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Juno, Philae, and really fast fire: this week in space

This week in space: We found a lost spacecraft! The ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft found their lost Philae lander, which ended up crashed on its asteroid, lodged in a crevice sort of like a turtle on its back. Now we can put context to the disoriented, hard-to-interpret images that confused Philae sent us while it was laying in the ditch. As the comet speeds away from the sun, available solar power is dwindling, which means that Philae is nearing the end of its mission, and so is her “mothership” Rosetta. Rosetta is planned to deorbit onto the asteroid on September 30 after beaming back as many pictures and other scientific readings as it can.

On the topic of asteroids, the OSIRIS-REx probe launched on an Atlas V last night (8 Sept 2016) at 7:05 PM EDT. The probe was sent to check out the Bennu asteroid and bring back rocks, so we could do science on them. But not far in the future, there’s another planned mission called Prospector-1, which is explicitly sent to exploit resources on an asteroid. This makes some people deeply uncomfortable, because there’s a UN treaty that declares outer space off-limits to sovereign claims. But it didn’t make the US government all that uncomfortable, obviously, because last year we enacted a federal law permitting (or rather, refusing to hamper until 2023) commercial exploitation of space resources by US citizens.

An update on Juno: during its recent close flyby of Jupiter, it used its infrared JIRAM PotatoCam to snap some striking pictures of Jupiter’s poles. IR imaging yields very different data than what we can see in the visible spectrum, such as with the human eye. The north pole is a sea of terrible storms and swirling clouds. And unlike Saturn, it doesn’t have a big visible hexagon formation. (Why does Saturn have a hexagon around its north pole? The short story is that the strongest winds are at the right latitudes to create a regular hexagonal meander. Modeling shows that it could have been anything from a triangle to an octagon.)

Also, Elon Musk wanted to let us know that it wasn’t an explosion that took out the Falcon 9 in last week’s SpaceX explosion, and that it was just a really fast fire. The rocket’s payload was staged for launch when everything went boom, and among the losses was the AMOS-6 communications satellite. The aerospace industry is still figuring out what to do with itself in the aftermath, and lawsuits appear to be an attractive option for some payload stakeholders. Musk is pretty sure that any crew on the spacecraft would have been fine, because they’d have been in the Dragon capsule, which would have been unfazed by the conflagration. The Dragon capsule has an eject feature, which it can use in case of a launch failure — which one expects would result in an equally big explosion really fast fire.

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