Welcome to this week’s Intelligence Brief… with the Christmas holiday just around the corner, a few stocking stuffers we’ll be looking at in our roundup this week include 1) a joint NASA and U.S. Naval Research Laboratory experiment that just got a bit of help from the U.S. Space Force, 2) how NASA plans to enhance communications in space with its new laser system, 3) why the Naval Research Lab wants to study some of the deadliest radiation our Sun produces, and 4) a quick word about a bizarre object photographed on the far side of the Moon by a Chinese rover.
Also in video news, be sure to check out the latest weekly recap with Cristina Gomez over on The Debrief’s official YouTube Channel. As always, we’ll have a complete roundup of our latest stories at the end of this newsletter for your enjoyment.
And with that, it’s time that we turn our attention toward a pair of experiments that brought NASA and the Naval Research Laboratory together… and what they could mean for the future of space exploration.
NASA Teams Up with the Naval Research Lab for New Innovations in Orbit
On Tuesday, a joint experiment between NASA and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory was successfully launched to test the space agency’s new system for laser communications, along with efforts to study the Sun’s most dangerous varieties of radiation.
Carried aboard the Space Test Program Satellite-6, the principal spacecraft of the U.S. Space Force’s Space Test Program-3 mission, the two payloads consisted of NASA’s Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) and the NASA-Naval Research Laboratory’s Ultraviolet Spectro-Coronagraph (UVSC) Pathfinder.
The launch, which sent its experimental payloads into space aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 551 rocket, lifted off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida at 5:19 AM EST.
NASA Sends its New Lasers Into Space
The LCRD aims to test NASA’s innovative new two-way laser relay system for communications, according to a NASA press release from earlier this week. The LCRD, which operates by transmitting information through invisible infrared lasers, will outperform current radio communication systems employed by the space agency by as much as 100 times.
Associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate Jim Reuter called LCRD an “exciting new technology” that will allow future space missions to communicate more quickly and reliably.
“Demonstrating this innovative way of communicating with spacecraft will open the door for this technology to expand the horizons of future space missions,” Reuter said from the agency’s headquarters in Washington.
Designed with the function of space-to-ground laser communications in mind, among the benefits of the LCRD system include its low power consumption, which will be far less than radio systems that NASA has relied on for decades. Lightning-fast Earth to geosynchronous orbit data transfer rates of up to 1.2 gigabits per second will also speed up communication when compared with existing systems.
“By the 2030s, we expect optical technology to play a critical role in enabling an interoperable, reliable, and robust space communications infrastructure,” says Badri Younes, a deputy associate administrator for NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation program. Younes adds that the LCRD will provide “seamless operations and roaming capability between government and commercial users and providers.”
Probing the Origins of Solar Energetic Particles
Meanwhile, the other payload aboard Tuesday’s launch—UVSC Pathfinder—is expected to grant NASA and its partners at the Naval Research Laboratory an unprecedented new look at the origins of dangerous solar energetic particles.
Also known as SEPs, these particles produced in energetic bursts by our Sun are capable of traveling the 93-million-mile distance to Earth in under an hour. SEPs are believed to emanate from the low regions found in the Sun’s corona, or outer atmosphere.
During the eleven-year solar cycles that govern much observable solar behavior, around twenty SEP events significant enough to be deemed disruptive may occur. Due to the dangerous amounts of radiation these particles carry, they pose a significant threat to space missions and are capable of damaging both spacecraft, and astronauts.
Enter UVSC Pathfinder, which aims to study the behavior of SEPs, which will allow NASA to better predict when they occur, and thereby allow future space exploration missions to be planned around them.
“Right now, there’s no real way of predicting when these particle storms will happen,” said Leonard Strachan, a physicist with the Naval Research Laboratory and the UVSC Pathfinder mission’s principal investigator, in an October news release.
However, through the collaborative effort, both agencies hope that UVSC Pathfinder will equip NASA with the ability to better anticipate when dangerous solar particle storms may occur, which will ultimately not only protect the equipment and personnel we send into space, but also enable longer and more distant future space missions.
Oh… and About That “Mystery Hut” on the Moon
Unrelated to Tuesday’s launch, in recent days it was also announced that China’s Yutu 2 rover managed to photograph something bizarre from its current location on the far side of the Moon.
The object, seen against the lunar horizon at a distance of around 260 feet from the rover, was described by the Chinese science news channel Our Space as being cube-shaped. However, the announcement managed to garner attention after Our Space went on to designate the object a “mystery hut,” which Space.com reporter Andrew Jones called “a placeholder name rather than an accurate description.”
It was expected that the rover would be able to move significantly closer to the “mystery” object within just a few days, although Phillip Stooke with the Institute for Earth and Space Exploration at the University of Western Ontario preemptively told veteran space reporter Leonard David that the object is, in likelihood, just a rock. In fact, the same rock has already been spotted in lunar images obtained by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Although the mystery appears to have been solved for now, several experts have nonetheless expressed the opinion that the object—even if it’s just a rock—may still be of interest if Yutu 2 can make its way toward it for a closer look.
“Scientifically, the rock could be interesting,” Stooke told David, though advising that it probably won’t be cube-shaped upon closer inspection, and certainly won’t still resemble a “hut” of any kind once Yutu 2 arrives alongside it early next year.
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