You’re looking at the first image of the object at the heart of our galaxy, Sagittarius A—pronounced “Sagittarius A-Star”, and abbreviated Sgr A—courtesy of over 300 researchers from more than 80 institutions across the world.
The image was produced by a global research team called the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) Collaboration, using observations from a worldwide network of radio telescopes, some of which are among the most powerful scientific instruments ever built.
The global scale of the project reflects massive ambition: The nature of what laid at the heart of our galaxy was uncertain, though a black hole was widely suspected.
Mustering humanity’s best and brightest astronomers, and its most potent tools, we now know for certain it is a supermassive black hole, the largest type of its class.
To get a sense of its scale—however possible that is—Sgr A* is four million times more massive than the Sun, which is one million times bigger than Earth. The center of the galaxy is 27,000 lightyears away, with just one lightyear stretching close to 6 TRILLION miles. So yeah, this was a hell of an achievement, and it took hundreds of people using purpose-built tools and supercomputers over the span of five years to confirm it.
Black holes have gravity so immense that not even light can escape—hence why images of them are so hard to capture. (As @voxdotcom put it, trying to get a photo of a quarter in Los Angeles from Washington, D.C.)
Hence, we cannot the black hole itself, but only the glowing gas and other material swirling around its massive gravitation; the stuff that falls into the black hole is unseen and basically erased from the observable universe.
This is a groundbreaking moment in our understanding of these mysterious, dark giants, which are thought to reside at the center of most galaxies. Indeed, the EHT is also responsible for the very first image of a black hole, M87*, at the center of the more distant Messier 87 galaxy over 53 million lightyears away.
Such incredible achievements are only possible with collaboration and curiosity that transcends political and cultural boundaries—something we need now more than ever.
Russia’s anti-satellite (ASAT) test, which took out an old but large Soviet satellite, garnered widespread condemnation for the risk it posed to the International Space Station—and the wider problem of mounting space debris threatening human endeavors in space. But it also reflects yet another battleground among the world’s major powers.
Russia is one of just four countries—along with the U.S., China, and India—to have anti-satellite capabilities; this test exceeded Indian and American altitudes, but fell short of China. No doubt yet another race is in the works.
In addition to clogging up space with more deadly junk, such technology also serves as a demonstration to rivals: In a highly digital world, the ability to take down satellites can greatly weaken an enemy’s recon and spying capabilities, as well as disrupt disrupt the lives of billions.
Ironically, all four anti-sat players are also competing in the development and/or launching of satellites, which are in greater demand than ever.
Half the ISS—which involves five space agencies and fifteen countries—is Russian-built and operated, and to this day Russia does most of the legwork in launching both crew and cargo. It was a rare and enduring example of cooperation between two erstwhile rivals, an interesting if fragile antidote to the petty politics on the ground. (Scientists and astronauts from both countries get along pretty well and have consistently collaborated even through the worst flareups of tensions and hostility.)
China was never part of the ISS—a notable absence given its hefty financial resources and technical knowledge—due to a controversial NASA policy implemented by Congress in 2011 that excludes any form of cooperation with any Chinese institution or organization. So I imagine its ambitious attempt at a national space station, like so many of its actions abroad, clearly has a triumphalist “We’ll show you!” aspect to it.
But China’s Tiangong, or “Heavenly Palace”, which is set for completion in just a year, will have only one-sixth the mass of the ISS, and roughly a quarter of its habitable space. This isn’t to say it won’t be an impressive feat—especially for a developing country that remains a byword for cheap consumer goods—but its full potential is likely limited given the sheer costs and complexity of building (and regularly maintaining) a human habitat in space.
Meanwhile, Russia’s plans are less clear: Though it holds many records in space stations—including launching the first one, having the most in total, and having the most experience with space walks and the like—it no longer has the financial resources to back this knowhow. (That’s what made the ISS so successful: What Russia lacked in America’s vast resources it made up for with its proven expertise, and visa versa.)
Even the otherwise prideful U.S.—albeit namely its pragmatic scientists at NASA—has now seemingly realized that space is too big, costly, and complex an endeavor for even superpowers to handle.
Aside from being a key founder of the ISS, which was created to replace a planned U.S. station that would have been too costly, NASA plans to return to humans to the moon for the first time in fifty years through the Artemis Program—a decidedly international effort.
While it will be led primarily by NASA and its mostly American commercial contractors, it will include personnel, tech, and resources from Europe, Japan, Canada, Italy, Australia, the United Kingdom, United Arab Emirates, Ukraine, and Brazil. (Believe it or not, those last three do carry a lot of technological heft in space; the UAE has a probe orbiting Mars as we speak, and India is notable for accomplishing many difficult space ventures at fairly low cost.) More countries have been invited and are are expected to join.
The Artemis Program not only aims to put humans (including the first woman) on the Moon by 2024, but has the long-term goal of establishing a lunar base that will be a launchpad for crewed missions to Mars.
Surprisingly, all this was promulgated during the tenure of a Trump-appointed, former Oklahoma congressman as NASA Administrator, who explicitly modeled the “Artemis Accords”, which broaden international participation in the program, on the United Nations Outer Space Treaty of 1967 (on which most space law is grounded).
To be sure, neither the Artemis Program, nor the Accords that essentially “internationalize” it, are without their criticisms. Many international legal scholars see them as a way for America to apply its own self-interested interpretation of space law that permits commercial exploitation of celestial bodies; as The Vergereports:
[The] Outer Space Treaty is pretty vague — purposefully so — which means there is a lot of room for interpretation on various clauses. The goal of the Artemis Accords is to provide a little more clarity on how the US wants to explore the Moon without going through the slow treaty-making process. “We are doing this in keeping with the Outer Space Treaty,” said Bridenstine, adding that NASA is trying to “create a dynamic where the Outer Space Treaty can actually be enforced.”
One big thing NASA wanted to make clear in the accords is that countries can own and use resources that are derived from the Moon. As part of the Artemis program, NASA hopes to extract lunar materials, such as the Moon’s dirt or water ice that’s thought to be lurking in the shadows of lunar craters. The Outer Space Treaty forbids nations from staking claim to another planetary body, but the policy of the US is that countries and companies can own the materials they extract from other worlds. “Article II of the Outer Space Treaty says that you cannot appropriate the Moon for national sovereignty,” Bridenstine said. “We fully agree with that and embrace it. We also believe that, just like in the ocean, you can extract resources from the ocean. But that doesn’t mean you own the ocean. You should be able to extract resources from the Moon. Own the resources but not own the Moon.”
It’s an interpretation of the Outer Space Treaty that not everyone may agree on. A pair of researchers writing in the journal Science last week have called on countries to speak up about their objections to this interpretation, and that the United States should go through the United Nations treaty process in order to negotiate on space mining. “NASA’s actions must be seen for what they are—a concerted, strategic effort to redirect international space cooperation in favor of short-term U.S. commercial interests, with little regard for the risks involved,” the researchers wrote in Science.
Still, the overall substance and spirit of the Accords — which at just seven pages, makes for an easy read) — seems like the sensible way forward. I know, I know count on the internationalist to reach that conclusion! But really, if we want to maximize humanity’s potential in space, we must do so as, well, humans: unified in our resources, knowhow, innovation, and vision. Given how much has been accomplished by just a handful of nations on their ow — and the number of countries joining the space club grows annually — imagine what a united front can offer?
Given that China and Russia have lunar aspirations of their own—including a joint lunar base that sort of speaks to my point—it will be interesting to see which vision will play out successfully: The Star Trek-style pan-humanist approach, or the more familiar competitiveness and nationalism that characterized the Cold War or even the colonial era.
On this day in 1986, the Soviet Union launched Mir, the first modular space station, the largest spacecraft by mass at that time, and the largest artificial satellite until the International Space Station (ISS) in 1998.
Assembled in orbit from 1986 to 1996, the station was the result of efforts to improve upon the Soviet Salyut program, which produced history’s first space station. It served as a microgravity research laboratory where crews conducted experiments in biology, human biology, physics, astronomy, meteorology, and spacecraft systems, all with the ultimate goal of preparing humanity for the permanent occupation of space.
Through the “Intercosmos” program, Mir also helped train and host cosmonauts from other countries, including Syria, Bulgaria, Afghanistan, France, Germany, and Canada.
Mir was the first continuously inhabited long-term research station in orbit and held the record for the longest continuous human presence in space at 3,644 days (roughly 10 years), until it was surpassed by the ISS in 2010. It also holds the record for the longest single human spaceflight, with Valeri Polyakov spending 437 days and 18 hours on the station between 1994 and 1995.
This is all the more remarkable considering that Mir lasted three times longer than planned, and even survived the Soviet Union itself, which collapsed just years after it was launched. The fact that Russia managed to keep it afloat despite its tumultuous post-Soviet transition speaks to both ingenuity and the goodwill of global partners like NASA.
In fact, the U.S. had planned to launch its own rival station, Freedom, while the Soviets were working on Mir-2 as a successor. But both countries faced budget constraints and a lack of political will that ultimately quashed these projects. Instead, the erstwhile rivals came together through the Shuttle–Mir, an 11-mission space program that involved American Space Shuttles visiting Mir, Russian cosmonauts flying on the Shuttle, and an American astronaut flying aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft for long range expeditions aboard Mir.
With various other nations, from Canada to Japan, also cancelling their own space station programs due to budget constraints, Russia and the U.S. soon brought them into the fold to create a new international space station—today the ISS we all know and love.
Thus, by the time the aging Mir was finally cut loose and allowed to deorbit in 2001, the ISS had already begun taking occupants, building upon the old station’s technical, scientific, and political legacy. (In fact, Russia has contributed most portions of the ISS after the U.S., and both its spaceport and its spacecraft serve as the primary—and for many years, only—source of crew and supplies.)
In its detailed tribute to Mir, NASA notes its importance to all of humanity as a milestone for human space exploration:
“The Russian Space Station Mir endured 15 years in orbit, three times its planned lifetime. It outlasted the Soviet Union, that launched it into space. It hosted scores of crewmembers and international visitors. It raised the first crop of wheat to be grown from seed to seed in outer space. It was the scene of joyous reunions, feats of courage, moments of panic, and months of grim determination. It suffered dangerous fires, a nearly catastrophic collision, and darkened periods of out-of-control tumbling.
Mir soared as a symbol of Russia’s past space glories and her potential future as a leader in space. And it served as the stage—history’s highest stage—for the first large-scale, technical partnership between Russia and the United States after a half-century of mutual antagonism.”
Despite all the geopolitical rivalry and grandstanding that motivated incredible breakthroughs like Mir (and for that matter the Moon landing), the value and legacy of these achievements go far beyond whatever small-mindedness spurred them. Wrapped up in all this brinkmanship was—and still is—a vision of progress for all of humanity.
A fun note about the name: The word mir is Russian for “peace”, “world”, or “village”, and has historical significance: When Tsar Alexander II abolished serfdom (virtual slavery) in 1861, freeing over 23 million people, mir was used to describe peasant communities that thereafter managed to actually own their land, rather than being tied to the land of their lord.
