Back in the 1960s, brothers Scott and Mark Kelly shared two very important things: a nearly-identical genetic makeup and a desire to boldly go where no one had gone before. They had no idea that, a few decades later, they’d be the subjects of a history-making experiment in space that could help experts understand the effects of aging on our bodies.
By 1996, Scott and Mark Kelly had both become astronauts for NASA. This wasn’t only a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the twins, but for NASA: it’s not everyday that you see a pair of twins who are both capable of space travel.
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“Early on in our astronaut career, my brother and I had kind of wondered about it — hey, I wonder if they’ll ever do an experiment with the two of us, being genetically nearly identical,” Scott Kelly explained. It took years, but in 2015, that’s exactly what happened.
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With Mark as the “control” on Earth and Scott as the “experimental” on the International Space Station, the twins spent almost a whole year on different worlds. They had no idea how doing so would shed light on the effects of space travel on the human body.
Mark’s life on Earth didn’t change much, except for how little he saw of his twin brother. He ate whatever he wanted, drank whatever he wanted, traveled wherever he wanted, and did whatever he wanted. Life was not so carefree for Scott.
Life on the ISS followed a strict schedule. Scott carefully tracked when he ate, when he went to the bathroom, when he did blood tests, and so on. He was confined to the walls of the station, away from the sights, smells, and sounds of Earth.
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Most of all, Scott’s days were spent doing the high-caliber, high-stakes work of an experienced astronaut — he wasn’t exactly on vacation. Throughout the year, both Scott and Mark dutifully collected body samples to send to NASA for monitoring.
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When Scott and Mark finally reunited on Earth, it took months for Scott’s body to get used to gravity again. During this time, the results of the Twin Study were finally analyzed…and what scientists discovered about space and human genetics was astonishing.
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As it turned out, Scott’s body went through things Mark’s body back on earth did not: On the ISS, fluids swelled around his upper body and head, his immune system worked overtime, and his metabolism was altered…and those were just the internal changes.
When Scott finally reunited with Mark, what Mark saw was different from the familiar face he’d known all his life. You see, what had changed the most in space wasn’t Scott’s body chemistry, but his genetic makeup. His DNA had been damaged.
According to Mike Snyder, a co-author of the Twins Study, “This is…probably the most in-depth study, certainly at the biochemical level, that’s ever been done in people in space.” It’s a good thing, too: Scott’s unusual genetic changes told a bizarre story.
While in space, there was Instability in Scott’s genome. This caused the protective structures at the ends of Scott’s chromosomes to get longer for a short period of time. However, they didn’t go back to normal as one might expect.
Instead, when the protective structures on Scott’s chromosomes “shrunk” back, they ended up being shorter than they once were. This may not sound like a big deal, but these protective structures, called “telomeres,” actually play a huge role in our lives.
Internally, telomeres indicate what stage in the aging process a person is at. The longer the telomere, the younger the person. The shorter the telomere, the older the person…and the more at-risk they are for age-related illnesses.
This brings two main questions to mind: Has NASA discovered the secret to youth, and has Scott’s body aged more quickly than Mark’s? In terms of the secret to youth, NASA doesn’t want people to get too excited — at least not yet.
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As Twin Study co-author Susan Bailey said, “I don’t think that [the elongation] can…be viewed as the fountain of youth and that people might expect to live longer because they’re in space.” In fact, NASA points to Scott’s shortened telomeres to prove otherwise.
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The fact that Scott’s telomeres were only temporarily lengthened and are now permanently shorter than they were proves how space flight can actually put the body at risk for age-related conditions, like heart disease and cancer, earlier in life than before.
Of course, that leaves us with one question: Did Scott age in space as much as his genetic expression implies? When Scott and Mark were once again face to face, everyone wanted to see if the twins still looked identical…
Scott and Mark Kelly
Weirdly, it wasn’t Scott who looked different, but Mark. Despite being the control subject, it was Mark, who had lived normally on Earth, who had higher levels of DNA changes, probably because of his “carefree” life. Still, there were some bizarre physical changes in Scott.
Not only had Scott’s eye shape changed, but his body seemed to have aged a bit, too. His vision was weaker, he had a decrease in cognitive speed, and despite being the same age as Mark, he’s at a somewhat higher risk for heart disease.
You might think that these findings would transform space travel, but that’s not the case. There’s no way that NASA will ever have enough twin astronauts to study to turn their findings into anything more than interesting observations. Still, there may be hope yet.
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The Twin Study proves that scientists can monitor an astronaut’s genetics from space. The study could even have “inaugurated the genomic era of space travel,” according to Professor Andrew Feinberg, which could lead the way to one long-anticipated achievement.
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Scott and Mark’s participation in the Twin Study will help future scientists understand how the human body relates to space flight, and if it will ever be possible for humans to explore new worlds at all — worlds, as Feinberg suggests, like Mars.
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Curiosity is what landed humans on the moon, and it’s what humans launched into the sky on November 26, 2011. NASA’s Curiosity rover was en route to Mars, and it was unlike any of the other rovers sent in previous years.
Since 1996, NASA has sent four rovers to Mars in hopes of learning more about the Red Planet: Sojourner was the first, and compared to Curiosity, it seems about as effective as a camcorder.
Despite its meek size, Sojourner was essential to us learning more about our neighboring planet. As part of the Mars Pathfinder mission, Sojourner roved the Ares Vallis region for three months, and it took some history-making photos.
The next rover to land on Mars was Spirit. It landed in the Gusev region and successfully collected data from 2004 to 2010. For many, Spirit was more than just a tool. Its very composition was made of something special.
Spirit’s abrasion tool was made up of aluminum that was recovered from the site of the World Trade Center towers. In this way, Spirit represented something other than scientific exploration: It was a symbol of hope.
Though Spirit met its “demise” in a sandy trap-like dune, hope wasn’t lost for those down on Earth. As anyone familiar with NASA’s various Mars missions knows, Spirit wasn’t alone on the Red Planet.
Three weeks after Spirit landed on Mars, its twin Opportunity followed suit. Though Opportunity couldn’t save its twin from the sand trap, it was able to further the research done by Spirit, and to an astounding degree.
In fact, Opportunity roamed Mars for over a decade, collecting soil samples, rocks, and taking endless pictures of the surrounding Martian expanse. It took the world’s first photo of a meteorite discovered on Mars, and drove the longest distance around the Red Planet.
“Oppy” couldn’t roam Mars forever, though, and in February 2019, NASA concluded the rover’s 14-year mission. A journalist tweeted an English translation of Opportunity’s final transmission, and what he conveyed spread like fire across internet on fire.
Journalist Jacob Margolis wrote that Oppy’s last transmission roughly said “My battery is low and it’s getting dark,” a message that struck an emotional chord with everyone who read the misleading tweet.
Margolis later apologized for the misleading message — obviously, Opportunity didn’t write in English — but the world was moved nonetheless. Since the emotional farewell to Opportunity, everyone’s sights have been set on the rover’s nearby comrade…
Curiosity joined Opportunity in 2012, and it’s now the sole rover on Mars. It landed in Mars’ Gale crater on what was later known as the Bradbury Landing Site. Curiosity landed on Mars with the most ambitious mission yet.
Like its predecessors, Curiosity’s goals include investigating the planet’s climate and geology and assessing whether Gale has ever offered conditions favorable to life. But what makes its mission different from the others is its central purpose on Mars.
Scientists hope that Curiosity will surpass even Opportunity’s lifespan, and in that time determine whether or not Mars can support human life…and if it will ever be able to at all. In order to accomplish this, there’s one thing Curiosity needs to do.
Take photos! Since landing on Mars in 2012, the rover has taken some of the most spectacular photos to date of the Red Planet. What they reveal is truly breathtaking; the images are continuously giving scientists new information about the possibility of life.
Curiosity has taken the most high-definition photos of Mars on record, like this one of a wind-swept expanse of dunes. Previous rovers have picked up footage of dust storms and dust devils on the surface of Mars, and photos like this only exemplify their data.
The surface of Mars is mainly dry, cracked, and crumbling, which means Curiosity has picked up some incredible rock formations. The coolest part? Since there’s no known life on Mars, these grooves and slats are a natural phenomenon.
Some of these rock formations are strangely — or fittingly? — otherworldly, such as this rock that has since been named the Jake Matijevic Rock. This pyramidal formation was named after a NASA engineer who died shortly after Curiosity landed on Mars.
Just like its predecessor Opportunity, Curiosity snapped a meteorite photo. Folks at home examining the image were quick to point out the subject looked more like a statue head than space material.
Of the research Curiosity has conducted, some of the most impressive is the work done at Mount Sharp. Mount Sharp forms the peak of the Gale crater and is the site of many sampling holes like this one completed by Curiosity.
Mount Sharp is truly something to behold, and thankfully, Curiosity’s high-definition photos give us a stunning look at the ancient mountain. It looks like a stretch of desert the likes of which you’d find in the Midwest, not on an entirely different planet.
One of the most exciting and important discoveries picked up by Curiosity and other rovers is the phenomenon captured by this photo. It may not look like much, but what it tells scientists is huge: It shows remnants of a stream, proof that water once existed on Mars.
Many people — mainly sentimental internet users — have compared Curiosity to the fictional robot Wall-E because of its status as the only creature on Mars. It sounds lonely, but Curiosity isn’t really alone.
Following the rover on its daring expedition are the scientists and engineers at NASA. For now, the most they can see of the fascinating planet is what is transmitted through Curiosity. But the hope that the very first rover launched with remains intact…
NASA sent its next rover in the summer of 2020, hoping that what the ‘bot captures — and what Curiosity continues to discover — will lead astronauts closer to seeing the mysterious Red Planet in person.
In the meantime, engineers and scientists continue to scour the moon’s surface for clues about the universe. In 2019, China made space history as the first nation to land a probe on the far side of the moon. It turned out the Chinese had another space bombshell to drop, too.
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Wu Yanhua, the deputy director of the China National Space Administration, opened up about their big plan. Detailing the purpose of the Chang’e 4 Mission, he explained that his government was particularly interested about life on the moon.
There weren’t any humans aboard the spacecraft, but the “scientific exploration phase” did concern every man, woman, and child on Earth. They sent several types of organisms up there — not just to survive, but to thrive.
The animal kingdom was represented by a colony of fruit flies. Anyone who’s ever found these pests in their home knows how persistent they can be. Still, the more intriguing part of this experiment hinged on a very different creature.
The CSNA shot all kinds of plants up to the moon, except not in mature form. Instead, they focused on various types of seeds, ranging from potato to cotton plants, with the bold objective of growing crops on the moon.
This decision raised immediate comparisons to the sci-fi flick The Martian. In one memorable sequence, Matt Damon’s stranded astronaut character cultivated potatoes using his own excrement as fertilizer. Minus that gross ingredient, the Chinese had very similar aims.
With pollution and climate change jeopardizing the sustainability of life on Earth, this trial could provide a viable alternative. If we could grow food on the moon, then it suddenly wouldn’t be too hard to imagine settling there.
With the spacecraft hurtling toward the moon, the mission was officially underway. Of course, the CSNA didn’t just send a potted plant up into the airless vacuum of space. They had an arsenal of gadgets at their disposal.
The seeds wouldn’t enter the moon soil directly, but rather germinate in a biosphere. Inside, it would receive temperature-controlled air and a steady supply of water. It was a slam-dunk plan — on paper at least.
Once the probe completed its lunar landing, it deployed the biosphere. Cameras and scanners would monitor every development of the fly eggs and seeds, though some skeptics doubted they would make any strides.
Were they right? The non-plant life — the fruit fly eggs and a yeast colony — fizzed almost immediately. From there, the Chinese scientists put all their hopes in their space garden.
Over a week passed with no results. Given the ambitious nature of the plan, a failure to cultivate crops wouldn’t be a huge loss, but still a disappointment. One detail, however, caught the entire agency by surprise after nine days.
Though they’d planned it all along, the CSNA scientists still felt like they’d been struck by lightning when they saw the little sprout. The cottonseed was growing! They shared the news with the world right away.
Their success wasn’t limited to a single leaf either. Multiple cotton seedlings popped up out of the soil, becoming the first plants to grow (in a specially-designed box) on the moon.
Would China soon have enough cotton to make t-shirts for all their future moon colonists? They were ecstatic about their accomplishment and envisioned a monstrous amount of vegetation spreading across the satellite. However, they failed to foresee one complication.
Even with the constant heat the biosphere provided, the temperature fluctuated wildly. The unrelenting cold of outer space proved to be a bigger problem than the CSNA realized. All of the cotton withered away.
In the aftermath, the Chinese government diplomatically announced that this experiment had ended. The other objectives of Chang’e 4 went on. Still, experts around the world were energized by this fleeting success.
Simon Gilroy, a botanist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, recognized the experiment as a key step in sustaining life on the moon. “It’s fantastic to be able to sort of say, yeah, it’s a first tiny step down that path,” he said.
After all, no one expected a few cotton plants alone to make a lunar colony possible. But these sprouts represented one large step for mankind, and very well may have secured our future. The Earth is in more danger than most people realize.
We know NASA best for launching astronauts and satellites into orbit. So would it surprise you to learn that a team of their scientists is studying models of a doomsday-devastated New York City? This is no side project, either; they’re deadly serious.
The man behind this peculiar mission is Lindley Johnson. A 23-year veteran of the Air Force, he joined NASA’s ranks in 2003. Ever since, his mind has mostly been fixated on the end of the world.
But don’t worry — Lindley is no crackpot. He’s not urging on the apocalypse, but rather approaching it from an analytical standpoint. Lindley serves as NASA’s Planetary Defense Officer, so nobody is better equipped to take on doomsday than he.
While humanity does a pretty good job of endangering itself on a daily basis, Lindley doesn’t worry about terrestrial threats. He’s more concerned with space rocks. Granted, most meteorites that come down to Earth are pretty small, or even microscopic.
However, what if an asteroid — one multiple football fields in diameter — was hurtling toward our planet? Odds are pretty good that it would land in the middle of the ocean, but Lindley wants more than luck on his side.
That’s why his NASA team investigates (hypothetical) cases of giant asteroids hitting densely urban areas. Thousands of years typically pass between such catastrophic events, but Lindley intends to be ready at any point.
After all, Earth’s geography proves just how destructive a collision can be. NASA certainly doesn’t wish to see Midtown Manhattan turned into a crater, but they are interested in exactly how far that damage would spread.
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Lindley’s team continually runs simulations to get a better idea of where asteroids are most likely to strike, plus what kind of damage we can expect. In some cases, a collision may be inevitable. But Earth isn’t totally helpless.
For years, Lindley and his colleagues were operating on a shoestring budget. Fortunately, a 2015 audit convinced Congress just how essential planetary defense could be. They immediately buffed up Lindley’s annual spending power from $5 million to $50 million.
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With more resources on his side than he ever imagined, Lindley has led the charge against galactic peril. His NASA team assembled an arsenal of data and cutting-edge technology to keep asteroids at bay.
NASA keeps this fact on the down-low, but they’ve cataloged over 2,000 asteroids in our solar system capable of obliterating an entire continent. Blowing up such a massive rock might cause too much fallout, so Lindley has other tricks up his sleeve.
The most promising method to redirect an asteroid is through the use of kinetic impactors. These unmanned spacecraft would crash into an asteroid at high speed, thus deflecting it away from our planet. Think of it as a game of high-stakes billiards.
With all due respect to fans of Armageddon, Lindley doesn’t believe that landing on an asteroid would be the most effective solution. Still, NASA hasn’t taken that option off the table.
Astronauts have trained for complex asteroid landings, though nobody has ever attempted the feat. NASA foresees this operation more as a way to collect mineral samples, but there’s always the chance they’ll go full Michael Bay in an emergency.
NASA has a selection of hypothetical fixes to choose from, though they’re also ramping up their asteroid prevention in more concrete ways. For instance, they’ve installed more orbital telescopes to monitor any life-threatening space rocks in the solar system.
The capability to spot catastrophe coming could be the most important factor in the end. Most deflection techniques require months or years to mobilize, so a few days notice won’t help at all. The good news is that NASA isn’t alone in this fight.
Lindley’s team ran exercises with FEMA — the Federal Emergency Management Agency — to prepare for collateral damage from a collision. “They are a great way for us to learn how to work together and meet each other’s needs,” Lindley explained.
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In 2019, Lindley also organized a conference with the European Space Agency and the International Asteroid Warning Network. Working together, they’ll have eyes on the sky all over the world.
While it seems unlikely that we’ll have to deal with an impending apocalypse, civilization is better prepared than ever. That news will only disappoint doomsday preppers, who may very well have stocked up their bunkers for nothing.
In spite of the life-or-death consequences of his job, Lindley says he sleeps just fine at night. It’s just another day at NASA. Besides, Lindley can name plenty of colleagues who have responsibilities that might be even more trying than his own.
Lindley likely couldn’t handle George Aldrich’s job. When George’s teacher told him to “shoot for the stars” as a child, he took that advice pretty literally. Fast forward several decades, and he’s caught way more than just a whiff of success at NASA.
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Growing up in New Mexico, George watched his dad fly up the Navy ranks and join the coveted Blue Angels. He always dreamed of reaching such soaring heights, and so he looked for a heroic job as soon as he finished high school.
George started a bit smaller. He volunteered for the local fire department, and his recent chemistry and mathematics experience piqued the interest of the chief. He signed up George for a special task on the force.
While he didn’t extinguish many infernos, George stood out on the department’s odor panel. By training his sense of smell, he could sense problems like gas leaks before they had a chance to ignite. Soon, George realized he was meant for bigger and better things.
In 1974, his chief recommended that George take his talents to the next level. NASA had a firm presence in the area, so perhaps, George figured, he could secure a position there. At the same time, not just anybody could waltz in and apply to be an astronaut.
After the Apollo 1 disaster — in which a technical function aboard a shuttle killed all three crew members aboard — NASA was taking safety seriously. They needed staff who could prevent disasters most people would never see coming.
After sending in his application, George had to take a strenuous exam to see if he was made of the right stuff. Hours later, he set his pencil down and headed home, waiting for a phone call that would make or break his dreams.
Then the good news came in: NASA told George to report to the White Sands Test Facility immediately, where he would begin his new role as a Chemical Specialist. But what exactly did that mean?
Well, if you asked George about his job, he would describe himself as a “Nasalnaut” or the “Chief Sniffer.” That’s because his real responsibilities boil down to smelling anything that NASA sends into space.
Odd as it sounds, George’s role makes sense. Astronauts go into space for long periods of time, stuck in close quarters, breathing in recirculated air. The last thing command wants is any harmful odors or substances traveling along with them, smelling up the shuttle.
NASA / Don Pettit
That’s precisely where George and his team come in. They personally inspect the smell of every piece of cargo and gear to make sure everything is ship-shape. Of course, nobody has been sniffing for longer than George.
He holds the NASA record for the most official sniffs, with his number approaching one thousand. Naturally, George’s system is more nuanced than just judging a scent as good or bad.
The odor panel blindly scrutinizes each object, so their everyday conceptions about the items won’t cloud their judgment. From there, the sniffers rank everything on a scale from 0-4. If something scores higher than 2.5, they suggest leaving it on Earth.
Between tests, George might cleanse his palate, so to speak, using a trick developed by perfumers. He simply resets his nostrils by smelling the back of his own hand, which is sometimes called “going home.” And his work has likely saved lives.
A manned space mission involves so many complex chemical reactions, that NASA cannot risk any toxic materials sneaking aboard. The astronauts themselves may not be able to detect it, so they require an expert nose to do it for them — and more.
Much of the time, the most problematic materials aren’t what you would expect. George has found that old-fashioned camera film, for example, can be surprisingly toxic. Meanwhile, other items can just get downright disgusting.
Something as basic as velcro can stink up an entire space shuttle. George once determined that while separate velcro straps have no real odor, together they can produce an unbearably pungent smell. But not every scent can be swept away.
George says that when it comes down to it, humans really stink, and there’s not much NASA can do about it. Because of basic functions like sweating and going to the bathroom, astronauts need to learn to live with a little odor.
After 44 years, George is still going strong. He estimates that he’s only ever missed two tests — due to sickness — over his entire career. You could say he wrote the book on odor testing, and he’s definitely smelled that book as well.