The atmosphere for fans of the “ninth planet” is carnivalesque this week, as New Horizons, launched nine years ago, makes its closest approach to the best-known planets of the Stygian Abyss this Tuesday, Pluto and Charon (yes, I know, you’re saying Charon is a moon, but no, I’m saying, that’s no moon. They’re binary dwarf planets, orbiting a shared central of gravity, or “barycenter”.) Above is the closest look we’re going to get (unfortunately) of that side of Pluto, because it’s tidally locked to Charon, and we’re passing by on the other side. But just look at it. It’s amazing, like something from the cover of a science fiction pulp magazine. And the pictures of the other side are just going to get better and better. As I said, the flyby is Tuesday, and there are a lot of ways you can keep track of its progress, but because the downlink is a little like trying to empty a swimming pool through a garden hose, it’s going to take a while to get all the data back. In fact, it’ll still be downlinking data from the flyby in November, even though we’re going to get the highest resolution photos in the coming days. Still, it’s got to be the coolest thing I’ve seen all week, and it’s only going to get better. Keep watching over at NASA.
And in other binary news… trinary… quaternary… quinternary? The SuperWASP (Super Wide Angle Search for Planets) has found the first recorded instance of a linked star system consisting of five stars. On one side are two stars locked together like Pluto and Charon, and on the other is another pair of stars which together orbit a central point of gravity with a larger third star. And those two groups of stars, three on one side and two on the other, orbit a central point between them. The BBC has an illustration, if that didn’t do it for you.
NASA announced this week their selections for the first SpaceX and Boeing Commercial Crew missions in 2017. Doctor of mechanical engineering and US Air Force Colonel Robert Behnken, US Air Force Colonel Eric Boe, retired Marine Corps Colonel Douglas Hurley, and US Navy Captain Sunita Williams will be the first humans to fly in the crew Dragon and the CST-100. For me, it’s starting to feel like it’s really going to happen, and that we’re approaching the dawn of a new chapter in space travel. But maybe that’s just me. Well, me, and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, who writes:
We are on a Journey to Mars, and in order to meet our goals for sending American astronauts to the Red Planet in the 2030s we need to be able to focus both on deep space and the groundbreaking work being done on the International Space Station (ISS).
Our commercial crew initiative makes these parallel endeavors possible. By working with American companies to get our astronauts to the ISS, NASA is able to focus on game-changing technologies, the Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket that are geared toward getting astronauts to deep space.
Check out NASA.gov for more information on the announcement and on the astronauts themselves.
Moore’s Law, the idea that every 18 months the number of transistors packed onto a chip can be reliably expected to double, is facing some pretty tough roadblocks these days. Mostly physics, if we’re being honest. A silicon atom is about a fifth of a nanometer across, so at the current 14 nanometer scale, we’re startting to reach a point at which the size of the atoms (and the spaces between them) are becoming an issue. But IBM issued a press release Thursday of this week saying that they’ve engineered a 7 nanometer architecture, allowing them to fit something like four times as many transistors onto a chip of the same size. This is good news for two reasons: one, it means we’re figuring out clever ways to get around the physics that might start to interfere with Moore’s Law, while we develop new, non-silicon materials to bypass the problem. Two, it means Intel still has some competition, which is a good thing for any market. Who knows what the future will bring, but it looks like we’re good for at least another few years.
It’s going to be a few weeks before the Solar Impulse 2 attempts the next leg of its journey. On the record-breaking flight from Japan to Hawaii its batteries overheated and sustained permanent damage, and it’s going to take at least two to three weeks to repair. What’s more, if they can’t repair it fast enough, it might have a knock-on effect: as Engadget reports, if the team doesn’t make it to North America’s Atlantic coast in time, they’ll miss a weather window that would allow them to complete their round-the-world trip in 2015. Here’s hoping they can pull it off.
NASA Mars News
Two news items out of NASA’s Mars programs this week: First, the plans for Opportunity’s seventh Martian winter have been released, including a new area to explore (and just for the record, Curiosity is now on day 4185 of its planned 92.5-day mission), and second, NASA has released a new toy for Mars fans on the internet this week. Called Mars Trek, it allows you to explore the surface of Mars in more detail than ever before. Seriously, you need to check this out.
Best of the Rest
So many news items, so little time. Here’s a rundown of the rest:
- Boeing patented a fusion-fission-laser-electric-jet engine, because why not?
- Chicago wants to levy a “Netflix tax,” because reasons
- A group of scientists are trying to get a (much) better look at the Cosmic Microwave Background
- The BBC wants every child to have a MicroBit
- And I really, really
needwant a Star Trek Communicator.
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