The Gravity of the National Space Society’s Vision

Thorne award
NSS Executive Committee Chairman Mark Hopkins Presents Space Pioneer Award to Dr. Kip Thorne

We, the members of the National Space Society, believe exploring the unknown is one of the things that drives our vision of “people living and working in thriving communities beyond the Earth, and the use of the vast resources of space for the dramatic betterment of humanity.” The recent discovery of gravitational waves by NSS Space Pioneer award recipient Dr. Kip Thorne is another giant leap forward.

We are very proud and honored to congratulate the amazing achievement of our NSS member Dr. Kip Thorne for his leading involvement in the creation of the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory) project. LIGO’s recent world-changing detection of the existence of gravitational waves predicted by Einstein a century ago in his General Relativity Theory is opening new eyes on the cosmos and the doors that will bring humanity closer to the NSS vision!

Regarding the grand NSS vision, Dr. Thorne remarked, “I think that it’s clear that it is attainable to colonize the solar system. Getting beyond the solar system is going to be exceedingly difficult. We are going to either require a lot of brute force over a period of several centuries or else a brilliant idea that none of us has grasped yet. The first thing is the solar system, but we have not been moving at anything like the pace that we could or we should.”

Thorne at ISDC

Dr. Thorne was honored at the National Space Society’s 2015 International Space Development Conference® (ISDC) in Toronto, Canada for his work with the movie Interstellar and spoke not only to the conference participants, but also to more than 400 Space Settlement Design Contest winning students from around the world.

Thorn at ISDC
At the Toronto ISDC, Dr. Thorne visited with the students, viewing their Space Settlement Design Contest poster presentations, and posing for group photos with the winners. Here is Dr. Thorne with a winning team from Romania.

The ISDC, which brings together and engages students, scientists, business leaders, space industry stakeholders, families, policy makers and people from all walks of life, is held annually at different locations. This year it will be held at the surprisingly inexpensive location of San Juan, Puerto Rico! By attending ISDC Puerto Rico, you’ll be able to meet a whole new batch of winning space settlement students, the latest Space Pioneer Award winners like Pluto New Horizon’s Alan Stern, NASA center director Elen Ochoa, and Blue Origin’s president Rob Meyerson.

Here’s a quick look of what the ISDC 2016 holds for its attendees:

When asked during an interview at the ISDC how pleased Dr. Thorne was to see that this type of conference, exists, he replied, “Well I think it’s very wonderful, particularly getting the young people involved around the world and being an inspiration for them. It’s very important for the future of science and the future of space.”

About the Gravity Wave Discovery

On February 11, 2016, a team of four physicists using LIGO announced that they had heard and recorded in September 2015 the gravitational wave motion of two black holes colliding 1.3 billion light-years away. The announcement team included Kip Thorne, David Reitze, Gabriela González, and Rainer Weiss.

Gravity waves

This is the first time scientists have observed ripples in the fabric of spacetime, called gravitational waves, arriving at Earth from a cataclysmic event in the distant universe. Dr. Thorne’s work has dealt with the prediction of gravity-wave strengths and their temporal signatures as observed on Earth. Dr. Thorne cofounded the LIGO Project in 1984 to discern and measure any fluctuations between two or more ‘static’ points on Earth. Such fluctuations would be evidence of gravitational waves. The specter of gravitational waves will show us the universe in a brand new light.

“With this discovery, we humans are embarking on a marvelous new quest: the quest to explore the warped side of the universe — objects and phenomena that are made from warped spacetime. Colliding black holes and gravitational waves are our first beautiful examples,” says Dr. Thorne.

NSS congratulates Professor Kip Thorne and the entire LIGO team for the confirmed detection of Gravitational Waves and his support of the National Space Society, it’s ISDCs, and projects like Enterprise In Space!

Epic Video Takes Pluto-mania Viral

Video on NASA’s New Horizons Mission Gets a Million Views in a Week; This Extended Director’s Cut Version Dropped Today on YouTube

This extended version of a viral video detailing NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto, entitled “New Horizons [Extended Version]” was released today to the public via YouTube. A shorter version of the video had gone viral just two weeks prior, amassing over a million views in less than a week.

The video, commissioned by the non-profit National Space Society, highlights the historical significance of the New Horizons mission.

The fastest spacecraft ever created, New Horizons will speed past Pluto on July 14, 2015, 50 years to the day after humans first explored Mars with NASA’s Mariner 4 on July 14, 1965. The spacecraft will beam back high resolution imagery and invaluable scientific data of the dwarf planet’s surface for the first time in human history, thus bringing a dramatic culmination to 50 years of NASA’s initial efforts in planetary reconnaissance.

