Crowdfunding is an increasingly popular approach to bankrolling space missions. The U.K. Lunar Mission One Kickstarter campaign is nearing its final week, and Planetary Resource’s Project ARKYD was funded the same way. Thoth Technology has launched an Indiegogo campaign for its Northern Light Mission, which seeks to raise over a million dollars to put a lander and a mini rover on Mars.
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With all the news about the exploits of the Philae lander, another daring mission to land a spacecraft on a cosmic body has been overlooked — the Japanese Space Agency’s (JAXA) Hayabusa 2, which is scheduled to launch on Wednesday and land on an asteroid.
Hayabusa 1 was the second spacecraft to land on an asteroid, following NASA’s NEAR-Shoemaker mission. Hayabusa 1 was the first spacecraft to retrieve and return samples from an asteroid, but despite the mission’s success, not everything went as planned. It actually landed twice on Asteroid 25143 Itokawa in November, 2005 because the spacecraft’s sample retrieval system didn’t operate at full capacity. So while it did manage to extract some samples, they amounted to a small fraction of what JAXA had hoped to retrieve.
On Wednesday, the European Space Agency’s Philae lander made history by being the first spacecraft to land on a comet. Comet 69P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is now the seventh celestial body humans have touched. What are the others? I’m glad you asked because we’re about to run through the list.
When I read Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars two thoughts kept coming up: one, that I so wish I’d written the book, and two, that going to space is a royal pain in the ass. I’m amazed anyone has ever wanted to or, in fact, done it. Going to the bathroom alone—a topic Roach delights in investigating in spite of, or perhaps because of, the associated awkwardness—is a major feat in zero gravity. Her book answers all of the practical and embarrassing questions you could ever think to ask about space. Best of all, she gets those answers through correspondence with astronauts and visits to various NASA outposts around the country, as well as a visit to JAXA headquarters.
If you don’t know Roach’s work, do yourself a favor and read one of her books. You’ve got plenty to choose from beyond Packing for Mars. I first found out about her when her first book, Stiff, which examines “the curious lives of human cadavers” made an appearance on Six Feet Under. Her next book, Spook, is all about ghosts and the afterlife. There’s Bonk, which is all about the science of sex and features crazy studies about things such as pig orgasms (and is my favorite of all her books so far), and Gulp, which explores eating and digestion.
For a terrestrial civilization, we sure have made a whole bunch of space trash, including approximately “22,000 objects larger than the size of a softball,” and a bunch smaller than that, most of which come from old satellites (can we start a cosmic recycling program for these?) If you’ve seen Gravity you know how dangerous space trash can be, it can also essentially multiply as it continues colliding. The problem is that it’s not clear whose responsibility it is to clean this mess up, given that waste collection and disposal services don’t exactly make it out that far. It’s also dangerous to collect this trash, as objects can move quick and crazy in space. Researchers at MIT have now developed an algorithm to help crews anticipate the movement of space junk so they can more easily snatch it up.
The technique was recently tested at the ISS where astronauts used SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold Engage and Reorient Experimental Satellite) satellites, which are devices for testing various technologies in zero gravity. The SPHERES are pretty ingenious—they behave like satellites, so they’re the perfect proving ground, and they’re also small enough to actually be tested inside the ISS, which is what they did here. Astronauts equipped a SPHERE with a couple of linked cameras that filmed another satellite that was spinning around in the air.
Most people acknowledge that we need to find alternate sources of energy, given that peak oil is imminent and the Earth’s resources are finite. Nuclear energy has been advocated by environmentalists, scientists, and organizations who believe that despite the negative stigma, it might be the best alternative to the rapidly depleting fuels we currently rely on. While that may or may not be true, one can hardly blame Japan for seeking alternatives to nuclear energy. A number of sources report that the Fukishima disaster still isn’t really under control and may be leaking more radiation than ever, so Japan is directing its search for viable energy sources elsewhere — namely, space, where solar power is abundant.