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.

Anti-Matter vs. Dark Matter

The Collison Annihlation of Matter and Anti-matter

The Collison Annihlation of Matter and Anti-matter

What is the difference between anti-matter and dark matter? Is there anything anti-matter and dark matter have in common?

Anti-matter is the idea of negative matter, or matter with the same mass but opposite an charge and quantum spin than that of normal matter. Anti-matter is just like normal matter with different properties. The antimatter of the electron (e-)  is the positron (e+); similarly, the antimatter of the proton is the anti-proton (p-). When normal matter and anti-matter collide, the two annihilate each other. Scientists speculate that anti-matter and matter existed in equal quantities in the early Universe.  The apparent asymmetry of high quantities of matter and very low quantities of anti-matter is a great unsolved problem in physics. Anti-matter is only found through radioactive decay, lightning, and cosmic rays (high-energy particles from supernovae) and very expensive to produce. Practical uses of anti-matter include the positron emission tomography (PET) used for medical imaging and as triggers to nuclear weapons.

Dark matter cannot be seen and is hard to detect, because dark matter interacts by gravity and weak atomic force, not with strong atomic forces (nuclear force: holds subatomic particles, electrons, neutrons, and protons, together in an atom) or electromagnetism. Dark matter constitutes about 22.7% of the Universe. On April 3, 2013, the International Space Station’s Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) found the first evidence of dark matter. [AMS was carried out by the Endeavor in 2011 in one of NASA’s last space shuttle flights.] Normally, detectors are blocked by Earth’s atmosphere, but by orbiting Earth above its atmosphere,  the AMS can monitor cosmos rays (have an excess of anti-matter, discovered two decades ago) without hindrance. The AMS will tell scientists whether the abundance of positrons signal the presence of dark matter.  One theory scientists are testing is supersymmetry, which speculates that the collision and annihilation of two dark matter particles could produce positrons. Another instrument that could help the dark matter hunt is the Large Underground Xenon Experiment (LUX).


Anderson, Natali. “Antimatter Hunter aboard International Space Station Detects Hints of Dark Matter.”, 4 Apr 2013. Web. 4 Apr 2013.

Boyle, Alan. “Space station’s antimatter detector finds its first evidence of dark matter.” NBC News, 3 Apr 2013. Web. 4 Apr 2013.

Fun Facts Cluster 2: From Space Rocks to Drones (AskAstro)

1. SPACE ROCK SUICIDE: Scientists can detect a comet or asteroid colliding into the Sun’s surface. The self-destructing comet or asteroid will explode due to pressure of traveling into the Sun’s photosphere. The brightness and impact of the collision depends on the mass of the object. A collision as such is high unlikely, however, because: 1) most comets and asteroids would to dust and vapor in the sizzling atmosphere of the Sun 2) objects will lose most of its mass as they approach the Sun 3) objects normally orbit the Sun, so the objects’ orbit must be altered or the object may be from another planetary system.

2. STELLAR DONATIONS: In a binary star system, if stars are close enough, tides can become so strong that the more gravitationally strong star call pull gas from the surface of its companion. Though the “tidal transfer” depends on the mass of the donor star, if two stars have equal mass, the accretor (the star gaining mass) will steal mass if the donor star’s radius exceeds 38 percent of the binary separation (distance between the stars) no matter the separation.

3. COLOR CODE: The dark and light horizontal bands depend on the organization of winds in Jupiter’s atmosphere. The light bands have a eastward jet on the side closest to the pole, and vice versa in the dark bands. The zones (light bands) appear bright because of colorless high-altitude clouds that contain ammonia ice. The belts (dark bands) have much thinner high altitude clouds and darker particles.

4. DANGEROUS FLYBY: NASA calculates the planetary flybys with nothing but Newton’s laws of motion. The desired closest approach depends on the mission and how much added velocity boost the mission requires.  The mass and closeness of the planet determines the bending of trajectory the probe must undergo. The approach distance can range from a few hundred to several thousand kilometers.

From: Astronomy magazine December 2012 Vol 41 Issue 12

Curiosity: Update 8 – Methane-less Mars

Shooting Lasers from MSL’s TLS instrument

Mars has lost at least half its atmosphere since the planet’s inception, Curiosity confirms. Mars’ atmosphere is 100 times thinner than Earth’s. Other than shielding life from harmful UV radiation, atmosphere also controls the fluctuations in climate. Because Mars’ atmosphere contains more heavier varieties of carbon dioxide than lighter ones, the ratio suggest the planet has sadly lost much of its atmosphere. Mars’ thin atmosphere has nearly untraceable amounts of methane, only a few parts of methane per billion parts of Martian atmosphere. Microbes like bacteria emit methane. In fact, 95% of methane on Earth is produced by biological processes. Though Curiosity failed to find traces of methane in Gale Crater, Mars may yet host methane elsewhere.

Curiosity used its SAM instruments (Sample Analysis at Mars) and TLS (Tunable Laser Spectrometer). In the near future, SAM will analyze its first solid sample to search for organic compounds in rocks.

In addition, air samples from Curiosity match ones from trapped air bubbles in meteorites found on Earth. Ergo, those meteorites definitely originated from Mars. 1 billion years ago, a large asteroid collided into Mars and split into fragments.


 “NASA Rover Finds Clues to Changes in Mars’ Atmosphere.” JPL Caltech. JPL, 2 Nov 2012. Web. 5 Nov 2012. <;.

Vergano, Dan. “NASA’s Curiosity rover confirms Mars lost atmosphere.” USA Today. USA Today, 2 Nov 2012. Web. 5 Nov 2012. <;.

Curiosity: Update 7 – Fingerprinting Martian Materials

X-Ray View of Martian Soil

The latest of Curiosity’s analyses show that the Martian minerals is similar to “weathered basaltic salts of volcanic origin in Hawaii.”  Curiosity’s CheMin (Chemistry and Mineralogy) instrument refines and identifies minerals in X-ray diffraction analysis on Mars. X-ray diffraction records hows minerals’ internal structures’ crystals react with X-rays. Identifying minerals in rocks and soil is crucial in assessing past environmental conditions. Each mineral has evidence of its unique formation. These minerals have similar chemical compositions but different structures and properties. The samples taken at “Rocknest” were consistent with scientists’ initial ideas of the deposits in Gale Crater. Ancient rocks suggest flowing water, while minerals in younger soil suggest limited interaction with water.


“NASA Rover’s First Soil Studies Help Fingerprint Martian Minerals First X-ray View of Martian Soil” JPL Caltech. JPL, 30 Oct 2012. Web. 5 Nov 2012.