Tag: Institute of Technology (page 1 of 2)

Extremely distant exoplanet discovered



 



Excerpt from  thespacereporter.com

According to a NASA statement, the agency’s Spitzer Space Telescope has taken part in the discovery of one of the most distant exoplanets yet found. Spitzer observations were combined with data from the Polish Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment’s Warsaw Telescope, part of the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. The newly found exoplanet is approximately 13,000 light-years from Earth, and could yield new clues as to the distribution of planets throughout the Milky Way.

The Warsaw Telescope gathers data through the phenomenon known as microlensing, which occurs when a star passes in front of another, more distant star as seen from Earth’s vantage point. The gravity of the nearer star magnifies and intensifies the distant star’s light; any planets orbiting the distant star appear as small disruptions in the magnification. So far, the microlensing methods has identified around 30 exoplanets, the most distant of which is around 25,000 light-years away.

However, the microlensing method cannot always show how far away are the more distant stars and their planets; the distances to about half of the exoplanets found with microlensing cannot be ascertained. Fortunately, Spitzer is able to help. Located 128 million miles from Earth, Spitzer is able to observe a microlensing event at a different time from the Warsaw Telescope, a method called parallax. In the case of the newly discovered exoplanet, the microlensing event was longer than norman, lasting 150 days. 
Spitzer observed the event 20 days earlier than Warsaw. This time delay allowed the distance to the newly found planet to be calculated. With the distance, the planet’s mass, approximately half that of Jupiter, also was determined.

“We’ve mainly explored our own solar neighborhood so far,” said Sebastiano Calchi Novati of NASA’s Exoplanet Science Institute at the California Institute of Technology. “Now we can use these single lenses to do statistics on planets as a whole and learn about their distribution in the galaxy.”

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Puzzle of Moon’s origin resolved


It now seems more probable that a collision between two planets of similar composition led to the formation of the Moon.




Excerpt from nature.com


A nagging problem at the heart of the leading theory of how the Moon formed seems to have been explained away.

The ‘giant impact’ hypothesis, first proposed in the 1970s, suggests that the Moon was formed from the debris scattered when a Mars-sized planet slammed into the early Earth some 4.5 billion years ago. This fits well with what we know about the Moon, including its mass and lack of any significant iron core.

But the theory also implies that the Moon is made up mostly of impactor material. Since lunar and Earth rocks have such similar compositions, this suggests that Earth and the planet that smacked into it resembled each other too. They would have needed to be sister planets, with a relationship much closer than that of any other planetary bodies we have studied in our Solar System. The odds of this being possible were thought to be around a 1% chance, or “uncomfortably rare”, according to Robin Canup, a planetary researcher at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado1.

Better odds

Now it seems that the scenario is not so far-fetched, says Hagai Perets, an astrophysicist at the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. He and his colleagues performed simulations of the Solar System’s formation, to investigate how similar planets tend to be to their last giant impactor. They estimated that for 20% to 40% of collisions, the two bodies would be sufficiently similar to explain the Moon’s composition — considerably better odds. The findings are published in Nature2.

The planets would have closely resembled each other because of their similar distance from the Sun, meaning that they would have formed from the same kind of orbiting proto-planetary material. “The Earth and the Moon are not twins born from the same planet, but they are sisters in the sense that they grew up in the same environment,” says Perets.

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Discovered: A ‘Treasure Chest’ of Ancient Galaxies


full sky planck
The full visible sky as seen by the Planck space observatory. The band running through the middle corresponds to dust in our Milky Way galaxy. The black dots indicate the location of the proto-cluster candidates identified by Planck and subsequently observed by the Herschel space telescope. (Photo : ESA and the Planck Collaboration)


Excerpt from natureworldnews.com

Treasure seekers have found the haul of a lifetime, but it wasn't in some ancient temple or mysterious island. Instead, it was in the sky. Researcher using two of the European Space Agency's (ESA) impressive space telescopes have successfully identified what they are calling a "treasure chest" of ancient galaxy clusters, which could help explain how the Universe came to be the way it is today.

