Three incredible unmanned spacecraft are right now actively making discoveries that change how we look at the Solar System from our Moon to the incredible frozen depths of its edge.
And the science is so cool that one super-smart “Rock Star” is capturing headlines with his insight and new song celebrating mankind’s innate curiosity.
That legendary guitarist is non-other than shaggy-haired, British rocker Brian May of Queen, who has a doctor degree in astrophysics. Dr. May who came to America at the Baltimore, Maryland, Johns Hopkins University headquarters of NASA’s New Horizon mission to witness the data stream as the spacecraft passed by a small celestial body called Ultima Thule, 4 billion miles away.
Meanwhile, last week in China, their astrophysicists were rejoicing in the first soft landing on the backside of the Moon by Chang’e-4, named for the Moon Goddess. Launched on Dec. 8 and landing on the area of Aitken Basin in the Von Karman Crater near the moon’s south pole—one of the oldest impact craters in the entire Solar System. Chang’e-4 deployed a sophisticated rover called Yutu 2 (Rabbit) for a few months of unique science.
And still another interplanetary mission of NASA is cloaked in the obscurity of other world news, and its discoveries might overshadow those of New Horizon and Chang’e-4; spacecraft OSIRIS-Rex is trying to snatch a pea-size piece an asteroid’s surface and bring it back to Earth to look for the secrets of life.
The best way to keep up with these amazing space adventures is, of course, social media with Twitter keeping the latest alerts of what’s happening.
There are 18 active interplanetary spacecraft in our Solar System, including Japan’s Hayabusa 2 that tossed a couple micro rovers on the half-mile asteroid Ryuga. Most of these missions have their own accounts in all the social media platforms—as well as informative websites.
New Horizon will be sending back photos and physics data for more than a year as the record 6-billion-mile distance takes more than 5 hours for information to travel back to Earth. A computer hard drive full of a terabyte of precious cargo will be dumped back to Earth in trickles, each transmission like a Christmas package of unknowns about to be unwrapped.
After passing by Pluto in 2015, the Hubble Space Telescope found a new target for New Horizons a billion miles farther—deep in the super cold region of our Solar System called the Kuiper Built. Here lies the -300 degrees F. below zero world where nitrogen, carbon dioxide and methane are like a slushy and the primordial left-overs of our creation are thought to exist.
So far, the images of Ultima Thule (pronounced “tool,” an ancient, traditional name of distant places beyond the known world) reveal a 21-mile tall “snowman” of two reddish globes, obviously stuck together maybe as long as 4.5 billion years ago when the Solar System formed.
Rocker Dr. May, an astrophysicist specializing in asteroids and comets, has been involved in several NASA and European Space Agency missions, particularly with 3-D imaging. He was inspired to write a song to underscore man’s desire to explore, and it’s a pretty good one. Check it out at this video:
Focusing on the Moon, China has returned after landing a rover on the front side of the Moon in 2015. Putting an identical rover, “Yu Rabbit 2,” the size of a golf cart, on the back side of the Moon that we never see from Earth is a serious first in the 60-year Space Age. The feat required orbiting a satellite beyond the Moon to relay the data from the backside. The imagery is beautiful and the science is groundbreaking on everything from the lunar soil make up and intensity of cosmic rays.
But the history books decades from now may be talking about the comet sample mission of asteroid Bennu, a 1,600-foot-wide asteroid that NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has begun orbiting. Tiny Bennu is the smallest object ever orbited, 1.2 billion miles away between Jupiter and Saturn.
OSIRIS-REx will orbit and explore Bennu for more than a year, allowing scientists and mission planners to examine the asteroid and determine a safe location for the craft’s touch-and-go descent in July 2020 to snag samples from the asteroid. The spacecraft will depart Bennu and head back to Earth, releasing its sample carrier for re-entry and landing in Utah in September 2023.
Scientists will take the samples to an ultra-clean facility at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston for detailed analysis. Data gathered by the spacecraft’s thermal emission and visible infrared spectrometer instruments indicates clay minerals on the asteroid’s surface contain hydroxyl molecules with oxygen and hydrogen molecules bonded together. This finding suggests Bennu’s surface was once in contact with water, likely when the asteroid was part of a much larger parent body that was smashed to bits in a collision in the chaotic early Solar System.
And you can follow all the latest developments on these major interplanetary missions right from your smartphone—so boot up and enjoy!