Science fiction has long promised an age of interplanetary human existence. Scenes of spaceships hopping from one galaxy to the next are so common, it seems almost inevitable that future generations will one day vacation on Mars. But, if we are ever going to achieve life on other planets, we first have to figure out if the human body can tolerate it.
Some of the best data we have on the subject comes from American astronaut Scott Kelly. Kelly spent a year living on the International Space Station while his twin brother Mark, also an astronaut, was on Earth. Scientists from all over the country studied the impact life in space had on Scott Kelly, and compared changes in his body to his brother.
One of those scientists was UC San Diego Professor of Medicine, Michael G. Ziegler, MD. In a recent talk at UC San Diego Extension’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, Ziegler detailed some of the more interesting findings from the study. Scott Kelly lost weight. There were significant changes to his gene expression. He lost collagen. His carotid artery thickened. His bones became less dense. His eye shape changed, forcing him to wear glasses. While he was in space, his performance on cognitive tests improved. But, his performance plummeted after returning to Earth, and never quite returned to pre-launch levels.
Despite all of this, Ziegler has reason to be hopeful about long-term space travel. He says the year in space study illuminated many of the challenges, and gave researchers some ideas of how to overcome them. Still, it’s probably a little early to start planning your trip to the red planet.
After traveling through the inner solar system for seven years, NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft reached Mercury in March 2011 and became the first ever mission to orbit this mysterious planet. Since then, MESSENGER has been making measurements with its suite of scientific instruments, including gamma-ray, neutron and x-ray spectrometers, magnetometer, laser altimeter, cameras and other instruments.
What were you doing when Curiousity touched down on the surface of Mars?
For those of us in California, the exciting moments of the rover’s descent and landing took place just before bedtime (10:30pm) so we watched it live on the NASA website. Don’t know about you, but we found it hard to hold back the tears as we watched the scientists and engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory erupt into celebration after the picture perfect landing.
Science is a beautiful thing and we can’t wait to see what Curiosity sends back to Earth in the coming months and years.
In the meantime, let’s look back at Curiosity’s rover predecessors, Spirit and Opportunity, with Steven Squyres, the principle scientist behind the Mars Exploration Rover Project, who visited UC Berkeley in 2011. He shares his experiences working on the mind-boggling project and talks about the future of planetory exploration in these three programs:
Sadly, we learned today that Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, UC San Diego Professor Emeritus, and an advocate for science education, passed away at her home in San Diego. She was 61.
The UC San Diego campus, where Ride became Professor of Physics in 1989 (and where UCTV is based), is already relatively quiet this summer break, but the news of Ride’s premature passing due to pancreatic cancer has created a more somber tone. Her loss will obviously also be felt at the San Diego-based company she founded, Sally Ride Science, which provided science education materials and assistance to teachers and schools.
In February 2011, Ride visited UC Berkeley to deliver the UC Berkeley Physics Regent’s Lecture titled “Reach for the Stars with Sally Ride.” In the talk, she advocates for a stronger foundation of math and science education by describing her own path into the space program. There’s no better way to honor this distinguished woman’s memory than listening to her heartfelt dream that every student — not just future rocket scientists — learn to love math and science.
In January 2010, UCTV premiered a program from Lawrence Berkeley Lab featuring Saul Perlmutter, along with his colleagues Alexie Leauthaud of the Berkeley Center for Cosmological Physics and David Schlegel of Baryon Oscillation Spectroscope Survey, in a public conversation about the suspected cause of the universe’s accelerated expansion, dark energy, an elusive force that remains science’s biggest unsolved mystery. You can watch the program or download and audio or video podcast file here: