DSS43 radio antenna
DSS43 is a 70-metre-wide radio antenna at the Deep Space Network's Canberra facility in Australia. It is the only antenna that can send commands to the Voyager 2 spacecraft. (NASA/Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex)

Sky News This Week: March 10, 2020

A Canadian asteroid target gets wings, NASA and Europe prepare for Mars, and all that dimming drama may just be Betelgeuse blowing smoke.

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: a Canadian asteroid target got some new mythologically-inspired names, NASA and Europe prepare for Mars missions and Betelgeuse may not be about to go supernova after all.

Canadian asteroid target gets wings; laser quits

Bennu, an asteroid targeted by a Canadian laser experiment, has 12 new names for features on its surface. Because the asteroid’s name was inspired by an ancient Egyptian deity often depicted as a bird, the feature names themselves also relate to mythological birds and bird-like creatures, like:

  • Tlanuwa Regio, named for the giant birds who scattered the Earth with pieces of a serpent that turned into standing pillars of rocks in Cherokee mythology
  • Simurgh Saxum, named for the benevolent, mythological bird in Persian mythology that was said to possess all knowledge
  • Pouakai Saxum, named for the monstrous bird who kills and eats humans in Māori (Polynesia) mythology

Bennu is the destination of the OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer) mission that aims to return a small sample of the surface to Earth. While Canada’s laser altimeter has accomplished its mission objectives, it is only partially working as the low-energy laser transmitter portion of the altimeter recently failed permanently.

Sources: International Astronomical Union, Canadian Space Agency

NASA names its next Mars rover, while Europe struggles

Grade 7 student Alexander Mather named NASA’s next Mars rover Perseverance, with his moniker emerging from 28,000 entries from students across the United States. Perseverance (formerly known as Mars 2020) is set to launch this summer on a journey to the Red Planet, in search of habitable environments.

The European Space Agency is supposed to launch its Rosalind Franklin rover soon as well, but may need to delay 26 months — until Earth and Mars are close again — due to numerous technical problems with its parachute system.

Sources: NASA, SpaceNews

Betelgeuse supernova dreams hits the dust

The star Betelgeuse dimmed by a dramatic 40 per cent last year, leading some stargazers to speculate the unstable red giant may be preparing to go supernova.

One team, however, suggests the dimming is due to dust. They found that the temperature of Betelgeuse is much warmer than one would expect, if one was expecting an explosion. Since supernovas occur when stars run out of gas, the surface would be cooling due to a lack of energy reaching that zone of the star. Instead, Betelgeuse was likely letting go of some of its outer layers, leaving some dust surrounding the star. Nonetheless, the star should explode sometime in the next 100,000 years.

Source: arXiv preprint (the research has been accepted in Astronomical Research Letters)

Satellite constellations could hurt astronomy

A new study has concluded that bright swarms of satellites could have a moderate impact on astronomy, including long-duration exposures from large European Southern Observatory telescopes in Chile.

ESO’s Very Large Telescope and Extremely Large Telescope (which is under construction) would see about three per cent of their long observations and about 0.5 per cent of their short observations “ruined” during twilight. Darker periods of the night would see less impact due to the satellites being in shadow. The worst-affected astronomical observations would be wide-field surveys, which survey a large portion of the sky at once.

Source: European Southern Observatory

Voyager 2 sets up for solo sailing

The 43-year-old Voyager 2 spacecraft already had a challenging 2020 in interstellar space, when in January it accidentally used too much power and temporarily turned off its science instruments.

DSS43 is a 70-metre-wide radio antenna at the Deep Space Network’s Canberra facility in Australia. It is the only antenna that can send commands to the Voyager 2 spacecraft. (NASA/Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex)

Now that’s resolved, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory plans to let the spacecraft sail on, on its own, without commands for Earth for 11 months. The long communications gap is necessary to upgrade one antenna of the Deep Space Network that communicates with spacecraft across the solar system. JPL is concerned that the DSN Australian radio antenna is “increasingly unreliable” due to aging transmitters, some of which are 40 years old.

While there is temporary pain — like leaving lonely Voyager 2 to creep further into interstellar space without our help — JPL said doing the upgrades now will make communications with our interstellar adventurer and other missions more reliable next year.

Source: NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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.