Archive for the ‘Space Exploration’ Category
I want the US, in partnership with the European Space Agency and other nations, to explore the solar system, and I want that to include continued Mars missions, with the eventual development of sending manned missions to the Red Planet. Continued space exploration is beneficial for more reasons than I am going to recount here. Suffice it to say, it’s a worthwhile project, for reasons we haven’t even conceived of yet.
So I don’t have much to add to the news of President Obama’s request for cuts to the NASA budget, which scientists are saying will cut the Mars program. Projects like the Mars program need long-term, continual support. It’s hard enough to get to Mars without worrying about the uncertainty of budget cuts.
This is of course not a done deal, and space programs like the Mars program have support in congress that could prevent this from happening. The President’s budget request does not set the agency budgets, but outlines a recommended prioritization for each agency.
TRC doesn’t often quote conservative Texas Representatives to support our arguments, but this is exactly right:
“You don’t cut spending for critical scientific research endeavors that have immeasurable benefit to the nation and inspire the human spirit of exploration we all have,” Rep. John Abney Culberson (R-Tex.) said.
NASA launched Voyager 1 in 1977, before I was born, to explore the outer reaches of our Solar System and (hopefully) that which lies beyond our Solar System. It appears that Voyager will shortly begin that second phase. Now stationed approximately 11 billion miles from our sun, the spacecraft appears poised to travel into interstellar space. Amazing.
When that actually will occur, when the spacecraft will move beyond the heliosphere –the space within the impact of solar winds provided by our sun– and into the greater Milky Way (think of passing out of Roger’s Park and into the greater Chicago Area), cannot be precisely determined. And that is to be expected. We’ve never been here before, never traveled quite this far, and cannot accurately know beforehand how such a transition from heliosphere to heliopause to interstellar space is going to unfold. New knowledge completely, very exciting times.
Here’s where Voyager is now:
“We’ve been using the flow of energetic charged particles at Voyager 1 as a kind of wind sock to estimate the solar wind velocity,” said Rob Decker, a co-investigator for Voyager‘s low-energy charged particle instrument at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. “We’ve found that the wind speeds are low in this region and gust erratically. For the first time, the wind even blows back at us. We are evidently traveling in completely new territory. Scientists had suggested previously that there might be a stagnation layer, but we weren’t sure it existed until now.”
One of the highest rewards for reading coverage of space exploration is reading a simple sentence in plain words meant to assist in human visualization of space and time, which to me, seems impossible. I’m thinking of something like this:
Traveling a billion miles every three years, the Voyager probes won’t reach the vicinity of another star for another 40,000 years.
If all goes according to plan, the Voyager Spacecrafts should be operating until 2020, or as late as 2025. Think about everything that means to accumulation of human knowledge. A human made craft, traveling beyond the borders of our solar system, providing perhaps 15 more years of data to advance our scientific understanding of the universe.
For more on the Voyager mission, go to NASA, where else?
According to Wired, “For the first time, astronomers have found a planet smack in the middle of the habitable zone of its sunlike star.” What planet is it? Well, it depends on what article you are reading.
There’s a wonderful, exciting new story radiating far beyond the science portions of the internet and receiving heavy coverage. A newly discovered planet in the habitable zone of its star. We love such stories at TRC, and follow closely the expanding catalog of planets outside our solar system.
So it was a little strange to read the sentence from Wired today. Because I’ve read it before, in Wired.
Here’s Wired today, on Kepler-22b. “For the first time, astronomers have found a planet smack in the middle of the habitable zone of its sunlike star, where temperatures are good for life.”
And, here’s Wired on September 29, 2010, on Gliese-581g: “ Gliese 581g is the first planet found to lie squarely in its star’s habitable zone, where the conditions are right for liquid water.
This isn’t anything new, or particularly problematic. It just struck me in the brain as I read the story. More than anything, such reporting likely comes just as much from enthusiasm over new discoveries in space, which are increasing in pace and wonder, as it does from a lack of critical detail. The discovery of new planets, and questions of size, temperature, atmosphere, etc. takes time and precision and confirmation. And this is space, after all. Reporting is bound to jump the gun because we are talking about planets that could support life (maybe). And at the time, Gliese-581g was thought to be the first such discovery.
