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September 25, 2017

Agnett Bonwitt, Managing Editor

Good Grief Moon

The newest in a long line of schemes spanning 30 years or more calling for a lunar colony was revealed last week at the European Planetary Science Conference in Latvia where attendees were spun tales of a hundred people living on the Moon by 2040 who will melt ice for water, live in 3D-printed homes, munch on plants grown in lunar soil, and play low-gravity “flying sports.” Bernard Foing, ambassador of the European Space Agency’s “Moon Village” enthusiastically tried to sell the feasibility of populating our natural satellite first with 6 to10 researchers and technicians by 2030 and within two decades increasing the number of lunar denizens to 1,000, with the possibility of children being born on the colony by then.

Rare on Earth,Helium-3 found on the Moon can be used for fuel in fusion (as opposed to fission) reactors, creating “clean” energy.

With the International Space Station planned for decommission by 2024, scientists and commercial impresarios are keen on turning the long-abandoned Moon into the hub of a new space-age renaissance. However politicians – many of whom seem hell-bent on turning back the clock on matters of the Earth – in general have yet to commit to such a vision. “It is highly frustrating … We still don’t have the top leaders interested,” said physicist Vidvuds Beldavs of the University of Latvia, who runs a project called the International Lunar Decade, advocating joint exploration of the Moon. To get the attention of policy makers, Beldavs believes it’s necessary “To demonstrate that industrial activity on the Moon is feasible, that … large markets can emerge,” Such lunar commerce, Beldavs notes, could include the following:  transforming volcanic rock into 3D-printing material to construct satellites that are launched from the Moon at a fraction of the cost than from Earth; mining the isotope helium-3 for safe nuclear energy (this has been pitched since the 1980s); and extracting oxygen and hydrogen from water ice from the lunar poles to serve as rocket fuel. “To go into Earth orbit … it is 40 times cheaper to go from the Moon than from Earth, because the Earth has such high gravity that you have to fight against it,” explained Foing in his presentation.

Crew member during mock Mars mission in Hawaii.

But before you think now’s the opportunity to jump ship with a home planet battered by climate change and threatened with nuclear war, physicist Christiane Heincke warns that planetary pioneering it is a “tough” life, and not for everyone. “[The Moon] is completely devoid of any vegetation, all they see is rocks, regolith (loose rocks and dust), and a sky that is different from ours on Earth,” said Heiincke, who  spent a year in a mock Mars environment in Hawaii.”Being either inside [a lunar] habitat or inside a suit means that you’re never able to actually FEEL the moon/planet you’re on. You can’t feel the wind (if there is any, like on Mars), you don’t feel the Sun on your skin, and whatever you touch feels like the inside of your gloves.” Another problem: Heincke told the AFP news agency “You can never escape your crew mates.”

However Foing, who himself has spent time in a planetary isolation cell is not put off by these negatives, and hopes to join the “village” by 2040. The only hesitation he has for toting his family along would be the sticker shock: “that will depend on the price … The price of the ticket is in the order of 100 million euros. That’s now, but in 20 years, the price of the ticket could be 100 times less.”

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Astronomical Casualty

Aside from its major role in astronomy discoveries over the past 50 years, the Arecibo Observaotry has been featured in popular culture, with cameo roles in the James Bond film Goldeneye, the movie Contact, and the TV series The X-Files.

While the human tragedy is yet to be fathomed in the aftermath of hurricane Maria’s pummeling of Puerto Rico last week (and should be of fundamental concern), the scientific community is experiencing a significant loss of its own as it has learned that the famed Arecibo Observatory and its signature radio telescope suffered significant damage when the monster storm passed over the island with beyond punishing 155 MPH winds. While observatory staff members are safe (although they only have generator power, water, and food for a week), an atmospheric radar line feed and a 39-foot dish used for Very Long baseline Interferometry were lost to the tempest. Fortunately the humongous 1,000-foot diameter central dish is intact, although it was punctured in places when the line feed collapsed. According to Engadget, the storm damage has exasperated an already tough time for the observatory as the National Science Foundation has been looking for partners to help shoulder the costs, and considering the amount of repairs – along with the primary need to rebuild the lives and infrastructure of the island – the future of the instrument is certainly in limbo.

