Unmasking a Monster: A ‘Stunning Confirmation’ of Black Hole Theory

The Event Horizon Telescope’s image of M87* is so good that theorists thought it was too good to be true.

This feature was originally published on April 10 by the University of Waterloo as a part of their public release about Professor Avery Broderick’s theoretical work that led to the first ever image of a black hole. Written by Ian O’Neill, edited by media relations manager Chris Wilson-Smith.

When Avery Broderick initially saw the first image from the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), he thought it was too good to be true. After playing a critical role in the project since its inception in 2005, Broderick was staring at his ultimate quarry: a picture-perfect observation of a supermassive black hole in another galaxy. Not only was this first image sweet reward for the dedicated global effort to make the impossible possible, it was a beautiful confirmation of Broderick’s predictions and the 100-year-old theories of gravity they are based upon.

“It turns out our predictions were stunningly close; we were spot-on,” said Broderick. “I think this is a stunning confirmation that we are at least on the right track of understanding how these objects work.”

For Broderick, a professor at University of Waterloo and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, and a key member of the international Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration, this wasn’t just an image that proved his theoretical models correct, it was the beginning of a historic journey into the unknown, with potentially revolutionary consequences that will reverberate through science and society as a whole.

Making the Impossible Possible

On April 10, the global collaboration showcased the first image of the supermassive black hole in the core of the massive elliptical galaxy M87. The image shows a ghostly bright crescent surrounding a dark disk, a feature that surrounds the most gravitationally extreme region known: a black hole’s event horizon. This first image isn’t only proof that humanity now has the ability to probe right up to the edge of an event horizon, it’s a promise that future observations will help us better understand how supermassive black holes work, how they drive the evolution of their galactic hosts and, possibly, reveal new physics by finally unmasking the true nature of gravity itself.

To Broderick, who has always been fascinated by the undiscovered, it’s mysteries like these that give him the passion to understand how the universe works – an adventure that is an important part of the human story.

“Black holes are the most extreme environments in the universe, so naturally I was hooked for as long as I can remember,” he said. “Nowhere in the universe is there a more perfect laboratory for pushing back the boundaries of our knowledge of gravity’s nature. That makes black holes irresistible.”

Few scientists would debate the reality of black holes, but the first image of M87’s supermassive black hole is definitive proof that these monsters, and their associated event horizons, exist. “These things are real, along with all the consequences for physics,” he said.

In the years preceding this announcement, Broderick and his EHT colleagues developed simulations that modeled what the Earth-spanning virtual telescope might see. And, on comparing his models with the first EHT image, Broderick was amazed.

“That first image was so good that I thought it was a test – it had to be a trial run,” said Broderick, “It’s a beautiful ring shape that’s exactly the right size. In fact, it looks very similar to the images (of theoretical models) we included in proposals for the EHT.”

The ring shape Broderick describes is the bright emissions from the hot gasses immediately surrounding the colossal maw of a supermassive black hole’s event horizon. Located inside the massive elliptical galaxy M87 in the constellation of Virgo, this gargantuan object has a mass of six-and-a-half-billion Suns and measures nearly half a light-day across. This may sound big, but because it’s located 55-million light-years away, it’s far too distant for any single telescope to photograph.

The EHT, however, is a network of many radio telescopes around the world, from the Atacama Desert to the South Pole. By working together – via a method known as very long-baseline interferometry – they create a virtual observatory as wide as our planet and, after two decades of development, the international collaboration has accomplished the impossible by resolving the event horizon around M87’s supermassive black hole.

“This is a project that has a wide breadth of collaboration, geographically – you can’t build an Earth-sized telescope without an Earth-sized collaboration! – but also in expertise, from the engineers who build these advanced telescopes, to the astronomers who work on the day-to-day and the theorists who inspire their observations,” said Broderick.

A Stunning Confirmation

The event horizon is a region surrounding a black hole where the known physics of our universe ends abruptly. Nothing, not even light, can escape a black hole’s incredible gravity, with the event horizon being the ultimate point of no return. What lies beyond the event horizon is open to debate, but one thing is for certain: if you fall inside, you’re not getting out.

Over a century ago, Albert Einstein formulated his theory of general relativity, a theoretical framework that underpins how our universe works, including how event horizons should look. Black holes are the embodiment of general relativity at its most extreme, and event horizons are a manifestation of where space-time itself caves in on itself.

“Event horizons are the end of the safe space of the universe,” said Broderick, “they should have ‘mind the gap’ or ‘mind the horizon’ signs around them!”

Physics has some key unresolved problems that may be answered by the EHT, one of which is the nature of gravity itself, added Broderick. Simply put, gravity doesn’t jibe with our current understanding of other fundamental forces and particles that underpin all matter in the universe. By stress-testing Einstein’s theories right at the edge of a black hole’s event horizon, the EHT will provide physicists with the ultimate laboratory in which to better understand gravity, the force that drives the formation of stars, planets, and the evolution of our universe.

Once we truly understand this fundamental force, the impact could be revolutionary, said Broderick. “Gravity is the key scientific problem facing physics today, and no one fully understands the ramifications of what understanding gravity fully are going to be.”

On an astronomical level, supermassive black holes are intrinsically linked with the evolution of the galaxies they inhabit, but how they form and evolve together is another outstanding mystery.

Supermassive black holes are also the purveyors of creation and doom – they have the power to kick-start star formation as well as preventing stars from forming at all – a dichotomy that astronomers hope to use the EHT to understand.

“These incredibly massive things lie at the centers of galaxies and rule their fates,” said Broderick. “Supermassive black holes are the engines behind active galactic nuclei and distant quasars, the most energetic objects known. Now we’re seeing what they look like, up close, for the first time.”

All galaxies are thought to contain a supermassive black hole, including our own galaxy, the Milky Way. Called Sagittarius A* (or Sgr A*), our supermassive black hole is 2,000 times less massive than the one in M87, but it’s 2,000 times closer – at a distance of 25,000 light-years. This means that the EHT can image both Sgr A* and M87 as they appear approximately the same size in the sky, a situation that is an incredible stroke of luck.

“If you had to choose two sources, these two would be it,” said Broderick. Whereas M87’s supermassive black hole is one of the biggest known and a “real mover and shaker,” Sgr A* is much less massive and considered to be an “everyman of black holes,” he said.

“We had to start somewhere. M87 represents the first end-to-end exercise of the entire EHT collaboration – from data taking to data interpretation,” said Broderick. “The next exercise will happen considerably faster. This is only the beginning.”

Voyage of Discovery

As the scientific benefits of observing supermassive black holes are becoming clear, Broderick pointed out that the impact on society could also be seismic.

“I would hope that an image like this will galvanize a sense of exploration; an exploration of the mind and that of the universe,” he said. “If we can excite people, inspire them to embark on a voyage of discovery in this new EHT era of observational black hole physics, I can only imagine that it will have profound consequences for humanity moving forward.

