Science Friday: Exploring Strange New Worlds Edition

Welcome to a very exciting edition of Science Friday! This week, explore the moon, Mars, and beyond. Help design the next lunar base, contribute to the 100-year starship project, volunteer for a one-way journey to Mars, and explore the edge of our own planet. All this and more plus our self-replicating gadget of the week: the MakerLegoBot.


Moon Has Enough Water to Sustain a Lunar Base
Results from the LCROSS impact into the lunar surface were released this week, and they hold some pretty spectacular and unexpected results. Scientists were shocked to learn that there was any amount of water on the lunar surface after the initial data came back from LCROSS, but now they have said that there is more than we ever imagined. NASA’s Centaur rocket carrying LCROSS crashed into a lunar crater called Cabeus, and upon impact it kicked up material containing about 5.6 percent water. That’s more than the Sahara Desert, which contains 2-3 percent. What’s more? The water was in the form of water-ice crystals (rather than being locked up within rocks). The moon seems to have its very own full-fledged water cycle. There may be sufficient water to separate into its component parts, hydrogen and oxygen, and use the hydrogen for rocket fuel, said Anthony Colaprete, a planetary scientist for NASA. That means that the moon could be a useful launching point for missions to other more distant worlds like Mars and moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

Map of water and other compounds on the lunar surface

NASA Announces ‘100-Year Starship’ Program
A NASA official said that “within a few years” scientists will unveil a prototype for a starship that can take humans between worlds. The new project, called the 100-Year Starship, is currently joint funded by NASA and DARPA. So far, NASA has contributed $100,000 and DARPA has given $1 million to the project. Obviously, that is not nearly enough to create a starship. But, Simon Worden, center director at the NASA Ames Research Center said that he hopes to entice a few billionaires to contribute. The project’s goal is to utilize new forms of propulsion such as using microwave power from a ground base to heat hydrogen propellants installed on an orbiting spaceship. “Anybody that watches the [“Star Trek”] Enterprise, you know you don’t see huge plumes of fire,” says Worden, “You don’t have to carry all the fuel. You use that energy from a laser or microwave power to heat a propellant. … I think that’s one way of getting off the world.”

Concept of ground-based microwave propellant system

To Boldly Go: A One-Way Human Mission to Mars
For the chance to watch the sun rise over Olympus Mons, or maybe take a stroll across the vast plains of the Vastitas Borealis, would you sign on for a one-way flight to Mars? That is the idea being proposed in a new article in the Journal of Cosmology written by Dirk Schulze-Makuch of Washington State University and Paul Davies of Arizona State University. In the article, “To Boldly Go: A One-Way Human Mission to Mars,” the authors write that while technically feasible, a manned mission to Mars and back is unlikely to lift off anytime soon — largely because it is a hugely expensive proposition, both in terms of financial resources and political will. And because the greatest portion of the expense is tied up in safely returning the crew and spacecraft to earth, they reason that a manned one-way mission would not only cut the costs by several fold, but also mark the beginning of long-term human colonization of the planet. The authors propose that volunteer astronauts would be re-supplied on a periodic basis from Earth with basic necessities, but otherwise would be expected to become increasingly proficient at harvesting and utilizing resources available on Mars. Eventually they envision that outpost would reach self-sufficiency, and then it could serve as a hub for a greatly expanded colonization program.

You can read the entire article on the Journal of Cosmology website.

Would you volunteer for the one-way trip of a lifetime?

Father and Son Send iPhone Into Space and Record Incredible Video
A father and son from Brooklyn, New York sent an iPhone into the stratosphere a few weeks ago to record a video of the earth’s curvature. The two spent eight months researching and testing their homemade craft, which was made of a weather balloon and a styrofoam case for the iPhone, before launching in Newburgh, NY. The phone apparently braved winds of 100 miles-per-hour and temperatures as cold as 60 below zero (the iPhone was smartly packed with hand warmers). The recorded video shows the phone reaching a height of 100,000 feet before the balloon burst, plummeting the contraption back to earth, where it landed 30 miles from the launch point, in a tree, where the father and son found it in the dark because of the iPhone’s LED light.

Homemade Spacecraft from Luke Geissbuhler on Vimeo.

Gadget of the Week: Self-Replicating Lego Machine
Software engineer and lego maniac Will Gorman has created the MakerLegoBot, a fully automated machine built from legos that builds other stuff made from legos. With some modifications, the MakerLegoBot could, theoretically, build a copy of itself. “There is a recursiveness to this whole thing,” says Gorman. “I love the idea of self-assembly and the Star Trek replicator and I love Legos,” he says. “I wanted to bring those two worlds together.


If you are on Twitter, you know there are plenty of amazing people out there tweeting away. And, many of them are scientists! Every Friday I’ll be bringing you a new list of great scientists, techies, and trekkies to follow on Twitter. This week…

  • @marsroverdriver: On a small red light in the night sky lives four hundred pounds of thinking metal sent from Earth. I tell that metal what to do, and it does it.
  • @roddenberryprod: Roddenberry Productions. Where SciFi Begins.
  • @NASAJPL: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory manages many of NASA’s robotic missions exploring Earth, the solar system and our universe. Tweets from JPL’s News Office.

Science Quickies
Not enough science for you? Here’s a warp-speed look at some more science tid-bits that are worth a look.


TrekMovie’s Science Friday is an homage the the great NPR radio show Science Friday. Science Friday® is a registered service mark of ScienceFriday Inc.

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Since you would not want to send young people – they have too much life to live yet, send older people. I, for one, at 54, would jump at the chance to try to tame Mars for future colonists. Unfortunately, I dont think my wife would care to join me. There are lots of unemployed, tech-inclined and trained people out there right now, and this would be an unprecedented opportunity for them. Plus, we would be famous.

Sign me up for the one way trip to Mars!


Same here, i would go without doubt!

You can count me in and my family too for mars colonization! A brand new start, fantastic discoveries, we can tell our future children “you are the martians now”

A one-way trip to Mars! Where can I buy a ticket?

Technically, 100,000 feet is not ‘space’. The international definition of space is above 328,000 feet (100 km). The old US definition was 50 miles (264,000 feet).

I don’t get why we need to go all the way to Mars for colinization and not our own moon first. I think the moon is a much better candidate, with artifical domes it shouldn’t be too hard to create a small eco system. The distance of travel of course is much smaller, also it make more sense to gain experience build a colony on our on moon first before treking further into the solar system.


I totally agree. Except President Obama and everyone else in Washington.
Hopefully, with further discoveries of water on the moon, maybe minds can be changed.

And I would love to go to either the moon or Mars.

I don’t care what the technical definition of space is. If you can see the curvature of the planet as distinctly as you can in that video, it sure looks like you’re in space to me! ;)


I think that to actually reach outer space, technically you have to go beyond the outermost layer of the atmosphere.

oops, I meant that for #9


I know what the technical or academic definition is. You people are killjoys. They sent a freakin’ iPhone “way up there”. They filmed it. They retrieved it. It was way cool.


Sorry to burst your bubble….or in this case, your balloon!



You can’t get that kind of view from an airline window. Anything above the overhead storage space might as well be outer space to those of us not wearing astronaut wings.


I would go to Mars, withe the condition, that every time a new Star Trek movie comes out, I would have access to it ;)

I disagree, for a colony to function properly, it needs to have people of reproductive age. That may not be immediately important, but if they want it to be truely independant, it is nessecary.

Actually that is not strictly true. Frozen human sperm and eggs could be taken along with the colonists for implantation into suitable females once the base has been established.

I think this is the only way to realistically keep a new colony going as it would not be possible to just let everyone reproduce as they wished due to limited resources. Plus I believe there is a minimum number of unrelated male/females needed for reproduction so that there are no genetic concerns further down the line.

Must agree with #7, it surely would make more sense to establish a base on the Moon first so that problems could be ironed out and proper procedures established. Then once that is done, plans can be made to go further out.

Is that just too obvious? Or is it just me?

That’s great, but we’re NOT going there, remember? Thanks to… I better not say.

Interesting stuff!
Can we nominate people to go to Mars?! I can think of a couple of individuals i’d happily ship out.

‘Amazing people tweeting’? Sure one contradicts the other there?


Buzz, it may be cheaper to just ship out all the intelligent people to Mars. You know, fewer people equals a smaller payload. ;)

Besides, a desert that big is just begging for a five-star resort and casino. Just call me Bugsy.

Intelligent gamblers? surely one contradicts the other, Vults? ;-)


Hmmm… you may have a point there, Buzz. But intelligent people can be just as gullible and greedy as the dimwits. A lot of smart folks fell for Bernie Madoff’s scheme.

Anyway, I hope you will all be able to attend the grand opening of The Sands: Olympus Mons next summer! Don’t forget to tip your waitresses.

The last time I ‘tipped’ a waitress mate I ended up with a horrible rash and a burning sensation whenever I visited the conveniences.
Shant make that mistake again.
But count me in. Your spaceship or mine? ;-))

Ooh… well, Buzz, that’s what happens when you run around with Gorn women.

Your spaceship—Apollo 11. Tell Neil to gas ‘er up!

First trip to Mars: Telephone handset sanitizers and hair stylists.

A journey to Mars, moons of Jupiter and Saturn, and beyond. We are about to enter in a golden age of space exploration.

27… I’d say were still in the first Golden Age and it will end in 2015 when New Horizons encounters Pluto and Dawn visits Ceres. After that, all of the major worlds of our solar system will have been visited by emissaries of humanity.

They will need musicians on Mars (or on the moon). You can’t spend all day just digging for stuff – let’s play some chamber music! I volunteer.

#25 but there are benefits to dating a Gorn, Vults. After a night rubbing scales they not only cook up a mean scrambled egg they even lay if for you*. Convenient if you ask me ;-)

*the egg that is!

Congratulations to the Geissbuhlers!

That is ABSOLUTELY AMAZING! Something to remember a lifetime.

Very cool idea and nicely done. You seem to have thought of everything.

I enjoyed that video and the view of our fragile planet a lot. Thank you for that!


iPhone balloon project was really cool.


The iPhone was in the “package” for sending the GPS Signal. There was *another* camera in it which did the actual filming. Didn’t anyone actually see the video? Or was everybody happy that somebody sent a blasted iPhone up into space? Which is, according to JJ Abrams, better than any communicator…

– Sam

A one way mission to Mars? I wonder how many suckers they’re going to find to do it.

Hello, Thank you for the great writing. It in fact was a nice easy read. I will come back to enjoy more of your great work. By the way, how could we communicate? Thanks.

stand up for sth