Category Archives: space

Chandrayaan-2 to the moon!

On Monday 22nd of July 2019, the Indian Space Agency ISRO has successfully launched the moon probe Chandrayaan-2 into Earth orbit. Where Apollo 11 took a few days to reach the moon, Chandrayaan-2 will take at least 7 weeks and is scheduled for landing on September 6. Why does it take them so long to get to the moon this time and what will Chandrayaan-2 be doing on the moon anyway?

Chandrayaan 2 and its lander Vikram and rover Pragyan

Illustration of Vikram lander and Pragyan rover on the lunar surface. Image: ISRO

Orbiting

The Apollo program was designed to transport humans and Chandrayaan-2 is a robotic mission. This means it doesn’t need the quickest route to the moon. Apollo was using the heaviest rockets ever built to get to the moon to do just that, ISRO used considerably lighter rockets, also a more cost efficient way. Chandrayaan-2 will first spent 23 days in Earth’s orbit before jettison to the moon. While in orbit, it will gain speed to make the long journey to the moon.

Landing close to the aspired landing date is crucial. Chandrayaan-2 will have to make up for lost time as the launch has been postponed by a week, caused by a suspected helium leak. ISRO is however confident that this shouldn’t be a problem and has anticipated a delay in their plans. This means it will spend less time orbiting the moon than originally planned. Then, if all goes well, in the first week of September, the orbiter will release the lander called Vikram to the surface. One of the prime objectives is the demonstration of a soft landing on the moon and operate a robot rover from there. 

The lander Vikram

Vikram is named after Vikram Sarabhai who is regarded to be the father of the Indian space program. This mission is of great importance for the Indian Space Program so this is significant. It has a camera attached but will also measure seismologic activities in the landing area. It will also measure temperatures and the variation and density on the lunar surface plasma. Also, it carries NASA’s Laser Retroreflector Array (LRA). This device can measure precisely the distance between the reflector and any orbiter around the moon. The LRA will remain operative after Vikram’s scientific operations end, they will last about 14 days.  

Vikram also carries the moon rover Pragyan, which means wisdom in Sanskrit. The rover is expected to last one lunar day, or 14 earth days, and operates on solar power. However, the rover is able to store power and has a sleep / wake mechanism so it is possible that the rover will be operative after 14 days, when the night ends on their place on the moon. Both Pragryan and Vikram weren’t designed to survive these cold conditions at night. Hence the importance of the landing date. How later the lander reaches the moon surface, the less time there is for the planned experiments. Pragyan will send its data to Vikram who then sends this data back to earth. 

On the moon surface

The rover is expected to drive 500 meters. It has a speed of 1 cm per second. The rover will map the lunar surface near the landing site, which is close to the south pole of the moon. A place relatively unexplored. Together with the orbiter its goal is to give a more detailed impression of that region of the moon. Apart from a camera it will use lasers and xray to do this. 

It’s not the first time India landed on the moon, however their earlier attempt in 2008 with Chandrayaan-1 crash landed. The soft landing attempt is therefore one of the important parts of this mission, also as it serves as a test for future missions to Mars. This doesn’t mean Chandrayaan-1 failed. It remained operative for 10 months and has detected signs of water on the moon. Hard to say it failed indeed. Chandrayaan-2 will undoubtedly secure India and ISRO their place in deep space exploration. Chandrayaan-2 has a relatively short lifespan but considering the results of their previous moon mission, the prospects are incredibly good. 

Soft landing

It may take Chandrayaan-2 a long time to reach the moon, but it will do so in an efficient way. It will hopefully demonstrate a soft landing on the moon around 6 or 7 September (2019). The lander will function as a transmission center between earth and the rover which will map the south pole region of the moon. It has 14 days to do so before the cold night kicks in. We can only hope they’ll exceed life expectancy and will make amazing discoveries. Just like their older sibling 11 years ago. 

 

Is there coffee in that nebula?

One of Star Trek Voyager’s best loved quotes was said in season 1, episode 6 (“The Cloud”). 75 years from home, the ship had run out of coffee and Neelix’ substitute just doesn’t cut it. The use of the replicators was confined as energy had to be saved. Then the crew approaches a strange nebula and while being far away from home, they’re still in space to explore. Captain Katherine Janeway orders to set course, for “There is coffee in that nebula.” This has been printed on countless mugs all over the world ever since. But what exactly is a nebula? And can we really find coffee there?

captain janeway

Captain Janeway enjoying a cuppa. Picture credit Star Trek

What’s a nebula then?

A nebula is a cloud of either gas, dust, or a combination of the two. They’re being held together and compacted by gravity. They’re the space’s nurseries as stars are born there and are typically found in interstellar space. The gorgeous pictures you see with nearly ever space article are often nebulae. The colours are created by the different elements within. Most Nebulae contain about 90% of hydrogen. This makes sense as stars are mostly composed of hydrogen. It’s also the most common chemical element in the universe. 

What else is in a nebula? Mostly helium and 0,1% of heavy elements such as carbon, nitrogen, magnesium, calcium, iron and potassium. All these elements undergo an interstellar gravitational collapse. This causes the matter to clump together and form these amazing structures, which are typically huge in size and are very dense. You can fly through a nebula though in theory. I say in theory because one of the closest and best known nebula, the Orion Nebula, is about 20 light years away. So, if you’d be able to fly at the speed of light, which we can not and most likely never will, it will still take 20 years to get there. 

Through the pretty colours

Will flying through a nebula be a cosmic out of your mind experience? If you mean you will be mesmerized by all the pretty colours we can see from afar, you may be very underwhelmed. The closer you get to the nebula, the fainter the colours will appear. Open a picture of a nebula (or a cat, or something else) on your computer and zoom in. The more you zoom in, the more the picture becomes unclear. Pixels are causing this. Think of these pixels as chemical elements. Seen from far away, it’s clear and beautiful as the pixels are all close together. But get closer, or zoom in, they move from each other (pixels appear bigger) and it loses its focus. 

OK, that’s in short what a nebula is. The birthplace of stars which are pretty and you can fly into in. But is there coffee in that nebula? What Captain Janeway really was looking for, was energy for the replicator food dispensers. A replicator, if you aren’t into the Star Trek universe (you’re missing out by the way), is a device which is able to replicate any food you would want, if programmed correctly into the system. Wishing for Earl Grey will give you a plant. Therefore wish for a Tea, Earl Grey, Hot, if you want to enjoy a tea like a real star ship captain. 

The cloud

After a few weeks in the Delta Quadrant, energy levels are getting low and to save energy, Neelix, a Delta Quadrant alien, has been appointed as a chef on board and cooks with supplies found on the various planets they encounter. For the sake of suspense, the replicators require a certain kind of energy. When the crew detect this nebula with signs of omicron particles (we have yet to find it, but in the future they have), which they need for them, they set course. This being Star Trek, and Voyager being an exploration star ship, things of course don’t go as planned and the nebula isn’t a nebula but a life form. So in the end, captain Janeway doesn’t get her coffee, which is also bad news for the crew in my personal opinion. 

In conclusion, can you find coffee in a nebula? Only if you’re able to have a device that is able to convert the elements of that nebula into coffee. And if you don’t mistake a life form for a nebula. So, for the time being, we better keep to our earthly coffee beans and treat the ground and the people working there very well.  

The unsung hero of Apollo 11 – Michael Collins

We all know that Neil Armstrong was the first person to step on the moon. We also know he was followed by Buzz Aldrin. Most people however will fail to name the third astronaut. Some may even forget there was a third person onboard. Command Module Pilot Michael Collins is the forgotten Apollo 11 astronaut. He had the more nerve wracking task of them three. No he didn’t walk on the moon, but he knew that it was possible that he had to leave his fellow astronauts behind on the moon. 

Michael Collins on flight in Apollo 11. Picture NASA.

Before Apollo 11

Michael Collins already had been in space before taking off in Apollo 11. Three years prior to that famous take off, on July 18, 1966, he and John Young took off with Gemini 10. Gemini had to rendevouz with two Agena Target Vehicles and Collins had to perform two EVA’s (spacewalks), the second one on his own. He became the first person to do two spacewalks during one mission. He also became the first person to visit another space vehicle in orbit. These are quite some accomplishments, all prior to the Apollo program. 

Collins was training already for Apollo 9 but started to notice that his legs weren’t working as they should be and that his knees started to give away. He went to see the doctor, even though he didn’t want to because he knew what this meant. And indeed, he had to undergo surgery for cervical disc herniation and had to wear a neck brace for three months. He was removed from the Apollo 9 crew but as he had trained well, he was made capsule communicator for Apollo 8. There he directly communicated with the Apollo 8 crew during their historic flight which brought us the famous earth rise picture. The recovery went well and he was assigned to Apollo 11, the mission that would, if the previous didn’t fail, land on the moon. 

Training

Michael Collins wasn’t to land on the moon. He often trained separated and differently from Aldrin and Armstrong. It must have been tough to prepare mostly alone. That said, his fellow astronauts may have trained together and relied on each other blindly, they never became close in a more friendship kind of way. Strange for two people who would share this once in a lifetime moment together, travelling in quite the small spaceship. Collins also wrote about 18 different rendezvous possibilities, also those that failed. That book ran a 117 pages. He also designed the mission patch. 

His main training was of course operating the Columbia module. He had to make sure the module would remain in orbit around the moon, run system checks, perform moon observations and stay in contact with mission control. But he also had to make sure that Armstrong and Aldrin not just landed safely, but he had the task of taking them back home as well. And if anything should go wrong, he was instructed not to be the hero but return home. Alone. 

The risks

We all know how the mission ended. Armstrong and Aldrin landed safely on the moon, spent 21 hours on the surface and made it back to the command module Columbia and went home safely. We know that, but they weren’t so sure. The lunar module had been tested over and over again and the astronauts had trained numerous times. But they were never able to do it on the moon or similar circumstances. No one knew exactly what these circumstances would be exactly because no one had ever been there. 

If the thrusters weren’t working properly, Armstrong and Aldrin could have ended up in lower orbit around the moon for all eternity without Collins being able to do anything to get them on board. Or they would crash back on the surface. Another possibility was that the Eagle would miss it’s target and shoot into space to Pete knows where. Either of those scenarios, the two astronauts would survive until the oxygen ran out, unless other malfunctions occurred or madness had driven them to other drastic measures. There was a 50/50 chance, the three astronauts calculated among each other, that only Collins would make it home. A terrible thought to carry around. 

Feeling lonely

It weighed heavy on Collins’ mind but he performed his duties with great professionalism. But he admits that releasing the Eagle to the lunar surface was a nerve wracking experience. He told the other two to remain in constant contact with them in fear of losing them. The communication was broken 30 times while Collins was on the far side of the moon. Contact to ground control was also broken during that time. 3 billion people on the other side of the moon, and who knows what on Collins’ side. These were the hardest time for Collins, he was indeed the loneliest man in the world, a figure of speech. Anything could happen during that period, and he just wouldn’t know about it. 

The moment Armstrong and Aldrin left the Lunar surface were the hardest. This was it. This was the moment that would determine whether Collins would fly home alone or as a team. He wasn’t the only one aware of this. President Nixon had a speech ready in case the two moon walkers wouldn’t return home. “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.” it starts. It’s a beautiful and respectful speech which luckily never had to be used. 

Forgotten astronaut

No one was more relieved than Collins. He said that he would have fulfilled his duty and would have returned home, rather than taking other drastic measures, which wouldn’t have been a strange thing to do under these circumstances. He would have been known as the astronaut that survived the fateful Apollo 11 mission, the survivor of men’s first exploration of an alien world. Now he is the forgotten astronaut. I think it’s safe to say that Michael Collins wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. 

Join the starlink express

Ever since Elon Musk’s Space X has launched 60 starlink satellites, people have been talking about it. Some think it’s amazing and others think it’s the beginning of the end. Whatever your opinion is, it’s got you talking. It has everyone talking and that is priceless publicity. For free. 

What is starlink exactly?

What is this starlink business anyway? What is it good for? Musk’s goal is to supply everyone on the world with internet. He wants global coverage and with global coverage he means global coverage. From Time Square in New York to the local fata morgana in the Sahara Desert, you will be able to get online. Granted you have a operating phone or other device with internet access available. In 2015 numbers showed that 56,1% of the human population have access to the internet. That’s little over half the people. If you only look at the developed world, 81% of the population has access to the internet, this means, 1 in 5 people doesn’t. With these Space X satellites everyone should be able to log on.

In time that is because 60 satellites alone won’t do it. In total an impressive 12,000 starlink communication satellites are needed to reach that goal. Their operational orbit is 550 km, these first 60 started their climb into this orbit at 440 km since being launched with a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on May 23. It takes about 90 minutes for them to make one orbit. And despite the company’s initial claim that they won’t be that visible, the train of satellites have since been visible even to the naked eye, giving away an impressive show.

Satellite overload

Impressive or not, one may wonder if these satellites aren’t polluting the skies. Stars are hardly visible at some places in Europe due to light pollution, but the starlink train is a clear trail in the skies right now. They will get fainter once they reach their final orbit, but long exposure astronomy photographers have already complained about the trails the satellites make in their photo’s. Many worry that ground astronomy will get increasingly harder with these satellites up in the sky.

Hang on, aren’t their already many satellites orbiting the Earth? Indeed they are. Around 5,000 satellites are currently orbiting our world serving various purposes. Will these 60 really make a difference? You may think they won’t. But these 60 were already more visible than others, also because they are lines up like a train. They will scatter with time and be less visible that way as well. But these 60 are the first of 12,000. That’s more satellites than already are up there!

It is getting crowded

And Space X isn’t the only one launching high numbers of satellites. Cubesats or minisats are the future. Small satellites which are lighter and therefore cheaper not just to produce but also to launch. Which means more people and companies are able to launch their own satellites and Space X is by no means the only company who wants to provide World Wide Internet Access. Smaller companies like for instance Hiber have the same ambition and are already working on it, having launched several satellites already with for instance Space X.

It’s already crowded up there, it will get a whole lot more crowded really soon. For instance, ISRO (India Space Research Organisation) successfully launched 104 satellites by a single rocket on 15 February 2017. Only 3 of them were of Indian origine. And they weren’t all claiming to start an global internet revolution. This is also potential trouble for the International Space Station, orbiting the earth with an altitude between 330 km and 435 km . All these satellites in itself have to make sure they don’t collide with each other, one doesn’t want to think about what happens when they bump into the ISS.

What will the future hold?

Satellites do a lot of good things for us, they tell us where we are, give us access to the internet and they monitor the Earth. It’s all good data. But we may have to think about the price we are going to pay for that. Are we ruining the night skies? Are we making ground astronomy impossible? Do we really need all these things up there? Isn’t it possible to lower the amount of satellites and collect the data just a little bit slower? The starlink train didn’t just give free publicity to Elon Musk’s latest idea, it also gave us something to think about. We love technology. But maybe, there is a limit? Or do we want to pay the price and create a visible satellite ring around our planet?

I’m afraid there is no way back now and only time will tell how far we will really go. And if we indeed will be a better species because of it or become the polluters of the universe.

Rosalind Franklin is going to Mars

The Rover scheduled for launch in July 2020 as part of the ExoMars mission has a name! With a competition, ESA asked to name the rover designed to search for life on Mars. Former and perhaps even current life. The name they picked is beautiful: Rosalind Franklin. She was a London chemist (1920 – 1958) who would make a crucial contribution to DNA, the footprint of life. However she is a forgotten figure, like so many women in science history. 

Photo 51

While temporarily working in Paris, she perfected her skills in X-ray crystallography, which would eventually become her life’s work. During that time she made “Photo 51”, which showed the double helix structure of our DNA. Back in London she started working with Maurice Wilkins at King’s College. They didn’t get along very well. She was hired while Wilkins was on a holiday and put on the DNA project which he has neglected for some months. She also wasn’t able to mingle well with her male colleagues in general because the lunch rooms at college were men only. This made it harder to discus her work with others and probably contributed to the act that she hardly shared her work at all. 

Unknown to Franklin, Wilkins showed her photo to two other researchers, James Watson and Francis Crick. They worked at the university of Cambridge and were also working on the structure of DNA. They would end up writing the paper of the double helix, with an introductory paper by Franklin, that would lead to the Nobel prize for Watson and Crick in 1962. Not a word about Franklin was said, not even during the acceptance speech. As Franklin had died in 1958, she wouldn’t have been given the Nobel prize. A mention to her crucial work would at least have been decent. They however admitted this after accepting the Nobel prize.

A last name is important

That the ExoMars rover is named after her is fantastic. However people are starting to name the Rosalind Franklin Rover Rosalind. This may sound cute but is wrong on many levels. If you were to shorten the name of the Rover, please resort to her last name, Franklin. As you would with any other male name.

Men among each other often call each other by their last name, even or perhaps especially in friendly matters. This commonly happens in work space as well. Women are always called by their first name, and if a cuter version of the name is possible, this is used as well. Just take a look at the last American election. This was between Trump and Hillary. This has always stricken me as weird and even sexist. Why wasn’t it Trump against Clinton? It may seem unimportant, after all it’s about the people running for president and not their names. But it wouldn’t surprise me if the campaign would have focused on the name Clinton instead of Hillary, she may have won the election. 

And this is just one example, albeit a recent and painful example. We should make sure that women are recognised not by their pretty names and faces, but by their last name and accomplishments. Don’t call the Rover that is named after an important figure and may very well be the first to discover life on Mars just Rosalind or even worse, Rosy (the nickname Franklin hated). After all wee owe the beautiful pictures of our universe to Hubble and not to Edwin. Or Eddy.

Searching for life

Granted, the Rover is named Rosalind Franklin. Why wasn’t Franklin sufficient? It would have been, if women throughout history would have been given the credits they deserved at the time it happened and not years later. Movies such as ‘Hidden Figures’ show how men dominate the field (as life in general for that matter), where women have played an equally important role. I’d like to think that the scientific world differs in this with the real world but unfortunately this isn’t the case. It is getting better. And there are plenty of awesome scientists (female, male and non-binary) who couldn’t care less which sex is getting the credits, as long as the person who gets them truly deserves them.

There’s still a long way to go in equality and the Rover Rosalind Franklin is another great step towards it. After all, it could be that Rover that will tell us that we’re indeed not alone in the universe. And when that happens, we can be sure that no one will ever forget the name Rosalind Franklin. And that is exactly what this chemist deserves.

A new Space Race is what space exploration needs

NASA. Mighty, mighty NASA. The winner of the Space Race. Or rather, America claims that title as the US government instructed NASA to put a man on the moon first. They already lost putting a human being in orbit first to Russia. This was important. So, 50 years ago the entire world held its breath and watched a man called Neil and a man called Buzz make the first steps on the moon. America is the only country that put people on the moon. NASA has been the leading space administration for years. But since the retirement of the Space Shuttle it became clear to Houston and the rest of the world that NASA has a problem. And this problem might be solved with another space race.

NASA’s budget

This is not NASA’s fault. Since putting men on the moon, the funding has plumped and right now the budget is barely 0,4% of America’s entire budget. Compare it to the Department of Defense if you want, which gets 13%. But then know that every dollar spend on NASA makes ten. I’d say that’s a good investment. But I’m a writer, not an economic. NASA relied on Roscosmos for years to send Americans to space.

This month Space X will test its crewed dragon module and take it to the ISS, albeit without people. Boeing is also working and quite far in bringing humans (Americans) to space. These private companies weren’t restricted by government funding. Even though NASA will continue to work with Roscosmos, it’s a good thing for the Americans to not just be dependent on Russia.

Working with ESA

NASA has a long history of working together with ESA as well. The European Space Agency was founded in May 1975. They don’t have a program to bring people into space themselves and currently rely on Roscosmos as well. Previously NASA has brought Europeans into space. Most notably from a Dutch perspective they launched Wubbo Ockels into space with the Space Shuttle in 1985. But ESA isn’t just working on sending astronauts to space, nor does NASA for that matter. In the case to explore space, they have done amazing things already. Both agencies will continue to do so and work together as well.

ESA has access to technical NASA files which potentially saves ESA a lot of time and money while developing a new satellite or rover. But NASA doesn’t share all their secrets. And nor does ESA. There’s still competition between the agencies which keeps everyone on their toes. It also brings new ideas and progress. And sometimes tension when NASA (rightly) proudly announces they discovered and explored a first contact binary, while ESA (rightly) clears its throat and points out that they landed on such an object a few years ago already. It’s a space race in its own way.

China’s space explorations

Despite the cooperation between the space agencies, you might say the Space Race is still on. This is a good thing. Just look at how far the Space Race between America and Russia has brought humanity. To the moon indeed. But it’s not just America, Europe and Russia that are at play. China has already a few rovers on the moon but started 2019 by putting Chang’E-4 on the Far Side of the Moon. No agency has ever done this and this is a major mile stone for space exploration and for CNSA in particular. The Chinese National Space Administration isn’t new in space. The general public may not know too much about them, though the landing of Chang’E-4 on the moon may have changed that.

China is actually only the third country that put a probe on the moon which is remarkable if you think about it. It looks like that after the Apollo program proved successful, the interest in the moon declined. The focus was put on experiments in space that benefits life on Earth and also exploring the rest of the universe with ultimately colonizing the universe. It seems after extensive exploration of Mars, the interest in the moon returned.

Interest in the moon

The moon could very well be used as our gateway to space. America has proposed to put people back on the Moon and to build a station there. The question is, will they be the first? China is on a rise. They have skilled taikonauts with space experience. Yang Liwei was the first Chinese person in space, he also became the first none American / Russian to orbit the Earth solo. And did so in an Chinese rocket, the Shenzhou 5.

China’s neighbour isn’t unfamiliar in space either. JAXA was only formed in 2003 (by merging three independent space industries), but the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency has already done amazing things. It is an expert in asteroid exploration and has currently reached Ryugu. Not only will they explore the asteroid but they will take pieces of the object back to earth. That hasn’t been done with an orbiter ever before. Japan is also fond of the moon and after having launched an orbiter successfully, they have planned to launch a rover to the surface of the moon and has joined America and China in the pursuit of putting people on the moon again. JAXA has also collaborated with ESA and has BepiColombo currently on its way to under-explored Mercury.

Other space agencies in the race

Last year we welcomed Australia in the world of space exploration by opening their own space program called the Australian Space Agency. I haven’t seen anyone use ASA, not even in the agency’s logo. This is probably is a good thing. As they only exist for half a year I can’t really list what they have done just yet but they are extremely ambitious and a welcome, more than welcome, addition to the space family. One rightfully may ask themselves why there hasn’t been a space agency in Australia prior to July 2018. Even Canada, the CSA ASC, has one. Notorious for going viral with their astronaut Chris Hadfield play Space Oddity in space and recording an entire music album (mostly) in space. But the Canadarm2 on the ISS is from their hands. As the name indeed suggests. It also suggests that this mechanical space arm isn’t the first.

America has reached Mars with their rovers and orbiters. So has Russia and Europa. But who is the fourth player at Mars? The ISRO Mangaluyaan is orbiting Mars since 2014 and is India’s first interplanetary mission. The ISRO was founded in 1969 and hasn’t exactly sat quietly since. When first relying on other agencies for their satellite launches, in January 2017 they launched 104 satellites with one rocket, of which 96 of American origin. India wants to expand their lunar exploration and is also aiming to go to the sun in 2019/2020. Also planned for 2020 is a mission to Venus, a planet currently ignored by other agencies. India might not be the first country people think of when they think about space. But not paying attention to them is not just a waste, it’s an insult.

Interesting space organisations

There is plenty to look forward to. Space Exploration is on a definite growth and with so many players it may lead to even greater things. Competition can be a good thing. None of the agencies want to risk failure though failure will happen from time to time which all agencies benefit from. There are two other space programs I want to put my focus on and apologise to all space agencies I haven’t mentioned here. This is already my longest post to date, know that I salute all of you.

In Andy Weir’s book Artemis, Kenya is the important player on the lunar city. An African country? Why not. Kenya has been the first country launching a satellite into space so Weir got that right. We may know Africa best from safaris and starvation (thank you, USA for Africa) and where this a part of Africa, it’s important to know that Africa has a lot more to offer. Several countries have their own space agencies and are working hard on becoming part of space exploration in the future. Not so long ago, Mauritius held an important space seminar, Launching Africa. It showed that we should not underestimate Africa. It’s a movement that want to engage people and raise space awareness on that continent. It looks very successful and I for one would welcome them in Space Exploration.

In Denmark a group of amateurs are working voluntarily and in their free time on an amateur manned space program. You read this right. The non profit organisation entirely relies on donations and people’s knowledge they give for free. They have already successfully launched rockets (unmanned) and aren’t resting until they can safely send an amateur astronaut into space. Finding that volunteer might prove more difficult than one might expect. But the Copenhagen Suborbital is one to watch, I’m positive they will accomplish something astonishing in the next few years.

To boldly go

And all this is just a fraction of what humans are up to in order to explore space further. We still have a long way to go until we can build the Enterprise and boldly go where no human has gone before. But even the Enterprise wasn’t build in one day. What we’re doing right now are the first small steps towards it. And if we would set aside our worldly differences, a Federation might only speed up the progress. The launch by American Space X of the private Israeli moon probe from SpaceIL is an example of great cooperation. Keep exploring wherever you are, and never let anyone tell you that you can’t. It’s only then we will make a real gigantic leap again.

New Horizons reaches Ultima Thule and this is cool

On New Year’s Day the New Horizons spacecraft will flyby Ultima Thule. Previously it brought Pluto closer to us and closer to our hearts. Now it continues to explore the Kuiper Belt. This is cool indeed. 

Ultima Thule, not just any rock

Ultima Thule is not just any rock hidden in the Kuiper Belt. It’s carefully chosen while New Horizons has long flown by Pluto.  Scientists still don’t know whether it’s just one rock, or two closely orbiting each other. 2014 MU64, as the object was formerly known, will be the most primitive world ever observed from up close. And this could tell us a lot about our own world, Earth, as well. 

As we have seen with the Pluto flyby, LORRI is able to take breathtaking images. LORRI stands for Long Range Reconnaissance Imager and is a telescopic camera. New Horizons will flyby closer than it has by Pluto and Ultima Thule is smaller than the planet. The expectations are high. But due to the incredible distant we may have to wait until January 2 or even January 3 for the first images to emerge. Data will take at least 6 hours to reach Earth. And this needs to be sorted and filtered. 

Keep on giving

New Horizons will try to gain as much info as possible in the few seconds it flies by Ultima Thule. It will take more than a year for all the information to be downloaded. The spacecraft will then long be on its way to perhaps yet another target. This is yet to be decided. As long New Horizon has fuel, it runs on plutonium actually, it will be able to explore more. 

It makes New Horizons the gift that keeps on giving. The Pluto flyby alone exceeded all the expectations. The data gathered from that encounter is still leaving scientists amazed every day. It has re-opened the debate whether Pluto is a planet or not. This is not just because people melted when Pluto showed its heart (named the Thombaugh region, named after Pluto’s discoverer). New Horizons showed that Pluto is a very active world and ticks every box it needs in order to be a real planet. Except it just hasn’t cleared its orbit. 

A great start of 2019

Data gathering and photo taking aside, this flyby will be historic. We’ve never seen a world from so close by ever before. No spacecraft has ever done this. The Kuiper Belt can be seen as a collection of rocks that failed to make it into a planet. It could very well tell us more on how our solar system was formed and perhaps even how life made it to our planet. 

2019 will have a great start for all space fans. The Ultima Thule flyby will be the perfect start of an amazing year in space. Not bad for a mission that nearly didn’t even see the light of day. It now shows us the edges of our solar system. And that is indeed cool. 

I’m wishing everyone on the New Horizons team the best of luck during this flyby. And thank you for never giving up on this mission. It’s been all worth it. And the end is yet not in sight! 

There’s a lot to say about ‘Oumuamua, that’s for sure.

The Harvard paper was criticized and perhaps it does show a lot of flaws and it may be weak. The fact that some people dared to even propose the possibility of something made by an extraterrestrial intelligence in the scientific community, has to be applauded.

We are at the point in history where we will find evidence of extraterrestrial life any time soon. It will happen in our lifetime. Even if it’s a tiny microbe or a fossil of that microbe, it will change the way we look at our universe. It will change our place in our universe. It will change everything. Maybe we all are secretly are afraid of the consequences of that. One day we will have to face them. The discovery of ‘Oumuamua however is not that day.

What do we know?

‘Oumuamua has been discovered in October 2017 and has since been the subject of speculations. It has been anything from alien spaceship to comet but fact is that we still haven’t got a clue. We do have a lot to say about it.

What we do know about this object is that it is the first interstellar object traveling through our solar system that we have been able to detect and follow. It’s estimated that several interstellar objects are travelling relatively close to the Earth but they are difficult to spot with current technology. Further we know that it’s cigar shaped, has a reddish, smooth surface and the latest observation estimated it to be between 100 and 400 meters long. It’s tumbling through space rather than smoothly rotating. It has also been accelerating while passing through our solar system.

This all made way for many speculations. At first it was classified as a comet but it lacked a trail of dust while passing our sun which a comet would have. Then it was classified as an asteroid. But that would not explain the acceleration ‘Oumuamua made while passing the sun. So, it was put back in the comet section. With the sun heating up the object it must have created gas after all and boosted its speed. Maybe we just didn’t see the trail.

Gone adrift

Due to the peculiar shape and the rather unusual tumbling, it was also quickly speculated that this object could be an alien spacecraft gone adrift. Also the smooth edges fueled this speculation and when it was also known that the object had accelerated, only added to this theory. It’s hard to say what ‘Oumuamua is really made of. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence but when we don’t even have ordinary evidence to confirm an ordinary claim, the roads to extraterrestrial explanation are wide open. And you can’t blame those who look into a solution of alien origin. 

It’s hard to say what ‘Oumuamua really is. The Spitzer telescope has tried to follow it as long as was possible but in order to really investigate what “the first distant messenger” (what ‘Oumuamua roughly means in Hawaiian) really is. We know it’s interstellar as it travels so fast that it wasn’t caught in our own sun’s orbit. But in order to know more we needed more time. Therefore the object might be a highly debatable visitor forever but it has taught us to be on a look out for more of these visitors and study them more closely. We now know what we can roughly expect.

We don’t know

Fact is, we really don’t know what ‘Oumuamua is. It’s natural to stay within your own field. Astrophysicists will look at their knowledge and search for an explanation in what they know. But it’s not that strange to think out of the box either. The interstellar visitor doesn’t tick all the boxes we know. There are several things weird about it and we can’t say for certain what made the object accelerate. It made even researchers of the prestigious university of Harvard think of the unthinkable. What if this is an alien spaceship? Advanced technology can fail as well. It could have gone adrift. Maybe from a species long extinct for all we know. We don’t know how old the object is.

What I think ‘Oumuamua is? I have no idea. Do I want it to be an alien spacecraft? Of course I do, how exciting would that be? I want to believe. And it ticks a couple of boxes of that theory. But it also ticks some that would suggest that it doesn’t. It shows that we assume we know a lot about our universe but in reality we don’t. That’s what make these discoveries so exciting, it’s something new, unknown.

‘Oumuamua is an alien spaceship. Wait, what?

Is it a comet? Is it an astreroid? Is it… an alien spaceship? Ever since ‘Oumuamua came tumbling into our solar system in late 2017 (and left almost just as quickly), it has been up for debate. The object visited our solar system only briefly so there was little time to investigate. Still, we know some things about the object.  On November 12 (2018), a paper written by Harvard researchers will be published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters and it raises a peculiar question: Could ‘Oumuamua be an alien spacecraft?

Alien invasion

It isn’t the first time this option comes up. Quickly after the news of ‘Oumuamua spread, the internet became to speculate about a possible alien invasion. Was it an alien craft that was damaged in its own solar system and became adrift speeding through our solar system? The object is reddish and has a flattened, elongated shape. It behaved unusual for any object that we know of. For instance, the object seemed to accelerate which is strange behavior for a comet. It’s one of the main things this particular paper is focusing on.

That we see the UFO and alien community getting excited about this object was to be expected. Even outside this field people started to speculate and fantasies. What if this is a spaceship adrift? It would be the finding of, well since forever to be quite frank. And I personally am one of the people who wants to believe. Who wouldn’t want ‘Oumuamua to be an alien spaceship? But to find a paper by researchers from Harvard published in a science publication is remarkable.

Poop

The first science reactions have already been given, some call the paper “poop” on twitter, some say the paper is weak in its claims (aka it lacks solid claims). The paper uses words like probably, maybe and could be a lot. Science is researching all possibilities and ‘Oumuamua being an alien spaceship is indeed a possibility. The paper looks very scientific with its equations indeed. If it is worth a science publications is now up for debate. It doesn’t say it’s an alien spaceship. Only that it could be, maybe and perhaps.

As long as we haven’t ruled out it being one, it could be. It can be anything. And researchers have every right to speculate. It’s part of their job. I would like to see ‘Oumuamua to be an ancient alien spacecraft, that got lost, damaged and desperate finding its way home. A bit like the Voyager in one of the Star Trek series. But it could be a space rock. Whatever it is, it’s from outside our solar system and that in itself should be exciting enough in itself. It is possible to travel across various systems. And that, that is cool too.

Light-sail

It’s still a wild guess as to why the researchers have chosen to publish this paper. You can’t conclude from the paper that they believe the thesis itself. It’s actually the media attention that is putting the focus on the alien spaceship, the actual paper has as a title “Could solar radiation pressure explain ‘Oumuamua’s peculiar acceleration?” This acceleration is baffling indeed. And yes, it could be explained by aliens who would have used the light-sail technique. This technique isn’t unknown to us but is rather taking baby steps at the moment, especially compared to the alien spaceship. If it is one.

It’s too bad we can’t study ‘Oumuamua anymore and perhaps we should have paid more attention, even though we did as much as we could. Unless the owners of the spaceship will contact us, asking whether we had seen their ship passing by, we will never know what it really was. But it has raised questions and triggered new ways of thinking of how our universe works. And we have scientists who dare to take the words Aliens and Extraterrestrial Intelligence into their mouths. And that is worth something as well

The Prime Directive in the 21st century

The Prime Directive forbids protagonists to interfere with the normal development of any life on any planet or celestial body, especially life that hasn’t been as fully developed like the visiting crew. Even though interfering could mean saving lives, then still one should not as it could disturb the development life on that planet would otherwise have. It’s not an easy rule to follow. But who is to say that a little interference that seems like a good idea at the time, will be a good idea for the future to come. In the universe of Star Trek personnel of Starfleet struggle on a regular basis with this rule as their job is not just to discover but also to protect.

This may be 24th century problems but we already deal with the very same concept today. We’re looking for life outside our planet and the chances are good that we will find it in our very own solar system. Mars is a good candidate. But so are Saturn’s moons Enceladus and Titan, Jupiter’s moons Europa, Callisto and Ganymede and the planet Venus. These are just a few examples. Life could hide in a dense atmosphere, hide in dusty rocks or lure underneath a thick layer of ice. Underneath that ice may be oceans that contain liquid water and is heated by the gravitational pull of their planet and other bigger moons in orbit.

Fascinating! We humans can’t go there ourselves yet, so we don’t run the risk that an astronaut will accidentally step on a life form and ruin the entire future ecosystem of that world. So why don’t we send our orbiters there, land on the surface and drill a hole into the ground and start exploring!? If only things were that easy. Technology however is getting more and more advanced so it will be possible to drill bigger holes in for instance Mars. A few millimeter won’t get us very far, even the most hopeful scientist will agree to that. To get to the oceans of for instance Europa, we will have to dig deeper, meaning we need to send a pretty large drill that may not weigh too much or else the project will get too costly and we need to have a camera attached to that drill so we will actually be able to see what’s out there. And of course a pretty mean transmitter that will be able to send all that data back to us.

The good news is, science is working on that and it all seems possible. Great! There’s no doubt a curious billionaire that will ‘borrow’ the missing money for development and doesn’t SpaceX have some qualified rockets available? So, what are we waiting for? Well, if there really is life out there, we don’t want to contaminate it with earthly germs.

First of all we don’t know what kind of life is out there. To keep to the Star Trek theme, it may be life, but not as we know it. If that’s the case, there is no knowing what will happen to the life form when it comes in contact with an earthly hitchhiking germ. We may cause mutilation and possibly extinction of that form of life. Humans have a horrible trackrecord of destroying and eliminating life on their own planet already, let’s try and not expand that in the universe so we may pretend to have a good name for the aliens.

Even if it’s a life form we recognise, exposing it to our life may still be a bad idea. The environment on say Titan is completely different than that from Earth. How would an earthly life form even react under such conditions? It’s unknown territory, we have no way of testing what will happen. Once we get drilling through the ice, there is no way back. Damage will be done. We will change something. It doesn’t even matter if it’s for the better or the worse.

So, we don’t send any germs to Callisto, got it! But this is a difficult thing to do. Where humans work, there are germs. We can do everything in our power to make sure the orbiter and the landing module and the drill get as sterile as possible on that rocket. Well, that rocket. That rocket can’t be expected to be completely sterile. It will soar through our atmosphere and yes, will only suffice as the transporter out of our atmosphere. The rocket will not reach the surface of Titan. But. Can we exclude that no contamination will be present on the actual lander? As much as we try, and the chance is incredibly small, I mean, really small, we can’t exclude any earthly germs landing on the surface, as any lander before will have high guarantees but not a full 100%. This isn’t a problem on lifeless worlds but it may be if there is. We just don’t know it yet.

Somehow Earth will become part of the United Federation of Planets and Earth will send out explorers into the universe so we will overcome this problem in the future. Whether this will mean humans will influence other life in the solar system and the universe for that matter, has yet to be seen. But who is to say that life on Earth hasn’t been pushed into the direction it has gone without help from outer space? Maybe life is meant to contaminate other worlds in order to thrive. There is only one way to find out. I’m confident that humans will confirm extraterrestrial life of any kind within 20 years from now. And it will change everything.