February has been a big month for NASA and SpaceX. Both have announced exciting news and plans to head to space. To learn more, read on:
NASA discovered seven Earth-sized planets orbiting Trappist-1, a dwarf star, 40 light years (about 235 trillion miles) away. Three of the planets are in the habitable zone, which means they are close enough to the dwarf star to have the right conditions to have liquid water. This is the first time this many planets have been found orbiting the same star. “I think that we have made a crucial step toward finding if there is life out there,” said Amaury H. M. J. Triaud, an astronomer on the team that found the planets.
The Hubble Space Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), scheduled to launch next year, will continue studying the planets. The JWST is an international collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). The JWST has been 20 years in the making and was completed late 2016. Adam Burgasser, an astrophysicist at UC San Diego, says the telescope will let us see “starlight that filters through [Trappist-1 planets’] atmospheres, which will allow us to measure the temperatures and chemical compositions of those atmospheres.”
The JWST is housed in a massive clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland and is scheduled to launch October 2018. Right now the telescope is undergoing extensive tests (most recently, acoustic tests) to prepare for launch. The telescope will have a tennis-court-sized five-layer sunshield, a primary mirror, cameras, spectrometers, and a cryocooler. The primary mirror consists of 18 hexagon-shaped mirrors, each measuring 4.2 feet (1.3 meters) across and weighing about 88 pounds (40 kilograms). You can see pictures here.
SpaceX is planning to send two private individuals to space in 2018. This will be the first ever completely private passenger flight to space. Other space tourism companies, like Space Adventures in Russia, depends on the country’s space agency. SpaceX has its own rockets, and will plan its own trips to space, independent of a state space agency. The individuals paid a “significant deposit” for the trip. Both the identities of the individuals and the trip cost were not disclosed. Reuters reported that Elon Musk says the individuals will undergo “extensive training before heading on the mission.”
The trip will extend beyond the moon and then loop back to Earth. The moon is about 240,000 miles away, and traveling beyond it before returning to Earth will likely range between 300,000 and 400,000 miles. SpaceX is planning to use updated versions of the Dragon capsule that can hold a crew and a Falcon Heavy rocket, both of which should debut before the end of this year.
NASA also announced plans to include a crew on the first Orion flight a few days before SpaceX did. It will be interesting to see how the friendly competition between SpaceX and NASA play out in the next few years and drive innovation. Both parties publicly support each other’s ventures.
In our previous blog post, we covered SpaceX’s plan to reach Mars by 2018. The mission, also know as Red Dragon, has been pushed back to 2020. The delay will allow the company to focus on crew missions and the Falcon Heavy rocket, which will be used sooner in a 2018 mission to fly around the moon.
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