The Great Filter, remember, is the horror-genre-adaptation of Fermi’s Paradox. All of our calculations say that, in the infinite vastness of time and space, intelligent aliens should be very common. But we don’t see any of them. We haven’t seen their colossal astro-engineering projects in the night sky. We haven’t heard their messages through SETI. And most important, we haven’t been visited or colonized by them.
This is very strange. Consider that if humankind makes it another thousand years, we’ll probably have started to colonize other star systems. Those star systems will colonize other star systems and so on until we start expanding at nearly the speed of light, colonizing literally everything in sight. After a hundred thousand years or so we’ll have settled a big chunk of the galaxy, assuming we haven’t killed ourselves first or encountered someone else already living there.
But there should be alien civilizations that are a billion years old. Anything that could conceivably be colonized, they should have gotten to back when trilobytes still seemed like superadvanced mutants. But here we are, perfectly nice solar system, lots of any type of resources you could desire, and they’ve never visited. Why not?
Well, the Great Filter. No knows specifically what the Great Filter is, but generally it’s “that thing that blocks planets from growing spacefaring civilizations”. The planet goes some of the way towards a spacefaring civilization, and then stops. The most important thing to remember about the Great Filter is that it is very good at what it does. If even one planet in a billion light-year radius had passed through the Great Filter, we would expect to see its inhabitants everywhere. Since we don’t, we know that whatever it is it’s very thorough.
Scott Alexander, “Don’t Fear The Filter”, Slate Star Codex, 2014-05-28.
November 16, 2015
October 2, 2015
If you’re the worrying type, Charles Stross has a bit more for you to fit into your nightmares:
Today, the commercial exploitation of outer space appears to be a growth area. Barely a week goes by without a satellite launch somewhere on the planet. SpaceX has a gigantic order book and a contract to ferry astronauts to the ISS, probably starting in 2018; United Launch Alliance have a similar manned space taxi under development, and there are multiple competing projects under way to fill low earth orbit with constellations of hundreds of small data relay satellites to bring internet connectivity to the entire planet. For the first time since the 1960s it’s beginning to look as if human activity beyond low earth orbit is a distinct possibility within the next decade.
But there’s a fly in the ointment.
Kessler Syndrome, or collisional cascading, is a nightmare scenario for space activity. Proposed by NASA scientist Donald Kessler in 1978, it proposes that at a certain critical density, orbiting debris shed by satellites and launch vehicles will begin to impact on and shatter other satellites, producing a cascade of more debris, so that the probability of any given satellite being hit rises, leading to a chain reaction that effectively renders access to low earth orbit unacceptably hazardous.
This isn’t just fantasy. There are an estimated 300,000 pieces of debris already in orbit; a satellite is destroyed every year by an impact event. Even a fleck of shed paint a tenth of a millimeter across carries as much kinetic energy as a rifle bullet when it’s traveling at orbital velocity, and the majority of this crud is clustered in low orbit, with a secondary belt of bits in geosychronous orbit as well. The ISS carries patch kits in case of a micro-particle impact and periodically has to expend fuel to dodge dead satellites drifting into its orbit; on occasion the US space shuttles suffered windscreen impacts that necessitated ground repairs.
If a Kessler cascade erupts in low earth orbit, launching new satellites or manned spacecraft will become very hazardous, equivalent to running across a field under beaten fire from a machine gun with an infinite ammunition supply. Sooner or later you’ll be hit. And the debris stays in orbit for a very long time, typically years to decades (centuries or millennia for the particles in higher orbits).
How about a kickstarter campaign for laser-equipped orbit-cleaning satellites? Sweep up our orbital trash before it becomes a huge problem. If you’ve read Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, you’ve already got the image of a really extreme result of too much space junk (in the case of the novel, it was shattered pieces of the moon creating the Kessler cascade).
August 25, 2015
Oh, sorry, he actually said Musk is “crazy like a visionary“:
I am an unlikely fan of Elon Musk, the flamboyant, Steve Jobs-like (some would say Tony Stark-like) entrepreneur behind SpaceX, SolarCity, Tesla Motors, and other enterprises that seemed like starry-eyed impossibilities a scant decade ago. Musk’s two governing passions, he has said repeatedly, are “sustainable transport” to battle “global warming” and finding a way to make mankind an interplanetary species, beginning with a space colony on Mars.
For my part, the word “sustainable” has me reaching, if not for my revolver, then at least for an air-sickness bag. I regard the whole Green Lobby as a cocktail composed of three parts moralistic hysteria mixed with a jigger of high-proof cynical opportunism (take a look at Al Gore’s winnings from the industry) fortified with a dash of beady-eyed left-wing redistributionist passion. You can never be Green enough, Comrade, and if the data show a 20-year “hiatus” in global warming (so much for Michael Mann’s infamous hockey stick), that’s no reason not to insist that capitalist powerhouses like the United States drastically curtail their CO2 emissions right now, today, while giving egregious polluters like China a decade or more to meet its quotas.
No, when it comes to energy, I often quote, sometimes with attribution, the Manhattan Institute’s Robert Bryce: what the world needs now is cheap, abundant energy, period, full stop, end of discussion. My motto is: frack early, frack often. Do you want to help the poor/clean up the environment/save the spotted wildebeest? Then you need economic growth, and to achieve that you need energy, which at the moment means you need fracking. Q.E.D.
When it comes to interplanetary travel, I suspect that Musk’s passion for transforming us into “space-faring” creatures was heavily influenced by his youthful reading of Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and (one of his favorites) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Not that those adolescent chestnuts necessarily argue against the plausibility of his ambitions. Behind Musk’s enthusiasm for space colonization is a worry that a future “extinction event” might delete human consciousness from the emporium of the universe.
For what it’s worth, I’m very much split on Musk and his works: I generally agree with his desire to help get humanity expanding beyond our single, frail planet … I just wish he wasn’t guzzling down government subsidies to get there. I’ve read the book Kimball is reviewing (Ashlee Vance’s Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future), and I certainly feel I got my money’s worth from the purchase … Musk is potentially a very great man. Right now, he’s a pretty good man who still takes everything he can get from the government.
August 17, 2015
Published on 11 Aug 2015
On June 4th, 2015 we sent Flying Monkeys SuperCollider 2.0 DIPA craft beer into space just for kicks. After 3 hours in flight it came back to earth from 109,780 feet. The footage is unbrew-lieveable!
July 26, 2015
In Popular Science, Sarah Fecht dangles the tantalizing prospect that we may be over-estimating the costs of colonizing the Moon by a huge margin:
Only 12 people have walked on the moon, and we haven’t been back since 1972. But a new NASA-commission study has found that we can now afford to set up a permanent base on the moon, by mining for lunar resources and partnering with private companies.
Returning humans to the moon could cost 90 percent less than expected, bringing estimated costs down from $100 billion to $10 billion. That’s something that NASA could afford on its current deep space human spaceflight budget.
“A factor of ten reduction in cost changes everything,” said Mark Hopkins, executive committee chair of the National Space Society, in a press release.
The study, released today, was conducted by the National Space Society and the Space Frontier Foundation — two non-profit organizations that advocate building human settlements beyond Earth — and it was reviewed by an independent team of former NASA executives, astronauts, and space policy experts.
To dramatically reduce costs, NASA would have to take advantage of private and international partnerships — perhaps one of which would be the European Space Agency, whose director recently announced that he wants to build a town on the moon. The new estimates also assume that Boeing and SpaceX, NASA’s commercial crew partners, will be involved and competing for contracts. SpaceX famously spent just $443 million developing its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon crew capsule, where NASA would have spent $4 billion. The authors of the new report are hoping that 89 percent discount will extend beyond low Earth orbit as well.
Similar to SpaceX’s goals of creating a reusable rocket, the plan also relies on the development of reusable spacecraft and lunar landers to reduce costs.
Plus, mining fuel from the lunar surface could make going back to the moon economically viable. Data from the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) suggest that water ice may be plentiful on the moon, especially near the poles. That’s important because water can be broken down into hydrogen propellant for rockets (and, conveniently, oxygen for humans to breathe).
July 21, 2015
Alan Boyle on the preliminary findings of telemetry analysis of the failed SpaceX Falcon 9 launch last month:
The June 28 loss of the Falcon, plus SpaceX’s robotic Dragon capsule and more than two and a half tons of cargo, will set back the company’s launch schedule by at least a few months and is likely to result in hundreds of millions of lost revenue, Musk told reporters.
SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket is grounded pending the conclusion of the company’s investigation and the Federal Aviation Administration’s signoff. Also, the debut of its Falcon Heavy launch vehicle will have to be put off until next spring, Musk said.
He said that the strut assembly would be redesigned and readjusted before the Falcon flies again, and that SpaceX would readjust its attitude as well.
“This is the first time we’ve had a failure in seven years, so to some degree the company became complacent,” Musk told reporters. “When you’ve only ever seen success, you don’t fear failure quite as much.”
Musk emphasized that the focus on a faulty strut was only a preliminary rather than a definitive determination of the cause, but here’s how he and SpaceX’s investigators think it went down, based on an analysis of data from 3,000 channels of telemetry: One of the steel struts holding down a bottle of helium inside the Falcon’s second-stage liquid-oxygen tank assembly broke loose during the first couple of minutes of flight. The helium is supposed to be released in a controlled fashion to keep the liquid oxygen under stable pressure, and the struts connected to the bottles are supposed to withstand 10,000 pounds of force.
But on June 28, something went wrong when the stress on the struts amounted to only 2,000 pounds. “It failed at five times below its nominal strength, which is pretty crazy,” Musk said.
July 2, 2015
In National Review, Taylor Dinerman discusses the bad news from SpaceX and what it means for the space program:
June 28 was Elon Musk’s 44th birthday, and he had hoped to celebrate with a successful launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. It would be carrying a Dragon capsule full of supplies for the International Space Station (ISS), under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services contract he signed with NASA back in 2006.
Musk had also hoped that once the Dragon capsule was well on its way to the space station, the Falcon’s first stage would return to Earth’s surface for a powered landing on a barge off the coast of Florida. A successful flight would have been a major step toward building a reusable launch vehicle, which could radically reduce the cost of getting payloads into orbit.
Instead, the Falcon 9 exploded a few minutes after leaving the launch pad.
It has been a rough time recently for ISS logistics. In October an Antares rocket launched from Virginia by Orbital Sciences blew up, and in April a Russian Progress supply capsule was lost when its Soyuz launcher malfunctioned. NASA says that there are enough supplies onboard the ISS to last until October. If this summer’s planned launch of a Japanese HTV supply capsule goes wrong, things could get dicey.
June 28, 2015
Published on 6 May 2015
The universe is unbelievably big – trillions of stars and even more planets. Soo… there just has to be life out there, right? But where is it? Why don’t we see any aliens? Where are they? And more importantly, what does this tell us about our own fate in this gigantic and scary universe?
Videos, explaining things. Like evolution, time, space, global energy or our existence in this strange universe.
We are a team of designers, journalists and musicians who want to make science look beautiful. Because it is beautiful.
April 25, 2015
At Real Clear Science, Ross Pomeroy sings the praises of an early publication by the pre-Nobel academic Paul Krugman:
Paul Krugman is a Nobel Prize-winning economist, a respected professor at Princeton University, and an outspoken liberal columnist for the New York Times. But first and foremost, he is a huge nerd, and proud of it.
Back in the sweltering summer of 1978, Krugman’s geekiness prompted him to tackle a matter of galactic importance: the economics of interstellar trade. Then a 25-year-old “oppressed” assistant professor at Yale “caught up in the academic rat race,” Krugman crafted his “Theory of Interstellar Trade” to cheer himself up. Krugman’s jocularity is evident throughout the paper, which was published online in 2010, thirty-two years after he stamped it out on a typewriter. Early on in the article, he even pokes fun at his chosen profession:
“While the subject of this paper is silly, the analysis actually does make sense. This paper, then, is a serious analysis of a ridiculous subject, which is of course the opposite of what is usual in economics”
The key problem with interstellar trade, Krugman writes, is time dilation. When objects travel at velocities approaching the speed of light — roughly 300,000 kilometers per second — time moves more slowly for them compared to objects at rest. (For a great explainer of this effect, which is tied to Einstein’s theory of special relativity, check out this video.) So the crew of a space-faring cargo ship might experience only ten years while thirty years or more might pass for the denizens of the planets they’re traveling between. How then, does one calculate interest rates on the cost of goods sold? Trading partners will undoubtedly be many light-years apart and trips will last decades, so this is a vital issue to resolve.
Since the speeds of vessels will undoubtedly vary, but both planets should be moving through space at close enough velocities where time dilation wouldn’t be a factor, Krugman contends that the interest costs should be tabulated based on the time shared by the two planets. But what about those interest rates? Won’t they differ? Not necessarily, Krugman argues. Competition should lead them to equalize amongst interplanetary trading partners.
April 22, 2015
Published on 15 Apr 2015
THIS VIDEO IS A PARODY OF THE ORIGINAL “UPTOWN FUNK” by Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars and does not infringe on the copyright of Sony Music Entertainment (SME).
This video was created by fans of SpaceX and does not reflect the views of SpaceX or its partners.
You Elon MUST share this SpaceX music video, and help promote the future of science and space exploration! #GoBold (Lyrics at the bottom!)
H/T to Boing Boing for the link.
November 28, 2014
Charles Stross visits the closest thing to an O’Neill L5 colony:
To the eternal whine of the superannuated free-range SF geek (“dude, where’s my jet pack? Where’s my holiday on the moon? Where are my food pills? I thought this was supposed to be the 21st century!”) can be added an appendix: “and what about those L5 orbital space colonies the size of Manhattan?”
Well, dude, I’ve got your L5 colony right here. In fact, they turned it into a vacation resort. I just spent a day checking it out, and I’m back with a report.
So here’s what happens. One morning you get up early in your hotel or apartment in Berlin. You collect your swimming gear, flip-flops, beach towel, and sundries. Then you wrap up warm, because of course it’s November in Prussia and while it’s not snowing yet the wind has a sharp edge to it. You head for Zoologischer Garten station (or maybe the Ostbahnhof if you’re on that side of the city) and catch a train, which over the next hour hums through the pancake-flat forests and villages of East Germany until it stops at a lonely (but recently modernized) platform in a forest in the middle of nowhere.
You’re wondering if you’ve made some sort of horrible mistake, but no: a shuttle bus covered in brightly colored decals depicting a tropical beach resort is waiting for you. It drives along cracked concrete taxi-ways lined with pine trees, past the boarded-up fronts of dispersal bay hangers and hard stands for MiG-29 interceptors awaiting a NATO attack that never came. The bus is raucous with small children, chattering and screeching and bouncing off the walls and ceiling in a sugar-high — harried parents and minders for the large group of schoolgirls in the back of the bus are trying to keep control, unsuccessfully. Then the bus rumbles and lurches to a standstill, and the doors open, and you see this:
It’s hard to do justice to the scale of the thing. It’s one of those objects that is too big to take in at close range, and deceptively small when viewed from a distance. It’s like an L5 space colony colony that crash-landed in on the West Prussian plains: a gigantic eruption from the future, or a liminal intrusion from the Gernsbackian what-might-have-been.
Welcome to Tropical Islands, Germany.
You can get the history from the wikipedia link above: in a nutshell, the Zeppelin hangar was bought from the liquidators by a Malaysian resort operator, who proceeded to turn it into an indoor theme park. They stripped off a chunk of the outer cladding of the hangar and replaced it with a high-tech greenhouse film: it’s climate-controlled, at 26 celsius and 64% humidity all year round. (That’s pretty chilly by Malaysian standards, but nice and comfortable for the German and Polish customer base.) There’s an artificial rainforest, with over 50,000 plants and a 5km long walking trail inside. There are about a dozen different saunas, hot tubs, and a swimming pool complex: there’s a 200 metre long artificial beach with sun-loungers for you to work on your tan wrapped around an artificial tropical lagoon — a 140 metre swimming pool with waves. There are bars, shops, restaurants, hotels, even a camp ground for tents: and of course the usual beachside resort song and dance show every evening.
November 21, 2014
This is a use of crowdfunding I didn’t expect to see:
A group of British scientists have taken to Kickstarter in order to get the first set of funds to attempt a landing on the Moon. All ex-teenage (very much ex-teenage, sadly) sci-fi addicts like myself will obviously be cheering them on (and recalling Heinlein’s The Man Who Sold The Moon no doubt) and possibly even subscribing. They’re looking for £ 600,000 or so for the planning phase and will need £ 3 billion to actually carry out the mission. That’s probably rather more, that second number, than they can raise at Kickstarter.
However, over and above the simple joy of seeing boffins doing their boffinry there’s a further joy in the manner in which such projects disintermediate around the political classes. That is, we’ve not got to wait for the politicians to think this is a good idea, we’ve not even got to try and convince any of them that it is. We can (and seemingly are) just getting on with doing it ourselves.
Here’s what they’re proposing:
In arguably the most ambitious crowdfunded project ever attempted, a British team is planning to use public donations to fund a lunar landing.
Within ten years, they believe they can raise enough money to design, build and launch a spacecraft capable of not only travelling to the Moon, but drilling deep into its surface.
They also want to bury a time-capsule, containing digital details and DNA of those who have donated money to the venture as well alongside an archive of the history of Earth. Finally, the mission will assess the practicality of a permanent manned base at the lunar South Pole.
There’s no doubt at all that the Apollo and similar Russian space adventures had to be run by government. The technology of the time was such that only a government had the resources necessary to drive such a large project. But, obviously, the cost of rocket technology has come down over time.
In Wired, former astronaut Marsha Ivins talks to Caitlin Roper about what it’s really like to work in space:
Everyone imagines that when you’re sitting on the launchpad atop 7 million pounds of explosive rocket fuel, you’re nervous and worried; but the truth is, there isn’t much to do for those two hours after you climb into the shuttle. Many astronauts just take a nap. You’re strapped in like a sack of potatoes while the system goes through thousands of prelaunch checks. Occasionally you have to wake up and say “Roger” or “Loud and clear.” But the launch itself is a whole other thing — from the pad to orbit in 8.5 minutes, accelerating the entire time until you reach the orbital velocity of 17,500 mph. That is a ride.
It turns out that once you’re actually in orbit, zero-g has some upsides. Without gravity, bodily fluids move toward your head. It’s a great face-lift. Your stomach gets flat. You feel long, because you grow an inch or two. (I thought, “Oh cool, I’ll be tall,” but of course everybody else was taller too.)
But zero-g also has some disadvantages. As that fluid shifts north, you get an enormous headache. Your body compensates and loses about a liter of fluid in the first couple of days — you essentially pee the headache away. And a lot of people get nauseated. The way to feel better is to “lose up,” to convince your visual system that “up” is wherever you point your head and “down” is where your feet are. When you can do that, and go headfirst or earlobe-first wherever you want, then you’re getting adapted to zero-g. On each flight this adaptation happens more quickly — your body remembers having been in space. But it can take a few days before your stomach finally settles down and says, “OK, what’s for lunch?”
I didn’t eat much on any of my flights. I don’t have a big appetite even on Earth, but between the lack of gravity and the shifting fluids, things can taste different in space. I’d bring great chocolate with me and it would taste like wax — it was very disappointing. But you don’t go to space for the gourmet dining. There’s no way to cook, on the shuttle or on the ISS. Space food is already cooked and then either freeze-dried and vacuum-packed — so you add water and put it in the oven to warm up — or it’s thermo-stabilized, like a military MRE. With no refrigerator on board, fresh food won’t keep. So on the shuttle we’d have to eat anything fresh — usually fruit like apples, oranges, and grapefruit — early in the mission.
November 13, 2014
European Space Agency fails to harpoon a comet … successfully lands anyway:
In 1998, the Hollywood blockbuster Armageddon asked us to believe that it was possible to land a spacecraft on an asteroid hurtling towards Earth — too far-fetched, right? Not so. Today humanity just achieved the seemingly impossible.
Earlier this afternoon, scientists from the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta mission successfully landed the unmanned Philae lander module on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The complexities of this mission are such that a short article cannot do justice to the men and women who made this mission a success, but here are a few of the mind-boggling highlights:
The Rosetta probe launched in March 2004 after years of careful planning. Since then, it has travelled 6.4 billion kilometres through the solar system to get into the orbit of the comet 67p, which itself is just four kilometres in diameter. Comet 67p is orbiting the Sun at speeds of up to 135,000 kilometres per hour and is currently about 500 million kilometres from Earth. After a period during which it successfully orbited comet 67p, the 100 kilogram Philae lander then separated from the Rosetta orbiter, descended slowly and landed safely.
At the time of writing, the latest reports from the ESA suggest there may have been some problems with the lander’s anchoring mechanism. The lander was designed to fire harpoons into the surface of the comet to ensure it stayed in place — this may not have worked. But to be fair, no one has tried harpooning a comet before, so a few glitches are understandable.
Update: BBC News has more on the unexpectedly bumpy landing and the risk that the lander may not be able to stay active very long due to battery limitations. Having landed in the shadow of a cliff, the batteries are not able to be recharged by the solar panels.
After two bounces, the first one about 1km back out into space, the lander settled in the shadow of a cliff, 1km from its target site.
It may be problematic to get enough sunlight to charge its batteries.
Launched in 2004, the European Space Agency (Esa) mission hopes to learn about the origins of our Solar System.
It has already sent back the first images ever taken on the surface of a comet.
Esa’s Rosetta satellite carried Philae on a 10-year, 6.4 billion-km (4bn-mile) journey to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which reached its climax on Wednesday.
After showing an image that indicates Philae’s location — on the far side of a large crater that was considered but rejected as a landing site — the head of the lander team Dr Stefan Ulamec said: “We could be somewhere in the rim of this crater, which could explain this bizarre… orientation that you have seen.”
Figuring out the orientation and location is a difficult task, he said.
“I can’t really give you much more than you interpret yourself from looking at these beautiful images.”
But the team is continuing to receive “great data” from several different instruments on board Philae.
Another problem with the lander — aside from not knowing exactly where it landed — is that one of the landing legs isn’t actually in contact with the surface:
Controllers re-established radio communication with the probe on cue on Thursday after a scheduled break, and began pulling of the new pictures.
These show the feet of the lander and the wider cometscape. One of the three feet is not in contact with the ground.
Philae is stable now, but there is still concern about the longer-term situation because the probe is not properly anchored — the harpoons that should have hooked it into the surface did not fire on contact. Neither did its feet screws get any purchase.
Lander project manager Stephan Ulamec told the BBC that he was very wary of now commanding the harpoons to fire, as this could throw Philae back off into space.
He also has worries about drilling into the comet to get samples for analysis because this too could affect the overall stability of the lander.
“We are still not anchored,” he said. “We are sitting with the weight of the lander somehow on the comet. We are pretty sure where we landed the first time, and then we made quite a leap. Some people say it is in the order of 1 km high.
“And then we had another small leap, and now we are sitting there, and transmitting, and everything else is something we have to start understanding and keep interpreting.”
October 18, 2014
In the Telegraph, Rob Crilly tells us what is known about the X-37B’s mission:
It arrived back at a California air base after dark. Only the eagle-eyed would have spotted the snub-nosed spacecraft gliding out of the black sky.
Officially, the unmanned Boeing-built X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle had just completed its longest ever mission, spending almost two years circling the Earth, conducting experiments.
But its secretive history has sparked countless theories about what the computer controlled craft was really doing in space.
One idea is that the US Air Force has developed a drone spy ship, which it uses to shadow Chinese satellites. Another more fanciful claim is that it has been developed to engage in sat-napping — gobbling up rival spy satellites like something from a James Bond film.
There were few clues in an official press release.
“The landing of OTV-3 marks a hallmark event for the program,” said an unidentified programme manager quoted in the Air Force statement.
“The mission is our longest to date and we’re pleased with the incremental progress we’ve seen in our testing of the reusable space plane. The dedication and hard work by the entire team has made us extremely proud.”