Conspiracy

People believe in very strange things. Some search for extraordinary explanation where logic and common sense is the right answer. I asked the panel what’s the most bizzare conspiracy theory about space and astronomy they have heard about? Why do people continue to create such stories and resist to listen to scientific explanation?
Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

Many people have a vivid sense of imagination, and are loathe to trust the mainstream story, even if it is supported by evidence. Humans are emotional creatures, and their thinking is often driven by bizarre connections. There is a huge difference between legitimate skepticism (questioning what is true) and supposing the existence of conspiracies on shaky or contrary evidence. There are some real conspiracies, defined as “a secret plan to do something unlawful or harmful”. For example, Lincoln’s assassination surely was a conspiracy by John Wilkes Booth and his band, but I think when most people think of “conspiracy theories”, they mean ones perpetuated by the government (especially in the United States).

Particularly in the United States, there is a mistrust of government. While some skepticism is justified in most things, believing with certainty an alternative and less plausible story is not the same thing. Humans are notoriously bad at accepting uncertainty, so perhaps when evidence appears to be lacking, an alternative story seems attractive. Moreover, this imagined story is conceived to fit the preconceptions of the person imagining it – humans interpret the world through a lens which fits their internal biases, rather than trying to shift their biases to fit the actual world.

The main problem with “conspiracy theories” like alien visitation or a faked Moon landing is that while (almost) anything is possible, the magnitude of the problem is misunderstood. Taking the Moon landing case, millions of people were involved, hardware capable of reaching the Moon was designed, built, and launched multiple times over many years, and the supporting science and engineering supports an actual trip to the Moon. Given that framework, it would have been much harder not to go the the Moon (and keep the whole thing secret) than actually go. The weight of evidence supports the view not that it is absolutely certain we went to the Moon, but that having gone is a much more likely explanation than that the landings were faked.

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

The most bizarre conspiracy theory about space and astronomy is UFO phenomena. 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. 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. Moreover, 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 coverup.

Pamela Gay (assistant research professor at Southern Illinois University, writer, co-host of Astronomy Cast)

The range of extraordinary emails I get is … extraordinary. Many include notices of “Confidential” and “Top Secret” and go on to explain how they have sorted dark energy or explained away relativity with some novel idea that has no math behind it, and they just need math from someone like me to get that Nobel Prize. I general respond to these with gentle encouragement to please take university physics. Please. Learn. Please?

But these aren’t conspiracy theories. These are just people with their own unique denial of physical reality.

The best conspiracy theory I ever heard was actually shared over far too many glasses of [undisclosed adult beverage] while I had a fabulous conversation with an otherwise utterly sane, rather famous actor I otherwise greatly respect. Because this theory doesn’t appear to be in the public record I’m not going to disclose his name. This fellow presented me with a completely novel (to me) take on the Moon Hoax conspiracy. While he believed we did indeed land on the Moon when we said we did, he felt (and continues to feel) that the broadcast that aired on live TV was actually studio footage put together by Stanley Kuberick using the fabulous NASA lens he had access to. This conspiracy theorist posited that the transmission of the 1969 Superbowl was problematic and NASA couldn’t risk having the Moon transmission get screwed up by technical issues. Thus, we landed and explored, BUT, in his mind, what was seen on TV was pre-filmed in a studio. I have to admit, it makes a certain kind of sense… and that is true of many of the best conspiracy theories… but… it’s not true. (This plays along with William Karel’s movie “The dark side of the moon landing” https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=5&v=11nXqMsVLeA)

There are a lot of bad conspiracy theories out there; ones that make me question how these people function in the workplace. The continued belief by some that there was no Jewish Holocaust in WWII is one of those “How?” conspiracy theories. There are also ones that make me wonder “Could that be true?” The conspiracy around the statistical discrepancies between poll results and election results in the 2000 election leaves me scratching my head. This range of conspiracy theory, however, traces out a unifying idea: they present a reality the believers want to be true.

