Meet the Twins Unlocking the Secrets of Space

Photograph by Marco Grob for TIME

The Kelly twins--one in orbit and one on Earth--may help NASA unlock the secret of long-term space travel

When Scott Kelly calls home from the International Space Station (ISS) sometime next year, whoever answers the phone may simply hang up on him. The calls will be welcome, but the link can be lousy, with long, hissing silences breaking up the conversation. That’s what happens when you’re placing your call from at least 229 mi. (369 km) above the Earth while zipping along at 17,500 m.p.h. (28,164 kph) and your signal has to get bounced from satellites to ground antennas to relay stations like an around-the-horn triple play. “When someone answers, I have to say, ‘It’s the space station! Don’t hang up!'” says Kelly…

Read the full story here.

TIME space

Astronaut: The Age of Asteroids? Boooooring…

The asteroid Eros: So...not exactly Mars
The asteroid Eros: So...not exactly Mars Getty Images; Getty Images

A retired astronaut on the great folly of the new space age

It is the Age of Asteroids, claims a recent story in The New Yorker. The author of the piece, Jonathan Blitzer, reports from an asteroid summit at London’s Science Museum where attendees discussed, among other things, a worldwide campaign to identify and deflect Earth-bound asteroids and a declaration to adopt June 30, 2015 as a “Global Asteroid Day.” Because, really, why not? He reports on non-U.S. countries with robotic missions to study asteroids, and on billionaire-funded private companies formed to mine asteroids, extracting both valuable minerals and water—which could be used to manufacture rocket fuel (hydrogen and oxygen).

The president and chief engineer of one of these companies, writes Blitzer, “likens asteroid mining to the California gold rush and the exploration of the American West,” claims “government ability lags behind that of pioneers” and boasts that his cell phone has more capability than the 20 year-old computer currently on the Curiosity rover on Mars. Says one space law expert quoted in the piece,“Think of asteroid mining this way: it’s the Internet in 1986.” Blitzer himself takes it a step further. “Asteroids,” he writes, “fill an existential void.”

At which point I had to say: What?

If we’ve arrived at the age of asteroids we’ve arrived as much by bureaucratic short-sightedness and blundering as anything else. Before 2009, NASA was aggressively pursuing the Constellation program, whose goal was to keep the gap between retirement of the Shuttle and the return of U.S. human launch capability to just two to three years, to return the U.S. to the moon by 2020, and to use the lunar surface as a training ground for more ambitious trips to Mars by 2030.

After taking office, President Obama ordered the elimination of projects that required heavy lift rockets, and that essentially shut down the Constellation program. But pressure from Congress forced the White House to continue funding the Orion capsule and to fund a new heavy-lift vehicle, looking nearly identical to Constellation’s heavy-lift Ares V and prosaically called the Space Launch System (SLS). Now the only thing missing was a mission.

If you cancel plans to go back to the moon and onto Mars, but Congress recognizes that not having a human exploration program in the U.S. is just all around bad, where do you go? At first there was a move to go to a Lagrangian Point, which is just what it sounds like: a point in space—one where the gravity of the Earth, moon and Sun neutralize one another, allowing objects essentially to hang in place. An interesting astrophysical exercise and potentially useful as a part of a broader exploratory program, but as a destination? Meh. Boring.

So the asteroid mission landed on the table. We would send American astronauts to an asteroid to study it and by doing that, learn how to deflect potential Earth-killing asteroids and end forever the Hollywood fascination with that doomsday scenario. Only there were no asteroids close enough for a crew to reach safely.

So we’d send a robotic mission out to bag an asteroid, literally, and drag it back to the Earth-moon ‘hood and then send astronauts out to study it. The obvious eye-rolling questions aside, the significant question was—then what? So Mars went back on the planning table, at least rhetorically. According to NASA, the asteroid mission is a step to Mars. It’s just not clear how that’s going to work.

Private companies like the asteroid plan, whether NASA does it or not. There are mineral riches to be exploited out there, and the industrial sector can do the job better than NASA since they won’t be hamstrung by politics and government inefficiencies.

