North Korea’s New Satellite Tech Also Useful for Manoeuvrable Nuclear Warheads, Say Analysts


North Korea’s latest launches appear aimed at developing and testing technology that can be used both for spy satellites and in a massive intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of launching multiple nuclear warheads, analysts said.

North Korea deployed a new ICBM system in February 27 and March 5 test-firings, the US and South Korean officials said on Friday, in what could be a prelude to the nuclear-armed country’s first full ICBM test since 2017, potentially disguised as a space launch.

The giant, long-range missile system, known as the Hwasong-17, was first unveiled at an October 2020 military parade in Pyongyang and reappeared at a defence exhibition in October 2021, according to US and South Korean officials.

The large size of the Hwasong-17 suggests North Korea may be looking to tip it with multiple nuclear warheads in “multiple independently-targetable reentry vehicles” (MIRV), analysts said.

In such a system, the main rocket booster pushes a “bus” carrying multiple reentry vehicles and sometimes decoys to confuse missile defence systems, into a suborbital ballistic flight path.

The bus then uses small on-board rocket motors and a computerised inertial guidance system to manoeuvre and release the warheads on different trajectories.

State media reports on the recent satellite system tests mentioned attitude control, which refers to small motors that help reorient an aerodynamic object, Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace noted.

“It turns out that this would help them both develop and deploy new reconnaissance satellites as well as a ‘bus’ for multiple warheads on an ICBM,” he said.

In 2021, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said a multi-warhead rocket was in the final stage of development.

Kim has also said putting multiple reconnaissance satellites in orbit is important for the country’s security, as well as its national prestige, and has suggested he could order new ICBM tests.

“North Korea wants to successfully place a satellite in orbit,” Michael Duitsman, a researcher at the US based James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) said on Twitter. “I suspect that, even more than that, they want to put more warheads on their missiles, to maximise their limited number of TELs,” he added, referring to the Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL) vehicles used to fire road-mobile missiles like the Hwasong-17.

Secretive Launches

North Korea was unusually secretive about the launches, saying they tested various components to be used in a developmental reconnaissance satellite but releasing no details or photos of the rockets involved.

Unlike North Korea’s usual space rockets, which were launched from static pads at the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground, the recent missiles were fired from near Sunan, where Pyongyang’s international airport is located, suggesting the missiles were fired from a TEL.

North Korea’s space programme has always been controversial because of its ties to military missile development.

“North Korea used early rockets like the Taepodong and Unha/Kwangmyongsong series to test their theories and later develop the ICBMs known as Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15,” said Melissa Hanham, a researcher at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) in California. “This is type of development is pretty standard for all countries with ICBMs.”

North Korea’s last formal ICBM test was the Hwasong-15, which reached an altitude of around 4,475 km (2,780 miles) and travelled 950km (590 miles) during a single launch in Nov. 2017, giving it an estimate range to strike anywhere in the continental United States.

In contrast, the latest test that reportedly involved the new Hwasong-17 system reached a height of 550km (340 miles) and flew 300km (190 miles), according to South Korea. Analysts said the tests may have only used only one stage of the liquid-fuelled Hwasong-17.

Any use of ballistic missile technology by North Korea, even in a space launch vehicle, is fully banned by United Nations Security Council resolutions, a senior US official told reporters in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity.

© Thomson Reuters 2022


James Webb Space Telescope to Launch Today: When, How to Watch Live


NASA’s largest space telescope launch countdown has begun. The James Webb Space Telescope will be launched today on Christmas Day, December 25, and space enthusiasts can watch all the action live. The telescope is scheduled to be launched from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana, at 7:20am EST (5:50pm IST). The space agency will be streaming James Webb’s flight and live countdown commentary on NASA Live. Apart from that, NASA will also broadcast the launch on various social media channels. The James Webb Space Telescope is a successor to Hubble Space Telescope.

The James Webb Space Telescope is an international project led by NASA with its partners, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

Apart from NASA Live, you can also watch the launch on NASA’s official YouTube channel.

You can watch the livestream below:

The other options to watch the live broadcast include NASA TV, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and the NASA app. On Facebook, you can also join the event and engage with other people who are watching the launch.

