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Boy, the holidays sort of feel like a super-fun carnival ride that abruptly stops and tosses you out beneath an icy highway overpass in the middle of nowhere–which is to say, 2022 is officially rolling along now. Pursuant some of last year’s stories, we have a couple of updates: one sad and one uplifting.

Magawa retires after spending five years detecting landmines and unexploded ordnance in Cambodia. AKP

The sad update is that the much-lauded hero rat Magawa has retired from retirement and moved up to that great rat-burrow in the clouds. Magawa was a Gambian pouched rat who helped find and disarm 108 unexploded land mines and anti-personnel explosives in the killing fields of Cambodia. The oldest known Gambian pouched rat in captivity lived to be eight years old, and great Magawa too was eight when he passed away last weekend. His glowing obituary in the New York Times (!) extolled his work (and, by extension, the heroic work of Belgian NGO APOPO which runs the “heroRAT” initiative to save lives and limbs from forgotten weapons of yesteryear). We will not forget his work (indeed some…or maybe lots…of people will have entire lives because of it) and we should also remember what great things are possible when we collaborate with our animal friends. Requiescat (requiesrat?) in pacem, Megawa, and thank you!

The other (much happier) news is that the Webb Space telescope has fully deployed. The telescope launched from French Guiana on an Ariane 5 rocket on Christmas (2021) and ever since then it has been unfurling huge, sensitive, delicate components by means of robot manipulators in the cold (yet not cold-enough) darkness of space. My roommate’s brother was an engineer on the telescope, and he said that if the telescope’s mirror (a 6.5 meter (21 foot) gold-plated beryllium hexagon) were expanded to the the size of the United States, no part of it would be more than a meter or so tall (or, to be less poetic, its surface is nano-engineered to exquisite and inhuman smoothness). The infrared telescope must be kept extremely cold (50 Kelvin or −369.7 °F) in order to accurately measure long infrared waves. Since no coolant would last long enough to satisfy mission requirements, this has involved building an ingenuous array of radiators connected to a ponderous sunshield apparatus the size of a tennis court (but made of many layers of meticulously engineered super-plastic each the thickness of a human hair). The sunshield and the telescope mirror were too large to be placed in the rocket payload capsule when assembled. Therefore it was necessary to assemble them in space, far away from the contaminants and perils of low Earth orbit…and far away from any possible help if anything went wrong. It was NASA’s most complicated deployment yet (by quite a lot, apparently) and if anything went wrong, humankind’s great 10 billion dollar eye to look at the universe would be completely ruined. Mercifully, the deployment was a success and the incredible telescope is now undergoing calibration as it travels to the Sun-Earth L2 Lagrange point, 1,500,000 km (930,000 miles) away from Earth orbit.

It is still several months (or more) before we receive the first data and images back from the telescope, but the most harrowing stage of the mission has now passed. Ferrebeekeeper will keep you updated, but the telescope is already an astonishing achievement which has greatly advanced material science, optics, robotics, and sundry other disciplines! Mabe 2022 is already looking up (even if it is currently 265 Kelvin here in Brooklyn right now).

Humankind has finally reached up and touched the sun–well, figuratively anyway, by means of NASA’s Parker solar probe. The spacecraft is the fastest human-created object ever made (so far) and travels at a blistering 532,000 kilometers per hour (330,000 mph). Since its launch in 2018, it has been circling closer and closer to the sun, and yesterday mission controllers announced that the craft had finally flown through the corona of the star (which can reach toasty temperatures of one million degrees Kelvin (1,800,000 degrees Fahrenheit)). Fortunately the upper atmosphere portion of the sun which the craft flew through was a mere 2500 degrees Fahrenheit and the crafts stout carbon shielding protected its sensitive instruments just fine.

During its time in the hot seat (which actually occurred back in April, but which is just being announced now), the Parker solar probe sampled solar particles and analyzed the sun’s magnetic fields so that scientists can try to understand more about the fundamental dynamics of stellar physics. The probe will continue to circle the sun during the course of its seven year mission and should provide ample material for physicists to analyze.

