Category Archives: Realspace

RIP Gene Cernan, RIP Apollo

MY DIARY, Day 2096: It was Thursday, December 7th, 1972. My mom and dad and I, and a million of our closest personal friends, were standing along the banks of the Bananna river. It was long after dark. It was cold, the river stank, as usual, and it was crowded. My dad had long since given up me staying awake and standing, so he just carried me.

It was the night of the launch of Apollo 17, the last of the missions to the moon. Gene Cernan, who died yesterday, was in command of the mission. Back then, he was thirty-eight and I was five. (Going on six) I grew up in Cocoa Beach, and my dad worked for NASA at the Cape, so launches were commonplace in those days. I couldn’t really understand why this one was significant, why I couldn’t just go home and go to bed.

Then, around half past midnight: Ignition. The engines were the brightest thing I’d ever seen, brighter than the noonday sun, brighter than anything but a small atomic bomb. It went from a black Florida night to dazzling and hard to focus in perhaps a second. I remember roosters started to crow. I remember fish started flopping around in the river, thinking it was daytime. I remember a million breaths sucking in all at once in awe, and I remember the sound hitting us an instant later.

The Saturn V was – and remains – the most impressive rocket ever built, and the way things are going, it’ll probably stay that way. Tall as a 36 story building, six million pounds, it lept up quick – don’t be fooled by all that slo-mo footage you see on The History Channel, rockets are fast! – and tore off downrange. The intensity of light quickly faded to day-normal, and then we had an odd kind of second nightfall where it all faded to blackness again, with everyone standing around blinking and cheering with purple spots in our eyes. It had been the only night launch of the program. Decades later, I found out that it had been clearly visible as far away as North Carolina,  as far south as Haiti!

APOLLO 17 LIFTOFF FROM KSC. 12/7/72. REF: 108-KSC-72PC-42

I also remember the drive home. We lived less than ten miles from the Cape, but attendance for the final launch had been larger than any in NASA history, excepting Apollo 11, which sent Armstrong to the moon not quite four years before. So quick an age, so long a drive home. There’s probably a metaphor in that if you want to hunt for one.

It was total gridlock the entire way, with hundreds of thousands of cars on roads never intended to hold tens of thousands. I remember the white leather seats in the back of my dad’s car, trying to curl up and go to sleep, but it was so cold, and we hadn’t thought to bring a blanket. That drive seemed to go on forever, stop, start, stop, start, endlessly being jostled awake, irritated as hell.

Though I’d seen all of the Saturn V launches with my own eyes, I don’t consciously remember any of them, except for the last. Again, there’s probably a metaphor in there if you want to poke around.

Decades later, I developed a fascination for Apollo 17 for the same reasons we’re always fascinated by the last of some animal going extinct. In particular I grew more and more interested in Cernan. It was the end of an age. Though there have been sime impressive things in space since, nothing we’ve done in the years since has matched, or even come close to matching, the Apollo program, and that last launch was the most ambitious of all. When it was done, when they returned home about two weeks later, we went from actual physical explorers to voyeurs, gawkers, people who send robots off to do man’s work. It’s cheaper, safer, but dammit, it isn’t sexy. It’s not strapping a rocket to your ass and riding fire. Sure, hundreds of people have done that to get into space, to endlessly tool around in orbit for whatever reason, but even that isn’t nearly so cool as riding fire to actually get somewhere. 

APOLLO 17 LIFTOFF FROM KSC. 12/7/72. REF: 108-KSC-72PC-42

“Everyone remembers firsts, no one remembers lasts,” I wrote in one of my stories, “Everyone can tell you who the first man on the moon was, but nobody can tell you the last.” Well I can, it was Gene Cernan. It’s been 44 years since he left. I despair of anyone ever going again. The past is a country. The past is a lost continent, drowned by seas of time. The brave new world is past, and this timid age dares little.