Odd One Out

Just when you think you know a place. Researchers at Yale University announced in a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal that our Milky Way galaxy, might not be a “typical” as previously thought, and in fact, Milky Way-based models used to understand how other galaxies in the universe work could be misleading. “We use the Milky Way and its surroundings to study absolutely everything,” said Marla Geha of Yale University and lead author of the paper. “Hundreds of studies come out every year about dark matter, cosmology, star formation, and galaxy formation, using the Milky Way as a guide. But it’s possible that the Milky Way is an outlier,” Geha added.

What makes our home galaxy so different, the study found, is that it’s surrounded by smaller “satellite” galaxies, which unlike other galactic systems whose similar satellite structures pump out new stars, are fairly inert. making the Milky Way a poor choice as a standard cosmological study and possibly forcing a rethink of many studies on how galactic systems work.

Key Figure

Katherine Johnson, the African American mathematician whose calculations were critical to some of the most important NASA missions in the 1960s and whose story was told in the film, Hidden Figures,” was recognized last week with a new research facility that now bears her name. On Friday, the 99-year-old cut the ribbon to the Katherine G. Johnson Computation Research Facility at Langley Research Center in Hampton,Virginia where where she was honored as a trailblazing “human computer.”  According to The Guardian, in a pre-taped message, Johnson was asked about the distinction of having a space agency building named after her: “You want my honest answer? I think they’re crazy,” she said. “I was excited at something new, always liked something new, but give credit to everybody who helped. I didn’t do anything alone but try to go to the root of the question and succeeded there.”

Please Make Up Your Mind Department 

Tin Foil Hat Alert! If you are reading this column, you know that the end of the world did not happen last Saturday, but don’t feel cheated! – “Christian numerologist” David Meade. the epicenter of the most recent Doomsday prophecy is now saying he was misunderstood, and now predicts that October 21st will begin a seven-year Tribulation period. followed by “a Millennium of peace.” And what about Nibiru/Planet X? Quite frankly, this runaway train of a story has gone from Tin Foil Hat to Tin Foil Circus Tent proportions including tales of Nibiru-based “UFOs” being filmed above London, reports that Nibiru is actually another star system, and Youtube footage capturing a sky with two orbs, one being the infamous Planet-X! Granted, much of this Nibiru-sighting frenzy is being fueled by the British tabloids that are no strangers to pandering to the human race’s most gullible tendencies. So, until we see real scientific proof that a ginormous planet is going to steamroll us out of existence, all we have to say is, “Just the facts, Ma’am.”
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On Another Planet

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September 18, 2017

Agnett Bonwitt, Managing Editor

Final Hurrah

The now defunct Cassini spacecraft took its last pic of Saturn (above) less than a day before its fiery plunge into the gas planet’s atmosphere. According to NASA, the view was snapped 394,000 miles from the planet when the point of Cassini’s atmospheric impact was still on the planet’s night side. The spacecraft’s kamikaze descent occurred around 6:22 am ET, although news of its demise didn’t reach NASA for an hour and 23 minutes later (the amount of time radio waves travel 930 million miles).

Below are some of Cassini’s final pix taken last Wednesday that Linda Spilker, a Cassini project scientist and a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told reporters were “the final picture postcards of the Saturn system.”

