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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.”


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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