Category Archives: Beary Scientist

The Right Stuff

Is more like Sheer Damn Luck Stuff or Flying by the Seats of Your Pants Stuff.

After the second world war, the US ran a testing programme for high-speed, rocket-powered aircraft at Muroc field, later Edwards air force base, in southern California. The era also saw the early days of the space programme and the selection of the US’s first astronauts, known as the Mercury Seven.

The Mercury Seven in 1960. Back row: Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, Gordon Cooper; front row: Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter. This was the only time they would appear together in pressure suits. Slayton and Glenn are wearing spray-painted work boots.

Tom Wolfe hung out with the Mercury Seven, absorbed their culture and jargon, watched as leather helmets and goggles were replaced by shiny silver suits with NASA logos. And wrote THE book.

Wolfe’s best-selling book was adapted for the screen by William Goldman, who then had a series of “nightmarish” meetings with director Kaufman; Goldman walked out, and the final writing credit is Kaufman’s alone. Wolfe’s book began with Yeager, who Goldman wanted to dump because he had nothing to do with the central story, but “Phil’s heart was with Yeager,” Goldman writes in his memoir Adventures in the Screen Trade. Goldman wanted to focus the selection and training of the Mercury Seven, and on three crucial flights. But Kaufman of course was correct: The Right Stuff is a greater film because it is not a straightforward historical account but pulls back to chronicle the transition from Yeager and other test pilots to a mighty public relations enterprise.

The film begins with test pilot Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) going for a drink in a local bar, and casually signing up to break the sound barrier. “If you ask me, I think the damn thing doesn’t exist,” he says gruffly. Then he falls off his horse while riding it around the desert in a daring competition with his firecracker wife Glennis (Barbara Hershey). He breaks two ribs, but pretends to be fine so they won’t take him off the mission – and then successfully pilots the Bell X-1, becoming the first man to go faster than the speed of sound. Yeager appears to have sprung straight from the Big Book of American Heroes – strong jaw, cowboy hat, horse sense, stoic manner – but he really was like this, and doubtless still is (he is now 95 years old). He last broke the sound barrier in 2012, aged 89, in an F-15. Total badass.

Meanwhile, in Washington D.C., President Dwight D Eisenhower (Robert Beer) and Senator Lyndon B Johnson (Donald Moffat) are upset that the Soviets have gone and launched Sputnik-1 into outer space before they got their act together. “How the hell did they ever get ahead of us?” Johnson bellows. The answer is swiftly and amusingly illustrated when his aides cannot find the plug socket to get the meeting-room projector working. The chief scientist is unflustered. “Our Germans are better than their Germans,” he says, alluding to the fact that both the Soviet and US rocket and space programmes after the war owed a great deal to former Nazi scientists.

When Robert Beer leans under the shadows, you catch your breath – you’re looking full into the face of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Donald Moffat has created a perfect LBJ caricature. John F. Kennedy is there as well, but in newsreel footage so skilfully intercut that he also seems to be a member of the cast.

As the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becomes the first man in space, beating the Americans again, by less than a month, Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn) has to settle for being the second man in space. As the Americans plan to retaliate with the first manned space flight, some think they should use an animal rather than a person. “The first American in space is not going to be a chimpanzee,” growls Eisenhower. Possible candidates for astronauts included surfers, acrobats and rally drivers (“They already have their own helmets,” says a scientific adviser, chirpily. “I don’t know if that’s a factor.”). The film is right that it was Eisenhower who insisted that astronauts be drawn from a field of test pilots – even though they would have little role in actually piloting the craft.

As Alan Shepard waits for take-off, he desperately needs to pee and has to go in his own spacesuit. This is accurate. The response of the German scientist to the request for urinating in the space suit is hilarious. “We did not think if this! It is only a 15 minute flight.” The scientists failed to account for the hours and hours of pre-flight testing during which time Shepard was strapped in the capsule. Because of the placement of the porthole windows, Shepard was unable to catch a glimpse of the stars, and he was strapped in too tight to experience weightlessness. Human chimpanzee.

Never far from the centre of the flame is the astronaut’s battle against becoming “lab rabbits”, subject to the prying and poking of white-smocked researchers who seem convinced that a chimpanzee can be trained to do anything that a man can do in space, and be far more tractable in the process. Later, there is the battle with the research scientists, who have prepared a capsule without windows, escape hatch or steering controls. And still later is the fight with NASA’s PR people (in the person of John P. Ryan), who want to extract every last inch of publicity from their daring exploits, no matter how much of their privacy is invaded.

The Right Stuff – Scott Glenn as Alan Shepard, Fred Ward as Gus Grissom, Dennis Quaid as Gordon Cooper, Lance Henriksen as Wally Schirra, Scott Paulin as Deke Slayton, Ed Harris as John Glenn, Charles Frank as Scott Carpenter

Two men haunt Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff. One speaks little, the other hardly at all. The laconic one is Chuck Yeager, generally acknowledged as the best test pilot of all time, who judges himself by his achievements, not his words. The other is the minister at the Air Force testing grounds in the California desert, who officiates at the frequent funerals and is a spectral presence at the bar where the pilots and their women drink.

Sam Shepard as Chuck Yaeg in The Right Stuff

A newly arrived wife asks how her husband can get his photo on the wall. The answer: He has to die. We overhear a snatch of dialogue: “Sixty-two men in the last 32 weeks. You know what that average is?” Every time a pilot tests a new plane, he has a one in four chance of dying – or, as the pilots like to say, “screwing the pooch”.

Seen in the shadow of the Challenger and Columbia disasters, The Right Stuff is a grim reminder of the cost of sending humans into space. It is also the story of two kinds of courage, both rare, and of the way the “race for space” was transformed from a secret military program into a public relations triumph.

Reporters at one of the early flights of the Bell X-1 rocket plane are told “No press! Those are orders. National security.” Before long everyone is elbowing into the spotlight. The first seven “astronauts” are introduced along with their wives and families, and Henry Luce writes a $500,000 check to buy their exclusive stories for his Life magazine. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson fumes in his car when John Glenn’s wife Annie, a shy stutterer, won’t let him into her house along with the network crews. “You need more than speed records in this day and age,” a program publicist explains. “You need coverage.” The Mercury program has to compete for funding with other budget items, and as the astronauts tell one another “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”

The astronauts suit up in The Right Stuff

When the Kaufman film was released in 1983, it was hailed as one of the great American films, capturing the spirit and reflecting the reporting of Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book about the early days of the space program – a book that argued that Yeager (Sam Shepard) was so influential that his manner of speech was unconsciously echoed by commercial airline pilots while making announcements from the cockpit. Yet the movie was a puzzling flop at the box office. Some blamed confusion in the public mind between the movie and John Glenn’s run for public office.

More likely, even then, audiences were not ready for a movie that approached the space program with scepticism, comedy and irony. The original astronauts laboured under no similar handicap; they were heroes to Life magazine, but knew Werner von Braun and the German scientists behind the first launches would have preferred to have monkeys in the capsules. Yeager, who felt they were riding, not flying, the capsules, called them “Spam in a can,” and in a famous scene the astronauts argue for a porthole even though the designers argue they have no need to see anything during their brief rides into space – no reason to do anything but sit tight.

