NASA InSight
NASA InSight recently moved its robotic arm closer to its digging device, called the "mole," in preparation to push on its top, or back cap. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Sky News This Week: February 25, 2020

A biweekly roundup of what’s new in space: a Canadian joins a Mars mission science team, China announces more work on solar system exploration, and tiny star packs a surprisingly big punch.

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, a Canadian scientist joined the science team for a Mars mission, China announced more work towards a space station and solar system exploration, and a European telescope spotted a bizarrely large flare on a tiny star.

Canadian asteroid mapper missing data

A Canadian experiment had unexpected problems while mapping an asteroid. The laser altimeter on board the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) “did not operate as expected” during a Feb. 11 flyover, NASA said, causing some camera images to blur. The mission team is evaluating the data received to see what happened, and to decide what to do next. That said, the instrument has already finished its primary mission requirements, which include helping scientists select a safe spot to touch down the spacecraft on the asteroid Bennu to pick up samples for a return to Earth.

Publication: NASA

Alberta scientist joins Mars rover team

Martian meteorites and other rocks will come under close scrutiny, with the help of a Canadian geologist. The University of Alberta’s Chris Herd joined the NASA Mars 2020 mission, which will see a rover roam the surface in search of samples that could one day come back to Earth. One of the goals of Mars 2020 is to better understand how habitable the planet was in its early history. Herd will be part of a 10-person team figuring out which samples look most promising for possible examination in Earth laboratories, later in the 2020s.

Publication: University of Alberta

Small star, big explosion

Scientists found a surprise lurking in old data from the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton spacecraft. A tiny star, only eight per cent of the Sun’s mass, sent out a flare 10 times more powerful than anything ever measured from Earth’s Sun. How such a small star can pack a big punch still mystifies astronomers.  The star, known as J0331-27, is just barely large enough to fuse the elements required to support nuclear fusion (which allows for stars to generate heat). The team speculates that perhaps energy takes longer to build up on tiny stars, and that can lead to large explosions.

Publication: Astronomy and Astrophysics

Martian “mole” makes another try at digging deep

NASA InSight recently moved its robotic arm closer to its digging device, called the “mole,” in preparation to push on its top, or back cap. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA has been trying for almost a year to get the InSight lander heat probe below the surface on Mars, but the probe keeps bouncing back up to the surface. They’re determined to keep trying, because they want to measure the heat flow inside of Mars to learn how planet the active is — which has implications from everything from plate tectonics to volcanic activity. Last summer, the team tried using a robotic arm scoop to hold the mole against the side of the hole and create more friction — with only limited success. Now the team will try pressing the arm down on the delicate top of the mole. They will do their best not to snag a crucial tether attached to the top; the tether includes temperature sensors to measure the heat coming from Mars.

Publication: NASA

China readies for busy decade in space

China is implementing quarantine measures for the coronavirus, allowing it to move forward with an ambitious space agenda for 2020 and beyond. The country is starting test launches for its Long March 5-B rocket that will eventually bring pieces of a new space station into space. The space station should be ready for taikonauts (Chinese astronauts) for 2022, and will include three modules for living space and experiments. China is also working on its first Mars mission (to send a rover and lander to the Red Planet) and yet another Moon rover, called Chang’e-5.

Source: Xinhua

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.