NASA’s DART Mission: Brace for Impact!!!

Hello, friends!

We are only a few days away from what is, in my opinion, the #1 most important space story of the year.  No, I’m not talking about the launch of Artemis 1.  And no, this has nothing to do with the Webb Telescope either.  I’m talking about NASA’s DART Mission.

For eons now, asteroids have been zipping and zooming past our planet.  Every once in a while, one of those asteroids will hit our planet, causing anywhere from minor to major to global mass extinction event levels of damage.  But on Monday, September 27, 2022, humanity will perform our first ever experiment to see if it’s possible to smack an incoming asteroid away.

The asteroid in question is named Dimorphos.  Dimorphos is not actually a threat to us, but if we’re going to perform an experiment like this, Dimorphos is a rather convenient target for target practice.  That’s because Dimorphos is not just an asteroid; it’s also a moon (or should I call it a moonlet?) orbiting a larger asteroid named Didymos.

When the DART spacecraft crashes into Dimorphos, the force of the impact will change Dimorphos’s orbit around Didymos.  It should be fairly easy for astronomers to measure this change, and thus it should be fairly easy to judge how effective DART was—and just how effective DART would have been against an asteroid that was actually threatening us.

Oh, and just in case anyone’s concerned that DART might accidentally knock Dimorphos out of its original orbit entirely and send it hurtling our way, thus ironically causing the very disaster this mission was meant to help prevent—don’t worry.  Didymos’s gravitational hold on Dimorphos is strong.  No matter what happens on this mission, Didymos is not going to let her little moonlet go (another reason why Dimorphos was selected as the target for this experiment).

So on Monday, September 27, 2022, there will be a head-on collision between an asteroid/moonlet and a NASA spacecraft.

An Italian-built spacecraft named LICIACube will be positioned nearby to observe the experiment.  A multitude of Earth-based telescopes will also be watching.  The European Space Agency also plans to send a follow-up mission (named Hera) in 2026, to check up on Dimorphos after its post-impact orbit has had some time to settle down.

Life on Earth has never been able to defend itself from incoming asteroids before.  Life on Earth has never had the ability to even try, until now [citation needed].  Obviously asteroids are not the only threat to life on our planet.  Obviously this is not the only challenge we need to overcome.  But the DART Mission is a huge first step.  A true giant leap.  No, DART probably won’t get the same kind of love and attention as Webb or Artemis 1, but still I’d say this is the #1 most important space story of the year.  This may be one of the most important science experiments in all of Earth history.

WANT TO LEARN MORE?

P.S.: I said life on Earth has never before had the ability to defend itself from incoming asteroids.  Technically speaking, we cannot be 100% sure that’s true.  Click here to read my post on the Silurian Hypothesis.

Our Place in Space: The Moon Village

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Our Place in Space: A to Z!  For this year’s A to Z Challenge, I’ll be taking you on a partly imaginative and highly optimistic tour of humanity’s future in outer space.  If you don’t know what the A to Z Challenge is, click here to learn more.  In today’s post, M is for…

THE MOON VILLAGE

The last time humans went to the Moon, it was motivated in large part by the Cold War.  Yes, there were scientific and humanistic reasons to go to the Moon as well, but the Cold War was a big part of it.  There’s no denying that.  Let’s hope that next time will be different.  Let’s hope that next time, human beings will set foot on the Moon as a result of international cooperation, rather than as a result of quasi-militaristic competition.

A few years ago, the European Space Agency proposed building a “village” on the Moon.  This International Moon Village would serve as the logical successor to the International Space Station.  Anyone and everyone who wanted to participate would be welcome to participate in the Moon Village program.  As the E.S.A.’s website explains it:

By “Moon Village” we do not mean a development planned around houses, some shops and a community centre.  Rather, the term “village” in this context refers [to] this: a community created when groups join forces without first sorting out every detail, instead simply coming together with a view to sharing interests and capabilities.

It’s hard to say at this point what the Moon Village would look like.  A lot depends on who decides to participate.  A lot also depends on how the various participants want to use the Moon Village once it is built.  The proposal is very open ended about this stuff.  Government run space agencies could join the program.  So could private companies.  The Moon Village could be used for purely scientific and technological research.  At the same time, it could also be used for economic interests, such as mining the Moon for resources.  Even space tourism would be welcome.

When the Moon Village was first proposed a few years ago, my understanding was that the Russian space agency was going to be a key player in this project.  That’s… ummm… I’m guessing that’s no longer the case.  I’m also a little unclear about whether or not the United States is involved.  It sometimes sounds like NASA’s Artemis Program and E.S.A.’s Moon Village Project are totally working together; other times, it sounds like Artemis and the Moon Village are two completely separate and unrelated projects.

Despite all that, and despite everything else happening in the world today, I get the sense that E.S.A. is still moving forward with their Moon Village plans.  This is a project that really could happen, and I really hope that it does happen.  Anyone who wants to participate in the Moon Village is welcome to participate in the Moon Village.  No one will be excluded.  No one will be left out.  Those are the kind of values humanity needs right now, and in the future, those are the kind of values that will help us secure our rightful place in space.

Want to Learn More?

Check out this brief statement from Jan Woerner, the Director General of E.S.A., describing what the Moon Village would be like and how it might be used.

Protect Europa!

Hello, friends!  We’ve reached the end of October, which means we’ve reached the end of Europa month here on Planet Pailly.  We still haven’t determined whether or not Europa is home to alien life, but I hope I’ve persuaded you to take the possibility of life on Europa seriously.

One question that came up a few times this month was whether or not we should send humans to Europa.  The answer, in my opinion, is no.  First off, as we discussed in a previous post, the radiation environment on Europa is crazy dangerous.  We humans would also struggle with the extreme cold and the very low surface gravity.  I’m not saying a colony on Europa is impossible, but there are far safer and easier places we could choose to go.  The neighboring moons of Ganymede and Callisto, for example, would serve as safer and more comfortable bases of operation for humans.

But there’s another reason why colonizing Europa seems like a bad idea to me.  It’s not a science reason.  It’s a legal issue.  There’s an international agreement in place (Article IX of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty) which forbids space agencies like NASA, the E.S.A., or Roscosmos from contaminating other worlds with our Earth germs.  The same agreement also forbids contaminating Earth with germs from other planets.

Some missions are considered riskier than others, contamination-wise.  For example, Article IX doesn’t really apply to NASA’s Parker Solar Probe.  There’s no chance Earth germs will be able to contaminate the Sun (and since the probe will not be returning to Earth, there’s no chance any lifeforms from the Sun could contaminate Earth).  There’s actually a whole risk categorization system in place, with five different categories of risk, and a bunch of sub-categories, too.  Click here if you want to know more details about that.

The important thing for our purposes is that any mission to Europa will involve a very high risk of contamination.  We may not know yet if alien life exists on Europa, but the possibility should be taken seriously.  The people who wrote the Outer Space Treaty made it clear that they’d learned the lessons of history and did not want to repeat the mistakes of the past.  We would not want Earth germs to endanger an alien ecosystem on Europa (nor would we want Europa germs endangering Earth-life).

So for the foreseeable future, I think Europa will be off limits to humans.  Europa might even be declared an interplanetary wilderness preserve, or something like that, and if there’s scientific research to be done on Europa, it can be done remotely from bases on Ganymede or Callisto.

There are easier places in the Solar System for us humans to colonize.  There’s no need for humans to go there.  So unless and until someone shows the contamination risk on Europa is zero, let’s leave Europa alone.

WANT TO LEARN MORE?

As part of my research for this post, I read the two papers listed below.  If you’re interested in how Earth laws work (or don’t work) in outer space, these papers are worth a look.  Also, if you’re interested in writing Sci-Fi, these papers may get the wheels of your Sci-Fi writer brain turning.

Sciency Words A to Z: JUICE

Welcome to a special A to Z Challenge edition of Sciency Words!  Sciency Words is an ongoing series here on Planet Pailly about the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  In today’s post, J is for:

JUICE

Speaking as a space enthusiast and a citizen of the United States, I have to confess I’m a bit disappointed with the status of the American space program.  While there have been some success stories—New Horizons, Curiosity, Scott Kelly’s year in space—I can’t help but feel like NASA has spent the last decade or so floundering.

However, it’s encouraging to see that so many other space agencies around the world are starting to pick up the slack.  My favorite example of this is the JUICE mission, a project of the European Space Agency (E.S.A.).

Astrobiologists have taken a keen interest in the icy moons of Jupiter.  There’s compelling evidence that one of those moons (Europa) has an ocean of liquid water beneath its surface.  There’s also a growing suspicion that two more of those moons (Ganymede and Callisto) may have subsurface oceans as well.

The original plan was for NASA and the E.S.A. to pool their resources for one big, giant mission to the Jupiter system.  But then the 2008 financial crisis hit.  The U.S. Congress was loath to spend money on anything—especially space stuff.  “Due to the unavailability of the proposed international partnerships […]”—that’s how this E.S.A. report describes the matter.

So the E.S.A. decided to go it alone. Personally, I think this was a very brave move.  E.S.A. has never done a mission to the outer Solar System before, not without NASA’s help.  But there has to be a first time for everything, right?  And so JUICE—the JUpiter ICy moons Explorer—began.  It’s not my favorite acronym, but it works.

According to E.S.A.’s website, JUICE will conduct multiple flybys of Europa and Callisto before settling into orbit around Ganymede.  You may be wondering why JUICE won’t be orbiting Europa.  This is in large part because of the radiation environment around Jupiter.  Europa may be more exciting to astrobiologists, but Ganymede is a safer place to park your spacecraft.

Meanwhile, NASA has recovered much of the funding it lost after the 2008 financial crisis, and they’re once again planning to send their own mission to the Jupiter system.  So maybe NASA and E.S.A. will get to explore those icy moons together after all!  Or maybe not.  According to this article from the Planetary Society, NASA’s budget is under threat once again.

I guess we’ll have to wait and see, but no matter what happens to NASA’s budget, E.S.A. seems fully committed to JUICE.  So speaking as a space enthusiast, at least I have that to look forward to.

Next time on Sciency Words A to Z, how do you measure the size of an alien civilization?

Sciency Words: SOHO

Sciency Words BIO copy

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Every Friday, we take a look at a new and interesting scientific term to help us all expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s word is:

SOHO

If you want to do any serious research about the Sun, you will soon come across this name: SOHO, short for the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. It is a project of international cooperation between NASA and ESA (the European Space Agency). The Europeans built it, NASA launched it into space and is now responsible for operating and maintaining it.

SOHO is positioned between the Sun and Earth, and its mission is to monitor and study solar activity. Launched in December of 1995, SOHO was only supposed to be in operation for about two years, yet despite several malfunctions, the thing is still running nearly two decades later.

Much of what we currently know about the Sun is thanks to SOHO (which is why the name came up so often in my research).

  • SOHO observes activity on the Sun’s surface (like Moreton waves), and it has provided us with the first ever images of what’s going on beneath the surface.
  • SOHO is part of our early warning system, helping protect our technologically advanced civilization in case something like the Carrington Event ever happens again.
  • SOHO samples solar ejecta, allowing us to find out what exactly the Sun is spewing into space.
  • Remember that weird thing about the Sun’s temperature? SOHO is helping investigate that too.

Ja12 SOHOSo as we end our month-long adventures with the Sun, let’s give a big round of applause to the SOHO spacecraft, one of the hardest working spacecraft in the Solar System, and let’s hope that it will miraculously keep working for many years to come.

Starting Monday and continuing throughout the month of February, we will turn our attention to the Planet Mercury.

Robo-Snake

Bad news, everyone.  Our worst nightmare is about to come true.  No, I don’t mean the one where you show up to work/school with no clothes on.  I mean that other one.  The one full of robotic super snakes.  Soon, those robo-snakes will be real.

Snake meets Robo-Snake
Snake meets robo-snake.

They’re designing these things for the purpose of exploration.  The European Space Agency wants future Mars rovers to bring little, robotic snake companions.  These robo-snakes could slither around on the Martian surface, crawling into those tight spaces rovers just can’t go.

But I think we all know what’s going to happen.  One day, when the robots rise up against us to overthrow humanity, we’ll see swarms of robo-snakes coming at us.  Thanks, European Space Agency.

P.S.: As if robotic snakes weren’t bad enough, scientists are also working on a robotic octopus.  Click here to read about that.