April 14, 2017

Saturn’s Moon Enceladus Shows More Signs It Could Support Alien Life

Filed under: Cool, Extraterrestrial Life, Life, Moon, Saturn — bferrari @ 9:07 am

Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus is looking more and more like a habitable world.

The same sorts of chemical reactions that sustain life near deep-sea hydrothermal vents here on Earth could potentially be occurring within Enceladus’ subsurface ocean, a new study published today (April 13) in the journal Science suggests.

These reactions depend on the presence of molecular hydrogen (H2), which, the new study reports, is likely being produced continuously by reactions between hot water and rock deep down in Enceladus’ sea.

Related: Photos of Enceladus, Saturn’s Geyser-Blasting Moon

“The abundance of H2, along with previously observed carbonate species, suggests a state of chemical disequilibria in the Enceladus ocean that represents a chemical energy source capable of supporting life,” Jeffrey Seewald, of the Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry Department at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, wrote in an accompanying “Perspectives” piece in the same issue of Science. (Seewald was not involved in the new Enceladus study.)

A Geyser-Blasting Ocean World

The 313-mile-wide (504 kilometers) Enceladus is just Saturn’s sixth-largest moon, but the object has loomed large in the minds of astrobiologists since 2005.

In that year, NASA’s Saturn-orbiting Cassini spacecraft first spotted geysers of water ice erupting from “tiger stripe” fissures near Enceladus’ south pole. Scientists think these geysers are blasting material from a sizeable ocean buried beneath the satellite’s ice shell.

So, Enceladus has liquid water, one of the key ingredients required for life as we know it. (This ocean stays liquid because Saturn’s immense gravitational pull twists and stretches the moon, generating internal “tidal” heat.) And the new study suggests that the satellite possesses another key ingredient as well: an energy source.


A team of researchers led by Hunter Waite, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, analyzed observations made by Cassini during an October 2015 dive through Enceladus’ geyser plume.

This plunge was special in several ways. For one thing, it was Cassini’s deepest-ever dive through the plume; the probe got within a mere 30 miles (49 km) of Enceladus’ surface. In addition, Cassini’s Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS) instrument alternated between “open-source” and “closed-source” modes during the encounter, rather than sticking to closed source (the usual routine).

INMS is just 0.25 percent as sensitive in open-source mode as it is in closed-source mode, Waite and his colleagues wrote in the new Science paper. But open source has a key advantage: It minimizes artifacts that have complicated previous attempts to measure H2 levels in the plume.

With this analytical hurdle cleared, Waite and his team were able to calculate that H2 makes up between 0.4 percent and 1.4 percent of the volume of Enceladus’ geyser plume. Further calculations revealed that carbon dioxide (CO2) makes up an additional 0.3 percent to 0.8 percent of the plume’s volume.

Related: Inside Enceladus, Icy Moon of Saturn (Infographic)

The molecular hydrogen is most likely being produced continuously by reactions between hot water and rock in and around Enceladus’ core, Waite and his colleagues concluded. They considered other possible explanations and found them wanting. For example, neither Enceladus’ ocean nor its ice shell are viable long-term reservoirs for volatile H2, the authors wrote, and processes that disassociate H2 from water ice in the shell don’t seem capable of generating the volume measured in the plume.

The hydrothermal explanation is also consistent with a 2016 study by another research group, which concluded that tiny silica grains detected by Cassini could have been produced only in hot water at significant depths.

“The story seems to be fitting together,” Chris Glein of SwRI, a co-author of the new Science paper, told

Deep-Sea Chemical Reactions

Earth’s deep-sea hydrothermal vents support rich communities of life, ecosystems powered by chemical energy rather than sunlight.

“Some of the most primitive metabolic pathways utilized by microbes in these environments involve the reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) with H2 to form methane (CH4) by a process known as methanogenesis,” Seewald wrote.

The inferred presence of H2 and CO2 in Enceladus’ ocean therefore suggests that similar reactions could well be occurring deep beneath the moon’s icy shell. Indeed, the observed H2 levels indicate that a lot of chemical energy is potentially available in the ocean, Glein said.

“It’s quite a bit larger than the minimum energy required to support methanogenesis,” he said.

Glein stressed, however, that nobody knows whether such reactions are actually occurring on Enceladus.

“This is not a detection of life,” Glein said. “It increases the habitability, but I would never suggest that this makes Enceladus more or less likely to have life itself. I think the only way to answer that question is, we need data.”

Seewald also counseled caution on astrobiological interpretations. He noted, for example, that molecular hydrogen is rare in Earth’s seawater, because hungry microbes quickly gobble it up.