Ed Harris as John Glenn in The Right Stuff

But then John Glenn (Ed Harris) used his piloting skills to find the exact angle of entry and save a Mercury capsule from incinerating – something no monkey could have done – and later the desperate improvisations of the Apollo 13 crew saved that mission and their lives, inspiring Ron Howard’s 1995 movie. There was nothing the Challenger and Columbia crews crew could have done to save themselves, restarting the controversy over manned versus unmanned flights. But in those early days when the Soviets were the first to put a man into orbit, there was no way an American would not follow. The “space race” continues to be symbolised by human astronauts, even now when it is less a race than the loneliness of long-distance fliers.

Liftoff of Mercury-Atlas 6, carrying the spacecraft Friendship 7 and astronaut John Glenn on the third space flight of NASA, America’s first crewed orbital flight, February 20, 1962.

In early scenes, as Yeager and his test pilot rival Scott Crossfield try to break through Mach 1, then Mach 2, then “punch a hole in the sky”, to “where the demon lives, out at about Mach 2.3”, they’re watched by friends on the ground who lean against Jeeps, smoking cigarettes. Before many more years, launches pre-empt all other TV programming, and newsman Eric Severeid (playing himself) informs television viewers they’re about to witness “the greatest death-defying stunt ever broadcast”. By then the “capsule” had been renamed the “spacecraft” – even though it could not fly on its own and, smaller than a teepee, worked much like Evil Knievel’s original vehicles by strapping a passenger into a container on top of a rocket and blasting off. (After one launch, a pilot informs Mission Control, “the altimeter is working!”)

Those were the first small steps for man, giant leaps for mankind, and at the end of the road was the 1969 moon landing and other astonishing triumphs. But at first the idea was simply to get an American up there, pronto. “I for one do not intend to go to sleep by the light of a Communist moon,” declared Vice President Johnson, and Glenn agrees to take a ride on an untested rocket he is warned is dangerous.

That took courage, and in one of his longest speeches in the movie, Yeager says so: To sit on top of tons of explosives and be blasted into orbit was more daring than flying an untested aircraft. The astronauts of course were test pilots, too, good and brave ones; it’s just that at first their piloting skills were not needed. “We are the monkey,” says Grissom.

The star of the Mercury Seven is John Glenn (Ed Harris) – for he is both handsome and incredibly good at spouting wholesome patriotic platitudes in front of newsmen. “I just thank God I live in a country where the best and the finest in a man can be brought out,” he says. He is also the only astronaut portrayed with a sense of morality that they were now public figures and responsible for a certain standard of behaviour. The other men are shown to be “rough around the edges” – married men who slept with younger female fans, cursed, drank, and made off-colour and culturally inappropriate jokes.

Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff has been controversial for its portrayal of astronaut Virgil “Gus” Grissom (Fred Ward). Grissom’s Liberty Bell 7 craft sank in the sea after the hatch opened too quickly on landing. Some blamed Grissom for panicking and opening the hatch himself. Grissom blamed it on a technical error. The film avoids showing the critical moment and thus leaves the question of what happened unanswered. In fact, Grissom may well not have been at fault – and the film is kinder to him than the book. Whatever the truth, the incident gives it a chance to show accurately the pressure that was on these men. “I wanted to eat in the White House!” his wife bawls afterwards. “I wanted to talk to Jackie [Kennedy] about … things!” Grissom was killed a few years later in the Apollo 1 fire of 1967 (shown in First Man).

Kaufman’s love for the Yeager character pays off in the magical closing sequence of the film, when the “best pilot in the world” eyeballs anew Air Force jet and says, “I have a feeling this little old plane right here might be able to beat that Russian record.” And it nearly does. On an unauthorized flight, he takes it almost to 120,000 feet (36,600 meters) – the stars are visible – before plane and pilot fall exhausted back to the earth. Yup, Chuck Yeager crashed a Lockheed NF-104A, and he survived. Both the crash and the consequences.

Beary Astronauts at the Movies

Movies have helped shape the way that we think about outer space since the dawn of cinema, with the 1902 short A Trip to the Moon by the French director Georges Melies being one of the first films ever made. Ever since NASA was created to help us explore space, Hollywood has glamorised the profession of the astronaut, making it look like one of the most cool, intense, dangerous, and difficult jobs that only true heroes are up to the task for.

For most people, and bears 🙂 , watching movies about space is the closest they will ever get to the astronaut experience. From documentaries, to dramas based on real-life space missions, to sci-fi thrillers, space movies force us to grapple with deep issues relating to the human experience, while simultaneously presenting us with the best visual effects out there. While many space movies are utterly divorced from reality, a few balance wit with historical accuracy. These few movies still have moments of dramatic licence, but overall they are terrific historical films about the space race: accurately reflective of a complex reality, beautifully filmed, and done with wit, energy and an impressive sense of balance.

The Right Stuff

The Right Stuff is a 1983 American drama film that was adapted from Tom Wolfe’s best-selling 1979 book of the same name about the Navy, Marine and Air Force test pilots who were involved in aeronautical research at Edwards Air Force Base, California, as well as the seven military pilots who were selected to be the astronauts for Project Mercury, the first attempt at manned spaceflight by the United States. The film was a box-office failure, grossing approximately $21 million against a $27 million budget. Despite this, it received widespread critical acclaim and eight Oscar nominations at the 56th Academy Awards, four of which it won. In 2013 the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

It’s next on our list to watch, as soon as we can get hold of a DVD! We expect it’s funny too! It shows President Dwight D Eisenhower (Robert Beer) and Senator Lyndon B Johnson (Donald Moffat) in Washington DC, upset that the Soviets have gone and launched Sputnik-1 into outer space before they got their act together. “How the hell did they ever get ahead of us?” Johnson bellows. The answer is swiftly and amusingly illustrated when his aides cannot find the plug socket to get the meeting-room projector working.

Apollo 13 – Bill Paxton as Fred Haise, Tom Hanks as Jim Lovell, Kevin Bacon as Jack Swigert

Apollo 13 is Ron Howard’s painstakingly accurate portrayal of the events surrounding NASA’s attempted third moon landing in 1970, which was derailed by an explosion on the spaceship that turned the mission into an attempt to get three astronauts home safely. NASA heavily cooperated with the movie by providing technical assistance to the actors that included astronaut and flight training, as well as permission to film aboard a reduced gravity aircraft to get the most accurate shots of weightlessness possible. The famous quote “Houston, we have a problem” comes from this movie, which is slightly altered from what was actually said during the Apollo 13 emergency. The words actually spoken, initially by Jack Swigert, were “Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here”. After being prompted to repeat the transmission by CAPCOM Jack R. Lousma, Lovell responded, “Uh, Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

Hidden Figures – Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson, Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson and Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughn

Hidden Figures is the rare true story-based historical drama that succeeds at being as inspirational and feel-good as it aspires to be. Hidden Figures tells the true story of three black female mathematicians who worked at NASA in the 1960s. Being an astronaut is pretty awesome and heroic, but imagine what it must have taken to excel in a STEM field as a black woman in the segregated America of the ‘60s.

Hidden Figures
In the Shadow of the Moon

In the Shadow of the Moon is an excellent documentary that focuses on the “Space Race” days of the 1960s and ‘70s, when the United States finally achieved the feat of putting a man – or in this case, men – on the Moon. The 2007 documentary features never-before-seen NASA footage from the Apollo missions, as well as interviews with the surviving astronauts of the era. It is available on Netflix.

Did you know that 12 men walked on the moon? They were Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (Apollo 11), Pete Conrad and Alan Bean (Apollo 12), Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell (apollo 14), David Scott and James Irwin (Apollo 15), John Young and Charles Duke (Apollo 16), Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt (Apollo 17).

The Last Man on the Moon

The 2014 documentary The Last Man on the Moon shows just how arduous, mentally and physically, the life of an astronaut can be. The documentary uses a combination of archival footage, interviews, and visual effects to allow astronaut Eugene Cernan to relay the story of his 1972 trip to the Moon. It is available on Netflix.

First Man, Damien Chazelle’s turbulently spectacular and enthralling drama about Neil Armstrong and his journey through the space program of the 1960s, also shows there is nothing tranquil or reassuring about riding in a dirty cramped rocket ship surrounded by buttons and dials. It’s closer to being trapped in some purgatory of explosive dread.

When Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), his body wedged into the claustrophobic compartment of a Gemini space capsule, takes off, the craft he’s on shakes so violently it feels like it’s going to burst apart. It’s not just that the ride is more rough-and-tumble, and more starkly terrifying, than anything we’ve seen in a drama of space flight before. It’s that the jittery energy on display is essentially industrial. Armstrong has been strapped into a machine that’s built to tear a hole in the fabric of what’s possible. That’s why the thrust of the ride is so violent. The capsule shakes because it’s a force of entropy. It stands for the world as we know it coming apart.

As a side note, at the Space Center Houston, there is a space simulator to provide a realistic experience of space travel for visitors. The realism had to be toned down considerably. Originally designed to provide an entirely realistic experience of space travel, the shaking was too violent for the general public.

Space simulator at Space Center Houston

Chazelle knows that the story of the NASA space program has been told before (quite memorably, in its way, in The Right Stuff). So his audacious strategy is to make a movie so revelatory in its realism, so gritty in its physicality, that it becomes a drama of hellbent danger and obsession. First Man, which is Chazelle’s first feature since La La Land, is a docudrama in the most authentic and exciting sense of the word. Chazelle restricts the action almost entirely to the point-of-view of the astronauts themselves: the things they literally see and hear during their missions (the movie eschews panoramic shots they aren’t privy to), along with what they’re thinking and feeling.

From the dizzy and volatile opening sequence, in which Armstrong, as a test pilot in 1961, rides an X-15 up into the black clouds, ripping through the air to the point that he almost can’t get back (mission control: “Neil, you’re bouncing off the atmosphere”), the movie is tethered to everything that he experiences: the random shards of sky looming up out of cramped windows, the topsy-turvy angles, the whole existential inside-the-cockpit zooming-into-the-void craziness of it all. Propelled by Linus Sandgren’s raw-light cinematography and Tom Cross’s hypnotic editing, First Man is so immersive in its glitchy, hurtling, melting-metal authenticity that it makes a space drama like Apollo 13 look like a puppet show.

The fact that space travel, viewed from the inside, could look and feel so much more abrasive and hazardous than we might ever have thought is part of the raw power of First Man. Yet what finally gets to you about the movie, and makes it a haunting experience, is that the quivery peril of being aboard a rocket ship incarnates something indelible about what the space program was about: not just a “new frontier”, but a culture’s way of defying death. The movie captures that death was always part of it. The steep risk factor, the sheer number of pilots and astronauts who lost their lives, the scary macabre thrust of the voyages — it was all a dream poised on the edge of an abyss. First Man bears the same relation to the space dramas that have come before it that Saving Private Ryan did to previous war films. The movie redefines what space travel is, the way it lives inside our imaginations, by capturing what the stakes really were.

Armstrong, as Gosling plays him, is a stoic but inwardly troubled figure who becomes a tersely triumphant warrior in orbit. NASA needs pilots with a background in engineering, and Armstrong is a superior engineer, which at times proves instrumental to his survival in space. First Man demonstrates that the astronauts, in case anyone doubted it, were much more than “Spam in a can”. They truly had to pilot. The movie follows Armstrong from the dawn of the ’60s, when he and his wife, Jan (Claire Foy), are desperately fighting to save their little daughter from succumbing to cancer. They lose the battle, leaving them with their son (before long, they have another boy), but the death of that child shadows Armstrong. It’s a reminder that loss is built into what he’s doing.

In First Man, Chazelle orchestrates a highly original mood of adventure drenched in anxiety. The script, by Josh Singer (The Post, Spotlight), doesn’t waste time on standard biopic scenes — like, for instance, dramatizing the backroom politics of which astronaut gets chosen for which mission. The film’s attitude, which mirrors Armstrong’s vantage as a loyal US space soldier, is that whatever happens happens. The techno-chatter from Houston, always crackling through the capsule radio (“We have your ground TPI backup when you’re ready to copy”), is part of the movie’s excitement, its you-are-there quality.

Once Neil and his family arrive in Houston, where they move into a tract-home neighbourhood along with several of the other astronauts’ families, Chazelle depicts Armstrong and his buddies in quick, fleet, finely staged scenes that nail the essence of their camaraderie — a kind of leftover-’50s straight-arrow bond that’s always hovering around the unspoken fact that they’re rivals as well as pals, and that any one of them might end up a goner. The actors make vivid impressions, from Patrick Fugit as the warm and trusting Elliot See to Jason Clarke, who plays Ed White as the sharpest and most convivial of Neil’s buddies, to Corey Stoll as the tell-it-like-it-is Buzz Aldrin, who’s so spiky and blunt about his ambition that no one can stand him.

Gosling gives a tricky, compelling performance that grows on you. He plays Armstrong as a brainy go-getter who has learned to hold what he feels inside (Neil, we learn, wrote musicals in college, and is now ashamed of it). Yet he lets out just enough emotion, especially when someone crosses him, to exude a quiet command. Shortly after he’s chosen to be a Gemini astronaut, Armstrong is strapped into a spherical training simulator that looks like a cross between a carnival ride and a medieval torture device. It turns you every which way at once, which results in each astronaut passing out, then running into the bathroom to throw up. But by the time Armstrong gets to ride a rocket in Gemini 8, the simulation turns real: His mission is to dock his capsule to an adjacent rocket, which happens without a hitch, but then everything goes haywire. The capsule starts “rolling left” (ie spinning out of the control). Gosling makes Armstrong a figure of intensely contained can-do moxie whose ability to guide a ship, especially when it’s at death’s door, is the essence of grace under pressure.

Like The Right Stuff, there’s no sugar-coating the spectre of death that haunts even training missions. The horrors of fiery catastrophe hang heavy over the proceedings, with the shocking loss of friends and colleagues amplified through well-judged dramatic understatement. The space vessels themselves are in constant danger of falling apart, accurately portrayed as an alarming collection of screws and rivets that Janet dismisses as “balsa wood” boys’ toys. It’s no surprise when someone asks for a Swiss army knife to do some last-minute adjustments. Rather than revelling in the majesty of space travel, First Man puts its audience inside a tin can as it shakes and rattles its claustrophobic way into the sky.

The suspense of it all!

