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Monday, February 28, 2011

19 near-Earth asteroids found in one night

The Pan-STARRS PS1 telescope on Haleakala, Maui, discovered 19 near-Earth asteroids on the night of January 29, the most asteroids discovered by one telescope on a single night. Cataloging near-Earth asteroids is important for astrobiologists who are trying to determine scenarios for the future or life on Earth if one of these rocks from space were to collide with our planet.

“This record number of discoveries shows that PS1 is the world’s most powerful telescope for this kind of study,” said Nick Kaiser, head of the Pan-STARRS project. “NASA and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory’s support of this project illustrates how seriously they are taking the threat from near-Earth asteroids.”

Pan-STARRS software engineer Larry Denneau spent that Saturday night in his University of Hawaii at Manoa office in Honolulu processing the PS1 data as it was transmitted from the telescope over the Internet. During the night and into the next afternoon, he and others came up with 30 possible new near-Earth asteroids.

Asteroids are discovered because they appear to move against the background of stars. To confirm asteroid discoveries, scientists must carefully re-observe them several times within 12-72 hours to define their orbits, otherwise they are likely to be “lost.”

The full story from Astrobiology magazine is here:

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Midnight Train to Georgia

Yesterday I posted about the possibility of private citizen volunteers collectively building earth's first ship to the stars, rather than waiting for governments or corporations to take the lead.

Governments are hamstrung by their electorate, and corporations are hamstrung by their shareholders. So, take the governments and corporations out of the picture completely, and turn the project over to people who care enough about it to build the ship in spite of the price-tag. This seemed to me like a reasonable solution to a reasonable problem.

Then, this morning, I saw a pretty cool video of Thursday's launch of the space shuttle Discovery, taken by a passenger on a commercial airliner. Then I read the comments on Yahoo about the video. People were actually using the internet to complain that there was no reason to spend tax dollars on the space program. If people cannot appreciate that our space program is the reason they have things like television, the internet, GPS and weather satellites, then a ship to the nearest stars which wouldn't get there in their lifetime if it were launched today is going to be a harder sell.

Especially when there are, for example, 24,000 homeless people right here in King County. Yes, there are many other important things to spend money on. Now I want to express the cold, hard reality of why building a starship is at least as important as funding for housing, health, education, welfare, energy, the environment and defense.

Nobody really likes to say this, but it still needs to be said. As a species we managed to survive the Cold War, and kudos to us for that. But as our population rushes past 7 billion on the way up, the odds of our surviving another century, as a species, continue to dwindle. In addition to the simple and eternal forces of nature which tend to stabilize exploding populations (such as famine and plague), and the ever-present possibility of a one-time mass-extinction event such as an asteroid impact or supervolcano eruption, there is the very real possibility that homo sapiens will be counted among the species driven to extinction by unmitigated global warming. Regarding this last possibility I am guardedly hopeful; as a species we do have the ability to correct this still, if we get off of our collective asses right now and correct it. I'll be posting a lot more about this later; Freeman Dyson, who first conceived of the Orion starship, has actually given us a workable solution to bring down atmospheric CO2 levels to a survivable or even comfortable level. But that is a topic for another post.

The bottom line is, if we as a species continue to keep all of our eggs in one planetary basket, sooner or later our species will become extinct. This is of course true for every species, but we have the unique perspective of becoming aware of the very real possibility of the extinction of our species within what would otherwise have been our lifetimes. Every generation, of course, has fantasized that they were the last; Jesus imagined that he and his disciples were living in the end of times, and we've succeeded in surviving another hundred generations since then. And again, we survived the Cold War, which was far from an inevitable outcome to that conflict. But every species larger than a cockroach which has lived prior to the K-T asteroid event has eventually faced extinction, and so long as we remain an earthbound species, we will as well.

Our government appears to be acutely aware of this. Even the eviscerated proposed NASA budget for 2012 includes funding for five things:

1) Maintaining the ISS as a crewed facility outside of earth's atmosphere,
2) Maintaining weather and climatological earth satellites,
3) Maintaining satellites to track Near Earth Orbit asteroids and comets,
4) Maintaining satellites searching for earth-like planets around nearby stars,
5) Developing heavy-lift capabilities to establish permanent colonies on the Moon and Mars.

Both the George W Bush and Barack H Obama administrations have ultimately made these five things their budgetary priorities for NASA. If Bush and Obama agree that these are our most important priorities, that's worth noticing.

The Moon and Mars are our best candidates for quick mass-migration, with arguments in favor of both but ultimately only Mars has enough water to sustain a very large human population. But, as has been previously discussed here, Mars and the Moon frankly suck as places for humans to live. So ultimately, for humans to survive as a species, we will need to migrate further. And we may not have the luxury of waiting a very long time to do so.

The meek shall inherit the Earth. With perseverance, the rest will inherit the stars. Between us, our species and our evolutionary descendants may survive a very long time.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Atomic Starships and other hobbies

I've been thinking a lot about DARPA's current study of Project Orion, the 1957 vintage atomic pulse powered starship. Funding to build it is a question, manpower and know-how to build it is a question. Orion has been sitting on a back launch-pad for 54 years for these and other considerations. We have the technology. We just need the budget.

The budget isn't small. The best estimates for Orion are somewhere around $25 billion, about the same as the entire Apollo program. As of this spring we will have 7 billion people on this planet. That's $3.57 a head, just under a penny a day for one year, before cost overruns.

There are, right now, collective building and restoration projects for all kinds of seagoing vessels, from sailing ships to WWII era military craft to submarines. These are being built, restored and sailed by volunteers. They're being funded by private donations and bake sales.

Devoting hundreds of hours of one's life to restoring an old sailing ship, or an old liberty ship, is hella cool. How much cooler would it be to spend that energy building a freaking starship?

Why wait for the government to find funding for Orion? Why not just get some interested people together and start building the damned thing? It would be slow, at first. But no slower than the pace at which it has already been built since 1957, which is no pace at all. Get someone like George Dyson (or hell, Richard Branson!) to manage the project, and then as funds are raised to build it bit by bit, build it bit by bit. Those who have a useful skill-set can donate a little time to the project as they can. There are lots of NASA and JPL alumni running around looking for work right now in the wake of the Constellation closings, maybe some of them would be interested. There's no special rush, let's just build it as well as we can and as fast as we can, and get on with it.

There used to be a bumper sticker which read "It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber." To hell with governments. We, ourselves, can hold bake sales, car washes, benefit concerts and a whole lot more to raise revenue to build a ship which will travel to the nearest stars. If we roll up our sleeves, we can build this thing.

Pandora awaits.

Friday, February 25, 2011

On Intelligence, part three

Signs of Life

Electromagnetic radiation is of limited utility for interstellar communication, precisely because it is limited to the speed of light. It is not terribly difficult to imagine a scenario in which a civilization on a star was in EM communication with a colony of its own on another star one parsec away. Of necessity, this would be in the form of reciprocal one-way communications, perhaps the interstellar equivalent of three-year-old newsreels. But it seems unlikely that this sort of communication would be uninterrupted and continuous.

Over distances much larger than a parsec, any semblance of two-way communications
breaks down to the point of utter futility. The only place in our galaxy where EM has any conceivable utility for two-way communications over interstellar distances is near the galactic center, where “interstellar distances” are in fact quite short. However, with as much radiotelescope time as has been devoted to this region of the sky generally, we have not yet detected artificial signals there. For the rest of the galaxy, any species attempting two way communication across interstellar space using EM may, almost by definition, not be considered “intelligent”.

Unfortunately, we are still limited to searching in this spectrum, even with the
understanding that no species in their right mind would be broadcasting on it, at least in terms of two-way interstellar communication. So we must look for reasonable purposes for transmitting high-output, uniformly pulsed signals which are not intended to be responded to. As we have only earth-bound human culture as an analogue from which to anticipate alien technologies, we must look at human civilization and technologies which have, by design and intent, broadcast proportionally large-output transmissions which were deliberately and readily identifiable as artificial.

