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.


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.


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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SpaceX Falcon Launch & the Implications of Private Space Exploration


So SpaceX is going ahead with launching their Falcon Rocket on a mission to the ISS tomorrow.  Good on them, and I wish them the best of luck.  Not because I wish ill on NASA or any of the other government agencies who currently or formerly launch vehicles into space, but because I think the next stage of space exploration is necessarily going to be private.

Governments should be subject to the needs and perspectives of their citizens. Governments also have a huge array of responsibilities. In most cases, it is hard to make a convincing argument that it is prudent to colonize Mars while children starve or any significant portion of a population experiences poverty.  On the other hand, private interests operate on different rules and with different incentives.

When the ‘Space Race’ was between two competing superpowers, an incentive existed for both governments to prioritize space exploration – if only to prevent the other side having a monopoly.  Since the end of the Cold War there hasn’t been any such competitive incentive, and space exploration has predictably fallen down the list.  I doubt any sane individual would prefer a return to Mutual Assured Destruction and the looming fear of mid-20th century, but the loss of space is a cloud in that silver lining.

In the last 20 years we have seen the rise of distributed computing and an exponential growth in technology, with a rate of change that makes five years ago seem like a technological Dark Age (as Charles Stross has pointed out, five years ago Androids and iPhones did not exist, yet now they are ubiquitous).  The practical matter of moving stuff into space has become merely very difficult and expensive, rather than monstrously so.

In this context we see the rise of private space exploration as a necessary next step.  Governments are cash strapped and risk-averse, particularly with long-term concepts such as space exploration.  Space exploration will be the realm of private individuals and groups (which include corporations, but could as easily be co-operatives, families, or other affiliate structures).  Private interests can define their goals and risk tolerance much differently, and are less obliged to solve the problems of the world at the same time.  Few people criticize Apple for focusing on its customers while children go hungry in Florida, but many would (and should) criticize a government for doing the same.

I propose that the next major phase of space exploration will be driven by private interests, mostly with a profit motive.  Asteroid mining is a start, as well as simple ferrying of goods like the planned launch tomorrow.  Other possible private goals could be lunar mining, lunar construction as a low-gravity launch site for Asteroid Mining interests, and solar power harvesting.  Spinoff private projects will likely include tourism, especially if someone finally manages to build a working Space Elevator.

At some point in the future, likely when space-based industry becomes large enough to be interesting or threatening to governments, states will again take the forefront of space exploration (assuming that the nation-state is still a viable concept).  A tourist flight to Low-Earth-Orbit is one thing, but a rapidly expanding asteroid mining industry that is impacting commodity prices will be another thing entirely.  One state benefiting significantly from such exploration will likely be an incentive for the rest to get involved.  I have no idea what profits might be gained in the Asteroid Belt, but you can bet nobody will want to be left out.

Privately driven space exploration won’t be without its flaws, of course.  Just as on Earth, private interests do not always coincide with the best interests of all.  A sudden market glut of a particular resource could displace thousands of jobs, as an example.  High risk-tolerance could also mean high losses or damage done.  In fact, losses and damage are almost a certainty no matter who does it.  Private interests without government oversight are not known for treating people particularly well.  Many things can and will go wrong, and it will be a long time before space travel becomes as commonplace as your regular commute.

All of that is (informed) conjecture, but tomorrow is a launch that will mark the beginning of the private space venture.  I am excited.

Image from Wikipedia.

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The Plausibility of a Dyson Sphere.

George Dvorsky over at IO9 has a thought-provoking article outlining how humans might go about building a Dyson Sphere in our solar system.  Given the implausibility of long-distance space travel in anything like the near future, Dyson spheres are one of the most probable options available to humans wishing to expand beyond our fragile Earth.

This hypothetical megastructure, as envisaged by Dyson, would be the size of a planetary orbit and consist of a shell of solar collectors (or habitats) around the star. With this model, all (or at least a significant amount) of the energy would hit a receiving surface where it can be used. He speculated that such structures would be the logical

consequence of the long-term survival and escalating energy needs of a technological civilization.

For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to propose that we build a Dyson swarm (sometimes referred to as a type I Dyson sphere), which will consist of a large number of independent constructs orbiting in a dense formation around the sun. The advantage of this approach is that such a structure could be built incrementally. Moreover, various forms of wireless energy transfer could be used to transmit energy between its components and the Earth.


