…a goodly number of us dreamers are going to ruefully reflect that it was entirely possible for humanity to establish off-planet settlements following the Apollo program. Settlements that likely could have been self-sustaining by now because in the alternate reality where humankind put as much effort and resources and brains as possible behind establishing populations outside this fragile egg basket we call Earth, the early ones could have been in orbit and on the moon in the 1980s.
There could have been nearly 40 years to chase the kinks out of the recycling loops and life support and hydroponics. To build solar power plants all over the darn place up there and drag a water-ice comet into Earth orbit if we couldn’t find enough to fling up to orbital colonies from Luna with mass drivers.
40 years to send more and more people up and for people to start being born up there.
40 years to establish a reservoir of human beings and our technological knowledge out of range of Kim Jong-Un and Kim Jong-Trump (brothers of another ego-rage-spiritual mother) and their shoe-on-podium nuclear chest-beating.
So, yesterday on Twitter I got to thinking about laser-launched lightsail nanoprobes:
Currently, the big idea is to launch teeny-tiny lightsail probes at neighboring stars to get a look around — current thought is that technology as it is now could handle boosting some 1 gram probes attached to 20 meter lightsails up to 20% of lightspeed.
(I’ve cued the video to a bit about how teeny the working part of the probe would be — if you’re so inclined the whole video is a long, academic discussion of the whole idea that’s pretty decent if that’s your cup of tea.)
With only a few — but even better with a huge cloud, as I briefly fantasize about elsewhere — we could get a fine look at a stellar neighbor and see if there are any planets there that would be practical targets for a generation ship to settle. Think big, I say. Best to get humanity out of this fragile little egg basket we call Earth. Not just into the rest of the Solar System, but into others if we can manage it.
But nanoprobes, good for peeking at the neighbors, could be great for raw astronomy and investigation of the nature of the universe.
The Quanta link in my lead tweet above is about theories regarding the behavior of dark matter. Imagine how useful for that and other questions we itty-bitty humans have about our gigantic universe it would be to launch a gigantic lens of nanoprobes sailing off in a couple of different directions. To fire them out of the plane of the ecliptic and out of the cloud of particles and matter the Sun drags with it through space. To shoot them toward things we want to observe at 20% of lightspeed and compare the observations with what we see when that light and radiation reaches Earth. To fire them off the other way and let them crawl back in time (effectively) to compare to past observations.
To build expanding lenses light-minutes across in interstellar space, peering deeper and more clearly into the universe than humans have ever managed before.
Take some time to really think about it. It’s a breathtaking opportunity for pure science. And pure science, practical-minded friends, pays off in the long run.
Here you go. You can thank me after you stop sighing, laughing, eyerolling, puking, or whatever your reaction of choice is. I think I managed all but the last in the space of 3 seconds, which probably isn’t a new world record but has to be close.
I may have sprained an eye, in fact.
I get it. New stuff can be scary. There has been a TON of new stuff in the last couple of centuries. Internets, pocket computers, flying machines, devil carriages that move without horses, lights that mysteriously light up without a hint of whale oil in sight.
If some folks want to hole up in the past, well, that’s sort of their choice. The Amish and a few similar groups manage to do it pretty gracefully and even give their kids at least some degree of choice as to whether they’d like to stay in ignore-the-changes-land or come out and share the benefits and, yes, detriments of modernity.
And then there are people like Mr/Ms “NASA is a Satanic snake tongue”.
It takes a special kind of asshole to employ a computer to create a blog that can be viewed, potentially, by anyone in the world via a global communications net made possible by transatlantic fiberoptic cables and a network of satellites to urge others to reject space exploration as offensive because it doesn’t fit in with their particular (and particularly narrow and ugly) view of a ‘how to live’ manual composed roughly between 6000 and 1500 years ago depending on which bits you read and what you believe about how they came to be. Oh, and assume there’s somehow a giant secret conspiracy to lie about it spanning 70+ years and involving, by now, at least hundreds of thousands of people, becasue we all know how great several hundred thousand people are at keeping a secret over many decades, right?
If you want to see the WTFery for yourself, I’d rather not generate hits for them but here’s a Google Cache link.
