Southwest Research Institute
Southwest Research Institute

NASA Announces Two New Asteroid Missions

Southwest Research Institute
Southwest Research Institute

The poet E.E. Cummings wrote, “—listen: there’s a hell / of a good universe next door; let’s go.” And go we shall: NASA’s Discovery Program announced this week that two robotic spacecraft named Psyche and Lucy will be setting out for nearby asteroids within the next decade.

For all our exploration over the last half-century, we still have much to learn about our own solar system. The Discovery Program aims to help fill in those gaps.

“Lucy will visit a target-rich environment of Jupiter’s mysterious Trojan asteroids, while Psyche will study a unique metal asteroid that’s never been visited before,” NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen said in a statement. “This is what Discovery Program missions are all about—boldly going to places we’ve never been to enable groundbreaking science.”

Lucy is scheduled to launch in 2021 and should arrive at her first stop, an asteroid in Jupiter’s main belt, four years later. The craft will then study six of the ancient Trojan asteroids, which may have formed a mere 10 million years after the Sun.

Harold Levison of the Southwest Research Institute is chief investigator on the Lucy mission. “Because the Trojans are remnants of the primordial material that formed the outer planets,” he explained in a statement, “they hold vital clues to deciphering the history of the solar system. Lucy, like the human fossil for which it is named, will revolutionize the understanding of our origins.”

The Psyche mission, directed by scientists at Arizona State University, will lift off in 2023. It will reach the metal asteroid, called 16 Psyche, between Mars and Jupiter by 2030, then orbit and observe it for another 20 months. The asteroid is made almost entirely out of nickel-iron metal similar to those at the core of rocky planets like Earth.

NASA / ASU SESE mission to the Psyche asteroid from ASU Now on Vimeo.

“The knowledge this mission will create has the potential to affect our thinking about planetary science for generations to come,” said ASU president Michael Crow.

Why Do Astronauts Use Space Pens Instead of Pencils?

by Alex Carter

It's often said that NASA spent millions of dollars developing a pen that could write in zero gravity, while the Russians just used pencils. It was a warning about looking for a high-tech solution to a mundane problem, of American excess vs. Russian sensibility.

It's also entirely false.

To understand why NASA was so keen on a workable space pen, you have to understand that the pencil is not suited for space travel. The problem is that they have a habit of breaking, shattering, and leaving graphite dust behind. The wood, too, can make it a serious fire risk in the pressurized, oxygen-rich capsule. All of these common issues become life-threatening hazards in space.

Still, there were attempts to bring pencils into space. In 1965, the agency famously ordered 34 specially designed mechanical pencils in hopes of finding the perfect writing tool for astronauts. But at $128 each, they weren't exactly cheap, and it only got worse when the public got wind of the price. Thankfully, an alternative was not too far behind.

Astronaut Walt Cunningham, pilot of the Apollo 7 mission, uses the Fisher Space Pen while in flight.
Astronaut Walt Cunningham, pilot of the Apollo 7 mission, uses the Fisher Space Pen while in flight.
NASA

The Space Pen was invented by Paul Fisher, head of Fisher Pen Company. Unlike a typical pen, the Fisher Space Pen uses compressed nitrogen to force ink out of the nozzle, instead of using gravity to make it flow. This made it the ideal device for writing in space, while upside down, or submerged underwater. It wrote crisp and clean, without the safety concerns of a pencil.

Fisher contacted NASA to give his pens a try in 1965 and in 1967, after months of testing, they were impressed enough to bulk buy 400 of them for future missions. Contrary to those urban legends, NASA didn't commission the pen or contribute any funding to it. The Soviets soon ditched their grease pencils and were eventually buying the same Fisher pens as NASA, too. The price? After a 40 percent discount from Fisher, both space agencies were paying $2.39 a pen.

The Fisher Space Pens made their debut in 1968 on the Apollo 7 mission and have been involved in all manned missions since.

So, the short reason is that astronauts only used pencils when they were waiting for something better to come along. As soon as it did, they switched and never looked back. Even the Russians thought it was a good idea.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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iStock
New Study Says We Could Be Alone in the Universe
iStock
iStock

There's a good chance that humans are the only intelligent life in the galaxy, according to a new study submitted to the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society of London A. As Quartz reports, researchers at Oxford University's Future of Humanity Institute applied existing knowledge of biology, chemistry, and cosmology to the Drake equation (below). It was created by astronomer Frank Drake in 1961 as an attempt to calculate the number of intelligent civilizations that could be in our galaxy. He included factors like the average rate of star formation and the average lifespan of intelligent civilizations.

Image showing text of the Drake equation and explaining what each variable means
Equation: University of Rochester; Image: Hannah McDonald

They estimate there’s a 53 to 99.6 percent chance we’re alone in the galaxy, and a 39 to 85 percent chance we’re the only intelligent life to be found in the entire universe.

“Where are they?” the researchers ask, referring to the classic Fermi Paradox, which asserts that intelligent extraterrestrial beings exist and that they should have visited Earth by now. “Probably extremely far away, and quite possibly beyond the cosmological horizon and forever unreachable.”

Seth Shostak doesn’t buy it. Shostak is senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, a research organization that analyzes radio signals for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. Part of the challenge with mathematical modeling like this, Shostak says, is that the data are limited; scientists just haven’t looked at very many star systems.

“I could walk outside here in Mountain View, California and not see too many hippos strolling the streets,” he tells Mental Floss. “But it would be incorrect for me to say on that rather limited basis that there’s probably no hippos anywhere. It’s a big conclusion to make on the basis of a local observation.”

Moreover, they may not even know what to look for in the solar systems they have reviewed. The SETI Institute examines radio communications and light signals, but there’s always the possibility that an intelligent civilization has attempted to contact us using means we may not have developed or even considered yet.

The Fermi Paradox itself may be naïve in its understanding of the universe, Shostak says. “You could have said the same thing about Antarctica in the 1700s. A lot of people wondered, ‘Is there a continent down there?’ On the one hand, you could argue there was [a continent], and on the other hand, you could say, ‘Look, there’s an awful lot of water in the Pacific and the Atlantic, and there’s no continents there, so why should there be one at the bottom of the ocean?’”

In other words, any conclusions about the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence are likely to be presumptive, made before any solid data is released or discovered. The truth may be out there, Shostak says. We just haven’t found it yet.

[h/t Quartz]

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