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Black holes, aliens, multiverse & Mars: Space TED talks you need to watch

Adventures of an asteroid hunter: Carrie Nugent, astronomer at the California Institute for Technology (Caltech)

This enlightening talk centers on our oldest cosmic neighbors, asteroids, and their importance to us here on Earth. Not only can asteroids shed light on the beginnings of the solar system, they also pose a massive risk to our safety. 

For example, in 2013 the Chelyabinsk asteroid entered Earth’s atmosphere over a remote area of Russia and created a shockwave that shattered windows, rocked buildings, and caused hundreds of injuries. A similar incident, on a much larger scale, is thought to be related to the fate of the dinosaurs. As a result, near-Earth asteroids are now constantly monitored in order to try and prevent another catastrophic strike on Earth. 

Carrie Nugent is part of the team that uses NASA’s NEOWISE telescope, a very valuable telescope that was pulled out of retirement and reprogrammed to search the skies for asteroids and catalog them. In her talk, she reveals some breathtaking details about the size of the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. She also explains what else is already being done to prevent another potentially deadly asteroid strike, and what needs to be done in future.

How to take a picture of a black hole: Katie Bouman, imaging scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

So far, we’ve only been able to see what the inside of a black hole might look like thanks to computer graphic rendering, like those seen in the movie Interstellar. Despite Einstein's prediction of black holes in his theory of general relativity more than 100 years ago, we still haven’t been able to take a picture of one. But that could be about to change any day now, explains Katie Bouman in her fascinating TED Talk. 

A telescope capable of capturing images of a black hole would need to be as big as Earth itself, making it impossible. However, Bouman is working as part of a team of international experts to produce a giant computational telescope (known as the Event Horizon Telescope), combining the power of telescopes around the world with imaging algorithms to fill in the gaps. 

In this talk, she reveals the extraordinary process of developing these algorithms based on what experts believe a black hole should look like, using pieces of images from everyday life in order to avoid bias. Viewers will get a glimpse at how astronomers, physicists, mathematicians, and engineers have come together to solve a seemingly impossible quandary, pushing the boundaries of science. 

Your kids might live on Mars. Here's how they'll survive: Stephen Petranek, editor-in-chief of Breakthrough Technology Alert

Will we all be living on Mars in the near future? Award-winning journalist, Stephen Petranek, firmly believes it’s not a question of if, but when. His future-gazing talk looks at how we might survive on the Red Planet, and makes some pretty bold predictions about when this might actually become a reality.  

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As well as reviewing the reasons why humans need to make the long journey to Mars, he discusses the physical differences between the potential Earth 2.0 and our home planet, comparing the size, temperature, atmosphere, and gravity. 

While acknowledging humankind’s poor track record of successful unmanned missions to Mars, he sets out the challenges of making this trip, including surviving in such an inhospitable environment, as well as the contributions made by government agencies like NASA and private firms like SpaceX. 

From how we’ll source enough oxygen and water to live on, to plans for terraforming the planet to make it more Earth-like, this is a comprehensive look at the future of Mars as a colony. It even raises the exciting possibility of a new human species evolving to adapt to the harsh conditions on the Red Planet. 

I leapt from the stratosphere. Here's how I did it: Alan Eustace, computer scientist and former Senior Vice President of Knowledge at Google

Best known for breaking the world record for the highest-altitude free-fall jump set by Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner in 2012, Alan Eustace floated up into the stratosphere attached to a balloon in 2014, before plummeting back towards Earth, and parachuting to safety. 

Eustace made it to over 106,000 meters (135,000 feet) in a custom-built space suit, before starting his descent and parachuting the final 3,000 meters. In this talk, he explains how the mission came to be as he pondered whether the stratosphere — one of the least accessible places on (or above) Earth — could be explored. 

Eustace talks the audience through the life-preserving features of his stratospheric suit, which is made by the same company that produced the Apollo mission spacesuits. 

There’s also a short video showing the preparation for the jump, as well as the death-defying feat itself. Largely a talk about the incredible engineering that makes these kind of accomplishments possible, he also talks us through the specially designed parachute technology that kept him from meeting a messy end after plummeting back to Earth.

Is our universe the only universe?: Brian Greene, professor of mathematics and physics, Columbia University

This action-packed talk explores the possibility that our universe is part of a vast complex of universes called the multiverse. The animated lecture is given by theoretical physicist Brian Greene, perhaps the best-known proponent of superstring theory, the idea that tiny strands of energy vibrating in a higher dimensional space-time create every single particle and force in the universe. 

Greene breaks down the complicated idea into three parts, starting with the idea that space is expanding, and how Nobel Prize-winning research in the 1990s discovered that rather than slowing down, this expansion rate is getting faster. The talk reveals how this is driven by mysterious dark energy, and explains how string theory fits into all this. 

Touching on the possibility of additional dimensions in space that we have not yet detected because of their tiny scale, Greene ends on some startling revelations about what future astronomers will observe and conclude, based on the idea that other galaxies are rushing away from our own, and will eventually be too far away to see.

ET is (probably) out there — get ready: Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute

While we’ve yet to make contact with any other form of life beyond our own planet, Seth Shostak is so confident that we’ll find ET in the coming years, he bet everyone listening to his TED talk a cup of coffee if he's wrong. As a senior astronomer at SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), Shostak has been searching for signs of intelligent life in space for some time. His riveting, and at times hilarious, account of his work highlights the growing likelihood of finding aliens in the near future. 

Recent developments in equipment and missions, such as NASA’s Kepler exoplanet-hunting mission, enables better estimations of known planets that might hold alien life, with the search speeding up exponentially. Not only does he explain how the search for cosmic company is progressing, he also ponders what success could mean, and how difficult it is to predict the consequences of an alien interaction. 

Focusing on the huge benefits of exploration, the talk looks at how making contact with alien civilizations more advanced than our own could help us here on Earth, while the search itself is helping to improve science literacy and encourage more children to pursue STEM subjects.

Have we reached the end of physics?: Harry Cliff, particle physicist at CERN and Science Museum Fellow of Modern Science

Particle physicist Harry Cliff takes us on a mind-boggling journey to discuss the future of physics. As a scientist working on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, Cliff is well placed to run through the basics of Einstein’s general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, and how these groundbreaking ideas have completely transformed our understanding of the universe. 

Over 100 years on from Einstein's theory, physics is at another turning point, explains Cliff. Could the laws of physics prevent us from making further discoveries and stop us from ever truly understanding why there is ‘something rather than nothing’? CERN’s discovery of the Higgs Boson may have proved the existence of a cosmic energy field, but the Higgs field is still not fully understood. 

What’s more, the mysteries of dark energy, string theory, and the concept of the multiverse are all compelling concepts, but Cliff questions whether we will ever be able to explain or definitively prove their existence. Are we entering a new world of science where the laws of physics have reached their limit, and we’re simply not capable of proving or disproving our theories? 

How to go to space, without having to go to space: Angelo Vermeulen, crew commander for NASA

Belgian visual artist Angelo Vermeulen, who is also a crew commander of the NASA-funded HI-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) Mars simulation, has already completed a four-month stay in the isolated dome on Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Volcano. 

The idea is to prepare humans for life in deep space by investigating how crew members can successfully live together in such small and isolated places. While staying in the dome, the team also carried out a number of research projects, including a food study and missions in mockup spacesuits. 

In his talk, Vermeulen also runs us through his art project called ‘Seeker’, which encourages teams around the world to come up with prototypes for long-duration mission starships. Along with other artists, Vermeulen runs isolation tests where he lives inside these art projects. He also talks about how the Atacama Desert in Chile is home to one of these projects. As the driest location on the planet, this location has also been used by NASA for training, as it’s the closest thing we have to the arid geology of Mars. What’s more, he hopes to use these insights on living in such an environment from the indigenous population and integrate these into space exploration technology in the future.

Look up for a change: Lucianne Walkowicz, stellar astronomer on NASA’s Kepler mission

The night sky provides an incredible view, but what if we’re not able to see it? In this talk, Lucianne Walkowicz speaks about how light pollution is ruining our extraordinary view of space. 

While there is a tendency to believe that this loss is an inevitable result of technological progress, Walkowicz, who works on NASA’s exoplanet-hunting Kepler mission, says that this need not be the case, and that the night sky should be treated as a natural resource that must be preserved. 

The intense light from urban settlements around the globe is so distinct it can be photographed from space. But, most of the energy used to light outdoor spaces is wasted, says Walkowicz, leaving plenty of room for improvement. 

Walkowicz also explains how people can learn more about the night sky thanks to a range of ‘citizen science projects’. These involve organizations sharing their data online and teaching people how to interact with it so they can make contributions to research. Some projects involve asking people to help classify photos from space, while new exoplanets were discovered by participants as part of the Kepler project. 

The search for planets beyond our solar system: Sara Seager, astrophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Astrophysicist and planetary scientist Sara Seager’s research led to the first discovery of an atmosphere on a planet outside our solar system. In this inspiring talk, the exoplanet expert speaks about the search for potentially habitable worlds beyond our own. 

Thousands of exoplanets have been pinpointed during the last couple of decades, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The astonishing variety of exoplanets already discovered includes gas giants that would be far too hot to support life, in contrast with Kepler-186f, so far considered to be one of the most likely spots for discovering life. This Earth 2.0 is a so-called "Goldilocks" planet, not too hot or too cold, but just the right temperature. However, what’s really important in the search for potentially habitable exoplanets is examining their atmospheres, explains Seager. 

While the Hubble Space Telescope has been used to study the atmospheres of larger exoplanets, we still don’t have the technology to study smaller planets. This intriguing talk highlights the importance of assessing the amount of gases present in these distant worlds, and how that could lead to the discovery of intelligent alien life.

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