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NASA has made sending people to Mars its number one priority

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NASA is very serious about sending people to Mars in near future. Not that we didn’t knew that already, but now it seems like this goal has become its number one priority judging by certain statements made by Charles Bolden this past Thursday. The space agency’s administrator has reiterated that putting people to Mars is the next big step in terms of space exploration and that a lot of NASA‘s other projects are directly tied to that goal. Humanity’s journey to the Red Planet has been a hot topic of discussion for many years, however, it seemed like more of a pipe dream than anything else until now. Sure, we’re more than capable of sending probes and rovers over there, but we’re still years away from sending a manned missions. How many years? About 15-20 or so.

It may seem like a pretty long time to wait, but having the first humans on the surface of Mars sometime during the 2030s will still be a pretty big achievement if you ask me. Other, more optimistic organizations like Elon Musk’s SpaceX plan to achieve this sooner than that, but Bolden is skeptical that anyone will be able to reach Mars without help from NASA. “No commercial company without the support of NASA and government is going to get to Mars,” he said on Thursday. That may sound a bit harsh, but Bolden is basically just saying what most of us were thinking anyway. However, the folks over at SpaceX have proven to be reliable partners for NASA in recent years and their accomplishments are not to be overlooked, so maybe we shouldn’t dismiss Elon Musk’s company just yet.

Aside from planning a manned mission to Mars, NASA is also working on putting the James Webb telescope (successor to the Hubble) into orbit, sending a probe to explore Europa, and developing the Asteroid Redirect Missions, to name just a few of its current projects. In addition, the agency also promises that it will be able to provide “definitive evidence” for the existence of alien life within a decade or two. Needless to say, NASA is very busy at the moment and we’re very excited to see what other ambitious projects they will be announcing next.

Astronomy

Orbex’s recent funding could expedite the launch of its Prime microlauncher into space

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Orbex, a small launch company based in the UK, got more money from backers, including Scotland’s national bank. The company is now getting ready for its first orbital launch, but the date for that mission has not yet been set.

With its start in 2015, Orbex is one of only a few companies in Europe racing to make the next generation of launch vehicles. The retirement of the Ariane 5 and big delays to the Ariane 6 and Vega C rockets have left a huge gap that these companies are trying to fill. Without these vehicles, there is almost no native launch capacity coming out of Europe.

But Orbex also has a chance because of his absence. The company is working on what is sometimes called a “microlauncher.” It is a two-stage vehicle called Prime that is only 19 meters tall and can take up to 180 kilograms of payload. Rocket Lab’s Electron is the most similar. It’s only a meter shorter, but it can take up to 300 kilograms.

The fact that Orbex is small is not a problem for the company. In fact, Orbex CEO Philip Chambers told TechCrunch via email that the company is seeing “positive market conditions” for its product.

“There is a pent-up demand for sovereign launch capabilities,” he said. “We are seeing an exponential growth of satellites being launched into LEO, and demand for launch is far exceeding supply. At the moment, it’s not possible to launch a single kilogram from Europe.” “We will let European customers choose how to launch their own payloads and let them launch European payloads from European soil.”

Prime will take off from a new spaceport being built with money from the UK’s national space agency in Sutherland, which is in northern Scotland. The end goal is to use a patented recovery technique that the company calls REFLIGHT. This is an interstage device that sits between the rocket stages. When the booster comes off, four “petals” will unfold and, along with a parachute, create enough drag for a soft landing in the ocean.

It’s possible that a bigger car will be made in the future, but Chambers made it clear that Prime was the company’s top goal. He did say, though, that many of the rocket’s main technologies could be used with bigger packages.

Considering the laws of physics, it would be logical for Orbex to explore the option of using larger vehicles in order to compete on cost per kg.

The company is starting its Series D round with £16.7 million ($20.7 million) in new funding, including investments from Octopus Ventures, BGF, Heartcore, EIFO, and other contributors. Following the closure of a £40.4 million ($50 million) Series C in October 2022, Orbex has secured additional capital. Although a spokesperson has confirmed that the new funding will assist Orbex in accelerating the development of Prime, ensuring its readiness and scalability for the launch period, the specific launch window has not been announced yet.

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Science

Amateur astronomers took a picture of the first supernova in a galaxy 22 million light-years away

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Not long after one of the closest supernovae of the century was found, another one just a little farther away has shown up. Professional pictures of the star exploding have not been released yet, but amateur pictures are filling in the gaps. However, many of the amateurs live too far north to be able to take part.

