Giant Space Sponge Threatens Earth and Other Space Exploration News
It’s getting harder to write about the wars in the Middle East since all the parties involved seem to get more detached from reality and sanity every day as they try to think of new and ingenious ways to slaughter people and blame it on their opponents. Not a good thing, especially for the poor folks who have to live in that part of the world. So I’m taking a break and writing a space exploration update. Yay! Lot’s of good stuff going on in that front…
There’s a huge dust storm under way on Mars. Every decade or two there appears to be a dust storm on Mars that covers much of the planet, and a record one is under way now. Why a dust storm would grow so big is anyone’s guess, but it has and that’s that. Unfortunately this endangers the Spirit and Opportunity rovers that are still going strong years beyond their planned life expectancy. This is because the dust blocks out the sun directly by coating their solar panels with dust, and indirectly by just filling the sky with sunlight blocking dust. If the rovers run out of power they will basically die because it gets so cold at night that electronic components will break if not kept warm by battery power during the night. NASA hasn’t completely lost hope yet, but a lot of fingers are crossed.
If the dust storms persist they could also cause problems for the Phoenix mission, which is scheduled to launch in August. That however is unlikely, because the storms usually don’t persist that long, and the lander is going to land at one of the poles which are usually not effected by dust storms. The Phoenix mission will land next May if all goes well, it is a low budget lander basically cobbled together out of spare parts and components from previously cancelled missions. It will land in the icy north and dig trenches a yard deep or more and analyze the soil and ice for organic components. This won’t be as cool as the rovers now wandering around, but it certainly has exciting scientific potential. Sooner or later I think they will find microbes on Mars, this could be the time.
Speaking of the search for alien life, a new report has come out urging NASA to look for exotic life in exotic places. The idea is that alien life may not be like Earth life, and may exist in environments where Earth life can’t. They suggested Saturn’s Moons Titan and Enceladus for starters, and possibly even Venus. Who knows what is out there, but we need to be careful to not overlook life simply because it isn’t what we normally think of as life. No missions are planned yet, but it takes a long time for a space mission to go from concept to actualization, and this is a good start.
Another mission that will be launching soon is the Dawn Mission, to explore two asteroids. While there have been some previous asteroid missions, this one will explore the two largest asteroids, Ceres and Vesta. Ceres at nearly 900 km (600 miles) across is almost spherical and is actually now classed as a dwarf planet. (Since it was discovered in the 19th century it has been classed as a planet, then an asteroid, and now a dwarf planet.) Ceres appears to be covered with ice and possibly even liquid water (under the ice of course) many miles thick, a world ocean with more water than all the fresh water on Earth. Ceres seems to have a tenuous atmosphere and may be as warm as -40C on the surface. That’s actually remarkably warm, I’ve been out in -40C weather on Earth. (For the Americans, -40C equals…-40F. hehe.) Vesta appears to have been reshaped by volcanic activity, which is interesting for an object so small, about 500 km (300 miles) across. Vesta is the only asteroid visible from Earth with the naked eye, although under exceptional conditions Ceres may also be visible. Chunks of Vesta have actually been blasted to Earth by impacts, so it is the most well studied asteroid.
The Cassini Mission to Saturn has returned new images of the bizarre Moon Hyperion, pictured above. (a large version can be viewed here.) It looks like a giant sponge, no other solar system body looks anything like it. No one really knows why, on other objects craters get smoothed over but on Hyperion they seem to persist. The best guess is that the surface is so spongy that impacts just make holes without kicking up any dust or debris that would settle on and obscure earlier craters. Hyperion is very bright on the surface but the bottom of the craters appear to be dark, what this dark material is is anyone’s guess. The surface appears to be made of ice and carbon compounds, making it a very unusual Moon indeed. It may very well be an agglomeration of leftover debris from the very earliest days of the solar system, obviously scientists will be studying it as much as they can in the years to come.
And in a final odd bit of news, NASA has purchased a toilet for the International Space Station from the Russians. For a cool nineteen million dollars! That may sound insane but it’s apparently a bargain compared to designing one from scratch. This is because with a little bit of thought, one realizes that going to the bathroom in a weightless environment is a bit tricky. Without gravity to, um, pull the waste matter away from you…it gets kind of messy. Currently it takes about an hour to go to the bathroom in space. The new toilet will afford privacy as well, apparently that is currently lacking on the space station as well. I’m not sure exactly how it works, but the astronauts will basically strap themselves in place and the toilet will suck the waste matter away. So much for the romance of space exploration. It could be and was worse once though. For the Apollo missions to the Moon they used a different system. They wore special diapers that absorbed solids as well as liquids. For days. Yuck. They didn’t show that in The Right Stuff.
(The above NASA image is legally reproduced according to NASA guidelines and may be freely copied as long as it isn’t used commercially to imply that NASA is endorsing a product or service.)