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Majority of Americans Believe It Is Essential That the U.S. Remain a Global Leader in Space

Despite the increasing role of private companies in space exploration, most believe NASA’s role is still vital for future

Sixty years after the founding of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), most Americans believe the United States should be at the forefront of global leadership in space exploration. Majorities say the International Space Station has been a good investment for the country and that, on balance, NASA is still vital to the future of U.S. space exploration even as private space companies emerge as increasingly important players.

Roughly seven-in-ten Americans (72%) say it is essential for the U.S. to continue to be a world leader in space exploration, and eight-in-ten (80%) say the space station has been a good investment for the country, according to a new Pew Research Center survey conducted March 27-April 9, 2018.

These survey results come at a time when NASA finds itself in a much different world from the one that existed when the Apollo astronauts first set foot on the moon nearly half a century ago. The Cold War space race has receded into history, but other countries (including ChinaJapan and India) have emerged as significant international players in space exploration.

And, as the private sector increasingly ventures into space – through companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic – 65% of Americans believe NASA should still play a vital role in the exploration of space, while a third (33%) say private companies will ensure enough progress in this area even without NASA’s involvement.

Strong public support that the U.S. should continue to be at the vanguard of space exploration is widely shared across gender, educational and political groups. Each generational group, for example, expresses nearly equal levels of strong support for continued U.S. space leadership – from Baby Boomer and older generations (71%) who lived through the “Right Stuff” era that pioneered space exploration to Millennials (70%) who grew up during the space shuttle program. Indeed, on most issues regarding NASA and space exploration, there are no more than modest differences among the generational cohorts. See the Appendix for details.

Similarly, majorities across gender, generation, education and political groups see benefits from government investment in one of NASA’s signature projects, the International Space Station (ISS). The findings – support for the U.S. being at the forefront of space exploration and the perception that the space station has been a good investment – are broadly consistent with previous Pew Research Center surveys, which used somewhat different wording and polling methods.

While the ISS has proven to be an enduring legacy of the U.S. space program, it is also emblematic of changing times. NASA currently relies in part on the Dragon spacecraft, built and operated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company, to deliver supplies to the orbiting laboratory. And the Trump administration has been exploring the possibility of turning the space station into a commercially run venture after 2024.

As Americans consider the future of the U.S. space program, most (65%) still see an essential role for NASA, while a third (33%) believe “private companies will ensure that enough progress is made in space exploration, even without NASA’s involvement.” Democrats and independents who lean Democratic are more likely than Republicans and independents who lean Republican to believe that NASA should continue to play a role in space exploration (70% vs. 59%). Conservative Republicans are closely divided on this issue (53% to 47%), though two-thirds (67%) of moderate or liberal Republicans believe a continued role for NASA in U.S. space exploration is essential.

Majorities say monitoring climate or tracking asteroids should be a top NASA priority; only 13% say the same of putting astronauts on the moon

NASA oversees a diverse portfolio of space-related missions, from sending robotic probes to explore distant planets to launching satellites that study Earth’s atmosphere and oceans.

When asked to rate the importance of nine of these missions, majorities of Americans say a top priority for NASA should be monitoring key parts of the Earth’s climate system (63%) or monitoring asteroids and other objects that could potentially collide with the Earth (62%).

Slightly fewer than half of Americans (47%) believe that conducting basic scientific research to increase knowledge and understanding of space should be a top priority, with 40% saying such research is an important but lower priority. Some 41% say developing technologies that could be adapted for uses other than space exploration should be a top priority, and 44% characterize it as an important but lower priority for NASA. And 38% believe NASA should make it a top priority to conduct scientific research on how space travel affects human health, while 41% see it as an important but lower priority.

Around one-third of U.S. adults say that searching for raw materials and natural resources that could be used on Earth (34%) or searching for life and planets that could support life (31%) should be top priorities; 22% and 27% of Americans say, respectively, that these missions are not too important or shouldn’t be pursued.

Missions for human astronauts to explore Mars and return to the moon are among NASA’s most high-profile programs. The Trump administration has expressed strong support for these initiatives, saying that exploring the solar system should be NASA’s core mission, beginning with a return of astronauts to the moon.

However, compared with other NASA programs, fewer Americans say such space exploration should be a top priority. Just 18% and 13%, respectively, say that sending astronauts to Mars or back to the moon should be a top priority; 37% and 44%, respectively, express the view that these missions are not too important or that NASA shouldn’t undertake these missions.

Some space experts argue that the life support systems required to sustain astronauts on a long interplanetary journey would be so expensive that it would be more cost-effective to send robotic probes.1 With regards to future expeditions into space, a majority of Americans say they would consider it essential that humans, not solely robots, make the trip. Overall, 58% of U.S. adults believe it is essential to include the use of human astronauts in the U.S. space program, while 41% say astronauts are not essential.

Republicans and Democrats tend to agree about the relative priorities of NASA’s efforts. For example, about six-in-ten of each party say that monitoring asteroids should be a top priority for NASA (61% of Republicans and 63% of Democrats, including those who lean to each party). But Republicans tend to put monitoring the Earth’s climate system as a lower priority for the agency, consistent with long-standing political divides over climate issues. Fewer Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (44%) than Democrats and Democratic leaners (78%) believe that monitoring the Earth’s climate system should be a top priority for NASA. Some 38% of Republicans say that monitoring the Earth’s climate system should be an important but lower priority, and 17% say this is not too important or should not be done.

Republicans are also less likely than Democrats to see basic scientific research to further knowledge of space as a top priority. Some 38% of Republicans and those who lean to the GOP consider this a top priority for NASA, while 46% call it an important but lower priority. About half (53%) of Democrats and leaners consider basic scientific research a top priority for the agency.

The new survey finds men more likely than women to consider several of these missions a top priority for NASA, including conducting basic scientific research (54% of men vs. 40% of women say this should be a top priority). While a minority considers putting astronauts in space a top priority for NASA, more men (25%) than women (11%) consider human exploration of Mars a top priority.

In addition, while about half or more of men and women believe human astronauts are essential for the U.S. space program, more men (63%) than women (54%) hold this view. This finding is in keeping with a 2014 Pew Research Center survey, which used somewhat different question wording and polling methods. (Also see Appendix for views on these issues by gender.)

Men also tend to express more interest in space and astronomy news, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey as well as surveys conducted for this year’s Science and Engineering Indicators report.

There are no more than modest differences by education level in agency priorities. One exception is that those with at least a postgraduate degree are more likely than those with high school or less education to consider basic scientific research a top priority for NASA (63% vs. 38%). See Appendix for details.

Most Americans express confidence that private space companies will be profitable, but are skeptical that those companies will minimize hazardous space debris

Private companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic continue to develop space exploration capabilities that were once the sole purview of government agencies such as NASA. Some 44% of Americans have a great deal of confidence these companies will make a profit in their space-related ventures, with 36% saying they are fairly confident that space companies will be profitable.

Although most Americans believe that NASA still has an essential role to play in the exploration of space, they also express confidence that private companies can make meaningful contributions in such areas as developing safe spacecraft and conducting research to expand scientific knowledge.

For instance, about one-in-four Americans say they have a great deal of confidence that private companies will build safe and reliable rockets and spacecraft (26%), and around half of Americans (51%) have at least a fair amount of confidence that space companies will be able to do so.

Americans are by and large confident about the ability of private companies to control the costs of developing rockets and spacecraft – 24% have a great deal of confidence and 41% have a fair amount of confidence, compared with 34% who have “not too much” confidence or no confidence at all. Moreover, 23% have a great deal of confidence and 47% have a fair amount of confidence that companies will conduct basic research to increase knowledge of space, compared with 29% who don’t have much confidence or have no confidence at all.

Americans, however, tend to be skeptical about whether private companies will minimize human-made space debris, which increasingly poses a hazard to orbiting satellites and space stations. Only 13% of U.S. adults have a great deal of confidence that companies will minimize that problem, with 35% saying they have a fair amount of confidence. By comparison, about half of Americans (51%) have not too much or no confidence that private companies will minimize human-made space debris.

Men express more confidence than women in private space companies’ abilities in most of these areas, particularly when it comes to building cost-effective and safe spacecraft. For example, 74% of men but 56% of women have at least a fair amount of confidence these companies will control costs, and 85% of men vs. 69% of women have at least a fair amount of confidence that private companies will build safe and reliable spacecraft.

Americans most attentive to space news especially value U.S. global leadership but are closely divided over importance of NASA in future space exploration

A small share of the public, just 7%, is particularly attentive to space news, saying they have heard “a lot” about NASA in the past year and “a lot” about private space companies. About a fifth of Americans (22%) have heard “nothing at all” about both of these while most Americans (71%) fall in between these two extremes, having heard at least a little either about NASA or about private companies developing space exploration capabilities.2

Those most attentive to space news stand out from other Americans for their strong support for the U.S. being a world leader in space exploration and their belief that the International Space Station has been a good investment for the country. For instance, 88% of those who have heard a lot of space news believe it is essential for the U.S. to be a global leader in space exploration, compared with 60% of those who have heard nothing about NASA and private space companies. And 94% of the most space-attentive Americans consider the space station to have been a good investment for the country, compared with 67% of those who have heard nothing about space news.

When thinking about priorities for NASA, Americans who are highly attentive to space news put more priority than other Americans on research missions such as basic scientific research and learning about the health effects of space travel. For example, three-quarters (75%) of those highly attentive to space news believe basic scientific research should be a top priority for NASA versus 31% of those with low attention to such news. Indeed, the share of this space-attentive group that considers basic research a top priority is similar to the shares who say the same about monitoring objects in space that could collide with Earth (69%) and monitoring the climate system (68%).

But, while those who pay a lot of attention to space news tend to put more priority than other Americans on NASA’s research missions, they are more closely divided than other Americans over the importance of NASA’s role in space exploration going forward. Among the most attentive, 55% say it is essential that NASA continue to be involved in U.S. space exploration, while 45% say private companies will ensure enough progress even without NASA’s involvement. Among other Americans, the balance of opinion leans more clearly toward NASA remaining involved. For example, 66% of those who pay a medium level of attention to space news say it is essential for NASA to remain involved, as do 68% of those with low attention to space news.

Those who have heard a lot about space news also tend to express more confidence in private space companies to handle key aspects of space exploration, especially building safe and cost-effective spacecraft. For example, 95% of Americans who are most attentive to news about NASA and private space companies have at least a fair amount of confidence that those companies will build safe and reliable rockets and spacecraft; 58% of this group has a great deal of confidence in companies to do this. By comparison, 60% of those who have heard nothing about NASA and private space companies have at least a fair amount of confidence in private companies to build safe and reliable spacecraft.

Space tourism? A majority of Americans say it’s not for them, but 63% of Millennials are interested

Americans expect a range of scientific and technological developments ahead. But the public is divided over the prospects for space tourism in the next 50 years. Half (50%) believe this will happen while half are skeptical this will be routine for ordinary people. About a third of Americans (32%) believe that colonies on other planets – habitable for long periods of time – will be built by the year 2068, while two-thirds (67%) doubt this will happen.

As the public considers the possibilities ahead for ordinary citizens to orbit the Earth in a spacecraft, more Americans say they would not want to orbit the Earth than say they would (58% to 42%).

Interest in orbiting the Earth is greater among younger generations, men and those who are more attentive to space news. Some 63% of Millennials (born 1981 to 1996) say they are definitely or probably interested in space tourism, compared with 39% of Gen Xers (born 1965 to 1980) and 27% of those in the Baby Boomer or older generations. Across all generations, men are more likely than women (51% vs. 33%) to say they are interested in traveling into space as tourists.

Those who have heard or read a lot about NASA and private space companies are much more likely (74%) to say they are interested in space tourism than those who have heard nothing about such space news (30%).

Among the 42% of Americans who would be interested in traveling into space, 45% of them say the main reason for their interest would be to “experience something unique.” Some 29% of this group say they would go so that they can see the view of Earth from space, while 20% want to “learn more about the world.”

The 58% of U.S. adults who say they wouldn’t want to orbit the Earth aboard a spacecraft believe that such a trip would be either “too expensive” (28% of those asked) or “too scary” (28%), or that their age or health wouldn’t allow it (28%). Some 16% of those not interested in space travel offered reasons other than the three options in the survey.




Is life based on dark matter possible?


The vast majority of mass in our universe is invisible. And for quite some time, physicists have been trying to understand what this elusive mass is. If it is made up of particles, the hope is that the Large Hadron Collider can produce a dark matter particle, or the space telescope will see an eloquent gamma ray signature of a dark matter collision. 

So far, there is nothing and this problem makes theoretical physicists ponder new ideas.

In 2017, renowned theoretical physicist Lisa Randall took a peek into one of the most incredible possibilities of dark matter. Hypothetical, of course. Rather than treating dark matter as a particular type of particle, she assumed that dark matter could be made up of a whole family of particles that make up dark stars, dark galaxies, dark planets, and possibly dark life. The chemistry of the dark universe could be as rich and varied as our own “regular chemistry.” But it’s not that simple.

Dark matter problem

Our Universe is an amazing, albeit incomprehensible place.

Over the past few decades, we have come to realize that 84.5% of the matter in the Universe cannot be seen. Given its rather awkward nickname “dark matter”, this substance is in a state in which it does not interact with “normal” matter. Like dark energy, these things are “dark” because we don’t understand them.

If there is a piece of dark matter on my desk now, I will never know about it. A piece of dark matter in general, as such, cannot lie on my desk. It will fall through the table, and the floor, and the earth’s crust, rush into the gravity well at the core of our planet. Or it will disappear into space in an incomprehensible way. Dark matter interacts so weakly with anything that this piece will simply fall through ordinary matter, as if it does not exist.

On a small scale, the gravitational manifestation of dark matter is negligible, but at cosmological distances, the presence of dark matter is definitely felt – it can be observed indirectly by its gravitational effect on galaxy clusters and its effect on the rotation of galaxies. We know that it exists, we just don’t see it.

We don’t know what it is, we can only guess

Ordinary matter – aka baryonic matter – interacts through electromagnetic, gravitational, strong and weak forces. These forces transfer energy and give structure to all matter. Dark matter, on the other hand, is usually viewed as an amorphous cloud of “matter” that cannot interact through electromagnetic, weak or strong forces. Therefore, dark matter is assumed to be “non-baryonic”. Non-baryonic matter can reveal its presence only gravitationally.

The leading candidate in the search for dark matter is WIMP, a weakly interacting massive particle. As the WIMP name suggests, this hypothetical particle does not interact with normal matter – so it is not baryonic.

Established cosmological models predict that dark matter – be it in the form of WIMPs or “axions”, say – endows our Universe with structure and is usually simplistically called the “glue” that holds our Universe as a whole.

Observing the rotation of galaxies, astronomer Vera Rubin noticed that most of the matter in galaxies is not observable. Only a small percentage are visible – stars, gas and dust; the rest hides in a huge but invisible halo of dark matter. It’s like our visible galaxy of ordinary matter is just a hood on a huge wheel of dark matter that extends far beyond what we can see.

In a recently published paper (2013), Randall and her colleagues presented a more complex form of dark matter. According to them, the dark matter halo of our galaxy does not consist of only one type of amorphous mass of non-baryonic matter.

“It seems very strange to assume that all dark matter is composed of just one type of particle,” writes Randall. “The unbiased scientist should not allow dark matter to be as diverse as our normal matter.”

A rich “shadow universe”?

Just as our visible universe is governed by the Standard Model of physics – a well-proven family of particles (including the infamous Higgs boson) and forces, could a rich and varied model of dark matter particles and forces function in a dark galactic halo?

This research follows the logic of assuming a rich variety of unknown physics in the dark sector of the universe – let’s call it the “shadow universe” – that runs parallel to our own and has all the complexities that our visible universe has to offer.

Astrophysicists previously suggested that “dark stars” – stars composed of dark matter – may exist in our ancient universe to this day. If so, Randall argues, perhaps “dark planets” could form. And if there is a family of dark matter particles controlled by forces deployed in the dark sector, could this lead to complex chemistry? And to life?

However, if there is “dark” or “shadow” life parallel to our universe, you can forget that we will be able to detect it.

Shadow life will remain in the shadows

It seems tempting to use this hypothesis to explain all the day-to-day mysteries, or even paranormal claims, that science cannot dispute or support. What if “ghosts” or inexplicable “lights in the sky” are the antics of dark creatures living in the back of everything?

While this logic would be fine for a TV show or movie, these dark creatures would live in a shadowy universe that is completely incompatible with ordinary matter. Their particles and forces would have no effect in our universe. You could read these lines sitting on a tree stump in a dark forest, and you would never know about it.

But since we coexist with this shadow universe in the same space-time – without unnecessary dimensions or multiverse – only one signal can be transmitted.

Gravitational waves were only discovered in 2016, and the first detection of these ripples in space-time was caused by the collision of black holes. It seems quite possible that gravitational waves can be detected in the dark sector, but only the most powerful cosmic events in the dark sector can be detected at our end of the wire.

All in all, we’ll almost certainly never prove the existence of cute dark matter creatures, but Randall makes a point. When we contemplate the source of dark matter, we must look beyond our prejudices; the dark sector can be a complex family of dark matter particles and forces that are beyond what we can imagine.

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It’s a good start: TESS orbiting telescope discovers the first habitable world, with oceans

The TESS Space Telescope has discovered a planet on which oceans may exist. In addition, the exoplanet revolves around a quiet star, and this compares favorably with other candidates for the title of the cradle of extraterrestrial life. This is the first, but certainly not the last potentially inhabited world discovered by the TESS Observatory.

The space telescope was launched in 2018. Its task is to search for exoplanets, including those similar to Earth.

TESS has discovered 17 Earth-like planets orbiting 11 stars so far, according to a press release for the new study. All these luminaries are red dwarfs, which are smaller and colder than the Sun.

The TESS team divided almost the entire sky into sectors, each of which is observed for 27 days. However, these areas partially overlap, so some luminaries remain in the field of view of the device for much longer.

The TOI-700 star (aka TIC 150428135) is one of those “lucky ones”. Thanks to this, astronomers have discovered as many as three exoplanets about the size of the Earth.

The first of them (TOI-700b) has a radius almost equal to that of the Earth and revolves around its sun in 10 Earth days. The next planet, TOI-700c, is much larger than its neighbor (2.7 times the Earth’s radius). It makes a complete revolution in 16 days.

However, the most interesting of all is the third exoplanet from the planet TOI-700d. Its radius is 1.1 terrestrial, and its orbital period is 37 terrestrial days. It is this orbit around the cool local sun that makes the TOI-700d “right to life.” 

According to scientists, the planet receives 86% of the heat that goes to the Earth. This means that the temperature on this celestial body allows for the existence of liquid water and, therefore, the biosphere. According to experts, the exoplanet is in the habitable zone.

Planetary system TOI-700. The habitable zone is shown in green. One astronomical unit (AU) is equal to the distance from the Earth to the Sun. Illustration by Rodriguez et al. / Astronomical Journal (2020).

Three scientific articles published in the Astronomical Journal are devoted to the newly discovered world.

The first describes the discovery of this planet using the TESS telescope.

The second publication is devoted to the observation of an exoplanet using the Spitzer space infrared observatory. The telescope received this data in October 2019 and January 2020, shortly before the termination of its mission.

Finally, the authors of the third research paper simulated the possible climate of TOI-700d.

The researchers examined two dozen scenarios that differ from each other in the composition of the planet’s atmosphere, the amount of water on it, and other characteristics. Their conclusion is optimistic: a climate suitable for life is obtained in a fairly wide range of conditions.

It is important that TOI-700, unlike most other red dwarfs, is a calm star, not prone to catastrophic flares. That is, TOI-700d has every chance of preserving the atmosphere and hydrosphere for billions of years.

Of course, not without a fly in the ointment. TOI-700 is more than a hundred light years from Earth. It’s too far away to directly study the atmosphere of a small planet like TOI-700d, even with the future James Webb telescope .

However, the capabilities of astronomical instruments are growing rapidly. Perhaps in a few decades, scientists will carefully study the mysterious exoplanet and (who knows?) will find signs of the existence of life on it.

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Apophis: A dangerous phenomenon was noticed on an asteroid threatening Earth

The asteroid Apophis, potentially dangerous for the Earth, experiences the Yarkovsky effect, as a result of which it gains acceleration and shifts to more and more threatening orbits with a collision with the Earth.

The asteroid Apophis, 325 meters in size, was discovered in 2004. The discovery caused a stir – calculations showed that there is a 2.7 percent probability that Apophis, named after the ancient Egyptian god of evil and destruction, will collide with the Earth in 2029. Then scientists ruled out this threat, calculating that on April 13, 2029, the asteroid will fly at a distance of 37.6 thousand kilometers from the center of the Earth.

The report on the detected displacement was presented at the Planetological Section of the Virtual Meeting of the American Astronomical Society in 2020 by a specialist from the Institute of Astronomy, University of Hawaii, Dave Tholen. According to the speaker and his colleagues, the asteroid Apophis is strongly susceptible to the Yarkovsky effect, which consists in a weak force effect on an object moving in space due to the inhomogeneity of thermal radiation.

All asteroids emit in the form of heat the energy of the sunlight they absorb in order to remain in a state of thermal equilibrium – and as a result of this process, the asteroid’s orbit changes weakly. Until now, it was believed that collisions of the asteroid Apophis during its approach to Earth in 2029 and 2068 are impossible. Taking into account the Yarkovsky effect with respect to a 325-meter potentially dangerous asteroid means that the scenario of its collision with the Earth in 2068 is updated again.

Apophis is the most likely candidate for a collision from the aton asteroids passing near the Earth, was discovered in 2004 and received its own name on July 19, 2005 in honor of the ancient Egyptian god Apop (Apophis) – a huge destroyer snake living in the darkness of the underworld and trying to destroy Sun (Ra).

During its approach to Earth on Friday, April 13, 2029, this asteroid will be visible to the naked eye as it passes within the orbits of Earth’s communications satellites.

One of the discoverers of Apophis, David Jay Tolen, in particular, said:

“We already know that the collision of this cosmic stone with our planet is impossible during the approach of 2029. However, the quality of our new observations with the Subaru telescope was high enough to reveal the acceleration resulting from the Yarkovsky effect on this asteroid.

Calculations have shown that the asteroid is annually displaced from a “purely gravitational” orbit by about 170 meters, and this displacement is enough to return the scenario of a collision with the Earth in 2068 among the probable outcomes .”

There are a number of services on Earth that track the potentially dangerous approaches of our planet with asteroids, but significant in body size, such as Apophis, attract the attention of scientists.

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