China continues to make steady progress on its space exploration plans: from a deal with Russia to the possibility of launching rockets near the equator, — and most recently, the ambition to develop a nuclear-powered shuttle. The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), the main contractor for the country’s space program, has laid out a roadmap detailing the country’s goals for space exploration and technology. It offers a glimpse at what the country hopes to accomplish between 2017 and 2045, with one of the most ambitious projects being a nuclear-powered space shuttle.
There are numerous other targets China hopes to hit: as reported by GB Times, CASC will finish development on the Long March 8 rocket and put it into operation launching commercial satellites by 2020. GB Times previously reported that the Long March 8 will complete its first test flight in 2019, making a 2020 debut likely if everything goes as planned.
By 2030, the Long March 9 rocket will be ready for use. Classified as a “heavy-lift” rocket, it’s capable of carrying over 100 tonnes (220,462 pounds), making it perfect for launching crewed missions to the Moon, and possibly unmanned missions to Mars. By comparison, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket has a payload capacity of about 63 tonnes (140,660 pounds), though future iterations of the Falcon Heavy are likely to incorporate an increased payload.
Looking ahead to 2035, the CASC wants to make all of its launch vehicles reusable; currently, they’re all single use. Within five years from that time, they expect the introduction of a new generation of rockets and launch vehicles which would be used for interstellar missions, asteroid mining, and “constructing megaprojects such as a space-based solar power station.” The nuclear-powered space shuttle is also set for 2040, but as there are few details about the shuttle at present, it’s unclear if 2040 is when development will begin or when its first launch is expected to take place.
Provided everything progresses as hoped, China foresees itself becoming a leader in aerospace by 2045. It is, of course, difficult to account for everything that could happen over the next couple of decades, but the CASC’s roadmap is a clear sign of its investment in space exploration, and an example of what other countries may want to consider in order to maintain the public’s interest in space.
It should also be noted the roadmap reported by GB Times doesn’t include everything China plans to do. The aforementioned rocket launches near the equator are set to begin next year, while an unmanned probe is on track to be sent to Mars in 2020.
Earlier in the year, Hawking said that: “We are running out of space and the only places to go to are other worlds. It is time to explore other solar systems. Spreading out may be the only thing that saves us from ourselves. I am convinced that humans need to leave Earth.”
A major concern of Hawking, and others, is that climate change is already causing rapid sea level rise. It is possible that, if this progression isn’t diminished by a cut in emissions, a significant percentage of what is currently land will be under water. (This is, of course, in addition to the other life-threatening effects of climate change.) Additionally, as this continues, populations are set to continue increasing, which could have disastrous consequences. Hawking is confident that within the next few hundred years, Earth will no longer be a habitable option for humans.
This hypothetical day when humans will supposedly have to leave Earth has been likened to a “Doomsday.” Hawking has asserted multiple timelines for this eventual moment, but he is certain that, at some point, we will have to find a new home.
With ongoing projects by NASA, SpaceX, and both private and government agencies around the globe, it is likely that within the next few decades we will land humans on Mars. And, between proposals to terraform Mars and innovative designs like those from the Mars City Design competitions, it is possible that, if humans must leave earth, the red planet could one day be our alternate home.
In addition to efforts to reach Mars, Hawking helped to launch the Breakthrough Initiatives, a series of projects seeking to probe “the big questions of life in the Universe,” including finding and communicating with extraterrestrial life. One of these initiatives is Breakthrough Starshot, which will send nanocraft to Alpha Centauri, our closest star, in an effort to better understand life in the Universe. This technological platform could also allow us to find faster and better ways to travel to other planets. After all, if Hawking is right, the International Space Station (ISS) isn’t big enough to house the billions of people who currently reside on planet Earth.
Jeff Bezos is a busy man. Obviously, his primary focus is Amazon, the half-a-trillion-dollar company he founded, but improving how goods are bought and sold here on Earth is far from his most ambitious goal. Through his aerospace company Blue Origin, Bezos wants to expand humanity’s reach in the solar system.
At his high school graduation, he gave a valedictory speech that ended with a play on the “Star Trek” tagline — “Space, the final frontier. Meet me there.” — and Bezos’ Summit Series interview added a little more urgency to his invitation: “We have to go to space to save Earth…We kind of have to hurry.”
While Bezos believes humanity needs to explore the universe beyond our planet and has previously said he envisions a future where “millions of people [are] working and living in space,” he was sure to note during his Summit Series interview that we shouldn’t simply give up on the Earth. “We’ve sent robotic probes to every planet in our solar system. This one is the best. It’s not even close,” he said, according to TechCrunch’s report.
The Greatest Barrier
A few decades after giving his valedictory speech, Bezos is now one of the people most likely to actually enable that off-world meet up by opening space to tourism and possible colonization. As he’s noted before, though, we’ve yet to overcome one very significant hurdle: cost.
“We should build a permanent settlement on one of the poles of the Moon,” said Bezos while receiving the Buzz Aldrin Space Innovation Award. “What’s holding us back from making that next step is that space travel is just too darned expensive.”
Bezos’ Summit Series interview expanded on this point, with the CEO noting how lowering the price of admission for space travel could lead to thousands of space-based startups the same way lowered infrastructure costs opened the internet up to web startups.
Indeed, the future of space exploration and perhaps even colonization is in the hands of companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin, and as emphasized during Bezos’ Summit Series interview, it all starts with making space more accessible. We may still have decades to wait until humanity reaches Mars, but if Bezos has any say in the matter, he’ll be ready to meet us there.
We’re all familiar with the idea of solar sails to explore the Solar System, using the light pressure from the Sun. But there’s another propulsion system that could harness the power of the Sun, electric sails, and it’s a pretty exciting idea.
A few weeks ago, I tackled a question someone had about my favorite exotic propulsion systems, and I rattled off a few ideas that I find exciting: solar sails, nuclear rockets, ion engines, etc. But there’s another propulsion system that keeps coming up, and I totally forgot to mention, but it’s one of the best ideas I’ve heard in awhile: electric sails.
As you probably know, a solar sail works by harnessing the photons of light streaming from the Sun. Although photons are massless, they do have momentum, and can transfer it when they bounce off a reflective surface.
In addition to light, the Sun is also blowing off a steady stream of charged particles – the solar wind. A team of engineers from Finland, led by Dr. Pekka Janhunen, has proposed building an electric sail that will use these particles to carry spacecraft out into the Solar System.
To understand how this works, I’ll need to jam a few concepts into your brain.
First, the Sun. That deadly ball of radiation in the sky. As you probably know, there’s a steady stream of charged particles, mainly electrons and protons, zipping away from the Sun in all directions.
Astronomers aren’t entirely sure how, but some mechanism in the Sun’s corona, its upper atmosphere, accelerates these particles on an escape velocity. Their speed varies from 250 to 750 km/s.
Solar Wind Power
The solar wind travels away from the Sun, and out into space. We see its effects on comets, giving them their characteristic tails, and it forms a bubble around the Solar System known as the heliosphere. This is where the solar wind from the Sun meets the collective solar winds from the other stars in the Milky Way.
The solar wind does cause a direct pressure, like an actual wind, but it’s incredibly weak, a fraction of the light pressure a solar sail experiences.
But the solar wind is negatively charged, and this is the key.
An electric sail works by reeling out an incredibly thin wire, just 25 microns thick, but 20 kilometers long. The spacecraft is equipped with solar panels and an electron gun which takes just a few hundred watts to run.
By shooting electrons off into space, the spacecraft maintains a highly positive charged state. As the negatively charged particles from the Sun encounter the positively charged tether, they “see” it a huge obstacle 100 meters across, and crash into it.
By imparting their momentum into the tether and spacecraft, the ions accelerate it away from the Sun.
The amount of acceleration is very weak, but it’s constant pressure from the Sun and can add up over a long period of time. For example, if a 1000 kg spacecraft had 100 of these wires extending out in all directions, it could receive an acceleration of 1 mm per second per second.
In the first second it travels 1 mm, and then 2 mm in the next second, etc. Over the course of a year, this spacecraft could be going 30 km/s. Just for comparison, the fastest spacecraft out there, NASA’s Voyager 1, is merely going about 17 km/s. So, much faster, definitely on an escape velocity from the Solar System.
One of the downsides of the method, actually, is that it won’t work within the Earth’s magnetosphere. So an electric sail-powered spacecraft would need to be carried by a traditional rocket away from the Earth before it could unfurl its sail and head out into deep space.
I’m sure you’re wondering if this is a one-way trip to get away from the Sun, but it’s actually not. Just like with solar sails, a electric sail can be pivoted. Depending on which side of the sail the solar wind hits, it either raises or lowers the spacecraft’s orbit from the Sun.
Strike the sail on one side and you raise its orbit to travel to the outer Solar System. But you could also strike the other side and lower its orbit, allowing it to journey down into the inner Solar System. It’s an incredibly versatile propulsion system, and the Sun does all the work.
Although this sounds like science fiction, there are actually some tests in the works. An Estonian prototype satellite was launched back in 2013, but its motor failed to reel out the tether. The Finnish Aalto-1 satellite was launched in June 2017, and one of its experiments is to test out an electric sail.
We should find out if the technique is viable later this year.
The HERTS Mission
It’s not just the Finns who are considering this propulsion system. In 2015, NASA announced that they had awarded a Phase II Innovative Advanced Concepts grant to Dr. Pekka Janhunen and his team to explore how this technology could be used to reach the outer Solar System in less time than other methods.
The Heliopause Electrostatic Rapid Transit System, or HERTS spacecraft would extend 20 of these electric tethers outward from the center, forming a huge circular electric sail to catch the solar wind. By slowly rotating the spacecraft, the centrifugal forces will stretch the tethers out into this circular shape.
With its positive charge, each tether acts like a huge barrier to the solar wind, giving the spacecraft an effective surface area of 600 square kilometers once it launches from the Earth. As it gets farther, from Earth, though, its effective area increases to the equivalent of 1,200 square km by the time it reaches Jupiter.
When a solar sail starts to lose power, an electric sail just keeps accelerating. In fact, it would keep accelerating out past the orbit of Uranus.
If the technology works out, the HERTS mission could reach the heliopause in just 10 years. It took Voyager 1 35 years to reach this distance, 121 astronomical units from the Sun.
But what about steering? By changing the voltage on each wire as the spacecraft rotates, you could have the whole sail interact differently on one side or the other to the solar wind. You could steer the whole spacecraft like the sails on a boat.
In September 2017, a team of researchers with the Finnish Meteorological Institute announced a pretty radical idea for how they might be able to use electric sails to comprehensively explore the asteroid belt.
Instead of a single spacecraft, they proposed building a fleet of 50 separate 5-kg satellites. Each one would reel out its own 20 km-long tether and catch the Sun’s solar wind. Over the course of a 3-year mission, the spacecraft would travel out to the asteroid belt, and visit several different space rocks. The full fleet would probably be able to explore 300 separate objects.
Each spacecraft would be equipped with a small telescope with only a 40 mm aperture. That’s about the size of a spotting scope, or half a pair of binoculars, but it would be enough to resolve features on the surface of an asteroid as small as 100 meters across. They’d also have an infrared spectrometer to be able to determine what minerals each asteroid is made of.
That’s a great way to find that $10 trillion asteroid made of solid platinum.
Because the spacecraft would be too small to communicate all the way back to Earth, they’d need to store the data on board, and then transmit everything once they came past our planet 3 years later.
The planetary scientists I’ve talked to love the idea of being able to survey this many different objects at the same time, and the electric sail idea is one of the most efficient methods to do it.
According to the researchers, they could do the mission for about $70 million, bringing the cost to analyze each asteroid down to about $240,000. That would be cheap compared to any other method proposed of studying asteroids.
Space exploration uses traditional chemical rockets because they’re known and reliable. Sure they have their shortcomings, but they’ve taken us across the Solar System, to billions of kilometers away from Earth.
But there are other forms of propulsion in the works, like the electric sail. And over the coming decades, we’re going to see more and more of these ideas put to the test. A fuel free propulsion system that can carry a spacecraft into the outer reaches of the Solar System? Yes please.
I’ll keep you posted when more electric sails are tested.
Humans have long desired to explore the vast realms of space. Today, we are finally poised to send people out into the cosmos. Indeed, a number of private and public space companies are gearing up for Space Race 2.0 — a (very expensive) competition that inches us closer to uncovering answers about our universe and exploring new realms of our own humanity.
Though they are still in the race, shifting priorities and limited budgets have undermined NASA’s lead in exploring the solar system and beyond. In the meantime, private entities like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are flush with cash, and they are stepping up to try and engineer better, bigger, and faster rockets.
And this is a good thing because, if humans are to find life on other planets, or perhaps a new planet for ourselves, more work needs to be done. Engineers and scientists need to develop life support systems, find reliable sources of water and fuel, overcome the negative effects living in space has on the body, and find a faster way to travel.
There is still much to be done, but sending the average person to the Moon and beyond no longer seems so far out of reach. Yet, when will it finally happen? When will humans finally roam across an alien world? Here’s a comprehensive timeline of our future beyond Earth.
Late 2017: Heavy Falcon Launch
SpaceX plans to launch the Falcon Heavy for the first time before the end of 2017. Because the rocket can be reused, the Falcon Heavy rocket can deliver its payload into space at only a third of the cost of the next closest operational vehicle, the Delta IV Heavy. This lower upfront cost means that more organizations can carry out experiments in outer space. One of these experiments is the Planetary Society’s LightSail 2 solar sail that will launch on board a Heavy Falcon in early 2018.
SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket lives up to its name. 27 rocket engines weigh down the 70-meter (229-foot), 1.4-metric-ton (3.1-million-pound) rocket. That’s a lot of extra weight, but the payload makes it worthwhile — the rocket can launch 63,800 kg (140,660 lbs) of equipment, cargo, and passengers into orbit around Earth. That’s more than double the weight that the Space Shuttle can haul to the same altitude.
Virgin Galactic is gearing up to launch its first astronauts into space before the end of February 2018. Before it launches with passengers on board, though, the spacecraft will have to undergo a series of test flights.
The space plane, called the VSS Unity, completed its fifth ‘glide flight’ (distinct from the vertical trajectory of traditional space rockets) earlier in 2017. In the first months of 2018, it will be taking flights closer to the Karaman line, the official border between the Earth’s atmosphere and outer space located 100 km (62 miles) above the Earth’s surface.
Around that same time in early 2018, scientists will test the LightSail 2, a device that moves through space by harnessing the power of solar photons — no fuel tanks or thrusters required. The LightSail 2, a citizen-funded spacecraft and created bythe Planetary Society (the largest nonprofit organization that promotes the exploration of outer space), would be a proof of concept that solar sailing could propel spacecraft deeper into space. The unmanned, light-propelled spacecraft will hitch a ride on SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket before taking its test flight at an altitude of 720 km (447.4 miles).
2019: Space Tourism and Observation
Blue Origin, the spaceflight services company started by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, recently announced that it intends to take tourists to space before April 2019. In groups of six, passengers will board an 18-meter (60-foot) rocket to the edge of space, around 100 km (62 miles) from the Earth’s surface. Once there, they will experience zero-gravity flight. Three independent parachutes and a retro-thrust system ensure that passengers will gently sail back to Earth. This experience does not come cheap — a ticket to board the New Glenn to reach Earth orbit is rumored to cost anywhere between $150,000 and $250,000. And, yet, there’s little question that people will want to sign up — Virgin Galactic, a competing space tourism project, reportedly already has 700 people signed up.
In 2019, Blue Origin plans to add two- and three-stage rockets to its arsenal. They are fully reusable, up to 99 meters (326 feet) tall, and can deliver payloads at a relatively low cost, competing with SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rockets.
NASA also intends to launch its James Webb Telescope in the first quarter of 2019. The telescope will observe the solar system in the infrared to see every phase of the solar system’s maturation; it will ultimately be 100 times more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope, thanks to its array of 18 hexagonal mirror segments. With a combined mirror diameter of 6.5 meters (the Hubble measures in at only 2.4), the James Webb Telescope will be able to detect events such as the formation of galaxies dating back to the time of the Big Bang. It will also have a special focus on discovering new planets that could be capable of supporting life.
2020-2025: “Earth Reliant” and Beyond
From finding evidence of liquid water to detecting organic matter in the soil of the Red Planet’s surface, the Curiosity rover has answered some fundamental questions about what it’s like on Mars.
However, that information has also sparked more questions about what other elements may be present. To this end, in an effort to establish whether oxygen is present in the Martian atmosphere, and at what concentration, Curiosity’s successor, the Mars 2020 rover, will be saddled with a host of sensors and instruments that will allow it to answer this question. Information about oxygen concentration will be important if humans are ever able to visit the Red Planet themselves, which could be possible as early as 2030.
There are other things that need to happen if we’re going to colonize other planets. NASA has established three phases that we need to complete before this is possible. In the first, which NASA calls “Earth Reliant,” we continue to test the feasibility of living in space and conduct more research aboard the ISS. In the second (“Proving Ground”), operations around the Moon will be used to establish ways to return humans to the Earth safely. With those stages complete, we will finally reach the third stage (“Earth Independent”) in which humans establish a self-sufficient colony on Mars.
Just over 50 years after humans first touched the lunar surface, NASA is gearing up to launch another manned spacecraft to go beyond the Moon. The astronauts will be on board a ship called the Orion, which will lift off using NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), a modular heavy launch vehicle. SLS is similar to SpaceX’s Heavy Falcon and has a maximum payload of 70 to 130 metric tons (150,000 to 290,000 lbs).
First, though, the spacecraft will do a few test runs without any humans on board. The first mission, Exploration Mission-1, is slated for late 2018. The SLS will launch the unmanned craft, travel to the Moon, enter orbit about 100 km (62 miles) above the lunar surface, and use gravity to propel itself into deep, unexplored space. The goal of this mission is to see if the craft can help humans survive a trip to distant planets.
The second mission (Exploration Mission-2), planned for August 2021, will be NASA’s first manned test flight beyond the Moon. “During this mission, we have a number of tests designed to demonstrate critical functions, including mission planning, system performance, crew interfaces, and navigation and guidance in deep space,” Bill Hill, the deputy associated administrator of Exploration Systems Development at NASA Headquarters said in a 2016 NASA blog.
To gain enough momentum to make the trip around the Moon, the spacecraft will have to make multiple orbits around Earth, occasionally igniting its thrusters. During its stable orbit of the Moon, the Orion will gather data and test the spacecraft’s capabilities for interplanetary flight.
2022: Making Mars Habitable
While NASA spends the 2020s exploring how to best keep humans healthy in space, SpaceX plans to start putting down the infrastructure for humans to colonize it. SpaceX anticipates completing its first 54.6-million-km (33.9-million-mile) trip to Mars in 2022.
In his update earlier this year, Elon Musk revealed plans for a rocket that is far bigger and more powerfulthan NASA’s Space Launch System and even his agency’s own Falcon Heavy — the BFR. A rocket that big would have enough space for fuel to take humans to Mars, or even allow for Earth-based city-to-city travel.
With a maximum payload of 150 tons, the enormous 106-meter (347.7-feet) rocket would break the current record for biggest payload (including cargo, fuel, and passengers) launched into orbit, while providing the lowest cost for each additional launch.
To reach the Moon, the BFR would launch from the Earth’s surface, transfer propellant from fuel depots previously stationed in Earth’s orbit, accelerate in orbit, pick up an injection of fuel for the remaining distance to the lunar surface on the way, and land. SpaceX plans to refuel the rocket once it is in orbit in order to extend its range and payload capacity so that it can return safely to Earth.
Tests have already shown that it’s possible to refuel rockets in space. NASA conducted the Robotic Refueling Mission in 2011, and it successfully completed a robot-actuated propellant transfer on an exposed platform of the International Space Station.
By 2022, SpaceX expects to land at least two cargo ships on Mars in order to establish a habitat for humans. The primary goal of those initial missions is to find a reliable source of water on the Martian surface.
2024: Manned Missions on the BFR
Two years after those cargo ships establish an infrastructure, SpaceX plans to send humans to inhabit a colony on Mars. The passengers aboard the BFR’s 40-cabin Mars transit module will be the first to make the unprecedented trip.
This is, Musk would probably admit, an aggressive timeline. And it may not work in SpaceX’s favor: Due to planetary alignments and other factors such as solar power requirements and fuel limitations, the launch window of Earth-Mars travel is only a few weeks, according to Wired. And that’s assuming that all the other pieces fall perfectly into place — neither the BFR nor its predecessor, the Falcon Heavy, has yet had a successful launch.
Should the BFR mission make it to Mars, it will contain the materials to construct a propellant production plant as part of its Martian colony. The plan would suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turn it into deep-cryo CO4 fuel using solar power.
2025-2030: A Year in Space
SpaceX might be ready to send humans to live in space by the early 2020s, but NASA is a little more cautious. The government space agency is planning to put astronauts into orbit for a year to find out if humans are indeed ready to live on a different planet.
In March 2016, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly completed a similar year-long mission aboard the ISS to test the effects of zero gravity on the human body and what that will mean for future space travel to Mars. Unlike Kelly’s mission, however, NASA’s 2021 mission will put astronauts in orbit around the Moon. They’ll be in a “deep-space gateway” — a small ISS-like station that will serve as a testing ground for future deep space missions, including later missions to Mars. It will be built over five earlier missions, four of them with humans aboard. The effects of spending a year in lunar orbit on the human body, caused by factors such as different day-night cycles and solar radiation, are still unknown.
2030s: NASA Sends Humans to Mars
Five years after SpaceX’s manned missions to Mars, NASA plans to send its own spacecraft to the Red Planet. Using data and samples from the Curiosity and Mars 2020 rovers, NASA will first establish how humans could sustain themselves on the Martian surface before sending manned spacecraft from its deep-space gateway to do so.
Now that the United States is officially getting back into space exploration, the Moon now seems to be the focus — or at least the starting point — of a lot of plans involving space travel. The Trump administration has redirected NASA’s priorities to settling on our lunar neighbor before Mars, and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has said the BFR project will be a key factor in creating a lunar base.
To continue the trend, Bigelow Aerospace and the United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced last week they would be collaborating to design an inflatable habitat. The habitat would be launched into space by the end of 2022, and eventually function as a lunar depot. Bigelow Aerospace is designing two B330 expandable modules, while ULA is providing the Vulcan 562 configuration rocket that will carry the module into low Earth orbit. A single B330 is roughly one-third the volume of the International Space Station.
After the Vulcan rocket brings the B330 into low Earth orbit, it will inflate, and Bigelow will outfit it with additional equipment and put it through a series of tests. Once it’s fully up and running, additional launches will be carried out to provide 35 tons of cryogenic propellant to the module. It will then be maneuvered into its final location: low lunar orbit.
“We are excited to work with ULA on this lunar depot project,” said Bigelow Aerospace president Robert Bigelow in a statement. “Our lunar depot plan is a strong complement to other plans intended to eventually put people on Mars. It will provide NASA and America with an exciting and financially practical success opportunity that can be accomplished in the short term. This lunar depot could be deployed easily by 2022 to support the nation’s re-energized plans for returning to the Moon.”