Perhaps the best candidates which come to mind are “aids to navigation” such as buoys and lighthouses. On earth, these tend to be self-powered, self-repairing, and capable of broadcasting light, sound and/or radio signals easily discernible from the background, in an easily recognizable and repeating pattern. An analogous structure in deep space might well remain “on station”, transmitting for eons after the civilization which constructed it had become extinct. Antiquity would be no great barrier to utility, as the age of the phased light or radio transmissions would be of little relevance for determining the object’s relative location. A “buoy” placed on-station ten thousand years ago by a species long extinct would still have utility for space-faring civilizations today, and would provide earthbound SETI researchers with proof of extra-terrestrial intelligence.

Buoys, by definition, are undeniably artifacts; they must be designed in such a way as to not be possibly mistaken for a naturally occurring phenomenon. They tend not, however, to be scintillating conversationalists. If in fact such artifacts do exist throughout the galaxy, and are in fact transmitting on frequencies which humans are capable of receiving, the first “intelligent” communication we receive from an alien civilization may be something like “dit dah dah dit”, repeated over, and over, and over, and over…tantalizing, as it would tell us absolutely nothing about the species which created it other than the fact that they had need of navigation aids at some point in their history. However, given their potential longevity, message redundancy, signal strength and likely ubiquity (if in fact other species in the galaxy are spacefaring, by whatever means), deep-space aids to navigation, if
such exist, seem very likely candidates for our first unmistakable and undeniable contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence.

The argument against navigational buoys being our first contact is that we haven’t heard any yet. There are four possible reasons for this. 1) they are too far away, or for whatever other reason the signal-to-noise-ratio is too low for us to detect with our existing telescopes, 2) they are not transmitting in the spectra we are looking, or even in a spectrum that we are aware of, 3) we are receiving transmissions from them already and have simply not recognized then as such, or 4) they don’t exist.

SETI today

Presently, SETI predominantly uses very large earth-based radiotelescopes such as
Arecibo Radio Observatory in Puerto Rico to “look” at the sky at that latitude as the earth rotates under it. Because this is a “fixed” antenna located on a rotating body, SETI first looks for signals which increase and then decrease at a rate consistent with planetary rotation and the passive field-lobe of the array; this signal-strength bell-curve is called a “Gaussian”. Any EM source which is not originating on earth will exhibit this, whether it is a star, an earth-orbiting satellite or an Aldebaranian disc-jockey. Strong narrowband EM pulses of smaller pulse-length than the duration of the Gaussian are also looked at, and “triplets” (evenly spaced short pulse-length EM pulses which conform in signal strength to a Gaussian) are especially interesting.

Once a signal of interest has been detected, verified by multiple computers and isolated from terrestrial (or near-extraterrestrial, such as satellite) radio frequency interference, it is then examined for persistency. A “persistent” signal is one which is observed on more than one occasion with the same frequency and same location, by one or more radiotelescopes. One current data set of 80,704 Gaussians contained 2,868 candidates which matched once (2 occurrences), 111 candidates which matched twice (3 occurrences), and 4 candidates which matched three times (4 occurrences). Within this particular data set there were no candidates which matched more than three times. As this particular search construed “persistency” as being within 2.5 arc minutes and 50 Hz frequency, the persistent signals in this sample must be presumed to be only randomly and incidentally so.

Much of the search to date has focused on the 1000 to 10,000 MHz “waterhole”, with the presumption that anyone willfully transmitting EM over interstellar distances would do so in frequencies least impeded by background noise. Again, the likelihood of any species technologically intelligent enough to do so actually attempting two-way communication across interstellar distances with EM is, one hopes, rather small; aids to navigation or similar beacons, however, would by necessity utilize the water hole if they were transmitting EM at all. All other things being equal, then, as EM is the only means we have of searching for extraterrestrial intelligence at this point in our history, if we are serious about locating proof of extraterrestrial intelligence we need to consider the virtue of searching for radio- or light-transmitting artifacts rather than actual coherent communication, and optimize our search toward finding those things which are most likely to be transmitting on the frequencies we’re searching.

The disadvantage of searching for buoys, obviously, is that once the initial excitement of discovery wears off, they really aren’t very interesting. The advantage is that what buoys lack in eloquence they make up for in tenacity, so there’s no worry about “missing the signal”. Any systematic search of the sky on the right frequency and sensitivity will find it eventually, and once it is located it is easy to verify independently with other antennas, and could be easily monitored continuously as the earth rotates by a series of antennae at different longitudes around the globe. For a search such as this, then, one large array is
infinitely preferable to a large number of smaller arrays.

However, for detecting more “interesting” and potentially more ephemeral signals, a
much larger number of smaller antennae would seem to be optimal. A 3-meter dish
antenna is the minimum needed to “see” in the water hole. Already, SETI-inclined
amateur radio enthusiasts have been building very small radio telescopes from old
satellite television antennas; the SETI League has established Project Argus to integrate the searches of these amateur radio-astronomers via e-mail and newsletters.

Concurrent with but independent from this “SETI at home” amateur radio astronomy is
“SETI@home”, which utilizes millions of personal computers around the world to
analyze SETI data obtained from Arecibo or other giant radio arrays. Essentially
SETI@home is using unused processing time on individual personal computers as a giant supercomputer. The individual user is given a screensaver-like program which processes units of parsed-out data from Arecibo. Because SETI@home has over 2,000,000 participants, extraordinary amounts of data are able to be processed in a very small amount of time.

“Combining the forces” of the SETI League and SETI@home, it would be possible to
create an array of perhaps millions of small antennae scattered around the world,
interfaced via personal computers. If an individual antenna picked up an interesting
candidate, the personal computer it was attached to could perform a preliminary data
analysis, and then automatically prompt all of the antennae in its hemisphere to train on the same Right Ascension and Declination. All data collected would then be transmitted to a central supercomputer for further analysis. In this way, a truly global antenna array (if only 1% of current SETI@home participants participated in this, that would commit 20,000 new antennae to the search) could be built for well under $500 per participant, and almost no hardware or software overhead whatsoever for the university organizing it.

The existing single massive antenna approach, used in tandem with the sort of
Shoestring Budget Global Array (SBGA) proposed here, could significantly accelerate
our search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

And, really, what could be cooler than turning your old satellite dish into a personal radiotelescope to hunt for aliens with?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Anti-Piracy Tactics: Changing the Rulebook

The recent killing of four missionaries on the sailing yacht Quest raises some serious questions regarding anti-piracy tactics for ocean-going cruisers. This incident marks an apparent transition in the Somali pirates' own tactics, which until now have centered around keeping their hostages alive for ransom. Killing hostages means that pirates stand to gain almost nothing monetarily and also virtually guarantees a full military response. The pirates' message to the world's navies seems to be that military intervention will result in hostage deaths, ransom be damned.

In addition to escalating the conflict across the board, it also must fundamentally change the anti-piracy protocols used by ocean cruisers. Some of the protocols remain unchanged of course; sail in large groups, assist vessels in distress with extreme caution, don't display anything (or anyone) topside that another person might be willing to kill or die for.

Carrying firearms is still probably a bad idea; you are still more likely to lose your boat or your freedom to a Customs officer than you are to a pirate. However, we may see some of these laws around the world become more relaxed in response to the rise in piracy globally.

If the trend toward pirates killing hostages continues, the old protocol of cooperating with your captor goes immediately away. If it becomes standard practice for pirates to kill the crews of the boats they hijack (as happened in the Caribbean in the 1980s and 1990s) then you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by resisting boarding and capture by whatever means are available.

If the armed conflict between pirates and the world's navies intensifies, which seems inevitable at this point, it is critical that recreational vessels operating in known piracy areas fly the correct ensign of their flag state. Because in the heat of it, a naval frigate can cause you much more immediate harm than any pirate vessel, and you do not want to be mistaken for a pirate by them.

And the most sensible tactic is, still, stay the hell out of pirate-infested waters.

Here's a map, again, of where those might be.

