Vacation on the ISS

Everyone at least a little bit interested in space and astronomy dreams about going into space. There were 7 space “tourists” that paid money to go to the Internation Space Station. If given the opportunity to go for a little vacation in Earth’s orbit, would you take up that chance? How would you spend that time?

Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

Of course! (And hopefully beyond orbit too.)  Most people get space sick for the first few days in space from the changes in the way 0G accelerations are perceived in your inner ear, but hopefully that wouldn’t distract too much from the incredible views of our home planet and the sheer joy of floating free in microgravity. With views and fun combined, it space should prove to be one of the finest travel destinations imaginable. However, I think the main reason to go to space is to learn how to live there longer term. I’d want to be productive in actually building and testing hardware, conducting experiments, and paving the way for the long term settlement of space.

Ciro Villa (technologist, application developer, STEM communicator)

If given the opportunity, I would absolutely take the once in a lifetime chance to go up in space on the ISS.  Many people do not realize and appreciate the fact that all the hard work astronauts do up there in orbit day in and day out benefits us all down here on Earth.  Many of the technological and scientific advancements that have improved our quality of life right here on Earth have been spear headed by the research and experiments performed in the unique, natural zero gravity laboratory that the Earth’s orbiting space station provides, which has yielded so many invaluable findings and discoveries regarding how things behave in the absence of gravity. So, how would I spend my time up there?  Well, I suppose that would depend on what I would be allowed to do.  If under the constraint and watchful eye of my sponsoring government agency, then I would probably not have much of a choice but do the daily work and conduct the scheduled experiments which would be a great experience and opportunity all by itself.  But if I had “free reign”, then I would probably exploit technology to the max, of course!  Explore, investigate, and learn all that I could and then share with the public.  Have video conferencing, live updates, in short let the world see what I see and share my experiences in real time.  Plus hopefully enjoy some space pizza… http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/1345139.stm

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

Given that I could afford it, you bet I would. I imagine I would spend much of the time staring out of the observation window at the Earth, camera ready. The rest of the time I would spend learning the details of astronaut life and tumbling around in microgravity. I would volunteer to help out with any of the regular work as well, and perhaps they would humor me a bit. No Bowie covers, though, which is best for all concerned.

We’re here!

We find new exoplanets every day, we found more than 3000. We’re very close to finding a planet very similiar to Earth that harbors life. What do you think about possibility of some other civilization discovering our planet and thinking “Wow, this planet may harbor life, it’s “OurPlanet”‘s size and in it’s star habitable zone?” How would our planet look like to a life forms like us located light years away?

Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

The answer to the question depends on their detection technology. If they merely found an average G2V star with 8-10 planets around it with a couple (Earth and maybe Mars) in the habitable zone, they’d probably simply add it to their catalog. If they were able to measure the composition of Earth’s atmosphere, they might realize that life thrived here and wonder what kind of life. If they were able to monitor and track our atmospheric composition over time, they might realize that an advanced civilization existed, but also one causing precarious changes in atmospheric concentrations of gasses like C02. This might raise the question of how wise our civilization really is, and how long it might survive.

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

Any alien civilization that turned a powerful telescope on Earth over the last 500 million years or so would have known there’s life here by the composition of our atmosphere. And if they were sophisticated enough, they’d know what stage of the industrial evolution we’re in because of the pollution in our atmosphere. The fact that there’s life on Earth is no secret to advanced civilizations. And this is the technique that we’re about to use to find aliens around us with the next generation telescopes like James Webb.

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

There are potentially billions of planets in our Milky Way alone. Some of these planets could harbor intelligent life capable conducting a survey of planets as well. However, we do no have any information to suggest that an intelligent species elsewhere in the Universe can understand astronomy, or for that matter planetary science, like we do. Humans, for example, have a predisposed bias to look for planets similar to Earth because we concentrate on “comparative science”, meaning we search the cosmos for “Earth-like” planets. An intelligent species that has evolved in a planet completely different than earth, including an atmosphere not comparable with Earth, could perhaps discover Earth but categorize our planet as “non-inhabitable. It is a matter of perspective.

