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Asteroid 16 Psyche Could Truly Be a Psychedelic Little World—AND Worth Quadrillions

Artist’s rendering of the metal asteroid 16 Psyche. (Credit: Arizona State University)

NASA recently announced the go-ahead for a new Discovery-level mission that would send a spacecraft to explore 16 Psyche, a 130-mile-wide asteroid in the Solar System’s main belt between Mars and Jupiter. 16 Psyche is a relatively small world but is made almost entirely of metals—some of them what we’d consider precious on Earth, like nickel, gold, and platinum—and not only would that make it a fantastic-looking place with mountainous ridges of nickel and valleys filled with green olivine and yellow sulfur deposits, but also incredibly valuable…some estimates place 16 Psyche as “worth” up to $10,000 quadrillion.

Yes that’s quadrillion, as in one thousand trillion. (And times ten thousand!)

Read the rest of this story by Irene Klotz on Seeker here: Step Aside Iron Man, NASA’s Going to Explore a Strange Iron World

Seeds in the Cosmic Wind: Carl Sagan on Space Exploration

Got the Monday back-to-work blues? Upset by bad news headlines? Concerned about a potential future President Trump? Take a couple of minutes and watch this.

This video, published by The Royal Institution on YouTube in Dec. 2015 and shared again on Twitter today, features an adorable animation about spaceflight with narration taken from a lecture given by Carl Sagan in 1977.

At that time it had been five years since humans had last walked on the Moon, the first Space Shuttle flight was still three and a half years away and the Voyagers had only just passed the orbit of Mars. But Sagan’s confidence and enthusiasm about the future of space exploration and human spaceflight is as inspirational now as it was then…let us continue to remember his words and pass along his message to each new generation that looks up and wonders “what’s out there” and, more importantly, “can I go?”

“Artifacts from Earth are spinning out into the cosmos. I believe the time will come when most human cultures will be engaged in an activity you might describe as a dandelion going to seed.”
— Carl Sagan, 1977

Plutonium is Back on the Menu, Future NASA Missions!

Plutonium dioxide glows with the heat of its natural decay inside a protective cylindrical shell of graphite. (DOE/Idaho National Laboratory)

Plutonium dioxide glows with the heat of its natural decay inside a protective cylindrical shell of graphite. (DOE/Idaho National Laboratory)

While I highly advise against humans making a meal out of it (despite my headline) the radioactive element plutonium has long been a staple energy source for many of NASA’s space missions, from Apollo’s ALSEPs to the twin Voyagers to the Curiosity rover.* But the particular non-weapons-grade flavor that NASA needs — plutonium dioxide, aka Pu-238 — has not been in production in the U.S. since the late ’80s; all the Pu-238 since then has been produced by Russia.

That is, until now; researchers at the Department of Energy‘s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee have successfully produced the first Pu-238 in the U.S. in 30 years. 50 grams (about one-tenth of a pound) of plutonium dioxide have been manufactured at ORNL, and once the sample has undergone testing to confirm its purity large scale production** will begin.

“This significant achievement by our teammates at DOE signals a new renaissance in the exploration of our solar system,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Radioisotope power systems are a key tool to power the next generation of planetary orbiters, landers and rovers in our quest to unravel the mysteries of the universe.”

Watch a video below from the DOE celebrating this new milestone.

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Here’s to 50 Years of American Spacewalks

Ed White on the first American spacewalk on June 3, 1965. (NASA)

Ed White on the first American spacewalk on June 3, 1965. (NASA)

Today we mark the 50th anniversary of American spacewalks, or EVAs (for extra-vehicular activity), the first of which was performed by NASA astronaut Edward H. White II in Earth orbit on June 3, 1965 during the Gemini IV mission.

While the United States had been beaten in the spacewalk race by the Soviet Union by almost three months (Aleksei Leonov performed the very first human spacewalk in March of the same year) it was nevertheless an enormous achievement for the country, NASA, and of course for Ed White too!

The video above shows footage of the historic EVA with a narration by White himself. (Sound begins about 30 seconds in.) Sadly, Ed White was killed two years later on Jan. 27, 1967 in the fire that claimed his life and those of fellow Apollo 1 astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom and Roger Chaffee. But his legacy will live on each and every time an American astronaut suits up and opens a hatch to venture out into an alien environment, whether it’s in Earth orbit, on the Moon, on Mars, or somewhere we haven’t even thought of yet!

You can see scans of the original film photos from the Gemini IV mission here on ASU’s “March to the Moon” gallery, and check out NASA’s tribute to 50 years of spacewalks gallery here.

Curiosity’s View Into Marias Pass

Panorama mosaic of MSL images acquired on May 22, 2015

Marias Pass – a panorama mosaic of MSL images acquired on May 22, 2015.

The image above shows Curiosity’s view southwest into “Marias Pass,” a low valley in Gale Crater where the rover was on May 22, 2015 – mission Sol 992. At the left (east) edge is the western slope of a rise called Akipuni Mountain, and Mount Shields rises off to the right (west). The image is a mosaic made from four Mastcam images – click to view it full-size on Flickr.

The site is a bit of a backtrack from its previous location at Logan Pass, since the rover has been experiencing some slipping on the loose surface material in the area.

“Mars can be very deceptive,” said Chris Roumeliotis, Curiosity’s lead rover driver at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “We knew that polygonal sand ripples have caused Curiosity a lot of drive slip in the past, but there appeared to be terrain with rockier, more consolidated characteristics directly adjacent to these ripples. So we drove around the sand ripples onto what we expected to be firmer terrain that would give Curiosity better traction. Unfortunately, this terrain turned out to be unconsolidated material too, which definitely surprised us and Curiosity.”

Read more on Curiosity’s progress here, and see a map of its traverses to this point here.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS. Edited by Jason Major.

Could Humans Set Up Camp in Martian Lava Tubes?

Pits like this, seen in a HiRISE image, may one day be entrances to human bases on Mars. (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

Pits like this, seen in a HiRISE image, may one day be entrances to human bases on Mars. (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

The concept of off-world habitation has been getting extra attention recently, especially with the announcement of 100 semi-finalists selected for the MarsOne “mission” (quotes because there’s more than a small amount of doubt that it will ever really take off – pun intended) and world-famous astronauts like Buzz Aldrin unabashedly telling us to “get our asses to Mars.” But even if we did manage to send a set of human derrières to the Red Planet, where would they call home? Building a safe habitation for humans for any sort of long term stay would be a time-intensive and expensive challenge, to say the least, and the environment of Mars – regardless of how much it might look like the deserts of Arizona or Utah in pictures – is harsh, unforgiving, and downright inhospitable for people.  A lot of protection against the Martian elements would have to be built into modules for living and working, especially the extreme daily (and seasonal, depending on latitude) temperature changes and exposure to both solar and cosmic radiation. Protection equals mass, and mass equals fuel, and fuel equals more mass… and more money. What if there were a way for humans to set up base somewhere that radiation exposure and temperature variations could be mitigated? Somewhere like an easily-accessible cave where Mars itself could provide safe shelter to astronauts?

(Hey, it worked well for humans in the past.)

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