According to a NASA blog post, the broadcast will feature spectacular scenes from the launch site in Kourou as well as commentary from experts. Viewers can also see incredible clips showing the telescope’s development, in-person talks on technology, and cutting-edge animations depicting how the telescope will unfold once it reaches space.

However, till you wait for the launch event to start, you can watch a YouTube series titled Journey to Space, showcasing the James Webb Space Telescope’s story so far.

The launch will be broadcast live from the French Guiana launch site of the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, US, and the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. The broadcast will continue for about an hour after the launch, and track the initial milestones post-launch.


James Webb Space Telescope Launched Successfully, Sets Off on Million-Mile Voyage


The world’s most powerful space telescope on Saturday blasted off into orbit, headed to an outpost 1.5 million kilometres (930,000 miles) from Earth, after several delays caused by technical hitches.

The James Webb Space Telescope, some three decades and billions of dollars in the making, left Earth enclosed in its Ariane 5 rocket from Kourou Space Centre in French Guiana.

“What an amazing day. It’s truly Christmas,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, head of scientific missions for NASA, which together with the European and Canadian space agencies, ESA and ACS, built the telescope.

ESA chief Josef Aschbacher said he was “very happy to say that we’ve delivered the spacecraft into orbit very precisely… that Ariane 5 performed extremely well”.

This was key, since placing the spacecraft in orbit helps economise on the fuel the telescope will need to reach its final destination and perform well after that.

It is expected to take a month to reach its remote destination.

It is set to beam back new clues that will help scientists understand more about the origins of the Universe and Earth-like planets beyond our solar system.

Named after a former NASA director, Webb follows in the footsteps of the legendary Hubble — but intends to show humans what the Universe looked like even closer to its birth nearly 14 billion years ago.

Speaking on social media, Webb project co-founder John Mather described the telescope’s unprecedented sensitivity.

“#JWST can see the heat signature of a bumblebee at the distance of the Moon,” he said.

All that power is needed to detect the weak glow emitted billions of years ago by the very first galaxies to exist and the first stars being formed.

US President Joe Biden congratulated NASA and the Webb team for the launch, saying on Twitter the telescope “is a shining example of the power of what we can accomplish when we dream big.”

‘Exceptional measures’

The telescope is unequalled in size and complexity.

Its mirror measures 6.5 metres (21 feet) in diameter — three times the size of the Hubble’s mirror — and is made of 18 hexagonal sections.

It is so large that it had to be folded to fit into the rocket.

That manoeuvre was laser-guided with NASA imposing strict isolation measures to limit any contact with the telescope’s mirrors from particles or even human breath.

Once the rockets have carried Webb 120 kilometres, the protective nose of the craft, called a “fairing”, will be shed to lighten the load.

To protect the delicate instrument from changes in pressure at that stage, rocket-builder Arianespace installed a custom decompression system.

“Exceptional measures for an exceptional client,” said a European Space Agency official in Kourou on Thursday.

Once it reaches its station, the challenge will be to fully deploy the mirror and a tennis-court-sized sun shield.

That intimidatingly complex process will take two weeks and must be flawless if Webb is to function correctly.

Its orbit will be much farther than Hubble, which has been 600 kilometres above the Earth since 1990.

The location of Webb’s orbit is called the Lagrange 2 point and was chosen in part because it will keep the Earth, the Sun and the Moon all on the same side of its sun shield.

Webb is expected to officially enter service in June.


California Startup Astrolab Unveils Space Rover, Pitches It for NASA’s Artemis Moon Mission


A Los Angeles-area startup founded by a veteran spaceflight robotics engineer unveiled on Thursday its full-scale, working prototype for a next-generation lunar rover that is just as fast as NASA’s old “moon buggy” but is designed to do much more.

The company, Venturi Astrolab, released photos and video showing its Flexible Logistics and Exploration (FLEX) vehicle riding over the rugged California desert near Death Valley National Park during a five-day field test in December.

Astrolab executives say the four-wheeled, car-sized FLEX rover is designed for use in NASA’s Artemis program, aimed at returning humans to the moon as early as 2025 and establishing a long-term lunar colony as a precursor to sending astronauts to Mars.

Unlike the Apollo-era moon buggies of the 1970s or the current generation of robotic Mars rovers tailored for specialised tasks and experiments, FLEX is designed as an all-purpose vehicle that can be driven by astronauts or operated by remote control.

