For decades, researchers at NASA have explored potential routes of planet formation by studying young debris disk systems — bright, thin outer rings made up of comet-like bodies at the furthest outskirts of star systems. The debris disks vary in composition from icy to carbon-rich and usually lie somewhere from 75 to 200 astronomical units from their parent stars, which is much further than Pluto is from our Sun.
Recently, these researchers have observed planet formation in three of these narrow but dense rings as comets merge with each other on the edges of star systems. They recently published their findings in the Astronomical Journal. These developing planets are each, as estimated from the light reflected from the rings, the size of a few Earths combined, said Carey Lisse, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), according to a press release.
“The narrow confines of these rings is still a great puzzle — you don’t typically see this kind of tight order in such a young system,” Lisse said in the press release. “Usually, material is moving every which way before an exoplanetary system gets cleaned out and settles down so that planetary bodies rarely cross each other’s path, like in our present-day solar system.”
Far Far Away
Not only is the tight order of this system so extraordinary, its red color also stands out. Lisse believes this color to be caused by the burnt-out rocky organic remains of comets which have boiled off because of how close the system’s ring is to its star. However, the most exciting aspect of HR 4796A is what could be causing the debris disk to be so thin and dense instead of thick and diffused, as would be expected.
“Comets crashing down onto these growing planet surfaces would kick up huge clouds of fast-moving, ejected ‘construction dust,’ which would spread over the system in huge clouds,” Lisse said in the press release. “The only apparent solution to these issues is that multiple mini-planets are coalescing in these rings, and these small bodies, with low kick-up velocities, are shepherding the rings into narrow structures — much in the same way many of the narrow rings of Saturn are focused and sharpened.”
This sharpened ring could one day result in massive planets. “These systems appear to be building planets we don’t see in our solar system — large multi-Earth mass ones with variable amounts of ice, rock, and refractory organics,” Lisse said. “This is very much like the predicted recipe for the super-Earths seen in abundance in the Kepler planet survey.”
While these rings are fascinatingly different from other equally young systems, “much still has to happen, though, before these rings could become planets the size of the gas giants,” Lisse continued. “Why it’s taking so long to make outer planets in these systems — after their primordial gas disks have been stripped away — is a big mystery.”
Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos isn’t just out to get the e-retail industry with artificial intelligence, he’s also had his eyes on space tourism for a while now. While Bezos’ rocket company, Blue Origin, has made some progress since it successfully landed a reusable rocket, many have been waiting for a key piece of the company’s rocket future.
The BE-4, the enormous engine Bezos unveiled earlier this year, promises to be the power behind his future rockets. On Wednesday, the BE-4 proved to be Blue Origin’s breakthrough achievement when the company successfully conducted a hot-fire test, firing the engine at half of its power for three seconds.
The test has fueled hopes that the BE-4 will indeed be ready to fly the first space tourists into sub-orbital space by April 2019, as Blue Origin has publicly promised. The successful BE-4 engine test is Blue Origin’s official announcement that it’s ramping up its efforts in the new space race currently led by SpaceX.
With the BE-4, it’s highly likely that Blue Origin is looking beyond simply powering the ginormous New Glenn for space tourism. As Ars Technica notes, the recent test “sends a clear signal that there is a new player in the industry preparing to compete both for national security and commercial launches.”
The New Space Race
Unlike SpaceX, however, Blue Origin is largely funded by Bezos without costing U.S. taxpayers anything, which makes this development all the more important. Today’s aerospace industry relies heavily on private rocket companies for launching government missions to space — whether through NASA’s commercial crew programs or with other countries buying slots aboard SpaceX’s payloads.
Indeed, as NASA acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, Jr., previously told Futurism, the future of space exploration is in the hands — or launchpads — of private space companies like SpaceX and the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Blue Origin might soon be added to this list.
In fact, the United Launch Alliance has reportedly been considering Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine to power its new rocket known as Vulcan. The BE-4 is also potentially more powerful than SpaceX’s new Raptor engine. The former boasts 250,000 kilograms-force (550,000 pounds) of thrust, while the latter has a sea-level thrust of 170,000 kilograms-force (380,000 pounds).
Blue Origin’s breakthrough on Wednesday will — hopefully — be the first of many, which could culminate in the launches Blue Origin has planned. The first of these is scheduled before the end of 2018 in preparation for that April 2019 maiden space tourism voyage aboard the New Shepard sub-orbital rocket. Together with Virgin Galactic and, possibly even SpaceX, Blue Origin is one step closer to making space tourism a reality.
Because the moon has no atmosphere and is home to a host of unfriendly occurrences like extreme temperature variation, radiation, and meteorite impacts, astronauts who venture to our nearest neighbor will need to find proper shelter before they can accomplish anything outside of their vehicle. Human-made colonies are still a ways off, if they ever happen, and to create them we would need to use materials naturally occurring on the moon itself and, according to JAXA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, the safest form of shelter would be the interior of a lava tube.
Lava tubes may not sound like the safest place for a human to reside, but it should be noted that these tubes become structurally stable once the lava flow has stopped and the newly formed tunnel drains completely. These tubes are also found on Earth, but they usually pale in comparison to the size of lava tubes created on the moon which are often large enough to comfortably house an entire U.S. city.
“It’s important to know where and how big lunar lava tubes are if we’re ever going to construct a lunar base,” said Junichi Haruyama, a senior researcher at JAXA. “But knowing these things is also important for basic science. We might get new types of rock samples, heat flow data and lunar quake observation data.”
Taking Advantage of Lava Tubes
In order to better understand the moon’s lava tubes, JAXA relied on radar data gathered by the SELENE spacecraft which currently orbits the lunar body. They also consulted with NASA scientists who worked on the 2011 NASA Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission — a mission in which a pair of spacecraft orbited the moon to collect data on its gravitational field. Using GRAIL’s information, the JAXA team was able to cut down the amount of data they needed to sort through and they eventually found evidence of lava tubes near Marius Hills — a set of volcanic domes located on the moon.
“They knew about the skylight in the Marius Hills, but they didn’t have any idea how far that underground cavity might have gone,” said Jay Melosh, a GRAIL co-investigator and Distinguished Professor of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at Purdue University. “Our group at Purdue used the gravity data over that area to infer that the opening was part of a larger system. By using this complimentary technique of radar, they were able to figure out how deep and high the cavities are.”
Discovering lava tubes is essential to our plans to send people to the moon and eventually, potentially, colonize it. Earlier this month, Vice President Mike Pence said the moon was “a vital strategic goal” that would improve our ability to travel further than ever before. This clearly implies the global goal of reaching Mars, with Elon Musk’s plans of potentially creating habitats on the red planet with his boring drill.
If lava tubes prove to be a worthwhile form of shelter, it will bring us one step closer to learning how to survive in the less than favorable conditions found in our solar system. It’s only a matter of time before humans call another planet, or the moon, “home.”
Now retired, U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly is a veteran of four space flights. He holds the record for total accumulated days in space, as well as for the longest single mission by an American: a full year aboard the International Space Station (ISS). He clearly knows a thing or two about what’s possible in the realm of space flight, and he just told the world he doesn’t doubt Elon Musk when the SpaceX CEO shares his seemingly impossible plans.
“When Elon Musk said he was going to launch his rocket and then land the first stage on a barge, I thought he was crazy,” Kelly said on Tuesday during an interview with CNBC’s Squawk Box. “And then he did it. I’m not going to ever doubt what he says, ever again.”
Kelly didn’t focus solely on Mars during the interview; he also commented on Musk’s plans to use the BFR for commercial travel on Earth. The retired astronaut believes that regular and safe commercial space transportation will happen within the next 30 years or so.
“I think at first what we’ll have is something similar to the early days of aviation, where the barnstormers took people for rides, and that developed into a transportation system,” Kelly said, before adding, “The more we do it, the better we get at it.” Kelly told CNBC he believes traveling from Los Angeles to London in just 45 minutes in a real possibility.
In any case, while Kelly doesn’t doubt Elon Musk will be able to follow through on building the technology needed to get to Mars or to travel quickly between Earth’s major cities, he does know firsthand that space can have a dramatic effect on the human body. He studied that impact during his year-long stay aboard the ISS, noting, “In this weightless environment, we lose a lot of bone mass and muscle mass.” If we want to take trips to Mars, we’ll need to find ways to combat these effects, said Kelly.
The 8.5-tonne (9.4-ton) station, initially launched in 2011, hosted three missions during its time out in space, including a mission involving China’s first female astronauts, Liu Yang and Wang Yaping. It was never meant to function for more than two years, but continued use until 2016, when its data service was cut off. Several months later, China had reportedly lost control of the station, predicting the eventual impact with Earth “in the second half of 2017” would be harmless.
The Chinese space agency has stated that most of the station will burn up in the atmosphere, and the rest likely land in the ocean.
However, Harvard astrophysicist and space enthusiast Jonathan McDowell told The Guardian it will be impossible to guess where the station would crash, even if it was a day before it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere.
“You really can’t steer these things,” he said last year. “Even a couple of days before it re-enters we probably won’t know better than six or seven hours, plus or minus, when it’s going to come down. Not knowing when it’s going to come down translates as not knowing where it’s going to come down.”
“Yes there’s a chance it will do damage, it might take out someone’s car, there will be a rain of a few pieces of metal, it might go through someone’s roof, like if a flap fell off a plane, but it is not widespread damage,” McDowell told The Guardian.
For General John W. Raymond of the U.S. Air Force Space Command, the future of space rocket technology lies in reusability and autonomy, and to this goal, Elon Musk’s SpaceX is already paving the way. Speaking to Bloomberg on Monday, Raymond said that U.S. Air Force is ready to follow suit, and they are “completely committed” to launch future missions using pre-flown rockets similar to SpaceX’s.
The general explained that it would be “absolutely foolish” not to do so, as reusable rockets would drive down the cost of launch missions, something SpaceX has already seen to be effective. “What Elon has done is significantly reduce launch costs,” Raymond said. “That’s driving reduced launch costs across the world.” An autonomous system aboard these reusable rockets further reduces costs, requiring lesser manpower and saving turn-around time between launches.
“The folks out at Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles that work for me would be in those dialogues,” the general added, referring to supposedly-ongoing talks to certify recycled boosters for military use. “I don’t know how far down the road we’ve gotten, but I am completely committed to launching on a reused rocket, a previously flown rocket, and making sure that we have the processes in place to be able to make sure that we can do that safely.”
“I want everybody to go this way and I think the commercial industry that’s developing is going that way because they’re going to have to, to complete. It will completely transform the way we do launch operations,” Raymond said. For the general, the market is certainly going this way, and it won’t be smart for the U.S. Air Force not to follow “What we have to do is make sure we do it smartly.”
One of the first questions, collected on the r/SpaceX subreddit leading up to the AMA, was about the Raptor’s thrust. It was one of the highest ranked questions at the AMA’s outset, and the first Musk answered.
Another question wondered just how the dry mass and thrust of the rockets would affect their return to Earth — namely, whether they would land by “hover-slam.” Musk responded that “Landing will not be a hoverslam,” and explained that the thrust to weight ratio will actually “feel quite gentle” and that as the ratio of thrust to weight at launch (also around 1.3) it will “pretty much look like a launch in reverse. . .”
Musk also provided some insight into the design of the rockets, and gave some context as to their design’s function and purpose. When one user asked about how the BFS will manage the temperature of propellents in zero gravity, Musk explained the venting procedure — adding that a cryocooler could be added in the future.
When user CMDR-Owl asked about what progress we’ll see in terms of development and testing over the next five or so years before SpaceX’s first planned launch, Musk explained that they’ll be starting “with starting with a full-scale Ship doing short hops of a few hundred kilometers altitude and lateral distance,” adding that:
Next step will be doing orbital velocity Ship flights, which will need all of the above. Worth noting that BFS is capable of reaching orbit by itself with low payload, but having the BF Booster increases payload by more than an order of magnitude. Earth is the wrong planet for single stage to orbit. No problemo on Mars.
3D printing has already become beneficial to many industries, and naturally the question or whether it will benefit rocket production was a good one to ask. Musk responded that although most of the Raptor’s parts will be machine forged, some could be 3D printed.
Speaking on life on Mars, while the focus was mainly on the rocket technology that will get us to there (and potentially elsewhere), users did have questions about what SpaceX needs to do to ensure that when we get to the Red Planet, we’ll be able to survive. Reddit user foxyjim99 asked about considerations such as food (namely, how you would calculate the amount needed for a mission and ensure that the need is met) — vitally important, but admittedly not something that SpaceX has as a primary focus. Musk responded that “Our goal is get you there and ensure the basic infrastructure for propellant production and survival is in place,” comparing the work that SpaceX is doing is roughly analogous to building “the equivalent of the transcontinental railway” — and as for terraforming Mars to make (and keep) it habitable, other companies and millions of people will need to be involved.
To that end, when user adammrxifgnqph asked if there were plans to send up additional satellites before the Mars mission, to facilitate communication, another user jumped in to ask about Mars-to-Earth communication. Musk’s response? “If anyone wants to build a high bandwidth comm link to Mars, please do.” Whether meant in jest, a challenge, or a call to action, user general-information pointed out that the concept interplanetary transmission is pretty cool. Musk responded to the user’s thoughts with an eloquent “Nerd,” but then offered a few more thoughts — ensuring us that when we go to Mars, we’ll probably be able to brag on social media about it.
NASA’s new X3 thruster, which is being developed by researchers at the University of Michigan in collaboration with the agency and the US Air Force, has broken records in recent test. It’s hoped that the technology could be used to ferry humans to Mars.
A chemical rocket tops out at around five kilometers per second (1.86 miles/sec), while a Hall thruster can reach speeds of up to 40 kilometers per second (25 miles/sec). This kind of increase is particularly relevant to long-distance space travel, like a prospective voyage to Mars. In fact, project team leaders project that ion propulsion technology such as this could take humans to the Red Planet within the next 20 years.
Ion engines are also more efficient than their chemical-powered counterparts, requiring much less propellant to transport a similar amount of crew and equipment over large distances. Alec Gallimore, the project lead, stated that ionic propulsion can go around ten times farther using a similar amount of fuel in an interview with Space.com.
There are of course many other forms of deep-space travel on the table. The flaw of chemical-based designs is the need to bring the chemical fuel with them into space, which adds more mass that needs more fuel to lift into space, and so on. A Bussard ramjet, which is a type of fusion rocket, collects diffuse hydrogen in space with a huge scoop, which means, since its fuel is picked up en route, that it could approach light speed.
Sci-fi fans would recognize faster-than-light theoretical forms like the warp drive. General relativity stipulates that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light in the universe. However, if we could compact and expand the fabric of spacetime ahead of and behind us, respectively, we could technically be moving faster than the speed of light. However, the scientific consensus so far is that we’re nowhere near this kind of technology.
Red Planet, Green Light
Recent tests demonstrated that the X3 thruster can operate at over 100kW of power, generating 5.4 Newtons of thrust — the highest of any ionic plasma thruster to date. It also broke records for maximum power output and operating current.
The technology is apparently on track to take humans to Mars sometime in the next twenty years. However, it’s not without its limitations.
Compared to chemical rockets, the ionic alternative is capable of a very small amount of thrust. This means that it would have to operate for a very long time to reach the same level of acceleration as a chemical system, and as a result it’s not currently suitable for the launch process.
However, engineers are attempting to mitigate these issues with the X3 design. Multiple channels of plasma are being used rather than just one, but the current challenge is producing an engine that’s sufficiently powerful as well as being relatively compact. While most Hall thrusters can be picked up and carried around a lab with relative ease, the X3 needs to be moved with a crane.
In 2018, the team will continue to put the X3 through its paces with a test that will see it run continuously for 100 hours. A shielding system is also being developed that would prevent plasma from damaging the walls of the thruster, allowing it to operate for even longer, perhaps even several years at a time.
