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This week in space: Mars missions, a space blob, and a falling satellite

We all know Elon Musk has grand ambitions, but is his reach is starting to exceed his grasp? “Turns out MCT can go well beyond Mars, so will need a new name,” he hinted, in between talking up the updates to Tesla 8.0. As it turns out, that new name is the Interplanetary Transport System. More details had better be coming next week.

NASA’s Mars 2020 rover is bringing its MOXIE to Mars in a proof-of-concept experiment to see whether we can break CO2 in its atmosphere to get breathable oxygen. MOXIE stands for the Mars OXygen In-situ resource utilization Experiment, which is a terrible reach as acronyms go. It’s a 1:100 scale test model of a future apparatus that would produce oxygen meant for human colonists. While this scaled-down version is less than a cubic foot in total volume, it can produce about 10g of oxygen per hour. It runs really hot, though, and draws a lot of power — to the tune of 800C and 300W — so going live could take some doing. NASA mentions waste heat management, but is it really waste heat? It could heat hab modules… or greenhouses, à la The Martian.

The Mars 2020 rover also has an instrument called SHERLOC, for Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence of Organics & Chemicals. I can’t decide if that acronym is better or worse.

Scientists working with the Chandra space telescope found X-rays shimmering in Pluto’s thin, rarefied atmosphere. Like on Ceres, the atmosphere is barely a wisp of gas, and it spends a lot of time sublimating and then freezing again. But when its upper atmosphere is ablated by the solar wind, it releases photons in the X-ray band, and Chandra nailed down seven of those photons and promptly phoned home about it. This could mean we can spot cold, distant planets in the X-ray part of the spectrum: another channel by which to learn about our solar system and worlds beyond.

pluto wind

The NSF just dropped a moneybomb on the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s HERA (Hydrogen Epoch of Reionization Array) project. They’re getting a massive equipment upgrade: the $9.5M grant will pay to increase the number of radio antennas from 19 to 240 over the next two years. Instead of looking at stars or galaxies, these telescopes are designed to look at the spaces between.

Shortly after the Big Bang, the very first stars were smothered in the sea of neutral hydrogen that blotted out their light through a cosmic Dark Age. As they blew ever-expanding bubbles of stellar wind outward, the interstellar hydrogen gas became ionized and transparent. This is called cosmic dawn: all of a sudden, there was more visible than the 21cm line. Light could get through. By studying the boundaries of these bubbles, in different places throughout the universe, astronomers hope to map the changes that took place during reionization — refining our map of the grandest of superstructures, and getting as close to cosmic dawn as possible.

Also, we found out what’s actually in the middle of the biggest, blurriest space blob ever. LAB-1 is a Lyman-Alpha blob, the first we ever found, and it’s more than 11 billion light years away. That means what we see is more than 11 billion years old. LAB-1 is so far redshifted that its UV emissions actually show up as green in the visible spectrum. When scientists finally got the telescope time on an interferometer big enough to resolve the blob, it snapped into focus and revealed a massive star nursery at its center, surrounded by a swarm of young galaxies. Now we know a little more about how the early universe behaved.

Last but not least, it’s finally official: China went on the record to say that it has lost control of Tiangong-1, and the satellite is going to fall out of the sky next year. They don’t know exactly when or where. They said it’s at 230 miles up, which implies they at least know where it is in orbit — so they’ll probably give a better forecast of its deorbit when that time approaches. Statistically, it’ll probably just burn up, and the largest pieces are most likely to hit the ocean. It’s also only about 2% the mass of the ISS, so don’t lose any sleep.

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