In 2015 NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft provided humanity with the first up-close views of Pluto, passing just 12,472 km (7,750 mi) from the surface. What had always been little more than a fuzzy blip at the edge of the solar system could finally be seen in stunning high resolution. Unfortunately, the deep space probe could only provide us with a relatively fleeting glimpse at the mysterious dwarf planet — the physics of such a distant interplanetary flight meant the energy required to slow down and enter orbit around Pluto was beyond the tiny spacecraft’s abilities.
The craft, often described as being roughly the size and shape of a grand piano, raced past Pluto and its moons at a relative velocity of approximately 49,600 km/h (30,800 mph) and headed out in the direction of Sagittarius. The incredible rate at which New Horizons traveled officially put it on track to be just the fifth spacecraft to leave the solar system, after the Pioneer and Voyager probes. Even so, its onboard systems were still in good health, and if given a sufficiently distant target, the $700 million craft was ready and able to collect more data.
Accordingly, almost exactly a year after it flew over Pluto, New Horizons officially received a mission extension from NASA. As it blasted through deep space, the craft would seek out and study as many objects as it could in the region of space known as the Kuiper belt. Given that there are no current plans to send other spacecraft through this distant area of the outer solar system, New Horizons was uniquely positioned to make what could be once-in-a-lifetime observations.
Or at least, that was the plan. Recently, notes from a May 4th meeting of the Outer Planets Assessment Group (OPAG) were released that revealed NASA’s plans to redirect New Horizons from its work in the Kuiper belt to focus on heliospheric science in 2025. Those in attendance said the meeting became “heated” as New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern questioned the logic of potentially changing the craft’s mission this late in the game.
When NASA’s Orion capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean yesterday afternoon, it marked the end of a journey that started decades ago. The origins of the Orion capsule can be tracked back to a Lockheed Martin proposal from the early 2000s, and development of the towering Space Launch System rocket that sent it on its historic trip around the Moon started back in 2011 — although few at the time could have imagined that’s what it would end up being used for. The intended mission for the incredibly powerful Shuttle-derived rocket changed so many times over the years that for a time it was referred to as the “Rocket to Nowhere”, as it appeared the agency couldn’t decide just where they wanted to send their flagship exploration vehicle.
But today, for perhaps the first time, the future of the SLS and Orion seem bright. The Artemis I mission wasn’t just a technical success by about pretty much every metric you’d care to use, it was also a public relations boon the likes of which NASA has rarely seen outside the dramatic landings of their Mars rovers. Tens of millions of people watched the unmanned mission blast off towards the Moon, a prelude to the global excitement that will surround the crewed follow-up flight currently scheduled for 2024.
As NASA’s commentators reminded viewers during the live streamed segments of the nearly 26-day long mission around the Moon, the test flight officially ushered in what the space agency is calling the Artemis Generation, a new era of lunar exploration that picks up where the Apollo left off. Rather than occasional hasty visits to its beautiful desolation, Artemis aims to lay the groundwork for a permanent human presence on our natural satellite.
With the successful conclusion of the Artemis I, NASA has now demonstrated effectively two-thirds of the hardware and techniques required to return humans to the surface of the Moon: SLS proved it has the power to send heavy payloads beyond low Earth orbit, and the long-duration flight Orion took around our nearest celestial neighbor ensured it’s more than up to the task of ferrying human explorers on a shorter and more direct route.
But of course, it would be unreasonable to expect the first flight of such a complex vehicle to go off without a hitch. While the primary mission goals were all accomplished, and the architecture generally met or exceeded pre-launch expectations, there’s still plenty of work to be done before NASA is ready for Artemis II.
Since the Apollo 17 crew returned from the Moon in 1972, human spaceflight has been limited to low Earth orbit (LEO). Whether they were aboard Skylab, Mir, the Space Shuttle, a Soyuz capsule, or the International Space Station, no crew has traveled more than 600 kilometers (372 miles) or so from the Earth’s surface in nearly 50 years. Representatives of the world’s space organizations would say they have been using Earth orbit as a testing ground for the technology that will be needed for more distant missions, but those critical of our seemingly stagnated progress into the solar system would say we’ve simply been stuck.
Many have argued that the International Space Station has consumed an inordinate amount of NASA’s time and budget, making it all but impossible for the agency to formulate concrete plans for crewed missions beyond Earth orbit. The Orion and SLS programs are years behind schedule, and the flagship deep space excursions that would have utilized them, such as the much-touted Asteroid Redirect Mission, never materialized. The cracks are even starting to form in the Artemis program, which appears increasingly unlikely to meet its original goal of returning astronauts to the Moon’s surface by 2024.
The rest of the media were reporting on an asteroid named 16 Psyche last month worth $10 quintillion. Oddly enough they reported in July 2019 and again in February 2018 that the same asteroid was worth $700 quintillion, so it seems the space rock market is similar to cryptocurrency in its wild speculation. Those numbers are ridiculous, but it had us thinking about the economies of space transportation, and what atoms are worth based on where they are. Let’s break down how gravity wells, distance, and arbitrage work to figure out how much of this $10-$700 quintillion we can leverage for ourselves.
The value assigned to everything has to do with where a thing is, AND how much someone needs that thing to be somewhere else. If they need it in a different place, someone must pay for the transportation of it.
In international (and interplanetary) trade, this is where Incoterms come in. These are the terms used to describe who pays for and has responsibility for the goods between where they are and where they need to be. In this case, all those materials are sitting on an asteroid, and someone has to pay for all the transport and insurance and duties. Note that on the asteroid these materials need to be mined and refined as well; they’re not just sitting in a box on some space dock. On the other end of the spectrum, order something from Amazon and it’s Amazon that takes care of everything until it’s dropped on your doorstep. The buyer is paying for shipping either way; it’s just a matter of whether that cost is built into the price or handled separately. Another important term is arbitrage, which is the practice of taking a thing from one market and selling it in a different market at a higher price. In this case the two markets are Earth and space.
