Category Archives: space

Mars “big thinkers” envision people on the Red Planet

After hearing about the pros, cons, and challenges of sending people to Mars, most of the audience who attended “National Geographic: Mankind to Mars” at Benaroya Hall Monday evening decided that such an effort would be worthwhile. A significantly smaller percentage of attendees would be willing to make the trip themselves.

The straw poll by applause came after a panel discussion moderated by Andrew Fazekas, also known as The Night Sky Guy, a space journalist who writes a column for National Geographic and who is the author of Star Trek; The Official Guide to Our Universe: The True Science Behind the Starship Voyages (National Geographic, 2016). The other panelists were Jedidah Isler, an astrophysicist from Vanderbilt University, and Ray Arvidson, a planetary scientist at Washington University in St. Louis who has had a hand in Mars missions going back to Viking in the 1970s and is the deputy principal investigator for the Mars rover Opportunity mission.

Why Mars?

Fazekas said he got interested in space when he was a little kid and his father showed him Mars through a telescope.

“Mars has always been particularly fascinating to humankind because it’s our nearest neighbor,” Fazekas said, “a neighboring world that beckons us.”

Panel at Mankind to Mars

(L-R) Andrew Fazekas, Jedidah Isler, and Ray Arvidson discuss “Mankind to Mars” May 15, 2017 at Benaroya Hall in Seattle. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

The presentation made liberal use of video clips and images from the Mars miniseries aired by the National Geographic Channel last fall. The panelists covered a wide range of topics, including the history of Mars, its past possible habitability, research by rovers and orbiters at Mars and by people on Earth, rocket and spacecraft design, private space ventures, and the possible setup for a human outpost on Mars.

They also discussed a litany of challenges to making a successful human mission to Mars happen, including getting there and landing safely, radiation, dust, fuel and power, agriculture on Mars, and a host of threats to human physical, mental, and emotional health.

Isler said she’s interested in the “socio-technological” aspects of a human mission to Mars, and thinks interest is building because we keep learning.

“It seems like a good amount of information is there, we’ve got a lot of poepole interested in it,” she noted. “I think it’s just a good time because we’ve got all the right pieces, or many of them.”

There’s also important science to be done, Arvidson said.

“What we’re looking at on Mars is the record in the rocks that’s long lost on Earth,” he said. “It’s the first billion years of geologic time. Earth is very active; Mars was active early but then kind of slowed down, so the rock record is still preserved. That’s the period of time when life got started and evolved on Earth. It may have also gotten started and evolved on Mars.”

Where to land

Scientists are debating right now about possible human landing sites on Mars, and dozens of them have been proposed by people with varying scientific interests. Arvidson said it will take many years to whittle those down and make a choice. The target spot will have to be one that is safe to land on, away from the poles and at low elevation so it is not too cold, and will need to offer a balance between science, safety, and sustainability.

“Wherever we go, there are lots of questions about early Mars and habitability and life,” Arvidson said. “I think the first human expedition site will be a science station, most likely, for detailed exploration between humans and robotic systems.”

Isler said that machines will do a lot of work, but that people are essential for the ultimate success of a Mars mission.

“Robots are beneficial, but they are limited,” she said. “You will always want, I argue, the dynamism, the spontaneity of human beings.”

When shall we start packing?

“Depending on what we want to do, nationallly and internationally, where the finances are, and what the reasons are and the justification, we can do this in the next few decades,” Arvidson said, speculating that we’ll arrive on Mars in the 2040s. Isler thinks it will take longer than that to figure out the human factors involved.

“The rumor on the street is that we’re always 20 years from Mars,” she quipped.

The panel speculated about an “Armstrong moment” on the day that a person from Earth sets foot on Mars for the first time. Isler said it will be a “moment where people will be be super connected with the fact that we as a species have now moved ourselves to this place successfully.”

But she added that we need to be careful how we talk about the endeavor, as huge numbers of people have been thinking about and working on getting humans to Mars for years.

“We have to do a better job this time around of implying and also asserting that it wasn’t just one person, this was not rugged individualism,” Isler said. “This is a team effort.”

She also thinks it will go a bit differently than Neil Armstrong’s line after stepping onto the Moon.

