The Far Side of the Moon

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Thursday, 5 July, 2018.

While listening to song recently, the lyrics claimed that, to be a man, one had to be ‘mysterious as the dark side of the moon.’ Yet, strangely enough, the dark side of the moon, or as it’s correctly called, the far side of the moon, is not mysterious anymore. It, in fact, hasn’t been since 7 October 1959, when the Soviet Luna 3 spacecraft took the first images of that hard-to-see surface.

The reason we call it the ‘far’ side of the moon, and not the ‘dark’ side is because it is, in fact, not dark all the time. The reason we cannot see the far side of the moon from earth, is because it is tidally locked. As the moon normally creates tides on earth, so too does the earth create ‘tides’ on the moon. Without liquid water to show that force, however, it is not easily observed. If there were, we’d note that due to the massive size difference between the earth and the moon, tides would be MUCH stronger there. 

The gravitational tides therefore serves to induce torque on the moon’s rotation, and eventually caused its rotation to match exactly its orbital period. Once this happens, it’s ‘tidally locked’ and rotates so that once side faces the larger gravitational body constantly even as it orbits it. In other words, it rotates around its axis in such a way that we on Earth only ever see one side of the moon – the near side of the moon.

The moon, however, orbits the earth, not the sun, and as such, its whole surface at one time or another DOES in fact receive sunlight. Whenever a portion of the moon is not lit up on the near side of the moon, a corresponding fraction of the far side receives light. When we have a new moon, the far side of the moon is lit up, and the new moon on 7 October 1959 gave the Luna 3 orbiter the chance to photograph the far side for the first time in history. 

In 1968, the Apollo 8 mission orbited the moon, and humans for the first time saw that side directly. In this case, however, the dark side took on a different meaning, as it meant Apollo 8 went radio silent – the moon blocking all radio transmissions from Earth. This property of the far side of the moon means that it would be an ideal place to set up a radio telescope, as it would be shielded from all of Earth’s radio transmissions… at least, until we start colonising the rest of the solar system, and inter-planetary radio traffic becomes more pronounced. 

So what is the far side of the moon really like? For one, it’s actually quite a different place from the near side which we can easily see with our own eyes. The near side has widespread basaltic plains called ‘maria,’ created by volcanic activity long ago. They enable us to imagine we see a ‘man in the moon,’ or a tree, or hands. Yet on the far side of the moon, volcanic activity was much more limited, and there are only a few maria. As astronauts Williams Anders described it, “The backside looks like a sand pile my kids have played in for some time. It's all beat up, no definition, just a lot of bumps and holes.”

Since the maria covers only 1% of the far side of the moon, compared to the 31% of the near side, it’s much more riddled with craters. One might think that this could be due to the Earth shielding the moon from asteroid impacts on the near side, but this is not so – the Earth only obscures 4 square degrees out of 41 thousand square degrees of sky as seen from the moon. 

Newer research has shown that the real reason is that during the formation of the Earth-Moon system, the moon started to cool down first. Since it was already tidally locked at that time, the far side of the moon condensed first, forming thicker plagioclases out of aluminium and calcium combining with the silicate in the moon’s mantle. As a result, the far side of the moon has a much thicker crust than the near side, which remain liquid for longer. When meteors impacted on the young moon, those on the far side merely caused craters, while those on the near side penetrated the crust, and caused the release of basaltic lava, which formed the maria.

As a result, the far side of the moon boasts the largest crater in the solar system, the South-Pole-Aitken basin, that’s roughly 2500 kilometers in diameter, and the moon’s largest mountain ranges. It is also the region known to have water, or ice, hidden away on permanently shadowed crater walls, and in regions just below the surface. The next expedition to explore the far side of the moon will be launched in December of this year – the Chinese Chang’e 4 mission. It will land a robotic lander and rover, controlled via a relay satellite. The Chang’e missions are named after the Chinese moon goddess, and apt name for what it will be accomplishing. 

So the next time you hear lyrics, poems, or even prose referring to the dark side of the moon, and how ‘mysterious’ it is, you too can now be annoyed by the presumption of artists to assume that humanity has not set its sights on our closest neighbour. Perhaps they feel that the mystique they’ll create outweighs the cost of marginalizing humanity’s history of space exploration? In any case, they should perhaps set their sights on the mystique of space as yet unexplored, for if we are to take our place amongst the stars, we should set our sights higher than the moon.

The Reckoning

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Thursday, 28 June, 2018.

Every few months, Statistician-General Alex Shimuafeni and the Namibia Statistics Agency release the newest quarterly GDP figures, and we find ourselves facing a reckoning of our economic performance. With barely any quarter of positive economic performance since the first quarter of 2016, the first quarter of 2018 was no different – the Namibian economy contracted by 0.1%. 

Let’s start our reckoning then by examining the first quarter GDP report. Starting with inflation, in this quarter was only 3.5%, down from the 7.7% recorded during the same time in 2017. The lower inflation was due to decreases in inflation for housing, food and beverages, and alcohol and tobacco. Inflation has finally dropped below 5% for the first time since 2015.

Next, let’s have a look at the different sectors of the Namibian economy. The Agriculture and Forestry sector showed only a 1.9% growth this year compared to 16.5% for the same time last year. With crop farming simply easing to 10.9% growth from 15.8% compared to the prior year, the reason for this drop becomes clear – the livestock farming subsector. With a substantial increase in live cattle exports to South Africa (53.2%) occurring without value addition, the subsector suffered from a huge decline in inventory and a disinvestment in stock, resulting in growth of only 1.9% compared to 19.3% last year. As a result, even the 37.7% increase in cattle exports to abattoirs was offset by this decline in inventories. The Fishing sector also found itself with a decline of 13.6% compared to growth of 5.9% last year, mainly as a result of rising fuel costs and the effect of currency appreciation on exports. 

Mining and Quarrying, unfortunately, slowed down during the start of the year, with growth of only 4.7% compared to 14% during the same time last year. The highlight here was the uranium subsector, which despite continuing low market prices, had the advantage of the Husab mine coming into operation during this quarter, resulting in strong 56.3% growth for the subsector. Unfortunately, the diamond subsector’s growth slowed to 4.6% due to a smaller amount of carats produced, while zinc, lead and gold production contracted by 6.8%, 49.8% and 1.6% respectively. In addition, marble and granite production also decreased by 21.9% and 77.2% respectively. 

The Manufacturing sector also slowed down during the first quarter of the year, recording a contraction of 2.1% compared to growth of 3.9% during the same time last year. This is the results of a 26.7% decline in value added in the non-metallic minerals subsector, as well as a decline of 12.8% in the non-ferrous metals subsector. Other subsectors, such as leather products, meat processing and beverages recorded growths of 22.5%, 11.2% and 6.9% respectively. The Electricity and Water sector also felt the effects of muted economic growth, growing by only 1.9%. This is due to the electricity subsector contracting by 5.9%, compared to growth of 24.8% last year. The main reason for this is the surge of electricity imports from South Africa, that increased by 48.8%, while the total units sold only increased by 2.1%.

But for the first time in 8 consecutive quarters, the Construction sector has recorded positive growth! And quite strong growth as well – 23.7%! This strong growth is the results of government expenditure on construction that grew by 36.6%, and the value of buildings completed increasing by 104.5% compared to last year. This increase in the value of buildings completed is mainly noted to be in the central region, where growth was 229.5%, but the western and southern regions also had a strong showing of 60.4% and 4% respectively. 

Wholesale and retail trade, however, continued to feel the effect of negative economic headwinds, contracting by 1.3% during the first quarter, though it is up from the 6.3% contraction recorded last year. It’s in particular the vehicle subsector that bear the heaviest burden here, with a contractions of 22.4% compared to a contraction of 16.6% last year. Yet there are signs of recovery, with supermarkets, clothing and wholesalers performing quite well, recording growth of 9.6%, 2.6% and 3.6% respectively. Hotels and Restaurants, conversely, found itself with reversing fortunes, as it recorded a decline of 5.3% this quarter compared to growth of 3.3% last year. 

The Transport and Communication sector at least remained in positive territory, with growth of 2.5% compared to last year’s 1% growth. The Financial Intermediation sector continued its constant growth, growing with 1.4% compared to last year’s 1.8%, with the banking subsector contributing 0.9% growth and the insurance subsector contributing 2.1%. Finally, the Public Administration, Defence, Education and Health sectors still shows the effect of government consolidation, with Public Administration and Defence contracting by 2.9%, with Education contracting by 4% and Health by 6.4%.

They say you cannot disown what is yours. Flung out, there is always the return, the reckoning, the revenge, and perhaps the reconciliation. And only your wounds will take you there. Well, this is our economy. We cannot claim that it is not by our doing that it is the way it is, and we need to reconcile ourselves with that fact. This is our day of reckoning, when our unsettled scores demand retribution, and our transgressions are finally laid bare. Our economic wounds are open for the world to see, and only by working together can we fix what we’ve clearly broken. We need to stop licking our wounds, and start dressing it, so that we can heal from our economic malaise, and finally move forward.

Firsts in Space

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Thursday, 7 June, 2018.

During the early 1970’s, the Space Race was in full swing. The Americans had landed a man on the moon during 1969, and the Soviets were reeling from the loss of their lead in the race to conquer space. Having heard of the American Skylab space station programme, and having lost the race to the moon, their focus shifted towards manned orbital space stations. 

So in early 1970, construction began on Salyut 1 (Russian for ‘Salute’ (naturally) or ‘fireworks’). Its purpose was merely to test the elements of a space station, and its basic design would be built upon for decades to come. As an initial test station, it was not large – 20m in length, 4m in diameter with about 99 cubic metres of interior space. It had only three pressurized compartments, of which two could be entered by the crew.

The first of these compartments was the transfer compartment – a docking port, essentially, allowing one Soyuz spacecraft to dock. Its docking system is still in use today on the International Space Station. The second and main compartment was the main compartment, with enough space for eight chairs, several control panels, and about 20 portholes. The third pressurized compartment contained its control and communication equipment, power and life support systems. An unpressurized four compartment contained engines, batteries and reserve supplies of oxygen and water. Also attached to the Salyut 1 was the astrophysical Orion 1 Space Observatory. This ultraviolet telescope took spectrograms of the stars Vega and Beta Centauri during its operation. 

Its launch was initially planned for 12 April 1971 to coincide with the 10 year anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s flight on Vostok 1, but launch was delayed until the 19th. Its first crew would launch with the Soyuz 10 mission, but they experienced problems with docking, and could not enter the station. The Soyuz 10 mission was aborted and a replacement crew was launched in Soyuz 11.

On 7 June 1971, 47 years ago today, the crew of the Soyuz 11 successfully docked, and became the first men to man a space station. Commander Georgy Dobrovsky, Flight Engineer Vladislav Volkov, and Test Engineer Viktor Patsayev remained on board for 23 days, setting space endurance records that would hold until the American Skylab mission.

When they first entered the station, they encountered a smoky and burnt atmosphere, and had to replace a part of the ventilation system and retreat to the Soyuz until the air cleared. The crew continued with their mission, checking the design and systems of the orbital station, testing the procedures for orientation and navigation as well as the associated control systems. 

In orbit, they also studied the Earth’s surface in terms of geology, geography, meteorology and snow and ice cover, while studying phenomena in the atmosphere and conducting medico-biological studies on the effects and influence on long-term spaceflight on humans. Interestingly, they found that using the exercise treadmill as they were required to do twice a day caused the whole station to vibrate! During the course of the mission, Victor Patsayev also became the first man to operate a telescope outside of Eareth’s atmosphere, when he operated the Orion 1 Space Observatory. 

On 18 June, an electrical fire broke out on the station, and mission planners considered abandoning the station. Finally, on 29 June, after flying 362 orbits around the Earth, the crew was ordered to return to Earth. They re-entered Soyuz 11, and started re-entry. Their capsule parachuted to a soft landing in Kazakhstan, and all seemed well for their mission. 

When the recovery team found the capsule, however, they realized something went wrong. Kerim Kerimov recalled, “Outwardly, there was no damage whatsoever. They knocked on the side, but there was no response from within. On opening the hatch, they found all three men in their couches, motionless, with dark-blue patches on their faces and trails of blood from their noses and ears. They removed them from the descent module. Dobrovolsky was still warm. The doctors gave artificial respiration. Based on their reports, the cause of death was suffocation.”

The fault was traced to a ventilation valve located between the orbital and descent module, which had incorrectly opened about 12 minutes after the start of their descent. Opened at an altitude of 168km, the loss of pressure was fatal within seconds. Biomedical sensors show cardiac arrest had occurred within 40 seconds of pressure loss. The Soyuz 11 crew had become the first, and to date only, humans to die in space. 

As a result, the Soyuz capsules were redesigned to allow crew to wear pressure suits, and due to the time it took to redesign, Salyut 1 was deorbited on October 11 without ever receiving another crew. The world’s first space station burned up over the Pacific Ocean after 175 days in space. The Salyut programme continued, however, with Salyut-7 being more commonly known as the Mir Space Station, and it’s final module, Salyut-8 known as Zvezda, the core of the Russian segment of the International Space Station.

For the crew of the Soyuz 11, the world of Richard Nixon put it best: “The American people join in expressing to you and the Soviet people our deepest sympathy on the tragic deaths of the three Soviet cosmonauts. The whole world followed the exploits of these courageous explorers of the unknown and shares the anguish of their tragedy. But the achievements of cosmonauts Dobrovolsky, Volkov and Patsayev remain. It will, I am sure, prove to have contributed greatly to the further achievements of the Soviet program for the exploration of space and thus to the widening of man's horizons.” On August 1, 1971, their names joined 8 Americans and three other Soviets who lost their lives in furtherance of space exploration on the Fallen Astronaut Memorial placed on the moon by David Scott.