Don’t Hold Your Breadth

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October 9, 2017

Agnett Bonwitt, Managing Editor

Moonrise Agendum

It’s finally official – or at least as conclusive as anything can be in Trumpland. Aftter months of hemming and hawing, the Trump administration, as articulated by Vice President Mike Pence at the first assembly of the newly-reconstituted National Space Council, announced its intention to boldly go where we’ve been before (and probably shouldn’t have left) and direct NASA to land humans on the Moon and sooner than later establish a continual occupancy on the lunar surface. The move is an about-face to former President Obama’s focus on Mars, and hearkens back to ex-chief George W Bush’s lunar priorities, as well as aligns with the focus of many other countries vying for lunar real estate..

“We will return NASA astronauts to the Moon — not only to leave behind footprints and flags, but to build the foundation, we need to send Americans to Mars and beyond,” Pence said to a gaggle of representatives and press at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.

While this move hardly comes a surprise, it does create a whiplash effect for the US space agency, which has been preparing to send humans to mars since 2010, and currently has no official plans for sending people to the Moon. Giving the old college try, NASA is expected to retool its deep-space transportation duo comprised of the Space Launch System and Orion crewed spacecraft to deliver the new lunar mandate. The space agency also is expected to forge partnerships with commercial space concerns to help shoulder the current priorities. In fact, a large part of last week’s Space Council fete concentrated on how NASA can buddy up with private space firms both for lunar and solar system exploration and for maintaining Earth-orbit operations.   “American companies are on the cutting edge of space technology, and they’re developing new rockets, spaceships, and satellites that will take us further into space faster than ever before,” Pence said. “By fostering much stronger partnerships between the federal government and the realm of industry, and bringing the full force of our national interests to bear, American leadership in space will be assured.”

Some feel, however, that NASA’s future is as cloudy as before, since much of Space Council meeting was big on talk and slim on concrete measures. Seems that the gathering was another opportunity for space industry leaders to hawk there wares and for Trump’s proxy to score political points, grandstanding that the days of America’s lost edge is space “are over,” without providing any real  follow-up.

Many thanks to Randall Monroe, xkcd.

Ultimately, with no new policies coming out the the Space Council summit, the US Congress will have the final say on how NASA’s money is spent. “With the upcoming budget process, we will look to solidify this work with our new goals in place,” NASA’s acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot said in an overly-optimistic statement. For the time being, though, America’s leadership in space, as well as its road to the Moon, are still a no-go..
 Air Ball

Artist’s impression of the Moon with an atmosphere 3-4 billion years ago. At that time, the Moon was nearly 3 times closer to Earth than it is today and would have appeared nearly 3 times larger in the sky

While future lunar inhabitants won’t be taking long, unsuited constitutionals at the Sea of Tranquility, a recent paper published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters indicates that the ancient Moon 3 to 4 billion years ago actually had an atmosphere created when violent volcanic eruptions belched more gases than could escape into space. “This work dramatically changes our view of the Moon from an airless rocky body to one that used to be surrounded by an atmosphere more prevalent than that surrounding Mars today,” said David King of the Universities Space Research Association (USRA). King, along with Debra H. Needham,of NASA Marshall Space Center calculated the amounts of gases that rose from the erupting lavas to form a transient lunar atmosphere that was the thickest around 3.5 billion years ago and lasted for about 70 million years before dissipating into space.

More relevant for today, says Needham, is that some of the water released during the eruptions may have found its way to the lunar poles and now exists as ice.This, according to the scientists, has important ramifications for future exploration, and in fact, the new analysis can quantify a source of frozen H2O in the shadowed polar regions suitable for sustained lunar missions, providing fuel and air for astronauts on the surface as well as for excursions beyond the Moon.

Flare for the Eccentric

Mystifying KIC 8462852, or Tabby’s star, is 1,500 light years from Earth.

Since two years ago when a team of astronomers led by Tabetha Boyajian revealed a mysterious, long-term dimming of star KIC 8462852 (now known as “Tabby’s star”) wild theories have swirled around cyberspace claiming that the puzzling observation is evidence of anything from a giant network of solar panels to a destroyed planet, and even proof of the existence of a highly-advanced alien “megastructure.” And not surprising, a new study published last week in the The Astrophysical Journal, advanced a more prosaic explanation for at least some of “Tabby’s” star’s weirdness, concluding that the dimming is caused by dust, which is more pronounced in ultraviolet light. “This pretty much rules out the alien megastructure theory, as that could not explain the wavelength-dependent dimming,” lead author Huan Meng of the University of Arizona said in a statement. “We suspect, instead, there is a cloud of dust orbiting the star with a roughly 700-day orbital period.”

Artist illustration of Kepler telescope.

The new report, however, does not solve all of KIC 8462852’s enigmas. For example, it does not account for the short-term 20 percent brightness dips detected by NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler space telescope. On top of that, a different study — spearheaded  by Joshua Simon of the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Pasadena, California — just discovered that Tabby’s star experienced two brightening cylces over the past 11 years. “Up until this work, we had thought that the star’s changes in brightness were only occurring in one direction — dimming,” Simon said in a statement. “The realization that the star sometimes gets brighter in addition to periods of dimming is incompatible with most hypotheses to explain its weird behavior.” Alien megastructures anyone?

Dishing the Dirt

Climate change scientists are starting to sweat a bit more following the release of data from a 26-year study showing that carbon released into the atmosphere by warmed soil is a greater contributor, and in fact an accelerator, of global greenhouse emissions than previously thought. Ominously, the report, published in the journal Science, indicates that 17% of carbon discharged from bacterial microbes in the earth is the direct result of heat, and with the planet topping temperature records each year, the process ultimately worsens climate transmutation by adding to the overloaded stockpile of human-caused carbon dioxide smothering us. And with more than 3,500 billion tons of carbon lurking under our feet, it’s hard to imagine how our current iteration of life on Earth will end well. According to Jerry Melillo of the U.S. Marine Biological Research Laboratory (one of the three research groups involved in the study), this self-reinforcing feedback loop with soils – once it starts – might be very difficult to turn off. “When we think about the current climate change, the soil wasn’t given any attention. It plays a significant role in climate change which cannot be ignored,” he added.

Hold  the Sugar

A senior astronomer from the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute made splashy headlines last week following his semi-bold wager that he “bet everybody a cup of coffee that we’ll find intelligent life [outside the Earth] within 20 years.” Aside from generating more press for SETI since the release of the movie Contact 20 years ago (even the non-sciency publication Food and Wine picked it up), researcher Seth Shostak proceeded with some pretty boiler plate pablum during an interview with Futurism at the Worlds Fair in Nano, NY that was packed with snorers such as, “We may find microbial life – the kind you’d find in the corners of your bathtub. We many that a lot sooner, but that remains to the seen. But it’s gonna happen, I think, in your lifetime.” And when he says “find,” he doesn’t necessarily mean in your face, take-me-to-your-leader stuff.  “I don’t know about contact,” Shostak said. “I mean if they’re 500 light years away. . .you’ll hear a signal that’ll be 500 years old, and if you broadcast back ‘Hi we’re the Earthlings, how’re you doing?’ — it’ll be 1,000 years before you hear back from them. If you ever hear back from them. So, it’s not exactly contact, but at least you know they’re there.” So .. I guess that’s where the coffee bet comes in – to keep us awake while we continue to wait.


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Hot Spots

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July 17, 2017

By Elizabeth McMahon, Galactic Sandbox Writer-At-Large
and Agnett Bonwitt, Managing Editor

That Sinking Feeling

Our celestial observatories do more than just look skyward; they are also used to stockpile valuable data about what is going on right here on our home planet. An important example of this is the project started in 1958 by Charles Keeling who began to measure the amount of CO2 in our air from the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii. It was originally planned to run for only a year, but half a century later the project is still being run by his son Ralph, and the information produced is used to measure how human activity is affecting the planet. This knowledge has been employed many times by climate scientists who call it the “Keeling curve”, an uncomfortably rising line that we have not successfully leveled out despite the lowering of emissions in the last few decades.

Charles Keeling receives the National Science Medal from President Bush in 2001. Also in 2015, the The American Chemical Society designated the Keeling Curve as a National Historic Chemical Landmark.

And now we may have the answer as to why we’re continuously chasing our tail. It seems that humans have nearly maxed out ‘carbon sinks’ – large areas of land and ocean that absorb huge amounts of CO2 as we pump it into the atmosphere. In the past, these carbon eaters helped keep the planet from warming as quickly as it otherwise could have, but now they are approaching capacity. Ralph Keeling explains that the sinks we have now can only suck up about half of greenhouse gases, the rest builds up in the atmosphere. In order to at least stop the toxic hemorrhaging, we would have to reduce our emissions by a drastic 50%, a number no country is anywhere near, and is far more radical that what is called for in the 2015 Paris climate change accord. As the sinks reach saturation we have to continue to lower our greenhouse gas belching to basically zero and then begin creating new carbon collectors to take out what we have already produced.

So for the past several decades, the full effects of our emissions have been kept somewhat in check, allowing many to disavow that the situation calls for urgent action because the data is not sufficient. But now some are sounding the alarm that our window of opportunity for avoiding the worst effects is closing fast.

Thanks to Randall Munroe, xkcd.

An open letter by six scientists and diplomats states that we have approximately three years before the worst effects of climate change take hold. They aren’t just Cassandra’s with no solutions however, they propose six goals to hit by 2020 to avert this catastrophe, but the whole world would have to adopt them. And this is of course at the time our current de-evolutionary administration has declared climate change is not on the agenda, and has freed the US from the burden of ensuring the Earth has a chance of supporting the existence of future generations. Unfortunately, by the time it’s no longer possible to deny the science on CO2 emissions and our part in them, it will be too late to update anyone’s agenda.


Spot On

“Sleepy Eye” by Tom Momary.

Detail of Great Red Spot by Gerald Eichstädt / Seán Doran.

Last week, NASA’s state-of-the-art Juno probe in its most recent Jupiter flyby snapped the most detailed pix of the gas giant’s iconic Red Spot, displaying what the space agency calls “a tangle of dark, veinous clouds weaving their way through a massive crimson oval.” Stretching 10,159 miles wide (as of April 3, 2017), the famous Jovian “storm”  is 1.3 times as wide as Earth, and has been monitored since 1830. The magnificent maelstrom, which is believed to have lasted 350 years, appears in recent years to be shrinking. “For hundreds of years scientists have been observing, wondering and theorizing about Jupiter’s Great Red Spot,” said Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “Now we have the best pictures ever of this iconic storm. It will take us some time to analyze all the data from not only JunoCam, but Juno’s eight science instruments, to shed some new light on the past, present and future of the Great Red Spot.” As with other photos snapped by Juno, “citizen scientists” have been taking the available raw images and transforming them into glorious works of art. “I have been following the Juno mission since it launched,” said Jason Major, a JunoCam citizen scientist and a graphic designer from Warwick, Rhode Island. “It is always exciting to see these new raw images of Jupiter as they arrive. But it is even more thrilling to take the raw images and turn them into something that people can appreciate. That is what I live for.”

Skating on Thin Ice

In a CNN opinion piece written by John Sutter titled, “That huge iceberg should freak you out. Here’s why,” the author challenges the media blitzkrieg last week that scientists believe the trillion-ton runaway ice block that broke off of the Larsen C South Polar shelf has nothing to do with human-created climate change – a characterization which he calls at best misleading, and at worst, wrong. Among the five “takeaways” Sutter concludes after spending time discussing the Antarctic ice shelf calving with scientists is that we shouldn’t brush the event off as just a naturally-occurring event, with many researchers worried that their compatriots are failing to see the forest for the trees. “They’re looking at it through a microscope” rather than seeing macro trends, including the fact that oceans around Antarctica are warming, helping thin the ice,” Sutter quotes Kevin Trenberth, a distinguished senior scientist at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research. Again, Sutter records the concerns of another leading researcher: “To me, it’s an unequivocal signature of the impact of climate change on Larsen C,” said Eric Rignot, a glaciologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of California, Irvine. “This is not a natural cycle. This is the response of the system to a warmer climate from the top and from the bottom. Nothing else can cause this.” Colleagues who say otherwise, added Rignot, are burying their heads “in the ice.” (To read Sutter’s full column, click here.)

Red Hot

Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin kicked off a multi-year commemoration leading up to the 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing in July 2019 with his own version of a star-studded gala as he raised $190,000 for his ShareSpace Foundation and rolled out the red carpet to hype his goal of landing humans on Mars by 2040. According to CBS News, Apollo astronauts Walt Cunningham, Michael Collins and Harrison “Jack” Schmitt joined Aldrin  at the sold-out fete held under the shadow of a historic Saturn V rocket. “I like to think of myself as an innovative futurist,” Aldrin told a crowd of nearly 400 people in the Apollo/Saturn V Center. “The programs we have right now are eating up every piece of the budget and it has to be reduced if we’re ever going to get anywhere.” (Editors Note: Although, if NASA is forced to blitz its Earth observing programs, we may not have a place here to come from.) Aldrin’s Foundation also awarded and spaceflight company Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos with the first Buzz Aldrin Space Innovation Award. “We can have a trillion humans in the solar system. What’s holding us back from making that next step is that space travel is just too darned expensive,” Bezos said. “I’m taking my Amazon lottery winnings and dedicating it to (reusable rockets). I feel incredibly lucky to be able to do that.”

Also honored at the festivities was former NASA astronaut Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to travel in space, who was bestowed with the Buzz Aldrin Space Pioneering Award. “When Buzz says, ‘Get your ass to Mars,’ it’s not just about the physical part of getting to Mars. It’s also about that commitment to doing something big and audacious,” Jemison told The Associated Press. “What we’re doing looking forward is making sure that we use our place at the table.”


Buzz Kill

There may be, however, no table to scoot up to, at least according to the gloomy assessment by a NASA official, who speaking at the recent propulsion symposium, admits that at current costs, the space agency doesn’t have the resources to “put boots on the face of Mars,” by 2030 as Vice President MIke Pence put it just as week or so ago. “I can’t put a date on humans on Mars, and the reason really is the other piece, at the budget levels we described, this roughly 2 percent increase, we don’t have the surface systems available for Mars,” NASA’s William H. Gerstenmaier said on Wednesday during a propulsion meeting at the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics. “And that entry, descent and landing is a huge challenge for us for Mars.”

NASA’s Deep Space Habitat near the Moon would help test astronauts’ ability to withstand long-duration space missions.

That said, NASA is expecting to get more funds to focus on human exploration to the Red Planet, and, according to Gerstenmaier, returning to the Moon is still within the agency’s grasp. “If we find out there’s water on the Moon, and we want to do more extensive operations on the Moon to go explore that, we have the ability with Deep Space Gateway to support an extensive Moon surface program,” he said. “If we want to stay focused more toward Mars we can keep that.”

Grab Bag

Other space-age collectables on the auction block this week include the Apollo 13 flight plan annotated by its crew, a spacesuit worn by U.S. astronaut Gus Grissom, and lunar photographs taken by NASA.

The tale of a long-lost sack used by Apollo 11 moonwalker Neil Armstrong to collect lunar dust should be coming to an end this week when it is expected to be auctioned off for about $4 million along with other space memorabilia by Sotheby’s in New York City. The 12 by 8.5-inch bag tagged “Lunar Sample Return” disappeared for decades after the first Moon landing, and eventually turned up in the garage of a Kansas museum manager who was convicted in 2014 of pinching It. After the U.S. Marshals Service unsuccessfully put it up for auction three times, the satchel was bought in 2015 by a Chicago-area attorney Nancy Lee Carlson for $995. When she sent it to NASA for authentication, the space agency decided to keep it after discovering that it still had traces of moon dust inside. Carson successfully sued NASA’s butt, and the hoopla generated by her legal challenge brought several potential buyers out of the woodwork, so Carlson decided to have it auctioned again. Sotheby’s Cassandra Hatton told Reuters she was confident the bag would find a good home. “Just know that the kind of person that would pay money like this for this item is going to take excellent care of it,” she said. “Nothing is lost forever.”

Piece of the Pie

Moon Express’ proposed “Harves Moon” expedition to bring back lunar samples back to Earth.

One of the contestants looking to nab Google’s $20 million Lunar XPRIZE contest has revealed its long-term plans to mine the Moon and bring back samples by 2020. Last week, Florida-based startup Moon Express unveiled its ambitious two-phase proposal that will include 1) a 2019 “Lunar Outpost” mission that will establish a research station on the Moon’s south pole to search for ore as well as ice lurking in dark, chilly craters, and 2) “Harvest Moon” slated for a 2020 launch that will employ three robotic spacecraft to bring lunar rocks back to Earth to be available for scientific research as well as for collectors. Still, the private firm needs to get its MX-1E robotic lander off the ground and prove that it can get the craft to the lunar surface and perform the required hopping around and video taking by the December 2017 deadline so it can qualify for the XPRIZE gold ring. So far, however, the company’s “Lunar Scout” mission continues to face some roadblocks in that the experimental “Electron” rocket designed to launch the lander from New Zealand has in tests only reached sub-orbital space, and the MX-1E itself has yet to be completed. Other that that, if the firm can clear these hurdles, it will become the first private company to squish its toes on our nearest celestial neighbor.

Small Wonder

A team of astronomers led by the University of Cambridge has boasted finding the smallest star yet measured, with a size just an ooch larger than Saturn,  and a gravitational pull about 300 times stronger than what’s felt on Earth. Part of a binary system, the newly-measured, fun-sized “EBLM J0555-57Ab” is about 600 light years away, and was discovered as it passed in front of its much more significant other, using a method usually employed to detect exoplanets.  “Our discovery reveals how small stars can be,” said Alexander Boetticher, the lead author of the team’s findings that will be published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.“Had this star formed with only a slightly lower mass, the fusion reaction of hydrogen in its core could not be sustained, and the star would instead have transformed into a brown dwarf,” he added. Such celestial mini-mes are of particular interest to scientists, since they are the best candidates for being the home of temperate Earth-sized, liquid-water containing planets such as those recently-found surrounding  the ultra-cool TRAPPIST-1 dwarf star.

Spot Check

Dubbed Active Region 12665, the recently-appearing sunspot area is the only one currently on the Sun’s surface. To give a sense of scale, the darker core on the right is bigger than Earth.

NASA scientists are monitoring a new, rapidly-growing dark patch on our Sun that is currently facing Earth. Spotted by the space agency’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), the ominous  sunspot area, which is appearing at a relatively low ebb in solar activity, could create flares, which at a minimum can generate increased amounts of polar auroras to at worse possibly creating potential disruptions in communication satellites and electric power grids here at home.




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By the Light of the Silvery Moon

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July 2, 2017

By Elizabeth McMahon, Galactic Sandbox Writer-At-Large
and Agnett Bonwitt, Managing Editor

Valhalla in the Sky

Ok, I’m definitely getting too old and cynical. For proof, I offer my response to what you would think should be happy, or at least interesting tidbit about a new ‘nation’ that will orbit Earth that its creators have named ‘Asgardia’ after Norse mythology’s city in the sky ruled by Odin and Frigg of Valhalla fame, or so they say. (Asgard also just happens to be an outer plane in the Dungeon’s and Dragons game, and the fictional extraterrestrial race in the Stargate series, but that doesn’t sound quite as good.) Still in its conceptual stage, the space-based nation will, according to its “founding fathers,”  mine asteroids and defend Earth from dangerous meteorites, space debris, solar flares, and I guess anything else incoming that is a bad idea. Well that’s just great! (Of course, it has to first defend ITSELF from these existential threats). It’s nowhere near an actual country yet, but listen to the nice things its originators also have in mind for this new Earth-orbiting ‘nation-in-a-can’: “Asgardia will be a space nation that is trans-ethnic, trans-national, trans-religious, ethical, peaceful entity trying to settle humanity in space.” Well who wouldn’t be a part of that! Space geeks and adventurers sign up now! This could be even more fun, and a good deal cheaper than Elon Musk’s planned adventures to colonize Mars (see June 26, 2017 Galactic Sandbox.) Our species has such a firm grasp on ethics and works together so well, what could possibly go wrong? (🎵 strains of, “It’s Only a Paper Moon “🎵)

Igor Ashurbeyli

Right now mighty Asgardia exists as a nonprofit, non-governmental organization based out of Vienna, Austria, and currently largely funded by founding member Igor Ashurbeyli, a Russian aerospace engineer and billionaire and led by Ram Jakhu, the director of McGill Unversity’s Institute of Air and Space Law. Well that sounds legit enough, however the next bits have me thinking more cynically. Hundreds of thousands of people (256,345 to be exact) have signed up to become citizens and vote on a constitution, which supposedly is going to be initially set up as a constitutional monarchy. (Wonder who they have in mind for the ‘monarch’ – some fun thoughts come to mind. Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean, wanna be a space czar!?)

Photo submitted to be carried aboard Asgardia nanosat.

So, what are Asgardia officials planning first to literally get things off the ground? Launching a ‘nanosat’ the size of a loaf of bread with 512 GB of pre-loaded data that will proudly be the proto-nations “first presence” in space, carrying data uploaded by Asgardian citizens. Quoting Ashurbeyli such beamed material will be important things like “maybe the photo of your little cat or of your neighbor, of your mother, or a child – whatever comes to mind, this will be for as long as Asgardia exists. In other words, forever.” Really?! This little ‘nanosat nation’ is expected to crash through the atmosphere and burn up in 5 years, which is a bit shy of forever by my calculations. Oh, but before then they will re-upload your 300 KB of space (that’s less than one frame of a typical DVD video) on to their next little microsat. Great – how space Instagram of them. Just what we need, more space debris to hit the for-real, actually functioning International Space station with real international people on it.

One possible orbiting space city.

Ultimately, what this space-age social experiment IS, in my world-weary opinion, is a pretty nifty way to get a lot of people to give personal information to another Russian Oligarch. On the bright side, however, if we don’t destroy ourselves in the next hundred years, we will have Earth orbiting cities and probably colonize nearby planets too. And it WILL be great if we get there. But I just wonder why all these rich folks want to get off earth so badly? Do they know something we don’t?  If actions speak louder than words, then they are a good deal more worried about what is going on on this planet than they are saying. After all, nothing we are going to build will house the entire population of earth – nowhere near.


Gone March

The inaugural mission of China’s new Long March-5 Y2 heavy-lift rocket carrying what the government called its heaviest satellite ever, failed yesterday sometime after launch, reports the Xinhua news agency.  According to Reuters, the Y2 is the same model slated to blast China’s lunar probe later this year that is designed to return with samples back to Earth, and at this time, it’s unclear how that mission’s timetable will be affected by Sunday’s failed flight.

An Entangled Web to Weave

While the US continues to be crippled from a leadership beholden to anti-science, Russian election meddling, and one large dollop of megalomaniacal, narcissistic paranoia, the Chinese are busy revolutionizing the way the internet is protected from hackers and spooks, while at the same time leap-frogging the rest of the world in a 21st Century space race. According to a report in Science, researchers at Hefei University have conducted a groundbreaking experiment by beaming proton twins from a satellite to two different ground-based stations 1200 kilometers apart without breaking their quantum entanglement property in which subatomic particles are linked even while being great distances apart. (Apparently this feat smashed the previous distance record by nearly tenfold.)

So what does this stunning achievement have to do with web security?  Well, these Chinese brainiacs plan – with the help of a fleet of specialized satellites -to use an encryption technique based on quantum communication to design super-secure internet networks. “In physics we are trying, and we have demonstrated some encryption techniques that rely on the law of physics rather than the mathematical complexity and we call this quantum key distribution,” professor Ping Koy Lam from the ANU’s Department of Quantum Science told last year, before China launched its first “quantum” satellite in August. “For that to work you need to send laser beams that carry certain information, quantum information, and then you need the senders and the receivers to get together to find a protocol to secure the communication,” Lam continued, adding that “The reason it can’t be hacked is because the information carried in the quantum state of a particle cannot be measured or cloned without destroying the information itself.” So, while the 12-year-old in the White House (not Barron) continues to “make America great again,” China marches toward developing a quantum kryptonite lock for a future world wide web, leaving concerned and sane American citizens fruitlessly stuck in an alternative reality attempting to hack Donald Trump’s brain.

Asking for the Moon

Earth rise photo taken by Japan’s Kaguya lunar-orbiting spacecraft around 2007.

Japan is the latest nation to throw its hat into the lunar sweepstakes, announcing last week that its plans to land a human on the Moon by 2030. The mission, which was proposed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, will constitute that country’s first crewed space concern beyond the International Space Station. A spokesperson for JAXA has said that the effort will be an international one due to the exorbitant costs of sending a Japanese rocket on a cislunar trajectory, and hopes to hitch a ride aboard another nation’s (possibly China) lunar excursion. The agency expects to unveil its proposed human-based Moon jaunt in time for the Japan’s International Space Exploration Forum in March 2018.

It Takes Two to Tango

Filled with gas and dust that block the light from stars forming inside as well as stars and galaxies located behind it, the Perseus molecular cloud, can only be explored via radio waves.

Was a twin of our sun responsible for slinging the dinosaur-killing asteroid into our Earth? It has long been suspected as such, but the long-sought ‘Nemesis’ star has never been found. We know that many stars have companions (our nearest sun neighbor, Alpha Centauri, is a triplet system) and astronomers have questioned if they were ‘born that way,’ were somehow captured, or split up later and become single stars. Now according to a new analysis of the Perseus molecular cloud (located about 600 light years from Earth and about 50 light years long) by a UC Berkeley Physicist and a radio astronomer from Harvard, most of the sun-like stars in the universe start out as twins.

A primitive binary system is located in the IC 348 region (lower right-hand corner or pic) of the Perseus molecular cloud and was included in the study by the Berkeley/Harvard team

This new assertion – the result of a radio survey of a giant molecular cloud filled with new stars in the Perseus constellation – is currently the only mathematical model that explains the observations has all the sun-like stars born with a companion. Co-author Steven Stahler, from UC Berkeley explains, “We ran a series of statistical models to see if we could account for the relative populations of young single stars and binaries of all separations in the Perseus molecular cloud, and the only model that could reproduce the data was one in which all stars form initially as wide binaries. These systems then either shrink or break apart within a million years [which is a blink-of-an-eye in universe time].” Wide, in this case means two stars that are more than 500 astronomical units apart, so any binary partner to our sun would have been 17 times farther than its distance is from Neptune today! So it seems that Nemesis most likely escaped and mixed with all the other stars in our region of the Milky Way, never to be identified as the trouble-maker it likely was.

Kepler and Company

The European Space Agency (ESA) is joining NASA’s Kepler observatory in seeking habitable planets with the planned launch in 2026 of a deep space observatory of its own. Green-lit last Tuesday, the PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO) will be blasted 932,000 miles into space and use 26 onboard telescopes to monitor thousands of stars as it scans for planets in the ‘Goldilocks zone’, not so close to its star that water evaporates, but not so far away that it freezes. The scientists are hoping to answer questions like “How common are Earth-like planets” and “Is our solar system unusual or even unique?” And of course, the most important question of all for most of us, the possible detection of extra-terrestrial life! But of course there is no solar system close enough for us to reach unless we go all Star Trek and develop warp-drive space travel.

So far Kepler has provided a good head start, discovering 3,400 confirmed exoplanets, 30 of which seem to be in the habitable zone. Hubble and several dozen ground-based telescopes have also contributed to the search. So we can expect these numbers to go up dramatically with the addition of new ‘eyes’ in space.

We Still Want to Believe

Tin Foil Hatter Alert! Long-suffering Roswell UFO buffs received a much-needed shot of adrenaline recently after an extraterrestrial and paranormal “expert” claimed to have received “ultra top-secret” report with proof that the alleged 1947 alien spaceship crash actually happened. According to The ExpressHeather Wade, host of the  Midnight in the Desert  radio program, told her jazzed-up listeners that the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) dossier obtained from an unnamed “trusted” source details how the UFO met terra firma on July 2 or 3, 1947 (hmm… exactly 70 years this week), and also describes how four decomposing alien bodies were discovered two miles from the New Mexico crash site.

According to Wade, the supposed government sources states that, “Aerial reconnaissance discovered that four small human-like beings had apparently ejected from the craft at some point before it exploded … All of the four alien crew members were dead and badly decomposed.” Wade has passed the documents on to Roswell believer and investigator Stanton Friedman, who also happens to be a nuclear physicist. Upon looking at the material, Friedman’s first reaction was, ‘I have never seen anything like this, this is new MJ [Majestic] 12 information.’ According to Wade’s website, Friedman will continue to scrutinize the records for authenticity, “but at the time we can find no evidence of forgery.”

Son of a Pizzagate

“CIA insider” Robert David Steele.

As if NASA doesn’t have enough on its plate to worry about, last week it was forced to deny the bats-in-the-belfry claim made by an Alex Jones/ InfoWars guest that for years children have been shanghaied and sent to Mars to be sex slaves. According to Robert David Steele, who was invited to speak about child trafficking on The Alex Jones Show (which airs on 118 radio stations nationwide), “there is a colony on Mars that is populated by children who were kidnapped and sent into space on a 20-year ride … once they get to Mars they have no alternative but to be slaves on the Mars colony.” And before

you could pick your jaw up from the floor and bestow Steele his Tin Foil Hat of the decade trophy, his story turned really bonkers, claiming the pirated children were not only being taken for space labor, but also murdered for their blood and bone marrow. “Pedophilia does not stop with sodomizing children,” explained Steele. “It goes straight into terrorizing them to adrenalize their blood and then murdering them. It also includes murdering them so that they can have their bone marrow harvested as well as body parts.” “This is the original growth hormone,” added Jones, who seemed nonplused by his guest’s bizarre theory, which dwarfs last year’s baseless Pizzagate tale (which Jones helped in hyping) that Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign was running a child sex ring under the basement of a D.C. pizza joint that in fact has no cellar.

When asked by The Daily Beast to comment on this galactic pile of horse pucky, NASA’s spokesperson for Mars exploration provided an awkward response as if he didn’t understand Steele’s fundamental charge (or the reporter’s question): “There are no humans on Mars. There are active rovers on Mars.There was a rumor going around last week that there weren’t. There are. But there are no humans.” Ultimately, the only thing worth noting regarding Steele’s fantasy is that the sort of person who would take a loopy leap of logic and take this smoldering piece of fiction seriously is none other than fake news crusader Donald Trump, who as recently as 2015 publicly complemented Alex Jones on his “amazing” reputation, and vowed not to let him down. At least we’re not expecting Elon Musk to start recruiting commandos to pick off Martian pedophiles and rescue the phantom kinder-chattel.

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Hell or High Water

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April 17, 2017

By Kate Woods, Galactic Sandbox Writer-At-Large
and Agnett Bonwit, Managing Editor

 The Bigly Picture

Life always finds a way.  You know that feeling you get when you are walking along a cement sidewalk and suddenly you see an improbable lone weed or flower sprouting through a tiny crack in the unforgiving concrete, and you say to yourself, “Against all odds, life perseveres.”  Well, we collectively had one of those moments last Thursday when NASA made a big deal announcement that Saturn’s moon Enceladus harbors the recipe for microbial life.

This “watershed” data was gleaned from the wondrous Cassini spacecraft, doomed to die this September when its handlers steer it to a swan dive into the clouds above Saturn, Enceladus’ mother gaseous planet.  Scientists say that’s better than crashing it into the exotic satellite or any other of Saturn’s watery moons since it is quite possible now that one or some of them may contain some form of life; it’s the NASA version of Star Trek’s “prime directive” tenet of non-interference with the evolution of other life forms of other worlds. 

According to NASA, Cassini discovered geysers spouting ice and gas on the tiny moon’s south pole in 2005, and when scientists went in for a closer look in 2015 they made the probe fly through one of these geysers.  It turns out a key component of the jets is molecular hydrogen – a sure sign of hydrothermal activity.  Saturn may be far from our Sun, and Enceladus is a frozen salt water world with an ice shell 19 to 25 miles thick, but the core of the moon is heated by the gravitational pull of the great ringed planet.


Dr. Frank Drake

Artist rendition of possible Roswell UFO crash.

I will never forget a conversation I had 20 years ago with Dr. Frank Drake, father of the Drake Equation (that measures how many intelligent civilizations there are in our galaxy alone) and founder of the SETI Institute in Mountain View CA, (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence using radio waves).  If it sounds like I am name-dropping, it’s because I am.  We were both bemoaning the government’s latest “explanation” on the Roswell Alien Craft Flap of 1947 – now the “aliens” everyone saw were supposed to be crash test dummies dropped from the exosphere from Mogul weather balloons — except that the brass did not start using the dummies until 1952 so they were five years off, and gee, would anyone notice the discrepancy?  Over lunch, we both had steam coming out of our ears:  Drake, because he was disgusted by the government’s imbecilic explanations of what he did not believe was an alien craft crash, and I, because I wanted to believe the aliens had really crashed and the government was giving yet another lame, insulting account of what really did not happen.  (Click here for The History Channel’s version of Roswell and here for The Roswell Museum’s version)

This deep ocean worm (Nereis sandersi) lives off the minerals from hydrothermal vents.

However, the upshot was we both knew unequivocally that life is more probable on planets where there is water, rather than just possible.  We talked about the then newly discovered super hot ocean thermal vents that give birth to microbial life, which feed more critters on up the food chain ladder; how microbes have been found to thrive in the deep freeze permafrost (which is now melting) of both poles; and in the intricate depths of caves that have not seen sunlight for millions of years.  

In the case of Enceladus, the hot water from its ocean floors has a further jump on all the ingredients needed to form basic life, through something called serpenitinization. The iron-rich rock of those sea floors reacts with the moon’s hot water to form that molecular hydrogen, the element that indicates life can find a way.  After the Hubble Telescope took pix of Jupiter’s moon Europa, scientists are hoping the same hypothesis for life may be true for that moon – which is much older than Enceladus and therefore could have more advanced, evolved life in its ice-covered oceans – and for so many of the other moons orbiting the two big “gas” planets.

But don’t look to the Trump Cabal to understand the importance of this…for that matter, the importance of anything that doesn’t have to do directly with the Liar-In-Chief or that isn’t gilded.  NASA has slated the Europa Clipper mission for the late 2020s to explore more about the geysers on Europa, and in 2016 Congress approved a landing component to the mission to examine the oceans beneath Europa’s icy surface.  But, predictably,  the Trump team wants to cut the lander (along with many Earth monitoring sats and missions) from NASA’s budget.  The Verge and Eric Berger of Ars Technica publications give us hope: 

While Trump’s budget request doesn’t provide any funding for the lander, chances are the project isn’t dead yet. The Europa lander has been a personal pet project of John Culberson (R-TX), who is in a prime position to bring the mission back. He’s the chairman of the US House Appropriations Subcommittee that’s responsible for coming up with the budget for NASA. And since Congress has the final say in how NASA gets funded, it seems pretty likely that Culberson will bring the lander back from the dead.

There’s nothing like vanity when it comes to assuaging Republican ego, so get your emails ready to solicit Culberson to do his job.

This next Saturday is the Big One, folks.  Put on yer pink knitted brain caps and March for Science!  – Kate Woods, Writer-At-Large


High Time

Taking former First Lady Michelle Obama’s admonition to “go high” when others “go low” hasn’t stopped the Autonomous Space Agency Network (ASAN) from also hitting below the belt when it comes to Donald Trump. In staging the first-ever cosmic political protest, the Phoenix-based independent group of grass roots space exploration programs launched a printed tweet via a high-altitude weather balloon containing the partial quote of the late Moon-walker Edgar Mitchell, who wanted to take politicians by the scuff of their neck and drag them out in space to view the beauty of our planet, and say, “Look at that, you son of a bitch.” Unfortunately, we don’t expect the Baby Bomber-in-Chief to quit playing cowboys and indians long enough to take in such a highbrow message.

Passing Through

Here we go again.  On April 19th the asteroid 2014 JO25 – 60 times bigger than the one that exploded in the sky over Chelyabinsk, Russia in February, 2013 – will come its closest to Earth in 400 years and might be visible in the night sky. Still, the 2,000-foot wide asteroid will be 1.1 million miles away.  But scientists make the point that cutting key projects like the Asteroid Redirect Mission from NASA’s budget do nothing to help our understanding in how to avoid the planet killers in the future.  2014 JO25 was first discovered by the Catalina Sky Survey near Tucson, Arizona in May 2014 and is listed as a Potentially Hazardous Asteroid by the Minor Planet Center.  It may be visible in the night sky with amateur telescopes for 18 minutes starting at 3:40 AM Central Time. For more details on how to spot it, read EarthSky. Also click here to view a video of the cosmic wanderer.

Eight Days a Week

Flush from the success of SpaceX’s first-ever launch of a recycled Falcon-9 booster, company head Elon Musk tweeted recently that his firm’s next goal is to promise a 24-turnaround using the same reclaimed rocket, ultimately lowering the cost of in-orbit deliveries by 30 percent. Echoing Musk’s new line in the sand, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell noted before last month’s historic reclaimed rocket mission that “We’re really looking for true operational reusability, like an aircraft, An aircraft lands, goes to the gate, passengers come off, passengers go on, you refuel, and then you fly again. What we’re looking to do is exactly that. We land and relaunch on the same day.” Eventually, the commercial venture wants to make space travel to Mars as ho-hum as a trip to Dubuque, Iowa, with an “Interplanetary Transit System” bustling with streamlined spaceliners ferrying wide-eyed “colonists” from the Earth to the Red Planet.

Stranger Than Fiction

NASA just funded 15 wild ideas, some which seem ripped from some of our favorite science fiction stories. From artificial gravity devices, to the concept of terra-forming Mars with benevolent bioengineered microbes, NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts or NIAC program doled out $125,000 in grants to each of the 15 winners, and will help another seven inventors in Phase 2 of the program with an additional $500,000 each to develop their concepts.  Some of the other concepts funded by NIAC include, as “Midnight in the Desert” put it, “a swarm of robotic spacecraft to pick apart asteroids, a method for growing food in Martian soil, two fusion projects, a JPL study on interstellar propulsion techniques, [and] a system to physically tether spacecraft to Mars’ moon Phobos.”  That last one we’d like to see, considering the many “inexplicable” problems that Martian moon has caused humans. 

Jet Lag

A new report from NASA”s Office of Inspector General has dampened the hopes that the space agency will get its next-generation Space Launch System (SLS) off the ground by late next year because of insufficient funds to cover unexpected technical glitches and general high costs. Currently, NASA has penned in an uncrewed flight around the Moon in late 2018 and a human mission to our nearest celestial neighbor no later that 2021;  however, there are still various moving targets that could cause setbacks including software development delays and the possibility that the space agency, under pressure from the Trump administration will change its first trip to the Moon to include humans aboard the Orion space capsule.

