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Geopolitics may be driving the Trump administration's planned return to the Moon by 2024, but, if risk and reward are balanced, science could benefit from the lunar return as well.
The big picture: The Moon acts as a time capsule of our solar system and Earth specifically. Clues into how the Moon formed 4.5 billion years ago — after a large object slammed into the Earth, carving out our natural satellite — are preserved in its geology.
"This is going to be a treasure trove for planetary science," says Alan Stern, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute.
But, but, but: Human spaceflight is expensive and risky. In President Trump's budget released in March, the agency requested $10.7 billion to continue developing and building the components needed to send people back to the moon by 2028.
"... [t]here are good science cases for sending people to the moon. I think that a lot of those science cases, when you factor in the cost, the timing and all that, a lot of that could be done with robotic missions," theoretical astrophysicist Katie Mack tells Axios.
On the other hand: Rovers and landers are incredibly useful for science, but the science they do is often cumbersome by comparison to what a human can accomplish on the ground.
The bottom line: The Apollo program was motivated by a determination to beat the Soviet Union to the lunar surface, but science still gained from it.
The Crew Dragon vehicle ahead of its first uncrewed launch to the ISS. Photo: SpaceX
One of SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsules — the company's vehicle designed to fly NASA astronauts into space — experienced a malfunction during ground testing in Florida on Saturday.
What we know: According to an unconfirmed video reportedly showing the incident, the Crew Dragon capsule appeared to be engulfed in flames during the failure.
No one was hurt as a result of the incident, according to SpaceX.
Why it matters: The anomaly could push back SpaceX's plans to launch humans from U.S. soil this summer.
Driving the news: Details about exactly what happened are scant, but it comes in the context of repeated delays to NASA's Commercial Crew program.
What they're saying:
Be smart: Because the root cause of the failure hasn't been released, it's difficult to know exactly how much of a delay this might cause for SpaceX. If the problem is traced back to an issue with the test stand, for example, that won't be as serious as a design flaw with the capsule itself.
A zombie spacecraft just celebrated the 5 year anniversary of its second mission.
Background: The satellite, now called NEOWISE, started off its life in space as NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer but went into hibernation in 2011 after two years of work peering deeply into the sky to study galaxies and other objects.
Details: On April 11, NASA released the spacecraft's 5th year of asteroid data, allowing the entire scientific community to access the information.
The big picture: NASA is tracking the thousands of potentially dangerous near-Earth objects like comets or asteroids lurking in nearby space. The space agency also plans to launch the DART mission in 2021 to test if we can change the course of an asteroid on a collision-course with Earth.
A satellite photo showing the highlands of Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos. Photo: Satellite image via Maxar Technologies
Satellite data is helping to track invasive species of plants threatening the natural wildlife of the Galapagos Islands.
Details: Densely forested lands are sometimes difficult to map from the ground but photos taken from orbit — provided by Maxar satellites to the Charles Darwin Foundation — are pointing researchers to the places where invasive flora are thriving.
"We need to know this in order to know where to take action, and how to most effectively take action to manage these invasive species," Carolina Carrión, geospatial specialist at the Charles Darwin Foundation, tells Axios.
The partnership involved machine learning to quickly map and detect invasive species, even in mixed forests.
What's next? The imagery could be helpful in telling researchers how quickly one invasive species is taking root over a period of time and inform long-term conservation efforts.
Mars seen in 2018. Photo: NASA/ESA/STScI
Hard-working microbes engineered to produce strong spider silk could one day aid astronauts living on Mars.
Why it matters: NASA is looking for ways to reduce the amount of material needed to launch to space for long-duration missions. Engineering microbes to make spider silk could aid in that effort.
Spider silk — which can be as strong as steel, but incredibly light — could be useful on Mars, where space explorers might use it in place of heavy materials that would be expensive and unwieldy to transport from Earth. They could use it to build strong fabrics and possibly even surgical sutures, for example.
Yes, but: Creating enough spider silk isn't the only challenge ahead for this work. The spider silk production process needs to be contained inside its own fermentor to reduce the risk of contamination, according to Zhang, which could be a technical challenge on Mars.
NASA astronaut Christina Koch. Photo: NASA
This comet stuffed inside a meteorite is the ultimate cosmic turducken (Neel V. Patel, PopSci)
Independent report concludes 2033 human Mars mission is not feasible (Jeff Foust, Space News)
The latest lost satellite is now space junk that could put other spacecraft at risk (Loren Grush, The Verge)
A soda company's long obsession with outer space (Marina Koren, The Atlantic)
Our Pale Blue Dot. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech
It may not look like much at first glance, but that little "mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam," as Carl Sagan said, is all of us.
This Pale Blue Dot image is something worth coming back to each Earth Day. It shows just how fragile and small we are.
The photo — taken by NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft in 1990 — shows the Earth from more than 4 billion miles away. Talk about a healthy dose of perspective.
Thanks for reading. See you back here next Tuesday! 👾