Exciting times in space exploration

Thursday, January 3, 2019

It’s been an exciting couple of days for space geeks.

China successfully landed it’s Chang’e 4 craft on the far side of the moon, sending back photos of its rover on the lunar surface. The craft is named after a Chinese goddess who, according to legend, has lived on the moon for millennia. No word on whether Chang’e has greeted her new visitor.

The same day, NASA released photos of an object nicknamed Ultima Thule, 4 billion miles from earth. Scientists had expected an object like a bowling pin, judging from earlier photos taken by the New Horizons spacecraft, but they got a surprise.

“It’s a snowman!” said lead scientist Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute.

New Horizons, which sent back the first close-up photos of Pluto 31⁄2 years ago, this time produced images of two fused-together spheres, one three times as big as the other. The smaller, Thule, is estimated to be 9 miles across, while the larger, Ultimata, is about 12 miles across.

China, which is working to expand its influence in space as much as it has on earth, boasted that no one else has “dared” to land on the so-called dark side of the moon.

What they don’t say is that most of the technology that made the landing possible was “borrowed” from Western sources, and China’s unmanned landing was accomplished a half-century after the United States did it with men, using less computer power than what’s in today’s digital meat thermometers.

We’ve just passed the 50th anniversary of that iconic “Earthrise” photo taken by Apollo 8, and we’re coming up on the anniversary of the first moon landing.

Now, like then, critics are quick to point out other possible terrestrial uses for the billions of dollars that go into space exploration — education, feeding the hungry, perhaps a border wall? — but they miss the point.

The most valuable result of space exploration is right here on earth: inspiration for coming generations.

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