Does the US Government believe the Moon is a Stepping Stone or a Cornerstone for human exploration? The Planetary Society has analyzed the NASA Authorization Act currently under consideration in the US House of Representatives (HR 5666). The bill prioritizes Mars over the Moon, pushes a lunar landing back to 2028, and prevents NASA from using public-private partnerships for lunar landing services. While not directly part of funding the agency (NASA’s budget is defined in an annual appropriations bill), this bill’s mandate of using SLS and “cost-plus” contracts with mega-contractors like Boeing could potentially lead to a lunar lander with an unsustainable price tag of ~$35 billion. What seems clear is that the current presidential mandate of a 2024 lunar landing is supported neither by the Democrat-led House nor the Republican Senate and will almost assuredly not be supported by a Democrat presidential candidate. The larger question of whether lunar missions are a smart step towards Mars, a goal that stands on its own, or a distraction, often centers around the finite funding for NASA, questions regarding the usefulness of the current Lunar Gateway plans over a direct-to-surface outpost approach, the private business case for the moon, and whether tech developed for lunar missions will actually be useful for martian exploration missions. (Related: NASA's 2021 budget proposal, which has drawn some mixed reactions, requests a 12% increase in funding but cuts education and science missions including SOFIA, NASA's 747-based telescope.)
MMX. Continuing their history of ambitious missions, JAXA has authorized continued development of their Martian Moons Exploration (MMX) sample return mission to the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos, to be launched on the under-development Mitsubishi Heavy Industries H-3 vehicle in 2024. The mission will include instruments provided by NASA along with ESA & CNES and consists of an orbiter to study both moons and a lander (and maybe rover) to drill into Phobos. The sample return vehicle will leave Phobos in 2028, returning samples to Earth in 2029. It’s likely that ejecta from Mars can be found on Phobos, which could let us get our hands on Martian material ahead of the possible Mars sample return mission. Studying Phobos will help us better understand the formation of moons around terrestrial planets and the Martian system (pdf paper). It’s also possible that the first human missions to the Martian system may target Phobos as a base of operation due to easier landing and reduced fuel needs for a return (pdf paper). Having a diameter of 22.5 km, surface gravity on Phobos is only 0.0057 m/s². At this size, the escape velocity is only about 11 m/s—you could throw a baseball into orbit, just be careful that it doesn’t subsequently hit you on the back of the head.
- In the center of our galaxy, a star’s elliptical orbit takes it within the orbital distance of Uranus from a supermassive black hole (pdf paper). At periapsis, it’s moving at 6.6% the speed of light. You probably do not want to be near a star moving at 6.6% the speed of light.
- Apparently, rust is a pretty good radiation shield (paper).
- A group at Leiden University in the Netherlands used a neural network trained on orbital simulations to predict whether or not specific asteroids would eventually strike the Earth (paper). The neural network appears to be used as a fast heuristic approximation since running the full simulation for every object would be too computationally expensive. The result was 11 asteroids with potential impacts between the years 2131 and 2923 that hadn’t previously been identified. Meanwhile, another paper explores whether small, relativistic meteorites generated by supernovae could be striking the Earth’s atmosphere, and how we might go about detecting them. Basically, look for flashes of light that peak well into the ultraviolet, suggesting energies unattainable by projectiles moving at a mere 50 km/sec. (But what are they shaped like?) Finally, a third paper looks at shooting and deflecting NEOs before they go through gravitational keyholes—regions of gravitational interaction with Earth that set up future impacts. This approach allows much earlier and easier planetary defense.
- A hot Jupiter that orbits its star every 18 hours is spiraling into destruction (paper), and we’re going to get to watch.
- A ranking of the various takes on the Saturn emoji by planetary scientist James O’Donoghue. 🪐
- ESA is running a competition to find European space startups for its technical mentorship program.
- Astra, fresh out of stealth mode, will attempt to complete the DARPA Launch challenge in the next few weeks.
- The Planetary Society has shared some more pics from LightSail 2.
- Posters (in French) from CNES, the French space agency.
- A piece by Phil Plait about the dynamical nature of globular clusters, in which thousands of stars could exist in the distance between us and our nearest neighbor, and gravitational interactions rip the majority of planets off their stars and send them spinning off into space.
- “Hacking my arm prosthesis to output CV so that it plugs into my synth: Thought-controlled music!”
- A long-form 2013 article looking at how NASA engineers took apart an F-1 engine from a Saturn V, scanned it, 3D printed lost tooling to disassemble it, built a highly accurate 3D model of every component, and eventually fired up an original F-1 gas generator for the first time in 40 years. F-1s are crazy. “[T]he power output of the Saturn first stage was 60 gigawatts. This happens to be very similar to the peak electricity demand of the United Kingdom.”
- Earth has another temporary TCO mini-moon.
- On February 6, Antarctica experienced the warmest temperature ever recorded on the continent, 18.3°C (64.9°F). Melting between Feb 4th and Feb 13th is clearly visible in Landsat imagery.
- What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90% the speed of light?
- The story of building the ISS, the world’s most expensive object, is being told in Legos (currently complete through October 2002). An alternate (complete) thread from NASA’s Nujoud Fahoum Merancy has a cheat sheet for doing it on your own.