Friday, October 19, 2007

First Stop Moon. Next Stop, Mars

The distant red planet Mars has captured the imagination of humankind for generations. It has inspired novelists to write stories about its exploration and motivated scientists to find ways to make space travel there a viable possibility. Now, for the first time in Europe, scholars such as historians, philosophers and sociologists are banding together with space scientists to share their thoughts and ideas on how humankind will be taking these first steps.

The 'Humans in Outer Space - Interdisciplinary Odysseys' conference recently held in Vienna was the first such forum where scholars from a humanities background together with scientists could discuss humankind's presence in space from non-traditional perspectives.

The benefits of creating such a cross-disciplinary forum is that it was able to give guiding insight into how humankind will face possible issues, issues that can be best addressed in the light of modern understanding of historical events.

Some of the wide-ranging issues that conference delegates explored include the philosophical and theological consequences of contacting alien intelligences, the marketing of space exploration, and the legal frameworks that will be needed if space-faring nations are to cooperate peacefully.

The event was organised in part by an ESF Steering Committee chaired by Professor Luca Codignola, a historian at the University of Genoa. At the conference he expressed his interest in what history can tell us about the challenges we may face if space explorers make contact with alien civilisations.

Delving into history for an example, he drew correlations with the so-called "Columbian Exchange" that took place around 1492. 'It changed the Western way of conceiving the globe; it forcefully challenged its theology; it allowed for a free flow of bacteria, germs and microbes that almost wiped out the American peoples,' he explained.

The science community does not really seem to be aware of the fact that a number of issues and concerns that they are dealing with, such as the consequences of meeting with unknown pathogens, are known and have long been studied by historians and ethnologists.

As for the humanities scholars, technical difficulties relating to space-voyaging and especially its timeframe, usually escape them. We all felt it was rather strange that the two groups rarely, if ever, meet to discuss space-related issues.

The conclusions from these sessions will be documented by the ESF in a position paper entitled 'Vienna Vision on Humans in Outer Space'. The ESF will distribute this paper to all interested stakeholders in the academic world, space agencies, intergovernmental bodies such as the United Nations, the media and politicians involved in space- and research-related initiatives.

Prof. Kai-Uwe Schrogl, Secretary General of the ESPI and Chair of the conference, commented: 'Mankind's future in outer space will require a comprehensive view, including the input in particular by the humanities and social sciences, as well as the reflection of the manifold trans-utilitarian aspects that make space exploration a province of all mankind.'

The Fantastic Skies Of Orphan Stars

What a view! It's late summer, after dark, and you're flat on your back in a sleeping bag watching the camp fire's last embers drift up to the heavens. Overhead a magnificent band of stars divides the night-it's the Milky Way. Now, imagine that scene doubled in brightness and beauty. No, that's not quite right. Imagine an entire galaxy of stars spinning overhead. The galaxy's blue-white core of young stars is surrounded by yellow octopus-arms of older siblings.

Off to one side a faint red column of gas meanders away from the starry whirlpool and turns in mid-sky toward ... you.

Astronomers using NASA's Chandra X-ray observatory have found a place in the Universe where the view may be like that. "It's near a galaxy named ESO 137-001," says Ming Sun of Michigan State University who led the study.

ESO 137-001 is a member of Abell Cluster 3627-a swarm of galaxies 65 Megaparsecs (212 million light years) from Earth. ESO 137-001 stands out among other galaxies in the cluster because it has a gigantic comet-like tail peppered with young stars. "We call them orphan stars," says MSU team member Megan Donahue, "because they are separating from their parent."

No one knows if there is life in these orphan star systems, but if there are lifeforms, "they would have a fantastic view," says Sun. Here on Earth we see our own galaxy, the Milky Way, from the inside. Too bad! The interior of the Milky Way is choked with space-dust, which dims our view of all but the nearest stars. On any given summer night, the Milky Way displays only a fraction of its total glory. If only we could be lifted out of our busy, dusty spiral arm.

That's exactly what is happening in ESO 137-001, explains Sun. "Orphan stars are drifting away from their galaxy" to a point where the entire galaxy can be seen in hindsight. It's a stargazers dream come true.

How did this happen? Abell Cluster 3627 is filled with a diffuse atmosphere of hot gas which surrounds all the galaxies in the cluster. ESO 137-001 is moving through this gas as it plunges toward the cluster's center. The entire galaxy, therefore, feels a sort of 'hot wind' in its face." Note: Stick your head out the window of a car driving through Death Valley and you will feel a hot wind, too. It's the same concept. The wind pushes raw, star-forming gas out the back of ESO 137-001, creating the comet-like tail where orphan stars are born.

This isn't the first time astronomers have detected stars being born outside a parent galaxy. Other examples include Stephen's Quintet and NGC 4388. ESO 137-001 is special, however, because the rate of orphan star formation is so high: 36 to 5700 times greater than anything we've ever seen before. Sun estimates there could be a million stars spilling out of ESO 137-001, a million unbelievable night skies.

Eventually, as the stars slowly drift away from their parent, the view will change: ESO 137-001 will fade into the distance and a dark inter-galactic void will fill the night sky. The only stars in view then will be the orphans themselves--a handful of very nearby, very bright points of light. A few billion years from now these stars will be in a pretty lonely region of space.

Such isolation could be a good thing if life ever struggles to gain a foothold in these systems: Planets circling orphan stars may be less affected by the occasional 'comet of death' perturbed out of its orbit by gravitational interactions with a passing star.

The orphan stars of ESO 137-001 may represent a whole population of cosmic wanderers, blessed in the beginning with breathtaking nights and in the end with the safety of the void. How many more are out there? No one knows.

This is why we explore.

China reveals space plans

China on Thursday revealed its plans for space -- including space walking, spacecraft docking and the setting up of a space laboratory before 2010, state media reported.

The government would also give priority to developing an earth observation system using satellites, aircraft and airships, Xinhua news agency reported, quoting a blueprint approved by the State Council, or the cabinet.

The document, part of China's 11th five-year plan for space development, said China would improve a navigation system that is based on plans to launch dozens of satellites, it said.

The system is aimed at providing navigation and positioning services in transportation, meteorology, petroleum prospecting, disaster forecasting, telecommunications and public security, it said.

Apart from launching the country's first lunar orbiter at the end of this month, China would also study the second and third stages of its moon exploration projects, said a senior official with the Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence.

Officials earlier said China is also planning to land a human on the moon and to make a series of robotic missions with a view to building a base there after 2020.