Author Archives: Carl

Can versus Should

The topic of directed panspermia found its way into a recent issue of The Economist:  Colonizing the Galaxy is Hard. Why Not Send Bacteria Instead?

The concept, apparently being discussed by “a number of scientists”, involves jump starting evolution on exoplanets by seeding them with terrestrial bacteria.  With human interstellar travel likely centuries away, the proposal is to send tiny probes–containing microscopic passengers–in the near term.  These could be propelled using solar sails and Earth based lasers, along the lines of what is proposed for use in NASA’s Starlight (also known as “DEEP-IN”) program.

The article presents valid objections to this idea, including the worry of contaminating worlds were life might have arisen independently.

However I see a more practical reason for opposing such efforts.    Directed panspermia of this nature is being discussed because it is all we have the potential to do near term.  But technological advances over the next two centuries are likely to expand our capabilities greatly, including the ability to send larger, more capable exploratory craft and perhaps even human crews.  Sending smaller craft now, at best, provides a head start of a couple of centuries on an evolutionary process that is likely to take hundreds of millions or even billions of years to produce anything significant, assuming conditions are ideal.  That hardly seems worth the effort or risk.

When it comes to seeding life in distant solar systems, the sensible thing to do is to wait until we can do it responsibly.  Just because we can do it in the next few years, doesn’t mean we should.

Luxurious Optimism

Houston-based startup Orion Span is taking reservations for 12-day on orbit stays at their planned “luxury” hotel, Aurora Station.  The $9.5 million cost includes astronaut training and launch, with the station scheduled for launch in 2021 and the first guests hosted in 2022.

2022 seems more than a bit optimistic to me given that neither Space X or Boeing expect to launch crewed missions until late 2018 at the earliest.

Still, I’d love to be proven wrong.  And for those of us that don’t have $9.5 million or even $80k lying around, it seems to me that a good way to stoke up interest and funding would be to raffle off a trip for two.

Kookery Comes a Knockin’

I’m quite used to encountering conspiracy kooks nearly everywhere on the Internet–and occasionally in public places–but never this close to home.  Apparently my neighborhood harbors not only a 9-11 Twoofer, but one willing to drop some change at the local printer and go door-to-door hanging these brochures.

Something a crazy person hung on my doorknob

And it’s not just your run of the mill “it was an inside job!” claim.  It’s heavy on Dr. Judy Wood, a “former assistant professor of mechanical engineering”.  She asks “where did the towers go?”, claiming that the debris piles were too small to account for the mass of the towers and that “directed free energy technology” must be behind the “missing” mass.  That’s one I hadn’t heard before, and even more evidence-free than most other ridiculous claims out there.

I’m not going to get into it a critique of her “theories” here, and I’m not going to provide a link as you can find it yourself if you are so inclined.  But as a civil engineer I see no need for non-existent weapon systems, thermite charges, or any other nonsense to explain how the towers collapsed.  My limited perusal of her website revealed nothing but unsupported speculation, evidence taken out of context, and any number of other logical fallacies including special pleading. Oops, I said I wasn’t going to get into a critique.  Old habits…

It’s interesting to note that on her website she claims “Sadly, this case had no support from the ‘Truth movement’…”, meaning, it appears, that her claims are too ridiculous for other Twoofers to accept.  I had a hard time believing that until I came across efforts by the frauds at “Architects and Engineers for 9-11 Truth”  to debunk her.  Splitter!

Anyway, while it makes for a compelling study in psychology, the question I find more interesting is: what would it take to pull off a hoax like this and actually fool the experts?  I’m quite certain that with millions of eyewitnesses, and the fact that it took place right here on Earth in one of our most densely populated cities, that it would be phenomenally difficult to fake (and by “fake” I mean to fool ACTUAL experts, not crackpots on YouTube).  Like the fact that it would be MORE difficult to have faked the Apollo landings, than to actually have gone to the Moon in 1969.

Nat Geo Goes to Mars

Starting Monday November 14, The National Geographic Channel is airing a 6-part miniseries about the first human mission to Mars in 2033.  You can set your DVR and wait, or watch the first episode on-line now, in addition to related digital shorts.

Based on my initial screening it appears to be a mix of documentary–including interviews with the likes of Elon Musk, Robert Zubrin and Andy Weir–and dramatization.

Better Never than Late?

Barrack Obama has been busy writing OpEd pieces lately, including one in my favorite magazine, The Economist, and an extremely curious one published October 11 on CNN.com.

While I might take issue with a few of the assertions in the piece, I certainly don’t disagree with the overall message that we will go and that this time it is to stay.  However, the timing is bizarre, and the message odd from a President that hasn’t displayed an overwhelming interest in space exploration.  I do not tend to be cynical, but to me this screams of a transparent attempt at legacy building on the cheap.

On a curious note, right below the President’s piece is another by Michelle Obama advocating improving access to education for girls the world over.  Right now the link is titled “Michelle Obama:  Let’s get girls to school”, but here’s what it looked like earlier today when it was originally published:

10-11-2016-3-32-30-pm

 

Gemini-Mars Winner Announced

The Mars Society recently announced the winner of the Gemini-Mars competition, the culmination of a program that was originally announced last year.  Awhile back I described the benefits of such a program here and here.  Gemini-Mars is a proposed Mars flyby mission, so named because it would include a two-person crew and also because it would pave our way to reaching the Martian surface, much like the Gemini Program did for the Moon in the 1960s.

team-cranspace

The top team, from Cranfield University in the UK, was one of 10 teams invited to present their plan at the 2016 Mars Society Convention held last month in Washington DC.  Details of the plan were not included in the announcement, but will presumably be contained in the conference proceedings.  I was unfortunately not able to attend this year, and thus haven’t yet seen the presentation.

The original contest announcement included the statement that the plan “could be placed on the desk of the President-elect in late 2016 and be completed by the end of his or her second term”.  Well in a matter of weeks we’ll know who that will be, and hopefully that individual will have an interest in taking this next bold step.

Zubrin on SpaceX to Mars

Robert Zubrin was quick to post some suggested improvements to Elon Musk’s recently announced Mars plans (quicker than I was to post this follow-up):

The key thing I would change is his plan to send the whole trans Mars propulsion system all the way to Mars and back. Doing that means it can only be used once every four years. Instead he should stage off of it just short of Earth escape. Then it would loop around back to aerobrake into Earth orbit in a week, while the payload habitat craft with just a very small propulsion system for landing would fly on to Mars.

Used this way, the big Earth escape propulsion system could be used 5 times every launch window, instead of once every other launch window, effectively increasing its delivery capacity by a factor of 10. Alternatively, it could deliver the same payload with a system one tenth the size, which is what I would do.

So instead of needing a 500 ton launch capability, he could send the same number of people to Mars every opportunity with a 50 ton launcher, which is what Falcon heavy will be able to do.

The small landing propulsion unit could either be refilled and flown back to LEO, used on Mars for long distance travel, or scrapped and turned into useful parts on Mars using a 3D printer.

Done in this manner, such a transportation system could be implemented much sooner, possibly before the next decade is out, making settlement of Mars a real possibility for our time.

 

Dragons on Mars?

Reuters reports that SpaceX apparently plans to send an unmanned Dragon capsule to land on the Martian surface as soon as 2018.

SpaceX MarsWe’ve landed numerous craft on Mars, and this wouldn’t have capabilities that have made robotic explorers so useful.  However, it would be the first designed to bring humans to Mars, quite a milestone.  While the company has indicated that it doesn’t intend to provide details on the program until September, there is some very interesting potential .

Besides demonstrating the descent and landing technology, the mission could add greatly to our knowledge of radiation exposure and the long term performance of life support systems without a team of highly skilled (and motivated!) mechanics in the loop.  I wonder if the mission could include a simulated crew, consuming oxygen, expelling CO2 and other waste.  Of course the Dragon craft wouldn’t be the only habitable volume for the six month trip in a manned mission, but any opportunity to test systems under challenging, real-world conditions would be welcome.