That's at least according to a study recently published (PDF) in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics, which details how cosmologists used the ESA's Planck space observatory to identify the distant precursor galaxy clusters, and then poured over data from the Herschel telescope for a closer look.

"Finding so many intensely star-forming, dust galaxies in such concentrated groups was a huge surprise," Hervé Dole, lead author of the report from the Institut d'Astrophysique Spatiale in France, said in a statement. "We think this is a missing piece of cosmological structure formation."

So what does he mean by that? Let's turn back to the treasure chest metaphor for this one.  While Planck was the space observatory to dig up the chest, it was the Herschel data that allowed experts to look closely at each and every gold coin (galaxy cluster) inside. Now they are able to learn more about each coin's make, mint, and ultimately, its origins.

And that's a big step in better understanding the early Universe. Expects believe that it took a great deal of time after star and galaxies first sprung to life for them to assemble into large clusters. 

A summary of the 14 billion years out Universe has been in existence, as seen by the Plank space telescop. Light coming from some of the oldest parts of the Universe are just reaching the observatory now, allowing for experts to see the incredible uniformity of the early structure, compared to the chaotic beautify of star, galaxy, and cluster formation that crowd space today.
(Photo : ESA – C. Carreau) A summary of the 14 billion years out Universe has been in existence, as seen by the Plank space telescope. Light coming from some of the oldest parts of the Universe are just reaching the observatory now, allowing for experts to see the incredible uniformity of the early matter, compared to the chaotic beautify of star, galaxy, and cluster formation that crowds space today.
Once the clusters formed, their gravitational influence triggered the creation of new stars and galaxies. Dark matter - which is theorized to account for a great deal of each cluster's mass and influence - helped usher along the process of creating stars. But how these large clusters were ultimately assembled and grew is still a mystery.
That's why looking at some of the oldest 'coins' ever made - estimated to date back to up-to 11 billion light-years ago - could be exceptionally helpful.

"We still have a lot to learn about this new population," Dole said in an ESA release. "Hints of these kinds of objects had been found earlier in data from Herschel and other telescopes, but the all-sky capability of Planck revealed many more candidates for us to study."

"Even when we combined the powerful capabilities of Planck and Herschel, we were only scratching the surface of the phenomena taking place at this critical era in the history of our universe, when stars, galaxies and clusters seem to be forming simultaneously," 
added George Helou, director of the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "That's one of the reasons this finding is exciting. It shows us that there is so much more to be learned.

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How Quantum Physics will change your life and amaze the world!

 Excerpt from educatinghumanity.com "Anyone not shocked by quantum mechanics has not yet understood it."Niels Bohr10 Ways Quantum Physics Will Change the WorldEver want to have a "life do over", teleport, time travel, have your computer wor...

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Biologists fear DNA editing procedure can alter human DNA




Excerpt from themarketbusiness.com

A group of biologists was alarmed with the use a new genome-editing technique to modify human DNA in a way that it can become hereditary.
The biologists worry that the new technique is so effective and easy to use that some physicians may push ahead with it before its safety can be weigh up. They also want the public to understand the ethical issues surrounding the technique, which could be used to cure genetic diseases, but also to enhance qualities like beauty or intelligence. The latter is a path that many ethicists believe should never be taken.


“You could exert control over human heredity with this technique, and that is why we are raising the issue,” said David Baltimore, a former president of the California Institute of Technology and a member of the group whose paper on the topic was published in the journal Science.

Ethicists have been concerned for decades about the dangers of altering the human germ line — meaning to make changes to human sperm, eggs or embryos that will last through the life of the individual and be passed on to future generations. Until now, these worries have been theoretical. But a technique invented in 2012 makes it possible to edit the genome precisely and with much greater ease. The technique has already been used to edit the genomes of mice, rats and monkeys, and few doubt that it would work the same way in people.