And at the end of the day, faced with the world we actually have, don’t we all sometimes wish for a different reality?

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

Conspiracy theories are interesting because they allow a unique look into the human psyche and why people believe the things they do. After confronting many astronomy-related conspiracy theories by writing articles and debunking them, I think when people get caught up in hype and drama of these predictions, it mainly comes down to scientific illiteracy and a fear of a concept or thing due to misinformation or misunderstanding.

Moon hoaxers — people who don’t think the Apollo missions went to the Moon — are especially maddening because they refuse to look at the mountain of evidence proving the missions were in fact real. But I think the most perplexing of conspiracy theories is the doomsday/apocalypse/end of the world theme.

I’ve lost count of how many times the world was supposed to end in just my own lifetime, but from ancient Nostradamus to the plethora of 2012 doomsday scenarios to the upcoming supermoon eclipse, predictions of the world ending have been happening for centuries. I’ve never been able to understand why humans seem to have a fixation about this topic, but since we and our planet are still here, that means 100% of the predictions have been wrong! I think we can count on any future predictions of apocalypse being wrong, too, because no one — seriously no one — can predict the future.

It’s disappointing when people use astronomical events like a close passing asteroid, an eclipse, supernova or a comet appearing in the sky to spread fear. Learning about the real science of these objects is much more interesting and fun!

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

The most bizarre conspiracy has got to be the fact that lots of people don’t believe we ever landed on the Moon. It’s an absolutely classic example of insane conspiracy theory thinking. The “evidence” that the conspiracy theory proponents rely on is essentially, “I don’t think astronauts could survive the radiation of the Van Allen Belts.” Even though there’s plenty of science and actual measurements taken during the Apollo flights through the Belts. I honestly don’t really understand the psychology of conspiracy theories, but we see the same things pop up again and again. We’ve been battling the Nibiru nonsense for almost 20 years now, and it’ll probably still be around 100 years in the future.

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

I was once accused of being part of the “black hole conspiracy.” Yes, this is a thing. Apparently there’s a conspiracy to make people believe in black holes which can’t possibly exist in the “electric universe” in which everything is charged and made of currents or… something. It’s a bizarre belief. That said, I think all of us have the capacity for belief in irrational things, as its how our human brains work and construct explanations of the world. Though I think the curiosity part of science is innate and natural to us, the rigorous methodology is not. So there are many factors that influence resistance to science and belief in pseudo science, but some part of it is, that’s just how our brains seem to work by default.

Relax, please

Apart from our work and other astronomy related activities we all like to relax. Everyone is doing it in a different way. Let’s ask our panelists what’s theirs recipe for a good relaxation.
Fraser Cain (publisher at Universetoday.com, co-host of Astronomy Cast)

I’m lucky enough to live on Vancouver Island, so we’ve got an infinite amount of things to do with our leisure time. I live just a few blocks from a river that we swim in all summer. I can go mountain biking or hiking in the forests. I’ve got a sailboat that we take out when the weather is good for sailing. Oh, and I’m an avid gamer, so like to play strategy games and space simulation games when I can find the time.

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

After my work day, my primary activity is researching and preparing for the next SGU podcast and writing for our SGU News blog. For both those activities, I’m definitely biased towards Astronomy and Physics. I find the biggest and smallest aspects of the universe endlessly fascinating.

Beyond that and most recently, I’ve been putting together a costume for Dragon Con and my Halloween party this year. This year I’m uncharacteristically avoiding something macabre and going for something hi-tech. Check my facebook this October for pics to see how it came out.

I also love binge-watching classic series on Netflix/Hulu/Kobi etc. I often watch it concurrently with a distant friend so we can text each other our thoughts on the episode. I’m convinced we’re in a golden age of television; more compelling than anything coming out in the theaters. Some of my favorite shows have been Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Walking Dead, Hannibal, Stargate SG1, and Babylon 5.

After a hard day I love just going to my comfortable couch with my dog and my laptop. Before that I occasionally will go with my family to a good Thai, Indian, or Italian restaurant.

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

Anytime I have a spare moment, I like to read. I’ll read anything: magazines, or online material, but books are my favorite. I like to “get lost in a good book” as the saying goes, and love a good read that totally engrosses me. To really relax though, taking a walk in nature is my favorite or even just sitting and watching nature, especially sunrises, sunsets and the night sky.

Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

Good food and friends, wine or beer and conversation. I also very much enjoy tabletop board games. I love to travel to see the world and how other people live. I also enjoy camping when I can find the time. Getting out into the countryside on a clear night and gazing at the stars is the best way to feel connected to Earth and the Universe.

Kepler-452b – Earth’s cousin

Hunt for exoplanets oficially started in 1992 with confirmation of first planets orbiting a pulsar. In 1995 we found first exoplanet orbiting a main sequence star. Biggest news recently was the discovery of Kepler-452b named by some “Earth 2.0”. How big of discovery is it? Can we “look” into its atmosphere from a distance of 1400 light years?
Fraser Cain (publisher at Universetoday.com, co-host of Astronomy Cast)

This is our best candidate for a twin of Earth, but we’re not quite there yet. Kepler-452b has 5 times the mass of Earth and twice the surface gravity. You would have a very difficult time surviving on the surface for any length of time. But it does orbit a sunlike star and it’s in the habitable zone. We’re so close, but I definitely wouldn’t call this Earth 2.0 yet. I’d like to see a world with a similar mass and surface gravity to Earth. Seeing a planet 1,400 light years will be really tough, so it’s going to be a long time before we can get any confirmation of life on this world.

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

We’ve been looking for another Earth-like planet for decades, and Kepler 452b is the closest we’ve found so far, so this is big news! It also means there are likely other candidates in the Kepler data – as well as others that Kepler is unable to find — that would be even more like Earth and perhaps not quite so far away. The one ‘bummer’ about the discovery is that Kepler-452b is 1,400 light-years away, so even with our fastest spaceship (something like New Horizons) it would take about 26 million years to reach it.

You’ve probably read the stats on this planet: it’s about 60% bigger than Earth, circling a sunlike star in its habitable zone, meaning it could hold liquid water. Astronomers suspect the planet is rocky and it likely has a thick atmosphere.

So, if you try to imagine, what it would be like to visit or live on this planet, all we honestly have now is speculation, since it’s too far away and we don’t have the technology to actually “look” at the planet. Astronomers also suspect that the star this planet orbits is older and is increasing in its energy output. This might be causing the planet to heat up and lose any water it might have, so if it is habitable now, it might not be for long. The artist’s concept picture that the astronomers collaborated on for this planet doesn’t make it look like a very hospitable planet!

Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

Based on previous Kepler finds, we suspected that there were many Earthlike planets out there – and think there are many more than the one, maybe as many as 6 billion in the Milky Way alone. So to some extent, the discovery wasn’t unexpected. However, it’s still always incredibly satisfying to actually follow through and identify what looks like the most Earthlike planet to date. So I’d say very exciting!

Unfortunately at that distance we can’t directly get much conclusive information on the planet’s atmosphere or composition. However, more precise and far-reaching sensors may allow us in the not too distant future to measure the composition of the atmosphere, and thereby learn a lot about the planet’s history, environment, and potentially life. Even more exciting discoveries await us.

Pluto flyby

After over 9 years of speeding through space New Horizons probe visited last of the original 9 planets – Pluto. Finally we were suppose to get clear images of Pluto and it’s surface. I asked our panel about how did they feel about the flyby and if they think that it was ok to demote Pluto from a planet status in 2006.
Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

Very exciting to round out the original list of planets. The visit doesn’t officially promote Pluto to planet but it was larger than anticipated, probably larger than Eris. This means that it might qualify for special status. Additionally, even planets like Jupiter and Earth don’t fully qualify for planet status because they haven’t cleared their orbits around the Sun of all other objects. Thus, Pluto’s status might be worth a revisit. Although there’s nothing terribly wrong with being a dwarf planet. Pluto is small, and being a dwarf puts it together with other interesting worlds like Ceres, which I find to be one of the most interesting in the solar system.


Brian Koberlein (astrophysicist and physics professor at Rochester Institute of Technology, author, podcaster, publisher)
I think it’s important to keep in mind that the flyby is just beginning. Yes, New Horizons is speeding away from Pluto now, but we’re only beginning to get the data back from the flyby. It will be months before we have a good idea of what the mission has gathered. So far, I think it was a great success. We now know that Pluto is an active world with geological activity. It has mountains for goodness sake! I’m sure the flyby will have much to tell us about this rich and complex world.

I think people blow the whole “Pluto’s a planet” thing out of proportion. The classification of what makes or doesn’t make a planet is an arbitrary line in the sand that we create. The revised definition was an easy line to draw because the 8 planets are very different from Ceres and Pluto which are significantly smaller. If there wasn’t the emotional attachment to Pluto no one would argue otherwise.
I think it’s important to keep in mind that no one has made Pluto less real, or special or unique. If Pluto is your favorite solar system body, it can still be your favorite. The only thing that has changed is that astronomers have moved Pluto from one arbitrary column to another.


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

I feel a special kinship with the New Horizons spacecraft. It was one of the first stories I reported on when I started out in space journalism more than a decade ago, and I watched it all the way through the launch, and its flyby of Jupiter. I knew that our first look at Pluto would be nothing short of amazing; not just with the questions that New Horizons would answer, but the brand new mysteries that it would reveal. New Horizons didn’t disappoint. Nobody expected to see such a young surface on Pluto, with ice mountains! And then Charon turned out to be a completely different looking world with huge cracks and strange features on its surface. We’ll be riveted over the next 16 months as the data trickles in from New Horizons.
Was it a good decision to demote Pluto? I don’t really have an opinion either way. Eris is almost the same size as Pluto, so if Pluto gets to be a planet, shouldn’t Eris be one too? We’re never going back to 9 planets, so you just have to decide, do you want more planets or less? 8 planets or 12?

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

The flyby was incredibly exciting. Clearly one of the top science stories of the entire year. The fact that we made so many unexpected discoveries (it has extensive geology) and we now have new mysteries to solve is one of the hallmarks of good science.
That fact that New Horizons is exploring the uncharted “Third Zone” of our solar system is also one of those rare missions that will expand our fundamental knowledge by leaps and bounds.

I wasn’t greatly perturbed by the demotion of Pluto. The criteria for planet-hood is ultimately a subjective thing. The real benefit in my opinion was that we now have a more detailed description of what a planet is.


Pamela Gay (assistant research professor at Southern Illinois University, writer, co-host of Astronomy Cast)

The flyby was very much a success. Between New Horizon’s observations of Pluto and Charon and Dawn’s observations of Ceres, we’re getting a new understanding of just how active and how complicated the geology of tiny worlds can be. No one expected what we’re finding, and that means this is science worth doing: our understanding of the universe is being challenged by data that invalidates many of our prior theories. Data always wins and now we get to try again at defining the nature of small body geophysics.

As for Pluto being a planet or not being a planet; Pluto is the exact same icy world it was before. All that has changed is people are now getting rich by giving talks declaring it a Planet and Not a Planet. I don’t care about Pluto’s designation, but I admit to being upset that some people are getting paid for a single talk what the junior scientists studying Pluto earn in a year. People have a right to make a buck, but I had hoped this kind of petty drama-based income could be kept out of science. (I’m also angry that the junior scientist are working sleepless weeks and earning so little, but that’s a different problem.)