“Is the presence of H2 in the Enceladus ocean an indicator for the absence of life, or is it a reflection of the very different geochemical environment and associated ecosystems on Enceladus?” Seewald wrote. “We still have a long way to go in our understanding of processes regulating the exchange of mass and heat across geological interfaces that define the internal structure of Enceladus and other ice-covered planetary bodies.”

Originally published on

August 24, 2016

‘Second Earth’ exoplanet found right under our noses – just four light years away

Filed under: Cool, Cosmology, Exoplanets, Extraterrestrial Life, Life, Outer Solar System — bferrari @ 2:29 pm

Proxima b is a likely target for Starshot project


Artist's impression of Proxima b and Proxima Centauri [Photo credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser]

Artist’s impression of Proxima b and Proxima Centauri [Photo credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser]

Rumours that a terrestrial planet orbiting Proxima Centauri – the Sun’s closest neighbour – may be Earth-like have been confirmed today in a paper published in Nature.

The possibility that extraterrestrial life may exist next door was first reported last week in Der Spiegel, a German weekly news magazine.

Excitement bubbled over and the European Southern Observatory refused to confirm or deny the rumours, as it wanted to keep the research under wraps. But it eventually gave in, and announced that all details would be revealed at the end of August.

Tantalising evidence shows the candidate planet, known as Proxima b, may be small and rocky and lies in the habitable zone around its star – just like Earth.

Proxima b’s equilibrium temperature is within the range where water may be in liquid form on its surface, the researchers believe.

It orbits around Proxima Centauri, a red-dwarf located only 4.25 light years away in the closest star system, Alpha Centauri. It’s much closer to its star than the Earth is to the Sun at 0.05 astronomical units away, so a year only lasts 11.2 days.

How Earth-like is Proxima b?

Although the signs are promising, it’s completely hypothetical that Proxima b is Earth-like, the researchers said.

Infographic compares the orbit of Proxima b around Proxima Centauri with the same region of the Solar System [Photo credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/G. Coleman]

Infographic compares the orbit of Proxima b around Proxima Centauri with the same region of the Solar System [Photo credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/G. Coleman]

Professor Hugh Jones, who was part of the large team analysing data from Proxima b and a physics lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire, told The Register: “Saying it’s more Earth-like than just its mass is speculative. It’s exciting because it’s the first time anybody has found a planet around the closest stars. We have been looking for ages.”

Sixteen years ago, researchers first spotted a signal that Proxima Centauri could be harbouring a planet. It took a while for confirmation because of the faint signal, Jones said.

Proxima Centauri is a faint star with a luminosity much lower than the Sun. Its surface temperature is 3,050 kelvin, as compared to the Sun’s 5,777 kelvin. Researchers used Doppler spectroscopy to measure changes in the velocity of the star caused by a gravitationally bound body that was orbiting around it.

The Doppler method is an effective way of detecting exoplanets, but it doesn’t give much information about the planet itself. Many properties, including Proxima b’s radius, are currently unknown.

Journey to Alpha Centauri

That doesn’t dampen the spirits of scientists and engineers working on the Breakthrough Starshot project, however.

Starshot was launched in April 2016 by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and acclaimed physicist Stephen Hawking. The project aims to send tiny “nanocrafts” to the Alpha Centauri system, about 25 trillion miles away, at 15 to 20 per cent of the speed of light.

Speaking about the research, Professor Avi Loeb, Chairman of the Breakthrough Starshot advisory committee and researcher at Harvard University, told The Register: “We will celebrate this important discovery within the Starshot team.”

“The discovery of the habitable planet around the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is strategically important for motivating the Breakthrough Starshot initiative, since it provides an obvious target for a flyby mission.

“A spacecraft equipped with a camera and various filters could take color images of the planet and infer whether it is green (harboring life as we know it), blue (with water oceans on its surface) or just brown (dry rock),” Loeb said.

The bright star is Alpha Centauri AB and Proxima Centauri is the fainter red dwarf star  [Photo credit: Digitized Sky Survey 2, Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin/Mahdi Zamani]

The bright star is Alpha Centauri AB and Proxima Centauri is the fainter red dwarf star [Photo credit: Digitized Sky Survey 2, Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin/Mahdi Zamani]

Proxima b has another property that increases its chances of harbouring life, Loeb, who was uninvolved in the research, said.

“Low-mass stars burn nuclear fuel at a slower rate, so they are more likely to live longer. Proxima Centauri is smaller than our Sun and will live about a thousand times longer. This means that any life on the planet has a longer time to develop and survive,” Loeb told The Register.

“Hence, a habitable rocky planet around Proxima would be the most natural location to where our civilization could aspire to move after the Sun will die, five billion years from now.”

