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Space

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Space



Chinese Space Program



China has had considerable success in its crewed space programme. However, in your article on the rise of China as a space superpower you quote Richard Holdaway, the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory Space division director, as saying that the country is "progressing a lot faster than the US did with theirs in the sixties" (15 February, p 42). This is disputable.

China launched a crew of two and then three about a year earlier than the US did, following their respective one-man orbital missions. However, the US was substantially faster in achieving its first space docking, with Gemini 8, taking only four years and one month after its first crewed orbital flight, whereas China took nine years.

The US landed a man on the moon seven years and five months after John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth in 1962. If China had moved as fast, it would have put someone on the moon in March 2011.

Parallel Universes



While we don't know whether parallel universes exist, there is something we do know: whenever a physicist writes a book about them, the web erupts with claims they are unscientific nonsense.

Mark Buchanan's review of my book Our Mathematical Universe was no exception (18 January, p 46). "Is this still science," he wonders, "or has inflationary cosmology veered towards something akin to religion?"

The key point that many critics miss is that parallel universes aren't scientific theories, but the predictions of certain theories, such as cosmological inflation. These theories are scientific because they make testable predictions for things that we can observe, such as the cosmic microwave background.

Because it has passed such experimental tests, inflation is the most popular theory for what happened to the universe early on. But if we take inflation seriously, then we must also take all of its predictions seriously, even those that are untestable – including parallel universes.

Humans have repeatedly underestimated the size of our cosmos by assuming that everything we could observe was all that existed. No matter how seductively comforting a small reality may feel, we aren't free to opt out of scientific predictions because we don't like them. Our job as scientists isn't to tell the cosmos how to be, but to follow the trail of evidence wherever it leads. For a further discussion see my blog at bit.ly/1c6vaJx.

Moon Names

From William Anders, Apollo 8 astronaut

I am pleased that the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has pledged to pay heed to public opinion when naming celestial bodies (24 August, p 7). I only wish it had done so sooner.

I was a member of the first crewed flight around the moon. In training, I chose names for a few of the unnamed craters along our orbital track. These included America, Kennedy and Houston, as well as the names of crew (Borman, Lovell and Anders) and NASA colleagues and leaders.

These were recorded on our lunar orbital map and used during the mission. I had picked a small but well-formed crater just over the lunar horizon to be "Anders", since it could not be seen from Earth and thus had not been named by early moon gazers. However, a spacecraft directly above the crater could see Earth and thus communicate with mission control.

I thought these names would have some priority, but when the IAU honoured our crew with crater names, it picked three craters that were not only well out of sight of our orbital track, but also in darkness at the time of our mission. I wrote to the IAU to try to correct this and even included the flight map. I got brushed off by its bureaucracy – and never got my map back.

From Jim Lovell, Apollo 8 astronaut

I agree with the views of my fellow Apollo 8 crew member William Anders on the naming of lunar landmarks (14 September, p 30). The International Astronomical Union (IAU) disregarded his suggestion, even though we discovered them on the far side of the moon.

On the near side of the moon, on the shore of the lunar plain known as the Sea of Tranquility, there is a small triangular mountain that had no name. I first observed it on Apollo 8 and called it Mount Marilyn, after my wife. It was used as the starting point for the descents of Apollo 10 and 11.

Although the IAU does not officially recognise the name, it is embedded in spaceflight history.

Martian Colonies

Articles about colonising Mars continue to gloss over the temperature and composition of its atmosphere (13 July, p 42). It seems disingenuous to act as though people can actually discuss living out a significant part of their lives in spacesuits and pressurised hulls. There is no precedent; even extended submarine patrols and International Space Station tours are not years long.

You mention that "one of the mooted Martian settlement projects has proposed funding the trip using a reality TV show" (27 July, p 5).

Will there be evictions?

Hubble

NASA's best estimates now place re-entry into the atmosphere due to atmospheric drag in the mid-2030s, nearly a decade later than the article suggests. No development work on a de-orbit mission is taking place because none is necessary.

We at STScI are looking forward to a new generation of space telescopes that will work synergistically. Hubble's successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, will be launched in 2018. Larger and more efficient than Hubble, the new observatory will allow us to look further back in time and space, revealing the first galaxies.

In the 2020 to 2030 time frame we are looking forward to launching a "wide-angle" version of Hubble to be built from already manufactured Hubble-sized mirrors. That mission will provide wider-field imaging than a refurbished Hubble could, and will survey orders of magnitude more sky with the same superb resolution as Hubble.

Hubble is expected to operate and perform cutting-edge science until at least 2020, and could likely work in parallel with these other space observatories.NASA's best estimates now place re-entry into the atmosphere due to atmospheric drag in the mid-2030s, nearly a decade later than the article suggests. No development work on a de-orbit mission is taking place because none is necessary.

We at STScI are looking forward to a new generation of space telescopes that will work synergistically. Hubble's successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, will be launched in 2018. Larger and more efficient than Hubble, the new observatory will allow us to look further back in time and space, revealing the first galaxies.

In the 2020 to 2030 time frame we are looking forward to launching a "wide-angle" version of Hubble to be built from already manufactured Hubble-sized mirrors. That mission will provide wider-field imaging than a refurbished Hubble could, and will survey orders of magnitude more sky with the same superb resolution as Hubble.

Hubble is expected to operate and perform cutting-edge science until at least 2020, and could likely work in parallel with these other space observatories.

Europa

I agree that searching for life on Europa should be an urgent priority, but I wonder why we don't try to investigate the inner workings of a body covered in unstable ice by listening to it.

We might do this from very far away using lasers, similar to the way that one can eavesdrop on a conversation by measuring the deviation of a laser reflected off a minutely vibrating surface in the room, such as the window.

Who knows what we might find? Perhaps Europa is alive with a cacophony of whale-like megafauna calling to one another across a dark 100-kilometre-deep ocean. It would be a real achievement to hear them without setting foot on Europa.

Where Are The Visitors?

John Bailey's pessimistic view that a lack of alien visitors indicates there are no aliens out there (21 February, p 54) carries with it two hidden assumptions: an advanced civilisation will aspire to interstellar travel, and they will develop the means to do so.

It may be that interstellar travel cannot be achieved on timescales that are meaningful to living organisms. Voyager I, humanity's most distant space probe, won't actually leave the influence of the sun's gravity for another 17,000 years, let alone reach another star.

Anything we are likely to build in the foreseeable future won't do more than shave a few thousand years off that, and what civilisation is going to sit around for 10,000 years awaiting an answer from a probe it's unlikely to even remember it sent?

It is now over 40 years since we even sent anyone to the moon, and a combination of economics and politics has stifled our ability to get out of Earth orbit since then, let alone reach for the stars.

Similarly, alien civilisations may be out there, but have never managed to visit us simply due to budget cuts.






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