“This extended version of the video, New Horizons, is amazing, showing why we explore the planets, and what an incredible and historic accomplishment human beings have achieved in the past 50 years – from the first missions to Venus and Mars to New Horizons at Pluto – in that pursuit,” said Alan Stern, NSS member and Principal Investigator of the New Horizons mission.

Hubble Space Telescope Sees Evidence of Water Vapor Venting off Jovian Moon Europa

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has observed water vapor above the frigid south polar region of Jupiter’s moon Europa, providing the first strong evidence of water plumes erupting off the moon’s surface.

Previous scientific findings from other sources already point to the existence of an ocean located under Europa’s icy crust. Researchers are not yet certain whether the detected water vapor is generated by water plumes erupting on the surface, but they are confident this is the most likely explanation.

This graphic shows the location of water vapor detected over Europa’s south pole that provides the first strong evidence of water plumes erupting off Europa’s surface, in observations taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope in December 2012. Hubble didn’t photograph plumes, but spectroscopically detected auroral emissions from oxygen and hydrogen. The aurora is powered by Jupiter’s magnetic field. This is only the second moon in the solar system found ejecting water vapor from the frigid surface. The image of Europa is derived from a global surface map generated from combined NASA Voyager and Galileo space probe observations.

Should further observations support the finding, it would make Europa the second moon in the solar system known to have water vapor plumes. The findings were published in the Thursday, Dec. 12, online issue of Science Express, and reported at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

“By far the simplest explanation for this water vapor is that it erupted from plumes on the surface of Europa,” said lead author Lorenz Roth of Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas. “If those plumes are connected with the subsurface water ocean we are confident exists under Europa’s crust, then this means that future investigations can directly investigate the chemical makeup of Europa’s potentially habitable environment without drilling through layers of ice. And that is tremendously exciting.”

In 2005, NASA’s Cassini orbiter detected jets of water vapor and dust spewing off the surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Although ice and dust particles subsequently have been found in the Enceladus plumes, only water vapor gases have been measured at Europa so far.

Hubble’s spectroscopic observations provided the evidence for Europa plumes in December 2012. Time sampling of auroral emissions measured by Hubble’s imaging spectrograph enabled the researchers to distinguish between features created by Jupiter’s magnetospheric particles and local enhancements of gas, and to also rule out more exotic explanations such as serendipitously observing a rare meteorite impact. The imaging spectrograph detected faint ultraviolet light from an aurora, powered by Jupiter’s intense magnetic field, near the moon’s south pole. Atomic oxygen and hydrogen produce a variable auroral glow and leave a telltale sign that they are products of water molecules being broken apart by electrons along magnetic field lines.

“We pushed Hubble to its limits to see this very faint emission. These could be stealth plumes, because they might be tenuous and difficult to observe in the visible light,” said Joachim Saur of the University of Cologne in Germany. Saur, who is principal investigator of the Hubble observation campaign, co-wrote the paper with Roth. Roth suggested long cracks on Europa’s surface, known as lineae, might be venting water vapor into space. Cassini has seen similar fissures that host Enceladus’ jets.

The Hubble team found that the intensity of Europa’s plumes, like that Enceladus’s plumes, varies with the moon’s orbital position. Active jets have been seen only when Europa is farthest from Jupiter. But the researchers could not detect any sign of venting when Europa is closer to Jupiter.

One explanation for the variability is these lineae experience more stress as gravitational tidal forces push and pull on the moon and open vents at larger distances from Jupiter. The vents are narrowed or closed when the moon is closest to the gas giant planet.

“The apparent plume variability supports a key prediction that Europa should tidally flex by a significant amount if it has a subsurface ocean,” said Kurt Retherford, also of Southwest Research Institute.

Europa’s and Enceladus’ plumes have remarkably similar abundances of water vapor. Because Europa has roughly 12 times more gravitational pull than Enceladus, the vapor, whose temperature is measured at minus 40 degrees Celsius, does not escape into space as it does at Enceladus. Instead, it falls back onto the surface after reaching an altitude of 125 miles, according to the Hubble measurements. This could leave bright surface features near the moon’s south polar region, the researchers hypothesize.

“If confirmed, this new observation once again shows the power of the Hubble Space Telescope to explore and opens a new chapter in our search for potentially habitable environments in our solar system,” said John Grunsfeld, an astronaut who participated in Hubble servicing missions and now serves as NASA’s associate administrator for science in Washington, D.C. “The effort and risk we took to upgrade and repair the Hubble becomes all the more worthwhile when we learn about exciting discoveries like this one from Europa.”