SFNN> Classified> Off-Earth > Outer System> Kuiper> Pluto> Jobs> Technical> Supervisory
HYDROPONICS AND RECREATIONAL GENERALIST (HRG)
Salary Band 8(b)
This is a position with the Eurasian University Cooperative (EUC), Facilities Maintenance Division.
Successful applicants must pass a comprehensive full-record Onboard DNA-ROM Codex (ODNARC) examination. Felonies of any nature and offenses of any level of or related to plagiarism, intellectual property theft, academic/research honor code violation, or violence are disqualifying without appeal.
Primary operating languages:
English, Russian, Mandarin, Japanese, Hindi
Linguistic mastery of 2 or more Eurasian languages independent of translationware a plus
Successful applicant without onboard translationware will receive a discounted (66.67% discount) academic/professional grade global and dialectical translationware implant compatible with their current prefrontal bioprocessor OS. OS must be up to date with active and EUC-approved malware and spyware protection. Translationware purchased by this method will be billed in 50 weekly installments during first year of service at 0% interest. In event of early termination or resignation remaining balance will become due immediately with pending balances at 30% APR calculated on a weekly basis.
Hydroponics tech certification (6-year instructional program), reduced gravity environment safety and competence certification (with residency). Recreational design certification (2-year instructional program) may be earned via VR learning during first two years of service. 3.25 GPA minimum to proceed; unsatisfactory progress is grounds for termination after 2 quarters academic probation.
1 year small team (2-20 individual) supervisory experience required, performance must be verifiable through 2 or more professional references.
Duty schedule, salary, benefits:
The HMG manages 2 subordinates at 5 days of 10 hours weekly and 0-5 educational or apprenticeship interns at 3 days of 5 hours weekly. The duty team includes 5 pre-AI android semiskilled laborers at 6 days of 15 hours weekly.
The HMG is on-call 24 hours with scheduled duty hours of 4 days at 10 hours plus 1 day at 5 hours weekly. Off duty/on-call days shall be contiguous except in EUC-valid extenuating circumstances and shall advance 1 calendar day per week to improve whole-community access to the HMG. Example: week 1 off-duty FRI-SAT becomes off-duty SAT-SUN in week 2. Likewise, regular scheduled duty hours shall advance 2 hours per schedule week. Example: Week 1 10-hour days of 0700-1500 become 0900-1700 in week 2.
The HMG is budgeted 260 hours of Paid Time Off (PTO) yearly accrued at 5 hours per calendar week of employment. No more than 90 hours shall be taken consecutively. PTO shall not accrue above 260 hours. Earned PTO not accrued due to accrual cap shall be paid at the end of each calendar week at a rate of 1.5x hourly pay as earned.
The HMG receives priority-personnel-beta (Band 2 of 5) for recreation (alpha priority (band 1 of 5) in the facility they manage), medical treatment and disaster relief.
EUC contribution to retirement fund is 7.5% of salary accrued weekly; HMG may choose to contribute a maximum of an additional 7.5%. Funds are limited to EUC-approved savings, bond, and securities instruments. Investment diversity is recommended.
The HMG will maintain a hydroponics facility rated to serve a population of 10,000 individuals. The hydroponics ecosystem includes standard, drip, and mist components and includes composting, incinerating, and recycling human and animal waste and garbage.
Bacteria, fungus, plant, fish, amphibian, bird, and small mammal populations are part of the hydroponics ecosystem and must be managed and harvested for edible and otherwise useful biomass at optimal levels.
The hydroponics environment includes public-accessible parklands with maximum occupancy of 500. Parklands must be managed to optimize environmental support, recreational value, aesthetics, and agricultural performance.
The HMG is expected to optimize and improve the performance of the hydroponics facility on an ongoing basis through research, innovation, and implementation of upgrades, redesign opportunities, and integration of new discoveries in the fields of hydroponics and recreation.
The EUC utilizes the Global Blind Application System (GLOBAS) which strips demographics-revealing data from applications. If you believe your circumstances may confer priority status upon your application you may not state so to the EUC but must apply to GLOBAS for pre-GLOBAS prioritization. Making an assertion of priority status to the EUC regardless of veracity will result in disqualification.
The EUC has zero tolerance for harassment of any variety and utilizes an all-Artificial Intelligence 3rd party service for adjudication of internal incidents.
