SpaceX has a “double-header” planned for the weekend — two separate launches, one set for later today and then another on Sunday. In what seems like a growing theme for SpaceX as of late, today’s launch will again be making history as the mission that put Bulgaria’s first communications satellite into orbit. Even more, this is only the second spacecraft Bulgaria has ever launched into space, the first being a weather satellite launched nearly 36 years ago.
Today’s mission is scheduled for 2:10 p.m. EST and has a two hour window to allow for delays. Thus far, weather seems to be cooperating with these plans. Sunday’s launch is planned for take-off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California with a payload of Iridium satellites.
The Bulgarian satellite launch is the second instance of SpaceX reusing a rocket booster. The rapid succession for these launches in indicative of exactly what Elon Musk was hoping to achieve with reusable rockets. Not only does recycling rockets allow for cheaper launches, but it significantly cuts down on the time needed to prepare for each one.
SpaceX is continuing to make history and is cementing itself as the leading provider for the entire world’s extraterrestrial needs.
Stephen Hawking isn’t content to just warn humanity about its dwindling potential for longterm survival — he’s determined to do something about it. In April 2016, the renowned physicist announced he was developing a spacecraft that could facilitate moving our species to a “second Earth.” This proposed spacecraft, named Star Chip, is part of an initiative called the Breakthrough Starshot.
While speaking at the Starmus Festival in Trondheim, Norway, this week, Hawking explained why his work is more important now than ever. He told the audience that he’s convinced we need to leave the Earth and migrate to a second planetary home. Building a base on the Moon by 2020 to serve as a jumping off point and finishing Star Chip as soon as possible are two important steps to making this happen.
This small space probe would be equipped with a lightsail weighing just a few grams. Powered by an array of Earth-based lasers, Star Chip would travel “on a beam of light,” reaching about a fifth of the speed of light, roughly 160 million k/h (100 million mph), on its journey to the Alpha Centauri solar system.
Such a system could reach Mars in less than an hour, reach Pluto in days, pass Voyager in under a week, and reach Alpha Centauri in just over 20 years. Once there, the nano craft could image any planets discovered in the system, test for magnetic fields and organic molecules, and send the data back to Earth in another laser beam. This tiny signal would be received by the same array of dishes that were used to transit the launch beam.
Since it could reach Alpha Centauri, it could make a fly-by to Proxima b, the exoplanet many consider the most similar to Earth. Star Chip would complete a true interstellar itinerary but without humans on board:
Of course, this would not be human interstellar travel, even if it could be scaled up to a crewed vessel. It would be unable to stop. But it would be the moment when human culture goes interstellar, when we finally reach out into the galaxy. And if Breakthrough Star Shot should send back images of a habitable planet orbiting our closest neighbor, it could be of immense importance to the future of humanity.
This is all very long-term thinking, with Hawking predicting humans wouldn’t be ready for interstellar travel for at least two more centuries. However, any knowledge we could glean from Star Chip’s mission could help us understand the nature of space, and perhaps help us find a new home before the “doomsday” Hawking predicts will befall humanity just 100 years from now. It’s worth a shot.
The nature of these updates was confirmed in a media question session at the Kennedy Space Center in March, during which Musk said he would“provide an update on the design of the Interplanetary Transport System, and by Interplanetary Transport System, that includes the propellant depot on Mars,” He also stated that the tension in the project is to “not just get it done technically, but figure out how to get this done without going bankrupt.” He is, however, hopeful about this new approach.
Despite multiple assertions that the updates will be arriving imminently — including an announcement at an Everyday Astronaut event two and a half months ago that he was coming up “with a number of design refinements and probably ready to put on the website within a month or so” — there has been frustratingly little follow-up.
So, while we wait on tenterhooks for more information — stewing in the meta position of waiting for update news about an update — we were also given, fortunately, a transcript from the talk in which he details his non-updated plan, and gives an exciting look behind the scenes of SpaceX.
Colonizing Mars (thanks Prof Hubbard for creating this from my talk). Major changes to the plan coming soon. https://t.co/s59qMHUj5O
Back in May, renowned physicist Stephen Hawking made yet another doomsday prediction. He said that humanity has 100 years left on Earth, which knocked 900 years off the prediction he made in November 2016, which had given humanity 1,000 years left. With his new estimate, Hawking suggested the only way to prolong humanity’s existence is for us to find a new home, on another planet.
Speaking at the Starmus Festival in Trondheim, Norway on Tuesday, Hawking reiterated his point: “If humanity is to continue for another million years, our future lies in boldly going where no one else has gone before,” he explained, according to the BBC. Specifically, Hawking said that we should aim for another Moon landing by 2020, and work to build a lunar base in the next 30 years — projects that could help prepare us to send human beings to Mars by 2025.
“We are running out of space and the only places to go to are other worlds. It is time to explore other solar systems. Spreading out may be the only thing that saves us from ourselves. I am convinced that humans need to leave Earth,” Hawking added.
Hawking’s plea comes almost 45 years since NASA’s last lunar mission, and he’s not the only one thinking about revisiting the Earth’s cosmic satellite. Even U.S. president Donald Trump wants to put a human on the Moon by 2020. Various plans, both from government space agencies as well as private ones, are already in the works. NASA’s mission to Mars, for example, notes that setting up an orbital lunar station would be a key step for a future mission to the Red Planet.
For private space agencies, the Moon seems to be more of a special tourist attraction than a permanent domicile: SpaceX is already preparing for its first privately-funded round trip to the Moon, while Jeff Bezos envisions an opportunity for a special delivery service to facilitate the construction of any permanent off world settlement. For Hawking, though, aiming for the Moon (again) is not only about survival, but strengthening humanity while we’re still on Earth — for however many years we have left here.
“I hope it would unite competitive nations in a single goal, to face the common challenge for us all,” he said. “A new and ambitious space program would excite (young people), and stimulate interest in other areas, such as astrophysics and cosmology”.
As humanity gears up to venture further into space than ever before, many people are looking to create colonies on the moon and on Mars, and we’re beginning to look at ways to make those theoretical colonies permanent settlements. The process of reproduction in space is something that scientists have only just begun to study. Right now, it is unknown how fetal development would be impacted by less or no gravity. However, the potential of one new machine could help to solve this should we discover that interplanetary reproduction is impossible.
Venter wants to bring about a revolution in medicine. Instead of creating vaccines in a centralized location and having to ship them to medical offices around the world, this device would allow those offices to create their own supplies. In the case of a burgeoning pandemic, this technology could stop it in its tracks by allowing for hyperlocalized deployment of treatment before the illness even has time to spread.
Life in Space
The antimicrobials and vaccines needed here on Earth will also be needed in any future space colonies. The logistics of getting medicine where it is most needed is difficult enough on Earth, now imagine having to add exponentially longer distances and rocket ships to the equation. Venter’s machine would be an invaluable addition to any colony. You can see Venter’s peer-reviewed paper in this month’s issue of Nature Biology.
The process is not foolproof at this time as printing more complex organisms gives more opportunity for mutations to manifest. “All it takes is one DNA base to be incorrect for a protein not to work, or a therapeutic to not do what it’s supposed to, or for a cell to not be functional,” says Daniel Gibson, a scientist at Synthetic Genomics.
The expense of space travel limits what we can bring with us on missions. It’s not like we can pack up a small city, strap it to a rocket and put it back together on Mars. The best course of action may be to ship equipment, like 3D printers, into space and construct what we need out of the resources of whatever celestial body we are colonizing.
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), heir to Hubble’s throne, is set to launch in October of 2018. The massive new telescope will hopefully continue Hubble’s legacy and push the boundaries of what has before been possible in space imaging. And, in exciting new news, the first targets of the JWST have been announced — and the list is long.
The Webb will observe the three largest low-albedo asteroids, as well as the Trojan asteroids, allowing us to peer into the origins of our solar system. It will also explore near-Earth objects, which could expand our knowledge and even protect the Earth.
It will also investigate Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, Neptune’s south polar vortex, geological phenomena on Saturn’s moons, and the atmosphere on the planet itself. What is especially exciting to many is the Webb’s plans to explore exoplanets. By observing these far-off exoplanets passing across their parent star, researchers can determine if a planet has an atmosphere and then use that information to infer more about its composition — and potential for life.
Quest for Knowledge
The implications of the knowledge to be gained with the JWST are immense. The further exploration of exoplanets alone could reveal information about the potential for alien life and which worlds would be the best candidates for human colonization. Other observations that researchers plan to make with the telescope will help us to better understand the beginnings of our solar system.
This is all, of course, significant scientifically. But better understanding of how objects and life in the universe form could, in turn, help us to better understand the laws of nature on Earth. The further we explore the distant corners of the universe, the more we will be able to make sense of the world around us. It will be exciting to follow the Webb’s journey as it slowly trades place with the iconic Hubble Space Telescope.
Planet hunters and science enthusiasts are rejoicing over NASA’s latest announcement. Today, a team of astronomers working with data from the K2 mission released a new catalog of potential alien planets. In a press conference held at NASA’s Ames Research Center, the team stated that they had identified 219 planet candidates, 10 of which are said to be rocky worlds that are in the habitable zones of stars that are similar to the Sun—which is a yellow dwarf or G dwarf.
In short, it seems that we have 10 new planets that are Earth-like.
In science, “Earth-like” worlds are loosely defined as terrestrial worlds that have a chemical composition that is similar to our own planet and orbit in a relatively young star’s habitable zone (the “habitable zone” is defined as the orbit around a star where liquid water could theoretically exist on a planet’s surface).
The team was composed of Kepler research scientists Mario Perez, from the Astrophysics Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, Susan Thompson, from the SETI Institute in California, Benjamin Fulton, from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and Courtney Dressing, a NASA Sagan Fellow at Caltech.
To date, there are already 4,034 exoplanet candidates identified by Kepler and 2,335 of these have been confirmed. The 10 new exoplanets add to the 49 Earth-like exoplanets in habitable zones that were previously detected by Kepler, more than 30 of which have been verified.
Perhaps the most interesting of these new finds is KY 7711, which Thompson said is located near its star in an orbit that is very similar to the path that Earth takes around the Sun, meaning that it receives the same amount of heat, although it is approximately 1.3 times larger than our planet.
Typically, exoplanets fall in one of two categories: super-Earths, which have a radius that is 1.5 times that of the Earth, rocky surfaces, and often little to no atmosphere; and those that are like mini-Neptunes, which are about twice the Earth’s radius with thick atmospheres and no rocky surface. Exoplanets falling in between these two categories (i.e. worlds that are Earth-like) are smaller and, thus, much harder to identify. But as this latest find reveals, they are out there.
The Beginning of an Era
The Kepler space observatory was launched 8 years ago, in March 2009. Its singular mission was to search for planets orbiting other stars in the hopes of finding alien worlds that are similar to Earth. Fulton explained that, looking back, they wouldn’t have expected to identify roughly 50 Earth-like exoplanets so soon.
Now, as the K2 reaches the end of its four-year run, Kepler scientists think that we are closing in on the end of an era in exoplanet research. But it also marks the beginning of a new one, with missions like the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) expected to launch soon. Both the TESS and the JWST would look into exoplanets in ways Kepler isn’t able to, identifying new information about their composition and habitability.
Undeniably, though, it was Kepler that made all of these future missions possible. “What’s exciting about today is we have taken our telescope and we have counted up how many planets are similar to the Earth in this part of the sky,” Thompson said at the press conference. “With the data I have, I can now make that count. From there, we’re going to determine how common other planets are. Are there places we could live in this galaxy besides what we call home?”
Those who follow Elon Musk on Twitter have gotten used to the flurry of announcements and musings that often arrive in the wee hours of the night. The SpaceX founder and CEO once again rocked the Twittersphere Sunday when he revealed what could be a first for his space company: a launch doubleheader.
If everything works out, it seems SpaceX plans to launch two Falcon 9 rockets from its Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg launch sites this weekend. Musk included a link to a tweet from SpaceX’s Twitter, which indicated June 25 as the target date for the “weekend doubleheader.”
If schedule holds there will be two Falcon 9 launches within 48 hours (Cape & Vandenberg) this weekend https://t.co/GbleRPm6iZ
If the weekend doubleheader goes as planned, SpaceX will have more proof that it’s capable of handling a significant volume of launches. 2017 isn’t even half over, and it’s already proving to be a great year for SpaceX.
On Saturday, Elon Musk posted a video on Twitter giving us a behind the scenes look at the inner workings of SpaceX. The video features shots of people working on both the inside and outside of multiple rockets at the Falcon Factory in Hawthorne, California. It also features some gorgeous frames of the technology, which Musks intends will help democratize space travel.
An earlier tweet gave us an update on Musk’s plan to make humanity a “a space-bearing civilization and a multi-planetary species” by colonizing Mars. Although it provides insight into his logic and initial ideas, Musk did reveal on Twitter that there are “Major changes to the plan coming soon.”
Colonizing Mars (thanks Prof Hubbard for creating this from my talk). Major changes to the plan coming soon. https://t.co/s59qMHUj5O
When starting SpaceX I thought the odds of success were less than 10%, and I just accepted that actually, probably, I would just lose everything but that I would maybe make some progress. If we could just move the ball forward, even if we died, maybe some other company could pick up the baton and keep moving forward, so we’d still do some good.
In 2017, he has exceeded just moving the ball forward in nearly every way possible — on top of becoming an industry leader in space flight, he has made major advances for humanity. Most of these concern space technology that can be used multiple times, reflecting his aim to address the conundrum of rockets being “the only form of transportation on Earth where the vehicle is built anew for each journey. What if you had to build a new plane for every flight?”
SpaceX’s first major landmark this year was to launch a satellite into space on a booster that had already been used before. In March, the company successfully propelled the SES-10 communications satellite into orbit by reusing the Falcon 9 rocket that had previously launched the CRS-8 satellite.
Next came flying the same Dragon rocket to the International Space Station for the second time; the company’s 11th supply mission in total. While the rocket had to undergo significant refurbishment, the mission on the 3rd of June was a seminal accomplishment that convinced NASA of the potential of reusable rockets — Kirk Shireman, Manager of the International Space Station Program, told CBS that “we expect to increase the amount of reflight as (NASA’s contracts with SpaceX) proceed.”
What the Future Has in Store
The next milestone SpaceX is set to cross is to launch the Falcon Heavy — the rocket that “was designed from the outset to carry humans into space and restores the possibility of flying missions with crew to the Moon or Mars.”
If Musk’s tweet that “All Falcon Heavy cores should be at the Cape in two to three months, so launch should happen a month after that” is true, we could see this goal realized as early as September. While the test flight will not carry a human passenger due to safety concerns, it will instead transport the “Silliest thing we can imagine!” into space: after the Dragon carried an enormous wheel of cheese on its first flight, it’s anyone’s guess as to what the Heavy’s cargo could be.
SpaceX is also remarkable for the number of flights it is undertaking, not only their groundbreaking nature. So far this year, it has averaged a flight every three weeks; but the tempo of flights will increase even more. The launch calendar has flights planned on June 17th (BulgariaSat-1), June 25th (Iridium Next Flight-2), and July 1st (Intelsat 35E) — if all these go to plan, this would amount to three flights in two weeks.
SpaceX, then, is marching proudly into the future in terms of both the type and number of flights they are undertaking. While they had a challenging 2015 and 2016, their efforts and achievements in 2017 put them on the right path to achieving their most ambitious goal: putting humans on Mars by 2025.
They say everything’s sweeter the second time around, and that seems to be the case for SpaceX’s plans to colonize Mars. Last year, Musk unveiled his plans to colonize the Red Planet and make it fit for human habitation. Now, that version of the plan has been published and made available for free—with a few notable updates.
In the paper, the focus is on affordability, as that is the primary factor in making life on Mars a reality. As Musk notes, “You cannot create a self-sustaining civilization if the ticket price is $10 billion per person.” In order for it to be viable, Musk asserts that the cost should be about $200,000—equivalent to the median price of a house in the United States. In the paper, Musk outlines the steps he considers essential to ensuring this relative affordability.
But this is just the beginning. Musk posted a tweet today hinting that this version one is already being reviewed…and version 2 is on its way.
Mars V2 plan coming soon, which I think addresses the most fundamental flaw in V1: how to pay for development & operation of giant rockets https://t.co/yaITdVdpEc
According to Musk, the version one has one fundamental flaw, which is the cost of developing and operating giant rockets. While SpaceX has been specializing on reusable rockets, getting to Mars would still be costly due to the size of the rockets needed. According to V1 of the plan, getting to Mars depends on a reusable rocket-and-spaceship tandem, which Musk has called the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS). Reducing the costs to developing the ITS is crucial, especially since Musk himself has already put a cap on how much a trip to Mars should be.
Musk asserts that he envisions 1,000 or so ITS spaceships, each of which are carrying 100 or more people, leaving Earth orbit during “Mars windows,” the point in time when Earth and Mars align favorably, which happens once every 26 months.
Outlining the importance of making this information freely available, New Space editor-in-chief Scott Hubbard asserts that “publishing this paper provides not only an opportunity for the spacefaring community to read the SpaceX vision in print with all the charts in context, but also serves as a valuable archival reference for future studies and planning.”
“There is a huge amount of risk. It is going to cost a lot,” Musk wrote. “There is a good chance we will not succeed, but we are going to do our best and try to make as much progress as possible.” By giving everyone access to this information, our chances of success are greatly improved.
The U.S. Air Force recently released their 2018 budget estimates, which include numbers through the early 2020s. The budget combines the entire launch price into a single per launch “unit cost.” For fiscal year 2020, that very high unit cost is $422 million, and it increases to $424 million one year later. In contrast, the SpaceX cost for basic commercial launches of the Falcon 9 rocket is around $65 million, a difference CEO Elon Musk was happy to point out via a tweet.
$300M cost diff between SpaceX and Boeing/Lockheed exceeds avg value of satellite, so flying with SpaceX means satellite is basically free https://t.co/CaOulCf7ot
ULA lost its monopoly on launches when SpaceX entered the competition for national security payloads and won the chance to launch them. A side-by-side comparison reveals that SpaceX’s costs are considerably lower.
For example, in 2016, SpaceX launched a GPS 3 satellite for $83 million. Roughly one year later, SpaceX won another GPS 3 launch contract for $96.5 million. These contracts are higher than the $65 million basic price and represent the government’s “all-in, fully burdened costs,” including things like service contracts and additional range costs that are unique to government contracts.
This means two things. First, the $83 million and $96.5 million price tags are comparable to the $422 million ULA cost in the 2020 Air Force budget. Second, SpaceX may be offering its services for $65 million to undercut the competition and gain traction in the market.
Either way, this dramatic decrease in cost is great news for space travel, whether it be for a government, commercial entity, or even a private citizen.
Even better news is the fact that SpaceX isn’t the only private company making cheaper space travel happen. Bigelow Airspace, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and both Boeing and Lockheed Martin (outside their ULA partnership) are all competing for space travel contracts now, and ultimately, hopeful passengers like us will be the beneficiaries of this competition.
Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, delivered an address at the International Astronautical Congress held in Guadalajara, Mexico last year outlining his vision of getting humans into space. This talk has now been adapted into a fifteen-page article that was published in this month’s issue of the journal New Space. Musk focuses on affordability as a major factor to ensuring the possibility of Mars colonization. He says “You cannot create a self-sustaining civilization if the ticket price is $10 billion per person.” He believes that the cost should be about $200,000; equivalent to the median price of a house in the United States.
Musk outlines the steps he considers essential to ensuring this relative affordability. The first step, developing fully reusable transport, is already well underway at SpaceX. The company has already proven the reliability of its reusable rockets, and have recently demonstrated the reusability of the Dragon spacecraft. Fueling is also a key factor in controlling costs: equipping any craft with additional fuel will significantly increase the weight of the craft. Musk proposes using methane — which is produced on Mars and would therefore allow for refueling via sources directly on the plant.
Many experts believe that in order to ensure the survival of our species, we must work to be multi-planetary beings. Perhaps Musk’s vision to get us to Mars is the first step toward that goal. Musk’s enthusiasm for his Mars project is quite timely if we are to believe Stephen Hawking, who predicts humanity only has 100 years left on Earth.
We are at the beginning of an exciting crossroads for humanity. The space race of the mid-20th century brought about great change for humanity. It’s looking like this iteration will completely transform us.
The International Space Station (ISS) is an invaluable tool that helps us understand how our Earth-based technologies and biology operates in space. It has been confirmed that space travel does indeed impact human biology, even down to the genetic level. Even so, researchers looking into how a species of flatworms fare in space were not prepared for what they found.
To the great shock of the team, one of the fifteen amputated planarian flatworms that spent five weeks aboard the ISS ended up growing back two heads once back on Earth. These findings have been published in the journal Regeneration.
Planarian flatworms have remarkable regeneration abilities. They are able to regenerate complex body systems even from a tiny piece of their bodies. After their all-inclusive stay upon the ISS, the worms were brought back to Earth and observed for an additional 20 months. During this time, researchers noticed that one of the worms was regenerating its head, along with another. The scientists then amputated the two heads and the worm once again grew back two heads.
Asgardia, which sounds like something out of not just myth, but science fiction lore — has been busy recruiting citizens: to date, 205,563 earthlings have signed up to become Asgardians. The group has even drafted a constitution, which is now in the process of being ratified. While they’re still seeking UN approval, Asgardia is already planning to launch their first presence in space. The Asgardia-1, a tiny CubeSat satellite being built by Indiana-based company NearSpace Launch, is capable of storing 512 GB of private data in space.
“The first presence of the Asgardian nation, we can now say, will be in space this year,” Jeffrey Manber, CEO of satellite company NanoRacks, said during a June 13 press briefing in Hong Kong. He added that Asgardia-1 “may turn out to be the most important and lasting [idea] that we’re working with.” Asgardia-1 would be launched aboard a NASA-funded mission.
Princeton Satellite Systems, which is funded by NASA, has announced the possibility of fusion reactor rockets which could — according to the company’s president Michael Paluszek — “enable new and exciting science missions that are too expensive and difficult to do with today’s technology.” Such missions could include propelling spaceships towards planets and stars, exploring space deeper than we ever have before, and deflecting asteroids.
Fusion rockets are propelled by the same nuclear processes that power stars. They can produce more energy — and do so more efficiently — than traditional chemical propellant or ion drive designs. Princeton Satellite System’s design uses nuclear fusion by heating a mix of deuterium and helium-3 with low-frequency radio waves, then harnesses the energy produced with magnetic fields. This technique confines the resulting plasma in a ring. As the plasma spirals out of the ring, it can be directed towards the blasters.
While this system would prove expensive for bigger projects (around $20 billion), the smaller rocket — estimated to be 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) in diameter and 4 to 8 meters (13 to 26 feet) long — would only cost about $20 million per generator; ten times cheaper than the larger model.
