Interview with Voices From L5!

Interview with Voices From L5!

Good news! Not long ago, I took part in a podcast with Liam Ginty – the man who created Voices From L5. This program deals with the subject of space exploration and colonization, and he decided to do a podcast all about terraforming. After coming across my series on the subject over at Universe Today, he contacted me, and we got to talking. By the time we were done, we had created an episode dedicated to the subject.

The episode is about 45 minutes long, and covers such issues as terraforming vs. space habitats, the ethics of terraforming, the challenges and benefits, and whether or not such a thing is likely to happen. If you’ve got some time, and don’t mind hearing my voice (I am still not comfortable hearing it), then check it out.

Voices From L5 – Terraforming Mars

And be sure to check out other podcasts at Voices From L5. Liam covers some pretty interesting topics!

News from Mars: Soil Good for Growing!

Mars_GreenhouseWith numerous plans for a manned mission to Mars, some of which are scheduled to one-way settlement projects, the question of how and what people on Mars will eat is an important one. What will the Martian diet look like? How will they grow their food? Will it people subsist on endless supplies of freeze-dried rations, or will they get all the veggies, fruits and protein they need from hydroponic produce?

Well, according to Dutch ecologist Wieger Wamelink, the Martian settlers might just be able to grow their food in the local soil. In a series of experiments using soil tailored to fit extra-terrestrial environments, Wamelink was able to make a mustard seed sprout. The soil was provided by NASA, a sample which they had collected from the desert, dried out, and cleansed of certain nutrients that’s meant to replicate what Martian and lunar soil would be like.

martian_plantWamelink had ordered more than 100 pounds of each type to his research greenhouse in the Netherlands to see what kinds of plant life might prosper in greenhouses on other planets. He and his team planted tomato seeds, stinging nettle, carrots, rye, and a host of other wild species in the soils in a series of 840 pots, then published their results in PLOS One late last month.

As Wamelink, who works for the Alterra Institute at the University of Wageningen, explained:

I think we’re really the first to do that. We have looked at how plants see what [nutrients are] available in these soils, and it was unknown to NASA. They were very happy when we sent our results.

MarsGreenhouse2What was perhaps most impressive about the results was how well some plants fared in the imitation Mars soil. Some seeds germinated after just 24 hours and flowered within 50 days, something Wamelink had never expected. He knew that nitrogen might not be available in alien soils, but when he analyzed the Martian soil compared to nutrient-poor sand from the banks of the Rhine, he found that Mars actually had much more going for it than he thought.

The Martian atmosphere contains nitrogen, and gusts of gases from the sun charge the nitrogen into a form that is digestible for plants. The planet also contains phosphorus, ammonium, and nitrates – all essential for plant growth. Field mustard and a tough, wild Dutch species called “reflexed stone crop” produced some of the best results. Lunar soil, by contrast, didn’t provide very friendly turf for earthling plant species.

apollo_11_bootprint-e1405838911229Soil on the moon is thin, dusty, and full of aluminum and other heavy metals. Martian soil also contains lots of heavy metals, but it is aluminum that most plants don’t do too well in the presence of. So for the time being (or rather, if and when we settle the Moon), Lunar greenhouses will have to look to imports of Earth soil while Martian settlers can simple scoop the soil they need from outside their airlocks.

However, there are a few snags. For starters, even though Wamelink’s study provided some of the first evidence that species of Earth plants can grow on planets other than Earth, it still doesn’t show how eating those plants might affect humans. The Martian surface experiences lots of radiation, and eating radioactive plants full of heavy metals might not be the best idea for the human digestive system.

mars_growopNevertheless, Wamelink believes that some aspects of the Martian climate might actually be beneficial for plant growth. On a planet with a third of the gravitational pull of Earth, he suspects that plants might be able to grow taller than they ever would on their home planet. In his mind’s eye, he pictures plants encased in skyscraper Martian greenhouses. Alas, not all scientists agree with him, and he admits its an unresolved issue.

Still, its an exciting one that is loaded with potential. And who’s to say that after a little processing and decontamination, Martian soil would have everything the settlers need to grow their own food? The very fact that it is being considered and examined so seriously shows our commitment to making an enduring human presence on Mars a reality someday. And as that day get’s closer, more and more questions are likely to be addressed.

terraformingAnd figuring out how to grow our own crops in Martian soil will provide inevitable feedback on how we could use Earth plants to one day convert the ecology of the Red Planet and make it into something a little more suited to full-scale habitation. Who knows? In a few centuries time, Red Mars may become Green Mars. And perhaps even Blue Mars. Oh, Kim Stanley Robinson, you daring dreamer, you!


Buzz Aldrin: Let’s Go to Mars!

Apollo11_Aldrin1This past weekend was the 45th anniversary of the Moon Landing. To mark that occasion, NASA mounted the @ReliveApollo11 twitter campaign, where it recreated every moment of the historic mission by broadcasting updates in “real-time”. In addition to commemorating the greatest moment in space exploration, and one of the greatest moments in history, it also served to draw attention to new efforts that are underway.

Perhaps the greatest of these is one being led by Buzz Aldrin, a living-legend and an ambassador for current and future space missions. For decades now, Aldrin has been acting as a sort of elder statesman lobbying for the exploration of the cosmos. And most recently, he has come out in favor of a mission that is even grander and bolder than the one that saw him set foot on the Moon: putting people on Mars.

mars_spaceXmissionIt’s no secret that NASA has a manned mission planned for 2030. But with space exploration once again garnering the spotlight – thanks in no small part to commercial space companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic – Aldrin is pushing for something even more ambitious. Echoing ideas like Mars One, his plan calls for the colonization of Mars by astronauts who would never return to Earth.

To be sure, the spry 84 year-old has been rather busy in the past few years. After going through a very public divorce with his wife 0f 23 years in January of last year, he spent the past few months conducting a publicity blitz on behalf of the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11. In between all that, he has also made several appearances and done interviews in which he stressed the importance of the Martian colonization project.

Mars_OneA few months ago, Aldrin wrote an op-ed piece for Fast Company about innovation and the need for cooperation to make a new generation of space exploration a reality. During a more recent interview, which took place amidst the ongoing crisis in the Ukraine, he once again stressed the importance of cooperation between the United States, Russia, China, and their respective space programs.

As he told Fast Company in the interview:

I think that any historical migration of human beings to establish a permanent presence on another planet requires cooperation from the world together. That can’t be done by America competing with China… Just getting our people back up there is really expensive! We don’t compete but we can do other things close by with robots, which have improved tremendously over the past 45 years (since Apollo 11). You and I haven’t improved all that much, but robots have. We can work together with other nations in design, construction, and making habitats on both the near side and far side of Mars. Then when we eventually have designs, we’ll have the capacity to actually build them.

SLS_launchSimilarly, Aldrin took part in live Google Hangout with’s managing editor Tariq Malik and executive producer Dave Brody. This took place just eight days before the 25th anniversary of the Landing. During the broadcast, he discussed his experiences as an astronaut, the future of lunar exploration, future missions to Mars and beyond, and even took questions via chatwindow on Google+’s webpage.

At this juncture, its not clear how a colonization mission to Mars would be mounted. While Mars One is certainly interested in the concept, they (much like Inspiration Mars) do not have the necessary funding or all the technical know-how to make things a reality just yet. A possible solution to this could be a partnership program between NASA, the ESA, China, Russia, and other space agencies.

terraformingSuch ideas did inform Kim Stanley Robinson’s seminal novel Red Mars, where an international crew flew to the Red Planet and established the first human settlement that begins the terraforming process. But if international cooperation proves too difficult, perhaps a collaboration between commercial space agencies and federal ones could work. I can see it now: the Elon Musk Martian Dome; the Richard Branson Habitat; or the Gates colony…

With that in mind, I think we should all issue a prayer for international peace and cooperation! And in the meantime, be sure to check out the video of the Google Hangout below. And if you’re interested in reading up on Aldrin’s ideas for a mission to Mars, check out his book, Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration, which is was published by National Geographic and is available at Amazon or through his website.


News from Mars: Martian Water and Earth Organisms

curiosity_peakThis August, the Curiosity Rover will be celebrating its second anniversary of roving around the Red Planet. And ever since it made landfall, Curiosity and the Mars Science Laboratory has repeatedly uncovered signs that Mars was once very like Earth. Basically, it has become undeniable that water once flowed freely over the surface of this barren and uninhabitable world. And this finding, much to the delight of futurists and sci-fi enthusiasts everywhere, is likely to pave the way for human settlement.