Gene Cernan died the other day. He was 84, I was 49. A door slammed shut for me. There are other moonwalkers still alive, that’s not the point. Not to me, anyway. To me, Gene Cernan – moreso than Yuri Gagarin or Neil Armstrong – was the high water mark of the golden age of space exploration. He went to the most remote location of any of the six landings, he stayed the longest, he left last. He was the end. The last man, the last rocket, the last to strive, the last to try, the last, period.

Here’s a story about him I’ve heard, which may be apocryphal: He’d promised his daughter that he’d writer her name in the soil on the moon, where it would stay undisturbed for millions of years. In the massive workload and tight schedule of the mission, however, he forgot. He said that for the next 30 or so years, he couldn’t look at the moon without getting angry at himself for not doing it. I always thought that was cute.

Can I tell you a secret? My fascination with him led to me using a not-very-accurate version of him as a recurring character in some of my stories. If you’ve ever read any of my stuff, and noticed a slightly-manic grey-haired old guy named “Gene” turning up, that’s him. None of my characters ever say his last name, of course, though there’s plenty of clues. If you haven’t read any of my stuff, he figures most prominently in my novella, “Home Again,” and in my unexpectedly controversial short story, “The Cetian Sky.” He turns up here and there elsewhere and gets namechecked a few times, but he’s front and center in those two.

In the real world, Gene Cernan was every inch the hero. In my fictional world, where history followed a somewhat different road, I turned him into a full-on Moses of the Space Age. It just seemed appropriate somehow.

Spacecraft Names

Despite the fact that there have been hundreds of manned space missions, surprisingly few manned spacecraft have actually had names. This is the complete, short list, in chronological order, with duplicate names removed. Space Stations don’t count, just vehicles that actually carried people:
 
Vostock
Mercury
Freedom 7
Liberty Bell 7
Friendship 7
Aurora 7
Sigma 7
Faith 7
X-15
Voskhod
Gemini
Molly Brown
Soyuz
Apollo
Lem (or LEM or LM)
Gumdrop
Spider
Charlie Brown
Snoopy
Columbia
Eagle
Yankee Clipper
Intrepid
Odyssey
Aquarius
Kitty Hawk
Antares
Endeavour
Falcon
Casper
Orion
America
Challenger
Skylab
Discovery
Atlantis
Shenzhou
SpaceShipOne
 
You’ll note that American names are vastly over-represented in relation to Soviet/Russian names. That’s because they name the types of spacecraft they’re flying, but don’t name individual ones. Conversely, we named pretty much everything. You’ll also have noticed that a number of the spacecraft have really goofy names. This is because the Astronauts got to pick their own names, and had pretty random senses of humor. At least up through Columbia/Eagle, at which point NASA said “Knock it off,” and then they got more serious and boring. Columbia, Endeavor, and Challenger were all used twice, once for Apollo spacecraft, once for shuttles. Since the Apollos came first, I counted them, but didn’t count the shuttles.
 
Finally: “Skylab” is on the list, but I said no space stations, only spacecraft. Why? Well, owing to a flurry of creativity on NASA’s part, not only was the Skylab space station called “Skylab,” but the manned spacecraft that took crews to and from it were also named “Skylab.”

REALSPACE: NASA’s ongoing PR problem

It’s looking bad for the possibility of life on Mars. Our rapidly-increasing pool of information has produced not one single iota of evidence of past life, and has shown that the Martian Ocean was perhaps as much as 100 TIMES more saline than the Earth’s oceans are.http://sciencenow.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/2008/529/1?rss=1 On a personal note, I love this kind of stuff. Why? Well, because NASA has got it in their heads that the only way the government will fund space exploration is if they find evidence of life, and that “That will make it relevant to the common man.”

Horsecrap!!

The common man already believes in life on other planets (With no evidence), and doesn’t care, so finding proof of something they already take for granted but place no importance in isn’t going to get the average scientifically-illiterate dope in the streets interested, nor will it increase NASA’s budget. Furthermore, the ongoing NASA propaganda line about Life on Mars insists that we deliberately overlook the skillions of well-known factors about the planet that make it inimical to life (No radiation shielding, insubstantial atmosphere, no magnetosphere, frequent asteroidal bombardment, a gravity well too shallow to hold liquid water or more than a trace atmosphere for very long, etc).