On Intelligence, part two

Inter-species communication on earth has met, to date, with only limited success. The most successful instances of inter-species communication have all involved a wide spectrum of visual, auditory, tactile and other sensory cues, such as the Fouts' work with chimpanzees. Crafting a communication which can be broadcast on radio frequencies and which will be comprehensible to an intelligence other than ourselves is not a small task. Any communication which is deliberately transmitted to other stars should, at the very least, be readily comprehensible to all humans from all cultures on this planet, and it should also be readily comprehensible to all other species on this planet which are estimated to have intelligence in any way analogous to humans. More, it should be such that all such species comprehending it would be able to convey their comprehension of it to the humans transmitting it in such a way that the humans would understand conclusively that
comprehension was being conveyed. This problem of “comprehensibly conveyed
comprehension” is crucial to SETI.

For example, if we were to attempt to convey our intelligence to a spiny anteater (which has a much higher neocortex-to-body-weight ratio than humans, and is therefore, by some definitions of intelligence, significantly and demonstrably more intelligent than we are) by means of tapping out “x, xx, xxx, xxxxx, xxxxxxx”, then a response from the anteater which indicated its comprehension that it was being communicated with might be tapping out “x, xx, xxx, xxxxx, xxxxxxx”, whereas a response which indicated its comprehension of the meaning of the communication might be tapping out “xxxxxxxxxxx, xxxxxxxxxxxxx, xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx, xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx, xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx”, in this case simply continuing the string of prime numbers for the same consecutive interval as the transmission. However, responses such as 15 taps or 120 taps (the units of the original message added or multiplied together, respectively) might also convey comprehension of part of the meaning of the message, if not the actual intent. However, it is not impossible that the spiny anteater, with its relatively massive neocortex, is possessed of a mathematics so far advanced of our own that the “obvious” relationship of these numbers to it would be utterly incomprehensible to us or even unrecognizable as an intelligent response.

To date, our attempts at deliberate communication with extraterrestrials have been mostly undecipherable even to the majority of humans living in the same culture as the scientists creating the messages. Obviously, this cannot work; language is by definition symbolic, and without a universal (even if rudimentary) symbol set, communication will not occur.

We may presume, for example, that hydrogen occurs in any place that life exists.
However, humans have only been aware of the existence of hydrogen since Paracelsus, and it was not until Cavendish that it was isolated as a unique gas, and it is very unlikely that Neils Bohr would have recognized the Schrodinger/Heisenburg model of a hydrogen atom as anything related to chemistry. So it is probably unreasonable to assume that a non-human intelligence would have any ability to decipher a human’s symbolic representation of a hydrogen atom, from any given point in human history.
Dolphins and other cetaceans, for example, are believed by many humans to be likely terrestrial candidates for non-human intelligence. It is unlikely, however, that most dolphins would understand a human’s symbolic representation of a hydrogen atom, or binary notation of numerals, or consecutive strings of prime numbers. At least, as of this writing, no dolphin has clicked a consecutive string of prime numbers to any human capable of comprehending the significance of prime numbers; it may simply be that dolphins consider humans mathematically inept.

Symbolic representations of hydrogen atoms, binary notation, and prime numbers
each, at one time or another, have been deliberately transmitted into space, in hopes that some other species somewhere might recognize us as intelligent. Perhaps the most eloquent, although probably equally incomprehensible, messages sent
deliberately into deep space to date were not a radio or light transmission at all, but rather two identical drawings etched in 6” by 9” gold-anodized aluminum plates, attached to the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft.

Punch magazine was quick to point out some possible misinterpretations of the etchings. Among the quotes of the hypothetical alien scientists attempting to decipher the etchings--

“A suggestion that it could be a map of some metropolitan railway has been made to us, but we feel that this fails to take into account the arrowed position of a capsized yacht…”

“The illustrated talent for the creature on the right to be capable of firing arrows from the shoulder is a particularly sinister turn…”


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

On Intelligence, part one

The following is part of an essay I wrote back in 2000 or something, as part of a 600-level course in astronomy and exobiology. I'm not big on recycling old material, but I'm even less big on re-inventing the wheel, and there's material here I want to present before delving deeper into the topic of extra-terrestrial intelligence. I've edited it here to read a bit less like a post-grad paper, but I'm leaving the original content more or less intact. I'm going to present this here in installments, because the original essay is rather long. I probably won't disclaimer all of the later installments, or excerpts from other essays from that time, so let this disclaimer stand for all of them.


The first obstacle in the path of finding extraterrestrial intelligence is to define
“intelligence”. Even when discussing terrestrial animals, the concept of “intelligence” is at best an abstraction. Some criteria for intelligence have been such things as total brain mass, brain-to-body-weight ratio, neocortex-to-bodyweight ratio, communications and behavior. Using these criteria, reasonable arguments may be made for the intellectual superiority of such creatures as humans and other apes, crows, cetaceans, mice, dogs, cats, bees and spiny anteaters. It is questionable whether humans possess the intellectual capacity to recognize intelligence in other species, or to meaningfully define intelligence
generally. From a purely evolutionary standpoint, every species which currently exists would be, by definition, equally “intelligent” for its evolutionary niche or it would have been out-competed by a more “intelligent” species.

However, for the purposes of the current search for extraterrestrial life, we can eliminate a great many of the abstract considerations of what constitutes actual intelligence, and simply focus on the specific types of intelligence which might produce EM transmissions. As EM energy is the first (and currently only) possible means for humans to communicate beyond this planet and beyond the solar system, we are limited to this spectrum, and any species communicating by other than EM means are self-eliminated from the search. Within the EM spectrum, we can narrow our definition of “intelligence” to mean the type of intelligence which can produce narrowband EM transmissions which are pulsed into a pattern which is readily identifiable as non-random. This effectively limits the search for extraterrestrial intelligence to such intelligences as humans, which are now able to produce such EM transmissions artificially, and fireflies, which are capable of producing such transmissions biologically. There is no reason to postulate the greater
likelihood of biological or artificial ability to transmit in the EM spectrum, nor is there any reason to assume that either would necessarily be more likely to possess a type of intelligence similar to our own. However, it is
possible that a species which developed artificial means of transmitting and receiving EM energy would have undergone a greater number of analogous steps in their intellectual evolution to our own, than a species which had evolved a biological means of transmitting and receiving in this spectrum. For this reason, we will focus our search on those species which have developed EM technology independent of any biological mechanism for producing this, whether or not we would be able to discern the difference from Earth-based telescopes.

We have not yet discovered another world within our own solar system which
conclusively harbors life, although Europa is a prime candidate. As we have observed no evolutionary models other than our own, we can, at this point, only extrapolate from our own evolution what course the evolution of intelligence might take on another world. The steps in our own evolution which might reasonably be expected to have extraterrestrial analogues leading to the development of EM technology are as follows:

Impeti 1: Organic chemicals to prokaryotic life
Evolutionary Impeti 2: Prokaryotic life to eukaryotic life
Evolutionary Impeti 3: Cambrian explosion (2011 note: I was unaware of the Ediacaran Biota when I wrote this, which fundamentally changes this part of the equation)
Evolutionary Impeti 4: Prehensility
Evolutionary Impeti 5: Technology
Evolutionary Impeti 6: Intelligence (development of EM technology)

By this definition, homo sapiens became an intelligent species in September of 1895 ev, when Guglielmo Marconi became the first intelligent mammal on earth. Now, a little more than a century since this achievement, humans are able to demonstrate their intelligence every time they place a call on a cellular telephone.
Prehensility is of course critical, as species which might otherwise be construed as
“intelligent” which have no physical means of creating technology (such as some
cetaceans) tend not to build artifacts capable of transmitting in the EM spectrum. It is over-simplifying the situation, however, to assume that an orderly progression from the digging-stick to the cellular telephone (or radio telescope) is inevitable for any prehensile and technologically inclined species.
Even species which happen to develop EM technology may not utilize it for
communications, either because they have methods of communication which are superior
to EM, or simply because it does not occur to them to do so. For example, many human
cultures have, independently of one another, developed both cups and strings; however the number of human cultures who have adapted these technologies to create crude telephones out of them is significantly small. The analogy is not a bad one; SETI itself is rather like standing on an island with a cup-and-string telephone and sticking one cup to our ear and holding the other cup out to the sea, and hoping to hear people talking on some other island. And then shouting into one cup while holding the other cup out to the sea, hoping someone out there will hear us.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

You can't take the sky from me

Please don't let me wake up from this dream.

The Science Channel (not Sci Fi) is remastering in HD and re-running Joss Whedon's Firefly, in its entirety, in the order they were meant to be aired. With science commentary by Dr. Michio Kaku in every episode.

There's really nothing more to say to this. If you haven't yet seen Firefly or the movie sequel Serenity, this is an amazing opportunity, on basic cable. Don't be put off by the "cowboys in space" motif. It really is probably the best science fiction to ever hit the small or large screen.


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Capricorn One

The European Space Agency's Mars 500 program passed an important milestone in their simulated mission to Mars on Valentine's day. The astronauts walked on the surface of "Mars" for the first time.

The ESA mission simulation is ambitious and necessary. But I have to say that the habitat is far more spacious, and unnecessarily wasteful of space, than I would ever have imagined. I am admittedly biased. But really, having spent as many as 124 days submerged (really submerged, from "dive, dive" to "surface, surface, surface") on a submarine 425' long by 33' wide, most of which was taken up by weaponry, with 120 of my closest friends, the Mars habitat looks like the Taj effing Mahal. My only other critique is that, really, for a 520-day mission, an all-male crew is a really bad idea. Even the US Navy has figured out that women belong on submarines. Oh well,have fun with that.

Here's the link to the Mars 500 page:

Friday, February 18, 2011

Means vs Ends

Rarely am I as conflicted as I am about the report that the Japanese whaling fleet has apparently been stopped largely due to the efforts of Sea Shepherd.

Ending whaling is superb, and long overdue. My conflict is with the methods used to accomplish this. To Sea Shepherd's credit, no human lives were lost on either side, and they were apparently successful where all other means have failed. And also, as one who has been a fairly constant critic of Sea Shepherd, at the end of they day they've done much more to protect the whales than I have. I recognize that, and grudgingly respect it. Sea Shepherd has however displayed excreble seamanship at times, and their tactics are often no more than terrorism.

I say this with no strong bias; I spent ten years as a nuclear terrorist myself, on behalf of the US Navy. It's an ugly way to fight a war, but sometimes it's an effective one. At the end of the day neither the US or Soviet Union were willing to nuke the other, out of fear of retaliation against civilian population centers. The Cold War is now over, the Chinese won, and most of all of the player's cities and citizens were still standing. The end result was a positive one, mostly. But it was still terrorism, and at the end of the day we were all basically willing to commit genocide against complete strangers, who had done us no more wrong than being born in a place which had different ideas about how to share property. Did the end justify the means in that case? Maybe.

Did Sea Shepherd's ends justify their means? Again, maybe. Perhaps the road to heaven is sometimes paved with evil intentions. For the moment, the whales are not being hunted. Maybe it really is as simple as that, ethics and seamanship be damned.

Will post more on this in a few days, will be on the water this weekend. Here's the story in the New York Times:

Thursday, February 17, 2011

DARPA keeping Project Orion in the air

Valentine's Day is few days past, but I'd like to talk for a moment about "love". Love is a strong word. It's an awfully strong word to apply to a governmental agency, especially one mostly devoted to finding new and creative ways to make those people over there be dead. Especially on the same week that I did my taxes. But right now, I think I love DARPA.

Because while NASA's new budget has left most of its deep-space exploration projects in ashes, DARPA is quietly continuing its work on the 100-Year Starship.
(Intended that to be a simple hotlink, but Blogspot is glitchy this morning.)

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is the branch of the US Department of Defense who typically make all of the cool James Bond stuff for all four branches of the US military. They're a think tank whose only charter is radical innovation, and many of their innovations have had application far broader than the military (if you can read this post, thank DARPA). DARPA (ARPA at the time) was formed as a response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik, in hopes that the US would never again be out-technologied by anyone. Yes, I just made up that word.

So, DARPA just issued a press release for their first workshop of several throughout 2011 focusing on Project Orion, or whatever they happen to be calling it now. This is notable from the press release:

“We picked the 100-Year Starship name because it would require a long-range sustainable effort to get our species to other stars,” said (Dave Neyland, Director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office). “Looking at history, most significant exploration, like crossing oceans or continents for the first time, was sponsored by patrons or groups outside of government. We’re here because we’d like to start with a mechanism that gets this long-range project out of the government, and make sure it is an energized and self-sustaining enterprise.”

Read: This project is going to take a lot of time and a lot of money to accomplish, let's get it out from under the two-year electoral cycle and the one-year federal budget cycle or it's never going to be completed.


The press release continues:

Workshop members addressed a wide range of issues, such as why humans should visit the stars, the risks involved, the economic and socio-political-religious obstacles, and the type of governance structure needed. Other topics, such as the importance of having short-term achievable goals, identifying a destination for a 100-Year Starship, bringing together a core group of experts/enthusiasts, interest groups and private funding, and the continued importance of science and technical education for the youth of the world were also discussed at length.

I have some thoughts percolating on this, will be posting more later when they're better formulated. But I think this is a very good sign that we're moving ahead with Orion, cautiously. And that, friends, is a huge thing.

Here's the press release:


I wondered how she was going to fare with the winds this week. I don't now any more details about this that what I copied below, but if I had to guess her master was trying to keep from putting the seas on her beam and got pinched. Admiralty Inlet is no place for a boat like that. Please, let's put the Chetzemoka onto a protected run like Point Defiance to Tahlequah, and put a more seaworthy vessel on the Port Townsend to Coupeville run.  The joke isn't funny anymore.

The mighty m/v Aileen


SEATTLE -- A Washington State Ferries spokeswoman says 50 mile per hour winds and strong currents briefly pushed the state ferry Chetzemoka aground on a sandbar near Coupeville, Wash.
Spokeswoman Marta Coursey told KIRO-TV on Tuesday evening that passengers had been offloaded safely and the ferry was no longer on the sandbar west of the Coupeville dock.
She says ferry runs between Port Townsend and Coupeville have been canceled for the rest of the night.
Coursey says divers will determine whether the ferry suffered any damage in what she called a "soft grounding." She says no damage was immediately apparent.
The 64-car ferry entered service in November.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Tree Houses

Add one more candidate to the list of targets for human outmigration into our solar system. Freeman Dyson, co-inventor of Project Orion, also envisioned a relatively low-cost means of establishing terrestrial-life habitat in space. It's called a Dyson Tree. Basically you plant a giant, genetically engineered tree inside the void pockets of a comet.

Cheap real-estate, just add shrubbery
The tree processes the water and carbon dioxide ice and creates oxygen, which fills the voids. Habitat is created in the voids of the comet and in hollows in the tree itself. Possibly the tree would grow out of the comet and create a stable biome under its intertwined canopy. Animals, including humans, live off of the tree, and produce soil to further nourish it, establishing a stable biome.

Outer-canopy Dyson Tree

Saint Exupéry should be proud.
Dyson also has some interesting thoughts about trees, CO2 remediation and global warming which I will be talking about here soon.

Many thanks to Shubhendu Trivedi at the awesome blog Onionesque Reality for the information on Dyson Trees, this one warrants further exploration. Trivedi is also a huge supporter of Project Orion, and has lots of cool stuff about it over at his blog.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Media effs up another astronomy report, film at 11

Dear astronomers and astrophysicists,

For the love of whatever deity you happen to believe in this week, please stop talking to reporters.
Do this. Hire a bright, young and enterprising journalism grad. Spend a year teaching them about things like Hertzsprung-Russell Diagrams and Keplerian laws of planetary motion. Then, when you think you've discovered something cool, tell them about it, and let them talk to the media about it. Really. Here's a hint, a lot of pretty young sorority girls (and pretty young fraternity boys, whatever floats it for you) end up majoring in Journalism because they have a basic mastery of their native language and were smart enough to figure out that majoring in English required a strong desire for Top Ramen (yes, I know that majoring in Astronomy also requires a passionate love of Top Ramen, just bear with me for a minute). Then, some small number of them figure out that most of the news outlets won't actually hire anyone who has spent four years studying actual journalism, because "journalism" implies something which is antithetical to most corporate media. So, you have at your disposal a fairly substantial pool of people who know how to talk to the media, who are capable of learning enough astrophysics to be able to communicate that effectively to a small child, an adult with profound learning differences or a television news anchor, are willing to work for almost nothing and with whom you MIGHT ACTUALLY HAVE AN OPPORTUNITY TO DATE. That's right kiddies, just imagine having an attractive, unattached co-worker who knew how to mingle at parties AND didn't need terms like "main sequence" explained to them! Wouldn't that be AWESOME???
No, really, I do know what it's like to try to run a research program and also actually survive off of a research grant. But you might want to consider hiring one of these people anyway. Because the result of not hiring them is this.

Captain Robert


By the way, that wasn't Fox News or AOL, but Time effing magazine. Remember when Time WAS journalism? Sigh.

Okay, to clarify. We have NOT discovered a "new" gas giant planet "hiding" in the Oort Cloud.

Professors John Matese and Daniel Whitmire of the University of Lousiana-Lafayette think there might be a planet there, based on frankly fairly scant evidence of cometary periodicity. They've believed this since about 1999. Nothing to date has conclusively corroborated this belief. NASA's WISE satellite has recently completed scanning the part of the sky where Matese and Whitmore expect to find Tyche, which is the name they've given to their hypothetical planet (others have named it Nemesis; no it isn't Nibiru, no it isn't going to collide with earth). But nobody yet has had an opportunity to analyze the data that WISE obtained. So, we still don't have any meaningful evidence to support the existence of this planet. Now, there's no special reason to suspect that there ISN'T a planet there, either. For the record, I think it's reasonably likely that Tyche (or Nemesis or whatever we're calling it this week) does exist. I'm actually inclined to suspect a brown or red dwarf star as a better candidate than a gas supergiant planet, but that's frankly quibbling. I've even posted about Nemesis here before. It's just that we don't actually have enough evidence to say anything meaningful in any direction. By the middle of May the data will be analyzed, and we will know more, one way or another. But right now we really don't have anything interesting to report.

So, please, astronomers, stop talking to reporters. Hire a professional to do that for you. Because this is getting embarrassing. And it isn't entirely the media's fault.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Lowering the Bar: NASA 2012 Budget Request

NASA has just released its 2012 budget request. We knew it wasn't going to be pretty.

From a very quick perusal, here's what it looks like. The centerpiece of the 2012 budget is the International Space Station. I could almost end this post with that, and you'd get the idea. But, there are some other points of interest.

Maintaining the ISS is the biggest single item on the list. They spent an awful lot of ink justifying that one. It's a good program, and relatively inexpensive to maintain at this point. But at this moment it's the sexiest thing NASA has to offer the general public, and that's not great. Once the Space Shuttles are retired later this year, to get to the ISS we'll either hitch a ride with the Russians, or make our astronauts fly coach on Virgin Galactic. At least if they fly with Sir Richard they'll have funky purple lighting, techno music, cool safety videos, personal entertainment systems and pretty decent food while they rack up those frequent-flier miles to use on lower altitude Virgin flights.

Continued exploration of the Moon and Mars, with the long-term goal of colonizing both of them, are also a high priority in this new budget. I think that the possibility that we'll have a colony in the moon's Peary Crater within my lifetime is now pretty good. I don't expect to see a colony on Mars within my lifetime, but my daughters may see it within theirs. If outmigration is the main goal (and it's not an unreasonable one) a larger low-orbital space station might have been cheaper. But it would have been harder to justify, given that we already have the ISS. 

Continued focus on earth sciences, such as global warming, and on solar weather. All of these are necessary and good.

The James Webb Space Telescope, even though it's already well over budget, survived the cuts. I think Hubble made a believer out of people. I'm really glad JWST survived, I had serious doubts.

There's still funding for Near Earth Object tracking and research. I figured that one was safe. Almost everyone can figure out the cost-benefit analysis of knowing if a large asteroid is on its way.

Other than Mars, most of the planetary exploration has been cut. JUNO will still fly to Jupiter, simply because they've already spent so much on it. But the proposed missions to Europa and the other Galilean moons, and to Titan and Enceladus, have all been de-funded. This isn't surprising. Taxpayers generally fall into two categories; those who have never heard of Europa, and those who are terrified that we'll find life there which wasn't mentioned in some bronze-age religious text or another. Either way, most Americans aren't that interested in going there. Maybe Europe, India or China will get there in the next decade or so. NASA won't.

Low-budget heavy lift, using cannibalized parts from the space shuttles and the Constellation project, was authorized to be fully operational by 2016. See the recent post here on big dumb booster technology. I'm happy about this: I've been a fan of BDB for years, and the US is long overdue to start exploring space on-the-cheap. I'm a little surprised that they didn't also grant more funding for solar sail technology for the same reason, but they didn't, so far as I could tell.

Not surprisingly, exploratory funding for  Project Orion was cut, again. I'm a huge proponent of Orion, but I'm not too sad that it was cut from NASA's budget this year. I think that particular djinni is out of the bottle now, and if NASA doesn't build it, somebody else will (c'mon Mr Branson, you know you want to do it before Bezos does!). But for the moment, for better or worse, it looks like the moon and Mars, slow and cheap but with the intention of staying, are NASA's new goals.

Here's the whole budget.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Atomic Rockets Website

I don't normally give big intros to other websites that I link to. But this one is a bit outside the bell-curve of Strait of Magellan, so I thought it was worthy of a brief explanation. I found this while I was researching the previous post on the Sea Dragon concept.

Atomic Rockets is a website written for science fiction writers and gamers, which provides technical information on various concepts of space travel. It is very well researched and very well done generally. Even though it's not technically a science blog, it's one of the best clearing-houses of conceptual space-propulsion technology I've encountered. Don't be put off by its "gamer-geek" exterior; Atomic Rockets is chock full of really good technical info. Enjoy!

100 Year Starship, Re-Imagined

Here is a modern revisioning of Project Orion. It utilizes space-shuttle solid boosters to launch from earth to beyond our atmosphere before lighting off the nukes, and then uses outriggers to initiate artificial gravity by centripetal force.

I've attempted to embed the video here, but in case that fails here's the link: Orion Revisited

Big Dumb Booster

There is a story which has been floating around (sorry) for some time now, about NASA astronauts during the first Apollo/Soyuz mission showing off their multimillion dollar space-pen to the Soviet astronauts, who in turn showed the NASA astronauts that they had solved the problem of writing in a zero gravity environment by using a pencil. The story is technically true but mostly apocryphal; NASA had tried to develop pencils which could be used safely in space but found them exorbitantly expensive, and the Russians have been using the US (commercially researched and designed by Fisher, not the US government or its contractors) space pens ever since. The combination of the fact that broken pencil leads floating around in a spaceship are dangerous for both the crew and the ship itself, and the fact that flammable materials (like wood) on board a spaceship are a really bad idea, mean that the Fisher Space Pen really is the best solution to the problem of being able to write in a zero-G (and otherwise extreme) environment. And, incidentally, you can purchase one yourself now for as little as $22, although if anyone reading this blog was thinking "hey, what a great Valentine's gift for Captain Robert" the Kubotan/Key Chain/Space Pen version is way cooler and only $8 more. Because in space, no-one can hear you kiai.

But I digress.

The point is that the story, though mostly apocryphal, is still around because it illustrated a fundamental truth about the difference between the US and Soviet space programs during the Cold War, and incidentally also the US and Soviet militaries during the Cold War. The US built things to much narrower tolerances with much tighter margins for error, and were generally more elegant and sophisticated. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, excelled at low-tech solutions to high-tech problems. Early on, it was assumed (at least by Americans) that this meant that the US space programs were better and safer. History has shown otherwise. With the Russian space program launching many more crewed missions than the US during the same time period, both nations have suffered two fatal in-flight accidents; Soyuz 1 and 11 in 1967 and 1971 (the latter of which being the only crewed mission to technically fail in "space"), and the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia in 1986 and 2003.

So, what did the Russians do to create a perfectly functional space program on-the-cheap, and why can't the United States do the same thing? The answer to the first question is that instead of building an incredibly sophisticated bleeding-edge system like Apollo, they basically just stuck a primitive life-support capsule on top of a giant fuel tank, lit the fuse and ran. Yes, that's an oversimplification, but not much of one. And, proof being as it is "in the pudding", the damned thing worked. Over and over and over again. The method is called "Big Dumb Booster" or BDB. It's not pretty, and it's not especially efficient, but it does get the job done at a fraction of the cost of the way Apollo did.

So, if the Soviets could figure that out, why couldn't the US? The NASA space programs weren't always high-tech; the Mercury Redstone Freedom Seven rocket which launched Alan Shepard into space for fifteen and a half minutes in 1961 could not possibly have been more crudely designed. Next time you happen to be in the Cape Canaveral area go look at the Mercury Redstone that is on display there, touch it, and remember that a man went into space in it once and lived to tell about it.

The answer is that NASA did in fact figure this out, quite independently of the Vostok program. In 1962 Robert Truax designed the Sea Dragon rocket, which would have been the largest rocket ever built. It would have been capable of lifting 550 metric ton payloads into orbit for the insanely low cost of about $300 per kilogram, using materials and technologies available off-the-shelf in 1962. Even allowing for 50 years of inflation, with modern materials replacing steel and cheaper, smaller computers controlling the flight than were even imaginable in 1962 the costs would be substantially the same. And both stages and the capsule of the 150 meter tall rocket are reusable. Sea Dragon presumed being launched at sea with nothing but its own buoyancy to keep it vertical during the launch phase, but there is no reason that the traditional launch gantries already existing at Canaveral could not be used.

Sea Dragon tended by USS Enterprise. Now that's irony.

So, I'm discussing the BDB technology for a reason. The space shuttle program is ending this year, we have only two or possibly three missions left. This is not a bad thing. The shuttles are 30 years old now, I wouldn't recommend driving to Spokane in a Buick that old, let alone going into space. Especially if 1/3 of the Buicks ever built had already failed catastrophically. The space shuttles were supposed to be replaced with the Constellation/Orion project, which was basically "Apollo was fun, let's do it again!". I was sad when the US government pulled the plug on Constellation/Orion (not to be confused with Project Orion, the so-called 100-year starship), but it was the right decision. Funding was instead given to companies like Virgin Galactic, SpaceX and Blue Origin to produce light-lift Low Earth Orbit vehicles, which they're doing. However, none of these companies are ready yet to start producing genuine heavy-lift vehicles, so Congress, after canceling Constellation/Orion went back and ordered NASA to build a heavy-lift crewed vehicle, on a very limited budget.

My first reaction to this was that Congress needed to get out of the spaceflight business and leave it to the professionals. But, actually, I think they may have gotten it right. What they really said, or meant to say, was "build us a heavy lift rocket, use whatever parts you can from Constellation, build it big, sloppy and cheap, and build it now". In so many words, Congress told NASA to build Sea Dragon, or something very much like it. Good on them. It's not a decision NASA would have likely come to on its own.

For the record, toward the end of the Cold War the Soviets started trying to build things like space shuttles the way the US did. The grass is always greener, but ultimately Russia went back to building BDBs. We can, too. Big Dumb Boosters aren't sexy. They aren't "the way of the future". But they may well be the best option we have to keep our space programs rolling forward in the present. And maybe, once they've built a successful BDB program, they'll have a little money left over to buy a couple of pens.

UPDATE: Here is another page on Sea Dragon, link sent to me by Winchell Chung at the Atomic Rockets website: More Sea Dragon Info

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

More on object 1991VG

Here is the web page for the JPL small-body database for 1991VG, which is a possible Bracewell Probe candidate. My original post on this, titled The Sentinel, seems to be getting a lot of airplay, so I will be researching it further.

July of 2017 is our next launch window for either a crewed or robotic mission to 1991VG. Hopefully we'll have heavy lift capabilities available at that time.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Rock of Ages

Here we go again.

The asteroid 9994 Apophis is again in the news, because it, (wait for it!) still isn't going to hit the earth in 2029 or 2036.

1. Yes, there is a 100% probability that a massive asteroid or comet will collide with earth at some point in the future and cause the extinction of most life on earth. Again. And again. And again.

2. Yes, 9994 Apophis might, one day, far in the future, be one of the bodies which does so. And there will be others.

3. There are MANY asteroids which have a much higher chance of having a catastrophic collision with earth than 9994 Apophis. Probably the "best" candidate right now is  2011 AG5, but there are many others. Unfortunately, 2011 AG5 doesn't have a cool name like "Apophis", so the media doesn't really care.

4. There WILL be more data forthcoming on 9994 Apophis this year and in 2016 which will amplify our understanding of its trajectory, so it will certainly be in the news cycle yet again, but it is unlikely that this will reveal any significantly greater risk. As it stands right now, you are in much graver danger of winning the Washington State Lottery than you are of living to see 9994 Apophis collide with earth. If you happen to believe that you have a chance of winning the lottery, I would recommend that you send the money you would spend on lottery tickets to Strait of Magellan instead. There's at least some chance that I might feel guilty and send it back to you.


5. If you're really excited about possible near-term Extinction Events that might actually wipe out all life on earth, your odds are much greater with global warming than with asteroids. Good enough, in fact, that with those odds I myself might buy a lottery ticket. Of course, I might not be around to spend my winnings.

Here's the real data on 9994 Apophis.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Sentinel

In 1950 physicist Enrico Fermi, while considering the presumed ubiquity of technological civilizations around the Milky Way, over lunch one day asked the simple question, "Where are they?". By which he meant, even if advanced alien civilizations were exceedingly rare, if they existed at all some of them, even traveling at speeds of 5% of the speed of light (which may in fact prove to be about the maximum speed possible for space travel, which will be the subject of another post in the near future) or even slower, should eventually have colonized or at least visited all of the galaxy and already contacted us, either in person or by means of a probe of some sort. Meaning, the question of whether or not there are other technological civilizations in the Milky Way should be nonsensical; either there are none, or they're already here and downtown Seattle should look like Mos Eisley Spaceport. I mean, even more than it already does.

 The fact that earth is not already crawling with aliens (no disrespect intended to the Aldebaranian's mode of locomotion, its just an expression), combined with the lack of an unambiguous signal received by any of the SETI telescopes, is sometimes referred to as the Great Silence, or the Fermi Paradox.
I think this is from the brilliant comic XKCD, if you know otherwise please let me know!
There are a couple of possible explanations for this. The first is that there simply aren't any other technologically advanced civilizations in the Milky Way. As a generation which has grown up on a daily diet of science fiction, this seems ironically uncomfortable. But it may well be the case. Of the billions of species which have ever lived on earth we are the only one which has proven capable of space travel or radio broadcasts. Or any other technology more sophisticated than a digging stick or a broken rock. Life, even intelligent life, may well be ubiquitous, but technologically advanced civilizations may be vanishingly rare.

Another possibility is that interstellar space travel, either for reasons we do understand or for reasons we do not, may simply not be feasible. This is also uncomfortable for us, but it may be true. It is almost certainly true that crewed space travel will never exceed about 10% of the speed of light, for a variety of reasons (not the least of which being that by 12% of the speed of light, a grain of sand hitting the vessel would react with the force of a hydrogen bomb). But at 10% (or even 5%, which we have the technology to achieve right now) of the speed of light we could get to the nearest stars within a human lifetime. But there may be barriers to traveling through interstellar space which we haven't even considered.

Another possibility, one championed by UFO enthusiasts, is that our skies and streets ARE crawling with aliens, we just need to pull our heads out of our recta and realize it. This isn't quite as far-fetched as it sounds; some have posited that the natives in Hispaniola could not see Columbus's ships until their shamans or whatever they're called there did. This may be apocryphal, but it is true and demonstrable that the human mind filters out data it isn't prepared to process. If this sounds like BS to you, take this simple test here, and then come back to this post. My personal feeling is that this possibility is pretty unlikely, but I wanted to include it specifically because so many discussions of the Fermi Paradox willfully exclude it, which is simply bad science. 

Yet another possibility is that alien civilizations have visited here in the past, and then (tinkered with chimpanzi genes to invent us/used their antigravity technology to move around a bunch of rocks/put on funny hats and modeled for neolithic artists/figured we were beyond hope and left never to return/fill in the blank). This is also possible; there is an entire field of research called SETA, or the Search for Extraterrestrial Artifacts. SETA to date has not proven any more fruitful than SETI, with one possible exception which I'll talk about in a moment. In order for an artifact to be unambiguously "alien" it needs to be something truly beyond the abilities of human artificers to construct. For example, the pyramids at Cheops are amazing, but well within the capability of bronze-age builders if you happen to have many of them. If the pyramids had been made out of titanium, for example, THAT would be a pretty good indication that it was not built by bronze-age humans.

One type of artifact especially interesting to SETA researchers is something called a Bracewell Probe, first proposed by Ronald Bracewell in 1960. It is an autonomous robot probe used essentially as a message in a bottle to another star, which has crammed into its memory banks all of the information from and about the originating species that it's creators deemed worthy to put in it. If the probe happens to have the ability to utilize resources in other star systems to self-replicate, it is called a von Neumann probe and then has the ability to cover a lot more interstellar territory. Arthur Clarke, in his novel and then movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, imagined that an advanced alien civilization might send out millions of such probes to monitor promising worlds around the galaxy. Rather than try to analyze the development of each of the billions of species the probes were monitoring, the aliens set up a simple test. They placed a Bracewell probe on the moon. Any species on earth which advanced to the point of landing on the moon would find the probe, and trigger it to give the previously earthbound species further instructions.  

If you watched 2001 but didn't quite understand what was happening in that scene, or in any part of the movie, that's okay. Clarke was brilliant, and director Stanley Kubrick was brilliant, but the combination of the two of them was just effing weird.

So, we've been to the moon, and haven't found a Bracewell probe there. But oddly enough, we may actually have found one even closer than the moon.

On 6 November 1991 astronomer Jim Scotti discovered what he thought was a small near-earth object (asteroid), which was prosaically named 1991vg. NEO expert Duncan Steel at the University of Adelaide, Australia, analyzed 1991vg and made a truly startling discovery.  Based on the orbit of 1991vg, which trails the earth in its own orbit but sometimes closes range with earth for brief periods and then resumes its "station" behind it, and based also on the fact that light reflected from it indicates that the object is of a faceted nature (more like a shoebox than a basketball), there are three possible explanations for it. The first is that it is a naturally occurring asteroid. The second is that it is a piece of human-made space debris, left over most likely from the early Apollo missions. The third is that it is a self-propelled artifact of non-human origin. Through careful analysis and process of elimination, the third possibility has emerged as by far the most likely candidate. Really.

It is important to understand that Duncan Steel is probably the world's foremost expert of NEOs. He has written dozens of papers on various aspects of NEO research, and Steel and Scotti together have discovered and catalogued more NEOs than maybe all of the other researchers in the field combined. When Duncan Steel says "that's definitely not an asteroid and probably not human-made space junk", it's worthy of further investigation.

Here is his paper on the subject, in its entirety: SETA and 1991vg    

More research, obviously, must be done to determine the true nature of 1991vg. But if you happen to look up in the sky some night and see a giant baby swatting at satellites, don't say I didn't warn you.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Traveling 100 light years to the Hajj only to arrive three months late

This is making the rounds, I want to weigh in on it. If it's a hoax, it's damnably well done. It's not Venus, it's not Jupiter, it's not a conventional aircraft or balloon. This is the newscast from the United Arab Emirates, they speculate that it might be a really sophisticated Israeli drone. Which is a pretty unlikely possibility.

If you haven't heard about this, a glowing white light was seen to descend over the Dome of the Rock, hover for about a minute then rocket back up and vanish. Which wouldn't be especially noteworthy, except that it was (apparently independently) videotaped from four different locations around Jerusalem.

The skeptic in me notes that the object appears that it could be descending and rising on a single cable, although suspended from what I have no idea. It will be interesting to see what comes of this, if anything.

Watch the video, and draw your own conclusions. When you are done, watch the video from Utah of a different sighting of lights in the sky on the same day. For the record, I am intensely skeptical of the possibility that these are of extraterrestrial origin, for reasons I was planning to post about anyway as part of the ongoing SETI discussion. But, they are certainly interesting, whatever they are.

Light over Jerusalem

Lights over Utah


Here is a post from James Randi's JREF page, attempting to explain how the Jerusalem videos might have been hoaxed. Actually the "explanations" are surprisingly weak and self-contradictory, but it has only been a week since the original videos were released and Randi is not a film-maker or special effects artist. I am much more interested in seeing what someone like John Dykstra or Dennis Muren have to say. Randi has yet to post anything about the Utah video, but check back here occasionally because I'm hoping he will. Here's the blog from the Amazing Randi: JREF Responds

FURTHER UPDATE: Some people have noted that none of the city lights appear to be blinking except for the orb in question, and that this may indicate that the "city" is in fact a photograph. Interesting possibility, will try to replicate this with my own cell phone camera from the Admiral Overlook tonight, will post the results here.

Is there anybody out there?

This post is the first in what will be an ongoing series concerning SETL, SETI, SETA, and the ultimate question of  "if technologically advanced alien civilizations are commonplace and traveling all over the galaxy, why the hell haven't they landed here yet?". It's actually a more reasonable question than it appears to be at first glance.


In 1924 Mars and the earth were going to to be closer, for a few days, than they had been since 1804. The US Navy was asked to maintain a period of radio silence in order to listen for Martian broadcasts. The Navy managed to remain silent, but so, apparently, did Barsoom.

 In 1960 astronomer Frank Drake created Project Ozma, which was earth's first serious attempt to use radiotelescopes to listen for signals from intelligent species elsewhere in the galaxy. Ozma looked specifically at the stars Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani, both considered at the time to be likely candidates. They, too, failed to produce an artificially generated radio signal (but Drake did, in the process, manage to discover boring old pulsars).  Not especially daunted by not finding obvious signals after searching only two of billions of stars, Drake proceeded to expand his search of the heavens. In 1961 Drake chaired a meeting at the National Academy of Sciences National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia. Now known simply as the "Green Bank Meeting", this gathering of 12 astronomers, physicists, biologists and others established the first serious scientific protocols for the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, or SETI.

In preparing for the Green Bank Meeting, Drake created the now famous equation which bears his name:

N = R^{\ast} \cdot f_p \cdot n_e \cdot f_{\ell} \cdot f_i \cdot f_c \cdot L \!

In which

  • N = the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible
  • R* = the average rate of star formation per year in our galaxy
  • fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets
  • ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
  • f = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point
  • fi = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life 
  • fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
  • L = the length of time for which such civilizations release detectable signals into space
  • Many variants and modifications of the Drake Equation have appeared since it was first published. It is probably best known from Carl Sagan and Star Trek. Some of the variables we now have pretty good estimates for. In each case the numbers are much higher than originally anticipated by Drake. The number of old, stable stars in the Milky Way is many times larger than was imagined in 1961. The number of these which have habitable worlds is also much higher than previously imagined. How ubiquitous life is on habitable worlds remains to be seen; if life is found on Europa and Enceladus, and fossils are found on Mars, then  fwill be assumed to be a very large number.
  • fi, fc and L remain unknowns, but are tempered by the fact that to date we have no solid evidence of alien technology, either as radio signals, artifacts or direct contact and observation. 

    It is important to understand that SETI itself is a gross misnomer. It is not possible to search for intelligence. It is possible to search for life on other worlds, and it is possible to search for technology on other worlds, but intelligence itself is almost impossible to identify, even here on earth. We observe behaviors in cetaceans, cephalopods, corvids, canines, felines, pachyderms and even some primates which we interpret as intelligence. On the other hand, we occasionally observe behavior in simple eukaryotes, prokaryotes, viruses and even sub-atomic particles which might be considered intelligent if we observed it in a vertebrate. Even among our own species, we have very little understanding of what "intelligence" means, and how or if that can be qualified or quantified in a meaningful way. But, to the very best of our knowledge, no species on earth other than ourselves has ever developed technology more sophisticated than a broken rock or a digging stick.  

    Even very advanced human cultures did not invent the technology to transmit and receive radio waves until Marconi. And as human technology progresses, we are now broadcasting fewer and fewer radio signals into space simply by virtue of using more microwavelength communications and fewer medium and high frequency communications. Even if another civilization followed exactly our trajectory of technological development, there may be only a window of less than a century in which they are broadcasting distinct signals in the EM spectrum. We simply don't know.

    Searching for extraterrestrial technology by listening in the radio spectrum, because it presupposes that the entities sending the signal have a transmitter which we can receive, is only a baby step above tying a string to two soup cans and holding one can to our ear and the other to the night sky. In other words, the sky may be teeming with technologically advanced civilizations and we'd never know it, because even though they're technologically advanced, we aren't. Whatever the reason (and we'll be exploring some of them in the coming weeks here), we have not yet found a conclusive radio signal from space aliens.

    We have, however, found some not-quite-conclusive signals of interest. The most interesting was found by Jerry Ehman in 1977, and is known as the "WOW! signal" because of a hand-scrawled note on the digital printout. It was strong, narrowband, clearly not from our solar system, met all of the parameters SETI researchers have expected, lasted 72 seconds...and was never heard again. 


    SETI, more properly SETT, continues. Radiotelescopes great and small comb the skies searching for a distinct and unambiguous signal from a technological race beyond our solar system. Whether we will find an unambiguous signal in our lifetimes, or ever, only time will tell.

    Friday, February 4, 2011

    Lights out for lighthouses?

    Last March the US government pulled the plug on LORAN, because, heck, we have GPS now. Now apparently there's discussion of cutting funding for the maintenance of lighthouses and other aids to navigation, using the same rationale. That's an awful lot of confidence to place in a satellite system which has already demonstrated its fallibility on a fairly regular basis. I get that budgets are tight, and both parties are looking for things to cut. But I'm guessing that it would only take a couple of supertankers running aground in Puget Sound or Chesapeake Bay to justify the cost of maintaining a few lighthouses. But what do I know, I just drive boats for a living.

    CNN-- For centuries lighthouses have shone a friendly beam for sailors, fishermen and ferry passengers alike, steadily providing safe passage ashore and capturing a special place in the public imagination.
    However, with the advent of sophisticated and increasingly cheap Global Positioning Systems (GPS), a question mark now looms over the future of these iconic coastal beacons.
    "These are worrying times for lighthouses," said Jeremy D'Entremont, president of the American Lighthouse Foundation. "Everyone loves them, but as far as the government is concerned, they're not exactly a spending priority."
    According to D'Entremont, although about 75% of lighthouses are still operating as "navigational aids" in the United States, federal funding is now almost exclusively limited to the mechanical maintenance of the lights.
    "This leaves little or nothing for upkeep of the buildings themselves," he said. Without the support of local groups or the backing of a private buyer, he added, many lighthouses are "just left to rot."

    Full Story

    Thursday, February 3, 2011

    Indian ship sunk during 'Day at Sea' for navy families

    Remember, kiddies! Don't wait until the fire is out to start dewatering your bilges. "G" can only be bigger than "B" of you happen to be a submarine. Otherwise, you'll happen to be a submarine anyway. Good job, guys.

    A Bad, Awful Day


    CNN-- The heavily armed Indian navy frigate was equipped to do battle with enemy battleships and submarines, but it went up in flames as soon as it was hit … not by a torpedo or enemy vessel, mind you, but by a merchant ship.

    The sinking of the INS Vindhyagiri, a 3,000-ton warship, marked the worst-ever peacetime loss for the Indian navy, Indian Express reported, adding that it’s also pretty embarrassing.
    The warship was returning from a “day at sea” for families of sailors and officers and was entering the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust off the coast of Mumbai on Sunday afternoon, the website said.
    Video taken by a passenger aboard the INS Vindhyagiri caught the collision as it unfolded. Those aboard the navy ship can be seen scurrying nervously as the merchant vessel approaches the frigate.
    The Cyprus-flagged MV Nordlake, which was leaving the harbor, narrowly missed another container vessel, the MV Sea Eagle, and as it turned to avoid the Sea Eagle, it slammed into the frigate.
    The collision cracked the warship's hull near the waterline. Water rushed in, and a fire broke out in the engine room, the Indian Express reported.
    The Mumbai Mirror reported that the Navy attempted to put out the blaze, but the added water served only to make the ship sink faster.
    The ship was towed into the harbor, but it sank Monday afternoon. Police said they planned to arrest the Nordlake’s captain, according to the Indian Express.

    Full Article and Video

    Happy 4709! (Or 4708, or 4648, or whatever)

    Brightest blessings for the Year of the Rabbit!

    Wednesday, February 2, 2011

    Groundhog Day

    Punxsutawney Phil didn't see his shadow, and so even though we're having one of the worst winter storms in this country's history, spring is just around the corner!
    Okay. So, no, groundhogs don't predict the weather. And yes, astronomically speaking, the vernal equinox is always six weeks after the beginning of February. And no, the weather in Punxsutawney (wherever the hell that is) has little or no bearing on the weather anywhere else in the country, or the world. 

    But Groundhog Day is not entirely without basis. It's just that the basis doesn't have anything to do with groundhogs. 

    "Groundhog Day" is the Americanization (meaning, in this case, the Protestantisation) of the Festival of Brigid, or St Brigid's Day, or Lady Day, or Imbolg, or Oimelc, or Candlemas. It's a celebration of early spring, or at least the part of late winter when the lambs are being born and the buds are coming on the trees. St Brigid, and the goddess Bride (pronounced BREET-chuh) before her, was the matron of poetry, fire, healing, blacksmithing and maidens. It's an Irish thing. The weather rhyme which accompanied the holiday, at least the version of it I learned, went something like this:

    If Lady Day be fair and bright,
    Winter will have another flight,
    But if it be dark with clouds and rain,
    Winter is gone, and will not come again.

    I found a version on line which substitutes "Candlemas", but it's the same thing.
    St Brigid of Kildare
    Now, different climates have different weather patterns. But Ireland's west coast maritime climate, fed by the Gulf Stream, is similar in very many respects to Cascadia's. If  "Lady Day be fair and bright", it would tend to indicate that a stationary high was still set up over the northeastern Atlantic, and that the winter weather patterns would remain stable for some time to come. But "if it be dark with clouds and rain", the stationary high has destabilized and has been overrun by the serial occluded fronts which indicate that regionally, warmer and wetter weather is at hand.

    In Seattle today and yesterday it was clear and cold, which per the rhyme would indicate that cold air would continue to dominate for the next month or so. We'll see.

    By the way, my original intent with this post was to publish it around 8am this morning, and then periodically republish it throughout the day with very subtle changes. I thought it was funny, maybe you would have too. But reality intervened against obscure movie references, so I'm only posting it once. Oh well.

    Happy Groundhog Day, and Happy Brigid!