For those of you waiting on tenterhooks, here is the news:
Mechta, a.k.a. Dream a.k.a. Lunik has soared past the moon. Skimming just 4,700 miles over the surface of the Earth's celestial neighbor, Mechta has become the first artificial object to escape Earth's gravity and enter solar orbit, where it will remain for the foreseeable future.
Already, the signals from the spacecraft are getting hard to pick up. Nevertheless, the instruments on the Soviet probe have already returned some fascinating preliminary results. For instance, it is now clear that, unlike the Earth, the moon has no magnetic field. This is not unexpected--the moon is a lot less dense than the Earth and thus is unlikely to have the iron core currently believed to be required to generate a magnetic field. Moreover, the moon is small enough that any iron it does have in its center is likely frozen solid, and it is believed that a spinning liquid iron core is necessary to generate a planetary magnetic field.
So any space travelers heading to the moon won't be able to use their compasses. On the other hand, I imagine that the sun and the Earth, the former moving slowly across the lunar sky over the course of two weeks, the latter hanging fixed in the heavens (at least from half of the moon), will provide perfectly adequate navigational aids.
It is expected that Mechta will also return data on solar radiation in interplanetary space, but that will take a while to reach print.
Of course, the real mystery of Mechta still has not been solved. Western newspapers are describing the mission as an "overshoot" and a "near miss," but was Mechta even aimed at the moon? TASS (the Soviet government news agency) certainly has not confirmed this. On the other hand, Moscow Radio stated last night that Mechta would be taking pictures of the moon's hitherto unseen far side; this report was later retracted as erroneous.
Curiouser and curiouser! Was there a camera on board Lunik? There certainly was enough space for one--at least, an American-built one. Was the probe supposed to orbit the moon? If not, what was all that extra payload for? And is there any connection between this flight and the unorthodox visit to the United States by Anastas Mikoyan, the U.S.S.R's number 2 political honcho?
I've said before that reading the news these days is like reading a science fiction magazine. It wouldn't take much for an enterprising author to take today's headlines and turn them into tomorrow's stories.
Speaking of which, I promise to return to covering the world of science fiction in two days. Stay tuned!
(Confused? Click here for an explanation as to what's really going on)