Welcome to This Week in Outer Space, where you’ll find a roundup of the best space coverage from Yahoo News and our partners over the past week or so. Last week we covered black holes, budget space tourism, and a small but significant glimmer of hope in US-Russia relations. This week we have a lap of honor from SpaceX, some good news on killer asteroids and planetary activity that likely has astrological significance. But first, the incredibly complicated search for a lunar standard time zone.
Now is moon time
With dozens of lunar missions on the horizon, a joint international effort is being launched to standardize how we measure time on the moon. Establishing a specific time zone for the moon is a lot easier said than done—because it’s known If you are has a lot to do with finding out Where you are. Let’s explain:
Since 1967, we’ve been measuring time on Earth on a global scale using something called Coordinated Universal Time, or UTC, which is based on super-accurate atomic clocks. UTC stays the same no matter where you are on the planet, but your local time corresponds to the Sun, with noon being whenever it is directly overhead.
To avoid absolute chaos in daily life, we now use time zones that are divided into hourly periods – but technically every 101 feet east or west there is a difference of about 1 second in local time. So if you know exactly what time it is where you are and know exactly what time it is in UTC, you can find out where you are east or west of the international date line. There’s also a much more complicated way of using local time to determine your position north or south of the equator, and both of these measurements are crucial for things like navigation and communication systems to work with any kind of reliability.
What does all this have to do with space travel? Currently, the time on the moon is based on the local time at mission control for each individual spacecraft. Suppose there is a rover from Cape Canaveral. If it’s 7 am in Florida, it’s 7 am on the moon, no matter where the rover is. However, suppose the rover from Cape Canaveral crossed paths with a lander from Wenchang, China. Although they were right next to each other, it would be 7am for the rover and 8pm for the lander.
For now, that’s not a big issue because there just isn’t enough happening on the moon to make it matter. As countries and private companies scale up lunar missions in the coming decades, the European Space Agency believes a “common lunar reference time” will be vital to maintaining order.
The bad news is that there is no clear solution yet. Atomic clocks, like the ones we use to set UTC on Earth, run slightly faster on the moon due to its lower gravity, and a more traditional solar model has a different set of problems. The time between one lunar noon and the next is approximately 708.7 hours, and that doesn’t translate exactly into minutes and seconds.
Luckily, for the foreseeable future at least, this really isn’t going to have much of an impact on the vast majority of Earth’s inhabitants – and there are literal rocket scientists working on the solution.
SpaceX really came out this week
Seemingly unaffected by some of Elon Musk’s more chaotic endeavors, SpaceX has been running like clockwork lately – and this week the hits just kept coming. Despite having to cancel a launch in partnership with NASA just minutes before launch on Monday, the private space company quickly regrouped and sent its first manned mission of the year into orbit on Thursday. Crew-6 carried four astronauts, including the first astronaut from the Arab world, Sultan Al Neyadi, to the International Space Station, where they will replace a crew from Crew-5.
While all of this was happening, SpaceX also managed to launch the first set of second-generation Starlink internet satellites into orbit on Monday, and then returned straight to the launch pad on Friday afternoon to do so again.
What’s next for SpaceX? You guessed it: more starts.
Good news: we might actually deflect killer asteroids
As you may recall, in September NASA crashed a spacecraft into an asteroid to see if it could throw it on a different course. Early data showed promise, but now that the results for the Double Asteroid Redirection Test mission have been analyzed more scientifically, we can say with some confidence that it’s working. In fact, the “kinetic impactors” significantly altered the asteroid’s trajectory.
Well, there are still a lot of variables as to whether or not this would work in a given real-world scenario involving a planet-killing space rock hurtling toward Earth – but I, for one, will just sleep a little better with an existential threat less to worry about.
Venus and Jupiter made themselves comfortable
On Wednesday and Thursday, Venus and Jupiter appeared to almost converge in the night sky. Apparently, these two celestial bodies are hundreds of millions of miles apart, and from our perspective, it only looked like they’d taken part in what Oregon Public Radio hilariously dubbed a “night kiss.” Due to the relatively flat orientation of orbits in our solar system, perceived planetary convergences are fairly common. However, aside from astrological implications, they have no real scientific significance other than looking really cool.
SpinLaunch aims to launch satellites into orbit
When it comes to escaping Earth’s gravity, our options are limited: rocket fuel is expensive, it’s dangerous, and balloons will only get you so far. But what if there was another way? Well, a Sunnyvale, California-based company thinks it may have the answer.
SpinLaunch has built a one-third scale proof-of-concept of what is essentially a very high-tech catapult to hurl objects into space. As you might guess from the name, the device spins cargo in a vacuum chamber to build up kinetic energy before releasing at a precise moment to launch the payload into the sky. Testing has attracted attention and investment from NASA and Airbus, and while the idea of launching objects into space without a rocket isn’t exactly new, this is the first time it’s been shown viable outside of science fiction.