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.

Kepler-452b – Earth’s cousin

Hunt for exoplanets oficially started in 1992 with confirmation of first planets orbiting a pulsar. In 1995 we found first exoplanet orbiting a main sequence star. Biggest news recently was the discovery of Kepler-452b named by some “Earth 2.0”. How big of discovery is it? Can we “look” into its atmosphere from a distance of 1400 light years?
Fraser Cain (publisher at Universetoday.com, co-host of Astronomy Cast)

This is our best candidate for a twin of Earth, but we’re not quite there yet. Kepler-452b has 5 times the mass of Earth and twice the surface gravity. You would have a very difficult time surviving on the surface for any length of time. But it does orbit a sunlike star and it’s in the habitable zone. We’re so close, but I definitely wouldn’t call this Earth 2.0 yet. I’d like to see a world with a similar mass and surface gravity to Earth. Seeing a planet 1,400 light years will be really tough, so it’s going to be a long time before we can get any confirmation of life on this world.

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

We’ve been looking for another Earth-like planet for decades, and Kepler 452b is the closest we’ve found so far, so this is big news! It also means there are likely other candidates in the Kepler data – as well as others that Kepler is unable to find — that would be even more like Earth and perhaps not quite so far away. The one ‘bummer’ about the discovery is that Kepler-452b is 1,400 light-years away, so even with our fastest spaceship (something like New Horizons) it would take about 26 million years to reach it.

You’ve probably read the stats on this planet: it’s about 60% bigger than Earth, circling a sunlike star in its habitable zone, meaning it could hold liquid water. Astronomers suspect the planet is rocky and it likely has a thick atmosphere.

So, if you try to imagine, what it would be like to visit or live on this planet, all we honestly have now is speculation, since it’s too far away and we don’t have the technology to actually “look” at the planet. Astronomers also suspect that the star this planet orbits is older and is increasing in its energy output. This might be causing the planet to heat up and lose any water it might have, so if it is habitable now, it might not be for long. The artist’s concept picture that the astronomers collaborated on for this planet doesn’t make it look like a very hospitable planet!

Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

Based on previous Kepler finds, we suspected that there were many Earthlike planets out there – and think there are many more than the one, maybe as many as 6 billion in the Milky Way alone. So to some extent, the discovery wasn’t unexpected. However, it’s still always incredibly satisfying to actually follow through and identify what looks like the most Earthlike planet to date. So I’d say very exciting!

Unfortunately at that distance we can’t directly get much conclusive information on the planet’s atmosphere or composition. However, more precise and far-reaching sensors may allow us in the not too distant future to measure the composition of the atmosphere, and thereby learn a lot about the planet’s history, environment, and potentially life. Even more exciting discoveries await us.

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.)

Bright spots on Ceres

When Dawn spacecaft arrived at Ceres we were all baffled by the bright spots on the surface of dwarf planet. I asked our panel about their predictions what those bright spots might be. What fascinating things will New Horizons find when it arrives at Pluto?
Seth Shostak (Senior Astronomer and Director of the Center for SETI Research at SETI Institute)

No one knows what the bright spots on Ceres are, but my bet would be some sort of ice, producing a “specular reflection” that looks exceptionally bright. These objects contain a lot of water of course, and that water’s going to be frozen, so the ice hypothesis seems reasonable, if perhaps dull. Pluto is larger than Ceres, and consequently will have a greater amount of internal heat generated by the slow radioactive decay of substances in its interior. That heat could occasionally break through to the surface in the form of icy geysers, much as occurs on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. If so, the dead ice ball image many people have of Pluto could be enlivened by some real drama. It’s an unknown world, and in the unknown there’s always plenty of opportunity for surprise.


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

It’s important to understand that the spots look bright because the contrast on Ceres has been cranked up so high so they look like spots of light. But they’re really just about as bright as ice compared to the dark asphalt landscape of Ceres. And that’s what I think they are; nothing more than regions of ice on the surface of Ceres. Of course, that makes them incredibly interesting. Why are they just in craters? How did they form? Are they ancient, or are new ones forming all the time? The more time Dawn spends, the more we’ll learn, and I’m really glad the spacecraft made this journey in the first place.
The greatest part about all of these missions is the discovery of things we never expected. Just like the white spots on Ceres, New Horizons is going to find completely unexpected features on Pluto, which will have us all arguing until the next mission is sent to Pluto.


Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)
High reflective material, some kind of ice? For Pluto, learn about the composition of outer solar system objects for our system and others. It goes back to the formation of our solar system. That’s a very old ice cube out there.

