“The Challenges of the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis of UFO Phenomena” by Antonio Paris

In the past, I often explained that nearly all UFO sightings are misidentified terrestrial objects such as man-made aircraft, weather balloons, and satellites; as well as natural phenomena like meteors, birds, lens flares, and just about anything moving within the electromagnetic spectrum’s visible band.

Moreover, alleged physical evidence such as debris from UFO crashes, burn marks on the ground, or alien implants have all turned out to be quite terrestrial, including elaborate hoaxes. Thus, after decades of research by hundreds of UFO investigators, not one UFO has been unequivocally identified as an extraterrestrial spacecraft in a way required by science and/or common sense. Contrary to what most mainstream ufologists proclaim, there is no physical evidence to support their extraterrestrial hypothesis of UFO phenomena.

Attacking physics and space science, furthermore, is the standard modus operandi I have encountered at UFO gatherings. Rather than presenting incontrovertible evidence to prove their extraterrestrial hypothesis, members of the UFO community attack scientists and skeptics by attempting to expose weaknesses to a counterargument. Such refutation, however, is no substitute for evidentiary support of the extraterrestrial hypothesis for UFO phenomena. It is simply faulty logic to assume that, because a scientist’s or skeptic’s explanations may be flawed, the UFO community’s hypothesis is valid. Another common tactic deployed by the UFO community is to claim that, if science cannot prove that a UFO was not an extraterrestrial spacecraft, one can infer that it is in fact an extraterrestrial spacecraft (e.g., because it was too large or moved faster than conventional aircraft). This kind of reasoning is known as the argumentum ad ignorantiam or the argument from ignorance. A claim does not become true or reasonable if a contrary claim cannot be proved to be true.

The UFO community, unfortunately, has become a cult inundated with New Age claptrap, pseudoscience, cryptozoology and the paranormal. This is why scientists and academicians distance themselves from the UFO community. In addition to false hope from the science-fiction entertainment industry, as well as spectacles found only at large-scale UFO conferences, there are several reasons why the UFO community believes that extraterrestrials are behind UFO phenomena.

Some of these reasons include:
1. Questionable interpretations of visual experiences augmented by pseudoscience such as hypnosis.
2. The testimony of unreliable witnesses.
3. Inability to separate science fiction from science.
4. The inclination to believe people who tell fantastic stories.
5. The naïve belief that all disagreement among sources is part of a worldwide government conspiracy to withhold the truth about UFOs.
6. A desire for contact with beings from another world.
7. A belief that extraterrestrials are interested in the welfare of humanity, which either already is, or eventually will become, part of a preexisting civilization.

Ufology, in short, is now a cult in which belief in extraterrestrials is analogous to belief in the supernatural.

Emotions and Confirmation Bias

Rather than applying science and logic to defend the extraterrestrial hypothesis of UFO phenomena, the UFO community addresses the issue through emotions and confirmation bias. Ufologists have a predisposition to favor information, no matter how fantastic, that confirms their beliefs or assumptions. (1)  They display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively or when they interpret it in a biased way. This inclination is especially prominent at UFO conferences when emotionally charged stories of alleged alien abductions and government conspiracies are presented. Those who support the extraterrestrial hypothesis of UFO phenomena, moreover, tend to interpret ambiguous and anecdotal evidence as supporting their existing position. This is often the result of media sound bites, social media, and UFO organizations’ claims that they are “scientific” entities. When confirmation bias is coupled with pareidolia, apophenia, and illusory correlation, the end result is belief perseverance, which contributes to overconfidence and strengthens beliefs even in the face of contrary evidence.

Lastly, belief in the extraterrestrial hypothesis of UFO phenomena did not develop into self-validating structures all by themselves. They are the direct result of the UFO community leaders’ often modifying and revising their agenda to conform to the prevailing culture of their memberships. A clear example of this occurred when the UFO community was faced with a serious institutional crisis regarding the U.S. government’s explanation for the 1947 Roswell incident. Rather than accepting the proven fact that the UFO was actually a balloon under the auspices of Project Mogul, the UFO community conveniently resorted to claims of a government cover-up.

Ufology Is Not a Science

Science is a systematic enterprise that constructs and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe. Ufology, however, is not a science, and no research on or investigation of UFOs has provided a testable explanation and prediction. Nevertheless, there is a growing trend in the UFO community to present ufology as a science and a topic that requires urgent response from the government. Many mainstream ufologists as well as speakers at UFO conferences attempt to use fancy words such as quantum mechanics, which should immediately be considered a red flag. Most ufologists are not scientists and are simply invoking a poorly understood branch of science. Quantum mechanics is the science that deals with matter at the level of atomic and subatomic particles; thus, it cannot be applied to the macroscopic world of large physical objects such as UFOs.

Too often attendees at UFO conferences are perfectly willing to believe the alleged evidence that supposedly proves the UFO hypothesis in their favor, but they steadfastly refuse to consider the overwhelming evidence that contradicts or refutes their claims. In other words, most ufologists cherry-pick the evidence, which is not an allowable option in legitimate science.

Reliability vs. Credibility

Every year hundreds of thousands of reports of unusual sightings and alleged abductions flood the Internet and social media. Organizations such as the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) and National UFO Reporting Center (NUFORC) inundate the UFO community with reports that thousands of UFOs are being documented each month. If only 1% of these sightings were both reliable and credible, it would appear, on the surface, that at the very least thousands of extraterrestrials are visiting planet Earth. That is not the case.

From 2010-2017, I conducted a comprehensive analysis of approximately 10,000 sightings reported to MUFON. The analysis concluded, first, that the vast majority of these sightings were reported by the average person and almost never by professional or amateur astronomers, who are trained observers and spend inordinate amounts of time observing the sky. Second, more than 85% of these reports were incomplete, contained inaccurate and ambiguous information, and were not properly vetted under a systematic control system. The reliability of most of these reports, therefore, was questionable at best. I suspect that if a proper case-control system had been in place and the monthly reporting numbers reflected such a process, perhaps only a few dozen reports per year would be forwarded for investigation. In short, most reports of UFO sightings are unreliable, and the numbers routinely published are deceptive.

From time to time a handful of pilots, military personnel, and police officers did report seeing a UFO. The credibility of these witnesses was taken for granted because of their official titles and/or positions. Unfortunately, however, such reports are too often sensationalized to imply that, because there are no logical explanations for what the officials observed, it must have been an extraterrestrial spacecraft. Regardless of these witnesses’ positions, their reliability can only be established once a thorough Personal Credibility Assessment Investigation on them is completed, which my research found to be rarely conducted.

Challenges for the UFO Community

The UFO craze is now part of a modern subculture. Every year thousands of UFO buffs spend millions of dollars to attend UFO conferences and purchase clothing with pictures of little green men, sensationalistic books, and a variety of UFO paraphernalia. Some U.S. cities even sponsor annual parades, such as that at the Annual Roswell UFO Festival in New Mexico.

In closing, the facts are quite simple. The UFO community’s hypothesis of extraterrestrials is scientifically unsubstantiated conjecture at best. The Observable Universe’s scale, the composition of stars and alleged extraterrestrials’ home planets, the speed of light as applied to interstellar travel, and the hazards of prolonged spaceflight all indicate that technologically advanced, spacefaring civilizations either do not exist, are extinct, or are too far away to detect. That is not to say that other Earth-like planets, or for that matter other planets with complex and/or primitive life, do not exist. Even planets with intelligent life can be common in the universe. Ultimately, however, these assertions are speculation at best because no planets with technologically intelligent life have been detected, yet.

(1) Plous, Scott (1993). The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making. New York: McGraw-Hill.

My kind of spaceship

You’re about to head for a journey through our Solar System and beyond. What fictional spaceship would you like to board? Would it be Millenium Falcon, Battlestar Galactica, USS Enterprise or something completely different?
Nancy Atkinson (Editor at Universe Today, writer for Seeker and author of “Incredible Stories From Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos”)

I would like to travel on board a Nova-class starship, which was a type of Federation starship in Star Trek designed for short-term planetary research missions. Instead of studying other worlds from far-away Earth, why not go visit them and study them in situ? Strange new worlds indeed! I might have to wait a while to do this though, as in Star Trek lore, these type of ships will only be placed in service starting in the late 24th century.

Paul Carr (Space Systems engineer at NASA, podcaster, blogger, investigator)

Based purely on sentiment, it would be Serenity, which strikes me as being in spirit much more like a long range spaceship than luxury liners like the Enterprise. That said, all the science fiction spaceships I’ve come across take considerable liberties with physics, astronomy, or both. Douglas Adams’ Heart of Gold gets around all these bothersome realities by exploiting infinite improbability, but that is more unlikely to come about than a Babel Fish.

One fictional spaceship that minimizes these little white lies is Arthur C. Clarke’s Discovery One from 2001 a Space Odyssey. No magical artificial gravity, impossible propulsion, or unnecessary bulk. Of course, you would never get out of the solar system with such a craft.

In the far future, I would envision relatively small interplanetary craft powered by small black holes, with the shielding problems largely solved to allow travel at large fractions of the speed of light. There would be biological organisms aboard such a craft (apart from some hitchhiking bacteria), just uploaded minds that construct for themselves a new, properly adaptive body upon arrival at a destination. Daniel Cartin’s simulations show that you could build a network of colonies in the local solar neighborhood with an 11 parsec range, which seems just doable to a 21st century engineer.

Ciro Villa (technologist, application developer, STEM communicator)

“The Avalon” of the movie “Passengers” is absolutely breathtaking. I wouldn’t mind cruising the Galaxy on that one.

Fraser Cain (publisher at Universetoday.com, co-host of Astronomy Cast)

Personally, I’ve always preferred the Stargate method of travel, using wormholes to voyage from world to world. What could be more convenient and civilized than to walk through a Einstein-Rosen Bridge and arrive at your destination. That’s the only way to go.

Seth Shostak (Senior Astronomer and Director of the Center for SETI Research at SETI Institute)

Enterprise, of course. I like the never-iron uniforms.

Bob Novella (co-founder and vice-president of New England Skeptical Society, co-host of Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe)

Many spaceships in science fiction would do a fine job touring our solar system. Using their Warp or Hyper or U-Space drives, they could visit all planets and even the Oort Cloud a light year away between breakfast and lunch, assuming you preferred just a 3 hour tour 🙂

For the deluxe tour, though, I’d have to take advantage of Time and Relative Dimension in Space, otherwise known as the TARDIS from Dr. Who. This wonderful vessel could of course flit between planets faster than any other vessel… more importantly though, it could turn each planetary visit into a tour de force of our solar system’s evolution.

You could visit each planet and see it evolve from its birth billions of years ago all the way to its ultimate demise: burned to a crisp as the sun dies, dismantled and used as a Dyson swarm component, or if it survives all that, you could discover if it crashes into the sun due to the loss of gravitational wave energy in a quintillion or sextillion years.

When the the tour is done, you could then choose to return a nanosecond after you left. I can’t think of any other ship in science fiction that could do so much in so little objective time (except maybe the Heart of Gold, but I wouldn’t want to see any whales crashing into planets)

Destination: Mars

Mars will become a touristic destination in a matter of 20 years. At what price for a round trip would you consider buying a ticket? What safety concerns would have to be met to sway you over?
Ciro Villa (technologist, application developer, STEM communicator)

First and foremost, whether Mars will become a tourist destination in the next 20 years or not, it’s still to be seen and subject to debate. There are still several critical hurdles to be overcome: financial, technical and societal just to name some of the main ones. As of today, these hurdles make just the prospect of humans traveling, let alone landing and settling on the red planet all but trivial and extremely challenging. Initially when human travel to the Red planet will begin, only trained astronauts will venture and embark in the journey that will no doubt be filled with difficulties and perils.

When and if we will finally be able to achieve tourism to Mars, prices will at the beginning undoubtedly be highly prohibitive and most likely out of reach for a large swat of the human population. I personally would most likely not be able to afford the journey in my lifetime. It is indeed hard to place a fair price tags with so many unknowns still in place.

If we let our fantasy go wild, then I would envision that in another 100 to 150-year technology will have advanced to the point to allow for “affordable” and safe commutes with round trips to Mars. I frankly still don’t know what exactly that price tag might or should be.

In terms of safety, it is also almost impossible to pinpoint what would be an acceptable threshold of risk metrics that would make me comfortable enough to embark in the journey with a relative degree of confidence that my trip would not be the last of my life. As mentioned in the beginning, obstacles to be overcome in terms of human planetary travel survivability still abound and only after several iterations, including discoveries, advancement in science and technology and lesson learned, would I believe that a journey to the Red Planet might be safe and enjoyable.

Fraser Cain (publisher at Universetoday.com, co-host of Astronomy Cast)

I’m probably less adventurous than most people. I really love Earth, and I’ve barely explored this amazing planet and all it offers. I’d want to know that a trip to and from Mars is relatively safe and much much quicker before I was willing to make that journey. I’d do a few months on Mars to see some of the highlights and then I’d like to come home. I would like to experience lower gravity, but that would be even better on the Moon, which is only a few days away.

Paul Carr (Space Systems engineer at NASA, podcaster, blogger, investigator)

I’ve little doubt that the first tourist tickets to Mars will only be affordable by the wealthy or those able to obtain corporate sponsorship. The cheaper option is likely to be one way ticket, but still far beyond the means of all but a few of us. An optimistic price for a one way ticket in the early days is probably $5 million USD, but it’s probably much more than that until Mars travel is far more efficient than it is now. Perhaps I could raise enough for a one way ticket, which I would have to consider if my health holds up long enough. A few million dollars, for the price of wearing corporate logos on my flight suit, might be possible for me.

I don’t expect Mars travel to be as safe as getting on a cruise ship or an airliner for a long time to come. We can probably find efficient ways to address such threats as infectious diseases in a closed space, radiation exposure, or social meltdowns, so that the biggest risks are launch and landing. We shouldn’t get into the same mentality we had in the early days of the Space Shuttle, with a delusional notion of how safe it is. After the Challenger tragedy in 1986, there was no shortage of astronaut candidates. Some people are willing to take risks if the reward is there. Many people have died leaping off of cliffs in a wingsuit, or climbing high peaks – not because they don’t know what the risks are, but because they accept them and proceed nonetheless. We may never lose as many Mars tourists as the 290 people who have died climbing Everest, but it does seem that some will meet their destiny there. Those who fear the risks should stay on Earth, where they will also die when their time comes.

If I could choose, I’d choose to die on another planet.

Nancy Atkinson (Senior Editor for Universe Today, Host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast & a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador)

Ah yes, this is what I jokingly call “The Mars Plan,” where getting to Mars is a thing that is always 20 years off into the future, no matter when. Humans on Mars was touted as being 20 years away in the 1970’s and it is still 20 years away today. Are we actually any closer now to accomplishing this great feat than we were in the 1970’s? I’m not very confident that we are. There are still many technical hurdles to leap, like making the trip shorter than 7 months, being able to land large payloads on Mars, and developing habitats and life support systems that are truly foolproof. If someone dies on the first human mission to Mars, that will be the end of it. Also, this is going to cost a lot of money, and there will have to be a payoff in some fashion, whether it is mining, tourism or an Earth-catastrophe management endeavor.

As a journalist, I’m secretly hoping that someone will pay *me* to go to Mars so I can write about it! Otherwise, I don’t think I’ll ever have enough cash to do it on my own.

Episode 1 – Science Outreach

In our first episode I was joined by Mike Simmons and Andrew Rader to talk about science outreach and challenges it faces.

To infinity and beyond!

Elon Musk has sent his cherry Tesla Roadster on a Falcon Heavy maiden flight. If it was up to you, what would you send as a payload on that flight and where would it be going?
Mike Simmons (Founder and CEO of “Astronomers without Borders”)

What would I send as a payload? Me! Driving a Tesla roadster would be good but it seems to offer little protection.

Seriously, the payload wouldn’t have made any difference on the test flight. No one was going to risk a valuable scientific payload on an unproven rocket, especially when the builder says it has only a 50% chance of success. I think the proof of concept for the Falcon Heavy’s ability was quite successful.

At first it seemed more than frivolous to send his car into orbit around the Sun. But after seeing the images sent back from it and looking at the attention it got I really like it. The launch is an incredible feat and this quirky way of doing it was just mind-bending. Something different in an era where rocket launches and satellites are becoming routine.

Nancy Atkinson (Senior Editor for Universe Today, Host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast & a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador)

I would have loved for SpaceX to include student experiments or some payload chosen by young people. I think that would have been the most altruistic, educational and scientific choice. But if I understand the story correctly, SpaceX had asked NASA and the US Air Force if they were interested in sending a scientific payload, free of charge on the Falcon Heavy. And while I’m not sure about the timing, but I’m betting there was a delay in a response from NASA and the Air Force, and after the answer was no, that left SpaceX to choose something fairly quickly. There may not have been time to develop something like a competition for student experiments. But the live video feed of the Tesla Roadster in orbit of Earth may have been one of the most exciting, inspirational and just plain cool things that kids have seen lately in regards to space exploration, so perhaps the Tesla was the perfect choice.

Paul Carr (Space Systems engineer at NASA, podcaster, blogger, investigator)

I am amused and disappointed at all the noise over Elon Musk’s choice of a dummy payload – his own car. I thought it was very touching and completely appropriate (full disclosure, I am a Tesla shareholder).

It is impossible to tell payload provider before a demonstration launch that their satellite is not at high risk on an unproven rocket. Throughout the long process leading up to the launch, SpaceX had been managing expectations. They have a history of failing early and learning from it. They felt they had all the known unknowns under control, but in a complex system, it is the unknown unknowns that can easily cause a disaster. I have no doubt that SpaceX approached, or were approached by, a a number of entities about having their payload on the demo flight, but all had to accept the risk. It is easy (and lazy) to say that a scientific payload should have flown, but only in hindsight is this possible, and so the word “should” has to be replaced with “could”. As it is, I think Starman was a master stroke of public relations that no one will forget for a long time. The “Don’t Panic!” sign on the dashboard made it perfect for me. I believe Douglas Adams would have been delighted to see that.

If I had about $20 million sitting around idle, and had been approached by SpaceX, I would have offered an infrared telescope to be positioned at one of the Earth-Moon Lagrange points (probably L1, most of the way to the moon from the Earth) to look for temporary moons. These are small asteroids that are captured into the Earth-Moon system, stay for a few orbits, and then get flung back out into the solar system. At present, we discover them pretty much by luck, if int all. A more systematic survey would provide a more accurate census of these objects, and other Near Earth objects as well. Flying all the way to a Lagrange point before the injection burn might have been a strain on the rocket’s batteries, but will put that in the bucket of solvable engineering problems. The relight of the upper stage after a days long cruise would be an even better demo than what they got.

My ultimate goal would be to have a squadron of probes ready to shoot out after the temporary moons, and intercept and rendezvous with them to ascertain their mineralogy and ore-bearing potential at close distance. This would be more elaborate and expensive, but the first baby step of a telescope to detect the moons might be worth risking on a demo mission.

Antonio Paris (Astronaut Candidate, Astronomy Professor, Planetary Scientist, Space Science Author)

If I had the opportunity to select the payload for the Falcon Heavy test flight, I would have to admit that the rocket would not be powerful enough. The rocket would have been loaded with an assortment of trinkets that represented all of humanity, such as music and photos from diverse cultures. Now do not get me wrong – a Telsa Roadster is pretty cool. However, a sport car does not represent humanity in a nutshell, but rather it only represented Elon Musk and a select class of citizens most of us will never hold membership in.

lt’s the size of Texas, Mr President

At one point in the future we’ll be faced with a threat from an asteroid coming our way. Hopefully we’ll know about it long before it’s even close to Earth. What in your opinion is the best way to redirect an asteroid using current or future technology?
Fraser Cain (publisher at Universetoday.com, co-host of Astronomy Cast)

The bottom line is that we just don’t know. Maybe it’ll be by shooting a laser at it? Or maybe by detonating a nuke near it? Or putting a railgun on it and blasting out material. Until we have the commitment and courage to send a mission to an asteroid and practice some of these different techniques we won’t truly know the best way to redirect them.

Antonio Paris (Astronaut Candidate, Astronomy Professor, Planetary Scientist, Space Science Author)

Every year, astronomers discover new asteroids in the Solar System. Current and past Near Earth Objects (NEO) programs, such as the Catalina Sky Survey (CSS) and The Minor Planet Center (MPC), currently us optical telescopes at high altitude with thermo-electrically cooled cameras. These methods require dark skies with a high transparency, extended camera exposure times, and image data processing. Although the entire process is cumbersome, these surveys have been responsible for detecting and discovering hundreds of asteroids in our Solar system. Recently, Congress signed the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017, which directed NASA to expand the NASA Near Earth Object program to detect, track, catalog, and characterize potentially hazardous NEOs less than 140 meters. The act, moreover, leverages the capabilities of the private sector and philanthropic organizations to the maximum extent practicable in carrying out the NEO Survey Program. Asteroid impact events, specifically on Earth, have played a major role in the evolution of the Solar System. These events have shaped the history of our planet and numerous theories suggest that an impact from an asteroid formed the Moon, shaped life on Earth, and caused at least 5 mass extinction events on Earth. These private and public asteroid detection programs, however, are not responsible for redirecting an asteroid that could impact Earth nor do we have the current capability to do so.

NASA’s Planetary Defense provides several mitigation strategies to prevent an asteroid impact – but none of the proposed strategies have not materialized into anything other than blueprints. Nonetheless, there is a noteworthy piece of information that, according to NASA, is required prior to attempting an asteroid redirect mission: “changing the velocity or trajectory of the object by less than an inch per second years in advance of the predicted impact”. In the past 50 years, a variety of proposals have recommended several approaches to stopping or redirecting an asteroid from impacting Earth. Some of these include the use of nuclear weapons to destroy the asteroid, towing the asteroid away by using gravity or a cable, or landing a robot on the asteroid, which would them use propulsion to slightly move the asteroid into a different trajectory. Unfortunately, we currently do not have the technology to advance any of these proposals or motivation from Congress to spend billions or trillions of dollars to develop them.

