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.

How It All Began: “To Infinity and Beyond”

Orion Nebula

From Nebulae to Stars to Galaxies and Beyond!


Mysteries galaxies cover,

Restlessness stars show,

Beauty planets exhibit,

In the infinity and beyond!

From minuscule neutrinos to the expanding Universe, astronomy rules the Fabric of the Cosmos. But in my birthplace, the sky is hidden by a mask of light pollution and fossil fuel wastes. I often pondered what lay above those hazy clouds. After emigrating from Shenyang, I saw for the first time a sky clearer than water and stars brighter than Zeus’ bolt. Thus began my fascination with astronomy. And like the constellations of the zodiac that appear in certain months, I had occasional close encounters with astronomy. There was a lesson in a 6th grade outdoor education class and a telescope viewing session in Pasadena. I even took an astronomy course at the community college. All of these transient, astronomical sparks ultimately culminated in my unforgettable COSMOS experience. My high school barely covers astronomy, so I rely on my home telescope, where all I can see is the moon, Jupiter, and Saturn. But in a university setting, I discovered and utilized the infinite, incredible resources for research and learning.

As the sun sank beneath the golden horizon, I waited patiently for the TAs to finish calibrating the 24-inch telescope inside the UCI observatory dome. After Dr. Smecker-Hane explained how to use a sky map, I mastered the technique and shouted out constellations: “Orion! Big Dipper!” Inside the observatory dome, I ascended the creaky steel ladder and gazed into the telescope’s eyepiece, seeing one area concentrated with stars, the open cluster M11. Though light years away, M11 seemed so impossibly close that I could reach up and snatch its stars out of the sky, as though I was a scientist observing stars on an ebony Petri dish through a microscope. On the 8-inch telescope, Mars shone like ancient blood-stained battlefields, while Saturn’s ice rings revolved as magnificently as clockwork.

The professors enlightened me with intriguing astronomy stories, such as the irony of Einstein’s obstinacy. Though he rejected Friedmann’s theory of an expanding universe, Einstein’s cosmological constant, when reversed, actually supports the theory of Universe acceleration. The program’s CLEA1 exercises prepared me for group projects as I learned some of the math behind astronomy― calculating the mass of Jupiter using its moons’ orbits and “blinking” to determine asteroids’ velocities. In one CLEA simulation, I found not galaxies, but portraits of scientists floating in space instead! For my group research project, “Stellar Spectra,” we observed the night sky, recorded images of Arcturus and Vega, reduced them with Linux software, and designed a poster board decorated with colored dots depicting the stars of the H-R Diagram. We presented our “findings” to parents, students, and professors at a science fair convention. During this research process, I imagined myself as the modern Galileo voyaging through territory few had traversed.

COSMOS was the launch pad in expanding my astronomy blog, coincidentally named “The Cosmos.”I blog actively, and have discovered kindred spirits with minds eager to learn, inquire, and comment. Originating globally across six continents in countries like Germany and India, the feedback I receive increases my fascination. COSMOS confirmed my desire to study astronomy, conduct research, and become a part of the scientific community. Astronomy is the oldest science, yet each discovery raises more questions. In every astronomical encounter I travel on an unforgettable journey invoked by imagination.

1 CLEA is an acronym for Contemporary Lab Experiences in Astronomy.

~ Tianjia Liu, 2012 ~

Supernovae: Dying Stars

Star Death

Lifetime of a Star

It is true that all living things come from stardust. In about 5 billion years, our Sun will have swelled to a red giant and engulfed the inner planets, ready to explode in a supernova. Supernovae enrich the interstellar medium with high mass elements, like iron and calcium. The high energy from supernovae also triggers formation of new stars. On average, supernovae occur only about once every 50 years in the Milky Way Galaxy. They are rare events— so rare that the last one in the Milky Way was discovered in 1604 (SN 1604, or Kepler’s Supernova)— spectacularly luminous and extremely destructive. In fact, supernovae can cause bursts of radiation more luminous than entire galaxies and emit as much energy as the Sun will in its entire lifespan! In a supernova, most of the star’s material is expelled into space at speeds up to 30,000 m/s. The shock wave passes through the supernova remnant, a huge expanding shell of gas and dust. Supernova are caused either by the sudden gravitational collapse of a supergiant star (Type I Supernova) or a white dwarf accreting enough mass or merging with a binary companion to undergo nuclear fusion (Type II Supernova). White dwarfs are very dense stars that do not have enough mass to become a neutron star (formed from supernova remnant, stars comprising almost entirely of neutrons). Supernovae can be used as standard candles (objects with known luminosity). For instance, the dimming luminosity of distant supernovae supports the theory that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. Now, with powerful telescopes like Hubble, many supernovae are discovered each year. How perfectly supernovae represent the circle of life: from death comes life!

History of Supernova Observations (Milky Way)

  • SN185 by Chinese astronomers
  • SN1006 by Chinese and Islamic astronomers
  • SN1054 (caused Crab Nebula)
  • SN1572 by Tycho Brahe in Cassiopeia
  • SN1604 by Johannes Kepler

* Supernova (SN) are named by the year they are discovered; if more than one in one year, the name is followed by a capital letter (A, B, C, etc.), and if more than 26, lowercase paired letters (aa, ab, etc.) are used

Below is a video on supernovae! Enjoy.

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