The United States space agency is grappling with budget issues, causing a delay in missions, a mysterious explosion in China, and a new device at the International Space Station. The Week in Space

Titan Will Continue to Wait 

The United States space agency, NASA, has once again postponed approval of the ambitious Dragonfly mission, which involves landing a robotic drone on Titan, Saturn's largest moon. Lori Glaze, director of the agency’s Planetary Science Division, announced during an internal meeting that NASA's management has decided to postpone discussions regarding program approval until the next fiscal year due to uncertainties surrounding its funding. She indicated that the matter will be brought up for discussion again in the spring of 2024, following the publication of NASA's 2025 budget proposal. Glaze noted that this postponement alters the projected launch timeline from 2027 to summer 2028, which means the drone wouldn't land on Titan until 2034

In its 2024 budget request to Congress, NASA sought $3.38 billion for planetary activities, with a significant portion earmarked for the development and planning of the Dragonfly mission. However, based on the Senate's current budget proposal, NASA would receive only 3.1 billion dollars for these activities, while the House of Representatives' version proposes even less – under 2.7 billion dollars. Glaze noted that despite these financial limitations, there is widespread internal support for the Dragonfly mission within the space agency.

The mission is based on a robotic drone designed to land on the intriguing moon, and will be able to navigate through its dense atmosphere and hover from one location to another, exploring the shores of its methane lakes, analyzing the chemistry of the atmosphere, soil, and lakes, and assessing potential conditions for life. Originally scheduled for a 2026 launch, it was subsequently postponed to 2027, and now to 2028, with the possibility of further delays. Budget cuts in planetary science have compelled the space agency to defer the development of other missions, including one planned for Uranus for the end of the decade.

 A robotic drone for exploring Saturn's intriguing moon. An illustration of NASA’s Dragonfly mission | Illustration: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben

Mysterious Explosion at Chinese Space Base

Satellite images of the Chinese space base Jiuquan indicate a strong explosion at one of the base's facilities, which apparently occurred on November 21 or 22. Estimates suggest the explosion occurred at a facility of CASIC (China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation), the Chinese government's aerospace and space corporation, likely during a missile engine test. Scorch marks on the desert ground surrounding the facility and numerous scattered fragments are visible in some of the satellite images. According to some assessments, the facility where the explosion occurred is operated by ExPace, a subsidiary of CASIC, which operates two models of the Kuaizhou solid-fuel launch missile. The company and the corporation have not yet commented on the event, and there has been no response from other Chinese authorities. Consequently, details such as casualties, the cause of the explosion, and the extent of the damage remain unknown.  The facility is not close to the launch pads at the site, so it seems that apart from direct damage to the facility and perhaps to the program affected, the accident is not expected to affect China's ongoing space activities.Notably, the facility is situated away from the site's launch pads, suggesting that aside from the direct impact on the facility and potentially affected programs, the incident is unlikely to disrupt China's ongoing space activities.

Smoke continues to billow from the facility days after the explosion, with scattered debris visible in the vicinity. Photograph of the incident site taken by the European satellite Sentinel-2 on November 26, 2023 | Photo: Sentinel Hub EO Browser/CC BY 4.0

Catching Waves at the Space Station

A new scientific device, recently installed on the outer side of the International Space Station, is set to aid scientists investigate a relatively little understood phenomenon - atmospheric gravity waves. Unlike the gravitational waves that originate in space and result from the distortion of the space-time continuum by massive bodies, atmospheric gravity waves are air oscillations within the atmosphere, triggered by weather phenomena. Major events such as hurricane storms propel air upwards before gravity pulls it back to the lower parts of the atmosphere. This motion can be periodic, giving rise to wave-like oscillations of air in the atmosphere that occasionally manifest as the wave-like patterns observed in high-altitude clouds.

Scientists hope to document these atmospheric wave oscillations by measuring atmospheric glow in photographs taken from the space station. Equipped with an array of four cameras, capturing images at one-second intervals, along with advance computer analysis of the changes in the wavelength of the glow, a team of researchers, led by scientists from the University of Utah in the U.S., plan to track these waves. Their objectives include documenting wave appearances, tracking their progress and energy transfer mechanisms, and assessing how their frequency changes over time across diverse geographical locations.

The device arrived at the space station a few weeks ago aboard an unmanned supply spacecraft. It was subsequently installed using the station's external robotic arm, connected to a power source, and in recent days, researchers have commenced the calibration process for the cameras to enable the collection of valuable scientific data from this experiment.

Video about the recently installed AWE experiment at the International Space Station: