Smoking pot on the Kansas of Mars
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Have you heard? There's a new spacecraft on Mars! Meet InSight, a lander NASA launched in May that made it safely to the surface on Monday. Let’s start with an artist’s rendering:
This bug-like lander has fold-out solar panels on both sides, and on the ground are two science instruments that get deployed by a robotic arm. The dome on the left is a seismometer to detect marsquakes (yep, that's a real term), and the robotic puppy-looking object on the right contains a temperature probe that will burrow five meters below the surface. The whole lander contraption measures 20 feet wide; longer than a car, but shorter than a school bus.
InSight is the first Mars mission that will study the planet's interior. How did the planet form? How active is the interior? What can this tell us about other rocky planets like Mercury, Venus, Earth, and even exoplanets? These are the questions InSight is out to answer.
Though the science is exciting, this isn’t a terribly lively mission. The spacecraft doesn’t move; it will just sit there for a couple of years while its science instruments do all the work. It landed at Elysium Planitia, a broad, flat region near Mars' equator with horizon-to-horizon views of rocks and red-brown soil. It’s pretty much the Kansas of Mars — good for below-ground geology, but pretty boring otherwise.
That meant Monday's landing was probably the high point of the mission (unless you're a scientist whose entire career is based on the data the spacecraft will collect). Every time a spacecraft lands on Mars, there are some harrowing moments where flight controllers grip their consoles in terror as the spacecraft slows from 13,000 miles per hour to zero in just seven minutes. The process involves a heat shield, a supersonic parachute, and a mile-long descent on nothing but thrusters.
What's even more insane is that it takes that same amount of time for radio signals, travelling at the speed of light, to reach Earth. So when engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California saw the signal that Insight was slamming into Mars' atmosphere, the spacecraft was actually already on the surface — either intact, or in pieces. Here's a condensed video of those 7 minutes of terror:
It's like a nerd Super Bowl! And did you catch the touchdown dance? It merited a tweet from ESPN:
Right after Insight landed, it sent home this picture from its instrument deck:
More pics are coming, so stay tuned!
Elon smokes pot
Folks, it is my sad duty to report that SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is in trouble for smoking the WACKY TOBACCY.
Back in September, Musk appeared on The Joe Rogan Experience, a live-streamed podcast. Rogan, whose Wikipedia page is flagged as "This article may contain an excessive amount of intricate detail that may interest only a particular audience,” is an Ultimate Fighting Championship commentator and the former host of Fear Factor. During the podcast, Rogan whipped out a tobacco-and-marijuana spliff, and Musk indulged:
You may be shocked—SHOCKED—to learn that although that Elon’s shenanigans took place in California, where recreational marijuana is now legal, this did not go over well in Washington, D.C. For starters, SpaceX launches classified Department of Defense payloads, so Musk presumably has a security clearance. The feds still consider pot illegal, and for anyone not named Elon Musk, smoking pot on the Internet would likely be enough to get you fired and lose your clearance.
Fortunately for Musk, nothing seemed to happen other than a ribbing on Twitter for appearing not to inhale. That is, until last week, when the Washington Post’s Christian Davenport reported that NASA is initiating a "safety review" of both SpaceX and Boeing, the two companies who will soon be launching American astronauts to the International Space Station. Davenport’s article leaves little doubt that Musk’s actions prompted the review, which will be "pretty invasive," according to NASA officials quoted in the article.
Whether or not NASA was externally pressured to initiate review — and if so, who applied the pressure — is unclear. But all that aside, many space industry observers pointed out some irony in NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine’s logic:
“We need to show the American public that when we put an astronaut on a rocket, they’ll be safe,” Bridenstine told the Post.
The last time NASA put an astronaut on a rocket, they didn’t make it to orbit. On October 11, the Russian Soyuz rocket carrying NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin failed minutes into flight, and the capsule landed 400 kilometers northeast of the launch pad. Hague and Ovchinin were lucky to have survived.
Russian engineers quickly traced the problem to an improperly installed rocket booster and plan to launch the next station crew — an American, Russian, and Canadian — this coming Monday, less than two months after the accident. NASA has been relying on the Russians — which have a spotty track record when it comes to rocket launches — to ferry astronauts since the space shuttle retired in 2011, but Boeing and SpaceX hope to end that reliance next year.
Pic of the week!
Here's a field of galaxies in the constellation Pegasus:
Most of the fuzzy blobs in this image are galaxies, containing billions and billions of stars. They are far more distant than our neighbor galaxy, Andromeda, which is already 2.5 million light years away. Closer to home are a few stars that show up as Xs in the camera — we have to peer through the stars in our own galaxy to see into the depths of the cosmos.
What makes this image more special is that it was the first thing captured by the Hubble Space Telescope upon returning to service after one of its gyroscopes, which are used to point the telescope, failed in early October. The telescope has backups, but when engineers brought the backup online, it had a problem too, so it took a month of remote troubleshooting to get the telescope back in action again.
Guess how they fixed it? They literally turned it off and on again, and shook it by fiddling with the settings on the working gyroscopes. Like an original Nintendo console and just about as old, Hubble keeps going, though sometimes you have to bang on it and jam the reset button a few times.
That's it for this episode of THE SPACE KNOWER. Got questions, comments, or tips for us? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.