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What with all of the holiday excitement, we have failed to compliment the Chinese Space Program on their successful lunar landing.  On January 3rd, 2019, the Chang’e IV spacecraft landed on the South Pole-Aitken Basin, on the far side of the Moon, and deployed the Yutu-2 Rover.  Here is a stunning photo taken by the rover as it began its explorations of the lunar surface.  The spacecraft is, of course, named after the beautiful and sad Chinese moon goddess, Chang’e.
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To quote the Smithsonian magazine, “[the Chinese lander will] collect mineral and geological samples of the moon’s surface as well as investigate the impact of solar wind on the moon. The craft even has its own little farm, or lunar biosphere, aboard—the first of its kind.”  This miniature ecosystem consists of some potatoes, a few Arabidopsis plants (this is a hardy and universally known laboratory plant), and some living silkworm eggs in a special 3-kilogram (6.6-pound) aluminum terrarium (or lunarium?).
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I realized as I write this that I don’t even know the Chinese Space Agency’s name.  It turns out it is the Chinese National Space Administration “CNSA.” Their logo, immediately above, is a flying blue chevron with, I don’t know, blue wheat, or something–it looks like somebody mimeographed the Federation logo.  But who cares about their logo? [cough, Chinese space administrators, you could hire a graphic artist to make a space phoenix, a rocket tiger, or galactic dragon or something for about ¥150.00 and outshine everyone before you even leave the pad].  The CNSA are now doing things which have never been done.  This is the first landing on the dark side of the moon (which is not really dark, but which goes by that conceit since the moon is tidally locked).
United States triumphalism over our amazing moon program has obscured the fact that the first moon landing happened 50 years ago.  Nobody has been on the moon during my lifetime, and I am not young.  NASA has responded to budget cuts and whiplash conflicting demands from different presidential administrations by concentrating on robot probes of the unknown edges of the solar system. That is smart, practical, and amazing.  Yet some of the thrill and prestige that NASA had even during its silver age in the eighties and nineties is now wearing away.
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Of course America doesn’t even really have a functioning government right now, so perhaps it is better that we have decided to abandon our own bright dreams of moon bases and Mars missions…but it saddens me that we are so politically deadlocked that we are not pushing harder to explore and build in space.  All day, every day, billionaires tell us how scarce resources are and how much better the private sector is at allocating these precious resources (to super yachts, offshore bank accounts, and regulatory capture, apparently).  Well, resources are not scarce in space.  There is infinite real estate.  There are whole planets worth of matter.   There are wells of energy which create all of the energy humankind has ever used throughout all of our history within a picosecond.  Hopefully the brand new accomplishments of CNSA will remind the American people of our true nature–as scientists, explorers, and visionaries.  However if we are too fixated on the crimes and inanities of Individual Number 1 to pay attention to the universe, maybe the Chinese can build a floating colony on Venus.  I, for one, am looking forward to seeing what they have planned next.

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There have been some stories bouncing around the world media lately which are highly germane to past Ferrebeekeeper posts (and to some bigger topics too).  We’ll get to them one at a time this week, but let’s start with the most exciting news:  today (11/26/18) NASA’s InSight lander touched down successfully on Mars at 2:47 PM Eastern Time.   The craft is the eighth human-made craft to successfully touch down on the red planet. It’s unwieldy name is a trademark agonizing NASA acronym which stands for “Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport.”  To put this in more comprehensible (yet less correct) terms, the lander is a geophysics probe which will examine the interior of the planet.  Of course InSight isn’t really geophysics since it is not studying Earth, but saying “astrophysics” misleads one from the lander’s core mission of assessing Mars’ internal composition and structure.

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The landing was a marvel of aerospace engineering since, in the span of about 6 and a half minutes, the craft was forced to slow from 17,300 kph (10,750 mph) to 8 kph (5 mph). Coincidentally, this was the first interplanetary mission to launch from California…from Vandenberg Air Force Base, where my paternal grandfather used to paint rockets back in the 1950s and 60s! Speaking of which, as always, I am taken aback by the extent to which our interplanetary probes resemble retro UFOs from 1950s science fiction.

