Curiosity

It's been 13 years since NASA's Opportunity rover is exploring Mars. In your oppinion what is it's most important discovery to date? Is it our most succesful Mars rover? Will the next Mars rover (planned for touchdown on Mars surface in 2020) have to chance to achieve even more? What would you personally like to see as it's scientific payload?
Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

Perhaps the greatest discovery of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers has been to study the water cycle on Mars and yield clues as to how ice and frost moves about the planet with seasons and weather, although it would be hard to argue that Opportunity's greatest achievement isn't its marathon longevity. Curiosity and the 2020 Rover are much more capable than Opportunity so should interact more with the planet and (presuming a long mission) may even eventually travel farther. I think the most important experiments going forward are related to the search for water and life on Mars, and starting to conduct experiments on use and conversion of local resources like the production of methane, oxygen, and liquid water.

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

I think its interesting that basically everywhere Curiosity has traveled, it is finding evidence of past water. From the rounded pebbles that were worn by flowing water to the mudstone and sandstone features, to the layered rock formations that could only be laid down in large amounts of water, it appears that Gale Crater was at one time filled with water. And that's intriguing because we know on Earth, everywhere there is water, there is life. Curiosity has been finding these features and potentially habitable environments almost since it landed, so the choice of Gale Crater as the landing site appears to have been the perfect place to explore!

I'm really looking forward to the Mars 2020 rover, especially how it should be able to test ways for future human explorers to use the resources available on Mars to ‘live off the land.’ Also, it should help us understand the hazards posed by Martian dust and demonstrating technologies to process carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to produce oxygen, which could be used for the production of fuel. 

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

The Mars rover Opportunity has made many groundbreaking achievements in the exploration on Mars. Its greatest achievement, in my opinion, does categorically fall into science or technology. I believe that Opportunity’s greatest achievement is that it served as an “extension” to the human eye, thus allowing us to explore a far distant world where humans are still decades away from making landfall. Additionally, none of the rovers on Mars are more successfully than the other. Each robotic mission to Mars had a specific purpose and it was their cumulative discoveries that have made the exploration of Mars a success thus far. Moving forward, there is an assortment of Mars rovers that will one day take the helm for Opportunity. As technology continues to improve, I sure hope a HD live cam makes it way into the next rover’s payload!

2017

2017 has just begun, it's a good time to share our predictions. What should we expect from 2017? What should we look forward to? What are your plans for 2017?
Ciro Villa (technologist, application developer, STEM communicator)

As technologies in the realm of machine intelligence and data analysis continues to advance, I expect that the results stemming from the amalgamation of additional astronomical information will spur more announcement and presentations of discoveries in the field of deep space astrophysics and cosmology with important new theoretical dissertations regarding the nature of dark matter and dark energy. Additionally, I anticipate further exciting discoveries in terms of exoplanets and subsequently an increase in the pool of confirmed exoplanets.

I believe one of, if not the most anticipated astronomical event for 2017 is the upcoming Total Solar Eclipse to occur on August 21. This eclipse will be of peculiar interest as it will be visible for a rather large swath of the continental United States, albeit comprising a relatively narrow “band” across a multitude of States.

As far as plans for the new year are to do my best to continue to inform and try to enthuse the public regarding anything related to space and space exploration, and, barring other life priorities, continue to divulgate valuable information, news and content on new and exciting progress and discoveries.

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

I suspect, as is the case for the past 10 years, that we will discover a variety of extrasolar planets. Of these discoveries, 1-2% will be cataloged as potentially Earth-like planets. The James Webb Telescope, moreover, will be reaching final completion and just like many of you, I anticipate new discoveries that will reshape the field of astronomy - and science.

Matthew Greenhouse (Astrophysicist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center working on James Webb Space Telescope)

The New Year will be an exciting one for NASA Astrophysics and the missions that I am involved in. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is in the final stages of testing ahead of its 2018 launch date. During this year, the international science community will submit their first proposals to use the JWST. Observing proposals for Early Release Science are due during August. The first call for General Observing proposals will occur during November 2017 with proposals due during March 2018.

