New writings: Decolonizing space, space debris problems, and archaeology vs climate

Here’s one of my recent WIRED stories as well as the last two pieces I’ve published as a freelance writer, in Aeon magazine and Nautilus magazine. Thanks as usual to my excellent editors! I’m only posting brief excerpts here, so if you’re interested, please check out the whole thing using the links below.

I don’t update this website as much anymore, but you can stay up-to-date with my new and improved newsletter, Ramin’s Space!

This Chilean landscape resembles what the surface of Mars might have looked like 3 billion years ago. (Credit: NASA)

Decolonizing the cosmos

Instead of treating Mars and the Moon as sites of conquest and settlement, we need a radical new ethics of space exploration.

Within four years, American astronauts will once again plant their feet and flags on the Moon’s dusty surface. They won’t be alone: Chinese, European and Russian space agencies have their sights on our nearest celestial body too, as do space companies such as Moon Express and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin. If their plans come to fruition, astronauts and their robots will claim the most valuable spots and mine the Moon for water, ice and other resources. Our lunar neighbor will never be the same again.

The Moon is only a foothold, a first step on the edge of a vast landscape. Humanity stands on the brink of a new era of exploration, in which brief, intermittent and tentative space jaunts could be replaced by a multitude of cosmic activities conducted by many competing interests. Within 20 or 30 years, crewed missions could make giant leaps toward Mars – 500 times further away than the Moon – to map out the terrain and even establish colonies. Asteroids and other distant destinations will be next. With this new age dawning, we face a collective responsibility to consider the moral challenges before us, and to avoid committing the grave mistakes of the past.

So far, attitudes to space that focus on power and profit appear worryingly similar to the mindset of European and American colonial powers. The billionaire Elon Musk’s company SpaceX has begun transforming the night sky – the cultural heritage of humanity – with its reflective constellations of satellites. Military space programmes and military space companies continue developing space weapons such as anti-satellite missiles, tests of which increasingly clog low-Earth orbit with debris. Meanwhile, if companies or anyone else carves pieces of the Moon as they please, it could irrevocably change its appearance to us, too. While NASA and other space agencies are more accountable and transparent than the space industry, they too lack a collective, long-term roadmap for what comes next. Without clear guidelines for what can and cannot be done in space, the cosmos will become not a place for collaborative exploration and shared benefits but the site of conflicts, resource extraction and pollution…

[Read the entire essay in Aeon magazine, published on 12 November.]

Race Against Time

Archaeologists’ new mission: To preserve coastal heritage from the ravages of climate change.

This past March, Isabel Rivera-Collazo was taking a walk along a stretch of rocky beach on Puerto Rico’s northern coast when she noticed the telltale sign of a fresh water line. The area—which Rivera-Collazo is reluctant to describe in too much detail, fearing potential looters—is not far from Playa Machuca, where the sand turns a silty black and surfers brave rough waters. 

Here is where centuries ago, before the violent arrival of Spanish conquistadors, indigenous people built sacred ceremonial plazas known as bateyes. These bateyes hummed with activity, the locus of trade and travelers coming by sea and by river. Now, as far as Rivera-Collazo knows, this is the only surviving archaeological site on the island with bateyes, which now appear as sunken areas of varying shapes, their edges marked by earthen mounds. They sit mostly empty, occasionally visited by migrating ducks, as one bateye has filled with seawater. The untrained eye might not see much but buried in sand and rock are historical artifacts like pottery and tools, some dating back centuries before the arrival of the conquistadors.

Rivera-Collazo, an environmental archaeologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, is especially interested in how climate and environmental change impact human vulnerability. For her, the issue is personal: As a native Puerto Rican, Rivera-Collazo is acutely aware that coastal areas like this are on the front lines of climate change, and that objects of incalculable historical importance are lost to the ocean with each passing storm. The coast is important, she says, because so much precolonial history not lost to Spanish colonization can be found there. “But climate change is washing away these archaeological sites all the time,” she says. “That’s why we are so adamant and in such a hurry to document them”…

[Read the entire piece in Nautilus magazine, published in December.]

The US Space Force Wants to Clean Up Junk in Orbit

Debris from a Russian anti-satellite weapons test adds new urgency to international and government efforts to get rid of high-flying trash.

Early Monday morning, a field of debris hurtled at some 17,000 miles per hour through the part of space where a derelict Russian satellite, Cosmos 1408, once orbited. Later that day, US State Department officials claimed that the 1,500-plus bits of flotsam originated from a Russian test of an anti-satellite missile. The risks of so much floating junk immediately became apparent: The fragments flew dangerously close to the International Space Station, forcing the crew to take shelter in the least vulnerable parts of the spacecraft.

The situation could’ve played out like the scene in the 2013 movie Gravity in which an astronaut, played by Sandra Bullock, flees the ISS as it’s destroyed by a massive clump of orbiting debris. The real shower of shrapnel missed the ISS, but it continued to make close passes every 90 minutes or so. Some of it will likely remain in orbit for decades. Russian officials, who on Tuesday confirmed the weapons test, claim the fragments aren’t a hazard for space activity.

