Houston, “Eagle” has landed

Imagine yourself walking out of a lunar module "Eagle" on July, 21st 1969 and stepping on the surface of the Moon. What would be your first words? What would you like to do while performing EVA?
Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

Neil had 3 full days to think about what to say on his trip to the Moon, probably months before that, and a potentially a NASA PR team working on the problem. I'd be hard pressed to come up with something better. Something like: "Hello Moon, greetings from planet Earth. Thanks for all you've done for us, from inspiring our dreams when we look up a night, to stabilizing our planet's spin, to driving our ocean tides. We're glad you're here, and now we are too."

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

I was 11 years old when Neil Armstrong walked out onto the moon, and I remember being deeply envious of him. I had no idea of the depth and duration of training required of astronauts, or the complexity of their equipment, and I even had a silly fantasy about stowing away on a the rocket.

If it had been me, I think I would have resisted delivering a scripted line, and instead would have blurted out something like “look at me! I’m on the moon!”. I’m sure it would have been nothing quotable. If I were free to do whatever I wanted on the EVA, my priorities would be running, jumping, and throwing things (I was 11!). I would have wanted to scale the nearest hill, thinking it would be easy to exploit the low gravity of the moon. Of course, I would have also put all kinds of rocks in my pockets.

Ciro Villa (technologist, application developer, STEM communicator)

After the Apollo era, men haven’t returned to the Moon in now almost 45 years. Humans are long overdue for a return to the lunar surface, which could provide tremendous opportunities to act as a “launchpad” to the rest of space. If I had the unique and historical opportunity to be that first man stepping out on the surface of the Moon, I would probably be speechless and have no words at all.

During my EVA I’d like to satisfy spirit, body, and mind. The human spirit will be in awe at the incredible sight of an “alien” landscape and scenery and the realization that I am on a rock located about 384,000 km from our home, the Earth. The body would be experiencing the lower gravity and have fun hopping around. The mind would be involved in any science possible and work on the mission at hand, hoping that whatever advancement is made will benefit the rest of humanity.

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

If I were the first to set foot on the moon It would be hard to beat the iconic words of Neal Armstrong, except by having them heard as was actually intended of course..."One small step for "A" man, One giant leap for mankind."

I've often thought that it would have been cool if both Neal Armstrong and that other dude (what was his name? ;)) both jumped and took that first step together.

My first words would probably be "holy crap". If I were able to rein in my emotions, perhaps I'd say something like "This first ever human footprint on the moon....brought to you by SCIENCE"

During the EVA I would thoroughly enjoy the sensation of moon gravity. I'd lift the biggest boulders I could manage and leap as far as possible. I'd throw small rocks and hands-full of regolith and watch their trajectory and descent. I'd look at the camera and say "See that? You can't fake physics like that on a stupid set on earth"

Something huge is heading our way!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Force Awakens

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

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

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

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

Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

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

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

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

Interview with Bob Novella

Interview took place in July 2015.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


We sometimes dream about turning other worlds into habitable ones. Is terraforming worth the try giving the resources needed? Is Mars the obvious choice or should we choose a different world?

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

I think Terraforming is a no brainer if for no other reason than to have humanity on more than one planet. A worst-case scenario then, like an asteroid strike, would not have to mean the extinction of all life on Earth. It’s definitely worth the effort but the resources required are staggering. We have the technology now to begin the process but it would be just too expensive. The good news is that the resources required will become increasingly less onerous as technology improves.

Ultimately I think we could use a form of molecular nanotechnology to not only perform most of the work but also complete it in a time frame on the scale of decades or less instead of centuries or even millennia. All or most of the raw material required may even already be on the planet. Mars for example already has what we’d need to not not only create the nanomachines but also the oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide gas to produce a breathable and comfortable atmospheric pressure.

The obvious choices for terraforming in our solar system are Venus and Mars. The low gravity of moons make atmospheric retention an issue. Both these planets are much better options but for every good reason why, there’s also a downside. For example, Venus has 90% of earth’s gravity but its day is 116 earth-days. A day on Mars is very close to earth’s but it’s gravity is only 38%.

I’d have to choose Mars since the energy required to cool Venus and speed its rotation far exceeds what it would take to warm Mars and thicken its atmosphere. The thicker atmosphere would also likely block enough cosmic rays to make that a tolerable problem.

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

We’ve actually done a whole series on terraforming as part of the Guide to Space video series we publish on YouTube. We’ve talked about terraforming Mars, Venus, the Moon, Jupiter and even the Sun and black holes (I don’t recommend those last two).

Mars is an interesting target, but one big concern is its low gravity. Can humans survive long term in 30% gravity? Another huge problem is the lack of a geomagnetic field, which would protect future Martians from solar and cosmic radiation.

Although it’s probably harder, Venus sounds like a better target because of its similar size and gravity to Earth. There would be a lot of work to get the dense carbon dioxide out of the air and spin up the planet’s rotation, but the cloud tops of Venus are surprisingly habitable right now. At the right altitude, the temperature and pressure are the same as Earth and our breathable air is a lifting gas. So, future colonists could live in floating cities on Bespin… I mean Venus.

Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

Apart from traveling to another star, I think terraforming is the long-term purpose of branching out into space. Mars is certainly the most suitable because it has all the elements in place, and it’s essentially returning the planet to the way we think it once was. However, it’s probably a more difficult task than people realize, not because of the science behind it, but because of the magnitude of the engineering challenge. It’s easy enough to melt a bit of CO2 ice on Mars and warm up the planet a fraction of a degree, but melting all the polar ice caps to raise the pressure and create a greenhouse effect on Mars is a daunting task. It’s also unclear if melting all the ice would be enough to make Mars a suitable planet to walk around without a space suit (and eventually without a respirator). More intervention may be required.

We may find a simple solution like some kind of self-replicating special microbes or nanobots that we could simply introduce and they would do the rest, but it’s not certain and that also increases other potential dangers like an unstoppable runaway effect. There was even a proposal to seed the Venusian clouds with microbes which could transform Venus into a habitable place – but on Venus, I think we might be stuck in the clouds for a while (which are suitable for floating habitats now). I think it’ll be a long time before we’re truly able to terraform a planet, but that should stop us from experimenting with the concept now. Moreover, there are alternatives to full terraforming. Even partially terraforming Mars by raising the temperature and pressure would be a huge benefit to exploration and settlement, and we can envision enclosed areas of the planet like large dome structures which is effectively terraforming a small section of the planet (AKA “paraterraforming”). If I had to guess, I’d wager Mars will be fully terraformed within the next 1000 years, provided humanity lasts that long.

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

Mars is probably the obvious choice for doing any terraforming (Venus is too hot and crushing while Europa or any other moons of Jupiter or Saturn are too cold) But it would be an incredible proposition to even attempt to try it, and the technology to accomplish such a feat is likely decades away, if not centuries or more. Plus the process itself would likely take hundreds of years to accomplish. I see terraforming as an “emergency” procedure if Earth was somehow becoming inhabitable. Hopefully we won’t have to think about that as a possibility for quite some time!

While Mars has the basic ingredients to do terraforming (water, nitrogen and carbon and oxygen in the form of CO2) there are a few problems to overcome with terraforming Mars. One is that Mars has only trace amounts of atmospheric CO2, and unless there is more CO2 locked up in the polar ice caps than currently estimated, it would be difficult to create as much CO2 as would be needed. You’d have to have huge factories spewing out CO2 to create a greenhouse effect on Mars. This would create a nice thick breathable atmosphere that would also warm up the planet.
The other problem is that Mars lost its magnetic field millennia ago due to a cooling down of its core and mantle. A magnetic field is necessary to shield the planet from the Solar Wind, which otherwise blasts away the atmosphere and any liquid water that might be there. Without a magnetic field, creating a thicker atmosphere or oceans would be an effort in futility.

