NASA has confirmed that SpaceX is making changes to their previously announced timeline for a manned mission to Mars. Jim Green, head of the agency’s planetary science division, acknowledged that NASA had been informed that Red Dragon was being put “on the back burner.”
SpaceX was originally planning to make the journey to Mars in 2018, with NASA providing assistance with regards to navigation and communications as part of a Space Act Agreement between the two organizations. “We’d agreed to navigate to Mars, get [Elon Musk] to the top of the atmosphere, and then it was up to him to land,” said Green.
Initially, Red Dragon was expected to use a propulsion landing system to make its controlled descent onto the surface of Mars. However, when SpaceX confirmed in July 2017 that the craft would no longer have these capabilities, many observers wondered whether the Mars mission might miss its launch date.
This past weekend, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk promised to reveal photos of the space suit his company has been developing for NASA. Musk revealed the first of these photos on his Instagram earlier today, and promised to show “[m]ore in days to follow.” First announced in 2015, it’s taken SpaceX almost two years to preview the design.
Musk says that what’s in the photo is an actual working space suit and not a mock up — perhaps referring to the one he wore in that Vogue photoshoot two years ago. The suit is also white rather than gray like the design Musk wore for the shoot.
While Musk admitted it was difficult to “balance esthetics and function,” the suit we see in the photo seems to fit the bill — if not slightly reminiscent of the suits worn by soldiers in the video game Halo. Further evidence that SpaceX is making good on its promise to develop a space suit that looks like it belongs in the 21st century.
First picture of SpaceX spacesuit. More in days to follow. Worth noting that this actually works… https://t.co/5ZtqkKiTQX
In terms of function, Musk said the suit has already passed double vacuum pressure tests and “ocean landing mobility/safety tests” are underway. To be sure, SpaceX wants to have this space suit ready for what could be its first manned mission slated for 2018 — that lunar round trip paid for by two people. It’s also expected to see use for SpaceX’s missions under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
We now have evidence that Mars gets its share of snow— and that far from being only light flurries, they’re sometimes violent snowstorms.
These storms are much different from what was previously thought of the red planet’s weather, which only occurs at night and comes with intense gusts of wind. This new forecast came from a combination of data on water-ice clouds, collected by the Mars Global Surveyor and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft over the years, and data gathered by NASA’s Phoenix Lander, which ventured to Mars in 2008.
“It’s the first time anyone has shown that snowstorms, or water-ice microbursts, occur presently on Mars,” said lead researcher Aymeric Spiga, a planetary scientist from the Université Pierre and Marie Curie in Paris, to New Scientist. “Any snow particles formed were thought to fall only very slowly through their own weight.”
Spiga explains that previous attempts to find snowstorms were unsuccessful because scientists were using the wrong models, or only one model at a time. Spiga and his team used “more sophisticated and fine-scale modelling,” allowing them to simulate Mars’ atmosphere in greater detail.
Many of the snowstorms will gradually come to an end before reaching the planet’s surface, but others can make it to ground level if a cloud forms closer to the surface. That said, the amount of snow isn’t enough to ski on, or even to make a decent snowman.
“Well, the associated winds found in the storm are rather vigorous,” explained Franck Montmessin, another member of Spiga’s team studying Mars’ atmosphere, to ResearchGate’s blog. “Since they occur in the lower part of the atmosphere, one might want to avoid these turbulent events to ensure a safe landing.”
Anytime you think about the modern space race and the billionaires who are trying to make it happen, chances are that Elon Musk of SpaceX and Jeff Bezos of Blue Origin pop into your head. Despite this, there are 14 other benefactors of the space revolution that fall among the world’s 500 richest people, according to data from consulting firm Bryce Space & Technology and the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
Together these individuals share a net worth of $513 billion, and every dollar could be used towards these ventures given the wildly expensive production, development, and innovation currently underway. Already, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has invested more than $600 million to boost commercial flights into suborbital space before the end of 2018. Additionally, Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson is funding a lunar mission, and banking and retail billionaire Ricardo Salinas has invested in the OneWeb satellite network.
We are now in the age of space startups, fueled in part by Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp and Space Angels, a network for space investors. These projects help companies that aren’t billionaire-backed to negotiate the cost of getting into space, and now more than 225 private ventures have received financing for space projects, with about $3.1 billion invested in 2016 alone.
Sure, some of these groups won’t make it — but some will. And, as more companies enter the space marketplace, we are bound to see even more innovation, ridesharing, and other never-before-conceived concepts.
Within Earth’s orbit, there are literally thousands of what are known as Near-Earth Objects (NEOs), more than fourteen thousands of which are asteroids that periodically pass close to Earth. Since the 1980s, these objects have become a growing source of interest to astronomers, due to the threat they sometimes represent. But as ongoing studies and decades of tracking the larger asteroids has shown, they usually just pass Earth by.
More importantly, it is only on very rare occasions (i.e. over the course of millions of years) that a larger asteroid will come close to colliding with Earth. For example, this September 1st, the Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) known as 3122 Florence, will pass by Earth, but poses no danger of hitting us. Good thing too, since this Near-Earth Asteroid is one of the largest yet to be discovered, measuring about 4.4 km (2.7 mi) in diameter!
To put that in perspective, the asteroid which is thought to have killed the dinosaurs roughly 65 million years ago (aka. the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event) is believed to have measured 10 km (6 mi) in diameter. This impact also destroyed three-quarters of the plant and animal species on Earth, hence why organizations like NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) is in he habit of tracking the larger NEAs.
Once again, NASA has determined that this particular asteroid will sail harmlessly by, passing Earth at a minimum distance of over 7 million km (4.4 million mi), or about 18 times the distance between the Earth and the Moon. As Paul Chodas – NASA’s manager of CNEOS at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California – said in a NASA press statement:
“While many known asteroids have passed by closer to Earth than Florence will on September 1, all of those were estimated to be smaller. Florence is the largest asteroid to pass by our planet this close since the NASA program to detect and track near-Earth asteroids began.”
Rather than being a threat, the flyby of this asteroid will be an opportunity for scientists to study it up close. NASA is planning on conducting radar studies of Florence using the Goldstone Solar System Radar in California, and the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Arecibo Observatory in Peurto Rico. These studies are expected to yield more accurate data on its size, and reveal surface details at resolutions of up to 10 m (30 feet).
This asteroid was originally discovered on March 2nd, 1981, by American astronomer Schelte Bus at the Siding Spring Observatory in southwestern Australia. It was named in honor of Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) the founder of modern nursing. Measurements obtained by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and the NEOWISE mission are what led to the current estimates on its size – about 4.4 km (2.7 mi) in diameter.
The upcoming flyby will be the closest this asteroid has passed to Earth since August 31st, 1890, where it passed at a distance of 6.7 million km (4.16 million mi). Between now and then, it also flew by Earth on August 29th, 1930, passing Earth at a distance of about 7.8 million km (4.87 million mi). While it will pass Earth another seven times over the course of the next 500 years, it will not be as close as it will be this September until after 2500.
For those interesting into doing a little sky watching, Florence will be brightening substantially by late August and early September. During this time, it will be visible to those using small telescopes for several nights as it moves through the constellations of Piscis Austrinus, Capricornus, Aquarius and Delphinus.
Be sure to check out these animations of Florence’s orbit and its close flyby to Earth:
It’s an exciting time for those interested in space and everything it has to offer us. Between our potential to travel in space and how much we’ve come to learn (and can still learn) from unmanned probes and satellites, it’s hard to not be hopeful for the future of our interest in the seemingly-boundless expanse that surrounds us.
NASA’s Acting Administrator Robert M. Lightfoot, Jr. feels the same about the exploration of space. To him, the many plans, projects, and initiatives focused in this respect are well worth getting excited about.
“There is more going on right now in space than I’ve ever seen in my career,” he told Futurism.
At the same time, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his company Blue Origin are looking to make space travel more accessible by providing brief tours to everyday people. Their New Shepard capsule, while not meant to reach other planets, or even the Moon, is powerful enough to reach a suborbit, allowing passengers to see space. It’s expected to begin offering commercial flights next year.
In both public and private spaces, SpaceX and Blue Origin are often viewed as direct competitors, and as such it’s no secret that this is a race to see who makes it happen first. That said, there’s more competition when it comes to commercializing space travel, such as Virgin Galactic, which also hopes to put people in space next year.
“We are getting to space a little differently than we used to. It’s not just us anymore by ourselves,” said Lightfoot.
More Than Space Tours
Despite how committed private companies are, NASA isn’t leaving all the fun to them. Though it doesn’t have plans to send people on space tours, it still has probes and other spacecraft out there. Cassini, which recently sent back new data from Saturn as part of its final mission. There’s also the revival of New Horizons, a spacecraft that’s been dormant for the last several months that will now be used to investigate a mysterious object in the Kuiper Belt. Getting more people into space is enticing, but for now there are some places only a satellite is capable of reaching.
As for it’s own future developments, NASA has plans to improve upon the International Space Station, and its solar arrays, and the benefits of the refit may reach become a part of our quotidian lives. Known as the Roll Out Solar Array, or ROSA, this technology could make it far easier to transport and collect solar power. The tech could also improve services we’ve come to rely on, like GPS, weather forecasts, and satellite radio. ROSA still has a few quirks to work out, but it’s quickly on its way to becoming the most efficient solar array created.
Lightfoot is right to take note of how many things people have planned for space, and it feels like the momentum will lead to new developments and discoveries. Fingers crossed this trend doesn’t slow, and people continue to have an interest in space for years to come.
Much of the buzz we’ve been hearing about SpaceX recently has been about unmanned spaceflights — including last week’s International Space Station re-supply mission for NASA. Indeed, the company has been so busy working on perfecting its reusable rocket technology that we may have forgotten it’s also preparing for the eventuality of sending humans to space.
In a Reddit AMA back in October of 2015, Musk said that SpaceX’s space suit “needs to both look like a 21st century spacesuit and work well.” If what Musk modeled in an interview with fashion magazine Vogue back in 2015 was similar to the prototype, then we can expect the suit to look very cool indeed. As for function, SpaceX is still conducting tests — as Musk mentioned in the tweet.
Could the “ocean landing mobility/safety tests” mean the suit is designed for exploration beyond the inside of a spacecraft? We’ll have to wait and see. SpaceX is slated for a loop around the Moon in 2018, which has already been paid for by two space tourists. If all goes according to plan, that trip could be the first time SpaceX’s suits will grace space.
One of the most well known quotes regarding life in the universe aside from our own is from Sir Arthur C. Clarke, who once said: “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”
We know next to nothing about intelligent alien life, including the probability of their existence. Yet, even the smartest people among us believe we’ll make contact, and sooner rather than later. When we asked our readers when this life-changing event could occur, we learned almost 50 percent believe (or at least hope) we’ll make first contact before 2040. 27 percent think it’ll happen even sooner, in the 2020s. Developments in technology have allowed us to better understand our universe and what’s in it, including the discovery of exoplanets that could contain alien life.
Making the First Move
We haven’t just been sitting around over the years hoping aliens will reach out to us first. We’ve made a number of attempts to call out to the stars, and have even made it possible for other intelligent species to find our home planet; plans to talk to those residing off-world have been around for much longer than we may think.
In 1820, astronomer Joseph Johann von Littrow proposed carving a series of large squares, circles, and triangles into the Sahara Desert, filling them with kerosene, then lighting them at night in an attempt to communicate with Mars. In 1896, Nikola Tesla suggested his device to transmit electricity without wires could be used to reach out to Mars.
More recent attempts like the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 both contain pulsar maps leading to our location, and the Aceribo Message was beamed into space in 1974. As promising as they may sound, Frank Drake, creator of the original pulsar map, has said it’s unlikely the maps aboard the probes will ever be found, since they take half a million years to travel from one star to another, and they’re not aimed at anything specific. It’s equally unlikely the Aceribo Message will even get a response, though that hasn’t stopped others from sending messages of their own into space, like the European Space Agency did late last year.
Those are just simple messages and unmanned spacecraft, though. Surely people would be able to get it done sooner if they ventured out into the great unknown?
Unfortunately, even popular astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson believes that to be far off. During a Reddit AMA in April, he explained that such contact between ourselves and other intelligent organisms is more than 50 years away.
“No. I think they (we) might all be too far away from one another in space and possibly time,” he said. “By complex, I’m presuming you mean life other than single-celled organisms. Life with legs, arms, thoughts, etc. It’s all about our capacity to travel interstellar distances. And that’s surely not happening in the next 50 years. Not the rate things are going today.”
The Best Way to Communicate
There’s no surefire way to reach out to alien life or to be ready when they call to us. That said, we can be as prepared as possible, and continue sending messages in various languages, but the latter is the hardest part. As New Atlas explains, such a message has to be recognized as harmless, but one worth paying attention to. More importantly, it has to be understandable — but how do you make something understandable when you don’t know the full extent of what an undiscovered form of life can comprehend? Messages like the aforementioned pulsar map and Aceribo message meet the requirements, but sending more messages like them has been met with opposition.
Physicist Stephen Hawking, who, while not against the idea of there being other life in the universe, believes we shouldn’t be so eager to let them know we’re here and what we’re capable of. He proposed the idea that whatever species we engage with could be “vastly more powerful and may not see us as any more valuable than we see bacteria.” This could lead to an unfavorable situation, potentially leading to our extinction or being conquered.
Fellow physicist Michio Kaku has also spoken on how to contact alien life, but suggests we may simply be unable to, due to our current technology and understanding of the universe. He once compared us communicating with intelligent alien life to ants trying to connect with us.
“If ants in an ant hill detect a 10-lane superhighway being built near them, would they understand how to communicate with the workers? Would they assume that the workers communicate only on ant frequencies? In fact, the ants are so primitive that they would not even understand what a 10-lane superhighway was.”
Regardless of our place in the universe, it’s clear that many believe we’re not alone, and that we’re on track to our first interaction. Now, it’s just a matter of being prepared, and making the most of it when it does happen.
Getting to Mars is the biggest space project this generation will ever see, that is until we actually land people on the red planet. Such a bold endeavor has a cornucopia of nitty-gritty details to iron out, in one way or another, before proceeding with a manned mission. The most obvious is the need to build rockets and spacecraft able to ferry probes and people. For NASA’s mission to Mars, this also entails the construction of a lunar space station that’ll serve as a jump-off point to the rest of the solar system.
Speaking to Futurism after the successful launch of SpaceX’s CRS-12 mission on Monday, NASA Acting Chief Administrator Robert Lightfoot, Jr. explained how getting to Mars requires small, incremental steps. “When you look at our plans today [for getting to Mars], we use the International Space Station as much as we can…for example, our life support systems, we test them up there.” He added that the Moon would be the next logical step in this process.
But getting to Mars and surviving there are two disparate yet equally important aspects of the same mission. “We try and make sure that, when we do a science mission or a human spaceflight mission, that we have a cross between the science and the human exploration,” Lightfoot explained.
Making Life Possible
Now no one wants to fly to Mars, land on the ground, yawp “I did it!”, turn around and head home. Space exploration is more than symbolic pretense. We want to stay on Mars and install a colony. Of course, the eventual plan is to terraform Mars, but that could take thousands of years to accomplish — if it’s at all possible. So, in Lightfoot’s mind, we ought to start small, and there’s nothing more basic for survival on Mars (or anywhere) than having a secure source of air to breathe. “The next lander that is going to Mars, Mars 2020, has an experiment where we are going to try and actually generate oxygen out of the atmosphere on Mars, clearly that’s for human capability down the road,” Lightfoot said.
What we know is that the Red Planet’s atmosphere is thinner than Earths, with some 95.32 percent carbon dioxide, 2.7 percent nitrogen, 1.6 percent argon, and about 0.13 oxygen, plus a bunch of other elements in even smaller amounts. By contrast, the Earth’s atmosphere has 78 percent nitrogen and 21 percent oxygen. Water won’t be much of a problem, though.
It may sound like science fiction right now, but lab experiments have shown that it’s possible. That’s why the Mars 2020 Rover mission is crucial. Other efforts to make Mars habitable include plans of building a magnetic shield around the planet, similar to Earth’s, building a nuclear reactor, as well as growing potatoes like in Matt Damon in The Martian.
On Monday, August 14, SpaceX launched a resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS). It was the 12th resupply flight SpaceX has done for NASA as part of its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program, and the last one with an unused Dragon capsule. It has also been a month since Elon Musk’s rocket company flew to space, after a series of successful launches earlier this summer. This most recent CRS-12 flight was a special one, both for NASA and SpaceX, but also for the future of space exploration.
A great many recent rocket and spaceflight achievements have been made by commercial space companies like SpaceX and Orbital ATK (formerly Orbital Sciences). Both companies have been running CRS missions for NASA, as well as aeronautics giant Boeing. There’s also Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin which is also working on reusable rockets, Virgin Galactic with its more space tourism-focused approach, and many more space endeavor focused startups.
NASA acting administrator Robert Lightfoot, Jr. is convinced that these private, commercial companies are actually the future of space exploration — or at least, they’ll make it possible. “Today epitomizes what we have been doing for a long time in terms of building our commercial partnerships,” Lightfoot told Futurism after Monday’s launch. “We are getting to space a little differently than we used to. It’s not just us anymore by ourselves. We’ve got a great partnership with SpaceX. We’ve got a great partnership with Orbital ATK.”
Such a collaboration between NASA and commercial space agencies has been working well, Lightfoot noted. For one, it’s what’s made it possible for the ISS to continue operating. “They have allowed us to keep the space station going and allowed us to do some fantastic research,” he said, referring to SpaceX and Orbital ATK’s CRS missions.
Lightfoot also suggested that these partnerships could do so much more, like sending people to space again. ”SpaceX and Boeing will come along and allow us to fly [a] crew,” he said. “In a couple of years we will get there, and they will be getting crew to the station….this will give us our own access to space.” From there on, the possibilities could be endless.
Indeed, space exploration is entering a new era. It isn’t necessarily ending the era when space agencies were the only ones making giant leaps for mankind — only helping it. Collaboration is the future of space exploration.
The Cassini spacecraft is locked in a death dance with Saturn, yet its time there has not only revolutionized our knowledge of the ringed planet. In the course of its mission, Cassini has also revealed new information about Saturn’s moons, like Titan — which, we discovered after the touchdown of the Huygens probe in 2005, hints at what Earth may have been like very early in its primordial life.
The nuclear-powered spacecraft’s four-year foray in Saturnian orbit began in 2004, and filled our screens with the majesty of Saturn’s clouds and signature rings. It also studied the moons Enceladus, a frozen body striated with fractures and crevasses, and Titan, the hazy, planet-sized moon whose liquid methane rivers and sea astounded scientists. Enceladus’ icy surface masks what many suspect to be a subsurface ocean, potentially bustling with microbial life, much the same as we suspect of Jupiter’s moon Europa.
Last Monday Cassini executed the first of five final orbits, skimming Saturn’s atmosphere. As one of NASA’s flagship missions (high-end explorations of the planets), the “Grand Finale” for the $3.26-billion, 20-year mission, will end in a spectacular display, disintegrating into Saturn’s atmosphere.
By discovering conditions for life on Saturn’s moons, Cassini made its death dive a moral necessity for NASA: if Cassini were allowed to continue orbiting, it would run out of rocket fuel and leave mission operators unable to control its course. Without outside corrections, the spacecraft could crash into one of those moons, potentially contaminating any life there with Earthly microbes. The irony of flagship missions like Cassini, and Galileo before it, is that their destruction came precisely because they exceeded our expectations.
Let’s take a look at Cassini’s last days:
Cassini’s final five orbits will use Titan’s gravity. This gravitational slingshot conserves untold amounts of fuel, the supply of which the craft has nearly exhausted.
These two images of Titan reveal its cloudy, hazy atmosphere.
This is Titan’s night-side, featuring its signature hazy atmosphere. The image was captured roughly 2 million km (1.2 million miles) from the giant moon.
Scientists have yet to understand why there is no tilt between Saturn’s magnetosphere and its rotational axis. This contradicts our knowledge of magnetic fields, seeing as Earth’s magnetosphere is off-rotational-axis. This also means we don’t know the length of Saturn’s days.
Check out this view of Prometheus, a moon in precarious orbit inside Saturn’s F-ring. Gravitational interactions with Prometheus (86 km in diameter, or 53 miles) shape the ring’s subtle features.
Hall thrusters (HTs) are used in earth-orbiting satellites, and also show promise to propel robotic spacecraft long distances, such as from Earth to Mars. The propellant in a HT, usually xenon, is accelerated by an electric field which strips electrons from neutral xenon atoms, creating a plasma. Plasma ejected from the exhaust end of the thruster can deliver great speeds, typically around 70,000 mph.
Cylindrical shaped Hall thrusters (CHTs) lend themselves to miniaturization and have a smaller surface-to-volume ratio that prevents erosion of the thruster channel. Investigators at the Harbin Institute of Technology in China have developed a new inlet design for CHTs that significantly increases thrust. Simulations and experimental tests of the new design are reported this week in the journal Physics of Plasmas.
CHTs are designed for low-power operations. However, low propellant flow density can cause inadequate ionization, a key step in the creation of the plasma and the generation of thrust. In general, increasing the gas density in the discharge channel while lowering its axial velocity, i.e., the speed perpendicular to the thrust direction, will improve the thruster’s performance.
Neutral Flow Dynamics
“The most practical way to alter the neutral flow dynamics in the discharge channel is by changing the gas injection method or the geometric morphology of the discharge channel,” said Liqiu Wei, one of the lead authors of the paper.
The investigators tested a simple design change. The propellant is injected into the cylindrical chamber of the thruster by a number of nozzles that usually point straight in, toward the center of the cylinder. When the angle of the inlet nozzles is changed slightly, the propellant is sent into a rapid circular motion, creating a vortex in the channel.
Wei and his coworkers simulated the motion of the plasma in the channel for both nozzle angles using modeling and analysis software (COMSOL) that uses a finite element approach to modeling molecular flow. The results showed that the gas density near the periphery of the channel is higher when the nozzles are tilted and the thruster is run in vortex mode. In this mode, gas density is significantly higher and more uniform, which also helps improve thruster performance.
The investigators verified their simulation’s predictions experimentally, and the vortex inlet mode successfully produced higher thrust values, especially when a low discharge voltage was used. In particular, the specific impulse of the thruster increased by 1.1 to 53.5 percent when the discharge voltage was in the range of 100 to 200 Volts.
“The work we report here only verified the practicability of this gas inlet design. We still need to study the effect of nozzle angle, diameter, the ratio of depth to diameter and the length of the discharge channel,” Wei said. He went on to predict that the vortex design will be tested in flight-type HTs soon and may eventually be used in spaceflight.
40 years ago, NASA launched the Voyager spacecraft and a plan was devised in the event that intelligent life wanted to find their origin point. That plan involved the creation of a map that would lead the finders of the Voyager probes back to Earth. Now, it couldn’t be any old map that used directions like North, South, East, West, or vague locations like “the third planet from the Sun.”
Instead, astrophysicist Frank Drake decided to create a map that used pulsars — massive neutron stars that can live for millions of years. They often look like they’re flickering, but are actually spinning constantly, and slow down with age, and by timing those flickers, you can figure out their spin rate. As explained by Nadia Drake at National Geographic, an intelligent being who found the Voyager and the accompanying map could measure the current spin rate of a pulsar, and compare it to the spin rate noted on the map, informing them of how long the probe had been traveling.
Frank Drake and fellow astrophysicist Carl Sagan decided on this in 1971, six years before either of the Voyagers were launched. 14 pulsars were used for the original map, which contains lines connecting each pulsar to the Sun as the central point. The pulsars’ individual spin rates are written on the lines in binary code, with the entire map inscribed on the Voyager Golden Record.
“There was a magic about pulsars … no other things in the sky had such labels on them,” explained Drake. “Each one had its own distinct pulsing frequency, so it could be identified by anybody, including other creatures after a long period of time and far, far away.”
More Than One Way to Find a Planet
The Pulsar map isn’t the only way we’ve provided extraterrestrial life with a way to track us down. It’s widely known that we’ve sent radio messages and signals to space, including the Aceribo Message which was initially sent in 1974. Even unintentional signals have been sent from various radio and TV broadcasts over the years.
Presently, organizations like Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) are putting more funding into sending additional messages to the stars, while the Breakthrough Message initiative is encouraging a new round of debates about what should be said if/when we find alien life (or it finds us). These efforts are going so far as to hold a competition in which people come up with the “best” digital messages, though there are no plans to send them just yet.
Some are against the idea of continually letting the Universe know we’re here, and how to find us. With regards to the Voyager probe, though, it’s unlikely the map will ever reach anyone that can read it.
“The thing is going something like 10 kilometers (6 miles) per second, at which speed it takes—for the typical separation of stars—about half a million years to go from one star to another,” said Drake. “And of course, it’s not aimed at any star, it’s just going where it’s going.”
There’s a vital human desire to discover and explore other planets like Earth, so the plenum of candidate Earth-like planets is fitting. As of July 2017, there are 3,500 confirmed exoplanets, with the tally of Earth-like candidates just under 300. Once the fringe-dream of groups like SETI, the 21st century has seen world-shattering (literally) progress towards the ultimate goal of confirming the existence of another rocky planet hospitable to human life. We know their distances from Earth, their respective masses, we’ve come close to determining their surface temperature, and even used cutting-edge chemistry to interpolate their elemental composition and age.
Before diving in, it’s worth noting we’ve yet to find a ride capable of transporting us hundreds of light-years through interstellar space, sans the decades-(if not centuries)-long transit. Nevertheless, finding an extra-solar home-away-from-home has become one of the most popular scientific fields in the world. The first exoplanet in stellar orbit was discovered in 1995. And, there seems to be no end to the dozens of Earth-like exoplanets discovered over the years since NASA’s Kepler program began in 2009. Indeed, a collaboration between the European Southern Observatory and NASA led to the discovery of TRAPPIST-1, a star system hosting an astonishing seven Earth-size exoplanets.
In order to qualify for the coveted habitable list, these planets have to be located within the “habitable zone” – the differential diameter around a star wherein the range of surface temperatures allow liquid water to subsist. So without further delay, here are some of the closest candidates for humanity’s next home.
Gliese 667 Cc is an exoplanet of the red dwarf star called Gliese 667 C. At 23.62 light-years away, it can be found in the Scorpius constellation, and was found to have a mass that is over three-and-a-half times that of Earth. It was found to be over two billion years old, with a surface temperature of 277 K (4.3 Celsius).
Since it’s tidally locked, one side of Gliese 667 Cc receives no sunlight, while the other lives in permanent day under its parent star, Gliese 667 C. According to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the exoplanet receives 90 percent of the energy from its star compared to what Earth gets from the Sun, making it theoretically suitable for human life, although not enough is known about its atmosphere to be certain.
With more mass, the gravitational pull is be 60% higher than on Earth, plus a thick atmosphere, causing atmospheric pressure to be several hundred times greater. But could there be life? According to the institute of Theoretical Astrophysics at the University of Oslo, only species that tolerate extreme conditions like the tardigrade could survive.
620 light-years away, Kepler-22b orbits the habitable zone of the Kepler-22 system — a star system that shares a lot of similarities with ours. It has an orbital period of 290 days, and a surface temperature of -12 C, assuming it has no atmosphere. The radius is 2.4 times that of Earth, but its composition is still unknown.
NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope discovered its first Earth-size planet in the habitable zone of another star in 2014. Unlike the other planets, exoplanets and stars, Kepler-186f is roughly the same size as Earth (only about 10% larger), although its exact composition and mass are not yet known. It is 558 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus and has an orbital length of 130 days. It only receives one third of the energy from its star than what Earth receives from the Sun, making it considerably colder.
It orbits its host star in 385 days, is 60% bigger than Earth (often dubbed “super-Earth”) and receives roughly the same amount of energy from its star compared to Earth and the Sun. But considering its age (estimated at 1-3 billion years older than the Sun), its surface temperature is assumed to be too high for human habitation.
As for the possibility of surface-dwelling life, Jon Jenkins, Kepler data analysis lead at NASA’s Ames Research Center says: “It’s awe-inspiring to consider that this planet has spent 6 billion years in the habitable zone of its star; longer than Earth. That’s substantial opportunity for life to arise, should all the necessary ingredients and conditions for life exist on this planet.”
It’s only 40 light-years away, but the exoplanet system called TRAPPIST-1 remains a pretty big mystery. NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope made the announcement in February of 2017, stating that they have found the most Earth-size planets (seven to be precise) orbiting a single star to have ever been discovered. They are all within the habitable zone of the TRAPPIST-1 star, allowing for the existence of liquid water.
Although their densities remain unknown, these exoplanets are so close to each other that — with feet firmly planted on one of their surfaces — you might see geographical features of a neighboring planets simply by looking up at the sky. However, all the TRAPPIST-1’s planets are tidally locked, creating weather systems and temperature fluctuations very difficult, if not impossible, to live in.
In June 0f 2017, NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope team officially added another 219 newly discovered planets to its catalog, ten of which were found within the habitable zone. About 50 of them are about the size of Earth, substantially extending the list of potentially habitable exoplanets.
One of these ten planets potentially-habitable planets is a super-Earth that orbits around GJ 625 — a red dwarf 21 light-years away. GJ 625 b mass is 2.82 times Earth’s. Though the surface is likely Earth-like and rocky, we’ve yet to gather the sufficient data to determine its status on this growing list of candidates for extraterrestrial life.
Satellites are typically imagined to be massive constructs that take millions of dollars to produce and maintain, but the much smaller CubeSats — miniaturized satellites shaped like cubes — are more convenient, cost-effective, and easier to handle. The latest development in CubeSat propulsion could soon see CubeSats using water vapors to maneuver around, potentially making them the preferred hardware to use in future exploratory missions. Water is not only safe to use, but plentiful in our solar system; within our planetary neighborhood, it’s thought to be abundant just next door on Mars’ moon, Phobos.
A team at Purdue University is behind the water-propelled project, which involved a number of undergraduates as part of a propulsion design course. Their prototype CubeSat, presented at the 31st AIAA/USU Conference on Small Satellites, was made using commercially available products at a relatively low cost.
The new propulsion system, called a Film-Evaporation MEMS Tunable Array, or FEMTA thruster, utilizes small capillaries that are ten micrometers in diameter. Ten micrometers isn’t large enough to allow the teaspoon of water inside the CubeSat to be used, so small heaters were installed that can be activated to turn the water into vapor and provide thrust.
Four of these FEMTA thrusters were used on a single ten-centimeters-cubed CubeSat, allowing it to rotate on a single axis. For full three-axis rotation, twelve thrusters are required.
“This is a very low power,” said Alina Alexeenko, a professor at Purdue University and lead researcher on the propulsion project, in a press release. “We demonstrate that one 180-degree rotation can be performed in less than a minute and requires less than a quarter watt, showing that FEMTA is a viable method for altitude control of CubeSats.”
CubeSats have typically been used alongside their larger counterparts. They’ve previously had no propulsion system of their own, requiring them to be launched while aboard another craft. They have then been used for various tasks, such as internet service, high-res imagining, environmental observations, and military surveillance.
With this new water-based propulsion system, however, they can be used for far greater things, such as constellation-flying and exploration — things traditional satellites are unable to do due to their size. Fortunately, Alexeenko and her team are eager to have their system used in a real space mission, and are pursuing a patent for the concept.
That will take some time and more work, of course. The goal now is to further reduce the weight, volume, and power needed to effectively use CubeSats in space. The aforementioned prototype could only accommodate four FEMTA thrusters, and still weighed 2.8 kilograms (6 pounds). To get the most out of the amount of water needed, the CubeSat will have to be lighter.
For retired astrophysicist Daniel Whitmire, currently a mathematics professor at the University of Arkansas (UARK), humanity is typical. Not exactly in the sense that we’re ordinary; we’re typical in a statistical sense, following a concept in modern cosmology called the principle of mediocrity. This principle suggests that in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we should consider humanity to be a typical member of a certain reference class.
This was Whitmire’s conclusion, in a study published in the International Journal of Astrobiology, when he revisited his thoughts on the Fermi Paradox — that we haven’t encountered alien life, despite the high probability of it existing — and again asked if there’s alien life out there. With all the billions of stars in billions of galaxies, chances are there’s bound to be other intelligent life in the cosmos. So, where are they?
“I used to tell my students that by statistics, we have to be the dumbest guys in the galaxy,” Whitmire said in a UARK press release. “After all, we have only been technological for about 100 years, while other civilizations could be more technologically advanced than us by millions or billions of years.”
But Whitmire changed his mind on this concept based on two observations: Firstly, that humanity was the first technologically advanced civilization that evolved on Earth, and we’re currently in our early technological development. (“Technological,” here, is to be understood as biological species that developed electronic devices and are capable of significantly changing the planet.)
On the surface, this may seem like an obvious observation. However, based on the Earth’s habitable time span — from around 5 billion years ago, and for an estimated billion years in the future — it would have been possible for other technological civilizations to precede us on this planet. The thing is, there’s no geologic record that shows someone else came before us. “We’d leave a heck of a fingerprint if we disappeared overnight,” Whitmire said.
Anybody Out There?
But what about life outside of the Earth? Following the same principle of mediocrity, technological civilizations that lasts millions of years or longer are atypical, Whitmire says. If one considers a bell curve of all supposedly extant technological civilizations in the universe, humanity would fall in the middle 95 percent.
If that is the case, the lack of communication from similar civilizations around us does not bode well. Whitmire explains the silence of the cosmos as a product of how typical technological civilizations work: They usually go extinct after attaining technological knowledge. This is the same explanation held by other scientists, and one even suggests that we should look for traces of alien technology instead of alien life.
The “Great Filter” hypothesis is another possible explanation. It suggests that before any life in the universe becomes technological or before technological life goes beyond the bounds of its own planet, it had to overcome some extremely difficult evolutionary threshold. Some even think that climate change is humanity’s great filter.
For resident “Science Guy” Bill Nye, the Fermi Paradox should push humanity to explore further. The reason why we haven’t found intelligent extraterrestrial life or even simple alien life is because we haven’t been looking hard enough. There’s still a big chance that they’re somewhere out there.
Yet these theories assume that we’re not a typical representative of life in the cosmos. “If we’re not typical then my initial observation would be correct,” Whitmire said. “We would be the dumbest guys in the galaxy by the numbers.”
The universe is incomprehensibly vast, with billions of other planets circling billions of other stars. The potential for intelligent life to exist somewhere out there should be enormous.
So, where is everybody?
That’s the Fermi paradox in a nutshell. Daniel Whitmire, a retired astrophysicist who teaches mathematics at the University of Arkansas, once thought the cosmic silence indicated we as a species lagged far behind.
“I taught astronomy for 37 years,” said Whitmire. “I used to tell my students that by statistics, we have to be the dumbest guys in the galaxy. After all we have only been technological for about 100 years while other civilizations could be more technologically advanced than us by millions or billions of years.”
Principle of Mediocrity
Recently, however, he’s changed his mind. By applying a statistical concept called the principle of mediocrity – the idea that in the absence of any evidence to the contrary we should consider ourselves typical, rather than atypical – Whitmire has concluded that instead of lagging behind, our species may be average. That’s not good news.
In a paper published Aug. 3 in the International Journal of Astrobiology, Whitmire argues that if we are typical, it follows that species such as ours go extinct soon after attaining technological knowledge. (The paper is also available on Whitmire’s website.)
The argument is based on two observations: We are the first technological species to evolve on Earth, and we are early in our technological development. (He defines “technological” as a biological species that has developed electronic devices and can significantly alter the planet.)
The first observation seems obvious, but as Whitmire notes in his paper, researchers believe the Earth should be habitable for animal life at least a billion years into the future. Based on how long it took proto-primates to evolve into a technological species, that leaves enough time for it to happen again up to 23 times. On that time scale, there could have been others before us, but there’s nothing in the geologic record to indicate we weren’t the first. “We’d leave a heck of a fingerprint if we disappeared overnight,” Whitmire noted.
By Whitmire’s definition we became “technological” after the industrial revolution and the invention of radio, or roughly 100 years ago. According to the principle of mediocrity, a bell curve of the ages of all extant technological civilizations in the universe would put us in the middle 95 percent. In other words, technological civilizations that last millions of years, or longer, would be highly atypical. Since we are first, other typical technological civilizations should also be first. The principle of mediocrity allows no second acts. The implication is that once species become technological, they flame out and take the biosphere with them.
Whitmire argues that the principle holds for two standard deviations, or in this case about 200 years. But because the distribution of ages on a bell curve skews older (there is no absolute upper limit, but the age can’t be less than zero), he doubles that figure and comes up with 500 years, give or take. The assumption of a bell-shaped curve is not absolutely necessary. Other assumptions give roughly similar results.
There’s always the possibility that we are atypical and our species’ lifespan will fall somewhere in the outlying 5 percent of the bell curve. If that’s the case, we’re back to the nugget of wisdom Whitmire taught his astronomy students for more than three decades.
“If we’re not typical then my initial observation would be correct,” he said. “We would be the dumbest guys in the galaxy by the numbers.”
Have you ever considered the logistics that go into assembling NASA’s gargantuan rockets? Well, it all happens in the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Kennedy Space Center.
The VAB is the only building in existence that assembled rockets that carried humans to the surface of another world. It was completed just three years before we set foot on the Moon.
The 2,664,883 cubic meter (129,428,000 cubic feet) building is one of the world’s largest buildings by volume, and it is the world’s largest one-story building. It was built in the early 1960s to house Saturn V rockets of the Apollo Program, and later it was used for Space Shuttle launch configuration. Now, it’s being prepped to support the SLS—the rocket that may carry the first humans to Mars.
Ultimately, this building is a critical part of NASA’s plans to launch humans (and equipment) into the far reaches of our solar system. But don’t start packing your bags to visit; no tours are open to the public. Since 2014, it has been referred to as one of the “restricted areas of America’s Spaceport”
Recently though, Futurism got a peek into the VAB, and some inside information from NASA experts on what the future holds for the historic site.
The American flag was the largest in the world when added in 1976. Each of the stars on the flag is 1.83 m (6 feet) across. The blue field is the size of a regulation basketball court.
Some Apollo-era structures still remain in the VAB unused. NASA doesn’t clean them out because it’s less expensive just to leave them there.
The tallest portion of the VAB is 52-stories-tall, and it is called “the high bay.” It encloses four vertical corridors with doors 139 me (546 ft) high that take up to 45 minutes to open completely.
The lower structure has large areas of its own that are used to store rocket components until they are needed, while a transfer aisle down the center connects the bays.
There are five overhead cranes inside the VAB, two of which can hold up to 325 tons.
There’s a wall inside the VAB signed by members of the Shuttle team throughout the years.
The Columbia Research Preservation area is located on the 16th floor. The room contains more than 80,000 pieces from the ill-fated mission.
The interior volume of the building is so vast that it has its own weather. Rain clouds have been seen forming below the ceiling on extremely humid days.
Earlier today, at 12:22 AM ET (04:22 GMT), Cassini made a historic ultra-close low pass that skimmed the surface of Saturn’s upper atmosphere — just 1,600 km (1,000 miles) above the cloud tops. The carefully arranged maneuvers mark the final steps of the Grand Finale mission, which will end with the Cassini plunging into Saturn on September. At present, the space probe is circling around the planet, between its rings and atmosphere.
The Grand Finale is more than a dramatic ending for 13 years of exploration around Saturn; its greater purpose is to gather data on the chemical composition of the planet. “It’s expected that the heavier helium is sinking down,” European Space Agency’s Cassini project scientist Nicolas Altobelli told BBC News, explaining that some 25 percent (or less) of Saturn’s composition is made of helium.
“Saturn radiates more energy than it’s absorbing from the Sun, meaning there’s gravitational energy which is being lost. And so getting a precise measure of the hydrogen and helium in the upper layers sets a constraint on the overall distribution of the material in the interior.” Accordingly, 75 percent of Saturn is believed to be hydrogen.
We’ll have to wait until Tuesday for the data though, when Cassini sends it back to Earth after going for another low swoop on Saturn’s atmosphere.
Saturn’s hexagon on summer. Image credit: NASA-JPL
Still, scientists have some questions left unanswered. For one they’re still hoping to gain a more precise understanding of the length of day on Saturn (estimates currently peg it at 10-and-a-half hours). According to NASA, Cassini will also make more detailed observations of “Saturn’s auroras, temperature, and the vortexes at the planet’s poles,” while peering deeper into the atmosphere for other small-scale features.
Iapetus with color. Image credit: NASA-JPL
“As it makes these five dips into Saturn, followed by its final plunge, Cassini will become the first Saturn atmospheric probe,” Cassini project scientist Linda Spilker said in a NASA press release. “It’s long been a goal in planetary exploration to send a dedicated probe into the atmosphere of Saturn, and we’re laying the groundwork for future exploration with this first foray.”
A panoramic image of Saturn, from combined 165 photos taken on Sept. 15, 2006. Image credit: NASA-JPL
Cassini is expected to begin its final plunge toward Saturn’s surface on September 15, after its trajectory is altered by a distant encounter with Titan “as a gravitational version of a large pop-down maneuver” that would slow down the spacecraft’s orbit.
Minutes ago, as SpaceX’s Dragon took off atop the Falcon 9 toward the ISS, an era ended. Concurrently, another was ushered in as smoke (don’t worry, it was the good kind) engulfed Launchpad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This is the same Pad that will be the center point for the Falcon Heavy, crewed flights, and potentially even the future Interplanetary Transport System.
Today’s launch – which brought more than 6,400 pounds of supplies, equipment, and science experiments to the Expedition 52 crew – was the first for SpaceX in more than a month. While it may just sound like another resupply mission for Elon Musk’s spaceflight company, it truly marked a shift in focus.
The craft used today will be the last new first-generation Dragon spacecraft to fly. In a NASA advisory meeting, Sam Scimemi, NASA Director for the ISS, discussed the upcoming SpaceX missions for 2017. He noted that all future CRS-1 launches from SpaceX will be conducted with reused capsules. After today, there are eight more contracted cargo missions through the first CRS program, which means eight more opportunities to reuse the Dragon 2.
Since SpaceX will no longer be making the Dragon 1 spacecraft, resources can be reallocated toward the Dragon 2. This craft is designed to transport up to seven humans to the ISS or, someday, the Red Planet as a part of the Red Dragon Mission.
There was a time that I thought the Dragon approach to landing Mars, where you’ve got a base heat shield and side-mounted thrusters, would be the right way to land on Mars. Now I’m pretty confident that is not the right way and there’s a far better approach.
Musk’s tweet hints that the Red Dragon mission could be pushed back, or even cancelled from the original 2018 date. Even if the Dragon 2 won’t be taking the most precious cargo (i.e. humans) to the Red Planet, SpaceX is expected to have a cargo-only version of the craft for future resupply missions.
Suffice it to say, SpaceX fans have quite a bit to look forward to throughout the rest of the year, with the excitement (arguably) culminating in the maiden Falcon Heavy launch. The Dragon 1 that launched today will attempt to land on the LZ-1 pad, which is already being prepped for the dual booster landing of the Falcon Heavy this November. While the side boosters land on LZ-1, the core booster will attempt to touch down on SpaceX’s drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You.”
If all goes well, the most powerful operational rocket in the world will restore the possibility of flying missions with crew to the Moon or Mars in the very near future.
NASA’s Voyager spacecrafts were initially launched in 1977, and 40 years later, NASA can confirm that both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 are still functioning and making their way through space. Neither is showing any signs of slowing, and it’s unlikely they’ll need to be shut down anytime soon.
Everyday, the pair of spacecrafts send information back to NASA regarding the conditions of their current locations, which includes areas where our Sun has minimal to no influence. Voyager 1, which is 13 billion miles away from Earth, travels through interstellar space, moving northward out of the plane containing our planets. Voyager 2, meanwhile, is 11 billion miles away from Earth, and moving southward.
Both have seen a lot over the years, including Voyager 2’s flyby of the four outer planets — Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune — volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon Io, an Earth-like atmosphere on Saturn’s moon Titan, and geysers of icy cold nitrogen on Neptune’s moon Triton. Voyager 1 was the first to reach interstellar space, and is currently the only spacecraft to do so, though Voyager 2 is expected to do the same relatively soon.