Cost aside, there are still two other significant obstacles: first, the system would emit so much radiation that it would preclude the propulsion of any spacecraft with humans aboard, and second, while one generator may only cost the relatively small sum of $20 million, each ship would have to contain multiple generators to ensure both the stability of the plasma, and to make them capable of achieving the speeds the rockets aspire to.
Other Projects on the Horizon
Space travel has become a trend among the world’s tech elite, with many big names in technology working to develop canny ways explore the final frontier further, ideally by sending humans into outer space to guide those expeditions.
Paul Allen recently revealed the world’s largest plane, which aims to take spacecraft to the atmosphere, thereby reducing the amount of energy required to launch spacecraft from Earth.
Related to one of the fission rocket’s goals of transporting robots to make observations of never-before seen parts of the galaxy is NASA’s mission to ‘touch the sun’ with its Parker Solar Probe. The probe will investigate solar wind and gather more data on our closest star than we’ve ever had before.
Gaining a deeper understanding of and visiting space has never been closer in our reach. Ideas like these are endlessly exciting and may be a sign that we may be entering the golden age of space travel.
Sixty years ago, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite into orbit. The event served as the starting pistol in what would come to be known as the Space Race, a competition between the U.S.S.R. and the United States for spaceflight supremacy.
In the decades that followed, the first human reached space, a man walked on the Moon, and the first space stations were built. The U.S.S.R. and the U.S. were soon joined by other world powers in exploring the final frontier, and by the time the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, the contentious Space Race was something of a distant memory.
In recent years, however, a new Space Race has taken shape—Space Race 2.0. Rather than powerful nations guided by presidents and premiers, however, the competitors in this race are tech startups and private businesses spearheaded by billionaire entrepreneurs. And while the current atmosphere is far less contentious than that of the first Space Race (save the odd tweet or two), the competition is just as fierce.
A Crowded Field
SpaceX, Blue Origin, Bigelow Airspace, Virgin Galactic, Boeing, Lockheed Martin… Not only has the number of private companies engaged in space exploration grown remarkably in recent years, these companies are quickly besting their government-sponsored competitors.
“We’re starting to see advances made by private entities that are more significant than any advances in the last three years that were made by the government,” Chris Lewicki, CEO and President of Planetary Resources, tells Futurism.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s SpaceX are arguably the two companies that are setting the pace. In November 2015, the former completed the first successful vertical rocket landing after sending their New Shepard 100 kilometers (62 miles) into the air. SpaceX landed its own rocket a month later, only they did so with a craft twice as heavy as Blue Origin’s and traveled all the way into space first.
Private companies may be in the lead, but the finish line for this Space Race isn’t exactly clear. The first iteration was arguably “won” when Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the Moon, so does this sequel end when we establish the first Moon base? When a human walks on Mars? When we leave the solar system?
Truthfully, the likelihood of humanity ever calling it a day on space exploration is slim to none. The universe is huge, with galaxy estimates in the trillions, so the goalpost will continue moving back (to bring another sport into the analogy). Rather than focusing on competing in what is ultimately an unwinnable race, private and government-backed space agencies can actually benefit from collaboration thanks to their inherent differences.
“The way that SpaceX, Planetary Resources, or Virgin Galactic approaches space exploration is going to be very different from NASA or the Air Force,” explains Lewicki. Private companies aren’t beholden to the same slow processes that often stall government projects, and they can secure or reallocate funding much more swiftly if need be. However, unlike agencies like NASA, they do have shareholders to keep happy and a need to constantly pursue profitability.
The two sectors, therefore, have a tremendous opportunity to help one another. Private companies can generate revenue through government contracts —for example, NASA has contracted Boeing to transport astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), and SpaceX just closed a deal with the U.S. Air Force to launch its secretive space drone. This leaves the government agencies free to pursue the kind of forward-thinking, longer-term research that might not immediately generate revenue, but that can be later streamlined and improved upon in the private sector.
Ultimately, Space Race 2.0 has no losers. The breakthroughs happening in space exploration benefit us all, and truly, a little friendly competition never hurt anyone (unless you count the egos bruised by those tweets).
This interview has been slightly edited for clarity and brevity.
The chunky concept rover is 3.3 meters (11 feet) tall, 8.5 meters (28 feet) long, and 4.3 meters (14 feet) wide. On its six equally chunky wheels, the rover weighs 2.7 tons. It is certainly not a flimsy vehicle, but despite its heft, it can reach speeds up to 110 km/h (68 mph) — though it probably wouldn’t travel faster than 24 km/h (15 mph) on Mars.
According to NASA, the rover “features life-support systems, navigation and communication systems, and design and materials that relate to conditions and resources on Mars.” It is designed to transport up to four astronauts at a given time, and it even comes equipped with a detachable laboratory. The vehicle runs off of solar power, carrying with it a 700-volt battery.
While this exact model might not be going into production anytime soon, parts of the concept may be used for future robotic rovers that are sent to the Red Planet.
One thing is certain, though. The fact that this concept exists shows that NASA scientists are carefully considering how humans might best move around Mars. It puts us one step closer to actually reaching the Red Planet, and though it might still seem like a far-off fantasy, as more details are considered and even small-seeming advancements are made, the closer we will get to becoming a multi-planetary species.
New research from scientists at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) shows that the cancer risk for astronauts undertaking long-term missions to Mars or any other destination beyond Earth’s magnetic field is actually twice what we previously thought.
In the past, researchers determined that exposure to the very high rates of ionization in the atoms that comprise cosmic rays damaged the cells in astronauts’ bodies, making them vulnerable to a range of health problems, including acute radiation syndromes, cancer, cataracts, central nervous system issues, and circulatory diseases.
The actual amount of risk has typically been assessed using conventional risk models that attributed the radiation cancer to DNA mutation and damage, and these previous studies involved much briefer periods of time than those that occur during long-term space missions.
The researchers in the UNLV study used a non-targeted effect model instead. This model, which shows higher cancer risk in bystander cells in close proximity to heavily damaged cells, reveals a cancer risk at least twice that of the conventional risk model.
“Galactic cosmic ray exposure can devastate a cell’s nucleus and cause mutations that can result in cancers,” UNLV researcher and space and radiation physics scholar Francis Cucinotta explained in a press release. “We learned the damaged cells send signals to the surrounding, unaffected cells and likely modify the tissues’ microenvironments. Those signals seem to inspire the healthy cells to mutate, thereby causing additional tumors or cancers.”
Combatting Cosmic Radiation
Any extensive time outside the Earth’s geomagnetic sphere will produce this much higher level of risk, and Cucinotta asserts an urgent need for additional research on human cancer risks and cosmic ray exposures prior to any long-term space missions. The results of this study will clearly affect the predicted efficacy of any already planned responses, such as radiation shields, so those must be reassessed, as well.
“Exploring Mars will require missions of 900 days or longer and includes more than one year in deep space where exposures to all energies of galactic cosmic ray heavy ions are unavoidable,” Cucinotta stated in the release.“Current levels of radiation shielding would, at best, modestly decrease the exposure risks.”
Cucinotta also addressed the moral dilemma we now face as we strive to colonize Mars and travel in space: “Waiving or increasing acceptable risk levels raises serious ethical flags, if the true nature of the risks are not sufficiently understood.” Indeed, we owe it to the astronauts willing to risk their lives to explore space to do everything we can to make sure they return home as healthy as when they left.
Late last year, an international group of scientists announced that they were going ahead with plans to launch the first ever private space-based nation, Asgardia.
It sounded kinda nuts then, and it still seems nuts now, but according to a new FCC filing, plans are going full-steam ahead, as the brains behind Asgardia are looking to launch a data storage satellite that will orbit far beyond the reach of Earth-based laws and regulations.
“If Asgardia can find a launching country that is not a signatory to the space treaties, there are no international law obligations,” Mark Sundahl, a professor of space law at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, told Motherboard.
“At that point, it’s the Wild West.”
Named after Norse mythology’s city in the skies, Asgardia is designed to be a permanent space station that will run asteroid mining missions, and provide defence for Earth against meteorites, space debris, and other serious threats.
They started recruiting back in October, claiming that the first 100,000 people to register would be granted citizenship of Asgardia alongside their nationality on Earth.
The Asgardia flag, insignia, and national anthem are all currently being crowd-sourced, and are set to be finalised on June 18.
It plans to establish its own currency and calendar, which will add an extra month to our Earthly 12-month calendar, called Asgard, which sits between June and July.
“We must leave [Earth] because it’s very much in the nature of humanity,” Ram Jakhu, director of McGill University’s Institute of Air and Space Law and Asgardia founding member, told Business Insider last year.
“Humanity left Africa and covered the whole globe. The resources of Earth will be depleted. [W]e have a wish to go where nobody has gone before.”
At the time, the founders had announced that they planned to launch a satellite called Asgardia-1 within 18 months, followed by the space station, and judging by this recent FCC filing, they’re at least on track to get the first stage done.
The document states that the group plans to launch their satellite by September 2017, piggybacking on a supply mission to the International Space Station (ISS).
The tiny CubeSat satellite – measuring approximately 10 cm on each side, and weighing around 1 kilogram – will carry a 512GB solid state drive pre-loaded with data, but exactly what data it will contain has yet to be disclosed.
“Asgardia-1 will also contain internal and external particle detectors ‘to determine the radiation dosing that the internal electronics are receiving’, says the filing.
The mission is intended to ‘demonstrate long term storage of data in low earth orbit’, although the satellite itself will remain aloft for only five years before atmospheric friction drags it down and burns it up.”
Depending on the success of this first mission, it could open up a world of lawless data storage in space – something that the Pirate Bay owners would be very interested in.
In terms of how legal any of this is, that’s up for debate, but all this talk exposes how ill-equipped Earth’s legal systems are for dealing with private citizens who want to colonise our cosmic neighbourhood.
Steven Freeland, a professor of international law at Western Sydney University who recently completed a review of Australia’s Space Activities Act, predicts that enterprising citizens will be taking advantage of the lawlessness of space before regulations can catch up.
“Ultimately people will get married in space, have babies in space, and murder each other in space. You need concrete proposals, and I think a project like this helps that along,” he told News.com.au, adding that the scientists behind Asgardia “are of the highest calibre and quality”.
From highly trained scientists toiling away at research institutes to amateur enthusiasts gazing upward from their backyards, humanity boasts no shortage of people looking for life beyond Earth. Add to that the massive size of the universe — estimates range in the trillions of galaxies — and probability dictates that we should have already encountered another species by now.
And yet, we still have no evidence that we aren’t alone in the universe.
However, according to astronomy researcher Chris Impey, this hunt for life beyond Earth may soon yield results. In an interview with Futurism, he revealed that he believes that we are less than two decades away from finding extraterrestrial life…but it may not be the kind of life we were hoping for: “I put my money on detecting microbial life in 10 to 15 years, but not at all detecting intelligent life.”
Hide and Seek on a Cosmic Level
While Impey is skeptical that intelligent life is within our sights, he does have a couple of suggestions as to where we should focus our search for extraterrestrial lifeforms, intelligent or not. The first is our own backyard, or, more accurately, our own solar system.
While Impey tells Futurism he doesn’t rule out the possibility that life still exists on Mars, he says that those lifeforms are likely below the surface and are, therefore, much harder to detect. As such, he asserts that we have a better chance of finding evidence of life that used to exist on the Red Planet: “If we actually get Mars rocks back here to Earth from a place that we think could have been habitable in the past, then we might find evidence of prior life.”
Other bodies in our solar system could potentially host life as well, according to Impey, including the water world Europa (one of Jupiter’s several moons). He thinks future missions targeting the satellite could yield helpful—if not entirely conclusive—results, asserting that they should at least give us “some better idea if that ocean could have life in it.”
Of course, our solar system is just one very small corner of a very massive universe, so we’d be remiss if we didn’t look beyond it for signs of life. To narrow down the scope of our search, Impey suggests targeting the many exo-Earths we’ve already uncovered. Instead of focusing on the planets’ surfaces, though, we should research their atmospheres.
In the next few years, we’ll be able to use the James Web Space Telescope and other detection devices to look for biomarkers such as oxygen and methane in the atmospheres of these Earth-like planets, says Impey. “This biomarker experiment…could find evidence of microbial life indirectly,” he explains. The research should help us pinpoint the planets that are “the closest to Earth as possible, not in distance, but in character,” he adds, and since Earth is the only place we know life exists, finding the most Earth-like planets is our best bet for finding life.
Any Life Is Better Than No Life
Even if Impey is right, and humanity is still decades away from finding intelligent alien life, the discovery of microbial life on Mars, Europa, or one of the thousands of exoplanets we’ve identified would still be a huge development. It would mean Earth isn’t unique, that something else living is out there.
We could use the knowledge we glean from studying this microbial life to narrow down our hunt for other, more complex organisms. By providing valuable insights into how other living beings are able to survive on worlds far different from our own, this microbial life could help in our quest to become a multi-planetary species. Even the discovery of past microbial life would be helpful, as it could serve as something of a cautionary tale, providing us with the opportunity to learn and ensure we don’t meet the same fate.
As Impey notes, thanks to dramatic advances in technology, we’ve never been better equipped to discover life beyond Earth than we are right now: “Every new SETI experiment done now is about as good as the sum of all previous SETI experiments put together.”
However, even if all of the currently planned experiments and missions came up short, Impey doesn’t envision humanity giving up the hunt for extraterrestrial life any time soon: “The first SETI experiment was in 1959, so obviously it has been going on for over half a century without any success. The people who do it don’t seem put off by failure.”
This interview has been slightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Elon Musk is having a rather good week. He put on an excellent showing at Tesla’s annual shareholder’s meeting, and today, the news broke that Tesla’s stock price has surged. The company is listed on the Fortune 500 list for the first time ever. But of course, we cannot forget about another of Musk’s revolutionary outfits: SpaceX.
Musk’s space company has a number of milestone event planned for the coming months. Case in point, a few moments ago, a question from a Twitter user sparked an update from Musk on the company’s plans to launch the Falcon Heavy, SpaceX’s massive rocket that will one day take humans to the Moon.
All Falcon Heavy cores should be at the Cape in two to three months, so launch should happen a month after that
In the tweet, Musk confirmed that we will be seeing the rocket launch in just four months, at the end of the summer.
The Falcon Heavy will be the most powerful rocket in the world, capable of launching 54 metric tons (119,000 lb) of cargo and crew into space. The rocket will be used to boost the first space tourists to the Moon in a launch expected to take place in 2018. The entire journey is expected to take about six to seven days.
The Falcon Heavy will likely also play a role in preparing SpaceX for the highly anticipated first manned missions to Mars, set to happen by 2025.
We look forward to the upcoming launch and all the promise that its success will bring.
In 1977, the sound of extraterrestrials was heard by human ears for the first time — or so people at the time thought. The Wow! Signal was detected by astronomer Jerry Ehman using Ohio State University’s Big Ear radio telescope. It is a radio signal detector that, at the time, was pointed at a group of stars called Chi Sagittarii in the constellation Sagittarius.
When scanning the skies around the stars, Ehman captured a 72 second burst of radio waves: He circled the reading and wrote “Wow!: next to it, hence the signal’s name. Over the last 40 years, the signal has been cited as evidence that we are not alone in the galaxy. Experts and laypeople alike believed that, finally, we had evidence of alien life.
These comets, known as 266P/Christensen and 335P/Gibbs, have clouds of hydrogen gas millions of kilometers in diameter surrounding them. The Wow! Signal was detected at 1420MHz, which is the radio frequency hydrogen naturally emits. Notably, the team has verified that the comets were within the vicinity at the time, and they report that the radio signals from 266/P Christensen matched those from the Wow! signal.
Other Extraterrestrial Communications
While this discovery is a disappointment to alien enthusiasts everywhere, as the Wow! Signal is the strongest signal we have ever received from space, it is a testament to our ability to accurately interpret signals and sounds from the cosmos. This gives us hope in our attempt to decode the hundreds of “strange, alien” signals coming from other stars that have been observed recently.
We have several weapons in our cosmic detection arsenal, most of which are used by the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI). Their main means of detection is using radio-telescopes, and their most ambitious project to date has been ‘Project Phoenix’; the “world’s most sensitive and comprehensive search for extraterrestrial intelligence.”
For this project, they used three of world’s biggest radio telescopes: the Parkes radio telescope in Australia (210 feet in diameter), the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in West Virginia (140 feet in diameter), and Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico (the world’s largest at 1,000 feet in diameter). They have also built The Allen Telescope Array with financial backing from Paul Allen.
While the technology for detecting alien messages is remaining relatively static, ideas for communicating better with our own satellites is advancing rapidly, with possibilities including communicating by a laser beam and establishing a space satellite network.
If all goes as planned, the world’s first commercial space station should become a manufacturing hub within a few years of reaching orbit. Axiom Space plans to launch the first pieces of its station in 2020, on the eve of the retirement of the International Space Station (ISS). However, the company sees its space station as more than a manufacturing center, they believe that it will also serve as a research and tourism base.
Still, according to comments from Axiom Space’s vice president of strategic development, Amir Blachman, to Space.com, manufacturing will be the primary source of revenue for the space station. Blachman mentioned that the company will also use sponsorships and advertising to make money. Through 2024, Axiom will launch several additional pieces, including propulsion and power modules, as it continues to, if all goes according to plan, host tourist and astronaut visitors.
Space Life After ISS
The ISS is slated to retire by 2024, although its life may be extended through 2028. When it does eventually retire, the Axiom station will separate from ISS and start to roam in low Earth orbit freely. At that point, the Axiom station might be the only option for researchers who need to conduct work in space, and Axiom plans to make the station available to all who need it.
According to Blachman, notable advances in technologies like 3D printing will enable Axiom to generate manufacturing revenue quickly. The company plans and hopes to function as a base of production for a range of well-paid, large-scale jobs within the next ten years.
Now, not everything created on the station will return to Earth. Some customers will manufacture small satellites and then deploy them directly from the station at a fraction of the cost that launching spacecraft from Earth demands, according to Blachman. Costs of manufacturing in and for space have been dropping steadily; the Axiom station will be created for one-tenth the cost of the ISS. The result will hopefully be a microgravity environment uniquely suited for the industrial production of extremely pure materials and objects made with them — all at a cost any country or company could potentially, reasonably afford.
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL — SpaceX blasted the “largest and most complicated communications satellite ever built to orbit” for London-based Inmarset at twilight on May 15 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center aboard an expendable Falcon 9 rocket.
In fact the Inmarsat-5 F4 satellite is so powerful that it has the potential to reach “hundreds of millions of customers,” the Inmarsat CEO Rupert Pierce told Universe Today in a post-launch interview at the Kennedy Space Center.
“This is the largest and most complicated [communications] satellite ever built,” Pearce explained beside NASA’s countdown clock at the KSC press site.
Blastoff of the Inmarsat-5 Flight 4 communications satellite for commercial High-Speed mobile broadband provider Inmarsat took place right on time early Monday evening, May 15 at 7:21 p.m. EDT (or 23:21 UTC) from SpaceX’s seaside Launch Complex 39A on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The newly-built 229-foot-tall (70-meter) SpaceX Falcon 9 successfully delivered the huge 6100 kg Inmarsat-5 F4 satellite to a Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) under brilliant blue twilight skies from the Florida Space Coast.
“#I5F4 has been released & is flying high on its way to geostationary orbit! Safe journey! Thanks for a great launch SpaceX!”
Why launch such the largest and most complicated satellite ever? I asked Inmarsat CEO Pearce.
“We set a very high bar for the service offerings we want to offer for that satellite that just went up and is now on its way to in orbit testing,” Inmarsat CEO Pearce told me.
“That satellite will deliver mobile broadband for a third of the Earth at 50 megabits per second.”
“And by the end of next year those data rates will go up to over 300 megabits per second.”
“To get that kind of data speed you need very high processing powers, you need to deploy the new Ka band — which although it is still relatively unproven is looking like a very exciting new capability for space assets.”
The integrated Falcon 9/Inmarsat-5 F4 were rolled out to the KSC launch pad on Sunday to begin final preparations and were erected at the pad this morning for Monday’s liftoff.
The first stage is powered by nine Merlin 1 D engines fueled by RP-1 and liquid oxygen propellants and generating 1.7 million pounds.
The seven meter long satellite was deployed approximately 32 minutes after launch when it will come under the command of the Boeing and Inmarsat satellite operations teams based at the Boeing facility in El Segundo.
It will now be “maneuvered to its geostationary orbit, 35,786km (22,236 miles) above Earth, where it will deploy its solar arrays and reflectors and undergo intensive payload testing before beginning commercial service.”
The Inmarsat-5 F4 (I-5 F4) will become part of the firms Global Xpress network “which has been delivering seamless, high-speed broadband connectivity across the world since December 2015,” says Inmarsat.
“Once in geostationary orbit, the satellite will provide additional capacity for Global Xpress users on land, at sea and in the air.”
I-5 F4 was built by Boeing at their satellite operations facility in El Segundo, CA for Inmarsat.
The new satellite will join three others already in orbit.
Inmarsat has invested approximately US$1.6 billion in the Global Xpress constellation “to establish the first ever global Ka-band service from a single network operator.”
Inmarsat 5 F4 counts as the sixth SpaceX launch of 2017.
And SpaceX is on an absolutely torrid launch pace. Monday’s liftoff comes just two weeks after the last successful SpaceX Falcon 9 liftoff on May 1 of the super secret NROL-76 payload for the National Reconnaissance Office, or NRO — as I reported here.
Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite launch reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.
SpaceX is wasting no time on their mission to reinvent and revitalize space travel. The company has once again made history by successfully launching the previously-flown Dragon Cargo ship. The craft’s first mission, back in September 21, 2014, successfully delivered 2.5 tons of cargo to the International Space Station.
According to CBS News, for today’s launch, the craft was filled with nearly 6,000 pounds of cargo including supplies, equipment, special telescopes to study neutron stars, mice, and even thousands of fruit flies. The craft launched from the historic Kennedy Space Center’s launch pad 39A, the same pad from which the Apollo 11 mission launched in 1969.
The craft was successfully launched today, June 3rd at 5:07 PM EDT. Falcon 9 has just touched back down at the time of publishing and Dragon is well on its way in its two and a half day journey to the ISS.
The Dragon spacecraft now joins a prestigious group of multi-orbit space flight craft like NASA’s Atlantis, Challenger, Columbia, Discovery, and Endeavour – firmly planting SpaceX as a formidable force in the new space race.
Hauler on a Budget
This is just the latest move by SpaceX that is poised to completely transform spaceflight. In March, the company made history by successfully launching and landing a recycled rocket for the first time. The relaunch of the Dragon has proven that SpaceX can continue to make missions to space cheaper, and therefore, more accessible.
SpaceX’s plans don’t just stop at restocking the ISS. The company has much bigger plans involving putting people back on the moon next year and sending the first humans to Mars by 2025. While SpaceX is no doubt celebrating this latest achievement, they are hard at work preparing their next feat: launching the Falcon Heavy rocket this summer.
