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)

andrewrader

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)

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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)

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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.

OSIRIS REx

OSIRIS-REx mission will meet with asteroid “Bennu” in 2018, collect samples and return back to Earth. What can we learn from this mission and how important it is? What’s the next best object to collect samples from?

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

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Samples from an asteroid like Bennu will help us understand the conditions out of which planets like Earth formed in the early Solar System. With each new exoplanet discovery, we find more evidence that confounds the traditional model of planetary formation, so this is vital information. If I could sample from elsewhere in the Solar System, I’d pick either Meecury or Mars. We need additional samples from cratered bodies in order to refine our dating methods. Today, the ages of pretty much everything are calibrated solely by the rocks returned from the Moon by the Apollo astronauts!


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

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OSIRIS-Rex is not the first asteroid sample return. In fact, when it returns to Earth in 2023, it should be the third sample return, with the Japanese Hayabusa and Hayabusa 2 missions ahead of it. Hayabusa only returned a tiny sample from an S-class asteroid, but it was confirmed to be asteroidal in nature. The NEAR mission launched in the mid 1990s was the first asteroid rendezvous mission, but did not return samples. From my perspective, the most important aspect of studying asteroids is to determine if they are ore-bearing, and I’m not clear if sample return does a whole lot better for that purpose than instruments like an X-ray spectrometer (OSIRS-REX is flying one called REXIS), which can measure the elemental composition. My understanding is that the asteroid Bennu was picked as a target because it is a C type asteroid, and may contain some organic material, which would be of great scientific interest. A sample return will of course provide tremendous detail about the material composing the asteroid’s regolith, and I always hope there will be interesting surprises – maybe even water bearing minerals. So far, the closest look we have had to a C type asteroid was in 1999, when NEAR flew by the main belt asteroid Mathilde. What NEAR saw was surprising – two huge craters in comparison to the size of the body. To absorb impacts that large, Mathilde must be quite low density – a sort of spongy texture. It will be interesting to see if Bennu is similar, and its laser altimeter should enable some precise measurements of its gravity field.


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

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Asteroid Bennu, like all asteroids, is a “time capsule” loaded with vital information regarding the formation of the Solar System. More importantly, the Osiris-Rex mission to Bennu is centered on studying the surface of the asteroid, which is covered in carbonaceous material. This material is a critical element in organic molecules required for life. It is possible, therefore, that the Osiris-Rex mission could finally unlock the secrets to how life on Earth began, and, more importantly, could provide clues for the search for life elsewhere in the Solar System!

To boldly go where no man has gone before

Many associate survival of our species with humanity becoming a interplanetary civilization. It’s important to prepare ourselves for an event that might one day force us to leave our home planet. In more distant future we might have to leave our solar system. Will we ever become an intergalactic civilization like we already are in science-fiction? What’s the hardest obstacle to overcome?

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

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The hardest obstacle to overcome is the weightless environment of space itself. Humans evolved in Earth’s gravity, and without it, our bones soften, our muscles atrophy, and our bodies suffer. Until we can develop some kind of artificial gravity environment, like a rotating space station, space travel will be lethal for any length of time. We need to first learn to just live and survive in space before we have any hope of reaching out to another star system.


Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

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If we survive for the next 100 years, I think we will become an interstellar civilization (although maybe not for several hundred years – the first step is to expand into our solar system first). The greatest challenges are in rough order of difficulty starting with the most challenging: I) Surviving long enough to reach the stars (avoiding disaster on our planet, whether created by humans or something external); II) The will to expand beyond Earth (will we even choose to do so, or will we for example, transcend into AI); III) The vast distances involved and the technological challenges involved. These include the velocity you need to travel and/or time it would take to get to another star, and the energy you would need to be able to produce for an exceedingly long time at a great distance from any light or heat from the Sun (even our best nuclear technology can’t currently do this). It’s a problem of distance, time, and energy. Here’s a links to my videos about it.

