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Last summer, the Juno spacecraft flew within about 2,600 miles of Jupiter—the closest any human-made object had ever come to the largest planet in our solar system.
Scientists are still analyzing all the juicy data Juno collected during that first flyby, as well as later orbits, but the first results have just been published. Two new studies in Science and 44 papers in Geophysical Research Letters document a number of odd and amazing findings. Here are the highlights of what we’ve learned so far about Jupiter.Its north pole is a chaotic mess of storms…
Juno gets 10 times closer to Jupiter’s north pole than any other spacecraft in history. Images from its first close pass show the tumultuous region is dotted with oval-shaped cyclones, which span as much as 870 miles across. That’s wider than the distance between Chicago and New York.…And it’s very different from Saturn’s north pole.
Saturn’s north pole is encircled by an enormous hexagon-shaped storm, with a high-speed vortex spinning at its center. Jupiter’s north pole is not nearly so organized, showing that the atmospheres of these two gas giants are fundamentally different.Jupiter may not have a distinct core.
“We used to think there was like a little ball of heavy elements, small and quite distinct at its center,” says NASA astrophysicist Jack Connerney. “Now we’re thinking that mass may be much more spread out.” High heat and pressure at Jupiter’s center may be dissolving the planet’s original rock-ice core in a layer of liquid metallic hydrogen, eroding it until it’s no longer sharply differentiated from the rest of the gas giant.Its atmosphere circulates like Earth’s…
Peering into the thermal structure of Jupiter’s atmosphere, Juno found signs that ammonia wells up from the deep atmosphere, feeding clouds that form giant weather systems around its equator. These “striking and unexpected” features resemble Earth’s Hadley cells, wherein winds blowing toward the equator rise, produce thunderstorms, and then flow back toward the poles. But Jupiter’s cells are much bigger, and instead of water, they rain out ammonia crystals that quickly evaporate.…But its auroras are not like ours.
Juno found that the electrons in Jupiter’s auroras mostly stream upwards, away from the poles and toward space. If Jupiter’s auroras were like Earth’s, Juno would have seen more electrons flowing down as well. “We’ve had the electrons going in the wrong direction this whole time,” says Connerney. “And that’s kind of the theme, here—we’re finding out that a lot of our simple interpretations about Jupiter don’t really hold.”Its magnetic field is twice as strong as we expected…
Juno found that, close up, Jupiter’s magnetic field is roughly 10 times stronger than Earth’s.…And its dynamo might be showing.
For hundreds of years, scientists have wondered how planets and stars generate magnetic fields. On Earth, we can’t see the dynamo that’s generating our magnetic field because it’s buried deep in a rocky, iron-laden crust. But that’s not a problem with a gas giant. Jupiter’s magnetic field is turning out to be a lot more complicated than expected, with lots of small-scale structures embedded. According to Connerney, these variations may mean Juno is getting close to the dynamo, and that Jupiter’s dynamo is very close to the surface. By piecing together data from one orbit at a time, Juno may provide the first clear map of what a dynamo looks like.What’s most exciting?
Connerney thinks the magnetic field findings are the most exciting so far. “After 500 years of wondering,” he says, “we might actually see what a dynamo looks like by the end of the mission.” But he admits that as a magnetic field scientist, he’s biased. The other teams of researchers are equally excited about their own findings, he says. “It’s like six blind guys telling you what an elephant looks like. It just depends on which part you’re grabbing at that point.”
Juno still has another year or two before it retires, with no doubt its biggest discoveries yet to come. By the end of it, we should have a much more complete picture of the elephant in the solar system.
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Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that a team of researchers in China were treating terminally ill cancer patients with the gene-editing technique known colloquially as CRISPR. According to the Journal‘s report, the Chinese researchers are attempting to halt disease progression in patients with esophageal cancer by tweaking a piece of DNA in some of their white blood cells. This adjustment changes the way their immune system fights the cancer.
But how did China edge out the United States to become the first to use CRISPR in humans? American researchers were, after all, the ones who discovered the techniques’ ability to tweak and alter DNA. But as the Wall Street Journal points out, America is right up on China’s heels. Carl June, a pioneer in immunotherapy cancer treatment at the University of Pennsylvania is awaiting clearance to begin similar trials of his own—using the techniques of CRISPR on immunotherapy (harnessing the immune system to fight cancer)-based treatments for certain malignancies. He might get clearance from the FDA as early as next month.
According to Nature, the American trials will be similar to the newly-approved immunotherapy treatment called Kymriah. The treatment involves removing a person’s blood and isolating their T-cells. Using another form of gene-editing, a disabled HIV virus attaches a receptor to the T-cells (a type of white blood cell). The re-engineered T-cells then grow and proliferate in the lab. When ready, doctors infuse the newly engineered T-cells back into the cancer patient’s body where they go to work finding cancer cells and killing them. While this treatment can be highly effective (often in people who have exhausted every other medical option available), the process itself is extremely time consuming, and it often doesn’t work for everyone. The goal of this new immunotherapy trial involving CRISPR is two-fold: To see if using CRISPR-based therapies is indeed safe for humans and if CRISPR would help make therapies like Kymriah more efficient and effective.
