What does Long Beach Comic Con have that other big conventions don’t? A whole series of programs devoted to space exploration, called Space Expo. We talked to the panelists about road tripping on Mars, weird landforms on Ceres, and what fictional technologies they most wish would become a reality.

Less than two weeks from now, Long Beach Comic Con is partnering up with the Columbia Memorial Space Center to host Space Expo, a series of exhibits and panels on robots, spacesuits, and planetary exploration.

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“Space, the space program and science are all a part of the same pop culture dialogue as comic books and science fiction,” the space center’s president Ben Dickow explains in their press release. Part of the idea behind this program is to get fans excited about science, so they’ll support the next wave of space exploration.

We have a soft spot for the intersection of science and culture, so this list of panels is making us pretty envious. Two panels are looking at the science of fiction, two continue the year of exploration by focusing on discoveries from Dawn and New Horizons, and the final panel jumps into the wonders of engineering that already exist, and might one day. We chatted with the panelists about what to expect over the weekend.

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Andre Bormanis brought science to Star Trek, and coordinates the research behind Cosmos. Image courtesy Space Expo

First up, peer backstage into the process of bringing science into fiction with Andre Bormanis, the director of scientific research for Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey and the science consultant for various Star Trek shows. Of course we had to ask him why he does it!

io9: Why include real science in fictional stories?

Andre Bormanis: The audience has increasingly high standards and greater scientific literacy today. When most people read a science fiction story, or see a movie about the future of space travel, for example, they have a certain understanding of the realities and challenges engineers will have to deal with to make that happen. Most SF fans understand that in the near-term, the only way to generate artificial gravity in a spaceship is by rotation, centrifugal force. The kind of artificial gravity seen on Star Trek, on the other hand, is much farther in the future, if it’s even possible at all.

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io9: What is the most rewarding part of working on Cosmos or Star Trek?

Bormanis: I loved the original Star Trek when I was a kid, and also the original Cosmos. Growing up, Carl Sagan was one of my heroes, one of the reasons I majored in physics and astronomy in college. His ability to articulate the sense of wonder I and so many others find in universe is still unparalleled. To be able to work on remakes of these shows, given how much they meant to me personally, was extraordinary. Back in college I never would’ve imagined it! And now I’m constantly touched by how much the shows I worked on mean to so many people.

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Watney takes a roadtrip from from Acidalia Planitia to Schiaparelli crater. Image credit: NASA/Fred Calef III

Space Expo attendees will get a chance to talk with actual Mars rover driver Mike Seibert, Martian cartographer Dr. Fred Calef III, and planetary geomorphologist Dr. Serina Diniegawill as they discuss Mark Watney’s fictional journey in The Martian.

io9: What are some of the highlights along the hypothetical Martian road trip between Acidalia Planitia and Schiaparelli?

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Dr. Fred Calef III: Going through Mawrth Vallis would be amazing for the huge cliffs and old terrain that scientists love; in fact Mawrth is one of the higher ranked landing sites for the Mars 2020 rover. Going to the edges of large craters would also offer a spectacular vista and chance to look at rocks around the crater rim.

Mike Seibert: It really depends on the route. The direct route taken in the Martian crosses some heavily cratered terrain in northwest Arabia Terra. And as Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity have shown us; the views from the rims of and inside craters are incredible.

io9: How would you feel if some future astronaut on Mars scavenged parts from your rovers akin to how Watney stripped Pathfinder for parts in The Martian? Any ideas on how the parts might be repurposed?

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Calef: If the astronaut is scavenging parts to save their life, go for it! The solar panels could be used to power small science instruments. Perhaps the wheels could be used on a ‘Franken-rover’.

Seibert: I think we would be glad that Spirit or Opportunity were able to continue to contribute to the exploration of Mars. Those that designed the rovers would be especially proud that their systems had survived the harsh environment of Mars for such a long time.

Opportunity has many parts, that if undamaged could be used. The MER rovers are effectively a mobile version of the Pathfinder lander with a different science payload. We have X-band radios that can be used to talk directly to Earth. The Low Gain Antenna doesn’t require being pointed at Earth, so it would be useful for initially re-establishing contact with Earth. The High Gain Antenna would be useful for better direct to communications, but first Opportunity would need to know where Earth is.

What the MER rover’s have that would be very useful, but Pathfinder did not have, is a UHF radio. The UHF radio is used to talk to the American and European orbiters at Mars. As future human missions to Mars will undoubtably use orbiters to relay data to Earth, the UHF radio would be the best option for regular high-bandwith communications.

The solar array could be used to provide up to another kilowatt of power each sol depending on season (I’m assuming that with a human there it could be kept dust free).

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io9: Not every name used to describe places on Mars are on the official maps, or have a different official names (Mount Sharp instead of Aeolis Mons). Why does that happen?

Calef : Most rocks and craters the rovers visit are below the size that the International Astronomical Union (IAU), who officially names objects in the solar system, cares about. Rover missions also do this because they want to assign names that have significance to the team members. The Curiosity rover team picked names based on places where they did some fieldwork or lived.