Gonggong and its moon Xiangliu (red circle) seen by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2010

While idly scanning trans-Neptunian objects & suchlike miscellaneous dwarf planets of the outer solar system, Ferrebeekeeper was stunned to see a familiar name–GongGong, the dark water dragon who messed up Chinese cosmology and nearly destroyed the world. In Chinese mythology, GongGong’s reign of chaos was stopped by the gentle creator goddess Nuwa. However, in order to repair the damage wrought by the naughty dragon, Nuwa was forced to jerryrig creation back together with turtle legs and river rocks (and the end result is decidedly more rickety than the original).

The dwarf world Gonggong was discovered by astronomers waaaaaaay back in 2007. Although it is not the most famous dwarf planet in the solar system, it is not inconsequential in size and has a diameter of 1,230 km (760 mi). Gonggong’s eccentric ecliptic orbit takes 550 Earth years and the planetoid rotates very slowly as well. At its perehelion (when it is closest to the sun) it is 55 AUs from Earth, however at its apehelion it is 101.2 AUs (1.514×1010 km) away from the gentle sun. Brrrr! Gonggong was last at perehelion fairly recently, in 1857, and now it is moving farther and farther away–so if you left your wallet there in 1857, you may just want to get a new one. The orbital diagram below shows the orbit of Gonggong (in yellow) contrasted with that of Eris.

Like the lozenge-world Haumea, Gonggong is a strange reddish pink color because of organic compounds known as tholins which cover its ancient ice. In some stories, the evil water dragon Gonggong had a copper head, so maybe the name suits it. Oh, also, in Chinese mythology GongGong has a sidekick, a wicked nine-headed demon named Xiangliu. Gonggong the planetoid has a tiny moon which bears this name. Finally, Chinese mythology is weirdly ambiguous about whether Nuwa and Zhu Rong finished off GongGong or whether he escaped to cause trouble another day. If I were hiding out from a bunch of quasi omnipotent Earth deities for thousands of years, I know where I would go!

Remember back at the height of the pandemic, when the Chinese Yutu-2 rover discovered green blobs on the dark side of the moon? Well, if you somehow don’t remember that, here is my blog post from last year (spoiler, the blobs were lunar rocks). I mention this because the Yutu-2 lunar rover (which I am going to start fully translating as “Jade Rabbit 2” so it sounds less like a ballet dress) is now making international waves with a new discovery–a strange gray cube evocatively designated as 神秘小屋 “magic secret little hut.”

Courtesy of the Chinese space agency, here is a picture of this mysterious lunar object.

Wow! It, um, does look comparatively more like a magic secret little hut (or any sort of outbuilding, really) than the rest of the lunar regolith. As I write this, Jade Rabbit 2 is heading towards the mystery feature, so we should have a better answer about the lunar cube shortly. Based past Jade Rabbit discoveries, I am going to go on record and opine that this is a rock.

However a large square boulder is hardly a disappointment. There are no glaciers (currently) on the surface of the moon eroding erratics and carrying them around, so how did it form and get where it is? If, as seems likely, it was the result of a lunar impact event, then perhaps it can teach us something new about lunar basalt?

Finally, what can the Chinese teach us about drumming up space-exploration support with crazy names and press releases? Their square boulder has made international headlines (in an age of omicron and Olympics controversy!) just because it has a jazzy designation. Maybe we should start giving more space objects Chinese names (a development which is undoubtedly on its way, anyhow). We will keep our eyes on this lunar cube, in the off chance that little gray elves come out and try to sell strange lunar goods to Jade Rabbit. Off-world exploration doesn’t just teach us things: it is fun!

Today we have some exciting news from out there in the solar system [checks notes] er, excuse me, I guess I mean “in there” in the solar system, since today’s news concerns from the planet closest to the sun. Yet, even though it is first, Mercury is shockingly unknown compared to the other planets of the solar system. This past Friday (October 1st 2021), the joint ESA/JAXA space mission BepiColombo (which launched back in 2018) finally made it to the innermost world. Since 2018, the transfer module has been slaloming around Earth and Venus in order to make it to Mercury. Indeed, the mission is named after the brilliant Italian astrophysicist who first proposed interplanetary gravity assist maneuvers as a mechanism for altering the velocity and trajectory of interplanetary spacecraft. BepiColombo took the picture at the top of this post, a view of part of Mercury’s northern hemisphere taken at a distance of about 2,420 kilometers (1,500 miles) from the world.