Night Lights

NASA Earth Scientist Miguel Román and his team have devised a way to create composite night photos of the Earth from space sats while eradicating light from the Moon phases, snow, ice cover, clouds and atmospheric emissions. The results are stunning, and can give one pause on how humans are shaping – and altering – this planet.

Free to a Good Home

Just in time for this year’s Earth Day this Saturday, NASA has placed our home planet up for adoption.  And it’s not just the agency’s way of participating in the annual environmental and climate literacy celebration – NASA is saying Earth needs some responsible parents, because the current “leaders” are complete assholes when it comes to protecting it.  The agency has sectioned the planet into 64,000 segments and set up a “virtual adoption agency”  wherein participants are assigned a a 55-mile wide section of the Earth to monitor.  There is nothing legal about it, no deeds or rules, but rather, it is to make people realize how precious this pale blue dot is.  And boy, we need some stewardship now more than ever.  Scientists this week are claiming that the Great barrier Reef is now terminal, and some journalists are writing its obituary:  “The Great Barrier Reef: Dead at 25 Million Years Old.”  Another disheartening story:  A land mass the size of India in northern Norway, peat mounds that were permafrosted since humans started walking this orb, has officially thawed.

Galactic Sandbox is the proud “steward of a section of the Southern China Sea southeast of Australia, and you can check it out here.

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Olympus Has Fallen

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January 30, 2017

By Kate Woods, Galactic Sandbox Writer-At-Large
and Agnett Bonwit, Managing Editor

Man for No Reasons

Just when we naively thought the political attacks on science couldn’t get more Orwellian, this week they became downright fascist:  Trump’s “gag mandates” lobbed on nearly every U.S. agency that deals with proven science – including the EPA, the National Park Service, the USGS and even the USDA – have been blatant, putrid, and globally embarrassing acts of treason. (Editors Note: Due to the effective pushback from multiple groups and individuals, many of these federal agency black-outs have been lifted. However, that doesn’t mean things couldn’t change at a moments notice, or that the Trump administration will deny any of this ever happened.)

We knew this ignorant Whiner-In-Chief egomaniac and possible Putin Pulcinella was bad news, but oh boy… he’s a disastrous man-child leaving a massive swath of broken toys in his wake. It started even before his first working day as our Orange Leader when his transition demolition team demanded the names of all federal employees in the Energy Department who had studied or written about global warming, or had taken part in mere “climate talks.”  And less than an hour after being sworn in, redecorated the official White House website with his plan to frack and drill the National Parks and all other federal (public) lands.   A few days after that, and in the wake of his obsession with crowd size, “Little Hands” ordered the National Park Service and the EPA to cease all dissemination of research information to the public, put a “presidential gag order” on all social media accounts of said employees (both official and personal pages), and halted all projects, grants and contracts involving the EPA – including all Superfund clean-up plans (such as preventing and filtering out poisons like lead and methyl-mercury from water sources used by people and animals and crops).

Enter our favorite idiot sock-puppet and Tin Foil Hat fashionista Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Inferno): the head of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, whose feeble grasp of the current state of science is laughably and ironically tragic.  As if our nerves weren’t frazlzled enough, like a sinister jack-in-the-box he just had to rear his inane head.  Surprise!Delivering a bizarre, nonsensical monologue to his captive peers on the Congressional floor, Smith insisted to the American public and his horrified colleagues last Thursday that the only thing believable in the news is whatever Trump says.  He implored the world not to believe news journalists, that “the media are liars,” praised the Predator-in-Chief for his “stamina” and “conviction, and chastised the media for not reporting on those qualities.  “No, the national liberal media won’t print that or air it or post it,” Smith barked. “Better to get your news directly from the President. In fact, it might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth.”

A disgusting, groveling, step-and-fetch-it shuffle if there ever was one.

Dog-piling atop that spectacle, Space X chieftain Elon Musk held a press conference Thursday proclaiming that to protest against Trump is “pointless,” and that the president would be much more open to “reason.”  (What the Flying Spaghetti Monster??)  Keep in mind, Trump just made Musk one of his key space and science policy advisers.  (We wonder how Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic [granted, he’s British] and other space launch entrepreneurs feel about that).  And in a most Trumpian mode of communication, Musk tweeted to reporters: “Simply attacking him will achieve nothing. Are you aware of a single case where Trump bowed to protests or media attacks?”

Er, yes, in fact we do, Elon.  Officials at the Department of Energy told the Trump gang to stick it, that they patently refuse to “name names” of colleagues who had taken part in international climate talks.  And by the way, the subject is of great concern to that department since global warming has been named by the Pentagon as one of the biggest security risks the nation faces.  Just as frightening, the Energy Department is also the agency that is in charge of our nuclear arsenal.  We are also sure Trump and his surrounding umpa lumpas, like Energy Secretary-to-be bozo Rick Perry, had no inkling of that fact.

Galactic Sandbox Writer-at-Large Kate Woods participating in Women’s March January 21st. (Photo Ben Guez)

The Trump press machine eventually backed off, and said the “mandate” had not gone through “official” Administrative protocol.  Yeah, right.  Then another lone voice of resistance in the wilderness, an employee of the Badlands National Park in South Dakota, started tweeting out “factoids” about global warming, in defiance of the Trump gag order.  Then, after an onslaught of public outrage over the gag “orders,” the USDA itself lifted its own silencing.  Soon after, the National Parks followed suit.  And we all know what happened last Saturday across this nation, indeed the globe:  millions of people participated in the Women’s March protesting President Cheeto’s inauguration.  Considering his notoriously thin, burnt sienna skin, we know that was more than a burr under his saddle. 

So, like these instances of brave public servants and citizens who have stood up in the face of this polar vortex of totalitarianism, the editorial board of Galactic Sandbox begs to differ with the idea of doing nothing or using “reason” to deal with a creature who does not even know what that concept is. We already have reason on our side.  Instead, use the Bill of Rights to deal with this Trump propaganda mill. It’s true that Trump and his goons have no idea what our rights are.  But their lawyers sure do, and if our scientists defy Trump and ignore his threats and orders, we believe they would triumph.  Take it to court if need be!  They wouldn’t have a leg to stand on, as long as the Constitution hasn’t been altered.  Fascism and its ilk relies on ignorance, fear, and rapid-fire falsehoods to wear people down, especially when mouthpieces like the Barbie Doll from Hell, Kellyanne Conway, says her boss and comrades are using “alternative facts.”  That’s another, whitewashed term, for LIES.  If everyone still standing in these assaulted science agencies would simply abide by the Constitution and ignore the Whiner’s unreasonable demands, we believe we have a chance. – Kate Woods, Writer-At-Large


NASA Rogue One

Some friends of NASA employees have created a rogue Twitter account asking the public to help them save scientific data from the Trump Anti-Science Doomsday Machine.  A how-to quickie tutorial is given in the Daily Kos:  

The folks who started the “Unofficial Resistance Team of NASA,” started the cause when their friends, NASA scientists, were bemoaning what to do to save their scientific research – not to mention their very jobs.  As a result, all science-lovers or like-minded souls are encouraged to help them archive the employees’ work before it is taken down and erased forever.  It involves installing the Wayback Machine Chrome Extension in your PC, and all the instructions are given in the article.  Let’s save our knowledge.  It belongs to the people, anyway.