This is an artist’s concept of a plume of water vapor thought to be ejected off of the frigid, icy surface of the Jovian moon Europa, located 500 million miles from the Sun. Hubble Space Telescope spectroscopic measurements lead scientists to calculate that the plume rises to an altitude of 125 miles and then probably rains frost back onto the moon’s surface. Previous findings already point to a subsurface ocean under Europa’s icy crust.

Amateur Astronomers Will Help ‘Target Asteroids!’

A new NASA outreach project will enlist the help of amateur astronomers to discover near-Earth objects (NEOs) and study their characteristics. NEOs are asteroids with orbits that occasionally bring them close to the Earth.

The amateur astronomers are about to make observations that will affect current and future space missions to asteroids. Some will use custom-made, often automated, telescopes equipped with CCD cameras in their backyards. Others will use home computers to make remote observations with more powerful telescopes states or continents away. Many belong to leading national and international amateur astronomy organizations with members ranging from retirees to school kids.

Researchers on NASA’s robotic asteroid sample return mission, OSIRIS-REx, are turning to amateur astronomers for new data on near-Earth asteroids in a citizen science observing campaign called “Target Asteroids!” The campaign starts in April 2012 and will last at least to the end of this decade.

The full name of the OSIRIS-REx mission is Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security – Regolith Explorer. The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is to launch in 2016, reach a well-characterized primitive asteroid called (101955) 1999 RQ36 in 2019, examine that body up close during a 505-day rendezvous, then return at least 60 grams of it to Earth in 2023.

“Asteroids are a rich and accessible historic archive of the origin of our Solar System and life, a valuable source of mineral resources, and potentially hazardous Earth impactors that civilization must learn to deal with,” said OSIRIS-REx Principal Investigator Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona. “Our mission will address all these issues.”

1999 RQ36 — a 500-meter-diameter, dark carbonaceous asteroid — is difficult for even powerful Earth-based telescopes to observe at this time because it is relatively distant from Earth.

“Amateur astronomers are asked to observe asteroids selected because they are in near-Earth orbits that can be reached by current-generation spacecraft and are at least 200 meters in diameter,” said Target Asteroids! scientist Carl Hergenrother, head of the OSIRIS-REx astronomy working group.

“Precise orbits, sizes, rotation rates, physical composition and other important characteristics for these asteroids are largely unknown, ” Hergenrother said.

“We want amateur astronomers to do astrometry (which precisely measures positions of objects), photometry (which measures brightness) and spectroscopy (which measures the colors, or wavelengths, of light) to discover as much as we can about these objects,” he said.

“These will be challenging objects to observe because they are very faint,” said Target Asteroids! coordinator Dolores Hill of the OSIRIS-REx education and public outreach program. “Amateur astronomers may have to make what are called ‘track and stack’ observations,” a technique that acquires and adds multiple short images.

“One of the major goals of having amateur astronomers on board is they can observe these objects every night, unlike professional astronomers who may get to telescopes once every few nights, or more typically once a month or every three months,” Hergenrother said.

People don’t need to own their own telescopes or live under clear skies to work on Target Asteroids!, Hergenrother and Hill emphasized.

For not much money, observers can now go online and sign up to use a growing network of quality robotic telescopes sited at some of the choicest astronomical spots in the country, they added.

Scientists will compare data from amateur and professional astronomers’ ground-based observations with data from OSIRIS-REx spacecraft instruments to learn more about Earth-crossing asteroids and identify likely candidates for future asteroid missions, they said.

For more information see the Target Asteroids! web page.

More Planets than Stars – But Axial Tilt may be the Key to Life

There is an average of more than one planet per star in the Milky Way
Image Credit: NASA / ESA / ESO

With the forthcoming publication in the journal Nature on 12 January, it is estimated that there are more than 100 billion planets in our Milky Way galaxy. That means more than one planet per star, and results show that there are more rocky small Earth-like planets than giant Jupiter-size gas planets.

Most recent discoveries have come from the Kepler Observatory using transit observations. Some of the earliest confirmation of gas giants came from radial velocity Doppler observations.

The conclusions in the Nature article are based on micro-lensing studies.

