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This week in space: lots of things about planets we don't live on

Stephen Hawking thinks human life on Earth has an expiration date. “We must also continue to go into space for the future of humanity,” he said. “I don’t think we will survive another 1000 years without escaping beyond our fragile planet.” Homo sapiens needs to get off Earth and get after colonizing other places, according to Hawking, basically because we’ve got a nice planet, and it’d sure be a shame if something were to happen to it. Hawking’s vision nudges up against a Type II civilization, more or less within the millennium, and that’s optimistic; we’re a ways from being a multi-planetary civilization, and our space agencies are fraught with funding problems, easy victims of political jockeying. At the same time, though, it wasn’t so long ago that the Wright Brothers were making their first sputtering attempts at flight, and Kurzweil said progress builds on progress, accelerating and elevating us all. One thing is for certain: the future will not look like we think it will.

Getting to whatever other planets we’re going to colonize, especially Mars, just got a little easier. NASA’s new Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite R (GOES-R) space weather satellite is set to launch this Saturday from Canaveral. Space weather is one of the biggest hazards to space travelers, just because of how damaging high-energy radiation can be and how difficult it can be to predict. There are three kinds of space weather: photons, plasma and protons. “These protons may be the biggest challenge of getting humans to Mars and back healthy,” Rodney Viereck, a physicist with NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, told NPR’s Morning Edition. But it’s not only hazardous to those in space; like the fabled Carrington Event caused by a solar storm, the threat of space weather on our planet is that it could toast the power grid on an international scale. GOES-R will watch solar and terrestrial weather in 16 spectral bands using its CCD, along with three other identical satellites named, in NASA’s usual spectacularly inventive fashion, GOES-S, GOES-T and GOES-U.

Elsewhere in acronym news, AIDA stands for the Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment. It’s a joint effort by NASA and the ESA, actually consisting of the European AIM (Asteroid Impact Mission) and NASA’s concurrent DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test). The idea is that both missions would send a probe to the binary asteroid system Didymos, which is supposed to make a close pass within 6.8 million miles of Earth in May 2022. Scientists have sent an open letter in support of the AIDA mission to its parent agencies, shortly before the agencies are due to decide on the ultimate fate of the mission. AIDA is still in its planning stages, but the mission has to launch in 2020 to make the launch window for reaching Didymoon.

Has crowdfunding jumped the shark yet? Sure does seem like “crowdfunding” is shorthand for “we can’t pay for this, so how ’bout you guys do it for us?” Project Blue, the uni-tasking space telescope meant to point just at Alpha Centauri A and B, has officially entered its crowdfunding phase. Building on the work of the Pale Red Dot project, Project Blue is intended to gaze directly at Alpha Centauri to image exoplanets there. Organizers hope to launch the telescope into orbit before the end of the decade, which means that like the AIDA folks, they really need to get in gear quick.

Finally, there may be a slushy ocean hidden beneath one of Pluto’s major landmarks. Astronomers have discovered signs of a submerged, viscous ocean acting like a counterweight to Charon’s orbit around Pluto. Looking at the wacky orbital dance between Pluto and Charon tipped off New Horizons project astronomers that there must be something else, other than just pure orbital mechanics, going on to cause the orbital perturbations we see. Close examination of Pluto revealed a huge, dense mass under its bright, heart-shaped equatorial region, Sputnik Planitia, almost exactly opposite to Charon. Focusing on the left “ventricle” of Sputnik Planitia, project scientists discovered what they think is an impact basin full of slushy liquid nitrogen, bubbling “like boiling oatmeal.” Pluto continues to surprise us.

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