Gorilla Escapes Inside ISS and Chases Crew Mercilessly

Astronaut Scott Kelly in a gorilla suit, courtesy of his brother Mark. Image: Scott Kelly

It seems that besides doing a lot of important science, and generally expanding humanity’s horizons, astronaut Scott Kelly has time for a practical joke. Thanks to his twin brother Mark, Scott received a gorilla costume when the ISS was resupplied, and used it to chase his crew-mate Tim Peake around. It’s a funny but effective way to celebrate a year in space.

And the Benny Hill music is a nice touch.

SpaceX Set for 1st Cape Launch of 2016 with SES-9 on Feb. 24 after Smooth Static Fire Test – Watch Live

Upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 awaits launch of SES-9 communications satellite on Feb. 25, 2016 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 awaits launch of SES-9 communications satellite on Feb. 25, 2016 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL – Final preparations are underway for SpaceX’s first launch of a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral during 2016 with the commercial SES-9 television and communications satellite on Wednesday evening Feb. 24, following a smooth static fire engine test on Monday. Update: Technical issue postponed launch to Feb 25 at 6:46 pm.

The 229 foot tall Falcon 9 is slated to lift off from SpaceX’s seaside Space Launch Complex 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. at 6:46 p.m. EST at the opening of a 97-minute launch window. Continue reading “SpaceX Set for 1st Cape Launch of 2016 with SES-9 on Feb. 24 after Smooth Static Fire Test – Watch Live”

The Definitive Guide To Terraforming

Artist's impression of the terraforming of Mars, from its current state to a livable world. Credit: Daein Ballard

Terraforming. Chances are you’ve heard that word thrown around before, most likely in the context of some science fiction story. However, in recent years, thanks to renewed interest in space exploration, this word is being used in an increasingly serious manner. And rather than being talked about like a far-off prospect, the issue of terraforming other worlds is being addressed as a near-future possibility.

Whether it’s Elon Musk claiming that humanity needs a “backup location” in order to survive, private ventures like MarsOne looking to send humans on a one-way mission to colonize the Red Planet, or space agencies like NASA and the ESA discussing the prospect of long-term habitability on Mars or the Moon, terraforming is yet another science fiction concept that appears to be moving towards science fact.

But just what does terraforming entail? Where exactly could we go about using this process? What kind of technology would we need? Does such technology already exist, or do we have to wait? How much in the way of resources would it take? And above all, what are the odds of it actually succeeding? Answering any or all of these questions requires that we do a bit of digging. Not only is terraforming a time-honored concept, but as it turns out, humanity already has quite a bit of experience in this area!

Origin Of The Term:

To break it down, terraforming is the process whereby a hostile environment (i.e. a planet that is too cold, too hot, and/or has an unbreathable atmosphere) is altered in order to be suitable for human life. This could involve modifying the temperature, atmosphere, surface topography, ecology – or all of the above – in order to make a planet or moon more “Earth-like”.

Venus is also considered a prime candidate for terraforming. Credit: NASA/JPL/io9.com
Venus is considered by many to be a prime candidate for terraforming. Credit: NASA/JPL/io9.com

The term was coined by Jack Williamson, an American science fiction writer who has also been called “the Dean of science fiction” (after the death of Robert Heinlein in 1988). The term appeared as part of a science-fiction story titled “Collision Orbit”, which was published in the 1942 editions of the magazine Astounding Science Fiction. This is the first known mention of the concept, though there are examples of it appearing in fiction beforehand.

Terraforming in Fiction:

Science fiction is filled with examples of altering planetary environments to be more suitable to human life, many of which predate the scientific studies by many decades. For example, in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, he mentions at one point how the Martian invaders begin transforming Earth’s ecology for the sake of long-term habitation.

In Olaf Stapleton’s Last And First Men (1930), two chapter are dedicated to describing how humanity’s descendants terraform Venus after Earth becomes uninhabitable; and in the process, commit genocide against the native aquatic life. By the 1950s and 60s, owing to the beginning of the Space Age, terraforming began to appear in works of science fiction with increasing frequency.

One such example is Farmer in the Sky (1950) by Robert A. Heinlein. In this novel, Heinlein offers a vision of Jupiter’s moon Ganymede, which is being transformed into an agricultural settlement. This was a very significant work, in that it was the first where the concept of terraforming is presented as a serious and scientific matter, rather than the subject of mere fantasy.

. Credit: Metro-.Goldwyn-Mayer
Scene from 2010: The Year We Make Contact, the movie adaptation of Clarke’s novel. Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

In 1951, Arthur C. Clarke wrote the first novel in which the terraforming of Mars was presented in fiction. Titled The Sands of Mars, the story involves Martian settlers heating up the planet by converting Mars’ moon Phobos into a second sun, and growing plants that break down the Martians sands in order to release oxygen. In his seminal book 2001: A Space Odyssey – and it’s sequel, 2010: Odyssey Two – Clarke presents a race of ancient beings (“Firstborn”) turning Jupiter into a second sun so that Europa will become a life-bearing planet.

Poul Anderson also wrote extensively about terraforming in the 1950s. In his 1954 novel, The Big Rain, Venus is altered through planetary engineering techniques over a very long period of time. The book was so influential that the term term “Big Rain” has since come to be synonimous with the terraforming of Venus.  This was followed in 1958 by the Snows of Ganymede, where the Jovian moon’s ecology is made habitable through a similar process.

In Issac Asimov’s Robot series, colonization and terraforming is performed by a powerful race of humans known as “Spacers”, who conduct this process on fifty planets in the known universe.  In his Foundation series, humanity has effectively colonized every habitable planet in the galaxy and terraformed them to become part of the Galactic Empire.

In 1984, James Lovelock and Michael Allaby wrote what is considered by many to be one of the most influential books on terraforming. Titled The Greening of Mars, the novel explores the formation and evolution of planets, the origin of life, and Earth’s biosphere. The terraforming models presented in the book actually foreshadowed future debates regarding the goals of terraforming.

Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars Trilogy. Credit: variety.com
Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars Trilogy. Credit: variety.com

In the 1990s, Kim Stanley Robinson released his famous trilogy that deals with the terraforming of Mars. Known as the Mars TrilogyRed Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars – this series centers on the transformation of Mars over the course of many generations into a thriving human civilization. This was followed up in 2012 with the release of 2312, which deals with the colonization of the Solar System – including the terraforming of Venus and other planets.

Countless other examples can be found in popular culture, ranging from television and print to films and video games.

Study of Terraforming:

In an article published by the journal Science in 1961, famed astronomer Carl Sagan proposed using planetary engineering techniques to transform Venus. This involved seeding the atmosphere of Venus with algae, which would convert the atmosphere’s ample supplies of water, nitrogen and carbon dioxide into organic compounds and reduce Venus’ runaway greenhouse effect.

In 1973, he published an article in the journal Icarus titled “Planetary Engineering on Mars“, where he proposed two scenarios for transforming Mars. These included transporting low albedo material and/or planting dark plants on the polar ice caps to ensure it absorbed more heat, melted, and converted the planet to more “Earth-like conditions”.

In 1976, NASA addressed the issue of planetary engineering officially in a study titled “On the Habitability of Mars: An Approach to Planetary Ecosynthesis“. The study concluded that photosynthetic organisms, the melting of the polar ice caps, and the introduction of greenhouse gases could all be used to create a warmer, oxygen and ozone-rich atmosphere. The first conference session on terraforming, then referred to as “Planetary Modeling”, was organized that same year.

Living Mars. Credit: Kevin Gill
Artist concept of a ‘Living’ Mars. Credit: Kevin Gill

And then in March of 1979, NASA engineer and author James Oberg organized the First Terraforming Colloquium – a special session at the Tenth Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, which is held annually in Houston, Texas. In 1981, Oberg popularized the concepts that were discussed at the colloquium in his book New Earths: Restructuring Earth and Other Planets.

In 1982, Planetologist Christopher McKay wrote “Terraforming Mars”, a paper for the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society. In it, McKay discussed the prospects of a self-regulating Martian biosphere, which included both the required methods for doing so and ethics of it. This was the first time that the word terraforming was used in the title of a published article, and would henceforth become the preferred term.

This was followed by James Lovelock and Michael Allaby’s The Greening of Mars in 1984. This book was one of the first to describe a novel method of warming Mars, where chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are added to the atmosphere in order to trigger global warming. This book motivated biophysicist Robert Haynes to begin promoting terraforming as part of a larger concept known as Ecopoiesis.

Derived from the Greek words oikos (“house”) and poiesis (“production”), this word refers to the origin of an ecosystem. In the context of space exploration, it involves a form of planetary engineering where a sustainable ecosystem is fabricated from an otherwise sterile planet. As described by Haynes, this begins with the seeding of a planet with microbial life, which leads to conditions approaching that of a primordial Earth. This is then followed by the importation of plant life, which accelerates the production of oxygen, and culminates in the introduction of animal life.

An engineer suggests building a roof over a small planet so that Earthlike conditions could be maintained. Credit: by Karl Tate, Infographics Artist - See more at: http://www.space.com/23082-shell-worlds-planet-terraforming-technology-infographic.html#sthash.LB9CyN2g.dpuf
An engineer suggests building a roof over a small planet so that Earthlike conditions could be maintained. Credit: Karl Tate/space.com

In 2009, Kenneth Roy – an engineer with the US Department of Energy – presented his concept for a “Shell World” in a paper published with the Journal of British Interplanetary Sciences. Titled “Shell Worlds – An Approach To Terraforming Moons, Small Planets and Plutoids“, his paper explored the possibility of using a large “shell” to encase an alien world, keeping its atmosphere contained long enough for long-term changes to take root.

There is also the concepts where a usable part of a planet is enclosed in an dome in order to transform its environment, which is known as “paraterraforming”. This concept, originally coined by British mathematician Richard L.S. Talyor in his 1992 publication Paraterraforming – The worldhouse concept, could be used to terraform sections of several planets that are otherwise inhospitable, or cannot be altered in whole.

Potential Sites:

Within the Solar System, several possible locations exist that could be well-suited to terraforming. Consider the fact that besides Earth, Venus and Mars also lie within the Sun’s Habitable Zone (aka. “Goldilocks Zone”). However, owing to Venus’ runaway greenhouse effect, and Mars’ lack of a magnetosphere, their atmospheres are either too thick and hot, or too thin and cold, to sustain life as we know it. However, this could theoretically be altered through the right kind of ecological engineering.

Other potential sites in the Solar System include some of the moons that orbit the gas giants. Several Jovian (i.e. in orbit of Jupiter) and Cronian (in orbit of Saturn) moons have an abundance of water ice, and scientists have speculated that if the surface temperatures were increased, viable atmospheres could be created through electrolysis and the introduction of buffer gases.

Artist's conception of a terraformed Mars. Credit: Ittiz/Wikimedia Commons
Artist’s conception of a terraformed Mars. Credit: Ittiz/Wikimedia Commons

There is even speculation that Mercury and the Moon (or at least parts thereof) could be terraformed in order to be suitable for human settlement. In these cases, terraforming would require not only altering the surface, but perhaps also adjusting their rotation. In the end, each case presents its own share of advantages, challenges, and likelihoods for success. Let’s consider them in order of distance from the Sun.

Inner Solar System:

The terrestrial planets of our Solar System present the best possibilities for terraforming. Not only are they located closer to our Sun, and thus in a better position to absorb its energy, but they are also rich in silicates and minerals – which any future colonies will need to grow food and build settlements. And as already mentioned, two of these planets (Venus and Mars) are located within Earth’s habitable zone.

The vast majority of Mercury’s surface is hostile to life, where temperatures gravitate between extremely hot and cold – i.e. 700 K (427 °C; 800 °F) 100 K (-173 °C; -280 °F). This is due to its proximity to the Sun, the almost total lack of an atmosphere, and its very slow rotation. However, at the poles, temperatures are consistently low -93 °C (-135 °F) due to it being permanently shadowed.

Images of Mercury's northern polar region, provided by MESSENGER. Credit: NASA/JPL
Images of Mercury’s northern polar region, provided by MESSENGER. Credit: NASA/JPL

The presence of water ice and organic molecules in the northern polar region has also been confirmed thanks to data obtained by the MESSENGER mission. Colonies could therefore be constructed in the regions, and limited terraforming (aka. paraterraforming) could take place. For example, if domes (or a single dome) of sufficient size could be built over the Kandinsky, Prokofiev, Tolkien and Tryggvadottir craters, the norther region could be altered for human habitation.

Theoretically, this could be done by using mirrors to redirect sunlight into the domes which would gradually raise the temperature. The water ice would then melt, and when combined with organic molecules and finely ground sand, soil could be made. Plants could then be grown to produce oxygen, which combined with nitrogen gas, would produce a breathable atmosphere.

As “Earth’s Twin“, there are many possibilities and advantages to terraforming Venus. The first to propose this was Sagan with his 1961 article in Science. However, subsequent discoveries – such as the high concentrations of sulfuric acid in Venus’ clouds – made this idea unfeasible. Even if algae could survive in such an atmosphere, converting the extremely dense clouds of CO² into oxygen would result in an over-dense oxygen environment.

In addition, graphite would become a by-product of the chemical reactions, which would likely form into a thick powder on the surface. This would become CO² again through combustion, thus restarting the entire greenhouse effect. However, more recent proposals have been made that advocate using carbon sequestration techniques, which are arguably much more practical.

In these scenarios, chemical reactions would be relied on to convert Venus’ atmosphere to something breathable while also reducing its density. In one scenario, hydrogen and iron aerosol would be introduced to convert the CO² in the atmosphere into graphite and water. This water would then fall to the surface, where it cover roughly 80% of the planet – due to Venus having little variation in elevation.

Another scenario calls for the introduction of vast amounts of calcium and magnesium into the atmosphere. This would sequester carbon in the form of calcium and magnesium carbonites. And advantage to this plan is that Venus already has deposits of both minerals in its mantle, which could then be exposed to the atmosphere through drilling. However, most of the minerals would have to come from off-world in order to reduce the temperature and pressure to sustainable levels.

Yet another proposal is to freeze the atmospheric carbon dioxide down to the point of liquefaction – where it forms dry ice – and letting it accumulate on the surface. Once there, it could be buried and would remain in a solid state due to pressure, and even mined for local and off-world use. And then there is the possibility of bombarding the surface with icy comets (which could be mined from one of Jupiter’s or Saturn’s moons) to create a liquid ocean on the surface, which would sequester carbon and aid in any other of the above processes.

Last, there is the scenario in which Venus’ dense atmosphere could be removed. This could be characterized as the most direct approach to thinning an atmosphere which is far too dense for human occupation. By colliding large comets or asteroids into the surface, some of the dense CO² clouds could be blasted into space, thus leaving less atmosphere to be converted.

Artist's conception of a terraformed Venus, showing a surface largely covered in oceans. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Ittiz
Artist’s conception of a terraformed Venus, showing a surface largely covered in oceans. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Ittiz

A slower method could be achieved using mass drivers (aka. electromagnetic catapults) or space elevators, which would gradually scoop up the atmosphere and either lift it into space, or fire it away from the surface. And beyond altering or removing the atmosphere, there are also concepts that call for reducing the heat and pressure by either limiting sunlight (i.e. with solar shades) or altering the planet’s rotational velocity.

The concept of solar shades involves using either a series of small spacecraft or a single large lens to divert sunlight from a planet’s surface, thus reducing global temperatures. For Venus, which absorbs twice as much sunlight as Earth, solar radiation is believed to have played a major role in the runaway greenhouse effect that has made it what it is today.

Such a shade could be space-based, located in the Sun–Venus L1 Lagrangian Point, where it would not only prevent some sunlight from reaching Venus, but also serve to reduce the amount of radiation Venus is exposed to. Alternately, solar shades or reflectors could be placed in the atmosphere or on the surface. This could consist of large reflective balloons, sheets of carbon nanotubes or graphene, or low-albedo material.

Placing shades or reflectors in the atmosphere offers two advantages: for one, atmospheric reflectors could be built in-situ, using locally-sourced carbon. Second, Venus’ atmosphere is dense enough that such structures could easily float atop the clouds. However, the amount of material would have to be large and would have to remain in place long after the atmosphere had been modified. Also, since Venus already has highly reflective clouds, any approach would have to significantly surpass its current albedo (0.65) to make a difference.

Solar shades placed in orbit of Venus are a possible means of terraforming the planet. Credit: IEEE Spectrum/John MacNeill
Solar shades placed in orbit of Venus are a possible means of terraforming the planet. Credit: IEEE Spectrum/John MacNeill

Also, the idea of speeding up Venus’ rotation has been floating around as a possible means of terraforming. If Venus could be spun-up to the point where its diurnal (day-night) cycle were similar to Earth’s, the planet might just begin to generate a stronger magnetic field. This would have the effect of reducing the amount of solar wind (and hence radiation) from reaching the surface, thus making it safer for terrestrial organisms.

