This week in space: rockets, telescopes, and exoplanets

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trappist

Trappist monks are pretty cool: they’re widely appreciated for their excellent bread, preserves, and beer. At the ESO facility in the Atacama, one of their telescopes is named TRAPPIST, in homage to the monks. That telescope was used to discover seven earthlike exoplanets around TRAPPIST-1, a nearby ultracool dwarf star. Follow-up with the Spitzer space telescope revealed that all seven of those planets orbit much closer than Mercury orbits our sun, and they all transit the star. Three are within the habitable zone.

SpaceX’s Dragon has successfully made berth at the International Space Station, following a fluke GPS error that delayed their docking and necessitated orbiting the Earth for an entire extra day. It launched from historic and newly spruced-up Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on Monday; Pad 39A hadn’t seen a launch since the last Shuttle mission, which left a great deal of damage to the pad, flame trough, and surrounding wall.

“With that capture, a Dragon has now officially arrived to ISS,” astronaut Thomas Pesquet radioed back to Houston after the successful grapple and docking. “We’re very happy indeed to have it on board, and very much looking forward to putting to good use the two and a half tons of science it carries.”

Falcon 9 and Dragon at Pad 39A, via @spacex

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has found organic chemicals on Ceres, whose spectrographic profiles resemble asphaltite and kerite found here on Earth. At the same time, UCLA reports independently that they’ve found “the building blocks of life” in the atmosphere of a white dwarf star that ate one of its planets.  Finds like these help scientists continue to refine their models and expectations of how planets form, how life arose on our planet, and where in the wider Universe we’re most likely to find life — if there is any to be found at all.

VASIMR firing at full power, 100kW. Image © Ad Astra Rocket Company

Also: as part of their push to the next generation of propulsion systems for space travel, NASA has been working with a company called Ad Astra to develop their VASIMR plasma rocket engine. Ad Astra is led by Franklin Chang-Díaz, a seven-time veteran of the Space Shuttle, who spoke to Ars Technica during a tour of the rocket company’s facilities. To satisfy its NASA contract, Ad Astra will have to fire its rocket at 100 kW for 100 hours straight by next year. It’s an argon plasma thruster, and while it might not look all that imposing, it’s sort of like a particle beam. You really don’t want to be in the way when it’s running. “It looks kind of boring,” Chang-Díaz said of the rocket. “But that plume is 3.5 million degrees. If you stuck your hand in that, it would be very bad.”

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