The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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We Need More Science Teachers

One more video posted from BTR, this one an interview on science teaching in particular and why we need more science teachers.

Applications open for Mars One, the first human space colony | Ars Technica

Artists conception of the Block II Space Launch System (SLS). By NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Want to travel to space and live on Mars? Are you willing to make that ticket one-way only? Ars Technica is reporting that  applications are open for Mars One, the first human space colony:

Mars One—the private space project that plans to be the first to send humans to Mars and leave them there—officially opened its virtual doors to would-be Mars residents, per a press release and press conference Monday. Today is the first day anyone who has ever thought it might be neat to put on a helmet and see Earth from outside its atmosphere can submit an application to be considered for the first permanent human colony on Mars. The Mars One foundation reports it has received 10,000 messages of interest about the program prior to this point. We’ll soon see how many of those translate to applications.

The Mars One project was started by Bas Lansdorp, a Dutch entrepreneur, with the goal of setting up a small human-inhabited outpost on Mars. The tentative schedule has supplies landing on the red planet in 2016 and the settlers in 2023.

Whoa. If you need a sign that commercial spaceflight is on the verge of a huge new era, look no further than this ambitious declaration.

The major hurdle is getting the mass up there. Climbing out of Earth’s gravity well takes up lots of energy, and that translates to high costs per kilogram of payload. Moreover, currently available launch systems simply do not have the capacity to launch enough at one time for large-scale missions to be practical. However,  With NASA’s Space Launch System (70 MT to LEO) and private heavy-lift launch vehicles like Space X’s Falcon Heavy (53 MT to LEO) coming online soon, long-range / long-duration missions (as well as space settlement) get much closer to being reality.

Ideally, we would want to reduce the material we launch from Earth as much as possible. Taking advantage of in-space resources, such as commercial asteroid mining, will be the key to establishing a long term space economy. That will require essential infrastructure, such as energy generation and orbital processing and construction facilities, to be put into place first. The Mars One project clearly doesn’t plan to wait around for such infrastructure though. In this case, the mission seems focused on a proof-of-concept to inspire blaze the trail.

With all of these private plans to forge ahead out into the black, it worries me that the policy side of the discourse seems to be severely lacking. Mired and gridlocked even with the basic problems of today, it does not seem as though our Congress is prepared, knowledgeable, or open-minded enough to even consider the basic questions at stake. As of now, there are few if any laws or legal precedents governing human and corporate conduct in space. Even more basic, no one seems to know who even has the right or authority to make such laws. It would be a shame, even dangerous for the future of the species, to allow unregulated expansion into the solar system.

  • Who has authority and jurisdiction over space?
  • How does one claim property in space? Can a private corporation simply land and claim a whole moon for example?
  • How will laws be enforced, assuming they exist?
  • Do international rules and identities apply in space?
  • How will the immense resources of space and the solar system be distributed, taxed, and/or appropriated?
  • Do people, especially workers, have rights in space?
  • Can corporations and private citizens declare war on each other for resources?

Space could be the next Wild West, only orders of magnitude more lawless and destructive to natural systems. If we are not careful, the bold dreams of colonizing the solar system and expanding humanity into the stars could quickly become tainted by exploitation, corruption, and greed. The action is happening already, whether we are ready for it or not — and we must engage with the issue now, at the outset.

A Sense of Perspective

Every now and then, usually when something like politics or racism or injustice or terrorism or whatever else gets nasty, I find it helpful to get a dose of perspective. Thanks to ESO’s VISTA telescope, we have THIS:

It may not look like much at first, until you realize that those points of light are not stars, but whole galaxies. Process that for a minute: you’re looking at over 200,000 galaxies, each one with anywhere from 100,000,000,000 to 300,000,000,000 stars.

Oh, and according to BadAstronomer’s post about this deep-field image, this is only a 1.2 x 1.5 degree patch of sky. That means those 60,000,000,000,000,000 (sixty quadrillion) suns are in just approximately 0.004% of the observable area of the sky. And that’s just what we can see with our current instruments and given where we are in the universe. (You can get the full image from ESO.)


Feeling humble yet? This is really why we do science and exploration.

By expanding the frontiers of what is possible, we move beyond present constraints to worldly solutions. By exploring, we discover more about ourselves, where we came from, and where we could be going. In doing the hardest things imaginable, we develop systems and methods and materials and technologies that rain down into all areas of human life.

And by always striving to look upward at the immensity of the beauty around us, we are constantly humbled into looking inward at how we can make our speck of the universe a better place for our fellow human beings.

If I ever find myself caught up in the mundane, wound up about something petty, or angry at someone or something else, despairing for humanity, or wondering why I should keep striving against something difficult… this is among the set of pictures I look at.

It’s good to keep a sense of perspective.

Our Choice

“Those worlds in space are as countless as all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the Earth. Each of those worlds is as real as ours. In every one of them, there’s a succession of incidence, events, occurrences which influence its future. Countless worlds, numberless moments, an immensity of space and time. And our small planet, at this moment, here we face a critical branch-point in the history. What we do with our world, right now, will propagate down through the centuries and powerfully affect the destiny of our descendants. It is well within our power to destroy our civilization, and perhaps our species as well. If we capitulate to superstition, or greed, or stupidity we can plunge our world into a darkness deeper than time between the collapse of classical civilization and the Italian Renaissance. But, we are also capable of using our compassion and our intelligence, our technology and our wealth, to make an abundant and meaningful life for every inhabitant of this planet. To enhance enormously our understanding of the Universe, and to carry us to the stars.”

– Carl Sagan, Cosmos episode 8, “Journeys in Space and Time”

Uwingu and Funding for Science/Exploration

I caught the word from Dr. Pamela Gay (on whom I have a giant nerdcrush) about a new start-up that is trying to change the way science and exploration are funded. Uwingu is in the middle of a fundraiser on Indiegogo right now. Details are sparse, but the generally idea seems to be that it is a for-profit company that will use a combination of donor contributions and revenue-generating projects to maintain a fund for supporting exploration and education ideas related to space and science. Their stated motivation is that government funding for R&D seems to be getting slashed all the time, and they want to take matters into their own hands:

Tired of seeing space research and education always the victim of governmental budget cuts? Want to see a change in space funding and increased funds for space exploration, science, and space education? Uwingu LLC wants to effect these kinds of changes in a new way.

I’m actually really curious to see how this turns out, and I wish them all the best; any new venture in science and exploration based on peaceful discovery certainly deserves support. However, I’m a bit skeptical that this is a solution to where we are with R&D as a country.

Private space exploration and private R&D is an important and growing sector of the space industry, and it should be. I’m really proud to have friends working for Space X and similar companies that are pushing forward on opening up space and the associated economic frontier to more people. But there is something very unique about government research and exploration that is, almost by definition, lacking in the private sector: a focus on the public good. When I was a NASA research engineer, all of my research was, by law, made as widely available as possible. My papers were not even subject to copyright protection.

The research that is performed and funded daily by agencies such as NASA, the Departments of Energy and Defense, the NIH, NOAA, EPA, and many others is disseminated broadly. These new ideas and technologies are, by and large, are made freely available to and inform the activities and decisions of academia, private industry, other government agencies, and even other governments. With the exception of classified or ITAR information withheld for national security reasons, the general public receives the benefits and the world improves as a whole.

The crew of Apollo 11 (rest in peace Neil Armstrong), though Americans landing on the moon in an American spacecraft, did not claim the moon on behalf of the US Government, patent the landing method, or copyright their scientific findings. In fact, they didn’t even mention their country of origin on the plaque they set in the surface of the first other-wordly body our species has visited:


JULY 1969, A.D.


Would we be able to say the same if the first explorers on the moon had been from BP or Lockheed Martin or Big Pharma?

Mad props to the founders of Uwingu for getting such a project off the ground; I think we are going to see some really innovative things come out of this endeavor. But we should be cautious about throwing all of our eggs in the privately-funded science basket. No matter how well-intentioned and responsible, a private for-profit company is not the same thing as a national science or exploration program.

Efforts like Uwingu are necessary and welcome, but they are no replacement for a robust, publicly-funded, diverse, and national vision for science and exploration.

A scientific landscape controlled solely by a patchwork of for-profit interests and private agendas could make for a dangerous, or at least more fragmented and segregated, human society.

Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, has died of cancer at age 61

We live in a great neighborhood.


Parts of Mars Interior as Wet as Earth’s

The interior of Mars holds vast reservoirs of water, with some spots apparently as wet as Earth’s innards, scientists say.

The finding upends previous studies, which had estimated that the Red Planet’s internal water stores were scanty at best — something of a surprise, given that liquid water apparently flowed on the Martian surface long ago.

“It’s been puzzling why previous estimates for the planet’s interior have been so dry,” co-author Erik Hauri, of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, said in a statement. “This new research makes sense and suggests that volcanoes may have been the primary vehicle for getting water to the surface.”

In just 44 days, NASA most advanced Mars rover ever, Curiosity, will land on the surface of the red planet on August 5th. This bad boy is massive for a rover… about 10 feet long, and about 4 times as heavy as the space agency’s two previous (and astoundingly successful) rovers, Spirit and Opportunity.

One of the coolest things about Curiosity is its Entry Descent and Landing (EDL) sequence. This video depicts and describes it better than I could ever do, so I’ll jlet them do that.

(I will add, however, that I think it’s cool that much like the Apollo lunar lander and other landers since, they test these things in the Mojave.)

Titan has seasonal weather, landforms, stable liquid lakes and rivers (probably of light hydrocarbon alkanes), a dense atmosphere that is primarily nitrogen, and a ton of water ice. Not surprisingly then, it is a prime candidate for extraterrestrial microbial life, or perhaps in a “pre-life” stage, and right here in our own neighborhood.

Um, yeah, so… why are we not outfitting our manned explorer vessel again? Or at least, oh, a few dozen unmanned probes? 


Rhea Before Titan

Now let’s build a ship to sail it.


Triton: The Outer Most Ocean in The Solar System

A new day dawns on Triton. It’s going to be a cold one, much like the last. And the one before that… and every day since the moon settled into its present orbit around Neptune. Even the volcanoes here spew out cold gases and liquid water rather than hot magma. But below the frigid surface, which registers a temperature of -235 °C, there’s something more clement: a liquid ocean.

At first glance, Triton seems to be just another icy moon – a featureless, barren world spinning around Neptune, the outermost planet of our solar system. But Triton is different.

For one thing, it orbits Neptune backwards, moving in the opposite direction to Neptune’s rotation. It’s the only large moon in the solar system to do so. Satellites can’t form in these “retrograde” orbits, so Triton must have begun life elsewhere before being captured by the gas giant. It looks a lot like Pluto, and probably came from the same place – the inner edge of the Kuiper Belt, close to Neptune.

The Voyager 2 spacecraft flew past Triton in 1989, sending back images of the moon’s frozen surface. They revealed signs of cryovolcanism – the eruption of subsurface liquids which quickly freeze when exposed to the cold of the outer solar system. As such, Triton joins a short list of worlds in the solar system known to be geologically active.

Its surface ice is unique, too: largely composed of nitrogen, with some cantaloupe-textured terrain, and a polar cap of frozen methane.