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Our Biggest Year in Space, Ever
David Brin   Aug 21, 2015   Contrary Brin  
We’re looking outward… toward the vast, vast majority of all there is. And after decades of doldrums, it seems we truly are regaining some momentum in space exploration.  Have any of you been keeping track on a scorecard?

Hang on till the end, to read the news from NASA NIAC!

First… Citizen science. Nasa just launched a satellite to judge soil moisture. In order to calibrate it, Nasa needs lots of soil samples. So, they’re inviting people from NASA to find out when the satellite is flying over their area, then collect a sample, weigh it, dry it, weigh it again, and report it.

Of course Pluto is still the biggest story.  Data and extraordinary images continue to stream in from the fabulously successful New Horizons mission. Of which we should all be very proud, a pinnacle in one of humanity’s best years in space. 

(That is, unless you are one of these pathetic people who proclaim “it’s all faked!”  In which case, why take on so many dazzlingly vivid accomplishments to fabricate? With that kind of special effects budget, you could, um, afford real space missions.)

But back to the show! Watch the video: Animated Flyover of Pluto. Then remind yourself that this is Pluto.  Say that to yourself while watching the video. It is freaking PLUTO!

And you did this. As a taxpayer and citizen. If you are not thrilled, then you badly need to next watch THIS video! Especially the end. 

And now this coda: “In a coincidence of astronomical proportions, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has conducted the first flyby of Pluto on the 50th anniversary of the first flyby of Mars. NASA’s Mariner 4 probe became the first spacecraft to capture up-close images of another planet when it flew past Mars on July 14, 1965.”

Wow, has it been that long since my teenage brain had to adjust to there being no canals (or princesses) on the Red Planet?  I am mollified knowing that New Horizons still has fuel in its tanks and they hope to send her past another Kuiper Belt object, a billion miles further into deep, deep space.

Had enough Pluto?

Nope, there’s more. Another Plutonian mountain rangeAnd cool info on Pluto’s lesser moons.

The much-anticipated “eclipse” study of Pluto’s dark side shows the sun’s halo around the planet, revealing thick and high haze that may come from crystalized hydrocarbons. And closeups in
Tombaugh Regio show “flow” shapes that suggest semi-liquid activity - possibly by partly melted Nitrogen ices (!) within the last few tens of millions of years! Signs of geologic activity
recently? On Pluto? Oy.

And now what you’ve been waiting for… a tentative map of Pluto proposed place names! And for Charon, too. Pluto features many explorers and discoverers… plus some noted monsters. But Charon?  Charon’s craters and regions are tentatively named for… sci fi characters! Kirk Crater… Sulu Crater… Ripley Crater … Skywalker Crater… Vader Crater plus some creators of sci fi like Kubrick, Clarke and Butler.  Zowee! 

(Notice the majority of Charon that’s still blurry?  Okay, there’s still time for me and my creations! Help make em classics so the next mission…)

And Meanwhile The Philae lander on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko bobbled and skipped into a shadowed spot, falling out of contact… till it woke up in June as the comet moved closer to the sun. But latest data suggests something, possibly a gas emission, may have moved it again. Philae’s antenna may have been obstructed, and one of its transmitters seems to have stopped working. Well well, some of you recall I predicted this.  The violence of the comet’s close passage to the sun will do this.  I hope they got some more good data.  More on 67/P in our next space update.

See this marvelous 3D topography model of the nucleus of 67P.

Had enough yet? We’re just getting started. Now see exaggerated vertical relief fly over of Ceres. Ceres is apparently producing a periodic haze over the Mysterious White Spot, suggesting active venting. Looks like it is turning out to be an icy fumarole.

And our spectacularly successful Cassini mission in the Saturn system is still pouring out results.  One of my top ten favorite photos of all time was taken by Cassini’s little Huygens Probe whil landing on Titan, clearly showing what Cassini confirmed to be lakes and seas of ethane and methane, fed by rain and by rivers flowing into waxy shorelines.

But I want more! So just today, NASA released stunning Cassini closeups of the beautifully ravaged moon, Dione.

And none of this is to mention earlier—within the last year—news from Mercury and Venus… and recalibrated Earth-sensing that proves Ted Cruz to be a liar… and a comet sweeping past Mars, caught in the act by our orbiting probes!  And the science from that serendipity is (I hear) amazing.

More from Curiosity and Opportunity, our faithful emissaries to the planet solely occupied by robots. (Can you believe those spectacular successes are almost afterthoughts, in this list?)  And more insights into weird Titan! 

And news of a possible NASA Europa probe that might use methods pioneered at NASA NIAC (where I serve on the external advisory board.) More on NIAC below.