You do not go to a place with preconceived notions and work backwards – that is by definition, bad science (and rather dishonest to boot) –you go to a place to learn about it. We certainly did not go to the moon looking for life, but in the process we learned more about geology than we had in the previous hundred years.

Of course with the Democrats squarely in charge, the Shuttle gone, and Obama’s statement that he’ll postpone the “Orion” program for at least five years, NASA’s future is looking bleak anyway, so probably this is all irrelevant

REALSPACE: Why it was inappropriate to name the first Space Shuttle, “Enterprise.”

Since my piece on how the Shuttles got their names, I’ve taken some flack (Mostly through Email) about whether or not it was inappropriate for NASA to name a shuttle after the Starship Enterprise. Most of this has revolved around two points: 1) It wasn’t a real shuttle anyway, just a glider, so who cares? and 2) Trek has inspired people to become scientists and astronauts and blah blah blah blah. Here’s my take on both of those:

Firstly, the shuttle “Enterprise” was intended to fly. It was a fully functional shuttle, apart from the engines and the OMS. The idea was to eventually turn it into a *real* shuttle, and it would be the fifth one in the fleet. That never happened for a variety of reasons.

Secondly: I’m not a huge fan of Trek, but I don’t hate it. I think TOS is a nice introduction to SF, but it’s not the be-all end-all like a LOT of people tend to think it is. (And brother, a loooooooot of people honestly think it is.) Subsequent shows were far less good (I’m not saying ‘bad,’ Trek has never been bad, but let’s just say the average was far lower more recently), and less interested in Science Fiction and more interested in just keeping the franchise profitable.

And while I don’t doubt that the show *did* inspire some people to go into science and stuff, I suspect that many of them would have done so anyway. I mean, we’ve all heard of people who went into medicine because of Dr. Kildaire or House or MASH or whatever, *but* there are scores of millions who watched the same shows who *didn’t* go into medicine, so the average is pretty low. Far lower than a high school physics introductory course, I’d suspect. Likewise, a lot of people became Submariners because of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, which was a patently stupid show. So if the Navy decided to name a five billion dollar sub “Seaview,” would you be righteously outraged as a taxpayer? I would be, and I *LIKE* the show. And, as I say, most of these people were *already* interested in the sciences and subs and medicine and whatnot. I don’t doubt that the shows might have been the trigger event that made ’em say “Hey, I can do this!” And, hey, that’s great, but let’s not overstate stuff here. And let’s not forget the thousands of people who watched Trek, decided to become an Astronaut, then turned out to be really bad at math and science and stuff, and became NASCAR drivers instead. For everyone who actually was inspired and followed through, and succeeded, and gave credit afterwards, there must be tens of thousands who were likewise inspired and washed out, right? Logically? Many are called, but few are chosen? And most of those called by Trek are *only* interested in Trek.

You wanna’ name a space shuttle after something that inspires people? Name ’em after teachers, not some goofy TV show from 50 years ago. Nor, for that matter, should you name stuff after a goofy TV show from 15 years ago (B5) even though I *liked* that show. (And it *did* have some real science in it, but appears to have inspired no one, or at least it didn’t inspire anyone as evangelisticaly preachy about it as the Trekies. And, yes, I know I suggested B5 names, but I was joking.)

Added to which: there’s no actual *real* science in Trek, and in fact there’s lots of *bad* Science in Trek. I recently interviewed the guy who runs/writes the Atomic Rockets site, which is all about being a *real* science resource for aspiring SF writers. (Here:http://www.republibot.com/content/interview-winchell-chung-atomic-rockets ) He said that basically he thought Trek is actually hurting the sciences because it routinely throws off completely impossible crap, and treats science as magic that can instantly solve any problem. (This is increasingly a problem in TV SF, Sigh.)

Anyway: Let’s assume that Trek *did* inspire people. Isn’t that a bit embarrassing in and of itself? Your average American on the street can’t name *five* astronauts. Most can’t name three, but 90% can name all the major characters from at least two Trek shows. Ignore the real in favor of the fake? Well, it’s very Philip K. Dick, so I’m amused by it, but I don’t think it should be encouraged.

Note that none of this has anything to do with Trek as *entertainment,* nor the value thereof, it’s more a commentary of the cult of Trek that has sprung up around it and insists on attributing all that is good and pure to it as a way of justifying its existence and their own obsessions. It’s disingenuous.

I maintain that it’s an embarrassment and entirely inappropriate to name government spacecraft after pop culture icons. You’re free to disagree, of course, but your feelings on the matter are sick and wrong.

REALSPACE: Turns out ramscoops won’t work

What with this being a science fiction website, and what with the embarrassingly poor science education afforded people in our country, it’s easy to overlook the fact that a few starships have *actually* been designed. Nothing’s built, obviously – NASA can’t even be bothered to put people in space anymore, so good luck with that whole “Alpha Centauri” thing – but there have been several concepts developed to a greater or lesser extent.

The most nuts-and-bolts of this (Going as far as actual blueprints) is the British Interplanetary Society’s “Daedalus” design, which I hope to talk about at a later date in more detail (Bad name, good idea), but the one that tended to get most scientists and hard-science SF types all ready for love is the “Bussard Ramjet.” Personally, I never found it all that sexy, but I will admit it is an elegant idea. Nutshell:

Space is not a vacuum. There’s crap thrown off by the stars in solar flares, times a trillion stars within 30,000 light years of us. That’s a lot of flare…uhm…stuff? Bits? Whatever you call it, there’s a lot of it. Not to mention gas that never coalesced into stars and is left over from the formation of the galaxy, not to mention nebulae and other detritus from exploded or forming stars. Bottom line, the space between stars isn’t empty, it’s estimated that the interstellar void has, on average, about 3 hydrogen atoms per cubic centimeter.

Yeah, that doesn’t sound like much, but stack ’em up: There’s 161,ooo centimeters in a mile, six TRILLION miles to the light year. Go find Alpha Centauri in the night sky. This will necessitate a trip to the southern hemisphere, as it’s not visible from the US, but I’ll wait for you to get back. I’m a science fiction blogger. I’ve got nothing else to do.

[Weeks pass]

Hey, you look good! Well, yes, I know it was Black Water Fever, but really, now that you’ve kicked it, you’re a bit slimmer. It looks good on you.

Anyway: assuming you were looking at Alpha Centauri and not some bacterial-infection-based-hallucination, you were looking at light from 4.2 light years, or 26 TRILLION miles away. Which means that in a straight line between you and said star were about 78 TRILLION hydrogen atoms, which, even as tiny things like atoms go, is a heck of a lot.

In 1960, a man named Robert Bussard had an idea: What if we use all that free hydrogen as fuel? He concocted a plan whereby you use an insanely huge electromagnet to scoop hydrogen out of interstellar space, funnel it into a fusion reactor, y’know, *Fuse* it, and use that for thrust. Shiny! Unlike all the goofy-assed doubletalk devices in SF to gad about between the stars, this one actually seemed like it’d work.

Granted: Slow as [profanity], but slow and going is better than not going at all, right? Assuming suspended animation or some kind of medically-induced longevity, and some (eventual) relativity effects, it seemed doable. For the first time ever, interstellar travel became more than a plot device. It became plausible!

Of course it ended up getting worked into all kinds of Science Fiction. The early stories in Niven’s “Known Space” revolve around Bussard ramjets, it even wormed its way (Eventually) into the relatively dumb Star Trek, though it took until the 90s to do so (At which point the Blueprints guys decided the glowey bits on the front of the Enterprise’s engines were ramscoops).

Alas: there is a serious, serious problem with the entire concept. One that *should* have been obvious from the gitgo, but wasn’t, and which couldn’t actually be *proved* to be a dealbreaker until the advent of modern computers.

