“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'” — Isaac Asimov
The space agency is trying to balance the planet’s carbon budget using satellite monitoring
Carbon dioxide, or CO2 for short. It’s simple gas that makes up a small part of our planet’s atmosphere. And yet it’s at the root of one of the biggest problems of the 21st century (that would be climate change, for the record).
NASA scientists have been keeping an eye on the movement of CO2 across land, air and sea in an effort to zero in on the changes in store for our planet.
CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere are the highest they’ve been in 400,000 years. Despite the commitments to try and rein in carbon pollution, there’s still little sign human emissions will slow anytime in the near future, let alone drop to zero.
That has the world on track to cross the symbolic atmospheric CO2 threshold of 400 parts per million (ppm) permanently this year or early next year. And it also means that the climate will continue to change leading to warmer temperatures, higher and more acidic oceans, and shifts in extreme weather.
Yet CO2 and corresponding impacts would be a lot higher if it weren’t for plants, like giant sequoias to microscopic plankton, that absorb about half of all human CO2emissions in a given year. That’s why NASA is interested in monitoring the world’s greenery or what they’ve termed the “other half” of the carbon equation.
Factors such as El Niño, drought and warm weather in the Arctic all affect how much CO2 is taken up by the natural world. Scientists are beginning to understand those, but what they’re even more curious about is how human-influenced warming could further change plants’ ability to absorb CO2.
It is impossible to look at photos of space and not feel awe. A picture of Earth as seen from the moon, the rings of Saturn, or a nebula can only fill a viewer with wonder. Such images are where science and art meet, teaching us more about the cosmos even as they leave us pondering our place in the universe.
Some of the best space photography has been compiled in Earth and Space: Photographs from the Archives of NASA. The images, taken by the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, Herschel Space Observatory, and other equipment, offer a stunning look at the vast realm beyond our planet. Writer Nirmala Nataraj and scientist Bill Nye hope the book inspires as well as informs.
“Photos are one of the primary ways we learn to process phenomena that are inexplicable and vast,” Nataraj says. “When we find ourselves bumping up against the ceiling of our imagination, photos of space help us recapture a sense of wonder, possibility, and curiosity about the nature of the cosmos.”
If the announcement itself was cool enough, the messenger turned out to be pretty funky, too.
Lujendra Ojha, a postgraduate student at the Georgia Institute of Technology who made the discovery, is a Nepalese-born former heavy metal guitarist who is helping to change the public perception of a space agency geek.
Visitors to his personal website are greeted with an old photograph of a long-haired Ojha on stage and at the microphone with his death metal band Gorkha. Yet having chosen several years ago to pursue his studies in planetary science over a career in music, Ojha, 25, is still a rock star… as one of a generation of new “outsourced” young scientists helping to change the way the space agency presents its work in the social media era.
“You don’t have to have thick glasses and a skinny tie to be a Nasa scientist like back in the 1960s,” said Casey Dreier, director of advocacy at the Planetary Society. “You can be a guitarist; you can have all kinds of backgrounds to be included in space these days.”
For Nasa, which has increasingly embraced new media forms including Facebook and Twitter in recent years as it has sought to widen its appeal, colourful characters such as Ojha are a gift. Rocket engineer Bobak Ferdowski became an overnight sensation in 2012 as Nasa’s “Mohawk Guy”, his unorthodox haircut and bright clothes in mission control bringing extra welcome attention to the televised landing of the Mars Curiosity Rover.
Ojha’s position as one of a team of nine researchers funded, but not directly employed, by Nasa, also shines a spotlight on how the publicly funded federal agency pays for and conducts most of its science research through external contracts and arrangements.
While analysts, including Dreier, say there is nothing new in third-party partnerships – like the Georgia Tech-led study that brought the Mars water flow to prominence this week, and the work of astrophysicists at Johns Hopkins University that resulted in stunning close-up images of Pluto this summer from the New Horizons spacecraft – their importance to Nasa has never been greater.
“Nasa’s responsibility has increased as funding has diminished,” he said. “It’s a recurring joke around Nasa that they’re always having to pack 20lbs of ignition into a ten-pound bag.”
Budgetary wrangles have been a constant issue for Nasa since the years following the Apollo moon landings of the 1960s, when the space race accounted for almost 4.5% of the US federal budget. Funding has shrunk annually in real terms, and for 2016, President Obama has asked Congress to approve a budget of $18.5bn, half a percentage point of national spending and $4bn less than Americans spent on pet food last year.
Some space experts see Nasa’s recent public relations offensive as directly related to its need to secure future funding for the Mars programme, which includes the goal of manned exploration during the 2030s. Describing this week’s water-on-Mars announcement as the solving of a mystery, as Nasa did before its press conference, was “over-hyping”, according to John Logsden, a retired director of the Space Policy Institute and former member of Nasa’s advisory council.
