Mr. Musk Needs “Space”

By: Tim Maninger, News Writer

This week may provide some hope for those who would rather not live on this planet anymore. After some delays SpaceX’s Dragon cargo ship has successfully docked with the International Space Station (ISS), and seven potentially habitable planets have been discovered 40 light years away. These events both strengthen the privatized space industry and provide further motivation for continuing to push out from this lovely blue orb.

Companies like SpaceX are depending on this continued interest and motivation in space exploration because unlike NASA they are not funded by the government. Until recently the collaborations between public and private space organizations were limited to designing specific systems for use on NASA equipment. Now that these companies are becoming capable of their own launches, collaborations have grown to include a docking mission between SpaceX’s Dragon cargo ship and the ISS. SpaceX needed this boost to morale and stockholder confidence since they have been floundering in the wake of several crash landings of their Falcon 9 platform last year.

While the Dragon cargo ship’s mission was eventually successful, it was not without its share of delays. The initial launch was aborted last minute when a problem with the steering system was detected. After its successful launch the next day it took a few days to get into position to dock with the ISS, but was again forced to abort last minute when its GPS software encountered an error. It was finally able to dock the next day delivering its 5500 pounds of cargo of both supplies and experiments.

Also this week, astronomers have announced the discovery of seven planets orbiting in the habitable zone of a star forty light years away. They have named this system TRAPPIST-1 after one of the telescopes used to find it. The name TRAPPIST stands for TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope. This telescope watches for planets passing in front of stars, slightly dimming the light they emit from our perspective. Based on the amount and frequency of the dimming, observers can estimate the size and orbit of the planet. The orbits of the planets in TRAPPIST-1 vary from 1.5 days to 20 days, for comparison Mercury orbits the sun in 88 days. As expected this means that the diameter of the TRAPPIST-1 system is smaller than that of Mercury’s orbit, but because the star they orbit is much smaller and colder than our own sun, its habitable zone is much closer. As of right now it is unknown whether the planets would actually be habitable or if the star emits too much UV radiation.

The future of space exploration seems to be in capable hands. Discoveries made in recent years and intentions on colonizing Mars have brought some of the excitement back to space exploration. Privatized space organizations like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic are working to revolutionize space travel. This new competition encourages ideas not only between the private companies, but NASA as well. This may be the new face of the space race, good old-fashioned competition between businesses.