News from the near and far reaches of space managed last week to cut through a wall of noise generated by the arrest of Julian Assange, continuing debate over release of Robert Mueller’s full report and the latest from Britain’s ongoing Brexit debacle. News about space even created pauses, brief ones, in the drone of speculation about how the final season of Game of Thrones will play out.
So, what happened last week?
There was innovation: SpaceX on Thursday sent its super-sized Falcon Heavy rocket skyward on its first commercial mission, propelling a Saudi telecommunications satellite named Arabsat into orbit. It was the Falcon Heavy’s second launch — an earlier test sent SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s red Tesla into space with a mannequin dubbed Starman behind the wheel.
We’ve likely seen the last of Starman. But commercial space exploration, with SpaceX at its forefront, continues its amazing advance. After last week’s launch, two of the massive rocket’s first-stage boosters were able to land safely at Cape Canaveral, Florida; its core booster, meanwhile, touched down intact on an ocean platform, a landing SpaceX hadn’t been able to stick during the earlier test.
The Falcon Heavy was launched from Kennedy Space Center — using the same pad that sent Apollo astronauts to the moon.
There was medical advancement: Astronaut Scott Kelly, who famously spent almost a year aboard the International Space Station, has been the subject of a unique study to determine the impact of long-term space travel on the human body. The so-called “twins study,” during which Kelly’s health post-orbit was scrutinized in comparison to his twin brother Mark’s, delivered good news. According to an Associated Press report, “… Kelly’s body sometimes reacted strangely to nearly a year in orbit … but newly published research shows nothing that would cancel even longer space treks, like to Mars.”
There was daring: Working on batteries and cables doesn’t sound exciting — unless it’s done while tethered to the International Space Station as it hurtles around the Earth. Astronauts David Saint-Jacques and Anne McClain, during a spacewalk last week, had to overcome radio glitches that hampered communication, and McClain faced the added concern of a layer of moisture inside her helmet. The work was completed despite those obstacles, and the station’s next spacewalk is set for May.
There was … failure: Last week’s space news wasn’t all positive. The unmanned Israeli spacecraft Beresheet crashed into the moon just before touch-down during an attempt at the first privately funded lunar landing. There was much disappointment — but also a commitment to continued innovation and exploration.
There was discovery: Scientists on Wednesday released, to the amazement of earthlings planet-wide, the first-ever image captured of a black hole. Thanks to constant references in works of both science and science fiction, black holes have become a familiar, if sometimes loosely understood, concept — many have no doubt carried in their minds an idea of what a photo of a black hole might look like.
Now, thanks to an image assembled from data collected by eight radio telescopes around the world, we no longer have to wonder. And the violent red semi-doughnut of swirling light and gas that appeared in the colorized photo released by scientists didn’t disappoint. We live in tumultuous times — see: Assange/Mueller/Brexit, the wall of noise. But this past week, we were able to view an image confirming visually a supermassive black hole in a galaxy 55 million light years from our planet. Tumultuous or not, the times we live in have their moments.
That space news managed to secure so many headlines during so newsy a week is almost as amazing as the feats of daring innovation and problem-solving themselves. It’s also reassuring. It would be disappointing if space exploration couldn’t capture our imaginations, regardless of what else was happening here on the ground. The world would be a wall of noise indeed.
John Dilmore is editor of the Roswell Daily Record. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this column are those of the author.