The possibility that one day another asteroid will impact Earth is mathematically probable. The best-case scenario is that we would detect the asteroid well in advance for NASA or the private space industry to develop one of these programs to stop it. Personally, of all the proposals, my choice to stop the asteroid would be the gravity tractor, as proposed by NASA. If we could detect the asteroid years in advance, the asteroid’s path could be changed by using the gravitational pull of a spacecraft. The spacecraft, which could be launched from the Moon, would travel alongside the impactor for several years and gently pull it out of Earth’s path. The spacecraft, moreover, could be controlled remotely from Earth or the Moon and thus provide the best solution against Earth impact event.

Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

The larger an object is and the faster is it moving, the more momentum and kinetic energy it has. Large objects moving in space are nearly impossible to stop, but if detected early enough, they can be deflected. Just a infinitesimal course correction can have a major effect on an object’s trajectory months or years down the road. The key is to nudge the path of an asteroid early enough so that it grazes peacefully past our planet. Even simple things like painting an asteroid with absorbing or reflecting paint changes modifies the effect of solar rays, and could help steer the asteroid clear of disaster. Alternatively, you could attach a solar sail or small efficient engine. The key to any solution is early detection.

I have a video about that: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4IRWsrW99hY

2018

It’s this time of year when we make predictions for the upcoming year. What should we look for in the year 2018? What event or mission will be on everyone’s lips?
Seth Shostak (Senior Astronomer and Director of the Center for SETI Research at SETI Institute)

Discovery of a new, big planet in the outer solar system.

Paul Carr (Space Systems engineer at NASA, podcaster, blogger, investigator)

The first thing should be the launch of the Falcon Heavy. We don’t yet know how important a launch vehicle the Heavy will be, but stay tuned for a wonderful spectacle as multiple boosters return to the launch site at once.

The planned launch of TESS is probably the biggest item on my list. It will take a few months to settle into the science, but towards the end of 2018 TESS should start delivering a much better census of planets, especially Earths and Super Earths that are relatively near to us compared to Kepler’s discoveries. We might even find some Earth-like planets quite close by. Along with follow-up ground observations, this should push us truly into the golden age of exoplanet discoveries.

Another big event at about the same time as the TESS launch is the Gaia DR2 data release. I am especially hoping for much smaller error bars on the distance to Boyajian’s Star, which would help to constrain theories about what causes the slow dimming ad brightening episodes we observe.

Fraser Cain (publisher at Universetoday.com, co-host of Astronomy Cast)

There are a couple of big missions coming from SpaceX that I think will keep people on their toes. The first, of course is the launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy Rocket, which has been delayed for several years now. This will bring serious heavy lift capability to SpaceX, which has only been possible from the traditional launch providers. In addition, SpaceX is expected to launch a couple of space tourists on circumlunar trajectory on board a Dragon capsule This will be the first time humans have gone beyond low Earth orbit since the Apollo era. Of course, SpaceX timelines will likely slip, so it’s entirely possible that these predictions will be totally wrong.

In terms of astronomy, I think the result I’m most excited about will be the first pictures from the Event Horizon Telescope, which gathered data back in April 2017. To think that we’ll see an image of the region around a black hole is mind boggling.

Of course, the biggest things will be the unexpected. 2017 surprised us, and I’m sure 2018 will surprise us too.

Nancy Atkinson (Senior Editor for Universe Today, Host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast & a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador)

Although I’m a big fan of every “branch” of space exploration, I’m especially interested in planetary exploration (and that’s why I wrote a book about it!) There are several big planetary events coming up in 2018 and I’m looking forward to all of them. The InSight seismology probe is scheduled to launch to Mars in May, and land later this year. There are two asteroid sample missions that will arrive at their destinations this year: OSIRIS-REx will reach Bennu in August, and Hayabusa 2 is scheduled to reach Ryugu in July. Also, ESA and JAXA are teaming up to launch BepiColombo to Mercury in October (arriving in 2025). China is expected to launch the Chang’e 4 lander/rover sometime this year to land on the moon’s far side.

Of course, all the current planetary missions will continue to awe and amaze us: Juno is telling us more about Jupiter while sending back incredible images; the two Mars rovers carry on with their journeys across the surface of the Red Planet, Dawn is still orbiting Ceres, and at the end of the year, New Horizons will be approaching its next target, an intruging Kuiper Belt Object. So, there will be no shortage of exciting planetary science news to cover in 2018!

Episode 1 – Science Outreach

In our first episode I was joined by Mike Simmons and Andrew Rader to talk about science outreach and challenges it faces.

