Planetary Resources is a company with aspirations to be the world’s first asteroid-miners. Launched Tuesday in Seattle, they have the financial backing of Microsoft and Google billionaires, James Cameron (yes, that James Cameron) and Ross Perot Jr.
Scientists have announced the most promising life harboring exo-planet so far: a planet of at least 4.5 Earth masses, orbiting its red dwarf star in the habitable zone. The habitable zone is generally considered an orbital zone around a star in which a planet can retain water in liquid form. The planet, called GJ 667Cc, orbits a star that’s part of a trinary start system.
“It’s definitely the best candidate,” says astronomer Abel Méndez of the University of Puerto Rico in Arecibo. “If it’s rocky, then it will be more compelling evidence that this is a true habitable planet.”
The planet, the second planet from the star, has an orbital period of about 28 days making it likely that it is tidally locked, i.e. it has no rotation, therefore the same side always faces the sun. The star is a red dwarf, dimmer and cooler than the sun, and with a habitable zone that’s much closer than the one around our own Sun.
Last week Kepler made news over announcing 26 new confirmed planets part of multi-planet systems. Of particular interest is Kepler-33, a system demonstrated to have five planets. Most of these planets range in size between Earth and Neptune.
We live in interesting times. I predict that this year we will discover a planet, maybe more, that not only is in the habitable zone for life in general, but one that would make for a very compelling destination for further scientific study. Specifically, a planet that orbits a G-class star, is snug in the habitable zone, and is roughly the same mass and density as Earth, with gravity between .8 and 1.2 G. Oh, and a moon would be nice.
Here’s a recap of some of the coolest things I’ve seen so far this week.
Wired has another glorious gallery on space stations with a few I have yet to see. See if you can find the image that looks like Earth listening to its iPod.
Reason has a great article by Gregory Benford about a post-NASA space industry. Here he is on part of what went wrong with NASA:
Congress came to see NASA primarily as a jobs program, not an exploratory agency. Slowly, NASA complied with the post-Apollo vision—safety-obsessed, with few big goals for manned flight beyond low Earth orbit. Very little useful science got done in the space station. NASA never did the experiments needed to develop the technologies required for a genuine interplanetary expedition: centrifugal gravity to avoid bodily harm and a truly closed biosphere. The station was about camping in space, not living in space.
There is still hope for the future, and recent science fiction has been exploring that hope. By sure to read the entire article. It had me adjust my perspective on the future of humanity in space.
Io9 has a look at the new Blu-Ray remaster on Star Trek: TNG and I can’t tell you how excited I am over it. I may have to go out and get a Blu-Ray player, just for this set. Be sure to check out these comparative animated GIFs too.
Finally, Boing Boing has an interview with astronaut Rex Walheim titled
“Space is awesome”. Indeed. He’s gracious enough to answer reader’s questions.
Kepler discoveries. On Jan. 11, 2012, astronomers announced the discovery of a miniature solar system made up of three tiny planets – all of them smaller than Earth but larger than Mars – in orbit around the red dwarf star KOI-961 about 130 light-years from Earth. The planets are the smallest exoplanets yet discovered and were found using NASA’s Kepler space telescope. The star itself is said to be only about one-sixth the size of our own star and all the planets orbit very close to it’s host with orbital times less than 2 days.
Ring-like system orbiting a Sun-like star. A team of astrophysicists from the University of Rochester and Europe has discovered a ring system in the constellation Centaurus that invites comparisons to Saturn. The Rochester team discovered a long, deep, and complex eclipse event with significant on-and-off dimming. At the deepest parts of the eclipse, at least 95% of the light from the star was being blocked by dust. The dust is believed to be in the form of a ring similar to what Saturn has in our solar system, but much bigger. The orbital radius of the outermost ring is tens of millions of kilometers, so the mass and size of the ring systems is substantially heftier than Saturn’s ring system. Space.com
Billions of habitable planets in the Milky Way? So far with the help of telescopes like Kepler we have found about 1,000 planets orbiting other solar systems. Since we’ve only been examining a tiny portion of the galaxy, scientists have estimated that there are over 100 billion total planets in star systems just in the Milky Way. They use a method called microlensing to examine systems of interest further.
“Our microlensing data complements the other two methods by identifying small and large planets in the area midway between the transit and radial velocity measurements. Together, the three methods are, for the first time, able to say something about how common our own solar system is, as well as how many stars appear to have Earth-size planets in the orbital area where liquid what could, in principle, exist as lakes, rivers and oceans — that is to say, where life as we know it from Earth could exist in principle,” says Uffe Gråe Jørgensen. He explains that a statistical analysis of all three methods combined shows that out of the Milky Way’s 100 billion stars, there are about 10 billion stars with planets in the habitable zone. This means that there may be billions of habitable planets in the Milky Way. Space Daily
Once again, here’s a list of space conferences going on this month to be on the watch for in the news. You may even want to attend one (or a few, if you’re lucky). Below is a list that I find most interesting, but the full list can be found on Space Conference News.
NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program Analysis Group (ExoPAG), will be meeting in Austin, TX from January 7th – 8th.
The Zero Gravity Corporation, will be holding its next ‘Zero-G Flight Experience,’ a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience weightlessness on-board a specially modified Boeing 727, in Miami, FL on January 14th.
The 2nd Commercial Human Spaceflight Technical Forum, will be held in Boulder, CO from January 18th – 22nd.
A conference focused on a discussion of Planets around Stellar Remnants, will be held in Arecibo, Puerto Rico from from January 23rd – 27th.
The Applied Technology Institute (ATI) course on Space Environment – Implications for Spacecraft Design, will be held in Columbia, MD from January 31st – February 1st.
Skip to the video below if you want to see an iPad being dropped from the edge of space and surviving. With a little help from a G-Form Extreme Sleeve iPad case, of course.
They lifted the iPad to its drop height of 100,000 feet using a weather balloon then let it free fall. It survives after landing in a rocky Nevada cliffside. Pretty damn cool.
Press release after the break.
Over at Centauri Dreams, an article by Marc Millis was posted that goes through decade by decade of an optimistic, albeit fictional, account of events and discoveries to come.
This decade basically covers humans getting over the stigma of space travel and nuclear propulsion, something I also hope comes to pass. Like they say, time heals all wounds.
In the 20s and 30s Marc leads us through exo-planet discoveries that show evidence of life and how Universities and other institutions get in on space discovery through the use of ever advancing robotic probes, all the while trying to improve Earth’s own environment and sociology. Artificial Intelligence is being used and humankind extends it’s reach as far as the Moon. All the while we are applying what we learn in space to improving life on Earth and the Earth itself.
The 40s sees the rise of the Moon and Mars colonies. AIs become self aware, but have no interest in being the instrument of mankind’s annihilation. Instead they speed themselves out through out the solar system’s planets, some even stay on Earth to assist humanity in their own self evolution. By the end of the decade humans finally crack the propellantless space drive problem as well as make physics discoveries that enable the engineering of artificial gravity fields that don’t rely on centripetal effects. This effectively opens up the solar system to us; interstellar travel is just a little behind.
By the 50s, humankind is constructing colony ships to take them beyond the constrains of our local system. One is being sent to Destiny, the planet discovered in the 20s that harbors life and can sustain humans. We also begin the transformation to non-biological entities known as transhumance that don’t have the basic human body frailties but still have the drive, inquisitiveness and basic instinct of the human mind.
This is an optimistic future for our species and we are seen thriving, venturing out into the Universe, exploring and growing. I’ve always taken an optimistic view of what we will become, something very different than what we are now. I hope you find the time to read this piece.
It’s been a big year for NASA. From Kepler to the Dawn missions to the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity. The video below, “This Year @NASA” looks back at the space stories that made 2011.
While not in the habitable zone, NASA has announced today the discovery of Earth-sized planets orbiting stars that are very similar to our own Sun.
This discovery marks an important milestone in the search for rocky Earth-like planets orbiting Sun-like stars. Kepler-20e is a little bit smaller than Venus, about 0.87 times the Earth’s radius and Kepler-20f is just a bit larger than Earth, about 1.03 times its radius. Both of the planets are part of a five planet system called, obviously, Kepler-20.
Kepler-20e orbits its star every 6.1 days and Kepler-20f every 19.6 days. The star is a G type star, like our own Sun, but a little cooler and smaller. The star is approximately 1,000 light-years away from us in the constellation Lyra.
“The primary goal of the Kepler mission is to find Earth-sized planets in the habitable zone,” said Francois Fressin of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., lead author of a new study published in the journal Nature. “This discovery demonstrates for the first time that Earth-size planets exist around other stars, and that we are able to detect them.”
The other three planets range in size between Earth and Neptune. Kepler-20b, the closest planet orbits the star every 3.7 days, Kepler-20c, the third planet, orbits every 10.9 days, while Kepler-20d, the fifth planet, orbits every 77.6 days. All five planet’s orbits fall within Mercury’s orbit of the Sun. The orbital configuration would seem odd at first glance. Typically you would expect rocky worlds to be in the inner orbits with larger gas planets taking the outer orbits. But the Kepler-20 system follows a large-small-large-small-large configuration.
Scientists are still not certain, but they think that the planets did not form in this staggered formation and that some outside interactions have resulted in what we see now.
For more information about the Kepler mission and to view the digital press kit, visit: NASA’s Kepler mission.
Space.com had an article at the end of November that discussed how scientists suggested we use worms, or more specifically, the the microscopic roundworm Caenorhabditis elegant, to help in studying how life adapts to living on Mars.
Studies have shown that these types of worms can survive and even reproduce in space long enough to reach the Red Planet. These nematodes were grown on a mission that began in 2003 on the shuttle Columbia then transferred to the ISS earlier this year.
Why use worms? “Worms allow us to detect changes in growth, development, reproduction and behavior in response to environmental conditions such as toxins or in response to deep space missions,” Nathaniel Szewczyk, leader of the study, said. “Given the high failure rate of Mars missions, use of worms allows us to safely and relatively cheaply test spacecraft systems prior to manned missions.”
Terraforming the Red Planet
Io9 has a great rundown of what it will take to terraform Mars using our current knowledge of the Red Planet. It starts off by reintroducing liquid water to the surface, drastically increasing the atmospheric pressure, and that should result in a warming of the planet that could sustain plant and hopefully someday, a human presence on Mars. They also cover some concerns to sustainable human presence on Mars, particularly the lack of a strong magnetosphere to help shield us from solar and cosmic radiation that would have deleterious effects on our bodies, and to a lesser extent, the relatively low 0.4g surface gravity.
In his definitive text, Terraforming: Engineering Planetary Environments, Martyn Fogg laid out five critical challenges:
1. The surface temperature must be raised
2. The atmospheric pressure must be increased
3. The chemical composition of the atmosphere must be changed
4. The surface must be made wet
5. The surface flux of UV radiation must be reduced
The article is well worth a read.
Definitive Evidence for Water on Mars
Earlier this month NASA’s Rover Opportunity has found veins of gypsum, evidence that it was deposited by water. It’s still a bit of a mystery how the deposits were formed exactly, but gypsum and other calcium deposits are typically formed when water dissolves calcium out of volcanic rocks forming the crystalline structures we see on Earth and now on Mars.
“It could have formed in a different type of water environment, one more hospitable for a larger variety of living organisms,” Clark said.
Looks like Curiosity will be one busy rover when it finally reaches its destination in August of next year.
Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, billionaire, and namesake of the Allen Telescop, and Burt Rutan, aerospace pioneer, on Tuesday announced a new private spaceflight venture called Stratolaunch that aims to lower the cost of LEO delivery.
The method they plan on using is akin to the Virgin White Knight and SpaceShipTwo combo; essentially a carrier craft that will deliver a rocket into high altitude and blast off from there.
The carrier craft itself is huge, it’s wingspan a staggering 385 feet, 25% longer than a football field. The huge craft will be powered with six 747 jet engines. The runway it self needs to be 12,000 feet in length, just to take off.
This type of airborne launch system will help make commercial launches safer, more flexible, efficient and affordable, Allen said.
“By the end of this decade, Stratolaunch will be putting spacecraft into orbit,” Allen said.
Ambitious to say the least. No costs were shared and other detailed were not given. However, the multistage rocket that the carrier will deliver into orbit will be built by SpaceX, which has close ties to NASA.
It has been reported that Paul Allen has invested more than $20 million towards this project. Paul Allen is a huge supporter and contributor to space initiatives as evidenced to the SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array at Hat Creek Observatory being named after him.
Wired interview Paul Davies, science author and physicist, and Paul thinks our best best to get costs down to put people on Mars is to kill the return trip. That’s right, a one way ticket to Mars for the adventurers that sign up for this journey.
Wired: What would life on Mars be like?
Davies: The living conditions would be horrendous. But people on Mars won’t be stranded. They’ll be connected by the Internet. They’ll do lab work, write papers, do TV programs. The food will be horrible, as it always is for astronauts. But over decades, that will improve as they learn to grow food under protective domes.
Since he makes it sound so glamorous, I think I’ll sign up right now.