Questions and Answers about Miscellaneous Topics

1. Does it make sense to let civilians buy their way into space?

I agree with you: if they're willing to pay, why not? It's almost the same as asking Coca Cola for money to put a big "Enjoy Coke!" sign on the outside of the Space Station. Commercial enterprises, and individual millionaires & billionaires, have lots of cash that they are free to spend as they choose. Organizations like NASA however ultimately report to the taxpayers, so they must be very frugal and often don't get as much money from the government as they need. I'm sure they're eager for any extra source of revenue.

I don't know what NASA's plans are in this respect, but the Russian mission with the civilian obviously set an interesting precedent. If Bill Gates (Chairman of Microsoft) were to walk up to NASA Headquarters and offer $1 billion in exchange for a few night's stay in the Space Station, I'd say NASA would be crazy not to take it. But others may perceive this as cheapening the "nobility" of space exploration. Personally I'm in favor of any advancement in space exploration, so if we need to open it up to commercial and private markets to get the job done, so be it!

Derek C. Richardson

2. If you are responsible for making a discovery how do you claim the information so that no one else can take credit for your discovery? Does your making the discovery give you exclusive rights to head up continuing research if other parties (for example the government) become interested?

The most common way for an astronomer to stake his/her claim to fame is to quickly publish the result, ensuring that the rest of the astronomical community (or the rest of the world if it is a big discovery) knows who made the discovery. Often, such 'hot' results are published in what is called a 'Letter to the Editor' of a scientific astronomical periodical, or in a high-profile general scientific periodical (such as Nature). Others opt to present their new results at scientific meetings and then write up the results shortly after. However, once the results have been published, anyone can start their own research in this area, and the person who made the discovery does not get the exclusive rights. Fortunately, the person(s) who made the initial discovery are duly credited by anyone who chooses to start a similar research project, so it remains clear who made the initial discovery, and the discoverer may become a leader in his field.

From the viewpoint of advancement in science, it is usually beneficial to have different researchers do their own research on a new discovery, for several reasons: it gives an independent confirmation of the results (or not); the other researchers may have a different and perhaps better interpretation of the results; and if the discovery turns out to be a far-reaching one, usually it takes more than one person or one research group to investigate all aspects. More often than not, the various researchers and research groups working on the same or a similar topic are interested to find out about each others results and share information through email and at astronomical conferences.

Rob Swaters

3. If a discovery is made and there is significant cause to pursue further research what is the possibility that the government would supply enough funding? And if the government can not or will not supply the funding what is the likely hood of finding enough private funding to finance the research?  Is this a common problem?

Funding for research is in part provided by the institution the researchers work for (universities, government research institutions, or private research institutions) and in part by external funding (from governmental organizations such as NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF)). Of course, the amount of funding is limited, and not everyone will be given the funds needed to pursue their research projects. If a researcher makes an important discovery or is successful in his or her research, it usually increases the chances of acquiring external funding through grants from e.g., NASA or NSF. Other factors will also play a role in deciding whether a research project will be funded, such as reputation of the researchers, whether the projects are deemed feasible, whether the researchers have previously published papers on this topic, and whether the researchers have access to telescopes needed to carry out the projects.

The fact that not everyone can get the funding needed to carry out research is both a good and a bad thing. On the one hand, it ensures that only the best research projects get carried out, and that the projects that are not (as) good do not get carried out. This way, the available funds get used most economically. On the other hand, often the amount of funding available is less than the number of good projects that should be funded. This forces the people in charge of deciding who get the funding (often scientists themselves) to make very hard choices.

Finding private funding to finance research in astronomy is harder. However, sometimes researchers are successful at finding private funds. For example, the worlds largest telescope, the Keck telescopes in Hawaii, have been funded by the W.M. Keck Foundation.

Rob Swaters.

4. Is there sound in space?

Most of space is completely silent. Unlike light, which can travel through the vacuum of space, sounds needs a medium to travel through, either a gas, a liquid, or a solid material. Because most of space is a vacuum, which means it contains no matter at all, there is nothing for sound to travel through, and therefore space is silent. If you were floating in space and saw a star explode, you would hear nothing. If you were to picture yourself witnessing a space battle, any explosions you might see would be soundless.

