Europa Report

Hey everyone. I’m in central Australia working on a seismic survey crew at the moment so my blogs will become a little less frequent, but luckily I still have (limited) internet connection so I can still post!

I just finished watching Europa Report, which was, overall, quite entertaining. Without giving away too much just yet, it’s a movie about the first human mission beyond the moon. A crew of 6 are sent to test whether life exists on the or under the icy surface of one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa.

A tale of human sacrifice, one of the more memorable quotes was “Compared to the breadth of knowledge yet to be known, what does your life actually matter?” I too have wondered this, and as a scientist I easily sympathise with the sentiment. I would gladly lay down my life for science, and often wonder what I would do and sacrifice in the face of overwhelming odds if I were chosen for a manned Mars mission (I think it’s likely Mars will happen before Europa!).

I definitely appreciated the cameo appearance of Neil deGrasse Tyson talking about a mission to Europa, even if not originally filmed for the movie.

Despite this moving quote and underlying theme, there were just far too many scientific flaws for me to ignore. I’m used to seeing unrealistic technology in sci-fi movies, but not blatant breaking of the laws of physics.


First, the crew were maintaining near instantaneous communication with their control centre on Earth for much of the mission. As far as several months into the journey, near Mars, there did not seem to be any delay in voice. Light takes as little as 4 minutes to travel from Earth to Mars (then 4 minutes back) and as much as 24 minutes. Even at the Moon the delay would be about 1 second either way. But that’s ok, maybe humanity in this near-future society has found a way to achieve faster than light communication.

Europa. The red patches and streaks are likely mineral rich zones. "Europa-moon" by NASA/JPL/DLR - (TIFF image link). Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -
Europa. The red patches and streaks are likely mineral rich zones. “Europa-moon” by NASA/JPL/DLR – (TIFF image link). Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

Once the crew landed on Europa, I was looking forward to seeing the crew float around in the low gravity. Europa does have the mass of about 0.008 Earths after all, giving a gravity of 1.3 m/s/s, slightly lower than our own moon’s. Nope. They were stomping about and lugging equipment like they were being accelerated at a casual 9.8 m/s/s.

Speaking of landing on Europa, why did they need to send five crew members to the surface anyway? Why did they need to send anyone down? Surely the whole sample collection mission could have been done with robotics. But then if that’s the case, why send humans to Europa in the first place? The only benefit would be that humans could have a quicker response time to tweak the robotics and react to problems. But even that seems like an unduly large risk.

Last, the crew, especially the science team, spent way too much dialogue talking about how they were going to run tests or analysis on data they had just acquired (Which yielded ground breaking results in seconds. So much for data quality control!). Groan. People look at me strange when I start saying that in a lab!

Besides all that it was an enjoyable 90 minutes! But I wouldn’t watch it again. 7/10.

How to save the world with space travel

The title of this article might sound provocative and reminiscent of Interstellar, but it’s much simpler than that. Apparently.

Today I’m summarising the paper published in Acta Astronautica by Patrick Collins and Adriano Autino (full reference and link at end of article).

The authors argue for the development of an industry based around passenger space travel, arguing that is could be economically and socially very beneficial. It would create a use for half a century of technological development and sharply reducing the cost of space travel by creating economies of scale, making other activities in space cheaper and even profitable. The paper rather boldly finishes the abstract with the following statement:

The paper discusses the scope for new employment, stimulating economic growth, reducing environmental damage, sustaining education particularly in the sciences, stimulating cultural growth, and preserving peace by eliminating any need for “resource wars”.

Wow, all that just by creating a space tourism industry? Let’s back up for a moment.

The authors argue that if German rocket development continued as it had at the time of 1942 when they achieved first successful spaceflight, fully reusable sub-orbital passenger flights could have been feasible using reusable, piloted spaceplanes by 1950. Under this scenario, passenger travel services to and from low Earth Orbit would have been feasible by the 1960s. Instead, rocket development was primarily focused on producing thousands of long-range missiles during the cold war.