In September 2016, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft crashed into Comet 67P, bringing an end to 12 years of service — or so the ESA thought. While they believed they had already received Rosetta’s final image of the comet, the organization recently discovered one more, revealing the true final moment before impact.
The image previously thought to be Rosetta’s last was taken from a height of about 23.3 to 26.2 meters (76 to 86 feet), but the ESA estimates that this new image was taken from about 18 to 21 meters (59 to 68 feet) above the comet’s surface. They claim it captures an area of about one square meter (10 square feet).
When Rosetta purposefully set itself on a crash course with 67P, it transmitted the last of its images in six separate packets. However, due to an unexpected transmission interruption, only three made it back to Earth.
“Later, we found a few telemetry packets on our server and thought, wow, that could be another image,” said Holger Sierks, principal investigator for the OSIRIS camera at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Göttingen, Germany, in a statement.
The craft transmits images in layers, with each new layer adding detail to the image, so Sierks and his team had to assemble Rosetta’s final image one layer at a time. The ESA notes that while some of the finer details were lost, the final result is a zoomed-in shot of the spot Rosetta is thought to have impacted.
This may be the last we see from Rosetta, but it’s a fittingly unexpected end for a spacecraft that contributed so much to space exploration while traversing our solar system for more than a decade.
Last week, veteran entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson was among the guest speakers at the 2017 Nordic Business Forum (NBF) held in Helsinki, Finland. On stage, Branson spoke about how he started his record label some 50 years ago, and went on to explain how he ended up opening his own airline company, Virgin Atlantic. Since then, Branson has been in the business of flight and he hopes to bring his passengers to space soon.
Branson said back in May that he was confident the company would be able to send their first batch of tourists into space by 2018 — a goal he reiterated during his talk. “We are hopefully about three months before we are in space, maybe six months before I’m in space,” he said, according to Business Insider.
At the 2017 edition of the International Astronautical Congress, Elon Musk told attendees exactly how he plans to take humans to Mars. SpaceX’s BFR project is poised to make some huge changes to the way we travel long distances on Earth, but it’s also set to provide a means of getting to the red planet.
Musk claims that the latest BFR design is capable of ferrying 100 crewmembers, along with the equipment needed to install a colony on Mars. He stated an admittedly “aspirational” goal of sending ships to the planet by 2022, with crews following two years later.
Mars has long since been a major goal for Musk and SpaceX, and BFR seems to have the necessary specs to bring it to fruition. However, there’s one big question that remains — how are the astronauts going to survive the challenging conditions once they’ve made the trip?
Survive Red Death
“Elon lays out an impossibly large vision, and then revises it slightly downward,” said space policy expert John Logsdon, speaking with Business Insider. “People say he’s being practical. This is no more practical than it was last year There are so many questions on the viability of this plan.”
The nuts and bolts of SpaceX’s plan to keep martian explorers alive seems to hinge upon the ships that would precede the first human visitors. One would locate water sources, while the second would set up apparatuses capable of turning water and carbon dioxide into oxygen and fuel. There would be a need for cargo ships to resupply the colony with food on a regular basis, at least to begin with.
Musk has remained fairly quiet on how SpaceX would keep the new residents of Mars fit and healthy in the long-term. One proposal that’s been touted by others is bioregenerative life support, which collects human’s breath, liquid waste, and solid waste, and uses organic material to recycle it into food, water, and air.
“Biological systems are really resilient,” said D. Marshall Porterfield, who was formerly the director of NASA’s Space Life and Physical Sciences Division. “They tend to be self-healing, self-repairing, so that’s one of the advantages of a bioregenerative life support capability.”
Bioregenerative life support would help make a prospective colony on Mars much more sustainable, not to mention cheaper to operate. However, it would also require a huge amount of research and development — and it doesn’t seem like SpaceX is interested in tackling the project.
When Porterfield was working for NASA, SpaceX approached the agency with plans to collaborate on a Mars flyby. At this time, he was given an insight into the inner workings of the company, and found that it didn’t have a science division of the scope required to develop technology like bioregenerative life support.
Of course, things could have changed in the interim. But other expert sources are just as dismissive of SpaceX’s strength in this area.
SpaceX is a very good engineering firm with a solid track record, when it comes to rocket science. Certainly they’re going to design a system that makes every effort for high level of safety,” said Logsdon. “But they haven’t said a word about how people will survive once they get to Mars. It just isn’t a part of their capabilities.”
It may well be that SpaceX is sticking to its biggest strength, that being transportation. If its BFR can get personnel and equipment to Mars, the smartest thing to do might be leaving other aspects of the mission to organizations that specialize in those areas.
2017 has been a banner year for SpaceX, and this morning, the spaceflight company added to their success by launching their 14th Falcon 9 rocket of the year.
The SpaceX rocket launch took place at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California with a payload of 10 Iridium satellites bound for orbit. The Falcon 9’s first-stage rocket booster was recovered shortly after the launch, landing safely on SpaceX’s Just Read the Instructionsdrone ship in the Pacific.
This marked the third mission SpaceX has undertaken for the satellite company. More launches are on the way to complete Iridium’s NEXT satellite network, which will cover the entire surface of Earth using low-Earth orbit satellites.
SpaceX plans to attempt another Falcon 9 launch on October 11. This SpaceX rocket launch, a joint venture with EchoStar and SES, will take place at Kennedy Space Center in Florida and will utilize a refurbished Falcon 9 first stage.
If successful, the October 11 launch will be another example of SpaceX’s ability to operate missions in quick succession, which will help to lower costs and continue to boost accessibility to space.
SpaceX has a total of eight more planned missions anticipated before the end of the year.
Elon Musk has a plan, and it’s about as audacious as they come. Not content with living on our pale blue dot, Musk and his company SpaceX want to colonize Mars, fast. They say they’ll send a duo of supply ships to the red planet within five years. By 2024, they’re aiming to send the first humans. From there they have visions of building a space port, a city and, ultimately, a planet they’d like to “geoengineer” to be as welcoming as a second Earth.
If he succeeds, Musk could thoroughly transform our relationship with our solar system, inspiring a new generation of scientists and engineers along the way. But between here and success, Musk and SpaceX will need to traverse an unbelievably complex risk landscape.
Many will be technical. The rocket that’s going to take Musk’s colonizers to Mars (code named the “BFR” — no prizes for guessing what that stands for) hasn’t even been built yet. No one knows what hidden hurdles will emerge as testing begins. Musk does have a habit of successfully solving complex engineering problems though; and despite the mountainous technical challenges SpaceX faces, there’s a fair chance they’ll succeed.
As a scholar of risk innovation, what I’m not sure about is how SpaceX will handle some of the less obvious social and political hurdles they face. To give Elon Musk a bit of a head start, here are some of the obstacles I think he should have on his mission-to-Mars checklist.
Imagine there was once life on Mars, but in our haste to set up shop there, we obliterate any trace of its existence. Or imagine that harmful organisms exist on Mars and spacecraft inadvertently bring them back to Earth.
Yet Musk’s plans threaten to throw the rule book on planetary protection out the window. As a private company SpaceX isn’t directly bound by international planetary protection policies. And while some governments could wrap the company up in space bureaucracy, they’ll find it hard to impose the same levels of hoop-jumping that NASA missions, for instance, currently need to navigate.
It’s conceivable (but extremely unlikely) that a laissez-faire attitude toward interplanetary contamination could lead to Martian bugs invading Earth. The bigger risk is stymying our chances of ever discovering whether life existed on Mars before human beings and their grubby microbiomes get there. And the last thing Musk needs is a whole community of disgruntled astrobiologists baying for his blood as he tramples over their turf and robs them of their dreams.
Musk’s long-term vision is to terraform Mars — reengineer our neighboring planet as “a nice place to be” — and allow humans to become a multi-planetary species. Sounds awesome — but not to everyone. I’d wager there will be some people sufficiently appalled by the idea that they decide to take illegal action to interfere with it.
The mythology surrounding ecoterrorism makes it hard to pin down how much of it actually happens. But there certainly are individuals and groups like the Earth Liberation Front willing to flout the law in their quest to preserve pristine wildernesses. It’s a fair bet there will be people similarly willing to take extreme action to stop the pristine wilderness of Mars being desecrated by humans.
How this might play out is anyone’s guess, although science fiction novels like Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Mars Trilogy” give an interesting glimpse into what could transpire once we get there. More likely, SpaceX will need to be on the lookout for saboteurs crippling their operations before leaving Earth.
That was back in 1967, four years before Elon Musk was born. With the emergence of ambitious private space companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin and others, though, who’s allowed to do what in the solar system is less clear. It’s good news for companies like SpaceX — at least in the short term. But this uncertainty is eventually going to crystallize into enforceable space policies, laws and regulations that apply to everyone. And when it does, Musk needs to make sure he’s not left out in the cold.
This is of course policy, not politics. But there are powerful players in the global space policy arena. If they’re rubbed the wrong way, it’ll be politics that determines how resulting policies affect SpaceX.
Perhaps the biggest danger is that Musk’s vision of colonizing Mars looks too much like a disposable Earth philosophy — we’ve messed up this planet, so time to move on to the next. Of course, this idea may not factor into Musk’s motivation, but in the world of climate change mitigation and adaptation, perceptions matter. The optics of moving to a new planet to escape the mess we’ve made here is not a scenario that’s likely to win too many friends amongst those trying to ensure Earth remains habitable. And these factions wield considerable social and economic power – enough to cause problems for SpaceX if they decide to mobilize over this.
There is another risk here too, thanks to a proposed terrestrial use of SpaceX’s BFR as a hyperfast transport between cities on Earth. Musk has recently titillated tech watchers with plans to use commercial rocket flights to make any city on Earth less than an hour’s travel from any other. This is part of a larger plan to make the BFR profitable, and help cover the costs of planetary exploration. It’s a crazy idea — that just might work. But what about the environmental impact?
Even though the BFR will spew out tons of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, the impacts may not be much greater than current global air travel (depending how many flights end up happening). And there’s always the dream of creating the fuel — methane and oxygen — using solar power and atmospheric gases. The BFR could even conceivably be carbon-neutral one day.
But at a time when humanity should be doing everything in our power to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the optics aren’t great. And this could well lead to a damaging backlash before rocket-commuting even gets off the ground.
Inspiring — or Infuriating?
Sixty years ago, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite — and changed the world. It was the dawn of the space age, forcing nations to rethink their technical education programs and inspiring a generation of scientists and engineers.
We may well be standing at a similar technological tipping point as researchers develop the vision and technologies that could launch humanity into the solar system. But for this to be a new generation’s Sputnik moment, we’ll need to be smart in navigating the many social and political hurdles between where we are now and where we could be.
These nontechnical hurdles come down to whether society writ large grants SpaceX and Elon Musk the freedom to boldly go where no one has gone before. It’s tempting to think of planetary entrepreneurialism as simply getting the technology right and finding a way to pay for it. But if enough people feel SpaceX is threatening what they value (such as the environment — here or there), or disadvantaging them in some way (for example, by allowing rich people to move to another planet and abandoning the rest of us here), they’ll make life difficult for the company.
This is where Musk and SpaceX need to be as socially adept as they are technically talented. Discounting these hidden hurdles could spell disaster for Elon Musk’s Mars in the long run. Engaging with them up front could lead to the first people living and thriving on another planet in my lifetime.
New research shows that our Moon once had an atmosphere 3 to 4 billion years ago. It formed when volcanic eruptions rocked the ancient satellite, propelling gases above its surface too rapidly for them to seep into space. The surface of the Moon is peppered with impact basins filled with volcanic basalt. These basalt plains, called maria, were formed when plumes of magma from inside the Moon erupted to the surface, creating lava flows. Astronauts from the Apollo missions brought back samples from the maria to Earth, and we now know that the lava flows contained carbon monoxide and other gas components, sulfur, and even the building blocks of water.
Our Moon has no atmosphere now, as it lacks a strong enough magnetic field and sufficient mass to hold an atmosphere around it. Unlike Earth, which has sufficient mass and magnetism to hang on to an atmosphere, any atmosphere around the Moon would quickly be stripped away by solar winds. However, the new research indicates that the Moon did briefly have an atmosphere before that happened.
The team used the samples to calculate how much gas rose and accumulated to form the transient atmosphere. They found that the volcanic activity peaked about 3.5 billion years ago, which was when the atmosphere was at its thickest. Once it formed, it persisted for around 70 million years before it was stripped away and lost in space. During the period when the Moon had an atmosphere, it was almost three times closer to Earth, and therefore would have appeared much bigger in the sky.
Boots On the Moon
Universities Space Research Association (USRA) Senior Staff Scientist David Kring told Phys.org, “This work dramatically changes our view of the Moon from an airless rocky body to one that used to be surrounded by an atmosphere more prevalent than that surrounding Mars today.”
This new information has important implications for future astronauts, planned lunar missions and space exploration. The research suggests that volatiles from the atmosphere may have been trapped near the lunar poles in cold, permanently shadowed areas. If this is true, there may already be a source of ice on the Moon that astronauts and colonists can use for drinking water, growing food, and other needs. Icy deposits stocked with captured volatiles could also provide fuel and air for both lunar surface operations and even missions beyond the Moon. And whatever already exists on the Moon won’t need to be ported from Earth — a tremendous advantage given the expense of carrying cargo into space.
Following the reestablishment of the committee in June 2017, the National Space Council met earlier this week and got an update on the future of space tourism. Bob Smith, the man at the helm of Blue Origin, was in attendance to offer an update on the company’s plans to take passengers into space.
Blue Origin is aiming to launch its first rocket ferrying space tourists by April 2019; a more conservative time frame than previously stated, where the company had pledged the launch would occur before the end of 2018.
“We will fly humans when we’re ready, and not a moment sooner,” the company told CNN Money, insisting that internal timelines had not shifted.
Blue Origin will use space travel to fund its future ventures, which will likely revolve around sending satellites into orbit. The plan is to make trips affordable and accessible, although it’s not entirely clear just how much money the experience will cost.
Blue Origin and SpaceX have very different goals, however. Although there’s yet to be word on whether SpaceX plans to continue operating tourist trips beyond the one journey that’s already been announced, Blue Origin expects to make frequent launches.
Even the nature of the trips are very different: SpaceX will take two tourists on a voyage around the moon, and Blue Origin’s passengers will be taken to the edge of space, allowing them to experience weightlessness and catch a glimpse of Earth from above.
Space tourism has been touted by various entities for many years — but it seems clear that before the end of this decade, it will be a reality.
Earlier this month, NASA said it was prepared to shift its focus away from Mars, and toward the Moon, whenever the current administration gave the “go” for logistical launch. Now the organization will have to put their plans into motion, because the present administration just announced a renewed effort to get back to the Moon, and beyond.
In an op-ed published to The Wall Street Journal on October 4, Vice President Mike Pence explained an executive order had been signed to restore the National Space Council, with him as its head.
“On Thursday the council will hold its first meeting in nearly 25 years, and as its chairman, I will deliver a simple message: America will lead in space again,” he said, citing the national space policy’s lack of a coherent vision as the reason the U.S. has been left behind, while countries like China and Russia move forward with their own plans. Pence also explained how desperately the U.S. needs technology of its own in space, to protect its surveillance, communication, and navigation systems from hacking attempts.
But What About Mars?
The ostensible goal is human exploration. However, Pence believes starting with the Moon and establishing a firm presence on Earth’s nearest neighbor, as “a vital strategic goal,” ought to come first. This isn’t the first time the Moon has taken precedence as first step to missions advancing farther into the solar system; in August, former astronaut Chris Hardfield said settling on the Moon should come first, as it would prove we can still get there. The promise is that our travels won’t end there. According to the VP, the U.S. intends to be the first country to send people to Mars. However, the impetus for space expansion here seems to be exclusively commercial, rather than exploratory or scientific.
“In the years to come, American industry must be the first to maintain a constant commercial human presence in low-Earth orbit, to expand the sphere of the economy beyond this blue marble, ” added Pence.
