Of late, astronomers have been finding new planets all the time, including one right in our cosmic backyard. Still, these two seem special: NASA has found two of the most Earth-like planets yet in Kepler 62f and Kepler 62e, 1200 light years away.
“The Kepler 62 system resembles our own solar system, which also has two habitable planets: Earth and Mars, which once had water and would still be habitable today if it were more massive and had been able to hang onto its primordial atmosphere.”
A NASA/JPL simulation of Titan’s atmosphere suggests a chaotic chemical brew conducive to life on Saturn’s most interesting moon. “Now we know that sunlight in the Titan lower atmosphere can kick-start more complex organic chemistry in liquids and solids rather than just in gases.” (Titan image via this 2011 post.)
James Fallows speaks with Space Adventures co-founder Eric Anderson on the coming age of space colonization. “One key to making all this happen is that we need to use the resources of space to help us colonize space…The near-Earth asteroids, which are very, very close to the Earth, are filled with resources that would be useful for people wanting to go to Mars, or anywhere else in the solar system. They contain precious resources like water, rocket fuel, strategic metals.”
Along the same lines, and from last June, a Dutch company called Mars One has a very specific timetable in place for Mars colonization. “Lansdorp plans to send another couple of adventurous astronauts to join the colony every two years, but the idea is that no one gets a return journey. This is a permanent base, a Plymouth Rock in an entirely new world that will begin the long, slow and painstaking process of terraforming it.” The first four colonists, set to leave Earth in 2023, will be chosen this year.
Update: So far, it seems, the Mars One project has received 40,000 applications.
It’s been out in the fringe territories for a few years, but apparently now it’s official: Voyager I has left the Solar System. “We’re in a new region. And everything we’re measuring is different and exciting.”
Update: Belay that- NASA’s Voyager team says hold the champagne: “In December 2012, the Voyager science team reported that Voyager 1 is within a new region called ‘the magnetic highway’ where energetic particles changed dramatically. A change in the direction of the magnetic field is the last critical indicator of reaching interstellar space and that change of direction has not yet been observed.”
Consider this a wake-up call. This is one more reason why we need to invest in our space program — because, right now, we are playing chicken with the universe. That deadly asteroid might not hit tomorrow, or even in 2106. But the danger is real. As author Larry Niven put it, “the dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space program. And if we become extinct because we don’t have a space program, it’ll serve us right!”
An auspicious site for New Rome: Seven hills on Mars are named after the fallen astronauts of Columbia. “Spirit would go on to spend several years exploring the Columbia Hills until, struggling in the Martian soil, it would finally cease to function in 2010. Which — striving and striving, until you can strive no more — seems an appropriate tribute to seven people who gave their lives so that the rest of us might forge ahead.”
“Under the agency’s procedures, the box should not have been opened without knowledge of a NASA scientist who is responsible for guarding Mars against contamination from Earth. But Planetary Protection Officer Catharine Conley wasn’t consulted. ‘They shouldn’t have done it without telling me,’ she said. ‘It is not responsible for us not to follow our own rules.’“
It seems NASA’s Curiosity may have inadvertently brought Terran microbes along with it, which could become hugely significant if the robot encounters water, in which case they become either the potential seeds of new life on Mars and/or the 21st-century equivalent of the smallpox blanket. Er…oops.
Meanwhile, while we’re bringing life to Mars, Jupiter may have once again protected us from a Deep Impact/Melancholia-like disaster. “This is the third time since 2009 amateur astronomers have witnessed an impact flash on Jupiter. The massive gas giant, which exerts considerable gravitational pull, is something of a cosmic whipping boy in our solar system, regularly shielding inner planets like Earth from potential collisions.” So, if you’re keeping score at home, that’s Jupiter 3, Bruce Willis 1.
By way of Eric of Kestrel’s Nest, our radio telescopes find signs of life on Mars…us. Hey, at least the system works. Although, does anyone else have a problem with UNC-Chapel Hill calling their robotic telescope network SKYNET? Inviting calamity, I say.
Commander Neil Armstrong, the pioneer who took the first step on extra-terrestrial soil and towards our ultimate destiny, 1930-2012. “The important achievement of Apollo was demonstrating that humanity is not forever chained to this planet…our opportunities are unlimited.“
Until now. NASA uses crowdsourcing to unveil “Hubble’s hidden treasures”. The impressive pic above is “NGC 1763, part of the N11 star-forming region in the Large Magellanic Cloud,” submitted by one Josh Lake.
“These findings provide new insight into how the most massive galaxies in the Universe may have acquired their stars,’ said Michael McDonald, a scientist with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who led the study…’Our current understanding is that these massive galaxies assemble via mergers with smaller galaxies, but in this one cluster it looks like cooling-induced starbursts may be an equally important process.’“
Take that, Ed McMahon and Simon Cowell: Astronomers identify a galaxy cluster that is spewing out 3820 new stars a year, the fastest rate in the known universe. “Comparatively, the Milky Way forms stars at an average rate of just one solar mass (one star equal in mass to Earth’s Sun) per year. Other galaxies form an average of one star every 20 years.“
“The results were a big surprise. ‘We were shocked,’ says Kuhn. The sun doesn’t bulge much at all. It is 1.4m kilometres across, but the difference between its diameter at the equator and between the poles is only 10 kilometres.” Meanwhile closer to home, after fifty years of effort, astronomers conclude that our sun is the “most perfectly round natural object known in the universe.…Scaled to the size of a beachball, that difference is less than the width of a human hair.“
Moreover, just today scientists announced the discovery of two Earth-sized planets — Kepler 20e and Kepler 20f. “‘For the first time, we’ve crossed the threshold of finding Earth-size worlds,’ Torres says. ‘The next step is having an Earth-size planet in the habitable zone.’” And apparently Kepler 20f may have once had water, not unlike a planet closer to home…
“This is the single most bullet-proof observation that I can think of that we’ve made this entire mission regarding the liquid water.” Something to consider if we don’t manage to tackle global warming by 2006 — the prior existence of water on Mars is further confirmed through a trail of gypsum left within an ancient rock. “Both the chemistry and the structure ‘just scream water,’ Squyres added.“
And, on a grander scale, astronomers have begun to uncover supermassive black holes (no, not those ones) at the centers of galaxies. These are “the biggest, baddest black holes yet found in the universe, abyssal yawns 10 times the size of our solar system into which billions of Suns have vanished like a guilty thought.” In other words, plenty of room for Maximillian Schell to get lost in there…Tread carefully.
Propaganda or no, a fully-armed and operational battle station would seem to be approaching Saturn’s moon of Titan in this breathtaking image by Gordan Ugarkovic, taken from data by the Cassini spacecraft. “Spacecraft and observatories store their images on hard drives, and anyone with access and the knowledge of how to process that data — no simple task, I assure you! — can use it to do their own work.“
“‘These things are not consistent with the amount of water that we find,’ he said. ‘I think in its very basic form, the [impact theory] idea is probably still correct, but there’s something fundamental about the physics of the process that we don’t understand.’“
A new study of lunar magma returned from Apollo 17 finds even more evidence of water on the moon, calling into question our understanding of how the moon was even formed. “The analysis, reported in Science, has looked at pockets of volcanic material locked within tiny glass beads. It found 100 times more water in the beads than has been measured before, and suggests that the Moon once held a Caribbean Sea-sized volume of water.”
With the Space Shuttle nearing its end, NASA unveils the prototype for their new deep space exploration vehicle, Lockheed’s Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), and, well, it’s a throwback alright. “As currently envisioned, the MPCV would support four astronauts on short-duration flights of less than 21 days. For longer missions to asteroids or even Mars, the capsules would dock with a larger spacecraft of some sort that would provide more room for the crew while in transit.” “Of some sort”? So far at least, I am underwhelmed.
Only one more launch left after this one: That final mission, STS-135, will return July 20th, thus ending — only for now, hopefully — manned space flight at NASA, exactly forty-two years after the moon landing. (Unless, of course, we somehow get our act together.)