Because of this, launch vehicles were based on rockets, rather than passenger vehicles as aircraft had been. This focus meant that launch vehicles had safety and cost/passenger more aligned with missiles than passenger vehicles.

Slightly related, check out this video compilation of early rocket failures I’ve been itching for an excuse to share.

The mobile phone is used as an example of faster than predicted uptake of a new technology, and the argument seems to be that therefore space tourism and travel will take off faster than expected. But not all technology works like that (one only need look at the Segway for a technology that went in the opposite direction).

Image from
Image from

It is argued that even a small government investment into the personal spaceflight industry would yield high returns, and with investments of around 1% of what governments give to space agencies. This is “utterly negligible compared to the trillions that they have given to banks during 2008-9.

Starting from today, in order to achieve the scale of activity shown in Fig. 1 over the next 30 years, government funding [required is] equivalent to about 10% of space agencies’ budgets, or some € 2 billion per year… Thereafter most of the funding would come from private companies, just as airline and hotel companies finance their own growth today.” I’m always suspicious of anyone who says ‘It wouldn’t cost that much money to fund, and the benefits are huge!’ If that were the case, there must be good reasons governments aren’t doing this already. Sure there are vested interests, which is partly why it has taken so long for governments to get on board with renewable energy, but there must be some reason.

Cost estimates from several sources indicate that once the space travel industry grows to 1 million passengers/year (no small figure!) prices could fall to € 5000 for sub-orbital flights and € 20,000 for orbital flights. Much cheaper than it is now, to be sure, but I still wouldn’t be signing up for leisure trips at these prices. Sure, some will, but I wonder if it will still be the domain of millionaires who have a bit too much money on their hands. And if so, how will the industry grow to 1 million passengers/year?

Don’t get me wrong, this would all be great, and as the authors say, “orbiting hotels seem likely to create the first market for non-terrestrial materials like ice, water, oxygen and hydrogen…”, which, as an asteroid mining researcher, sounds pretty good to me. I’m just sceptical and playing devil’s advocate a little.

I’ll skip over the employment and economic growth sections to get to the areas I’m more familiar with. “Economic development in space… could contribute greatly… to solving world environmental problems.” This is proposed through a space-based solar power (SSP) supply (which would become much cheaper with lower space travel costs) and carbon-neutral space travel (utilising the SSP).

The use of solar power satellites for reducing the severity of hurricanes… In the extreme case… SSP might even include a role in the stabilisation of climate.” I haven’t heard this form of geoengineering proposed for Earth (similar ideas are proposed to terraform Mars, see my article here), but it seems awfully reminiscent of spraying particulate matter into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight and other extreme geoengineering solutions to climate change for 2 reasons. One, we don’t know what the potential negative implications are, and two, these types of solutions should really be a last resort in case we can’t get our shit together and mitigate climate change by just reducing greenhouse gas emissions. I’ve heard it argued that having geoengineering solutions as a backup may make people and policy less motivated to act now to stop climate change.

There is something to be said for having more humans look at our planet from a new perspective. One of my favourite quotes is by astronaut Edgar Mitchell who said “From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’

The authors also argue that having a space based economy would eventually mean that more of Earth’s industry would operate outside the biosphere. I’m not so convinced that there would be enough industry in the near term for that to make a difference, and surely an expanding space economy would equal an expanding ground-based economy.

Flying past education, more space travel means more young people fascinated by science, technology and engineering, yes of course… Culture benefits… Ah, world peace and preservation of human civilisation.

The major source of social friction, including international friction, has surely always been unequal access to resources.” The argument is that if we expanded into space and tapped into the vast resources available there, we wouldn’t need to have ‘resource wars’ on Earth. I’m iffy about that. It’s a nice idea, and would most likely reduce wars, but even if everyone had equal access to resources, someone would want more than their equal share.

The final argument is that having a thriving space economy not just around Earth, but on the moon, on Mars and even beyond would reduce the chance that humanity is wiped out by a single catastrophic event. I agree with this completely, and this is what Elon Musk is working towards with his plans to colonise Mars. Given the vast potential future number of human lives, it would be selfish to not try to reduce existential risk. Neil Bowerman from the UK who I met recently in Melbourne is working on various forms of existential risk, and his website is worth looking at if you want to read more about that.

I’ve been purposely pessimistic throughout this article, but I truly hope for all of the arguments for a space economy that I’ve mentioned come to fruition. It’s one of the reasons I am a space science researcher; it’s what drives me to work every day.

Until next time.

Reference: Collins, P. & Autino, A. 2010, What the growth of a space tourism industry could contribute to employment, economic growth, environmental protection, education, culture and world peace, Acta Astronautica, v. 66, pp. 1553-1562.

Unfortunately the article may be behind a paywall if you are not affiliated with a research institute or paying for a subscription. Welcome to science!

Australia’s role in an asteroid industry

On the 13th of June 2010, in the Australian outback, the first successfully returned asteroid samples touched down. The Hayabusa 1 mission suffered major technical setbacks, yet many scientific insights were still able to be gleaned from the tiny fragments of the S-type asteroid 25143 Itokawa. The partnership between Australia and Japan for this mission yielded remarkable results and set a top example for future sample return missions. Already, Hayabusa 2 is en route to asteroid 1999 JU3 for another sample return mission, arriving in 2018 and back on Earth in December 2020.

Japan has of course asked Australia if they can land their samples in Australia again. Australia’s response has supposedly been one along the lines of ‘We’ll think about it!’ Given the vast potential for the future of scientific sample return and asteroid mining, it is astounding that Australia take such a passive stance to such a remarkable opportunity, yet is typical of Australia’s space policy of late. If Japan goes elsewhere to land their samples, that would likely be a disaster for future partnerships with Australia.

When the regular iron, nickel and platinum group metal shipments start landing in another country which then reaps the benefits to their transportation and infrastructure industries, perhaps Australia will realise its mistake.

Protecting astronauts from radiation

One of the main arguments for not sending humans to Mars yet is the dangers of interplanetary radiation. Luckily the Earth’s magnetic field protects us and low orbit astronauts from solar radiation, but unfortunately en route to Mars we lose this natural protection.

Metal is not very good at protecting from radiation, so some engineers have suggested surrounding living quarters (or at least one emergency room for high intensity events) with water which is much more effective at blocking radiation. Dr Robert Zubrin has even proposed surrounding a room with a certain human waste product produced mid-flight that happens to contain a high percentage of water. Might as well use it if it’s there! With this level of shielding, the total radiation exposure is expected to be low enough that a 6 months journey would give you a lower increased risk of cancer than regularly smoking.

CERN scientists are producing an experimental magnetic shield technology utilising the same superconducting coils used in the Large Hadron Collider (click here for the full article on IFLS). The end effect would be to deflect incoming particles in a way similar to the Earth’s magnetic field. While this technology has some way to go before being placed on a spaceship, the existence of the above combination of technologies and techniques should by now be sufficient to put to rest at least this one fear of sending humans to Mars.

Until next time.

Mars, Pluto and protecting Earth from asteroids

Hey everyone, just a quick post for today to summarise some stuff I’ve read that I thought was pretty cool.

Apparently the cost of travelling to the Moon can be reduced by a factor of around 10; down to $10 billion US from $100 billion US. Utilising water and hydrogen on the lunar surface as fuel, this can also significantly reduce the cost of travelling elsewhere in the Solar System. This of course flies in the face of Dr. Robert Zubrin’s claim that we don’t need to go back to the Moon to get to Mars. The study says that in 10 to 12 years, a four-person industrial base on the Moon could be built at a cost of $40 billion US. Of course, as the study admits, the fuel resources are not guaranteed, and some kind of exploration would have to be undertaken to prove their existence in quantities large enough to be worth extracting. Check out the summary article here or the report here. The report is a long read and I’m still working my way through it; I’ll put up my own summary when I’ve finished.

This article by Tanya Harrison explains how some of the cool surface features at Mars’ south pole formed, and tell you how YOU can help map Mars! Click here to check out the Zooniverse project that puts you in the scientists’ chair to pick surface features on imagery taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

So it turns out Pluto is red, and the reason is ‘tholins’. What are tholins? They’re basically complex organic molecules. Find out more about these and the implications here.

Finally, the B612 Foundation is worth looking into if you haven’t already heard of it. Simply put, they aim to enhance our capability to protect Earth from future asteroid impacts which can be potentially catastrophic for our civilisation through science, technology, advocacy and education.

Until next time.

Asteroid mining economics

Hey everyone. I’ve got a few asteroid mining articles to talk about. This article by Jonathan O’Callaghan discusses the asteroid mining plans of Planetary Resources Arkyd 3 Reflight (A3R) CubeSat, which will spend 90 days in orbit testing electronic systems and software. This is an early step in the plans of Planetary Resources to return commercial quantities of resources from asteroids to Earth. The article is somewhat critical of the reality and likelihood of turning a profit through asteroid mining, citing ‘market saturation’ as the reason. Basically by drastically increasing the supply of platinum group and rare earth metals in the market the price will drop (and some asteroids are estimated to have a LOT of PGM and REMs! Atlantis has a total estimated resource value of over 42 trillion dollars!). Therefore the profitability of the PGM and REM industry, both terrestrial and off-Earth, will plummet.

Not a bad argument, and that’s certainly highly likely, but I think the author misses one of the key opportunities of acquiring resources from asteroids. They are already in space. Given that, by my last reading of the value, it costs $50,000 US to put 1 kilogram of material in space due to fuel costs, being able to acquire resources in space and bring them to orbit for less than $50,000 per kg would be a huge boon to the space exploration industry. Even if we can only create fuel initially (by mining water ice on asteroids and using electrolysis to break it down into hydrogen and oxygen, which can then be used as fuel and oxidiser) this can drastically reduce space travel costs. Not to mention that it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to keep a satellite in a stable orbit, making the potential market for space-based fuel huge. Eventually we may even be able to utilise nickel and iron to directly manufacture space equipment in orbit. This article discusses another way that an asteroid mining company can make money. To overcome the market saturation issue, a company could prepare to mine a large volume of PGMs from an asteroid then sell PGM futures, essentially a contract for assets bought at agreed prices but delivered and paid for later. Then when the market is flooded and the price of PGMs drops, they swoop in and buy up all the now cheap terrestrial PGM mining and processing business and infrastructure using their asteroid money. They can then just announce that, due to the price drop, they won’t be mining any more asteroids. The prices will increase and hey presto they’ve just acquired a near monopoly on the terrestrial PGM business. All perfectly legal. Apparently. I think it would be a missed opportunity to only see asteroid mining as returning a resource to Earth. There are other potential ways for an asteroid mining company to supplement their profit. For example, the first company to regularly send probes to asteroids and return material could partner with research organisations and sell data and samples. For more about Planetary Resources’ plan to develop asteroid resources, check out their site here and their Youtube video here on the potentially trillion dollar size of the market for fuel in space. Until next time. Note – I got my figure for the value of Atlantis from Asterank, the Asteroid Database and Mining Rankings.

Mars – Colonising and terraforming

I just finished reading Dr Robert Zubrin’s The Case for Mars (TCFM), which I bought from the man himself when he was last in Adelaide. Dr Zubrin is the president of the US Mars Society, a group which advocates sending a manned mission to Mars. Zubrin creates a rather compelling case for why we should send such a mission and how we could do it. The book is somewhat anti-NASA with the author expressing his frustration that we could get to the Moon in the 1960’s, yet can’t get back today, let alone get to Mars. There is a recurring theme that we are doing less with more than our space faring predecessors. I’ll cover several key ideas of the book, including the plan to get to Mars, then how to colonise and terraform the red planet, and add my own ideas.

Mars - Image from
Mars – Image from

Zubrin’s plan to put humans on Mars is dubbed the Mars Direct Plan. A bit of background: due to the rate at which Earth and Mars orbit relative to each other, the ideal launch window for a mission to Mars opens up once every 2 years. For a mission with reasonable propulsion capability, it should take around 6 months to get there. One of the biggest complaints about sending a human mission to Mars is the fact that it would be too hard to bring all the fuel you need to launch back to Earth from Mars’ surface. So – going to Mars would be a death sentence, so to speak – a little off-putting for some. The Mars Direct mission utilises in-situ propellant generation, creating a fuel from Mars’ atmosphere via a series of chemical reactions using a feedstock of a small quantity of fuel brought from Earth. This means that we don’t have to bring the fuel with us, and we can return humans to Earth.

We start by sending an unmanned Earth Return Vehicle (ERV) to Mars with in-situ propellant generation capabilities. This travels for 6 months then lands. It spends the next 18 months generating fuel. By this time, we are about ready for the next launch window. We remotely test the ERV to make sure it’s good to go for return, then send the first human mission and another ERV. The second ERV can act as a spare if the first doesn’t work, but more importantly can repeat the same process to prepare for the next human mission in 2 years.

I could go on at length about the numerous technical aspects. You can either trust me that Zubrin does a good job at covering all the bases or you can read the book yourself! But note that this plan doesn’t necessarily involve futuristic technology. A lot of the infrastructure required (including the in-situ propellant generation) exists now.

One idea proposed to encourage Mars exploration is dubbed the ‘Gingrich Approach’. This involves creating a series of challenges, each with its own cash prize, culminating in the ultimate prize of ‘Be the first to send a crew to Mars and return the crew members safely to Earth‘ with a reward of $20 billion US, plus $1 million per person for each day spent on the Martian surface, up to a maximum bonus of $5 billion. Not bad! I’d certainly put my hand up to spend 18 months on Mars for $1 million a day! Similar competitions exist, such as the Google Lunar xPrize. The idea is to create a financial incentive for private entities to explore Mars and develop the technology required. This would likely be a cleaner, more efficient way than directly funding the mission through a space agency. The country in question (in this case USA) would offer the prize at tax-payer expense, but the benefits to jobs and the economy would be huge, not to mention furthering science, and if no one succeeds, the tax-payer doesn’t cough up a cent.

One idea that came out of TCFM was to ‘sell’ blocks of land on Mars (of which there is 144 million square kilometres), just as tracts of land in Kentucky were sold for large sums of money a hundred years before settlers arrived. This would encourage the exploration of Mars as investors push for development of the planet in the hope that the value of their Martian territory increases in value as miners look to lease the land and property developers look to purchase it in the future. This would require the creation of some international body whereby all countries agree on the legality and authority of individuals owning parts of Mars. Why not go one step further and use the money raised to just fund a Mars mission? Zubrin thinks it should only cost $4-6 million for a private entity. At a value of just $20 an acre (around 4,000 square metres), Mars would be worth $700 billion. Or you could, I don’t know, solve a whole bunch of problems. Whatever. While we’re at it lets start selling off other planets, moons, asteroids, stars… We could have a whole swatch of money from cashed up investors to do with what we like. Cash which probably would not have been spent anyway.

The concept of terraforming Mars is certainly plausible enough. Essentially, the theory is that there is carbon dioxide and other gas locked in the polar ice caps and beneath the surface in permafrost. The aim is to heat up a small area of an ice cap using one of several methods (my favourite is a giant mirror near Mars to reflect and focus sunlight – read TCFM for more details!), which releases some of the gas, thickening the atmosphere and trapping in more heat. Eventually enough gas is released that this triggers a ‘runaway’ effect which finishes melting the rest of the ice itself over a time scale of decades to centuries, eventually making the atmospheric pressure high enough to wander about without a full space suit. The air still won’t be breathable though, so then we’d have to introduce plants to turn some of the carbon dioxide into oxygen.

