So far our galactic adventures have included landing men on the moon, taking pretty pictures of Saturn, and roaming the surface of Mars. So what’s next on NASA’s to-do list? Perhaps snagging an asteroid to keep in our own backyard.
Researchers from the Keck Institute for Space Studies proposed a plan [pdf] in April to bring an asteroid into the moon’s orbit so astronauts can study it up close. How big an asteroid are we talking? Researchers said the sweet spot would be right around 500 tons and 20 feet in diameter—big enough to locate but small enough to transport. After finding such an asteroid, researchers want to send a robotic spacecraft to bag and drag the asteroid into the moon’s orbit. The asteroid would in effect become the moon’s own mini moon. The round-trip journey could take up to a decade, which would give NASA enough time to set up a manned mission to the asteroid to study it up close and personal. So far NASA has not turned the proposal down.
Scientists with the Cassini-Huygens mission have just announced they identified a river on Saturn’s moon Titan. The river appears in radar images taken in September of this year by the Cassini spacecraft, a joint project run by NASA and the European and Italian Space Agencies.
The extraterrestrial river extends 250 miles through the moon’s north polar regions before it drains into a large sea called the Ligeia Mare. Since the river’s course is relatively straight, scientists say it likely occurs along a fault line.
The river valley appears dark in the radar image—an indication of a smooth surface—so scientists suggest the river is actually flowing. The liquid between its banks isn’t water, though. In contrast to Earth’s water-based hydrologic cycle, Titan’s cycle operates instead on hydrocarbons such as ethane and methane. Titan is the only other world scientists know to have stable liquid on its surface.
Image courtesy of the European Space Agency.
Neil Armstrong, the astronaut who took a giant leap for mankind, died on Saturday at the age of 82. Reserved and shy, Armstrong always insisted that he wasn’t a hero despite some fairly heroic acts.
The unflappable commander of Apollo 11, he braved a mission that he thought had only 50-50 odds of landing on the Moon, and a decent chance of never returning home. And when he realized that the original lunar landing site was untenable, he took over from the computer to manually find a new site and set down—while fuel supplies ticked away. After returning to Earth, Armstrong’s natural reserve didn’t stop him from reaching out and sharing his experience, even after he retired from NASA to teach at the University of Cincinnati.
Archaeologists, historians, and governments take great care to preserve human history across the globe, protecting monuments of our civilizations and traces of our origins. Even what may seem, at first, like the detritus of existence—footprints left millions of years ago, the contents of well-preserved wastebins—can serve as tangible, informative links to the past.
Now, scientists and officials are working preserve some of humanity’s best-known footprints, left by a giant leap for mankind, by extending those same sorts of historical protections to the Apollo missions’ lunar landing sites. The tricky part is, many such protections require that a site be on the territory of a state or nation—and the US government can’t claim sovereignty over any part of the moon, and doesn’t want to appear as though it’s trying to. But NASA and the New Mexico and California state governments have gotten onboard with the effort to safeguard the sites, spearheaded by New Mexico State University anthropologist Beth O’Leary. A NASA panel recently issued recommendations for protecting the sites that suggest future explorers give a wide berth to the astronautical artifacts left behind, Kenneth Chang reports at the New York Times:
What’s the News: NASA’s considering launching a boat from Earth, hurling it 746 million miles through space, and plopping it onto one of the minus-290 degrees Fahrenheit methane oceans of Titan. This mission to Saturn’s largest moon would the first of its kind to probe an alien ocean and—depending on the weather conditions—could be the first spacecraft to witness extraterrestrial rain. If the proposed mission beats out two other finalists, it could launch within the next five years. “Titan is an endpoint [in] exploring … the limits to life in our solar system,” project leader Ellen Stofan told New Scientist. “We’re going to be looking for patterns in abundances of compounds to look for evidence for more complex or interesting reactions.”
What’s the News: Images sent back from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft depict storm clouds and methane rain puddles, the first solid evidence of modern rainfall on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. “We’re pretty confident that it has just rained on Titan,” lead author Elizabeth Turtle, from Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, told Wired. Astronomers have previous evidence of sulfuric-acid precipitation on Venus, but it doesn’t count as rainfall because it never reaches the surface.
What’s the Olds:
Not So Fast: Don’t read too much into these showers: Methane rain doesn’t mean life. The search continues.
Reference: “Rapid and Extensive Surface Changes Near Titan’s Equator: Evidence of April Showers.” E.P. Turtle, J.E. Perry, A.G. Hayes, R.D. Lorenz, J.W. Barnes, A.S. McEwen, R.A. West, A.D. Del Genio, J.M. Barbara, J.I. Lunine, E.L. Schaller, T.L. Ray, R.M.C. Lopes, E.R. Stofan. Science, Vol 331, March 18, 2011. DOI: 10.1126/science.1201063
Image: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
Humankind’s experience visiting worlds beyond our own begins and ends with the dozen Apollo astronauts who skipped about on tiny swaths of the moon. But that doesn’t mean we can’t experiment with how and where we might visit (or live) on the extreme surfaces of other worlds. A few studies out recently are doing just that.
Radiation? Big deal
Our planet provides a protective shield from the most damaging radiation produced by the sun—a shield not available on the moon or Mars. It’s a hazard for any human leaving the planet, and it’s a hazard for plants, too.
However, a new study of the Chernobyl area in the Ukraine, site of the famous nuclear accident, is actually raising hopes for space farming.
Even 25 years after the catastrophic nuclear accident at Chernobyl, the area around the site harbors radioactive soil. But researchers working there have found that oil-rich flax plants can adapt and flourish in that fouled environment with few problems. Exactly how the flax adapted remains unclear, but what is clear is that two generations of flax plants have taken root and thrived there, and that could have big implications for growing plants aboard spacecraft or on other planets at some point in the future. [Popular Science]
One private space company says it may claim a portion of the coveted Google Lunar X Prize in the near future–all it has to do is land a robot on the moon, travel roughly 1,640 feet, and then send data back to Earth.
The company, Astrobotic Technology, announced this week that it’s getting serious about the moon mission–it reserved a seat for its robot on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. Currently scheduled to launch in December 2013, the rocket will shuttle the company’s Red Rover to lunar orbit, where Astrobotic Technology hopes to complete the tasks set for it to claim $24 million of the $30 million prize.
So far, this is how the itinerary should play out:
When Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the lunar surface in 1969, they did more than make history and utter unforgettable words. They also deployed seismic sensors that would allow scientists back on Earth to monitor the activity on the moon. Crews from the 12th, 14th, 15th, and 16th iterations of Apollo also deployed sensors, the lot of which took measurements until 1977. Using recently developed techniques of analysis, two teams working independently say they have gone back into that catalog of data and sorted through the statistical noise that has confounded researchers, creating a clear picture of the moon’s core.
The new study provides the first confirmation of layering of the moon’s core and suggests that the moon, like Earth, has a solid inner core surrounded by a molten outer core, researchers said. But the moon’s interior also has another layer of partially melted material – a ring of magma – around its outer core, the study found. [MSNBC]
The moon shakes with moonquakes, but those are more scattered and weaker than the quakes we experience here on the home world, and the moon’s busted-up surface made the signals difficult for Apollo seismic monitors to read. Through a statistical technique called waveform stacking, the new teams could better identify how seismic waves move through the moon, and especially how the core affects them. That, in turn, shows the size and density of the core.
It’s the chilly winter solstice and the eclipse of the moon happened in the wee hours of this morning, so plenty of people probably didn’t sacrifice sleep and stand out in the cold to watch the sky show. No worries—those who did stay up took pictures.
This eclipse was visible across much of Europe, the Americas and parts of Asia. And it was more unusual than most because it coincided with the winter solstice and today’s official start of winter. [NPR]
Such an astronomical alignment hasn’t happened in centuries, and most people alive today won’t be around for the next one: It doesn’t happen again until 2094. Those who braved the cold and had clear viewing skies got to enjoy hours of the eclipse, as the Earth’s shadow began to fall on our natural satellite during the 1 a.m. hour Eastern time.
The total eclipse began about 2:40 a.m. and lasted 72 minutes, until 3:52 a.m. The moon then continued moving through the Earth’s shadow, emerging completely sometime after 5 a.m. The winter solstice, which occurs later in the day, is the time when the sun reaches its lowest point in the northern sky. The Naval Observatory said this year’s solstice will be at 6:38 p.m. [Washington Post]
But why is the moon bathed in blood red light?