More interesting NIAC concepts. Continuing from last week, here are more of our favorite NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) concept studies that were just funded:

  • From Masten Space Systems (who won a recent $75.9 million NASA CLPS contract to deliver payloads to the south pole of the Moon in 2022), a project to add engineered particles into a lander’s descent engine plume, creating an artificial landing pad directly below the lander as it descends. IEEE Spectrum has more details. (Phase I)
  • The Lunar Crater Radio Telescope, a crater lined with a 1km-diameter wire-mesh radio antenna (laid using wall-climbing DuAxel robots) on the far side of the moon. (Phase I)
  • A flying craft on Venus that absorbs heat at a low altitude, climbs to a higher altitude where the temperature is lower, and releases the stored heat through a Stirling engine to generate power for continued flight. (Phase I)
  • SPEAR, a small, “inexpensive” nuclear electric propulsion spacecraft which would “use low enriched uranium to keep licensing costs low and allow for private ownership […] Current estimates predict 10 Cubesats of 7 kg each could be delivered to Europa on a craft with a total wet mass of 1100 kg and length of 4 meters [deployment video]; well within the requirements of commercially available launch vehicles.” (Phase II)

There are more interesting ideas, including magnets to improve aerocapture heat shields, Pulsed Plasma Rockets, hopping probes, both Martian fuel and lunar water ISRU, magneto-inductive communication using SQUIDs on Europa, robots to search Enceladus’s vents for life, a flexible and reconfigurable Venus probe, astronaut-following support robots, in-space drug production, solar sails for catching up to interstellar objects, self-assembling kilometer-sized orbital antenna arrays, heat shields for rovers, and antimatter propulsion. 😅

The New Horizons Parallax Program. Now at 46 AU, well past Pluto and Arrokoth, New Horizons is heading toward the edge of our solar system at about 14 km/s, and the mission team is looking for new ways to use the spacecraft. Last week, through the New Horizons Parallax Program, they photographed two of our nearest stars, Proxima Centauri and Wolf 359, to compare their positions relative to those observed from Earth. “New Horizons is 2.89 light-hours closer to Proxima Centauri than Earth, but 3.74 light-hours farther from Wolf 359 than Earth.” This record-setting stellar parallax observation gives backyard astronomers (with 6-inch or larger telescopes) a chance to do their own parallax measurements and calculate the distance to these stars. While this effort is mostly for public relations, it is also the “first demonstration of using stars for interstellar navigation of a spacecraft”. Related: Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our Sun, is 1.3 parsecs away. A parsec, at 3.26 light-years, is the distance at which an object has a parallax of one arcsecond (or 1/3600 of a degree), and is normally measured by comparing images of the object taken when the Earth is on opposite sides of the Sun (that is, unless you have a soon-to-be-interstellar spacecraft that’s sitting around twiddling its proverbial thumbs).

The Golden Records of Voyager. This week a reader passed along an enjoyable episode of Stuff You Should Know that digs into the gold-plated records on Voyager 1 & 2 which are currently flying through interstellar space at about 10 km/s. Particularly interesting were the method for communicating the location of our solar system using 14 pulsars, a method from the 70s for encoding images as 4-second still video shots and then turning them into an audio signal (ed. This is a must click in our opinion, a 1978 article from Modern Electronics on Voyager’s records… you might just want to read the entire issue) including a key to ensure that the correct aspect ratio is used, and the music of the spheres—a guess at the sounds our system’s celestial bodies might make, originally imagined by Kepler. You can interactively explore the contents of the records at Related: a personal account of decoding the image data on the records from 2017. The real records are going to be lonely for a while, but perhaps something will decode them in 42,000 years when Voyager 2 comes within 0.6 parsecs of Ross 248, or in 303,000 years when Voyager 1 flys past TYC 3135-52-1 at 0.3 parsecs.👽

News in brief. Starship SN4 passed pressure testing at cryogenic temperatures, crossing a difficult hurdle and setting up static fire and hop tests (longer flights will have to wait for SN5 & 6 due to the lack of flaps and canards on SN4); Iran launched their fifth satellite, Noor, and the Revolutionary Guard’s first, revealing an unknown rocket system and launch site; NASA JPL engineers designed a ventilator; Cheops observed its first exoplanet, a known exoplanet about 30% larger than Jupiter, but orbiting closer to its star than Mercury is to the Sun, and obtained planet size measurements with 5x better accuracy than those available from the surface of the Earth; SpaceX launched 60 more Starlink satellites to bring their constellation to 412, with internet services starting as soon as 3-6mo—meanwhile, Musk discussed apparent magnitude mitigation strategies with scienctists as part of Astro 2020 (next launch will include a ‘VisorSat’); with its 84th launch, the Falcon 9 became the active American rocket with the most launches, surpassing ULA’s Atlas V; the center of gravity of Perseverance was carefully measured, then 6.27 kg were added to the rover’s 1,025 kg chassis to bring it within 0.025 mm of its intended location, which will keep the launch and cruise vehicles balanced; and, ‘Al Amal’ (translated ‘Hope’), the UAE Mars rover, arrived at its launch site in Japan.


  • Fomalhaut b, previously thought to be one of the few directly imaged exoplanets, is probably just a cloud of dust left-over from a giant asteroid collision. 
  • On the other hand, maybe this is an image of a planet around Proxima Centauri (paper), our nearest stellar neighbor. Or maybe it’s just noise. Astronomy is hard. 
  • Scott Tilley built custom hardware and spotted LES-5, a 50-year-old defunct military UHF commsat, possibly the oldest still-emitting GEOsat—we linked to an earlier note on this in Issue 59. The next step will be to attempt to reverse engineer and decode its 100 baud BPSK telemetry system at 236.7 MHz. Related: an article and discussion about hackers illicitly using old “bent pipe” military communication satellites that have no authentication.
  • An animation of the gravitational waves from the merger of black holes with very different masses—as was observed for the first time by the LIGO and Virgo gravitational wave detectors (paper)—with confirmation of the higher frequency harmonics predicted by general relativity.
  • The final mosaic image taken by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope before it was decommissioned on Jan 30th. Spitzer’s data is available online at the Spitzer data archive. 😢
  • In the continuing story of how commuting does terrible things to our environment: amid coronavirus shutdown, NASA images show less NO2 pollution over the eastern U.S (interactively!). 
  • The Space Security Challenge 2020 qualification event is in 24 days. Want to field an Orbital Index team and hack a satellite?
  • A lovely piece about amateur astronomer Hisako Koyama and her 40 years and 10,000 hand-drawings of sunspots, based on a writeup in Space Weather. Her drawings are now available online and have become critical to work around regularizing the sunspot record (pdf).

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