Podcast: Capturing Life Off Planet and Here on Earth

Image (Credit): Venus as captured by NASA’s Mariner 10 spacecraft in February 1974. (NASA)

I recommend checking out Alan Alda’s interview with astronomer Sara Seager in a recent Clear + Vivid podcast episode. MIT Professor Seager has focused her work on exoplanet atmospheres as well as another planet nearby – Venus. In the interview, she discusses her early work as well as her theories about the existence of life in the atmosphere of Venus. She also discusses her involvement with MIT’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Telescope (TESS). 

And while I do not remember it coming up during the interview, Professor Seager is also known for the Seager equation (shown below), which is less demanding than the Drake equation and focuses on any form of life on another planet (without reference to technology).

  • N = the number of planets with detectable signs of life
  • N* = the number of stars observed
  • FQ = the fraction of stars that are quiet
  • FHZ = the fraction of stars with rocky planets in the habitable zone
  • FO = the fraction of stars with observable planets
  • FL = the fraction of planets that have life
  • FS = the fraction of life forms that produce planetary atmospheres with one or more detectable signature gases

But in addition to the science, it was a fascinating discussion about Professor Seager’s life covering the early death of her husband from cancer, her attempts to get her life back on track, and her discovery later in life that she has autism. Most science stories focus on the work, but Mr. Alda has a unique way of drawing out the person in these interviews. It is a great episode, and you can read more about Professor Seager’s life and work in her book The Smallest Lights in the Universe.

Credit: Crown Publishing

Space Stories: Bezos on the Moon, Strange Oort Objects, and Europe Visits Venus

Image (Credit): Artist’s rending of the Blue Origin lunar cargo lander. (Blue Origin)

Here are some recent stories of interest.

Reuters: “Bezos’ Space Company Teams with Lockheed, Boeing for NASA Moon Lander Pitch

Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin is partnering with Boeing Co and Lockheed Martin Corp to pitch a lunar lander to NASA as the agency seeks to send humans to the moon again, the companies announced on Tuesday. The joint moon lander proposal, led by Blue Origin, marks the companies’ second attempt to win a coveted moon lander contract as NASA seeks more options for getting astronauts to the lunar surface under its multibillion dollar Artemis program.

Western University: “‘Unexpected’ Space Traveller Defies Theories About Origin of Solar System

Researchers from Western have shown that a fireball that originated at the edge of the Solar System was likely made of rock, not ice, challenging long-held beliefs about how the Solar System was formed. Just at the edge of our Solar System and halfway to the nearest stars is a collection of icy objects sailing through space, known as the Oort Cloud. Passing stars sometimes nudge these icy travellers towards the Sun, and we see them as comets with long tails. Scientists have yet to observe any objects in the Oort Cloud directly, but everything detected so far coming from its direction has been made of ice. Theoretically, the very basis of understanding our Solar System’s beginnings is built upon the foundation that only icy objects exist in these outer reaches and certainly, nothing made of rock.

Universe Today: “ESA’s Upcoming Mission Will Tell us if Venus is Still Volcanically Active

The EnVision mission is ESA’s fifth medium-class mission to Venus. It’s being planned in a partnership between NASA and ESA, and NASA will be providing the synthetic aperture radar instrument, which will map the surface (much as Magellan did). In addition to the two radars, the orbiter will carry spectrometers to study the atmosphere and surface. They will monitor trace gases in the atmosphere and analyze surface composition. The idea is to look for surface changes that might be linked to signs of active volcanism. Along with the VERITAS and DAVINCI missions, EnVision should reveal all we need to know about volcanic activity on Venus.

The National Air and Space Museum is Open for Business

Image (Credit): The “Destination Moon” exibition at the refurbished National Air and Space Museum. (Smithsonian Museum)

If you have been awaiting the refurbishing of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, then you will be happy to know that the museum reopened on October 14th. Only now you cannot simply stroll into the museum. Instead, you need to obtain a free timed-entry pass. Unfortunately, this seems to be the current system used by numerous museums to control traffic as well as capture all of your personal information so they can swamp you with junk mail and offers. Anyway…

Here are the a few of the new exhibits the museum is highlighting (go here for the full list):

  1. “Walking On Other Worlds”: Experience what it’s like in distant parts of our solar system in the “Walking on Other Worlds” interactive experience in the Kenneth C. Griffin Exploring the Planets Gallery. This immersive media exhibit presents visitors with a seven-minute “tour” of seven different worlds: Venus, Earth’s Moon, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn’s moon Titan, asteroid Ryugu, and comet 67P.
  2. Science Fiction Artifacts: New to display is a full-sized T-70 X-wing Starfighter “flown” by Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019). The screen-used vehicle is on long-term loan from Lucasfilm and is displayed hanging outside the planetarium. Star Trek is also represented in the new exhibitions. 
  3. ISS Cupola: In the One World Connected gallery, put yourself in the shoes of astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) with the ISS Cupola interactive. Every 90 minutes, astronauts on board the ISS can see the Sun rise from the station’s Cupola, a European Space Agency-built observatory module. 

Given that NASA’s Artemis 1 mission is shooting for the Moon again, the timing is perfect. Of course, in December 2022 it will have been 50 years since the last human walk on the Moon’s surface, so we have a lot to celebrate as well as a lot of time to make up. Let’s hope a future update to the National Air and Space Museum includes models of spacecraft used to get humans to Mars.

And remember, you can also visit the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center outside the Washington Beltway that contains large planes, jets, and spacecraft that cannot fit in the DC museum, including the Space Shuttle Discovery. Last time I went there I could walk right in without using a timed-entry pass.

Image (Credit): Space Shuttle Discovery at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. (Smithsonian Museum)

Space Stories: Venusian Balloons, Sun Observations, and a Private Moon Trip

Image (Credit): Test of the one-third scale prototype aerobot designed to withstand the corrosive chemicals in Venus’ atmosphere. (Near Space Corporation)

Here are some recent stories of interest.

NASA.gov: “JPL’s Venus Aerial Robotic Balloon Prototype Aces Test Flights

A scaled-down version of the aerobot that could one day take to the Venusian skies successfully completed two Nevada test flights, marking a milestone for the project…The shimmering silver balloon ascended more than 4,000 feet (1 kilometer) over Nevada’s Black Rock Desert to a region of Earth’s atmosphere that approximates the temperature and density the aerobot would experience about 180,000 feet (55 kilometers) above Venus. Coordinated by Near Space, these tests represent a milestone in proving the concept’s suitability for accessing a region of Venus’ atmosphere too low for orbiters to reach, but where a balloon mission could operate for weeks or even months.

SkyandTelescope.org: “‘Chinese Observatory Will Study Violent Events on the Sun

China has launched a solar observatory to study solar flares and eruptions, and their connection with the Sun’s magnetic field…[the Advanced Space-based Solar Observatory (ASO-S)] is planned to operate at 720 kilometers (447 miles) above Earth’s surface in a Sun-synchronous orbit that will allow it to observe the Sun at all times. Its primary, four-year mission is timed to make the most of the 2024–2025 solar maximum, when the Sun is at its most active during its 11-year cycle.

Space.com: “‘SpaceX Says its 2nd Private Starship Trip Around the Moon will Help Make Humanity Multiplanetary

SpaceX’s newly announced tourist mission to the moon could help humanity extend its footprint far beyond Earth, company representatives say. That mission, which was revealed today (Oct. 12), will send wealthy entrepreneur Dennis Tito, his wife Akiko and 10 other people on a weeklong journey around the moon aboard SpaceX’s huge Starship vehicle, which is still in development. Who those 10 other passengers will be is unknown; only the Titos have reserved seats at the moment.

Podcast: Astronomy in a Nutshell

Image (Credit): “How to Terraform Venus (Quickly)” video. (Kurzgesagt)

In a recent Clear+Vivid podcast episode, Alan Alda interviewed Philipp Dettmer, who is the CEO of the online science channel Kurzgesagt (German for “in a nutshell”). Mr. Dettmer discussed his difficulties with school as a child, his eventual love of learning, and his desire to help others to learn.

I recommend you listen to his story on the podcast, but also explore the various videos on his Youtube site, including a number of them that deal with astronomy, such as:

It is science as well as scientific speculation, but it is all good for the brain.