Bright spots on Ceres

When Dawn spacecaft arrived at Ceres we were all baffled by the bright spots on the surface of dwarf planet. I asked our panel about their predictions what those bright spots might be. What fascinating things will New Horizons find when it arrives at Pluto?
Seth Shostak (Senior Astronomer and Director of the Center for SETI Research at SETI Institute)

No one knows what the bright spots on Ceres are, but my bet would be some sort of ice, producing a “specular reflection” that looks exceptionally bright. These objects contain a lot of water of course, and that water’s going to be frozen, so the ice hypothesis seems reasonable, if perhaps dull. Pluto is larger than Ceres, and consequently will have a greater amount of internal heat generated by the slow radioactive decay of substances in its interior. That heat could occasionally break through to the surface in the form of icy geysers, much as occurs on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. If so, the dead ice ball image many people have of Pluto could be enlivened by some real drama. It’s an unknown world, and in the unknown there’s always plenty of opportunity for surprise.


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

It’s important to understand that the spots look bright because the contrast on Ceres has been cranked up so high so they look like spots of light. But they’re really just about as bright as ice compared to the dark asphalt landscape of Ceres. And that’s what I think they are; nothing more than regions of ice on the surface of Ceres. Of course, that makes them incredibly interesting. Why are they just in craters? How did they form? Are they ancient, or are new ones forming all the time? The more time Dawn spends, the more we’ll learn, and I’m really glad the spacecraft made this journey in the first place.
The greatest part about all of these missions is the discovery of things we never expected. Just like the white spots on Ceres, New Horizons is going to find completely unexpected features on Pluto, which will have us all arguing until the next mission is sent to Pluto.


Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)
High reflective material, some kind of ice? For Pluto, learn about the composition of outer solar system objects for our system and others. It goes back to the formation of our solar system. That’s a very old ice cube out there.

 

Charity

What I wanted to do in the next post was give support to a charitable organizations. I asked our panelists what charity they support and give a little outline of what they do. We created a list of great organizations that change the world for better. Warm welcome to our new panelist – Dr Pamela Gay.
Pamela Gay (assistant research professor at Southern Illinois University, writer, co-host of Astronomy Cast)

My number one charity is (of course) CosmoQuest, which takes donations through the two  501(c)3 organizations, SIUE and Astrosphere.org
I also donate when I can (which isn’t as often as I’d like) to the American Assoc. of University Women, the American Association of Variable Star Astronomers,  Astronomers without Borders, The Astronomical Society of the Pacific, and thePlanetary Society. Organizations are most likely to get my money if they give me a chance to give to a specific campaign, like AWBs Telescopes for Tanzania program or if I can see the specific outcomes of supporting their overall programs.


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

If you love astronomy then one of the most important charities to get involved with right now is the International Dark-Sky Association. These are the people working to protect the dark night skies that we’re losing, bit by bit, thanks to ever growing light pollution. They help with education and outreach, and help set up protected dark sky places where astronomers can see the true beauty of the night sky, away from the city lights. Check them out at:http://www.darksky.org/


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

My favorite space-related charity is Cosmoquest. They provide wonderful opportunities for the public to engage in Citizen Science with their “Mapper” projects, which uses data from spacecraft. You can help scientists do real and important science while you do fun activities to study the Moon, Mars, Mercury and asteroids. Cosmoquest also provides information and lesson plans for teachers, while providing opportunities for learning with their Cosmo-Academy, as well as community-building by offering forums (especially the BAUT forum), areas for discussion and online activities and events such as Hangouts and observing.  Cosmoquest is run by actual astronomers sharing their love of astronomy, and I personally know what great people they are! Give them some love! https://cosmoquest.org/


Brian Koberlein (astrophysicist and physics professor at Rochester Institute of Technology, author, podcaster, publisher)

There are lots of good science charities out there. If I were to choose a lesser known project, I’d suggest Universe Simplified http://www.universesimplified.com/ They promote science to kids in Mumbai, including camps, sidewalk astronomy, and hands-on activities. Their focus is helping under-privileged children in Mumbai, and their workshops are provided at no cost. Henna Kahn is in charge of the project, and she does an amazing job.


Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

The Planetary Society is an American-based non-government, nonprofit organization that anyone may join. It is involved in research and engineering projects related to astronomy, planetary science, exploration, public outreach, and political advocacy. It was founded in 1980 by Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray, and Louis Friedman, and has over 40,000 members from more than one hundred countries around the world. http://www.planetary.org


Mateusz Macias (author of this blog)

I would like to join our experts in this topic and give my support to not-for-profit organization of our panelist Brian Koberlein – “Prove Your World”. I interviewed Brian last year and he gave me great outline of what the project is: “Prove Your World is a project to encourage scientific thinking in children. We’re focusing on children ages 8 – 13, since that is an age where views about science start solidifying. We use puppet characters because they can explore the world the way children do, while still allowing for fast-paced interactions.  Initial studies we’ve done seem to indicate they are quite effective for this age range.” For further information go to http://proveyourworld.org.

Humanity Representative

Alien civilization “parked” their spaceship in our planet’s vicinity. We have one shot to make a good impression, we send our representative. I asked our panelists who is their ideal candidate.
Nicole Gugliucci (“Noisy astronomer”, blogger, educator, post-doc)

I might be having a long day, but my first response is “No one! Tell them to run for their lives, it’s ridiculous down here!”

Actually in all seriousness I’m sure no one person could speak for humanity adequately. I imagine the current UN Secretary General would be a decent choice, as he’s at least already caught up on what’s going on around the world. Sadly, Ellie Arroway is only a fictional character.


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

The obvious choice is Neil de Grasse Tyson, with Bill Nye running a close second — maybe we should send them both!  NDGT would be able to answer any questions the aliens have without getting into political or theological rhetoric and he would represent the best qualities of humanity: curiosity, wonder, and intelligence.

Bill Nye would also present those qualities while being a fun (and funny) guy for the aliens to meet! I mean, who doesn’t want to meet these two??


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

Whoa, that would be a huge responsibility. One wrong move and you might doom humanity. I think I’d choose Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield because he’s awesome on every level. He’s an eloquent communicator, he can play the guitar in zero gravity to entertain the aliens, and if things go sideways, he can use his skills as a fighter pilot to steal one of their shuttles and alert us of an impending invasion.


Brian Koberlein (astrophysicist and physics professor at Rochester Institute of Technology, author, podcaster, publisher)

I would do it as a contest. Have people apply, go through the discussions and let people vote on who they’d like to represent them. If we broadcast it the aliens would also see what we value, and what we like and dislike about ourselves. I suspect the winner would be someone experienced, but who isn’t a celebrity.


Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

Why only 1? I’d send the US President (to act as a political ambassador), an astronomer (to learn about where they came from), and a medical doctor (to learn about their anatomy).

 

 


Ban Ki-Moon

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Bill Nye

Chris Hadfield

Vacation Trip

Our Solar System is really beautiful in its diversity. One day we’ll be able to travel freely wherever we want. This is what I asked our panelists: If you could go wherever you wanted in our Solar System what destination would you pick and why? Who would you take with you? Warm welcome to Brian Koberlein, our new panelist.

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

In the future, I’d love to take a “Cassini Historical Cruise Tour,” and travel the route and see the sights that the Cassini spacecraft has taken. It would start with the amazing views of the full Saturn system of rings and moons as you approached, then your touring spacecraft would push up through the gap in Saturn’s rings on its way into orbit around the planet. The moon tour would include close-up views of the spongy-looking Hyperion, death-star Mimas, two-toned Iapetus, and then fly through the plumes of Enceledus. The tour would continue with parachuting down to Titan’s surface through the thick atmosphere – just like the Huygens probe—and then you’d take a tranquil cruise of the northern hydrocarbon lakes region on Titan. I’d be reporting on the sights, of course, so I’d be taking along all the readers of Universe Today – at least virtually. Ahhh! Sounds relaxing!


