Category Archives: Space

No more revisionist history!

Until now I have been content to let things slide, but enough is enough. Following in the footsteps of thinkers like T. S. Elliot and Monroe Beardsley, I have to declare that George Lucas is absolutely and unambiguously WRONG. Lucas may well have intended to have Greedo shoot first. It would have been idiotic, since it violates Han’s character and it requires a ridiculous suspension of disbelief to have Greedo miss at that range. Nevertheless, he might indeed have intended to show that. However, what Lucas intended to show is utterly irrelevant. What he did show in 1977, unambiguously, was Han shooting first. Not only did Han shoot first, but as a result Greedo didn’t get a shot off at all.

NOW CHANGE THE DAMN THING BACK FOR THE DVD!!!!!

 

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Good news, kind of

The latest Russian Mars probe might have missed the red planet, but it did manage to hit the planet that is closest to Mars.

 

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Archaeology on the final frontier

Paul Davies and Robert Wagner at Arizona State University have an interesting proposal: They want to use crowd-sourcing to search high resolution images of the lunar surface for evidence of extraterrestrial visits. Although they admit that the likelihood of actually finding something seems small, the cost of this sort of effort would also be extremely small, as almost all of the work would be done by interested volunteers.

For myself, I’m happy to see exo- and xeno-archaeology starting to receive serious consideration outside of the usual conspiracy theorist circles. I’ve long thought that if there are any advanced technological societies out there, it’s more likely that we will encounter evidence of their past activities than the beings themselves. The science of archaeology exists at all because artifacts so frequently outlast the people who create and use them. I can’t think of any reason to expect that to be different in space.

 

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One small step further

On October 4th, 2004, the 47th anniversary of the Sputnik launch, a small vehicle named SpaceShipOne accomplished something that had never been done before in human history. It flew into space under its own power for a second time within a period of less than one week. And it did it entirely without government funding.

The product of a collaboration between aerospace engineer Burt Rutan and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, SpaceShipOne was the proof-of-concept vehicle that led directly to the spacecraft that are currently planned to begin commercial flights very soon with Virgin Galactic.

Not satisfied with their accomplishments so far, Rutan and Allen are now teaming up with Elon Musk of SpaceX to develop a spacecraft capable of carrying cargo or passengers into orbit. The partnership is called Stratolaunch Systems. As reported in Wired, the new vehicle will use a carrier aircraft like SpaceShipOne did, but this one will be much larger, with a wingspan of 385 feet, the largest ever. (The current record is the 319 foot wing of the Hughes H-4 Hercules).

I was fortunate enough to be able to attend all three space launches of SpaceShipOne back in 2004, and I hope Stratolaunch succeeds in this new venture.

 

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Paging D.D. Harriman

Fox has an interesting short article on various efforts to begin mining the moon. Unfortunately, it doesn’t deal with the legal aspect of space development, which may be the biggest obstacle. My understanding is that current treaties make it nearly impossible for any entity, public or private, to gain any benefit from resources on the Moon, or anywhere else in space. I understand and agree with the desire to keep one country from acting like seventeenth century European kings and claiming vast amounts of real estate for themselves, the current situation where nobody can own anything in space (except their own vehicles, obviously) seems to me to be just as ridiculous. And in the long run, possibly even more harmful.

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Space archaeology

NASA has just released a group of photos showing the Apollo landing sites taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. From an archaeological standpoint, these photos are important for two main reasons. First, they document the current condition of some of the most significant cultural heritage sites in existence. The lunar landing sites certainly should be preserved for future generations, and the first step to preserving any site is determining what condition it is in right now.

Second, photos like these are important because they help improve our understanding of what happens to objects left on the lunar surface. Archaeologists use the term taphonomy to refer to the various decay processes that occur after an artifact or feature enters the archaeological record (i.e. gets abandoned or lost). Understanding these processes is crucial to making sense of the remains that we find in the field. Because we have been exploring space for such a short time, detailed information on long-term environmental processes is hard to come by, and still largely theoretical. This set of photos will help provide the data that future space archaeologists will draw upon.

 

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Time for plan B

From an old episode of Stargate SG-1:

Col. O’Neill: It’s time for Plan B.

Maj. Carter: We have a Plan B?

Col. O’Neill: No, but it’s time for one.

Today the Russians have grounded their entire fleet of Soyuz spacecraft after one of them was destroyed in a crash. This is, of course, the vehicle that NASA is relying on to resupply the ISS since the last shuttle has retired. Currently, there is no backup. The crew of the ISS is stranded in orbit until either the Russians fix the problems with the Soyuz or SpaceX begins commercial flights to orbit.

As I’ve said before, the replacement for the shuttle should have been in service 20 years ago.

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Giving a whole new meaning to “little green men”

By an interesting coincidence, while I’m here enjoying WorldCon, the UK Guardian decided to run a story about the possible outcomes of contact with extraterrestrials. The money quote is this: “‘Green’ aliens might object to the environmental damage humans have caused on Earth and wipe us out to save the planet.”

While I agree this is theoretically possible, there is no reason to consider this any more likely than aliens attacking because they object to our over protection (as they see it) of our natural environment. It’s absurd even to speculate about what might provoke hostility from a member of another human culture without knowing anything at all about that culture. It even more absurd to speculate about what might provoke an unknown extraterrestrial culture. Anything we can imagine, and probably a great many things we can’t, might be the trigger.

Seriously, is it so hard to think up legitimate reasons to protect the environment that people have to come up with silly ones?

 

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Are we alone?

According to a recent scientific analysis, the answer to this burning question is… maybe. Astrophysicists David Spiegel and Edwin Turner, have determined, using statistical methods, that the probability of life arising on another planet similar to Earth can not currently be estimated. That is, the fact that life appeared very early in the history of our own planet doesn’t necessarily mean anything at all about how likely it is to exist on some other world.

On the other hand, Andrei Finkelstein recently predicted at a press conference that astronomers would detect signals from an extraterrestrial civilization within 20 years. Although I can’t find any direct information about the reasoning behind Finkelstein’s assertion, he appears to be using the same numbers Seth Shostak had previously proposed for the famous Drake Equation.

The Drake Equation, of course, is one of the better known examples of a SWAG (Scientific Wild-Ass Guess). Most of the factors are completely unknown. At present, we obviously have only a single example of a planet with life, of life evolving to intelligence, and of intelligence developing the technology to transmit electromagnetic (i.e. radio) signals. And for the last factor in the equation, the length of time that a technological civilization continues to exist and to be detectable by radio (usually designated “L”), we have no examples whatsoever, since our own society has clearly not yet reached that limit.

Shostak’s own guess, which he gives in The Value of “L” and the Cosmic Bottleneck (included in Cosmos & Culture: Cultural Evolution in a Cosmic Context) is that the average lifespan of technological civilizations is somewhat greater than 1,000,000 years. Multiplying this by the values he assigns to the other factors in the Drake Equation, he concludes that there are around 10,000 such civilizations in the galaxy at the present time, which is the same number Finkelstein uses.

If there really are 10,000 planets with technological civilizations in this galaxy, then Finkelstein is probably right about the likelihood of detecting one of them within the next 20 years. If, on the other hand, there are only 2 such worlds (the result that one obtains by assuming that L is 200 years, and continuing to use Shostak’s estimates for each of the other factors) it is extremely unlikely that we will detect the other one before our own civilization is finished. Personally, I’d like to believe that L is very large. But as an archaeologist, I can’t find even the slightest reason to think that it’s anywhere near 1,000,000 years.

One interesting thought does occurs to me, though. Archaeologists know of the existence of a large number of human societies that no longer exist, in the sense that they have no identifiable descendant culture. In each case, we know of their existence because they left behind physical evidence that can be detected and interpreted. In fact, any society that significantly modifies their environment in a patterned way, or that utilizes durable materials to make tools and other objects, is likely to leave behind some evidence of their existence and activities. That being the case, even if we never make contact with a living extraterrestrial civilization, we may someday find out about their existence and at least some of their achievements. Equally, somebody that we are destined never to meet might someday learn about us in the same way.

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To boldly go…

The Boston Globe has a good story about NASA’s latest ambitious proposal: sending a crew of astronauts to one of the asteroids by 2025. I imagine they would choose a near-Earth asteroid, and not one from the main belt. Even so, it sounds like a challenging engineering project.

However, I expect that the engineering will be the easy part of this mission. The hard part will be getting enough support from Congress, the President, and ultimately the American people to make it happen.

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