News from Mars: Beam Me to Mars

marsIn the latest ambitious plan to make space exploration accessible to the general public, Uwingu has unveiled a new campaign where people can send messages and pictures to the Red Planet. It’s called “Beam Me to Mars”, and the company is inviting people to contribute, for a fee, to a “digital shout-out” that will send messages from Earth to Mars on Nov. 28 — the 50th anniversary of Mars exploration.

The first successful Mars mission, NASA’s Mariner 4 – launched on Nov. 28, 1964 – performed the first flyby of the Red Planet and returned the first pictures of the Martian surface. This was the first time that images were captured of another planet and returned from deep space. and their depiction of a cratered, seemingly dead world largely changed the view of the scientific community on life on Mars.

beam-me-to-mars-uwinguAccording to representative from Uwingu, “Beam Me to Mars” celebrates that landmark effort in a new and original way by inspiring people to get on board with Martian exploration. Other goals include raising lots of money to fund space science, exploration and education (Uwingu’s stated chief purpose) and letting policymakers know how important space exploration is to their constituents.

As CEO Alan Sterm, a planetary scientist and former NASA science chief, said in an interview with Space.com:

We want it to inspire people. There has never been an opportunity before for people of Earth to shout out across the solar system their hopes and wishes for space exploration, for the future of mankind — for any of that… We want to make an impression on leaders. The more messages, the bigger impression it makes. If this thing goes viral, and it becomes the thing to do, then it’ll make a huge impression.

ESO2For $4.95, people can beam their name (or someone else’s) to Mars, whereas $9.95 gets people a chance to beam a name and a 100-character message. $19.95 gets a 1,000-character note instead of the shorter one, and for those willing to spend $99 will be able to send their name, a long message and an image of their choosing. All messages submitted for “Beam Me to Mars” will also be hand-delivered to Congress, NASA and the United Nations.

Submissions must be made via uwingu.com by Nov. 5. And the company – whose name means “sky” in Swahili – and its transmission partner, communications provider Universal Space Network, will use radio telescopes to beam the messages at Mars on Nov. 28 at the rate of 1 million bits per second. The transmission, traveling at the speed of light, will reach the Red Planet on that day in just 15 minutes.

mariner-4-poster-art.enFor comparison, it took Mariner 4 more than seven months to get to Mars a half-century ago. The probe didn’t touch down, but its historic flyby in July 1965 provided the first up-close look at the surface of another planet from deep space. Mariner 4’s observations revealed that Mars is a dry and mostly desolate world, dashing the hopes of those who had viewed it as a world crisscrossed by canals and populated by little green men.

Already, several celebrities have signed on to the campaign, including actors Seth Green and wife Clare Grant, George (“Sulu”) Takei of Star Trek fame and his husband Brad, Bill Nye “The Science Guy”, astronaut and former ISS commander Chris Hadfield, commercial astronaut Richard Garriott, former NASA senior executive Lori Garver, Pulitzer winning author and playwright Dava Sobel, and Author and screenwriter Homer Hickam.

Uwingu-CelebritiesThis is not the first Mars effort for Uwingu, which was founded in 2012. In February, the company launched its “People’s Map of Mars,” asking the public to name Red Planet landmarks for a small fee. To date, people have named more than 12,000 Mars craters, and Uwingu has set aside more than $100,000 for grants. And when it comes to getting the general public involved with space science and travel, they are merely one amongst many. The age of public space exploration is near, people!

Sources: space.com, uwingu.com, (2)

News From Space: First Blue Exoplanet Discovered!

HD_189733_b_deep_blue_dotEver since our astronomers have gained the ability to see into deep space and discern what lies in distant solar systems, a total of 910 extra-solar planets have been discovered. Of those, only a handful have been confirmed as potentially habitable by Earth scientists. Despite these discovered, it was not until recently that a “blue planet” outside of the Solar System, thanks to NASAs Hubble telescope.

But here’s the kicker: as it turns out, the planet is not blue due to the presence of liquid water. The blue color likely comes from clouds in the atmosphere made of molten glass. The planet is known as HD 189733 b, located roughly 63 light years away from Earth in the constellation of Vulpecula (aka. the Fox). Initially discovered in 2005 by French astronomers who observed it passing in front of its star, HD 189733 b is one of the best-studied exoplanets.

Hd189733b_blue_planet_artPrior to this new finding, it was already known that the planet was a hot Jupiter — a massive gas giant that orbits very close to its parent star — and that, using polarimetry, it was most likely blue. Since that time, the blue color has been confirmed by a spectrograph aboard Hubble which scanned the planet during an eclipse. As it passed behind its parent star and out of our vision, Hubble recorded less blue light coming from the star, while the other colors remained the same.