The new genome-editing technique holds the power to repair or enhance any human gene. “It raises the most fundamental of issues about how we are going to view our humanity in the future and whether we are going to take the dramatic step of modifying our own germline and in a sense take control of our genetic destiny, which raises enormous peril for humanity,” said George Daley, a stem cell expert at Boston Children’s Hospital and a member of the group.

The biologists writing in Science support continuing laboratory research with the technique, and few if any scientists believe it is ready for clinical use. Any such use is tightly regulated in the United States and Europe. American scientists, for instance, would have to present a plan to treat genetic diseases in the human germline to the Food and Drug Administration.

The paper’s authors, however, are concerned about countries that have less regulation in science. They urge that “scientists should avoid even attempting, in lax jurisdictions, germ line genome modification for clinical application in humans” until the full implications “are discussed among scientific and governmental organizations.”

Though such a moratorium would not be legally enforceable and might seem unlikely to exert global sway, there is a precedent. In 1975, scientists worldwide were asked to refrain from using a method for manipulating genes, the recombinant DNA technique, until rules had been established.

“We asked at that time that nobody do certain experiments, and in fact nobody did, to my knowledge,” said Baltimore, who was a member of the 1975 group. “So there is a moral authority you can assert from the U.S., and that is what we hope to do.”

Recombinant DNA was the first in a series of ever-improving steps for manipulating genetic material. The chief problem has always been one of accuracy, of editing the DNA at precisely the intended site, since any off-target change could be lethal. Two recent methods, known as zinc fingers and TAL effectors, came close to the goal of accurate genome editing, but both are hard to use. The new genome-editing approach was invented by Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley, and Emmanuelle Charpentier of Umea University in Sweden.

Their method, known by the acronym Crispr-Cas9, co-opts the natural immune system with which bacteria remember the DNA of the viruses that attack them so they are ready the next time those same invaders appear. Researchers can simply prime the defense system with a guide sequence of their choice and it will then destroy the matching DNA sequence in any genome presented to it. Doudna is the lead author of the Science article calling for control of the technique and organized the meeting at which the statement was developed.

Though highly efficient, the technique occasionally cuts the genome at unintended sites. The issue of how much mistargeting could be tolerated in a clinical setting is one that Doudna’s group wants to see thoroughly explored before any human genome is edited.

Scientists also say that replacing a defective gene with a normal one may seem entirely harmless but perhaps would not be.
“We worry about people making changes without the knowledge of what those changes mean in terms of the overall genome,” Baltimore said. “I personally think we are just not smart enough — and won’t be for a very long time — to feel comfortable about the consequences of changing heredity, even in a single individual.”
Many ethicists have accepted the idea of gene therapy, changes that die with the patient, but draw a clear line at altering the germline, since these will extend to future generations. The British Parliament in February approved the transfer of mitochondria, small DNA-containing organelles, to human eggs whose own mitochondria are defective. But that technique is less far-reaching because no genes are edited.

There are two broad schools of thought on modifying the human germline, said R. Alta Charo, a bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin and a member of the Doudna group. One is pragmatic and seeks to balance benefit and risk. The other “sets up inherent limits on how much humankind should alter nature,” she said. 
Some Christian doctrines oppose the idea of playing God, whereas in Judaism and Islam there is the notion “that humankind is supposed to improve the world.” She described herself as more of a pragmatist, saying, “I would try to regulate such things rather than shut a new technology down at its beginning.”

Other scientists agree with the Doudna group’s message.
“It is very clear that people will try to do gene editing in humans,” said Rudolf Jaenisch, a stem cell biologist at the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who was not a member of the Doudna group. “This paper calls for a moratorium on any clinical application, which I believe is the right thing to do.”
Writing in Nature last week, Edward Lanphier and other scientists involved in developing the rival zinc finger technique for genome editing also called for a moratorium on human germline modification, saying that use of current technologies would be “dangerous and ethically unacceptable.”

The International Society for Stem Cell Research said Thursday that it supported the proposed moratorium.

