Alan Stern on the Pluto Revolution, the Psychology of Persistence, and “Chasing New Horizons”

By Corey S. Powell | May 4, 2018 3:10 pm
In the 1970s, the original version of the Voyager mission was supposed to include a Pluto flyby--and Alan Stern worked through many failed attempts to launch a Pluto mission in

In the 1970s, the original version of the Voyager mission was supposed to include a Pluto flyby–and Alan Stern worked through many failed attempts to launch a Pluto mission in the decades since. (Graphic: Jason Davis/The Planetary Society)

On July 14, 2015, the New Horizons spacecraft swept past Pluto, returning eye-popping images of the dwarf planet and its huge (relatively speaking) moon, Charon. At the time, the best existing images of Pluto showed nothing more than an enigmatic blur. New Horizons revealed a world of astonishing diversity: organics-coated dark patches, ice mountains, nitrogen glaciers, and methane snows, all in a state of astonishing activity considering the temperatures there are only about 40 degrees above absolute zero.

The scientific bonanza from the Pluto flyby was sweet vindication for Alan Stern, principal investigator on New Horizons. Stern spent decades fighting to make a Pluto mission happen, persisting long after it seemed like a hopeless cause. Teaming up with writer and astrobiologist David Grinspoon, Stern tells the full, thorny story in his engaging new book Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto. It’s a a tale about space science, yes, but it’s also a reminder of what can happen when you refuse to let dreams die.

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From the Overview Effect to “One Strange Rock”: A Conversation with Leland Melvin

By Corey S. Powell | April 2, 2018 2:37 pm

Leland Melvin shows the two sides of his passion, with the wonder of the "overview" showing outside his Shuttle window. [Credit: NASA]

Leland Melvin shows the two sides of his passion, with the wonder of the “overview” showing outside his Shuttle window. [Credit: NASA]

It’s hard to think of any modern human activity that has had more of a multiplicative impact on the imagination than space exploration. To date, a grand total of 562 humans have left the Earth—a trivial fraction compared to the 7.6 billion people currently staying put. Yet the images and stories of astronauts voyaging away from their home planet has transformed popular culture, education, even business and politics.

Former NASA astronaut Leland Melvin is a lead agent helping to advance that transformation. In a wide range of appearances, he speaks eloquently about the “overview effect,” the life-changing cognitive shift that comes with seeing Earth from the outside. Most recently, he has participated in the new series One Strange Rock, which embraces that effect by examining the marvels of our world from astronauts’ perspectives.

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Finding Stephen Hawking’s Star—And Finding Your Own

By Corey S. Powell | March 14, 2018 1:21 pm
In 2008, Stephen Hawking delivered a lecture on "why we should go into space" in honor of NASA's 50th anniversary. (Credit: NASA/Paul. E. Alers)

In 2008, Stephen Hawking delivered a lecture on “why we should go into space” in honor of NASA’s 50th anniversary. (Credit: NASA/Paul. E. Alers)

When I look at the night sky, I often view the stars not just in space but also in terms of their places in time. Light moves at a finite speed (299,792 kilometers per second, to be precise), so the journey from star to star is a very long one even for a beam of light. When astronomers talk about light years of distance, they are literally describing the number of years it takes for light to travel from those distant stars to your eyeball.

And so when I heard about the death of Stephen Hawking, I couldn’t help thinking about his place in the stars. At some distance from Earth, there is a star whose light (as seen right now on Earth) started its journey at the time when you were born. You can think of that as your birth star. We all have one. Hawking has one–and you can easily see it. His birth star is shining brightly in the evening tonight.

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Standing on the Shore, Grasping for the Stars

By Corey S. Powell | February 28, 2018 10:58 pm
Pioneer 10 lived up to its name, blazing a trail to the outer solar system and finding that the asteroid belt was no obstacle at all. (Credit: NASA=Ames/Rick Guidice)

The Pioneer 10 spacecraft fully lived up to its name, blazing a trail to the outer solar system and proving that the asteroid belt was no obstacle to space exploration. (Credit: NASA=Ames/Rick Guidice)

This month marks the 45th anniversary of Pioneer 10’s passage through the asteroid belt. It was a key rite of passage in humanity’s journey from this blue planet into the deep reaches of outer space. Unlike the crowded swarms of science-fiction movies, the real asteroid belt is overwhelmingly empty space. Still, nobody knew exactly what to expect. Would Pioneer 10 be pelted with dust-speck micrometeoroids? Was the asteroid belt a serious barrier to exploration?

As it turned out, the dust was even less than expected. Pioneer 10 (and the many other probes that followed) sailed through unscathed. The solar system was wide open, waiting for us.

I was thinking about Pioneer 10 this past week as I contemplated another cosmic frontier. Standing on a beach in the Yucatan, I was far enough south to see the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, glittering on the horizon. Bright. Beckoning. Waiting for us. Almost impossibly far away–but only almost. It is our human nature to explore, and I believe that it is our human destiny to find a way to the stars.

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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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