Care to guess what it is? No, it’s not the problem of accelerating the thing up to ram speeds, no it’s not the weight of the electromagnet, no it’s not the fact that we don’t actually know how to build a fusion reactor and/or engine, and no it’s not the insane power demands. Guess.

Nah, that’s not actually fair. I made you go all the way to the southern hemisphere, I’ve already asked too much of you. OK: here’s the problem:

In order to work, the magnetic field – the scoop – must be hundreds of thousands, or millions of miles across. This isn’t theoretically a problem, since it’s a magnetic field, it’s not a physical structure, and we regularly see ones that big in nature. You can theoretically make ’em as big as you want, no problemo, assuming you’ve got the power.

The problem is friction!

Yeah, see, when the hydrogen hits the scoop, it’s like wind resistance, and as it turns out, this resistance is commuted by the magnetic field itself to our theoretical starship. Over 100,000 miles or so, the resistance from 3 hydrogen atoms per cubic centimeter turns out to be GREATER than the thrust you get from fusing the hydrogen.

Sigh. And just like that, a zillion dreams go up in smoke.

Interesting articles on the subject
http://www.centauri-dreams.org/?p=22263
and
http://www.centauri-dreams.org/?p=22274

Wasn’t that Big Magnetic Space Ribbon Supposed to have Killed us by Now?

So it’s 2015, and the earth is still here, despite all paranoid schizophrenic claims to the contrary. As we all know, the Mayan Long Count calendar ended this year. People with the unfortunate combination of an anxiety disorder, scientific illiteracy, and waaaaay too much time on their hands have concluded that a stone age band of savaged who thought human sacrifice was keen, and who hadn’t discovered the wheelsomehow could foretell the future. Well, ok, sure, whatever. You can’t have an average IQ without at least half the population having a below-average IQ. I learn to ignore it.

Now, about this time last year, the whack-a-moles who believe such things discovered “We’re heading into a magnetic death cloud ribbon thing which will end all life on earth.” Again: how are Mayans supposed to have known this?
“Greetings, Luxachuxapetal. Funniest thing, Wikimokalop and I were just torturing the slaves for no reason, and one of them started screaming that he was having a vision about a magnetic field that the earth will move into 1100 years from now.”
“Why Mixaklubklubgit, that’s astounding! We, as a people, don’t know the earth moves at all, and have not discovered the magnet! Truely this must be the work of the gods, or possibly aliens! You should write this down.”
“Yeah, I agree. Now let’s go cut the hearts out of some more sacrificial victims.”
“Kickass! Sounds like a Friday night to me!”

Ok, here’s what I got:

Firstly, I’ve long assumed the Mayan Long Count callendar stops there because the guy who was figuring it out got bored or pissed off or whatever. “That’s it, I quit. F_ck it. You want another ten thousand years of this crap, let Larry do it.” Or it could simply be, as a variation on this idea, “Well, that’s good enough for now. We’ll do another century or two in a century or two.” There need be no bigger mystery than that.

There’s a curious relationship, psychologically, between calendars and religious psychology: There happen to be 365 days in a year, which is pretty close to 360 degrees in a circle, so people assume there must be a significance to it, and go so far as to simply ignore the five inconvenient days, neglecting to consider that the reason a circle has 360 degrees rather than 720 or 100 is because the Sumerians were kind of obsessed with sixes and tens when they made up the system. Why? Dunno. Ask a sumerian. So I don’t really attach much significance to the long count. I expect its end was simply a pragmatic thing that probably had religious significance attached to it later on. (Much like “A day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day” getting interpreted literally to mean that Jesus will come again in 1996 because that’s exactly 6000 years from the creation of the world, and we all know the 7th day is the day of rest so…oh, wait, He didn’t show? Ok, then it must be 2996 AD, then.

Secondly: The sun – and hence the solar system – are moving really slowly. About 93 million miles per 1500 years. If we *were* headed into a death ribbon, we ain’t gonna’ hit it for a long time.

