Category: space

It’s Official: Cassini Just Completed Its Death Dive Into Saturn

Ciao, Cassini

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.

One of the highest-resolution images to date of Saturn's rings, which Cassini captured on September 7, 2017, as part of its "Grand Finale" Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
One of the highest-resolution images to date of Saturn’s rings, which Cassini captured on September 7, 2017, as part of its “Grand Finale” Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

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.

The Seven Wonders of the Solar System
Click to View Full Infographic

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.”

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The Best Way to Make First Contact, According to Science

Proof of Alien Life

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.

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Small, Water-Powered Satellites Could Be the Future of Space Exploration

The Smaller the Better

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.”

Future Missions

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.

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New Study Explains How Some Planets May Never Become Habitable

In the Zone

Earth’s location in space is perfect: not too close to but not too far from the Sun, it gives our planet the balmy temperature that helps supports life. However, a new study suggests that it might be even more difficult than previously expected to find a celestial body that falls within this ‘Goldilocks zone.’

The habitable zone of any given star is the area where planets can maintain a temperature that allows liquid water to be found on its surface. Too close to the star, and that water will turn to vapor — too far away, and it’ll turn to ice.

However, stars like our sun gradually get more luminous over time, which changes the parameters of their habitable zone. This means that icy planets can feasibly reach a point where their conditions are warm enough to support life — but according to a recent study in Nature Geoscience, that’s not always the way the situation will pan out.

Too Hot to Handle

A planet’s ability to support life-sustaining temperatures hinges on at least two factors: the amount of ice on the surface, and the amount of greenhouse gases being released into its atmosphere. Yet many icy planets don’t have the volcanic activity needed to contain any greenhouse gases besides water vapor.

So this study’s team, led by Jun Yang of Peking University, developed a model that could simulate how the climate of an ice-covered planet with only water vapor in the atmosphere would change over time. The results suggested it would take 10 to 40 percent more energy than the Earth receives from the sun before they began to melt.

Without ice to reflect incoming heat, this heat-intensive process was often followed by a speedy uptick in temperature that caused the planet’s oceans to boil off. And without water, these worlds wouldn’t be able to support life after all.

This isn’t necessarily bad news. Thanks to increasingly sharp-eyed instruments, the number of known exoplanets has skyrocketed in the past two decades, from a mere handful in the mid-90s to nearly 2000 today. In February 2014 alone, NASA announced a “planet bonanza” discovery of 715 new planets, found by the Kepler satellite. But identifying which of these distant worlds might be friendly to life is still tricky.

Scientists are able to infer the atmospheric content of a planet based on the way light passes through it, a process that’s already been used to detect water on a distant Earth-sized planet. However, this method doesn’t tell scientists what else is happening on the planet — such as whether it’s in the runaway, ocean-boiling cycle Yang’s team identified.

If we’re on the search for a planet that humans can live on, having this information at hand gives us more insight into which worlds are in contention.

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Could We Use Space to Pay for a Universal Basic Income?

How Do you Pay for Everyone?

Universal basic income is the idea that every citizen should receive an amount of money from the government to meet their needs, regardless of age, race, gender, or even need. It has been billed as a solution to a variety of current and potential societal problems, including AI automation, poverty, and people losing the ability to allocate their own time.

However, the key question is how would it be paid for? Especially when individuals like Robert Greenstein, founder and president of Washington think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, estimates that even a fairly modest amount of $10,000 per person per year would cost upwards of $3 trillion.

Various answers have been put forward. Bill Gates believes we should tax robots in order to provide for the people whose jobs they are taking. Some have proposed developing a more aggressive tax system, such as charging polluters for the damage they cause but are the only ones to gain from. Others, such as Andy Stern, have argued for cutting spending in various sectors like the military and existing anti-poverty programs and using the freed-up cash to fund UBI.

A Spacious Paycheck

A novel idea, though, is using the huge amounts of money tied up in space to fund a program — the argument rests on the tenet that space is the property of all, and therefore should benefit all. The money lies in two main fields: space tourism and space mining.

Space tourism is set to explode as an economy. With the democratization of space occurring at an ever faster rate, it won’t be long before it becomes commercial — that Richard Branson is working on a space airline is a testament to the reality of the idea. Companies will charge handsome fees for the luxury of experiencing zero-gravity and staying in space hotels. So why not channel all of these profits, or at least tax the companies, in order to ensure that an international area benefits everyone?

Universal Basic Income: UBI Pilot Programs Around the World
Click to View Full Infographic

Space mining also has the potential to be a billion — if not trillion — dollar industry. Companies that propose mining space objects like asteroids and planets — which include, to name a couple, Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources — for precious metals like gold and platinum have already won traction among investors. This is probably partly due to an asteroid containing five trillion dollars worth of platinum passing by earth in 2015.

The argument leveled at these industries is similar to that aimed at space tourism  — why should those who can afford to monopolize space be allowed to, and why should they be the only ones to profit from a zone that all of us have an equal claim on? The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 states that “the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind.” Using the profits from space exploration, travel, tourism, and mining to provide financial relief for the world’s citizens would certainly meet that criteria.

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Buzz Aldrin: We Will Have Humans on Mars in the Next 20 Years

The Quest For Another Earth

Humankind is eager to step out into the cosmos and wander across the deserted plains of the Red Planet. According to most reports, Elon Musk is leading the way with SpaceX; however, a number of other orginizations—NASA, China’s Space Agency, The Mars Society—are training, deploying prototypes, and working on the plethora of questions and challenges that we will face when attempting to bring the first human beings to Mars.

But, as much as it might seem natural to get entrenched in the details of how we will actually get humans off of planet Earth (and keep them mentally and physically healthy throughout the duration), it is critical that we remember why we’re going in the first place.

In a recent interview, Buzz Aldrin—the renowned astronaut, engineer, and (of course) the second human to ever step foot on the Moon—explained why exploration and discovery are so important, touching upon why we should (and why we will) have humans on Mars in 20 years…

We’ve now surveyed and scrutinized almost every inch of this planet, but there is so much we have yet to learn.

Aldrin begins by stating that, from both a scientific and technological perspective, we are at the perfect juncture to push the boundaries of exploration. He asserts that, thanks to recent advancements, for the first time in human history, voyaging to other worlds is truly within our reach: “Now is the time to start thinking seriously about what life on Mars might look like. We have never been closer to knowing and exploring another planet.”

When asked just how close we really are to achieving this feat, Aldrin was quick to respond with his timeline, saying that we could “have the first Human Martians at Mars by 2040.”

Aldrin continued by segueing into a discussion of why venturing to other worlds is important, noting that, in many ways, our planet is ancient and familiar and the other bodies in our solar system are, for all intents and purposes, virgin territory: “Space travel and exploration represents the final frontier – we’ve now surveyed and scrutinized almost every inch of this planet, but there is so much we have yet to learn.”

However, Aldrin states that the most notable aspects of this quest are about far more than just acquiring knowledge for the sake of knowledge or conquering new worlds. The journey to Mars will bring with it reignited excitement for science and innovation, creating a generation of young people who have ingrained within them a thirst for understanding and exploration.

Remembering A Race

When Buzz stepped onto the Moon in 1969, countless youth were captivated by the story and went on to pursue careers in STEM fields, hoping to achieve monumental feats of similar proportions.

Indeed, Aldrin is very aware of the impact that action in science has on the youth, stressing that, “we can only get there [to Mars] if we start investing in future generations.” Ultimately, as previously noted, he says that this investment is the key to long-term success: “In 1903, man learned to fly airplanes. Only 66 years later, we walked on the Moon. In order to help the next generation to make giant leaps like these, we must educate, enable and inspire them to be passionate about subjects like science, technology, engineering, art, and math.”

Aldrin notes that he has devoted himself to helping foster such a desire in young people, saying, “That’s the mission of the SpaceShare Foundation, and it’s one I wholeheartedly support.”

Aldrin’s Space Share Foundation is a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to inspiring children’s passions for science and technology by providing educational tools to educators across the country at no cost. The goal of this work is to ensure that all young people are given the resources that they need to live up to their potential. After all, one never knows who the next Carl Sagan could be.

As Former President Barack Obama noted in a speech at the Frontiers Conference, “America is about Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers—but we’re also the place you can grow up to be a Grace Hopper, or George Washington Carver, or a Katherine Johnson, or an Ida B. Wells. We don’t want somebody with a brilliant idea not in the room because they’re a woman. We don’t want some budding genius unavailable to cure cancer or come up with a new energy source because they were languishing in a sub-standard school as a child. Because we’re going to be a better team if we got the whole team.”

Aldrin echoes these ideas, noting that, while reaching Mars in the next 20 years is extremely likely, it will only happen if we ensure that young people are given every opportunity to be the best that they can be: “Sometimes I can’t believe this lucky kid from New Jersey got to land and walk on the Moon…work hard and keep reaching for the stars.”

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An Asteroid Headed Our Way Is About to Test NASA’s Planetary Defense System

2012 TC4

Our Solar System is littered with chunks of space rocks that whizz around in different orbits and varying speeds – and it’s no big deal until one of those rocks turns out to be on a nasty unexpected trajectory and smashes into Earth.

It’s actually a pretty unlikely apocalypse scenario, but even with one in 10,000 odds it’s a good idea to keep an eye out. Now NASA scientists are excited they’ll finally get to test out some of their defence systems with an upcoming asteroid fly-by in October.

Don’t run for the panic room just yet – the inbound asteroid, called 2012 TC4, is estimated to safely pass our planet at a distance of about 6,800 kilometres (4,200 miles). We don’t have a more concrete number because the space rock has been out of telescope range since 2012.

At a width of roughly 10-30 metres (30-100 feet), TC4 is pretty small. So far astronomers have only caught a glimpse of it once – when it hurtled past Earth back in 2012 at a distance much closer than our own Moon.

Back then they only had a window of seven days to make observations and calculate when this asteroid will show up next.

But based on that data, it looks like TC4 will zoom around again on October 12 this year, and researchers are making preparations to not only update their observations of this particular object, but also to test out some of their planetary defense strategies.

“This time we are adding in another layer of effort, using this asteroid flyby to test the worldwide asteroid detection and tracking network, assessing our capability to work together in response to finding a potential real asteroid threat,” says observation campaign lead Michael Kelley from NASA.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

Near-Earth Objects

This is the first time NASA researchers get to use an actual space rock for their planetary defense efforts, which involve astronomers from all over the world.

The Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) was only established last year, with the goal to survey the skies for any near-Earth objects that are big enough and close enough to pose a risk to us.

Just last October the office’s new space monitoring systems gave us a heads-up about an unexpected asteroid flyby, calculating its timing, risk, and potential flight paths.

But this time around researchers can actually plan to coordinate their activities.

“This is a team effort that involves more than a dozen observatories, universities and labs across the globe so we can collectively learn the strengths and limitations of our near-Earth object observation capabilities,” says Vishnu Reddy from the University of Arizona who will coordinate this new exercise.

While we know for sure that TC4 is not going to smash into Earth, there’s so little astronomers know about its orbit that it’s actually a great test subject for strategies that can improve our ability to track and predict near-Earth objects.

“It will be incumbent upon the observatories to get a fix on the asteroid as it approaches, and work together to obtain follow-up observations than make more refined asteroid orbit determinations possible,” explains Paul Chodas from NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies.

Even though so far a space rock apocalypse is relatively unlikely, NASA’s efforts to detect and catalogue as many asteroids as possible is commendable – it only took one stray chunk of space debris to wipe out the dinosaurs, after all.

Unfortunately, even with the coordinated efforts to find these space threats, for now there’s not a lot we can actually do about them. That’s why some experts warn we really should build an intercepting spacecraft before we need it.

You don’t have to lose any sleep over the October 12 flyby, but let’s hope that by the time PDCO has sharpened its skills and does find a real threat, we actually have some space bomb to blow it up with. Or something.

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Reddit Users Ask SETI Founder and Space Legend Anything

Who is Frank Drake?

Frank Drake is a world-renowned astronomer and astrophysicist who is responsible for founding the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI) and inventing the Drake equation, which estimates the likelihood of finding intelligent life in the Universe.

On July 16th, Drake hosted a Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) and gave some interesting responses to the community’s questions, which can roughly be split into questions on Drake’s own works and theories, and more abstract questions concerning space and aliens.

Drake on Drake

Reddit user murikansk asked, “What was the main hope when creating the Golden Record and the Pioneer plaque? That is, was it simply hoping that it would be understood that it is nonrandom data and the location of the origin of the spacecraft deciphered, or did you also believe in the possibility that the extraterrestrial civilization would learn something about our cultures? How much of the plaque, record, and the Arecibo message did you believe would realistically be understood if intercepted?” The question refers to his collaboration with Carl Sagan and NASA, when he helped design the Golden Record, a record on board both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 that contains the sounds of the diversity of life on earth, and the Pioneer Plaques, which were attached to Pioneer 10 and 11 as a universal message about Earth to extraterrestrial life.

Drake responded: “These may be the only records that we ever existed [sic], and this meant a great deal to us in a very deep and emotional way.” Responding to a question from Zaphus, he said he would update them by making “use of the much greater capabilities we now have to send huge amounts of information quickly. I would send 3-dimensional movies, I would send sounds, and in this way much more accurately show what we are like and what we are capable of.”

Drake also gave an answer to a question concerning his own Drake Equation — a formula that attempts to show the likelihood of finding intelligent life in the Universe.

Senno_Ecto_Gammat asked, “Do you think we will nail down good values for the variables in the Drake equation before we make contact with intelligent extraterrestrial civilizations, or will we only get good values for those variables after we make contact?”

Drake answered, “We’ll get good numbers for the variables except for f (sub i), and L.” These necessitate contact with other alien life. F (sub i) refers to the fraction of life bearing planets on which intelligent life emerges, while L — which he later referred to as “the most important parameter” — is the length of time over which such civilizations release detectable signals into space.

While we have suspected that we have received such signals, with the WOW! Signal being the most notable, none have, as-of-yet, proven to be genuine communications from another civilization.

Drake on Space

He also provided responses to questions that the entire space community is asking. One of the first, from DevinDTA — which is what we would all ask to an expert on the extraterrestrial — concerned when he thinks we will meet alien life. He responded that he believes “we will detect evidence of non-intelligent life on another planet of our solar system within the next 50-70 years” and that “it’ll probably be microbial.”

YoureGratefulDead2Me asked, “If you could communicate with an alien civilization and language barrier were not an issue, what would you tell them/ask them?” Drake responded, in part, “If they are like us we would ask them what steps they take to support an ever growing population; for example is the colonization of other planets in their solar system advantageous or too costly and dangerous.” Drake, then, like Elon Musk, believes that the world’s population — which is set to hit 9.7 billion by 2050 — is one of the most challenging obstacles we face in our continued development; and that colonizing other planets could be a solution.

If Our Universe Is So Old and Vast, Then Where Are All the Aliens?
Click to View Full Infographic

SailingSmitty asked where Drake sat on the spectrum of trying to contact aliens vs awaiting contact from them — essentially, whether he is currently aligned with the Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) or SETI, which searches instead. In response, he stated, “I believe it is a waste of time and resources to transmit messages to alien life until we have actually detected alien life and know something about them.”

Perhaps more interestingly, though, he continued, “Also, I do not believe it is dangerous to transmit signals because there is not a very great benefit for them to attack us.” This contrasts with other expert views.

Stephen Hawking advises against first contact by predicting the meeting would be like the first encounter between Columbus and the Native Americans — which “didn’t turn out so well” for the latter party. At the other end of the spectrum is Alexander Zaitsev, founder of METI, who thinks we should “not want to live in a cocoon, in a ‘one-man island’” and therefore should take every possible opportunity to communicate with whatever (or whoever) is out there.

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A Startup Developed a 3D Printer Capable of Working in the Vacuum of Space

Printing in Cosmic Conditions

Made in Space, a 3D printing startup, has provided an answer to NASA’s problems with developing tools in the harsh vacuum of space by creating a material that can be printed inside or outside the walls of the International Space Station (ISS).

This new material is composed of polyetherimide/polycarbonate — known as PEI/PC, although it goes by the brand name ULTEM. PEI/PC is several times stronger than anything astronauts are currently using, and it is additionally “resistant to the UV environment, [and] resistant to atomic oxygen, so it can perform actual uses in space” according to Matt Napoli, Vice  President of Made in Space, explained to Popular Mechanics.

Currently, the company is testing a 3D printer called Archinaut, set for release in 2018, which they hope can operate fully outside of the station. Eventually, this could lead to Made in Space using the ISS as a launchpad for the first ever satellites 3D printed in orbit.

A Launchpad to the Future

Sending anything into orbit is dizzyingly expensive. To combat this, NASA has been looking for ways to produce materials for upgrades or repairs in space. But, until now, they have only found ways to 3D print inside the ISS — namely, the ABS and Green PE materials, which are not resilient enough to handle space.

Made in Space will facilitate astronauts taking far less into space, because currently, they must transport all materials and items with them from Earth. This will save future missions countless dollars which can better be used in research and development.

The printer, however, has the potential to not only be reparative but progressive. As Made in Space’s website states, they “give researchers the ability to prototype tools and designs in the environment of space with short iteration cycles.”

3D printing is currently being used for more and more vital and creative things. The technology has the potential to create organs like hearts, restore coral reefs, and even build homes in a single day. Welcome to the golden age of material development.

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Why Looking for Aliens Is Good for Society (Even If There Aren’t Any)

Alien Life

The search for life elsewhere in the universe is one of the most compelling aspects of modern science. Given its scientific importance, significant resources are devoted to this young science of astrobiology, ranging from rovers on Mars to telescopic observations of planets orbiting other stars.

The holy grail of all this activity would be the actual discovery of alien life, and such a discovery would likely have profound scientific and philosophical implications. But extraterrestrial life has not yet been discovered, and for all we know may not even exist. Fortunately, even if alien life is never discovered, all is not lost: simply searching for it will yield valuable benefits for society.

Why is this the case?

First, astrobiology is inherently multidisciplinary. To search for aliens requires a grasp of, at least, astronomy, biology, geology, and planetary science. Undergraduate courses in astrobiology need to cover elements of all these different disciplines, and postgraduate and postdoctoral astrobiology researchers likewise need to be familiar with most or all of them.

By forcing multiple scientific disciplines to interact, astrobiology is stimulating a partial reunification of the sciences. It is helping to move 21st-century science away from the extreme specialisation of today and back towards the more interdisciplinary outlook that prevailed in earlier times.

Why Looking for Aliens Is Good for Society (Even If There Aren’t Any)
Earth rising above the surface of the moon, as seen from Apollo 8 in December 1968. Image source: NASA

By producing broadminded scientists, familiar with multiple aspects of the natural world, the study of astrobiology therefore enriches the whole scientific enterprise. It is from this cross-fertilization of ideas that future discoveries may be expected, and such discoveries will comprise a permanent legacy of astrobiology, even if they do not include the discovery of alien life.

It is also important to recognise that astrobiology is an incredibly open-ended endeavour. Searching for life in the universe takes us from extreme environments on Earth, to the plains and sub-surface of Mars, the icy satellites of the giant planets, and on to the all-but-infinite variety of planets orbiting other stars. And this search will continue regardless of whether life is actually discovered in any of these environments or not. The range of entirely novel environments opened to investigation will be essentially limitless, and so has the potential to be a never-ending source of scientific and intellectual stimulation.

Why Looking for Aliens Is Good for Society (Even If There Aren’t Any)
Sand dunes near to Mars’ South Pole. Image Source: NASA

The Cosmic Perspective

Beyond the more narrowly intellectual benefits of astrobiology are a range of wider societal benefits. These arise from the kinds of perspectives – cosmic in scale – that the study of astrobiology naturally promotes.

It is simply not possible to consider searching for life on Mars, or on a planet orbiting a distant star, without moving away from the narrow Earth-centric perspectives that dominate the social and political lives of most people most of the time. Today, the Earth is faced with global challenges that can only be met by increased international cooperation. Yet around the world, nationalistic and religious ideologies are acting to fragment humanity. At such a time, the growth of a unifying cosmic perspective is potentially of enormous importance.

In the early years of the space age, the then US ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, said of the world: “We can never again be a squabbling band of nations before the awful majesty of outer space.” Unfortunately, this perspective is yet to sink deeply into the popular consciousness. On the other hand, the wide public interest in the search for life elsewhere means that astrobiology can act as a powerful educational vehicle for the popularisation of this perspective.

Indeed, it is only by sending spacecraft out to explore the solar system, in large part for astrobiological purposes, that we can obtain images of our own planet that show it in its true cosmic setting.

Why Looking for Aliens Is Good for Society (Even If There Aren’t Any)
The Earth photographed from the surface of Mars by the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit, March 2004. Image Source: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Texas A&M

In addition, astrobiology provides an important evolutionary perspective on human affairs. It demands a sense of deep, or big, history. Because of this, many undergraduate astrobiology courses begin with an overview of the history of the universe. This begins with the Big Bang and moves successively through the origin of the chemical elements, the evolution of stars, galaxies, and planetary systems, the origin of life, and evolutionary history from the first cells to complex animals such as ourselves. Deep history like this helps us locate human affairs in the vastness of time, and therefore complements the cosmic perspective provided by space exploration.

Political Implications

There is a well-known aphorism, widely attributed to the Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, to the effect that “the most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world”. Humboldt was presumably thinking about the mind-broadening potential of international travel. But familiarity with the cosmic and evolutionary perspectives provided by astrobiology, powerfully reinforced by actual views of the Earth from space, can surely also act to broaden minds in such a way as to make the world less fragmented and dangerous.

I think there is an important political implication inherent in this perspective: as an intelligent technological species, that now dominates the only known inhabited planet in the universe, humanity has a responsibility to develop international social and political institutions appropriate to managing the situation in which we find ourselves.

In concluding his monumental Outline of History in 1925, HG Wells famously observed: “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” Such an observation appears especially germane to the geopolitical situation today, where apparently irrational decisions, often made by governments (and indeed by entire populations) seemingly ignorant of broader perspectives, may indeed lead our planet to catastrophe.

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Buzz Aldrin: It’s Time for Humans to Start Looking at Other Planets to Live On

Chasing the Unknown

Buzz Aldrin is an acclaimed astronaut, engineer, and (of course) the second human being to ever walk on the Moon. Over the years, he has inspired entire generations to look beyond the bounds of Earth and pursue the unknown. As Aldrin previously noted, “human beings are meant to be inquisitive. We’re meant to be achievers.”  And to this end, Aldrin has dedicated his life to advancing humanity through discovery, creating explorers and scientists alike in the process.

Most recently, Aldrin helped to create a virtual reality (VR) experience that allows people to ‘travel’ to Mars. As one of the few individuals who has ever had the privilege of stepping onto an astronomical body besides Earth, Aldrin is able to expertly assist in conveying the experience of space travel to the everyday individual and, in so doing, take people (virtually) farther than they have ever gone before.

Now is the time to start thinking seriously about what life on Mars might look like in the future.

In a recent interview with Futurism, Aldrin weighed in on just how important it is for us, as humans, to take this next step in journeying into the final frontier, “One of the things that makes space exploration so exciting is that the possibilities are endless. Mars is the next actionable step for us – we have never been closer to knowing and exploring another planet. Plus, I believe that Mars has realistic potential for colonization.”