Brian Koberlein (astrophysicist and physics professor at Rochester Institute of Technology, author, podcaster, publisher)

Although Mars is surely a popular destination, I’d probably choose to go to Saturn, mainly because of the rich diversity of the Saturnian system. It has a complex ring system that we could pass through. We could sail on the lakes of Titan, and hike its hilly terrain. We could go to Enceladus and check out its subsurface ocean, and possibly even find life there.  Herschel crater on Mimas would be a must go, just for the geek cred of having visited the “Death Star” moon.
I’d likely want to take my wife, since Saturn is her favorite planet.


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

I have two places in the solar system that I’d love to vacation on:

Mars: My go-to locations on Mars would be Olympus Mons (3 times the height of everest at 27 miles) and Valles Marineris (2,500 miles long and 6+ miles deep…makes the Grand Canyon look like a skid mark) I would also love to wave at one of the mars rovers and freak everyone out on earth.

Titan: Saturn’s biggest moon is the most earth-like spot in the solar system and the view of Saturn is quite lovely this time of year. Plus its gravity and atmospheric density make it the best place for human-powered flight (just put on some wings and flap).

I’d bring my dad, brothers and daughter. We all love astronomy and I’d appreciate that trip with them more than anyone else.


Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

Ice skating on Europa. Great views of Jupiter and you can jump really high. Bring ice skates, a space suit, and radiation shielding. Who would I bring with me? At least a 100-person crew on a vast interplanetary spaceship.

 

 


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

There are so many places I’d like to go. I’d love to see the enormous ridge on Saturn’s moon Iapetus, I’d love to stand on the edge of Valles Marinaris on Mars. I’d love to float in the cloudtops of Venus, and hike across the frozen landscape of Europa. It would be especially cool to strap on a pair on wings and fly on Titan.

 

 


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

Oh man…. what an imaginative question. Assuming all this was possible, I’d head to Valles Marinaris on Mars for some hiking. It’s a LOT bigger than the Grand Canyon which is one of my favorite spots on Earth. A hiking trip with my partner, Tim, and my dog, Macey, sounds like a fine vacation!

Happy Birthday Hubble Space Telescope!

On April 24, 2015 Hubble Space Telescope turned 25. It has recorded some of the most detailed visible-light images ever, allowing a deep view into space and time. Many Hubble observations have led to breakthroughs in astrophysics. It’s one of the largest and most versatile telescope, and is well known as both a vital research tool and a public relations boom for astronomy. I asked our panel what impact did it make on modern astronomy and what’s theirs favourite Hubble picture.

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

The Hubble Space Telescope is one of the most important scientific instruments ever created, and its benefit to modern astronomy is hard to measure. It has helped us discover extrasolar planets, search for icy objects at the very edge of the Solar System, and observe the most distant galaxies ever seen.

My favorite Hubble photo has got to be the Hubble Deep Field, which is an image of a tiny piece of the sky that Hubble stared at for dozens of hours. Every where you look there are just more and more galaxies – we truly live in an immense Universe.


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

Hubble has brought astronomy to the public’s attention like no other telescope. It has revealed our gorgeous and glorious Universe, raising the bar of what a telescope can do.

My favorite Hubble image is the “original” Hubble Deep Field — the image taken of an “empty” area of the sky about the size of a grain of sand held at arms length, but this deep view shows nearly 3,000 distant galaxies, evidence that our universe is filled with galaxies and that it’s bigger and more complex that we ever thought.