Within the next few weeks, the administration will form a Users’ Advisory Group comprised of various leaders in the commercial space industry. As its name suggests, it’s largely meant to option the expertise of those whom have been developing new hardware and technology to get people into space, either for learning or commercial purposes.
Indeed, as Pence put it, “Business is leading the way on space technology, and we intend to draw from the bottomless well of innovation to solve the challenges ahead.”
The VP didn’t detail who would be in this group, though SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos are a couple of people that come to mind; Musk just recently detailed new plans to send people to Mars in 2024, while Blue Origin intends to send people into suborbital space starting next year.
It may be some time before we see what the National Space Council comes up with. While NASA has shared its plans for getting to the Moon and Mars, the organization was noticeably absent from the Vice President’s announcement. Critics of NASA’s pattern of incoherent plans to get us to Mars like Dr. Robert Zubrin, former Lockheed Martin Astronautics engineer and president of Pioneer Astronautics, have pointed out that Moonbases and low-Earth orbit missions are designed to diversify mission functions so as to garner funding for under-used or unnecessary departments, rather than actually get us to Mars. If you want to string a rope from A to B, a straight line isn’t best if you’re a rope salesman. Whether NASA’s absence signifies a change in plans or not, the coming years are sure to be the most interesting in U.S. space travel history since the 1960s.
The ice was discovered in an area on the Martian equator called the Medusae Fossae, which spans several hundred kilometers across. Scientists had assumed the equator would be too warm for ice to stay intact near the surface for so long.
Permafrost ice has been spotted on Mars using data provided by the Odyssey spacecraft’s neutron spectrometer, particularly at the red planet’s polar regions, which was confirmed in 2008 by NASA’s Phoenix lander when it uncovered chunks of pure ice just a few centimeters below the surface. The specialized spectrometer picks up neutron radiation coming from the Martian surface when high-energy cosmic rays pour down from space.
“These interact with the top meter of the soil and kick out particles, neutrons included,” Johns Hopkins’ APL planetary astronomer Jack Wilson told Cosmos. Analyzing those particles can identify what substances the cosmic rays are interacting with. Recently, Wilson and his colleagues gave the Odyssey data a second look, because the earlier studies had a very low resolution at just around 520 kilometers. They managed to reconstruct the image to a resolution of 290 kilometers.
For several decades now, since Albert Einstein first posited his general theory of relativity, astronomers have come to understand that what we know and experience to be matter in the Universe is only a tiny fraction of what’s really out there. About 25 percent of the Universe is made up of so-called dark matter, while 68 to 75 percent is dark energy. Both sound like an evil villain’s secret plan for galactic conquest, and indeed they’re often used as such in science fiction.
The reality is, dark matter and dark energy are out there — although their mysterious nature has caused some to credit their existence to an illusion. Though both invisible, we actually see their effects in terms of how these interact with gravity. Dark energy is thought to be a mysterious force that accelerates the expansion of the Universe and is, therefore, considered to be a cosmological constant according to Einstein — a vacuum energy that’s represented by a constant Equation of State (EoS) of -1, for the purposes of the study.
Now, a collaboration of astronomers, including those from the University of Portsmouth’s (UoP) Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation (ICG), have found evidence that suggests that dark matter may have a dynamic nature. “Since its discovery at the end of last century, dark energy has been a riddle wrapped in an enigma,” ICG director Bob Nichol said in a UoP press release. “We are all desperate to gain some greater insight into its characteristics and origin. Such work helps us make progress in solving this 21st Century mystery.”
A Dynamic Energy
According to their study, published in the journal Nature Astronomy, evidence of dark energy’s dynamic nature comes from high-precision measurements of the Baryonic Acoustic Oscillations (BAO) — periodic fluctuations of a matter composed of protons and neutrons — at multiple cosmic epochs. These measurements were taken in 2016 by a team that included the lead author of the new study, Gong-Bo Zhao from ICG and the National Astronomical Observatories of China. Combined with a new method which Zhao developed, the astronomers found evidence of dynamical dark energy at an undeniable degree of statistical certainty.
In short, instead of a constant vacuum, dark energy may be some form of dynamical field. “We are excited to see that current observations are able to probe the dynamics of dark energy at this level, and we hope that future observations will confirm what we see today,” Zhao said in the press release.
To confirm their findings, the team is depending on future astronomical surveys to be conducted by next-generation instruments. One of these is the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI) survey, which is slated to begin work on a 3D cosmic map in 2018. Aside from this, powerful instruments like the long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope could also help to make observations that might shed light on the mysteries of dark energy.
There may be no bigger question than whether we are alone in our solar system. As our spacecraft find new clues about the presence of liquid water now or in the past on Mars, the possibility of some kind of life there looks more likely. On Earth, water means life, and that’s why the exploration of Mars is guided by the idea of following the water.
But the search for life on Mars is paired with plenty of strong warnings about how we must sterilize our spacecraft to avoid contaminating our neighbor planet. How will we know what’s native Martian if we unintentionally seed the place with Earth organisms? A popular analogy points out that Europeans unknowingly brought smallpox to the New World, and they took home syphilis. Similarly, it is argued, our robotic explorations could contaminate Mars with terrestrial microorganisms.
Space agencies have long prioritized preventing contamination over our hunt for life on Mars. Now is the time to reassess and update this strategy – before human beings get there and inevitably introduce Earth organisms despite our best efforts.
What Planetary Protection Protocols Do
Arguments calling for extra caution have permeated Mars exploration strategies and led to the creation of specific guiding policies, known as planetary protection protocols.
Strict cleaning procedures are required on our spacecraft before they’re allowed to sample regions on Mars which could be a habitat for microorganisms, either native to Mars or brought there from Earth. These areas are labeled by the planetary protection offices as “Special Regions.”
The worry is that, otherwise, terrestrial invaders could jeopardize potential Mars life. They also could confound future researchers trying to distinguish between any indigenous Martian life forms and life that arrived as contamination from Earth via today’s spacecraft.
The sad consequence of these policies is that the multi-billion-dollar Mars spacecraft programs run by spaceagencies in the West have not proactively looked for life on the planet since the late 1970s.
That’s when NASA’s Viking landers made the only attempt ever to find life on Mars (or on any planet outside Earth, for that matter). They carried out specific biological experiments looking for evidence of microbial life. Since then, that incipient biological exploration has shifted to less ambitious geological surveys that try to demonstrate only that Mars was “habitable” in the past, meaning it had conditions that could likely support life.
Even worse, if a dedicated life-seeking spacecraft ever does get to Mars, planetary protection policies will allow it to search for life everywhere on the Martian surface, except in the very places we suspect life may exist: the Special Regions. The concern is that exploration could contaminate them with terrestrial microorganisms.
Can Earth Life Make It On Mars?
Consider again the Europeans who first journeyed to the New World and back. Yes, smallpox and syphilis traveled with them, between human populations, living inside warm bodies in temperate latitudes. But that situation is irrelevant to Mars exploration. Any analogy addressing possible biological exchange between Earth and Mars must consider the absolute contrast in the planets’ environments.
A more accurate analogy would be bringing 12 Asian tropical parrots to the Venezuelan rainforest. In 10 years we may very likely have an invasion of Asian parrots in South America. But if we bring the same 12 Asian parrots to Antarctica, in 10 hours we’ll have 12 dead parrots.
We’d assume that any indigenous life on Mars should be much better adapted to Martian stresses than Earth life is, and therefore would outcompete any possible terrestrial newcomers. Microorganisms on Earth have evolved to thrive in challenging environments like salt crusts in the Atacama desert or hydrothermal vents on the deep ocean floor. In the same way, we can imagine any potential Martian biosphere would have experienced enormous evolutionary pressure during billions of years to become expert in inhabiting Mars’ today environments. The microorganisms hitchhiking on our spacecraft wouldn’t stand much of a chance against super-specialized Martians in their own territory.
So if Earth life cannot survive and, most importantly, reproduce on Mars, concerns going forward about our spacecraft contaminating Mars with terrestrial organisms are unwarranted. This would be the parrots-in-Antarctica scenario.
On the other hand, perhaps Earth microorganisms can, in fact, survive and create active microbial ecosystems on present-day Mars – the parrots-in-South America scenario. We can then presume that terrestrial microorganisms are already there, carried by any one of the dozens of spacecraft sent from Earth in the last decades, or by the natural exchange of rocks pulled out from one planet by a meteoritic impact and transported to the other.
In this case, protection protocols are overly cautious since contamination is already a fact.
Technological Reasons the Protocols Don’t Make Sense
Another argument to soften planetary protection protocols hinges on the fact that current sterilization methods don’t actually “sterilize” our spacecraft, a feat engineers still don’t know how to accomplish definitively.
The cleaning procedures we use on our robots rely on pretty much the same stresses prevailing on the Martian surface: oxidizing chemicals and radiation. They end up killing only those microorganisms with no chance of surviving on Mars anyway. So current cleaning protocols are essentially conducting an artificial selection experiment, with the result that we carry to Mars only the most hardy microorganisms. This should put into question the whole cleaning procedure.
Further, technology has advanced enough that distinguishing between Earthlings and Martians is no longer a problem. If Martian life is biochemically similar to Earth life, we could sequence genomes of any organisms located. If they don’t match anything we know is on Earth, we can surmise it’s native to Mars. Then we could add Mars’ creatures to the tree of DNA-based life we already know, probably somewhere on its lower branches. And if it is different, we would be able to identify such differences based on its building blocks.
Mars explorers have yet another technique to help differentiate between Earth and Mars life. The microbes we know persist in clean spacecraft assembly rooms provide an excellent control with which to monitor potential contamination. Any microorganism found in a Martian sample identical or highly similar to those present in the clean rooms would very likely indicate contamination – not indigenous life on Mars.
The Window Is Closing
On top of all these reasons, it’s pointless to split hairs about current planetary protection guidelines as applied to today’s unmanned robots since human explorers are on the horizon. People would inevitably bring microbial hitchhikers with them, because we cannot sterilize humans. Contamination risks between robotic and manned missions are simply not comparable.
Whether the microbes that fly with humans will be able to last on Mars is a separate question – though their survival is probably assured if they stay within a spacesuit or a human habitat engineered to preserve life. But no matter what, they’ll definitely be introduced to the Martian environment. Continuing to delay the astrobiological exploration of Mars now because we don’t want to contaminate the planet with microorganisms hiding in our spacecrafts isn’t logical considering astronauts (and their microbial stowaways) may arrive within two or three decades.
Prior to landing humans on Mars or bringing samples back to Earth, it makes sense to determine whether there is indigenous Martian life. What might robots or astronauts encounter there – and import to Earth? More knowledge now will increase the safety of Earth’s biosphere. After all, we still don’t know if returning samples could endanger humanity and the terrestrial biosphere. Perhaps reverse contamination should be our big concern.
The main goal of Mars exploration should be to try to find life on Mars and address the question of whether it is a separate genesis or shares a common ancestor with life on Earth. In the end, if Mars is lifeless, maybe we are alone in the universe; but if there is or was life on Mars, then there’s a zoo out there.
On September 11th, the Sun surprised scientists monitoring the red planet by hitting Mars with an unexpected solar storm. The storm produced an aurora on Mars 25 times brighter than any other observed by the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) orbiter, which has been studying the planets’ atmosphere since 2014.
The featured image above, taken by the Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph on NASA’s MAVEN orbiter, shows the intensity of ultraviolet light on Mars’ night side before (left) and during (right) the solar storm.
The storm also doubled the highest radiation levels measured on Mars’ surface, by the Curiosity rover’s Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD), since it landed in 2012. Though our planet was on the opposite side of the Sun, radiation was detectable from Earth—a testament to the storm’s power.
“This is exactly the type of event both missions were designed to study, and it’s the biggest we’ve seen on the surface so far,” said Don Hassler, RAD Principal Investigator, in a NASA press release. “It will improve our understanding of how such solar events affect the Martian environment, from the top of the atmosphere all the way down to the surface.”
Less Than Quiet on the Solar Front
This storm was particularly surprising because it came at a time when the Sun was expected to be relatively quiet.
The sun’s magnetic poles flip roughly every eleven years, and the period between this swap—known as the solar cycle— is characterized by relatively predictable levels of sunspot activity. Sunspots visually mark where powerful magnetic fields are erupting from the sun, producing the solar flares and coronal mass ejections that cause solar storms. The sun is currently approaching its solar minimum, when few to no sunspots are expected.
“The current solar cycle has been an odd one, with less activity than usual during the peak, and now we have this large event as we’re approaching solar minimum,” said Sonal Jain of the University of Colorado Boulder’s, a member of the instrument team for MAVEN’s Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph, in the NASA release.
Tracking how events like this impact the Martian surface is key to gauging the habitability of the red planet, both for its own potential life and for future human explorers—a significant focus for NASA. Data from RAD will help researchers develop safety shielding for astronauts on the planet’s surface. According to Hassler, astronauts on Mars would definitely have needed shelter during a storm of this magnitude.
“To protect our astronauts on Mars in the future, we need to continue to provide this type of space weather monitoring there,” he said.
When asked what science has to say currently about the existence of aliens, Shostak said, “Very little — because we haven’t found any.” Shostak went on to say that while we may not have found evidence confirming extraterrestrial life yet, what we have discovered about our universe, say, over the last 20 years, has not been insignificant. In fact, those findings might mean a lot to our search. One thing we know now that we didn’t know decades ago is that there’s a lot of unexplored cosmic real estate out there.
Life Beyond Earth
Shostak went on to discuss the likelihood and nature of discovering alien life somewhere out there in the as yet uncharted parts of our universe: “We may find microbial life — the kind you’d find in the corners of your bathtub. We may find that a lot sooner, but that remains to be seen. But it’s gonna happen, I think, in your lifetime.”
While Shostak is confident that, not just eventually but relatively soon, we will discover the existence of extraterrestrial intelligent life, making “contact” may not go quite according to what we would imagine. What decades of science fiction would have us believe it would be like. “I don’t know about contact,” Shostak said. “I mean if they’re 500 light years away. . .you’ll hear a signal that’ll be 500 years old, and if you broadcast back ‘Hi we’re the Earthlings, how’re you doing?’ — it’ll be 1,000 years before you hear back from them. If you ever hear back from them. So, it’s not exactly contact, but at least you know they’re there.”
The basic idea behind the BFR is to create a single booster and ship that could replace the company’s Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, and Dragon. This would allow SpaceX to pour all the resources currently split across those three crafts into the one project.
Once completed, the BFR could be used to launch satellites and space telescopes or clean up space debris. It would also be capable of docking with the International Space Station (ISS) for the delivery of cargo. Most excitingly, though, is the BFR’s potential to facilitate the establishment of off-world colonies.
Mission to Mars
The current BFR design is large enough to ferry up to 100 people and plenty of equipment, which Musk believes will be instrumental in creating a base of operations on the Moon. “It’s 2017, I mean, we should have a lunar base by now,” he said during his IAC presentation. “What the hell is going on?”
Musk’s aspirations go well beyond the Moon, though. SpaceX’s goal of heading to Mars as soon as they have the technology to do so is well known, and during last night’s presentation, Musk shared imagery of a fully fledged Martian city.
Construction on SpaceX’s first ship capable of heading to Mars is expected to start within the next nine months, and Musk hopes to send a pair of cargo ships to the planet in 2022, though he admitted that this goal is somewhat “aspirational.”
NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the world’s most powerful telescope to date and the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), will have a few extra months before it’s launched into orbit. After the latest check on outstanding technical issues and integration work, NASA pushed back the launch date from October 2018 to between March and June 2019. The delay has to do with the integration of the spacecraft bus and sunshield that will bring the telescope into orbit; a process that is taking more time than predicted. There are no problems with the telescope itself.