Aldrin continued by noting that, in order to make humanity’s future on Mars a reality, we will need to start garnering interest and making plans for tomorrow today: “Now is the time to start thinking seriously about what life on Mars might look like in the future. I believe we can have the first Human Martians at Mars by 2040.”

A Unified Quest

Obviously, a virtual journey to Mars isn’t exactly the same as a real Martian excursion; however, such technologies can, in some small way, help bring people to the stars who otherwise might not ever have the opportunity. In this respect, the VR experience is truly valuable. As Aldrin notes, “We have a long way to go before trips to space are widely affordable for everyone. Luckily AR/VR technology is here now.”

Aldrin continued by asserting that, more than just showing people what the voyage to Mars will be like, this type of experience is an integral part of encouraging people to get excited about science and exploration. And in today’s society, where denialism and sensationalism dominate many conversations, a genuine interest in science is more crucial than ever. Aldrin believes that exploring the vast recesses of space can help in this regard because, as he asserts, “space travel is a great unifier–it captures our collective imagination, encourages our curiosity, and inspires our creativity.”

It is in our nature to explore. We, as a species, are curious.

To this end, Aldrin thinks that it is through these small pushes in the right direction that humans will finally make it to other worlds.  Because we are, at the end of the day, wanderers: “It is in our nature to explore. We, as a species, are curious and want to see what’s over the next hill, see how fast we can go. It was only 66 years from the point that the Wright brothers flew to us flying rockets to the Moon.”

If this VR voyage sounds like something that would interest you, Aldrin and Terry Virts, the former commander of the ISS, are teaming up with Omaze, a donation-based experience platform, to offer one winner (and a friend) a chance to celebrate the Apollo 11 anniversary as VIPs at the ShareSpace gala. You will get to hang out with the pair and experience Aldrin’s virtual Mars experience. Best of all, this effort supports The ShareSpace Foundation, which is a nonprofit dedicated to getting kids involved with STEM.

In the words of the Carl Sagan, “Human beings are a curious, inquisitive, exploratory species. I think that has been the secret of our success as a species.” Aldrin embodies this exploratory quest and, through AR and VR, he wants to spark that curiosity and need to explore in all.

Of course, no one is positive when the first human footsteps will leave their mark on the Martian surface, but the quest to get us there is how we will continue to advance as a species….and it isn’t just astronauts and rocket scientists who can (and should) participate in this great journey. Whether virtually or through other means of education and involvement, it is now possible for us all to engage our minds, hearts, and exploratory imaginations. It’s a race we must run together.

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Scientists from Project Manhattan Wanted to Land on Saturn by 1970

“Mars by 1965, Saturn by 1970”

In the 1960s, the US government’s top secret Project Orion had its eyes on a target far further away than NASA’s lunar goal. Twenty people would land on the surface of Saturn in 1970, after taking a casual detour on Mars on the way. They would be propelled there by riding the blast-waves of nuclear explosions the spacecraft dropped out of its stern (this is called nuclear pulse propulsion).

Using many of the minds who were part of the Manhattan Project (to build the atomic bomb), the ship would have been a little taller than the leaning tower of Pisa at 60 meters (196.85 feet), about forty times as heavy as a blue whale at 3628.739 metric tons (4,000 tons), have its hull built “built like a submarine, not an airplane,” according to project member Freeman Dyson and — to top it all off — was designed to be a reusable, multi-use platform.

While this sounds as outlandish as science fiction, Washington took the proposal so seriously that they spent the equivalent of US$85 million in today’s money on development. Russia had just caused upheaval in America by launching Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. This caused the US to invest millions into various aspects of space exploration in order to be the first to the next frontier.

Orion fell apart, though, due to three main factors: First, it could not be used as a weapon by the country, which was a prerogative for much of the innovative technologies of the Cold War. Second, NASA’s public image concerns and the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty forbade the testing almost all nuclear explosions — Orion, with 20 people in it, was not the type of rocket you wanted to send off without testing. Third, organizations were running low on funds, and when NASA was pressed for a decision over contribution, they placed Apollo and Saturn V on the list of priorities above Orion.

An Unfulfilled Prophecy

Project Orion seems like a clunky and crude solution to space travel — but its premise is so sound that NASA recently announced that using small-scale nuclear fusion rockets may be the step forward the space world needs. Space travel has strangely come full circle.

Both Project Orion and NASA’s latest gambit aim to combat the inefficiency of the traditional chemical method of propelling spacecraft into the cosmos. Chemical rockets are ineffective on two fronts. First, the amount of power they derive from the fuel is small. Second, and because of this, they need to carry a large amount of fuel, which increases their mass and therefore the amount of energy it takes for them to achieve liftoff.

Nuclear powered spacecraft are not the only solutions to this problem, though: modern cosmic engineers have tried to develop other ways to overcome their inadequacy. Paul Allen has built the world’s largest plane to ferry spacecraft to the upper atmosphere to decrease the amount of fuel they need.

The reusable rocket business — a key aspect of Project Orion — is being spearheaded by Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin. To compensate for the weight of the fuel needed to take off and penetrate the atmosphere, a significant proportion of a traditional rocket’s parts have been shed during ascension — and are destroyed in the process.

The reusable method decreases financial inefficiency by having most of the rocket survive both takeoff and landing, and by building rockets smaller and lighter, which means they need less activation energy from the fuel. Both companies completed successful landings — Blue Origin in November and SpaceX in December 2015 — but only SpaceX’s venture has managed to relaunch.

Project Orion was a radical new idea that would have rendered Sputnik and the moon landings obsolete if it had ever been realized. What is perhaps most unfortunate is that it was abandoned due to political considerations rather than purely practical ones — as Dyson stated at the time, “a major expansion of human technology has been suppressed for political reasons.”

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No, a Huge Asteroid Probably Won’t Wipe out Humanity

Asterdestroyed?

A future in which an asteroid crashes into Earth and destroys the planet — or all life on it, in the case of the dinosaurs — is prevalent in popular culture: Bruce Willis sacrificed himself to stop in happening in Armageddon, aliens have arrived on one in Day of the Triffids, and there have been a multitude of apocalyptic predictions on the news over the last few years. So, what is the precise nature of asteroids, and how likely are they wipe us from the face of the planet?

Asteroids are rocky bodies orbiting the Sun, which differ from comets in that they are composed of metal and rock rather ice, dust, and rock. They were formed 4.5 billion years ago, but don’t have sufficient gravity to round out like planets or have atmospheres.

When the Earth Caught Fire [INFOGRAPHIC]
Click to View Full Infographic

Several asteroids have played pivotal roles in the world’s formation and cosmic history. An asteroid the size of Mars, which has been retrospectively named Theia, hit the Earth and was partially absorbed: some debris from the impact, though, was conglomerated by gravity to form the Moon. The most famous asteroid, though, is Chicxulub — the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs by causing sufficient sulphur displacement to block out the Sun.

Small asteroids hit Earth frequently, but rarely have any effect — the most violent example in recent memory was the 17- to 20-meter diameter Chelyabinsk meteor which hit Russia in February 2013, smashing windows and injuring 1,400 people in the process. Asteroids with a one-kilometer diameter hit Earth every 500,000 years or so; with the last known example of one with a 10-kilometer diameter occurring 66 million years ago. The chances of an asteroid apocalypse, then, are minimal.

Peter Brown, professor of physics and astronomy at Western University in London, Ontario, said in an interview with CBC News:

There certainly is a risk from asteroid impacts; it’s the only natural risk that we as a species have the ability to predict well in advance and mitigate against, entirely, […] But I want people to keep it in context. You shouldn’t be losing sleep over it.

Our Plan to Avoid Destruction

Despite the chances of an asteroid apocalypse being fortunately slim, our planet has measures in place to protect against smaller near Earth objects (NEOs) like the Chelyabinsk meteor.

The main agency responsible for tracking and putting contingency measures in place is NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies, which has a database sophisticated enough for us “to know within the next couple of decades for sure if any time over the next century if there’s an asteroid that’s going to hit,” Brown said in the interview. The organization, according to its 2016 report, is also developing “Methods for NEO Deflection and Disruption.”

This diagram maps the data gathered from 1994-2013 on small asteroids impacting Earth’s atmosphere and disintegrating to create very bright meteors, technically called “bolides” and commonly referred to as “fireballs”. Sizes of orange dots (daytime impacts) and blue dots (nighttime impacts) are proportional to the optical radiated energy of impacts measured in billions of Joules (GJ) of energy, and show the location of impacts from objects about 1 meter (3 feet) to almost 20 meters (60 feet) in size.
This diagram maps the data gathered from 1994-2013 on small asteroids (1-20 meters) impacting Earth’s atmosphere and disintegrating to create very bright meteors. Image Credit: NASA

NASA has already launched a progenitor for how a gravity-based asteroid diversion could work in the form of its Dawn Aircraft, which is currently orbiting the space rock Vesta. A future version of Dawn could exert a subtle gravitational pull on a space object, which would allow it to change the trajectory of rocks with remarkable subtlety and specificity. Rusty Schweickart, chairman of the B612 Foundation, who’s mission is to protect the world from asteroid attacks, said in an interview with Space.com, “you can get a very precise change in the orbit for the final part of the deflection using a technology of this kind.”

At the more futurist end of our planetary defense arsenal is the idea of “Mirror Bees.” Hypothetically, we could send a swarm of robotic spacecraft bearing mirrors to an asteroid, which would then focus the solar energy on one spot: Bill Nye, executive director of the Planetary Society, said to Space.com that “The reaction of that gas or material being ejected from the asteroid would nudge it off-course.”

While the threat of a dinosaur-level disaster is extremely slim, even small asteroids can still cause huge amounts of damage, destruction, and pain. It’s comforting that individuals and organizations are working towards developing methods to minimize the disruption asteroids — big or small — can cause.

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The UK Is Building a $150 Million Facility Where You Can Train for Trips Into Space

A Taste of Space

Thanks to the efforts of SpaceX, Blue Origin, and other space companies, we’re on the cusp of the era of commercial spaceflight, which means ordinary people will soon need to receive instruction on how to deal with the trials and tribulations of space. To that end, the world’s first commercial space training center, Blue Abyss, will open in 2019 in the United Kingdom.

The facility is expected to cost around $150 million to construct, and it will include several features designed to support the excursions of both private citizens and organizations into space. Its centrifuge base will simulate the g-forces felt in space, and the center will be able to offer parabolic flight training to prepare people for the weightlessness of space. Physiology professionals will be onsite to conduct physicals and advise future astronauts on the effects of space on the body.

Blue Abyss will also house the world’s biggest 50-meter-deep pool. The pool will be customizable to accommodate a range of uses, giving divers, marine explorers, and companies the ability to train or test out equipment that could be used in space exploration or here on Earth.

The U.K.’s Space Revolution

Blue Abyss is part of a wider attempt by the United Kingdom to become an industry leader in commercial spaceflight — by 2030, the nation hopes to increase its share of the global space economy from 6.5 percent to 10 percent.

Want to Go To Space? This is How Much It Will Cost You
Click to View Full Infographic

In addition to announcing this new training facility, the U.K. recently introduced the Space Industry Bill, which includes plans to build rocket, space plane, and satellite launching facilities. This bill could help humanity prepare for the era of space flight by setting a precedent for legislation and regulation. Other countries could use it as a legal framework on which to base their own space-focused legislation, which is one of the hurdles we’ll need to overcome to truly enter the era of commercial space exploration.

In total, the U.K.’s efforts could have a fundamental impact on global space travel. While companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin develop systems that will make space accessible to all of us, we need to make ourselves ready for space first by undergoing training at centers like Blue Abyss.

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The Age of Hypersonic Flight Will Completely Change How We Travel

‘The Warp Speed of Today’

Private companies in China and America are achieving hypersonic speed in aircraft — speeds categorized as those which exceed five on the mach scale, which equates to 3,835 miles per hour or above. At this speed, an aircraft could travel the circumference of the Earth in approximately 6 and a half hours.

