Elon Musk has a reputation for pushing the envelop and making bold declarations. In 2002, he founded SpaceX with the intention of making spaceflight affordable through entirely reusable rockets. In April of 2014, his company achieved success with the first successful recovery of a Falcon 9 first stage. And in February of this year, his company successfully launched its Falcon Heavy and managed to recover two of the three boosters.
But above and beyond Musk’s commitment to reusability, there is also his longer-term plans to use his proposed Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) to explore and colonize Mars. The topic of when this rocket will be ready to conduct launches was the subject of a recent interview between Musk and famed director Jonathon Nolan, which took place at the 2018 South by Southwest Conference (SXSW) in Austin, Texas.
During the interview, Musk reiterated his earlier statements that test flights would begin in 2019 and an orbital launch of the full BFR and Big Falcon Spaceship (BFS) would take place by 2020. And while this might seem like a very optimistic prediction (something Musk is famous for), this timeline does not seem entirely implausible given his company’s work on the necessary components and their success with reusability.
SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System - YouTube
As Musk emphasized during the course of the interview:
“People have told me that my timelines have historically been optimistic. So I am trying to re-calibrate to some degree here. But I can tell what I know currently is the case is that we are building the first ship, the first Mars or interplanetary ship, right now, and I think we’ll probably be able to do short flights, short sort of up-and-down flights probably in the first half of next year.”
To break it down, the BFR – formerly known as the Interplanetary Transport System – consists of a massive first stage booster and an equally massive second stage/spaceship (the BFS). Once the spacecraft is launched, the second stage would detach and use its thrusters to assume a parking orbit around Earth. The first stage would then guide itself back to its launchpad, take on a propellant tanker, and return to orbit.
The propellant tanker would then attach to the BFS and refuel it and return to Earth with the first stage. The BFS would then fire its thrusters again and make the journey to Mars with its payload and crew. While much of the technology and concepts have been tested and developed through the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, the BFR is distinct from anything else SpaceX has built in a number of ways.
For one, it will be much larger (hence the nickname, Big F—— Rocket), have significantly more thrust, and be able carry a much larger payload. The BFR’s specifications were the subject of a presentation Musk made at the 68th International Astronautical Congress on September 28th, 2017, in Adelaide, Australia. Titled “Making Life Interplanetary“, his presentation outlined his vision for colonizing Mars and presented an overview of the ship that would make it happen.
SpaceX BFR Launch & Landing - YouTube
According to Musk, the BFR will measure 106 meters (348 ft) in height and 9 meters (30 ft) in diameter. It will carry 110 tons (~99,700 kg) of propellant and will have an ascent mass of 150 tons (~136,000 kg) and a return mass of 50 tons (~45,300 kg). All told, it will be able to deliver a payload of 150,000 kg (330,000 lb) to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) – almost two and a half times the payload of the Falcon Heavy (63,800 kg; 140,660 lb)
“This a very big booster and ship,” said Musk. “The liftoff thrust of this would be about twice that of a Saturn V (the rockets that sent the Apollo astronauts to the Moon). So it’s capable of doing 150 metric tons to orbit and be fully reusable. So the expendable payload is about double that number.”
In addition, the BFR uses a new type of propellant and tanker system in order to refuel the spacecraft once its in orbit. This goes beyond what SpaceX is used to, but the company’s history of retrieving rockets and reusing them means the technical challenges this poses are not entirely new. By far, the greatest challenges will be those of cost and safety, since this will be only the second reusable second stage spacecraft in history – the first being the NASA Space Shuttle.
Where costs are concerned, the Space Shuttle Program provides a pretty good glimpse into what Musk and his company will be facing in the years ahead. According to estimates compiled in 2010 (shortly before the Space Shuttle was retired), the program cost a total of about $ 210 billion USD. Much of these costs were due to maintenance between launches and the costs of propellant, which will need to be kept low for the BFR to be economically viable.
SpaceX BFR Mars Landing - YouTube
Addressing the question of costs, Musk once again stressed how reusability will be key:
“What’s amazing about this ship, assuming we can make full and rapid reusability work, is that we can reduce the marginal cost per flight dramatically, by orders of magnitude compared to where it is today. This question of reusability is so fundamental to rocketry, it is the fundamental breakthrough that’s needed.”
As an example, Musk compared the cost of renting a 747 with full cargo (about $500,000) and flying from California to Australia to buying a single engine turboprop plane, – which would run about $1.5 million and cannot even reach Australia. In short, the BFR relies on the principle that it costs less for an entirely reusable large spaceship to make a long trip that it does to launch a single rocket on a short trip that would never return.
“A BFR flight will actually cost less than our Falcon 1 flight did,” he said. “That was about a 5 or 6 million dollar marginal cost per flight. We’re confident the BFR will be less than that. That’s profound, and that is what will enable the integration of a permanent base on the Moon and a city on Mars. And that’s the equivalent of like the Union Pacific Railroad, or having ships that can quickly cross the oceans.”
Beyond manufacturing and refurbishing costs, the BFR will also need to have an impeccable safety record if SpaceX is to have a hope of making money from it. In this respect, SpaceX hopes to follow a development process similar to what they did with the Falcon 9. Before conducting full launch tests to see if the first stage of the rocket could safely make it to orbit and then be retrieved, the company conducted short hop tests using their “Grasshopper” rocket.
Artist concept of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) on the left, and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (right). Credit: NASA
According to the timeline Musk offered at the 2018 SXSW, the company will be using the spaceship that is currently being built to conduct suborbital tests as soon as 2019. Orbital launches, which may include both the booster and the spaceship, are expected to occur by 2020. At present, Musk’s earlier statements that the first flight of the BFR would take place by 2022 and the first crewed flight by 2024 still appear to be on.
For comparison, the Space Launch System (SLS) – which is NASA’s proposed means of getting to Mars – is scheduled to conduct its first launch in 2019 as well. Known as Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), this launch will involve sending an uncrewed Orion capsule on a trip around the Moon. EM-2, in which a crewed Orion capsule will delver the first module of the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G, formerly the Deep Space Gateway) to lunar orbit, will take place in 2022.
The ensuing missions will consist of more modules being delivered to lunar orbit to complete construction of the LOP-G, as well as the Deep Space Transport (DST). The first interplanetary trip to Mars, Exploration Mission 11 (EM-11), won’t to take place until 2033. So if Musk’s timelines are to be believed, SpaceX will be beating NASA to Mars, both in terms of uncrewed and crewed missions.
As for who will be enabling a permanent stay on both the Moon and Mars, that remains to be seen. And as Musk emphasized, he hopes that by showing that creating an interplanetary spaceship is possible, agencies and organizations all over the planet will mobilize to do the same. For all we know, the creation of the BFR could enable the creation of an entire fleet of Interplanetary Transport Systems.
The South by Southwest Conference began on Friday, March 9th and will continue until Sunday, March 18th. And be sure to check out the video of the interview below:
Elon Musk Answers Your Questions! | SXSW 2018 - YouTube
For some time, scientists have known that the Moon and Mars have some fascinating similarities to Earth. In addition to being similar in composition, there is ample evidence that both bodies had active geological pasts. This includes stable lava tubes which are very similar to those that exist here on Earth. And in the future, these tubes could be an ideal location for outposts and colonies.
However, before we can begin choosing where to settle, these locations need to be mapped out to determining which would be suitable for human habitation. Luckily, a team of speleologists (cave specialists), geologists and ESA astronauts recently created the largest 3D image of a lava tube ever created. As part of the ESA’s PANGAEA program, this technology could one day help scientists map out cave systems on the Moon and Mars.
The lava tube in question was the La Cueva de Los Verdes, a famous tourist destination in Lanzarote, Spain. In addition to ESA astronaut Matthias Mauer, the team consisted of Tommaso Santagata (a speleologist from the University of Padova and the co-founder of the Virtual Geographic Agency), Umberto Del Vecchio and Marta Lazzaroni – a geologists and a masters student from the University of Padova, respectively.
Testing out the Leica BLK360 in La Cueva de los Verdes lava tube in Lanzarote, Spain. Credit and Copyright: ESA – Alessio Romeo
For five days in November 2017, this campaign mobilized 50 people, four space agencies and 18 organizations in five different locations. The La Cueva de los Verdes lava tube was of particular importance since it is one of the world’s largest volcanic cave complexes, measuring roughly 8 km in length. Some of these caves are even large enough to accommodate residential streets and houses.
During the campaign, Mauer, Santagata, Vecchio and Lazzaroni relied on two instruments to map the lava tube in detail. These included the Pegasus Backpack, a wearable mapping solution that collects geometric data without a satellite ad synchronizes images collected by five cameras and two 3D imaging laser profilers, and the Leica BLK360 – the smallest and lightest imaging scanner on the market.
In less than three hours, the team managed to map all the contours of the lava tube. And while the results of the campaign continue to be analyzed, the team chose to use the data they obtained to produce a 3D visual of all the twists and turns of the lava tube. The scan that resulted covers a 1.3 km section of the cave system with an unprecedented resolution of a few centimeters.
Santagata and the Virtual Geography Agency also turned their 3D visual into a lovely video titled “Lave tube fly-through”, which beautifully illustrates the winding and organic nature of the lava tube system. This video was posted to the ESA’s twitter feed on Tuesday, March 13th (shown above). This video, like the scans that preceded it, represent a breakthrough in geological mapping and astronaut training.
While lava tubes have been mapped since the 1970s, a clear view of this subterranean passage has remained elusive until now. Beyond being the first, the scans the team conducted could also help scientists to study the origins of the cave system, its peculiar formations, and assist local institutions in protecting the subterranean environment. As intended, the scans could also assist future space exploration and colonization efforts.
Pangaea-X arrives at the entrance to La Cueva de los Verdes lava tube. Credit and Copyright: ESA–Robbie Shone
For instance, the 8 km lava tube has both dry and water-filled sections. In the six-kilometer dry section, the lava tube has natural openings (jameos), that are aligned along the top of the cave pathway. These formations are very similar to “skylights” that have been observed on the Moon and Mars, which are holes in the surface that open into stable lava tubes.
Such structures are considered to be a good place for building outposts and colonies since they are naturally shielded from radiation and micrometeorites. Lava tubes also have a constant temperature, therefore offering protection against environmental extremes, and could provide access to underground sources of water ice. Some sections could also be sealed off and pressurized to create a colony.
As such, exploring such environments here on Earth is a good way to train astronauts to explore them on other bodies. As all astronauts know, mapping an environment is the first step in exploration, especially when you are looking for a place to establish a base camp. And in time, this information can be used to establish more permanent settlements, giving rise to eventual colonization.
You can now enable the Amazon Astronomy Cast skill on your Alexa enabled device (in the US now, Canada soon)!
You just log into your Alexa dashboard, go to the Skills, and look for “Astronomy Cast.” Or, even easier than that, just say “Alexa, enable Astronomy Cast!”
You can tell Alexa to skip episodes, back up or jump forward within the same podcast for a certain number of minutes, and many other commands.
Here’s a video from another podcast, The School of Podcasting, that shows you how it works!
School of Podcasting Now On Amazon Alexa - YouTube
In 1961, famed astrophysics Frank Drake proposed a formula that came to be known as the Drake Equation. Based a series of factors, this equation sought to estimate the number of extra-terrestrial intelligences (ETIs) that would exist within our galaxy at any given time. Since that time, multiple efforts have been launched to find evidence of alien civilizations, which are collectively known as the search for extra-terrestial intelligence (SETI).
The most well-known of these is the SETI Institute, which has spent the past few decades searching the cosmos for signs of extra-terrestrial radio communications. But according to a new study that seeks to update the Drake Equation, a team of international astronomers indicate that even if we did find signals of alien origin, those who sent them would be long dead.
Frank Drake writing his famous equation on a white board. Credit: SETI.org
To recap, the Drake Equation states that the number of civilizations in our galaxy can be calculated by multiplying the average rate of star formation in our galaxy (R*), the fraction of stars that have planets ( fp), the number of planets that can support life (ne), the number of planets that will develop life (fl), the number of planets that will develop intelligent life (fl), the number that will develop transmissions technologies (fc), and the length of time that these civilizations will have to transmit signals into space (L).
This can be expressed mathematically as: N = R* x fp x ne x fl x fi x fc x L. For the sake of their study, the team began by making assumptions about two key parameters of the Drake Equation. In short, they assume that civilizations emerge in our galaxy (N) at a constant rate, and that they will not emit electromagnetic radiation (i.e. radio transmissions) indefinitely, but will experience some type of limiting event over time (L).
As Dr. Grimaldi explained to Universe Today via email:
“We assume that hypothetical communicating civilizations (the emitters) send isotropic electromagnetic signals for a certain duration of time L, and that the birthrate of the emissions is constant. Each emission process gives rise to a spherical shell of thickness cL (where c is the speed of light) filled by electromagnetic waves. The outer radii of the spherical shells grow at the speed of light.”
360-degree panorama view of the Milky Way (an assembled mosaic of photographs) by the ESO. Credit: ESO/S. Brunier
In short, they assumed that technologically-advanced civilizations are born and die in our galaxy at a constant rate. However, these civilizations do not produce communications at an indefinite rate, but their communications will still be traveling outwards at the speed of light, where they will be detectable within a certain volume of space. The team then developed a model of our galaxy to determine whether humanity would have any change at detecting these signals.
This model treated alien communications as a donut-shaped (annulus) shell that gradually passes through our galaxy. As Dr. Grimaldi explained:
“We model the Galaxy as a disk. The emitters occupy random positions in the disk. Each spherical shell intersects the disk in annuli. The probability that an annulus crosses any given point of the disk (e.g. the Earth) is just the ratio between the area of the annuli and the area of the galactic disk. The total area of the annuli over the area of the galactic disk gives the mean number (N) of electromagnetic signals that intersect any given point (e.g. the Earth). This mean number is a key quantity, because SETI can detect signals only if these cross the Earth at the time of measurement.”
As they determined from their calculations, two cases emerge from this model based on whether the radiation shells are (1) thinner than the size of the Milky Way or (2) thicker. These correspond to the lifetimes of technologically-advanced civilizations (L), which could be less than or greater than the time it takes for light to cross our Milky Way (i.e. ~100,000 years). As Dr. Grimaldi explained:
“The mean number (N) of signals crossing Earth depends on the signal longevity (L) and their birthrate. We find that N is just L times the birthrate, which coincides with Drake’s N (that is, the mean number of currently emitting civilizations). This result (mean number of signals crossing Earth = Drake’s N) arises naturally from our assumption that the birthrate of signals is constant.”
Photo of the central region of the Milky Way Credit: UCLA SETI Group/Yuri Beletsky, Carnegie Las Campanas Observatory
In the first case, each shell wall would have a thickness smaller than the size of our galaxy and would fill only a fraction of the galaxy’s volume (thus inhibiting SETI detection). However, if there is a high enough birthrate of detectable civilizations, these shell walls may fill our galaxy and even overlap. In the second case, each radiation shell would be thicker than the size of our galaxy, making SETI detection more likely.
From all this, the team also calculated that the average number of E.T. signals crossing Earth at any given time would equal the number of civilizations currently transmitting. Unfortunately, they also determined that the civilizations we would be hearing from would have long since gone extinct. So basically, the civilizations we would be hearing from would not be the same ones that were presently broadcasting.
As Dr. Grimaldi explained, this raises a rather interesting implication when it comes to SETI research:
“Instead of viewing the Drake’s N as a product of probability factors for the development of communicating civilizations, our results imply that Drake’s N is a directly measurable quantity (at least in principle) because it coincides with the mean number of signals crossing Earth.”
For those hoping to find evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligence in our lifetime, this is likely to be a bit discouraging. On the one hand (and depending on the number of alien civilizations that exist in our galaxy), we may have a hard time picking up extra-terrestrial transmissions. On the other, those that we do find may be coming from a civilization that has long since gone extinct.
Radio-telescopes in SETI’s Allen Telescope Array (ATA) hard at work with the Milky Way in the background. Image: SETI
It also means that if any civilization should pick up our radio wave transmissions someday, we won’t be around to meet them. However, it does not rule out the possibility that we will find evidence that intelligent life has existed within our galaxy in the past. In fact, over the course of own our civilization’s lifetime, humanity may find evidence of multiple ETIs that existed at one time.
In addition, none of this negates the possibility of finding evidence of an existing civilization. It’s just not likely we’ll be able to sample their music, entertainment or messages first!
In his current position as Visiting Vehicles Officer in Mission Control at JSC, Ethan Good supports cargo and (eventually) commercial crew flights to/from the International Space Station. Previously, Ethan completed three summer-winter contracts as a Research Scientist at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, as well as served as commander of a four-person crew during a two-week HERA study in 2015.
If you would like to join the Weekly Space Hangout Crew, visit their site here and sign up. They’re a great team who can help you join our online discussions!
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Dr. Stephen Hawking, the famed British theoretical physicist, science communicator, author and luminary, passed away in the early hours on Wednesday, March 14th. According to a statement from his family, the renowned scientist died peacefully in his home at Cambridge. He was 76 years old, and is survived by his first wife, Jane Wilde, and their three children – Lucy, Robert and Tim.
Dr. Hawking spent the past 50 years living with a terminal illness that slowly deprived him of his speech and the use of much of his body. He also leaves behind an unparalleled scientific legacy and millions of people worldwide who admired him for his genius, his sense of humor, and the way he sought to educate people on the importance of scientific research, space exploration, and disability awareness.
In 1963, when he was just 21 years old, Dr. Hawking was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, aka. Lou Gehrig’s disease), a degenerative form of motor neurone disease that would be with him for the rest of his life. At the time, he was told that he had only two years to live. This diagnosis caused Dr. Hawking to fall into a depression and lose interest in his studies, which he was pursuing at Cambridge University at the time.
Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde on their wedding day, July 14th, 1966. Credit: telegraph.co.uk
However, his outlook soon changed as the disease progressed slower than his doctor’s originally though. It was also around this time that Hawking met his first wife, Jane Wilde. The two became engaged in October of 1964 and married on July 14th, 1966. Hawking would later say that his relationship with Wilde gave him “something to live for”.
The slow progression of the disease also allowed Dr. Hawking to embark on a career marked by brilliance, brashness, and original thinking. Among his many achievements, Dr. Hawing was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, the Founder of the Center for Theoretical Cosmology, and served as the Sally Tsui Wong-Avery Director of Research at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics until his passing.
During his lifetime, Dr. Hawking made invaluable contributions to the fields of theoretical physics and cosmology. These include his extensive work on gravitational singularity theorems (in collaboration with Roger Penrose), the theory that black holes emit radiation (often called Hawking Radiation), and a theory of cosmology that attempted to unify general relativity and quantum mechanics (aka. Theory of Everything).
OPeter Higgs and Stephen Hawking visiting the “Collider” exhibition at London’s Science Museum (Image: c. Science Museum 2013)
His many accolades, honors and awards included being made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (FRSA), a lifetime member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the highest civilian award in the United States. In 2002, Hawking was ranked number 25 in the BBC’s poll of the 100 Greatest Britons.
President Barack Obama talks with Stephen Hawking in the Blue Room of the White House before a ceremony presenting him and 15 others the Presidential Medal of Freedom, August 12, 2009. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
In a statement by his three children, Lucy, Robert and Tim praised their father’s courage and persistence and honored how his genius and sense of humor inspired people all across the world:
“We are deeply saddened that our beloved father passed away today. He was a great scientist and an extraordinary man whose work and legacy will live on for many years… He once said, ‘It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.’ We will miss him forever.”
News of his passing was also met with a flurry of condolences by friends, colleagues, fans, and people whose lives he touched over the years. NASA tweeted the following early this morning, followed by a video of Dr. Hawking addressing the astronauts of the ISS in 2014:
Famed scientists and science communicator Neil DeGrasse Tyson also expressed his condolences, tweeting:
His passing has left an intellectual vacuum in his wake. But it's not empty. Think of it as a kind of vacuum energy permeating the fabric of spacetime that defies measure. Stephen Hawking, RIP 1942-2018. pic.twitter.com/nAanMySqkt
Despite having lived for five decades with this degenerative disease, Hawking had a very practical and courageous attitude about life. In 2011, he said in an interview with The Guardian that death was never far from his mind. “I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years,” he said. “I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first.”
Hawking, a well-known atheist, was also clear on his thoughts on an afterlife. “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail,” he said. “There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”
Dr. Hawking’s life and his contributions to science have been commemorated in many ways over the years. A film version of A Brief History of Time, directed by Errol Morris and produced by Steven Spielberg, premiered in 1992. In 1997, a six-part television series Stephen Hawking’s Universe premiered on PBS, with a companion book also being released. In 2014, the story of his diagnosis and the impact it had on his young family was showcased in the Oscar-winning film The Theory of Everything.
Stephen Hawking is a major proponent for colonizing other worlds, mainly to ensure humanity does not go extinct. Credit: educatinghumanity.com
Dr. Hawking has also been a major role model for people dealing with disabilities and degenerative illnesses and played an unparalleled role when it came to disability awareness and outreach. In 1999, he and eleven other luminaries joined with Rehabilitation International , an organization founded in 1922 “To advance the rights and inclusion of persons with disabilities across the world.”
In 2000, Dr. Hawking and his fellow luminaries signed the Charter for the Third Millennium on Disability, which called on governments around the world to prevent disabilities and protect disability rights. Throughout his life, Dr. Hawking also remained a committed educator – personally supervising 39 successful PhD students – and lending his voice to scientific and humanitarian goals.
These include Breakthrough Initiatives, an effort to search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) in the Universe, which Dr. Hawking helped launch in 2015. That same year, he also used his influence and celebrity status to promote the The Global Goals, a series of 17 goals adopted by the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit to end extreme poverty, social inequality, and fixing climate change over the course of the next 15 years.
To commemorate his life and legacy, a book of condolence has been opened at Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge, where Prof Hawking was a fellow. All around the world, there are outpourings of remembrance and support for his family from people who are mourning Dr. Hawking’s passing and celebrating his life and achievements.
As Neil DeGrasse Tyson said, the death of Dr. Hawking has left a vacuum in the scientific community, and in the hearts of people everywhere. However, his life and his many contributions shall be remembered for a long time to come!
On March 1st, 2016, American astronaut Scott Kelly returned to Earth after spending a total of 340 days aboard the International Space Station (ISS). As part of NASA’s goal to send astronauts on long-duration space flights to Mars and beyond, this record-setting stay in space was designed to test the limit of human endurance in a microgravity environment.
Also known as the Twin Study, this experiment consisted of Kelly spending nearly a year in space while his identical twin (Mark Kelly) remained on Earth. Since Kelly’s return, the two have been subjected to medical tests to see what long-term effects microgravity has had of Scott’s Kelly’s physique. The final results of this test, which were just released, reveal that Scott has experienced changes at the genetic level.
The study was conducted by NASA’s Human Research Program, and the preliminary findings were released at their Investigator’s Workshop on the week of January 23rd, 2017. According to these findings, Scott Kelly showed indications of inflammation, changes in his telomeres and telomerase (parts of the chromosonal system related to aging), a decrease in bone density and gastrointestinal changes – all of which were expected.
NASA’s astronaut twins, Scott Kelly (l) and Mark Kelly (r). Image: NASA
As NASA reported in their preliminary findings:
“By measuring large numbers of metabolites, cytokines, and proteins, researchers learned that spaceflight is associated with oxygen deprivation stress, increased inflammation, and dramatic nutrient shifts that affect gene expression… After returning to Earth, Scott started the process of readapting to Earth’s gravity. Most of the biological changes he experienced in space quickly returned to nearly his preflight status. Some changes returned to baseline within hours or days of landing, while a few persisted after six months.”
At the same time, the study took into account possible genomic and cognitive changes between the two brothers. These findings were recently clarified by NASA, which indicated that 93% of Scott Kelly’s genes returned to normal after he returned to Earth while the remaining 7% points were missing. These were attributed to “longer-term changes in genes related to his immune system, DNA repair, bone formation networks, hypoxia, and hypercapnia.”
In other words, in addition to the well-documented effects of microgravity – such as muscle atrophy, bone density loss and loss of eyesight – Scott Kelly also experienced health effect caused by a deficiency in the amount of oxygen that was able to make it to his tissues, an excess of CO2 in his tissues, and long-term effects in how his body is able to maintain and repair itself.
Speed of Sound - YouTube
At the same time, the report indicated that Scott Kelly experienced no significant changes when it came to cognitive performance. The preliminary findings touched on this, indicating that Scott showed a slight decrease in speed and accuracy when undergoing cognitive performance testing compared to his brother. This decrease was more pronounced when he first landed, but was attributed to readjustment to Earth’s gravity.
Mathias Basner – a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, who was in charge of conducting the tests – also found no real difference in cognition between 6 month and 12 month missions. This is especially important since typical stays aboard the ISS last six months, whereas long term missions to Mars would take 150-300 days – depending on the alignment of the planets and the speed of the spacecraft.
A two way trip to Mars, as well as the time spent in Mars lower-gravity environment (37.6 % that of Earth’s), could take multiple years. As such, the Twin Study was intrinsic to NASA’s efforts to prepare for its proposed “Journey to Mars“, which is expected to take place sometime in the 2030s. These and other studies being conducted aboard the ISS seek to determine what the long-term effects on astronaut health will be, and how they can be mitigated.
The NASA Twin Study was the result of a partnership between 10 individual investigations, 12 colleges and universities, NASA’s biomedical labs and the National Space Biomedical Research Institute Consortium.
Scott Kelly’s stay in space and the Twin Study will also be the subject of a PBS documentary titled “Beyond a Year in Space“. Be sure to check out the teaser trailer here:
BEYOND A YEAR IN SPACE | Official Teaser Trailer | PBS - YouTube
The launch of the Falcon Heavy , which took place on Feb. 6th, 2018, was an historic event. After years of preparation, SpaceX successfully launched the heaviest vehicle in its arsenal, which has a lift capacity that is over twice as much as the next heaviest rocket (the United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy). The launch also demonstrated SpaceX’s commitment to reusability, where two of the three cores were recovered afterwards.
In addition, the launch was a media frenzy as the heavy rocket deployed some very unusual cargo – a Tesla Roadster with Starman (an empty spacesuit) in the driver’s seat. In honor of this event, the company has released a video that showcases the highlights of the launch. Consistent with the theme of the launch, the video was set to David Bowie’s 1971 hit “Life on Mars”, and is quite emotional to watch!
The Tesla Roadster and its pilot “Starman” leaving Earth behind. Image: SpaceX
The video begins by showing the crowds assembled outside of SpaceX’s launch site at Space Complex 39A at Cape Canaveral, Florida. We then see Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster and Starman being loaded aboard the Falcon Heavy payload capsule. What follows is the rollout of the Falcon Heavy at Cape Canaveral, its deployment on the launch pad, and the rocket blasting off.
This is where things get emotional as Bowie’s song hits a crescendo and people on the ground and in the launch complex celebrate the successful launch. We are also treated to some footage of Starman and the Roadster being deployed once they reach orbit. As Starman floats in full view of Earth, we also see the successful recovery of two of the Falcon 9 cores, and the crashing at sea of the third.
While the video manages to cover all the major aspects of the launch, the real focus is definitely on the people who witnessed the event. As the video plays, you can see the anticipation and hope as the rocket is preparing for launch and the sense of elation that came from its success. This is in keeping with Elon Musk’s vision for SpaceX, which he founded in 2002 to inspire public interest in renewed space exploration.
Why Falcon Heavy & Starman?
Life cannot just be about solving one sad problem after another. There need to be things that inspire you, that make you glad to wake up in the morning and be part of humanity. That is why we did it. We did for you. https://t.co/5STO7q4wro
“Life cannot just be about solving one sad problem after another. There need to be things that inspire you, that make you glad to wake up in the morning and be part of humanity. That is why we did it. We did for you.”
Of course, one can’t forget how the launch also signaled that SpaceX is one step closer to achieving Musk’s other dream – which is to reduce the cost associated with space launches by making rockets fully reusable and restoring domestic launch capability to the United States. Now that SpaceX is capable of lifting 64 metric tons (141,000 lbs), NASA won’t have to depend on Roscosmos to send crews and heavy payloads into orbit much longer.
Once deployed, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be the most powerful telescope ever built. As the spiritual and scientific successor to the Hubble, Spitzer, and Kepler space telescopes, this space observatory will use its advanced suite of infrared instruments to the look back at the earliest stars and galaxies, study the Solar System in depth, and help characterize extra-solar planets (among other things).
Unfortunately, the launch of the JWST has been subject to multiple delays, with the launch date now set for some time in 2019. Luckily, on Thursday, March 8th, engineers at the Northrop Grumman company headquarters began the final step in the observatory’s integration and testing. Once complete, the JWST will be ready to ship to French Guiana, where it will be launched into space.
This final phase consisted of removing the combined optics and science instruments from their shipping containers – known as the Space Telescope Transporter for Air, Road and Sea (STTARS) – which recently arrived after being testing at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. This constitutes half the observatory, and includes the telescope’s 6.5 meter (21.3 foot) golden primary mirror.
The Space Telescope Transporter for Air, Road and Sea (STTARS) being opened at Northrop Grumman on March 8th, 2018, to reveal the combined optics and science instruments of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Credits: NASA/Chris Gunn
The science payload was also tested at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center last year to ensure it could handle the vibrations associated with space launches and the temperatures and vacuum conditions of space. The other half of the observatory consists of the integrated spacecraft and sunshield, which is in the final phase of assembly at the Northrop Grumman company headquarters.
These will soon undergo a launch environment test to prove that they are ready to be combined with the science payload. Once both halves are finished being integrated, addition testing will be performed to guarantee the fully assembled observatory can operate at the L2 Earth-Sun Lagrange Point. As Eric Smith, the program director for the JWST at NASA Headquarters, said in a recent NASA press statement:
“Extensive and rigorous testing prior to launch has proven effective in ensuring that NASA’s missions achieve their goals in space. Webb is far along into its testing phase and has seen great success with the telescope and science instruments, which will deliver the spectacular results we anticipate.”
These final tests are crucial to ensuring that that the observatory deploys properly and can operate once it is in space. This is largely because of the telescope’s complicated design, which needs to be folded in order to fit inside the Ariane 5 rocket that it will carry it into space. Once it reaches its destination, the telescope will have to unfold again, deploying its sunshield, mirrors and primary mirror.
The James Webb Space Telescope’s sunshield being deployed inside a cleanroom at Northrop Grumman’s company headquarter’s, in October 2017. Credits: Northrop Grumman
Not only does all of this represented a very technically-challenging feet, it is the first time that any space telescope has had to perform it. Beyond that, there are also the technical challenges of building a complex observatory that is designed to operate in space. While the JWST’s optics and science instruments were all built at room temperature here on Earth, they had to be designed to operate at cryogenic temperatures.
As such, its mirrors had to be precisely polished and formed that they would achieve the correct shape once they cool in space. Similarly, its sunshield will be operating in a zero gravity environment, but was built and tested here on Earth where the gravity is a hefty 9.8 m/s² (1 g). In short, the James Webb Space Telescope is the largest and most complex space telescope ever built, and is one of NASA’s highest priority science projects.
