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NASA Likely to Break Radiation Rules to Go to Mars

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NASA’s biggest obstacle to sending humans to Mars may not be related to line items in budgets, but to the safety of the astronauts themselves. Despite having sent humans into space for nearly 55 years, NASA doesn’t quite understand what risks the radiation out there poses. More importantly, the agency doesn’t know exactly how to manage those risks—and it might not be able to.

Space radiation presents the tallest hurdle to NASA’s future travel plans that extend beyond low-Earth orbit and for periods longer than a year. On the International Space Station, astronauts are bombarded with 10 times as much radiation as they experience on Earth in a given period; on Mars, they will encounter 100 times the terrestrial dose.

When NASA sends astronauts on its planned two-year-long Martian trip, they’re probably going to break their own rules about radiation exposure, which already set limits above those for most workers here on Earth. As a report from NASA’s Office of the Inspector General put it, “Based on current knowledge, astronauts on a mission to Mars would exceed NASA’s career radiation dosage limits. Although the Agency plans to continue efforts to develop countermeasures to address the radiation risk, NASA is likely to seek an exception from the current standards for those that cannot be fully mitigated.”

12 Month Study

NASA’s understanding of the effects of long-term exposure to radiation in deep space is still in flux. While the government has been concerned with radiation hazards on a potential Mars mission since going to the fourth planet became a goal, it wasn’t until November 2012 that they realized they had the opportunity to perform a controlled experiment on humans, looking at the effects of space radiation.

NASA was set to announce that astronaut Scott Kelly would go to the Space Station for 12 months, to participate in the agency’s aptly named One Year Mission. The plan was to send an American astronaut—Kelly—and a Russian cosmonaut—Mikhail Kornienko—to orbit for twice as long as most space-farers, and then study the physiological and psychological effects of the trip. The results would help space agencies prepare for longer-term space missions like the planned journey to Mars.

The day before the press conference, NASA officials met to help Kelly prep. At the very end of the gathering, as everyone was shuffling papers and standing up to leave, someone asked, “Hey, are we doing anything with the twins?”

By this, they meant Kelly’s gene-sharing, same-aged brother, Mark Kelly—who had also spent time in the astronaut corps.

“No, that would just be a stunt,” said John Charles, head of the One Year Mission. “We’re not going to do anything.”

But as people began to file out of the room, Mike Barrett—Charles’s boss and manager of NASA Human Research Program—stopped Charles and said, “Not so fast.”

And soon, they sat down and made a plan for the “Twins Study,” mapping out research that would be good for more than just publicity: a formal project to compare how the bodily and brainy functions of Mark—living, as Charles says, “la vida loca” as a retiree in Tucson—and Kelly—living in space. Scientists would study how the characteristics of a claustrophobic space environment—the lack of gravity, the astronaut ice cream, the serotonin-boosting view out the window, the cortisol of launch, the screwed-up sleep schedule—contributed to any differences between the two men’s biology. “Our experiments are not clean. They are a juxtaposition of all these stressors,” Charles says. “We, being rocket scientists, try to figure out which phenomenon is related to which stressor.”

And perhaps the biggest body-stressing difference between Earth and orbit is the amount of bombarding radiation.

“Like Cellophane”

Radiation is the catch-all term for high-energy particles like protons and nuclei that can tear into human microanatomy. A few different kinds of radiation exist under that umbrella: the radiation that’s trapped by the Earth’s protective electromagnetic shield; the radiation that comes from the Sun; the radiation that comes from deep space, like supernova explosions; and the secondary radiation that is spawned when, say, a supernova particle smashes into some other matter, like a spacecraft hull or an astronaut’s head.

The Earth-trapped radiation and the particles that fly from our star don’t pose huge problems, because the former is localized and the latter doesn’t have much energy (comparatively). But those deep space particles, more formally called “galactic cosmic radiation”—watch out, journeyers.

“They rip through you like you’re cellophane,” says biomedical and health informaticist Dan Masys of the University of Washington. Engineers haven’t yet found a way to protect astronauts’ fragile, cellophane selves against such bombardment.

NASA sets its own thresholds for how much radiation is too much, but that wasn’t always true. Astronauts used to fall into the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s “radiation workers” category, like pilots and people who work at nuclear reactors. OSHA places caps on the particles a worker can encounter and, on top of that, demands that organizations keep exposure “as low as reasonably achievable.” They call this the ALARA Principle.

But today, ALARA is the only principle by which NASA abides. Terrestrial radiation worker limits proved too low for celestial employees, so OSHA gave NASA a waiver, allowing the agency to create its own guidelines. OSHA’s limits don’t apply anymore. NASA’s Office of the Chief Health and Medical Officer now sets the limits, which say that an astronaut’s exposure to radiation shouldn’t increase their risk of death from cancer by more than 3%. Yet that same office will grant new exceptions if trips beyond low-Earth orbit will put astronauts at radiative risk greater than what’s now allowed, as the agency suspects they will.