The practicalities of such a massive undertaking seem remote given our current inability to agree on anything even remotely as large, but change is a rapid and constant thing.  Technological advancement is accelerating at alarming rates, and the impossible one year becomes the merely difficult a few years later.  I am an SF optimist, but I think 50 years to begin is a bit pessimistic.  It could happen sooner, assuming we don’t enact any of our collapse/apocalypse scenarios.

Of course, it will be awhile before we develop the capacity to mine or dismantle any planets, but the nascent beginnings of asteroid mining are a definite start.  Technological change happens quickly and decisively, making old arguments quaint and silly seeming very quickly.  I suspect this will be one of those cases.

Of course, sign me up to live in the new Dyson swarm (ideally in my cloned new 20-year-old body).

Link to original article.



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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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It Won’t be Like in Star Trek

George Divorsky has an article over at IO9 talking about how the Star Trek vision of the future has been overtaken by events and become another quaint SF anachronism.

Instead, the future will be far different — and much weirder — than Roddenberry and other ST writers could have ever imagined. The challenge now is to admit that humanity is headed into a very different kind of future. It’s time to set aside Star Trek‘s outdated vision of the future and focus on real possibilities.

He lists a number of salient points, not the least of which are that any space-faring humans will be dramatically different from us, if they are physical at all.  Spaceships as a concept are unlikely, and any interstellar travel is likely to be in digital form with capacity to build from scratch on arrival.

The article is well worth a read, and (as with many good SF discussions) the comments are as interesting as the original piece.  In recent years I have come to agree with the author’s conclusions, particularly as they relate to interstellar travel.  We won’t be going anywhere in colony ships with multi-generational crew.  Instead, we are likely to be sending digital replicas of ourselves.  Spaceships will look like small rocks with a light sail.

The harsh reality of distance and time barriers to long distance space travel is lessened somewhat by the idea, present in some excellent SF, that we might send multiple copies of ourselves to different places.  I might not see the whole universe, or even a tiny pathetic fraction of it, but perhaps my digital copies might see millions of stars.  I can live with that.

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Vesta the Giant Asteroid

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has taken some photographs of the asteroid Vesta.  It is a 500 kilometer wide asteroid that has been kind enough not to stop by and wipe us all out (it is orbiting well beyond Mars).

Dawn will also take advantage of a window into Vesta’s interior, notes Christopher Russell, lead scientist of the mission and a geophysicist at the University of California, Los Angeles. Pictures taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1996 revealed an impact crater 13 kilometres deep, gouged into the asteroid at its south pole. Dawn will peer into that hole to discern any geological diversity exposed by the impact. Three types of meteorite found on Earth — eucrites, howardites and diogenites — are thought to be chips of Vesta, blasted away by the collision. Linking these convenient specimens to particular internal layers of Vesta is a key driver of the Dawn mission, notes Binzel.

I love that we have a spacecraft taking pictures of asteroids way out in space.

via Nature News Blog

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The Art of John Berkey

I am a big fan of John Berkey’s paintings, though the prices are very much out of my range. The images bespeak a space-borne industrial capacity that would make our current global industry look like a craft fair.  In some ways I see ventures like asteroid mining as baby steps to our grandchildren working in awesome structures like the one above.

via We Waste Time

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Asteroid Mining – Sign me up!

As a science fiction and futurism buff, I can only get excited at the prospect of Asteroid Mining.  Not because of their plan to mine things like platinum, which is appealing enough.  I like the idea because if they manage to make asteroid mining profitable, space will open up quickly and dramatically.

A major barrier to space exploration has always been cost and risk.  Government agencies like NASA have been seriously constrained by the confluence of these two issues – as you reduce risk you increase cost.  A zero risk effort is monstrously expensive, and NASA has been (somewhat rightly) shy of risking humans in risky ventures.  Fair enough – if they lost a Mars mission full of astronauts, they would likely have to shut their doors and Mars exploration would be pushed back a generation or two.

But commercial ventures have different risk/cost ratios.  If a corporation like Planetary Resources loses a robot mining craft, or even loses everything, others can and will learn from their mistakes.  They can still reduce risk, but they are not required to eliminate it altogether in the way that government entities must.

This makes me very optimistic.  I don’t have an attachment to any particular entity or type of organization reaching space, and I think that viable space commercialization and (possibly) colonization will be enough of a singularity that it is impossible to predict the outcomes as they apply down here on earth.  But what I am enthusiastically in support of is humans expanding into space, as soon as possible.

We are an adaptable species, but we are also at our best when we have significant challenges.  Space exploration is a much more interesting and exciting challenge than many of the dystopian futures current SF seems obsessed with.

Via GFR and many others.

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