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
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.
New study investigates how to send people with disabilities into space
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.
Omicron variant triggers cancelation of major astronomy conference
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.
Chinese space station moved twice this year to avoid SpaceX Starlink satellites
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.
RIP, Rich Clifford
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.
Years of darkness followed dino-killing asteroid collision
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.
Engine fails on third flight of Russia’s first heavy-lift rocket since the Soviet Union
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.
SpaceX Starship will not launch until at least March 2022
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.
The rocket launch failures of 2021
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.
The biggest space science stories of 2021
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