Thirdly: As best I can figure from the sources I’ve read, the “Electromagnetic Ribbon” isn’t a ribbon actually, and it’ll never hit earth because it’s part of our solar system, and hence moves along with it. Here’s the deal:

The sun sends out charged particles, as does every other sun. We call this “The solar wind.” It’s pretty weak. A square kilometer of it has roughly the equivalent force of a postage stamp being dropped one foot. A lot of it can build up, though. We’re 2/3rds of the way from the core of the galaxy, which has (Scientifically speaking) 10^6 metric assloads of stars, all cranking out solar wind. This produces a pretty strong ‘current’ coming out from the core in all directions, and it tends to pick up more ‘wind’ as it passes more stars along the way. Taken as a whole, it’s strong, much stronger than the solar wind from our own star.

So the solar wind from our own star flies out a thousand AU or so, meets up with the vastly more powerful galactic wind, which overpowers it and forces it back. Think of a garden hose spraying water directly up. The water falls back, but tends to spray out as it goes. It’s all going down, but in a different pattern than it went up in. Or: think of rain hitting an umbrella, then dripping off the sides. The “Ribbon” that the Voyagers found is this solar wind being blown back by the galactic wind.

So we can’t hit it because as we move, the umbrella moves too.

REALSPACE: So how did the space shuttles get their names? Back when we had space shuttles, I mean.

I’ll be the first to admit this is fairly trivial, but since we no longer have a manned space program, and we don’t have any plans for one, and we’re grounded for at least a decade, and the Russians and Chinese have moved ahead of us in the space race, what else have we got to do but talk about trivia?

Something we’ve never really talked about is how the Shuttles got their names. I mean, we all know they’re named after seagoing exploratory vessels, (Somewhat pretentiously since the shuttles clearly aren’t exploring, nor were they intended to), but how did they end up with that convention?

Well, back in 1978 the Shuttle system associate administrator John Yardley came up with a list of potential names “Having significant relationship to heritage of the United States or the Shuttle’s mission of exploration.” Here’s his list in descending order of preference:

Constitution, Independence, America, Constellation, Enterprise, Discoverer, Endeavour, Liberty, Freedom, Eagle, Kitty Hawk, Pathfinder, Adventurer, Prospector, and Peace.

Why so many names? Well, partially to give NASA and Congress a bunch to pick from, but remember: There was originally supposed to be a fleet of *twelve* shuttles. The four we ended up getting were the result of budget cuts.

Anyway,  the list wasn’t particularly popular. I’ve always maintained that “Enterprise” is just stupid, and embarasingly so: ‘Hey, let’s name a four billion dollar spacecraft after a television show aimed at teenage boys!’ “Eagle” is a bad name since it would overshadow the Apollo 11 LEM, and that’s a bad thing. ‘Peace’ is entirely too hippie. Really the only one I like is “Pathfinder.” Thus, in late ’78, NASA drew up a committee to come up with a ‘naming strategy.’

They came up with several themes: Bright Stars; Constellations; American aviation history; American history; Exploratory vessels (Which is the one they ultimately chose);
and Indian tribes (The most interesting of the bunch, and I kind of wish they’d gone with that one as it’s the least predictable). This was whittled down to just three groups: Exploratory Vessels, American History (“Enterprise” was on both these lists because there were Trekies on the board), and Stars and Constellations.

The Constellations were: Orion, Arcturus, Polaris, Pegasus, Canopus, Capella, Alpha Centauri. The “Enterprise” had already been named as it was already in drop-testing at this point. While it ended up being just a glider, it was originally intended to be retrofitted and put into service as an actual shuttle. This never happened for budgetary reasons (And the thing was just way too heavy), but people were quick to point out that “Enterprise” didn’t really fit the constellation theme, and since “Polaris” was already in use with the Navy’s ICBM program, it was felt that name sent a bad impression, and these two considerations led to that whole scheme being dropped.

After the Challenger Disaster, in memory of Christa MacAulife, there was a nationwide competition for school kids to come up with names for the eventual replacement shuttle: Adventure, Calypso, Catham, Deepstar, Desire, Dove, Endeavour, Godspeed, Hokule ‘a, Horizon, Nautilus, North Star, Pathfinder, Phoenix, Resolution, Trieste, Victoria, and Victory. Those were the finalists. Additional serious contenders that didn’t make the cut: Blake, Endurance, Griffin, Gulf Stream, Investigator, Meteor, Polar Star, Rising Star, and Royal Tern.

President George Bush the First ultimately chose “Endeavour” from the list (Both the American and British spellings of “Endeavor” were suggested, but he went with the British one)

“Nautilus” and “Trieste” are both submarines, which is an odd choice for a spacecraft, but, hey, points for nonlinear thinking. “Dove” and “Rising Star” are both names of SF space ships (“Journey to the Far Side of the Sun” and “Battlestar Galactica”), though that’s probably coincidental, as both were fairly obscure in ’88. I personally think I’d like to avoid “Meteor, Gulf Stream, Phoenix, and Deepstar” based solely on how and where the Challenger ended up. “Calypso” isn’t bad, though perhaps a bit too froggy for the time. “Investigator” and “Royal Tern” are both just dumb. Really, of the whole list, I think I still prefer “Pathfinder” the best. “Horizon” and “North Star” aren’t bad, though.

So how ’bout you? If “Shuttle II” were going into service tomorrow, and they wanted you to come up with a name scheme and some names, what would you come up with? And why?

(Most of this information came from “Space Shuttle: The History of the National Space Transportation System” by Dennis R. Jenkins, which is the authoritative source for all things relating to the development, design, construction, and operation of the shuttle program. It’s well worth a look if you’re at all interested. If it ain’t in this book, it’s not worth knowing)

REALSPACE: Mercury and MESSENGER

Years ago, back when we still had a space program and a government that recognized the importance of science, we launched a probe to the planet Mercury called “MESSENGER.” Nowadays we can’t even get funding to *built* a spacecraft, much less send it anywhere. I digress:

The only other probe ever to go down that road was in the early 1970s. It wasn’t very sophisticated, and it’s a tough haul: far more light, heat, and radiation to contend with than if you’re going *out* from the sun. All we got that time out was some vague readings, and a low-quality photomontage of about a quarter of the planet. Nothing seemed too interesting, and frankly, no one was really all that interested in being interested in the post-Apollo days. Mostly folks just wanted to sit around, snort coke, lose the Vietnam war, listen to disco, and get crabs. “It looks like the moon. We’ve already been to the moon. The Moon is dull. Screw it. Did you hear Meatloaf has a new album out? You know ‘Meatloaf’ refers to his penis, right? He’s cool. Let’s do another line!”

Flash forward 40 years, and Mr. Loaf is still as boring as ever (Jim Steinman won’t return his calls) but MESSENGER has been toodling around in orbit of the innermost planet for a while now, and it’s turned out that the planet is way more interesting than the filthy hippies thought:

* It’s got water! Yeah, I know NASA’s endlessly yammering on about water, and I’m generally disdainful of it, seeing as there’s never really been any debate about water on Mars (You can see the poles through a good telescope), but water on Mercury, that close to the sun, *IS* pretty amazing.
* There’s crazy amounts of sulphur on the planet. Way more than anywhere else. No one knows why.
* There’s next to no iron! This is a shocker, and again, nobody knows why. The other terrestrial plants are piled high with it. I mean, Mars is red because it rusted…
* By volume, Mercury’s core makes up about 85% of the planet! The other terrestrials have cores that make up maybe 30% of their volume. Again, no one knows why (But I do of course have a theory: Being so close to the sun, I think the planet has basically boiled away its volatiles over the last 4 billion years, and shrunk. I think it used to be a superterrestrial)

Check it out:
http://www.theregister.co.uk/2012/03/22/mercury_radar_bright_ice_research/