“The Chinese have a very ambitious moon program already in place,” said Pal A. Hvistendahl, ESA’s head of media relations, at the time. “Space has changed since the space race of the ’60s. We recognize that to explore space for peaceful purposes, we do [need] international cooperation.”
It’s been quite some time since humanity saw the Moon as a worthwhile place to venture to. Regardless of who manages to do it first, it’s an exciting time for space travel.
A gravitational lens is formed when one galaxy is hidden behind another—at least, from our perspective—yet it’s possible to still see the hidden galaxy poking out around the edges of the one in front. Astronomers search for new gravitational lenses in order to research dark matter, but tracking them down can be a tedious and demanding process. To make the job easier, scientists are now deploying an AI astronomer: artificial intelligence capable of identifying and sorting images much faster than humans. So far, results have been favorable.
A group of astronomers from the universities of Groningen, Naples, and Bonn developed and trained a “convolutional neural network” using millions of homemade images of gravitational lenses. This process was used by Google and DeepMind to make the AlphaGo AI, as well as by Tesla to enable its self-driving cars. Neural networks have also been used to recognize diseases in plants, proving their versatility.
After the initial batch of images, the team then showed the network millions of images from a small patch of sky equivalent to about 0.5 percent of the sky’s total surface area. While this may seems an insignificant amount compared to the vastness of both the sky and space, the effort proved to be beneficial; when put into practice, the AI found 761 potential gravitational lenses, which was then scaled down to 56 following a visual inspection by the team of astronomers.
Finding new gravitational lenses is a fairly involved process. That’s largely because of the thousands of images astronomers much sift through, made slightly easier with the help of volunteers around the world. That said, they can never keep up with the steady influx of images provided by telescopes that constantly watch our skies.
“This is the first time a convolutional neural network has been used to find peculiar objects in an astronomical survey,” said Carlo Enrico Petrillo from the University of Groningen, who was also first author on the study, in a press release. “I think it will become the norm since future astronomical surveys will produce an enormous quantity of data which will be necessary to inspect. We don’t have enough astronomers to cope with this.”
The neural network isn’t perfect, however; it was not trained to recognize small gravitational lenses and therefore failed to spot them. There’s also the 56 lenses it did find, which still need to be confirmed by telescopes like the Hubble Space Telescope. Some may fail to be gravitational lenses altogether.
Fortunately, the team will continue training their AI astronomer, in the hopes that visual inspection by a human will no longer be needed. When the AI is improved and fully operational, it could prove to be the very thing we need to locate other distant objects like stars and comets, or to identify dark energy and dark matter.
Astronomers can tell how big a cluster is by studying how much distant objects are distorted by its gravity, and then compare how that number relates to the amount of visible matter in the galaxy. Any galaxy that has more gravity than its matter should suggests that dark matter is present and exerting its own pull. Making gravitational lensing a valuable way to roughly map how dark matter and dark energy are distributed—and understanding exactly what these mysterious facets of our universe are.
The 8.5-tonne (9.4-ton) station, initially launched in 2011, hosted three missions during its time out in space, including a mission involving China’s first female astronauts, Liu Yang and Wang Yaping. It was never meant to function for more than two years, but continued use until 2016, when its data service was cut off. Several months later, China had reportedly lost control of the station, predicting the eventual impact with Earth “in the second half of 2017” would be harmless.
The Chinese space agency has stated that most of the station will burn up in the atmosphere, and the rest likely land in the ocean.
However, Harvard astrophysicist and space enthusiast Jonathan McDowell told The Guardian it will be impossible to guess where the station would crash, even if it was a day before it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere.
“You really can’t steer these things,” he said last year. “Even a couple of days before it re-enters we probably won’t know better than six or seven hours, plus or minus, when it’s going to come down. Not knowing when it’s going to come down translates as not knowing where it’s going to come down.”
“Yes there’s a chance it will do damage, it might take out someone’s car, there will be a rain of a few pieces of metal, it might go through someone’s roof, like if a flap fell off a plane, but it is not widespread damage,” McDowell told The Guardian.
In September 2016, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft crashed into Comet 67P, bringing an end to 12 years of service — or so the ESA thought. While they believed they had already received Rosetta’s final image of the comet, the organization recently discovered one more, revealing the true final moment before impact.
The image previously thought to be Rosetta’s last was taken from a height of about 23.3 to 26.2 meters (76 to 86 feet), but the ESA estimates that this new image was taken from about 18 to 21 meters (59 to 68 feet) above the comet’s surface. They claim it captures an area of about one square meter (10 square feet).
When Rosetta purposefully set itself on a crash course with 67P, it transmitted the last of its images in six separate packets. However, due to an unexpected transmission interruption, only three made it back to Earth.
“Later, we found a few telemetry packets on our server and thought, wow, that could be another image,” said Holger Sierks, principal investigator for the OSIRIS camera at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Göttingen, Germany, in a statement.
The craft transmits images in layers, with each new layer adding detail to the image, so Sierks and his team had to assemble Rosetta’s final image one layer at a time. The ESA notes that while some of the finer details were lost, the final result is a zoomed-in shot of the spot Rosetta is thought to have impacted.
This may be the last we see from Rosetta, but it’s a fittingly unexpected end for a spacecraft that contributed so much to space exploration while traversing our solar system for more than a decade.
Moments ago, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) announced that they made a revolutionary discovery, one that they will be unveiling to the world on Monday (October 16th). According to the media advisory released today by the ESO, scientists have observed an astronomical phenomenon that has never been witnessed before.
Beyond that, no information is available regarding this most recent announcement.
The last time that astronomers unveiled a groundbreaking discovery of this nature was when scientists working at LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) detected gravitational waves. Ultimately, the find ushered us into a new era in astronomy, allowing us to see the universe as never before.
To clarify, before this detection, we were only able to perceive the cosmos through observations of electromagnetic radiation—through gamma rays, x-rays, visible light, and so on. Thanks to the LIGO discovery, we can now observe the very ripples of spacetime itself.
Of course, there are a number of mysteries that scientists have yet to explain in relation the origins and evolution of the cosmos. As such, it is difficult to pin down the specific nature of this observation—perhaps scientists finally observed dark energy, the mysterious force that is thought to make up approximately 73 percent of the universe, or perhaps it is a discovery that scientists never before fathomed. Stay tuned.
After almost 20 years, 7.9 billion kilometers, and more than 453,000 images, Cassini has ended its mission. Today marks the culmination of Cassini’s “grand finale,” which began in April. On Friday morning, NASA confirmed that the robotic spacecraft had sent its final signal, sent as it descended into Saturn’s atmosphere.
Cassini, a joint endeavor from NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency, was launched in 1997 with the goal of better understanding Saturn, its planets, and its moons. Its hundreds of flybys of those moons, and orbits of the planet itself, have given scientists insights into worlds that had previously been shrouded in mystery, altering their understanding of our solar system.
Cassini’s fateful descent wasn’t pre-ordained at the time of its launch. As the spacecraft ran low on rocket fuel, the team had to make a decision. The team evaluated several options for the end of the spacecraft’s mission, according to NASA’s web site. Cassini could have returned to Jupiter or moved on to Uranus, stayed in a more stable (but less scientifically interesting) orbit, or even learned more about moons like Enceladus or Titan, says Roger N. Clark, a senior scientist with the Planetary Science Institute who has worked on the Cassini team, in an interview with Futurism.
But its current route, mortal as it may be, was too tempting. “The chosen tour with the close passes of the rings and then between the rings and planet are retuning unique data that is answering many questions,” Clark says. During its swan dive, Cassini will take measurements of the gravity and mass of Saturn’s legendary rings, along with directly sampling the material that makes up the rings, that are only possible with this trajectory, Clark noted.
Spacecraft navigators predict the trajectory with astounding precision. They have known for days that Cassini was on track to collide with a large ring particle, destabilizing its orbit and send it crashing towards the surface. In the end, Cassini will have burned up in Saturn’s atmosphere, as a meteor would; any parts that don’t burn up will plummet into the planet’s center, where they will melt without damaging the planet.
The Finale, But Not The End
The information Cassini gathered has enabled scientists to make discoveries that have warranted the publication of nearly 4,000 scientific papers. It captured active geysers on Enceladus, one of Saturn’s 62 moons. It revealed new details on Titan, another of Saturn’s moons with some of the most Earth-like features discovered in our solar system (complete with liquid seas and a weather system) that may now be a candidate for future exploration.
It has even gathered information that is shaping another NASA mission, to Jupiter’s moon Europa. Perhaps most importantly, it illuminated processes and forces that shaped the early days of the solar system—forces that have made our planet what it is. It’s given us new candidates for where life might exist, and what it might look like if we find it.
In short, Cassini not only fulfilled its mission, it exceeded expectations. “Not only did Cassini provide the data to answer questions at the start of the mission, the data led to new questions and the extended mission phases answered many of those questions, and posed yet more,” Clark says. “As we continue to analyze the flood of data we have in hand, more questions will undoubtedly be posed and answered.” Much of the data still hasn’t been analyzed in detail, he says, which means that scientists will be looking at the information for decades to come.
Discoveries made from Cassini’s observations have opened up the possibility of several more missions. NASA already has plans to send a spacecraft to Europa, and is determining how best to explore the hydrocarbon seas of Titan. They may create a probe to explore Saturn’s atmosphere in greater depth, or even that of more distant Uranus.
Clark says he will be working on the Europa mission, plus another project called TREX to create software so that robotic spacecraft can autonomously search for materials of interest, such as water or even life itself. His team, which processes data from the Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer, recently fixed a bug with the machine’s calibration, giving the researchers better-quality data than they ever thought possible. But funding for Cassini’s science teams will end in 2018, and they might not get to finish making sense of it all.
“I have been working on Cassini for almost 30 years, so it has been a major part of my career, and certainly a highlight,” he says. And though he’s excited about the quality of the data now, and the next projects to come, there’s a sadness there. “It is like the death of a close friend.”
Clark isn’t the only one who is feeling the bittersweetness of the project’s end. “Cassini’s Grand Finale has been fantastic, both scientifically and technically,” a Cassini spokesperson tells Futurism. “The mood of the team heading toward end of mission is a mix of joy and satisfaction, given the mission’s enormous success, tinged with sadness at the impending loss of their stalwart spacecraft. We’ve had a long time to prepare, but it’s never easy to say good bye.”
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.
Satellites are typically imagined to be massive constructs that take millions of dollars to produce and maintain, but the much smaller CubeSats — miniaturized satellites shaped like cubes — are more convenient, cost-effective, and easier to handle. The latest development in CubeSat propulsion could soon see CubeSats using water vapors to maneuver around, potentially making them the preferred hardware to use in future exploratory missions. Water is not only safe to use, but plentiful in our solar system; within our planetary neighborhood, it’s thought to be abundant just next door on Mars’ moon, Phobos.
A team at Purdue University is behind the water-propelled project, which involved a number of undergraduates as part of a propulsion design course. Their prototype CubeSat, presented at the 31st AIAA/USU Conference on Small Satellites, was made using commercially available products at a relatively low cost.
The new propulsion system, called a Film-Evaporation MEMS Tunable Array, or FEMTA thruster, utilizes small capillaries that are ten micrometers in diameter. Ten micrometers isn’t large enough to allow the teaspoon of water inside the CubeSat to be used, so small heaters were installed that can be activated to turn the water into vapor and provide thrust.
Four of these FEMTA thrusters were used on a single ten-centimeters-cubed CubeSat, allowing it to rotate on a single axis. For full three-axis rotation, twelve thrusters are required.
“This is a very low power,” said Alina Alexeenko, a professor at Purdue University and lead researcher on the propulsion project, in a press release. “We demonstrate that one 180-degree rotation can be performed in less than a minute and requires less than a quarter watt, showing that FEMTA is a viable method for altitude control of CubeSats.”
CubeSats have typically been used alongside their larger counterparts. They’ve previously had no propulsion system of their own, requiring them to be launched while aboard another craft. They have then been used for various tasks, such as internet service, high-res imagining, environmental observations, and military surveillance.
With this new water-based propulsion system, however, they can be used for far greater things, such as constellation-flying and exploration — things traditional satellites are unable to do due to their size. Fortunately, Alexeenko and her team are eager to have their system used in a real space mission, and are pursuing a patent for the concept.
That will take some time and more work, of course. The goal now is to further reduce the weight, volume, and power needed to effectively use CubeSats in space. The aforementioned prototype could only accommodate four FEMTA thrusters, and still weighed 2.8 kilograms (6 pounds). To get the most out of the amount of water needed, the CubeSat will have to be lighter.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Frank Drake is a world-renowned astronomer and astrophysicist who is responsible for founding the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI) and inventing the Drake equation, which estimates the likelihood of finding intelligent life in the Universe.
On July 16th, Drake hosted a Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) and gave some interesting responses to the community’s questions, which can roughly be split into questions on Drake’s own works and theories, and more abstract questions concerning space and aliens.
Drake on Drake
Reddit user murikansk asked, “What was the main hope when creating the Golden Record and the Pioneer plaque? That is, was it simply hoping that it would be understood that it is nonrandom data and the location of the origin of the spacecraft deciphered, or did you also believe in the possibility that the extraterrestrial civilization would learn something about our cultures? How much of the plaque, record, and the Arecibo message did you believe would realistically be understood if intercepted?” The question refers to his collaboration with Carl Sagan and NASA, when he helped design the Golden Record, a record on board both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 that contains the sounds of the diversity of life on earth, and the Pioneer Plaques, which were attached to Pioneer 10 and 11 as a universal message about Earth to extraterrestrial life.
Drake responded: “These may be the only records that we ever existed [sic], and this meant a great deal to us in a very deep and emotional way.” Responding to a question from Zaphus, he said he would update them by making “use of the much greater capabilities we now have to send huge amounts of information quickly. I would send 3-dimensional movies, I would send sounds, and in this way much more accurately show what we are like and what we are capable of.”
Drake also gave an answer to a question concerning his own Drake Equation — a formula that attempts to show the likelihood of finding intelligent life in the Universe.
Senno_Ecto_Gammat asked, “Do you think we will nail down good values for the variables in the Drake equation before we make contact with intelligent extraterrestrial civilizations, or will we only get good values for those variables after we make contact?”
Drake answered, “We’ll get good numbers for the variables except for f (sub i), and L.” These necessitate contact with other alien life. F (sub i) refers to the fraction of life bearing planets on which intelligent life emerges, while L — which he later referred to as “the most important parameter” — is the length of time over which such civilizations release detectable signals into space.
While we have suspected that we have received such signals, with the WOW! Signal being the most notable, none have, as-of-yet, proven to be genuine communications from another civilization.
Drake on Space
He also provided responses to questions that the entire space community is asking. One of the first, from DevinDTA — which is what we would all ask to an expert on the extraterrestrial — concerned when he thinks we will meet alien life. He responded that he believes “we will detect evidence of non-intelligent life on another planet of our solar system within the next 50-70 years” and that “it’ll probably be microbial.”
YoureGratefulDead2Me asked, “If you could communicate with an alien civilization and language barrier were not an issue, what would you tell them/ask them?” Drake responded, in part, “If they are like us we would ask them what steps they take to support an ever growing population; for example is the colonization of other planets in their solar system advantageous or too costly and dangerous.” Drake, then, like Elon Musk, believes that the world’s population — which is set to hit 9.7 billion by 2050 — is one of the most challenging obstacles we face in our continued development; and that colonizing other planets could be a solution.