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The craft landed on Elysium Planitia an enormous featureless plain famous for its dullness.  You may think “why didn’t they just send the poor thing to Kansas?” but since the craft is designed to examine the interior of Mars, its landing sight was not important (except to make sure the lander arrived in one piece).

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Now that the probe has finally reached its destination, it will begin to utilize a sophisticated array of instruments including a seismic wave reader, a subterranean infrared reader to monitor heat escaping Mars, and a sophisticated radio array to monitor the planet’s core (among other tools).

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It is easy to lose track of the many amazing Martian discoveries being made by robot explorers, but InSight strikes me as truly important since it offers to answer one of the most important question about Mars–how did it go from being a volcanically active world with oceans and an Earthlike atmosphere to being an inactive, desolate desert?  We’ll keep you posted as discoveries (insights?) come rolling in, but, for now, congratulations NASA!

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Congratulations to the Japanese Space Agency!   On Friday morning (EST) the Japanese space probe Hayabusa2 dropped two adorable little hopping rover bots (“hoppers”? “hop-overs”? “hop-bots”? um, we’ll work on it…) onto the surface of Asteroid Ryugu. The spacecraft arrived at the near-Earth asteroid back in June when the sort-of-octahedral space rock was passing near to our home planet.  The twin “MinervaII” probes (“Micro Nano Experimental Robot Vehicle for Asteroid”) are 18 centimeter (7 inch) disks which weigh 1.1 kilograms (2.4 pounds) each.  Making use of the asteroid’s exceedingly low gravity, the tiny robots will hop to their location and deliver readings about the composition of the ancient icy rock, which will hopefully provide insight into the formation of the solar system.  Additionally, more stirring action is on the way in October when Hayabusa II will deliver a larger lander (named Mascot!) and then a third Minerva lander.  This flurry of activity is in preparation to collect asteroid material which will be returned to Earth!

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Hopefully….the MinervaII probes are (unsurprisingly) the second in a line of Minerva probes.  The first Minerva hopping robot met an inglorious fate during the first Hayabusa mission to the asteroid Itokawa in 2005.  That (smaller) Minerva rover was deployed a bit early and hopped ignominiously into the void of space.  Sadly I don’t have pictures, but imagine a hockey puck falling into infinite blackness.

I will follow up with more news about this mission as it becomes available, but for now let us celebrate!

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Last week I meant to include an elegiac post to Rosetta, an astonishing space mission, which stretched out over a dozen years and logged 4.9 billion miles of travel.  Rosetta was launched way back in 2004.  It was originally supposed to rendezvous with comet 46P/Wirtanen in 2011, but problems with the launch in Guyana caused the probe to miss the launch window for the primary mission.  The ESA changed the mission parameters so that the spacecraft ended up exploring Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko instead (this second comet was functionally the same as the first—except for a much more difficult-to-say name). During its journey to the comet, Rosetta also flew by Mars and two asteroids.  After flying by Mars in February of 2007, the craft flew by Earth in November of 2007.  It caused a miniature panic when astronomers of the Catalina sky survey spotted it and misidentified it as a 20 meter near-Earth asteroid on a possible collision path with Earth!

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The spacecraft arrived at  Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko in August of 2014 and the most famous…and infamous…part of the mission took place in November of that same year, when Rosetta launched the Philae lander to harpoon itself to the comet.  Although Philae (which was named after a Rosetta-like obelisk with the same text in Greek and Egyptian) succeeded in landing and not bouncing off into the void, sadly the little lander came down in a miserable crevasse.  Scientists intimately studied pictures of the comet (from Rosetta) until they found the lander in the icy chaos.  It was a pretty ghastly scene which reminded me of my sock drawer (if it were dropped from space onto Tungnafellsjökull glacier).

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(See it there at bottom right?)

Rosetta’s long and mostly successful mission came to an end last Friday in a truly operatic fashion. Mission controllers chose to use the last vestiges of power to smash the orbiter into the comet! Well, although I am saying “smashed” what actually happened was more like a grandmother walking into a snowbank.  The lander was lowered onto the comet at about one mile per hour. Except, despite the fact that Rosetta traveled more than 5 billion miles (“uphill both ways”) it was not designed for landing and its last communication was a photo just above the comet surface.  RIP Rosetta, you were one good probe!

