Rare Interview: An Audience with Neil Armstrong

An Audience with Neil Armstrong

Neil Armstrong very rarely gives interviews, so this is something pretty special. This is a 4 part interview (each 15 minutes long) discussing different aspects of the space race and Neil Armstrong’s involvement in it. There aren’t many of these around so sit back and enjoy. He’s really a joy to listen too.

Click here for the interviews

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The Secrets of Gale Crater: Why Curiosity Isn’t Looking for Life

The Mars Science Laboratory Rover ‘Curiosity’

It’s about four months until Curiosity, NASA’s new Mars rover, plunges into the thin Martian atmosphere at a good few thousand miles per hour, releases a parachute and then finally uses a retro-rocket jet pack to place her safely down on the surface…hopefully (watch this great video of the landing sequence). She’s a well equipped machine with a radioisotope thermoelectric generator as her power source and a large swathe of spectrometers, microscopes, cameras and sensors. All these gadgets aren’t going to help her look for life though. Why is that? Why hasn’t NASA loaded a Martian rover, sent it Mars (somewhere where we think life may be) and decided not to go hunting for it? It all stems back to NASA’s first missions to land on Mars, the Viking missions, back in 1976. These were two landers that were equipped to look for life. What went wrong?

Mars from Viking 2

The Viking landers consisted of 3 biology experiments along with two other supporting instruments. I want to focus on one of the biology experiments and one of the supporting instruments. I should note first though that two of the biology experiments provided results consistent with non-biological processes. The two aspects I’m focusing on are the labelled release (LR) biology experiment and the gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer (GCMS).

A GCMS is a device used to identify different substances in a test sample and the LR experiment was designed to test for metabolic activity of any microorganisms that consumed nutrients that were provided by the experiment. The results were confusing and yet intriguing.

The LR experiment produced results showing positive life detection. The experiment basically involved a small sample of ‘soil’ being moistened with a nutrient of distilled water and organic compounds that had been labelled with radioactive 14C. Any microorganisms that appeared would consume the nutrient and give off gases containing 14C. In the actual experiment labelled gas was emitted (suggesting the presence of microorganisms) but further additions of nutrient caused the gas level to decrease and then increase slowly again. This was very bizarre if this was due biological activity.

The GCMS, however, didn’t find any evidence of organic compounds at the surface thus making all the biology experiments redundant as they were designed to test organic matter.

This is all a very confusing result. One experiment saying there’s no organic matter so there can be no life whilst another says there could be life here. It’s now thought however the the LR experiment can be explained non-biologically and that all the biology experiments showed chemical processes.

So the overall result? Inconclusive. Although some scientists have started to question the LR experiment recently saying that it did actually find life (see ‘Is this proof of life on Mars?‘). They don’t seem to answer questions about there being no organic matter though.

NASA have since taken the view of ‘follow the water’. They don’t want to spend millions or billions of dollars on a mission to get another inconclusive result. So they’re more recent missions have been to understand the geology and chemical processes, and to figure out where the water has been. After a while we may find evidence of an area that could have extant or extinct life, only then will NASA be confident enough to send a life searching mission to Mars.

Gale crater with Curisoity’s landing site

Gale crater, Curiosity’s destination, is an interesting place though. It appears to have been an old lake bed where sediments have been laid down over long periods of time when Mars had water. A good habitat for life? Possibly, but we’re not going to find out conclusively for a long time yet.

Smooth Moves at 17,500mph

This is a beautiful image of ATV-3 ‘Edoardo Arnaldi’ docking at the International Space Station the other day. You can see the green haze of the atmosphere, the great stars of the galaxy and the bright lights of ATV-3. I think this will be my new desktop wallpaper!

ATV-3 Docking at the ISS

ATV-3 is the third ‘Automated Transfer Vehicle‘, an unmanned supply capsule, created by the European Space Agency, used to deliver food, water, clothes and experiments to the space station. It holds a lot more than the more regular Russian Progress resupply ships. After a few months docked to the station the astronauts will fill it with rubbish and it will burn up in the atmosphere.

War of the Worlds

ExoMars - Will it happen?

The new NASA budget isn’t looking good. $1b less than usual. That places less than 0.5% (I think actually less than 0.1%) of the federal budget in NASA. That’s despicable! What does it mean for NASA though? Well it means a lot for the branch of science I care most about, planetary science. As a result of this budget NASA have pulled all co-operation with ESA on the ExoMars project. This would see a rover and a satellite launched to Mars between 2016 and 2018. Well, maybe not anymore. What’s important about this mission is that it does so much more than what has been done before. The rover can drill 2m down into the ground, a key milestone, and the satellite would trace methane in the atmosphere. Both would help significantly in the search for life. ESA are trying to get the Russians involved instead now and the ExoMars project will probably be radically re-designed and drawn back. Shame.

Worse though, this budget demolishes a Mars Sample Return mission this decade. NASA have been told that this is their most important goal, for humans won’t be able to visit Mars until this has been done, for a variety of reasons. The next most important after that is a Europa mission (the moon of Jupiter). It is assumed that Europa has a liquid-water ocean below it’s icy surface, an ideal habitat for life. We need to find out what’s there. I haven’t seen any plans though, not even for a little orbiter.

Do NASA have their priorities in a twiddle or not? They’re investing more money in commercial spaceflight, which is good. More money in green aviation (such as blended-wing technology), which is good. More money in developing their new rocket(s), again good. But we’re not doing what we do best, explore! We need to send ambassadors, robot spacecraft, to visit the planets. There’s so much we don’t know and don’t understand. We need to find out.

Science off the Sphere

My favourite astronaut is back in space. That’s right, the legendary Don Pettit (@astro_Pettit) is up on the International Space Station on Expedition 30. He previously was one of the engineers on Expedition 6 in 2002/03.

Don Pettit is a pretty incredible guy, he has so much enthusiasm for science, more than Brian Cox! It’s what he does in his spare time on the station though that’s most impressive. As can be seen in videos, he’s constantly pondering experiments and things to test in the zero-g of space. In the short amount of time off the astronauts have he films videos showing and explaining amazing scientific phenomena. Back on Expedition 6 he did ‘Science Friday’s‘, and now on Expedition 30 he’s doing ‘Science off the Sphere‘.

It’s truly is amazing the things we’re missing out on down here. In his first video of this expedition he demonstrates some interesting facts about knittin’ needles and water. And what’s best, he gets you involved too. He leaves a question to be answered at the end and you get to contact him with your answer.

Not many astronauts have done anything similar to Don, which is a shame, because it’s really important. It gets not only interesting facts across but gets younger people interested in science, gets them asking themselves questions and so on. This is something that should be continually encouraged.

I’ll leave you with two of his latest videos. First, the knittin’ needle experiment (watch it just to hear how he says knittin’ needle, it’s amazing!) and then his latest video on how astronauts can drink from cups (something previously not possible, it had to all be done through straws). Enjoy.

Book Review: Rocket Man

Rocket Man

This is only the second book about the Apollo era that I have read. And it’s a slightly different theme to Apollo 13 (or Lost Moon). They’re both similar in the respect that it’s two pilots pursuing their love for aviation and wanting to be at the cutting edge of the frontier. But Apollo 13 is about a mans dream to walk on the surface of the Moon and that dream being cruelly ripped away from him. Apollo 13, I felt went into detail about how the spacecraft worked and on the difficulties of getting to the Moon (and back). ‘Rocket Man’ couldn’t be anymore different.

Throughout the book we follow the much more recent story of N10BD, a Learjet 35, where Pete Conrad is one of the pilots trying to break the world record for a round the world flight in the shortest time. It was a bit strange to have it there, but it appeared to work and fitted in with the rest of the book.

The book goes back a long time. All the way back to the 1700’s where we see how Pete’s family came to be in America, how they flourished, and eventually how it all went downhill. The story is more about Pete’s personal love of aviation and engineering than anything else, and I was particularly shocked as to how little there was on him actually being on the Moon and generally on the Apollo program itself.

The subtitle of the book is ‘Astronaut Pete Conrad’s Incredible Ride To The Moon And Beyond’ and it really is beyond. We learn that Apollo 12 was, to him, not the greatest achievement to him as an astronaut. We learn about the Skylab program, how he was one of the stations architects, how he fixed the thing when it broke in space and how he lived on it for a month.

Towards the end of the book we see the sad side-effects of the life Pete Conrad lived. After being constantly busy, working 70-odd hour weeks for 20+ years, he realised he doesn’t know his family (a situation seemingly familiar with most Apollo astronauts). He ends up divorcing his wife and watches his youngest child by of cancer.

He goes to work for McDonnell Douglas, promoting and test flying their DC-10 and being involved in the investigation after one fatally crashed, grounding the entire fleet. He then moves on to private industry, and how it is they, not NASA, that need to lead the way in space. And he sets off on his own voyage to achieve this.

I found this book extremely interesting and enjoyable. Pete’s vibrant and colourful persona comes across easily, and it’s a funny read. The only issues I have is that the chapters are bizarrely short, something I’ve not come across before (there are nearly 60) and each contains about a maximum of 5 pages. I found this bizarre and unnecessary. Still, a great read, and highly recommended. Lacking in the details on the space program itself, this remains a great book.

What do we mean by Earth 2.0?

Over the past few years we’ve started to make some truly remarkable discoveries. Thanks to the Kepler Space Telescope we’re starting to discover the first Earth-sized planets orbiting other stars in the galaxy. We must tread forward carefully though, calling some of these planets Earth’s twin is dangerous, and we’re at risk of not realising the importance when we find the real thing.

The problems started last year with the announcement of the first Earth-like planet, Gliese 581g. The unfortunate thing is is that this planet probably doesn’t exist. More recently Kepler has discovered Kepler-22b, a super-Earth orbiting a slightly smaller star than our own in the habitable zone, the area where liquid water can exist. We don’t yet know though, given this planets larger size, whether it’s rocky or gaseous like Neptune. Yet the media hype this up and only make a small reference to the uncertainties. Just the other day NASA announced the discovery of the Kepler-20 system. Two of these planets are the same size as the Earth, does this qualify them to be our twin?

Kepler-22b – Rocky or Gaseous? We don’t know yet!

Venus is about the same size as the Earth but yet most scientists would avoid calling it our twin. Firstly there’s no water, then there’s the crushing atmosphere, runaway greenhouse effect creating temperatures of 460°C, it rains sulphuric acid. Twin? I think not.

When we do find a real Earth-twin though what do we really mean? A planet the same size as ours in the habitable zone? No, I think we need to go further, much further. An Earth-twin should also have a similar mass to ours. Too much mass and plate tectonics may not operate on the hypothetical world, meaning the surface doesn’t get recycled and there probably won’t be any life. We need to analyse the atmosphere. The James Webb Space Telescope will be able to provide this when she launches, hopefully in 2018. The gases in the atmosphere should be in a similar abundance to ours. We don’t want another Venus! Does it have a Moon? The Moon stabilises the Earth’s axis so it doesn’t wildly fluctuate that would cause catastrophic climatic changes (new evidence suggests a moon may not be necessary however). Only when these criterion have been met can we even start to think of announcing the discovery of Earths-twin.

Space agencies really should define what we really mean by an ‘Earth-twin’. We must be careful with upcoming reports of new planets, there are going to be hundreds more from Kepler over the next few years. We don’t want to become normalised to these discoveries because we’ll miss the significance when we do find a truly habitable Earth 2.0. That day will be one of the greatest days for science in history, let’s make sure we realise it.