This strongly indicates that the light reflected by HD 189733 b’s atmosphere is blue and thus, if we were close enough to directly observe the planet, it would appear blue. This is an apparent first for astrophysicists and astronomers, who wouldn’t normally be able to observe such a fluctuation from 63 light years away. But the size of the planet, plus the amount of light reflecting off it from its very-close-by star, mean that Hubble can do its thing.

blue_planet_image2-640x660As for the cause of the color itself, the current theory is that the planets atmosphere is full of clouds that contain tiny silicate particles, which absorb some light frequencies but reflect and scatter blue light. In the words of NASA, because the surface of the planet is around  815 Celsius (1,500 Fahrenheit), these particles are likely in a molten, liquid state that periodically turn into rain. Yes, you read that right, the planet experiences periods of molten glass rain!

In addition to that, it is also known that its orbital period (length of a year) is only 2.2 days. The planet is also tidally locked, meaning that one side is always facing towards the sun while the other experiences perpetual night. So basically, outside of its blue color, HD 189733 b is about as uninhabitable as it gets.

Ah well, the search for a truly Earth-like exoplanet continues I guess! And in the meantime, enjoy this short video from Hubble ESA – a computer graphic representation of the universe’s other “blue planet”:

Source: Extremetech.com

Exploring the Universe with Robotic Avatars and Holodecks

holodeck_nasaSpace exploration is littered with all kinds of hazards. In addition to the danger of dying from decompression, mechanical failures, micro-meteoroids or just crashing into a big ball of rock, there are also the lesser-known problems created by low-gravity, time dilation, and prolonged isolation. Given all that, wouldn’t it just be easier to send probes out to do the legwork, and use virtual technology to experience it back home?

That’s the idea being presented by Dr. Jeff Norris, one of the scientists who works for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. In a recent presentation that took place at Pax Prime last year – entitled “NASA’s Got Game” – he spoke of the agency’s plans for telexploration – the process of exploring the universe using robotic avatars and holodecks, rather than sending manned flights into deep space.

avatar_imageIn the course of making this presentation, Norris noted several key advantages to this kind of exploration. In addition to being safer and cheaper, its also more readily available. Whereas deep space exploration involving space ships with FTL engines – the Alcubierre Drive they are currently working on – will eventually be available, robot space probes and advanced telecommunications technology are available right now.

At the same time, telexploration is also more democratic. Whereas conventional space travel involves a select few of highly-trained, eminently qualified people witnessing the wonders of the universe, robotic avatars and holographic representations bring the experience home, where millions of people can experience the awe and wonder for themselves. And when you think about it, it’s something we’re already doing, thanks to the current generation of space probes, satellites and – of course! – the Curiosity Rover.

Curiosity_selfportraitBasically, rather than waiting for the warp drive, Norris believes another Star Trek technology – the holodeck – will be the more immediate future of space exploration, one that we won’t have to wait for. Yes, there are more than a few Star Trek motifs going on in this presentation, and a little Avatar too, but that’s to be expected. And as we all know, life can imitate art, and the truth is always stranger than fiction!

Check out the video of the presentation below:


And remember…

holodeck_vegasad

Of Alien…

Not long ago, I reviewed a movie that had the honor of being not only one of the best sci-fi movies of all time, but one of the best movies period. That movie was Blade Runner, one of Ridley Scott’s most enduring classics. So it is with great pleasure that I dedicate this next review to another one of his masterpieces, the cult classic known as Alien. However, one can scarcely get into this movie without at least mentioning the franchise it spawned. Indeed, Alien went on to become not only a commercial success, but a cult-hit that inspired three sequels, two cross-overs, several video games, and even books and comics. Many of said sequels sucked, the less said about the crossovers the better, and Scott himself was not attached to any of the sequels as director. But that does not change the fact that the Aliens franchise was, at it’s core, one of the most original and inspired science fiction franchises of all time.

(Background—>)
Over the years, this movie inspired lasting praise, not the least of which came from literary critics who drew parallels between it and classical literary sources. These included H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountain of Madness, not because the movie was similar in terms of storyline, but in terms of its “dread-building mystery”. Upon the release of the Director’s Cut, Roger Ebert listed the movie in his Great Movies column, calling it “one of the most influential of modern action pictures”, and praising it for its pacing, artful direction, and how it took its time to build tension. It was also a commercial success, something many classics don’t see until years after their release. But enough of what others thought about it, let’s get to what I thought about it! Cue the opening sequence!

(Content—>)
Alien opens on the scene of a massive vessel traveling through deep space. The passengers, haulers who work for the mega corporation Weylan-Yutani, are in deep sleep and awaiting their safe return to Earth space with their shipment of ore. However, a distress signal from a neighboring planet brings them out of deep-sleep and sets them on course for this planet. Upon waking, they learn of the signal and their change in course, and are quickly told that company policy demands that they answer the call, otherwise they will lose their “shares” when the shipment is brought in. Through all this, we are immediately made made aware of two things: One, corporate monopolies control all shipping and mining in this universe; and two, that the company maintains loyalty by appealing to their employees greed. Another thing which we are made aware of is the concept of cryogenic-units which are used to keep people preserved during deep space travel in this universe. While the Alien franchise didn’t invent this concept (I believe Arthur C Clarke has that honor) it did much to popularize it. One can scarcely pick up a hard sci-fi book without reading a bit about “hypersleep”, “cryosleep”, “reefersleep”, and the like.

Skip ahead to the planet where the distress signal is originating from, and we are confronted with an alien derelict which I can only describe as awesome! Really, truly, alien looking! In the course of spelunking through the cloudy and oddly shaped interior (you can feel the tension building!), they encounter a field of eggs. One of these eggs opens up when the XO – Kane, played by John Hurt – gets near, and let’s lose a spidery parasite that attaches itself to his face. After he’s returned to the ship, the crew learns that there’s nothing they can do for him now, since the parasite will kill him if it’s disturbed, and that it has acid fpr blood and therefore can’t be removed without causing serious harm to the ship. They learn this second fact the hard way, giving the thing a tiny cut causes an acid spill that melts through two decks! And in a space ship, holes are not something you want! But, as luck would have it, the parasite falls off and dies all by itself. Problem solved, right?

Well, no… shortly after losing the spidery thing and waking up, Kane ups and dies, in the most graphic and horrible way imaginable! This is another aspect of the movie that was both novel and original for its time, the concept of the chest exploding alien! They gestate inside you, scary enough, and then emerge as this nightmarish, toothy thing with spindly arms and a long, segmented tail. In any case, the crew jettisons Kane’s body and is just beginning to breathe normally again when the fully-grown thing of nightmares kills another member of their crew. What follows is a claustrophobic, mad rush to kill the alien, but those attempts quickly fail. The ships Captain (Tom Skerritt) is one of the first to fall, leaving Lt. Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) now in charge. She soon realizes that the company wants the alien taken alive, and is even willing to sacrifice the crew to get their hands on it. She further learns that one of crew – Ash, played by Ian Holm – is a corporate mole who’s job, it now seems, is to make sure this directive is followed to the letter. Oh, and did I mention he’s an android?

As soon as he’s found out, Ash tries to kill Ripley, but she and her crew manage to take him down and get some answers from him. He confirms that the company wants the alien and the rest of them are expendable, and is also sure to leave them with some cryptic words: “You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.” “You admire it,” says one of the crewmen, to which Ash replies: “I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” Classic lines! Then, just to be prick, he let’s them know exactly how slim their odds of survival are: “I cannot lie to you about your chances, but… you have my sympathies”. Naturally, they say “screw it!” and decide to scuttle the ship. But the alien creature is no slouch and manages to kill all but Ripley and the ships resident cat. To this day, I am not sure what the point of the cat was. Maybe to provide some tension; I mean nothing is more scary than a cat jumping out of nowhere during an already tense scene, right? In any case, she finally kills the alien by blasting it out the airlock of her shuttle and burning it with one of the ships thrusters. She is then left alone to drift home, and files a heartfelt report of how all her friends were killed in deep space by a hostile creature of unknown origin.

(Synopsis—>)
To be honest, this movie was a tad uncomfortable at times, at least when compared to the sequel. But then again, that was the whole point of the movie, wasn’t it? It was meant to feel uncomfortable, claustrophobic, and paranoid, because that it exactly what you would expect to feel if you were in that situation. Put yourself in a spaceship, surrounding by vacuum, then imagine you have a hostile organism on your hands that has the run of the place, and is both an expert hunter and hider. What feelings come to mind? Claustrophobia, since you’d feel like your trapped with it, and agoraphobia because you know you can’t just open a door and run outside. For these reasons, and because of the amazing artwork, set designs, the concept of the aliens, and of course the theme of personal and corporate greed, Alien deserves full credit for getting the ball rolling on the whole of the franchise. But really, it was never meant to be a standalone piece, so comparing it to the sequel is not really fair or warranted. If anything, this film and it’s sequel are companion pieces, Aliens picking up where Alien left off and expanding on it, something which it did very well. But more on that next time, stay tuned!

Alien:
Entertainment Value: 8/10
Plot: 8/10
Direction: 9/10
Total: 8.5/10