Plus, a new comet visible to the naked eye |

Dear readers,

Sending U.S. astronauts back to the moon, which became a serious effort last year, was a thrilling idea. Just like the first time the country did it, the new plan had an inspiring name: Artemis, named for Apollo's sister. Mirroring President John F. Kennedy's "by the end of the 1960s" pledge, it had an aggressive target date, of 2024. And since "the first man on the moon" thing has already been done, a new, equally exciting goal was set: the U.S. would be landing "the first woman and next man" on the moon, language NASA has used and reused in many a press release.

But now, farewell to all that—or at least that's the way it looks. The original seven American astronauts may or may not have coined the term "No bucks, no Buck Rogers," but the premise was true then and it's true now: Rockets and orbiters and lunar landers are expensive, and without sufficient cash, they're not going anywhere. Congress determines NASA's funding, and when it comes to Artemis, the latest word out of the House of Representatives' Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) subcommittee is both direct and discouraging: fuggedaboutit.

That's not how lawmakers put it, of course—in fact, the subcommittee agreed to a new round of NASA funding for 2021. But as an informative analysis in SpaceNews shows, the plan underfunds the very areas of NASA's budget that would allow for a lunar mission.

To make an Artemis landing happen by 2024 (an already ambitious goal), the White House requested a comparatively modest budget increase for NASA, from $22.629 billion in 2020 to $25.246 billion in 2021. The biggest boost would go to R&D, specifically for the development of a Human Landing System (HLS), which you and I would call a lunar lander. In 2020, NASA was capped at $600 million for HLS development. This year it sought $3.3 billion, which, factoring in other projects, would boost its overall R&D budget from $1.557 billion to $4.719 billion. The CJS said no, countering with a comparatively paltry $628.2 million bump.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine responded diplomatically. “I want to thank the House Commerce, Justice, and Science subcommittee for the bipartisan support they have shown for NASA’s Artemis program," he said. "The $628.2 million in funding for the Human Landing System is an important first step in this year’s appropriations process." That's the bureaucrat equivalent of the Marine recruit who's ordered to run five miles in full gear in 100-degree heat and then says to his drill sergeant, "Thank you, sir! May I have another, sir?"

Not all the funding news was bad for NASA. The CJS subcommittee agreed to a generous $403 million for a planned uncrewed mission to Europa, one of Jupiter's many moons. And the agency got more than it requested for studies of Earth science, astrophysics, heliophysics and STEM outreach, perhaps a reflection of the priorities in the Democratic-controlled House.

In an ideal world—which is to say, a world in which Congress fully carried out its Constitutional responsibilities—the Republican-controlled Senate would next get its hands on the budget request, arrive at figures more favorable to the Republican-controlled White House, and then the two chambers would amiably work out a compromise, bump fists, share a drink, and Artemis would move ahead. Right.

Instead, as SpaceNews predicts, they will likely reach no such compromises on any aspects of the federal budget, and will instead agree only to an omnibus spending bill that keeps 2021 funding at 2020 levels—and keeps NASA's lunar ambitions grounded. If 21st century legislators really want to take their cue from JFK, they should follow his bold declaration—"we choose to go to the moon"—and simply decide to go back. But that choice requires those sought-after bucks. Not spending them is a choice, too—a timid one, a short-sighted one, but a choice all the same.

—Jeffrey Kluger


QUESTION OF THE WEEK

This week's question comes from Clive E. Hunt of Oliver, British Columbia in Canada, who asks: "Based on the best available research, what are the chances of finding other intelligent life forms in the Milky Way?"

The rock-solid, take-it-to-the-bank, no-doubt-about-it answer is: who knows? But consider this: the best estimates put the number of stars in our galaxy at somewhere between 100 and 400 billion. So split the 300 billion difference between the two figures and you get 250 billion. Thanks to the Kepler Space Telescope and other equipment and observatories, we now know that virtually every star in the solar system is home to at least one planet, and many are home to multi-planet systems like ours. Water is an exceedingly common compound in the galaxy, as are organic molecules and hydrocarbons. Those in the "Life Is Easy" school of thought would argue that all that's thus necessary for biological processes to arise is energy plus chemistry plus time—and the galaxy has plenty of all three.

