June 28, 2013
Every day, it seems, a new exoplanet is found (or, in the case of Tuesday, scientists discovered three potentially habitable exoplanets orbiting one star). But there are loads of hurdles that we’ll have to clear before we ever have the chance to visit them: the massive doses of radiation that would be absorbed by would-be astronauts, the potential damage caused by interstellar dust and gas to a craft moving at extremely high speeds, and the fact that traveling to even the nearest habitable exoplanet would take almost 12 years in a spacecraft traveling at the speed of light.
The biggest problem, though, might be the enormous amount of energy such a craft would require. How do you fuel a spacecraft for a journey more than 750,000 times farther than the distance between the Earth and the Sun?
Based on our current technology for exploring space and potential future approaches, here’s a rundown of the possible ways of propelling spacecraft.
Conventional Rockets: These create thrust by burning a chemical propellant stored inside, either a solid or liquid fuel. The energy released as a result of this combustion lifts a craft out of Earth’s gravitational field and into space.
Pros: Rocket technology is well-established and well-understood, as it dates to ancient China and has been used since the very beginning of the space age. In terms of distance, its greatest achievement thus far is carrying the Voyager 1 space probe to the outer edge of the solar system, roughly 18.5 billion miles away from Earth.
Cons: The Voyager 1 is projected to run out of fuel around the year 2040, an indication of how limited in range conventional rockets and thrusters can carry a spacecraft. Moreover, even if we could fit a sufficient amount of rocket fuel onto a spacecraft to carry it all the way to another star, the staggering fact is that we likely don’t even have enough fuel on our entire planet to do so. Brice Cassenti, a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, told Wired that it would take an amount of energy that surpasses the current output of the entire world to send a craft to the nearest star using a conventional rocket.
Ion engines: These work somewhat like conventional rockets, except instead of expelling the products of chemical combustion to generate thrust, they shoot out streams of electrically-charged atoms (ions). The technology was first successfully demonstrated on NASA’s 1998 Deep Space 1 mission, in which a rocket closely flew past both an asteroid and a comet to collect data, and has since been used to propel several other spacecraft, including an ongoing mission to visit the dwarf planet Ceres.
Pros: These engines produces much less thrust and initial speed than a conventional rocket—so they can’t be used to escape the Earth’s atmosphere—but once carried into space by conventional rockets, they can run continuously for much longer periods (because they use a denser fuel more efficiently), allowing a craft to gradually build up speed and surpass the velocity of one propelled by a conventional rocket.
Cons: Though faster and more efficient than conventional rockets, using an ion drive to travel to even the nearest star would still take an overwhelmingly long time—at least 19,000 years, by some estimates, which means that somewhere on the order of 600 to 2700 generations of humans would be needed to see it through. Some have suggested that ion engines could fuel a trip to Mars, but interstellar space is probably outside the realm of possibility.
Nuclear Rockets: Many space exploration enthusiasts have advocated for the use of nuclear reaction-powered rockets to cover vast distances of interstellar space, dating to Project Daedalus, a theoretical British project that sought to design an unmanned probe to reach Barnard’s Star, 5.9 light-years away. Nuclear rockets would theoretically be powered by a series of controlled nuclear explosions, perhaps using pure deuterium or tritium as fuel.
Pros: Calculations have shown that a craft propelled in this way could reach speeds faster than 9000 miles per second, translating to a travel time of roughly 130 years to Alpha Centurai, the star nearest the Sun—longer than a human lifetime, but perhaps within the realm of a multi-generational mission. It’s not the Millenium Falcon making the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs, but it’s something.
Cons: For one, nuclear-powered rockets are, at present, entirely hypothetical. In the short-term, they’ll probably stay that way, because the detonation of any nuclear device (whether intended as a weapon or not) in outer space would violate the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which permits such explosions in exactly one location: underground. Even if legally permitted, there are enormous safety concerns regarding the launch of a nuclear device into space atop a conventional rocket: An unexpected error could cause radioactive material to rain across the planet.
