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Space News Roundup With Sky & Telescope's Kelly Beatty

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Kelly Beatty.
Edgar B. Herwick III/WGBH News
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180221-edgar-me.mp3

Here at the Curiosity Desk we like to keep one eye on the sky, as there is no more reliable source of wonder than the vast universe. And lately, there’s been a glut of space news — from Elon Musk’s company Space X executing high-profile, private launches to the Trump Administration's new proposed budget for NASA. So we thought it was a good time to check in with one of our favorite "space brains" — Kelly Beatty, senior editor for "Sky & Telescope" magazine. I sat down with Kelly at S&T's Cambridge headquarters to sort through some recent headlines and see if he could help separate the wheat from the chaff.

Edgar B. Herwick III: So, Kelly, I was wondering if you might indulge us and play a little game where we tick off some of these headlines and you let us know is each is a big deal, sort of a little deal, or is it no deal at all.

Kelly Beatty: That's great. Let's go.

EBH: Let's start with SpaceX. As of this printing, they have a launch today. And it seems like they are the only game in town when it comes to launching things into space. I know that's not true, but they've got a ton of stuff going on. How big a deal is what SpaceX is doing?

KB: A very big deal. You know SpaceX has morphed from just a kind of curiosity and novelty in the space business to a bonafide main player and a list launch services company. The Air Force is using them, NASA is using them.

EBH: In particular, the launch that seemed to generate all kinds of excitement was [the February 6] launch, when these two rocket boosters came back down to earth and landed. Is that some kind of a game changer or not?

KB: That was the Falcon Heavy launch, and you recall that the Space Shuttle, when NASA was launching those, had two rocket boosters that fell into the ocean and could be reused. Elon Musk has taken this one step further in actually bringing those back autonomously to land on platforms. And they can be turned around very quickly. That is the key to making it economical. If the costs for a rocket launch go down substantially, then the cost for missions can go down too. And that provides more opportunities.

EBH: Over the weekend one of the two rovers on the planet Mars, Opportunity, had its 5,000th day —  or 5,000th "sol," on Mars. Big deal? 

KB: Big deal in a feel-good kind of way. This is a spacecraft that landed along with a twin on Mars in early 2004. That's 14 years ago. They had 90-day warranties. That was how long they were supposed to last. And Opportunity is just the Energizer Bunny of Martian spacecrafts. It's seen its 5,000th sunrise. It's traveled more than 28 miles. And it just keeps delivering science to its team back on Earth.

EBH: We see these pictures that come down, but there has been science beyond just these beautiful pictures of Mars?

KB: And of course there is science in the pictures. So, these rovers were sent there to find evidence that water flowed on the surface of Mars. And nothing says water like trundling up to a creek bed and seeing the flow of streams or layers in the rocks. But there are other things, too, like the spectra of the rocks, which tell scientists that there really was water on the surface of Mars where it landed.

EBH: Another thing that made a lot of headlines in recent weeks has been this NASA budget — prioritizing a moonshot again, deprioritizing the space station. When these budgets get announced or passed: Big deal, little deal, no deal?

KB: I think in this case President Trump is kind of showing the way, and I think Congress will be eager to see that. You need to go back a couple of steps. In December, he announced what's called the Space Policy Directive 1, which is laying the groundwork for the return of astronauts to the moon and, from there, to Mars. So we're seeing these movements on the part of the Trump administration to really bolster NASA.

EBH: It sounds like you might be saying that, in terms of their commitment to space, maybe this is a big deal?

KB: Yeah, and let's not forget that that NASA budget as proposed by the administration actually includes an increase. I think is a signal that that the space program is here to stay. And I think Trump is, rightly, using this as one of these "Make America Great Again" platforms.

EBH: How about something that is a big deal that is coming up? What should we be looking ahead to?

KB: Next month, NASA is going to launch something called the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), on a SpaceX rocket I might add, and it's going to look for at least 50 planets around other stars that are as close to like Earth as we can find them, and get us one step closer to answering that big question: Is there life elsewhere?

EBH: It's a beautiful day out today. Very warm. Maybe a nice night to get out and look at the stars? Anything to see tonight?

KB: In the evening sky we have a lovely crescent moon. You might think you need a telescope. Uh uh. Just take a pair of binoculars outside and look at the moon with your binoculars. That'll blow you away.

EBH: Thanks for taking the time.

KB: A pleasure always.

This conversation was edited for length and clarity.

As always, I want to know what you are curious about. Story ideas need to come from somewhere. Why not you? Email me anytime at curiositydesk@wgbhnews.org.

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