News from the Solar System – Fly me to the Moon

News from space in January and February 2019

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This year is a moon/ Moon frenzy. About that, by convention and just to clarify our Moon gets a capital whereas other moons are just moons. We are starting the year with a Moons of the Solar System event at Space Place,  that is Astronomy on Tap event which is held on the first Tuesday evening of every month. There, I will talk about all the significant moons of our solar system and there are a few that are absolutely fascinating. These moons, together, might hold answers to how our solar system formed if nothing else, but each are amazing worlds suspended in space.

‘Take me to the Moon’, says the motto of another very special show “Love from the Stars” – Space Place’s now traditional Valentine’s day special shows.

This year is definitely the year of putting our attention back to the Moon, as we are celebrating 50 years since humans landed on the Moon (the featured picture is of Eugene Cernan roving on the Moon). There have been attempts to send spacecraft on the Moon, probably the most famous is the Google X Prize, however the first round failed. So what happened to the Google X Prize contestants?

For years people like Robert Zubrin and lately Elon Musk have advocated going straight to Mars. Why is it all of a sudden a frenzy of Moon activity? The Moon has obviously been a very political space, and now on 3rd of January, China’s rover Chang’e 4 landed on the lunar surface. This was the first time humans have landed anything on the so called dark side of the Moon. The spacecraft was launched on 8th of December, last year, on a Long March 3B rocket with the destination being the South Pole region and the Aitken Basin. Part of the reason to go to the far side of the Moon is that it is naturally shielded from the electromagnetically noisey Earth, because of us. There’s also a number of questions about the nature of the Moon on the other side and plenty of exploration opportunities near the South Pole, so a good spot to send a rover that will contribute greatly to our understanding. The whole spacecraft weighed in at about 3780kg with the lander being around 1200kg and the much smaller rover at 140kg.

The reality is that exploring the Moon is something that has been agreed by nations through the Global Exploration Strategy, these are directions set by the International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG), a forum set up by 14 space agencies
to advance the Global Exploration Strategy through coordination of their mutual efforts in space exploration.

We might have not gone back to the Moon (yet) but we got pictures of the furthest object ever visited by a human space craft, Ultima Thule. Hot on the heals of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 8 trip to the Moon we have the real time fly past of Ultima Thule on New Years Day, only this time the distance is over 6.5 billion kilometres from Earth, rather than the 300,000 kilometres to the Moon. To be fair on the crew of Apollo 8, there’s no one on New Horizons so they, like their colleagues who also visited the Moon, still have the record for going the farthest from Earth.

Back on Mars, Curiosity says farewell to the Vera Rubin ridge. “NASA’s Curiosity rover has taken its last selfie on Vera Rubin Ridge and descended toward a clay region of Mount Sharp. The twisting ridge on Mars has been the rover’s home for more than a year, providing scientists with new samples – and new questions – to puzzle over.”

A little bit further into the Solar System, scientists figured out that Saturn’s rings are not as old as we thought, and will not last for ever but only for another 300 million years. So next time Saturn comes around, come have a look, we have spectacular telescopes at Space Place, well suited for the most spectacular planet.

And last but not least, maybe, just maybe, this year it will be the year when we will finally find out “Why is Uranus upside down?”