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#206 - Katia Moskvitch - Space News

Katia Moskvitch chats to Matt about her new book and Neutron Stars. Chris and Matt discuss the Space news, a lucky Venus Flyby, and Superhabitable Earths.

People think of these eureka moments and my feeling is that they tend to be little things, a little realisation and then a little realisation built on that

Roger Penrose

Born: 8 August 1931 in Colchester- Ph.D. 1957 from the University of Cambridge, UK. Professor at the University of Oxford, UK.

Penrose receives half of this year's Nobel prize, with the other half being shared by Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez. Prof Ghez becomes the fourth woman to win the physics prize, out of more than 200 laureates since 1901.

"He understood the mathematics, he introduced new tools and then could actually prove this is a process you can naturally expect to happen - that a star collapses and turns into a black hole."

Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez. "for the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the centre of our galaxy."



Katia Moskvitch has been an editor at WIRED UK and staff writer at Nature and BBC News. She is a contributor to the Economist, Science, and Quanta Magazine. In 2019 she was named the European Science Journalist of the Year by the World Conference of Science Journalists.

New Book: Neutron Stars: The Quest to Understand the Zombies of the Cosmos

Neutron stars, super-dense balls of nuclear matter at the end-points of stellar evolution, are detectable from Earth through their emission of radio and gravitational waves. Katia Moskvitch provides a fascinating tour of the world's most sensitive detectors for such radiation, the prediction and discovery of neutron stars, their place in the grand cosmic scheme, and up-close views of many of the gifted astrophysicists behind these discoveries.

Joseph H. Taylor, Jr., winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics


Space News Week.

James Webb Telescope has survived being blasted with 140dB of sound, representative of the conditions that it will be exposed to during the Ariane 5 Launch in October 2021.

While the right racket of noise, a spectrum tuned to the specific signature of the Ariane rocket, 600 individual channels of motion data were carefully observed and recorded. Way more than normal, but this is no normal object.

140dB is very loud, as in 10 times louder than the threshold of pain, or 100 x louder than a gig at a 100dB

“The testing team is an international consortium of structural dynamics experts who are the lead engineers for each piece of hardware on the observatory. The team members are located throughout the USA and Europe, spanning across 9 time zones! They are extremely dedicated to supporting testing at all hours and days to provide their expertise,” said Sandra Irish, Webb Mechanical Systems Structures Engineer Lead for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Through the team’s dedication, hard work, and just pure excitement in being a part of this complex test, it was a complete success! I have known these individuals for many years and it’s been an honour to work with each one of them.”

Webb is now scheduled to move forward into the last full extension of its iconic primary mirror and sunshield followed by a full systems evaluation before being encapsulated in a specialized shipping container for transport to CSG South America

Rumble in the Jungle.

Success of the third and final static test fire of the P120C rocket motor, lasting 130 seconds, at Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana

·The P120C solid rocket motor will act as side boosters for Ariane 6 as well as being the Vega-C first stage

For this last test before maiden flight, the motor was in the Ariane 6 configuration, as the P120C will equip both configurations of Ariane 6: Ariane 62, with two boosters, and Ariane 64, with four boosters

I make that 762 Starlinks

A Falcon 9 lifted off at 7:29 a.m. KSC on Oct 6, adding 60 more Starlinks to the 715 launched already, These last couple of months did see the 47 of the original 60 satellites launched way back in May 2019, deorbited, “eventually the satellite is low enough and the ambient density is high enough that the vehicle heats, breaks up and is

destroyed. These Starlink retirements should perhaps be termed `propulsion-assisted orbital decay' - they are more like normal uncontrolled orbital decay but speeded up by

the thrusters”.

SpaceX hasn't disclosed why they are being retired, but despite rumours, deny that the satellites have failed.. This has turned into a spat with Viasat using McDowell’s data and MCDowell not being seeing that as justified usage.

The rocket's first stage, B1058, on its third mission, made it back to a droneship Of Course I Still Love You while one of two payload fairing halves was caught by a ship. The Falcon 9 first stage (B1058, on its third mission) The second stage was deorbited southwest of Australia.

Amur is Falcon as Buran was to Shuttle?

More details about the Russian $880 mln Amur (falcon clone), methane–fueled, orbital launch vehicle operational flights planned for no earlier than 2026. Finally replacing 60 years of the R7 based orbital launch vehicle Soyuz. Musk has already pointed out that they will need to do better than that, as even Falson will be outdated when Starship is up and running. As Franco-Australians say that’s Amur eh.

Test 6 of The green Run

6 of 8 was finished this week. The simulated countdown.

Not long now till they fill this monster up, then fire up 4 of the greatest Rocket Engines ever made the RS-25, also designed to be reusable, but SLS will dump them in the sea, and in 50 years time an entrepreneur will pay to have them rescued from the ocean floor.

Talking of massively late and over budget space things

Chris Ferguson, who was to command the first crewed flight of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner commercial crew vehicle, has withdrawn from the mission for “the best kind of family issues.”, the company announced Oct. 7

Ferguson (3 Shuttle Flights)will be replaced by NASA backup trained astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore (2 space flights (1 soyuz), 4 EVAs and Capcom of the final Shuttle)

Ferguson will remain involved in the Starliner program as director of crew and mission operations. “I’ll also have the ancillary role of being the eyes and the ears of the CFT crew,”

S.S. Kalpana Chawla (named after deep purple fan who lost their life on Columbia :(

On Oct 3 Northrop Grumman launched the Cygnus NG-14 cargo ship, the S.S. Kalpana Chawla. The Chawla arrived at the ISS on Oct 5. Canadarm-2 grappled it at 0932 UTC and berthed it at Unity nadir at 1201 UTC. The Antares second stage rocket reentered on Oct 7. Contains a Raddish growing experiment, that had our previous guest

Turns out ESA has a Spacecraft visiting Venus soon!!!

The ESA-JAXA BepiColombo mission is getting ready to fly by Venus. It will make a close approach of the planet on 15 October at 03:58 GMT (05:58 CEST) at a distance of approximately 10 720 km. Gravity assist flybys are needed to set the spacecraft on course for Mercury orbit.

BepiColombo launched 20 October 2018 and made a flyby of Earth on 10 April 2020. It will make two flybys of Venus and six of Mercury before entering orbit around the Solar System’s innermost planet in 2025.

  • Date 15 October 2020 and 10 August 2021(*)

  • Time 03:58 UTC and 13:57 UTC

  • Altitude 10720 and 552 km

  • Operation time about 2 days before and 2 after Closest Approach

  • Payloads Operated



  • MTM: MCAM1/2/3 , BERM

I asked the head of the Venus Flyby task force. Valeria Mangano about Phosphine,

BepiColombo will attempt phosphine detection while making its flyby next week Oct 15th. There are two instruments which were already meant to observe the atmosphere: PHEBUS and MERTIS. MERTIS in particular has two channels at 7-14 and 7-40 microns and some IR lines of phosphine fall into this range. What is not clear now is whether the abundance of phosphine is high enough to be detected by MERTIS, but the measurement will be attempted.
BepiColombo is planning observations at Venus carefully even before the great news of phosphine detection. There are several instruments that - though designed for a totally different environment like the one of Mercury - are well suited also for making valuable scientific measurements of the Venus environment.

Even though the spacecraft will be quite far away from Venus during the first flyby, some science instruments onboard the Mercury Planetary Orbiter and the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter will be activated to study the planet’s atmosphere and space environment. It is not possible to use the Mercury Planetary Orbiter’s main science camera during the flyby, but the monitoring cameras, or “selfie-cams”, onboard the transfer module will try to capture images of Venus as it speeds past.

JAXA’s Akatsuki Venus Climate Orbiter and its Earth-orbiting Hisaki Spectroscopic Planet Observatory, together with ground-based observatories on Earth, will also make simultaneous measurements of the planet, taking advantage of this unique opportunity for coordinated observations

BepiColombo will approach the planet from the dayside and – given the retrograde rotation of Venus - it will have the closest approach on the evening side, almost at the time of crossing the bowshock.

The flyby#1 configuration is optimal for both atmospheric and ionospheric/magnetospheric investigations of the Venus close environment.


In Search for a Planet Better than Earth: Top Contenders for a Superhabitable World

Dirk Schulze-Makuch, René Heller, and Edward Guinan

Rare earth hypothesis: Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee front the University of Washington argued that the origin of intelligent life required an improbable combination of astrophysical and geological events and circumstances. Book came out in 2000, Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe. This is in contrast to Drake and Sagan who basically stated that “rocky planets like the earth would be common” essentially the principle of mediocrity similar to the Copernican principle.

  • Type of Galaxy: eg right level of activity for the supermassive black hole

  • Position in that Galaxy: Goldilox zone of the Galaxy - Metallicity, High Energy activity, star density

  • Type of Stellar orbit - One that takes the star system on a nice stable journey, so probably circular.

  • The right type of Star - not part of a binary, not too violent, right chemical makeup

  • The right type of distance from the star - Liquid Water ...obvs

  • The right arrangement of planets - The movement of the Gas Giants, creating the right environment (looks rare)

  • The right sized Planet - can’t cool down too quickly, and can't hold too thick an atmosphere, Plate Tectonics, Magnetic field

  • Large Moon - exact Axial Tilt, rotation speed, tilt stabilisation, tides, Plate Tectonics

  • Atmosphere - may be rare, might be as a result from moon formation ...look at venus

  • Jump from Prokaryotes to Eukaryotes only happened once in 4 billion years!!! Very slim chance

  • Sexual Reproduction - mystery, but it certainly drives speciation

  • Evolution happens at the right time in the history of the solar system

  • The right number of extinction events

  • The improbability of the jump from life to Humans who have crazy Overpowered qualities counter-intuitive to survival and energy resource.

This new paper swings back the other way, not quite the opposite, but suggest Earth is not even that good!!! , which seems pretty hard to swallow given the pretty compelling argument above.


Are there even better planets than Earth? Neglecting this possible class of “super-habitable” planets, however, could be considered anthropocentric and geocentric biases, indeed running in teh opposite direction to the principle of mediocrity or Copernican principle

Superhabitable planets might make a more suitable search candidate and easier to spot after all.

They use the same line of reasoning as above.

Life on Earth actually dominates the geosphere, unlike any other mars or venus, even if we do find life on them. But it hasn’t always, snowball earth for example.

They do not deal with the niches of an alternative life that involve unknown types, like life in ammonia as a solvent etc.

biomass and biodiversity

Planet more habitable than Earth as a planet with higher biomass and higher biodiversity, complex life will likely be present for any planetary environment with a global biosphere, which is at least as diverse and prevalent as that of Earth

Example: Europa, Enceladus, or Titan, are unlikely to be richer in biomass or biodiversity than a planet that also allows life on its planetary surface

Planetary Habitability Index (PHI) (Schulze-Makuch et al., 2011), based on similar parameters to above. The PHI for early Earth, at the time life originated on our planet, was set arbitrarily to 1.0, so any superhabitable planet would have a value of >1.0. Biological Complexity Index (BCI; Irwin et al., 2014), which included the assessment of whether a planetary body likely contains complex macroscopic life. Both could be considered to simplistic.

The PHI is 0.96 of Earth today because of the reduction of tidal forces Thus, they argue that a planet with a moon larger than Earth's Moon or closer than the distance of Earth to today's Moon would, in general, be more habitable than Earth, but not to close to cause tidal locking, obvs

Table 2. Most Valuable Planets—Planets That Might Be More Habitable Than Earth

  • In orbit around a K dwarf star

  • About 5–8 billion years old

  • Up to1.5 more massive than Earth and about 10% larger than Earth

  • Mean surface temperature about 5°C higher than on Earth

  • Moist atmosphere with 25–30% O2 levels, the rest mostly inert gases (e.g., N2)

  • Scattered land/water distributed with lots of shallow water areas and archipelagos

  • Large moon (1–10% of the planetary mass) at moderate distance (10–100 planetary radii)

  • Has plate tectonics or similar geological/geochemical recycling mechanism as well as a strong protective geomagnetic field

This can be applied to the data so far for the 4000 exoplanets found. Obviously, these data sets are incomplete, as transit methods do not show you mass, only the Radius of a planet, for example, and doppler the other way round.

If you take planets up to 2 Earth Radii, which is compensating for error in the data, in reality, you probably only want a 1.1 earth radius at most end up with 24 planets in the possible MVP set. 9 ORbiting K stars, 16 about the right age, and 5 in the right temp range.

Only KOI 5715.01 fits all the data, and if it has a strong greenhouse effect could be SH however we’re missing that all-important Mass data.

The long and short is this is a novel approach of sorting the planets into the ones we might want to concentrate our efforts on. We may have already found a new Eden.

Should such a planet be discovered within about 100 light-years in the near future, then such a world would deserve higher priority for follow-up observations in search of extrasolar life than Earth-like planets.

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