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

I just finished up my “Life Beyond Earth” class for the semester, so this topic has been on my mind a bit. I imagine that a civilization light years away would be interested in the presence of oxygen in our atmosphere, which typically only exists in stable form when being put out by photosynthetic life forms. A nearby civilization would probably be able to pick up our radio transmissions, but that’s IF they had sensitive enough receivers and IF they were looking in the right place. But that’s only a small bubble around us, less than 100 light years or so. I think the oxygen in our atmosphere would give away signs of life far before any of our human-created signals reached another civilization. We’ll be doing the same, by the way, as we analyze exoplanet atmospheres with the present and next generation of telescopes.

Ciro Villa (technologist, application developer, STEM communicator)

It’s an exciting and somewhat scary thought at once to think of the possibility of an extraterrestrial civilization becoming aware of our presence in the Universe with a whole series of other emotions mixed right in between.  We as humans are at the dawn of a new, exciting era of exoplanetary science and discoveries brought about by the extraordinary and accelerating advancements in our technologies.  We can see further and deeper in the Universe and our space “eyes” are getting more and more accurate.  Of course an extraterrestrial civilization finding our planet (exoplanet to them) could be more or less advanced than we are, so depending on their level of technological sophistication, could just be wondering about us as we do today or have the capability of being able to do more in order to find out if indeed there’s life on Earth or learn of our presence.  They might have the technology to easily and quickly analyze Earth or, like us they might be left wondering.  There are those that speculate that indeed there might also be a species that already know of our presence; we don’t know.  That’s when wide range of possibilities might present themselves.  We don’t know how similar this hypothetical species really is to us, neither do we know their history, the history of their evolution, their feelings, emotions, desires.  So, the number of variable and possibilities are pretty numerous and complex and the room for speculation is vast.

Something huge is heading our way!

Scientific accuracy in media coverage of recent events is really a big problem today. Which media outlets you find best in being fair while covering controversial topics and which are terrible at it? Where should a person go for a most scientific, skeptical, logic view of everyday life (especially when it revolves around astronomy)?

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

Well, it’s a little biased, but I do love to send my students to Universe Today or Bad Astronomy when it comes to the best coverage of astronomy news. Phil Plait in particular takes a skeptical look at everything that comes into his field of view, so he is a great filter against things that are bogus. That said, you cannot contain his enthusiasm when something scientifically wonderful IS announced!  When I’m delving into topics that are not astronomically related, I tend to get a lot of my news from public radio (NPR in the US). There is some pretty good science coverage, but mostly I go there for news on society, politics, and the everyday life stories that effect us without a whole lot of hyperbole. So check out and support your local public radio!

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

This is a problem, and I’m afraid it’s not easy finding trustworthy sources. I’m pleasantly surprised when a mainstream media outlet treats a science story with nuance and depth. I’ve been involved in a few space exploration stories, and have even helped brief reporters. In those cases I had a deep knowledge of the subject matter, and I saw their stories so oversimplified that they were wrong. Only a few mainstream reporters understand technical issues, and even if they do, they are under time pressure that prohibits deep investigation and follow up. The other problem is that there seems to a single setting on the dial – the scientific finding is true, because a scientist published it, their institution wrote a press release about it, and now the media is reporting on it. The truth is, that reasonable doubt often exists, and the finding may ultimately fail, or in the worst case, be retracted. Some studies are even fraudulent, although I suspect that this is very rare in astronomy and other fields where there is little money at stake. Due diligence involves consulting independent experts and explaining to the reader what the assumptions, uncertainties and missing pieces are, instead of looking no deeper than the press release. Press releases are very likely not written by the scientists or engineers involved, but by a public relations team whose interest is drumming up attention and funding for their institution. We saw that quite recently in the Fast Radio Burst story, in which one research group thought they had identified a host galaxy for an FRB. The media reported it as if it were fact, when there were actually serious doubters within the radio astronomy community, who have since published contrary findings. The public needs to understand that these professional communities may need a long time to sort things out. Follow up is needed, and should be demanded of any media outlet you read for these stories. I want to point out that are some good, well informed reporters in the space and astronomy world, although many are now in new media. I recommend following Dr. Brian Koberlein’s articles (now in Forbes), and the Astronomy Cast with Pamela Gay and Fraser Cain. Other good communicators include Phil Plait, Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society, and for physics, Dr. Ben Tippett of Titanium Physicists. That is not an exhaustive list, but a good start.

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

There are many wonderful astronomy news outlets out there. I often chide myself for not looking into them for fully but that’s because I’m so happy with my go-to Astronomy news outlet Phys,org. It covers not only Astronomy very well but all the major hard sciences in a way that’s in the sweet spot for scientifically literate readers. Technical, with no fluff or over-the-top jargon.  For a site that is both scientific and skeptical there’s none better than Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy. Phil wins the trifecta in astronomy reporting for the following reasons. 1) Phil knows his shit. His technical details and factoids are spot on. 2) He is a skeptic who knows pseudoscience when he sees it and is not shy about calling it out. 3) His giddy love of science and humor shine through in all is writings.

Galileo Galilei

On February, 15th we celebrated 452nd anniversary of Galileo Galilei’s birthday. Is it fair to say that he’s the person that influenced modern astronomy the most? How much more would he accomplish if he wasn’t seen as a heretic by the Church?

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

Galileo was one of the very first people to see the wonders of the night sky though a telescope, and identified many of the things we take for granted now in a small telescope: the moons of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, craters on the Moon, phases of Venus and the stars in the Milky Way. Right place, right time, right direction to point the telescope. I don’t know if it would have been possible for Galileo to not have ended up in trouble with the church. Even though he had many opportunities to keep his mouth shut and follow the party line, he kept finding new ways to enrage the church. I think he saw it as a badge of honor.

Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

That’s a tough question to answer, but certainly Galileo’s contribution to astronomy was enormous. He provided evidence to support the Sun-centered solar system by demonstrating that not everything revolves around Earth – if the four large moons of Jupiter revolve around that planet, clearly there is no hard and fast Earth-centered (or Sun-centered) rule. In addition to other scientific contributions (especially going a long way towards Newton’s law of Universal Gravitation), Galileo mapped the features of the Moon and sketched the phases of the Moon and Venus. This demonstrated that these were not perfect celestial spheres but worlds in their own right, complete with detailed features. This was probably the biggest step in going from a concept of Earth as the entire Universe to a system of many worlds – which would later be expanded into many Suns and then ultimately many galaxies. It would be hard to argue that Galileo’s accomplishments wouldn’t at least give him a strong contention for most influential astronomer ever.

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

I would argue that Galileo Galilei was one of many great scientists, whom collectively, shaped the scientific revolution. Through the use of a refracting telescope, Galileo was able to finally put the geocentric model to rest. His observations of the moon’s of Jupiter and the phases of Venus led to direct evidence for the heliocentric model. Thereafter, using his work, others such as Kepler, Newton, and as recent as Einstein, collectivley shaped modern astronomy. One can say, therefore, that Galileo started it all.

The Force Awakens

We were waiting for another part of Star Wars trilogy for 10 years. How was it? How different was it from previous movies? With movies looking so far in the future can we even discuss its scientific accuracy?
Paul Carr (Space Systems engineer at NASA, podcaster, blogger, investigator)

I wasn’t a fan of the prequels, but I found The Force Awakens to be fun and entertaining. I’ve never taken Star Wars very seriously, though. To me, it’s more Space Opera than Science Fiction (not that there’s ANYTHING wrong with that…). It wasn’t that much different for me, ignoring the prequels. I thought it was better written than the Lucas directed films, but that was not a high bar. there also seems to be some borrowing of thematic material from Harry Potter, which is not surprising, given that an entire generation was tuned into that story and its themes. Kylo Ren even looked a bit Snape-like to me, even though his motivations were quite different from Snape’s. For me, though, Kylo doesn’t touch “The Operative” in Serenity as a Space Opera Bad Buy With A Sword, but that is to be expected for a film franchise like Star Wars that finds much of its audience in kids – bad guys need to be not too evil. Scientific accuracy is not a strength of this genre. Hard science fiction that strives for at least plausibility is rare, although it seems to be making a comeback, with films like “The Martian” and “Ex Machina”. Most of what we see depicted in Star Wars and similar films can always be waved away with the notion that it involves physics not yet known to humanity., and that is in itself at least somewhat plausible. One thing we see depicted in the latest film is the salvaging of a once sophisticated technology for spare parts – this appears to be a galactic civilization that is in decline in some sense, although the people there have at least some idea of how their technology works. To me, that’s an interesting theme, and would like to see it explored further. Has war destroyed science, or advanced it?


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

I really enjoyed “The Force Awakens,” as it seemed to be a throwback to the original three movies in the Star Wars saga. I’m actually not a big fan of the second trilogy set. Of course, it was wonderful to see the “old” stars again (and yes, they’ve gotten old), and the new cast was great. But it also crossed my mind while watching it that this new movie was basically the same plot as before: a small band of resistance fighters goes up against the “Dark Side’ evil superpower. So, I’m kind of hoping the remaining two movies will come up with some usual twist or turn in the plot …. as long as there are still spaceships and robots, though!


Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

Quite a good addition to the Star Wars Universe! Star Wars actually takes place in the past, but obviously the general level of technology is quite a bit more advanced than our own. Since any sufficiently advanced technology would seem to us to be magic, I’m not sure it makes sense to focus on individual technologies represented. I can accept faster than light travel, ridiculously advanced power sources, the force, or tie fighters that fly through planetary atmospheres with no aerodynamic flight surfaces. So I’ll give these a pass. There were, however, a few inconsistencies that bothered me. I’m not sure they captured the true scale of an organization that would span a galaxy. Both the Republic and First Order seemed to live on a small scale – only a few planets, a small number of ships, etc., which isn’t consistent with the scale of the Star Wars galaxy of billions of stars. Additionally, the planet-destroying weapon and actual destruction of the planet was viewed in essentially real time by people on another planet. To be anywhere near possible, both the space station which initiated the attack, and the planet witnessing the attack would all have to be in the same solar system (based on the speed of light). This didn’t seem to be the case. But apart from a few small but significant scientific inconsistencies, it was an enjoyable movie for sure.


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

I thoroughly enjoyed the New Star Wars movie. It really was a perfect storm of fun for me. We had about 30 people with us and the theater had literally, the best damn movie seats I’d ever seen. Many of us had costumes as well and SGU brought our new light sabers of course (bladeless unfortunately). The movie itself truly brought back the fun and excitement I remember from that very first Star Wars movie so long ago. The Force Awakens was vastly different from the epically disappointing prequel movies. The acting, writing, and character interactions were all far superior. There were plenty of wonderful practical FX and just the right amount of CG where it was needed.  Compared to the original 3 movies however, one can make a compelling argument that it was too similar to A New Hope…..our hero grows up on a desert planet, a cute Droid with a secret message, a huge planet-killing machine etc. Scientific accuracy is always open to discussion, especially when the technology is based on actual physical devices. In these types of science-fiction movies, it’s always polite to allow for a few “Gimmies” for the sake of the plot like faster than light travel, the Force etc (as long as they are used in a consistent manner).  In the case of The Force Awakens, the lamest bit of science that isn’t a gimmie is the StarKiller base. I was ok with many aspects of this device except how it appears to fuel or charge its weapon. It is clearly shown sucking in an entire star. That was complete over-kill. That amount of mass/energy in such a small place would create a neutron star or a black hole. How would the base survive such an object in its belly? Why not absorb just a portion of the star?  The bottom line though is that they made a very enjoyable movie and have revived one of the most iconic movies series of all time. I really can’t wait for the next installments.

2015

Lots have happened in 2015 – it was definitively rich year in astronomy. I asked our panelists how would they summarize year 2015? How was it for them personally?

Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

2015 was overall a great year for space – first successful recovery of the Falcon 9 with the potential to change spaceflight forever. It was also a great year for robotic spaceflight: with our first close-up images of Pluto and Charon, and the Dawn spacecraft entering orbit around Ceres using an ion engine, you might call 2015 the year of the Dwarf Planets. Here’s to a productive 2016 and times ahead!


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

2015 was a very busy year for me – since I spent half of it trying to find an answer to the famous 1977 Wow! signal. After publishing my latest paper regarding the signal, which centered on a pair of comets, the attention from the media quickly catapulted me into the politics of science. For the most part, many scientists found my hypothesis intriguing and only further observations of these comets will seal the deal. Unfortunately, there is politics in science and I learned that a few scientists in the community, especially those working closely with SETI-like entities, would prefer that the Wow signal remains a mystery. Science requires money and the funding dries up rather quickly of the public loses interest.

 


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

2015 was a busy year in planetary exploration, with Dawn arriving at Ceres and New Horizons zooming past Pluto. This gives us a close look at two planetary bodies that until now we’ve only had pixelated views. Who would have thought we’d see a conical mountain and epsom salts on Ceres and cryovolcanoes and a ‘heart’ on Pluto? Plus Rosetta and Philae provided some drama and closeup views of a comet.  The mystery of the star KIC 8462852 definitely is an intriguing story, one that will be of interest in the year to come as well, I’m sure.  And spacecraft like Kepler, Hubble, Spitzer and others continue to show us the wonders of the Universe.  Personally, 2015 was a big year for me, as I signed a contract to write a book about robotic space exploration missions. I wrote about it here: http://www.nancyatkinson.com/blog/2016/01/15/im-writing-a-book/ Thank you to all the space and astronomy enthusiasts around the world who make my job very rewarding!

Interview with Bob Novella

Interview took place in July 2015.

Bob Novella is a co-founder and Vice-President of the New England Skeptical Society. He co-hosts the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast and blogs for SGU’s Rogues Gallery. Bob’s scientific interests lie in the extremes, from the gargantuan to the infinitesimal: astronomy and cosmology to particle physics and quantum mechanics.

Mateusz Macias: First of all I want to thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. How did your fascination with astronomy began?

Bob Novella: It all probably started with Star Trek which also sparked my general interest in science and science fiction as well. My interest in astronomy got a big boost after taking an Astronomy class in high school with one of the best science teachers I’ve ever had, Mr. Coffin. Not only did he know his stuff but I loved his dry sense of humor. I remember voraciously reading the text books for that class, I couldn’t get enough. I have a specific memory from around that time of me sitting under the stars with a girl I was interested in and sharing with her what I knew about galaxy mergers. That’s when I learned that not only do I love learning this stuff but I also love sharing my passion for science with others.

Ultimately though, my fascination stems from an early obsession with the extremes of the universe. The bigger, faster, farther, heavier, smaller something is, the more I want to know about it and understand it.

All the more reason why I find it unfathomable how people can have no interest in learning even the most basic things about the universe we live in. For example, in the news recently was a video of 2 hosts on a QVC shopping show arguing whether the moon is a planet or a star!

Mateusz Macias: NASA’s “Next Giant Leap” is the goal of putting human on Mars. Who should be a perfect candidate, skeptically speaking?

Bob Novella: Here’s some qualities that I think would be critical for an astronaut on a one-way trip to Mars:

1) Psychologically stable and healthy, including a reasonable family medical history. For example, a high incidence of family breast cancer would not be ideal.

2) Science-minded, Curious and knowledgeable about key activities he/she would be engaged in.

3) Adaptable and resourceful. Unanticipated situations and limited resources will make these characteristics critical.

4) Few family ties. I would think having kids and other family back on earth would be too much of a distraction

5) I don’t think faith is important in a candidate but the sense of community it tends to foster could be helpful.

Mateusz Macias: “Skeptics Guide to the Universe” podcast started in 2005. First of all congratulations on a great run. What should we expect from the show in the near and far future?

Bob Novella: Thank You. In terms of content for the show, Science or Fiction and the News-item discussion will never go away. They are simply too popular and fun to do. Everything else is up for grabs. Beginning this year we switched things up a bit by giving Jay the Who’s That Noisy segment while Evan now has the Quote of the Week. I’m excited about my new segment, Forgotten Superheroes of Science. I’ll be covering any scientist that has made significant discoveries but is not as well known as they should be. Since women scientists have been marginalized throughout the whole time they’ve been allowed to be scientists, they will have a prominent place in my weekly talk. We also plan on doing more interviews than we have the past year or so.

We also are looking for a replacement for the irreplaceable Rebecca Watson in the coming months. We’re going to take our time with this until we find someone who really gels with the group.

The podcast in the near future will also contain special episodes of us celebrating the twin achievements of 500 uninterrupted episodes and our 10 year anniversary.