If approved, the new phase one human trial would use CRISPR to tweak the DNA in a person’s T-cells in three ways: The first would do the same as the HIV virus in the Kymriah approach, attaching a receptor that finds cancer. The second would remove a protein that has the potential to mess with the receptor. A third tweak would prevent a cancer cell from finding the T-cell by removing a protein that acts as a tracking device, so to speak, for the malignant cell. If successful, these changes could make immunotherapy far more effective. And, because CRISPR is relatively easy to use in a laboratory setting, it could make treatments that use the process far more efficient, potentially increasing availability and decreasing the time (and money) spent to make the drug.
But China is already so far along, and in some instances, their efforts are showing positive results. If American researchers led the CRISPR discovery and early race, what handicap is allowing China to gain the lead? It’s a little something called the FDA. And it’s worth the lost race. To gain approval for their trial, Chinese researchers had to present their plan to the hospital’s ethics committee. According to the Wall Street Journal, this committee is made up of a handful of the hospital’s doctors, a lawyer, and a former cancer patient. The group discussed the issues for a few hours before they greenlit the human trial.
The FDA’s caution is high for anything that uses gene editing or CRISPR. But other drugs go through an extremely rigorous process, as well. This is all for good reason: Before the FDA existed, manufacturers could market and sell any drug without needing to say what’s in it and without needing to show that it could actually treat the thing that you were buying it to treat. While it’s hard to sit with the idea of potentially losing a medical breakthrough race, it’s important to remember how and why the United States created the FDA in the first place.
Today, we take prescription drugs knowing exactly what the side effects could be and what the general probability of them occurring is. But imagine taking a new drug without knowing these vital pieces of information. Would you still swallow it? We don’t often think about the arduous and long process drugs now go through before they reach our bodies. But these processes are there for an extremely good reason. Consider the fecal transplant. The treatment, which involves collecting stool from a volunteer and administering it to a person with a severe gut infection caused by a bacteria called clostridium difficile, shows immense success, but it is not yet approved by the FDA.
Part of the reason is that the treatment is, like CRISPR studies, entering uncharted territory. There’s so much scientists still don’t understand about the human gut microbiome (the collection of bacteria that live in our intestines) and its effects on our health. Transplanting one person’s gut microbiome into another person’s could indeed cure them of their infection, but it could also cause unwanted consequences. The microbiome has an effect on both our digestion and our immune systems. Theoretically, the recipient of a fecal transplant could be at a higher risk of developing immune system disorders because of the gut microbes they now have. At the same time, just like those cancer patients in the CRISPR immunotherapy trials, C. diff patients are often in a life-threatening situation and the fecal transplant is a last ditch effort to clear up the infection. Researchers admit that it’s hard to know for sure how safe you have to be when these people who could potentially benefit from this treatment are in a life-threatening situation. In the immunotherapy studies, most patients have exhausted all other available treatments.
For a drug to reach your medicine cabinet, it needs to have gone through three phases of clinical trials. Phase one is simply to show that a drug or therapy isn’t toxic. If a drug makes it past that point, it moves on to phase two which it must again maintain that it is non toxic, but also prove that its effective, doing to the job that it’s meant to do. In phase three, researchers must test the drug against the currently available treatment for the condition (if there is one) the new drug is attempting to treat. If a drug doesn’t work any better than one currently on the market and there’s no other redeeming qualities like it being cheaper, or its side effects are less intense, then its much harder for drug companies to gain FDA approval to start selling the drug.
Each step of this process is long and arduous but the hurdles are there for two main and super important reasons: To determine what the drug’s toxicity (in other words, what are its chances of killing you or causing other forms of short and long term damage to your body?) and, does it actually do what it says its supposed to do? If a drug is supposed to reduce the symptoms of heartburn, does it actually do that? This all seems obvious that this kind of testing should exist. But the only reason it does, is because there was a time when it didn’t.
Back in 1906, the United States Congress passed the original Food and Drug Act (the precursor to today’s Food and Drug Administration). At that point, the law’s main purpose was to prevent the buying and selling of food, drinks, and drugs from having any form of mislabeling or tainting. Simply, the product had to contain what it said it contained on the label.