On this day in 1969, the U.S. launched Apollo 8, the second manned spaceflight mission in the Apollo space program and the first crewed launch of the Saturn V rocket. Astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders became the first humans to travel beyond low Earth orbit, see all of Earth, orbit another celestial body, see the far side of the Moon, witness and photograph an “Earthrise” (first photo), escape the gravity of another celestial body (the Moon), and reenter Earth’s gravitational well. Apollo 8 was also the first human spaceflight from the Kennedy Space Center, located adjacent to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
Originally planned as a test of the Apollo Lunar Module, since the module was not yet ready for its first flight, the mission profile was abruptly changed in August 1968 to a more ambitious flight to be flown in December. Thus, the crew led by Jim McDivitt crew, who were training Apollo Lunar Module, instead became the crew for Apollo 9, while Borman and his men were moved to the Apollo 8 mission. This meant the new Apollo 8 crew had two to three months’ less training and preparation than originally planned, not to mention having to take up translunar navigation training. The crew themselves believed there was only a 50% chance of the mission succeeding.
Fortunately, things went off without a hitch: after almost three days, Apollo 8 reached the Moon. The crew orbited the Moon ten times in 20 hours, during which they made a Christmas Eve television broadcast in which they read the first ten verses from the Book of Genesis—at the time the most watched TV program ever. (In fact, it is estimated that one out of four people alive at the time saw it either live or shortly after.) Even the Chairman of the Soviet Interkosmos program was quoted describing the flight as an “outstanding achievement of American space sciences and technology”.
Although largely forgotten today, Apollo 8 was seen as the joyful culmination of a tumultuous year, rife with political assassinations, instability, and other tragedies worldwide. For a moment, humanity received a well needed morale boost. the success of the mission paved the way for Apollo 11 to fulfill America’s goal of landing a man on the Moon before the end of the 1960s. The Apollo 8 astronauts returned to Earth on December 27, 1968, when their spacecraft splashed down in the northern Pacific Ocean. They were later named TIME’s “Men of the Year” for 1968.
The iconic Earthrise photo has been credited as one of the inspirations of the first Earth Day in 1970; it was selected as the first of Life magazine’s 100 Photographs That Changed the World.
One of Wikipedia’s latest featured photos: the International Space Station (ISS), taken in 2011 by Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli from a departing Russian Soyuz spacecraft, while the ISS was docked Space Shuttle Endeavor. It is the largest human-made body in low Earth orbit and can often be seen with the naked eye from Earth, making close to sixteen rotations around Earth daily.
First sent into low Earth orbit in 1998, the space station has been continuously inhabited since 2000; though the last component was fitted in 2011, the station continues to be expanded and developed, with more additions planned for next year. The ISS operated jointly by the American, Russian, Japanese, European, and Canadian space agencies, and has been visited by personnel from seventeen nations. Its ownership and use is governed by various treaties and agreements.
The station is divided primarily between the Russian Orbital Segment (ROS) and the U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS). It also consists of pressurized modules, external trusses, solar arrays, and a microgravity and space environment research lab where crew members conduct experiments in biology, physics, astronomy, meteorology, and many other fields. It is also suited for testing spacecraft and equipment required for lunar and Martian missions.
The ISS has been serviced by a variety of spacecraft, including the Russian Soyuz and Progress, the American Dragon and Cygnus, the Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle, and formerly the American Space Shuttle and the European Automated Transfer Vehicle. Since 2011, the Soyuz has been the sole means to transfer personnel, while the Dragon is the only provider of bulk cargo return to Earth.
The ISS is the ninth space station to be inhabited by crews, and only the second not to be Russian, following the Soviet / Russian Salyut, Almaz, and Mir stations and the American Skylab. It also surpassed the record for longest continuous human presence in low Earth orbit, having surpassed Mir’s record of nine years and 357 days.
The station is expected to operate until at least 2028, with the American portion being funded until 2025 and the Russian portion until 2024. Both Russia and America have discussed developing an ISS replacement, although NASA has yet to confirm for certain if this will happen; for their part, the Russians have proposed using elements of their section for a new Russian space station, OPSEK.
The ISS is an enduring, if limited, demonstration of the fruits of global cooperation in space exploration. Various other rising space powers, including Brazil, China, and India have also discussed joining the project, or devising their own space stations.