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) began its primary operations phase during May 2014, and continues to provide the science community’s only general access to the far-infrared spectrum (which contains half of the light in the universe). A new science instrument, called HAWC+, enters fully commissioned service this year. This instrument provides far-infrared imaging polarimetry at unprecedented angular resolution providing a new window on the study of magnetic fields in space. The High Resolution Mid-Infrared Spectrometer (HIRMES) is in full development this year, and is expected to begin operations during early 2019. During spring of this year, NASA will solicit proposals for development of an additional science instrument and will issue the 6th call for general observing proposals to use SOFIA.

NASA continues to develop a vibrant capability to study exoplanets and to search for evidence of life on them via spectroscopy of their atmospheres. A key starshade technology development activity gets underway this year to ensure that the most promising technologies for characterization of Earth-like planets will be to ready for mission prioritization by the 2020 Decadal Survey.

A January 2017 snap shot of NASA Astrophysics plans and progress can be found here.

Mike Simmons (Founder and CEO of "Astronomers without Borders")

The big news in the US is the total solar eclipse that crosses the entire continent, from the Pacific to the Atlantic, in August of this year. But it's more than just a single-country event. This celestial event will be seen by more people than any other in history. People from countries around the world are coming to the US for this historic event.

Astronomers Without Borders will be supporting schools in underserved communities -- inner cities, Native American reservations, and more -- not only with resources for the eclipse but for continuing STEM education using the Sun after the inspirational experience of the eclipse. It's one of many efforts to get as many people as possible to view the eclipse, and to keep them looking up afterward.

Global Astronomy Month in April will be the biggest yet. There are new partners and new programs that we hope will engage even more participants around the world. SunDay -- a day for public outreach with the Sun -- will focus on the eclipse this year. There will be a new cultural program under the AstroArts banner. The Global Star Party will be the opening event on April 1. That's going to be a very exciting day when we can all observe and work together.

I'm sure there will be celestial surprises as well. That's part of the fun of astronomy. There are some wonderful events we know about but what surprise us? A bright comet, a bright nova, a large meteor strike? We'll have to wait and see.

January 2017: Books

It's time for a list of interesting astronomy and space related books that have their premiere in January. Click on the cover for more info.
January 17, 2017
"Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars", Nathalia Holt

In the 1940s and 50s, when the newly minted Jet Propulsion Laboratory needed quick-thinking mathematicians to calculate velocities and plot trajectories, they didn't turn to male graduates. Rather, they recruited an elite group of young women who, with only pencil, paper, and mathematical prowess, transformed rocket design, helped bring about the first American satellites, and made the exploration of the solar system possible.

For the first time, Rise of the Rocket Girls tells the stories of these women--known as "human computers"--who broke the boundaries of both gender and science. Based on extensive research and interviews with all the living members of the team, Rise of the Rocket Girls offers a unique perspective on the role of women in science: both where we've been, and the far reaches of space to which we're heading.

January 24, 2017
"Amazing Stories of the Space Age: True Tales of Nazis in Orbit, Soldiers on the Moon, Orphaned Martian Robots, and Other Fascinating Accounts from the Annals of Spaceflight", Rod Pyle

Award-winning science writer and documentarian Rod Pyle presents an insider's perspective on the most unusual and bizarre space missions ever devised inside and outside of NASA. The incredible projects described here were not merely flights of fancy dreamed up by space enthusiasts, but actual missions planned by leading aeronautical engineers. Some were designed but not built; others were built but not flown; and a few were flown to failure but little reported:

A giant rocket that would use atomic bombs as propulsion (never mind the fallout), military bases on the moon that could target enemies on earth with nuclear weapons, a scheme to spray-paint the lenses of Soviet spy satellites in space, the rushed Soyuz 1 spacecraft that ended with the death of its pilot, the near-disaster of the Apollo 11 moon landing, the mysterious Russian space shuttle that flew only once and was then scrapped--these are just some of the unbelievable tales that Pyle has found in once top-secret documents as well as accounts that were simply lost for many decades.

These stories, complimented by many rarely-seen photos and illustrations, tell of a time when nothing was too off-the-wall to be taken seriously, and the race to the moon and the threat from the Soviet Union trumped all other considerations. Readers will be fascinated, amused, and sometimes chilled.

