boutell: (shave)
My wife is convinced I want to move to Mars. She has expressly forbidden me to do so. She has nothing to worry about.

Not just because nobody's moving to Mars any time soon, not even Elon Musk.

Not just because I'd be a terrible astronaut. I'd calculate the coordinates correctly, then open the airlock in an absent-minded quest for wheat thins.

No... because life on Mars is a godawful small affair. A long-term Mars colonist who spent his time knocking about in a suit on the surface would hit his lifetime radiation limit within a few hundred days.

A permanent resident would have to spend almost all of their time deep underground, protected by a shield of rock.

If you told me I had to do that on Earth, I'd probably say "as long as there are salsa clubs and I can play Starcraft."

Mars would have a tiny population of dancers and around 13 minutes of Internet lag. Gee, no thanks.

If we're lucky and smart, someone may get to go. And I hope they go to stay, because creating a second fully independent biology is the best way to understand what we must do to preserve life on Earth. But I'm happy to participate via awesome sky-crane-propelled robot.
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We need this. Exploration of the universe, and the investigation of basic questions about life or the potential for life on other worlds, speaks to a basic curiosity that all human beings share. It is an activity that requires all of our abilities for the sake of knowledge and wonder alone. And it is based on the underlying assumption that we're going to do more than survive, that we're going to sort ourselves out and grow into place in the universe. I'm stoked.

Still, budgets are tight, and NASA and JPL have put many eggs in this basket. So my fingers are crossed for a successful landing of this tremendously ambitious Mars rover mission.

The landing is at 1:31am Monday morning East Coast USA time. Or rather, that's when Earth is supposed to get a happy text message from Curiosity saying "yeah, I made it, now chill, I have a lot of unpacking to do."

OK, I have 60000 tabs open, so I'm going to share the bounty:

"Seven minutes of terror," very slick, really gets across why this landing is super ambitious...

Curiosity rover animation...

William Shatner narrates

Wil Wheaton narrates

NASA TV live coverage from 11:30pm EST

JPL TV; interviews from this morning, then live coverage from 11:30PM EST, with plenty of commentary

JPL TV 2; on this channel the only audio will be mission control chatter

Enjoy! Meanwhile the Opportunity rover is still hard at work, and Mars Odyssey and other orbiters are standing by to relay the signals from Curiosity. In short, Curiosity has a posse.
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I've been thinking about life on Mars.

When I read about critters that survive in extreme environments on Earth, I am surprised that we haven't found microorganisms on Mars already, in a fairly obvious way, at least as fossils.

But then I think about Antarctica.

"What the hell are you talking about?" you say. "There are oodles of microorganisms in Antarctica. And there are macroorganisms– penguins and all that– thriving on the coast."

Yeah, but Antarctica isn't as harsh an environment as Mars by a long, long mile. And even so, there are no large land animals that evolved in the current Antarctic environment. Penguins are survivors of a much more hospitable environment, before the continents drifted to their current positions. Once established, they were able to adapt slowly over millions of years of gradual cooling to the current environment. And even so they depend on the sea for their sustenance. Because there's next to nothing to eat on land.

Now think about Mars. While the Antarctic land mass is a friendly enough place for a microorganism, Mars is a hell of a lot harsher. It was apparently wetter once, but not for very long in evolutionary terms.

So the question is not "could life survive on Mars?" It is "could life begin on Mars." And I am inclined to think the answer is "no," or at least "the odds are agin' it."

There could be some environment underground that is more hospitable, but my guess is that life has not evolved there either, because once it is established life tends to fill the available niches, gradually creeping into spaces where it would never get started originally. Which would probably produce a lot of evidence on the surface.
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Have you ever read the Wikipedia entry on Biosphere 2? It is riveting stuff. Be patient, the interpersonal and scientific drama kicks in big time.

[ profile] ms_violet, are you aware that most of these people had fake scientific credentials and were actually part of an improv theater group?

This makes me feel better about the failure of the project. I thought it was about a lack of commitment to studying closed system ecology in general, but it was more about batshit craziness. I do think it should be tried again and often by less crazy people.
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Joel Levine's report on the feasibility of colonizing Mars, which is making the rounds in the press, cites this fascinating article on fixing up Mars by turning Jupiter into a star.

