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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.

Why the Next President Must Invest in NASA

Rep. Donna Edwards on the House steps following a vote in the Capitol on Oct. 7, 2015.

Donna F. Edwards is a U.S. Representative for Maryland and the Ranking Member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology’s Space Subcommittee

Space exploration is a worthy goal

The course of history changed dramatically when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) opened its doors on Oct. 1, 1958. In the early years, we faced the prospects of the Soviet Union—today it’s China and our own ambivalence holding us in place. In the years that followed the Apollo and early lunar missions, NASA has become one of the most well-known and admired agencies in America, and indeed, in the world. It is not surprising that over the years our children have aspired to walk on the Moon like astronaut Neil Armstrong, or follow in the footsteps of Scott Kelly, who recently returned to Earth after one year aboard the International Space Station, or Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space.

Some say that following the retirement of the Space Shuttle, NASA’s performance has lacked clear goals and is on the decline. I disagree strongly. As Ranking Member of the House subcommittee authorizing NASA activities, I see significant progress being made across the agency under the able leadership of Administrator Charles Bolden, also a former astronaut.

In human spaceflight, NASA is preparing to once again to send humans beyond the confines of low Earth orbit with the Space Launch System launcher and Orion spacecraft. Operations aboard the International Space Station (ISS) are testing the systems needed for extended space travel while doing cutting edge research. NASA’s science programs are furthering our knowledge of our home planet and opening new windows into our universe. The agency’s development of innovative technologies has improved the lives of people here on Earth in countless ways. Development and testing of advanced technologies important to maintaining our nation’s competitive edge in civil aviation is underway. NASA is achieving its goals in part by leveraging the innovative and agile capabilities of the commercial space industry that it has helped to nurture.

However, we can’t forget that space is hard, and achieving ambitious goals takes talent and money. Funding NASA and leveraging the resources of commercial interests and our international partners is an investment that has and will continue to generate long-lasting dividends.

Whether NASA will be able to continue doing great things will be the work that is needed on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to Congress, among Democrats and Republicans. What is clear is that the American people have a strong voice in ensuring that NASA can fulfill its promise by insisting that NASA does the following five things.

Maintain certainty, direction and a constancy of purpose: Successive Congresses have underlined the importance of NASA’s multi-mission role—a recognition that the agency’s human space exploration, science, aeronautics research, and technology development activities are all critical pursuits. We need the strong foundation of a challenging human space exploration goal worthy of this great country. I can think of no better foundational goal than a national commitment to landing humans on Mars and returning them safely to Earth.

Ensure stable funding: All too often, faced with congressional inaction, and executive ambivalence, NASA’s programs have had to cope with uncertainty and delays that are wasteful and counterproductive. NASA deserves a solid multiyear authorization and appropriation that matches the goal.

Continue academic research: Continue to partner with the nation’s network of university researchers and students. For example, California State University is working with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in developing extreme low-temperature energy storage technology to spur innovation in small spacecraft; and the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Deployable Greenhouse for Food Production is demonstrating the feasibility of growing food on the surface of the Moon or Mars. As is the case with many of NASA’s technologies, the potential terrestrial applications of advances in energy storage and food production are clear.

Leverage international capabilities: The ISS proves on a daily basis that over 15 nations can work peacefully in space. In addition, NASA’s space science programs have benefitted greatly from international collaborations. These collaborations are essential to achieve the goal of going to Mars.

Promote STEM education: Foster, in cooperation with the aerospace industry, a diverse science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce. This means rethinking K-12, technical, and vocational training and producing more skilled and creative thinkers from our universities. The nation must have an aerospace workforce with the knowledge and skills capable of competing successfully on the world stage.

Most important, if NASA is to succeed in leading us as a spacefaring nation, Congress and the Administration must recognize that we are in this together. We need to rebuild the trust between Congress and the White House that propelled America to the Moon in the 1960s, trust that will take us beyond Earth’s orbit.

We owe our next generation a vibrant NASA working in partnership with industry, academia and international partners to continue the amazing record of achievement and to persevere in striving towards the ambitious and worthy goal of one day sending humans to the surface of Mars. The choice is ours. Let us choose wisely, so we can ensure that the future of space exploration is a bright one.

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.

Cristoforetti: On Life In Space

ISS Samantha Cristoforetti AstroSamantha

What’s it like living in space? What do we have planned for Mars? And what’s so interesting about the the moon’s south pole? Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti explains all to DW.

DW: You spent seven months in the international space station. Could you describe your feelings?

Samantha Cristoforetti: There’s this experience of being part of a crew who are the only six people that happen to not be on the planet at that very moment, with everybody else beneath you. So at that very moment, you kind of embrace them [in] orbit, flying around. So there are a lot of aspects – some are physical feelings, and some are thoughts and reflections that come up.

Do you think there is sufficient scientific return from being in – and exploring – space?

I think so. I definitely think it is increasing, because we’re getting better and better at exploiting the station. The station has been completely built for six years now, so it’s only six years that we’re basing the entire space community on.

And it’s really interesting to watch what is really happening right now … which is the commercialization of the research opportunities, and reaching out to wider academia – but also industry. There seems to be a lot of interest in running research in micro-gravity. I think we’ve demonstrated that it works and has great potential, so it wouldn’t surprise me that when the station is gone in maybe 10-12 years, then maybe some commercial platforms will come up and actually offer that opportunity to do research in micro-gravity or low Earth orbit. If that happens then it will be the tell-tale story that all of this actually made sense.

So you have nothing against the commercialization of space travel?

Quite the contrary – I think that’s great. That’s the whole point. We don’t go to space to keep it within a closed community. We go to space to open a frontier. The more the better, and that’s how you define success. The idea of more and more people wanting to go to space, having a chance to go to space, possibly even making money and advancing technology in science in space – that’s what I call success.

You said you’ve always wanted to be an astronaut. What kind of training did you have to do before becoming one?

All kinds. The training for the space station is pretty long. It’s about two and a half years, so you train in the capsule on the Soyuz, you train on the system, on normal procedures, a lot on emergency procedures in case something goes wrong. You train for space walks, you train to fly the robotic arm and you train for the experiments.

You were a pilot before. Did that help?

I think it did. Everything that you’ve ever learned in your life helps. It’s such a diverse type of skills that you have to acquire that everything that you’ve learned in your life is going to help somehow. So of course my technical background as an engineer helped me, but also being trained as a pilot definitely helped me with the occupational environment. Space is an occupational environment.

Do you think that astronauts should serve as important role models for young people?

It seems to be. The reaction I get from young people – not only school age, but also university level and even older – seems to be that they look up to us. They take inspiration from what we do, so it’s exciting. But at the same time it’s also daunting. It’s definitely quite the responsibility.

Why is the south side of the moon so interesting?

Every time the moon does a cycle – basically every 14 days – you’re going to get in to darkness. And then, for 14 days, you have to stay in darkness before you get some sun. So the thermal excursions are huge. And in terms of power generation, if you’re thinking of using solar panels, then you basically have 14-day cycles, which makes it very complicated in terms of energy storage.

So what happens on the south pole, where the lunar axis is a little bit inclined, is that you have areas that have permanent sunlight. At the same time, if you go down in to a crater, you have areas that are in permanent darkness. There, we assume, you could find plenty of frozen water. So those two aspects are extremely important if we’re thinking about one day having a settlement on the moon. And the temperature excursions are a lot milder.

Do you think it is possible to have a settlement on the moon, at the moment, that isn’t just fantasy but is actually realistic?

It is realistic. We can do it technologically with technology that we don’t necessarily have, but the development of this technology is quite manageable. We know how to get there. In the end, it’s just a question of political will and how much money we get to do it. And in our case, it depends on how much money we get from our member states, which determines whether we can do it in a longer or shorter time.

I think it’s going to happen sooner rather than later, but it’s not up to me to decide. There isn’t a program right now that says we are going to the moon. We’re just exploring possibilities, and obviously other people decide if it’s possible. Not with technology that we have now, but definitely with technology that we know how to develop in a reasonable amount of time.

In October there’s an important step with regards to Mars. What kind of mission is this?

That is ExoMars. It’s a pretty exciting robotic mission that has been on its way to Mars since March. It’s kind of like a two-fold mission. There is an orbiter, which will stay in orbit around Mars and setup as a communication relay, and then it’s going to release a landing demonstrator, the Schiaparelli Module, that’s actually going to land on Mars and demonstrate landing technology.

It’s the first part of a two-part mission. The next part is expected in 2020, when we’re going to launch another mission to Mars with an actual rover that is going to land on the planet and do research on the surface of the planet for an extended period of time. It will include a drill, which will penetrate in to the Martian soil quite deeply for the first time. We’ve had a number of rovers and robots on Mars looking for signs of life – past and present – but the exposure to the sun on the surface might actually kill, or have killed, signs of life. But if you go deeper, that’s where you might find them. So it’s a very exciting new thing that we’re going to have on Mars.

If you got the chance, would you like to go to Mars?

In theory, if we had the technology right now, and a mission set up, and they asked me to be part of the crew, then I’d definitely be honored to be.

Why is it so fascinating?

It’s the frontier. It’s the next destination for humans. It’s the natural destination, right? Of course, there’s the moon and I’d be very excited to go to the moon as well, but in our solar system, the next place to go is Mars.

This interview was conducted by Manuela Kasper-Claridge during the “European House Ambrosetti” forum in Italy

 

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