SCIENCE: Selling the Future – One Planet at a Time
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 Alakananda Mookerjee
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 Alakananda Mookerjee
SCIENCE: Selling the Future – One Planet at a Time
by Alakananda Mookerjee  FollowFollow
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New York-based science writer. Curious about space. Love donuts, flying saucers, and lenticular clouds.
SCIENCE: Selling the Future – One Planet at a Time
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SCIENCE: Selling the Future – One Planet at a Time

In “The Brick Moon,” published in 1869, Edward Everett Hale told the story of how humans migrated to space. It came about as a clumsy accident. When a giant brick sphere – built to be a “star” to help maritime explorers chart the oceans – is catapulted into Earth’s orbit, with workers still inside, a floating colony is set up. Fortunately, those men in hard hats had enough to eat, even a few hens. There, they decided to live forever, staying in touch with Earth by Morse code, signaled by skipping and jumping on their Spalding ball of a home.

Such nineteenth century science-fiction fueled the American public dream of a future of human outposts in space. Fiction was a prologue to the spate of space explorations, to come nearly 100 years later, kicking off with the Mercury program in 1958. Man walked on the Moon on 20 July 1969. Skylab, the first U.S. space station, was put in orbit in 1973. Human exploration, be that of far-flung continents by sailing ships or of cosmic realms by robotic rovers have typically been preceded by spell-binding yarns.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is also engaging in a kind of storytelling. Since January of last year, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in Pasadena, California, has produeced a set of attractive posters that paint beguiling vignettes of life off-Earth. The creative output of an art and design team at the JPL, called “The Studio”, furthers the agency’s goal is to publicize recent astronomical discoveries, made by NASA. Each artwork celebrates an “exoplanet” – a foreign planet circling a foreign star, the focus of JPL’s research.

A person in space gear stands on a mauve desert. The horizon is near, so near, that it appears curved. It’s ringed by a range of knife-edged, blue mountains. Two suns hang in the sky: one persimmon-orange; another, shining white. That’s “the land of two Suns,” where one’s shadow will “always have company,” just like Tatooine, the home planet of Luke Skywalker, in Star Wars. The poster announces the online office of NASA’s “Exoplanet Travel Bureau,” a faux travel agency for promoting tourism to exotic locales in the near and far reaches of space.

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In another, a skydiver hurtles through the atmosphere of a “super-Earth,” a planet with eight times the mass of Earth, where the “gravitational pull is much, much stronger.” It strikes one as a place thrill-seekers will make a beeline for. The next proclaims: “Visit the planet with no star, where the nightlife never ends.” A man in a tuxedo and a woman in a ball gown, both wearing helmets, pose against a “rogue planet,” a gothic, orphan, nocturnal world without a star. In the shadows, an orchestra plays.

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This past February, NASA released nine more posters. These showcased getaways within our own solar system.

A little paragraph in the margin of each poster spells out the creative rationale behind each work. But chances are it’ll stump anyone who hasn’t taken Astronomy 101 in college. One needn’t read it, though. Even if one did, and came away confused, the illustration would surely, offset that effect, for through witty words, lettering, brushstrokes, stipples, and vibrant shades of color, they beam one to alien worlds as magical and enchanting as “Oz.” They’re also both oddly, strange and familiar at the same time, some evoking American monuments.

Enceladus, Saturn’s icy moon, is touted as the home of the “Cold Faithful,” in a nod to the Old Faithful in Wyoming’s Yellow Stone National Park. The one hundred geysers (“cryovolcanoes”) in its south polar region belch plumes of cold steam and salt, not jets of molten rock as would a volcano.

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Ceres, explored from orbit, by NASA’s Dawn probe last year, is a boulder amid a vast moor of rocks and stones floating about in a region between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter known as the asteroid belt. The poster depicts a flashy gateway, an echo of the arch in downtown Reno, Nevada, which upholds the town’s motto: “The Biggest Little City in the World.” Ceres, likewise, is a dwarf-planet, fairly awarded the epithet: “Queen of the asteroid belt.” A couple of hitchhikers, each holding a canteen like tourists in Times Sqaure, stand beside a tube well. Above them is the banner: “Last chance for water until Jupiter.”

