Colonize Mars? Elon Musk, SpaceX and NASA are making big plans

NASA's Michelle Thaller shares her prediction of what it will take to get people to Mars, including what role Elon Musk will play in that effort.

Michelle Thaller: Hey Justin, you ask a really neat question about Elon Musk. There have been wonderful things that he’s been talking about colonizing Mars, obviously putting a Tesla in space, which is playing David Bowie, which I love. He’s a really wonderful person and an inspiration to a lot of us. And one of the misconceptions that a lot of people have is that federal space programs like NASA and commercial space programs like SpaceX run by Elon Musk are in some type of a competition. I am a fan of all things space and one of the things that has been so fun for me in the last few years is the collaboration between those two different realms of space travel. For example, NASA routinely buys SpaceX rockets to put our payloads and our satellites up into space. And that means that as a NASA scientist I’ve gotten to go to several launches and landings of these Falcon rockets. And that’s amazing. It used to be that you would go to a launch and a big rocket would go off and everybody would cheer and then you would get in your cars and you’d drive home and it was all done, the amazing thing now is seven minutes later everybody just walks to the other side of the building and watches the first stage of that rocket land. And that is something that is mind blowing. Your eyes basically it does not compute you cannot believe what you are seeing because this giant thing comes down from space faster than you can imagine. And this is something that’s a several story high building it’s a big thing it comes careening down and just before it gets to the ground it stops, settles down and then gently lands.

And one of the things that I love is that you don’t even hear the sonic boom until after you see it land. You watch this thing come careening down then stop, land gently and then you hear boom, boom because it broke the speed of sound coming in. And that is something that I am just really amazed I lived to be able to see. I love SpaceX and I love NASA’s collaboration. I think what a lot of people don’t realize is that NASA is one of SpaceX’s major customers. We actually buy the rockets and we’d even paid for some of the development of the rockets as well. So it was never a question of one or the other, it was the idea is that we’re collaborating the more companies going into space, hey the better for us the lower the cost of the rockets and the more efficient an industry we have and hopefully the more people that think space travel and space exploration are good things.

Then there are the questions about whether Elon is going to build a giant rocket that can take hundreds of people to Mars, and this is something that as a scientist I am naturally skeptical person that’s how I was trained, right now what I see is a really cool idea it reminds me a lot of my favorite science fiction stories, but it’s basically just that, an idea. I think there’s a long way to go before we actually see any significant colonization, any significant number of people going to Mars. First we need to get one single person to Mars or a small team of people. And that is something that has proven very, very difficult. It’s not so much a question that we can’t build rockets to take us there because even today we have rockets that might have the capability of doing that, the problem is how you would keep a crew of people alive for the journey to Mars and then also alive on the surface and get them back. That would be very expensive and because the astronauts would not be protected from the radiation of space right now we really don’t know how to keep them alive. It’s not impossible, there’s a lot of work that can be done, but when I see people thinking that SpaceX is almost ready to send people to Mars that’s where I have a bit of a wait and see attitude. I would love to see people on Mars. I would love to see SpaceX take people to Mars. I think the Tesla up there heading out toward the asteroid belt is so cool. But, there’s a long way to go and it’s not easy.

I think we’re not going to get there from a single company or a single nation. I think that for something as large as a mission to Mars we need to collaborate on a global scale, work with the Europeans, work with other emerging space markets, maybe work with several different companies not just one. It’s not a single entity, it’s a planet going out and exploring something as big as colonizing Mars. I mean it’s an amazing civilization scale activity. I am somewhat skeptical that in my lifetime I will see people walking on Mars. I hope we do. I’m not holding my breath.

NASA's Michelle Thaller defines the special relationship between Elon Musk and the venerable American space agency. A lot of people don’t realize that NASA is one of SpaceX’s major customers. Thaller shares her prediction of what it will take to get people to Mars, including what role Musk will play in that effort.

Are you an overbuyer or an underbuyer?

One way to limit clutter is by being mindful of your spending.

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  • Overbuyers are people who love to buy — they stockpile things as a result. These are individuals who are prone to run out of space in trying to store their stuff and they may even lose track of what — and how much of what — they have.
  • One way overbuyers can limit their waste, both money and space wise, is by storing items at the store, and then buy them when they really need them.
  • Underbuyers tend to go to extraordinary lengths to not buy things. They save money and do fewer errands, however, they often make do with shabby personal items. They may also, when they finally decide to go out to buy a product, go without entirely because the item may no longer be available.

Five Hawks Down: watch the tragic migration of six Californian raptors

Tracking project establishes northern Argentina is wintering ground of Swainson's hawks

Image: @TrackingTalons / Ruland Kolen
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  • Watch these six dots move across the map and be moved yourself: this is a story about coming of age, discovery, hardship, death and survival.
  • Each dot is a tag attached to the talon of a Swainson's Hawk. We follow them on their very first migration, from northern California all the way down to Argentina.
  • After one year, only one is still alive.

Discovered: destination Argentina

Image: @TrackingTalons

Young Swainson's hawks were found to migrate to northern Argentina

The Buteo swainsoni is a slim, graceful hawk that nests from the Great Plains all the way to northern California.

It feeds mainly on insects, but will also prey on rodents, snakes and birds when raising their young. These learn to fly about 45 days after hatching but may remain with their parents until fall migration, building up flying skills and fat reserves.

A common sight in summer over the Prairies and the West, Swainson's hawks disappear every autumn. While it was assumed they migrated south, it was long unclear precisely where they went.

A group of researchers that has been studying raptors in northern California for over 40 years has now established exactly where young Swainson's hawks go in winter. The story of their odyssey, summarised in a 30-second clip (scroll down), is both amazing and shocking.

Harnessing the hawks

Image: @TrackingTalons, found here on imgur.

A Swainson's hawk, with tracking device.

The team harnessed six Swainson's hawks in July, as they were six weeks old and just learning to fly. The clip covers 14 months, until next August – so basically, the first year of flight.

Each harness contains a solar-powered tracker and weighs 20 grams, which represents just 3% of the bird's body weight. To minimise the burden, only females were harnessed: as with most raptors, Swainson's hawk females generally are bigger than males.

The first shock occurs just one month (or about 2.4 seconds) from the start of the clip: the first dot disappears. The first casualty. A fledgling no more than two months old, who never made it further than 20 miles from its nest.

By that time, the remaining five are well on their way, clustering around the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas. Swainson's hawks usually travel at around 40 mph (65 km/h) but can almost double that speed when they're stooping (i.e. dive down, especially when attacking prey).

'Migration unrest'

There's a strong genetic component to migration. As usual, the Germans have nice single word to summarise this complex concept: Zugunruhe ('tsook-n-roowa'), literally: 'migration unrest' (1). It denotes the seasonal urge of migratory animals – especially birds – to get on their way. Zugunruhe exhibits especially as restless behaviour around nightfall. The number of nights on which it occurs is apparently higher if the distance to be travelled is longer.

The birds may have the urge to go south, but genetics doesn't tell them the exact route. They have to find that out by trial and error. Hence the circling about by the specimens in this clip: they're getting a sense of where to find food and which direction to go. Their migratory paths will be refined by experience – if they're lucky enough to survive that long.

Each bird flies solo: their paths often strongly diverge, and if they seem to meet up occasionally, that's just an illusion: even when the dots are close together, they can still be dozens if not hundreds of miles apart.

Panama snack stop

Image: @TrackingTalons

The Central American isthmus is a major bird migration corridor

They generally follow the same route as it is the path of least resistance: follow mountain ranges, stay over land. Like most raptors, Swainson's hawks migration paths are land-based: not just so they can roost at night, but mainly to benefit from the thermals and updrafts to keep them aloft. That reduces the need to flap wings, and thus their energy spend – even though the trip will take longer that way.

As this clip demonstrates, the land-migration imperative means the Central American isthmus is a hotspot for bird migration. Indeed, Panama and Costa Rica are favourite destinations for bird watchers, when the season's right. A bit to the north, Veracruz in Mexico is another bird migration hotspot.

It's thought most hawks don't eat at all on migration. This clip shows an exception to that rule: on the way back, one bird takes an extended stopover of a couple of weeks in Panama, probably spending its time there foraging for food.

So, when they finally arrive in northern Argentina, after 6 to 8 weeks' migration, the hawks are pretty famished. Until a few decades ago, they fed on locusts. For their own reasons, local farmers have been getting rid of those. The hawks now concentrate on grasshoppers, and basically anything else that's edible.

For first-time visitors, finding what they need is not easy. Three of the five dots go dark. These birds probably died from starvation. But two birds thrive: they roam the region until winter rears its head in South America, and it's time to head back north again, where summer is getting under way.

Both dots make it back across the border, but unfortunately, right at the end of the clip, one of the surviving two birds expires.

Harsh, but not unusual

Image: @TrackingTalons, found here on imgur.

This old lady is 27 years old, but still nesting.

While a one-in-six survival rate may seem alarmingly harsh, it's not that unusual. First-year mortality for Swainson's Hawks is between 50% and 80%. Disease, starvation, predators and power lines – to name just a few common causes of death - take out a big number.

Only 10% to 15% of the young 'uns make it past their third or fourth year into adulthood, but from then on, annual survival rates are much better: around 90%. Adult Swainson's Hawks can expect to live into their low teens. There's one documented example of a female Swainson's Hawk in the wild who was at least 27 years old (and still nesting!)

The Californian population of Swainson's Hawks plummeted by about 90% at the end of last century but is now again increasing well. The monitoring project that produced this clip has been going for about four decades but is seeing its funding dry up. Check them out and consider supporting them (see details below).

Image: Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies

Migration trajectory of B95, the 'Moonbird'.

Not all migrating birds shun the ocean. Here's an incredible map of an incredible migration path that's even longer than that of the Swainson's hawks.

In February 1995, a red knot (Calidris canutus rufa) in Tierra del Fuego (southern Argentina) was banded with the tag B95. That particular bird, likely born in 1993, was recaptured at least three times and resighted as recently as May 2014, in the Canadian Arctic.

B95 is more commonly known as 'Moonbird', because the length of its annual migration (app. 20,000 miles; 32,000 km) combined with its extreme longevity (if still alive, it's 25-26 years old now) means its total lifetime flight exceeds the distance from the Earth to the Moon.

As many other shorebirds do, the red knot takes the Atlantic Flyway hugging the coastline and crossing to South America via the ocean.

B95 has become the poster bird of conservationists in both North and South America. A book titled Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95 (2012) received numerous awards, B95 has a statue in Mispillion Harbor on Delaware Bay and the City of Rio Grande on Tierra del Fuego has proclaimed B95 its natural ambassador.

Perhaps one day the nameless Swainson's Hawks in this clip, fallen in service of their ancestral instincts – against the odds of human increasing interference – will receive a similar honour.

Migration clip found here at the DataIsBeautiful subreddit. Read through the comments to learn a lot more about Swainson's Hawks, and raptors in general.

Check out the California raptor tracking programme 'Tracking Talons' on Twitter at @TrackingTalons, on their Facebook page, and on their website.

Strange Maps #965

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

(1) 'Zug' is a wonderfully polyvalent German word. It can mean: a train, a chess move, a characteristic, a stroke, a draft (of a plan), a gulp (of air), a drag (from a cigarette), a swig (from a bottle), and more.

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