Blog Archives

A Relaxing Interlude: NASA Presents The Sun As Thermonuclear Art

 

You may or may not find the background music relaxing. I did. The images are magnificent — the bigger the monitor the better.

 

Isn’t nature grand? Seeing something like this really takes my mind off of all of the annoying things we humans do, like politics and war. Just for a little while.

Reach For The Stars

end-of-the-world-560859_1920 Pixabay CC0 pubdom

(Short-short story short-shorter: birds not leaving the nest die there.)

Reach For The Stars

Skyscrapers, rockets drowned in withering leaves: their masters, in the end, too timid.

Waiter, My Marswater Is Too Salty For Life — Isn’t It?

Mars Saline Flows 15-195_perspective_2

So, today NASA announced the presence of liquid water on the surface of Mars, in the form of seasonal saline (brine) flows. Which is exciting. And maybe a little disappointing, too.

A seasonal brine flow doesn’t exactly sound like something you could find life in at all — consider that salting is a pretty darn effective way to preserve food here on Earth. The salt prevents bacteria from thriving in the food. An old-fashioned salt-cured ham can hang from a rafter in your basement for 20 years and still be fine to eat. Not that I particularly recommend that experiment.

You’re certainly not going to find seaweed growing in a seasonal brine flow. Much less fish, and even less likely Tars Tarkas riding a thoat.

So it’s pretty cool, but it’s not super-exciting, because no life, right?

Maybe so. But then again, maybe not.

There are super-saline environments on Earth, too. And there are some extremophile single-celled life forms called halophiles (which means salt-lovers, big surprise) which appear to live in them. I say ‘appear’ because there is still some debate surrounding their existence and status as actual life here on Earth. Mostly because they live in rare difficult-to-access locations even here on our home planet.

But it looks like salt-loving life probably lives here. I lean that way, because life has a way of surprising us with its ingenuity. Life finds a way. Life has been found clustering around thermal vents on the ocean floor, thriving next to plumes of hydrogen sulfide and sulfur-laced water at 350 degrees Fahrenheit — the same temperature you use to bake a cake on land. There are forms of algae that thrive on snow, somehow, in some of the most frigid environments in the world.

There’s no guarantee life has found a way in or on or under those saline flows on Mars. But I have high hopes. Life, from the single-celled to the more complex forms like humans, have a way of enduring hardship.

And if it turns out, in the end, that nothing’s alive on Mars, there are always the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. There’s gotta be some extra-Earth life around here somewhere, if we rummage around the Solar System enough.

SciFi News Network, 2357: Taifun Arrives In Lunar Orbit

Earth from moon Apollo 11 photo AS11-44-6551

Taifun Arrives in Lunar Orbit

 

L5 News & Entertainment Network

14 January 2357

 

 

Taifun took its place in Lunar orbit today, as projected. The asteroid, 9.8 kilometers in diameter, was first discovered in November of 2271. Its original trajectory was a near-certain direct hit on Earth in 2340 and would have generated a force roughly equal to what was produced by the Chicxulub impactor which was a factor in the decline and extinction of the dinosaurs approximately 65 million years ago.

 

Project Jade Emperor, named for a figure of ancient Chinese mythology who vanquished a primal and destructive evil from heaven and earth, began its work altering the trajectory of Taifun by 2280. Enormous on-site ion drives were built on Taifun’s surface; the first was ignited in 2288. Those same ion drives, the majority now over 8 decades old, have fallen silent. The work of establishing mines to take advantage of Taifun’s trillion-plus tons of rock, nickel-iron, and rare earth metals is projected to begin within 2 years. The ion drives will remain in place and are undergoing overhauls so they can be used for course corrections during the decades that Taifun will remain in lunar orbit; finally, they will be used to expel the mined-out remains from the Earth-Luna system.

 

More than 300 universities throughout the solar system have requested permission to set up research stations on the surface of Taifun, most applications being submitted within the last decade. Selection of approvals, anticipated to number 20 or fewer, will be announced in early 2358 according to a press release from United Nations Deimos Annex.

Pluto, 1930 Yearbook Photo — Plus Space Program Grumbles

Pluto 1930 Tombaugh

This is how Pluto looked when Clyde Tombaugh discovered it in 1930. A bright mote, an apparent star that moved in a way that betrayed its planetary nature — for someone who was looking carefully enough.

Things have gotten a bit better with New Horizons; you can see the latest images on NASA’s NH page. Here’s one that’s new as of this post date:

pluto-annotated-JUL2015

Edit: new image below, 14 JUL:

Pluto Icecap

Quite the improvement, no?

Well, yes. But it has been a long wait, hasn’t it? 85 years. Granted, we could hardly have dispatched an airplane to take a closer look in 1930. Modern rocketry as in its infancy, as was broadcasting. Even if a 1930s era rocket could have been launched at Pluto, we’d hardly have gotten word back of success reaching it, much less a picture.

