Earlier this month, a geomagnetic storm knocked out about 40 of Elon Musk's SpaceX satellites, which had been launched the day prior even though the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had warned of a possible geomagnetic storm. This experience, which cost SpaceX $50M-100M, illustrates at least three issues that bear watching. First, geomagnetic storms are increasing because the sun will not reach the peak of its 11-year cycle of solar activity until 2025. Second, recognizing the importance of satellite safety to U.S. economic and national security, NOAA now has responsibility for forecasting the weather not only on Earth but in space. Third, private companies, including SpaceX and Amazon's Project Kuiper, are racing to create networks of tens of thousands of low-orbiting satellites -- SpaceX alone hopes to have 42,000 of its satellites in orbit -- which create vastly more obstacles to safe space launches and re-entry, especially when they end up as clouds of debris. For more on the challenges of launching and maintaining private satellite networks, see www.technologyreview.com/2022/02/10/1045202/spacex-just-lost-40-satellites-to-a-geomagnetic-storm-there-could-be-worse-to-come/. For NOAA's three-day space weather forecast, see www.swpc.noaa.gov/products/3-day-forecast
OUTSIDE THE BOX:
This is a great time of year to study the night sky. This site allows you to put in your location for a real-time map of the night sky. It also includes information on visible planets, moon phases, and upcoming meteor showers. www.timeanddate.com/astronomy/night/
GEOGRAPHY IN THE NEWS:
When the earth passes through the debris left by a comet, for example, some of that interplanetary dust makes it all the way to the earth's surface. Ever wonder how much? By studying the accumulation of interplanetary dust in Antarctica, where there is virtually no source of terrestrial dust, French researchers estimate 5200 tons of micrometeorites fall to earth every year. www.cnrs.fr/en/more-5000-tons-extraterrestrial-dust-fall-earth-each-year
UN data show that more than 9,600 objects have been launched into space since Sputnik. But over the next decade, countries and companies -- including SpaceX, Amazon, and Facebook -- may be putting an additional 57,000 satellites into orbit. "You may not know it yet, but the world is in the middle of a new-age space race. There has been an explosion in the volume of technology being launched into orbit that is unlike anything ever seen in the era of humans in space. In the last five years alone, almost a quarter of all objects ever sent into space were launched. But unlike at the dawn of the space era, when the superpower nations of the Soviet Union and the United States raced to the Moon, this time it’s billionaires fighting for profits in orbit. ... With so many new operators in space and even more satellites, there are fears that entire orbits could be rendered unusable as the risk of satellite collisions increases. ...Today space above is a sea of thousands of active and decommissioned satellites. ... Crashes in space are not only extremely costly, but they also leave behind huge amounts of orbital debris that can hurtle through orbit at incredible speeds for thousands of years in some cases. ... Currently, there is no international code forcing countries or companies to clean up debris or take measure before launching to make sure they are not adding to the debris problem." www.abc.net.au/news/2020-08-07/spacex-amazon-satellites-scramble-for-space-around-earth/12512978
MAPS IN THE NEWS:
Fireworks are not the only thing to light up the night sky. This map shows "fireball events" recorded by U.S. government sensors from April 1988 to March 2020. Recent research suggests that meteorites do not hit all parts of the earth equally, being more likely to land in the tropics than near the poles. This finding suggests not only where to find meteorites should one want to do so but also where to avoid meteor impacts should one need to, say, choose a new location for the global seed vault.
www.sciencenews.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/052220_sh_meteorites_inline2_desktop_rev.png (From www.sciencenews.org/article/meteorites-might-be-more-likely-strike-near-equator.)
The U.S. is planning on a leading a mission back to the moon by 2024, marking the first time humans will have been to the surface of the moon since 1972. In advance of this, the U.S. is preparing to release a legal framework termed the Artemis Accords intended to govern human activity on the moon. The accords reportedly would allow for the creation of "safety zones" around mining and exploration sites claimed by countries or companies and require public disclosure of what is being done in these zones, among other things. NASA argues the Artemis Accords would "in no way change" the 1967 Outer Space Treaty that prohibits countries from making territorial claims on the moon. But Russia has already voiced its opposition to the plan, arguing that the proposal is tantamount to a U.S. invasion of the moon. "NASA would make signing the accords a requirement for allied countries to participate in its lunar exploration program."
GEOGRAPHY IN THE NEWS:
A study of biogeography shows that life exists in a "just right" mix of physical geographic variables -- temperature, precipitation, sunlight, altitude... -- that varies from species to species. For this reason, some astrobiologists are focusing their attention on "eyeball" planets, those that have a transition zone between the too-hot day side and the too-cold night side, a transition zone that might include a "just right" spot for extraterrestrial life: nautil.us/blog/-forget-earth_likewell-first-find-aliens-on-eyeball-planets
"GLOBAL ISSUES, LEADERSHIP CHOICES":
Should outer space be preserved as a pristine laboratory for scientific research? Or should standards be relaxed to allow humans and all of their attendant gear and microbes to colonize Mars, the moon, and elsewhere? This article from Foreign Policy takes the latter view:
"For [Elon] Musk, Jeff Bezos, and other space visionaries, the solar system is filled with nearly unlimited natural resources that will relieve pressure on the Earth’s fragile environment, grow the U.S. economy exponentially, and propel humanity toward its destiny in the stars. Yet, Musk’s shining city on Mars and Bezos’s lunar ice mines are not universally celebrated. There is a group in the space community who view the solar system not as an opportunity to expand human potential but as a nature preserve, forever the provenance of an elite group of scientists and their sanitary robotic probes. These planetary protection advocates such as Monica Grady demand the strictest interpretation of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which calls for avoiding “harmful contamination” of celestial bodies. ... It’s also important to note that many international competitors will ignore the demands of these protection extremists in any case. ... Forcing NASA’s proposed Mars exploration to do better, scrubbing everything and hauling out all the trash, would destroy NASA’s human exploration budget and encroach on the agency’s other directorates, too. Getting future astronauts off Mars is enough of a challenge, without trying to tote weeks of waste along as well. ... A reasonable compromise is to continue on the course laid out by the U.S. government and the National Research Council, which proposed a system of zones on Mars, some for science only, some for habitation, and some for resource exploitation. This approach minimizes contamination, maximizes scientific exploration, and allows for Musk’s city."
MAPS IN THE NEWS:
In 1979, 10 years after the first moon landing, the United Nations adopted the "Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies," also known as the Moon Treaty. The treaty was designed to prohibit the militarization, commercialization, and colonization of bodies in our solar system, including the moon, without the consent of the international community. This map looks at the handful of states that are parties to the treaty (in green) or that have signed the treaty but are not necessarily bound by it (in blue). www.statista.com/chart/18738/countries-that-are-signatories-or-parties-to-the-1979-moon-treaty/
MAPS IN THE NEWS:
In 1969, National Geographic published a ground-breaking map of the moon. Now, nearly 50 years since the first landing on the moon, National Geographic has published a new map incorporating the last 50 years' worth of data on lunar geography: www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2019/07/new-phase-of-exploration/
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