Recent results from the Kepler Observatory have shown the existence of three small, rocky planets around the star KOI-961, a red dwarf. These three planets, named KOI-961.01, KOI-961.02 and KOI-961.03, are 0.78, 0.73 and 0.57 times the radius of Earth. The smallest is about the size of Mars (see below). Follow-up observations were made by the Palomar Observatory, near San Diego, and the Keck Observatory atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

Relative size of the three rocky planets around KOI-961
Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Since it is now clear that rocky planets exist around millions, if not billions, of stars, the question arises as to whether there is life on them, and whether it may resemble life on Earth.

Whether a planet exists in the “Goldilocks” region around a star depends on many factors. Three factors include the type of star, how far away from the star the planet resides and the atmospheric pressure of the planet. A red dwarf, such as Gliese 581, means the planet has to be closer than the Earth to our Sun. A white hot star means the planet has to be farther away. And if the atmosphere is low, like Mars, or to high, like Venus, liquid water is not likely.

A fourth factor is axial tilt. If a planet has no axial tilt (the spin axis is perpendicular to the plane of its orbit around the star) then the polar regions freeze and the equatorial regions bake. There is little exchange between these regions due to atmospheric circulation. Axial tilt, such as the Earth has, allows distribution of heat between the equator and the poles.

Even if a planet has axial tilt, a recent study shows that interaction at a close distance (within the “Goldilocks” region) with red dwarf will eliminate axial tilt in less than 100 million years. Bacteria on Earth required 1,000 million years to evolve. Theoretically, a planet with no axial tilt could possess bands between the equator and the poles where liquid water would exist. But, it is quite possible the atmosphere would collapse, with gases being driven off into space at the very hot equator, and freezing solid on the ground at the poles. Such a possibility faces the planets around KOI 961.

Systems with stars like our Sun present better possibilities. The “Goldilocks” conditions exist much farther out, and axial tilt is eliminated much more slowly, as our Earth is witness. Systems such as Kepler-22b are good candidates.

The conclusion drawn from these studies is that systems similar to our Solar System present the best opportunities for life.

ALMA: Atacama Large Millimeter Array

Humanity’s most complex ground-based astronomy observatory, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), has officially opened for astronomers at its 16,500-feet elevation site in northern Chile.

Detailed views of star-formation in the Antennae Galaxies are the first astronomical test images released to the public from ALMA, confirming that this new telescope has surpassed all others of its kind.

“We chose the impressive interacting system called the Antennae galaxies as a test subject,” said Dr. Alison Peck, an astronomer from the NRAO who is serving in Chile as ALMA Deputy Project Scientist during its years of careful construction and rigorous testing, “because it is in the process of undergoing the type of spectacular, violent merger that many galaxies may have undergone since their formation, but that we can rarely catch in action.”

This image is a composite of views of the Antennae taken with several different types of telescopes, including test data from ALMA (orange and yellow, and shown alone in the inset). Like the view from an ultrasound of an expectant mother’s womb, ALMA reveals hidden starbirth nestled inside otherwise obscuring dust clouds.

“ALMA’s test views of the Antennae show us star-forming regions on a level of detail that no other telescope on Earth or in space has attained. This capability can only get much better as ALMA nears completion,” said Dr. Mark McKinnon, North American ALMA Project Manager from the NRAO in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The photo above is a multiwavelength composite of interacting galaxies NGC 4038/4039, the Antennae, showing VLA radio (blues), past and recent starbirths in HST and CTIO optical (whites and pinks), and a selection of current star-forming regions in ALMA’s mm/submm (orange and yellows) showing detail surpassing all other views in these wavelengths.

Below is a 6-minute video about ALMA.
More information about ALMA.

Is an Earth Trojan Asteroid the Logical Target for the "Flexible Path"?

Trojan Asteroid 2010 TK7
Asteroid 2010 TK7 is circled in green.
Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA
Scientists using the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) have discovered the first Trojan Asteroid in Earth orbit. Trojans orbit at a location in front of or behind a planet known as a Lagrange Point.

A video of the asteroid and its orbit at the Lagrange point can be found here.

Martin Connors of Athabasca University in Canada is the lead author of a new paper on the discovery in the July 28 issue of the journal Nature.

Connors notes that:

These asteroids dwell mostly in the daylight, making them very hard to see. But we finally found one, because the object has an unusual orbit that takes it farther away from the sun than what is typical for Trojans. WISE was a game-changer, giving us a point of view difficult to have at Earth’s surface.

TK7 is roughly 300 meters in diameter and traces a complex motion around SEL-4 (Sun Earth Lagrange point 4). The asteroid’s orbit is stable for at least the next 100 years and is currently about 80 million kilometers from the Earth. In that time, it is expected to come no closer that 24 million kilometers.