The prospect of nanobots venturing to Proxima b to take photos is still very far away, and with current technology it’s still difficult to resolve Proxima b from its star. But with better telescopes and sensitive instruments being built in the next decade, the close proximity of Proxima b gives researchers their best fighting chance yet of looking out for extraterrestrial life.



December 26, 2015

China Just Flew This Gigantic Airship To the Edge Of Space

Filed under: Gadgets, Life, Military, Space Ships — bferrari @ 6:54 pm

The technology could have communications and military advantages for China.

China just flew a 250-foot airship to near the top of the Earth’s atmosphere. The solar-powered behemoth can stay airborne for half a year and requires no fuel to get it more than 12 miles into the air—just fill it with helium and let it go; the sun powers it once it reaches its cruising altitude.

Airships predate airplanes, but have been largely supplanted by them. However, they remain superior for pretty much anything that doesn’t require the speed of a jet engine. They can hang around for months, they can carry large payloads, and they can fly way higher than most planes, because an airplane’s wing runs out of air to support it at such high altitudes.

This last property might be the reason China is testing the Yuanmeng airship. During its estimated two-day trial, the airship launched from Xilinhot, Inner Mongolia, bristling with communications gear—”data relays, high-definition observation and spatial imaging” equipment—says the Chinese People’s Daily. The sedentary nature of the airship allows it to sit up at the edge of space and watch. It can surveil the ground, and it can also act as a base station to command fleets of military planes. In a pinch, the Yuanmeng airship could act as a stand-in for communications satellites.

Popular Science speculates on China’s plans for the technology:

Operating higher in near space means that the Yuanmeng would have constant line of sight over a hundred thousand square miles—an important requirement for radar and imaging. Increased sensor coverage means increased warning time against stealthy threats such as cruise missiles, giving Chinese forces a greater opportunity to detect and shoot down such threats. It would also be harder for fighters and surface-to-air missiles to attack near space objects.

They’re not perfect though. The People’s Daily spoke to Yu Quan of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, who told them that “The biggest challenge for the near-space airship is the big temperature difference in the day and night.” Because the airship is so close to space, it experiences space-like extremes of weather as it is baked by the sun and then frozen by the night.

Airships can solve many problems. In much the same way that regular oceangoing ships carry huge loads of goods from continent to continent, airships are also good for transporting goods. Even smaller airships can carry loads of 50 tons. And perhaps they could even replace passenger airplanes as providers of low-cost air travel. They might not be as fast, but they could be a lot more comfortable.

December 11, 2015

Google and NASA Hope Lightning-Fast Computers Will Unlock the Secrets of Nature

Filed under: Cool, Gadgets, Life, Military — bferrari @ 12:34 pm

Quantum computers can perform about 100 million times faster than today’s machines.


Google has a lot of computers. By many accounts, it has more computers than any other company in the world. Yet, even with so much horsepower at their disposal, Google’s researchers keep running into barriers when trying to solve certain complex problems, particularly those tied to artificial intelligence. Google, in effect, has been stumped.

“We have already encountered problems we would like to solve that are unfeasible with conventional computers,” John Giannandrea, a vice president for engineering at Google, said during a press conference on Tuesday. “We want to understand the future that may lie ahead of us in non-conventional computing.”

One type of machine Google has increasingly turned to for help is called a quantum computer. Such systems tap into the seemingly magical properties of quantum mechanics, the field of science that deals with how atoms and other tiny particles work. They can be used to solve problems that traditional computers simply can’t handle.

On Tuesday, Google issued its most optimistic statements to date around the technology, declaring that the still-primitive quantum machines will probably evolve into revolutionary systems for the computing industry and perhaps, for mankind. The event was held on the NASA Ames campus in Mountain View, Calif., where Google is teaming with NASA and D-Wave Systems, a maker of quantum computers, to build a computing lab. Their work has been underway for a couple of years, but only recently—thanks to a larger, upgraded D-Wave machine—have the researchers seen truly promising results from experiments.

Google revealed on Tuesday that recent test calculations show that a D-Wave computer can obliterate the work of a standard computer chip in performing some tasks. In one test, the D-Wave machine needed just a single second to process calculations that would have taken a standard machine 10,000 years to solve. Overall, Google said the quantum machines appeared to perform 100 million times faster on certain problems. Such a speedup would be a true rarity in the history of computing.

Some serious caveats surround these accomplishments, however. D-Wave’s computer is far from a general-purpose machine. It can perform only a limited set of quantum calculations, and just a few people know how to shape problems suitably for the computer. As a result, Google has been relegated to running what amount to test operations on the D-Wave system, rather than the code used in the company’s day-to-day operations. “We need to make it easier to take a practical optimization problem as it occurs on some engineer’s desk,” Hartmut Neven, a director of engineering at Google, said at the event. “We need to make the input into the machine easier. That is not there yet.”

Google is using the tough optimization calculations in some of its advanced AI technology that everyday people touch. (Its photo-search tools and voice-recognition technology are among the most obvious examples.) But those calculations are done on thousands of interlinked traditional computers. The hope is that Google could someday turn to quantum computers to complement its standard systems and come up with more breakthroughs on as-of-yet unsolvable problems. “It may be several years before this kind of work makes a difference to Google products,” said Giannandrea.

The D-Wave machine, which is also being used by NASA with hopes of improving its simulation and encryption technology, relies on what are known as quantum bits, or qubits. Unlike a typical binary digit that must be either a 1 or a zero, a qubit can be a 1, zero, or a state somewhere in between at any moment. It helps to have a degree or two in physics to fully understand how quantum computers work, but the upshot of the technology is that the machines can simultaneously consider an incredible number of possible solutions to a problem. This makes quantum computers well-suited for optimization problems, in which, for example, someone might be trying to find out the best way to route the traffic of thousands of planes going into and out of an airport. It so happens that much of today’s cutting-edge AI software relies on crunching similar sets of these tricky optimization problems.

Neven has spent the most time of any Google employee working with D-Wave machines, and he sees promise for them in areas such as improving battery technology, desalinization machines, and solar cells. The unique qualities of qubits may lend them to uncovering properties about materials, which could result in much more efficient industrial machines. “Because the operating system of nature, as far as we understand it, is quantum physics, you need a process that acts on quantum physics to describe parts of the universe,” Neven said. “Sooner or later, quantum computers will be the tool of choice to solve these problems.”



April 27, 2015

Mars One Finalist Explains Exactly How It‘s Ripping Off Supporters

Filed under: Government Policies, Inner Solar System, Life, Mars — bferrari @ 7:53 pm

Mars One Finalist Explains Exactly How It‘s Ripping Off Supporters

No money, no process, no explanation: An insider speaks out on the hopelessly flawed scheme.
By Elmo Keep

When Joseph first signed up with Mars One — the media-hyped, one-way mission to colonize the red planet being floated by a Dutch non-profit — he didn’t think much of it. The former NASA researcher said he never really took the application seriously; he was just putting his hat in the ring mostly out of curiosity, and with the hope of bringing public attention to space science.

But eventually Joseph — who is actually Dr. Joseph Roche, an assistant professor at Trinity College’s School of Education in Dublin, with a Ph.D. in physics and astrophysics — found himself on the group’s shortlist of 100 candidates all willing to undertake the theoretical journey. And that’s when he started talking to me about the big problems he was seeing with Mars One.

It was difficult for him to break his silence, but he was spurred into speaking out by the uncritical news coverage. Many basic assumptions about the project remain unchallenged. Most egregiously, many media outlets continue to report that Mars One received applications from 200,000 people who would be happy to die on another planet — when the number it actually received was 2,761.

As Roche observed the process from an insider’s perspective, his concerns increased. Chief among them: that some leading contenders for the missionhad bought their way into that position, and are being encouraged to “donate” any appearance fees back to Mars One — which seemed to him very strange for an outfit that needs billions of dollars to complete its objective.

“When you join the ‘Mars One Community,’ which happens automatically if you applied as a candidate, they start giving you points,” Roche explained to me in an email. “You get points for getting through each round of the selection process (but just an arbitrary number of points, not anything to do with ranking), and then the only way to get more points is to buy merchandise from Mars One or to donate money to them.”

“Community members” can redeem points by purchasing merchandise like T-shirts, hoodies, and posters, as well as through gifts and donations: The group also solicits larger investment from its supporters. Others have been encouraged to help the group make financial gains on flurries of media interest. In February, finalists received a list of “tips and tricks” for dealing with press requests, which included this: “If you are offered payment for an interview then feel free to accept it. We do kindly ask for you to donate 75% of your profit to Mars One.”

The result, said Roche, is that high-profile prospects — including those in a list of “Top 10 hopefuls” published last month in The Guardian— are, in fact, simply the people who have generated the most money for Mars One. A spokeswoman confirmed by email that the positions were “based on the supporter points that our community can earn,” but said that “this number of points is unrelated to our selection process.”

As Roche also told me, that secretive selection process is hopelessly, and dangerously, flawed.

“I have not met anyone from Mars One in person,” he said. “Initially they’d said there were going to be regional interviews… we would travel there, we’d be interviewed, we’d be tested over several days, and in my mind that sounded at least like something that approached a legitimate astronaut selection process.

