NASA Passes on the Torch: Conquest of Space Redefined

An op-ed I originally wrote for and published on CORE Impulse.

Just as a relatively clear sky welcomed a blood moon early morning Tuesday, April 15 at Columbia, clouds soon covered the spectacular total eclipse. Just as the infamous 20th century space race peaked in 1969, space exploration has gradually declined and faded away in recent years with NASA budge cuts. We rarely hear about bold expeditions to the faraway reaches of the universe. Can the privatization of space with space startups defy the federal and fiscal impediments and renew public interest?

The Fall of NASA

NASA is the undisputed giant of the space industry, with funding of $17.46 billion (for fiscal year 2015) and 17,521 employees. It sounds absurd for anyone, much less a startup, to even attempt to compete with and rival it. But the largest space startup SpaceX now has over 3,000 employees (from 160 in 2005), a $1.6 billion dollar contract with NASA and $5 billion private contracts.

However, NASA is a shadow of its former self. If the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle program in 2011 wasn’t enough, NASA funding, according to its annual fiscal budget, dropped from as high as 4.41% of the U.S. budget in 1966 to less than half a percent in 2014. What happened to the massive investments like those spent on the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing ($25 billion, in 1964 terms)? Crippled by budget cuts, startups like SpaceX and Russia rocketry are just beginning to explore the incredibly fertile outer space.

It sounds absurd for anyone, much less a startup, to even attempt to compete with and rival NASA.

New Players in Space

SpaceX is the most prominent space rocketry startup today. Founded in 2002 and based in Hawthorne, California, SpaceX aims to enable people to live on other planets by revolutionizing space technology. Founder, philanthropist, and billionaire Elon Musk invested $100 million of his own money to jumpstart SpaceX.

SpaceX has made history several times already. In September 2008, Falcon 1 became the first privately developed liquid fuel rocket to reach orbit. On December 8, 2010, it became the first private company to launch and return spacecraft from orbit. In May 2012, its Dragon spacecraft successfully attached to ISS and exchanged cargo payloads. More recently, its Grasshopper spacecraft, the first in a series of reusable technology, has completed its highest leap of 325m.

It’s hard to imagine any competitors for SpaceX would be tied with it neck-to-neck two years ago. But since then, SpaceX’s incomparable fame has overshadowed any recent successes by the older startup Orbital. The startup has a $75 million contract with NASA to build a Kepler-like telescope TESS. In 2013, Orbital successfully launched its Antares and Minotaur V rockets. But attention soon shifted back to SpaceX when the latter test-launched Grasshopper.

Dreaming Big

Space startups must first overcome challenges such as privacy, the delay in satellite deployment, and the low quality of commercial telescope images, according to Forbes. According to Air & Space magazine, skeptics like Alan Stern don’t share Musk’s SpaceX vision: “[Elon Musk] is not in it to build the rockets; that’s a means to an end. It’s a religion for him.”

But what’s a better place to dream big than in space? Space startups prove to be low-cost and efficient, and rising competition may accelerate our dreams of space travel. As more companies start to vie with SpaceX, we just may see the 80,000-person Mars colony that Musk dreams about.

Space, that inexplicable blackness of the night sky lit by tiny blinking dots we call stars. Whether it be the ordinary, tangible spaces of New York City or the intangible deep space billions of light years away, we may even be obsessed with it—I worked on my own astronomy blog “The Cosmos” for a year to understand space.

“Humanity’s interest in the heavens has been universal and enduring,”  NASA says. If only.

The Story Continues

NASA passes the baton to space startups to keep exploration alive, but interest in this industry is at an all-time low. Just walk around the City at night. How many look up at the sky, are even aware of the beauty behind the light pollution? When Columbia Astronomy Public Outreach did Sidewalk Astronomy last Tuesday, I noticed that almost no one had seen the moon or Jupiter through a telescope before. According to Nielsen’s TV ratings for April 15, viewers would rather watch an episode of The Good Wife (9.83 million) or Resurrection (7.46 million) than one of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (3.49 million).

How many look up at the sky, are even aware of the beauty behind the light pollution?

Sure, the Cold War and the space race with the Soviet Union is now over. But that accomplishment is nothing compared to the potential of satellite imaging, future manned and unmanned missions, space travel and colonization. There’s Mars, asteroids, comets, and extra-solar planets (and much of Earth) to explore and map. Space tourism companies like Virgin Galactic have opened reservations for space venture, albeit for a very exclusive club. (It costs about $20 million for a one week stay in space.)

The story did not end with the space race, and certainly cannot end now.

So take a moment and look up at the night sky. You live in the present, see into the past, and may even predict the future. A future where the competition between space startups drives a new age of space exploration, and even widespread commercial space travel.

By: Tianjia Liu, Columbia College, Class of 2017


Asteroid Capture!

Russia Meteorite 2013: The largest of the century!

Russia Meteorite 2013: The largest of the century!

Asteroids are an excellent source of natural resources (minerals, etc.) As stated in the U.S. fiscal year of 2014 budget, NASA requested $100 million to initiate plans to capture an asteroid, haul it into the lunar orbit, and send manned missions to the asteroid by 2025! Mining an asteroid in the future could help resupply rapidly depleting fossil fuels and natural minerals. Beside the apparent need for resources, NASA hopes to advance technological developments that will provide opportunities for “international cooperation, new industrial capabilities, and helping scientists better understand how to protect Earth if a large asteroid is every found on a collision course. You may have heard about the recent Russia Chelyabinsk meteorite incident. 1,500 injured and 7,000 buildings suffered. A small asteroid invaded Earth’s atmosphere and struck the ground in Russia. The shockwaves shattered thousands of windows!

NASA proposes identifying suitable targets, or asteroids 20 to 30 feet in diameter (extremely hard to spot) in favorable orbits (near Earth and small revolution) that would allow easy capture and transport to Earth. These desired small asteroids hit Earth on a regular basis; the asteroid that hit Russia was 50 feet in diameter. NASA’s Orion crew capsule and heavy-lift booster will send astronauts to the asteroid for sample returns. NASA has two teams working the proposed mission: one searching for suitable asteroids and developing unmanned technology to capture the asteroid, and another on future manned missions and sample collection.

In the wake of the asteroid (then meteorite) rocking Russia and a close call with an asteroid passing close to Earth on the same day, astronomers are extremely interested in asteroids.

Proposed Timeline

2017: test flight

2019: capture mission

2021: asteroid hauled back to cislunar (between Earth and moon) orbit

by 2025: astronauts sent to asteroid


Harwood, William. “NASA mulls asteroid capture mission, eventual manned visits.” CBS News. CBS News, 5 Apr 2013. Web. 12 Apr 2013.

The 8 Planets Series: The Finale

For the last few months, if you stayed tuned to my “8 Planets” series, I updated information on each of the planets and major moons, taking you on a journey through the solar system. From Mercury to Neptune, the solar system holds many wonders, twists and turns, and bizarre objects. Coincidentally, the 8 posts, corresponding to each of the planets, was spaced out on the calendar roughly relative to the distances between the planets. The four terrestrial planets, Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars, are relatively close to one another (less than 1 AU). These four posts were published around the same time. However, for the gaseous planets, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, posts were spread out across months to correlate with these planets’ large distances from one another. Well, thank you for tuning in! To celebrate the “8 Planets” series I created a solar system mobile, as shown below. Enjoy! The next series will be “Astronomy and Mythology: The Naming of Celestial Objects.”

The 8 Planets – Part 8: Neptune




The last planet Neptune, is quite a spectacle, essentially a blue marble. As with Uranus, methane (trace amount) gives Neptune its blue coloration. Named after the Roman god of the seas Neptune was noted by Galileo in 1612, but discovered as a planet by Urbain Le Vernier, John Couch Adams and Johann Galle on September 23, 1846. Neptune has a very elliptical orbit, and was further than Pluto between 1979 and 1999. Uranus and Neptune are usually paired together as “ice giants.” Uranus is light blue, named after the god of the sky, while Neptune is dark blue, named after the god of the seas. Unlike Uranus’s bland surfaces, Neptune’s ephemeral storms make up the planet’s active atmosphere. The Great Dark Spot is comparable to Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, but the Great Dark Spot comes and goes. With the strongest gales in the solar system, winds (rotates opposite of the planet’s rotation direction) on Neptune have speeds up to 2,100 kph— almost reaching supersonic flow! Winds called the scooter that speed across Neptune reach up to 3000 kph! Although Neptune’s atmosphere is one of the coldest places of the solar system, Neptune has a faint, fragmented ring system called arcs discovered during the 1960s and confirmed during the 1989. The rings give off a faint red hue, comprising mainly of ice and carbon-based materials. Like that of Uranus, Neptune’s magnetosphere is also relatively tilted (47º). The pressure on Neptune is so great that it rains diamonds there! On Neptune, that pole facing the Sun is 10ºC hotter than the other pole, so when the seasons change, frozen methane warm up and leak out into space.


Triton and Nereid

Triton and Nereid

Neptune has 13 known moons, the largest are Triton and Nereid. In mythology, Triton and Nereid are Neptune’s sons. Interestingly, Triton has a retrograde orbit (spins east to west), which suggests the Neptune gravitationally pulled Triton into its orbit. In fact, in 3.6 million years, Neptune will pull Triton past the Roche Limit (past this limit, all moons are doomed to crash into the planet), and the moon will crash into Neptune! Neptune’s second largest natural satellite, Nereid, an irregular moon, has one of the most eccentric (elliptical) orbits in the solar system.

MISSIONS: Voyager 2


  • Order in Solar System: #8
  • Number of Moons: 13
  • Orbital Period: 164.8 years
  • Rotational Period: 16.11 hours
  • Mass: 1.0243 x 10^26 kg ( 17.147 Earths)
  • Volume: 6.254 x 10 ^13 km³ (57.74 Earths)
  • Radius: 24,764 km (3.883 Earths)
  • Surface Area: 7.6183 x 10^9 km² (14.98 Earths)
  • Density: 1.638 g/cm³
  • Eccentricity of Orbit: 0.0112
  • Surface Temperature (Average): 72 K
  • Escape Velocity: 23.5 km/s
  • Apparent Magnitude: 8.02 to 7.78

The 8 Planets – Part 7: Uranus




Unlike any other planet in the solar, Uranus (Ur-uh-nus)’s name derives from Greek mythology, namely the Greek god of the sky. Uranus preceded Jupiter and Saturn in mythology as he and Gaia created the sky and earth. Named planets long after the ancient planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn), Uranus (Sir William Herschel, 1781) and Neptune are sometimes in a separate category called the “ice giants.” The two planets’ icy blue coloration comes from a primary composition of more heavier elements, “ices” such as water, ammonia, and methane. Like Venus, Uranus spins in a retrograde motion with a tilt of 97.77°! So, while other planets spin like spinning tops, Uranus spins like a rolling ball. A large object may have knocked Uranus on its side! Uranus’ rings spin parallel to its axis of rotation. Because of its unusual axial tilt, Uranus has unusually long seasons— each pole gets 42 years of sunlight followed by 42 years of darkness. Near the time of equinoxes, however, Uranus’ day-night cycle reaches that of those on other planets. Even Uranus’ magnetic field, with a tilt of 59º, is abnormal and does not line up to Uranus’ axis, with the north side strong and the south side comparatively weak. The second least dense planet, Uranus comprises of a rocky core, icy mantle, and an outer hydrogen and helium envelope. Because Uranus’ atmosphere is mainly methane, the planet is very smelly, like cow pastures. Uranus’ faint rings were mainly formed from scattered moons. Unlike the other gas giants, Uranus radiates hardly any heat; the planet’s core may have been depleted in an high-mass impact. Though Uranus is bland, dark spots like those usually found on Neptune, have recently been found on Uranus.


Uranus' moons

Uranus’ moons

Uranus has 27 known moons named after characters from Shakespeare’s and Alexander Pope’s masterpieces. Uranus’ five main moons are Miranda, Ariel, Umbriel, Titania, and Oberon. These moons are comparatively and dull (brightness), comprising of 50% rock and 50% ice. Of the satellites, Ariel is the youngest with few impact craters and Umbriel is the oldest. Miranda has canyons, layers, and many variations in surface features caused by tidal heating (push and pull of the moon’s interior caused by gravitational pull) within the moon.

MISSIONS: Voyager 2


  • Order in Solar System: #7
  • Number of Moons: 27
  • Orbital Period: 84 years
  • Rotational Period: 17 hours
  • Mass: 8.6810 x 10^25 kg (14.536 Earths)
  • Volume: 6.833 x 10 ^13 km³ (63.086 Earths)
  • Radius: 25,559 km (4.007 Earths)
  • Surface Area: 8.1556 x 10^9 km² (15.91 Earths)
  • Density: 1.27 g/cm³
  • Eccentricity of Orbit: 0.044405586
  • Surface Temperature (Average): 76 K
  • Escape Velocity: 21.3 km/s
  • Apparent Magnitude: 5.9 to 5.32

The 8 Planets – Part 6: Saturn



Poor Saturn is neither the largest nor the most massive. But this planet may be most eccentric— memorable in its appearance and properties. Named after the Titan of Time, Saturn was the Roman king of the Titans and father of Jupiter. Saturn is the least dense planet, even less dense than water! How does this happen? Saturn is only 1/8 the density of Earth, but with its large volume, is over 95 times more massive than Earth. Comprising mainly of the lightest element, hydrogen, Saturn is very “light” for its size. Saturn’s mass is 95 times that of Earth, but its volume is 764 times that of Earth. Since density = mass/ volume, Saturn’s large volume and relatively small mass equates to a very small density (0.687). So, if you build an enormous bathtub and fill it with H2O, Saturn would bobble around on the surface like a rubber duckie! In contrast to Jupiter’s myriad of colorful bands and zones, Saturn’s upper atmosphere of mainly ammonia crystals gives the planet a bland yellow-brown coloration. Once every 30 years, Saturn exhibits ephemeral storms on its banded surface, one known as the Great White Spot. At its North Pole, Saturn has a weird hexagon-shaped storm that may be a novel aurora or a wave pattern. Underneath that banal surface, winds reach up to 1,100 mph, faster than those on Jupiter! Unlike its ever-changing gaseous layers, Saturn’s core may be solid iron, nickel, and rock. Reaching up to 11,700 °C at the core, Saturn radiates 2.5 times more energy than received from the Sun by the Kelvin-Helmholtz mechanism of slow gravitational compression and the “raining out” of droplets of helium in its interior. Accumulating into a helium shell surrounding the core, the helium droplets release heat by friction passing though low density hydrogen. Layers of metallic hydrogen (deep), liquid hydrogen and liquid helium (intermediate), and hydrogen gas (outer) blanket the core. Electrical currents within the metallic hydrogen caused Saturn’s weak magnetic field to form. Effective at deflecting solar wind particles, Saturn’s magnetosphere also produces aurorae. Saturn has magnificent, highly reflective ice rings, perfectly visible with a telescope. All gas giants have rings, but with nine main continuous rings, three discontinuous arcs if ice particles, rock debris, and dust, Saturn and its rings are truly inseparable. In 1655, Christiaan Huygens suggested Saturn was surrounded by a ring. Since then, astronomers have named the main rings from A to G. The Cassini Division is a large gap between rings A and B, and the Roche Division is a gap between rings A and F. Some moons, like Pan and Prometheus, are shepherd moons that prevent Saturn’s rings from expanding.


Saturn has the second most number of moons with 62. Inhabit Saturn’s rings, Saturn’s moons range from the hundreds of “moonlets” to its largest natural satellite Titan. Of its 62 known moons, Saturn has 53 with actual names, 13 with diameters larger than 50 km, 7 with hydrostatic equilibrium due to planetary mass, dense rings, and complex orbits of their own, 24 regular satellites (prograde orbits not greatly inclined) named after Titans and Titanesses, and 38 irregular satellites with farther orbits and high inclination orbits and named after Inuit, Norse, and Gallic mythological characters. There can be no objective boundary for the classification of Saturn’s moons, for Saturn’s rings contain objects from the microscopic to the largest object Titan.



The most prominent is Titan. Larger than Mercury, Titan is the only moon to retain a substantial atmosphere. Titan produces white convective clouds in cold nitrogen and methane atmosphere. Its surface is relatively young with few impact craters, dark regions of frozen hydrocarbons, flow channels, volcanoes, and sand of frozen water or hydrocarbons. The only moon with large bodies of methane/ ethane lakes, Titan, like Ganymede and Europa (Jupiter’s moons) may have a subsurface ocean of water and ammonia. The largest lake on Titan, Kraken Mare, is larger than the Caspian Sea.


Saturn’s moons

MIMAS: smallest and least massive of inner round moons, large impact crater called Herschel, no known geologic activity

ENCELADUS: one of the smallest of Saturn’s spherical moons, smallest known body geologically active, diverse surface that includes ancient heavily cratered terrain and younger smoother areas, south pole unusually warm and emits jets of water vapor and dust that replenishes material in Saturn’s E Ring and is the main source of ions in Saturn’s magnetosphere, may have liquid water under south pole, pure ice and high reflective surface

TETHYS: third largest inner moon, large impact crater called Odysseus, cast canyon system called Ithaca Chasma, composed of mainly water ice with little rock

DIONE: second largest inner moon, heavily cratered old terrain, extensive system of troughs and lineaments named “wispy terrain” indicates tectonic activity

RHEA: second largest moon, only moon that has rings, two large impact basins called Tirawa and Inktomi (“The Splat”), a young crater which has butterfly-shaped bright rays, geologically dead

HYPERION: closest moon to Titan (when Titan makes four revolutions, Hyperion makes three), very irregular shape, sponge-like tan-colored icy surface, numerous impact craters, no well-defined poles or equator (chaotic rotation) which makes its rotational behavior unpredictable

IAPETUS: third largest moon, most distant large moon, greatest orbital inclination (orbits at a greater altitude, at 14.72°), one hemisphere is pitch-black (Iapetus’s leading hemisphere collides with dust and ice particles as it rotates, darkening its surface) and the other is bright as snow

MISSIONS: Cassini-Huygens, Pioneer 11, Voyager


  • Order in Solar System: #6
  • Number of Moons: 62
  • Orbital Period: 29.5 years
  • Rotational Period: 10.5 hours
  • Mass: 5.6846 x 10^26 kg (95.152 Earths)
  • Volume: 8.2713 x 10 ^14 km³ (763.59 Earths)
  • Radius: 60,268 km (9.4492 Earths)
  • Surface Area: 4.27 x 10^10 km² (83.703 Earths)
  • Density: 0.687 g/cm³ (less than water!)
  • Eccentricity of Orbit: 0.056
  • Surface Temperature (Average): 134 K
  • Escape Velocity: 35.5 km/s
  • Apparent Magnitude: +1.47 to -0.24