To boldly go where no man has gone before

Many associate survival of our species with humanity becoming a interplanetary civilization. It’s important to prepare ourselves for an event that might one day force us to leave our home planet. In more distant future we might have to leave our solar system. Will we ever become an intergalactic civilization like we already are in science-fiction? What’s the hardest obstacle to overcome?

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

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The hardest obstacle to overcome is the weightless environment of space itself. Humans evolved in Earth’s gravity, and without it, our bones soften, our muscles atrophy, and our bodies suffer. Until we can develop some kind of artificial gravity environment, like a rotating space station, space travel will be lethal for any length of time. We need to first learn to just live and survive in space before we have any hope of reaching out to another star system.


Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

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If we survive for the next 100 years, I think we will become an interstellar civilization (although maybe not for several hundred years – the first step is to expand into our solar system first). The greatest challenges are in rough order of difficulty starting with the most challenging: I) Surviving long enough to reach the stars (avoiding disaster on our planet, whether created by humans or something external); II) The will to expand beyond Earth (will we even choose to do so, or will we for example, transcend into AI); III) The vast distances involved and the technological challenges involved. These include the velocity you need to travel and/or time it would take to get to another star, and the energy you would need to be able to produce for an exceedingly long time at a great distance from any light or heat from the Sun (even our best nuclear technology can’t currently do this). It’s a problem of distance, time, and energy. Here’s a links to my videos about it.

Robotic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lt0YMLvgT5k

Human colonization: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0m7gcZLUcPU


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

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Emigrating beyond Earth is not a difficult task from a technological perspective. The current challenges are more centered on budgets rather than technology or human will. The most difficult challenge of interplanetary travel, in my opinion, is the challenge of humanity. Humans, today, are in the brink of destroying ourselves and our planet as well. The human population is increasing at an exponential pace while Earthly resources are diminishing at equal speed. Humans, eventually, will nonetheless have to travel beyond earth to survive as a species. We must, however, overcome the most difficult obstacle we conveniently ignore: the will to get along with other humans.


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

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Our science fiction stories show humanity escaping out to the stars, but our more terrestrial reality seems determined to keep us grounded. Two major problems currently face us. The first, quite simply, is resources. Human space exploration is a rich nation’s possibility, and as our global economy flattens, it is becoming harder to imagine any government-driven effort to colonize other worlds and other solar systems. At the same time, it’s impossible to predict what commercial space will make possible, and the extreme wealth of an elite few may be able to fill in gaps left by governments. While money is a current problem that has the potential to go away, the second problem is more likely to stay. That problem is human frailty. We are a race that can die from environmental extremes and disease. We periodically wage war, and we release toxins into our environment through our accidents and ignorance. The real question is, will we stay alive long enough to overcome money?


Ciro Villa (technologist, application developer, STEM communicator)

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Be it for natural or man-made causes, there are a variety of possible future scenarios that we earthlings could face that could bring about the end of humanity or even life in its entirety here on Earth. This is why it is important to give serious consideration to plans for us to become a space faring civilization. Although we have a long way to go to arrive at the necessary level of technology and for us to be able to overcome a number of practical obstacles to make this feasible, it is important to start working toward this goal, this way at least our future generations can hope for the continuation of our species by embarking on “space lifeboats” toward new galactic shores. This is not going to be easy and it is going to take time and effort. We are now just making our first “baby steps” toward understanding how the human body reacts to hostile space environments and the lack of gravity and questions about our ability to withstand space environments are just now attempted to be answered with the hard work of our astronauts on the International Space Station. Probably one of the hardest obstacle to overcome is going to be having the ability to take down the barrier of skepticism of large portions of the public as a whole and raise realistic and not alarmist awareness that we live on a very fragile planet and that it is important to build contingency plans to leave it if we want the continuation of our species. Of course we hope that we will be able to achieve this goal before it will be too late.


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

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I tend to be skeptical of top-down views of the human future, and the more our species is spread out into the solar system, the more it will diverge, with separate populations each pursuing their own interests. From, this is an optimistic view. The kings and battles view of history has always been something of a delusion, and I think in the future it will become clear, with hopefully no kings and many fewer battles. So, I think the simple-minded notion of a colossal public works project sending great arks full of people in uniform to seed humanity among other worlds is not only unlikely, it is undesirable and likely to fail. Someone with the power to make that happen has too much power. However, I do believe that as mastery of space travel, energy and information compounds, our wealth will grow to the point that the project of embarking with one’s friends and families to the stars is a choice many will have. How this will be accomplished I don’t know, and neither does anyone else, just as the hunter gatherers just before the neolithic revolution could not possibly see what their world was about to become. It is only an approximate result, but Daniel Cartin estimated that the range needed from a starship in order to establish a network of colonies in the local solar neighborhood was about 10 light years. That’s a long distance from the human perspective, but is a cosmic stone’s throw, and when humans can live for hundreds of years and casually command petawatts of power, it will not be a daunting sea to cross. By then, we may not even need to send biological bodies – just beam our minds ahead at the speed of light after the ship arrives at a suitable destination. It would of course, take millions of years to colonize even part of the galaxy, and such a diaspora could easily lose steam after a while. Still there is the chance it will continue until we either collide the current residents or fill up the available resources. Of course, by “we” I mean descendants of humans, but they will be fragmented into at least as many many societies as solar systems they occupy. There will be no emperor. How we go from there to an intergalactic society I have no idea. Crossing ten, or even a hundred light years is nothing compared to crossing millions of light years. Each of is free to imagine their own scenario, but I have no idea how it could happen.

What to expect from 2016?

December is a month in which we usually summarize this ending year and decide how good it was. Let’s leave that for later and look a bit into the future. What should we expect from the year 2016.

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

I am personally looking forward to developments in the Orion Program and Journey to Mars. Speaking of the latter, I am in the process of writing my third book, which will center on Generation: Mars. I am hopeful, moreover, that the commercial space industry will continue to make great strive in space exploration with special emphasis on Mars, asteroids, and Pluto.


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 more images and data of the Pluto system coming back from New Horizons, as well as more great images and science from the two Mars rovers (Curiosity and Opportunity) and the Mars Orbiters (MAVEN, MRO, Mars Express, Odyssey,  and India’s MOM). ESA’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter is scheduled to arrive in orbit at the Red Planet in March. NASA’s InSight lander was scheduled to land on Mars in September to study the planet’s interior, but the mission has been postponed at least 2 years due to a problem with one of the instruments. Also in September, the Rosetta mission will come to a crashing end with a controlled impact on the surface of comet Churyumov-Gersimenko, and the OSIRIS-Rex mission is scheduled to launch on its mission to asteroid Bennu. Of course Cassini will keep going until 2017 and it just keeps wowing us with images of Saturn and its rings and moons. The big news for 2016 in planetary exploration is that Juno will arrive at Jupiter in July. It will map the interior of the giant world as well as studying the planet’s magnetic and gravity fields and map the abundance of water vapor in the planet’s atmosphere. It also will provide the first images of the previously unexplored poles of Jupiter. 2016 should be a great year in planetary exploration!


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

My gut says it will come with more budget issues, more sexual harassment and discrimination holding back women and minorities, and commercial space advancing while science for the sake of science sees the same old same old. Here’s to hoping I’m wrong on everything but commercial space!

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.

Pluto flyby

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Charity

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

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


Mateusz Macias (author of this blog)

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