Plus, spacesuit leaks and dirty Mars landers |

By Jeffrey Kluger
Editor at Large

Dear readers,

First off, a heads up that we will be taking a break next week, and will return on Friday, June 3. Now, on to this week's latest in space news:

The House Intelligence Committee would like to make one thing very clear: They did not spend 90 minutes on May 17 conducting public hearings into the existence of UFOs. Yes, they were discussing unidentified objects, and yes those objects were seen to be flying, but the term for them today is “unidentified aerial phenomena” (UAP)—which carries less whiff of tin-foil-hat conspiracies than the old UFO designation did.

Whatever the objects are called, Congress appeared determined to take them seriously. “UAP reports have been around for decades and yet we haven’t had an orderly way for them to be reported—without stigma—and to be investigated,” said Congressman Adam Schiff, (D, Calif.), chairman of the committee, in his remarks.

Led by Congressman Andre Carson (D, Ind.), the hearing followed the June 2021 declassification of 144 different observations, including video evidence, by naval and other military aviators of objects that were flying in all manner of inexplicable ways—bobbing, weaving, changing directions with a speed and nimbleness no existing technology could manage. “UAPs are unexplained, it’s true,” Carson said in his opening statement. “But they are real.”

The hearings took place in two parts—one morning session open to the public, and a classified afternoon session behind closed doors. Only two witnesses were called in the public portion: Ronald Moultrie, undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security, and Scott Bray, deputy director of naval intelligence.

The committee explored four possible explanations for the objects:

  1. They could be nothing at all—just errors in sensors or other instruments.
  2. They could be new weapons systems being tested by foreign adversaries.
  3. The phenomena could all be so-called blue-on-blue sightings—American pilots spotting classified American technology.
  4. And, of course, they could be of extraterrestrial origin.

Bray was quick to dismiss the blue-on-blue explanation. “We have a process to deconflict activities to ensure that we are not potentially reporting on something that may be a development platform,” he said. The possibility of mere instrumentation malfunctions—video cameras or other sensors simply ginning up UAP ghosts—was also quickly dismissed, at least in some cases.

“I can say with certainty that a number of these are physical objects,” said Bray.

That brought the hearing to the most tantalizing possibility: that the objects are of extraterrestrial origin. On that score, Moultrie was clear that that is an idea the Department of Defense is not ruling out. “There are elements in our government that are looking for life in other places,” he said. “Our goal is not to cover up something if we find something. Transparency is very important for public consumption.” That left the final possibility of hostile powers testing offensive technology, and on that score the committee was not nearly so transparent, deferring the discussion to the later closed session.

It was never likely that a 90-minute public hearing would solve decades of speculation about the origin of UAPs. Still, the lawmakers conceded that answers are needed and that Congress was at least taking an important first step. “It is one of the first times,” Carson said, “that we can agree in a bipartisan manner.”


IMAGE OF THE WEEK

Boeing Orbital Flight Test-2 Launch
NASA/Joel Kowsky

The Boeing Starliner lifts off for the International Space Station from Cape Canaveral in Florida, at 6:54 PM on May 19.


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Boeing’s Starliner Flies—at Last

NASA has been waiting eight years for the payoff from the multi-billion check it cut Boeing Aerospace back in 2014. It was that year that the space agency signed two contracts—one with Boeing for $4.2 billion; one with SpaceX for $2.6 billion—to build spacecraft that could carry crews to and from the International Space Station (ISS). Since May of 2020, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon has ferried six crews to the ISS safely and well. Boeing? Not so much. Its Starliner managed one uncrewed flight to orbit in 2019, but never made its planned rendezvous with the station due to software problems. Its second attempt, last August, never got off the ground, due to corrosion in its onboard thrusters.

All that might have begun to change. As NASA reports, at 6:54 PM yesterday, the latest uncrewed Starliner successfully lifted off aboard an Atlas 5 rocket for a planned docking with the space station later this evening. The flight plan calls for the ship to remain docked with the ISS until May 25, while the station crew unloads cargo, and then return to Earth, thumping down under parachutes in White Sands, N.M. If all goes according to plan, a Starliner could at last carry crew to the ISS before the end of the year.

InSight Mars Probe Nearing its End

The Mars InSight lander is dying a slow death, and the cure would be easy—if we could only send someone to the red planet to do it. All it would take is a rag and a few seconds to wipe the ship’s solar panels clean. The trick of course is getting to Mars, which isn't possible. That means, as NASA reports, InSight will probably cease operations before the end of the year.

Insight landed on Mars in December 2019 for a minimum planned two-year mission to study the planet’s weather, magnetic field, and, most important, its interior—especially the frequency and intensity of regularly occurring marsquakes. The mission could, in theory, go on indefinitely, but for the slow buildup of dust and soil on its pair of 2.2 m (7 ft.) wide solar panels. At their cleanest, the panels were able to produce about 5,000 watt-hours each Martian day, or enough power to run an electric oven for an hour and 40 minutes. At this point InSight is down to just a tenth of that output. The spacecraft could always catch a break—a mini-tornado known as a dust devil could pass by and blow the panels partially clean. NASA’s now-retired Spirit and Opportunity rovers benefited from a few such strokes of luck during the years they operated on Mars. But failing that, InSight, after three years of service, is soon expected to expire quietly.

Voyager 1’s Puzzling Problem

InSight isn’t the only venerable NASA probe facing technical woes. So too is the 45-year-old Voyager 1. Launched in 1977, the spacecraft successfully reconnoitered Jupiter and Saturn, before heading up and out of the solar system, entering interstellar space in August of 2012. The ship is now 23.3 billion km (14.5 billion mi.) from Earth—so remote it takes radio signals from the craft, traveling at the speed of light, 20 hours and 33 minutes to reach home. Voyager 1 nonetheless remains hard at work, sending back data about the interstellar environment. But there is a problem.

As NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) reports, readouts from the ship’s attitude articulation and control system (AACS)—which reports on the position and orientation of the spacecraft—have lately gotten a little screwy. While Voyager 1 remains pointed in the proper direction, with its high-gain antenna aimed at Earth—otherwise NASA would not be receiving data—the AACS reports otherwise. It would be a little like driving your car due north as you intend, while your GPS keeps telling you you’re heading southwest. If the AACS breakdown gets worse it could throw off the orientation of the ship for real, so JPL scientists are exploring possible solutions like sending up software patches or switching over to back-up hardware systems. It would not be the first time NASA has repaired Voyager 1 using redundant hardware. Back in 2017, the spacecraft was having thruster problems and the space agency was able to power up a set of thrusters that had last been used when the ship was flying by Saturn—37 years earlier.

Leaky Spacesuits Nix Spacewalks

It’s easier than you think to drown in space. Just ask Luca Parmitano, the Italian astronaut who almost met his end during a 2013 spacewalk when 1.5 liters (0.4 gal.) of water pooled in his helmet, forcing him to cut a spacewalk short and hightail it back inside. Now, as SpaceNews reports, at a May 17 briefing, NASA space station deputy program manager Dana Weigel announced that all spacewalks would be put on hold until a similar problem with current space suits can be worked out.

The concern arose from a March 23 spacewalk, during which astronaut Matthias Maurer’s suit also sprung a leak, causing a thin film of water to cloud the visor. “We won’t do a planned [spacewalk] until we really address and rule out major system failure modes,” Weigel said. One problem: the suits can’t be properly checked out and repaired until at least one of them is returned to Earth for inspection, something that is not expected to happen until sometime in June at the earliest. And what if there is a technical problem on the station that threatens the safety of the astronauts and requires a spacewalk to repair before the suit problem can be sorted out? “We’ll have to look at risk versus risk,” was the best Weigel could offer.


THANKS FOR READING

TIME Space is written by Jeffrey Kluger, Editor at Large at TIME and the author of 12 books, including Apollo 13, Apollo 8, and the new space novel Holdout. Follow him at @jeffreykluger. This edition was edited by Elijah Wolfson.

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