US officials think otherwise. “The debris created by Russia’s [anti-satellite test] will continue to pose a threat to activities in outer space for years to come, putting satellites and space missions at risk, as well as forcing more collision avoidance maneuvers,” stated General James Dickinson, head of the US Space Command, in a press release on Monday. “Space activities underpin our way of life and this kind of behavior is simply irresponsible”…

[Read the entire piece in WIRED magazine, published on 17 November.]

New freelance writings: A new space treaty, space radiation risks, and collapsing coastal cliffs

Here’s a few stories I’ve recently written and published in Undark magazine, Scientific American, and Hakai magazine. Thanks as usual to my excellent editors! I’m only posting brief excerpts here, so if you’re interested, please check out the whole thing using the links below.

Stay more up-to-date and sign up for my new and improved newsletter, Ramin’s Space!

(Blue Origin flight test. Credit: Blue Origin)

It’s Time for a New International Space Treaty

With satellite traffic increasing and space tourism set to take off, the laws governing space are due for an overhaul.

Space is much busier than it used to be. Rockets are launching more and more satellites into orbit every year. SpaceX, the private company founded by Elon Musk, blasted more than 800 satellites into space in 2020 alone. Extraterrestrial tourism is about to take off, led by space barons Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson, two of whom have already taken their first private space outings. The frenetic activity of space agencies and space companies around the world will extend beyond Earth’s atmosphere, too. Within a few years, the moon will see many more landers, rovers, and even boots on the lunar ground. So will Mars and eventually, perhaps even some asteroids…

Things have changed considerably in the more than half century since international space diplomats hammered out the Outer Space Treaty, the agreement that continues to serve as the world’s basic framework on international space law. Before space conflicts erupt or collisions in the atmosphere make space travel unsustainable — and before pollution irreversibly tarnishes our atmosphere or other worlds — we need a new international rulebook. It’s time for the Biden administration to work with other space powers and negotiate an ambitious new space treaty for the new century…

[Read the entire piece in Undark magazine, published on 22 July.]

Predicting When the Next Bluff Will Fall

Researchers in Southern California are using lidar to improve scientists’ understanding of the erosional forces that cause bluffs to collapse.

In August 2019, three women were relaxing on the beach of Encinitas, California, north of San Diego, when the oceanfront bluff unexpectedly crumbled, showering them with tonnes of sandstone. One of the women, who had been celebrating her recovery from breast cancer, was killed instantly, while her sister and niece later died in the hospital.

That tragic event was neither the first nor the last bluff collapse in a scenic and densely populated, yet precarious, coastal region. Just a few kilometers to the south in Del Mar, a bluff collapsed following a rainstorm in 2016, undermining a busy coastal roadway. Sections of beachside cliffs came crashing down in the area in 2018, too, though no injuries were reported. In February this year, another bluff collapsed—along with the aging sea wall intended to hold it back—about 10 meters from the rail line that links San Diego and Los Angeles and serves nearly eight million passengers and numerous freight trains annually.

Collapsing coastal bluffs are a threat wherever waves, earthquakes, and intense rainstorms can destabilize steep seaside terrain, and with sea levels rising, this risk is increasing. It is a pronounced risk throughout many areas along the Pacific coast of North America, especially in Southern California. Considering that many lives, homes, and vital infrastructure are at stake, scientists have been trying to figure out exactly what causes such cliffs to fall…

[Read the entire story in Hakai magazine, published on 9 July. It was also republished in The Atlantic and Smithsonian magazine.]

New Space Radiation Limits Needed for NASA Astronauts, Report Says

Although meant to minimize risks to human health, the proposed new limits would still be exceeded by any conceivable near-future crewed voyage to Mars.

Astronaut Scott Kelly famously spent an entire year residing onboard the International Space Station (ISS), about 400 kilometers above Earth,and his NASA colleague Christina Koch spent nearly that long “on station.” Each returned to Earth with slightly atrophied muscles and other deleterious physiological effects from their extended stay in near-zero gravity. But another, more insidious danger lurks for spacefarers, especially those who venture beyond low-Earth orbit.

Space is filled with invisible yet harmful radiation, most of it sourced from energetic particles ejected by the sun or from cosmic rays created in extreme astrophysical events across the universe. Such radiation can damage an organism’s DNA and other delicate cellular machinery. And the damage increases in proportion to exposure, which is drastically higher beyond the protective cocoon of Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field (such as on notional voyages to the moon or Mars). Over time, the accrued cellular damage significantly raises the risk of developing cancer.

To address the situation, at NASA’s request, a team of top scientists organized by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine published a report in June recommending that the space agency adopt a maximum career-long limit of 600 millisieverts for the space radiation astronauts can receive…

[Read the entire story in Scientific American, published on 14 July.]

New freelance writings: space arms race, scientific racism, women in physics

In case you missed them, here’s a few pieces I’ve recently written and published for Medium, Nature, and Smithsonian magazine. Thanks as usual to my excellent editors! I’m only posting brief excerpts here, so if you’re interested, please check out the whole thing using the links below.

You can stay more up-to-date if you follow my electronic newsletter, Ramin’s Space!


Are We at Risk for a Space Arms Race?

The Pentagon’s space-based missile defense plans could escalate tensions with rival space powers.

On March 27, India tested its first anti-satellite weapon, an interceptor missile that blew up an Indian military satellite in space. The test put India in an exclusive club of nations — including the U.S., Russia, and China — that are building the capacity to shoot down both missiles and satellites. And the other members of the club aren’t happy.

On April 1, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine criticized India’s test, angry that the resulting debris may have reached the orbit of the International Space Station and other satellites.

“That is a terrible, terrible thing, to create an event that sends debris in an apogee that goes above the International Space Station,” Bridenstine said at a town hall meeting that was livestreamed on NASA TV. “And that kind of activity is not compatible with the future of human spaceflight that we need to see happen.”

Yet the future of human spaceflight looks increasingly militarized. The Department of Defense has declared its own plans to attach missile-detecting sensors on satellites, and more menacingly, to seriously consider building interceptors that could be deployed in space. If Congress approves new funding for these projects, the technology could encourage rivals to ratchet up their own space weapon capabilities, triggering an arms race that could make orbital wars with lasers and satellites a reality…

[Read the entire piece in Medium magazine, published on 18 April.]

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June freelance writings: A space arms race, space sustainability, and the damages of solitary confinement

In case you missed them, here’s a few new pieces I’ve written and published for Politico magazine, Smithsonian magazine, and Knowable magazine over the past month. Thanks as usual to all of my excellent editors. I’m only posting brief excerpts here, so please check out the whole thing using the links below. I also published a book review in Undark and an article in Quanta. If you’d like to stay up on my and others’ latest science writing, sign up for my new newsletter!


How Trump’s ‘Space Force’ Could Set Off a Dangerous Arms Race

The president says he wants to dominate the cosmos. But China and Russia aren’t just going to stand by.

The Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite constellation. (Credit: US Air Force)

“When it comes to defending America, it is not enough to merely have an American presence in space,” President Donald Trump said Monday as he announced the creation of a new “Space Force” to protect U.S. interests and assets in space. “We must have American dominance in space.”

Past American presidents may have thought the same, and acted accordingly, but rarely have they ever expressed this sentiment so brazenly. It’s yet another way Trump has broken with past precedent—and it could set off a dangerous arms race, potentially sparking a Cold War in space.

As one top expert on space security, Joan Johnson-Freese of the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, put it to me, “This will probably be seen as another indicator that the United States is moving towards a more militaristic position regarding space activity.”

Trump directed the Pentagon on Monday to establish a sixth branch of the military to focus on space, presumably separating personnel that concentrate on things like military satellites and their ground infrastructure from the Air Force…A separate plan for developing missile defense platforms to be deployed in space may be in the works as well, though, if Congress decides to fund it…

[Read the entire piece in Politico magazine, published on 22 June.]

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New freelance writings: searching for aliens, avoiding space war, and virtual reality addiction

In case you missed them, here’s a few new stories I’ve published. Thanks as usual to all my excellent editors.


To find aliens, we must think of life as we don’t know it

Artist’s impression of a planet orbiting in the TRAPPIST-1 system. (Image credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser.)

From blob-like jellyfish to rock-like lichens, our planet teems with such diversity of life that it is difficult to recognise some organisms as even being alive. That complexity hints at the challenge of searching for life as we don’t know it – the alien biology that might have taken hold on other planets, where conditions could be unlike anything we’ve seen before. ‘The Universe is a really big place. Chances are, if we can imagine it, it’s probably out there on a planet somewhere,’ said Morgan Cable, an astrochemist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. ‘The question is, will we be able to find it?’

For decades, astronomers have come at that question by confining their search to organisms broadly similar to the ones here. In 1976, NASA’s Viking landers examined soil samples on Mars, and tried to animate them using the kind of organic nutrients that Earth microbes like, with inconclusive results. Later this year, the European Space Agency’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter will begin scoping out methane in the Martian atmosphere, which could be produced by Earth-like bacterial life. NASA’s Mars 2020 rover will likewise scan for carbon-based compounds from possible past or present Mars organisms.

But the environment on Mars isn’t much like that on Earth, and the exoplanets that astronomers are finding around other stars are stranger still – many of them quite unlike anything in our solar system. For that reason, it’s important to broaden the search for life. We need to open our minds to genuinely alien kinds of biological, chemical, geological and physical processes. ‘Everybody looks for “biosignatures”, but they’re meaningless because we don’t have any other examples of biology,’ said the chemist Lee Cronin at the University of Glasgow…

[Read the entire piece on Aeon, published on 19 September.]

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Space mining is becoming a reality. But is it legal?

After months of work, I just published an essay about mining asteroids for Nautilus! I’m happy to hear your thoughts on it and to try to answer any questions. I’ve already received many responses, and I believe I’ve helped spark a debate on the issues involved.