The SpaceX team is truly revolutionizing space travel for the betterment of all of humanity. With a clear goal to make history and push the boundaries of what’s possible on Earth and in space, SpaceX is rapidly cementing its legacy while becoming a forerunner in the race toward the future.
A new study might have bad news for future space travelers. Madhan Tirumalai, Post Doctoral Fellow at the University of Houston and part of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, has discovered that bacteria mutate and proliferate in space-like conditions. As part of the most rigorous study to date, he observed E. coli development over 1,000 generations in a rotating container designed to simulate microgravity.
He found that the bacteria developed 16 mutations, and when they were placed next to normal E. coli cells, they grew around three times as many colonies and maintained a 72 percent adaptive advantage. Further, their adaptations remained even when researchers tried to erase them.
Some of the changes were slightly worrying: mutations affected the genes related to biofilm production, which often makes cells more robust and virulent. However, not every mutation necessitates a negative change. In fact, as Tirumalai wrote, the E. coli was still susceptible to antibiotics. Essentially, even if microgravity turns bacteria into superbugs, we can still rely on antibiotics.
Bugs and Space Travel
This could be worrying news for future space-travelers. E. coli is a relatively benign bacteria, but other nastier bugs and diseases could jeopardize entire missions — costing precious life and money — if they mutate in a violent or untreatable way. The potential consequences become more worrying when we consider that a 2013 study found that in space human immune “cells are not able to respond to a pathogen anymore,” which “means that it will be easier [for astronauts] to get sick because their immune system is weakening.”
Tirumalai explains, “We need more of this kind of experiment, especially with human space flight gaining more traction in recent years.” News concerning more people going to space as part of the commercial spaceflight revolution is exciting. However, practical considerations – such as how microgravity impacts bacteria and our bodies, as well as the potential consequences of isolation on our mental health– must be dealt with before we embark, particularly when it comes to long flights such as the plan to go to Mars.
The world’s biggest plane, designed to carry spaceships, was innocuously rolled out of a hanger for the first time in the Mojave Desert today. Paul Allen, who co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates, unveiled the Stratolaunch, which was built by his company Stratolaunch Systems. It has a wingspan of 117 metres (385 feet) (about one-and-a-quarter times the height of the statue of liberty), weighs 226,796 kgs (500,000 pounds), and is propelled by six 747 aircraft engines.
The plane’s eventual goal is to carry spacecraft to low earth orbit in order to decrease the energy required for them to get to space. Leaving the hanger marks the end of the construction phase and the beginning of the aircraft ground and flight testing phase. All supporting Allen’s eventual aim to provide convenient, reliable, and routine access to low Earth orbit. The company will stage its first demonstration in 2019, and already has its first client — private spaceflight company Orbital ATK which plans to use the plane to launch its Pegasus XL rocket.
Paul Allen’s venture is one of many undertaken by some of the world’s biggest companies to make space commercial, all of which are making rapid headway. SpaceX, Elon Musk’s astral brainchild, says that they can make space access 100 times cheaper, and will make history by relaunching their Dragon capsule today; Virgin Orbit, Richard Branson’s company that hopes to take tourists into space, said that they will be able to do so starting next year; and Rocket Lab, who claim that they can launch small satellites into space for $4.9 million per flight, successfully launched their first rocket into space on May 24th.
Private companies are competing to make space more affordable for both commercial and leisurely ends. We are about to enter an age where the final frontier is not just accessible to astronauts trained for years, but to any citizen — providing we have the extra funds to spare. While its still not cheap, commercial spaceflight is moving in the right direction.
Tomorrow (June 1, 2017) will be a landmark date for commercial space travel. SpaceX is set to become the first privately owned company to perform multiple orbital flights to space using the same aircraft. On 21st September 2014, using the Falcon 9 rocket, this same Dragon CRS-4 delivered 2.5 tons of cargo to the International Space Station (ISS).
Since, this time, it has been refurbished and the launch window for its second cargo flight opens at 5:55pm ET.
It is one of only a handful of previous multi-orbit space flights — and all of the others were undertaken by governments. They include: the NASA orbiters Atlantis, Challenger, Columbia, Discovery, and Endeavour, which made dozens of missions but were hideously expensive to repair. There was also the X-37B, which Boeing built under commission by the U.S Air Force, and the Soviet VA spacecraft, which only orbited the Earth once on its second voyage.
While it is unclear how much the Dragon CRS-4 has had to be repaired, and exactly how much it cost, the savings are expected to be considerable. Moreover, this is nonetheless a landmark in breaching the final frontier, as private individuals are truly entering the space race, and this will play a major role in making space both commercially available and also affordable.
What Are SPACEX’S Other Plans?
However, ultimately, SpaceX is about far more than just making spaceflight affordable. SpaceX started with the “ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets” — the first planet Musk’s space company aims to colonize is Mars. In order to do so, Musk plans to build the BFR . This stands for, in his own words, the Big F*cking Rocket, which will ferry the reusable Mars Colonial Transporter to the Red Planet.
Musk argues that humanity reaching Mars and other planets is pivotal. As He stated in an interview with aeon: “I think there is a strong humanitarian argument for making life multi-planetary”, and that this has to start with Mars because, “if we can establish a Mars colony, we can almost certainly colonise the whole Solar System, because we’ll have created a strong economic forcing function for the improvement of space travel.”
The process, though, has to move in gradations — and this relaunch of the Dragon is a major milestone in Musk’s plan.
As NASA readies itself for its historic mission to the Sun set sometime between July and August 2018, the space agency made an announcement today that highlights the importance of this mission. The Solar Probe Plus has now been renamed the Parker Solar Probe, after astrophysicist Eugene Parker who discovered the phenomenon that this first-ever mission to a star will be investigating.
“This is the first time NASA has named a spacecraft for a living individual,” NASA administrator for the Science Mission Directorate Thomas Zurbuchen said in today’s announcement. “It’s a testament to the importance of his body of work, founding a new field of science that also inspired my own research and many important science questions NASA continues to study and further understand every day. I’m very excited to be personally involved honoring a great man and his unprecedented legacy.”
Usually, NASA missions are renamed only after launch and certification, the agency noted. However, NASA decided not to follow the usual naming procedures to highlight the importance of Parker’s work and his contributions to heliophysics and space science, as well as how the planned mission ties in with his research.
What We’ll Be Probing
The Parker Solar Probe will examine a phenomenon known as a solar wind, which Parker first pointed out in 1958. High speed matter and magnetism, Parker theorized, constantly come out of the Sun and affect the planets and space around it.
“The solar probe is going to a region of space that has never been explored before,” Parker said in the NASA announcement. “It’s very exciting that we’ll finally get a look. One would like to have some more detailed measurements of what’s going on in the solar wind. I’m sure that there will be some surprises. There always are.”
Getting close enough to the Sun is crucial, and the Parker Solar Probe is equipped with technology that would allow it to do so. “It’s a spacecraft loaded with technological breakthroughs that will solve many of the largest mysteries about our star, including finding out why the sun’s corona is so much hotter than its surface,” explained Nicola Fox, the probe’s project scientist, in the announcement.
“Parker Solar Probe is going to answer questions about solar physics that we’ve puzzled over for more than six decades,” Fox said in the announcement. “We will finally touch the sun.”
Elon Musk’s SpaceX has expanded the possibility for what we can do in space, and the latest development in astronomy is going to expand what we can learn about space. Construction began late last week on what will be the world’s largest optical telescope.
The telescope is being constructed on a 3,000 meter (9842.5 foot) high mountain in a Chilean desert. The President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet Jeria, was present for the start of construction ceremony and noted the significance of this move to the sciences:
“With the symbolic start of this construction work, we are building more than a telescope here—It is one of the greatest expressions of scientific and technological capabilities and of the extraordinary potential of international cooperation.”
It will boast some truly impressive measurements including a total weight of 5,000 tons (5,512 US tons), an 85 meter (279 ft) rotating dome, and a 39 meter (128 ft) diameter main mirror. The ELT will be five times larger than the largest telescopes in use today. The new equipment will allow for greater planet discovering ability and perhaps even help us discern the makeup of the atmospheres of alien worlds, giving us greater insights into a planet’s ability to host life as-we-know-it.
On Twitter, NASA announced that on Wednesday, May 31, it will provide more details about a mission to send its Solar Prob Plus seven times closer to the Sun than any spacecraft has gone before. The probe’s website says its launch window will be between July 31 and August 19, 2018.
The probe will fly within about 6.4 million kilometers (4 million miles) of the Sun’s surface, facing temperatures of 1,400 Celcius (2,500 Fahrenheit) and huge amounts of radiation. For protection against the extreme conditions it will use a 11.4-centimeter (4.5-inch) thick carbon-composite shield.
The probe will attempt to orbit the Sun 24 times in six years and 11 months, using seven Venus gravity-assisted flybys to help it achieve speeds of nearly 725,000 kilometers (450,000 miles) per hour.
Studying the Sun
The mission will help us understand more about the nature of our solar system by discovering the star at the heart of it. The probe has three central objectives:
Determine the structure and dynamics of the plasma and magnetic fields at the sources of the solar wind.
Explore mechanisms that accelerate and transport energetic particles.
While this will give us insight for further studying the star powering warming our world, it will also serve a crucial social purpose: to garner more information on solar weather to help us protect our planet and satellites. NASA estimates that a huge unpredicted solar event could knock out satellites and cost the U.S. alone up to $2 trillion in damage — potentially even causing long-term electricity shortages worldwide.
NASA’s Juno spacecraft has just revealed a wealth of new information about our Solar System’s biggest resident, Jupiter, and it’s now clear that everything we thought we knew about the gas giant may have been wrong. The first observations were made when the spacecraft dipped closer to the tops of the clouds covering the planets’ surface and passed over the poles.
“What we’ve learned so far is Earth-shattering. Or should I say, Jupiter-shattering,” Juno’s principal investigator at the South Research Institute, Scott Bolton, said in a press release. “Discoveries about its composition, magnetosphere, and poles are as stunning as the photographs the mission is generating.”
At the planets’ poles, there are massive, oval-shaped cyclones, completely different from the polar regions observed on Saturn. Some of these cyclones were observed to be so enormous that they approached widths of 1,400 kilometers (900 miles), making them 10 times larger than the most massive cyclones seen on Earth. These storms also soar so high that they were observed leaving Jupiter’s atmosphere, extending almost 100 kilometers (62 miles) high.
The entire gaseous planet is enveloped by a powerful magnetic field, and solar winds cause the magnetosphere itself to expand and contract. Passing through the field, the spacecraft detected odd sounds. Jupiter is also home to strange northern lights totally different from those here on Earth.
Perhaps the strangest surprise was revealed beneath the planets’ clouds, where Juno measured the atmospheres’ thermal structure. The probe sent microwaves into the deep atmosphere and detected gigantic weather systems created by ammonia plumes emanating from the equator—a wider version of Earth’s own trade winds.
Juno explored the Jovian magnetic field — the Solar System’s largest object — in the second study. Although researchers knew the field was massive, they were surprised to learn that it is actually twice as powerful as predicted with previous models, 10 times more powerful than Earth’s, and far more uneven and dynamic than before believed. And, while Earth’s magnetic field originates from its core, Jupiter’s varied, patchy magnetosphere may originate closer to its surface.
Our Mysterious Universe
The real purpose of the Juno mission has been to learn more about how the planets in our Solar System formed. This, in turn, can allow us to better understand how all planets form, and better comprehend the nature of the Universe. The craft is doing this by mapping the gas giant in detail and gathering data on the atmosphere, magnetic field, and inner structure of the massive planet.
Earth and Jupiter’s different magnetospheres produce vastly different bow shock experiences as spacecraft pass through the magnetic fields. In fact, while passing through Earth’s magnetic field is a uniform experience, passing through Jupiter’s changes, depends on whether the magnetosphere is expanding or contracting in response to solar winds. Differences in the auroral emissions of the two planets are also striking.
Jupiter has more to tell us, and Juno is on the case. It has thus far completed only 5 of 33 planned flyby investigations, so we can expect more strange revelations. Next up, on July 11, Juno will pass over the Great Red Spot, and hopefully tell us more about the most famous storm in the Solar System — and perhaps about our Universe’s origins as well.
Between the Europa Clipper and the proposed Europa Lander, NASA has made it clear that it intends to send a mission to this icy moon of Jupiter in the coming decade. Ever since the Voyager 1 and 2 probes conducted their historic flybys of the moon in 1973 and 1974 — which offered the first indications of a warm-water ocean in the moon’s interior — scientists have been eager to peak beneath the surface and see what is there.
Towards this end, NASA has issued a grant to a team of researchers from Arizona State University to build and test a specially-designed seismometer that the lander would use to listen to Europa’s interior. Known as the Seismometer for Exploring the Subsurface of Europa (SESE), this device will help scientists determine if the interior of Europa is conducive to life.
According to the profile for the Europa Lander, this microphone would be mounted to the robotic probe. Once it reached the surface of the moon, the seismometer would begin collecting information on Europa’s subsurface environment. This would include data on its natural tides and movements within the shell, which would determine the icy surface’s thickness.
It would also determine if the surface has pockets of water — i.e. subsurface lakes — and see how often water rises to the surface. For some time, scientists have suspected that Europa’s “chaos terrain” would be the ideal place to search for evidence of life. These features, which are basically a jumbled mess of ridges, cracks, and plains, are believed to be spots where the subsurface ocean is interacting with the icy crust.
As such, any evidence of organic molecules or biological organisms would be easiest to find there. In addition, astronomers have also detected water plumes coming from Europa’s surface. These are also considered to be one of the best bets for finding evidence of life in the interior. But before they can be explored directly, determining where reservoirs of water reside beneath the ice and if they are connected to the interior ocean is paramount.
And this is where instruments like the SESE would come into play. Hongyu Yu is an exploration system engineer from ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and the leader of the SESE team. As he stated in a recent article by ASU Now, “We want to hear what Europa has to tell us. And that means putting a sensitive ‘ear’ on Europa’s surface.”
While the idea of a Europa Lander is still in the concept-development stage, NASA is working to develop all the necessary components for such a mission. As such, they have provided the ASU team with a grant to develop and test their miniature seismometer, which measures no more than 10 cm (4 inches) on a side and could easily be fitted aboard a robotic lander.
More importantly, their seismometer differs from conventional designs in that it does not rely on a mass-and-spring sensor. Such a design would be ill-suited for a mission to another body in our Solar System since it needs to be positioned upright, which requires that it be carefully planted and not disturbed. What’s more, the sensor needs to be placed within a complete vacuum to ensure accurate measurements.
By using a micro-electrical system with a liquid electrolyte for a sensor, Yu and his team have created a seismometer that can operate under a wider range of conditions. “Our design avoids all these problems,” he said. “This design has a high sensitivity to a wide range of vibrations, and it can operate at any angle to the surface. And if necessary, they can hit the ground hard on landing.”
As Lenore Dai — a chemical engineer and the director of the ASU’s School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy — explained, the design also makes the SESE well suited for exploring extreme environments — like Europa’s icy surface. “We’re excited at the opportunity to develop electrolytes and polymers beyond their traditional temperature limits,” she said. “This project also exemplifies collaboration across disciplines.”
The SESE can also take a beating without compromising its sensor readings, which was tested when the team struck it with a sledgehammer and found that it still worked afterwards. According to seismologist Edward Garnero, who is also a member of the SESE team, this will come in handy. Landers typically have six to eight legs, he claims, which could be mated with seismometers to turn them into scientific instruments.
Having this many sensors on the lander would give scientists the ability to combine data, allowing them to overcome the issue of variable seismic vibrations recorded by each. As such, ensuring that they are rugged is a must.
Seismometers need to connect with the solid ground to operate most effectively. If each leg carries a seismometer, these could be pushed into the surface on landing, making good contact with the ground. We can also sort out high frequency signals from longer wavelength ones. For example, small meteorites hitting the surface not too far away would produce high frequency waves, and tides of gravitational tugs from Jupiter and Europa’s neighbor moons would make long, slow waves.
Such a device could also prove crucial to missions other “ocean worlds” within the Solar System, which include Ceres, Ganymede,Callisto,Enceladus, Titan, and others. On these bodies as well, it is believed that life could very well exist in warm-water oceans that lie beneath the surface. As such, a compact, rugged seismometer that is capable of working in extreme-temperature environments would be ideal for studying their interiors.
What’s more, missions of this kind would be able to reveal where the ice sheets on these bodies are thinnest, and hence where the interior oceans are most accessible. Once that’s done, NASA and other space agencies will know exactly where to send in the probe (or possibly the robotic submarine). Though we might have to wait a few decades on that one!
In the coming decades, the world’s largest space agencies hope to mount some exciting missions to the Moon and to Mars. Between NASA, Roscosmos, the European Space Agency (ESA), the Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA) and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), there is simply no shortage of proposals for Lunar bases, crewed missions to Mars, and robotic explorers to both.
However, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has a different mission in mind when it comes to the coming decades. Instead of exploring the Moon or Mars, they propose exploring the moons of Mars! Known as the Martian Moons Exploration (MMX) mission, the plan is to have a robotic spacecraft fly to Phobos and Deimos to explore their surfaces and return samples to Earth for analysis.
The spacecraft would be deployed sometime in the 2020s, and would be tasked with two main objectives. The first would be to help scientists determine the origins of Phobos and Deimos, which has been a subject of debate for some time. Whereas some believe that these moons are capture asteroids, others have argued that they were created when fragments ejected from Mars (due to giant impacts on the surface) came together.
MMX will land on Phobos and acquire samples of at least 10 grams from more than 2cm below the surface. Analysis of samples returned to Earth will clarify the nature of the asteroid that led to the formation of the moon. Deimos observations will be limited to flyby imaging, but combined with ground data to be obtained for Phobos, we should be able to constrain its origin in a substantial manner.
The second objective focuses on the characterization of conditions both on and around the moons of Mars. This includes surface processes on Phobos and Deimos, the nature of the environment in which they orbit, and the global and temporal dynamics of Mars atmosphere — i.e. dust, clouds and water vapor.
“Airless bodies such as asteroids are exposed to space weathering processes,” said Dr. Fujimoto. “In the case of Phobos, an impact event on the surface releases many dust particles. Unlike an asteroid in the interplanetary space, dust particles will not be simply lost but will orbit around Mars and return and hit the Phobos surface. This is regarded as the reason that Phobos has a very thick regolith layer. Knowing this process is to know the attributes of returned samples better.”
Another major objective of this mission is to learn more about small bodies coming from the outer Solar System. As the outermost rocky planet, Mars’ orbit marks the boundary between the terrestrial planets — which have solid surfaces and variable atmospheres (ranging from super-thing to dense) — and the gas and ice giants of the outer Solar System that have highly dense atmospheres.
Because of this, studying Mars’ moons, determining their origin, and learning more about the Martian orbital environment could teach us a lot about the evolution of the Solar System. Not only does such a mission present opportunities to study how planets like Mars formed, but also the process of by which primordial materials were transported between the inner and outer Solar Systems during its early history. As Dr. Fujimoto explained:
These small bodies were the delivery capsules for water from outside the Frost Line to the Habitable Zone of the solar system, where our planet is situated. Earth was born dry and needed delivery of water for its habitability to be switched on at all. It is likely that one of the (failed) deliveries led to the formation of Phobos, and, sample analysis will tell us about the failed capsule.
This is obviously the case when the capture idea turns out to be correct. Even for the case of giant impact, the scale of the impact is considered to be not too gigantic to alter fully the materials, implying that sample analysis would tell us something about the impactor asteroid.
As it stands, the probe is scheduled to launch in September 2024, taking advantage of the fact that Earth and Mars will be at the nearest point to each other in their orbits at this time. It will arrive around Mars by 2025, conduct its studies for a three-year period, and then return to Earth by July of 2029. Once there, it will rely on a suite of scientific instruments to conduct surveys and obtain samples.
These instruments include a Neutron and Gamma-ray Spectrometer (NGRS), a Near-Infrared Spectrometer (NIRS), a Wide Angle Multiband Camera (WAM), a Telescopic Camera (TL), a Circum-Martian Dust Monitor (CMDM), a Mass Spectrum Analyzer (MSA), and a Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) instrument.
The mission will also leverage some key partnerships that JAXA is currently engaged in. These include an agreement reached with NASA back in late March to include the Neutron and Gamma-ray Spectrometer (NGRS) in the MMX’s instrument suite. And in April, JAXA and the National Center for Space Studies (CNES) signed an Implementation Agreement (IA) that would allow the French national space agency to participate in the mission as well.
If all goes as planned, JAXA will be spending the next decade gathering information that could bridge findings made by Lunar and Martian missions. Whereas lunar research will reveal things about the history of the Moon, and Martian missions will offer new insights into Mars’ geology and evolution (and perhaps if life still exists there!), the MMX mission will reveal things about the history of Mars’ moons and the early Solar System as a whole.
Other proposals that JAXA is currently working on include the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) and SPICA, two missions that will explore Jupiter’s Galilean Moons and conduct infrared astronomy (respectively) in the coming decade.
NASA is fast-tracking a planned trip to 16 Psyche — an asteroid that almost completely consists of nickel-iron metal. The iron in 16 Psyche alone is estimated to be worth $10,000 quadrillion, if humans were able to somehow extract it and bring it to Earth, which sounds great, until you realize that the entire global economy is only worth $78 trillion. Injecting that much worth into the world economy would crash it, in a totally different kind of asteroid impact than most people think about.
Fortunately, extracting minerals from 16 Psyche is not in NASA’s plans. NASA’s lead scientist for the mission, Lindy Elkins-Tanton, posed some fascinating questions to Global News Canada in January 2017: “Even if we could grab a big metal piece and drag it back here…what would you do? Could you kind of sit on it and hide it and control the global resource — kind of like diamonds are controlled corporately — and protect your market? What if you decided you were going to bring it back and you were just going to solve the metal resource problems of humankind for all time? This is wild speculation, obviously.”
16 Psyche will allow humans their first shot at exploring a world made of iron rather than ice or rock if NASA succeeds. The mission was originally set to begin in 2023, but now the agency is planning on starting in 2022 and making contact in 2026, thanks to a more efficient, lower-cost trajectory discovered by the team.
The potential importance of the 16 Psyche mission will also affect the future of space mining — something we are likely to see in the future, especially if we have a colony on Mars. Last year, a former NASA researcher presented a report declaring that space mining is possible with technologies we have right now, and that we will see it within a few decades. Luxembourg has already established a space mining fund. Given the extreme distances in space, it seems likely that we will depend on our ability to mine resources in space as we travel further from Earth — and an exciting experience on 16 Psyche may be what the majority of humanity needs to be convinced that space mining is possible.