Far future predictions are hard to make. I don’t anticipate anything dramatic. We’ll continue to do the show well into the foreseeable future making tweaks here and there. The only thing that has the potential to impact the show tremendously would be if we got a tv show that just left us no time to do the podcast. That would be a good problem to have.

Mateusz Macias: Let’s say we find a earth-size planet orbiting sun-like star and we even find some bio-markers in the planet’s atmosphere. We find that there is life, possibly inteligent. What should be our next move? 

Bob Novella: Finding bio-markers on an exoplanet would be one of the greatest discoveries of all time. Finally we would have achieved that critical second data-point which is critical to come up with a more general description of what life is and what is needed for it to arise.

Assuming we are certain, the next step would inevitably be to learn as much as we can about the planet and the life on it. I suspect we’d use all the astronomical resources we have available especially if there were signs of intelligence. I’m sure SETI would be all over this. Besides looking for intelligent signals from the planet we’d also need to examine the atmosphere for evidence of industry and other biomarkers. Perhaps other evidence of intelligent activity could be found on nearby planets and moons. Eventually we’d even be able to image continents if the planet is close enough.

The entire solar system that the planet resides in would also be obsessed over since that could help tweak our estimates of life in the universe (Drake equation) and help us locate other solar systems with increased chances of harboring life. For example, do they need a moon to stabilize planetary precession as we seem to? Do they need outer Jovian planets to absorb asteroid and cometary impacts?

We would hopefully also accelerate current and future projects to build even better instrumentation to answer these questions more fully. There would be little like finding life on another world to motivate people to spend money to learn more about them.

The impact on religious belief would be interesting since other life in the universe goes against many faiths believing in a single creation event. Denial is likely at first but eventually they will integrate it somehow into their faith.

As tempting as it may be, planning a trip there would hopefully not be seriously considered due to the expense and travel time required.

Mateusz Macias: What mission currently planned or active you’re most looking forward to?

Bob Novella: The current space mission I’m most excited about is New Horizons which is on its way to Pluto. This will be the first mission not only to examine Pluto but what’s called the Third Zone. This part of the solar system is completely uncharted so New Horizons is bound to make ground-breaking discoveries.

Mateusz Macias: There are probably hundreds of conspiracy theory about space and astronomy. What’s the strangest you guys covered?

Bob Novella: The strangest space and astronomy conspiracy we’ve covered has to be the Moon Hoax. I say it’s the strangest because of the sheer size and scope of this conspiracy if it were true. Some purport that as many as 400,000 people would have to be involved in this cover-up. This has to be one of the kings of all conspiracy theories even if that number is way off. Yet true believers are not swayed by what would clearly be required to pull something like this off for decades.

Mateusz Macias: I asked Fraser Cain the same question, I’m curious about your response. Let’s say Bob Novella is NASA’s administrator. In what direction would NASA go, what would you change?

Bob Novella: NASA Administrator Bob would put increased focus on two areas. One is Nuclear Rocket propulsion. Traveling through the solar system not only takes an inordinate amount of time, it is dangerous for people due to the solar and cosmic radiation. Both of these drawbacks and more would be greatly reduced due to the increased energy density of nuclear fuel (107 times more than chemical rockets). Imagine what our current understanding of Pluto would be if the New Horizons spacecraft took 5 years to reach Pluto instead of almost 10. It is clearly time to more seriously consider and implement this superior alternative to chemical rockets.

My Second initiative would be increased research and testing of automated off-world construction and development. Creating robots that can work together to accomplish large-scale goals on bodies like the moon, mars, and asteroids (and in free space) would greatly improve our understanding and utilization of our solar system. They could prepare sites for human habitation, build solar-power arrays and telescopes, mine precious materials, explore cooperatively and a whole host of as-of-yet undreamed of activities. This ability is obviously going to be an integral part of our future in space. Let’s start taking it more seriously.

Mateusz Macias: There are some people that I love to listen to, because of the way they share their knowledge – to name a few: Stephen Fry, Steven Novella, Fraser Cain and the kindest voice of podcast world – Pamela Gay. Do you have someone you look up to?

Bob Novella: I wholeheartedly agree with all your choices, especially Steve Novella and Pamela Gay. In terms of their ability to share their extensive knowledge, they are in the upper echelon of spoken-word education. I would also add other luminaries to that list like Stephen Hawking and Timothy Ferris. Finally, I’d like to mention science educators like Stephen J. Gould and Brian Greene who may not read their own work yet still have many incredibly compelling audio works available.

What to expect from 2016?

December is a month in which we usually summarize this ending year and decide how good it was. Let’s leave that for later and look a bit into the future. What should we expect from the year 2016.

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

I am personally looking forward to developments in the Orion Program and Journey to Mars. Speaking of the latter, I am in the process of writing my third book, which will center on Generation: Mars. I am hopeful, moreover, that the commercial space industry will continue to make great strive in space exploration with special emphasis on Mars, asteroids, and Pluto.


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

I’m looking forward to seeing more images and data of the Pluto system coming back from New Horizons, as well as more great images and science from the two Mars rovers (Curiosity and Opportunity) and the Mars Orbiters (MAVEN, MRO, Mars Express, Odyssey,  and India’s MOM). ESA’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter is scheduled to arrive in orbit at the Red Planet in March. NASA’s InSight lander was scheduled to land on Mars in September to study the planet’s interior, but the mission has been postponed at least 2 years due to a problem with one of the instruments. Also in September, the Rosetta mission will come to a crashing end with a controlled impact on the surface of comet Churyumov-Gersimenko, and the OSIRIS-Rex mission is scheduled to launch on its mission to asteroid Bennu. Of course Cassini will keep going until 2017 and it just keeps wowing us with images of Saturn and its rings and moons. The big news for 2016 in planetary exploration is that Juno will arrive at Jupiter in July. It will map the interior of the giant world as well as studying the planet’s magnetic and gravity fields and map the abundance of water vapor in the planet’s atmosphere. It also will provide the first images of the previously unexplored poles of Jupiter. 2016 should be a great year in planetary exploration!


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

My gut says it will come with more budget issues, more sexual harassment and discrimination holding back women and minorities, and commercial space advancing while science for the sake of science sees the same old same old. Here’s to hoping I’m wrong on everything but commercial space!

James Webb Space Telescope

If everything goes as planned, James Webb Space Telescope will go in space and become operational in the end of 2018. It’s sometimes regarded as a successor to Hubble Space Telescope. If you could decide, where would you point it’s “eye” for a first look?
Nicole Gugliucci (“Noisy astronomer”, blogger, educator, post-doc)

I’d point it at a protoplanetary disk to see what exoplanets look like in formation! I was blown away when astronomers using ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array) got this image of one (https://public.nrao.edu/news/pressreleases/planet-formation-alma), so I can’t wait to see what JWST reveals in the infrared for systems like this.

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

I’m looking forward to seeing how far in space and time the Webb can look.  Will it see the very first star formation in the Universe? Will it provide a glimpse at what the earliest galaxies looked like? Will we be able to observe the formation of the first planetary systems? Will we see back even farther to moments after the Big Bang? Will JWST give us more information about the Cosmic Dark Ages?  It is expected to be able to see objects between 10 to 100 times fainter than Hubble can see, so I’m hoping its ‘first light’ will test the limits of how far JWST can see.

Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

James Webb is perfect for looking at planetary formation and early galaxies from the birth of the Universe. It’s the kind of science where it’s hard to predict exactly what we’ll find, but that’s the point! Whatever it is, it’s sure to be fascinating and improve our understanding of the cosmos and our place in it.  I hope it helps shed more light (infrared of course!) on planet formation and how typical our solar system is likely to be.

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

Why not use the James Webb Telescope to search for alien planets? It is alleged by conspiracy claptrap that the Grays, an alleged species of extraterrestrials, are from Zeta Reticuli, which is a wide binary star system in the southern constellation of Reticulum. From the southern hemisphere the pair can be observed as a naked eye double star in very dark skies. Based upon parallax measurements, Zeta Reticuli is located at a distance of about 39 light-years from the Earth. Both stars are solar analogs and share comparable characteristics with the Sun. Although the kinematics of these stars imply that they belong to a population of older stars, the properties of their stellar chromospheres indicate they are only about 2 billion years old. On September 20, 1996, astronomers reported a provisional discovery of a hot Jupiter around Zeta-2, but the discovery was briefly retracted as the signal was caused by pulsations of the star. In 2002, moreover, Zeta-1 was scanned at an infrared wavelength of 25 μm, but no extrasolar planets were found.  The James Webb could possibly detect extrasolar planets, if any, around Zeta Reticuli and perhaps close the books on the Grays for good.

