From car to rail, its hard to find a terrestrial journey that matches SpaceXs astronomical cost
It is a stratospheric sum but it does, at least, include the return journey. Elon Musk, the billionaire American transport visionary, has suggested that the first, so far unnamed, passengers on his SpaceX flight round the moon will pay about $70m (56m).
Musk says the journey, tentatively scheduled for 2018 on an untested Falcon Heavy rocket, will cover up to 400,000 miles, although the Apollo 13 crew, on their trip to the moon in 1970, were a record 248,655 miles from Earth, so this figure seems modest if anything. Either way, 400,000 miles (about 16 times the circumference of Earth) for 56m is equal to about 140 a mile, which is easier to fathom. But how does it compare with terrestrial journeys?
Tube: The closest you can get to matching the cost of lunar travel is on the London Underground. The shortest Tube journey is the 350 metres, from Covent Garden to Leicester Square. A cash ticket costs 4.90, which equates to almost 23 a mile, about a sixth of the cost of a trip to the moon and back and a lot quicker.
Forty light years away, a small, orange star called Trappist-1 sits unnoticed in the sky. You can’t see it with your bare eyes—it burns colder than the brightly shining stars that fill the night sky, the ones that have inspired millions of people to imagine life beyond Earth. But most stars in the galaxy are neither big nor bright. And it’s those abundant, dim dwarfs that might actually be the best place to look for worlds capable of supporting life.
Now, scientists have discovered seven Earth-like exoplanets orbiting Trappist-1. Each world is nearly the same size and mass as our own world. And more exciting, three of these worlds orbit within a zone—not too close, not too far—in which water can exist without freezing or boiling. All these factors have the European scientists who closely study this exoplanet system excited that this might be the best place yet to squint into the inky black of night for signs of life.
Trappist-1 is an ultracool dwarf star. It is barely bigger than Jupiter, and burns about 6,500 times cooler than the sun. That’s so cool—ultracool, man—that its core is barely warm enough to fuse hydrogen atoms into helium. In 2016, a team led by Michal Gillon from the Universit de Lige in Belgium wrote the first report of exoplanets orbiting the star. Today, in Nature, they more than double their previous analysis, as well as offer further details about what these planets might look like. “They form a very complex system, with the planets all being close to each other, and close to the star, which is reminiscent of the system of moons around Jupiter,” says Gillon.
This little star system has already offered plenty of secrets. Partly, that’s due to how tightly the planets spin around the dim bulb in the center. Exoplanet hunters determine many attributes of their quarry using a process called transit measuring, which captures the silhouette of a planet as it passes between Earth and its star. Because the orbits of all the rocky worlds in the Trappist-1 system are so tight, Gillon and his team were able to make 34 transit observations in just a few months—and identify the seven separate planets.
Among that data are indications that some of these worlds could support life. “What potentially habitable means is liquid water,” says Gillon. Only three worlds exist in the theoretical “Goldilocks Zone” where their surfaces would receive life-incubating levels of stellar energy. But all seven could, theoretically, have liquid water. The planets pass so closely that they pull on each other as they pass by, creating warming tidal forces—the same kind of heating that could give Jupiter’s frozen moon Europa an underground ocean.
The transit analysis also let Gillon’s team estimate the planets’ sizes. As you can see in the graphic below, they’re each within 10 percent of the size of Earth:
That graphic, though, in no way represents what these exoplanets actually look like. (Okay, maybe a little bit. The planets closer to Trappist-1 are probably warmer than those further out.) Most of what scientists learn about the look of faraway worlds comes from analyzing their atmospheres. Pluto is barely two light hours from Earth, and nobody on Earth knew what it looked like until researchers shot a space probe to go visit. New Horizons took nearly 10 years to reach Pluto from Earth; a similar mission would take many centuries to reach Trappist-1, which is 40 light years away. Even one of the laser-propelled microsats being developed by Breakthrough Starshot would need about 180 years for the trip.
But astronomers can get a pretty good idea whether these exoplanets carry life just by observing the light of Trappist-1 as it shines through their atmospheres. “Plenty of science fiction books say ‘If you have oxygen, you have life,’ but that is not true,” says Gillon. Instead, they’ll look for telltale chemical traces of molecules like carbon dioxide and ozone. That work begins soon, and will use a new set of telescope systems called SPECULOOS—four, 1 meter infrared instruments placed around the world. That way, astronomers can constantly look into the black of night for signs of life, no matter how dim they might be.