I do worry that these are the best images I’ll see in my lifetime, and I’m only 45. But NASA’s funding has been either waning or just holding on against inflation these last three decades, not growing, and the bulk of the current crop of Presidential candidates seem to be mostly unenthused by NASA. ‘What’s the point of spending a whole penny on the federal budget dollar on all this sciency stuff? We’ve got people to feed, bomb, feed bombs to, bomb with food, and so forth, right here on Earth.’

Hostility to and/or disinterest in space, NASA, science, and scholarly investigation in general is nothing new. In the 1970s and 80s, Senator William Proxmire (D) of Wisconsin is a ‘fine’ recent example, with his ‘Golden Fleece’ awards that, as often as not, lambasted space and science funding as wasted effort and wasted money. Plenty of commentators, regular folks, and politicians jump on that anti-intellectual, short-view bandwagon from time to time.

Frankly, it’s a nasty and dangerous habit, this idea that exploring the cosmos around us, exploring our own planet further, and learning in general is a waste of money and effort. There’s a lot to be gained by exploration, here and up there. Aren’t you reading this on a computer? Possibly a computer that also telephones people and locates itself by GPS? Thank scientists, scholars, inquisitive types, the space program, all those ‘wastes of money’ that pay off in knowledge and in the things that knowledge makes possible, if you spend the money learning now and have the patience to wait a decade or two for the payoff.

I know, we’re not that great at long-term thinking, most of us. But seriously. Yes, we’re just looking at Pluto, which is hardly going to be useful real estate or mining grounds next week, year, or decade. But every time we do something like this, we don’t just learn more about how our planetary neighbors work. We learn more about communications, propulsion, efficient generation and use of power sources, miniaturization, navigation, and so on, and so forth, and likely things that you and I haven’t thought of yet that will pay off come 2045.

Not to mention, as big as this earth is, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the rest of the solar system. Planets and asteroids and comets, oh my, swimming in a constant rain of free-to-gather energy that is sunlight (or maybe magnetic if you want to venture to the moons of Saturn and Jupiter and do some tinkering). Sometimes people talk about this ‘high frontier’ as if it could be a relief valve for overpopulation, but no, it’s not that. No more than opening California to colonization relieved crowding in New York City. But a wide frontier is a relief valve for people who are gravely dissatisfied with current affairs at home, and we as a planetary society haven’t really had one of those in quite a few decades now. Yes, there’s a certain lack of open air and flowing water up there among the various possible destinations. So what?

The big ‘so what’ is that we’re doing little practicing of how to keep people alive in places like that. There’s a space station, and 40+ years after people walked on the moon it’s still an itty-bitty one with a few people, entirely supplied from earth. It’s useful, and we learn from it, and we’ve no apparent interest in pushing the boundaries meaningfully as a species. Well, China has done a little talking in that direction, Maybe in response to US talk about sending people to Mars, maybe, one day, well maybe not, or maybe we’ll just push back the ‘maybe’ date… you get the idea. We like talking about it a bit, but few are serious about it, especially among those who would have to speak the loudest to fund such a nutty idea as putting a bunch of people on the moon or Mars to live long term, the politicians. They’re not that interested, and the public isn’t that interested. And that’s a shame. We won’t spread off this rock unless there’s an interest in doing so. Maybe the interest will come too late, after climate change gets nasty enough to cause even middle-class folks serious problems at home. Such a wait-till-the-crisis scenario would be a shame, too. Because, like in the ‘reduce population pressure’ scenario, colonizing the moon or Mars of anything else out there would not be a way to evacuate millions or billions of people in troubles.

But it would be a great way to spread the human race out a bit so that it’s not in danger of croaking en masse if a massive disaster of some sort were to loom. And it would, if no disaster comes to call, be a great way to expand the knowledge, both practical and abstract, of the human race as a whole — and that expansion would all be fuel for the next round of life-improving gadgets just as food preservation, improved transportation, construction and maintenance of internets, and so forth have been for us.

Don’t be selfish. Help the people of 2100 surpass us as much as we’ve surpassed the people of 1930.

Dear Humans — You’re Really Slacking Off On This Getting Out Of The Nest Thing

1969LastTimeWeWalkedOnTheMoon

Seriously, people. It’s bad enough it took 50,000 years — maybe 100,000, depending on which theorist you think is most credible — to go from self-aware sentience and serious tool-using to getting off this planet and walking on the moon.

It was really a remarkable milestone. Getting there stretched the technology of the day to its limits.