The obvious question is whether this is the logical destination for NASA’s Flexible Path manned asteroid mission? The Lagrange 4 point (SEL-4) is a logical way station on the Solar System exploration highway. Other NEO asteroids that have been identified as possible targets are few and much more difficult to reach and return than an asteroid located directly at SEL-4 would be. An asteroid located there could well be the target of opportunity that opens manned exploration of the Solar System in an “easy” mode. Unfortunately, Asteroid 2010 TK7 would not serve as such a target because it travels in an eccentric orbit around SEL-4 so far above and below the plane of Earth’s orbit that it would require very large amounts of fuel to reach.

NEOWISE is the program for searching the WISE database for Near Earth Objects (NEO), as well as other asteroids in the Solar System.The NEOWISE project observed more than 155,000 asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter, and more than 500 NEOs, discovering 132 that were previously unknown.

NASA's WISE Mission Finds First Trojan Asteroid Sharing Earth's Orbit

PASADENA, Calif. – Astronomers studying observations taken by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission have discovered the first known “Trojan” asteroid orbiting the sun along with Earth.

Trojans are asteroids that share an orbit with a planet near stable points in front of or behind the planet. Because they constantly lead or follow in the same orbit as the planet, they never can collide with it. In our solar system, Trojans also share orbits with Neptune, Mars and Jupiter. Two of Saturn’s moons share orbits with Trojans.

Scientists had predicted Earth should have Trojans, but they have been difficult to find because they are relatively small and appear near the sun from Earth’s point of view.

“These asteroids dwell mostly in the daylight, making them very hard to see,” said Martin Connors of Athabasca University in Canada, lead author of a new paper on the discovery in the July 28 issue of the journal Nature. “But we finally found one, because the object has an unusual orbit that takes it farther away from the sun than what is typical for Trojans. WISE was a game-changer, giving us a point of view difficult to have at Earth’s surface.”

The WISE telescope scanned the entire sky in infrared light from January 2010 to February 2011. Connors and his team began their search for an Earth Trojan using data from NEOWISE, an addition to the WISE mission that focused in part on near-Earth objects, or NEOs, such as asteroids and comets. NEOs are bodies that pass within 28 million miles (45 million kilometers) of Earth’s path around the sun. The NEOWISE project observed more than 155,000 asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter, and more than 500 NEOs, discovering 132 that were previously unknown.

The team’s hunt resulted in two Trojan candidates. One called 2010 TK7 was confirmed as an Earth Trojan after follow-up observations with the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

The asteroid is roughly 1,000 feet (300 meters) in diameter. It has an unusual orbit that traces a complex motion near a stable point in the plane of Earth’s orbit, although the asteroid also moves above and below the plane. The object is about 50 million miles (80 million kilometers) from Earth. The asteroid’s orbit is well-defined and for at least the next 100 years, it will not come closer to Earth than 15 million miles (24 million kilometers).

Larger image here. Animation of orbit here.
Earth Trojan Asteroid’s Eccentric Orbit.
Larger image here.
Animation of orbit here.

“It’s as though Earth is playing follow the leader,” said Amy Mainzer, the principal investigator of NEOWISE at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “Earth always is chasing this asteroid around.”

A handful of other asteroids also have orbits similar to Earth. Such objects could make excellent candidates for future robotic or human exploration. Asteroid 2010 TK7 is not a good target because it travels too far above and below the plane of Earth’s orbit, which would require large amounts of fuel to reach it.

“This observation illustrates why NASA’s NEO Observation program funded the mission enhancement to process data collected by WISE,” said Lindley Johnson, NEOWISE program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We believed there was great potential to find objects in near-Earth space that had not been seen before.”

NEOWISE data on orbits from the hundreds of thousands of asteroids and comets it observed are available through the NASA-funded International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass.

JPL manages and operates WISE for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The principal investigator, Edward Wright, is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. The mission was selected under NASA’s Explorers Program, which is managed by the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The science instrument was built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory in Logan, Utah.

The spacecraft was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo. Science operations and data processing take place at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

For more WISE information visit:

James Webb Telescope in danger of cancellation

The James Webb Telescope, successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, has been cut by the House Appropriations Committee. An amendment to the NASA budget to restore funding to the telescope was defeated July 14. The telescope has been plagued with large cost overruns.

However, it remains possible that funding could be restored in the Senate. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) plans to defend the telescope. Her home state includes the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, which manages the project.

More about the James Webb Telescope.