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Happy Trails Voyager! September 9, 2012

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35 years in space and still chugging along.  You are the first, and hopefully not the last, emissary of humanity to the stars.

 

Neil Armstrong Dies At 82 August 25, 2012

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Goodbye Mr. Armstrong.  Thank you for leading us forward one small step at a time.

Curiosity Touches Down On The Red Planet August 5, 2012

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Touchdown confirmed!

And with that the years of planning have paid off.  Mars rover Curiosity is safely on the surface of the red planet.  The first images are coming through and as of right now everything looks great.  Soon Curiosity will begin it’s mission of searching for life but to many including myself the mission is already a success.

Raise a glass if you have one to all the hard working people at NASA.  They deserve it.

P.S. To all the naysayers, those who through their own short-sightedness and lack of imagination question the need for humanity to explore the solar system and push the boundaries of knowledge I have just one thing to say…
SHUT UP AND ENJOY THE FACT THAT WE JUST LANDED ON FUCKING MARS!!!!!!!!

Even In Space, Life Perseveres June 24, 2012

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Life, once thought to be a delicate and fragile thing that needed protection and nuturing, is turning out to be an incredibly hardy beast.  We’ve found life in the harshest and most extreme environments on the planet from deep sea hydrothermal vents where a startling variety of organisms endure temperatures up to 450 degrees C to the ice sheets of the Antartic where microorganisms live within cracks in the glaciers.  Now we are learning that even the vacuum of space can’t stop life.

n 2008 scientists sent the suitcase-sized Expose-E experiment package to the Space Station filled with organic compounds and living organisms to test their reaction to outer space.

When astronauts venture on a spacewalk, hours are spent preparing protective suits to survive the hostile conditions. No effort was made to protect the bacteria, seeds, lichen and algae attached to the outside of the Space Station, however.

“We are exploring the limits of life,” explains ESA’s René Demets.

Our atmosphere does a wonderful job of protecting life on Earth by absorbing harmful UV rays and keeping temperatures relatively stable.

In contrast, the space samples endured the full power of the Sun’s rays. The samples were insulated somewhat by the Space Station but still had to cope with temperatures changing from -12ºC to +40ºC over 200 times as they orbited Earth.

The samples returned to Earth in 2009 and the results have now been published in a special issue of the journal Astrobiology.

Lichen have proven to be tough cookies — back on Earth, some species continue to grow normally.

Believe it or not this isn’t the first example of life enduring conditions outside the atmosphere.  Tardigrades (aka waterbears) along with surviving in seemingly every extreme environment on Earth have been known to tolerate vacuum conditions for up to ten days.

While mostly a curiosity at this point this kind of research could lead to potentially interesting breakthroughs.  One off the top of my head is a better understanding of how to grow and maintain food in space.  Despite the protections put in place space craft are not impervious to radiation from the sun.  As such in addition to the myriad of other obstacles growing food in space is limited by the potential damage inflicted on organisms by solar rays.  Figuring out which food sources, and lichen is apparantally capable of being used as a food source, are resistant is a necessary step.  Growing your own food would have the advantage of reducing the cost of lifting the necessary food into orbit and provide a safety margin on long journeys when the astronauts are several million kilometers away from the nearest supermarket.

Company To Establish Colony On Mars June 4, 2012

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Been gone for awhile (vacation in Chicago) so forgive the lack of posts.  I have many backlogged but let’s start with a short one.

Making the rounds in the futurist/transhumanist community has been a promotional video from private space company named MarsOne.  As the name would imply the company is interested in establishing a human colony on Mars by 2023.  So far so ho hum but there are two elements of this plan that make it interesting.

The first is that the colony would be planned from the beginning as a permanent base, meaning that all colonists will be expected to stay for life. Anyone who signs up to be the first human on Mars will also be signing up to be the first dead human on Mars.  This is actually a pretty smart idea as it removes the problems and expenses of a return trip thus freeing up more resources for the base itself.  I can also imagine that selecting people who would know in advance that they would be in for the long haul might result in a psychologically stronger and more committed colony.

More interesting, and rather strange, is the proposed plan to fund the expedition.  According to the planners that funding would come by turning the whole thing into a giant space-themed reality show.  No, really.

Setting aside my initial gut reaction to hate anything which reminds me of reality television I can’t see how this would actually work.  People watch reality TV (so I’m told) largely for the human drama of watching terrible people acting in terrible ways.  It makes us feel better to know that no matter how bad we may behave at least we aren’t THAT bad.  Trying to slap that formula onto an incredibly complicated and let’s not forget risky mission strikes me as doomed to fail.  Either you end up with a boring reality show about focused colonists doing what they need to do to survive both the cold of space and the harshness of Mars or you end with the Kardashians in space and get to watch everything go to hell.

Artificial DNA Created April 20, 2012

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In what appears to be a first scientists have created the first synthetic genetic material that can store information and evolve in a similar way to DNA.

Researchers at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, in Cambridge, developed chemical procedures to turn DNA and RNA, the molecular blueprints for all known life, into six alternative genetic polymers called XNAs.

The process swaps the deoxyribose and ribose (the “d” and “r” in DNA and RNA) for other molecules. It was found the XNAs could form a double helix with DNA and were more stable than natural genetic material.

Cool news by anyone’s standard.

I will however take issue with one things stated by the authors.

“There is nothing Goldilocks about DNA and RNA,” Holliger told Science. “There is no overwhelming functional imperative for genetic systems or biology to be based on these two nucleic acids.”

That is overstepping bounds to me.   While this has certainly proved the possibility of other molecules forming the basis of genetic material it says nothing about the probability of said molecules actually forming on their own.  As of right now the only truly concrete thing we can say is that despite a very long time to try out different options the only type of genetic material to evolve are DNA and RNA.  Their prevalence, and the lack of any competitors, are the only evidence we have for how successful different types of genetic material are.  DNA may no longer be the only possible configuration but it still may be the most likely one and therefore the most likely basis for life on other worlds.    Far more work needs to be done in order to knock DNA off it’s pedestal.

New Solar System With More Planets Than Sol April 9, 2012

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I always like hearing news like this.

An astronomer at the University of Hertfordshire has discovered the presence of multiple new planets surrounding the star HD 10180 — enough to give it the crown as the only solar system discovered to date with more planets than ours.

In total, researchers have found nine planets, one more than our Solar System’s eight. None of the planets in the 127 light-year away solar system appear to be capable of sustaining life — most are so close to the sun that their scorched surfaces can’t even sustain solid metals.

A little more than a decade ago I was having a “friendly discussion” with a particularly devout Christian high school classmate of mine.  We were debating evolution and I was making the argument that given the sheer vastness of the universe their must be other forms of life out there.  His retort was “Then where are all the alien planets?”  How much can change in a decade. Unfortunately while new planets seem to be popping up every week life remains stubbornly elusive.

Incidentally, you may now begin the countdown to the inevitable whining chorus of “But what about Pluto!?!”

Billions Of Life Bearing Planets? March 30, 2012

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Could the universe be saturated with life?  Is our galaxy filled with literally billions of worlds harboring that most precious of gifts, that strange and wonderful collection of matter and processes we call life?  According to a new study by astronomers that may very well be the case.

A new result from ESO’s HARPS planet finder shows that rocky planets not much bigger than Earth are very common in the habitable zones around faint red stars. The international team estimates that there are tens of billions of such planets in the Milky Way galaxy alone, and probably about one hundred in the Sun’s immediate neighbourhood. This is the first direct measurement of the frequency of super-Earths around red dwarfs, which account for 80% of the stars in the Milky Way.

“Our new observations with HARPS mean that about 40% of all red dwarf stars have a super-Earth orbiting in the habitable zone where liquid water can exist on the surface of the planet,” says Xavier Bonfils (IPAG, Observatoire des Sciences de l’Univers de Grenoble, France), the leader of the team. “Because red dwarfs are so common — there are about 160 billion of them in the Milky Way — this leads us to the astonishing result that there are tens of billions of these planets in our galaxy alone.”

While this doesn’t prove anything conclusively it’s still very interesting for a few reasons.  One, the novel approach of looking in a historically undervalued area (Red dwarf stars).  Considering the sheer number of them that we apparently knew were out there it’s somewhat surprising it took someone this long to actually estimate the number of planets around them.  Second is how conditions around Red Dwarfs differ from those we are used to around stars like are own.  According to the researchers in addition to the obvious difference of being smaller and dimmer (thus allowing the Goldilocks zone to be closer to the planet) Red Dwarfs appear to lack large Jupiter sized worlds and are subject to stellar eruptions.  Jupiter worlds may be important for protecting smaller rocky planets from life-destroying comets and meteors while solar flares are known to release potentially deadly radiation.  Both of these factors could make the researcher’s estimates of life too generous.

But whatever.  Putting practical considerations aside if true this is amazing news.  The idea of a universe filled with life, variegated in all the forms evolution can dream up but connected by virtue of our shared status as reflections of Life itself, is the kind of idea that got me into the sciences in the first place.  The kind of idea that fills me with a wonder and amazement at the unfathomable beauty of the cosmos.  Sorry for waxing poetic there for a moment.  I hope you’ll forgive a young man his optimism and bright-eyed enthusiasm.

P.S. Nobody mention the Fermi Paradox.  I’m in too good a mood to worry about the Fermi Paradox.

Stephen Colbert Loves NASA February 12, 2012

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I love Stephen Colbert and now I love him even more.

NASA To Send Astronauts To Asteroid Within 15 Years July 23, 2011

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First of all, credit to Luke Parish for totally calling this in the comments of my last post.

With the space shuttle now history, NASA’s next great mission is so audacious, the agency’s best minds are wrestling with how to pull it off: Send astronauts to an asteroid in less than 15 years.

It has the dreamers of NASA both excited and anxious.

“This is a risky mission. It’s a challenging mission,” said NASA chief technology officer Bobby Braun. “It’s the kind of mission that engineers will eat up.”

This is a matter of sending “humans farther than ever before,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver. It is all a stepping stone to the dream of flying astronauts to Mars in the mid 2030s.

“I think it is THE mission NASA should embrace,” said University of Tennessee aerospace professor John Muratore. “To be successful at this mission, you’ve got to embrace all of the technologies that you need for Mars.”

I’ll be honest I didn’t expect this, mainly because the impression I’ve been getting out of NASA is one of a ship lost and adrift at sea.  Their big problem for the past decade or so has been not so much a lack of skill or ingenuity but a lack of focus.  If they do put all their weight behind this mission, and according to the article this is a presidential order for what that’s worth, than this could be exactly what the space agency needs.

Firstly, landing on an asteroid is hard.  No, really hard.  In fact the word land isn’t even appropriate since the gravity is so low you’d just bounce off if you tried to.  This is the kind of challenge that sends aerospace engineers into bouts of hysteria and drives them to think of solutions they otherwise never would have imagined.  Secondly, even though it’s hard it’s not nearly as hard as the other big idea NASA has been kicking around; sending humans to Mars.  In fact in a lot of ways (timeframe, technology required, logistics) landing on an asteroid is somewhat of a practice run for getting to the red planet.  Thirdly, it’s a much better idea than establishing a base on the moon.

Personally I think the idea of a moon base is awesome but it’s not the job NASA should be doing right now.  The costs of not just setting up but of maintaining a base are way beyond NASA’s capabilities right now which makes a short term mission more appealing.  In addition there’s the simple fact that we’ve already been to the moon.  True we never set up a base their but going back will strike a lot of people as been there, done that.  An asteroid on the other hand has novelty, it has the element of exploring the unknown that can drive the public’s imagination.  Also, and perhaps most importantly, figuring out how to land on an asteroid has important implications for keeping our species alive.  Asteroids strike our planet all the time and as of right now even if we knew a big one was coming the is next to nothing we could do about it.  Landing on an asteroid would be the first step in learning how to alter it’s course.

I’ve been very down on NASA in recent months but this news cheers me up.  I’ll want to wait and see if this actually bears fruit but so far I’m excited.