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House Hearings Fail to Tap NASA’s Full Potential

Cosmic Diary Marchis - September 11, 2014

Yesterday the  U.S. House of Representatives  Subcommittee on Space held a hearing entitled “Exploring Our Solar System: The ASTEROIDS Act as a Key Step Planetary science“. I was curious about this act and expected the hearing to focus on interesting new ways to motivate private companies to design, launch, and operate space missions, and further the study of our Solar System.

Five witnesses at the House Hearing on “Exploring Our Solar System: The ASTEROIDS Act as a Key Step Planetary science”

The five witnesses chosen to testify included a NASA civil servant, three well-known planetary scientists and one professor specialized in space law.

Soon after the hearing began, viewers, included me, realized that it was focused not on the ASTEROIDS Act, or planetary science or space exploration, but on NASA’s budget for planetary science. The hearing should have been called  ”NASA’s Planetary Spacecraft Budget for 2015″—but everyone knew that topic would attract little if any interest.

The witnesses knew the true nature of the hearing, and the first four limited their discussion to NASA space missions. Unfortunately, none mentioned the remarkable contribution of ground-based and space telescopes to planetary science, with the exception of Jim Bell, who briefly muttered the word “exoplanets.” No one mentioned the magnificent images collected by the Hubble Space Telescope (e.g. plumes on Europa), or those from large telescopes  (Io’s volcanism, asteroid impact on Jupiter). Nor did anyone mention the bright future just ahead, when millions of small solar system bodies are discovered by the LSST, the JWST begins to study exoplanets, and extremely large telescopes provide data resolution as detailed as global Galileo spacecraft observations.

Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). Image Credit: NASA

A lot of planetary scientists don’t like the ARM concept but  I regret that it was discussed at length. If the mission concept is as bad as presented, we can be sure it will be abandoned by the next administration just as the current one abandoned a new race to the Moon. It’s disappointing that there were few mentions of the impact of planetary science on technological advances, or the immense contribution made by our field in inspiring young people to study STEM. A more enlightened subcommittee would also have heard testimony on how to use space exploration to understand climate change, and mitigate its effect. And it would have studied, rather than superficially discussed, our ability to secure new resources in the not-too-distant future by mining asteroids.

Finally, most of the testimony adamantly promoted a “business as usual” attitude, which we can summarize as “NASA needs more money to develop more Discovery and New Frontiers missions.” It would have been great to discuss new ideas that are not part of this 60-year-old schema. In the past, NASA has shown a commitment to innovation, but sadly this hearing was a lost opportunity for decision makers to hear new thoughts from planetary scientists.

NASA leveraged its $800M COTS program budget with partner funds. This resulted in two new U.S. medium-class launch vehicles built by SpaceX and Orbital and two automated cargo spacecraft (Dragon and Cygnus)  and demonstrated the efficiency of such partnerships.

There is no way to indefinitely increase NASA’s budget to match the rapidly soaring price of missions. But we can dedicate part of its budget to help develop a private space-exploration industry committed to bringing new ideas to life and reducing the cost of exploration. True, the ASTEROIDS act  will set a “legal framework” to determine the rights of private interests to extract and control space mining—an important step. But we need to take a second step: COTS-like funding to support New Space industries (Planetary Resources, DSI, B612, Google X Prize, etc.). This would allow NASA to define a need, and invest in and consult with the people pursuing it. This would also allow privately operated space partners to receive funding from NASA to find visionary, innovative, low-cost ways to explore space.

This new initiative would also free NASA to focus on the most challenging parts of the planetary science program, such as  a mission to Europa. For innovative, higher-risk ideas, a partnership with New Space companies could allow the agency to remain on the forefront of space exploration while promoting an emerging industry. In this context,  perhaps commercial space exploration companies could come up with innovative ways to do a mission similar to an Asteroid Redirect Mission.

Clear skies,

Franck M.


Martian waves

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - September 08, 2014

A piece of Mars: The swirly candy stripes in these big dark dunes are layers inside that have been made visible by wind erosion (the scene is 1.5×0.9 km, or 0.93×0.56 mi). It’s rare to see the inside structure of dunes like this, but these are being eroded by wind blowing from the upper right. For similar examples on Earth, check out The Wave. (HiRISE ESP_037200_1765, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

A Sudden Change in Planets

Big Picture Science Latest Shows - September 08, 2014

A planet is a planet is a planet. Unless it’s Pluto – then it’s a dwarf planet. But even then it’s a planet, according to experts. So what was behind the unpopular re-classification of Pluto by astronomers, and were they justified?

As the New Horizons spacecraft closes in on this small body, one planetary scientist says that this dwarf planet could be more typical of planets than Mars, Mercury, and Saturn. And that our solar system has not 8 or even 9 planets, but 900.

Also, meet a type of planet that’s surprisingly commonplace, although we don’t have one in our solar system: super Earths. Could they harbor life?

And the DAWN mission continues its visit to the two most massive residents of the asteroid belt: Vesta and Ceres. Discover what these proto-planets may reveal to us about the early solar system.

  • Alan Stern – Planetary scientist, Southwest Research Institute, Principal Investigator of the New Horizons mission
  • Marc Rayman – DAWN Mission chief engineer and mission director
  • David Stevenson – Professor of planetary science at CalTech
  • Rebekah Dawson – Astronomer, postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley
  • David Eicher – Editor-in-chief, Astronomy Magazine

Descripción en español

Holes around rocks

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - September 03, 2014

A piece of Mars: This scene (509×382 m, or 1670×1253 ft), aside from showing some lovely rippled dunes, has many car-sized boulders in it. Some are surrounded by ditches in the sand, like little moats. Why? The sand is blown away from the ground as wind impacts the rocks. My colleague Mark Bishop has studied these in more detail (read more here) (HiRISE ESP_037201_2450, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Welcome to Our Labor-atory

Big Picture Science Latest Shows - September 01, 2014

ENCORE Hi ho, hi ho … it’s out with work we go! As you relax this holiday weekend, step into our labor-atory and imagine a world with no work allowed. Soft robots help us with tasks at home and at the office, while driverless cars allow us to catch ZZZZs in the front seat.