“Webb’s spacecraft and sunshield are larger and more complex than most spacecraft,” JWST program director Eric Smith announced with NASA. “The combination of some integration activities taking longer than initially planned, such as the installation of more than 100 sunshield membrane release devices, factoring in lessons learned from earlier testing, like longer time spans for vibration testing, has meant the integration and testing process is just taking longer. Considering the investment NASA has made, and the good performance to date, we want to proceed very systematically through these tests to be ready for a Spring 2019 launch.”
The 18 gold-plated beryllium mirror segments of the JWST are now being cryogenically tested in NASA’s enormous Chamber A of Houston’s Johnson Space Center. The telescope passed its testing time with flying colors, surviving in space-like conditions with temperatures below -250 C (-420 F), and it is now thawing out so it can be removed from the testing chamber. Next, the JWST will be moved to the Redondo Beach facilities for integration with the spacecraft.
The gold telescope’s massively powerful primary mirror is 6.5 meters in diameter and should be able to perceive objects up to 16 times fainter than the Hubble. It can also collect infrared light, making it possible for astronomers to see further back into space and time than ever before. The JWST will investigate our Solar System’s origins by observing the Trojan asteroids and the three largest low-albedo asteroids. It will also help scientists to protect Earth by exploring near-Earth objects. Also on the agenda for the JWST are investigations of geological phenomena and the atmosphere on Saturn, Neptune’s south polar vortex, and Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, as well as the potential for life on various far-off exoplanets.
The JWST will be launched by the European Space Agency (ESA), and hopefully, there will be no further delays for the space telescope that “could probably detect a bumblebee on the moon.”
From blob-like jellyfish to rock-like lichens, our planet teems with such diversity of life that it is difficult to recognise some organisms as even being alive. That complexity hints at the challenge of searching for life as we don’t know it – the alien biology that might have taken hold on other planets, where conditions could be unlike anything we’ve seen before. ‘The Universe is a really big place. Chances are, if we can imagine it, it’s probably out there on a planet somewhere,’ said Morgan Cable, an astrochemist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. ‘The question is, will we be able to find it?’
For decades, astronomers have come at that question by confining their search to organisms broadly similar to the ones here. In 1976, NASA’s Viking landers examined soil samples on Mars, and tried to animate them using the kind of organic nutrients that Earth microbes like, with inconclusive results. Later this year, the European Space Agency’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter will begin scoping out methane in the Martian atmosphere, which could be produced by Earth-like bacterial life. NASA’s Mars 2020 rover will likewise scan for carbon-based compounds from possible past or present Mars organisms.
But the environment on Mars isn’t much like that on Earth, and the exoplanets that astronomers are finding around other stars are stranger still – many of them quite unlike anything in our solar system. For that reason, it’s important to broaden the search for life. We need to open our minds to genuinely alien kinds of biological, chemical, geological and physical processes. ‘Everybody looks for “biosignatures”, but they’re meaningless because we don’t have any other examples of biology,’ said the chemist Lee Cronin at the University of Glasgow.
To open our minds, we need to go back to basics and consider the fundamental conditions that are necessary for life. First, it needs some form of energy, such as from volcanic hot springs or hydrothermal vents. That would seem to rule out any planets or moons lacking a strong source of internal heat. Life also needs protection from space radiation, such as an atmospheric ozone layer. Many newly discovered Earth-size worlds, including ones around TRAPPIST-1 and Proxima Centauri, orbit red dwarf stars whose powerful flares could strip away a planet’s atmosphere. Studies by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), set to launch next year, will reveal whether we should rule out these worlds, too.
Finally, everything we know about life indicates that it requires some kind of liquid solvent in which chemical interactions can lead to self-replicating molecules. Water is exceptionally effective in that regard. It facilitates making and breaking chemical bonds, assembling proteins or other structural molecules, and – for an actual organism – feeding and getting rid of waste. That’s why planetary scientists currently focus on the ‘habitable zone’ around stars, the locations where a world could have the right temperature for liquid water on its surface.
These constraints still leave a bewildering range of possibilities. Perhaps other liquids could take the place of water. Or a less exotic possibility: maybe biology could arise in the buried ocean on an ice-covered alien world. Such a setting could offer energy, protection and liquid water, yet provide almost no outward sign of life, making it tough to detect. For planets around other stars, we simply do not know enough yet to say what is (or is not) happening there. ‘It’s difficult to imagine that we could definitively find life on an exoplanet,’ conceded Jonathan Lunine, a planetary scientist at Cornell University. ‘But the outer solar system is accessible to us.’
The search for exotic life therefore must begin close to home. The moons of Saturn and Jupiter offer a test case of whether biology could exist without an atmosphere. Jupiter’s Europa and Saturn’s Enceladus both have inner oceans and internal heat sources. Enceladus spews huge geysers of water vapour from its south pole; Europa appears to puff off occasional plumes as well. Future space missions could fly through the plumes and study them for possible biochemicals. NASA’s proposed Europa lander, which could launch in about a decade, could seek out possible microbe-laced ocean water that seeped up or snowed back down onto the surface.
Meanwhile, another Saturn moon, Titan, could tell us whether life can arise without liquid water. Titan is dotted with lakes of methane and ethane, filled by a seasonal hydrocarbon rain. Lunine and his colleagues have speculated that life could arise in this frigid setting. Several well-formulated (but as-yet unfunded) concepts exist for a lander that could investigate Titan’s methane lakes, looking for microbial life.
For the motley bunch of exoplanets that have no analog in our solar system, however, scientists have to rely on laboratory experiments and sheer imagination. ‘We’re still looking for the basic physical and chemical requirements that we think life needs, but we’re trying to keep the net as broad as possible,’ Cable said. Exoplanet researchers such as Sara Seager at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Victoria Meadows at the University of Washington are modelling disparate types of possible planetary atmospheres and the kinds of chemical signatures that life might imprint onto them.
Now the onus is on NASA and other space agencies to design instruments capable of detecting as many signs of life as possible. Most current telescopes access only a limited range of wavelengths. ‘If you think of the spectrum like a set of venetian blinds, there are only a few slats removed. That’s not a very good way to get at the composition,’ Lunine said. In response, astronomers led by Seager and Scott Gaudi of the Ohio State University have proposed the Habitable Exoplanet Imaging Mission (HabEx) for NASA in the 2030s or 2040s. It would scan exoplanets over a wide range of optical and near-infrared wavelengths for signs of oxygen and water vapour.
Casting a wide search for ET won’t be easy and it won’t be cheap, but it will surely be transformative. Even if astrobiologists find nothing, that knowledge will tell us how special life is here on Earth. And any kind of success will be Earth-shattering. Finding terrestrial-style bacteria on Mars would tell us we’re not alone. Finding methane-swimming organisms on Titan would tell us, even more profoundly, that ours is not the only way to make life. Either way, we Earthlings will never look at the cosmos the same way again.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
Brian is bringing the story of science to the world. Uncover the mysteries here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/64470060/big-science
Artificial light has transformed human society. It frees us from the darkness, and allows us to light our homes and communities. It has also made the night sky increasingly less dark, which poses a challenge to astronomers. And it’s gotten worse in recent years, thanks to an energy-saving light known as LEDs.
The earliest light bulbs (of Edison fame) were extremely inefficient. They produce incandescent light by electrically heating a thin wire of metal to the point that it emits light. But only a small fraction of the light emitted is visible. Most of it is infrared, which we feel as heat. The bulbs make much better heaters than lights, and for a time there were even toy ovens that used a light bulb to bake little cookies or muffins. Their big advantage was that they were cheap and reliable.
As energy costs rose, the quest for greater efficiency led to new types of light bulbs. The most popular were variations known as fluorescent lights. These involve a tube of low-pressure mercury gas. An electric current is passed through the gas, causing it to emit ultraviolet light. The interior of the tube is coated with a phosphorus powder that converts ultraviolet light to visible light. The efficiency of these lights made them ubiquitous in large lighting environments such as office buildings, but their greenish hue and flickering nature were often found irritating. What we really needed was a light that is highly efficient and emits a more sun-like light.
Light Emitting Diode
The latest answer to that challenge is the Light Emitting Diode, or LED. These are based on semiconductors. The same type of semiconductors used in computers and other electronic devices, except that they are built to emit light. They are highly efficient, but only emit light in a narrow color range. However by combining LEDs of different colors you can approximate the wide spectrum of colors produced by sunlight.
Early on LEDs were expensive, but even as costs came down they still failed to mimic sunlight well. That’s because there weren’t any good blue LEDs. Early LED lightbulbs were an odd yellowish-orange, since they didn’t emit much light in the blue spectrum. But in 1993 Shuji Nakamura developed an efficient blue LED. This was such a big breakthrough that he was awarded the 2014 Nobel prize in physics for his work. LED lightbulbs could now be produced that emit a more natural white light. But this breakthrough has had unintended consequences.
As the price of white-LED lights have dropped, they have become a favored choice for both interior and exterior lighting. For outdoor lighting in particular they have started to replace mercury vapor and sodium vapor lights. Their low cost and high efficiency has also resulted in a rise of exterior lighting. The white glow of LEDs has filled our communities and homes. But white-LED lights depend upon blue LEDs, and are brightest in the blue spectrum. And blue light pollution is bad for astronomy.
If you’ve ever wondered why the sky is blue, the answer comes from the fact that our atmosphere scatters blue light more than red. Sunlight comes in a rainbow of colors, but it is the blue that is scattered across the sky, giving it a blue hue. Since modern LED lights emit a lot of blue, it is scattered by the atmosphere, giving a diffuse blue glow at night. We don’t notice it with the naked eye, but for astronomers it is a constant glow of light pollution. As more lights are converted to LEDs, the astronomer’s sky becomes ever less dark.
There are ways to help astronomers, such as making sure lights are shielded to focus only at the ground, and using “warm” LEDs that don’t emit strongly in the blue. In particularly sensitive areas, one of the best solutions is to use low-pressure sodium light for exterior lighting. You can recognize these by their distinct yellow-orange glow. That’s because they emit light at at very narrow range of colors, which makes it easy for astronomers to filter out.
Given all the advantages, we aren’t likely to give up artificial lighting. But sometimes we have to balance the desire for a brilliant night with the desire to see the stars.
“We want to make our current systems redundant,” Musk said during a presentation at IAC. “One system, one booster and ship, that replaces the Falcon 9, Heavy, and Dragon.” In other words, the BFR is really about efficiency: instead of spending SpaceX’s resources on three separate rockets, they can be focused (in addition to income from launching private satellites and ISS re-supply trips) on one: a redesigned BFR.
The new BFR is a bit smaller than the original, but it’s still massive: the rocket is 48 meters (157 feet) long, with a dry mass of 85 tons and capable of carrying 1,100 tons of propellant mass. The payload bay is eight-stories tall, with a pressurized volume of 825 cubic meters (29,135 cubic feet). Its transit configuration holds 40 cabins (which can hold two to three people each), large common areas, a central storage, a galley, and a solar storm shelter.
Capable of refueling in space, the BFR’s fuel tank can hold up to 240 tons of CH4 and its oxygen tank 860 tons of liquid O2. Upon its arrival to Mars — approaching the atmosphere at 7.5 kilometers per second — the ship could land using either one or both of its two center engines. “We want the landing risk to be as close to zero as possible,” said Musk. With all of these specs, SpaceX has calculated the cost of launching the BFR with its 150 ton payload to be cheaper than the Falcon 1 (0.7 ton payload).
More Than Mars
If SpaceX wants to just focus on one rocket, what would happen to the rest? Given the drive to operate efficiently, Musk said the rockets wouldn’t go to waste: SpaceX would keep the reusable rockets available for commercial use. Even if we will be saying goodbye to the Falcon 9 and other rockets, Musk did present some very intriguing possibilities for the BFR. Aside from Mars, Musk envisions a BFR launching next-generation satellites, which could help clean up space debris and service the ISS.
The BFR can also fly to the Moon and back — despite not having any local propellant production on the lunar surface. “It’s 2017,” Musk said, clearly amused. “We should have a lunar base by now.” Perhaps the BFR could also help with missions to construct a lunar base or a cislunar orbital station something that already may be part of NASA’s future plans. Basically, Musk envisions the BFR would be your friendly lunar-neighborhood transport.
And what about Mars? Musk said they want to land at least two cargo ships on the red planet by 2022 to confirm water resources and identify potential dangers, as well as build infrastructure and life support in preparation for future missions. By 2024, two crew ships would bring the first people to Mars — with more supplies and cargo — to set up a propellant production plant and the beginnings of a base for expansion.
SpaceX has come a long way since 2009: in fact, Musk realized in the middle of his talk that it was the anniversary of SpaceX’s first successful rocket launch. In his IAC talk, Musk also gave an update on the Falcon Heavy, which he said has turned out to be a bit more complicated than they thought. “It’s about believing in the future,” Musk said, “That it’ll be better than the past. And I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.”
Musk’s final thought? When it comes to the potential for rocket technology, he enticed listeners to consider that its applications could be more than just off world: “If we’re building this thing to go to the Moon and Mars, then why not go to other places on Earth as well?”
The company first shared details on the orbiter in June 2016, a few months before SpaceX’s Elon Musk unveiled his own plans for a Mars mission. Today, they again beat Musk to the punch, presenting just hours ahead of the SpaceX CEO’s own updates on his company’s Mars mission.
The Mars Base Camp is an outpost meant to float in orbit around Mars. It would hold a crew of six astronauts, who would be able to observe and study Mars to prepare for eventual human colonization.
At “the heart and soul” of the station is NASA’s Orion spacecraft, which would be assembled as part of the Deep Space Gateway (DSG) — NASA’s cislunar orbiter. As Lockheed Martin’s presenters said during their presentation, “The path to Mars is through cislunar space,” and the DSG would act as the jumping-off point for Mars and beyond.
Down and Back Again
Once the Mars Base Camp was in Martian orbit, the astronaut scientists aboard it would have a number of options for observing and even exploring the Red Planet. Integral to those missions is the lander Lockheed Martin unveiled during their IAC presentation.
The plan is to send the reusable lander down onto the Martian surface on multiple occasions. “We designed a lander that can fuel in orbit, that has enough room to support a crew of four people for two weeks and then take off again,” Lockheed Martin senior systems engineer Robert Chambers told CNBC in an exclusive interview prior to the presentation.
The presenters gave viewers a short run down of the lander’s specs during the IAC event. It can carry 80 metric tons of propellant, 30 metric tons of dry mass, and has a propulsion stage that could generate almost 60 kilograms (132,000 pounds) of thrust. Its crew cabin systems — life support, crew displays, avionics, etc. — are based on Orion’s own systems.
The “refuel-able, restartable, single-stage” craft is capable of approaching the Martian surface at 5 km/s (roughly 3.1 miles per second) and returning to the Mars Base Camp “without being dependent on any surface propellant generation.” It uses aerodynamics to reduce its descent velocity, and best of all, according to the presenters, “We can power this entire spacecraft system just with water.”
In fact, both the lander and the orbital base camp can be powered by water. More specifically, Lockheed Martin plans to use cryogenic hydrogen as fuel for the lander. “You can fuel up in orbit and have enough for a two- or three-week stay on the surface with up to four crew,” Rob Chambers, one of the designers for the Mars Base Camp, said in a press conference before the presentation.
So, it certainly looks like Lockheed Martin has a solid plan in place for Mars. During the presentation, they made it clear that the purpose of the Mars Base Camp’s first missions would be to conduct a more comprehensive survey of Mars and Martian space. The ultimate goal, though, is to find a place where humans could eventually settle in.
Every year, the who’s who of the space industry gathers at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) to celebrate all things space-related. The week-long event is essentially the Comic-Con of space exploration, with panels of astronauts replacing the cast of Game of Thrones and talks on off-world colonization filling in for the latest Marvel movie trailer.
This year’s IAC is being held in Adelaide, Australia, and the past few days have delivered their share of excitement.
Panelists have overviewed plans for Moon villages, Bill Nye has detailed the possibilities of solar sailing, and Lockheed Martin has unveiled their potentially game-changing lander. Experts have discussed issues ranging from diversity in the space industry to the importance of inspiring today’s youth to tackle tomorrow’s off-world challenges, and historic milestones in space exploration have received their due celebration.
