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With technology advancing so rapidly we’re making big discoveries on a daily basis. What fascinating discovery would you like to hear about when you wake up tomorrow morning? Evidence of life on another planet or a moon, signs of bio-signatures on an exo-planet, reception of a signal from an intelligent life or maybe something completely different?
Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

Wow, those would all be good ones! However, in my view, the main point of searching for life on planets and moons in our solar system is to test the hypothesis “are we alone”? (Because we currently have one world with life, Earth, and a 1 out of 1 scientific result is meaningless due to the anthropic principle, but a 2/2 would be a big deal.) Thus, hearing directly from intelligent extraterrestrials would sort of cut to the chase and be an even bigger deal.

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

This one got me thinking. Any discovery that would be a real a paradigm breaker would not be one that I could predict, and I doubt even people much cleverer than I would either.

A couple of helpful quotes to keep in mind:
Clarke’s First Law: “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”
J.B.S. Haldane: “Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

My own ability to predict future discoveries is probably even more limited than a distinguished but elderly scientist. We will probably need to rework our conceptual toolbox – our vocabulary, if you will – to even be able to recognize what is right in front of us. I am optimistic that this will happen, since it has happened before, such as when we realized that space and time weren’t absolute, or that the Earth was very ancient and not the center of the universe.

However, your question seems to be about discoveries we can predict, and for me the most important would be the confirmed discovery of life in our solar system (possibly even here on Earth) that we unambiguously do not share a common ancestor with. This “second genesis” would effectively nail down the fourth term in the Drake equation – it’s on the order of one, and implies that life is more or less a natural state of warm matter. This may well happen within my lifetime.

Erin Macdonald (Space Science Speaker, Educator, Consultant)

The near-term big discovery I’m looking forward to (now that we’ve got gravitational waves!) is evidence of life (current or past) in our own solar system. With further exploration of Mars (including underwater lakes) as well as future missions to Europa with a warm, seemingly salt-water ocean under the surface, I hope that we find evidence of even past microbial life on other planets. While all the discoveries in the last decade of exoplanets which may be able to support liquid water on their surface, we seem to have collectively made the assumption that there is other life out there, but we have to remember that we still don’t have any evidence of that. Once that discovery is made, I will be literally jumping for joy.

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

Honestly, I’m really keen to see a black hole directly. If the rumors are true that should happen April 10. My dissertation was on black holes, and at the time we had no way to directly observe one. To finally see that happen would be really cool.

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

Beyond all other discoveries, I would probably most enjoy waking up one morning to the news of signals from space from an extra-terrestrial civilization. This could minimally be just a “hello world” signal proving to us finally that these technologically advanced creatures are really out there. That would of course be the news of the century but it would also ultimately be quite frustrating since having a conversation given the distances involved would try anyone’s patience. Ideally, this discovery would take the form of what Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan described as an Encyclopedia Galactica: a cornucopia of detailed information about the aliens and their culture, science and technology, and surely many things that we can’t imagine or even comprehend.

A fascinating variation of this idea that I’ve often thought about involves the discovery of an extra-terrestrial cloaked satellite that has suddenly revealed itself in orbit around earth.
This satellite would have documented in detail the evolution of life on earth for hundreds of millions of years. Imagine having actual documentation of dinosaurs and proto-humans and countless other extinct life forms that we have never found fossils for.

Ask Me Anything

Extraterrestrial civilization have visited our planet. International community decided that you will be the one to ask our visitors questions. Let’s assume we can communicate freely with our guests. If you could ask only one question, what would it be and why?
Seth Shostak (Senior Astronomer and Director of the Center for SETI Research at SETI Institute)

Do you have music?

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

An alien way of thinking might be very alien indeed, but I will assume they are advanced enough, and possess a sufficiently rich conceptual framework to translate our human meaning. Still, it’s probably best at first to avoid anything too value laden, such as “why are you here?”, “do you want to help us?”, or “do you like my poetry?”. Instead, there are many key facts that they would know that we don’t, and it’s hard to pick just one.

I think I would start with: “is the the first time you have attempted to contact our species?”. That would help set the context, and the answer would drive some of the subsequent questions.

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

The visitation of an extraterrestrial civilization would be marked as one of the most pivotal moments in human history. If I could participate in a welcoming committee or scientific panel to welcome and address out visitors, the question I would ask is why are you visiting Earth?

Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

I would want to know about how their power or propulsion systems worked so we could replicate it. Seems like people who get “abducted by aliens” are always more concerned with strange personal or medical details, but the most important thing would clearly be to learn about the technological fields that evidently brought them here.

Ciro Villa (technologist, application developer, STEM communicator)

Well, if I could, my question would be “Can I ask you more than one question?”….but joking aside, perhaps the question I would ask is: “Why did you come here?”. I think that among the so many questions, this would be one that could help us understand several things including the intentions of these beings (assuming they would not be lying of course) and could give us some hints regarding our own survival (or destruction at their hands).

Exceptional character

There were many great characters in the Sci-Fi genre. Which one in your opinion showed the best values like courage, leadership or integrity? Would it be Commander Adama from Battlestar Galactica, James T. Kirk or Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek or maybe some other exceptional character?
Terry Virts (Speaker, author, consultant, former Astronaut)

There have been many great leaders in science fiction, but I think at the top of that list is Captain Kirk. He was always decisive, usually made the right decision and lead through some pretty terrible adversity. Once you got past some of the overacting drama he actually dealt with a very pressing and important social issues. He had a multi-racial crew which was unheard of at that time and he dealt with it seamlessly, he just accepted his crew for who they were, without even thinking of their race or even species. He dealt with all of the important political tensions of the day, between the US and the Soviet Union, the race riots in America and all kind of problems. The world could’ve really used a real life leader like Captain Kirk. In fact we could probably use him today, without the overacting 🙂

Mike Mongo (Author, astronaut teacher, science communicator)

For my money, there is no better leader in the myriad of science fiction universes than Buckaroo Banzai. In addition to good genes, a talent for conceptual physics, and the superlative focus and nerve of brain surgeons–as well as the moxie to lead a New Jersey bar band–Buckaroo Banzai knows his way around multiple dimensions, interplanetary existential crisis, and even bad puns. But above and beyond all this, there is one quality which makes Buckaroo Banzai a great character is Banzai’s natural good luck. Good luck is the earmark of all exceptional characters from science fiction and Buckaroo Banzai exemplifies it.

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

Well, o course Dr. Who comes to mind at once, but one of my favorite protagonists is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld witch, Granny Weatherwax. She is brave, wise, resourceful, and underneath that tough exterior, kind.

Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

Jean-Luc Picard probably has the best balance to leadership and integrity, but James T. Kirk is more flawed, emotional, and relatable in a human sort of way while generally still displaying strong leadership abilities. Overall, I would say Picard is a “better commander”, but James Kirk is more daring, risk-taking, and fun. Commander Adama is an extremely solid choice, balancing tough grit, integrity, and keen intellect, while preserving his humanity: sort of a good balance between Picard and Kirk, I would think.

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

My take on James T. Kirk is that he is the very reason the Prime Directive was invented. If there was even one Kirk in our galaxy, we’d already know about the existence of other alien civilizations! He’s a hot mess.

I love Picard, as he is a truly good captain, but of these choices, my heart goes with Commander Adama (from the reboot BSG). Unlike the cheery Star Trek universe, he is tested in a very dark time and, though he makes harsh decisions at times, he holds up as one of the strongest captains in the fictional universes that I have loved.

I have to put in a shout out to a character who, though not my favorite captain, is the most entertaining to watch. That’s Captain Benjamin Sisko of Deep Space Nine. It feels like he’s just always on the edge of sliding into doing something that would be morally abhorrent to other Star Fleet captains, but he has enough integrity to always hold to the morals of the Federation while realizing that he has to be flexible to manage a station in a difficult situation. He is absolutely my favorite to watch because he is so passionate and even dangerous.

Erin Macdonald (Space Science Speaker, Educator, Consultant)

I would have to go with the Star Trek franchise, but a different captain, Captain Kathryn Janeway. In being flung across the galaxy unexpectedly with no contact to Starfleet and a crew suddenly torn apart from their homes and families, she met every challenge with strength, integrity, and leadership. She had no senior leadership with whom to consult and therefore had to stand by every decision and action she made. She stayed true to who she was, allowed herself to be vulnerable and human while at the same time imparting loyalty and trust among her crew. Some of the best episodes that demonstrate these hard decisions and her leadership include Latent Image, The 37s, and one of my personal favorites, Fair Haven (while a fun holodeck episode, it shows how lonely Captain Janeway is and the constant need to be a leader, not a friend to her crew).

lt’s the size of Texas, Mr President

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

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

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

Episode 1 – Science Outreach

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

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

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

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

Prepare for warp speed

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

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

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

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

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

Ciro Villa (technologist, application developer, STEM communicator)

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

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

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

Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Win “Mars Rover Rescue” competition – question 3 of 5

Question 3/5:
What is the name of Andrew’s “build-you-own animal” game?

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

 

Win “Mars Rover Rescue” competition – question 2 of 5

Question 2/5:

In what year did Andrew Rader began working for SpaceX?

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

How to win “Mars Rover Rescue” – question 1 of 5

Question 1/5:
“Mars Rover Rescue” is a second part in series of adventures of Giraffestronaut MC Longneck. What’s the name of the first book?

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

5 quickest answers to each question will earn points – 5 points for the quickest answer, 4 points for second quickest and so on.