“It Depends”

NASA’s current chief medical officer is J.D. Polk. And Polk tells me that while some other space agencies lay down a blanket radiation limit—saying none of their employees can exceed a set and static dose—NASA doesn’t. Instead, the agency takes an astronaut’s age and sex into account. Women have higher cancer risk because of their breasts, ovaries, and uteri; they also have an unexplained increased risk of radiation-induced lung cancer. Their limits, then, are lower than men’s.

The older someone is, the less a doped-up dose means to them. “If I expose a 55-year-old astronaut to radiation and they have 20–30 years in which that radiation exposure might produce a cancer, that’s a different risk than if I expose a 30-year-old to that same radiation,” Polk says. “So if you ask what the NASA career limit is, the answer is, ‘It depends.’ ”

And if you ask whether NASA would be willing to break its cancer-focused career limits to go forward with a big-picture space mission, the answer is maybe.

But the trouble is that the radiation problem isn’t limited to cancer, something which NASA acknowledges. They have it all laid out in a set of thirty-plus “Evidence Reports on Human Health Risks” that are produced by their Human Research Program and reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences, which selects independent experts to assess the quality and rigor of NASA’s work.

Masys is one of those experts. This year, he was the vice-chair of the committee that prepared the fourth of five such assessments, one slated to come out each year from 2014–2018. Each addresses a subset of the tens of evidence reports, which deal with everything from sleep loss to habitat design to the microbiome to nutrition. Much of this year’s analysis dealt with radiation reports. Masys says that, so far, NASA hasn’t been surprised by anything the committee has said—“other than their mild surprise that we have anchored radiation as the deal breaker,” he says. “It is the showstopper for what NASA calls exploration-class missions.”

Masys doesn’t use the words “deal breaker” and “showstopper” lightly. According to NASA’s reports and the Academy’s evaluation, cancer-inducing radiation can also cause cardiovascular and degenerative diseases—like cataracts, premature aging, and endocrine problems—a risk “of much greater concern than previously believed.” It can also rejigger the central nervous system, screwing with everything from cognition to spatial perception to hand-eye coordination. Then there’s the infertility, the cataracts, the slow wound healing, and the problems that astronauts could pass on to future children if they make it back from the long trip to Mars and manage to procreate.

For several of these medical matters, scientists don’t understand the underlying mechanisms. And so far, their research into those mechanisms, and their manifestations, has mostly involved the low-energy particles from Earth or near-space—not the high-energy cosmic rays from farther off—and radiation exposure that falls in one fell swoop, like the swoop of a nuclear bomb. Often, too, researchers base their conclusions on animal models that they haven’t translated to humans. Both NASA’s and the Academy’s documents say that long-term missions will be radiation-risky for the foreseeable future—maybe forever.

“For as long as there have been catalogs of health effects, radiation has been the most intractable, most severe, hardest problem to solve,” Masys says. “Now, 20 or more years into advances in space technology and propulsion and systems and vehicles, radiation is still the deal breaker. It has never changed.”

Engineering Solutions?

NASA has been hard at work on the problem. The agency is attempting to determine how radiation might impact crewed Mars missions with research projects like the Twins Study and the One Year Mission, with on-the-ground facilities like the Space Radiation Laboratory, and with biology research in laboratories. But they are also hoping to engineer ways to decrease exposure.

“We talk about time, distance, and shielding,” Polk says. If the agency creates faster rockets, astronauts can spend less time in transit. They can time trips for low-emission points in the solar cycle that also put Earth close to Mars. And then they can build better barriers between astronauts and space. Perhaps advances in nano- or materials science will bring a lightweight, launch-friendly material that efficiently traps the offending particles before they slam through skin. Medical types could also develop drugs that undo or protect against bodily harm when particles do slam into skin. But none of those are reality yet.

“NASA, as a future-thinking engineering organization, believes they will find a solution,” Masys says. “And so the real issue is, well, how soon? They would be the first to tell you there is not a solution in hand right now.”

In the future, when NASA is actually making deep-space trips, engineers and biologists will likely have better tools on hand. But will those tools allow NASA to abide by its astronaut-protecting guidelines? Or will the agency alter the guidelines for the good of human exploration?

It’s a burden that NASA has to bear, but one the private space industry doesn’t have to bother with. If Elon Musk wanted to send someone to Mars tomorrow, radiation guidelines probably wouldn’t stop him.

