Ultima Thule, Chang’e 4 & Chandrayaan 2 – 1-11-2019

Credit: JHU Applied Physics Laboratory

Ultima Thule, the by now famous Kuiper Belt Object, has now been officially discovered and explored becoming the most distant object in space to have been directly observed with space probes. Waves of celebration emanated from the control room across the internet to even Brian May of Queen. I’m not kidding with that one, watch the music they produced below. We already have a small amount of information about Ultima Thule due to the download speeds across space. They’re reportedly somewhere between 1-2 kB/s, well below your average internet download or upload speeds. What we have so far are a few important pieces of information. Firstly, the most important question on everyone’s minds, is UT one or two bodies?

The money had been on one large body and this turned out to be correct. NASA noted that it looks like a snowman because it is one body comprised of a smaller sphere attached to a larger sphere, just like how we make them during winter, minus the carrot and hat. The name Ultima Thule refers to the body as a whole but Thule is the smaller sphere and Ultima the larger one. Ultima is also three times larger than Thule yet only a few kilometers longer. UT is red in color due to its exposure to radiation and is very cold due to being so far from the Sun as most KBOs are. Higher resolution photos are expected to be available in February as the data is downloaded. That’s relatively fast since all of the data won’t be received until September 2020. Thusly ,the data on hand is very small and we’ll have to wait on further details.

Credit: Queen Official

Credit: Wall Street Journal

The accomplishments keep flowing. After launching China has successfully landed on the dark side of the Moon with their Chang’e 4 lander, the first lander to ever achieve this. Named after Chang’e, the ancient Chinese Goddess of the Moon, the Chang’e 4 officially landed on the Moon January 3, 2019. The name is a bit misleading since the supposed dark side does have light but doesn’t ace the Earth. Chang’e landed in the Von Kármán crater within the South Pole-Aitken Basin near the south pole of the Moon. Fun fact: the Aitken Basin is the largest impact crater in our Solar System at 2,500 km in diameter. Around half a day after Chang’e 4 landed it’s rover, Yutu-2, began moving. Yutu was the pet white rabbit of Chang’e. The mission’s main objective is to analyze the geology of the Moon so that it can be understood further. Chang’e will also be taking photos and monitoring solar wind. This mission also involves a communications satellite, Queqiao, behind the Moon because radio signals are difficult to receive on the dark side. Thus, they need to first transmit to Queqiao and then go back to either the lander and rover or China back on Earth.

The Lunar Micro Ecosystem is an interesting feature to the mission. Its purpose is to try and grow organisms (plant and animal) in a small container on the Moon. If we’re ever going to try and live on the Moon we’ll need to grow our own food and we can’t exactly wait 2-3 days for shipping. Unfortunately, we don’t know how animals or plants grow in space, especially an environment with very low gravity. The small biosphere China is using contains seeds from potatoes, rapeseed, cotton, Arabidopsis and different organisms including fruit flies, yeast and silkworms. It will also have water, a nutrient base, air, humidity and temperature regulation and a tube to redirect light on the Moon into the biosphere so that the plants can undergo photosynthesis.

The main goal of the experiment is to view a closed ecological system in action on the Moon to see if it is either a viable option or a complete disaster. Either way, we’ll learn something. This experiment is the first of its kind on the Moon and will help us to begin seeing the effects low gravity can have on a living creature. The main dynamic in the system will be Arabidopsis and the silkworms. When the worms hatch they’ll start growing and create carbon dioxide and when the Arabidopsis plants start growing they will produce oxygen. Working together this will lead to an ecosystem capable of sustaining itself free of human influence which we can use as a model for understanding growth on the Moon. Potatoes were also picked for the same reason you see them in the film The Martian; they’re easy to grow and can be a sustainable food source.

There is also a camera viewing the ecosystem which will live stream the results. The results from this experiment are also explicitly stated to be used to aid future exploratory endeavors on the Moon in addition to possible colonization efforts. This mission is part of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program which intends to explore the Moon both in unmanned and manned capacities. Chang’e 1 & 2 were lunar orbiters and 3 & 4 landed on the Moon. Chang’e 5 & 6 will be missions to collect lunar samples and after they are finished a mission with astronauts is planned and potentially a mission to create a small settlement so that it could be used for various purposes. China has a clear plan for exploring space, will anyone else step forward to challenge them or will China become the new leader in space?

This is a panorama of the Moon from Chang’e’s perspective:

You can read more about the difference between the sides of the Moon here:

India is going to the Moon! Again! Chandrayaan 2 is a combination probe, lander and rover mission being carried out by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). It will land near the southern pole and carry out research of the Moon along with a chemical analysis. The landing has been delayed multiple times and is stated not to launch until April 2019. Since the first Chandrayaan failed India could use a success to boost its reputation and scientific resources.

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