Still, the most highly anticipated event has been saved for the last day of IAC: a presentation by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.
Thankfully, we don’t have to speculate much longer. The day is finally here, and Elon Musk is ready to take the stage. Watch along via the livestream below, and to ensure you don’t miss a single exciting revelation from the SpaceX CEO, we will be updating this article live throughout his presentation.
Musk starts by reiterating why he believes it’s important that we become a multiplanet species.
Musk says the most important thing about his presentation is this: “I think we’ve figured out how to pay for [BFR].”
Key to that is having a single vehicle that can do everything that’s needed in greater Earth orbit activity. “We want to make our current vehicles redundant,” says Musk.
SpaceX wants to create one craft that replaces Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, and Dragon.
The company has been perfecting propulsive landing and now has had 16 consecutive successful landings.
“We believe the precision is good enough…that we will not need legs.”
The forthcoming Dragon 2 will directly dock with the space station with zero human intervention.
Musk notes that today is the ninth anniversary of the first successful SpaceX launch.
Falcon 9 has 30 times the payload capability of Falcon 1 and includes reuse of the primary booster. Next goal is reuse of the fairing, which will equal 70 to 80 percent reusability for the craft.
The company is now beginning serious development of BFR. They plan to have a payload of 150 tons to low-Earth orbit.
BFR stats include a a 48 meter length, a dry mass of 85 tons, and 1,100 tons propellant mass.
The payload bay of BFR will be eight stories tall.
The company has added a delta wing with a split flap to the BFR design. This will allow the craft to handle a range of payloads and atmospheric densities.
The payload area has a pressurized volume of 825 cubic meters, and the Mars transit configuration consists of 40 cabins and large common areas, central storage, galley, and solar storm shelter.
Fuel tank will hold 240 tons of CH4. The oxygen tank holds 860 tons of liquid O2.
The engine section consists of six engines: two sea-level engines and four vacuum engines.
You can land the ship with either one of the two center engines. “We want the landing risk to be as close to zero as possible,” says Musk.
The launch cost for the BFR (150 ton payload) is less than for the Falcon 1 (.7 ton payload).
BFR could be used to launch satellites, clean up space debris, or service the ISS.
The BFR could go to the Moon and back with no local propellant production on the Moon, which would enable the creation of a lunar base.
“It’s 2017. We should have a lunar base by now,” says Musk.
With a BFR, you could send a ship to orbit, refill its tanks, and then send it to Mars. You would need to use local resources on Mars to refuel.
Because Mars has a lower gravity than Earth, we would not need a booster to leave the Red Planet.
Entry to Mars would be at 7.5 kilometers per second.
Aspirational timeline: By 2022, land at least two cargo ships on Mars; confirm water resources and identify hazards; and place power, mining, and life support infrastructure for future flights.
By 2024, send two crew ships to take the first people to Mars, send two cargo ships to bring more equipment and supplies, set up propellant production plant, and build up base to prepare for expansion.
Musk shares a video detailing what a 39-minute trip from New York to Shanghai would look like via a SpaceX rocket traveling at 27,000 kilometers per hour (18,000 miles per hour).
“Most of what people would consider long-distance trips would be completed in less than half an hour,” says Musk.
Musk concludes the presentation with a question: “If we’re building this thing to go to the Moon and Mars, then why not go to other places on Earth as well?”
Tonight, Elon Musk will take to the stage at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia to address attendees. Once he does, people around the world will be able to see what he has to say via the livestream below.
The ITS will apparently be capable of carrying around 100 people per flight, and is set to be the most powerful rocket ever to launch. It’s a key component of SpaceX’s long-term goal of establishing a permanent human presence on Mars — especially now that the Red Dragon spacecraft has apparently been put on the back-burner, according to recent comments from NASA’s head of planetary science, Jim Green.
On Tuesday, Musk took to Twitter to share that he would be giving a detailed description of a planetary colonizer device during his presentation. It’s expected that his address will begin at 12.30 AM (EST) on September 29.
If SpaceX is the young upstart of the space industry, Lockheed Martin is the weathered veteran. While Musk’s company boasts roughly 5,000 employees, Lockheed Martin has nearly 100,000 spread out across dozens of nations. For decades, they have been a leading innovator in everything from energy to military operations, and their contributions to space have been invaluable.
Through partnerships with NASA, the U.S. government, and others, Lockheed Martin has developed powerful space telescopes and launched more than 100 commercial satellites, helping disseminate information across the globe. They had a hand in the creation of the Hubble Space Telescope, the Jupiter-orbiting JUNO space probe, and the Phoenix spacecraft that landed on Mars in 2008.
Their next big goal is a follow-up of sorts to Phoenix, but instead of putting robots on Mars, they want to deliver people to the Red Planet.
Mission to Mars
NASA’s very first Mars lander was built by Lockheed Martin, and now, the company believes they can help the agency and their partners make the dream of a human Mars colony a reality.
Lockheed Martin first revealed their plans for a Mars Base Camp orbiter last year, and before Musk takes the stage to talk about SpaceX’s Interplanetary Transport System, they’ll present their own mission to Mars updates, sharing the latest news on their Deep Space Gateway and unveiling the reusable lander they believe will change how we think about surface exploration.
Lockheed Martin’s presentation will be livestreamed below, and we will be updating this article live throughout to ensure you don’t miss a thing.
UPDATE 6:45 PM EST: Lockheed Martin will no longer be livestreaming this presentation due to technical issues, but as soon as the link to the recorded presentation is posted, we’ll update this article with all the highlights.
We will post the full Mars Base Camp webcast soon after the presentation concludes. Check back at ~7:30 ET. for a link. #IAC2017
When it made its historic flyby of Pluto in July of 2015, the New Horizons spacecraft gave scientists and the general public the first clear picture of what this distant dwarf planet looks like. In addition to providing breathtaking images of Pluto’s “heart”, its frozen plains, and mountain chains, one of the more interesting features it detected was Pluto’s mysterious “bladed terrain”.
According to data obtained by New Horizons, these features are made almost entirely out of methane ice and resemble giant blades. At the time of their discovery, what caused these features remained unknown. But according to new research by members of the New Horizons team, it is possible that these features are the result of a specific kind of erosion that is related to Pluto’s complex climate and geological history.
Ever since the New Horizons probe provided a detailed look at Pluto’s geological features, the existence of these jagged ridges has been a source of mystery. They are located at the highest altitudes on Pluto’s surface near it’s equator, and can reach several hundred feet in altitude. In that respect, they are similar to penitentes, a type of structure found in high-altitude snowfields along Earth’s equator.
These structures are formed through sublimation, where atmospheric water vapor freezes to form standing, blade-like ice structures. The process is based on sublimation, where rapid changes in temperature cause water to transition from a vapor to a solid (and back again) without changing into a liquid state in between. With this in mind, the research team considered various mechanisms for the formation of these ridges on Pluto.
Pluto’s Bladed Terrain
What they determined was that Pluto’s bladed terrain was the result of atmospheric methane freezing at extreme altitudes on Pluto, which then led to ice structures similar to the ones found on Earth. The team was led by Jeffrey Moore, a research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center who was also a New Horizons’ team member. As he explained in a NASA press statement:
“When we realized that bladed terrain consists of tall deposits of methane ice, we asked ourselves why it forms all of these ridges, as opposed to just being big blobs of ice on the ground. It turns out that Pluto undergoes climate variation and sometimes, when Pluto is a little warmer, the methane ice begins to basically ‘evaporate’ away.”
But unlike on Earth, the erosion of these features are related to changes that take place over the course of eons. This should come as no surprise seeing as how Pluto’s orbital period is 248 years (or 90,560 Earth days), meaning it takes this long to complete a single orbit around the Sun. In addition, the eccentric nature of it orbit means that its distance from the Sun ranges considerably, from 29.658 AU at perihelion to 49.305 AU at aphelion.
When the planet is farthest from the Sun, methane freezes out of the atmosphere at high altitudes. And as it gets closer to the Sun, these ice features melt and turn directly into atmospheric vapor again. As a result of this discovery, we now know that the surface and air of Pluto are apparently far more dynamic than previously thought. Much in the same way that Earth has a water cycle, Pluto may have a methane cycle.
This discovery could also allow scientists to map out locations of Pluto which were not photographed in high-detail. When the New Horizons mission conducted its flyby, it took high-resolution pictures of only one side of Pluto – designated as the “encounter hemisphere”. However, it was only able to observe the other side at lower resolution, which prevented it from being mapped in detail.
But based on this new study, NASA researchers and their collaborators have been able to conclude that these sharp ridges may be a widespread feature on Pluto’s “far side”. The study is also significant in that it advances our understanding of Pluto’s global geography and topography, both past and present. This is due to the fact that it demonstrated a link between atmospheric methane and high-altitude features. As such, researchers can now infer elevations on Pluto by looking for concentrations of methane in its atmosphere.
Not long ago, Pluto was considered one of the least-understood bodies in our Solar System, thanks to its immense distance from the Sun. However, thanks to ongoing studies made possible by the data collected by the New Horizons mission, scientists are becoming increasingly familiar with what its surface looks like, not to mention the types of geological and climatological forces that have shaped it over time.
And be sure to enjoy this video that details the discovery of Pluto’s bladed terrain, courtesy of NASA’s Ames Research Center:
“The partners intend to develop international technical standards which will be used later, in particular to create a space station in lunar orbit,” read a statement from the Russian space agency Roscosmos. Russian and American scientists will collaborate on the technologies required to perform experiments on the station, and to facilitate visits to the lunar surface.
Russia will contribute its expertise in creating docking systems, which will allow astronauts to travel to and from the station. NASA has already agreed to standards laid out for the docking unit, and it’s expected that a Russian design will be used when construction begins in the 2020s.
All for One
Roscosmos’ general director Igor Komarov indicated that at least five countries were now building their own rockets and systems for use with the lunar space station. This demonstrates the profound importance of setting up a unified set of standards well ahead of time.
Scientists in geographically distant labs situated all around the world will be hard at work building spacecraft and equipment to get them to the facility, and perform research while they’re there. It’s imperative that all this hardware is compatible with the station — particularly in the case of something as vital as the docking procedure.
However, the Deep Space Gateway is still in the concept phase. There’s no formal agreement in place with Roscosmos, and NASA hasn’t even secured funding for the station. That being said, confirmation that Russia plans to play a part in the build should help push the project forward.
On 26 September, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 5-0 to defer the matter of stipulating regulations for SpaceX satellites, shuffling the decision to the UN’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU). The ITU will replace the FCC in regulating the position, power, and frequencies of SpaceX’s planned constellation of internet satellites.
One of the major problems SpaceX will face is that the ITU operates on a “first come, first serve” basis, which gives existing satellite companies privileged consideration over new projects—viz., SpaceX. If the ITU approves SpaceX’s new satellite distribution, then they’ll have to compete with the likes of OneWeb and TeleSat, both of whom already operate their own internet satellite constellations. SpaceX will also have to coordinate with both companies if successful, in order to minimize interference with satellite activity.
An FCC filing shows SpaceX plans to deploy 1,600 internet satellites at first, with another 2,825 after a six-year deadline, according to a Bloomberg report.
“Completing the full constellation over a six-year period would require a launch cadence of more than 60 satellites per month, beginning on the day the Commission grants a license,” SpaceX wrote in a filing on the matter. “This is an aggressive pace even for a company like SpaceX, which has demonstrated considerable launch capabilities.”
No one knows for sure what a long-range space journey will be like for the people on board. Nobody in the history of our species has ever had to deal with the “Earth-out-of-view” phenomenon, for instance. How will it feel to live in close quarters with a small group, with no escape hatch? How will space travelers deal with the prospect of not seeing family or friends for years, or even ever again? How will they occupy themselves for years with nothing much to do?
Because astronauts would have a lot of free time to fill, some researchers have casually suggested sending along a selection of books and films or even bespoke video games. As a social scientist who studies media use and its effects on behavior, I believe television could help. Recreating the media environment from before we had permanent, continuous access to anything we want to watch or listen to might be just the thing to help space travelers cope with a loss of a sense of space and time, with loneliness, privacy issues, boredom and more.
Floating Rudderless in Space and Time
In space, the distinction between days of the week, day and night, or morning and noon will be mostly meaningless. Before DVDs and streaming, television helped us structure our time. For some, “lunch” was when a particular game show came on. “Evening” started with the news. “Thursday” was when the next episode of our favorite drama finally arrived. Seasonal programming split the year into chunks (Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas). Annual events, such as the Super Bowl, helped us realize yet another year had passed.
A media system that recreates structured access would help define time in space, something unlimited access to a random list of movies would not. Knowing that you were watching something that millions of others were watching at the same time created a particular group feeling – think tuning in to a royal wedding or a presidential funeral. It remains to be seen how today’s fracturing of the media landscape has changed that. Interestingly, one of the earliest occasions where millions around the world shared a bond in front of their or their neighbor’s TV was the first lunar landing.
Out of Reach, Out of Touch
One reason prisoners like to watch television is that it shows them how the world outside is evolving. If we don’t want long-range space travelers to return feeling like aliens, they will need to keep up-to-date with what’s happening back on Earth.
Television news has an “agenda setting” effect: It tells viewers not only what is going on, but also what matters to people, and public opinion about current events. Entertainment media, from reality shows to game shows to drama, display how fashion, vocabulary and even accents are evolving.
Tuning in to what’s going on back home is also a way to counteract the “Earth-out-of-view” phenomenon. The feeling of being on top of what’s happening on Earth may help keep the psychological connection to the home planet active and strong.
Members of a crew are likely to have different cultural backgrounds. The distinctions are biggest if they come from far-flung countries or different language families.
Immigrants, for instance, use the media to integrate more quickly into their new culture. But exposure to home media is also a way to keep a connection to (and derive support from) the culture of origin. Imagine a crew consisting mainly of people from the United States, but with one member from, say, Japan. It will be equally important to facilitate integration and bonding by making media content available that everyone can consume as a group as it is to make specific content available that (in this example) may cater to a person who grew up in Japan.
Balancing Solitude and Community
As individuals, astronauts will crave autonomy and privacy. Media can help create “alone time.” Being immersed in a book, a movie or music (using headphones) helps lock out the environment, as every teenager knows.
There is, finally, a more mundane but perhaps also more fundamental reason to incorporate media into the daily lives of future Mars travelers. They will be drawn from a generation that grew up immersed in and surrounded by media access and content. Recreating a reasonable facsimile of that environment may go a long way toward making astronauts feel a little bit more at home out there.
Cosmic rays are high-energy atomic and subatomic particles that get blasted out from exploding stars, black holes, and other powerful sources in space. The rays can damage DNA, increase the risk of cancer, lead to vision-impairing cataracts, cause nervous system damage, and give rise to blood circulation issues, among other health effects in astronauts.
Researchers know that astronauts receive much higher radiation exposure than those of us who remain on Earth, since the planet’s atmosphere absorbs a lot of that harmful energy.
Earth’s magnetic field also diverts and deflects a lot of space radiation, which helps protect astronauts on the International Space Station — which orbits just 250 miles above the planet.
On a trip to Mars, however, it’s open season for cosmic rays. In addition, the planet lost its magnetic field billions of years ago, which will expose the first Mars explorers to extra radiation.
Health scientist Frank Cucinotta and his colleague Eliedonna Cacao at the University of Nevada Las Vegas researched this problem by reexamining the results of four previous studies of tumors in mice.
In addition of looking for the effects of a cosmic ray’s direct hit to cells, which could coax them to develop into cancer, the researchers also looked at how secondary or “non-targeted effects” might play a role.
What they found is a risk of cancer in deep space (at least for mice) that’s about two times higher than previous estimates.
Why Deep-Space Travel May Be More Dangerous Than Expected
The researchers think this elevated cancer risk comes down to how damaged DNA spreads throughout the body.