Still, not all of space is completely silent. There are vast gas clouds in space, many light years in size, and such gas clouds are stirred up every now and then by supernovae, or collisions with other clouds. This may also cause sound waves in these gas clouds. However, these would be far and far to weak to be heard by the human ear, so we would experience these as silent as well.

Another place you could encounter sounds is space in atmospheres of planets and moons. Just a couple of months ago, the Cassini mission to Saturn released a probe into the atmosphere of one of Saturns' moons, named Titan. When the probe, named Huygens, entered Titan's atmosphere, it listened for sounds, and heard some. You can listen to these sounds on the web:

Rob Swaters.

5. Seeing the poverty in the third world countries, I do not understand why would people want to put money in space exploration and such advanced science when the money (in my opinion) could be used to fund better causes. What is your opinion on this?

These are complex questions, but the reasons to spend money on space exploration and advanced science basically come down to:

1. Spin-offs.

2. The general importance of discovery and exploration.

3. Inspiration.

Basic research is often considered by politicians to be useless because they want results right now.  However, fundamental understanding of science can be important down the line even if there are no immediately obvious technical applications.  For example, there is a story that the great British physicist Michael Faraday was showing Queen Victoria some of his discoveries.  Some of these were fairly abstract investigations into electricity and magnetism, with no clear applications.  She asked what use they were, and he is said to have replied "Madam, what use is a baby?"  What he meant is that there can be unlimited applications for things, but they might not be clear when first discovered!  This general idea that basic understanding often leads to applications later on is called spin-offs.  Such spin-offs often can be used to help the less fortunate, but it might be years or decades after the discoveries.

The second on my list is general discovery and exploration.  What is our role as a species?  Should we focus only on our immediate existence?  Or should we try to ennoble ourselves by looking beyond, and becoming one with the universe through exploration?  I lean towards the latter possibility.

The last item, inspiration, is important as well.  Consider the Apollo program in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s.  This put people on the moon, but arguably didn't have a lot of other direct benefits.  However, it inspired an entire generation to think about science and discovery, and it is likely that tens of thousands of people have gone into science as a result.  Many of them have made discoveries of direct practical benefit.

So, that's why one would think of funding such programs.  However, I agree with you that one always must weigh costs and benefits. For example, in 2004 we heard that our president wants to send people to the Moon and Mars, and focus NASA on that goal.  This would cost a staggering amount of money (conservatively a half a trillion dollars), and would as a side effect eliminate all other science programs at NASA.  What would the benefit be?  Very unclear. I think we would lose horribly, and if we have that kind of money to spend I would much rather see it spent elsewhere.

Cole Miller

6. As you know, there are a lot of depictions about what is up there and how it could be up there, most of which consists of science fiction Star Wars. I guess my first question in this set of many is have you ever watched Star Wars? I bet becoming an astronomer has ruined this experience, but how? Surely, you've trumped every single aspect to the space experience with reality, so could you tell me about what you think?

I think I can speak for most astronomers when I say that yes, I've seen and like Star Wars, and no, becoming an astronomer did not ruin the movies for me. It is certainly true that as I've learned more astronomy (I study comets) I've become more aware of the inaccuracies depicted in most science fiction movies. But that doesn't bother me. Rather, I get a thrill out of seeing someone else's vision of how the far away things we astronomers study might look up close, and I appreciate the need for Hollywood to make things interesting and dramatic since 99.9% of the audience won't recognize that one of the asteroids in Star Wars is a potato (and those who do will feel like they're in on a secret). In my opinion, anything that raises the public's interest in and awareness of science in general (and particularly astronomy) is a good thing. The more the average American knows about science, the more likely they are to pay attention to new science results and support science research, and the better off our country is as a whole.

As for the specifics of the science in Star Wars, there are many things that are done very well in my opinion. Most obvious to me is the idea that there are many planets around other stars. When the first Star Wars was made, the discovery of the first extrasolar planet was still about 15 years away. On a related note, the planets of Star Wars are very different from each other, and most are not at all like Earth. I think the difficulty of storytelling is to envision things that are distinctly different than what we know, and Star Wars does that reasonably well: there are planets covered in ice (Hoth), desert (Tatooine), and swamp (Degobah), lush inhabitable moons orbiting planets (Endoor and Yavin 4), and an orbiting city above what appears to be a gas giant planet (Cloud City over Bespin)...and those are just in the first three films! Finally, it gives concrete examples of things things the general public might otherwise not be able to visualize, like the binary stars of Tatooine.

One final plug: since you like science fiction, I highly recommend the short lived TV series Firefly and it's movie Serenity (both available on DVD). While it's really more a western set in space than pure science fiction, it's a fantastic story, without a doubt my favorite TV show of all time.

Matthew Knight

7. I just wanted to know what your most interesting or favorite discovery or period of research has been.

There are a number of things that stand out in my mind, but one of the best was being involved in the Deep Impact mission to comet Tempel 1. In this project we sent a spacecraft to comet Tempel 1, and released an impactor that crashed into the surface to produce a crater while a flyby spacecraft observed the result. (If you want to see more about the mission, go to I got involved in the project several years before the encounter, helping with the calibration of some of the instruments, and studying the comet to help in planning the events that would occur at the time of the flyby.

Although the entire mission was (and still is) fascinating to work on, there were two high points that really stand out. The first big event was the launch of the spacecraft on January 12 2005. I was at Cape Canaveral to see it take off, and it was a wonderful feeling to see the rocket rising into the sky, carying the Deep Impact spacecraft on the first step of its journey to the comet.

The second high point happened a short six months (and lots of frantic work) later. On July 4, 2005 the spacecraft encountered comet Tempel 1, producing a spectacular impact event that was recorded by the flyby spacecraft. My first thought was one of relief, that everything had worked and the impactor had actually hit the comet and made a crater. Shortly after that, it was a feeling of amazement at what we were seeing in the pictures. We got incredibly detailed images of the comet and "movies" of the impact as it was happening. Over the next few days, I got very little sleep, because I was so excited about what we were seeing.

Even now, we are still only beginning to understand the data that we obtained in the encounter and impact. But the mission is not over yet. The Deep Impact spacecraft is still orbiting the sun and is going to be retargeted to fly by another comet. In December 2008, it will encounter comet Boethin and take pictures and spectra of the nucleus for comparison to comet Tempel 1. (Unfortunately, we don't have another impactor to make a crater in this comet.) We are just beginning to work on this part of the project, but I am looking forward to another amazing experience.

In addition, the Stardust spacecraft (which collected dust particles from comet Wild 2) is planning to go back to comet Tempel 1 in 2011 to take additional pictures of the nucleus. Although I am not directly involved in this mission, I look forward to seeing how comet Tempel 1 has changed since it was visited by the Deep Impact spacecraft.

Tony Farnham

8. I have a question that pertains more to the personal side of being an astromomer. I know that being an astronomer you deal with very mind boggling theories. I know that with myself it is very difficult to imagine the immense size of even our galaxy in comparison to how small and insignificant we acutally are. How do you, when you deal with much larger and grander scales, deal with our size and immense obscurity? does it effect your day to day life at all?

My name is Ashley Zauderer, and I study astronomy at the University of Maryland. I chose to study this precisely because of the amazing extremes that can be found in the study of astronomy.

In terms of dealing with theories that are mind boggling, we deal with it by scaling things and simplifying in order to be able to conceptualize a tiny piece. For example, just consider our solar system. If the sun was about the size of a basketball, the closest planet, Mercury would be over 40 feet away and smaller than a penny! Hence, you can see that it would be very difficult to show the whole solar system in a classroom. To deal with this, astronomers make different scales for the size of the planets and their distance from the sun. Often, we use logarithmic scales. You should try to make a plot of the distance of planets from the sun in normal units and then in logarithmic units. For the latter, 10^1 = 1 unit. 10^2 = 100 = 2 units. 10^3 = 1000 = 3 units.

The vast distances between stars and galaxies is probably one of the most mind blowing things in astronomy. Everything is so large and distant. One way we deal with large distances is to measure in light-years. One light year is the distance that light travels in a year. Light zooms around at 3 x 10^8 m/s. This is a speed of over 670,000,000 miles per hour! We use a unit, known as a parsec, which is equal to 3.26 light years to measure distances to galaxies.

The closest galaxy, Andromeda, is about 800 kpc away. This is about 800,000 parsecs, or 260 million light years. In other words, it takes light about 260 million years to travel from Andromeda to us. This is mind blowing, but by ignoring how big the units are, it is easy to think of the distance to Andromeda as being ~800 kpc.

I deal with such large distances all the time, as I have studied about 100 galaxies that are much farther away than Andromeda. Most of the time, I use their distances to compare with each other and I don't really sit and try to think about how far away they actually are. If you are interested, you should research Sir Edwin Hubble and how the "redshift" of a galaxy relates to its distance. When I do occassionaly really think about how big our solar system, galaxy and universe are, it definitely still blows my mind!

You also mentioned how small and insignificant we are and our immense obscurity relative to the grand size of our universe. It is true that we are a speck of dust relative to the sheer size of our galaxy. That our lives are just a fleeting moment relative to the time that all of this has existed. But, rather than this making me feel insiginificant, it actually makes me feel very special. Special to be a part of something so large and grand. Special to have the capacity to ask questions and understand bits and pieces of the physical laws which govern our universe. Special to have the capacity to make a difference on our planet by the choices I make - and to make a difference in the lives of other people. The circumstances which led to the development of life on our planet seem to be rather special and rare. Even if we discover other suns that may harbor life, our star is still very special. There are many, many stars which could not harbor life.

I also feel fortunate to live in an extraordinary time, where we have the technology to see more and understand more about our universe than was possible even 100 years ago.

But why does this all exist? How were the laws governing the universe formed? I personally find it very inspiring to think about the intersection of astronomy with philosophical and religious questions. Growing up, I found that many things I had been taught conflicted with science. But, as I have examined and questioned, I have grown both in my faith and in the appreciation I have for what we can learn about ourselves and our surroundings through the scientific method. We are small, but we are part of a much larger picture. Something very grand.

Have fun with your study of astronomy & thanks for the great question!


9. I think it would be so much fun to be an astronomer.What types of things are you studying now?, What kind of things have you done?

   Right now, I am working on two NASA missions that are in different stages of development.  The one that is taking most of my time in recent months, is NASA~Rs Dawn mission to asteroids Vesta and Ceres


This is the first mission that will orbit two bodies in the solar system and use the same set of instruments to study these large asteroids. Ceres, is a dwarf planet, like Pluto and we are eager to learn more about the early stages of planet formation in the solar system. Our spacecraft is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral on June 30, 2007.  I~Rm very excited about this.

      The other project that I~Rm working on is the extended mission using the Deep Impact spacecraft.  We plan to fly by another comet (Comet Boethin) and look at its nucleus. We will then have two comets that will be studied with the same instruments. This will make it easier to compare the physical and chemical nature of the comets to each other, and see what that tells us about the formation of the early solar system. The comets tell us about the material that formed at the coldest regions, beyond the planets.  This mission is called EPOXI. We are designing and building the mission~Rs web page, so I can~Rt send you to it yet.  But if you want to see what we learned about Comet Tempel 1 when the impactor from the Deep Impact  spacecraft hit it, go to

        I feel very fortunate to be working on these NASA missions. When I was in school, my teachers gave me opportunities to study subjects that interested me. I then realized that I had to study math and basic science, such as physics, in order to become an astronomer. I hope you enjoy those subjects as I do.  In college, I learned to use a telescope, and had an opportunity to work with a team of scientists who were studying Mercury and Venus.  Then I went to graduate school and studied for what seemed like an eternity. I like designing my own research projects. The down side of that is that I have to then write proposals to get the funding to carry them out.  Today, I spend a lot of my time writing proposals and managing the grants that I get to carry out my research. In fact, right now, I have to write a statement of the work that I will be doing in the next 9 years for the Dawn mission.

        I hope your interest in astronomy will continue to grow. Every year we get together and present our results to each other at the annual meeting of planetary astronomers. Maybe I~Rll see you at a conference of astronomers sometime, if your interest continues to grow in this direction.  Please let me know if you have other questions. 

  Lucy McFadden

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