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With technology advancing so rapidly we’re making big discoveries on a daily basis. What fascinating discovery would you like to hear about when you wake up tomorrow morning? Evidence of life on another planet or a moon, signs of bio-signatures on an exo-planet, reception of a signal from an intelligent life or maybe something completely different?
Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

Wow, those would all be good ones! However, in my view, the main point of searching for life on planets and moons in our solar system is to test the hypothesis “are we alone”? (Because we currently have one world with life, Earth, and a 1 out of 1 scientific result is meaningless due to the anthropic principle, but a 2/2 would be a big deal.) Thus, hearing directly from intelligent extraterrestrials would sort of cut to the chase and be an even bigger deal.

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

This one got me thinking. Any discovery that would be a real a paradigm breaker would not be one that I could predict, and I doubt even people much cleverer than I would either.

A couple of helpful quotes to keep in mind:
Clarke’s First Law: “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”
J.B.S. Haldane: “Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

My own ability to predict future discoveries is probably even more limited than a distinguished but elderly scientist. We will probably need to rework our conceptual toolbox – our vocabulary, if you will – to even be able to recognize what is right in front of us. I am optimistic that this will happen, since it has happened before, such as when we realized that space and time weren’t absolute, or that the Earth was very ancient and not the center of the universe.

However, your question seems to be about discoveries we can predict, and for me the most important would be the confirmed discovery of life in our solar system (possibly even here on Earth) that we unambiguously do not share a common ancestor with. This “second genesis” would effectively nail down the fourth term in the Drake equation – it’s on the order of one, and implies that life is more or less a natural state of warm matter. This may well happen within my lifetime.

Erin Macdonald (Space Science Speaker, Educator, Consultant)

The near-term big discovery I’m looking forward to (now that we’ve got gravitational waves!) is evidence of life (current or past) in our own solar system. With further exploration of Mars (including underwater lakes) as well as future missions to Europa with a warm, seemingly salt-water ocean under the surface, I hope that we find evidence of even past microbial life on other planets. While all the discoveries in the last decade of exoplanets which may be able to support liquid water on their surface, we seem to have collectively made the assumption that there is other life out there, but we have to remember that we still don’t have any evidence of that. Once that discovery is made, I will be literally jumping for joy.

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

Honestly, I’m really keen to see a black hole directly. If the rumors are true that should happen April 10. My dissertation was on black holes, and at the time we had no way to directly observe one. To finally see that happen would be really cool.

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

Beyond all other discoveries, I would probably most enjoy waking up one morning to the news of signals from space from an extra-terrestrial civilization. This could minimally be just a “hello world” signal proving to us finally that these technologically advanced creatures are really out there. That would of course be the news of the century but it would also ultimately be quite frustrating since having a conversation given the distances involved would try anyone’s patience. Ideally, this discovery would take the form of what Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan described as an Encyclopedia Galactica: a cornucopia of detailed information about the aliens and their culture, science and technology, and surely many things that we can’t imagine or even comprehend.

A fascinating variation of this idea that I’ve often thought about involves the discovery of an extra-terrestrial cloaked satellite that has suddenly revealed itself in orbit around earth.
This satellite would have documented in detail the evolution of life on earth for hundreds of millions of years. Imagine having actual documentation of dinosaurs and proto-humans and countless other extinct life forms that we have never found fossils for.

Ask Me Anything

Extraterrestrial civilization have visited our planet. International community decided that you will be the one to ask our visitors questions. Let’s assume we can communicate freely with our guests. If you could ask only one question, what would it be and why?
Seth Shostak (Senior Astronomer and Director of the Center for SETI Research at SETI Institute)

Do you have music?

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

An alien way of thinking might be very alien indeed, but I will assume they are advanced enough, and possess a sufficiently rich conceptual framework to translate our human meaning. Still, it’s probably best at first to avoid anything too value laden, such as “why are you here?”, “do you want to help us?”, or “do you like my poetry?”. Instead, there are many key facts that they would know that we don’t, and it’s hard to pick just one.

