This illustration of Jupiter's icy moon Europa depicts a cryovolcanic eruption in which brine from within the icy shell could blast into space. (Justice Wainwright/NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Sky News This Week: November 18, 2020

A SpaceX spacecraft brings four astronauts into space, Europa may have less life-friendly origins for its famous water plumes, and “GoldenEye” observatory is facing more trouble.

First operational commercial crew mission launches

Three NASA astronauts and a Japanese spaceflyer flew safely to the International Space Station Sunday, November 15 aboard a SpaceX spacecraft. Canadian Space Agency astronaut Jeremy Hansen is helping to support the crew families during this six-month mission. The mission, called Crew-1, marks the first time a private company sent an operational human spaceflight, following on from SpaceX’s Demo-2 mission that launched in May. Commercial crew missions are expected to expand the size of crews on the ISS, allowing for more science. Flight opportunities should also increase through commercial crew and through upcoming other private missions.

Sources: NASA (Twitter), Jeremy Hansen (Twitter)

More damage at famed Arecibo Observatory

Arecibo Observatory, which is famed for its asteroid observations and its starring role in the 1995 James Bond movie “GoldenEye,” is facing more trouble. A main cable that supports the radar-probing telescope broke on November 8. While the cause is under investigation, it may be related to extra load placed on the telescope’s cables after an auxiliary cable failed on August 10. Engineers plan to install temporary steel reinforcements to protect the remaining cables. Repair plans for the August incident are still underway, and are pending funding with the National Science Foundation; a new funding request will have to be made for the second cable failure. It’s unclear when the 1960s-era telescope could return to normal observations, although limited work is still happening at the site.

Source: University of Central Florida

Exoplanet telescope will probe distant atmospheres

The United Kingdom Space Agency approved the Arial (Atmospheric Remote-sensing Infrared Exoplanet Large-survey) mission, which will launch in 2029 to look at the atmospheres of exoplanets. The goal is to better understand the link between the chemistry of a planet’s gas envelope and its environment. Arial is slated to study 1,000 known exoplanets. The mission will focus on planets that aren’t expected to host life, such as those that are very close to their parent stars or gas giant worlds. The science team said that ignoring worlds that may be life-friendly (a focus of many other missions) will lead to more diverse studies about how our universe formed and how it evolved.

Source: United Kingdom government

Super-bright cosmic flash is hard to explain

Scientists detected the brightest-ever burst of infrared light yet from a short burst of gamma rays billions of light years away. In only half a second, the energy released in the explosion is more than what the Sun will send out during its 10-billion-year lifespan. The team suspects this epic flash came from a merger of two extremely dense neutron stars, which are objects left over after huge stars explode into supernovas. But more observations are required to learn more about the transient phenomena. (The study has been accepted in The Astrophysical Journal and will be published online later this year. A pre-print is available on

Source: W.M. Keck Observatory

Jupiter moon’s water plumes may not be life-friendly

This illustration of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa depicts a cryovolcanic eruption in which brine from within the icy shell could blast into space. (Justice Wainwright/NASA/JPL-Caltech)

A new study suggests at least some of the water shooting out from Europa may be coming from the crust, and not from the ocean below. Since less energy is available for microbes in the ice, it may be that the water from Europa is not as life-friendly as believed. The study, however, focused on only a single crater that cannot account from all the water seen spewing in plumes from Europa, so there might be more than one way that eruptions occur. More insight will come from the NASA Europa Clipper mission which, if it launches on schedule in 2024, will arrive at the moon in 2030 or 2031.

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.