But what it didn’t do was stretch human capabilities. At the height of the US-USSR space race, NASA funding peaked at a smidge under 4.5% of the federal budget. Now, it idles about at under 1%. Because we constantly find bigger fish to fry. We’re busy doing important stuff like slashing funding for higher education, keeping up with what celebrities are up to, maintaining our supplies of five dollar Starbucks dessert coffees, and complaining because putting up more solar panels and wind farms might just take the wind out of the highly lucrative fracking business.

Much like a spoiled, entitled teen, we’re endlessly finding reasons that we don’t need to get out of the house.

But sooner or later, we’ll need to.

Are we really going to sit around until we’re forced? Or until one wild-eyed dreamer, somehow, against all odds, does it despite the disinterest and disdain of the majority of humankind? Seems a ridiculous way to run things, if you ask me.

Rosetta-Philae-Comet 67P: Wonderful, But Still Waiting On That Moonbase

Rosetta_Comet_Infographic_Heat_Ramp_Image

Static image of the Rosetta mission timeline — JPL

The Philae lander is down on comet 67P and transmitting. This has plenty of potential to yield some wonderful science, having a probe on a comet as it makes a close approach to the sun. Also, it’s the first time humans have (via robotic probe) harpooned a celestial body.

Surely the first harpooning in space is a historical landmark that will be remembered forever.

I love things like this. We’re learning, rooting around in the corner of the universe we can reach, being properly nosy as befits the curious scions of the primate lineage. Exploration is what we’re built for — even when it manifests in less-highbrow ways such as Hollywood gossip shows and reality TV, we’re all about curiosity.

On the other hand, the Rosetta mission is a pale shadow of what might have been. The impatient science fiction lover side of me can’t help but ask why we didn’t launch such a mission from a base on the moon, why we couldn’t have just sent a pack of scientists over with a combination spaceship/laboratory.

Why we had to wait until 2014 to get robot-transmitted data from a comet when there were people walking around on the moon in 1969.

You might point to the ‘impatient’ part of my self-description in answering those questions. Hey, this is big stuff. It will take us generations to get to the stage where there’s a constant human presence on the moon, on mars, or elsewhere other than earth. The space race and moon landing were conducted by the seat of the pants, technologically speaking. We were really operating beyond the scope of our practical capabilities, pushing the envelope too far, and we’re damn lucky we put people on the moon without killing more astronauts as it is. We’re just going to have to wait, and build up slow to the future day when there might be off-earth colonies and mining and so forth.

There’s some justice to that. On the other hand, pushing into the frontier is always hazardous, no matter where and when that frontier is.

And there’s some time pressure. We take space exploration, mining, and colonization slow because we’re busy spending all of our resources on other things. Some of those are necessary things. Like feeding people. We shouldn’t starve anyone to establish a moon base or put a probe on a comet. But we don’t, do we?

We spend FAR more money killing each other. We spend our moonbase money on drones and bullets and warships and stealth bombers and millions of soldiers in arms and semi-secret torture-slash-prison facilities and IEDs and upkeep of nuclear weapons and developing biological weapons…

…and that money could potentially render our slow and steady tortoiselike progress toward getting all of our human eggs out of this one fragile basket, earth, useless. One good nuclear exchange, one good release of weaponized smallpox, one good world war like the last two, and we could easily set progress back on this space race we’re in to zero, to less than nothing. We treat it like a luxury, and war like the necessity.

It’s precisely the other way around. And there’s every chance that our vast indulgence in the diabolical luxury of war will land us in the dustbin of geological history, just another strange happening on a little blue and green marble known best for its beautiful but unintelligent and ground-bound lower forms of life.

The Rosetta mission is a wonderful and great undertaking, and I hope for its continued success. I only wish we had as much wonderful great success as we should. This is a crumb, a tasty, tasty crumb, compared to the space program humanity should collectively have.

We should have a banquet.

Space Funk

Am I the only person who feels a little bit of disappointment along with the excitement of reading about various plans, achievements, and speculations of NASA and other space agencies around the world?

I’m glad there’s talk about the next Mars probe and the possibility of a manned Mars mission sometime…soonish…maybe…in the nebulous indefinite future.  I’m glad there are people tinkering with rocketry still, seeking ways to refine current technology.  I’m glad there are people researching ion drives trying to make them stronger and more efficient.

But it’s all kind of pale compared to what might have been.

We in the USA like to say, “we put a man on the moon”.  Well, we did.  And then we didn’t go back.  The moonwalkers are dying of old age and we still haven’t been back.  Well, what good is that?

If the US isn’t going to do it, I hope someone does.  Maybe it will be a private effort and not a national one when it happens.

However it happens, I hope it’s soon.  If there’s anything humanity needs, it’s the return of the frontier.  There really aren’t any left on Earth, and we’re a restless people.  When there’s nowhere new to go, we start to jostle.  Sometimes the jostling turns to fighting.  We really don’t need to be fighting.  Not when we’ve nukes to toss around if we get really mad.