There’s been a lot of talk about the Stephen Hawking-backed “Starshot” project to propel a tiny, perhaps 20-gram laser-propelled lightsail to Alpha Centauri to beam back some up-close snapshots in the name of science.
Seems to me the major expenses are in building the lasers needed to launch them, and in developing the technology to build an itty-bitty craft like that and have it still be capable of taking decent pictures and beaming them home.
So once we’ve spent all of the worthwhile cash and effort to do that, why not get our money’s worth and maximize our chances of seeing something interesting? Build a hundred of those itty lightsails. Build a thousand. Launch them all; spread them out over the whole Centauri system. We’ll have to wait about 25 years (trip + lightspeed delay of data beamed back) after launch to see the images, so let’s make sure what we get is worth the wait!
I know, I know. We have to ask these questions in public, for all those who haven’t thought about it, don’t care about it, or think the future of humanity off this planet is a science fiction pipe dream.
Sure, it’s a bit of a pipe dream. Because getting a significant and sustainable human presence into space — onto asteroids, moons, other planets, into artificial habitats — is still an endeavor that is on the edge of our capabilities. It’s an expensive undertaking, because we’re very busy with resource-intensive activities like war and selling things to each other and making sure we have ample infrastructure and funding to support sports events.
And nobody wants to grow up and leave home. It’s a big fat pain in the ass. It’s easier to stay. And stagnate. And eventually be buried in the comfortable, familiar back yard in the shadow of a progressively older and less comfortable home.
I think it’s better if we get out there. I understand if some of you don’t. I just think you’re on the wrong side of future history and common sense. We, as a species, cling to the familiar — but we are also explorers and wanderers and have been for many thousands of years. While individuals may be happy to stay home on Earth, and that’s fine, opening up the frontier of the rest of the solar system opens a psychological gate; we have no real frontiers left on the planet for the disaffected to run to. Having frontiers again, just knowing they’re there, would probably relieve a lot of the feelings many of us angrily have, of being trapped. Being able to actually get off Earth if one is so inclined would be equally if not more helpful.
And those resources floating around up there can help Earth, too. It might be nice to shut down heavily-polluting rare earth metal mines in our backyard in favor of importing them from asteroid mines that don’t have ecologies around them to worry about, for example.
But I could rant on this subject all day — I’ll go ahead and give you a break here.
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.
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:
Edit: new image below, 14 JUL:
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.
If I remember correctly, Heinlein once wrote of space program critics that it’s raining soup up there, and the critics are complaining about the high price of bowls.
A thirst for exploring and investigating our solar system (and maybe, one day, beyond) translates to costs now. Yes, most things that pay off in the long run do. When a young student moves on to university, you can either criticize the cost at the moment, or send him or her knowing that, educated, college graduates contribute more to both their own wellbeing and to society in general.
Lots of people like to count the cost now, as you said, and talk about what could be done with space exploration money in other arenas at the moment.
Honestly, though. What we do now can easily lead, if we sustain and expand our space exploration efforts, to things like asteroid mining, orbital solar power collection, and humans living in large numbers in multiple locations so that if another dinosaur-killer asteroid comes around, or if a megavolcano caldera like the Yellowstone region blows, humanity’s eggs are not all in one basket.
And you’re right, if we do not foster and advance the cause of pure-science space missions now, we won’t have these opportunities later. It is far too easy to imagine scenarios that end with a slowly-declining humanity maundering around on this single rock we live on for another few hundred years and devolving into the stone age, never to look to the stars again.
That’s not the future I want for my childrens’ childrens’ children. And I know we CAN achieve a future in which humanity inhabits the whole of the solar system, which holds resources capable of sustaining TRILLIONS of human beings.
It really is raining soup — resources and room to live — up there. It behooves us to study the art of making bowls with a will!
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea”
– Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
In centuries past, comets were considered the supernatural bringer of bad news, usually associated with political unrest, or the death of a king. On 12 November 2014, after spending a decade travelling through the emptiness of space, the fridge sized ‘Philae’ touched down, marking humanity’s first contact with the surface of a comet, symbolic of a revolution in human understanding.
Comet 67P/C-G, a 4.6 billion year old icy space rock, is a left-over building block from a time when the Planets in our Solar System were still forming. Unlike Planets, comets have no weather and remain chemically unchanged, so studying them gives scientists valuable data in the quest to improve…
View original post 765 more words