60 Years Later, is it Time to Update the Drake Equation?

On November 1st, 1961, a number of prominent scientists converged on the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia, for a three-day conference. A year earlier, this facility had been the site of the first modern SETI experiment (Project Ozma), where famed astronomers Frank Drake and Carl Sagan used the Green Bank telescope (aka. “Big Ear”) to monitor two nearby Sun-like stars – Epsilon Eridani and Tau Ceti.

While unsuccessful, Ozma became a focal point for scientists who were interested in this burgeoning field known as the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). As a result, Drake and Sagan were motivated to hold the very first SETI conference, wherein the subject of looking for possible extraterrestrial radio signals would be discussed. In preparation for the meeting, Drake prepared the following heuristic equation:

N = R* x fp x ne x fl x fi x fc x L

This would come to be known as the “Drake Equation,” which is considered by many to be one of the most renowned equations in the history of science. On the sixtieth anniversary of its creation, John Gertz – a film producer, amateur astronomer, board-member with BreakThrough Listen, and the three-term former chairman of the board for the SETI Institute – argues in a recent paper that a factor by factor reconsideration is in order.

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In 1.3 Million Years, a Star Will Come Within 24 Light-Days of the Sun

Within the Milky Way, there are an estimated 200 to 400 billion stars, all of which orbit around the center of our galaxy in a coordinated cosmic dance. As they orbit, stars in the galactic disk (where our Sun is located) periodically shuffle about and get closer to one another. At times, this can have a drastic effect on the star that experience a close encounter, disrupting their systems and causing planets to be ejected.

Knowing when stars will make a close encounter with our Solar System, and how it might shake-up objects within it, is therefore a concern to astronomers. Using data collected by the Gaia Observatory, two researchers with the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) determined that a handful of stars will be making close passes by our Solar System in the future, one of which will stray pretty close!

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Blue Origin Will Finally Fly Passengers to the Edge of Space in July

Things have been heating up lately over at Blue Origin, the commercial spaceflight company launched by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Since Bezos stepped down as CEO of Amazon to take a more hands-on role with his other projects, the company has made some rather positive strides. This includes a “dress rehearsal” test flight that took place on April 14th and brought their New Shepard a step closer to bringing passengers to space.

Following the success of this flight, Blue Origin recently announced they are planning to conduct the first crewed flight with the New Shepard by July 20th. In addition to the Blue Origin astronaut crew, one seat is being set aside for a commercial passenger. As of May 5th, Blue Origin announced that this ticket will be available for auction and that the proceeds will be donated to Blue Origin’s foundation, Club for the Future.

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It’s Official, Astronaut Bill Nelson is NASA’s new Administrator

On March 19th, 2021, the Biden Administration announced that they had nominated a successor for the role of NASA Administrator. Their nominee was Sen. Clarence William Nelson II (aka. Bill Nelson), a Democratic Senator from Florida, an attorney, and a former payload specialist at NASA. On Monday, May 3rd, he assumed the role of 14th NASA Administrator during a ceremony where he was given the oath of office.

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Mars Helicopter Completes its 4th Flight. 117 Seconds of Airtime

On April 30th, 2021, the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter achieved yet another milestone and set new records with its fourth flight on Mars. This time around, the helicopter took off at 12:33 AM Mars Standard Time (10:49 AM EDT; 07:49 AM PDT) and ascended to an altitude of 5 meters (16 feet). It then traveled south for approximately 133 meters (436 feet) and then back in the space of about two minutes (117 seconds).

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SpaceX’s SN15 Starship Prototype Nails It!

On the afternoon of May 5th, 2021, at 05:24 PM local time, SpaceX made its fifth attempt at a high-altitude test flight and soft landing with a Starship prototype. Given the outcomes of the previous test, this event had many people on the edge of their seats. In all four attempts, the prototypes managed to reach their maximum altitude and pull off the bellyflop maneuver, but then exploded during landing (or shortly thereafter).

Would the fifteenth iteration of the Starship prototype (SN15) succeed where the others had failed? As of 05:30 P.M. local time (06:30 P.M. EDT; 03:30 P.M. PDT), the answer to that question is, “WITH GUSTO!” On their fifth attempt, the SN15 not only managed to reach its target altitude of 10 km (6.2 mi) and pull off the belly-flop and controlled descent, it also stuck the landing and suffered no mishaps afterward.

In other words, COMPLETE SUCCESS!

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How Long is a Day on Venus? We Finally Know the Exact Answer

Venus, aka. Earth’s “Sister Planet,” has always been shrouded in mystery for astronomers. Despite being planet Earth’s closest neighbor, scientists remained ignorant of what Venus’ surface even looked like for well into the 20th century, thanks to its incredibly dense and opaque atmosphere. Even in the age of robotic space exploration, its surface has been all but inaccessible to probes and landers.

And so the mysteries of Venus have endured, not the least of which has to do with some of its most basic characteristics – like its internal mass distribution and variations in the length of a day. Thanks to observations conducted by a team led from UCLA, who repeatedly bounced radar off the planet’s surface for the past 15 years, scientists now know the precise length of a day on Venus, the tilt of its axis, and the size of its core.

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Protests From Dynetics and Blue Origin put NASA’s Lunar Lander Award to SpaceX on Hold

Project Artemis, NASA’s long-awaited plan for sending astronauts to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era, has taken many steps forward. Aside from the development of the Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion spacecraft, and the elements that will make up the Lunar Gateway, NASA recently awarded SpaceX with the contract to build the Human Landing System (HLS) that will transport astronauts to the lunar surface.

However, this decision didn’t sit well with the other two companies NASA was also considering. These included Blue Origin, the commercial space company founded by Amazon founder and former CEO Jeff Bezos, and Alabama-based aerospace company Dynetics. After protests were filed by both companies, NASA decided to issue a stop-work order on the HLS award to SpaceX while it reviews the complaints.

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Chinese Company Claims to be Working on a Starship-Like Rocket

Last weekend (April 24th), China celebrated its sixth “National Space Day” (aka. Aerospace Industry Achievement Exhibition) in Nanjing, an event that highlights advances China has made in space. Similar to Space Day that is held each year on the first Thursday in May (this year, it will be held on May 7th), the goal is to foster interest in space exploration and the STEMS so as to inspire the next generation of astronauts and aerospace engineers.

This year, the festivities focused on the Chang’e-5 mission (which showcased some of the lunar samples it brought back), and the name of China’s first Mars rover (Zhurong) – which will be landing on the Red Planet later this month. But another interesting snippet was a video presented by one of China’s main rocket manufacturers that showed demonstrated that they are working on a rocket similar to the Starship.

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Mid-Latitude Glaciers on Mars Could Supply Water to Human Explorers

By Earth standards, the surface of Mars is the picture of desolation. It’s not only irradiated and cold enough to make Antarctica look balmy, but it’s also one-thousands times drier than the driest places on Earth. However, beneath the super-arid surface of the Red Planet, there are abundant supplies of water ice that could someday be accessible to human explorers (and even settlers).

This is especially the case in the mid-latitude region known as Arcadia Planitia, a smooth plain located in Martian northern lowlands. According to new research conducted with support from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the region shows signs of glaciers and glacier activity. These findings could prove very useful for the future human landings and exploration of Mars, not to mention potential settlement.

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