To infinity and beyond!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

lt’s the size of Texas, Mr President.

At one point in the future we’ll be faced with a threat from an asteroid coming our way. Hopefully we’ll know about it long before it’s even close to Earth. What in your opinion is the best way to redirect an asteroid using current or future technology?
Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

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

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.

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 use 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.

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.

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.

“The Search for Life in the Universe” by Antonio Paris

Nearly 2,500 years ago the Greek philosopher Metrodorus of Chios challenged his students with an analogy. He stated that, because it was unreasonable that in a large field only one shaft of wheat should grow, why then, in an infinite universe, should there be only one living world? Our understanding of how profligate and diverse life is on Earth and recent discoveries in astronomy point to tantalizing possibilities.

When speculating on the nature of advanced extraterrestrial life and a spacefaring extraterrestrial society, some authors go to great lengths to discuss such life forms’ behavior and how they might be disposed toward us, the lifespan of an advanced technological civilization, and so on. At this stage in our understanding, however, all bets are off. If we were to encounter an advanced spacefaring species, we would be confronted with an intelligence that we have never before encountered, one that may not even be possible for us to understand. We cannot assume that an alien species would be motivated as we are, or would share any universal system of values with us, or perhaps even recognize us. At the moment, our understanding of life is confined to its forms, plentiful and varied though they be, found only on our home planet. Assuming that life has arisen elsewhere in our cosmos, it is almost certain to be very different from anything we currently understand, and it would not have the humanoid structure routinely reported in the UFO community or in science fiction.

Biologists define life by four general processes: growth, reproduction, responsiveness, and metabolism. Scientists are in general agreement that if a collection of organic molecules increases in size, if it makes copies of itself, if it somehow responds to its environment, and if it somehow incorporates elements from outside its structure and converts them in a series of controlled internal chemical reactions to compounds needed to grow, reproduce, or physically respond to changes in its environment, it is alive.

In the early 1960s Frank Drake conducted the first search for radio wave signals from potential extraterrestrial civilizations at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia. This began the international effort in astronomy known today as the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI. In 1961, when the National Academy of Sciences asked him to chair a meeting on the detection of extraterrestrial intelligence, Drake developed his famous equation designed to estimate the number of advanced technical civilizations in our galaxy. In 1980, Carl Sagan popularized this equation in his television series Cosmos to point out to viewers across the world that our own galaxy might well be teeming with not only life but also other advanced technological civilizations. Professor Drake persuaded astronomers and other interested researchers to think seriously about the possibility of other intelligent life in our galaxy, and Sagan persuaded the common man to think about that same possibility, including its implications for our own existence.

We may be assuming too much in thinking that we would be able to recognize an alien intelligence, civilization, or its artifacts. Without a better understanding of how and where life can arise and of what other forms an alien intelligence or civilization can take, any number concerning the Drake Equation is next to meaningless. However, what Professor Drake’s equation has done, even in the absence of hard data, is to stimulate thought and debate about the various factors necessary to predict the likelihood of extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy.

It is arguable that any organism possessing spacefaring technology, as we know it, would have had to develop a sophisticated understanding of physics and be able to comprehend mathematical concepts, thereby recognizing a basic order in the universe’s physics and in our symbology. At the same time, of course, symbols such as letters or numerals are normally arbitrary, bearing little resemblance to what they signify, so it is difficult to say whether an alien civilization could make heads or tails of our messages, and vice versa. Still, Drake and Sagan were optimistically banking on the commonalities that we would share with another species. They knew the differences would be vast but thought it better to begin with the traits that we likely share, such as a similar chemistry involving hydrogen, one of the most common elements in the known universe.

For all our cryptographic abilities, however, we again assume much. We assume, for example, that any intelligent recipients generally think the way we do, that they organize information in more or less the same manner we do, and that they are primarily visual creatures. We are limited by our lack of knowledge of how an intelligence from another world might “think.” We must be careful not to assume that life based on a completely different biology would have anything but the most fundamental chemical elements in common with us.

As we are contemplating extraterrestrial life, one of the more exciting exercises is to imagine what such life might actually look like. If extraterrestrial life is built by DNA, or some equivalent of it, we might hypothesize that such organisms reproduce much as we do. Life evolving on any planet would certainly need to adjust to its gravity, so any sort of alien animal life would have to evolve an anatomy to move through its environment. Such organisms would be very recognizable to us as life forms, but perhaps it is not that simple. British astronomer Martin Rees has posited that there could be organisms and extraterrestrial intelligence in forms we can’t even conceive. We tend to think in terms of “animals” and “plants.” Moreover, the basis of all Earth life appears to be cellular. Whether those cells are eukaryotes, prokaryotes, or archaea, living things on our planet are either single-celled or multicellular organisms. But what if non-Earth life is built of something other than DNA or even an equivalent? We might not recognize it at all. Certainly an intelligence evolved from a profoundly different biology would function very differently than our own. Sagan wrote that extraterrestrial intelligence would be “elegant, complex, internally consistent, and utterly alien.” If we restrict our theorizing to intelligences recognizable to us, however, we could hypothesize that an intelligent extraterrestrial species might have evolved as social life forms. If such a species were also aggressive and highly competitive, as Stephen Hawking recently suggested in an article in the London Sunday Times, we could easily be faced with alien versions of the worst aspects of our human selves. In fact, Hawking cautioned against broadcasting our existence to potential extraterrestrial civilizations, stating that we only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to encounter. Rather than benevolent extraterrestrials as depicted in much science fiction, he posited that intelligent alien life might come to Earth “in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach.” Humanity would almost certainly be helpless in a confrontation with any species advanced enough to locate our planet and travel here.

In all of our theorizing about extraterrestrial intelligence, we may just as easily suppose that, if such a civilization developed technology sufficiently advanced to explore the stars, they must have harnessed that better nature and progressed beyond base instincts. Such a species might therefore not be bent on conquering the Earth or appropriating its resources. It might ignore us altogether, or it might attempt to contact us, perhaps even engage with us. For the moment, until we have irrefutable evidence of intelligent life beyond Earth, it is impossible to know.

Despite the interesting possibilities raised by Drake’s equation and continuing discoveries of new Earth-sized worlds in our galaxy, physicist Enrico Fermi’s question still nags: “Where are they? Where is everybody?” Could humanity be alone in this vast cosmos? For the moment, it seems that we are far distant from any other life forms that we can recognize in our obscure corner of the Milky Way.

Curiosity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little green/grey men

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

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



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

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

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

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



Ciro Villa
(technologist, application developer, STEM communicator)

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

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

How to win a Antonio Paris book

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Farewell Rosetta!

rosetta-im-all_xlFew weeks ago Rosetta probe deliberately crashed into comet 67P/Czuriumow-Gierasimienko ending it’s 12 years mission. What did we learn from this mission? What is the most interesting discovery that came from landing on a comet for the first time in history?

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

nancyatkinson

The Rosetta mission has been an absolute joy to witness, with its great success, surprising findings, and unique public outreach from the team that included cute videos and cartoons. The images have been nothing short of stunning and being able to see a comet close-up like this is just eye-candy: views of cliffs, rockslides and boulders, spraying jets and of course the duck-shaped comet itself.

Some of the discoveries are really exciting, such as finding amino acids that are the building blocks of life on the comet; finding out Comet 67P sings, and finding molecular oxygen. One of the most surprising findings is that the chemical signature of the comet’s water is nothing like what we have on Earth, which contradicts the long-standing theory that comets pummeling Earth supplied our planet with water. Don’t fret the mission is over, as scientists will be studying Rosetta’s observations for years to come, so we’ll definitely be hearing from Rosetta again.


Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

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This mission was important for a lot of reasons. From a scientific perspective, it tells us about an object from the far reaches of the Kuiper Belt and probably as old as the formation of the solar system. What are it’s characteristics and composition? Could comets have brought water to Earth, or even the building blocks for life?

From a practical perspective, we learned that we can rendezvous with and land on a type of object that might one day pose a dire threat to our planet. Alternatively, such a comet could potentially be useful in providing raw materials while we hitch a ride far out into space.


