Where are You Going in 2018 (Cosmically Speaking)?

By Corey S. Powell | January 24, 2018 12:13 pm
Rotation of the Earth as seen from the DISCOVR spacecraft, 1.6 miles sunward of our planet. (Credit: NASA/NOAA)

Rotation of the Earth as seen from the DSCOVR spacecraft, located 1.5 million kilometers sunward of our planet. (Credit: NASA/NOAA)

A while back, I wrote a column for Discover analyzing your place in space: astronomers’ best look yet at where you fit into the big, crazy, cosmic scheme of things. Any discussion of where you are inevitably brings up the related question of not just where you are, but where you are going. And there’s no better time to think about where you are going that at the beginning of the year–right around the time when you realize that, once again, this isn’t going to be the year you keep all your January 1 resolutions.

How to answer the question Where are you going? depends entirely your reference frame. There is no master set of coordinates for the universe (thanks a lot, Einstein), so you can only answer the question by addressing the subordinate question, In relation to what? Fortunately, that’s exactly when things start to get interesting.

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Could a Lunar Fuel Depot Jump-Start Human Exploration of Deep Space?

By Corey S. Powell | December 29, 2017 9:46 am
Conceptual art for NASA's Deep Space Gateway. Its fate is up in the air due to uncertain funding and mission changes. (Credit: NASA)

Conceptual art for NASA’s Deep Space Gateway. Its fate is up in the air due to uncertain funding and mission changes. (Credit: NASA)

In my previous post I started a conversation with spaceflight entrepreneur Charles Miller, who shared his insights about how NASA’s human spaceflight program got been stuck in low-Earth orbit and how we could enter a new era of deep-space adventure. Part one of the interview focused on the role of private industry in radically lowering the cost of getting back to the Moon. But it left many topics unexplored.

In particular, I wanted to hear more about the economics of what some people are calling “new space”: a more flexible, commercial-oriented approach to exploration. What would the economics look like? What kind of transition would liberate us from the current bureaucratic inertia? It is easy to outline a compelling vision; it’s a lot harder to map out a realistic path to making it happen. Miller had a lot of provocative things to say here, too.

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Back to the Moon for Real: A Conversation with Private-Spaceflight Evangelist Charles Miller

By Corey S. Powell | December 24, 2017 6:56 am
The future that never happened: A bustling Mon base as envisioned by a NASA study in 1986. (Credit: NASA/Dennis M. Davidson)

The future that never happened: A bustling Mon base as envisioned by a NASA study in 1986. (Credit: NASA/Dennis M. Davidson)

NASA’s human spaceflight program has been in a state of uncertainty pretty much from the moment the Apollo 17 crew left the surface of the Moon 45 years ago this month. The Space Shuttle never became the hoped-for workhorse that would makes space access cheap and routine; the International Space Station never became a glorious gateway to deep-space exploration. Now NASA faces yet another U-turn as President Trump has directed the agency’s administrator to send astronauts back to the moon.

One problem: There is no NASA administrator (the Senate hasn’t voted on the nominee, Rep. Jim Bridenstine, so he’ll have to be renominated when congress reconvenes next month). Another problem: There is no budget to support another Apollo-style venture. So where do we go from here? I spoke with Charles Miller — a veteran of both NASA and commercial space ventures, and president of consulting company NexGen Space — to get an insider’s perspective.

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Aliens in the Mist

By Corey S. Powell | December 7, 2017 3:09 pm
A meeting of minds between Dian Fossey and one of the mountain gorillas she was studying (or the other way around?). Credit: ROBERT I.M. CAMPBELL

A meeting of minds between Dian Fossey and two of the mountain gorillas she was studying (or was it the other way around?). Credit: Robert I.M. Campbell

What would happen if we found an intelligent alien civilization that was less advanced than our own? I posed this as a hypothetical question in a recent blog post. But really, it doesn’t need to be posed as a hypothetical. The answer is playing out right now in the forests of Africa, and it doesn’t reflect very well on us.

The gorillas of Rwanda and Congo are some of our closest living relatives. They are intelligent, socially complex primates. They are also critically endangered. Poaching, hunting, warfare, land competition, and other human activities have brutalized the gorilla populations in Africa, sending them into a long decline. Starting in the 1960s, Dian Fossey stood up to protect the gorillas. In 1985 she was murdered, almost certainly because of those efforts.

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That Interstellar Asteroid is Pretty Strange. Could It Be…?

By Corey S. Powell | November 23, 2017 10:36 am
Illustration of `Oumuamua, the first-known interstellar asteroid. Its unusual shape and color offer cryptic clues about the nature of objects from other solar systems. (Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser)

Illustration of `Oumuamua, the first-known interstellar asteroid. Its unusual shape and color offer cryptic clues about the nature of objects from other solar systems. The challenge now is to find more of these messengers from the stars. (Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser)

It isn’t aliens. It’s never aliens.

That’s the only sensible answer whenever astronomers spot something truly weird in space. That unusual radio blip from the planet Ross 128b? Not aliens. Potential SETI signal SHGb02+14a? Not aliens. The mysterious ‘alien megastructure’ star? Probably not aliens, either. There are so many unexplored natural explanations for unusual phenomena, and so many ways to make errors, that the starting assumption has to be no, no, a thousand times no, it is not aliens.

Then astronomers observed `Oumuamua, the first known interstellar asteroid, as it raced out of the solar system. Its wildly elongated shape resembles that of a rocket stage or–even more enticingly–the interstellar ship from Arthur C. Clarke’s science-fiction novel Rendezvous with Rama. Soon sober-minded reporters (including this one) were exchanging curious messages: Could this ‘asteroid’ actually be an alien artifact? How would we know?

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An Astonishing Return to Jane Goodall’s Chimp Eden

By Corey S. Powell | October 23, 2017 3:56 pm
Jane Goodall at Gombe with Hugo van Lawick and his omnipresent camera. (Jane Goodall Institute)

Jane Goodall at Gombe with Hugo van Lawick and his omnipresent camera. (Credit: Jane Goodall Institute)

During the 1960s, humanity’s place in the universe changed dramatically as Soviet and American astronauts ventured off the planet and (for the Yanks, at least) onto the surface of the Moon. During those same years, humanity’s place on Earth changed rather dramatically, too, as scientists took a closer look at our primate relatives and discovered that they are a lot more like us–far more complex and sophisticated–than anyone had suspected.

One of the scientists most responsible for the latter revelation was not, by traditional standards, a scientist at all. Jane Goodall was all of 26 when she arrived at the Gombe Stream in Tanzania in 1960 to study the local chimpanzees. She had no college degree, no formal stamp of high academia. What she had was extraordinary perception, persistence, and a lack of blinding preconceptions. Due to a felicitous combination of circumstances, we are now able to relive her singular discovery process in the electrifying, astonishingly beautiful documentary Jane.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: genius, moons, NASA, select, Top Posts, Uncategorized

Last Days of Cassini: An Insider’s Story

By Corey S. Powell | September 16, 2017 6:15 am
Enceladus setting behind Saturn, as seen on September 13. This is one of the final images from Cassini. (Credit: NASA-JPL)

Enceladus setting behind Saturn, as seen on September 13. This is one of the final images from Cassini. Data from the mission revealed that Enceladus has an ice-covered ocean that could potentially support life. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The death of the Cassini spacecraft marked the end of an era–not just the end of a mission, but the end of a whole style of exploration. Cassini was a multi-billion dollar probe, a versatile scout in the style of the Voyager and Galileo probes. It bristled with instruments that allowed it to take the measure of every part of Saturn’s staggeringly complex system of moons, rings, clouds, and magnetic activity.

As Cassini’s program manager and a veteran of the mission since 1993, Earl H. Maize of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory has a unique perspective on the last days of this remarkable spacecraft. There is no other comparable mission on the drawing boards; given current political realities, there may not be another like it in our lifetimes. And yet, Cassini is a beginning as well as an end. Maize notes that omnibus missions like Cassini allow more targeted follow-ups, like the upcoming Europa Clipper and (here’s hoping) future visits to the moons Enceladus and Titan.

I spoke with Maize just ahead of Cassini’s heroic final plunge. He offered an insider’s view of how it all ended: a story of pride and scientific triumph much more than one of sadness. [For updates and other science news, follow me on Twitter: @coreyspowell]

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How Big is the Biggest Possible Planet?

By Corey S. Powell | August 4, 2017 5:37 pm
KELT-11b, one of the physically largest objects known, is 40 percent wider than Jupiter and has the density of styrofoam. (Credt: Walter Robinson/Lehigh University)

KELT-11b, one of the physically largest objects known, is 40 percent wider than Jupiter and has the density of styrofoam. (Credit: Walter Robinson/Lehigh University)

Last week, a team of astronomers reported the first potential discovery of an exomoon–a satellite orbiting a planet around another star. Part of what is so striking about the report is the scale of this possible planet-moon system. In this case, the “moon” appears to be about the size of Neptune; the planet it orbits is some 10 times the mass of Jupiter, or about 3,000 times the mass of Earth!

The system pushes at the limits of how we normally categorize objects in space and invites questions about where we stand in the scale of things. What is the biggest possible planet? Viewed through the full range of possibilities, is Earth a big planet or a small one?

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The Strangest (and Second-Strangest) Star in the Galaxy

By Corey S. Powell | June 30, 2017 11:25 pm
Two ways to look at Tabby's Star: as intriguing data, or as an invitation to flights of fancy. (Credit: Tabetha Boyajian, left; antasyWallpapers.com, right)

Two ways to look at Tabby’s Star: as intriguing data, or as an invitation to flights of fancy. (Credit: David Kipping, left; FantasyWallpapers.com, right)

There’s an old saying: “Great discoveries don’t begin with ‘eureka!’; they begin with ‘that’s funny…’” I’ve long attributed the quote to the renowned science popularizer Isaac Asimov. Jason Wright gently corrects me. He has researched the line, he explains, and could find no evidence that Asimov ever spoke or wrote those words. It was a tidy encapsulation of what Wright is about. He is attracted to the peculiar side of science, and he is also a relentless sleuth.

Wright, an astronomer at Penn State, is one of the lead researchers investigating the decidedly peculiar flickering object commonly known as Tabby’s Star or, in the popular press, as the “alien megastructure star.” The star’s behavior is so puzzling that Wright included among the possible explanations that a huge construction project is orbiting around it. (Note that he never suggested aliens were the best explanation, merely that the hypothesis could not yet be ruled out.) Lately Tabby’s Star has been acting up again, providing intriguing new data but, so far, still no definitive answers.

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What if We Discovered an Alien Civilization Less Advanced Than Our Own?

By Corey S. Powell | May 10, 2017 11:47 am
Never mind the Squire of Gothos; what if we really found an alien civilization at a 16th-century level of technological development? (Credit: Paramount)

Never mind Star Trek‘s Squire of Gothos; what if we really found an alien civilization at a 16th-century level of technological development? How would we know? How could we make contact–and should we? (Credit: Paramount)

Readers of this blog know that I’m a big fan of Quora, because it lets non-experts raise the kinds of speculative questions that don’t normally come up in formal scientific discussions. One frequent theme that comes up is the issue of what we would do if we found intelligent life on a planet around another star. A recent posting in particular caught my eye: “What would we do if we found an Earthlike planet with intelligent life that is 500 years behind us in technology and advancements?”

Well, that’s a fun thought experiment! It’s not one question, really, but a whole set of nested questions about how to find alien life, how to determine the presence of alien intelligence, how to determine the nature of that intelligence, and then how we would study it, or even try to make contact with it. There’s a big moral issue at the end, but a lot of juicy scientific ones along the way. And that got me thinking…

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