Built around a modular payload system inspired by conventional containerised shipping, FLEX is versatile enough to be used for exploration, cargo delivery, site construction and other logistical work on the moon, the company says.

“For humanity to truly live and operate in a sustained way off Earth, there needs to exist an efficient and economical network all the way from the launch pad to the ultimate outpost,” Astrolab founder and CEO Jaret Matthews said in a statement announcing the rover’s development.

If NASA adopts FLEX and its modular payload platform for Artemis, it would become the first passenger-capable rover to ply the lunar surface since Apollo 17, the last of six original US manned missions to the moon, in December 1972.

Apollo 17’s lunar roving vehicle set a moon speed record of 11 miles per hour (17.7 km/h). FLEX can move just as swiftly.

Apollo’s astronauts found “they spent just as much time off the ground as on it at that speed, so it’s kind of a practical limit for the moon,” where gravity is one-sixth that of Earth, Matthews, a former rover engineer for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday.

While Apollo LRVs carried up to two astronauts seated at its controls like a car, FLEX passengers – as many as two at a time – ride standing in the back, driving the vehicle with a joystick either astronaut can maneuver.

The rover itself, with the approximate wheelbase of a Jeep, weighs just over 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms) but has a cargo capacity of 3,300 pounds, about the same as a light-duty pickup truck.

With its solar-powered battery fully charged, the vehicle can run for eight hours with astronauts aboard and has sufficient energy capacity to survive the extreme cold of a lunar night, up to 300 hours in total darkness, at the moon’s south pole, Matthews said.

During the FLEX field test at the Dumont Dunes Off-Highway Recreation Area north of Baker, California, adjacent to Death Valley, the rover was piloted by retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who is an Astrolab advisory board member, and MIT aerospace graduate student Michelle Lin.

Video showed the pair dressed in mock spacesuits riding on the vehicle over a sand dune and using it to transport and set up a large, vertical solar array. “It was huge fun to drive the FLEX,” Hadfield said in the video.

© Thomson Reuters 2022


James Webb Space Telescope Successfully Carries Out Time-Critical Mid-Course Correction


NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, which was launched on Christmas Day, had begun its first mid-course correction burn on December 25 at 7:50pm EST (6.20am IST on December 26). This burn is one of two time-sensitive milestones, the first being the deployment of solar arrays which occurred shortly after its launch. The burn, which lasted for 65 minutes, was successfully completed. It helped adjust the space telescope’s trajectory toward the second Lagrange point, often known as L2. Amid much fanfare, the largest space telescope ever built was launched on December 25 from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana.

NASA even streamed the telescope’s flight live and broadcast the launch on various social media channels. To reach its orbit, James Webb Space Telescope must do its own mid-course thrust correction operations after launch.

In a tweet on its official handle, NASA Webb Telescope, the agency stated that the burn was a “success,” and added that it “helped fine-tune Webb’s trajectory toward its orbit around the second Lagrange point”, which is around 1.5 million kilometres from the Earth.

In a subsequent tweet, NASA also stated that “Webb will orbit the Sun in line with Earth so its sunshield can protect the telescope from light and heat”.

On its official YouTube channel, the James Webb Space Telescope channel also shared a short animation of the telescope’s orbit as seen from above the Sun’s north pole. In the description, it stated that the telescope “will not be in orbit around the Earth, like the Hubble Space Telescope is — it will actually orbit the Sun.” It added further what was so special about the second Lagrange point or L2. “It lets the telescope stay in line with the Earth as it moves around the Sun.”

According to a James Webb Space Telescope blog post, if the telescope gets too much thrust, “it can’t turn around to move back toward Earth because that would directly expose its telescope optics and structure to the Sun, overheating them and aborting the science mission before it can even begin.” The blog post also added that after this burn, “no key milestones are time-critical.”

On December 26, the James Webb team also shared an update on the telescope’s gimbaled antenna assembly. “This antenna will be used to send at least 28.6GB of data down from the observatory, twice a day,” stated a tweet.

James Webb Space Telescope is a successor to NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. It’s an international project led by NASA with the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.


