Space Tourism: What’s the Big Deal?

Written by: Jason Garoutte

Privatized space travel or space tourism has become the new frontier in adventure and exploration, especially since NASA’s space program isn’t quite what it used to be. It is expected to become a billion dollar industry within the next decade, even though the cost of one of these adventures is as high as 40 million dollars.

So, what kind of adventure can you expect with that kind of money? Depending on the company, that kind of money will earn you an eight to eleven day trip to the International Space Station. Sounds great right? Sure, the view is one in a million, but if I’m going to spend 40 million dollars, I’d better be sipping Mai Tai’s on one of Saturn’s rings!

That will not happen. Not in my lifetime, especially not a journalist’s salary. For those that are ultra-wealthy, a trip to the heavens may just be the ultimate adventure. But would it be worth it?

Space Tourism

Only one spacecraft has ever traveled to the outer planets and it is unmanned. The Voyager 1 spacecraft, which was launched in 1977, is still traveling the outer limits of our solar system to this day. It is traveling at a speed of 3.6 Astronomical Units per year. An Astronomical Unit is defined as 92, 955, 807 miles or roughly the distance the Earth is from the Sun. Once the numbers are crunched, Voyager 1 is traveling at a staggering speed of 38, 179 m.p.h. Wow!

Companies like Space Adventures only have aircraft designed to travel up to speeds of Mach 3, which equates to approximately 2,250 m.p.h. So, should you want those Mai Tai’s with Saturn as your backdrop, it would take 50 years just to get there. And you thought the flight from Los Angeles to New York was long!

There is a bit of hope, should you just want to brag about traveling into space. These privatized companies are offering suborbital flights at only $200,000 per passenger. With that you will receive a two hour flight above the Kàrmàn Line, which is defined as the boundary of space at an altitude of 62 miles above Earth’s sea level. You will also experience three to six minutes of weightlessness and that one in a million view of our blue planet. Just don’t forget your camera.

If that sounds like an appealing adventure, then by all means, spend that hard earned money, travel to the heavens, and return with some amazing vacation photos. For those of us with meager salaries and average jobs, the closest we’ll probably ever get to the planets is through the lens of our backyard telescope.

Tourists experiencing zero gravity.

Tourists experiencing zero gravity.


Voyager 1 May Soon Cross into Inter-stellar Space

Voyager 1 May Soon Cross into Inter-stellar Space

by Jacqueline Dennison

Voyager 1 Space Probe

     Once a pioneer of our solar

system’s giant planets, NASA’s

Voyager 1 may soon be the first

man-made space probe to

venture beyond our Solar System

and into inter-stellar space.

     Recent data suggests that

Voyager has entered the outer

edge of the solar system, an area

teeming with charged particles

believed to have originated from

our neighboring stars. Readings of

particles from our own star have

slowed, another indication that Voyager is close to breaking the solar boundary.

Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist at California Institute of Technology, has

given an optimistic view of Voyager’s journey. “The laws of physics say that

someday Voyager will become the first human-made object to enter interstellar

space, but we still do not know exactly when that someday will be,” said Stone.

“The latest data indicate that we are clearly in a new region where things are

changing more quickly. It is very exciting. We are approaching the solar system’s


Voyager 1 is travelling through the heliosheath, the turbulent outer edge of the

solar system where charged particles from the Sun are very active.

“From January 2009 to January 2012, there had been a gradual increase of

about 25 percent in the amount of galactic cosmic rays Voyager was encountering,”

said Stone. “More recently, we have seen very rapid escalation in that part of the

energy spectrum. Beginning on May 7, the cosmic ray hits have increased five percent

in a week and nine percent in a month.”

Since its launch in 1977, Voyager 1 has traveled to over 18 billion kilometers

from the Sun. Its sister probe, Voyager 2, is about 15 kilometers from the sun.

Between them, the two probes have visited the giant planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus

and Neptune, as well as 48 moons. Both Voyagers each carry a gold-plated copper

record that plays various sounds from Earth, including greetings in 55 languages.

The golden records, put together by a committee headed by astronomer Carl Sagan,

were included for any extra-terrestrials who may come into contact with the Voyager


“When the Voyagers launched in 1977, the space age was all of 20 years old,”

said Stone. “Many of us on the team dreamed of reaching interstellar space, but we

really had no way of knowing how long a journey it would be — or if these two vehicles

that we invested so much time and energy in would operate long enough to reach it.”

When Voyager ventures into inter-stellar space, it will mark a milestone in

human space exploration.



Space: China’s New Frontier

Written by: Suleman Sultan

With NASA being practically shut down and Russia worrying about other things (like internal political problems) , who’s left to venture out into space besides private companies. We recently saw Space X make a successful attempt into space and to the International Space Station, but does this mean the age of governments venturing into space is over?

Maybe the traditional nations yes!

China recently sent a shuttle into space with the nation’s first female astronaut. The Shenzhou-9 launched early this week carrying 3 astronauts into space.

While China is a very late comer into the space exploration industry, it has entered into it at a very important time. With NASA out of the way and private companies slowly working their way around inexperience, China has the whole universe to itself, to put it lightly!

In Spetember of 2011 China had put into orbit the Tiagong-1 space lab module. When it sent the Shenzhou-9 it’s was to see if they could both dock together. In the end the mission was a success.

Regarding China’s space program and their first female astronaut a spokesperson recently stated that, “It will also further expand the social impact on human space missions and showcase the positive image of Chinese women.”

The Chinese not only have technological reasons to start their own space program but social reasons as well. If the Chinese monopolize the space industry, China will; as America became when it started its space program, the world leader in the engineering and sciences. As China develops space ships and space stations with telescopes of their own they will be seen as the masters of above. More importantly if other nations do not venture out into space themselves, they will be forced to either turn to private companies for help or turn to China.

NASA already aids private companies when it needs supplies for the Space Station. If Russia cannot supply the Space Station then they too will have to turn to China. This will inevitably affect international politics as well as the sciences. Scientists and engineers will then travel to China to work if they choose to go into the space industry, that’s if China lets them.

Not only does China have the will to venture into space but it’s ever increasing economy and population will be looking towards something new. With space open above, the Chinese have no obstacles but time, an obstacle that will soon become obsolete when their economy becomes the largest in the world.

Fabled particle Higgs boson may exist

A graphic of the collision of particles

The Higgs boson is the missing link in the Standard Model of Physics

Written by Elaine Zuo

Known as the “God particle“, the Higgs boson is a subatomic particle that is theorized to be the reason why everything in the universe has mass. Researchers at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva have recently found significant hints of the particle, the last missing part of the Standard Model of Physics. 

Finding the Higgs itself would be revolutionary in the science world and allow for a greater understanding of how the universe works. This search is currently the top priority of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), and two separate experiments have been established in pursuit of the particle. There has not been an exact mass predicted for the Higgs, and so physicists must use particle accelerators such as the LHC to look for it. The LHC, a 27 kilometer ring-shaped tunnel 100 meters below the French-Swiss border, is the world’s largest atom smasher.

CERN reported on December 13 that the midpoint results from the two independent experiments had reached roughly the same conclusion for the mass of the particle: a range of 116 to 130 gigaelectronvolts (GeV), with significant activity around 124-125 GeV. One GeV has about the same mass as a proton.

The results currently have a 99 percent degree of certainty, but this is not close to the threshold that must be reached for there to be a true “discovery”. An accepted “discovery” must carry a five-sigma level of certainty, which would represent the likelihood of tossing a coin and getting more than 20 heads in a row. Each sigma represents a standard deviation, which is a measure of how unlikely that the experimental result was attributed to chance rather than actual cause.

If the Higgs does exist, it is short-lived and is decaying quickly into more stable particles. These decay patterns give more flexibility to scientists to search for the boson through different decay routes. Each path has its advantages and disadvantages, with more background noise clouding some results and others with less noise but less statistical certainty.

The range in which the Higgs exists gets smaller and smaller each year, and physicists hope that they will actually discover the particle sometime next year. Much excitement has abounded in the scientific community and many hope that the Higgs will only be the first in a chain of discovery. The Standard Model, the guide to how particles and forces interact, would be complete upon verification of the boson, and science would be one step further into understanding the entirety of the universe.

Solar Flares Produce Stunning Light Shows in Northern Hemisphere

Written by: Alexandra Paskulin

A recent eruption on the surface of the sun produced the most powerful solar radiation storm since 2003, creating spectacular auroras across the northern hemisphere last week.

On Jan. 23, the surface of the sun erupted in a powerful, M8.7 class solar flare, according to the NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory. The explosion produced a coronal mass ejection (CME) of high-energy protons. The energy from the explosion reached Earth as a class S3 solar radiation storm and G1 geomagnetic storm on Jan. 23 and 24, according to the National Weather Service’s Space Weather Prediction Center. The ultra-violet photo below (courtesy of NASA’s SDO) shows the Jan. 23 eruption of solar spot 1402.

M9 Solar Flare
SDO’s ultraviolet photo of large solar flare

As the CME reached Earth’s magnetic field, the resulting geomagnetic storm produced brilliant auroras over Alaska, Canada, and northern Europe. Aurora-watcher Antti Pietikäinen of Finland reports, “The show started slowly, but after 15 minutes the landscape was green! This was the first time for Thomas (pictured below) to see the Northern Lights. He was very happy.”

Beautiful green aurora
Beautiful aurora over Finland from Jan. 23 solar flare

Photography of the magical night skyscapes poured into the Internet from last week’s shows. Additional galleries can be found at the “January 2012 Aurora Gallery” and Wired Science’s “Backyard Photography Collection”. The photo below comes from Bernt Olson in Grøtfjord, Norway on Jan. 24. Olson says of his experience “Timing is essential when shooting Aurora. Didn’t expect much aurora this evening, but a sudden and quite heavy aurora outburst came out of nothing and gave us a nice performance tonight.”

Beautiful aurora over Norway
Photographers rejoice in geomagnetic storm from large solar flare

Monday’s solar storm came on the back of an earlier, smaller M2 class solar flare that occurred on Jan. 19. According to University of Michigan space weather expert Tamas Gombosi, the increase in solar activity is likely to continue as the solar cycle increases, reaching its peak in 2013.

This surge in solar activity is timed perfectly with new scientific interest in sun observation. In February 2010, NASA launched the Solar Dynamics Observatory as part of their Living With a Star program to closely monitor sun activity. According to, the SDO’s mission is to “understand the causes of solar variability and its impacts on Earth.” In addition to NASA efforts, new technological vigilance on the part of the American National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center of Boulder, Colorado allows scientists to predict when radiation from a CME will interact with Earth’s magnetic field to within minutes.

As our most important star moves into a new period of productivity, observers can hope to see more beautiful auroras in the upcoming months. With new technological efforts, scientists can monitor solar flares and geomagnetic storms occurring on the surface of the sun and predict when their radiation will reach Earth. Interested aurora-watchers should frequent the SDO and SWPC websites for breaking information about evolving solar activity.


Polar-Grizzly Bear Hybrids Now Found in the Wild

Polar-Grizzly Bear Hybrids Now Found in the Wild

A polar-grizzly bear hybrid walking on the shore.

Written by Erin Marty

Polar-grizzly bear hybrids – also known as grolar bears – were once thought to be found only in zoos. Now they are being discovered in the wild.

On Banks Island in 2006, a strange creature was shot: a grolar bear. The DNA of the animal was tested by scientists, who discovered that the shot bear was the offspring of a polar bear and grizzly bear. In 2010, a second-generation hybrid was also found and shot in the wild of Canada’s Northwest Territories by David Kuptana.

Both of these events prove that polar-grizzly hybrids are not only surviving, but thriving in the wild. They are successfully passing on their genes to newer generations. Once believe to be reproducing solely in captivity, researchers are finding out that polar-grizzly hybrid bears are now being discovered beyond the containing walls of zoos.

So what does this mean? Why are these bears – usually so far from each other in their natural environments – interbreeding? According to National Geographic, researchers have concluded that each species is being forced into closer proximity with one another. Unfortunately, much of their natural habitat is lost is due to human intervention and impacts. On top of that, there are even some scientists who believe that global warming is to blame.

Marine biology of the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska, Brendan Kelly, suggests that these polar-grizzly hybrids are, if anything, going to become a rather popular addition to the animal kingdom. This is primarily because of the melting sea ice, and without sea ice for them to hunt and live on, the polar bears will be forced further inland near grizzly bears, thus resulting in an increase of polar-grizzly hybrids.

In the end, there may be even more mixed creatures than just polar-grizzly hybrids. Kelly states: “We’re taking this continent-sized barrier to animal movement, and in a few generations, it’s going to disappear, at least in summer months. That’s going to give a lot of organisms-a lot of marine mammals in particular-who’ve been separated for at least 10,000 years the opportunity to interbreed again, and we’re predicting we’re going to see a lot of that.”

Along with other animals that may possibly interbreed, if Kelly is correct, then the near future is sure to find more polar-grizzly bear hybrids. That being said, if you ever find yourself in one of those rare and heart-pounding situations in which you spy a bear in the wild, you may be looking at a grolar bear if it has the following attributes: lengthy necks, broad shoulders and humps, oh and of course the combination of coarse polar and grizzly hairs. But, to be on the safe side, you may want to keep your hybrid tacking skills solely at the zoo.

Amazing New Deep-Sea Species Discovered in Antarctica

Amazing New Deep-Sea Species Discovered in Antarctica
Written by: Fruzsina Molnar
Deep-Sea Hydrothermal Vent

Deep-sea hydrothermal vent emits plumes of black smoke.

Antarctic researchers have discovered entire communities of new species living in and on deep-sea hydrothermal vents in the Southern Ocean. The team of British scientists reported their results, which detail the new creatures and their habitats, on Tuesday (January 3) in the PLoS Biology journal.

In the first exploration of these vents that lie along the very bottom of the ocean floor near Antarctica, the researchers, led by Alex D. Rogers of the zoology department at Oxford University, found colonies of as-yet-undiscovered types of yeti crab, stalked barnacles, limpets and snails, sea anemones, and even, the study notes, “a predatory seven-armed starfish.”

Rogers and his colleagues used a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) to scour the terrain of one piece of the Southern Ocean Floor. On the East Scotia Ridge, an area that lies between the southernmost tip of South America and Antarctica, the researchers explored the hydrothermal vents, which can create undersea environments of over 800 degrees Fahrenheit.

The species who live on these vents underneath the sea are special, because they harness their energy from the vents themselves, rather than the species closer to the surface, which can access sunlight. As Rogers writes in their report, the vents “are mainly associated with seafloor spreading at mid-ocean ridges and in basins near volcanic island arcs. They host animals found nowhere else that derive their energy not from the sun but from bacterial oxidation of chemicals in the vent fluids, particularly hydrogen sulphide.”

The ROVs brought back images that interested the researchers for a number of reasons. It turns out that this hydrothermal habitat was very different from similar areas in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. “What we didn’t find is almost as surprising as what we did,” said Rogers. The usual vent animals, such as tubeworms, mussels, crabs, and shrimps that have been found in the other oceans, did not appear in this exploration, which suggests that vent ecosystems could be much more diverse than scientists have thought. Instead, the ROVs showed entirely new species, including a crowded colonies of over 600 yeti crabs clustered around each vent, utilizing the natural heat emissions for warmth.

“We were completely blown away by what we found,” Jon Copley, a co-researcher from the University of Southampton told Fox News’s LiveScience. “These are the lushest, richest vents, in terms of life, that I’ve come across.”

Environmental Protection Agency on the Ropes In 2012


Written by: Anatole Ashraf

The Environmental Protection Agency continues to face challenges as another election year begins with 2012. On Dec. 29, Texas filed a motion in federal appeals court to block the Obama Administration’s attempts to regulate the emissions of greenhouse gases. Another federal court rejected the state’s petition one day before on Dec. 28.

The move by Texas is merely the latest in what continues to be a difficult period for the Environmental Protection Agency. The Jan. 1 implementation of the EPA’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which places stricter federal limits on pollution from coal-fired plants was delayed at the last minute by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. circuit on Dec. 31.

“Texas law does not currently deem greenhouse gases to be pollutants,” said Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who has previously claimed that the state was determined to fight the EPA’s intentions. “Once again, the federal government is overreaching, and improperly intruding upon the state of Texas and its legal rights.”

Greg Abbott’s comments reflect one of the greatest challenges facing the EPA—climate change denial. With the 2012 presidential election, doubts and gaps in the science regarding global warming and rising temperatures stand to be frequently highlighted by candidates and politicians to gain favor with deniers.

The increasing fervor of charges against climate change can be traced back to a 2009 incident regarding personal emails circulating between researchers at the Climatic Research Unit of the U.K.’s University of East Anglia, the leading institution focused on climate change. Dubbed a scandal called “Climategate,” the emails revealed increasing frustration on the part of climate scientists, with one admitting that he was “tempted to beat” a skeptic at the libertarian Cato institute. The impact on public opinion was almost immediate, with a poll conducted five weeks later by Yale and George Mason University finding 57 percent of respondents believing that the planet is warming. A similar poll conducted in 2008 found 71 percent believers.

Some say climate change denial stems from negative reactions to new findings. According to political scientist Charles Taber of Stony Brook University, a person hearing about a discovery that challenges deeply held beliefs will have a negative subconscious response which in turn will guide the type of conscious memories and associations. “They retrieve thoughts that are consistent with their previous beliefs, and that will lead them to build an argument and challenge what they’re hearing,” Taber said. (On a humorous note, Mother Jones has compiled a “Field Guide to Climate Change Skeptics”.)

In the face of opposition from climate change deniers and a complicated relationship with lawmakers and politicians, the EPA’s mandate to regulate environmental crime and enforce environmental justice seems to be a challenge. Current administrator Lisa P. Jackson, however, announced at a speech at Power Shift 2011, an annual conference on climate change policy, that she was more energized than ever to “keep America on a path towards a more green and environmentally sustainable future.”

Searching for the God Particle

Written by: Joe Sciabica

On December 13 at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, two research teams found evidence that indicates that the Higgs Boson particle does exist. The Higgs Boson, also known as the God particle, is one of the last parts of the puzzle that is the Standard Model of physics. Currently, there is a theoretical equation of physics that explains most of the forces in the universe which is illustrated by various subatomic particles more elementary than protons and neutrons. Discovering the existence of the Higgs Boson would complete the theory and prove to be a correct model of reality.

However, as its name suggest, the God particle has yet to be conclusively discovered. The Higgs Boson cannot be directly seen, but its path can be observed to tell if it is the Higgs Boson acting. The two research teams, independent of each other’s results, both found similar evidence that leads them closer to looking where the Higgs Boson can be found. However, the physicists admit that some skepticism is healthy as the results could have just been statistical fluctuations.

Experiments will resume in March of 2012 and most scientists are sure that a conclusive answers will be found, whether the particle exists or not. If the Higgs Boson is stated to not exist, then the Standard Model will have to be redone.

Although a useful name to market the particle, the use of “God” to describe the particle is misleading, according to the scientific community. The term was first coined in a book title to describe the elusive nature of the particle and the surrounding belief of the particle but lack of direct evidence. The existence of the particle would also explain why the other elementary particles have mass, in essence giving them existence and being God-like.

Lastly, the Higgs Boson is more accurately thought of as a medium through which other matter exists, again as if existence depends on it. Scientists believe that the term God overestimates the importance of this particle, since it is just a part of the overall theory that would describe reality, supporting other ideas such as the Big Bang Theory and Super String Theory.

As with all other scientific theories, the God particle’s existence cannot answer theological or supernatural questions and therefore having little to do with an actual deity. It is hard to see any practical implications from these experiments that would serve the general public. In the meantime, confirmation of the Higgs Boson would be celebrated by scientists, philosophers and enthusiasts as a triumph of theoretical physics and lay the groundwork for continued research and new questions which have not even yet been asked.

A Holiday Message from British Petroleum

oil coated bird after BP oil spill

Gulf Coast bird slicked in some of the more than 200 million gallons of oil spilled at the Macondo oil well

Written by: Holly Troupe

Nearly two years after an explosion on the British Petroleum (BP)-leased Deepwater Horizon platform killed 11 workers and spilled 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, BP is releasing an ad December 26th updating the nation on its efforts to restore the Gulf Coast to ecological working order. Like the previous ads which featured BP’s Head of External Relations Iris Cross, the tone is optimistic; the narrative focuses on the continuing cleanup efforts and economic recovery. But, with disparate assessments of the damage done to the ecosystem and fishing industries, are predictions that the Gulf will recover by 2012 valid?

Tourism seems to be back on track. All Gulf water fronts are now open to the public. Persistent advertising for holiday weekends and vacations, paid for in great part by BP funding, helped to drive rental occupancy rates up to nearly 100 percent during the months of June and July. As for the concentration of oil currently in the costal waters, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that by August of 2010 a significant percentage had either dispersed or dissolved. Independent researchers from Texas A & M University, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and University of California, Santa Barbara concurred with these findings, adding that microbes had consumed much of the remaining methane and oil.

However, Dr. Samantha Joye, from the University of Georgia, found the oil the other scientists were missing: on the seafloor. The bacteria digesting the oil had to excrete it somewhere, and the heavier oil-saturated waste fell to the depths below. “In the places we sampled, it was devastating. Often you saw this oily mucus, blanketing everything,” Joye told the New York Times. “Typically, the seafloor is teeming with invertebrates sticking out — little animals with tubes, with shells, anything that filter-feeds. Well, the tubes were still there, but the animals were dead.”

There is evidence to suggest that even Gulf marine life that doesn’t dwell in highly contaminated areas is affected. A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that killifish exposed to trace amounts of the oil pollutants exhibited signs of developmental problems that may adversely affect their ability to breed. Andrew Whitehead with Louisiana State University took tissue samples from killifish and found liver abnormalities that show evidence of reproductive impairment. Many Gulf organisms, including red-snapper, rely on killifish as a food supply. “Though the fish may be ‘safe to eat’ based on low chemical burdens in their tissues, that doesn’t mean that the fish are healthy or that the fish are capable of reproducing normally,” said Whitehead. “Early life-stages of many organisms are particularly sensitive to the toxic effects of oil and because marsh contamination occurred during the spawning season of many important species.”

So, what about the fishing industries? Gulf coast shrimpers are reporting 80 percent lower yields than in previous years. According to Dean Blanchard, a New Orleans seafood processor, fishermen are pulling oil-slicked seafood out of the water regularly. Blanchard also told Fox8 News of a disquieting new phenomenon: shrimp with no eyes. “We’re seeing shrimp with no eyes that are still alive,” he said. Oyster crops diminished tremendously as well. In Mississippi, the BP spill reduced the crop to roughly 35 percent of its usual volume according to Mike Voisin, a New Orleans oyster processor. “This will be our lowest oyster year in a very long time, probably since the late ’80s,” he said. The lingering fear that Gulf seafood is a vessel of toxins has harmed the industry as well. In districts where crop volume is normal, sales have depreciated significantly. Avery Bates, vice president of the Organized Seafood Association of Alabama wants to reassure the public that Alabama’s oyster harvest is healthy, but doubts linger. “I’ve never seen any storm hit us like BP did,” he said. “It got our reputation. People lost their clientele and closed. BP hurt our reputation so bad.”

Unlike a fire or an earthquake, where damages can be assessed largely according to logistic criteria, it is almost impossible to foresee the manifestation of ecological damages. Cleanup crews exposed to the crude and chemical dispersants are experiencing respiratory problems; marshlands that house local wildlife are dying; shrimp are swimming around with no eyes. The BP ad campaign, set to be released on television, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, will stress the $20 billion in funding BP has allotted for Gulf Coast economic and environmental redevelopment. Nevertheless, Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser told a Colorado Springs homeland security symposium, “We are continuing to see a deterioration of the marsh from the oil spill of April 20, 2010, and I still can’t tell you who is in charge of the cleanup.” Even with vigorous cleanup efforts, Dr. Samantha Joye is dubious of a 2012 recovery.

“There has been a lot of energy and effort put towards beating the drum of everything is wonderful, everything is going to be fine by 2012,” Joye says. “ It’s not OK down there. The system is not fine.”