To Infinity (Or At Least The Far Edge Of The Solar System)

Those of us over a certain age learned that Pluto was the ninth planet in the solar system, and the one farthest from the SunIn 2006, however, Pluto was “de-planetized,” when the know-it-alls at the International Astronomical Union concluded that Pluto should be relegated to “dwarf planet” status.  Pluto itself could not be reached for comment.

Since it was dissed nine years ago, tiny Pluto has stolidly borne its politically incorrect “dwarf planet” label.  Still, it’s an intriguing object.  It’s tiny (smaller than our Moon), its orbit is different from that of any other planet, it’s unimaginably far away (on average, 3.6 billion miles from the Sun, 40 times farther away than Earth) and its deeply mysterious because we’ve never gotten a good look at it.  Even though Pluto was discovered in 1930, we still don’t have any decent picture of the object.

That’s about to change.  Recently, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft entered its Pluto exploration zone.  It was launched in 2006 and has traveled more than 4 billion miles to get near Pluto.  For most of that time, the spacecraft’s active systems have been “sleeping.”  Now, New Horizons has been awakened, and last Sunday it began to take its  first pictures of Pluto.  It’s closest pass will come in July.

As New Horizons transmits its photos back to Earth, we’ll learn far more about Pluto than we’ve ever known before.  I’m rooting for little Pluto, which has basically been ignored in favor of studies of Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars.  I’m hoping that Pluto turns out to be the most fascinating object in the solar system.  Who knows?  Maybe Pluto is small and weird because it’s not a planet at all, but instead an alien spacecraft, or a marker like The Object in 2001.  Probably not . . . but a Plutophile can dream.

Counting On The Alien Life Discovery Game-Changing Effect

In Gaza, Palestinians and Israelis are lobbing rockets and missiles at each others’ homes.  In Syria and Iraq, Sunnis and Shiites are murdering and beheading each other.  In Africa, Boko Haram continues its campaign of religious-based slaughter and kidnapping.  In central Asia, sectarian and tribal animosities have produced a wave of bombings and violence.  And in central America, conditions apparently are so bad that tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors have traveled hundreds of miles in a bid to cross the border into the U.S.

That’s why the best news of the last week was the announcement by NASA scientists that they believe that, within 20 years, humans will be able to confirm the existence of alien life.  They believe that current telescope technology, and new devices like the Transiting Exoplanet Surveying Satellite that will launch in 2017 and the James Webb Space Telescope that will launch in 2018, will allow us to detect the presence of liquid water and indications of life on other moons and planets in our solar system and elsewhere in the universe.  Could the scientists be wrong?  Certainly . . . but the rapid advancements in planet discoveries and related detection technologies make their prediction plausible.

Science fiction writers have long posited that the discovery of alien life would have a unifying effect on the fractured world of humanity.  Such a discovery, they theorize, would cause humans to realize that the tribal, ethnic, religious, and political differences between them are trivial in comparison to the differences between humans and other intelligent life forms.  The ancient animosities would end and all of humanity would band together and venture out into the galaxy on vehicles like the starship Enterprise.

Is it really possible that a discovery that humans are not alone might have such a game-changing effect?  It seems far-fetched that anything could alter the benighted mindsets of religious fanatics who want to enslave women or restore medieval caliphates, or penetrate the rigid ideologies of people who cling to tribal or sectarian hatreds that are centuries old.  But, after decades of experience, we know that other approaches — like countless peace talks, the toppling of governments, the expenditure of billions of dollars in aid and training and infrastructure improvement, and the issuance of toothless UN Security Council resolutions — don’t get at the core problems.

Sure, counting on the alien discovery game-changing effect may be pinning our hopes on an improbable scenario.  As we read about an angry and bitterly divided world, however, it may be all we’ve got.

The CDC And The Mass Breakdown Of Governmental Competence

For years the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was one federal agency that seemed to be a model of governmental efficiency and capability.  Like NASA in the glory days of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, the CDC was a little agency with an important mission and dedicated employees who helped to guide the national responses to epidemics and infectious diseases.

