This week in space: Hubble’s successor is complete, NASA tussles with SpaceX

The James Webb Space Telescope is finally done! It’s going to hang out at the Earth-Sun L2 point. That means the Earth will block IR heating by the sun, so the JWST can make observations in the far infrared, without being blinded by the IR glare. The JWST is the successor to Hubble, and now that it’s done with construction, it’s supposed to launch in 2018.

Speaking of imaging in space, we got a decent high-res shot of Schiaparelli’s crash site. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s Hi-RISE camera zoomed in close and got the most detailed photos yet, which it was able to do because Schiaparelli actually came down really close to where it was supposed to.

Zooming in on Schiaparelli components on Mars

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Also about NASA: This week it started making the first overtures toward more manned lunar exploration. Nobody’s pretending NASA is yanking on their lunar surface gear just yet, but it bears noticing it chose to deliver a request for information on lunar missions through a deputy director in its human space flight program.

SpaceX says a helium loading issue caused the explosion, and with an air of great confidence it’s trying for a return to flight in 2016. It wants to get started doing flights for NASA again in 2017, but NASA said “Not so fast, guys,” in its September audit. Based on technical and financial challenges, NASA thinks it’ll take until 2018 — at least — for SpaceX to get everything ship-shape in Bristol fashion.

Another advisory committee at NASA has a bone to pick with SpaceX’s launch procedures, too. Essentially, because SpaceX uses cryogenically cooled propellants, they have to fuel their rockets as close to launch time as possible. But SpaceX wants to have the crew already on board when they do the fueling. After the September explosion, this has understandably made the ISS advisory committee a little nervous about the well-being of the crew members SpaceX would be ferrying up on the Falcon rocket.

Tasty, tasty eye candy from the ESO this week:

Finally, red dwarf stars tend to have planets, just like the rest of the stars in the universe. We’ve been sort of glossing past red dwarfs, though, while we’re looking for plausibly habitable planets. Since the habitable zone around a cool, dim red dwarf is relatively quite small, most astronomers assumed that the odds were relatively weak that we’d find a temperate, nontoxic planet. But new research suggests that while red dwarfs sure do accumulate rocky planets, any Earth-size planets that linger in a red dwarf’s habitable zone may be “water worlds,” with global oceans so deep they freeze solid at the bottom from the sheer pressure. It’s because planets accrete and drift in from beyond the “snow line,” the radius around a star where the temperature drops low enough for water to condense. No word on whether the team of researchers have asked Kevin Costner to consult on colonization strategies.

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