Since the invention of the telescope, there haven’t been any supernova explosions in our galaxy, though there might be some that are dust-obscured. Adding 1987a to our local group of galaxies is the only one that astronomers have seen in their entire careers. That’s a shame, because these are some of the coolest and most useful astronomical events, and a galaxy the size of the Milky Way should have one about every hundred years.

That makes the next ring of galaxies beyond the local group even more important. This century, there have been five galaxies that are 22 million light-years away or less. This new one, SN 2024ggi, was seen for the first time on April 11 and may still be getting brighter.

Last year, small telescopes were able to see the most recent nearby supernova, 2023xf. As an added bonus, it was in the Pinwheel galaxy, which is always a popular place for amateur astronomers to look.

SN 2024ggi is in NGC 3621, which isn’t quite as impressive because we see it all the way along one edge. Even so, if you have a good enough telescope, it’s still a beautiful sight. NGC 3621 is 22 million light-years away, which is a million more than the Pinwheel. However, these numbers aren’t exactly accurate, so it’s possible that it’s a little closer. Both are going almost the opposite way. The pinwheel is so far to the north that it never sets in Europe or most of North America. While NGC 3621 is at 33 degrees south, it’s almost impossible to see from Britain and can only be seen for a short time from most of the US.

Magnitude is a measure of how bright a star is. Magnitudes 5 and below can be seen with the naked eye in dark skies, while magnitudes above 5 get fainter.

ATLAS, which stands for the Asteroid Terrestrial-Impact Last Alert System, made the new find. ATLAS’ main job is to look for space rocks close by. With four telescopes on three continents, it now finds more supernovae than any other sky survey. When it was found, SN 2024ggi was about 19th magnitude, which means that backyard astronomers would need a very large telescope.

That’s not unusual; just this year, dozens of supernovae were recorded at 16th or 14th magnitude. However, because they were so far away, very few got brighter than that. At the same brightness, 2023ixf was seen, but it got brighter by more than a hundred times and reached its brightest point at 10.9. It has gone down to 12th magnitude after almost a year.

Many people say that 2024 g is brighter than a 12th magnitude star nearby, even though official records show that it is getting brighter to 14th magnitude. There would be a lot more people with the right tools to catch it if that’s the case.

Five supernovae have been seen in the Pinwheel galaxy since 1900 because it is so busy making new stars. This is the first supernova seen in NGC 3621.

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Astronomy

The Ingenuity team at NASA has received their last communication, however, the Mars helicopter is still operational

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The NASA Ingenuity team said goodbye to the helicopter robot and got one last message before splitting up. But ingenuity isn’t really dead yet; it will still be collecting data on Mars.

It’s a great little robot, and in April 2021, it was the first to fly powered and controlled on a planet other than Earth. That’s not easy to do because conditions on Mars are so different.

“The Red Planet has a much lower gravity—one-third that of Earth’s—and an extremely thin atmosphere with only 1% of Earth’s pressure at the surface,” NASA said in a press release after Ingenuity’s first flight. “This means there are relatively few air molecules with which Ingenuity’s two 4-foot-wide (1.2-meter-wide) rotor blades can interact to achieve flight.”

It was planned for the helicopter, which was really just a prototype, to make five flights over 30 days on Mars. Instead, it made 72 flights over 1,000 days. NASA started to use it to get a bird’s-eye view of Mars and find interesting places for Perseverance to go back and look at more closely.

On the 72nd flight, unfortunately, Ingenuity had to make an emergency landing and lost touch with Perseverance. When they got in touch again, pictures from the helicopter showed that a rotor was badly damaged, so Ingenuity would not be able to fly again.

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Even though the helicopter can’t fly anymore, it can still gather information and send it to Perseverance. Perseverance then sends the information to Earth through NASA’s Deep Space Network. Before the Ingenuity team broke up, they got one last message from Ingenuity and ate cake to celebrate.

“I’m sorry, Dylan Thomas, but Ingenuity will not be going gently into that good Martian night,” said Josh Anderson, lead of the Ingenuity team at JPL. “It’s hard to believe that she still has something to give after more than 1,000 days on Mars’ surface, 72 flights, and one rough landing.” Because of how hard this amazing team worked, not only did Ingenuity do better than we thought it would, but it may also teach us new things in the years to come.

After stopping in “Valinor Hills” to rest, the robot’s job will be to gather data while it’s still, hopefully learning useful things about the planet’s environment before future missions with people.

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