That’s why the recent stories about some appalling security lapses at the CDC are so troubling.  In one instance, poor handling of anthrax — a disease that the CDC’s own website cautions can cause serious illness and death — potentially exposed a number of employees to the bacteria.  In another incident, CDC employees improperly shipped a deadly strain of bird flu to a Department of Agriculture poultry research lab.  The breakdowns are especially disturbing because the CDC also is supposed to ensure that other laboratories follow federal safety standards.  The CDC is investigating these breaches and developing new procedures to address the “potential for hubris” in an agency that may have grown too comfortable with working with dangerous spores, bacteria, and infectious agents.

Given the CDC’s public health mission, any security breakdown that could expose people to a deadly infectious disease could be catastrophic.  But the CDC’s problems seem to be symptomatic of a larger, equally concerning issue:  a broad-scale series of failures in federal agencies.  In the past year, we have witnessed a colossal failure in an attempt by the Department of Health and Human Services to build a functioning health insurance exchange website, mass failures by the Veterans Administration to provide adequate care for veterans, a stunning security breach that allowed Edward Snowden to spirit away enormous amounts of highly classified data, and a southern border so porous that thousands of unaccompanied minors have been able to cross into our country.  And those are just a few of the stories.

For years, there has been a divide in this country between those who want the government to assume a more significant role in regulating our affairs and those who resist that approach because they believe a larger government role means less freedom and fewer individual liberties.  The recent dismal performance of our federal agencies suggests that a new factor should enter into the equation:  is the federal government even competent to do what we are asking it to do?  In view of the many recent breakdowns in governmental performance, that is a very fair question. 

Scrutinizing The Habitable Zone

This week the NASA Kepler telescope team announced the discovery of another 715 “exoplanets” outside our solar system — all of which are in their own multi-planet solar systems. The announcement represents another giant leap forward in our understanding of other solar systems, and how commonplace multi-planet systems are.

The Kepler space telescope was focused on finding instances of “transits,” when light from a faraway sun drops slightly in brightness because a planet has crossed in front of the sun. The size of the variation in light allows scientists to calculate the size of the planet moving across the face of the sun. Most of the newly discovered planets — about 95 percent — are smaller than Neptune, which is four times the size of Earth. The size of the planets is of interest to scientists because it is believed that life is more likely on smaller planets than on Jupiter- and Saturn-like gas giants, with their enormous storms and atmospheres that feature crushing pressures.

Four of the newfound planets are less than 2.5 times the radius of Earth and orbit their suns in the so-called “habitable zone,” where water could be free flowing without being boiled away or frozen forever. The term “habitable zone” may be a misnomer, because we just don’t know yet whether life of some kind exists on, say, Jupiter’s moon Europa — and we won’t know for sure without actually exploring there. We do know, however, that life exists in the “habitable zone” in our solar system, and therefore it makes sense to try to determine whether life might exist in a planet in a similar position in its solar system. All of this effort, of course, is ultimately geared toward trying to make a truly game-changing discovery of some other intelligent life form in the universe.

If you grow weary of the tribal mire of domestic and global human affairs, where progress is rare and and halting and the same disputes and controversies will seemingly never end, you would do well to consider the extraordinary advances in science and technology that we have witnessed in the last few decades. The discoveries of the Kepler telescope team say a lot — all of it good — about what humans are capable of achieving.

The Hedgehogs Of Phobos, And Some Thoughts On Robotics

If NASA scientists get their way, we’ll soon be exploring the Martian moon Phobos using small, hedgehog-like robots.

Phobos is tiny — more of an asteroid than the Moon we see in the evening sky — and very rugged.  It’s a low-gravity environment, though, which means it’s an attractive candidate for a mission where materials are gathered and then actually physically returned to Earth for testing and analysis.  The tests would allow us to determine whether Phobos is, in fact, a wandering asteroid captured by Mars’ gravity, or whether it is part of Mars that broke off long ago.  Either answer would help us better understand the solar system and how it developed.

But how to explore such a small, low-gravity object and figure out where to do the gathering?  Wheel-oriented devices tend to lose traction and spin uncontrollably under such conditions.  So, scientists and engineers are developing a spiky device, like a hedgehog, that could precisely navigate the surface of Phobos by spinning, hopping, and tumbling.  The hedgehog — will it be called Sonic? — would serve as a scout, gathering data that would allow for a follow-up mission.

Robotics is an interesting field, because it combines cutting-edge technological advances with creative problem-solving.  With robots, you aren’t wedded to standard forms.  If a wheeled device doesn’t work under the circumstances, you can try some other form that might work better.  It might be a spiky hedgehog, or a spinning disk, or something else.  The design freedom that robotic engineers have must be liberating, and challenging — and probably fun, too!

Old sci-fi fans are waiting for the day when every household has a humanoid robot to do the boring chores.  That day may be far off, but the reality is that we all are using robotic technology more and more frequently — in cars, in household appliances, and in factories.  I recently saw a mainstream, prime- time TV commercial for a robotic vacuum cleaner.  I don’t know how it’s selling, but maybe the days of robotic members of the family aren’t that far off, after all.

Curiosity, On The (Martian) Ground

NASA announced today that the Martian rover, Curiosity, has successfully landed on the Red Planet.  In an amazing display of engineering, Curiosity roared through the Martian atmosphere, undertook a series of maneuvers to slow itself down, and then landed safely in the Gale Crater, near Mars’ equator.

The rover’s touchdown on Mars is just another triumph for America’s unmanned space program.  We have probes, satellites, robots, and landers operating all across the solar system — and for the first time in human history just outside of it, too.

Curiosity‘s mission will be a long, and interesting, one that will last for at least two years.  The rover is the largest device NASA has yet landed on Mars and is powered with a long-lasting plutonium battery.  It will navigate the Martian surface, scan the Martian soil for signs of water, climb a Martian mountain, and collect samples to test for organic compounds, and pulverize rocks with a laser.  And, because this is the social media age, Curiosity of course has its own Twitter feed.  The rover therefore also has made history by sending the first Tweet from the surface of Mars.  It said: “I’m safely on the surface of Mars. GALE CRATER I AM IN YOU!!!”

A Glimpse Of The Future Of Space

Our governments are running out of money.  Programs like space exploration — which don’t pander to particular interest groups and aren’t viewed as “essential” — are easy targets for budget cutters.  That means that, if we are to advance in space, commercial entities motivated by profits will have to carry the ball forward.

Today saw a big step in that direction.  A company called SpaceX launched its own Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral.  The rocket is carrying a SpaceX Dragon capsule filled with supplies for the International Space Station.  Because this is the first flight, the supplies are not essential, and the Dragon capsule will need to show its reliability and maneuverability before it will be allowed to get near the ISS.  If it passes those tests, however, it will move close to the space station, be snatched from space by a robot arm, and then emptied of its cargo.  If the mission is a success, it will be the first of many such deliveries.  With the space shuttle program ended, NASA will need to rely on private companies to deliver the goods.

I’m sure there will be some who moan about the intrusion of money-grubbing corporations into the pristine realm of space, but the fact is that capitalism is already there, in the form of countless communications satellites.  If space is to be fully explored, profit-seeking risk-takers will need to take the lead.  We should all celebrate SpaceX’s achievement and hope for a successful venture that encourages other companies to get into the business of space.

Discovering A Salt Water Moon

America’s unmanned space probes continue to do amazing things — including discovering that one of Saturn’s moon has salt water oceans like those on Earth.

The discovery was made by the Cassini spacecraft, which has been flying around the huge gas giant and its famous rings.  Cassini reached a point within 46 miles of the south pole of ice-covered Enceladus, one of Saturn’s many moons, and on its close pass Cassini actually flew through the jets of water vapor and ice that make up the geysers emanating from the moon.  In so doing, the probe “tasted” the vapor and determined that it consists of water, organic compounds, and salt, at the same salinity levels as Earth’s oceans.

The evidence suggests that there are liquid oceans underneath Enceladus’ icy crust, and that the water may be in contact with the moon’s rocky core — which could be supplying the chemical compounds that are the building blocks of life.  This discovery makes Enceladus a prime candidate for another mission designed to determine whether life in some form actually exists on the moon.  We’ll just have to hope that we can find the money necessary to fund the mission that will follow up on this very intriguing discovery.

 

Welcome, Alien Overlords!

Don’t look now, but aliens are circling Mercury in an enormous, cloaked spaceship.  At least, that’s what some people believe.   They point to an image recorded by NASA’s STEREO spacecraft, which shows a coronal mass ejection from the Sun flowing over Mercury and, apparently, another object of comparable size.

UFO enthusiasts contend that the image captures a planet-sized cloaked spacecraft, rendered visible only by the electronically charged material from the Sun.  However, scientists say the apparent shape really is just Mercury, at its position the previous day, that shows up as a result of the enhanced imaging techniques NASA uses for space photographs.  The scientific explanation is boring, so it’s a lot more exciting to speculate about huge spaceships.

If there are aliens orbiting Mercury in a masked spacecraft, what the heck are they doing there?  After all, any alien race that could build and power a planet-sized spaceship, send it careening to a distant solar system, shield it from our perception, and park it into orbit around Mercury without anyone noticing obviously has technological capabilities far beyond ours.  If they want to conquer Earth, what are they waiting for?  They could waltz over and pulverize us in short order.

Of course, it could be a ship of alien scientists who just want to study the puny affairs of humans, like we might study an ant farm.  It’s hard to imagine that we are of interest to an advanced alien race, but we humans have always found ourselves fascinating, so perhaps aliens would, too.  Hey, if the aliens can hide a spaceship as large as a planet, maybe they’ve landed already!  Maybe they’re here right now, invisible and undetectable, observing us, taking notes, and getting ready to file a report about whether we should be permitted to survive or whether we should be stamped out before we spread across the galaxy like a virus.

We’d all better be on our best behavior, in hopes that we impress our alien overlords as a promising race that is well worth saving.  I’m looking at you, Congress!

Marsbound

We Earthlings have always been curious about our neighbor, Mars.  It’s appropriate, therefore, that the latest robot sent to explore the Red Planet is called Curiosity.

Curiosity, which blasted off from Cape Canaveral yesterday, is the largest, best-equipped robot ever to be sent to another planet.  Its mission will feature a number of significant advances in space exploration technology, including new systems that will allow the Curiosity to parachute to the Martian surface and land with great precision.  And the robot rover itself is exceptionally cool.  It is huge by rover standards, and it basically is a geological laboratory on wheels that will be able to photograph, laser, sift and test the Martian surface.  It also has a fully functioning weather station that will record temperature, wind, and humidity.  (Watch for apps that will let you get the daily Martian forecast!)

It will take Curiosity months to get to Mars.  After it lands, it will spend two full years rolling around the Martian surface, attempting to answer questions about whether Mars has been, or is now, capable of sustaining basic life forms.

As an American, I’m always proud of our NASA space exploration missions and the ground-breaking (literally, in the case of Curiosity) technological advances that they feature.  It’s nice to know that our engineering and space exploration systems work, even if our political systems don’t.

Keep Your Eyes On The Skies

It’s bad enough that the Earth’s atmosphere is clogged with obsolete satellites and space junk of various shapes and sizes.  Now we are being warned that some of this stuff is going to come plunging to the ground as orbits decay and the inexorable tug of the Earth’s gravity becomes irresistible.

NASA is warning that the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite — which weighs 6.5 tons — is expected to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere in an uncontrolled fall in late September or early October.  Of course, much of the satellite is expected to burn up on re-entry, but some of its component parts are predicted to survive and strike the Earth’s surface.

NASA officials note that, even after decades of re-entering debris raining onto the Earth’s surface, there are no confirmed reports of any actual injuries to people caused by the fall of fiery remnants of satellites gone by.  Even Skylab, the much larger space laboratory that plunged to Earth in 1979 — and became the butt of many jokes, including John Belushi’s classic piece on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, below — fell into the Pacific Ocean and remote parts of Australia without causing any apparent harm to humans.

Still, at times like this I’m glad that the Earth’s surface is mostly ocean.

 

Moontracks Frozen In Time

Imagine taking a walk and knowing that the footprints you left will be there for decades, or centuries, or millennia.

Photos taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, from heights 15 miles above the Moon’s surface, show that the tracks left by the American astronauts who explored the lunar surface between 1969 and 1972 are still there.  (The descent stage of the lunar module, and some of the material left by the astronauts, also are visible in the photos.)  The bootprints remain sharply etched in the dusty surface because the Moon has no atmosphere and no weather to muddle or disturb the tracks.

It’s amazing enough that photos taken from 15 miles up could show human tracks in the Moondust, but it is mind-boggling to think that those tracks could remain inviolate, and unchanged, for thousands of years — for as long, or longer, as the gulf of time that separates the days of the Pharoahs from our modern era.

Revisiting A Hot Topic

We need some good news, and NASA has provided some on on the “global warming” front.

The good news comes from data gathered by NASA satellites, which have evaluated the release of heat by the Earth’s atmosphere into space.  The data, from 2000 through 2011, indicates that far more energy was released — and therefore far less heat was trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere — than the dire predictions of United Nations computer models.  One of the principal U.S. scientists on the project said the satellite observations “suggest there is much more energy lost to space during and after warming than the climate models show,” and that “[t]here is a huge discrepancy between the data and the forecasts that is especially big over the oceans.”  If science works as it should, the real-world data should lead to revisions in the computer models and consequent reductions in predictions for temperature change.

The world as we know occasionally seems like it is going to hell, but it is at least reassuring to learn that predictions that we are going to reach Hades-like temperatures in the near future apparently are misplaced.

Empty Space

Soon the current mission of the Space Shuttle Atlantis — the last mission in the United States space shuttle program — will end.  For the first time in a generation, the United States will have no existing program to place human beings into outer space.  Until a new program is developed, Americans who want to get to the international space station will have to rely on the Russians to get them there.

Of course, American exploration efforts are not limited to manned space flight; NASA continues to make excellent use of unmanned probes and drones to explore the planets, asteroids, moons, and outer reaches of our solar system.  Many people — including Dr. Science — believe unmanned space exploration is the most sensible approach.  They reason that space is too hostile to human beings and therefore it is too expensive to design crafts that can safely house humans in that hostile environment.  In their view, we get more far more science bang for the buck through use of unmanned devices.

I understand that position, but also think manned exploration must be a continuing focus.  Right now, there is great uncertainty about what course the United States will follow with respect to manned space flight.  There will be a gap of some years — at least — and the bright, experienced people who worked on the shuttle program will move on to take new jobs.  A great opportunity has been missed.  Rather than spending billions on ill-fated stimulus projects, We should have invested that money in the manned space program — which has a history of producing useful technology and encouraging innovation and also has an inspirational and aspirational component.

America must, in part, be about pushing the envelope and leading the world; it cannot simply be about health care dollars and internal disputes about who gets what piece of the pie.  The end of one of our most noteworthy forays into the realm of exploration and pure science, with no replacement at the ready, sends a sour message about where we are going as a country and as a society.

We are either moving forward, or we are moving backward.  I would rather move forward.

Close Encounters In The Asteroid Belt

Although the space shuttle program is ending — more on that in a later post — U.S. space exploration efforts continue unabated through use of unmanned probes.  Tomorrow one such probe, called Dawn, will begin to orbit Vesta, one of the largest asteroids in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Once it settles into orbit, Dawn’s mission will be to photograph the asteroid, deploy instruments that can detect the minerals and elements found on the asteroid, and gather data that will allow scientists to assess the geological forces that shaped the asteroid.  After orbiting Vesta for a year, Dawn will move on to Ceres, an even larger asteroid.

For science fiction fans like me, the mineral composition of the asteroid will be of the most interest.  Lots of good science fiction deals with asteroid miners and mining colonies, and potential exploitation of minerals is one of the reasons why space exploration may end up being of great interest to private concerns, too.  If we learn that Vesta possesses a treasure trove of minerals, and Dawn proves that navigating among the asteroids can be safely accomplished, we may move one step closer to significant commercial interest in space — and in this era of tight governmental budgets, moving forward in space exploration and technology probably will require significant investment by private entities.