Just the Facts, Ma’am

In response to Trump’s assaults on science and fact-fueled U.S. agencies, organizers pushing back are planning a worldwide March for Science in, er,  March.  Much like the gargantuan Women’s March last week, a group of scientists and science aficionados have seen their idea take off exponentially around the globe.  It started as a simple discussion on how to repel against Trump’s anti-science moves, and when they decided to propose a March for Science, within 24 hours the group’s Twitter account had gained an additional 124,000 followers.  The group’s new Faceybook page suddenly gained half a million followers.  

Like the Women’s gatherings earlier this month, organizers are suggesting participants wear pink knit caps – but instead of the pussycat-ears motif, they have come up with a pink “brain” design.  

 Will keep you posted!

Carpe Tunnel Diem

Seriously.  Elon Musk of Space X and Tesla electric luxury cars, now presumably science and space adviser to the Cheeto in Chief, says he plans to tunnel underground, presumably in Los Angeles, because he hates the above-ground traffic.  No, he has not applied for any permits from the State Department of Transportation yet, but it’s just the type of big ticket item “Moonshot Musk” would attempt.  The company is called The Boring Company, and its quest would be to make an underground subway of sorts.  He’s not giving any details, so we don’t know if mag-lev or bullet trains are involved, or even if it would be his own private “person mover.”  Details, or lack of, in The San Jose Mercury News. Ground-breaking to start in the springtime.  Hmmmmm.

Eye On the Prize

Five grass-roots initiatives to send robotic missions to the Moon have been given the green light to rev up their engines for the Lunar surface no later than the end of this year. The privately-funded Google Lunar XPRIZE announced last week that in addition to splitting its $1 million Diversity Prize among 16 teams, it has selected the five finalists based on their ability to secure launch contracts to land their unmanned craft on our nearest celestial neighbor, with the missions to be initiated no later than December 31, 2017. “Each of these teams has pushed the boundaries to demonstrate that you don’t have to be a government superpower to send a mission to the Moon, while inspiring audiences to pursue the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics,” gushed Chanda Gonzales-Mowrer, senior director, Google Lunar XPRIZE. Below are the five scrappy Moon units that will soon be making the giant leap from one world to another (as described on Google Lunar XPRIZE’s site):

  • SpaceIL (Israel), a non-profit organization, has secured a position on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Their goal is to make an educational impact and to create an “Apollo Effect” for the next generation in Israel.

  • Moon Express (USA), signed a multi-mission launch contract with Rocket Lab USA for three lunar missions by 2020. Their directive is to open up the Moon’s vast resources for humanity and establish new avenues for commercial space activities beyond Earth orbit.

  • Synergy Moon (International), team member Interorbital Systems will serve as the launch provider, using a NEPTUNE 8 rocket to carry a lunar lander and rover to the surface of the Moon. Synergy Moon is made of up individuals from over 15 countries, with a mission to make manned orbital travel, personal satellite launches and Solar System exploration cost effective and accessible.

  • TeamIndus (India), signed a commercial launch contract aboard the Indian Space Research Organization’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). TeamIndus’ spacecraft is designed to nestle inside the nosecone of the PSLV and will launch from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota.

  • HAKUTO (Japan), signed a rideshare agreement tohave TeamIndus carry its four-wheeled rover to the Moon. Hakuto’s ultimate target is to explore holes that are thought to be caves or ‘skylights’ into underlying lava tubes, for the first time in history, which could lead to important scientific discoveries and possibly identifying long-term habitats to shield humans from the Moon’s hostile environment.

Up to Speed

Lensed quasar.

According to new research led by Nobel laureate Adam Riess, the Universe is expanding even faster than speeds measured by the European Space Agency Planck Satellite Mission in 2015.  Comparing gravitational lensing from distant quasars such as  RXJ1131-1231, Riess’ scientific team has pegged the speed that our Universe is flying apart (called the Hubble Constant) at 44.7 miles per second per megaparsec.  (A megaparsec is about 3.26 million light-years.)  That’s ratcheted up from the previous estimate of 41.6 miles per second per megaparsec.  Gravitational lensing is the phenomenon created when nearby galaxies warp light coming in from distant objects such as bright galactic core remnants known as quasars.  Fittingly, images from the Hubble Space Telescope, along with imagery from the Spitzer Space Telescope and some ground-based instruments, all contributed to this new discovery.  As astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson said in his Inexplicable Universe series, it’s a good thing we are studying what we can see now, because we won’t be able to see it when the Big Rip leaves us seemingly and utterly alone in the Universe – with nothing to look at but images of Donald Trump lying on TV.

Sighs of the Times

It’s no surprise to us that the National Science Foundation just put out a call for proposed partnerships to shoulder the costs of running the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.  The giant Arecibo costs about $8 million a year to maintain and run, and the NSF wants to whittle that down to $2 million.  Established in the early 60’s, the Arecibo was used by the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) for decades, but the signal seekers now have facilities they use around the globe, not to mention their own array now in Hat Creek, CA.  The NSF has no doubt seen the cuts and gag orders coming down the pike, straight towards them, from the Whiner-In-Chief’s Administration.  Proposals to the NSF are due in late April.  

Dressed to the Nines

Looks like astronauts will be sporting a sleeker, more 21st-centuryish look in the not-so distant future following Boeing’s unveiling of a line of lighter and more comfortable spacesuits for its Starlliner spacecraft. If all goes as planned International space station crews will begin traveling to low-Earth-orbit in August 2018 sporting  a ready-wear ensemble more reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey than Apollo 13.

According to NASA a few design advancements include:

  • Lighter and more flexible through use of advanced materials
  • Helmet and visor incorporated into the suit instead of being detachable
  • Touchscreen-sensitive gloves
  • Vents for cooling

The fully-accessorized astro-garb, complete with an integrated shoe, weighs about 20 pounds – 10 pounds lighter than last season’s model worn by space shuttle crews.

The Big Picture

Cassini’s newest, stunning portrait of Saturn taken as the 20-year-old probe makes it final series of swan-dives throughout the planet’s ring systems, before it’s sacrificed to the old god Cronus on September 15 this year.

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