I left out some details about the legal and policy issues in the Nautilus piece, mainly about the convoluted path the U.S.’s Space Act took before it was passed and about tension between it and international law. If you’re interested in that, read on!

Illustration by Maciej Frolow / Getty Images

Illustration by Maciej Frolow / Getty Images

Just a few years old, space mining companies like the Google-backed Planetary Resources and the Silicon Valley-based Deep Space Industries already managed to accumulate plenty of clout in financial and political circles. But they lacked any national or international legal foundation: the companies formed before it was legal to mine asteroids.

The industries’ fascinating legal saga began in September 2014. Its allies in Congress put forth the American Space Technology for Exploring Resource Opportunities In Deep Space Act, also known simply as the ASTEROIDS Act. It received considerable debate and criticism in the House Science Committee, which killed the bill. But then it quickly reincarnated as the Space Act of 2015 and again reached the committee the following spring. This time, they allowed no oral statements. Joanne Gabrynowicz, professor emerita and space law expert at the University of Mississippi, who had previously identified flaws in the bill’s predecessor, could now only submit written testimony. In spite of her and others’ objections, the committee passed the bill within a single day, after which it faced no more significant obstacles.

“My impression is that the people who wanted it got the law out there quickly to placate investors,” Michael Listner, lawyer and founder of the Space Law and Policy Solutions think tank, told me.

The space mining industry finally received the endorsement it needed when a bipartisan majority of Congress passed the Space Act last fall. The U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act—its full title—would legalize the private mining of asteroids, for U.S. companies anyway. It would also encourage commercial spaceflight and tourism, but that seems to be a secondary focus. As expected, President Obama signed the bill into law just before the Thanksgiving holiday. Perhaps it was still considered far-fetched or obscure, or it was overshadowed by federal budget debates and early presidential campaigns, but in any case, the game-changing law was enacted with little fanfare in the media.

Gabrynowicz had pointed out a fundamental inconsistency between the unprecedented legislation and international law. The United States, along with United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, Japan, China and many other countries had signed the 1967 Outer Space Treaty—before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon—which forbids the commercial exploitation of outer-space resources as well as the militarization of space. Analogous to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, it states, “Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” But the new U.S. law authorizes the president “to facilitate the commercial exploration and utilization of space resources to meet national needs.” This seems to me to be inconsistent at least with the spirit of the treaty, if not the letter. I noticed that it also authorizes the Department of Defense to “[protect] national security assets in space,” which appears to conflict with the international treaty’s ban on militarizing space.

The U.S. law even more directly violates the 1979 Moon Agreement, which applies to all “celestial bodies in the solar system” other than the Earth. It explicitly forbids any state or organization from taking natural resources from these extraterrestrial locales as their own, and it states that those exploring or exploiting these objects should not disrupt their environments. But only 16 countries are parties to the agreement, none of them major space-faring nations.

Legal proponents will try to argue that the Space Act of 2015 could be compatible with international law. A space mining corporation cannot actually own an asteroid, but U.S. law now gives it property rights—and federal protections—for resources it obtains from that asteroid. Presumably European, Chinese and Japanese signatories of the Outer Space Treaty are not pleased by these developments, as they are unable to regulate or engage in space mining efforts while their American counterparts get a head start. No moves have yet been made to modify or update the Outer Space Treaty. But in February 2016 the Luxembourg government announced incentives for investment in a new space mining industry in the country, where Deep Space Industries has already created a subsidiary, and Planetary Resources and SpaceX have expressed interest as well. This could be a sign that other countries will be soon drafting their own Space Acts, and the race will be on.

An artist's concept of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft preparing to take a sample from the near-Earth asteroid called Bennu. The mission is scheduled for launch this September. (Credit: NASA)

An artist’s concept of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft preparing to take a sample from the near-Earth asteroid called Bennu. The mission is scheduled for launch this September. (Credit: NASA)

[This is just an extended excerpt. Please see the full essay on Nautilus. Thanks to Brian Gallagher for help with editing and to Sarah Rabkin and Michelle Nijhuis for comments on earlier drafts.]

Book Review: “Leaving Orbit” by Margaret Lazarus Dean

First came the Apollo era. Following Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin, the first satellite and human in space, the United States leaped into the space race. Within 11 years of NASA’s formation, and with incredible public support, they managed to launch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the surface of the moon. The moon!


Then came the space shuttle era, also a time of lofty and grand missions. NASA astronauts flew the shuttles on 135 missions, to deploy space probes like the Hubble Space Telescope and to assemble the International Space Station. But all good things must come to an end, as they say. Margaret Lazarus Dean, in her new book, Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight, witnesses and chronicles the final flights of the Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis shuttles in 2011. For each of those three shuttles, she describes the visceral experience of watching the launches and landings, including the responses of diverse fellow onlookers at Cape Canaveral on the coast of Florida.

Dean reflects on the space shuttle program’s many impressive achievements, as well as its shortcomings and failures, in the case of the tragic explosion of Challenger in 1986 and the breakup of Columbia in 2003. (She previously wrote a novel about the Challenger disaster.) Throughout the book, she provides a record of a wide range of people grappling with the end of the era and wondering about what might come next.

Space shuttle Columbia lifts off from Launch Pad 39A on 12 April 1981. (Credit: NASA)

Space shuttle Columbia lifts off from Launch Pad 39A on 12 April 1981. (Credit: NASA)

She encounters both aspiring and accomplished astronauts—she’s starstruck as she meets Aldrin (and I don’t blame her). Dean also talks to space workers, as well as other writers and journalists, who are all somehow trying to figure how to put these momentous events into words. She makes many references to iconic writers, during what she considers the pinnacle of American spaceflight. Especially Norman Mailer (author of Of a Fire on the Moon), Tom Wolfe (The Right Stuff) and Oriana Fallaci (If the Sun Dies) clearly influenced her.

Dean sprinkles many telling and intriguing anecdotes throughout the book. At one point she quotes a conversation she overheard, in which a NASA public affairs person corrects a Reuters journalist, saying that it’s not the end of American spaceflight, but “the end of American spaceflight as we know it,” which seems to be a subtle distinction. She also points out that in spite of NASA currently accounting for a small fraction of the national budget, her university students overwhelmingly overestimated how much funding the agency actually receives. It gets about 0.4% of the national budget, but most of her students guessed it was more than one fifth! Maybe that demonstrates NASA’s ability to have a big impact and inspire the public imagination with relatively few resources.

NASA's logo, often affectionately referred to as the "meatball." (People refer to its less popular logo in the '80s as the "worm.")

NASA’s logo, often affectionately referred to as the “meatball.” (People refer to its less popular logo in the ’80s as the “worm.”)

Dean’s book is more a memoir than anything else. It’s often fascinating to read, but it feels too wordy and verbose at times. She includes far too many mundane or irrelevant details, including the drive to and from Florida, the motels she stays at (one reference to Mailer is enough there), and numerous texts and social media posts. Omar Izquierdo, a NASA technician, host and new friend, makes for an interesting character, but every single interaction with him doesn’t need to be included. It’s as if she documented in detail every step she took and every thought that popped in her head and shoehorned them in. She also writes many times about her husband and child, who made sacrifices so that she could make these trips; she raises important concerns, but they would belong more in a book more directly touching on work-life balance and gender equality. She and her editors could have cut 100 pages from this book, in my opinion, strengthening its impact without losing any substance.

A few times—maybe a few too many—Dean writes self-referentially about her own book. (Such a device can be effective in a comedy like The Muppet Movie, but I’m not sure how well it works here.) The point, it seems, is to pose a question to herself as much as to others involved in the shuttle program and commercial spaceflight: “I’m asking what it means that we went to space for fifty years and have decided not to go anymore,” she writes.

Dean’s book seems slightly late: it was probably written in 2011 and includes few developments since then. She briefly mentions NASA’s Space Launch System and Orion—scheduled to be launched in an uncrewed mission in 2018—and she describes SpaceX and other spaceflight companies, but this feels tacked on at the end.

I understand her skepticism about commercial spaceflight, and I share many of her concerns. She has three main criticisms: First, the big and daring spaceflight projects that she and many others support are, by definition, not good investments. “They are exploratory, scientific, ennobling, and expensive, with no clear end point and certainly no chance of making a profit.” Second, as long as spaceflight is run by a government agency, she says, any child can reasonably dream of flying in space one day. Third, it’s been part of NASA’s mandate to make its projects available to the public, but private companies have no such obligation.

I don’t think Dean means to diss NASA, but it does seem that way toward the end, as she seems to think ending the shuttle program was a huge mistake. But what’s done is done, and without the shuttle, NASA continues to accomplish a lot. In the past year alone, it deployed a satellite to study Ceres, the only dwarf planet in the asteroid belt; it flung a probe past Pluto, giving us the most detailed images ever of our diminutive cousin; it sent a spacecraft to observe Saturn’s moon Enceladus; and it recently completed a yearlong study of the astronaut twins, Mark and Scott Kelly.

Later in the book, she argues cynically (and to some extent, correctly, in my view) that support for the space program started as an accident, because of Sputnik, a new president, the Cold War, and German rocket designers like Wernher von Braun who fled to the U.S. instead of the Soviet Union.

In the end, however, her reflection turns into an almost obsessive nostalgia for a glorious past. This stifles our ability to take stock of where we are right now and how we got here, and then focus our efforts to plan and prepare for what comes next, which might include returning to the moon, journeying to Mars, and exploring beyond our solar system. Dean’s patriotism limits her too: space exploration requires international collaboration; it isn’t just by or for blue-blooded Americans. It’s for all people who want to join the party, including Russians, Chinese, Europeans, and everyone else.

Mourn the shuttle era in your own way, but then let’s move on with our lives and make the most of our current national and international space programs. We have lots of brilliant, clever and talented people and powerful tools to work with, and if we set our minds to it, our days of exploring space, including launching more people into the skies, will be far from over.

Finding Earth 2.0

In honor of Carl Sagan’s birthday, I figured I’d write a few thoughts I had about a fascinatingly unique conference I attended in the Bay Area last week. It was called “Finding Earth 2.0,” and it was organized by 100 Year Starship, a group partially funded by NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to plan for interstellar travel within the next century.

A potential spacecraft called Icarus Pathfinder would be powered by electric propulsion engines called VASIMR, taking it out to 1,000 times the distance between the Earth and Sun. (Credit: NBC News)

A potential spacecraft called Icarus Pathfinder would be powered by electric propulsion engines called VASIMR, taking it out to 1,000 times the distance between the Earth and Sun. (Credit: NBC News)

Like you might imagine such an organization, the conference speakers and attendees appeared rather eclectic, including astronomers and planetary physicists and science journalists—whom I’m usually hanging out with—as well as aerospace engineers, science fiction writers, business people, teachers, space enthusiasts, and many others. But everyone displayed an active interest in exploring the distant universe and imagining what our future might be like.

Dr. Mae Jemison, the first woman of color in space, heads the 100 Year Starship, and she gave a plenary talk. She pointed to many motivations people have for finding another Earth, including conundrums and challenges our planet and species face, such as limited resources, overpopulation, and our own behavior—perhaps a reference to climate change or nuclear weapons. I think we have many other compelling reasons for interstellar space exploration, but I’ve written about that here before.

I also saw many interesting perspectives and presentations about hunting for planets beyond the solar system, called exoplanets, including habitable ones or even inhabited ones. Dr. Jill Tarter, SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute co-founder and inspiration for Sagan’s protagonist in Contact (Dr. Arroway), gave a provocative presentation on attempts to detect “technosignatures” from distant planets. (She clarified that possessing technology doesn’t imply an intelligent civilization; however, technologies serve as a proxy for intelligence.) Advanced species on these planets could be giving off radio and optical signals that could reach the Earth, but we’d have to listen really really hard to hear them. But if they had a Dyson sphere or an “alien superstructure,” that would be easier.

Other astronomers and astrobiologists talked about their work on related subjects. Margaret Turnbull, also of the SETI Institute, spoke about the “massive harvest” of planets reaped by NASA’s Kepler probe, which confirmed more than 1,000 planets in our Milky Way neighborhood and which showed that about 1 in 5 stars has a planet in the “habitable zone.” Stephen Kane (San Francisco State University) made a convincing case that we should view the habitable zone boundaries as uncertain, and that many planets in the zone would actually be not very hospitable to life. Natalie Batalha (NASA Ames) argued that we should be open-minded about planets in other systems. In one of a few relationship-like quotes, she said, “In our search for a [Earth-like] soul-mate, we may be a bit myopic.” But she was talking about the fact that we have no planets between Earth and Neptune sizes here, while according to Kepler observations, such planets seem rather common throughout the galaxy. She and others also made the point that we need detailed imaging or spectra of planetary systems to learn more about their habitability.

Niki Parenteau (SETI) talked about her efforts to study exoplanets and spot signs of life, which would likely be microorganisms and would have to cover the world to be detectable. “There’s no one smoking gun for biosignatures,” she said. “We need multiple lines of evidence.” She looks for things like biogenic gases and certain planetary surface features. But for her, water is the #1 requirement…and then Morgan Cable, a nerdy joke-telling astrochemist from Jet Propulsion Laboratory, considered a range of other liquids life might be able to develop in, including ammonia, carbon dioxide, petroleum, and liquid hydrocarbons. She ended with her main argument: “NASA shouldn’t just be looking for places with liquid water.”

Artist's illustration of NASA's NEA Scout CubeSat, which is scheduled to launch aboard the maiden flight of the agency’s Space Launch System rocket in 2018. (Credit: NASA)

Artist’s illustration of NASA’s NEA Scout CubeSat, which is scheduled to launch aboard the maiden flight of the agency’s Space Launch System rocket in 2018. (Credit: NASA)

A bunch of people gave presentations about propulsion systems, trying to push the boundaries of space travel. I thought the most interesting one was by Les Johnson, Deputy Manager for NASA’s Advanced Concepts Office at Marshall Space Flight Center. In back-to-back talks, he described current efforts to design and construct giant solar and electric sails. The sails involve ultra-thin reflective materials that are unfurled in space and use solar energy to propel a spacecraft to the distant reaches of the solar system and beyond. In an important step toward that goal, Johnson and NASA engineers are currently building a solar sail for the Near-Earth Asteroid Scout mission to transport a CubeSat “nanosatellite” to study asteroids past Mars in two years. He and his colleagues are also currently testing electric sails for fast solar wind-powered spacecraft, which—if as powerful as hoped—could even send a probe to another star.

Finally, I saw a few strange talks at the conference, and I wasn’t sure what to make of them. For example, one person spoke about the new field of “astrosociology.” He avoided giving any specifics though, even though he had been discussing “deviant” behavior, and admitted after the talk that he had envisioned studying multi-year trips transporting tens of thousands of colonists beyond the solar system. Maybe for the 200 Year Starship! Unfortunately, the speaker had not considered small missions, such as handfuls of astronauts traveling to Mars or private ventures conducting asteroid mining. I’d imagine that such small groups of people stuck together for long periods could benefit from sociological study.

High-Definition Space Telescope: Our Giant Glimpse of the Future?

Where do you see yourself in a decade? What is your vision for two decades from now? What could you accomplish if you had billions of dollars and infrastructure at your disposal? A consortium of astrophysicists attempt to answer these questions as they put forward their bold proposal for a giant high-resolution telescope for the next generation, which would observe numerous exoplanets, stars, galaxies and the distant universe in stunning detail.

Artist’s conception of proposed proposed High-Definition Space Telescope, which would have a giant segmented mirror and unprecedented resolution at optical and UV wavelengths. (NASA/GSFC)

Artist’s conception of proposed proposed High-Definition Space Telescope, which would have a giant segmented mirror and unprecedented resolution at optical and UV wavelengths. (NASA/GSFC)

The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), an influential organization of astronomers from 39 mostly US-based institutions, which operates telescopes and observatories for NASA and the National Science Foundation, lays out its vision of High-Definition Space Telescope (HDST) in a new report this month. Julianne Dalcanton of the University of Washington and Sara Seager of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—veteran astronomers with impressive knowledge and experience with galactic and planetary science—led the committee who researched and wrote the 172-page report.

As the HDST’s name suggests, its wide segmented mirror would give it much much higher resolution than any current or upcoming telescopes, allowing astronomers to focus on exoplanets up to 100 light-years away, resolve stars even in the Andromeda Galaxy, and image faraway galaxies dating back 10 billion years of cosmic time into our universe’s past.

A simulated spiral galaxy as viewed by Hubble and the proposed High Definition Space Telescope at a lookback time of approximately 10 billion years. Image credit: D. Ceverino, C. Moody, G. Snyder, and Z. Levay (STScI)

A simulated spiral galaxy as viewed by Hubble and the proposed High Definition Space Telescope at a lookback time of approximately 10 billion years. Image credit: D. Ceverino, C. Moody, G. Snyder, and Z. Levay (STScI)

In the more recent past, the popular and outstandingly successful Hubble Space Telescope celebrated its 25th birthday a few months ago. Astronomers utilized Hubble and its instruments over the years to obtain the now iconic images of the Crab Nebula, the Sombrero Galaxy, the Ultra Deep Field, and many many others that captured the public imagination. Hubble continues to merrily float by in low-earth orbit and enables cutting-edge science. But the telescope required 20 years of planning, technological development, and budget allocations before it was launched in 1990.

For the newly proposed space telescope, some headlines describe it as NASA’s successor to Hubble, but it really constitutes a successor to a successor of Hubble, with other telescopes in between (such as the Wide-Field InfraRed Survey Telescope, WFIRST). If the astronomical community comes on board and if astronomers convince NASA and Congressional committees to fund it—two big “ifs” for big projects like this—it likely would be designed and constructed in the 2020s and then launched in the 2030s.

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), proposed two decades ago by AURA and now finally reaching fruition and set for launching in 2018, could be considered the HDST’s predecessor. All of these major projects require many years of planning and research; Rome wasn’t built in a day, as they say. James Webb scientists and engineers hope that, like Hubble, it will produce spectacular images with its infrared cameras, become a household name, and expand our understanding of the universe. Nevertheless, JWST has been plagued by a ballooning budget and numerous delays, and Congress nearly terminated it in 2011. When a few large-scale programs cost so many billions of dollars and years to develop, how do people weigh them against many smaller-scale ones that sometimes get sacrificed?

Approximately every ten years, members of the astronomical community get together and determine their set of priorities for the next decade, balancing large-, medium- and small-scale programs and ground- and space-based telescopes, given the budget realities and outlook. Back in 2001, they prioritized James Webb, and then a decade later they put WFIRST at the top of the list. For the next generation though, in the 2010 Decadal Survey (named “New Worlds, New Horizons”), they highlighted the need for a habitable (exo)planet imaging mission. Everyone loves planets, even dwarf planets, as revealed by the popularity of NASA’s missions exploring Pluto and Ceres this year.

Building on that report, NASA’s 2014 Astrophysics Roadmap (named “Enduring Quests, Daring Visons”) argued that much could be gained from a UV/optical/infrared surveyor with improved resolution, which could probe stars and galaxies with more precision than ever before. According to the AURA committee, the High-Definition Space Telescope would achieve both of these goals, taking planetary, stellar and galactic astronomy to the next level. Importantly, they also argued that astronomers should prioritize the telescope in the 2020 Decadal Survey, for which planning has already commenced.

How do scientists balance the need for different kinds and sizes of projects and missions, knowing that every good idea can’t be funded? Astronomers frequently disagree about how to best allocate funding—hence the need for periodic surveys of the community. They hope that what is best for science and the public will emerge, even if some scientists’ favorite projects ultimately aren’t successful. James Webb Space Telescope’s budget has been set to $8 billion, while the High-Definition Space Telescope would cost $10 billion or more, according to Alan Dressler of the Carnegie Observatories. This is big money, but it’s small compared to the cost of bank bailouts and military expenditures, for example. While the scientific community assesses which programs to focus on, we as a society need to determine our own priorities and how space exploration, astrophysics research as well as education and outreach are important to us. In the meantime, HDST scientists will continue to make their case, including in an upcoming event at the SPIE Optics & Photonics conference in San Diego, which I will try to attend.

Scientists and journalists alike frequently talk about Big Science these days. The recently published and much reviewed book by Michael Hiltzik about the physicist Ernest Lawrence describes its history since the Manhattan Project and the advent of ever-bigger particle accelerators. Big Science is here to stay and we clearly have much to gain from it. Only some Big Science ideas can be prioritized and successfully make the most of the effort and investment people put in them. Hubble exceeded all expectations; the High-Definition Space Telescope has astronomical shoes to fill.

A Bad Week for Commercial Spaceflight

The US commercial space industry did not fare well last week. Two accidents on 28th and 31st October highlight the risks, costs, and difficulties of spaceflight—as well as pointing to potential setbacks for commercial spaceflight. (If you’re interested, other news outlets have commented on these issues as well, such as here and here and here.) Pardon the self-promotion, but you can check out our discussion with Ken Kremer on a Weekly Space Hangout with Universe Today on the 31st for more information.

Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket

First, on Tuesday (the 28th), an unmanned 13-story rocket designed by Orbital Sciences Corp. exploded a few seconds after liftoff off the coast of Virginia at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. It carried a Cygnus capsule with more than 5,000 pounds (2,300 kg) of hundreds of millions of dollars of supplies and equipment, as well as school students’ science experiments. It was bound for the International Space Station (ISS) and was the first time a resupply mission contracted by NASA to a private company failed. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Though the flight facility is designed to handle explosion and fire, there was significant damage to the launch infrastructure.

Journalists were pretty close to the launch zone, and this video (tweeted by Pamela Gay) shows the launch, explosion, and fleeing from the potentially dangerous area (see also videos at LA Times):

It will take time to recover from this. And we will have to see how much this damages Orbital Science Corp.’s reputation and NASA’s efforts to outsource orbital flights. Four previous Antares flights, including three to the station, had launched successfully, and five resupply flights remain in the company’s multi-billion dollar contract, the next one being scheduled for April. This likely will be delayed though, and according to Orbital’s press release, they will implement a propulsion system upgrade previously planned for 2016. The loss of this supply vessel doesn’t pose an immediate problem for the ISS’s crew, which includes two from NASA, one from the European Space Agency (ESA), and three Russians. The second US supply line to the ISS is with Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), which has its next launch planned for 9th December. Although the ISS crew and their missions are not in any danger, this loss significantly affects Orbital Sciences, and more work and investment will be needed to proceed.

NASA held a press conference the same day as the accident, and their investigation into the cause(s) of the explosion and failed launch continues. These space-bound rockets have many components—many things that could go wrong—and there is considerable debris to examine, so it could take awhile. It’s not clear whether extra weight and length were factors in the accident, for example. A turbopump-related failure in one of the two Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ26 stage-one engines might have been the culprit. These liquid oxygen and kerosene fueled engines, produced during the Soviet era in Russia (with modifications), likely will be discontinued in future Antares rockets.

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo

And now for Act Two. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, part of a commercial space program founded by Richard Branson, suffered an “in-flight anomaly” on Halloween. It crashed midflight during testing and broke into several pieces over the Mojave Desert (north of Los Angeles, for you non-Californians). One pilot (Michael Alsbury) was killed and was unfortunately still strapped to his seat in the wreckage. The other pilot (Peter Siebold) successfully ejected at an altitude of around 50,000 feet and deployed his parachute. He was airlifted to a hospital and treated for injuries.

HIRES for web AP673441118926

After successful programs like Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, NASA has been attempting to privatize spaceflight and redefine its missions partly because of tighter budgets over the past couple decades. According to the NY Times and Lori Garver (former deputy administrator at NASA), public funds should be focused on activities that advance technology and provide public benefits to all, like planetary science. At the same time, Garver said, the government should encourage private companies to move ahead and find innovative ways of reducing costs.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) held a press conference last Sunday with more details. A new fuel was being tested on this flight, which may or may not have been an issue, and a “feathering mechanism” might have been deployed prematurely on the spacecraft, when it was traveling beyond the speed of sound. But the investigation is still in progress, and I’ll give you more details in the near future. In any case, our thoughts are with the pilots and their families.

So what does the future hold? I’m not sure, but it looks like Orbital Sciences (and SpaceX) and Virgin Galactic will continue their spaceflight programs, as they should. Both of these accidents are unfortunate and costly—to say the least—but they should not deter us from space exploration. We have much to gain from continuing these programs. At the same time, I think we should be careful about outsourcing too much; I believe that our best prospects lie with continuing to invest funding, resources, and personnel in NASA, ESA, and other space agencies, where our scientific expertise and oversight are the greatest, and where short-term setbacks are less likely to affect our long-term objectives or derail whole exploration programs.