When a cell is struck by a cosmic ray, it doesn’t simply keep the change to itself. It can give off chemical signals to other cells, which might trigger nearby healthy cells to also mutate into cancer.
Previous models hadn’t really accounted for this domino effect. Even more worrisome, the type of radiation responsible for causing the effect was “only modestly decreased by radiation shielding,” Cucinotta and Cacao wrote in their study.
Human exploration of Mars need not stop before it starts, though.
And as the researchers noted in their study, “significant differences” exist between mouse-model cancer rates and those actually seen in people. “These differences could limit the applicability of the predictions described in this paper,” they wrote.
But the scientists add that this knowledge gap is precisely why future deep-space explorers and their respective agencies should exercise caution.
“[S]tudies … are urgently needed prior to long-term space missions outside the protection of the Earth’s geomagnetic sphere,” they said.
Construction on the project is expected to begin in the 2020s. European, Canadian, and Japanese space agencies have already been in talks with NASA about their own contributions to the DSG. It’s thought that NASA will offer access to the station via its Orion spacecraft, as well as use of the facility for exploratory missions.
In the long-term, the DSG is still expected to serve as a stepping stone to Mars, but such an expedition is still over a decade away. Before then, agencies will be able to use the station as an access point for the lunar surface.
Watch This Space
More news on Russia’s involvement in the DSG project is expected to drop this weekend at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia. Igor Komarov, the head of the Roscosmos State Corporation, will reportedly make things official during a meeting with other international space agencies.
With the growing space/aeronautical industry now worth about $420 billion, Australia wants to cash in. Speaking to ABC News, Australia’s acting industry minister Michaelia Cash said the country shouldn’t be left behind. “A national space agency will ensure we have a strategic long-term plan that supports the development and application of space technologies and grows our domestic space industry,” she said. “The agency will be the anchor for our domestic coordination and the front door for our international engagement.” Cash also said that local support for the decision was overwhelming.
Australian Center for Space Engineering Research director Andrew Dempster said there are many reasons why Australia needs their own space agency. “Kids [who] want to aspire to be an astronaut need to have an agency,” he said in an ABC radio interview. “But the main reason […] is we need to be building this industry.” Local startups need to have access to the wider global space industry and a national space agency gives them that.
This week, preeminent figures from the lengths and breadth of the spacefaring community will convene at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Adelaide, Australia. On Friday, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk will address attendees, and he apparently has some big news to share.
Earlier this morning, Musk took to his personal Twitter account to tease the unveiling of “major improvements” as well as “some unexpected applications” during his appearance on Friday.
While we can’t say for sure exactly what Musk is referring to, there’s a good chance that it relates to one of SpaceX’s biggest goals for the future: Mars. Back in July, he tweeted that the next big update on SpaceX’s plans for a Mars expedition could happen at IAC 2017. Additionally, the project was officially unveiled at last year’s IAC, making this year’s event a particularly appropriate setting for a major update.
Given that SpaceX’s Red Dragon program was recently put on the back burner, the current status of the company’s mission to Mars is in a bit of limbo, so the possibility of learning the details of their new plan in just a few days is very exciting. However, Musk’s reference to “unexpected applications” in his tweet this morning might be a hint that his announcement isn’t directly related to space exploration.
One potential alternative is SpaceX’s Starlink project, which will use a network of satellites to provide internet access back on Earth.
Given the location of the event, the applications might even have something to do with Musk’s efforts to help Australia improve its renewable energy infrastructure. In July, he inked a deal to implement a Powerpack battery system at the Hornsdale Wind Farm, and while that is a technically Tesla project, rather than a SpaceX endeavor, perhaps Musk is bringing his two companies together in some way.
Whatever Musk is planning to announce, it’ll be livestreamed around the world, so we’ll all find out at the same time.
“You look at the night sky — virtually all of those stars have planets,” Rosenberg said in an exclusive interview with Futurism. “Maybe one out of five has it at just the right zone where there’s liquid water. And so we know there are a lot of places that there could be life. Now the big question is, are they actually trying to make contact, or do they want us to try?”
METI’s stance is that we should assume the latter, and the collection of scientists have taken it upon themselves to reach out to any potential alien civilizations. In fact, the next transmission planned for next year. However, there have long been voices opposed to this strategy — perhaps the most prominent of which being Stephen Hawking.
Hawking, a noted physicist and author, supports the search for aliens, but regularly cautions against attempting contact. Hawking argued in “Stephen Hawking’s Favorite Places,” a video on the platform CuriosityStream, that aliens could be “vastly more powerful and may not see us as any more valuable than we see bacteria.”
Paying Our Dues?
These are not warnings that Vakoch takes lightly. “Well, when Stephen Hawking, a brilliant cosmologist, has said, ‘whatever you do, don’t transmit, we don’t want the aliens to come to Earth,’ You’ve got to take it seriously,” Vakoch told Futurism.
But there’s one key point that Hawking really doesn’t seem to take into consideration in this assessment, Vakoch said.
It’s the fact that every civilization that does have the ability to travel to Earth could already pick up I Love Lucy. So we have been sending our existence into space with radio signals for 78 years. Even before that, two and a half billion years, we have been telling the Universe that there is life on here because of the oxygen in our atmosphere. So if there’s any alien out there paranoid about competition, it could have already come and wipe us out. If they’re on their way, it’s a lot better strategy to say we’re interested in being conversational partners. Let’s strike up a new conversation.
It’s Vakoch’s belief that humanity’s first contact with alien life will occur within our lifetimes. But even if it does not, he believes the METI project will be foundational to any relationship our world builds with others.
“Sometimes people talk about this interstellar communication as an effort to join the galactic club. What I find so strange is no one ever talks about paying our dues or even submitting an application. And that’s what METI does,” Vakoch said. “It’s actually contributing something to the galaxy instead of saying gimme gimme gimme me. What can we do for someone else.”
NASA’s current priority when it comes to space travel is to get people to Mars sooner rather than later. The organization has said in the past that it’s unable to get people to the Red Planet, but projects from the likes of SpaceX have kept the dream alive. If, however, the current U.S. administration decides to shift focus to the Moon, NASA wouldn’t be caught completely off-guard and unable to adjust.
Speaking at Rice University earlier this month, Ellen Ochoa, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, spoke about NASA’s ability to go to the Moon if told to do so. She told Rice Space Institute director David Alexander, “I think we’re very well set up to do it. It’s not at all incompatible with what we’re doing.”
NASA’s Orion spacecraft is key to the organization’s current plans for Mars, with it and the Space Launch System rocket scheduled for a pair of test flights between 2019 and 2023. Afterwards, construction would begin on a “Deep Space Gateway” near the Moon, which would be used as a staging area for future missions to Mars and activity on the Moon itself.
Prepared for Anything
According to Ars Technica, it’s unclear which aspects of the plan would remain if focus shifted from Mars to the Moon. The Deep Space Gateway, for example, could be replaced with a plan to skip that construction and just go straight to landing crew members and necessary cargo.
“What we’ve really tried to do at NASA is leave a lot of options open, to develop the basic capabilities — the spacecraft Orion and the heavy lift launch vehicle — and then talk with other partners about what they are interested in doing,” added Ochoa.
Regardless of which location is chosen, it’s clear that humanity has plans to settle off world. It’s only a matter of time at this point, though we’ll have to see if it comes true within the next 20 years.
The NASA human landing site selection committee proposed 47 potential sites for a human occupied base on Mars. They considered not only scientific regions of interest but also “resource regions of interest” — where there is accessible water.
A number of conditions need to be met for an exploration zone to be considered useful for prospecting for water. Water needs to be accessible, located near the surface, and of sufficient size and concentration to meet the user needs.
For operational reasons the Mars water site also needs to be located with a latitude less than 50°. This ruled out the previously identified large surface ice deposits in the high latitude polar regions of Mars.
The Protonilus-Deuteronilus Mensae region on Mars is located in the northern mid-latitudes of Mars (~8°E and 60°E 38N and 50°N).
This region is host to numerous land forms which appear to contain large buried ice deposits, hundreds of meters thick and several kilometers wide.
If the ice is preserved as we believe, these features would represent a significant resource easily capable of satisfying the requirements for a human base. It is for this reason that three exploration zones have been proposed in the region.
At the low pressures in the Martian atmosphere, and the temperatures in equatorial regions, ice can “sublime” directly from the solid to gas state (evaporation being the transition from water to gas). The features we are observing protect ice under a layer of debris.
Because of this, it is not possible to evaluate directly the quantity of ice present. Instead we must rely on data collected by orbital spacecraft to work out the geological properties and potential water resources available.
If we were able to make measurements on the planet itself (as we can usually do on Earth), things would be much clearer. However, there have been no landed rover missions to this region of Mars, so we are reliant on remotely sensed data.
There is still a lot to be learned from data collected by satellites orbiting Mars. These give us high resolution imagery of the surface, along with insight into the geological properties of these features.
We can make informed assessments about how much water there is, and where it is distributed, as well as about what lies over it (which will have to either be drilled through or excavated to reach the water). These interpretations can be used to guide future exploration activities, and assist equipment design and mine planning operations.
Rover missions could provide more certainty, but planning such a mission will not occur until after site selection, and insight into the feasibility of mining ice deposits on Mars to support human missions to the Red Planet.
Other Mining in Space
It’s not only Mars which is being investigated as a potential source of water in space. The Moon with its supply of polar water ice is being considered as a potential resource to supply proposed lunar bases or propellant for Mars missions. The Lunar Resource Prospector mission set to launch in the early 2020s will help us better understand the resource potential of the Moon.
Asteroid mining companies such as Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources are looking to exploit water stored in near Earth asteroids and are working towards exploratory missions in the near future.
There are a large number of technical issues that must be navigated before such an ambitious mining enterprise is considered low-risk enough to be feasible. These are challenging, but not insurmountable. A significant international effort is afoot to solve the problems with several companies, the major space agencies, and the government of Luxembourg committed to the task.
Representatives from these stakeholder groups will be in Australia to discuss these issues at the Off-Earth Mining Forum held in Sydney, September 20-21, 2017.
As humans have ventured further from our home planet, we have sought other living organisms, proof that we’re not alone. We, of course, haven’t found any yet. But a growing amount of data has given us a better sense of where in the solar system we should look more carefully.
“There are at least seven other places in our own solar system, so kind of next door places you could get to with a rocket, that could have microbial life,” Shostak told Futurism. He also thinks that we’ll possibly spot these alien microbial life “sooner” than we could find intelligent extraterrestrial life.
Can you guess what these seven places are?
The Red Planet and Jupiter’s Moons
Mars is an obvious one, Shostak said. It’s possible that lower life forms are hidden under the dirt of the Red Planet, 30 meters (100 feet) or so below the surface where some liquid water might exist. Aside from Mars, three of Jupiter’s moons are candidates.
One is Europa, which has subsurface oceans capable of hosting microbial life. These would survive off of hot spots at the bottom, which are like “little mini volcanoes and that would give you energy for life,” said Shostak. The others are, presumably, Ganymede — the largest moon in the whole solar system and is home to a body of water similar to the Earth’s oceans, but buried under a thick crust of ice — and Callisto, which has an ocean and an atmosphere.
Saturn’s Moons and Our Favorite Non-Planet
Then, there are two moons around Saturn — thanks, Cassini! — that could potentially harbor some form of life. One is Titan, which has liquid lakes made of natural gas.
Enceladus presents even more favorable conditions, Shostak told Futurism. It might be easier to find microbial life there because “it’s shooting geysers into space. So you don’t have to land. You don’t have to drill,” he explained. “You just go grab some of those geyser gunk and bring it back to Earth and maybe you’ll find aliens.”
Lastly, there’s Pluto. “Under the surface of Pluto there could be pockets of liquid water,” Shostak said. “Any place [where] you have liquid water — liquid of any kind — maybe have microbes.” He did make a clarification, though: “I’m not saying there are Plutonians.”
These seven have the right organic processes that could serve as food or a source of energy as well as some form of liquid — and not necessarily just water — to sustain microbial life. “You have something that gives you food, fundamentally, and the opportunity to create life, which after all is just organic chemistry.”
Asked about when we’ll find intelligent alien life, Shostak said he believes it’s going to be within the next two decades. “There’s a lot of real estate out there, right? There are a trillion planets in the Milky Way. We can see a trillion other galaxies, each with a trillion planets. If they’re not out there, then all these people behind us are really special.”
One of the changes we’re expecting is about the rockets, specifically in terms of size. In July, Musk said that SpaceX has designed the rockets for Mars to be smaller than initially planned, to cut down on costs. Right now, we know that these would fit in SpaceX’s existing factories, and would be capable of both Earth orbital missions as well as traveling to Mars.
“Maybe we can pay for it by using it for Earth orbit activity. That’s one of the key elements of the new architecture,” Musk said in a July interview. Cutting down costs is necessary, especially since Musk has put a cap on how much a ticket to Mars should be, at around $200,000.
A 9m diameter vehicle fits in our existing factories …
The surface of Mercury is typically thought to be too hot for ice to form, but studies over the years have suggested ice can be found on the planet closest to the Sun. Now, a new study carried out by a group of researchers from Brown University pushes the speculation further, claiming Mercury may be far icier than we originally thought.
The idea that Mercury may contain ice first began in 1990 when radar telescopes discovered highly reflective regions inside several craters near the planet’s poles. Since Mercury has very little tilt, these craters receive little-to-no sunlight, resulting in dark, shadowy spots with low temperatures capable of forming ice.
Ariel Deutsch, the study’s lead author and Brown Ph.D candidate, worked with Gregory Neumann from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center to take a fresh look at data gathered by the NASA MESSENGER probe when it orbited Mercury from 2011 to 2015. The probe was equipped with tools enabling it to map elevation which the team realized it could also be used to detect reflective areas.
After calibrating the device, it detected new readings suggesting the existence of three large craters with sizable ice deposits. Combined, the craters are about 3,400 square kilometers (1,312 square miles) in size — slightly larger than the state of Rhode Island. Alongside the three large craters, four smaller ice deposits were also found, each with diameters of less than about 5 kilometers (3 miles).
“The assumption has been that surface ice on Mercury exists predominantly in large craters, but we show evidence for these smaller-scale deposits as well,” said Deutsch. “Adding these small-scale deposits to the large deposits within craters adds significantly to the surface ice inventory on Mercury.”
More to Find
The discovery of the smaller ice deposits could change the way we look for ice and water in the rest of our solar system. Jim Head, co-author of the research, explains the work “opens our eyes to new places to look for evidence of water, and suggests there’s a whole lot more of it on Mercury than we thought.”
Similar deposits are believed to be on the Moon, which could be the next place we look. If true, it could double the amount of ice speculated to be on our lunar neighbor.
That said, it’s still unclear how ice found its way to Mercury. Current theories speculate water was brought to the planet via comet and asteroid impacts, or perhaps that solar wind introduced hydrogen to the surface, which later mixed with oxygen to form water.
NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is currently on approach to Earth, having spent the last year circling the sun. It’s set to fly by on Friday (September 21) at 19,000 miles per hour, keeping a distance of around 11,000 miles.
This close encounter is intended to make a modification of about six degrees to its current trajectory, putting it on course to reach its destination: an asteroid dubbed Bennu. “We’re essentially stealing a bit of the earth’s momentum as we go by,” the leader of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx navigation team, Michael Moreau, told the New York Times.
That’s no exaggeration. The Earth’s tilt will change very slightly as a result, but by such a small amount that it’s not even worth calculating.
OSIRIS-REx is heading to Bennu to gather samples researchers hope will further our understanding of the origins of life in this galaxy. The asteroid is thought to be packed with carbon-rich molecules that were formed when the solar system was born some 4.5 billion years ago.
The mission should also give us some useful insight into the asteroid’s physical and chemical properties — which could come in handy, given that there’s a 1 in 2,700 chance that it will collide with the Earth between 2175 and 2196.
