Tag Archives: NASA

NASA Chief: We’ll find extraterrestrial life within the next decade

It seems almost unthinkable that out of an infinitely vast universe, there’s no one but us, occupying a small blue dot in a remote galaxy. So is anyone else looking towards us when we watch the stars at night? Or are we really the only ones? Now top NASA scientists are saying it’s almost certain that we’ve got company.

“I believe we are going to have strong indications of life beyond Earth in the next decade and definitive evidence in the next 10 to 20 years,” said Ellen Stofan, NASA’s chief scientist, during a public panel held in Washington on Tuesday.

“We know where to look, we know how to look, and in most cases we have the technology,” said Stofan.

Jeffery Newmark, the agency’s interim director of heliophysics put it in these terms: “It’s definitely not an if, it’s a when.”

Lest the headline made you imagine an INDEPENDENCE DAY scenario of alien invasion – you can rest easy. The same goes for any thoughts that the ancient Egyptians received intergalactic help with building the pyramids.

“We are not talking about little green men,” Stofan said to clarify any hyperbole. “We are talking about little microbes.”

Throughout the course of their hour-long presentation, NASA’s leaders described the numerous recent discoveries that indicate how never before in history have people been closer to uncovering extraterrestrial life – whether it happens to be in our own solar system, or on any number of Earth-like candidates spotted light years from home.

Among the examples, Jim Green, the director of planetary science for NASA, referenced a study analyzing the thin atmosphere just above the Martian polar ice caps, the remains of an era when nearly 50% of the planet’s northern hemisphere were covered with an ocean larger than the Arctic Sea – up to one mile deep, and for up to 1.2 billion years, it had liquid water, plenty of time to have allowed for lifeforms to develop, and possibly even for there to be fossils, compressed within the planet’s organic rocks.

“We think that long period of time is necessary for life to get more complex,” Stofan said.

Bringing teams of field geologists and also researchers within the burgeoning field of astrobiology to Mars would sharply increase the odds of discovering fossils of the past – potentially an intriguing story of survival that rivals the narrative that rocks on Earth tell us – a mass extinction event that may have ended life as we know it on the red planet.

Another recent study that made headlines not too long ago was referenced by Green. Measurements of the aurora occurring on Jupiter’s distant moon Ganymede may indicate that beneath its layers of ice, it may be concealing an immense liquid ocean.

These findings are examples of why we may have been casting our nets too far in the hunt for extraterrestrial life. Previous searches for life were almost analogous to finding a hospitable planet to inhabit – one whose conditions most closely resembled the Earth, a familiar environment to adapt to in terms of climate and gravity. Therefore, astronomers set their sights on “habitable zones,” planetary bodies close enough to a host star where temperatures made it possible for liquid water to exist on the surface, without freezing or vaporizing. There is, however, the possibility that life may be very different from our own – with beings that are based on composites of methane and nitrogen, rather than the organic carbon-based life forms found on Earth.

“We now recognize that habitable zones are not just around stars, they can be around giant planets too,” Green said. “We are finding out the solar system is really a soggy place.”

Among other exciting voyages coming up, NASA announced plans this winter to travel to another moon of Jupiter Europa, also thought to contain an ocean with hydrothermal vents.

“I don’t know what we are going to find there,” he said.

Newmark described how NASA’s own work here at home, which recently came under fire at a Senate hearing, is critical to exploring the possibilities of interplanetary life. Right now, NASA dedicates $1 billion annually to Earth science, and is engaged in studying how Earth’s magnetic field is instrumental in protecting the planet’s water and atmosphere against being carried off by solar wind, making it critical in enabling life on Earth to develop.

“Mars does not have a significant magnetic field, so it lets the wind strip away the water and atmosphere,” he said.

Paul Hertz, director of astrophysics at NASA also joined the panel discussion, where he spoke of the ways in which future telescopes already being planned will enable scientists to survey the atmospheres on large rocky planets, such as the Kepler discoveries found near distant stars, in a hope to find the chemical markers necessary for life.

“We are not just studying water and habitability in our solar system, but also looking for it in planets around other stars,” he said – something that could be advantageous in navigating the solar system and coming up with more efficient ways for space travel than what we currently have.

NASA associate administrator John Grunsfeld, said part of what excites him most about the search for life beyond our planet is to see what that life looks like.

“Once we get beyond Mars, which formed from the same stuff as Earth, the likelihood that life is similar to what we find on this planet is very low,” he said.

Grunsfeld maintains that researchers are very close to making strides in the search for extraterrestrial beings, and thinks that such a goal is within the grasp of an upcoming generation of scientists and space explorers. Green, however, hopes that the discoveries will be made much sooner. After all, the advances are coming at a faster pace than ever before. The Europa mission hopes to take off by the end of the decade.

“The science community is making enormous progress,” said Green. “And I’ve told my team I’m planning to be the director of planetary science when we discover life in the solar system.”

James Sullivan
James Sullivan is the assistant editor of Brain World Magazine and a contributor to Truth Is Cool and OMNI Reboot. He can usually be found on TVTropes or RationalWiki when not exploiting life and science stories for another blog article.

NASA’s Next Destination is an Asteroid

For the last few decades, ever since the gradual decline of interest in the American space program, scientists and engineers have sought a way to get to Mars, a rather lofty goal that might be reachable within the next 20 years, but may perhaps be one of the longest planetary flights that astronauts have yet to undergo, with a great deal of equipment to be tested out first for safely landing on Mars’ thin atmosphere alone. While NASA still hopes to reach the red planet by 2035, their spaceflight program has a different short-term goal for next decade, one that might even be attractive to at least some of the types of people who were adamant against trips to the moon – putting an asteroid in lunar orbit.

You read it right. The plan unveiled yesterday by NASA officials has been called by some as the plan to give the moon its own moon – to capture an asteroid and safely place it within the orbit of our moon for closer study, allowing astronauts to land on it and sample it from the safety of a nearby orbit. Its the goal of the agency’s latest effort known as the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), which hopes to bring about new technology that will be crucial in the mission to Mars and other deep space missions in the future.

NASA’s decision to kick off ARM was postponed for several months, while two individual teams investigated how to best pursue the mission objectives. In its original proposal, known as Option A, ARM proposed using a “grab and bag” approach, a robotic space tug is used to trap a small asteroid in its entirety, cover it in a protective sheath and then guide it towards the moon’s orbit. Option B costs about $100 million more, whitch will snatch the boulder directly, but was the winning option, as it provided more more operational flexibility, according to NASA’s associate administrator Robert Lightfoot.

In a recent conference call he took with reporters, Lightfoot noted that their decision was partially based in the fact that our telescopic surveys have not yet sighted any asteroids that are both small enough and slow-moving to fulfill Option A. Any asteroids suitable for harvesting would also be extremely difficult to categorize from Earth with the existing technology. Option A would therefore be “a one-shot deal,” had he chosen to carry it out, with many potential shortcomings should they choose the wrong target, whereas Option B would have a lot more to choose from.

“From what we know of the asteroids we’ve been to, they have boulders on the surface,” said Lightfoot. “I’m going to have multiple targets when I get there, is what it boils down to.” Implementing Option B would mean that ARM would then be allowed to capture and deliver a space boulder as large as 12 feet across and then carry it off to high lunar orbit.

This might sound to you like searching the entire beach for a grain of sand, considering the size of asteroid belts existing in our solar system, but NASA already has three potential candidates lined up for ARM: asteroids Itokawa, Bennu and 2008 EV5. The Japanese space agency’s craft Hayabusa paid a visit to Itokawa in 2005, and NASA’s OSIRIS-REx already plans to visit and extract new samples from asteroid Bennu, which it will reach by the year 2019. No spacecraft has yet orbited the 2008 EV5, and NASA has placed it on the top of their list for ARM targets. They hope to make their official target selection by 2019, according to Lightfoot.

“[2008 EV5] has been extensively observed” using infrared and radio telescopes,” said Lindley Johnson, the program executive at NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program. Scientists have been using the observations of Johnson’s team for determining the asteroid’s orbit, and also the size, shape, rate of spin and composition. 2008 EV5 has been described as ‘a slowly spinning 400-meter-wide walnut, with a prominent ridge wrapped around its middle.’ It is a carbonaceous asteroid, which means that it’s a composite of rock and also molecular organic compounds and water-rich minerals, containing much of the substance found in the primitive nebula, out of which the solar system condensed from. For astronauts who are privileged to walk on its surface, it may be the closest they’ll ever get to walking on an early primordial Earth. Bennu is also a carbonaceous asteroid, and very soon scientists may be able to hold a piece of the solar system from when it first originated once the OSIRIS-REx returns.

Science, however, is only ARM’s ulterior motive. Their goal, as stated, is to both test and create new potential technologies to improve spaceflight, particularly NASA’s Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket, the Orion deep-space crew capsule and also an advanced solar-electric propulsion engine that would be best suited for long-haul cargo trips such as the Mars mission. NASA has also sold the missions as being a potential step forward in showing how a spacecraft is capable of changing the orbits of asteroids that may pose threats to life on Earth, part of its “Redirect” program.

According to Lightfoot, NASA’s current plan hopes to launch the robotic tug into space by 2020, where it will spend two years navigating for its target. The robotic tug might spend up to 400 days near its target as it selects the right boulder. Once the tug makes its selection, it will then use the extra mass from its target to function as a “gravity tractor,” in which it will orbit the asteroid in a way that will slightly alter its trajectory. While this orbital shift may be slight, it will still be in the measurable range of ground-based instruments, and could prepare NASA for making stronger orbital shifts in the future, effectively averting an Armageddon-like scenario. Once the boulder is in its grasp, the robotic tug will then travel to high lunar orbit, where it shall anticipate the arrival of two astronauts via an Orion capsule, an encounter that could happen as soon as the end of 2025. The astronauts will then dock the robotic tug as they conduct spacewalks, investigating the boulder before it returns to Earth, meaning the astronauts will spend approximately an entire month in space preparing the target.

This all might sound exciting, but it’s actually a far cry from what was initially proposed with ARM, and both policy makers and engineers alike are treating it with mild enthusiasm, if not outright disdain. It’s also not without scientists who are critical of the mission. Among them is Mark Sykes, director of the Planetary Science Institute who is unsure of whether, despite the fairly low risks, this mission is of much practical value.

“It is not at all clear how this mission is necessary to advance the stated objective of sending humans to Mars,” Sykes says. “Or even its vicinity.”

There is also concern related to what the mission might mean for NASA’s public relations. The mission may stave off some recent criticism that the agency has not dedicated enough time to space travel. However, some scientists such as NASA’s Advisory Council chair Steve Squyres of Cornell University, feel that the mission may be little more than a tactic – fulfilling political expectations while putting off funding that could be better spent on going to Mars.

“If you’re going to spend $1.25 billion plus launch vehicle costs to do something,” said Squyres, during a council meeting back in January, “and you get the most important things by not going after the rock, don’t go after the rock.”

There are quite a few needs to be met before ARM is fully ready for its mission, such as a solar electric engine that may not be ready by the time of the launch.

The ARM mission was born back in 2010, shortly after President Obama canceled plans for a second manned lunar mission, deciding instead to have astronauts step on an asteroid by the year 2025. At the time, some experts suspected that this was a quicker way to bring humans to Mars, if they would first pick near targets such as the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos which are very reminiscent of asteroids. Unfortunately, NASA’s budget at the time did not have sufficient enough funds for building either the new heavy-lift rockets or deep-space crew capsules fast enough to fulfill that deadline. Sending a manned capsule to an asteroid within its native orbit would simply not be possible by the year 2025. However, there was a slight loophole in the president’s choice of words. Suppose NASA brought the asteroid to the astronauts using that funding? Thus, NASA’s research teams put together ARM.

James Sullivan
James Sullivan is the assistant editor of Brain World Magazine and a contributor to Truth Is Cool and OMNI Reboot. He can usually be found on TVTropes or RationalWiki when not exploiting life and science stories for another blog article.

Former Cosmonaut Recalls Taking the First Ever Spacewalk

It’s been fifty years now, but Alexei Leonov can still remember the moment he opened the capsule and wandered into the cold vastness of space for the first time – the moment when he was the first and at the time, the only human to float through the heavens.

“I gently pulled myself out and kicked off from the vessel,” recalled the former cosmonaut Leonov, who is now a youthful 80 years old. He is the last survivor of the Soviets’ Voskhod space program.

“[There was] an inky black, stars everywhere and the sun so bright I could barely stand it.”

Hanging from a fifteen foot cord, he took in the jaw-dropping view of Earth, slowly turnings his face towards home, where he would get a view unlike any of his neighbors.

“I filmed the Earth, perfectly round, the Caucasus, Crimea, the Volga. It was beautiful.”

The date was March 18, 1965, when tensions were at a high between the Soviet Union and United States, foes of the Cold War, both determined to set forth on a conquest of space.

At the time, Americans were still preparing the way for a spacewalk, which they would successfully complete in June of that same year on the Gemini 4 mission. Leonov alongside the ship’s pilot Pavel Belyayev (codenamed Almaz-1 and Almaz-2) were sent nearly 310 miles above Earth, where millions witnessed their mission unfold, live on both the radio and television.

As Leonov watched over the Crimean Peninsula from space, he heard Belyayev report back to Earth on the broadcast: “This is Almaz-1: Man has gone out into space.” Then he heard the recognizable voice of Yuri Levitan, who was then a famous broadcaster on Soviet radio, confirming the pilot’s words. “But who are they talking about?” he wondered momentarily.

Leonov spent 12 minutes in outer space on this voyage – a fairly short amount of time, considering the years of frantic efforts by the USSR’s scientists and engineers as they pushed endlessly to stay ahead of the Americans in the space race. The race had more or less begun in 1957 when the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite and the U.S. government in response, passed legislation that led to the establishment of NASA, along with a call for a greater emphasis on math and science in public school curriculum.

In 1962, the Soviets met another one of their goals: The first person to orbit Earth, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. 12 months later, still not fully content with their success, the Soviets laid out a metaphor for their new objective: “Swimming in space like a sailor in the ocean.”

Russia’s space chief, who is often called the father of practical astronautics, Sergei Korolyov, handpicked Leonov to embark on this historic mission. Because of Korolyov’s ingenuity, Soviet officials since the regime of Stalin referred to him solely as “the Chief Designer” until his death, fearing that he would be targeted by American spies and assassinated were his identity known.

“Korolyov chose me because I had already piloted several aircraft, I scored highly and I could paint, which is rare among cosmonauts,” smiled Leonov, who after his retirement proved himself a rather talented space artist with portraits of himself floating in orbit.

For his 12 minutes floating outside the Voskhod 2 spacecraft, Leonov endured 18 months of intense physical training.

As ready as he might have been for that spacewalk, the same couldn’t be said of Voskhod 2.

“The spacecraft had no ejection system,” he said. “We would either have to wait nine months to revamp it or use this model. We chose the second option.”

Since NASA was preparing their own spacewalk with Ed White, the second option was the only viable one.

“It wasn’t about courage. We just knew it had to be done,” Leonov said.

As triumphant as he may have felt at his first glimpse of Earth from space, the feelings subsided rather quickly.

As the spacecraft’s orbit quickly drew it from the sun, and the view grew dark, Leonov had to re-enter the craft, but his spacesuit suddenly inflated, releasing atmospheric pressure that made the suit deform. As small as it sounds, this could have prevented him from entering the Voskhod 2’s airlock.

Rather than bothering to alert the control center, which could have risked more time and oxygen, Leonov released some of the oxygen already available in his suit, putting himself at risk of oxygen starvation.

After a long orderal, he successfully managed to struggle back through the airlock head first, rather than feet first. This series of difficult maneuvers left him covered in sweat. During the entire outing, he managed to lose 12 pounds.

There were more problems awaiting Leonov and his team back in the cabin. The ship’s automatic guidance system for re-entry ceased to work properly, forcing the crew to guide Voskhod 2 on its journey back to Earth.

Leonov described the complications in great detail in his book on the space race. First, their landing module failed to break off from the orbital module, releasing massive G-forces that made them spin wildly along the cable, as they hurtled towards the Earth.

They managed a successful landing in which no one was injured, but over 1,200 miles from their intended destination in Kazakhstan. This may sound like something of a happy ending, but when they emerged from the spacecraft, they found themselves in deep snow, in the wilderness of the Ural Mountains, the home to many wolves and bears.

“We waited three days in the forest to be rescued, and Soviet radio reported we were on holiday after the flight,” Leonov recalled, laughing.

When the rescuers finally did come, they brought out a large cauldron by helicopter that was then filled with snow from the taiga forest and heated, providing the cosmonauts with a hot bath.

Leonov and Belyayev soon returned home, where they were hailed as heroes, having completed the first successful spacewalk in history, 10 weeks ahead of the United States.

A decade after his adventure, Leonov went on to command the Soyuz 19 in what was the first joint space mission between both the Soviet Union and the United States. The rivalry between their programs largely ended after Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev canceled funding on the Soviet lunar landing, as the U.S. had by that time already completed a successful mission to the moon.

As the political climate between Moscow and Washington has grown somewhat hostile during the Ukraine conflict and there is some doubt as to the future of NASA’s space program, Leonov offered up some pretty wise words:

“There have never been frontiers between astronauts. The day that this notion sinks into the minds of politicians, our planet will be different.”

James Sullivan
James Sullivan is the assistant editor of Brain World Magazine and a contributor to Truth Is Cool and OMNI Reboot. He can usually be found on TVTropes or RationalWiki when not exploiting life and science stories for another blog article.

NASA Researchers Recreate Building Blocks of Life at Ames Research Lab

As much as we know about life on planet Earth, how it actually got here in the first place is still the subject of much investigation. Organic molecules probably first made it to Earth encased in meteorites – but the mystery lies in how conditions on an early Earth that made the developments of life in its most basic form possible.

Now researchers at NASA Ames studying abiogenesis – the chemical origin of life, have successfully managed to reproduce the compounds uracil, cytosine, and thymine, which make up three key components of our genetic material, in a laboratory. They found that a sample of ice containing pyrimidine, exposed to ultraviolet wavelengths – in a simulation of conditions in outer space are able to produce these basic building blocks of life.

It was originally believed that the first life originated in a warm pond – a primordial soup of sorts which the 1952 Urey-Miller experiment sought to recreate by passing an electrical discharge through a mixture of water, methane, ammonia, and hydrogen. Later, it was believed that mud was the medium that allowed life to begin, and experiments since Urey-Miller were successful in producing uracil and cytosine together – two key components of RNA, the polymer used to read DNA codes and synthesize proteins for life processes. RNA is the main ingredient of retroviruses, which replicate despite being non-living matter. Now, scientists have managed to replicate the basic structure for all three components of RNA with the ring-shaped molecule of Pyrimidine, a compound of carbon and nitrogen.

“We have demonstrated for the first time that we can make uracil, cytosine, and thymine, all three components of RNA and DNA, non-biologically in a laboratory under conditions found in space,” said researcher Michel Nuevo at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. “We are showing that these laboratory processes, which simulate conditions in outer space, can make several fundamental building blocks used by living organisms on Earth.”

In order to synthesize these compoinds, the researchers placed an ice sample onto a cold (approximately –440 degrees Fahrenheit) substrate in a chamber. The block of ice is then irradiated by high-energy ultraviolet (UV) photons exuded from a nearby hydrogen lamp. These photons break apart the ice’s chemical bonds, reducing the ice’s molecules to fragments which then recombine with each other and begin forming new compounds – among them are uracil, cytosine, and thymine.

For years, NASA Ames’ team of researchers have worked to recreate the environments within interstellar space and our own outer Solar System. Of particular interest in recent years was their discovery of a class of carbon-rich compounds, known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), that are found in meteorites. These contain the most abundant carbon-rich compound seen throughout the universe. PAHs are usually structures containing several six-carbon rings bonded together in hexagon shapes, like honeycombs or a pattern of chicken wire.

The molecule pyrimidine has also been found in meteorites, but its exact origin remains unknown. Like the carbon heavy PAHs, pyrimidine may be created by the last bursts of energy given off by red giants when they die, or perhaps they bond together when caught in heavy clouds of interstellar dust and gasses.

“Molecules like pyrimidine have nitrogen atoms in their ring structures, which makes them somewhat wimpy. As a less stable molecule, it is more susceptible to destruction by radiation, compared to its counterparts that don’t have nitrogen,” said Scott Sandford, one of the space science researchers at Ames. “We wanted to test whether pyrimidine can survive in space, and whether it can undergo reactions that turn it into more complicated organic species, such as the nucleobases uracil, cytosine, and thymine.”

In their hypothesis, these researchers suspected that were the molecules of pyrimidine able to survive long enough, they would be able to migrate into the interstellar dust clouds. Once inside these dense clouds, they could then protect themselves against any of the harmful radiation from space. Hidden inside the clouds, they would mostly freeze into grains of dust.

They then tested this at the Ames Astrochemistry Laboratory. Their experiment revealed that freezing pyrimidine is in an ice primarily consisting of water, but also in cases where they ice contains traces of ammonia, methanol, or methane, the honeycomb molecules are much more protected against destruction by radiation than if they happened to be floating through space in a gaseous phase. Rather than being destroyed, these molecules began to take on new forms once frozen.

“We are trying to address the mechanisms in space that are forming these molecules. Considering what we produced in the laboratory, the chemistry of ice exposed to ultraviolet radiation may be an important linking step between what goes on in space and what fell to Earth early in its development,” said Christopher Materese, another researcher at NASA Ames who had been studying the properties of PAH’s.

“Nobody really understands how life got started on Earth. Our experiments suggest that once the Earth formed, many of the building blocks of life were likely present from the beginning. Since we are simulating universal astrophysical conditions, the same is likely wherever planets are formed,” says Sandford.

Perhaps a great deal of the research may further reveal that life in some form is an inevitable chemical occurrence.

James Sullivan
James Sullivan is the assistant editor of Brain World Magazine and a contributor to Truth Is Cool and OMNI Reboot. He can usually be found on TVTropes or RationalWiki when not exploiting life and science stories for another blog article.