Landing SpaceX, Holding InSight, and Producing Plutonium-238 | Vol. 3 / No. 9

Ups and Downs | Photo: SpaceX Photos, CCo (public domain)
Ups and Downs | Photo: SpaceX Photos, CCo (public domain)

It’s been quite the week for ups and downs: from the successful launch and landing of SpaceX’s Orbcomm-2 mission to the indefinite hold placed on the Mars InSight mission to the restart of Plutonium-238 production in the United States, it’s all here. Read on!

Orbcomm-2 / RTL

To Space and Back in Fifteen Minutes | Photo: SpaceX
To Space and Back in Ten Minutes | Photo: SpaceX

The top news of the week absolutely has to be the successful launch of SpaceX’s Orbcomm-2 mission and the return of the first stage to its landing site safe and sound and in one piece. As you can read in my post from Monday night, it was an incredibly exciting event, with a number of implications for the future of spaceflight. The Atlantic has a great piece on how SpaceX has become an important part of culture, and why that matters. The reusability of the first stage has yet to be established, so there will be forthcoming tests of the returned stage to see how much work will need to be put into future returned first stages before they can be re-flown. Spaceflight Now points out that not everyone is convinced it will be as cheap as Elon Musk believes — “just the cost of the fuel” ($200,000) is a bit optimistic — but if you ask me, within five years you’ll see SpaceX’s price for launch halve at the least, maybe dropping by an order of magnitude in the ten-year timeframe. It really is an amazing achievement, and it really will change things for the better. In the meantime, over at r/SpaceX there’s a list of things we’re all looking forward to from the most exciting spaceflight company in the world.

InSight Pushed Back

Artist's conception of the InSight lander | Photo: NASA/JPL
Artist’s conception of the InSight lander | Photo: NASA/JPL

In a sudden and unfortunate turn for Mars research, the Mars InSight mission has been put on hold indefinitely after a leak was found in one of the primary instruments in advance of its planned early January launch. The device, SEIS (the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure), is a series of three seismometers in a sealed vacuum chamber designed to measure the geological activity of the red planet. But they’ve been unable to perfectly seal the chamber, and have decided not to launch as planned. This means, unfortunately, that the soonest it could fly isn’t for another two years, and even then only if funding holds out. For now, InSight’s future is up in the air, even if the craft itself isn’t. AAAS Science magazine has more.


Photo: NASA / Idaho National Laboratory, CC BY 2.0
The RTG aboard the Mars Science Laboratory | Photo: NASA / Idaho National Laboratory, CC BY 2.0

For the first time in twenty-seven years, a facility in the US is once again making significant amounts of Plutonium-238, the radioactive material used most helpfully in radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) like those powering the New Horizons probe and the Curiosity rover. US supply has been dwindling since the 1988 shutdown of the Savannah River Plant’s “K reactor,” but now the Oak Ridge National Laboratory is making the stuff specifically to power future space missions. In 2013, the site manufactured trace amounts as a proof of concept, and this week they announced the creation of a “golf-ball sized” lump of the material, about 50g. According to GeekWire, NASA plans eventually to ramp up production to 3.3 pounds per year, which is enough to build a new RTG every three to five years. Without the added supply, US reserves of the material would likely run dry in the next two decades. GeekWire has more on the story.


Tardigrades | Photo: Katexic Publications, CC BY 2.0
Tardigrades | Photo: Katexic Publications, CC BY 2.0

Researchers at the University of North Carolina have uncovered one of the secrets to success of the near-indestructible tardigrade (or “water bear”). Turns out that part of the reason the tiny creatures can survive being freeze-dried is because of some unusual proteins that line up and lock together when they dry out to create a “glassy” structure on the surfaces of the cells, preventing damage and maintaining structure. When hydrated, the proteins become disordered and are otherwise completely ignored by the rest of the cell. Not only is that just a cool thing to know about tardigrades, it’s also potentially very useful. They’ve already introduced the protein into yeast, giving it the same ability to be dried out and resurrected, and if they can be introduced into vaccines or medical supplies (and, you know, pass FDA approval) they could allow for cheaper and more efficient shipping around the world (right now, vaccines need to be refrigerated). Gizmodo has more on the story.


In case you missed any of this week’s stories here at This Week In Tomorrow, here they are in friendly point-form:

Best of the Rest

Here’s the rest of the news I didn’t get to, also in handy point-form… form.

That’s all for today. Remember, I only get paid in my own (and your) enthusiasm, so please like This Week In Tomorrow on Facebook, follow me on Twitter @TWITomorrow, and tell your friends about the site! Have a great week.