My kind of spaceship

You’re about to head for a journey through our Solar System and beyond. What fictional spaceship would you like to board? Would it be Millenium Falcon, Battlestar Galactica, USS Enterprise or something completely different?
Nancy Atkinson (Editor at Universe Today, writer for Seeker and author of “Incredible Stories From Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos”)

I would like to travel on board a Nova-class starship, which was a type of Federation starship in Star Trek designed for short-term planetary research missions. Instead of studying other worlds from far-away Earth, why not go visit them and study them in situ? Strange new worlds indeed! I might have to wait a while to do this though, as in Star Trek lore, these type of ships will only be placed in service starting in the late 24th century.

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

Based purely on sentiment, it would be Serenity, which strikes me as being in spirit much more like a long range spaceship than luxury liners like the Enterprise. That said, all the science fiction spaceships I’ve come across take considerable liberties with physics, astronomy, or both. Douglas Adams’ Heart of Gold gets around all these bothersome realities by exploiting infinite improbability, but that is more unlikely to come about than a Babel Fish.

One fictional spaceship that minimizes these little white lies is Arthur C. Clarke’s Discovery One from 2001 a Space Odyssey. No magical artificial gravity, impossible propulsion, or unnecessary bulk. Of course, you would never get out of the solar system with such a craft.

In the far future, I would envision relatively small interplanetary craft powered by small black holes, with the shielding problems largely solved to allow travel at large fractions of the speed of light. There would be biological organisms aboard such a craft (apart from some hitchhiking bacteria), just uploaded minds that construct for themselves a new, properly adaptive body upon arrival at a destination. Daniel Cartin’s simulations show that you could build a network of colonies in the local solar neighborhood with an 11 parsec range, which seems just doable to a 21st century engineer.

Ciro Villa (technologist, application developer, STEM communicator)

“The Avalon” of the movie “Passengers” is absolutely breathtaking. I wouldn’t mind cruising the Galaxy on that one.

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

Personally, I’ve always preferred the Stargate method of travel, using wormholes to voyage from world to world. What could be more convenient and civilized than to walk through a Einstein-Rosen Bridge and arrive at your destination. That’s the only way to go.

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

Enterprise, of course. I like the never-iron uniforms.

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

Many spaceships in science fiction would do a fine job touring our solar system. Using their Warp or Hyper or U-Space drives, they could visit all planets and even the Oort Cloud a light year away between breakfast and lunch, assuming you preferred just a 3 hour tour 🙂

For the deluxe tour, though, I’d have to take advantage of Time and Relative Dimension in Space, otherwise known as the TARDIS from Dr. Who. This wonderful vessel could of course flit between planets faster than any other vessel… more importantly though, it could turn each planetary visit into a tour de force of our solar system’s evolution.

You could visit each planet and see it evolve from its birth billions of years ago all the way to its ultimate demise: burned to a crisp as the sun dies, dismantled and used as a Dyson swarm component, or if it survives all that, you could discover if it crashes into the sun due to the loss of gravitational wave energy in a quintillion or sextillion years.

When the the tour is done, you could then choose to return a nanosecond after you left. I can’t think of any other ship in science fiction that could do so much in so little objective time (except maybe the Heart of Gold, but I wouldn’t want to see any whales crashing into planets)

Destination: Mars

Mars will become a touristic destination in a matter of 20 years. At what price for a round trip would you consider buying a ticket? What safety concerns would have to be met to sway you over?
Ciro Villa (technologist, application developer, STEM communicator)

First and foremost, whether Mars will become a tourist destination in the next 20 years or not, it’s still to be seen and subject to debate. There are still several critical hurdles to be overcome: financial, technical and societal just to name some of the main ones. As of today, these hurdles make just the prospect of humans traveling, let alone landing and settling on the red planet all but trivial and extremely challenging. Initially when human travel to the Red planet will begin, only trained astronauts will venture and embark in the journey that will no doubt be filled with difficulties and perils.

When and if we will finally be able to achieve tourism to Mars, prices will at the beginning undoubtedly be highly prohibitive and most likely out of reach for a large swat of the human population. I personally would most likely not be able to afford the journey in my lifetime. It is indeed hard to place a fair price tags with so many unknowns still in place.

If we let our fantasy go wild, then I would envision that in another 100 to 150-year technology will have advanced to the point to allow for “affordable” and safe commutes with round trips to Mars. I frankly still don’t know what exactly that price tag might or should be.

In terms of safety, it is also almost impossible to pinpoint what would be an acceptable threshold of risk metrics that would make me comfortable enough to embark in the journey with a relative degree of confidence that my trip would not be the last of my life. As mentioned in the beginning, obstacles to be overcome in terms of human planetary travel survivability still abound and only after several iterations, including discoveries, advancement in science and technology and lesson learned, would I believe that a journey to the Red Planet might be safe and enjoyable.

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

I’m probably less adventurous than most people. I really love Earth, and I’ve barely explored this amazing planet and all it offers. I’d want to know that a trip to and from Mars is relatively safe and much much quicker before I was willing to make that journey. I’d do a few months on Mars to see some of the highlights and then I’d like to come home. I would like to experience lower gravity, but that would be even better on the Moon, which is only a few days away.

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

I’ve little doubt that the first tourist tickets to Mars will only be affordable by the wealthy or those able to obtain corporate sponsorship. The cheaper option is likely to be one way ticket, but still far beyond the means of all but a few of us. An optimistic price for a one way ticket in the early days is probably $5 million USD, but it’s probably much more than that until Mars travel is far more efficient than it is now. Perhaps I could raise enough for a one way ticket, which I would have to consider if my health holds up long enough. A few million dollars, for the price of wearing corporate logos on my flight suit, might be possible for me.

I don’t expect Mars travel to be as safe as getting on a cruise ship or an airliner for a long time to come. We can probably find efficient ways to address such threats as infectious diseases in a closed space, radiation exposure, or social meltdowns, so that the biggest risks are launch and landing. We shouldn’t get into the same mentality we had in the early days of the Space Shuttle, with a delusional notion of how safe it is. After the Challenger tragedy in 1986, there was no shortage of astronaut candidates. Some people are willing to take risks if the reward is there. Many people have died leaping off of cliffs in a wingsuit, or climbing high peaks – not because they don’t know what the risks are, but because they accept them and proceed nonetheless. We may never lose as many Mars tourists as the 290 people who have died climbing Everest, but it does seem that some will meet their destiny there. Those who fear the risks should stay on Earth, where they will also die when their time comes.

If I could choose, I’d choose to die on another planet.

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

Ah yes, this is what I jokingly call “The Mars Plan,” where getting to Mars is a thing that is always 20 years off into the future, no matter when. Humans on Mars was touted as being 20 years away in the 1970’s and it is still 20 years away today. Are we actually any closer now to accomplishing this great feat than we were in the 1970’s? I’m not very confident that we are. There are still many technical hurdles to leap, like making the trip shorter than 7 months, being able to land large payloads on Mars, and developing habitats and life support systems that are truly foolproof. If someone dies on the first human mission to Mars, that will be the end of it. Also, this is going to cost a lot of money, and there will have to be a payoff in some fashion, whether it is mining, tourism or an Earth-catastrophe management endeavor.

As a journalist, I’m secretly hoping that someone will pay *me* to go to Mars so I can write about it! Otherwise, I don’t think I’ll ever have enough cash to do it on my own.

To infinity and beyond!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2018

It’s this time of year when we make predictions for the upcoming year. What should we look for in the year 2018? What event or mission will be on everyone’s lips?
Seth Shostak (Senior Astronomer and Director of the Center for SETI Research at SETI Institute)

Discovery of a new, big planet in the outer solar system.

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

The first thing should be the launch of the Falcon Heavy. We don’t yet know how important a launch vehicle the Heavy will be, but stay tuned for a wonderful spectacle as multiple boosters return to the launch site at once.

The planned launch of TESS is probably the biggest item on my list. It will take a few months to settle into the science, but towards the end of 2018 TESS should start delivering a much better census of planets, especially Earths and Super Earths that are relatively near to us compared to Kepler’s discoveries. We might even find some Earth-like planets quite close by. Along with follow-up ground observations, this should push us truly into the golden age of exoplanet discoveries.

Another big event at about the same time as the TESS launch is the Gaia DR2 data release. I am especially hoping for much smaller error bars on the distance to Boyajian’s Star, which would help to constrain theories about what causes the slow dimming ad brightening episodes we observe.

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

There are a couple of big missions coming from SpaceX that I think will keep people on their toes. The first, of course is the launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy Rocket, which has been delayed for several years now. This will bring serious heavy lift capability to SpaceX, which has only been possible from the traditional launch providers. In addition, SpaceX is expected to launch a couple of space tourists on circumlunar trajectory on board a Dragon capsule This will be the first time humans have gone beyond low Earth orbit since the Apollo era. Of course, SpaceX timelines will likely slip, so it’s entirely possible that these predictions will be totally wrong.