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

antonioparis

Hundreds of years from now, when our ancestors look back at the early years of space exploration, there are no doubts the Rosetta mission will be among the top list of achievements. The rendezvous with comet 67P, which is an achievement of its own, will harness scientific data for generations. Recent mission data, however, has already re-drawn the cometary landscape and astronomers have been left to re-write textbooks when it comes to comets. For example, we have learned 67P interacts with the solar wind, a significant amount of water has been discovered on the comet, and that perhaps comets, at least in this case 67P, was not responsible for bringing water to Earth billions of years ago. We have a lot of work ahead of us and the data from Rosetta will take years to study – an exciting time for astronomers!


Ciro Villa (technologist, application developer, STEM communicator)

cirovilla

Being able for the first time in the history of mankind to approach, orbit and land on a 4 kilometers wide chunk of rock and ice coming from the fringe of our solar system, located at about half a billion kilometers away from us and traveling around the Sun at a velocity of about 135,000 kilometers per hour, was a tremendous feat of human engineering in it of itself. This is exactly what the Rosetta mission has been able achieve during its groundbreaking mission.

Indeed, a vast amount of science has been done by Rosetta during the 786 days of its mission spent around the comet operating in a prohibitive and unforgiving environment. We have learned a great deal more than we used to know about the complexity of the composition of comets such as 67P and we have learned how difficult it is to perform with extreme precision the sort of mission activities that the Rosetta mission team could do and how small the margin of error is for space missions in general and for something as complex as the Rosetta mission.

Despite problems experienced during the touchdown of the Phoebe lander, the Rosetta mission’s team was still able collect a vast trove of scientific data that will be analyzed for decades to come, as well as being able to accomplish a series of important scientific milestones. For instance, among the most outstanding discoveries was that of the presence of a peculiar “songlike” magnetic field probably caused by the solar wind.

Additionally, the discovery of the presence of various molecules originating from the comet ‘s nucleus as well as the presence of water of a different composition of that present here on Earth, were among other findings that have made an impact within the scientific community. All in all, the mission, culminating with the planned crash of Rosetta on the surface of the comet, was a definite success and as a provider of lesson learned, an important precursor for other future missions to small bodies such as asteroid and comets that would have tremendously important value and implications for the future of mankind.

One question

You have the chance to meet in person Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan and you can ask each of them one question. What question would it be?

Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

andrewrader

Galileo Galilei – What do you think about humans visiting the Moon? Isaac Newton – What do you consider your greatest achievement? Albert Einstein – What inspired you to start thinking about the great problems of physics? Carl Sagan – If you could ask Galileo one question, what would it be? (I think he’d have a better answer than I did)


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

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I really wish I could go back in time and talk to these scientists, especially Galileo. I’m not sure I’d have a lot of questions for them, but I’d love to be able to give them an update on the science they figured out. I could tell Galileo about the moons of Jupiter, and the amazing features we’ve found on them. I could let Newton know about all the discoveries we’ve made about gravity, and how his calculations still form the basis of so much of our science and mathematics. I’d love to let Einstein know that Relativity is still holding strong 100 years after he first described it, including the recent direct detection of gravitational waves. I’m sure Sagan would love an update on the state of Solar System exploration and to learn about what we saw with a flyby of Pluto, or the rovers on Mars.


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

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Can I trade in my answers with the others and just talk with Carl Sagan? I think I’d ask him a BUNCH about methods of science communication, searching for extraterrestrials, and how to bring us away from the brink of ecological disaster. Maybe that’s cheating, but I’d get a lot more out of a conversation with him than the others!


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

antonioparis

If I could travel back in time, to where the father’s of modern astronomers lived, I would ask them a variety of questions. Each of these questions, however, would be shaped to fit the era. For Galileo, I would ask him how did you react when you first observed the moon’s of Jupiter? What was your initial reaction? For Newton, I would ask him did an apple actually fall toward your feet, which shaped your curiosity to tackled gravity. For Albert Einstein, I would ask him he he could stop the building of atomic weapons during WWII, would he do it. And, finally, I would ask Carl Sagan … do you believe in God, seriously.