“I feel incredibly privileged to be a part of this story of exploration – the human story of understanding the universe we inhabit and using that understanding to improve our lives.”

Read more: “First image of black hole captured,” Univ. of Waterloo, by Ian O’Neill

Ten Years Later: The Cosmos Remembers Brian the Bat

Gather ’round the campfire kids, it’s time to tell the sad story of a brave bat named Brian.

On March 15, 2009, we watched in terror as Brian, a Florida free-tailed bat, stubbornly remained attached to Space Shuttle Discovery’s external fuel tank moments before launch (left). On Thursday, ten years later, the European Southern Observatory released a stunning photo feature of the Bat Nebula (right). A coincidence? I think not. [NASA/ESO]

On March 15, 2009, Twitter was days away from its third birthday, Ashton Kutcher was one month away from becoming the first tweep to reach one million followers, and a community of space enthusiasts habitually live-tweeted the final space shuttle launches from the comfort of their homes. They were simpler times.

Wikipedia recognizes Brian’s sacrifice.

One launch, however, became infamous — nay, historic — not for the fact it was one of the last handful of launches of NASA’s shuttle program, but because there was a tiny stowaway attached to the shuttle’s bulbous orange external fuel tank minutes before ignition.

That stowaway was an ill-fated bat named “Brian.” And “he” became a legend overnight.

A Legend Is Born

During the countdown to the launch of STS-119, as we watched in anticipation of the successful start of Space Shuttle Discovery’s International Space Station (ISS) servicing mission, something seemed amiss at Discovery’s launch pad. At the time, the assumption was that a fruit bat (a common species in Florida) had mistakenly thought the orange external fuel tank of the shuttle was a tree to latch itself onto. Follow-up investigations identified the bat as a free-tailed bat and, though its intentions were unclear, zoologists posited that the unfortunate critter may have broken its wing. This would explain why it didn’t fly away when the shuttle’s boosters ignited, carrying the bat to the heavens — literally and metaphorically.

No one really knows how long the bat held on for, but some creative-thinkers hypothesized that the bat remained attached for the duration, making it into space. I don’t think I have to explain why this didn’t happen — it was more likely booted from the fuel tank in the first seconds of launch enduring a fiery death via rocket booster exhaust — but it was a poetic thought. Regardless of the bat’s fate, it’s ultimate sacrifice made this routine launch special. What was “just another” live-tweeted shuttle launch, became a spectacle that rapidly evolved into an international news story. That bat was special.

And that bat’s name was Brian.

Why “Brian”? A bit of background: For some personal reason that I cannot fathom, I like to name things “Brian.” I’ve always done it. The squirrel that lives in my backyard? Brian. An interesting and unnamed rock on the surface of Mars? Brian. My first car? Brian. That gopher that demolished my newly-planted garden of impatiens in 2011? Brian. A random free-tailed bat hanging off the shuttle’s external fuel tank? Brian. There’s no reason and no logic behind this, Brian just seems to fit. It’s a personal mystery.

So, when lightheartedly tweeting about the bat on March 15, 2009, I called the bat Brian and the name stuck. I had no idea about its gender, and it didn’t have a nametag, but that bat was a Brian alright. Suddenly, other space enthusiasts following the launch called him Brian and, for reasons I have yet to understand ten years later, in those minutes before launch, “Brian the Bat” went viral and suddenly everyone was personally invested in that “routine” space launch. Yes, there were billions of dollars of hardware on that launchpad with seven brave astronauts on board, but everyone was talking about Brian who was shivering on the side of the vehicle, a place that no living creature should have been.

Was Brian confused? Was he frozen to the cold tank? Would he fly away in the nick of time? No one knew, but the clock was ticking and the commentator on the NASA live video stream seemed confident that, as the boosters began their ignition sequence, the bat would be scared by the vibrations and fly to safety.

For reasons known only to Brian, he remained attached. And as the boosters roared to life, he held tight. As the plume of smoke and steam enveloped Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39, I sat with the computer screen nearly pressed to my nose, seeking out the dark pixels of Brian in the place where he was last seen. But the resolution was too low and Brian’s fate was unknown. (Days later, NASA analysts reviewed infrared imagery from the launch, revealing two very sad facts. 1) Brian was warm while attached to the fuel tank, so he hadn’t frozen to death and was alive up to launch, and 2) he remained in place when Discovery lifted off.)

As the adrenaline ebbed and Space Shuttle Discovery soared into the atmosphere, solid rocket boosters separating and tumbling back to Earth, the sad reality crept in. Brian was, in all likelihood, toast.

But his legacy would live on.

Assuming that little space-launch chapter was over, I wrote a summary about Brian’s adventures for Universe Today and on Astroengine with the assumption that Brian would be soon lost to the annals of shuttle-era history. Little did I know, however, that Norwegian journalist Geir Barstein was paying close attention…

Brian makes waves in the Norwegian press on March 16, 2009. Read the full article here. [Dagbladet]

Then, a couple of days later, the new spread to the UK tabloid press

Brian landed as a science headline in the Mail Online on March 19, 2009. Read the full article here. [Mail Online]

Brian also made appearances in The Sun newspaper (but the article has since disappeared) and other smaller publications, and I participated in a number of radio shows devoted to that now-famous shuttle launch.

Not only was the whole event a poignant one, it also made me realize something about the power of social media. In all my years covering space stories, particularly when I was a producer at Discovery News (now called “Seeker”), shuttle launches would receive very little attention. Apart from a few outliers, such as the final shuttle launch, the articles I’d publish about one of NASA’s most significant programs would receive very little readership. The routine nature of these launches meant that, unless you were at Cape Canaveral, interest in seeing shuttles launch into space was lukewarm at best. As a space enthusiast, I was frustrated. Every launch in my eyes was special and certainly not “routine.”

Brian, however, made me realize by accident that you have to seek out the unique thing about that one launch that will hook readers to that story. Granted, not all launches have a “Brian the Bat” moment, but that doesn’t mean they’re not special.

Remember the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) launch? Thought not. But do you remember Frank the Frog? Probably:

NASA’s LADEE launch also had a “Brian the Bat” moment in 2013. Read more about it in my Discovery News analysis. [NASA]

Eerie Timing, ESO

Not only is it the TEN YEAR anniversary tomorrow (Friday) of when Brian met his maker, today the European Southern Observatory (ESO) released this stunning observation of the Bat Nebula, a reflection nebula that contains baby stars being birthed in a stellar nursery. Yes, I know, eerie, right?

Text from ESO: “Hidden in one of the darkest corners of the Orion constellation, this Cosmic Bat is spreading its hazy wings through interstellar space two thousand light-years away. It is illuminated by the young stars nestled in its core — despite being shrouded by opaque clouds of dust, their bright rays still illuminate the nebula. Too dim to be discerned by the naked eye, NGC 1788 reveals its soft colors to ESO’s Very Large Telescope in this image — the most detailed to date.” [ESO]

I like to think that the cosmos is doing Brian a solid by commemorating that brave little bat’s ultimate sacrifice.

