Once More, Into the Unknown

By Corey S. Powell | December 31, 2018 2:26 pm
Snapshot of the solar system, highlighting the various populations in the Kuiper Belt (colors). That whole outer zone is unexplored...but not for long. (Credit: Wes Fraser, National Research Council of Canada)

Snapshot of the solar system, highlighting the various populations in the Kuiper Belt (colors). That whole outer zone is unexplored…but not for long. (Credit: Wes Fraser, National Research Council of Canada)

Novelists have “It was a dark and stormy night.” For planetary scientists, the equivalent cliche is, “We expect to be surprised.” The story of every new space mission seems to begin that way. No matter how intensely researchers study some solar-system object, no matter how they muster the best resources available on Earth, they are inevitably caught off-guard when they get to study it up close for the first time. And no matter how worn and familiar that cliche may sound, it also rings true every time. Nature’s creativity surpasses human imagination, time after time.

Even by those standards, the flight of the New Horizons probe past Ultima Thule tonight is something special. In the words of Alan Stern, the mission’s principle investigator and spiritual leader, “We’ve never, in the history of spaceflight, gone to a target we know less about.” It’s a type of object never seen up close before, a small (30 kilometers wide) member of the Kuiper Belt. Even more exciting, it belongs to the so-called “cold classical” region of the Kuiper Belt, meaning that it probably has remained largely unchanged for more than 4 billion years, frozen in deep storage 6.5 billion kilometers from the Sun.

Will it look battered from ancient collisions? Will it be covered with organic molecules from the early solar system? Will it resemble Pluto’s moons, or look like a fresh comet, or like something else entirely? Nobody knows.

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50 Years Later, Still Processing Apollo 8’s Message of Hope and Desolation

By Corey S. Powell | December 24, 2018 12:31 pm
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The photo that remade the world: Earthrise photographed by Bill Anders, at 16:40 UT on December 24, 1968. The foreground area of the moon is a little over 100 miles wide. This version has been color-corrected and rotated to a more natural orientation. (Credit: NASA)

Some two billion years ago, the first photosynthetic algae evolved the ability to respond to light—the brilliant Sun by day, the spectral Moon by night. Around 700 million years ago, primitive eye-pits appeared; then, during the Cambrian era, arthropod-like creatures gazed at the sky through true eyes, sensing the lunar rising and setting with their arthropod-like comprehension. So it continued, into the succeeding chapters of life featuring mammals, primates, hominins, and Homo sapiens, the last of them plotting the Moon’s movements and mapping the pockmarked terrain of Earth’s companion.

Then, 50 years ago, the perspective flipped. Apollo 8 took off on a figure-eight pattern around the Moon and, on December 24, 1968, three NASA astronauts peered out at the first Earthrise in the history of life. Most of the reminiscences now popping up across the media focus the Earth itself, seen gibbous and gorgeous from afar. But the true power of the image comes from its juxtaposition of two views never seen before: our blue planet, wrapped with air and water and hope, contrasted with the extraordinary gray desolation of the Moon.

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MORE ABOUT: Apollo, Earthrise

It’s a Small Solar System After All

By Corey S. Powell | November 30, 2018 10:56 pm
Asteroids Ryugu (left) and Bennu (right), shown side by side roughly to scale. Soon we'll be getting to know a lot more miniature worlds like these. (Credit: JAXA, left, NASA-GSFC/U-Az, right)

A tale of two asteroids: Ryugu (left) and Bennu (right), shown side by side roughly to scale. Ryugu is just under 1 kilometer wide; Bennu is about 500 meters. Soon we’ll be getting to know a lot more miniature worlds like these. (Credit: JAXA, left, NASA-GSFC/University of Arizona, right)

Many years ago, this magazine was owned by the Walt Disney Corporation, and I would sometimes get one of the company’s songs stuck in my head: “It’s a Small World,” the relentless musical accompaniment to the ride of the same name at Disney World in Florida. That song has popped up in my brain again recently, but in a very different and more majestic context. We are entering a new stage in the exploration of the solar system, one that inverts the theme of much that came before. Big is out and small is in.

The hot destinations in space right now are comets and asteroids–including asteroid Bennu, now coming into view of the ambitious OSIRIS-REx probe. The most innovative robotic explorers are the size of a briefcase. And in NASA’s latest pivot, the long-term plan to send humans back to the Moon and on to Mars is set to begin on a decidedly modest scale, with a set of low-budget, privately built lunar explorers. Cue the mental music: “It’s a Small Solar System (After All).”

