NASA

Thomas Keith Glennan, is a name you have probably never heard before, which is understandable. Dr. Glennan was an electrical engineer who dabbled in the new technology of sound motion pictures at Paramount and Samuel Goldwyn Studios, briefly worked for Vega Aircraft, and finally joined the Division of War Research at Columbia University in 1942… yeah that war. Yet, the real reason you should know the name is that in 1958 he was chosen by President Eisenhower as the first administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA for short. Since Dr. Glennan’s tenure the NASA Administrator position has been filled by scientists, engineers, and former astronauts. Last year, the Donald broke that mold and chose a politician for the position, Representative Jim Bridenstine, but he was never confirmed.

It has been over a year now and NASA is still without a permanent administrator -a post President Obama filled in less than six months- but this month, confirmation hearings are being held again in the Senate to fill the position. So, we ask, who is Jim Bridenstine, and is he a terrible person?

One Small Step…
Now, if you know anything about us here at The NYRD, you will know we are pretty big NASA buffs. We are in love with all things space, and rocketry, and hope for a bright future of mankind… yadda yadda. That is why we have been so closely following the news coming out of NASA and the Presidential administration. Earlier this month, after eight months of being in office, Trump finally nominated the man who would take the reigns of the world’s premiere space agency, and who would replace Charles Bolden, a US Marine Corp Major General, an accomplished astronaut, and the first African American to ever hold the position. So who did he choose? A Congressman from Oklahoma, who denies the existence of man made climate change… sigh…

Now, our initial knee-jerk reaction is to immediately hate Congressman Bridenstine, in much the same we initially hate any new flunky of the Orangeman-in-Chief. Both of Florida’s senators have already come out against the nomination, as well as a slew of other people, both inside and outside the NASA community. After all, Bridenstine has regularly criticized how much NASA and the previous Obama Administration spent on climate change research, and even sponsored a bill to cut climate change funding.

A Giant Leap…
Don’t get us wrong. The fact that he is a known climate denier is worrisome and a definite strike against Congressman Bridenstine. One of NASA’s biggest departments is the division of Earth Sciences which studies everything from weather patterns to ocean temperatures, and it roughly spends about 2 billion annually on the task of aiming satellites back at us, instead of into deep space. Trump has already dedicated himself to cutting that funding and minimizing that division, regardless of who the new administrator will be, and here is the kicker… Maybe… just maybe… he’s not completely wrong.

Now, let us be clear… climate change research is vital and important to the survival of our nation and humanity. We think the US government should be spending more than just 2 billion dollars on it annually, but maybe not NASA. NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -who also been waiting on a confirmation for their new administrator– may be a more suitable agency to handle that research, and as a bonus it would help increase funding to the woefully underfunded NOAA. It would also free NASA to really start looking toward deep space exploration and how to finally get us that summer home on Olympus Mons. We know that this may not be a popular opinion, just as we also know it is unlikely to happen under the leadership of a President who often fails to have even the most basic grasp on science. As such, if given the option between NASA continuing to be our main climate science researchers and having no government climate science researchers, we will pick the former over the latter every time.

But what does this all have to do with Representative Big Jim Bridenstine?

A New Direction
Taking out the climate denying aspect of the man, you are left with someone who was a Navy combat pilot who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has also worked as the executive director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and Planetarium… yes, The Tulsa Air and Space Museum and Planetarium. His is also a big space advocate, with a real focus on commercial space enterprises, and like it or not, that is the direction of space enterprise in the 21st century. Private space companies, like Boeing and Space X, are taking over the near-Earth orbit market, and NASA needs to work hand-in-hand with them going forward.

NASA has already committed to the creation of a NEO commercial space industry, but now it also looks like the private sector is looking to get involved with deeper space projects, as well, such as designing a new lunar lander, capturing an asteroid for mining purposes, and even going to Mars, if Elon Musk has his way. Bridenstine certainly seems to have the enthusiasm for the task. He created the American Space Renaissance Act, which has its heart in the right place. He’s spoke out against space junk and its determent to our continued space endeavors. He is also a big advocate for the Moon – a priority target for Trump– for both commercial and civil purposes, even going so far as claiming that the discovery of water ice means we should look into permanent rover and machine outposts. So, maybe in this new era of space exploration, it is not such a bad thing that the new Administrator of NASA is not a scientist or an engineer, but an enthusiast committed to the cause who knows how to navigate the political spectrum of things…