Robotic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lt0YMLvgT5k

Human colonization: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0m7gcZLUcPU


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

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Emigrating beyond Earth is not a difficult task from a technological perspective. The current challenges are more centered on budgets rather than technology or human will. The most difficult challenge of interplanetary travel, in my opinion, is the challenge of humanity. Humans, today, are in the brink of destroying ourselves and our planet as well. The human population is increasing at an exponential pace while Earthly resources are diminishing at equal speed. Humans, eventually, will nonetheless have to travel beyond earth to survive as a species. We must, however, overcome the most difficult obstacle we conveniently ignore: the will to get along with other humans.


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

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Our science fiction stories show humanity escaping out to the stars, but our more terrestrial reality seems determined to keep us grounded. Two major problems currently face us. The first, quite simply, is resources. Human space exploration is a rich nation’s possibility, and as our global economy flattens, it is becoming harder to imagine any government-driven effort to colonize other worlds and other solar systems. At the same time, it’s impossible to predict what commercial space will make possible, and the extreme wealth of an elite few may be able to fill in gaps left by governments. While money is a current problem that has the potential to go away, the second problem is more likely to stay. That problem is human frailty. We are a race that can die from environmental extremes and disease. We periodically wage war, and we release toxins into our environment through our accidents and ignorance. The real question is, will we stay alive long enough to overcome money?


Ciro Villa (technologist, application developer, STEM communicator)

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Be it for natural or man-made causes, there are a variety of possible future scenarios that we earthlings could face that could bring about the end of humanity or even life in its entirety here on Earth. This is why it is important to give serious consideration to plans for us to become a space faring civilization. Although we have a long way to go to arrive at the necessary level of technology and for us to be able to overcome a number of practical obstacles to make this feasible, it is important to start working toward this goal, this way at least our future generations can hope for the continuation of our species by embarking on “space lifeboats” toward new galactic shores. This is not going to be easy and it is going to take time and effort. We are now just making our first “baby steps” toward understanding how the human body reacts to hostile space environments and the lack of gravity and questions about our ability to withstand space environments are just now attempted to be answered with the hard work of our astronauts on the International Space Station. Probably one of the hardest obstacle to overcome is going to be having the ability to take down the barrier of skepticism of large portions of the public as a whole and raise realistic and not alarmist awareness that we live on a very fragile planet and that it is important to build contingency plans to leave it if we want the continuation of our species. Of course we hope that we will be able to achieve this goal before it will be too late.


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

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I tend to be skeptical of top-down views of the human future, and the more our species is spread out into the solar system, the more it will diverge, with separate populations each pursuing their own interests. From, this is an optimistic view. The kings and battles view of history has always been something of a delusion, and I think in the future it will become clear, with hopefully no kings and many fewer battles. So, I think the simple-minded notion of a colossal public works project sending great arks full of people in uniform to seed humanity among other worlds is not only unlikely, it is undesirable and likely to fail. Someone with the power to make that happen has too much power. However, I do believe that as mastery of space travel, energy and information compounds, our wealth will grow to the point that the project of embarking with one’s friends and families to the stars is a choice many will have. How this will be accomplished I don’t know, and neither does anyone else, just as the hunter gatherers just before the neolithic revolution could not possibly see what their world was about to become. It is only an approximate result, but Daniel Cartin estimated that the range needed from a starship in order to establish a network of colonies in the local solar neighborhood was about 10 light years. That’s a long distance from the human perspective, but is a cosmic stone’s throw, and when humans can live for hundreds of years and casually command petawatts of power, it will not be a daunting sea to cross. By then, we may not even need to send biological bodies – just beam our minds ahead at the speed of light after the ship arrives at a suitable destination. It would of course, take millions of years to colonize even part of the galaxy, and such a diaspora could easily lose steam after a while. Still there is the chance it will continue until we either collide the current residents or fill up the available resources. Of course, by “we” I mean descendants of humans, but they will be fragmented into at least as many many societies as solar systems they occupy. There will be no emperor. How we go from there to an intergalactic society I have no idea. Crossing ten, or even a hundred light years is nothing compared to crossing millions of light years. Each of is free to imagine their own scenario, but I have no idea how it could happen.