• Science Blog - 8 Mins, 42 Seconds to Space

    Posted by Michael Dominguez at 1/14/2014
    One morning a strange thought occurs to me shortly after waking: the socks I am about to put on are the ones I’ll wear to leave Earth. That prospect feels real yet surreal, the way a particularly vivid dream does. The feeling intensifies at breakfast, when reporters jostle each other to get a good photo, as though I’m a condemned man and this is my last meal. Similarly, a little later on, when the technicians help me into my custom-made spacesuit for pressure checks, the joviality feels forced. It’s the moment of truth. The suit needs to function perfectly—it is what will keep me alive and able to breathe if the spacecraft depressurizes in the vacuum of space—because this isn’t a run-through.
     
    I am actually leaving the planet today.
     
    Or not, I remind myself. There are still hours to go, hours when anything could go wrong and the launch could be scrubbed. That thought, combined with the fact that I’m now wearing a diaper just in case we get stuck on the launch pad for a very long time, steers my interior monologue away from the portentous and toward the practical. There’s a lot to remember. Focus.
     
    Once everyone in the crew is suited up, we all get into the elevator in crew quarters to ride down to the ground and out to our rocket ship. It’s one of those space-age moments I dreamed about as a little kid, except for the slow—really slow—elevator. Descent from the third floor takes only slightly less time than it does to boil an egg. When we finally head outside to walk toward the big silver Astro van that will take us to the launch pad, it’s that moment everyone knows: flashbulbs pop in the pre-dawn darkness, the crowd cheers, we wave and smile. In the van, we can see the rocket in the distance, lit up and shining, an obelisk. In reality, of course, it’s a 4.5-megaton bomb loaded with explosive fuel, which is why everyone else is driving away from it.
     
    At the launch pad, we ride the elevator up—this one moves at a good clip—and one by one we crawl into the vehicle on our hands and knees. Then the closeout crew helps strap me tightly into my tiny seat, and one of them hands me a note from Helene, telling me she loves me. I’m not exactly comfortable—the spacesuit is bulky and hot, the cabin is cramped, a distinctly un-cushion-like parachute and survival kit is wedged awkwardly behind my back—and I’m going to be stuck in this position for a few hours, minimum. But I can’t imagine any place else I’d rather be.
     
    After the ground crew checks the cockpit one last time, says goodbye and closes the hatch, it’s time for pressure checks of the cabin. Banter ebbs: everyone is hyper-focused. This is all about increasing our chances of staying alive. Yet there’s still a whiff of make-believe to the exercise because any number of things could still happen—a fault in the wiring, a problem with a fuel tank—to downgrade this to just another elaborate dress rehearsal.
     
    But as every second passes, the odds improve that we’re going to space today. As we work through huge checklists—reviewing and clearing all caution and warning alarms, making sure the multiple frequencies used to communicate with Launch Control and Mission Control are all functional—the vehicle rumbles to life: systems power up, the engine bells chime for launch. When the auxiliary power units fire up, the rocket’s vibration becomes more insistent. In my earpiece, I hear the final checks from the key console positions, and my crewmates’ breathing, then a heartfelt farewell from the Launch Director. I go through my checklist a quick hundred times or so to make sure I remember all the critical things that are about to happen, what my role will be and what I’ll do if things start going wrong.
     
    And now there are just 30 seconds left and the rocket stirs like a living thing with a will of its own and I permit myself to move past hoping to knowing: we are going to lift off. Even if we have to abort the mission after a few minutes in the air, leaving this launch pad is a sure thing.
     
    Six seconds to go. The engines start to light, and we sway forward as this huge new force bends the vehicle, which lurches sideways then twangs back to vertical. And at that moment there’s an enormous, violent vibration and rattle. It feels as though we’re being shaken in a huge dog’s jaws, then seized by its giant, unseen master and hurled straight up into the sky, away from Earth. It feels like magic, like winning, like a dream.
     
    It also feels as though a huge truck going at top speed just smashed into the side of us. Perfectly normal, apparently, and we’d been warned to expect it. So I just keep “hawking it,” flipping through my tables and checklists and staring at the buttons and lights over my head, scanning the computers for signs of trouble, trying not to blink. The launch tower is long gone and we’re roaring upward, pinned down increasingly emphatically in our seats as the vehicle burns fuel, gets lighter and, 45 seconds later, pushes past the speed of sound. Thirty seconds after that, we’re flying higher and faster than the Concorde ever did: Mach 2 and still revving up. It’s like being in a dragster, just flooring it. Two minutes after liftoff we’re hurtling along at six times the speed of sound when the solid rocket boosters explode off the vehicle and we surge forward again. I’m still completely focused on my checklist, but out of the corner of my eye, I register that the color of the sky has gone from light blue to dark blue to black.
     