China’s first private rocket company has unveiled the design for a reusable space launch system, that works in a similar manner to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster. Link Space’s New Line 1 — otherwise known as Xin Gan Xian 1 — is a small launch vehicle that’s tailored for use in microsatellite and nanosatellite launches.
The two-stage liquid rocket will measure 66 feet in length, have a diameter of 5.9 feet, and will have a mass of 33 metric tons pre-launch. Its takeoff thrust of 400 kN will allow it to send around 440 pounds of equipment into a sun-synchronous orbit of between 155 and 342 miles.
Only the first stage of the New Line 1 rocket is reusable. However, Link Space has high hopes that a future iteration of the technology will also have a reusable second stage, making it even more desirable for commercial space programs.
It costs a huge amount of money to send things into space. However, reusable rockets like the New Line 1 can mitigate the costs substantially.
A brand new New Line 1 rocket costs $4.5 million to launch. However, reusing the first stage of the rocket drops the cost to just $2.25 million for subsequent launches. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 offers a cost reduction of around 30 percent when its first stage rocket is reused — although it’s capable of lifting much heavier payloads, so the actual price tag is far higher.
SpaceX is very cool and Falcon 9 is extremely great, we take SpaceX as our goal and guider, because there are too many advantages for us to learn,” said Link Space founder and CEO Hu Zhenyu in an interview with AstroWatch.
“The Mars exploration program is well underway,” Zhang Rongqiao, chief architect of China’s Mars mission, said on Wednesday while speaking at the Beijing International Forum on Lunar and Deep-Space Exploration, according to state news agency Xinhua.
China plans to send an unmanned probe comprising three parts — an orbiter, a lander, and a rover — to Mars by 2020. The probe will carry 13 payloads, seven of which will be on the orbiter and the remaining six on the rover. “The payloads will be used to collect data on the environment, morphology, surface structure, and atmosphere of Mars,” explained Rongqiao.
After a seven-month journey to the Red Planet, the orbiter will launch the lander towards Mars’ northern hemisphere, where it will explore the surface. Its tasks will include testing equipment for sample retrieval missions, which are scheduled between 2025 and 2030.
“Chinese scientists are doing preliminary research now to anticipate the data that will be collected from Mars, so we can publish our reports faster,” Zhang said, as reported by China News.
China’s mission to Mars is part of their space agency’s goal of becoming a frontrunner in space exploration by 2030. Aside from Mars, they also plan on sending unmanned probes to Jupiter in 2036 and to Uranus in 2046.
Mars. So Hot Right Now.
Seemingly everyone wants to go Mars right now — it’s currently the hottest item in space exploration.
This interest is understandable, as most experts see Mars as a potential jumping off point in humanity’s attempts to colonize space, but actually bringing these plans to fruition will be no easy task.
While today’s advances in rocket technology will certainly help, colonizing Mars won’t be as simple as sending unmanned missions and probes and rovers to the Red Planet. We need to send people, and doing that may well end up being a collective endeavor. It’s not difficult to imagine SpaceX and NASA teaming up, although both have their own plans for getting to Mars. Russia supposedly has plans to work with the U.S. on a joint Mars project, too.
After a relatively long news hiatus, the impossible EM (Electromagnetic) Drive is making a comeback. Researchers from China’s space agency have released a video through state media earlier this month showing a supposedly-functional EM Drive. Have the Chinese finally made the impossible happen? Let’s not be quick to jump to conclusions here, though — at least not as fast as China did.
Last September, some of the world’s leading asteroid scientists and asteroid mining entrepreneurs were brought together for the Asteroid Science Intersections with In-Space Mine Engineering (ASIME) conference. Now, a paper has been published detailing the results of the event’s discussions about the best practices for mining asteroids.
Asteroids contain resources that can be used as propellant, building materials, and to keep life-support systems running. One potential application of asteroid mining is that space missions could mine these materials to secure new supplies without having to return to Earth.
However, this field is still in its infancy. A conference like ASIME is intended to push progress forward, highlighting gaps in what we currently know as well as compiling knowledge from the best minds working in this space.
“Asteroid mining is this incredible intersection of science, engineering, entrepreneurship and imagination,” co-author Dr. JL Galache of Aten Engineering commented in a press release. “The problem is, it’s also a classic example of a relatively young scientific field in that the more we find out about asteroids through missions like Hayabusa and Rosetta, the more we realise that we don’t know.”
One priority is mapping known near-Earth asteroids that have an orbit similar to our planet, so that miners have a better idea of the location of their potential targets. The paper suggests that better access to relatively large telescopes is necessary for this to be possible.
We also need to know more about the relationship between asteroids and meteorites, so that there is a better understanding of which resources might be found in which asteroids.
An end goal of asteroid mining research is to allow the whole process to play out in space, including the application of the resources that are harvested. However, before that’s a reality, those materials will most likely be brought back down to Earth.
It’s thought that there could be billions or even trillions of dollars worth of metals like platinum, nickel, and gold floating around in space, locked away in asteroids. Various companies have already gotten wind of the potential profits, and as such, the likes of Planetary Resources and Deep Space Ventures are actively pursuing the possibility.
While work is being done to figure out how best to access these resources, there are still questions to be asked about who has the legal right to mine materials from asteroids. While the US has introduced legislation that states mining asteroids is fair game, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty — which was signed by the US and 124 other nations — says otherwise.
As the practice of asteroid mining becomes more viable, the legal side of the matter is sure to be revisited.
A new revolutionary telescope is in the works that would lessen the cost of studying exoplanets, but it needs more funding to come to fruition.
Enter the ExoLife Finder (ELF) telescope from The PLANETS Foundation, which will be capable of viewing exoplanets 24 light years (120 trillion miles) away from Earth, detecting the energy signatures of life, and imaging oceans and continents. So far we’ve only been able to estimate the likelihood of oceans and continents’ presence, which is still hypothetical. This easily goes far beyond the aspirations of any other exoplanet-hunting telescope yet in service, and could thus move our search for life out there a few terms further in the Drake Equation.
ELF isn’t the first telescope The PLANETS Foundation has worked on. There’s the Colossus telescope — set to be the world’s largest optical and infrared telescope designed to detect extrasolar and extraterrestrial life; then there’s the PLANETS telescope — a telescope designed to study faint environments such as the atmosphere of bright exoplanets, bio-signatures on potentially habitable exoplanets, and exo-atmospheres of planets in our solar system.
The ExoLife Finder telescope has 19 days remaining before its fundraising campaign ends. Should it meet its goal, it will be built in the Atacama Desert in Chile alongside the Colossus. The PLANETS telescope, meanwhile, will be built atop the Haleakala volcano in Maui, Hawaii.
SpaceX has now completed a dozen successful missions to resupply the International Space Station (ISS). The twelfth Dragon capsule was recovered after a successful splash landing in the Pacific Ocean yesterday after a month-long stay at the space station.
The capsule brought an experimental supercomputer up to the station to test its performance in the harsh conditions of space. Also on board of the capsule was 2,900 kg (6,400 lbs) of food (including ice cream), Parkinson’s disease research materials, and other supplies to support the continuation of experiments.
The ISS astronauts didn’t send the Dragon back to Earth empty. The capsule hit the water filled with “science samples from human and animal research, biology and biotechnology studies, physical science investigations, and education activities,” according to a statement from NASA officials.
This was the last first-time launch of a Dragon capsule. SpaceX will, going forward, focus on using only refurbished capsules. The company launched and landed its first reused Dragon a few months ago in June, although the costs at that time did not save SpaceX any money. The organization is, however, hoping that further development will allow the reuse of rockets to be faster, more efficient, and progressively cost-effective.
The island, Big Island, on which the simulation is taking place is relatively remote and secluded. But to truly create the experience of isolation — which could be comparable to an astronauts’ aboard a long journey or on a Martian base — the simulation was complete with a 20-minute communication delay with the outside world; approximately the amount of delay between Mars and Earth. At the center of the experiment was a 1,200 square-foot (111-square meter) dome in which the subjects lived.
Two women and four men were aboard the mission, all of whom wore mood-gauging sensors to assist with the monitoring of their well-being. The crew has been eager to leave, however, as Brian Ramos — the Health and Performance Officer aboard HI-SEAS V — stated in the video below, “The most challenging part of the mission right now has been the end of the mission.”
From This Distant VantagePoint
This grueling mission has served a critical purpose in the progressive journey to Mars — a mission NASA aims to achieve with humans as soon as the 2030s. The expedition would be expected to take a minimum of 2-3 years. Within that extended period of time, a small crew would be in close quarters all day every day, with limited communication to those back home on Earth. Understanding how such extreme circumstances might affect the mental health of an astronaut is necessary to help the space agency choose a crew specifically capable of handling such a task.
Astronauts will not only have to be academically accomplished, in extremely good physical shape, and expert problem solvers — they will additionally have to be mentally suited for the challenge of long-term isolation to, and on, an alien planet.
According to phys.org, the team’s “first order of business after subsisting on mostly freeze-dried and canned food: Feast on fresh-picked pineapple, papaya, mango, locally grown vegetables and a fluffy, homemade egg strata cooked by their project’s lead scientist.”
With that in mind, perhaps NASA may learn (after analyzing eight months of data) that the essential element for keeping tensions at bay and the ill-effects of isolation quelled is simple: better food. But whatever is found as a result of this long experiment, it is certain that such studies are not only important but essential in ensuring the safety and mental well-being of future astronauts (and future research subjects).
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft mission has ended. After 13 years of exploration, one-of-a-kind snapshots of Saturn and its surroundings, and a giant amount of invaluable data collected, Cassini has dived into Saturn’s atmosphere and disintegrated in a flaming, meteor-like ball.
When it first launched in 1997, its primary mission was to enter Saturn’s orbit after seven years of travel from Earth and collect data with its 12 instruments. It also transported the European Huygens probe — an advanced shellfish-shaped probe that was sent to Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, to collect data. Cassini was the fourth spacecraft sent to Saturn, but was the first to successfully enter orbit.
But now, after a handful of planet flybys including Venus and Jupiter, 13 years worth of scientific data, and some astounding images, Cassini’s journey has come to an end. To celebrate this grand finale, let’s raise a glass and have a look at some of the most breathtaking views of one of our Solar System’s large, distant neighbors.
The Colors of Saturn’s Rings
This image shows the most accurate look at the true colors of Saturn’s rings. This particular portion is part of the inner-central B Ring (the largest and brightest one) and is about 100,000 km (6,2137 miles) away from Saturn’s center. (Note: the image was colorized using spectral imaging data)
These ripples, known as “Janus 2:1 spiral density waves,” make up the shape of Saturn’s outer rings and are thought to be a result of pileups of mass. “This spiral density wave sets itself up at the place where ring particles are going around Saturn exactly six times every time the moon Janus goes around five times,” Matthew Tiscareno, a Cassini team member, tells Scientific American.
The Top of Saturn
These spiraling clouds form the top pole of Saturn. This image was taken on April 26, 2017, when the region was exposed to sunlight after many (Earth) years of darkness from 267,000 km (166,000 miles) away.
Cassini was also able to turn itself around and get a peak of Saturn’s moon, Titan. The yellow-bluish haze around it is a result of differently sized particles affecting the red, green, and blue spectral filters of Cassini’s cameras. This image was taken from approximately 2 million kilometers (1.2 million miles) from Titan.
One of Saturn’s moons, Prometheus, can be seen near Saturn’s thinnest, outer F ring. It is only 86 kilometers (53 miles) across, and its weak gravitational field creates small knots and scars in the F ring.
METI, an offshoot of SETI comprising those who wish to actively seek out alien life instead of waiting, has been met with substantial opposition to its plans since it was formed. Few are against the idea that alien life exists in our universe, but a significant number have wondered if humanity should be the ones letting other species know we’re here. The concern is that such new life wouldn’t be friendly to us or very understanding, and the interactions could eventually lead to our subjugation or extinction.
Douglas Vakoch, president of METI, isn’t worried about these worst-case scenarios. Speaking with CNET, Vakoch argues that our negative expectations of aliens are not to be taken at face value; just because violence is the first thing we think of, it doesn’t inherently mean it will become reality.
“One of the reasons people are so afraid of METI is that it seems riskier to do something than to do nothing,” he said in the interview. “When we try to evaluate the risks and benefits of an unknown situation where we have little or no actual data, we fall back on the most vivid images that come to mind.”
Speaking Through Math and Physics
We have come up with ways to communicate with a species hundreds of light-years away that doesn’t speak our language, but there are many challenges to this feat. Aside from the time it would take for a message to travel, there’s the issue that comes with trying to craft a message that, by sight, can be identified as harmless but still be valuable.
Vakoch believes that past messages have tried to cover too many things at once. METI’s messages, however, will focus on math and physics — something SETI agrees with, since math and physics could be the only two things we have in common with any alien life.
It takes a while for things to travel through space, though, so regardless of when new messages are sent, we’re still in for a bit of a wait. People have proposed that alien contact will occur anywhere from within a few years to thousands of years from now. But as long as people hold onto the will to keep trying, Vakoch thinks that perseverance in itself will benefit humanity.
“Many of our most severe problems on Earth today are due to a focus on immediate gratification,” Vakoch said to CNET. “If future generations of SETI researchers are looking for replies to today’s transmissions, committed to a multigenerational scientific project, the very act of continuing to look will be a success in itself, whether or not they ever find life out there.”
NASA’s Cassini Satellite will be put out of commission on Sept. 15th and plunged onto Saturn’s surface to send us data about the planet’s atmosphere. The satellite was launched in 1997 and has been sending us observations about Saturn’s moon.
Mars has garnered a lot of attention from companies like SpaceX that wish to put people on the red planet in the hopes of colonizing it. Expeditions to Mars have been delayed, but many — such as former astronaut Buzz Aldrin — still believe we’ll settle on the planet within the next two decades.
In order to ensure we’re able to sustain life on Mars, however, we’ll need supplies. From water to precious metals like platinum, we’ll need these to prosper in whatever task we take on. Asteroid mining companies have begun to realize that. According to Motherboard, these companies are currently engaged in a race to see who can accomplish the task of mining asteroids first — with Deep Space Industries (DSI) and Planetary Resources leading the charge.
“During the next decade, we will begin the harvest of space resources from asteroids,” said Deep Space CEO Daniel Faber. “We are changing the paradigm of business operations in space, from one where our customers carry everything with them, to one in which the supplies they need are waiting for them when they get there.”
Mining nearby asteroids isn’t just beneficial to those living in space, but those of us here on Earth as well. Mining for metals has severely impacted the amount of them left at our disposal, and shifting to deep sea diving isn’t great for the environment. Asteroids could be exactly what’s needed to offset the damage done to the ocean floor and our remaining resources.
Of course, these mining missions won’t take place in the immediate future, as funding is still impeding the process. It was only relatively recently that laws were put into place to support the cause: President Obama signed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act back in 2015, which received praise from Planetary Resources. Elsewhere, the government of Luxembourg just signed a similar law in July.
We’ll have to wait and see if asteroid mining ever happens, but its undeniable that companies are invested in trying to realize it. Settling on other planets has been a goal of ours for quite some time, and in order to make it possible, we’ll need resources. Asteroids, it seems, are just waiting to hand them over.
NASA’s Kepler space telescope — presently on its K2 mission — just made another major discovery, confirming the existence of three additional exoplanets. These new alien worlds orbit a star not so far away called GJ 9827, and all fall into the “super-Earth” category. The discovery was first published on the ArXiv preprint server on September 5.
As we learned in the case of 55 Cancri e, super-Earth doesn’t mean “like Earth, only better.” They’re extrasolar planets whose mass is greater than Earth’s, yet significantly less than our system’s ice giants Neptune and Uranus, which have the masses of 17 and 15 Earths, respectively (note that while Uranus is bigger than Neptune, it is less massive). Since the category only speaks to an exoplanet’s mass, we can’t say anything about these exoplanets’ surface conditions. They’re big, but may or may not be suitable to life.
To Seek Out New Worlds
The three exoplanets’ host star, GJ 9827, is 30.3 parsecs (nearly 100 light-years) away, which makes them the closest planets yet discovered by K2. Their radii, or distances from their sun, at 1.75, 1.36, and 2.1 times that of Earth, puts them on the interior and exterior limits of the distance that can sustain rocky planets. This makes them excellent candidates for atmospheric observation once space telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope are up and running.
There’s still much to be learned about how rocky, Earth-like exoplanets evolve at different distances from their host star. These planets’ orbits span the internal and external limits of the region around a star where rocky planets form; beyond that span (roughly 1.5-times the distance between the Earth and the Sun), planets become giants. As such, these super-Earths present an excellent opportunity for us to learn the factors which cause a formerly rocky planet to grow into a gas giant, denying its future as a potentially-hospitable exoplanet.
It’s important to remember that more well-known planets, like those in the TRAPPIST-1 system, and Proxima b, are only the most popular exoplanets because of their proximity to Earth, or most Earth-like orbits and mass(es), as far as we can tell. But in order to advance our search for life beyond the solar system, we can’t count a single new exoplanet out.
After almost 20 years, 7.9 billion kilometers, and more than 453,000 images, Cassini has ended its mission. Today marks the culmination of Cassini’s “grand finale,” which began in April. On Friday morning, NASA confirmed that the robotic spacecraft had sent its final signal, sent as it descended into Saturn’s atmosphere.
Cassini, a joint endeavor from NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency, was launched in 1997 with the goal of better understanding Saturn, its planets, and its moons. Its hundreds of flybys of those moons, and orbits of the planet itself, have given scientists insights into worlds that had previously been shrouded in mystery, altering their understanding of our solar system.
Cassini’s fateful descent wasn’t pre-ordained at the time of its launch. As the spacecraft ran low on rocket fuel, the team had to make a decision. The team evaluated several options for the end of the spacecraft’s mission, according to NASA’s web site. Cassini could have returned to Jupiter or moved on to Uranus, stayed in a more stable (but less scientifically interesting) orbit, or even learned more about moons like Enceladus or Titan, says Roger N. Clark, a senior scientist with the Planetary Science Institute who has worked on the Cassini team, in an interview with Futurism.
But its current route, mortal as it may be, was too tempting. “The chosen tour with the close passes of the rings and then between the rings and planet are retuning unique data that is answering many questions,” Clark says. During its swan dive, Cassini will take measurements of the gravity and mass of Saturn’s legendary rings, along with directly sampling the material that makes up the rings, that are only possible with this trajectory, Clark noted.
Spacecraft navigators predict the trajectory with astounding precision. They have known for days that Cassini was on track to collide with a large ring particle, destabilizing its orbit and send it crashing towards the surface. In the end, Cassini will have burned up in Saturn’s atmosphere, as a meteor would; any parts that don’t burn up will plummet into the planet’s center, where they will melt without damaging the planet.
The Finale, But Not The End
The information Cassini gathered has enabled scientists to make discoveries that have warranted the publication of nearly 4,000 scientific papers. It captured active geysers on Enceladus, one of Saturn’s 62 moons. It revealed new details on Titan, another of Saturn’s moons with some of the most Earth-like features discovered in our solar system (complete with liquid seas and a weather system) that may now be a candidate for future exploration.
It has even gathered information that is shaping another NASA mission, to Jupiter’s moon Europa. Perhaps most importantly, it illuminated processes and forces that shaped the early days of the solar system—forces that have made our planet what it is. It’s given us new candidates for where life might exist, and what it might look like if we find it.
In short, Cassini not only fulfilled its mission, it exceeded expectations. “Not only did Cassini provide the data to answer questions at the start of the mission, the data led to new questions and the extended mission phases answered many of those questions, and posed yet more,” Clark says. “As we continue to analyze the flood of data we have in hand, more questions will undoubtedly be posed and answered.” Much of the data still hasn’t been analyzed in detail, he says, which means that scientists will be looking at the information for decades to come.
Discoveries made from Cassini’s observations have opened up the possibility of several more missions. NASA already has plans to send a spacecraft to Europa, and is determining how best to explore the hydrocarbon seas of Titan. They may create a probe to explore Saturn’s atmosphere in greater depth, or even that of more distant Uranus.
Clark says he will be working on the Europa mission, plus another project called TREX to create software so that robotic spacecraft can autonomously search for materials of interest, such as water or even life itself. His team, which processes data from the Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer, recently fixed a bug with the machine’s calibration, giving the researchers better-quality data than they ever thought possible. But funding for Cassini’s science teams will end in 2018, and they might not get to finish making sense of it all.
“I have been working on Cassini for almost 30 years, so it has been a major part of my career, and certainly a highlight,” he says. And though he’s excited about the quality of the data now, and the next projects to come, there’s a sadness there. “It is like the death of a close friend.”
Clark isn’t the only one who is feeling the bittersweetness of the project’s end. “Cassini’s Grand Finale has been fantastic, both scientifically and technically,” a Cassini spokesperson tells Futurism. “The mood of the team heading toward end of mission is a mix of joy and satisfaction, given the mission’s enormous success, tinged with sadness at the impending loss of their stalwart spacecraft. We’ve had a long time to prepare, but it’s never easy to say good bye.”
Since the beginning, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has stressed the importance of making the company’s rockets reusable. After years of working to perfect the technology, SpaceX was finally able to reuse their Falcon 9 orbital rocket booster during a March 2017 launch. Then, they launched a couple of previously used boosters during a special weekend double-header a few months later.
Rocket reusability has now become SpaceX’s specialty, at least for their Falcon 9’s boost stage. While that’s already an achievement worth celebrating, Musk has predicted that full reusability will be the key to making SpaceX rocket launches less costly.
In a tweet sent during the wee hours of the morning today, Musk reiterated his assertion that making the Falcon 9’s upper stage (or second-stage) and fairing reusable would make launches 100 times cheaper.
Long road to reusabity of Falcon 9 primary boost stage…When upper stage & fairing also reusable, costs will drop by a factor >100. pic.twitter.com/WyTAQ3T9EP
The tweet was accompanied by a blooper reel of sorts showing SpaceX’s bumpy road to perfecting primary stage reusability for the Falcon 9.
SpaceX has been working on making their fairings — the cones that protect a rocket’s payload — reusable, and that begins by successfully landing and recovering the used cones. To that end, they’ve been testing the use of thrusters and steerable parachutes to keep the fairings intact from atmospheric re-entry until splash down. Musk has promised to get that sorted out before the end of this year.
All of this trial and error requires a significant investment of time and money, but once SpaceX achieves full rocket reusability, the technology will usher in an era of truly democratized space exploration. As Musk said back in 2015, a fully reusable rocket “really is the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionize access to space.” Lowered costs for launching space probes would no doubt bolster our continued efforts to explore deep space.
Full rocket reusability is an essential part of SpaceX’s plans for Mars, too. As Vector Space Systems founder and CEO Jim Cantrell explained in a Quora post back in July, “Reusability is a great brand image generator, but, more importantly, it enables SpaceX to double their flight rate and make more money, all the while preparing for Mars landings with the reusability technology.”
When Cassini completes its mission and dives into Saturn on September 15, it will be exactly a month short of its 20th anniversary in space. You can watch it make its death dive on this site as it happens. NASA will begin live video coverage on Friday starting at 7 a.m. EDT.
Astronomers have long understood that there is a link between a star’s magnetic activity and the amount of X-rays it emits. When stars are young, they are magnetically active, due to the fact that they undergo rapid rotation. But over time, the stars lose rotational energy and their magnetic fields weaken. Concurrently, their associated X-ray emissions also begin to drop.
Interestingly, this relationship between a star’s magnetic activity and X-ray emissions could be a means for finding potentially-habitable star systems. Hence why an international team led by researchers from Queen’s University Belfast conducted a study where they cataloged the X-ray activity of 24 Sun-like stars. In so doing, they were able to determine just how hospitable these star systems could be to life.
To understand how stellar magnetic activity (and hence, X-ray activity) changes over time, astronomers require accurate age assessments for many different stars. This has been difficult in the past, but thanks to mission like NASA’s Kepler Space Observatory and the ESA’s Convection, Rotation and planetary Transits (CoRoT) mission, new and precise age estimates have become available in recent years.
Longevity and Luminosity
Using these age estimates, Booth and her colleagues relied on data from the Chandra X-ray observatory and the XMM-Newton obervatory to examine 24 nearby stars. These stars were all similar in mass to our Sun (a main sequence G-type yellow dwarf star) and at least 1 billion years of age. From this, they determined that there was a clear link between the star’s age and their X-ray emissions. As they state in their study:
“We find 14 stars with detectable X-ray luminosities and use these to calibrate the age-activity relationship. We find a relationship between stellar X-ray luminosity, normalized by stellar surface area, and age that is steeper than the relationships found for younger stars…”
In short, of the 24 stars in their sample, the team found that 14 had X-ray emissions that were discernible. From these, they were able to calculate the star’s ages and determine that there was a relationship between their longevity and luminosity. Ultimately, this demonstrated that stars like our Sun are likely to emit less high-energy radiation as they exceed 1 billion years in age.
And while the reason for this is not entirely clear, astronomers are currently exploring various possible causes. One possibility is that for older stars, the reduction in spin rate happens more quickly than it does for younger stars. Another possibility is that the X-ray brightness declines more quickly for older, more slowly-rotating stars than it does for younger, faster ones.
Regardless of the cause, the relationship between a star’s age and its X-ray emissions could provide astronomers and exoplanet hunters with another tool for gauging the possible habitability of a system. Wherever a G-type or K-type star is to be found, knowing the age of the star could help place constraints on the potential habitability of any planets that orbit it.
When Cassini completes its grand finale on September 15, it would be exactly a month short of its 20th anniversary in space. Launched on October 15, 1997 by NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Italian Space Agency, Cassini spent 7 years traveling towards its mission objective — the ringed-planet Saturn’s orbit — which it reached in 2004.
Dubbed as its Grand Finale, Cassini’s six-month long final mission was to observe as much as it could about Saturn’s rings and atmosphere as it plunges at tens of thousands of kilometers per hour into the planet.
Cassini made several contributions to our understanding of Saturn and its moons. Its earliest discoveries came with the Hyugens probe landing on Titan in 2005 — the first-ever landing on a moon of Saturn. The findings of the Hyugens probe, and the images taken by Cassini later on, showed just how Earth-like Titan is. For one, its atmosphere has prebiotic compounds — i.e., hydrocarbons like benzene and methane. The moon also has water in the form of seas, rivers, lakes, and rain.
Speaking of Saturn’s moons, Cassini also discovered icy plumes on Enceladus, which remain active. The presence of water on both the Titan and Enceladus have established the moons as prime candidates for potentially habitable worlds in the solar system.
Cassini also solved the 300-year old mystery of Iapetus, another one of Saturn’s moons. Astronomers were baffled by the two-faced surface of Iapetus, which the probe found to be caused by the migration of reddish dust on the moon’s orbital path and splattering on its icy surface.
Taken on November 2011. Image credit: NASA-JPL
Aside from the moons, Cassini also made a number of discoveries about Saturn itself. Not only did it take the first images of the vertical structures in Saturn’s rings — which revealed them to be a dynamic system — Cassini also closely studied Saturn’s hexagon. Seen first by the Voyager in the 1980s, Cassini was able to get the first-ever complete view of the planet’s north polar hexagon. It also discovered hurricane-like storms at both of Saturn’s poles, as well as storms that last about 30 Earth-years long. The driving cosmic force behind these movements, however, remains largely a mystery.
There are a number of other discoveries and we’re sure to learn more. Cassini will be traveling around the space between Saturn’s atmosphere and the inner part of its rings in an elliptical path, completing 22 final orbits by the end of this week. Space probes like Cassini have been vital in understanding our immediate galactic neighborhood. Among other things, missions such as these help us find potentially habitable environments in the solar system, which is now more crucial than ever as we consider what it would mean to be multi-planetary species.
According to a NASA statement late last month, in addition to the hunt for life on exoplanets, the imminent launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has us bracing for next-gen imaging of two of our solar system’s major candidates suspected to host life: the frozen moons Europa and Enceladus. With five-layer, tennis-court sized mirrors, the JWST will be 100 times stronger than its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope.
Europa and Enceladus — one of Jupiter’s and Saturn’s moons, respectively — may house subsurface oceans of liquid water below their seemingly barren surfaces. Both moons have been observed shooting massive plumes of liquid out of criss-crossing chasms between shifting ice-masses. These liquid ejections may be caused by underground geysers, which could be a source of nutrients and heat to underlying lifeforms, according to scientists.
“We chose these two moons because of their potential to exhibit chemical signatures of astrobiological interest,” said Heidi Hammel, executive vice president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), in a statement.
Colloquially known as “Webb,” the JWST will collect infrared light, which provides evidence of heat-generating objects too cool to emit visible light (e.g., humans, and other mammals, hence the use of night-vision technology). Astrobiologists hope Webb will identify areas on and below the surfaces of these moons where possibly life-supporting chemicals erupt.
Webb’s contribution to our understanding of the icy moons will precede the Europa Clipper mission, a $2 billion orbital flight to the Europa slated for a launch sometime in the 2020s. That mission is set to seek out new life on the icy moon, so the more we learn beforehand with Webb, the more areas of interest we’ll already have identified for Europa Clipper to investigate.
The successor to Hubble will also check out Proxima b, the tidally-locked exoplanet suspected to be hospitable to life (at least around its solar terminus). It will also tell us which (if any) planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system have oxygen-rich atmospheres.
50 Canadian scientists from various universities and research centers have come together to create the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment, or CHIME for short. CHIME is a radio telescope designed to help scientists learn more about the three frontiers of modern astronomy: the history of the universe, radio bursts from pulsars, and the detection of gravitational waves.
As explained by the University of British Columbia (UBC), CHIME is comprised of four 100 meter long U-shaped cylinders resembling half-pipes; it’s so large, it leaves a similar footprint to that of five NHL hockey rinks. The construction of the equipment was only completed in early September, when the Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science, installed the final component.
“The new telescope will be a destination for astronomers from around the world who will work with their Canadian counterparts to answer some of the most profound questions about space,” Duncan said.
When in operation, CHIME collects radio waves akin to those of cell phones, most of which come from our own Milky Way galaxy. A small number of other signals, however, originated between 6 and 11 billion years ago. As such, they can be extremely weak, and detecting them requires a level of sensitivity not usually needed to pick up on other signals.
Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity
UBC professor Mark Halpern explains that CHIME is expected to shed some light on a number of mysteries about our universe, such as how it began and what we might expect to find there in the future.
“With the CHIME telescope, we will measure the expansion history of the universe and we expect to further our understanding of the mysterious dark energy that drives that expansion ever faster,” he said. “This is a fundamental part of physics that we don’t understand and it’s a deep mystery.”
CHIME’s potential doesn’t stop there: it could also get us closer to confirming the final aspect of Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which posits that gravity is the outcome of massive objects like black holes warping space-time around them, and gravitational waves are ripples within it.
In 2016, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detected gravitational waves for the first time. While it was initially believed to support Einstein’s theory, there was additional information that could contradict it as well — information that could mean Einstein was wrong.
In August 2017, however, scientists applied new analytical techniques to data gathered by various telescopes over the last two decades. The results of this new round of analysis on stars orbiting a supermassive black hole supported Einstein.
Einstein’s theory of general relativity was ignored for almost three decades, lasting into the 1950s before it picked back up in popularity. The introduction of the CHIME radio telescope may finally lead to undeniable proof about the nature of our universe, and continue to show how influential Einstein’s work was and continues to be. Regardless of what CHIME reveals, it’s certainly an exciting time for astronomers, fans of Einstein, and casual observers of the skies alike.
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.