While I confess I don’t fully grasp some of the atmospheric and climate system modelling covered in TCFM, we have certainly achieved a version of ‘terraforming’ by accident here on Earth over the course of the industrial revolution, raising the carbon dioxide concentration from 280 to 400 parts per million (0.028-0.04%) and increasing surface temperature. Imagine what we could do when we actually try to achieve such changes. This brings me to an important question: should we terraform another planet?

It’s a difficult one to answer, and I don’t pretend to know the answer, but there are a lot of clever people working on this sort of thing, and I’m sure I’ll write a blog entry devoted to terraforming in the future.

Regarding the simpler case of accidentally transporting Earth-based microbes to Mars and ‘contaminating’ the planet, Zubrin raises the interesting point that unsterilized Earth originating material is already raining down on Mars, possibly seeded with organisms, just as Mars rock rains down on Earth (at the rate of around 500 kg per year) as the result of material flung into space from asteroid impacts and large volcanic eruptions. Following on from this is the realisation that perhaps life on Earth originated on Mars.

Zubrin appeals to our humanity in that we as humans have a need to explore the next frontier, and Mars is just that.

One world will be just too small a domain to allow the preservation and continued generation of the diversity needed not just to keep life interesting, but to assure the survival of the human race.

I wonder… does Zubrin refer to the innate human need to expand and consume more resources? If that is truly necessary for human survival as a species, we will eventually consume our entire Solar system in the not too distant future. Rocky planets, asteroids and gas giants alike will one by one fall to humanity’s conquest. Is it impossible for us as a species to be sustainable? Zubrin seems to think that humanity is not doomed because the universe is vast, its resources are infinite, and technology is advancing at an ever increasing rate. I’ll leave you all with that thought, and some of my favourite quotes from the The Case for Mars.

To summarize in Star Trek terminology, what a piloted Mars mission needs are two “Scottys” and two “Spocks”. No “Kirks,” “Sulus,” or “McCoys” are needed

Just as the example of nineteenth-century America changed the way the common man was regarded and treated in Europe, so the impact of progressive Martian social conditions may be felt on Earth as well as on Mars.”

Until next time.

Anyone interested in reading more about or joining the Mars Society can do so here:

Making history with Pluto

Last night I watched the live stream from NASA TV of the New Horizons team and onlookers as a space probe reached Pluto for the first ever time. There were no images at the time, as the radio signals take over 5 hours to reach Earth from Pluto. Also, as I found out last night, to reduce the risk of equipment failure New Horizons can only send data back to Earth when it is not doing science and taking photos. The antenna itself to return data to Earth does not move, and so it must be pointed at Earth by turning the probe itself, and therefore the science instruments away from Pluto. Despite this, the atmosphere was incredible, with many crying for joy.

The first images have come in, and courtesy of the xkcd web-comic we have our first geological interpretation of Pluto.

In all seriousness, I’d like to turn your attention to the so-called heart of Pluto. This incredibly large patch of Pluto’s surface appears almost completely devoid of surface features. Scientists are already speculating that this is due to ongoing geological processes at work under the surface. For this to be the case, Pluto must remain quite geologically active today – rather unusual for such a small planetary body! If the surface had not been recently active, this area should be riddled with craters from asteroid and comet impacts like the rest of the surface.

One possible explanation that comes to mind is in the form of the Lunar mare, the large, dark basaltic planes on the Moon formed by volcanic eruptions. These eruptions are thought to be the result of asteroid impacts that had enough force to induce widespread volcanism on the surface. These areas are relatively smooth as the young volcanism covers any trace of impacts.

The heart has roughly the right shape to have been caused by several such events, but it is unusual that the region is a lighter colour than the rest of the dwarf planet. This could possibly be the result of a more felsic magmatism? Or I could be way off. Comment your thoughts below!

Until next time.

Pluto, measuring gravity with probe swarms and more!

A lot of exciting space science news coming in this weekend! Lets start with this project brief from Johns Hopkins University.

The proposal is to use a series of orbiting probes and a mothership to measure the gravity field of an asteroid or comet, and use this information to model the internal structure. Modelling the interior of small planetary bodies is something that we haven’t achieved yet as a species, simply because most of our exploration tools focus on large scale and surface features. We haven’t been able to put a drill hole into the centre of an asteroid yet!

Scientists are turning to remote sensing techniques like gravity, ground penetrating radar and radio tomography (think penetrating an asteroid with lightwaves of different frequencies and measuring the signal returning signal bouncing off different internal structures) to cheaply gather data on an asteroid’s interior.

In the above proposal the mothership will precisely monitor the position of the orbiters as they rotate the asteroid. Even a small change in orbit will reveal changes in density which can be caused by heavier or lighter material and empty spaces within. The combined data will be used to build a picture of the asteroid’s interior. This technique is already shown to be feasible through a series of simulations.

The benefits of such a project include the mothership being able to perform other experiments simultaneously, even leaving room to send a lander to the surface.

My only concern is in accurately tracking the position of the orbiters with respect to the asteroids surface. On Earth we need 4 GPS satellites to provide accurate location coordinates.

In other news, an incredible new photo reveals signs of geological features on Pluto, making a geophysicist like myself giddy with excitement. Even with a resolution of 27 kilometres, breathtaking new features can already be made out.

I think my reaction can be neatly summarised by this photo of science team members.

While it is unlikely that Pluto is still geologically active due to its small size, it seems apparent that it underwent a series of events leaving clues on its surface to its past.

As New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern said, “After nine and a half years in flight, Pluto is well worth the wait.”

Different materials reflect various wavelengths of light in different proportions. As a result, each material has its own characteristic spectral signature.

Even with the most advanced telescopes, the light from distant planets beyond our solar system constitute a single pixel. This makes it hard to look for life, as the light signature from a planet gives us only the average of the near side of the planet.

Researchers from the University of Washington and the Virtual Planetary Laboratory published a paper in May in Astrobiology. They have found that if an organism with nonphotosynthetic pigments (which use light for things other than energy) cover enough of a planet’s surface, their influence on the spectral signature could be strong enough to be detected by a new generation of telescopes currently in development.

This possibility has been overlooked in previous searches for life, and while there are some difficulties with this method, it certainly broadens our ability to detect life at great distances.

A link to the original paper can be found here.

Until next time.

New Horizons – Journey to Pluto

After 9 years, only 5 days remain until New Horizons performs its flyby of Pluto!

Time to brush up on our (my) knowledge of this ex-planet.

“Did you know that until very recently, the best images we had of Pluto were just a few pixels in size? That’s right: those pictures you have in your head of what Pluto looks like are mere artists’ impressions.”


During New Horizons’ close encounter we will see imagery revealing details as small as 50 metres across. For a sneak peak at what’s in store, check out this photo New Horizons took as it passed Jupiter.

Jupiter and Io taken by New Horizons in 2007 - image sourced from
Jupiter and Io taken by New Horizons in 2007 – image sourced from

New Horizons will pass as close as 12,500 km from Pluto, taking high resolution imagery as it floats by. It will take as long as 16 months to return 1 day worth of photos to Earth due to the probes’ low bandwidth!

I’m excited to see what insight we can get into the geology of Pluto with these images. Given how little we know about it, the little data we get from the imagery and New Horizons’ other equipment will surely yield some incredible discoveries!

Unfortunately, after Pluto, New Horizons is destined for a lonely journey through the Kuiper Belt, an icy ring of debris beyond Neptune. While there are millions of objects in this belt, they are few and far between, leaving New Horizons very unlikely to come into contact with one.

From there it will be on to the Oort cloud, and finally,  interstellar space.

For a more detailed summary of Pluto, check out this article by ABC News.

Until next time.