The article points out that Jupiter losing 10% of its mass won't "seriously" disturb Earth's orbit, and it might make Mars slightly less uninhabitable (*). And they point out that it can be done cheap (if it can be done at all)— cheaper than the Galileo Jupiter mission, since we have lots of nukes handy and all you need to do is pressure-proof one (up to a point) and tuck it into Jupiter.

They suggest using Saturn as a test case since, if they're wrong and it's a crazy thing to do after all, Saturn is further away and presumably less dangerous.

There's impressive math here, but what the article fails to mention is that turning Jupiter into a star would give a teeny-tiny nudge to about a kazillion asteroids and comets that pass whisker-close to Earth every few years.

Not all of these things are in stable orbits now, but lots of them are, as we would have hit them already otherwise.

Upsetting the applecart of a few thousand objects big enough to cause the extinction of civilization is not my idea of terraforming.

(*) Jupiter would lose 10% of its mass, mostly in the form of hydrogen. The tiny bit that wound up at Mars would be sufficient to react with lots of CO2 and produce water vapor and a greenhouse effect. Or something. I got distracted by the OMG DEATH COMETS.

My letter to the Journal of Cosmology follows.

I read Popoviciou's piece on the stellification of Jupiter ( ) with interest.

The author claims that it would not significantly perturb the orbit of the Earth itself. Accepting that, we are far from out of the woods. What of the thousands of near-earth objects large enough to pose a threat to continued civilization? As well as objects nearer to Jupiter whose orbits might be altered by a little thing like Jupiter losing 10% of its mass as well as becoming a new source of solar wind?

Since the interactions that make the difference between an earth-orbit-crossing object remaining benign and becoming a threat can be quite small, I would expect such a radical change in the neighborhood to unleash unwelcome visitors we are as yet very much unprepared to deal with.

There is also the far from thoroughly explored possibility of existing life on Europa or even in the atmosphere of Jupiter itself which would be catastrophically impacted by such a move.

Tom Boutell,
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We're not going back to the moon. We're not rushing pell-mell to Mars either. Instead, NASA will support efforts to develop commercial human spaceflight to low earth orbit, and focus its own efforts on development of a heavy launcher and long-term exploration of the solar system by both humans and robots.

We made it to the moon as quickly as we did for a lot of reasons. One of them is that the moon can be visited quickly. Just as Chernobyl can be visited quickly. What matters, mostly, is your lifetime exposure. And reaching Mars takes a very long time.

We don't have a practical engineering solution to keep people reasonably safe from the levels of radiation they would encounter on the long slow trip to Mars. It's going to take time to figure out how that could be done at a sane price. And we also don't have a practical plan to bring people back from Mars. And we have no idea how to create a self-sufficient ecology on another planet, so yes, we do have to bring them back. Etc.

This is why so many plans to visit Mars seriously proposed one-way "once you're there you're a Martian" trips or even elderly "colonists," on their way to die on Mars because they were soon to die anyway and thought it would be a seriously cool way to go while doing lots of good science, etc. This is a calculation a human being is entitled to make privately of course, but for my tax dollars exploring the universe should be an adventure, something from which you might one day return. Alive.

A better plan is to continue exploration, make better use of robots, develop commercial use of low earth orbit (and find practical ways to clean up the dangerous mess we've scattered there), and work on the long term problems of groundbreaking propulsion, better radiation shielding and sustainable ecology.

That last one is going to pay big dividends here on Earth. You can bet that any technology that sustains life independently on another world is going to require huge insights into how to sustain life on this one.

I would like NASA to have a bigger budget and pursue bigger goals sooner, but I can't fault the Obama administration for doing the math and setting goals that make more sense. Bush committed us to return to the moon but never set a realistic budget to get there. A sustainable long-term program is much more honest.

Agua Luna

Oct. 17th, 2009 09:12 pm
boutell: (Default)
If 25% of lunar soil is water, shouldn't we have been able to determine that from the stuff we brought home on our manned visits? Something about this story does not make sense.
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I enjoyed the first six episodes of Defying Gravity. I'm looking forward to the next one, which I'll probably watch on Hulu sometime within 48 hours of the actual airtime.

Sure the show is super melodramatic and the first few eps relied too heavily on coed locker room gags. And yeah the science isn't absolutely perfect. But come on folks, they actually TRIED to get the science right on this show. You can complain about their approach to testing a pressure suit intended for venus, or you can take a moment to say "holy crap millions of viewers just learned what the surface of venus is actually like."