The current regulations governing the FDA’s testing process are a product of our own mistakes. In 1937, as soon as a drug called Elixir Sulfanilamide reached the market, it quickly caused the deaths of 107 people, many of whom were children. The active ingredient in the drug, sulfanilamide, was used at the time as a type of antibiotic used to treat anything from gonorrhea to strep throat. The drug originally came in the form of a pill. But one pharmaceutical company, the S.E. Massengill Company, decided that the therapy would be even more popular if it came in the form of a flavored liquid. So they had a chemist mix sulfanilamide, with diethylene glycol, and water—plus a little bit of raspberry flavoring. Once ready, they labeled it accordingly, and distributed gallons of it across the country—and pharmacies readily purchased it.
Diethylene glycol is highly miscible, that is, it’s great at mixing together any particle into a well-formed liquid. As such, the new formulation was deemed a great success. Until people started actually taking it. Turns out that in addition to its high miscibility, diethylene glycol is also extremely poisonous to humans, and causes immediate acute kidney failure. Death reports soon started coming in of people who had taken the liquid medicine. It was swiftly taken off the market. The thing is, the drug went immediately from the laboratory to the medicine cabinet. No testing beforehand whatsoever. So, the following year, in 1938, the United States passed the The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which required that new drugs had to show that they were safe before they started selling them—essentially what phase one in the clinical trial approval process is today. This began an entirely new wave of regulations, each year bringing us one step closer to the highly arduous process we have today. Regrettably, sulfanilamide wasn’t the only infamous incident that tweaked this regulatory process. Other tragedies over the past century have shaped it as well.
In the now infamous case of thalidomide of the 1960s, the drug (thalidomide) was a sleeping pill that quickly became widely popular in Germany. Soon after Australian doctors discovered that it could also alleviate the nausea caused by morning sickness in pregnancy. So doctors started to prescribe the drug, off-label (a practice still very much in use today) to pregnant women. But while there had been some testing done beforehand to determine the drug was safe for humans to take, no one had done any studying of the drugs effects on a developing fetus. As the world soon found, it can cause severe birth defects; specifically causing the shortening or complete absence of limbs. This, in part, led the U.S. to create much more stringent laws around drug dispensing, requiring drug makers to prove their drug works before it can gain FDA approval.
We have birth control to thank for laws mandating that drugs come with patient packet inserts listing every side effect available and the chances of each one occurring. Initially birth control was almost taken off the market due to its dangerous side effects. But rightfully, women pressed that they wanted to be given a choice first, whether they would agree to taking a drug with the risk of whatever side effects. Today, that’s typically how drugs are presented by physicians to their patients—weighing the benefits versus the risks, which are clearly and accurately made available, and allowing the patient to choose.
Learning from our past, it is wise that we remain cautious and go through the regulatory procedures that have been a century in the making.
In the dark waters of the benthic zone, the deepest layer of the ocean mostly populated by invertebres like sea urchins, worms, and crabs, mysterious whales hold their breath. Beaked whales as a group of species have long been elusive to humans, but new research is shedding light on the habits of these creatures, with the discovery of two new subpopulations in the Atlantic.
“I can remember when I ran the analysis, I almost started crying,” says Kerri Smith, a research fellow at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History who studies beaked whales. “I was so excited, because it was totally new. For like an hour, I knew something that nobody ever in the entire world knew.”
Smith’s recent research looked at the remains of Sowerby’s beaked whales that were stored in museums and research centers or stranded or bycatch from fisheries. By analyzing certain chemicals within the whales’ skin, muscle, and bone tissue, researchers were able to figure out that there are two subpopulations of Sowerby’s beaked whales in the east and west Atlantic. The results were published in the journal Frontiers in Conservation Science and will likely provide the foundation for a more detailed understanding of these species, as well as shape future conservation efforts.
Very little is known about the lives of beaked whales despite the fact that they make up more than 25 percent of extant cetaceans (the group that includes dolphins, porpoises, and whales). Unlike other animals that swim near the shore or the surface of the sea, beaked whales prefer deep, offshore waters, making them difficult to find and track. Their dark grey or black coloring and small dorsal fin make them even harder to distinguish from the ocean around them.
There are currently 23 recognized species of beaked whales, although some have never been seen alive and are only known from stranded carcasses. But this number could easily grow or even shrink. If, say, one individual thought to just be a weird-looking version of a known species turns out to be an entirely different species through DNA analysis, as happened recently in Japan.
Beaked whales generally spend much of their time in the deep depths of the open ocean—and we’re not really sure what they’re doing down there. We do know their bodies have evolved to spend long periods of time at these depths. The Cuvier’s beaked whale holds the mammalian records for both the deepest dive (almost two miles beneath the surface) and longest length of time holding breath (137.5 minutes).
“They’re such large animals compared to us and we still know so little about them,” says Chris Stinson, a curatorial assistant at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum in Vancouver where he presides over the skulls and skeletons of several beaked whale species. “They’re out in the open ocean, living in a totally different world where they come up to the surface for a breath, and then spend 80 percent of their time underwater, hunting for things, using senses that we can’t even comprehend.”