The event may have been a footnote in humanity’s quest to explore our universe, but I truly believe that the viral social media (and then mainstream media) attention Brian whipped up created a buzz around a launch that may not have otherwise made an impact.

As a science communicator, I’m always on the lookout for interesting hooks to stories that wouldn’t otherwise be of interest, and on March 15, 2009, Brian was that hook — who knows what kind of impact that little free-tailed bat had on viewers who wouldn’t have otherwise been paying attention to one of the biggest endeavors in human exploration history.

So, tomorrow, on March 15, 2019, raise a drink to Brian’s legacy. He will live on in the spirit he inspired when he left our planet attached to the space shuttle’s external fuel tank.

Humanity Gains Another Foothold in Space

The private spaceflight company SpaceX has done it again, and this latest achievement is an important one.

Crew Dragon berthed with the space station at 2:51 a.m. PT [NASA]

We space writers are very familiar with Elon Musk’s human spaceflight dreams that can be encapsulated in his well-known goal to “make humanity multi-planetary,” starting with a Mars settlement. And today, that goal took another step closer to reality.

I’ve been following Musk’s rocket adventures ever since his early days of exploding single-engine rockets in the South Pacific. Back then, Musk was a “dreamer” and more than a little eccentric. His eccentricities are well documented, but the world’s best known billionaire-entrepreneur is a dreamer no more. The first successful flight of a Falcon 1 happened on Sept. 28, 2008. (You can read my 2008 Space Lifestyle Magazine article on that topic, page 36) A little over a decade later, the Falcon 1 has rapidly evolved into the reusable Falcon 9 workhorse and the Falcon Heavy and, with key partnerships with NASA and companies that need to get stuff into orbit cheaply, SpaceX has developed the human-rated Dragon spacecraft to ultimately get astronauts to the space station, and beyond.

After proving itself in the cargo-delivery arena, the Dragon has now won its human-spaceflight wings: an (uncrewed) Crew Dragon is now attached to the International Space Station’s Harmony module and the outpost’s astronauts have entered the vehicle.

Building a commercially-viable space infrastructure is paramount if humanity is to truly become multi-planetary, and through partnerships between private business and government contracts, today’s achievement is proof that this model can work.

Too often, governments lack the long-term vision for human space exploration, instead plowing money into bloated, politically motivated, and ultimately doomed federally-funded projects. SpaceX may be an exhausting company to work for, but its ultimate mission is crystal clear. It’s not a satellite-launching company, it’s just doing that to build funds to do the Next Big Thing. Dragon’s autonomous berthing with the space station is That Big Thing that will drive more investment into getting stuff beyond Earth orbit.

Musk’s interim target — before getting humans to Mars — is the moon, to create a permanently-crewed lunar base. How that will shape up remains to be seen, but if there’s one thing I’ve learnt from following his dreams of getting into space on a reusable spaceflight infrastructure, it’s don’t bet against SpaceX and Elon Musk’s “eccentricities.”

Home Is Where the Mars Rover Is

Now that Opportunity’s mission is complete, many wistfully lament about “bringing our robot home.” There’s just one problem: it’s already home.

A rendering of Opportunity on Mars [NASA/JPL-Caltech]

I am fascinated with how we anthropomorphize robots, particularly space robots. We call them “brave,” “pioneers” and even give them genders — usually a “she.” We get emotional when they reach the end of their missions, saying they’ve “died” or, as I like to say, “gone to Silicon Heaven.” But these robots are, for all intents and purposes, tools. Sure, they expand the reach of our senses, allowing us to see strange new worlds and parts of the universe where humans fear to tread, but they’re an assembly of electronics, metal, plastic, sensors, transmitters, wheels and solar panels. They don’t have emotions. They don’t breathe. They don’t philosophize about the incredible feats of exploration they are undertaking. They don’t have genders.

Still, we fall in love. When watching Curiosity land on Mars from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, I teared up, full of joy that the six-wheeled hulk of a rover — that I’d met personally in JPL’s clean room a couple of years before — had safely landed on the Red Planet. After watching NASA’s InSight lander touch down on Elysium Planitia, again via JPL’s media room last year, there it was again, I was in love. I’m already anthropomorphizing the heck out of that mission, seeing InSight’s landing as another “heartbeat” on Mars. When the European Rosetta mission found Philae lying on its side like a discarded child’s toy on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, I jumped up from my desk with joy. When Cassini’s mission at Saturn ended in 2017, I was miserable. When the Chinese rover Yutu rolled off its lander in 2014, I realized I was cheering the robot on. When Spirit got stuck in a sand trap in Gusev Crater, I set up a Google alert for any and all news on the recovery efforts.

These emotions aren’t just for the exciting science and engineering strides humanity makes, there’s a certain inspirational character that each robot brings. Undoubtedly, this character naturally emerges from the wonderful scientists and engineers who design and build these amazing machines, and the social media managers who often “speak” for their robots in first person. But if you strip away the science, the technology and the people who build them, we still personalize our beloved robots, giving them their own character and creating a cartoon personality. I believe that’s a beautiful trait in the human condition (except a few flawed cultural and stereotypical missteps) and can be used to great effect to captivate the general public with the science that these robots do.

Opportunity’s landing site inside Eagle crater [NASA/JPL-Caltech]

So there’s no great surprise about the outpouring of emotion for last week’s announcement that NASA called off the communications efforts with Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity. This kick-ass robot traveled 28 miles and lasted nearly 15 years, until a global dust storm in early 2018 starved it of sunlight. It landed on Mars way back in 2004, with its twin, Spirit, beginning its Martian reign with a hole-in-one, literally — after bouncing and rolling across the regolith after its entry and descent, encased inside a genius airbag system, it plopped inside the tiny Eagle crater. We’ve collectively lived through Opportunity’s adventures and the groundbreaking science it has done. There’s a huge number of terrific robot obituaries out there, so I won’t duplicate those efforts here. There is, however, a recurring sentiment that is somewhat misplaced, though entirely innocent.

Opportunity — like Spirit and all the Mars rovers and landers that have come and gone — died at home.

This may sound like an odd statement, but there seems to be this fascination with “returning” our space robots to Earth. I’ve seen cartoons of the Dr Who traveling through time to “rescue” Opportunity. People have argued for the case of future Mars astronauts returning these artifacts to terrestrial museums. There’s that touching XKCD cartoon of Spirit being “stranded” on Mars after NASA declared it lost in 2010, that is being resurfaced for Opportunity. We want our dusty Mars rover back!

Dusty rover [NASA/JPL-Caltech]

It’s understandable, that rover has been continuously exploring Mars for a decade and a half, many of its fans, including myself, could check in on Opportunity’s adventures daily, browsing the latest batch of raw images that were uploaded to the NASA servers. We love that thing. In the tradition of military service members who die abroad, we go to great efforts to bring their bodies home so they can repatriated; we want to repatriate our science service member back to Earth.

But Opportunity is a robot that was designed for Mars. Every single design consideration took the Martian environment into account. The Red Planet’s gravity is roughly 1/3rd that of Earth, so the weight on its actuators and chassis are 2/3rds less than what they’d experience on our planet. Its motors are too under powered to reliably drive the robot forward on Earth. On Mars, they’re perfect. Granted, the mass of the Mars Exploration Rovers (approximately 185 kg) are a lot less than their supersized cousin, Curiosity (899 kg), but if Opportunity and Spirit had a 90-day mission exploring the dunes of the Californian Mojave Desert, I’m betting they wouldn’t get very far; they would be under-powered and grind to a halt. They’d also likely overheat as they were designed to withstand the incredibly low temperatures on the Martian surface.

The robots we send to Mars are undeniably Martian. If we’re going to anthropomorphize these beautiful machines, let’s think about what they’d want. I’m guessing they’d want to stay on that dusty terrain and not return to the alien place where they were constructed. And, in doing so, they become the first generation of archaeological sites on the Red Planet that, one day, the first biological Martians will visit.

A Martian’s shadow [NASA/JPL-Caltech]

My Struggle With Math, Why It Matters, and Why It Really Doesn’t

“You know what it means? You’re an artist, not a physicist.”

Twenty years later, those words still haunt me.

I was actually a bit surprised to remember this quote, but after a conversation with astrophysicist, science communicator and Twitter buddy Sophia Gad-Nasr, who was commenting on a tweet from @dsxnchezz, I found myself emotionally thinking back to a personal struggle I wanted to share.

The tweet:

The story:

A Long Time Ago In a University Far, Far Away

[Photo by Johannes Plenio from Pexels]

My first semester of studying physics at university was unexpectedly (though, in hindsight, not so surprisingly) rough: I had to confront a demon that I’d spent years running away from. You see, I’m bad at math (or, as we Brits like to call it, “maths”), to the point where I used to be convinced that I wouldn’t progress anywhere in physics. Mental arithmetic is very difficult, calculus is hell, I’m no fan of trig, and I have to spend an extra minute double checking my additions (employing the use of all my available digits). Usually, this would be a minor annoyance, but in the winter of 1999, it became an obvious gaping wound in my abilities as a wannabe astrophysicist. Throw this on top of my history of anxiety, rather than confronting the issue, I’d bury it. If I didn’t think about it, where’s the worry? Unfortunately, I had to think about it.

All the way through my GCSEs and A Levels (the qualifications that you’d take at school before going to university in the late 90’s in the UK) I was a decent student. I was never late with coursework, never skipped class and always tried my best. I was extremely lucky to have very supportive parents and very privileged to live 15 minutes from what I consider to be the best comprehensive (re: state-funded) school in my hometown of Bristol. While not a “straight A” student, I certainly performed well and, during my A Levels I was able to pick up a pleasing A, B and C, for Technology, Physics, and Geography, respectively, nabbing the exact number of UCAS points I needed to secure a place at my first choice university on the beautiful west coast of Wales — The University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

I was riding high and the future was bright. But I always had this baggage buried deep in the back of my brain: I’m bad at math.

If you’ve been through the UK route to university physics, you’ll notice a big, red, flashing neon sign of a problem with my choice of A Levels: 


This fact wasn’t lost on the university representatives at the various higher-education fairs I’d attended from 1996 to 1998. A physics rep from one of the more “prestigious” universities had the biggest assholey reaction when I said that, yes! it is true that I’m not studying mathematics at A Level: “You can forget doing physics, then,” he scoffed, before chuckling about it to his buddy. Yep, chuckled. His disdain for the gall a math-anemic student had to approach him to inquire about their astrophysics course was too much for his stupendous brain to bear, it seemed. Fortunately, he was an outlier, the majority of other reps were generally kind, supportive and helpful, but it gave me pause. Was I under-qualified? Was my inability to grasp mathematics going to be a real problem for my dream of studying black holes, galaxies, alien worlds and the Big Bang?

Screw those guys, I thought. Fortunately the detractors at that phase of my education were rare and, though they did nothing to boost my confidence in math, they didn’t dull my excitement for studying physics university. Besides, I’d nailed my grades! Onward to Aberystwyth!

***Aside: Before I continue, I need to emphasize that all my (many) years at university were amazing. To have the wonderful good fortune to live and study in arguably one of the most beautiful places in the world was humbling. As a university town, Aber couldn’t have been a better choice. I made a diverse group of lifelong friends, got a wonderful education, somehow managed to spend a semester in the Arctic studying the aurora, grew as a person, lost an appendix, and developed an appreciation for the Welsh language, all while enjoying the highest density (at the time) of pubs per capita. I only have fond memories of the physics department and all the members of staff and fellow students. The following is more of a conversation about the culture in higher education and how certain assumptions can damage the confidence of students, possibly creating an intellectual barrier for their progression, inspired by the above conversation with Sophia.***

So, with my A Levels behind me, I was ready for university. I was 18 and excited to get the introductory physics courses out of the way so I could dive into the wonders of the cosmos. Ha! Sorry, I couldn’t write that with a straight face; I was excited the meet girls and have a great time playing pub golf and partying until 5am. But once the alcohol haze had lifted after Freshers Week, reality struck. Because I didn’t have a mathematics A Level, I had to take an introductory math course “to get me up to speed” with the mathematical tools I’d need to complete my undergraduate degree. This wasn’t an unfair ask and I had little problem with tackling it. The university had a system in place that made an honest and clear effort to make sure no student was left behind. In some ways, the fact that I had to confront my math angst head-on was reassuring. After all, how the heck could I navigate a career in physics while avoiding math at all costs? Spoiler: I couldn’t and I didn’t want to. It was a fresh start, a ripping of the Band Aid, an anxiety detox. I was ready. Hit me!

To say I enjoyed these early math lectures would be a lie, but I did get a sense of satisfaction from taking them. The lecturers were generally good and delivered a well-organized curriculum. Alongside the intro math, I was doing all the other stuff my colleagues were doing, except for the theoretical classes that left smudges of squiggled chalked integrals and partial differential equations on the blackboard in the lecture theater when my introductory class started. In these early days of my university career, those squiggles may as well have been Egyptian hieroglyphics. But, gradually, like a sapling unfurling from the dirt, I was developing my own way of dealing with math: repetition. I was making progress and I could imagine that, one day, I’d be like my physics friends who could stand up in front of a lecture hall, drawing squiggles with my piece of chalk and explaining why Fourier transforms are so great. Although much of my learning was done parrot fashion, without a lot of comprehension about what I was doing at the time, I was able to, at worst, wing it.

So far, so good, right?

The Pen Game

The whole point of this story is leading to one, singular — nay, pivotal — moment in a cramped office of my first-year supervisor. Every week, small groups of us had meetings with our allocated lecturer-supervisors. My supervisor (who will remain unnamed because he’s not really the point of this story, though he did get under my skin), an older, well-respected professor with thick-rimmed glasses and eccentric humor, really didn’t want to be there. And nor did I. Each week, he’d try to get the most entertainment out of his supervised students, including me and three others who were suffering from the same no-math affliction. These meetings were supposed to be for us to have a space to discuss our math-related struggles and progress, with no fear of embarrassment.

To pass the time, and enforce his own quirky way of teaching, the professor would have this recurring game where he’d drop a bunch of pens on his desk and ask us what number it represents. It was maddening, didn’t make sense and he’d always make us feel shitty for making a blind guess. What’s more, we didn’t get the point, was this a profound lesson in math? Philosophy? Counting the seconds until all the pens had stopped rolling? I took a flier: as the pens landed, some would cross another on the desk, coming to a stop, so I counted the number of crossed pens and shouted “Two!”

Without hesitation, he replied, “No! Wrong! You’re wrong!” And so he’d drop the pens again and ask the same silly question, “What number?”

Obvious eccentricities to one side, the good professor was pissing me off. And I suppose that was the point. So, the following week I went into that office and paid attention to everything. I made a note of the time, the air temperature, the number of other items on his desk… and then I saw it. The four of us sat down and the professor grabbed his usual pens and dropped them on the desk. Without waiting for him to say a word, I blurted “FIVE!”

He looked at my smiling face and nodded. Fireworks erupted in my brain, I’d passed his stupid test. My three colleagues looked at me in astonishment. “Let’s do it again,”—he dropped the pens a second time—”how many?”

“Eight!” I felt like I’d won the professor’s admiration and approval. I might be bad at math, but damn I’m good at this game. He smiled and nodded again. He asked me to tell everyone how I did it. Feeling cocky, I just said, “look at his fingers.” Every time he dropped the pens, he’d lean on the desk, extending a different number of fingers after each drop. All I was doing was counting his goddamn fingers!

And now for the lesson of this stupid game, words that I’ve never forgotten.

“Whenever I’ve played this game,” he started, “it’s always artists who guess it correctly, physicists focus too much on the pens. You know what it means? You’re an artist, not a physicist.” He pointed at me, no longer smiling.

Besides my confusion that it was apparently a bad thing to correctly find a solution to this stupid game, why was I being branded an “artist”? There is nothing wrong with being an artist, or so I thought, but I had chosen a career path to become a physicist. What’s more, I was in a class specifically focused on supporting students who lacked the math qualifications to do physics. It seemed like a teaching self-own. Over the years, I assumed it was his way to motivate me to work harder at math—yes! Reverse psychology! Shame me into doing better! But, nah, the opposite happened.

Impostor syndrome is something, I’ve recently realized, that goes hand-in-hand with my anxiety, so to get verbal confirmation of my personal doubt was like a punch to the gut. I was ready to quit; who was I fooling? I was out of my depth. My excitement for physics fell off a cliff and, with the endorsement of an authority figure who, for whatever reason wanted to make his students feel shitty, had rubber-stamped my self-doubt.

A Better Way

I didn’t quit, but if it wasn’t for the social group that I had, I might have. My challenge with math wasn’t the only mountain I was climbing at the time. Like most undergrad students at university, simply navigating life was hard. But I was lucky, I had a girlfriend and a solid group of friends, a supportive family and a love for the student life. However, drop-out rates in physics are high, or they were 20 years ago, and what was becoming abundantly clear was this arrogant assumption that to be good at physics, I had to be good at math.

After the Pen Game, I became acutely aware of the teaching practices of my lecturers. Lessons would begin with innocuous, throw-away statements like (I paraphrase), “you all know this already,” “you hibernated through school/lived under a rock if you don’t know this,” “let’s skip these steps, if you don’t get it, read a book,” and, my personal favorite, “don’t come crying to me if/when you fail.” Back then, those statements weren’t strange, they were simply educators—many of whom didn’t really want to be teaching, they had research grants to apply for—trying to be witty or, under pressure to deliver their class, they really wanted to make sure they could fit in the entire syllabus in the allotted time. I felt even more precarious when my introductory math courses finished and I should have been “up to speed” with the mathematical tools for a bright physics future. Alas, though I was undoubtedly better at math, my confidence had ebbed to zero.

Fortunately, my want to continue living the university life outweighed my anxieties and I learned to live with it. I didn’t ask for help (in hindsight, I should have), and math just became my dirty secret. It was a specter that followed me around the campus. That said, I was good at physics; I had a great conceptual grasp of all the topics and meandered my way through the math. But the real turning point for me happened when studying the final semester of my Masters year in the high-Arctic, on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. The EU-funded exchange program (Reason 1,324 why I have very strong feelings against Brexit; I took for granted the research and study programs that the UK could seamlessly participate in and I’m devastated that the next generation of students/researchers may not have the same, broad opportunities), that gave me the chance to experience real research on the aurora and other space weather phenomena in this incredible part of the world, made me think of math differently. I’d found my passion—the sun-Earth interaction—and suddenly, I realized math wasn’t the barrier. It was my anxiety and fear. I’d built mathematics up into this impenetrable barrier rather than viewing it as the tool that builds physics theory. Long story short, I had to literally travel to the ends of the Earth (well, the top of the Earth) for me to realize that, ya know, math ain’t that bad.

I went on to do a Ph.D in solar physics—specifically coronal loops, an origin of space weather—and, during a random research trip to Hawaii to work with colleagues who were based in Honolulu, I met my wife. So, I have no regrets and, as I type this from my computer at home in Los Angeles, I remember my struggle with math with fondness, oddly enough. And I have no problems using all my available digits to do basic arithmetic. I even do it in public.

We live at a time where science is regularly overlooked and often derided (re: climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers, flat-earthers etc.) and we need all the most talented critical thinkers to take on careers in science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics (STEAM) in order to confront some of the biggest challenges facing our planet. So, educators of all levels, never make assumptions of the abilities of your students; just a throwaway comment like “I’m sure you already know this…” can boost needless anxiety in learning.

And, whatever you do, never play the Pen Game.

When Physics and Art Collide: The Story Behind My First Science Tattoo

From left to right: The LHC’s CMS detector, a simulation of a Higgs event in the ATLAS detector and the intricate design work by Daniel Meyer on my right arm inspired by the science of the LHC (CERN/LHC/CMS/ATLAS/LEITBILD)

On July 4, 2012, I was watching a live video feed from Europe, excited for an announcement that was about to make physics history.

