The Habitable Zone

Few things are more exciting to me than the idea of finding a habitable planet somewhere out in space. Given the hundreds of now confirmed exoplanets, and the likely millions more that we have not yet found, it seems inevitable that we will find an exoplanet in the habitable zone. Part of figuring this out is understanding where the habitable zones will be.

Using the latest data, the Penn State Department of Geosciences team has developed an updated model for determining whether discovered planets fall within a habitable zone.

Aside from the obvious awesomeness of the fact that people are spending time and energy figuring this stuff out, I think that the most exciting part of all this is that we are likely to find a viable planet in the habitable zone of another star sometime in the next few years.

The graphic shows habitable zone distances around various types of stars. Some of the known extrasolar planets that are considered to be in the habitable zone of their stars are also shown. On this scale, Earth-Sun distance is one astronomical unit, which is roughly 150 million kilometers.

The graphic shows habitable zone distances around various types of stars. Some of the known extrasolar planets that are considered to be in the habitable zone of their stars are also shown. On this scale, Earth-Sun distance is one astronomical unit, which is roughly 150 million kilometers.

The big question will then be what to do about it. I hope that the next step will be to point some high-powered telescopes at it and see what else we can learn.

The science fiction loving part of me is very interested to know what will happen to our own cultural assumptions if, or when, we find such evidence. If you think the anti-science crowd gets offended at the idea of an old earth and the concept of evolution, what do you think they will do with evidence that we are not as special as we used to think we were.

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The Great Filter

We know now that our galaxy is filled with rocky planets, a percentage of which will almost certainly fall within the category of ‘earth-like’.  (100 billion stars mean even a 1:1000000 chance allows for 100 000 earth-like planets).  If we ever do find evidence of microscopic life on Mars the odds will go way up as well – meaning that life is much more likely to exist elsewhere.   And yet, we see no evidence of extraterrestrial life in our observations of the galaxy, a fact known as the ‘Great Silence’.

There could be many explanations for this phenomenon.  A short and not at all comprehensive list includes:

  1. We are leading the development curve.  Other life has not yet reached or surpassed our current development level, and those who have are so far away the evidence still has not arrived (1000 light years is really far away).  This theory makes the assumption that humans are outliers, which is always possible but statistically less likely.
  2. We are well behind the development curve, and would not recognize evidence of extraterrestrials because we haven’t developed far enough yet.  Just as an Amazon tribesman might not grasp the significance of a Predator drone at 20,000 feet, we might not recognize or understand what we are looking at.  For a long time we assumed that radio transmissions would be evidence of life, but would a 1970s SETI researcher have recognized a typical WiFi or cell phone transmission as evidence of sentience, or merely dismissed it as noise? Even if an ET civilization did have recognizable transmissions at some point, it wouldn’t have been obvious to anyone on Earth until the middle of the last century.  It is possible that ETs developed beyond us while we were bashing away at each other with clubs or muskets.  The thought that irrefutable evidence of ETs might have been readily available in the form of recognizable radio transmissions during the Spanish Inquisition makes me chuckle for some reason.
  3. Life is harder than we think.  Just because it happened here doesn’t mean that it is easy.  Perhaps the places where it might happen number in the dozens.  Add in some random elements like planet killing asteroids, and we have a quiet galaxy.
  4. The Great Filter.  The notion that some point in the development of a civilization is very hard to overcome, and that most species do not actually succeed.  If this filter is in the past, something like the development of language or writing, then we may be outliers leading the pack.  If it is in the future, like developing into a star-faring civilization before we destroy our own planet, then we might be in trouble.  We certainly aren’t doing well at planet management so far, it isn’t hard to imagine humans entering a downward spiral long before leaving the solar system.

Whatever the situation, our current rush of exoplanet discoveries and the dawn of private space travel make me hopeful that humans will be able to explore at least our own solar system, with an eye to exploring further in some capacity (biological or not).  Meanwhile we should really be trying to find ways to avert civilization killing catastrophes like war and climate collapse.

 

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Can we go to Alpha Centauri?

Alpha Centauri

This artist’s impression made available by the European Southern Observatory on Tuesday, shows a planet, right, orbiting the star Alpha Centauri B, center, a member of the triple star system that is the closest to Earth. Alpha Centauri A is at left. The Earth’s Sun is visible at upper right. Searching across the galaxy for interesting alien worlds, scientists made a surprising discovery: a planet remarkably similar to Earth in a solar system right next door. Other Earth-like planets have been found before, but this one is far closer than previous discoveries. Unfortunately, the planet is way too hot for life, and it’s still 25 trillion miles away. (AP/ESO, L. Calcada)

The recent confirmation of a planet circling our nearest stellar neighbour is nothing short of thrilling.  Sure, it isn’t habitable, circling Alpha Centauri B in something like 3.2 days, but the fact it exists at all is a major breakthrough.  If we can find a few more planets over there, we might seriously start thinking about actual space exploration.  Kudos to the European Southern Observatory team for making the discovery, and having the scientific self-discipline to spend three years confirming it before the announcement.

So, what are the realistic considerations of a potential interstellar mission?  In my opinion, the barriers are enough that we won’t be doing it for a very long time, if at all – barring some black swan scientific discovery like a warp drive or other FTL technology.  No doubt we have much to learn about physics and the universe, but we cannot assume that future scientific discoveries will help us indulge our urge to explore.

Time

One of the biggest barrier to such travel is time.  If it takes 100 years to reach another star, nobody is going to want to go.  And if we might find nothing of worth and have to set off somewhere else, the incentive is too small to bother, especially assuming a significant cost in energy and resources to send a viable ship that far and for that long.

So, how can we address the time barrier?  Nobody wants to live our their lives (and the lives of the next 40 generations) in a spaceship – there haven’t been many human societies that have lasted anywhere near that long.  But what if a human lifespan was dramatically longer, even functionally immortal?  It seems unlikely now, but no more so than warp drives and wormholes.  In fact, we spend significantly more resources and energy studying health than we do on space.

A thousand-year old person, or a person who might live for 10,000 years, might be much more willing to undertake an interstellar voyage.  It is hard to know what humans would be like if they had lifespans on that scale, but I imagine patience would be much more common.  Some people would no doubt appreciate an opportunity to spend a few centuries working on something that interests them.  Maybe they could finally finish the Harry Potter novels, or read those impenetrable Tolkein books that aren’t LOTR.

Resources

The other big barrier to interstellar travel is cost.  Not in dollars but in resources and energy.  It will take a lot of energy to send even a tiny ship to another star, and a lot of resources to support even a tiny crew for thousands of years.  And the more resources needed, the more energy as well, a vicious cycle that could well make interstellar travel impossible.

However, there are some resources that weigh nothing, like technical and scientific knowledge.  Far better to send a few small machines capable of making anything on arrival as needed than to try to send everything in advance.  Similarly, it would be a lot easier to send some raw materials for the manufacture of humans on arrival (i.e. genetic material and the means to grow and educate people when they get there).  Trying to send actual grown humans might be impossible and absurdly expensive, but sending a tiny ship with all it need to build on arrival might actually be viable.

Of course, we don’t have the scientific knowledge to build a person from scratch right now, but we much closer than we are to an FTL drive (if such a thing is possible).  It may be that humans who arrive at another star will be born of that star, and any further exploration would be similarly done by their descendents.  Von Neumann Machines, but organic.

All of this is a long way off, barring the black swan event that changes everything.  (My personal favourite would be friendly contact from somewhere else once we reach a certain level of development).  Nonetheless, the discovery of planets in the neighbourhood makes me optimistic that someday, someone will go for a closer look.

 

 

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Search for Exomoons finds a Planet – Crowdfunded science

New Discovery Funded by Petridish Published in Science! | The Petridish Blog.

Remember the Petridish crowdfunded science site?  This blog donated a few dollars to the Search for Exomoons research awhile ago.  Well, they haven’t found an exomoon yet, but they did just publish a newly discovered planet in Science, a happy byproduct of the successfully crowdfunded research.

When the team looked at the data that Kepler has made public, they found something unusual with the planetary candidate KOI-872.01 (KOI stands for “Kepler Object of Interest”). It had some of the largest timing variations ever detected—about two-hour variations in an orbit that takes a bit under 34 days. But there was no sign of any transit duration variations, which should be present if there was a moon. All of which suggests that the planet was being pulled around by another planet Kepler hadn’t detected.

 

Hooray.  Though our contribution was relatively tiny, it feels really fantastic to have contributed at all.  Petridish has a number of exciting looking projects currently seeking funding, though I am personally holding out for another SF/space related idea.

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What Would Reliable Fusion Power Do?

The joke goes that reliable fusion power is about 50 years away, and has been for about 60 years.  This may be the case, but it is also a simplistic dismissal of a scientific process that has been going on for decades.  There has been a lot of progress on fusion power, and we are now approaching some new developments that could bootstrap us into a fusion energy future.

Extremetech has a good piece on current and pending developments in fusion power, and what might happen next.

Hopefully, though, a new discovery made by Princeton Plasma Physics Lab (PPPL) — the home of Project Matterhorn in the ’50s and ’60s — could result in magnetic confinement fusion that breaks even, or even produces electricity.

Hear that?  A process that produces more energy than it consumes.  This is big, because it could be self-perpetuating.  The fuel is essentially free, being the most common element in the universe (Hydrogen).

What would this mean for our current energy hungry society?  Good question.  I suspect it would take a lot of building to get up to meeting existing demand, and demand is sure to continue rising.  Nevertheless, this could be really big.  In about 30 years.

Meanwhile, at ITER, a vast fusion chamber that’s three stories high is due to begin fusing deuterium-tritium fuel in 2026. ITER is hoping to produce 500 megawatts over 1,000 seconds from just 50 megawatts of input power and 0.5 grams of hydrogen fuel. If it’s a success, an actual fusion power plant, called DEMO, will be built.

This could be one of those things that changes everything.  Pure unallowed grist for the SF mills.  First of all, fusion power as currently envisioned would be the domain of large utilities – highly centralized and structured.  We couldn’t have little fusion plants all over the place, too expensive and too dangerous.

Cheap energy has been the fuel of most of the rapid development of the 20th century.  It is hard to imagine a future that includes transportation, lights and the internet without cheap energy.  The big challenge will be to figure out ways to distribute it and store it.  Of course, battery technology is also improving at dramatic rates.

Politically, I don’t see cheap fusion power eliminating a demand for oil.  Global hotspots would remain so, but it is unlikely there would be any conflict over hydrogen.  Attention might shift away from places like the Middle East, though humans love to fight irrationally so that is by no means certain.

Space exploration could be impacted.  Currently the biggest cost of spaceflight is the energy required to escape Earth’s gravity.  There may be ways to reduce that cost (though I personally hope someone will build a space elevator), and there will certainly be impact on space activities outside the gravity well, if fusion power becomes available off-planet.

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Drones versus Humans: The End of Navies

Image from Future Atlas.

Over at Future Atlas, a very real question is raised about the viability of hugely expensive nuclear submarines in a future environment that includes autonomous underwater drones like the one above.

I would go one step further and ask about the viability of any military vehicle larger than a drone or occupied by a human.  My country seems hellbent on purchasing a bunch of the F-35 ‘5th generation’ fighters at great expense, but I can’t help but wonder how many drones could be bought for the same price. Future Atlas makes the point:

After all, with Moore’s Law in the drones’ corner, a submarine becomes a larger and larger piece of information to hide.

How many $5000 lightweight drones would it take to find and destroy a multi-billion dollar submarine?  How about an aircraft carrier?

In the air, how many autonomous drones, with maneuverability far beyond anything holding a fragile human, would it take to make a particular volume of airspace non-survivable for a fighter plane or a bomber?  What is the relative cost of each?

In WWII, the Americans actually had weaker tanks than the Germans.  Ditto the airplanes, at least most of the time.  We just had so very many more than they did.  Even then, the soldiers operating the tanks and airplanes had an interest in surviving an engagement.  Drones would have no such concern, and combat would be a simple cost-benefit analysis.  And a drone is much, much cheaper than anything carrying a human (not to mention the obvious interest of the human in question).

Militaries are known for their tendency to prepare to win the last war instead of the next one.  They are also prone to become over-committed to their existing strategies and hardware.  I suspect the dominant military of the future will have most of its humans safely hidden away while the robots and drones do most of the damage.  But that won’t stop current military efforts to continue operating on the same assumptions.

Navies as we currently think of them are essentially doomed, or at least going to change a lot as technology surpasses their ability to control the air and water around them.  I suspect air forces are similarly doomed in their current form.  That said, most current conflict is not between technology rich forces, but between a dominant military and a resistance of some kind.  Drones are already playing a large role in these conflicts, and I suspect that will expand exponentially.

Of course, Stanislaw Lem predicted this decades ago in his book One Human Minute, (The second story, The Upside Down Evolution) but that was his way.

 

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Space Exploration as Moody Video

I have no idea what NASA sees as the purpose of this video (fundraising?), but it pushes all my ‘like’ buttons so it seemed best to share it here.  That said, I don’t actually think that NASA will be leading the way, I think it will be competing and somewhat chaotic private interests.  Starting with some eccentric billionaires, but eventually becoming something else.

Youtube link is here

via Geekosystem.

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Your Last Chance to see Venus Transit the Sun

2004 Transit of Venus, courtesy of Wikipedia.

On June 6, 2012 Venus will transit the Sun.  Pacific Islanders will see it best, but most of the world will see part of it.

Transits of Venus occur only on the very rare occasions when Venus and Earth are in a line with the Sun. At other times Venus passes below or above the Sun because the two orbits are at a slight angle to each other. Transits occur in pairs separated by eight years, with the gap between pairs of transits alternating between 105.5 and 121.5 years — the last transit was in 2004.

In other words, the next transit will be in a month, and then you’ll have to wait 115 years to see it again.  I am optimistic about the scientific advancement of health and extension of life, but even an SF-soaked optimist like myself doesn’t seriously expect to live for another 115 years (not that I would mind).

Edmond Halley proposed using a transit of Venus to predict the precise distance between Earth and the Sun, known as the astronomical unit. As a result, hundreds of expeditions were sent all over the world to observe the 1761 and 1769 transits. A young James Cook took the Endeavour to the island of Tahiti, where he successfully observed the transit at a site that is still called Point Venus.

Hopefully most of us won’t manage to witness the transit of Venus and get killed by cannibals in the same lifetime, but if we take the time to look for it we will be walking in the footsteps of giants.  Modern astronomers will use the transits to refine theories about observed transits in other solar systems, furthering our understanding about what we see far into space.

Via Science Daily and Geekosystem.  Quotes from Science Daily.

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Robot Surgeons

IO9 has an article about robot assisted surgery showing better outcomes that straightforward human-only surgery (specifically on the prostate).  While our natural inclination might be to prefer a human surgeon, I think that surgery (like car driving) is something that will likely be done better by a machine with an unlimited attention span.

Read the IO9 article here.  Read the original research here.

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