In terms of astronomy, I think the result I’m most excited about will be the first pictures from the Event Horizon Telescope, which gathered data back in April 2017. To think that we’ll see an image of the region around a black hole is mind boggling.

Of course, the biggest things will be the unexpected. 2017 surprised us, and I’m sure 2018 will surprise us too.

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

Although I’m a big fan of every “branch” of space exploration, I’m especially interested in planetary exploration (and that’s why I wrote a book about it!) There are several big planetary events coming up in 2018 and I’m looking forward to all of them. The InSight seismology probe is scheduled to launch to Mars in May, and land later this year. There are two asteroid sample missions that will arrive at their destinations this year: OSIRIS-REx will reach Bennu in August, and Hayabusa 2 is scheduled to reach Ryugu in July. Also, ESA and JAXA are teaming up to launch BepiColombo to Mercury in October (arriving in 2025). China is expected to launch the Chang’e 4 lander/rover sometime this year to land on the moon’s far side.

Of course, all the current planetary missions will continue to awe and amaze us: Juno is telling us more about Jupiter while sending back incredible images; the two Mars rovers carry on with their journeys across the surface of the Red Planet, Dawn is still orbiting Ceres, and at the end of the year, New Horizons will be approaching its next target, an intruging Kuiper Belt Object. So, there will be no shortage of exciting planetary science news to cover in 2018!

Interview with Nancy Atkinson

Nancy is a science journalist who writes mainly about space exploration and astronomy and is a Senior Editor for Universe Today. She was a host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast from 2009 to 2014, was a part of production team for Astronomy Cast from 2008 to 2015 and worked with the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast where she was project manager from 2009 to 2011. 

Mateusz Macias: Hello Nancy, how are you? Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.
Nancy Atkinson: Thank you very much for your interest in my work and in my book!

Mateusz Macias: How did your adventure with astronomy started? What or who was your inspiration?
Nancy Atkinson: I grew up on a farm, in a rural area and so I kind of took for granted that I could always go out and see the stars at night, or see an aurora in the winter skies! So, when I was young, I always enjoyed looking at the stars, but didn’t really have anyone to guide me or teach me, and I didn’t have a telescope. Only when I got older and lived in a city did I realize how much I missed looking at the night sky, and so then got involved with a local space-related group that promoted space exploration, and as a side benefit, some of them had telescopes. I’ll never forget the first time I saw Saturn’s rings through a telescope, it just took my breath away! I was always interested in space exploration, and that helped extend my interest into astronomy too.

Mateusz Macias: How did you met with Fraser Cain? What was the story behind you joining Universe Today team?
Nancy Atkinson: I had always wanted to be a writer, but trying to write fiction/novels never really interested me; I loved writing and reading about true events, and with my interest in space, writing about it helped with my wish to share my love of space and tell more people about the wonders of space exploration! I still had a different job, but on the side I started by writing for a few newspapers whenever there was a current space shuttle mission or news from a robotic planetary mission. But then with the rise of the internet, it seemed the best options for writing about space were online. I had been reading Universe Today, and in 2004, Fraser published a note that he was looking for more writers. I sent him an email and he hired me almost immediately!

My first article for UT was a plum assignment. Fraser asked if I’d be interested in interviewing former astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman about his research into using superconducting magnetic technology to protect astronauts from radiation during long-duration spaceflights. Um… let’s see, talk to an astronaut about possibly overcoming one of the biggest hurdles in human spaceflight. Yep, I was all in! While the article generated a lot of interest (and Hoffman ended up using my article in one of his reports for his NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts research) ultimately, after a couple of years, Hoffman and his team realized the technology didn’t pan out.

Link to that post is: http://www.nancyatkinson.com/blog/2014/11/17/10-years-of-keeping-track-of-the-universe-today/#more-467
But that first article started the long relationship I’ve had with Universe Today and Fraser. He’s just been so great to work with, and he’ and UT has had a tremendous impact on my life and my career. I eventually was able to quit my other job and focus full time on writing, thanks to Fraser.

Mateusz Macias: What word best describes Fraser as a boss?
Nancy Atkinson: Supportive is the first word that comes to mind. He’s always been supportive of any ideas I’ve had for articles or for doing things with the website, etc. He’s also very creative and resourceful, and very business savvy.

Mateusz Macias: What’s in store for Universe Today in the near and far future? It’s already one of the most popular space and astronomy websites in the world.
Nancy Atkinson: Fraser has been doing his award winning video series (he’s won several Parsec Awards) and I think his videos explaining various topics in space and astronomy have been very popular, so he’ll probably continue those. I think things are going very well, so there’s the old adage of “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it!” But also, Fraser does like to change things up every once in a while, and I never know what new idea he has up his sleeve! Maybe he’ll have some surprises! With writing my book, I had to cut back with how much writing and editing I did for Universe Today, so I’m not as involved as much as I was previously. I’m still quite busy with the book, and also have started writing for Seeker.com, too.

Mateusz Macias: December 20th was the day when your book “Incredible Stories From Space” got published. Was it a dream come true, a coronation of so many years as a journalist?
Nancy Atkinson: Yes, it certainly was a dream come true! While I’ve always had writing a book in the back of my mind, until about a year and a half ago, I really wasn’t planning to writing a book, at least not in the near future! Life was just too busy. But then I received a call from Page Street Publishing, a subsidiary of Macmillan. They had an idea for a book about NASA’s robotic missions and wondered if I would consider writing it. To say I was honored is an understatement. I’m very thankful for the opportunity.

Mateusz Macias: How hard was the research for the book? What advice would you give to young aspiring authors, especially ones that would like to cover similiar subject?
Nancy Atkinson: The fun part was being able to interview 37 NASA scientists and engineers, and have them tell me about their careers, their missions and all the fun, behind-the-scenes things that have gone on with their spacecraft – from building the spacecraft to operating it, sometimes millions of miles from Earth. What I found was that these people bring a lot of dedication, enthusiasm, emotion to what they do, and they are very passionate about their jobs. That part was fun!

The research was done by materials I received from JPL, Goddard Spaceflight Center, the Space Telescope Science Institute, Johns Hopkins University, as well as using NASA’s various websites and the mission websites to get the exact details. That was not quite as fun as interviewing people, and it was a challenge to try and squeeze as much details into the chapters on each mission without making it overly technical, and trying to put as much of the personalities of the people behind the missions into the book. The most challenging was an extremely tight timeline of doing the interviews and research and then writing up my first draft.

But I was able to weave together the stories of these amazing people into the stories of the missions – from what it was like to take the spacecraft they so delicately built and put it on top of an exploding rocket (!), to the challenges of operating a spacecraft millions of miles away from Earth, to how even scientists tend to anthropomorphize our robots, finding their “human” qualities, just like I (and many other space fans) tend to do.
As far as advice, when you are interviewing people, let them tell their stories and try to let their personalities shine through your writing. That’s not always easy though! However, all the people I talked with with absolutely wonderful, and I truly hope I was able to capture and convey their passion and dedication.

Mateusz Macias: Which scientist was the most fun to interview and provided the most valuable data?
Nancy Atkinson: Marc Rayman from the Dawn mission is an amazing person, and perhaps one of the most passionate persons that I’ve ever met. He’s passionate about both space exploration and life in general. He could go on and on about the virtues of space exploration and how this grand adventure of exploration brings us together. During our interview, he nearly had me teary-eyed, because he spoke so eloquently about his mission. He said, that anyone who has looked at the night sky in wonder, or who has wanted to go over the next horizon and see what is beyond is part of the Dawn mission.
“Anyone who has ever felt any of those feelings is a part of our mission,” he said “We are doing this together. And that’s what I think is the most exciting, gratifying, rewarding and profound aspect of exploring the cosmos.” It was also fun to talk with him about the bright regions that have been found on Ceres. When we did the interview, the science team was just beginning to make some conclusions that these were bright salts on the interiors of several craters.

Mateusz Macias: What’s the most interesting fact you learned about space exploration in the process of writing the book that you did not know before?
Nancy Atkinson: I knew there was some type of issue with the Huygens spacecraft that went to Titan along with the Cassini mission to Saturn. But I didn’t know how serious the problem was, of how close they came to not having it work at all. And I didn’t know about the international effort it took to make the spacecraft work. Of course, the spacecraft was millions of miles away from Earth when they figured out what the problems was, so how do you fix a spacecraft that far away? And so I learned about how the engineers for the mission were able to compensate for a problem with the radio communication between Huygens and Cassini by just flying the mission differently. It was true ingenuity and that the Huygens spacecraft worked so well is a true testament to the resourcefulness and creativity of the people who operate these spacecraft.

Mateusz Macias: Book is getting great reviews. Did you expected such a great reception?
Nancy Atkinson: A writer can only hope! When you pour your heart and soul into a project, you hope that people enjoy the finished product, and that your writing resonates with people. I’ve been especially gratified by the comments from the people I wrote about, with some of them saying I really captured the essence of their mission, or that the book really represents well both the spacecraft and the people behind it. That really means a lot to me!