SailingSmitty asked where Drake sat on the spectrum of trying to contact aliens vs awaiting contact from them — essentially, whether he is currently aligned with the Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) or SETI, which searches instead. In response, he stated, “I believe it is a waste of time and resources to transmit messages to alien life until we have actually detected alien life and know something about them.”
Perhaps more interestingly, though, he continued, “Also, I do not believe it is dangerous to transmit signals because there is not a very great benefit for them to attack us.” This contrasts with other expert views.
Stephen Hawking advises against first contact by predicting the meeting would be like the first encounter between Columbus and the Native Americans — which “didn’t turn out so well” for the latter party. At the other end of the spectrum is Alexander Zaitsev, founder of METI, who thinks we should “not want to live in a cocoon, in a ‘one-man island’” and therefore should take every possible opportunity to communicate with whatever (or whoever) is out there.
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.”
The search for life elsewhere in the universe is one of the most compelling aspects of modern science. Given its scientific importance, significant resources are devoted to this young science of astrobiology, ranging from rovers on Mars to telescopic observations of planets orbiting other stars.
The holy grail of all this activity would be the actual discovery of alien life, and such a discovery would likely have profound scientific and philosophical implications. But extraterrestrial life has not yet been discovered, and for all we know may not even exist. Fortunately, even if alien life is never discovered, all is not lost: simply searching for it will yield valuable benefits for society.
Why is this the case?
First, astrobiology is inherently multidisciplinary. To search for aliens requires a grasp of, at least, astronomy, biology, geology, and planetary science. Undergraduate courses in astrobiology need to cover elements of all these different disciplines, and postgraduate and postdoctoral astrobiology researchers likewise need to be familiar with most or all of them.
By forcing multiple scientific disciplines to interact, astrobiology is stimulating a partial reunification of the sciences. It is helping to move 21st-century science away from the extreme specialisation of today and back towards the more interdisciplinary outlook that prevailed in earlier times.
By producing broadminded scientists, familiar with multiple aspects of the natural world, the study of astrobiology therefore enriches the whole scientific enterprise. It is from this cross-fertilization of ideas that future discoveries may be expected, and such discoveries will comprise a permanent legacy of astrobiology, even if they do not include the discovery of alien life.
It is also important to recognise that astrobiology is an incredibly open-ended endeavour. Searching for life in the universe takes us from extreme environments on Earth, to the plains and sub-surface of Mars, the icy satellites of the giant planets, and on to the all-but-infinite variety of planets orbiting other stars. And this search will continue regardless of whether life is actually discovered in any of these environments or not. The range of entirely novel environments opened to investigation will be essentially limitless, and so has the potential to be a never-ending source of scientific and intellectual stimulation.
The Cosmic Perspective
Beyond the more narrowly intellectual benefits of astrobiology are a range of wider societal benefits. These arise from the kinds of perspectives – cosmic in scale – that the study of astrobiology naturally promotes.
It is simply not possible to consider searching for life on Mars, or on a planet orbiting a distant star, without moving away from the narrow Earth-centric perspectives that dominate the social and political lives of most people most of the time. Today, the Earth is faced with global challenges that can only be met by increased international cooperation. Yet around the world, nationalistic and religious ideologies are acting to fragment humanity. At such a time, the growth of a unifying cosmic perspective is potentially of enormous importance.
In the early years of the space age, the then US ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, said of the world: “We can never again be a squabbling band of nations before the awful majesty of outer space.” Unfortunately, this perspective is yet to sink deeply into the popular consciousness. On the other hand, the wide public interest in the search for life elsewhere means that astrobiology can act as a powerful educational vehicle for the popularisation of this perspective.
Indeed, it is only by sending spacecraft out to explore the solar system, in large part for astrobiological purposes, that we can obtain images of our own planet that show it in its true cosmic setting.
In addition, astrobiology provides an important evolutionary perspective on human affairs. It demands a sense of deep, or big, history. Because of this, many undergraduate astrobiology courses begin with an overview of the history of the universe. This begins with the Big Bang and moves successively through the origin of the chemical elements, the evolution of stars, galaxies, and planetary systems, the origin of life, and evolutionary history from the first cells to complex animals such as ourselves. Deep history like this helps us locate human affairs in the vastness of time, and therefore complements the cosmic perspective provided by space exploration.
There is a well-known aphorism, widely attributed to the Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, to the effect that “the most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world”. Humboldt was presumably thinking about the mind-broadening potential of international travel. But familiarity with the cosmic and evolutionary perspectives provided by astrobiology, powerfully reinforced by actual views of the Earth from space, can surely also act to broaden minds in such a way as to make the world less fragmented and dangerous.
I think there is an important political implication inherent in this perspective: as an intelligent technological species, that now dominates the only known inhabited planet in the universe, humanity has a responsibility to develop international social and political institutions appropriate to managing the situation in which we find ourselves.
In concluding his monumental Outline of History in 1925, HG Wells famously observed: “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” Such an observation appears especially germane to the geopolitical situation today, where apparently irrational decisions, often made by governments (and indeed by entire populations) seemingly ignorant of broader perspectives, may indeed lead our planet to catastrophe.
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.
In the 1960s, the US government’s top secret Project Orion had its eyes on a target far further away than NASA’s lunar goal. Twenty people would land on the surface of Saturn in 1970, after taking a casual detour on Mars on the way. They would be propelled there by riding the blast-waves of nuclear explosions the spacecraft dropped out of its stern (this is called nuclear pulse propulsion).
Using many of the minds who were part of the Manhattan Project (to build the atomic bomb), the ship would have been a little taller than the leaning tower of Pisa at 60 meters (196.85 feet), about forty times as heavy as a blue whale at 3628.739 metric tons (4,000 tons), have its hull built “built like a submarine, not an airplane,” according to project memberFreeman Dyson and — to top it all off — was designed to be a reusable, multi-use platform.
While this sounds as outlandish as science fiction, Washington took the proposal so seriously that they spent the equivalent of US$85 million in today’s money on development. Russia had just caused upheaval in America by launching Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. This caused the US to invest millions into various aspects of space exploration in order to be the first to the next frontier.
Orion fell apart, though, due to three main factors: First, it could not be used as a weapon by the country, which was a prerogative for much of the innovative technologies of the Cold War. Second, NASA’s public image concerns and the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty forbade the testing almost all nuclear explosions — Orion, with 20 people in it, was not the type of rocket you wanted to send off without testing. Third, organizations were running low on funds, and when NASA was pressed for a decision over contribution, they placed Apollo and Saturn V on the list of priorities above Orion.
An Unfulfilled Prophecy
Project Orion seems like a clunky and crude solution to space travel — but its premise is so sound that NASA recently announced that using small-scale nuclear fusion rockets may be the step forward the space world needs. Space travel has strangely come full circle.
Both Project Orion and NASA’s latest gambit aim to combat the inefficiency of the traditional chemical method of propelling spacecraft into the cosmos. Chemical rockets are ineffective on two fronts. First, the amount of power they derive from the fuel is small. Second, and because of this, they need to carry a large amount of fuel, which increases their mass and therefore the amount of energy it takes for them to achieve liftoff.
Nuclear powered spacecraft are not the only solutions to this problem, though: modern cosmic engineers have tried to develop other ways to overcome their inadequacy. Paul Allen has built the world’s largest plane to ferry spacecraft to the upper atmosphere to decrease the amount of fuel they need.
The reusable rocket business — a key aspect of Project Orion — is being spearheaded by Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin. To compensate for the weight of the fuel needed to take off and penetrate the atmosphere, a significant proportion of a traditional rocket’s parts have been shed during ascension — and are destroyed in the process.