But for now, to solve the mystery fr those who do not follow such matters, it looks like Kepler-22b is the first habitable planet found. Unfortunately for the first-first habitable planet, Gliese-581g, well, she may have just never been there in the first place. Following up on the de-classification of an exoplanet from habitable to non-existent makes for much less interesting copy, and is thus much more likely not to get covered in the non-science corners of the internet.
For more on Kepler-22b, look at any news source on the internet. Specifically, as usual, I recommend Bad Astronomy for a good rundown of the new, actually confirmed first discovered planet in the habitable zone of its star.
**UPDATE: Even when I think I’m covering my bases, there is still trouble in the “first” notation being given to Kepler-22b. I’m not an astrophysicist or astronomer, but my link above update his post thusly: “I have been informed that this is NOT the first planet seen in the habitable zone of another star, but the first seen by Kepler, and moreover the first that is not a gas giant.”
Sigh. Just goes to show the difficulty of such descriptions.
I found this document on the tremendously tremendous astrophysics blog Starts with a Bang. I think it is worth spending some time looking at this paper, and really contemplating the contents and what they meant for the time. Has there ever been a more remarkable travel record than this customs and immigration form filled out by Apollo 11, upon return from the first human trip to the moon?
You’ve just returned from the moon, please fill out your customs paperwork:
What are the Places? Cape Kennedy, Moon, Honolulu.
Cargo? Moon Rock and Moon Dust Samples.
In 1969, no one else had ever walked on anything other than the surface of the earth. Sci-fi had just become sci. Think about having to answer this question: Any condition on board which may lead to spread of disease?
Answer? To be determined.
(the doc is courtesy of NASA/U.S. Customs and Border Patrol)
A rare piece of good funding news came from Washington, D.C. yesterday. The Senate will continue funding for the James Webb Space Telescope, according to the mark-ups made for the 2012 budget bill. Which means that the program will be funded through to its completion and launch in 2018, assuming the funding is able to continue through the appropriations committee, pass a floor vote, be reconciled with the House budget, and passed again, then signed by President Obama. But we’ll take it as a positive.
There was much concern, expressed here previously, that the JWST would not receive the appropriations necessary to see it through to completion, due to a myriad of reasons (including NASA’s running far over-budget and extending the program years beyond deadline).
But much had been invested already, and the telescope, it is said, is 75% complete (what that means is open for discussion). It would be a great shame to have the successor to Hubble scrapped, and be left without an eye to the universe’s deepest secrets.
The scientific community galvanized around the issue, and made the funding of the JWST a priority. When the JWST is complete, astronomers and astrophysicists will see things we’ve never seen before, and learn what we don’t even know that we don’t know, or, as the saying goes discover ‘unknown unknowns.’
So congratulations to the Senate, even at this early stage, for looking beyond
to the budget woes of today, and for funding science, knowledge, and the future. Keep moving it through the process, one step at a time.
Did you hear about the discovery of a planet made of diamond? If you are interested in science, space, or use the interwebs, or receive media input from any source, I imagine you did. It was a scientific discovery that people of all ilks loved to discuss, pass around, and chat about over the water-cooler (do people still do this?).
In the general population, this is the kind of science we can all get behind. It is fun. Interesting discoveries about the universe are received, processed with minimal critical consideration, and filed away without much controversy. The national coverage allowed a few days of fame for the researches who discovered this planet, and then they went about their lives.
According to one of these scientists, Matthew Bailes, this finding will be the biggest discovery of his career because pretty much the whole world’s media covered it, and covered it positively. But at the end of the day, it’s not really that big a deal. Of course, this brush with fame did not have to go this way. Bailes wrote an article on this celebration of the diamond planet, and wondered how different his life would be if he were a climate scientist. After all, same method used to discover this planet has provided that other, easily rejected and dismissed science of the swindlers: climate change. Here’s Bailes:
Following the publication of our finding in the journal Science, our research received amazing attention from the world’s media.
The diamond planet was featured in Time Magazine, the BBC and China Daily, to name but a few.
I was asked by many journalists about the significance of the discovery. If I were honest, I’d have to concede that, although worthy of publication in Science, in the field of astrophysics it isn’t that significant.
And yet the diamond planet has been hugely successful in igniting public curiosity about the universe in which we live.
In that sense, for myself and my co-authors, I suspect it will be among the greatest discoveries of our careers.
Our host institutions were thrilled with the publicity and most of us enjoyed our 15 minutes of fame. The attention we received was 100% positive, but how different that could have been.
How so? Well, we could have been climate scientists.
Imagine for a minute that, instead of discovering a diamond planet, we’d made a breakthrough in global temperature projections.
Let’s say we studied computer models of the influence of excessive greenhouse gases, verified them through observations, then had them peer-reviewed and published in Science.
Instead of sitting back and basking in the glory, I suspect we’d find a lot of commentators, many with no scientific qualifications, pouring scorn on our findings.
People on the fringe of science would be quoted as opponents of our work, arguing that it was nothing more than a theory yet to be conclusively proven.
There would be doubt cast on the interpretation of our data and conjecture about whether we were “buddies” with the journal referees.
If our opponents dug really deep they might even find that I’d once written a paper on a similar topic that had to be retracted.
Before long our credibility and findings would be under serious question.
But luckily we’re not climate scientists.
The point that Bailes makes often goes unmentioned in popular scientific discourse in the US, where science literacy continues to decline and ignorance about the scientific method is rampant not just in the citizenry but in the media. The scientific method is the scientific method, and is no less valid a method in astronomy than it is in climate science, or any other scientific endeavor.
The labor and attention to detail and process is no more absent in climate science than in other disciplines. The need for testing and repeating hypotheses, recording observations, submitting to peer review is necessary in climate science and astrophysics, and it is a process whose participants make mistakes, and when they do they can be loud jerks, or humbly correct the record. Often they don’t make big mistakes and are quiet and desire not to be in the public eye. When something important comes about that challenges the status quo it is not hidden from view, at least not for long, and will be adopted into the scientific literature. It will be dealt with by future research, and compared to other observations, tested against other hypotheses, and the conclusions that stands up will be the conclusion that stands up.
I have said this before, and I was told that this is too rosy a picture of science. But I don’t think it is. Mostly this accusation accompanies a defense of climate science. Making that accusation against the process goes beyond climate science and attaches to capital S Science.
It is not appropriate to simply accept without question one field of research, such as astronomy or astrophysics simply because the results provide something bizarre or heretofore never envisioned, and reject another field, such as climate science, because politics allows it. If as a community we want to take science with any seriousness, then this selectivity has to be done away with. As Balies concludes:
In all fields of science, papers are challenged and statistics are debated. If there is any basis to these challenges they stand, but if not they fall by the wayside and the field continues to advance.
When big theories fall, it isn’t because of business or political pressures – it’s because of the scientific process.
Sadly, the same media commentators who celebrate diamond planets without question are all too quick to dismiss the latest peer-reviewed evidence that suggests man-made activities are responsible for changes in concentrations of CO2 in our atmosphere.
The scientific method is universal. If we selectively ignore it in certain disciplines, we do so at our peril.
Some things that I like are: History, Science, and Politics. In fact, at TRC these are three of the world’s most interesting and important pursuits. So, though I have little to add here, I wanted to post about Science Progress’s question article by Thomas Moreno: Are We Still a Nation of Science?
Why present it here? It is delightful, and because I spend a lot of time (a lot being relative) arguing that the Founding Fathers were not the Christians that today’s American Christians make them out to be. In fact, I would argue that most of them would barely qualify for salvation under the broad conservative Protestant denominations of 21st century America (half surely would not make the cut). The founders were religious folks, it is true, but not solely. They were also scientists, or at least, advocates for science.
Wondering whether scientists should engage in public debate and advocacy, Moreno writes:
There are many good reasons for science to be put on the front burner of our public agenda. More than fifty percent of our economic growth since World War II is attributable to science and technology; this is the best investment our country has made. And our scientists and engineers are the best possible advocates for reinvestment in innovation, especially considering the state of our economy.
But the very fact that American scientists feel the need to aggressively advocate for science conceal a bitter irony that the Times article failed to note: We once had a group of brilliant, influential and politically engaged leaders who were fascinated by science, wanted the country to be the world leader in the pursuit of new knowledge about the natural world, and in some cases even made original contributions.
They were called the founding fathers.
Starting with Franklin and Jefferson, and moving straight through the Revolutionary generation and beyond, the article gives a quick history of how the forces behind the greatness of America always supported, encouraged, and engaged in the sciences. Thomas Paine, for example, “theorized that there must be millions of worlds like ours millions of miles apart.” (Wonderfully spoken, Tom).
Then, argues Jonathon Moreno, modern biology arrived, and threw the whole narrative of science in the United States into disrepute. But surely we can overcome this hurdle, as reason continues to make clear that evolution is not false, and not such a terrible threat after all.
As the calls increase for United States to regain a leadership role in science and innovation and technology and space exploration and the whole endeavor, it seems useful to remember that the drive for science in society goes right back to the historical heart of the country.
Is putting people on Mars worth the money? A wandering series of thoughts on science, politics, and inspiration
I would love to go into space, especially Mars, even if nothing ever happens there*. You know Mars, fourth planet from the sun, red, god of War. I want to go. But being a middle-class Midwesterner who works in energy policy instead of some kind of m(b)illionaire with money to burn will likely keep that dream from becoming a reality. Alas.
Turns out though, lots of people want to go to Mars. And some people think that wouldn’t be all that difficult (difficult here being relative, of course). Life’s Little Mysteries has laid out a 5-step plan from Robert Zubrin to get humans to Mars, establish a base camp, and begin regular outgoing and return trips using technology that we already have. When you read the plan it seems that Mars is not that far away. Getting there would take billions of dollars, but that’s a political problem, not a scientific one.
That 5-step plan has me wondering if the hurdles to Mars are mostly financial and political. Isn’t this America? If we wanted to get to Mars, if we could overcome the politics, certainly the US could send humans to Mars. Damn right. As Zubrin says, “”We’re closer today to sending people to Mars than we were to sending people to the moon in 1969.”
But there is a real question to be asked: why should we go to Mars? Seriously. What argument would convince Americans that a trip to Mars is worth billions of dollars?
The first, and most obvious, answer is the knowledge. There’s a lot to learn, more than can be expressed in the sentiment ‘there is a lot to learn’, but why risk sending people on that trip? Take water. We’ve long since discovered that there is ice on Mars, a discovery that changes what Mars means. But now the evidence is mounting, (in full barsoomenating detail at BadAstronomy) that there is liquid water on the red planet. LIQUID! And it just might be that liquid water means life on Mars. Possibly. Well, maybe but worth looking for, for sure. For TRC, who is in a temporary political malaise, it’s a discovery that’s worth getting excited over, in the least, and maybe worth calling for manned Mars Missions, like Ross Pomeroy at Newton Blog:
It is my hope that a finding of this magnitude will spark renewed enthusiasm for devising a manned mission to the “Red Planet.” What could be more worthwhile than finally answering the question of whether or not life is only endemic to planet Earth?
If you stop reading the entry at this point, it is exciting. But it would also deny reality. Pomeroy continues:
Unfortunately, I doubt any such discussion could survive or even begin in the current political climate. A “we can’t” atmosphere has taken hold of Washington, D.C. Now, most politicians seem to look at everything through a narrow, short term lens that focuses purely on costs and poll numbers. Lost, in this distorted view, is the long-term picture.
This is what we’re doing. Focusing so narrowly on a political moment in time at the expense of the future. Is that over-simplified? Of course. Do we have serious short- and long-term political problems that need addressing? Of course. Do we need to work out this budget gridlock and our spending and debt problems? Of course. Should these political problems facing a country in 2011 involve themselves in the long-term scientific pursuit of knowledge and truth and life? A pursuit that needs steady certainty to move itself forward? No. These are politics of the moment, and we need to see beyond the moment. After all, just a flight to Mars is a political lifetime.
And this is Life on another Planet that we are talking about.
It might not be on Mars, but Life is what we’re really looking for, isn’t it? Deep down? The wonder of the cosmos, for TRC at least, is that somewhere some other life exists. Be it microbial or intelligent. It’s a marvelous thought. And that get’s to the second reason (of many) to go to Mars.
The search for liquid water and the implications for life on Mars can bring back what the American Space Program seems to be losing. Magic. Sending humans into space-to Mars, to an actually different planet than the one humans inhabit-is a mind-blowing endeavor. A collaborative, national mission to Mars is capable of inspiring literally millions of young women and men to engage in science and poetry and engineering and philosophy, and all the great pursuits of humanity. It can produce the next generation of innovators and dreamers that our nation seems to desperately need. That’s the romantic argument. The strongest one, really.
Early this morning the space shuttle Atlantis returned to Earth. It won’t fly again. The era of the shuttle is over, in America, and it is mourned at TRC. But we are optimistic that another program will come, that manned space flight in the United States will return, and we will put ourselves even farther beyond the earth than we already have. The future of Americans in space is hidden for now. But it won’t be forever.
Below a NASA photo of Atlantis touching down at 5:57 am this morning, ending the 30 year shuttle program at NASA.
It is sad news today that the US government is considering the defunding of the James Webb telescope. The telescope may or may not happen at this point, but the possibility of its demise brings up a few less than flattering characteristics of the United States in 2011 that have been ruminating around at TRC.
In an important way, the manner in which the work of NASA and space exploration is now treated is not dissimilar to the manner in which higher-education has been devalued. There is a steady stream of articles these days about how the purpose of higher-education should be getting a job, and if it is not about job placement, it is a waste of money and young people’s time is better spent elsewhere, gaining experience in the real world or pursuing an entrepreneurial opportunity.
The problem here is not that gaining real world experience or starting a small business are not viable, positive life decisions. The problem is that the role of higher-education is not to act as a career center for its students—to match the student with the appropriate job and filling the student’s brain with only that knowledge needed to perform that job. The role of higher-education is to educate students. Learning is the endgame. The career center can function as the career center. The classroom should be about teaching and learning, because, like the poster in every elementary school says: knowledge is power. I have been defending the US Space Program with this same argument for years. And I will continue for years to come.
Because this is the same misguided attitude that now seems to permeate American (or maybe just American Political) attitudes towards space exploration. It’s extremely expensive (true). NASA is poorly managed (which it is). Money at NASA doesn’t always seem to get where it is meant to go (spot-on). And really, what is the point of seeing all those strange colored wispy things way out there in the universe? Of what value is astrophysics, astronomy, cosmology when we can’t even raise the debt ceiling in the US or find enough jail cells for all our drug users? The significance is: incalculable. Knowing more about the universe, knowing the whats and hows of deep time and creation, is an end in itself, and should be, and it is of immeasurable value. Understanding the universe helps us understand our world, how it works, and what it does. But even if it didn’t, knowledge is an end worthy of pursuit.
And it leads me to wonder, is the romance of space gone? When I was a child, the idea of being an astronaut and going to space, of seeing the Earth from outside the Earth, or seeing the Moon from the Moon, was the ultimate daydream. Maybe, since the end of the USSR, and the lack of a “goal-oriented” space program—beat those Russians for the pride of all Americans!—the romance has lessened. But that too would be a saddening detail of 2011 in America. The visual and imaginative influence that shuttle program had on me as child was very real, and played a vital role in my future. Though I pursued imagination (literature) over science (though the two are in no way mutually exclusive and rely heavily upon one another) in college, the role of the shuttles and Hubble, the tragedies and victories of the program deeply affected me and the way I read Paradise Lost or wrote a silly poem about love. It happened just yesterday, as I looked over and over again, in awe, at this single picture from the Cassini Spacecraft.
Now, the shuttle program is ending, NASA will likely lose the James Webb telescope, and the astrophysicists, comsologists, and astronomers of America wonder what will become of science in the US. We hear so often, especially from our President, about the importance of bringing an emphasis back to science education in the United States. But if we continue to de-fund the projects that will provide a future of science to those students, we are passing on a vital opportunity in exchange for a short-sighted vision that will have long-term negative impacts on our future. Says Matt Mountain (from Times article, linked above), director of Space Telescope Institute, “This is particularly disappointing at a time when the nation is struggling to inspire students to take up science and engineering.”
It’s not overstating it: one de-funded project at a time, we could end up damaging the future for American Science, withholding valuable childhood daydreams, and producing not only fewer astrophysicists, but also fewer love poems. Space is not just about science, it’s about inspiration.
If you are looking for a higher authority on the subject, how about Jim Lovell, Gene Cernan and Neil Armstrong, and their editorial in the USA Today from May 24, 2011.
After a half-century of remarkable progress, a coherent plan for maintaining America’s leadership in space exploration is no longer apparent.
”We have a long way to go in this space race. But this is the new ocean, and I believe that the United States must sail on it and be in a position second to none.”
— President Kennedy
Kennedy launched America on that new ocean. For 50 years we explored the waters to become the leader in space exploration. Today, under the announced objectives, the voyage is over. John F. Kennedy would have been sorely disappointed.