Mateusz Macias: Now, looking back, would you change something in the book, something you think you might have done better?
Nancy Atkinson: Oh yes. A writer is never done editing and making changes! There was a rather tight timeline in writing the book, so I wished there had been more time in making the final edits. I actually haven’t read much of the book since it was published. It was just part of me for the year it took to write and edit it, and want to be able to look at it with fresh eyes at some point!

Mateusz Macias: Did you enjoy attending book signings events? How important is meeting with the readers face to face?
Nancy Atkinson: I really do. Of course its very gratifying to have people show such an interest your book that they actually take time out of their busy lives to come to an event! And of course, I’ll talk anyone’s ear off about space and astronomy! But its also fun to hear the stories from people about how they got interested in space or astronomy. And I love to hear what parts of the book they liked or even that they didn’t like. Feedback is always good! The fun events I do where I get to share pictures from the missions are the best, because the images from space are so intriguing and engaging.

Mateusz Macias: Are there any events planned that our readers would like to know about? Where could we see you?
Nancy Atkinson: I’ll be at a Barnes & Noble in St. Cloud, Minnesota on April 8 (this Saturday) and giving talks at a few schools in the Minneapolis area in April, and also at various libraries in Minnesota and Illinois. My big event this year was attending the Tucson (Arizona) Festival of Books, which was really wonderful! I hope to do more events, too, in case anyone is looking for a speaker!

Mateusz Macias: I know it’s too early but have you wondered what your next book could be about?
Nancy Atkinson: Well, I’ll break the news here with you that my publisher has offered the opportunity for me to write another book! However, this time, they don’t have an idea for me, so I have to find a topic on my own. So, I have been giving it some thought, bouncing ideas around, and have contacted a few people about potential ideas. Some of the ideas have not panned out, other ideas I found out are already in the works by other writers, and so I’m still working on figuring out what the topic might be. I’ll take any suggestions!

Mateusz Macias: Nancy, thank you again for your time. I wish you all the best with your book and with your work at Universe Today!
Nancy Atkinson: Thanks Mateusz! It was really fun to chat with you!

Curiosity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to win Nancy Atkinson’s book

10 people have the chance to win Nancy Atkinson’s book “The Incredible Stories From Space: A Behind the Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos”.

For your chance to win a free copy of the book you need to enter a giveaway competition at Goodreads –https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/216146-the-incredible-stories-from-space-a-behind-the-scenes-look-at-the-missi

Competition ends on Jan 20, 2017

Farewell Rosetta!

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

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

nancyatkinson

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

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


Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

andrewrader

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

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


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

antonioparis

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


Ciro Villa (technologist, application developer, STEM communicator)

cirovilla

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

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

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

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

The Force Awakens

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

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


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

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


Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

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


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

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

2015

Lots have happened in 2015 – it was definitively rich year in astronomy. I asked our panelists how would they summarize year 2015? How was it for them personally?

Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

2015 was overall a great year for space – first successful recovery of the Falcon 9 with the potential to change spaceflight forever. It was also a great year for robotic spaceflight: with our first close-up images of Pluto and Charon, and the Dawn spacecraft entering orbit around Ceres using an ion engine, you might call 2015 the year of the Dwarf Planets. Here’s to a productive 2016 and times ahead!


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

2015 was a very busy year for me – since I spent half of it trying to find an answer to the famous 1977 Wow! signal. After publishing my latest paper regarding the signal, which centered on a pair of comets, the attention from the media quickly catapulted me into the politics of science. For the most part, many scientists found my hypothesis intriguing and only further observations of these comets will seal the deal. Unfortunately, there is politics in science and I learned that a few scientists in the community, especially those working closely with SETI-like entities, would prefer that the Wow signal remains a mystery. Science requires money and the funding dries up rather quickly of the public loses interest.

 


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

2015 was a busy year in planetary exploration, with Dawn arriving at Ceres and New Horizons zooming past Pluto. This gives us a close look at two planetary bodies that until now we’ve only had pixelated views. Who would have thought we’d see a conical mountain and epsom salts on Ceres and cryovolcanoes and a ‘heart’ on Pluto? Plus Rosetta and Philae provided some drama and closeup views of a comet.  The mystery of the star KIC 8462852 definitely is an intriguing story, one that will be of interest in the year to come as well, I’m sure.  And spacecraft like Kepler, Hubble, Spitzer and others continue to show us the wonders of the Universe.  Personally, 2015 was a big year for me, as I signed a contract to write a book about robotic space exploration missions. I wrote about it here: http://www.nancyatkinson.com/blog/2016/01/15/im-writing-a-book/ Thank you to all the space and astronomy enthusiasts around the world who make my job very rewarding!