Solar Orbiter spacecraft
Solar Orbiter spacecraft launches on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. (NASA)

Sky News This Week: February 11, 2020

A biweekly roundup of what’s new in space: a new epic solar mission, satellite collisions, and the origin story for Uranus and Neptune is examined.

As a Canadian science and space journalist, I’m excited to be bringing you a biweekly synopsis of the top astronomy and space stories. In the news recently: an epic solar mission made its launch into space, Canadian astronomers raised concerns about satellite collisions, and an origin story mystery arose concerning the planets Uranus and Neptune.

Solar Orbiter spacecraft launches on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. (NASA)

Satellite collisions concern Canadian astronomers

The Canadian Astronomical Society is calling for more international oversight over launches of satellite constellations, which see fleets of satellites working low Earth orbit to provide services to Earthlings. Trouble is, some companies (such as SpaceX) are proposing to make satellites with hundreds or thousands of members. This raises concerns about the risk of collision between satellites, and visibility of astronomical objects. The society pledged to work with companies, the government and other interested actors to find solutions.

Publication: Canadian Astronomical Society website

Robot team assemble — in space!

With no conch shells needed, a NASA mission under development promises to get robots working together in space to fuel a satellite and build a big structure. The Restore-L mission will launch in the mid-2020s to reach the Landsat 7 satellite. The goals of this mission are to fuel the aging satellite and to build a lightweight composite beam — all without humans beside them to help them along. In late January, Maxar Technologies received a contract worth $142 million to make the assembly happen. Fingers crossed!

Publication: NASA

Did collisions make Uranus and Neptune so different?

Uranus has a wacky rotation; the planet is tilted on its side and all of the moons also spin in the direction it turns. That’s just one of the differences it shares with Neptune, including internal structure and the size of its moons (the ones at Uranus tend to be larger). A new study suggests that early solar system collisions made the difference. Computer models by one team show that a “grazing” collision with Uranus would knock it aside, but not really affect its insides. At Neptune, a head-on collision would have disrupted its interior without leaving behind a disk — leaving less material in which moons could form.

Publication: Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

Monster galaxy did the mash, then died

A huge galaxy went through a burst of starbirth about 12 billion years ago, during the universe’s youth. But suddenly and mysteriously, stars stopped forming. That’s what an international team of astronomers led by scientists at the University of California, Riverside, has discovered. Using data obtained at the W. M. Keck Observatory, the galaxy — called XMM-2599 — had a mass of more than 300 billion suns. That was a rare ginormous size for this era. Scientists suggest the galaxy starved due to a lack of fuel, or because its black hole turned on. They’re peering more closely at XMM-2599 to learn more about how galaxies formed in the early universe.

Publication: The Astrophysical Journal Letters

Sun, get ready for your closeup

The European Space Agency and NASA sent an epic partnership into space Feb. 9. The ambitious Solar Orbiter spacecraft will regularly dip closer to the sun than Mercury, requiring a special heat shield just to make sure the instruments don’t cook or melt. Its ambitious goals include imaging the sun’s poles for the first time, and taking measurements of radiation and particles emanating from our closest star. The long-term goal is to learn more about how the sun affects the solar system and making better predictions about “space weather” that could send radiative particles towards Earth.

Publication: Solar Orbiter website

Elizabeth Howell (Ph.D.) is a Canadian space journalist who has been obsessed with the topic ever since she, as a young teenager, saw the movie Apollo 13 in 1996. She grew up wanting to be an astronaut. While that hasn’t happened (yet), Elizabeth has seen five human spaceflight launches — including two from Kazakhstan — and she participated in a simulated Red Planet mission at the Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station in Utah.