ESA's Sun-explorer Solar Orbiter reached its first perihelion, the point in its orbit closest to the star, on June 15, 2020, getting as close as 77 million kilometres to the star's surface. (Artistic illustration, ESA/Medialab)

Sky News This Week: June 17, 2020

Canadian science and astronomy communities support #BlackLivesMatter, NASA changes up management for human spaceflight program, and a mission with Canadian participation catches cracking rocks on a distant asteroid.

Space community support for #BlackLivesMatter

Last week, organizations and people around the world, including Canadians, participated in #ShutDownSTEM and #ShutDownAcademia to take action for Black lives and against discrimination.

On June 10, SkyNews was one of countless scientists, laboratories, scientific societies, technical journals and others that recognized, participated in and supported the event. Those who expressed support included The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, the Canadian Astronomical Society, the Canadian Association of Physicists, the Ontario Science Centre, the American Astronomical Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the scientific journal Nature, the University of British Columbia, McMaster University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The #ShutDownSTEM website stated: “As members of the global academic and STEM communities, we have an enormous ethical obligation to stop doing ‘business as usual.’ No matter where we physically live, we impact and are impacted by this moment in history.”

Jenni Sidey-Gibbons, one of Canada’s four active astronauts, released a statement June 12 in support of eliminating “racial hatred, brutality and discrimination,” she said on Twitter.

“I’m going to keep supporting and engaging in the #BlackLivesMatter mvmnt [movement] by working to actively support Black people, call out racist behaviour, and honestly reflect on my own biases at every opportunity. I’m thankful for all the strong voices of POC [people of colour], the Black voices in particular, who I’ve had the chance to learn from and engage with during a time of incredible difficulty and national mourning.”

Source: Jenni Sidey-Gibbons (Twitter), SkyNews

Commercial crew program manager promoted

After the successful Demo-2 SpaceX flight May 30 that sent two astronauts to the International Space Station, commercial crew program manager Kathy Lueders was promoted to NASA’s associate administrator of the Human Exploration and Operations mission directorate. Demo-2 was the first time astronauts flew aboard American spacecraft from Florida since 2011, the end of the space shuttle program. Lueders will oversee NASA’s push to land astronauts on the moon by the end of 2024, among other programs. The mission directorate has seen several recent management changes as NASA grappled with the technicalities of the lunar Artemis program, which will require a large amount of funding and technology for its success.

Credit: NASA

European Solar Orbiter makes a solar close-up

ESA’s Sun-explorer Solar Orbiter reached its first perihelion, the point in its orbit closest to the star, on June 15, 2020, getting as close as 77 million kilometres to the star’s surface. (Artistic illustration, ESA/Medialab)

The European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter made its first close approach to the Sun on June 15, within 77 million kilometres (about 48 million miles) of the surface — or about half the distance between the Sun and Earth.

According to an ESA press release, over the course of this week following perihelion, mission scientists are testing the science instruments and getting images of the Sun from up close. The larger goal of the mission is to better understand the source of “space weather” that can affect satellites and other vital space infrastructure.

Source: European Space Agency

Crowdsourcing program will label Martian features

NASA’s Curiosity rover drivers are asking the public to help them make Martian navigation more efficient. A new online tool called AI4Mars, powered by public labels of things on Mars, will help train an artificial intelligence algorithm to make better judgments about the landscape, such as whether a feature is a jagged rock or smooth sand. The resulting visual map will help mission team members figure out the safest path for the rover, which landed on the planet in 2012.

Source: NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Cracking rocks on a distant asteroid

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, a NASA mission with Canadian participation, just found the first evidence of rocks fracturing due to thermal change on an “airless body,” the asteroid Bennu. The rocks likely cracked due to stresses from extreme temperature changes, which can range between 126 degrees Celsius (260 degrees Fahrenheit) on the daytime side and -73 degrees Celsius (-100 degrees Fahrenheit) on the nighttime side. The spacecraft, whose acronym stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, is set to eventually return a sample of the asteroid to Earth for analysis.

Source: Nature Communications

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.