Amid all the fights to save civilization and the planet - and my own busiest time (professionally) ever - we could do to pause now and then and remember... we are still a magnificent, scientific and exploratory civilization! Before girding ourselves for those 'minutes of terror" as we root for the aptly named Perseverance rover to land safely on Mars, there are other reasons for confident satisfaction.
NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission to asteroid Bennu appears to have succeeded at collecting samples even better than expected, having penetrated as much as half a meter into the carbonaceous regolith and jammed itself full of material... even causing a minor problem, forcing scientists to stow the sampler into its return capsule early. Now, if the competence continues, we can keep doing stuff out where the riches are. And that is NOT the dusty, almost (for now) useless tourist trap called the Moon. (Leave that sandbox to the kiddies, please.)
And while we’re talking asteroids…
From The Planetary Society: " Hayabusa2’s samples from asteroid Ryugu will return to Earth on 6 December 2020, Japan’s space agency announced. The samples will land in southern Australia at the same military complex where the first Hayabusa spacecraft sent samples from asteroid Itokawa in 2010. Hayabusa2 itself will pass within 200 kilometers of Earth and fly on to visit another asteroid. Pictured: Hayabusa2 snapped this picture of Ryugu after collecting 1 of 2 samples in 2019. Hayabusa2's shadow can be seen, along with a dark splotch where the spacecraft's thrusters blew away lighter materials on Ryugu's surface."
THIS is what only Japan and the U.S. (with ESA) can do and we should be doing, while all the Apollo wannabe eager tourists rush to the dusty-useless lunar plain to plant footprints. (I got no problems renting them hotel rooms and landers and sending down robots to do science.) Asteroids are where quadrillions of dollars in wealth lie.
Meanwhile, plans develop for a 2022 launch of a robotic mission to 16-Psyche... (Psyche was made infamous on the show EXPANSE) … which is thought to be the metal core of a planet that died in collisions that formed the asteroid belt. Metal that – if crudely totaled by today’s prices (omitting market crashing discounts) would be worth $10 Quadrillions at today’s markets.
== There’s a Place for Us? ==
Are underground lava tubes the way of the future for colonization in Mars and the Moon? With lower gravity and less quake activity, it's estimated some may be cavernous enough to hold whole cities, offering protection from meteorites, cosmic rays and sections that can be sealed against vacuum. Not mentioned: these realms may be easier to clean vs the moon's jagged regolith dust and the caustic perchlorates of Mars. Those that are near ice deposits could be highly valuable. So who is ahead in the race to these sites?
We are, at NASA's Innovative and Advanced Concepts program (NIAC)! We've issued a Phase III study that should lead to a lander-bot that creeps to the edge of a "skylight" opening in such a tube, perhaps within a few years.
Now researchers estimate that Martian and lunar tubes are respectively 100 and 1,000 times wider than those on Earth, which typically have a diameter of 10 to 30 meters. Lower gravity and its effect on volcanism explain these outstanding dimensions (with total volumes exceeding 1 billion cubic meters on the Moon). “Tubes as wide as these can be longer than 40 kilometers, making the Moon an extraordinary target for subsurface exploration and potential settlement in the wide protected and stable environments of lava tubes.” Further: “Lava tubes could provide stable shields from cosmic and solar radiation and micrometeorite impacts which are often happening on the surfaces of planetary bodies. Moreover, they have great potential for providing an environment in which temperatures do not vary from day- to night-time.” Reminiscent of life in Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.
And now more news how the lava tubes on Mars and the Moon are considerably larger than here on Earth. Enough so future settlements or research outposts could be safely nestled away inside. Certainly any such tubes that are also near Martian sub-surface ice formations or adjacent to Lunar Polar ice deposits would be sweet spots and among the most valuable sites in the Solar System.
Then there’s Venus, a broiling, high pressure hell, down at the ground level. But my colleague Geoff Landis and others have speculated about a shell-level of the dense atmosphere where temperature and pressure (though not gas mixture) could be pleasant to Earth-type life, encouraging thoughts of balloon beings or steam-punk dirigibles and colonists getting about needing only face masks… AND NOW a stunning discovery of spectral signs of Phosphine gas - a molecule made up of one phosphorus atom and three hydrogen atoms - which on Earth is pretty much always (outie of certain factories) a sign of life!
Also underground! One of our Mars orbiters used radar to detect several of what seem likely to be lakes of hyper-saline perchlorate brines, “known to form at Martian polar regions and shown to survive for geologically significant periods of time at temperatures well below the freezing point.” Unhealthy stuff for any of us, but definitely plausible refuges for Martian life. If so, we can likely co-exist in careful colonies there, because ain’t no Earth-bugs gonna live in that stuff.
New research challenges the “warm and wet ancient Mars” hypothesis, which posits that Mars was once covered in massive river systems, fed by rain and large oceans of liquid water. Instead the “river tracks” we now see may have formed under sheets of ice.
== Planets out there? ==
UC Riverside astrobiologist Stephen Kane crunched the data and found that some stars could potentially host as many as seven Earth-like planets, so long as they don't have a Jupiter to screw things up. Already the Trappist-1 system is home to several Earth-like planets located in the star's habitable zone where liquid water could exist. Is that beginning to sound like the “Verse” system of copious colonized worlds in Firefly/Serenity?
95 newly discovered brown dwarf sub-stellar ‘planets” have been found by a smart mob of 100,000 amateurs. The finds are vastly colder than other known brown dwarfs — and are likely cool enough to have water-rich clouds like we do here on Earth. It’s not yet clear whether that’s important from an astrobiological perspective, but it does help scientists better understand these bizarre worlds.
== NASA & Space Tech ==
In a much-criticized tweet, US president (now former) Donald Trump claimed that “NASA was Closed & Dead [sic] until I got it going again.” The categorically false claim drew widespread ire from the space exploration community - NASA never “closed” and it was never dead. “In a searing reply on Twitter, veteran NASA astronaut Scott Kelly also entered the fray: “Great leaders take blame and pass along credit.”
The notion that the present miracle of commercial space development cannot be credited to 8 years of Obama administration efforts to goose and stimulate it is insane. Moreover, I am on record denouncing the loony notion that the US should focus on returning American footprints to the dusty and (for now) useless moon, rather than joining Japan heading where the real wealth is, in asteroids. And yet –
-- and yet, I do feel that NASA Director Bridenstine - a Trump appointee - has been surprisingly sensible, curious and willing to listen and learn. In fact, I nominate him as one of the few GOP officials who might serve as holdover gestures to bipartisanship.
The Blue Origin-led Human Landing System (HLS) National Team just delivered to NASA a full-scale prototype of a lander that could one day carry American astronauts to the surface of the Moon. Terrific, but not in the way meant here. As you know, I oppose any frantic effort to return US astronauts to that dusty, useless, nasty plain. Yes to robots! And yes HUMANITY will return there soon, since China, India, Russia and the rest are eager for their rite of passage “Bar Moonzvahs.” Tourism will be the economic driver and US companies should prepare to cater to it! Make money on landers for tourists, yeah! But NASA should lift its gaze to do (with Japan and Europe) things that others can’t do.
As you’d expect, I love these new, improved images of the granular photosphere of the Sun.
Finally… One of the better recent SMBC comics.