Starship is ready for another test, Japan launches a space telescope and a lunar lander, and the discovery of an enormous bubble-like structure of galaxies that preserves the secrets of the ancient universe. This Week in Space

Heading for a Second Trial?

SpaceX positioned its new Starship spacecraft atop its Super-Heavy launch vehicle at its South Texas space base, and company owner, Elon Musk, tweeted "Starship is ready to launch, awaiting FAA license approval”

During the first launch attempt in April this year, Starship failed to detach as planned from its launch vehicle, and the system was destroyed in a deliberate explosion by the control team. The explosion, coupled with the launch itself, reportedly resulted in considerable environmental damage, and the company now faces lawsuits filed against it, as well as an investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Last month, SpaceX submitted its report to the FAA, detailing the measures it has undertaken to prevent such damages in the future, ranging from launch enhancements to addressing the flaws that caused a delay in the spacecraft's mid-air explosion. Nevertheless, the specifics and outcome of the FAA's decision are still unknown, including if SpaceX will receive permission to resume launches from the site and under what conditions.

In the past month, the company has conducted two static engine tests on the heavy launch vehicle, without actually launching it. In the second test, which took place about two and a half weeks ago, all 33 engines were successfully activated, compared to the 29 that functioned properly during the initial test.

Ready, waiting for FAA approval to get started. Starship spacecraft on top of the Super-Heavy missile at the Boca Chica site in Texas, last week | Photo: SpaceX

Japan On Its Way to the Moon 

Japan's space agency successfully launched a rocket carrying two ambitious space missions: a space telescope and a lunar lander. The XRISM space telescope is an X-ray telescope designed to explore questions related to the composition of matter in the universe, such as the development of galaxy clusters, the distribution of matter throughout the universe (the missing baryon problem); the processes responsible for the generation of new elements during stellar explosions or supernovae, and the phenomena occurring in the vicinity of a black hole as it engulfs stars.

This marks Japan's fourth attempt to successfully operate such a space telescope. The original telescope, launched in 2000, was destroyed along with the launch vehicle. Its successor, launched in 2005, operated only partially after its helium coolant leaked into space. The subsequent telescope, launched in 2016, disintegrated in space due to a malfunction in its orbital control mechanism. The current telescope is smaller compared to some of its predecessors and carries only two scientific instruments: the telescope itself, comprising X-ray sensors and a camera system, and a spectrometer that allows for precise analysis of radiation composition. The mission is a collaborative effort with NASA and the European Space Agency, ESA, both of which contributed essential components.

The first step proceeded smoothly. Launching XRISM and SLIM missions from the Tanegashima Space Center, Japan

The Japanese telescope also has an Israeli connection: Dr. Roi Rahin, who is conducting post-doctoral research at NASA's Goddard Institute, where the spectrometer was built. He looks forward to scanning with the telescope the remnants of the explosion left by the W49B supernova, situated about 26,000 light-years away. "Previous studies have suggested that one side of the area appears to have much more iron than the other," Rahin told the Davidson Institute website. "With the spectrometer, we can better explore the distribution of elements from the iron group – chromium, nickel, manganese, and more, and analyze their dynamics, in an attempt to understand the phenomenon and the processes that take place during such events."

The XRISM telescope, roughly the size of a small bus, is supposed to enter a 550-kilometer orbit. It is designed to operate for three years, with the possibility of extension, if everything works as expected. However, scientific data from it is expected to start flowing only in a few months, after a period of testing and calibration of the devices.