    And then, suddenly, calm: we reach Mach 25, orbital speed, the engines wind down, and I notice little motes of dust floating lazily upward. Upward. Experimentally, I let go of my checklist for a few seconds and watch it hover, then drift off serenely, instead of thumping to the ground. I feel like a little kid, like a sorcerer, like the luckiest person alive. I am in space, weightless, and getting here only took 8 minutes and 42 seconds.
     
    Give or take a few thousand days of training.
     
    by Col. Chris Hadfield 
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  • Science Blog - Are We Alone in the Universe?

    Posted by Michael Dominguez at 1/11/2014 5:40:00 PM
    According to one account, a small group of physicists at the University of Chicago were having lunch one day in 1950 with physicist Enrico Fermi, joking about the many newspaper articles reporting visits from UFOs. In one story a group of neighborhood kids had apparently stolen garbage can lids and tossed them like Frisbees in front of people’s windows. Neighbors thought the whizzing disks were otherworldly visitors.
     
    Fermi, known to colleagues as “The Pope” because he seemed infallible, sat quietly for a few seconds while the laughter subsided and then asked, “Where is everybody?” He meant extraterrestrials.
     
    Given the vastness of the cosmos, it seems incredible that Earthlings could be the first technological society. Assuming that intelligent life on other planets is common, Fermi supposed that the time any ambitious society would need to colonize the galaxy was a mere tens of millions of years—a small fraction of the much older Milky Way’s age. So, colonization should have happened by now. But we don’t see any evidence, such as feats of astroengineering, for example. “This struck Fermi as an interesting conundrum,” writes Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, in an email. The quandary became known as Fermi’s Paradox.
     
    In 1961, astronomer Frank Drake, who conducted the first observational experiment for extraterrestrial life, worked out an equation to estimate the likely number of technological civilizations in the Milky Way. He based his thought experiment on factors such as the number of stars with planetary systems, as well as pure conjecture, and has concluded that there could be 10,000 detectable civilizations currently sharing our galaxy.
     
    Yet, “There is no reason to restrict [the potential for extraterrestrial life] to one galaxy, says Chris Impey, a distinguished professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona. “If [extraterrestrials] were long-lived and advanced enough, they could travel between galaxies.”
     
    Because of instruments like the Hubble telescope and the Kepler spacecraft, we now know more than ever about the universe’s age and the types of planets out there. It's possible that the number of planets in the visible universe that could support Earth-like life is on the order of 100 billion billion. In fact, just last month, the Kepler mission discovered three more planets living in the “habitable zone” of their star—that is, the range of distance where an orbiting planet’s surface temperature might be suitable for liquid water. A person would have to be pretty pessimistic to be unable to imagine that on some fraction of such planets “interesting” life evolved, says Impey, such as civilizations capable of interstellar flight. 
     
    But the decades-old SETI experiment, which listens for unnatural radio signals from outer space—the kinds of transmissions an alien civilization may have sent—has heard nothing.
     
    Ther are lots of possibilities to explain the silence.
     
    Some of the quiet could have to do with time, says Impey. We’ve been listening to space for only 50 years and sending out radio and television signals for fewer than 100—a blink of an eye compared with the billions of years that the universe has been around. Civilizations may have come and gone thousands of years ago, without us knowing they ever existed.
     
    And maybe technologically advanced alien civilizations haven’t communicated with us because they don’t find Earthlings very interesting, Impey suggests. “If we went to an Earth-like planet around another sun and saw some algae, we’d say ‘Well, there is algae,’ and move on,” he says. “Maybe [aliens] looked at the Earth and said the same thing: ‘Not very interesting, let’s move on.’” On the other hand, writes Shostak, maybe E.T. just doesn’t know about Earthlings. “The nearest aliens might be a few hundred or a thousand light-years distant,” he writes. “They haven't heard Ira Flatow or Lucille Ball yet.” 
     
    It’s also possible that our type of technological civilization is actually extremely rare, according to Impey. Perhaps the universe is good at making microbes, pond scum and bugs, he says, but maybe not very good at producing intelligent creations capable of communicating with us.
     
    For his part, Impey contends that there is life out there, but when we find it, it will be microbial, and indirectly detected on an Earth-like exoplanet. As for intelligent life, he guesses that it’s either very rare or unrecognizable. SETI’s Shostak, meanwhile, is also optimistic that we’ll make contact: “I'll bet anyone a cup of Starbucks that we'll find it in the next two decades.”
     
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