I think I would start with: “is the the first time you have attempted to contact our species?”. That would help set the context, and the answer would drive some of the subsequent questions.

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

The visitation of an extraterrestrial civilization would be marked as one of the most pivotal moments in human history. If I could participate in a welcoming committee or scientific panel to welcome and address out visitors, the question I would ask is why are you visiting Earth?

Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

I would want to know about how their power or propulsion systems worked so we could replicate it. Seems like people who get “abducted by aliens” are always more concerned with strange personal or medical details, but the most important thing would clearly be to learn about the technological fields that evidently brought them here.

Ciro Villa (technologist, application developer, STEM communicator)

Well, if I could, my question would be “Can I ask you more than one question?”….but joking aside, perhaps the question I would ask is: “Why did you come here?”. I think that among the so many questions, this would be one that could help us understand several things including the intentions of these beings (assuming they would not be lying of course) and could give us some hints regarding our own survival (or destruction at their hands).

Exceptional character

There were many great characters in the Sci-Fi genre. Which one in your opinion showed the best values like courage, leadership or integrity? Would it be Commander Adama from Battlestar Galactica, James T. Kirk or Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek or maybe some other exceptional character?
Terry Virts (Speaker, author, consultant, former Astronaut)

There have been many great leaders in science fiction, but I think at the top of that list is Captain Kirk. He was always decisive, usually made the right decision and lead through some pretty terrible adversity. Once you got past some of the overacting drama he actually dealt with a very pressing and important social issues. He had a multi-racial crew which was unheard of at that time and he dealt with it seamlessly, he just accepted his crew for who they were, without even thinking of their race or even species. He dealt with all of the important political tensions of the day, between the US and the Soviet Union, the race riots in America and all kind of problems. The world could’ve really used a real life leader like Captain Kirk. In fact we could probably use him today, without the overacting 🙂

Mike Mongo (Author, astronaut teacher, science communicator)

For my money, there is no better leader in the myriad of science fiction universes than Buckaroo Banzai. In addition to good genes, a talent for conceptual physics, and the superlative focus and nerve of brain surgeons–as well as the moxie to lead a New Jersey bar band–Buckaroo Banzai knows his way around multiple dimensions, interplanetary existential crisis, and even bad puns. But above and beyond all this, there is one quality which makes Buckaroo Banzai a great character is Banzai’s natural good luck. Good luck is the earmark of all exceptional characters from science fiction and Buckaroo Banzai exemplifies it.

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

Well, o course Dr. Who comes to mind at once, but one of my favorite protagonists is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld witch, Granny Weatherwax. She is brave, wise, resourceful, and underneath that tough exterior, kind.

Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

Jean-Luc Picard probably has the best balance to leadership and integrity, but James T. Kirk is more flawed, emotional, and relatable in a human sort of way while generally still displaying strong leadership abilities. Overall, I would say Picard is a “better commander”, but James Kirk is more daring, risk-taking, and fun. Commander Adama is an extremely solid choice, balancing tough grit, integrity, and keen intellect, while preserving his humanity: sort of a good balance between Picard and Kirk, I would think.

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

My take on James T. Kirk is that he is the very reason the Prime Directive was invented. If there was even one Kirk in our galaxy, we’d already know about the existence of other alien civilizations! He’s a hot mess.

I love Picard, as he is a truly good captain, but of these choices, my heart goes with Commander Adama (from the reboot BSG). Unlike the cheery Star Trek universe, he is tested in a very dark time and, though he makes harsh decisions at times, he holds up as one of the strongest captains in the fictional universes that I have loved.

I have to put in a shout out to a character who, though not my favorite captain, is the most entertaining to watch. That’s Captain Benjamin Sisko of Deep Space Nine. It feels like he’s just always on the edge of sliding into doing something that would be morally abhorrent to other Star Fleet captains, but he has enough integrity to always hold to the morals of the Federation while realizing that he has to be flexible to manage a station in a difficult situation. He is absolutely my favorite to watch because he is so passionate and even dangerous.