The reusable method decreases financial inefficiency by having most of the rocket survive both takeoff and landing, and by building rockets smaller and lighter, which means they need less activation energy from the fuel. Both companies completed successful landings — Blue Origin in November and SpaceX in December 2015 — but only SpaceX’s venture has managed to relaunch.
Project Orion was a radical new idea that would have rendered Sputnik and the moon landings obsolete if it had ever been realized. What is perhaps most unfortunate is that it was abandoned due to political considerations rather than purely practical ones — as Dyson stated at the time, “a major expansion of human technology has been suppressed for political reasons.”
A future in which an asteroid crashes into Earth and destroys the planet — or all life on it, in the case of the dinosaurs — is prevalent in popular culture: Bruce Willis sacrificed himself to stop in happening in Armageddon, aliens have arrived on one in Day of the Triffids, and there have been a multitude of apocalyptic predictions on the news over the last few years. So, what is the precise nature of asteroids, and how likely are they wipe us from the face of the planet?
Asteroids are rocky bodies orbiting the Sun, which differ from comets in that they are composed of metal and rock rather ice, dust, and rock. They were formed 4.5 billion years ago, but don’t have sufficient gravity to round out like planets or have atmospheres.
Several asteroids have played pivotal roles in the world’s formation and cosmic history. An asteroid the size of Mars, which has been retrospectively named Theia, hit the Earth and was partially absorbed: some debris from the impact, though, was conglomerated by gravity to form the Moon. The most famous asteroid, though, is Chicxulub — the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs by causing sufficient sulphur displacement to block out the Sun.
Small asteroids hit Earth frequently, but rarely have any effect — the most violent example in recent memory was the 17- to 20-meter diameter Chelyabinsk meteor which hit Russia in February 2013, smashing windows and injuring 1,400 people in the process. Asteroids with a one-kilometer diameter hit Earth every 500,000 years or so; with the last known example of one with a 10-kilometer diameter occurring 66 million years ago. The chances of an asteroid apocalypse, then, are minimal.
There certainly is a risk from asteroid impacts; it’s the only natural risk that we as a species have the ability to predict well in advance and mitigate against, entirely, […] But I want people to keep it in context. You shouldn’t be losing sleep over it.
Our Plan to Avoid Destruction
Despite the chances of an asteroid apocalypse being fortunately slim, our planet has measures in place to protect against smaller near Earth objects (NEOs) like the Chelyabinsk meteor.
The main agency responsible for tracking and putting contingency measures in place is NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies, which has a database sophisticated enough for us “to know within the next couple of decades for sure if any time over the next century if there’s an asteroid that’s going to hit,” Brown said in the interview. The organization, according to its 2016 report, is also developing “Methods for NEO Deflection and Disruption.”
NASA has already launched a progenitor for how a gravity-based asteroid diversion could work in the form of its Dawn Aircraft, which is currently orbiting the space rock Vesta. A future version of Dawn could exert a subtle gravitational pull on a space object, which would allow it to change the trajectory of rocks with remarkable subtlety and specificity. Rusty Schweickart, chairman of the B612 Foundation, who’s mission is to protect the world from asteroid attacks, said in an interview with Space.com, “you can get a very precise change in the orbit for the final part of the deflection using a technology of this kind.”
At the more futurist end of our planetary defense arsenal is the idea of “Mirror Bees.” Hypothetically, we could send a swarm of robotic spacecraft bearing mirrors to an asteroid, which would then focus the solar energy on one spot: Bill Nye, executive director of the Planetary Society, said to Space.com that “The reaction of that gas or material being ejected from the asteroid would nudge it off-course.”
While the threat of a dinosaur-level disaster is extremely slim, even small asteroids can still cause huge amounts of damage, destruction, and pain. It’s comforting that individuals and organizations are working towards developing methods to minimize the disruption asteroids — big or small — can cause.
Thanks to the efforts of SpaceX, Blue Origin, and other space companies, we’re on the cusp of the era of commercial spaceflight, which means ordinary people will soon need to receive instruction on how to deal with the trials and tribulations of space. To that end, the world’s first commercial space training center, Blue Abyss, will open in 2019 in the United Kingdom.
The facility is expected to cost around $150 million to construct, and it will include several features designed to support the excursions of both private citizens and organizations into space. Its centrifuge base will simulate the g-forces felt in space, and the center will be able to offer parabolic flight training to prepare people for the weightlessness of space. Physiology professionals will be onsite to conduct physicals and advise future astronauts on the effects of space on the body.
Blue Abyss will also house the world’s biggest 50-meter-deep pool. The pool will be customizable to accommodate a range of uses, giving divers, marine explorers, and companies the ability to train or test out equipment that could be used in space exploration or here on Earth.
In addition to announcing this new training facility, the U.K. recently introduced the Space Industry Bill, which includes plans to build rocket, space plane, and satellite launching facilities. This bill could help humanity prepare for the era of space flight by setting a precedent for legislation and regulation. Other countries could use it as a legal framework on which to base their own space-focused legislation, which is one of the hurdles we’ll need to overcome to truly enter the era of commercial space exploration.
In total, the U.K.’s efforts could have a fundamental impact on global space travel. While companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin develop systems that will make space accessible to all of us, we need to make ourselves ready for space first by undergoing training at centers like Blue Abyss.
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 2030. Alan 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.
The most likely short term application for such a robot would be helping astronauts to carry out inspections and repairs on spacecraft and structures like the International Space Station. Aksel Andreas Transeth, a Senior Research Scientist on the project, said in a press statement that “a snake robot could creep behind the sections, carry out an inspection, and perhaps even perform small maintenance tasks.”
Longer term goals include allowing teams to explore places on planets, moons, and comets that traditional six-wheeled craft could not by acting as a detachable arm capable of being operated autonomously. This would allow us to gain a new perspective on the small, hard-to-reach locations and difficult terrains of martian worlds.
Most excitingly, these robots could allow researchers to inspect tunnels beneath planets for habitability, which is crucial for the potential colonization of other planets. If we adapted to live underground, we would be provided a natural barrier against radiation, comets, and solar rays. The idea has already been linked to the European Space Agency’s proposed Moon Village.
Of the first snake robots, a concept robot, called the Wheeko Robot has already been developed. It has impressive dexterity and mobility due to to its “10 identical joint modules, each having two motorized degrees of freedom,” that are covered with small wheels that “enable the robot to slither forward over flat surfaces.”
What Our Current Rovers Have Done
SERPEX could be another weapon in our cosmic investigation arsenal, giving us a new way to explore our Universe. We have so far learned an incredible amount about planets such as Mars by, in part, launching land-based exploration vehicles like the Pathfinder and Sojourner in 1997, Spirit and Opportunity in 2003, and Curiosity in 2012. But these missions have been limited by the terrain that the craft can explore. One example: the Spirit Rover’s mission was ended when it got stuck in the mud in 2010.
We are living in the golden age of space exploration, with more missions and initiatives planned than ever before. The information we have gathered up to this point on our Solar System with fairly rudimentary exploration tools has been weird, wonderful, and fascinating.
Ideas such as SERPEX are pivotal if we are going to become more proficient in space travel and exploration. And, now that the possibility colonizing Mars is looking more and more plausible, anything that adds to our database of knowledge will aid our entire species.
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.
Princeton Satellite Systems, which is funded by NASA, has announced the possibility of fusion reactor rockets which could — according to the company’s president Michael Paluszek — “enable new and exciting science missions that are too expensive and difficult to do with today’s technology.” Such missions could include propelling spaceships towards planets and stars, exploring space deeper than we ever have before, and deflecting asteroids.
Fusion rockets are propelled by the same nuclear processes that power stars. They can produce more energy — and do so more efficiently — than traditional chemical propellant or ion drive designs. Princeton Satellite System’s design uses nuclear fusion by heating a mix of deuterium and helium-3 with low-frequency radio waves, then harnesses the energy produced with magnetic fields. This technique confines the resulting plasma in a ring. As the plasma spirals out of the ring, it can be directed towards the blasters.
