Space Exploration

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China’s lunar probe makes history by successfully soft-landing on the far side of the moon

It’s not Lunar New Year yet, but there is something new on the moon. In a major milestone for space exploration, China announced that its lunar program has successfully soft-landed a probe on the far side of the moon, making it the first one to do so. The historic landing was reported by Xinhua, China’s official news agency, earlier today.

According to the China National Space Administration, the probe, consisting of a lander and rover, touched down at about 10:26AM Beijing time. This is the first ever soft-landing (meaning a landing without damage or destruction to the space vehicle) on the far side of the moon, which is never visible from Earth. Named after the Chinese moon goddess, Chang’e-4 launched on Dec. 8 from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan province.

China’s Chang’e-4 probe softlands on Moon’s far side pic.twitter.com/Z1R6tbpBMI

— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) January 3, 2019

The South China Morning Post reported earlier this week that the Chang’e-4 will be used for “astronomical observation using low-frequency radio, surveying the terrain and landforms, detecting the mineral composition and shallow lunar surface structure, and measuring neutron radiation and neutral atoms.” The successful soft-landing is important for space exploration because there is relatively little information about the far side of the moon compared to the side visible from Earth, which has been explored and surveyed by previous missions.

Photographs taken by earlier spacecraft, including the Soviet Union’s Luna 3 and Zond 3 (launched in 1959 and 1965, respectively) and NASA’s Lunar Orbiter program (launched in 1966), found significant differences between the far side’s terrain and the surface of the moon visible from Earth. In 1962, NASA’s Ranger 4 probe became the first spacecraft to impact on the moon, but was unable to send back data after landing.

Since direct communication between Chang’e-4 and Earth is blocked because of the probe’s position, China also launched a relay satellite called Queqiao, or Magpie Bridge, that is currently 400,000 km above Earth, positioned between it and the moon.

Chang’e-4’s successful landing concludes the second phase of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP). The first phase was the launch of Yutu, the lunar rover of Chang’e-3, which landed on the moon in December 2013, but stopped moving after 40 days due to a mechanical problem (it is still able to transmit data and photos, including true color high-definition photos). The successful landing of Chang’e-3 was another a significant milestone for China’s space program, making it only the third country after the U.S. and Soviet Union to soft-land on the moon. After Chang’e-4, the third and final phase of CLEP will be a returnable spacecraft called Chang’e-5. Set to launch by 2020, Chang’e-5 will be used to collect samples.

Neptune looks extremely sharp and very blue in these new images

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Several billion miles from Earth, Neptune’s looking particularly sharp in a set of new images captured by one of the most powerful telescopes in the world.

Located in Chile, the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) used what’s known as laser tomography to capture test images of the planet and surrounding star clusters.

The telescope’s Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) instrument works with what’s called the GALACSI adaptive optics module. This allows the telescope to correct for turbulence at different altitudes in the atmosphere, resulting in some incredibly clear, sharp images captured from Earth. Read more…

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Sorry, y'all. SpaceX isn't going to Mars in 2018

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In April 2016, SpaceX made the bold proclamation that it will send a robotic mission to Mars by 2018. 

Today, the Elon Musk-founded company is singing a different tune. 

Instead of aiming for the 2018 deadline, SpaceX will now try to launch a robotic mission to Mars — known as its Red Dragon mission — two years later, in 2020, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said during a press conference Friday. 

This delay will allow the company to refocus on other more, earthly ambitions in the near term before setting its sights on Mars down the road. Read more…

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Lucky rocket just left Trump's America behind

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The day Donald Trump was sworn in as president, this rocket was busy ditching Earth. 

The rose gold-hued Atlas V lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 7:42 p.m. ET on Friday. 

The rocket’s payload — the Air Force’s Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) GEO Flight 3 satellite — is designed to help detect missile launches worldwide.

The SBIRS mission is “considered one of the nation’s highest priority space programs,” according to the United Launch Alliance (ULA), which sent the rocket into space. 

While the ULA launch and the presidential inauguration weren’t related, it didn’t stop people (including this reporter) from making jokes about the timing of the two events. Read more…

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Astronaut Eugene Cernan, last man to walk on the moon, has died at 82

“We leave as we came, and, God willing, we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.” These were the last words Eugene Cernan said upon leaving the surface of our moon, at the end of Apollo 17.

Cernan (shown below at the beginning of EVA 3) was the last man to walk on the moon. He died Monday, Jan. 16, surrounded by his family.

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A private space company you probably don't know has enough money to land on the moon

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A private company you probably haven’t heard of just announced that it has the money it needs to shoot for the moon, literally.

Moon Express — one of the teams competing to win the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize — says that it has now raised enough money to build, test and launch its uncrewed MX-1E spacecraft to the lunar surface before the end of this year. 

“We now have all the resources in place to shoot for the moon,” Moon Express CEO Bob Richards said in a statement. 

In total, the company has raised more than $45 million in private funding for its moonshot. Read more…

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Actual footage shows what it's like to land on an alien moon

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In 2005, an alien probe flew through the hazy and cold atmosphere of Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, and landed on the world’s surface.

That spacecraft — named the Huygens probe — was sent from Earth by the European Space Agency along with the Cassini spacecraft to help humanity learn more about Saturn and its 53 known moons. 

Thanks to a new video released by NASA, you can relive the Huygens’ descent to Titan’s surface 12 years after it actually landed. 

The video shows actual footage from the spacecraft’s point of view as it passed through the hazy layers of Titan’s atmosphere, spotted “drainage canals” that suggest rivers of liquid methane run on the moon and gently set down on the surface, NASA said.  Read more…

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