Alan Stern on Pluto’s Wonders, New Horizons’ Lost Twin, and That Whole “Dwarf Planet” Thing

By Corey S. Powell | March 29, 2015 6:46 pm
New Horizons will reach Pluto in July, despite being cancelled twice during development. Alan Stern's determination was crucial to making the mission happen. In this illustration, Pluto's moon Charon is the crescent in the background. (Credit: JHUAPL/SwRI)

New Horizons will reach Pluto in July, despite being cancelled twice during development. Alan Stern’s determination was crucial to making the mission happen. In this illustration, Pluto’s moon Charon is the crescent in the background. (Credit: JHUAPL/SwRI)

You don’t have to wonder what is on Alan Stern’s mind. The planetary scientist and former NASA associate administrator is a relentless champion of all things Pluto; he is both the principal investigator and the prime mover behind the New Horizons mission, which will fly past Pluto and its moons this July 14. In advance of the encounter, Stern’s passion is building to a white heat, and he is letting everyone know it.

The excitement is infectious. Pluto is looking far more interesting than researchers realized just a few years ago. Ironically, its scientific importance has skyrocketed in the years since the International Astronomical Union demoted Pluto to “dwarf planet.” Recent theoretical models indicate that the Kuiper Belt–the population of objects, including Pluto, that orbits beyond Neptune–is key to understanding the early evolution of the outer solar system. It is home to multiple big, round objects that record the movements of water and organic chemicals at the time when Earth was forming.

Call these things in the Kuiper Belt dwarf planets, call them planets (or call them “Plutoids” and duck before Stern comes after you), whatever. They are major players in the sun’s family, many of them larger than any asteroid, and Pluto is the brightest and most complex of them all. Stern is a Pluto obsessive, but more and more it looks like the science is on his side: Pluto really is something special, and the New Horizons encounter promises to be a unique  experience. Here, Stern makes his case–and reveals surprising details about another great mission that almost happened.

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In Praise of NASA’s Ambitious Asteroid Grab

By Corey S. Powell | March 27, 2015 6:38 pm
An astronaut examines an asteroid piece in orbit around the moon in this NASA illustration.

An astronaut examines an asteroid pieced into orbit around the moon in this NASA illustration. Target date for the rendezvous: 2025.

If you pay attention to news about space exploration, you may have seen some skeptical stories about NASA’s proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission. (And even if you don’t follow such things, you might well have been dismayed by headlines announcing a “less ambitious asteroid mission” that is “unlikely to get funded.”) This is not another one of them.

I think the asteroid mission is a cool idea, and an important one. I think it will advance the cause of space exploration in several meaningful ways. And it is exactly the kind of medium-scale, focused mission that could revitalize the whole idea of sending humans on grand adventures beyond Earth orbit–if only it can make its way past the naysayers, political opponents, and misguided scientific skeptics who threaten to derail it before it even gets started.

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MORE ABOUT: Apollo, ARM, asteroid, SLS

Looking for Life in All the Wrong Places?

By Corey S. Powell | March 15, 2015 2:56 pm
Europa, seen floating in front of Jupiter, emits plumes of water from beneath its icy crust (Hubble data visualized in blue). Its buried ocean is a promising, but unexplored place to search for life. (Credit: NASA/ESA/SWRI)

Europa, seen orbiting in front of Jupiter, emits plumes of water (visualized in blue). Beneath its icy crust is an ocean as extensive as all of the oceans on Earth combined. The waters of Europa are a hugely  promising place to search for life, but so far Mars has received almost all the attention. (Credit: NASA/ESA/SWRI)

The past couple weeks have seen a brain-sparking series of discoveries that advance the search for life beyond Earth. Enceladus is emitting burps of methane, which strongly indicate the presence of a warm ocean under its ice (and which could, just possibly, hint at biological activity down there). Ganymede seems to have its own buried ocean, one that may contain more water than all of Earth’s oceans combined. A new study shows that organisms could potentially evolve in the frigid methane lakes dotting the surface of Titan. And NASA is poised to send a spacecraft to Europa to see if anything could be alive in the extensive waters below its fractured, frozen surface.

There is a surprising—no, revolutionary—theme to these announcements. All four of these bodies are icy moons in the outer solar system; Europa and Ganymede orbit Jupiter, while Enceladus and Titan circle Saturn. Titan, the largest, is less than half the diameter of Earth and is the only one with an atmosphere. Enceladus, the smallest, is just 300 miles wide. These are not at all the traditional places scientists have talked about when they considered the possibility of alien life elsewhere in the solar system.

The story used to be all about Mars. Now it is clear that most of the water, most of the organic chemistry, and by extension most of the potentially habitable territory in the solar system resides on or in ice moons. If that’s true in our solar system, there’s a good chance it’s true around other stars across our galaxy and beyond.

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The Revealingly Flawed AI of “Chappie”

By Corey S. Powell | March 7, 2015 9:45 am
Chappie (left) meets his non-AI counterpart and contemplates--just a little--what it is that distinguishes conscious matter from unconscious matter. (Credit: Sony Pictures)

Chappie (left) meets his non-AI counterpart and contemplates–just a little–what it is that distinguishes conscious matter from unconscious matter. (Credit: Sony Pictures)

What is consciousness?

That question has been fertile ground for millennia of philosophical debates, centuries of scientific research, and decades of juicy movie plots, going back at least to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. This week it gets a workout yet again in Chappie, a new movie directed by Neill Blomkamp (District 9) and starring sci-fi stalwarts Sigourney Weaver and Hugh Jackman along with—less predictably—Dev Patel, best known as the star of Slumdog Millionaire.

Broadly speaking, there are three classes of machine intelligence fiction. Class One assumes that human consciousness is unique and can exist in a machine only if that machine is part human (RoboCop is a prime example). Class Two assumes that machines can mimic many aspects of human consciousness but lack the essential soul (the Terminator movies are a modern archetype). Class Three treats consciousness as a solvable programming problem: Put in the right code, or give the wrong code some kind of mysterious scramble, and a conscious machine emerges. Familiar examples of Class Three movies include Her, AI: Artificial Intelligence and, er, Short Circuit.

Chappie falls squarely into Class Three, with all of the dramatic potentials and conceptual pitfalls it entails. I spoke with Blomkamp and his cast about why they went down this path. Their commentary explains a lot about the movie’s take on artificial intelligence and its confusing scientific politics. Chappie turns out to be a great case study in the challenges of squeezing an expansive concept into the tight confines of mainstream Hollywood entertainment.

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What a Half-Vulcan Taught Us About Science

By Corey S. Powell | February 28, 2015 3:19 pm
Leonard Nimoy (center) with most of the Star Trek cast and NASA administrator James Fletcher (far left) at the 1976 unveiling of the Space Shuttle Enterprise. (Credit: NASA)

Leonard Nimoy (center) with most of the Star Trek cast and NASA administrator James Fletcher (far left) at the 1976 unveiling of the Space Shuttle Enterprise. (Credit: NASA)

The death of Leonard Nimoy yesterday inspired an outpouring of moving testimonials about his vast impact: as an actor, as a supporter of science and smart science fiction, as a voice of reason in media both traditional and digital. You can find these memorials all over Twitter, often accompanied by incredible photos, such as this on-set candid moment and a look at his sensitive moment as an advice columnist. Look at #LLAP (live long and prosper) and see what I mean. Even President Obama weighed in with an appreciation of Nimoy.

Nimoy’s indelible, decades-long performance as Mr. Spock is one of the greatest performances ever in science fiction. He was, in many ways, the central axis of Star Trek, and Trek‘s inspiring influence on three generations of young researchers is widely acknowledged. Spock’s great importance as a role model of rational thought is also undeniable; in his tribute, Obama praised the character as “cool, logical, big-eared and level-headed.” Spock’s catch phrase was “fascinating.” No wonder that Nimoy was so beloved by so many scientists.

But the most interesting aspect of Spock is that he was not just a logical Vulcan. He was half-human, and the war between his ostensibly “rational” and “emotional” sides provided some remarkably subtle and insightful commentary on how science really works.

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MORE ABOUT: Nimoy, Shatner, Spock, Star Trek

Rosetta, the Comet, and the Science of Surprise

By Corey S. Powell | January 30, 2015 9:59 am
Comet 67P looks nothing like the European Space Agency's illustration, circulated before the encounter. The reality is far stranger and more intriguing. (Credit: ESA–C. Carreau/Rosetta-Navcam)

Comet 67P looks little like the illustration created by the European Space Agency before Rosetta’s arrival. Reality is far stranger. (Credit: ESA–C. Carreau/Rosetta-Navcam)

There is a cliche you hear all the time when scientists describe their experiments: “We expect the unexpected,” or its jokier cousin, “If we knew what we were doing it wouldn’t be called research.” (That second one is often, but dubiously, attributed to Albert Einstein.) But like many cliches, this one is built on a foundation of truth–as the comet explorations by the Rosetta spacecraft and Philae lander keep reminding us.

The latest shocks come from the huge batch of science results released last week, but the Rosetta mission has been a series of surprises going all the way back to its origins. And with another 11 months of exploring to go (the nominal mission runs to December 31) , it is safe to say that the surprises are far from over. Comet 67P/Gerisimayev-Churisamenko is not what we expected, the landing was not what we expected, and even the spacecraft itself is not what its designers intended.

You can read a nice summary of the brand new Rosetta results here, but those specific findings only begin to capture the story.

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MORE ABOUT: 67P, comet, ESA, Philae, Rosetta

Greatest Misses of Space Exploration in 2014

By Corey S. Powell | December 31, 2014 2:53 pm
NASA's warp-drive spacecraft? Uh, I don't think so. (Credit:  Mark Rademaker)

NASA’s warp-drive spacecraft? Uh, I don’t think so. (Credit: Mark Rademaker)

They can’t all be hits. Whenever you are trying to do something as ambitious as exploring the universe, some things are bound to fail. And whenever you are trying to do large, collaborative projects that involve large numbers of people and sizable sums of money, things go wrong. Stuff happens. People make mistakes, egos get in the way, and often it is just really hard to get everyone pulling in the same direction. When I looked back on the year and saw incredible high points of cosmic adventure (described in my previous post), but I also saw some notable low ones.

I don’t mean to minimize the serious problems of 2014 that played out in other areas of human experience–everything from ebola to Ukraine to ISIS to Eric Garner. Still, I look to space exploration as a celebration of the greatest, most positive things humans can achieve. When we miss the mark here, we lose an opportunity to enhance the noblest aspects of our species: our ability to work together, to value everyone with a good idea, to progress toward goals that are peaceful and shared. Exploring the universe may not put food on anyone’s plate, but it encourages the kind of minds and efforts that lead to a better quality of life for everyone.

OK, I’ll end my “up with people” moment. On to the great misses of 2014. Again, if you think I left out something important, or picked the wrong targets, please comment below or let me know via Twitter: @coreyspowell

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Greatest Hits of Space Exploration in 2014

By Corey S. Powell | December 30, 2014 3:00 pm
The moment of truth: Rosetta watches the comet, Philae heads for a landing, in this composite illustration. (Credit: ESA/ATG/Rosetta)

A defining moment of the year: Rosetta watches the comet on November 10 while Philae heads for a landing in this composite illustration. (Credit: ESA/ATG/Rosetta)

I’ll admit it, I am a sucker for year-end lists. If I’m reading one, it is a fun provocation for disagreement. If I’m writing one (like now), it is a welcome opportunity to separate the timeless from the ephemeral. Either way, such lists inspire an invigorating reconsideration of the events of the past 12 months–and for those who care about the human exploration of the universe, 2014 was a momentous year in many way.

Not all of the year’s developments were positive, of course, and not all delivered on their promise. So I’m dividing my list into “hits” and “misses.” This post covers part 1–the hits. As you’ll see, I am grading on a curve, with bonuses for boldness and demerits for projects with excessive hype or bad cost/benefit ratios. And by nature this is a subjective list. Disagree with my categories? Think I left out something important? Let me know, either in the comments or via Twitter: @coreyspowell.

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MORE ABOUT: 2014, comet, Europa, NASA, Orion, Rosetta, Titan

December Darkness Across the Universe

By Corey S. Powell | December 25, 2014 5:36 am

During the darkest days of December, it makes me feel better to think about all the other, more profound darknesses out there in the universe. A little dose of the old perspective, you know. And boy, there are a lot of them–not just a lot of dark places, but a lot of different forms of darkness out there. In fact, there’s a lot more darkness than most of us realize, for an obvious if easily overlooked reason: Space images are calibrated to highlight faint or even invisible detail, making the universe seem like a much brighter place than it really is.

Consider, for instance, Comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko, the now-famous comet being explored by the Rosetta spacecraft (and home to the intrepid, hibernating Philae lander). In all the images you see online, it looks brightly lit. Even the allegedly “true color” image, which is supposed to show what the Comet C-G would look like to the human eye up close, is a bright green-tinged gray. Here’s the truth: The comet is blacker than coal.

The range of darkness, starting with the whitest moon in the solar system (Enceladus). The moon is actually pretty dark--and take a look (if you can) at Rosetta's comet, at bottom left. (Full info and credits here.)

The range of darkness, starting with the whitest moon in the solar system (Saturn’s Enceladus, which is essentially covered with fresh snow). Earth’s moon is actually pretty dark–but that’s nothing compared to the blackness of Rosetta’s comet, at bottom right. (Full info and credits here.)

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MORE ABOUT: comet, neutrino, Pluto, Rosetta

A Revolutionary New Look at How Planets Are Born

By Corey S. Powell | November 6, 2014 12:23 pm
HL Tauri, an infant star in the constellation Taurus, is surrounded by a swirling disk of gas and dust. The dark rings mark places where planets are forming. (Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

HL Tauri, an infant star in the constellation Taurus, is surrounded by a swirling disk of gas and dust. The dark rings mark places where planets are forming. Right there, right now! (Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

It truly is revolutionary, Or you could call it the holy grail, or the smoking gun–almost any cliche you throw at it works, because this is the real deal. What you are witnessing here is nothing less than the genesis of an entire new solar system, taking place right before your eyes.

For some quick context: Ever since Immanuel Kant introduced his nebular hypothesis in 1755, scientists have strongly suspected that planets form in swirling clouds around newborn stars. Over the years the theory has grown far more refined, filled in with supercomputer simulations and with increasingly detailed studies showing that young stars are surrounded by disks of gas and dust, closely matching what the models predict. But this new image, created by the ALMA observatory in Chile, is by far the best look ever at how planets are born.

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Notes from the far edge of space, astronomy, and physics.

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