Little green/grey men

http://www.thinkaboutit-aliens.com/
There where hundreds of movies and tv-series showing extraterrestials from distant worlds. Giving how life on our planet evolved and considering basic components necessary for intelligent life to emerge, who in your oppinion might have been the closest in depicting alien visitors from outer space? 

Mike Simmons (Founder and CEO of "Astronomers without Borders")

There's really no way to know until we start finding other life. We know the components and evolution of life on Earth but there could be other ways life can be created. Astrobiologists have done a lot of work in this field trying to determine what the possibilities are but without data we're pretty much blind.

The common feature of most TV shows and movies is that intelligent alien life is somewhat humanoid. That makes sense for anything made before computer generated graphics (CGI) since actors are (mostly) human. With CGI anything is possible now but who knows?


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

I consider myself a science fiction aficionado as well as a (takes a deep breath) UFO buff. It is safe to say, therefore, that I have seen my share of what extraterrestrials “should look like”, according to Hollywood and so-called UFO witnesses. Unfortunately, most, if not all, of these so-called "aliens" are a direct results of anthropomorphic biases – bestowed upon us by the greatest of all special effects artists on one side and alleged UFO encounters on the other.  In a nutshell, the biases have directly shaped what extraterrestrials, from a human perspective, should look like. Most, if not all, of these aliens appear to look strikingly similar to us: a head, two eyes, nose, mouth, two arms, two legs, and in some astonishing situations, they even speak … English. Nonetheless, If I were to chose my favorite “alien”, I would focus on the latest movie The Arrival. These extraterrestrials, which are heptapods, sparked my interested in contemplating what type of planet these aliens could have evolved on. Because they were large and could not breath oxygen, we can speculate that gravity and a unique atmosphere directly influenced these aliens. Nevertheless, The Arrival is science fiction and any portrayal of extraterrestrials, from humans, will unquestionably be wrong.


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

I think it's safe to say that none of us have any CLUE what life might look like... just talk to a biologist to get a sense of the complexity and seeming randomness of life on Earth and its evolutionary pathways.

That said, I loooves me some science fiction and fun speculation. Of course, scifi for tv and film is often limited. In order to tell compelling stories over long periods of time with complex characters, you often need human actors. Thus, we get the "humanoids with bumpy foreheads" in so much of our television and movies. Even with CGI available to us, storytellers will create humanoid forms because that is what we tend to identify with emotionally.

I like to sneak off to books to find truly bizarre descriptions of potential alien sentients. My favorite is the Galactic Football League series by Scott Sigler. Though his universe teems with intelligent creatures with all kinds of bizarre (though, admittedly, often Earth-like) forms, and their physiology determines what positions they play in American football. I can't think of a better way to get a sports fanatic excited about science fiction! It also makes for some bizarre cosplay options when we go to conventions... Anyway, with full color illustrations in some of the books in the series, you can really enjoy the possibilities for sentient species there.


Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

Probably one of the most realistic is 'Contact' with Jody Foster based on Carl Sagan's book of the same name. In a nod to Fermi's Paradox, the Vegans (people of Vega, not non-meat eaters) developed technology first and are thus far more advanced than we are. They don't so much visit Earth as give us a technological boost to help us transcend our basic corporeal bipedal primate existence.



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

To me, science fiction movies and TV shows are not so much about aliens, but about ourselves - human myths, nightmares, hopes, and aspirations. For example, Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still is not alien at all - he is an idealized human, and in fact brings the Christ story into the atomic age. ET seemed to follow a similar pattern, but he wasn't as preachy. Most of the Star Trek aliens are really just exaggerations of human traits that we either fear, admire or detest, and Q is not unlike the all-powerful, omniscient, severely judging God of our Abrahamic religions. I have to admit a mild fascination with the Vulcans. What would it be like to always act rationally?I don't know the answer to that question, but I don't think Vulcans are really all that alien.

Aliens that were really alien would be too hard to understand and would not serve a good role in an entertaining narrative. They would, I expect, be about as far from Dr. Who or Chewbacca as I am from a three-toed sloth. I am not talking about how the aliens look, or how many eyes they have, or whether they swim in a vat of blue liquid - details I regard as relatively unimportant. What you won't see on the surface is how they evolved, which governs to a great extent how they approach and perceive reality and how they think. If, as would be necessary for visitors from other worlds, they are the creators (or at least the heirs) of unimaginably advanced technology, then they think with great power and solve problems we don't even know exist. We don't even understand yet just how alien this would make them, or how absurd and puzzling their motives and actions would be to us. We certainly don't know why there would be here, but it is unlikely to kill us, to eat us, or save us from ourselves.

Such aliens as I imagine, if they exist, would make lousy movie villains or heroes, but I wish someone would try it.



Ciro Villa
(technologist, application developer, STEM communicator)

Although we envision aliens mostly looking like us, there is no reason to not think that some yet to be discovered chemical and organic mechanisms, might exist elsewhere in the Universe that allowed for the rise on other worlds for the formation and rise of species that do not even remotely resemble us.

Just by looking at the shear diversity of Carbon based life forms right here on Earth, gives room to imagine the existence of many other varied types of non-anthropomorphic looking alien being. It is hard to pinpoint one fictional representation of an alien species by one of the many Science fiction artworks. But if one popular franchise comes to mind, that would be Star Trek. In their long running shows, the creator of this, one of the most successful sci-fi/space franchises have been able to present a tremendous diversity of alien species to the audience, thus sparking the light of imagination in the human mind.

Next Giant Leap

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

andrewraderAndrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

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

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


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

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

 


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

One question

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

Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

andrewrader

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


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

frasercain1

I really wish I could go back in time and talk to these scientists, especially Galileo. I’m not sure I’d have a lot of questions for them, but I’d love to be able to give them an update on the science they figured out. I could tell Galileo about the moons of Jupiter, and the amazing features we’ve found on them. I could let Newton know about all the discoveries we’ve made about gravity, and how his calculations still form the basis of so much of our science and mathematics. I’d love to let Einstein know that Relativity is still holding strong 100 years after he first described it, including the recent direct detection of gravitational waves. I’m sure Sagan would love an update on the state of Solar System exploration and to learn about what we saw with a flyby of Pluto, or the rovers on Mars.


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

image

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


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

antonioparis

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

We’re here!

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

Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ciro Villa (technologist, application developer, STEM communicator)

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

Something huge is heading our way!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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

Vacation Trip

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

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

 

 


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

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

 

 


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

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