 

Weathering Heights

According to an article in the excellent DCReport.org, US weather forecasters are woefully behind their European counterparts in predicting storm paths, as illustrated earlier this month when Europe’s meterologists correctly called hurricane Irma’s westward path a week away while US weather folks relying heavily on The Global Forecast System model embarrassingly projected the monster storm to head north, probably missing the mainland US – a 194-mile whiff. While US weather prognosticators using computer modeling, satellites, weather balloons, and airplane dives into the eye of hurricanes are getting better, other countries are getting better faster. In fact, Cliff Mass, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, said in 2016 U.S. global weather predicting was in fourth place, behind European, British and Canadian forecasters. Things are so bad that the U.S. Air Force now uses British modeling software.“The United States needs a ‘moon shot’ program to dramatically improve weather prediction,” said Ryan Maue, a meteorologist and critic of U.S. forecasts. Unfortunately, the current system could deteriorate under Trump, who’s calling for a 16 percent cut for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) In addition, the National Weather Service is already understaffed, and still operates a system that has been putting out alerts in the same all caps format for 170 years because it was designed for the telegraph. DCReport.org urges readers to 1) call the White House at 202-456-1414 to give your opinion about staffing at NOAA and funding for weather forecasts; 2) contact your senators and representatives: 3) for more information, reach the Environmental Defense Fund, which has raised questions about proposed NOAA cuts, at 800-684-3322.

Clouding the Issue

The mysterious atmospheric clouds on Venus night side were taken with infrared cameras.

For the first time ever, scientists have been able to study wind and upper cloud patterns of Venus’ night side, and have been startled to discover that they behave very differently than those on the planet’s side facing the Sun. According to Javier Peralta of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), whose team used ESA’s “Venus Express” craft to gather data for its published report in the journal Nature Astronomy, “While the atmospheric circulation on the planet’s dayside has been extensively explored, there was still much to discover about the night side. We found that the cloud patterns there are different to those on the dayside, and influenced by Venus’ topography.”

Venusian super-rotation.

The hallmark of Venus’ atmospheric winds it that they churn much faster that the planet rotates itself. Known as “super-rotation,” these Venusian breezes spin up to 60 times faster than the planet below. While traditional modelling predicted the night-side super-rotating winds to act the same as the daylight side, the JAXA team’s findings show them to be surprisingly chaotic and irregular,and are dominated by puzzling, unmoving stationary waves.“Stationary waves are probably what we’d call gravity waves — in other words, rising waves generated lower in Venus’ atmosphere that appear not to move with the planet’s rotation,” says co-author Agustin Sánchez-Lavega of University del País Vasco in Bilbao, Spain. “These waves are concentrated over steep, mountainous areas of Venus; this suggests that the planet’s topography is affecting what happens way up above in the clouds.”

Hot New TIcket

Blistering pitch-black WASP-12b is is about 2 million miles away from its star and completes an orbit once a day.

Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have discovered a smoldering gaseous planet outside our solar system that absorbs nearly 94 percent of light hitting it, making the Jupiter-like orb virtually pitch-black. “We did not expect to find such a dark exoplanet,” said Taylor Bell of McGill University and the Institute for Research on Exoplanets in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, lead researcher of the Hubble study. “Most hot Jupiters reflect about 40 percent of starlight.” According to NASA, newly found planet, dubbed WASP-12b, is so close to its sun that most molecules are unable to survive its 4,600 Fahrenheit day side, making it impossible for light-reflecting clouds to form, resulting in light penetrating deep into the planet’s atmosphere where it is swallowed up by hydrogen atoms and converted into heat. However, the planet’s fixed nighttime side is a different story. and is more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit cooler, allowing water vapor and clouds to form. “This new Hubble research further demonstrates the vast diversity among the strange population of hot Jupiters,” Bell said. “You can have planets like WASP-12b that are 4,600 degrees Fahrenheit and some that are 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit, and they’re both called hot Jupiters.”

Prophet of Doom

Hold on to your Tin Foil Hats! According to a Christian numerologist citing passages from the New Testament that the recent solar eclipse and Hurricane Harvey (Irma wasn’t bad enough?) are the predictive signs that the world will come to an end this Saturday when the famously-mythical Planet X (also known as Nibiru) will have a catastrophic encounter with Earth. According to British tabloid The Sun, Christian numerologist David Meade came up with September 23 as the day Nibiru will pass Earth, causing volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and earthquakes, by extrapolating “codes” from the Bible and also a “date marker” shown by the pyramids of Giza in Egypt. NASA has repeatedly insisted the existence of Planet X is a hoax. Also, it’s only fair to note that Mead’s views are not endorsed by any other Christian or religious sect.

 

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Forward and Backward

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September 11, 2017

Agnett Bonwitt, Managing Editor

Final Curtain

The Cassini spacecraft will end its unprecedentedly-successful seven-year run this Friday when it plunges into Saturn’s atmosphere, sending real-time science data just before the tiny capsule burns to a crisp. According to NASA, its mission operators are committing probiside to “ensure Saturn’s moons will remain pristine for future exploration—in particular, the ice-covered, ocean-bearing moon Enceladus, but also Titan, with its intriguing pre-biotic chemistry.” Since last April, Cassini has been on a 22-orbit “Grand Finale” tour of Saturn and its rings, providing unparalleled front-row observations of the Saturnian system.

According to NASA, even in its final days, Cassini is expected to dazzle, scientifically-speaking, as it plans to do the following:

  • Make detailed maps of Saturn’s gravity and magnetic fields that will help determine exactly how fast the ringed planet rotates.
  • Vastly improve scientists’ knowledge of the rings’ material and origins.
  • Sample icy ring particles being funneled into Saturn’s atmosphere.
  • Take ultra-close pix of Saturn’s rings and clouds.

Cassini’s greatest hits

Recently, NASA compiles a list of “Nine Ways Cassini-Huygens Matters,” which we think best eulogizes one of the space agency’s most successful planetary endeavors:

Nine Ways Cassini-Huygens Matters

1. NASA’s Cassini spacecraft and ESA’s Huygens probe expanded our understanding of the kinds of worlds where life might exist.

2. At Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, Cassini and Huygens showed us one of the most Earth-like worlds we’ve ever encountered, with weather, climate and geology that provide new ways to understand our home planet.

3. Cassini is, in a sense, a time machine. It has given us a portal to see the physical processes that likely shaped the development of our solar system, as well as planetary systems around other stars.

4. The length of Cassini’s mission has enabled us to observe weather and seasonal changes, improving our understanding of similar processes at Earth, and potentially those at planets around other stars.

5. Cassini revealed Saturn’s moons to be unique worlds with their own stories to tell. 

6. Cassini showed us the complexity of Saturn’s rings and the dramatic processes operating within them.

7. Some of Cassini’s best discoveries were serendipitous. What Cassini found at Saturn prompted scientists to rethink their understanding of the solar system.

8. Cassini represents a staggering achievement of human and technical complexity, finding innovative ways to use the spacecraft and its instruments, and paving the way for future missions to explore our solar system.

9. Cassini revealed the beauty of Saturn, its rings and moons, inspiring our sense of wonder and enriching our sense of place in the cosmos.

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The Slight Stuff

Acting against expressed objections of having a politician lead NASA, Donald Trump has picked Oklahoma Rep. Jim Bridenstine to head the space agency in a move consistent with his other administration appointees who are either ninth-round picks or nowhere near qualified for the job. Bridenstine, a Republican from Oklahoma (hmm .. sounds familiar) since 2012, was once executive director of the Tulsa Air & Space Museum & Planetarium, and served as a Navy combat pilot during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In addition, as a member of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee (chaired by anti-science corporate schillster Lamar Smith), Bridenstine led the charge toward a revitalized NASA with his starry-eyed  American Space Renaissance Act.

Part of Johnson Space Center in Houston inundated with Harvey-caused flooding earlier this month.

First the good news: Bridenstine has rightfully warned about the dangers of the ever-accumulating orbital debris, calling it “a problem that cannot be ignored any longer.” On a more debatable point, he also believes that the discovery of water ice on the Moon should be enough of a reason to deploy rovers and other exoplanetary tools to extract lunar materials to bring the cost down on space exploration. However, Bridenstine, with deep ties to the fossil fuel industry, croons his masters’ mantra that human-based activities are not the cause of climate change. (Bzzzzzz!  Thanks for playing Jim!)  Of note, in a 2016 Aerospace America interview, Bridenstine provided a unique twist to the classic denier shuck and jive: “I would say that the climate is changing. It has always changed. There were periods of time long before the internal combustion engine when the Earth was much warmer than it is today,” Well, there’s one thing for certain: at the rate the oceans are warming, Bridenstine – if approved by the Sentate – will soon have to change his sights from the Moon to mop-up detail for water-logged Johnson and Kennedy Space Centers as greenhouse gas-fueled superstorms force NASA – and many Americans – to furiously tread water.

Star Corps

Speaking of which, just days before Hurricane Irma plowed into the Sunshine State, SpaceX successfully launched the Air Force’s super-secret  X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle on its fifth experimental test mission (see last week’s Revolution). As planned, the Falcon rocket’s first stage landed safely back at Kennedy Space Center within minutes of liftoff. The X-37B is the commercial space company’s first military contract.

Very Haute Couture

SpaceX chief Elon Musk last week released a pic featuring a full-body shot of his company’s proposed space suit designed for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program that will ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The image, which Musk shared on Instagram, shows an outfitted space suit model standing next to the firm’s Crew Dragon capsule.

 

 

New Kid in Town

Japanese astronomers announced recently the discovery of what they believe to be an enormous black hole 100,000 times more massive than the Sun lurking in the midst of a gas cloud near the heart of the Milky Way. If confirmed, the monster gravity well would rate as the the second-largest black hole found in our galaxy, just behind the supermassive “Sagittarius A” located at the Milky Way’s dead center. According to Tomoharu Oka of Keio University in Tokyo whose findings were published in the journal Nature Astronomy, the newly-found exotic object could be the heart of an old dwarf galaxy that was tore apart during the creation of the Milky Way billions of years ago.

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Hell or High Water

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September 4, 2017

Agnett Bonwitt, Managing Editor

Eclipsing Expectations

A handful of the Galactic Sandbox team and friends had the privilege to witness the total solar eclipse last month from a front-row perch in the Idaho Rockies. Below are a few photos of the experience, including an exclusive shot of the totality by filmmaker and photographer John Zibell who was with us (note, the planet Mercury can be seen at about 8 o’clock from the Sun/Moon), and partial eclipse pix taken by yours truly.

As we stood agog over the spectacularly silent celestial show, it wasn’t hard to understand how such an event has made an indelible impression on humanity for thousands of years, and how little we’ve scratched the surface of our wondrous universe. It was also hard not to think of how our dear friend Kate Woods would have loved to have been there — in a just cosmos, she should not only be in a place looking up to the stars, but looking out from them!  — Agnett Bonwitt

                                                    ECLIPSE REVIEW

Many thanks to Randall Munroe, xkcd.

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Flooded Gates

While the human and economic toll from Hurricane Harvey continues to (rightfully) remain as a top concern for rescue and relief efforts as well as the focus of media attention, the general public may forget that NASA’s mission control is headquartered in besieged Houston. According to Space News, Johnson Space Center was drenched with 42 inches of rain last week, and through Labor Day is being manned by a skeleton crew to monitor International Space Station operations. In addition, the space agency’s next-generation, $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope that is scheduled to launch late next year, has been at JSC for testing and while the building it’s being housed at was flooded, the telescope fortunately remains unscathed.

Quick Editorial Aside: Obviously, the recent flooding – not only in the Gulf Coast, but also the catastrophic deluge which has left over a thousand dead and one third of Bangladesh under water – if not directly caused by climate change, does offer a chilling preview of things to come if Trump and his cronies continue to willfully and greedily turn their backs from the ability of humankind to survive a greenhouse gas-choked Earth.

Days of Future Past

As many US citizens continue to reel from the political, environmental, and cultural devastation that has reached a possible point of no return with the Trump administration, ultimately we can’t say that we weren’t warned of such an Orwellian scenario. Making the internet rounds lately is an excerpt from a 1996 Carl Sagan book, “The Demon Haunted World,”  in which Sagan paints an eerily familiar picture of our present time:

“I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or my grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.”