Erin Macdonald (Space Science Speaker, Educator, Consultant)

I would have to go with the Star Trek franchise, but a different captain, Captain Kathryn Janeway. In being flung across the galaxy unexpectedly with no contact to Starfleet and a crew suddenly torn apart from their homes and families, she met every challenge with strength, integrity, and leadership. She had no senior leadership with whom to consult and therefore had to stand by every decision and action she made. She stayed true to who she was, allowed herself to be vulnerable and human while at the same time imparting loyalty and trust among her crew. Some of the best episodes that demonstrate these hard decisions and her leadership include Latent Image, The 37s, and one of my personal favorites, Fair Haven (while a fun holodeck episode, it shows how lonely Captain Janeway is and the constant need to be a leader, not a friend to her crew).

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!

Prepare for warp speed

Science fiction has shown us spaceships travelling at enormous speeds, some of them had faster-then-light capabilities (and some have done the Kessel run in 12 parsecs). Which metods of transportation that are being developed or thought about in the near/far future you think are the most promising?
Paul Carr (Space Systems engineer at NASA, podcaster, blogger, investigator)

I’m not optimistic about faster than light travel at any time in the future, although I would love to be proved wrong. Not only do we not have the technology to travel faster than the speed of light, we don’t know what technology we need, or even if it’s possible.

For the near future, something we could make happen would be nuclear space propulsion – first fission reactors, and then fusion reactors. My dream reactor would be a Helium 3 fusion reactor. Helium 3 is stable, and the Helium 3 fusion reaction produces Helium 4 (also stable), a proton (or two) (that can be used to generate electric power), and energy, but no neutrons. Neutrons are a problem that make most fusion reactors unusable for space applications. Such a reaction is far more mass efficient than chemical rockets, and with some work, could open up the entire solar system to us.

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

In the near term, I’m mostly excited about the potential for light sails, like the Breakthrough Starshot. If this technology can be developed, we could see spacecraft traveling out to Pluto within a few weeks or even days. Once we’ve mastered this tech, we can start sending spacecraft out to other stars.

Ciro Villa (technologist, application developer, STEM communicator)

Ever since human have been able to use their imagination they have been dreaming of traveling far away in space to explore and discover new worlds. Unfortunately, as much as our brains can dream it, we are limited by our physical and technological capabilities to only be able to travel very nearby.

So far in the history of space travel, chemical rockets have been the main mean of propulsion and other new propulsion technologies are only at their infancy. Many studies are underway and much literature has been created to envision the design of new ways to propel human made spaceships further in space and in shortest amount of times. In the shortest term, more efficient forms of propulsion are being developed such as electric variants like Ion, Plasma and Hall-effect thrusters some of which are already operational on some space crafts (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_spacecraft_with_electric_propulsion). Also, Solar sails which are still somewhat experimental in nature with their size challenges and limitations, are being investigated as another promising mean to accelerate spaceships beyond the confines of our Solar System.

More futuristic forms of propulsion are unfortunately still only on paper at this time and it will take willpower, new discoveries, money, time or most likely all the above to be further developed. The hope is that with the accelerating pace of technological advancements, some of these new, exotic propulsion technologies will materialize at some point in our future make human exploration of deep space a reality.

Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

For faster than light travel, it’s always possible that there will be some breakthrough that we can’t anticipate. Apart from that, I think we’re going to end up taking a long time to get to other stars, possibly in some kind of suspension or by just sending robots or human embryos. In terms of advanced propulsion in general, anti-matter offers the best mass to energy ratio we know of, but that’s a long way off (hundreds of years?). Fusion rockets might be possible before the end of the century. These would be great for travel in the solar system, but probably not to another star.

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

Chemical rockets have served humanity very well for many decades. They have launched satellites into orbit and blasted our probes and landers into the nooks and crannies of our solar system. They have lifted humans to low earth orbit and our moon. All of this has given us a priceless cornucopia of images and data and mind-boggling discoveries.

These types of rockets however are not nearly as adept at ferrying our fragile bodies much beyond the moon. To keep us healthy and happy requires vast ships that are prohibitively slow and expensive for trips to the closest practical planet, Mars.

Luckily, conventional rockets are only a tiny subset of all rocket types, yet I’ve been disappointed for literally decades that we have made so little progress on other types of rocket technology for transporting humans.

I’m still holding out hope for the widespread realization that rockets using nuclear fuel are the only real option we have in the near future for getting humans well past our moon. The energy density of nuclear is orders of magnitude that of chemical energy. Nuclear thermal rockets using fission for example could weigh half as much as similarly powerful chemical rockets. Directly comparing chemical vs nuclear rockets is complex but many have concluded that such nuclear rockets would be at least as twice as efficient as chemical rockets. This would allow trips to mars requiring half the time, or less, which is especially important considering the more time spent in space, the more time you’re exposed to life-threatening solar radiation and cosmic rays. Fission rockets would also allow for some serious maneuvering during a flight which is too expensive for modern chemical engines. You’re just not much of a spaceship in my book if you can’t maneuver easily.

A little beyond these fission rockets (which we can build now), we will create fusion rockets which should quickly predominate since they are even more efficient and produce less radioactive waste. Remember, a significant limitation to any ship’s maximum velocity is the amount of fuel required to reach that velocity. You could actually reach 10% of the speed of light with chemical engines but you’d need a gas tank the size of our sun to do that. Doable? Yes, theoretically. Practical? Ummm, no. Fission would require far less fuel to reach that speed and fusion even less. So what would require the least amount of fuel? Read on…

Long-term scenarios for Space Travel will certainly offer humanity many fascinating hi-tech options but some type of antimatter engines will probably be required if you want to move something space ship sized as close as possible to the speed of light. Sure, there may be some bizarre quirk of physics that allows for superluminal travel but…probably not, so don’t get your hopes up.

We know for certain right now that as you approach appreciable fractions of the speed of light, your mass starts increasing alarmingly fast (kinetic energy). To continue accelerating, your ballooning mass requires an exponentially increasing amount of energy. Eventually, to reach the speed of light itself you’ll need infinite energy to move your infinite mass. Unless you have infinite energy in your back pocket, you’ll never hit that speed.

To get as close as possible however, you’ll need an efficient method of energy conversion and that’s exactly what matter/antimatter annihilation provides. The energy released from such interactions is truly huge even if the masses involved are tiny (that is, after all, a key take-away from E=mc^2). The primary problem though is that we can’t practically convert all the byproducts of matter/antimatter collisions into the kinetic energy of our spaceship. The bottom line then is that we will probably not be able to ever get arbitrarily close to the speed of light. The estimates seem to be all over the place but somewhere between 40 and 70 percent of the speed of light could be attainable eventually.

I’m totally ok with a spaceship going 753 million km per hour.

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

For generations, science fiction has attempted to shape our future. From cameras on a watch as depicted in Dick Tracy; to warp speed, a common mode of travel used extensively in the Star Trek franchise. However, traveling faster than the speed of light or at warp speed, from a practical purpose, is not possible according to the laws of physics. The energy required to achieve the speed the speed of light, for example, would be infinite – sort of a an impossibility.

Today, and for the foreseeable future, spacecraft are limited to local orbits and interplanetary missions. There are numerous factors that shape spacecraft design and capabilities, but predominantly they are due to budget constraints, its intended function, and policy requirements. Extraordinary specific power and the ratio of jet-power to total spacecraft mass are required to reach interstellar targets within sub-century time frames. Some heat transfer is unavoidable and a tremendous heating load must be effectively handled. Thus, for interstellar rocket concepts of all technologies, a key engineering setback is controlling the heat transfer from the exhaust stream back into the spacecraft.

Based on research in the late 1950s to the early 1960s, it is technically possible to build spacecraft with nuclear pulse propulsion engines (i.e. driven by a series of nuclear explosions). This propulsion system contains the prospect of very high specific impulse and high specific power. This type of spacecraft, in my opinion, is our best hope for achieving interstellar travel.

In 1968, Project Orion team members proposed an interstellar spacecraft using nuclear pulse propulsion, which used pure deuterium fusion detonations with a very high fuel burn-up fraction. They calculated an exhaust velocity of 15,000 km/s and a 100,000-ton spacecraft able to achieve 20,000 km/s allowing a flight-time to Alpha Centauri of roughly 130 years. Later studies suggested that the top cruise velocity that can theoretically be achieved by a Teller-Ulam thermonuclear unit powered Orion spacecraft, supposing no fuel is saved for slowing back down, is about 8% to 10% of the speed of light. An atomic Orion can reach perhaps 3%-5% of the speed of light. A nuclear pulse drive spacecraft powered by Fusion-antimatter catalyzed nuclear pulse propulsion units would be comparably in the 10% range and pure matter-antimatter annihilation rockets would be theoretically capable of achieving a velocity between 50% to 80% of the speed of light.

In closing, although there have been numerous proposals and design concepts, spacecraft propulsion for interstellar flight is not an easy endeavor or economical. At current pace, we are at least hundreds or perhaps thousands of years before capable of interstellar travel to even the closest stars. Nevertheless, there are no doubts we will become an interstellar species in the foreseeable future.

Houston, “Eagle” has landed

Imagine yourself walking out of a lunar module “Eagle” on July, 21st 1969 and stepping on the surface of the Moon. What would be your first words? What would you like to do while performing EVA?
Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)

Neil had 3 full days to think about what to say on his trip to the Moon, probably months before that, and a potentially a NASA PR team working on the problem. I’d be hard pressed to come up with something better. Something like: “Hello Moon, greetings from planet Earth. Thanks for all you’ve done for us, from inspiring our dreams when we look up a night, to stabilizing our planet’s spin, to driving our ocean tides. We’re glad you’re here, and now we are too.”

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

I was 11 years old when Neil Armstrong walked out onto the moon, and I remember being deeply envious of him. I had no idea of the depth and duration of training required of astronauts, or the complexity of their equipment, and I even had a silly fantasy about stowing away on a the rocket.

If it had been me, I think I would have resisted delivering a scripted line, and instead would have blurted out something like “look at me! I’m on the moon!”. I’m sure it would have been nothing quotable. If I were free to do whatever I wanted on the EVA, my priorities would be running, jumping, and throwing things (I was 11!). I would have wanted to scale the nearest hill, thinking it would be easy to exploit the low gravity of the moon. Of course, I would have also put all kinds of rocks in my pockets.

Ciro Villa (technologist, application developer, STEM communicator)

After the Apollo era, men haven’t returned to the Moon in now almost 45 years. Humans are long overdue for a return to the lunar surface, which could provide tremendous opportunities to act as a “launchpad” to the rest of space. If I had the unique and historical opportunity to be that first man stepping out on the surface of the Moon, I would probably be speechless and have no words at all.

During my EVA I’d like to satisfy spirit, body, and mind. The human spirit will be in awe at the incredible sight of an “alien” landscape and scenery and the realization that I am on a rock located about 384,000 km from our home, the Earth. The body would be experiencing the lower gravity and have fun hopping around. The mind would be involved in any science possible and work on the mission at hand, hoping that whatever advancement is made will benefit the rest of humanity.

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

If I were the first to set foot on the moon It would be hard to beat the iconic words of Neal Armstrong, except by having them heard as was actually intended of course…”One small step for “A” man, One giant leap for mankind.”

I’ve often thought that it would have been cool if both Neal Armstrong and that other dude (what was his name? ;)) both jumped and took that first step together.

My first words would probably be “holy crap”. If I were able to rein in my emotions, perhaps I’d say something like “This first ever human footprint on the moon….brought to you by SCIENCE”

During the EVA I would thoroughly enjoy the sensation of moon gravity. I’d lift the biggest boulders I could manage and leap as far as possible. I’d throw small rocks and hands-full of regolith and watch their trajectory and descent. I’d look at the camera and say “See that? You can’t fake physics like that on a stupid set on earth”

“Three Great Astronomy Discoveries I Didn’t Make” by Paul Carr

I have a little training in astronomy, although I can hardly call myself a professional. Becoming a professional at anything is a long, hard road, one I haven’t traveled far down in astronomy. No, I’m decidedly an amateur, and not a highly accomplished amateur at that.

Sadly, the word “amateur” has been cheapened a bit by modern use. It doesn’t really mean inexpert dabbler (although I will cop to that), but “lover.” An amateur does what they do for the love of it, and there are many highly knowledgeable and skilled amateur astronomers who do real science. Far from earning a living at astronomy, amateurs spend considerable sums of their own money – for love. If you are reading this, you probably understand why. The night sky and the cosmos at large combines natural beauty and profound fascination as few other things we can all experience.

In our time, nearly any object – save perhaps the odd undiscovered comet or asteroid – that is accessible to amateur equipment has already been imaged at multiple wavelengths using professional instruments. Sensitive astronomical surveys have been performed and are being performed on a regular basis, and have been for many generations, going back for more than two thousand years to the great Greek astronomer Hipparchus, who since had a major modern catalog named after him.

Since ancient times, the proliferation of astronomical catalogs and atlases has accelerated – from John Flamsteed’s sky atlas, to the 19th century Bonner Durchmusterung, to the Henry Draper catalog, to the US Naval Observatory’s catalog based upon the Palomar Observatory’s photographic sky survey, to the Hubble Guide Star catalog, up until the present, with the Gaia Source List containing more than a billion objects. What is remarkable about this accelerating growth is not only the number of catalogs and the broader coverage of the electromagnetic spectrum, but also the fact that they are now accessible to anyone, and you can also access images from many of these surveys. You no longer need a good university library and stacks of bound volumes to find the information you want.

I should point out that you can do meaningful citizen science at sites like Cosmoquest or Galaxy Zoo, but this does not mean that you can’t poke around at random in the vast library of astronomical knowledge and try to answer your own questions. I do this – and I return from my wanderings  with more questions, and so far, no answers.

Boyajian’s Star

In 2015, when the paper describing Boyajian’s Star and its bizarre lightcurve was first made public on Arxiv, I was curious about what was known about the immediate neighborhood in that patch of sky in the constellation Cygnus. To investigate this, I used a free tool called the Aladin Sky Atlas, provided by the University of Strasbourg in France. Aladin, with a modest learning curve, allows you to overlay many of the most widely used catalogs and image libraries. For example, if you just open up Aladin and enter “Boyajian’s Star” in to the Location field, you will get this window:

Figure 1 – Boyajian’s Star as Viewed in Aladin with Colored Digital Sky Survey


That’s Boyajian’s Star, aka KIC 8462852, centered in the purple reticle. You can zoom in from there and explore to your heart’s content. What I wanted to investigate was what was known about the other stars right around the target, so I zoomed in and overlaid one of the biggest catalogs,
2MASS (2 Micron All Sky Survey). The 2MASS has over 470 million objects in it, so chances are if you can see it in an image, it’s in 2MASS, as shown in Figure 2:

Figure 2 – Zoomed on Boyajian’s Star with the 2MASS catalog overlay.

Beyond the images though, I was interested in any measurements of the distance to any of these objects, and their proper motions – how fast they appear to be moving against the background of more distant objects. Objects with a distance similar to Boyajian’s Star or with similar proper motions are candidate neighbors, or even companions. The proper motion of Boyajian’s Star has been fairly well known (about 13 thousandths of an arcsecond per year West) for a while now, but it’s distance (a bit under 1500 light years) has only been inferred from its spectral type and apparent brightness.The little red squares in Figure 2 indicate an object in the 2MASS catalog. As you can see, all but some tiny faint smudges are cataloged by 2MASS. Most of these objects are in other catalogs, like the infrared ALLWISE catalog, or the Gaia Source List. If you are interested, you may also want to look up the PanSTARRS images, which don’t seem to be available via Aladin.

It turns out that directly measuring the distance to such a star using subtle variations in its apparent movement, or parallax, as the Earth moves around the Sun is very tricky, and only in recent times have we known more than a handful of these distances. So, we’re still not sure which of those stars are actual neighbors to Boyajian’s Star The only real measurement of its parallax was released only a few months ago by the Gaia team, and still carries a fair bit of uncertainty. We hope that with future Gaia data releases (perhaps one as soon as late 2017), we will have better information, not only about Boyajian’s star, but its neighbors as well.

So, lesson learned – many more objects have been cataloged than have been closely studied. We only know the spectral type and other information about Boyajian’s Star because it’s weird light curve as observed by the Kepler Space Telescope triggered a number of follow-up observations. As I poke around in these catalogs, I notice more and more, and with some guidance from professionals, I am able to start making sense of things, and also learning how to be more cautious.

Did a Star Go into Hiding?

In 2016, three Swedish astronomy students published their finding about a clever new approach to SETI – looking for stars that had vanished between surveys. In the sample of objects they studied, they found one faint object that appeared to be in a US Naval Observatory Catalog, but had vanished from subsequent, more sensitive surveys. I interviewed the lead author, Beatriiz Villarroel for my podcast, the Wow! Signal. Villarroel’s team weren’t sure this object was even a star, but I was intrigued by the possibility of a SETI discovery.

Using Aladin and the Vizier server, I found an image from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and overlaid the USNO B1 catalog (Figure 3), represented by the red crosses. Right in the center is where the missing object, poetically named 1084-0241525 was, but as you can see, there is nothing there now. It’s also missing from all the other major catalogs, but keep in mind we don’t really know its proper motion. It may have moved a little over the decades, since the Palomar survey images upon which the northern part of USNO catalog is based were mostly taken in the 1950s. In 50 years, this object could have potentially moved a few arcseconds, depending on how close to us it is.

Figure 3 – USNO B1.0-1084-0241525 location on the g band SDSS image in Aladin. The red crosses are objects in the USNO catalog. Unfortunately, the star was too dim to be seen on the old photographic plates at Harvard, or to be regularly monitored by the AAVSO.

The conjecture is that if someone out there was building something around this star (if it is a star) that was hiding it from our cameras, it might be heating up enough to be visible in the infrared.  Villaroel’s team looked for this, but didn’t see anything. However, if we overlay the infrared ALLWISE survey catalog (the little blue circles), and look just outside their 5 arcsecond search radius:

Figure 4 – the ALLWISE catalog overlay around the missing star location in Aladin

You can probably guess what I was thinking. Some object moving fairly fast against the sky – a bit more than a tenth of an arcsecond per year  – had reddened so much that it had once been visible, but was now only visible in the infrared. And yes, that is a bit odd. For that to be a SETI detection is still not a slam dunk, but is much closer than we usually get.There is nothing visible under the reticle, but just to the north, about 6 arcseconds away, is an infrared object spotted by WISE, J145736.52+182507.8, that doesn’t appear to have any corresponding optical counterpart.  

The WISE space telescope, back when it was able to keep its focal plane extremely cold,  took measurements in 4 bands from in the infrared. These bands are called W1, W2, W3, and W4, and run from W1 centered at 3.35 microns wavelength to about 22 microns for W4. For comparison, the light you can see with your eyes is the neighborhood of half a micron in wavelength. Normally, the infrared bands for a star are on what is called the Rayleigh-Jeans tail – that is,  the infrared spectrum is fairly flat, and the brightness wouldn’t vary that much from band to band.

Sadly, what we know from WISE isn’t enough. W1 and W2 are fairly close in brightness, as you would expect, but the signal to noise is too low, and the best you can say is that the source is no brighter than a certain magnitude in W3 and W4 – it could be much dimmer. Maybe someday we’ll have a survey that nails down the infrared spectrum of this object, but WFIRST may not be enough, since it will only survey out to about 2 microns wavelength.  So, I haven’t found the missing star – yet.

The Mysterious Gaia Dipper

I hope you know I’m using the word “mysterious” here ironically. This word used to mean something, but now I’m afraid it’s just cheap clickbait.

ESA’s Gaia mission is doing some really interesting things right at the cutting edge of what is possible. One of the things it does as it scans the sky is measure the brightness of stars in both a blue and red band. The Gaia team keeps track of the brightness measurements for individual objects and publishes an alert when it detects that the brightness has changed by a significant amount. It has spotted quite a few supernovae this way, for example.

A small fraction of the Gaia alerts note when the brightness of the object drops considerably. I started tracking these dippers because I wanted to see if Gaia might possibly spot something that behaves like Boyajian’s Star. No doubt many of the dippers are what are called Young Stellar Objects, stars that have just formed and are still surrounded by a large disk of gas and dust.

One of the first ones of these I noted was Gaia 16bnj. Here’s what its Gaia light curve looked like (Figure 5):

Figure 5 – The lightcurve for Gaia 16bnj

Here’s the colorized WISE image:Those are very sharp dips shown in Figure 5 – quite a bit deeper than Boyajian’s Star, and the two dips are roughly the same size as best as we can tell. Using Aladin, I was able to quickly see that this relatively faint object is also in the ALLWISE catalog, as J200207.30+174649.7.

Figure 6 – Colorized WISE image for Gaia 16bnj

Ah, but you guessed it, wet blanket time. WISE astronomer and SETI researcher Jason Wright pointed out that there were problems with these measurements:The object of interest is at the center of Figure 6, with a little blue circle around it. When I looked at the WISE magnitude data at first, I got pretty excited – it is much brighter in the longer W4 wavelength than in the shorter W1 and W2, and this time these were not limiting magnitudes, as they were for J145736.52+182507.8. A big infrared excess could mean one of our favorite classes of conjecture – a megastructure.

 

Look at the quality control flags:

ccf 00Pp

One character per band (W1/W2/W3/W4) that indicates that the photometry and/or position measurements of a source may be contaminated or biased due to proximity to an image artifact:

P,p = Persistence. Source may be a spurious detection of or contaminated by a latent image left by a bright star.

So, no reason to think this thing has any excess IR emission.

So, it could easily be an imaging artifact and there is no way to tell. You know – the old extraordinary claims/extraordinary evidence thing. We’ll keep looking for more dips, and perhaps we’ll see something interesting in the future, but for now, we’ve got nothing much. However, I’m not overly discouraged. Boyajian’s star doesn’t exhibit an infrared excess, and there’s still lots of interest attached to it.

Are We Any Wiser, Then?

The first lesson from all this is that amateur attempts to mine the astronomical databases for little nuggets of holy cow are likely to be frustrated. We have cataloged billions of objects but only really studied a relative handful. Also, some of the data we do have available for exploration has problems. There might in fact be a star that goes missing from a catalog, but trying to figure out what happened to it will be frustrated by the lack of follow up observations.

For now, most of the people who get credit even for minor astronomical discoveries will overwhelmingly be the ones who make an intelligent choice of targets and point their telescopes at them for years of painstaking observations, followed by sophisticated and careful analysis. As far as I can tell, they are also the ones who deserve the credit.

However, this is not by itself a sufficient reason to give up, since after all, it’s quite pleasing to take a magic carpet ride among the stars looking for rarities. It’s your universe as much as anyone else’s, and we know orders of magnitude more about than our grandfathers did. So, feel free to download Aladin or similar tools and poke around the deep sky in whatever direction you like. Please, just let us know if you find anything.