As for intelligent life? The celebrated Drake Equation tries to answer that question—as well as the related question of whether we might ever communicate with that life—by factoring together a range of variables, including: the rate of star formation in a given galaxy, the fraction of those stars with planets, the fraction of those planets that develop an ecosystem, the fraction that develop life, the fraction of that life that develops interstellar communications and more. And it comes up with pretty much any answer at all depending on how you fill in those X-factors.

So it's ultimately just a guessing game. The best guess here: Other life probably exists, intelligent life is a longer shot, and communicating with it is a much, much longer one. Or not.

Have a burning astronomical inquiry? Reach out at space@time.com.


IMAGE OF THE WEEK

Galaxy NGC 2775

Tucked in the constellation Cancer, some 67 million light years from Earth, is the most "flocculent"—or woolly looking—galaxy you ever saw. That's the term NASA uses for it, when it's not switching the metaphor and calling it a "feathery spiral."

Whatever it is, the galaxy, formally known as NGC 2775 and which was imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope, owes its unusual appearance to its exceedingly old interior bulge, where new star formation stopped long ago, and shearing forces in the spiral arms, which cause the feathered look as the galaxy rotates.

Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, J. Lee and the PHANGS-HST Team; Acknowledgment: Judy Schmidt (Geckzilla)


WHAT WE’RE READING

Our mottled metal moon

By now, the story of the moon's formation is well understood. About 4.5 billion years ago, a proto-planet about the size of Mars collided with the proto-Earth; the impact sent up a cloud of debris made of material from both bodies that eventually coalesced into the moon. Known informally as the "Big Whack theory," it's pretty much settled science—only it isn't. The lunar highlands are curiously low in metals like iron and titanium, which are common on Earth and should have been part of the lunar mix. The difference between the metal content of the earth and moon is great enough to cast at least a little doubt on the Big Whack idea.

However, the theory now looks stronger than ever, thanks to a NASA study conducted via the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which has been circling the moon since 2009. Using an instrument known as the Miniature Radio Frequency (Mini-RF) aboard the LRO, investigators discovered that, in lunar craters measuring 2 to 5 km (1 to 3 mi.) across, the electrical conductivity of the basin grows steadily greater as the crater size increases—peaking and remaining constant in craters larger than that range.

The explanation: the metal that should be on the moon isn't missing, it's just hidden. As with the earth, during the cooling process, the moon separated itself into layers, with heavy metals sinking lower and lighter materials remaining closer to the surface. The impact that creates craters exposes the metal lying just a few hundred meters below the surface, hence the increased conductivity.

The finding is not just a nod to the durability of the Big Whack theory, but of the LRO itself. “This exciting result from Mini-RF shows that even after 11 years in operation at the Moon, we are still making new discoveries about the ancient history of our nearest neighbor,” said Noah Petro, LRO project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in a NASA release.

Curiosity takes a summer trip

Americans in pandemic lockdown might not be planning many road trips this month, but the Curiosity rover—safely socially distanced on Mars—has a big one scheduled. Don't be too jealous, however: it's traveling little more than 1.6 km (1 mi.), and it won't arrive at its destination until fall.

As a release from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) explains, Curiosity has since 2014 been exploring a region heavy in clay concentrations in the former lake bed now known as Gale Crater. Those beds were found on the lower reaches of a mountain called Mount Sharp. Higher up the flank of the mountain are more scientifically promising sulfate-bearing regions. (Sulfates like gypsum and epsom salts form as water evaporates from soil, and the better Curiosity can study the region, the better it can understand the conditions that might have favored life on Mars 3 or so billion years ago.)