 

Charity

What I wanted to do in the next post was give support to a charitable organizations. I asked our panelists what charity they support and give a little outline of what they do. We created a list of great organizations that change the world for better. Warm welcome to our new panelist – Dr Pamela Gay.
Pamela Gay (assistant research professor at Southern Illinois University, writer, co-host of Astronomy Cast)

My number one charity is (of course) CosmoQuest, which takes donations through the two  501(c)3 organizations, SIUE and Astrosphere.org
I also donate when I can (which isn’t as often as I’d like) to the American Assoc. of University Women, the American Association of Variable Star Astronomers,  Astronomers without Borders, The Astronomical Society of the Pacific, and thePlanetary Society. Organizations are most likely to get my money if they give me a chance to give to a specific campaign, like AWBs Telescopes for Tanzania program or if I can see the specific outcomes of supporting their overall programs.


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

If you love astronomy then one of the most important charities to get involved with right now is the International Dark-Sky Association. These are the people working to protect the dark night skies that we’re losing, bit by bit, thanks to ever growing light pollution. They help with education and outreach, and help set up protected dark sky places where astronomers can see the true beauty of the night sky, away from the city lights. Check them out at:http://www.darksky.org/


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

My favorite space-related charity is Cosmoquest. They provide wonderful opportunities for the public to engage in Citizen Science with their “Mapper” projects, which uses data from spacecraft. You can help scientists do real and important science while you do fun activities to study the Moon, Mars, Mercury and asteroids. Cosmoquest also provides information and lesson plans for teachers, while providing opportunities for learning with their Cosmo-Academy, as well as community-building by offering forums (especially the BAUT forum), areas for discussion and online activities and events such as Hangouts and observing.  Cosmoquest is run by actual astronomers sharing their love of astronomy, and I personally know what great people they are! Give them some love! https://cosmoquest.org/


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

There are lots of good science charities out there. If I were to choose a lesser known project, I’d suggest Universe Simplified http://www.universesimplified.com/ They promote science to kids in Mumbai, including camps, sidewalk astronomy, and hands-on activities. Their focus is helping under-privileged children in Mumbai, and their workshops are provided at no cost. Henna Kahn is in charge of the project, and she does an amazing job.


Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

The Planetary Society is an American-based non-government, nonprofit organization that anyone may join. It is involved in research and engineering projects related to astronomy, planetary science, exploration, public outreach, and political advocacy. It was founded in 1980 by Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray, and Louis Friedman, and has over 40,000 members from more than one hundred countries around the world. http://www.planetary.org


Mateusz Macias (author of this blog)

I would like to join our experts in this topic and give my support to not-for-profit organization of our panelist Brian Koberlein – “Prove Your World”. I interviewed Brian last year and he gave me great outline of what the project is: “Prove Your World is a project to encourage scientific thinking in children. We’re focusing on children ages 8 – 13, since that is an age where views about science start solidifying. We use puppet characters because they can explore the world the way children do, while still allowing for fast-paced interactions.  Initial studies we’ve done seem to indicate they are quite effective for this age range.” For further information go to http://proveyourworld.org.

Humanity Representative

Alien civilization “parked” their spaceship in our planet’s vicinity. We have one shot to make a good impression, we send our representative. I asked our panelists who is their ideal candidate.
Nicole Gugliucci (“Noisy astronomer”, blogger, educator, post-doc)

I might be having a long day, but my first response is “No one! Tell them to run for their lives, it’s ridiculous down here!”

Actually in all seriousness I’m sure no one person could speak for humanity adequately. I imagine the current UN Secretary General would be a decent choice, as he’s at least already caught up on what’s going on around the world. Sadly, Ellie Arroway is only a fictional character.


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

The obvious choice is Neil de Grasse Tyson, with Bill Nye running a close second — maybe we should send them both!  NDGT would be able to answer any questions the aliens have without getting into political or theological rhetoric and he would represent the best qualities of humanity: curiosity, wonder, and intelligence.

Bill Nye would also present those qualities while being a fun (and funny) guy for the aliens to meet! I mean, who doesn’t want to meet these two??


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

Whoa, that would be a huge responsibility. One wrong move and you might doom humanity. I think I’d choose Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield because he’s awesome on every level. He’s an eloquent communicator, he can play the guitar in zero gravity to entertain the aliens, and if things go sideways, he can use his skills as a fighter pilot to steal one of their shuttles and alert us of an impending invasion.


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

I would do it as a contest. Have people apply, go through the discussions and let people vote on who they’d like to represent them. If we broadcast it the aliens would also see what we value, and what we like and dislike about ourselves. I suspect the winner would be someone experienced, but who isn’t a celebrity.


Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

Why only 1? I’d send the US President (to act as a political ambassador), an astronomer (to learn about where they came from), and a medical doctor (to learn about their anatomy).

 

 


Ban Ki-Moon

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Bill Nye

Chris Hadfield