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The top space stories of the week!

The COVID-19 Omicron variant prompted the cancellation of a major astronomy conference, the dino-killing asteroid caused years of darkness on Earth and NASA’s newly-launched space telescope uncovers its sunshield. These are some of the top stories this week from Space.com. 

James Webb Space Telescope uncovers its sunshield

(Image credit: NASA)

The latest telescopic observatory to reach space is slowly making progress towards beginning its scientific mission. This week, the James Webb Space Telescope began the important task of releasing its massive sunshield. On Thursday (Dec. 30), the mission released the sunshield’s protective membrane cover so that the apparatus can unfurl this weekend. Once fully ready, the sunshield will foster the telescope’s scientific observations by keeping Webb’s instruments at the super-cold temperatures required for them to run. 

Full story: James Webb Space Telescope uncovers massive sunshield in next step of risky deployment

See also: Why the James Webb Space Telescope’s sunshield deployment takes so long

Plus: NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope mission: Live updates

New study investigates how to send people with disabilities into space

Pioneering Inspiration4 mission crew member Hayley Arceneaux, a physician assistant at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and pediatric cancer survivor, circuited Earth for nearly three days in September 2021.

(Image credit: Inspiration4/St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital)

The recently-published Parastronaut Feasibility Foundational Research Study investigates the feasibility of sending people with disabilities safely into space. The study, which was sponsored by NASA, defines “parastronauts” as individuals with certain physical disabilities, such as lower leg deficiencies, short stature and differences in leg length. The months-long study involved the consultation of medical experts, military and industry leaders. 

Full story: Equal access to space: New study investigates how to get more ‘parastronauts’ aloft

Omicron variant triggers cancelation of major astronomy conference 

Hubble took pictures of the oldest galaxies it could – seen here – but the James Webb Space Telescope can go back much farther in time.

(Image credit: NASA)

The American Astronomical Society will not meet in-person in early January due to the increasing spread of COVID-19. The major astronomical conference was scheduled to take place in Salt Lake City from Jan. 9 to Jan. 13, but its Board of Trustees voted for cancelation amidst the rapid rise of the COVID-19 Omicron variant, citing the health risks it would pose to their staff, attendees, exhibitors, and support contractors.

Full story: With COVID-19 on the rise again, ‘Super Bowl of astronomy’ next month canceled

Chinese astronaut Wang Yaping juggling with apples aboard the Tianhe space station.

(Image credit: CNSA)

On Dec. 6, Chinese officials filed a note with the United Nations explaining that SpaceX Starlink internet satellites produced two “close encounters” with China’s new space station. According to the note, China’s Tianhe space module moved to avoid the Starlink satellites on July 1, 2021 and Oct 21, 2021. Tianhe is the core module of China’s new space station, which the nation plans to finish in 2022. 

Full story: China’s Tianhe space station module dodged SpaceX Starlink satellites twice this year

See also: China launches mineral survey and science outreach satellites

RIP, Rich Clifford

On the aft deck of the space shuttle Endeavour, astronaut Rich Clifford, STS-59 mission specialist, inserts a tape in the payload recorder.

(Image credit: NASA)

Space-shuttle astronaut Michael “Rich” Clifford has died at the age of 69. The NASA spacefarer flew on three missions, including one after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Clifford was chosen to become an astronaut in 1990 with NASA’s 13th group of spaceflight trainees and took his first trip to space in December 1992. 

Full story: Rich Clifford, NASA astronaut who secretly flew with Parkinson’s, dies at 69

Years of darkness followed dino-killing asteroid collision

extinction event dinosaurs

(Image credit: Esteban De Armas/Shutterstock)

On Dec. 16, researchers presented their new work about the asteroid-triggered extinction event that killed all non-avian dinosaurs 66 million years ago. They looked at the dinosaur extinction rate indicated by the fossil record from an expanse of land that stretches across Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming. The dinosaurs that once roamed this region experienced about two years of darkness when massive wildfires produced sun-blocking soot, according to the team’s findings. 

Full story: Darkness caused by dino-killing asteroid snuffed out life on Earth in 9 months

Engine fails on third flight of Russia’s first heavy-lift rocket since the Soviet Union

A Russian Angara A5 rocket launches from Plesetsk Cosmodrome on the vehicle’s third demonstration mission on Dec. 27, 2021. The rocket, carrying a dummy payload, reached low Earth orbit, but an upper-stage engine failure prevented it from going higher as planned, according to media reports.

(Image credit: Russian Ministry of Defense)

Russia’s newest rocket, the Angara A5, performed its third test flight on Monday (Dec. 27). The rocket’s Persei booster unfortunately experienced engine failure, and Russian space industry officials have formed an investigation commission as a result. The Angara A5 is the first heavy-lift rocket used by Roscosmos (Russia’s space agency) in three decades. 

Full story: Russia launches heavy-lift Angara rocket on 3rd test flight, but misses intended orbit: reports

See also: Soyuz rocket launches 36 OneWeb internet satellites into orbit 

SpaceX Starship will not launch until at least March 2022

This SpaceX photo shows the first test-fire of six Raptor engines on the company's Starship SN20 rocket prototype on Nov. 12, 2021 at the Starbase facility in near Boca Chica Village in South Texas. A Starship Super Heavy booster stands at right.

(Image credit: SpaceX)

On Tuesday (Dec. 28), the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced it has pushed the release date of its final programmatic environmental assessment (PEA) for SpaceX’s Starship rocket. The new date, Feb. 28, 2022, means that Starship’s first launch will not occur until at least March. 

Full story: 1st orbital test flight of SpaceX’s Starship Mars rocket pushed to March at the earliest

See also: SpaceX fires up Starship SN20 prototype again ahead of landmark test flight

The rocket launch failures of 2021

Firefly Aerospace's Alpha rocket lifts off on its debut launch from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on Sept. 2, 2021. The rocket failed 2 minutes, 30 seconds into the flight.

(Image credit: Everyday Astronaut/Firefly Aerospace)

Many rockets aced their flights this year, but several other launches did not go as hoped. Chinese company iSpace suffered more than one failure in 2021, for instance. California-based Astra’s orbital test flight on Aug. 28 also failed when an anomaly prompted the termination of the rocket’s flight 2.5 minutes after liftoff. 

Full story: The biggest launch failures (and recoveries) of 2021

The biggest space science stories of 2021

This image from the Dark Energy Survey (DES) is composed of some of the discovery exposures showing Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein collected by the 570-megapixel Dark Energy Camera (DECam) mounted on the Víctor M. Blanco 4-meter Telescope at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile. These images show the comet in October 2017, when it was 25 au away, 83% of the distance to Neptune.

(Image credit: Dark Energy Survey/DOE/FNAL/DECam/CTIO/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/P. Bernardinelli & G. Bernstein (UPenn)/DESI Legacy Imaging Surveys)

Scientists made fascinating discoveries this year and space agencies simultaneously greenlit new missions to learn about what’s out there. Our solar system, for example, got more interesting in 2021: researchers accidentally discovered the largest-known comet, and NASA announced two upcoming missions to the planet Venus. 

Full story: The 10 biggest space science stories of 2021

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