Scientists Are Racing to Save Neil Armstrong's Deteriorating Spacesuit

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

While the public debate surrounding the elimination of drinking straws and other disposable objects rages on, museums are presented with an opposite challenge: figuring out how to preserve artifacts made from plastic. As The New York Times reports in an article highlighting the dilemma, Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit is just one of the many partly plastic objects at risk of falling apart.

The spacesuit was designed to withstand the elements of space and "provide a life-sustaining environment for the astronaut during periods of extravehicular activity or during unpressurized spacecraft operation," according to the National Air and Space Museum, where it has been displayed or stored since 1971. However, it wasn't meant to stand the test of time.

The suit was constructed from 21 different layers of plastic—including nylon, Mylar, and Teflon, to name a few—but a layer of neoprene has proven to be the most problematic. The custodians of Armstrong’s spacesuit predicted that this layer would harden over time, making the suit stiff and brittle. When the risk of damage became critical in 2006, the suit was removed from its public display at the Air and Space Museum and sent into storage to lessen the risk of degradation. Later, a brown stain was discovered on the suit’s torso area—a result of plasticizer escaping from the air supply tubes.

Fortunately, the deterioration was stopped in time, but other vintage spacesuits with plastic components haven’t been so lucky. Plastics are especially hard to preserve because they’re only about 150 years old, and thus museum conservators don’t have much precedent to learn from.

“We have a very short history, in comparison to other materials, in understanding how long those materials last,” Hugh Shockey, lead conservator at the Saint Louis Art Museum, told the Times.

This is proving to be a common problem at museums around the world. In order to find a solution, conservators are first tasked with determining what kind of plastic each artifact is made of, which will determine how long the item may survive without intervention.

Next, the challenge is figuring out how to best preserve the item to slow the degradation process, which could involve limiting its exposure to UV rays, keeping the temperature and humidity low, or doing what’s necessary to prevent oxidation.

As for Armstrong’s spacesuit, it will ultimately be displayed in a case specially made for the purpose, which will be kept at 63°F and 30 percent humidity. Museum staff hope to have it ready by the 50th anniversary of the moon landing next year.

[h/t The New York Times]

Two Harvard Scientists Suggest 'Oumuamua Could Be, Uh, an Alien Probe

ESO/M. Kornmesser
ESO/M. Kornmesser

An odd, cigar-shaped object has been stumping scientists ever since it zoomed into our solar system last year. Dubbed 'Oumuamua (pronounced oh-MOO-ah-MOO-ah), it was first seen through the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope in Hawaii in October 2017. 'Oumuamua moved at an unusually high speed and in a different kind of orbit than those of comets or asteroids, leading scientists to conclude that it didn't originate in our solar system. It was the first interstellar object to arrive from somewhere else, but its visit was brief. After being spotted over Chile and other locales, 'Oumuamua left last January, leaving lots of questions in its wake.

Now, two researchers at Harvard University bury a surprising suggestion in a new paper that analyzes the object's movement: 'Oumuamua could be an alien probe. Sure, why not?

First, astrophysicists Shmuel Bialy and Abraham Loeb argue that 'Oumuamua is being driven through space by solar radiation pressure, which could explain its uncharacteristic speed. But for that theory to work, they calculate that the object must be unusually thin. Bialy and Loeb then analyze how such a slender object might withstand collisions with dust and gases, and the force of rotation, on its interstellar journey.

Then things get weird.

"A more exotic scenario is that 'Oumuamua may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization," they write [PDF]. They suggest that ‘Oumuamua could be be a lightsail—an artificial object propelled by radiation pressure—which also happens to be the technology that the Breakthrough Starshot initiative, of which Loeb is the advisory committee chair, is trying to send into space. "Considering an artificial origin, one possibility is that 'Oumuamua is a lightsail, floating in interstellar space as a debris from an advanced technological equipment,” they write.

Their paper, which was not peer-reviewed, was posted on the pre-print platform arXiv.

Loeb is well known for theorizing about alien tech. He previously suggested that intense radio signals from 2007 could be the work of aliens who travel through space on solar sails. However, Loeb acknowledged that this theory deals more with possibility than probability, The Washington Post noted. “It’s worth putting ideas out there and letting the data be the judge,” Loeb told the paper last year.

[h/t CNN]

A Team of Young Women Wants to Send Kyrgyzstan's First Satellite to Space

José Furtado y Antel, Wikimedia Commons // CC0 1.0
José Furtado y Antel, Wikimedia Commons // CC0 1.0

Kyrgyzstan is one of 123 countries that doesn't have a national space agency. That could soon change, thanks to a group of young programmers and engineers taking the matter into their own hands.

As The Next Web reports, the Kyrgyz Space Program is made up of 12 women ranging in age from 17 to 25 years old. They met in 2017, when journalist and TED fellow Bektour Iskender started a free course in his home country of Kyrgyzstan teaching young women there how to build robots and satellites.

The team has since made it its mission to build a cube satellite (CubeSat)—a smaller type of satellite that costs about $150,000 to put together. If they are able to construct the spacecraft, launch it into orbit, and send it to the International Space Station as planned, the project will mark the first time Kyrgyzstan has sent a satellite into space.

The Kyrgyz Space Program now meets twice a week in the offices of Kloop, a media outlet that's known for its support of feminist causes in a country where women still have a long way to go to reach parity. Even as more women start to get involved in Kyrgyzstan's politics, domestic violence, child marriage, and bride kidnappings are still rampant.

In order to accomplish their goal of sending a Kyrgyz satellite to orbit, the program has launched a crowdfunding campaign. Reaching the $2500-a-month marker means they can construct the CubeSat with guidance from the team who launched Lithuania's first satellite. If they reach the $10,000-a-month threshold, they will be able to send the CubeSat to the International Space Station. You can join the 120 people who've already supported their Patreon page by pledging today.

[h/t The Next Web]

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