In this column, staff writer Andrea Alfano 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.
If you thought that space news was going to quiet down now that last week's Pluto flyby climax has passed, you were wrong. New plans to return to the moon, the announcement of the largest ever project focused on finding intelligent alien life, and the successful journey of three new people to the International Space Station were just a few of this week's exciting developments. And, of course, we got to learn even more about lovely little Pluto.
In honor of the 46th anniversary of the first-ever moonwalk, on Monday NASA released a study that detailed a plan for returning to the moon under its current budget.
This past Monday marked the 46th anniversary of the very first steps to ever taken on the moon, a feat achieved on the Apollo 11 mission. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong took those steps in a spacesuit that the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum is now hoping to save from deteriorating through a Kickstarter launched on the anniversary of the first moonwalk.
The Apollo 11 mission kicked off a golden age of moon exploration, though it was sadly short-lived. Humans haven't returned to the moon since 1972, but NASA has a plan to change that. On the anniversary of the first moonwalk, a partially NASA-funded study that lays out a financially feasible plan for returning to the moon was released. By leveraging the resources of the public and private sectors of the space industry through partnerships, the study authors propose that it will be technically and economically possible to return to the moon within the next decade, and establish a permanent base on the moon within an additional decade or so.
Stephen Hawking announced a new $100 million initiative to search for alien life.
Famed scientist Stephen Hawking unveiled plans for a 10-year, $100 million search for alien life – particularly intelligent life – called Breakthrough Listen.
"We believe that life arose spontaneously on Earth, so in an infinite universe, there must be other occurrences of life," Hawking said at the official announcement event at the Royal Society in London, according to SPACE.com. "Somewhere in the cosmos, perhaps intelligent life might be watching these lights of ours, aware of what they mean. Or do our lights wander a lifeless cosmos, unseen beacons announcing that, here on one rock, the universe discovered its existence? Either way, there is no better question. It's time to commit to finding the answer, to search for life beyond Earth. The Breakthrough initiatives are making that commitment. We are alive. We are intelligent. We must know."
Breakthrough Listen will survey the 1 million stars nearest to Earth that make up our own Milky Way galaxy in addition to those in the 100 other nearby galaxies. The project is slated to be the most powerful search for signs of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe that has ever been undertaken.
New Horizons has been steadily streaming back exciting images and other data gathered during the Pluto flyby.
During the 21 hours that New Horizons was closest to Pluto, the spacecraft stopped communicating with Earth because it was busy spending every moment gathering data as it sped past the dwarf planet. For the next 16 months, New Horizons will be steadily streaming data back to NASA scientists. Here is the most exciting Pluto news from this week:
The Disney character is not the only 'Pluto' with a tail. Data from New Horizons shows that Pluto has a tail of cold, dense ionized gas because its atmosphere is getting blown off by solar winds. Planets such as Mars and Venus have similar "tails" made of atmospheric plasma.
Pluto's heart harbors not one, but two mountains ranges. More detailed images of Pluto's icy, heart-shaped Tombaugh Regio revealed that there is a second mountain range situated in its lower-left edge. These Plutonian peaks are comparable to the Appalachian Mountains in the U.S. at about half a mile to a mile in height, according to estimates from NASA.
New Horizons captured the most detailed images yet of two of Pluto's smaller moons. Pluto's largest moon, Charon – which some argue is not Pluto's moon at all, but the other half of a binary planet system that includes Pluto – tends to get all of the attention, but it is just one of the five known moons of Pluto. This image provides the most detailed look yet at two of Pluto's smaller moons, Nix (left) and Hydra (right). Both are irregularly shaped, but they are only tens of miles in length and width.
Plus, NASA released this spectacular flyover animation of Pluto's surface.
A successful Soyuz rocket launch brought three new crew members to the International Space Station.
The International Space Station got three new residents this week as a Russian Soyuz rocket successfully blasted them off into space – the photo above is a long exposure shot of the launch. A solar panel failed to fully unfurl once the ship reached orbit, but this proved to be a minor hiccup that did not hinder the team during their journey. Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, Japanese flight engineer Kimiya Yui and NASA's physician astronaut Kjell Lindgren arrived safely at the ISS late on Wednesday night, eastern time.
A failed rocket launch finally got an explanation.
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket exploded shortly after launch last month, but until this week the cause of the failure was still a mystery. On Monday, SpaceX founder Elon Musk announced that a faulty steel strut appears to be to blame.
"The strut holding down one of the helium bottles appears to have snapped," Musk said in a conference call with reporters Monday. "As a result, we've seen a lot of helium get into the upper stage oxygen tank, which caused an overpressure event quite quickly."
Musk admitted that SpaceX employees might have gotten a bit too cocky due to the success of other recent rocket launches, remarking that, "When you only experience success, you don't learn to fear failure."