Favourite one

There are some books, movies, etc. that we like the most. I gathered our panelists favourites in 5 categories: favourite book, favourite work of fiction, favourite documentary, best source of astronomy/space news and initiative worth supporting. Warm welcome to our new panelist: Andrew Rader, a SpaceX engineer.

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

Favorite book: “The Overview Effect” by Frank White. It was one of the first books about space that I ever read and the concept really resonated with me, of how seeing our planet from the unique vantage point of space could affect how we treat our world and each other. I’ve read it at least five times, and recommend it to anyone who needs a dose of hope for humanity!
Favorite work of fiction: Has to be “Star Trek” and I love every series, spinoff, and all the movies (well, except for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier… that was just a bad film/concept).  I’m sure I use a quote from Star Trek every day — it’s just become a part of my life!
Favorite documentary: Hubble 3D in IMAX. One of the few documentary films that I went out an purchased, and I went to see it three times right after it came out and ended up in tears each time. It portrays the immensity and gloriousness of our universe, and that we are currently, serendipitously, living during an amazing era of discovery, one that humanity has never known before. Some of these discoveries we are only able to make because of this marvelous telescope and the people who laid their lives on the line to fix it and make it better.

Best source of astronomy/space news: Well, obviously, I’m biased when I say “Universe Today!” But other than UT, I’d have to say Twitter. All the people and organizations I follow really are the best source for news, images and space oddities.

Initiative worth supporting: Cosmoquest for space education and citizen science and the B612 Foundation for actually doing something to protect our world.


Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

Favourite book: “Peter the Great” by Robert K. Massie. About how one person can change a whole society through sheer willpower.Favourite work of fiction: Work of fiction as a whole “Star Trek”. A positive vision of humans in space.Favourite documentary: Tie between “From the Earth to the Moon” and “Planet Earth”. Where we’re from and where we’re going.Best source of astronomy/space news: Best astronomy news: Kepler mission and the search for exoplanets.


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

Book and Work of fiction: “Contact”! That movie was very inspirational for me when I was still in school and made me realize that I could become an astronomer. I even went into radio astronomy later on!Documentary: Not sure I have a favorite at the moment. I like to watch a lot of animal documentaries rather than astronomy ones! “Planet Earth” is my favorite.Source of space news: I get most of my space news right from the press release list managed by the American Astronomical Society. But my favorite reporting comes from Universe Today.Initiative: Not sure I have one. I’m really looking forward to see what SpaceX is doing, though.


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

Favourite book: “Coming of Age in the Milky Way” by Timothy Ferris is among my favorite astronomy books. Ferris’ well written history of the people who made the earliest advances in astronomy was like reading an adventure novel that just captivated my attention. It made me appreciate not just cutting edge astronomy but the path we took to get there.Favourite work of fiction: “Star Trek” is the obvious choice for this one. It’s so iconic. That fact that it’s still on the cultural radar after almost half a century is a testament to the chord it strikes in every generation.Favourite documentary: The series “Cosmos” certainly belongs in this list, both the original and the reboot. The former though was among the earliest and most powerful influences on my interest in astronomy and science in general. Sagan is, to this day, the gold standard all science popularizers should strive for.Best source of space/astronomy news: Bad Astronomy and Universe Today are my go-to astronomy/space news sites. Don’t make me choose between those two.Initiative worth supporting: One initiative I’d love to see serious progress on is nuclear rocket propulsion. It seems like a no-brainer that this is the next phase of rocket technology. Nuclear energy densities exceed those of chemical energy by many orders of magnitude. Manned missions would be far less expensive and take less than half the time.I hope I live long enough to see this one day.


“Peter the Great” by Robert K. Massie
“The Overview Effect” by Frank White
Hubble 3D
“Coming of Age in the Milky Way” by Timothy Ferris
“From the Earth to the Moon”
“Planet Earth”
“Star Trek”
“Contact”
“Cosmos” (original / reboot)
Universe Today
Cosmoquest
B612 Foundation
Bad Astronomy
SpaceX