Private space companies like Musk’s SpaceX fall under the watchful eyes of the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration. Crew members—employees of the space tourism company—will be protected by OSHA regulations. But occupational standards don’t apply to the passengers, who are not working for SpaceX or whoever else flies beyond the atmosphere, or for the federal government. As Alyssa Megan Sieffert, now an attorney-advisor at NASA’s Office of the Inspector General, wrote in the journal The SciTech Lawyer, “Nonemployees are likely to be exempt from dose limitations.” They could, potentially, endure as much radiation as they want. If Musk wanted to send a remotely operated, fully-tourist trip to Mars—as with the two tourists he’s sending around the Moon in 2019—he just could, as long as he informed them all the radiation wasn’t good for them.

The way the law works, the Secretary of Transportation cannot create preventative regulations that would stop the first rich tourist from dying of cosmos-caused cancer or cardiovascular disease while cataracts cloud their eyes. As the code says, regulations issued by the secretary “shall…be limited to restricting or prohibiting design features or operating practices that…have resulted in a serious or fatal injury…during a licensed or permitted commercial human space flight; or contributed to an unplanned event or series of events during a licensed or permitted commercial human space flight that posed a high risk of causing a serious or fatal injury.” In other words, only once something goes wrong in commercial spaceflight can the Secretary bring into being a new safety regulation to prevent a similar situation from happening in the future.

No Easy Task

Research like the Twins Study will help medical types determine the effects and ethics of that rule-breaking. NASA released the radiation data from the Kelly Study to researchers on February 28. “They’re just now opening those files up,” Charles says.

Figuring out how radiation affected Scott Kelly’s corporeality—and how it didn’t—won’t be easy. “This is not like Bones or CSI,” Charles says. “You don’t pick up a cigarette butt and put it in your whizmo machine.”

Regardless of the findings, though, of these or future studies, astronauts like Kelly would probably always raise their hands to go, whether it was strictly good for them or not. “Astronauts are a risk-taking group. That’s part of their persona,” Masys says. “The agency has to have a more prudent approach to risk than the astronauts themselves.”

We Should Explore Mars So Students Will Keep Dreaming Big

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We must teach science as the greatest adventure story of all time; and allow and inspire students to dream beyond their house, their town, and their own Earth-bound experience.

Why send humans to Mars? Because as Gene Roddenberry said, “We are on a journey to keep an appointment with whatever we are.” As a space science educator, a lover of Star Trek, and someone who played “astronaut” on the playground, sending humans to Mars is more than just a good sci-fi fantasy, it is an imperative for humanity.  Mars is the first outpost in the colonization of other worlds. And thanks to countless orbiters, landers, and rovers… the more we learn about it, the more Mars beckons.

For the past 16 years, I have endeavored to find ways to connect students’ natural curiosity with the wonders of our solar system and the universe, and always with an eye looking back at Earth. As a STEM/STEAM educator, I believe that we must teach science as the greatest adventure story of all time; and allow and inspire students to dream beyond their house, their town, and their own Earth-bound experience.

Listen to any scientist, engineer or entrepreneurial visionary who is passionate and committed about going to Mars and you will see that the parallels between a human endeavor to Mars and an education that elevates STEM/STEAM skills are remarkably similar. Getting to Mars and creating a skilled labor force for our nation is all about building with the same organic material. And I am not talking about aluminum, steel or titanium. I am talking about the robust material of minds… young, brilliant, future scientific and engineering minds.

Howard Bloom, founder, and chair of the Space Development Steering Committee says it this way: “Rockets roar into space using two forms of fuel.  One is the liquid in the rocket’s tanks.  The other is the fuel in the human heart.  Yes, big dreams are fueled by the raw stuff of the human spirit:  excitement, awe, and desire.  Those emotions power us to do the impossible.  So when you’re looking for a goal, find the one that excites you and your fellow humans the most.”

And what is more exciting than the possibility of donning your spacesuit and hopping in a rocket headed roughly 140 million miles away from Earth to solve mysteries awaiting and to make discoveries on the Red Planet that are yearning to be known?

All you have to do is introduce students to Mars and the possibility of going there, have them imagine walking on its surface, invite them to think about how to make the planet habitable, and you’ll have students leaning forward, asking questions, and getting curious. Ask, did life arise independently on Mars and then fall into total extinction or does some tiny remnant remain in the water ice of a deep martian crater? Conversations, hypotheses, and scientific investigation will then commence.  Let students know that the best explorers aren’t rovers but humans, and how what takes a rover weeks to analyze could be done by human hands and minds in mere hours. As they ruminate on the fact that the finest computer ever built sits atop their shoulders,  show them Ray Bradbury’s, The Martian Chronicles, and amazing space illustrations by Chesley Bonestell, Fred Freeman, and Rolf Klep. Watch as they become enthralled with Mars.  It is an inspiration by visual stimuli. Then ask the students to write, draw, graph, or calculate their version of what a 21st-century manned mission to Mars would be like, and there will be a virtual martian dust storm of ideas.

A brilliant girl named Resaiah heard me say in a presentation that twelve men had walked on the Moon, but no women. The next day she handed me a story she had written called “Astronaut World.” In it, she wrote about a future mission when the people of Earth landed on Mars and a woman named Resaiah took her first bold steps on the martian surface. This young student had a moment of engagement and an experience of wonder, and she used creativity to envision herself in the future. As Socrates once said, “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.”

In May, at the Humans to Mars Summit in Washington, D.C, scouts from the area were invited to attend a workshop to imagine and create their version of a settlement on Mars. Later that evening, three scouts (average age 11) came on stage and in great detail shared everything from how they were going to melt the polar ice caps, to where they would store the water, to how they would use greenhouses to grow food, to the underground tunnels they would build to traverse between habitats to avoid the harsh effects of radiation, to where they would park their rovers: creative enough to imagine to be the ones who will first step foot on Martian soil.

Many challenge the expense of a human Mars mission when Earth already has so many problems.  But where would we be without the knowledge developed by America’s space program in the past 50 years? GPS, better robotics for human prostheses, nanotechnology, smartphones and the list goes on. Kaci Heins, Education Supervisor for Space Center Houston, says, “We must go to learn the story of Mars and to push the next level of science, technology, engineering, and math. It is problem-solving some of the toughest challenges humans can face in a relentlessly harsh environment.”  When we address the challenges related to human space missions, we expand technology, create new industries, and help to foster collaborations beyond our borders. Furthermore, the knowledge and innovations created for human survival on Mars will present solutions to solve problems and challenges we humans face here on Earth such as food insecurity, water shortages, alternative energy/fuel sources, among much else.

And that’s what makes Mars such an effective STEM/STEAM tool. Communicating the thrill of exploration is as good as it gets when educating students about what a future on Mars might entail. Curiosity is in our DNA. We humans have always been driven to explore the unknown, discover new worlds, push the boundaries of our scientific and technological limits, and then push further. There is an insatiable thirst of the soul to challenge the confines of what we know and the only way for human exploration on Mars to be a reality is if we inspire the students of today to be the scientists, technologists, engineers, artists, mathematicians, programmers and astronauts of tomorrow. We must set our course for Mars, and we must do it now.

Ask the man for whom Pluto was his goal for 25 years, “Why Mars?” and Alan Stern, Chief Principal Investigator of the New Horizons Mission, will tell you, “Because the world needs new frontiers, because humans are explorers, and because kids of every generation need role models and inspiration. Why Mars? Because it will bring out the best in our species.”

This piece is part of a special op-ed series, curated in partnership with Explore Mars, in which contributors from diverse fields such as science, education, policy, business and culture answer a simple question: “Why Mars?” For more, follow the links below or visit exploremars.org.  Source: Huff Post

Jeff Bezos explains why he passed up a moon trip

Jeff Bezos and Alan Boyle

Billionaire Jeff Bezos watches a replay of a New Shepard suborbital test flight with GeekWire’s Alan Boyle at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. (Credit: Tom Kimmell Photography, Courtesy of the Space Foundation)

Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos had his chance to go into space in a Russian Soyuz capsule – and not just into space, but around the moon. But he says he’d rather taste the final frontier in a spaceship built by his own company, Blue Origin.

Bezos touched on what it would take for spaceflight, including what he’s done to prepare for the experience, during my informal chat with him in front of hundreds of attendees here today at the 32nd Space Symposium.

The Blue Origin space venture was created back in 2000, six years after Bezos founded Amazon, so that he could pursue his childhood dream of going into outer space – a dream that goes back to watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.

Bezos noted that his high-school girlfriend, Ursula Werner, has been quoted as saying Amazon exists “solely to create money for Blue Origin.”

“I can neither confirm nor deny that,” he joked.

But he did confirm that he’s undergone some training for spaceflight – not under zero-G conditions in an airplane, as many people have done, but in a centrifuge at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. “If you’re subject to motion sickness, you might not want to do that,” he said.

He has also tested the seats that will be installed in Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital rocket ship. New Shepard already has gone through three successful space launches and landings during autonomous test flights.

If the schedule proceeds as Bezos hopes it does, test passengers will soar to the edge of space in the New Shepard from Blue Origin’s launch facility in Texas starting next year. That would set the stage for paying passengers to get on board as early as 2018. The price of a ticket has not yet been set.

Another player in the suborbital space tourism market, Virgin Galactic, is just starting to test its second SpaceShipTwo rocket plane – more than a year after the first plane broke up during a test flight, killing the co-pilot and injuring the pilot.

Even though it’s not clear exactly when Virgin Galactic will begin commercial spaceflights, the company has about 700 customers who are paying as much as $250,000 for a spot on the passenger list. Many of those would-be spacefliers have gone through zero-gravity airplane flights as well as centrifuge training.

Bezos said passengers won’t need a lot of training for the 11- to 12-minute flight they’ll take on Blue Origin’s vertical-launch-and-landing spaceship.

“For the suborbital mission, training is going to be relatively simple,” he said. “One of the things that you have to do is emergency egress, so we’ll train people for that. One of the things you’ll have to be able to do is get out of your seat, and get back into your seat. We want people to be able to get out, float around, do somersaults, enjoy the microgravity, look out those beautiful windows.”

Would Bezos go? Absolutely, as long as it’s in his own spaceship.

“I want to go into space, but I want to do it in Blue Origin vehicles,” he told me. “Even though I do want to go into space, as a personal thing … it’s not what’s important to me. What’s important to me is lowering the cost of access to space.”

Several millionaires have purchased trips on Russian Soyuz capsules to the International Space Station and back, for tens of millions of dollars. Seattle software billionaire Charles Simonyi enjoyed the first trip in 2007 so much that he bought a second ride through Space Adventures in 2009.

Bezos said he was approached about going on a Soyuz as well. “I’m definitely in their target market,” he quipped.

At one point, he was offered a flight around the moon at a premium price.

“The Soyuz is theoretically designed to do a lunar flyby and then re-enter,” he said. “So I looked at this, and it was expensive. Like $200 million or something. I said, ‘Yeah, but has it ever been tested?’ And they were like, ‘Well, no.’”

“Isn’t that a little risky?” Bezos recalled asking. “Well, for $400 million, we’ll test it for you,” came the reply. “Maybe I’ll wait on that one,” Bezos said with his signature laugh.

Complex life may have come and gone in Earth’s distant past

A 1.9-billion-year-old stromatolite — or mound made by microbes that lived shallow water — called the Gunflint Formation in northern Minnesota. The environment of the oxygen

This is a 1.9-billion-year-old stromatolite — or mound made by microbes that lived in shallow water — called the Gunflint Formation in northern Minnesota. The environment of the oxygen “overshoot” described in research by Michael Kipp, Eva Stüeken and Roger Buick may have included this sort of oxygen-rich setting that is suitable for complex life.Eva Stüeken

Conditions suitable to support complex life may have developed in Earth’s oceans — and then faded — more than a billion years before life truly took hold, a new University of Washington-led study has found. The findings, based on using the element selenium as a tool to measure oxygen in the distant past, may also benefit the search for signs of life beyond Earth.

In a paper published Jan. 18 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, lead author Michael Kipp, a UW doctoral student in Earth and space sciences, analyzed isotopic ratios of the element selenium in sedimentary rocks to measure the presence of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere between 2 and 2.4 billion years ago.

Kipp’s UW coauthors are former Earth and space sciences postdoctoral researcher Eva Stüeken — now a faculty member at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland — and professor Roger Buick, who is also a faculty member with the UW Astrobiology Program. Their other coauthor is Andrey Bekker of the University of California, Riverside, whose original hypothesis this work helps confirm, the researchers said.

“There is fossil evidence of complex cells that go back maybe 1 ¾ billion years,” said Buick. “But the oldest fossil is not necessarily the oldest one that ever lived – because the chances of getting preserved as a fossil are pretty low.

“This research shows that there was enough oxygen in the environment to have allowed complex cells to have evolved, and to have become ecologically important, before there was fossil evidence.” He added, “That doesn’t mean that they did — but they could have.”

Kipp and Stüeken learned this by analyzing selenium traces in pieces of sedimentary shale from the particular time periods using mass spectrometry in the UW Isotope Geochemistry Lab, to discover if selenium had been changed by the presence of oxygen, or oxidized. Oxidized selenium compounds can then get reduced, causing a shift in the isotopic ratios which gets recorded in the rocks. The abundance of selenium also increases in the rocks when lots of oxygen is present.

Buick said it was previously thought that oxygen on Earth had a history of “none, then some, then a lot. But what it looks like now is, there was a period of a quarter of a billion years or so where oxygen came quite high, and then sunk back down again.”

The oxygen’s persistence over a long stretch of time is an important factor, Kipp stressed: “Whereas before and after maybe there were transient environments that could have occasionally supported these organisms, to get them to evolve and be a substantial part of the ecosystem, you need oxygen to persist for a long time.”

Stüeken said such an oxygen increase has been guessed at previously, but it was unclear how widespread it was. This research creates a clearer picture of what this oxygen “overshoot” looked like: “That it was moderately significant in the atmosphere and surface ocean – but not at all in the deep ocean.”

What caused oxygen levels to soar this way only to crash just as dramatically?

“That’s the million-dollar question,” Stüeken said. “It’s unknown why it happened, and why it ended.”

“It is an unprecedented time in Earth’s history,” Buick said. “If you look at the selenium isotope record through time, it’s a unique interval. If you look before and after, everything’s different.”

The use of selenium — named after the Greek word for moon — as an effective tool to probe oxygen levels in deep time could also be helpful in the search for oxygen — and so perhaps life — beyond Earth, the researchers said.

Future generations of space-based telescopes, they note, will give astronomers information about the atmospheric composition of distant planets. Some of these could be approximately Earth-sized and potentially have appreciable atmospheric oxygen.

“The recognition of an interval in Earth’s distant past that may have had near-modern oxygen levels, but far different biological inhabitants, could mean that the remote detection of an oxygen-rich world is not necessarily proof of a complex biosphere,” Kipp said.

Buick concluded, “This is a new way of measuring oxygen in a planet’s historical past, to see whether complex life could have evolved there and persisted long enough to evolve into intelligent beings.” The research was funded by grants from the National Science Foundation, NASA and the NASA Astrobiology Institute and Canada’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.

Scientists Find A New Way To See Inside Black Holes

Scientists at Towson University and the Johns Hopkins University are reporting a new way to peer through the event horizons around black holes and visualize what lies beneath. Their results could rewrite conventional ideas about the internal structure of spinning black holes. Current approaches use special coordinate systems in which this structure appears quite simple, but quantities that depend on an observer’s choice of coordinates can give a distorted view of reality, as anyone knows who has compared the size of Greenland and the USA on a map.

The new approach focuses exclusively on mathematical quantities known as invariants, which have the same value for any choice of coordinates. Expressed in terms of these quantities, black hole interiors reveal a much more intricate and complicated structure than usually thought, with wild variations in curvature from place to place.

These new findings are timely for two reasons, according to Towson University’s Kielan Wilcomb, who presented the team’s results yesterday at the 228th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in San Diego. First, 2016 is the centennial year of the publication of the theory that first predicted the existence of black holes: Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Second, the existence of these objects is no longer a matter of theory, but observational fact. Last September astronomers at the LIGO gravitational-wave observatory detected the first ripples in spacetime from a collision between giant black holes in a distant galaxy.

But while we now know they exist, we will never be able to look inside them, notes team member James Overduin, also of Towson University, since no information can emerge from beyond a black hole’s event horizon. Their interiors are, by definition, places that can only be explored mathematically. The new results are thus important in a unique sense. Scientists usually observe first, and then attempt to classify and understand their observations using theory. With black holes this usual course of discovery is reversed: we have a satisfactory theory, but are still groping for the best way to visualize it.

The physical significance of the curvature invariants calculated by Wilcomb, Overduin and Richard C. Henry of the Johns Hopkins University is not yet clear. For the most general black holes (those with mass, spin and electric charge) there are seventeen of these quantities altogether, but they can be related to each other mathematically so that only five are truly independent. Explicit mathematical expressions for some are presented here for the first time. The simplest, known as the Ricci scalar, lies at the heart of general relativity theory. Another, the Weyl invariant, plays an analogous role in one of the few serious alternatives to Einstein’s theory, known as conformal gravity. For black holes with no electric charge (as expected for the vast majority of real, astrophysical black holes, since they will tend to neutralize themselves with time) this invariant is equivalent to another quantity known as the Kretschmann scalar.

The team’s results confirm that the wild fluctuations in the value of this quantity near the singularity inside a spinning black hole include regions of negative curvature, which are associated physically with a phenomenon known as gravitomagnetism (the gravitational analog of ordinary magnetism). Gravitomagnetic fields, fed by rotational energy, are believed to be responsible for generating the tremendous jets which emanate from the poles of supermassive black holes at the centers of some galaxies. A clearer map of curvature inside the horizon, Henry emphasizes, could enable astronomers to understand why such jets exist in some galaxies and not others (including our own).

The Cameras That Captured The First Men On The Moon

Vintage Big Pic: The Cameras That Captured The First Men On The Moon

This smooth and shiny camera captured the video that folks at home watched live on TV during Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk. It’s called the Apollo Lunar TV Camera, and the U.S. engineering firm Westinghouse designed it.

It withstood vibrations between 10 and 2,000 cycles per second, shocks of more than 8G during launch and landing, extreme pressure changes, and temperatures ranging from -300 degrees Fahrenheit to 250 degrees Fahrenheit, according to a summary Westinghouse published in 1968.

The camera in this particular picture may not be the exact camera that went to the moon. Westinghouse made a number of identical cameras for testing the moon cam’s environmental hardiness. The camera’s main job was to capture video for broadcast in America. Its secondary mission was to capture images for scientific study. Apollo 11 also carried other cameras dedicated to getting photos for researchers.

The Lunar TV Camera captured images at 10 frames per second, which is pretty low, compared to, say, the contemporary film industry standard of 24 frames per second. Nevertheless, Westinghouse deemed 10 frames per second acceptable because “astronauts cannot move quickly in a spacesuit.”

The camera above, called the data camera, was one of three Hasselblad 500EL models that the Apollo 11 team carried with them into space. It was the only Hasselblad the team used on the surface of the moon; astronauts carried it mounted on the fronts of their suits.

NASA has had a long relationship with the Sweden-based Hasselblad, which made nearly all of the cameras U.S. astronauts carried with them on early space missions. After 1963, Hasselblad modified its cameras for NASA, giving them big levers and other fixes to make them easier for suited astronauts to manipulate.

The data camera had some additional modifications. It had a glass Reseau plate, engraved with a grid, that went between the film magazine and the camera body. The plate gave every photo an overlay of small crosses that researchers could use to calibrate distances in photos. This was the first time camera-makers put a Reseau plate in a small, relatively inexpensive camera.

Because it was carried onto the surface of the moon, the data camera also featured a silver-colored finish to help it maintain its interior temperatures better. All its interior lubricants had to be removed or reformulated so they wouldn’t boil off in a vacuum.

Feeding a Mars mission: the challenges of growing plants in space

Plants will play a critical role in the survival of human beings on long-duration space missions, such as a mission to Mars.  However, as a paper published in Botany Letters shows, many challenges need to be addressed if astronauts are to successfully grow enough food on board spacecraft and on other planets.

Lucie Poulet and colleagues from the University of Clermont-Ferrand, Auvergne outline in their review that while healthy plants can be grown in space, the long-term effects of the space environment on plant growth and reproduction are not yet well known.

Since the 1960s, experiments conducted in space stations and research rockets have shown that plants can grow normally in microgravity provided factors such as confinement, lack of ventilation and elevated radiation levels are taken into account.

However, microgravity can reduce cell growth, alter gene expression and change the pattern of root growth – all aspects which critically affect plant cultivation in space.

Seeds produced in orbit also seem to have different composition and developmental stages from seeds grown on Earth.  As well as affecting the performance and nutritional content of space seeds, this could damage the flavour of plants produced in space, which might become a problem for crews reliant on plant-based diets during long space missions.

While there appears to be no major obstacle to plant growth in space, large-scale tests for food production in reduced gravity are still lacking, and a number of viable technologies for space agriculture need to be developed.

These include efficient watering and nutrient-delivery systems, precise atmospheric controls for temperature, humidity and air composition, and low-energy lighting which could include sun collection systems that take advantage of sunlight on the surface of planets and moons.

Selecting the right crops to grow in space is also essential.  Given the limited amount of room available on board a spacecraft, plants with reduced size but high yields need to be developed: for example, dwarf varieties of wheat, cherry tomato, rice, pepper, soybean and pea have been successfully grown in orbit and in simulated planetary habitats.

Lucie Poulet said: “Challenges remain in terms of nutrient delivery, lighting and ventilation, but also in the choice of plant species and traits to favour.  Additionally, significant effort must be made on mechanistic modelling of plant growth to reach a more thorough understanding of the intricate physical, biochemical and morphological phenomena involved if we are to accurately control and predict plant growth and development in a space environment.”

Plants will play a critical role in the survival of human beings on long-duration space missions, such as a mission to Mars.  However, as a paper published in Botany Letters shows, many challenges need to be addressed if astronauts are to successfully grow enough food on board spacecraft and on other planets.

Lucie Poulet and colleagues from the University of Clermont-Ferrand, Auvergne outline in their review that while healthy plants can be grown in space, the long-term effects of the space environment on plant growth and reproduction are not yet well known.

Since the 1960s, experiments conducted in space stations and research rockets have shown that plants can grow normally in microgravity provided factors such as confinement, lack of ventilation and elevated radiation levels are taken into account.

However, microgravity can reduce cell growth, alter gene expression and change the pattern of root growth – all aspects which critically affect plant cultivation in space.

Seeds produced in orbit also seem to have different composition and developmental stages from seeds grown on Earth.  As well as affecting the performance and nutritional content of space seeds, this could damage the flavour of plants produced in space, which might become a problem for crews reliant on plant-based diets during long space missions.

While there appears to be no major obstacle to plant growth in space, large-scale tests for food production in reduced gravity are still lacking, and a number of viable technologies for space agriculture need to be developed.

These include efficient watering and nutrient-delivery systems, precise atmospheric controls for temperature, humidity and air composition, and low-energy lighting which could include sun collection systems that take advantage of sunlight on the surface of planets and moons.

Selecting the right crops to grow in space is also essential.  Given the limited amount of room available on board a spacecraft, plants with reduced size but high yields need to be developed: for example, dwarf varieties of wheat, cherry tomato, rice, pepper, soybean and pea have been successfully grown in orbit and in simulated planetary habitats.

Lucie Poulet said: “Challenges remain in terms of nutrient delivery, lighting and ventilation, but also in the choice of plant species and traits to favour.  Additionally, significant effort must be made on mechanistic modelling of plant growth to reach a more thorough understanding of the intricate physical, biochemical and morphological phenomena involved if we are to accurately control and predict plant growth and development in a space environment.”

X-ray Detection Sheds New Light on Pluto

Pluto

Scientists using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory have made the first detections of X-rays from Pluto. These observations offer new insight into the space environment surrounding the largest and best-known object in the solar system’s outermost regions.

While NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft was speeding toward and beyond Pluto, Chandra was aimed several times on the dwarf planet and its moons, gathering data on Pluto that the missions could compare after the flyby. Each time Chandra pointed at Pluto – four times in all, from February 2014 through August 2015 – it detected low-energy X-rays from the small planet.

Pluto is the largest object in the Kuiper Belt, a ring or belt containing a vast population of small bodies orbiting the Sun beyond Neptune. The Kuiper belt extends from the orbit of Neptune, at 30 times the distance of Earth from the Sun, to about 50 times the Earth-Sun distance. Pluto’s orbit ranges over the same span as the overall Kupier Belt.

“We’ve just detected, for the first time, X-rays coming from an object in our Kuiper Belt, and learned that Pluto is interacting with the solar wind in an unexpected and energetic fashion,” said Carey Lisse, an astrophysicist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, who led the Chandra observation team with APL colleague and New Horizons Co-Investigator Ralph McNutt. “We can expect other large Kuiper Belt objects to be doing the same.”

The team recently published its findings online in the journal Icarus. The report details what Lisse says was a somewhat surprising detection given that Pluto – being cold, rocky and without a magnetic field – has no natural mechanism for emitting X-rays. But Lisse, having also led the team that made the first X-ray detections from a comet two decades ago, knew the interaction between the gases surrounding such planetary bodies and the solar wind – the constant streams of charged particles from the sun that speed throughout the solar system — can create X-rays.

New Horizons scientists were particularly interested in learning more about the interaction between the gases in Pluto’s atmosphere and the solar wind. The spacecraft itself carries an instrument designed to measure that activity up-close – the aptly named Solar Wind Around Pluto (SWAP) – and scientists are using that data to craft a picture of Pluto that contains a very mild, close-in bowshock, where the solar wind first “meets” Pluto (similar to a shock wave that forms ahead of a supersonic aircraft) and a small wake or tail behind the planet.

The immediate mystery is that Chandra’s readings on the brightness of the X-rays are much higher than expected from the solar wind interacting with Pluto’s atmosphere.

“Before our observations, scientists thought it was highly unlikely that we’d detect X-rays from Pluto, causing a strong debate as to whether Chandra should observe it at all,” said co-author Scott Wolk, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. “Prior to Pluto, the most distant solar system body with detected X-ray emission was Saturn’s rings and disk.”

The Chandra detection is especially surprising since New Horizons discovered Pluto’s atmosphere was much more stable than the rapidly escaping, “comet-like” atmosphere that many scientists expected before the spacecraft flew past in July 2015. In fact, New Horizons found that Pluto’s interaction with the solar wind is much more like the interaction of the solar wind with Mars, than with a comet. However, although Pluto is releasing enough gas from its atmosphere to make the observed X-rays, in simple models for the intensity of the solar wind at the distance of Pluto, there isn’t enough solar wind flowing directly at Pluto to make them.

Lisse and his colleagues – who also include SWAP co-investigators David McComas from Princeton University and Heather Elliott from Southwest Research Institute – suggest several possibilities for the enhanced X-ray emission from Pluto. These include a much wider and longer tail of gases trailing Pluto than New Horizons detected using its SWAP instrument. Other possibilities are that interplanetary magnetic fields are focusing more particles than expected from the solar wind into the region around Pluto, or the low density of the solar wind in the outer solar system at the distance of Pluto could allow for the formation of a doughnut, or torus, of neutral gas centered around Pluto’s orbit.

That the Chandra measurements don’t quite match up with New Horizons up-close observations is the benefit – and beauty – of an opportunity like the New Horizons flyby. “When you have a chance at a once in a lifetime flyby like New Horizons at Pluto, you want to point every piece of glass – every telescope on and around Earth – at the target,” McNutt says. “The measurements come together and give you a much more complete picture you couldn’t get at any other time, from anywhere else.”

New Horizons has an opportunity to test these findings and shed even more light on this distant region – billions of miles from Earth – as part of its recently approved extended mission to survey the Kuiper Belt and encounter another smaller Kuiper. It is unlikely to be feasible to detect X-rays from MU69, but Chandra might detect X-rays from other larger and closer objects that New Horizons will observe as it flies through the Kuiper Belt towards MU69. Belt object, 2014 MU69, on Jan. 1, 2019.

The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, designed, built, and operates the New Horizons spacecraft and manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages the Chandra program for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, controls Chandra’s science and flight operations.

 

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