March 28, 2016
L a s t O n e T h e r e I s A R o t t e n E g g
One of America’s premiere experts on lunar missions is sounding the gong to rally the nation into going back to the Moon, before going on to Mars – and before the Chinese beat us there.
Paul Spudis, author of “The Value of the Moon,” told Forbes Magazine this week that Chinese taikonauts (the equivalent to our astronauts) will get to the Moon within five to 10 years – while the U.S. is busy trashing years of work by scrapping back-to-the-Moon efforts, such as the Constellation Program in 2010.
Spudis is no armchair gadfly when it comes to knowing what can be done in space, particularly in cislunar orbit and on the Moon’s surface. He makes a damn good case for setting up a base at one of the poles, where water ice can be mined in abundance and permanent sunlight can hit solar panels round the clock. The Moon’s surface composition is chock full of helium-3, which could be used to create rocket fuel and added energy sources.
That, and perhaps a way-station between Earth’s orbit and the Moon’s, could provide an interim base for satellite repair or even refueling flights for the longer trip to Mars.
But Spudis wouldn’t be the authority he is if he didn’t take into account the nation’s useless political will, or rather, the lack of it, in any possible spacefaring scenario. He blames politicians, lobbyists and corruption – with plenty of credit divided between Congress and the Administration – for keeping our space program in what seems a permanently stunted state.
Spudis writes in his book, “…the dirty little secret is that most politicians love human Mars missions … because it is an excellent and proven way to keep the space community pacified by selecting a goal that is so far into the future that no one will be held accountable for its continuing nonachievement.”
You have to admit; he’s got something there.
If our politicians quit gerrymandering districts to elect Republicans, if they quit suppressing the vote for liberal blocs, if we got rid of lobbyists and “Citizen’s United,” and if our fearful leaders suddenly grew some brains, we could maybe put humans back on the Moon by 2028 and a cislunar transportation system by 2035, says Spudis.
And we would only need $88 billion over the next 16 years to achieve that goal. When one thinks about the trillions we have spent on bombing the wrong country into oblivion (F.Y.I. …Iraq), which in turn caused a destabilized terror state now threatening to attack every nation on Earth, $88 billion isn’t exactly a high price to pay for peaceful scientific endeavors that could springboard us off this doomed planet. – Kate Woods
G r e e n L i t
Comet 252P/LINEAR, which made an unprecedented flyby of Earth last week (see “Raising Eyebrows”) is now expected to perform a celestial light show for the Northern Hemisphere this week as the wandering snowball has become brighter than expected in the past few weeks. On Tuesday and Wednesday, stargazers with binoculars (or a telescope) will be able to catch a glimpse of the greenish 750-foot cosmic traveler as it appears an hour and a half before sunrise in the southern sky to the left of the planet Saturn and between the constellations Sagittarius and Scorpius.
S t e p p i n g o n t h e G a s
N e w H i g h s f o r C a s s i n i M i s s i o n
Speaking of smog balls, NASA’s Cassini probe has revealed that Saturn’s methane-infused moon Titan boasts mountains almost 11,000 feet high located at the planet-like orb’s equator. “As explorers, we’re motivated to find the highest or deepest places, partly because it’s exciting. But Titan’s extremes also tell us important things about forces affecting its evolution,” said Jani Radebaugh, who is a member of Cassini’s radar team that is peering through Titan’s thick atmosphere to map the moon’s surface details. In addition to featuring liquid methane lakes, rivers, and “rain” cycles, Saturn’s largest moon is believed to have an icy crust that is floating above an ocean of water much like the Earth’s outer shell surfs our planet’s molten mantel, causing geographic formations such as mountain ranges, canyons, coastlines, etc.
B l i n k o f a n E y e
On a related note, a just-published paper suggests that some of Titan’s smaller siblings may have been birthed as recently as 100 million years ago at a time when dinosaurs were already populating the Earth. (In contrast, Earth’s moon is thought to have been formed less than than 100 million years after the Solar System fused some 4.5 billion years ago.) This eyebrow-raising theory was released last week in the Astrophysical Journal by researchers who believe some of Saturn’s inner moons could only have traveled in their relatively pristine orbits for a short period, since gravitational forces caused by orbital resonances interferes with the movement of celestial bodies. “I think we are at a point where we can confidently say that the inner moons are not as old as the planet,” Matija Ćuk, lead author of the new research paper, said in an interview with Ars Techica. Saturn has the busiest planetary system in the Solar System with a tangled network of at least 62 moons.
B l a s t s f r o m t h e P a s t
NASA’s intrepid Kepler space telescope has added a new feather in its cap with visual pix of the initial shock wave flash of two massive suns exploding into supernovae. A search by an international team of astrophysicists analyzing light from 500 galaxies and 50 trillion stars captured by Kepler over a 3 year period yielded two red supergiants exploding in Kepler’s gaze. Both “shock breakouts” occurred in 2011, the first coming from colossus KSN 2011a at nearly 300 times the size of our Sun and 700 million light years from Earth. and the second, KSN 2011d, which is approximately 500 times the size of our sun and about 1.2 billion light years away.
D a n g e r o u s N e i g h b o r ?
Speaking of blasts, a team of researchers in Denmark have studied whether our Sun could produce deadly “superflares,” and came the the conclusion that while the likelihood is small, it’s not impossible. Typical solar flares, which occur when large magnetic fields on the surface of the Sun collapse and can cause communication disruptions as well as damage to electronic networks on Earth, appear to be generated by the same processes as super bursts produced by other stars. However, the magnetic fields on the exterior of stars with super eruptions are generally 10 times stronger than those on our Sun, reports Christoffer Karoff of Denmark’s Aarhus University who’s team employed the new Guo Shou Jing Telescope in China to study the magnetic fields of almost 100,000 stars, some of which are capable of producing solar eruptions10,000 times more powerful than the most destructive recorded flare that hit the Earth in 1859.
C a t c h i n g S o m e R a y s
To illustrate how much our Sun can light up a planet, a doctoral candidate at the University College London has reported that a huge solar storm in 2011 caused Jupiter’s X-ray aurora to burn eight times brighter, and generate energy hundreds of times greater than Earth’s northern lights. Using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, the scientific team led by William Dunn hopes this discovery “will help explain how space weather is driven by the solar wind interacting with Earth’s magnetosphere”, says the study’s co-author, astrophysicist Graziella Branduardi-Raymont. “New insights into how Jupiter’s atmosphere is influenced by the Sun will help us characterize the atmospheres of exoplanets, giving us clues about whether a planet is likely to support life as we know it,” he added.