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The Future of Space Exploration: A Hitchhiker's Guide
Major scientific endeavors like space exploration require decades of planning and funding sources that can weather economic downturns. Will the results of the Google Lunar X Prize competition stand that assumption on its head?
What's the Big Idea?
With the end of the space shuttle era, and the United States no longer able to put people in orbit without the help of Russian or Chinese rockets, Texas Governor Rick Perry accused the Obama administration of leaving U.S. astronauts to "hitchhike into space."
For Governor Perry, who may be running for President in 2012, all politics is local. His state is home to the Johnson Space Center, which directly employs 3,000 people, as well as 12,000 contract positions from outside companies. Perhaps a third of those jobs now stand to be lost.
Space exploration has always been a political football. As the Space Science Institute's Heidi Hammel tells Big Think, the motivation for funding the human exploration of space was never about science, "and don’t let scientists tell you otherwise. That just means they haven’t read history." Hammel continues:
We were not doing moon landings to do a geological exploration of the surface. In fact, when we got to that point, the program was canceled. The only way that the U.S. human spaceflight program will ever be revitalized is if some other country, perhaps China...landed on the moon...and brought back our American flag and put it in Tiananmen Square.
As Paul Halpern, professor of physics at the University of Science in Philadelphia put it plainly in an opinion piece for the Philadelphia Inquirer, major scientific endeavors like space exploration and the development of the James Webb Space Telescope (which was recently defunded by Congress) take many years of planning and require "dedicated funding sources that can weather economic downturns." The problem with this model, of course, is our political system, in which Congressmen are elected every two years, and certain pet projects often gain and lose favor depending on which party may be in power.
At this moment in time, as the federal government prepares to tighten its fiscal belt, our ability to make advances in space is very much in question. For instance, the NASA leadership appointed by President Obama has indicated it will focus on deep space exploration--manned missions to an asteroid and Mars--but there is no clear plan yet. After all, there seems to be very little political will to drum up the Apollo-like enthusiasm that would be required for such a mission.
But don't tell that to visionary thinkers like Peter Diamandis, who founded the X Prize Foundation. Diamandis sees the next two decades as "the moment in time the human race is making the irrevocable transition beyond the earth." What will drive this transition into space? Diamandis says that raw materials in space, "the things we fight wars over," offer unprecedented rewards for commercial enterprises. We just need to get there, and cheaply.
The race is already underway. 29 companies, such as the Silicon Valley venture Moon Express -- launched by the billionaire Naveen Jain -- are competing for the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize, a competition to become the first private venture to land on the moon. Jain is reportedly spending $70 million to $100 million on the project, but is betting he can recoup the costs with a single lunar landing. The surface of the moon is dotted with craters formed from collisions with metallic asteroids. The Moon Express is preparing to "mine the moon for precious resources that we need here on Earth." The opportunities don't end there. From robots scrawling marriage proposals in the lunar dust to corporate sponsorship and video broadcast rights, a lunar landing is “probably the biggest wealth creation opportunity in modern history,” according to Moon Express co-founder Barney Pell.
Another company, Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology, plans a larger 'lunar lander' that The New York Times reports will be "capable of carrying 240 pounds of payload (read: $200 million of cargo)" and has a launch date set for December, 2013. (The X Prize competition ends in 2015).
What's the Significance?
The retirement of the space shuttle and the birth of the commercial space race is one of many developments that will impact the future of space exploration. A Congressional Committee voted on July 7th to cut funding to the Webb Space telescope, the planned successor to the famous Hubble Space telescope. The project is said to be 75 percent complete, but will be effectively dead if the funding is not restored.
According to Big Thinker Dr. Michio Kaku, the Hubble "is perhaps the most cited scientific instrument of all time," based on citations in science journals. The Hubble's greatest hits include: proving "the existence of black holes lurking in the center of galaxies"; providing the most complete life-history of stars, from star formation to supernova; providing the most detailed photographs of the planets, comets, asteroids and galaxies besides photos from space probes; providing evidence for the existence of dark matter, and also proof of Einstein's theory of relativity.
NASA chief Charlie Bolden, in his testimony before Congress, said the science returns for Webb would be even greater.
It is not clear to what extent private industry will be able to step in and take the lead in space exploration. What is at stake, however, is very clear: the competitive edge the U.S. aerospace industry has enjoyed for so long.
A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.
- A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
- The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
- An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
Foul play?<p>A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during a high speed rail excavation.</p><p>The positioning of the remains have led archaeologists to suspect that the man may have been a victim of an ancient murder or execution. Though any bindings have since decomposed, his hands were positioned together and pinned under his pelvis. There was also no sign of a grave or coffin. </p><p>"He seems to have had his hands tied, and he was face-down in the bottom of the ditch," <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">said archaeologist Rachel Wood</a>, who led the excavation. "There are not many ways that you end up that way."</p><p>Currently, archaeologists are examining the skeleton to uncover more information about the circumstances of the man's death. Fragments of pottery found in the ditch may offer some clues as to exactly when the man died. </p><p>"If he was struck across the head with a heavy object, you could find a mark of that on the back of the skull," Wood said to <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">Live Science</a>. "If he was stabbed, you could find blade marks on the ribs. So we're hoping to find something like that, to tell us how he died."</p>
Other discoveries at Wellwick Farm<p>The grim discovery was made at Wellwick Farm near Wendover. That is about 15 miles north-west of the outskirts of London, where <a href="https://www.hs2.org.uk/building-hs2/hs2-green-corridor/" target="_blank">a tunnel</a> is going to be built as part of a HS2 high-speed rail project due to open between London and several northern cities sometime after 2028. The infrastructure project has been something of a bonanza for archaeology as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route that are now being excavated before construction begins. </p><p>The farm sits less than a mile away from the ancient highway <a href="http://web.stanford.edu/group/texttechnologies/cgi-bin/stanfordnottingham/places/?icknield" target="_blank">Icknield Way</a> that runs along the tops of the Chiltern Hills. The route (now mostly trails) has been used since prehistoric times. Evidence at Wellwick Farm indicates that from the Neolithic to the Medieval eras, humans have occupied the region for more than 4,000 years, making it a rich area for archaeological finds. </p><p>Wood and her colleagues found some evidence of an ancient village occupied from the late Bronze Age (more than 3,000 years ago) until the Roman Empire's invasion of southern England about 2,000 years ago. At the site were the remains of animal pens, pits for disposing food, and a roundhouse — a standard British dwelling during the Bronze Age constructed with a circular plan made of stone or wood topped with a conical thatched roof.</p>
Ceremonial burial site<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDgwNTIyMX0.I49n1-j8WVhKjIZS_wVWZissnk3W1583yYXB7qaGtN8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C82%2C0%2C83&height=700" id="44da7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="46cfc8ca1c64fc404b32014542221275" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="top down view of coffin" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
A high status burial in a lead-lined coffin dating back to Roman times.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>While these ancient people moved away from Wellwick Farm before the Romans invaded, a large portion of the area was still used for ritual burials for high-status members of society, Wood told Live Science. The ceremonial burial site included a circular ditch (about 60 feet across) at the center, and was a bit of a distance away from the ditch where the (suspected) murder victim was uncovered. Additionally, archaeologists found an ornately detailed grave near the sacred burial site that dates back to the Roman period, hundreds of years later when the original Bronze Age burial site would have been overgrown.</p><p>The newer grave from the Roman period encapsulated an adult skeleton contained in a lead-lined coffin. It's likely that the outer coffin had been made of wood that rotted away. Since it was clearly an ornate burial, the occupant of the grave was probably a person of high status who could afford such a lavish burial. However, according to Wood, no treasures or tokens had been discovered. </p>
Sacred timber circle<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDAwOTQ4Mn0.eVJAUcD0uBUkVMFuMOPSgH8EssGkfLf_MjwUv0zGCI8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C149%2C0%2C149&height=700" id="9de6a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ee66520d470b26f5c055eaef0b95ec06" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="An aerial view of the sacred circular monument." data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
An aerial view of the sacred circular monument.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>One of the most compelling archaeological discoveries at Wellwick Farm are the indications of a huge ceremonial circle once circumscribed by timber posts lying south of the Bronze Age burial site. Though the wooden posts have rotted away, signs of the post holes remain. It's thought to date from the Neolithic period to 5,000 years ago, according to Wood.</p><p>This circle would have had a diameter stretching 210 feet across and consisted of two rings of hundreds of posts. There would have been an entry gap to the south-west. Five posts in the very center of the circle aligned with that same gap, which, according to Wood, appeared to have been in the direction of the rising sun on the day of the midwinter solstice. </p><p>Similar Neolithic timber circles have been discovered around Great Britain, such as one near <a href="https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/stonehenge-sarsens" target="_blank">Stonehenge</a> that is considered to date back to around the same time. </p>
Research reveals a new evolutionary feature that separates humans from other primates.
- Researchers find a new feature of human evolution.
- Humans have evolved to use less water per day than other primates.
- The nose is one of the factors that allows humans to be water efficient.
A model of water turnover for humans and chimpanzees who have similar fat free mass and body water pools.
Credit: Current Biology
Being skeptical isn't just about being contrarian. It's about asking the right questions of ourselves and others to gain understanding.
- It's not always easy to tell the difference between objective truth and what we believe to be true. Separating facts from opinions, according to skeptic Michael Shermer, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, and others, requires research, self-reflection, and time.
- Recognizing your own biases and those of others, avoiding echo chambers, actively seeking out opposing voices, and asking smart, testable questions are a few of the ways that skepticism can be a useful tool for learning and growth.
- As Derren Brown points out, being "skeptical of skepticism" can also lead to interesting revelations and teach us new things about ourselves and our psychology.