Until that day, I had written dozens of blogs and articles about the Higgs boson and the drama coming from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) construction and start-up. It was one of those rare and exciting times when world was excited for a — let’s face it — crazy complex physics theory, stirring a public frenzy for any news related to the “God Particle” and how it would transform our understanding of the universe.

Physicists were, naturally, more reserved, but the fact that the LHC was revving up and generating tiny “Big Bangs” with every particle collision inside its complex, building-sized detectors, even the most conservative physics researchers couldn’t help but express their anticipation for a new age of particle physics. The LHC was (and still is) the most complex machine built by humankind, after all.

Theorist Prof. Peter Higgs celebrates with his colleagues at CERN on July 4, 2012, after high-energy physicists announced their discovery of the Higgs boson (CERN)

All the while, we science writers were trying to keep up, finding analogies for what the LHC was really doing, explaining in plain terms what the hell physicists were looking for and why Professor Brian Cox was arguing with politicians on prime-time TV. Good times.

Personally, I was enthralled (and still am). I can’t believe that only five short years after the Higgs discovery announcement that particle physicists are carrying out cutting-edge science at the LHC and even referring to future high-energy accelerators as “Higgs boson factories.” The Higgs discovery was just the beginning, but in 2012 it felt like the end of a decades-long odyssey seeking out an elusive theoretical particle that mediates mass in our universe and the “last piece” of the Standard Model puzzle — indeed, its discovery resulted in the 2013 Nobel Prize for Physics for François Englert and Peter W. Higgs who, in the 1960’s, developed the theoretical framework for the Higgs mechanism.

The Higgs boson discovery was huge and, along with the first detection of gravitational waves, it’s the biggest story I’ve covered.

The beautifully complex CMS detector in the LHC (CERN/LHC/CMS)

But, I found myself asking after turning off the live feed from CERN in the summer of 2012, how would I commemorate the story of the Higgs boson? Would I just resign it to memory and move on with the next big thing in science? Or would I do something else?

Soon after, I started to bounce an idea off my wife, friends, family members, colleagues and associates. That period of my professional life with Discovery News was too big for me to forget. I wanted to make a permanent memorial to the physics, engineering, ingenuity and scientists behind that historic discovery.

I had to get a tattoo.

In the years since 2012, I became aware of many science communicators with awesome science-related tattoos, so I did a lot of research around what I wanted my tattoo to be, who would do it and when. By 2015 I promised myself it would happen (to a probability of “3-sigma,” at least) and I started investigating artists and, although I came across an ocean of stunning talent and fantastic concepts, it wasn’t until September of this year that I stumbled on work that truly resonated with me. By September I was at “5-sigma.”

simulated-production-of-a-higgs-event-in-atlas (1)
Simulated production of a Higgs event in the LHC’s ATLAS detector (CERN)

I came across Daniel Meyer’s (LEITBILD) work on Instagram and I was hooked, so I made an appointment and sent him some concept images. He was particularly inspired by the circular cross section of the LHC’s CMS detector and the particle jets in a simulation of a Higgs event (pictured above), so he got to work on the design and, after a three month wait, I got to see the final design and loved it. By the end of Friday, my first tattoo was on my right arm after a fantastic day of conversations about science, art and life.

Take a look at what it looked like in the studio before it was wrapped:

Daniel Meyer/LEITBILD

It’s been a long journey since I first decided I wanted a tattoo and I’m overjoyed to have found Daniel’s work. Be sure to check out more of his art on his website and on Instagram. Once my arm has properly healed, I’ll post some more pics, the detail is incredible.

Cassini’s Legacy: Enigmatic Enceladus Will Inspire Us for Generations to Come

NASA’s Cassini mission captured this view of icy moon Enceladus on March 29, 2017. The crescent is lit by the sun, but the near-side green hue is reflected sunlight bouncing off Saturn’s atmosphere — a.k.a. “Saturn glow” (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

The day before Cassini plunged into Saturn’s atmosphere, dramatically ending 13 years of Saturn exploration (and nearly two decades in space), I was sitting on a bench outside the Von Karman Visitor Center on the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory campus in La Cañada Flintridge with Linda Spilker, who served as the mission’s project scientist since before Cassini was launched.

What was supposed to be a quick 5-minute chat before lunch, turned into a wonderful 20-minute discussion about Cassini’s discoveries. But it was also about what the spacecraft meant to Spilker and how other space missions have shaped her life.

“I feel very fortunate to be involved with Cassini since the very beginning … and just to be there, to be one of the first to see SOI [Saturn Orbital Insertion] with those first incredible ring pictures,” she told me. “I love being an explorer. I worked on the Voyager mission during the flybys of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune; that sort of whet my appetite and made me want more, to become an explorer to go to the Saturn system.”

Spilker especially loved studying Saturn’s rings, not only from a scientific perspective, but also because they are so beautiful, she continued. “It’s been a heartwarming experience,” she said.

Before Cassini crashed into Saturn’s atmosphere, it took a series of observations that created this mosaic of Saturn and its rings. Cassini plunged into the Saturnian atmosphere on Sept. 15 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/Mindaugas Macijauskas)

But Cassini’s “legacy discovery,” said Spilker, was the revelation that the tiny icy moon of Enceladus is active, venting water vapor into space from powerful geysers emerging from the moon’s “tiger stripes” — four long fissures in the moon’s south pole. After multiple observations of these geysers and direct sampling of the water particles during flybys, Cassini deduced that the icy space marble hides a warm, salty ocean.

“What Cassini will be remembered for — its legacy discovery — will be the geysers coming from Enceladus with the ocean with the potential for life. It’s a paradigm shift.” — Linda J. Spilker, Cassini project scientist, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Sept. 14, 2017.

Alongside Jupiter’s moon Europa, Enceladus has become a prime destination for future explorations of life beyond Earth. Its subsurface ocean contains all the ingredients for life as we know it and Cassini was the mission that inadvertently discovered its biological potential. So now we know about this potential, Spilker is keen to see a dedicated life-hunting mission that could go to Enceladus, perhaps even landing on the surface to return samples to Earth.

Artist impression of Cassini flying through Enceladus’ water plumes venting from the moon’s south pole (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

As Enceladus is much smaller and less massive than Europa, its gravity is lower, meaning that landing on the surface is an easier task. Also, the radiation surrounding Saturn is much less aggressive than Jupiter’s radiation belts, meaning less radiation shielding is needed for spacecraft going to Saturn’s moons.

But if we ever send a surface mission to Enceladus (or any of the icy moons in the outer solar system), the planetary protection requirements will be extreme.

“If any life were found on these moons, it would be microbial,” said Larry Soderblom, an interdisciplinary scientist on the Cassini mission. “Some [terrestrial] bacteria are very resilient and can survive in hot acid-reducing environments. They can be tenacious. We have to make sure we don’t leave any of these kinds of Earthly bacteria on these promising moons.”

