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Mach diamonds, Mars ambitions, and a shiny new telescope: this week in space

China fired up the largest radio telescope in the world earlier this week. The Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) is nearly double the size of the Arecibo observatory, and they didn’t stop there. Far from creating a radio quiet zone that people could still live in, like we did in West Virginia, authorities staked out a 5km radius of radio silence and displaced some 8,000 people for the “protection” of the telescope. Construction started in 2011 on the massive observatory, nicknamed Tianyan: the Eye of Heaven.

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We found out that Mercury is shrinking. Stress wrinkles in its surface, called scarps, show us where the planet’s surface is cracking and settling fastest. Frankly, this is mostly important because it proves the null hypothesis: that Earth is not the only planet in the universe that has geological (Mercurological?) activity. Not that our planet isn’t a lovely and unique place, but it isn’t special, in the sense that it isn’t an exception.

There’s some newly discovered stuff going on with Europa, too: apparently it has cryovolcanoes like Enceladus. Why care about cryovolcanoes? Because they give us access to whatever’s below Europa’s surface, which we think is a global subsurface ocean. Drilling through miles and miles of crust isn’t really plausible because it takes too long. Sure would be nice to have an Artesian well so we could get some good readings without working too hard. You know, harder than sending a probe to Europa to begin with.

There’s a saying: if you want something done fast, give it to a busy man. Elon Musk has certainly been a busy man, and fast ± fire seems to be his thing lately. SpaceX peeled the plastic off their brandy-spankin’-new methane rocket, the Raptor: the one that could take humans to Mars. Mach diamonds, a visible standing wave in the exhaust plume, are easy to see in the Raptor’s fiery tail.  It’s a methane rocket because methane is easier to make with what there is on Mars; the idea is that the ship would tank up on Mars for the ride home.

Musk has a plan to go to Mars: He wants to start within the next year or two, and then have a flight to Mars for every launch window between now and the 2020s — whereupon SpaceX should be ready to field the Interplanetary Transport System. This is all with an explicit intent to colonize Mars within our lifetime.

All these things make me wonder, though: why are we looking to other planets when there’s so much to deal with right here? Why Mars? Plumes or no plumes, why Europa? I don’t claim to know the mind of Elon Musk. But the argument for looking to Mars is to believe space travel is and should be the future of humanity, whether for reasons of escape or because we’re ready to outgrow the bounds of our home world. It’s part of the same school of thought that wants to turn over every rock and look under it, just because there might be something worth knowing under it. How would we ever know if we didn’t look?

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