Scientists Find ‘Largest Cluster’ of Nearly 100 Free-Floating Planets in a Single Star-Forming Region


Rogue planets have baffled astronomers for ages. Unlike regular planets which revolve around stars, these free-floating planets (FFPs) get ejected from star systems to move about in the galaxy on their own. In the latest discovery, astronomers found the largest cluster of rogue planets in a single star-forming region. With an approximate discovery of 100 FFPs, the new sample is said to double the existing sample of known rogue planets. Not more than a decade ago, NASA’s Kepler space telescope had discovered a free-floating planetary object and gave rise to speculations about planetary anomalies.

The recent study used data from 20 years of observations through several ground-based and space telescopes, combined with over 80,000 wide-field images. Scientists employed techniques of microlensing and direct imaging, along with outcomes of planet-planet scattering simulations.

Among the telescopes used for the study were the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA), the VLT Survey Telescope (VST) and the MPG/ ESO 2.2-metre telescope located in Chile.

The study was published in the Nature Astronomy journal on December 22.

Sean N. Raymond, a writer of this study, added more details of the discovery in a tweet thread. Stating that 100 free-floating planets were found in “a single star-forming region,” Raymond added, “This roughly doubles the entire sample of known rogue planets.”

The cluster has been located within the constellations, Scorpius and Ophiuchus. Brown dwarfs were also part of the discovery. The study was a part of the Cosmic-DANCE project.

The planetary objects were found to measure between four to 13 Jupiter masses. Scientists could only estimate the number of FFPs as “their true masses depend on the age of the association, which is not well nailed down.” The study assumes that the planets have been in association for three to 10 million years.

Speculations about FFPs have confused scientists over the decades. Some parties may believe that FFPs are merely failed stars that traverse the galaxy like lost souls. But Raymond differs in his opinion.

Almost 90 percent of the study sample may have formed around stars. Later, they got ejected in dynamic instabilities, researchers say.

Here are the factors on which the number of ejected planets depend:

The new discovery is important as this gives scientists a big sample of FFPs to construct and study star and planet formation models.


Elon Musk Slammed Online by Chinese Citizens After Starlink Satellite-Space Station Near-Misses


Chinese citizens lashed out online against billionaire Tesla founder Elon Musk’s space ambitions on Monday after China complained that its space station was forced to take evasive action to avoid collision with satellites launched by Musk’s Starlink programme.

The satellites from Starlink Internet Services, a division of Musk’s SpaceX aerospace company, had two “close encounters” with the Chinese space station on July 1 and October 21, according to a document submitted by China earlier this month to the UN’s space agency.

“For safety reasons, the China Space Station implemented preventive collision avoidance control,” China said in a document published on the website of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs.

The complaints have not been independently verified. SpaceX did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In a post on China’s Twitter-like Weibo microblogging platform on Monday, one user said Starlink’s satellites were “just a pile of space junk”, while another described them as “American space warfare weapons”.

With nearly 30,000 satellites and other debris believed to be orbiting the planet, scientists have urged governments to share data to reduce the risk of catastrophic space collisions.

SpaceX alone has deployed nearly 1,900 satellites to serve its Starlink broadband network, and is planning more.

“The risks of Starlink are being gradually exposed, the whole human race will pay for their business activities,” a user posting under the name Chen Haiying said on Weibo.

US space agency NASA was forced to abruptly call off a spacewalk at the end of November, citing risks posed by space debris. Musk tweeted in response that some Starlink satellite orbits had been adjusted to reduce the possibility of collisions.

China began constructing the space station in April with the launch of Tianhe, the largest of its three modules. The station is expected to be completed by the end of 2022 after four crewed missions.

Musk has become a well-known figure in China, though Tesla’s electric-vehicle business has come under growing scrutiny from regulators, especially after a customer climbed on top of a Tesla car at the Shanghai auto show in April to protest against poor customer service.

© Thomson Reuters 2021


OneWeb Launches 36 Satellites Into Orbit to Deliver Global High-Speed Internet Access


Britain-based tech company OneWeb launched 36 communications satellites into space from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Monday, live broadcasts showed.

OneWeb has been launching satellites into orbit as part of its plans to deliver global high-speed internet access.