It is little wonder then why NASA has had to put the JWST through such a highly-rigorous testing process. As Smith put it:
“At NASA, we do the seemingly impossible every day, and it’s our job to do the hardest things humankind can think of for space exploration. The way we achieve success is to test, test and retest, so we understand the complex systems and verify they will work.”
The James Webb Space Telescope (which is scheduled to launch in 2019) will be the most powerful telescope ever deployed. Credit: NASA/JPL
Knowing that the JWST is now embarking on the final phase of its development – and that its engineers are confident it will perform up to task – is certainly good news. Especially in light of a recent report from the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), which stated that more delays were likely and that the project would probably exceed its original budget cap of $8 billion.
As the report indicated, it is the final phase of integration and testing where problems are most likely to be found and schedules revised. However, the report also stated that “Considering the investment NASA has made, and the good performance to date, we want to proceed very systematically through these tests to be ready for a Spring 2019 launch.”
In other words, there is no indication whatsoever that Congress is considering cancelling the project, regardless of further delays or cost overruns. And when the JWST is deployed, it will use its 6.5 meter (21-foot) infrared-optimized telescopes will search to a distance of over 13 billion light years, allow astronomers to study the atmospheres of Solar Planets, exoplanets, and other objects within our Solar System.
So while the JWST may not make its launch window in 2019, we can still expect that it will be taking to space in the near future. And when it does, we can also expect that what it reveals about our Universe will be mind-blowing!
Some might think it’s paranoid to think about an asteroid hitting Earth and wiping us out. But the history of life on Earth shows at least 5 major extinctions. And at least once, about 65 million years ago, that extinction was caused by an asteroid.
Preparing for an asteroid strike, or rather preparing to prevent one, is rational thinking at its finest. Especially now that we can see all the Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs) out there. The chances of any single asteroid striking Earth may be small, but collectively, with over 15,000 NEAs catalogued by NASA, it may be only a matter of time until one comes for us. In fact, space rocks strike Earth every day, but it’s the ones large enough to do serious damage that concern NASA.
NASA has been thinking about the potential for an asteroid strike on Earth for a long time. They even have an office dedicated to it. It’s called the Office of Planetary Defense, and minds there have been putting a lot of thought into detecting hazardous asteroids, and deflecting or destroying any that pose a threat to Earth.
One of NASA’s proposals for dealing with an incoming asteroid is getting a lot of attention right now. It’s called the Hyper-velocity Asteroid Mitigation Mission for Emergency Response, or HAMMER. HAMMER is just a concept right now, but it’s worth talking about. It involves the use of a nuclear weapon to destroy any asteroid heading our way.
The use of a nuclear weapon to destroy or deflect an asteroid seems a little risky at first glance. They’re really a weapon of last resort here on Earth, because of their potential to wreck the biosphere. But out in space, none of that applies. If scientists sound a little glib when talking about HAMMER, the reality is they’re not. It makes perfect sense. In fact, it may be the only sensible use for a nuclear weapon.
The idea behind HAMMER is pretty simple; it’s a spacecraft with an 8.8 ton tip, either a nuclear weapon of just 8.8 tons of mass. Once we detect an asteroid on a collision course with Earth, we use space-based and ground-based systems to ascertain its size. If its small enough, then HAMMER will not require the nuclear option. Just striking a small asteroid with sufficient mass will divert it away from Earth.
If the incoming asteroid is larger, or if we don’t detect it early enough, then the nuclear option is chosen. HAMMER would be launched with an atomic warhead on it, and the incoming offender would be destroyed. Sounds simple enough, right?
But it’s a little more complicated than that.
We’ve gotten a lot better at detecting NEOs, PHO, and NEAs lately. We have telescopes and projects dedicated to cataloguing them, like Pan-STARRS and . And in the next few years, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) will come online, boosting our detection capabilities even further.
One of NASA’s proposals for dealing with an incoming asteroid is getting a lot of attention right now. It’s called the Hyper-velocity Asteroid Mitigation Mission for Emergency Response, or HAMMER. HAMMER
Mention Russians too, also, “In a way, these methods of destroying or deflecting menacing asteroids are really just part of our new relationship with these chunks of rock.” Talk mining, bringing into orbit, etc.
It’s not just extinctions that we need to worry about. Asteroids also have the potential to cause massive climate change, disrupt our geopolitical order, and generally de-stabilize everything going on down here on Earth.
Surprising visitors like Oumuamua also pose a threat.
Include some asteroid definitions? NEO, NEA, PHO
Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS)