Astrobiologists Are Trying to Make a Real-Life Tricorder, and Other Highlights from NASA's SDCC panel

Monday, 13 July 2015 - 1:07PM
Science of Sci-Fi
Monday, 13 July 2015 - 1:07PM
Thursday is generally a less eventful day at SDCC, but NASA's "Turning Science Fiction into Science Fact" panel did not disappoint. Featuring NASA astrophysicist Amber Straughan, JPL astrobiologist Kevin Hand, The Martian producer Aditya Sood, the son of the late and great Spock, Adam Nimoy, and moderator Jay R. Ferguson, the panelists discussed the ways in which real-life scientific innovation is impacted by works of science fiction, such as The Martian and Star Trek. 

Ferguson started off the panel by stating, "the survival of mankind depends on what these people are doing," while the scientists sung the praises of the importance of science fiction. Straughan claimed that both NASA science and science fiction are "about imagining a better future," while she and Hand discussed science fiction's tendency to both inspire scientists to "catch up" with fictional technology and rally public support for real-life projects, such as the Journey to Mars.

Here are our highlights from the panel:

NASA desperately wants to create a tricorder

According to Hand, the astrobiology community wants to build a real-life tricorder, the fictional Star Trek scanning device that can detect the composition of any substance, in order to determine whether they've discovered life on other planets:

Opening quote
"We have meetings about what instruments could help us definitively say whether or not we have found life. We don't have the magical tricorder yet, we have various instruments that can triangulate on the question... We're not there yet, but the tricorder is referenced constantly in astrobiology. We're getting close, some of the instruments on the rovers are sort of a smaller version of that."
Closing quote

Real-life scientists forgot that Spock wasn't real

Nimoy recalled that science was not his father's forte, but that didn't stop scientists from asking him for commentary on their actual scientific research. 

Opening quote
"He would just use his stock phrase: 'You're on the right track.'"
Closing quote

NASA thinks there's a "very good chance" that we'll find extraterrestrial life

Straughan confirmed that we have found over 1,000 exoplanets, with twelve of them in their habitable zones. When asked if she thought that meant there was a chance for intelligent extraterrestrial life, she said,

Opening quote
"Yes, there's a chance, I think there's a very good chance."
Closing quote

She also stated that Kepler will soon be able to detect water vapor in the atmosphere, which means "it will be very easy to find a waterworld."

The ladies love Spock

This has nothing to do with science, but it's still pretty funny. While discussing his late father and the research he did for the upcoming documentary, For the Love of Spock, Nimoy recalled that a scene between Spock and Nurse Chapel in which she declares her love for him spurred a letter writing campaign, with women "letting it be known that Spock was loved, and not just by Nurse Chapel."

In spite of his emotional inaccessibility, Spock was a romantic icon, with Isaac Asimov writing an article for TV Guide entitled "Spock Is Dreamy." Maybe that's why he's in a romantic relationship with Uhura instead of Kirk in the new films.

Scott Kelly sends greetings to SDCC

Scott Kelly sent his love, and a brief video about how NASA is doing just that on the ISS. He said they're building droids "like R2D2 and C3PO" that will be able to autonomously service satellites in place of astronauts. He also stated that, like 2001: A Space Odyssey, the ISS is aiming to accommodate commercial space flight.

"The lessons learned will pave the way for a journey to Mars."

NASA and Fox preview The Martian

The audience was incredibly excited to see footage from the adaptation of Andy Weir's novel, The Martian. Although it was the same trailer that was released last month, the panelists reminded us that NASA is consulting on the science of the film and placed it in the context of raising awareness of space exploration, and thereby making real-life Mars journeys more feasible. 

NASA needs your help getting potentially habitable planets other than Mars in the public consciousness

Hand told the audience that while Mars is squarely in the public consciousness, he calls upon this "creative community" to raise awareness of other possible Earth-like worlds, such as Europa and Enceladus. Funding for NASA projects is so heavily dependent on public opinion, movies about space exploration actually affect which real-life projects come to fruition.

When it comes to Hollywood, Europa is probably an easier sell, just because it has a catchier name, so filmmakers should start on that right away. Hopefully, a film called "The Europian" will come out in the next few years, and then we'll be further on our way to officially discovering Europa's subsurface ocean. 
Science of Sci-Fi

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