In this column, staff writer J.E. Reich rounds up the most important and fascinating space news of the past week in bite-sized summaries to keep you up-to-date on what's happening way up above us.
A comet called Lovejoy proved that it's possible to get drunk in space (and by that, we mean that space-borne alcohol might have something to do with the formation of life on Mother Earth as we know it). Scott Kelly took a selfie during his first-ever space walk, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden is calling shotgun on NASA's destruction (if the next U.S. president lets it happen), a black hole is showing off it's bling by way of a gargantuan X-ray flare, and it's never not the right time to remember the life and death of cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov.
A Punch-Drunk Comet Might Be The Key To Life On Earth
A drunk comet, you say? While tracking the comet C/2014 (appropriately nicknamed Comet Lovejoy), researchers detected it releasing massive amounts of ethnyl alcohol, as well as glycolaldehyde, a type of simple sugar, and 21 other types of organic molecules, making it the first celestial frat party detected in outer space.
"We found that comet Lovejoy was releasing as much alcohol as in at least 500 bottles of wine every second during its peak activity," said Paris Observatory-based scientist Nicolas Bever, one of the co-authors on a paper that detailed the results, published in the scientific journal Science Advances.
The gaseous organic materials signify what the comet is made of, and since comets are frozen debris left over from the creation of our solar system, their chemical make-up gives us insight into how that particular process actually occurred. On a relatively smaller level, comets can also be used to determine the admixture that ignited the possibility for life on our planet.
"We're finding molecules with multiple carbon atoms," explained Stefanie Milam, a scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, who also co-authored the paper, "So now you can see where sugars start forming, as well as more complex organics such as amino acids—the building blocks of proteins—or nucleobases, the building blocks of DNA. These can start forming much easier than beginning with molecules with only two or three atoms."
In effect, scientists who observed Lovejoy have theorized that some of the organic material present on (and in) Lovejoy contributed to our own organic formation. So part of the reason we're around today has to do with an inebriated galaxial house party? Into it.
NASA Will Be Dead In The Water If The Next U.S. President Bails On The Mars Mission
NASA's head honcho Charles Bolden has been a stalwart analyst in terms of government participation, or lack thereof, in all things relating to U.S. space exploration, both critical of the Obama administration's support when need be, and the first to give praise—all depending on context. So it's no surprise that during an impassioned speech that Bolden delivered at the Center for American Progress, the former Marine Corps major general was quick to warn audience members that any move to thwart the federal space agency's proposed goal to send humans to Mars by 2030 would spell out NASA's demise.
After lauding Obama's "visionary" leadership, the administrator was quick to add that it was his "sincere hope that future leaders from all sides of the political spectrum see [the Mars mission] through."
While no current presidential hopeful from either the GOP or the Democratic party has expressed any particular vendetta against the planned expedition to the red planet, Bolden's precursive measures still held weight.
"If we change our minds at any time in the next three or four years, which always is a risk when you go through a government transition, my belief is that we're doomed," he stated.
Bolden's fears are understandable: because any NASA mission cannot necessarily yield quantifiable results, politicians can be reluctant to fund proposed projects—even more so if there is a chance that they'll fail. At this juncture, the same holds true for their journey to Mars, whose budget and definitive schedule are more or less rudimentary.
Despite these roadblocks, Bolden's message was optimistic.
"We're closer to sending human beings to the red planet than ever before in human history. Meanwhile, a new consensus is emerging in the scientific and policy communities around NASA's road map and timetable for making this happen," he concluded.
Honoring Russia's Fallen Cosmonauts After The Announcement of Russia's Resumed Lunar Colonization Program
With the recent announcement of the Russian space agency Roscosmos' continuation of the Luna program -- a Soviet space mission with the endgame of colonizing the moon that was shut down in the 1970's -- has resumed its course. Reasons behind the abandonment of the program are very much similar to what NASA faces when attempting to get clearance and funding for their own projects (see above), which are mostly due to success rate and verifiability of concrete and obtainable results: in short, things which are never exactly certain in the realm of science, let alone space travel. This October marks the failure a few of two Russia's missions -- namely the uncompleted docking mission of the Soyuz II and the Soyuz III in 1968. But it was Russia's first attempt, chornicled this week in a feature on VICE's Motherboard, that serves as a devastating reminder of the cost of scientific progress during the early days of space exploration, and how international tensions, Cold War propaganda, and the nuclear arms race were in part responsible for the first human death in space.
Cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov became the first unwilling martyr of the Space Race in 1967, all for then-General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev's love of Mother Russia. In honor of the 50th anniversary of the country's Communist revolution, the party leader became intent on displaying an international, history-making act of valor set in space for the sole reason of flaunting the superiority of Russian innovation. The stunt? A tryst between two Russian crafts, with one ship passing a vessel to another by way of a single cosmonaut. But from the get-go, the mission was ill-prepared (one inspection of the ship found 203 structural blunders alone), and Komarov, who was selected to complete the technical feat, was more than aware that the act would be his death sentence, only opting to go for the sake of his close friend Yuri Gagarin, the first human to journey into space. Considered a national hero—if not a deified one—Gagarin was to serve as Komarov's replacement if the latter backed out, and Komarov was certain that such a loss would be catastrophic. The mission would prove to be far worse:
"Komarov traveled to space on April 23. From the outset, the mission was a disaster. Technical failures marred his initial hours in orbit, and the capsule that was supposed to launch the following day to meet him never left the launchpad. [...] US military analysts listening in to the radio transmissions from Komarov heard him tell the Soviet mission commanders that he was going to die. They listened as Komarov gave a tearful goodbye to his wife, who wanted to know what to tell his children. [...] As this Soviet Icarus fell from space, by all accounts he spent his final moments 'crying in rage,' cursing his mission commanders for what they had done to him."
Black Hole Makes An Impression With A Massive X-Ray Flare
It can be assumed that even those only acquainted with the quirks and foibles of the universe know about the basic tenets of black holes—namely, that they have a penchant for sucking up everything that comes within contact of its gravitational pull, all the while shredding it into ribbons. But little do most people know that black holes can exhibit some strange behaviors, like, for instance, sending billowing, eruptive X-ray flares into outer space, which two telescopic crafts observed earlier this week.
Two NASA missions—Swift and the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR)—both picked up on the rare phenomenon after the detection of the black hole's corona, or a nexus of energetic particles, shot the beam out from the dead star's center.
"This is the first time we have been able to link the launching of the corona to a flare," said Dan Wilkins, one of the co-authors of an article on the observation, which will appear in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. "This will help us understand how supermassive black holes power some of the brightest objects in the universe."
Scott Kelly Pic of the Week(!)
While no one can deny the simultaneous pulchritude, adorableness, and sublime existential awesomesauce of astronaut Scott Kelly's selfie (see above), which was taken during his first-ever space walk this past week, the award for Scott Kelly Pic of the Week goes to another contender.
Introducing: EARTH ART!
— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) October 25, 2015
But also, Scott Kelly's most happy, most cute face.
Day 212 Getting my game face on for #spacewalk Thanks for sticking w me #GoodNight from @space_station! #YearInSpace pic.twitter.com/F1vKUZdTPV — Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) October 26, 2015