The satellite company Planet is used to breaking records. In 2014, a rocket exploded with a payload of the company’s satellites inside—26, the biggest loss ever. And today, Planet will launch the largest sat fleet ever, on a rocket carrying the most satellites in history, when it sends 88 new craft from the Satish Dhawan Space Center in Sriharikota, India.
These devices, called Doves, will flock with already-orbiting instruments to capture pictures of the Earth. They’re tiny, weighing less than 11 pounds. But with their powers combined, they can track much more of the Earth than massive satellites from military-industrial juggernauts like DigitalGlobe. Even more, Planet just this month purchased another mini-sat company, Terra Bella, from Google, to amp up its space surveillance. And that means it can sell more data—data perhaps about where you live or work or play—for more money.
What kind of data, you ask? Images of farmland, for one, which can help customers measure crop yield. And if a tsunami inundates a coastline, satellite data can direct relief efforts to the right places. Retailers can take stock of parking lots to understand shopping schedules. A mining company can learn how much material is coming out of their remote site—or their competitors’. And governments can spy on whatever governments spy on.
Planets blog post announcing their latest launch says itwill be imaging the entire Earth daily. That’s not quite right: Itcan only image around 58 million square miles of the globe’s 193 million. Earth’s landmasses are right around the 58 million mark—so the truer claim is that Planet will be imaging the entirety of Earths earth daily.
But still—that’s a lot. On the strength of its 55 currently-operating satellites, the company has already raised $183 million of capital. And with the 88 sats launching today and Terra Bella’s seven more, Planet is poised to become the most powerful provider of daily Earth imagery.
All Your Base Are Belong to Planet
Google first bought Terra Bella for $500 million in 2014, back when they were called Skybox Imaging and had just two satellites. But after a few-year foray, Google decided it doesnt want to play this particular space game. That makes sense to Walter Scott, who founded DigitalGlobe. Space is hard, he (and everyone else) says. Our customers generally find it more cost-effective to be buyers rather than owners.
And that is, in fact, what Google plans to do. When Google handed Terra Bella off for an undisclosed figure, they also signed a multi-year agreement to buy data back from Planet. Now, Google gets the images it wants without the pain of procuring rocket space, having satellites blow up, or competing with Planet—which, presumably, doesnt want to be bought because it is doing just fine on its own, thank you very much.
Meanwhile, Terra Bellas satellites will make up for the Doves’ deficits. The acquisition wasnt just an accident, where we got drunk one day,” says Planet founder Will Marshall. Each of the seven sats has four to six times the resolution of Planet’s model, but they can’t provide the same constant coverage. So the Doves can watch for changes in their high-throughput, lower-resolution images, and if they see a shift—flooding where land was dry, a bunch of tanks next to a formerly quiet oil pipeline—Planet can task one of the bigger satellites to take a better picture.
Another acquisition recently filled in another of the company’s gaps. Planet’s images work great for the recent past, and the future. But their flock didnt hatch long ago. So when they purchased the more aged Earth-observation company BlackBridge in 2015, they gained access to its RapidEye satellites and their archives, extending their imagery back to 2008. On top of that, Planet customers can now look at Landsat 8 and Sentinel-2 archives, which show Earth in different wavelength bands, in the same portal where they view Dove and RapidEye data.
Win, win, win, win.
Now, the other Earth-facing players still have a place in Planet’s world. DigitalGlobe can only image 1.5 million square miles per day to Planet’s 58 million, but it can send customers pictures at 11.8-inch scale—essentially resolving a laptop into its own single pixel, from space. And it is expanding its breadth, partnering with Saudi Arabian governmental organizations to launch a medium-resolution set of satellites.
But when it comes to whole-Earth imagery—or whole-landmass, anyway—Planet has the lead. And its customers, for the right price, can extract nearly endless information from the satellites’ images. Thats what power looks like.
Schiaparelli thought it had landed on Mars when in fact it was still 3.7km above the surface, says European Space Agency
A tiny lander that crashed on Mars last month flew into the red planet at 540km/h (335mph) instead of gently gliding to a stop, after a computer misjudged its altitude, the European Space Agency has said.
