The Milky Way’s Black Hole Comes to Light

Astronomers announced today that they had pierced the veil of darkness and dust at the center of our Milky Way galaxy to capture the first picture of “the gentle giant” dwelling there: A supermassive black hole, a trapdoor in space-time through which the equivalent of 4 million suns have been dispatched to eternity, leaving behind only their gravity and a violently bent space-time. From a report: The image, released in six simultaneous news conferences in Washington, D.C., and around the globe, showed a lumpy doughnut of radio emission framing an empty space as dark and silent as death itself. The new image joins the first ever picture of a black hole, produced in 2019 by the same team, which photographed the monster at the heart of the M87. The new image shows new details of the astrophysical violence and gravitational weirdness holding sway at the center of our placid-looking hive of starlight.

Black holes were an unwelcome consequence of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which attributes gravity to the warping of space and time by matter and energy, much as a mattress sags under a sleeper. Einstein’s insight led to a new conception of the cosmos, in which space-time could quiver, bend, rip, expand, swirl and even disappear forever into the maw of a black hole, an entity with gravity so strong that not even light could escape it. Einstein disapproved of this idea, but the universe is now known to be speckled with black holes. Many are the remains of dead stars that collapsed inward on themselves and just kept going. But there seems to be a black hole at the center of nearly every galaxy, ours included, that can be millions or billions of times as massive than our sun. Astronomers still do not understand how these supermassive black holes have grown so big.

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Two More Successful Rocket Launches from Satellite Launch-Service Providers

SpaceNews reports:
The launch was the latest in a series of Electron launches of BlackSky satellites arranged by Spaceflight. That deal included launches of pairs of BlackSky satellites in November and December 2021 as well as a failed Electron launch in May 2021….

Rocket Lab did not attempt to recover the first stage of the Electron after this launch. The company said in November that, after three launches where it recovered Electron boosters after splashing down in the ocean, it was ready to attempt a midair recovery of a booster by catching it with a helicopter, the final step before reusing those boosters. The company has not announced when that recovery will take place, but hinted it would take place soon….

Lars Hoffman, senior vice president of global launch services at Rocket Lab, during a panel session at the Satellite 2022 conference March 22…added that the company has a “full manifest” of Electron launches this year, including the first from Launch Complex 2 at Wallops Island, Virginia, with a goal of launching on average once per month. “We’re keeping pace with the market. We’re trying not to get too far ahead.”

Meanwhile, in mid-March Space.com reported that the launch-service provider Astra “bounced back from last month’s launch failure with a groundbreaking success, deploying satellites in Earth orbit for the first time ever” with its low-cost two-stage launch vehicle, LV0009. (Watch video of the launch here.)
It was a huge moment for Astra, which suffered a failure last month during its first-ever launch with operational payloads onboard…. Astra aims to break into the small-satellite launch market in a big way with its line of cost-effective, easily transported and ever-evolving rockets.

The company had conducted five orbital flights before today, four of them test missions from Kodiak. Astra reached orbit successfully on the most recent of those four test flights, a November 2021 mission that carried a non-deployable dummy payload for the U.S. Department of Defense. But the company stumbled on its next mission, its first with operational payloads onboard…

Astra investigators soon got to the bottom of both problems, tracing the fairing issue to an erroneous wiring diagram and the tumble to a software snafu. The company instituted fixes, clearing LV0009’s path to the pad… LV0009 rose into the Alaska sky smoothly and ticked off its early milestones as planned. Stage separation and fairing deploy went well, and the rocket’s second stage cruised to the desired orbit with no apparent issues. LV0009 deployed its payloads successfully about nine minutes after liftoff….

One of the known payloads is OreSat0, a tiny cubesat built by students at Portland State University in Oregon that is designed to serve as a testbed for future cubesats that will study Earth’s climate and provide STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) outreach opportunities.

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Why Werner Herzog Thinks Human Space Colonization ‘Will Inevitably Fail’

Last Exit: Space is a new documentary on Discovery+ exploring the possibility of humans colonizing planets beyond Earth, reports Ars Technica.. “Since it is produced and narrated by Werner Herzog and written and directed by his son Rudolph, however, it goes in a different direction than your average space documentary. It’s weird, beautiful, skeptical, and even a bit funny….”

Other times, Werner opts for dryly funny narration of how bleak certain space colonization efforts may turn out. “The reality of life on Mars would be sobering,” he says. “Astronauts would hunker down in radiation-proof bunkers, enjoying drinks of recycled urine….”

For most of the film, Rudolph focuses on two options for where humans might travel, land, and establish space colonies: Mars or an exoplanet in the Alpha Centauri system. Along the way, Last Exit: Space follows a pattern. First, it lists a problem that might make a certain space travel proposition impossible. Then it briefly explains the most promising solution to that problem as developed by modern science and engineering. Finally, it brings the interstellar dream crashing back down to Earth with a grim recounting of why the solution won’t work…. “We know the next planet outside of our solar system is at least 5,000 years away,” Werner tells Ars. “It’s very hard to do that, and [whatever is there is] probably uninhabitable. And we know that on Mars, there’s permanent radiation that will force us underground in little bunkers….”

As Last Exit: Space explores the logistics of a possible 5,000-year journey to Alpha Centauri, the film asks wild questions that touch matters of the human spirit, each with a diverse pool of optimistic and pessimistic answers. Is hibernation feasible? Could a non-hibernating skeleton crew function in a sane way? And how would the human act of copulation play out — both mechanically, in terms of being a reduced-gravity exercise, and genetically, in terms of possible in-breeding if a ship can’t hold at least 40,000 colonists to keep the gene pool diverse…? [Werner Herzog adds] “But as you hear it from Lucian Walkowicz, an astronomer in the film, it’s very clear that we take her position: We shouldn’t behave like locusts who are grazing everything empty here, then move on to the next planet. There’s something not right to shift, to move our population to other planets, and it’s a part of all these ethical questions….

[Space colonization] will fail. It is inevitable. You cannot travel to the next [Alpha Centauri exoplanet] that is 200,000 years away. Period. Good luck….”

The filmmakers make it clear that they admire and appreciate efforts to understand space and our universal neighbors. But in describing “space colonization” as “a dirty word,” Rudolph paraphrases Walkowicz’s film-ending pitch: “There is already a cross-generational spaceship operating right now — and we’re already on it. Earth is a luxuriously furnished, wonderfully self-rejuvenating place, so we’d better treat it well….”

Werner admits that he does have some interest in space travel. “I would love to go out on Mars on a mission… if I had a camera with me,” he says.

Rudolph immediately interrupts: “Yes, but I want to stop my dad. Don’t encourage him on this, please. I want him to stay on Earth.”

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The Sun Has Erupted Non-Stop All Month, and There Are More Giant Flares Coming

Over the past few weeks the sun “has undergone a series of giant eruptions that have sent plasma hurtling through space,” reports Science Alert:

Perhaps the most dramatic was a powerful coronal mass ejection and solar flare that erupted from the far side of the Sun on February 15 just before midnight. Based on the size, it’s possible that the eruption was in the most powerful category of which our Sun is capable: an X-class flare.

Because the flare and CME were directed away from Earth, we’re unlikely to see any of the effects associated with a geomagnetic storm, which occurs when material from the eruption slams into Earth’s atmosphere. These include interruptions to communications, power grid fluctuations, and auroras. But the escalating activity suggests that we may anticipate such storms in the imminent future. “This is only the second farside active region of this size since September 2017,” astronomer Junwei Zhao of Stanford University’s helioseismology group told SpaceWeather. “If this region remains huge as it rotates to the Earth-facing side of the Sun, it could give us some exciting flares.”

According to SpaceWeatherLive, which tracks solar activity, the Sun has erupted every day for the month of February, with some days featuring multiple flares. That includes three of the second-most powerful flare category, M-class flares: an M1.4 on February 12; an M1 on February 14; and an M1.3 on February 15. There were also five M-class flares in January. The mild geomagnetic storm that knocked 40 newly launched Starlink satellites from low-Earth orbit followed an M-class flare that took place on January 29.

The article suggests this is normal activity, since the sun is about halfway towards “solar maximum” (its peak of sunspot and flare activity) expected to arrive in 2025, while the “solar minimum” was in 2019.
Further Reading: SciTechDaily reports that the ESA/NASA Solar Orbiter spacecraft has now “captured the largest solar prominence eruption ever observed in a single image together with the full solar disc.”

