Highlights from the last few days about space and what’s coming up

It’s been a busy week in space with the launch of a resupply mission to the International Space Station, the Beresheet spacecraft entering lunar orbit, further speculation on the future of the SLS and commercial involvement in the Moon programme and the announcement that the Event Horizon Telescope may give us the first ever picture of the event horizon around the Super Massive Black Hole at the centre of our galaxy.

Beresheet

Israel’s Beresheet spacecraft reached lunar orbit today adding Israel to the short list of countries to achieve that. It’s quite an achievement as the spacecraft is tiny, was built cheaply and done by a commercial company. Joining the seven nation cohort of successful Moon orbiters is just the start of the milestones, with the next major step being the landing of the spacecraft on the surface of the Moon on 11 April. So far Israel IL, the company that built Beresheet, has spent about $100 million for the spacecraft and the launch – most of it being the launch. Today’s capture by the Moon was following a series of increasing orbits of Earth and then a 6 minute burn to slow the spacecraft down so it could begin falling towards the Moon. Beresheet was launched on 21 February in a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

Image of Earth captured by Beresheet from 16,000km a few days ago on the last pass (Credit: Israel IL)

Starhopper

SpaceX had a success yesterday with the first firing of the Raptor engine on the Starhopper test vehicle. The vehicle completed a short tethered hop for less than a minute. The Raptor is a methane-liquid oxygen fuelled engine built by SpaceX and two more engines will eventually be added to the Starhopper suborbital test vehicle. The rapid progress of the Starhopper and the eventual development of the Starship and Super Heavy rocket that will power it has come against the backdrop of the NASA Administrator’s comments about using commercial rockets to help the agency meet the 2024 aim of returning astronauts to the Moon.

Jim

This week Jim Bridenstine held a town hall meeting for NASA staff where he commented on the possibility of a Falcon Heavy rocket being used for the Orion spacecraft’s trip to the Moon. This will no doubt fuel speculation on the future of the SLS programme and the role that commercial rocket companies may play in getting humans back to the Moon. The timeline of the 2024, announced by the US Vice President a few weeks ago, may be very ambitious but seems to be part of coordinated campaign to put pressure on the SLS programme. It remains to be seen if it will speed up Boeing’s work or spur ULA and SpaceX into creating viable alternatives, or even as one commentator mentioned this week, the possibility of a SpaceX Falcon Heavy launched Orion Spacecraft with a ULA built interim cryogenic propulsion stage.

An RS-25 engine test yesterday, the engine that will power the SLS (Credit: NASA)

Falcon Heavy

Keep your eyes glued to your smart phones on Wednesday 10 April as that’s when the next Falcon Heavy launch is planned to occur. This time it won’t be carrying one of Elon Musk’s cars put paying customers satellite. The launch will put the Arabsat-6 into space for Saudi Arabia, putting the Falcon Heavy into firm competition with the Delta IV Heavy from ULA. The launch window is 10:36am to 12:35pm (NZST) depending on when and how the static fire test goes, in other words, it might not launch until later, much later.

Falcon Heavy awaiting the static fire test (Credit: @NASA_Nerd Twitter)

Event Horizon Telescope

The Event Horizon Telescope has shot to fame in the last few days after ESO announced that they will be making a special announcement on the 10 April, an announcement for the announcement. The goal of the EHT is to capture an image of the event horizon around the super massive black hole at the centre of our galaxy. This is very exciting as not only will it confirm if the the producers of the movie Interstellar got it right, but whether there is in fact a super massive black hole at the centre of our galaxy.

The EHT is a global network of telescopes that are operated together in a coordinated way to act like a massive telescope the size of Earth. They are radio telescopes so it’s not like popping your DSLR or iPhone up to the eyepiece to snap a picture of a black hole. It takes quite a bit more work than that. By 2020 there will be 11 radio telescopes in the array which will further improve the resolution. The announcement on 10 April is expected to be the first image from the array.

Infographic of a Super Massive Black Hole (Credit: eventhorizontgelescope.org)