Scientists Emerge From Year-Long Mars Simulation in Hawaii

Former crewmember Martha Lenio during a previous mission. Image Credit: YouTube // University of Hawaii

This past Sunday (August 28), six pale, grinning faces greeted the sunlight for the first time in a year. The crew of the longest-ever Mars simulator mission in Hawaii has come back to Earth. 

The Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) program tests crewmembers’ ability to cope and get along while stuck in a small habitat for months at a time. Their convincingly Martian habitat is situated on the desolate, rocky slopes of the Mauna Loa volcano. The site’s high elevation keeps it barren and alien-looking, and its soil is similar to that found on Mars. At 36 feet across and 20 feet tall, the dome itself is a snug fit for six crewmembers, their possessions, and all of their scientific equipment. With limited contact with the outside world and nowhere to go, the dome offers endurance socializing at its most extreme. (If this appeals to you and you want to join the next mission, you can get the details and sign up here.) 

HI-SEAS has staged three previous missions to Hawaiian Mars: two four-month ‘voyages’ in 2013 and 2014 and an eight-month stay, also in 2014. At exactly 365 days, HI-SEAS IV was the longest mission yet. The international, multidisciplinary crew included astrobiologist Cyprien Verseux, physicist Christiane Heinicke, physician Sheyna Gifford, engineer Andrzej Stewart, architect Tristan Bassingthwaighte, and soil scientist Carmel Johnston. 

Image Credit: University of Hawaii News via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Beaming and squinting in the bright Hawaiian daylight, the newly grounded crew expressed elation and optimism about our future on Mars, saying “a mission to Mars in the close future is realistic,” as Verseux told the press. “I think the technological and psychological obstacles can be overcome.” 

HI-SEAS principal investigator Kim Binsted said the crew was most looking forward to a plunge in the ocean and the opportunity to fill their plates with all the fresh produce they’ve been missing.

Although they never truly left the ground, the HI-SEAS IV crew returned with the awe, vulnerability, and hope of so many space travelers before them. Writing in her blog mere moments before the end of the mission, Gifford wrote

The roots of our humanity are buried in it and reach for it, growing towards the light of the only sun we have ever felt on our skin and beyond, to other suns, to other stars. This was a year of my life. Light from our sun traveled 5,878,499,817 miles out towards other words, 3,375 of which are known to us as of this moment. Light from their suns hurled the same distance towards are. We are, in a metaphorical and physical sense, reaching for each other – not for any reason. It just does. We just are. 

Gifford closed her post with an exhortation to her fellow travelers on Spaceship Earth. “For you all out there: just keep going,” she wrote. “It will be the hardest and best thing you ever do. For me, for now—I’m going on vacation.”

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Why Do Astronauts Use Space Pens Instead of Pencils?

by Alex Carter

It's often said that NASA spent millions of dollars developing a pen that could write in zero gravity, while the Russians just used pencils. It was a warning about looking for a high-tech solution to a mundane problem, of American excess vs. Russian sensibility.

It's also entirely false.

To understand why NASA was so keen on a workable space pen, you have to understand that the pencil is not suited for space travel. The problem is that they have a habit of breaking, shattering, and leaving graphite dust behind. The wood, too, can make it a serious fire risk in the pressurized, oxygen-rich capsule. All of these common issues become life-threatening hazards in space.

Still, there were attempts to bring pencils into space. In 1965, the agency famously ordered 34 specially designed mechanical pencils in hopes of finding the perfect writing tool for astronauts. But at $128 each, they weren't exactly cheap, and it only got worse when the public got wind of the price. Thankfully, an alternative was not too far behind.

Astronaut Walt Cunningham, pilot of the Apollo 7 mission, uses the Fisher Space Pen while in flight.
Astronaut Walt Cunningham, pilot of the Apollo 7 mission, uses the Fisher Space Pen while in flight.

The Space Pen was invented by Paul Fisher, head of Fisher Pen Company. Unlike a typical pen, the Fisher Space Pen uses compressed nitrogen to force ink out of the nozzle, instead of using gravity to make it flow. This made it the ideal device for writing in space, while upside down, or submerged underwater. It wrote crisp and clean, without the safety concerns of a pencil.

Fisher contacted NASA to give his pens a try in 1965 and in 1967, after months of testing, they were impressed enough to bulk buy 400 of them for future missions. Contrary to those urban legends, NASA didn't commission the pen or contribute any funding to it. The Soviets soon ditched their grease pencils and were eventually buying the same Fisher pens as NASA, too. The price? After a 40 percent discount from Fisher, both space agencies were paying $2.39 a pen.

The Fisher Space Pens made their debut in 1968 on the Apollo 7 mission and have been involved in all manned missions since.

So, the short reason is that astronauts only used pencils when they were waiting for something better to come along. As soon as it did, they switched and never looked back. Even the Russians thought it was a good idea.

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New Study Says We Could Be Alone in the Universe

There's a good chance that humans are the only intelligent life in the galaxy, according to a new study submitted to the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society of London A. As Quartz reports, researchers at Oxford University's Future of Humanity Institute applied existing knowledge of biology, chemistry, and cosmology to the Drake equation (below). It was created by astronomer Frank Drake in 1961 as an attempt to calculate the number of intelligent civilizations that could be in our galaxy. He included factors like the average rate of star formation and the average lifespan of intelligent civilizations.

Image showing text of the Drake equation and explaining what each variable means
Equation: University of Rochester; Image: Hannah McDonald

They estimate there’s a 53 to 99.6 percent chance we’re alone in the galaxy, and a 39 to 85 percent chance we’re the only intelligent life to be found in the entire universe.

“Where are they?” the researchers ask, referring to the classic Fermi Paradox, which asserts that intelligent extraterrestrial beings exist and that they should have visited Earth by now. “Probably extremely far away, and quite possibly beyond the cosmological horizon and forever unreachable.”

Seth Shostak doesn’t buy it. Shostak is senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, a research organization that analyzes radio signals for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. Part of the challenge with mathematical modeling like this, Shostak says, is that the data are limited; scientists just haven’t looked at very many star systems.

“I could walk outside here in Mountain View, California and not see too many hippos strolling the streets,” he tells Mental Floss. “But it would be incorrect for me to say on that rather limited basis that there’s probably no hippos anywhere. It’s a big conclusion to make on the basis of a local observation.”

Moreover, they may not even know what to look for in the solar systems they have reviewed. The SETI Institute examines radio communications and light signals, but there’s always the possibility that an intelligent civilization has attempted to contact us using means we may not have developed or even considered yet.

The Fermi Paradox itself may be naïve in its understanding of the universe, Shostak says. “You could have said the same thing about Antarctica in the 1700s. A lot of people wondered, ‘Is there a continent down there?’ On the one hand, you could argue there was [a continent], and on the other hand, you could say, ‘Look, there’s an awful lot of water in the Pacific and the Atlantic, and there’s no continents there, so why should there be one at the bottom of the ocean?’”

In other words, any conclusions about the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence are likely to be presumptive, made before any solid data is released or discovered. The truth may be out there, Shostak says. We just haven’t found it yet.

[h/t Quartz]


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