When Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, it was a giant leap for mankind and a huge success for American engineering, but there was one aspect of the mission that hadn’t really gone as planned. When Neil Armstrong manually guided the lunar module to a safe touchdown, he had to override the computer which had the craft landing in a field of boulders. It left the demonstration of precision automated guidance to Apollo 12.
Fifty years ago this month, Apollo 12 successfully landed within a few hundred meters of its target, 400,000 kilometers (248,500 miles) away from where it lifted off. A key figure responsible for that precision landing was an unassuming Englishman living in the Arizona desert, Ewen Whitaker. Without the aid of computers or GPS, but with patience and an exhaustive knowledge of the geography of the Moon, Whitaker pinpointed where a robotic spacecraft had landed two years earlier.
As a scientist interested in the chronology of events on the Moon, I ultimately found myself analyzing rocks that had been brought back from the Moon by Apollo 12, working in a laboratory that Whitaker had helped establish. And even though Whitaker retired within months of my arrival in Tucson, it was a delight to get to know him and learn the stories of his quiet heroics.
The genesis of a lunar expert
Whitaker had long been fascinated by the Moon, and when pioneering planetary scientist Gerard Kuiper put out a request for collaborators at an international astronomical gathering in Dublin in 1956, Whitaker was the only one who responded. He went to join Kuiper at Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin, then accompanied the group when it relocated to the University of Arizona and founded the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.
As the group produced progressively better images and maps of the Moon, Whitaker absorbed the details with a devotion that meant that he almost certainly knew more lunar geography than any human ever had.
When NASA’s Surveyor 1 became the first robotic spacecraft to perform a soft landing on the Moon, in 1966, Whitaker wasn’t officially part of the team. But when the team studied the images from Surveyor 1’s camera, and published the location where they thought they had landed, Whitaker disagreed. When he examined the images of the peaks and craters and compared them to the highest-resolution images of the Moon’s surface available, he concluded the spacecraft was actually a few kilometers away from the published location. The team agreed.
After Apollo 11’s hair-raising final seconds before touchdown, precision landing became a high priority for Apollo 12. But the challenge was to establish the exact location of anything on a body that humans were just beginning to explore. A subsequent Surveyor mission provided the images Whitaker needed.
Finding the right spot
NASA had landed the Surveyor 3 unmanned craft in 1967, and the location had several advantages for an Apollo 12 landing site. It was clearly an area where a spacecraft could safely land; it was near the equator, which made it easily accessible. And, if the landing was close enough to Surveyor 3, the astronauts could walk over and remove pieces of it to bring back to Earth. That way, scientists could study the wear and tear on the materials after spending two years on the lunar surface, exposed to vacuum, extreme temperatures, ionizing radiation and micrometeorite bombardment.
Given Whitaker’s success with locating Surveyor 1, he was asked to locate precisely Surveyor 3. It was a tougher task than finding Surveyor 1. Because Surveyor 3 had landed in a crater, the view was restricted, but Whitaker again poured over the best images he could find, and believed he had found the landing site.
Apollo 12 launched on November 14, 1969, and, other than being struck by lightning twice within the first minute after it lifted off, had an uneventful trip to the Moon. On November 19, the landing module, Intrepid, headed into a crater and safely touched down. When Mission Commander Pete Conrad stepped out onto the lunar surface, he saw Surveyor 3, about 200 meters away. Ewen Whitaker had gotten it right.
Conrad and fellow astronaut Alan Bean walked to the unmanned spacecraft, and some of the iconic images from the mission are of Conrad working on the Surveyor craft, including taking off its camera, which was returned to Earth for analysis.
One of the ironies of that set of images is that the photographer, Bean, later became a very successful painter, with many of his paintings reflecting his lunar experiences, including the visit to Surveyor 3. Meanwhile, the astronauts sent a personal note to Whitaker, thanking him for his contributions, and that became one of Ewen’s prized possessions, framed and hanging on the wall of his house.
But the story of Whitaker and Bean wasn’t quite over. In the late 1990s, Bean was displaying artwork at a gallery in Tucson, and Whitaker went to see if he could meet him. Jim Scotti, an astronomer (in the Lunar and Planetary Lab) and space artist who knew both Whitaker and Bean, was at the meeting, and said that it seemed more like a reunion than a first meeting, with a happy mix of Whitaker’s English accent and Bean’s Texas twang.
And why not? For each of them, that day in November of 1969 had been the highlight of their professional careers, and neither could have done it without the other.
Mini Mercury skipped across the vast, glaring face of the sun Monday in a rare celestial transit.
Stargazers used solar-filtered binoculars and telescopes to spot Mercury — a tiny black dot — as it passed directly between Earth and the sun on Monday.
The eastern U.S. and Canada got the whole 5 ½-hour show, weather permitting, along with Central and South America. The rest of the world, except for Asia and Australia, got just a sampling.
Mercury is the solar system's smallest, innermost planet. The next transit isn't until 2032, and North America won't get another shot until 2049.
In Maryland, clouds prevented NASA solar astrophysicist Alex Young from getting a clear peek. Live coverage was provided by observatories including NASA's orbiting Solar Dynamics Observatory.
"It's a bummer, but the whole event was still great," Young wrote in an email. "Both getting to see it from space and sharing it with people all over the country and world."
At Cape Canaveral, space buffs got a two-for-one. As Mercury's silhouette graced the morning sun, SpaceX launched 60 small satellites for global internet service, part of the company's growing Starlink constellation in orbit.
Chinese space engineers are tackling the key technologies needed to explore a near-Earth asteroid and a main-belt comet with one space probe.
The proposed mission is to send a probe around an asteroid named 2016HO3 and then land on it to collect samples, Huang Jiangchuan, a researcher from the China Academy of Space Technology, recently told the first China Space Science Assembly in Xiamen, east China's Fujian Province.
The probe will then fly back to the proximity of Earth, and release a capsule to return the samples. After that, the probe will continue its journey. With the assistance of the gravity of Earth and Mars, it will finally arrive at the main asteroid belt and orbit comet 133P, Huang said.
Asteroid 2016HO3 has a very close relationship with Earth and is known as a "mini moon" or a quasi satellite. It has a diameter of about 40 to 100 meters and a density of about 2.7 grams per cubic centimeter, said Huang.
"Where is it from? What's its relationship with the Earth and Moon? Those are questions we want to know," he said.
The second target, comet 133P, is the first comet found within the main asteroid belt that displays characteristics of both an asteroid and a comet.
Main-belt comets are apparently icy bodies recently discovered within the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and have shown comet-like activity during part of their orbit, scientists say.
The largest diameter of the cometary nucleus of 133P is about 5.4 kilometers, and its density is about 1.4 grams per cubic centimeter, Huang said.
"Probing small celestial bodies is a new frontier of space exploration, but with a high threshold. The main difficulties are the micro-gravity, uncertainties and the unknown environment of the small bodies. It's hard to learn about their shape, composition, structure and other features through observation from Earth," said Huang.
"We face great technological challenges in exploring asteroids and comets because so little is known about their detailed features," he added.
"Through ground observation, we presume that asteroid 2016HO3 rotates very fast, making one rotation in about half an hour. The structure of small celestial bodies is usually loose. It's very hard to land on such fast-rotating small bodies."
Comet 113P is larger than the first target, but is also largely unknown. It's at the outer edge of the main asteroid belt, adjacent to Jupiter. Its distance from Earth would make the orbit measurement very difficult, Huang said.
"Another challenge is how we connect the two tasks of exploring the asteroid and then the comet," he said.
The scientific objective includes studying the formulation and evolution of the solar system, the role of near-Earth asteroid and main-belt comet impacts on the origin of life, and the dynamics of small bodies in the solar system.
The probe will be equipped with advanced scientific detectors, electric propulsion technology, automated navigation and intelligent control functions.
On Dec. 13, 2012, China's second lunar probe, Chang'e-2, after successfully completing its mission, rendezvoused with the asteroid Toutatis at a distance of 770 meters, as the space rock, bigger than a city block, swept by Earth at a distance of around 7 million kilometers.
It was the world's first close fly-by observation of Toutatis. The probe took high-resolution images providing a number of discoveries.
"Compared with Japan, Europe and the United States, China is a latecomer in the exploration of asteroids and comets. We need to go faster, and we hope the mission will have multiple goals and can satisfy scientists' curiosity," said Huang.
"There are so many small bodies like asteroids and comets in space, but only a few have been detected. The exploration could help us prevent threats to the Earth, as well as exploit their resources."
The China National Space Administration is pushing forward the asteroid and comet exploration project, and inviting scientists around the world to participate. China has offered to carry instruments developed by other countries on the mission.
The Brazilian government on Monday announced a plan to build eight artificial intelligence (AI) labs across the country.
The move is aimed at improving the country's AI research and development, Marcos Pontes, minister of science, technology, innovation and communications, said at the opening ceremony of the 5th Innovation Week in the capital city Brasilia.
The labs will be operated as a network so they can bring together the existing AI development initiatives across the country, Pontes said without specifying when the labs will be ready.
One of the labs will work with the Brazilian military to explore the frontier areas in AI and cyber-security, said Pontes, adding that the other seven will focus on applied AI technologies.
A dozen bottles of fine French wine arrived at the space station Monday, not for the astronauts, but for science.
The red Bordeaux wine will age for a year up there before returning to Earth. Researchers will study how weightlessness and space radiation affect the aging process. The goal is to develop new flavors and properties for the food industry.
The bottles flew up aboard a Northrop Grumman capsule that launched from Virginia on Saturday and arrived at the International Space Station on Monday. Each bottle was packed in a metal canister to prevent breakage.
Universities in Bordeaux, France, and Bavaria, Germany, are taking part in the experiment from Space Cargo Unlimited, a Luxembourg startup.
Winemaking uses both yeast and bacteria, and involves chemical processes, making wine ideal for space study, said University of Erlangen-Nuremberg's Michael Lebert, the experiment's scientific director, in a company video.
The space-aged wine will be compared to Bordeaux wine aged on Earth. What's left will go to those who helped pay for the research, according to a company spokeswoman.
This is the first of six space missions planned by the company over the next three years touching on the future of agriculture given our changing world.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure," Nicolas Gaume, chief executive and co-founder of Space Cargo Unlimited, said in a statement.
NASA is opening the space station to more business opportunities like this and, eventually, even private astronaut missions.
The Cygnus capsule that pulled up to the space station on Monday contains multiple commercial ventures. Also on board: an oven for baking chocolate chip cookies, as well as samples of carbon fiber used by Italy's Lamborghini in its sports cars.
Budweiser has already sent barley seeds to the station, with an eye to becoming the beverage of choice on Mars. In 2015, a Japanese company known for its whiskey and other alcoholic drinks sent up samples. Scotch also made a visit to space in another experiment.
As for high-flying wine cellars, this isn't the first. A French astronaut took along a bottle of wine aboard shuttle Discovery in 1985. The bottle remained corked in orbit.
The space station's current crew includes three Americans, two Russians and an Italian, who might have preferred a good Chianti on board.