(Picture from here.)
I am so tired of being… well, tired. I’m tired of spent hacks trying desperately to hold on to power. Tired of one side being outraged at the other only to find the other side just as outraged. I’m tired of people paying no attention to facts. I’m tired of hearing over and over how we are all doomed in one way or another.
(Pick a doom! Any doom! Global Warming! Economic Collapse! Democracy Destroyed! Famine! War! Disease! Can’t win (or lose) unless you pick!)
So: Today I’m just going to talk about interesting and positive things. And because I want to keep away from the current environment as much as possible, I’m going to talk about space. I could have talked about things deep in the isolated Amazon but that goes back into doom again.
Starting with dinosaurs. (It’s space. I promise.)
There’s been a long discussion as to whether the mammals were destined to take over the dinosaur niches without the Chicxulub Impactor thoroughly making those discussion academic. Some scientists thought that dinosaurs were on the way out anyway. Others thought differently. A new study has come out that suggests that dinosaurs were still going to retain championship status on earth not only if the meteor had not struck, but even if the meteor had been 30 seconds late. See here, here, and here. It’s not that the dinosaurs were unlucky. It’s that mammals (us) were incredibly lucky.
There’s still a lot of mystery in space. The most recent Scientific American’s lead article was about all the different kinds of supernovae. Astronomers see a lot of interesting structures that are the result of some past event but it’s hard to figure out what. It’s like seeing the car wreck and trying to figure out if a squirrel ran in front the driver to cause it. That is, if there are no witnesses left and you don’t really have a wrecked car but instead more an interesting pile of rust.
One of these relics is the Blue Ring Nebula. (Picture above.)
The BRN is a ring visible in the far ultraviolet. Why the UV? Why only UV? Why the ring? What happened?
For a long time the BRN was thought to be supernova remnant but ultimately that didn’t make sense as there were, really, two rings, one more visible than the other.
Finally, the group studying the BRN has a working theory. The BRN is the product of two stars merging. A few thousand years a sun-sized star orbited with a smaller companion star. As they grew closer, the smaller companion siphoned material from the large one, forming a disk. Eventually, however, the smaller companion was absorbed by the larger one, launching a cloud of debris into space in two cones. One of those cones is aimed at earth– hence the ring structure. When the debris cone struck the interstellar medium, it caused hydrogen to glow in the far UV.
Very cool. See here.
It took Voyager 1 thirty-five years to leave the solar system and escape into interstellar space. The fact that we have a problem in the interstellar medium is very good. The fact that Voyager wasn’t designed to do it and can’t, therefore, do a good job is not so good. It’s not surprising, then, that there is some effort trying to figure out how to get a probe out there. New Horizons is on its way to the medium (See here.) It’s about 47AU out. Voyager 1 left at 94 AU and Voyager 2 at 84 AU. NH has detected the slowing of the solar wind. NH is planned to cross the Termination Shock boundary in the mid-2020s but that’s still a long way from actual interstellar space. And it’s still not an actual interstellar medium probe– it was designed to look at Pluto.
So: how do we get a probe into the interstellar medium without waiting forever.
The answer might be a solar powered ro\cket.
The idea is fairly simple. Take your probe insanely close to the sun. Heat onboard helium to lunatic temperatures. Use it as propellant.
Nothing could be simpler, right?
Well, except for the part where nearly every material known degrades to plasma under these circumstances.
The Parker Solar Probe, though, is approaching that problem for different reasons. At its closest approach, the PSP will be four million miles from the Sun’s surface and going a blistering 430,000 mph. (See here.) But the PSP did a lot of gravity assists to get to that point and is intended to have a long elliptical orbit– much like the Juno orbiter.
The Interstellar Probe needs only a modest a modest 200,000 mph but it has to accelerate to that speed from 30k mph and do it in one swoop. So it has to get much closer– 1 million miles. Four times closer which means 16 times the radiation and heat. (Pesky inverse square law.) Also, there are solar events that are local to the sun like snapping magnetic fields and local prominences. I don’t know how far they extend but at some point not only does the quantity of the environment change, the quality does, too.
But all that is moot without propulsion. Not only does our Interstellar Probe have to use a maneuver to pick up speed on a close orbit about the sun, it has to use an engine to pack a lot of horse power.
Well, there’s this huge fusion power plant just ready to help. And Jason Benkoski has built a prototype.
Interstellar medium, prepare to be probed.
I’m going to close with China’s lunar probe but before that, check out these links:
Both of these are methodologies to get oxygen on Mars and the Moon.
Finally, the Chang’e-5 probe.
I have been in favor of a return to the Moon for pretty much ever. It’s the stepping stone for the rest of the solar system. I know a lot of people want to go Mars Direct but I think that’s the direction of failure. It’s like Germany deciding that instead of invading Poland, they should start with invading Brazil. The Moon is close. It has good power. It has oxygen (see above.)
The western world has been going about doing various things on the Moon. (I’m looking at you, Lunar Orbiter.) But it seems to me that there’s a slipshod shot gun approach. China seems to have a well thought out plan that doesn’t change from election to election.
The most recent example of this is Chang’e-5.
The Chang’e-5 is intended to land, take samples, and leave instrumentation behind. The ascender then returns those samples to Earth. It’s exciting for a lot of reasons– not the least of which is that the Chang’e-5 is bringing back samples of ancient Moon rather than the more recent Moon of the Apollo missions.
China made no secret that this mission, and their other missions, are part of a larger effort to first create a lunar research station with human beings and eventually a colony. (See here.)
This is a good thing.
I’m not worried about an dropping rocks on the earth like in Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I’m not even worried about a China Moon. Over time, colonies with long supply lines to the parent country have a tendency towards independence. It would be great to see Hong Kong Luna next to Lunar Boston and Tycho Paris.
What I’d like to see is this challenge interpreted as a means to get a consolidated, well thought out, forward thinking plan created and stuck to.
But in the meantime, I’ll settle for China Moon.