January 25, 2017.
"The Pillars of Creation: Giant Molecular Clouds, Star Formation, and Cosmic Recycling", Martin Beech

This book explores the mechanics of star formation, the process by which matter pulls together and creates new structures. Written for science enthusiasts, the author presents an accessible explanation of how stars are born from the interstellar medium and giant molecular clouds. Stars produce the chemicals that lead to life, and it is they that have enabled the conditions for planets to form and life to emerge.

Although the Big Bang provided the spark of initiation, the primordial universe that it sired was born hopelessly sterile. It is only through the continued recycling of the interstellar medium, star formation, and stellar evolution that the universe has been animated beyond a chaotic mess of elementary atomic particles, radiation, dark matter, dark energy, and expanding spacetime. Using the Milky Way and the Eagle Nebula in particular as case studies, Beech follows every step of this amazing process.

January 27, 2017
"Gravity's Kiss: The Detection of Gravitational Waves", Harry Collins

Scientists have been trying to confirm the existence of gravitational waves for fifty years. Then, in September 2015, came a "very interesting event" (as the cautious subject line in a physicist's email read) that proved to be the first detection of gravitational waves. In Gravity's Kiss, Harry Collins -- who has been watching the science of gravitational wave detection for forty-three of those fifty years and has written three previous books about it -- offers a final, fascinating account, written in real time, of the unfolding of one of the most remarkable scientific discoveries ever made.

Predicted by Einstein in his theory of general relativity, gravitational waves carry energy from the collision or explosion of stars. Dying binary stars, for example, rotate faster and faster around each other until they merge, emitting a burst of gravitational waves. It is only with the development of extraordinarily sensitive, highly sophisticated detectors that physicists can now confirm Einstein's prediction. This is the story that Collins tells.

January 2017: Astronomy & Space on paper

Looking for something to read in January? Quick check on what's in store for this month in astronomy magazines.  

Astronomy, topics:

  • Top 10 space stories of 2016
  • The final days of Cassini
  • Ask Astro
  • The Sky This Month
  • StarDome and Path of Planets
  • Sizing up planetary nebulae
  • Is telescope making a lost art?
  • Two imagers are better than one
  • Starmus III: A tribute to Stephen Hawking

SkyNews, topics: 

  • Top 10 Sky Sights For 2017
  • The World Next Door
  • Splendid Winter Double Stars
  • On the Moon: A Blue-Sky Moon
  • Scoping the Sky: Castor Puts His Best Foot Forward
  • Cosmic Musings: A Celestial Eye Chart
  • Capturing The Universe: Tools and Rules For Getting the Right Exposure
  • Exploring the Night Sky: Venus Lights the Evening Sky
  • Editor’s Report: Manual Mayhem
  • Constellation Corner: Lepus

Sky at Night, topics:

  • 25 Years of Exoplanets
  • Tim Peake
  • Missions of the Future
  • The Ashen Light
  • Reviews: Vixen A62SS 2.5-inch achromatic refractor, iOptron SkyTracker Pro DSLR camera mount, ZWO ASI290MM cooled monochrome CMOS camera
  • Stellar spectral classifications
  • How to make an automated flat panel and dust cap
  • Image processing - registering images in DeepSkyStacker
  • Monthly Bulletin, all the latest astronomical news, Cutting Edge revealing the highlights from brand new research
  • January Sky Guide featuring the Quadrantids meteor shower, Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova, an all-sky chart, a deep-sky tour
  • Our Scope Doctor answers your technical kit questions
  • Interactive: your letters, tweets, forum posts and readers’ scopes
  • Gear
  • What’s On listings
  • Hotshots
  • Beautiful new images from space in Eye on the Sky
  • The latest astronomy books reviewed

Popular Astronomy, topics:

  • The jewels of Perseus Martin Griffiths
  • The origins of popular astronomy Allan Chapman
  • A day in the life of a radio astronomer Megan Argo
  • Is Proxima b habitable?
  • Q&A with Chris Lintott
  • Telescope Topics
  • Amateur Scene
  • Citizen Science
  • Young Stargazers
  • Space Exploration
  • Book Reviews
  • Section Reports
  • The Society Pages
  • Sky Diary

How to win Nancy Atkinson’s book

10 people have the chance to win Nancy Atkinson's book "The Incredible Stories From Space: A Behind the Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos".

For your chance to win a free copy of the book you need to enter a giveaway competition at Goodreads -https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/216146-the-incredible-stories-from-space-a-behind-the-scenes-look-at-the-missi

Competition ends on Jan 20, 2017

David Grinspoon joins Astronomy/Finest

Warm welcome to our new panelist: David Grinspoon.

David Grinspoon is an astrobiologist, senior scientist at The Planetary Science Institute, columnist at "Sky and Telescope" and an author of several books. He also performs with his band House Band of the Universe.

Matthew Greenhouse joins the panel

Astronomy/Finest is proud to announce a new panelist: Matthew Greenhouse.

Matthew Greenhouse is an astrophysicist working for over 20 years at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. He is responsible for the science instrument payload on the James Webb Space Telescope.

Charity 2.0

Back in June 2015 we created a list of charities worth supporting. As it's always a good time to support organizations that are changing the world for better we're doing it again. 
Abigail Harrison (Aspiring astronaut & scientist, founder and spokesperson for The Mars Generation)

TheMarsGeneration.org which is a nonprofit setup by myself and a team of astronauts, engineers and others. The mission is to excite and educate students and adults about the importance of human space exploration and STEM education to the future of humanity.

The organisation is now in its second year of operation. It is 100% volunteer driven, has provided 10 students with financial need full paid space camp scholarships in 2016 and will do the same for summer of 2017, has over 650 Student Space Ambassadors, over 350 founding members so far and an online following of over 700,000 fans and followers. Last year we reached over 10 million people and we anticipate year two to be even bigger!

Mike Simmons (Founder and CEO of "Astronomers without Borders")

I started Astronomers Without Borders to connect people around the world through our common passion. Now we're doing a lot to advance STEM through astronomy, sharing what those of us have in developed countries with others..

Morgan Rehnberg (PhD student at University of Colorado, works with Cassini to study Saturn’s rings) 

I support the Wikimedia Foundation each year because I can't imagine what I'd do for even a day without Wikipedia. Whether it's finding a quick reference for the mass of a moon or a high-resolution copy of the Hubble deep field, basically all the information I could ever want is a click or two away. It's certainly an organization with its share of faults, but I can't imagine the amount of effort it would take to start over from scratch.

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

I think there are many worthy charities. I mentioned one of them in the latest episode (64) of the Unseen Podcast: Doctors Without Borders. As for space or astronomy related charities, I have donated at various times to the SETI Institute, the Planetary Society, and the AAVSO. At the AAVSO, you can adopt the variable star of your choice for $20/year, which is a good way to help them.

Little green/grey men

http://www.thinkaboutit-aliens.com/
There where hundreds of movies and tv-series showing extraterrestials from distant worlds. Giving how life on our planet evolved and considering basic components necessary for intelligent life to emerge, who in your oppinion might have been the closest in depicting alien visitors from outer space? 

Mike Simmons (Founder and CEO of "Astronomers without Borders")

There's really no way to know until we start finding other life. We know the components and evolution of life on Earth but there could be other ways life can be created. Astrobiologists have done a lot of work in this field trying to determine what the possibilities are but without data we're pretty much blind.

The common feature of most TV shows and movies is that intelligent alien life is somewhat humanoid. That makes sense for anything made before computer generated graphics (CGI) since actors are (mostly) human. With CGI anything is possible now but who knows?


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

I consider myself a science fiction aficionado as well as a (takes a deep breath) UFO buff. It is safe to say, therefore, that I have seen my share of what extraterrestrials “should look like”, according to Hollywood and so-called UFO witnesses. Unfortunately, most, if not all, of these so-called "aliens" are a direct results of anthropomorphic biases – bestowed upon us by the greatest of all special effects artists on one side and alleged UFO encounters on the other.  In a nutshell, the biases have directly shaped what extraterrestrials, from a human perspective, should look like. Most, if not all, of these aliens appear to look strikingly similar to us: a head, two eyes, nose, mouth, two arms, two legs, and in some astonishing situations, they even speak … English. Nonetheless, If I were to chose my favorite “alien”, I would focus on the latest movie The Arrival. These extraterrestrials, which are heptapods, sparked my interested in contemplating what type of planet these aliens could have evolved on. Because they were large and could not breath oxygen, we can speculate that gravity and a unique atmosphere directly influenced these aliens. Nevertheless, The Arrival is science fiction and any portrayal of extraterrestrials, from humans, will unquestionably be wrong.


