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: 

🚨 THERE’S NO MATHEMATICS 🚨

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.

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

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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.

LastRingPortrait_Cassini_1080
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.

cassini-geysers
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.

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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

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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.

h/t:

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…

asteroid-grab2

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:

Big AGU Announcements: Curiosity Team May Not, But What About Voyager 1? (Update)

A view from Curiosity's front hazcam of the sandy Mars soil the rover scooped samples of for analysis by its SAM instrument (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
A view from Curiosity’s front hazcam of the sandy Mars soil the rover scooped samples of for analysis by its SAM instrument (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

UPDATE 2: So it turns out that Curiosity does have data to suggest that organics and perchlorates may be present in the Mars soil. As NASA keeps reminding us, this is not “proof” of organics, it’s “promising data.” Regardless, the media has made up their own mind as to what it means. As for Voyager 1, my speculation that it has left the solar system wasn’t quite correct… close, but she hasn’t left the heliosphere, yet.

UPDATE 1: That whole thing I said in my Al Jazeera English op-ed about being blinkered on the organics explanation for the “big” news on Monday? Well, case in point, as tweeted by @MarsToday on Sunday night, perhaps Curiosity has discovered further evidence for perchlorates on Mars. I have no clue where this information is sourced, and I’m not going to speculate any more, but if perchlorates have been discovered in Gale Crater, it would support the findings of NASA’s 2008 Mars Phoenix lander findings of perchlorate and possible liquid water brine in the arctic regions of the Red Planet. Place your bets…

Over the last bizarre few days, a key NASA scientist (almost) spilled the beans on a “historic” discovery by the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover Curiosity. Then, speculation ran wild. Had NASA’s newest Mars surface mission discovered organics? Feeling the need to stamp out the glowing embers of organic excitement ahead of the Dec. 3 AGU press conference, NASA said that there would be no big announcement on Monday. But then the agency went even further, issuing a terse statement to point out that the speculation is wrong. “At this point in the mission, the instruments on the rover have not detected any definitive evidence of Martian organics,” said NASA.

So now we’re left, understandably, wondering what lead MSL scientist John Grotzinger was referring to. I think it’s safe to assume that he wasn’t misquoted by the NPR journalist who happened to be sitting in his office when the MSL team was receiving data from the mission’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument. And if we take NASA’s damage-controlling statements at face value, Grotzinger was just getting excited for all the data being received from the rover — after all, the entire mission is historic.

As a science media guy with a background in science, I totally ‘get’ what the MSL team are going through. Scientists are only human and whether or not Grotzinger was getting excited for a specific “historic” find or just getting generally excited for all the “historic” data streaming from the rover, is irrelevant. Perhaps he should have been more careful as to the language he used when having an NPR reporter sitting in the same room as him, but that’s academic, I’m pretty sure that if I was leading the most awesome Mars mission in the history of Mars missions I’d be brimming over with excitement too. The scientific process is long and can often seem labored and secretive to the media and public — rumors or a few slipped words from scientists is often all that’s needed to spawn the hype. But for the scientific process to see its course, data needs to be analyzed, re-analyzed and theories need to be formulated. In an announcement as important as “organics on Mars,” the science needs to be watertight.

However, I can’t help but feel that, in NASA’s enthusiasm to “keep the lid” on speculation, that they are setting themselves up for a backlash on Monday.

If the AGU press conference is just “an update about first use of the rover’s full array of analytical instruments to investigate a drift of sandy soil,” as the NASA statement says, won’t there be any mention of organics? Will this be a similar announcement to the sampling of Mars air in the search for methane? The upshot of that Nov. 2 press conference was that the Mars air had been tested by SAM and no methane (within experimental limits) had been discovered… yet. But this was a sideline to the announcement of some incredible science as to the evolution of the Martian atmosphere.

This time, although there may not be “definitive,” absolute, watertight proof of organics, might mission scientists announce the detection of something that appears to be organics… “but more work is needed”? It’s a Catch 22: It’s not the “historic” news as the experiment is ongoing pending a rock-solid conclusion; yet it IS “historic” as the mere hint of a detection would bolster the organics experiments of the Viking landers in the 1970s and could hint at the discovery of another piece of the “Mars life puzzle.” And besides, everything Curiosity does is “historic.”

In NASA’s haste to damper speculation, have they cornered themselves into not making any big announcements on Monday? Or have they only added to the speculation, bolstering the media’s attention? Besides, I get the feeling that the media will see any announcement as a “big” announcement regardless of NASA scientists’ intent. Either way, it’s a shame that the hype may distract from the incredible science the MSL team are carrying out every single day.

For more on “Organicsgate,” read my Al Jazeera English op-ed Mars organics speculation butts heads with scientific process.”

Meanwhile, in deep space, a little probe launched 35 years ago is edging into the interstellar medium and NASA’s Voyager Program team are also holding an AGU press conference on Monday. Although there have been no NPR journalists getting the scoop from mission scientists, it’s worth keeping in mind that Voyager 1 really is about to make history. In October, I reported that the particle detectors aboard the aging spacecraft detected something weird in the outermost reaches of the Solar System. As Voyager 1 ventures deep into the heliosheith — the outermost component of the heliosphere (the Sun’s sphere of influence) — it detected inexplicable high-energy particles. The theory is that these particles are being accelerated by the magnetic mess that is the outermost reaches of the Solar System. But there is growing evidence in particle detections and magnetometer readings that the probe may have just left the Solar System, completely escaping the heliosphere.

A big hint is in the following graphs of data streaming from Voyager 1. The first plot shows the increase in high-energy cosmic ray particle counts. These high-energy particles typically originate from beyond the heliosphere. The bottom plot shows lower-energy particles that originate from the solar wind. Note how the lower-energy particle counts fell off a cliff this summer, and how the high-energy particles have seen a marked increase at around the same period:

High-energy cosmic ray count as detected by Voyager 1. Credit: NASA
High-energy cosmic ray count as detected by Voyager 1. Credit: NASA

Low-energy cosmic ray count as detected by Voyager 1. Credit: NASA
Low-energy cosmic ray count as detected by Voyager 1. Credit: NASA

So, in light of the media-centric Curiosity debate over what is “historic” and what’s not “historic” enough to be announced at conferences, I’m getting increasingly excited for what the Voyager team have got to say tomorrow. It’s inevitable that Voyager 1 will leave the Solar System, but will NASA call it at the AGU? Who knows, but that would be historic, just without the hype.

Intercontinental Travel Is Impossible…

(Imagine an island long, long ago, in an ocean far, far away…)

“Intercontinental travel will never happen. The nearest shore is thousands of miles away. This means that even if we had the ability to row five miles per day from our little island, it would take years to get there!

To rub (sea) salt into the wound, the nearest shoreline is probably not a place we’d want to visit anyway. We’ve heard that beasts of unimaginable horror lurk over the horizon. Even worse, what if that undiscovered country is a desert-like place, or a disease-ridden tropic? Perhaps water doesn’t even flow as a liquid! Imagine trying to live in a land covered with ice. What a thought!

To put it bluntly, our little island is quarantined from the rest of the world. But it’s not a quarantine where we are locked inside an impenetrable room, we’re quarantined by a mind-bogglingly vast expanse of ocean. We live here with only a rowing boat for transportation — you can do some laps around the island in that rowing boat, but that’s all.

Forget about it. Don’t look at those distant shores and think that some day we’ll be able to build an engine for that rowing boat. A little outboard motor wouldn’t get you very far — you’d likely run out of gas before the island is out of sight! Heck, you’ll probably starve before then anyway.

Just go home. Why are you still planning on building a big boat — that sci-fi notion of a metal-hulled “ship” no less! — when you should be worrying more about your little island? We have problems here! Our resources are dwindling, people are starving! Your dreams mean nothing in our everyday lives.”

What am I talking about? Read my Discovery News op-ed to find out…

Mars Rover Curiosity is a Steampunk Creation

The left eye of the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Mars rover Curiosity took this image of the camera on the rover's arm, the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), during the 30th sol of the rover's mission on Mars (Sept. 5, 2012).
The left eye of the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity took this image of the camera on the rover’s arm, the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), during the 30th sol of the rover’s mission on Mars (Sept. 5, 2012).

During the Sept. 6 press conference from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission scientists discussed updates from Curiosity’s progress in Gale Crater. It’s hard to keep up with the incredible deluge of images and scientific data as the six-wheeled rover roves toward its first target — a geologically interesting location called “Glenelg.” Mission managers hope to use Curiosity’s drill for the first time when the rover arrives. Expect mission updates and some pretty cool photos to appear on Discovery News throughout the day.

There was one photograph, however, imaged by the rover’s Mastcam that was showcased in today’s briefing that fascinated me. Shown above, the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) can be seen on the rover’s robotic arm (with dust cap still in place). All the instrumentation and wiring has a very cool Steampunk-esque quality to it.

When I “met” Curiosity at the JPL clean room last year, I was also fascinated by its ugly functionality. By “ugly,” I don’t mean repulsive, I actually fell in love with the robot that day. But with any space mission, function succeeds form and Curiosity is no different. Instruments jut out from a central box; cables snake over all surfaces; gold and silver components are scattered across the deck like opulent jewels; and the whole thing is supported by some seriously heavy duty wheels that wouldn’t look out of place attached to a Bentley cruising through Los Angeles.

Back then, I stared at the Mars exploration machine, whose one purpose is to do science in an alien land, and thought how alien the thing looked. But in all the ugliness of an apparently random assortment of instrumentation, Curiosity has an undeniably beautiful character. Also, it has a WALL-E-like “head” in the form of the blocky ChemCam atop its mast. And now I know what its character is after seeing this latest robotic arm photo; it’s a creation that wouldn’t look out of place in a Steampunk museum or imagined in a H. G. Wells novel. However, this isn’t sci-fi, this is real. We have a nuclear-powered rover on Mars. Sometimes it’s too hard to put such awesomeness into words.

After Historic Discovery, Higgs Flies Economy

Real superstars: Peter Higgs congratulates ATLAS experiment spokesperson Fabiola Gianotti after she announced her collaboration's discovery of a Higgs-like particle (CERN/ATLAS/Getty)
Real superstars: Peter Higgs congratulates ATLAS experiment spokesperson Fabiola Gianotti after she announced her collaboration’s discovery of a Higgs-like particle. Credit: CERN/ATLAS/Getty

I am endlessly baffled by modern society.

We have reality TV stars whose only talent is to shock and annoy, and yet inexplicably have millions of adoring fans. We also have sports superstars who get paid tens of millions of dollars to play a game they love, and yet they still get elevated to God-like status.

And then there’s Professor Peter Higgs, arguably the biggest science superstar of recent years.

The 83-year-old retired theoretical physicist was one of six scientists who, in the 1960s, assembled the framework behind the Higgs boson — the almost-unequivocally-discovered gauge particle that is theorized to carry the Higgs field, thereby endowing matter with mass. The theory behind the Higgs boson and all the high-energy physics experiments pursuing its existence culminated in a grand CERN announcement from Geneva, Switzerland, on Wednesday. With obvious emotion and nerves, lead scientist of the Large Hadron Collider’s CMS detector Joe Incandela announced what we’ve all been impatiently waiting for: “We have observed a new boson.

So, we now have evidence for the existence of the Higgs boson — or a Higgs boson — to a high degree of statistical certainty, ultimately providing observational evidence for a critical piece of the Standard Model. This story began half a century ago with Prof. Higgs’ theoretical team, and it culminated on July 4, 2012, when results from a $10 billion particle accelerator were announced.

After the historic events of the last few days, one would think Peter Higgs would have been at least treated to a First Class flight back to his home in Scotland. But true to form, Higgs had other ideas:

Later, Higgs’s friend and colleague Alan Walker recounted the low-key celebration they held after learning of the breakthrough, one of the most important scientific discoveries of recent years.

Walker said he and Higgs were flying home from CERN in Geneva this week on budget airline easyJet when he offered Higgs a glass of Prosecco sparkling wine so they could toast the discovery.

Higgs replied: “‘I’d rather have a beer’ and popped a can of London Pride,” Walker said.

via Discovery News

In a world where “celebrities” are hailed as superhuman, to hear that potential Nobel Prize candidate Peter Higgs took a budget airline home, after history had been made, typifies the humble nature of a great scientist and puts the world of celebrity to shame. Money and fame matters little to the people who are unraveling the fabric of the Universe.

On a different (yet related) note, Motherboard interviewed people on the streets of Brooklyn and asked them if they knew what the Higgs boson is. Most had never heard of it, let alone understood it (which, let’s face it, isn’t a surprise — many science communicators still have problems explaining the Higgs mechanism). But I wonder if the same group of people were asked if they knew what a “Snookie” was; I’m guessing they’d have no problem answering.

People may not read the news, but they sure have an innate knowledge of who’s in the gossip columns.