The Doudna group calls for public discussion but is also working to develop some more formal process, such as an international meeting convened by the National Academy of Sciences, to establish guidelines for human use of the genome-editing technique.

“We need some principled agreement that we want to enhance humans in this way or we don’t,” Jaenisch said. “You have to have this discussion because people are gearing up to do this.”

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Exoplanet Bonanza Boosts Count by 1,200

Excerpt from news.discovery.comDozens of candidate worlds reside within the "habitable zones" of their parent stars. THE GIST - NASA's Kepler telescope has found more than 1,200 extrasolar planet candidates. - Smaller worlds, like Earth,...

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Mars Had an Ocean, Scientists Say, Pointing to a Treasure Trove of New Data





Excerpt from nytimes.com

After six years of planetary observations, scientists at NASA say they have found convincing new evidence that ancient Mars had an ocean.

It was probably the size of the Arctic Ocean, larger than previously estimated, the researchers reported on Thursday. The body of water spread across the low-lying plain of the planet’s northern hemisphere for millions of years, they said.

If confirmed, the findings would add significantly to scientists’ understanding of the planet’s history and lend new weight to the view that ancient Mars had everything needed for life to emerge.
“The existence of a northern ocean has been debated for decades, but this is the first time we have such a strong collection of data from around the globe,” said Michael Mumma, principal investigator at NASA’s Goddard Center for Astrobiology and an author of the report, published in the journal Science. “Our results tell us there had to be a northern ocean.”
But other experts said the question was hardly resolved. The ocean remains “a hypothesis,” said Ashwin Vasavada, project scientist of the Curiosity rover mission at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Dr. Mumma and Geronimo Villanueva, a planetary scientist at NASA, measured two slightly different forms of water in Mars’ atmosphere. One is the familiar H2O, which consists of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.

The other is a slightly “heavier” version of water, HDO, in which the nucleus of one hydrogen atom contains a neutron. The atom is called deuterium.

The two forms exist in predictable ratios on Earth, and both have been found in meteorites from Mars. A high level of heavier water today would indicate that there was once a lot more of the “lighter” water, somehow lost as the planet changed.

The scientists found eight times as much deuterium in the Martian atmosphere than is found in water on Earth. Dr. Villanueva said the findings “provide a solid estimate of how much water Mars once had by determining how much water was lost to space.”

He said the measurements pointed to an ancient Mars that had enough water to cover the planet to a depth of at least 137 meters, or about 450 feet. Except for assessments based on the size of the northern basin, this is the highest estimate of the amount of water on early Mars that scientists have ever made.

The water on Mars mostly would have pooled in the northern hemisphere, which lies one to three kilometers — 0.6 to 1.8 miles — below the bedrock surface of the south, the scientists said.
At one time, the researchers estimated, a northern ocean would have covered about 19 percent of the Martian surface. In comparison, the Atlantic Ocean covers about 17 percent of Earth’s surface.

The new findings come at a time when the possibility of a northern ocean on Mars has gained renewed attention.

The Curiosity rover measured lighter and heavier water molecules in the Gale Crater, and the data also indicated that Mars once had substantial amounts of water, although not as much as Dr. Mumma and Dr. Villanueva suggest.

“The more water was present — and especially if it was a large body of water that lasted for a longer period of time — the better the chances are for life to emerge and to be sustained,” said Paul Mahaffy, chief of the atmospheric experiments laboratory at the Goddard Space Flight Center.

Just last month, the science team running the Curiosity rover held its first formal discussion about the possibility of such an ocean and what it would have meant for the rest of Mars.

Scientists generally agree that lakes must have existed for millions of years in Gale Crater and elsewhere. But it is not clear how they were sustained and replenished.

“For open lakes to remain relatively stable for millions of years — it’s hard to figure how to do that without an ocean,” Dr. Vasavada said. “Unless there was a large body of water supplying humidity to the planet, the water in an open lake would quickly evaporate and be carried to the polar caps or frozen out.”

Yet climate modelers have had difficulty understanding how Mars could have been warm enough in its early days to keep water from freezing. Greenhouse gases could have made the planet much warmer at some point, but byproducts of those gases have yet to be found on the surface.

James Head, a professor of geological sciences at Brown University, said in an email that the new paper had “profound implications for the total volume of water” on ancient Mars.

But, he added, “climate models have great difficulty in reconstructing an early Mars with temperatures high enough to permit surface melting and liquid water.”

Also missing are clear signs of the topographic and geological features associated with large bodies of water on Earth, such as sea cliffs and shorelines.

Based on low-resolution images sent back by the Viking landers, the geologist Timothy Parker and his colleagues at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab reported in 1989 the discovery of ancient shorelines. But later high-resolution images undermined their conclusions.

Still, Dr. Parker and his colleagues have kept looking for — and finding, they say — some visible signs of a northern ocean. The new data “certainly encourages me to do more,” he said in an interview.

Other researchers have also been looking for signs of an ancient ocean.

In 2013, Roman DiBiase, then a postdoctoral student at the California Institute of Technology, and Michael Lamb, an assistant professor of geology there, identified what might have been a system of channels on Mars that originated in the southern hemisphere and emptied steeply into the northern basin — perhaps, they said, water flowing through a delta to an ocean.

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Mysterious Galaxy X Found Finally? Dark Matter Hunters Would Like To Believe So

Excerpt from techtimes.comAstronomers have long suspected strange ripples in hydrogen gas in the disk of our Milky Way galaxy are caused by the gravity of an unseen dwarf galaxy dominated by dark matter -- and now they think they've found this "Gal...

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Study finally answers why it smells so good after it rains

Excerpt from usatoday.comIt turns out tiny bubbles may be to thank for that earthy smell we get after it rains, according to a study from researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.Youngsoo Joung and Cullen R. Buie used high-speed came...

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Japanese probe’s study of asteroid matter could help explain Earth’s evolution






Excerpt from 
thespacereporter.com


The Hayabusa 2, a robotic Japanese spacecraft is due to launch on Monday in Japan from the Tanegashima Space Center. The take-off was originally set for Saturday, but because of unfavorable elements it was not able to launch. Fortunately, on Monday, the launch of Hayabusa 2 will continue and in mid-2018 it will reach its destination, Asteroid 1999 JU3.

Asteroid 1999 JU3 is 3,000 foot in circumference and circles the sun on an orbit that crosses through Earth’s. In past research, the belief that organic matter existed on JU3 was brought up by NASA, the U.S. Air Force and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Carbon, amino acids and water-rich minerals were all believed to be located on the asteroid, which might help to provide fundamental evidence on evolution and where oceans were first created on Earth.

Due to the substantial evidence brought back in the original Hayabusa mission, JAXA and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency have partnered with planetary scientist Paul Abell from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. They are to carry out the Hayabusa 2 mission on Monday in hopes that the H-2A rocket will bring back evidence of organic material on Asteroid 1999 JU3.

With the right samples and evidence, they may be able to prove the correlation between asteroids, how the solar system formed, and how life started on Earth. This could greatly impact the theories of evolution and the solar system. The Hayabusa 2 mission for organic matter on the JU3 is important for furthering scientific study.

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MIT Scientists Found an Invisible Force Field Protecting Earth






Excerpt from
wallstreetotc.com

The invisible force field seems to be taken from a Star-Trek movie script – it’s invisible, it’s steady, and it doesn’t allow harmful cosmic radiation penetrating into our planet’s atmosphere. Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers say it was first noticed by two NASA spacecrafts orbiting the Van Allen radiation belt on a 7,200 miles (11,000 km) altitude.

This new invisible force field protecting Earth does a very good job at blocking highly radioactive electrons populating Earth’s upper atmospheric region. NASA said these “ultrarelativistic” electrons were extremely aggressive and they easily circulate in space at speeds very close to the speed of light. They also fry everything on their way from spacecrafts to communication satellites. NASA launched two probe crafts, the Van Allen probes, for the sole purpose of studying these electrons and improving the safety level of their spacecrafts and crew.

NASA says although these electrons are attracted towards Earth by its magnetic field, they cannot get closer than 7,200 miles to it due an invisible shield-like barrier, never detected before. This barrier protects Earth from harmful cosmic radiation and has already done a good job in the past by deflecting several solar blows directed towards Earth. It seems that this mysterious force field operates on low frequency electromagnetism, but its source is still uncertain.

In the end, researchers found out that the barrier was probably generated by the plasmaspheric hiss, a phenomenon occurring in the upper parts of the atmosphere. This plasmaspheric hiss deviates from orbit the fast-moving dangerous particles, and sets them on a parallel plan to one of the Earth’s magnetic field lines, forcing them to fall into the atmosphere, collide with neutrally charged particles, and disappear.

Mary Hudson, professor of physics, said the new NASA observations made over more than two years through its Van Allen probes confirmed the inner barrier’s existence, and brought invaluable new information to the particle acceleration theory.

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Is wormhole travel possible?




Excerpt from
foxnews.com


Wormholes are theoretical tunnels through the fabric of space-time that could potentially allow rapid travel between widely separated points — from one galaxy to another, for example, as depicted in Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar," which opened in theaters around the world earlier this month.

While wormholes are possible according to Einstein's theory of general relativity, such exotic voyages will likely remain in the realm of science fiction, said renowned astrophysicist Kip Thorne of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, who served as an adviser and executive producer on "Interstellar." 

"The jury is not in, so we just don't know," Thorne, one of the world's leading authorities on relativity, black holes and wormholes, told Space.com. "But there are very strong indications that wormholes that a human could travel through are forbidden by the laws of physics. That's sad, that's unfortunate, but that's the direction in which things are pointing."

The major barrier has to do with a wormhole's instability, he said.
"Wormholes — if you don't have something threading through them to hold them open — the walls will basically collapse so fast that nothing can go through them," Thorne said.

Holding wormholes open would require the insertion of something that anti-gravitates — namely, negative energy. Negative energy has been created in the lab via quantum effects, Thorne said: One region of space borrows energy from another region that didn't have any to begin with, creating a deficit.

"So it does happen in physics," he said. "But we have very strong, but not firm, indications that you can never get enough negative energy that repels and keeps the wormhole's walls open; you can never get enough to do that."

Furthermore, traversable wormholes — if they can exist at all — almost certainly cannot occur naturally, Thorne added. That is, they must be created by an advanced civilization.

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Is a trip to the moon in the making?





Excerpt from bostonglobe.com

Decades after that first small step, space thinkers are finally getting serious about our nearest neighbor By Kevin Hartnett

This week, the European Space Agency made headlines with the first successful landing of a spacecraft on a comet, 317 million miles from Earth. It was an upbeat moment after two American crashes: the unmanned private rocket that exploded on its way to resupply the International Space Station, and the Virgin Galactic spaceplane that crashed in the Mojave Desert, killing a pilot and raising questions about whether individual businesses are up to the task of operating in space.  During this same period, there was one other piece of space news, one far less widely reported in the United States: On Nov. 1, China successfully returned a moon probe to Earth. That mission follows China’s landing of the Yutu moon rover late last year, and its announcement that it will conduct a sample-return mission to the moon in 2017.  With NASA and the Europeans focused on robot exploration of distant targets, a moon landing might not seem like a big deal: We’ve been there, and other countries are just catching up. But in recent years, interest in the moon has begun to percolate again, both in the United States and abroad—and it’s catalyzing a surprisingly diverse set of plans for how our nearby satellite will contribute to our space future.  China, India, and Japan have all completed lunar missions in the last decade, and have more in mind. Both China and Japan want to build unmanned bases in the early part of the next decade as a prelude to returning a human to the moon. In the United States, meanwhile, entrepreneurs are hatching plans for lunar commerce; one company even promises to ferry freight for paying customers to the moon as early as next year. Scientists are hatching more far-out ideas to mine hydrogen from the poles and build colonies deep in sky-lit lunar caves.  This rush of activity has been spurred in part by the Google Lunar X Prize, a $20 million award, expiring in 2015, for the first private team to land a working rover on the moon and prove it by sending back video. It is also driven by a certain understanding: If we really want to launch expeditions deeper into space, our first goal should be to travel safely to the moon—and maybe even figure out how to live there.
Entrepreneurial visions of opening the moon to commerce can seem fanciful, especially in light of the Virgin Galactic and Orbital Sciences crashes, which remind us how far we are from having a truly functional space economy. They also face an uncertain legal environment—in a sense, space belongs to everyone and to no one—whose boundaries will be tested as soon as missions start to succeed. Still, as these plans take shape, they’re a reminder that leaping blindly is sometimes a necessary step in opening any new frontier.
“All I can say is if lunar commerce is foolish,” said Columbia University astrophysicist Arlin Crotts in an e-mail, “there are a lot of industrious and dedicated fools out there!”

At its height, the Apollo program accounted for more than 4 percent of the federal budget. Today, with a mothballed shuttle and a downscaled space station, it can seem almost imaginary that humans actually walked on the moon and came back—and that we did it in the age of adding machines and rotary phones.

“In five years, we jumped into the middle of the 21st century,” says Roger Handberg, a political scientist who studies space policy at the University of Central Florida, speaking of the Apollo program. “No one thought that 40 years later we’d be in a situation where the International Space Station is the height of our ambition.”

An image of Earth and the moon created from photos by Mariner 10, launched in 1973.
NASA/JPL/Northwestern University
An image of Earth and the moon created from photos by Mariner 10, launched in 1973.
Without a clear goal and a geopolitical rivalry to drive it, the space program had to compete with a lot of other national priorities. The dramatic moon shot became an outlier in the longer, slower story of building scientific achievements.

Now, as those achievements accumulate, the moon is coming back into the picture. For a variety of reasons, it’s pretty much guaranteed to play a central role in any meaningful excursions we take into space. It’s the nearest planetary body to our own—238,900 miles away, which the Apollo voyages covered in three days. It has low gravity, which makes it relatively easy to get onto and off of the lunar surface, and it has no atmosphere, which allows telescopes a clearer view into deep space.
The moon itself also still holds some scientific mysteries. A 2007 report on the future of lunar exploration from the National Academies called the moon a place of “profound scientific value,” pointing out that it’s a unique place to study how planets formed, including ours. The surface of the moon is incredibly stable—no tectonic plates, no active volcanoes, no wind, no rain—which means that the loose rock, or regolith, on the moon’s surface looks the way the surface of the earth might have looked billions of years ago.

NASA still launches regular orbital missions to the moon, but its focus is on more distant points. (In a 2010 speech, President Obama brushed off the moon, saying, “We’ve been there before.”) For emerging space powers, though, the moon is still the trophy destination that it was for the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s. In 2008 an Indian probe relayed the best evidence yet that there’s water on the moon, locked in ice deep in craters at the lunar poles. China landed a rover on the surface of the moon in December 2013, though it soon malfunctioned. Despite that setback, China plans a sample-return mission in 2017, which would be the first since a Soviet capsule brought back 6 ounces of lunar soil in 1976.

The moon has also drawn the attention of space-minded entrepreneurs. One of the most obvious opportunities is to deliver scientific instruments for government agencies and universities. This is an attractive, ready clientele in theory, explains Paul Spudis, a scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, though there’s a hitch: “The basic problem with that as a market,” he says, “is scientists never have money of their own.”

One company aspiring to the delivery role is Astrobotic, a startup of young Carnegie Mellon engineers based in Pittsburgh, which is currently positioning itself to be “FedEx to the moon,” says John Thornton, the company’s CEO. Astrobotic has signed a contract with SpaceX, the commercial space firm founded by Elon Musk, to use a Falcon 9 for an inaugural delivery trip in 2015, just in time to claim the Google Lunar X Prize. Thornton says most of the technology is in place for the mission, and that the biggest remaining hurdle is figuring out how to engineer a soft, automated moon landing.

Astrobotic is charging $1.2 million per kilogram—you can, in fact, place an order on its website—and Thornton says the company has five customers so far. They include the entities you might expect, like NASA, but also less obvious ones, like a company that wants to deliver human ashes for permanent internment and a Japanese soft drink manufacturer that wants to place its signature beverage, Pocari Sweat, on the moon as a publicity stunt. Astrobotic is joined in this small sci-fi economy by Moon Express out of Mountain View, Calif., another company competing for the Google Lunar X Prize.
Plans like these are the low-hanging fruit of the lunar economy, the easiest ideas to imagine and execute. Longer-scale thinkers are envisioning ways that the moon will play a larger role in human affairs—and that, says Crotts, is where “serious resource exploitation” comes in.
If this triggers fears of a mined-out moon, be reassured: “Apollo went there and found nothing we wanted. Had we found anything we really wanted, we would have gone back and there would have been a new gold rush,” says Roger Launius, the former chief historian of NASA and now a curator at the National Air and Space Museum.

There is one possible exception: helium-3, an isotope used in nuclear fusion research. It is rare on Earth but thought to be abundant on the surface of the moon, which could make the moon an important energy source if we ever figure out how to harness fusion energy. More immediately intriguing is the billion tons of water ice the scientific community increasingly believes is stored at the poles. If it’s there, that opens the possibility of sustained lunar settlement—the water could be consumed as a liquid, or split into oxygen for breathing and hydrogen for fuel.

The presence of water could also open a potentially ripe market providing services to the multibillion dollar geosynchronous satellite industry. “We lose billions of dollars a year of geosynchronous satellites because they drift out of orbit,” says Crotts. In a new book, “The New Moon: Water, Exploration, and Future Habitation,” he outlines plans for what he calls a “cislunar tug”: a space tugboat of sorts that would commute between the moon and orbiting satellites, resupplying them with propellant, derived from the hydrogen in water, and nudging them back into the correct orbital position.

In the long term, the truly irreplaceable value of the moon may lie elsewhere, as a staging area for expeditions deeper into space. The most expensive and dangerous part of space travel is lifting cargo out of and back into the Earth’s atmosphere, and some people imagine cutting out those steps by establishing a permanent base on the moon. In this scenario, we’d build lunar colonies deep in natural caves in order to escape the micrometeorites and toxic doses of solar radiation that bombard the moon, all the while preparing for trips to more distant points.
gical hurdles is long, and there’s also a legal one, at least where commerce is concerned. The moon falls under the purview of the Outer Space Treaty, which the United States signed in 1967, and which prohibits countries from claiming any territory on the moon—or anywhere else in space—as their own.
“It is totally unclear whether a private sector entity can extract resources from the moon and gain title or property rights to it,” says Joanne Gabrynowicz, an expert on space law and currently a visiting professor at Beijing Institute of Technology School of Law. She adds that a later document, the 1979 Moon Treaty, which the United States has not signed, anticipates mining on the moon, but leaves open the question of how property rights would be determined.

There are lots of reasons the moon may never realize its potential to mint the world’s first trillionaires, as some space enthusiasts have predicted. But to the most dedicated space entrepreneurs, the economic and legal arguments reflect short-sighted thinking. They point out that when European explorers set sail in the 15th and 16th centuries, they assumed they’d find a fortune in gold waiting for them on the other side of the Atlantic. The real prizes ended up being very different—and slow to materialize.
“When we settled the New World, we didn’t bring a whole lot back to Europe [at first],” Thornton says. “You have to create infrastructure to enable that kind of transfer of goods.” He believes that in the case of the moon, we’ll figure out how to do that eventually.
Roger Handberg is as clear-eyed as anyone about the reasons why the moon may never become more than an object of wonder, but he also understands why we can’t turn away from it completely. That challenge, in the end, may finally be what lures us back.

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