and a full slate of scientific research – the station’s primary purpose. Adding more crew members aboard the microgravity laboratory increases the time available for scientific activities. The November 2020 addition of the Crew-1 team, NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, and Shannon Walker and JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi, to the Expedition 64 crew of cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov and NASA astronaut Kate Rubins more than doubled crew hours spent on scientific research and support activities.

Crew-2’s Earth Day launch seems fitting, given that the space station contributes significantly to climate research. Expedition 65 astronauts join many others before them in recording our planet through the Crew Earth Observations (CEO) project. Overall, crew members have taken more than 1.5 million images of Earth, contributing to scientific research such as studies on artificial lighting at night, algal blooms, and the breakdown of Antarctic ice shelves.


Image above: Waters of the Red Sea off the northwest coastline of Saudi Arabia are home to some 260 coral reef species. This image was taken by space station crew members in November 2020 as part of the Crew Earth Observations (CEO) project. Image Credit: NASA.

When the members of Crew-2 return to Earth in the fall, they will have upped that image tally as well as the total number of hours spent on scientific activities in space. With astronauts already chosen for Crew-3 and Crew-4, the orbiting lab continues to rack up impressive results.

Related links:

Crew-1: https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-s-spacex-crew-1-astronauts-headed-to-international-space-station

Crew-2 mission: https://blogs.nasa.gov/commercialcrew/2021/01/29/nasa-spacex-to-launch-second-commercial-crew-rotation-mission-to-international-space-station/

Crew-3: https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-esa-choose-astronauts-for-spacex-crew-3-mission-to-space-station/

Crew-4: https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-assigns-astronauts-to-agency-s-spacex-crew-4-mission-to-space-station/

Commercial Crew Program: https://www.nasa.gov/exploration/commercial/crew/index.html

Tissue Chips in Space: https://www.nasa.gov/tissue-chips/

ISS U.S. National Laboratory: https://www.issnationallab.org/

Musculoskeletal disease: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/experiments/explorer/Investigation.html?#id=7663

Muscle loss: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/experiments/explorer/Investigation.html?#id=8313

Roll-out Solar Array (iROSA): https://www.nasa.gov/feature/new-solar-arrays-to-power-nasa-s-international-space-station-research

CHIME: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/experiments/explorer/Investigation.html?#id=8323

Crew Earth Observations (CEO): https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/experiments/explorer/Investigation.html?#id=84

Spot the Station: https://spotthestation.nasa.gov/

Space Station Research and Technology: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/overview.html

International Space Station (ISS): https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/main/index.html

Animation (mentioned), Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Michael Johnson/JSC/International Space Station Program Research Office/Melissa Gaskill.

Best regards, Orbiter.ch

AE Industrial Partners’ American Pacific Corp. invests in Frontier Aerospace

April 20th 2021 at 16:25

SAN FRANCISCO – AE Industrial Partners subsidiary American Pacific Corp. announced a multimillion-dollar investment in Frontier Aerospace, a space propulsion startup based in Simi Valley, California. The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Private equity firm AE Industrial Partners has become well known in the space industry since last year when it founded Redwire, a space structures firm growing rapidly through acquisitions that plans to become a publicly traded company through a merger with a special-purpose acquisition corporation.

In 2020 AE Industrial Partners acquired American Pacific, a specialty materials manufacturer based in Cedar City, Utah. Frontier is American Pacific’s first investment since its acquisition.

“With our investment in Frontier, we now have a strategic partner in next-generation, in-space liquid propulsion technology,” American Pacific CEO Hal Murdock said in a statement. “Jim and the Frontier team bring a strong space heritage and have a solid reputation for innovation, and we are proud to work together to better serve our launch industry customers.”

Frontier is unusual for a space industry startup because it has not sought outside investment, fueling its growth through contracts, until now. Frontier was formed in 2014 by Jim McKinnon, a former propulsion research engineer at Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne. Prior to establishing Frontier Aerospace, McKinnon ran Frontier Engineering, a consulting firm he founded in 1997.

Frontier has raised its profile in the last year as it won contracts to provide propulsion systems for lunar landers being built by Astrobotic and Masten Space Systems.

“With American Pacific’s investment, we gain additional resources to take advantage of the tremendous interest in today’s space industry, combined with the added benefit of their deep defense industry expertise,” McKinnon said in a statement. “We also look forward to leveraging AEI’s relationships and intimate understanding of aerospace and defense’s unique challenges.”

With funds provided by American Pacific, which is claiming a minority stake in the business, Frontier plans to expand its staff and testing operations.

“Guidance navigation and control and in-space propulsion are critical to the national defense and space industries, and we are pleased to have American Pacific partner with a company on the cutting edge of next-generation liquid propulsion technologies,” said Kirk Konert, a Partner at AEI. “We’re excited about the possibilities that a partnership between two well-respected leaders can offer.”

Bryce Dabbs, Frontier finance and operations vice president, told SpaceNews, “This is the start of a prolonged relationship with AE Industrial Partners and American Pacific.”

SpaceNews

SpaceX Crew-2 Dragon ‘go’ for launch April 22

April 20th 2021 at 16:00
The Falcon 9 with the Crew-2 Dragon, Endeavour, on Launch Complex 39A. Credit: Theresa Cross / Spaceflight Insider

The Falcon 9 with the Crew-2 Dragon, Endeavour, on Launch Complex 39A. Credit: Theresa Cross / Spaceflight Insider

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — In just a couple days, the second operational Crew Dragon mission, Crew-2, is set to fly atop a Falcon 9 rocket from historic Launch Complex 39A for a six-month stay aboard the International Space Station.

Crew-2 will use the same spacecraft that carried NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley for the Demo-2 crew test in in May 2020: Endeavour. This time the vehicle will carry NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Akihiko Hoshide and European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet to the International Space Station for a six-month flight.

During a NASA press conference, the four Crew-2 veteran astronauts all agree that “working with SpaceX and their dynamic, living and working together as they train” has been one of their favorite parts of their preparedness for the launch of Crew Dragon, currently slated for 6:11 a.m. EDT (10:11 UTC) April 22, 2021.

Seeing the SpaceX Falcon 9 spacecraft going vertical was another special moment for the astronauts as the crew approached the launch pad on April 16, not long after they arrived at Kennedy Space Center in advance of their mission. Collectively the crew expressed their anticipation for “feeling the pounding in their chest and feelings those G’s” in a live NASA teleconference on April 17.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket has been going through a series of pre-flight checks and a static fire test was completed early morning on Saturday April 17. A static fire test is where rocket engines are briefly ignited while the vehicle is anchored to the ground.

An infographic showing some of the basic Crew-2 details. Credit: Derek Richardson/Spaceflight Insider/Orbital Velocity

An infographic showing some of the basic Crew-2 details. Credit: Derek Richardson/Spaceflight Insider/Orbital Velocity

Meanwhile, the completion of the flight readiness review was completed on April 15 and the launch readiness review on April 20.

“We’re ‘go’ for launch,” said Steve Stich, manager of the Commercial Crew Program at Kennedy Space Center, in a NASA blog post. “Both Thursday and Friday launch weather looks good, with concern of winds around the pad for Thursday. Downrange weather is trickier as the front and the winds combine to create winds and waves. Friday looks better than Thursday, but we’ll continue to watch; we have another briefing tomorrow and will decide when the right time to make a decision is.”

Right now the 45th Weather Squadron is predicting an 80% chance of favorable weather conditions for the April 22 launch attempt, with the primary concern being winds at liftoff.

However, this forecast doesn’t take into account conditions downrange in Crew Dragon abort zones.

A backup launch date of April 23 is available, should the launch get delayed. After that, opportunities move to April 26 or April 27, according to Stitch.

Of note, this is the first mission approved by NASA to use SpaceX’s previously-flown hardware for a human spaceflight mission. The Falcon 9 first stage, core B1061-2, was first used for the Crew-1 mission in November 2020.

The Crew-2 astronauts pose for a picture beneath their rocket. Credit: NASA/SpaceX

The Crew-2 astronauts pose for a picture beneath their rocket. Credit: NASA/SpaceX

Once in orbit, Crew-2 Dragon is slated to take about a day to reach the ISS, docking with the forward port of the Harmony module at about 5:30 a.m. EDT (9:30 UTC) April 23. They are replacing the Crew-1 astronauts — NASA’s Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, and Shannon walker and JAXA’s Soichi Noguchi — who have been aboard the ISS since November 2020 when they launched in Crew Dragon Resilience.

Some of the science experiments to be performed by this crew at the International Space Station include tissue engineering in microgravity. The experimental research of 3D tissues in space will help to focus on the use of stem cells and specialized cells, which can be used for drug testing and for radiation experiments on earth.

Also, in-space production of Retinol implants is another item of research. Additionally, lung tissue, a 3D bio-printer and tissue chip investigations, which could be used as disease models, are a few more of the investigations expected to be performed on the space laboratory in the coming months.

The Crew-2 astronauts are expected to return to Earth sometime in October, likely following the arrival of the Crew-3 Dragon mission.

Video credit: NASA

The post SpaceX Crew-2 Dragon ‘go’ for launch April 22 appeared first on SpaceFlight Insider.

NASA Removes Rocket Core Stage for Artemis Moon Mission from Stennis Test Stand

April 20th 2021 at 15:59
Crews at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, worked April 19-20 to remove the first flight core stage of the agency’s Space Launch System rocket from the B-2 Test...

NASA Removes Rocket Core Stage for Artemis Moon Mission from Stennis Test Stand

Crews at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, worked April 19-20 to remove the first flight core stage of the agency’s Space Launch System rocket from the B-2 Test...

Astronauts flying reused SpaceX rocket, capsule for 1st time

For the first time, NASA is putting its trust in a recycled SpaceX rocket and capsule for a crew.

Did you know? There is a scientific paper written on belly button lint

April 20th 2021 at 14:28
Chemist Georg Steinhauser collected pieces of belly-button fluff from his navel, recording their colour and weight

One Idea to Explain Dark Matter – Ultralight Bosons – Fails the Test

April 20th 2021 at 14:04

Dark matter continues to resist our best efforts to pin it down. While dark matter remains a dominant theory of cosmology, and there is lots of evidence to support a universe filled with cold dark matter, every search for dark matter particles yields nothing. A new study continues that tradition, ruling out a range of dark matter candidates.

What we know about dark matter interactions. Credit: Perimeter Institute

If dark matter particles exist, we know they can’t interact strongly with light. They must interact gravitationally, and they might interact via the strong and weak nuclear forces as well. We also know they can’t be highly massive particles. If they were, they’d decay over time into lighter particles, and we see little evidence of this. This leaves three broad candidates: small black holes, sterile neutrinos, or some type of light boson. This latest work focuses on the third option.

A table of supersymetric particles. Credit: Claire David / CERN

Known elementary particles of matter can be placed in one of two categories: fermions and bosons. So, electrons, quarks, and neutrinos are fermions, while photons and gluons are bosons. Within the standard model of particle physics, there are no bosons that would fit the bill for dark matter. But some alternative models predict particles that could be dark matter. Supersymmetry models, for example, predict that every known fermion must have a corresponding boson and vice versa. Thus, the electron would have a counterpart boson known as the selectron, the photon would have a counterpart fermion known as the photino, and so forth. Another possibility are axions, which were proposed in 1977 to address subtle aspects of how quarks interact.

Both axions and supersymmetry particles could be low-mass bosons and would satisfy the needs of dark matter. But if either exists, they haven’t been found thus far. Still, these light bosons would interact with regular matter gravitationally, hence this latest study.

Bosons can slow down a black hole like kids jumping on a merry-go-round. Credit: Jose-Luis Olivares, MIT

If dark matter is made of light bosons, then these particles would be spread across the universe, including near black holes. A black hole would gravitationally capture nearby bosons, thus increasing its mass. If a black hole is rotating, the capture of dark matter particles would also tend to slow down its rotation. You can imagine children at a playground that has a merry-go-round. If children jump onto the merry-go-round as it is spinning, the merry-go-round will slow down slightly because of the added mass. The same would be true for black holes.

In other words, dark matter bosons would limit the rate that black holes rotate. The team realized that heavier bosons would limit black holes more, and lighter bosons would constrain them less. So they looked at the LIGO and Virgo data of black hole mergers, which tells us the rotation rate of black holes before they merge. It turns out that some of these black holes rotated so quickly that it rules out the existence of ultra-light dark matter bosons. Based on this study, dark matter can’t be axions or light supersymmetry particles.

So once again, a search for dark matter has shown us not what dark matter is, but what it isn’t. It’s extremely frustrating, and potentially exciting because we are quickly running out of options for dark matter.

Reference: Ng, Ken KY, et al. “Constraints on Ultralight Scalar Bosons within Black Hole Spin Measurements from the LIGO-Virgo GWTC-2.” Physical Review Letters 126.15 (2021): 151102.

The post One Idea to Explain Dark Matter – Ultralight Bosons – Fails the Test appeared first on Universe Today.

New Horizons passes milestone distance 50 AU

April 20th 2021 at 14:00
Diagram: planetary orbits, with fuzzy ring (Kuiper Belt), and lines showing paths of distant spacecraft.

View larger. | This diagram illustrates the 5 missions that have gone farther than 50 astronomical units (AU) from the sun. An AU is about the distance between the Earth and sun. New Horizons reached this milestone on April 17, 2021, after exploring Pluto and another distant object called Arrokoth. Image via NASA/ Johns Hopkins APL/ Southwest Research Institute.

Until recently, only four spacecraft had journeyed as far into space as 50 astronomical units (AU), or 50 times Earth’s distance from the sun. On April 17, 2021, New Horizons became the fifth human-made object to reach this rare space milestone. The spacecraft broke the 50 AU mark on its trek out of the solar system, nearly six years after its successful sweep past Pluto in July 2015. NASA described the current distance of New Horizons from our sun in this way:

Here’s one way to imagine just how far 50 AU is: Think of the solar system laid out on a neighborhood street; the sun is one house to the left of ‘home’ (or Earth), Mars would be the next house to the right, and Jupiter would be just four houses to the right. New Horizons would be 50 houses down the street, 17 houses beyond Pluto!

In other words, it’s far away. Why? Because space is vast!

Get an idea of how vast by visiting the interactive diagram of solar system distances at If the Moon Were Only 1 Pixel.

Pioneer 10, Pioneer 11, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 are the only other spacecraft that have traveled farther than 50 AU from our sun. This distance equals about 5 billion miles (7.5 billion km). When scientists on Earth send a command to New Horizons, it requires seven hours to reach the distant spacecraft, traveling at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second, or about 300,000 km per second). Then the scientists must wait another seven hours to know if the message was received.

One message the scientists sent to New Horizons, in late 2020, was a request to photograph one of its predecessors. On Christmas Day 2020, New Horizons pointed its camera in the direction of Voyager 1, the first spacecraft to cross the 50 AU mark. The remarkable image, seen below, does not capture the figure of Voyager 1 itself, of course. Voyager 1 is 11.2 billion miles (18 billion kilometers) farther away than New Horizons, but it is the first image taken by a spacecraft in the Kuiper Belt of a more distant spacecraft. Voyager 1 is now an amazing 152 AU from the sun and has officially left the bounds of the solar system as it journeys through interstellar space. New Horizons will reach our solar system’s “border” and cross into interstellar space in the 2040s, as it flies outward into territory no longer dominated by our sun.

Star field with dark area circled.

You need imagination for this image. In the yellow circle is a very distant spacecraft, Voyager 1, launched from Earth in 1977 and now 152 AU from the sun. New Horizons was launched in 2006 and is now at 50 AU. Last December 25, New Horizons pointed its camera toward Voyager 1’s location in the sky. Voyager 1 was the 1st spacecraft to leave our solar system and is the farthest human-made object from Earth. New Horizons is currently the 5th-farthest object. Image via NASA/ Johns Hopkins APL/ SwRI.

Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute (SWRI) in Boulder, Colorado, commented on the image of Voyager 1:

That’s a hauntingly beautiful image to me. Looking back at the flight of New Horizons from Earth to 50 AU almost seems in some way like a dream. Flying a spacecraft across our entire solar system to explore Pluto and the Kuiper Belt had never been done before New Horizons. Most of us on the team have been a part of this mission since it was just an idea, and during that time our kids have grown up, and our parents, and we ourselves, have grown older. But most importantly, we made many scientific discoveries, inspired countless STEM careers, and even made a little history.

Boxy spacecraft with radio dish. Part of a planet in background along with distant sun.

Artist’s concept of the New Horizons spacecraft as it journeys past Pluto. Image via NASA.

While New Horizons won’t exactly catch up to and meet Voyager 1 (they’re not even traveling in the same direction), it is the fastest human-made object ever launched from Earth. New Horizons got an additional boost with a gravity-assist flyby of Jupiter in February 2007. While it was at Jupiter, it took the best views ever of Jupiter’s faint ring and captured the first movie of a volcano erupting beyond Earth.

After its enormously successful exploration of Pluto, delivering amazing photos that changed the way we view the petite world, it continued traveling outward, giving us the first close-up look at a Kuiper Belt object, Arrokoth, in 2019.

Orangish snowman-shaped rock with two lobes, one much bigger.

Arrokoth, the snowman-shaped Kuiper Belt object, was visited by New Horizons on January 1, 2019. Image via NASA/ Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/ SwRI/ Roman Tkachenko.

But New Horizons may not be done yet. It has enough power in its nuclear battery to continue operating until the late 2030s. It just needs a new object to target.

Yes if we can find one within fuel reach. Searching…

— Alan Stern (@AlanStern) April 17, 2021

Until next time, New Horizons …

Bottom line: NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has now officially crossed the mark of 50 astronomical units from the sun as it speeds toward interstellar space. The spacecraft took an image of its predecessor in a first-of-its-kind photo.

Via NASA

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