Look Homeward Angel

Want to watch something even cooler than all that? How about a video of the Moon transiting in front of the Earth?  And this is the lunar backside we are looking at! Another gift of the Discovr (Deep Space Climate Observatory) probe, described giddily by Phil Plait, who is just having way too much fun during by far our best year in space since the 1970s and possibly ever.

Discovr sits at the Lagrange Point a million miles closer to the sun, warning us of solar storms (a vital service) but also fulfilling a proposal by Al Gore (one of the century’s most-under-rated figures, whose Senate bill freed the Internet for all) that we needed a monitoring station to give humanity a round the clock daylight view of our planet as it turns. Can you believe we did not have this?

Until now.

Solar Sails to Space 

I’ve served on the board of advisers of the Planetary Society and have long urged others to put them on your list of orgs to join, in making a better world. (Each of us, whatever our opinions, should have membership at least a dozen orgs who - via the miracle of Proxy Activism - then go forth and save the world for us. A modern convenience. Look up the concept here.)

One favorite of mine? The Planetary Society’s ongoing efforts to accomplish what should have been done at the very dawn of the Space Era, almost a lifetime ago… developing useful, reliable, deployable light sails (or “solar sails”) to send small craft cheaply across the community of planets. Except for one small Japanese deployment, this whole realm has been almost utterly ignored by the major agencies and powers, a blatant case of neglecting-the-obvious that starts to look awfully suspicious. Moreover, the TPS efforts have been plagued by one episode of bad luck after another… like two successive blowups of Russian launch vehicles.  As one of the members of my blogmunity - Paul451 - put it: “Solar sails really are cursed. I call aliens. This is clearly the forbidden technology which violates the terms of our quarantine.”

Though now there’s tentative good news on this roller-coaster ride… the jinx appears to have struck again. But still, after a series of setbacks and silences, LightSail deployed!

Now that the first stage of this mission is complete, the Planetary Society is preparing their next phase of LightSail, scheduled for 2016.  Partially funded through Kickstarter, this solar sail will be launched into a higher orbit, 450 miles above the surface of the Earth. “There the solar sails will both deploy and catch the sun’s photon breeze, sailing on the high seas of the interplanetary vacuum.” Sign on to The Planetary Society’s kickstarter!

And while you are at it please sign this easy Planetary Society petition online, asking Congress not to (again) slash planetary exploration funding—and to support a new mission to Europa. 

Not resting on our laurels 

Let’s hope this is just the beginning. That Elon Musk and Virgin Galactic and others get their legs back under them and get Earth to Orbit far more efficient and reliable… the core element in doing ever-more thing, ever-better.

Meanwhile, Planetary Resources and its competitors… and the B612 Foundation... are pushing forward their endeavors to either harvest asteroids for resources or at least detect and divert dangerous ones. (Seems worthwhile—just don’t touch my asteroid.) 

And there’s talk of making an inflatable space elevator! (Only 35 years after I broached the idea, in SUNDIVER.  Well better late than never.  Try harder to keep up, guys.)

And NASA’s Innovative and Advanced Concepts group (NIAC) has just released its 2015 Solicitation For Proposals for small seed grants to enable brilliant, ambitious innovators to try out some bold idea.  NIAC is the tip, the entry wedge, and if your concept satisfies the requirements, you might win real money to transform how we live/work/explore outer space. NIAC is especially interested in beefing up its portfolio in Biology, by the way. And women researchers are encouraged to look into the possibilities.  And Yoiu know all this because I sit on the external board.

It all adds up to a great year in space.  Greater even than the glory days of Apollo? I deem that to be arguable!  We are accomplishing so much more, with such spectacular competence that it’s happening with the tiny slivers of funding our society allocates to horizons.

Beyond interplanetary? Icarus Interstellar is one of several nascent groups aiming at taking look-ahead activism to the next level… pushing now for humanity to become an interstellar civilization. Read up on their Kickstartercampaign.  But don’t forget also Centauri Dreams

Finally... getting back to why so few of us are celebrating this greatest year of humanity in space… here again is a link to my TED talk about why we are letting anger rule our lives, when there are so many reasons instead to feel rising confidence. 

We are a people who are doing all these wondrous things, exploring our solar system with pennies out of each citizen’s pocket… and so many other signs of progress down here on Earth… yet, we are letting dogmatists and indignation junkies of both the right and the left hijack the discussion, spreading fear and only fear of the future.

We are doing all this, and so much more!  We are a mighty folk. A folk of legend who will be subject of songs, in times to come. Call the doom merchants what they are—ankle weights around the feet of a pragmatic, problem-solving people. Problem-solvers who will go ahead and save the world, despite them.  And go on to the stars.



David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."

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