“But then they made us sign a non-disclosure agreement if we wanted to be interviewed, and then all of a sudden it changed from being a proper regional interview over several days to being a 10-minute Skype call.”

Mars One’s selection process to date has required candidates to complete a questionnaire, upload a video to the project’s website, and get a medical examination with each candidate’s local doctor (which they had to arrange themselves). Roche said he then had a short Skype conversation with Mars One’s chief medical officer, Norbert Kraft, during which he was quizzed with questions from literature about Mars and the mission that Mars One had provided to all the applicants. No rigorous psychological or psychometric testing was part of the appraisal. Candidates were given a month to rote-learn the material before the interview.

Mars One’s testing methods fall well short of NASA’s stringent astronaut corps requirements — not least in the case of anyone who would be training to be the mission commander, the individual who would actually pilot a theoretical craft to Mars. Commanders at NASA are required to have logged 1,000 jet aircraft flight hours to even be considered as training candidates for spaceflight.

Applicants were told they did not have permission to record the interview or to take any notes. Today, Roche said, he has still never had an in-person meeting with anyone associated with Mars One, and he is not aware that any candidate has ever been interviewed in person to assess their suitability to be sent one-way, forever, on a deep-space mission.

“That means all the info they have collected on me is a crap video I made, an application form that I filled out with mostly one-word answers… and then a 10-minute Skype interview,” Roche said. “That is just not enough info to make a judgment on someone about anything.”

The story continues here…

View story at

October 29, 2014

Religion vs Science.. but does it have to be that way ?

Filed under: Big Bang, Cool, Cosmology, Life — bferrari @ 8:57 am

Think of this comparison when you read the following article.

Dark Energy:
A mysterious quantity that makes up nearly three-fourths of the universe, yet scientists are unsure not only what it is but how it operates. How, then, can they know this strange source exists?

A mysterious quantity that makes up nearly three-fourths of the universe, yet scientists are unsure not only what it is but how it operates. How, then, can they know this strange source exists?

I don’t know … could go either way…. just sayin.

Francis believes evolution and the Big Bang are compatible with religion, saying God doesn’t have a ‘magic wand.’
On Monday, when Pope Francis addressed prelates and scientists attending a plenary session of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, he yet again challenged all we’ve come to expect a pope to say.

Instead of asking those at the meeting to consider God as the supreme creator, he asked them to consider God as a sort of supreme helper.  While he stopped short of endorsing the Big Bang theory as the definitive origin of the universe, he did say that science and scripture have a lot in common and believing one does not mean forsaking the other.

“When we read in Genesis the account of Creation, we risk imagining God as a magician, with a magic wand able to make everything,” Francis said.  “But it is not so.”

How’s that again? “The Big Bang, which nowadays is posited as the origin of the world, does not contradict the divine act of creating, but rather requires it,” Francis said. “The evolution of nature does not contrast with the notion of Creation, as evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve.”

The Pontifical Academy of Sciences is holding a three-day workshop in Rome with Nobel Prize-winning scholars and high ranking bishops to discussEvolving Concepts of Nature in order to produce a document to better guide Catholic scientists and teachers as they reconcile science and scripture.

The notion that God is responsible for creating the humans who developed the science behind evolution is a small step into a brave new world for Catholics, who excommunicated Galileo in the 17th century for anti-Church teaching, including his notion that the earth revolves around the sun.  Galileo eventually was forgiven, some 400 years later, and given a post-mortem pardon in 2008, but the Church has always remained staunch in its belief that God ultimately is responsible for the world we know today.

Traditionally the scientific theory of how the world began is an either/or concept that tends to pit religious believers against atheists with little middle ground to agree on.   Francis instead encouraged scientists at the session to continue their work with the goal not to make science fit into the Church teaching, but to help humankind.  “Science is able to build a world suited to His dual corporal and spiritual life,” Francis said, referring to what he called “the participation of God’s power.”

“The Big Bang, which nowadays is posited as the origin of the world, does not contradict the divine act of creating, but rather requires it.”

Both Pope Pius XII and Pope John Paul II had softened the Church’s stance on science during their pontificates.  In 1996, John Paul II called the Big Bang theory “more than a hypothesis.”  But in 2011, Pope Benedict XVI seemed to dial back on the acceptance of science in the creation of the universe, when he touched on the issue of evolution at a mass celebrating the Epiphany, the day the Three Wise Men are believed to have followed the Star of Bethlehem to bring gifts to the newborn baby Jesus.

Benedict stuck with the long-standing theory that only God was responsible for a grand design, with little wiggle room for interpretation.  “The universe is not the result of chance, as some would want to make us believe,” Benedict said.  “Contemplating it, we are invited to read something profound into it: the wisdom of the creator, the inexhaustible creativity of God.”

At the Pontifical Academy of Sciences seminar, during which Pope Francis inaugurated a bronze bust of his predecessor Benedict XVI, he instead opened the door to a slightly more intuitive interpretation.

In the Book of Genesis, God gives human beings “freedom,” said Pope Francis, “and he tells man to name everything and to go ahead through history. This makes him responsible for creation, so that he might dominate it in order to develop it until the end of time. Therefore the scientist, and above all the Christian scientist, must adopt the approach of posing questions regarding the future of humanity and of the earth, and, of being free and responsible, helping to prepare it and preserve it, to eliminate risks to the environment of both a natural and human nature.”

In 2013, Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, head of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, may have put the basic principle of this approach to religion and learning even more simply. He told The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview that there was plenty of middle ground for Catholics and scientists. “If we don’t accept science, we don’t accept reason,” Sánchez said. “And reason was created by God.”


August 19, 2014

Message from a Space Traveller… Far Far in the Future…

Filed under: Cool, Extraterrestrial Life, Life, Religion — bferrari @ 7:01 am


I remember when we took our first steps upon the moon. For millennia we had looked upon her as a merciful goddess, who gifted us with light in the darkness and the rule to measure our years. What bounty of life did she hold, we wondered, when we discovered our world was a sphere? Then we invented telescopes, and found her to possess not an alien world of cold white fire, but the rough beauty of the highest, most barren mountains.

Even though our imaginations had failed us, we still sought to visit her, this great beautiful land that had occupied our nights and dreams since the dawn of our species. From swan-pulled boats to great hot-air balloons, we struggled to reach the land that we could never touch. Then came the wars, the terrible wars, and we found ourselves thrust out of our gentle lives. Great new weapons were forged, new realms of science uncovered. And the secret of spaceflight discovered.

When I finally reached her, after travelling for three days aboard my tiny rocket pod, I touched down in one of the great basalt seas that dotted the moon’s surface. And there, I found the first signs of life on the moon; a flag in brilliant colours, a ship much larger and more alien than my own and a bronze plaque bearing the image of a world and an unknown language.

When we tested the dust upon these artifacts, we came to a startling conclusion. They were more than four million years old, the product of a civilisation little more advanced than our own. The world on the plaque was unrecognisable except to paleogeologists, as the state of our continents and seas in the distant past, when our race had swum through primordial seas. Imagine! Some other life had lived and breathed and touched the heavens, and vanished, yet still its creations endured upon the merciful moon.

When we walked the rust-red surface of Geyes, we bore the inscription upon the plaque with us, engraved on our ships. When we sailed the endless skies of Jalbador, we bore the inscription on our atmosuits. When we launched our first interstellar spaceship, she bore the inscription upon her brow and carried the plaque upon her bridge. And when we first made contact, we learned what the inscription said.

“We came in peace, for all mankind.”

June 6, 2014

SpaceX’s new Dragon capsule could be the future of space travel

Filed under: Cool, Inner Solar System, Life, Military, Space Exploration, Space Ships — bferrari @ 2:00 pm
The new Dragon V2 spacecraft, revealed by Space X on Thursday

The new Dragon V2 spacecraft, revealed by Space X on Thursday

Thursday evening, SpaceX revealed an upgraded version of its Dragon spacecraft, capable of carrying up to seven people at a time.

The company hopes to use the 15-foot-tall capsule to carry astronauts to the International Space Station beginning in 2017.


Its timing is impeccable. Currently, NASA relies entirely on Russia for transporting its astronauts to the station. But, last month, Russia threatened to revoke accessdue to tensions between the two countries. And a few days ago, NASA announced that its latest purchase of six round-trip tickets to the space station, good through 2017, will be its last. (The tickets cost $76.3 million each.)

That brings us to SpaceX, the private company started by Elon Musk (founder of PayPal and Tesla Motors) in 2002. Since May 2012, the company has been using a previous version of the Dragon spacecraft to carry cargo to the space station — as part of NASA’s long-term plan to have private US companies take over the basics of space transport.

The latest Dragon V2 has a few upgrades on the old one: it lands with thrusters, instead of crashing into the ocean with parachutes, is more fully reusable, and, of course, can carry people. SpaceX will begin testing the craft over the next few years, with its first peopled flights coming in 2016.



In terms of hardware, the new Dragon’s biggest upgrade is a set of 8 thrusters, which are powerful enough to slow down the capsule, allowing controlled landings on Earth.

The Dragon will also carry parachutes in case of an equipment failure, but if the thrusters are successful, they’d be a huge step forward in space flight, eliminating the need for parachute-aided crash landings for a capsule for the first time.

Many components of the current Dragon can be used for multiple flights, but the new landing method will, in theory, make the whole capsule rapidly reusable, going through ten flights before needing to be heavily serviced.

“You can just reload propellant and fly again,” Elon Musk said during the announcement. Additionally, the new spacecraft’s improved heat shield is designed to deteriorate less as it enters the atmosphere, allowing for a greater number of reuses.

SpaceX is trying to make every component of its space flight program as reusable as possible. It recently launched a version of the Falcon 9 rocket — which will put Dragon in space — with a first stage that can land on metallic legs, potentially allowing for easier retrieval and reuse.

“This is extremely important for revolutionizing access to space,” Musk said. “As long as we continue to throw away rockets and space craft, we will never have true access to space — it’ll always be incredibly expensive.”

It has room for seven people

(Djansezian/Getty Images)

(Djansezian/Getty Images)

The other chief upgrade of the Dragon is pretty obvious: it can carry people into space. But it goes further, outstripping Russia’s Soyuz rockets (which can transport three astronauts at a time) with a capacity of seven.


SpaceX went with a minimalist aesthetic for the Dragon’s interior, putting nearly all the controls on touch screen panels that fold down during flight. It’s a far cry from the button-crammed cockpit of NASA’s space shuttle.

The craft also has a few other upgrades: it can dock autonomously with the International Space Station without needing to use the station’s robotic arm, and the Dragon’s trunk (which detaches before re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere) will be wrapped in solar panels, instead of having them on arms that extend outward.


What does the Dragon mean for the future of space travel?



All in all, the debut of this upgraded spacecraft is a very good sign for US space travel, and couldn’t have come at a better time.

For years, Congress has appropriated less money for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program — created to fund the development of private space travel — than the $800 million requested annually.


But the tensions with Russia seem to have added urgency to the goal. The transport won’t necessarily come via the Dragon capsule — less ballyhooed options like Boeing’s CST-100 crew capsule and Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser space plane are also in the running to win NASA’s contract — but the timely premiere of this craft can’t hurt. An upcoming NASA funding round will likely cut down the competition to one option, and SpaceX is clearly planning to win.

There are also intriguing signs that SpaceX envisions the Dragon being useful for future missions that go way beyond the space station. As Phil Plait points out, SpaceX’s press materials say the Dragon’s new thrusters will “enable the vehicle to land propulsively on Earth or another planet with pinpoint accuracy.”

Missions to Mars, of course, are still a long way off. But the 2017 target date for private US missions to the space station is quickly approaching. SpaceX’s progress — with both its Dragon capsule and other launch technologies — are making it look more likely that they’ll hit the deadline.


May 6, 2014

First potentially habitable Earth-sized planet confirmed: It may have liquid water

Filed under: Cool, Cosmology, Exoplanets, Extraterrestrial Life, Life — bferrari @ 3:41 pm
The artist's concept depicts Kepler-186f, the first validated Earth-size planet orbiting a distant star in the habitable zone—a range of distances from a star where liquid water might pool on the surface of an orbiting planet. The discovery of Kepler-186f confirms that Earth-size planets exist in the habitable zone of other stars and signals a significant step closer to finding a world similar to Earth. The artistic concept of Kepler-186f is the result of scientists and artists collaborating to help imagine the appearance of these distant worlds. (Danielle Futselaar)

The artist’s concept depicts Kepler-186f, the first validated Earth-size planet orbiting a distant star in the habitable zone—a range of distances from a star where liquid water might pool on the surface of an orbiting planet. The discovery of Kepler-186f confirms that Earth-size planets exist in the habitable zone of other stars and signals a significant step closer to finding a world similar to Earth. The artistic concept of Kepler-186f is the result of scientists and artists collaborating to help imagine the appearance of these distant worlds. (Danielle Futselaar)

The first Earth-sized exoplanet orbiting within the habitable zone of another star has been confirmed by observations with both the W. M. Keck Observatory and the Gemini Observatory. The initial discovery, made by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, is one of a handful of smaller planets found by Kepler and verified using large ground-based telescopes. It also confirms that Earth-sized planets do exist in the habitable zone of other stars.

“What makes this finding particularly compelling is that this Earth-sized planet, one of five orbiting this star, which is cooler than the Sun, resides in a temperate region where water could exist in liquid form,” says Elisa Quintana of the SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center who led the paper published in the current issue of the journal Science. The region in which this planet orbits its star is called the habitable zone, as it is thought that life would most likely form on  with liquid water.

Steve Howell, Kepler’s Project Scientist and a co-author on the paper, adds that neither Kepler (nor any telescope) is currently able to directly spot an exoplanet of this size and proximity to its . “However, what we can do is eliminate essentially all other possibilities so that the validity of these planets is really the only viable option.”

With such a small host star, the team employed a technique that eliminated the possibility that either a background star or a stellar companion could be mimicking what Kepler detected. To do this, the team obtained extremely high spatial resolution observations from the eight-meter Gemini North telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawai`i using a technique called speckle imaging, as well as adaptive optics (AO) observations from the ten-meter Keck II telescope, Gemini’s neighbor on Mauna Kea. Together, these data allowed the team to rule out sources close enough to the star’s line-of-sight to confound the Kepler evidence, and conclude that Kepler’s detected signal has to be from a small planet transiting its host star.

The diagram compares the planets of the inner solar system to Kepler-186, a five-planet system about 500 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus. The five planets of Kepler-186 orbit a star classified as a M1 dwarf, measuring half the size and mass of the sun. The Kepler-186 system is home to Kepler-186f, the first validated Earth-size planet orbiting a distant star in the habitable zone—a range of distances from a star where liquid water might pool on the surface of an orbiting planet. The discovery of Kepler-186f confirms that Earth-size planets exist in the habitable zone of other stars and signals a significant step closer to finding a world similar to Earth. Kepler-186f is less than ten percent larger than Earth in size, but its mass and composition are not known. Kepler-186f orbits its star once every 130-days and receives one-third the heat energy that Earth does from the sun, placing it near the outer edge of the habitable zone. The inner four companion planets all measure less than fifty percent the size of Earth. Kepler-186b, Kepler-186c, Kepler-186d, and Kepler-186e, orbit every three, seven, 13, and 22 days, respectively, making them very hot and inhospitable for life as we know it. The Kepler space telescope, which simultaneously and continuously measured the brightness of more than 150,000 stars, is NASA’s first mission capable of detecting Earth-size planets around stars like our sun. Kepler does not directly image the planets it detects. The space telescope infers their existence by the amount of starlight blocked when the orbiting planet passes in front of a distant star from the vantage point of the observer. The artistic concept of Kepler-186f is the result of scientists and artists collaborating to help imagine the appearance of these distant Credit: (NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-CalTech.)

“The Keck and Gemini data are two key pieces of this puzzle,” says Quintana. “Without these complementary observations we wouldn’t have been able to confirm this Earth-sized planet.”

The Gemini “speckle” data directly imaged the system to within about 400 million miles (about 4 AU, approximately equal to the orbit of Jupiter in our solar system) of the host star and confirmed that there were no other stellar size objects orbiting within this radius from the star. Augmenting this, the Keck AO observations probed a larger region around the star but to fainter limits. According to Quintana,

“These Earth-sized planets are extremely hard to detect and confirm, and now that we’ve found one, we want to search for more. Gemini and Keck will no doubt play a large role in these endeavors.”

The host star, Kepler-186, is an M1-type dwarf star relatively close to our solar system, at about 500 light years and is in the constellation of Cygnus. The star is very dim, being over half a million times fainter than the faintest stars we can see with the naked eye. Five small planets have been found orbiting this star, four of which are in very short-period orbits and are very hot. The planet designated Kepler-186f, however, is earth-sized and orbits within the star’s . The Kepler evidence for this planetary system comes from the detection of planetary transits. These transits can be thought of as tiny eclipses of the host star by a planet (or planets) as seen from the Earth. When such planets block part of the star’s light, its total brightness diminishes. Kepler detects that as a variation in the star’s total light output and evidence for planets. So far more than 3,800 possible planets have been detected by this technique with Kepler.


March 5, 2014

Artist's concept of Europa water vapor plume. Image: NASA/ESA/K. Retherford/SWRI

Artist’s concept of Europa water vapor plume. Image: NASA/ESA/K. Retherford/SWRI


That warning, as given in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010: Odyssey Two novel, was pretty explicit but apparently it is going to go unheeded by NASA.

According to, NASA wants to launch a mission to Europa by 2025. Yesterday’s White House 2015 federal budget request allocates $15 million to develop a space program to visit the icy moon of Jupiter, which has a potentially life-supporting ocean of liquid water underneath its icy exterior.

“Europa is a very challenging mission operating in a really high radiation environment, and there’s lots to do to prepare for it,” said NASA chief financial officer Beth Robinson. “We’re looking to launch sometime in the mid-2020s.”

While the space program is wide open, one candidate project is NASA’s Europa Clipper, a probe that would orbit Jupiter and make flyby trips to Europa to study the moon’s environment. An exciting potential is to have the probe cruise through Europa’s 125-mile-high water plumes, spotted by Hubble back in December 2013, to collect and analyze samples.

Artist's concept of the Europa Clipper mission. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Artist’s concept of the Europa Clipper mission. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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