Win “Mars Rover Rescue” competition – question 4 of 5

Question 4/5:
What is the name of the Discovery Channel series that Andrew was a winner of?

Answers can be posted in the comment section to every post (Blog), sent via direct message to Astronomy/Finest twitter account or posted as a comments to tweets containing details of new questions.

Prepare for warp speed

Science fiction has shown us spaceships travelling at enormous speeds, some of them had faster-then-light capabilities (and some have done the Kessel run in 12 parsecs). Which metods of transportation that are being developed or thought about in the near/far future you think are the most promising?
Paul Carr (Space Systems engineer at NASA, podcaster, blogger, investigator)

I’m not optimistic about faster than light travel at any time in the future, although I would love to be proved wrong. Not only do we not have the technology to travel faster than the speed of light, we don’t know what technology we need, or even if it’s possible.

For the near future, something we could make happen would be nuclear space propulsion – first fission reactors, and then fusion reactors. My dream reactor would be a Helium 3 fusion reactor. Helium 3 is stable, and the Helium 3 fusion reaction produces Helium 4 (also stable), a proton (or two) (that can be used to generate electric power), and energy, but no neutrons. Neutrons are a problem that make most fusion reactors unusable for space applications. Such a reaction is far more mass efficient than chemical rockets, and with some work, could open up the entire solar system to us.

Fraser Cain (publisher at Universetoday.com, co-host of Astronomy Cast)

In the near term, I’m mostly excited about the potential for light sails, like the Breakthrough Starshot. If this technology can be developed, we could see spacecraft traveling out to Pluto within a few weeks or even days. Once we’ve mastered this tech, we can start sending spacecraft out to other stars.

Ciro Villa (technologist, application developer, STEM communicator)

Ever since human have been able to use their imagination they have been dreaming of traveling far away in space to explore and discover new worlds. Unfortunately, as much as our brains can dream it, we are limited by our physical and technological capabilities to only be able to travel very nearby.

So far in the history of space travel, chemical rockets have been the main mean of propulsion and other new propulsion technologies are only at their infancy. Many studies are underway and much literature has been created to envision the design of new ways to propel human made spaceships further in space and in shortest amount of times. In the shortest term, more efficient forms of propulsion are being developed such as electric variants like Ion, Plasma and Hall-effect thrusters some of which are already operational on some space crafts (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_spacecraft_with_electric_propulsion). Also, Solar sails which are still somewhat experimental in nature with their size challenges and limitations, are being investigated as another promising mean to accelerate spaceships beyond the confines of our Solar System.

More futuristic forms of propulsion are unfortunately still only on paper at this time and it will take willpower, new discoveries, money, time or most likely all the above to be further developed. The hope is that with the accelerating pace of technological advancements, some of these new, exotic propulsion technologies will materialize at some point in our future make human exploration of deep space a reality.

Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

For faster than light travel, it’s always possible that there will be some breakthrough that we can’t anticipate. Apart from that, I think we’re going to end up taking a long time to get to other stars, possibly in some kind of suspension or by just sending robots or human embryos. In terms of advanced propulsion in general, anti-matter offers the best mass to energy ratio we know of, but that’s a long way off (hundreds of years?). Fusion rockets might be possible before the end of the century. These would be great for travel in the solar system, but probably not to another star.

Robert Novella (co-founder and vice-president of New England Skeptical Society, co-host of Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe)

Chemical rockets have served humanity very well for many decades. They have launched satellites into orbit and blasted our probes and landers into the nooks and crannies of our solar system. They have lifted humans to low earth orbit and our moon. All of this has given us a priceless cornucopia of images and data and mind-boggling discoveries.

These types of rockets however are not nearly as adept at ferrying our fragile bodies much beyond the moon. To keep us healthy and happy requires vast ships that are prohibitively slow and expensive for trips to the closest practical planet, Mars.

Luckily, conventional rockets are only a tiny subset of all rocket types, yet I’ve been disappointed for literally decades that we have made so little progress on other types of rocket technology for transporting humans.

I’m still holding out hope for the widespread realization that rockets using nuclear fuel are the only real option we have in the near future for getting humans well past our moon. The energy density of nuclear is orders of magnitude that of chemical energy. Nuclear thermal rockets using fission for example could weigh half as much as similarly powerful chemical rockets. Directly comparing chemical vs nuclear rockets is complex but many have concluded that such nuclear rockets would be at least as twice as efficient as chemical rockets. This would allow trips to mars requiring half the time, or less, which is especially important considering the more time spent in space, the more time you’re exposed to life-threatening solar radiation and cosmic rays. Fission rockets would also allow for some serious maneuvering during a flight which is too expensive for modern chemical engines. You’re just not much of a spaceship in my book if you can’t maneuver easily.