It is an absolute fact that bureaucratically unchallenged private companies can be more nimble and efficient in procurement strategies and possibly design approach. But they will find that designing for environments much harsher than the pocket in which the company president keeps his cell phone is not so easy. And oh by the way, building all of the capability to get to an asteroid, land on it, deliver the required hardware for mining, get the product home, or send, build, maintain and operate a fuel processing facility on an asteroid is hard. Way hard. The kind of hard that takes some serious coin and a very patient group of investors willing to wait out the return on the capital they’ve sunk into the enterprise. One company at the asteroid summit was on the verge of starting its long-term mining mission with the launch of a satellite about the size of a loaf of bread—until the launch vehicle carrying the satellite exploded.

NASA, for its part, just successfully demonstrated a flight of the Orion capsule, and though the capsule had no systems on board that would support crew and only demonstrated the heat shield at 80% of the velocity the spacecraft would attain returning from the moon, it is nonetheless a testament to the hard work of a lot of engineers and workers who had to build a vehicle in the absence of clear mission goals. And now NASA claims this is also the first step to Mars.

But first, as the agency’s stated mission, we apparently need to go to an asteroid.

I don’t know if asteroids “fill an existential void” so much as create an existential crisis. We need to find them, we need to move them, mine them, and exploit them, all in the name of doing what is easier than going to Mars. I recently heard a radio interview with a man who was mixing fancy Christmas drinks. He said, “it’s not rocket science. You put good stuff in, and you get good stuff out.” Well that is, in fact, what makes good rocket science—but first you have to put good stuff in.

So welcome to the dawning of the “Age of Asteroids.” The punch line, the hash tag, the sound bite of today’s U.S. space program.

Marsha Ivins is a retired astronaut. She flew aboard five shuttle missions for a combined 55 days in space.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME human behavior

Fast Food Could Make Children Perform Worse in School

Jamie Grill—Getty

New study shows that kids who eat the most fast food have lower test scores in science, math and reading

A new study shows that children who regularly eat fast food don’t perform as well as their fellow students in school.

“Research has been focused on how children’s food consumption contributes to the child-obesity epidemic,” Kelly Purtell of Ohio State University, who led the study, told the Telegraph. “Our findings provide evidence that eating fast food is linked to another problem: poorer academic outcomes.”

The study, published in Clinical Pediatrics, measured the fast-food consumption of 8,500 American 10-year-olds and then reviewed their academic test results three years later. The children were a nationally representative sample and researchers took into account more than two dozen factors other than fast food that could skew the results.

Among those who ate fast food on a daily basis, the average science score was 79, as compared with 83 for those who never ate fast food. Similar results were discovered for reading and math.


TIME weather

What You Need to Know About Winter Solstice 2014

Winter is coming... officially on Dec. 21, 6:03 P.M. EST

Winter solstice, falling this year on Sunday, Dec. 21, marks the first day of winter in the Northern Hemisphere. More precisely, winter officially begins at 6:03 p.m. ET — the moment when the Northern Hemisphere is pointed at its furthest distance from the sun. This means winter solstice boasts the longest night and the shortest day, and often colder temperatures, too.

But the good news? If you’re not a fan of winter, from each day on after the solstice, the days will get longer and warmer until the calendar hits summer solstice, June 21, 2015. Summer solstice marks the first day of summer, the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere.

READ MORE: 5 Things to Know About the Winter Solstice

Like last year, Google released an animated Google Doodle for this year’s winter solstice. This year’s doodle shows Father Christmas — the British predecessor to Santa — helping two children build a snowman, before the kids’ mother appears and pulls a carrot from her bag for the snowman’s nose. Christmas has become associated with winter solstice, which serves as a turning point in many cultures.

TIME animals

Antarctic Tourism Could Expose Penguins to New Diseases, Study Warns

Antarctica, South Orkney Islands, Laurie Island, Gentoo
Getty Images

Scientists sound the alarm after foreign pathogens sweep through penguin colonies

A boom in Antarctic tourism could introduce new, infectious diseases to the continent’s penguin colonies, scientists warned in a new study released Friday.

More than 37,000 tourists trekked out to the frozen continent in 2013, more than quadrupling the number of visitors two decades earlier, according to a report in New Scientist first spotted by The Atlantic.

Researchers warned that these well-intentioned visitors could be the unwitting carriers of foreign pathogens. Avian flu, for instance, has caused deadly outbreaks among photogenic colonies of gentoo penguins, killing hundreds in 2006 and 2008. Researchers say that the origin of the virus remains unknown, and that it could also have been introduced by migratory birds flocking to the region.

“The effects of both a growing tourism industry and research presence will not be without consequences,” Wray Grimaldi of the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand told the New Scientist.

TIME animals

Birds Sensed Tornadoes Coming a Day Early, Study Finds

Golden-winged warbler
Golden-winged warbler Getty Images

Ecologists say birds could hear the oncoming storm from over 100 miles away

Five golden-winged warblers left their nests one day before devastating tornadoes in the central U.S. in April, suggesting they could sense the storms coming, according to new tracking data.

These migrant songbirds may be able to sense extreme weather events with low frequency hearing, a new study in the Journal of Current Biology says. The warblers left their nesting area when the storm was still over 100 miles away and weather conditions in the area were normal. Ecologists say they could likely hear an “infrasound” signaling the approach of the storm, which humans cannot hear.

The birds left their nesting area just days after completing their seasonal migration. Geolocators show them flying from the Appalachians 400 miles south to the Gulf of Mexico.

The stormfront consisted of 84 tornadoes that led to 35 fatalities and over $1 billion in property damage.

TIME animals

Carnivore Comeback: Wolves, Bears and Lynx Thrive in Europe

A Siberian lynx sits inside an open-air cage at the Royev Ruchey zoo in Krasnoyarsk
A Siberian lynx sits inside an open-air cage at the Royev Ruchey zoo on the suburbs of Russia's Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, May 18, 2013 Ilya Naymushin—Reuters

Data was pulled from all over Europe

Despite having half the land area of the contiguous United States and double the population density, Europe is home to twice as many wolves. A new study finds that Europe’s other large carnivores are experiencing a resurgence in their numbers, too — and mostly in nonprotected areas where the animals coexist alongside humans.

The success is owed to cross-border cooperation, strong regulations and a public attitude that brings wildlife into the fold with human society, rather than banishing it to the wilderness, according to study leader Guillaume Chapron, a professor at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences’ Grimsö Wildlife Research Station…

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME astronomy

NASA’s Kepler Telescope Discovers Another Planet on Comeback

The discovery marks a remarkable turnaround for Kepler

NASA’s Kepler spacecraft has found another new planet.

Dubbed HIP 116454b, the new body is bigger than Earth, smaller than Neptune and probably too hot to sustain life as we know it.

“The Kepler mission showed us that planets larger in size than Earth and smaller than Neptune are common in the galaxy, yet they are absent in our solar system,” Steve Howell, a project scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, said in statement.

The discovery marks a remarkable turnaround for Kepler. In May 2013, one of Kepler’s stabilizing reaction wheels failed and a team of engineers and scientists were forced to fashion an ingenious alternative for controlling the spacecraft, using pressure generated from sunlight.

During a subsequent test run in February, Kepler collected data on a previously undiscovered planet 180 light-years from Earth.

Follow-up observations confirmed the existence of the planet, which astronomers have called a watery “mini-Neptune,” with a tiny core and gaseous atmosphere, reports the New York Times.

TIME animals

Nature’s Top 10 Cute Critters for 2014

A serious science journal allows itself some cuddles

If you read science journals (and really, who doesn’t?) you know that it’s not easy to top Nature—and Nature itself surely knows it. They’re the major leagues, the senior circuit, the place the serious stuff goes to get seen. Nature doesn’t do small—and it definitely doesn’t do cute.

At least, it didn’t.

But every now and then, even the folks on the peer review panels start to feel cuddly. Spend your days vetting new studies about the Dumbo octopus or the toupee monkey or the robot baby penguins that can fool real penguins, and you have to admit that sometimes nature can be pretty adorable—even if Nature can’t.

So in a nod to the sweetness that hides in the science, the journal just released an uncharacteristically precious video–the Top 10 Cutest Animals in 2014. You can go back to being Mr. Grumpypants tomorrow, Nature. But for now, give us a great big hug.

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