If successful, the XS-1 project will give birth to a completely new kind of space plane, but many of its features would be reminiscent of an ordinary earthbound plane. About the size of a commercial jet airplane and powered exclusively by self-contained cryogenic propellants, the craft would take off vertically without external boosters and achieve hypersonic speeds. Upon reaching sufficient altitude, it would release its upper stage and deploy a 3,000-pound satellite.
The job complete, the first stage would return to Earth and come in for a landing horizontally, much like an airplane. Again, just like a typical commercial jet, it would only require a few hours of downtime before being ready to fly again.
The XS-1 design also includes futuristic technologies that would set it apart from existing aircraft and spacecraft. These include composite cryogenic propellant tanks and hybrid composite-metallic surfaces and wings capable of withstanding temperatures of more than 1,093 degrees Celsius (2,000 degrees Fahrenheit) and hypersonic, suborbital flight stresses. It is also expected to feature autonomous flight and flight-termination capabilities, courtesy of the agency’s Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program.
A New Era in Space Flight
Today, most (but not all) spacecraft aren’t reusable, and the ability to launch into low Earth orbit within a matter of days, rather than months or years, is even more out of reach. If Boeing succeeds with the XS-1 project, humanity’s abilities to guard, repair, and replace satellites — which both civilians and the military rely upon heavily — will be exponentially enhanced.
DARPA is hopeful that Boeing is up to the task.
“The XS-1 would be neither a traditional airplane nor a conventional launch vehicle but rather a combination of the two, with the goal of lowering launch costs by a factor of ten and replacing today’s frustratingly long wait time with launch on demand,” DARPA program manager Jess Sponable said in a press release. “We’re very pleased with Boeing’s progress on the XS-1 through Phase 1 of the program and look forward to continuing our close collaboration in this newly funded progression to Phases 2 and 3 — fabrication and flight.”
If the design and testing phases all go as planned, we should see the XS-1 in the air in 2020.
Private space companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and now Rocket Lab make rocket science seem like, well…not like rocket science. Nowadays, privately developing rockets and launching them into space is no longer just the playground of bigger aeronautics companies or space agencies. Rocket Lab’s successful launch of its Electron rocket on Wednesday, May 24 from the company’s new commercial spaceport in New Zealand proves this.
“We’re one of a few companies to ever develop a rocket from scratch and we did it in under four years,” Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck said in a press release. “We’ve worked tirelessly to get to this point. We’ve developed everything in house, built the world’s first private orbital launch range, and we’ve done it with a small team.”
However, as what usually happens with initial launch tests, not everything went as well as Rocket Lab hoped. For one, while the rocket did reach space, the Electron wasn’t able to get into orbit as originally hoped. “We didn’t quite reach orbit and we’ll be investigating why, however reaching space in our first test puts us in an incredibly strong position to accelerate the commercial phase of our [program], deliver our customers to orbit and make space open for business,” Beck explained.
“We have learnt so much through this test launch and will learn even more in the weeks to come,” he added.
Forty-five years have passed since humans last set foot on an extraterrestrial body. Now, the moon is back at the center of efforts not only to explore space, but to create a permanent, independent space-faring society.
Planning expeditions to Earth’s nearest celestial neighbor is no longer just a NASA effort, though the U.S. space agency has plans for a moon-orbiting space station that would serve as a staging ground for Mars missions in the early 2030s. The United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, is planning a lunar fueling station for spacecraft, capable of supporting 1,000 people living in space within 30 years.
Right now all space missions are based on, and launched from, Earth. But Earth’s gravitational pull is strong. To escape Earth’s gravity, a rocket has to be traveling 11 kilometers a second – 25,000 miles per hour!
Any rocket leaving Earth has to carry all the fuel it will ever use to get to its destination and, if needed, back again. That fuel is heavy – and getting it moving at such high speeds takes a lot of energy. If we could refuel in orbit, that launch energy could lift more people or cargo or scientific equipment into orbit. Then the spacecraft could refuel in space, where Earth’s gravity is less powerful.
Those locations would be tricky to mine because they are colder and offer no sunlight to power roving vehicles. However, we could install big mirrors on the craters’ rims to illuminate solar panels in the permanently shadowed regions.
Rovers from Google’s Lunar X Prize competition and NASA’s Lunar Resource Prospector, set to launch in 2020, would also contribute to finding good locations to mine ice.
Imagining a Moon Base
Depending on where the best ice reserves are, we might need to build several small robotic moon bases. Each one would mine ice, manufacture liquid propellant and transfer it to passing spacecraft. Our team developed plans to accomplish those tasks with three different types of rovers. Our plans also require a few small robotic shuttles to meet up with nearby deep-space mission vehicles in lunar orbit.
One rover, which we call the Prospector, would explore the moon and find ice-bearing locations. A second rover, the Constructor, would follow along behind, building a launch pad and packing down roadways to ease movements for the third rover type, the Miners, which actually collect the ice and deliver it to nearby storage tanks and an electrolysis processing plant that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen.
The Constructor would also build a landing pad where the small near-moon transport spacecraft we call Lunar Resupply Shuttles would arrive to collect fuel for delivery as newly launched spacecraft pass by the moon. The shuttles would burn moon-made fuel and would have advanced guidance and navigation systems to travel between lunar bases and their target spacecraft.
A Gas Station in Space
When enough fuel is being produced, and the shuttle delivery system is tested and reliable, our plan calls for building a gas station in space. The shuttles would deliver ice directly to the orbiting fuel depot, where it would be processed into fuel and where rockets heading to Mars or elsewhere could dock to top up.
The depot would have large solar arrays powering an electrolysis module for melting the ice and then turning the water into fuel, and large fuel tanks to store what’s made. NASA is already working on most of the technology needed for a depot like this, including docking and fuel transfer. We anticipate a working depot could be ready in the early 2030s, just in time for the first human missions to Mars.
To be most useful and efficient, the depot should be located in a stable orbit relatively near both the Earth and the moon. The Earth-moon Lagrangian Point 1 (L1) is a point in space about 85 percent of the way from Earth to the moon, where the force of Earth’s gravity would exactly equal the force of the moon’s gravity pulling in the other direction. It’s the perfect pit stop for a spacecraft on its way to Mars or the outer planets.
Our team also found a fuel-efficient way to get spacecraft from Earth orbit to the depot at L1, requiring even less launch fuel and freeing up more lift energy for cargo items. First, the spacecraft would launch from Earth into Low Earth Orbit with an empty propellant tank.
Building a gas station between Earth and the moon would also reduce costs for missions beyond Mars. NASA is looking for extraterrestrial life on the moons of Saturn and Jupiter. Future spacecraft could carry much more cargo if they could refuel in space – who knows what scientific discoveries sending large exploration vehicles to these moons could enable?
By helping us escape both Earth’s gravity and dependence on its resources, a lunar gas station could be the first small step toward the giant leap into making humanity an interplanetary civilization.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated to clarify the distinction between escape velocity and the velocity needed to achieve orbit.
Right now, somewhere in the Rocky Mountains of the American West, there are two teams of Air Force specialists preparing to defend America’s interests — in space. They are the 26th Space Aggressor Squadron (26th SAS) and the 527th Space Aggressor Squadron (527th SAS), and their job consists of training the rest of the military for any possible contingency involving extraterrestrial combat and creating strategies to defend the security of any U.S. interests in space.
In other words, they play the role of the bad guys on a potentially intergalactic scale, “attacking” and provoking U.S. troops in mock space battles — as foreign countries and any other hostile power looking to threaten America in space. Space Aggressors train troops to make strategic use of space resources, for example by engaging in “brute force jamming,” which uses satellite networks to transmit signals to make any original message unintelligible to outsiders. However, they also train U.S. forces to fight without space resources, such as GPS and satellite communications, to ensure that they can competently fight using inertial navigation systems, compasses, and maps.
“We study threats to the space realm, either coming from space or based on land,” 26th SAS chief of training Captain Christopher Barnes told Seeker. “If we can’t directly replicate them with hardware, then we figure out if there’s a software solution or some way we can train people to the point where they can fight through them, if they have to, in a conflict.”
Security In Space
Space Aggressors launch simulated attacks and training exercises, but these space “games” are in response to security threats that are very serious. Modern American warfare and defense are almost completely reliant upon our GPS system, which basically consists of a chain of 31 satellites. In recent years, high-ranking officials in the U.S. military have argued that more preparation for space defense is essential, especially in light of the development of anti-satellite weapons in China and Russia. If taking out satellites effectively renders our troops helpless, it is a smart strategy for enemies to adopt.
Furthermore, the threat would stretch far beyond the battlefield, as Ed Morris, the executive director of the Office of Space Commerce, wrote in the report, A Day Without Space: Economic and National Security Ramifications: “If you think it is hard to get work done when your Internet connection goes out at the office, imagine losing that plus your cell phone, TV, radio, ATM access, credit cards, and possibly even your electricity.”
The threat of warfare and aggression in space — and the need to prepare for it — has been broadly recognized all over the world. An international group of lawyers is now drawing up the first body of law to be applied in space. Based largely on existing principles of international law, the work that results from the coalition’s efforts will be called Manual on International Law Applicable to Military Uses of Outer Space (MILAMOS).
How it will apply to Earth’s various nations is as yet undecided, but for it to work, nations like the United States will have to choose to participate. Much like the United Nations, without participation and commitment from member states, international law — whether applied on Earth or in space — is unlikely to prove effective.
SpaceX has bounced back in a big way since the infamous setback in June of 2015. Since then, SpaceX has revolutionized space travel; launching and landing reusable rockets successfully for the first time in history. Now, SpaceX is moving forward with the launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket, an important stepping stone on the path to get humans to Mars by 2025.
SpaceX recently sent a tweet of the rocket being tested. The post also contained a video that showed the raw power of the rocket.
Static fire test of a Falcon Heavy side booster completed in McGregor, TX last week. This booster previously launched Thaicom 8. pic.twitter.com/nWrNCXtu13
//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js Falcon Heavy has the ability to lift 54 metric tons (119,000 lbs) into orbit. The SpaceX website explains that the rocket “was designed from the outset to carry humans into space and restores the possibility of flying missions with crew to the Moon or Mars.”
The launch is expected to happen sometime this summer and will utilize two boosters from previous flights. This will allow for the cheapest launch of comparable class. The Falcon Heavy has the ability to lift twice as much as the rocket next in line (in terms of size/capability), and can do so at one-third the cost.
NASA has released pictures of its newest robot scheduled to be sent to the Red Planet in 2020. The images show an artist’s concept of the rover at work on the surface of Mars. The design of the robot has not changed significantly since Curiosity, but this new rover will have a completely different mission than the models before it.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-CALTECH
The Mars 2020 rover’s mission will be to search for signs of ancient Martian life. Scientists have been discovering more evidence of ancient life on the Red Planet from photographs taken of certain areas on the surface, and the rover will land on that location in search of tangible evidence. “The mission takes the next step by not only seeking signs of habitable conditions on Mars in the ancient past but also searching for signs of past microbial life itself,” explains NASA in a statement.
The statement also goes into how the rover will accomplish this. “The Mars 2020 rover introduces a drill that can collect core samples of the most promising rocks and soils, and set them aside on the surface of Mars. A future mission could potentially return these samples to Earth.”
Not Far Behind
Elon Musk’s space travel company SpaceX has its own plans regarding the Red Planet as well. Initial plans are for the company to begin unmanned missions to Mars in 2018 and follow those up by sending humans in 2025. The long-term vision is to colonize Mars to make humanity the first known multi-planetary species.
Unlike the contentious nature of the last space race, NASA does not feel that it is in competition with SpaceX (or any other commercial space organization) to get to Mars first. NASA recognizes the value that private enterprise can have on expediting the innovation necessary to put a human on Mars.
“It’s really important to create, bring some empathy to the table,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, said in an interview with Seeker. “There’s a lot of stuff that can be learned by just talking to people.”
Perhaps the Mars 2020 rover will unlock some of the secrets that will make it easier for humans to colonize the planet.
Mars’ relative closeness to the Earth and ample distance from the Sun have made it humanity’s best target for off-world colonization. While a number of institutions are working hard to make a Mars colony a reality, SpaceX was the first to reveal a concrete plan to get to the Red Planet.
That plan has been outlined pretty clearly, but two important parts still lack detail: the spaceship that will transport humanity to Mars and the rocket that would launch that spaceship. While the plan is short on details, it includes plenty of acronyms, specifically MCT, ITS, and BFR.
That transporter would reach space via the BFR, which stands for — no joke — Big F*cking Rocket, which should live up to its name. It’s expected to be bigger than the Falcon 9 and more powerful than the Falcon Heavy, which would make it the most powerful rocket ever built.
Right now, we don’t know too much about the ITS and the BFR. Thanks to a recent Twitter conversation, however, we do know that answers are forthcoming.
When SpaceX CEO Elon Musk was asked for updates about the architectural changes for the ITS and the BFR by Twitter user @RITSPEX, he responded with a promising timeline of “a few month.” As Inverse pointed out, that timeframe would place the announcement in September, one year after Musk first revealed his plans for Mars.
In the Galaxy M87 (which was created when two other galaxies merged), a jet of hot plasma — caused by gas being sucked into a central black hole, being heated, and then shot out by magnetic fields — has been helping us gain insight into the weird origins of our galaxy. It is shaped like a thin beam and is emitted from the center of a black hole.
Heber Curtis, an astronomer, first saw a ray of light connected to the galaxy in 1918. In order to see it with his instruments at the time, it had to be huge. And it turns out, it was; measuring at almost 6000 light years long.
The Hubble Space Telescope monitored its development between 1995 and 1999 and, after four years of photos, they saw the plasma ripple outwards faster than what was being emitted from the black hole, meaning it must be moving faster than the speed of light. In 2013, after 13 years of images, it appeared to move in corkscrew-like spirals, making this strange occurrence even more mystifying.
Understanding Our Universe
M87 is, however, not unique in this way. Since the first observation, researchers have discovered similar phenomena in other galaxies. Although the causes behind it are still enigmatic, these observations could aid us in our search in understanding how black holes function in the creation or destruction of galaxies. Similarly, an enormous magnetic bridge spanning multiple galaxies has been recently discovered.
Eileen Meyer, Assistant Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, said about the plasma,“We can see, over a human lifetime, things moving […] Which is crazy.” The speed of this process is particularly remarkable because of how powerful it is.
When astronomers turn to Twitter to ask everyone who has access to a big enough telescope to look at the sky, you know something is up. Indeed, something was up this past weekend, as one of the Universe’s most mysterious stars reignited some baffling behavior. Tabby’s Star, also known as KIC 8462852, once again started the unusual pattern of dimming its lights, a behavior first observed in 2015.
“As far as I can tell, every telescope that can look at it right now is looking at it right now,” Tennessee State University astronomer Matt Muterspaugh told Loren Grush at The Verge. Mutterspaugh, like fellow astronomer Jason Wright from Penn State University, noticed the dip in KIC 8462852’s light emissions this past weekend.
“[W]e are officially on alert and we are asking astronomers on telescopes … to please take spectra (light measurements) of the star,” Wright told CNet. As early as Friday, he already observed that Tabby’s Star had dimmed by three percent in just a couple of days.
Discovered in 2009, KIC 8462852 came to be known as Tabby’s Star because a team of astronomers, led by Tabetha Boyajian from Yale University, noticed the unusual way its light dims. It’s not uncommon for a stars’ light to dim when planets orbiting around it pass in front of it relative to Earth. Tabby’s Star, however, didn’t follow the usual pattern of such dips in light, suggesting no periodic orbiting of planets or other cosmic bodies.
Still Probably Not Aliens
Naturally, such a phenomenon tugged on the curiosity of astronomers, and a number of possible explanations have been suggested. The most common, and perhaps popular among these — you guessed it — is that something alien is the cause. One astronomer thinks that a Dyson Sphere is causing the strange dips, thereby nicknaming Tabby’s Star as the “alien megastructure” star.
However, as much as we’d (maybe) love to find aliens at the root of this strange obvservation, other astronomers have found, and are developing, other explanations. “Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider,” Wright told The Atlantic back then. Though, it doesn’t hurt to be on the lookout.
Some think that comet swarms, debris from a devoured planet, or possibly even space dust floating around the star are causing the unusual light emissions. Still, others suggest that it could all just be flawed data, which is why nothing conclusive has been said yet about Tabby’s Star. Simply, there wasn’t enough data from two years ago to say anything definitively.
“We were kind of stuck in a spot where we couldn’t do anything,” Boyajian told The Verge. “We had all the data we could, and to learn anything more, we needed to catch it in action again.”
Now, there is now a lot more data to use, but it would take time for researchers to fully consider what the information could tell us about Tabby’s Star. It’s also possible that the new data won’t result in anything definitive, but it’s worth a shot. Some data is better than no data at all. At the very least, it’ll help us to better understand curiosities in the cosmos like KIC 8462852.
NASA just learned that Very Low Frequency Radio Waves from Earthbound technologies reach into space, creating a protective “bubble” that shields the space around earth from dangerous solar radiation. Learning how this works could lead to controlled space weather for travelers and machines.
Designing perfect buildings is always a challenge, requiring a masterful blend of aesthetic sensibility and technical optimization. But designing perfect buildings for an off-world colony on Mars? That’s a truly monumental task.
For working scientists and architects, the Martian design task is a major project, especially given the fact that, while we know a great deal about the atmosphere and conditions on the planet’s surface, there’s still much more that remains unknown. But for new architects still developing their craft, Mars represents the ideal challenge.
University of Calgary students pursuing their Masters in architecture are now entering the fray, designing habitats and other spaces for Martian explorers as part of a course called Mars Studio. And while these efforts might sound fanciful, they are answering design quandaries that demand resolution. NASA is fully committed to reaching Mars with people who will be staying there by 2033, and SpaceX aims to get there with colonists much sooner.
Mars Studio has thus far produced several notable designs, including one for a regional mining hub and a mobile resource extractor slowly crawling the planet’s surface:
“I was interested in looking at corporate land ownership and how workers’ colonies might begin to occur around mineral and water extraction,” student John Ferguson told The Globe and Mail. “I looked at oil sands and the way those communities grow. My architecture ended up being a mobile colony designed for resource extraction: like a mobile colony which strip mines its way across the landscape.”
Students also worked on buildings that would allow a Mars explorer to retain a feeling of connection to life back on Earth:
“From Mars, planet Earth would be just a star in the sky and conversations with Earth would come with at least a three minute delay,” course instructor Jessie Andjelic told The Globe and Mail. “So, for those first settlements there would definitely be a desire to create familiarity. We spent a lot of time looking at how to adapt typologies from earth to create a sense of connection and belonging for that first generation of settlers.”
Habitats For Invaders From Earth
Mars Studio isn’t the only Calgary connection for the Red Planet. Calgary space-artist Bryan Versteeg has produced some of the most famous design concepts for Mars One, such as this:
In 2015, The Mars Ice House won NASA’s 3D Printed Habitat Challenge for its innovative approach to the many difficulties presented by life on Mars:
The ice would act as a radiation shield while allowing light inside, and a coating would prevent the ice from sublimating.
Hopefully, Mars Studio will produce other potentially usable design ideas as it challenges new architects who are interested in the mission. Who knows — students’ ideas may one day be used house the first Martian settlers.
Every other year since 2011, 32 of the brightest young minds from across the globe are invited to participate in the Caltech Space Challenge. They’re split into two teams and given five days to come up with a plan to address a mission statement. This year’s directive was to design a launch and supply station on the Moon to support missions into deep space.
In a post on The Conversation, five of the students involved in the challenge have shared their insights on the benefits of such a station and how we could make it happen. They explain that the presence of a lunar refueling station would decrease the energy needed to leave Earth’s atmosphere. The speed required to break out of the atmosphere is 11 kilometers per second (25,000 miles per hour), which is far easier to achieve without the added weight of excess fuel. Launching with just enough to fuel to get to a lunar “gas station” with a weaker gravitational pull and then heading on to Mars from there would save both time and money.
The fuel that would power these missions would be drawn from the Moon’s ice, which could be processed into a hydrogen-oxygen propellant that is already used in many rockets. The students propose using three types of rovers on the Moon to perform this task. The Prospector would seek out ice, the Constructor would build a launch pad and roads, and the Miner would collect ice and deliver it to storage tanks connected to electrolysis processing plants, which would transform it into usable energy. From there, the fuel would be transported to a location in stable orbit between the Earth and the Moon where spacecraft could refuel.
Why Go To Mars?
The race to get people to Mars has been heating up in recent years, with both governments and private companies competing to be the first to reach the Red Planet. Elon Musk, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and NASA have all stated their intentions, and stopping by the Moon first plays a big part in many of these efforts. NASA plans to build a new space station, the Deep Space Gateway (DSG), in lunar orbit to act as a pit stop on the way to Mars, and the agency has already laid the groundwork for a space fueling station of sorts with their Robotic Refueling Mission launch in November 2016.
Reaching Mars isn’t some Mount Everest/”because it’s there” situation for space explorers. The planet could prove instrumental in the survival of the human species. Stephen Hawking has said he believes we only have another hundred years or so on Earth, and right now, Mars is the closest thing we have to a back-up plan. The problem is, we haven’t even come close to actually stepping foot on it — yet. Between the people already in the space industry and students like those who participated in the Caltech Space Challenge, we have no shortage of great minds working to transform humanity into a multi-planetary species.
If Magneto was capable of surviving in space, he’d probably be the most powerful mutant in comic book history. That’s because much of space is made up of different magnetic fields, one of the several phenomena in physics that’s actually observable out there. The Earth itself is surrounded by a magnetic shield which protects it from the solar flares. Now, scientists have finally observed one of the most amazing extragalactic feats of magnetism that we’ve ever known.
Researchers from the University of Sydney and the University of Toronto finally detected the magnetic field generated by what’s known as the Magellanic Bridge, a vast intergalactic stream of neutral gas that connects the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds (LMC and SMC). Astronomers have predicted that this bridge, which stretches about 75,000 light-years between the two galaxies, was out there, but didn’t previously have conformation.
“There were hints that this magnetic field might exist, but no one had observed it until now,” said lead researcher Jane Kaczmarek in a University of Toronto press release. The study, published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, was a part of a project to map magnetism in the universe. Researchers noted that this field is actually one million times stronger than the magnetic shield surrounding the Earth.
Bridge Between Stars
These observations could give us much needed insight into the origins of cosmic magnetic fields themselves, and even into how galaxies came to be. “In general, we don’t know how such vast magnetic fields are generated, nor how these large-scale magnetic fields affect galaxy formation and evolution,” Kaczmarek pointed out in her interview for the press release.
In particular, with the LMC and the SMC being our galaxy’s closest neighbors, “understanding how they evolve may help us understand how our Milky Way Galaxy will evolve,” she added in the interview. “Understanding the role that magnetic fields play in the evolution of galaxies and their environment is a fundamental question in astronomy that remains to be answered.”
Mars 2117 is a virtual reality experience revealed by Terminal Future Media at the 2017 World Government Summit. The experience draws from plans from scientific communities about how an advanced human colony on Mars would look and operate. You may not be able to go to Mars in real life, but an immersive virtual world like this may be the next best thing.
On May 21st, a ten-day test launch window will open for aerospace pioneers Rocket Lab, who aim to capitalize on the small satellite revolution by developing a smaller rocket at a far lower price. And, it costs SpaceX $62 million (unless they reuse a rocket) to leave Earth’s orbit, Rocket Lab hopes to accomplish something similar at a mere $4.9 million per flight. They also plan to make flights more regular — the current wait time is around 2 years.
The company is able to cut so much of the cost because they are using a much smaller rocket — 16.7 meters (55 feet) long — to correspond with the decreasing size of satellites. It is only meant to lift loads between about 150-227 kg (330-500 lbs), which is minuscule compared to its predecessors, which were as tall as 61 meters (200 ft) and designed to transport thousands of pounds of space gear.
If the test goes ahead — it is contingent on favorable conditions — it will mark the first time that any vehicle has reached orbit from a private flight facility. Peter Beck, CEO of Rocket Lab, said in a statement “Our number one priority is to gather enough data and experience to prepare for a commercial phase. Only then can we can start delivering on our mission to make space more accessible.” This could mark the end of the monopoly of space held by the world’s richest of companies: as Rocket Lab’s website emphatically states “Space is now open for business.”
Scientists at the University of Exeter have discovered peculiar aspects of the Neptune-sized exoplanet HAT-P-26b using NASA’s Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes. Their findings contribute to our knowledge of the diversity of planets as well as how they are formed.
As the planet — which is around 437 light-years from earth — passed in front of its sun, allowing the telescopes to measure it, scientists discovered an atmosphere rich in helium, hydrogen, and water vapor. Hannah Wakeford, co-leader of the new study and postdoctoral researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), said that this atmosphere would result in “a very alien sky […] a kind of scattery, washed-out, gray sky.”
The planet is also of interest because of its formation. In Earth’s Solar System, metallicity (astronomy terminology for anything heavier than helium) tends to decrease as mass increases, but HAT-P-26b defies this pattern. While it is about the size of Neptune, its metallicity is more inline with Jupiter.
So, why does this matter?
David Sing, a professor at the University of Exeter said, “this new discovery about its atmosphere feels like a big breakthrough in our pursuit to learn more about how solar systems are formed, and how it compares to our own” because “This exciting new discovery shows that there is a lot more diversity in the atmospheres of these exoplanets than we have previously thought.” And, while thousands of exoplanets have been discovered, we know relatively little about the compositions of their atmospheres.
This is the first in what promises to be a series of breakthroughs that will emerge as new telescopes launch this upcoming October. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will allow us to explore further with a mirror that has a diameter of 6.5 meters in comparison to the Hubble-Telescope’s 2.4 meter. In addition to this, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) will provide “detailed characterizations of planets and their atmospheres”and is expected to survey more than 200,000 planets during its 2 year mission.
In a recent Tuesdays With Bill episode, part of a video series run by Big Think in which Bill Nye answers a question from the American public, an inquisitive youngster named Aaron asked, “Does the universe go on forever?”
It is a question that has haunted humanity throughout time, plaguing us with doubt about where to situate ourselves in a space without definition.
In the video, which you can watch below, Bill Nye concedes that “no one really knows the actual answer to that,” but also says that we know it is expanding due to the distance between stars increasing.
Robert Dijkgraaf, Director for the Institute for Advanced Study, has also recently made a video on the subject in which he concurs with Bill, stating, “using our satellites, we can pick up a signal that was emitted at this very brief moment after the Big Bang” to “almost see the edge of the visible universe.” However, while Dijkgraaf may not know how big the universe is, he is more certain on how it will end.
Both the most cynical person on Earth and the world’s greatest optimist could easily look at everything around them and ask: could this truly be all there is in the universe? Whatever your reason for posing the question, you may have an answer sooner than you think — and that answer is likely to be “no.” Science writer and comedian Ben Miller posits in his book The Aliens Are Coming! The Extraordinary Science Behind Our Search for Life in the Universe that one of the most powerful forces shaping science today is the growing search for life in the universe fueled by the belief that we are not alone. He believes that because of our current technologies, we’ll know about life on the Earth-like planets closest to us within the next ten years.
It’s easy to see why he thinks so. Scientists have identified an exoplanet that they’ve described as the best candidate for life as we know it — perhaps an even more important a target for planet characterization within habitable zones in the future than either Proxima b or TRAPPIST-1, and these have also recently been discovered. Speaking of Proxima b, the James Webb Telescope is likely to give us the images that will clarify its potential for supporting life, as it will do for other exoplanets.
In recent months scientists have stated that the fast radio bursts we’ve intercepted from outer space may well be evidence of alien life. Now they’re working to discern whether alien technology could be their source. Scientists also now believe that life might exist on Europa, one of Jupiter’s four Galilean moons. Recently, NASA’s plans to send a lander in search of biosignatures that might signal the presence of extraterrestrial life within its warm core have sprung into action; Europa may be home to a subterranean ocean, making it an ideal place to search for alien life.
In 2016, researchers made improvements to the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array that could make finding water on celestial bodies easier. These improvements were specifically directed toward the ongoing search for alien life, as was the partnership between Breakthrough Initiative to find alien life and the National Astronomical Observatories of China. China’s team uses the 488 meter (1,600 foot) FAST telescope, and now it is being used in partnership with the world’s other largest radio telescopes, including the Parkes Observatory in Australia and the Green Bank Telescope in the US, to seek out extraterrestrial life. In 2016 scientists also adopted more accurate methods for studying gravitational pull of distant stars, making it easier to gather data on the size and brightness of the star, the likelihood of water oceans, and possibility of life being present.
An Utterly Changed Humanity
Why are we so enthralled with this search for other life in the universe? It’s far more than an AV geek, sci-fi con hangover, if that’s your suspicion. Contact could mean extraordinary things for humanity if it happens soon — some of the possibilities are daunting, but most of them are promising.
Stephen Hawking is one of the best-known and most reputable voices who cautions against making first contact with alien life. His argument is simply that we have no way of knowing what’s out there, and that, historically speaking, as more advanced civilizations have come into contact with less advanced cultures, the latter has typically been oppressed and aggressed against, the former seeing it as less valuable. However, it’s worth noting that when we speak historically we are, by necessity, limited to our own recorded human history. What we’re observing may not be a pattern common to all life; it may simply be a pattern common to human cultures.
In contrast, the SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) Institute is populated by people who feel we have little, if anything, to lose by seeking out other forms of life. SETI has now given birth to METI International (Messaging Extra Terrestrial Intelligence), which is actively seeking out contact. Douglas Vakoch, a professor in the Department of Clinical Psychology at the California Institute for Integral Studies and the president of METI International, strongly disagrees with Hawking. He thinks it is illogical to hide our existence as a species since we have already leaked transmissions from radio and television broadcasts in the form of electromagnetic radiation for almost 100 years. Vakoch concludes that any culture with the technological sophistication to master interstellar travel can already perceive our leaked signals, and are therefore already aware of us, waiting for us to make the first move.
METI, led by Vakoch, is now working to target star systems within 20 or 30 light-years with repeat messages as part of an effort to accumulate data in order to test the Fermi Paradox and the Zoo Hypothesis. Ideally, within a few decades, Vakoch and his team hope that they will generate a testable hypothesis with enough data and standard peer-review methods.
As for Miller, he’s not on Team Hawking, and thinks that the benefits of contact outweigh the risks. The potential to learn about advanced technology for space travel, repairing our planet’s environment, and many other applications is an obvious benefit to contact. For Neil deGrasse Tyson, the big benefit to contact is more profound: right now, our understanding of life is extremely limited, and that is because we only have our own, terrestrial sample of life to study. The notion that we have an understanding of the tremendous diversity of life is somewhat silly when you think of it in this context; our entire set of observations all share a single origin and an encoded existence that transmits heredity and mediates replication via nucleic acids.
Our current understanding of life is too much like the infamous legal definition of pornography — the classic “I know it when I see it” — which, for Tyson, lacks scientific rigor (and to clarify, he is not responsible for that icky analogy). But our explorations of the galaxy to find contact with other forms of life could give us other examples and samples, and a truer sense of what life truly is. This kind of knowledge has the potential to change everything else we think we know, most likely for the better.
From the pointy ears of Vulcans to the sharp fangs of the Xenomorph, humans have long envisioned what alien species must be like. Will they be humanoid, or completely unfamiliar? Friendly, or violent?
We have no evidence of what extraterrestrials are like — or if they exist to begin with — but that hasn’t stopped us from looking for them. For years, organizations like SETI and NASA have been scouring the galaxy and our solar system for signs of alien life — and have actually found a few. Some scientists say fast radio bursts could be explained by otherworldly intelligence, and NASA just announced that they have detected molecules that could suggest life on one of Saturn’s moons.
Despite our many creative tests, we have yet to discover conclusive proof of life originating from another world. And perhaps this is for the best, as, for the moment, Earth has not come to a consensus on how to react to alien lifeforms — or if we should even interact with them at all.
While humanity has not developed a protocol for alien encounters, we do have a a scale, called the “Rio Scale,” for determining how important your evidence of aliens is. It was developed by researchers at SETI and evaluates your discovery based on four criteria. It calculates your score (available here for the next time you spot a UFO), which can range from zero (you think you see stars forming your initials in a NASA picture of a distant galaxy, but no one else gets how important that is) to 10 (you have an alien in the trunk of your car, and are now Googling labs to take it to).
But the question remains, what do we do when we finally reach that 10 — or even a 5? Do we send flowers? Try to initiate trade? Put on a tough front and warn off the potentially dangerous aliens?
While we haven’t officially arrived at an answer to these questions, enthusiasts haven’t let that stop them. Several groups have already sent messages to the stars, hoping to get an extraterrestrial response. NASA included a map to Earth in the Pioneer spacecraft. Carl Sagan helped broadcast a message in “alienese” from the Arecibo Observatory. We have also sent mathematical principles to potentially-habitable star systems so aliens will know that we’re smart.
But many experts think that these attempts, and others like them, have more potential to harm the human race than to help it. Stephen Hawking voiced his concerns about responding to potential alien signals in the video “Stephen Hawking’s Favorite Places.” He pointed out that other civilizations could be “vastly more powerful and may not see us as any more valuable than we see bacteria.” After all, he argues, being friendly did not protect the Native Americans from European settlers.
Other experts, like Douglas Vakoch, argue that any alien advanced enough to be a threat to our world would have surely picked up on all the signals we’ve already vented into the universe. We haven’t been at all concerned about hiding our tracks to this point, so what good would ghosting extraterrestrials do us now?
How or whether we respond to alien life when we find it, one thing is certain — it will change our world forever. Sagan believed that the discovery could lead to a more humble and unified humanity. He reflected in Pale Blue Dot, “To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
In February of 2015, the Parkes radio telescope in Australia detected some fast radio bursts (FRB) that have fascinated astronomers ever since. Dubbed “cosmic whistles,” an FRB is a quick flash of energy seen as split-second intergalactic radio wave blips. FRB 150215, however, seems to be different from previously recorded bursts.
What makes FRB 150215 even more intriguing is that it doesn’t seem to leave any signal or trace of light behind. The Parkes researchers used 11 telescopes in an attempt to spot “radio, optical, X-ray, gamma-ray, and neutrino emission” from these signals — but none were found. “Neither transient nor variable emission was found to be associated with the burst, and no repeat pulses have been observed in 17.25 hours of observing,” the researchers report in a new study (which has yet to be peer reviewed).
How could such high energy bursts not leave any traces? As if that wasn’t mysterious enough, consider that in order for FRB 150215 to have been detected at all, it had to go through a rather dense region of the Milky Way. This means that it shouldn’t have been detectable in the first place.
As we develop more advanced tools with which to see and hear the universe, the probability of discovering what really caused theses signals is improving. For one, new and better space telescopes like the James Webb will give us a view of our cosmic surroundings like we’ve never seen before.
When we do see them, no doubt we’ll definitely be in for a surprise. For now, though, astronomers are putting in additional work to better understand the phenomenon. “It’s not very often in science that you get to work on something that’s so brand new and so unknown that you get to answer the fundamental questions,” researcher Emily Petroff told Gizmodo. “It’s exciting to be in these very early stages of the field when you can make a big impact with your research and answer these really big questions.
On the 20th of April, it was announced that the study of exoplanets and extra-terrestrial life had taken a huge leap forward. Worlds similar to Earth, with high likelihoods of surface water, are far more common than we had previously thought and so we are now questioning how to find life on them. Olivier Guyon, of the University of Arizona, announced at the Breakthrough Discuss Conference that “As far as we can tell, they’re everywhere. We’re transitioning into life-finding. We have a lot of work ahead of us.”
What tools are we using to ascertain if exoplanets have life on them?
There are three main technologies in our current space toolbox that will help us to detect life, all set to launch in the near future:
The Breakthrough Starshot project aims to launch a spaceship the size of a postage stamp to Alpha Centauri, Earth’s nearest star system, within the next two decades. The miniature spaceship will reach Proxima-b 20 years from its launch date and will be equipped with cameras, thrusters, navigational tools and communications equipment — as well as a light sail to help it achieve the speed required to travel space’s vast distances.
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), is capable of unprecedented resolution and sensitivity in recording various wavelengths. Among many other features, it will have a segmented 6.5-meter-diameter mirror which is massive compared to the Hubble Space Telescope’s 2.4-meter mirror. It is scheduled for launch in October 2018.
The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (Tess), will monitor over 200,000 stars simultaneously, looking for temporary drops in brightness caused by planetary transits. No current earth-bound transit survey is capable of performing this task. This satellite will embark no later than June 2018.
These tools may be the proverbial thread that unravels the wool ball of other life other in the Universe. Caltech’s Courtney Dressing said at the Breakthrough Discuss Forum “I think there’s a good chance that a planet that has life on it orbits one of the nearby M dwarfs we’ve already heard about today” referring to Proxima-b, TRAPPIST-1, and LHS 1140.
SpaceX conducted its first test of the Falcon Heavy’s main core this week, with a successful result. SpaceX took to Twitter to release the video of the event. The rocket itself was strapped down for the static fire test as the engines of the rocket’s boosters were ignited. The Falcon Heavy uses three Falcon 9 boosters to power its larger rocket, which SpaceX hopes will make commercial space travel a reality.
While the original plan was to have everything operational for carrying space travelers and cargo into orbit by 2013, the latest incarnation of the plan calls for a launch in late summer of 2017. This successful test may indicate that this date is possible, although the SpaceX subreddit lists the test flight in Q4.
It’s possible that SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and his team are waiting to see how much progress they make between now and then — or that they just can’t decide yet. However, as Inverse reports, since Musk tweeted the late summer date in March and the subreddit says something different now, it’s possible that they’ve made the decision to push back the date even later, but haven’t announced it yet.
The Falcon Heavy is essential to Musk’s plan to send two private citizens into orbit around the Moon by late 2018. The spacecraft will “buzz” low over the Moon’s surface, although it will not land, and then allow the Moon’s gravity to fling it back to Earth. This week-long adventure would be more than an amazing first for humanity — it would also usher in era of commercial space travel.
At the 2017 Humans to Mars conference — which was held on Tuesday May 9 in Washington D.C. — Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin had a clear recommendation for NASA: if we’re serious about reaching Mars, ditch the International Space Station (ISS).
“We must retire the ISS as soon as possible,” Aldrin told the conference. “We simply cannot afford $3.5 billion a year of that cost.”
Aldrin made some alternative suggestions for NASA’s Mars program, including handing low Earth orbit (LEO) projects like the ISS over to private companies like SpaceX, Boeing, and Orbital ATK. He’s also recommended that private companies like Axiom Space and Bigelow Aerospace build their own independent LEO stations.
Journey To Mars Vision
NASA, however, has a different opinion about the role of the ISS in getting to Mars. Thus far, the ISS has been part of the first phase of the project, which includes testing and developing partnerships with private companies. Furthermore, as Space.com reports, “NASA officials have repeatedly said that the ISS is a key part of the agency’s ‘Journey to Mars’ vision.”
In March, members of the House Science and Technology’s Subcommittee on Space testified that extending U.S. participation in the activities of the ISS beyond the existing 2024 commitment date might not be prudent if getting to Mars is a priority. Right now, NASA spends around $3.5 billion annually on the ISS. The committee’s Chair, U.S. Rep. Brian Babin, commented during that hearing that “Tax dollars spent on the ISS will not be spent on destinations beyond low Earth orbit, including the moon and Mars. What opportunities will we miss if we maintain the status quo?”
“[I]n the original paper [when] they tried to simulate the system, planets would start colliding after a short time (astronomically speaking, about a million years),” astrophysicist Dan Tamayo told Futurism via email. However, he and colleagues from the University of Toronto Scarborough may have found a way to explain how the TRAPPIST planets survive.
In a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, the researchers explain that the mechanism that would lead to the TRAPPIST planets colliding with one another is the same one that keeps them stable — their orbit. “[I]n TRAPPIST-1, for every 2 orbits of the outermost planet, the next one in does 3 orbits, the next one 4…, 6, 9, 15, and 24,” Tamayo explained. “This is called a chain of resonances, and this is the longest one that has ever been discovered in a planetary system.”
Harmonies in Space
One can liken the chain of resonances in the TRAPPIST system to how an orchestra works. The instruments create harmonious music by keeping time with one another and making sure each one is tuned to the rest.
“Most planetary systems are like bands of amateur musicians playing their parts at different speeds,” said Matt Russo, from the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics (CITA), who took the lead in developing an animation to demonstrate this phenomenon. “TRAPPIST-1 is different; it’s a super-group with all seven members synchronizing their parts in nearly perfect time.” He added, “This means that early on, each planet’s orbit was tuned to make it harmonious with its neighbors, in the same way that instruments are tuned by a band before it begins to play.”
Using computer simulations, the researchers modeled how the TRAPPIST system was formed and how the harmonies were finely tuned to create this unprecedented stable chain of resonances.
Certainly, this research has larger implications in our search for systems that could potentially host extraterrestrial life. While these resonances are rare in systems with massive stars like the Sun, they could be a common occurrence around smaller stars like TRAPPIST-1. “It may be that the formation conditions around low mass stars are gentler and better able to form harmonious, long lived planetary systems,” said Tamayo.
“This has implications for the prevalence of planets in the universe, since there are many small stars for every big one,” he concluded. “The exciting part is that this will be tested by upcoming missions like the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) launching next year.”
SpaceX has made some excellent strides in recent months by proving that it can successfully launch, recover, refurbish, and re-launch its rocket technology. This has been a huge achievement, as reusable rockets have the potential to significantly alter the future of space travel by lowering the cost of launches, leading to greater access to the cosmos.
But SpaceX wasn’t an overnight sensation. Their monumental accomplishment has been developing for years, subject to testing and retesting, with successes and failures all along the way. The Verge was kind enough to compile footage of each of the company’s landing attempts, whether it was a success or went up in flames.
The first two launches were attempted in January and April of 2015, and both ended with unfortunate booms. But the company must have learned some valuable lessons since the third attempt in December of 2015 was a success. The next few landings were a mixture of successes and failures, but SpaceX has been succeeding for more than a year straight now.
SpaceX’s journey is an excellent example of the perseverance needed to thrive in science and technology. These are fields of testing, retesting, confirming, and rethinking — not overnight successes.
SpaceX has plans to re-launch a used Falcon 9 rocket booster. This will be the Falcon 9’s second trip since its launch five months ago, on January 14. The re-launch will also signify the transition of reusable rockets from the realm of the historically notable into the routine business of space exploration.
SpaceX has re-launched a rocket before, but the previous re-launch took place about 12 months after the initial launch. The agency has since cut down the time it requires to re-launch and reassemble its rockets. Ultimately, SpaceX plans to re-launch within a 24-hour period.
More than speed is on the table here; the ability to reuse Falcon 9 rockets saves the company about 75 percent of the total costs of the rocket, $46.5 million of the $62 million total. The end goal will be faster, cheaper, easier space travel that’s accessible to consumers and space agencies alike.
After the March re-launch, Elon Musk remarked at a news briefing, “I hope people will start to think about it as a real goal to establish a civilization on Mars.” Each successful re-launch gets us closer to this aim.
The image contains thousands of galaxies, and it’s a breathtaking example of gravitational lensing, a phenomenon first theorized by Albert Einstein as part of his general theory of relativity.
Essentially, the mass of a cluster of galaxies known as Abell 370 is so great, it warps space in such a way that the light from galaxies behind it is magnified and distorted. When Hubble then views that area of the sky, it not only sees the original galaxy cluster, it also picks up on the light from the galaxies far beyond it. In fact, one of the galaxies displayed in this new image is actually 13 billion light-years away, and it appears to be in multiple places at once in the photo.
Without the strange natural phenomenon of gravitational lensing, astronomers wouldn’t be able to get such detailed images of such far off galaxies. Once the JWST is put into action, it will also work in tandem with the laws of nature to deliver new and ever more detailed images of the farthest reaches of our universe.
NASA is looking to get deeply involved in the moon in the coming decades. The space agency has recently delivered a request for information to private agencies seeking to collaborate in future missions to the moon. In the request, NASA writes, “NASA has identified a variety of exploration, science, and technology demonstration objectives that could be addressed by sending instruments, experiments, or other payloads to the lunar surface. To address these objectives as cost-effectively as possible, NASA may procure payloads and related commercial payload delivery services to the Moon.”
The letter signals an increased interest in both the commercial and scientific research opportunities that the moon provides. As Inverse explains, the moon “could be a haven of valuable resources, like iron and platinum.” Experts believe that even with existing tech, space mining is possible. Some experts have even estimated that if NASA were to divert 3 – 12 percent of their budget to mining efforts, it could become a reality.
The ESA has previously announced plans to build a station on the moon. The ability to mine resources from the moon itself could minimize cost as minimal materials would have to be launched from Earth and the rest could be 3D printed.
NASA recently announced there could be alien life in our own solar system. Their space craft Cassini recently gathered data on Enceladus, one of Saturn’s 62 moons, and was able to confirm that its icy oceans contain all the necessary ingredients that allow the formation of life.
From the beginning of time, human progress has been driven by our need to understand how and why all things happen. The more we come to understand our surroundings, the deeper we desire to understand them further still. As our ancestors were presented with challenges, they innovated solutions using whatever knowledge and resources were available to them. When we think about how little our earliest ancestors had to work with, it seems all at once marvelous that they achieved anything at all, and almost somewhat boring — as the problems of the past seem so simple when examined through our present gaze, millennia in the future.
Even just a few generations ago, our parents and grandparents found the technology of The Jetsons and Star Trek to be fantastical and purely science fiction. Many of those clever gadgets — whether it be subservient robots or handheld computers — are already so commonplace as to be considered mundane by the newest generation. A generation that has never lived in a world with smallpox, or without an iPhone. As science and technology advance at seemingly warp speed, it may feel as though we know practically everything there is to know. Or, at least, that we are getting very close.
In an op-ed for Scientific American, physicist and author Daniel Whiteson implores us to not become complacent. To not be satisfied by all that we have come to know about the universe around us and within us and beyond us because there is still so much left to learn. “When we teach science to children,” Whiteson advises, “we should certainly describe what we do know, but there should also be a strong emphasis on what we don’t know, to inspire the next generation of explorers.”
What are, then, some of those things we don’t yet know that could serve as inspiration for the next Einstein or Curie? The next Stephen Hawking or Katherine Johnson?
The Mystery of Dark Matter
One of the universe’s greatest tricks, a most profound irony, is that the very evidence that makes physicists and astronomers certain that “dark matter” exists also makes it nearly impossible for anyone to prove its existence. We don’t even recognize dark matter for what it is, because we don’t know what it is — we only register the impact it seems to have on gravity. In other words, we deduce that it’s real because we can see the effect it has on its surroundings. Kind of like a poltergeist moving furniture around in the dark.
The cosmic frustration of these elusive particles is made more challenging because those interactions are so infrequent that we’ve rarely witnessed them. It may also be that these particles are their own matter and anti-matter partners, rendering them invisible to us. And in fact, when it comes to thinking about dark matter, it isn’t simply one problem. The “problem of dark matter” is actually a bunch of problems that all must be solved — which is difficult when you’re not even sure what you’re looking for.
The Deep Blue Sea
As vast and therefore intriguing as the outer limits of our universe may be, here on Earth there are numerous mysteries left to be solved in our oceans. The entire landscape of the deep sea — the world underwater — is as varied as the one above: there are waterfalls, volcanoes, and even lakes, yet we have yet to truly explore the majority of them. And we understand even less about the creatures that live there. We may well understand the topography of the moon better than we do our oceans, strange as that seems. We’ve been looking up when perhaps it would have been just as interesting to look down.
In the deepest, darkest parts of the ocean there are species we’ve barely caught glimpses of and therefore have not thoroughly studied. It’s the stuff of legends — except it’s all real. The “final frontier” may not be the far reaches of space, but the unfathomable depths of our oceans.
The “Hard Problem” of Consciousness
One of the most fascinating, perplexing, and often frustrating unanswered questions is that of consciousness. The human brain continues to be one of the most question-filled foci of science and philosophy alike, and many of those quandaries are based in the question of what it means to be conscious. While we can glean some answers about brain function by using technology like MRIs, consciousness is far more nuanced than even our most refined medical imaging can detect. We know quite a bit about the structure and function of consciousness, but the feeling of it – and the why — have proven so subjective that the challenge of measuring them remains unsolved.
The paradox is that consciousness is, perhaps, the one human experience that each of us knows intensely and intimately — yet to explain it to someone else and have them understand it and share in it seems, at this point anyway, next to impossible.
Are Aliens Out There?
Considering how old and enormous our universe is, the expectation is that there simply must be other lifeforms out there. The question is, why haven’t we made contact with them? Potential solutions to this question, known as Fermi’s Paradox, include everything from “aliens exist and know about us, but think we’re boring and therefore aren’t bothering to say hi” to “aliens don’t know about us at all because we’re located in the universal equivalent to the boondocks.”
As technology advances and allows us to not only see into space farther and more accurately — largely in the form of advance telescopes and satellites — but also allows us to travel into space, if there’s life out there to be found (and that wants to be found), it seems reasonable to think we’ll get there eventually.
Where Did We Come From (And Where Are We Going?)
The question of evolution has plagued humanity since the beginning of time. Our desire to definitively know how we got to where we are now isn’t just important because we care about our own evolutionary history, but because it could give us incredible insight into where we’re headed as a species. It could also, potentially, reveal important information about how evolution could be altered.
It may be that the key to understanding some of the most pressing issues in health and medicine — such as cancer and other illnesses, regenerative medicine, and even longevity — could be lurking in our evolutionary development.
It may well be that these and other greatest mysteries of the universe may not be solved in our lifetime. But our grandparents likely never imagined living in a world where they could put a computer in their pocket or ride in a self-driving car. It may be that in our twilight years, we will try to remember what life was like before we met aliens, colonized Mars, or cured cancer.
One would think NASA was preparing for a some sword fights in space! At least, that’s the impression one might get when they see the new armor NASA is developing for the first time. Officially, they are referring to it as a new type of “space fabric,” one which will provide protection to astronauts, spaceships, and deployable devices. But to the casual observer, it looks a lot like chain mail armor!
The new armor is the brainchild of Polit Casillas, a systems engineer from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Inspired by traditional textiles, this armor relies on advances made in additive manufacturing (aka. 3D printing) to create woven metal fabrics that can fold and change shape quickly. And someday soon, it could be used for just about everything!
As the son of a fashion designer in Spain, Casillas grew up around fabrics and textiles, and was intrigued by how they are used for the sake of design. Much in the same way that textiles are produced by weaving together countless threads, Casilla’s prototype space fabric relies on 3D printing to create metal squares in one piece, which are then strung together to form a coat of armor.
In addition to his work with this new space fabric, Casillas co-leads JPL’s Atelier workshop, which specialized in the rapid-prototyping of advanced concepts and systems. This fast-paced collaborative environment works with different technologies and looks for ways to incorporate new ones (such as 4-D printing) into existing designs. As Casillas described this concept in a NASA press release:
“We call it ‘4-D printing’ because we can print both the geometry and the function of these materials. If 20th Century manufacturing was driven by mass production, then this is the mass production of functions.”
The space fabrics have four essential functions, which include reflectivity, passive heat management, foldability, and tensile strength. With one side reflecting light and the other absorbing it, the material acts as a means of thermal control. It can also fold in many different ways and adapt to shapes, all the while maintaining tensile strength to ensure it can sustain forces pulling on it.
These fabrics could be used to protect astronauts and shield large antennas, deployable devices, and spacecraft from meteorites and other hazards. In addition, they could be used to ensure that missions to extreme environments would be protected from the elements. Consider Jupiter’s moon Europa, which NASA is planning on exploring in the coming decade using a lander — aka. the Europa Clipper mission.
Here, and on other “ocean worlds” — like Ceres, Enceladus, Titan and Pluto — this sort of flexible armor could provide insulation for spacecraft. They could be used on landing struts to ensure that they could change shape to fit over uneven terrain as well. This kind of material could also be used to build habitats for Mars or the Moon — like the South Pole-Aitken Basin, where permanently-shadowed craters allow for the existence of water ice.
Another benefit of this material is the fact that it is considerably cheaper to produce compared to materials made using traditional fabrication methods. Under ordinary conditions, designing and building spacecraft is a complex and costly process. But by adding multiple functions to a material at different stages of development, the whole process can be made cheaper and new designs can be implemented.
Andrew Shapiro-Scharlotta is a manager at the JPL’s Space Technology Office, an office responsible for funding early-stage technologies like the space fabric. As he put it, this sort of production process could enable all kinds of designs and new mission concepts. “We are just scratching the surface of what’s possible,” he said. “The use of organic and non-linear shapes at no additional costs to fabrication will lead to more efficient mechanical designs.”
In keeping with how 3-D printing has been developed for use aboard the ISS, the JPL team not only wants to use this fabric in space, but also manufacture it in space as well. In the future, Casillas also envisions a process whereby tools and structural materials can be printed from recycled materials, offering additional cost-savings and enabling rapid, on-demand production of necessary components.
Such a production process could revolutionize the way spacecraft and space systems are created. Instead of ships, suits, and robotic craft created from many different parts (which then have to be assembled), they could be printed out like “whole cloth.” The manufacturing revolution, it seems, loometh!
Scientists have found a huge wave of ultra-hot gas rippling through the nearby Perseus galaxy cluster. And when we say huge, we mean really freaking giant.
At around 200,000 light-years across – twice the size of our own Milky Way galaxy – researchers suspect it’s the largest wave ever discovered in the known Universe, and it’s most likely been rolling through space for billions of years.
The wave is a type of Kelvin-Helmholtz wave, which occurs when two fluids traveling at different speeds move past each other. The most familiar example are the beautiful curling waves that crash over themselves at the beach as a result of wind blowing across the surface of the ocean.
Using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, researchers have now found evidence of the most massive example of one of these waves to date.
The Perseus galaxy cluster is located in the Perseus constellation around 240 million light-years away, and is around 11 million light-years across, made up of a number of galaxies surrounded by a vast cloud of scorching hot gas that’s so hot it only glows in X-rays.
While studying X-ray images of the Perseus cluster, researchers saw something odd – a strange ‘bay’ shape that kept appearing without any clear origin.
At first they thought it might have something to do with a black hole in the region, but using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory combined with radio observations and computer simulations, scientists have now discovered that this ‘bay’ shape is actually a giant wave.
“We think the bay feature we see in Perseus is part of a Kelvin-Helmholtz wave, perhaps the largest one yet identified,” said lead researcher Stephen Walker, from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre.
How Does a Wave That Big Form?
Based on their computer simulations, the team suggests that billions of years ago, the galaxy cluster was settled, with a cooler central region of gas reaching temperatures around 30 million degrees Celsius (54 million degrees Fahrenheit), surrounded by an area with gas three times hotter.
But then a smaller galaxy cluster seems to have grazed past Perseus, sloshing those two regions together like cream stirred into coffee, creating an expanding spiral of cold gas.
Over the next 2.5 billion years, the researchers predict that the gas spread about 500,000 light-years from the centre of the cluster, creating massive waves that roll around the edges for hundreds of million of years before dissipating.
“Perseus is one of the most massive nearby clusters and the brightest one in X-rays, so Chandra data provide us with unparalleled detail,” said Walker.
“The wave we’ve identified is associated with the flyby of a smaller cluster, which shows that the merger activity that produced these giant structures is still ongoing.”
Getting more insight into how waves in galaxy clusters such as Perseus form and evolve doesn’t just help us understand our Universe, it also allows the researchers to get an idea of the strength of the cluster’s magnetic field.
If it was too weak, the wave would be much bigger than the one we see today. If it was too strong, it wouldn’t form at all.
Everyone likes a shortcut and a quick trip somewhere cool, which means that everyone loves a wormhole — at least in theory. In actuality, these space-time tunnels are probably not the alleged intergalactic shortcuts we’re looking for — and this isn’t a mind trick from Obi-Wan, either. But first, let’s talk about what wormholes are and how they could theoretically allow for faster-than-light travel; it’s always better to build up all of our hopes before dashing them to pieces, I find.
When physicists started tinkering with general relativity, they predicted that black holes might exist. The same physics that predicts black holes also predicts white holes, which are just what they sound like: the opposite of black holes. The event horizon of a black hole is a corner of space that is impossible to escape once you’ve entered it. On the other hand, the event horizon of a white hole is impossible to enter — but you can escape if you’re already there. The wormhole comes in when we learn that all black holes are naturally connected to white holes; these identically opposite twins are joined at the singularities.
Or so the math says. While we’ve seen black holes a-plenty, there’s no evidence at all for white holes — nor any evidence for any process that could form them, or any means for them to stay in existence if they formed, or even any way they could survive their “symbiotic” connections to black holes. There is just no way they could ever form, or be stable enough to remain once formed. That instability would directly affect any wormholes: they would never be able to last, and would instead stretch and break almost immediately.
If you happened to see a wormhole and went for a ride, you’d be on a one way trip into an event horizon of a black hole. That sounds cool, but remember: you’d then be stretched endlessly and pummeled to death by gravity (and even Anthony Perkins thinks that’s crazy).
However, some still believe that we can make wormholes work for us, as sort of a next level tube system going all over the universe rather than just beneath London. To make it work, you’d need to enter just outside the event horizon so you could get through the wormhole without getting done in by gravity first. You’d also need a tunnel strong and stable enough to handle both the gravitational pummeling mentioned above, and the force of people flying through it at extreme speeds.
What would make that possible? A tunnel made of negative-mass material. Negative-mass materials have not been found in the universe anywhere, although physicists in Washington recently created a fluid with negative-mass. So will they someday create negative-mass material that you could, say, build a tunnel with? Maybe.
Will We Ever Find Workable Wormholes?
Still, should this really be a priority—? There are plenty of reasons why traveling this quickly would mean a lot to humanity: we could explore far reaches of the galaxy, potentially finding alien life, more habitable planets, and whatever else it has to offer—probably a lot. However, we don’t need to pin all of our hopes on wormholes just because we wish to traverse the galaxy.
First of all, even breakthroughs in physics such as the creation of negative-mass materials are unlikely to lead to workable wormholes. These fantastical space travel tunnels would violate numerous laws of physics — many of which are very well-tested. The odds of defeating each and every one of them seem long, indeed.
Furthermore, there are a number of other projects in the works that could help us travel faster in space. NASA and others have been studying the EmDrive, a radio frequency resonant cavity thruster that uses microwaves inside a truncated cone to create a thrust at the narrow end of the cone. If it works, it would mean the ability to create thrust without a propellant — a huge advancement for long-distance space travel. This tech is a long way from being viable, however.
Ion propulsion is already being used once rockets are already in space. NASA’s Dawn mission uses ion propulsion, as do several other missions from Japan and the ESA. How long it will be before the technology could be used to help humans travel extremely long distances, however, remains to be seen.
In short, it seems unlikely that a solution that would require breaking every law in the physics book will be the one that gets us there. As fun as wormholes feel from the outside, they’re probably not worth too much of our focus.
It seems that the modern age’s space race is here, and all sights are set on the Moon. But this time, the goal isn’t just to get an astronaut onto Earth’s natural satellite, but instead space agencies around the world are coming together to build a human outpost. Some of the biggest players hail from China and Europe, and their respective space agencies have announced that they are engaging in international collaboration to realize a “Moon Village” vision.
Even though China’s space program is relatively new compared to other space programs developed by the world’s superpowers, the China’s space agency has quickly proven itself since its first manned spaceflight in 2003. Currently, the country’s National Space Administration (CNSA) is aiming to collect samples from the Moon by the end of this year while also conducting a mission to the far side of the Moon to bring back additional samples sometime next year.
The European Space Agency (ESA) has been paying close attention to China’s progress, with the ESA looking toward to future collaboration by calling for joint proposals since 2014. All this cooperation would explain the remarks about a shared lunar base on Chinese state media by China’s space agency’s secretary general, Tian Yulong, which was later confirmed by Pal Hvistendahl, an ESA spokesperson.
When it comes to international collaboration, we are all left with a net-positive outcome. Some classic examples of this include the International Space Station, with eleven member states, and CERN’s Large Hardon Collider, which is utilized by 22 member states. Both enormous projects built on the international brotherhood that has propelled us forward in space commercialization, humanitarian aid, vaccine development, and more.
But aside from technological advances, we see the power of scientific collaboration to deconstruct societal barriers. Borders become bridges and science sparks conversations. Maybe the United States will take hints from the ESA’s commitment to China.
You’ve heard it said that the quickest route from point A to point B is the straightest path. Nowhere more does this apply than in space, where distances are measured by the direction that light travels, which is fairly straight. However, astrophysicist René Heller from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Göttingen, Germany thinks there’s more to interstellar travel than just a straight path.
Heller and his colleagues, in a recently published article, argued that traveling to a star isn’t just a function of distance, but also of how bright the star is. The concept is called a photogravitational assist. Simply put, the light emitted by a star powers photon or light sails (remember Count Dooku’s ship?) traveling in space.
Their calculations initially surprised Heller, he told New Scientist. However, the math is simple and sound: the time that it takes to travel to the nearest star is a function of distance divided by the square root of a star’s luminosity.
Changing Our Stellar Travel Schedule
Following these calculations, this means that we could get to Sirius faster than we could to any star in the Alpha Centauri system simply because it’s 18 times brighter, despite being twice as far as Proxima Centauri. We could reach Sirius in just 69 years, compared to the 140 years it would take to reach Proxima Centauri.
To do this, “We need a very light, solid, temperature-resistant, and highly reflective sail material that can span an area of several hundred meters squared,” Heller said. It could be graphene-based and coated by some metamaterial.
A similar effort by Breakthrough StarShot proposes using light sails to travel to Alpha Centauri. According to their calculations, it would take them only 20 years to make the journey. However, they only computed for a flyby mission that would last a couple of seconds, which wouldn’t allow them to observe that much. So, while it would present a unique and incredible opportunity to explore the Universe farther than we ever have before, it wouldn’t allow scientists to collect a lot of data.
In this case, Heller’s unusual route presents an advantage. “If this works out, then humanity can really go interstellar,” he said.
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has long past construction. The only reason it’s still not on a rocket bound for space is because it’s currently completing a series of tests to make sure everything’s in working order. Most recently, according to NASA, the JWST finished testing at the space agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland — rendering it one step closer to launch.
Intended to be the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, the JWST features an enormous gold mirror divided into 18 hexagonal segments, designed to capture infrared light “from the first galaxies that formed in the early universe.” NASA’s post on the design continued by explaining the mirrors “will help the telescope peer inside dust clouds where stars and planetary systems are forming today.”
The tests in Goddard were to check if the mirrors have been warped after undergoing simulations of spaceflight. NASA’s engineers found the mirrors in tiptop condition. The JWST is scheduled to be moved to Texas for some focus and cryogenic tests, and then to California for its final assembly.
While we do know more about space now that we did, say, twenty years ago — there’s still a lot more that we don’t yet understand. With the Hubble expected to retire soon, the JWST will take its place in helping us learn about the universe. With a collecting area that’s seven times larger than Hubble’s and mirrors capable of detecting infrared light — something the Hubble couldn’t do — the JWST will truly allow us to see the universe like never before.
For those familiar with indie space game Stellaris, one of the key moments before encountering ancient intelligent life is finding traces of technology. While the game is a work of science fiction, the concept isn’t outlandish to those behind the real life search for extraterrestrial life (SETI). According to astronomer Jason Wright, discovering traces of advanced technology, termed technosignatures, from alien civilizations is just as important as looking for biosignatures. He outlines his theory in new paper published online, and while he doesn’t claim there’s existing, direct evidence of aliens, he does wonder if we’re just not looking hard enough – or for the right signs.
“There is zero evidence for any prior indigenous technological civilizations,” Wright told Gizmodo. “My paper asks, have we completely foreclosed the possibility, or is there a chance that there could be some evidence we overlooked? [And] if we have overlooked something and we find it in the future, what are the chances it could have come from a prior indigenous technological species versus an interstellar one?”
Currently, the hunt for aliens is focused on finding even the smallest signs of life, or mechanisms that could support life (most notably, the presence of water). These are all good, of course, but Wright suggests that we might also start looking for technosignatures from ancient alien civilizations.
“A ‘technosignature’ is evidence of technology,” he said, which potential could have been left behind by some long-gone alien civilization. In his paper, he explained his point further: “We might conjecture that settlements or bases on [rocky moons or asteroids] would have been built beneath the surface for a variety of reasons, and so still be discoverable today.”
However, despite the odds seemingly in our favor, we really haven’t found any such example of alien life out there — yet. Fermi Paradox, yes? But, could it be that we’ve been looking at the wrong things? Or are we simply not looking hard enough?
Wright just wants us to explore all possible options: “While all geological records of prior indigenous [extraterrestrial] technological species might be long destroyed, if the species were spacefaring there may be technological artifacts to be found throughout the Solar system.”
Ridley Scott has built himself a rather formidable career in Hollywood. He’s directed some of the biggest titles in science fiction, including the Oscar-nominated films “The Martian” and “Blade Runner,” and he was responsible for beginning the successful “Alien” franchise. Now, in anticipation of the next installment of that series, “Alien: Covenant,” Scott is adding Apocalypse Speculator to his list of job titles.
In an interview with Sky News, the director stated that he does think intelligent aliens are out there in the universe. “I believe in superior beings. I think it is certainly likely,” he explained. He went on to say that our only appropriate response to visiting extraterrestrials is to run and hide. “So when you see a big thing in the sky, run for it,” he said. “Because they are a lot smarter than we are, and if you are stupid enough to challenge them, you will be taken out in three seconds.”
First and Final Contact
Scott is not alone in this sentiment. Several experts agree that any alien lifeforms intelligent enough to make it to Earth are not likely to take too kindly to us measly humans.
To that end, Stephen Hawking doesn’t think we should be attempting to make first contact. “One day we might receive a signal from a planet like Gliese 832c, but we should be wary of answering back,” says Hawking in the short film “Stephen Hawking’s Favorite Places.” He goes on to compare aliens coming to Earth to Europeans coming to the New World. In short, Hawking asserts that it “didn’t turn out so well” for the native inhabitants.
Even without alien contact, some experts believe that we will sow our own destruction. Both Lord Martin Rees and Hawking see the development of artificial intelligence (AI) as a greater threat to the survival of our species. In Rees’ mind, “The period of time occupied by organic intelligence is just a thin sliver between early life and the long era of the machines.” If that’s the case, we might as well enjoy the time we have with a good sci-fi flick.
SpaceX has hit another milestone today with the launch of its first big national security payload for the National Reconnaissance Office.
Image credit: SpaceX
This was the company’s second attempt to launch the NROL-76. The first launch was attempted last Sunday, but was postponed due to sensor issues just a few seconds before it was set to liftoff. And, while the second attempt was successful, it was also very nearly canceled due to high altitude wind velocity.
Given the payload’s classified nature, SpaceX couldn’t readily disclose what it was taking to orbit. However, they were still able to provide an exclusive webcast of the rocket lifting off from the LC-39A facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida—which included a never-before-seen clip of the Falcon 9 first stage, which serves as the core of the rocket, containing its main engine.
Following the launch, SpaceX was actually able to recover the Falcon 9’s first stage. This makes for a total of four completed recoveries for the company, which proves that reusing rockets in the interest of making launches and space travel more affordable is indeed feasible. The success of this particular launch could also be a sign of things to come as private aerospace outfits begin to enter the secretive world of military and national security launches.
On April 26, the NASA Cassini space probe completed the first of 22 dives through Saturn’s rings that are planned before the end of its final mission. No other object created by humans had ventured so far into the rings before, so Cassini has provided us with some of the very first looks at the roiling bands of dust and ice particles.
Traveling at speeds of 77,000 mph, Cassini had to shield itself with its dish-shaped antenna as it made its way through thick masses of potentially destructive particles during the dive. This made communication with Earth impossible until it reached the other side.
The Deep Space Network finally picked up Cassini’s signal again just before midnight Pacific time, prompting relief and elation at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s ground control. Next, data began making its way back to Earth — including many more of these fascinating images.
