ESO Looks for a Breakthrough on Exoplanets

The folks at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) will get a new toy to play with, thanks to Stephen Hawking and his pals at Breakthrough Initiatives.  The observatory’s powerful Very Large Telescope will have its VLT Imager and Spectrometer for mid-Infrared (VISIR) instrument upgraded in order to improve its ability to capture images of exoplanets at mid-infrared light frequencies.

The four main units of ESO's Very Large Telescope in Paranal, Chile. (Credit: ESO/ S. Brunier)

Breakthrough Initiatives plans to send a very large number of “chip-size” micro-spacecraft toward the Alpha Centauri system to collect data on exoplanets there (including a particularly enticing one orbiting Proxima Centauri).  The tiny craft will be carried by four-meter sails that will be pushed by Earth-based lasers.  The effort has received $100 million for start-up costs from Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, an associate of Hawking.

SpaceX Returns to the Fray

In September, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded on its launch pad, destroying a Facebook satellite and precipitating a crisis for the privately managed space program.  Just four months later, SpaceX has completed its investigation of the incident and successfully launched a Falcon 9 carrying ten satellites for Iridium Communications, Inc.

SpaceX rocket descending to landing platform. (Credit: SpaceX)

The cherry on the sundae was the rocket’s first stage landing upright on a “droneship” floating in the Pacific Ocean not far from its Vandenberg Air Force Base launch site.  Reusability of rockets is key not only to the economic viability of SpaceX’s business model but also to its vision for sending human explorers to Mars.

Curiosity Examines Shiny “Egg Rock”

The Curiosity rover recently snapped some photos of a rather, well, curious-looking object on the lower slopes of Mount Sharp on Mars.  NASA scientists have dubbed it “Egg Rock.”

Curiosity's laser left telltale white spots on "Egg Rock." (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP/LPGNantes/CNRS/IAS/MSSS)

By analyzing the results of dozens of laser pulses aimed at the golf ball-size object, the scientists have determined that it is largely comprised of iron, nickel, and phosphorous – a combination of elements rarely found except in meteorites.  They speculate that Egg Rock may be a fragment of an asteroid’s core that landed on Mars millions of years ago and has been undisturbed until Curiosity rolled up to it.

Groundbreaking Mission to Asteroid 16 Psyche

Imagine a planet the size of Mars being torn apart until nothing remained except its metallic core.  What could be learned from it?  The answer might lie at 16 Psyche, an asteroid lying about 280 million miles from the Sun – and NASA plans to launch a mission to study it.

Artist's rendering of NASA spacecraft over 16 Psyche. (Credit: SSL/ASU/P. Rubin/NASA/JPL-Caltech)

What distinguishes 16 Psyche from other asteroids?  Scientists believe that it is made almost entirely of nickel and iron, unlike its far more common rock-and-ice cousins.  Some conjecture that the Massachusetts-size object might actually be the remains of a planet that has been stripped of its mantle and crust, providing a unique opportunity to study the composition and properties of a planetary core in its most pristine state.

The Psyche mission is expected to launch in 2023 and to arrive at 16 Psyche in 2030.

A Melancholy Farewell to Eugene Cernan

When Eugene Cernan climbed up into Apollo 17’s lunar module after ambling about on the Moon’s surface for three days, in December 1972, he could not have imagined that no one would follow in his footsteps during the remaining 44 years of his life.  After all, he must have thought, the Apollo program was just the beginning of human exploration not only of the Moon but of the Solar System and beyond.  How could he have known that the quest would stall for so long?

Eugene Cernan drives across the Taurus-Littrow landing site on the Moon, December 1972. (Credit: NASA)

Cernan had “the right stuff.”  He was a member of the third team of U.S. astronauts and, before the Apollo program, he flew on the Gemini 9 mission during which he exited the capsule for a harrowing two-hour spacewalk.  He was also one of three crewmembers on the Apollo 10 “dress rehearsal” for the historic first moon landing by Apollo 11.

Before he left the Moon, Eugene Cernan scratched the initials of his daughter into the lunar dust.  He said that he hoped one day some visitors to the landing site would come upon the letters and wonder who had been there.  Maybe that day will come.