Nicole Guggliucci (“Noisy astronomer”, blogger, educator, post-doc)

I think it's safe to say that none of us have any CLUE what life might look like... just talk to a biologist to get a sense of the complexity and seeming randomness of life on Earth and its evolutionary pathways.

That said, I loooves me some science fiction and fun speculation. Of course, scifi for tv and film is often limited. In order to tell compelling stories over long periods of time with complex characters, you often need human actors. Thus, we get the "humanoids with bumpy foreheads" in so much of our television and movies. Even with CGI available to us, storytellers will create humanoid forms because that is what we tend to identify with emotionally.

I like to sneak off to books to find truly bizarre descriptions of potential alien sentients. My favorite is the Galactic Football League series by Scott Sigler. Though his universe teems with intelligent creatures with all kinds of bizarre (though, admittedly, often Earth-like) forms, and their physiology determines what positions they play in American football. I can't think of a better way to get a sports fanatic excited about science fiction! It also makes for some bizarre cosplay options when we go to conventions... Anyway, with full color illustrations in some of the books in the series, you can really enjoy the possibilities for sentient species there.


Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

Probably one of the most realistic is 'Contact' with Jody Foster based on Carl Sagan's book of the same name. In a nod to Fermi's Paradox, the Vegans (people of Vega, not non-meat eaters) developed technology first and are thus far more advanced than we are. They don't so much visit Earth as give us a technological boost to help us transcend our basic corporeal bipedal primate existence.



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

To me, science fiction movies and TV shows are not so much about aliens, but about ourselves - human myths, nightmares, hopes, and aspirations. For example, Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still is not alien at all - he is an idealized human, and in fact brings the Christ story into the atomic age. ET seemed to follow a similar pattern, but he wasn't as preachy. Most of the Star Trek aliens are really just exaggerations of human traits that we either fear, admire or detest, and Q is not unlike the all-powerful, omniscient, severely judging God of our Abrahamic religions. I have to admit a mild fascination with the Vulcans. What would it be like to always act rationally?I don't know the answer to that question, but I don't think Vulcans are really all that alien.

Aliens that were really alien would be too hard to understand and would not serve a good role in an entertaining narrative. They would, I expect, be about as far from Dr. Who or Chewbacca as I am from a three-toed sloth. I am not talking about how the aliens look, or how many eyes they have, or whether they swim in a vat of blue liquid - details I regard as relatively unimportant. What you won't see on the surface is how they evolved, which governs to a great extent how they approach and perceive reality and how they think. If, as would be necessary for visitors from other worlds, they are the creators (or at least the heirs) of unimaginably advanced technology, then they think with great power and solve problems we don't even know exist. We don't even understand yet just how alien this would make them, or how absurd and puzzling their motives and actions would be to us. We certainly don't know why there would be here, but it is unlikely to kill us, to eat us, or save us from ourselves.

Such aliens as I imagine, if they exist, would make lousy movie villains or heroes, but I wish someone would try it.



Ciro Villa
(technologist, application developer, STEM communicator)

Although we envision aliens mostly looking like us, there is no reason to not think that some yet to be discovered chemical and organic mechanisms, might exist elsewhere in the Universe that allowed for the rise on other worlds for the formation and rise of species that do not even remotely resemble us.

Just by looking at the shear diversity of Carbon based life forms right here on Earth, gives room to imagine the existence of many other varied types of non-anthropomorphic looking alien being. It is hard to pinpoint one fictional representation of an alien species by one of the many Science fiction artworks. But if one popular franchise comes to mind, that would be Star Trek. In their long running shows, the creator of this, one of the most successful sci-fi/space franchises have been able to present a tremendous diversity of alien species to the audience, thus sparking the light of imagination in the human mind.

Abigail Harrison and Mike Simmons join the panel.

Astronomy/Finest panel has gained two more panelists: Abigal Harrison and Mike Simmons.

aipi_tpAbigail Harrison, known on social media as "Astronaut Abby" is a 19 years old aspiring astronaut and scientist. Her goal is to be the first person to step on Mars. Abby is a founder and spokesperson for The Mars Generation.

mikesimmons_photo

Mike Simmons is a founder and President of "Astronomers Without Borders", a non-profit organization that "brings the world together to share our passion of astronomy and the wonders of the Universe".