This Week’s Book Review – Moon Tracks

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

Readers of all ages can enjoy ‘Moon Tracks’

By MARK LARDAS

Apr 16, 2019

“Moon Tracks,” by Travis S. Taylor and Jody Lynn Nye, Baen, 2019, 256 pages, $24

What will life be like on the first lunar settlement?

“Moon Tracks,” a science fiction novel by Travis S. Taylor and Jody Lynn Nye, explores that question. A story around the first moon buggy race around the moon, it’s a sequel to “Moon Beam,” a novel about the Bright Sparks.

These teenagers star in a science-oriented reality video show produced on the moon at Armstrong City. At 7,000 people, it’s the largest lunar city. Led by Dr. Keegan Bright, the Sparks do science and engineering on the moon for an audience on Earth and moon.

Billionaire philanthropist Adrienne Reynolds-Ward has offered $1 million for the winners of an 11,000-kilometer race around the circumference of the moon by a crew of four racers. Twenty-six teams from Earth have entered racers. Of course, the Bright Sparks are entering the race.

They’re building Spark Xpress. Although the hometown team, and the best and brightest on the moon, their competitors are the best and brightest from Earth. The Sparks have to finish their entry to race it. Then they have to beat the other teams. While the race is to the swift, it’s also to the most reliable.

The teenage Sparks end up being too optimistic in their development schedule, and must make up lost time to complete Spark Xpress on time. They do this largely due to the newest Spark, Barbara Winton. Her talents at improvisation and organization, honed on the family’s farm get the Sparks past this challenge.

The race proves as challenging. The moon’s terrain is hostile and unforgiving. An additional obstacle is provided by TurnTables, a social media game, broadcasting music. Rare hard-to-find tracks are spotted along the course proving a Lorelei luring teams into misfortune. A real-life accident involving Dr. Bright forces the Sparks to mount a rescue, endangering race participation.

“Moon Tracks” is a young adult novel, but in the sense Heinlein defined how he wrote juvenile — write the best story you can with teenaged protagonists. Taylor and Nye have written an exciting story which readers of all ages can enjoy.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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Beresheet: Israel to the Moon

The Beresheet spacecraft, built by Israeli non-profit company SpaceIL, is scheduled to land on the Moon today.  Landing operations are expected to begin around 19:00 UTC (you can see a UTC clock in the right side of the title bar of this site).  Landing is planned for a site in the north of Mare Serenetatis, on the north-east part of the near side of the Moon, within a 15 km area known to have little rubble or rugged terrain.  Here is a preview of the landing process from SpaceIL.

If successful, SpaceIL will join NASA, the former Soviet Union, and China as the only space programmes to successfully soft land spacecraft on the Moon, and will be the first privately-funded venture to do so.  Beresheet was launched as a piggy-back secondary payload on the 2019-02-22 on the launch of the Nusantara Satu satellite for an Indonesian telecommunications company on a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster.  It got a ride to geostationary transfer orbit and then boosted its orbit in a sequence of four maneuvers until a final burn allowed it to be captured into lunar orbit on 2019-04-04, after which it progressively circularised its orbit around the Moon.

The entire budget for the Beresheet mission, including the SpaceX launch fee, is estimated at around US$ 95 million, most of it raised from private sources.  It is by far the least expensive lunar landing mission ever attempted.  Beresheet (בְּרֵאשִׁית) is the Hebrew word for “Genesis” and the title of the first book of the Bible.

Live coverage of the landing will begin at 19:45 UTC on SpaceIL’s YouTube live feed.  (Note that if you click the live feed before the broadcast starts, it will show you a starting time which is based upon YouTube’s guess of your time zone, which may not always be correct.  It’s best to rely on the UTC time and manually convert to your local time.)

Here is a preview of the mission by Scott Manley recorded just before the launch.

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A Meteor Hits the Moon During the Eclipse

Meteor impact on the Moon, 2019-01-21During the recent lunar eclipse (the date on which it occurred depends upon your time zone: mid-eclipse was at 05:12 UTC on 2019-01-21, while the eclipse occurred on the evening of January 20th in western hemisphere time zones) several amateur astronomers capturing the eclipse on video observed a flash of light, just a single video frame, near the limb of the eclipsed Moon just at the beginning of the umbral phase.

The fact that three observers in different locations have so far reported the same flash excludes other explanations such as a reflection off an Earth satellite or a “point meteor” burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere on a trajectory pointed directly at the observer.

This is not the first time an impact has been observed on the Moon.  A number of observers monitor the dark portion of the Moon for flashes of impacts, some using both infrared and visual sensors.  An infrared sensor can observe the afterglow of the impact and provide an estimate of the energy released by the event.  Follow-up observations by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter have, on several occasions, found the fresh craters created by observed impacts.  This is, however, the first impact observed during a lunar eclipse.  This has no scientific significance whatsoever, but it’s cool.  The people who saw it were the first humans ever to witness such an event.  I’ve observed another event never seen by a human before the day I spotted it, and it’s something I’ll long remember.

