Thursday, April 05, 2012

NASA's Joke Goes Over Everyone's Head

On Sunday this week, NASA posted details of a new mission involving the craft currently orbiting the planet Mercury called MESSENGER or "MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging."

The mission, PIA 15542, or "Mooning Mercury" to the layearthling, centers on a newly discovered natural satellite (moon) measuring 230 ft. across at a distance of about 8,890 miles above the planet.  The proposed name for this moon is Caduceus.

The very, very, very small moon, Caduceus.
The mission description goes on to say that rather than study this moon, as they might normally do, NASA had another plan.  It goes like this...
...The new plan is to use the remaining propellant to crash MESSENGER into Caduceus. "Our detailed analysis tells us that if we act now, and with the right trajectory, MESSENGER will impart just enough momentum to the moon to break it free of Mercury's gravity well and set it on an Earth-crossing trajectory suitable for recovery as a Mercury meteorite," said Panini.

...If Caduceus is successfully released from the pull of Mercury and placed on a course to reach Earth, we can expect the moon to arrive at Earth by 2014. "The risk to the public is reassuringly small", offers MESSENGER mission design lead Adam McJames. "We have designed a trajectory that will bring the moon to Earth at a remote location on the Wilkes Land ice sheet in Antarctica. This trajectory will avoid all population centers and will put the moon's impact site within reach for retrieval by the scientific staff at the U.S.-operated McMurdo Station."
In other words, something a little like the plot of the 1979 movie, "Meteor."

If you don't think about the odds of being able to map that trajectory so specifically across the minimum 48,000,000 miles between Earth and Mercury, this all sounds well and good, but NASA gives its joke away with in love of acronyms.
If successful, MESSENGER's extended extended MIN-C mission will mark the first instance of the documented arrival to Earth of material from the Mercury system. Moreover, it will serve as the basis for a new Discovery-class mission proposal currently in development by the Applied Psychics Laboratory for a Mercury lander mission for in situ X-ray analysis of surface composition. That mission is to be named the Hermean On-surface Analysis with X-rays.
That's right.  The mission's name is H.O.A.X.  At least when NASA makes a joke, they do it big.  Happy April Fool's Day.

* * * * 

In related news that is not so enjoyable, NASA has begun the process of decommissioning the Space Shuttles and their overall program.  President George W. Bush first called for the retirement of the shuttle program in January of 2004, in the aftermath of the shuttle Columbia accident and its disintegration over Texas during atmospheric re-entry.  In speaking about a new focus for NASA on the International Space Station, Bush said:
Excerpt of  President Bush's 2004 remarks to NASA, announcing the
retirement of the shuttle program.
The photoblog In Focus, from The Atlantic Monthly, has compiled a series of images from the dismantling and preparation for display of shuttles Discovery and Endeavor as well as of the launching pads, cargo bays, and propulsion systems.  It is good-bye, for now, to American manned spaceflight.

Click on these images to visit the In Focus set.

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