Friday, April 25, 2014

Public and Private Efforts Towards a Mission to Mars

In the past decade, organizations varying from governmental institutions to private organizations have been making moves towards planning and executing a manned mission to Mars. These moves seem to be a growing trend in recent years to make space exploration a collective, worldwide effort.

One such private mission that has garnered widespread attention from the media is known as Mars One. Mars One is a private Netherlands-based non-profit organization that has put forward conceptual plans to establish a permanent human colony on Mars by 2025. The organization intends to send a 4-man mission to the Red Planet at the cost of $6 billion. Despite the outright evidence that shows the health-risks of a potential mission to Mars on human health, 200,000 people have applied to be one of several people to travel to and live on Mars as part of the Mars One mission. Out of those 200,000 people, 1058 people have been put on a “short-list” by the organization. These 200,000 applicants have acknowledged another stipulation of the trip: it is one-way. Those short-listed reflect excitement and optimism about the mission despite that fact, as can be expected. An Israeli man who was shortlisted stated that, despite that fact, the “one thought that keeps him going is ‘about humanity after people landed on the moon. How it inspired everything from science to arts to everything on Earth was deeply influenced by it. I think about what landing on Mars will do to life here.’”1

Aside from private organizations, the government of Britain has made statements demonstrating the intent to send a manned mission to Mars. According to a December 2013 article in the Telegraph, “Britain wants to help build [both] a moon base and send a manned mission to Mars within three decades,” according to Britain’s science minister David Willetts. Willetts emphasized that worldwide cooperation would both be ideal and the most effective method: “if you got the major powers – if you got the Europeans, the Americans and the Chinese working together – [this] is possible.”2 As for the Americans, specifically NASA, no plans for a government-sponsored mission have been outlined as of yet. NASA has made plans to send another rover in 2020, however. This may be because NASA has gauged the economic costs and health risks associated with a manned mission and does not wish to undertake that kind of risk. This reflects how the US is perhaps staying away from international efforts towards space exploration, but that is just speculation on my part.

The idea of making space exploration is appealing to me. In my opinion space exploration in any regard should be a collaborative effort on many fronts, rather than the plans of one nation. I believe Britain is going in the right direction with their statements and intentions. In addition, private organizations in this field are by nature international at least in some regard. As such thus it is clear that we are making moves towards making space exploration a worldwide public effort. A mission to Mars provides such a platform for this collaboration.
Nathaniel Benzaquen-Ouakrat

1Rosen, B. (2014, Jan 22). Israeli shortlisted to travel to mars for reality show. Nadav Neuman one of 1,058 finalists for 24-person colony on red planet. Jerusalem Post. Retrieved from

2Hope, Christopher. “Science Minister David Willetts: Britain can help build a moon base and send a manned mission to Mars.” 10 Dec 2013. Telegraph. Web. 24 April 2014.

Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity

Long before space travel became a reality, humans were captivated and intrigued by Mars, the Red Planet. In 2003, NASA took a big step toward learning more about Mars with the launches of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. In 2011, after Spirit became immobile and its mission ended, the Curiosity rover was launched to join Opportunity. The stated goals of the missions are: 1) determine whether life ever arose on Mars; 2) characterize the climate of Mars; 3) characterize the geology of Mars; and 4) prepare for human exploration of Mars.

While the rovers cannot search for existing life forms on Mars, they do have the ability to search for presumably life-sustaining qualities of the Red Planet, namely the presence of water. Opportunity came across several small spheres (nicknamed “blueberries”) embedded in the rock layers near the surface of Mars. After further tests, it was determined that the blueberries were predominantly made up of the mineral hematite, which generally forms near water here on Earth. Spirit made a similar discovery when it found goethite, which forms on Earth only in the presence of water. Several other discoveries were made which helped confirm that water did indeed exist on Mars at one time. While there is no way to prove that water is the only thing needed to provide a favorable living environment on Mars, its presence on the Red Planet is an encouraging sign that microbial life may have existed on the planet at one point.

The climate of Mars is also directly linked to the possibility of life existing on the planet. Liquid water cannot be found on the surface because the temperature and atmospheric pressure are too low. Part of the mission of the rovers is to examine the current climate, allowing scientists on Earth to potentially determine past and future climate patterns on the planet. Atmospheric conditions affect the amount of sunlight and heat that reaches the surface of Mars, thus affecting the living conditions for Martian organisms and/or humans in the future.

As mentioned previously, the rovers were equipped with geological tools to collect and analyze rock and mineral samples from atop and beneath the surface. NASA is particularly interested in minerals containing iron, since it oxidizes when in contact with liquid water. One question being asked was about the red colored Martian soil: is it red due to iron oxidation in a wet environment, or is it because of other rocks reacting to the Martian atmosphere? Mars’ topography is also an area of interest because parts of it clearly display different layers of sediment starting from millions of years ago. Curiosity is currently looking into the different layers to determine how the surface of Mars has evolved over time, including the elusive period when Mars transitioned from a wetter environment to the dry one it is now.

As the rovers traverse Mars, they are determining environmental, chemical, and mineral characteristics of the planet’s soil, dust, and atmosphere, likely finding potential dangers they may pose to any humans who may go to Mars. They will also identify soils and rocks as potential resources for human missions. Additionally, they will serve as test cases for future rover and human missions.

The three Mars rovers – Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity – have provided groundbreaking discoveries, mainly the detection of specific spots on the Martian surface that could have been habitable due to the presence of water in. Opportunity and Curiosity continue to perform work to help find out the history and future of Mars.
Achyuta Burra

What About the "Bang"?

The Big Bang theory was established from observations of the structure of the Universe and from theoretical considerations. Many people contributed its establishment, but the one person who first proposed the Big Bang itself was Monseigneur Lemaitre, a Belgian Roman Catholic priest, astronomer and professor of physics. Lemaitre saw that the Universe is expanding and noted that if one works backwards, the Universe must have come from one small region, the “primeval atom.” From this model arose many questions, one of them being: “Where did the Universe come from?” Many theories have attempted to explain why the Big Bang
occurred, but all none are convincing, and has left me wondering what is the truth.

In the process of finding an answer, a debate among two groups, theists and atheists, has progressively build up, with both proposing different arguments on what happened at the time of the “bang” or even before. Yet, up to now, no answer has been revealed.

Many ideas have been proposed. However, the two groups that stand out the most are: atheists, and theist. Atheists and theists have their own beliefs, and in order to prove that their beliefs are correct there must be concrete evidence that demonstrates what they propose is true.

Atheists generally rely on science to explain the natural world, but the key is that many theories lie outside the domain of scientific testability, and one cannot use the scientific method to evaluate them. Thus, one atheistic argument is presented in the book Atheism, Theism, and Big Bang Cosmology. Quentin Smith highlights two theological premises, “(1) If God exists and there is an earliest state E of the universe, then God created E. (2) If God created E, then E is ensured either to contain animate creatures or to lead to a subsequent state of the universe that contains animate creatures.” With the use of the two theological premises Smith provides 6 other premises in order to argue that God could not have created the earliest state of the universe. And with all premises together Smith comes to the conclusion that if this cosmology is true, our Universe exists without cause and without explanation, believing that the origin of our Universe does not need divine intervention.

In the other hand, theists are certain that divine intervention created the Universe. Theists believe that nothing can cause itself, and since the string of causes can’t be indefinitely long, there must be a first cause, God. As stated by William Lane Craig, “1) Whatever begins to exist has a cause of its existence. 2) The Universe began to exist. 3) Therefore, the universe has a cause of its existence.”

Moreover, what happened before and who/what initiated the Big bang is still in debate. And after thoughtful consideration, I believe that one day we will be able to gain evidence of what initiated the “bang.” But we will have to wait. Maybe years, decades, or centuries…
Dalia Dorantes

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Orion Nebula

The Orion Nebula is a stellar nursery existing in the constellation Orion, known for the two brightest stars in the sky, Betelgeuse and Rigel. The Orion Nebula, also known as M42, is a hub for star formation located 1,300 light-years from Earth in the lower half of Orion. Visually, the nebula (clouds of stellar gas and dust) is unique from all other nebulae in that all other nebulae are nearly impossible to see with the naked eye. The Orion Nebula is a splash of rolling, twisting shades of pink, purple, blue, and orange against a fading black in which bright, white stars dot the scene. The clouds of dust are actually visible. It is arguably the most beautiful visual in the night sky.

The most important part of the nebula though is the opaque Orion Molecular Cloud, which cannot normally be seen from Earth. It is an enormous, concentrated amount of very cold gas with a mass of approximately 2000 times the mass of the Sun. Due to gravity, this cloud of hydrogen and other gasses slowly collapses and forms stars. The Molecular Cloud can be seen when new stars are forms, as the light evaporates the opaque gas of the Cloud.

The aforementioned Betelgeuse and Rigel are a part of what is called the Trapezium, a collection of very bright stars that are considered stellar siblings that are roughly the same age. When all the stars in the Orion Nebula are done being born, only the Trapezium will remain.

The Orion Nebula has been described for thousands of the years, beginning with the Mayans who used the Orion Nebula as a part of their creation myth. Interestingly, the great astronomers, Ptolemy, Al Sufi, and Galileo all excluded the nebula from their writings. The first scientific recording and classification as a nebula was by the French astronomer Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc in 1610. The first published observation though was by Jesuit mathematician Johann Baptist Cysat nine years after Nicolas-Claude Fabri. Robert J. Trumpler was the first to note the Trapezium cluster. The Hubble Space Telescope first observed the Orion Nebula in 1993, and since then, Hubble Space Telescope has been studying the nebula.

The nebula will continue to be a source of awe for humans for thousands of years. The beauty and importance of the nebula in star creation makes it a point of interest that we will undoubtedly value for a very long time.
Favian Rahman

Understanding the Big Bang

In the 1920s, Edwin Hubble noticed that the velocity of a galaxy appeared to be proportional to its distance from the Earth. Its velocity is observable from a change in an image know as redshift. Even though distance may not be directly observable, it can be extrapolated. If you know the amount of light certain stars in nearby galaxies are supposed to give off, and you also know the brightness you observe from these galaxies, you can figure out the distance of the galaxy. This distance is constantly changing, because, as Georges Lemaître discovered and Hubble confirmed, the universe is constantly expanding. The rate by witch the universe is expanding is modeled by the Hubble Constant. Hubble showed indirectly that the Universe expands as time passes, and hence, that the Universe must be shrinking if you are looking into the past.

By reverse engineering this fact you can describe the beginning of the universe. You can assert that long ago the universe was immensely smaller than it now is. The Big Bang theory describes the maturation of the Universe from just after it was initially created, up until today. It has been deemed as the most well-established scientific theory regarding our Universe's development.

The Big Bang models 10-36 seconds after the Universe began. It says that at this period in time the universe was expanding extremely rapidly. For demonstration purposes, we can think of the initial state of the universe as a concentration of matter and energy in a small point. We can think of this point in a state of near singularity. The point then exploded, and all the energy and matter show throughout the entire Universe. After the ‘point’ exploded is what the Big Bang models.

This nuance of a beginning to the beginning is one that is definitely worth noting. While the Big Bang theory may say a lot about the creation of a universe, there are still many questions to be answered about what happened before 10-36 seconds. This theory does not explain how something came out of nothing. This is a question that we may continue to explore for many years.

At the beginning of the Big Bang it was extremely dense and extremely hot. Because of all of the energy in the Universe during those first few moments that matter as we know it couldn't form. But as the Universe expanded it became less dense and cooled down. In only a short few seconds, the Universe formed, and it stretched across space.

The theory also states that four basic forces arose from the Big Bang: Gravity, strong, and weak nuclear forces, and electromagnetism; before the Big Bang these forces were all part of a unified force. The mystery for scientists today is to understand how these 4 forces could have at one point have been related. In order to properly explain this idea, Scientists have proved the Grand Unified Theory. This theory relates to all of the forces besides Gravity. The theory of everything is related to all of these forces and gravity. It is currently being explored, and so far a scientific explanation is still being discovered.

The Big Bang theory has become a large source of dispute between different groups of people. Some people believe that this theory contradicts the word of God. A large amount of the reason scientists have come to accept the Big Bang theory, is that it is the theory with the most solid scientific information to back it up. Proving the theory of everything will make this theory even harder for some people to ignore. However, as I mentioned earlier, what happened before the Big Bang is still up for debate. Only tireless research over time will tell researchers what happened at the beginning of time.
Connor Moore

Dark Matter

The matter that we see is everything that is made up of atoms and molecules. However, the universe we live in is made up of more than just visible matter. In fact, visible matter only accounts for less than 5% of the mass-energy of the Universe. Matter is very easy to understand. There are five states that it can switch in and out of (being Bose-Einstein condensates, solids, liquids, gases, and plasmas), and it must take up space to be matter. On the other hand, there is the other 95% of the Universe that we still have yet to understand fully: 27% dubbed dark matter and 68% called dark energy.

Dark matter was first hypothesized to exist in the 1930s as a means to explain the uncharacteristically large velocities of galaxies in a distant cluster. Fritz Zwicky of the California Institute of Technology discovered that the galaxies should fly apart because the gravitational attraction created by visible matter isn’t enough to hold the galaxies together on its own. He thus theorized that there must be some sort of dark matter to hold them together. Scientists didn’t necessarily buy into his findings for some time. The next breakthrough for dark matter came in 1970. Vera Rubin noticed that the stars at the edges of Andromeda didn’t move more slowly than those nearer the center, as one should expect according to Newton’s laws. Like Zwicky, she pointed to something invisible that had to be causing this effect. Then in 1973, two Princeton physicists tried to put together a simulation of the Milky Way using what they already knew about the Universe. In their simulation, which did not include dark matter, the arrangement of mass particles came out all wrong. When they added a uniform source of mass, the simulation suddenly worked, thus providing further evidence of dark matter. The rest is history as scientists have been continually searching to detect dark matter.

The interesting part about dark matter is that we are more confident about what it is not, than what it is. To start, it is not found in the form of stars and planets that we see. Second, it is not made in the form of dark clouds produced by normal matter. Scientists have been able to confirm this because through sending radiation into these clouds, we should be able to detect the dark matter, and we have not as of yet. Dark matter is also different from antimatter, since if it were comprised of antimatter, it would decay away and disappear over the age of the Universe. The most common prediction for what dark matter is is that it is a WIMP (Weakly Interacting Massive Particle). WIMPs interact through a weak nuclear force in combination with gravity. WIMPs would prove as a viable explanation to solving the problem with identifying dark matter because they rarely interact with visible matter and cannot be detected through electromagnetic observations.

The future of dark matter research is very exciting. The hope is that dark matter can be discovered in the coming years, which would unlock a lot about the history of our Universe, and help explain how it all interacts.
Tyler Wellener

Habitability of Mars

Terraforming, literally “Earth-shaping,” is the process by which the atmosphere, temperature, surface topography or ecology of a planet is modified to resemble Earth’s biosphere. Mars is the main hypothetical target of terraforming. The goal of terraforming is to make another planet habitable for Earth life, and the ethics of such have always been a subject of much debate. The possibility for terraforming Mars depends on how habitable the planet is now. If it is less habitable, terraforming will not only be difficult, but also expensive, reducing the probability of terraforming. The habitability of Mars will be explored, in order to determine whether or not a debate over terraforming is even currently relevant, as the less habitable Mars is, the more extensive technology would be needed, and the further away the possibility of terraforming is.

At first glance through a telescope, Mars seems like it is very much a potentially habitable planet – there are clouds, polar icecaps and an axial tilt – all of which imply seasons.

These so-called seasons and calendar are very similar to the Earth’s, only Mars’ days are thirty-seven minutes longer than our own. Though the seasons are longer because a Martian year is two Earth years, the axial tilt and day length on Mars are similar to Earth’s values. In the late nineteenth century, astronomers also noticed a “wave of darkening.” What was described was a seasonal coloring of the planet, something that also happens on a global scale.

In 1877, the Italian astronomer Giovannni Schiaparelli looked at Mars through his telescope, and found that Mars had a series of trenches, which he decided to call canali, the Italian word for “channels.” Funnily enough, people like Percival Lowell interpreted that has canals, which are artificial structures, thinking that he was implying that there were Martians out there that had dug the trenches at some point.

Unfortunately, the seasonal coloring has been attributed to seasonal dust storms; there is no plant life on Mars. Although Schiaparelli’s canali do not exist, there are smaller erosional features that could have possibly be formed by the flow of liquid water in the relatively recent past. Additionally, the channels that were discovered by Schiaparelli, were not built by Martians, which would have demonstrated that there is life on Mars; however, if these channels were formed by flowing water, though likely sporadically and in the past as appears it appears to be, then this would suggest that there were life sources available at one point in Mars’ history.

Unfortunately, with better technology and equipment, has come the definitive knowledge that there was no existing Martian life, but there are some advantages to having better equipment. The telescopes that showed that there was no life on Mars, also supported the observation of widespread seasonal color changes. This also means that while it is highly unlikely that Mars ever had civilizations, there was at least harboring plant life. However, this implication has been contradicted by scientists that have concluded that Mars’ atmosphere is dangerously thin, containing a large amount of carbon dioxide and also lacks observable oxygen or water vapor. Though some life may have still been able to exist without that, Mars’ lack of observable oxygen or water vapor in its atmosphere definitely make it uninhabitable for humans, and a poor choice for terraforming. However, if humans came up with the technology to alter the atmosphere of Mars and withstand the planet’s harsh conditions, Mars could be terraformed into being habitable.

Overall, one can conclude that Mars is currently uninhabitable for humans, as well as any other life. Though Mars may have had life many years ago, there is no clear evidence to definitely prove that. Conversely, should humans come up with advanced enough technology, terraforming of Mars could make it habitable for humans.
Charlotte Townsend

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Ethics of Terraforming

As we enter a new phase in human history whose defining element could be space exploration, there are many issues that could become points of scientific debate. For example, one major point of contention as we become increasingly proficient in space travel could be the ethicality of terraforming, or altering a planet or moon in order to make it habitable to humans. The points of debate here are completely conditional on the existence or absence of life on that planet or moon. Particularly, should we terraform a planet that contains life if the process of terraforming could harm or even eradicate those indigenous life forms? The answer for me is quite simply no. I don’t think it is morally acceptable to go into the habitat of another life form and completely alter that habitat, and in turn kill off that life form, just because it could benefit us. People may say that small unintelligent life forms on other planets are intrinsically less valuable than humans, so therefore it is within our rights as superior beings to take over their world. The same people would most likely say that destroying those life forms truly isn’t a big deal because they aren’t as important as humans. I would call those people “species racists”. Just because a species seems to be inferior and inconsequential compared to humans doesn’t mean that we are superior to that species and can do whatever we want to them. White slave traders were convinced that Africans were an inferior race and that justified enforced servitude, and oh how wrong they turned out to be. I wouldn’t want to see humans return to repeat that history in the form of terraforming.

That being said, the more important question is whether or not we would actually terraform if we knew it could harm other life forms. I really do believe that we wouldn’t. I think that as humans we feel a guilt over what we have done to our own planet which would stop us from destroying another life form. We all know that our species has developed civilization in such a way that we now have an uncontrollable and irreversible pattern of poisoning of destroying our own earth. We destroy our own forests to expand our domain, destroying ecosystems and driving entire species into extinction in the process. We are seeing and hearing the effects of this habit of ours every day, and it bothers us. We know we are terrible to our world, and we wish we could change it, but we can’t. Because of this guilt, I do believe that we would refrain from terraforming if it threatened the existence of another life form. This hypothesis, however, is conditional on the threat to human existence. If the human species is in danger of becoming extinct, then all bets are off. Because our will to survive as individuals and as a species is so strong, we would absolutely destroy another life form if it was a situation of life or death for us. Let’s hope it never comes to that.
Tristan Lockwood

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Ancient Aliens

In one of my prior blog posts I attempted to answer the question of whether alien life exists, and posited that it is very likely that it does indeed exist. Although humans have yet to find any of this alien life, our numerous international space agencies are trying their best to search for alien life by sending out space crafts to take detect and characterize planets close to our solar system. It really seems like we are hoping to find alien life in the future. However, what is there to say that aliens have not visited the Earth in the past, without our knowledge? Through examining ancient artifacts and locations, we may find evidence to support the fact that aliens may have indeed visited us in the past.

First, it is important to note what the current theory by experts in the field of ancient aliens actually is. Ancient alien theorists believe that very intelligent extraterrestrials visited planet Earth at some point in the past, and shared their knowledge of engineering and science with early civilizations, which in effect changed the course of human history. This theory resulted from the long-held belief that alien life could possibly exist on other planets, as well as noting that if humans could visit other planets, it should be possible for other life forms to visit our home planet, Earth. To provide evidence for their theories, these ancient alien theorists lean towards examining texts (often religious ones), paintings or other art forms, as well as architectural phenomena.

A picture taken of a portion of the
Nazca Lines.
One example of this exquisite architecture is the Nazca Lines. These geoglyphs (large designs, often artificially formed on the ground) are located in Peru, and stretch over 50 miles. Geoglyphs have been created many times in the past, but the Nazca Lines were so large that you would need to be in the air to actually be able to see the patterns they form, which included sketches of animals, birds, and humans, some of which were over 600 feet across. Because these designs could not be admired unless the viewer was airborne, archaeologists and scientists were both confused. The Nazca people lived in the area between 300 B.C. and 800 A.D., and there is no evidence that these people possessed any machines that could fly. This is further supported by noting that the first recorded human flight was in 1903, by Wilbur and Orville Wright. Ancient alien theorists suggest that these drawings on the ground were created to serve as landing zones and runways for alien spacecrafts.

A drawing of a vimana.
We can also pull evidence for the visitation of ancient aliens from Indian and Hebrew texts. In the Sanskrit epics of India, there are references towards flying machines, which were dubbed “vimanas.” As stated prior, there is no evidence of humans being able to pilot flying machines before the last century, and these epics were written over 2000 years ago. This suggests that these vimanas were piloted by astronauts from other planets, who were likely ancient aliens. In the Hebrew bible, the book of Ezekiel alludes to a prophet’s vision of a flying machine with fire, smoke, and loud noise. The design of the vehicle is described in a similar manner as to the spaceships of today, and so ancient alien theorists believe that this is merely a description of an early encounter between humans and alien astronauts.

Ancient alien theorists use eccentric artifacts and archaeological wonders such as these to provide evidence to support the existence of ancient aliens. There are even arguments suggesting that one of the pharaohs of Egypt was a descendant of an alien because of the size of his skull. If you are further interested in the subject of ancient aliens, you should watch the History channel TV show, Ancient Aliens, or take a look at the book, Chariots of the Gods, by Erich von Däniken, who is considered by many to be the father of ancient alien theory.

For more information, see here and here.
Arjun Manimaran

Saturday, April 5, 2014

A Mission to Mars

The topic of exploring other planets has been of great interest both to myself and to astronomers and scholars since the ability to observe them was achieved. When John F. Kennedy made a statement to students at Rice and the American populace on September 12, 1962 that “We choose to go to the moon,” Kennedy effectively promised to the American people that while the space-race was indeed in full effect, that human achievement would not cease until we put a man on the moon. 7 years later in 1969, with the moon landing brought on by Apollo 11, that promise was fulfilled. Now, humans have a new goal – to reach and put a man on the more “habitable” entity in our system – the planet Mars.

However, the question remains: how would humans survive on Mars? What systems would be put in place to ensure some sort of longevity both of the mission and the crew involved? What can we gain from this mission? This article will seek to answer some of these questions.

In order to survive on Mars, the crew would need to integrate several safety systems to the mission. On a log scale, exposure to interplanetary space would give 13-25 rems (unit of radiation) per year. As one article stated, “interplanetary astronauts would absorb more radiation in a single year than radiation workers are supposed to receive in a lifetime, and a large number would develop cancer and other illnesses.” Not to mention, “solar flares and Earth’s Van Allen radiation belts can kill outright but are easier to avoid.” Thus, the mission to Mars already poses many risks for the spacefaring astronauts. Whether or not we are willing to take that risk would, it would seem, depend on those willing to take the trip. The atmosphere on Mars is a “scrawny […] 10 grams per square centimeter”; thus, in order to shield the astronauts from the dangers of radiation, the base on Mars would likely need to be shielded by several meters of rock and soil, making the entire expedition all the more difficult, which may hinder the implementation of the Mars mission but may also provide for higher longevity of the mission since the base would become permanent and be shielded from the environment.

While the aforementioned drawback is obviously an important concern, the benefits of the mission should also be established. More research can be executed in Mars’ environment. In addition, digging into Mars’ surface may prove fruitful—there may be more under the Martian regolith than we think we know. However, should we find certain microbiology native to Mars, we might forward contaminate the area since the mission would be bringing microbes from Earth to Mars which is against COSPAR and NASA policies which is another drawback to consider.

Scholars have argued both the merits and drawbacks of a Mars mission. Yes, it is expensive; yes, it may not prove to be fruitful. But for the sake of human achievement, a Mars mission—such as Mars One—that would put a man on Mars may prove to be one of humanity’s greatest achievements of the decade. However, as was discussed, such a mission poses a great risk to human life.
Nathaniel Benzaquen-Ouakrat

NASA: Is It Necessary?

Since 1958, NASA has received money annually to help accomplish its vision: to reach for new heights and reveal the unknown so as to benefit all of humankind.

Today, NASA’s budget is under the spotlight, as many people question if the money given to NASA is money well spent. Many people argue that it is a “ridiculous” amount of money that is given to NASA and believe it could be better used to alleviate problems here on Earth. For instance, an acquaintance said, “What is Mars going to do? It is a great discovery, but what does it matter? We should spend that money on education.” But is it really a “ridiculous” amount of money? $18 billion might sound like a lot of money, but by recognizing that the US annual budget is around $3 trillion, which means that NASA’s budget only takes 0.6% of US spending budget. Therefore, the next question is: is that money going to waste?

However, before you answer the question, have you thought about the importance of space exploration? The number of jobs NASA creates? The opportunity NASA creates for talented people to obtain useful information for humankind? Before looking into these questions, I too believed that the budget that was given to NASA every year was “ridiculous.” I was naïve. I thought that space exploration was unnecessary. I did not realize that NASA provides jobs to numerous of people. I did not realize that NASA’s projects offer useful information to mankind and expands our horizons more than anything else.

First, I learned that space exploration is necessary. Think about it. If we don’t take the chance in explore our universe, we will never know what is out there in the universe. What are our limits? Just like Columbus and Lewis and Clark, we should continue to take risks and discover our universe, just like they risked their lives to find the paths that took our species to every continent of the globe.

Second, according to NASA, the agency has ten field centers and seven test and research facilities locate in several states around the country. Thus, more than 18,000 people work for NASA, from astronauts to engineers to secretaries to writers. I personally never thought that NASA could employ more than 18,000 people.

Lastly, after reading an article that discusses 10 NASA inventions that we use every day, my opinion about NASA changed completely. Did you know that Water Filters were invented because astronauts needed a way to cleanse water they take up into space? NASA technology has contributed to many items used in everyday life, from invisible braces to shoe insoles. It’s insane!

NASA is responsible for science and technology related to air and space, yet NASA’s research impacts our lives, as the information obtain can make life better for people all over the world. Therefore, I believe that NASA is necessary and that the money given to NASA is money well spent; as NASA not only provides valuable technology to humankind, but it also explores what I believe is the final frontier, space.
Dalia Dorantes

Friday, April 4, 2014

Before the Big Bang

Human beings are always curious about the origin of everything: Where did we come from? Where did our Earth come from? Where did our Universe come from? For centuries, many scientists have done research trying to answer these questions, and they have successfully found some plausible explanations for them. Regarding the beginning of our Universe, today we recognize the Big Bang theory as the prevailing model for the evolution of the Universe. According to the Big Bang Theory, because observations have shown that our Universe is expanding, if we work backwards, the Universe would shrink to an extremely hot, dense point, called a singularity, where all modern physics laws would fail. However, the Big Bang Theory does not cover the “very beginning.” So if we assume the Big Bang Theory is correct, what happened before “the bang”?

Some theories that attempt to explain why the big bang occurred include string cosmology, the ekpyrotic Universe model, the cyclic Universe model, the black hole theory, etc. All these theories are, unfortunately, unsatisfactory. After all, we certainly have no evidence for what might have happened before the Big Bang took place. However, there is one theory that I would like to discuss in the following paragraphs—the Hawking-Turok Instanton Theory.

This theory is actually a combination of two separate lines of research. In one, James Hartle and Stephen Hawking proposed a theory based the idea that the Universe did not have a boundary; in the other, Neil Turok worked with Martin Bucher and Alfred Goldhaber in creating an inflationary, open Universe theory. Eventually, they combined the two theories to create the Hawking-Turok Instanton Theory. In essence, Hawking and Turok believe that the Universe began from nothingness! Our open, inflationary Universe was formed from an “instanton”—a theoretical particle combining space and time. Consider a small, dimpled spherical volume that looks like
a pea but is one trillion times smaller. Space and time are mixed in this pea so that its bottom half is like the round-off tip of an upside-down cone. On a space-time diagram, this pea lies at the bottom of a well; space is defined away from the axis and time along the axis, but as stated space and time mix inside the pea. However, if the Hawking-Turok Instanton Theory is true, what caused the existence of instanton in the first place? Based on the theory, there existed nothing before the instanton. The instanton was the beginning of everything! It was the instanton that produced the Big Bang and our open, inflationary Universe.

More importantly, a tremendous value of the Hawking-Turok Instanton Theory is that it combines quantum physics with what we observe, although many questions still remain unanswered. And after all, the Hawking-Turok Instanton Theory is just one possible explanation amongst many others. We ought to keep researching and working on discovering the truth behind the creation of our Universe.
Yitian Feng

Mars One

Since the rise of science fiction, people have always dreamed of humans visiting and even living on Mars. In 2011, a plan was set in motion to make this dream a reality. Rather than being a venture of NASA or the European Space Agency, the mission is the private project of a Dutch non-profit organization called Mars One.

Mars One has a plan in place to put humans on Mars in 2025, following an intense selection and training process that lasts several years. The initial application process yielded over 200,000 applications, from which 1000 people were selected for an interview. Only four of these people will be selected for the final mission. In 2015, the four mission participants will begin their rigorous training, which includes technical, geological, medical, psychological, agricultural and simulation components. Since the astronauts will not be returning to Earth, it is imperative that they learn every possible detail regarding their future lives.

Prior to the human launch, Mars One will send a rover to find an ideal spot to inhabit Mars, followed by six “cargo missions” (two living units, two life support systems, and two supply units). The initial crew of four will be followed every two years by four more colonists until the Mars settlement reaches a population of twenty.

The cost of the initial four-person mission alone is $6 billion, and each additional mission will cost another $4 billion. The Mars One team, led by Bas Lansdorp, is using an innovative but risky model to finance the missions. In addition to any private donations the organization receives, Mars One plans on gaining revenue through selling broadcast rights to the Mars landing and a reality TV show documenting the crew’s life on the Red Planet.

So what is to be gained from this groundbreaking, but costly, mission? Obviously, putting people on Mars would be a watershed moment in human history. As Lansdorp puts it, “I believe that it will truly change the outlook of our entire species. If humanity can send humans to Mars, is there anything that we cannot do? And if on Mars we do find life — that would change our entire perspective on the universe.” Lansdorp also believes that the privatization of space travel is a good thing, since it can potentially unite people across the world without the need for collaboration between various governments. More practically, findings on Mars may inspire further research and developments in energy, health, and sustainability, among many other areas.

While this is undoubtedly one of the most ambitious ventures ever, questions still remain about how feasible the project actually is. The technological components certainly seem to be in good hands — Mars One has hired contractors from the top of their respective fields, such as Lockheed Martin, Paragon Space Development Corporation, SpaceX, Surrey Satellite Technology, Uwingu and Kristian von Bengtson. Where the potential problem lies, in my opinion, is in the most volatile component — the astronauts themselves. No matter how much isolated training they endure, I don’t think anything can quite simulate the permanent isolation and desolation that comes with living on another planet for the rest of their lives. On the other hand, it is entirely possible that the crewmembers will realize that they are leading the way for the rest of the human population and, as the Mars One website says, “the human spirit will continue to persevere, to even thrive in this challenging environment.”

Mars One is still in the infancy stage of development, so it remains to be seen whether the mission will actually happen. For now, we can only watch with curiosity and imagine the possibilities.
Achyuta Burra

Are There No Black Holes?

Stephen Hawking’s declaration that “there are no black holes,” captured many a headline on January 22, 2014, as the implication of there being no black holes would be quite controversial. However, Hawking’s paper that includes this declaration is definitely being exploited by the media, as his new paper is actually just modifying the definition of black holes. In order to understand why Hawking’s statement is such news taken out of context, and what he is really suggesting about black holes, we must first understand black holes and the controversy surrounding them.

A black hole is “a place in space where gravity pulls so much that even light can not get out. The gravity is so strong because matter has been squeezed into a tiny space.” Based on this definition, black holes break two fundamental laws of physics – Einstein’s law of general relativity and quantum mechanics.

Einstein came up with his theory of special relativity in 1905, determining that the speed of light in a vacuum was independent of the motion of all observers, because the laws of physics are the same for all non-accelerating observers. This was a new way of looking at, and offered new perceptions of, time and space. Einstein generalized special relativity and Newton’s law of universal gravity in 1916, and called it general relativity, which provided a unified description of gravity as a geometric property of space and time.

However, not all of nature follows the laws of general relativity. In the early twentieth century, scientists thought that the basic laws of physics should apply to every aspect of nature; however this was challenged when they began probing nature’s smallest scales. Scientists found that light waves, atoms, and electrons did not follow these laws. Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein began studying particles to understand physics at small scales, and discovered how peculiar it was. What arose from their studies were the laws of quantum mechanics, as named after the work of Max Planck.

Because the laws of quantum mechanics fill the gaps of physics that cannot be explained by Einstein’s theory of general relativity, it makes sense that the two theories are quite conflicting. Since the two theories are conflicting, there are discrepancies in how the two theories explain black holes. General relativity explains black holes as objects with a gravitational pull powerful enough that anything that crosses the event horizon will fall in and be forever trapped and eventually crushed, unable to escape. However, in quantum mechanics, the particles and matter that have fallen into a black hole have to be conserved somewhere.

Now that it has been established how controversial black holes are, Stephen Hawking’s statement that “there are no black holes,” should be revisited. In the 1970s, Hawking published a paper on black holes, and in it he proposed that black holes were losing mass and eventually would vanish. Black holes lose their mass by slowly radiating away light, a featureless glow called Hawking radiation. This means that whatever falls into a black hole will vanish with it, contradicting quantum mechanics, and causing issues in the scientific world.

What Hawking is now currently arguing, is that instead of an event horizon, there is something he is calling an “apparent horizon,” in which matter and energy are temporarily suspended, then released. If this were to be true, it would change how we look at black holes. The absence of event horizons would mean that there are not black holes, however only “in the sense of regimes from which light can’t escape to infinity,” as Hawking described in his most recent paper. In his paper, Hawking states “there is no such thing as black holes,” because he then goes on to describe a modification in the definition of a black hole, meaning, black holes still exist, but perhaps are slightly different than from how we originally conceived them.
Charlotte Townshend