Scientists Are Racing to Save Neil Armstrong's Deteriorating Spacesuit

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

While the public debate surrounding the elimination of drinking straws and other disposable objects rages on, museums are presented with an opposite challenge: figuring out how to preserve artifacts made from plastic. As The New York Times reports in an article highlighting the dilemma, Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit is just one of the many partly plastic objects at risk of falling apart.

The spacesuit was designed to withstand the elements of space and "provide a life-sustaining environment for the astronaut during periods of extravehicular activity or during unpressurized spacecraft operation," according to the National Air and Space Museum, where it has been displayed or stored since 1971. However, it wasn't meant to stand the test of time.

The suit was constructed from 21 different layers of plastic—including nylon, Mylar, and Teflon, to name a few—but a layer of neoprene has proven to be the most problematic. The custodians of Armstrong’s spacesuit predicted that this layer would harden over time, making the suit stiff and brittle. When the risk of damage became critical in 2006, the suit was removed from its public display at the Air and Space Museum and sent into storage to lessen the risk of degradation. Later, a brown stain was discovered on the suit’s torso area—a result of plasticizer escaping from the air supply tubes.

Fortunately, the deterioration was stopped in time, but other vintage spacesuits with plastic components haven’t been so lucky. Plastics are especially hard to preserve because they’re only about 150 years old, and thus museum conservators don’t have much precedent to learn from.

“We have a very short history, in comparison to other materials, in understanding how long those materials last,” Hugh Shockey, lead conservator at the Saint Louis Art Museum, told the Times.

This is proving to be a common problem at museums around the world. In order to find a solution, conservators are first tasked with determining what kind of plastic each artifact is made of, which will determine how long the item may survive without intervention.

Next, the challenge is figuring out how to best preserve the item to slow the degradation process, which could involve limiting its exposure to UV rays, keeping the temperature and humidity low, or doing what’s necessary to prevent oxidation.

As for Armstrong’s spacesuit, it will ultimately be displayed in a case specially made for the purpose, which will be kept at 63°F and 30 percent humidity. Museum staff hope to have it ready by the 50th anniversary of the moon landing next year.

[h/t The New York Times]

A Super Pink Moon—the Biggest Supermoon of 2020—Is Coming In April

April's super pink moon will be extra big and bright (but still white).
April's super pink moon will be extra big and bright (but still white).
jakkapan21/iStock via Getty Images

The sky has already given us several spectacular reasons to look up this year. In addition to a few beautiful full moons, we’ve also gotten opportunities to see the moon share a “kiss” with Venus and even make Mars briefly disappear.

In early April, avid sky-gazers are in for another treat—a super pink moon, the biggest supermoon of 2020. This full moon is considered a supermoon because it coincides with the moon’s perigee, or the point in the moon’s monthly orbit when it’s closest to Earth. According to EarthSky, the lunar perigee occurs on April 7 at 2:08 p.m. EST, and the peak of the full moon follows just hours later, at 10:35 p.m. EST.

How a supermoon is different.

Since the super pink moon will be closer to Earth than any other full moon this year, it will be 2020’s biggest and brightest. It’s also the second of three consecutive supermoons, sandwiched between March’s worm moon and May’s flower moon. Because supermoons only appear about 7 percent bigger and 15 percent brighter than regular full moons, you might not notice a huge difference—but even the most ordinary full moon is pretty breathtaking, so the super pink moon is worth an upward glance when night falls on April 7.

The meaning of pink moon.

Despite its name, the super pink moon will still shine with a normal golden-white glow. As The Old Farmer’s Almanac explains, April’s full moon derives its misleading moniker from an eastern North American wildflower called Phlox subulata, or moss pink, that usually blooms in early April. It’s also called the paschal moon, since its timing helps the Catholic Church set the date for Easter (the word paschal means “of or relating to Easter”).

[h/t EarthSky]

Are Any of the Scientific Instruments Left on the Moon By the Apollo Astronauts Still Functional?

Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong left the first footprint on the Moon on July 20, 1969.
Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong left the first footprint on the Moon on July 20, 1969.
Heritage Space/Heritage Images/Getty Images

C Stuart Hardwick:

The retroreflectors left as part of the Apollo Lunar Ranging Experiment are still fully functional, though their reflective efficiency has diminished over the years.

This deterioration is actually now delivering valuable data. The deterioration has multiple causes including micrometeorite impacts and dust deposition on the reflector surface, and chemical degradation of the mirror surface on the underside—among other things.

As technology has advanced, ground station sensitivity has been repeatedly upgraded faster than the reflectors have deteriorated. As a result, measurements have gotten better, not worse, and measurements of the degradation itself have, among other things, lent support to the idea that static electric charge gives the moon an ephemeral periodic near-surface pseudo-atmosphere of electrically levitating dust.

No other Apollo experiments on the moon remain functional. All the missions except the first included experiment packages powered by radiothermoelectric generators (RTGs), which operated until they were ordered to shut down on September 30, 1977. This was done to save money, but also because by then the RTGs could no longer power the transmitters or any instruments, and the control room used to maintain contact was needed for other purposes.

Because of fears that some problem might force Apollo 11 to abort back to orbit soon after landing, Apollo 11 deployed a simplified experiment package including a solar-powered seismometer which failed after 21 days.

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