Soderblom has a unique perspective on solar system exploration. His career spans a huge number of NASA missions since the 1960’s, including Mariner 6, 7, 9, Viking, Voyager, Galileo, Magellan, Mars Pathfinder, the Mars Exploration Rovers, Deep Space 1, to name a few. While chatting to me under the shade of a tree on the JPL campus, he pointed out that the outer solar system was seen as a very different place over half a century ago.

“When I started to explore the solar system as a young guy just out of graduate school, our minds-eye view of the outer solar system was pretty bleak,” he remembered. “We expected lifeless, dead, battered moons with no geologic activity.”

After being involved with many outer solar system missions, this view has radically changed. Not only have we discovered entire oceans on Enceladus and Europa, there’s active volcanoes on Jupiter’s tortured moon Io, an atmosphere on Titan sporting its own methane cycle and surface lakes of methane and ethane. Other moons show hints of extensive subsurface oceans too, including distant Triton, a moon of Neptune. When NASA’s New Horizons flew past Pluto in 2015, the robotic spacecraft didn’t see a barren, dull rock as all the artistic impressions that came before seemed to suggest. The dwarf planet is a surprisingly dynamic place with a rich geologic history.

With a diameter of only 313 miles, tiny Enceladus is a surprising powerhouse of internal activity. Subsurface oceans are heated through tidal interactions with Saturn (and, possibly, radioactivity in its rocky core), forcing water through its south pole fissures (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Sending our robotic emissaries to these distant and unforgiving places has revolutionized our understanding of the solar system and our place in it. Rather than the gas and ice giant moons being dull, barren and static, our exploration has revealed a rich bounty of geologic variety. Not only that, we’re almost spoilt for choices for our next giant leap of scientific discovery.

Missions like Cassini are essential for science. Before that spacecraft entered Saturn orbit 13 years ago, we had a very limited understanding of what the Saturnian system was all about. Now we can confidently say that there’s a tiny moon there with incredible biological potential — Enceladus truly is Cassini’s legacy discovery that will keep our imaginations alive until we land on the ice to explore its alien ocean.

For more on my trip to JPL, read my two HowStuffWorks articles:

Why Cassini Crashed: Protecting Icy Moon Enceladus at All Costs

What Epic Space Missions Like Cassini Teach Us About Ourselves

Repeating “Fast Radio Bursts” Detected in Another Galaxy — Probably Not Aliens, Interesting Anyway

The Green Bank Radio Telescope (NRAO)

A radio astronomy project intended to find signals from intelligent aliens has announced the intriguing detections of “repeating” fast radio bursts (FRBs) from a single source in a galaxy three billion light-years distant. This is definitely an exciting development, but probably not for the reasons you think.

The ambitious $100 million Breakthrough Listen project aims to scan a million stars in our galaxy and dozens of nearby galaxies across radio frequencies and visible light in hopes of discovering a bona fide artificial signal that could be attributed to an advanced alien civilization. But in its quest, Breakthrough Listen has studied the signals emanating from FRB 121102 — and recorded 15 bursts — to better understand what might be causing it.

FRBs remain a mystery. First detected by the Parkes Radio Telescope in Australia, these very brief bursts of radio emissions seemed to erupt from random locations in the sky. But the same location never produced another FRB, making these bizarre events very difficult to understand and impossible to track.

Hypotheses ranged from powerful bursts of energy from supernovae to active galactic nuclei to (you guessed it) aliens, but until FRB 121102 repeated itself in 2015, several of these hypotheses could be ruled out. Supernovae, after all, only have to happen once — this FRB source is repeating, possibly hinting at a periodic energetic phenomenon we don’t yet understand. Also, because FRB 121102 is a repeater, in 2016 astronomers could trace back the location of its source to a dwarf galaxy 3 billion light-years from Earth.

Now we ponder the question: What in the universe generates powerful short bursts of radio emissions from inside a dwarf galaxy, repeatedly?

Using the Green Bank Telescope in the West Virginia, scientists of Breakthrough Listen recorded 400 TB of data over a five hour period on Aug. 26. In these data, 15 FRBs were recorded across the 4 to 8 GHz radio frequency band. The researchers noted the characteristic frequency dispersion of these FRBs, caused by the signal traveling through gas between us and the source.

Now that we have dedicated and extremely detailed measurements of this set of FRBs, astrophysicists can get to work trying to understand what natural phenomenon is generating these bursts. This is the story so far, but as we’re talking radio emissions, mysteries and a SETI project, aliens are never far away…

Probably Not Aliens

It may be exciting to talk about the possibility of aliens generating this signal — as a means of communication or, possibly, transportation via beamed energy — but that avenue of speculation is just that: speculation. But to speculate is understandable. FRBs are very mysterious and, so far, astrophysicists don’t have a solid answer.

But this mystery isn’t without precedent.

In 1967, astronomers Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Antony Hewish detected strange radio pulses emanating from a point in the sky during a quasar survey to study interplanetary scintillation (IPS). The mysterious pulses had an unnaturally precise period of 1.33 seconds. At the time, nothing like it had been recorded and the researchers were having a hard time explaining the observations. But in the back of their minds, they speculated that, however unlikely, the signal might be produced by an alien intelligence.

During a dinner speech in 1977, Bell Burnell recalled the conundrum they faced:

“We did not really believe that we had picked up signals from another civilization, but obviously the idea had crossed our minds and we had no proof that it was an entirely natural radio emission. It is an interesting problem – if one thinks one may have detected life elsewhere in the universe how does one announce the results responsibly? Who does one tell first? We did not solve the problem that afternoon, and I went home that evening very cross here was I trying to get a Ph.D. out of a new technique, and some silly lot of little green men had to choose my aerial and my frequency to communicate with us.”

This first source was nicknamed “LGM-1” (as in “Little Green Men-1”), but far from being an artificial source, the duo had actually identified the first pulsar — a rapidly-spinning, highly magnetized neutron star that generates powerful emissions from its precessing magnetic poles as it rotates.

This is how science works: An interesting signal is detected and theories are formulated as to how that signal could have been generated.

In the case of LGM-1, it was caused by an as-yet-to-be understood phenomenon involving a rapidly-spinning stellar corpse. In the case of FRB 121102, it is most likely an equally as compelling phenomenon, only vastly more powerful.

The least likely explanation of FRB 121102 makes a LOT of assumptions, namely: aliens that have become so incredibly technologically advanced (think type II or even type III on the Kardashev Scale) that they can fire a (presumably) narrow beam directly at us through intergalactic space over and over again (to explain the repeated FRB detections) — the odds of which would be vanishingly low — unless the signal is omnidirectional, so they’d need to access way more energy to make this happen. Another assumption could be that intelligent, technologically advanced civilizations are common, so it was only a matter of time before we saw a signal like FRB 121102.

Or it could be a supermassive black hole (say) doing something very energetic that science can’t yet explain.

Occam’s razor suggests the latter might be more reasonable.

This isn’t to say aliens don’t exist or that intelligent aliens aren’t transmitting radio signals, it just means the real cause of this particular FRB repeater is being generated by a known phenomenon doing something unexpected, or a new (and potentially more exciting) phenomenon that’s doing something exotic and new. It doesn’t always have to be aliens.


Iain M. Banks, Science Fiction Genius, Dies at 59

Iain M. Banks
Iain M. Banks

It’s always hard when a person who inspired you in life dies. And for me, there are only a handful of people beyond my circles of family and friends who have, in some way, shaped my thinking.

But through his novels, Scottish writer Iain Banks had such a powerful impact on my teenage years that he, in no small way, gave me a new appreciation for science fiction and in doing so helped me pursue a higher education in astrophysics. Sadly, as he announced with his trademark wit only two months ago, Iain had terminal gall bladder cancer and today has died at the heartbreaking young age of 59. He will be sorely missed by the fiction and science fiction communities — he was a plain-speaking, powerful voice in life and a skillful genius when describing the worlds he created on paper.

My signed copy of Iain M. Banks' "Matter" -- my mum sat in on one of Iain's book readings in Bristol that I couldn't attend and got a signed copy of the novel for me -- one of my most precious books.
My signed copy of Iain M. Banks’ “Matter” — my mum sat in on one of Iain’s book readings in Bristol that I couldn’t attend and got a signed copy of the novel for me — one of my most precious books.

Now, I’m not the biggest of readers, but when you pick up an Iain Banks (a.k.a. Iain M. Banks for his science fiction novels) book, it’s hard to put down. His first science fiction novel Consider Phlebas introduced us to the epic Culture universe — a vast interstellar multi-species civilization, of which Earth and humanity had been enveloped. The very notion of a post-scarcity, pan-galactic race seemed to hit the sweet spot of my imagination, so I hungrily read all of Iain’s Culture series, feeling the very notion of what science fiction is change in my brain. In a particularly tumultuous period of my life, I took on Iain’s fictional writing too, reading the deeply unsettling The Wasp Factory.

Iain’s writing is a constant source of surprise to me — he has this unique ability to shock, enlighten and entertain while creating such a fine tapestry of plot twists and deep characters that you quickly become lost in his words.

But for me, Iain’s imagination forced the very limits of science fiction, expanding my thoughts on what is possible in our Universe. This is why, while struggling with mathematics in my undergraduate years at the University of Aberystwyth that Iain M. Banks’ work became a welcome escape. When I began questioning some of the fundamental ideas behind physics and developed a thirst for advanced and, quite frankly, unfathomable concepts in astrophysics, Iain’s books became a huge source of inspiration.

Although many facets of my life threw me on a course that would eventually see me tackle a PhD in coronal physics and send me on a life-changing trip to Hawaii and ultimately land me in California, with my beautiful wife Debra, 5 rabbits and a job with the task of communicating awe-inspiring space science to the world, Iain’s fictional universe has always been there, complementing my life in a very real way.

I will always remember Iain and will continue reading his novels so that inspiration endures beyond his death. People who inspire you are few and far between, so when someone changes the way you think through the medium of their writing, you should never let them go.

Goodbye Iain, the Culture will forever be my inspiration.

The White House Approves NASA’s ‘James Bond’ Asteroid Bagging Mission

Screengrab from the NASA "Asteroid Retrieval and Utilization Mission" animation (NASA LaRC/JSC)
Screengrab from the NASA “Asteroid Retrieval and Utilization Mission” animation (NASA LaRC/JSC)

It’s been a looooong time since I last updated Astroengine.com, so first off, apologies for that. But today seems as good a time as any to crank up the ‘engine’s servers as the White House has rubber-stamped a manned NASA mission to an asteroid! However, this isn’t what the President originally had in mind in 2009 when he mandated the US space agency with the task of getting astronauts to an asteroid by the mid-2020’s.

In a twist, it turns out that NASA will be basing their manned asteroid jaunt on a 2011 Keck Institute study. To cut a long story short (you can read the long story in my Discovery News article on the topic: “NASA to Hunt Down and Capture an Asteroid“), NASA will launch an unmanned spacecraft to hunt down a small space rock specimen, “lasso” it (although “bagging” it would be more accurate) and drag the wild asteroid to park it at the Earth-moon Lagrangian point, L2. Then we can treat it like a fast food store; we can fly to and from, chipping off pieces of space rock, return samples to Earth and do, well, SCIENCE!

Great? Great.

Overall, this robotic capture/manned exoplration of an asteroid saves cash and “optimizes” the science that can be done. It also lowers the risk associated with a long-duration mission into deep space. By snaring an asteroid in its natural habitat and dragging it back to the Earth-moon system, we avoid astronauts having to spend months in deep space. The EML2 point is only days away.

But when watching the exciting NASA video after the news broke today, I kept thinking…


But that wasn’t the only thing I was thinking. I was also thinking: what’s the point? It’s flashy and patriotic, but where’s the meat?

The human component of this asteroid mission has now been demoted to second fiddle. Sure, it will utilize NASA’s brand new Orion spacecraft and be one of the first launches of the Space Launch System (SLS), but what will it achieve? Astronauts will fly beyond Moon orbit, dock with the stationary space rock and retrieve samples as they please, but why bother with astronauts at all?

It is hoped that the robotic asteroid bagging spacecraft could launch by 2017 and, assuming a few years to steer the asteroid to EML2, a human mission would almost certainly be ready by the mid-2020s. But by that time, sufficiently advanced robotics would be available for unmanned sample retrieval. Heck, as telepresence technology matures, the EML2 point will be well within the scope for a live feed — light-time between Earth and the EML2 point will only be a few seconds, perhaps a little more if communications need to be relayed around the Moon. Robotics could be controlled live by a “virtual astronaut” on Earth — we probably have this capability right now.

The most exciting thing for me is the robotic component of asteroid capture. The advances in asteroid rendezvous and trajectory modification techniques will be cool, although scaling the asteroid bagging technique up (for large asteroids that could actually cause damage should they hit Earth) would be a challenge (to put it mildly). At a push, it may even be of use to a theoretical future asteroid mining industry. The rationale is that if we can understand the composition of a small asteroid, we can hope to learn more about its larger cousins.

The human element seems to be an afterthought and purely a political objective. There will undoubtedly be advancements in life support and docking technologies, but it will only be a mild taster for the far grander (original) NASA plan to send a team of astronauts into deep space to study an asteroid far away from the Earth-Moon system. The argument will be “an asteroid is a stepping stone to Mars” — sadly, by watering down the human element in an already questionable asteroid mission, it’s hard to see the next step for a long-duration spaceflight to Mars.

From this logic, we may as well just keep sending robots. But that wasn’t the point, was it?

Take a look at the video and decide for yourself: