Astronews Recent Space Discoveries (Life On Enceladus? SpaceX’s Super Heavy, Lunar Gateway & More)

Welcome to the twelfth review of “Space and Astronomy” news, selected for you by Insane Curiosity Channel. The news, which will be weekly, will try to provide a quick overview of everything interesting that has happened in recent days in the field of astronomical research and space exploration. Keep following us! It could be life very similar to those found in Earth’s oceans Even though the Cassini mission at Saturn ended nearly four years ago, data from the spacecraft still keep scientists busy. And the latest research using Cassini’s wealth of data might be the most enticing yet. Researchers say, in fact, they’ve detected methane in the plumes of Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus! Let’s step back! One of the biggest surprises of the 13-year Cassini mission (from 2004 to 2017) came in Enceladus, a tiny moon with active geysers at its south pole. At only about 500 km in diameter, the bright and ice-covered Enceladus should be too small and too far from the Sun to be active. Instead, this little moon is one of the most geologically dynamic objects in the Solar System, with stunning Yellowstone-like geysers, emanating from tiger-stripe-shaped fractures in the moon’s surface. The discovery of the geysers took on more importance when Cassini later determined the plumes contained water ice and organics. Since life as we know it relies on water, this small but energetic moon has been added to the short list of possible places for life in our Solar System. For the new study, the research team analyzed one of those plumes ejected into space. They looked at Enceladus’ plume composition as the end result of several chemical and physical processes taking place in the moon’s interior, where molecular hydrogen, methane, and carbon dioxide are being produced. The process for how the methane is produced is not known at this time, but the study suggests that the surprisingly large amount of methane found is likely coming from activity at hydrothermal vents present on Enceladus’s interior seafloor. These vents could be very similar to those found in Earth’s oceans, where microorganisms live, feed on the energy from the vents, and produce methane in a process called methanogenesis. “We are not concluding that life exists in Enceladus’ ocean,” said Régis Ferrière, an associate professor at the University of Arizona, and one of the study’s two lead authors. “Rather, we wanted to understand how likely it would be that Enceladus’ hydrothermal vents could be habitable to Earthlike microorganisms. Very likely, the Cassini data tell us, according to our models. We wanted to know: Could Earthlike microbes that “eat” the molecular hydrogen and produce methane explain the surprisingly large amount of methane detected by Cassini?” To answer these questions, first the researchers assessed what hydrothermal production of molecular hydrogen would best fit Cassini’s observations, and whether this production could provide enough energy to sustain a population of Earthlike hydrogenotrophic methanogens. To do that, they developed a model for the population dynamics of a hypothetical hydrogenotrophic methanogen, whose thermal and energetic niche was modeled after known strains from Earth. Then the researcher team ran the model to see whether a given set of chemical conditions, such as the molecular hydrogen concentration in the hydrothermal fluid and temperature would provide a suitable environment for these microbes to grow. They also looked at what effect a hypothetical microbe population would have on its environment – for example, on the escape rates of molecular hydrogen and methane in the plume. In the end, the team found that the observed abundance of methane was too high to be the result of known geochemical processes. That means there could be microbes down there, in the dark depths of Enceladus’ ocean. Of course, that’s not the only explanation. There could also be geochemical processes on Enceladus that don’t occur here on Earth producing the compound. But the biological origin of methane appears to be compatible with the data. In other words, we can’t discard the ‘life hypothesis’ as highly improbable. To reject the life hypothesis, we need more data from future missions. There are currently no dedicated missions planned to visit Enceladus, but there are other, similar icy bodies in the Solar System with missions pending that could yield more information about ice moon habitability. The Europa Clipper, for example, is being sent to study Jupiter’s icy and (possibly) geyser-spouting moon Europa, and the JUpiter ICy moons Explorer (JUICE) will conduct an investigation of the same. Several missions to Enceladus have also been proposed, and it seems there’s a growing interest in revisiting the strange, frozen world and collecting new observations. “Hey, guys, just a moment before we continue… BE sure to join the Insane Curiosity Channel… Click on the bell, you will help us to make products of ever-higher quality!” 3) Perseverance rover is trekking across the Martian landscape using a newly enhanced auto-navigation system. Perseverance is beginning an epic journey across the large Jezero crater seeking signs of ancient life. That means the rover team is deeply engaged with planning navigation routes, drafting instructions to be beamed up, even donning special 3D glasses to help map their course. But increasingly, the rover will take charge of the drive by itself, using a powerful auto-navigation system called AutoNav. This enhanced system makes 3D maps of the terrain ahead, identifies hazards, and plans a route around any obstacles without additional direction from controllers back on Earth. That capability, combined with other improvements, might enable Perseverance to hit a top speed of 120 meters per hour; six times higher than its predecessor, Curiosity, with an earlier version of Autonav. On June 1, the rover began the first phase of the science campaign by leaving the Octavia E. Butler landing site. During the first weeks of scientific activity, the mission team will attempt to detect and study some of the oldest geological formations in Jezero Crater. The Jezero crater in which the rover is located – we remember – was once, when Mars was wetter than today, a huge lake. Perseverance’s destination is the delta of a dried-up river at the crater’s rim, the perfect place, billions of years ago, to host – if life forms ever existed on Mars. After a little more than 130 Martian days, the rover has traveled 1.15 km moving south from its landing point. Meanwhile, the rover’s autonomous navigation and sample collection systems are being initialized. Unlike its predecessors, Perseverance has an onboard computer dedicated entirely to surface navigation, while the main computer can devote itself to the many other tasks that keep the rover healthy and active. Of course, Perseverance can’t get by on AutoNav alone. The rover team’s involvement remains critical in planning and guiding Perseverance’s course. An entire team of specialists scans satellite images, wearing 3D glasses to better study the Martian surface in the vicinity of the rover. The instructions are then transmitted to Mars and the rover executes them the following day. The goal is to maintain a navigation path suitable for the planned science activities. For the moment, these are limited to examining geologic points of interest along the way, but soon the rover will also engage in sample collection. The first science campaign will be completed after four locations are identified that can best represent the history of the Jezero crater’s environment and geology and where to collect rock or regolith samples. At that point, the rover will return to its landing site after traveling between 2.5 and 5 kilometers and using up to eight of the 43 available sample tubes. Next, Perseverance will also head north and then west to the site of its second science campaign: the Jezero Delta region. 2)After just 6 weeks of construction, Super Heavy is built and ready to move! As usual, the SpaceX South Texas Launch Facility, located near the village of Boca Chica, is the focal point of a lot of attention. Almost two months ago, crews at the facility began working on the first true Super Heavy prototype, the launch stage of SpaceX’s Starship. After six weeks of assembly, SpaceX rolled the Super Heavy Booster 3 (B3) out of the “High Bay” (where it was assembled) and installed it onto the launch pad. The assembly process began on May 15th, and wrapped up on Thursday, July 1st. Then the B3 was transported to the launch facility, where it was transferred by another crane onto Test Pad A. Once it is ready to conduct commercial missions, the Starship and Super Heavy will be the world’s first entirely reusable launch system. As the booster element (aka. first stage) of the system, the Super Heavy stands about 65 meters tall and will be equipped with 32 Raptor engines. This record number of engines (more than any rocket in history) will allow the Super Heavy to produce 72 meganewtons thrust. This is more than twice the thrust generated by the first stage of the Saturn V booster, which NASA used to send the Apollo astronauts to the Moon. When paired with the Starship – the orbital vehicle element that will rely on 6 Raptors engines – the launch system will be capable of sending 100 metric tons to Low Earth Orbit. The first one to fly will, version Booster 4. Booster 3 will be used for ground tests. In any case, now that the B3 is situated on the test platform, tests can begin. Similar to the Starship’s development process, this will likely begin with cryogenic pressure tests, where the fuel tanks are filled with nitrogen to ensure they can withstand being filled with cryogenic methane and oxygen. This may be followed by engine integration and static fire tests. These tests will pave the way for B4, which is currently undergoing assembly and will be integrated with the SN20 Starship prototype and prepared for orbital testing. These will then be moved to the Orbital Launch Site, which has also spent the past few weeks being built at the Boca Chica launch facility. It is from here that the full-stack Starship and Super Heavy will launch when making their first orbital test flight – which could happen later this year. 1)NASA has awarded a contract worth $935 million to Northrop Grumman to build and integrate the first habitation module for the lunar Gateway. NASA announced July 9 it finalized a contract with Northrop Grumman to build the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) module for the Gateway. That module, one of the first for the Gateway, will serve as a habitat for visiting astronauts and a command post for the lunar orbiting facility. It will have docking ports for Orion spacecraft, cargo vehicles like SpaceX’s Dragon XL, and lunar landers, as well as for later modules to be added by international partners. HALO is based on the Cygnus spacecraft that Northrop Grumman uses to transport cargo to the International Space Station, but extensively modified with docking ports, enhanced life support, and other new subsystems. The fixed-firm-price contract covers assembly of HALO as well as integrating it with another Gateway module, Northrop Grumman was one of six companies that received NextSTEP awards for studies of habitation modules, but NASA concluded that Northrop was the only one whose design would be ready to meet the 2024 deadline set in March 2019 for returning humans to the surface of the moon. Habitation and Logistics Outpost is where astronauts will live and conduct research while visiting the Gateway. The pressurized living quarters will provide command and control systems for the lunar outpost, and docking ports for visiting spacecraft, such as NASA’s Orion spacecraft, lunar landers, and logistics resupply craft. The HALO module will serve as the backbone for command and control and power distribution across Gateway and will perform other core functions, including hosting science investigations via internal and external payload accommodations and communicating with lunar surface expeditions. HALO also will enable the aggregation of additional habitable elements to expand Gateway capabilities. OK guys, we’re done for the week too. What do you think? What news struck you the most?