At ComicCon, the BBC premiered the trailer for this year’s Christmas special, and Peter Capaldi’s swansong. The title is “Twice Upon a Time” and it’s a bona fide multiple Doctor adventure — the Twelfth, of course, but also the First, as portrayed by David Bradley. We know very little, except that it’s set in World War One and something is wrong with time — also, neither incarnation of the Doctor wants to regenerate (confirming that for One, it’s happening alongside the events of “The Tenth Planet”, a clever use of the fact that the First Doctor was oddly absent for much of that serial, due to William Hartnell’s illness). It will also feature yet another performance from Mark Gatiss, and a previously-kept-secret final appearance by Pearl Mackie as Bill! I am so excited and so thrilled, and I love this trailer. Now I just have to wait five months…..
The huge space radio telescope Spektr-R, or Radioastron, operated by the Astro Space Centre of the Lebedev Physical Institute, has been operating successfully since July of 2011, performing very long baseline inferometry (VLBI) with suitably equipped sites on the Earth. Since its orbit goes between 10,000 and 350,000 kilometers, this gives a fantastically long baseline. But its not been without its problems. The perigee of its highly eccentric orbit had slipped down to about 7,500 km by last year, low enough to start being affected by lumpiness in Earth’s gravity field, making it difficult to predict the observatory’s orbit over time. It was no longer certain that it would remain in orbit past 2018, and worse, it looked like a series of passes through Earth’s shadow (eclipse season) would be of unsurvivable duration. So the team devised a series of engine burns that will raise the probe enough to survive well into the next decade — and possibly even improve its position through a series of lunar gravity assists. The spacecraft flies out past the orbit of the Moon, so this isn’t outlandish. But fears of error due to the Moon’s notoriously fickle gravitation field led this to be cancelled. A more modest orbital change is now planned, but one which will only consume about 10% of the remaining propellant (and it has about 85% left from its original supply). The primary maneuver under this new plan was completed on July 16 and took 290.3 seconds. Additional burns will be performed after the resulting trajectory is carefully analyzed, and Radioastron will remain in service for years to come.
Not that it’s exactly a race anymore; the game has clearly changed massively with satellite operators such as Planet Labs, the company also largely responsible for PSLV seizing first place in this category. Planet Labs placed 88 of its “Dove” CubeSats into orbit on a PSLV last February, and another 48 aboard Soyuz last Friday. These are imagery spacecraft, designed to completely rewrite the rules of satellite image procurement — instead of building massive, expensive, highly sophisticated spacecraft akin to spy satellites, they’re building CubeSat with relatively inexpensive cameras — but lots of them. Their resolution is less, but the availability is much greater, and although the satellites are so small and light that they don’t stay in orbit for more than a few years, this also means they’re self-cleaning and easily replenished because they are so cheap. It also partially compensates for their small size — they’re dwarfed by the big commercial imaging sats (to say nothing of spy satellites) but they fly much, much lower.
The primary payload aboard this flight was Kanopus-V-IK, a Russian civilian imaging satellite operated by Roscosmos for the purpose of emergency response. It carries multispectral imagers particularly useful for tracking wildfires. Kanopus-V-IK is a traditional spacecraft, large and equipped with propulsion. The Doves were not its only smallsat neighbors for the flight; other payloads included eight Lemurs from Spire Global (to provide weather forecasting information), three CICERO cubesates from GeoOptics (Spire’s closest competitor), two LandMapper-BC cubesats from Astro Digital, Tyvak’s experimental NanoACE (to test propulsion for nanosatellites; Tyvak is a launch broker), the Flying Laptop (a smallsat capable of searching for NEOs while testing a new type of On Board Computer) from the University of Stuttgart, Technosat from the Technical University of Berlin, Norsat 1 & 2 (Norway’s first scientific satellites, to improve merchant marine tracking and communications, and originally scheduled to fly on a Soyuz out of French Guiana), the Japanese WNISAT 1R small weather satellite, the crowd-funded Mayak solar sail from Moscow Polytechnic University (which could become brighter than the ISS when deployed), and four other Russian CubeSats.
FYI, third place is 37 satellites. It was set in 2014 by a Ukrainian-built Dnepr rocket out of Dombarovsky Air Base in Russia. The fact that the three records have all been set in the last five years — and with such a huge gap — is indicative of a major trend in spaceflight. Things are changing.
SQUEEEEEE!!!!! I am so excited! Now begins the long wait to the Christmas Special and then Series Eleven….
This Sunday, we’ll finally learn who will next fly the TARDIS . . . .
The images and data from Perijove 7 have started coming down to Earth, and as they become available, the team is posting them in their gallery and inviting the public to process them — and the public, as always, is responding quickly. This one, processed by Gerald Eichstädt and Seán Doran, is quite a striking view of the giant anticyclone, processed to bring a gloriously rich depth of color to it (the color is much paler in the unprocessed images). This is closer than anyone has ever come before to the Great Red Spot, and the level of detail is breathtaking. Go on, click to view it in full scale — you know you want to!
The Juno spacecraft has been orbiting Jupiter for a year now (well, a year and four days — its anniversary was last Wednesday), making long, looping orbits with brief dives within a few thousand kilometers of Jupiter’s cloud tops, slipping through gaps in the intense radiation belts around the giant planet. Its mission is to peer beneath the cloudy veils of Jupiter to better understand the processes that drive Jupiter. So far, its data has been a treasure trove, revealing how little we really know about this planet. We now know that the polar regions look completely different from the equatorial and mid-latitudes that we can see from terrestrial telescopes, and that its magnetic field is far more complex than we’d ever suspected, and that the atmosphere is not uniformly mixed like ours is; there is a band of ammonia in the equatorial cloud belts that extends at least as far into Jupiter as Juno’s instruments can reach — hundreds of kilometers. It’s also studied Jupiter’s strange aurorae, which don’t behave in a manner consistent with the processes that drive aurorae on other worlds, and carry weird footprints of some of the Galilean satellites.
But there is one notable feature of Jupiter that has so far been completely untouched by Juno: the Great Red Spot.
The Great Red Spot, seen by Voyager 2 in 1979
Jupiter is famous for long-lived storms, but none is longer-lived (as far as we know) than the Great Red Spot. It was first recorded in 1665, by Giovanni Cassini. He observed it for the duration of his career, noting fluctuations in its visibility, and there are sporadic reports in the literature between then and the 19th Cnetury. It has been systematically observed continuously since 1830, proving that it is stable for a remarkably long time, longer than any other known meteorological phenomenon, although that is not to say it is unchanging. The color varies dramatically over time, usually in parallel with color shifts in its confining atmospheric band, and it has been seen to change particularly rapidly upon gobbling up a smaller storm. Another oddity is that it doesn’t traverse the planet at the same rate as everything else — it moves around slightly more quickly, resulting it lapping the planet ten times since the start of continuous systematic observation in the nineteenth century.
There are so many questions about the Great Red Spot it’s hard to know where to begin. There are as many theories as there are questions, and so far, very little means of testing most of them. But tomorrow, that may change. Until now, the only data we’ve had on the Great Red Spot has been photographic and spectroscopic, revealing only the very surface details. Tomorrow, Juno’s periapsis will have precessed just enough around Jupiter to put it directly over the Great Red Spot. What will it learn?