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

James Webb should be able to look right back the edge of the observable Universe and see some of the earliest structures forming. It’ll be amazing to finally get a picture of what the Universe looked like so long ago, when everything was much closer together. How did those early galaxies form so quickly? When did the first supermassive black holes form? I can’t wait to find out the answers.

15 years aboard ISS

It’s been 15 years since we occupied International Space Station. 220 people from 17 countries visited the station and conducted total of 1760 research investigations. In your opinion what should be the ultimate fate of ISS? Should we stop funding the station or should we extend it’s presence in Earth’s orbit? What is the best thing that came from 15 years of continous human presence in low-earth orbit?
Fraser Cain (publisher at Universetoday.com, co-host of Astronomy Cast)

I think it will always be valuable to have a permanent space station in low Earth orbit, which serves as a way station for all other exploration of the Solar System. I think that the international community should continue to extend and maintain the space station for as long as we intend reaching out to other worlds. It could be used for gathering resources, assembling spacecraft, and generally learning more about what it takes to survive in space for the long term.

The best thing was just how an international collaboration came together to build a space station of this enormous scale. Although the relationship between the US and Russia is starting to fray now, it’s still an amazing accomplishment.

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

There is no doubt that the International Space Station should be saved and used specifically for manned mission to Mars research. From 2007 to 2010, the European Space Agency (ESA), Russia, and China selected volunteers to take part in a 520-day simulated round-trip mission to Mars. Known as the Mars500 program, the volunteers were sealed in a mocked spacecraft in Moscow, Russia and took part in a study to investigate the psychological and medical aspects of a long-duration space mission. Although the Mars500 project provided valuable information as predicted, a manned mission to Mars will require long-term medical research under conditions of weightlessness, such as on the International Space Station (ISS). With the recent retirement of the US Space Shuttle fleet, the only viable option would be to use the (ISS) to simulate a mission to Mars.

The ISS is the most complex and largest international engineering and scientific project in history. It is over four times larger than Russia’s Mir space station and longer than a football field. The station’s primary goals are to enable long-term exploration of space, and provide benefits to all people on Earth. In addition to scientific research on space, additional projects that are not related to space exploration, but have expanded our understanding of the Earth’s environment, have been conducted. These experiments have included learning more about the long-term effects of radiation on crews, nutritional requirements levied upon astronauts during long-term missions in space, and developing newer technology that can withstand the harsh environment of space. Other experiments conducted over several expeditions on the ISS include:

  • Clinical Nutrition Assessments of Astronauts
  • Subregional Assessment of Bone Loss in the Axial Skeleton in Long-term Space Flight
  • Crewmember and Crew-Ground Interaction During International Space Station Missions
  • Effects of Altered Gravity on Spinal Cord Excitability
  • Effect of Microgravity on the Peripheral Subcutaneous Veno-Arteriolar Reflex in Humans
  • Renal Stone Risk During Spaceflight: Assessment and Countermeasure
  • Validation Effect of Prolonged Space Flight on Human Skeletal Muscle
  • Bodies In the Space Environment: Relative Contributions of Internal and External Cues to Self
  • Orientation During and After Zero Gravity Exposure

Although dozens of astronauts have been used as test subjects for physiological and psychological experiments, and preventive strategies and countermeasures have been implemented, we still do not have a lot of knowledge concerning long-term exposure to spaceflight. We can learn more about long-term exposure to a weightless environment, and how it will affect a manned mission to Mars, by simulating such a mission on the International Space Station. At a minimum, a crew can spend two years on the station to simulate the amount of time it would take to travel to Mars and back (not counting the amount of time spent on Mars waiting for point of departure). We can use the time spent on the station to continue with additional scientific and medical experiments to determine the effects of long-term exposure and, more importantly, develop additional (or better) countermeasures to ensure a successful mission to the Red Planet.