While this system would prove expensive for bigger projects (around $20 billion), the smaller rocket — estimated to be 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) in diameter and 4 to 8 meters (13 to 26 feet) long — would only cost about $20 million per generator; ten times cheaper than the larger model.
Cost aside, there are still two other significant obstacles: first, the system would emit so much radiation that it would preclude the propulsion of any spacecraft with humans aboard, and second, while one generator may only cost the relatively small sum of $20 million, each ship would have to contain multiple generators to ensure both the stability of the plasma, and to make them capable of achieving the speeds the rockets aspire to.
Other Projects on the Horizon
Space travel has become a trend among the world’s tech elite, with many big names in technology working to develop canny ways explore the final frontier further, ideally by sending humans into outer space to guide those expeditions.
Paul Allen recently revealed the world’s largest plane, which aims to take spacecraft to the atmosphere, thereby reducing the amount of energy required to launch spacecraft from Earth.
Related to one of the fission rocket’s goals of transporting robots to make observations of never-before seen parts of the galaxy is NASA’s mission to ‘touch the sun’ with its Parker Solar Probe. The probe will investigate solar wind and gather more data on our closest star than we’ve ever had before.
Gaining a deeper understanding of and visiting space has never been closer in our reach. Ideas like these are endlessly exciting and may be a sign that we may be entering the golden age of space travel.
A new study might have bad news for future space travelers. Madhan Tirumalai, Post Doctoral Fellow at the University of Houston and part of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, has discovered that bacteria mutate and proliferate in space-like conditions. As part of the most rigorous study to date, he observed E. coli development over 1,000 generations in a rotating container designed to simulate microgravity.
He found that the bacteria developed 16 mutations, and when they were placed next to normal E. coli cells, they grew around three times as many colonies and maintained a 72 percent adaptive advantage. Further, their adaptations remained even when researchers tried to erase them.
Some of the changes were slightly worrying: mutations affected the genes related to biofilm production, which often makes cells more robust and virulent. However, not every mutation necessitates a negative change. In fact, as Tirumalai wrote, the E. coli was still susceptible to antibiotics. Essentially, even if microgravity turns bacteria into superbugs, we can still rely on antibiotics.
Bugs and Space Travel
This could be worrying news for future space-travelers. E. coli is a relatively benign bacteria, but other nastier bugs and diseases could jeopardize entire missions — costing precious life and money — if they mutate in a violent or untreatable way. The potential consequences become more worrying when we consider that a 2013 study found that in space human immune “cells are not able to respond to a pathogen anymore,” which “means that it will be easier [for astronauts] to get sick because their immune system is weakening.”
Tirumalai explains, “We need more of this kind of experiment, especially with human space flight gaining more traction in recent years.” News concerning more people going to space as part of the commercial spaceflight revolution is exciting. However, practical considerations – such as how microgravity impacts bacteria and our bodies, as well as the potential consequences of isolation on our mental health– must be dealt with before we embark, particularly when it comes to long flights such as the plan to go to Mars.
In the Galaxy M87 (which was created when two other galaxies merged), a jet of hot plasma — caused by gas being sucked into a central black hole, being heated, and then shot out by magnetic fields — has been helping us gain insight into the weird origins of our galaxy. It is shaped like a thin beam and is emitted from the center of a black hole.
Heber Curtis, an astronomer, first saw a ray of light connected to the galaxy in 1918. In order to see it with his instruments at the time, it had to be huge. And it turns out, it was; measuring at almost 6000 light years long.
The Hubble Space Telescope monitored its development between 1995 and 1999 and, after four years of photos, they saw the plasma ripple outwards faster than what was being emitted from the black hole, meaning it must be moving faster than the speed of light. In 2013, after 13 years of images, it appeared to move in corkscrew-like spirals, making this strange occurrence even more mystifying.
Understanding Our Universe
M87 is, however, not unique in this way. Since the first observation, researchers have discovered similar phenomena in other galaxies. Although the causes behind it are still enigmatic, these observations could aid us in our search in understanding how black holes function in the creation or destruction of galaxies. Similarly, an enormous magnetic bridge spanning multiple galaxies has been recently discovered.
Eileen Meyer, Assistant Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, said about the plasma,“We can see, over a human lifetime, things moving […] Which is crazy.” The speed of this process is particularly remarkable because of how powerful it is.
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.”
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.
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 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.
On the 20th of April, it was announced that the study of exoplanets and extra-terrestrial life had taken a huge leap forward. Worlds similar to Earth, with high likelihoods of surface water, are far more common than we had previously thought and so we are now questioning how to find life on them. Olivier Guyon, of the University of Arizona, announced at the Breakthrough Discuss Conference that “As far as we can tell, they’re everywhere. We’re transitioning into life-finding. We have a lot of work ahead of us.”
What tools are we using to ascertain if exoplanets have life on them?
There are three main technologies in our current space toolbox that will help us to detect life, all set to launch in the near future:
The Breakthrough Starshot project aims to launch a spaceship the size of a postage stamp to Alpha Centauri, Earth’s nearest star system, within the next two decades. The miniature spaceship will reach Proxima-b 20 years from its launch date and will be equipped with cameras, thrusters, navigational tools and communications equipment — as well as a light sail to help it achieve the speed required to travel space’s vast distances.
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), is capable of unprecedented resolution and sensitivity in recording various wavelengths. Among many other features, it will have a segmented 6.5-meter-diameter mirror which is massive compared to the Hubble Space Telescope’s 2.4-meter mirror. It is scheduled for launch in October 2018.
The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (Tess), will monitor over 200,000 stars simultaneously, looking for temporary drops in brightness caused by planetary transits. No current earth-bound transit survey is capable of performing this task. This satellite will embark no later than June 2018.
These tools may be the proverbial thread that unravels the wool ball of other life other in the Universe. Caltech’s Courtney Dressing said at the Breakthrough Discuss Forum “I think there’s a good chance that a planet that has life on it orbits one of the nearby M dwarfs we’ve already heard about today” referring to Proxima-b, TRAPPIST-1, and LHS 1140.
NASA unveiled a new online image and video archive last week. In a boon for space fans, the new library consolidates 60 libraries of classic space pictures in one place, totaling over 140,000 pieces of content.
In recent, “are you serious?” news, Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, wants to create an ‘Amazon-like’ service to deliver equipment and supplies to the Moon. Bezos wants to combine his other company, aerospace manufacturer and spaceflight organization Blue Origin, with the delivery principles of Amazon to deliver a one-of-a-kind service.
Following the private sector rush to the Moon sparked by Elon Musk of SpaceX, Bezos thinks that their lunar lander “Blue Moon” will be able to start delivering supplies to the Moon by the mid 2020’s. Blue Moon is expected to carry up to 453.5 kg (10,000 lbs) of cargo per trip. Because of this capacity, the lander would be capable of carrying rovers and scientific equipment. And so, while this endeavor seems strange and a little bit silly, it could, in theory, be an inventive way to help further research.
Bezos has expressed his passion for not only increasing travel to the Moon but also the possibility of a permanent lunar settlement. In his own words, in an email to the Washington Post:
“It is time for America to return to the Moon — this time to stay. A permanently inhabited lunar settlement is a difficult and worthy objective. I sense a lot of people are excited about this…
Our liquid hydrogen expertise and experience with precision vertical landing offer the fastest path to a lunar lander mission. I’m excited about this and am ready to invest my own money alongside NASA to make it happen.”
It is impossible to say whether or not this plan will be successful but…who knows, astronauts could soon have rovers delivered to them with the click of a button. I wonder if they’ll get prime.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Here is a rundown of the technology that will be pushing the boundaries of space propulsion very soon.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Here are some of the hazards that our astronauts face both during space exploration and after they return home.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.