“I believe that few missions can ever match the achievements of the Voyager spacecraft during their four decades of exploration,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) at NASA Headquarters. “They have educated us to the unknown wonders of the universe and truly inspired humanity to continue to explore our solar system and beyond.”
Thanks to the two probes and their opposing trajectories, NASA scientists have been able to gather invaluable information on the heliosphere — the bubble of solar wind containing our system’s planets. When Voyager 2 reaches interstellar space within the next few years, scientists will be able to see how the heliosphere interacts with the interstellar medium from multiple locations simultaneously; this medium being a region in which the magnetic field is being affected by nearby solar wind. The existence of this medium was first noticed by NASA in 2015, three years after Voyager 1 made it to interstellar space.
According to NASA, the potential of this project to revolutionize space travel lies in the “ability to accelerate a large amount of propellant out of the back of a rocket at very high speeds, resulting in a highly efficient, high-thrust engine.” Nuclear thermal rockets have double the propulsion efficiency of even the Space Shuttle’s main engine, and the new engines would also weigh less, allowing for a higher cargo capacity.
Sonny Mitchell, Nuclear Thermal Propulsion project manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, said in a NASA press release, “As we push out into the solar system, nuclear propulsion may offer the only truly viable technology option to extend human reach to the surface of Mars and to worlds beyond.”
Not only would nuclear propulsion make this exploration possible, it would also significantly lessen the travel time required to reach our destinations. For example, a journey to the Red Planet using current technology would take six months, but with NTP technology, that same trip would be shortened by two months.
This certainly is an exciting time for space exploration as we are rapidly developing the technology needed to push humanity farther out into the final frontier than ever before.
New research conducted as a part of the ongoing Dark Energy Survey (DES) has used the way mass distorts light to produce a bigger, more highly detailed map of the Universe’s dark matter structure.
Not only do the measurements support the view that about 26 percent of the Universe is made up of the mysterious stuff, it’s turned out that its distribution is a little smoother than had been estimated, which if confirmed could hint at undiscovered physics.
Since 2013, the international team behind the DES has been carrying out a deep, wide-area scan of about 1/8th of the night sky in an effort to collect data on some 300 million galaxies billions of light years from Earth, all to figure out what the hell this dark energy business is all about.
Dark energy and dark matter don’t have much in common other than the fact they’re both tight-lipped about their nature.
Dark energy is something of a black box that explains why the Universe seems to be accelerating in its expansion, an observation that has been broadly accepted now for at least two decades.
Whatever it is, it’s no small deal, making up roughly 68 percent of the Universe’s total energy.
On the other hand, dark matter is more about pulling stuff than pushing space apart. Just as mysterious, it’s a black box that explains why galaxies hold together in spite of not seeming to have enough visible matter.
Knowing more about how the Universe spreads out over time, and how its matter clumps together, could reveal more about what exactly these things are. This requires knowing what everything looked like around 14 billion years ago when the Universe still had its baby-smooth skin, a feat that requires a camera that can look back in time.
Snapshot of the Universe
Fortunately that’s exactly what the Planck telescope can do. It provided just such a snapshot in the form of the Cosmic Microwave Background – a map of the radiation still humming through the Universe as an echo of its earliest days.
In 2015, DES released the first of its maps of the cosmos based on data from 2 million galaxies collected by its Dark Energy Camera, giving researchers a relatively more recent ‘now’ to compare with the ‘then’.
Fast forward to today: we now have new map that’s 10 times bigger, based on analysing the shapes of 26 million galaxies using gravitational lensing, a phenomenon predicted by Einstein’s general relativity and first observed in 1919, launching the German born genius into the public spotlight.
Take a look at the fancy new map below.
Today we can use the fact that mass changes space to ‘see’ dark matter by measuring how light behind it distorts as it passes by, giving us a way to measure the amount and distribution of both kinds of matter across a portion of the Universe.
Comparing Planck’s map with the one produced by the DES has supported the consensus on how much dark matter and dark energy there seems to be.
“The DES measurements, when compared with the Planck map, support the simplest version of the dark matter/dark energy theory,” says researcher Joe Zuntz from the University of Edinburgh.
“The moment we realised that our measurement matched the Planck result within 7 percent was thrilling for the entire collaboration.”
That 7 percent is close, but the fact it isn’t exact could also be exciting for a whole other reason – if confirmed, the difference between the two results could mean that mass is clumping more slowly than current physics predicts, hinting at something undiscovered.
It’s a fair bet that additional data will see the numbers draw more closely together in the future. Considering the results are also yet to be peer reviewed, all of the usual cautions apply.
But discoveries in astronomy often start with discrepancies such as this, so it’s well worth a closer look.
“The Dark Energy Survey has already delivered some remarkable discoveries and measurements, and they have barely scratched the surface of their data,” says Fermilab’s director Nigel Lockyer.
“Today’s world-leading results point forward to the great strides DES will make toward understanding dark energy in the coming years.”
With another year to go and only 1/30th of the sky so far mapped, we look forward to an even bigger and better map in the near future.
The current results of the survey can be found on the DES website.
The new age of the revitalized Space Race has finally reached Africa. With a little help from SpaceX, Ghana has launched their first satellite. The small cubesat, GhanaSat1, was built by a team of engineers at All Nations University and was launched by SpaceX to the International Space Station (ISS) back in June. From there, the satellite was put into orbit in July and has recently become operational.
“This particular satellite has two missions,” project manager Richard Damoah told TechCrunch. “It has cameras on board for detailed monitoring of the coastlines of Ghana. Then there’s an educational piece―we want to use it to integrate satellite technology into high school curriculum.”
This achievement is proof of the democratizing power of private enterprise like SpaceX. Being part of these launches opens countries with limited means up to entire new worlds of science. According to Elsie Kanza, Head of Africa at the World Economic Forum, “Several nations, such as South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and Ethiopia have space agencies. Angola announced its intention to launch a satellite over the coming year.”
As humanity saw from the first Space Race, competition fuels better science. With more nations joining the fold of space exploration, the field widens to new, untold possibility.
Forty years ago, the Voyager 1 and 2 missions began their journey from Earth to become the farthest-reaching missions in history. In the course of their missions, the two probes spent the next two decades sailing past the gas giants of Jupiter and Saturn. And while Voyager 1 then ventured into the outer Solar System, Voyager 2 swung by Uranus and Neptune, becoming the first and only probe in history to explore these worlds.
This summer, the probes will be marking the fortieth anniversary of their launch – on September 5th and August 20th, respectively. Despite having traveled for so long and reaching such considerable distances from Earth, the probes are still in contact with NASA and sending back valuable data. So in addition to being the most distant missions from Earth, they are the longest-running mission in history.
In addition to their distance and longevity, the Voyager spacecraft have also set numerous other records for robotic space missions. For example, in 2012, the Voyager 1 probe became the first and only spacecraft to have entered interstellar space. Voyage 2, meanwhile, is the only probe that has explored all four of the Solar System’s gas/ice giants – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.
Their discoveries also include the first active volcanoes beyond Earth – on Jupiter’s moon Io – the first evidence of a possible subsurface ocean on Europa, the dense atmosphere around Titan (the only body beyond Earth with a dense, nitrogen-rich atmosphere), the craggy surface of Uranus’ “Frankenstein Moon” Miranda, and the ice plume geysers of Neptune’s largest moon, Triton.
These accomplishments have had immeasurable benefits for planetary science, astronomy and space exploration. They’ve also paved the way for future missions, such as the Galileo and Juno probes, the Cassini-Huygens mission, and the New Horizons spacecraft. As Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD), said in a recent press statement:
“I believe that few missions can ever match the achievements of the Voyager spacecraft during their four decades of exploration. They have educated us to the unknown wonders of the universe and truly inspired humanity to continue to explore our solar system and beyond.”
But what is perhaps most memorable about the Voyager missions is the special cargo they carry. Each spacecraft carries what is known as the Golden Record, a collection of sounds, pictures and messages that tell of Earth, human history and culture. These records were intended to serve as a sort of time capsule and/or message to any civilizations that retrieved them, should they ever be recovered.
As noted, both ships are still in contact with NASA and sending back mission data. The Voyager 1 probe, as of the writing of this article, is about 20.9 billion km (13 billion mi; 140 AU) from Earth. As it travels northward out of the plane of the planets and into interstellar space, the probe continues to send back information about cosmic rays – which are about four times as abundant in interstellar space than around Earth.
From this, researchers have learned that the heliosphere – the region that contains the Solar System’s planets and solar wind – acts as a sort of radiation shield. Much in the say that Earth’s magnetic field protects us from solar wind (which would otherwise strip away our atmosphere), the heliopause protects the Solar planets from atomic nuclei that travel at close to the speed of light.
Voyager 2, meanwhile, is currently about 17.7 billion km (11 billion mi; 114.3 AU) from Earth. It is traveling south out of the plane of the planets, and is expected to enter interstellar space in a few years. And much like Voyager 1, it is also studying how the heliosphere interacts with the surroundings interstellar medium, using a suite of instruments that measure charged particles, magnetic fields, radio waves and solar wind plasma.
Once Voyager 2 crosses into interstellar space, both probes will be able to sample the medium from two different locations simultaneously. This is expected to tell us much about the magnetic environment that encapsulates our system, and will perhaps teach us more about the history and formation of the Solar System. On top of that, it will let us know what kinds of hazards a possible interstellar mission will have to contend with.
The fact that the two probes are still active after all this time is nothing short of amazing. As Edward Stone – the David Morrisroe Professor of Physics at Caltech, the former VP and Director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the Voyager project scientist – said:
“None of us knew, when we launched 40 years ago, that anything would still be working, and continuing on this pioneering journey. The most exciting thing they find in the next five years is likely to be something that we didn’t know was out there to be discovered.”
Keeping the probes going has also been a challenge since the amount of power they generate decreases at a rate of about four watts per year. This has required that engineers learn how to operate the twin spacecraft with ever-decreasing amounts of power, which has forced them to consult documents that are decades old in order to understand the probes’ software and command functions.
Luckily, it has also given former NASA engineers who worked on the Voyager probes the opportunity to offer their experience and expertise. At present, the team that is operating the spacecraft estimate that the probes will run out of power by 2030. However, they will continue to drift along their trajectories long after they do so, traveling at a distance of 48,280 km per hour (30,000 mph), covering a single AU every 126 days.
At this rate, they will be within spitting distance of the nearest star in about 40,000 years, and will have completed an orbit of the Milky Way within 225 million years. So its entirely possible that someday, the Golden Records will find their way to a species capable of understanding what they represent. Then again, they might find their way back to Earth someday, informing our distant, distant relatives about life in the 20th century.
And if the craft avoid any catastrophic collisions and can survive in the interstellar medium of space, it is likely that they will continue to be emissaries for humanity long after humanity is dead. It’s good to leave something behind!
Experts have agreed with Musk’s position. Dr. Robert Zubrin, President of Pioneer Astronautics and a key figure in NASA’s plan to send a manned mission to Mars, told The Daily Caller News Foundation that “my prediction would be that Falcon 9 will fail at least twice before it fully succeeds, but that Musk will push on regardless until it does. He’s got the right stuff.”
The problem with the Falcon Heavy is that it has to ignite three times as many cores simultaneously as its predecessor, the Falcon 9 — which itself failed five times before it landed successfully. In addition, it is extremely difficult to model how every component of the rocket will respond to the power, g-force, and vibration that such a launch requires — its a hairsbreadth art, which Musk stated at the ISS meeting is “really difficult to test on the ground.”
The Cost of Failure
Perhaps the more important question, though, is what would the consequences be if the project did fail — what would a less-than-perfect launch mean for SpaceX’s ambitions and Musk’s cosmic dreams?
A Reddit post has been discussing the implications, with interesting and varied answers. A common thread is that the worst scenario would be losing a launch pad. The SLC-40 launchpad repairs are still ongoing, so losing another launch pad has the potential not only to impair the Falcon Heavy’s launch schedule, but SpaceX’s entire launch manifest.
Gen_Zion pointed out that, “this is the only pad which is being prepared for Crew launch” — meaning that it would also cause problems for SpaceX’s highly anticipated human missions to the moon and Mars.
Some users, however, argue that Musk’s comments are part of a game of expectation management and, due to the potentially colossal scope of failure, that “they won’t launch FH unless they have a high confidence in its success,” as Euro_Snob wrote.
User bumblyburg’s argument goes that if they weren’t confident that the rocket would move away from the launchpad, “the risk-reward ratio is just foolish.” A testament to this view is that one or two more launches have been planned for April 30th, 2018.
Despite what happens in November, the single resolving factor will be that the company will learn from failure and subsequently be able improve the technology. As the late, great, Henry Ford, once said in an interview with The Magazine of Business, “failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”
In a first-of-its-kind analysis, Northwestern University astrophysicists have discovered that, contrary to previously standard lore, up to half of the matter in our Milky Way galaxy may come from distant galaxies. As a result, each one of us may be made in part from extragalactic matter.
Using supercomputer simulations, the research team found a major and unexpected new mode for how galaxies, including our own Milky Way, acquired their matter: intergalactic transfer. The simulations show that supernova explosions eject copious amounts of gas from galaxies, which causes atoms to be transported from one galaxy to another via powerful galactic winds. Intergalactic transfer is a newly identified phenomenon, which simulations indicate will be critical for understanding how galaxies evolve.
“Given how much of the matter out of which we formed may have come from other galaxies, we could consider ourselves space travelers or extragalactic immigrants,” said Daniel Anglés-Alcázar, a postdoctoral fellow in Northwestern’s astrophysics center, CIERA (Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics), who led the study. “It is likely that much of the Milky Way’s matter was in other galaxies before it was kicked out by a powerful wind, traveled across intergalactic space and eventually found its new home in the Milky Way.”
Galaxies are far apart from each other, so even though galactic winds propagate at several hundred kilometers per second, this process occurred over several billion years.
Professor Claude-André Faucher-Giguère and his research group, along with collaborators from the FIRE (“Feedback In Realistic Environments”) project, which he co-leads, had developed sophisticated numerical simulations that produced realistic 3-D models of galaxies, following a galaxy’s formation from just after the Big Bang to the present day. Anglés-Alcázar then developed state-of-the-art algorithms to mine this wealth of data and quantify how galaxies acquire matter from the universe.
The study, which required the equivalent of several million hours of continuous computing, will be published July 26 (July 27 in the U.K.) by the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
“This study transforms our understanding of how galaxies formed from the Big Bang,” said Faucher-Giguère, a co-author of the study and assistant professor of physics and astronomy in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.
Complex Flows of Matter
“What this new mode implies is that up to one-half of the atoms around us—including in the solar system, on Earth and in each one of us—comes not from our own galaxy but from other galaxies, up to one million light years away,” he said.
By tracking in detail the complex flows of matter in the simulations, the research team found that gas flows from smaller galaxies to larger galaxies, such as the Milky Way, where the gas forms stars. This transfer of mass through galactic winds can account for up to 50 percent of matter in the larger galaxies.
“In our simulations, we were able to trace the origins of stars in Milky Way-like galaxies and determine if the star formed from matter endemic to the galaxy itself or if it formed instead from gas previously contained in another galaxy,” said Anglés-Alcázar, the study’s corresponding author.
In a galaxy, stars are bound together: a large collection of stars orbiting a common center of mass. After the Big Bang 14 billion years ago, the universe was filled with a uniform gas—no stars, no galaxies. But there were tiny perturbations in the gas, and these started to grow by force of gravity, eventually forming stars and galaxies. After galaxies formed, each had its own identity.
“Our origins are much less local than we previously thought,” said Faucher-Giguère, a CIERA member. “This study gives us a sense of how things around us are connected to distant objects in the sky.”
The findings open a new line of research in understanding galaxy formation, the researchers say, and the prediction of intergalactic transfer can now be tested. The Northwestern team plans to collaborate with observational astronomers who are working with the Hubble Space Telescope and ground-based observatories to test the simulation predictions.
The simulations were run and analyzed using the National Science Foundation’s Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment supercomputing facilities, as well as Northwestern’s Quest high-performance computer cluster.
The study is titled “The Cosmic Baryon Cycle and Galaxy Mass Assembly in the FIRE Simulations.”
This article was provided by Northwestern University. Materials may have been edited for clarity and brevity. And make the name of the source a link back to their website.
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk took to Instagram earlier today to post the first draft animation video showing a Falcon Heavy launching into space. “[Falcon Heavy] is twice the thrust of the next largest rocket currently flying and ~2/3 thrust of the Saturn V moon rocket,” Musk wrote in the Instagram post.
Nearly three times as powerful as the Falcon 9, the Heavy features three rocket cores, with two acting as strap-on boosters on the sides. Each booster carries nine Merlin engines, enough to generate “more than five million pounds [2.3 million kg] of thrust at lift-off,” according to SpaceX. And, as the animation video shows, these cores are all built to be fully reusable.
As Musk previously announced in July, the Falcon Heavy is set for its highly anticipated maiden launch this November. When it successfully lifts off, it’ll become the most powerful rocket available today.
However, as Musk noted in his post, there’s a “lot that can go wrong in the November launch.” For instance, each rocket core has to be able to return and land successfully. That’s like landing three Falcon 9s at the same time, and we all know how difficult it has been to perfect just one landing.
Still, the world looks forward with hope as the success of the Falcon Heavy launch would put SpaceX one step closer to realizing their plans for missions to Mars.
We tend to think of Mars as one of the few planets that, like Earth, may have (or have had) the potential to hold life, but our infernal sister-planet Venus may have also once had oceans. New simulations from the Journal of Geological Research: Planets found that the planet oft-touted as exemplar of a runaway greenhouse effect, may have once formed an ocean. These findings, published online July 18, hypothesize that an optimal blend of cloud cover, carbon dioxide and water early in Venus’ lifetime would have been hospitable to life.
Venus in Autumn
Although Michael Way, an astrophysicist at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, wasn’t involved in the study himself, last year he and his colleagues surmised that Venus’ ultra-slow rotation — consisting of 116 Earth days — may have aided in the build-up of cloud cover such that the average temperature roughly 715 million years ago would have been a cool 15°C (59°F). Compared to Venus’ present-day explosive 460°C (860°F), these conditions are truly astounding and worthy of further exploration.
Continuing this investigation, planetary scientist Emmanuel Marcq, of the Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines in Guyancourt, France, and his colleagues used computer simulations to see how the cooling rocky planet’s molten lava surface might mix with sunlight streaming through a developing atmosphere. Even at its current carbon dioxide levels, Venus requires only 10 percent of Earth’s water-mass to form a surface ocean.
Advancing the Search for Habitable Exoplanets
“This work plays into a much bigger puzzle of understanding the habitability of exoplanets,” Way said in an interview with Science News.
Do you have broad engineering expertise, a year or more at a GS-15 job, and an interest in protecting planet Earth? If so, you could apply for NASA’s Planetary Protection Officer role. According to the job listing, you’ll attain secret security clearance as long as you have the skills to ensure that “organic-constituent and biological contamination” doesn’t stow away on a space ship headed for home and wreak havoc on the big blue marble. You will also need to be ready to lead, because you’ll be “responsible for the leadership of NASA’s planetary protection capability, maintenance of planetary protection policies, and oversight of their implementation by NASAs space flight missions.”
On June 23, Breakthrough Initiatives successfully sent six “Sprites” into orbit, marking an exciting milestone in the Breakthrough Starshot project — an initiative to send vast numbers of nanoships to Alpha Centauri, our nearest star system.
The miniature craft weigh just 4 grams each and are the smallest satellites ever sent into space. The test was designed to reveal how well the satellites’ electronics systems and radio communications performed in orbit.
The launch of the Sprite satellites marks the first demonstration that miniaturized electronics on small chips can be launched without damage, survive the harsh environment of space and communicate successfully with Earth. The Starshot Initiative aims to launch similar chips attached to a lightweight sail that it being pushed by a laser beam to a fifth of the speed of light, so that its camera, communication and navigation devices (whose total weight is of order a gram) will reach the nearest planet outside the solar system within our generation.
Our Universal Adventure
The Breakthrough Starshot initiative is an ingenious solution to many of the problems associated with traditional space rovers. Those complicated machines can sometimes fail, their size and weight can impair propulsion, and a single craft that can only travel to one destination can require a huge financial investment.
These tiny spacecraft should radically decrease the cost of interstellar exploration, while simultaneously increasing the speed at which we reach distant star systems. They’re also just one example of the many inventions that we are developing to investigate the cosmos.
Thanks to all these fascinating new technologies, we are living in the golden age of space exploration. The mysteries of our universe are being decoded, space is being deciphered, and technology is giving us new tools in the hunt for extraterrestrial life. Truly, there has never been a more exciting time to study the starry void in which we float.
The most powerful kind of cosmic explosions known to science are called gamma-ray bursts – aka ‘death from space’ – galactic events so fierce their awesome intensity is only surpassed by the Big Bang itself.
Now, an international team of astronomers has observed one of these violent outbursts of energy in unprecedented detail, witnessing a distant, giant star in its destructive death throes like never before.
“In a matter of seconds, the process can emit as much energy as a star the size of our Sun would in its entire lifetime.”
These intense flashes are thought to occur all the time, but thankfully they usually take place in galaxies billions of light-years away from Earth, sparing us from intense jets of particles thrust at the speed of light from collapsing stars.
Because we don’t get any fore-warning of these bursts, it’s not easy for scientists to observe them – given the events usually only last a matter of seconds, if that.
What made this incredibly bright burst different was that its tight beam of gamma rays was aimed by chance at Earth, enabling our telescopes to pick it up and respond in real time.
“Gamma ray bursts occur completely randomly in space and time, so we cannot predict where or when one will appear,” one of the team, Carole Mundell from the University of Bath in the UK, told IBTimes UK.
“It was very bright and produced a very short flare that lasted just 1 second before the main explosion began, so our telescopes were ready to capture the visible light at the same time as the high-energy gamma rays from the explosion itself. It was so bright, it could have been seen through binoculars. This is rare.”
The unprecedented observation of the event – which took place on 25 June 2016 and is called GRB 160625B – could help us understand how gamma-ray bursts come to occur at all.
Scientists think that these explosions happen when a dying star collapses to become a black hole. As this process takes place, particle jets are blasted outward in a beam, but up until now, researchers weren’t sure if the jets were controlled by matter, or by a magnetic field produced by the black hole.