Venus, the second rock from the Sun, supposedly has been voted the “best place in the solar system to watch the Mercury transit.” The poster invites one to make a trip to its “Cloud 9 Observatory,” a Venusian landmark. It shows a city, levitating over a bank of fluffy pink clouds. The edifice looks like a round diamond, its dome, resembling the gemstone’s crown; its base, the pavilion. The Morse code for the number nine (- - - - ·) is etched on its façade.

Its placement calls to mind the Cloud City, the top-shaped mining colony, hovering over the cloudscape of Bespin, in The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Inside, people mill about, likely peering through a telescope at the sun, taking in at a rare celestial event called a transit – the crossing of Venus (or any other planet) cross the Sun’s face – represented pictorially, by a line of circles on the Sun. In August 1768, a party of four men, led by the British navigator James Cook, set sail for the Pacific island of Tahiti, in the British naval research ship H.M.S. Endeavour. They’d been hired by the Royal Society of London to record this phenomenon. It’s to this daring journey that the poster refers to, making clear that spaceships allow the luxury observers on Earth to study these cosmic crossings at times of our choosing and from perches across the solar system.

Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, is larger than Pluto, larger than Mercury, with a claim to fame: it’s the only moon with a thick atmosphere. Much like the worlds in the outer solar system, it’s frigid. It has a frozen shell, beneath which it conceals an underground ocean of liquid water. The ground is broken by depressions, with round edges, and steep walls, filled with flowing content.

At minus 290 degrees Fahrenheit, Titan is exceedingly cold for water to exist in its native state. But methane and ethane—ordinarily, gases on Earth—can. Titan’s equivalent of water, it’s these hydrocarbons that form lakes and seas on it. The most massive of these, Kracken Mare – named after the legendary sea monster Kraken – located in its northern polar quadrant, is huger than the hugest lake on Earth, the Caspian Sea. Its poster depicts a dark, choppy, unctuous water body, shimmering with yellow, brown, and chocolate ripples. A small crowd of boaters, in four rowboats, rows across it as if it were the Thames on a Victorian afternoon. Saturn, with its majestic edge-on rings, arches over them. “Ride the tides through the throat of Kraken,” the tagline reads.

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“The Grand Tour” lets one retrace the route taken by the twin Voyager probes, launched in 1977, a flight plan only possible every 175 years, when the outer planets – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune – are all in an opportune configuration. It also lets one experience the charm of a technology, which from tomorrow’s perspective may seem quaint. Voyager II hitched a ride on the gravity of planets on its itinerary, to gain speed and to propel it outward in the solar system, a maneuver called “gravity assist.” It flew by Jupiter for reconnaissance as well as to get a boost to Saturn. It then latched on to Saturn’s gravity, then to Uranus to climb all the way to Neptune and beyond. It set the stage for later flyby missions by unmanned spacecraft, such as the Galileo probe to Jupiter and the Cassini-Huygens probe to Saturn. The Galileo probe took one kick from Venus and two from Earth, while en route to its destination. The Cassini-Huygens probe took two shoves from Venus, one from Earth, and another from Jupiter to gain enough momentum to reach Saturn. Both Voyager vessels have left our solar system, but they continue to radio back information about what lies beyond the sun’s domain.

For as long as men have gazed at the night sky, sitting on a grassy knoll, warming their hands around a crackling fire, they’ve wondered if there were other celestial bodies like ours in the black, velveteen expanse. Giordano Bruno, a sixteenth century Italian friar, a contemporary of Shakespeare, not only championed the Copernican model, but proposed a notion even more radical: that there were countless Earths – a.k.a. exoplanets – revolving around countless other suns. He was burnt at the stake for heresy.

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He was correct. But those planets have remained hidden for long. For one, they don’t twinkle as do stars as they have no luminescence of their own. Their presence is all the more fainter in the dazzling glare of their own star, making them appear no brighter than a firefly, flitting about in the cone of a floodlight. For another, they’re too remote to be seen from an interstellar ravine away.

So, it wasn’t until the very late twentieth century that a spectrograph, an instrument for recording starlight, at the Haute-Provence Observatory in southern France, was able to discern a planet outside our solar system. On 6 October 1995, Swiss astronomers Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz reported in the journal Nature that they’d stumbled upon a world whizzing around a star, just like our own but 50 light-years away.

There was nothing pedestrian about it. Dimidium, as it was later named, was a gaseous whopper that wheeled so tightly around its star that it nearly grazed it. It also spun swiftly, twirling around it once every four days. Astronomers hadn’t seen anything quite like it before. In theory, it couldn’t be. It was a doozy, and it ushered a new class of planets called “hot Jupiters,” which are similar in make-up and size to our local Jupiter (diameter: 86,000 miles), but because they circle their star at a distance closer than Mercury, they’re infernal.

With that momentous discovery, there arrived the age of planets. Exoplanetary exploration had become a hot field in astronomy. In June 2003, Canada sent off MOST, a very small, Samsonite luggage-size space telescope. Two months later, NASA rolled out the Spitzer Space Telescope, a space-based observatory. CoRoT, the French probe, launched in December, 2006. On the night of 6 March 2009, a Delta II rocket, carrying the Kepler Space Telescope, lifted off from Cape Canaveral. A Cyclopean eye, in essence – fifteen feet long, nine, across – its task was to gaze at a rich sidereal field, in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra. Its purpose was to search for other Earth-like planets. For four years, it surveyed a region of the sky, monitoring stars within a range of 3,000 light-years, measuring dips in their brightness, which occurs when a planet passes it front of it. (For an Earth-size planet, crossing a Sun-like star, the drop in stellar wattage is 0.01 percent.)

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It has sent back a deep mine of valuable data, which continues to be analyzed. At this writing, a little over 1,960 exoplanets have been discovered over the past two decades, the bulk of them Kepler’s catches, which are wide-ranging: varying in size, composition, the size of their elliptical paths around their star.

In terms of dimension, there are some that dwarf our own planetary giants; others are obese Earths. Some are gas balls; others have solid cores. Some go around their star in the time it takes to go to work and come back home in a nine-to-five job; others, wander around for 250 long years. There are some that stand out even in this heterogeneous collection: WASP-17B moves in a direction counter to the rotation of its star; another has been bent into the shape of an egg by the gravity of its own star; Kepler-7B is puffy like Styrofoam, such that if a swimming could be found massive enough to fit the planet, it’d bob like a buoy; Kepler-22B could be an “ocean world”; Kepler 10-B is a blazingly hot globe as compressed as a dumbbell.

It’s these bizarre orbs that the JPL posters commemorate. While in their vision, they open a window to the far-future, in their illustration, they hark back to the mid-20th century, to the era of the Beatles, LSD, neon signs, nixie tubes, Tupperware, ponytails, pompadours and the Jet Age. In flavor, they’re strikingly reminiscent of the air travel posters from the Fifties and Sixties, regarded now, as the heyday of commercial aviation. Back then, airlines, such as Pan Am, T.W.A., United Airlines created visually arresting promotional material: lithographs, photographs, and silkscreens, inspired by Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and Modernist styles. The brains behind which were notable names like Saul Bass, Massimo Vignelli, Ivan Chermayeff, Otl Aicher, Mary Wells Lawrence, Stan Gali, David Klein, and Manfred Bingler.

To be sure, flying in the days of the Caravelle and the DC-8, wasn’t as easy as it is now, neither on the neck nor on the wallet. An advertisement from T.W.A., which appeared in the 27 May 1955, issue of Collier’s magazine, gave a peek into air fares of the times. A one-way trip from Chicago to New York would set one back by $33. That may sound like a steal, but when adjusted for inflation, that number jumps to $290. Today, the same ride can be made in about $100.

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Mechanical failures and crashes happened more often. In-flight entertainment was sorely missing: no music, no TV, no Wi-Fi. To kill the tedium and monotony of long-haul flights, one wrote postcards, printed with a picture of the aircraft or the meal one was going to be served. Or else, they smoked a cigar. Or worse, they knocked back tumblers of scotch. The flights were bumpy, smoky, and raucous.

Still, there was something flamboyant and decadent about air travel in that period. Airplanes were not mere mode of transports as they mostly are today, a mere means to go from one place to another. They were portals to an opulent, aerial adventure. People dressed up to fly. Travelers weren’t burdened by invasive security checks. There were no conga lines of passengers, waiting their turn to be frisked and their bags X-rayed. They could stroll leisurely through the concourse, without fear of drawing attention. One could catch a flight even if they showed up half hour before the call to board. Once on board, even in economy class, seats were not cramped; there was plenty of legroom; ornery flight attendants didn’t disburse packets of pretzels. Moreover, it was an era of elegant design. Everything from cabin upholstery to the uniforms of the stewardesses to the tableware had élan. The posters encapsulated everything that was world-class about flying. There was a promise of an extraordinary experience in them, a sense of discovery and wonder.

The rumble of jet engines heralded the dawn of the roar of the rockets. When the Soviets beat the U.S. twice – once, by sending Sputnik, a metal ball-like manmade object in orbit, in October, 1957; then by sending a man in orbit, in April, 1961 – it sparked off a “space race” between the two Cold War rivals, each bent on outshining the other in the spaceflight sector. That fervor went viral. It percolated into its people, and spun off in a cultural trajectory. Suddenly, the future was could be seen in the upswept roofs of buildings; tailfins of heavy metal cars; in songs like the “Age of Aquarius” (1969), a track from the pop band, Fifth Dimension. The Theme Building at L.A.X., which looks like a white flying saucer, parked on four legs, is a true Space Age emblem, built to toast its forward-looking ethos. It rose in 1961. The Golden Arches, one of the most recognizable corporate logos in the world, too, is a product of Googie architecture: a yellow parabola, trimmed with neon, conveying boundless energy. Originally, these metal curves would soar over a McDonald’s restaurant.

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The intense aerospace competition, fueled by a collective anxiety about a technological gap between the Americans and Russians, spawned a string of pioneering enterprises by NASA, the most memorable of which is the landing of the Eagle on a gray lunar plain, by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. But with the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, and the old enmity gone, the level of excitement for space endeavors too, appeared to have crumbled.

Of late, Hollywood has been churning out an impressive line-up of science-fiction movies like Gravity (2013) which bagged seven Oscars – and Interstellar (2014) which won one Oscar – are far more solidly grounded in science than, for instance, the 1951 alien invasion movie The Thing from Another World. But the appetite for extraterrestrial drama and adventure in reel, hasn’t translated into a desire for space exploration in reality. The average person on the street doesn’t care to remember the names of the astronauts up at the International Space Station, unless they regale those down on Earth, by playing the guitar, bouncing about in low gravity. Or, they return home from 340 days in an orbital exile. Or, they sip espresso from a baby boot-shaped cup.

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Presently, NASA is preparing to send a batch of crew to Mars in the 2030s, a target that’s about 600 times more distant and daunting than the Moon. Do people care? One, they aren’t interested in projects they feel have nothing in it for them. Yes, a trek to the Red Planet is a thrilling prospect, but there are no sensual pleasures or recreations that await weary voyagers, when they get there. There will be no Vegas-like hotels to luxuriate in or shopping malls to splurge on or waterparks to ride on. Two, the apathy also stems for a poor understanding of cutting-edge developmets. The esoteric nature of the invention and breakthroughs themselves makes it more and more difficult to break them down to lucid nuggets that can be easily gulped down by anyone. Three, soaked in a culture, where cravings are fulfilled in a jiffy, one has come to look for that speed even in the sphere of space science. But there’s no app for altering the pace of reality: it doesn’t take place at warp speed.

Popular culture is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it sells abstruse principles, packaged as fun. On the other, the very need to package it as fun robs it of its core. Guillaume de Syon, a professor at Pennsylvania’s Albright College, who teaches a course on the space program, said in an e-mail interview, as part of coursework, he’d asked his students to watch on NASA TV, a rocket launch, set for the wee hours of the morning. Most found the assignment to be boring as they were accustomed to watching only its climactic moment, on network or cable TV, not the entire event as it happened, peppered with jargon-laden commentary from the officialdom. They were being forced to wade through Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time when all they wanted was to read it as a colorful graphic novel. In the same vein, they’d take more delight in watching Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) in The Martian (2015) getting tossed about by a Martian sandstorm than to follow the logs of a pod winging its way to Mars.

While JPL had been busy working the posters, another NASA wing, headquartered in Huntsville, Alabama, concerned with developing bold space technologies, was organizing a campaign to develop Martian real estate. It was perhaps its way of relaying the message in Field of Dreams (1989), in which an Iowa corn farmer hears a voice telling him, “If you build it, he will come.”

Last summer, it hosted a design contest, the “3D-Printed Habitat Challenge” which asked contestants to harness 3D printing technology and indigenous materials to build homes for Mars. The competition, organized jointly by NASA and America Makes (or the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute) received more than 165 submissions. The winners were announced in September, 2015, at the Maker Faire, held at the New York Hall of Science. Prize money of $25,000 went to a concept presented by a team of two New York-based firms, SEArch (short for Space Exploration Architecture) and CloudsAO (short for Clouds Architecture Office): a high-tech igloo. It’s distinctive in that it allows a dwelling to be placed on a planet – not in – while, at the same time, offering a refuge against its cold, bleak, and toxic terrain. The choice of its location was guided by many parameters, two of which were proximity to a region, where there’s an oasis of water (in the form of ice, beneath the regolith), and the temperature stays below freezing. Such a track is the Alba Mons, an immense, low-slung volcano, in Mars’ northern hemisphere, with a span so wide – comparable to that of the U.S. – that it looks like a welt on the dusty, red landscape. It’d sit on plot of land on the gentle slopes of its northern flank. Being near water is critical because it’s forged from 3D-printed ice.

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It exudes a piscine flair, sticking out of Mars’ jagged landscape as if it were the fin of a monstrous, subterranean fish. Its “walls” are pellucid, constructed of a two-layered shell of ice. Sandwiched between them is a “courtyard,” an interstitial zone, neither entirely interior, nor exterior, which would enable occupants to take in the terra cognita that the Martian wilderness is, in nothing but leisurewear and an oxygen mask. In there, they can chill; meditate; play Scrabble. Its base, much like that of a pyramid, is broad. But it’s more than a foundation. It’s what’s anchors it to the ground, lest Mars’ soft gravitational grip let go of it, and it began to levitate, and fly away like Dorothy Gale’s home in Kansas.

Beneath the frozen perimeter is a belt of vertical greenery, where plants and produce will grow in liquid soil. Part kitchen garden, part recreational park, it’ll be a sweet reminder of Earth’s lush foliage. The living quarters themselves, are at the kernel, well insulated. Small enough to fit inside Space X’s Falcon Heavy shuttle, they’d come down on Mars in a lander—and stay within it. That space is divided into compartments, to hold an airlock; bunks, for sleeping; a library; a kitchenette; a laboratory; a restroom, a gym, a clinic, all of it stacked across four levels, squeezed into a space, no wider than 12 feet. A series of curvaceous “rooms” have been hollowed out in the inner atrium, offering a cyclorama of Mars. To seal itself against raging billows of fines and dust devils, the entire structure is sealed in a clear hide of ethylene-tetrafluoroethylene or ETFE, a plastic of many virtues. It’s a strong material, capable of holding steady under a wide range of temperatures from minus 300 degrees to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Plus, its Teflon-like texture keeps it relatively clean.

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<p>Among the blueprints of this structure that were in circulation, one depicted a scene in which a glowing beacon sets the Martian night aglow. Again, as in the posters, it was an alluring picture of life off-Earth: what a little house on Mars could one day look like. </p>

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By combining the otherworldliness of science-fiction and the vintage aura of the airline industry as well as those by the Work Projects Administration,a New Deal federal agency, which produced 2,000 posters between 1936 and1943, all the vistas, together, hope to make people want to dream again.

Dim the table lamp. Turn off the television. At a gentle press of a key, one is off far far away, looking or trying to look at the sun and its family, from a distance of 1,000 light-years away. “Eyes on Exoplanets” is a piece of desktop software, which lets one plan a vacation anywhere in our galactic block.

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