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

Terraforming a whole planet seems like a huge task that may not have the most gain. After all, it would take quite a lot of resources to build up Mars’ atmosphere, for example, and then to keep replenishing it without a planet-wide protective magnetic field. Unless there is a compelling reason to develop huge tracts of land, I see colonization starting in domes that would connect around a planet like Mars.

Mars seems like an obvious planetary choice for reasons of gravity (less than Earth but potentially still adaptable) and the familiar day-night cycle. One idea I particularly like is to use a hollowed out asteroid as a floating and rotating (to simulate gravity) space colony, but given that so many asteroids may be no more than rubble piles, that may not be feasible at all.

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

For decades, scientists, engineers, and science fiction authors/filmmakers have proposed the idea of combining technology and biology to terraform Mars – in hopes of expanding the human presence in the Solar System. Mars, consequently, is the only other terrestrial planet in the Solar System that has the probability of supporting life – and terraforming seems like a practicable option. Today, planetary scientists argue that the basic elements to revive Mars, such as carbon, nitrogen, and water, exists beneath the Martian soil in sufficient quantities to create an atmosphere and hydrosphere. Recent data by the Mars Global Surveyor satellite, for example, have found indirect traces of water tied up as ice in the polar regions. Moreover, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter recently provided convincing evidence that water in the form of liquid flows occasionally on present-day Mars. Terraforming Mars, thus, would focus on introducing a runaway greenhouse effect to thicken and warm the Martian atmosphere, while gradually introducing microbes to bring life to the barren landscape. In principle, terraforming the Red Planet to a Green Planet is essentially restoring the planet back to what it was billions of years ago.

Many in the scientific community, however, remain skeptical of Mars being green again. For example, many scientists believe that radiation, due to Mars’ thin atmosphere and lack of magnetic field, has created an oxidizing agent in the surface, which would destroy any kind of organic molecule or plants. Additionally, the chief hurdle of terraforming Mars is not from a technologically perspective but from a position of commitment. An ambitious project like terraforming Mars would take hundreds or perhaps thousands of years as well as trillions of dollars. No country on Earth, unfortunately, has developed a political or economic system willing to support at great cost an enterprise that will undoubtedly require generations to accomplish. Therefore, the idea of transforming Mars back to a green planet is more science fiction than science – at least for now.

Fraser Cain’s series about terraformation:

How do we terraform Venus

How do we terraform Mars?

Could we terraform Jupiter?

Could we terraform the Moon?

Could we terraform the Sun?

Could we terraform a Black Hole?

Relax, please

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

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

Pluto flyby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vacation Trip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

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



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

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



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

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

Favourite one

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Astronomy Events

Sometimes doing astronomy related stuff from the warm interior of our home isn’t enough. What to do if we want to meet someone with the same interest in space and astronomy? I asked our panel what events/gatherings they would recommend attending? What’s the best place to meet another like-minded people?

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

I unfortunately haven’t attended any formal conventions or similar gatherings related to Astronomy. I do, however, recommend finding some trustworthy science news sites (Universe Today, Phys.org, NASA etc) to read up on the latest astronomy news. Many of the science cable channels offer far too many credulous shows but interspersed among them are wonderfully animated documentaries on the latest astronomical thinking hosted by respected astronomers. Also, find a local planetarium and visit often to watch their splendid shows. I frequently go to the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. This is an experience you simply can’t get elsewhere.

Be sure to listen to the Astronomy Cast podcast. Pamela Gay and Fraser Cain make a great team, asking the right questions and offering knowledgeable and detailed answers on many astronomy-related topics. I also recommend Phil Plait’s “Bad Astronomy” blog for accessible and amusing astronomy news and a great community of commenters who are astronomy enthusiasts.

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

If you’re interested in astronomy, you should meet up with people in your local area. The best thing to do is seek out your local astronomical society using Google. There’s one in almost every metropolitan area in the world. Find their website, get their schedule of events and show up at their monthly meet ups. You’ll find nothing but welcoming people, glad to share your love of space and astronomy. You can also attend larger regional star parties and meet even more people to hang out with.

You shouldn’t do astronomy alone.