TIME Outer Space

What’s Next For NASA? Asteroids!

NASA aims to continue their space exploration with their Asteroid Redirect Mission.

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NASA has not sent astronauts to the moon since 1972. While that remains a historic event, President Barack Obama’s cancellation of the Constellation Program back in 2010 ended hopes indefinitely of the United States returning to the moon any time soon.

Still, that program’s death did not mark the end of NASA’s work and planetary exploration overall. The agency is currently working on its next target: catching an asteroid, pulling it into the moon’s orbit and sending astronauts to its location in order to study it.

The purpose of the mission, according to NASA, is for planetary defense, as the Earth has had instances of asteroid interference in very recent history. Scientists claim that in changing the orbit of an asteroid and studying its composition, Earth could protect itself from another asteroid crashing into its atmosphere.

The Asteroid Redirect Mission, should it be successful, could also be used as a testing ground for a possible mission to Mars in the near future.

TIME Science

45 Years Later: Remembering the First Moon Landing

The mission that made space history

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Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly described which Apollo 11 crew members walked on the moon.

On July 16, 1969, a small group of astronauts took one small step for man, and one giant leap for mankind.

It’s been 45 years since Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong became the first people to walk on the moon, leaving those back on Earth to stare at their television screens in awe. The men spent two hours collecting lunar rocks to bring back home to Earth to study.

To commemorate the milestone, the Slooh Space Camera will broadcast live footage from the moon on Sunday, July 20, at 8:30 E.T.

TIME movies

Why Movies Rely on Science to Get to Spirituality

Lucy / I Origins
Top: I Origins, Bottom: Lucy Top: Fox Searchlight; Bottom: Universal Pictures

I Origins and Lucy both use science to get to even deeper subjects

In 1985, the famous “Afghan Girl” photograph appeared on the cover of National Geographic. Her eyes captivated the world, but even the photographer, Steve McCurry, didn’t know her name. Nearly two decades later, the magazine announced that they had made a discovery: they knew her name, and they were sure. The woman’s identity had been confirmed by comparing a scan of the eyes in the photograph to an iris scan of her grown-up self; irises are as unique as fingerprints, and a “print” can be taken from a high-resolution photograph if the eye in question is not available.

“I thought this was a really beautiful story,” says filmmaker Mike Cahill, best known for Another Earth. “It felt like a great place to have the conversation between science and spirituality.”

He liked the story so much that it became the inspiration behind his new movie, I Origins, in theaters today. It’s a trippy tale of iris scans, love, genetics and — though Cahill was extremely careful never to say the word during the movie, so that viewers could draw their own conclusions — the possibility of reincarnation. In that, it’s an example of the way that movies can use science to get at the questions their creators care about.

And it’s not alone: Lucy, arriving in theaters next week, on July 25, takes a similar tack. Lucy, from writer/director Luc Besson, is an action-packed fable about a woman, played by Scarlett Johansson, who is, due to a series of unfortunate circumstances and a mysterious drug, able to harness the full power of her brain. Besson’s film was also born of a real-life interaction, a conversation with a young scientist he happened to sit next to at a dinner party. Besson says that he had always wanted to do a film about the concept of intelligence and that this was his chance; he could use some of the ideas from the conversation about the way cells work to say what he wanted to say about how knowledge is power.

“I like this combination, when the science leads to beauty or art or philosophy,” Besson tells TIME. “It’s something very unique and very beautiful.”

But where Cahill and Besson differ is in just how much actual science has to be in the scientific part.

Cahill stresses that the science of I Origins is all fact-based, from the particular genes mentioned to the international uses of iris biometrics to, he says, the theoretical possibility that we may have senses not yet detectable. He also wanted his scientist characters to be accurate representations, so he consulted with his brother, a molecular biologist, and brought the cast down to his brother’s lab at Johns Hopkins to do character research. Besson’s starting point, meanwhile, is famously nonfactual: the idea that humans walk around with 90% of their brains going unused so infuriates some neuroscience fans that they’ve sworn off the movie preemptively. But, though Besson says he did a lot of research before starting, he’s less concerned about those details. For him, the “scientific” part is less about facts than it is about a grounding in reality. For example, he objects to the characterization of Lucy, his heroine, as having super-strength or super powers; instead, he sees the film as a meditation on what might be possible if a person could make her mind and body do exactly what she wished. Staying away from a superhero-esque way of seeing it helps the movie make a point about something real, says Besson, who adds that at this point in his life he’s too old to make an action movie that doesn’t have a deeper meaning.

“Half of the things in the film are true. The other half is not true. But if you mix everything together, everything looks real,” he says. “It’s funny because today everybody knows that movies are fake, but in a way we’re in such a crisis that everyone is looking for a little piece of truth in it. Politicians are supposed to tell the truth and they’re lying all day long. Films are supposed to be fake and sometimes you get some truth.”

That relationship between fact and fiction explains why, even though Besson and Cahill don’t feel the same way about how factual their facts have to be, they both use science-y concepts to get at something that couldn’t be examined in a lab. For Cahill, it was that mysteriously romantic feeling of looking in someone’s eyes and feeling like you’ve known her forever. For Besson, it was the more theoretical question of what a person who can know everything should do with that power. For both, it was the idea that human beings may be capable of more than we know. That’s an end goal that may easier for audiences to swallow if it comes from a world that feels like it might be real — but, for Cahill and Besson, that doesn’t make it any less fantastic.

“It’s incredible to think about the fact that the sum total of human knowledge, everything that we know, expands every day, just like the universe,” says Cahill. “And the force behind that expansion is scientific discovery.”

TIME space

United Arab Emirates Says It Will Go To Mars By 2021

Mars
Mars Digital Vision/Getty Images

A bold announcement by the United Arab Emirates is more than just an idle boast

The big news out of the Middle East this week is mostly about war and other kinds of tribulation, as it was last week and probably will for weeks to come. War and tribulation, that is, plus a mission to Mars.

According to a report by Reuters, the United Arab Emirates announced it would be creating a space agency by 2021 and sending an umanned probe to the Red Planet—something only the U.S., the USSR/Russian Federation and the European Space Agency have done with any success, while the British, Japanese and Chinese have tried and failed. The jury is still out on an Indian probe, which is currently en route.

So can they do it, or is this just some crazy stunt the UAE hopes nobody will remember when the time comes? The answer: it’s not necessarily crazy. True, the country has no aerospace industry, but a government-backed group based in the Persian Gulf country bought nearly a third of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, a private space tourism company. Moreover, says John Logsdon, a space policy expert and professor emeritus at George Washington University, “The UAE has already been active in space with communications satellites and Earth observation satellites.”

They’ve done this, he says, by purchasing both satellites and launch services from other countries, and they’d almost certainly put together a Mars probe the same way. “Most of the technical work and the launch would be contracted out,” he speculates, “but some of the components could be developed internally.” If that happened, and if UAE space agency engineers were in charge of mission control, he says, “they could appropriately claim that this mission was their own.”

Given the UAE’s deep pockets, it’s certainly possible that the country could pull off such a project, which would bring a new kind of prestige to the region. The Arab world did invent algebra and enjoyed a golden age of science for centuries leading up to the Medieval period and many Arabs dream of the return to that kind of scientific ascendancy. Recent, eye-catching projects—including the successful construction of the world’s tallest building and the world’s largest indoor ski resort—hint at inventive potential.

A Mars mission would obviously be a bit more ambitious, but in the end, it’s really just rocket science, which isn’t as complicated as we sometimes tend to think. Still, it’s one thing to say you’re going to do something like this and quite another to do it. After all, in 1969, NASA was similarly talking about our own manned mission to Mars—with astronauts aboard—in what was then the near future. It could be done, said Wernher von Braun, the rocket engineer behind that year’s successful Moon landing, by 1982.

But it never happened, and who knows if it ever will? The UAE, aided by expertise from other countries, can certainly get a probe to Mars by 2021, in theory.

Whether they’ll actually do it is whole different story.

TIME Science

This Eerie Hole Opened Up at the ‘End of the World’

Crater appeared on the Yamal peninsula in northern Russia

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Helicopters spotted this mysterious hole in northern Russia on Tuesday and scientists are on their way to investigate the scene, reports the Siberian Times.

The hole—estimated to be over 250ft wide—is located in the Yamal peninsula, a region affectionately meaning the “end of the world.” One scientist speculates that global warming in conjunction with natural gas lines may have caused the yawning cavity in the earth.

Anna Kurchatova from Siberia’s Sub-Arctic Scientific Research Centre believes the crater was a result of an explosion when a mixture of water, salt and natural gas exploded underground. Global warming, she claims, has caused the permafrost in Siberia to melt at an accelerated rate, placing stress on the natural gas reserves.

Yamal authorities are visiting the hole along with two scientists from the Centre for the Study of the Arctic and one from the Cryosphere Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

[Siberian Times]

 

TIME Science

Buzz Aldrin: It’s Time to Put a Man on Mars

George Washington University Space Policy Institute Holds Humans To Mars Summit
NASA Apollo XI astronaut Buzz Aldrin speaks at the Humans to Mars Summit on April 22, 2014 at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Win McNamee—Getty Images

On the 45th anniversary of the moon landing, the U.S. should decide on the necessary steps to explore Mars with the eventual goal of establishing a manned settlement there.

It’s hard to believe that on July 20, 2014, we’ll be celebrating the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11, man’s first landing on the moon. It’s also hard to believe that no one can really say where the U.S. manned space exploration program is heading and how we’re going to get there. People come up to me and say, “It’s too bad the space program got canceled.” This is not the case, and yet that is what most of the public thinks has happened. Yes, we hear from NASA that the destination is Mars — and yet there is no detailed plan on how to get there. No one can seem to agree on a clear path. The nation is understandably focused on many other pressing challenges at the moment. However, if we don’t make some important decisions about the future of our space program very soon, I’m afraid the program will be lost to the ages.

There are eight U.S. astronauts left out of the 12 who walked on the moon. All of us are in the eighth decade of our lives. Each of us can attest to the importance of continuing human exploration of space and the tremendous impact it has had on so many facets of our society. The technical innovations, scientific achievements, medical breakthroughs, environmental enhancements, national defense improvements and educational impacts have been immeasurable. Our nation simply cannot afford to lose a program that has contributed so much for so long. Our leaders have some important decisions to make and they need to make them now. The moon must not be the last stop in America’s quest for knowledge of other planets and of other places.

Here’s what we as a nation must decide:

  1. Does the United States wish to continue leading human exploration of space or leave it to Russia, China, India or some other nation to take over? To me, the answer is obvious.
  2. Does it not make good sense for the U.S. to take the high ground by establishing cooperative U.S.-China relations in space? We did it with the Soviet Union through the Apollo-Soyuz program back in July 1975, and I believe it is even more important to do it with the PRC in 2014. Cooperation, not confrontation, should be the hallmark of our dealings with the Chinese beyond Earth.
  3. Does it make sense for the U.S. to expend hundreds of billions of dollars to mount a new Apollo-style program to return to the moon? Or have we blazed that trail? Shouldn’t we help other nations achieve this goal with their own resources but with our help? Rather than doing again something we did 45 years ago, shouldn’t the U.S. be developing a path toward Mars?
  4. And shouldn’t the U.S. develop the technological capabilities needed to land humans on Mars by first traveling to a nearby asteroid for research and development purposes? A hybrid human-robot mission to investigate an asteroid affords a realistic opportunity to demonstrate new technological capabilities for future deep-space travel and to test spacecraft for long-duration spaceflight. This is imperative, as we’ve never done manned missions beyond the moon.
  5. And speaking of Mars, are we prepared as a nation to take the necessary steps to explore Mars with the eventual goal of establishing a manned settlement on that planet? To me, the answer should be a resounding “yes.”

It’s unlikely that the remaining Apollo astronauts, including yours truly, will be around to witness the conclusion of the next exciting chapter in our nation’s space program. However, we would like to be here when our President and Congress make these critical decisions. If our leaders make the right decisions — and they must — we’re confident the new manned space program will meet or exceed the tremendous success of the Apollo program so many years ago. But let’s make these decisions now.

Dr. Buzz Aldrin served as lunar module pilot for Apollo 11, the first manned lunar landing mission. He is the author of eight books, including his New York Times best-selling autobiography Magnificent Desolation. His newest book, Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration, was published in 2013. As one of the leading space exploration advocates, Buzz continues to chart a course for future space travel.

TIME Science

Stunning Time-Lapse Video Shows the Earth Seen From 250 Miles Above

Watch this and feel at peace with the universe

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Astronaut Alexander Gerst recorded footage from the International Space Station as it soared over Brazil and the Atlantic Ocean at speeds around 18,000 miles an hour (!!!). Everything sure seems more peaceful from 250 miles away, huh? (h/t io9)

TIME space

See the Supermoon from the International Space Station

The Supermoon captured from the International Space Station.
The Supermoon captured from the International Space Station. Alexander Gerst—NASA


Astronaut Alexander Gerst tweeted this amazing picture of the above-earth view of a supermoon early Monday, when the moon was still behind the horizon.

Gerst is a German astronaut aboard the International Space Station and among many astronauts using the social media site to share incredible pictures of the view from space. Gerst often uses the hashtag #bluedot, a nod to the iconic image of Earth taken from Saturn. And earlier in July, NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman tweeted above-earth images of Super Typhoon Neoguri. Three astronauts recently spoke to TIME about life above the earth, read their comments in this week’s issue.

TIME review

Planet of the Apes: That Couldn’t Happen….Right?

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, Toby Kebbell, Andy Serkis, 2014. ph: David James/TM and ©Copyright
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the eighth film in the series. Twentieth Century Fox/Courtesy of Everett Collection

There's science behind the new sci-fi movie—some of it turns out to be pretty sound

Part of the job of any science reporter is to ruin your moviegoing experience. Blown away by Gravity? Here are all the ways they got the science wrong. Charmed by A Beautiful Mind? Sorry, it utterly fails to capture the essence of mathematics (and that moving fountain-pen ceremony is a total fabrication, says Princeton University, where it was supposed to have taken place, so there).

Now comes Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a film rich in opportunities to take scientific potshots. I mean, c’mon—super-intelligent chimps who form their own breakaway society? Which is in some ways more gentle and noble than the human one they left behind, although they’ll fight if they must? How absurd is that? Could such a thing ever happen?

Well, not next week, but while Dawn isn’t exactly reality based, the science underneath all of that dramatic speculation isn’t entirely bogus either. Take the apes’ transition from ordinary chimpiness to hyper-intelligence, as laid out in 2011′s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It comes about through an experimental virus that alters the animals genetically. In fact, deactivated viruses are how doctors attempt to inject new, healthy genes into victims of genetic disorders. The technology is still highly experimental, but there’s no reason to think it won’t be perfected someday.

Moreover, while it’s clear that there’s no single gene governing intelligence—and that intelligence itself comes in different types—it’s equally clear that smarts, however you define them, have a genetic component. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine that we’ll identify the genes in question, and find ways to insert them into the brains of both people and, should we be so insane as to do so, apes as well.

Ok, so apes with enhanced intelligence, check.

As for how these simian Einsteins would actually behave, the film is at least plausible on that score as well—as long as you don’t look too closely. That’s how Frans de Waal sees it. He’s an expert on primate behavior based at Emory University, and he says there are key elements in the movie that ring true.

For one thing, he says, chimps may never be fully as intelligent as humans, gene therapy notwithstanding (“our brains are physically three times bigger—this is not a small difference”). But de Waal adds, “chimps do have many mental capacities—thinking about the future, planning ahead,” which are necessary for the sort of strategic thinking they do in the movie. “So that’s not unrealistic.”

It’s also not at all unrealistic that the primates in Dawn would band together to fight their human antagonists. “Chimps do wage war,” de Waal says. “They’re quite territorial.” As an admirer of chimps and other primates, he was worried that his cross-species friends might be stereotyped. “I was afraid they’d portray the apes as aggressive and the humans as angelic—but it’s the opposite. The apes want peace in the beginning.”

Also realistic is the stormy relationship between noble Caesar, the apes’ leader, and Koba, the cranky ape who was scarred both physically and psychologically by cruel humans. “They fight,” says de Waal, “but they reconcile afterward, which is something chimps really do. I’ve studied this for many years.” In real life, he explains, chimps patch up their differences by kissing on the mouth, whereas in the film they make up with a more conventionally manly hand-clasp. But still, bonus points for truthiness.

De Waal notes a few other, less defensible inaccuracies. Real apes don’t produce tears when they’re sad, but Dawn apes do; real apes don’t walk on two legs nearly as much as the Dawn apes. They don’t use spoken language, either, and while de Waal believes they could if they really wanted or needed to, it’s not clear why they would prefer speaking to signing—something apes are already physiologically equipped for. To the extent that that and other forms of ape body language are shown, they’re misrepresented. “The apes’ nonverbal communication has been humanized,” he says.

De Waal’s other complaint, albeit a minor one: “This is very much a macho movie,” he says. “It has only a few female characters. It’s mostly just males running around and shooting each other.” A true portrayal of ape society—even one based on a science-fictional premise—would include typical behaviors like feeding, grooming and sex. “It disturbed me a little,” he says. “It was just like a Schwarzenegger movie.”

With lots more body hair, of course.

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