This Week in Space: The Moon is a Slightly Less Harsh Mistress

Hello, lovelies, and welcome to your favorite space news breakdown. This week, it’s mostly planets and geopolitics, with relatively little launch news. Shall we?

SpaceX Next Crew Launch Delayed By Damage During Transport

NASA and SpaceX have delayed the launch of SpaceX’s next crewed flight to the International Space Station, to no earlier than September 29. The Falcon 9 booster stage, riding horizontally on a truck and trailer, struck a bridge during the trip from SpaceX’s factory in Hawthorne, California, to the company’s test facility in McGregor, Texas.

According to NASA, “SpaceX is removing and replacing the rocket’s interstage and some onboard instrumentation after the hardware was damaged during transport from SpaceX’s production factory in Hawthorne, California, to the company’s McGregor test facility in Texas for stage testing.”

Womp womp.

“After all replacement hardware is installed,” the agency said in a statement, “the booster will undergo stage testing and be further assessed prior to acceptance and certification for flight.”

I want to be sympathetic, but listen. In my hometown, there’s a 12’6” bridge, and there are signs for it miles away. Every few months, some hapless trucker hits the bridge. The interstate sends truckers to an entirely different exit, just to avoid this bridge. And yet.

Mars Sample Return Mission Has Two, TWO Space Copters

The surface of Mars is made of unrelenting suck. It’s nearly a vacuum, and the Martian regolith is terrible for our rovers and their moving parts. Nevertheless, NASA’s space helicopter, Ingenuity, has done very well on Mars. So well, in fact, that NASA scientists have decided to scrap the rover for their upcoming Mars Sample Return mission. Instead of a rover, they plan to include not one but two space helicopters. Now that we know it’s possible to fly on Mars, NASA is eager to explore.

Blue Dunes on the Red Planet

Elsewhere on Mars, scientists are looking to wind patterns to describe the Red Planet’s weather and geology.

This Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image shows sand dunes near the center of Mars’ Gamboa Crater. Larger sand dunes form sinuous crests and individual domes. There are tiny ripples on the tops of the dunes, only several feet from crest-to-crest. These merge into larger mega-ripples about 30 feet apart that radiate outward from the dunes.

The larger, brighter formations that are roughly parallel are called “Transverse Aeolian Ridges” (TAR), and they’re covered with very coarse sand. The mega-ripples appear blue-green on one side of an enhanced color cutout while the TAR appear brighter blue on the other. This could be because the TAR are actively moving under the force of the wind, clearing away darker dust and making them brighter.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped this image of Mars’ Gamboa Crater. NASA scientists have enhanced the image’s color, to bring out detail invisible to the unaided eye. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Didn’t the Marcels sing about this?

Chinese Space Junk Crashes This Weekend

This weekend, there’s a significant piece of space junk falling out of the sky. It’s the skeleton core stage of China’s Long March 5B rocket, and current estimates have it hitting Saturday evening — plus or minus sixteen hours or so. Perhaps 25 metric tons remain of the spent rocket stage. Analysts believe that only 20% or so of the debris will make it to Earth’s surface.

Statistically, the debris will probably hit the Pacific. In 2020, debris from the first Long March 5B fell over the Ivory Coast, damaging some buildings. However, “The worst case in this event is going to be less serious than a single cruise missile strike that we’ve been seeing every day in the Ukraine war, so let’s put it in some perspective here,” said astrophysicist and satellite tracker Jonathan McDowell, who hails from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, in a webcast discussion.

Borisov Bails on the ISS

Speaking of space junk, the new head of Russian space agency Roscosmos went take-backsies on the agency’s recent declaration that Russia would leave the ISS collaboration, effective 2024. The current target is 2028. Evidently Roscosmos joined the rest of the world in understanding that Russia probably can’t build a space station by 2024. You know, what with the worldwide sanctions over Ukraine, and all.

Now, if we all think very hard, we might be able to find something Russia could do to mitigate the sanctions.

“The decision to leave the station after 2024 has been made,” said Borisov in a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this week. However, one of them must have changed their tune. A NASA official told Reuters that Roscosmos would like to keep flying astronauts to the ISS “until their own orbital outpost is built and operational.”

Contrition? Never. Sometimes I think these people make announcements just to see how the press receives them, and then make their policy decisions based on the public reaction. Or maybe Borisov just wants to start off with a swagger to match his predecessor, Dmitry Rogozin. Then again, since Putin apparently gave Rogozin his pink slip because of poor performance… is matching that incendiary little man really a good idea?

Luna: Now Slightly Less Awful In Certain Very Specific Places

Observations from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) have shown that pits or caves in the Moon’s surface could serve as nice little spots to put a moon base. Night or day, the temperature within the pits hovers around a balmy 63F. The research ran this week in Geophysical Research Letters.

This is a spectacular high-Sun view of the Mare Tranquillitatis pit crater revealing boulders on an otherwise smooth floor. This image from LRO’s Narrow Angle Camera is 400 meters (1,312 feet) wide, north is up. Credits: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

“About 16 of the more than 200 pits are probably collapsed lava tubes,” said Tyler Horvath, in a statement. Horvath is a doctoral student in planetary science at UCLA, and led the new research.

“Humans evolved living in caves,” said co-author David Paige, “and to caves we might return when we live on the Moon.” Paige is a professor of planetary science at UCLA. He also leads the Diviner Lunar Radiometer Experiment aboard LRO that made the temperature measurements used in the study.

Now we just have to figure out how to deal with the vacuum.

Skywatchers Corner

August begins with a conjunction of Mars and Uranus, high overhead. On the morning of August 1st, you’ll find the tiny, bluish disc of Uranus just northwest of Mars in the morning sky. The two will easily fit within the same field of view through binoculars.

The morning-sky planetary gathering of early summer will drift apart in the coming days, as Venus and Saturn exit on opposite sides. However, Jupiter and Saturn are rising earlier every night. By mid-August, Jupiter will appear just beside the waning moon. Like Mars and Uranus, it should be an easy one to spot with binoculars. Under the right lighting conditions, you may even catch a glimpse of Jupiter’s four largest moons; we’ll have more about that next week.

The Southern Delta Aquariids peak early Saturday morning. But their radiant is in the Southern Hemisphere, which means that northerly viewers will have a more difficult time. Even so, we might see a few fireballs. Similarly, this year’s Perseids will spend the next two weeks ramping up, only to be washed out by the full moon on August 12, the day of their peak.

So long, space nerds. No homework today; we’ll see you next week.

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