A New Horizon

ISS-31_SpaceX_Dragon_commercial_cargo_craft_is_grappled_by_Canadarm2Space, the final frontier. Humans looked up at the night sky for millennia thinking it was an unreachable other world, but the first few weeks of this February alone have brought three exciting pieces of news in space exploration.

Firstly the New Horizons spacecraft has started sending back pictures of Pluto. New Horizons was launched in early 2006 for the specific purpose of visiting Pluto, Pluto’s moons and objects that are even further out in the solar system. The spacecraft is even carrying the ashes of the discoverer of that region of our solar system, Clyde Tombaugh.

Since 2006 New Horizons has hibernated to preserve power while travelling nearly five billion kilometres. It’s currently speeding towards Pluto at almost 50,000 km/h! The spacecraft is expected to pass closest to Pluto on July 14 at a distance of 10,000 kilometres, just over twice the width of Australia!

However NASA doesn’t want to wake the spacecraft up on July 13 just to find that something isn’t working. So they’ve turned on bits and pieces of the spacecraft early to test all the equipment.

One piece of equipment, LORRI (Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager), is designed to take images at long distances. Scientists tested it out by taking some happy snaps of Pluto and Charon (its main moon) at a distance of 200 million kilometres. The pictures may just be blurry blobs of light, but I’d like to see your iPhone do better. We can look forward to better images over the coming months.

The second exciting event was the announcement of NASA’s 2016 Budget, which had lots of cool things in it (unlike the last Australian federal budget). It included a US$30 million proposal requested by President Obama himself to further develop a mission to Europa, a moon of Jupiter.

Europa is one of the most likely places in our solar system to harbour life. It is about 90% the size of the Moon, has tectonic plates like Earth and is believed to have a vast ocean beneath its icy surface. That ocean could contain essential chemical compounds for life.

The mission ‘Europa Clipper’ was first developed in the early-2000s and the current proposal would have it launch in the mid-2020s. A probe would image the surface of Europa to determine its geology, measure the atmospheric composition to assess its potential to harbour life and identify landing sites for a future mission.

Yet, the further US$30 million to plan this mission is not confirmed. The committee in charge of funding NASA is now chaired by Senator Ted Cruz, who typically votes to reduce NASA’s funding and was one of the main causes of the US government’s 2013 shutdown over government spending.

Lastly, a test of SpaceX’s recyclable rocket was successful! Imagine if every time you finished driving your car exploded. It would be very expensive to drive places. Until now, all rockets were one-use-only, so this was precisely the problem people faced when trying to send objects into space. Enter: the Falcon 9!

There were some mixed successes in January when the Falcon 9 was successfully launched but narrowly missed its ocean-based landing pad due to steering system gremlins.

A second attempt was scheduled for February 8. After a series of delays SpaceX successfully launched the rocketon February 10. They dropped off a satellite in orbit and, despite stormy seas forcing them into a Plan B, they ‘landed’ the reusable part of the rocket within 10 metres of their intended target while keeping it completely vertical. Pretty good effort when you’re trying to land a 45 metre tall, 4 metre wide tube that weighs hundreds of tonnes! This is a good sign for future attempts – so watch this space (groan) because return tickets from Earth are about to become a lot cheaper!