Please buy me these orange NASA sneakers
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last week, Vans released a new line of retro space shoes, shirts, and bags as part of their Space Voyager collection to honor NASA's 60th birthday. There are moon boot-ish shoes, a hoodie commemorating the Voyager missions, and — my personal favorite — a pair of orange low-tops in the same shade as the flight suits worn by space shuttle astronauts. Check them out:
They’re pretty cool! I dig the American flag velcro patches on the back, the "shuttle mission” tongue tags, and the agency's old-school "worm" logo, which was retired in 1992.
Unfortunately, the shoes are already sold out in most womens' and mens' sizes. No doubt BIG SHOE planned this from the beginning in order to fleece consumers, forcing them to turn to eBay, where my size-twelve kicks are going for $150. That's insane, because as soon as I put them on, my 6-year-old will charge into the room to tell me something and accidentally step on them. I swear she has a sixth sense that alerts her whenever I'm pleased with my appearance so she can pull on my shirt, ruffle my hair, or knee me in the groin. Kids are a delight.
SPACE PROBE FUNERALS
NASA lost two veteran spacecraft last week: the Kepler space telescope, which searched for planets around other stars, and Dawn, an asteroid belt explorer. Both spacecraft lasted far beyond their expected lifetimes, but ultimately ran out of the precious fuel needed to point themselves back at Earth to transmit data.
When Kepler launched in 2009, scientists had confirmed the existence of 340 exoplanets. Now we know of about 3,800, 70 percent of which were found using Kepler observations. Based on Kepler statistics, scientists believe there are more planets than stars in our galaxy.
If you can imagine a planet, Kepler has probably found one like it. I made a Twitter thread that runs through some of Kepler's greatest hits:
Dawn, on the other hand, explored the cosmos much closer to home, visiting asteroid belt worlds Vesta in 2011 and 2012 and Ceres from 2015 until now. I call them asteroid belt "worlds" because it's a misconception that the belt is just a bunch of rocks tumbling around; in reality, the rocks are spaced very far apart so that you wouldn't be able to see one while standing on another (except in the case of binary asteroids that orbit each other).
They also vary in size dramatically, from what are essentially small boulders and loose rubble piles all the way up to Ceres, which at 950 kilometers wide is technically a dwarf planet. Vesta, the second-largest asteroid belt world, is just 525 kilometers wide and not as spherical, so it gets labeled an asteroid (though not all scientists agree with that).
Before Dawn, it was dark for Vesta and Ceres, so to speak; the two worlds were only blurry splotches of light, even through our best telescopes. Now, they are real places.
One of Dawn’s big discoveries was that Vesta and Ceres are very different. Vesta is bone-dry, whereas Ceres has a lot of water. That means Ceres likely formed farther out in the solar system, lending more credence to the theory that planets were migrating all over the place in the Sun's early days.
Speaking of Ceres, I just finished watching season two of The Expanse, which is the best sci-fi show I’ve seen in years (including Battlestar Galactica, come at me). I love how the show’s major settings aren’t just obvious places like Earth and Mars; worlds like Ceres play equally important roles and are shown using real NASA imagery. SyFy, which initially produced the show prior to its cancellation and revival by Amazon, even teamed up with NASA to make some cool videos about the show:
Seriously, watch The Expanse — here’s a season one trailer that doesn’t spoil anything if you need convincing. (And Clutch lead singer Neil Fallon, who we recently interviewed, vouches for the books!)
Tuesday was Election Day here in America. The Democrats took control of the House of Representatives by winning back a bunch of seats held by Republicans. The results from several of those races will impact the country’s space program — particularly Texas House Republican John Culberson’s loss to Democratic challenger Lizzie Fletcher.
Culberson has represented Texas's 7th congressional district for 17 years. The district is composed of a chunk of Houston that is near, but doesn’t actually include, NASA's Johnson Space Center. Culberson is the current chair of the House committee that funds NASA, and is a consistent agency supporter — especially when it comes to missions to Jupiter's moon Europa, which has a subsurface ocean that could contain life.
Other than the fact that Houston is a pro-space city, there's no real reason for Culberson to support Europa missions other than the fact that he thinks it's cool. Johnson Space Center deals with human spaceflight; robotic missions are usually run out of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
So, until now, you had a hardcore Texas conservative who often visited California, of all places, to support NASA doing Europa missions just because he was excited about the idea of life beyond Earth. That's the beautiful nature of space exploration: it's a rare government function that can get bipartisan support.
For Culberson, all this Europa love may have actually worked against him. An attack ad prior to the election slammed him for his beyond-Earth priorities, and the Houston Chronicle used a similar argument to endorse his opponent, Fletcher:
"It’s not that Culberson doesn’t care about water. He does. But most of the time, he seems to care a bit more about the water on Europa, an icy moon orbiting Jupiter, than he does the water in the Addicks and Barker dams. Or in our bayous. Or in our homes."
For NASA, strong political support can also be a double-edged sword when politicians promote specific agency programs that benefit their districts, or exert outsize influence over the way the agency conducts business. Culberson wanted not one, but two, very expensive missions to Europa. The first, Europa Clipper, will launch in the early 2020s and fly through the water that leaks from Europa's ocean out into space, looking for organics. The second is a follow-on lander mission that would dig into the moon's icy shell and directly look for life.
The planetary science community outlines its exploration wish list every 10 years for different mission types costing varying amounts. The idea is you don't want to have all your space eggs in one basket (such as Europa); you want a vibrant program studying multiple things at once.
Europa Clipper was already a top scientific priority, so Culberson's support there was welcome. But the mission is expensive — costing at least a couple of billion dollars, probably more — and NASA's science division isn't exactly flush with cash. The agency can typically only afford to do one high-cost mission, known as a flagship, per decade.
A Europa lander would also be a flagship-class mission, so it's not currently on scientists' wish list (a Mars sample return, for example, is another flagship mission already waiting in line). Even though Culberson was trying to get NASA some extra money, the agency was only grudgingly going along with the lander plan. With Culberson gone, the lander will almost certainly disappear from NASA's immediate plans, for better or for worse.
But — good news! Europa Clipper is a cool mission, and will be able to tell us a lot about what's inside Europa's ocean without ever having to land on the surface. Culberson's current Democratic counterpart on the House subcommittee that funds NASA is New York's José Serrano. It's unclear whether Serrano will take over the chair position in January, and what, if any, programs he'll lobby for in particular. SpaceNews reports Serrano hasn't focused on specific NASA issues in the past other than criticizing proposals to cut the agency’s education and Earth science programs.
That's it for this episode of THE SPACE KNOWER. Got questions, comments, or tips for us? Email us at email@example.com.