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The Lonely Mountain on Ceres is a new favourite for odd places in our Solar System. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

In our year of exploration, panels on all the discoveries are bound to be exciting. The first panel focuses on everything we’ve learned about the dwarf planet Ceres and the asteroid Vesta with mission engineers Keri Bean and Kristina Larson from the Dawn spacecraft, and the other is on that most charismatic of dwarf planets, Pluto.

io9: What’s the most exciting landforms we’ve found on Ceres?

Dr. Serina Diniega: There’s so much interesting geology that is just coming into focus, but the main feature I’ve thought about is the “Lonely Mountain” (previously known as the Pyramid, based on appearance within earlier, lower-resolution images). Its overall shape, with those steep sides and flat textured top, is just compelling me to compare it with the features and processes that I study on the Earth and Mars, and try to figure out what its history is. Add in its isolation from other mountains of that type, and it’s a neat mystery!

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io9: What’s the most exciting landforms we’ve found on Pluto or Charon?

Dr. Serina Diniega: Again, there’s so much interesting geology on those outer solar system bodies, and every new image brings a new mystery. So far, I’ve been most intrigued by the lack of craters on Pluto and Charon. That is not what we expected a small body on the outskirts of the solar system to look like! For example, those frozen plains within Pluto’s “Heart” (also informally called Tombaugh Regio) – I saw that image and for a moment thought I was looking at Mars, but the environment on those bodies is so very different, with different ices (frozen methane, frozen nitrogen, and frozen water on Pluto, vs. frozen carbon dioxide and frozen water on Mars) and different processes involved. I look forward to hearing about how a surface could look so young and what processes formed it, within such a different environment from the inner solar system planets I study, when the New Horizon scientists figure it out.

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The Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator and parachute prototypes may allow for heavier payloads to Mars if we can just work out the kinks. Image credit: NASA

The last panel is about what happens when real life meets MacGyver: the outrageous engineering that goes into current space missions, the prototypes currently under development, and the ideas that might one day drive the next generation of exploration.

io9: What fictional technology do you most wish we had in real life for space exploration? What would you use it to do?

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Bormanis: Warp drive, of course! I’d spend the rest of my life exploring the Milky Way galaxy, seeking out strange new worlds.

Keri Bean: Personally, I would love if we had faster-than-light travel. I’d even settle for significant-fraction-of-the-speed-of-light travel. Everything in space is VERY far apart, but if we could get to destinations faster, we could explore more of our solar system in a timely manner.

Diniega: When I watch movies like Avengers, I am most jealous of the 3D hologram displays used for looking over information. In studying landforms, so much involves looking for patterns and connections – in the surface feature’s appearance and in environmental measurements. Being able to manipulate data and interact with it in such a natural way, that I think could really advance how we process information and define the questions that we then test.

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Calef: Faster than light travel (FTL). Technology like teleportation may be possible to solve, but going past the speed of light is physically impossible, so it’s difficult to impossible to travel beyond our solar system, not to mention another star or galaxy in a lifetime, which I’d love to do. I’d use FTL to travel to an exoplanet in a habitable zone to see whats crawling around.

Kristina Larson: I wish that we had some sort of hibernation technology for transporting astronauts on long space journeys. How awesome would it be to go to sleep on Earth and wake up outside of our solar system?!

Seibert: Near instantaneous, faster than light, non-line of sight communications. This would allow us to control spacecraft as they land on the far side of planets and moons. We could teleoperate rovers on Mars allowing us to drive farther in a single sol. Imagine watching live as a spacecraft orbiting Saturn passes through the rings. Communications like this would allow future human explorers to communicate with family and friends at home, despite being millions of miles from home.

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The Columbia Memorial Space Center will be bringing their space suit [left] and robotics display [right] to Space Expo. Image credits: Columbia Memorial Space Center

io9: What are you most looking forward to at Space Expo?

Bean: I’m looking forward to talking with my fellow space geeks. Space fascinates everyone, and I love being able to share what I do at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I’ll talk to anyone and everyone about exploring space, so even if I’m just standing in a line somewhere I’ll strike up a conversation with the people around me.

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Bormanis: Spending time with fellow space enthusiasts, finding out what people are excited about these days. We’re in a transition era in human space flight, and the next ten years could be the most revolutionary time since the 1960’s.

Calef: Hoping to share my knowledge about Mars and inspire people to think more about space exploration. [As for the rest of the convention, I’m] looking forward to seeing the different cosplays on the exhibition floor and maybe seeing John Barrowman from Doctor Who, Torchwood, [and] Arrow.

Diniega: I’ve never been to a Comic Con before, but am excited about participating in this convergence between scientists and science/sci-fi enthusiasts.

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Larson: I look forward to learning about new ideas and technologies in the world of space exploration, as well as sharing ideas with fellow space enthusiasts.

Seibert: I am looking to hearing the latest results from other NASA missions around the solar system. While I am Mars centric professionally, the exploration of the remainder solar system is incredibly exciting to me.

Are you going to the convention? What are you looking forward to?


Contact the author at mika.mckinnon@io9.com or follow her at @MikaMcKinnon.

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