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MORE ABOUT: asteroids, InSight, JAXA, Mars

Scientists Clash with Corporations in a Battle for the Soul of Mars

By Corey S. Powell | November 13, 2018 9:29 am
Life on Mars: One of the scientists spies on a new commercial drilling site in Season 2. (Credit: National Geographic/Richard Donnelly)

Life on Mars: One of the scientists spies on a new commercial drilling site in Season 2. (Credit: National Geographic/Richard Donnelly)

Mars the planet is a unique world: a little like Earth, a little like the Moon, but entirely a world unto itself. Mars the television show is similarly one of a kind, an unusual amalgam of scripted science fiction and serious science documentary. The fictional part of the story begins in 2033, when the spacecraft Daedalus lands on the Red Planet to establish the first human outpost there. But as so often happens in space exploration, things don’t go exactly as planned…

Season 1 of Mars was an intriguing experiment in world-building: The scripted part of the series painted a plausible portrait of how a crewed Mars mission might unfold, accidents and all, while the documentary portion grounded the story with commentary by marquee-name experts including astronaut Scott Kelly and SpaceX rocket guru Elon Musk. If the two halves didn’t entirely mesh, they at least bolstered each other. The interviews provided a reality check for the storytelling, while the dramatic elements emphasized what is really at stake. Season 2, debuting now, admirably builds on that foundation.

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What “First Man” Gets Fabulously Right About NASA: An Interview with Apollo 15 Astronaut Al Worden

By Corey S. Powell | October 13, 2018 11:41 pm
Neil Armstrong (left) as portrayed by Ryan Gosling in First Man (Credit: Universal)

Neil Armstrong (left) as portrayed by Ryan Gosling in First Man (Credit: Universal)

First Man is not like other movies about the space race, and I mean that in a very good way.

I’ll admit, I was skeptical about the director of La La Land telling the story of Neil Armstrong’s historic landing on the Moon. (Would there be songs? A scowling J.K. Simmons?) It turns out to be a synergistic pairing of artist and material. First Man brushes aside the expected saga of space cowboys saddling up their steel horses, delivering instead a moving narrative of NASA’s glory days as seen through Armstrong’s eyes.

That’s an especially impressive achievement given Armstrong’s famously private and controlled personality. Director Damien Chazelle and actor Ryan Gosling (as Armstrong) use that reticence to their advantage, examining the personal, emotional, and intellectual rigor that made the Apollo 11 triumph possible. It all adds up to a nerve-wracking and fabulously engrossing story, but at times I wondered how closely it aligned with reality. So I spoke with Al Worden, the Command Module pilot on Apollo 15, who knew Armstrong and also served as a technical advisor on the film. Worden strongly validated the authenticity of First Man. He also offered a lot of unexpected insights along the way.

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With a Rain of Robots, the Asteroid-Exploration Era Has Truly Begun

By Corey S. Powell | October 3, 2018 3:42 pm
The MASCOT lander captured this shot of Ryugu from an altitude of 20 meters, just before touching down on the asteroid. (Credit: MASCOT/DLR/JAXA)

The MASCOT lander captured this shot of asteroid Ryugu from an altitude of 20 meters (60 feet), just before touching down. More images and data will arrive in the next few days. (Credit: MASCOT/DLR/JAXA)

The MASCOT has landed.

As of two weeks ago, humans had never put a single robotic explorer on an asteroid. Now we have three of them hopping about on Ryugu, a 900-meter-wide object currently orbiting on the other side of the Sun. On September 20, Japan’s Hayabusa2 probe dropped two little landers, MINERVA II-1a and II-1b. They promptly sent back dizzying images from the surface. Then last night (October 3), the mothership deployed MASCOT, a much larger rover that is now performing a battery of studies during its rushed, 16-hour lifespan. A fourth rover and sample collection are yet to come.

What we are witnessing here is not just a single spectacular mission (though Hayabusa2 certainly is), but the beginning of a new era of solar system exploration. When the New Horizons probe flew past Pluto in 2015, that marked the end of humanity’s initial reconnaissance of the nine classical planets and the beginning of a closer look at the little-explored small objects that hold so much information about the formation and evolution of the solar system, and perhaps about the emergence of life on Earth.

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MORE ABOUT: asteroids, comet, Hayabusa

Saving the World, One Science Fair at a Time

By Corey S. Powell | September 30, 2018 4:00 pm
This is where the magic happens: The main judging hall for the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. (Credit: Chris Ayers/Society for Science & the Public)

This is where the magic happens: The main judging hall for the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, the focus of the new documentary Science Fair. (Credit: Chris Ayers/Society for Science & the Public)

When I was 16, I participated in the Montgomery County, Maryland science fair. My entry was–as I recognized even at the time–a fairly middling effort, more a research project than an original experiment. I was not surprised when I walked away with an appropriately middling “honorable mention” in my category. It was an inspiring experience anyway, for reasons that are perceptively captured in the marvelous new documentary Science Fair.

The culture of the science fair is one of profound optimism, marked by a sense of common purpose more than a sense of competition. I was certainly a little jealous of the more ambitious projects I saw all around me, but mostly I was awed by the brainpower on display, the vast range of problems that kids my age were trying to solve (or at least to understand a little better). Science Fair, the movie, fully embraces these themes as it follows nine budding researchers from around the world working their way to the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), the largest competition of its kind.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: genius, select, space, Top Posts, Uncategorized
MORE ABOUT: Science Fair

There’s Frost on the Moon — and All Across the Solar System

By Corey S. Powell | August 31, 2018 11:01 pm
Here there be water! The maps show the distribution of surface ice at the Moon's south (left) and north (right) poles. (Credit: NASA)

Here there be water! The maps show the distribution of surface ice at the Moon’s south (left) and north (right) poles. (Credit: NASA)

Yes, there is water on the Moon.

Twenty years ago, evidence of frost-coated regions near the Moon’s poles was greeted with surprise and skepticism. Ten years ago, a NASA instrument aboard India’s Chandrayaan-1 space probe greatly boosted the case for water ice on the Moon. Then two weeks ago, a much deeper analysis of the Chandrayaan-1 data validated the surprise and ended the skepticism: Some permanently shadowed “cold-trap” craters near the lunar poles clearly do contain regions that are up to 30 percent water ice.

Lunar ice could be a precious resource for future explorers, a potential source of drinking water and oxygen as well as raw material for rocket fuel. The Moon’s poles are now beckoning targets for further exploration. There’s also a broader message to the discovery of ice on the Moon. Ice, frost, and snow are ubiquitous all across the solar system. Water ice is especially abundant, but every large world across the solar system seems to have frost of some form–even in the hottest and most unlikely places.

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What is a “Habitable” Planet, Anyway?

By Corey S. Powell | July 31, 2018 11:45 pm
Exoplanets (planets around other stars) ranked by researchers at the Planetary Habitability Lab at the University of Puerto Rico. Note the abundance of disclaimers; the truth is, we know little about these planets beyond their size and their distance from their stars. (Credit: UPR Arecibo)

Exoplanets (planets around other stars) ranked by researchers at the University of Puerto Rico’s Planetary Habitability Lab. Note the abundance of disclaimers; the truth is, we know little about these worlds besides their size and the distance they orbit from their stars. (Credit: UPR Arecibo)

We are living at the greatest moment in history for finding life beyond Earth. We have robots poking and sniffing around on Mars. We have a space probe in the works that will take a close look at Europa, to examine the likelihood of life on an ice-covered ocean world. Above all, we no longer have to wonder if our solar system is unique: We know of thousands of planets around other stars, and it’s clear that the total number of planets in our galaxy alone must number in the billions, if not the trillions.

But with all these rapid advances have come acute intellectual growing pains. It is only natural that people want to know how many of those distant planets could truly support life–to know whether living worlds like our own are common or rare (or unique). The desire for answers runs far ahead of the ability of science to provide them, unfortunately. And so we end up with whiplash conclusions based on the latest speculative study: Red dwarf stars are great places to find habitable planets…or maybe they are deadly. Earth couldn’t sustain life without the Moon…or maybe the Moon is not necessary at all.

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Here’s the Answer That Will Finally Settle the “Is Pluto a Planet?” Debate for Good (Yeah, Right)

By Corey S. Powell | June 5, 2018 12:43 pm
Pluto is a beautiful world, with ice mountains, nitrogen glaciers, and methane dunes. But that doesn't make it a planet. (Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

Pluto is a beautiful world, with ice mountains, nitrogen glaciers, a haze-layered atmosphere, and methane dunes. But all that complexity does not necessarily make it a “planet.” (Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

I love Pluto. I grew up entranced by this strange little world: What could you be, you rebel that doesn’t seem to follow any of the rules? I even wrote a childhood letter to a local astronomer, offering my homespun hypothesis that Pluto might be a captured fragment of an exploded star. When the New Horizons spacecraft finally revealed the true face of Pluto, I was right there at mission control in Langley, Maryland, to watch the images as they came in.

So I have a lot of sympathy for the Pluto-lovers who were wounded when the International Astronomical Union declared that the 9th planet was not exactly a planet after all, but something called a “dwarf planet.” I also appreciate the sweet irony that the fuss over Pluto’s reclassification stirred up even more interest in the New Horizons encounter. But really, the endless effort to restore Pluto’s planetary status and relegislate the definition of a “planet” is getting tedious. Time to settle this thing.

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