Plus, the Internet of Everything interconnects all your devices, from your toaster to your roaster to … you. So there’s no need to ever get off the couch. But is a machine-ruled world a true utopia?

And, the invention that got us into our 24/7 rat race: Edison’s electric light.


Descripción en español

First released August 26, 2013.

Which wind came first?

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - August 25, 2014

A piece of Mars: This scene (3.9×2.5 km or 2.4×1.6 mi) shows a surface carved by two different winds: one blowing from the right and one blowing from the bottom right. They’ve formed overlapping sets of streamlined rocks called yardangs. Can you tell which set of yardangs was formed first? It’s a little more complicated than it may first appear. (HiRISE ESP_037156_1800 NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

ZZZZZs Please

ENCORE We’ve all hit the snooze button when the alarm goes off, but why do we crave sleep in the first place? We explore the evolutionary origins of sleep … the study of narcolepsy in dogs … and could novel drugs and technologies cut down on our need for those zzzzs.

Plus, ditch your dream journal: a brain scanner may let you record – and play back – your dreams.

And, branch out with the latest development in artificial light: bioluminescent trees. How gene tinkering may make your houseplants both grow and glow.

  • Emmanuel Mignot – Professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and director of the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine, Stanford University
  • Kyle Taylor – Molecular biologist at Glowing Plant
  • Jerry Siegel – Neuroscientist and professor of psychiatry, the University of California, Los Angeles
  • Jack Gallant – Professor of psychology and neuroscience, University of California, Berkeley

Descripción en español

First released May 27, 2013.

How the wind turns

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - August 18, 2014

A piece of Mars: The two shadowed hills in the upper part of this frame (497×373 m or 1631×1224 ft across) rest on a flat plain covered in large ripples. On the plain the ripples are aligned north-south, formed perpendicular to a wind blowing from the east (right). But those hills block the wind and turn it, so that the ripples between the hills change direction. This is how windblown landforms can be used as wind vanes in remote places (like on Mars). (HiRISE ESP_037188_1835, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Moving Right Along

You think your life is fast-paced, but have you ever seen a bacterium swim across your countertop? You’d be surprised how fast they can move.

Find out why modeling the swirl of hurricanes takes a roomful of mathematicians and supercomputers, and how galaxies can move away from us faster than the speed of light.

Also, what happens when we try to stop the dance of atoms, cooling things down to the rock bottom temperature known as absolute zero.

And why your watch doesn’t keep the same time when you’re in a jet as when you’re at the airport. It’s all due to the fact that motion is relative, says Al Einstein.


Descripción en español

Wind within vs. wind without

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - August 14, 2014

A piece of Mars: Dunes outside the crater are straight but the ones inside the crater look like a spiderweb. Why? This image shows just how much the topography of a crater wall can affect the wind, which produces a much more complex set of dunes inside than out on the plains. (HiRISE ESP_037195_1625 NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

De-Extinction Show

ENCORE Maybe goodbye isn’t forever. Get ready to mingle with mammoths and gaze upon a ground sloth. Scientists want to give some animals a round-trip ticket back from oblivion. Learn how we might go from scraps of extinct DNA to creating live previously-extinct animals, and the man who claims it’s his mission to repopulate the skies with passenger pigeons.

But even if we have the tools to bring vanished animals back, should we?

Plus, the extinction of our own species: are we engineering the end of humans via our technology?

  • Beth Shapiro – Associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, University of California, Santa Cruz
  • Ben Novak – Biologist, Revive and Restore project at the Long Now Foundation, visiting biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz
  • Hank Greely – Lawyer working in bioethics, director of the Stanford Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford University
  • Melanie Challenger – Poet, writer, author of On Extinction: How We Became Estranged from Nature
  • Nick Bostrom – Director of the Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford University

Descripción en español

First released April 29, 2013.

Kardashev Type III civilizations could be rare

Cosmic Diary Marchis - August 06, 2014

These two papers by J.T. Wright’s group were posted today on astro-ph

The Ĝ Infrared Search for Extraterrestrial Civilizations with Large Energy Supplies. I. Background and Justification

J. T. Wright, B. Mullan, S. Sigurðsson, M. S. Povich


The Ĝ Infrared Search for Extraterrestrial Civilizations with Large Energy Supplies. II. Framework, Strategy, and First Result

J. T. Wright, R. Griffith, S. Sigurðsson, M. S. Povich, B. Mullan


Based on the analysis of WISE and Spitzer data, the authors concluded that “Kardashev Type III civilizations (a civilization that extracts fusion energy, information, and raw-materials from multiple solar systems) are very rare in the local universe”.

A Kardashev Type III civilization imagined. Art by Jon Lomberg.

I remind you that we had a SETI hangout on this topic with this group, including as well Jill Tarter and Freeman Dyson in September 2013.

I look forward to reading about the search for Kardashev Type II civilizations from the same set of data.

Clear Skies,

Franck M.


What on Mars?

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - August 05, 2014

A piece of Mars: What on Mars is this (the scene is 600×450 m, or 0.37×0.28 mi)? It can be hard to tell. The lines are ridges of windblown dunes or ripples, the dark gray stuff is active sand blowing between the dunes, and the underlying bedrock is pale tan. But if your eyes can’t make sense of it all, just sit back and enjoy the pretty patterns of Mars. (HiRISE ESP_037161_1785, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)


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