NASA awarded contracts to Boeing and SpaceX to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, ending U.S. dependence on the Russian Soyuz for transportation of humans (at $70 million a seat). It’s about time! It also makes clear the advantages of competition, which Elon’s company has restored. How interesting that SpaceX is being paid only a little more than half what Boeing will be paid, for the same number of crew/cargo deliveries. If Elon is trying to make a point… he is succeeding.
As a licensed cosmet… I mean cometologist, I find this truly exciting news: In early November, the Philae lander — currently tucked inside the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft — will drop down to the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Philae will make measurements while anchored to the comet by a harpoon. Scientists have just chosen Site J — located on the comet’s head for touchdown. Landing will be challenging: the surface of the 4 km double-lobed comet is jagged — with unpredictable outgassing jets that will become more active as the comet approaches the sun.
This cool online item visualizes Rosetta´s 10-year journey to explore a comet, with all important moments, current positions and also upcoming steps of the mission.
Upon approach to Comet 67P, Discovery.com reported: “A spacecraft chasing a comet in deep space has found that its target is surprisingly dark in color. Instead of arriving at a bright, reflective, ice-covered heavenly body, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe found that its target comet, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (or 67P/C-G), appears darker than charcoal…”
In fact, this is old news. When the Giotto spacecraft flew past Halley’s comet in 1986, there was “shock” that the dusty material was so dark. Though in fact we should have guessed, because other than water, a lot of material in the outer solar system is carbonaceous. At the time, my doctoral thesis on comets was new. It had predicted the dust layers, but not quite how dark they would be. In fact, that prediction was only made in one place, a sci fi novel called Heart of the Comet!
== Cosmets and the Red Planet! ==
Elsewhere in the solar system… MAVEN — the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN craft arrived at Mars on Sunday Sept 21. After a ten month journey, Maven begins its study of the Martian atmosphere. Scheduled to arrive two days later is Mangalyaan — or Mars Orbital Mission — India’s first interplanetary spacecraft. MOM? Seriously? As in Mars Needs Moms?
Ah… but then, few weeks later….
Comet Siding Spring is heading toward a close encounter with Mars on October 19. Planetary scientists were worried about cometary debris harming delicate instruments on Mars orbiting spacecraft while could in turn hurt our relays from the rovers. The latest assessment indicates there should be minimal danger. But I’ll be biting my nails, while eagerly peering at the science data!
==On to Pluto!==
NASA’s New Horizons probe was scheduled to cross the orbit of Neptune on Monday (Aug. 25), 25 years to the day after Voyager 2’s encounter. (Voyager was our only probe ever to visit Uranus and Neptune.) New Horizons is now streaking toward a flyby of Pluto on July 14, 2015 that should return the first good images at the distant dwarf planet and its moons.
Now Paul Schenk of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston has produced created the best-ever global color map of Neptune’s big moon Triton, by enhancing images taken by Voyager 2 probe during its flyby of Neptune and Triton, a generation ago.
(Alas “crossing the orbit” does not mean a flyby. There will be no Neptune science this time, from New Horizons.)
Trailers for scientific papers? Hollywood has borrowed relentlessly from science (occasionally even respectfully), so why not turnaround? Sean Carroll reports that some young physicists have created a truly fun and cool trailer that in one minute teases you to know a lot more than you did before… about superfields and super-gravity and inflation!
Yes, books have trailers too! Some of you have seen the amazing video preview-trailer for Existence, with incredible art by Patrick Farley!
How Rare is Intelligent Life? Just released: The Copernicus Complex: Our Cosmic Significance in a Universe of Planets and Probabilities by Caleb Scharf argues that Earth will still be special, even after all sorts of alien worlds are catalogued. Unlike Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee, who argued in Rare Earth that intelligent life on Earth relied on so many unlikely accidents that we are probably alone in the universe, Scharf doesn’t think it’s likely we’re entirely unique, just rare. See more articles on SETI.
NASA is expected to sponsor a contest to build better airships, breathing new life — and funding — into the idea. High-altitude airships are still in their relative infancy. None has ever flown at 65,000 feet for longer than eight hours. But a recent study from the Keck Institute for Space Studies at Caltech suggests that a more capable airship may not be far-off.
Mind you, we have been reading “revival of airships” stories for thirty years! But the technologies now seem especially ripe. See my own portrayal of the vibrant future of towed zeppelins in “The Smartest Mob.”
==Toward Titan and Mars==
See the Super Ball Bot: this flexible tensegrity-style robot can land with a bounce — and roll to explore planetary surfaces — funded by NASA’s Innovative and Advanced Concepts Group (NIAC). (I am on the external board of advisors for NIAC.) Researchers are considering Saturn’s moon Titan for the robot’s first mission.
Looking ahead: is it time to re-evaluate beamed power from space?
Read also about Elon Musk’s plans for a Mars colony — he calls Mars a serious fixer-upper.
Recommended: a look at the teams of scientists and engineers who designed, built, launched, landed, and now operate the Mars Rovers: Curiosity – An inside look at the Mars Rover Mission and the people who made it happen, by Rod Pyle. These individuals are the ones who keep pushing at the frontiers of exploration…
Finally: Um… didn’t I already do exactly this, in a novel? “NASA Announces Plans To Launch Chimpanzee Into Sun.” — from The Onion!