This week’s Science Saturday dispatch looks at how Washington budget cuts could be bad news for the future of human spaceflight, but NASA’s robotic efforts showed promise this week with a first around Mercury and showing us a cool storm on Saturn. We also are getting a close look at the ‘super moon’ for the weekend and watch Germans simulate weightlessness by dropping stuff. All that plus an Archimedes death ray and floating cars!
Slashed NASA Budget Could Mean No Flagship Missions in the Next Decade
During a meeting with the Planetary Science Subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council last week, Jim Green, Director of the Planetary Science Division made it clear that he estimates only $1 billion will be available for a flagship mission in the next decade. To put that number in perspective, the Mars Science Laboratory, the flagship mission which NASA is getting ready to launch, cost $2.4 billion. The top priority flagship mission for the coming decade is MAX-C, a Mars mission that would collect and cache samples for later return to Earth. MAX-C has a $3.5 billion price tag that could be reduced to $2.5 billion. With only $1 billion to spend, NASA may not be able to launch any flagship missions in the next 10 years.
Moreover, the battered NASA budget is causing problems in Europe. Because of it’s limited finances, NASA has had to pull out of missions that have been developed in a partnership with ESA, leaving the Europeans to decide whether they can foot the bill alone.
The new NASA budget is causing the agency to take a step back and rethink the way they do business. But, are these cuts too much? Are we starting to see the end of NASA as we know it? It is hard to imagine NASA with no manned launch vehicles and no large-scale planetary missions. But, it looks like that is what we are about to get.
The MSL Rover — NASA’s last flagship mission for the next 10 years?
NASA MESSENGER Spacecraft Achieves Orbit Around Mercury
NASA’s MESSENGER is the first spacecraft to successfully achieve orbit around our Solar System’s innermost planet. Orbital insertion was completed at approximately 9 p.m. EDT on Thursday. For the next several weeks, scientists will be monitoring MESSENGER to assure that its systems continue to work properly in Mercury’s harsh thermal environment. The instruments will be switched on March 23rd, and, once they are all checked out, the missions primary science phase will begin on April 4th.
Bonus image: The moon as seen by MESSENGER
More at LROC
Look, Up in the Sky! It’s Super Moon!
Tonight, March 19th, the full moon will appear larger in the sky than usual. This is because the moon is not only full, but at the closest point in its orbit to Earth, a point known as perigee. Tonight’s “super perigee” moon will be the biggest in almost 20 years. “The last full Moon so big and close to Earth occurred in March of 1993,” says Geoff Chester of the US Naval Observatory in Washington DC. “I’d say it’s worth a look.” Perigee moons appear about 14% larger and 30% brighter than lesser moons that occur at the farthest point in the moon’s orbit, apogee.
As the video below points out, don’t forget that the moon (super or not) does NOT cause natural disasters.
Weightless* in Bremen: Germany’s Anti-Gravity Machine
With their “Drop Tower”, the Center of Applied Space Technology and Microgravity in Germany has answered the question: how can we achieve weightlessness* on Earth? The Drop Tower is just that, a 146-meter high tower in which experimental capsules are dropped from one end to the other. Each experiment lasts only a maximum of 9.3 seconds, but that’s long enough to observe some funky behavior when matter is freed from the pull of the Earth. The video below demonstrates the process.
*99.99999% (microgravity equivalent to 10-6g)
Pic of the Week: Storm on Saturn
In early 2011 NASA’s Cassini spacecraft took several high-resolution panoramas of the enormous storm that developed in Saturn’s northern hemisphere. The first photo below is a true-color view of Saturn and its huge storm on February 25th, 2011. The second image is a high-resolution panorama taken in an infrared wavelength in which Saturn’s methane atmosphere is relatively transparent, yielding tremendous detail of the storm. (via The Planetary Society)
Video of the Week: Archimedes-style Solar Death Ray
The legacy of Archimedes lives on thanks to 19-year-old inventor Eric Jacqmain and his solar death ray made from 5,800 mirrors. I give you: the R5800. Unfortunately, the R5800 was destroyed in a storage shed fire in December, 2010. Jacqmain says the death ray was probably the cause of the fire. Next, he plans to build a second death ray using 32,000 mirrors!
Gadget of the Week: Floating Cars!
Researchers from Germany’s Dresdner Leibnitz institute are working to create cars that could float along a track powered by supercooled magnets. Ludwig Schultz, head of the institute, sees this as the transportation of the future. He sees cities installing networks of these cars, which require very little power to run, making way for a whole new form of public transit.
Thanks to Rene Bernhard for the translation!
Not enough science for you? Here’s a warp-speed look at some more science tid-bits that are worth a peek.
- New blood analysis chip could lead to disease diagnosis in minutes
- Deserts on Titan get a dose of methane rain