Category: News

Yutu on the Moon

Over the weekend, China’s Yutu rover was succesfully deployed by the Chang’e 3 lunar lander probe. The Chinese space program is proceeding quickly: using Soyuz-based technology they have accomplished repeated manned flights and are already flying a prototype space station. Manned lunar missions are planned for the future, to be eventually followed by missions to Mars.

Sean Carroll says that this is an achievement for “us”, not for “them”, by which he means that we should focus on Chang’e as a human spaceflight achievement, not as a competition between China and the rest of the world. Still, the competitive aspects of the mission can’t be overlooked. The landing of Chang’e 3 marks the first soft lunar landing since the USSR’s Luna 24 in 1976; the agencies that achieved all of the firsts on the Moon haven’t repeated them for decades. 2Yutu on Moon (CCTV)

But then, going to the Moon is relatively easy compared with establishing a robust Earth-orbit infrastructure and going to Mars — NASA’s main focus over the past few decades. With a limited pot of space exploration resources, going back to the Moon has been a less compelling priority than focusing on reaching new goals, though that process has been frustratingly slow, too. Fortunately, we now seem to be reaching an age in which Earth-orbit operations are being increasingly taken over by private companies, and even NASA is relying on private development for its manned spaceflight goals. If there is competition for NASA, it is increasingly coming from within the US itself. This isn’t really a problem of competition, though, because it frees up the agency to focus on deep space exploration and reaching new milestones, while leaving the perhaps less scientifically glamorous development of space infrastructure — something the Shuttle was supposed to do — to those who can do it most efficiently.

So China has reached the Moon robotically, and India and private expeditions will probably follow. China may send astronauts to the Moon in the relatively near future, too — but then they’ll be all caught up, and the next challenge, Mars, will be everyone’s goal.

CNA Interviews Vatican Astronomer Br. Consolmagno

Br. Guy Consolmagno (CNA)
Catholic News Agency has interviewed Brother Guy Consolmagno, S.J., who works at the Vatican Observatory, and is known for his science communcation work:

“The astonishing thing to me about astronomy is not only that the universe makes sense and I can come up with equations and explain it,” he continued, “but the way it makes sense is beautiful.”

“God chose to create a universe that was at the same time logical and beautiful, one that I can enjoy with my brain and enjoy with my heart,” he stressed, going on to say that this “tells me something about who God is and how He creates and how He’s expecting me to relate to Him.”

Addressing the fact that many are surprised at the existence of the Vatican Observatory, Br. Consolmagno stated that “that’s part of the reason we exist; to surprise people.”

“To make people realize that the church not only supports science, literally… but we support and embrace and promote the use of both our hearts and our brains to come to know how the universe works.”

Read here.


Image: Catholic News Agency

Chinese Moon Rover Set to Launch Sunday

 Update: Launch occurred today on schedule. The probe should enter lunar orbit on December 6th, with landing scheduled for December 14th. Read more from Spaceflight Now.

Chang'e 3 (Beijing Institute of Spacecraft System Engineering)On August 18th, 1976, the Soviet probe Luna 24 landed safely on the Moon. Using a robotic drill, it obtained a sample of lunar soil; it then launched from the surface, returning to Earth on August 22nd. Since that mission, no probe has returned for a soft landing to the Moon’s surface, although there have been numerous orbital missions and a few probes crashed into the surface to study their impacts. Now, China is set to be the first to return to the Moon with a soft landing.

Chang’e 3, China’s latest lunar probe, is currently expected to launch on Sunday (12:30 p.m. EST, or Monday morning at 1:30 a.m. local time). Chang’e will land a six-wheeled, solar-powered rover that will be used to explore the Moon’s Sinus Iridum region.

More here from Spaceflight Now and from Emily Lakdawalla at the Planetary Society.

Image: Beijing Institute of Spacecraft System Engineering

MAVEN Launches for Mars

The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) probe launched today from Cape Canaveral aboard and Atlas V rocket, headed for Mars. MAVEN will study Mars’ upper atmosphere for signs of how and why it has changed over the planet’s history. Read more from NASA and from Spaceflight Now.

Alas, Poor Ming!

Ming (Bangor University)

We hardly knew ye.

ScienceNordic reports:

In autumn 2006 a team of researchers went on an expedition to Iceland, where they discovered something that made the headlines across the world. The discovery even made it into the Guinness Book of World Records.

One of the Arctica islandica bivalve molluscs, also known as ocean quahogs, that the researchers picked up from the Icelandic seabed turned out to be around 405 years old, and thus the world’s oldest animal.

However, after taking a closer look at the old mollusc using more refined methods, the researchers found that the animal is actually 100 years older than they thought. The new estimate says that the mollusc is actually 507 years old.


The mollusc’s 507-year-long life came to an abrupt end in 2006 when the British researchers – unaware of the animal’s impressive age – opened up its shell to put it under scientific scrutiny.

Read here.


Image: Bangor University

Help in the Philippines

Typhoon Haiyan (Copyright 2013 JMA/EUMETSAT)

Typhoon Haiyan approaches the Philippines
(Japan Meteorological Agency/EUMETSAT/NASA)

Catholic World Report offers some resources for helping out.

Soyuz and GOCE Come Down

Things were falling from the sky yesterday, as both a Soyuz bearing the last crewmembers of ISS Expedition 37 and the ESA’s GOCE satellite returned to the Earth.

In the case of the Soyuz, the three astronauts landed safely in Kazakhstan after spending over five months in space. After landing, Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano said that, now that he was back on Earth, his first interests were “family, then espresso, pizza and everything else”, which sounds to me like a man with his priorities straight. The three also brought with them the Sochi Olympic torch which had been carried up to the ISS earlier in the week by the newest arriving members of Expedition 38.

Further south, the European Space Agency’s Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Explorer (GOCE) reentered the atmosphere after a 4+ year mission studying the Earth’s gravitation field. What was remarkable was its size, which made GOCE one of the larger manmade objects to enter Earth’s atmposphere uncontrolled in recent years. ESA reports that GOCE finally came down sonwhere in the South Atlantic near the Falkland Islands.

UPDATE: ESA has now posted an image taken by Bill Chater, of the Falkland Islands, which shows GOCE burning up in the atmosphere during reentry:

GOCE Reentry (ESA/Bill Chater)

Expedition 38 Reaches ISS

Expeditions 37 and 38 aboard the ISS (NASA)

The last three members of Expedition 38 reached the ISS this morning after launching aboard a Soyuz capsule from Kazakhstan, bringing the station’s total population up to nine. They brought with them the Olympic torch, currently touring the world ahead of the Sochi Olympic games. Expedition 38 will officially begin after the last three members of Expedition 37 return to Earth on Sunday.

Read here from NASA.

Expedition 38 approaches docking at the ISS (NASA)

Images: Expedition 37 & 38 crews; Expedition 38 Soyuz approaches ISS for docking (NASA)

Life Began in Clay?

Creation of Adam, Sistine Chapel (Michelangelo)

It does have a certain Biblical ring to it.

A new study from Cornell shows that complex molecules that could potentially aid in the rise of cells can be built from reactions embedded deep in clay:

“We propose that in early geological history clay hydrogel provided a confinement function for biomolecules and biochemical reactions,” said Dan Luo, professor of biological and environmental engineering and a member of the Kavli Institute at Cornell for Nanoscale Science.

In simulated ancient seawater, clay forms a hydrogel — a mass of microscopic spaces capable of soaking up liquids like a sponge. Over billions of years, chemicals confined in those spaces could have carried out the complex reactions that formed proteins, DNA and eventually all the machinery that makes a living cell work. Clay hydrogels could have confined and protected those chemical processes until the membrane that surrounds living cells developed.

Read here from Science Daily.

The trouble is that reports like this are becoming all too common. I don’t think a week goes by that there’s not a new report of interesting compounds arising in the deep sea, in hydrothermal vents, in ice, on volcanoes, under lightning strikes, in tidal pools, on comets, on Mars…

But if ostensibly life-giving compounds can spring up practically anywhere, that leaves us precisely nowhere on the question of where it actually did so.

Dark Matter Remains Undetected in Two New Tests

Credit: NASA, ESA, CFHT, CXO, M.J. Jee (University of California, Davis), and A. Mahdavi (San Francisco State University)Sky & Telescope’s Monica Young reports:

Weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs) are the top candidates for dark matter, the invisible stuff that makes up about 84% of the universe’s matter. But two recent experiments designed to sniff out the elusive particles have come up empty-handed, calling previously promising results into doubt.

Read here.