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NORAD tracks Santa, and everyone else has orbital ambitions: this week in space

NORAD tracks Santa, and everyone else has orbital ambitions: this week in space

Everyone seems to be casting their eyes to the moon lately. Between the three supermoons and the lunar eclipse, NASA’s tentative overtures toward manned lunar exploration, and the Lunar X Prize, the moon has been a constant presence in the news. Even the ESA is leaning toward literal moonshots; as part of “Space 4.0,” their General Director wants to build a village on the moon. The Lunar Village is less a blueprint for physical structures than it is a vision for pan-Europe cooperation on a persistent or permanent moon base. But they’re putting some money down, too. The ESA is developing a lunar lander, and they’ve got a slick website about “the why and how of lunar exploration.”


Rocket Lab has declared that their Electron spacecraft is ready for test flights. Would that be alpha or beta hardware testing? The Electron’s first stage booster uses nine Rutherford engines linked together, and a single vacuum-optimized Rutherford engine powers the second stage. They designed the Rutherford engine, along with basically every other part of the rocket, in-house. Rocket Lab is planning to do commercial space flight, because everybody who’s anybody makes a foray into commercial space flight. Their spacecraft are tiny — max payload, 225 kilograms — and they plan to put payloads in space “with unprecedented frequency.”

While Europe’s over there singing kumbaya about tourism on the moon, Japan just launched a satellite to study the Van Allen belts. It’s called the Exploration of energization and Radiation in Geospace satellite, or just ERG, for short. Radiation is hard on spacecraft, and especially computers in space. ERG’s purpose “is to reveal how these high-energy electrons are accelerated and created, and how space storms develop,” according to the official PDF fact sheet. “ERG will make a comprehensive observation of the electrons and ions near the equatorial plane in geospace, which is thought to be the area where the acceleration of such electrons is occurring.” Much satellite. Very science.

But I shouldn’t rag on Europe too hard. The ESA just launched their own $ 17 billion constellation of GPS satellites, called Galileo, to shake off their dependence on the US-based GPS system. It’ll be able to localize devices to within a meter. They’ve made access to the system free for people with smartphones or navigation devices. For devices built with Galileo-friendly chips, they (optimistically, but then this is Europe) say a software update may be all that’s necessary to enable the new navigation system.

Also, if you didn’t know this: NORAD tracks Santa on Christmas Eve. Use this tool to look like a rockstar to your kids.

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