This week in space: SpaceX, Blue Origin, and still no aliens

Extreme cj Times

NASA’s Mars orbiter MAVEN narrowly avoided whacking into Phobos this week. Thanks to a tiny course correction made a week ago, MAVEN missed the 18-mile-wide moon by about two and a half minutes on Monday, instead of scraping by with only seven seconds’ separation in time. This course correction should be sufficient to prevent any further risk of collision with Phobos or anything else orbiting around Mars, for the remainder of MAVEN’s lifetime.

After being delayed seven times in a row trying to launch EchoStar 23, SpaceX is ready to give it a go for real. SpaceX just announced that its Falcon 9 rocket will carry EchoStar 23 into space next week. The satellite is being launched to provide TV broadcast services over Brazil.

Blue Origin unveiled their new reusable heavy-lift rocket, christened the New Glenn. It’s supposed to tote 45 tons to LEO and 13 tons to a geostationary transfer orbit. For the next few years, the New Glenn will be competing with the Falcon Heavy and NASA’s Space Launch System on price, lift capacity and reliability in a domestic space race. Eric Berger of Ars Technica calls it a new golden era of heavy-lift booster development.

3D visualization of Ahuna Mons, based on Dawn data. Credit: Dawn Science Team and NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSFC

Also, cryovolcanoes! Or actually, cryovolcano in the singular, and it’s on Ceres. But it might even be an active cryovolcano, as in erupting right now as you read this. Ahuna Mons is now the closest active cryovolcano to the Sun, from where it orbits between Mars and Jupiter.

Food for thought: The orbital distance of planets and moons predicts whether we’ll see cryovolcanism. Earth is in the Goldilocks zone around our sun — the liminal region that surrounds the snow line, where stellar irradiation can let a planet retain a freeze-thaw cycle. There’s always somewhere fully thawed on Earth, so no pressure builds up below the ice. Hence, no terrestrial cryovolcanoes. On Ceres, the lone cryovolcano is a mudpot that built itself up into a cone. Recently we got a crop of beauty shots from Enceladus, which are geysers spraying dramatic plumes into space where they form part of Saturn’s E ring. Could this inform our speculation on habitable exoplanets?

enceladus-geysers-cassini A Cassini image of Enceladus, showing the plumes thrown into space by cryovolcanoes

Now, about those fast radio bursts…

Fast radio bursts (FRBs) are sudden, incredibly bright flashes of radio emissions that light up telescope viewfields for an instant, just like a really bright lightning bolt can briefly turn night into day. There have been seventeen FRBs ever detected since we caught the first one ten years ago, and we’re short on answers for the basic question of what the damn things are. It’s so far out of band that it’s a little like the OMG particle, a single proton of cosmic origin that was going so fast it had the effective kinetic energy of a line drive. The first problem is that the FRBs’ brightness temperature is 1037 K. This is hotter than any known natural phenomenon, anywhere, ever.

“This means that a hot surface would need to have that temperature in order to radiate at the observed level,” project lead Avi Loeb, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told Gizmodo. “There is no known astronomical object that generates radio bursts at such a high brightness, which is tens of billions of times brighter than the known population of pulsars, for example.”

lIKE ()orShare