But between the clay and sulfate regions lies a stretch of sand in which the rover could get stuck, necessitating a one-mile detour. That's not much ground to cover, but the rover has a top speed of just 100 meters (300 ft.) per hour—and it never just hits the gas and goes. Instead, it works by a combination of autonomous navigation and commands sent from Earth, and controllers often order it to stop while they scan for unexpected obstacles. Making things more difficult still, like many of the rest of us, the Curiosity team is working remotely, doing the job it would normally do in JPL's mission control room from home. Given the challenges, that single-mile trip looks more and more impressive.

A nice new comet in a nasty year

It may only be July, but it's not too early to say that when history is fully written, 2020 will go down as a, well, suboptimal year. Now, like a misbehaving party guest who sends flowers the next day to make amends, the year from hell has offered up a little bauble, in the form of a new comet, pictured here in a shot taken from the International Space Station. Known formally by the astronomical name C/2020 F3, the comet is informally dubbed Comet NEOWISE, after its discoverer, the NEOWISE satellite.

NASA

Launched in 2009 simply as the WISE telescope (for Wide-field-Infrared Survey Explorer), the satellite finished its mission of scanning the sky in four frequencies of infrared radiation the following year. It was powered down, but then reactivated in 2013 with a new mission: to search the local heavens for potentially hazardous space debris dubbed Near-Earth Objects, hence the new NEO prefix.

NEOs can be bad news, but the comet—which the satellite spotted in March and will be visible to earthlings this month before swinging back out into the deeper solar system—poses no threat. For now, NEOWISE can be seen from the northern hemisphere, visible in the pre-dawn hours low in the northeastern sky; don't forget your binoculars.

So thank you 2020 for the little gift. Now see if you can try to behave better through December 31.

Old-school space propulsion—very old school

Credit Space.com for its headline of the week: "Steampunk space exploration?" And credit NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for the idea that inspired the phrasing.

There is growing interest at NASA and elsewhere in exploring Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's moon Enceladus, both icy worlds all but universally agreed to harbor comparatively warm, salty oceans beneath their frozen rinds. Landing on the surface of the distant moons would be difficult enough. But getting around? Rover technology that works on a rocky world like Mars would be less effective on their slicker surfaces. Crevasses and great blades of fractured ice could present their own obstacles, too.

Instead, JPL has proposed what it calls its SPARROW spacecraft (for Steam Propelled Autonomous Retrieval Robot for Ocean Worlds), which would hop, not drive. The spacecraft would be so small that a lander could actually release a whole flock of little round SPARROWs. The extraterrestrial beach balls would then bounce around in the airless, low-gravity environment, propelled by ice melted from the surface and drawn into an onboard boiler that would produce just enough of a steam plume to give the SPARROW an upward kick. Then just repeat as often as necessary to bounce and roll where you want to go.

Your 3-D printed Martian home

Every single bit of the egg-shaped Mars habitat dubbed MARSHA and delightfully depicted on CNET this week is currently imaginary—except for the fact that it has sort of, kind of already been built. In 2015, NASA launched its 3-D Printed Habitat Challenge, inviting developers to come up with ways to build dwellings on Mars using printing technology and raw materials found on-site. The eventual winner was New York-based AI Space Factory, which developed a way to use polymers and Mars-like soil to print a one-third scale model of a four-story Martian dwelling in just 30 hours.

The undersized prototype is little more than a shell, and nowhere near as complex as what the full-sized, multi-level, habitable dwelling would be. Still, the CNET depiction offers something like a fantasy real estate guide—complete with artist's renderings—of the habitat's potential. Sky-light and top-floor rec room? Check. Private rooms with flat-screen TVs? Check again. Labs and kitchens and an indoor garden? They're all there.

Of course, no home ever looks as good in real life as it does in the broker's brochures. But as an exercise in engineering, innovative thinking and more than a little fantasy, here's to MARSHA for at least showing us what could be possible.


THANKS FOR READING

TIME Space is written by Jeffrey Kluger, Editor at Large at TIME and the author of 10 books, including Apollo 13, Apollo 8 and two novels for young adults. Follow him at @jeffreykluger. It is edited by Alex Fitzpatrick.

We welcome any feedback at space@time.com.

 
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