Some beaked whales feast primarily on fish from the water column, while others are thought to be specialists of the squid in the deep seas, and still more love the benthic depths where they nibble on fish off the seafloor. While cetaceans as a whole are known for being social animals that live in groups, little is known about the day-to-day habits of the beaked whales.
“Because they’re so challenging to study when they’re actually alive, almost everything we know about beaked whales comes from dead bodies,” says Smith. “It’s really hard to infer what they were doing when they were alive in terms of their social bonds or play or things like that from dead bodies.”
But there’s a lot of information that can be gained from dead bodies, as Smith’s recent research showed.
The team looked at carbon and nitrogen in the whales’ bodies, which revealed information about where the cetaceans lived and their position in the food chain. The type of analysis they used, called stable isotope analysis, has the benefits of being fast and relatively inexpensive. This makes it an ideal application for the elusive beaked whales, as tracking and locating them can be so difficult and costly.
By studying other elements in the future, like oxygen, hydrogen, and sulfur, the technique could give more insight into the secretive whales’ habits and environment. Smith hopes to conduct genetic analysis in the future to further understand the two subpopulations of Sowerby’s beaked whales.
Right now there are no conservation or management plans for beaked whales because we know so little about them. They are considered “data deficient” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, meaning there is not enough information available to evaluate extinction risk based on distribution and/or population status.
But research like Smith’s can teach us more about these elusive species’ homes and patterns of movement, which could shape future conservation strategies.
“We literally cannot conserve what we do not know,” Smith says. “We don’t know where these animals are, we don’t really know what habitats they are using— [there’s] sort of that catch-all deep offshore shelf waters but what does that mean? Where are they? What shelfs are they using? Are there ones that need more protection than others? Until we have some answers to those questions, we can’t enact really concrete, meaningful, actionable plans.”
Jupiter’s huge magnetic field, whose layers are marked by blue lines in the illustration above, give it one of the harshest radiation environments in the solar system. NASA
Mighty Jupiter is incomprehensibly large. More massive than all the other planets and asteroids in the solar system combined, Jupiter is the size of 1,300 Earths. As if such a big guy needed any additional protection, Jupiter is also swathed in radiation that’s many thousands of times harsher than around Earth.
“Jupiter is by far the most severe radiation environment of any body in the solar system, other than the Sun,” says Kevin Rudolph, an engineer at Lockheed Martin who helped design and build the Juno spacecraft.
The Juno spacecraft will arrive at Jupiter on July 4 and orbit it for two years. How will Juno survive such blistering radiation? “We’re basically an armored tank,” says Juno principle investigator Scott Bolton. “This mission is a first for NASA in many ways. It’s probably one of the biggest challenges they’ve attempted, to get this close to Jupiter.”Where Does The Radiation Come From?
Jupiter’s large metal core gives it a magnetic field 20,000 times larger than Earth’s. And just like Earth’s magnetic field, the Jovian magnetosphere traps the electrically charged particles that stream out from the sun.
The particles in the magnetosphere build up over time, and many become more dangerous. As the planet spins, the Jovian magnetic field whips around, too, accelerating all those charged protons and electrons that got caught in the magnetic net. They also take on more energy as they crash into other.
“You end up with essentially BBs,” says Rudolph. But they’re sub-atomic, so they can pass through a spacecraft’s solid hull and spell trouble for a spacecraft’s electronics.
“Those BB-like particles will fly into an electronic circuit and knock the atoms off the chip, or knock the electrons in the circuitry out of position. If they knock enough out, it can destroy the circuit.”An Armored Tank 1. Avoid the radiation
The first step to making sure Juno’s circuitry doesn’t get taken apart by radiation is to limit its exposure.
Jupiter’s worst radiation is concentrated around its equatorial regions, so Juno’s elliptical orbit will make sure it flies through those areas as little as possible.
Juno’s elliptical orbit will help it avoid Jupiter’s most intense radiation. NASA
“The orbits that we have go far away from Jupiter over most of the orbit,” says Rudolph, “and when they come in close, they dive quickly through the intense part, then fly below the radiation and go back out quickly.”
“We thread a needle,” says Bolton. “By going over the poles we’re able to drop down in a small gap between the atmosphere and these intense radiation belts.”2. Radiation hardening
Lockheed Martin based Juno’s design on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. But radiation levels around Mars are much lower than at Jupiter, so the Juno team had to make some adaptations.
The engineers wrapped many of the components of Juno’s avionics systems in a thin layer of lead shielding, which is dense enough that the particles have trouble penetrating.
They also made some of the electronic parts larger, to lessen the impact of each radiation hit. For example, Rudolph says, if a transistor only has five atoms in it and radiation knocks away one of those atoms, then it would have lost 20 percent of its functionality. But if the transistor has 500 atoms in it, than a radiation hit only knocks out 0.2 percent of it.
“If it’s bigger, it’s more robust against radiation,” says Rudolph.
Juno’s radiation vault–the white box beneath the high-gain antenna–protects most of the spacecraft’s electronics from radiation. Lockheed Martin
This kind of radiation hardening makes the spacecraft able to survive a radiation dose of 50,000 rems. But that’s still a far cry from the 20 million rems that Juno will be exposed to over its lifetime. To make it even hardier, they needed to build a special box.3. A radiation-proof vault
Most of Juno’s electronics are secreted away inside a cube that measures about 3 feet on each side. The “vault” is made built from half-inch-thick titanium that will stop or slow down those fast-moving charged particles before they can smash into Juno’s delicate parts.
Of course, Juno’s solar panels and cameras won’t do much good if they’re locked inside a dark box. Those and other sensors are left outside the vault, with cables connecting them to the circuitry inside the vault.
Those external parts have added protections. For example, the camera that looks at the stars to help the spacecraft orient itself is wrapped in an inch-thick canister, with just one end open.
The solar panel arrays have a 12-millimeter-thick sheet of glass over the top. The glass lets in light so the solar panels can do their jobs, but it also provides a small amount of protection against radiation and damaging dust particles.4. Overcompensating
To see how radiation would affect Juno’s solar panels, engineers put the cells in what Rudolph describes as a “hot dog”-shaped chamber that fires electrons at the cells.
Those experiments showed that the solar cells would lose 10 to 15 percent of their output over the life of the mission. So to compensate, the team just made the panels 10 to 15 percent bigger. That way, Juno will still have enough power to take photos and measurements even when its near the end of its mission.
Each of Juno’s three solar panels is 30 feet long. Engineers made them larger to compensate for the damage they’ll receive from Jupiter’s harsh radiation. Lockheed Martin
Overall, Juno is designed to take twice as much radiation than scientists expect it to have to deal with. Its total radiation tolerance of 40 million rems gives a little room for error, in case the radiation levels are higher than expected, and should also leave open the possibility for a mission extension beyond November 2023.Paving The Way To Europa
Juno’s radiation-protected sensors show us Jupiter in greater detail than ever before. The mission could help to uncover how Jupiter formed, in turn shedding light on how the solar system, and maybe even life itself, came to be.
NASA is also seriously considering a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, which scientists consider to be one of the most likely spots to find alien life in our solar system. Because Europa orbits in Jupiter’s severe radiation belt, Juno’s design could help shape the spacecraft that eventually go there.
“Europa’s radiation dose is much worse than the dose that we’re getting from Jupiter,” says Rudolph. “They’re going to have to come up with some nifty stuff, and I’m sure NASA will take lessons from this mission.”
Mining lunar water could pave the way to human colonies on the moon and Mars . But is the Space Act of 2024 up to the task?.
“You are here to help humanity become a spacefaring species.”
So said the opening line of a brochure for a workshop that took place in August 2014. It was a meeting of some of the greatest scientists and professionals in the space business and beyond, including gene editing maverick George Church and Peter Diamandis from the XPrize Foundation. The workshop’s goal: to explore and develop low-cost options for building a human settlement on the moon.
“You are here to make this moonshot a reality,” said the brochure.
One giant expense for mankind
The history-making Apollo missions would have cost $150 billion by today’s standards. With new ways of thinking, it might be possible to set up a lunar station for $10 billion.
NASA astrobiologist Chris McKay helped organize the meeting, and then he edited a special issue in the journal New Space to publish the papers that came out of the workshop. Those papers just came online this morning, and Popular Science had exclusive pre-publication access. Together, the 9 papers help to build momentum for an idea that’s growing throughout the planetary science and commercial space communities. The details differ between papers, they all say roughly the same thing: that we can set up a permanent, inhabited base on the moon, soon, and without breaking the bank.
Of course, this isn’t the first time scientists have talked about returning to the moon.
“The reason all the previous plans for going back to the moon have failed is that they’re just way too expensive,” says McKay. “The space program is living in a delusion of unlimited budgets, which traces back to Apollo.”
The Apollo program that put the first men on the moon would have cost $150 billion by today’s standards. For reference, NASA’s entire budget for the year of 2024 is $19.3 billion.“The space program is living in a delusion of unlimited budgets, which traces back to Apollo.”
The New Space papers, by contrast, conclude that we could set up a small lunar base for $10 billion or less, and we could do it by 2023.
“The big takeaway,” says McKay, “is that new technologies, some of which have nothing to do with space–like self-driving cars and waste-recycling toilets–are going to be incredibly useful in space, and are driving down the cost of a moon base to the point where it might be easy to do.”Why go back to the moon?
Currently, NASA has no plans to send humans back to the moon–instead it’s focusing on getting to Mars in the 2030s. But McKay and others think we can’t possibly go hiking on Mars if we don’t first learn to camp in our own backyard.
“My interest is not the moon. To me the moon is as dull as a ball of concrete,” says the astrobiologist. “But we’re not going to have a research base on Mars until we can learn how to do it on the Moon first. The moon provides a blueprint to Mars.”
A lunar base would provide a valuable opportunity to test out new propulsion systems, habitats, communications, and life support systems before astronauts bring them to Mars–a 9-month trip away, versus just a few days to the moon.
The trouble is, NASA tends to think it can only afford to go to either the moon, or Mars. If McKay and his colleagues are right, we can afford to do both–it just takes a new way of thinking about it.“The moon provides a blueprint to Mars.”
There are other reasons to go back. We’ve explored only a tiny portion of the lunar surface, and a permanent base would certainly fuel some interesting science.
Mine on the moon
Extracting water from the moon and breaking it apart into hydrogen and oxygen–i.e. rocket fuel–could turn a moon base into a profitable investment.
Plus, everyone else is doing it. China, Russia, and the European Space Agency have all expressed interest in setting up a base on the moon. Instead of getting left behind, cooperating with other nations on building a lunar station would lower NASA’s costs, much like in building the International Space Station.
Private space companies are also ready and raring to go back to the moon. Many hope to extract water from the moon and split it into hydrogen and oxygen–i.e. rocket fuel–that can be used to top off the gas tanks of spacecraft headed for Mars. Lunar tourism could also become a hot market.
“And if private industry goes, NASA’s going to go just to establish the rule of law,” says McKay. “The fastest way to get NASA to the moon is to get other people to go.”How do we do it?
The exact strategy for building a lunar base differs depending on who you ask.
After the habitat modules arrive, robotic “Lunar Surface Mules” could help set them up so they’ll be ready when the humans arrive.
Home sweet home?
Another artist concept of a moon base.
Human occupation of the moon would likely begin slowly, with a few short stays by a small crew. The missions would get longer and larger over time, until you have a permanently occupied station, much like the International Space Station. Eventually the station could evolve into a complex, multi-use settlement with hundreds of people, and their children, living there permanently.
Some teams imagine the lunar station as a scientific base, while others picture it evolving into something more commercial.
“Some of the possible export options include: water from the permanently shadowed craters, precious metals from asteroid impact sites, and even [helium-3] that could fuel a pollution-free terrestrial civilization for many centuries,” writes one team. “As transportation to and from the Moon becomes more frequent and cheaper, the lunar tourism mark should begin to emerge and could become a significant source of income in the future.”What technologies do we need to survive?
At a basic level, we already know how to survive on the Moon, because humans have been living on the International Space Station for years.
“PLSS technologies have been proved in space for the past 14 years on the International Space Station,” writes one group, referring to the life support system that recycles the water on the space station and balances out the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. “[W]e have access to sufficient life support technologies to support implementation of the first human settlement on the Moon today.”
With those essentials taken care of, the team estimates that at today’s launch prices, SpaceX could deliver the rest of the food and essential supplies for a crew of 10 for $350 million or less per year.“Self-driving cars and waste-recycling toilets are driving down the cost of a moon base to the point where it might be easy to do.”
Other technologies could be adapted to lower the costs of a moon base. Virtual reality, for example, could aid in the planning efforts.
3D printing could replace small components that break on the lunar station, shaving down launch costs.
The era of NASA’s spinoff technologies may be coming to an end. Instead of developing highly specialized (and expensive) technologies for spaceflight that later turn out to be everyday products, everyday products could be adapted for spaceflight, says McKay. “One of my favorites is the Gates Foundation’s Reinvent the Toilet Challenge.” The program encourages new ways to clean human waste and recycle it into energy, clean water, and nutrients that could be used in farming.
“NASA could spend billions developing a space-rated toilet,” says McKay, “or we could just buy the blue toilet developed by the Gates Foundation.”Next generation technologies
Many of the proposals for an affordable moon base rely on technologies that don’t quite exist yet. But neither are they far from reality.
Bigelow Aerospace’s BA-330 inflatable habitat could one day provide lodgings on the moon. In 2024, a smaller version of the habitat will be tested on the International Space Station.
Bigelow Aerospace’s inflatable habitat is a top contender for future moon lodgings. These flexible living modules could be folded up to fit in a rocket’s cargo bay, then expand like a pop-up tent on the lunar surface. The company plans to launch a test version of the habitat to the International Space Station this year. However, the larger, pill-shaped “BA-330” modules won’t launch until 2023. And since Bigelow is mainly focused on using these habitats to set up commercial space stations in Earth orbit, the design might have to be adapted to operate on the moon, where radiation levels are considerably higher.Where should we live on the moon?
There are four fundamental things to consider when choosing real estate on the moon, according to one paper: power availability; communications; proximity to resources; and surface mobility.