All of this would be very encouraging, if it was not for his climate denial. Climate change is not a theory or a political opinion. It has been established by solid scientific fact, and if Bridenstine denies those basic truths, that is worrying on a lot of levels. Still, maybe it is not for the head of NASA to worry about climate change. Congressman “Damnit” Jim Bridenstine is not perfect. There are some glimmers of hope on his resume, but -let’s be clear- he is not the person we would have selected to be the head of NASA. He is not James Webb, or Charles Bolden, or even Bill Nye, but maybe in this era of Donald Trump, “good enough,” is the best we can hope for… sigh…

Cassini

Today, September 15, 2017, at 7:57 am, Eastern Standard time, the Cassini–Huygens spacecraft, known to friends as “Cassini,” slipped quietly into the atmosphere of Saturn and died a violent and beautiful death as it burned up in the gaseous layers of the sixth planet from our sun.

Cassini is survived by cousin Juno, currently orbiting Jupiter, and much more distant cousin New Horizons who is currently at a distance of 39.04 AU and is headed out past Pluto toward the edged of the solar system. Cassini is preceded in death by such great relatives as Galileo, Magellan, and V’ger.

Cassini was launched on October 15, 1997 in Cape Canaveral, Florida, by both proud parents, NASA and the European Space Agency. It was a simpler time of Presidential scandals and space travel. Cassini graduated from two Venus gravitational assists in 1999 and an additional Earth gravitational assist in 1999 with a degree of trajectory that pushed it past the Asteroid belt and a Jupiter fly-by. Cassini married itself to the gravitational pull of Saturn, the second largest planet in our solar system -and a heck of a violin player- on July 1, 2004, exchanging both F and G Rings.

After moving to a stationary orbit, Cassini began working its initial four-year mission to explore the Saturnian System, which included examining not just the planet and its weather patterns, but its multiple moons system, and of course, its breathtaking rings. Cassini even helped test aspects of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. Its mission was extended twice, due in no small part to its plutonium powered engine, and healthy lifestyle. During its thirteen year mission it has taken thousands of breathtaking shots of the gas planet, its moons, its rings, and even Earth.

Cassini soon welcomed its only child to the Saturnian System, the Huygens probe, which landed on the moon Titan. Huygens relayed hundreds of images of Titan’s icy surface, but an unfortunate data error meant that the young probe only transmitted half the amount of data it was meant to. Yet, its memory still lives on as the first spacecraft to ever land on Titan, and as the first spacecraft to complete the furthest landing from Earth ever made.

Cassini was an accomplished explorer and an amateur photographer. It was a dedicated and hard working probe who loved its work and was passionate about educating us on the wonders of Saturn and its mysterious moons. Cassini was an active and dedicated member of NASA’s  Planetary Science Division, and often volunteered at the local Rotary Club.

A memorial service was held today at the NASA JPL Live Stream, with a small reception to follow at wherever people typically eat lunch every day. All were welcome to attend and celebrate the life of the Cassini–Huygens spacecraft. In lieu of flowers, please send letters to your local congressional representatives and senators to tell them why the mission of NASA is so important, and why it deserves more funding than it currently receives. Condolences and congratulations can be sent to www.nasa. gov. The family would like to thank all those who have been watching and enjoying the data and pictures of Cassini, and for all their years of support and wonder.

So long, Cassini, and thanks for all the memories. Rest in peace.

 


courtesy of NPR and Skunk Bear

Venus

We do an awful lot of talking about Mars, and sometimes it seems like we forget about Earth’s closest neighbor, Venus. That needs to change, because it is just as interesting as the Red Planet. They call Venus the Morning Star, because it can still be seen with the rising morning sun. Oddly, enough the Morning Star in Latin is Lucifer, and some Christian traditions have linked the word with the Devil. Maybe that is appropriate, as Venus’ surface it is comprised of sulfuric acid clouds, and temperatures that can reach 462 degrees Celsius or 864 degrees Fahrenheit. So basically it’s hell, but recent studies have found that the planet may not have always been like that. In fact, in the ancient past it may been something better suited for a goddess of love than the representation of evil incarnate. Either way, maybe its time we get a closer look.

Venus de Melting Pot
Venus takes 224 days to orbit the Sun. On average the planet is 40 million kilometers or 25 million miles away from Earth, making its closest approach every 584 days. Compare that to Mars, which when at its closest to Earth is still 54.6 million kilometers or 33.9 million miles away from us. The planet Venus is also roughly the same size as ours, about 12,104 kilometers or 7,521 miles in diameter, which is 0.95 times that of the Earth. It’s mass is also 0.81 times that of our home. Both planets seem to be relatively young -cosmological speaking- but our closest neighbor rotates slower than Earth and in the opposite direction as we do. It takes about 117 Earth days for the planet to complete one rotation.

However, what most people talk about when they talk about Venus is its thick greenhouse atmosphere. The planet has several kilometers of deep layers of clouds, mostly comprised of sulfuric acid. It contains about 0.1 to 0.4 percent water vapor, and 60 parts per million free oxygen. The atmosphere is made up of mostly carbon dioxide, and according to findings by two Russian Venera probes lightning is extremely common. Massive electrical strikes happen about 10 times per second in the Venusian atmosphere. The surface -if you can reach it- is mostly of rolling hills and active volcanoes. The highest peak is 11 kilometers or 6.8 miles, and is located in the Maxwell Mountains. It is also worth noting that these mountains -named after astronomer James Clerk Maxwell- are the only features of the planet named after a man. The majority of features on the planet are named after women, as per the rules set down by the International Astronomical Union. Most scientists believe that the Venus has tectonic plates, like those on Earth, and the core of the planet is iron surrounded by a molten rock mantle. However, unlike Earth Venus doesn’t have a magnetosphere, which means it is more exposed to cosmic radiation and solar activity.

Venus not Venice
However, our neighbor wasn’t always the hellish landscape of heat, volcanoes, and death that it is today. A recent report suggests that for 2 billions years of its early history Venus may have been a heck of a lot like Earth. Shallow oceans, puffy white clouds, and possibly even sufficiently temperate climates to create life. The trace amounts of water vapor in the atmosphere always hinted that the planet could have once had oceans, but most scientists believed that Venus was too close to the sun to sustain liquid water for long, believing that constant evaporation would have proved too large a problem. However, recent computer modeling seems to confirm that it would have been possible even with the planet’s slow rotation.

This also hints that 2 to 3 billion years ago the sun may have been 30% dimmer, thus easing the evaporation effects for the young planet. Even so Venus was still receiving about 40% more sunlight than Earth does today, but according to some scientists those conditions would have still resulted in a stable, warm, and wet climate that would have created thin a cloud cover that blocked UV radiation and kept the surface a few degrees cooler than modern Earth. Venus’ current state is theorized to be a result of several factors. First the increasing brightness of the sun would have certainly sped up the evaporation cycle. The ultra-violet radiation breaks down the water vapor and releases hydrogen into space, which has led to a carbon dioxide build up over billions of years. Also, intense volcanic activity in the lowland regions was very likely a big contributing factor. This all would have resulted in a feedback loop that sped up the process even further. Thus, the greenhouse gases grew out of control and resulted in the thick and acidic atmosphere of today.

Home Sweet Venus
Of all the planets Venus is the first planet humans ever sent probes to, starting in 1961, but penetrating the clouds has always proven to be difficult. There have more than 20 missions to Venus, and a lot of unsuccessful ones. The most interesting missions tend to be the Soviet Venera missions between 1961 and 1983. They included orbiters, landers, and even balloons to study the atmosphere. Most probes could not survive more than an hour inside the planet’s atmosphere, even those designed for intense heat and pressure quickly succumb to the hellish conditions. That means we do not have anything on Venus comparable to Curiosity or the other Mar’s rovers, but we do actually have some pictures of the surface… Yes, we know what the surface of Venus looks like and you can Google it.

venus-2Yet, despite the incredibly hostile conditions there is a growing contingent of NASA scientists that believe the planet might be ripe for manned missions, and even colonization. In a now famous report by Geoffrey Landis, it is suggest that humans don’t colonize the surface but the skies of our sister world. At about 50 kilometers or 30 miles above the surface the planet’s atmosphere is the most Earth-like place found in the solar system- outside of… you know… Earth. Floating zeppelins would allow scientists to conduct research, live, and work, on a planet that has similiar gravity, atmospheric pressure, and even enough protection from solar and cosmic radiation to provide for relative safety for the people living and working there. Additionally, since oxygen is lighter than the Venusian atmosphere, the balloons could float and be breathable for the colonists at the same time. The entire area of the blimps could be habitable for explorers.

Venus’ relative proximity to Earth compared to Mars, also means that travel times would be decidedly less. The missions would be cheaper and have less transit time through space for humans. That is a good thing, as one of the biggest technological challenges we are having with a Mars mission is the amount of cosmic radiation that astronauts will be exposed to during the 6 to 8 month transit period. Going to Venus would only takes 3 months using today’s technology. That is still not ideal but it does mean that humans are left exposed for less than half the time. Also -and we’re just going to throw this out there- we could have Cloud City.

All in all whether you think Venus is a love goddess or a living hell, you have to admit that it’s a pretty interesting place. Who knows maybe we might even live there someday. Just call us Lando Calrissian.


Image Courtesy: http://www.geek.com/science/what-would-it-be-like-to-stand-on-the-surface-of-venus-1597652/

For those of you out there who aren’t literary majors -we forgive you- you may not be entirely certain of the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece. Brave Prince Jason, in order to prove his worth to be king, sets out on an impossible task to capture the Golden Fleece. Many believed it be a fool’s errand, like sending someone to find headlight fluid or to define the appeal of Nicholas Cage’s acting ability. People just saw it as a waste of time and money, and that is exactly what some people believe about Government science funding. We’re not talking about the exciting stuff, like Tony Stark blowing up a mountain. No we’re talking about the minutia of research that gets done every year on the taxpayer’s dime, such as studying the mating habits of the screwworm. After all, how can we justify millions of dollars in research when we have terrorism, poverty, and crumbling infrastructure? Our only answer is: Because no one else will do it.

The Golden Fleece Award
The above example of “studying the mating habits of the screwworm,” was not just a random hyperbolic anecdote, with a comically named twist. It was a real study conducted by the US Government to understand the sex-life of a parasitic fly that targeted cattle. It was awarded the Golden Fleece Award by Wisconsin Senator, William Proxmire. He started the award to call out government waste, often by citing some “silly” research being done by the National Science Foundation, NASA, or others. Such as the time in 1978 when NASA proposed to spend $15 million on searching for extraterrestrial life, or when the Smithsonian spent $89,000 to make a dictionary of Tzotil, an obscure Mayan language spoken by 120,000 farmers in rural Mexico. Other recipients of the award included a $500,000 study in 1975 to determine why rats, monkeys, and humans clench their jaws, and another study to determine why drunk fish are more aggressive than sober fish. These were the kinds of things that Senator Proxmire laughed at, and cited as a waste of good taxpayer dollars.

Yet, here’s the thing… The study on drunk fish ultimately resulted in significant insights into how alcohol affects and impairs humans, and has helped shape our understanding of how to save lives. The jaw clenching study was later used by NASA and the Navy to help improve the quality of life for humans kept in confined spaces for long periods of times, such as in spaceships and in submarines. Those are not the only examples, either. Studying acoustic trauma in guinea pigs resulted in a way to treat hearing loss in infants. Another study on dog urine taught scientists the effects of hormones on the human kidney especially for patients with diabetes. All of these seemingly inconsequential and “silly” studies won the Golden Fleece Award at one time or another and they all turned around to pay massive dividends both economically and in quality of life. In fact, the study that was conducted on the mating habits of the screwworm -still a great name- cost the US taxpayer about $25,000 dollars. In turn, the research was used to save the US cattle industry more than $20 billion dollars. By studying the mating habits scientists were able to create a sterile population that they introduced into the wild that ultimately resulted in the eradication of the screwworm pest.

That’s the thing with science. You never really know where the wind will lead until you open your sails and try. Creating something like the Golden Fleece Award and then taking a study out of context to ridicule it is not only a complete misrepresentation of the scientific process, but it is dangerous and runs the risk of demonizing and isolating scientists that are doing important and groundbreaking research-based study. In fact, we find ourselves agreeing with Ed Catmull, the founder of Pixar, when he said that things like the Golden Fleece Award have a “chilling effect on research” It could render researchers and government agencies so terrified of being “awarded” that they take fewer risks and innovate less. The idea that the government should not be wasting money on research -even funny sounding research- is a triumph of ignorance over progress. These projects are important, even when they are failures.

What we Learned from SETI
You may have heard of SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Aside from being the first people to notice when we are being invaded at the start of Independence Day, SETI is also one of the programs we talked about in the first section. In 1978, Senator Proxmire heavily criticized NASA for wanting to spend $15 million on searching for aliens. The idea sounded crazy, and in 1981 he succeeded in getting funding pulled for the project. It took Demigod Carl Sagan himself to convince Proxmire to restore funding a few years later. It was ultimately killed again in 1993 and is currently funded by private donations, but that’s not the point. Searching for extraterrestrial life is probably the biggest scientific longshot there is, and as of the publishing of this article the project is still a failure. -And if by some chance you are reading this in the future and it no longer is a failure, we here at The NYRD want to be the first to apologize to our alien overlords for ever doubting them- Yet, is any science ever really a failure?

That is thing some people don’t always understand about science. Just because an experiment fails to confirm a theory does not mean the experiment itself is a failure. In fact, any experiment that disproves a theory is just as valuable as one that proves it. That is the nature of science, it is subjective and not driven by positive results alone. So far we have failed to prove the existence -or at least the proof- of intelligent alien life, but those failures continue to teach us new things, not just about how we conduct our experimentation, but about how we see the world. After all, Jason and the Argonauts did not find the Golden Fleece on the first island they checked, but they persevered and learned from their failures. In the same way, science’s failures drive our knowledge as much as its successes. It also drives our imagination and creativity. SETI especially challenges our views of the world, forcing us to ask “are we alone,” and to confront fundamental truths about ourselves. We look out into the night sky and wonder what might be staring back at us. We wonder who they might be. Do they love? Do they hate? What are their opinions on Jar Jar Binks? Science, even in its failures, makes us grow in ways we never thought possible, but science and innovation are not built in a bubble. We have Google because we have the Internet. We have the Internet because we have home computers. We have home computers because we have electricity, and so on down the line. Science works in the same way and that means it has to all start somewhere.

Discovering a New World
Unfortunately, when it comes to the US Budget, organizations like NASA, the National Science Foundation, and other pure science programs are usually the first to get cut, usually in the face of military or social security spending. In 2009, Scientific research only received $111,664 million in federal spending. That is a total for all departments across the board: Health and Human Services, The National Nuclear Security Administration, etc. Defense got the largest chunk at $56,224 million. The National Science Foundation only received $4,156 million. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration got even less at $567 million. Those are the people, by the way, who manage our National Weather Service, and who study the effects of things like extreme climate… which is something we should probably consider putting more money into. Thankfully, the Federal Research Budget has been increasing again after it dipped in the 2000’s. Things are looking up for science, but some people still wonder why the government has to fund seemingly useless projects. Why not private industry or universities?

The truth is that private industries and universities do contribute to research based science, but only so far as it supports an end goal. Businesses are not going to spend money without expecting a return on investment. Universities are a little better, but professors still need to produce results to publish papers to keep their jobs. That means a lot of university scientists will tend to stick to “sexier” topics, ones that will guarantee them a published paper and another few years of tenure and unpaid undergrad assistants. It is an environment of “publish or perish.” Government funded projects are different. Research funded by the National Science Foundation or other government agencies are often not so focused on positive results as they are on the science behind the process. It is science for science’s sake and that is unmistakably important.

Take Space X for example. We all love the musk of Elon, but without NASA and government funding he would never have gotten into the space game. NASA was the first to chart near-Earth orbit and learn the necessary science that it takes to get rockets into the sky and put create stable satellites. Governments always have to go first. They are the entities that take the risks for the sake of science. Private industry then follows in their footsteps, taking the lessons and mistakes of governments and streamlining them. A private corporation would never risk billions on an untested theory. It was not the East India Company that first sent ships to the new world. It was not Elon Musk who put a man in orbit, but he is perfecting the process and making it cheaper, accessible, and more profitable. Private companies cannot be relied on to conduct science for science’s sake. There is no profit in it. That is why national funding for science is so important, but much like Queen Isabella, that does not mean the US Government is always doing it out of the kindness of their hearts.

The End of Dividends
Despite what some senators may want you to think the government is not just throwing away money on useless research. They do evaluate the projects and determine what sort of results it can have, and that pays off in big ways. Everything from the Internet to vaccines have come from government research. In fact, investment in research has -what statisticians have called- a very “heavy-tailed” distribution. That means given the amount of government funded research that has taken place over the years statistics would predict a certain average amount of positive benefits to result from the work. In reality, a significantly more amount of positive benefits have resulted from these studies, much higher than the expected average. Everything from the atomic bomb to modern electronics have flourished from government funded research. In fact, studies have shown that investment in basic research -low level screwworm research- can produce returns between 20% and 60% annually, which becomes a positive feedback loop. Scientific progress begets scientific progress.

America may not be as old or as wise as some of our European cousins, but we have always had a leg up because of our focus on innovation. The “American Century” was made possible by our dedication to science and technology, but we’re starting to lose our competitive edge. Less students are going into fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, in part because there are less job opportunities there. This is where funding and big ideas can really help. Creating science jobs and inspiring kids to love science will help restore our flagging scientific deficit. If we, as a nation, want to remain competitive, we need to start funding research and science.

Remember, King Pelias sent Jason on the quest to find the Golden Fleece because he thought it foolish, but like drunk fish and screwworms, the endeavour proved to be extraordinarily fruitful. That is the moral of the Golden Fleece and the the Golden Fleece awards.

It’s been a good week for NASA. We got our first look at Pluto and now the scientists on the Kepler Project have just announced their discovery of a new Earth like planet found in the habitable zone of a distant star system. The imaginatively names Kepler 452 is a G type yellow dwarf, just like our own, and it is about 1,400 light years from Earth. In other words, we won’t be stopping by anytime soon to drop off a quiche and meet the new neighbors. The planet in question, Kepler 452b, is estimated to be 5 times larger than Earth, which means it would have twice our gravity… So we are thinking planet of the Dwarves?

Interestingly, the size seems to be the main difference between our small blue orb and the world of the distant bearded warrior race that is surely living in their mountain palaces on Kepler 452b. The planet is in an almost near identical orbit as Earth, only about 5 percent further from its host star. That means the length of a Dwarven year on the planet is almost the same as our own, about 386 days. We at The NYRD like to believe they have a longer summer break. Additionally, the amount of energy that the planet receives is only slightly higher than what Earth gets, only about 10% more energy, which might explain why the space Dwarves have to live underground in their mountain homes. They don’t tan well.

What is really awesome about this discovery is that Kepler 452b is older than Earth. It has been circling its star in the habitable zone for about 6 billions years, and that is plenty of time for not just life, but advanced life to form. For right now there is no way to confirm if the planet is actually habitable or not. Remember Mars is also in our sun’s “goldilocks” zone, and it is a rocky barren world, but this is an amazing step forward in exo-planetary science.

All this was discovered using the Kepler Space Telescope. Our new favorite floating planet hound was launched in 2009. With sophisticated and very sensitive equipment it measures the light coming from distant stars and makes note of fractional decreases in that light as a world orbits in front of that star. Finding possible Earth-like planets is the trickiest as their size and relatively close orbits make them the hardest to observe. It then uses a very complicated set of computers and computations -which we of course understand but feel it best not to go into right now- to determine the size and distance of the planet to the star. By measuring both the mass and size of any planet, NASA can then try to calculate its density and from that try to estimate what it is made out of, of rock, water, or gas. Scientists have a pretty good feeling that Kepler 452b is rocky.

NASA also announced 11 more Earth-like candidates that have yet to be confirmed. So far the number of confirmed exo-planets is 1,030. There are still a lot more worlds to map and a lot more questions to be answered. Like will our new Dwarven neighbors be friendly? Could we communicate with them? Are they already dead, annihilated by some sort of dragon-super-weapon of their own making? Is there a also a nearby planet of Elves that they have a grudge with? What is up with the beards, is it biological or simple a hipster fashion?

Then again, maybe the planet is not full or dwarves, but Ewoks, or Tellarites? And most importantly, what should we name Kepler 452? Let us know what you think in the comments below.


Image courtesy: https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-kepler-mission-discovers-bigger-older-cousin-to-earth

LAST UPDATED: 12/15/15

Captain’s log, stardate 147.15

After a nine year mission we have finally reached our destination, the dwarf planet Pluto. We are more than 3 billion miles from Earth and moving more than 30,000 miles per hour, which means we only have a very brief window which to study the icy ball which has taken so long for us to reach. We are also finding that we must be alert, as even the smallest of debris could severely impair our mission and destroy our craft. However, the crew is in good spirits. My first officer has even grown a beard for the occasion. Personally, I think it looks a bit hipster, but he says that it’s “in” now with the kids.

These Are the Voyages
After almost ten years the NASA probe New Horizons reached Pluto early in the morning on Tuesday, July 14, 2015. At its closest point the probe came within 7,750 miles of the dwarf planet’s surface. That is the distance from New York to Mumbai. The New Horizon is the first ever craft to explore Pluto, and it makes Pluto the most distant object to ever be explored thoroughly by humans. This mission is the capstone to NASA’s exploration of our solar system. Humans have now studied all of the major nine bodies that orbit our son, as well as a few other bodies, such as the dwarf planets Ceres and Vesta in the Asteroid Belt.

Due to the immense technical requirements of studying and sending data back to Earth from 3 billion miles away, New Horizons can only take pictures or conduct scientific research, but not do both simultaneously. Even once the probe has collected the data it will take 16 months to send the full cache of data back to NASA, ten years worth of information.

The pictures that New Horizons has sent back so far are simply stunning, but the data that it has collected will be invaluable, and not just for furthering our understanding of Pluto, proto-planets, and the Kupier Belt, but for advancing NASA’s mission to put humans on Mars. Every new piece of information we learn brings us closer to the stars, both figuratively and literally. New Horizons has so far given us the most clear pictures of Pluto we have ever seen. Previous to these photos all we ever had were blurry, splotched images taken by Hubble.

A Class P World
Pluto, the former ninth planet of the solar system, is made up of rock, water ice, and frozen nitrogen. So far the New Horizons probe has discovered that the dwarf is bigger than expected, confirming that it is the largest object in the Kupier Belt, even if Eris is denser. However, don’t get your hopes up, it is still classified as a dwarf planet. If you don’t like it, you can always send more angry tweets to Neil deGrasse Tyson. It won’t change anything, but maybe it will make you feel better. What is amazing is that preliminary data may show that there is geological activity going on through some process on the dwarf planet, which is billions of miles from the Sun. That would have some amazing implications for exo-geology. We have also confirmed that Pluto has a thin atmosphere which is capable of bending light. Not that it matters as much on the farthest reaches of the solar system where our own sun looks like nothing more than another distant star in the sky. We have also found that the planet is leaking nitrogen into space, at a faster rate than scientists predicted. This also seems to imply that Pluto might have a geological way of replenishing the nitrogen from within its own crust.

Pluto has five moons that we know of, and two of those moons were only discovered after New Horizons launched in January 2006. There could be more, which we have yet to discover, but that is both exciting and scary. If New Horizons were to impact with an unknown Plutonian moon, we would have no idea what happened to it.

Set Course…
On a more sentimental note, New Horizons is also carrying the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh aboard. He was the man who discovered Pluto in 193o, and put to rest theories about a mysterious Planet X orbiting out beyond Neptune. His children were also in attendance on Tuesday for the eventful moment when New Horizons made its flyby of the dwarf planet.

This probe is just another in a recent string of accomplishments for NASA, from the Curiosity rover to the Messenger probe. The space organization will look to use this to help springboard its success to even greater heights, the ultimate goal being a manned mission to Mars.

The New Horizons is going too fast to make orbit around Pluto, but it will have a few days to collect data and incredible pictures. It will also give us our first glimpse of the dark side of Pluto, let’s hope there are no alien civilizations hiding on the other side biding their time until they can invade, not that we’re saying that is a possibility… but you never know.

Afterwards the New Horizons will be off into the Kupier Belt following in the footsteps of the Voyager probes. Some estimates say that this most current probe could last for another twenty years, taking readings of our farthest asteroid belt before maybe even making it into interstellar space. I guess we will just have to wait and see what new exciting findings the New Horizons will have in store as it boldly goes where no man has gone before, literally.

End Captain’s Log


Sources: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/newhorizons/main/index.html
Sources: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/15/science/space/nasa-new-horizons-spacecraft-reaches-pluto.html