by Jennifer Foehner Wells
Space is hard. Sometimes, the Old School folks–NASA, JPL–make it look so easy we forget that. We all “Ooohed” and “Aaahed” at the mammoth achievement that was the Juno craft’s close shave of Jupiter on July 4th, which put it in position for its regular orbits.
Then we cringed last week when new kid on the block, SpaceX, had the second disaster in their hit-and-miss history.
So I was pretty nervous this week when OSIRIS-REx, NASA’s long-awaited asteroid sample-return mission vehicle, sat on a launch pad rocket. I saw a comment on Twitter asking if there was a way to salvage the probe if something were to go catastrophically wrong with the rocket as it had with SpaceX.
Rockets launch things out of Earth’s gravity because they are big, huge, carefully controlled bombs. “Carefully controlled” most of the time.
This time, though, it was a picture-perfect launch:
After launch, the rocket hurtled the craft into Earth orbit on a trajectory that will take it towards the asteroid Bennu, where it will orbit for a year, studying the space rock, before landing, collecting samples, and bringing those samples back to Earth.
An unmanned spacecraft that actually comes back to us is kind of a big deal. Usually, once they leave Earth orbit, they’re gone forever; it’s too expensive to give them enough fuel to bring them home. But if we ever hope to understand asteroids, we need to study the materials they are made of. And short of going to one ourselves, or bringing one to us, this is the cheapest alternative… for now.
After a five-year journey through the solar system, NASA’s Juno spacecraft is scheduled for orbital insertion on Monday, July 4th. Due to the time delay between Earth and Jupiter, the insertion will be in the hands of the computers aboard the spacecraft, and mission specialists will have to wait 48 minutes to know if it was a success.
Sounds a lot like those long moments of terror when Curiosity plunged towards Mars four years ago.
If all goes well, Juno will study Jupiter (less so its moons) using orbital maneuvers much like the spacecraft Cassini has used in the Saturn system for the past twelve years.
Here is the Juno arrival timeline in EDT and GMT:
Here is the official NASA page on the mission with a countdown and info on using the awesome NASA Eyes app:
Also, some helpful what-to-expect/how to watch info from Space.com and the Planetary Society’s Emily Lakdawalla:
Image courtesy of NASA.gov
I am always on the lookout for solar system exploration fic, which is difficult to find, because aliens are king in contemporary space opera. I wish I liked classic SF more than I do; a lot of the old stuff was solar system specific. The oldest I’ll go back is 1990’s/ turn of the turn-of-the-millennium, and even that stuff seems dated. To a book, late 90s solar system fic is cynical. Not the writers; but their characters. The writers are desperate and sad: “We’ve given up on space!” They produced desperate and sad fantasies about characters fighting to get back to space against big odds. Nowadays, we get gee-whiz stories like The Martian, reflecting the greater optimism of the SpaceX and ISS era.
This book, written in 1996, tries hard to inject the pessimism with optimism, but the author has a political ax to grind, and the book has more than a little Fountainhead subtext, a naive belief in the benignness of privatizing not only space ventures, but public education as well.
Although I have my doubts about privatization as some panacea–removing ventures in the public interest from public oversight and lock-stepping the evaluation of their success with the profit motive–I’ve always shared the particular frustrated impatience with government progress in space. It is too cautious, too hamstrung by goal-lessness. But this book peppers its privatization with potshots at NASA, environmentalists, and straw-man liberals.
Which is too bad, because underneath that peppering is an complex near-future (now alt-history) world peopled with interesting characters, and despite me, I’ll probably read the next book in the series.
I give this tour-de-force exploration of one possible answer to the Fermi paradox a 3.5. Better than a three, but not as good as a four. However, there is no 3.5, so four it is. It reminds me, in structure, of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312–a long, meandering novel with multiple characters and story lines, where the plot eeks along at a snail’s pace while entire chapters are turned over to philosophical musings.
Then, in the last quarter of the book, the myopic detail of the story lines is dumped to take a different point of attack on resolving the larger story, leaving the emotional payoff of the original story lines hanging, to be resolved by various, off the cuff “tellings,” rather than “showings.” This is frustrating, although you do find out what happened to the characters, and the ultimate message of the novel is positive.