28 April 2006

Incorporate he Solar System into our Economic Sphere

The President's Science Advisor gave an outstanding speech ( http://www.ostp.gov/html/jhmGoddardSymp03-15-06Release.pdf ) laying out a very hopeful vision of the exploration program, just one of the gems is:

As I see it, questions about the vision boil down to whether we want to incorporate the Solar System in our economic sphere, or not. Our national policy, declared by President Bush and endorsed by Congress last December in the NASA authorization act, affirms that, "The fundamental goal of this vision is to advance U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests through a robust space exploration program." So at least for now the question has been decided in the affirmative.

More On Planetary Defense

A long term vision for humanity and its offspring must include the idea of stewardship, of gardening, nurturing and protecting the worlds we inhabit. When we travel, it will not be just ourselves we take with us, but our biosphere as well. It is therefore critical that we protect our biospheres...even more so to give us time to get off, and a place to come back to. In 2004, before becoming NASA administrator, Mike Griffin had some outstanding words on the subject, and what needs to be done:
"Mister Chairman and members of the subcommittee, thank you for giving me this opportunity to comment on the greatest natural threat to the long-term survivability of mankind, an asteroid impact with the Earth. "

To understand graphically just what a shooting gallery we really live in, check out the oustanding Java simulation below:

06 April 2006

HabStars and Travel Plans

From: http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewpr.nl.html?pid=19462
ANU astronomers have discovered a nearby solar twin which may shed light on the search for planets that are similar to Earth and that may even support life.
HD98618 is only the second star found so far that is almost identical to the Sun in age, size, temperature and chemistry, according to the researchers Dr Jorge Meléndez, Ms Katie Dodds-Eden and Mr José Robles, from the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics.
"This solar twin doesn't only have the same mass as the Sun, it was also formed with the same 'chemical recipe'. So this star was equipped in the same way as the Sun to form Earth-like planets," Mr Robles said.
"Hopefully, as new planet finding techniques are developed and refined, astronomers will find whether HD98618 hosts terrestrial planets, which may even contain life."
HD98618 lies a mere 126 light-years away in the northern constellation of Ursa Major (the 'Big Dipper'). It is bright enough to see in binoculars, but only in the Northern Hemisphere.
The researchers believe that HD98618 is about four billion years-old, about 10 per cent younger than our own Sun. Its chemical properties are almost identical to the Sun and to the other closest Sun twin, a star known as 18 Scorpii, which was discovered a decade ago.
"It means that hypothetical terrestrial planets around this solar twin may have had enough time to develop some kind of complex life, assuming the time-scale for complex life formation is similar to Earth's," Dr Meléndez said.


Hopefully humanity will achieve the ability to travel beyond our system. When we do, it will be useful to have a plan for how to survey and expand. Even if we are "Transhuman" in this timeframe, we will likely still want to watch systems similar to our own (in the same way we watch avian flu to ensure it does not become virulent), and it is unlikely that the tyranny of distance will be completely eradicated even if we achieve radical life extension. Resources are likely to always constrain our ambitions, and we will have to choose what gets priority.

Therefore we should at least start to think about our priority for exploration. Good initial candidates might be picked from the SETI projects top most habitable stars, which were lately articulated by Margaret Turnbull ( http://www.space.com/scienceastronomy/060221_habstars.html ). We may also want to give thought to the structure of the search, not unlike previous exploration missions were fleets travel together for a time before splitting up, to circuits of travel, and to starts that lie in a plane and can use common navigational references.

Some of these considerations are expressed in the following Astronomy Magazine article, by Margorie Fish. While this is a favorite among the true believers in the UFO community, it is still a very useful group of well thought-out criteria for local exploration. The article is reprinted at the below links:

04 April 2006

Earth may have only one chance!

Here is a sobering thought from www.dieoff.org

Sir Fred Hoyle in 1964 put it bluntly.

It has often been said that, if the human species fails to make a go of it here on the Earth, some other species will take over the running. In the sense of developing intelligence this is not correct. We have or soon will have, exhausted the necessary physical prerequisites so far as this planet is concerned. With coal gone, oil gone, high-grade metallic ores gone, no species however competent can make the long climb from primitive conditions to high-level technology. This is a one-shot affair. If we fail, this planetary system fails so far as intelligence is concerned. The same will be true of other planetary systems. On each of them there will be one chance, and one chance only. (Hoyle, 1964)

I think this is the credible viewpoint, but I don't think absolute pessimism is in order. Given a long enough time scale (hundreds of millions of years) after a demise of human life, the Earth might replentish fossil fuel supplies. We may have created essentially new stores of high grade materials, already concentrated along with some archeology that might well catapult a successor civilization.

But the goal is to spread our memes and our genes, and that means we must get off world, start replicating, remove the single point of failure, find new energy sources, and protect and spread our biosphere.

25 March 2006

Khardashev Scale

A good standard of measurement of measurement for long term progress is the Khardashev scale, an excellent discussion of which can be found:

Of course the rapid accelleration of technology may mean that we will be substantially different as we move off planet. An excellent discussion can be found in Ray Kurzweil's new book, The Singularity Is Near.

If we truly were able to "Upload" to a digital substrate, we could afford to take our time to get to other places--or perhaps, with an ability to think so much faster than our current brains, we would cease to be interested in things that interest us now (as such experiments and activities might appear to move at glacial speeds). We might choose instead to forego exploration and expansion and rather create our own content for exploration, expanding only in computational ability, making use of available solar energy and solar system materials. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dyson_sphere

While many seem already quite convinced that there not only is likely to be extraterrestial intelligent life, but that it is already here visiting us ( http://www.exopolitics.org/ ), I am personally less than convinced E.T. has visited us. Kurzweil also makes an interesting argument that we may in fact be alone in the universe.

There is also an interesting discussion on the subject here:

If we are alone, than that certainly carries with it a moral imperative to spread. If it is not the case, then we certainly need to be prepared for an eventual meeting.

Our own experience on Earth shows that rarely do technologically underdeveloped societies fare well when they meet technologically superior societies. Jared Diamond's Guns Germs and Steel is an excellent discussion of why some societies move faster than others. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guns,_Germs_and_Steel

I personally doubt that the laws of evolution work differently elsewhere, so I would expect the following:
1) They will be self-interested
2) They will be expansionist
3) They will seek the most payback for the least payout
4) They will not look kindly on competition

When we look at who survived well and why, we can see that there are limited examples of independence, which offer possible strategies should such an encounter ever occur:

1) Japan survived because it quickly adopted technology, and opened enough to trade that it was less trouble for the foreign powers to trade than to occupy. A terrific book on how this was accomplished is: Romulus Hillsborough's Ryoma, Life of a Renaissance Samurai http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0966740173/104-2260096-0408727?v=glance&n=283155
2) Thailand survived because it played off competing powers

3) Small trade ports survived because they provided a laise-faire trade environment

4) The United States gained its independence because its enemy had long logistical lines which sapped its wealth and it had another enemy.

In any case, it would pay to be the E.T. visiting them first, rather than the other way around. [One fun way to at least keep our eyes out is to donate your spare screen-saver time to the largest parallel supercomputer project in the world: http://setiathome.berkeley.edu/ ]

China is a great example of what happens when you turn from expansion and exploration, check out: Gavin Menzies' 1421 The Year China Discovered America. http://www.1421.tv/

And a fantastic example is Fancisco Pizzaro's defeat and capture of Inca king Atahualpa by a tiny fraction of mounted, steel-equipped conquistadors against a huge Incan army armed with neither.

Just think if an advisor had come to Atahualpa and said, "Say, we should be investing in boat techology. It is possible that beyond that vast ocean there are valuable lands, and that on those lands may be other intelligent people. It is possible they could make it here, and if they did, they probably would have learned some militarily useful things along th way."

Only to be refuted, "No way, there is no evidence that there is anything useful out there, or that there are any people! Such shipcraft is just fantasy--we can barely get a few miles off coast. Furthermore, any men advanced enough to make it here is a ship would be so technologically superior that and so much more intelligent, they would be gods we would want to worship and serve anyway, or they would have evolved to a higher level of consciousness and not be interested in petty things like gold or land or power."

Better to do unto others says the realist.

The Long Road Ahead

Absent constraints, the natural urge of all life is to grow and expand into new ecological niches.

Space Exploration is primarily useful only as a precursor the expansion of humanity (and its children), and those portions of the biosphere we wish to take with us. The guys who have it right are those who look at space as a frontier, and seek to open it to the full powers of human creativity and market forces:

Some of the more exciting near-term visions I have seen are:

Of course, most of the places we want to visit are very long way off. Ultimately, we will want other means of propulsion than just chemical rockets. For a short time, Marc Millis at NASA ran a terrific program at NASA to turn over possible stones looking at this. Sadly, NASA terminated this program, and no-one, not the USAF, the DOE has picked up the slack.
Marc is now continuing to bring attention to this through a new organization.

In the popular media, one place to look for buzz in this area is:

Two wonderful repositories of some of the wonderful designs of the past, when we were a much more ambitious people are:
Another terrific resource is Ron Miller's Book: The Dream Machines

Of course, expansion is going to take a while, and if managed correctly, the Earth should last us until our Sun changes radically, several billion years from now. That creates near term priorities:

1) Protect the Biosphere from catastrophic threats (Comets and Asteroids)
The Earth has been hit before, and it will be hit again.

2) Solve the Energy Problem (With Space Resources)

3) Manage the Climate
Even assuming we can mitigate or solve the greenhouse gas problem, we can expect there to be unwanted changes in our climate, and varriatios in the solar constant. It would be wise to start developing the models and the tools to ensure we can assist the Earth in maintaining homeostasis.