In 2025, the spacecraft will deploy two orbiters to truly comprehensively map Mercury and attempt to unlock the mysteries of the planet’s ancient face. Mercury’s surface seems to be made of a very dark lava which has been bombarded by meteorites for the last several billion years. Although Mercury is dinky in volume (smaller than some of the solar system’s moons) it is quite dense and presumably contains a metallic core suitable for a much larger planet. Interestingly (albeit unsurprisingly, for anyone who lives here) the densest planet in the solar system is Earth!

Not since the end of the Messenger mission has Mercury been the thrilling center of attention in astronomy. I can hardly wait for subsequent discoveries about the fast, hot, tiny planet. Some of the secrets of the making of the solar system have been locked away on the little world, waiting billions of years for the right orbiter to come along.

Today, for no discernible reason, I remembered a treasure of my childhood–a Star Trek coloring book from the 1970s for the awesome (but often-overlooked) Star Trek animated series which had Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner, and the rest of the original cast voicing the characters.  By its very nature, the animated series allowed for a much broader variety of strange alien lifeforms and mind-shattering outer space hijinks (which meant there were Kzinti and Phylosians and whatnot running around).

The coloring book (which my father brought home to cheer me up when I had a bad ear infection) was similarly awesome, with whole pages dedicated to crazy aliens. There was one particular 2 page spread with an entire alien ecosystem (!), which I often stared at longingly. But there was a problem: my 5 year old self did not have the fine motor control (nor the other requisite tools) to color these magnificent images in the fashion which they deserved. I tried coloring a lesser picture of some redshirts and junior officers, and it turned into a disaster of jagged mustard, orange, and puke colored wax expressionism (remember this was the 70s). There was no way I was going to deface those incredible alien worlds with such raw artistic incompetence.

“Captain, I very much fear that the ship is taking on unsustainable quantities of magenta. Also, our enlisted personnel have been bisected by a ‘goldenrod’ line”

So I didn’t color my favorite coloring book and I waited to get good enough to be worthy of it. But, alas, by the time I reckoned myself to be sufficiently talented to properly color the best pages (2009, maybe?), the book was long gone. I would like to make a joke about that janky seventies newsprint turning yellow and brittle over the decades, but I think my mom threw it away back in the day because I wasn’t using it (also, she not-very-secretly disliked Star Trek for reasons unknown & unfathomable). But even if the book had somehow survived up until now (when I finally have the French gauche and 300 sharpened Prismacolor pencils necessary for the assignment) would I color such a thing? Of course not! I can draw my own alien planets (and, cough, perhaps the illustration quality of this book does not entirely warrant the enthusiasm I had for it as a child).

But the seventies Star Trek coloring book is still my favorite coloring book and, in retrospect, its lessons might outstrip the (treasured and hard-won) lessons of the coloring books which I did color. For not only did it teach us about exploration, equality, and the boundless strength of the human (and Vulcan…and Edosian) spirit, the coloring book also taught lessons about living life NOW, not in some abstract future where everything is perfect. Would I have been happy with the job I did coloring the Phylosians or Captain Kirk holding a paring knife? No, of course not! No matter what decade it is, I am never satisfied with my artwork no matter what form it takes. But at least I would have had the pleasure of confronting the challenge and learning from it and moving on. Now it will forever be trapped in the past, uncolored (unless I somehow find the images online…or buy an adult Star Trek coloring book…or go to a website where you can color this online right this moment). Sigh…

What really worries me is whether I have actually learned this lesson or whether I am leaving the best part of life to be lived on a day which never arrives.

You could change course NOW though

Hubble space telescope.

Happy news to follow up on our somewhat glum Fourth of July post! The Hubble space telescope (which went offline on June 13th, 2021 due to a failure in the main computer) has fully rebooted and is once more humankind’s eye in the sky for observing the greater universe.

