Maintenance Day on the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (<i>NASA</I>))
Spacewalkers work on thermal repairs on the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (NASA)

Sky News This Week: January 28, 2020

A biweekly roundup of what’s new in space: telescope repairs, a hot planet and a space mission for a female robot.

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 this past week, a Canadian astronaut helped with tricky telescope repairs in space, scientists announced a hot planet that rips its atmosphere apart, and a female robot will be a passenger on an Indian space mission.

Canadian astronaut guides tough spacewalks 

Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen served as the guide on Earth for two spacewalking astronauts Jan. 26. Hansen communicated with astronauts Luca Parmitano (Italy) and Andrew Morgan (NASA) to finish repairs to the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer that hunts for dark matter and dark energy. It took Morgan and Parmitano four spacewalks over three months to do the work, battling issues such as leaks. These spacewalks required four years of planning and special tools on a team that included Hansen, since AMS was not designed for repairs in space. Publication: NASA

Spacewalkers Andrew Morgan and Luca Parmitano work on get-ahead tasks after completing thermal repairs on the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, a dark matter and antimatter detector. (NASA)

Female robot to take flight

India plans to send a female humanoid robot to space in December 2021, on a mission called Gaganyaan. The robot, called Vyommitra, can assist astronauts with basic functions, such as alerting humans to systems they should monitoring or performing life support operations. The Indian Space Research Organisation plans to use the data from Vyommitra as it prepares for its first human missions to space, which could potentially happen in the 2020s. ISRO, however, plans to run at least two uncrewed missions before attempting to send humans aloft. Publication: The India Times

Hot planet’s atmosphere torn apart

Hydrogen gas molecules on the sun-facing side of planet KELT-9b can’t take the heat. The planet is very close to its parent star and has a scorching surface of 4,300 degrees Celsius, the hottest measured surface temperature for a planet yet. New observations from NASA’s Spitzer space telescope suggest that the hydrogen molecules break apart under the intense heat. The gas molecules, however, can reform on the planet’s night side for a brief respite until they reach the sun’s side again. Publication: The Astrophysical Journal Letters via NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Zombie data shows strange sky outburst

NASA’s Kepler space telescope made a cosmic discovery even though the spacecraft is no longer operational. Scientists were scouring old data from the planet-hunting observatory when they saw an “unusual super-outburst” from a dwarf star undergoing a brightening or nova, according to the Space Telescope Science Institute. The star system brightened by a factor of 1,600 after a white dwarf star sucked off material from a nearby brown dwarf star, causing a brief explosion from the stored gas. Publication: Space Telescope Science Institute

Life on the moon Enceladus?

New data about the Saturnian moon Enceladus suggests it could host hydrothermal vents in its large ocean. The team modeled the ocean based on mass spectrometry data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which flew by the moon many times between 2004 and 2017. Cassini spotted a bunch of carbon dioxide, which scientists say are due to reactions between the moon’s rocky core and the water in its ocean. Scientists also found hints of a “chemical disequilibrium” pointing to the presence of hydrothermal vents, where microbial creatures on Earth are known to thrive. Publication: Geophysical Research Letters via Southwest Research Institute

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.