space travel

In recently unearthed essay, Winston Churchill anticipated space travel and extraterrestrial life

Quoting Winston Churchill has always been something of a pastime.

If you’re going through hell, keep going. 

History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.

Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.

What hasn’t often been quoted is the essay he penned in 1939 titled “Are We Alone in the Universe?” concerning that very question. That isn’t surprising, as the 11 typed pages were never published before being lost to the world for more than three decades.

Churchill, who served as British prime minister from 1940 to 1945 and then again from 1951 to 1955, updated his manuscript in the late 1950s while staying at a French villa owned by Emery Reves, his publisher. Nothing came of it, and eventually Reves’s wife Wendy passed the manuscript along to the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Mo. There it gathered dust until last year, when the museum’s new director, Timothy Riley, discovered and handed it over to Israeli astrophysicist and author Mario Livio.

In an article published in this week’s edition of the science journal Nature, Livio examined the essay’s contents. Churchill’s work will be unveiled today at the National Churchill Museum, where visitors can view several of its pages.

The most striking takeaway from the essay is how modern Churchill’s conclusions were. One obvious example: “One day, possibly even in the not very distant future, it may be possible to travel to the moon, or even to Venus or Mars,” he wrote 30 years before Neil Armstrong’s historic journey.

His more nuanced views of the potential for extraterritorial life, though, “mirrors many modern arguments in astrobiology,” most notably that in the ever-expanding vastness of the universe, such life is likely. As Livio wrote:

In essence, he builds on the framework of the ‘Copernican Principle’ — the idea that, given the vastness of the Universe, it is hard to believe that humans on Earth represent something unique.

Perhaps Churchill’s most intuitive prediction, as Livio noted, was that of the habitable zone. While Churchill didn’t use this modern term, he closely described it.

After noting that “all living things of the type we know require water,” Churchill observed that the presence of water — thus the potential for life — likely requires a rocky planet at the right distance from a star to be “between a few degrees of frost and the boiling point of water.”

Then, as Livio wrote, “Churchill also considers the ability of a planet to retain its atmosphere, explaining that the hotter a gas is, the faster its molecules are moving and the more easily they can escape. Consequently, stronger gravity is necessary to trap gas on a planet in the long term.”

Given these requirements, the former prime minister concluded that Venus and Mars were the only places in our solar system that could support life.

In other words, he predicted the first definition of the habitable zone — more than 60 years ago. According to PBS, “The habitable zone first encompassed the orbits of Venus to Mars, planets close enough to the sun for solar energy to drive the chemistry of life — but not so close as to boil off water or break down the organic molecules on which life depends.”

One of the aspects of Churchill’s essay most praised by Livio, ironically, is a segment in which Churchill was off the mark.

In a segment focused on other solar systems (“I am not sufficiently conceited to think that my sun is the only one with a family of planets,” he wrote), Churchill wrote in affirmation of a model suggested in 1917 by astrophysicist James Jeans which argued that stars are “formed from the gas that is torn off a star when another star passes close to it.”

But Livio praised Churchill’s skepticism of the now dismissed model. Via Livio:

Now Churchill shines. With the healthy skepticism of a scientist, he writes: “But this speculation depends upon the hypothesis that planets were formed in this way. Perhaps they were not. We know there are millions of double stars, and if they could be formed, why not planetary systems?”

In his essay, Churchill blended his science with his experience with humankind: “I, for one, am not so immensely impressed by the success we are making of our civilization here that I am prepared to think we are the only spot in this immense universe which contains living, thinking creatures, or that we are the highest type of mental and physical development which has ever appeared in the vast compass of space and time.”

Churchill’s curiosity about the universe shouldn’t come as a surprise. In addition to being a regaled statesman and military strategist, Churchill had a scientific mind.

“He had a tremendous intellect,” Westminster College president Benjamin Ola Akande said in a statement. “Even though Great Britain was on the brink of war at the time, Churchill continually educated himself and wrote thought-provoking essays that demonstrated his leadership beyond government and military affairs, but also in science.”

“Renaissance man that he was, Churchill was keenly interested in science,” Livio said in a statement. “For example, he was the first British prime minister to hire a science adviser and made the UK a friendly environment for science and scientists.”

If nothing else, the unearthed essay serves as a reminder that politics and science can — and indeed have — gone hand in hand, each benefiting from the other. In a world in which the two are treated by some as adversaries, this message might be more powerful than ever.

As Livio wrote, “At a time when a number of today’s politicians shun science, I find it moving to recall a leader who engaged with it so profoundly. … Particularly given today’s political landscape, elected leaders should heed Churchill’s example: appoint permanent science advisers and make good use of them.”

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It’s showtime for Pluto; prepare to be amazed by NASA flyby

http://www.foxnews.com/science/2015/07/13/it-showtime-for-pluto-prepare-to-be-amazed-by-nasa-flyby/

Pluto, reveal thyself, and Earthlings, enjoy the show.

On Tuesday, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will sweep past Pluto and present the previously unexplored world in all its icy glory.

It promises to be the biggest planetary unveiling in a quarter-century. The curtain hasn’t been pulled back like this since NASA’s Voyager 2 shed light on Neptune in 1989.

Now it’s little Pluto’s turn to shine way out on the frigid fringes of our solar system.

New Horizons has traveled 3 billion miles over 9½ years to get to this historic point. The fastest spacecraft ever launched, it carries the most powerful suite of science instruments ever sent on a scouting and reconnaissance mission of a new, unfamiliar world.

Guarantees principal scientist Alan Stern, “We’re going to knock your socks off.”

The size of a baby grand piano, the spacecraft will come closest to Pluto on Tuesday morning — at 7:49 a.m. EDT. That’s when New Horizons is predicted to pass within 7,767 miles of Pluto. Fourteen minutes later, the spacecraft will zoom within 17,931 miles of Charon, Pluto’s jumbo moon.

For the plutophiles among us, it will be cause to celebrate, especially for those gathered at the operations center at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. The lab designed and built the spacecraft for NASA, and has been managing its roundabout route through the solar system.

“What NASA’s doing with New Horizons is uprecedented in our time and probably something close to the last train to Clarksville, the last picture show, for a very, very long time,” says Stern, a planetary scientist with the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

It is the last stop in NASA’s quest to explore every planet in our solar system, starting with Venus in 1962. And in a cosmic coincidence, the Pluto visit falls on the 50th anniversary of the first-ever flyby of Mars, by Mariner 4.

Yes, we all know Pluto is no longer an official planet, merely a dwarf, but it still enjoyed full planet status when New Horizons rocketed from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Jan. 19, 2006. Pluto’s demotion came just seven months later, a sore subject still for many.

“We’re kind of running the anchor leg with Pluto to finish the relay,” Stern says.

The sneak peeks of Pluto in recent weeks are getting “juicier and juicier,” says Johns Hopkins project scientist Hal Weaver. “The science team is just drooling over these pictures.”

The Hubble Space Telescope previously captured the best pictures of Pluto. If the pixelated blobs of pictures had been of Earth, though, not even the continents would have been visible.

The New Horizons team is turning “a point of light into a planet,” Stern says.

An image released last week shows a copper-colored Pluto bearing, a large, bright spot in the shape of a heart.

Scientists expect image resolution to improve dramatically by Tuesday. The 7,767-mile span at closest approach is about the distance between Seattle and Sydney.

New Horizons, weighing less than 1,000 pounds including fuel, has seven instruments that will be going full force during the encounter. It’s expected to collect 5,000 times as much data, for instance, as Mariner 4.

“We’re going to rewrite the book,” Weaver says. “This is it — this is our once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see it.”

The team gets one crack at this.

“We’re trying to hit a very small box, relatively speaking,” says Mark Holdridge, the encounter mission manager. “It’s 60 by 90 miles, and we’re going 30,000 mph, and we’re trying to hit that box within a plus or minus 100 seconds.”

The only planet in our solar system discovered by an American, Pluto actually is a mini solar system unto itself. Pluto — just two-thirds the size of our own moon — has big moon Charon that’s just over half its size, as well as baby moons Styx, Nix, Hydra, Kerberos and Styx. The names are associated with the underworld in which the mythological god, Pluto, reigned. New Horizons will observe each known moon and keep a lookout for more.

Scientists involved in the $700 million effort want to get a good look at Pluto and Charon, and get a handle on their surfaces and chemical composition. They also plan to measure the temperature and pressure in Pluto’s nitrogen-rich atmosphere and determine how much gas is escaping into space. Temperatures can plunge to nearly minus-400 degrees.

Bill McKinnon, a New Horizons team member from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, expects to see craters and possible volcanic remnants. A liquid ocean and a rocky core may lie beneath the icy shell.

“Anybody who thinks that when we go to Pluto, we’re going to find cold, dead ice balls is in for a rude shock,” McKinnon says. “I’m really hoping to see a very active and dynamic world.”

Pluto has tantalized astronomers since its 1930 discovery by Clyde Tombaugh using the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. Some of Tombaugh’s ashes are aboard New Horizons. His two children, now in their 70s, plan to be at Johns Hopkins for the encounter.

With its tilted, elongated 248-year orbit, Pluto has made it only a third of the way around the sun since its discovery. The amount of sunlight that reaches Pluto is so dim that at high noon it looks like twilight here on Earth. The massive surrounding Kuiper Belt, in fact, is called the Twilight Zone. The New Horizons team has its eyes on a few much smaller objects in the Kuiper Belt, and is hoping for a mission extension as the spacecraft continues toward the solar system exit on the heels of NASA’s Voyagers 1 and 2 and Pioneers 10 and 11.

For now, signals take 4½ hours to travel one-way between New Horizons and flight controllers in Maryland.

New Horizons’ science instruments will be cranked up to collect maximum data Tuesday, leaving no time to send back data. In fact, scientists won’t be absolutely certain of success until Tuesday night, 13 hours following New Horizons’ closest approach, when it “phones home.”

It will be Wednesday before the closest of Pluto’s close-ups are available for release. And it will be well into next year — October 2016 — before all the anticipated data are transmitted to Earth.

“We’re all going to have to be patient,” urges deputy project scientist Cathy Olkin.

For everyone involved, this is a mission of delayed gratification.