Here is a video by Scott Manley about the event and other observations of lunar meteor impacts.

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Chang’e 4 (嫦娥四号) Lands on the Far Side of the Moon

Chang'e 4 landing site on the far side of the MoonAt 02:26 UTC on 2019-01-03, the Chinese Chang’e 4 (嫦娥四号) soft lander and rover touched down in the Von Kármán crater on the far side of the Moon.  This is the first soft landing on the far side of the Moon, which is never visible from the Earth.  Here is a video including animation of the landing and actual images captured during the descent and of the surface after landing.

The lander carries a rover and a number of experiments.  It was originally built as a back-up to the Chang’e 3 lander and rover which landed on the near side of the Moon on December 14th, 2013, becoming the first spacecraft to soft land on the Moon since the Soviet Luna 24 in 1976.

The major challenge in exploring the far side of the Moon is communicating with Earth.  You can’t transmit radio signals through the Moon, so the only way to provide a direct communications link is to place a relay satellite in a “halo orbit” around the Earth-Moon Lagrangian point 2 (L2).  On 2018-05-20, the Queqiao (鹊桥) satellite was launched into such an orbit (the first such relay established at the Moon).  It was only after this relay was checked out that Chang’e 4 was launched on 2018-12-07.

The landing site at 177.6° E, 45.5° S on the floor of Von Kármán crater, is a relatively flat and uncratered area, relatively easy to get into compared to the rugged highlands of much of the Moon’s far side.  Here is a synthetic image of the landing site from Earth and Moon Viewer, seen from 500 km above the Moon, with an “x” indicating the reported touchdown point.

Chang'e landing site

Here is an image of the Moon’s far side returned by the lander.

Image of the Moon's far side from Chang'e 4

Colour in this image should be taken cum grano salis.  The Moon is a pretty uniform dark grey colour, although the shade may appear different depending upon the Sun angle.  This picture was taken right after landing, and the camera’s white balance may not have yet been calibrated.

In addition to cameras on the lander and rover (which has not yet been deployed), there are instruments to study the solar wind and its interaction with the lunar surface, the composition of the surface, and a ground penetrating radar to explore the sub-surface.  The lander carries a sealed “biosphere” with seeds of potatoes, Arabidopsis, and silkworm eggs, with a camera to monitor growth.  One hopes that the silkworm experiment will end better than the introduction of the gypsy moth into North America in 1868.

You may hear reports in the legacy media that Chang’e 4 landed “near the Moon’s south pole”—this is nonsense. Von Kármán crater is at latitude 45.5° S, half way between the equator and south pole; it is no closer to the lunar south pole than Portland, Oregon is to Earth’s north pole.  The confusion is due to the landing site being within the South Pole-Aitken basin, an enormous (2500 km diameter) impact crater on the lunar far side.  Because the basin is so huge, it extends from the south pole to half way to the equator.

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TOTD 2018-03-30: The Moon, Up Close and Personal

Since 1994, Fourmilab’s Earth and Moon Viewer has provided custom views of the Earth and Moon from a variety of viewpoints, using imagery databases which have evolved over the years from primitive images to gigabyte-scale mosaics collected by spacecraft.  Views were originally restricted to the Earth, but fifteen years ago, in April 2003, the ability to view the Moon was added, using the global imagery collected by the Clementine orbiter.  These data were wonderful for the time, providing full-globe topography and albedo databases with a resolution of 1440×720 pixels.  This allowed viewing the Moon as a whole or modest zooms into localities, but when you zoomed in close the results were…disappointing.  Here is the crater Copernicus viewed from an altitude of 10 km using the Clementine data.

Moon, Copernicus crater, 10 km altitude, Clementine data

It looks kind of like a crater, but it leaves you wanting more.

That was then, and this is now.  In 2009, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) was launched into a near-polar orbit around the Moon.  In its orbit, it is able to photograph the entire lunar surface from an altitude as low as 20 km, with very high resolution.  This has enabled the assembly of a global mosaic image with resolution of 100 metres per pixel (total image size is 109164×54582 pixels), or about 5.6 gigabytes of 256-level grey scale pixels).  This image database is now available in Earth and Moon Viewer.  Here is the same view of Copernicus using the LRO imagery.

Copernicus crater, 10 km altitude, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter imagery

Bit of a difference, don’t you think?  But it doesn’t stop there.  Let’s swoop down to 1 km above the surface and  look at the central peaks.

Note the small craters and boulder fields which are completely invisible with even the best Earth-based telescopes.

Thanks to LRO, you can now explore the Moon seeing views that only astronauts who orbited, flew by, or landed there have ever seen with their own eyes.  And the entire Moon is yours to explore, including all of the far side and the poles, where Apollo missions never ventured.

The Clementine and LRO imagery were collected a decade apart.  The technology which has enabled this improvement continues to grow exponentially.  The Roaring Twenties are going to be interesting.

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