Science has told us again and again – and this is a deeply humbling message – that the universe is not about us
Mars was supposed to be next. Surely the moon was just a steppingstone in the conquest of space. For many people who came of age during the Apollo era, it seemed reasonable to assume that in short order the entire solar system would be our stomping ground. Eventually we’d be visiting stars. “Star Trek,” which debuted in 1966, seemed a plausible vision of human destiny.
Half a century after Apollo 11, we have been forced again and again to recalibrate our expectations.
The exploration of deep space by flesh-and-blood human beings no longer looks inevitable. It doesn’t look especially affordable under plausible government budgets in the post-Space Race era, and private-sector dreams may never quite pencil out, as they say. Space travel remains dangerous; the catastrophic loss of two space shuttle crews proved that.
We are fairly exquisitely designed for this planet, and we’re fairly fragile physiologically when you get off this planet
There’s also been a more subtle revelation from half a century’s experience with spaceflight. Going into space has given us a greater appreciation of our connection to the Earth.
The human body goes haywire when hurled into space and away from the familiar environment of the Earth’s surface. We learned this by doing it. And our innate terrestrial nature is both biological and psychological: Astronauts in orbit spend a lot of their free time looking out the window, toward home.
Maybe the most important thing we’ve learned from the Space Age is that we’re Earthlings.
– – –
When astronaut Scott Kelly went into orbit in 2015 for a nearly year-long mission, his immune system initially went bonkers. It acted as if under attack by a virus. At the cellular level, his body was screaming: Where’s the gravity?
The fluids in his body wound up in the wrong places, an occupational hazard for astronauts. The effects include insomnia and blurred vision. And although his genetic code didn’t change, his gene expression – the creation of proteins that are the workhorses of the body – did undergo pronounced changes, with some genes turning off and others turning on.
Astronauts adapt to zero gravity and perform their jobs well. But then they face another jolt when they return to Earth. Kelly suffered from painful rashes, swollen legs, nausea and flulike symptoms. His gene expression mostly returned to its normal state, but not entirely. Kelly said he didn’t feel quite right for about eight months.
While Scott orbited the Earth, his twin brother, Mark, went about his business on the surface, pausing to let researchers sample his blood, urine, etc., for comparison with his sibling in space. NASA said its Twins Study revealed no showstoppers – nothing that would prevent an eventual human mission to Mars, the agency’s long-term goal.
But the study provided a reminder that space travel is brutal on human bodies, which are adapted for life on this particular planet. Our bones lose density. Muscles can atrophy. Astronauts have to exercise two hours a day to keep from wasting away. We can live in space, but that environment doesn’t really agree with us.
“We are fairly exquisitely designed for this planet, and we’re fairly fragile physiologically when you get off this planet,” study co-author Christopher Mason, a geneticist at Weill Cornell Medicine, told The Washington Post.
In the Hollywood version of spaceflight, no one ever worries about the composition of the air in the spaceship. But as Scott Kelly can attest, the air in the International Space Station can be a bit off. Kelly says high levels of carbon dioxide can cause malaise, especially in areas of poor air circulation.
The Kelly brothers participated in a recent NASA-sponsored media teleconference to discuss the Twins Study, during which one of the researchers, Stuart Lee, said the air on the ISS “is very close to what we have on the ground.” The CO2 levels, he went on, are 0.3% of the air, compared to about 0.03% on the Earth’s surface.
Scott Kelly quickly chimed in: “So it’s 10 times higher, Stuart. Right?”
“So, yeah, it’s 10 times higher,” Lee acknowledged.
Then there’s radiation. Earth’s magnetic field protects the ISS from much of the radiation of space. But an astronaut journeying to Mars would not have that protection and would be particularly vulnerable to “cosmic rays,” which are elementary particles of galactic origin that travel at nearly the speed of light and could potentially cause cancer, genetic damage and acute radiation sickness.
Human psychology is another area of concern for NASA. Scott Kelly could look out a window and see the Earth. He could call home. He could be in touch, in real time. But a one-way trip to Mars using current technology would take at least six months – and probably longer. A radio signal between the spacecraft and the Earth would take minutes to travel across the interplanetary distances, rendering a normal conversation impossible. Boredom is a danger. So are interpersonal conflicts among crew members.
“It’s a certainty when people go to Mars some of those people are going to suffer major psychiatric symptoms because that’s just the nature of the way people are,” said Twins Study co-author Andrew Feinberg of Johns Hopkins University.
A human being is a composite organism – a collaboration involving trillions of microbes, most of them residing in our gut. The microbes emerge from, and have intimate connections to, the Earth. Mars not only doesn’t have the kind of air, water, gravity and radiation that we’re used to, it also, almost surely, doesn’t have the right kind of bacteria.
None of this prevents a human mission to Mars or other places in space. Never underestimate the ingenuity of future generations. But the greatest technological leaps since Apollo have occurred in the realm of 0’s and 1’s – the digital revolution. Robots do well in space. Any mission to the moon or Mars has to justify a human presence.
NASA plans to put another rover on Mars soon, one designed to obtain soil samples that can someday be sent back to Earth robotically. It’s a scientific echo of what the Apollo astronauts did. The difference this time: No humans in the loop.
Alexa, bring us a Mars rock.
– – –
The most passionate advocates for space exploration say we have no alternative. They see it as an existential imperative, because bad things can happen to good planets (ask the dinosaurs that didn’t have a backup plan 66 million years ago when a giant rock hit the Earth). And humans could trigger their own demise: Someone could engineer a particularly bad germ. We’re already desperate to solve the climate crisis caused by human activity, and nuclear war remains a terrifying possibility.
The late Stephen Hawking was among the smart folks saying we need a fallback option. “Although the chance of disaster to planet Earth in a given year may be quite low, it adds up over time, and becomes a near certainty in the next 1,000 or 10,000 years,” Hawking said, according to a November 2016 Newsweek article. “By that time, we should have spread out into space and to other stars, so a disaster on Earth would not mean the end of the human race.”
Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin echoed that opinion in a recent op-ed in The Washington Post espousing “the great migration of humankind to Mars.” He wrote that we have no alternative: “[H]uman nature – and potentially the ultimate survival of our species – demands humanity’s continued outward reach into the universe. . . . We explore, or we expire.”
Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, has said that the central purpose of his company is to create a human civilization on Mars so that we can be a two-planet species. He is not talking about a mere Antarctica-style research outpost: He wants to build cities on Mars, a completely self-sustaining civilization, which would preserve humanity in case something dire happened to Earth.
We explore, or we expire
Musk and his brilliant engineers have achieved great success with SpaceX and the electric car company Tesla, and so people once skeptical of Musk’s bold talk tend to hedge their bets these days. Yes, he overpromises, but he is persistent.
Still, SpaceX and Musk can’t simply wave away the technological and budgetary challenges that have prevented NASA and every other space agency around the world from attempting a Mars mission. (Or maybe he can: When Musk was asked a couple of years ago about the radiation hazard in interplanetary space, he said he wasn’t worried about it. Problem solved!)
In 2017 President Donald Trump asked NASA’s acting administrator if the agency could send humans to Mars by 2020. Answer: Not a chance.
Mars is not an object parked in space beyond the moon. In his book “The Moon,” author Oliver Morton writes of the moon, “[It] is not just the nearest outpost of the elsewhere; it is also the furthest reach of here. It is in thrall to the Earth, its face cupped by the hands of gravity so strongly that it cannot turn its gaze away from ours.” Mars, however, is in thrall to the sun. Mars can be as much as 249 million miles from Earth. Almost any conceivable mission to Mars requires something like a 500-day stay on the Red Planet before the orbits of the planets permit a journey home.
Although Musk sees Mars as a fixer-upper planet, it would require a heck of a lot of fixin’. That’s the message from the other tycoon with a space company – Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin and owner of The Washington Post. Bezos favors the gradual migration of heavy industry into space, so that Earth can become a protected sanctuary. He doesn’t see Mars as a Plan B, saying in 2016: “Think about it: no whiskey, no bacon, no swimming pools, no oceans, no hiking, no urban centers. Eventually Mars might be amazing. But that’s a long way in the future. This planet is incredible.”
Scott Kelly has no delusions about Mars as a potential mulligan: “It will always be easier to take care of this planet than to make Mars into another Earth. It is not our lifeboat.”
The great physicist Freeman Dyson once hypothesized that this is the most interesting of all possible universes and that we exist to make it so. And maybe he’s right.
But science has told us again and again – and this is a deeply humbling message – that the universe is not about us.
What’s certain is that, in the foreseeable future, there’s no plausible do-over in space. The Earth is not disposable. Here we make our stand.
That’s what we learned from going into space.
Photos Show Evidence of Life on Mars: Insect- and Reptile-Like Fossils & Living Creatures – SciTechDaily
Analysis of images from Mars rovers shows insect- and reptile-like fossils, creatures according to Ohio University entomologist.
As scientists scramble to determine whether there is life on Mars, Ohio University Professor Emeritus William Romoser’s research shows that we already have the evidence, courtesy of photographs from various Mars rovers.
Dr. Romoser, who specializes in arbovirology and general/medical entomology, has spent several years studying photographs from the red planet that are available on the Internet. He found numerous examples of insect-like forms, structured similarly to bees, as well as reptile-like forms, both as fossils and living creatures. He presented his findings Tuesday, November 19, 2019, at the national meeting of the Entomological Society of America in St. Louis, Missouri.
“There has been and still is life on Mars,” Romoser said, noting that the images appear to show both fossilized and living creatures. “There is apparent diversity among the Martian insect-like fauna which display many features similar to Terran insects that are interpreted as advanced groups – for example, the presence of wings, wing flexion, agile gliding/flight, and variously structured leg elements.”
Romoser said that while the Martian rovers, particularly the Curiosity Rover, have been looking for indicators of organic activity, there are a number of photos which clearly depict the insect- and reptile-like forms. Numerous photos show images where arthropod body segments, along with legs, antennae, and wings, can be picked out from the surrounding area, and one even appears to show one of the insects in a steep dive before pulling up just before hitting the ground.
Individual images were carefully studied while varying photographic parameters such as brightness, contrast, saturation, inversion, and so on. No content was added, or removed. Criteria used in Romoser’s research included: Dramatic departure from the surroundings, clarity of form, body symmetry, segmentation of body parts, repeating form, skeletal remains, and observation of forms in close proximity to one another. Particular postures, evidence of motion, flight, apparent interaction as suggested by relative positions, and shiny eyes were taken to be consistent with the presence of living forms.
“Once a clear image of a given form was identified and described, it was useful in facilitating recognition of other less clear, but none-the-less valid, images of the same basic form,” Romoser said. “An exoskeleton and jointed appendages are sufficient to establish identification as an arthropod. Three body regions, a single pair of antennae, and six legs are traditionally sufficient to establish identification as ‘insect’ on Earth. These characteristics should likewise be valid to identify an organism on Mars as insect-like. On these bases, arthropodan, insect-like forms can be seen in the Mars rover photos.”
Distinct flight behavior was evident in many images, Romoser said. These creatures loosely resemble bumble bees or carpenter bees on Earth. Other images show these “bees” appearing to shelter or nest in caves. And others show a fossilized creature that resembles a snake.
Romoser, who was an entomology professor at Ohio University for 45 years and co-founded its Tropical Disease Institute, also spent nearly 20 years as a visiting vector-borne disease researcher at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. Between 1973 and 1998, Romoser authored and co-authored four editions of the widely-used textbook, “The Science of Entomology.”
Romoser noted that interpretations of insect- and reptile-like creatures he described may change in the future as knowledge of life on Mars evolves, but that the sheer volume of evidence is compelling.
“The presence of higher metazoan organisms on Mars implies the presence of nutrient/energy sources and processes, food chains and webs, and water as elements functioning in a viable, if extreme, ecological setting sufficient to sustain life,” he said. “I have observed instances suggestive of standing water or small water courses with evident meander and with the expected blurring of small submerged rocks, larger emergent rocks at the atmosphere/water interface, a moist bank area, and a drier area beyond the moist area. Water on Mars has been reported a number of times, including surface water detected by instrumentation on Viking, Pathfinder, Phoenix, and Curiosity.
“The evidence of life on Mars presented here provides a strong basis for many additional important biological as well as social and political questions,” he added. It also represents a solid justification for further study.”
Spacecraft record weird ‘music’ of our planet during solar storm – Yahoo Sports
But the strange music is actually created by waves in our planet’s magnetic field as it’s buffeted by a solar storm.
Solar storms are eruptions of charged particles from the sun – and the strange ‘song’ was heard after analysing data from the Cluster Science Archive.
Cluster consists of four spacecraft that orbit Earth in formation, investigating our planet’s magnetic environment and its interaction with the solar wind – a constant flow of particles released by the Sun into the Solar System.
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A team led by Lucile Turc, a former ESA research fellow who is now based at the University of Helsinki, Finland, investigated the effect of solar storms on our planet.
As part of their orbits, the Cluster spacecraft repeatedly fly through the foreshock, which is the first region that particles encounter when a solar storm hits our planet.
In the early part of the mission, from 2001 to 2005, the spacecraft flew through six such collisions, recording the waves that were generated.
The new analysis shows that, during the collision, the foreshock is driven to release magnetic waves that are much more complex than first thought.
“Our study reveals that solar storms profoundly modify the foreshock region,” says Lucile.
When the frequencies of these magnetic waves are transformed into audible signals, they give rise to an uncanny song.
In quiet times, when no solar storm is striking the Earth, the song is lower in pitch and less complex, with one single frequency dominating the oscillation.
“It’s like the storm is changing the tuning of the foreshock,” explains Lucile.
Sea Monsters in the Age of Dinosaurs being presented at Colchester Historeum
TRURO, N.S. —
Large creatures that once lived in the oceans and lakes will be the focus of an upcoming event at the Colchester Historeum.
‘Sea Monsters in the Age of Dinosaurs’ is an illustrated presentation by Danielle J. Serrato, curator of the Fundy Geological Museum and an educator in Earth sciences.
“I always had a love for the ocean, although I grew up landlocked in Texas,” she said. “My specialty is marine reptiles.”
Her favourite prehistoric creature is the elasmosaurus, an extremely long-necked being that lived underwater.
During the presentation, Serratos will talk about Mesozoic marine reptiles and their modern counterparts in film and folklore, including the Loch Ness Monster, and the mosasaur in Jurassic World.
“Sometimes changes are made so things will sound better in film,” she said. “In Jurassic Park there’s a lot of talk about velociraptors, but those were only about the height of turkeys. What they created for the film is deinonychus, but that name doesn’t sound as dangerous as velociraptor.”
She thinks people are drawn by the mystery and danger connected with prehistoric creatures.
“A lot of it has to do with the sense of curiosity humans have for world around them,” she said. “There’s a creative component because you have to use your imagination. You don’t have to be 100 per cent accurate because we’ve never seen these things and we never will. It’s probably a good thing we won’t see them because these were apex predators.
“We’re starting to realize how little we know about the soft tissues of these creatures, their colours and textures, whether they had fur, scales or feathers.”
Pictures of old movie posters, reconstructions and fossils will add to the presentation which will take place at the Colchester Historeum on Thursday, Nov. 21 at 7 p.m. The event is free for members, $5 for non-members.
Photos Show Evidence of Life on Mars: Insect- and Reptile-Like Fossils & Living Creatures – SciTechDaily
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