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Real Science

Space Science

Michael Rosenthal

(3/2018) All of a sudden the newspapers and magazines seem to be filled with stories about space science. Here are some of these fascinating developments in the field.

In 2001 Elon Musk conceptualized "Mars Oasis," a project to land a miniature experimental greenhouse on the planet Mars. His goal was to regenerate public interest in space exploration. In October of that year he traveled to Moscow to buy Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) that could send his payloads into space. When this and a later effort failed, Musk decided he would start his own company to build a rocket. This resulted in the founding of SpaceX with a long-term goal of creating a "true spacefaring civilization." In May 2002, utilizing $100 million of his own fortune, Musk founded Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) in Hawthorne, California, of which he serves as Chief Executive Officer and Chief Technology Officer.

SpaceX develops and manufactures space launch vehicles with a focus on the advancement of the state of rocket technology. The company developed Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 rockets and the spacecraft Dragon. In September 2008, Falcon 1 became the first privately funded liquid-fueled spacecraft to put a satellite into Earth orbit, and first to berth at the International Space Station. In 2006 SpaceX was awarded a contract from NASA to develop and test Falcon 9, to transport cargo to the International Space Station, followed by a 1.6 Billion dollar NASA contract in 2008 for 12 flights to replace the US Space Shuttle, due for retirement in 2011. On December 22, 2015, SpaceX successfully landed the first stage of its Falcon rocket back at the launch pad. SpaceX eventually landed and recovered 14 attempts in 2017.

SpaceX is the largest private producer of rocket engines in the world. Musk, a fan of the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, views space exploration as an important step in preserving and expanding the consciousness of human life, in support of the survival of the human species, to counter all the dangers to extinction of human life on Earth. Musk’s goal is to establish a Mars human colony by 2040 with a population of 80,000. He plans an unmanned flight to Mars in 2022 and a manned Mars flight in 2024.

On Tuesday February 6, Musk launched his biggest rocket yet from the same Launchpad that sent Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the Moon in 1969. This rocket, the 27 engine Falcon Heavy, is the most powerful in the world. In the rocket was a red Tesla (Musk owns the Tesla company) Roadster. After the boosters were ejected and returned to earth, the nose cone opened and there was the Tesla, with a mannequin named Starman wearing a spacesuit in the driver’s seat. The vehicle had three cameras beaming back images of the blackness of space. Musk said that this flight was designed to excite people all over the world about space travel. The trajectory of the flight was designed to travel on a path around the sun that would reach out to Mars.

This flight indeed received excitement and congratulations from all, including President Trump and Vice President Pence, and even from rivals including the CEO of Boeing, a competitor of SpaceX. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, who owns the rocket company Blue Origin and also owns The Washington Post, was overjoyed at the accomplishment.

Here is another space science story. Only a very small number of star systems have been discovered that have more than a single planet. The Kepler telescope has gazed into space since 2009, and it has brought in data from some 150,000 stars. It was recently announced that a star has been detected that has eight planets circling it, named the Kepler90 system. This is the same number of planets as in our own system, an uncommonly large number. The Kepler telescope trails behind earth, and it has been in space since 2009, during which time it has brought in data from 150,000 stars.

The newly discovered planet, say scientists, has a surface temperature as high as 800 degrees F., and it circles its star every two weeks. This star system has small rocky planets closest to its sun and gas giants farther away, but the planets in our system are more spread out. However, the star system may have more planets that we have not detected. The universe is indeed huge. The Kepler and its revised system, K2, have confirmed the locations of 2,500 exoplanets and some 5,000 possible candidates. The K2 will run out of fuel sometime this year.

If you are a reader of science fiction (and even if you are not), you cannot help but wonder whether the vast universe has life other than ours. How can such a huge ensemble have life limited only to our earth? Some people take solace in religion to justify that we are the only human habitat. Others are convinced that we just haven’t discovered extraterrestrial life yet. And of course, as we’ve written before, some believe that aliens have been here on Earth and still are hanging around!

Fourteen hundred light-years separate earth from a strange sight. It is a star that flickers, dimming for days or weeks, and then brightening again. Recently a 200 person team of scientists has arrived at an explanation. In 2015 astrophysicist Tabetha Boyajian published a paper describing this phenomenon, using data from the Kepler Space Telescope. The star has been named Tabby’s Star. For a while, it was postulated by an astronomer at Pennsylvania State University, Jason Wright, that extraterrestrials on the planet may have constructed a huge array of solar panels! But the SETI Institute radio telescopes detected no signs of alien life. A detailed and lengthy study, using funds from a public campaign, was undertaken at a private observatory in California. It was determined that something between Tabby’s Star and us blocks blue light more than red light, ruling out alien activity and pointing to a giant dust cloud as the culprit. The study continues.

To close, here is one more current space science story. NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, the robotic explorer of Saturn, ended its journey of 20 years in December 2017, as unmanned Cassini slipped into Saturn’s atmosphere and disintegrated. This was one billion miles from earth! The Cassini journey circled Saturn for 13 years, far beyond the original 4-year plan, sending back multitudes of photographs with many discoveries. One of the most striking discoveries was an ocean of water on the icy exterior of Enceladus, a moon of Saturn 310 miles in diameter, the sixth largest moon of Saturn, discovered in 1789.

Michael is former chemistry professor at Mount. St. Marys

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