This Week In Space: We Can Still Have Nice Things

Hello, dear reader, and welcome to your Friday roundup of the best stories and images from This Week in Space. This week is all good news. The James Webb Space Telescope is fully aligned and sailing into its commissioning phase. And the JWST isn’t the only thing that’s most auspiciously aligned. Read on for details on how to observe a full moon total lunar eclipse on Sunday night – in a rare and lovely alignment of four planets.

The James Webb Space Telescope removes the drive wheels

Since its launch in 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has eliminated all the targets NASA had in place for it. It is fully unfolded, fully aligned and patrolling the Sun-Earth point L2 at its ordered mission temperature of 6K. Now NASA has released the beautiful and crystal-clear first images of Webb. They compare what Webb and other space telescopes each see when looking at the same spot in the sky. And the difference is amazing. Webb’s clarity of vision makes Spitzer look decidedly 8-bit. Here is an example of the difference between what Spitzer saw and what Webb sees now:

This close-up of the Large Magellanic Cloud is one of Webb's earliest images.

Here we see a close-up of the Large Magellanic Cloud, our next door neighbour. The image blossoms into sparkling clarity as it transitions from what Spitzer saw to what Webb sees. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech (Spitzer), NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI (Webb).

At a press conference on Monday, JWST project scientists updated the public on the telescope’s mission milestones so far. The shiny new telescope is in its final “commissioning” phase, calibrating and testing its instruments as if it were spreading its wings for the first time. And the metaphor works; last week, Webb rolled out his delicate five-layer sun visor for a on the spot stress test. In a painstaking series of pivoting maneuvers, mission engineers rotated the telescope in place, exposing the shield’s surfaces to the sun in extreme temperatures. It is now time to harmonize the four scientific instruments of the telescope. Once the Webb team approves the elaborate 17-mode test phase, the James Webb Space Telescope will be ready for its scientific debut.

First direct images of Sagittarius A*

Speaking of scientific debuts, Thursday was a red day. Scientists from the Event Horizon telescope have revealed the first direct evidence of Sagittarius A* (abbreviated Sgr A*, pronounced “sadge-ay-star”), the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy. Headlining the show, this image of Sgr A*, haloed by the incandescent remains of two itinerant stars that she is devouring:

The black hole accretion rate is uneven. The glowing trails of stars falling into Sgr A* travel at nearly the speed of light, in an orbit that takes only a few minutes. This, combined with the long exposure times required by EHT, may explain the fact that we see blurry streaks of light, instead of a regular, symmetrical halo.

The EHT triangulates multiple radio networks around the globe to create a giant, Earth-sized radio telescope. Eight observatories participated in this groundbreaking research, including ALMA and APEX, long-wave radio telescope arrays located at the European Southern Observatory, in the serene and silent heights of the Atacama Desert. In this jaw-dropping video, the ESO starts at ALMA and zooms in to Sgr A*. Warning: they do a little barrel.

When the EHT collaboration announced the capture of the first images of Sagittarius A*, it opened all its data on site. That’s right – the thud you heard around 9:15 a.m. EDT was the EHT collaboration dropping petabytes of priceless data. Michael Janssen of the EHT Collaboration explained that the data used by the team to build these images is “entirely public, on many levels”. Janssen added that the EHT collaboration has released its raw data, along with its algorithms and cleansed dataset, “so anyone can replicate what we did, from scratch.”

Nevertheless, they persevered

NASA’s Perseverance rover is a year into its Mars exploration, and it’s been a resounding success by almost every measure. This rockstar rover is bristling with advanced instruments that could tell us about the geology of other planets, and even help reveal evidence of ancient life on the Red Planet. Even so, Ingenuity stole the show. The Martian smol-icopter started out as a simple technology demonstration, practically a stowaway for the ride. But since its arrival, Ingenuity has absolutely crushed all expectations.

NASA extended Ingenuity’s mission due to her outstanding performance. But the the space helicopter is facing problems. After a recent power problem, NASA suspended the rover’s mission in hopes of saving the helicopter. Their Hail Mary worked, but winter is coming. Let’s hope this isn’t the end for the historic helicopter.

In this image of Jezero Crater, we see the surface of Mars as Perseverance sees it. These images are color corrected using a grading palette on the Perseverance frame. The orange strand in the center left is the lander’s parachute. In the background, the Three Forks River delta rises. Three Forks is Perseverance’s ultimate science target. Image: NASA/JPL

Perseverance is based on the Curiosity chassis, which we know from experience can survive years of harsh Martian winters. But Ingenuity is comprised of off-the-shelf hardware, like a Snapdragon 801 smartphone processor and conventional Li-ion batteries. We don’t know if it’s going to go well this winter, but we’re about to learn on the fly. Mission engineers shut down Ingenuity for the winter months. The helicopter will wake up in the Martian spring, once temperatures reach -40C (also -40F).

Sky Watchers Corner

Last week we teased a full moon total eclipse on the night of May 15, which will be visible from most of North America. Now is the time to get out the lawn chairs, blankets and car hoods. This eclipse will be long — the total phase will last about an hour and a half.

The show will begin around 10:30 p.m. EDT (9:30 a.m. Central), when the leading edge of the eclipse first becomes visible over the East Coast. The total eclipse begins at 11:30 p.m. EDT. Viewers in the Eastern and Central time zones should be able to see the eclipse from start to finish. Skywatchers on the West Coast should still be able to catch the total phase, which will begin around 8:30 p.m. Western time. Check out the NASA livestream here:

This eclipse follows the partial solar eclipse on April 30. Due to the orbital dynamics between the Earth, Moon and Sun, Chicago’s Adler Planetarium explains, “Eclipses don’t happen often. When they do, they come in pairs about two weeks apart.

If you’re still awake after the eclipse ends in the wee hours of May 16, look east before dawn to observe Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn aligned roughly along the ecliptic. Mars and Jupiter will be only a few degrees apart and will reach their conjunction at the end of the month. #look for

It’s all for this week. Tune in next Friday for our roundup of space news, same bat time, same bat channel.

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