It's a novel experience, not having to cringe at every "futuristic" plot device. They even came up with some pretty good excuses for the shipboard "gravity" in both rotating and nonrotating parts of the ship.

There's one great big deus ex machina involved, but that part feels like a 2001 homage so far. And you don't get a much better pedigree than that.

Not bad, ABC. Watching Defying Gravity on Hulu is pretty much the experience I was asking for a few months ago: let me watch what I want, when I want, without boxes and logistics and unreasonable up front costs, and I'll gladly pony up a little dough or watch a few ads.
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I love the idea of colonizing Mars, including the idea that people should be committing to a one-way trip at some point. But this proposal is just grim and stupid. Sending volunteers over 65 because you have no idea how to shield them successfully from radiation is not the start of a second sustainable human world. It sends no message other than "we have no idea how to make this work, and we don't expect we will figure it out."

What's the next "bold step" after dumping a few elderly volunteers on Mars to certainly die of radiation-induced cancer and/or equipment failure within five years? Dropping a suicidal hang-gliding enthusiast on Titan? What does that prove, at a cost of hundreds of billions?

This story points out the key reality of hopes for space colonization: we have to understand how to create a viable closed ecology first. And that is a project with huge benefits for human survival and sustainability here on Earth. Funds intended for humanity's future in space should be put to that purpose first while a viable solution for creating a large, radiation-shielded colony is developed— something that might well require von neumann machines. We've got time to work on the ecology problem in the meanwhile.

(The author of that article isn't really "at NASA," and it's a bit of a "modest proposal" I suspect. Still, it points out some serious problems with the current round of "let's just go back to the moon / on to Mars / who cares if it makes any sense" thinking.)

Seeing Red

Jun. 28th, 2009 09:56 am
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Buzz Aldrin calls bullshit on NASA's plans to return to the moon for another photo op and urges the US to commit to something a little more ambitious... like, y'know, PERMANENT COLONIZATION OF MARS. And he's not kidding about the permanent part: he calls for manned Mars missions to be one-way affairs. It's vastly cheaper, and you know there are people on this planet who desire nothing more.

Aldrin (the second man on the moon) has a space gearhead's point of view, which is fine and necessary, but he doesn't mention the greenest reason to commit NASA to sending astronauts to Mars on a one-way, this-is-home-now basis: it's pretty much impossible to colonize the red planet without mastering the science of sustainable ecology. Once you can make life on freakin' Mars sustainable, cleaning up any blighted chunk of Earth's landscape looks like a darn cheap opportunity.
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Manned spaceflight is hard, dangerous, risky stuff, but the astronauts are more than willing to go. It was ever thus. And servicing the Hubble Space Telescope is a trip worth making. That whole "deeper fundamental understanding of the universe and our place in it" thing is absolutely worth the candle, if you have any soul to speak of.

I know everyone wishes the Atlantis crew a smooth trip this week.

In 2014 the James Webb Space Telescope will launch, and we'll have an automated observatory that's entirely beyond the range of any space shuttle mission, one million miles away at the L2 Lagrange Point. It will open up smoothly and operate independently... or, well, too bad.

What are the odds for the Webb? Well, the Mars rovers have worked out pretty damn well, but lots of Mars missions have simply gone missing. The Voyager probes worked great, the Cassini probe to Saturn worked out well in the long run but suffered a crippling communications limitation due to a high-gain antenna that never opened. At least the Webb isn't going to Mars. Mars eats probes for breakfast.

I'm giving the James Webb a 75% chance of working more or less as intended.

Right now I think NASA should be spending on basic space science, unmanned observatories and landers like Hubble and the Mars rovers, advanced propulsion and the pursuit of a 50-year plan for the sustainable colonization of Mars or the moon. Whichever makes more sense when we know more about sustaining an independent ecology... something that will pay obvious dividends for human survival on, y'know, Earth. Maintaining some capacity and experience with manned spaceflight can be justified in that context.
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For manned spaceflight to continue, we do need to find a way to clean up space debris. But holycrap, this is not it.

A "constellation of space shuttle like vehicles" operated by astronauts to track down and clean up every marble-sized object in orbit? I'm all for stimulus plans but that's a level of expense nobody thinks is realistic... do they? (*)

There's gotta be another way. A vacuum cleaner (**) could be a slow-as-balls craft that adjusts its orbit with ion engines over long periods of time, matching orbits with every pebble and collecting them, dropping them off in low, unstable orbits calculated to burn up over unpopulated areas (not really necessary since little bitty bits of stuff would always vaporize on reentry anyway), then working its way back up for more. It's not a job for astronauts.

Come to that, low earth orbit itself is not a place for astronauts. It's a needlessly dangerous place in which robots (including simple waldoe-operated robots, since the timelag is quite short) could and would get the necessary jobs done if we had the political will to say "the risk of manned spaceflight should be reserved for more worthwhile goals... like freaking MARS. Or someday a sustainable colony somewhere else. Not taxicab rides to a politically convenient space station of little remaining scientific merit. The Russians can have it."

(*) No, nobody in the Obama administration is really suggesting we follow through on this plan, don't get your knickers in a twist.

(**) Why call it a "space debris vacuum cleaner?" It cleans up the vacuum! It's a vacuum cleaner in the purest sense!
boutell: (Default)
NASA astronauts are now drinking "urine re-cyc," as they say on Red Dwarf.

I think this is perfectly sensible and indeed necessary research for long-term space habitation, but I can't shake the image of Lister saying "urine RE-CYC," because I am twelve.
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Mars has a really frickin' huge crater in it.

How huge? Sometimes a picture really does tell the story: what Earth might look like with an equally large impact crater (ignoring the pesky issue of where the oceans would wind up, of course).

Four billion years ago, a collision between the Earth and a Mars-sized planet created another thing I have a handy picture of.
boutell: (Default)
Do not use the word "futuristic" to describe your space hardware. It's goofy and redundant.

If you come out with a Steam Orbiter or a Windmill Lunar Lander, that might be worth mentioning.


Oct. 25th, 2007 08:56 am
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Spirit and Opportunity have been roving Mars since January 2004. They were meant to last 90 days. They show no particular likelihood of failing any time soon. A real triumph.

And we've all seen the pictures, heard the stories of their latest explorations. Wow. So far have they traveled?

To date, Spirit has driven 7.26 kilometers (4.51 miles) and has sent back to Earth more than 102,000 images. Opportunity has driven 11.57 kilometers (7.19 miles) and has returned more than 94,000 images.

4.51 miles! 7.19 miles! In three years! Yes, I knew they weren't big critters. And they sure aren't driving on roads. But aren't you glad they landed in interesting and varied landscapes instead of, say, the Martian equivalent of Kansas?
boutell: (Default)
The Chinese have used lasers in the recent past to prove their ability to blind our spy satellites (ganked from Slashdot).

What nobody seems to be talking about is the effect this has on the MAD doctrine. Let me phrase this simply: mutual spying is the reason we're not dead. Either the US or the Russians would have launched a nuclear strike many times over if they had no credible reason to believe the other guy wasn't launching one right fucking now.

WTF? Are the Chinese crazy? You'd think they were facing an egomaniacal superpower that launches unilateral wars of aggression, behaving with no regard for the International community.

Oh, yeah, right!

The Air Force apparently knows how to build and operate satellites that are resistant to this stuff, but they have no money for them. This is one area of military spending where we should pull out the damn stops and go broke. We absolutely must know what they are doing. They'd better know what we're doing too. But of course we can't help them there, at least not directly.

The most interesting quote in the whole article, though, is this:

“The Chinese are very strategically minded and are extremely active in this arena,” said one senior former Pentagon official. “They really believe all the stuff written in the 1980s about the high frontier and are looking at symmetrical and asymmetrical means to offset American dominance in space.”

What scared me most about that quote was the possibility of cheap and effective space-based ground attack weapons. But apparently those don't really make sense. Thank the practical physics of heaven for small mercies.

I'm also reminded of matter-of-fact comments by folks in the Chinese manned space program about space colonization. Geez, are they going to pursue everything we haven't? Somebody should. Might wake us up. It's been suggested, though, that they are even more astronaut-death-averse than we are, using their space program, antiamerican sentiments and any other convenient national rallying point that comes along as fig leaves for their total ideological bankruptcy. And astronaut deaths will inevitably happen, so it's possible they won't pursue manned space travel for very long.
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It's official. Pluto is not a "classical planet." It's a "dwarf planet," not to be counted with the other eight.

I'm cool with this, I guess. It makes more sense than calling a whole mess of Kuiper belt objects "planets."

But what happens when and if we find a Saturn-like gas giant orbiting wayyy out past Pluto... in an elliptical orbit? Okay, we probably won't, but what if we did? Would we really not want to think of it as a proper planet? Are the polite orbits of our classical planets anything resembling universal, or might there be Jupiter-like planets circling other stars in elliptical orbits? Or Earthlike planets circling other stars in an orbit tilted with respect to their neighbors? Would we refuse to call those "classical planets?" Wouldn't that be kinda st00pid?

Well, I suppose we have one well-understood solar system to go on at the moment, and there's always room to change our minds if we find out it's not so typical. That's science, after all.
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I'm reading The Mammoth Book of Extreme Science Fiction, a collection of way-out-there short stories edited by Mike Ashley.

For the most part, these aren't the craziest ideas I've ever heard.

However, Theodore Sturgeon's The Girl Had Guts is a kickass horror sci fi short, guaranteed to provoke both "EW" and "WOW" responses. Especially when you consider that it was written in 1957.

And it turns out you can read it free on! It's part of a large archive of short stories on that site. By no means all-inclusive, but they have some cool stuff.
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The interview game continues:

You leave a comment asking to be interviewed.

I reply with five questions.

You answer them in your LJ and also post this meme so people can ask you questions.

* * *

Inquiring [ profile] shelleflys want to know.

1. Where do you get the inspiration for Eleanor's fabulous art projects?

I can't take the credit. Eleanor initiates most of her own craft projects. She draws a lot inspiration from school activities, and from the arts and crafts books she regularly checks out at school. Often these require trips to Pearl Arts on South Street. I'm getting better at persuading her to use supplies she has in creative ways. I'm a little annoyed with the lower school librarian for sending her home with a photography book clearly marked "twelve and over" which called for toxic chemicals on virtually every page. We skipped that one. When she's a little older, and I don't have to do the entire thing for her for safety reasons, we'll come back to it.

2. If you could choose a career in the arts: poet, musician, actor, etc. and know you'd be successful, which one would you choose?

Lead guitarist for Greater Delaware. Ahhhh, I can picture it now: overeducated thirtysomething suicidegirls mob the stage, demanding that I appreciate them as human beings. Immediately. Soon, the riot police arrive.

Mmm, I don't know. I'd like to write something that deserves to last, in any genre. Actually seeing it recognized as such would also be nice.

3. What's your favorite type of dance?

It's a little early for that. Jitterbug, I guess. Because I actually can, a little. But salsa looks pretty damn promising. In six weeks it's highly likely I'll answer this question differently. Something about a form in which you are expected to drape someone strategically across your body, then say "thank you" and move on to the next...

4. Do you want to raise Eleanor with any kind of religion? Why or why not?

Eleanor's school is exposing her to Quaker views, which I think are very healthy for her. My early religious upbringing was an important and healthy part of my intellectual and psychological development, and a source of support in difficult times. And like Episcopalianism, Quakerism is a tolerant faith, one few people part with in anger. Parents who don't intend to offer their children religious ideas should be prepared to offer serious answers to the same questions.

Speaking of which, I'm not beating around the bush with Eleanor about my own atheism. The conversations we've had about cosmology and evolution are among the most rewarding moments of my life. And I haven't encouraged her to believe in invisible superheroes from outer space. As you well know, the really sexy superhero from outer space is quite visible in his stylin' red cape.

5. What childhood dream/hope do you still think about?

While I knew from an early age that the astronaut thing was unrealistic, it dies hard. When I get two seconds to think about big issues, I still very much want humanity to get some of its eggs out of this little basket. I like the choices I've made as a more-or-less-downshifted dad-preneur, but I do look on the current crop of ex-dot-com space pioneers with envy.

I'm not interested in the ten-minute $85,000 suborbital roller coaster rides Virgin Galactic will offer. Too much risk for too little love. But if I could be a colonist, if we knew enough about ecology and biology for sustainable colonization to even be possible... there's a natural affinity there, between environmentalists and space buffs, but people don't see it yet.

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