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Congratulations to the European Space Agency for successfully landing the robot probe “Philae” on comet 67P!  The lander, which is about the size of a washing machine, made a soft touch-down on the comet at 3:30 a.m. Brooklyn time. The comet itself has a diameter of four kilometers (2.5 miles) meaning it is approximately as wide as the Verrazano Bridge is long.  To bring such objects together as they hurtle at ridiculous speeds through the vast darkness of space is a tremendous feat of engineering.  Ferrebeekeeper described the long and complex journey of Philae’s mothership, Rosetta, in this previous post.

An artist's mock-up of how the probe might look on the comet's surface (the underdressed astrophysicist is added for scale and is presumably not there)

An artist’s mock-up of how the probe might look on the comet’s surface (the underdressed astrophysicist is added for scale and is presumably not there)

Philae is equipped with space harpoons which are designed to fire into the comet’s surface–thus securing the craft to the flying iceball with lamprey-like tenacity. Actually, a lamprey might be the wrong comparison: the lander looks astonishingly like a bacteriophage (a fact which I think is exceedingly strange and funny). At any rate, it is presently unclear whether the landing harpoons correctly deployed into the comet’s surface.  We’ll know more in coming days.

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Indeed, in coming days we should be finding out lots of things regarding the comet.  The lander has a small drill which is meant to mine 20 cm (8 inches) into the icy substrate.  The sophisticated machine is also equipped with devices to analyze the core sample, gas analyzers to identify any complex organic compounds, and instruments to measure the comet’s magnetic field.   Scientists will be keeping a close eye on the comet to see what effect the solar wind has on it as 67P sweeps in close to the sun in coming months.

ayiomamitis_mcnaught2009r1November 13th UPDATE:  It seems the plucky lander had a more adventuresome landing than yesterday’s rosy headlines may have indicated.  Apparently Philae landed not once, but multiple times as it bounced down a cliff and fetched up (on two of three legs) in a shadow.  Mission controllers are contemplating whether to fire the landing harpoons, but are concerned that the resultant explosion could send Philae careening off the comet into the outer dark.  Anyone who has thrown a washing machine down an ice cliff in low gravity will surely sympathize with their predicament…

An Artist's Rendering of Rosetta Approaching the Comet (ESA)

An Artist’s Rendering of Rosetta Approaching the Comet (ESA)

Today a winter snow storm has transformed Brooklyn into a huge ice ball–at least metaphorically speaking–but the weather will surely improve.  Home will not be a ball of ice forever.  The same cannot be said for the Philae robotic lander which is currently aboard the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft (which, in turn, is currently in outer space returning to the inner solar system after 31 months in the dark cold outer solar system).  If all goes according to plan, the Rosetta spacecraft will enter a slow orbit around comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko in May of 2014.  Once the space probe is in orbit around the comet, it will (eventually) fire the Philae probe onto the comet itself.  Philae is equipped with space harpoons to latch on to the comet’s surface and cling to the hurtling slushball.  Once there, the little robot lander will assay the comet with its drill and ten onboard sensors in order to learn more about the birth of the solar system–when the comet (probably) came into existence.

An artist's rendering of Philae Making a Soft Landing on the Comet this coming November (ESA)

An artist’s rendering of Philae Making a Soft Landing on the Comet this coming November (ESA)

There are many remarkable aspects to this astonishing mission (which launched a decade ago), but one of the most harrowing periods just ended.  Because the spacecraft is powered by solar panels, it did not receive sufficient energy to operate during its long sojourn through the outer solar system.  For two-and-a-half years, the mission controllers in Darmstadt, Germany have been in suspense waiting to see if Rosetta had survived being all but shut down (because of a last-minute mission rewrite, the craft was not designed for any such suspended animation).  Yesterday the spaceship woke up and radioed back to Earth!  The mission is on!  I can hardly wait for May (for multiple reasons).

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China’s "Moon Rabbit" lunar rover separates from Chang’e moon lander (image from Beijing Aerospace Control Center)

China’s “Moon Rabbit” lunar rover separates from Chang’e moon lander (image from Beijing Aerospace Control Center)

It is time to congratulate the Chinese space agency for landing a probe and rover on the moon. The landing was the first “soft landing” (where no equipment is damaged) on the lunar surface in 37 years—so I am also happy that humankind is back on its nearest neighbor.  The Chang’e lunar lander touched down on the Bay of Rainbows on Saturday Morning, December 14th (at least in EST).  The Jade Rabbit rover successfully drove out onto the arid dust of the flat “bay” a few hours later.  Hopefully the Chinese mission will continue to go successfully and the Chinese Space Agency will continue to launch ambitious space missions.  With a command economy and authoritarian government, the People’s Republic could pour money into aerospace science and quickly push space exploration forward–much in the way that the Soviet Union did back in the glory days of the space race.  Such a challenge would be good for international science, and it would be good to remind our worthless legislators here in the United States to work together to properly fund science, research, and development.

Chang'e

Chang’e

Chang’e is named after the goddess of the moon in classical Chinese myth, but her story is sad and ambiguous.  It is a tale open to several different interpretations (which I will write about, but not now). The moon rabbit, also known as the jade rabbit was originally a pet of the lonely moon goddess, however because his story is far less tragic than hers (and because he is a lovable trickster-rabbit), he has become a figure of immense popularity.  According to myth he is an apothecary who grinds medicines, spells, and immortality elixirs on behalf of the gods (and for himself–because what trickster doesn’t skim a little?).

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The jade rabbit shows up everywhere in Chinese myth and culture.  He even pops in for cameos in some of the great works of Chinese literature (for example, he is the final antagonist in “Journey to the West” wherein the heroes discover him masquerading as the princess of India!).  More importantly, in East Asia, it is believed that the stains of the moon are the image of the jade rabbit. Although I have never been able to see the “man on the moon”, the jade rabbit is always there on a bright full moon.  I am glad the Chinese space agency named their space probe after this master apothecary and superb trickster!

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An optimistic artist's conception of lunar farming

An optimistic artist’s conception of lunar farming

Earth is the only known home of life.  For all of humankind’s aspirations and ambitions, we have only succeeded in walking on one other celestial body and putting a few people, rats, and ant colonies in some leaky tin cans in low Earth orbit (I’m sorry to be so brutally honest about Skylab, Mir, and ISS). This is deeply troubling since I believe humankind can only survive and redeem itself by moving into the heavens (although some of my cynical friends worry that we will only be exporting humankind’s problems and appetites wherever we go).  Whatever the case, we are not moving very quickly towards the skies.  Political gridlock, greed, and a lack of engineering and imagination have kept us from making any real progress at space-steading.   So far we have proven to be maladroit stewards who are incapable of bearing life’s luminous seed into space (although we are amassing a nifty robot fleet around the solar system, and, despite our many flaws, we keep learning).

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This is why I was so excited to see the most recent space exploration news:  NASA recently announced that they are teaming up with the mad moguls of Google in a project to grow crops on the moon!  The space agency is constructing a tiny (approximately 1 kilogram) capsule to grow a handful of plants on the lunar surface.  The little growth capsule with its cargo of air water and seeds will be dropped off on the moon by the Moon Express (a lunar vehicle built by Google in hopes of obtaining the lunar X Prize).

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The initial project will not exactly provide much produce for a lunar greengrocer.  An online article by James Plafke describes the contents of the lunar garden canister, “Currently, the chamber can support 10 basil seeds, 10 turnip seeds, and around 100 Arabidopsis seeds. It also holds the bit of water that initiates the germination process, and uses the natural sunlight that reaches the moon to support the plant life.”

The Moon Farmer from Futurama

The Moon Farmer from Futurama

Arabidopsis is not exactly a favorite at the supermarket, but it was the first plant to be genetically sequenced and it is used in biology labs everywhere as a model organism.  In a pinch though, the basil and turnips might be good for some sort of impromptu Italian farm-style dish.  NASA will monitor the seed growth and development from Earth with an eye on how lunar gravity and radiation levels impact the germinating seeds and the growing plants.  Admittedly the microfarm is a small step towards colonies beyond Earth, but at least it is a step (and frankly the beginnings of agriculture here on Earth were similarly small and incremental).  Or, who knows? Maybe the turnips will climb out of the canister and start dragging their knuckles along the lunar plains and throwing rocks at the Chinese landers.

You never know where science will take you

You never know where science will take you

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