“Preparing for humans-to-Mars is the rationale for Nasa’s human spaceflight programme, so in order to have the public support needed to sustain the programme, they fall into the long-established pattern of overselling,” he told the Washington Post. “The issue is whether the next president provides the startup funding for the next pieces of hardware that are required to do this. And at what point do we stop spending $3bn a year on the space station?”
Dreier, who coauthors his society’s monthly Planetary Report, agrees that finding the money for Mars, and the heavy-lift Space Launch System rockets and Orion capsules that will be needed to get there one day, will be an ongoing headache as Nasa’s administrator, former astronaut Charles Bolden, and senior leadership try to plot the course forward.
“Bolden has done a good job in turbulent political times,” he said. “It’s amazing what they do for the money they spend. Everything we’ve learned about Mars comes from 10% of the budget.
“In Congress, the biggest battles have been over earth science and commercial crew, endless back-and-forth over that. Then there’s SLS and Orion. It tells me that Nasa is being asked to do too much by the nation and isn’t given enough resources to be successful.
“It’s not like the 60s when the president shows up and says what he wants Nasa to do and doubles the budget two years in a row. We have to realise there’s no Kennedy moment coming up,” he added, referring to John F Kennedy’s game-changing 1962 speech at Rice University in Texas, during which he revealed the country’s commitment to a moon landing.
Essentially, according to Dr Mason Peck, Nasa’s former chief technologist and now a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell University, the eventual success of Nasa’s Mars endeavour relies on the pulling together of several key components. He said there needed to be the political will in Washington to see the job done combined with Nasa continuing to expand its scientific knowledge and develop new technologies with partners such as Ojha and his university team.
“You need experts to make science work, and that cannot reside within a few big Nasa centres around the country,” he said. “To be successful requires the will of the nation. There were some good people who put together Apollo, the same age then as today’s scientists are now. If Nasa was to stop doing the things that amaze us, then what’s the point?”
Dwarf planet Ceres is seen in the main asteroid belt, where it resides well away from Earth. NASA is hoping to quell online rumors that a massive near-Earth asteroid is due to hit us next month.
Have you heard that a giant asteroid is due to strike the Earth sometime between Sept. 15 and Sept. 28?
If so, you probably thought it was a hoax. And you’d be right.
But some people who read “numerous recent blogs and web postings” about impending doom from space weren’t sufficiently skeptical. NASA on Thursday sought to clarify:
“If there were any object large enough to do that type of destruction in September, we would have seen something of it by now,” Paul Chodas, manager of NASA’s Near-Earth Object (read: close meteors and asteroids) office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement.
The statement reads in part: “In fact, NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observations Program says there have been no asteroids or comets observed that would impact Earth anytime in the foreseeable future. All known Potentially Hazardous Asteroids have less than a 0.01% chance of impacting Earth in the next 100 years.”
But what if an asteroid really was barreling toward an impact with Earth? Could we stop it?
NPR’s Jacob Goldstein spoke with former astronaut Ed Lu in a piece that aired on All Things Considered on Thursday.
Lu runs a foundation that’s trying to figure out how to put an asteroid-deflecting telescope into orbit. He says he needs about $500 million to put it in orbit. As Jacob points out, that is coincidentally about how much people around the world paid to see the 1998 movie Armageddon, in which Bruce Willis plays a miner-turned-astronaut who is tapped by NASA to fly into space and save the world from a rogue asteroid.
Red romaine lettuce grows from a seed “pillow” — the same setup that’s currently being used to grow plants about the International Space Station.
For the first time in history, astronauts have eaten food grown in space.
As part of NASA’s VEG-01 experiment (nicknamed “VEGGIE”) aboard the International Space Station, they sampled red romaine lettuce that’s been growing in a specially designed chamber since early July, under the care of astronaut Scott Kelly. After Kjell Lindgren carefully cleaned the greens with sanitizing wipes to ensure they were clean, the duo and Japanese astronaut Kimiya Yui first tasted them around 12:45 ET on Monday — before trying them again with a bit of olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
The astronauts only get to eat half the lettuce; the other half will be frozen and sent back to Earth for scientific analysis. Long term, the goal of this sort of microgravity gardening is to add a bit of variety and nutrition to astronauts’ heavily processed, thermostabilized diets — something that could be especially important for the multiyear journey it’d take to send people to Mars.
“The astronauts have a pretty amazing diet, with a lot of different foods,” Gioia Massa, NASA’s lead researcher on the project, told me last year, “but they don’t get fresh vegetables often.”