PostHeaderIcon A Series of Questions (II)

For this week’s AstroInfo I’m going to answer a set of questions posed by youth who are currently training to offer space-related interactive activities out among the Pacific Science Center’s exhibits. In several places I express my personal opinion – which you should note is NOT the same as fact.

When can the general population go into space without paying a lot of $?
Who knows, maybe 10 years? Maybe two years, maybe 50? There is a competition called the “X Prize” that’s trying to jumpstart space travel (and other sciences). Until a couple years ago, no new spaceships for carrying people had been invented since the Shuttle. The Ansari X-Prize ( offered $10 million dollars to anyone who could “launch a spacecraft capable of carrying three people to 100 kilometers above the earth’s surface, twice within two weeks.” Burt Rutan and company completed the task on October 4, 2004 – after spending more than $100 million creating SpaceShipOne (go to the Museum of Flight to see a mock-up of it). This should push the space-travel industry along a little faster.

How plausible is human colonization of Mars/Moon in the next 50 years?
My opinion: It’s not. I say that because you used the word “colonization” which I think will take a long time. Right now there’s a plan to send humans back to the Moon and eventually to Mars, but just to visit.
The program is called the Constellation Program and it has three components:

  • Orion Crew Vehicle – like the current shuttle
  • Ares Launch Vehicles – rocket to carry the Orion
  • Altair Lunar Lander – landing people on the Moon

How do they come up with the ideas for finding stars or researching about stars?
What usually happens is that someone notices something strange about a star or something else, and they decide to find out what’s happening. A simple example is a variable star. Someone studying a variable star would notice that on different nights it appeared brighter or dimmer. Then they would want to find out why – is there something traveling in front of the star? Is the star flashing or pulsing? Is the star spinning, and is one part brighter than another? Any of these might affect brightness.

Is there intelligent life outside Earth?
Not that we’ve detected. My opinion: yes.

Does dark matter exist?
Most scientists believe so. Though the evidence is pretty overwhelming, I’m not quite ready to believe it. Redacted as of 6/4/08.

What elements are found in the gases on Uranus?

Edited as of 6/6/08: The atmosphere of Uranus has Hydrogen (mostly), Helium (a little), Methane (a trace), Water (a trace), Ammonia (a trace). The methane, water, and ammonia are all aerosol ices – suspended crystals of ice (not ice cubes or blocks of ice). A later AstroInfo will explain Uranus in more detail. I was embarrassed to realize at the Spring 2008 meeting of the American Astronomical Society that what I thought I knew was significantly wrong.

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