Liquid water disappeared from Mars’ surface millions of years ago, leaving behind tantalizing clues about the planet’s ancient past—clues that the MSL has been deciphering for the past 22 months. This began last year when Curiosity found rounded pebbles in the Glenelg region, an indication that a stream once flowed at the site. This was followed by the discovery of rocky outcroppings where the remains of an ancient stream bed consisting of water-worn gravel that was washed down from the rim of Gale Crater.

mountsharp_galecraterThe rover has since moved to a location about 6.5 kilometers (4 miles) away from the Gale Crater landing site, where scientists expect to make even more discoveries. The new location is named Kimberly, after a region of northwestern Australia. As Dawn Sumner, a UC Davis geology professor and co-investigator for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory team, explained:

Our findings are showing that Mars is a planet that was once a whole lot like Earth. All the rocks we’ve seen on this mission are sediments that have been deposited by water. We’ve found almost no sandstone deposited by wind.

Sumner is working from Curiosity mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena while on sabbatical from UC Davis, exploring whether the planet ever had an environment capable of supporting microbial life. She is also one of several UC scientists and engineers who have been vital to the success of the Curiosity mission, which is part of NASA’s long-term plan to pave the way for sending astronauts to Mars.

Living-Mars.2In that vein, research continues here on Earth to see exactly what kind of life can survive in the harsh Martian environment. And now,  research suggests that methanogens – among the simplest and oldest organisms on Earth – could survive on Mars. These microorganisms are typically found in swamps and marshes, where they use hydrogen as their energy source and carbon dioxide as their carbon source to produce methane (aka. natural gas).

As an anaerobic bacteria, methanogens don’t require require oxygen or organic nutrients to live, and are non-photosynthetic. Hence, they would be able to exist in sub-surface environments and would therefore be ideal candidates for life on Mars. Rebecca Mickol, a doctoral student in space and planetary sciences at the University of Arkansas, subjected two species of methanogens to Martian conditions to see how they would fair on the Red Planet.

methanogens485These strains included Methanothermobacter wolfeii and Methanobacterium formicicum, both of which survived the Martian freeze-thaw cycles that Mickol replicated in her experiments. This consisted of testing the species for their ability to withstand Martian freeze-thaw cycles that are below the organisms’ ideal growth temperatures. As she explained it:

The surface temperature on Mars varies widely, often ranging between minus 90 degrees Celsius and 27 degrees Celsius over one Martian day. If any life were to exist on Mars right now, it would at least have to survive that temperature range. The survival of these two methanogen species exposed to long-term freeze/thaw cycles suggests methanogens could potentially inhabit the subsurface of Mars.

Mickol conducted the study with Timothy Kral, professor of biological sciences in the Arkansas Center for Space and Planetary Sciences and lead scientist on the project. She presented her work at the 2014 General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology, which was held from May 17th to 20th in Boston.

maven_atmosphereThe two species were selected because one is a hyperthermophile, meaning it thrives under extremely hot temperatures, and the other is a thermophile, which thrives under warm temperatures. Since the 1990s, Kral has been studying methanogens and examining their ability to survive on Mars. In 2004, scientists discovered methane in the Martian atmosphere, and immediately the question of the source became an important one. According to Kral:

When they made that discovery, we were really excited because you ask the question ‘What’s the source of that methane?. One possibility would be methanogens.

Understanding the makeup of Mars atmosphere and ecology is another major step towards ensuring that life can exist there again someday. From Red Planet, to Blue Planet, to Green Planet… it all begins with a fundamental understanding of what is currently able to withstand the Martian environment. And once this foundation is secured, our ecologists and environmental engineers can begin contemplating what it will take to create a viable atmosphere and sustainable sources of water there someday.

terraformingSources:, (2)

New Space: “Sail Rover” to Explore Mercury

zephyr-580x435In addition to their ongoing plans to explore Mars for signs of life, the Jovian moon of Europa, and tow an asteroid closer to Earth, NASA also has plans to explore the surface of Venus. For decades, scientists have been yearning to get a closer look at this world’s pockmarked surface, but the volcanic activity, clouds of sulfuric acid and extreme heat are not exactly favorable to robotic rovers.

But according to NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program, a windsailing rover could be just the means through which the hellish surface environment could be surveyed. This rover, nicknamed Zephyr, would use the high speeds and hot temperatures of Venus to its advantage, deploying a sail after entering the atmosphere and sailing to the ground.

mercury_surfaceThe rover would not be able to move around the surface, but would have electronics inside that are able to withstand the temperatures of 450 degrees Celsius (840 degrees Fahrenheit). Whenever the science team wanted to move some distance, however, they would deploy another sail that could use the wind to transport it across the surface. But mainly, the rover would remain on the ground conducting surface analysis.

Geoffrey Landis, who is with NASA’s Glenn Research Center and a part of the project to develop Zephyr, has long been an advocate of exploring Venus. This has included using solar powered airplane to explore the atmosphere, and colonizing the planet with floating cities. On the subject of Zephyr, he stated that:

A sail rover would be extraordinary for Venus. The sail has only two moving parts-just to set the sail and set the steering position-and that doesn’t require a lot of power. There’s no power required to actually drive. The fundamental elements of a rover for Venus are not beyond the bounds of physics. We could survive the furnace of Venus if we can come up with an innovative concept for a rover that can move on extremely low power levels.

venus_terraformedIn addition to providing volumes of information on the planet’s, exploring the surface of Venus could yield some interesting clues as to how it came to look like something out of Dante’s Inferno. It has been suggested that at one time, Venus may have boasted an atmosphere and surface water similar to Earth’s, but was transformed into a toxic nightmare thanks to a runaway Greenhouse Effect.

Studying how this came to happen would go a long way to helping scientists understand Climate Change here on Earth, and as well as give them the chance to test out possible solutions. And of course, any working solutions might go a long way towards terraforming Venus itself, which is something many scientists are currently advocating since it might be cheaper and less time consuming than transforming Mars.

Then again, if the resources and budget are there, there’s no reason why we can’t try to retool both for human settlement. After all, we might not have much a choice in the coming centuries. Human beings aren’t exactly known for their slow population growth or conservation skills!


A Look at “Living Mars”

Living-Mars With the confirmation that Mars with once home to oceans and rivers, and with speculation that a terraformed Mars will once again, there are many who wonder what a “Blue Mars” would look like. As it happens, a software engineer named Kevin Gill took it upon himself to create a series of images showing what a “living Mars” might look like.

Relying on his own imagination and a series of combined source material, the Red Planet gets a makeover, with aesthetically pleasing results! In an interview via email, Gill said the following of his process:

“This was something that I did both out of curiosity of what it would look like and to improve the software I was rendering this in. I am a software engineer by trade and certainly no planetary scientist, so with the exception of any parts derived from actual data, most of it is assumptions I made based on simply comparing the Mars terrain to similar features here on Earth (e.g. elevation, proximity to bodies of water, physical features, geographical position, etc) and then using the corresponding textures from the Blue Marble images to paint the flat image layer in a graphics program.”

Living-Mars.2For example, the view above is of the western hemisphere of Mars, with Olympus Mons on the horizon beyond the Tharsis Montes volcanoes and the Valles Marineris canyons near the center. The placement of clouds and the atmosphere was mainly to achieve a sense of scale and grandeur, but the rest is in keeping with information obtained by NASA over the years.

And these are just some of the images Gill has made over the years. His Flickr is awash in visualizations, many of which are of Mars, the Moon, and of course Earth, all of which are rendered from orbit. He also makes 3D models of geographic features, which comes in handy when its time to construct large-scale models.

The Case for Terraforming Venus

This weekend appears to be shaping up with a theme: news from space that isn’t about Mars. I swear that it’s entirely accidental. First there was the discovery of the diamond planet, 55 Cancri e, and now a story about the merits of terraforming another planetary neighbor. And wouldn’t you know it, it’s not Mars for a change.

Yes, it seems that there is a strong case for terraforming Venus instead of the Red Planet, and it comes from numerous scientists who claim that altering the climate on that planet could help us save our own. The reason being – and stop me if this sounds frightening – is because our planet could one day look just like our lifeless, acid ridden, cloud covered neighbor.

In short, Venus underwent a carbon-dioxide fueled cataclysm a long time ago, when it was still young and was believed to have oceans. In those early days, and as the sun got brighter, Venus’s oceans began to boil and evaporate into the atmosphere. As a result, carbon dioxide accumulated in the atmosphere, due in part to the lack of carbon recycling which depends on the presence of oceans and seaborne algae. This is essentially a magnified version of the Greenhouse Effect, which scientists identify as the reason for rising temperatures and melting polar ice caps here at home.

Because of this, Venus became the hot, deadly planet that we are familiar with today, with surface temperatures that average 467°C (872°F), hot enough to melt lead. What’s more, its atmosphere consists of 96% carbon dioxide, which appear as thick layers of clouds that float 50-70 km above the surface. Above that, clouds and mist of concentrated sulfuric acid and gaseous sulfur dioxide lead to acid rains that could literally melt the flesh off your bones and the metal off a landing craft. Combined with the amount of sunlight it gets (twice that of Earth) and the lack of a magnetosphere, Venus is a pretty damn awful place to visit!

