‘Oumuamua, Voyager 1, and the Hornsdale Powerpack | Vol. 5 / No. 6

Artist’s conception | Image: European Southern Observatory/M. Kornmesser

Today we’ve got the new on our first visitor from another solar system, an update on how things are going for Voyager 1 (40 years on), and a bet in Australia that Elon Musk just won. It’s the news roundup for Sunday, December 3, 2017.


Back in October, Robert Weryck at the University of Hawaii’s Pan-STARRS survey program discovered an object that was simply moving too fast to have come from our solar system. Now known as 1I/2017 U1 / ‘Oumuamua (oh moo-a moo-a) after the Hawaiian word for “scout,” it was already hurtling away from its perihelion, or closest approach to the sun, but once we got eyes on it, everyone joined in. And now we’ve seen some of the first data published. On November 20, Nature published reflectivity data that describe the object’s shape, size, and likely composition. It’s spinning on its axis every 7.3 hours, and changing drastically in brightness as it does so. This indicates that he object is up to ten times longer than it is wide—a very unusual finding given that he most elongated objects we’re familiar with are only roughly three times longer than they are wide. We’re still watching it as it flies away, but the window for discovery is closing. On November 1 it passed Mars’s orbit. It’ll be at Jupiter’s by May, Saturn’s by the following January, and chances are we’ll never see it again (it’s just too fast for us to catch up with even technologies that seem relatively feasible in the distant future). You can read more about it at NASA.gov or Wired.


Voyager 1, Credit: NASA/ JPL

Voyager 1

Speaking of things that are only getting further away: at the time of writing, Voyager 1 is 13.1 billion miles from Earth and counting. That’s the furthest-away human-made object in existence. And this week NASA engineers needed to reorient it so it would continue being able to talk with Earth. The problem? The attitude control thrusters, the ones used for changing the probe’s orientation, aren’t working too well after over forty years. So instead they decided to fire up the old trajectory control thrusters, the ones use to change Voyager’s course. One, these things haven’t been fired up for thirty-seven years, and two, they’re a bit over-the-top for the job. But I guess they built it well, because a little over nineteen hours after they sent the instructions—how long it takes light to get there and back—they got word back that it had worked. The maneuver realigns Voyager’s antenna with the increasingly-distant Earth, and should allow the probe’s mission to continue for another few years. Unfortunately the clock is ticking on the old craft, whose power requirements (and decreasing power supply) have meant that every few years since 1990 they’ve been shutting bits and pieces off: cameras, heaters, science instruments, and so on. After 2020, it’s anticipated that to keep the craft going, they’ll need to cycle through on-and-off sequences for different parts of the craft, and after that it’s only a matter of time before connection is finally lost. When Voyager 1’s time is done, it’ll continue speeding into the abyss, with a date with another star (or at least another stellar neighbourhood) in roughly forty thousand years. You can read a little more at CNN.


The Tesla Powerpack at the Hornsdale Wind Farm in South Australia | Photo: Tesla


Back in March, Elon Musk made a bet in the Australian state of South Australia (SA): Tesla could build them a 100-megawatt, 129-MWh grid battery in 100 days or it’d be free. And they took him up on it. Tesla won the contract and signed the paperwork in September, and yesterday, on December 1, it went live, winning Musk’s bet. With a footprint of less than 1 hectare (0.01 square km), the Hornsdale Power Reserve (attached to the Hornsdale Wind Farm) is now the largest lithium-ion battery pack in the world, balancing load and supplying renewable electricity to 30,000 homes in South Australia. With any luck it’ll help prevent any further major blackouts, like the one suffered by the region last year that led to the call for the power reserve. The project’s success is a good sign for the technology’s adoption, as it’ll be needed more and more with the switch to intermittent renewable power as we try to, you know, not make the Earth completely uninhabitable for humans. You can read more about it at Ars Technica. Also, this is an amazing photo:


Best of the Rest

As usual there’s far more than I can cover on my lonesome, so here’s some links to the folks who did:

That’s all for today, folks. Have a great week.


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Richard Ford Burley is a human, YA author, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as Deputy Managing Editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.