Let's bring home a piece of this asteroid

LIVE as of 17 minutes ago, when this broadcast left an asteroid traveling at the speed of light, it’s the SPACE KNOWER! I’m your host, Scoop Davis.

Each episode, our spaceship, the SPACE KNOWER, travels around the solar system collecting space news. Today, our journey begins at asteroid Ryugu, where a Japanese spacecraft named Hayabusa2 arrived from Earth back in June. In October, Hayabusa2 will try to collect a sample of dust and rock from the surface, which it will bring back to Earth in 2020.

(There's no space between the word Hayabusa and the number 2, by the way. The SPACE KNOWER knows these things.)

Here's Ryugu rotating:

  JAXA, University Tokyo, Koichi University, Rikkyo University, Nagoya University, Chiba Institute of Technology, Meiji University, University of Aizu, AIST /    Animation by Roman Tkachenko

JAXA, University Tokyo, Koichi University, Rikkyo University, Nagoya University, Chiba Institute of Technology, Meiji University, University of Aizu, AIST / Animation by Roman Tkachenko

The asteroid is just a kilometer wide in the middle — you could hike around it! Unfortunately the gravity there is so weak, you could also jump right off the surface and tumble into deep space, so we wouldn't recommend it.

Moving on! The SPACE KNOWER has left Ryugu for Mars, where a global dust storm still covers the planet. Here's what Mars normally looks like, on the left, next to what it looks like now, on the right:

  NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS

NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS

This is bad news for NASA's Opportunity rover, which is solar powered. When the dust storm blotted out the sun, Oppy shut down, and we haven't heard from it since June 10.

The storm is finally dissipating, but it may be too late. Oppy's solar panels are likely caked with dust, its batteries might have degraded, and without heaters, the rover's critical components may have broken in the cold. NASA is going to try and contact the rover for 45 days after dust levels drop. If they don't hear back, they'll listen for a few more months before declaring the mission over.

Oppy has been faithfully doing science on the Mars for 15 years. It was only supposed to last 90 days! If this is the end, it leaves behind quite a legacy, and NASA still has the nuclear-powered Curiosity rover in action. Another Curiosity-sized rover lands in 2020.

Okay, buckle your harnesses, because the SPACE KNOWER is heading back to Earth!

First, let's stop at the International Space Station, where last week, something punched a tiny, 2-millimeter-wide hole in one of the Russian Soyuz spacecraft attached to the station. Air levels dropped slightly, but the crew was never in any danger. They plugged the hole with gauze and epoxy. For real.

At first, it was believed the hole was caused by space junk or a micrometeoroid, which shows you how serious that stuff can be to spacecraft. Things have to go incredibly fast to orbit the Earth; in the space station's case, about 7.7 kilometers per second. At those speeds, even getting hit with a fleck of paint can be like getting hit by a bullet.

But now, there's a twist! Russian officials are saying the damage was caused from inside the spacecraft — possibly a drill bit. They're investigating whether it happened on the ground or in space, and have even gone so far as to imply sabotage. There's a CONSPIRACY afoot!

Alright, time to land. Let's set the SPACE KNOWER down in Washington, D.C., which is abuzz with the news that President Trump wants to create a new branch of the military called the Space Force.

Right now, space stuff is mostly handled by the Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office. Pro-Space Force people think consolidating everything into a new military branch will make things more efficient. Others whine that the Air Force prioritizes planes over spacecraft, which is bad because China and Russia may be developing anti-satellite weapons. Military hawks constantly warn we're on the cusp of a space war where everyone is jamming everyone else's GPS satellites.

Will the Space Force become an shadowy, unaccountable branch of the military that carries out clandestine operations against foreign governments? Probably! But don't worry, the National Reconnaissance Office is already kinda like that. Check out this creepy-as-hell mission patch for one of their spy satellites launched back in 2013:

  National Reconnaissance Office

National Reconnaissance Office

A lot of this Space Force stuff comes down to power and money. Trump didn't just come up with the idea on his own; lobbyists and politicians with ties to the aerospace industry have wanted this for a long time.

And don't worry about nukes and troops in orbit—that’s prohibited by the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. Though, who knows, maybe Trump thinks that was a bad deal, like the Iran nuclear deal, NAFTA, NATO, and pretty much every other international deal in place prior to him taking office.

Let's fire up the SPACE KNOWER's engines and head to our last stop: Johnson Space Center, in Houston, Texas!

NASA recently introduced the first batch of astronauts who will fly from American soil since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011. Next year, they'll fly on spacecraft owned and operated by Boeing and SpaceX. Here are the first two crews:

  NASA / Robert Markowitz

NASA / Robert Markowitz

After the shuttle retired, NASA gave private companies subsidies to build their own spacecraft, and in turn agreed to purchase crew and cargo flights to the International Space Station from those companies. The idea was that this would lower costs and help spur a commercial space market.

That's kind of worked: SpaceX shook up the American aerospace industry by figuring out how to fly its rockets back to Earth rather than throwing them in the ocean. But the whole point of this was to get NASA flying its own astronauts again, instead of relying on Russia, so next year will be the moment we've all been waiting for.

That's all for this episode of the SPACE KNOWER. If you have any questions or topics for a future episode, send them to us at rocketgut@gmail.com. And if you liked the SPACE KNOWER, please share it on social media, or grab a pack of stickers from our store! Thanks!