Mercury is boring

Welcome to THE SPACE KNOWER, a roundup of space news for people who don't have time to read space news. Got questions, comments, or tips? Email us at rocketgut@gmail.com.

 Artist’s rendering of BepiColombo approaching boring planet Mercury. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab/NASA/JPL

Artist’s rendering of BepiColombo approaching boring planet Mercury. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab/NASA/JPL

Last Friday, the joint European-Japanese spacecraft BepiColombo launched to Mercury. The mission is named after Giuseppe "Bepi" Colombo, the Italian mathematician who helped figure out how to send NASA's Mariner mission to Mercury in the 1970s. BepiColombo will spend a few years studying Mercury to learn more about the origin and history of the solar system.

I'm going to enjoy watching BepiColombo's pictures roll in, especially because it's flying past Earth and Venus on the way. But to be honest, I find Mercury itself a little boring. What's the one fact most people know about it? That it's close to the sun. Not how big it is (1.4 times as big as the moon), what color it is (grey-brown), or what its notable features are (weird sunken spots called hollows). Just its location.

Mercury looks like our moon, but not the interesting side we see from Earth with all the dark maria regions; I'm talking about the bland, crater-ridden back side. And even though Mercury is closest to the sun, it’s not even the hottest planet! Venus gets that honor because its clouds trap in the heat.

There are plenty of Mercury defenders out there, and I fully expect BIG INNER PLANET to come at me for this take. Even my ROCKETGUT! co-creator, Porter McDonald, came out strong in favor of Mercury. He cited the planet's permanently shadowed craters, which have water ice, and noted that while he can’t even keep a beer cold at the beach, Mercury is able to get as close as 58 million kilometers to the sun while maintaining frosty conditions in its polar craters.

Anyway, I'm happy that BepiColombo is safely on its way to Mercury. Also, my six-year-old daughter enjoyed watching Friday night's launch, mainly because she thought the countdown in French was pretty neat.

About that Soyuz accident...

Earlier this month, a Soyuz rocket carrying a NASA astronaut and Russian cosmonaut to the International Space Station failed shortly after liftoff. Fortunately, the abort system, which consists of separate solid rocket motors near the crew capsule, worked as designed and pulled the crew to safety. The capsule deployed its parachutes just like it was coming home from space for a normal landing, and touched down 400 kilometers northwest of the launch pad.

 The moment things went awry during the Soyuz launch. NASA / Bill Ingalls

The moment things went awry during the Soyuz launch. NASA / Bill Ingalls

The question is, what went wrong? According to Russian media reports, one of the rocket's side boosters may have been installed incorrectly. From SpaceNews:

"... a mounting lug was bent when the side booster was “forcefully connected” to the core stage, and that workers then added lubricant to ensure that it would separate. However, during separation, that side booster hit the core stage and damaged it, leading to the launch abort."

Ouch. The good news is that there may not have been a problem with the rocket itself. The bad news is that some rocket technicians apparently behaved the way I do during household repairs.

As I've reported before, Russia's rocket problems can be traced to a chronic lack of funding for both education and the space program at a time when the country's population is declining. Put simply, there haven't been enough bright young rocket scientists to replace the old guard since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Having identified the problem, Russia is already preparing to launch a fresh Soyuz — this one is just a cargo ship, fortunately — and crewed flights could resume at the end of this year.

The Goblin

Just in time for Halloween, here's some frighteningly cool news: Astronomers have found a distant dwarf planet they've nicknamed The Goblin (just for fun, apparently). It's a 300-kilometer-wide object with an extremely elliptical orbit that carries it between 65 and 2,300 AUs from the sun. One AU, or astronomical unit, is equal to the distance between Earth and the sun. For context, Pluto’s orbit ranges between 30 and 50 AUs.


 No but seriously, look at that orbit compared to the rest of our solar system, on the right.

No but seriously, look at that orbit compared to the rest of our solar system, on the right.

Astronomers found The Goblin while searching for Planet X, a hypothetical Neptune-sized world on the edges of the solar system. Based on the orbits of distant objects like The Goblin, we think Planet X probably exists, but we haven't found it yet.

That's it for this episode of THE SPACE KNOWER. Got questions, comments, or tips for us? Email us at rocketgut@gmail.com.

SPACE KNOWERJason Daviss2