The telescope, which has been orbiting Earth for 30 years, can no longer be serviced by space shuttle crews and must now be fixed remotely by command staff at Godard Space Center in Maryland. Since the Hubble scope was was built in the 1980s, some of its technology is very old and esoteric. To repair the scope, NASA brought back alumni staffers who pored over 40 year old schematics with today’s engineers.

IT departments everywhere joke that the solution to all tech problems is to turn the system on and off, but the solution to Hubble’s problems was not nearly so simple (although, um, that was actually the solution…in a way).

First the NASA team believed a memory module was degrading and switched to other modules. When that did not work, they turned on Hubble’s backup payload computer (for the first time since Hubble was launched to space). Then they carefully turned components on and off to analyze potential faults in the the Command Unit/Science Data Formatter and the Power Control Unit. Although this sounds straightforward, it involved a carefully planned use of backup “safe mode” (from the backup computer) and a laborious process of switching circuits and interfaces.

As it turns out the power supply was at fault, but there is a backup of that too! Now the Hubble is taking pictures of the universe again (like this new picture immediately above–which was imaged since the space telescope returned from its near death glitch). Hurray for Hubble! Imagine how much astronomers will be able to accomplish when they have two space telescopes, assuming everything goes right with the James Webb telescope this autumn.

I have noticed that today’s social media feed (and even the actual media feed) is filled with people who are angry about billionaires going to space. Now there are lots of actual reasons to be quite angry about the existence of so many billionaires and their ever greater consumption of humankind’s limited resources! For example, I am furious at how easy it is to pour dark money into politics and buy up right-wing politicians without anybody finding out about it (or other politicians too, I guess…but apparently most oligarch money quietly goes to the right). Likewise, I am angry at how billionaires use their enormous wealth to skew markets. Such wealth is already a product of market tampering and political favoritism. Where you find billionaires you find monopolies, monopsonies, and cartels. You also find the attendant ills of price-fixing, regulatory capture, and strangled innovation.

Above all, where you find billionaires, you find graft. What is even the point of having so much money other than to convert it into power over courts, and police, and laws, and rules?

So billionaires (or really the status inequality which they represent) are a big problem…but that doesn’t seem to be what is making everyone angry about Branson, Musk, Bezos, et al. Instead on social media I find lots of variants of the tired old line “with so many problems here on Earth, how could you spend that money on space?” (although, in fairness, a close second was “how about they pay their taxes instead?” and that criticism is absolutely on point). A lot of people seem angry about “joyrides and stunts” from these plutocratonauts. It makes me worry that hatred of these creeps is transforming into more pushback against space exploration–and none of us can afford that!

Commercialization of space has a sort of dinosaur’s wing problem. Archaeopteryx obviously gleaned all sorts of advantages by flying around on stylish feathered wings, but how did evolution bridge the awkward gap between such gracile bird-like fliers and their ungainly forbears who just had flaps and pin feathers? There are irrefutable reasons for nation-states to pour money into space exploration (“confers military and technological dominance” jumps first to mind), but what entices entrepreneurs to try to scale such formidable barriers to entry? The first satellite provided the Soviet Union control of the heavens. The first space hotel will provide a way to die trying to use the toilet.

Perhaps this generation of space billionaires is the transitional flap which will someday develop into a functional wing (perhaps a more apt metaphor for this would involve the freewheeling early days of private aviation which involved all sorts of Lindbergs and Howard Hughes).

Also maybe spending this sort of money will actually provide some economic returns. When I get money, I spend it on catfood, beans, shoes, electricity, and internet. Billionaires don’t have a billion more cats than me or use a billion times more electricity, or need a billion more boots (and frankly, I doubt they even eat beans at all). Even with a dozen mansions, a super yacht, and a gulfstream (and a non-bean-based menu) spending simply does not keep up with capital accumulation–their money is hoarded. but money spent on space is actually spent here on Earth (on engineering, materials science, researchers, and other useful things)

Or we could just tax these guys properly and spend the money on scientifically useful space exploration (and medical research, and infrastructure, and fundamental R&D etc.). Yet for some reason, politicians don’t seem to be rushing to close loopholes and collect those taxes. For right now these ungainly space jaunts may be the best way towards actual meaningful space enterprise.

The Carina Nebula (a stellar nursery 8500 light years from Earth) as imaged by Hubble

The Fourth of July was on a perfect summer Sunday this year and we failed to celebrate with a gallery of images. Therefore, in a belated salute to our great-but-troubled union, here are some of the all-time best photographs taken from the Hubble Space telescope, the world’s premier orbital telescope, Hubble launched in April 24, 1990 and has provided an astonishing window on the universe since then (despite some glitches which have cropped up from time to time), however now both the main computer and the backup computer are malfunctioning.

The Beautiful Spiral Galaxy M51 (AKA “The Whirlpool Galaxy”)

Hubble was designed to be periodically serviced by a space shuttle and its friendly crew of astronauts, however, since the shuttles have been permanently retired, scientists are now stuck trying to fix the aging legacy systems from 400 kilometers away. Although there are various reset combinations left to try, some astronomers and technicians are starting to wonder if the Hubble era is coming to an end.

The crowded core of a giant star cluster as imaged by the Hubble Wide Field Camera 3

Although Hubble’s troubles are dominating space telescope news at the moment, it is no longer the only story. The long-delayed James Webb telescope is finally getting close to launching (blast-off is set for November). That scope is to Hubble, what Hubble was to its earth-bound predecessors (which is to say, it is orders of magnitude more powerful and sophisticated). We will be talking about Webb in November, but for right now let’s celebrate the warm summer nights with Hubble’s cosmic gallery of astonishing celestial fireworks.

The giant red nebula (NGC 2014) and its smaller blue neighbor (NGC 2020): The glowing center of the red nebula is a nursery of stars 10-20 times more massive than the sun. The blue nebula is a bubble of ionized hydrogen ejected by the super luminous blue star in the center.

Hi everyone! Sorry that the posts were thin on the ground last week. The head druid told me that I needed to honor the solstice by taking some time to reflect on the meaning of things [citation needed]. Anyway…since I didn’t blog last week, I failed to post these astonishing pictures of Jupiter’s giant moon Ganymede, which were photographed by NASA’s Juno spacecraft as it slaloms though the Jovian system.

Ganymede as imaged by NASA probe Juno

Although its lack of atmosphere and pockmarked plains of dust make it superficially resemble Earth’s moon, Gannymede is a very strange and unique heavenly object Of the 200 known moons in the solar system, it is the largest. Indeed it is 26% larger than the planet Mercury by volume (although it is only 45% as massive as the metalliferous first planet). Ganymede has a diameter of 5,268 km (3,273 mi), so each pixel in the full size image of the Jovian moon is equal to a kilometer (although you may want to check out the NASA image to really savor that scale–since WordPress has a noteworthy penchant for scrunching up my images in incomprehensible ways).

A photo of the dark side of Ganymede taken by Juno’s incredibly light sensitive navigational camera

Alone among moons in the solar system, Ganymede has a magnetic field, albeit a rather meager one compared to Earth or Jupiter. Scientists surmise that the magnetic field is created by convection within the liquid iron core of the moon–although answers are not forthcoming as to why it has a liquid iron core to begin with (these planetary cores seem to be the real determinant of what planets are like, but I feel like we know precious little about them). Thanks to its size (and maybe thanks also to its magnetosphere), Ganymede has a very thin oxygen atmosphere…but that just creates more question, since elemental Oxygen has a tendency to instantly bond to all sorts of other elements. The 20 percent or so of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere did not become a mainstay until about 1.5 billion years ago when photosynthesizing bacteria finally became so prevalent that they overcame the constant loss of atmospheric oxygen thanks to oxidation. Hopefully Juno’s survey will help us solve atmospheric mysteries on Ganymede. Ganymede is also believed to have a vast subsurface ocean of icy water tucked away somewehere beneath its surface. Astronomers have reasonably speculated that this Ganymede underworld ocean may contain more water than all of Earth’s oceans combined!

This is the largest version of this interesting cross section which I could find

Ganymede is a Galilean moon–which means it was discovered by the great scientist, and is one of the first objects ever discovered to orbiting another planet (I still sometimes imagine the thrill Galileo must have felt when he realized what he was seeing). I wonder what surprises Juno will send back for us!

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

January 2022