“Launch #12 represents the last in a sequence of eight launches scheduled in 2021 by OneWeb with launch partners Arianespace,” the company said on its website. French global launch services company Arianespace, Oneweb and Russia’s space agency Roscosmos all broadcast the launch.

Earlier this year, OneWeb said a launch from Russia’s Far East would allow it to offer everywhere north of 50 degrees latitude.

OneWeb has listed the United Kingdom, Alaska, Northern Europe, Greenland, Iceland, continental US, the Arctic Seas and Canada as areas that should be offered full connectivity.

The Interfax news agency said the satellites, launched aboard a Soyuz-2.1b rocket, would be separated in stages.

OneWeb resumed flights last December after emerging from bankruptcy protection with $1 billion (roughly Rs. 7,490 crore) in equity investment from a consortium of the British government and India’s Bharti Enterprises, its new owners.

It has also received investment from Japan’s Softbank and Eutelsat Communications, and further financing from Bharti. OneWeb has secured $2.4 billion in total.

© Thomson Reuters 2021


In a First, Scientists Measure Oscillations in the Brightness of a Massive Neutron Star During Eruption


The Sun is our very own star placed at the centre of the Solar System. Despite being the closest star to Earth, scientists are still trying to understand the Sun’s core which often triggers massive solar winds towards our planet. While that is an ongoing research, an international group of scientists has tried to study a neutron star, which is created when a giant star dies in a supernova and its core collapses, forming neutrons. In a first, the group says it has been able to measure the oscillations in the brightness in a magnetar — a type of neutron star believed to have an extremely powerful magnetic field — during its violent moments.

Surprisingly, the scientists found the magnetar released in just a tenth of a second, with energy equivalent to that produced by the Sun in 100,000 years. Their study of oscillations in the brightness of a neutron star is crucial to understanding giant magnetar eruptions. The scientists say their findings have put to rest questions related to whether magnetars see high-frequency oscillations.

The study has been published in the Nature journal. The work is a collaboration of 41 researchers.

“Even in an inactive state, magnetars can be one hundred thousand times more luminous than our Sun, but in the case of the flash that we have studied — the GRB2001415 — the energy that was released is equivalent to that which our Sun radiates in one hundred thousand years,” lead researcher Alberto J. Castro-Tirado, from the IAA-CSIC, a Spanish government institute, told Nanowerk.

The explosion, which lasted for a tenth of a second, was discovered on April 15, 2020, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the study. It added that the flare was “detected by the Atmosphere–Space Interactions Monitor instrument aboard the International Space Station.” Since then, the scientists have been analysing the data.

Among neutron stars, magnetars are objects that can contain half a million times the mass of the Earth and is the most intense magnetic field known. Only 30 of these objects are known so far.

The study adds, “These extremely high-frequency oscillations in the burst peak are a crucial component that will aid our understanding of magnetar giant flares.”


How Do Astronauts Exercise, Get Haircuts in Space? ESA’s Matthias Maurer Shares Clips


Life in space is intriguing, much more to those with an interest in astronomy. There are several questions. For instance, how do astronauts keep their cool, what do they do to entertain themselves, or maintain their mental and physical health. European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Matthias Maurer shared two videos which give a sneak peek into life aboard the International Space Station (ISS). In one of them, he shows what astronauts do to strengthen their muscle mass and bone density in the weightless environment. And in the other, what they do to keep hair away from their eyes.

While the ISS is an enormous laboratory, floating nearly 400km above Earth, it is still mostly machines. Living aboard it may be exciting but it requires immense discipline. The ISS hosts experiments that could not be performed in any laboratory on Earth.

“There’s no exception when it comes to the daily 2h of exercise aboard the space station. This not only serves to keep us in shape after the festive treats but is important to strengthen our muscle mass and bone density in the weightless environment of space,” tweeted Maurer.

In the second video, Maurer gave his followers a peek into the “salon” and took the help of his colleague, Raja Chari, an Indian-American NASA astronaut, to keep hair away from his eyes. He said that on the Space Station the “hair clippers come with a vacuum attached.” Referring to Chari as a space stylist, Maurer gave him “five stars” for this “service.”

Maurer and his three colleagues, including Chari, lifted off aboard a new SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft called Endurance and docked on to the ISS in November 2021 for a six-month stay in orbit. This is Maurer’s first space mission.