This week’s topic is near and dear to my heart (I know, when aren’t they?). But this one is especially so since so much depends on it. Around the world today, space agencies and commercial space entities are developing nuclear propulsion systems. These systems come in the form of Nuclear-Thermal (NTP), Nuclear-Electric (NEP), and Bimodal Nuclear Propulsion (BNP) – where both methods are used by a spacecraft.Continue reading “Episode 41 of Stories from Space – Going Nuclear! The Promise Nuclear Propulsion”
Episode 40 of Stories from Space – Signs of Life: What are “Ocean Worlds”?
This week, I got into one of the more intriguing aspects of astrobiology – the search for life in the cosmos! Right now, all of our astrobiology efforts are focused on Mars, the most “habitable” planet (by our standards) beyond Earth. But what of the icy moons that orbit Jupiter, Saturn, and beyond? For decades, scientists have speculated that moons orbiting gas giants beyond the “Frost Line” could have warm-water oceans that could support life.
These oceans result from the gravitational pull of the gas giants they orbit, causing tidal flexing in their interiors. This, it was theorized, would lead to hydrothermal activity at the core-mantle boundary, where the icy outer shell meets the rocky and metallic core. The energy this released would maintain a liquid-water ocean rich in the chemical elements we associate with life.
The theory emerged by the 1970s after scientists got a good look at some of Jupiter’s largest moons – Europa and Ganymede – which showed evidence of resurfacing, plume activity, and their interactions with Jupiter”s magnetic field. In recent years, the list of “Ocean Worlds” has expanded to include moons like Titan, Enceladus, Dione, Ariel, Umbriel, Titania, Oberon, Triton, Charon, and even Pluto!
In all cases, these bodies have geological activity or sufficient nuclear elements (which decay to produce heat) to maintain liquid water in their interiors. The plethora of “Ocean Worlds” in our Solar System also has implications for the search for life in extrasolar systems. After all, if icy satellites in our outer Solar System could support life, then similar bodies are sure to exist out there (in abundance). Check it out below!
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Episode 39 of Stories from Space – The “Cool” Universe: Infrared Astronomy with Charles Beichman
This week, I sat down with NASA astronomer and exoplanet researcher Dr. Charles Beichman, the Executive Director of the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute (NExScI) at Caltech. He’s an esteemed scientist who has spent decades searching for exoplanets and led several path-finding missions. These include the Space Interferometer Mission (SIM), the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS), the Spitzer Space Telescope, and the 2 Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS).
One could say that he was looking for exoplanets before it was “cool.” Suffice it to say, the man has some very interesting stories. Very soon, he and a team of astronomers will be using the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to observe Alpha Centauri, where they hope to find the first definitive proof of exoplanets in that system. I think I speak for everyone when I wish him and his colleagues the best of luck!
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The Best Astronomy Podcasts for 2023
I have to this, this was a complete surprise and I didn’t even realize anyone was keeping track. And yet, my friend and colleague James Maynard brought this bit of news to my attention. The list comes from PlayPodcast.net, a site that that offers free listening for hundreds of podcasts and (apparently) ranks them according to various categories. For this list, they ranked the best astronomy podcasts this year.
Guess who made the list?
- Walkabout the Galaxy
- The Cosmic Companion
- Stories From Space
- Space Nuts
- Silicon Valley Astronomy Lectures
I’m not sure if this represents their own assessment or based on reviews, but I’ll take it. Also, note that The Cosmic Companion is the podcast of my buddy James. I invite you to check it out seeing as how he has some very cool stories, is a NASA alumni, and interviews some very interesting people (scientists, researchers, astronauts, etc.).
Episode 36 of Stories from Space, “How Can We Live on the Mars?” is Now Live!
The second episode of my new segment, “Settling the Solar System,” has now aired. This week’s topic, how can humans settle on “Earth’s Twin” and create the first “Martians”? The subject has been explored for generations by scientists, speculative thinkers, science fiction writers, and more! And in the coming years, space agencies hope to send the first human explorers there. There are even plans to create a permanent human outpost there.
There’s no shortage of challenges, like the high radiation levels, low gravity, temperature extremes, and the planet’s thin and toxic atmosphere. But with the right strategies, there are incredible benefits too. These include becoming a multiplanetary species, having a “backup location” for humanity, and ushering in an era of post-scarcity economics. There’s also the potential for scientific breakthroughs. Aside from technological developments that would have countless applications here on Earth, there’s also the potential for astrobiological research Mars holds.
If humans were to find evidence of past (or present) life on Mars, we could finally answer some of the deepest mysteries – like how and when life emerged in the Solar System and if life on our two planets came from the same source. Can it be done? What will it take? And are we prepared to address the challenges, make the sacrifices, and bind ourselves to a multi-generational commitment?
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Episode Twenty-Six of Stories from Space, “The Copernican Revolution,” is Now Live
This week’s episode focuses on the life and times of Nicolaus Copernicus, the famed Renaissance Polish astronomer who proposed the heliocentric model of the Universe. The details of this model were presented in his magnum opus, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, which Copernicus had published in 1543 when he was on his deathbed. While Copernicus is a household name and the basics of his model are well-known, the story of how he came to his grand realization is less well-known.
The heliocentric model was inspired by thousands of years of observations and calculations by astronomers. These included several pre-Socratic Greek texts lost to Europeans (but preserved by Muslim scholars) and scholars from West Asia, Iran, India, and Al-Andalus (Spain before the Reconquista). These sources contradicted the prevailing models of Aristotle and Ptolemy, both of whom were considered canon in Europe and Eurasia.
By synthesizing these observations with his own calculations, Copernicus showed how Earth and the other planets orbited the Sun, how the Moon orbited Earth, and how Earth rotated. In short, he synthesized and crystallized one of the most profound scientific discoveries ever made, one that was thousands of years in the making. And in so doing, he forever revolutionized our understanding of the cosmos and our place in it.
In fact, his observation that the Sun was NOT at the center of the Universe began a long process where humans began to realize that neither they nor Earth were unique in the cosmos. As Sagan put it: “One of the distinctions and triumphs of the advance of science has been the deprovincialization of our worldview.” Because of Copernicus’s role in this, the scientific axiom that states that humanity is NOT in a special or privileged position to view the cosmos is known as the Copernican Principle.
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Episode Twenty of Stories from Space is now Live!
This week’s guest was astrophysicist, science communicator, and author Ethan Siegel. Ethan has been a professor of astrophysics at multiple universities, a senior contributor to Forbes magazine (ever heard of it?), and their chief science writer. He is also the producer of Starts with a Bang, a podcast and column where he talks about the Big Bang and other big questions related to cosmology.
His books include Trekology, which explores the technical aspects of the famous Star Trek franchise; Beyond the Galaxy, an examination of humanity’s growing awareness of the Universe; and the upcoming Encyclopaedia Cosmologica, a richly-illustrated and plainly-explained origin story about the cosmos.
During our chat, we got into multiple topics, including the greatest mysteries facing astronomers and cosmologists today, the James Webb naming controversy, and what makes astrophysics and science communication so exciting! Take a listen and be sure to check out Ethan’s podcast, articles, and websites.
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Episode Nineteen of Stories from Space is now Live!
For this week’s episode, I spoke with Mclee Kerolle, a veteran space lawyer and the Mentorship Coordinator with the Space Court Foundation (SCF). In the course of our chat, we discuss the SCF’s education and outreach programs and how they are focused on mentoring the next generation of space lawyers (with an emphasis on greater inclusion and diversity). We also got into the evolving field of space law and its importance in the current age of human spaceflight.
If I could summarize the episode and everything we spoke of in two bullet points, they would be:
- The new space age is defined by growing cooperation and access, and it is important to promote and amplify the voices of those unsung heroes worldwide that are helping make it happen
- A legal framework needs to be established TODAY so that we don’t a “Wild West” situation in space tomorrow
We also got into the SCF’s various programs that teach about existing space law and encourage people to think about the kinds of laws that need to be put in place before we being mining asteroids, establishing settlements on the Moon and Mars, conducting space tourism, and create habitats that allow for a permanent human presence in space. Check it out below!
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Episode Five of Stories from Space Has Aired!
In this episode, my guest was none other than famed author, science communicator, and fellow Universe Today writer/editor Nancy Atkinson! We talk about her books Incredible Stories from Space, where she provides a behind-the-scene look at the people who make NASA’s robotic missions happen. And there’s her more recent book, Eight Years to the Moon: The History of the Apollo Missions, where she tells the untold stories and acknowledges the unsung heroes of the Apollo Program!
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Episode three of Stories from Space has Just Aired!
That’s correct, the third episode of Stories from Space has just aired – the subject, Indigenous Astronomy! Highlights include revitalization and recognition efforts and how Indigenous leaders and advocates are raising awareness of ancient traditions. Hat’s off to Cree astronomer William Buck for lighting the fire in my mind that led to this episode! And a shout out to the Siksika Blackfoot and Ininewuk Cree Nations, their partners at Rothney Astrophysical Observatory, and Native Skywatchers for their ongoing education and outreach efforts!
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