Next Giant Leap

It looks like we’re about to become a multiplanetary species in a matter of 10-15 years. Would you choose to risk and become a part of a history as one of the first settlers arriving on Mars or would you wait until it gets safer? What would you take with you to kill boredom on a months long trip?

andrewraderAndrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

The answer to that question depends on the specific circumstances, but I certainly wouldn’t rule out going myself if given the opportunity.

I’d play a lot of board games in computerized form (hopefully some turn-based ones with friends at home). I can do that for weeks on end and be perfectly happy.


sethshostakSeth Shostak (Senior Astronomer and Director of the Center for SETI Research at SETI Institute)

Of course I’d love to go into space, but who knows if they’d TAKE me!

 


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

You know, when I was younger than I am now, I’d say, “sign me up!” But I think today I’d pass since I like the cool stuff I’m doing here on Earth. When they start needing astronomy professors on Mars, then I’ll go, with the caveat that my dog has to come, too! As for boredom… I have a huge to-read list on my Kindle, so I’m all ready for that. 🙂


frasercain1Fraser Cain (publisher at Universetoday.com, co-host of Astronomy Cast)

Although I’d love to take a safe vacation on Mars, I really love Planet Earth. Living on Mars will be a constant struggle, and that takes a special kind of person, willing to take the risks to push humanity forward. Anyone will to step forward, and is aware of the risks has my support. But personally, I haven’t even finished exploring Earth yet.


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

In the unlikely event that I could qualify to go on an early Mars Mission, it is not the risk that would deter me, even though I regard the risks as considerable. The dangers, it seems to me, are roughly comparable to those faced by countless generations of humans before us when they struck out in search of new lands and new freedoms. There are risks of disease, deprivation, and exposure to harsh environments. I have little doubt that at least some of the early Mars pioneers will meet an untimely death. As Geoffrey Landis wrote in his novel Mars Crossing, Mars is for heroes. I believe it eventually will become much more repeatable and safer, but the wait might be too long. I think there will a surplus of volunteers, even after the first deaths. Even those who successfully establish colonies and begin to raise families on Mars will find it tough going with many challenges. I believe the early Mars generations will genetically engineer themselves to adapt better, as well as their plants, and perhaps even their animals.

To kill boredom on the long trip, of course the younger crew members will immerse themselves in VR environments and play games all day when not working out on the treadmill. However, we older folks who remember rotary dial phones and manual transmissions – we will immerse ourselves in VR environments and play games all day.

One question

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

Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

andrewrader

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


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

frasercain1

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)

image

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


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

antonioparis

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

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)

frasercain1

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)

andrewrader

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)

antonioparis

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)

pamelagay

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)

cirovilla

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)

paulcarr

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.

We’re here!

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

Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ciro Villa (technologist, application developer, STEM communicator)

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

Galileo Galilei

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

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

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

Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

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

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

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

James Webb Space Telescope

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

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

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

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

Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

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

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

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

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

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

15 years aboard ISS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Terraforming

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?

Conspiracy

People believe in very strange things. Some search for extraordinary explanation where logic and common sense is the right answer. I asked the panel what’s the most bizzare conspiracy theory about space and astronomy they have heard about? Why do people continue to create such stories and resist to listen to scientific explanation?
Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

Many people have a vivid sense of imagination, and are loathe to trust the mainstream story, even if it is supported by evidence. Humans are emotional creatures, and their thinking is often driven by bizarre connections. There is a huge difference between legitimate skepticism (questioning what is true) and supposing the existence of conspiracies on shaky or contrary evidence. There are some real conspiracies, defined as “a secret plan to do something unlawful or harmful”. For example, Lincoln’s assassination surely was a conspiracy by John Wilkes Booth and his band, but I think when most people think of “conspiracy theories”, they mean ones perpetuated by the government (especially in the United States).

Particularly in the United States, there is a mistrust of government. While some skepticism is justified in most things, believing with certainty an alternative and less plausible story is not the same thing. Humans are notoriously bad at accepting uncertainty, so perhaps when evidence appears to be lacking, an alternative story seems attractive. Moreover, this imagined story is conceived to fit the preconceptions of the person imagining it – humans interpret the world through a lens which fits their internal biases, rather than trying to shift their biases to fit the actual world.

The main problem with “conspiracy theories” like alien visitation or a faked Moon landing is that while (almost) anything is possible, the magnitude of the problem is misunderstood. Taking the Moon landing case, millions of people were involved, hardware capable of reaching the Moon was designed, built, and launched multiple times over many years, and the supporting science and engineering supports an actual trip to the Moon. Given that framework, it would have been much harder not to go the the Moon (and keep the whole thing secret) than actually go. The weight of evidence supports the view not that it is absolutely certain we went to the Moon, but that having gone is a much more likely explanation than that the landings were faked.

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

The most bizarre conspiracy theory about space and astronomy is UFO phenomena. Rather than applying science and logic to defend the extraterrestrial hypothesis of UFO phenomena, the UFO community addresses the issue through emotions and confirmation bias. Ufologists have a predisposition to favor information, no matter how fantastic, that confirms their beliefs or assumptions. They display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively or when they interpret it in a biased way. This inclination is especially prominent at UFO conferences when emotionally charged stories of alleged alien abductions and government conspiracies are presented. Those who support the extraterrestrial hypothesis of UFO phenomena, moreover, tend to interpret ambiguous and anecdotal evidence as supporting their existing position. This is often the result of media sound bites, social media, and UFO organizations’ claims that they are “scientific” entities. When confirmation bias is coupled with pareidolia, apophenia, and illusory correlation, the end result is belief perseverance, which contributes to overconfidence and strengthens beliefs even in the face of contrary evidence. Moreover, belief in the extraterrestrial hypothesis of UFO phenomena did not develop into self-validating structures all by themselves. They are the direct result of the UFO community leaders’ often modifying and revising their agenda to conform to the prevailing culture of their memberships. A clear example of this occurred when the UFO community was faced with a serious institutional crisis regarding the U.S. government’s explanation for the 1947 Roswell incident. Rather than accepting the proven fact that the UFO was actually a balloon under the auspices of Project Mogul, the UFO community conveniently resorted to claims of a government coverup.

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

The range of extraordinary emails I get is … extraordinary. Many include notices of “Confidential” and “Top Secret” and go on to explain how they have sorted dark energy or explained away relativity with some novel idea that has no math behind it, and they just need math from someone like me to get that Nobel Prize. I general respond to these with gentle encouragement to please take university physics. Please. Learn. Please?

But these aren’t conspiracy theories. These are just people with their own unique denial of physical reality.

The best conspiracy theory I ever heard was actually shared over far too many glasses of [undisclosed adult beverage] while I had a fabulous conversation with an otherwise utterly sane, rather famous actor I otherwise greatly respect. Because this theory doesn’t appear to be in the public record I’m not going to disclose his name. This fellow presented me with a completely novel (to me) take on the Moon Hoax conspiracy. While he believed we did indeed land on the Moon when we said we did, he felt (and continues to feel) that the broadcast that aired on live TV was actually studio footage put together by Stanley Kuberick using the fabulous NASA lens he had access to. This conspiracy theorist posited that the transmission of the 1969 Superbowl was problematic and NASA couldn’t risk having the Moon transmission get screwed up by technical issues. Thus, we landed and explored, BUT, in his mind, what was seen on TV was pre-filmed in a studio. I have to admit, it makes a certain kind of sense… and that is true of many of the best conspiracy theories… but… it’s not true. (This plays along with William Karel’s movie “The dark side of the moon landing” https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=5&v=11nXqMsVLeA)

There are a lot of bad conspiracy theories out there; ones that make me question how these people function in the workplace. The continued belief by some that there was no Jewish Holocaust in WWII is one of those “How?” conspiracy theories. There are also ones that make me wonder “Could that be true?” The conspiracy around the statistical discrepancies between poll results and election results in the 2000 election leaves me scratching my head. This range of conspiracy theory, however, traces out a unifying idea: they present a reality the believers want to be true.

And at the end of the day, faced with the world we actually have, don’t we all sometimes wish for a different reality?

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

Conspiracy theories are interesting because they allow a unique look into the human psyche and why people believe the things they do. After confronting many astronomy-related conspiracy theories by writing articles and debunking them, I think when people get caught up in hype and drama of these predictions, it mainly comes down to scientific illiteracy and a fear of a concept or thing due to misinformation or misunderstanding.

Moon hoaxers — people who don’t think the Apollo missions went to the Moon — are especially maddening because they refuse to look at the mountain of evidence proving the missions were in fact real. But I think the most perplexing of conspiracy theories is the doomsday/apocalypse/end of the world theme.

I’ve lost count of how many times the world was supposed to end in just my own lifetime, but from ancient Nostradamus to the plethora of 2012 doomsday scenarios to the upcoming supermoon eclipse, predictions of the world ending have been happening for centuries. I’ve never been able to understand why humans seem to have a fixation about this topic, but since we and our planet are still here, that means 100% of the predictions have been wrong! I think we can count on any future predictions of apocalypse being wrong, too, because no one — seriously no one — can predict the future.

It’s disappointing when people use astronomical events like a close passing asteroid, an eclipse, supernova or a comet appearing in the sky to spread fear. Learning about the real science of these objects is much more interesting and fun!

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

The most bizarre conspiracy has got to be the fact that lots of people don’t believe we ever landed on the Moon. It’s an absolutely classic example of insane conspiracy theory thinking. The “evidence” that the conspiracy theory proponents rely on is essentially, “I don’t think astronauts could survive the radiation of the Van Allen Belts.” Even though there’s plenty of science and actual measurements taken during the Apollo flights through the Belts. I honestly don’t really understand the psychology of conspiracy theories, but we see the same things pop up again and again. We’ve been battling the Nibiru nonsense for almost 20 years now, and it’ll probably still be around 100 years in the future.

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

I was once accused of being part of the “black hole conspiracy.” Yes, this is a thing. Apparently there’s a conspiracy to make people believe in black holes which can’t possibly exist in the “electric universe” in which everything is charged and made of currents or… something. It’s a bizarre belief. That said, I think all of us have the capacity for belief in irrational things, as its how our human brains work and construct explanations of the world. Though I think the curiosity part of science is innate and natural to us, the rigorous methodology is not. So there are many factors that influence resistance to science and belief in pseudo science, but some part of it is, that’s just how our brains seem to work by default.

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.