Solar Sails: In comparison to all the other technologies on this list, these operate on a rather different principle: Instead of propelling a craft by burning fuel or creating other sorts of combustion, solar sails pull a vehicle by harnessing the energy of the charged particles ejected from the Sun as part of the solar wind. The first successful demonstration of such a technology was Japan’s IKAROS spacecraft, launched in 2010, which traveled towards Venus and is now journeying towards the Sun, and NASA’s Sunjammer, seven times larger, is going to launch in 2014.
Pros: Because they don’t have to carry a set amount of fuel—instead using the power of the Sun, much like a sailboat harnesses the energy of the wind—a solar sail-aided spacecraft can cruise more-or-less indefinitely.
Cons: These travel much slower than rocket-powered crafts. But more important for interstellar missions—they require the energy ejected from the Sun or another star to travel at all, making it impossible for them to traverse the vast spaces between the reach of our Sun’s solar wind and that of another star system’s. Solar sails could potentially be incorporated into a craft with other means of propelling itself, but can’t be relied upon alone for an interstellar journey.
Antimatter Rockets: This proposed technology would use the products of a matter-antimatter annihilation reaction (either gamma rays or highly-charged subatomic particles called pions) to propel a craft through space.
Pros: Using antimatter to power a rocket would theoretically be the most efficient fuel possible, as nearly all of the mass of the matter and antimatter are converted to energy when they annihilate each other. In theory, if we were able to work out the details and produce enough antimatter, we could build a spacecraft that travels at speeds nearly as fast as that of light—the highest velocity possible for any object.
Cons: We don’t yet have a way to generate enough antimatter for a space journey—estimates are that a month-long trip to Mars would require about 10 grams of antimatter. To date, we’ve only been able to create small numbers of atoms of antimatter, and doing so has consumed a large amount of fuel, making the idea of an antimatter rocket prohibitively expensive as well. Storing this antimatter is another issue: Proposed schemes involve the use of frozen pellets of antihydrogen, but these too are a far way off.
More speculative technologies: Scientists have proposed all sorts of radical, non-rocket-based technologies for interstellar travel. These include a craft that would harvest hydrogen from space as it travels to use in a nuclear fusion reaction, beams of light or magnetic fields shot from our own Solar System at a distant spacecraft that would be harnessed by a sail, and the use of black holes or theoretical wormholes to travel faster than the speed of light and make an interstellar journey possible in a single human’s lifetime.
All of these are extremely far away from implementation. But, if we do ever make it to another star system at all (a big if, to be sure), given the problems with most existing and near-future technologies, it might indeed be one of these pie-in-the-sky ideas that carry us there—and perhaps allow us to visit a habitable exoplanet.
May 9, 2013
In September 2009, after decades of speculation, evidence of water on the surface of the Moon was discovered for the first time. Chandrayaan-1, a lunar probe launched by India’s space agency, had created a detailed map of the minerals that make up the Moon’s surface and analysts determined that, in several places, the characteristics of lunar rocks indicated that they bore as much 600 million metric tonnes of water.
In the years since, we’ve seen further evidence of water both on the surface and within the interior of the Moon, locked within the pore space of rocks and perhaps even frozen in ice sheets. All this has gotten space exploration enthusiasts pretty excited, as the presence of frozen water could someday make permanent human habitation of the Moon much more feasible.
For planetary scientists, though, it’s raised a knotty question: How did water arrive on the Moon in the first place?
A new paper published today in Science suggests that, unlikely as it may seem, the Moon’s water originated from the same source as the water that comes out of the faucet when you open a tap. Just as many scientists believe the Earth’s entire supply of water was initially delivered via water-bearing meteorites that traveled from the asteroid belt billions of years ago, a new analysis of lunar volcanic rocks brought back during the Apollo missions indicates the Moon’s water has its roots in these same meteorites. But there’s a twist: Before reaching the Moon, this lunar water was first on Earth.
The research team, led by Alberto Saal of Brown University, analyzed the isotopic composition of hydrogen found in water within tiny bubbles of volcanic glass (supercooled lava) as well as melt inclusions (blobs of melted material trapped in slowly cooling magma that later solidified) in the Apollo-era rocks, as shown in the image above. Specifically, they looked at the ratio of deuterium isotopes (“heavy” hydrogen atoms that contain an added neutron) to normal hydrogen atoms.
Previously, scientists have found that in water, this ratio changes depending on where in the solar system the water molecules initially formed, as water that originated closer to the Sun has less deuterium than water formed further away. The water locked in the lunar glass and melt inclusions was found to have deuterium levels similar to that found in a class of meteorites called carbonaceous chondrites, which scientists believe to be the most unaltered remnants of the nebula from which the solar system formed. Carbonaceous chondrites that fall to Earth originate in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
Higher deuterium levels would have suggested that water was first brought on to the Moon by comets—as many scientists have hypothesized—because comets largely come from the Kuiper belt and Oort Cloud, remote regions far beyond Neptune where deuterium is more plentiful. But if the water in these samples represents lunar water as a whole, the findings indicate that the water came from a much closer source—in fact, the same source as the water on Earth.
The simplest explanation for this similarity would be a scenario in which, when a massive collision between a young Earth and a Mars-sized proto-planet formed the Moon some 4.5 billion years ago, some of the liquid water on our planet was somehow preserved from vaporization and transferred along with the solid material that would become the Moon.
Our current understanding of massive impacts, though, doesn’t allow for this possibility: The heat we believe would be generated by such an enormous collision would theoretically vaporize all lunar water and send it off into space in a gaseous form. But there are a few other scenarios that might explain how water was transferred from our proto-Earth to the Moon in other forms.
One possibility, the researchers speculate, is that the early Moon borrowed a bit of Earth’s high-temperature atmosphere the instant it formed, so any water that had been locked in the chemical composition of Earth rocks pre-impact would have vaporized along with the rock into this shared atmosphere after impact; this vapor would have then coalesced into a solid lunar blob, binding the water into the chemical composition of lunar material. Another possibility is that the rocky chunk of Earth was kicked off to form the Moon retained the water molecules locked inside its chemical composition, and later on, these were released as a result of radioactive heating inside the Moon’s interior.
Evidence from recent lunar missions suggests that lunar rocks—not just craters at the poles—indeed contain substantial amounts of water, and this new analysis suggests that water originally came from Earth. So the findings will force scientists to rethink models of how the Moon could have formed, given that it clearly didn’t dry out completely.
April 9, 2013
Ever since the collective “YOU” became Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2006, campaigns to get our attention have increasingly sought out our digital selves. You can name a Budweiser Clydesdale. You can pick Lays’ new potato chip flavor. And it’s not just retail that wants your online opinions: You can vote for who will win photography contests. You can play the futures market on who will win elected offices. And with enough signatures, you can get the White House to read your petitions.
Many science endeavors rely on such crowdsourcing. With a simple app, you can let researchers know the exact date that your lilacs or dogwoods bloom, helping them to track how seasonal cycles are shifting as a result of climate change. You can join the search for ever-larger prime numbers. You can even help scientists scan radio waves in space to search for intelligent life outside of Earth. These more traditional crowdsourcing efforts allow users to brainstorm ideas and process data from computers at home.
But now, a few projects are allowing us to put our virtual selves beyond Earth’s atmosphere through recently launched space missions. Who said that rovers, space probes, a handful of astronauts and pigs were the only ones in space? No longer are we just bystanders watching spacecraft launch and cooing over images returned of other planets and stars. Now, we can direct cameras, help run experiments, even send our avatars–of sorts–to inhabit nearby planetary bodies or return to us in a time capsule.
Here are a few examples:
Asteroid Chimney Rock: On April 10 (tomorrow), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency will open up a campaign that allows visitors to their site the opportunity of sending their names and brief messages to the near-Earth asteroid (162173) 1999 JU3. Called the “Let’s meet with Le Petit Prince! Million Campaign 2,” the effort aims to get people’s names onto the Hayabusa2 mission, which will likely launch in 2014 to study the asteroid. When Hayabusa 2 lands on the asteroid, the names submitted–embedded in a plaque of sorts on the spacecraft–will stand as a testament to the idea that humans (or at least their robotic representatives) were there.
The campaign is reminiscent of how NASA got more than 1.2 million people to submit their names and signatures, which were then etched on two dime-sized microchips and affixed to the Mars Curiosity rover. Sure, it’s a bit gimmicky–what useful function is brought by having people’s names out in space? But the idea of “tagging” a planet or an asteroid–preserving a bit of yourself on what will over decades become space junk–has powerful pull. It is why Chimney Rock, with its etchings from early explorers and pioneers, is the historical marker it is today, and why gladiators scored their names into the Colosseum before they fought to the death. For mission leaders hoping to get the public enthusiastic about space, nothing’s more exciting than a bit of digital graffiti.
Interplanetary time capsules: A key goal of Hayabusa2 is to return return a sample from the asteroid in 2020. Mission creators saw this as a perfect way to get the public to fill a time capsule. Those seeking to participate are encouraged to send to mission coordinators their thoughts and dreams for the future along with their hopes and expectations for recovery from natural disasters, the latter likely a way to get people to express their feelings on the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan’s east coast. Names, messages, and illustrations will loaded onto a microchip that will not only touch down on the asteroid’s surface, but will also be a part of the probe sent back to Earth with asteroid dust.
But why stop at a mere 6-year time capsule? The European Space Agency, UNESCO, and other partners are blending crowd sourcing with space technology to create the KEO mission–so named because the letters represent common sounds across all of Earth’s languages–which will bundle thoughts and images of anyone who seeks to participate and will launch this bundle in a probe that will only return to Earth in 50,000 years.
Project operators write on KEO’s website: “Each one of us have 4 uncensored pages at our disposal: an identical space of equality and freedom of expression where we can voice our aspirations and our revolts, where we can reveal our deepest fears and our strongest beliefs, where we can relate our lives to our faraway great grandchildren, thus allowing them to witness our times.” That’s 4 pages for every person who chooses to participate.
On board will be photographs detailing Earth’s cultural richness, human blood encased in a diamond, and a durable DVD of humanity’s crowdsourced thoughts. The idea is to launch the time capsule from an Ariane 5 rocket into an orbit more than 2,000 kilometers above Earth, hopefully sometime in 2014. “50,000 years ago, Man created art thus showing his capacity for symbolic abstraction.” the website notes. And in another 50,000 years, “Will Earth still give life? Will human beings still be recognizable as such?”Another logical question: Will whatever’s left on Earth know what’s coming back to them and will be able to retrieve it?
Hayabusa2 and KEO will join capsules already launched into space on Pioneer 10 and 11 and Voyager 1 and 2. But the contents of these earlier capsules were picked by a handful of people; here, we get to choose what represents us in space, and will get to reflect (in theory) on the thoughts bound in time upon their return.
You, the mission controller and scientist: Short of going to Mars yourself, you can do the next best thing–tell an instrument currently observing Mars where to look. On NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is the University of Arizona’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), a camera designed to image Mars in great detail. Dubbed “the people’s camera,” HiRISE allows you–yes, you!– to pick its next targets by filling out a form specifying your “HiWishes.”
A recently launched nanosatellite is allowing the crowdsourced winners of a crowdsourced screaming contest the chance to test whether screams can be heard in space. Launched in February, the nanosatellite’s smartphone-powered brain will broadcast the screams–no word yet on results. But you may find just listening to the yelling therapeutic! This guy’s roar got the most votes:
March 20, 2013
Update: Since the press release announcing Voyager 1′s exiting the solar system, NASA has clarified that the final indicator of this event—a change in the direction of the magnetic field surrounding the craft—has still not been observed. As was first observed in December 2012, Voyager 1 is in a new outermost region of the solar system called “the magnetic highway,” not true interstellar space. This post has been edited to reflect the clarification.
Since the dawn of the Space Age, our manned missions and unmanned probes have reached the Moon, asteroids and other planets. But only now do we have confirmation that a human-made object has reached a new milestone: The Voyager 1 space probe is at the furthermost edge of the solar system.
According to a paper recently accepted for publication by the journal Geophysical Research Letters, data transmitted by probe—which is now more than 11 billion miles away from the Sun—reveal that it has exited the heliosphere. The heliosphere (also called the heliosheath) is the region of space influenced by the solar wind and is commonly accepted as the outer border of the solar system. Thirty-five years, 6 months and 15 days after its launch, the spacecraft will soon enter the second phase of its mission—studying the interstellar medium that exists between our galaxy’s star systems.
Bill Webber of New Mexico State and F.B. McDonald of the University of Maryland (who has passed away since the paper was written) came to the conclusion after analyzing radiation data transmitted by Voyager 1 last August 25. The probe’s sensors detected that the levels of radiation from cosmic rays that had come from the Sun dropped to less than 1 percent of what they’d been previously, while radiation from galactic cosmic rays (which originate from beyond the solar system) doubled in intensity.
Although there is no exact boundary that defines the edge of the solar system, the point at which the Sun’s cosmic rays and galactic cosmic rays meet indicates the edge of the region dominated by our Sun’s solar wind, and thus the outside border of our star’s system. Webber says that the sudden change in radiation indicates Voyager 1 passed this point.
“Within just a few days, the heliospheric intensity of trapped radiation decreased, and the cosmic ray intensity went up as you would expect if it exited the heliosphere,” he said in a press release issued by the American Geophysical Union today. He also noted that it’s possible the probe hasn’t reached true interstellar space, but rather a separate, not-yet-understood region that lies in between our solar system and the interstellar medium.
Since its launch in 1977, the spacecraft has conducted a grand tour of the solar system, passing by and photographing Jupiter and Saturn and providing us with some of the first-ever close-ups of the gas giants. Voyager 2, a twin probe, visited Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, and is still firmly within the solar system for now, 9.4 billion miles away from the Sun.
In 2005, Voyager 1 entered the heliosheath (the region in which the solar wind begins to slow down due to encountering the interstellar medium), and last October, researchers reported that it may have left the heliosphere altogether. Soon afterward, though, scientists cautioned that it may not have exited the heliosphere’s outer boundary, because a shift in the direction of the magnetic field had not yet been detected.
Despite the announcement alongside the new paper, this may still be the case—Voyager 1 may have finally exited the heliosphere, but not yet entered interstellar space per se. According to NASA, “A change in the direction of the magnetic field is the last critical indicator of reaching interstellar space and that change of direction has not yet been observed.” Thus, the probe is in an unexpected region in between the heliosphere and interstellar space, previously referred to as a magnetic highway.
Either way, though, it’s still in the starting stages of its journey, set to spend millennia—yes, millenia—traveling through the interstellar medium, though it will probably not be able to record or send back data after around 2025.
After an estimated 40,000 years, it will come relatively close (within a light year) to another star—and at that point, could serve as something of a time capsule. The Voyager 1 carries a Golden Record, designed to present a virtual snapshot of humankind to other life forms, contains everything from images of DNA and the Taj Mahal to recordings of whale sounds and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.”
As Timothy Ferris wrote in Smithsonian last May when he reflected on the 35th anniversary of the Voyager mission, “The Voyagers will wander forever among the stars, mute as ghost ships but with stories to tell…Whether they will ever be found, or by whom, is utterly unknown.”
March 7, 2013
Roughly 3.5 billion years ago, Mars began to shift from a wetter, warmer climate to the dry and cold planet we see today. This period of geologic change, known as the Hesperian age, was a turbulent time. The red planet saw widespread volcanic eruptions and catastrophic flooding as melted ice rushed into wide craters, forming lakes. These natural disasters carved a network of basins into its surface called outflow channels, eroding the terrain and reshaping the landscape of the planet. The exact end of this geologic period in Mars’ history is unknown, but scientists give a rough estimate of 3 billion years ago.
Later, many of these outflow channels became covered with lava, burying evidence of Mars’ geologic history. But now, a new map of the planet’s subsurface shows for the first time what one of these buried channels looks like in three dimensions. The findings, published today in the journal Science, reconstruct the Marte Vallis, the largest of the youngest channels on Mars. Marte Vallis is located in the Elysium Planitia region, an expanse of plains along the equator and the youngest volcanic region on the planet.
To create the 3D map, the researchers used data from Shallow Radar, a device that probes for liquid or frozen water underneath Mars’ crust. Known as SHARAD, the technology is on board NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft, which is currently circling the planet to study its climate. SHARAD’s orbital sounding radar works in much the same way as medical imaging scans. It sends signals to the surface, some of which automatically bounce back to the spacecraft. The signals that don’t readily bounce back can penetrate Mars’ crust and register buried structures before returning to the device. The data appears in two-dimensional cross sections, which are then pieced together to build the 3D representation. In this manner, a deeply grooved set of channels was revealed.
The system of channels, which is somewhere between 10 million to half a billion years old, spans 60 miles in width and stretches for more than 600 miles in length. From what can be seen of Marte Vallis from the surface, the channels are similar in structure to more ancient channel systems traced to the Hesperian, but the lava that had obscured many of their features made it difficult for researchers to make accurate estimates about its depth.
The new data reveals that the scale of erosion for Marte Vallis had indeed been underestimated: the 25-mile-wide main channel is at least twice as deep than earlier approximations indicated. The map shows multiple perched channels which feed into the deeper and wider main channel. These channels once lay along a series of four islands, which floods eroded into teardrop-shaped hills.
The researchers found that the geometry of the features are similar to those of the planet’s oldest channels, which are less obscured by lava, making them easier to study. This also suggests that the Marte Vallis could have been carved entirely by water, says lead study author Gareth Morgan, a geologist at the National Air and Space Museum’s Center for Earth and Planetary Studies. In fact, most Mars scientists accept that outflow channels on Mars were carved by water. Lava also carves out tunnels through thermal erosion heating up the terrain, but Morgan says that this process is implausible for the scale of erosion at the Marte Valle channels. The speed of rushing water is also more efficient at erosion that the flow of lava, which can get stuck on rock, Morgan says. In addition, lava creates tunnels that aren’t as wide—typically only several miles across—so collapsed tunnels couldn’t account for the broad size of the channels.
Using the map, researchers were also able to pinpoint the source of the
floodwater: a now buried portion of the Cerberus Fossae fracture, a series of fissures in the planet’s surface. The researchers posit that water from a reservoir deep below Mars’ surface was released by nearby tectonic or volcanic activity, and it worked quickly to form the channels. These channels would have been a short-lived affair,” Morgan says. “The fracture would have connected this groundwater to the surface. After a short duration of weeks or months, the source would have been exhausted.”
But why was water in that reservoir during a time when the rest of Mars is believed to have been dry? Water, the authors believe, could have collected in aquifers below the surface during the Hesperian. This water hypothetically could have remained stable in liquid form long after the Hesperian ended. Morgan feels that the 3D map could provide more
evidence to support this hypothesis, showing that Mars was wet place in the more recent—as opposed to far ancient—past.
More than 20 similar outflow channels are spread out on the surface of the planet, extending hundreds of miles in length. The most prominent are located in the Chryse Planitia, a circular volcanic plain in the northern hemisphere of Mars. The largest, the Kasei Valles, runs for 1,500 miles along the plain.
Cataclysmic floods like the ones that shaped Mars’ channels aren’t unique to the red planet. Approximately 14,000 years ago, the largest known flood on Earth sprang from Lake Missoula, a prehistoric body of water that existed at the end of the last Ice Age in present-day Montana. The waters eroded part of the landscape of Washington state, forming the Channeled Scablands, a terrain that resembles Martian outflow channels. Marte Vallis’ main channel is estimated to be between 226 and 371 feet deep, a depth that’s comparable to the Channeled Scablands.
So if Mars’ expansive outflow channels were formed by gushing water, the question remains: Where did it all ago?
Some of it vaporized, drifted to the planet’s poles, and precipitated as ice on polar caps, Morgan says. Similar to the ones we have on Earth, the polar ends on the Red Planet are covered in miles-thick layers of ice. The water also could have pooled into shallow areas below the surface, where it also froze—in 2008, NASA’s Phoenix mission confirmed that ice exists in the porous soil that makes up much of the planet’s surface.
Another possibility, Morgan says, is that the ancient water again escaped deep underground, forming a large reservoir that awaits its chance to flood again.