The new study suggests a compromise is the most accurate view of the phenomenon.
“There has been a dichotomy in the community. We find evidence for both models, suggesting that gamma-ray burst jets have a dual, hybrid nature,” Troja explains in a statement.
“The jets start off magnetic, but as the jets grow, the magnetic field degrades and loses dominance. Matter takes over and dominates the jets, although sometimes a weaker vestige of the magnetic field might survive.”
This blast, detected by NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope and observed soon after by Russia’s MASTER-IAC telescope at the Teide Observatory in Spain’s Canary Islands, also revealed that the initial, brightest phase of the burst is prompted by a kind of radiation called synchrotron radiation, which occurs when electrons are accelerated in a curved or spiral path.
Scientists had previously speculated that two other forms of radiation – black-body radiation and inverse Compton radiation – might be responsible, but the level of polarisation in the light burst produced by GRB 160625B suggests synchrotron radiation is the most likely candidate.
That insight could help to clear up decades of mystery over what drives gamma-ray bursts, but the researchers acknowledge there’s still a lot we don’t know about these intense beams.
Learning more will require us to catch of a glimpse of another violent explosion being unleashed in a (hopefully) very far away place – but as the researchers admit, there’s no way of telling just when that might be, nor whether it will be as instructive as the singular brilliance of GRB 160625B.
“Any amateur astronomer with just binoculars looking in the right part of the sky could have recorded the explosion,” Troja explained to Ryan F. Mandelbaum at Gizmodo.
“It was really, really bright, and it also lasted for a very long time… it was such a unique event.”
Both companies were awarded Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts by NASA in September 2014. Under those terms, they each must fly uncrewed test flights of their spacecraft, followed by crewed flights.
SpaceX’s most recent schedule reveals an uncrewed test flight in February 2018 and a crewed test flight in June 2018. Boeing is right on SpaceX’s heels, with uncrewed and crewed flights set for June and August 2018, respectively.
Originally, both companies planned to be certified for crewed missions to the International Space Station (ISS) by the close of 2017. However, each has suffered various technical setbacks, such as the Dragon 2’s need to move away from powered landings, resulting in changes to the schedules.
NASA’s ISS program manager, Kirk Shireman, is confident that the companies will be able to send astronauts into space. “Commercial crew is making great progress,” he asserted during a speech at the ISS Research and Development Conference, and both SpaceX and Boeing also appear sure of their abilities to stick to the revised schedules that are now in place.
A New Era in Space
The importance of this commercial space race can’t be overstated, as companies like SpaceX and Boeing are poised to change the face of everything from research to commercial travel as they propel the human race off-world.
Private companies can dramatically lower the cost of space exploration for agencies. Boeing is designing and building DARPA’s XS-1 experimental space plane, set to be in the air by 2020, and if that project goes as expected, it will lower launch costs and make the dream of launch-on-demand a reality.
Meanwhile, SpaceX formally called for the government to implement a public-private collaboration for deep space missions soon after NASA announced that it couldn’t afford to get us to Mars — if implemented, such a plan could enable NASA to get us there after all.
Soon, these lowered costs could make space travel a reality for private citizens as well as trained astronauts. As of May, Virgin Galactic was looking forward to launching their first commercial spaceflights before the end of 2018. With Blue Origin, SpaceX, and others joining them, the global space tourism market could be worth more than $34 billion by 2021.
Commercial agencies are proving capable of far more than their government counterparts. SpaceX’s COO announced at the end of June that the company would produce 20 rockets this year — something unheard of for NASA. Other private companies are working to develop new technologies for use in the space race, such as the proposed electric space tug that could make Moon flights far more economical.
Beyond bringing more people and scientific research into space, commercial companies are hoping to move manufacturing off-world. Axiom Space plans to make the first commercial space station a manufacturing hub, which will help the station pay for itself and make it easier to supply new missions.
Clearly, the entry of multiple private companies into the space race has yielded some major dividends already, and this is just the beginning.
Humankind is eager to step out into the cosmos and wander across the deserted plains of the Red Planet. According to most reports, Elon Musk is leading the way with SpaceX; however, a number of other orginizations—NASA, China’s Space Agency, The Mars Society—are training, deploying prototypes, and working on the plethora of questions and challenges that we will face when attempting to bring the first human beings to Mars.
But, as much as it might seem natural to get entrenched in the details of how we will actually get humans off of planet Earth (and keep them mentally and physically healthy throughout the duration), it is critical that we remember why we’re going in the first place.
In a recent interview, Buzz Aldrin—the renowned astronaut, engineer, and (of course) the second human to ever step foot on the Moon—explained why exploration and discovery are so important, touching upon why we should (and why we will) have humans on Mars in 20 years…
We’ve now surveyed and scrutinized almost every inch of this planet, but there is so much we have yet to learn.
Aldrin begins by stating that, from both a scientific and technological perspective, we are at the perfect juncture to push the boundaries of exploration. He asserts that, thanks to recent advancements, for the first time in human history, voyaging to other worlds is truly within our reach: “Now is the time to start thinking seriously about what life on Mars might look like. We have never been closer to knowing and exploring another planet.”
When asked just how close we really are to achieving this feat, Aldrin was quick to respond with his timeline, saying that we could “have the first Human Martians at Mars by 2040.”
Aldrin continued by segueing into a discussion of why venturing to other worlds is important, noting that, in many ways, our planet is ancient and familiar and the other bodies in our solar system are, for all intents and purposes, virgin territory: “Space travel and exploration represents the final frontier – we’ve now surveyed and scrutinized almost every inch of this planet, but there is so much we have yet to learn.”
However, Aldrin states that the most notable aspects of this quest are about far more than just acquiring knowledge for the sake of knowledge or conquering new worlds. The journey to Mars will bring with it reignited excitement for science and innovation, creating a generation of young people who have ingrained within them a thirst for understanding and exploration.
Remembering A Race
When Buzz stepped onto the Moon in 1969, countless youth were captivated by the story and went on to pursue careers in STEM fields, hoping to achieve monumental feats of similar proportions.
Indeed, Aldrin is very aware of the impact that action in science has on the youth, stressing that, “we can only get there [to Mars] if we start investing in future generations.” Ultimately, as previously noted, he says that this investment is the key to long-term success: “In 1903, man learned to fly airplanes. Only 66 years later, we walked on the Moon. In order to help the next generation to make giant leaps like these, we must educate, enable and inspire them to be passionate about subjects like science, technology, engineering, art, and math.”
Aldrin notes that he has devoted himself to helping foster such a desire in young people, saying, “That’s the mission of the SpaceShare Foundation, and it’s one I wholeheartedly support.”
Aldrin’s Space Share Foundation is a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to inspiring children’s passions for science and technology by providing educational tools to educators across the country at no cost. The goal of this work is to ensure that all young people are given the resources that they need to live up to their potential. After all, one never knows who the next Carl Sagan could be.
As Former President Barack Obama noted in a speech at the Frontiers Conference, “America is about Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers—but we’re also the place you can grow up to be a Grace Hopper, or George Washington Carver, or a Katherine Johnson, or an Ida B. Wells. We don’t want somebody with a brilliant idea not in the room because they’re a woman. We don’t want some budding genius unavailable to cure cancer or come up with a new energy source because they were languishing in a sub-standard school as a child. Because we’re going to be a better team if we got the whole team.”
Aldrin echoes these ideas, noting that, while reaching Mars in the next 20 years is extremely likely, it will only happen if we ensure that young people are given every opportunity to be the best that they can be: “Sometimes I can’t believe this lucky kid from New Jersey got to land and walk on the Moon…work hard and keep reaching for the stars.”
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has sent a crew member to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard a SpaceX launched rocked. The “Int-Ball,” is a spherical camera droid that takes full advantage of the gravity deficiency on the space station to zip around unencumbered by wheels or arms attached to heavy machinery.
The robot has big, blue, owl-like eyes, making it reminiscent of the top portion of the Eve robot from Disney’s Wall-E. Int-Ball’s purpose is to provide crew members with a means of sending pictures and video back to Earth so experts on the ground can better assist with repairs and other tasks.
Before Int-Ball’s arrival, the crew members needed to handle a camera to send this media back to Earth. The droid, which can be controlled remotely or autonomously, gives crew members back their full functionality by taking the camera out of their hands.
JAXA has released video of Int-Ball in action.
JAXA is committed to continuing improvements on Int-Ball’s capabilities and functionality. Experiments like this will likely help space agencies and private companies to innovate new ways of incorporating both remote controlled and autonomous robots into their missions. Replacing astronauts with robots will help to further drive down the dwindling costs of space exploration and travel while allowing for exploration in ways that are beyond human capability.
“The objectives of the mission are to build highly qualified UAE human resources in the field of space technology, to develop knowledge, scientific research and space applications that benefit mankind, to create a sustainable knowledge-based economy, to promote diversification and encourage innovation,” the announcement said.
Frank Drake is a world-renowned astronomer and astrophysicist who is responsible for founding the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI) and inventing the Drake equation, which estimates the likelihood of finding intelligent life in the Universe.
On July 16th, Drake hosted a Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) and gave some interesting responses to the community’s questions, which can roughly be split into questions on Drake’s own works and theories, and more abstract questions concerning space and aliens.
Drake on Drake
Reddit user murikansk asked, “What was the main hope when creating the Golden Record and the Pioneer plaque? That is, was it simply hoping that it would be understood that it is nonrandom data and the location of the origin of the spacecraft deciphered, or did you also believe in the possibility that the extraterrestrial civilization would learn something about our cultures? How much of the plaque, record, and the Arecibo message did you believe would realistically be understood if intercepted?” The question refers to his collaboration with Carl Sagan and NASA, when he helped design the Golden Record, a record on board both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 that contains the sounds of the diversity of life on earth, and the Pioneer Plaques, which were attached to Pioneer 10 and 11 as a universal message about Earth to extraterrestrial life.
Drake responded: “These may be the only records that we ever existed [sic], and this meant a great deal to us in a very deep and emotional way.” Responding to a question from Zaphus, he said he would update them by making “use of the much greater capabilities we now have to send huge amounts of information quickly. I would send 3-dimensional movies, I would send sounds, and in this way much more accurately show what we are like and what we are capable of.”
Drake also gave an answer to a question concerning his own Drake Equation — a formula that attempts to show the likelihood of finding intelligent life in the Universe.
Senno_Ecto_Gammat asked, “Do you think we will nail down good values for the variables in the Drake equation before we make contact with intelligent extraterrestrial civilizations, or will we only get good values for those variables after we make contact?”
Drake answered, “We’ll get good numbers for the variables except for f (sub i), and L.” These necessitate contact with other alien life. F (sub i) refers to the fraction of life bearing planets on which intelligent life emerges, while L — which he later referred to as “the most important parameter” — is the length of time over which such civilizations release detectable signals into space.
While we have suspected that we have received such signals, with the WOW! Signal being the most notable, none have, as-of-yet, proven to be genuine communications from another civilization.
Drake on Space
He also provided responses to questions that the entire space community is asking. One of the first, from DevinDTA — which is what we would all ask to an expert on the extraterrestrial — concerned when he thinks we will meet alien life. He responded that he believes “we will detect evidence of non-intelligent life on another planet of our solar system within the next 50-70 years” and that “it’ll probably be microbial.”
YoureGratefulDead2Me asked, “If you could communicate with an alien civilization and language barrier were not an issue, what would you tell them/ask them?” Drake responded, in part, “If they are like us we would ask them what steps they take to support an ever growing population; for example is the colonization of other planets in their solar system advantageous or too costly and dangerous.” Drake, then, like Elon Musk, believes that the world’s population — which is set to hit 9.7 billion by 2050 — is one of the most challenging obstacles we face in our continued development; and that colonizing other planets could be a solution.
SailingSmitty asked where Drake sat on the spectrum of trying to contact aliens vs awaiting contact from them — essentially, whether he is currently aligned with the Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) or SETI, which searches instead. In response, he stated, “I believe it is a waste of time and resources to transmit messages to alien life until we have actually detected alien life and know something about them.”
Perhaps more interestingly, though, he continued, “Also, I do not believe it is dangerous to transmit signals because there is not a very great benefit for them to attack us.” This contrasts with other expert views.
Stephen Hawking advises against first contact by predicting the meeting would be like the first encounter between Columbus and the Native Americans — which “didn’t turn out so well” for the latter party. At the other end of the spectrum is Alexander Zaitsev, founder of METI, who thinks we should “not want to live in a cocoon, in a ‘one-man island’” and therefore should take every possible opportunity to communicate with whatever (or whoever) is out there.
When Moby sang about humans being made of stars, he wasn’t just being poetic. It certainly wasn’t his idea though, as the theory has been around for decades now. Supposedly, the same kind of atoms found in the human body are also found in cosmic objects. A new study published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society confirms this, and in fact pushes the assumption a little bit further. Not only are we made of stars, but almost half the atoms that make up the human body may have formed outside the Milky Way.
Astronomers, led by Daniel Anglés-Alcázar from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, said that the human body’s intergalactic atoms came from beyond the Milky Way, and were brought to the Solar System via intergalactic winds caused by exploding stars. “The surprising thing is that galactic winds contribute significantly more material than we thought,” Anglés-Alcázar told The Guardian.
Using computer simulations, the astronomers found that as much as half of the material in galaxies similar to the Milky Way could have come from smaller galactic neighbors. When supernovas explode, these tend to hurl trillions of tons of atoms with a force so strong that these escape their galaxy’s gravity and end up in a larger galactic neighbor.
The astronomers also found that the hydrogen and helium from these far-flung atoms end up forming new stars once they reach their new galactic home. The heavier elements — which were created by the exploding supernovas — give rise to planets, comets, asteroids — and potentially life. “In terms of research in galaxy evolution, we’re very excited about these results. It’s a new mode of galaxy growth we’ve not considered before.” Anglés-Alcázar added.
Indeed, this creates a fresh perspective regarding our understanding of how life on Earth formed. We know that certain conditions made it possible for life to begin on the planet, and that life evolved from single-celled organisms into more complex multicellular ones. However, it looks like the primordial soup wasn’t exactly a local dish.
“Science is very useful for finding our place in the universe,” said Daniel Anglés-Alcázar, an astronomer at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. “In some sense we are extragalactic visitors or immigrants in what we think of as our galaxy.” In that sense, another pop singer was right. We might all be lost stars.
We’re already searching for intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy — any life, for that matter — and even signs of alien technologies. If advanced lifeforms were also trying to make contact, a galactic communications network might someday be possible. Therefore, maybe we should be focusing first on the ability to communicate with advanced civilizations in other galaxies. Duncan Forgan, of the University of St. Andrews in the UK, thinks so. If we can manipulate the light from our sun as a beacon, either passing massive sheets in front of it to send signals, or changing how the Earth’s transits appear to distant worlds, we might be able to realize our dreams of a galactic community.
Forgan has just created a new simulation that shows it would require a minimum of 300,000 years to build such a communications network around the Milky Way galaxy, and that’s assuming there would be 500 or so civilizations that were technologically advanced enough to visibly manipulate their planet’s transit (so clearly getting started now makes sense).
For this kind of contact to work, we’d need to construct a relay network throughout the galaxy, avoiding celestial obstacles as we went. “If you want to communicate with someone on the other side of the galactic center, there’s lots of stuff in the way — dust, stars, a big black hole — so you can take the long way around using the network,” Forgan told New Scientist.
Searching For Extraterrestrial Signals
In order to detect signals that could be from extraterrestrial lifeforms, you really need the serendipity of being in the right place at the right time; you’d need to be facing the right way at a time when nothing (such as another planet) was obscuring the signal. Because planets orbit between us and their stars predictably, we could find them and communicate — but only if their orbit was aligned to be visible to us in front of its sun, and the inhabitants of the planet were advanced (and friendly) enough to change the planet’s transits to look like a signal.
However, what’s possible isn’t always likely, and this is one of those times. Professor and Harvard University astronomy department chair Avi Loeb told New Scientist that the construction of this kind of massive orbiting object was an unlikely occurrence: “Once a civilization is advanced enough to have the technology to build megastructures, it’s much more likely to leave its planet,” Loeb commented. “Each signal would take thousands of years to travel back and forth. In cosmic time that may not be that long, but you need patience.”
While we have existing projects looking for planets passing before stars, such as the Kepler space telescope (which would mean we’d see planets if they were trying to reach out and be seen), there would be additional hurdles involved in creating a cooperative galactic network. As New Scientist points out, the interstellar politics alone are likely to be daunting — particularly given how complex international politics are on Earth.
Though we’ve been living in the Space Age for more than half a century, going into space remains an extreme rarity. Fewer than 600 people have gone above the Kármán line — the point, about 62 miles above Earth, that marks the beginning of space — and all were put there by the U.S. or another nation’s government.
But the rise of private spaceflight companies like Virgin Galactic and Space X means that the final frontier may soon be within reach of a great many more of us. The firms have announced plans to put private astronauts, a.k.a. space tourists, on orbital or suborbital flights within the next few years.
Initially, the cost of a ride on one of these rockets will be hundreds of thousands of dollars at a minimum. That puts the experience within reach of only the wealthiest people. But advances in rocket and capsule design are expected to lower the price to the point that people of more modest fortunes are able to afford a ticket.
What exactly is in store for space tourists? The excitement of a rocket ride and a chance to experience weightlessness, for starters. And the bragging rights are hard to beat. But some say the biggest benefit of going into space is getting a dramatic new outlook on life on the fragile blue marble we call home. It’s a perspective shift that could have profound implications not just for individuals but also for society at large.
“I personally believe the planetary perspective is going to be crucial to solving humanity’s biggest challenges over the next century,” says Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides. “I’m inspired that we’ll take people up so they can experience that view, which is said to change your world view in a fundamental way.”
Billionaire computer engineer Charles Simonyi flew to the International Space Station aboard a Russian spacecraft with the assistance of a Vienna, Virginia-based firm called Space Adventures, and he echoes that sentiment. “It’s great to go to space just because it’s there,” he says. “But I think space is our destiny and we will discover great benefits from it.”
Virgin Galactic plans to offer suborbital jaunts into space, with customers being treated to six minutes of weightlessness along with that one-of-a-kind view. The Las Cruces, New Mexico-based company says more than 600 customers have signed up, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Katy Perry, Ashton Kutcher, and superstar physicist Stephen Hawking. The price of a ticket stands at $250,000, with registration open for anyone who has that kind of extra cash on hand.
On June 1, Virgin successfully tested SpaceShipTwo Unity. The six-passenger spacecraft glided more than nine minutes to the ground after being released from an airplane flying at 50,000 feet. The company plans to make several more unpowered tests before allowing Unity’s rocket engine to fire up so that, following its release from the plane, it can soar into space.
The company has been promising flights since unveiling SpaceShipTwo in 2009. But a series of bruising setbacks, including a 2014 crash that claimed a test pilot’s life, extended the craft’s test phase.
Virgin CEO Richard Branson said on July 5 that he hopes to see space tourists flying on Virgin by the end of 2018. But other executives at the firm seem reluctant to commit to that. As Whitesides put it to NBC News MACH, “Once when we’re at a place where we’re comfortable with powered flights, we’ll be ready to begin commercial operations.”
Downs and Ups
Midland, Texas-based XCOR Aerospace sought to offer suborbital flights similar to those envisioned by Virgin Galactic. But in 2016, the company halted development of its space-plane, Lynx. On July 5, it announced that all remaining employees had been laid off but stopped short of saying it was out of business.
Between 2001 and 2009, Space Adventures arranged for seven paying customers (including Charles Simonyi) to blast into space for a stint aboard the ISS. Each of these private astronauts got to the station aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule. Space Adventures has unspecified plans to send up more customers but can’t now. Since the end of NASA’s Space Shuttle program in 2011, all seats on Soyuz have been filled by American and Russian astronauts.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has been eyeing the space tourist market with his private space company, Blue Origin. The company recently posted computer renderings of the opulent interior of its reusable New Shepard capsule configured with six plush leather chairs and six enormous windows.
Blue Origin has yet to say exactly when flights might begin or how much they would cost. Bezos said in March that he’d like to have his first customer flights next year. The company has a sign-up form for those interested in reserving a seat.
Of all companies offering, or expecting to offer, flights into space, SpaceX may have the most compelling story. Earlier this year, CEO Elon Musk announced that the company had accepted payment from two customers for a weeklong flight around the moon and back to Earth, largely retracing the path taken by Apollo 8 astronauts in 1968.
Musk has said that the mission could come as soon as 2018. Some are dubious, however, given SpaceX’s reputation for offering overly optimistic schedules. How much the customers paid for the flight is unknown, but estimates have ranged from $80 million to $175 million per seat.
SpaceX has also announced the even more ambitious goal of sending colonists to Mars starting in 2025. Musk has said that once the company is able to build its massive 100-person Mars Colonial Transporter spacecraft, a trip to the Red Planet will cost about $500,000 — roughly the price of a middle-class house in California — with the goal of eventually bringing the price down to $100,000.
Tucson, Arizona-based World View Enterprises has announced plans to send passengers to an altitude of 100,000 feet in a luxury gondola suspended from a gigantic helium balloon. It’s not quite space, but at that altitude, it’s possible to see the blackness of space and the curvature of the earth. Eight customers would spend two hours ascending, two hours in cruise, and another hour or two returning to the ground.
Though lacking the cachet of true spaceflight, the World View flights promise a more refined experience; customers would be able to clink champagne glasses while taking in the view from enormous picture-frame windows and posting their photos to social media using onboard Wi-Fi.
World View says it hopes to begin manned testing in 2018 but offers no specific dates for the tourist flights. A ticket is projected to cost $75,000. The company’s co-founder and chief technology officer, Taber MacCallum, says the target customer is “the Baby Boomer who’s already bought their Ferrari and bought their third house and are looking for an experience to talk about and share.”
Finally, there’s Zero Gravity Corporation, an Arlington, Virginia-based company that already offers flights aboard a specially modified Boeing 727 that dives steeply to give paying passengers brief periods of weightlessness. As with the World View balloons flights, these parabolic flights aren’t actually trips into space. But with a ticket for the experience running a relatively modest $5,000, it might be the cheapest way to get a sense of what it’s like above the Kármán line.