The Moon:
As Earth’s closest celestial body, colonizing the Moon would be comparatively easy compared to other bodies. But when it comes to terraforming the Moon, the possibilities and challenges closely resemble those of Mercury. For starters, the Moon has an atmosphere that is so thin that it can only be referred to as an exosphere. What’s more, the volatile elements that are necessary for life are in short supply (i.e. hydrogen, nitrogen, and carbon).

These problems could be addressed by capturing comets that contain water ices and volatiles and crashing them into the surface. The comets would sublimate, dispersing these gases and water vapor to create an the atmosphere. These impacts would also liberate water that is contained in the lunar regolith, which could eventually accumulate on the surface to form natural bodies of water.

The transfer of momentum from these comet would also get the Moon rotating more rapidly, speeding up its rotation so that it would no longer be tidally-locked. A Moon that was sped up to rotate once on its axis every 24 hours would have a steady diurnal cycle, which would make colonization and adapting to life on the Moon easier.

There is also the possibility of paraterraforming parts of the Moon in a way that would be similar to terraforming Mercury’s polar region. In the Moon’s case, this would take place in the Shackleton Crater, where scientists have already found evidence of water ice. Using solar mirrors and a dome, this crater could be turned into a micro-climate where plants could be grown and a breathable atmosphere created.

When it comes to terraforming, Mars is the most popular destination. There are several reasons for this, ranging from its proximity to Earth, its similarities to Earth, and the fact that it once had an environment that was very similar to Earth’s – which included a thicker atmosphere and the presence of warm, flowing water on the surface. Lastly, it is currently believed that Mars may have additional sources of water beneath its surface.

In brief, Mars has a diurnal and seasonal cycle that are very close what we experience here on Earth. In the former case, a single day on Mars lasts 24 hours and 40 minutes. In the latter case, and owing to Mars similarly tilted axis (25.19° compared to Earth’s 23°), Mars experiences seasonal changes that are very similar to Earth’s. Though a single season on Mars lasts roughly twice as long, the temperature variation that results is very similar – ±178 °C (320°F) compared to Earth’s ±160 °C (278°F).

Beyond these, Mars would need to undergo vast transformations in order for human beings to live on its surface. The atmosphere would need to be thickened drastically, and its composition would need to be changed. Currently, Mars’ atmosphere is composed of 96% carbon dioxide, 1.93% argon and 1.89% nitrogen, and the air pressure is equivalent to only 1% of Earth’s at sea level.

Above all, Mars lacks a magnetosphere, which means that its surface receives significantly more radiation than we are used to here on Earth. In addition, it is believed that Mars once had a magnetosphere, and that the disappearance of this magnetic field led to solar wind to stripping away Mars’ atmosphere. This in turn is what led Mars to become the cold, desiccated place it is today.

Scientists were able to gauge the rate of water loss on Mars by measuring the ratio of water and HDO from today and 4.3 billion years ago. Credit: Kevin Gill
Scientists were able to gauge the rate of water loss on Mars by measuring the ratio of water and HDO from today and 4.3 billion years ago. Credit: Kevin Gill

Ultimately, this means that in order for the planet to become habitable by human standards, it’s atmosphere would need to be significantly thickened and the planet significantly warmed. The composition of the atmosphere would need to change as well, from the current CO²-heavy mix to an nitrogen-oxygen balance of about 70/30. And above all, the atmosphere would need to be replenished every so often to compensate for loss.

Luckily, the first three requirements are largely complimentary, and present a wide range of possible solutions. For starters, Mars’ atmosphere could be thickened and the planet warmed by bombarding its polar regions with meteors. These would cause the poles to melt, releasing their deposits of frozen carbon dioxide and water into the atmosphere and triggering a greenhouse effect.

The introduction of volatile elements, such as ammonia and methane, would also help to thicken the atmosphere and trigger warming. Both could be mined from the icy moons of the outer Solar System, particularly from the moons of Ganymede, Callisto, and Titan. These could also be delivered to the surface via meteoric impacts.

After impacting on the surface, the ammonia ice would sublimate and break down into hydrogen and nitrogen – the hydrogen interacting with he CO² to form water and graphite, while the nitrogen acts as a buffer gas. The methane, meanwhile, would act as a greenhouse gas that would further enhance global warming. In addition, the impacts would throw tons of dust into the air, further fueling the warming trend.

In time, Mars’ ample supplies of water ice – which can be found not only in the poles but in vast subsurface deposits of permafrost – would all sublimate to form warm, flowing water. And with significantly increased air pressure and a warmer atmosphere, humans might be able to venture out onto the surface without the need for pressure suits.

However, the atmosphere will still need to be converted into something breathable. This will be far more time-consuming, as the process of converting the atmospheric CO² into oxygen gas will likely take centuries. In any case, several possibilities have been suggested, which include converting the atmosphere through photosynthesis – either with cyanobacteria or Earth plants and lichens.

Other suggestions include building orbital mirrors, which would be placed near the poles and direct sunlight onto the surface to trigger a cycle of warming by causing the polar ice caps to melt and release their CO² gas. Using dark dust from Phobos and Deimos to reduce the surface’s albedo, thus allowing it to absorb more sunlight, has also been suggested.

In short, there are plenty of options for terraforming Mars. And many of them, if not being readily available, are at least on the table…

Outer Solar System:

Beyond the Inner Solar System, there are several sites that would make for good terraforming targets as well. Particularly around Jupiter and Saturn, there are several sizable moons – some of which are larger than Mercury – that have an abundance of water in the form of ice (and in some cases, maybe even interior oceans).

The moons of the Solar System, shown to scale. Credit: planetary.org
The moons of the Solar System, shown to scale. Credit: planetary.org

At the same time, many of these same moons contain other necessary ingredients for functioning ecosystems, such as frozen volatiles  – like ammonia and methane. Because of this, and as part of our ongoing desire to explore farther out into our Solar System, many proposals have been made to seed these moons with bases and research stations. Some plans even include possible terraforming to make them suitable for long-term habitation.

The Jovian Moons:
Jupiter’s largest moons, Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto – known as the Galileans, after their founder (Galileo Galilei) – have long been the subject of scientific interest. For decades, scientists have speculated about the possible existence of a subsurface ocean on Europa, based on theories about the planet’s tidal heating (a consequence of its eccentric orbit and orbital resonance with the other moons).

Analysis of images provided by the Voyager 1 and Galileo probes added weight to this theory, showing regions where it appeared that the subsurface ocean had melted through. What’s more, the presence of this warm water ocean has also led to speculation about the existence of life beneath Europa’s icy crust – possibly around hydrothermal vents at the core-mantle boundary.

Because of this potential for habitability, Europa has also been suggested as a possible site for terraforming. As the argument goes, if the surface temperature could be increased, and the surface ice melted, the entire planet could become a ocean world. Sublimation of the ice, which would release water vapor and gaseous volatiles, would then be subject to electrolysis (which already produces a thin oxygen atmosphere).

However, Europa has no magnetosphere of its own, and lies within Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field. As a result, its surface is exposed to significant amounts of radiation – 540 rem of radiation per day compared to about 0.0030 rem per year here on Earth – and any atmosphere we create would begin to be stripped away by Jupiter. Ergo, radiation shielding would need to be put in place that could deflect the majority of this radiation.

And then there is Ganymede, the third most-distant of Jupiter’s Galilean moons. Much like Europa, it is a potential site of terraforming, and presents numerous advantages. For one, it is the largest moon in our Solar System, larger than our own moon and even larger that the planet Mercury. In addition, it also has ample supplies of water ice, is believed to have an interior ocean, and even has its own magnetosphere.

Hence, if the surface temperature were increased and the ice sublimated, Ganymede’s atmosphere could be thickened. Like Europa, it would also become an ocean planet, and its own magnetosphere would allow for it to hold on to more of its atmosphere. However, Jupiter’s magnetic field still exerts a powerful influence over the planet, which means radiation shields would still be needed.

Lastly, there is Callisto, the fourth-most distant of the Galileans. Here too, abundant supplies of water ice, volatiles, and the possibility of an interior ocean all point towards the potential for habitability. But in Callisto’s case, there is the added bonus of it being beyond Jupiter’s magnetic field, which reduces the threat of radiation and atmospheric loss.