The second payload of the Japanese H2-A missile is the SLIM moon lander, roughly the size of a private car. Its key innovation is an advanced landing system, engineered for highly precise landings by integrating an advanced computerized "vision" system with other navigation tools. The objective is to demonstrate this capability through a pinpoint landing at the center of a 300-meter-wide crater within an area called "Sea of Nectar", located south of the moon's equator. At Japan's space agency, JAXA, they hope that a successful landing will pave the way for extensive use of the technology and improve the safety of moon missions. However, similar to many landings of this size, SLIM will fly to the moon on a long, fuel-efficient trajectory, and the landing attempt is expected only in 4-6 months. A Japanese spacecraft from the ispace company failed in its landing attempt in April this year and crashed on the moon. If SLIM succeeds, Japan will become the fifth country to complete a soft landing on the moon, after the United States, the Soviet Union, China, and India - which joined the club just last month.

Perhaps after the previous setbacks, success is on the horizon. XRISM space telescope and SLIM lander against the backfrop of the moon | Illustration: JAXA

Sweet Dreams

India's Vikram lander and the Pragyan rover, which landed near the moon's south pole on August 23rd as part of the Chandrayaan-3 mission, were designed to operate for just two weeks, equivalent to one lunar day. However, the mission's success thus far and its enthusiastic coverage in the international media have encouraged the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to question whether the equipment could withstand a two-week-long freezing lunar night and then reawaken for another lunar day of activity. On the first day, the rover was put into a hibernation mode, and on the next day the lander followed suit, with hopes that their electronic devices could resume functioning after enduring temperatures of about -200°C. "Hoping for their awakening, around September 22, 2023” [when the sun illuminates them again], ISRO tweeted.

During their two weeks of activity on the surface, the mission components conducted numerous measurements, including probing the moon's soil composition and ground temperature, down to a depth of 10 centimeters. The Pragyan rover traveled about 100 meters on the moon, and the Vikram lander, before shutting down its systems, activated its engines for a minor maneuver—moving only about 40 centimeters—most likely in order to test the possibility of a similar sunward landing in a future mission aimed at bringing lunar soil samples back to Earth.

Hoping for a revival in about two weeks. The Vikram lander captured by the Pragyan rover on the moon's surface. | Source: ISRO.

A Bubble from the Dawn of the Universe

An international team of astronomers has reported having discovered an enormous bubble of galaxies, stretching over a billion light-years in diameter, that harbors remnants from the Big Bang. The research team, led by Brent Tully from the University of Hawaii, accidentally found this immense cluster of galaxies by analyzing data from the Cosmicflows-4 database, which compiles the most accurate measurements of distances between galaxies. "We were not looking for it. It is so huge that it spills to the edges of the sector of the sky that we were analyzing" explained Tully

According to the prevailing theory, for the first 400,000 years after the Big Bang, the universe consisted primarily of hot plasma, similar to our sun. In regions particularly dense with this plasma, a sort of struggle unfolded between gravity and the plasma’s motion, resulting in the formation of eddies, or regions with a specific pattern of alternating dense and sparse areas. According to the researchers, the bubble, situated more than 800 million light-years away from us, retains these eddies in its structure, reinforcing the theory concerning the processes that took place in the early universe. The researchers named this bubble of galaxies "Hoʻoleilana," a Hawaiian word that roughly means "awakening voices."

According to the researchers, this structure includes numerous galaxies and clusters of galaxies that have been previously identified. However, it was the precise distance measurements that allowed them to see the bigger picture and understand their spatial arrangement. In their research paper, they report that according to computer simulations of the formation of these shells, the likelihood of this arrangement being random in contrast to one that reflects the eddies of the young universe is lower than 1%. 

“It was an amazing process to construct this map and see how the giant shell structure of Hoʻoleilana is composed of elements that were identified in the past as being themselves some of the largest structures of the universe,” said researcher Daniel Pomarede of CEA Paris-Saclay University in France

 A signature of the forces that were in action in the early days of the universe. A map showing the spatial arrangement of the material in Hoʻoleilana | Illustration: Frédéric Durillon, Animea Studio; Daniel Pomarède, IRFU, CEA University Paris-Saclay.


Translated with the assistance of ChatGTP. Revised, expanded and edited by the staff of the Davidson Institute of Science Education