Of course, some would say that this makes terraforming the planet a pretty dangerous and poor prospect, at least compared to Mars. However, the benefits of terraforming Venus are far greater, certainly when we consider that the lessons gleamed from it could help us reverse the Greenhouse Effect here on Earth. In addition, it’s closer than Mars, making it easier and quicker to travel back and forth. And like the Earth, it resides within the solar system’s habitable zone and has its own atmosphere, not to mention it is nearly the same mass and size as Earth.

All of this, when taken together, would make Venus a far more suitable place to live once the terraforming process was complete. In short, its easier to convert an existing atmosphere than to create one from scratch. And, as noted, the process of converting the CO2 and sulfur-rich atmosphere into one that a breathable one that is rich with water and precipitation would go a long way to helping us device solutions to cleaning up our own atmosphere here at home.

This may sound like pure speculation, but in truth, many solutions have already been proposed. In fact, Carl Sagan began proposing that we introduce genetically-modified airborne algae into Venus atmosphere 50 years ago. Thought not 100 percent practical, it was a stepping stone to some more recent ideas which may prove doable. In 1981, NASA engineer James Oberg proposed that all the CO2 could be blown out into space. Again, not the most practical idea, but they were thinking and that’s what matters!

More recently, Paul Birch, a writer for the British Interplanetary Society, proposed flooding Venus with hydrogen. Once it interacting with the high concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere, the end products would be graphite and plenty of water. Other plans involve carbon capture, nanotechnology, and other advanced forms of ecological engineering. These, alone or in combination, could prove to be the difference between thick glass clouds and sulfuric oceans and a lush green planet covered with water and vegetation.

A pretty interesting prospect; and if it all works out, humanity could end up with three habitable planets within the Solar System alone. Combined with pressure domes and sealed arcologies on the system’s various moons and larger asteroids, planet Earth could one day retire as the sole host of humanity and this thing we call “civilization”. In fact, I could foresee a time when our world goes on to become hallowed ground, hosting only a few hundred million people and free of heavy industry or urban sprawl. Hello idea for a story!

And, to mix up what I usually say at the end of every one of these posts, stay tuned for more news from Mars and other planets within our Solar System. There’s a lot of them out there, and someday, they might all places that our species calls “home”.

Source: IO9

Curiosity Has Landed!

Yesterday, at precisely 10:23 pm Greenwich Mean Time, NASA announced the successful landing of the Mars Curiosity Rover! After blazing through Mars’ atmosphere at over 21,000 km/h, Curiosity’s unique landing system deployed and brought the rover in for a nice, controlled landing.

Needless to say, pandemonium ensued at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, where the landing was being monitored. All those on hand began jumping, hooting, hollering and hugging each other, much as they used to do whenever a successful launch was made or men touched down on the moon. Times may have changed, but the basic goal remains the same: to conquer the unknown and take the next big leap. And when that happens, you can expect the people who work so hard to make that happen to get a little giddy 😉

In addition, the HiRISE team (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment), caught this beautiful and perfectly-timed photo from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The photo shows Curiosity at left deploying its chute and descending to the surface.

Immediately after touching down, Curiosity began sending photos back to NASA of Mars surface. The first two were of its landing zone in Mars’ Gale Crater, shown here:

To mark this momentous occasion, President Obama had this statement to make:

“Tonight, on the planet Mars, the United States of America made history.

The successful landing of Curiosity – the most sophisticated roving laboratory ever to land on another planet – marks an unprecedented feat of technology that will stand as a point of national pride far into the future. It proves that even the longest of odds are no match for our unique blend of ingenuity and determination.

Tonight’s success, delivered by NASA, parallels our major steps forward towards a vision for a new partnership with American companies to send American astronauts into space on American spacecraft. That partnership will save taxpayer dollars while allowing NASA to do what it has always done best – push the very boundaries of human knowledge. And tonight’s success reminds us that our preeminence – not just in space, but here on Earth – depends on continuing to invest wisely in the innovation, technology, and basic research that has always made our economy the envy of the world.

I congratulate and thank all the men and women of NASA who made this remarkable accomplishment a reality – and I eagerly await what Curiosity has yet to discover.”

Yes, this is certainly is history in the making. Needless to say, Curiosity is expected send back some interesting finds as it wanders the Martian surface, takes soil samples, and scans them to determine what secrets and mysteries the surface holds. In time, all this information could become intrinsic to settlement and terraforming, the creation of human civilization on a planet other than Earth! Exciting times we live in!

In the meantime, check out this compilation video of the landing paired with footage take from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab:

Via: Universe Today