The sun will likely be the primary source of power for future lunar stations. Trouble is, most places on the moon have “nights” that are 354 hours (about 15 days) long. That’s a long time to rely on battery power. By comparison, the poles receive much more sunlight, with nights lasting closer to 100 hours (4 days). So the first lunar station will probably have to be at one of the poles.
Communications would be easier from the moon’s near-side, which constantly faces Earth, compared to the poles, but a relay station on the moon or in orbit should provide a reliable connection.
And it’s lucky the poles receive so much sunlight, because they’re also expected to contain large amounts of frozen water in their deep, dark craters. That water could be extracted to provide water and oxygen to the lunar station, or to turn into rocket fuel for a profit.“The cost is getting so low, maybe we don’t even need to think of NASA doing it.”
And although the lunar north and the south poles receive similar amounts of light, the north pole came out ahead of the south in this survey because it has a smoother terrain that’s easier to travel across.
In particular, the paper singles out the rim of Peary crater as being the top spot to develop a low-cost lunar station. Radar and remote sensing indicate it may contain water or other hydrogen-bearing molecules, and it has a relatively smooth floor, making it easier for robots to roll through its icy depths to extract resources.
Some upcoming missions–including NASA’s Lunar Flashlight and IceCube aim to map the distribution of water on the moon, which could help to further refine the lunar real estate options.How much would it cost?
Overall the consensus in these papers is that NASA could build a lunar base for $10 billion, with upkeep costs of about $2 billion or less per year, which is about as much as NASA puts toward the International Space Station every year. These are estimates that, with a little rearranging, could fit inside NASA’s current budget.
And NASA wouldn’t have to foot the bill alone.
“The cost is getting so low, maybe we don’t even need to think of NASA doing it,” says McKay. “It could be a private company.”
A study from last year estimated that if water exists in large deposits on the moon, a base could pay for itself, generating $40 billion in rocket propellant per year.
What’s more, such a base could potentially be up and running within the next decade.
Actually making it happen will certainly take longer than that, requiring political changes and technological developments. But McKay thinks the psychological barrier is the most significant.
“The biggest obstacle is getting everybody together, and getting a vision of a low-cost base as the starting point. If people think it’s going to kill the budget, that just stops the conversation and brainstorming. If we can change the mindset, that starts the conversation and gets people thinking about how to make it a reality.”
On Monday, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden gave an exciting update on the state of America’s space agency, detailing the Obama Administration’s proposal to give NASA $18.5 billion for the 2024 fiscal year. Embedded in that budget is a small—yet significant—detail: About $30 million will be allocated to fund a robotic mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa.
For the scientific community, that’s huge news, as Europa is probably the top candidate for finding potential life elsewhere in our solar system. Scientists theorize (well, they’re pretty damn sure) that underneath Europa’s icy surface, there lies a vast salty ocean, holding more than twice the amount of water as all the oceans of Earth. And if that ocean does exist, its conditions may be just right for it to be home to an entire ecosystem.“From an astrobiology perspective, Europa really brings together the keystones for habitability.”
“From an astrobiology perspective, Europa really brings together the three keystones for habitability,” Kevin Hand, the deputy chief scientist of solar system exploration at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, tells Popular Science. “And that is of liquid water, access to the elements needed to build life, and potentially the energy needed to power life.”
NASA has been contemplating a trip to Europa for a couple of years, and Congress recently gave the project $100 million for 2024. While the White House proposal only allots $30 million, the fact that it’s coming from the president is important. NASA is an executive branch agency, in need of White House support, and the administration’s new budget “supports the formulation and development of a Europa Mission.” That means NASA engineers can finally put their planning into action.
“They want us to move into the next phase of the mission,” says Robert Pappalardo, the Europa Clipper pre-project scientist at JPL. “So we’re moving to Phase A, where you become a real mission, not just a concept.”What’s So Special About Europa?
Jupiter’s moon could hide life.
Europa is a bit of an anomaly within our solar system. The moon’s outer layer consists of an icy sheet, somewhere between 1 mile and 18 miles thick (the scientific community is divided on its depth). Due to the ice’s smooth surface and lack of impact craters, researchers believe that this layer is relatively young and active, meaning something—such as an icy, volcanic flow underneath—is constantly renewing the ice and erasing past imperfections.
This has led many experts to support the theory that there’s an ocean underneath the icy crust. The idea was further solidified in 1995 during NASA’s Galileo mission, in which a probe entered orbit around Jupiter. As it passed by the moons, the Galileo spacecraft found that Jupiter’s magnetic field was disrupted in the area around Europa. The disruption indicates that an electrically conductive fluid beneath the moon’s surface is inducing a special kind of magnetic field around the satellite. And given Europa’s icy outer shell, that substance is most likely water.Researchers believe the bottom of the moon’s ocean likely comes in contact with a hot rocky mantle surrounding Europa’s core.
Europa isn’t the only extraterrestrial body in our solar system thought to house a liquid ocean, but the moon holds a number of other key properties that particularly titillate experts—notably, its constant radiation bath. Jupiter bombards Europa with intense radiation, which breaks up compounds on the ice’s surface into essential elements. “That radiation is deadly to us, but that same radiation bombarding the water, it liberates the hydrogen and leaves oxygen behind, making oxidants,” says Pappalardo. “And those are great for life.” The free hydrogen and oxygen combine with other surface materials to make important building blocks for life, including hydrogen peroxide, carbon dioxide, and more.
Along with creating these compounds, Europa may also provide the energy needed to sustain life, as well. Researchers believe the bottom of the moon’s ocean likely comes in contact with a hot rocky mantle surrounding Europa’s core. This direct interaction between the water and heated rock could be just what the planet needs to trigger the energy needed for life.”On Earth’s ocean floors, the interior is hot, and the water comes in contact [with the heated rock below], and that water gets charged,” says Pappalardo. “There’s chemical energy there, and those areas are teaming with life.”
If the compounds from Europa’s surface are warmed by the energetic ocean floor below, the combination could spark the growth of aliens right here within our solar system.How To Go To Europa
An artist rendering of what Europa’s surface might look like
Of course, all of these features of Europa are purely hypothetical. NASA has no direct evidence of an ocean, but engineers at the space agency are really eager to verify that it exists. Now, with the most recent announcement from the White House, they will finally get that chance.
NASA has been mulling over different ways to get to Europa for years, but finding the right method has been difficult. Because of the high radiation environment surrounding the moon, sending a spacecraft into orbit would require a lot of extra hardware and heat shielding to protect the vehicle from all the charged particles. And that adds up cost-wise. One scrapped idea to visit Europa along with two other Jupiter moons was estimated to cost $27 billion.
“Some ideas have been too small, some too big, some too expensive,” says Pappalardo. “Now we think it’s just right.”
The idea moving forward is the Europa Clipper mission. Rather than send a probe into constant orbit around Europa, NASA wants to send a spacecraft to “clip” Europa, performing 45 flybys of the moon over a long period of time. “Most of the time we’d be far from Europa and Jupiter, then we’d swoop in every couple of weeks, gather lots of data and then get out,” says Pappalardo. “We call it a toe dip; you get your feet in the water and then run back out on the sand.”“Some ideas have been too small, some too big, some too expensive. Now we think it’s just right.
During these flybys, the radiation-tolerant spacecraft will travel to varying altitudes above Europa and use different instruments to study the moon’s composition. Although the exact instruments for the payload haven’t been determined yet, Pappalardo says the main thing the probe will be studying is the gravitational pull on the spacecraft by Europa. This tugging and pulling can help confirm the presence of an ocean.
“If there is an ocean, Europa’s ice shell will flex by [100 feet] every time it orbits Jupiter” say Pappalardo, “…So when we encounter Europa, and it’s all stretched out, then it indicates water underneath. If there’s no liquid water, that icy shell is kind of glued to the rock below, so it’ll only flex by about 1 foot.”
Since the scientific community is pretty well convinced that an ocean awaits, Pappalardo’s team wants to go one step further and analyze what those waters are like. By equipping the spacecraft with a magnetometer, the researchers can measure the changing magnetic field around Europa, which indicates the thickness and the saltiness of the subsurface sea. Radar on the spacecraft will also determine the thickness of the outer ice shell (a topic that has divided some researchers).
Additional instruments under consideration for use include a topographic camera, a neutral mass spectrometer to sniff out Europa’s atmosphere, and an infrared spectrometer to study the composition of Europa’s surface.The Big Picture
Right now, Pappalardo’s team is working toward a launch date of 2023, hoping to send the spacecraft aboard NASA’s Space Launch System, the mega-rocket currently in development at the Michoud Assembly Facility. On that rocket, travel time to the Jupiter system would take just three years.
Overall, the main goal of this mission is to see if Europa is a place where life could be present. If Europa Clipper does indeed find life-sustaining conditions, the discovery could lead to a follow-up mission that look for more direct evidence of alien microbes. “All life on earth uses the DNA, RNA, protein paradigm, and so part of why we want to go to Europa is to essentially test the biology hypothesis to see if life arises wherever conditions are right.” says Hand.
If we do find life on Europa someday, the finding will change everything. It answers that all-powerful question: Are we alone? Just a few microbes on Europa mean that life is probably pretty common throughout the universe.
And if there are no traces of life on Europa, even when conditions are ideal, that too denotes a huge finding. “If the ingredients are there and there’s no life,” says Pappalardo, “then wow, life must be even more special and rare than we imagined.”
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