“When the first Mars explorer steps off she might Snapchat,” she laughed.

Fazekas seemed most optimistic about the timeline.

“If we put all of these components together—the technology, the science, the engineering, the willpower, understanding the challenges—we may one day all have a chance to become a tourist on Mars,” Fazekas said.

Further reading and viewing:

Share

Lots of great choices for astronomy events this week

There are tons of great astronomy events on the calendar this week, topped by the opening of the Museum of Flight’s Apollo exhibit and a visit from the Night Sky Guy.

Apollo

ApolloA couple of years in the making, the new Apollo exhibit opens Saturday, May 20 at the Museum of Flight, though museum members can get an early sneak-peek Wednesday evening. The exhibit includes the F-1 engine parts fished out of the Atlantic Ocean by Bezos Expeditions, an intact F-1, and many more great space exploration artifacts. Check out our recent article and podcast previewing the exhibit.

The Museum will also hold its annual Space Fest over the weekend with a variety of presentations, exhibits, and discussions focused on Apollo and the Moon.

The Night Sky Guy and Mars

Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is in Seattle for three talks at Benaroya Hall. Titled “Mankind to Mars,” the event will be an exploration of what it will take to get humans to the Red Planet. It’s produced in conjunction with the Mars miniseries created by the National Geographic channel. One show was Sunday afternoon, and Fazekas also appears on Monday, May 15 and Tuesday, May 16, both at 7:30 p.m.

Fazekas is the author of Star Trek: The Official Guide to Our Universe: The True Science Behind the Starship Voyages (National Geographic, 2016).

AstronoMay at PacSci

Pacific Science CenterAstronoMay is under way at the Pacific Science Center, and a couple of interesting events are on the calendar for this week. Astronaut Nicholas Patrick will host a viewing and discussion of the film A Beautiful Planet 3-D at 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 16. The film is a portrait of Earth from space captured by the astronauts aboard the International Space Station. Patrick will introduce the show and lead a Q&A session after. He’s now with Blue Origin; see our article about Patrick’s recent talk at Astronomy on Tap Seattle. Admission is $10, or $5 for science center members.

Then learn the ABCs of total solar eclipses, and get ready for the one that will be visible in parts of the United States in August, with Dennis Schatz, nationally recognized astronomy educator and Pacific Science Center senior advisor. Total Solar Eclipse 101 happens at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 17. Cost is $5, free for members.

JWST

RiekeNASA’s next great space observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), is scheduled for launch in October 2018. George Rieke, a professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona and science team lead for the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) that will fly onboard the scope, will speak at the University of Washington astronomy colloquium at 4 p.m. Thursday, May 18. The talk will focus on the capabilities of JWST, emphasizing the advances over present (and even some future) facilities, with examples of the science it will enable.

Club events

Rose City Astronomers will hold their monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Monday, May 15 in the OMSI auditorium in Portland. It will be their annual swap meet and astronomy information fair. The club, along with OMSI and the Vancouver Sidewalk Astronomers, will host public star parties at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 20 at both Rooster Rock State Park and L.L. “Stub” Stewart State Park.

The Island County Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 6:30 p.m. Monday, May 15 at the Oak Harbor Library.

The Seattle Astronomical Society monthly meeting will be at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 17 in room A102 of the Physics/Astronomy building on the University of Washington campus in Seattle. Guest speaker Woody Sullivan, professor emeritus of astronomy, will talk about the contributions of William and Caroline Herschel to our understanding of comets. Sullivan is working on a biography of William Herschel.

The Tacoma Astronomical Society plans one of its free public nights for 9 p.m. Saturday, May 20. The topic for the indoor presentation will be black holes. If the weather cooperates they’ll break out the telescopes for some observing.

TJO

Theodor Jacobsen ObservatoryThe bi-monthly open house at the UW’s Theodor Jacobsen Observatory is set for 9 p.m. Wednesday, May 17. The topic for the evening’s astronomy talk has not been published. It’s a good idea to make reservations early, as these typically are filled up. Volunteers from the Seattle Astronomical Society will conduct tours of the observatory dome and, weather permitting, offer a look through its vintage telescope.

Planetarium shows

The Bellevue College Planetarium will run a public show about black holes at 6 p.m. and again at 7 p.m. on Saturday, May 20. The show will include animations of the formation of the early universe, star birth and death, the collision of giant galaxies, and a simulated flight to a super-massive black hole lurking at the center of our own Milky Way Galaxy. It’s free, but reservations are suggested. See the website for registration info and other details.

The Willard Smith Planetarium at the Pacific Science Center offers a variety of shows every day. Their full schedule is posted on our calendar page, where you can also scout out more future astronomy events.

Share

Mars Insider gives the scoop on Red Planet missions

To work for the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) it would probably be helpful if you had some juggling skills.

“At JPL we have 24 flying missions in deep space,” said spacecraft engineer Terry Himes, who has had a hand on most of those craft. Himes gave a talk titled “Mars Insider” recently at the Museum of Flight.

Terry Himes

NASA JPL spacecraft engineer Terry Himes spoke at the Museum of Flight April 29, 2017 about his work on various missions. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“Our job as spacecraft engineers is to keep the health and welfare of the spacecraft,” Himes said, and that’s a job that doesn’t always line up with the science goals of the mission.

“The science guys want to go to the worst possible places on the planet,” Himes laughed. “They want to go to horrifying places and land in crevasses and do all kids of crazy stuff. We (engineers) want to land on flat, sandy plains.”

Thus choosing a place to land is a battle from day one and can often be a lengthy discussion, Himes said. For the Mars Science Lab Curiosity, for example, the science team wanted to land as close as possible to Mount Sharp on Mars so they could explore the geology there. They were able to land in a tight spot by using the controlled descent of Curiosity’s incredible landing method. Himes noted that the target landing area for Mars missions, known as the “landing ellipse,” has been shrinking over the years. While Viking had a landing ellipse 300 kilometers long, they dropped Curiosity into a target of just 18 kilometers.

“It’s like hitting a golf ball in San Diego and making a hole-in-one in New York,” Himes said.

Once a lander is on the ground there’s another daily discussion about what it will do next. This is typically based on photos sent back from the activities of the previous sol, or Martian day. They consider interesting nearby objects, any hazards in the area, and the overall health of the rover. Himes noted that Curiosity’s wheels have taken a beating from hard and sharp rocks on Mars. He also related a funny story about the wheels.

A message in the sand

NASA had told the spacecraft team that they couldn’t put a logo or any other mention of JPL on Curiosity because the project involved all of NASA and scientists from other countries, too. They got around that by putting cutout grooves in the wheels that are Morse code for the letters, so that every time those wheels turn they leave J-P-L in the Martian sand.

“Don’t mess with engineers,” Himes laughed.

A little InSight about Mars

The next project for Himes will be InSight, which after a recent delay is now scheduled to launch next May and land on Mars in November of 2018. InSight, which is short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy, and Heat Transport, will help us figure out how rocky planets form and evolve. The craft will be a modified version of Phoenix, another mission Himes worked on, which found ice near the north pole of Mars in 2008. InSight will have a couple of new instruments.

InSight The Mole

This artist’s concept depicts the InSight lander on Mars after the lander’s robotic arm has deployed a seismometer and a heat probe directly onto the ground. InSight is the first mission dedicated to investigating the deep interior of Mars. The findings will advance understanding of how all rocky planets, including Earth, formed and evolved. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The first is the Heat flow and Physical Properties Probe, or HP3, which Himes says they’re calling simply “The Mole.”

“It’s a heat transfer mechanism,” Himes said. “We’re going to go into the surface of Mars and conduct heat experiments, see how much heat is there.” The mole will be driven some five meters into the ground on Mars.

The other instrument is the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure, or SEIS, a “very broad band” seismometer sensitive enough to detect meteor strikes way on the other side of the planet. These two instruments will give scientists information about the inner workings of Mars.

There are a couple more Mars missions on the drawing board. Mars 2020 will be a lander much like Curiosity—NASA can save some cash by re-using spacecraft designs if they can serve the purpose—and it will look for signs of past microbial life on Mars, explore the possibility for creating oxygen in the Red Planet’s atmosphere, and do a variety of other experiments.

NeMO, the “next Mars orbiter,” will provide another communication link should a current orbiter fail, and it also could be part of a plan to return pieces of Mars to Earth.

“Mars 2020 may be depositing samples that it gathers in canisters and leaving them around,” Himes said, “and then NeMO may have something that’s going to go down to the surface, pick them up, and come back, and return to Earth.” Himes noted that plans for NeMO are still quite preliminary.

As these missions are developed it seems likely that Himes will be in the middle of it all.

Share

Busy week ahead on the astro calendar

There’s something for everyone on this week’s astro calendar, with a new scale model solar system opening, two great lectures, a theater/science mashup, and a variety of club events on the docket.

A new scale model of the solar system that you can explore through geocaching opens today, May 1, on Bainbridge Island. Check out our article or podcast from last week to learn more.

Proxima b

You’ve probably heard by now of the discovery of a planet orbiting our nearest stellar neighbor, Proxima Centauri. (If not, check out our article featuring UW professor Rory Barnes discussing the possibility of the habitability of Proxima b.) The UW Astrobiology Program and the NASA Astrobiology Institute will host a panel discussion about the planet at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 3 in room 120 of Kane Hall on the university’s campus in Seattle.

The panelists include Guillem Anglada-Escude, lead discoverer of the planet and University of London lecturer; Victoria Meadows, University of Washington astrobiology professor and primary investigator for the Virtual Planetary Laboratory; Barnes; and Olivier Guyon, University of Arizona professor and project scientist for the Subaru Telescope.

It’s free but registration is required; as of this writing there were still some tickets available.

Searching for Martians

Bob Abel talkMars may have been habitable before Earth was, and might be still. So where are the Martians? Olympic College professor Bob Abel will give a talk about the history of Mars and the prospects for past, present, and future life there at 6 p.m. Thursday, May 4 in room 117 of the Engineering Building on the Olympic College campus in Bremerton. It’s free.

Abel gave a talk on the same topic last week at Astronomy on Tap Seattle. Our recap of that event is coming soon.

Astronomy Day at MOF

The Museum of Flight celebrates Space Day during its Free First Thursday at 5 p.m. May 4. Local astronomy clubs will be on hand with information about their activities and they’ll have telescopes for observing if the weather cooperates. A special presentation at 6 p.m. will take a look at the technical challenges of getting Apollo to the Moon, and what that means for present-day space efforts. Tony Gondola, a solar system ambassador and coordinator of the museum’s Challenger Learning Center will be the speaker.

The event runs through 9 p.m.

Mashing up science and theater

Centrifuge2Infinity Box Theatre Project will present Centrifuge 2 at 8 p.m. this Friday and Saturday, May 5 and 6, at Stage One Theater on the North Seattle College campus. Centrifuge pairs science writers and playwrights to craft brand-new one-act plays featuring current science. Seattle Astronomy’s Greg Scheiderer participated in the event last year and will be one of the science writers again this time around. Check out our article and podcast from last year to learn more about Centrifuge and Infinity Box.

Open house at TJO

The Theodor Jacobsen Observatory at the University of Washington will hold one of its bimonthly open houses at 9 p.m. Wednesday, May 3. The topic for the evening’s talk had not been published as of this writing. Volunteers from the Seattle Astronomical Society will be on hand to offer tours of the observatory and, weather allowing, a look through its vintage telescope.

Club events

The Tacoma Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 2 in room 175 of Thompson Hall on the University of Puget Sound campus in Tacoma. The topic will be club participation in viewing the August 21, 2017 total solar eclipse.

The club will also offer one of its free public nights at 9 p.m. Saturday, May 6 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The indoor session will be a presentation about constellations. They’ll break out the telescopes for observing if the sky is clear.

The Spokane Astronomical Society plans its monthly meeting for 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 5 at the planetarium at Spokane Falls Community College. Club member Nick Monkman will talk about the ABCs of finding objects in the night sky.

The Seattle Astronomical Society plans its monthly free public star parties for 9 p.m. Saturday, May 6 at two locations: Green Lake in Seattle and Paramount Park in Shoreline. Bad weather causes cancellations, so watch the website for updates.

You can always scout out future events on our calendar page.

Share

New Apollo exhibit opens at Museum of Flight next month

There’s a lot of excitement these days over at the Museum of Flight, where they’re working hard to complete their new Apollo exhibit by the time it opens for visitors on May 20, 2017. While the exhibit bears the name of the Moon-landing program, Geoff Nunn, adjunct curator for space history at the museum, notes that it will cover lots of ground from the start of the space race after World War II through the post-Apollo 1970s.

Apollo“We’re trying to re-focus on the Apollo story, re-integrate Pete Conrad’s artifacts, and showcase these amazing artifacts that we received from NASA by way of Bezos Expeditions: actual, Apollo-flown, F-1 engines,” Nunn said.

We covered the event in November 2015 when Jeff Bezos formally presented the engines to the museum, restored after an amazing search, discovery, and recovery from the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. Nunn said the museum recently received a new artifact on loan: an intact F-1 engine that was originally set to launch Apollo 16, but was switched out after a fire. It took some fancy engineering to get an engine 20 feet tall and 12 feet wide and weighing nearly 20,000 pounds into the gallery. It will provide an interesting contrast to the engines Bezos recovered.

“Our F-1 engine survived a million and a half pounds of thrust and burning rocket fuel, it survived a strike by lightning, and then a plummet from the edge of space down to smash into the ocean, and then 40-plus years on the bottom of the ocean,” Nunn noted. “That is an artifact!”

See a bit of the first airplane

The engines are just one of several of what Nunn calls “crown jewels” in the Apollo exhibit, which also includes Deke Slayton’s astronaut pin and a fabulous new addition.

“We are receiving on loan from Neil Armstrong’s family a couple of pieces of the original Wright Flyer that were carried to the Moon by Neil Armstrong on Apollo 11,” Nunn said. “They’re just little, tiny bits, but the first airplane made it to the Moon and we’re going to have a couple of those on display, so there’s going to be quite a few one-of-a-kind, amazing artifacts in this exhibit.”

Astronaut humor

Geoff Nunn

Geoff Nunn, adjunct curator for space history at the Museum of Flight, at an event when the Apollo F-1 engines were formally presented to the museum in late 2015. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

The exhibit will also bring back many items from astronaut Pete Conrad that were part of the past Rendezvous in Space exhibit that was displaced at the museum by the construction of its Alaska Airlines Aerospace Education Center. Among the inventory is a cap Conrad wore on the Apollo 12 mission. It’s a standard type of navy cap, but Conrad had a propeller added.

“That cap is really indicative of Pete’s personality,” Nunn laughed.

The cuff checklist Conrad used on the Moon also will be on display. These lists spelled out the various steps for different tasks the astronauts would do on the Moon. For Apollo 12, the ground crew also slipped in some cartoons and Playboy playmate photos. Nunn said it was quite a challenge to tell that story while keeping the exhibit G-rated.

“When it comes to amazing and notable and hilarious things, Apollo 12 is really a gold mine as far as Apollo missions go,” he said.

More cool stuff to come

Many of us of a certain age remember exactly where we were and what was going on when we watched the Moon landings on television in the midst of the tumultuous 1960s.

“One of the things that we’re really trying to capture is just how much the space program interplayed with the context of what was going on at the time,” Nunn said of the exhibit. He noted that the opening of the Apollo exhibit is just the first chapter in the museum’s storytelling about the program. The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum is doing some remodeling, and has created a traveling exhibit called Destination Moon that will visit four cities. It will be at the Museum of Flight from March 16 through September 2 in 2019.

“On the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing—July 20, 2019—you can see Neil Armstrong’s space suit and the Apollo 11 command module here at the Museum of Flight,” Nunn beamed. “It’s going to be awesome.”


The museum’s annual Space Fest will coincide with the opening of the exhibit May 20 and 21. The schedule for a variety of events is still being finalized.

Podcast of our interview with Geoff Nunn:

Share

Mars astronauts would be “on their own” for medical care

Astronauts on a mission to Mars would essentially be on their own for medical care, according to NASA flight surgeon Dr. David Reyes. With resupply or mission evacuation impossible, and with difficulty in communicating with the ground, astronauts would have to be trained and equipped to provide their own care.

Reyes gave an interesting talk about the history of space medicine last weekend at the Museum of Flight. He noted that being a flight surgeon is the opposite of being a typical doctor.

David Reyes

NASA flight surgeon Dr. David Reyes gave a talk about the history of aerospace medicine April 8, 2017 at the Museum of Flight. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“Regular medicine is taking care of sick people in a normal environment,” Reyes said. “Aerospace medicine is taking care of healthy people in an abnormal or unusual environment.” He added that the astronauts are usually super healthy, but the environments they deal with are challenging to say the least.

Much of the job of the flight surgeon is to help determine the medical risks of space travel, to help come up with and test gear to avert those risks, and to help astronauts learn about symptoms of conditions they may encounter.

For example, astronauts in training are put into an altitude chamber, and the air is pumped out of the chamber to simulate the atmosphere at 21,000 feet above sea level. Then they take off their oxygen masks. Reyes said this makes them “goofy” with hypoxia.

“The reason we put them in this chamber is so that they can recognize those symptoms for themselves,” Reyes said. “Everyone has a unique response to low oxygen.” If they’ve experienced it they can recognize it in the event oxygen problems occur in flight.

Mission medical kits

It was fascinating to look at the evolution of medical kits for various missions. In the days of Mercury, the kit was essentially a few bandaids, aspirin, motion sickness pills, and a couple of other remedies. It was not much more than a prudent backpacker would take on a day hike. Mercury missions were short and the astronauts, strapped into a small capsule, didn’t have to do much physical activity.

Mercury Med Kit

A Mercury medical kit. Photo: NASA

With Gemini and Apollo the kits were expanded as the missions became longer and more active, but they still weren’t all that extensive.

“This is like everything you might have in your medicine cabinet at home,” Reyes noted of the kits.

By the time of Skylab each crew received 80 hours of paramedic training. The medical kit was huge and even included a dental kit. The space shuttle went far beyond the home medicine cabinet. The International Space Station has a Crew Medical Officer who is an astronaut with additional medical training. It carries an extensive medical kit with nine different packs. It also employs a Crew Health Care System or CHCS—pronounced “checks”—that is the first robust medical system for space missions.

Given all of that, Reyes pointed out that, “Nothing really serious has happened in space flight.” Astronauts on longer missions suffer bumps and bruises and rashes, and insomnia, but the most serious condition has been a urinary tract infection on one Apollo flight.

Bones and eyes

These days the two problems they’re studying the most are bone mass loss and visual impairment. They’ve known about the bone mass challenge for a while, and it’s why the astronauts spend at least two hours per day exercising. Without it, “We’d send a 40- or 50-year-old astronaut up and they’d come back looking like an 80-year-old after six months in the space station,” Reyes said.

The vision issues only became apparent in the last seven years or so, and Reyes said they’re still researching those. A couple of things happen to some astronauts: fluid buildup in the eye because of zero gravity, and change of eye shape. They’ve developed adjustable eyeglasses should astronauts develop vision problems in flight.

Mars poses challenges

Missions to Mars would provide medical as well as ethical challenges. On all space missions so far, flight surgeons on the ground have been able to offer advice and counsel. For Mars, the long lag for radio signals, up to 22 minutes for transmission, would make conversation difficult, and during the time Mars is on the other side of the Sun from Earth there would be no communication at all.

“When you go to Mars, basically you’re on your own,” Reyes said of the astronauts.

There is debate about how much medical equipment and medicine to take on a Mars mission. Every item launched on a mission represents a tradeoff in mass and cost and whatever might not go along. An even bigger, ethical question involves what happens if an astronaut suffers a serious injury.

“If you have a limited set of supplies, and somebody gets severly injured and will require a lot of care, how much care are you going to give them?” Reyes asked. “If you use up your whole med kit, that puts everybody else at risk. So you have to think, ‘Is there some point that we’re going to withdraw care because we’re jeopardizing the rest of the mission?’”

It’s an on-going area of discussion.

Why be a flight surgeon?

Like many of us who are interested in space and astronomy, Reyes caught the bug from television.

“When I was a kid I watched the Moon landing on TV,” he said. “A black and white TV at my parents’ house.” He thought it was the coolest thing ever.

“I’ve always had an interest in space,” he added. His undergraduate major was in geology, and he studied some planetary science. He then went into the Air Force and medicine. He filled a free month during his residency with an introduction to aerospace medicine course at the University of Texas. He was drawn in by the lectures from real flight surgeons.

“This is what I want to do,” he learned.

Share

Causing mayhem and mass destruction in the Universe Sandbox

If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if the Sun somehow vanished from the solar system, or wanted to watch planets smash into each other, or thought it would be fun to bombard the Moon with asteroids, you’re in luck! You can do all of those things and more with a computer game called Universe Sandbox2. Dan Dixon, creator of Universe Sandbox2, gave a demonstration of it at this week’s meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society.

“It is software that allows you to ask fantastical questions about the universe and see plausibly true answers,” Dixon said.

Universe Sandbox2 sells for $25.

The possibilities are vast. The slogan for Universe Sandbox2 is “create & destroy on an unimaginable scale,” and the software delivers. It lets users tinker with an incredible number of variables, from the mass and density of objects to the chemical makeup of their atmospheres. Eliminate all of the carbon dioxide and see what happens! Move the Moon in closer to Earth and watch the chaos. For all of the interesting science questions it can answer, Universe Sandbox2 also appeals to our inner 12-year-old.

“People like to collide things,” Dixon noted, and clearly he is one of those people.

“It’s a physics simulation, so in addition to doing interesting things with orbits, you can also do interesting things with collisions,” he added.

Universe Sandbox screenshot

Screenshot from Universe Sandbox2 of an object colliding with Earth.

Those mash-ups got a lot of oohs and aahs from the attendees at the meeting at the University of Washington. It was fun to see what Earth would do to the ring system if it were placed in orbit around Saturn. (Spoiler alert: Disruptive!) Dixon raced through dozens of scenarios, and that only scratched the surface.

He said the results shown in Universe Sandbox2 are “plausibly” true because they have to make some compromises. They don’t simulate every object or every particle out there because that would take way too much computer oomph.

Plausibly true

“It’s a very simplistic simulation; we’re not doing any pressure waves or dark matter,” Dixon said, “but it still is pretty cool.”

So when Mars smacks into Earth in an attempt to see if a new moon would result, you don’t necessarily have all of the data you would like.

“You really would want to have like a billion pieces,” Dixon said, but “because we’re trying to do this real time on modern-day desktops or laptops, you can’t have as many pieces as you want and get it still to run in real time.”

“We’re undoubtedly wrong in a lot of cases, and there’s a lot of room for improvement in the simulation,” Dixon noted. They’re revamping the way the program handles stellar evolution and are working to improve planetary climate simulations. Part of the challenge is that they’re often simulating events for which there is not yet a scientific answer.

“We’re trying to solve things that are not well-defined or understood,” Dixon said. That’s not to say they’re just making stuff up.

“Being realistic is really important to me,” Dixon said, but they want to let users come up with their own crazy scenarios. “One of the goals of the software is to allow ridiculous premises but then carry that to a realistic conclusion.”

Humble beginnings

In a way, Universe Sandbox2 has been in development for 20 years. When Dixon was in middle school his father downloaded a simple gravity simulator from a BBS list. (Remember those?) It didn’t have many features, but it caught Dixon’s interest.

“I’ve always been fascinated with the motions of gravity,” he said, “and gravity is a really simple formula, too. It’s always fascinating how this really simple formula can do these really beautiful and organic interesting motions.” Later on in middle school Dixon coded his own simulator. He’d tinker with it every once in a while, then became serious about it about ten years ago.

“This was not like the grand ambition. It was a thing I was working on for fun, and now it’s turned into this crazy thing,” Dixon said. “What started as a personal side project is now what myself and eight others do full time.”

“I think if I had a time machine and I went back and showed my younger self what it’s become, I would have been overwhelmed and wouldn’t have started on it,” he laughs.

“This is a passion project that I’m fortunate enough to continue working on.”


View the Universe Sandbox2 teaser below. Purchasing through this link supports not only Universe Sandbox2 but also Seattle Astronomy in our efforts to tell interesting stories.

Share