Schiaparelli was on a test-run for a future rover meant to seek out evidence of life, past or present, but it fell silent seconds before its scheduled touchdown on 19 October.
After trawling through vast amounts of data, the ESA said on Wednesday that while much of the mission went according to plan, a computer that measured the rotation of the lander hit a maximum reading, knocking other calculations off track.
That led the navigation system to think the lander was much lower than it was, causing its parachute and braking thrusters to be deployed prematurely.
The erroneous information generated an estimated altitude that was negative that is, below ground level, the ESA said in a statement.
This in turn successively triggered a premature release of the parachute and the backshell [heat shield], a brief firing of the braking thrusters and finally activation of the on-ground systems as if Schiaparelli had already landed. In reality, the vehicle was still at an altitude of around 3.7km (2.3 miles).
The 230m ($251m) Schiaparelli had spent seven months travelling 496m kilometres (308m miles) onboard the so-called Trace Gas Orbiter to within a million kilometres of Mars when it set off on its own mission to reach the surface.
After a scorching, supersonic dash through Marss thin atmosphere, it was supposed to glide gently towards the planets surface.
For a safe landing, Schiaparelli had to slow from 21,000km/h (13,000mph) to zero, and survive temperatures of more than 1,500C (2,730F) generated by atmospheric drag.
It was equipped with a discardable, heat-protective shell, a parachute and nine thrusters to decelerate, and a crushable structure in its belly to cushion the final impact.
The crash was Europes second failed attempt to reach the surface of Mars.
We’re going to Mars. And we’re bringing tunneling droids.
Image: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
In September, at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk revealed a grand plan to visit and, eventually, populate Mars.
The Q&A session after the event was lacking to say the least, but now, during a Reddit AMA (ask me anything) session late Sunday, Musk shared a number of details about the company’s ambitious plans to conquer Mars.
This time around, Musk was able to skip the silliness and focus on highly technical aspects of the mission. For space exploration/rocketry enthusiasts, the AMA session is a gold mine. Musk talks about exotic materials that need to be used for the mission and the properties of the Falcon 9 rocket that will take the first human crew to Mars. He also shares some details about that huge carbon fiber tank SpaceX has built to store oxygen.
There are a few nuggets of information for those who aren’t interested in the nuts and bolts (literally) of SpaceX’s rockets. In one answer, Musk gives a rough timeline of how the first couple of missions to Mars would look like.
We are still far from figuring this out in detail, but the current plan is:
Send Dragon scouting missions, initially just to make sure we know how to land without adding a crater and then to figure out the best way to get water for the CH4/O2 Sabatier Reaction.
Heart of Gold spaceship flies to Mars loaded only with equipment to build the propellant plant.
First crewed mission with equipment to build rudimentary base and complete the propellant plant.
Try to double the number of flights with each Earth-Mars orbital rendezvous, which is every 26 months, until the city can grow by itself
In another answer, he explains that the industrial operations on Mars would largely take place underground, while the people would live on surface in glass/carbon-fiber domes (yes, exactly like every 1960s sci-fi illustration you’ve ever seen). The underground bits, he claims, would be dug out by tunneling droids.
Initially, glass panes with carbon fiber frames to build geodesic domes on the surface, plus a lot of miner/tunneling droids. With the latter, you can build out a huge amount of pressurized space for industrial operations and leave the glass domes for green living space.
Musk also talks a little about the multitude of references to SF classics in SpaceX’s naming schemes and designs. The ITS booster had to have 42 engines (42 is known as “the answer to life, universe and everything” in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) for “scientific and fictional reasons,” Musk claims.
The ITS spacecraft name, which is short for Interplanetary Transport System, will likely be changed in the future, as it “just isn’t working,” according to Musk. The name replaced the old one Mars Colonial Transporter when Musk revealed that the spacecraft would be able to carry humans beyond Mars.
By Musk’s own admission, practically none of what he laid out during the AMA session is set in stone at this stage. Perhaps the most revealing is Musk’s painfully honest answer to the question which technologies has the company mastered at this point:
“Not sure that we’ve really mastered anything yet. Maybe starting engines…,” he wrote.