Artist's cut-away representation of the internal structure of Ganymede. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/kelvinsong
Artist’s cut-away representation of the internal structure of Ganymede. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/kelvinsong

The process would begin with surface heating, which would sublimate the water ice and Callisto’s supplies of frozen ammonia. From these oceans, electrolysis would lead to the formation of an oxygen-rich atmosphere, and the ammonia could be converted into nitrogen to act as a buffer gas. However, since the majority of Callisto is ice, it would mean that the planet would lose considerable mass and have no continents. Again, an ocean planet would result, necessitated floating cities or massive colony ships.

The Cronians Moons:
Much like the Jovian Moons, Saturn’s Moons (also known as the Cronian) present opportunities for terraforming. Again, this is due to the presence of water ice, interior oceans, and volatile elements. Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, also has an abundance of methane that comes in liquid form (the methane lakes around its northern polar region) and in gaseous form in its atmosphere. Large caches of ammonia are also believed to exist beneath he surface ice.

Titan is also the only natural satellite to have a dense atmosphere (one and half times the pressure of Earth’s) and the only planet outside of Earth where the atmosphere is nitrogen-rich. Such a thick atmosphere would mean that it would be far easier to equalize pressure for habitats on the planet. What’s more, scientists believe this atmosphere is a prebiotic environment rich in organic chemistry – i.e. similar to Earth’s early atmosphere (only much colder).

iagram of the internal structure of Titan according to the fully differentiated dense-ocean model. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Kelvinsong
Diagram of the internal structure of Titan according to the fully differentiated dense-ocean model. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Kelvinsong

As such, converting it to something Earth-like would be feasible. First, the surface temperature would need to be increased. Since Titan is very distant from the Sun, and already has an abundance of greenhouse gases, this could only be accomplished through orbital mirrors. This would sublimate the surface ice, releasing ammonia beneath, which would lead to more heating.

The next step would involve converting the atmosphere to something breathable. As already noted, Titan’s atmosphere is nitrogen-rich, which would remove the need for introducing a buffer gas. And with the availability of water, oxygen could be introduced by generating it through electrolysis. At the same time, the methane and other hydrocarbons would have to be sequestered, in order to prevent an explosive mixture with the oxygen.

But given the thickness and multi-layered nature of Titan’s ice, which is estimated to account for half of its mass, the moon would be very much an ocean planet- i.e. with no continents or landmasses to build on. So once again, any habitats would have to take the form of either floating platforms or large ships.

Enceladus is another possibility, thanks to the recent discovery of a subsurface ocean. Analysis by the Cassini space probe of the water plumes erupting from its southern polar region also indicated the presence of organic molecules. As such, terraforming it would be similar to terraforming Jupiter’s moon of Europa, and would yield a similar ocean moon.

Artist's rendering of possible hydrothermal activity that may be taking place on and under the seafloor of Enceladus. Image Credit: NASA/JPL
Artist’s rendering of possible hydrothermal activity that may be taking place on and under the seafloor of Enceladus. Credit: NASA/JPL

Again, this would likely have to involve orbital mirrors, given Enceladus’ distance from our Sun. Once the ice began to sublimate, electrolysis would generate oxygen gas. The presence of ammonia in the subsurface ocean would also be released, helping to raise the temperature and serving as a source of nitrogen gas, with which to buffer the atmosphere.

In addition to the Solar System, extra-solar planets (aka. exoplanets) are also potential sites for terraforming. Of the 1,941 confirmed exoplanets discovered so far, these planets are those that have been designated “Earth-like. In other words, they are terrestrial planets that have atmospheres and, like Earth, occupy the region around a star where the average surface temperature allows for liquid water (aka. habitable zone).

The first planet confirmed by Kepler to have an average orbital distance that placed it within its star’s habitable zone was Kepler-22b. This planet is located about 600 light years from Earth in the constellation of Cygnus, was first observed on May 12th, 2009 and then confirmed on Dec 5th, 2011. Based on all the data obtained, scientists believe that this world is roughly 2.4 times the radius of Earth, and is likely covered in oceans or has a liquid or gaseous outer shell.

In addition, there are star systems with multiple “Earth-like” planets occupying their habitable zones. Gliese 581 is a good example, a red dwarf star that is located 20.22 light years away from Earth in the Libra constellation. Here, three confirmed and two possible planets exist, two of which are believed to orbit within the star’s habitable zone. These include the confirmed planet Gliese 581 d and the hypothetical Gliese 581 g.

Tau Ceti is another example. This G-class star, which is located roughly 12 light years from Earth in the constellation Cetus, has five possible planets orbiting it. Two of these are Super-Earths that are believed to orbit the star’s habitable zone – Tau Ceti e and Tau Ceti f. However, Tau Ceti e is believed to be too close for anything other than Venus-like conditions to exist on its surface.

In all cases, terraforming the atmospheres of these planet’s would most likely involve the same techniques used to terraform Venus and Mars, though to varying degrees. For those located on the outer edge of their habitable zones, terraforming could be accomplished by introducing greenhouse gases or covering the surface with low albedo material to trigger global warming. On the other end, solar shades and carbon sequestering techniques could reduce temperatures to the point where the planet is considered hospitable.

The latest list of potentially habitable exoplanets, courtesy of The Planetary Habitability Laboratory. Credit: phl.upr.edu
The latest list of potentially habitable exoplanets, courtesy of The Planetary Habitability Laboratory. Credit: phl.upr.edu

Potential Benefits:

When addressing the issue of terraforming, there is the inevitable question – “why should we?” Given the expenditure in resources, the time involved, and other challenges that naturally arise (see below), what reasons are there to engage in terraforming? As already mentioned, there is the reasons cited by Musk, about the need to have a “backup location” to prevent any particular cataclysm from claiming all of humanity.

Putting aside for the moment the prospect of nuclear holocaust, there is also the likelihood that life will become untenable on certain parts of our planet in the coming century. As the NOAA reported in March of 2015, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have now surpassed 400 ppm, a level not seen since the the Pliocene Era – when global temperatures and sea level were significantly higher.

And as a series of scenarios computed by NASA show, this trend is likely to continue until 2100, and with serious consequences. In one scenario, carbon dioxide emissions will level off at about 550 ppm toward the end of the century, resulting in an average temperature increase of 2.5 °C (4.5 °F). In the second scenario, carbon dioxide emissions rise to about 800 ppm, resulting in an average increase of about 4.5 °C (8 °F). Whereas the increases predicted in the first scenario are sustainable, in the latter scenario, life will become untenable on many parts of the planet.

NASA predicts that temperatures could increase by up to 4.5 C by 2100. Credit: svs.gsfc.nasa.gov
NASA predicts that, based on current emissions rates, temperatures could increase by up to 4.5 degrees Celsius by 2100. Credit: svs.gsfc.nasa.gov

As a result of this, creating a long-term home for humanity on Mars, the Moon, Venus, or elsewhere in the Solar System may be necessary. In addition to offering us other locations from which to extract resources, cultivate food, and as a possible outlet for population pressures, having colonies on other worlds could mean the difference between long-term survival and extinction.

There is also the argument that humanity is already well-versed in altering planetary environments. For centuries, humanity’s reliance on industrial machinery, coal and fossil fuels has had a measurable effect Earth’s environment. And whereas the Greenhouse Effect that we have triggered here was not deliberate, our experience and knowledge in creating it here on Earth could be put to good use on planet’s where surface temperatures need to be raised artificially.

In addition, it has also been argued that working with environments where there is a runaway Greenhouse Effect – i.e. Venus – could yield valuable knowledge that could in turn be used here on Earth. Whether it is the use of extreme bacteria, introducing new gases, or mineral elements to sequester carbon, testing these methods out on Venus could help us to combat Climate Change here at home.

It has also been argued that Mars’ similarities to Earth are a good reason to terraform it. Essentially, Mars once resembled Earth, until its atmosphere was stripped away, causing it to lose virtually all the liquid water on its surface. Ergo, terraforming it would be tantamount to returning it to its once-warm and watery glory. The same argument could be made of Venus, where efforts to alter it would restore it to what it was before a runaway Greenhouse Effect turned it into the harsh, extremely hot world it is today.

