Dr. Alan Stern is a planetary scientist with the Southwest Research Institute. He’s also the co-founder and chief scientist of World View, working with high altitude balloon research. He is perhaps most famous as the principle investigator for NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto. Way back in grade school, Alan was interested in space exploration and wanted to be a part of the Star Trek future. He received his Ph.D. in planetary science from the University of Colorado, and that launched his life-long interest in Kuiper Belt Objects and the Oort Cloud. He’s a licensed pilot, was selected by NASA as a Payload Specialist, and has flown research missions in high performance jet aircraft. We talked about his career, the New Horizons mission design, Pluto discoveries (and planetary classification) and his latest research.
Let’s say you could travel 50 light years from Earth, or maybe 100. What would you hear? That’s exactly what Lightyear.fm shows us, and it’s eerily awesome. The site’s developers used more than 120 years of data from Billboard to simulate the radio transmissions we’d hear—assuming the inverse square law of propagation didn’t exist, of course. What they came up with is akin to taking an FM radio on the Starship Enterprise and warping away from Earth. Listening to more recent songs is cool, but I loved the surreal sensation of feeling like I’m 100 light years from Earth catching hollow sounding early radio transmissions.
Elon Musk isn’t the only CEO who has his eyes on reusable, commercial space vehicles. Recently, Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos floated a white paper to NASA management that outlines a plan to send as much as 10,000 pounds of cargo, in a lunar lander, to the moon in a single trip. It’s called Blue Origin. The target would be near the Moon’s south pole, the Shackleton Crater, where there are sections of permanent sunlight that may also harbor ice, key to a permanent human base. It all sounds very Robert Heinlein-esque, these billionaires setting out on new commercial missions. Very cool.
Dr. Phil Plait is an astronomer and a very popular science communicator. His blog, Bad Astronomy, “covers the entire universe, from subatomic particles to the Big Bang itself, astronomy, space exploration, and the effect of politics on science.” Like many young astronomers, Phil’s interest in astronomy ignited when he first saw Saturn and its rings through a telescope. He earned his Ph.D. working on the study of supernovae with the Hubble Space Telescope. We chatted about his career, his enduring work in amateur astronomy with his telescope, his love for science communication, why people who don’t believe in the Apollo moon landings are wrong, the study of a potentially dangerous asteroid or comet collision with Earth, how climate change is affecting us, and the recent discovery of a nearby solar system with Earth-like planets.
The history of space flight is amazing, especially when you take into account the vast distances between planets and the complex flight paths spacecraft take to get to their otherworldly destinations. Pop Chart Lab does a great job of showing what humans have accomplished in their beautiful Chart of Cosmic Exploration. The 39-inch by 27-inch color print details the routes for about 100 different craft that have gone to the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. The print costs US$38 and you can pick it up at the Pop Chart Lab website.