Sagan also provides a warning that applies all too fittingly to our orange-tinted sociopath-in-chief: “Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.”

Celestial Sweepstakes

In July, Elon Musk’s Space X commercial space venture passed the $20 billion valuation mark.

Investors’ appetite for commercial space ventures continued to be ravenous in 2016, according to newly-compiled data from industry consulting group Bryce Space and Technology that reported a record-smashing $2.8 billion in more mainstream capital thrown at out-of-this-world projects last year – a $400 million increase since 2015. And while the SpaceXs and Blue Origins continue to be the darlings of the burgeoning sector, it is a new generation of small, relatively inexpensive satellites beaming terabytes of data to Earth that have venture capitalists drooling over the potential returns on everything from the satellites themselves, to software used to interpret their data, and from the new rockets designed to boost them into orbit. “Fundamentally, investors go after opportunity, and the way I would sum it up is, this is one of the last frontiers, to be a little cliché,” said Tom Barton, chief operating officer at Planet, whose 190 imaging birds grind out 7 terabytes of new Earth imagery each day. “It’s still old-school; it hasn’t really been touched by Moore’s Law,” Barton told CNBC.

In 2016, 114 investors poured more than $2.8 billion into space start-ups. Above satellite imagery produced by commercial space firm, Planet.

However, according to authors of the Bryce study, the industry has advanced to the point that investors are anxious to see a return on dollars, not just pie-in-the-sky dreams. “We’re not yet seeing the outcome of investment in a lot of funded companies,” said Bryce’s CEO Carissa Christensen. “We’re seeing their ability to raise money, we’re seeing their ability to design and deploy their systems, but we’re not seeing their ability to return profits,” she added. It’s also a make or break time for many start-ups which according to Planet’s Barton, could go bankrupt in the next few years. “As much as I say that we’re at the start of consolidation in the new space sector, I think we’re probably at the start of some of these companies going bankrupt,” Planet’s Barton says, adding, “I would guess that over the next two years we see five or 10 significant bankruptcies or acquisitions for pennies on the dollar for people that just aren’t going to make it on their own.”

Homecoming

US astronaut Peggy Whitson returned to Earth last weekend from the International Space Station, breaking the record of cumulative days in space for any American or any woman worldwide. According to Phys.org, Whitson’s homecoming aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule at a desolate region of Kazakhstan early Sunday morning local time marked 665 days in orbit, with 288 days for her just-completed mission. As well as time marked in space, Whitson broke past a few other milestones: world’s oldest spacewoman, at age 57; the most experienced female spacewalker with 10; and the first woman to command the ISS twice.

Rock Stars

The largest asteroid in more than a century to cruise safely pass Earth reached within 4.4 million miles our planet on Friday as professional and amateur astronomers stampeded optical and radio telescopes to get a detailed glimpse of the mountain-sized space rock that last visited our neck of the solar system in 1890. Nicknamed “Florence” after nursing pioneer Florence Nightengale, the 3 mile-wide boulder provided scientists with a celestial living room view of an object we usually have to send multi-million dollar spacecraft to chase down and study. And in fact a team of researchers operating the humongous radar-equipped dishes at NASA’s Goldstone tracking station in California and Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico took advantage of Florence’s lumbering speed and discovered that it has two moons, each estimated at 300 to 1000 feet across.

 

Asteroid 2012 TC4’s path past Earth.

In a related story, on October 12, researchers will have a rare opportunity to assess Earth’s “planetary defense” systems – or lack thereof – when a house-sized asteroid travels harmlessly by our planet at a distance of only an eighth of that between us and the Moon. “It’s damn close,” said Rolf Densing, who heads the European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany as he commented on the hair’s-breath 27,300 miles the wayfaring space rock dubbed 2012 TC4 will approach before continuing its path into the void of space. Observing TC4’s movements “is an excellent opportunity to test the international ability to detect and track near-Earth objects and assess our ability to respond together to a real asteroid threat,” said an ESA statement.

Keeping the Dream Alive

Sierra Nevada’s mini-me “Dream Chaser” space shuttle completed a “captive carry” test above the Mojave Desert in California at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, as part of  a significant step toward returning American-made civilian winged spacecraft to orbit by 2020. While the Colorado-based firm lost out to Boeing and SpaceX to ferry astronaut crews to the international space station, NASA approved Sierra Nevada’s development of a dwarfed, robotically-piloted spaceplane that will deliver supplies to the orbiting station. “Today was a great accomplishment on Sierra’s planned march towards doing that approach and landing test,” said Mike Lee of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which is led from Kennedy Space Center, following the captive carry test. Their are at least two launches of the reusable Dream Chaser slated from Cape Canaveral atop United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket.

Relatedly, the Air Force’s fifth X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) mission is slated for launch this Thursday aboard a SpaceX Falcon rocket, and will carry an Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader payload that will study the long-durational exposure of experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipe technologies in space, reports Space Daily. “It is our goal to continue advancing the X-37B OTV so it can more fully support the growing space community,” said Randy Walden, director of the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office. The uncrewed X-37B space plane completed its fourth mission last May, landing after 718 days in orbit and extending the total number of days off the Earth to 2,085.

Mixed Signals

Scientists are scratching their heads over the origin of 15 recently-recorded radio bursts from a galaxy 3 billion light years away that have ignited a barrage of sensational headlines speculating that the mysterious signals could have been produced by an alien civilization. A UC Berkeley-based team employing the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia caught the ancient radio beacons on August 26 and reported their initial findings as an Astronomer’s Telegram that can be read here.  The California researchers are part of the Breakthrough Listen project,  a global astronomical initiative launched in 2015 by Internet investor and philanthropist Yuri Milner and famed cosmologist Stephen Hawking to “observe nearby stars and galaxies for signatures of extraterrestrial technology.”

Untested Waters

According to recent Hubble Telescope findings, out of the 7 Earth-sized Trappist-1 planets located 40 light years away, the inner two worlds could have lost more than 20 Earth-oceans-worth of water during the last eight billion years, while the outer planets, including e, f and g which are in the habitable zone should have lost much less moisture, suggesting that they could have retained enough H2O for habitable life.

Another report that sent news outlets in a tin foil hat tizzy involve findings by an astronomy team using the Hubble Space Telescope suggesting that the outer Earth-sized planets orbiting the recently-discovered Trappist-1 solar system might still harbor substantial amounts of water, making them prime candidates for habitable life. Swiss astronomer Vincent Bourrier, lead researcher of the squad that studied the effects that ultraviolet rays from the Trappist dwarf star have on breaking up water vapor on its now famous seven planetary offspring, noted that information garnered by our our current scientific instruments is insufficient to draw final conclusions on how wet these planets are. “While our results suggest that the outer planets are the best candidates to search for water with the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, they also highlight the need for theoretical studies and complementary observations at all wavelengths to determine the nature of the TRAPPIST-1 planets and their potential habitability,” Bourier said.

Clap Traps Tin Foil Hat Pusher Alert!

Over the past week or so, there has been an avalanche of news items covering the above puzzling radio bursts and Trappist-1 water stories that range from a mild ding to a full-blown, circus clown horn blast on our Tin Foil Hat meter, suggesting, and in some cases unabashedly asserting, that these inconclusive cosmic observations involve proof that alien civilizations exist. One of the more blatant offenders was the UK’s  Daily Star that laughingly proclaimed the following: 

As if this error-laced screamer weren’t bad enough, scattered throughout the actual “story” like IQ-reducing buckshot were unsubstantiated (and grammatically incorrect) claims such as  “Scientist find [sic] evidence aliens could have been living on Trappist for billions of yea [sic],” and “more than 40,000 Americans have taken out insurance against being abducted by aliens,” While all of this is neither surprising or new, it does show that  Carl Sagan’s prophesied “celebration of ignorance” continues to rage at a fevered pitch. Tin Foil Hats all around!

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