“The time to put our most vulnerable and our most needy in space is now. We can’t keep running from this problem, hoping it will go away. They have as much of a right to live in dignity and urinate in a specially designed suit built to withstand incredible heat and cold while protecting the body from violent and sudden changes in air pressure as anyone else.“
Their timing isn’t great, but The Onion strikes comedy gold again: The Money We Waste On NASA’s Space Program Would Be Better Spent On Space Programs For The Poor. “I’m not talking about a handout, I’m talking about a hand up — up 20,000 miles into space, where our nation’s most desperate and destitute can gaze down on this big blue marble ball of clouds and dreams and be inspired to lift themselves out of poverty.” (FWIW, my response to the space-is-wasted-money argument, when made seriously, is here.)
“We’ve grown used to wonders in this century. It’s hard to dazzle us. But for twenty-five years the United States space program has been doing just that. We’ve grown used to the idea of space, and perhaps we forget that we’ve only just begun. We’re still pioneers. They, the members of the Challenger crew, were pioneers.“
“‘Needless to say, none of us expected it was going to be operating for so long,’ said Krimigis, now 72. ‘We were all praying to get to Neptune [in 1989]. But after that? Who thought we could be with this 33 years [after launch]?’“
Though it’s past 11 billion miles, it’s feeling very still (after all, no more solar wind)…
By way of a friend, and as the spacecraft reaches the outer edge of the solar system, the Baltimore Sun checks in on Voyager 1 and its makers. “Voyager was the pinnacle of his career, said Ness, now 77. “There is never going to be a mission in anybody’s lifetime, now living, that is ever going to get these observations in hand. So it’s once in a lifetime.“
In a fascinating remnant of alternate history, Letters of Note unearths Nixon’s Safire-penned speech on the (possible) failure of Apollo 11. “Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.”
“‘It’s really wet,’ said Anthony Colaprete, co-author of one of the Science papers and a space scientist at NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif. He and his colleagues estimate that 5.6% of the total mass of the targeted lunar crater’s soil consists of water ice. In other words, 2,200 pounds of moon dirt would yield a dozen gallons of water.“
In keeping with recent studies, NASA is set to announce that there appears to be quite a lot of water on the moon, which would greatly facilitate setting up shop there. Alas, “the U.S. likely won’t be involved in manned voyages to the moon anytime soon…But other countries are gearing up. China has pledged to land astronauts on the moon by 2025, and India has plans to do the same by 2020. Japan wants to establish an unmanned moon base in a decade.” And, hey, why go to the moon when you can spend a decade in Afghanistan?
“[W]e are entering an increasingly dangerous period of our history. Our population and our use of the finite resources of planet Earth are growing exponentially, along with our technical ability to change the environment for good or ill. But our genetic code still carries the selfish and aggressive instincts that were of survival advantage in the past. It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand or million. Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain inward-looking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space. We have made remarkable progress in the last hundred years, but if we want to continue beyond the next hundred years, our future is in space.“
Once again, Professor Stephen Hawking makes the case for manned exploration, sooner rather than later — as in living off-world within the next century. In other words, we need to get busy living, or get busy dying.
In potentially very big doings, two astrobiology papers suggest that some form of life is currently consuming gas and fuel on Saturn’s moon of Titan (The gas being hydrogen and fuel being acetylane, which would make sense for a methane-based life form.) “We suggested hydrogen consumption because it’s the obvious gas for life to consume on Titan, similar to the way we consume oxygen on Earth. If these signs do turn out to be a sign of life, it would be doubly exciting because it would represent a second form of life independent from water-based life on Earth.’” Yes, that would be exciting.
Update: NASA’s Chris McKay advises scientific caution. “This is a still a long way from ‘evidence of life’. However, it is extremely interesting.”
“Within 40 small craters, one to nine miles wide, they estimated 600 million metric tons of water. Perhaps most notably, ‘It has to be relatively pure,’ said Paul Spudis, the principal investigator for the instrument that made the discovery.“
By way of a friend, scientists find more evidence of lots of water on the moon. “That is significant, because the ice in these craters could be easily tapped by future lunar explorers — not just for drinking water, but also broken apart into oxygen for breathing and hydrogen for fuel.” Hmm. Maybe it’s time to start thinking of ways to get up there…
Ok, first off, the administration official who uttered the last sentence should be filed away next to Mr. Left of the Left and Ms. Pajamas as people who should no longer speak for the White House in any capacity whatsoever. Full stop, end of story. Putting my speechwriter cap on for a second: In most any political situation, ridiculing the dreams of an entire generation does not make for particularly good messaging.
Anyway, anonymous WH official aside, NASA administrator Charles Bolden sounded a better note about all this: “We’re not abandoning anything. We’re probably on a new course but human space flight is in our DNA. We are not abandoning human space flight by any stretch of the imagination. We have companies telling us they’re excited to get humans off this planet and into orbit. I think we’re going to get there and perhaps quicker than we would have done before.“
And, to be clear, the administration’s NASA budget increases the agency’s funding by $6 billion over the next five years. The new budget ups research and development spending into cheaper heavy launch mechanisms, emphasizes more robotic exploration missions and observational experiments into climate change, extends the life of the ISS (although, with only five more shuttle missions remaining, other nations will have to help service it), and works to promote the various commercial space enterprises moving along right now.
All of this is well and good, but it would be nice to see some recognition of the civic importance of manned space flight by this administration. In their words, NASA is scrapping Constellation on account of it being “over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation due to a failure to invest in critical new technologies.” And, given that we still had a lot of the expenditures before us, I suppose now was as good a time as any to kill the program if it’s not the right direction to go in.
That being said, how many more times are we going to do this? We keep stopping and starting and stopping and starting our post-Shuttle plans for space, so that now, after five final shuttle missions this coming year, we will longer have the capability anymore as a nation to send men and women into orbit. “If implemented, the NASA a few years from now would be fundamentally different from NASA today. The space agency would no longer operate its own spacecraft, but essentially buy tickets for its astronauts.” Forty-one years after we first reached the moon, that’s just plain sad.
Ultimately, the central finding of the Augustine commission’s final report, released this past October after extensive study of NASA’s current situation, is a sound one: “The U.S. human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory. It is perpetuating the perilous practice of pursuing goals that do not match allocated resources.” In other words, we’ve been trying to talk the talk without walking the walk. If we’re going to get serious about manned space flight, we need to stop piecemealing NASA and start making manned exploration a funding priority.
In total, the agency is slated to get $100 billion over the next five years. To put that number in perspective, that’s less than a fifth of our defense budget for 2011 alone, and that’s going by the most conservative numbers around — NASA’s five-year budget could be closer to a tenth of next year’s defense spending. (For its part, the Augustine commission set a price tag of $3 billion a year to get serious about manned exploration.)
If we had put anywhere near that kind of money into exploration and R&D over the years, would we now be in this position, where we face the Hobson’s choice of replicating expensive 50-year-old launch tech or being completely grounded as a nation? The lack of thinking about our long-term priorities sometimes is staggering to me. I’ve said this before, but I still believe it holds true: Short of possibly genomic research and advances in AI, nothing we do right now will matter more centuries or millennia hence than establishing a presence off-world…if we even have that long. Not to get all Jor-El up in here, but we really have to start getting serious about this.
“Although that panel suggested a $3 billion boost to NASA’s $18.7-billion-a-year budget in order to take a firm next step in human space flight, Obama’s support for a $1 billion bump next year represents a major coup for the agency given the ballooning deficit and the continuing recession. And NASA just won a $1 billion boost from Congress for 2010 in a bill signed by the president.” By way of another friend, President Obama backs increased funding for NASA’s new heavy launcher. “The president’s decision to go with the second option is a major departure from his 2010 budget plan, which called for a 5% increase in 2010–the boost just approved by Congress–but then remaining flat through 2014.“
Good, although I do wish he’d gone the full $3 billion. In the great scheme of things, not much we do is of larger importance than manned space flight. And 10,000 years from now, people aren’t going to remember or much care how many Joint Strike Fighters we built in the Twenty-Tens. But they will know whether or not we took significant steps to leave the cradle and move off-world.