Thanks to long-time Slashdot reader schwit1 for submitting the story

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Amazon Joins Lockheed Martin and Cisco to Send Alexa to Space, Offers NASA Tours for SchoolKids

“Alexa, when are we arriving at the moon?” quips GeekWire.

Long-time Slashdot reader theodp writes:

This week brought news that Amazon is teaming up with Lockheed Martin and Cisco to put its Alexa voice assistant on NASA’s Orion spacecraft for the (uncrewed) Artemis 1 round-the-moon mission….

On the heels of that announcement came news that Amazon Future Engineer (AFE) has partnered with Mobile CSP and the National Science Teaching Association (NSTA) on the Alexa for Astronauts program, which will provide students in grades 4-and-up with live WebEx by Cisco tours from NASA’s Johnson Space Center. This program will also provide curriculum — NSTA’s Using AI to Monitor Health and Mobile CSP’s Alexa in Space — aimed at teaching high school Science and AP Computer Science Principles students “how to program their own Alexa skills that could help astronauts [and ‘inexperienced space travelers, such as tourists’] solve problems in space and communities at home” using MIT’s App Inventor.

App Inventor, some may recall, was developed at Google to bring programming to the masses only to be suddenly abandoned. App Inventor was later picked up by MIT and — with support from Google and millions in NSF funding — eventually found its way into curriculum developed for the new AP CSP course aimed at mainstreaming AP Computer Science.

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Asteroid Sample Could Reveal Our Solar System’s Origin Story

Just over a year after Japan’s Hayabusa2 mission returned the first subsurface sample of an asteroid to Earth, scientists have determined that the near-Earth asteroid Ryugu is a pristine remnant from the formation of our solar system. From a report: This was the first material to be returned to Earth from a carbon-rich asteroid. These asteroids can reveal how our cosmic corner of the universe was formed. The organic and hydrated minerals locked within these asteroids could also shed light on the origin of the building blocks of life. Ryugu is a dark, diamond-shaped asteroid that measures about 3,000 feet (1 kilometer) wide. Hayabusa2 collected one sample from the asteroid’s surface on February 22, 2019, then fired a copper “bullet” into the asteroid to create a 33-foot wide impact crater. A sample was collected from this crater on July 11, 2019. Then, Hayabusa2 flew by Earth and dropped the sample off in Australia last December.

The C-type, or carbonaceous, asteroid is much darker than scientists originally thought, only reflecting about 2% of the light that hits it, according to one study published Monday in the journal Nature Astronomy. After opening the sample, scientists were surprised to find that the spacecraft collected 5.4 grams from the asteroid — much more than the single gram they were expecting, said Toru Yada, lead study author and associate senior researcher at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science.
In the second study, also published Monday in Nature Astronomy, the researchers determined that Ryugu is made of clay and other hydrated minerals, with a number of carbonates and organics inside the sample.

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‘Gas Station in Space’ – A New Proposal to Convert Space Junk Into a Rocket Fuel

“An Australian company is part of an international effort to recycle dangerous space junk into rocket fuel — in space,” reports the Guardian.

Slashdot reader votsalo shared their report (which also looks at some of the other companies working on the problem of space debris).
South Australian company Neumann Space has developed an “in-space electric propulsion system” that can be used in low Earth orbit to extend the missions of spacecraft, move satellites, or de-orbit them. Now Neumann is working on a plan with three other companies to turn space junk into fuel for that propulsion system… Another U.S. company, Cislunar, is developing a space foundry to melt debris into metal rods. And Neumann Space’s propulsion system can use those metal rods as fuel — their system ionises the metal which then creates thrust to move objects around orbit.

Chief executive officer Herve Astier said when Neumann was approached to be part of a supply chain to melt metal in space, he thought it was a futuristic plan, and would not be “as easy as it looks”.

“But they got a grant from NASA so we built a prototype and it works,” he said…

Astier says it is still futuristic, but now he can see that it’s possible. “A lot of people are putting money into debris. Often it’s to take it down into the atmosphere and burn it up. But if it’s there and you can capture it and reuse it, it makes sense from a business perspective, because you’re not shipping it up there,” he said.

“It’s like developing a gas station in space.”

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