As the space program comes into focus, with the explicit Cold War goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade, Neil rises in the ranks, going places no human has before, yet at every turn the journey is marked by the comrades he loses. Each new flight marks an attempt to do something beyond what the previous flight accomplished, so each contains a new seed of hazard. The missions are about the NASA engineers testing out their ships’ ability to orbit, then to dock, then to release smaller ships into space (the strategy that will produce the Eagle module that lands on the lunar surface). That means that every flight, from the first Gemini mission to the Apollo moon landing, is literally unprecedented. Everything is planned out, but on some level the missions are all acts of conjecture; each flight is winging it. That’s why there are huge mistakes, and huge tragedies (like the moment Ed White, Virgil “Gus” Grissom and Roger Chaffee burn to death in the cockpit during preflight testing for the first manned Apollo mission).

It’s no wonder that Armstrong’s wife is a nervous wreck. Claire Foy plays Jan as someone who just wants a “normal” life but is leading it behind a mask of frozen woe. As the film goes on, Foy’s performance grows in antsy, chain-smoking force, and we realise that Jan’s burden isn’t only her fear. It’s that it’s her job to feel all the emotions her husband buries. She knows how much NASA is making this up as it goes along (“You’re a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood! You don’t have anything under control!”). Armstrong and his astronaut cronies may be famous, but they’re a million miles from the public, from the reporters who pester them at press conferences, from the Congressional leaders who are tired of funding them. They’re in their own private bunker of frayed-nerve space dreams.

Throughout the film, Chazelle finds ways to come at his subject from unconventional and even playful angles. At one point, he throws in the Gil Scott-Heron poem “Whitey On the Moon”, to capture the degree to which not everyone in the late ’60s was on board with the space program. As for the lunar landing itself, that cosmic pageant finds its drama in the ironic matter-of-factness with which Chazelle stages it. Here’s one event that’s already fixed, in our mind’s eye, as the greatest sci-fi movie reality ever made, so First Man plays it neutral and deadpan, showing us the moon through the capsule window as a death zone of luminous rubble, then reveling in the texture of the powdery surface, the spooky remoteness of Armstrong gazing down at his boot as he takes that first step. It’s a staggering victory with a hidden hint of the surreal, maybe even the insane. It makes Neil Armstrong an American hero, but he needs to get back to reality.

First Man isn’t merely timed for awards season. We hope it gets all the awards! It’s also set to lead into the 50th anniversary of Armstrong’s moon walk. 8 months, 14 days and counting. The year long celebrations are well under way. After seeing First Man, it’s doubtful that you’ll ever think about space flight, or Armstrong’s historic walk, in quite the same way. You’ll know more deeply how it happened, what it meant and what it was, and why its mystery, more than ever, still lingers. Beary recommended!

Quiz Night

Ever wondered if you’ve got what it takes to be an astronaut?

With four rounds, this quiz is a combination of various NASA aptitude tests. It will examine your knowledge of physics, test your logic, and then ask you how you’d react when faced with various life or death scenarios. There’s also a NASA general knowledge round at the end.

Give it a go and see if you could make it as an astronaut, or if you should keep your feet firmly planted on planet Earth.

Round one: physics!

If an object is in motion, what kind of energy does it possess?

What does the “C” stand for in this famous equation E = mc2 ?
Speed of light!

What cannot happen to energy?
It cannot be destroyed!

What is a nebula?
A cloud of dust and gas!

Isabelle, that’s not how a quiz works! You don’t ask the questions and then answer them yourself.

But I know all the answers!

Look, you can have dessert first!


Ok bearyone, round two: logic.

Planet : Mars  –  Fabric : ?

  • Flexible
  • Denim
  • Trousers

Infancy is to nursery, as adolescence is to?

  • Youth
  • High school
  • Teenager

Threatening : Growl  –  ? : Rainbow

  • Weather
  • Omnious
  • Colourful

Medicine : Illness

  • Law : Anarchy
  • Hunger : Thirst
  • Love: Treason

Round three: psychological screening.

You discover a fire on board the space station. What’s the FIRST thing that you do?

  • Grab your oxygen mask
  • Call Mission Control
  • Try to extinguish the fire
  • Sound the alarm and leave

You’re trapped in a lift with 10 strangers. People are starting to get panicked. What should you do?

  • See if you can work out a logical way to get everyone out the lift
  • Close your eyes and stay calm – help is coming
  • Attempt to calm down the people who are most distressed
  • Start screaming. Loud.

During a mission to the Moon, you and your crew crash land 200 miles away from the mother ship. You have to walk there. Apart from your oxygen tank, what’s the MOST IMPORTANT thing to take with you?

  • A box of matches
  • Signal flares
  • 20 litres of water
  • First-aid kit

You’ve discovered alien life on Mars, and brought a sample back to the ship. What should you do next?

  • Send it back down to Earth so it can be tested in a laboratory
  • Isolate it, ensuring it has no contact with the crew
  • Immediately begin tests
  • Call Mission Control

Round four: NASA general knowledge.

Which NASA space shuttle exploded 73 seconds into its flight, killing all the astronauts on board?

  • Explorer
  • Challenger
  • Galileo
  • Saturn V

Which was the first Apollo mission to successfully land on the Moon?

  • Apollo 10
  • Apollo 11
  • Apollo 12
  • Apollo 13

What is NASA’s motto?

  • For tomorrow’s future
  • To infinity and beyond
  • For the benefit of all
  • Onwards and upwards

How many astronauts can live on the International Space Station at once?

  • 6
  • 10
  • 15
  • 20

I’ll just finish this 🙂

Looks like pizza and no dessert, bearyone…

How did you go? Are you joining the bears and Buzz on the ISS? 🙂

Buzz Lightyear on the ISS

Answers: Denim; High School; Colourful; Law : Anarchy; Sound the alarm and leave; Attempt to calm down the people who are most distressed; 20 litres of water; Isolate it, ensuring it has no contact with the crew; Challenger; Apollo 11; For the benefit of all; 6.

One in a Trillion

Every single speck of sky visible from Earth contains a galaxy. So take a look at the night sky tonight and know that although you can’t see them, no matter where you look, the sky is packed with galaxies.

The number of galaxies scattered throughout the universe is beyond imagination. An analysis of images from the Hubble Space Telescope suggests that there are roughly two trillion galaxies populating space — ten times previous estimates.

Hubble’s eXtreme Deep Field Image (NASA)

The analysis uses mathematical models to estimate the number of both visible and hidden galaxies in snapshots like Hubble’s famous Deep Field image. The models suggest that only about ten percent of galaxies in the universe are observable from Earth. That means our current technology misses about 90 percent of what’s out there, including trillions of galaxies, each with tens or hundreds of billions of stars.

This does not mean that the universe is ten times bigger than we thought or that there are tens times the amount of stars. It means those stars are divvied up into many more galaxies than we previously believed.

Researchers have also found that about 13 billion years ago, when the universe began, galaxies were both smaller and roughly ten times more dense than just a few billion years later. This means that over time, galaxies merged with one another creating larger and more complex systems, confirmation of something known as the top-down formation of the universe.

Our own Milky Way galaxy is on schedule to collide with Andromeda galaxy in about 5 billion years. While the collision of two galaxies might conjure up images of mass devastation, the event will be largely imperceptible to our descendants, if any are still around. (They will have had to find another home: By that time, the increasing luminosity of our sun will have rendered Earth uninhabitable.) Galaxies are mostly empty space, so almost no stars or planets will actually collide. Nonetheless, the Milky Way as we know it will cease to exist. Initially, the two galaxies will slide past each other and draw apart until gravity hits the brakes and pulls them back together. As Andromeda and the Milky Way merge, both will lose their disk-like structure, forming a single elliptical galaxy that some astronomers have dubbed “Milkomeda”.

Our nearest large neighbor galaxy is the Andromeda galaxy. (Credit: Bill Schoening, Vanessa Harvey/REU program/NOAO/AURA/NSF)

Andromeda has already eaten up M32p. Andromeda, the Milky Way and M32p, three spiral galaxies in the Local Group, a family of about 50 galaxies in a region of space about 10 light-years across, swirled away near each other, sucking up matter and other smaller galaxies. But one day, Andromeda got so hungry that she crashed into M32p, gobbling her up and ripping her to shreds, leaving a trail of cosmic guts behind. As Andromeda and the Milky Way are roughly the same size, the Milky Way will have a fighting chance at coming out on top when galaxy spirals finally tangle.

The oldest galaxy ever spotted by Hubble is GN-z11, located 13.4 billion light years away. That means that the galaxy existed just 400 million years after the Big Bang. GN-z11 is astonishingly old, but it’s exciting for another reason: its brightness. Scientists didn’t realize that such large, starry galaxies existed so far in the past. They hope to keep studying similar galaxies both with Hubble and with the super-powered James Webb Space Telescope, which will launch in 2021. According to NASA, while Hubble is able to see “toddler galaxies” the Webb’s infrared will allow it to see “baby galaxies”.

GN-z11, the “newest” old galaxy discovered by Hubble. (NASA/ESA)

Scientists calculated the distance to GN-z11 by measuring its redshift. As objects get farther and farther away, the visible light they emit stretches out and shifts more toward the red side of the spectrum. Researchers use these changes in the light’s wavelength relative to what the light would be for a stationary source to figure out how far away the galaxy is — all based on Edwin Hubble’s theory that the universe is expanding at a constant rate.

A 2015 image from the Hubble space telescope, highlighting some of the oldest galaxies in the universe. (ESA/NASA)
Galaxy SPT0615-JD is 13.3 billion years old (NASA/ESA/STScI/B. Salmon)

To peer through a telescope is to look back in time. The light reaching the lens has taken millions or even billions of years to travel through the vastness of space, which means every image is a snapshot of the distant past. And NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope is a glorious time traveler, spotting galaxies over 13 billion years old that formed around when the universe began.

An Astronomer’s Paradise

The Milky Way and moon illuminate a lone tree in the Atacama Desert, Chile. (© Nicholas Buer/Corbis)

Chile is an astronomer’s paradise. The country is justly famous for its lush valleys and snowcapped volcanoes, but its most striking scenery may be overhead. It is home to some of the finest places on Earth to enjoy the beauty of the starry sky. If there’s one country in the world that really deserves stellar status, it’s Chile.

If you live in a city, you probably don’t notice the night sky at all. Yes, the moon is visible at times, and maybe you can see a bright planet like Venus every now and then, but that’s about it. Most people are hard-pressed to recognize even the most familiar constellations, and they’ve never seen the Milky Way.

Not so in Chile. A narrow strip of land, 4,300 kilometers long and 350 kilometers at its widest point, Chile is tucked between the Andes Mountains to the east and the Pacific to the west. It stretches from the arid Atacama Desert in the north to the stark granite formations of the Torres del Paine National Park in the south. Large parts of Chile are sparsely populated, and light pollution from cities is hardly a problem. Moreover, the northern part of the country, because of its dry desert atmosphere, experiences more than 200 cloudless nights each year. Even more important to stargazers, Chile provides a clear view of the spectacular southern sky, which is largely invisible from countries north of the Equator.

A lagoon reflects the Milky Way in Atacama, Chile. (© Nicholas Buer/Corbis)

Long before European astronomers first charted the unknown constellations below the Equator, just over 400 years ago, the indigenous people of Latin America knew the southern sky by heart. Sometimes their buildings and villages were aligned with the heavens, and they used the motions of the sun, the moon and the stars to keep track of time. Their night sky was so brilliant that they even could recognize “dark constellations” — pitch-black, sinuous dust clouds silhouetted against the silvery glow of the Milky Way.

It wasn’t until the mid 20th century that Western astronomers were drawn to Chile, in a quest for the best possible sites to build Southern Hemisphere observatories. Americans and Europeans alike explored the mountainous regions east of the port of La Serena, a few hundred kilometers north of the country’s capital, Santiago. Horseback expeditions lasting for many days — back then, there were no roads in this remote part of the world — took them to the summits of mountains like Cerro Tololo, Cerro La Silla and Cerro Las Campanas, where they set up their equipment to monitor humidity (or lack thereof), sky brightness and atmospheric transparency.

Before long, astronomers from American institutions and from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) erected observatories in the middle of nowhere. These outposts experienced their heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, but many of the telescopes are still up and running. European astronomers use the 3.6-meter telescope at the ESO’s La Silla Observatory to search for planets orbiting stars other than the sun. A dedicated 570-megapixel camera attached to the four-meter Blanco Telescope at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory is charting dark matter and dark energy—two mysterious components of the universe that no one really understands.

The European Southern Observatory in La Silla, Chile, just after sunset (© Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS)
Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in La Serena, Chile (© Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis)

If you’re star trekking in Chile, it’s good to know that most professional observatories are open for tourists one day each week, usually on Saturdays. Check out their schedules in advance to prevent disappointment — the drive from La Serena to La Silla may take almost two hours, and the curvy mountain roads can be treacherous. Also, dress warm (it can be extremely windy on the summits), wear sunglasses and apply loads of sunblock.

Most professional observatories are open to visitors only during daytime hours. If you’re after a nighttime experience, the region east of La Serena — especially Valle de Elqui — is also home to a growing number of tourist observatories. The oldest is Mamalluca Observatory, some ten kilometers northwest of the town of Vicuña, which opened in 1998. Here amateur astronomers give tours and introductory lectures, and guides point out the constellations and let visitors gaze at stars and planets through a number of small telescopes. Everyone can marvel at the view of star clusters and nebulae through the observatory’s 30-centimeter telescope.

Mamalluca Observatory in La Serena, Chile (© Barbara Boensch/imageBROKER/Corbis)
The Antennae Galaxies are seen in this image made from the parabolic antennas of the ALMA (Atacama Large Millimetre/Submillimetre Array) project at the El Llano de Chajnantor in the Atacama Desert, October 2011. ALMA is the world’s largest and highest—at 5,000 meters—ground-based astronomical observatory. (© HO/Reuters/Corbis)

You can look through a 63 centimeter telescope at Pangue Observatory, located fifteen kilometers south of Vicuña. At Pangue, astronomy aficionados and astrophotographers can set up their own equipment or lease the observatory’s instruments. Farther south, near the town of Andacollo, is Collowara Observatory, one of the newest tourist facilities in the region. And south of La Serena, on the Combarbalá plain, is Cruz del Sur Observatory, equipped with a number of powerful modern telescopes. Most observatories offer return trips to hotels in Pisco Elqui, Vicuña or Ovalle. Tours can be booked online or through travel agents in town.

The Collowara Observatory in Andacollo, Chile, is a tourist observatory. (© Walter Bibikow/JAI/Corbis)

The night sky displays the glorious constellations of Scorpio and the Southern Cross, the star-studded Milky Way with its many star clusters and nebulae, and of course the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds (two companion galaxies to our own Milky Way). Using today’s digital equipment, all of this can be captured on camera. Little wonder that professional astrophotographers have fallen in love with Chile. Some of them have the privilege of being designated photo ambassadors by ESO: They get nighttime access to observatories, and their work is promoted on the ESO website. Hmmm….

The exterior of the telescope dome at the Las Campanas Observatory in La Serena, Chile, as night falls. Its 250 centimeter telescope is visible inside. (© Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS)
The Milky Way hangs in the sky over the Chilean Death Valley in the Atacama Desert. (© Nicholas Buer/Corbis)

Every traveler to Chile interested in what’s beyond our home planet should visit — and photograph — the country’s Norte Grande region. It’s a surrealistic world of arid deserts, endless salt flats, colorful lagoons, geothermal activity and imposing volcanoes. East of the harbor town of Antofagasta, the Atacama Desert looks like a Martian landscape. In fact, this is where planetary scientists tested the early prototypes of their Mars rovers. The alien quality of the terrain makes you feel as if you’re hiking on a forbidding yet magnificent planet orbiting a distant star.

Atacama Desert

Other than the poles, Chile’s Atacama Desert is the driest place on Earth. Deserts are sometimes defined as environments that receive less than an average of 250mm of rain in a year – the Atacama receives less than 1mm each year. As a result it is almost entirely without greenery, shade, cities or pollution.

Atacama is one of the world’s foremost stargazing centres, with three major international observatories taking advantage of its clean air and huge night skies.

At 2,635 meters above the sea level, at ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), one of the foremost professional astronomical observatories in the world, astronomers enjoy the serene spectacle of sunset above the Pacific Ocean before they switch on the four huge 8.2-meter Unit Telescopes, which are equipped with high-tech cameras and spectrographs that help them unravel the mysteries of the universe. And yes, even this temple of ground-based astronomy is open to visitors only on Saturdays.

ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) is the latest addition to Chile’s professional astronomical facilities. It’s one of the highest (altitude: 5000 meters) and largest ground-based observatories in the world, with 66 antennas, most of them 12 meters across. The actual observatory, at the Llano de Chajnantor, some 50 kilometers southeast of San Pedro, is not open to tourists, but on weekends, trips are organized to ALMA’s Operations Support Facility (OSF), where you can visit the control room and take a look at antennas that have been brought down for maintenance. On clear days the OSF offers stunning views of nearby volcanoes and over the Salar de Atacama salt flat.

Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile

For professional astronomers, Chile will remain the window to the universe for many years to come. On Cerro Las Campanas, plans are in place to build the Giant Magellan Telescope (planned completion 2025), featuring six 8.4-meter mirrors on a single mount. Meanwhile, the European Southern Observatory has chosen Cerro Armazonas, close to Paranal, as the site for the future Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) (planned completion 2024). This monster instrument — which would be the largest optical/near-infrared telescope ever built — will have a 39-meter mirror consisting of hundreds of individual hexagonal segments. It is expected to revolutionize astronomy, and it may be able to detect oxygen and methane — signs of potential life — in the atmospheres of Earthlike planets orbiting nearby stars.

Ian Shelton stands by a telescope at the Las Campanas Observatory. Shelton discovered Supernova 1987A in the Large Magellanic Cloud (immediately to the right of the telescope) with this telescope. (© Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS)

Little bears are off to pack…

The Milky Way

Our Sun and all the planets around it are part of the Milky Way Galaxy. A galaxy is a large group of stars, gas, and dust bound together by gravity. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The Milky Way is a large barred spiral galaxy. All the stars we see in the night sky are in our own Milky Way Galaxy. Our galaxy is called the Milky Way because it appears as a milky band of light in the sky when you see it in a really dark area.

The band of the Milky Way galaxy can be seen at night in areas with dark skies. Here it is seen with several Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Arra (ALMA) antenna. (Credit: ESO/B. Tafreshi)

It is very difficult to count the number of stars in the Milky Way from our position inside the galaxy. Our best estimates tell us that the Milky Way is made up of approximately 100 billion stars. These stars form a large disk whose diameter is about 100,000 light years. Our Solar System is about 25,000 light years away from the center of our galaxy – we live in the suburbs of our galaxy. Just as the Earth goes around the Sun, the Sun goes around the center of the Milky Way. It takes 250 million years for our Sun and the solar system to go all the way around the center of the Milky Way.

We can only take pictures of the Milky Way from inside the galaxy, which means we don’t have an image of the Milky Way as a whole. Why do we think it is a barred spiral galaxy, then? There are several clues.

The first clue to the shape of the Milky Way comes from the bright band of stars that stretches across the sky. This band of stars can be seen with the naked eye in places with dark night skies. That band comes from seeing the disk of stars that forms the Milky Way from inside the disk, and tells us that our galaxy is basically flat.

The Milky Way above the Pinnacles Desert

Several different telescopes, both on the ground and in space, have taken images of the disk of the Milky Way by taking a series of pictures in different directions – a bit like taking a panoramic picture with your camera or phone. The concentration of stars in a band adds to the evidence that the Milky Way is a spiral galaxy. If we lived in an elliptical galaxy, we would see the stars of our galaxy spread out all around the sky, not in a single band.

An all-sky image shows the flat plane of the Milky Way galaxy. (Credit: E. L. Wright/UCLA, The COBE Project, DIRBE, NASA)

Another clue comes when astronomers map young, bright stars and clouds of ionized hydrogen in the Milky Way’s disk. These clouds, called HII regions, are ionized by young, hot stars and are basically free protons and electrons. These are both important marker of spiral arms in other spiral galaxies we see, so mapping them in our own galaxy can give a clue about the spiral nature of the Milky Way. There are bright enough that we can see them through the disk of our galaxy, except where the region at the center of our galaxy gets in the way.

There has been some debate over the years as to whether the Milky Way has two spiral arms or four. The latest data shows that it has four arms, as shown in the artist’s illustration below.

Since we can’t get outside the Milky Way, we have to rely on markers of spiral arms like young, massive stars and ionized clouds. This artist’s conception of the Milky Way’s spiral structure is based on the measured distances of young, hot stars (shown in red) and ionized clouds of hydrogen gas (shown in blue).

Milky Way data model
Credit: Urquhart JS, et al.; Robert Hurt, the Spitzer Science Center; Robert Benjamin

Additional clues to the spiral nature of the Milky Way come from a variety of other properties. Astronomers measure the amount of dust in the Milky Way and the dominant colors of the light we see, and they match those we find in other typical spiral galaxies. All of this adds up to give us a picture of the Milky Way, even though we can’t get outside to see the whole thing.

There are billions of other galaxies in the Universe. Only three galaxies outside our own Milky Way Galaxy can be seen without a telescope, and appear as fuzzy patches in the sky with the naked eye. The closest galaxies that we can see without a telescope are the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. These satellite galaxies of the Milky Way can be seen from the southern hemisphere. Even they are about 160,000 light years from us.

The two satellite galaxies of the Milky Way: the Small Magellanic Cloud (left) and the Large Magellanic Cloud (right).
(Credit: Akira Fujii)

The Andromeda Galaxy is a larger galaxy that can be seen from the northern hemisphere (with good eyesight and a very dark sky). It is about 2.5 million light years away from us, but it’s getting closer, and researchers predict that in about 4 billion years it will collide with the Milky Way. The other galaxies are even further away from us and can only be seen through telescopes.

Our nearest large neighbor galaxy is the Andromeda galaxy. (Credit: Bill Schoening, Vanessa Harvey/REU program/NOAO/AURA/NSF)

The Milky Way moves in the sky following Earth’s rotation as the stars move. For photography, this means there will be different compositions at different times of the night. In the Southern Hemisphere, the core of the Milky Way (the galactic centre) is visible from February to October, with most visibility in June and July.

A stretch of the Milky Way visible from the Southern Hemisphere. At center is the Southern Cross in the constellation Crux. The bright yellow-white star at far left is Alpha Centauri, which is actually a three-star system. The Carina Nebula (NGC 3372) glows in red at the right of the image.
(Credit: Akira Fujii)
The Milky Way above the Pinnacles Desert

Mission to Minerva B

Little bears are at the cinema to watch Living Universe, an interstellar adventure searching for life on another planet, narrated by Dr Karl Kruszelnicki.

Described as not science fiction, but science faction, the documentary blends expert interviews, dramatic space-scapes and an imagined starship journey in its exploration of the quest for interstellar travel.

The film follows the journey of a starship to an imaginary planet Minerva B; set 150 years in the future and piloted by artificial intelligence Captain Artemis, voiced by astrophysicist Professor Tamara Davis.

The Minerva vessel leaves Earth’s orbit. Photo: ARTE France

Trekking the globe to talk to the greatest minds in astrophysics, the Living Universe producers are interested in three simple questions: Where are we going? What will it take to get there? When will we be ready to leave?

So, where are we going? We want to go to Earth2.

Gentry Lee, chief engineer for the Planetary Flight Systems Directorate at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA (and the most excited person in astrophysics, and the most fertile – he has 8 children!), explains that the reason Earth can support life is because it lies in the Goldilocks Zone – positioned the perfect distance away from the star around which it orbits, so it is not too hot and not too cold. Therefore any Earth2 planet we hope to travel to must also orbit around a star at this perfect distance.

And as Steve Squyres, professor of astronomy at Cornell University and interplanetary explorer, explains, any planet where life can be sustained must contain water in liquid form. Steve Squyres is best known for his pioneering work in the robotic exploration of Mars. As the principal investigator on NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission, Squyres oversaw the scientific development of two robot-geologists, Spirit and Opportunity, and assembled the team of scientists whose long-term objective has been to determine how liquid water shaped the Martian surface, and whether the environments that existed when water was present were conducive to life.

In search of Earth2, in March 2009, NASA launched the Kepler Space Telescope, an observatory in space dedicated to finding planets outside our solar system, particularly exoplanets that are around the same size as Earth in the “habitable” (‘Goldie Locks Zone’) regions of their parent star. In March 2018, NASA announced that Kepler is running low on fuel and is expected to cease operations within several months.

Natalie Batalha, an astrophysicist at NASA Ames Research Center, is the project scientist for NASA’s Kepler Mission. Batalha was the scientist who refined the point in the sky — tucked under the wing of Cygnus, the swan — where Kepler would aim as it trailed the Earth. She selected the stars it would observe: 200,000 of them over the course of four years.

Since the launch of Kepler, astronomers have discovered thousands of extra-solar planets, or exoplanets, in the constellation Cygnus through this telescope alone. Most of them are planets that are ranging between the size of Earth and Neptune (which itself is four times the size of Earth).

As of March 2018, Kepler had found 2,342 confirmed planets; add potential planets, and its find of exoworlds stands at 4,587. The mission continues to operate well beyond its scheduled end date, although problems with pointing in 2013 forced mission managers to create a K2 mission in which Kepler swings its view to different spots of the sky.

December 2017 – Over 3,500 exoplanets have been confirmed, with more than 2,500 of those found in the Kepler data. These planets range in size from larger than Jupiter to smaller than Earth. In just a couple of decades, thanks largely to Kepler, we have gone from suspecting exoplanets existed to knowing that there are more exoplanets than stars in our galaxy.

In the early years of exoplanet hunting, astronomers were best able to find huge gas giants — Jupiter’s size and larger — that were lurking close to their parent star. The addition of Kepler (as well as more sophisticated planet-hunting from the ground) means that more “super-Earths” have been found, or planets that are just slightly larger than Earth but have a rocky surface. Kepler’s finds also allow astronomers to begin grouping exoplanets into types, which helps with understanding their origins.

Kepler detected exoplanets through watching for stars dimming as planets pass in front of them. Because star dimming can also take place through other means (for example, another star slightly grazing the surface), in the early days these planets were confirmed through other telescopes, generally by measuring the gravitational “wobble” the planet has on the star.

In February 2014, however, astronomers pioneered a new technique called “verification by multiplicity”, which works in multiple-planet systems. A star with multiple planets around it is gravitationally stable, according to the theory, while a star that is part of a close-knit system of stars would have a more unstable system because of each star’s massive gravity. Through this technique, the team unveiled 715 confirmed planets in one release, which was then the largest single announcement.

Kepler operated far beyond its original mission length and was operating well until May 2013, when a second of its four reaction wheels or gyroscopes failed. The telescope needs at least three of these devices to stay pointed in the right direction. At the time, NASA said the telescope was still in perfect health otherwise, and investigated alternate mission ideas for the hardware.

Within a few months, the agency came up with a mission that it dubbed “K2”. The mission would essentially use the sun’s solar wind to stabilize the telescope’s pointing for several months at a time. Then, about four times a year, the telescope, which is about 4.7 meters long and 2.7 meters in diameter, would move to a different field of view when the sun got too close to its sensors.

While the pace of planetary discovery was less with the new mission, new finds continued to be announced. By January 2016, more than 100 new planets were discovered with the K2 method. More Earth-sized planets were found in the TRAPPIST-1 system, observed by Kepler between December 2016 and March 2017.

Google wasted no time designing a doodle to acknowledge NASA’s discovery of seven Earth-like planets orbiting a single star in the TRAPPIST-1 solar system. Three of the planets are located in the habitable zone, ie the distance from the star it orbits where a rocky planet is most likely to have liquid water.

In February 2018, NASA put out another release of Kepler data with 95 new planets that were found during the K2 mission. One of those planets was orbiting a bright star, making it an easy candidate for follow-up by a ground observatory, like the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, the largest ground-based observatory in the world.

Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile
This conception illustration depicts how solar pressure can be used to balance NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, keeping the telescope stable enough to continue searching for transiting planets around distant stars.
Credit: NASA Ames/W Stenzel

Kepler’s major achievement is showing the sheer variety of planetary systems that are available. Planet systems can exist in compact arrangements within the confines of the equivalent of Mercury’s orbit. They can orbit around two stars, much like Tatooine in the Star Wars universe. And in an exciting find for those seeking life beyond Earth, the telescope has revealed that small, rocky planets similar to Earth are more common than larger gas giants such as Jupiter.

Artist’s conception of Kepler-22B

Kepler’s ability to look at the changing brightness of stars was exploited for the Pleiades, a well-known cluster of stars that is only 400 light-years away and visible to the naked eye. Kepler’s observations provided the best tracking of their variability yet; the telescope also found no new exoplanets in the region.

Kepler has paved the way for NASA’s latest planet-finding mission, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, launched in April 2018. TESS will spend two years studying 200,000 relatively nearby stars, and it’s expected to uncover evidence of a few dozen rocky planets close to our planet, and many other planets of all types. It will monitor stars that are closer to Earth, providing more opportunities for ground observatories to follow up on the data collected. If it detects Earth-like planets close to home, the James Webb Space Telescope (the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope), scheduled to launch in the first quarter of 2019, will then analyze their atmospheres, looking for what Batalha calls the “chemical fingerprints” of life, such as oxygen and methane

Artist’s illustration of NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which will hunt for exoplanets orbiting the brightest stars just outside our solar system.
Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Since its launch in April, TESS has been undergoing a series of commissioning tests before it officially began science operations on July 25. TESS is expected to transmit its first series of science data back to Earth in August, and thereafter periodically every 13.5 days, once per orbit, as the spacecraft makes it closest approach to Earth. The TESS Science Team will begin searching the data for new planets immediately after the first series arrives.

Before NASA’s TESS started science operations on July 25, the planet hunter sent back a stunning sequence of serendipitous images showing the motion of a comet. Taken over the course of 17 hours on July 25, these TESS images helped demonstrate the satellite’s ability to collect a prolonged set of stable periodic images covering a broad region of the sky — all critical factors in finding transiting planets orbiting nearby stars.

Sara Seager, an astrophysicist and planetary scientist at MIT, whose main research goal is to find and identify another Earth, is determined to do so in her lifetime.

Avi Loeb, professor of astronomy at Harvard University. believes both primitive and intelligent forms of life exist away from Earth and we should search them without prejudice.

What will it take to get there? A whole lot of engineering that hasn’t happened yet. Gentry Lee believes that necessity and desire, the mother of invention, will make it happen.

Fueling a trip to an exoplanet would be one of humankind’s greatest challenges to date. There are loads of hurdles that have to be resolved before we ever have the chance to visit an exoplanet: the massive doses of radiation that would be absorbed by would-be astronauts, the potential damage caused by interstellar dust and gas to a craft moving at extremely high speeds, and the fact that traveling to even the nearest habitable exoplanet would take almost 12 years in a spacecraft traveling at the speed of light.

The biggest problem, though, might be the enormous amount of energy such a craft would require. How do you fuel a spacecraft for a journey more than 750,000 times farther than the distance between the Earth and the Sun?

Conventional rockets, like Saturn V, create thrust by burning a chemical propellant stored inside, either a solid or liquid fuel. The energy released as a result of this combustion lifts a craft out of Earth’s gravitational field and into space. Rocket technology is well-established and well-understood. It got us to the moon and in terms of distance, its greatest achievement thus far is carrying the Voyager 1 space probe to the outer edge of the solar system.

However, Voyager 1 is projected to run out of fuel around the year 2040, an indication of how limited in range conventional rockets and thrusters can carry a spacecraft. Moreover, even if we could fit a sufficient amount of rocket fuel onto a spacecraft to carry it all the way to another star, the staggering fact is that we likely don’t even have enough fuel on our entire planet to do so!

Ion engines work somewhat like conventional rockets, except instead of expelling the products of chemical combustion to generate thrust, they shoot out streams of electrically-charged atoms (ions). These engines produce much less thrust and initial speed than a conventional rocket — so they can’t be used to escape the Earth’s atmosphere — but once carried into space by conventional rockets, they can run continuously for much longer periods (because they use a denser fuel more efficiently), allowing a craft to gradually build up speed and surpass the velocity of one propelled by a conventional rocket. Though faster and more efficient than conventional rockets, using an ion drive to travel to even the nearest star would still take an overwhelmingly long time — at least 19,000 years, by some estimates, which means that somewhere on the order of 600 to 2700 generations of humans would be needed to see it through!

Many space exploration enthusiasts have advocated for the use of nuclear reaction-powered rockets to cover vast distances of interstellar space. Nuclear rockets would theoretically be powered by a series of controlled nuclear explosions, perhaps using pure deuterium or tritium as fuel. But nuclear-powered rockets are, at present, entirely hypothetical. In the short-term, they’ll probably stay that way, because the detonation of any nuclear device (whether intended as a weapon or not) in outer space would violate the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which permits such explosions in exactly one location: underground. Even if legally permitted, there are enormous safety concerns regarding the launch of a nuclear device into space atop a conventional rocket: An unexpected error could cause radioactive material to rain across the planet.

Antimatter rockets would use the products of a matter-antimatter annihilation reaction (either gamma rays or highly charged subatomic particles called pions) to propel a craft through space. Using antimatter to power a rocket would theoretically be the most efficient fuel possible, as nearly all of the mass of the matter and antimatter are converted to energy when they annihilate each other. In theory, if we were able to work out the details and produce enough antimatter, we could build a spacecraft that travels at speeds nearly as fast as that of light — the highest velocity possible for any object.

We don’t yet have a way to generate enough antimatter for a space journey — estimates are that a month-long trip to Mars would require about 10 grams of antimatter. To date, we’ve only been able to create small numbers of atoms of antimatter, and doing so has consumed a large amount of fuel, making the idea of an antimatter rocket prohibitively expensive as well. Storing the antimatter would be another issue; proposed schemes involve the use of frozen pellets of antihydrogen, but these too are a far way off.

While the design of an interstellar craft, launch vehicle, and propulsion system all remain unknowns, it hasn’t stopped NASA from beginning work on this 🙂

A small group at NASA’s JPL is working on early concepts of an interstellar probe. The mission, with a proposed launch date in 2069 (the centenary anniversary of the moon landing), would send a probe several light years away to the Centauri system. The Centauri system is the obvious choice for a target as it’s the closest to Earth. A distance of four light years isn’t far on a galactic scale, but it’s a huge distance for any current method of propulsion. Even the New Horizons probe, the fastest deep space mission ever launched at more than 58,000 kilometers per hour, would take around 80,000 years to reach Proxima Centauri. (The New Horizons probe would take around 20,000 years to travel one light-year.) The NASA team has set the goal of reaching 10 percent the speed of light — 107 million kilometers per hour.

JPL researchers are considering a number of propulsion technologies that have been on the drawing board for years including tiny probes with giant laser-propelled sails and matter-antimatter engines. Some of these ideas have the potential to reach as much as a quarter the speed of light. The Breakthrough Starshot initiative is another idea for hitting up to 20% the speed of light using ultra-tiny vehicles.

Even at these unfathomable speeds, it would take decades to reach another star, and the entire mission needs to be automated. Earth is too distant to control the mission (it takes years for a signal to reach Proxima Centauri), so the probe needs to know how to respond to every eventuality on its own.

The fictional starship on route to imaginary planet Minerva B in Living Universe travels at 20 percent the speed of light, which would make interstellar travel achievable within a lifetime. The starship took just over 23 years to reach Minerva B.

When will we be ready to leave? Not this century, and not even the next century! Even the fictional starship in Living Universe, 150 years into the future, is a fully automated unmanned starship, fitted with lots of bots for planet exploration.

The speculative voyage in Living Universe is presented alongside interviews with the world’s top scientific visionaries, drawing from their expertise to offer insights into our collective future exploring deep space.

Using plausible science, engineering, and the latest advances in astrophysics, the quest for answering the most important question of our times – ‘Are we alone?’ – is well underway. Living Universe celebrates Artemis’ interstellar journey as not only possible, but promised in humanity’s not too distant future.

This film is for anyone who has ever wondered as they look up at the stars: what’s really out there?