We could see this speed attained and made commonplace within the next few years, with estimates stretching from 2020 to 2030Alan Bond, a co-founder of Reaction Engines, said that this could be “a revolution in transportation equivalent to the jet engine.”

It is only now that we really have the technology required to overcome the extreme heat (surface temperatures exceed 1,000 degrees Celsius) and changes in air that occur at these ludicrous speeds. as well as developing ways to introduce them into common usage by tackling factors like the deafening boom caused by breaking the sound barrier.

Among the most prominent companies working on this is Lockheed Martin, whose SR-72 will reportedly be used to carry out surveillance missions as a successor to the SR-71 blackbird. The company announced earlier this month that it would begin production.

Image Credit: How It Works
Image Credit: How It Works
Additionally, the Chinese Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation has finished a successful technology demonstration for their Teng Yun plane, which launches in two stages. The first uses a TRCC engine to propel it to altitudes of 29 to 40 kilometers, after which it detaches and leaves a rocket propelled space plane that can fly as far as the moon. Skylon is a British plane that pursues similar ambitions.

Image Credit: China Space Flight
Image Credit: China Space Flight
At the more commercial end of the spectrum is Boeing’s X-51A, which undertook a 240 second successful flight over the Pacific last year. Dennis Muilenburg, the company’s CEO told CNBC that “I think in the next decade or two you’re going to see them (hypersonic planes) become a reality.”

The Future Of Flight

This technology has particular consequences in three sectors: commercial travel, the military, and spaceflight.

Commercially, hypersonic planes have the potential to rapidly decrease flight times, and therefore decrease the frustration, weariness, and inconvenience that long-haul flights can cause. While companies are still calculating whether the cost of such an undertaking is viable, Tom Enders, the CEO of Airbus, optimistically stated that we have “ever more fuel efficient aircraft,” which could indicate that the cost of these flights would not be too much more expensive than today’s commercial flights.

This technology could also change the nature of military flight fundamentally. Brad Leland, a Lockheed engineer, told Reuters that “your adversaries cannot hide or move their critical assets. They will be found. That becomes a game-changer.” The principles applied to the aircraft could also be used to develop new missiles. Theis principle in both cases is to opt for speed over stealth: becoming fast enough that the enemy prevent the attack or surveillance mission due to the speed of the aircraft or missile.

Perhaps most promisingly, however, are the potential applications for spaceflight. While there has been a huge amount of coverage concerning reusable rockets recently, using space planes are an alternative could potentially be more viable. At the very least, the development of the planes of the future will add another competitor to the commercial space race, and this competition will lead to remarkable innovation.

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Snake Robots Could Allow Us to Explore the Caverns of Mars

Snake-like Space Explorers

In order to remedy the lack of mobility and dexterity of larger space rovers, the building of Serpentine Robots for Planetary Exploration (SERPEX), which were originally proposed by the Foundation for Scientific and Industrial ResearchhasNTEF), have now been commissioned by the European Space Agency. The research team responsible for these robots is a collaboration between SINTEF, the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Space, and the Norwegian Space Centre.

The most likely short term application for such a robot would be helping astronauts to carry out inspections and repairs on spacecraft and structures like the International Space Station. Aksel Andreas Transeth, a Senior Research Scientist on the project, said in a press statement that “a snake robot could creep behind the sections, carry out an inspection, and perhaps even perform small maintenance tasks.”

Longer term goals include allowing teams to explore places on planets, moons, and comets that traditional six-wheeled craft could not by acting as a detachable arm capable of being operated autonomously. This would allow us to gain a new perspective on the small, hard-to-reach locations and difficult terrains of martian worlds.

Most excitingly, these robots could allow researchers to inspect tunnels beneath planets for habitability, which is crucial for the potential colonization of other planets. If we adapted to live underground, we would be provided a natural barrier against radiation, comets, and solar rays. The idea has already been linked to the European Space Agency’s proposed Moon Village.

Of the first snake robots, a concept robot, called the Wheeko Robot has already been developed. It has impressive dexterity and mobility due to to its “10 identical joint modules, each having two motorized degrees of freedom,” that are covered with small wheels that “enable the robot to slither forward over flat surfaces.”

What Our Current Rovers Have Done

SERPEX could be another weapon in our cosmic investigation arsenal, giving us a new way to explore our Universe. We have so far learned an incredible amount about planets such as Mars by, in part, launching land-based exploration vehicles like the Pathfinder and Sojourner in 1997, Spirit and Opportunity in 2003, and Curiosity in 2012. But these missions have been limited by the terrain that the craft can explore. One example: the Spirit Rover’s mission was ended when it got stuck in the mud in 2010.

If SERPEX turns out to be as useful as hoped, however, it will only give us answers to one piece of a much larger planetary puzzle. It will have to be used alongside vehicles such as NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN) which provides information on Mars’ atmosphere, and the upcoming InSight mission, which aims to burrow down into the planet’s surface rather than just exploring its small spaces.

We are living in the golden age of space exploration, with more missions and initiatives planned than ever before. The information we have gathered up to this point on our Solar System with fairly rudimentary exploration tools has been weird, wonderful, and fascinating.

Ideas such as SERPEX are pivotal if we are going to become more proficient in space travel and exploration. And, now that the possibility colonizing Mars is looking more and more plausible, anything that adds to our database of knowledge will aid our entire species.

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NASA: AI Will Lead the Future of Space Exploration

AI-Lead Missions

Steve Chien and Kiri Wagstaff of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have predicted that in the future, the behavior of space probes will be governed by AI rather than human prompts from earth. While humanity has made great strides in exploring the galaxies beyond our own, in order to learn even more about our universe, we may need to hand the controls over to robots.

That said, there will be challenges to the hand off, and the difficulties of micromanaging probes in deep space fall into three main categories:

First, probes may fall outside communications range, which means they will have to continue without instruction on their journey. That also means that eventually they’ll have to work out when, and how, to return with the data they have collected. A key aspect of this is knowing which data to document, and how to identify it: for example, deciding if weather is due to a storm or is normal for the planet being observed.

Second, because they will be traveling to areas of space that we know very little about, they will also have to be able to learn in order to adapt to environmental factors, such as unforeseen asteroids, temperatures, or gravities.

Third, because of the time required to travel to those distant parts of the universe, generations of scientists will die before probes return, leaving the probes somewhat to their own devices — so to speak.

A Demonstration of AEGIS' capabilities. Image Credit: NASA A Demonstration of AEGIS’ capabilities. Image Credit: NASA

Where No Human Has Gone Before

The benefits of using AI to control space-exploring robots have been demonstrated by missions that are already underway. Both the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, which were launched back in 2003, had an AI driving system called Autonav that allowed them to explore the surface of Mars.

In addition, Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science (AEGIS) has been used by the NASA Mars rover, Curiosity, since May in order to select which aspects of Mars are particularly interesting and subsequently take photos of them. Chien and Wagstaff said “the system has substantially reduced lost time on the mission and markedly increased the pace of data collection.”

Therefore, any AI that we use in the future of space exploration will allow us to retrieve data from the places we send probes to, as well as allow us to explore them further, and collect better data. Since humans aren’t yet able to traverse these locales ourselves, unless we’re willing to hand at least some of that responsibility over to AI, it’s unlikely any of these missions could happen.

Hiro Ono, another NASA engineer, gives the example of a spacecraft on a Jovian moon Europa, which is covered by a 10km thick Icy Crust: “The probe might be trapped in ice if it waits for the instruction of human operators. Without an advanced autonomy, exploration of such a remote world would be severely limited, if not impossible.”

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Boeing Just Released a New Type of Spacesuit

These new spacesuits by Boeing protect astronauts from fire and sudden pressure changes, while being 10 pounds lighter than the standard suit now.

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NASA-Funded Company Wants to Redefine Space Travel With Fusion Rockets

Nuclear Powered Rockets

Princeton Satellite Systems, which is funded by NASA, has announced the possibility of fusion reactor rockets which could — according to the company’s president Michael Paluszek — “enable new and exciting science missions that are too expensive and difficult to do with today’s technology.” Such missions could include propelling spaceships towards planets and stars, exploring space deeper than we ever have before, and deflecting asteroids.

Fusion rockets are propelled by the same nuclear processes that power stars. They can produce more energy — and do so more efficiently — than traditional chemical propellant or ion drive designs. Princeton Satellite System’s design uses nuclear fusion by heating a mix of deuterium and helium-3 with low-frequency radio waves, then harnesses the energy produced with magnetic fields. This technique confines the resulting plasma in a ring. As the plasma spirals out of the ring, it can be directed towards the blasters.

While this system would prove expensive for bigger projects (around $20 billion), the smaller rocket — estimated to be 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) in diameter and 4 to 8 meters (13 to 26 feet) long — would only cost about $20 million per generator; ten times cheaper than the larger model.

Cost aside, there are still two other significant obstacles: first, the system would emit so much radiation that it would preclude the propulsion of any spacecraft with humans aboard, and second, while one generator may only cost the relatively small sum of $20 million, each ship would have to contain multiple generators to ensure both the stability of the plasma, and to make them capable of achieving the speeds the rockets aspire to.

Other Projects on the Horizon

Space travel has become a trend among the world’s tech elite, with many big names in technology working to develop canny ways explore the final frontier further, ideally by sending humans into outer space to guide those expeditions.

Paul Allen recently revealed the world’s largest plane, which aims to take spacecraft to the atmosphere, thereby reducing the amount of energy required to launch spacecraft from Earth.

Elon Musk has had a series of successful test runs for reusable rockets, including the Dragon spacecraft’s second landing at the International Space Station. He plans to test the Falcon Heavy rocket, designed to take people to the moon, in the next few months.

Related to one of the fission rocket’s goals of transporting robots to make observations of never-before seen parts of the galaxy is NASA’s mission to ‘touch the sun’ with its Parker Solar Probe. The probe will investigate solar wind and gather more data on our closest star than we’ve ever had before.

Gaining a deeper understanding of and visiting space has never been closer in our reach. Ideas like these are endlessly exciting and may be a sign that we may be entering the golden age of space travel.

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New Research Shows Microgravity Mutates Bacteria Into Superbugs

Space E-Coli

A new study might have bad news for future space travelers. Madhan Tirumalai, Post Doctoral Fellow at the University of Houston and part of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, has discovered that bacteria mutate and proliferate in space-like conditions. As part of the most rigorous study to date, he observed E. coli development over 1,000 generations in a rotating container designed to simulate microgravity.

He found that the bacteria developed 16 mutations, and when they were placed next to normal E. coli cells, they grew around three times as many colonies and maintained a 72 percent adaptive advantage. Further, their adaptations remained even when researchers tried to erase them.

E. coli bacteria, magnified 10,000 times. Image Credit: Eric Erbe, digital colorization by Christopher Pooley. Wikimedia
E. coli magnified 10,000 times. Image Credit: Eric Erbe, digital colorization by Christopher Pooley. Wikimedia

Some of the changes were slightly worrying: mutations affected the genes related to biofilm production, which often makes cells more robust and virulent. However, not every mutation necessitates a negative change. In fact, as Tirumalai wrote, the E. coli was still susceptible to antibiotics. Essentially, even if microgravity turns bacteria into superbugs, we can still rely on antibiotics.

Bugs and Space Travel

This could be worrying news for future space-travelers. E. coli is a relatively benign bacteria, but other nastier bugs and diseases could jeopardize entire missions — costing precious life and money — if they mutate in a violent or untreatable way. The potential consequences become more worrying when we consider that a 2013 study found that in space human immune “cells are not able to respond to a pathogen anymore,” which “means that it will be easier [for astronauts] to get sick because their immune system is weakening.”

Tirumalai explains, “We need more of this kind of experiment, especially with human space flight gaining more traction in recent years.” News concerning more people going to space as part of the commercial spaceflight revolution is exciting. However, practical considerations – such as how microgravity impacts bacteria and our bodies, as well as the potential consequences of isolation on our mental health– must be dealt with before we embark, particularly when it comes to long flights such as the plan to go to Mars.

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A Powerful Energy Beam in Space Seems to Exceed the Speed of Light

A Fascinating Cosmic Q-Tip

In the Galaxy M87 (which was created when two other galaxies merged), a jet of hot plasma — caused by gas being sucked into a central black hole, being heated, and then shot out by magnetic fields — has been helping us gain insight into the weird origins of our galaxy. It is shaped like a thin beam and is emitted from the center of a black hole.

Heber Curtis, an astronomer, first saw a ray of light connected to the galaxy in 1918. In order to see it with his instruments at the time, it had to be huge. And it turns out, it was; measuring at almost 6000 light years long.

The Hubble Space Telescope monitored its development between 1995 and 1999 and, after four years of photos, they saw the plasma ripple outwards faster than what was being emitted from the black hole, meaning it must be moving faster than the speed of light. In 2013, after 13 years of images, it appeared to move in corkscrew-like spirals, making this strange occurrence even more mystifying.

The Beam of Plasma Emitted from M87's Central Black Hole. Image Credit: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team
The Jet of Plasma Emitted from M87’s Central Black Hole. Image Credit: NASA/The Hubble Heritage Team

Understanding Our Universe

M87 is, however, not unique in this way. Since the first observation, researchers have discovered similar phenomena in other galaxies. Although the causes behind it are still enigmatic, these observations could aid us in our search in understanding how black holes function in the creation or destruction of galaxies. Similarly, an enormous magnetic bridge spanning multiple galaxies has been recently discovered.

Eileen Meyer, Assistant Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, said about the plasma,“We can see, over a human lifetime, things moving […] Which is crazy.” The speed of this process is particularly remarkable because of how powerful it is.

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A New Rocket Company Is Offering an Affordable SpaceX Alternative

On May 21st, a ten-day test launch window will open for aerospace pioneers Rocket Lab, who aim to capitalize on the small satellite revolution by developing a smaller rocket at a far lower price. And, it costs SpaceX $62 million (unless they reuse a rocket) to leave Earth’s orbit, Rocket Lab hopes to accomplish something similar at a mere $4.9 million per flight. They also plan to make flights more regular — the current wait time is around 2 years.

The company is able to cut so much of the cost because they are using a much smaller rocket — 16.7 meters (55 feet) long — to correspond with the decreasing size of satellites. It is only meant to lift loads between about 150-227 kg (330-500 lbs), which is minuscule compared to its predecessors, which were as tall as 61 meters (200 ft) and designed to transport thousands of pounds of space gear.

If the test goes ahead — it is contingent on favorable conditions — it will mark the first time that any vehicle has reached orbit from a private flight facility. Peter Beck, CEO of Rocket Lab, said in a statement “Our number one priority is to gather enough data and experience to prepare for a commercial phase. Only then can we can start delivering on our mission to make space more accessible.” This could mark the end of the monopoly of space held by the world’s richest of companies: as Rocket Lab’s website emphatically states “Space is now open for business.”

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Does the Universe Really Go on Forever? Bill Nye Answers.

In a recent Tuesdays With Bill episode, part of a video series run by Big Think in which Bill Nye answers a question from the American public, an inquisitive youngster named Aaron asked, “Does the universe go on forever?”

It is a question that has haunted humanity throughout time, plaguing us with doubt about where to situate ourselves in a space without definition.

In the video, which you can watch below, Bill Nye concedes that “no one really knows the actual answer to that,” but also says that we know it is expanding due to the distance between stars increasing.

Robert Dijkgraaf, Director for the Institute for Advanced Study, has also recently made a video on the subject in which he concurs with Bill, stating, “using our satellites, we can pick up a signal that was emitted at this very brief moment after the Big Bang” to “almost see the edge of the visible universe.” However, while Dijkgraaf may not know how big the universe is, he is more certain on how it will end.

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Five Unsolved Mysteries That Keep Scientists up at Night

Big Questions in Physics

Across all disciplines of science there exists an abundance of unanswered questions and mysteries that have endured for as long as humans have attempted to solve them. Perhaps one of the most query-filled fields is physics, which continues to confound even the most brilliant minds. While it’s unlikely that all these quandaries will be answered in our lifetime, some of them may well could be.

Why is there more matter than antimatter? 

In theory, the Big Bang should have created as much matter as antimatter in the universe. But it didn’t — at least not as far as physicists can see. Matter is everywhere, all around us — it makes up everything. But so far, we’ve only found small amounts of antimatter. Why is that? Shouldn’t a particle of matter have an antimatter counterpart? It must be that the laws of the universe and nature just don’t apply to antimatter the same way they do to matter. Scientists have to figure out why that is and what it means for the universe.

What Is Dark Matter?
Click to View Full Infographic

What is dark energy/dark matter/all this dark stuff?

For all we can see of our universe, there’s much more that we have yet to see — in part because it’s made up of invisible stuff called dark energy and dark matter. The thing is, we haven’t even actually visualized dark matter — only the effect it has on what we can see. Physicists are trying to gain a deeper understanding of the invisible force by studying the behavior of stars and galaxies which appear to react to the presence of it. It is, however, a challenge to study something we can’t see. We need technology to catch up and let us come face-to-face with these “dark” substances.

The Universe’s Unsolved Mysteries

One of the simplest questions to ask may be one of the hardest to answer:

How big is the universe?

Asking how big, or how old, the universe is depends on what part of the universe you’re talking about: the observable universe, or the entirety of it. We know through studying light that the observable universe is around 13.8 billion years old — that’s 46 billion light years. Determining how big even the observable universe is presents challenges because it isn’t a static entity: the universe is still expanding.

Are there parallel universes? 

Even though we don’t quite have a handle on our own universe, it hasn’t stopped us from wondering if there are others out there — particularly so-called parallel universes. The idea is part of the multiverse theory, for which there are at least five accepted theories. Those who don’t think it’s possible point out that after the Big Bang, with all that matter taking up space in space, inflation would have slowed down. Because it slowed down, if there were multiverses they wouldn’t be expanding at the same rate as our universe is. That would throw a wrench in the idea of a truly parallel universe.

This is merely a fraction of the questions physicists are asking, and it all kind of comes down to answering one final question: what’s the ultimate fate of the universe? How will it end? Some theories posit that it will be a lot like how it began: a big bang. More specifically, a big crunch. One of the most prominent theories about the inevitable death of the universe is that eventually, as the universe expands, it will eventually reach a density that exceeds critical density — at which point it would collapse in on itself in an event referred to as the Big Crunch. Of course, that’s just one theory. Another posits that the end will be more of an endless void — but in either case, it won’t happen for billions, if not trillions, of years. As far as we know, anyway.

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Our View of the Cosmos Is About to Get a Tremendous Upgrade

Worlds Similar to Earth are Everywhere

On the 20th of April, it was announced that the study of exoplanets and extra-terrestrial life had taken a huge leap forward. Worlds similar to Earth, with high likelihoods of surface water, are far more common than we had previously thought and so we are now questioning how to find life on them. Olivier Guyon, of the University of Arizona, announced at the Breakthrough Discuss Conference that “As far as we can tell, they’re everywhere. We’re transitioning into life-finding. We have a lot of work ahead of us.”

While water dampening a surface is not necessarily indicative of the planet being either hospitable or inhabited, NASA has so far discovered, and plans to study, 361 exoplanets that are considered Earth-like.

What tools are we using to ascertain if exoplanets have life on them?

There are three main technologies in our current space toolbox that will help us to detect life, all set to launch in the near future:

The Breakthrough Starshot project aims to launch a spaceship the size of a postage stamp to Alpha Centauri, Earth’s nearest star system, within the next two decades. The miniature spaceship will reach Proxima-b 20 years from its launch date and will be equipped with cameras, thrusters, navigational tools and communications equipment — as well as a light sail to help it achieve the speed required to travel space’s vast distances.

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), is capable of unprecedented resolution and sensitivity in recording various wavelengths. Among many other features, it will have a segmented 6.5-meter-diameter mirror which is massive compared to the Hubble Space Telescope’s 2.4-meter mirror. It is scheduled for launch in October 2018.

The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (Tess), will monitor over 200,000 stars simultaneously, looking for temporary drops in brightness caused by planetary transits. No current earth-bound transit survey is capable of performing this task. This satellite will embark no later than June 2018.

These tools may be the proverbial thread that unravels the wool ball of other life other in the Universe. Caltech’s Courtney Dressing said at the Breakthrough Discuss Forum  “I think there’s a good chance that a planet that has life on it orbits one of the nearby M dwarfs we’ve already heard about today” referring to Proxima-b, TRAPPIST-1, and LHS 1140.

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Amazon’s Founder Wants to Deliver Supplies to the Moon

Amazon on the Moon

In recent, “are you serious?” news, Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, wants to create an ‘Amazon-like’ service to deliver equipment and supplies to the Moon. Bezos wants to combine his other company, aerospace manufacturer and spaceflight organization Blue Origin, with the delivery principles of Amazon to deliver a one-of-a-kind service.

*3* Amazon Founder Wants to Deliver to the Moon

Following the private sector rush to the Moon sparked by Elon Musk of SpaceX, Bezos thinks that their lunar lander “Blue Moon” will be able to start delivering supplies to the Moon by the mid 2020’s. Blue Moon is expected to carry up to 453.5 kg (10,000 lbs) of cargo per trip. Because of this capacity, the lander would be capable of carrying rovers and scientific equipment. And so, while this endeavor seems strange and a little bit silly, it could, in theory, be an inventive way to help further research.

Big Plans

Bezos has expressed his passion for not only increasing travel to the Moon but also the possibility of a permanent lunar settlement. In his own words, in an email to the Washington Post:

“It is time for America to return to the Moon — this time to stay. A permanently inhabited lunar settlement is a difficult and worthy objective. I sense a lot of people are excited about this…
Our liquid hydrogen expertise and experience with precision vertical landing offer the fastest path to a lunar lander mission. I’m excited about this and am ready to invest my own money alongside NASA to make it happen.”

It is impossible to say whether or not this plan will be successful but…who knows, astronauts could soon have rovers delivered to them with the click of a button. I wonder if they’ll get prime.

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Top U.S. Military Official Says We Need to Prepare for Space Battles

Deflector Shields Up

Whenever you hear about space battles, your mind might go straight to Star Wars, Star Trek, or Battlestar Galactica, where such intergalactic battles are merely works of science fiction. But according to a top-ranking U.S. military officer, it may behoove the United States to ready itself for out-of-this-world warfare.

Star Wars Starfighters: The Best Designs From a Galaxy Far, Far Away
Click to View Full Infographic

Speaking at a conference by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., Navy Vice Adm. Charles A. Richard argued for the necessity of a “preparation without provocation” strategy that the U.S. must adopt to keep space a safe place, and to protect American assets that have taken up residence there. His full talk can be viewed here.

“Just as nuclear assets deter aggression by convincing potential adversaries there’s just no benefit to the attack, we have to maintain a space posture that communicates the same strategic message,” said Vice Adm. Richard, who happens to be the deputy commander of the U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM).

No Longer a Benign Domain

Vice Adm. Richard isn’t being facetious; on the contrary, he’s serious about ensuring the U.S. is able to fight space battles as a measure for keeping peace beyond our planet. “I submit [that] the best way to prevent war is to be prepared for war, and we’re going to make sure that everyone knows we’re going to be prepared to fight and win wars in all domains, to include space,” he said.

“While we view space as just another domain — like land, air, sea and cyber — it is still something special. It is still a domain that people look up to and dream. And it’s USSTRATCOM’s job to help keep it that way.” 

Vice Adm. Richard went on to suggest that space is no longer the “benign environment” it once was.

As today’s technological advances make us capable of extending our reach into worlds beyond ours, defense against what we may find there becomes even more necessary. “Our goal ultimately is to promote secure access to space so it can be explored for generations to come,” Richard explained. And with great technology comes an even greater responsibility — as we know from all those superhero movies.

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Scientists Have New Information About the Massive Bands of Radiation Surrounding Earth

A Radiation Belt

Massive bands of radiation, known as the Van Allen Belts, surround Earth. Discovered in 1958, these belts of charged particles are routinely monitored by the Van Allen Probes. However, because of the previously perceived danger of these belts, scientists have been wary of sending spacecraft to conduct further studies of them. But new observations from the probes have shown that what we’ve thought about these belts might not be true.

Recent findings have shown that the particles that astronomers thought made the inner belt so dangerous — namely, the ultra-fast (relativistic), highest-energy Electrons — aren’t usually even present.

That’s right — the area that was thought to contain destructive electrons circling 640 to 9,600 km (400 to 6,000 miles) above the surface of Earth is typically (more often than not) entirely devoid of these electrons. It is now known that especially intense solar storms sometimes push high-energy electrons into the inner belt. While these instances are the exception to the rule, the belt takes a while to return to “normal,” so it was thought that the electrons were a usual fixture.

Image Credit: NASA
Image Credit: NASA

So, how did they figure this out? What technology could have been used with the probe to determine this new information? Well, it turns out that they used a specialized instrument called the Magnetic Electron and Ion Spectrometer (MagEIS). This device allowed scientists to more easily determine the energy and charge of different particles. This allowed them to distinguish between relativistic electrons and high-energy Protons. Seth Claudepierre, a Van Allen Probes scientist, said in a NASA press release that subtracting these protons from the measurements was key to these findings.

“We’ve known for a long time that there are these really energetic protons in there, which can contaminate the measurements, but we’ve never had a good way to remove them from the measurements until now,” Claudepierre.

A New Frontier

They have also found that not only is the inner belt a lot “weaker,” as some might put it, than previously thought, it is also much less stable. It is expected for the outer belt to fluctuate in size in response to solar activity, but now astronomers can see that the inner belt acts similarly.

The inner belt is no longer known as an unchanging band of high-energy, relativistic electrons. It has now been revealed to be an ever-changing belt that is (usually) made up of low-energy electrons and high-energy protons.

Because of the previous notions surrounding these belts, there has been relatively little study of them. This new information opens up an entirely new door for discovery. As we continue to explore our solar system, new information about these belts and the ways in which solar winds, Earth’s magnetic field, and radiation interact could be invaluable. Especially as scientists consider the possibilities of terraforming Mars, a planet lacking an atmosphere, research of the Van Allen Belts could catapult progress forward.

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NASA Plans To Turn The Largest Object in Our Solar System into a Telescope

A Solar Scope

Each day we get closer to exploring farther reaches of our solar system and universe. We have come incredibly far and seem to make progress with each day. However, our ability to survey the outer corners of the cosmos is limited by our current telescopic technology. Now, modern telescopes are nothing to scoff at. As the iconic Hubble Telescope is phased out, the James Webb Space Telescope will continue to capture the beauty of outer space. But scientists have figured out a way to push the boundaries of telescopic technology even further: by turning the Sun (yes, that sun) into a telescope.

To use the sun as some sort of massive magnifying glass, scientists have deferred to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. According to the theory, large objects (like the Sun) bend the space around them, and so anything traveling in that space (even light) bends as well. In a phenomenon known as gravitational lensing, if light is bent around an object in a particular way, it can magnify the space (quite literally, space) behind it.

Scientists have previously used gravitational lensing to help telescopes to be more effective, but now, researchers aim to use this distribution of matter as a “telescope.” This new approach certainly has its pros and cons. In order to harness this lensing, the necessary instruments would need to be pretty close to the sun, or 550 AU away. While humans and probes have traveled much closer to the sun than this, and plan to do so in the future, this difficult journey would take a long time and the equipment would have to be somehow “placed” into the middle of space.

However, if this is pulled off, it would be a massive leap forward in imaging technology. We could finally get a closer, clearer look at Trappist-1, and would be that much closer to discovering life outside of Earth.

A target pixel file representing light levels captured by the Kepler space telescope. Image Credit: NASA Ames/G. Barentsen
A target pixel file representing light levels captured by the Kepler space telescope. Image Credit: NASA Ames/G. Barentsen

James Webb

As mentioned previously, this “sun scope” is not the only highly advanced space-imaging technology that’s surfacing. The James Webb Space Telescope, set to launch in October of 2018, will hopefully continue and advance the incredible work of the Hubble Telescope. In fact, this telescope is so powerful that Lee Feinberg, an engineer and James Webb Space Telescope Optical Telescope Element Manager at Goddard, was quoted as saying. “The Webb telescope is the most dynamically complicated article of space hardware that we’ve ever tested.”

The technology that we use to capture the incredible images of space is improving every day. Modern telescopes will continue to advance, becoming more powerful, more precise, and more detailed. So, while the idea of a sun-based telescope is incredible and could yield unprecedented images and information, even if it doesn’t pan out, we will most certainly continue to find improved ways to look at the Universe.

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Bill Nye Just Wrote an Open Letter to the Trump Administration About NASA

Bill Nye the Educational Guy

Bill Nye, everyone’s favorite science guy, recently released a public video message for the current administration. Through his organization, The Planetary Society, Bill has stated (and included a written report of) his official recommendations for the government in relation to their plans for NASA. The Planetary Society gave their 16-page report directly to the NASA transition team.

As many have already read and discussed, the current administration has their sights set on returning to the Moon and pushing forward the goal to put humans on Mars. In fact, many members of the House Science Committee think that not only should sending humans to Mars be an absolute priority, but we should be reaching this goal much sooner (something that those like Tom Young, a past director of Goddard Spaceflight Center, think is currently unrealistic). However, they have also decided that many other efforts of NASA, like climate change research, are less than necessary. In fact, recently, the President-Elect has announced possible plans to defund NASA’s Earth Science Division.

Bill Nye, a longtime supporter of correct, up-to-date scientific information, has shown the current administration how they can tailor their plans to be less “1960s moonshot flashback” and more “scientifically-minded space research.”  Bill has laid out these recommendations fully and thoughtfully, and has specified five key suggestions (which he goes into great detail to explain). These suggestions are as follows:

1. Maintain the exploration of Mars as the organizing principle for NASA’s human spaceflight program;
2. Direct NASA to plan an executable, affordable path for sending humans to Mars orbit by 2033;
3. Expand NASA’s highly successful science portfolio;
4. Annual five percent increases to NASA’s budget for five years; and
5. Continue to grow and support the commercial space industry.

These recommendations seem simple enough, but if followed correctly could be the key to a brighter (and scientifically-sound) future. Going far beyond the simple “we want to get humans to Mars,” this plan sincerely outlines and develops ways that could advance and modernize current NASA plans. As both government and private space organizations race to release the most exciting developments to help us achieve our goals of space exploration, guidelines like these will allow all of the excitement and planning to become more grounded in reality.

Harsh Realities

Unfortunately, and especially currently, there are many who do not see value or validity in science. Even those who are in charge of funding scientific programs and research are not always well-versed in the importance of science. Thankfully, these recommendations by Bill Nye avoid any condescending attitude or overly-technical terminology. It is a helpful guide that can be easily interpreted and implemented.

If these suggestions are followed, NASA will be able to continue searching for life outside of Earth, create safe and viable ways to extend the possibilities of human space travel, and support ongoing research. The James Webb Space Telescope, the Mars 2020 rover, Solar Probe Plus, and the Europa Multi-Flyby Mission are just a few of the many projects and programs that will be able to continue to flourish under these guidelines.

These recommendations will hopefully be viewed and taken seriously by the current administration. While many dismiss NASA and think that missions to space are somehow frivolous, the research that NASA has done in the past has been the basis for a huge percentage of modern innovation. From health and medicine to smartphone technology, NASA researchers have had an irreplaceable impact on scientific advancement. Additionally, as the realities of climate change grow more pressing, the data that NASA scientists obtain and analyze is crucial in understanding how we can improve the harsh truths of our environment.

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When Should We Send Humans to Mars?

Gearing Up for Mars

For the first time in human history, human space exploration will go beyond our moon. With more than one organization looking to send humans to the red planet, traveling to Mars isn’t just a distant possibility — it’s an impending reality.

In 2020, there will be a specific launch window that will allow travel from Earth to Mars in the shortest, most efficient path possible. Given our current rocket technology, the trip would take about five to six months. This window will not only expedite travel, but will give organizations a more specific time frame to work within. However, according to current progress, it is most likely that government and private space organizations will be sending only unmanned probes until the 2020’s and 2030’s.

NASA notes that “they are currently further along than ever before in human history on [their] Journey to Mars.” Additionally, last year, SpaceX started testing the rocket intended to bring humans to the red planet, China announced its ambitious plans to reach Mars (with an unmanned probe) by the end of the decade, and the UAE announced that they plan to reach the planet by 2117.

As Explore Mars Chief Executive Officer Chris Carberry recently stated:

Today we have unprecedented support for Mars exploration from Congress, industry, and the general public. Children born in 2017 are more likely than any generation before them to witness, before their 18th birthday, humans walk on another planet for the first time.

*3* Are We Really Ready to Send People to Mars?

The Reality of Martian Travel

This unprecedented support is encouraging, but it will take a lot more than that to send humans to Mars.

For starters, there will be no stopovers between Earth and Mars — which means that everything humans will need, including (but not limited to) food, water, air, will need to be on board for a trip that experts are estimating to last as long three years. Six months to get there, six months back, and at least a year in between as they conduct research and wait for a launch window.

Of course, given advances in technology and the continued success of the International Space Station (ISS), we are significantly more knowledgeable than ever about space travel and how to ensure an efficient use of resources. Still, even the ISS requires supplies to be sent to the outpost every few months.

ISS astronauts consume nearly two pounds of food daily. If you assume the same volume of food will be consumed by a four-person crew on a three-year Mars mission, that means they need to bring a total of 24,000 pounds of food with them. SpaceX may have been able to deliver a payload of 5,500 pounds of supplies to the ISS, but that was because they used an unmanned Dragon capsule.

NASA tried to find a food solution with a recent 3D printing project that yielded a 3D printed pizza. However, it might be more possible to make up this shortage by space farming, but the field is still in its infancy. To date, the ISS’ Vegetable Production System has only been successful in planting flowers and five harvests of Chinese cabbage. Eventually, though, once the technology is better understood and more trials prove to be successful, space farming could hit two birds with one stone and provide food as well as oxygen.

These challenges are currently being addressed by the different space agencies preparing for their Mars missions. And, hopefully, by the time the launch window opens up, we’ll be more than ready to explore the Red Planet.

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The James Webb Space Telescope Will Utterly Transform Our View of the Universe

After the groundbreaking discovery of Trappist-1, it seems that our hunger for knowledge can’t be satiated – luckily, one new telescope might give us a lot to chew on.

With NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope reaching its retirement after 25 years spent exploring the celestial heavens, we must look to the new champion on the rise in 2018: the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The JWST is almost twice as large as the Hubble and is equipped with a 22-meter (72-foot) sunshield and a mirror with a diameter of 6.5 meters (21.3 feet). These components work together to allow the JWST to collect seven times more light than the Hubble.

In the video below, deputy project scientist and NASA astrophysicist Amber Straughn introduces viewers to “A New Era in Astronomy” during the unveiling of the JWST at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Ontario.

This level of capability will allow the JWST to detect signatures so faint that even a bumblebee on the moon wouldn’t be able to evade the telescope. With its powerful magnification and resolution, the JWST will focus on illuminating the galaxies that populate our – identifying with its advanced infrared sensors the first planets, stars, and solar systems that succeeded the big bang and now make up our night sky.

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NASA Just Found A Solar System With 7 Earth-Like Planets

An Ocean of Worlds

Today, scientists working with telescopes at the European Southern Observatory and NASA announced a remarkable new discovery: An entire system of Earth-sized planets. If that’s not enough, the team asserts that the density measurements of the planets indicates that the six innermost are Earth-like rocky worlds.

CLICK IMAGE TO SEE FULL INFOGRAPHIC
CLICK IMAGE TO SEE FULL INFOGRAPHIC

And that’s just the beginning.

Three of the planets lie in the star’s habitable zone. If you aren’t familiar with the term, the habitable zone (also known as the “goldilocks zone”) is the region surrounding a star in which liquid water could theoretically exist. This means that all three of these alien worlds may have entire oceans of water, dramatically increasing the possibility of life. The other planets are less likely to host oceans of water, but the team states that liquid water is still a possibility on each of these worlds.

Summing the work, lead author Michaël Gillon notes that this solar system has the largest number of Earth-sized planets yet found and the largest number of worlds that could support liquid water: “This is an amazing planetary system — not only because we have found so many planets, but because they are all surprisingly similar in size to the Earth!”

Co-author Amaury Triaud notes that the star in this system is an “ultracool dwarf,” and he clarifies what this means in relation to the planets: “The energy output from dwarf stars like TRAPPIST-1 is much weaker than that of our Sun. Planets would need to be in far closer orbits than we see in the Solar System if there is to be surface water. Fortunately, it seems that this kind of compact configuration is just what we see around TRAPPIST-1.”

Reaching Another World

The system is just 40 light-years away. On a cosmic scale, that’s right next door. Of course, practically speaking, it would still take us hundreds of millions of years to get there with today’s technology – but again, it is notable in that the find speaks volumes about the potential for life-as-we-know-it beyond Earth.

Moreover, the technology of tomorrow could get us to this system a lot faster.

These new discoveries ultimately mean that TRAPPIST-1 is of monumental importance for future study. The Hubble Space Telescope is already being used to search for atmospheres around the planets, and Emmanuël Jehin, a scientist who also worked on the research, asserts that future telescopes could allow us to truly see into the heart of this system: “With the upcoming generation of telescopes, such as ESO’s European Extremely Large Telescope and the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope, we will soon be able to search for water and perhaps even evidence of life on these worlds.”

 

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What Will We Do When Hubble Dies?

The Hubble’s Successor

More than 25 years ago, NASA launched the world’s first space telescope so we could more closely study surrounding galaxies. The Hubble Telescope has so far made over 1.3 million observations, many of which have provided invaluable information to astronomers and other researchers. However, within the 2020s, the Hubble is expected to phase out. So in 2018, NASA will send up a replacement. But how does the Hubble’s successor stack up? Can it live up to the legacy of human kinds’ first eyes in space?

The James Webb Telescope was named after the NASA chief who lead the agency during the 1960s, retiring just before the Apollo mission put a man on the moon. Webb was instrumental in expanding our knowledge of our galaxy, and NASA hopes that the telescope bearing his name will help them to gain insight into the formation of galaxies beyond our own.

By design, the Webb is “bigger and better” than the Hubble: it has seven times the collecting power and can function at temperatures as low as absolute zero — which is about as cold as it can get. But one thing the Webb can’t do that the Hubble can is view ultraviolet rays. The astronomers who study them utilize the Hubble’s data collection because, of course, the Earth’s atmosphere filters out UV rays.

What The Webb Can (& Can’t) Do

The Webb, while it will be able to see much that the Hubble cannot, is not a UV ray spotter. Over the next couple of years, astronomers studying those rays will need to get as much data from the Hubble as they can. NASA doesn’t have any specific plans to replace Hubble’s UV capabilities, but there are several other observatories that may be of use to astronomers who study UV rays that would be launched, at the earliest, in the 2030s. The Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIST), which would be something like a wide-screen version of the Hubble, and the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) could help fill some gaps left by the Hubble — but only if funding for their missions is approved.

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Between the Webb launch in 2018 and the retiring of the Hubble, there will be a spectacular — if not short — period of time where astronomers will be able to utilize both telescopes at the same time. The major goals of the Webb Telescope are to help astronomers locate the galaxies that formed our universe, observe the formation of planetary systems and stars from start to finish, and search for potential life in other parts of our Solar System as well as in any others we may encounter.

The Hubble will always have a revered place in history for its contributions to science, and for giving us some of our first glimpses of outer space. Through the Hubble, we saw corners of our universe that we never even knew existed. It’s thrilling to think that with the help of the Webb telescope’s sharp eye, things that we have only imagined could finally be revealed.

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Here’s Our Plan If We Meet Aliens

Do Aliens Exist?

For most of human history we’ve looked at the stars and wondered if there’s life beyond our galaxy. As technology has rapidly advanced, it feels possible that even our more esoteric questions about aliens could be one day be answered. The real question is: are we ready for the implications of those answers?

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While science fiction narratives often rely on the “government denies knowledge” trope, several groups around the world have invested time, effort, and resources into developing scientific protocols for assessing the probability of alien life. Of course, no nation in the world has formally adopted them…but they do exist.

The Drake Equation, proposed by an astronomer for which it was named in 1961, essentially provides a template that mathematicians could use to determine the likelihood that life exists elsewhere in the universe. Drake chose seven variables to include, such as “the formation rate of stars suitable for developing intelligent life.” The problem is science currently has no firm data for any of those variables. Therefore, attempting to actually calculate a probability from the equation (which is: N = R* • fp • ne • fl • fi • fc • L) provides only a hypothetical estimate.

If Aliens Do Exist, Are We Ready To Meet Them?

Let’s say that technological advances give us the ability to fill in the variables in The Drake Equation. Scientists then not only figure out the probability of extraterrestrial life is high, but that an alien visitation is imminent. What would happen next?

The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) League has an abundant list of protocols concerning contact with life on other planets, including something called The Rio Scale. The scale is concerned with three variables: the phenomenon itself, how it was discovered, and how far away it is, to provide an objective indicator of the events’ credence. In other words, the Rio Scale is a decent metric for sussing out alien hoaxes. This isn’t an insignificant application, either: as the video below points out, if the media reported that aliens had communicated with us before scientists had all the facts, something akin to mass panic would probably ensue.

The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies — otherwise known as simply The Outer Space Treaty — actually states that the Secretary-General of the United Nations be the one to formally communicate such a finding, having presumably received the information through proper channels.

Of course, this is all still largely hypothetical. Much of what we think we know about aliens comes not from hard evidence, but our fictional renderings of them and their interactions with us. We can’t know for sure what to expect if, and when, aliens make contact, but our attempts to prepare give us fascinating insight into our own hopes and fears. When we look to the sky we may not get the answers we’ve been looking for about aliens, but we’re likely to find answers about ourselves we didn’t even know we were looking for.

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Could Humans Ever Really Reach Alien Stars?

The Power of Propulsion

Space has always been a frontier where we expect the most advanced technologies and the most brilliant innovations to be employed. But for all that expectation, development has seemed to have stalled in one area: propulsion.

We may play with the engines, but we still push rockets into space by burning fuels. Change may be coming, though, as NASA is studying several conventional and unconventional methods of deep space propulsion in anticipation of future missions.

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NASA

Here is a rundown of the technology that will be pushing the boundaries of space propulsion very soon.

Chemicals

Ah, the good old liquid fuels. A staple since the advent of the space age, these fuels have been in development for 90 years already. But even after all that time, chemical fuels are still around and will be for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, we’ve done about all we can to make traditional chemical propulsion methods as efficient as possible.

We’ll need to develop more advanced chemical systems that make use of high energy density propellants and more advanced engine cycles if we want to use chemical propulsion for longer-term missions that would require a higher thrust-to-weight ratio. If we do make it to Mars using this propulsion methods, we will likely see astronauts splicing polar ice caps for hydrogen fuel to make the trip back home.

Electrothermal

More commonly associated with thrusters that orient rather than propel, these engines create super-heated plasma using electrical energy and push it through a supersonic nozzle. They’re ideal for longer missions as they don’t require the storage of volatile chemicals, and they are also fairly simple to make.

Since the 1970s, electrothermal engines have been used in Russian satellites, so we’ve had plenty of time to improve the technology. However, because they produce a very low level of thrust, they don’t have as many potential uses as some of the other propulsion methods.

Ion Drive

A low-thrust, long-term design, ion drives work by ionizing unreactive fuels (such as xenon), accelerating them using electrical fields, and then shooting them out into space. They are very slow at picking up speed, but can deliver 10 times as much thrust as a chemical rocket in the long run.

This type of propulsion has already been used on a number of spacecraft, including dozens of Earth-orbiting satellites and ones that have traveled as far as dwarf planet Ceres, so we know that they can work. Unfortunately, they do require a huge amount of electricity, which is typically provided by solar cells or a nuclear reaction.

NASA is currently working on several new systems, including the NASA Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT) and the Annular Engine, so this type of propulsion will be used to help us explore space even more frequently in the future.

Solar Sails

The ability of light to produce force was first discovered in 1873, and this innovative propulsion method works by having photons push a solar sail, thus propelling a craft forward. It would eliminate the need for heavy fuels or bulky engines, and the technique has already been proven effective by the LightSail project and Japan’s IKAROS project.

However, building the huge solar-relays such a system would need isn’t easy, and the farther away from the Sun this type of rocket travels, the less efficient the system becomes. Some have proposed using a massive laser to propel a spacecraft in the direction of a nearby star, but those designs are still very much in the planning stages.

Credit: Josh Spradling / The Planetary Society
Credit: Josh Spradling / The Planetary Society

Plasma

A variation on ion drive technology, this engine has magnetic currents and electrical potentials that accelerate ions in plasma to generate thrust. Despite the concept being more than half-a-century old, no one has yet to launch a spacecraft with this type of propulsion system beyond our atmosphere.

However, the Ad Astra Rocket company in Texas is currently working on the VASIMR, the world’s biggest plasma propulsion engine prototype. They predict that such a system could make the trip to Mars in just 39 days.

Thermal Fission

Some may say an extension of the nuclear obsession, this engine would use conventional fission to heat a propellant and generate thrust. The NERVA was a Nixon-era rocket that’s based on this idea, but it was scrapped before off-Earth testing could be done. Such propulsion systems have been tested on the ground, though.

This type of system would allow for very short trip times to Mars or other destinations, but we must first figure out a way to design a reactor that reaches the necessary temperatures with minimum erosion and that meets all environmental standards set by the government when tested on the ground.

Fusion

Fusion propulsion involves compressing electrically charged particles and then accelerating them to the speed of light before they are forced out of the rocket’s propulsion system. It is a highly researched propulsion method, and for good reason — such a system would cut the amount of travel time to Mars in half.

A couple of different fusion propulsion methods are in the works. Based on the idea of nuclear fusion, a continuous fusion engine would have atomic nuclei fuse, releasing energy as a result. While much more efficient than current systems, output from a fusion reactor is still out of grasp. A more plausible application of fusion would be pulsed fusion, provided nuclear testing bans are lifted. Pulsed fusion would have controlled fusion explosions occurring in the engine, creating thrust from a small amount of fuel.

Nanospacecraft

Rather than focusing on finding ways to move the spacecraft we currently have, some are focusing on designing crafts that would be easier to propel. Nanospacecraft are much smaller probes and satellites, which means they wouldn’t need the same level of propulsion as their larger counterparts. CubeSats, FemtoSats, and even the idea of the Breakthrough Starshot depend on smaller vessels.

Some of these craft are so small, their engines could fit on a single silicon chip. While they wouldn’t be large enough to transport astronauts, they could help us retrieve data on far away planets or other celestial bodies.

Antimatter

The most efficient of any of these designs, an antimatter engine would be able to convert up to 75 percent of fuel mass into energy. It creates this propulsive energy by forcing atomic particles to collide with their antiparticles. The problem is that generating a usable amount of antimatter has not yet been done — so far, we’ve only been able to create it in particle accelerators in amounts that wouldn’t be enough to boil a cup of water, let alone propel us anywhere.

If we are able to find a way to produce the stuff in greater quantities, NASA researchers estimate that just 10 thousandths of a gram could propel a craft to Mars in just 45 days.

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This Newly Rediscovered Exoplanet Could Support Life

Life On Another Planet

Scientists rediscovered an exoplanet that could possibly harness life, offering new hope for finding a habitable planet. The best part? It’s (relatively) close to our own solar system. Originally discovered in 2015, Wolf 1061c and its star, Wolf 1061, are located approximately 14 light years away from Earth. What makes the planet so intriguing to scientists and researchers is that it is located in the ‘habitable zone.’

NASA explains that the habitable zone is “the range of distance from a star where liquid water might pool on the surface of an orbiting planet.” The habitable zone is also known as the ‘Goldilocks Zone.’ Essentially, it’s not too hot or too cold for life – it’s just right.

Take Earth, for example. The warm conditions on our home planet are enough to sustain life and hold liquid water, but Mars is too cold to do the same. Researchers analyzed seven years of luminosity data from the planet’s star and tracked the planet’s orbit in order to find out what the temperature and surface pressure might be. Their findings secure the notion that it could be capable of hosting life.

The Hurdles in Making it All Possible

NASA/JPL

But there are some fallbacks. First, scientists are unsure of the atmospheric conditions on the exoplanet. They’re proposing that it could be similar to an earlier Venus, where temperatures were quick to evaporate all known traces of liquid water. The formation of water vapor would have perpetuated a runaway greenhouse effect, increasing temperatures even further. The team responsible for researching signs of life on Wolf 1061c now believe that the same thing could happen to it as did Venus, since the proximity to its star is close enough.

Second, we’re not even sure if there’s life on Wolf 1061c. We’d need detailed measurements, which could be retrieved from NASA’s James Webb telescope, but that telescope won’t be unveiled until next year. Its advanced optics could show us more about the exoplanet’s atmospheric conditions, providing room for more in-depth research on whether it could sustain life (and water).

Lastly, 14 light years from our solar system might sound close, but one single light year is equal to nine trillion kilometers (six trillion miles). It took us a decade to travel to Pluto, after all. Scientists would have to come up with a new way of getting technology (or even us) out there.

Luckily, progress has been made in this field. Ion propulsion could become the next space travel method of the future, where an ion thruster could propel a spacecraft up to 144840 km/h (90,000 mph). There’s also the Lightsail, a device the size of a breadbox able to expand to 32 m (105 ft) in space. It’s even completely powered by the Sun.

These endeavors in space travel, along with the James Webb and current research, have made it all the more interesting for us to see what will happen next with Wolf 1061c. The study has been slated for publication in an upcoming edition of The Astrophysical Journal.

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Notable Women in Space

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Research Shows How Space Travel Affects Humans

It turns out, astronauts have much bigger things to worry about than extraterrestrials that don’t come in peace, and it’s about time we started talking about them. After all, not only do we regularly send astronauts up to explore the vast mysteries of space, we also have the promise of space tourism looming on the horizon, government agencies racing to explore Mars, and private companies investing millions to figure out how we can live on the Red Planet once we get there.

As researchers pointed out in the book “Biology in Space and Life on Earth: The Effects of Spaceflight on Biological Systems,” “Space is an unforgiving environment that does not tolerate human error and technical failure.” Alas, human error and technical failure, while equally worrying, aren’t our only concerns. According to Leroy Chiao, a retired astronaut, “The biggest barrier to missions like that are biomedical…it’s how are you going to keep astronauts healthy in that long period of time?”

Here are some of the hazards that our astronauts face both during space exploration and after they return home.

Image Credit: Bill Ingalls/NASA

Microgravity Isn’t All It’s Cracked up to Be

Weightlessness may seem like one of the most enjoyable things about space travel, but microgravity takes a serious toll on the human biological system.

The absence of gravity in space tends to make our cardiovascular system less efficient. Instead of effortlessly distributing blood throughout the body, the system will let blood flow up toward our head and chest, significantly increasing the body’s risk of developing high blood pressure. In more serious scenarios in which the delivery of oxygen is compromised because of weightlessness, the body’s risk for cardiac arrhythmia is also a concern.

Because muscles don’t have to work as hard against the force of gravity in space, important muscles can begin to waste away. While losing muscle density is inevitable, astronauts stationed at the ISS make it a point to exercise for a couple of hours every day to make sure their calf muscles, quadriceps, and muscles that support the neck and back don’t deteriorate.

Space Can Leave Astronauts Partially Blind

It’s not just astronauts’ muscles that are at risk during space travel — astronauts deployed for extended missions in space have reported worrying signs of visual impairment as well.

Two-thirds of astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) have reported problems with their sight, and NASA has said it suspects that changes in the fluids in the eye and spinal cord in response to microgravity are the cause of the impairment, which is know as visual impairment intercranial pressure syndrome (VIIP). Thankfully, as advanced imaging techniques are developed, we should be able to better understand and regulate the link between brain pressure and microgravity.

Credit: NASA
Credit: NASA

Exposure to Radiation and Cosmic Rays Is Inevitable

Some people on Earth worry about radiation exposure from devices like smartphones, but in space, astronauts have to contend with radiation levels far higher. “In space, it’s between a 100 and 1,000 times higher dose rate [of radiation] than on Earth,” Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) scientist Cary Zeitlin told SPACE.com. And that exposure includes cosmic rays, a kind of high-energy space radiation that we’re shielded from by Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere.

The impact of that exposure is significant, according to a report by Medical News Today. They assert that the normal amount of radiation exposure for a person on Earth is 2.4 millisieverts (mSv), with anything above 100 mSv leading to a likelihood of cancer. Meanwhile, astronauts aboard the ISS are exposed to levels of 200 mSv, with those levels rising to about 600 mSv in cases of interplanetary travel. Just traveling to our nearest planetary neighbor, Mars, could cause genetic mutations, destroy DNA, and result in a 30 percent increase in the risk of developing cancer.

Fortunately, ISS astronauts are shielded from most of the radiation by the same magnetic field that keeps us safe down on the surface of the planet, but should a trip to Mars actually happen, they would no longer be protected. To counter this, NASA is working on methods to optimize shielding and ways to develop biological countermeasures to radiation exposure.

Astronauts Aren’t Immune to Fungal Infections

Despite our best efforts to ensure the safety and cleanliness of all spacecraft, it seems that exposure to pathogenic organisms while in space is unavoidable. According to a study published by the American Society for Microbiology, the growth of Aspergillus fumigatus, the most common cause of fungal infection in humans, isn’t hampered by the hostile conditions of space.

If something as common as the fumigatus can thrive on the ISS, then it’s very likely that other, more lethal pathogens are present as well, and with the nearest hospital far from easily accessible, any infection could pose serious consequences. Future improvements in living quarters and the development of smarter tech capable of providing medical diagnosis and treatment in space will ensure that little health problems don’t become big ones once an astronaut is in space.

It Can Greatly Impact Psychological Health

The negative impact on the health of astronauts isn’t limited to their physical well-being — being stuck in a small, enclosed space for months on end with other people, and knowing that you literally can’t just get out of bed, take a walk, and shake it all off can be enough to inflict serious psychological trauma on a space traveler.

A NASA-funded report on long space flights revealed that the primary concern of U.S. astronauts during missions to the ISS was how well they would get along with their crewmates. One astronaut wrote about the stress he was experiencing from these interpersonal concerns in his journal, stating, “I think I do need to get out of here…Living in close quarters with people over a long period of time, definitely even things that normally wouldn’t bother you much at all can bother you after a while…that can drive anybody crazy.”

Much research and testing is conducted to ensure astronauts don’t experience mental health issues during their time in space, and as longer missions are planned, even more rigorous studies will be conducted prior to lift-off.

Image credit: NASA
Image credit: NASA

Keeping astronauts as healthy as possible as they embark on these often lengthy missions may be difficult, but it’s not enough to deter intrepid space pioneers. Despite the risks being duly noted and addressed through extensive research on how space conditions affect human biology, NASA received applications from more than 18,000 would-be astronauts in 2016, breaking the record for the number received in a single year. Hopefully, today’s research will one day make traveling through space as safe as travel here on Earth.

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Hits and Misses 2016: Space Mission Highlights

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What Is Dark Matter?

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NASA Just Released the Top Designs for Our Future Martian Homes

The surface of Mars is a barren landscape riddled with peril. From high energy radiation to barreling sandstorms,  it is unbearably dry and currently unsurvivable for human beings. However, with the looming possibility of a manned mission to Mars, and future prospects of populated colonies on the Red Planet, NASA has been investigating different habitats that would best protect humans from the harsh elements.

NASA accepted more than 165 applications for a Mars habitat design contest this past year as part of their Centennial Challenges program that engages the public in the advancement of technology. Utilizing the public to innovate in this manner has allowed for an influx of creativity. Applicants have 3D printed models of their designs, and while the ultimate winner was the ‘Mars Ice House,’ there were a number of promising and intriguing designs. Below are the top three winners of this contest.

Third Place

The third place winner of this contest was Team LavaHive. As their name indicates, their model is to be constructed with recycled spacecraft materials and ‘lava-casting.’ Regolith (the rocks and soil that lie loosely on the surface) would be made molten and shaped into coils and layers to form the shapes of the habitat. Each shape created would be sprayed with an adhesive to ensure that it is airtight. This method would protect not only against the harsh sand and wind elements, but also against high-energy radiation. These structures would exist both above and below the Martian surface, with the capacity to add additional subterranean modules.

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LavaHire
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LavaHire

Second Place

The second place winner was Team Gamma. Their model is designed to be constructed by pre-programmed, semi-autonomous robots on the surface of Mars prior to the arrival of human astronauts. Each habitat may hold up to four adults and will be built using 3D printed structure, inflatable modules, and regolith. The regolith would be fused using microwaves, creating a barrier that would protect against radiation. The structures would exist both above and below the surface.

One unique aspect of this model is that the robots will not be given exact step-by-step directions. Instead, they will be given rules and objectives. This will allow them to operate even if communication fails and there are unexpected difficulties.

According to the project description:

The design of the compact 93 sqm habitat modules combines spatial efficiency with human physiology and psychology, with overlapping private and communal spaces, finished with ‘soft’ materials and enhanced virtual environments, which help reduce the adverse effects of monotony, while creating positive living environment for the astronauts.

 

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Gamma
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Gamma

First Place

The ultimate winner of this contest was Team Space Exploration Architecture and Clouds Architecture Office of New York, New York, or Team Mars Ice House as they are known. Kevin Vipavetz, the senior systems engineer at NASA’s Langley research center, and his team considered “many crazy, out of the box ideas and finally converged on the current Ice Home design, which provides a sound engineering solution.”

The Ice House is a large inflatable dome surrounded by a layer of 3D printed ice and a relatively thin layer of loose regolith. This strategy relies on the assumption of water in Mars’ northern hemisphere. This model is most capable of protecting human life against the intense cosmic and solar radiation, and surface contamination, while also allowing the structure to be completely above ground. The dome will feature an outer and inner shell, allowing for movement without a spacesuit and the possibility of growing plants.

All three of these designs might look outlandish and improbable, but they are structurally sound and capable of supporting human life and innovation. Some day, far into the future, one of these designs could be your future home on Mars.

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