Today we’re sad to report that one of the primary support cables at the Arecibo Observatory has snapped, nudging the troubled radio telescope closer to a potential disaster. The Observatory’s 300 meter reflector dish was already badly in need of repairs after spending 60 years exposed to the elements in Puerto Rico, but dwindling funds have made it difficult for engineers to keep up. Damage from 2017’s Hurricane Maria was still being repaired when a secondary support cable broke free and smashed through the dish back in August, leading to grave concerns over how much more abuse the structure can take before a catastrophic failure is inevitable.
The situation is particularly dire because both of the failed cables were attached to the same tower. Each of the remaining cables is now supporting more weight than ever before, increasing the likelihood of another failure. Unless engineers can support the dish and ease the stress on these cables, the entire structure could be brought down by a domino effect; with each cable snapping in succession as the demands on them become too great.
As a precaution the site has been closed to all non-essential personnel, and to limit the risk to workers, drones are being used to evaluate the dish and cabling as engineers formulate plans to stabilize the structure until replacement cables arrive. Fortunately, they have something of a head start.
Back in September the University of Central Florida, which manages the Arecibo Observatory, contacted several firms to strategize ways they could address the previously failed cable and the damage it caused. Those plans have now been pushed up in response to this latest setback.
Unfortunately, there’s still a question of funding. There were fears that the Observatory would have to be shuttered after Hurricane Maria hit simply because there wasn’t enough money in the budget to perform the relatively minor repairs necessary. The University of Central Florida stepped in and provided the funding necessary to keep the Observatory online in 2018, but they may need to lean on their partner the National Science Foundation to help cover the repair bill they’ve run up since then.
The Arecibo Observatory is a unique installation, and its destruction would be an incredible blow for the scientific community. Researchers were already struggling with the prospect of repairs putting the powerful radio telescope out of commission for a year or more, but now it seems there’s a very real possibility the Observatory may be lost. Here’s hoping that teams on the ground can safely stabilize the iconic instrument so it can continue exploring deep space for years to come.
Ham radio operators love to push the boundaries of their equipment. A new ham may start out by making a local contact three miles away on the 2m band, then talk to somebody a few hundred miles away on 20m. Before long, they may find themselves chatting to fellow operators 12,000 miles away on 160m. Some of the adventurous return to 2m and try to carry out long-distance conversations by bouncing signals off of the Moon, waiting for the signal to travel 480,000 miles before returning to Earth. And then some take it several steps further when they listen to signals from spacecraft 9.4 million miles away.
That’s exactly what [David Prutchi] set out to do when he started building a system to listen to the Deep Space Network (DSN) last year. The DSN is NASA’s worldwide antenna system, designed to relay signals to and from spacecraft that have strayed far from home. The system communicates with tons of inanimate explorers Earth has sent out over the years, including Voyager 1 & 2, Juno, and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Because the craft are transmitting weak signals over a great distance (Voyager 1 is 14 billion miles away!), the earth-based antennas need to be big. Real big. Each of the DSN’s three international facilities houses several massive dishes designed to capture these whispers from beyond the atmosphere — and yet, [David] was able to receive signals in his back yard.
Sporting a stunning X-band antenna array, a whole bunch of feedlines, and some tracking software, he’s managed to eavesdrop on a handful of spacecraft phoning home via the DSN. He heard the first, Bepi-Colombo, in May 2020, and has only improved his system since then. Next up, he hopes to find Juno, and decode the signals he receives to actually look at the data that’s being sent back from space.
We’ve seen a small group of enthusiasts listen in on the DSN before, but [David]’s excellent documentation should provide a fantastic starting point for anybody else interested in doing some interstellar snooping.
As you’re no doubt aware, humans are a rather noisy species. Not just audibly, like in the case of somebody talking loudly when you’re in a movie theater, but also electromagnetically. All of our wireless transmissions since Marconi made his first spark gap broadcast in 1895 have radiated out into space, and anyone who’s got a sensitive enough ear pointed into our little corner of the Milky Way should have no trouble hearing us. Even if these extraterrestrial eavesdroppers wouldn’t be able to understand the content of our transmissions, the sheer volume of them would be enough to indicate that whatever is making all that noise on the third rock orbiting Sol can’t be a natural phenomena. In other words, one of the best ways to find intelligent life in the galaxy may just be to sit around and wait for them to hear us.
Of course, there’s some pesky physics involved that makes it a bit more complicated. Signals radiate from the Earth at the speed of light, which is like a brisk walk in interstellar terms. Depending on where these hypothetical listeners are located, the delay between when we broadcast something and when they receive it can be immense. For example, any intelligent beings that might be listening in on us from the closest known star, Proxima Centauri, are only just now being utterly disappointed by the finale for “How I Met Your Mother“. Comparatively, “Dallas” fans from Zeta Reticuli are still on the edge of their seats waiting to find out who shot J.R.
But rather than relying on our normal broadcasts to do the talking for us, a recent paper in The Astrophysical Journal makes the case that we should go one better. Written by James R. Clark and Kerri Cahoy, “Optical Detection of Lasers with Near-term Technology at Interstellar Distances” makes the case that we could use current or near-term laser technology to broadcast a highly directional beacon to potentially life-harboring star systems. What’s more, it even theorizes it would be possible to establish direct communications with an alien intelligence simply by modulating the beam.