“Any intact lava tube could serve as a shelter from the severe environment of the lunar surface, with its meteorite impacts, high-energy UV radiation and energetic particles, and extreme diurnal temperature variations.” In a tube in the ground lived…a human? An international team of researchers identify a lava tube in the moon’s Marius Hills as a good spot for a lunar colony. Just watch out for the exogorths.
“‘This will create a considerable stir. It was wholly unexpected,’ said one scientist also involved in Chandrayaan-1. ‘People thought that Chandrayaan was just lagging behind the rest but the science that’s coming out, it’s going to be agenda-setting.’” Well, this definitely changes things if it holds up: India’s first mission to the moon discovers “evidence of large quantities of water on its surface(!)”
“Another lunar scientist familiar with the findings said: ‘This is the most exciting breakthrough in at least a decade. And it will probably change the face of lunar exploration for the next decade.’” NASA comments tomorrow, so be ready to hum a few bars…
“So why do tech geeks love space? Though they may have the resources — a trip to space will now set you back some $45 million — this can’t be the full answer: You don’t see Donald Trump or P. Diddy signing up for an astro-mission. What makes it worth it for the tech geeks?” The Big Money‘s Julia Ioffe tries to ascertain why dot.com miliionaires pay out the nose for space travel. Uh, because it’s there?
“‘There’s a documentary called Orphans of Apollo that’s stated this well,’ he explained. ‘There’s a generation of us, who are the tech leaders of today, who were universally inspired to go into science and technology because of the NASA Lunar Space Program. And the reason the movie is called Orphans of Apollo is because, in many ways, we feel orphaned by the fact that the space industry has not done a good job of capitalizing on that momentum of what many of us believed were the first steps into space, carrying the mission of human space flight farther and farther into deep space.’“
“‘An automated rendezvous does all sorts of things for your missile accuracy and anti-satellite programs,’ said John Sheldon, a visiting professor of advanced air and space studies at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. ‘The manned effort is about prestige, but it’s also a good way of testing technologies that have defense applications.‘” In order to keep pace with the increasingly proficient Chinese space program, President-elect Obama may be considering retying NASA to the Pentagon, “because military rockets may be cheaper and ready sooner than the space agency’s planned launch vehicle, which isn’t slated to fly until 2015…Obama has said the Pentagon’s space program — which spent about $22 billion in fiscal year 2008, almost a third more than NASA’s budget — could be tapped to speed the civilian agency toward its goals as the recession pressures federal spending.”
Hmm. On one hand, I would think making NASA yet another fiefdom of the Pentagon would greatly facilitate its ability to lock down the funding it needs for various exploratory endeavors, recession or no. And if the types of conveyance vehicles NASA needs are basically sitting around gathering dust in some Pentagon-owned warehouse next to the ark of the covenant, well then it only makes sense to combine the two programs. No need to reinvent the, uh, rocket.
On the other hand, putting the brass in charge is probably going to have deleterious effects on the types of projects NASA pursues in the future. And, in a perfect world, there’s something to be said for having a civilian space program completely outside the purview of the military. In fact, now that i think about it, won’t combining the Pentagon and NASA space programs cut back on the types of international cooperation that have guided our efforts in space in recent years? GIven the current economic climate, I guess this is the best way for NASA to continue pursuing its goals in the short term. Still, there could well be trouble ahead.
“The last Twitter post said it all: “01010100 01110010 01101001 01110101 01101101 01110000 01101000.”” Or, in other words, Ground Control to Phoenix Lander: You’ve really made the grade. Having seemingly succumbed to the Martian winter at last, the Mars Phoenix Lander is pronounced deceased by NASA. “NASA official Doug McCuistion counseled people to view Phoenix’s end as ‘an Irish wake rather than a funeral. It’s certainly been a grand adventure.’…While some followers said farewell to Phoenix in computer language today, others kept it simple. ‘Good bye Phoenix, I love you ,’ said user patach.“
Europa, Enceladus…Titan? The ESA’s Cassini-Huygens probe discovers a liquid lake on Saturn’s largest moon, although it’s definitely not water. ““Detection of liquid ethane in Ontario Lacus confirms a long-held idea that lakes and seas filled with methane and ethane exist on Titan.” [Via Quiddity.]