Cassini will make its last dive in September of this year, at which time it will actually land on Saturn and becoming a permanent resident of the planet. Until then, it will continue to give all of us here on Earth a glimpse of what’s out there in the far reaches of our solar system.
It’s easy to talk about humanity’s role in deep space exploration, but it’s another thing to actually figure out the logistics of the endeavor. One of the greatest risks involved in human space exploration is the risk of radiation. While the Earth and Sun do pose some radiation risk to our astronauts, the greatest source of trouble comes from outer space and is known as galactic cosmic radiation, ancient waves emanating from supernovas of the past.
NASA astronauts are listed as “radiation workers” by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). In accordance with NASA, OSHA has worked to establish the ALARA Principle, meaning that NASA keeps radiation exposure “as low as reasonably achievable.” With this in mind, OSHA waived the terrestrial radiation requirements for NASA, having the Office of the Chief Health and Medical Officer set the limit. This lead to the current protocol that ensures that astronauts aren’t exposed to radiation that will increase their risk of death from cancer by more than 3 percent. But if it’s a trip to Mars that we’re talking about, these low-Earth orbit standards will be modified to fit the expedition.
Ethically Leaving Earth
While NASA has learned a lot with previous research into the long-term effects of living in space, the space agency still has a ton of data to understand, and even more ethical gray areas to define. When on the International Space Station, astronauts are exposed to ten times as much radiation as on Earth. A Mars trip would up that exposure to 100 times more than on Earth. NASA has begun to study the effects of long-term exposure with the help of astronaut Scott Kelly, Mark Kelly (his Earth-dwelling retiree twin), and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko.
“For as long as there have been catalogs of health effects, radiation has been the most intractable, most severe, hardest problem to solve,” says Dan Masys, biomedical and health informaticist of the University of Washington. “Now, 20 or more years into advances in space technology and propulsion and systems and vehicles, radiation is still the deal breaker. It has never changed.” NASA is working on various means of lessening exposure to radiation, with faster rockets, better barriers between the astronauts and space, and drugs all on the table.
But at the end of the day, the question isn’t about a group of brave astronauts, it’s about the future of humanity. Billionaire tech innovators like Elon Musk are lobbying for humanity’s eventual expansion in our solar system for the key reason of preserving humanity itself. In order to ensure that a single catastrophic event doesn’t spell out the end times for the only life we know to exist in the universe, we must push it forward, or as Musk suggests: establish a colony of 1 million people on Mars as soon as we feasibly can.
In recent years, multiple space agencies have shared their plans to return astronauts to the Moon, not to mention establishing an outpost there. Beyond NASA’s plan to revitalize lunar exploration, the European Space Agency (ESA), Rocosmos, and the Chinese and Indian federal space agencies have also announced plans for crewed missions to the Moon that could result in permanent settlements.
As with all things in this new age of space exploration, collaboration appears to be the key to making things happen. This certainly seems to be the case when it comes to the China National Space Administration (CNSA) and the ESA’s respective plans for lunar exploration. As spokespeople from both agencies announced this week, the CNSA and the ESA hope to work together to create a “Moon Village” by the 2020s.
The announcement first came from the Secretary General of the Chinese space agency (Tian Yulong). On earlier today (Wednesday, April 26th) it was confirmed by the head of media relations for the ESA (Pal A. Hvistendahl). As Hvistendahl was quoted as saying by the Associated Press: “The Chinese have a very ambitious moon program already in place. Space has changed since the space race of the ’60s. We recognize that to explore space for peaceful purposes, we do [need] international cooperation.”
Yulong and Hvistendahl indicated that this base would aid in the development of lunar mining, space tourism, and facilitate missions deeper into space — particularly to Mars. It would also build upon recent accomplishments by both agencies, which have successfully deployed robotic orbiters and landers to the Moon in the past few decades. These include the CNSA’s Chang’e missions, as well as the ESA’s SMART-1 mission.
As part of the Chang’e program, the Chinese landers explored the lunar surface in part to investigate the prospect of mining Helium-3, which could be used to power fusion reactors here on Earth. Similarly, the SMART-1 mission created detailed maps of the northern polar region of the Moon. By charting the geography and illumination of the lunar north pole, the probe helped to identify possible base sites where water ice could be harvested.
In addition, its is likely that the construction of this base will rely on additive manufacture (aka. 3D printing) techniques specially developed for the lunar environment. In 2013, the ESA announced that they had teamed up with renowned architects Foster+Partners to test the feasibility of using lunar soil to print walls that would protect lunar domes from harmful radiation and micrometeorites.
This agreement could signal a new era for the CNSA, which has enjoyed little in the way of cooperation with other federal space agencies in the past. Due to the agency’s strong military connections, the U.S. government passed legislation in 2011 that barred the CSNA from participating in the International Space Station. But an agreement between the ESA and China could open the way for a three-party collaboration involving NASA.
The ESA, NASA, and Roscosmos also entered into talks back in 2012 about the possibility of creating a lunar base together. Assuming that all four nations can agree on a framework, any future Moon Village could involve astronauts from all the world’s largest space agencies. Such a outpost, where research could be conducted on the long-term effects of exposure to low-g and extra-terrestrial environments, would be invaluable to space exploration.
In the meantime, the CNSA hopes to launch a sample-return mission to the Moon by the end of 2017 — Chang’e 5 — and to send the Chang’e 4 mission (whose launch was delayed in 2015) to the far side of the Moon by 2018. For its part, the ESA hopes to conduct a mission analysis on samples brought back by Chang’e 5, and also wants to send a European astronaut to Tiangong-2 (which just conducted its first automated cargo delivery) at some future date.
As has been said countless times since the end of the Apollo Era — “We’re going back to the Moon. And this time, we intend to stay!”
It’s a new era for space travel. And if there’s one thing that sets it apart from the previous one, it is the spirit of collaboration that exists between space agencies and between the public and private sector. And with commercial aerospace (aka. NewSpace) companies looking to provide everything from launch services to orbital and lunar tourism, a day is fast-approaching when ordinary people will be able to go into space.
Because of this, many aerospace companies are establishing safety and training programs for prospective clients. If civilians plan on going into space, they need to have the benefit of some basic astronaut training. In short, they will need to learn how to go safely conduct themselves in a zero-gravity environment, with everything from how to avoid blowing chunks to how to relieve oneself in a tidy fashion.
And while these trips will not be cheap – Virgin Galactic estimates that a single seat aboard SpaceShipTwo will cost $250,000 – they absolutely have to be safe! Luckily, space agencies like NASA already have a very well-established and time-honored practice for training astronauts for zero-g. Perhaps the most famous involves flying them around in a Zero-Gravity Aircraft, colloquially known as the “Vomit Comet”.
This training program is really quite straightforward. After bringing astronaut trainees to an altitude of over 10,000 meters (32,000 feet), the plane begins flying in a parabolic arc. This consists of it climbing and falling, over and over, which causes the trainees to experience the feeling of weightlessness whenever the plane is falling. The name “vomit comet” (obviously) arises from the fact that passengers tend to lose their lunch in the process.
The Soviet-era space program also conducted weightlessness training, which Roscomos has continued since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since 1984, the European Space Agency (ESA) has also conducts parabolic flights using a specially-modified Airbus A300 B2 aircraft. The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has done the same since it was founded in 1989, relying on the Falcon 20 twin-engine jet.
Given the fact that NASA has been sending astronauts into space for nearly 60 years, they have certainly accrued a lot of experience in dealing with the effects of weightlessness. Over the short-term, these include space adaptation syndrome (SAS), which is also known as “space sickness”. True to its name, the symptoms of SAS include nausea and vomiting, vertigo, headaches, lethargy, and an overall feeling of unease.
Roughly 45% of all people who have flown in space have suffered from space sickness. The duration of varies, but cases have never been shown to exceed 72 hours, after which the body adapts to the new environment. And with the benefit of training, which includes acclimating to what weightlessness feels like, both the onset and duration can be mitigated.
Beyond NASA and other space agencies, private companies have also offered reduced gravity training to private customers. In 2004, the Zero Gravity Corporation (Zero-G, based in Arlington, Virginia) became the first company in the US to offer parabolic flights using a converted Boeing 727. In 2008, the company was acquired by Space Adventures, another Virginia-based space tourism company.
Much like Virgin Galactic, Space Adventures began offering clients advance bookings for sub-orbital flights, and has since expanded their vision to include lunar spaceflights. As such, the Zero-G experience has become their training platform, allowing clients the ability to experience weightlessness before going into space. In addition, some of the 700 clients who have already booked tickets with Virgin Galactic have used this same training method to prepare.
Similarly, Virgin Galactic is taking steps to prepare its astronauts for the day when they begin making regular flights into sub-orbit. According to the company, this will consist of astronauts taking part in a three day pre-flight preparation program that will be conducted onsite at Spaceport America – Virgin Galactic’s spaceflight facility, located in New Mexico.
Aside from microgravity, their astronaut training will also emphasize how to function when experiencing macrogravity (i.e. multi-g forces), which occur during periods of acceleration. The training will also include medical check-ups, psychological evaluations, and other forms of pre-flight prepation – much in the same way that regular astronauts are prepared for their journey. As they state on their website:
“Pre-flight preparation will ensure that each astronaut is mentally and physically prepared to savor every second of the spaceflight. Basic emergency response training prescribed by our regulators will be at the forefront. Activities to aid familiarity with the spaceflight environment will follow a close second.”
Blue Origin, meanwhile, has also been addressing concerns with regards to its plan to start sending tourists into suborbit in their New Shepard system. After launching from their pad outside of El Paso, Texas, the rocket will fly customers to an altitude of 100 km (62 mi) above the Earth. During this phase, the passengers will experience 3 Gs of acceleration – i.e. three times what they are used to.
Once it reaches space, the capsule will then detach from the rocket. During this time, the passengers will experience a few minutes of weightlessness. Between the intense acceleration and the feeling of freefall, many have wondered if potential clients should be worried about space sickness. These questions have been addressed by former NASA astronaut Nicholas Patrick, who now serves as Blue Origin’s human integration architect.
During an interview with Geekwire in January of 2017, he indicated that they plan to provide barf bags for customers to tuck into their flight suits, just in case. This is similar to what astronauts do aboard the International Space Station (see video above) and during long-term spaceflights. When asked about what customers could do to prepare for space sickness, he also emphasized that some training would be provided:
“It’s a short flight, so we won’t be asking people to train for a year, the way NASA astronauts trained for a shuttle flight, or three years, the way they train for a long space station mission. We’re going to get this training down to a matter of days, or less. That’s because we don’t have very many tasks. You need to know how to get out of your seat gracefully, and back into your seat safely.
“We’ll teach you a few safety procedures, like how to use the fire extinguisher – and maybe how to use the communication system, although that will come naturally to many people. What we’ll probably spend some time on is training people how to enjoy it. What are they going to take with them and use up there? How are they going to play? How are they going to experiment? Not too much training, just enough to have fun.”
“Getting sick to your stomach can be a problem on zero-G airplane flights like NASA’s “Vomit Comet,” but motion sickness typically doesn’t come up until you’ve gone through several rounds of zero-G. Blue Origin’s suborbital space ride lasts only 11 minutes, with a single four-minute dose of weightlessness.”
Bezos also addressed these questions in early April during the 33rd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, where his company was showcasing the New Shepard crew capsule. Here too, audience members had questions about what passengers should do if they felt the need to vomit (among the other things) in space.
“They don’t throw up right away,” he said, referring to astronauts succumbing to space sickness. “We’re not going to worry about it… It takes about three hours before you start to throw up. It’s a delayed effect. And this journey takes ten or eleven minutes. So you’re going to be fine.”
On April 27th, during a special Q&A session of Twitch Science Week, Universe Today’s own Fraser Cain took part in a panel discussion about the future of space exploration. Among the panelists were and Ariane Cornell, the head of Astronaut Strategy and Sales for Blue Origin. When the subject of training and etiquette came up, she described the compact process Blue Origins intends to implement to prepare customers for their flight:
“[T]he day before flight is when we give you a full – intense, but very fun – day of training. So they are going to teach you all the crucial things that you need. So ingress, how do you get into the capsule, how do you buckle in. Egress, how do you get out of the seat, out of the hatch. We’re going to teach you some emergency procedures, because we want to make sure that you guys are prepared, and feel comfortable. We’re also going to teach you about zero-g etiquette, so then when we’re all up there and we’re doing our somersaults, you know… no Matrix scenes, no Kung Fu fighting – you gotta make sure that everybody gets to enjoy the flight.”
When asked (by Fraser) if people should skip breakfast, she replied:
“No. It’s the most important meal of the day. You’re going to want to have your energy and we’re pretty confident that you’re going to have a good ride and you’re not going to feel nauseous. It’s one parabola. And when we’ve seen people, for example, when they go on rides on NASA’s “Vomit Comet”… What we’ve seen from those types of parabolic flights is that people – if they get sick – its parabola six, seven, eight. It’s a delayed effect, really. We think that with that one parabola – four minutes – you’re going to enjoy every second of it.”
Another interesting issue was addressed during the 33rd Space Symposium was whether or not the New Shepard capsule would have “facilities”. When asked about this, Bezos was similarly optimistic. “Go to the bathroom in advance,” he said, to general laughter. “If you have to pee in 11 minutes, you got problems.” He did admit that with boarding, the entire experience could take up to 41 minutes, but that passengers should be able to wait that long (fingers crossed!)
But in the event of longer flights, bathroom etiquette will need to be an issue. After all, it’s not exactly easy to relieve oneself in an environment where all things – solid and liquid – float freely and therefore cannot simply be flushed away. Luckily, NASA and other space agencies have us covered there too. Aboard the ISS, where astronauts have to relieve themselves regularly, waste-disposal is handled by “zero-g toilets”.
Similar to what astronauts used aboard the Space Shuttle, a zero-g toilet involves an astronaut fastening themselves to the toilet seat. Rather than using water, the removal of waste is accomplished with a vacuum suction hole. Liquid waste is transferred to the Water Recovery System, where it is converted back into drinking water (that’s right, astronauts drink their own pee… sort of).
Solid waste is collected in individual bags that are stored in an aluminum container, which is then transferred to the docked spacecraft for disposal. Remember that scene in The Martian where Mark Watney collected his crew members solid waste to use as fertilizer? Well, it’s much the same. Poo in a bag, and then let someone remove it and deal with it once you get home.
When it comes to lunar tourism, space sickness, and waste disposal will be a must. And when it comes to Elon Musk’s plan to start ferrying people to Mars in the coming decades – aboard his Interplanetary Transportation System – it will be an absolute must! It will certainly be interesting to see how those who intend to get into the lunar tourism biz, and those who want to colonize Mars, will go about addressing these needs.
In the meantime, keep your eyes on the horizon, keep your barf bags handy, and make sure your zero-g toilet has a tight seal!
Humanity has been fascinated by Mars since long before we stepped foot on the Moon. Our planetary neighbor has been the subject of innumerable works of sci-fi and inspired countless dreams of adventure and exploration. Now, after decades of determination, research, and scientific breakthroughs, we’re finally ready to do it: humans are going to Mars. Really.
We’re in Phase 0 now, conducting tests at the International Space Station (ISS) and developing partnerships with private space companies. Phase I will span 2018 to 2025 and will include the launch and testing of six SLS rockets. Those rockets will deliver components of the Deep Space Gateway (DSG), a new space station to be built near the Moon to serve astronauts en route to Mars.
After that, Phase II will launch the Deep Space Transport (DST) tube toward the lunar station in 2027, and in 2028 or 2029, astronauts will inhabit the tube for more than 400 days. In 2030, Phase III will see the DST restocked with supplies and the Mars crew via SLS rocket. Phase IV, of course, will be the trip itself in 2033.
That means we’re just a scant 16 years away from reaching a goal that has eluded every generation that came before us.
Staying Healthy and Happy
Completing the mission within their budget will be a challenge for NASA. That budget is currently about .5 percent of the total U.S. budget. For comparison, it was more than four percent during the Apollo Moon missions.
The mission to Mars includes obstacles beyond budget — keeping astronauts healthy and reasonably happy on the journey is chief among them. Without stopovers between Earth and Mars, astronauts will need to port everything they need with them, including air, food, and water, for a round-trip duration of two or three years.
Mental health is likely to be a concern for Mars astronauts, too, as they will essentially be sealed into the space tube for years at a time, with no ability for an emergency return once they leave Cislunar space. NASA’s HI-SEAS isolation experiment has shown promising results, but it is likely that the journey won’t be possible for everyone.
NASA also has competition in the race to get to Mars. Both Boeing and SpaceX hope to get there first, with SpaceX setting the lofty goal of arriving in 2022.
Ultimately, though, we all benefit from the friendly competition in the race toward Mars and the creative solutions it will almost certainly generate. If private companies work out some of these human challenges before NASA can, the agency can build on their experiences and spend its budget and efforts on other problems. In the end, the goal of putting humans on Mars will have been reached, irrespective of which organization crosses the finish line first.
The sun is volatile, capable of unleashing huge amounts of plasma in outbursts that affect the space around it — including the space near Earth. There are two types of these solar eruptions: coronal ejections, which are smaller bursts of plasma, and coronal mass ejections (CMEs), which are large eruptions that release plasma and high-speed magnetic fields.
We know they happen, but we haven’t really figured out how they happen. Now, thanks to researchers from the Durham University in UK and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, we have a theoretical model that could explain both types of coronal jets. According to their study, published in the journal Nature, both occurrences are the result of magnetic field lines in the surface of the sun, above the jets, breaking apart and rejoining.
“It was previously thought that there were different drivers for the varying scales of eruptions from the Sun, but our research provides a theoretical universal model for this activity, which is very exciting,” lead researcher Peter Wyper from Durham said in a press release.
It’s All About Prediction
Using this theoretical universal model, dubbed the “breakout model,” the researchers believe that it may be possible to predict when solar flares will occur. As Wyper explained it: “A greater understanding of solar eruptions at all scales could ultimately help in better predicting the Sun’s activity.”
If proven, the breakout model could help us prepare for solar flares — particularly large-scale CMEs which are known to disrupt radio transmissions and satellite communications by sending huge amounts of electromagenetic radiation. They are tend to trigger aurorae in the Earth’s poles. This phenomenon was last recorded in 1859, during what’s now known as the Carrington Event. Such CMEs today could prove dangerous for astronauts in space. That being said, the next step is to confirm the breakout model using high-resolution observations of the solar atmosphere.
“Within a unified context, we can advance understanding of how these eruptions are started, how to predict them, and how to better understand their consequences,” said Richard DeVore one of the researchers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
It might seem that New Horizon just went into hibernation after its incredible mission to Pluto, but NASA scientists are eager to say hello to the infamous former planet once more. This curiosity stems from the fact that pluto defied all expectations with indications of a geologically active world, potentially holding liquid oceans underneath its surface.
The principal investigator of the New Horizons mission, Alan Stern, has been considering a follow-up mission to Pluto. Stern told The Verge that, “Pluto just wowed people…Conversation keeps bubbling up…at scientific meetings.”
The New Horizons spacecraft provided the science community with tons of interesting data, but Stern and his colleagues want to go a step further. They hope to send a spacecraft that can completely orbit Pluto while also studying how the dwarf planet changes over time.
The next vessel to make the trip and visit would be a little different than its predecessor. The spacecraft would mirror NASA’s Cassini spacecraft in objective and collect much more data.
However, this all will come down to the budget. Stern and his team are looking to the Planetary Science Decadal Survey, a document published every decade that highlights the most important endeavors for scientists to pursue in our solar system. And so, with plans in the earliest stages, we might have some more to look forward to from Pluto.
The 1995 movie Waterworld is a cinematic masterpiece of schlock dealing with a post-ice caps world that’s nearly completely submerged. The film is exceedingly silly, especially since the premise has absolutely no scientific basis in reality. The complete melting of the ice caps would transform the coastlines of the world, but not to the extent depicted. However, the possibility of habitable planets existing with little to no exposed land is much greater than you may think.
In a study published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, researcher Fergus Simpson, of the University of Barcelona, lays out his findings that any planets found with significant levels of water will most likely be totally, or at least mostly, submerged. The data was collected from running computer simulations that took into account various factors that contribute to water distribution on planets, like erosion.
The universe is incomprehensibly vast and some estimations, like the one made by Berkeley’s Peter Behroozi, say that the odds of there being other life-sustaining planets are pretty good. Behroozi said that for every grain of sand on our planet, there could be ten planets similar to Earth in the universe. Of those planets, Simpson found that most of those planets would have less than ten percent of their land exposed above water.
Even more, the simulations showed that Earth’s ideal mixture of land and sea is an exceedingly rare sweet-spot. The size of a planet plays a role in its potential for water, and larger habitable planets allow for increased water coverage, while smaller planets would all look more like Tatooine with vast, dry deserts.
Checking the Data
However, while powerful computer simulations do utilize hard data to make their predictions, the results are far from guaranteed. Experts advise caution in taking these findings at face value. In a conversation with Gizmodo, astrophysicist Sean Raymond says that Simpson’s paper puzzles him. He goes on to explain that predicting how much water might be on a planet is impossible since we can’t account for how much water is delivered to a given planet. “In the ‘classical model’ of terrestrial planet formation, water delivery to Earth is very [random] so it’s reasonable to imagine alternate Earths with over ten times more water,” he says. “However, in our newer models much less water is delivered but the delivery is more reliable.”
Even so, Simpson has stated that his theory will soon be testable. Advanced technology like the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope will allow us to see deeper into space with greater clarity. The tool could also be used to garner more exact measurements of water on exoplanets.
The presence of water on other planets is an important jumping off point for scientists but by no means does it guarantee the presence of extraterrestrial life. Further study will help us to narrow down potential places to look.
In its almost 13 years of exploring Saturn’s surroundings, Cassini has completed a total of 220 orbits around the ringed planet. It’s also made more than 147 flybys of Saturn’s moons, spending 127 of those passing near Titan. The last of these flybys of Titan was completed just last week.
Throughout the years, Cassini has achieved a great deal, making notable discoveries and completing some firsts in space exploration. For instance, it was Cassini’s Hyugens probe that made the first landing on an outer planet moon (Titan). It confirmed Titan’s potential to sustain life, discovered the icy plumes on the surface of Enceladus, and solved the mystery of Iapetus. Cassini also taught us that Saturn’s rings are an active and dynamic system.
The Grand Finale
After all that, Cassini won’t just simply fall into Saturn. Nope. Cassini’s final mission will truly live up to its name. “The Grand Finale is a brand-new mission,” Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at JPL, said on April 4. “We’re going to a place that we’ve never been before … and I think some of the biggest discoveries may come from these final orbits.”
During its final run, Cassini is expected to contribute much more information about Saturn and its moons. In particular, it’s expected to help us determine the length of a day on Saturn, and by measuring the particles in the gap between Saturn and its rings, it will hopefully better our understanding of how planets and moons are formed.
NASA Langley Research Center is developing drones that can fly in the thin atmosphere of Mars. Drones like these will be aboard future Rover missions, mapping unexplored regions of the Red Planet, like lava tunnels and deep valleys.
NASA unveiled a new online image and video archive last week. In a boon for space fans, the new library consolidates 60 libraries of classic space pictures in one place, totaling over 140,000 pieces of content.
One of humanity’s most pressing questions is, “Are we alone in the universe?” Scientists have conducted countless studies in an attempt to answer the question, some coming up with data that supports a no — but others, like a recent study from the University of California Berkeley, may well lean more toward a yes.
Researchers from the UCB analyzed scans of 5,600 nearby stars throughout the Milky Way in search of signs of laser beams. They studied scans taken by the Keck telescope in Hawaii between 2004 and 2016 looking for beams spanning the most visible wavelengths.
The stars examined were estimated to host around 2,000 planets similar to Earth in size and temperature that could, theoretically, support alien lifeforms. However, apparently none of these lifeforms are — as the researchers wrote in their submission — “beaming optical lasers toward us.”
Of course, a lack of evidence does not disprove the existence of alien life. It’s possible that otherworldly civilizations are not yet advanced enough to use lasers. Or it could be that they have lasers, but are not using that particular tool to try and interact with other worlds — which is, by the way, the boat humans here on Earth are in.
Light at the End of the Tunnel
It’s also worth noting that the study examined just a tiny sliver of our galaxy. To put this in perspective, there are an estimated 300 billion stars in the Milky Way, and these are estimated to host nearly 9 billion habitable, Earth-size planets. If there are advanced civilizations on any of these planets sending us light shows, the scans used for this study would almost certainly have missed them.
In fact, the researchers determined that their study could only account for over 0.1 percent of warm, Earth-sized planets in the Milky Way — that are not, consequently, sending laser signals into space. That means there’s still 9 million planets they haven’t ruled out yet.
The researchers note that a bigger study of interstellar laser signals will be performed by the Breakthrough Listen Initiative, which is hailed as the largest scientific research program ever aimed at finding evidence of alien civilizations. The 10-year study will examine 1 million of the closest stars in the Milky Way— including star types that were overlooked in the Berkeley study, like brown dwarfs.
Even if this study does not yield proof of extraterrestrial life, there are other signs we can look for besides lasers. Beyond that, there’s always the Andromeda galaxy.
Recent discoveries in space have made the search for life beyond Earth easier and more difficult at the same time. As more exoplanets and moons with the potential to support extraterrestrial life turn up, the probability of finding one that actually does increases. However, sending missions to explore all these potentially inhabited worlds has also become more difficult.
The plan is for JEM to launch by the mid-2020s, and it would run for about six-and-a-half years. The first five of those would be used simply to reach Jupiter, then a few more days would be needed to reach Europa.
Upon reaching Europa’s orbit, a lander would be launched to explore the surface for 35 days, scanning material samples for traces of life. Meanwhile, the orbiter craft would spend three months taking various measurements to reveal Europa’s basic structure, focusing on the ocean’s composition. After that, the lander could crash into Europa while taking and transmitting data about the moon’s atmosphere.
While both NASA and the ESA have existing plans to explore Europa and the other icy-watery moons in the solar system, the planned combined effort would offer a unique advantage for both space agencies. Pooling their resources might make it easier to figure out solutions to key problems, such as Jupiter’s intense radiation and the need to make sure Europa won’t be contaminated by organisms from Earth.
“There’s great enthusiasm for this on both sides,” Jakob van Zyl, director for solar system exploration at NASA JPL, told New Scientist. “The budget request is now with the president.”
Europa is just the first goal for collaborative space exploration. Potential missions to Jupiter’s other moons, as well as those of Saturn, could well be developed in the future. Perhaps alien life is just an Earth-formed partnership away.
In recent, “are you serious?” news, Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, wants to create an ‘Amazon-like’ service to deliver equipment and supplies to the Moon. Bezos wants to combine his other company, aerospace manufacturer and spaceflight organization Blue Origin, with the delivery principles of Amazon to deliver a one-of-a-kind service.
Following the private sector rush to the Moon sparked by Elon Musk of SpaceX, Bezos thinks that their lunar lander “Blue Moon” will be able to start delivering supplies to the Moon by the mid 2020’s. Blue Moon is expected to carry up to 453.5 kg (10,000 lbs) of cargo per trip. Because of this capacity, the lander would be capable of carrying rovers and scientific equipment. And so, while this endeavor seems strange and a little bit silly, it could, in theory, be an inventive way to help further research.
Bezos has expressed his passion for not only increasing travel to the Moon but also the possibility of a permanent lunar settlement. In his own words, in an email to the Washington Post:
“It is time for America to return to the Moon — this time to stay. A permanently inhabited lunar settlement is a difficult and worthy objective. I sense a lot of people are excited about this…
Our liquid hydrogen expertise and experience with precision vertical landing offer the fastest path to a lunar lander mission. I’m excited about this and am ready to invest my own money alongside NASA to make it happen.”
It is impossible to say whether or not this plan will be successful but…who knows, astronauts could soon have rovers delivered to them with the click of a button. I wonder if they’ll get prime.
Forty years ago, Canadian physicist Bill Unruh made a surprising prediction regarding quantum field theory. Known as the Unruh effect, his theory predicted that an accelerating observer would be bathed in blackbody radiation, whereas an inertial observer would be exposed to none. What better way to mark the 40th anniversary of this theory than to consider how it could affect human beings attempting relativistic space travel?
Such was the intent behind a new study by a team of researchers from Sao Paulo, Brazil. In essence, they consider how the Unruh effect could be confirmed using a simple experiment that relies on existing technology. Not only would this experiment prove once and for all if the Unruh effect is real, it could also help us plan for the day when interstellar travel becomes a reality.
To put it in layman’s terms, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity states that time and space are dependent upon the inertial reference frame of the observer. Consistent with this is the theory that if an observer is traveling at a constant speed through empty vacuum, they will find that the temperature of said vacuum is absolute zero. But if they were to begin to accelerate, the temperature of the empty space would become hotter.
This is what William Unruh — a theorist from the University of British Columbia (UBC), Vancouver — asserted in 1976. According to his theory, an observer accelerating through space would be subject to a “thermal bath” — i.e. photons and other particles — which would intensify the more they accelerated. Unfortunately, no one has ever been able to measure this effect, since no spacecraft exists that can achieve the kind of speeds necessary.
For the sake of their study – which was recently published in the journal Physical Review Letters under the title “Virtual observation of the Unruh effect” — the research team proposed a simple experiment to test for the Unruh effect. Led by Gabriel Cozzella of the Institute of Theoretical Physics (IFT) at Sao Paulo State University, they claim that this experiment would settle the issue by measuring an already-understood electromagnetic phenomenon.
Essentially, they argue that it would be possible to detect the Unruh effect by measuring what is known as Larmor radiation. This refers to the electromagnetic energy that is radiated away from charged particles (such as electrons, protons or ions) when they accelerate. As they state in their study: “A more promising strategy consists of seeking for fingerprints of the Unruh effect in the radiation emitted by accelerated charges. Accelerated charges should back react due to radiation emission, quivering accordingly. Such a quivering would be naturally interpreted by Rindler observers as a consequence of the charge interaction with the photons of the Unruh thermal bath.”
As they describe in their paper, this would consist of monitoring the light emitted by electrons within two separate reference frames. In the first, known as the “accelerating frame,” electrons are fired laterally across a magnetic field, which would cause the electrons to move in a circular pattern. In the second, the “laboratory frame,” a vertical field is applied to accelerate the electrons upwards, causing them to follow a corkscrew-like path.
In the accelerating frame, Cozzella and his colleagues assume that the electrons would encounter the “fog of photons”, where they both radiate and emit them. In the laboratory frame, the electrons would heat up once vertical acceleration was applied, causing them to show an excess of long-wavelength photons. However, this would be dependent on the “fog” existing in the accelerated frame to begin with.
In short, this experiment offers a simple test which could determine whether or not the Unruh effect exists, which is something that has been in dispute ever since it was proposed. One of the beauties of the proposed experiment is that it could be conducted using particle accelerators and electromagnets that are currently available.
On the other side of the debate are those who claim that the Unruh effect is due to a mathematical error made by Unruh and his colleagues. For those individuals, this experiment is useful because it would effectively debunk this theory. Regardless, Cozzella and his team are confident their proposed experiment will yield positive results.
“We have proposed a simple experiment where the presence of the Unruh thermal bath is codified in the Larmor radiation emitted from an accelerated charge,” they state. “Then, we carried out a straightforward classical-electrodynamics calculation (checked by a quantum-field-theory one) to confirm it by ourselves. Unless one challenges classical electrodynamics, our results must be virtually considered as an observation of the Unruh effect.”
If the experiments should prove successful, and the Unruh effect is proven to exist, it would certainly have consequences for any future deep-space missions that rely on advanced propulsion systems. Between Project Starshot, and any proposed mission that would involve sending a crew to another star system, the added effects of a “fog of photons” and a “thermal bath” will need to be factored in.
The universe can be thought of as one big, continuously expanding space. An interesting theory about this expansion assumes that the universe could’ve spawned from a singularity — not the technological kind — similar to way that black holes are said to be the origin of galaxies.
There’s much about the formation of galaxies and black holes that we don’t understand yet, let alone the very origins of the universe, but scientists continue to explore and evaluate this interesting theory. Now, a new study published in The Astronomical Journalis providing us with more clues about how black holes operate in the cosmos.
Not long ago, supermassive black holes (SMBH) were thought to be found only in bigger galaxies, like the Milky Way. Then, a team of astronomers from the University of Utah found a SMBH at the center of an ultra-compact dwarf galaxy, which they concluded must be an uncommon occurrence. But now the team has found SMBH at the centers of two other dwarf galaxies named VUCD3 and M59cO.
Not only were these SMBH spotted in more dwarf galaxies, but they are even larger than the Milky Way’s SMBH, called Sagittarius A (which is about 4 million times the mass of the sun). “It’s pretty amazing when you really think about it,” lead researcher Chris Ahn said in an interview for a University of Utah press release. “These ultra-compact dwarfs are around 0.1 percent the size of the Milky Way, yet they host supermassive black holes that are bigger than the black hole at the center of our own galaxy.”
An Origin Story
Having SMBH at the center of these dwarf galaxies could explain why they were found to be more massive than scientists expected when considering just their stars. In the case of VUCD3, its black hole was 13 percent of the galaxy’s total mass, while the M59cO’s black hole accounted for 18 percent of its total mass. In comparison, the Milky Way’s SMBH makes up less than 0.01 percent of the galaxy’s total mass.
In addition to providing insight into these specific galaxies, this discovery can also help us understand how other galaxies came to be. “We still don’t fully understand how galaxies form and evolve over time,” Anil Seth explained in the press release. “These objects can tell us how galaxies merge and collide.”
The study also shows that dwarf galaxies aren’t just star clusters. They could be younger versions of bigger galaxies like the one we call home.
“We know that galaxies merge and combine all the time — that’s how galaxies evolve. Our Milky Way is eating up galaxies as we speak,” Seth went on to say. “Our general picture of how galaxies form is that little galaxies merge to form big galaxies. But we have a really incomplete picture of that. The ultra-compact dwarf galaxies provide us a longer timeline to be able to look at what’s happened in the past.”
In previous decades, governments and national entities were the ones leading humanity’s charge into space. These efforts met with stunning success. The Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union put the very first human in space and took the very first humans to the Moon. The united efforts of five space agencies gave humans a permanent base in space—the International Space Station (ISS). Ultimately, these breakthroughs resulted in the creation of a host of spinoff technologies that transformed our society.
But it has been 40 years since we have been to the Moon. The ISS is nearly 20 years old. Governments have stalled, and a new generation of entrepreneurs has taken over.
This is the age of privatized space. From Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which has successfully deployed a host of reusable rockets and carried goods to the ISS, to Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, which has successfully tested its own reusable rocket and is well on its way to making space tourism a viable option for all people, commercial space companies are taking space out of the hands of governments and giving it to the people.
This is where the New York Center for Space Entrepreneurship (NYCSE) comes in. In short, their main goal is to accelerate humanity’s journey into space, and they seek to do this by working with companies, investors, and other entities in order to help democratize space for all people and create a global space economy. With this in mind, today, they are announcing aseries of initiatives that will support space entrepreneurship around the globe.
To learn more about the initiatives that are being launched today, uncover why private spaceflight is important, and see how NYCSE is working to make space affordable, tune into Futurism’s 360º livestream with NYCSE tonight at 7pm est, which can be found here.
Sidney Nakahodo, Lecturer in International and Public Affairs at Columbia University co-founder of NYCSE, notes that our space projects are transforming at an unprecedented rate. He states that the“convergence of decreasing costs, access to launching opportunities, and fast technology evolution has propelled innovation in new products, services, and business models” is and ushering is into “a new era of space entrepreneurship.”
To this end, by nurturing businesses and entrepreneurs, NYCSE aims to help shape (or reshape) space exploration in the 21st century.
Making Space Affordable
The importance of these efforts cannot be overstated. As Nakahodo notes, commercial space has already helped to create a host of breakthrough technologies, and more are on their way.
Commercial space has helped solve some of the most pressing problems of our time. Telecommunications, GPS, weather forecast are just a few examples of applications. Currently, non-government space already accounts for more than USD 250 billion, around 75% of the total yearly global space economic activity.
Beyond tax revenues and job creation, the most important outcome of the commercial space expansion will be how it will affect our lives. Fundamentally, the more we travel to space, the more we will reflect upon our own place in the universe, both in the attempt to address existential questions as well as a quest for collective inspiration.
Sadly, most innovators, researchers, and entrepreneurs aren’t able to fully participate in this ecosystem, as they lack access to the necessary monetary resources. Nakahodo outlines the succinctly summarizes the specific issue, noting that, “all of this is happening in times of limited public funding for space activities.” This is something that NYCSE hopes to help fix; however, their initiatives are about far more than just providing finances.
For Nakahodo, the most notable aspect of this new age in space entrepreneurship is the way that it equalizes spaceflight, bringing all people closer to the stars. He asserts, “The most interesting projects involve democratizing access and bringing humanity closer to space. That means not only developing the rockets necessary to take us there, such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic are doing, but also creating the infrastructure that will allow private citizens to spend time in space.” And that infrastructure is precisely what NYCSE is working to create.
Outlining the specifics of the work, Nakahodo states that the first problem is tackling issues related to access to information. “One of the main challenges for commercial space ventures is the lack of business knowledge and early stage support. Therefore, we are launching a series of initiatives aimed at assisting space entrepreneurs with business learning and idea validation.”
The next problem stems from issues associated with networking—with connecting individuals working on various aspects of the industry so that they have all of the tools and resources (and people) needed to successfully complete their work. Nakahodo states that the second part of their initiative involves “developing an online platform that will allow space entrepreneurs to help each other, as well connect with mentors and investors.” Finally, NYCSE is giving individuals direct access to necessary resources by sponsoring specific joint programs.
In case you missed it, the initiatives are being fully unveiled today at Knotel. Be sure to tune into Futurism’s 360º livestream with NYCSE at 7pm est, which can be found here.
Only a few decades ago, the thought of any alien planets existing in the reaches of space were just hypothetical ideas. Now, we know of thousands of such planets – and today, scientists may have discovered the best candidate yet for alien life.
That candidate is an exoplanet orbiting a red dwarf star 40 light-years from Earth—what the international team of astronomers who discovered it have deemed a “super-Earth.” Using ESO’s HARPS instrument and a range of telescopes around the world, the astronomers located the exoplanet orbiting the dim star – LHS 1140 – within its habitable zone. This world passes in front of its parent stars as it orbits, has likely retained most of its atmosphere, and is a little larger and much more massive than the Earth. In short, super-Earth LHS 1140b is among the most exciting known subjects for atmospheric studies.
Although the faint red dwarf star LHS 1140b is ten times closer to its star than the Earth is to the Sun, because red dwarfs are much smaller and cooler than the Sun is, the super-Earth lies in the middle of the habitable zone and receives around half as much sunlight from its star as the Earth does.
“This is the most exciting exoplanet I’ve seen in the past decade,” lead author Jason Dittmann of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics said in an ESO science release. “We could hardly hope for a better target to perform one of the biggest quests in science — searching for evidence of life beyond Earth.”
Life As We Know It
To support life as we know it, a planet must retain an atmosphere and have liquid surface water. When red dwarf stars are young, they emit radiation that can damage the atmospheres of planets around them. This planet’s large size indicates that a magma ocean may have existed on its surface for eons, feeding steam into the atmosphere and replenishing the planet with water until well within the time the star had cooled to its current, steady glow. The astronomers estimate the planet is at least five billion years old, and deduce that it has a diameter of almost 18,000 kilometers (11,185 mi)— 1.4 times larger than that of the Earth. Its greater mass and density implies that it is probably made of rock with a dense iron core.
Two of the European members of the team, Xavier Delfosse and Xavier Bonfils, stated in the release: “The LHS 1140 system might prove to be an even more important target for the future characterization of planets in the habitable zone than Proxima b or TRAPPIST-1. This has been a remarkable year for exoplanet discoveries!”
Scientists expect observations with the Hubble Space Telescope will soon allow them to assess how much high-energy radiation the exoplanet receives, and further into the future — with the help of new telescopes like ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope and the James Webb Telescope — detailed observations of the atmospheres of exoplanets will be possible.
In August 2016, researchers discovered a potentially habitable planet about the same size as Earth orbiting the closest stellar neighbor to our Sun: Proxima Centauri. This places Proxima b about 4.2 light years away. Scientists have tried to detect more details about the planet, and hopefully moving forward the James Webb telescope will provide better views. However, a spacecraft sent to the planet could gather enough data to reveal whether it could support life — or maybe that it already does.
Just before Proxima b was found, a group of scientists and business leaders took the first steps towards sending humans to the Alpha Centauri system by announcing the Breakthrough Starshot. The international effort, backed by Russian investor Yuri Milner to the tune of $100 million, aims to vastly accelerate the research and development of a viable space probe for the interstellar trip. The Proxima b discovery provided an attainable, yet still daunting, engineering target.
To reach Proxima b within the lifetime of the average scientist, a probe would need to travel at one-fifth the speed of light or faster as it navigated through invisible debris. Then, during a 60,000-kilometer-per-second (37,000-miles-per-second) fly-by of the Proxima system, it would need to collect useful data and transmit it four light years back to Earth.
The first major step is to accelerate the spacecraft to a high enough speed. Conventional rockets can’t store enough fuel to reach the required speeds, so Starshot is working to harness light from lasers. An Earthbound 100-gigawatt array of lasers would generate a beam to propel the probe’s small light sail after conventional rockets launched it clear of our atmosphere.
The biggest risk will come from collisions with interstellar particles and cosmic rays. Starshot hopes to protect the craft by coating the leading edge with a millimeter or so of a high-strength material such as beryllium copper. To ensure that being knocked off-course doesn’t end the mission, the probe will be equipped with pilot AI.
The team hopes to launch the craft around 2040, and then wait out the 20 years of travel without news. Then, around 2060, the on-board computer of the Starshot craft should wake up, check in with Earth, detect that it is approaching Proxima Centauri, and prepare for its fly-by.
One Giant Step
The highest priority for the craft will be to take a photo which could capture whether the planet is barren or watery and green like Earth. It could also reveal large-scale features, like craters and mountains. An on-board spectrometer could search for molecules that signal life, such as methane, oxygen, and more complex hydrocarbons. Instruments might also probe the atmosphere (if it has one) and measure the planet’s magnetic field. Proxima b, like every other nearby exoplanet, is likely to hold surprises that only a close encounter can reveal.
Even beyond that, proponents of the Starshot mission see its potential success as something more than data about a new world — it would represent humanity pushing itself to a new level of achievement. “I see Starshot as about the development of capability,” Kelvin Long, a member of the project’s advisory committee, told Scientific American. “It’s like going to the Moon.”
In other words, the success of the Starshot would equip us with a new set of capabilities that would transform solar system exploration from the dreamed into the routine. For example, the laser array planned by the Starshot will be able to send probes anywhere in our own solar system in a matter of days, and make trips into the interstellar medium in a week or two.
“How would you like to deliver next-day Amazon to Mars?” astrophysicist Philip Lubin, who is also on the project’s advisory committee, told Scientific American. “This is a radical transformation of how we might be able to explore.”
President Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 federal budget leaves most of NASA‘s funding intact, with the total budget coming in at $19.1 billion (slightly less than the $19.3 billion approved for 2017). Thanks to Motherboard’s acquisition of communication between the Trump Administration and NASA, we may have a little more insight as to why the administration views NASA as a good investment.
According to documents, the Trump team asked for data and examples of NASA’s “technology development” with the commercial industry and information on whether government-funded developments are disseminated through contracts/partnerships.
In short, they wanted to know how NASA helped fund and fuel private industries and how they contribute to money-making enterprises—case in point, the administration asked about NASA’s plan to survey the Moon in order to locate potential raw materials and determine how they can best be extracted for mining purposes.
In response, NASA assured the administration that it continuously searches for appropriate public-private partnerships, expecting the technology that it develops to grow private commercial pursuits such as work in low-Earth orbit. Specifically, they say they are “working with industry to develop innovative cislunar [a region that is equidistant between Earth and the Moon] habitation concepts that leverage existing commercialization plans.”
A New Era In Space Exploration
The commercialization of low-Earth orbit could mean a treasure trove of resources totaling up to potentially trillions of dollars. Rare and valuable resources, such as platinum-group metals, can be mined from nearby asteroids or the Moon over a sustainable period of time. That is, only if NASA has the chance to survey the Moon’s “Polar volatiles,” or regions that include minable water, hydrogen, and methane — substances that can supply long-term human missions in the future.
This apparent focus from the administration is notable, as Lunar and asteroid mining has received increased interest from the private sector over recent years, with companies such as Planetary Resources and NexGen Space (the president of which, Charles Miller, is part of Trump’s team) advocating for the feasibility and profitability of such endeavors. While NASA isn’t new to bolstering commercialized efforts in space, the space agency has subtly pointed out in Motherboard’s 100 paged FOIA request that its mission isn’t primarily commercial, but scientific.
“NASA envisions a future in which low Earth orbit is largely the domain of commercial activity while NASA leads its international and commercial partners in the human exploration of deep space,” they wrote.
To this end, the benefits of more private operations in space include greater transparency of costs, low-cost execution of launches and exploration, greater access to different vantage points in low-Earth orbit, quick production, international collaboration, and an overall facilitation of NASA’s over-arching goal of achieving human deep-space exploration.
While NASA is in it for the science, the administration might have other ideas. But will a stronger emphasis on profitability stifle innovation — or help it grow? We may get a clearer answer once the national budget is finalized and implemented.