Pictured above is the largest radio telescope in the world, which officially opened this past Sunday and is based Pingtang County in southwest China. The Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Telescope, or FAST, is, as the name suggests, 500 meters in diameters, which is 40 percent larger than its predecessor and now runner up, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.
FAST will be utilized primarily to observe pulsars, the imploded, highly magnetic cores of old stars that emit intense radiation. Locating and understanding pulsars can yield a lot of important information about the universe. FAST is reportedly sensitive enough to detect radio waves from a pulsar 1,351 light-years away; for a point of reference, a single light-year is 9 trillion kilometers, or 6 trillion miles. So, needless to say, this is an impressive display of technological ingenuity, especially from a country that only relatively recently joined the exclusive (though ever-expanding) club of space exploring nations.
As NPR reports, FAST’s incredible capabilities will be applied to more than just pulsar:
Like radio telescopes in other parts of the world, FAST will study interstellar molecules related to how galaxies evolve. For example, this summer a team using data from the Very Large Array, a collection of radio antennas in the New Mexico desert, picked up what scientists describe as “faint radio emission from atomic hydrogen … in a galaxy nearly 5 billion light-years from Earth.” In the paper describing their findings, the team writes that the “next generation of radio telescopes,” like FAST, will build on their findings about how gases behave in galaxies.
As for FAST’s final use, studying interstellar communication signals, it could be more simply referred to as searching for intelligent extraterrestrial life. “In theory, if there is civilization in outer space, the radio signal it sends will be similar to the signal we can receive when a pulsar … is approaching us,” Qian told Chinese state media, according to the science news website Phys.org.
In an interview with the BBC, the deputy project manager for the new Chinese telescope, Peng Bo, said the project was exciting for Chinese scientists. “For many years, we have had to go outside of China to make observations — and now we have the largest telescope,” he told the BBC.
FAST is only the latest demonstration of China’s scientific prowess in astronomy. In addition to being able to launch its own satellites via domestically designed and build rockets, it is only the third country to send a human into orbit and is also third in independently developing and launching a space station (the second of which was recently and successfully launched). China also has plans for another, more permanent space station by 2020; a manned mission to the Moon, which is to be followed by a permanent lunar base; and a rover expedition of Mars, to name but a few projects.
China’s contributions towards advancing our understanding of the universe is a welcomed one. As I have noted before, we should set aside nationalist sentiments — however much they are motivating such endeavors — and welcome as many different participants in space exploration as possible, if not for higher ideals of human cooperation than out of a sober acceptance that such efforts require all the resources, capital, and knowledge humanity can pool together.
Scientific American has announced that the European Space Agency (ESA) just released the largest and most detailed map of our home galaxy (image pictured above).
Catalogued by the agency’s Gaia space observatory, which was launched into Earth orbit in 2013, it pinpoints the position of up to 1.1 billion stars, of which 400 million are newly discovered. Continue reading →
When it comes to space exploration, law is probably furthest consideration from anyone’s mind. But an article in Foreign Policyexamines the importance of developing a more sophisticated, comprehensive legal framework to govern human activities beyond Earth. A rather obscure U.N. agency, joined by similarly lesser known experts and institutions, recently convened a special session on this matter. Continue reading →
A team of scientists from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and its Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey have created a 3D map that plots 1.2 million galaxies. The end result can be seen below.
Daniel Eisenstein / SDSS-III Collaboration
This image contains 48,741 galaxies, about 3 percent of the total data — so each dot represents one whole galaxy, which in turn contains millions of stars (for point of reference, our Milky Way Galaxy alone has approximately 100 million stars).
Moreover, all this only covers about 1/20th of the sky, or about 650 cubic billion light years, which is just a quarter of the known universe, which in total is 6 billion light-years wide, 4.5 billion light-years high, and 500 million light-years thick. It is an unfathomable scale to comprehend, and very humbling to reflect upon.