October 9, 2017
Agnett Bonwitt, Managing Editor
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.
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
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.”
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.