One of a few "fan-based" Mars Colonization Transport (MCT) design concepts. The design may be dominated by massive spherical fuel tanks and inflatable modules to house 100 Mars colonists. (Credit: Reddit user P3rkoz)
Artist’s concept for a SpaceX Mars Colonization Transport (MCT). (Credit: Reddit user P3rkoz)

Last, but not least, there is argument that colonizing the Solar System could usher in an age of “post-scarcity”. If humanity were to build outposts and based on other worlds, mine the asteroid belt and harvest the resources of the Outer Solar System, we would effectively have enough minerals, gases, energy, and water resources to last us indefinitely. It could also help trigger a massive acceleration in human development, defined by leaps and bounds in technological and social progress.

Potential Challenges:

When it comes right down to it, all of the scenarios listed above suffer from one or more of the following problems:

  1. They are not possible with existing technology
  2. They require a massive commitment of resources
  3. They solve one problem, only to create another
  4. They do not offer a significant return on the investment
  5. They would take a really, REALLY long time

Case in point, all of the potential ideas for terraforming Venus and Mars involve infrastructure that does not yet exist and would be very expensive to create. For instance, the orbital shade concept that would cool Venus calls for a structure that would need to be four times the diameter of Venus itself (if it were positioned at L1). It would therefore require megatons of material, all of which would have to be assembled on site.

All asteroids and comets visited by spacecraft as of November 2010 Credits: Montage by Emily Lakdawalla. Ida, Dactyl, Braille, Annefrank, Gaspra, Borrelly: NASA / JPL / Ted Stryk. Steins: ESA / OSIRIS team. Eros: NASA / JHUAPL. Itokawa: ISAS / JAXA / Emily Lakdawalla. Mathilde: NASA / JHUAPL / Ted Stryk. Lutetia: ESA / OSIRIS team / Emily Lakdawalla. Halley: Russian Academy of Sciences / Ted Stryk. Tempel 1, Hartley 2: NASA / JPL / UMD. Wild 2: NASA / JPL.
All asteroids and comets visited by spacecraft as of November 2010. Credits: Emily Lakdawalla/NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk/ESA/OSIRIS team/JHUAPL/ISAS/JAXA/RAS/UMD

In contrast, increasing the speed of Venus’s rotation would require energy many orders of magnitude greater than the construction of orbiting solar mirrors. As with removing Venus’ atmosphere, the process would also require a significant number of impactors that would have to be harnessed from the outer solar System – mainly from the Kuiper Belt.

In order to do this, a large fleet of spaceships would be needed to haul them, and they would need to be equipped with advanced drive systems that could make the trip in a reasonable amount of time. Currently, no such drive systems exist, and conventional methods – ranging from ion engines to chemical propellants – are neither fast or economical enough.

To illustrate, NASA’s New Horizons mission took more than 11 years to get make its historic rendezvous with Pluto in the Kuiper Belt, using conventional rockets and the gravity-assist method. Meanwhile, the Dawn mission, which relied relied on ionic propulsion, took almost four years to reach Vesta in the Asteroid Belt. Neither method is practical for making repeated trips to the Kuiper Belt and hauling back icy comets and asteroids, and humanity has nowhere near the number of ships we would need to do this.

The Moon’s proximity makes it an attractive option for terraforming. But again, the resources needed – which would likely include several hundred comets – would again need to be imported from the outer Solar System. And while Mercury’s resources could be harvested in-situ or brought from Earth to paraterraform its northern polar region, the concept still calls for a large fleet of ships and robot builders which do not yet exist.

The moons of Saturn, from left to right: Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea; Titan in the background; Iapetus (top) and irregularly shaped Hyperion (bottom). Some small moons are also shown. All to scale. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
The moons of Saturn, from left to right: Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea; Titan in the background; Iapetus (top) and Hyperion (bottom). Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

The outer Solar System presents a similar problem. In order to begin terraforming these moons, we would need infrastructure between here and there, which would mean bases on the Moon, Mars, and within the Asteroid Belt. Here, ships could refuel as they transport materials to the Jovian sand Cronian systems, and resources could be harvested from all three of these locations as well as within the systems themselves.

But of course, it would take many, many generations (or even centuries) to build all of that, and at considerable cost. Ergo, any attempts at  terraforming the outer Solar System would have to wait until humanity had effectively colonized the inner Solar System. And terraforming the Inner Solar System will not be possible until humanity has plenty of space hauler on hand, not to mention fast ones!

The necessity for radiation shields also presents a problem. The size and cost of manufacturing shields that could deflect Jupiter’s magnetic field would be astronomical. And while the resources could be harvest from the nearby Asteroid Belt, transporting and assembling them in space around the Jovian Moons would again require many ships and robotic workers. And again, there would have to be extensive infrastructure between Earth and the Jovian system before any of this could proceed.

As for item three, there are plenty of problems that could result from terraforming. For instance, transforming Jupiter’s and Saturn’s moons into ocean worlds could be pointless, as the volume of liquid water would constitute a major portion of the moon’s overall radius. Combined with their low surface gravities, high orbital velocities and the tidal effects of their parent planets, this could lead to severely high waves on their surfaces. In fact, these moons could become totally unstable as a result of being altered.

Mars-manned-mission vehicle (NASA Human Exploration of Mars Design Reference Architecture 5.0) feb 2009. Credit: NASA
Mars-manned-mission vehicle (NASA Human Exploration of Mars Design Reference Architecture 5.0) feb 2009. Credit: NASA

There is also several questions about the ethics of terraforming. Basically, altering other planets in order to make them more suitable to human needs raises the natural question of what would happen to any lifeforms already living there. If in fact Mars and other Solar System bodies have indigenous microbial (or more complex) life, which many scientists suspect, then altering their ecology could impact or even wipe out these lifeforms. In short, future colonists and terrestrial engineers would effectively be committing genocide.

Another argument that is often made against terraforming is that any effort to alter the ecology of another planet does not present any immediate benefits. Given the cost involved, what possible incentive is there to commit so much time, resources and energy to such a project? While the idea of utilizing the resources of the Solar System makes sense in the long-run, the short-term gains are far less tangible.

Basically, harvested resources from other worlds is not economically viable when you can extract them here at home for much less. And real-estate is only the basis of an economic model if the real-estate itself is desirable. While MarsOne has certainly shown us that there are plenty of human beings who are willing to make a one-way trip to Mars, turning the Red Planet, Venus or elsewhere into a “new frontier” where people can buy up land will first require some serious advances in technology, some serious terraforming, or both.

As it stands, the environments of Mars, Venus, the Moon, and the outer Solar System are all hostile to life as we know it. Even with the requisite commitment of resources and people willing to be the “first wave”, life would be very difficult for those living out there. And this situation would not change for centuries or even millennia. Like it not, transforming a planet’s ecology is very slow, laborious work.

Artist's concept of a Martian astronaut standing outside the Mars One habitat. Credit: Bryan Versteeg/Mars One
Artist’s concept of a Martian astronaut standing outside the Mars One habitat. Credit: Bryan Versteeg/Mars One


So… after considering all of the places where humanity could colonize and terraform, what it would take to make that happen, and the difficulties in doing so, we are once again left with one important question. Why should we? Assuming that our very survival is not at stake, what possible incentives are there for humanity to become an interplanetary (or interstellar) species?

Perhaps there is no good reason. Much like sending astronauts to the Moon, taking to the skies, and climbing the highest mountain on Earth, colonizing other planets may be nothing more than something we feel we need to do. Why? Because we can! Such a reason has been good enough in the past, and it will likely be sufficient again in the not-too-distant future.

This should is no way deter us from considering the ethical implications, the sheer cost involved, or the cost-to-benefit ratio. But in time, we might find that we have no choice but to get out there, simply because Earth is just becoming too stuffy and crowded for us!

We have written many interesting articles about terraforming here at Universe Today. Here’s Could We Terraform the Moon?, Should We Terraform Mars?, How Do We Terraform Mars?, How Do We Terraform Venus?, and Student Team Wants to Terraform Mars Using Cyanobacteria.

We’ve also got articles that explore the more radical side of terraforming, like Could We Terraform Jupiter?, Could We Terraform The Sun?, and Could We Terraform A Black Hole?

Astronomy Cast also has good episodes on the subject, like Episode 96: Humans to Mar, Part 3 – Terraforming Mars

For more information, check out Terraforming Mars  at NASA Quest! and NASA’s Journey to Mars.

