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With Earth’s Largest Telescope Threatened, Its Homeland Rallies

Worlds largest single-dish radio telescope, the Arecibo Observatory, Arecibo, Puerto Rico. (Photo by: Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Worlds largest single-dish radio telescope, the Arecibo Observatory, Arecibo, Puerto Rico. (Photo by: Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Photograph by Universal Images Group via Getty Images

(Hear Nadia Drake interviewed live about the Arecibo telescope on Science Friday from Public Radio International, on Friday June 10 at 2 p.m. EST/11 a.m. PST.)

SAN JUAN and ARECIBO, Puerto Rico — Francisco Cordova just started his job as director of Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory, the world’s largest radio telescope. But at a public meeting on day two of his new post, he was already facing the iconic telescope’s potential demolition.

At meetings June 7 in San Juan and Arecibo, students, scientists, observatory staff and community members spoke about what would be lost in terms of science and education if the observatory were to close, an outcome that no one in attendance seemed to find acceptable in any way. As the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope, Arecibo is famous for searching for distant galaxies,  gravitational waves, and signs of extraterrestrial life.

The meetings gave the community a chance to speak directly to representatives from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. science agency responsible for deciding Arecibo’s fate, and which is now facing tough choices thanks to flatlined budgets.

“It’s a concern, but I know we will find a way,” Cordova says.

The Arecibo Observatory, easily recognizable from feature films and a symbol of the search for extraterrestrial life, may not be around much longer due to funding.
The Arecibo Observatory, easily recognizable from feature films and a symbol of the search for extraterrestrial life, may not be around much longer due to funding.

Cordova, like many Puerto Ricans, visited Arecibo when he was a kid. Back then, he was struck by the facility itself, with its 900-ton platform looming above a dish stretching 1,000 feet across. “To be able to come here and help out and help lead what’s going to be the future—it’s exciting because it gives me the opportunity to make a difference,” Cordova says.

The meetings were not particularly well attended, and notably absent were many local government officials, including the Arecibo mayor—observations that prompted some to question how well NSF had publicized the meetings.

At the start of the meetings, NSF officers quickly reminded everyone that no decisions about Arecibo’s future had been made.

“We’re not here today to announce the closing of Arecibo, or the reduction of any funding whatsoever,” said Ralph Gaume, Arecibo program officer within the agency’s Astronomical Sciences Division. But, a dismal federal funding climate means NSF needs to cut funding “for a number of its astronomical and geospace science facilities,” he said.

Unfortunately, it looks like those facilities include Arecibo. A number of recent review panels, charged with evaluating and prioritizing various NSF observatories, have recommended significantly reducing funding for the observatory. Currently, NSF provides $8.2 million annually for Arecibo, and $3.7 million comes from NASA, which funds the study of potentially Earth-destroying asteroids.

So, losing the bulk of NSF money would effectively shut down the observatory.

That’s why two weeks ago, the agency released a notice of intent to investigate the environmental impacts of potential Arecibo futures—a process required before any federal facility can be decommissioned. The notice identified five possibilities, ranging from continuing current operations, which now looks unlikely, to dismantling the telescope and returning the site to its natural state. Other options involve finding funding partners or mothballing the telescope so that it could be resurrected if funding reappears.

Losses for Science

One could argue that this all makes a fair bit of sense, given squeezed resources and reports dating back to 2006 that recommend prioritizing Arecibo below other observatories, such as the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array.

Trouble is, scientists argued at the meetings, those reports are mostly old, outdated, and don’t take into account the current scientific landscape.

“A very important thing to remember is that the scientific context for those reports has changed,” said Scott Ransom of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. Ransom pointed to the recent announcement that gravitational waves had been directly detected—a huge discovery. Arecibo plays a crucial role in detecting gravitational waves, said Xavier Siemens, chair of NANOGrav, the experiment using the telescope to search for those waves.

“We are now at a time when we have reached unprecedented sensitivities and expect to make a detection soon,” Siemens said. “Arecibo is the most sensitive radio telescope in the world, and a lack of access to this instrument would cripple our observatory.”

The Arecibo Observatory, as seen on Google Earth.
The Arecibo Observatory, as seen on Google Earth.

Qihou Zhou, from Miami University, also argued that the observatory’s work in the atmospheric sciences is crucial to understanding long-term changes in Earth’s climate. While surface temperatures can exhibit significant local variations, reliable indications of a warming climate hide in the upper atmosphere.

“As the surface temperature rises, the upper atmosphere cools,” Zhou said, noting that Arecibo’s data set spans 50 years, an almost unheard-of amount of time. “Clearly, the longer the data set is available, the easier it is to discern any long-term change. Continuous operation of Arecibo is important to understand climate change and our space environment.

And then there’s that whole issue of killer asteroids and comets. Arecibo’s radar capabilities are vastly superior to any other facility on Earth, and allow scientists to efficiently characterize potentially destructive impactors. That’s important for lessening environmental impacts to planet Earth as a whole, Arecibo’s planetary radar lead Patrick Taylor said.

NASA says it will continue to fund this work at Arecibo as long as NSF operates the telescope.

“If it is closed, NASA will continue to have planetary radar capability with its own Goldstone facility, a part of its Deep Space Network,” wrote Lindley Johnson, NASA’s Planetary Defense Officer, in an email. “However, the Goldstone Solar System Radar is not as powerful as Arecibo’s, so it will not have quite the same range into space as Arecibo.”

Educational Casualties

Science isn’t the only concern at Arecibo. In fact, the majority of people at the meetings discussed the role the observatory plays in inspiring and training Puerto Rican students, some 20,000 of whom visit the site every year.

Though it’s hard to quantify, the value of inspiration and education is not insignificant, especially considering how underrepresented Hispanic students are in the sciences.

As evidence, several students involved in the Arecibo Observatory Space Academy spoke about how important their time at the observatory was, and how this pre-college program gave them hands-on research experience that continues to affect their lives.

“I can say that AOSA has had a great impact on my life,” said Adriana Lopez, a 14-year-old space academy alum. “Always, in my life, I’ve been fascinated with space, and it has led me to join several camps, but none of them have affected me like AOSA. This academy provided me with skills not even my own academic institution did.“

Luisa Zambrano, a graduate student who’s not only using Arecibo data in her dissertation but is involved in running the space academy, said that 100 percent of academy students that have graduated from high school are now in college. Further, she said, among the more than 150 students that have come through the program, “we’ve been able to maintain almost even male:female ratios—which is very unusual for science. Especially among Hispanics.”

That’s not all.

“Over the last five years, we have had 24 Hispanic students or teachers,” said Robert Minchin, Arecibo’s radioastronomy lead and summer internship supervisor. That might not sound like a lot, he said, but it’s more than the typical graduating class at a U.S university.

“It’s not possible to give someone a research experience if you’re not doing research,” Minchin said.

If You Build It, They Will Come

In addition to its important role in science and education, Arecibo is also a prized local resource, community members argued. And it doesn’t make  sense to assume its cultural value can be maintained if science shuts down.

“Tourists wouldn’t come to the site to see a hole in the ground where the telescope used to be. Students wouldn’t be inspired by a telescope that is not there anymore,” said Joan Schmelz, deputy director of the observatory. “The science inspires the kids that come to the observatory and the tourists who come to visit.”

Arecibo's radar is used to image and project the orbits of near-Earth objects.
Arecibo’s radar is used to image and project the orbits of near-Earth objects.
Photograph by Tony Acevedo

That Arecibo plays a role in bringing tourists to the area is undeniable: As many as 100,000 visit each year. It also brings scientists and their families, and provides jobs for the local community.

It may also help preserve the local landscape. That somewhat surprising comment came from Miguel Sarriera, an attorney from the town of Quebradillas, on the island’s northern coast. Restrictions on AM, FM, and TV transmissions within a four-mile radius of the telescope, he said, have effectively prevented development and indirectly protected the naturally beautiful forests carpeting the regions karst terrain.

“If there is no observatory, these prohibitions are irrelevant,” he said. “The indirect environmental benefits that they currently represent will be no longer available.”

The Next Steps

Though no decision has been made yet, there are many roadblacks on the route to completely dismantling the telescope.

Among those is Arecibo’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places, which was approved late last year after former observatory director Robert Kerr pushed to have it included. And as one might expect, destroying a nationally significant historic site isn’t simply a matter of coming in with a big enough bulldozer. Various legislation requires that NSF assess and resolve any adverse effects its actions might cause, and take care “to minimize harm to any National Historic Landmark that may be directly and adversely affected by an undertaking.”

The agency hopes to wrap up this process by next summer. Caroline Blanco, NSF’s assistant general counsel, says the agency intends to publish a draft environmental impact statement as early as this fall. That will be followed by another public comment period, and the final report will be published in the spring of 2017. After another comment period, the agency will make its final decision.

“We anticipate that decision will be issued at some point in the summer of 2017,” Blanco said. “Ambiguity in the target dates is largely due to the fact that this is a public process and we cannot at this juncture anticipate what the public comments will be and how we will respond to them.”

That may not sound particularly fast, but it’s the equivalent of an eyeblink when you consider the pace at which federal agencies normally rumble along.

“The timeline is aggressive,” Cordova says. But that’s not necessarily bad. One of the frustrations Cordova is already experiencing comes with not knowing when or if the observatory will close: It’s impossible to plan and invest in upgrades, for example, when the telescope’s expiration date is a mystery.

“This has been going on for how long now?” Cordova asks. “We need to have an honest conversation and say, this is the long-term plan, this is going to be the long-term strategy, this is the long-term commitment from NSF – if it’s $1 million, if it’s half a million, whatever they’re going to say — let’s work together so that we can put a realistic plan together. Let’s not kid ourselves.”

(Instructions for submitting written comments to NSF about Arecibo’s fate, accepted through June 23, can be found here.)

Note: My dad is a former director of Arecibo Observatory.

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Uncertain Future for Earth’s Biggest Telescope

The Arecibo Observatory, easily recognizable from feature films and a symbol of the search for extraterrestrial life, may not be around for much longer. A harsh funding climate is forcing the National Science Foundation to make some hard decisions about which facilities to keep around. (NSF/Wikimedia)

(Hear Nadia Drake interviewed live about the Arecibo telescope on Science Friday from Public Radio International, on Friday June 10 at 2 p.m. EST/11 a.m. PST.)

Tucked into a sinkhole in the Puerto Rican jungle, the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope scans the skies for signs of distant galaxies, elusive gravitational waves, and the murmurs of extraterrestrial civilizations nearly 24 hours a day. For more than a half-century, whether those waves traveled to Earth from the far reaches of our universe or much closer to home, the Arecibo Observatory has been there to catch them.

But the enormous telescope, with a dish that stretches 1,000 feet across, may not be around for much longer.

On May 23, the National Science Foundation, which funds the majority of Arecibo’s annual $12 million budget, published a notice of intent to prepare an environmental impact statement related to the observatory’s future.

That might sound innocuous – after all, isn’t it a good idea to study the context in which our science facilities exist? Yet it’s anything but benign. Putting that environmental assessment together is a crucial step NSF needs to take if it plans to yank funding from the observatory and effectively shut it down.

“It appears that NSF is following the formal process established, in part, by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, for decommissioning of a federal facility,” says Robert Kerr, former director of the observatory. “The good folks at Arecibo are scared to death.”

The decision to close Arecibo hasn’t been made yet, but the move follows an ominous drumbeat of similar announcements and reports that have accumulated over several years, most urging NSF to send its resources elsewhere. Now, options for Arecibo’s future range from continuing current operations to dismantling the telescope and returning the site to its natural state. It’s a decision NSF hopes to make — with input from the public — by the end of 2017, says Jim Ulvestad, director of NSF’s Division of Astronomical Sciences.

Above the 1000-foot dish, a 900-ton platform is suspended from three tall towers. The platform's height varies by about a foot as temperatures rise and fall. (Nadia Drake)
Above the 1000-foot dish, a 900-ton platform is suspended from three tall towers. (Nadia Drake)

The most extreme option, which could include explosively demolishing the giant dish, might affect such things as ground water, air quality, and ecosystems – thus the importance of studying the environmental impact of potential futures, especially ones that involve shutting the telescope’s eyes.

“On a practical level, the telescope would in time — perhaps a short time, given the tropical site — become very unsafe,” says Cornell University’s Don Campbell, a former observatory director. “Short of permanently guarding it, deconstruction would be necessary.”

Not surprisingly, this notice of intent is causing significant concern among astronomers and the local community. Arecibo is the most sensitive radio telescope in the world; and despite its age, it’s still involved in world-class science, like the search for gravitational waves. Importantly, it also helps boost a sagging local economy, and has inspired many Puerto Ricans to pursue science and think about the mysteries of the universe.

“Puerto Rico feels a sense of ownership and pride for the observatory,” says Emmanuel Donate, an astronomy graduate student at the University of Georgia who started a petition to keep the observatory funded. “I consider using it, especially in person as I’ve been doing the last couple weeks, one of the highlights of my life and a tremendous personal honor.”

A Tropical Icon

Construction at Arecibo began in 1960, when – among other things – the U.S. government wanted to find out if Soviet ICBMs could be detected using charged particles in their atmospheric wakes. The telescope didn’t work well at first, but after a few upgrades it was the most sensitive cosmic radio wave detector in the world. That’s not it’s only trick, though: In addition to collecting photons from space, Arecibo is also capable of sending radio waves into the cosmos, a talent scientists use to scrutinize potentially catastrophic asteroids on Earth-crossing orbits.

The Arecibo Observatory, as seen on Google Earth.
The Arecibo Observatory, as seen on Google Earth.

In the intervening decades, Arecibo has been involved in loads of top-notch science, including work that was awarded a Nobel Prize. But it’s also become a recognizable symbol of humanity’s quest to understand our place in the cosmos (my dad, a former observatory director, used Arecibo to send Earth’s first intentional postcard to the stars in 1974), and is a semi-frequent character in popular films and TV series, including The X-Files, Contact, and GoldenEye.

To say the telescope is iconic is not an overstatement.

 Stormclouds on the Horizon

But a frustratingly flatlined budget is forcing the National Science Foundation to ration its resources. To do that, NSF relies on a somewhat contorted process of soliciting input from external reviews and panels, federal advisory boards, and the National Research Council’s decadal surveys, which prioritize science goals for the coming decade.

“NSF, like most federal science agencies, has much more worthy science proposed to it than it is able to fund,” Ulvestad says. “Within the constraints of its resources, NSF responds as well as possible to those community and governmental science priorities and recommendations.”

The most recent decadal survey, published in 2010, prioritized science requiring new facilities instead of experiments that could be conducted at places like Arecibo. That survey, in combination with the dismal funding situation, is what’s causing NSF to look for facilities to dump.

Arecibo's dish is suspended above the floor of the natural depression it sits in. Beneath it, fields of shade-tolerant plants grow. (Nadia Drake)
Arecibo’s dish is suspended above the floor of the natural depression it sits in. Beneath it, plants grow like crazy. (Nadia Drake)

Despite its iconic status, Arecibo is an easy target – newer, shinier telescopes are coming online, and it’s got a relatively small number of users compared to optical telescopes across the United States, many of which are individually less expensive to run.

Over the past decade, multiple panels have called for severe reductions in funding for the observatory, starting with a 2006 NSF review that recommended finding alternative sources of cash for Arecibo. “The [senior review] recommends closure after 2011 if the necessary support is not forthcoming,” the report says. “This raises the important question of the cost of decommissioning the telescope, which could be prohibitively large.”

That review was followed by a 2012 assessment of the facilities funded by NSF’s astronomical sciences division. While somewhat less gloomy – the committee recommended keeping the observatory in NSF’s portfolio – the 2012 panel suggested revisiting Arecibo’s funding status later in the decade, “in light of the science opportunities and budget forecasts at that time.”

NSF followed that review with a 2013 letter saying it would begin studying the costs and impact of decommissioning the giant telescope – a matter that would be complicated by the telescope’s history and location in a region of high biodiversity, “thus these reviews should be started as soon as practicable.”

The cloudy outlook intensified this year, when NSF’s Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee urged the agency to proceed with divestment “as fast as is practical.” That was quickly followed by another NSF review that advised a 75% reduction in funding from the agency’s Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences division (AGS), slashing contributions to atmospheric research from $4.1 million to $1.1 million.

And now, the sky is looking dark indeed.

“The timing of the federal register announcement in juxtaposition with the AGS review is being received by most as the final death sentence for Arecibo,” Kerr says.

Ulvestad says that before any such decision is reached, communities that rely on the observatory will have an opportunity to share their concerns. On June 7, the first of these meetings will take place in Puerto Rico, and a public comment period is open until June 23. After the results of the draft environmental impact statement are released, a 45-day public comment period will follow.

And then? Either the storm will hit or it won’t.

“To be fair to the NSF, AST and AGS are reacting to a very difficult budget situation — no significant increase in several years and none forecast,” Campbell says.

Scanning the Cosmos

Looking down at the dish from above. (Nadia Drake)
Looking down at the dish from above. (Nadia Drake)

Now, Arecibo’s projects include detecting mysterious bursts of radio waves coming from far, far away, testing cosmological models by studying small galaxies in the local universe, and studying those potentially planet-killing asteroids – as well as the moons of distant planets.

“There is much concern, not just in the small bodies community, but in the planetary science community as a whole regarding the future of Arecibo,” says Nancy Chabot of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Chabot chairs NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group, which published a report earlier this year urging NASA to continue supporting the observatory, in the name of preserving “the nation’s science and security interests.”

Among astronomers, perceptions are that NSF’s move to decommission Arecibo has been gaining momentum as challenges from new facilities arise. One potential thorn in Arecibo’s side is ALMA, the ultrasensitive array of radio telescopes recently completed in the Chilean Atacama. Some scientists speculate that with continued resources devoted to ALMA, NSF could be looking to share the relative wealth and spend its money on something other than radio. And that might make sense, especially given that China is nearly done constructing a single-dish radio telescope that will be larger than Arecibo. Called the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, the behemoth could possibly open its eyes this fall, though real science observations won’t begin right away.

Despite its size, FAST won’t necessarily be more sensitive than Arecibo, and it won’t have a built-in radar, which can be used to give the most accurate orbital information for asteroids which might impact the Earth.

Cornell University’s Jim Cordes points out that newer facilities don’t necessarily have to replace older, high-quality telescopes, especially when those older facilities still provide unique capabilities. They can be complementary, he says, pointing out that scores of similar optical telescopes exist in tandem, such as the two nearly identical Keck telescopes at the summit of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea. “It’s sort of like there’s a disconnect in the way people think about radio telescopes and optical telescopes,” Cordes says.

More importantly, Cordes notes, some experiments actually require multiple extremely sensitive telescopes. One of these, called NANOGrav, uses Arecibo and a telescope at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia to search for gravitational waves. The project does this by observing pulsars, spinning stellar corpses that act as astronomical clocks. As these dense, dead stars rotate, they emit beams of radio waves that can be detected from Earth; gravitational waves, similar to those detected earlier this year by the LIGO collaboration, sweep through and disrupt the signals coming from those spinning clocks in observable ways…as long as a sharp set of eyes is paying attention.

“NANOGrav’s goal is to open a gravitational wave window that parallels what LIGO did so spectacularly,” Cordes says, noting that the two experiments look for waves produced by wildly different cosmic collisions. “The NANOGrav band is as different from the LIGO band as radio waves in the FM band are different from the X-rays used by your dentist. A full understanding of the universe requires instruments that sample all frequencies.”

Losing Arecibo would mean losing the ability to precisely monitor half of NANOGrav’s roughly 50 pulsars. “This will push back detection by a few years, at a time when we are almost there,” says NANOGrav chair Xavier Siemens, of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

A scientist who shall remain anonymous once described empirically testing whether a motorcycle could be ridden up the catwalk to the telescope's platform. The answer is yes, which will not come as a surprise to James Bond. (Nadia Drake)
A scientist who shall remain anonymous once described empirically testing whether a motorcycle could be ridden up the catwalk to the telescope’s platform. The answer is yes, which will not come as a surprise to James Bond [note: this is the roof on the catwalk]. (Nadia Drake)
A National Inspiration?

It seems clear that Arecibo won’t go down without a fight, but it’s not exactly clear what form that fight will take. Interestingly, former observatory director Robert Kerr threw one punch by beginning the process for listing Arecibo as a national historic site.

“It was entirely my intention that the National Historic Registry be an impediment to site closure,” he says, adding that “others assisting with that application may have had other motivations, such as enhanced tourist appeal.”

And NASA, which funds the planetary radar experiments at Arecibo, also may have something to say about NSF shutting down the facility. It’s also possible that another institution, or someone with enough spare cash might decide to step in.

“I hope that they do find another institution to contribute to the costs but it will depend on the conditions,” Campbell says. “The alternative is grim for science, for Puerto Rico and, especially given Puerto Rico’s current situation, for the Observatory’s local staff. The staff are an incredible hard working and supportive group.”

Indeed, generations of Puerto Ricans have visited the observatory, in addition to those who have worked, studied, and lived there.

“I grew up in the city of Arecibo, I grew up knowing that in the mountains south of the city great science was being done,” says Pablo Llerandi-Román, a geologist at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras. For Llerandi, science became more than just a subject in school when he visited the observatory as a student and talked with the researchers on site. “If Arecibo shuts down,” he says, “A major aspect of my arecibeño and Puerto Rican scientist pride would be lost.”

Carlos Estevez Galarza, a student at the University of Puerto Rico, says he hopes Puerto Ricans will one day be as celebrated for their commitment to science as they are for their passions for arts and sports – and he thinks the observatory plays an important role in that.

“The Arecibo Observatory and its staff were the only ones who believed in me, when no one did,” Galarza says. He worked as a student research assistant at the observatory, studying Mars, and has since presented his work at international conferences and submitted his first paper to a science journal.

“The most important thing about my experience at the Arecibo Observatory is that I found my purpose,” he continues. “There are many talented Puerto Rican students who deserve the chance that I had.”

One of those students is still in high school. Now 16, Wilbert Andres Ruperto Hernandez wanted to be an astronaut as a kid – and he wanted to get some hands-on experience in science and engineering. So he enrolled in the Arecibo Observatory Space Academy, which offers high school students the opportunity to design experiments, then collect and analyze data. Now, Hernandez says, he wants to study mechanical engineering or space sciences in college, and has discovered a yearning to understand how the universe works – something that emerged while working with and talking to scientists at the observatory.

“The fact that we have yet to discover and learn more about ourselves, where we live in and all the things that surround us, motivates me the most to investigate and study these fields,” he says. “Being part of Arecibo Observatory and AOSA has been the greatest experience in my life.”

Around sunset, Arecibo comes to life with the stubborn songs of coqui frogs. (Nadia Drake)
Around sunset, Arecibo comes to life with the stubborn songs of coqui frogs. (Nadia Drake)
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What Hillary Clinton Says About Aliens Is Totally Misguided

A flying saucer hovers over downtown Ithaca*. Have we been visited by aliens? Hillary Clinton is going to find out. (N. Drake)
A flying saucer hovers over downtown Ithaca*. Have we been visited by aliens? Hillary Clinton is going to find out.
Photograph by Nadia Drake

In the spring of 1999, a UFO flew over downtown Ithaca, New York. I was standing on the roof of a house near the Cornell University campus and managed to snap a few characteristically crappy pictures of the alien object, which vaguely resembled a flying saucer wearing a top hat.

It hovered above the Ithaca Commons for a minute before turning east and soaring over the Cornell University clock tower. As it flew, the craft made a sound that resembled bacon sizzling in a frying pan. Then, just as quickly as it had appeared on that sunny Saturday afternoon, the UFO vanished. The whole encounter lasted maybe a few minutes.

I would later learn that it wasn’t the first time Ithaca had been visited by a UFO. In fact, sightings were pretty common in the area during the latter half of the 20th century—just as they are in some UFO hotspots around the world, like Area 51 in Nevada, the Welsh Triangle, and Wycliffe Well, Australia. Witnesses tend to use similar language when describing spacecraft shapes, sounds, and the aliens themselves, which ostensibly lends credibility to their testimony. After all, how could so many people be wrong?

Even Hillary Clinton appears reluctant to doubt the sightings.

“There’s enough stories out there that I don’t think everybody is just sitting in their kitchen making them up,” Clinton said during a recent interview.

Clinton, it seems, has at least one foot inside the UFO spacewagon, and in recent weeks has promised to get to the bottom of what’s really going on at Area 51. She says that if she’s elected in November, she’ll open up as many of those documents as she can (some are already available) and reveal the truth about possible extraterrestrial visits to Earth. Meanwhile, John Podesta, her campaign chair, appears to be piloting that spacewagon. A rabid X-Files fan (as am I, no shame), Podesta tweeted, “Finally, my biggest failure of 2014: Once again not securing the #disclosure of the U.F.O. files. #thetruthisstilloutthere,” when he left the Obama White House last year.

It’s disappointing that influential people are helping fan the flames of conspiracy theories that refuse to wilt beneath the weight of truth. One hopes it’s just a campaign stunt, meant to increase Clinton’s popularity among a group of people who might be inclined to vote somewhat more conservatively. Yet given Podesta’s and Clinton’s track records on the topic, it seems more likely the pair really believes there might be something to expose.

Perhaps those documents are tucked into a cardboard box stashed in an old railway car, waiting for Clinton and Podesta to arrive with their flashlights. But I’d wager much more than my house that there’s exactly zero credible evidence supporting alien encounters with this planet—and I’d love for warp drives and battlestars to exist as much as anyone would.

After a few minutes, the spacecraft turned east and flew over the Cornell campus*. (N. Drake)
After a few minutes, the spacecraft turned east and flew over the Cornell campus*.
Photograph by Nadia Drake

Wait. Didn’t I see a UFO over Ithaca?

Yes, I did see a UFO over Ithaca. I can even tell you exactly what it was made of: an upside-down frying pan with a saucepan lid on top, some fishing line, and a big stick. A classmate and I had manufactured the photos for a course we were taking on the search for life in the universe. Our goal was to win a classroom debate about whether aliens had visited Earth, and step one was proving just how easy it is to fabricate evidence.

Sorry to disappoint. (Not really.)

Step two involved addressing the volumes of eyewitness claims, and explaining why such testimony can be unreliable. If you’re skeptical, check out the decades of research that have been done on the reliability of witnesses testifying in court. In these situations, our brains often fill in or edit details based on preconceived biases or post-encounter information—and then we subconsciously convince ourselves that our memories are accurate when in fact, they’re not.

This is where Clinton’s reasoning about people sitting in their kitchens making stuff up falls apart. Beliefs are potent. The brain is a powerful tool, and it can lead us to some incredibly wrong recollections and conclusions. And in these situations, assuming there’s safety in numbers is foolish (for more on that topic, start with the Salem witch trials).

During high school, I spent a few summers working alongside my father at the SETI Institute. One of my jobs was to answer letters. This was back in the day when people stuffed paper into envelopes, so I’d start by sorting the letters into two piles. One pile was for correspondence that requested scientific information; the other was for claims of UFO sightings. I’d read these with interest, wondering what it was people thought they saw. Many were convinced that my family had aliens buried in our basement (I’m not saying we do, I’m not saying we don’t**). Often, the reports were incredibly detailed, with one particularly colorful account unfolding over 10 handwritten pages describing how beeping robotic space balls followed a family around.

There’s a familiar saying that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and that evidence—or any proof, really—was never there.

It never is.

So I’d respond with a standard letter explaining what SETI actually does, and include a brochure about the scientific search for extraterrestrial life, which I think is as interesting as the fantasy.

That search began in 1960, when my dad pointed a telescope in Green Bank, West Virginia at a pair of sunlike stars. He was listening for telltale signs of technology broadcasting itself across the cosmos. All he heard was silence. And all we’ve heard since then is silence. But in the intervening half-century, the search for life beyond Earth has moved beyond straining to hear distant cosmic murmurs to looking for evidence of microbial life much closer to home, in our own solar system. Eventually, we’ll take a close look at the atmospheres of faraway planets and keep an eye out for the signatures of living, breathing, biological ecosystems.

And that’s science, which is step three in evaluating alien encounters. It’s true that we don’t know everything there is to know about propulsive technologies, or how the universe works. But we do know that the distances between the stars are so vast, and the energetic requirements for space travel so monumental, that visiting an alien world is far from trivial. It’s not nearly enough to say that alien civilizations might be using technologies we’re completely unaware of. Science demands verifiable proof.

And “proof” of flying saucers and crashed alien spacecrafts amounts to little more than unverified anecdotes.

This is why it’s unhelpful and irresponsible for Clinton and Podesta to be teasing the public as they are. Go ahead and open up the Area 51 files (or at least the ones that don’t compromise national security), but do it in the name of true government transparency rather than uncovering aliens.

* Not really. Please don’t reuse this image without that important caveat.

** We don’t have aliens buried in our basement.

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Will the Real Earthlike Planets Please Stand Up?

Three Earth-size planets orbit a small dim star. Are they Earth-like? It's not clear yet. (ESO/M. Kornmesser)
Three Earth-size planets orbit a small, dim star. Are they Earthlike? It’s not clear yet. (ESO/M. Kornmesser)

Earlier this week, a string of somewhat breathless news stories reported that three Earthlike exoplanets could be the most likely hosts for life outside the solar system. But that’s not exactly true. There’s a lot we don’t know about these newly revealed planets, and a vast ocean of data that needs gathering before an Earth-size world can make the leap to truly Earthlike. Already, a new study has suggested that two of these planets could be desiccated, parched, and decidedly un-Earthy.

Yet even if the trio aren’t as Earthlike as advertised, they’re still interesting and notable—even without trumped up reports of habitability.

“All of the stuff about habitability, surface environments, etc., is merely idle speculation and conjecture,” says Greg Laughlin of the University of California, Santa Cruz. “Even with our own solar system, there’s been zero success in predicting what surface environments for a large moon or planet look like until the body is viewed up close.”

The journey from Earth-size to Earthlike depends on which definition is at the destination. How much of an Earth twin does a planet need to be to fit the description? Does a similar size and temperature qualify? Or does it also need to orbit a star like the sun and have an Earthlike composition, atmosphere, and ability to host life?

My guess is, that definition varies depending on who’s using it, and it’s worth clarifying what it means each time.

Right now, most of those latter characteristics are complete unknowns in the system. At this point, all scientists know for sure are the sizes, orbits, and potential temperatures of the two innermost planets, which are so close to the star they keep the same face pointed inward all the time. The team knows the third planet’s size, but its orbital period is mostly a mystery. And they know the planets are basking in infrared light, which is what most of the TRAPPIST-1 star’s light is—which is very different from the sun.

But while studies of other exoplanets suggest it’s likely the planets are a mixture of ice and rock, it’s not clear at all what they’re actually made of, whether they have atmospheres that affect surface temperatures (and if so, how), and if liquid water could pool on their surfaces, at least in narrow temperate bands bordering the regions of perpetual day and night.

And what about the worlds’ ability to support life—either as we know it or in a form that has evolved to thrive on infrared photons? That’s a completely different set of questions, and one that isn’t even close to being answered.

Still, “it looks like the middle planet, with the 2.42-day orbital period, could potentially be quite Earthlike in its properties,” Laughlin notes. “I don’t know of any other exoplanet that is potentially as Earthlike.”

How is Laughlin defining “Earthlike” here?

“I mean a planet that is close to Earth’s radius and which receives a similar energy flux from its parent body. I definitely don’t mean oceans, plate tectonics, dolphins, stock markets …,” he says. “As the authors argue, however, it’s likely that the planet is spin-synchronized so that it presents one hemisphere to the star, which is very different from Earth.”

OK, so the planet is definitely not Earth’s twin, but it’s not exactly unrelated, either.

Regardless, the worlds are still noteworthy, and for a slew of reasons. They live around a tiny and cold star known as an ultracool dwarf; until now, scientists weren’t sure these stars, which comprise 15 percent of the stars nearest the sun, could host relatively large worlds. And it turns out that answer is yes, which means—to put it simply—more planets! Second, at roughly 40 light-years away, the system is so nearby that closely scrutinizing the planets is not only possible, but it’s possible now. Those observations will be even easier because the star is so dim, meaning that disentangling which information is coming from the planets and which is coming from the starlight is much simpler. And lastly (for now), studying the system will help scientists learn more about how planets evolve around stars very different than our own—which is the subject of the follow-up paper taking a look at water loss on worlds around ultracool dwarfs.

In short, it’s worth remembering that responsibly covering science means being faithful to the discoveries and the data—shortcomings, vagaries, and all. Sure, it’s fun to speculate about what we might eventually learn, but it’s not worth overstating findings and misleading readers for the sake of clicks. The beauty of science is in its complexity, in its messiness, in its rigorous examination of the unknown, in amassing enough data to reasonably interpret—and then using that as a foundation to start the whole process over again, with a different set of questions.

Three Earth-size alien worlds circling a nearby stellar underdog? That’s fantastic.

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Scientists Discover a Dark Moon in the Distant Solar System

Makemake and its dark little moon, known for now as MK2, are shown in this illustration. (NASA/ESA/Alex Parker)
Makemake and its newly discovered moon, known for now as MK2, are shown in this illustration. (NASA/ESA/Alex Parker)

Dwarf planet Makemake, which orbits the sun once every 310 Earth-years, has a dark little moon. Just 100 miles across, the moon evaded detection for more than a decade, hiding in the glare of its parent planet.

But it couldn’t escape the stare of the sharpest eye in the sky forever: When scientists aimed the Hubble Space Telescope at Makemake for more than two hours in April 2015, they discovered a faint point of light moving through the sky along with the icy world.

Until now, Makemake was the only officially recognized distant dwarf planet without a moon, a dubious distinction that has now been lost.

Is That … a Moon?

At first, Alex Parker wasn’t sure he’d spotted a new moon in the Hubble observations.

“I was sure someone had seen it already,” says Parker, of the Southwest Research Institute. So, he approached collaborator Marc Buie and asked, “Has anyone seen the moon in the Makemake data?”

Buie’s reply — “There’s a moon in the Makemake data?”— convinced Parker he was onto something.

“It was at that point that everything got exciting and kicked into high gear,” says Parker, who along with Buie reported the discovery of the moon, known as MK2 for now (or S/2015 (136472) 1, more officially) on Tuesday.

Hubble image of Makemake and its moon. (NASA/ESA/Alex Parker)
Hubble image of Makemake and its moon. (NASA/ESA/Alex Parker)

By carefully studying the orbit of MK2, scientists will not only be able to determine how the moon formed—whether Makemake’s gravity snatched it or it grew out of a collision—but also learn more about Makemake itself. Specifically, the moon’s orbit will reveal the mass of the small, icy world. From there, they’ll be able to calculate Makemake’s density and determine what it is likely made of, and compare it to other far-flung icy worlds such as Pluto, Eris, and egg-shaped Haumea.

“The wide range of densities of the dwarf planets is one of the most interesting mysteries out there. But we still have so few objects that each one adds a critical part of the story,” says Caltech’s Mike Brown, who, with his colleagues, discovered Makemake in 2005. “I’m accepting bets currently.”

Makemake’s Dark Mystery

Makemake is a strange world. Shaped like a flattened sphere about 870 miles across, it lives in the Kuiper Belt—the icy debris ring beyond the orbit of Neptune—and is reddish in color. Like some other Kuiper Belt objects, Makemake spins very quickly, pirouetting every 7.7 hours. Its slightly oval orbit takes it much farther from the sun than Pluto, which treks around the sun in a comparatively snappy 248 years.

Finding MK2 in orbit around Makemake could solve one of the abiding mysteries about the icy dwarf planet, Parker said.

When scientists first observed the whirling Makemake, they noted that it was continually bright, meaning that its surface is probably uniformly covered in bright, reflective ices. But heat signatures from the faraway planet were slightly varied, suggesting that at least one warm, dark patch might be present on Makemake’s surface. Years of observations failed to reconcile the two data sets, as a dark patch never showed up in observations.

“Well, imagine that the dark material isn’t on Makemake’s surface … it’s in orbit!” Parker said. “If the moon is very dark, it accounts for most previous thermal measurements!”

Indeed, MK2 is much darker than Makemake itself, which is about 1,300 times brighter than its companion.

What else is hiding in our solar system, waiting to be discovered?

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A Bouncy House Heads to the International Space Station

An artist's conception of the inflated BEAM module (balloon structure at top center) berthed to the Tranquility node of ISS. (NASA)
An artist’s conception of the inflated BEAM module (balloon structure at top center) berthed to the Tranquility node of ISS. (NASA)

Today, when SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket blasts off from Cape Canaveral, it will be boosting the rough equivalent of an inflatable bouncy house to space – a type of inhabitable module that could ultimately be used to construct a space hotel or habitat.

And really, what could be better than a bouncy house in space? It’s like the ultimate Airbnb.

Ok, fine. The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module isn’t exactly like the inflatable castles you can temporarily park in your yard, but it’s pretty darn close, conceptually. Designed to expand after unpacking, the module, when inflated, will resemble a hollow, crinkled marshmallow with rounded edges.

And inside, where someone could theoretically live, it’ll actually be rather spacious. The 3,000-pound prototype launching today is smaller than the envisioned double-decker version of the future, but it’s still bigger than some San Francisco living spaces. When packed, BEAM measures just 7 feet long by 7 feet wide – somewhat shorter than a Smart car, but a little bit taller – and after being pumped full of air from the International Space Station, it’ll be 13 feet long and 10.5 feet in diameter.

Ultimately, the idea is to string a bunch of these things together like Legos and create a habitat in space, on Mars, on the moon, wherever. After all, it’s much easier to collapse a tent and squish it into a backpack than it is to port the thing fully assembled.

It’s an appealingly practical idea, though having a thin layer of material as the only buffer between fragile biology and a hostile vacuum is somewhat unsettling (that flexible layer, however, is made of Kevlar-like materials and is strong enough to withstand an attack from rogue space debris, company president Robert Biglow told Florida Today).


“Would you go to an inflatable hotel in space?” I asked planetary scientist Paul Abell, one of my hosts on a recent tour of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, where I had a chance to see a training replica of the BEAM prototype.

“Oh yeah – without a doubt,” Abell said.

Me, too, I thought, while eyeing the module in the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility. This is where astronauts train for missions using replicas of the ISS, Soyuz capsule, Space Shuttle, and other spacecraft. I’m told that astronauts used the exact BEAM module I’m looking at to train for hatch interaction, deployment, and sensor retrieval.

The BEAM mockup at NASA's Johnson Space Center. (NASA)
The BEAM mockup at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. (NASA)

It’s actually not the first time something like this has hitched a ride into orbit. In 2006 and 2007, Bigelow’s expandable Genesis I and II modules blasted off from Russia. Genesis I carried, among other things, a cache of Mexican jumping beans. And tucked inside Genesis II were a variety of bugs – ants, Madagascar hissing cockroaches, and scorpions from South Africa. The bugs are probably long dead (if not, yikes), but both modules are still in good shape and are orbiting the Earth, destined to re-enter the atmosphere sometime in the next decade.

The module launched today will experience a similarly low-key fate, bugs not included. It won’t house any space tourists, and will only occasionally feel the presence of astronauts. After the crew on board the International Space Station inflates it sometime in May (most likely), it’ll hang out for two years, serving as a demonstration that such habitats are capable of handling long-duration exposures to space.

Someday, I would love to visit one of these inflatable modules in space. I imagine it’ll be way better than my already awesome first experience in a bounce house, which didn’t happen until disappointingly later in life, when I was 18 and about to take off for college. My parents decided the occasion merited a party, and I decided to go all unintentionally hipster and see if we could temporarily install a bounce house in the backyard.

“What kind of house do you want?” they asked, pointing out the variety of castles and other available designs.

“Ummm, the space station one,” I replied. Obviously.

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Damaged Japanese Spacecraft Likely ‘Beyond Saving’

This may be the largest remaining piece of the space telescope Hitomi.

New observations suggest that Hitomi, Japan’s flagship X-ray telescope, is tumbling through space in ten or more pieces—and is likely unrecoverable.

“The available data now seem to indicate a real break-up rather than just “some” debris shedding,” writes satellite tracker Marco Langbroek. “If true, then Hitomi is beyond saving.”

The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) lost consistent contact with Hitomi (also known as ASTRO-H) on March 26. Early reports showed the spacecraft’s orbit had rapidly changed—and that it had then shed at least five pieces of debris, size unknown. Video footage captured from the ground revealed an object tumbling through space, an ominous observation consistent with the intermittent radio signals JAXA was still receiving from the spacecraft. Altogether, the evidence suggested that some sudden event had disabled Hitomi, which would have peered into the hearts of galaxies and studied the maelstrom of matter swirling around black holes.

Whether that event was some kind of onboard explosion (more probable), or a collision with space debris (less probable) is still unclear.

Now, new radar observations from the U.S. Joint Space Operations Center indicate that Hitomi has broken up into at least ten pieces, and that two of these pieces are very large indeed. Even more worryingly, the spacecraft has gone quiet, with Japan no longer receiving the intermittent trickles of signals thought to come from a tumbling Hitomi.

“Sadly, I now believe that the radio signals were the dying sighs of a fatally wounded ASTRO-H,” tweeted Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “As far as I know, JAXA hasn’t officially given up though!”

Those ten pieces were likely all present on March 26, when the first reports of debris from Hitomi came in, but they weren’t separated enough in space to be reliably observed.

Now, orbital data show that some of those pieces are on quickly decaying trajectories and will burn up in Earth’s atmosphere within a week or so, writes astrophysicist Peter Coles of Sussex University. Those fragments are small, the kinds of things a spacecraft could plausibly shed and still function.

The two largest fragments, however, suggest that whatever happened to Hitomi is probably a terminal event. Video footage shows that these fragments, now called piece A and piece L, are roughly the same size and are tumbling through space, with one flying about 7 minutes in front of the other.

Japanese Spacecraft Tumbling in Orbit (L Piece)

The first of those pieces, now called piece L, was captured on video last week and mistakenly thought to be the main body of Hitomi. But it’s not. New observations suggest the tumbling fragment is a large, dense piece of Hitomi—perhaps its extendable optical bench, where the spacecraft’s hard X-ray detectors are. An April 2 video from satellite tracker Paul Maley, taken on the ground in Arizona, suggest fragment L is still tumbling through space, flashing about once every 10 seconds.

Fragment A, which is now thought to be the bulk of Hitomi, is trailing piece L by several minutes. Maley’s video shows that A is flashing about once every second.

“It is spinning quite fast with bright flashes,” Maley describes, noting that fragment A is also visible with the unaided eye. “The only question is, what are the real identities of the objects in orbit? Given the brightness of the two that I have seen, one is most likely the primary payload, the other is something sizable but what it is I do not know.”

Pieces A and L are trailed by a third large-ish fragment called K, which is about 26 minutes behind the pair.

The whole situation is unfolding into a heartbreaking disaster for Japan and for astronomers, who’d hoped this attempt to put an X-ray observatory in orbit would be successful (to really see the universe in X-rays, you need a satellite above the Earth’s atmosphere). Since 2000, Japan has tried twice to operate a space-based X-ray telescope; the first crashed during launch, and the second suffered from a leaky helium tank. So, hopes were high for Hitomi, which launched on February 17, and means pupil of the eye.

It could take years for the spacecraft’s two largest fragments to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, and it’s possible that bits of them could survive the plunge to our planet.

“They aren’t decaying fast, may be a few years before they reenter,” McDowell says. “But when they do we’ll be paying close attention.”

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Video Shows Troubled Japanese Spacecraft Tumbling in Orbit

A new video shows Japan’s troubled Hitomi spacecraft tumbling in orbit. As the satellite crosses the screen (from right to left), it varies wildly in brightness—which means it’s shooting unstably through space. The space telescope lost consistent communication with Earth on Saturday.

“If the satellite were not tumbling, it would appear to be the same brightness,” says Paul Maley, an amateur astronomer and former NASA flight controller, who observed Hitomi from the ground in Arizona. “The fact that it is rotating with extreme variations in brightness indicates that it is not controlled and that some event caused it to begin its rotation.”

It’s not yet clear what that event is, but the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, is investigating the problem and attempting to regain control of Hitomi.

JAXA lost consistent contact with the  X-ray astronomy satellite on March 26, but it has heard an intermittent signal from the craft that is consistent with it tumbling through space. Troublingly, radar observations from the U.S. Joint Space Operations Center suggest Hitomi (or ASTRO-H) is in at least five pieces, and that it experienced a rapid change in orbit on the same day it went mostly quiet.

It’s unknown how big those pieces are (they could be small bits of insulation) or what exactly has happened to the spacecraft, with speculation ranging from an on-board error — such as a battery explosion or gas leak — to a collision with space debris or a micrometeorite. Regardless, the situation is clearly not good news for JAXA, which has already experienced two failures with X-ray observatories. In 2000, its ASTRO-E space telescope failed to reach orbit and likely crashed into the Pacific Ocean, and in 2005, a helium leak disabled the primary instrument on Suzaku, ASTRO-E’s successor. But late last year, JAXA did manage to place its Akatsuki spacecraft in orbit around Venus, five years after a valve malfunction caused the spacecraft to miss its first rendezvous with Earth’s shrouded sister world.

Hitomi, which launched into low-Earth orbit on February 17, was intended to study the highest energy universe and peer at galaxy clusters, supermassive black holes, and exploding stars. Some scientists still think it’s not entirely impossible for the space telescope (whose name means “eye” in Japanese) to recover from this series of still-mysterious unfortunate mishaps and stare at the cosmos.

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Japan Loses Contact With New Space Telescope

Hitomi, Japan's newest space telescope, was meant to study the high-energy universe -- but it may be in deep trouble. (JAXA)
Hitomi, Japan’s newest space telescope, was meant to study the high-energy universe — but it may be in deep trouble. (JAXA)

Japan has lost contact with its newest space telescope. The spacecraft, which was carrying an instrument from NASA, was intended to study the high-energy universe in X-rays and gamma rays, and observe such objects as supermassive black holes and galaxy clusters.

Radar observations indicated that Hitomi, which launched on February 17 into low-Earth orbit, is in at least five pieces—and a plot of its orbit revealed a dramatic change on Saturday, when the spacecraft lost contact with Earth.

(Update: Watch new video that shows the spacecraft tumbling in orbit.)

That means, says astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, that some kind of “energetic event” has occurred—something more than a simple failure of communications.

“Loss of comm + orbit change + radar detecting 5 pieces of debris is much worse than just loss of comm,” tweeted McDowell, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

It’s not clear exactly what has happened on board Hitomi. Scientists are currently investigating the situation, and the Japanese space agency, JAXA, reports that it has gotten a trickle of a signal from the spacecraft. That means it’s possible the five pieces detected by radar are things like insulation, rather than large chunks of debris resulting from a catastrophic explosion; it’s also possible the spacecraft is tumbling, McDowell says, and that signals from Hitomi are periodically sweeping across the Earth.

Still, despite all the bad news, the spacecraft might not be lost.

“I truly have not given up hope,” McDowell says, noting that equally bad space situations in the past have been successfully resolved. “We lost contact with SOHO for months and fully recovered it. ALEXIS had a solar panel break loose and was tumbling, but they learnt how to fly it and began science mission a couple months late. So it’s a long shot—and I refuse to put a number on the probability—but there is precedent for things being this bad and it turning out OK.”

JAXA is no stranger to second chances. Late last year, the Japanese space agency managed to place its Akatsuki spacecraft in orbit around Venus, after failing on the first try. When Akatsuki originally tried to orbit Earth’s twisted sister, a valve broke and sent the spacecraft on a long, 5-year journey through the solar system. But, eventually, Akatsuki caught up with its target and slipped into Venus’ gravitational clutches.

The moral of the story? Space is hard. Things go wrong. But if we never try, we’ll never succeed.


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Scientists May Have Spotted Buried Lava Tubes on the Moon

This dark splotch could be a portal to a buried lava tube on the moon. (NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University)
This dark splotch could be a portal to a buried lava tube on the moon. (NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University)

THE WOODLANDS, Texas—A system of buried, empty lava tubes hides beneath the moon’s surface, remnants of a bygone age when the volcanically active moon launched fountains of fire into space.

At least, that’s what scientists think.

For years, teams have hunted for these elusive sublunar tunnels, which can be large and sturdy enough to house entire cities. In fact, lunar lava tubes could be ideal locations to establish a moon base, as their thick roofs would shield humans from harmful radiation and small meteorite impacts. But until now, the strongest observational hints of the tubes’ existence came from a smattering of detectable surface features, including skylights and rilles, channel-like depressions thought to form when tubes collapse.

This week, scientists announced that the signatures of at least ten buried lava tubes could be written into a map of the moon’s gravitational field.

It’s “the strongest evidence yet that shows signals consistent with that of buried, empty lava tubes on the moon,” said Purdue University’s Rohan Sood, who presented the observations at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference.

Sood and his colleagues began their search for lava tubes in the Marius Hills region, where scientists suspect that a skylight has opened into one of the buried tunnels. That portal, discovered by Japan’s moon-orbiting Kaguya spacecraft and reported in 2009, is approximately 65 meters wide and 80 meters deep. It also sits by two rilles boringly known as A and B. In other words, there are multiple lines of evidence suggesting that lava once oozed and flowed beneath the Marius Hills.

“We see a skylight that is along this rille, but we don’t know if that is an access point into a lava tube or not,” Sood says. “Can we pick that up using gravity data?”

Images of the Marius Hills pit as observed under different solar illumination conditions by the SELENE/Kaguya Terrain Camera and Multiband Imager [JAXA/SELENE].
Images of the Marius Hills pit as observed under different solar illumination conditions by the SELENE/Kaguya Terrain Camera and Multiband Imager (JAXA/SELENE).
The short answer is yes, most likely.

Sood and his colleagues searched for the Marius Hills tube using data from NASA’s twin GRAIL spacecraft, which flew in tandem above the moon’s surface as they measured and mapped its gravitational field (in 2012, the spacecraft were purposely crashed into a site now named after astronaut Sally Ride). The moon’s gravitational field is affected by masses below the surface, as is Earth’s. Put simply, large chunks of mass will produce an increase in gravity, Sood says, but “if you fly over a lava tube, there’s going to be a dip in gravity.”

The team spotted a gravitational signature that could be a lava tube near the skylight, and then wondered if it would be possible to detect similar signatures in areas with no obvious rilles or skylights. Turns out, the GRAIL data contain at least ten telltale anomalies resembling lava tubes, slithering and twisting beneath the moon’s surface. They’re all located on the moon’s near side, near the dark stains left by ancient volcanic seas, and some of the candidate tubes are more than 100 kilometers long and several kilometers wide—large enough to swallow a small city.

Of course, it’s not certain that the tubes are actually there. The GRAIL data provide the strongest evidence for their presence, but definitive proof would require a moon-orbiting spacecraft that uses ground-penetrating radar to peer beneath the moon’s surface. Sood and his colleagues have proposed just such a space robot, called LAROSS.

“The proposed radar will not only help confirm our findings but will also give us an opportunity to find smaller lava tubes, ones that were beyond the resolution of GRAIL gravity data,” Sood says.

Maybe someday, after looking for lava in all the right places, space-faring humans will not only solve the mysteries of Earth’s closest celestial companion but use it as a giant shield against the dangers of space.

Full citation: Detection of buried empty lunar lava tubes using GRAIL gravity data. R. Sood, L. Chappaz, H. J. Melosh, K. C. Howell, and C. Milbury. LPSC abstract here.

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Ceres, the Dwarf Planet Formerly Known as an Ocean World

Occator crater, home of the bright spots on Ceres, has a mound in its middle. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI/LPI)
Occator crater, home of the bright spots on Ceres, has a mound in its middle that is covered in salt. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI/LPI)

Update, June 29, 2016: The composition of Ceres’ bright spots is no longer a mystery: Wednesday in Nature, scientists revealed those enigmatic splotches are rich in sodium carbonate, a salt that is tightly linked to watery conditions on Earth. In fact, there’s so much of the stuff in Ceres’ Occator crater that the pit holds the record for the largest such deposit in the solar system aside from Earth.

Just how those salts ended up on Ceres’ surface is still a mystery, though. Instead of containing large amounts of ice, as some scientists had expected, Ceres’ interior is considerably drier than suspected, reports a second study published Wednesday in Nature Geoscience. That makes it hard to explain how the dwarf planet’s surface ended up covered in formerly dissolved salts. Now, researchers are trying to sort out how Ceres made those salts and moved liquid brines to the surface; they suspect impacts may be to blame for simultaneously melting buried ice and excavating the planet’s salty sea, leaving bits of it to shimmer in the sunlight.


Today, Ceres is a salt-covered dwarf planet whose main claim to fame is that it’s the largest body in the main asteroid belt. But back when it was younger and hotter, scientists have found, Ceres was an ocean world—much like the watery moons of Jupiter and Saturn. 

“Ceres appears to have been one of these in the past,” Carol Raymond, deputy principal investigator for NASA’s Dawn mission, said Tuesday at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. The Dawn mission put a spacecraft in orbit around the tiny planet in March 2015. “What we’re looking at now, we believe, is the remnants of a frozen ocean.”

Scientists hoped that when Dawn arrived at Ceres, it would help solve the mysteries of this strange little world. But instead, Ceres is throwing puzzle after puzzle at the team and proving to be a much tougher space-nut to crack than anticipated.

Among Ceres’ enigmas are those perplexing bright spots, which scientists first thought could be extremely reflective water ice. But closer inspection reveals the spots are likely to be salts – perhaps leftover from a briny, frozen ocean that’s exposed when impacts gouge craters into Ceres’ crust. “We’re interrogating the chemistry, essentially, of that ocean-rock interface,” Raymond said.

Occator Crater, home of the bright spots. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI)
Occator Crater. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI)

The brightest and best-known spots are in Occator crater, a 92-kilometer-wide hole in the ground that is roughly 80 million years old. Occator is covered in vaguely blue, young terrain at its bottom, and shaded somewhat reddish and older around its edges. But it’s the formation on the crater’s floor that has most intrigued scientists: There, among the brightest of the bright spots, is a pit. And rising out of that pit is a fractured, reddish dome.

It’s possible that when Occator formed, the impact not only excavated the crater but heated a portion of the subsurface material enough for ice and other volatiles to waft into space, said Tim Bowling of the University of Chicago. “If you remove all the ice from a region, then you’re able to form a pit,” he said, during a presentation at the meeting. And when that happened, the materials left in the resulting hollow should be the reflective salts.

But how about that dome? Stay tuned. “I just found out yesterday there’s a mound inside the pit,” Bowling said.

It’s no secret that craters are sprinkled across Ceres’ surface. Take a spin around the dwarf planet and multiple pockmarks will fill each frame. But what’s noticeably absent are extremely large craters, the ones more than several hundred kilometers across. These, based on the collisional history of the solar system, should also be carved into Ceres – and yet, they’re missing.

“We must think that those craters formed, and then they got erased,” said Simone Marchi of the Southwest Research Institute. “The question is, How can you erase all those large craters?”

Ahuna Mons is a young, perplexing mountain on Ceres. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI)
Ahuna Mons is a young, perplexing mountain on Ceres. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI)

And then there’s that mountain, a pyramidal oddity called Ahuna Mons. About 5 kilometers tall with steep, bluish slopes, Ahuna Mons looks as though it has been thrust straight out of Ceres. “The mountain is really coming out from the subsurface and taking the surface features, which are a little bit older, up the mountain,” said Ralf Jaumann of the German Aerospace Center. It’s not the only mountain on Ceres, he said, but the others are older and less developed.

Those are just a few of the Cererean enigmas scientists are trying to solve. It’s also possible the world is still alive and venting water vapor into space, that icy volcanism is continually resurfacing parts of it, and that Ceres may not have been born in the asteroid belt – but is instead a wanderer from much farther out in the solar system.

As Dawn continues to spiral around the world, these and other questions may be answered. And then again, they may not. If nothing else, space can be incredibly good at keeping its secrets close.

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Is That a Frozen Lake on Pluto?

Pluto may once have had lakes and river of liquid nitrogen on its surface. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)
What looks like a frozen lake suggests Pluto may occasionally have liquids flowing on its surface. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

THE WOODLANDS, Texas—Liquids may have pooled and flowed on Pluto’s surface within the last million years – and they may do so again, scientists reported March 21 at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference.

Though not a given, the presence of liquids on Pluto at any point is puzzling, given that average temperatures on the frozen world hover around -400 Fahrenheit. But, as NASA’s New Horizons team is learning, Pluto is anything but dead—or predictable.

“What the data revealed did not surprise us,” says NASA’s Jim Green. “It shocked us.”

Two lines of evidence suggest the dwarf world’s surface may occasionally be just a little bit wetter than it is now. One is based on how the planet’s atmospheric pressure changes during Pluto’s 248-year orbit, and the other comes from recent images sent home by the New Horizons spacecraft, which flew by Pluto in July 2015.

For starters, Pluto’s axis is tilted by about 120 degrees—it’s tipped so far over that its north pole actually points downward (as a comparison, Earth is tipped 23 degrees). As Pluto orbits the sun, it experiences some of the most extreme seasonal shifts in the solar system, with parts of it swinging between a half-century of nearly complete sunlight and a half-century of perpetual night.

When scientists simulated these seasonal changes over millions of years, taking into account how Pluto’s tilt can wobble just a bit, they realized that Pluto’s nitrogen atmosphere becomes dramatically thicker and thinner over millions of years.

A patch of crisscrossing gullies that could have been carved by liquids. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)
A patch of crisscrossing gullies that could have been carved by liquids. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

“The pressure changes radically,” says New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern. Today, he says, Pluto’s atmospheric pressure is “atypically low,” noting that at maximum it can be more than 20,000 times the current reading.

That means surface temperatures must be fluctuating enough to mess with the nitrogen on Pluto’s surface, driving it from a frozen solid into a gas. And sometimes, the temperature and pressure occasionally rise high enough for liquid nitrogen to flow on the surface.

The last time temperatures were sufficiently high to melt nitrogen was around 800,000 years ago, when Pluto’s orbital alignment led to its most extreme warm climate, says MIT’s Richard Binzel.

“The current Pluto is in an intermediate phase between its climate extremes,” Binzel says.

Next, as the New Horizons team studied the images coming back from the spacecraft, scientists started to spot surface features that looked as though they’d been carved by liquid. “We see for all the world what looks to a lot of our team like a former lake, a frozen lake,” Stern says. That lake, located just north of the smooth, bright icefield known as Sputnik Planum, measures about 20 miles from one end to the other. But there are also forking riverbeds and crisscrossing gullies that could have been sculpted by a similarly liquidy hand.

These branching features could be riverbeds sculpted by liquids on Pluto. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)
These branching features could be riverbeds sculpted by liquids on Pluto. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

Though it’s not entirely clear what kind of liquid may occasionally trickle across the surface of a world billions of miles from the sun, nitrogen is a decent guess. Other possibilities include neon, molecular oxygen, or molecular helium, though it’s not likely those species are present in sufficient quantities to craft the observed features.

“This story, like the planet, is evolving,” Stern says.

Indeed, as tipped-over Pluto continues tracing its oval path around the sun, its temperature will continue to rise and fall, perhaps awakening that frozen nitrogen in another several million years and once again sending it tumbling through gullies and streambeds.


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What Was That Glowing, Gassy Fountain on the Sun?

A conspicuous blast of glowing gas capped last week's eclipsed sun. (NASA/Exploratorium)
A conspicuous blast of glowing gas capped last week’s eclipsed sun. (NASA/Exploratorium)

Last week, the moon cast daylight briefly away as it slid precisely between the sun and Earth. If you watched the resulting total solar eclipse – either in person (lucky you!) or on one of the many live broadcasts – you may have noticed the enormous fountain of gas that appeared to be erupting from the sun’s edge.

Called a prominence, the glowing spray was easily visible when the sun was still a crescent, long before the moon blotted out its light. Then, as the sun briefly disappeared, the prominence blazed into view along with the fiery halo of the sun’s corona.

Though I’ve seen a few eclipses before, I was completely unprepared for how striking the sight was. Space-based telescopes that stare at the sun see such spurts all the time, but seeing one from an Alaska Airlines flight, a beach in Micronesia, or the living room couch doesn’t happen often.

So, I caught up with Alex Young, a solar astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and asked him to help me put the spectacle in context. Do prominences often appear during eclipses? How big is this one?

Turns out, such prominences are often visible during eclipses. And last week’s flaming streamer is only as tall as several Earths, which means  it’s “not that big,” Young says. The sun itself is about 108 Earths across, and these types of streamers – which are called filaments when they’re visible on the sun’s disk rather than its edge – can often span the majority of our star, stretching for hundreds of thousands of kilometers.

This prominence isn’t remarkably large. Relatively. (Alex Young)

But what exactly are these things? Though prominences might appear to be erupting from the sun’s surface, they aren’t exactly eruptions. That can happen later. Putting it simply, they’re gassy loops that are still attached to the sun, tethered to its magnetic fields.

Occasionally, however, prominences can produce what are called coronal mass ejections, or CMEs. These eruptions occur when the sun’s magnetic field lines twist and twist and twist until they snap, kind of like a rubber band, and launch a pile of gas and charged particles into space; if that blob of stuff happens to collide with Earth, it can cause magnificent auroras, swaddle high-altitude airplanes in radiation, and — in the worst-case scenario – take down power grids and communication satellites.

A solar eruptive prominence as seen in extreme UV light on March 30, 2010 with Earth superimposed for a sense of scale. (NASA/SDO)
A solar eruptive prominence as seen in extreme UV light on March 30, 2010 with Earth superimposed for a sense of scale.

Here’s where it gets interesting. At optical wavelengths, or in visible light, last week’s prominence didn’t look exceptionally special. But when Young studied it in different wavelengths, he noticed the prominence had a bit of a cavity. That means, he says, that it could end up blasting charged particles into space.

When scientists look at coronal mass ejections, “we often see a bright expanding loop, which is followed by a darker cavity and a bright core associated with the prominence,” he says. “This prominence may very well produce a CME but unfortunately we probably won’t know until it happens. But we could see it start to get higher and higher, which would be an indication that it could be undergoing a runaway type expansion and about to fly off into space.”

A few years ago, a different prominence had a cavity that took on a rather spooky shape: It was a nice, neat circle, which prompted internet speculation about some mysterious, interloping spheroid was draining energy from the sun (in reality, no such thing was happening).

In any case, if this prominence does produce a coronal mass ejection, don’t worry. It happens all the time, and Earth almost never notices.

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Astronomers Spot Most Distant Galaxy—At Least For Now

“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” doesn’t even begin to describe a small, bright galaxy hovering at the edge of the observable universe. The little cluster of stars, called GN-z11, is the most distant object astronomers have spotted: It existed when the universe was just 400 million years old.

“This is a very early galaxy,” says UC-Santa Cruz’s Garth Illingworth, who described the galaxy in The Astrophysical Journal. “We’re looking back 13.4 billion years, through 97 percent of all time, to the galaxy when it was forming.”

Yep, it took 13.4 billion years for light from the galaxy to zoom through the universe and collide with the Hubble Space Telescope. But that doesn’t mean the galaxy is 13.4 billion light-years away. The universe has been expanding in the meantime, meaning GN-z11 is actually much, much farther from Earth than that.

“Right now, we expect this galaxy to be about 32 billion light-years away from us in distance,” says study coauthor Pascal Oesch of Yale University.

In other words, the galaxy existed a ridiculously long time ago and is really, really, absurdly far away. To put it politely.

A Precocious Star Factory

When you peer into the distant universe, you’re also looking back in time. So the galaxy in its present form would look very different than what Hubble sees now.

The newest most-distant galaxy found existed when the universe was just 400 million years old. It's located on the sky near the constellation Ursa Major, but is super duper far away. (NASA/ESA/P.Oesch)
The newest most-distant galaxy found existed when the universe was just 400 million years old. It’s located on the sky near the constellation Ursa Major, but is super duper far away. (NASA/ESA/P.Oesch)

But 13.4 billion years ago, this bright little knot of a billion stars was about 1 percent the size of the Milky Way. Despite its size, the precocious galaxy was pumping out stars much more quickly than the Milky Way. Those stars were very hot, very young, and very massive—the types of stars astronomers think existed in the early universe.

They just didn’t expect to see them so soon.

“We really did not expect to find a galaxy this bright, this early, in the history of universe,” Oesch says. “The big question is, how common are galaxies this bright so early in cosmic history? I don’t think there’s too many out there. I think we were lucky.”

Not For Long

History has taught us that astronomical distance records don’t hold up for long. The previous most-distant galaxy, called EGSY8p7, was reported in July 2015. It’s about 200 million or 300 million years younger than GN-z11, and has a redshift of 8.68. (Redshifts measure how much light has stretched as it travels through the cosmos; higher redshift values correspond to greater distances.) Before that? The winner was EGS-zs8-1, a galaxy that’s another 200 million years younger, and was reported in February 2015. It has a redshift of 7.78.

The new record-holder is at redshift 11, which is a number I hadn’t really expected to see at this point. For what it’s worth, light from the cosmic microwave background—a remnant of the Big Bang—has a redshift of 1,089.

Each newer, sharper eye in the sky reveals ever more distant and intriguing objects. So even though GN-z11 is the winner for now, it’s likely to hold onto its title for less time than an Olympic gold medalist. In 2018, the James Webb Space Telescope will launch, and if everything goes well, its ability to peer back in time will be even more impressive than Hubble’s.

“We’re basically at the limit of Hubble,” Illingworth says. “If you go out a little bit further, there is no light. Hubble can’t see anything.”

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Scott Kelly’s Year in Space Makes Me Want to Go, Too

The Soyuz space capsule carrying Scott Kelly, Mikhail Kornienko and Sergey Volkov drifts back to Earth on March 1. (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
The Soyuz space capsule carrying Scott Kelly, Mikhail Kornienko and Sergey Volkov drifts back to Earth on March 1. (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

As a kid, I flew on the space shuttle with astronaut Sally Ride many times. That’s because every night, my dad would pull out a book to read to my sister and me, and among our favorites was To Space and Back. In it, Sally describes her life aboard the space shuttle Challenger, and how living and working in microgravity is a bit trickier than you might expect.

Over and over and over again, we asked Dad to read us Sally’s book, and I would drift to sleep dreaming about riding a rocket into Earth orbit, visiting the moon and Mars, and living among the stars.

When Ride died in 2012, I revisited To Space and Back and found a poignant surprise: She had signed the first page. “Reach for the stars!” she told my sister and me.

Papa D reading to my sister and me.
Papa D reading to my sister and me.

Watching Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko return to Earth yesterday took me back to those years when the allure of space travel, of shedding the ties that bind us to Earth and hurtling toward the stars captured my imagination before I knew just how vast and captivating space really was.

I still want to go to space, and can only imagine what returning to Earth is like after being in orbit for nearly a year. Each Earthly sensation must slam into your consciousness: The smell of the grasses on the Kazakh steppe, the rush of that fresh, freezing air, the glare of the suddenly starless sky, and above all, the relentless tug of gravity that transforms your limbs into anchors and glues you to your chair.

It’s a not-so-subtle reminder that even if we manage to briefly slip those Earthly chains, we still belong to this planet. No matter how far we may go, or how long we may stay away, Earth is still home. At least for now.

“The air feels great out here—I have no idea why you guys are all bundled up,” Kelly said to the teams that met him in wintry Kazakhstan when he and Kornienko fell back to Earth after 340 days in space.

The pair’s sojourn isn’t the longest anyone has ever stayed in space; that record belongs to cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov, who logged nearly 438 days on the Russian space station Mir in the 1990s. But the feat does represent an important step in preparing for longer duration space missions—the kind that could one day make us an interplanetary species and put humans on Mars.

As Kelly and Kornienko swung around Earth 5,440 times, scientists were (and still are) tracking what happens when bodies that have evolved under the pull of gravity are suddenly freed from its prison. They’re looking at how eyesight, muscle mass, circulation, DNA, and mental acuity change in microgravity, and how the body then re-adapts to being on Earth. The observations will continue over the next several years, and Kelly’s data will be compared to measurements from his twin brother, Mark, who stayed on this planet. Sometime soon, we’ll have a better understanding of how being in space for a long time changes the human body in ways we can’t control—but which we could prepare remedies for.

At first, it seemed a bit odd for Kelly and Kornienko to willingly become the equivalents of pin-pricked, astronautical guinea pigs. But as I followed the mission and watched the pair return to Earth, I found myself wishing more than anything that I could be next. “Pick me!” I wanted to yell, while jumping up and down and frantically waving my hands over my head.

Three weeks ago, I submitted my application to NASA’s astronaut candidate program. I’m one of more than 18,000 applicants competing for very few spots—yes, my chances are slim, but it’s great to see how many of us share the dream.

Just as Ride, Kelly and Kornienko have done, I want to watch those thousands of sunrises and sunsets, experience the overwhelming sensations of returning home, and in some way, help humanity to reach for the stars—and then build a new home among them.