Space

Lisa Pratt, the new planetary protection officer for NASA takes up her job at a challenging time for astrobiology. We are approaching a major decision point for Mars. If Elon Musk succeeds in his ambitious plans, then some time in the next couple of decades we may introduce trillions of hardy microbial spores to the planet. Not deliberately, but just because we can't help but take them with us wherever we go. This is a major quandary for astrobiology. But not just for astrobiologists. 

I think almost anyone would be saddened if we had this headline news story in the 2030s:

Titan might seem an unlikely place to for humans to build settlements, and maybe eventually colonize. After all, it is so far from the sun, and extraordinarily cold, and it's a long journey to get there (at present). But actually, if you set aside the difficulty of getting there, which we should overcome as our technology improves - it's got more going for it than you might think. This is an idea originally developed in some detail by Charles Wohlforth and Amanda Hendrix, authors of Beyond Earth: Our Path to a New Home in the Planets

I think we should build our first offworld backup on the Moon. We can start by storing seeds there, similar to the Svalbard seed vault in Norway. Within a few years we should have easy access to the Moon, and then it will be easy to do. The lunar caves are naturally at the right temperature. Add a vacuum sealed packet of dried seeds to a rover that explores a suitable lunar cave, and leave it there at the end of the mission, inside the rover, and that's it.That's the start of a future seed vault. From small beginnings ... 

Elon Musk says there are two futures, to stay on Earth and eventually go extinct, or to become a "multi-planetary species". He says Mars is our "plan B". But there is a third possibility. 

SpaceX have a striking video showing Mars spinning faster and faster, transforming from the current red Mars to a planet with a small ocean and with the deserts tinged with green in seven revolutions.

Of course that is poetic exaggeration - it wouldn't terraform in a week. So how long would it take? Science fiction enthusiasts who have read Kim Stanley Robinson's "Mars Trilogy" may remember that in his book, it is terraformed in a couple of centuries. But that's science fiction, not a terraforming blue print.

We have been sending missions to Mars since the Mariner 4 flyby in 1964, and our first successful landing was Viking 1 in 1976, So, why can't astrobiologists answer the question definitively, when you ask them if there is life on Mars? 

 Well, perhaps it's because we haven’t looked.

You might think, 

The Rosette Nebula is located in the Milky Way Galaxy roughly 5,000 light-years from us and is known for its rose-like shape and distinctive hole at the center. The nebula is an interstellar cloud of dust, hydrogen, helium and other ionized gases with several massive stars found in a cluster at its heart.

Untitled Document

So Elon Musk's Tesla roadster is now in an orbit that takes it right out to the asteroid belt not far from Ceres. And what a thrilling launch it was with the two boosters landing so perfectly choreographed. It was nearly flawless. Only one minor hiccup, that the core booster missed the barge and crashed into the water, probably at around 300 mph, scattering the barge with shrapnel. They will surely fix that too with future launches.

If any of you haven't seen it yet, here is the launch video archived by SpaceX.

I’m continuing to get scared PM's and posts to our Doomsday Debunked Facebook group about the lunar eclipse on 31st January. There is nothing at all to worry about. You’ve had lunar eclipses like this many times in your life and never noticed. Now it appears in Facebook Trending with comments - and many people, children and adults, get scared of it, with panic attacks. Some of the PM's and comments I get are verging on suicide about this.

For a shorter version of this, see my Short summary - why the super blue blood moon on Jan 31 can’t harm us

I am currently spending the week in Leiden (Netherlands), attending to a very interesting workshop that brought together computer scientists, astronomers, astrophysicists, and particle physicists to discuss how to apply the most cutting-edge tools in machine learning to improve our chances of discovering dark matter, the unknown non-luminous substance that vastly overweights luminous matter in the Universe.
In the United States, we just had another Supermoon, and at the end of this month we will have a Blue Moon (the second full moon in a month) with a lunar eclipse, which is pretty special. Though doomsday prophets like to make a lot out of those natural phenomena, the rest of us want to plan our vacations around them - the solar eclipse in the summer of 2017 caused the largest mass migration in America's history because everyone wanted the best view.