A little beyond these fission rockets (which we can build now), we will create fusion rockets which should quickly predominate since they are even more efficient and produce less radioactive waste. Remember, a significant limitation to any ship’s maximum velocity is the amount of fuel required to reach that velocity. You could actually reach 10% of the speed of light with chemical engines but you’d need a gas tank the size of our sun to do that. Doable? Yes, theoretically. Practical? Ummm, no. Fission would require far less fuel to reach that speed and fusion even less. So what would require the least amount of fuel? Read on…

Long-term scenarios for Space Travel will certainly offer humanity many fascinating hi-tech options but some type of antimatter engines will probably be required if you want to move something space ship sized as close as possible to the speed of light. Sure, there may be some bizarre quirk of physics that allows for superluminal travel but…probably not, so don’t get your hopes up.

We know for certain right now that as you approach appreciable fractions of the speed of light, your mass starts increasing alarmingly fast (kinetic energy). To continue accelerating, your ballooning mass requires an exponentially increasing amount of energy. Eventually, to reach the speed of light itself you’ll need infinite energy to move your infinite mass. Unless you have infinite energy in your back pocket, you’ll never hit that speed.

To get as close as possible however, you’ll need an efficient method of energy conversion and that’s exactly what matter/antimatter annihilation provides. The energy released from such interactions is truly huge even if the masses involved are tiny (that is, after all, a key take-away from E=mc^2). The primary problem though is that we can’t practically convert all the byproducts of matter/antimatter collisions into the kinetic energy of our spaceship. The bottom line then is that we will probably not be able to ever get arbitrarily close to the speed of light. The estimates seem to be all over the place but somewhere between 40 and 70 percent of the speed of light could be attainable eventually.

I’m totally ok with a spaceship going 753 million km per hour.

Antonio Paris (Astronaut Candidate, Astronomy Professor, Planetary Scientist, Space Science Author)

For generations, science fiction has attempted to shape our future. From cameras on a watch as depicted in Dick Tracy; to warp speed, a common mode of travel used extensively in the Star Trek franchise. However, traveling faster than the speed of light or at warp speed, from a practical purpose, is not possible according to the laws of physics. The energy required to achieve the speed the speed of light, for example, would be infinite – sort of a an impossibility.

Today, and for the foreseeable future, spacecraft are limited to local orbits and interplanetary missions. There are numerous factors that shape spacecraft design and capabilities, but predominantly they are due to budget constraints, its intended function, and policy requirements. Extraordinary specific power and the ratio of jet-power to total spacecraft mass are required to reach interstellar targets within sub-century time frames. Some heat transfer is unavoidable and a tremendous heating load must be effectively handled. Thus, for interstellar rocket concepts of all technologies, a key engineering setback is controlling the heat transfer from the exhaust stream back into the spacecraft.

Based on research in the late 1950s to the early 1960s, it is technically possible to build spacecraft with nuclear pulse propulsion engines (i.e. driven by a series of nuclear explosions). This propulsion system contains the prospect of very high specific impulse and high specific power. This type of spacecraft, in my opinion, is our best hope for achieving interstellar travel.

In 1968, Project Orion team members proposed an interstellar spacecraft using nuclear pulse propulsion, which used pure deuterium fusion detonations with a very high fuel burn-up fraction. They calculated an exhaust velocity of 15,000 km/s and a 100,000-ton spacecraft able to achieve 20,000 km/s allowing a flight-time to Alpha Centauri of roughly 130 years. Later studies suggested that the top cruise velocity that can theoretically be achieved by a Teller-Ulam thermonuclear unit powered Orion spacecraft, supposing no fuel is saved for slowing back down, is about 8% to 10% of the speed of light. An atomic Orion can reach perhaps 3%-5% of the speed of light. A nuclear pulse drive spacecraft powered by Fusion-antimatter catalyzed nuclear pulse propulsion units would be comparably in the 10% range and pure matter-antimatter annihilation rockets would be theoretically capable of achieving a velocity between 50% to 80% of the speed of light.

In closing, although there have been numerous proposals and design concepts, spacecraft propulsion for interstellar flight is not an easy endeavor or economical. At current pace, we are at least hundreds or perhaps thousands of years before capable of interstellar travel to even the closest stars. Nevertheless, there are no doubts we will become an interstellar species in the foreseeable future.