Book Review: Hollyweird Science

Gravity movie poster

Do you remember science classes from way back when? All those laws and rules made it seem like everything was logical and well behaved. Then perhaps with television and movies being a big part of your life you began to wonder whether what you saw was real and unreal. Those things on the big and small screens didn’t seem nearly as well behaved. For instance, can people hear sounds in space? Or, can travelers quickly and easily go from one star to another? If you want to get yourself back on solid footing, get a hold of the book “Hollyweird Science – From Quantum Quirks to the Multiverse” by Kevin Grazier and Stephen Cass. With it, you can sift through a lot of tropes and conceits and glean some wonderful insights of both modern science and modern cinema.

Yes, tropes and conceits are terms from the world of cinema and not of physics. Think of these terms as ‘untruths’ for entertainment that writers use to capture and hold the attention of the audience. As this book describes, writers conjure up these exigencies to meet their demands. Their main demand is to prepare a story that fits into a very limited timeframe and into a very limited budget.

HollyweirdAnd much of the first part of this book takes the reader on a journey of past and present cinema that involves detailed science. This part of the book substantiates the claim that science in the Hollywood world of cinema is weird, whether it is Superman’s kryptonite, Star Trek’s dilithium crystals or Godzilla’s shear bulk. So how does this book go about proving that the science is weird?

Ah, this is the part that you may either love or hate. The authors include science boxes at regular intervals throughout. These science boxes have the equations you may remember from your early science classes. And the equations include numbers or ratios that show how a trope or conceit is particularly untrue. That is, the authors return to all those laws and rules of science, such as the law of gravity, the formula for acceleration, and the standard chemical composition of ecosystems.

Nevertheless, most of these weird issues are ones that the audience has already accepted and even a science box won’t affect the shear enjoyment. For example, think of Torch, a human that can instantly become a flame even though there’s no fuel. While the authors do raise a general lament on the failure of cinema to faithfully follow science, they do provide some rationalization that the untruth or trope was necessary, whether to fit a timeframe or a budget. Perhaps most promising from this section of the book is that the authors indicate that the typical audience member has become much smarter. In consequence, writers put a lot more reality into their science and even the depiction of alien worlds.

Who knew that learning physics could be so much fun?

Overall, the first third of the book is a fairly light, simple read with not so many science boxes. At about a third of the way in, however, the book transitions from being a discussion of cinema entertainment, with particular attention to its science, and becomes a discussion of science with reference to cinema. Here the science boxes are more detailed and numerous. They assess the possibility of using material from the Earth to kick-start a failing Sun, as done in a movie. Or, the likelihood of the Earth’s Moon being kicked out of the solar system, also done. And there’s much detail on the holy grail of science cinema, the faster than light transportation, as happens in most science fiction cinema.

Reading through this part of the book may bring you right back to your science classes of yore and their laws and rules. That is, it will if your science classes included quantum mechanics, parallel universes and wormholes. Here in the book things get really weird as today’s science has yet to faithfully prescribe the laws. Thus, the authors introduce a whole field of science, add current investigations and then associate the science with somewhat related relevant films. Perhaps, when the science gets this challenging, then it’s a good thing that entertaining cinema can come along and at least introduce the ideas to the general public.

With all the attention that the authors give to the science in this book, the reader will quickly appreciate that the book is not just a simple list of cinema bloopers. Rather, the book’s details provide enough depth of knowledge to allow the reader to hold their own at lunch time conversations when the topic swings around to the science in the latest show or movie. Perhaps it may induce the reader to do a bit more exploring and learning, especially as many current films feature a website that defines the science, the tropes and the conceits. However, cinema is for entertainment and the authors must realize the same holds for their book. So as much as this book has lots of hard science, the authors still keep the book entertaining.

And entertainment is mostly what we want, whether from cinema or books. So even if explosions in space come with a loud bang on the sound track or people fly without space suits up and around the Moon, we the audience are content if we are entertained and we haven’t hit the ‘Oh please!’ moment. If you want to know more about this moment, take a look at the book “Hollyweird Science – From Quantum Quirks to the Multiverse” by Kevin Grazier and Stephen Cass. From it, you can make up your own mind on just what you’re ready to accept as entertaining and what is just too much expectation by the storyteller.

The book is available through Springer at this link.

NASA Releases Strange ‘Music’ Heard By 1969 Astronauts

Lunar module pilot Eugene Cernan en route to the Moon during the Apollo 10 mission in the spring of 1969. Credit: NASA
Lunar module pilot Gene Cernan en route to the Moon during the Apollo 10 mission in the spring of 1969. Credit: NASA

Calling it music is a stretch, but that’s exactly how the Apollo 10 astronauts described the creepy sounds they heard while swinging around the farside of the moon in May 1969. During the hour they spent alone cut off from communications with Earth, all three commented about a persistent “whistling” sound that lunar module pilot (LMP) likened to “outer-space-type-music”. Once the craft returned to the nearside, the mysterious sounds disappeared.

Apollo 10 Farside-of-the-Moon Music.

Hands down it was aliens! I wish. Several online stories fan the coals of innuendo and mystery with talk of hidden files and NASA cover-ups narrated to disturbing music. NASA agrees that the files were listed as ‘confidential’ in 1969 at the height of the Space Race, but the Apollo 10 mission transcripts and audio have been publicly available at the National Archives since 1973. Remember, there was no Internet back then. The audio files were only digitized and uploaded for easy access in 2012. Outside of the secretive ’60s, the files have been around a long time.

Part of the Apollo 10 transcript of the conversation among the three Apollo 10 astronauts while they orbited the farside of the Moon. Credit: NASA
Part of the Apollo 10 transcript of the conversation among the three Apollo 10 astronauts while they orbited the farside of the Moon. Click the image for a pdf copy of the full mission transcript. Credit: NASA

The story originally broke Sunday night in a show on the cable channel Discovery as part of the “NASA’s Unexplained Files” series; you’ll find their youtube video below. As I listen to the sound file, I hear two different tones. One is a loud, low buzz, the other a whooshing sound. My first thought was interference of some sort for the buzzing sound, but the whoosh reminded me of a whistler, a low frequency radio wave generated by lightning produced when energy from lightning travels out into Earth’s magnetic field from one hemisphere to another. Using an appropriate receiver, we can hear whistlers as descending, whistle-like tones lasting up to several seconds.

Earthrise as photographed by the Apollo 10 crew in May 1969. Credit: NASA
Earthrise as photographed by the Apollo 10 crew in May 1969. Credit: NASA

Lightning’s hardly likely on the Moon, and whistlers require a magnetic field, which the Moon also lacks. The cause turns out to be, well, man-made. Cernan’s take was that two separate VHF radios, one in the lunar module and the other in command module, were interfering with one another to produce the noise. This was later confirmed by Apollo 11 astronaut Mike Collins who flew around the lunar farside alone when Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon’s surface.

The Apollo 10 command/service module nicknamed "Charlie Brown" orbiting the Moon as seen from the lunar module. Credit: NASA
The Apollo 10 command service module nicknamed “Charlie Brown” orbiting the Moon as seen from the lunar module. Apollo 10 was a full dress rehearsal for the Apollo 11 mission to place a man on the Moon. Click the image to visit the Apollo 10 photo archive. Credit: NASA

In his book Carrying the Fire, Collins writes: “There is a strange noise in my headset now, an eerie woo-woo sound.” He said it might have scared him had NASA’s radio technicians not forewarned him. The “music” played when the two craft were near one another with their radios turned on. Unlike Apollo 10, which never descended to the Moon’s surface but remained near the command module, the Apollo 11 lunar module touched down on the Moon on July 20, 1969. Once it did, Collins writes that the ‘woo-woo’ music stopped.

The astronauts never talked publicly or even with the agency about hearing weird sounds in space for good reason. Higher-ups at NASA might think them unfit for future missions for entertaining weird ideas, so they kept their thoughts private. This was the era of the “right stuff” and no astronaut wanted to jeopardize a chance to fly to the Moon let alone their career.

Outer Space Music Part 1 of NASA’s Unexplained Files —  to be taken with a boulder of salt

In the end, this “music of the the spheres” makes for a fascinating  tidbit of outer space history. There’s no question the astronauts were spooked, especially considering how eerie it must have felt to be out of touch with Earth on the far side of the Moon. But once the sounds stopped, they soldiered on — part of the grand human effort to touch another world.

“I don’t remember that incident exciting me enough to take it seriously,” Gene Cernan told NASA on Monday. “It was probably just radio interference. Had we thought it was something other than that we would have briefed everyone after the flight. We never gave it another thought.”

Messages from the Ringed Planet

Want to hear some real outer space music? Click the Saturn video and listen to the eerie sound of electrons streaming along Saturn’s magnetic field to create the aurora.

NASA Thinks There’s a Way to Get to Mars in 3 Days

Interstellar travel will require near-light-speed to be feasible. Image: NASA

We’ve achieved amazing things by using chemical rockets to place satellites in orbit, land people on the Moon, and place rovers on the surface of Mars. We’ve even used ion drives to reach destinations further afield in our Solar System. But reaching other stars, or reducing our travel time to Mars or other planets, will require another method of travel. One that can approach relativistic speeds.

Your aim has to be really really good.
Your aim has to be really really good. Credit: UCSB Experimental Cosmology Group
We can execute missions to Mars, but it takes several months for a vehicle to reach the Red Planet. Even then, those missions have to be launched during the most optimal launch windows, which only occur every 2 years. But the minds at NASA never stop thinking about this problem, and now Dr. Philip Lubin, Physics Professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, may have come up with something: photonic propulsion, which he thinks could reduce the travel time from Earth to Mars to just 3 days, for a 100 kg craft.

The system is called DEEP IN, or Directed Propulsion for Interstellar Exploration. The general idea is that we have achieved relativistic speeds in the laboratory, but haven’t taken that technology—which is electromagnetic in nature, rather than chemical—and used it outside of the laboratory. In short, we can propel individual particles to near light speed inside particle accelerators, but haven’t expanded that technology to the macro level.

Directed Energy Propulsion differs from rocket technology in a fundamental way: the propulsion system stays at home, and the craft doesn’t carry any fuel or propellant. Instead, the craft would carry a system of reflectors, which would be struck with an aimed stream of photons, propelling the craft forward. And the whole system is modular and scalable.

Photonic propulsion explained.
Photonic propulsion explained.

If that’s not tantalizing enough, the system can also be used to deflect hazardous space debris, and to detect other technological civilizations. As talked about in this paper, detecting these types of systems in use by other civilizations may be our best hope for discovering those civilizations.

There’s a roadmap for using this system, and it starts small. At first, DEEP IN would be used to launch small cube satellites. The feedback from this phase would then inform the next step, which would be to test a unit for defending the ISS from space debris. From then, the systems would meet goals of increasing complexity, from launching satellites to LEO (Low-Earth Orbit) and GEO (Geostationary Orbit), all the way up to asteroid deflection and planetary defense. After that, relativistic drives capable of interstellar travel is the goal.

There are lots of questions still to be answered of course, like what happens when a vehicle at near light-speed hits a tiny meteorite. But those questions will be asked and answered as the system is developed and its capabilities grow.

Obviously, DEEP IN has the potential to bring other stars into reach. This system could deliver probes to some of the more promising exo-planets, and give humanity its first detailed look at other solar systems. If DEEP IN can be successfully scaled up, as Lubin says, then it will be a transformational technology.

Here’s a longer video of Dr. Lubin explaining DEEP IN in greater depth and detail: http://livestream.com/viewnow/niac2015seattle

Here’s the website for the University of California Santa Barbara Experimental Cosmology Group: http://www.deepspace.ucsb.edu/

ExoMars 2016 Orbiter and Lander Mated for March Launch

ExoMars Schiaparelli lander being mated with the Trace Gas Orbiter on 12 February 2016. Credit: ESA - B. Bethge
ExoMars Schiaparelli lander being mated with the Trace Gas Orbiter on 12 February 2016. Credit: ESA – B. Bethge

Earth’s lone mission to the Red Planet this year has now been assembled into launch configuration and all preparations are currently on target to support blastoff from Baikonur at the opening of the launch window on March 14, 2016.

The ambitious ExoMars 2016 mission is comprised of a pair of European spacecraft named the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli lander, built and funded by the European Space Agency (ESA). Continue reading “ExoMars 2016 Orbiter and Lander Mated for March Launch”

Does Antarctica Have A Hidden Layer Of Meteorites Below Its Surface?

ANSMET 2012-2013 team collecting a meteorite sample (Image: Antarctic Search for Meteorites Program / Katherine Joy)
Two members of the Antarctic Search for Meteorites 2012-2013 team use tongs to collect a meteorite near the Transantarctic Mountains. Credit: Katherine Joy, University of Manchester / Antarctic Search for Meteorites Program

In the category of why-didn’t-I think-of-that ideas, Dr. Geoffrey Evatt and colleagues from the University of Manchester struck upon a brilliant hypothesis: that a layer of iron meteories might lurk just below the surface of the Antarctic ice. He’s the lead  author of a recent paper on the topic published in the open-access journal, Nature Communications.

A likely stony meteorite found during the ANSMET 2014-15 expedition in Antarctica. Credit: JSC Curation / NASA
A possible stony meteorite found during the ANSMET 2014-15 expedition in Antarctica. Credit: Antarctic Search for Meteorites Program

Remote Antarctica makes one of the best meteorite collecting regions on the planet. Space rocks have been accumulating there for millennia preserved in the continent’s cold, desert-like climate. While you might think it’s a long and expensive way to go to hunt for meteorites, it’s still a lot cheaper than a sample return mission to the asteroid belt. Meteorites fall and become embedded in ice sheets within the continent’s interior. As that ice flows outward toward the Antarctic coastlines, it pushes up against the Transantarctic Mountains, where powerful, dry winds ablate away the ice and expose their otherworldly cargo.

Meteorite recovery sites in the Transantarctic Mountains. Credit: NASA
Meteorite recovery sites in the Transantarctic Mountains. Credit: NASA

Layer after layer, century after century, the ice gets stripped away, leaving rich “meteorite stranding zones” where hundreds of space rocks can be found within an area the size of a soccer field. Since most meteorites arrive on Earth coated in a black or brown fusion crust from their searing fall through the atmosphere, they contrast well against the white glare of snow and ice. Scientists liken it to a conveyor belt that’s been operating for the past couple million years.

Scientists form snowmobile posses and buzz around the ice fields picking them up like candy eggs on Easter morning. OK, it’s not that easy. There’s much planning and prep followed by days and nights of camping in bitter cold with high winds tearing at your tent. Expeditions take place from October through early January when the Sun never sets.

The U.S. under ANSMET (Antarctic Search for Meteorites, a Case Western Reserve University project funded by NASA), China, Japan and other nations run programs to hunt and collect the precious from the earliest days of the Solar System before they find their way to the ocean or are turned to dust by the very winds that revealed them in the first place. Since systematic collecting began in 1976, some 34,927 meteorites have been recovered from Antarctica as of December 2015.

A team of scientists document the find of a small meteorite found among rocks on the Antarctic ice during the ANSMET 2014-15 hunt. Credit: JSC Curation / NASA
A team of scientists document the find of a small meteorite found among rocks on the Antarctic ice during the ANSMET 2014-15 expedition. Credit: Antarctic Search for Meteorites Program / Vinciane Debaille

Meteorites come in three basic types: those made primarily of rock; stony-irons comprised of a mixture of iron and rock; and iron-rich. Since collection programs have been underway, Antarctic researchers have uncovered lots of stony meteorites, but meteorites either partly or wholly made of metal are scarce compared to what’s found in other collecting sites around the world, notably the deserts of Africa and Oman. What gives?

A fragment of the Sikhote-Alin iron meteorite that fell over eastern Russia (then the Soviet Union) on Feb. 12, 1947. Some of the dimpling are pockets on the meteorite's surface called regmeglypts. Credit: Bob King
This fragment of the massive Sikhote-Alin meteorite that fell over eastern Russia (then the Soviet Union) on Feb. 12, 1947 is a typical iron-nickel meteorite. Another specimen of this meteorite was used in the experiment to determine how quickly it burrowed into the ice when heated.  Credit: Bob King

Dr. Evatt and colleagues had a hunch and performed a simple experiment to arrive at their hypothesis. They froze two meteorites of similar size and shape — a specimen of the Russian Sikhote-Alin iron and NWA 869, an ordinary (stony) chondrite  — inside blocks of ice and heated them using a solar-simulator lamp. As expected, both meteorites melted their way down through the ice in time, but the iron meteorite sank further and  faster. I bet you can guess why. Iron or metal conducts heat more efficiently than rock. Grab a metal camera tripod leg or telescope tube on a bitter cold night and you’ll know exactly what I mean. Metal conducts the heat away from your hand far better and faster than say, a piece of wood or plastic.

Antarctic researchers carefully pack meteorites into collection boxes. Looks cold! Credit: JSC Curation / NASA
Antarctic researchers carefully pack meteorites found along the Transantarctic Range into collection boxes. Looks cold! Credit: Antarctic Search for Meteorites Program / Vinciane Debaille

The researchers performed many trials with the same results and created a mathematical model showing that Sun-driven burrowing during the six months of Antarctic summer accounted nicely for the lack of iron meteorites seen in the stranding zones. Co-author Dr. Katherine Joy estimates that the fugitive meteorites are trapped between about 20-40 inches (50-100 cm) beneath the ice.

Who wouldn’t be happy to find this treasure? Dr. Barbara Cohen is seen with a large meteorite from the Antarctic’s Miller Range. Credit: Antarctic Search for Meteorites Program

You can imagine how hard it would be to dig meteorites out of Antarctic ice. It’s work enough to mount an expedition to pick up just what’s on the surface.

With the gauntlet now thrown down, who will take up the challenge? The researchers suggests metal detectors and radar to help locate the hidden irons. Every rock delivered to Earth from outer space represents a tiny piece of a great puzzle astronomers, chemists and geologist have been assembling since 1794 when German physicist Ernst Chladni published a small book asserting that rocks from space really do fall from the sky.

Like the puzzle we leave unfinished on the tabletop, we have a picture, still incomplete, of a Solar System fashioned from the tiniest of dust motes in the crucible of gravity and time.


Commercial Cygnus Cargo Freighter Departs ISS After Resuming US Resupply Runs

Cygnus before we let her go as we flew above Bolivia this morning, Feb. 19, 2016. Credit: NASA/Scott Kelly/@StationCDRKelly
Cygnus before we let her go as we flew above Bolivia this morning, Feb. 19, 2016. Credit: NASA/Scott Kelly/@StationCDRKelly

A commercial Cygnus cargo freighter departed the International Space Station (ISS) this morning (Feb. 19) after successfully resuming America’s train of resupply runs absolutely essential to the continued productive functioning of the orbiting science outpost.

NASA astronauts Scott Kelly and Tim Kopra commanded the release of the privately developed Orbital ATK “S.S. Deke Slayton II” Cygnus resupply ship from the snares of the stations Canadian-built robotic arm at 7:26 a.m. EST – while the space station was flying approximately 250 miles (400 km) above Bolivia.

“Honor to give #Cygnus a hand (or arm) in finalizing its mission this morning. Well done #SSDekeSlayton!” Kelly quickly posted to his social media accounts.

The Orbital ATK “S.S. Deke Slayton II” Cygnus craft had arrived at the station with several tons of supplies on Dec. 9, 2015 after blazing to orbit on Dec. 6 atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on the company’s fourth NASA-contracted commercial station resupply mission dubbed CRS-4.

Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft named SS Deke Slayton II is released from the International Space Station’s Canadarm2 on Feb 19, 2016. Credit: NASA/Scott Kelly/@StationCDRKelly
Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft named SS Deke Slayton II is released from the International Space Station’s Canadarm2 on Feb 19, 2016. Credit: NASA/Scott Kelly/@StationCDRKelly

To prepare for today’s release, ground controllers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center first used the station’s 57.7-foot-long (17.6- meter-long) robotic arm, Canadarm2, to unberth Cygnus from its place on the stations Earth-facing port of the Unity module at about 5:38 a.m.

Cygnus came loaded with over three tons of critically needed supplies and research experiments as well as Christmas presents for the astronauts and cosmonauts living and working on the massive orbital lab complex during Expeditions 45 and 46.

Today’s activities were carried live on NASA TV. This brief NASA video shows a few highlights from Cygnus departure:

Altogether, Cygnus spent approximately 72 days attached to the station. During that time the crews unloaded all the research gear for experiments in areas such as biology, biotechnology, and physical and Earth science.

“All good things must come to an end. #Cygnus, your mission was a success! Farewell #SSDekeSlayton,” said Kelly.

Mission controllers at Orbital ATK’s Dulles, VA space operations facility soon commanded Cygnus to fire its thrusters to gradually maneuver away from the station.

The Cygnus spacecraft is released from the International Space Station’s Canadarm2 on Feb 19, 2016.  Credit: NASA TV
The Cygnus spacecraft is released from the International Space Station’s Canadarm2 on Feb 19, 2016. Credit: NASA TV

Before departure, the crew had loaded Cygnus back up with about 3000 pounds of trash for disposal.

On Saturday, after the spacecraft is far away from the station, controllers will fire the engines twice to pushing the vehicle into Earth’s atmosphere for a fiery reentry where it will harmlessly burn up over the Pacific Ocean.

Meanwhile, Kelly himself will also be departing the ISS in about ten days when his historic ‘1 Year ISS Mission’ concludes on March 1, when he returns to Earth on a Russian Soyuz capsule along with his cosmonaut crewmates Mikhail Kornienko and Sergey Volkov.

December’s arrival of the Orbital ATK Cygnus CRS-4 cargo freighter – also known as OA-4 – represented the successful restart of American’s critically needed cargo missions to the ISS following a pair of launch failures by both of NASA’s cargo providers – Orbital ATK and SpaceX – over the past year and a half. It was the first successful US cargo delivery mission in some 8 months.

Cygnus was named the ‘SS Deke Slayton II’ in memory of Deke Slayton, one of the America’s original seven Mercury astronauts. He was a member of the Apollo Soyuz Test Flight. Slayton was also a champion of America’s commercial space program.

Inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility high bay clean room at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the Orbital ATK Cygnus pressurized module is being processed for Dec. 3, 2015 launch, Dan Tani, former astronaut and now Orbital ATK VP for Mission and Cargo Operations, center, poses with Cygnus and mural of Deke Slayton, along with Randy Gordon, Launch Support Project manager for NASA, and Kevin Leslie, ULA Mission manager. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility high bay clean room at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the Orbital ATK Cygnus pressurized module is being processed for Dec. 3, 2015 launch, Dan Tani, former astronaut and now Orbital ATK VP for Mission and Cargo Operations, center, poses with Cygnus and mural of Deke Slayton, along with Randy Gordon, Launch Support Project manager for NASA, and Kevin Leslie, ULA Mission manager. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CRS-4 counts as the first flight of Cygnus on an Atlas and the first launch to the ISS using an Atlas booster.

This is also the first flight of the enhanced, longer Cygnus, measuring 5.1 meters (20.5 feet) tall and 3.05 meters (10 feet) in diameter, sporting a payload volume of 27 cubic meters.

“The enhanced Cygnus PCM is 1.2 meters longer, so it’s about 1/3 longer,” Frank DeMauro, Orbital ATK Vice President for Human Spaceflight Systems Programs, said in an exclusive interview with Universe Today.

This Cygnus also carried its heaviest payload to date since its significantly more voluminous than the original shorter version.

“It can carry about 50% more payload,” DeMauro told me.

“This Cygnus will carry more payload than all three prior vehicles combined,” former NASA astronaut Dan Tani elaborated.

The total payload packed on board amounted to 3513 kilograms (7745 pounds), including science investigations, crew supplies, vehicle hardware, spacewalk equipment and computer resources.

Among the contents are science equipment totaling 846 kg (1867 lbs.), crew supplies of 1181 kg (2607 lbs.), and spacewalk equipment of 227 kg (500 lbs.).

Orbital ATK’s Cygnus Spacecraft carrying vital cargo to resupply the International Space Station lifts-off aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on Dec. 6, 2015.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orbital ATK’s Cygnus Spacecraft carrying vital cargo to resupply the International Space Station lifts-off aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on Dec. 6, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Orbital ATK holds a Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract from NASA worth $1.9 Billion to deliver 20,000 kilograms of research experiments, crew provisions, spare parts and hardware for eight Cygnus cargo delivery flights to the ISS.

Orbital ATK has contracted a second Cygnus to fly on an Atlas on the OA-6 mission, currently slated for liftoff around March 22, 2016. Liftoff was delayed about two weeks to decontaminate an infestation of mold found in cargo already packed on the Cygnus.

NASA has also contracted with Orbital ATK to fly three additional missions through 2018. Orbital also recently was awarded six additional cargo missions by NASA as part of the CRS-2 procurement.

Orbital ATK hopes to resume Cygnus cargo launches with their own re-engined Antares rocket from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia this summer.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer