The secret to finding life on other planets is not to look for life as we know it

University of Colorado philosopher Carol Cleland, PhD

Perhaps one day we’ll send a spacecraft to a rocky planet orbiting Proxima Centauri. And perhaps the first images arriving back from across 4.2 light years of space will feature a purple Proxima Centurian peering straight back into the camera.

In the popular imagination, alien life has tended to focus on the take-me-to-your-leader/humans-as-snacks variety. Those who have been paying attention, though, know that the life we’re most likely to find on Proxima b, Mars or anywhere else will be microscopic. That sort of life might have very little resemblance to the microbes we’re used to here on Earth.

This gives rise to what appears at first to be a scientific problem, but which in fact something else entirely. The question of how to recognize alien microbes, which astrobiologists assume to be the universe’s most common life form, is to no small degree a philosophical challenge. Philosopher Carol Cleland has been a leading voice in helping NASA and the astrobiology community figure out ways not to miss extraterrestrial microbes right under our robotic emissaries’ noses. [more]

A Late-Breaking Review

QuestVol22No3

I was hanging out at the YMCA of the Rockies Estes Park craft center a couple of weeks back, scrolling through emails as my daughters glued colorful glass shards to pale pine cigarette boxes, when an email came in. Subject line: A review of Jars to Stars.

We were outside at a picnic table, under a sort of tarp-awning, at the time. Tall clouds traded off with sunshine. I looked up at the peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park over Alpen Inn, the lodge where the girls and I were spending a couple of days during the last week of summer vacation, and then to the psychedelically painted, life-sized elk statue beyond the fence. My first instinct was that there must be some mistake.

You see, I published “From Jars to the Stars” in late 2010. It was now mid-2015. How could this be?

As my nine-year-old fretted about her mosaic design (the speed with which my 12-year-old daughter completed hers amplifying her anxiety), I opened the .pdf, which Quest: A History of Spaceflight publisher Scott Sacknoff had kindly attached. I scrolled to the bottom first to see who’d written it up, and was surprised to see the name David DeVorkin, an eminent Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum historian.

It happens that DeVorkin’s work was essential to the early chapters of the book, which chronicle the early days of what became Ball Aerospace. He had had the foresight in the early 1990s to do oral histories with some of the key players. A couple of them had died by the time I came along in the late 2000s; others’ memories had faded further. And anyway, he, being an actual space/astronomy historian, had much a better grip on what questions to ask than I would have had.

The review, while not without valid criticisms, was enthusiastic. So I’m now doubly indebted to its author.

 

Pluto Man

Items from the New Horizons launch press packet, which have been hanging out in a Southwest Research Institute folder for nine-and-a-half years.

Items from the New Horizons launch press packet, which have been hanging out in a Southwest Research Institute folder for nine-and-a-half years.

You may have heard: NASA has a mission flying past Pluto tomorrow. New Horizons. The thing’s been in space for nine-and-a-half years. I was there at the launch, covering it for the Boulder Daily Camera. Wrote probably 15 stories about the mission, several of them from Cape Canaveral. It was my first and only live space shot. I can still feel the Atlas V in my gut if I sufficiently still myself.

It is my second-most-favorite-ever space mission, after Deep Impact, around which I based a book. I wanted to write a book about New Horizons, too. The focus would have been about its principal investigator, who is a big boss with a PhD. Alan Stern, based at the Southwest Research Institute offices he had founded in Boulder, a remarkable dude. We sat down for lunch maybe three years ago and talked it out. He was game. I pitched it as “Pluto Man,” though that’s a pretty narrow view of the actual man, in retrospect. Alan was very nearly an astronaut, served as NASA’s head of space science (this after the New Horizons launch) and has become a major player in NewSpace. That’s jargon for Blue Origins, SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and their ilk. So there’s much more going on with this man than just Pluto.

NewHorizons-Speeds

Good that New Horizons didn’t launch on a bicycle.

The pitch didn’t achieve orbit, you could say. I talked to Alan again and proposed a Kindle Single, maybe 30,000 words. That seemed to be going somewhere until it didn’t seem like it anymore. I wondered if, having found it difficult to find a market for a book about a lot of interesting people in the space business, it might be a similar challenge with Alan Stern and New Horizons. And then I sort of let it go, knowing that Alan and his team would be getting no shortage of attention as their craft approached Pluto. I do kind of regret it now.

NewHorizons-stickers

New Horizons schwag included lots of pretty stickers.

But then, Michael Lemonick’s story in the June 2015 edition of Smithsonian, “One Man’s Lifelong Pursuit of Pluto is About to Get Real,” is along the lines of what I’d have put together, and tens of thousands of words shorter.

New Horizons is an amazingly cool thing, truly as exciting as any robotic space mission we’ve ever done. I mean, it’s traveled 3 billion miles over nearly a decade just to get to the point. We know so little about the place — when Ira Flatow asked Alan on the most recent Science Friday how much we don’t know about Pluto, he responded in the converse, saying we could fit what we do know on a couple of 3×5 cards. Given that Alan co-wrote a book about Pluto, this was more media savvy than statement of fact. But compared to any other of our solar system’s non-Oort bodies, the dwarf planets of the Kuiper Belt remain the least understood. And the photos already coming back — well, to put in perspective how much better they are than what we’ve had heretofore, check out this, which was, until New Horizons’ approach, the best we had ever mustered:

Hubble's view of Pluto, taken in 1996. Note that Alan Stern and Mark Buie, both on the New Horizons team, were credited. So Stern will have been responsible, more or less, for every decent image we have of Pluto.

Hubble’s view of Pluto, taken in 1996. Note that Alan Stern and Mark Buie, both on the New Horizons team, were credited. So Stern will have been responsible, more or less, for every decent image we have of Pluto. Also note that the crisper, bigger renderings aren’t what Hubble saw; Hubble saw the blobs in the corners up top.

I’m going to stop now, before I start repeating a bunch of stuff Emily Lakdawalla has already said far more professionally.

I kept my media kit back in 2006, from which I’ve scattered photos about this post. To add length to accommodate them all, I’ll add my favorite of my New Horizons stories, mainly because of the lede. I loved that this brilliant, successful space scientist on the eve of his second-greatest career moment (his greatest happening tomorrow, upon New Horizons’ flyby) was wearing a ring his dad had bent and welded into shape from a NASA lapel pin.

 


 

Space exploration project was a long shot

Daily Camera, The (Boulder, CO) – Friday, January 20, 2006

Author/Byline: Todd Neff Camera Staff Writer
Section: News
Page: A01

Part of the New Horizons education and public outreach offerings included a growth chart. My kids didn't hit the bottom of the chart at the time, being  3 months old and two-and-a-half years old at the time. They're 9 and 12 now.

Part of the New Horizons education and public outreach offerings included a growth chart. My kids didn’t hit the bottom of the chart at the time, being 3 months old and two-and-a-half years old at the time. They’re nearly 10 and 12 now.

In the days leading to Thursday’s successful launch of the New Horizons mission to Pluto, Southwest Research Institute scientist Alan Stern wore a bulky ring crafted from a NASA lapel pin, a 10-cent piece and a steel bolt stretched and shaped to hug his finger.

His father, Leonard, 74, made it for him.

“It’s kind of hokey, but I wore it for good luck,” said Stern, the Southwest Research Institute scientist from Boulder leading the largest scientist-led mission in NASA’s history.

It took more than luck to bring New Horizons to the launch pad.

“I never thought it would get here,” said Ed Weiler, the NASA official who approved New Horizons on Nov. 29, 2001. “New Horizons was a mission with a history of meeting impossible requirements repeatedly.”

Weiler is now head of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., which did environmental testing on the spacecraft.

For more than a decade, at least three Pluto missions – Pluto 350, Pluto Fast Flyby and Pluto Express – had gone nowhere. Weiler pulled the plug on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory-led Pluto Express in September 2000. Its projected costs had ballooned from about $500 million to roughly $1 billion.

Three months later, Colleen Hartman, then NASA’s Solar System Exploration Division director, concluded that a Pluto mission had to happen by early 2006. As of Feb. 3, Jupiter’s orbit would no longer provide a gravity assist, delaying Pluto arrival by as much as five years.

In addition, Pluto reached its closest point to the sun in 1989 and already was receding on its 248-year orbit. Each passing year increased the risk of Pluto’s atmosphere freezing and collapsing into a nitrogen frost that snows onto the planet’s surface. That would pare back substantially a Pluto mission’s scientific bounty, and the planet wouldn’t warm again for more than 200 years.

Weiler agreed, and Hartman’s group released a detailed call for Pluto mission proposals within a month; that step typically takes six months. The spacecraft would require a suite of miniaturized, energy-efficient instruments with few, if any, moving parts. It would need to be prepared for the chilly rigors of the solar system`s outer reaches. It also would need a nuclear power source and a major-league rocket.

The craft’s nuclear power source – needed for missions venturing too far from the sun for solar panels to work – presented another challenge.

As many as 40 federal, state and local agencies had to sign off in record time. Hartman, now a top official in NASA’s science mission directorate, credits long hours at NASA, the U.S. Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the White House and elsewhere.

“When we approved (New Horizons), we knew that a lot of people would pull for a mission to this blessed little planet, and that they wanted to make it happen,” she said.

Stern would agree. At the post-launch news conference Thursday, he thanked the thousands of people who contributed to the effort in various ways.

But Stern’s leadership was vital. Glen Fountain, the New Horizons program manager at Johns Hopkins University`s Applied Physics Laboratory, which built New Horizons, said Stern had a vision of where the project needed to go and what had to get done.

Fountain alluded to Stern’s habit of giving team members pencils sharpened down to a stub.

SternPencil-ed

My Alan Stern “persistence” pencil. A prized possession from which we can all learn.

“This little pencil is about persistence – that`s the key. You do not stop. You keep going,” Fountain said. “Alan had that vision for years. He brought that vision to the team.”

As for what his vision was, Stern closed with it in his 1998 book, “Pluto and Charon.”

“To see the solar system’s ninth sister as she really is, we must go to her. And amazingly, our species has developed the will, and the way, to do just that,” Stern wrote. “So guard your secrets while you can, Pluto! We are coming.”

 

What’s the use of math? – a JWST example

JWST LaGrange point map

The James Webb Space Telescope will orbit something called L2, discovered thanks to math in an era where only sheep (and a duck and a rooster) flew. (Courtesy NASA)

My 12-year-old daughter, as 12-year-old daughters do, asked me what’s the use of math. I wrote a book about space engineers. Their work is the manifestation of math. I have taken to answering with something along the lines of “math gives us the ability to model the universe and everything in it. And it keeps bridges from falling down on us.”

If we’re in a vehicle when she asks what the use of math is, I might add, “It keeps the wheels from falling off this car.” Recently, I did a story, yet unpublished, about a steel research center at the Colorado School of Mines. One of its co-founders mentioend offhand that there are 11 types of structural steel in nose of a car’s frame, all for a specific reason. He showed me this video of a 1959 Chevy Bel Air crashing head-on into a 2009 Chevy Malibu. The difference in the wreckage, to no small degree, was math.

Yesterday, reading a bit about the Hubble Space Telescope’s 25th anniversary, I came upon a great pure-math example. It has to do with the JWST, not to be confused with SxSW.

The James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble’s successor planned for launch in October 2018, will look farther into the universe’s history than Hubble or any other telescope. It will do more to figure out potentially habitable planets orbiting distant suns, too. It will do all sorts of other stuff to clarify the universe’s development and our place in it. It will cost about $9 billion. Ball Aerospace, the company I wrote about, did up the 18 gold-coated super-lightweight beryllium mirrors, which will unfold into a 21-foot primary mirror.

The JWST will rely on an infrared detector, which has to be kept super-cold. They had to find just the right spot for it in space. The mission designers chose the second Lagrange point (a.k.a. L2), about a million miles away – roughly four times the distance from Earth to the moon. They weren’t the first mission designers to have done this.

From the JWST web page about its future orbit (emphasis mine):

The L2 orbit is an elliptical orbit about the semi-stable second Lagrange point. It is one of the five solutions by the mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange in the 18th century to the three-body problem. Lagrange was searching for a stable configuration in which three bodies could orbit each other yet stay in the same position relative to each other. He found five such solutions, and they are called the five Lagrange points in honor of their discoverer.

Lagrange was a contemporary of the Montgolfier brothers. The outer limits of aerospace innovation in those days involved a sheep, a duck and a rooster in a hot air balloon. Lagrange wasn’t looking for applications, couldn’t have conceived of a space telescope. He was just doing math.

From Jars to Stars to… Mars @Slate.com

Courtesy Ball Aerospace.

Courtesy Ball Aerospace.

A closely held secret among journalists is that, once you write a story, the mind tends to shed the details rather hastily. And so, despite seeming authoritative — and actually being rather authoritative — for the duration of a given story and for a day or two afterward, it fades fast. Hence the need for beat reporters, who gain depth and source bases through reps.

I had been wondering to what extent the same would happen with things related to Ball Aerospace, having closed the book on the book about four years ago. Sam Lemonick, a freelance writer, gave me a chance to assess that.

Sam came upon the idea of writing a story about how strange it was that Ball Aerospace, this company making instruments for the Orion mission slated for its first orbital test tomorrow (scrubbed today; winds and a goofy valve), was the same Ball that once made the mason jars. Slate published it today on Future Tense.

Ball Aerospace spokeswoman Roz Brown, who was a huge help when I was reporting the book from 2006-2009ish, mentioned to Sam that he wasn’t the first to wonder about the jars-stars connection. She called me last week when I was walking around a private zoo west of Phoenix, one with just loads of macaws and not a few loitering ducks.

I found that, while I had to cram a bit on the specifics, I remembered the broad strokes reasonably well. I was also reminded how much I love the Ball Aerospace origins story. When I started out, I was thinking about writing about a specific mission, Deep Impact. I hadn’t intended to spend time at the Minnetrista Heritage Collection in Muncie, Ind. and various Washington D.C. archives, or to have Roz recall boxes full of old documents slated for shredding back up to Boulder for my perusal. That all tallied up to months of work and about one-third of the book, and it gave the thing its depth.

Sam and I spoke while I was waiting for my 11 year old to finish up a freestyle session at a rink in Scottsdale, Arizona, and even while talking with him, I was keenly aware of not saying much of anything quotable. But his story has a lot of good stuff from the book and he did a great job with the piece, so check it out.

Courtesy Ball Aerospace.

Courtesy Ball Aerospace.