Last month was jam-packed with exciting news. So, let’s dive in!
There's been a whole lot of space news in just the past month, and we're here to try and make some sense of what all the excitement is about.
Vertical Takeoff and Landing
For some time now, SpaceX has been trying to land one of its Falcon 9 boosters vertically on a barge in the ocean. In the past, this has always resulted in the “Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly” of the rocket. That is to say, it fell over and blew up. Fun to watch, but not great for SpaceX’s bottom line.
On April 8th, that all changed. SpaceX managed to land the first stage booster from their latest launch (a resupply mission to the International Space Station), on a drone barge several miles downrange from the launch site.
It was, honestly, one of the most amazing engineering feats I’ve ever seen. (If you haven’t seen the video, it’s worth finding.)
But, apart from giving us the best non-cat-based GIF ever, what good is this? Well, it comes down to money. With the notable exception of the Space Shuttle’s solid rocket boosters (which float), booster stages were just tossed into the ocean and left to sink.
This is a tremendous waste of time, money, and materials, and it’s one of the reasons that it costs so much to get stuff to orbit. Being able to land the booster upright (and dry), allows for possible reuse, thereby lowering future mission costs by approximately “one very expensive booster.”
Number 9. Number 9.
Remember a couple years ago when a bunch of astronomers got together and decided that Pluto wasn’t a “Planet” anymore? The main reason Pluto got demoted was because of its size. (It’s smaller than the Moon!) See, in the last few decades, Astronomers have discovered several other objects in the outer solar system that were as big as Pluto. So, rather than make all those things “Planets,” the term “Dwarf Planet” was coined, and Pluto was reclassified.
Fast forward to today, and there’s good news for fans of the Number 9: Astronomers now think that there is another “Planet 9” lurking way out in the far reaches of the solar system.
At this point, Planet 9 hasn’t been seen, but it’s effects have. Specifically, a lot of those other Dwarf Planets in the outer solar system have orbits that seem to be affected by something else… Something big. At this point, the evidence points to a body with 10 times the mass of the Earth and about four times the diameter.
It’s also really far away. Current predictions indicate that Planet 9 is 700 times further from the Sun than we are! If that’s correct, it would take this thing about 20,000 years to complete one orbit of the Sun!
Planet 9 is also dark. At that distance, very little sunlight reaches it to be reflected back at us. So, confirming that it actually exists is going to be very difficult. However, it’s been over 100 years since a “real” planet was discovered, so you can bet that Astronomers will be scanning the sky non-stop for the first glimpse of this one. (Not to mention the naming rights!)
Of course, at this point, this is all based on indirect evidence and math. But, that’s exactly what led to the discovery of Neptune and Pluto.
Just last week a group called “Breakthrough Initiatives” announced a plan to send 1,000 tiny probes across interstellar space to visit Alpha Centauri. Ordinarily, this would go into the round file, but one of the members of this group is Physicist Stephen Hawking, who is anything but a crackpot.
The entire plan hinges on the probes themselves. They would be very small and accelerated to approximately 20% the speed of light using 100 gigawatt lasers. Traveling at that speed, it would take just 20 years to reach Alpha Centauri, which is 4 light years away.
Details about the initiative are still coming out, so I’ll be digging into it more in next month’s column.
Steven Disbrow is a computer programmer who specializes in e-commerce and mobile systems development, an entrepreneur, comic-book nerd, writer, improviser, actor, sometime television personality and parent of two human children.
Photo courtesy SpaceX