Zero G flights take off weekly from airports across the U.S., including Orlando Sanford International near Orlando, Florida, McCarran International near Las Vegas, and Moffett Federal Airfield near San Francisco.
So You Want to Be a Space Tourist? Here Are Your Options was originally published by NBC Universal Media, LLC on July 21, 2017 by Adam Mann. Copyright 2017 NBC Universal Media, LLC. All rights reserved.
In six short words on an Instagram post Elon Musk announced the next step of SpaceX’s plan to eventually fly humans to Mars: “Falcon Heavy maiden launch this November.” The announcement means that the launch will be a little later than earlier predictions: Musk tweeted in June that “all Falcon Heavy cores should be at the Cape [Canaveral Air Force Station] in two to three months, so launch should happen a month after that.”
If the Falcon Heavy test is successful it will become the most powerful operational rocket in the world: using 27 Merlin rocket engines spread across three falcon 9 cores, it would have a liftoff thrust of 2.3 million kg (5 million lb) that is capable of carrying 54,000 kg (119,000 lb) into orbit — this is twice the payload of the next largest rocket, Delta IV Heavy, and SpaceX claim it will cost 66 percent less to deliver.
Musk followed his announcement by divulging a few extra details via Twitter. He clarified SpaceX’s plans to retrieve and potentially reuse the rocket’s boosters, later qualifying the ambitious goals by adding, “If we are lucky”
Side booster rockets return to Cape Canaveral. Center lands on droneship.
Musk’s cautious optimism mirrored his previous remarks to a crowd at the International Space Station Research and Development Conference in Washington, “There’s a real good chance that that vehicle does not make it to orbit. I want to make sure to set expectations accordingly.”
The next few months should be exciting for Musk on a number of other fronts as well: he has identified September as when updates on his plan to reach Mars will arrive, the Tesla Model 3 will continue to ramp up production, and the Boring Company will continue to make progress towards decreasing congestion in Los Angeles after its first elevator test earlier this week.
Made in Space, a 3D printing startup, has provided an answer to NASA’s problems with developing tools in the harsh vacuum of space by creating a material that can be printed inside or outside the walls of the International Space Station (ISS).
This new material is composed of polyetherimide/polycarbonate — known as PEI/PC, although it goes by the brand name ULTEM. PEI/PC is several times stronger than anything astronauts are currently using, and it is additionally “resistant to the UV environment, [and] resistant to atomic oxygen, so it can perform actual uses in space” according to Matt Napoli, Vice President of Made in Space, explained to Popular Mechanics.
Currently, the company is testing a 3D printer called Archinaut, set for release in 2018, which they hope can operate fully outside of the station. Eventually, this could lead to Made in Space using the ISS as a launchpad for the first ever satellites 3D printed in orbit.
A Launchpad to the Future
Sending anything into orbit is dizzyingly expensive. To combat this, NASA has been looking for ways to produce materials for upgrades or repairs in space. But, until now, they have only found ways to 3D print inside the ISS — namely, the ABS and Green PE materials, which are not resilient enough to handle space.
Made in Space will facilitate astronauts taking far less into space, because currently, they must transport all materials and items with them from Earth. This will save future missions countless dollars which can better be used in research and development.
The printer, however, has the potential to not only be reparative but progressive. As Made in Space’s website states, they “give researchers the ability to prototype tools and designs in the environment of space with short iteration cycles.”
On July 25, the RS-25 rocket engine for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), was test-fired for the third time in a row. This test ran for about 8.5 minutes at the agency’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. NASA officials said in a statement:
With this latest test, NASA continues to set the stage for deep-space exploration missions, achieving another milestone toward launch of the first integrated flight of SLS and the Orion spacecraft, known as Exploration Mission-1…SLS will be powered at launch by four RS-25 engines, firing simultaneously to provide 2 million pounds [900,000 kilograms] of thrust and working in conjunction with a pair of solid rocket boosters to produce up to 8 million [3.6 million kg] pounds of thrust.
The search for life elsewhere in the universe is one of the most compelling aspects of modern science. Given its scientific importance, significant resources are devoted to this young science of astrobiology, ranging from rovers on Mars to telescopic observations of planets orbiting other stars.
The holy grail of all this activity would be the actual discovery of alien life, and such a discovery would likely have profound scientific and philosophical implications. But extraterrestrial life has not yet been discovered, and for all we know may not even exist. Fortunately, even if alien life is never discovered, all is not lost: simply searching for it will yield valuable benefits for society.
Why is this the case?
First, astrobiology is inherently multidisciplinary. To search for aliens requires a grasp of, at least, astronomy, biology, geology, and planetary science. Undergraduate courses in astrobiology need to cover elements of all these different disciplines, and postgraduate and postdoctoral astrobiology researchers likewise need to be familiar with most or all of them.
By forcing multiple scientific disciplines to interact, astrobiology is stimulating a partial reunification of the sciences. It is helping to move 21st-century science away from the extreme specialisation of today and back towards the more interdisciplinary outlook that prevailed in earlier times.
By producing broadminded scientists, familiar with multiple aspects of the natural world, the study of astrobiology therefore enriches the whole scientific enterprise. It is from this cross-fertilization of ideas that future discoveries may be expected, and such discoveries will comprise a permanent legacy of astrobiology, even if they do not include the discovery of alien life.
It is also important to recognise that astrobiology is an incredibly open-ended endeavour. Searching for life in the universe takes us from extreme environments on Earth, to the plains and sub-surface of Mars, the icy satellites of the giant planets, and on to the all-but-infinite variety of planets orbiting other stars. And this search will continue regardless of whether life is actually discovered in any of these environments or not. The range of entirely novel environments opened to investigation will be essentially limitless, and so has the potential to be a never-ending source of scientific and intellectual stimulation.
The Cosmic Perspective
Beyond the more narrowly intellectual benefits of astrobiology are a range of wider societal benefits. These arise from the kinds of perspectives – cosmic in scale – that the study of astrobiology naturally promotes.
It is simply not possible to consider searching for life on Mars, or on a planet orbiting a distant star, without moving away from the narrow Earth-centric perspectives that dominate the social and political lives of most people most of the time. Today, the Earth is faced with global challenges that can only be met by increased international cooperation. Yet around the world, nationalistic and religious ideologies are acting to fragment humanity. At such a time, the growth of a unifying cosmic perspective is potentially of enormous importance.
In the early years of the space age, the then US ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, said of the world: “We can never again be a squabbling band of nations before the awful majesty of outer space.” Unfortunately, this perspective is yet to sink deeply into the popular consciousness. On the other hand, the wide public interest in the search for life elsewhere means that astrobiology can act as a powerful educational vehicle for the popularisation of this perspective.
Indeed, it is only by sending spacecraft out to explore the solar system, in large part for astrobiological purposes, that we can obtain images of our own planet that show it in its true cosmic setting.
In addition, astrobiology provides an important evolutionary perspective on human affairs. It demands a sense of deep, or big, history. Because of this, many undergraduate astrobiology courses begin with an overview of the history of the universe. This begins with the Big Bang and moves successively through the origin of the chemical elements, the evolution of stars, galaxies, and planetary systems, the origin of life, and evolutionary history from the first cells to complex animals such as ourselves. Deep history like this helps us locate human affairs in the vastness of time, and therefore complements the cosmic perspective provided by space exploration.
There is a well-known aphorism, widely attributed to the Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, to the effect that “the most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world”. Humboldt was presumably thinking about the mind-broadening potential of international travel. But familiarity with the cosmic and evolutionary perspectives provided by astrobiology, powerfully reinforced by actual views of the Earth from space, can surely also act to broaden minds in such a way as to make the world less fragmented and dangerous.
I think there is an important political implication inherent in this perspective: as an intelligent technological species, that now dominates the only known inhabited planet in the universe, humanity has a responsibility to develop international social and political institutions appropriate to managing the situation in which we find ourselves.
In concluding his monumental Outline of History in 1925, HG Wells famously observed: “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” Such an observation appears especially germane to the geopolitical situation today, where apparently irrational decisions, often made by governments (and indeed by entire populations) seemingly ignorant of broader perspectives, may indeed lead our planet to catastrophe.
The first inflatable space module is orbiting the Earth right now, and after more than a year in space, it’s still retaining its air. The prototype, called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), was folded until it arrived at its destination aboard the International Space Station (ISS), at which point it was expanded. This allows it to occupy a much smaller area in whatever craft is carrying it, saving valuable space and money during transport.
Expandable modules like BEAM aren’t metal. Instead, they’re made of tough yet flexible materials like Kevlar, the substance used in bulletproof vests.
Although many people picture balloons when they think of inflatable space stations, this isn’t an apt analogy due to the way these models are constructed. As NASA’s Jason Crusan explained to NPR, they’re more like tires, which retain their shape when punctured.
Ideally, of course, BEAM won’t be punctured. To that end, the module is equipped with various layers of protection that shield it from space debris and meteorites that might otherwise penetrate it. NASA believes this system has already stood up to testing. “We do believe we’ve taken at least one hit,” said Crusan. “Very small in nature, and actually we can’t even visually see where it’s at.” The module lost no pressure after the hit.
Are Inflatables the Future?
Right now, BEAM has no formal function for NASA and is simply in orbit to test how it would work. However, Crusan confirmed that the ISS crew enters the module to check its sensors periodically and told NPR that they seem to enjoy their visits.
Originally, NASA’s plan was to observe BEAM for two years and then jettison it so it could burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. However, since it still functions perfectly and space is scarce on the station, BEAM is now going to be a storage shed in orbit as long as the module continues to operate.
Bigelow Aerospace, which created BEAM, has extensive plans for additional expandable modules, including the B330, a huge stand-alone space station that will be 20 times BEAM’s size. B330 will have two propulsion systems, a full suite of environmental life-support systems, and very large solar arrays.
On July 15, Buzz Aldrin hosted a gala at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, to commemorate the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon and to raise funds for his ShareSpace Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on educating the next generation, which Aldrin hopes will help humans reach Mars by 2040. Amazon founder and Blue Origin CEO Jeff Bezos was given the first Buzz Aldrin Space Innovation Award during the event, after which he made some predictions concerning the future of humanity’s cosmic adventures.
Amongst his statements was an assertion that humans should terraform the Moon. According to Tech Radar, Bezos claimed, “It’s time for America to go back to the Moon, this time to stay.” He then added, “We should build a permanent settlement on one of the poles of the Moon.” He ended on a positive note: “If we have reusable rockets, we can do it so much more affordably than we have ever done it before. We have the tools. We have the young people with a passion to do it. We can get that done today.”
Bezos doesn’t think humans will one day have to abandon Earth due to the growing population, which is set to reach 9.7 billion people by 2050. While he doesn’t disagree that the population is growing, instead of trying to find a replacement planet, the tycoon proposes that humanity expand its idea of home by making space travel cheaper. “We can have a trillion humans in the solar system,” he said. “What’s holding us back from making that next step is that space travel is just too darned expensive.”
A Second Space Age
Bezos’ vehicle for achieving his dreams is Blue Origin, which he sells billions of dollars worth of Amazon stock to fund. Like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Blue Origin aims to democratize space by using reusable rockets to decrease the cost of travel. Presumably, it is the company’s spacecraft that would provide the means of colonizing the Moon and beyond.
Blue Origin is one of several companies that form the vanguard of the current space revolution. Along with SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Rocket Lab, Blue Origin aims to knock access to the cosmos off its governmental pedestal and bring the stars to the masses via tourism and colonization.
With our planet being ravaged by global warming and overpopulation, space is becoming an ever-more-viable option to serve our species’ needs. Companies like Blue Origin are laying the groundwork for what could be the next step in human habitation.
When its founder and CEO, Elon Musk, confirmed that SpaceX is abandoning the plan to use a powered Dragon landings for Mars, it didn’t come as a surprise. Musk had previously announced that the initial ideas for SpaceX’s Mars mission had been reviewed and changes were coming.
The original plan included testing a Dragon 2 capsule for surface landings on Mars, supposedly by 2020. Last week, Musk announced during the International Space Station Research and Development Conference that SpaceX has scrapped the design that put landing legs on the Dragon 2 capsule. However, this didn’t mean that SpaceX would no longer do power landings on Mars.
“[The] plan is to do powered landings on Mars for sure, but with a vastly bigger ship,” Musk said on a tweet. Currently, SpaceX’s space capsules are capable of splashdown landings, but surface landings are more ideal for missions to Mars.
Throwing a bone to SpaceX redditors, Musk revealed yet another detail.
A 9m diameter vehicle fits in our existing factories …
The cryptic post has been making a buzz on the SpaceX Reddit, and some have offered their interpretations as to what this nine-meter (30-foot) diameter machine could be. One possibility is that it could be the Boring Company’s tunneling machine, as the current standard tunnel diameter is roughly 8.53 meters (28 ft).
However, it’s highly unlikely that Musk was referring to a tunneling machine. Keep in mind that the Boring Company’s plan is to reduce the standard tunnel diameter in half or “less than 14 feet,” as it says in its website. “Reducing the diameter in half reduces tunneling costs by 3-4 times.”
A Surprise for September
So, if not a tunneling machine, what else could it be? A more interesting suggestion is that SpaceX may be building a smaller version of its Interplanetary Transport System (ITS). Musk has said that they plan on keeping the costs of making and maintaining rockets reasonable — or, at the very least, at par with the $200,000 per person cost of getting on a flight to the Red Planet. Could a mini-ITS be that solution?
“[Nine] meters is 3/4 of the size of the 12 meter full sized ITS,” one redditor commented. “There also happened to be 4 layers of engines in the original ITS design. I would guess that this is basically an ITS with the outer layer of 21 engines removed. A 50 percent scale vehicle. Still the most powerful rocket in history, and [roughly] 50 percent more powerful than [the Space Launch System].”
Whether Musk is building a smaller ITS, the Boring Company’s tunneling machine, or something else entirely, we won’t know for sure until he reveals what this really is all about. We need not wait that long, though, as Musk said that all will be revealed at this year’s International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in September.
Yes, I postponed publishing in order to present the updated interplanetary rocket & spaceship design in Adelaide. Will be on the final day.
The serial entrepreneur is scheduled to speak on the final day (Sept. 29) of this event to be held in Adelaide, Australia. It was during the IAC back in 2016 that Musk first unveiled SpaceX’s plans to make humanity into a multi-planetary species.
Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos now has Instagram, and his very first post will be pretty hard to top. Bezos posted a drone video showing of a building under construction. As footage zooms to the roof of the building, we see Bezos himself on a lawn chair, holding a sign that reads, “Rocket factory coming soon.”
The building is Blue Origin’s new rocket factory in Florida, which began construction back in June 2016. It’s slated to be an instrumental facility for Bezos’ private spaceflight company. Among other things, Blue Origin’s massive New Glenn rockets would be built there. “Manufacturing facility for the heavy-lift New Glenn launch vehicle is coming along nicely,” says the caption for Bezos’ post.
Similar to its New Shepard predecessor, the New Glenn would feature a fully reusable first stage. Bezos is keen to get in on emerging reusable rocket technology, especially in the wake of the recent successes Elon Musk’s SpaceX has been racking up. While SpaceX is getting plenty of attention, Blue Origin was actually the first to successfully reuse a rocket — launching and landing the same rocket four times in a row.
It looks like this may all be part of laying the groundwork for Bezo’s plan to colonize the solar system — a feat he realizes won’t be achieved during his lifetime, as he said in an interview with The Washington Post last year. But, like Musk, Bezos is also eyeing Mars. “Eventually Mars might be amazing,” he said. “But that’s a long way in the future.”
A hearing held by the House Science Committee that aimed to discuss the largest of NASA’s upcoming projects — including launching another Mars rover in 2020 and a Europa flyby mission with a possible subsequent landing — took a strange turn when congressman Dana Rohrabacher, of California, asked “Is it possible that there was a civilization on Mars thousands of years ago?”
Kenneth Farley, a professor of geochemistry at the California Institute of Technology and project scientist for the 2020 rover team, answered: “there’s no evidence that, uhh, I’m aware of […] I would say that is extremely unlikely.” Additionally, he corrected Rohrabacher’s timeline by saying that “the evidence is that Mars was different billions of years ago. Not thousands of years ago.”
The chances of our planetary neighbor ever hosting a civilization, however, are extremely small — although some, perhaps not entirely credible sources, claim that evidence of a previous sophisticated species can be found in photos released by the Curiosity Rover, which may show a six inch man who bares a startling similarity to the Atacama Alien found in Chile.
The Milky Way Galaxy, which measures 100,000 to 180,000 light years (31 – 55 kiloparsecs) in diameter and contains 100 to 400 billion stars, is so immense that it boggles the mind. And yet, when it comes to the large-scale structure of the Universe, our galaxy is merely a drop in the bucket. Looking farther, astronomers have noted that galaxies form clusters, which in turn form superclusters – the largest known structures in the Universe.
The supercluster in which our galaxy resides is known as the Laniakea Supercluster, which spans 500 million light-years. But thanks to a new study by a team of Indian astronomers, a new supercluster has just been identified that puts all previously known ones to shame. Known as Saraswati, this supercluster is over 650 million light years (200 megaparsecs) in diameter, making it one the largest large-scale structures in the known Universe.
For the sake of their study, the team relied on data obtained by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) to examine the large-scale structure of the Universe. In the past, astronomers have found that the cosmos is hierarchically assembled, with galaxies being arranged in clusters, superclusters, sheets, walls and filaments. These are separated by immense cosmic voids, which together create the vast “Cosmic Web” structure of the Universe.
Superclusters, which are the largest coherent structures in the Cosmic Web, are basically chains of galaxies and galaxy clusters that can extend for hundreds of millions of light years and contain trillions of stars. In the end, the team found a supercluster located about 4 billion (1226 megaparsecs) light-years from Earth – in the constellation Pisces – that is 600 million light-years wide and may contain the mass equivalent of over 20 million billion suns.
They gave this supercluster the name “Saraswati”, the name of an ancient river that played an important role in the emergence of Indian civilization. Saraswait is also the name of a goddess that is worshipped in India today as the keeper of celestial rivers and the goddess of knowledge, music, art, wisdom and nature. This find was particularly surprising, seeing as how Saraswati was older than expected.
Essentially, the supercluster appeared in the SDSS data as it would have when the Universe was roughly 10 billion years old. So not only is Saraswati one of the largest superclusters discovered to date, but its existence raises some serious questions about our current cosmological models. Basically, the predominant model for cosmic evolution does not predict that such a superstructure could exist when the Universe was 10 billion years old.
Known as the “Cold Dark Matter” model, this theory predicts that small structures (i.e. galaxies) formed first in the Universe and then congregated into larger structures. While variations within this model exist, none predict that something as large as Saraswati could have existed 4 billion years ago. Because of this, the discovery may require astronomers to rethink their theories of how the Universe became what it is today.
To put it simply, the Saraswati supercluster formed at a time when Dark Energy began to dominate structure formation, replacing gravitation as the main force shaping cosmic evolution. As Joydeep Bagchi, a researcher from IUCAA and the lead author of the paper, and co-author Shishir Sankhyayan (of IISER) explained in a IUCAA press release:
‘’We were very surprised to spot this giant wall-like supercluster of galaxies… This supercluster is clearly embedded in a large network of cosmic filaments traced by clusters and large voids. Previously only a few comparatively large superclusters have been reported, for example the ‘Shapley Concentration’ or the ‘Sloan Great Wall’ in the nearby universe, while the ‘Saraswati’ supercluster is far more distant one. Our work will help to shed light on the perplexing question; how such extreme large scale, prominent matter-density enhancements had formed billions of years in the past when the mysterious Dark Energy had just started to dominate structure formation.’’
As such, the discovery of this most-massive of superclusters may shed light on how and when Dark Energy played an important role in supercluster formation. It also opens the door to other cosmological theories that are in competition with the CDM model, which may offer more consistent explanations as to why Saraswati could exist 10 billion years after the Big Bang.
One thing is clear thought: this discovery represents an exciting opportunity for new research into cosmic formation and evolution. And with the aid of new instruments and observational facilities, astronomers will be able to look at Saraswait and other superclusters more closely in the coming years and study just how they effect their cosmic environment.
The discovery of seven Earth-like planets orbiting red dwarf star TRAPPIST-1, which is around 40 light years away from our solar system, has piqued the interest of astronomers and alien hunters alike. What’s even more interesting is that three of these exoplanets are located within the star’s habitable zone. That must indicate there’s a high possibility of life there, right?
Well, not necessarily: two recent studies show that being located in the TRAPPIST-1 system’s habitable zone, isn’t enough to secure life. One study published in the International Journal of Astrobiologypoints out that these exoplanets are constantly bombarded by radiation. “Because of the onslaught by the star’s radiation, our results suggest the atmosphere on planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system would largely be destroyed,” researcher Abraham Loeb said in a press release. “This would hurt the chances of life forming or persisting.”
The exoplanets in the TRAPPIST-1 system are also closer to their star compared to the distance between planets in our solar system and the Sun. For example, the farthest TRAPPIST-1 exoplanet is only about 9 million kilometers (5.6 million miles) away from the star — while Mercury is about 58 million km (36 million miles) from the Sun.
According to the second study, published in the The Astrophysical Journal Letters, this relatively small distance could have connected the exoplanets to TRAPPIST-1’s magnetic field and allowed for stellar winds to hit their surfaces. “These conditions could result in strong atmospheric stripping and evaporation and should be taken into account for any realistic assessment of the evolution and habitability of the TRAPPIST-1 planets,” the study said.
The space surrounding Earth is long overdue for spring cleaning. According to the most recent estimates from the NASA, there are more than 500,000 pieces of debris floating around the planet. To make things worse, these space junk aren’t stationary. NASA says they’re all traveling at speeds of up to 28,163 km/h (17,500 mph) as they orbit the Earth.
“This funding commitment indicates the growing international awareness that space debris must be confronted in order to safeguard future space use and advance discussions on Space Traffic Management,” Nobu Okada, Astroscale founder and CEO, said in a press release. The company has raised a total of $53 million in funding to date.
Astroscale’s space debris cleaning projects include the Idea OSG-1 satellite, slated for launch on a Soyuz rocket in 2018. This 22-kilogram (50-pound) satellite would monitor debris smaller than a millimeter (0.04 inches). A second satellite, the ELSA-d, would be for de-orbiting dead satellites, and Astroscale plans to launch this in 2019.
SpaceX has abandoned its plans to equip future versions of the Dragon spacecraft to undertake powered landings. This change will affect long-term plans for Mars, as CEO Elon Musk acknowledged to the International Space Station Research and Development Conference on Wednesday.
The Dragon spacecraft that is currently under development for NASA’s commercial crew program will use SuperDraco thrusters only as a launch abort system, not to land on any surfaces. During a Q&A session, Musk replied to questions about Dragon’s propulsive landing capabilities by saying, “It was a tough decision. Technically it still is, although you’d have to land it on some pretty soft landing pad because we’ve deleted the little legs that pop out of the heat shield.”
Safety certification issues for propulsive landings were behind the cancellation of the plans to transition away from water landings and toward propulsion-assisted landings on solid ground. “It would have taken a tremendous amount of effort to qualify that for safety, particularly for crew transport,” Musk said.
Bigger Red Picture
Additionally, the overall goal of SpaceX is now to land larger spacecraft on Mars to further the long-term goal of getting humans on Mars. “There was a time that I thought the Dragon approach to landing Mars, where you’ve got a base heat shield and side-mounted thrusters, would be the right way to land on Mars,” Musk said during the session. “Now I’m pretty confident that is not the right way and there’s a far better approach.”
The alternative approach will also use a version of propulsive landing:
Plan is to do powered landings on Mars for sure, but with a vastly bigger ship
SpaceX’s new plans for the Falcon Heavy have recently evolved, and it makes sense to consolidate the costs of this kind of landing in a larger spacecraft. This change may also have either pushed back or canceled the Red Dragon mission, which was originally intended to land a Dragon 2 spacecraft on the surface of Mars.
We’ll all be eagerly awaiting more updates, possibly presented in Adelaide, Australia at September’s International Astronautical Congress meeting. In the meantime, it’s Twitter and the Cape to watch the Falcon Heavy.
Once it launches this year, the Falcon Heavy will be the most powerful operational rocket in the world. It will be able to lift more than 54 metric tons (119,000 lbs), which is twice the payload of the Delta IV Heavy at one-third the cost.
Developing the rocket wasn’t easy. In fact, Musk says it was “way, way more difficult” than SpaceX originally anticipated.
“[Falcon Heavy] requires the simultaneous ignition of 27 orbit class rockets,” he explained. Because of this, Musk says there is a “lot of risk associated with Falcon Heavy,” which is why he is setting the bar for success rather low for initial launches: “There’s a real good chance that it does not make it to orbit. I hope it gets far enough away from the launch pad that it does not cause pad damage – I would consider that a win.”
Problems with initial launches won’t be due to any inherent flaws with the rocket itself, however; they’re just part of the process. “Falcon Heavy’s going to be a great vehicle. [There] just isn’t a lot you can test on the ground,” Musk noted.
SpaceX has experienced a fair share of (fiery) failures in the past, and the potential for problems with early Falcon Heavy launches had the SpaceX CEO joking about the character of the crew members aboard the first manned missions: “No question, whoever’s on the first flight… brave. Brave.”
The Crew Dragon
Other “brave” SpaceX explorers will eventually be able to enjoy a trip aboard the company’s Crew Dragon, also known as Dragon 2. Thus far, the Dragon spacecraft has only been used to transport cargo, but the design is being modified to support crewed mission. In fact, the Dragon 2 could even eventually carry Musk, who replied, “I would like to at some point. Assuming things work out, yeah, maybe in three or four years,” when asked whether he’d like to take a ride to the International Space Station (ISS) and back aboard the craft.
Also in the works for the Crew Dragon are orbital launches and testing of its automatic docking abilities. Currently, in order for the Dragon to attach to the ISS, the space station’s robotic arm has to be used. Not of much importance, according to a comment by Musk, is refining the Dragon’s 2 purposive landing capability (i.e., descending using retrorockets vs. a parachute) as he claims it’s no longer a requirement for landing on Mars.
The real public excitement lies beyond the ISS and Mars missions, though, according to Musk. “If you want to get the public real fired up, we gotta have a base on the Moon. Having some permanent presence on another heavenly body,” he said. “That’s the continuance of the dream of Apollo.”
Some of the biggest players already in the race to build a Moon base 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. Whether Musk will beat them to it remains to be seen.
This trickle of small updates will do little to pacify those eager for more details on Musk’s mission to Mars. That information is likely to arrive in September in the form of a revision to his detailed plan for making humanity a multi-planetary species. The efforts of SpaceX are now more vital than ever, given NASA’s recent admission that they won’t be the ones to get us to the Red Planet, but perhaps the plan will include the announcement of a NASA/SpaceX collaboration?
One thousand years. That is the minimum length of time it would take us to get to the nearest star — Proxima Centauri — using current methods. But since we discovered that this star houses a potentially habitable planet, scientists have been more enthusiastic about the idea of interstellar travel than ever before.
“It’s tantalizing,” Guillem Anglada-Escude, who led the research team that discovered the planet, said in an interview with NPR. “Now that we know the planet is there, we can be more creative. We can think about solutions — maybe to send interstellar probes or to design specific spacecraft to look for this planet.”
Still, the 4.2 light-years that stretch between us and Proxima Centauri represent a daunting distance for space explorers. It may take us a while to come up with those solutions. So we asked Futurism readers when they thought the first human will leave our solar system.
Not very soon, it seems. The option that received the most votes by far was 2100 or later — this was the choice of about 35 percent of respondents. As respondent Charles Hornbostel explained, “With human exploration of Mars expected no earlier than the 2025-30 time frame, it is reasonable to expect humans will not have reached the orbits of Neptune and Pluto by century’s end, barring any breakthroughs in exotic propulsion technology.”
Hornbostel is right about the many plans countries and companies alike are pursuing to put humans on Mars in the next 10 to 15 years. He is also correct that many researchers are working toward the creation of new technologies to shoot our spacecrafts faster through space — and experts have some predictions where those are concerned.
What The Experts Have to Say
Some space enthusiasts are optimistic about our chances of interstellar voyaging, arguing that — if we put our noses to the grindstone, like, right now — we could reach Proxima Centauri by 2100. Others, like Marcus Young, a researcher at the U.S. Air Force Research Lab, have a more dim view of that possibility. He told attendees at 2008 Joint Propulsion Conference that his team had not found any viable options for interstellar travel.
“There are a lot of ideas that initially you say, ‘Hey, that might work,’” Young said at the conference according to Wired. “But after a little research, you quickly find that it won’t.”
But Young also argued that scientists should continue to study the problems posed by interstellar travel, and they have. There are a number of ideas for how we could finally escape our solar system, including fusion rockets, which are being perused by a NASA-funded company. However, radiation from these would probably be too toxic to carry humans.
We could also use solar sails and give them some extra oomph by pointing lasers at them. This is the approach Breakthrough Starshot is taking, but its goals are just to send a small probe to the Centauri system, not a manned ship. And even if you were able to get a spacecraft to go 10 or even 20 percent of the speed of light, you still have the problem of preventing hull damage from space particles.
You would also have to devise ways to slow down once you got to the Centauri system, which SpaceX founder Elon Musk pointed out in an interview with Aeon. Musk believes that interstellar travel is ultimately doable, but an impractical goal at this stage.
“If we’re going to have any chance of sending stuff to other star systems, we need to be laser-focused on becoming a multi-planet civilization. That’s the next step,” Musk said in the interview. And, if he is right, space enthusiasts have a reason to be hopeful, because a Mars colony may be just a few years away.
See all of the Futurism predictions and make your own predictions here.
One thing we’ve learned about the universe is that there are many strange signals coming from odd places. Some people are quick to jump to conclusions, saying that these may be alien in origin. But, for astronomers, every other possibility must be ruled out before such a claim is made.
Such was the case when astronomers from Puerto Rico detected mysterious signals from a red dwarf star called Ross 128 just about 11 light-years away. “[W]e realized that there were some very peculiar signals in the 10-minute dynamic spectrum that we obtained from Ross 128,” Abel Mendez, director of the Planetary Habitability Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo, wrote in a blog post. First observed in May, the strange signals were distinct and semi-periodic.
“We believe that the signals are not local radio frequency interferences (RFI) since they are unique to Ross 128 and observations of other stars immediately before and after did not show anything similar,” Mendez added.
Probably Not Aliens
Among the red dwarf stars Mendez and his colleagues have been studying, Ross 128 is not known to have planets. This makes it more unlikely that the cause of these radio signals is intelligent alien life. “In case you are wondering, the recurrent aliens hypothesis is at the bottom of many other better explanations,” Mendez wrote.
Instead, he has three possible answers. First, the signals could be some kind of emission, similar to solar flares. Alternatively, emissions from another object within the field of view of Ross 128 might also be causing these signals. Or, lastly, a high orbit satellite could be generating bursts, which we detect as the peculiar signals. But whatever it is, it’s unlikely to be ET phoning home.
This second look was necessary, Mendez explained, because each of the three possible explanations present their own problems. Still, he’s confident that Ross 128’s radio signals aren’t alien in origin. “I have a Piña Colada ready to celebrate if the signals result to be astronomical in nature.”
The European Space Agency (ESA) and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) have unveiled the probe they’re sending to study Mercury in 2018, tasked with figuring out why the smallest planet in the Solar System appears to be shrinking.
The BepiColombo spacecraft is also going to be tasked with looking for water ice at Mercury’s poles and in its volcanoes, which should give us more clues about the composition and evolution of the planet.
“Mercury is the least explored of the rocky planets, but not because it is uninteresting,” says the head of the ESA, Alvaro Giménez Cañete. “It’s because it’s difficult – difficult to get there, even more difficult to work there.”
Mercury lies some 77 million kilometres (or 48 million miles) away from Earth, but that’s not as much of a problem for scientists as the planet’s very thin atmosphere, which makes slowing down a probe hurtling through space very difficult.
To put the brakes on as much as possible before it gets to Mercury, BepiColombo will go through a total of nine fly-bys – one around Earth, two around Venus, and six around Mercury – to use up some of its energy.
By the time the probe settles down into orbit, sometime in 2025, it will have covered a distance equivalent to going around the Solar System 18.5 times.
Once in position, BepiColombo will need to survive through the extreme temperatures of Mercury, which can range from -170 degrees Celsius (-280 degrees Fahrenheit) during the night to 430 degrees Celsius (800 degrees Fahrenheit) during the day.
The spacecraft is actually going to split up into two probes when in orbit, one made by the ESA and one made by JAXA.
Then the real scientific work can begin, building on data collected by the two previous probes to visit the planet: Mariner 10, which arrived in 1974, and Messenger, which arrived in 2008 and has given us our best pictures of the planet.
Measurements of the surface suggest Mercury is tectonically active and shrinking still today as its core cools – and scientists want to know why.
They also want to look for evidence of water ice hidden away in the shadowy craters and volcanoes of Mercury, protected from the fierce solar glare and heat. If BepiColombo can take chemical measurements from the ice, it might give us a better idea of how Mercury was formed in the first place.
Another mystery is why Mercury has a large iron core topped with a thin layer of silicate rocks. The hypotheses that the Sun eroded some of its outer layers, or that they were knocked off by a collision with another planet, don’t match up with the surface scans that Messenger took.
By using more accurate instruments and taking a closer look at Mercury, the experts at ESA and JAXA are hoping to get answers to some of these questions, and we can’t wait to see what it’s going to find.
If you want to see the ESA briefing in full it’s available below:
Buzz Aldrin is an acclaimed astronaut, engineer, and (of course) the second human being to ever walk on the Moon. Over the years, he has inspired entire generations to look beyond the bounds of Earth and pursue the unknown. As Aldrin previously noted, “human beings are meant to be inquisitive. We’re meant to be achievers.” And to this end, Aldrin has dedicated his life to advancing humanity through discovery, creating explorers and scientists alike in the process.
Most recently, Aldrin helped to create a virtual reality (VR) experience that allows people to ‘travel’ to Mars. As one of the few individuals who has ever had the privilege of stepping onto an astronomical body besides Earth, Aldrin is able to expertly assist in conveying the experience of space travel to the everyday individual and, in so doing, take people (virtually) farther than they have ever gone before.
Now is the time to start thinking seriously about what life on Mars might look like in the future.
In a recent interview with Futurism, Aldrin weighed in on just how important it is for us, as humans, to take this next step in journeying into the final frontier, “One of the things that makes space exploration so exciting is that the possibilities are endless. Mars is the next actionable step for us – we have never been closer to knowing and exploring another planet. Plus, I believe that Mars has realistic potential for colonization.”
Aldrin continued by noting that, in order to make humanity’s future on Mars a reality, we will need to start garnering interest and making plans for tomorrow today: “Now is the time to start thinking seriously about what life on Mars might look like in the future. I believe we can have the first Human Martians at Mars by 2040.”
A Unified Quest
Obviously, a virtual journey to Mars isn’t exactly the same as a real Martian excursion; however, such technologies can, in some small way, help bring people to the stars who otherwise might not ever have the opportunity. In this respect, the VR experience is truly valuable. As Aldrin notes, “We have a long way to go before trips to space are widely affordable for everyone. Luckily AR/VR technology is here now.”
Aldrin continued by asserting that, more than just showing people what the voyage to Mars will be like, this type of experience is an integral part of encouraging people to get excited about science and exploration. And in today’s society, where denialism and sensationalism dominate many conversations, a genuine interest in science is more crucial than ever. Aldrin believes that exploring the vast recesses of space can help in this regard because, as he asserts, “space travel is a great unifier–it captures our collective imagination, encourages our curiosity, and inspires our creativity.”
It is in our nature to explore. We, as a species, are curious.
To this end, Aldrin thinks that it is through these small pushes in the right direction that humans will finally make it to other worlds. Because we are, at the end of the day, wanderers: “It is in our nature to explore. We, as a species, are curious and want to see what’s over the next hill, see how fast we can go. It was only 66 years from the point that the Wright brothers flew to us flying rockets to the Moon.”
If this VR voyage sounds like something that would interest you, Aldrin and Terry Virts, the former commander of the ISS, are teaming up with Omaze, a donation-based experience platform, to offer one winner (and a friend) a chance to celebrate the Apollo 11 anniversary as VIPs at the ShareSpace gala. You will get to hang out with the pair and experience Aldrin’s virtual Mars experience. Best of all, this effort supports The ShareSpace Foundation, which is a nonprofit dedicated to getting kids involved with STEM.
In the words of the Carl Sagan, “Human beings are a curious, inquisitive, exploratory species. I think that has been the secret of our success as a species.” Aldrin embodies this exploratory quest and, through AR and VR, he wants to spark that curiosity and need to explore in all.
Of course, no one is positive when the first human footsteps will leave their mark on the Martian surface, but the quest to get us there is how we will continue to advance as a species….and it isn’t just astronauts and rocket scientists who can (and should) participate in this great journey. Whether virtually or through other means of education and involvement, it is now possible for us all to engage our minds, hearts, and exploratory imaginations. It’s a race we must run together.
This August, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will launch the 14th Dragon spacecraft from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. This launch, targeted for August, will be the 12th commercial cargo resupply services mission to the International Space Station. In addition to supplies and equipment, Dragon will deliver several science investigations to the station.
NASA is inviting 40 social media users to attend the two day event, culminating in the historic launch. Accepted applicants will have the opportunity to experience everything from the “front lines.” This includes a tour of the NASA facilities at Kennedy Space Center, the opportunity to speak with representatives from NASA and SpaceX, and a chance to visit the rocket at the Launch Complex.
SpaceX continues to make great strides in decreasing the cost of spaceflight through the use of reusable rocket technology. The company recently completed three successful launches in less than two weeks. In the future, they’ll even bring private citizens to the Moon, and to Mars.
Don’t miss your chance to be a part of history. The deadline to apply is tomorrow (July 19, 2017).
On July 13, Elon Musk posted a graph on Twitter that showed SpaceX was completely cornering the commercial rocket market. Musk specifically highlighted the fact that his venture is entirely privately funded while other major companies listed get billions of dollars in grants each year despite a profound lack of launches.
About 11 years ago, two of these companies — Boeing and Lockheed Martin — merged to become the United Launch Alliance (ULA). Tory Bruno, President and CEO of the ULA, disagreed with Musk on Twitter, calling the billion dollar subsidy a “myth.” The tweet has since been deleted. Futurism reached out to ULA for comment at 1:53PM ET, and noted the presence of the tweet not long after. It was removed by 2:30 PM ET.
Due to contracting, ULA is required to maintain both the workforce and facilities necessary to produce and launch Delta vehicles, in spite of having nearly no “business” thanks to Atlas V. Maintaining a workforce and set of facilities that is in part or whole redundant is not efficient or cost-effective, but it is contractually required. So, while the ELC contract Musk deemed a nearly pointless subsidy does have some major flaws, inefficiencies, and illogical aspects, it is not technically correct to label it a subsidy.
Futurism reached out to ULA for a comment on the tweet and above data. A ULA representative referred us to a 2016 op-ed for SpaceNews on the topic in which Bruno addressed the criticism:
Critics have asserted that ULA receives $800 million per year in a contract “for doing nothing,” stating that it was a “retainer” or “subsidy” for ULA to “stay in business” for the Air Force. This is untrue and reveals a fundamental lack of understanding of this innovative contracting mechanism.
Whether or not ULA would still receive this payment despite a lack of actual launches is not clear.
Regardless of how the money is labeled, however, SpaceX is still leading the launch race. In addition to launching rockets with an ever-increasing frequency over the next few years, Musk also plans to launch 4,000 satellites to provide the world with unilateral internet coverage and continue work on his mission to terraform Mars.
Editor’s Note: This article was updated to reflect the fact that the tweet was deleted after Futurism contacted ULA.
Astronomers say they have detected “strange signals” coming from the direction of a small, dim star located about 11 light-years from Earth.
Researchers picked up the mysterious signals on May 12 using the Arecibo Observatory, a huge radio telescope built inside of a Puerto Rican sinkhole. The radio signals appear to be coming from Ross 128, a red dwarf star that’s not yet known to have any planets and is about 2,800 times dimmer than the Sun.
Abel Méndez, an astrobiologist at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo, said the star was observed for 10 minutes, during which time the signal was picked up and “almost periodic”.
“The SETI [Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence] groups are aware of the signals,” Méndez wrote in an email to Business Insider.
Explanations for the ‘Very Peculiar’ Signals
While Arecibo is known for its role in efforts to search for signals from aliens, it’s also great for looking at distant galaxies and pinging near-Earth asteroids. Méndez thinks the signal is more likely from something humans put in space, perhaps a satellite that passed thousands of miles overhead.
“The field of view of [Arecibo] is wide enough, so there is the possibility that the signals were caused not by the star but another object in the line of sight,” Méndez said, adding that “some communication satellites transmit in the frequencies we observed.”
However, in a July 12 blog post about the mystery of Ross 128, he wrote that “we have never seen satellites emit bursts like that” and called the signals “very peculiar”.
Another possible explanation is a stellar flare, or outburst of energy from the star’s surface. Such bursts from the sun travel at light-speed, emit powerful radio signals, and can disrupt satellites and communications on Earth, as well as endanger astronauts.
Solar flares can also be chased by a slower-moving yet more energetic coronal mass ejections: a flood of solar particles that can distort our planet’s magnetic field, generate geomagnetic storms, and cripple power grids and fry electronics.
Taking Another Look at Ross 128
To see if the signals are still there, Méndez said Arecibo is going to stare down Ross 128 and its surroundings many more times, starting July 16.
“Success will be to find the signal again in the star but not in its surrounding[s]. If we don’t get the signal again then the mystery deepens,” he said. “We are not sure if we can get to the bottom of this mystery from just the next observations if that was a rare event.”
But FAST isn’t operational right now, since it’s being calibrated, and Méndez said he doesn’t know when it will be back online.
Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, confirmed that the group is “well aware of the signals” and might use its powerful Allen Telescope Array in California “to check them out.”
“The chances are high that they’re terrestrial interference, in fact. That’s really always been the case,” Shostak told Business Insider in an email.
Right now there’s really only one compelling signal from outer space that might come from aliens: “[T]he WOW signal,” Shostak said. “That one is still quite odd.”
While Mars has been getting its fair share of publicity, Titan — Saturn’s largest Moon — is “remarkably Earth-like,” as New Scientistputs it. It boasts a firm surface, a thick atmosphere, and even surface water. According to Ralph Lorenz, a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University, “I think long-term, after Mars, Titan’s probably the next most important place that people will have an extended presence.”
This means there’s a destination beyond Mars that could potentially sustain continued human life. But there is just one (ok, so probably more than one) major problem: power. At about 1.4 billion km (about 870 million miles) from the Sun — compared to Earth’s approximate 150 million km (93 million miles) — there’s a high likelihood that whatever is sent to Titan will remain on Titan. Therefore, any energy used by probes (or maybe one day, visitors) would need to be able to be generated on the Moon itself. Luckily, Titan just so happens to have conditions that could make it possible to power a population the size of the United States.
Mining the Moon
Titan is rich in methane, and while combusting hydrocarbons for fuel in an oxygen-lacking environment isn’t the best idea, the moon is also theoretically chock full of acetylene. Acetylene, when combined with hydrogen, can be used to generate power. Additionally, while hydropower might not be the most feasible plan (as the topography doesn’t naturally lend itself to this type of power) ocean turbines could be an another power generation possibility. In addition to all of this, wind power would also be an option — though it would be difficult to implement with the technology that’s currently available. Despite Titan’s distance from the Sun, solar power, too, could be a possible power source.
Mining the existing natural components of space could prove to be a great ally in our quest to explore the cosmos. It also might give space exploration agencies major financial and scientific incentives — as asteroids and moons often contain highly sought after materials. And so, as we begin to better understand these cosmic objects — and hopefully benefit from their components — we can also hope to find ways in which they might lend themselves to sustaining our explorations, and maybe one day, our lives.
In the 1960s, the US government’s top secret Project Orion had its eyes on a target far further away than NASA’s lunar goal. Twenty people would land on the surface of Saturn in 1970, after taking a casual detour on Mars on the way. They would be propelled there by riding the blast-waves of nuclear explosions the spacecraft dropped out of its stern (this is called nuclear pulse propulsion).
Using many of the minds who were part of the Manhattan Project (to build the atomic bomb), the ship would have been a little taller than the leaning tower of Pisa at 60 meters (196.85 feet), about forty times as heavy as a blue whale at 3628.739 metric tons (4,000 tons), have its hull built “built like a submarine, not an airplane,” according to project memberFreeman Dyson and — to top it all off — was designed to be a reusable, multi-use platform.
While this sounds as outlandish as science fiction, Washington took the proposal so seriously that they spent the equivalent of US$85 million in today’s money on development. Russia had just caused upheaval in America by launching Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. This caused the US to invest millions into various aspects of space exploration in order to be the first to the next frontier.
Orion fell apart, though, due to three main factors: First, it could not be used as a weapon by the country, which was a prerogative for much of the innovative technologies of the Cold War. Second, NASA’s public image concerns and the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty forbade the testing almost all nuclear explosions — Orion, with 20 people in it, was not the type of rocket you wanted to send off without testing. Third, organizations were running low on funds, and when NASA was pressed for a decision over contribution, they placed Apollo and Saturn V on the list of priorities above Orion.
An Unfulfilled Prophecy
Project Orion seems like a clunky and crude solution to space travel — but its premise is so sound that NASA recently announced that using small-scale nuclear fusion rockets may be the step forward the space world needs. Space travel has strangely come full circle.
Both Project Orion and NASA’s latest gambit aim to combat the inefficiency of the traditional chemical method of propelling spacecraft into the cosmos. Chemical rockets are ineffective on two fronts. First, the amount of power they derive from the fuel is small. Second, and because of this, they need to carry a large amount of fuel, which increases their mass and therefore the amount of energy it takes for them to achieve liftoff.
Nuclear powered spacecraft are not the only solutions to this problem, though: modern cosmic engineers have tried to develop other ways to overcome their inadequacy. Paul Allen has built the world’s largest plane to ferry spacecraft to the upper atmosphere to decrease the amount of fuel they need.
The reusable rocket business — a key aspect of Project Orion — is being spearheaded by Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin. To compensate for the weight of the fuel needed to take off and penetrate the atmosphere, a significant proportion of a traditional rocket’s parts have been shed during ascension — and are destroyed in the process.
The reusable method decreases financial inefficiency by having most of the rocket survive both takeoff and landing, and by building rockets smaller and lighter, which means they need less activation energy from the fuel. Both companies completed successful landings — Blue Origin in November and SpaceX in December 2015 — but only SpaceX’s venture has managed to relaunch.
Project Orion was a radical new idea that would have rendered Sputnik and the moon landings obsolete if it had ever been realized. What is perhaps most unfortunate is that it was abandoned due to political considerations rather than purely practical ones — as Dyson stated at the time, “a major expansion of human technology has been suppressed for political reasons.”
Both NASA and private agencies like SpaceX and Blue Origin have benefited from the collaboration. The former is able to save on costs, while the latter get to pursue their own individual programs, such as perfecting their reusable rocket technologies for commercial use. Without this partnership, these companies would not have been able to grow and develop at the same rate.
At a hearing of the U.S. Senate’s Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness on Thursday, SpaceX’s senior vice president for global business and government affairs Tim Hughes asked the U.S. government to open up deep space exploration for similar public-private partnerships. “The principles applied in past programs for low Earth orbit capability can and should be applied to deep space exploration,” he said, referencing the COTS program.
A Deep Space Future
In order for the U.S. and for humankind to establish a more permanent presence in space, Hughes asserts that the government should fund a COTS-like program for deep space. It won’t really be a matter of funding the competition, he argued, because the program could run parallel to NASA’s existing deep space exploration plans, such as the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion spacecraft.
“I think [these] can be readily supplemented with public-private partnerships to allow us to sustain a permanent presence in space,” said Hughes. NASA could impose “high level requirements” for this deep space partnership, just like it does with COTS, Hughes added.
The partnership could prove particularly beneficial for NASA right now given the recent reports saying it doesn’t have the funding needed for its Mars mission.
Of course, as with any change, push back is to be expected. For one, more established aerospace firms that already work with NASA — Lockheed Martin and Boeing, among others — might not be in favor of this idea. The important thing, however, is to realize that deep space exploration is an entirely different ballgame than missions in near-Earth orbit, and the best chance of success may come from pooling our resources.
The Milky Way Galaxy alone is home to between 100 billion and 400 billion stars, and each is potentially orbited by planets. There are probably at least 2 trillion galaxies like ours in the observable universe, each one populated by trillions of planets orbiting hundreds of billions of stars. Even if planets capable of sustaining life are exceedingly rare, on the numbers alone there should be intelligent life somewhere in the universe. For example, according to Business Insider, if a mere 0.1 percent of planets in our galaxy that might be habitable harbored life, that would mean there were about a million planets with life on them.
These numbers prompted Nobel Prize-winning physicist Enrico Fermi to ask in regard to alien life forms: “Where are they?” This question has come to be known as the Fermi paradox, and most possible answers to it would be concerning for humans.
On Thursday, Elon Musk posted a graph on Twitter that compares the percentage of launches different parties invested in space have achieved worldwide. Musk’s company, SpaceX, is the leading horse in the race. He attributes SpaceX’s exponential rise successful launches to their innovative tactic of reusing rockets, stating:
Other orgs shd also develop reusable orbital rockets. If an airplane co had reusable airplanes, buying single use airplanes wd seem crazy. pic.twitter.com/OJotlGmPHt
We can derive two main pieces of information from the graph: at this time, SpaceX has supplanted every other private and governmental space agency in the U.S. — an impressive feat considering the venture is entirely privately funded. Other major companies, like Boeing and Lockheed Martin, get billions of dollars in grants each year — despite a profound lack of launches, as Musk pointed out.
Worth noting that Boeing/Lockheed (“Other US” on chart) get a billion dollar annual subsidy even if they launch nothing. SpaceX does not. https://t.co/Mi27ZnYLRJ
The graph also indicates that the last few years have been stellar for SpaceX: their market cap of launches rose from around 5 percent in 2013 to 45 percent in 2017 — an 800 percent increase over four years. And 2017 may prove to be their highest performing year yet, as the company beat its own record for most rockets launched, propelling nine into space thus far (compared to the six they launched in 2016). They also achieved a historic first when they successfully recycled a spacecraft.
A Space Revolution
Elon Musk’s achievements with SpaceX have shifted the paradigm of space travel. His work continues to demonstrate the illogical nature of only using rockets once, and provides a shining example of what can happen when a private company exceeds governmental space agencies. By doing so, he has taken the most significant steps of any company in history towards democratizing space, thereby making it more accessible to all of us.
With such a track record, there’s a fair amount of confidence moving forward in terms of the viability of his upcoming plans concerning space. Over the next few years — in addition to launching rockets with an ever increasing frequency — Musk plans to launch 4,000 satellites to provide the world with unilateral internet coverage, and continue work on his mission to terraform Mars (new and improved plans for which are reportedly coming soon).
Musk’s reach extends beyond space related ventures, though. Recently he announced via Twitter that he plans to build a lithium battery farm to solve South Australia’s energy problems — a project he vowed to complete in 100 days or it’s free of charge.
Multiple countries including the U.S. have plans to reach other stars, but there is a series of major challenges to overcome before we’ll be able to engage in that kind of interstellar travel successfully. Fortunately, there are many researchers working on this problem, and a range of possible solutions are under development that may eventually present us with a workable method for long-distance space exploration.
The first issues we are working to solve is just taking off against the pull of gravity, and the biggest factor overcoming the cost of takeoff is reusability. At the moment, SpaceX is leading the industry in this, having recently launched three missions in nine days. The company is now preparing to launch the Falcon Heavy this summer, as part of the SpaceX plan to take passengers to Mars by 2025.
The Breakthrough Starshot initiative, backed by heavyweights like Stephen Hawking and Mark Zuckerberg, aims to launch a fleet of lightsails carrying thousands of wafer-sized chips into Earth’s orbit — and then far beyond — via laser. They will coast at about one-fifth of the speed of light for about 20 years, gathering scientific data about our closest galactic neighbors.
To work, the lightsails must be extremely lightweight, minimally absorbent, and maximally reflective — and so far, we don’t yet have a material that would be usable. However, researchers are hoping that artificial intelligence systems might come up with the answer as they test and catalog material properties at much faster rates than are possible for humans. The Breakthrough Starshot minds hope to launch within two to three decades.
NASA is working on a similar solar sail technology, but theirs doesn’t need lasers to get up to speed. Called the Heliopause Electrostatic Rapid Transit System (HERTS), the sail is made of aluminum wires that extend like spokes from a central hub. The wires are positively charged, causing a repulsive effect from the pressure of the solar electrons, incrementally accelerating whatever the sail is carrying.
NASA hopes to deploy HERTS between 2025 and 2030. Still other researchers are working on possible follow up projects for the Breakthrough Starshot already — even longer explorations whose data jackpots would be harvested by our grandchildren’s grandchildren.
Speeding to the Stars
Speed is another major problem for interstellar travel. Even the speed the Breakthrough Starshot hopes to achieve for its tiny nanocraft vessels, which will represent a speed 1,000 times faster than any other achieved for any human-made machine, will require a trip of 20 years — and that’s just to Alpha Centauri, our closest neighbor in terms of star systems.
Princeton Satellite Systems, backed by NASA, is experimenting with fusion-powered rockets which would solve some of the speed and energy storage problems we now see with existing spacecraft. However, these systems would not be useful for human space travel because of the high levels of radiation they produce. Plasma engines are another area of research, but thus far researchers can’t build them to last long enough to reach any stars. However, once they can breach this durability standard, the plasma engine may be a useful alternative.
These types of technologies and their potential to carry us to new star systems are important for a number of reasons. Many of us have enough natural curiosity about the universe to make space travel seem like a worthy goal, irrespective of the many hurdles that stand in the way. Each time we send even mere probes into space, we are rewarded with masses of scientific information that would otherwise be utterly unknown. The global scientific community has been able to make great use of each batch of data that has come from space, expanding our understanding of the universe and ourselves.
However, there’s more at stake than scientific knowledge. Some, like Hawking, take a more pragmatic approach. He sees interstellar travel and the colonization of other worlds as providing a kind of species insurance for humanity, whose on-Earth future is looking less and less certain (at least to some).
Our interstellar explorers, whether they are people in spacecraft or tiny nanocrafts carried by sails, will tell us what we need to know about which planets may be suitable for human colonization. Without continuing to reach out, we will certainly be tethered here, but if we work on the knotty problems presented by space travel, we present ourselves with a choice.
NASA has been talking about getting humans to Mars for years, and continues to provide updated plans for getting there. Unfortunately, though, NASA’s chief of human spaceflight, William H. Gerstenmaier, just announced that the agency can’t achieve the Mars goal on its current budget.
“I can’t put a date on humans on Mars, and the reason really is the other piece is, at the budget levels we described, this roughly 2 percent increase, we don’t have the surface systems available for Mars,” Gerstenmaier said during a propulsion meeting of the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics on Wednesday. “And that entry, descent, and landing is a huge challenge for us for Mars.”
Essentially, the SLS rocket and Orion craft have cost the agency a lot. As a result, NASA hasn’t even been able to begin designing vehicles to land on Mars or ascend from the surface.
NASA’s next moves will depend on funding. Gerstenmaier indicated the agency might be interested in a Moon exploration mission – one that is more extensive than the current plan to build the Deep Space Gateway in the Moon’s orbit. Beyond just being a launching pad for further space exploration, the gateway could “support an extensive moon surface program,” says Gerstenmaier.
A Team Effort
Fortunately for our Red Planet dreams, it isn’t just up to NASA. Getting humans to Mars is a team effort. Agencies like NASA are really at the mercy of political moods and budgetary restraints, so they need to do as much as they can with what resources are there. One way they can maximize impact is to partner with private companies.
This month Elon Musk announced we might be getting an update about the SpaceX Mars mission in September at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Australia. For now, though, SpaceX has set a deadline of 2018 for an unmanned Mars mission and 2025 for a manned mission. Both Boeing and Blue Origin are also planning to put humans on Mars. It may turn out that the “we” in Vice President Pence’s remarks about putting American boots on Mars is the larger American “we,” and not the government or NASA.
Research by NASA has proven that the presence of humans inside the closed spaces needed to explore other planets correlates with changes in the mycobiomes and fungal communities that grow inside the habitats. The research, published this week in the journal Microbiome, is critical to space exploration and the colonization of new planets because it will help determine which health and maintenance measures are needed for human survival in closed habitats.
Senior Research Scientist Dr. Kasthuri Venkateswaran of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Caltech, who is the study’s corresponding author, told Phys.org: “Characterizing and understanding possible changes to, and survival of, fungal species in environments like the ILMAH is of high importance since fungi are not only potentially hazardous to the inhabitants but could also deteriorate the habitats themselves.”
The team discovered that the presence of certain varieties of fungi— including pathogens that cause asthma, allergies, and skin infections — increased when humans were also present inside the Inflatable Lunar/Mars Analog Habitat (ILMAH). The stress of long-term stays in closed habitats might produce decreased immune responses in humans, rendering them more vulnerable to opportunistic fungi. Knowing how fungal communities react when humans are present is critical for the maintenance of off-world habitats, which demand appropriate health and safety countermeasures.
Preparing For Mars
The goal of the ILMAH study was to understand how humans change psychologically, physiologically, and behaviorally in confined environments. For 30 days, three student crews were housed inside the ILMAH; completely isolated from the outside world except for exchanging filtered air. The researchers collected and characterized samples of fungal species to determine which were present and how the mycobiome changed during the 30-day period. Crew members cleaned the habitat and collected surface samples weekly.
The researchers established that the mycobiome’s diversity and the sizes of various fungal populations fluctuated during the experiment. For example, populations of Cladosporium cladosporioides — a common outdoor fungus that can cause asthmatic reactions, particularly in people with weakened immune systems — increased. The next steps will include studying the mycobiomes of human participants to prove that these fluctuations are the result of human presence.
“You have to take a time exposure to get something that sensitive; the bumblebee shouldn’t move,” Mather said. “The bumblebee has to hold still, but of course the most distant Universe looks as though it is standing still.”
The JWST is considered the successor to Hubble, but it won’t merely be replacing the veteran space telescope — the JWST will also improve upon it in almost all respects. Its 18 hexagonal mirror segments give the JWST a view 100 times larger than Hubble’s, and the JWST is capable of viewing space through the detection of infrared light far fainter than any other telescope can detect.
To ensure that the JWST is ready for its mission — and that it won’t have the “Hubble problem” — engineers have locked the telescope in a special chamber at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. The conditions inside the massive chamber will imitate those of space, specifically the conditions the JWST will encounter soon after launching.
“The operational temperature on orbit is about 30 kelvins — 30 degrees above absolute zero; but we’re going to test JWST to slightly lower,” NASA engineer Juli Lander told BBC News. “We’re going to see if we can push on the hardware and the instruments a bit to give us a little margin on orbit.”
As soon as testing in Houston finishes, the JWST is set to move to California to be housed in a satellite factory under Northrop Grumman. There, it will be attached to two final components: a sunshield and the spacecraft it will ride into orbit. After that, more than two decades of development will pay off and the telescope will finally be ready to launch in October 2018.
Next to an old nuclear bomber hangar in western Poland, a mission to the surfaces of both the moon and Mars is about to begin.
The two-week mission is just a simulation, of course, since no entity on Earth is prepared to inhabit deep space. But the experiment — called the Poland Mars Analogue Simulation 2017 — will study a group of six volunteer “analogue” astronauts as they work through a realistic schedule of space exploration, then provide those findings to anyone who’s drawing up crewed missions beyond Earth.
“This mission will be one of the most comprehensive Mars analogue missions ever conducted in Europe,” Mina Takla, spokesperson for the PMAS 2017 mission, told Business Insider in an email.
Many other partners are involved in the mission, too, including The Mars Society, European Space Agency, and European Space Foundation.
The project’s central feature is a U-shaped habitat that’s “connected to a nuclear fighter [plane] hangar near Pila, Poland,” Takla said.
A ‘Nuclear’ M.A.R.S. Base
To make the mission possible, PMAS 2017 rounded up money from corporate sponsors, and also raised tens of thousands of dollars through crowdfundingsites. To create the habitat, the Space Garden Company — a partner to the project — secured material donations and also did some fundraising.
Organizers have dubbed their faux habitat project the Martian Modular Analog Research Station, or M.A.R.S.
As Marta Bellon of Business Insider Poland reported in May 2016, a previous design for the base, created by British architect Scott Porter, called for four arms and a domed headquarters built by Freedomes (the same company that built the fictional Mars habitats for the blockbuster movie “The Martian“).
However, organizers have since dropped the four-armed design for a U-shaped one. The habitat’s planned location in southern Poland also moved to western Poland in the past year.
The new, U-shaped M.A.R.S. facility will have six units, each with its own dedicated purpose, such as “scientific research, crew quarters (including a gym), habitation, hygienic facilities, kitchen area, and storage and systems,” Takla said. “The entry and exit to the habitat will be via an airlock.”
Takla did not provide Business Insider with any sketches or photos of the facility in time for publication, nor could he confirm if and when its construction was completed.
Assuming M.A.R.S. is finished in time, six analogue astronauts will “land” in the habitat on July 31, then work and live and work inside it through August 13.
The volunteers hail from Puerto Rico, Israel, Spain, France, India, the US, Nigeria, and other locations. Meanwhile, a larger support team will operate as mission control in the northern Polish city of Torun, including psychologists to monitor the astronauts.
“[PMAS 2017] will be one of the most international, multicultural, and interdisciplinary analogue missions ever conducted, with members from over 28 different countries and representing scientific disciplines ranging from engineering to astrophysics, psychology, geology, and biology,” Takla said.
In addition to following a strict schedule of experiments, maintenance, and personal time, mission managers will simulate other realities for a far-off planetary mission, including spacesuits to leave M.A.R.S., and annoying communications delays.
“[T]he first three days of the 14 days of the simulation will be in ‘Lunar mode’ with a real-time communication between habitat and Mission Control, before we go for the remaining 11 days into the Martian mode,” Tajana Lučić, co-leader of SEPG, told Business Insider in an email.
When the Martian mode starts, Lučić said, “the time delay will be 15 minutes, and simulates the long distance between Earth and Mars and the related communication delay.”
Faux Mars Missions Galore
The PMAS 2017 mission isn’t the only project trying to figure out how to run a tightly operated lunar or Martian base.
HI-SEAS in Hawaii, for example — which former Business Insider reporter Kelly Dickerson visited — has astronauts who live and work inside a habitat built on the side of a barren volcano.
Russia, China, and the ESA have also run six willing “astronauts” through a psychological gauntlet with its $15 million Mars500 experiment.
That project, which ended a few years ago, had the astronauts stay inside for 520 days, or nearly a year and a half, to see what challenges they faced — and how to prevent or solve them when real Mars colonization missions actually begin. (Boredom, concluded an exhaustive study of the project, is one of the greatest hurdles to overcome.)
Such information could prove extremely valuable to the first nation (or private company, like SpaceX) to land people on Mars. Whoever is spending tens of billions of dollars to get the job done, they’ll not only want a crew to survive to tell the tale, but also make the best use of their time some 140 million miles from Earth.
Correction (July 10, 2017): Business Insider was initially given and directed to outdated information about M.A.R.S. We have since corrected and updated this story to reflect the project’s current details.
A future in which an asteroid crashes into Earth and destroys the planet — or all life on it, in the case of the dinosaurs — is prevalent in popular culture: Bruce Willis sacrificed himself to stop in happening in Armageddon, aliens have arrived on one in Day of the Triffids, and there have been a multitude of apocalyptic predictions on the news over the last few years. So, what is the precise nature of asteroids, and how likely are they wipe us from the face of the planet?
Asteroids are rocky bodies orbiting the Sun, which differ from comets in that they are composed of metal and rock rather ice, dust, and rock. They were formed 4.5 billion years ago, but don’t have sufficient gravity to round out like planets or have atmospheres.
Several asteroids have played pivotal roles in the world’s formation and cosmic history. An asteroid the size of Mars, which has been retrospectively named Theia, hit the Earth and was partially absorbed: some debris from the impact, though, was conglomerated by gravity to form the Moon. The most famous asteroid, though, is Chicxulub — the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs by causing sufficient sulphur displacement to block out the Sun.
Small asteroids hit Earth frequently, but rarely have any effect — the most violent example in recent memory was the 17- to 20-meter diameter Chelyabinsk meteor which hit Russia in February 2013, smashing windows and injuring 1,400 people in the process. Asteroids with a one-kilometer diameter hit Earth every 500,000 years or so; with the last known example of one with a 10-kilometer diameter occurring 66 million years ago. The chances of an asteroid apocalypse, then, are minimal.
There certainly is a risk from asteroid impacts; it’s the only natural risk that we as a species have the ability to predict well in advance and mitigate against, entirely, […] But I want people to keep it in context. You shouldn’t be losing sleep over it.
Our Plan to Avoid Destruction
Despite the chances of an asteroid apocalypse being fortunately slim, our planet has measures in place to protect against smaller near Earth objects (NEOs) like the Chelyabinsk meteor.
The main agency responsible for tracking and putting contingency measures in place is NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies, which has a database sophisticated enough for us “to know within the next couple of decades for sure if any time over the next century if there’s an asteroid that’s going to hit,” Brown said in the interview. The organization, according to its 2016 report, is also developing “Methods for NEO Deflection and Disruption.”
NASA has already launched a progenitor for how a gravity-based asteroid diversion could work in the form of its Dawn Aircraft, which is currently orbiting the space rock Vesta. A future version of Dawn could exert a subtle gravitational pull on a space object, which would allow it to change the trajectory of rocks with remarkable subtlety and specificity. Rusty Schweickart, chairman of the B612 Foundation, who’s mission is to protect the world from asteroid attacks, said in an interview with Space.com, “you can get a very precise change in the orbit for the final part of the deflection using a technology of this kind.”
At the more futurist end of our planetary defense arsenal is the idea of “Mirror Bees.” Hypothetically, we could send a swarm of robotic spacecraft bearing mirrors to an asteroid, which would then focus the solar energy on one spot: Bill Nye, executive director of the Planetary Society, said to Space.com that “The reaction of that gas or material being ejected from the asteroid would nudge it off-course.”
While the threat of a dinosaur-level disaster is extremely slim, even small asteroids can still cause huge amounts of damage, destruction, and pain. It’s comforting that individuals and organizations are working towards developing methods to minimize the disruption asteroids — big or small — can cause.
Despite all this going on here on Earth, Musk still has his eyes fixed on Mars. The serial entrepreneur is determined to make humanity a multi-planetary species, but we might have to wait until the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in September for an update on that front, according to a reply Musk sent to an inquisitive Twitter user.
This is crucial, especially now that Musk has set a target price on the cost of going to Mars: $200,000 per person. The updates might come in certain structural changes to the designs of the BFR and the ITS that could help ensure that this price point is met. After that, it will just be a matter of saving up the funds if you want to be one of the first humans to reach the Red Planet.
New research shows that our aspirations to grow potatoes on Mars may be a little premature. Results of a new study indicate that the thin Martian atmosphere and the ultraviolet radiation it allows to reach the planet’s surface interact with chemical compounds called perchlorates to create a deadly environment for bacteria.
We have known that there were perchlorates on the surface of the Red Planet since the 1970s when the Viking 1 and 2 spacecraft landed there. We’ve confirmed this with other probes since that time, and until recently that fact has actually been viewed in an encouraging light. That’s because although perchlorates — made from oxygen and chlorine — are toxic to humans, bacteria tend to thrive in their presence, using them for energy. Perchlorates also lower the point at which water melts, which offered still more hope for the existence of bacterial life on Mars.
Both science and science fiction have made us familiar with what could happen if a large enough asteroid were to hit the Earth. Just look at the fate of dinosaurs and you’d glean the prospective outcome would not be a pleasant one. Not wanting us to go the way of the dinosaurs, NASA asks: how do we defend the planet from such a threat?
The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) would be the first-ever mission to test the possibility of deflecting or redirecting an asteroid on a collision course with Earth. The plan is being designed by the The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, who would also manage DART. The project received approval from NASA on June 23, and is now moving from concept development to the preliminary design phase.
“DART would be NASA’s first mission to demonstrate what’s known as the kinetic impactor technique — striking the asteroid to shift its orbit — to defend against a potential future asteroid impact,” Lindley Johnson, planetary defense officer at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in press release. “This approval step advances the project toward an historic test with a non-threatening small asteroid.”
A Test Run
In order to figure out if such defense system could work, NASA aims use DART to target a twin asteroid called Didymos. It’s expected to have a distant approach to Earth in 2022, and again in 2024. This binary asteroid system includes a larger component (Didymos A, about 780 meters in size) and a smaller one orbiting it (Didymos B, roughly 160 meters).
Using an on-board targeting system, DART would aim at Didymos B after launch. The goal is to shift the asteroid’s trajectory using kinetic impact; changing its speed by a small fraction of its overall velocity. If the DART mission works, scientists would be able to predict just how much of a nudge a threatening asteroid needs to avoid hitting Earth.
“DART is a critical step in demonstrating we can protect our planet from a future asteroid impact,” DART investigation co-lead Andy Cheng said in the press release. “Since we don’t know that much about their internal structure or composition, we need to perform this experiment on a real asteroid. With DART, we can show how to protect Earth from an asteroid strike with a kinetic impactor by knocking the hazardous object into a different flight path that would not threaten the planet.”
On June 30th, President Trump revived the National Space Council and made Vice President Pence its chairman. During a tour of Florida’s Kennedy Space Center on Thursday, July 6, Mr. Pence reaffirmed the American commitment to putting humans on Mars.
“Here the Hubble Space Telescope, the New Horizons, and so many other technological wonders lifted off the Earth to give us a glimpse of our fellow planets, the distant stars and the infinite galaxies that are a window into our very past,” Pence remarked at Cape Canaveral. “And here from this bridge to space, our nation will return to the moon, and we will put American boots on the face of Mars.”
Ad Astra Rocket Company thinks that a plasma engine could hypothetically get us to the Red Planet in 38 days, by traveling at a speed of 115,200 mph — contrary to the mainstream idea that massive rockets are the only way. NASA has supported the company’s plan by investing nine million dollars.
Franklin R. Chang Díaz, the CEO of Ad Astra and the man who co-holds the record for most visits to the International Space Station, plans to use plasma because it can be held in place magnetically, which means that more power can be produced because there is nothing for the fuel to melt. However, when in space, heating fuel to this temperature would require a nuclear power source — which is where this concept gets controversial.
Elon Musk, in particular, is critical of this plan on two fronts. First, attaching the weight of a nuclear reactor to a spacecraft, he thinks, is unfeasible. Secondly, he believes that using nuclear fuel on a spacecraft is dangerous because radioactive debris would fall back to Earth if the system failed.
The Cosmic Competition
Recently, Stephen Hawking added his voice to the choir of intellectuals and industry leaders proclaiming that humanity must become an interplanetary species. But with our ambition established, the question now becomes how to make it happen.
All other serious ideas of how to get to Mars propose using a chemical space rocket engine. NASA and SpaceX have both revealed plans that use enormous rockets which carry astronauts and all of their provisions including water, air, food, and machinery.
At the more theoretical end of the spectrum are plans to use technology that, previously, has been reserved for the realms of science fiction. Phillip Lubin has proposed using photon propulsion which, hypothetically, could get us to Mars in just three days.
The race for the red planet is well and truly on, and the winner of this 21st-century space race will be decided in the intellectual theater long before human boots touch Mars’ dusty surface. However, according to most estimates, we will only need to wait around a decade to find out.
Yesterday SpaceX launched another Falcon 9 successfully, the third in 12 days. The rocket took off from the NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This makes three successful launches in less than two weeks for SpaceX, with the first two on June 23 and 25.
Yesterday’s Intelsat 35e mission was originally set for Sunday, but then automatically aborted with only 10 seconds remaining in the countdown by a failsafe. There was no technical flaw with the rocket; the abort was triggered by a problem with the limits on the rocket guidance systems. Before the launch yesterday, Elon Musk tweeted that everything was ready to go:
SpaceX team reviewed all systems again late last night. Done our best to ensure all is good. https://t.co/R3YrF6PEt4
This launch sent a Boeing communications satellite built by Intelsat — a SpaceX client — into orbit. About 30 minutes after launch, the Intelsat 35e satellite successfully reached its targeted geostationary transfer orbit.
If the rocket looked a little different to you than the others recently in use, you’re right. The payload is one of the heaviest ever sent into orbit aboard a Falcon 9, weighing in at about 5,900 kg (13,000 pounds). This heavy payload ruled out an attempt to recover the first stage of the rocket, so there were neither grid fins nor landing legs installed on it. You can see the launch (starting at the countdown) here:
These closely spaced launches are a part of SpaceX’s strategy of using reusable rockets to not only lower the cost of space travel, but also to lower the turnaround time for launches. This, coupled with SpaceX’s expansion into heavier payloads, will eventually mean more frequent and affordable space travel for everyone.
Being able to produce power on alien worlds will define our terraforming and interplanetary colonization experiences — how we generate atmospheres, produce life’s prerequisites, and power machines for exploration depend on it. NASA experts estimate that a Mars expedition would require roughly 40 kilowatts of power — around enough to power eight houses on Earth — and they think they may know the best way to generate that energy: nuclear fission.
For the past three years, NASA has been funding Kilopower, a project that aims to develop “a compact, low cost, scalable fission power system for science and exploration.”
The project’s budget is around $15 million, and in September, the agency will unveil the fruits of their labor — a 1.9 meters (6.5 feet) tall generator designed to produce up to 1 kilowatt of electric power — during testing at the Nevada National Security Site.
Although other alternatives for generating power have been put forward, none are as viable as fission. Solar energy, for instance, would require that astronauts stick to regions that receive an adequate amount of sunlight. “If you want to land anywhere, surface fission power is a key strategy for that,” Michelle Rucker, an engineer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, told Space.com.
Project Kilopower marks something of a fission resurgence for NASA after a hiatus of more than 50 years. The last time the agency operated a fission reactor was in 1965, when they launched the Systems for Nuclear Auxiliary Power (SNAP) project. That project resulted in radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) that are still used to power spacecraft today, as well as the nuclear-powered spacecraft SNAP 10A, which stopped working 43 days after it was launched into space due to an electrical component failure.
A Question of Terraforming
Individuals such as Stephen Hawking have issued warnings that Earth can’t survive our habitation for much longer, so finding an alternative home for humanity is becoming critical. The question of how to provide power off-world is one of the biggest ones we face as we consider the Red Planet as our future home.
Other aspects of Mars colonization are already falling into place. Elon Musk’s SpaceX is driving the transportation element of the cosmic migration forward, developing detailed plans and working on ever-larger spaceships that we could use to get to our planetary neighbor.
If we ever successfully move to another planet, these questions and hundreds more, such as how diseases will respond to space and how reproduction will work, will have to be answered. Estimates concerning how long this will take vary, with some saying decades and others saying centuries. At any rate, let us hope it is sooner rather than later if Hawking’s prediction proves to be accurate.
The European Space Agency’s Science Programme Committee has approved the Planetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO) mission to move into the construction phase. They aim to launch this deep-space observatory in 2026 with the goal of “discovering and characterizing Earth-sized planets and super-Earths orbiting Sun-like stars in the habitable zone” — although it “could eventually lead to the detection of extraterrestrial life,” according to a University of Warwick press release.
The observatory will have 26 telescopes on board and will be launched 1.5 million km (932,000 miles) into space, where, according to a mission summary, it will conduct “Ultra-high precision, long (up to several years), uninterrupted photometric monitoring in the visible band of very large samples of bright (mV ≤11) stars.” This will provide unprecedented data on distant planets.
The project will be undertaken by the University of Warwick, England, and includes an important follow-up aspect for verifying PLATO’s data. PLATO’s resolution will not be high enough to tell conclusively when it is detecting an exoplanet, so researchers will need to check the readings to be sure they are not indicating noise or a different spacial anomaly before more resources are committed to investigating that part of space.
The Pantheon Plato Will Join
PLATO will be one of two missions that explicitly seek habitable planets in the galaxy — the other being Kepler, which worryingly went into emergency mode in 2015. Kepler has now detected 4,034 planets, of which 2,335 have been verified as exoplanets. Of the roughly 50 candidates that are near-Earth size and orbit in habitable zones, more than 30 have been verified as capable of supporting life.
NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has also been detecting hospitable worlds, but this was not its primary function — instead its aim, as stated on the NASA website, is to “observe astronomical objects and phenomena more consistently and with better detail than generally attainable from ground-based observatories,” which can include nebula, galaxies, and black holes.
Solar eclipses have been vital to humanity’s study of the Sun and the workings of our solar system. But over the course of future millennia this phenomenon will change forever.
Due to the Moon moving away from the Earth at a rate of 3.8 cm (1.5 inches) a year, total solar eclipses will decrease in frequency and annular eclipses, during which the Sun’s “ring of fire” remains visible, will increase in frequency. Although humans probably won’t be on Earth when the last total eclipse occurs in 620 million years — because we’ll probably be living on Mars, where annular eclipses occur almost daily — the inevitable cut-off date may make it slightly more pressing for you see them while they still happen.
The discovery of the lengthening time between solar eclipses began with Edmond Halley in 1695, who realized that according to the contemporary dates that eclipses were on, eclipses in ancient Greece and Rome were occurring on the wrong days. Due to his faith in Isaac Newton’s principle of general gravitation, he concluded that days on Earth must be getting longer because the planet’s rotation was slowing.
Halley’s hypothesis was later definitively proven by using the laser measuring instruments that the Apollo astronauts left on the Moon. Scientists discovered that tides are responsible for the rotation slowing. The cumulative effect of shallow waters around a land mass (continental shelves) colliding with high tides create a force that slows the rotation.
As the rotation slows, the Moon gains angular momentum to preserve equilibrium in the Earth-Moon system. As it gains more momentum, it moves further away. Eventually, this means that it will be too far away to obscure all of the Sun — meaning total eclipses can no longer occur.
A Retreating Moon
The next solar eclipse is on August 21st, and is remarkable because it is the first eclipse that will be visible the U.S. since 1979. As solar eclipses will become more and more infrequent, it’s important to try to witness the cosmic intricacy while you still can.
Our understanding of the relationship between the Earth’s rotation, the Moon’s position, and solar eclipses is an example of generations of scientists building on discoveries that proceeding them and working towards truth in a collaboration across time. Due to the nature of space — in which things happen slowly — it is only through long-term study that we can come to know universal details and occurrences like these.
There are several projects and missions underway currently that will probably also need this multi-generational approach to understand all the ramifications of their discoveries. An example is the multiple Mars missions. While the NASA project Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) has shown us that Mars’ atmosphere was robbed by solar winds and the Sun’s energy, it is only through observation over multiple lifetimes that we will understand the precise nature of these phenomena.
Despite our years of research, our solar system and the star at the heart of it continue to baffle and amaze us. Even as we move closer to our goal of touching the Sun, we can rest assured that our perspective of it will continue to change even millions of years into the future.
Japan has announced a proposal to put the first Japanese astronaut on the surface of the Moon. The proposal calls for Japanese participation in an international manned mission to the surface of the Moon sometime around 2030. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) presented the plan to Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology on Wednesday.
This will be the first time Japan attempts to send their astronauts beyond the International Space Station (ISS), but the nation isn’t likely to do it alone. Launching a Japanese rocket would be prohibitively expensive, so this mission to the Moon is likely to be an international collaboration, with Japan contributing technology in exchange for a spot aboard the craft.
By working with other countries, the Japanese would be able to accomplish their goal, and according to reports, they plan to join an international mission by 2025.
Asian Space Race
Japan’s proposal is the latest development from Asia, which seems to be engaging in its own Cold War era-esque space race, with several other countries in the region ratcheting up space-related activities.
In February, India launched 104 satellites on a single rocket, shattering the previous record of 37 satellites, and the nation currently has plans to launch another unmanned mission to the Moon in 2018, 10 years after its first mission.
China also has some lofty space goals, with plans to put a rover on Mars by 2020. Unfortunately, the country faced a significant setback in its space program when a planned launched failed on July 2. Details about the exact nature of the Chubby 5’s failed launch are currently hard to come by, and with the future plans of the space program relying heavily on this rocket, the program is in something of a momentary state of limbo.
Despite such setbacks, the increased number of countries with active space programs is great news for the future of science. The more minds we have exploring the cosmos, the more we will be able to learn about humanity’s final frontier.
SpaceX is gearing up for yet another launch into space this weekend — weather-permitting. Sunday’s launch will be the third for SpaceX in just nine days, and the 39th Falcon 9 rocket launch. The mission is to put a massive communications satellite into orbit for the company Intelsat. Takeoff is scheduled for tonight at 7:36 PM EDT from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. You can watch the launch live at Space.com.
What sets this launch apart from the other recent missions is that the client is not interested in utilizing reusable rocket tech. Ken Lee, senior vice president for space systems for Intelsat said, “I would have no qualms about using the pre-flown hardware in the future once they have fully demonstrated their reusability,” which he defines as “[t]ypically…a minimum of three.” As of now, SpaceX has managed to launch and land a reusable rocket twice. Also, given the heft of the satellite, the booster will not have enough fuel to make the journey back to the surface.
SpaceX did have a sizable backlog of planned launches due to the unfortunate catastrophe where a Falcon 9 rocket exploded at launch. However, in the first half of 2017, SpaceX has already broken its previous record for launches in a single year. They are planning for a total of 20 launches before the end of 2017. This is important to Intelsat, and likely other entities looking to use SpaceX’s tech to get into space. “What’s important for us is not whether you launch every other week, but [that] once you plan, you execute to that plan,” Lee said.
SpaceX is well on its way to definitively proving the reliability of their rockets. While the price difference of using the reusable boosters may not be enough at this time for Intelsat, the price difference will continue to drop as the rockets continue to be reused. SpaceX is pioneering in this field and is revolutionizing what it takes to get into space.
On June 17th, NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN) celebrated 1,000 days in orbit around our solar system neighbor — it entered into this orbit in September 2014. To commemorate the 1,000 day anniversary, NASA released a list of its 10 most exciting findings.
MAVEN’s goal is to explore the Red Planet’s “upper atmosphere, ionosphere, and interactions with the sun and solar wind” in order to gain insight into the “history of Mars’s atmosphere and climate, liquid water, and planetary habitability.” The changes that caused its transition from a habitable world to the rocky tundra we see today are mainly caused by the dissipation of Mars’s volatiles (the low-boiling point compounds that make up the atmosphere) into space.
The mission is remarkable because it is the first to explore Mars’s atmosphere rather than its surface. In order to do this, MAVEN is using eight separate instruments and fluctuates between 3,728 miles (6,000 km) and 77 miles (124 km) from Mars’s surface — this allows it to study the entire spectrum of Mars’s atmosphere. It contains no tools to search for life on the planet, because adding a detector for methane (a gas indicative of extant life) would have exceeded the project’s budget.
What We’ve Learned
MAVEN has made a number of interesting discoveries during the last 1,000 days. Gas is exchanged between the upper and lower halves of the Mars atmosphere in a way that will require further study; the ionosphere of the planet has a layer of metal ions; and there are two new types of aurora that have been discovered, called “diffuse” and “proton” — and, informally, Christmas Lights.
What NASA thinks is most important is the explanation behind how it lost such a significant proportion of its atmosphere. It was stripped layer by layer from the top by the the sun and the solar wind, which were more violent millions of years ago. Bruce Jakosky, Maven’s principal investigator, said that it was “like the theft of a few coins from a cash register every day, the loss becomes significant over time.”
These aren’t all of the discoveries made by MAVEN; you can read the full list on the NASA website.
Thanks to the efforts of SpaceX, Blue Origin, and other space companies, we’re on the cusp of the era of commercial spaceflight, which means ordinary people will soon need to receive instruction on how to deal with the trials and tribulations of space. To that end, the world’s first commercial space training center, Blue Abyss, will open in 2019 in the United Kingdom.
The facility is expected to cost around $150 million to construct, and it will include several features designed to support the excursions of both private citizens and organizations into space. Its centrifuge base will simulate the g-forces felt in space, and the center will be able to offer parabolic flight training to prepare people for the weightlessness of space. Physiology professionals will be onsite to conduct physicals and advise future astronauts on the effects of space on the body.
Blue Abyss will also house the world’s biggest 50-meter-deep pool. The pool will be customizable to accommodate a range of uses, giving divers, marine explorers, and companies the ability to train or test out equipment that could be used in space exploration or here on Earth.
In addition to announcing this new training facility, the U.K. recently introduced the Space Industry Bill, which includes plans to build rocket, space plane, and satellite launching facilities. This bill could help humanity prepare for the era of space flight by setting a precedent for legislation and regulation. Other countries could use it as a legal framework on which to base their own space-focused legislation, which is one of the hurdles we’ll need to overcome to truly enter the era of commercial space exploration.
In total, the U.K.’s efforts could have a fundamental impact on global space travel. While companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin develop systems that will make space accessible to all of us, we need to make ourselves ready for space first by undergoing training at centers like Blue Abyss.
SpaceX has no plans to relax following their recent successful weekend doubleheader. Serial entrepreneur Elon Musk’s space venture company is already looking ahead, beginning with a final upgrade to their Falcon 9 rocket scheduled for later this year.
Block 5 is going to be the definitive version for the Falcon 9, Shotwell explained, and it is capable of being relaunched “a dozen or so times.” It would also not require refurbishing — the reusable rocket would simply undergo inspections prior to launch.
Shotwell said during her radio show appearance that SpaceX’s much larger Falcon Heavy’s first mission in 2018 will be carrying a payload for Arabsat. “We’ll be flying Arabsat to [geostationary transfer orbit] on the second Falcon Heavy flight, and then we’ll be flying STP-2, an Air Force mission,” she said. In total, the Falcon Heavy has three missions scheduled in the next 18 months, the first being a demonstration later in 2017.
SpaceX has much more planned for the months to come, including that commercial Moon roundtrip. “Three years ago or so we were producing six rockets a year,” Shotwell said. “This year we are going to produce more than 20.” When you consider that reusability is a key element of SpaceX’s design, you can imagine just how many missions those rockets will be capable of handling in the coming years.
The most likely short term application for such a robot would be helping astronauts to carry out inspections and repairs on spacecraft and structures like the International Space Station. Aksel Andreas Transeth, a Senior Research Scientist on the project, said in a press statement that “a snake robot could creep behind the sections, carry out an inspection, and perhaps even perform small maintenance tasks.”
Longer term goals include allowing teams to explore places on planets, moons, and comets that traditional six-wheeled craft could not by acting as a detachable arm capable of being operated autonomously. This would allow us to gain a new perspective on the small, hard-to-reach locations and difficult terrains of martian worlds.
Most excitingly, these robots could allow researchers to inspect tunnels beneath planets for habitability, which is crucial for the potential colonization of other planets. If we adapted to live underground, we would be provided a natural barrier against radiation, comets, and solar rays. The idea has already been linked to the European Space Agency’s proposed Moon Village.
Of the first snake robots, a concept robot, called the Wheeko Robot has already been developed. It has impressive dexterity and mobility due to to its “10 identical joint modules, each having two motorized degrees of freedom,” that are covered with small wheels that “enable the robot to slither forward over flat surfaces.”
What Our Current Rovers Have Done
SERPEX could be another weapon in our cosmic investigation arsenal, giving us a new way to explore our Universe. We have so far learned an incredible amount about planets such as Mars by, in part, launching land-based exploration vehicles like the Pathfinder and Sojourner in 1997, Spirit and Opportunity in 2003, and Curiosity in 2012. But these missions have been limited by the terrain that the craft can explore. One example: the Spirit Rover’s mission was ended when it got stuck in the mud in 2010.
We are living in the golden age of space exploration, with more missions and initiatives planned than ever before. The information we have gathered up to this point on our Solar System with fairly rudimentary exploration tools has been weird, wonderful, and fascinating.
Ideas such as SERPEX are pivotal if we are going to become more proficient in space travel and exploration. And, now that the possibility colonizing Mars is looking more and more plausible, anything that adds to our database of knowledge will aid our entire species.