Saturday, August 01, 2015

Are we about to corner Fermi? The Paradox explained?

== Recent excitement ==

The best year for human space exploration since 1972 only keeps getting better.  For example…

Pluto is getting weirder. Smooth craterless plains. Regions cracked like drying mud on a giant scale. Atmosphere extends over 1000 miles from the surface. Visible wind-streaks on the surface, which may sites of current active cryo-venting.  And it's losing it's atmosphere to space at 500 tonnes/hr. Forming a dense ion tail trailing away from the sun.  Uh oh. Pluto may be demoted from Dwarf to Comet. (Thanks Pau451:)

And another coolness: The “Gore Sat” – a scientific spaceprobe proposed originally by Vice President Al Gore – is now positioned in a gravitationally metastable orbit about a million miles from Earth, closer to the Sun, allowing it to send home stunning images of the entire lit face of our planet, every single day or hour. Of course the money was spent for science. Discovr was launched in February of this year on a mission to monitor solar winds. Keeping tabs on space weather helps scientists issue accurate warnings ahead of solar storms that can potentially disrupt telecommunications or power infrastructure. But Gore (whose Senate bill around 1990 freed the internet into the wild and open thing we know) also dreamed that the perfect images of our world might inspire us.  Make it so.

= Your “Fermi” theory of the month ==

I’ve been asked to rebuild my catalogue of possible explanations for the Fermi Paradox… or the mystery of why we see no signs of technological civilization out there, despite extensive searches. Well well. I’ve been in this field for more than 30 years, both as an astronomer and an author of sf’nal thought experiments about alien life. (See a compilation of my writings here. Also see this animated introduction to the Fermi Paradox. A bit simplistic and off by a few factors. But interesting.)

That catalogue? Well, I started building it in 1981. I estimate close to a hundred hypotheses that are at least “not impossible,” with two dozen or so qualifying as “plausible” contributors to the observed scarcity of high-tech ETs… and maybe five or six that seem rather compelling. But let’s start with one that sits squarely in the mid-range.

They are out there, but sparse enough that we just haven’t spotted them yet!  We simply need to look a little harder.

And indeed.  It seems that is what we are about to do.

== SETI goes big in 2015 ==

Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking have just announced a $100 Million Breakthrough Initiative to reinvigorate the search for intelligent life in the universe over the next ten years. “Also present at the Royal Society in London for the project's announcement earlier today were Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, SETI Pioneer and UCSC Professor Emeritus Frank Drake, UC Berkeley Professor Geoff Marcy, Breakthrough Prize Foundation Chair Pete Worden, renowned author and producer Ann Druyan, and UC Berkeley postdoctoral fellow Andrew Siemion.” 

Notable, several of the members of this initiative, Geoff Marcy, Dan Werthimer and Andrew Siemion, have worked with me in endeavors to prevent METI or rash message beaming outward -- yoohoo shouting for attention from extraterrestrials.  

This new B.I. endeavor will include public engagement about messages! But there is no intent to actually send any, before the extensive discussions and examination-of-issues that many of us have long requested. I hope they will hold true to this promise.

This will be the biggest scientific search yet for signs of intelligent life beyond Earth. The Breakthrough Initiative includes significant access to two powerful radio telescopes – the 100-meter diameter Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, and the 64-meter Parkes Telescope in Australia. There will also be significant efforts in Optical SETI.  Lick Observatory's Automated Planet Finder (APF) Telescope above San Jose CA will undertake a new deep and broad search for optical laser transmissions from nearby civilizations, if any exist.

You can tell they want to move vigorously on this from the fact that they hired Pete Worden to run the enterprise. The funds provider is Yuri Milner, a Russian entrepreneur and investor who has made a fortune in Silicon Valley. The program will include a survey of the 1,000,000 closest stars to Earth. It will be 50 times more sensitive than previous SETI research, will cover 10 times more of the sky, and will scan at least 5 times more of the radio spectrum – and 100 times faster. I’m hoping they will collaboratively make use of lessons learned by Jill Tarter and others at California’s SETI Institute.  Here is a well-written appraisal in the Economist.

Happy hunting guys. Just follow the protocols, please.

== Another “Fermi” for the catalogue? ==

I keep hearing this one… that we see no evidence of alien civilizations because they are indifferent to us.  Their technologies and communication methods are so far beyond us that we mistake them for natural phenomena, and they have as little interest in us as we might have in a hive of termites.

It has a nice, round smoothness to it, and aggressive humbleness is very much in vogue, these days. Still, the indifference explanation strikes me as much less likely than it at first seems.  Might we be "like ants" to some super species?  Sure! 

But we assign experts to study ants with passionate interest.

The response to that? "There are millions of ant nests for every ant scientist. Hence we aren’t likely to be one of the nests getting attention!"

Clever. But that response fails on two counts:

1) Even if you crank every Drake Equation factor to maximum, the very highest number of new tech-races to emerge in the galaxy would be maybe one per year. One… per year… across the whole Milky Way. Hence, such each new tech race is a noteworthy event when it happens. It’s not comparable to the zillions of ant nests per human. The scaling is entirely different.

2) Super beings will be able to create and deputize sub-agents at any level of intelligence or programmed interest.  It would be both reasonable and very cheap for them to assign such deputies to investigate and communicate with each newborn "ant" tech race, like ourselves. 

Oh, you can pose dozens of reasons why they might not choose to do that! But now you are talking cultural motivations and notice this: that you assume all the super-duper advanced races will be similarly incurious and indifferent! That, in turn, relies upon the number of uber-civilizations being very small!  Because if such civilizations are both numerous and diverse, then one or another or many will be interested, after all, in "ants."

Can you see why this field is actually a whole lot more subtle than our surface impulses imply?  The temptation seems natural to shout "of course THIS is the answer!"... but it can be silly, when confronting a vast and complex/mysterious cosmos.

Indeed, it is the surest sign of an immature and intemperate mind, to declare that, based on almost not evidence: "I know the answer!"

And now... some cool space-related miscellany.

== We need rapid advancement in space… to save Earth! ==

Many people are aware that the Sun has an eleven (actually 22) year cycle of sunspot and magnetic field activity.  There appear also to be longer cycles having to do with deeper convection layers. Now an interesting hypothesis with a new model that “predicts that the pair of waves become increasingly offset during Cycle 25, which peaks in 2022. During Cycle 26, which covers the decade from 2030-2040, the two waves will become exactly out of synch and this will cause a significant reduction in solar activity.” And “When they are out of phase, we have solar minimums. When there is full phase separation, we have the conditions last seen during the Maunder minimum, 370 years ago."

Suggesting that the 2030s might feature an activity dip that could counter a bit of global warming. We had better have IQ boost pills by then, or the Fox-denialist cultists will have a field day. Oh, but by then the vested interest oligarchs will be Big Sustainables.

So how to verify any of this? Fund research back at levels almost a quarter as high as they were in the 1950s and 1960s, that’s how!

Alas, at present , scientists do not have any way to view the sun that is not facing earth. This capacity existing across some years in the past. (Especially when the denizens of Counter-Earth were willing to cooperate.) Now? Well, we make our other robots take on even greater workloads. Lately, the Curiosity rover’s Mastcam has captured images of the sunspots of the side of the sun that is pointed away from earth, offering more continuity of record for major suspot regions.  "One sunspot or cluster that rotated out of Curiosity's view over the July 4 weekend showed up by July 7 as a source area of a solar eruption observed by NASA's Earth-orbiting Solar Dynamics Observatory", said NASA.  

== Space Miscellany! ==

What If We Can Never Travel Faster than the Speed of Light? I don’t credit every part of this scenario but it is vivid and fun.  And it demonstrates a basic truth… that the speed of light only makes interstellar colonization difficult, not impossible.  

This article on alien planetary systems misses the selection effect… that the Kepler probe’s method for discovering distant systems is extremely biased toward discovering planets orbiting close to their suns.  But bear that in mind and read it anyway.

One analysis shows the planet HIP11915b to be a close match to Jupiter both in mass and orbital period, and its host star is extraordinarily similar to the Sun. Beyond having fundamental physical properties close to the Sun, initial spectroscopic analysis suggests that HIP11915 is also a solar twin in the sense that its detailed abundance pattern matches the solar pattern (Melendez et al. 2015, in prep). The presence of a Jupiter twin and a solar-like composition both make HIP11915 an excellent prospect for future terrestrial planet searches."  
For those of you who still think we should make it a goal to “go back to the Moon,” instead of sensibly mining asteroids, this clear cartoon from SMBC.
The “dust” that is causing most of the absorption in interstellar space may be largely C60 buckeyballs.  Wow.   



Jerry Emanuelson said...

David, did you see the report of the presentation at the 2015 Space Weather Workshop presented by the Space Weather Prediction Center about the observation of superflares on Sun-like stars observed by the Kepler satellite? About 83,000 stars were observed.

They found stellar flares on other G-type main sequence stars (of about the same size and rotational period as the Sun) that had far more energy than anything observed by humans coming from the Sun.

Most of the information can be seen in the 26 pages of slides in the PDF at:

That presentation also has an update on the mysterious "774-775 carbon-14 anomaly," and shows that another similar, but smaller, anomaly happened about the year 993.

The report concluded that superflares 1000 times more energetic than those observed in our historical records of the Sun could be expected to occur about once every 5000 years.

Mel Baker said...

Speaking of below light speed travel to the stars what do you think of Kim Stanley Robinson's very pessimistic new novel "Aurora?"

Alex Tolley said...

For those of you who still think we should make it a goal to “go back to the Moon,” instead of sensibly mining asteroids...

Except the moon has known water at the poles, whilst the Phobos and Deimos do not.
Energy cost depends on start. From GEO to Deimos without aerobraking is more costly than to the moon. 9.4 km/s vs 8 km/s.

Aerobraking is nice but costs mass and hence more propellant that must be lifted from Earth at present. The shield will need to be large to brake an ore or water payload on return, not to mention the issue of avoiding LEO satellites.


David Brin said...

Thanks Jerry. More reason to believe we need to emphasize resilience.

AT: Mg group at UCSD was the one that predicted polar lunar ice! And it may be useful someday. But landing at poles wipes out every bit of the delta-V advantage you cite. And aerobraking is fine if you get the shell materials from space itself. Oh, BTW lots of asteroids have huge amounts of water. Throw a bag over them and let the sun "mine" it for you. Show me your plan for the lunar poles.

Re the latest novel of my dear friend Stan Robinson: I believe one motivation for creating this novel may be to end decades of nagging: “Hey Robinson, how come you never leave the solar system?” Aurora answers: “There. I left. For a bit. But there’s nothing interesting out there. And getting there is too hard. Let’s focus on fixing our home.”

In fact, I got no bones to pick with KSR’s odes to Our Planet – (hey, one of my tomes is EARTH) – and its solar siblings. Moreover, I find his politics to be interesting and major contributions to the discussion of how advance human societies may govern themselves. Still, when it comes to Aurora’s stay-home message, he had to expect folks would accuse him of stacking the deck.

What I find stunning is that in this book KSR indicts his own prescriptive utopia as brittle and incapable of resilience! I am sure the intended message was “if my super-mature society can’t handle an interstellar expedition, then no one can, hence forgetaboutit.” But that is not what the reader derives. Rather, the book’s take-away is just “my super-mature society can’t handle an interstellar expedition.”

Indeed, from the behavior of the denizens of Aurora, one is left to conclude something fundamental about this ship and expedition – that it was created by the folks back home, and carefully staffed, with one fundamental goal in mind – to be a “Golgafrincham B Ark.” A dig that should be self-explanatory, if you are sf’nally literate.

Please don't circulate that. It's just an informal comments-section remark. There's tons of good stuff in Aurora. Buy it!

David Brin said...

Thanks Jerry. More reason to believe we need to emphasize resilience.

AT: Mg group at UCSD was the one that predicted polar lunar ice! And it may be useful someday. But landing at poles wipes out every bit of the delta-V advantage you cite. And aerobraking is fine if you get the shell materials from space itself. Oh, BTW lots of asteroids have huge amounts of water. Throw a bag over them and let the sun "mine" it for you. Show me your plan for the lunar poles.

Re the latest novel of my dear friend Stan Robinson: I believe one motivation for creating this novel may be to end decades of nagging: “Hey Robinson, how come you never leave the solar system?” Aurora answers: “There. I left. For a bit. But there’s nothing interesting out there. And getting there is too hard. Let’s focus on fixing our home.”

In fact, I got no bones to pick with KSR’s odes to Our Planet – (hey, one of my tomes is EARTH) – and its solar siblings. Moreover, I find his politics to be interesting and major contributions to the discussion of how advance human societies may govern themselves. Still, when it comes to Aurora’s stay-home message, he had to expect folks would accuse him of stacking the deck.

What I find stunning is that in this book KSR indicts his own prescriptive utopia as brittle and incapable of resilience! I am sure the intended message was “if my super-mature society can’t handle an interstellar expedition, then no one can, hence forgetaboutit.” But that is not what the reader derives. Rather, the book’s take-away is just “my super-mature society can’t handle an interstellar expedition.”

Indeed, from the behavior of the denizens of Aurora, one is left to conclude something fundamental about this ship and expedition – that it was created by the folks back home, and carefully staffed, with one fundamental goal in mind – to be a “Golgafrincham B Ark.” A dig that should be self-explanatory, if you are sf’nally literate.

Please don't circulate that. It's just an informal comments-section remark. There's tons of good stuff in Aurora. Buy it!

Duncan Cairncross said...

Fermi paradox

Just a thought
(1) If time travel is possible
(2) Any changes that are made can be reversed by time travellers from the future
(3) The only stable change is one that prevents time travel from being developed

Maybe the “easiest” change to eliminate time travel also eliminates the potentially time travelling race

We think that as a technological civilisation we may have to squeeze through a number of choke points to survive,
If time travel is possible then we may have to squeeze through those choke points an infinite number of times

Spreading out civilisation to multiple worlds does not help as it simply increases the chance that time travel is developed

Zen Cosmos said...

The idea that Pluto may turn out to be a HUGE comet, left over from either the early or late heavy bombardment period, is very intriguing. My desire is to see all star orbiting objects be subjected to a consistent, all-encompassing nomenclature system dovetails with this. It started with the "demotion" of Pluto itself to dwarf planet. The word planet, now has no meaning unless attached to a adjective or perhaps an adverb. Like ice giant planet, etc., etc. We need, as we discover more and more objects around other stars; a way to categorize, name, and boundary value all objects from gas cloud/dust all the way to brown dwarf failed star with lots of self-consistent categories in between. Also it would help at the "moon" level if moons were only those objects that self ellipsoid/sphere-ize under their own gravity and share a baricenter with a larger parent body and NOT be confused with the plethora of "moons' around our gas/ice giants which are really just captured asteroids and NOT moons. You can name them and they are satellites but IMO they are not moons. (for ID purposes: Zen Cosmos = David Terry Dorais)

ThoughtCriminal said...

"There are millions of ant nests for every ant scientist." Which just creates another problem for the silence. Where are the other ants?

David Brin said...

Duncan it's called Niven's Law.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi David
I saw the idea of time travel killing civilizations in some of Niven's stories but I hadn't realized that he had taken it the next step as an answer to the Fermi Paradox.

I don't recall seeing it on any of the lists of "answers"

Niven's Law! - I like it

IMHO it should be close to the top in likely answers because it is one of the only ones that increases the risk as a civilization/race spreads out into the cosmos

Mark Adler said...

Ah! But the super beings are very good scientists, so they know that they have to not affect what they are observing with their sub-agents in order to get good data. They make their sub-agents very small and ubiquitous so they are taken for granted and not noticed for what they are. We can then bring this full circle. The super being sub-agents are already here, and they are (wait for it) ants! They are using what we consider ants to observe what they consider ants.

I love these arguments.

Paul SB said...

I thought it was the mice!Or did they leave with the Golgafrinchams?

Jumper said...

I am pretty sure it's the stink bugs.

Tim H. said...

I recently had my turn at the library with Aurora, a good book, but the inability of the crew to deal with a prion strained credulity, as if the biological sciences had stalled as space technology had progressed, oh well, KSR isn't the first author to write a compelling anachronistic society.

Tony Fisk said...

Duncan, your version of 'Niven's Law' reminds me of an Asimov story "The End of Eternity"(?), where a future time travelling civilisation polices (will police?) its timeline to eliminate disruptive aberrations... like interstellar travel.

Tim H's comment on prions reminds me. There is promise of a new drug that corrects the amyloid fold found in a number of rogue proteins that cause Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and CJD. At least, sufficient promise that human trials may commence next year.

The Fermi Paradox doesn't lack for explanations. What it lacks is sufficient data to make a definitive judgment. So, until the gaps are filled in, we have scope to speculate!
It does seem reasonable to say that the combined odds of a Kardeshev-like civilisation rising from a few random molecular reactions is low. It is also fair to say that we are, as yet, unlikely to have heard a response from such a civilisation outside 50 light years away. (our hearing ability, and the rate at which broadcast signals decay to noise levels means we wouldn't overhear any of the other 'ants' beyond a light year or so.)

It also suggests that the speed of light is insurmountable.

David Brin said...

And now what you’ve been waiting for… a tentative map of Pluto proposed place names! And for Charon. Pluto features many explorers and discoverers… plus some noted monsters. But Charon? Charon’s craters and regions are tentatively named for… sci fi characters! Kirk Crater… Sulu Crater… Ripley Crater … Skywalker Crater… Vader Crater plus some creators of sci fi like Kubrick, Clarke and Butler. Zowee!

(Notice the majority of Charon that’s still blurry? Okay, there’s still time for me and my creations!)

M. Peter Selman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
locumranch said...

The so-called Fermi Paradox has always struck as a non-issue, promulgated by the mathematical delusion that it is acceptable to multiply by infinity and/or divide by zero as both are forbidden functions.

That said, the mathematical odds of contacting an extraterrestrial civilisation are daunting, even if we possessed certain knowledge of their existence. Let's assume the following generous probabilities for the moment:

The percent of solar systems capable of supporting intelligent life: 10%
The percent chance that those lifeforms are terrestrial (non-aquatic): 10%
The percent chance that they develop compatible technology (radio): 10%
The percent chance that their technological timeline overlaps our own: 10%
The percent chance that they actively search for extraterrestrial companionship: 10%
The percent chance that they use their radios to shout for attention: 10%
The percent chance that they are willing to wait 100yrs for a return call: 10%
The number of solar systems within the reach of radio (50 light years): 1400

Giving us a 0.014% percent chance (out of 100) that contact by radio will be achieved, the takeaway message being that, even in the best of circumstances, (1) the odds of interstellar communication are against us and (2) radio sucks as a means of interstellar communications just as it sucks for global communication.

Talk about a short technological window: When was the last time you listened to radio or even broadcast TV, especially when cable & satellite work so much better?? I think we should be looking for modulated pulsars instead.


Jonathan S. said...

Niven's Law doesn't say anything about Fermi's Paradox - it states simply that in a plenum in which time travel is possible, and in which it is possible to alter the past, time travel will never be invented, because eventually things will be so screwed up that someone will decide the only solution will be to kill the inventor of time travel before he can succeed.

Philosophically, it's similar to the Ultimate Question and Ultimate Answer from the Hitchhiker's Guide. (One school of thought holds that if the Question and the Answer are both known at the same time, the entire universe will disappear, only to be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. Another school says that this has already happened.)

Jonathan S. said...

(Oh, I should have noted, but was distracted - that's Niven's Law of Time Travel. He has others, such as the observation that in space combat, absent some sort of tractor beam, airlock-to-airlock boarding actions are impossible. The ship being boarded merely has to fire its thrusters at random, making the boarding ship unable to match course and speed.)

Robert said...

Warhammer 40K got around the "random thruster firing" thing by using Boarding Torpedoes. Of course, the genetically-engineered warriors in said torpedoes (or the genetically-engineered species that also uses them) are the only ones tough enough to survive the impact of hitting a ship at a velocity high enough to break into the hull...

There is one thing that explains the Fermi Paradox: a civilization will only put out detectable radiation for a certain period of time. Then there will be reasons for that civilization to shut up - if only to conserve resources. So the answer to Fermi? We've not been in the right place at the right point of time with the right technology to detect these signals.

It's a simple answer and yet no one wants to consider it BECAUSE it's simple.

Rob H.

M. Peter Selman said...

We all know that leaky transmissions, not intended for interstellar communication, will attenuate a lot after many light-years of travel, becoming indistinguishable from background noise. It gets even worse once transmissions convert to digital, which is already happening today.

So the only way to know if someone's out there is if they deliberately transmit a focused and amplified signal towards us to announce their existence. Their own active SETI. Conversely, with our own program, someone could find us, should they exist.

Some worry that a METI effort may bring some unwanted attention and misrepresent the species as a whole. It's reasonable caution. I agree we need to sit down and thoughtfully weigh in the risks and hash out the issues and potential consequences and benefits. An invasion of death-ray shooting flying saucers comes to mind for most people, or perhaps more realistically, an invasion of earth shaking ideas and inventions in the form of data (which would be a cool story in itself). We also need to be deal with issues like, where do we point, how long do we transmit (they could miss it!), and what are heck we gonna say anyway?

When will we settle the METI debate? And shout something a little more refined than “Yoooo-hoooo!” or zillions of indecipherable tweets towards every potentially habitable planet we find?

But more importantly, have others settled their own METI debate? It’s fun to imagine some similar civilization pondering the same thing. Simply having trouble deciding whether or not to announce their existence for similar, shared fears?

If our future searches turn empty handed, while we're still undecided about METI, then I wonder if we all have a case of “pangalactic mic shyness* on our hands, pervasive and hindering. This idea doesn't inspire much confidence, but I hope we continue to listen and get better at it, but someone has to step up.

Paul SB said...

Jonathan, I'm not sure the speculations regarding the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything is relevant here. It was intended as farce. You build an enormous computer, which is basically a machine for doing mathematical calculations, charged with answering a philosophical question, and what kind of answer can you expect? A math machine can only give you a mathematical answer, even if the question was philosophical. GIGO. Remember that Douglas Adams was an Anglican minister. He was pointing out that science and technology, while they can do amazing things, they can't satisfy certain of the more emotional of human needs. Thus there can be no universe in which the question and answer are both known, if you are depending on inappropriate means of answering the question. It's doubtful that there is just one answer, anyway, rather than a different answer for every being with enough sapience to ask the question. Unless we are naturally and constantly telepathic, we all experience reality in our own personal ways, anyway, so no two people would even understand the question in exactly the same way, not matter how "objective" 42 sounds.

I'm also a little dubious of the time paradox here. If you go back in time to kill the inventor of time travel, regardless of how we try to resolve the temporal paradox, how does that prevent someone else from inventing time travel? People often assume that great things are the unique products of uniquely genius individuals, but this may not be the best way to understand technological evolution. Even the most brilliant inventor lives surrounded by the ideas, beliefs and concerns of their time and place. I've banged my head many times over ideas I had that I thought were really cool, but somebody else with more connections, status, wealth, skill, talent or just plain tenacity managed to make it happen. I could feel cheated by Fate, but I've come to understand that any idea out there has probably occurred to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of other people within any given generation during which the thought was conceivable. So if the data are available to make it happen, there will be more than one person who figures it out. It's mostly a matter of who gets the most backing among those whose thoughts are closest to solving the puzzle.

Okay, that's enough Sunday Speculation for men, at least for the moment. :]

Paul SB said...

Oops, that was supposed to be "enough speculation for me" not "for men!" Silly fingers! Some days I wonder if you can get Methuselah's Syndrome in middle age...

Jumper said...

"Eve Marder, a prominent neuroscientist at Brandeis University, cautions against expecting too much from the connectome. She studies neurons that control the stomachs of crabs and lobsters. In these relatively simple systems of 30 or so neurons, she has shown that neuromodulators — signaling chemicals that wash across regions of the brain, omitted from Seung’s static map — can fundamentally change how a circuit functions. If this is true for the stomach of a crustacean, the mind reels to consider what may be happening in the brain of a mouse, not to mention a human."

Sebastian Seung’s Quest to Map the Human Brain

I hesitated to post this, as I had caveats. Then, near the end, the above cautions were noted, and I agree. It opens space for much conjecture regarding the non-neuronal feedbacks which overlay the cybernetics.

The researcher is pursuing complate neuron maps of human brains.

Jumper said...

What is the average time in the Milky Way that a star & planet system will exist without being sterilized by a nearby supernovae, pulsars, neutron star collapse or collapse to black hole? (or the less likely but destructive collisions of two neutron stars, or a neutron star and black hole?) What of planetary collision or ejection from a system?

What if there is a highly elegant method to modulate signals which we have not discovered yet?

David Brin said...

Jumper I have long held (and some recent results suggest) that simply counting the number and location of synapses will not give you a model of memory and thought. There are indications of INTRACELLULAR COMPUTING within each Neuron. And information exchange between neurons and surrounding glia support cells. All of which could multiply the number of computational “elements” by several orders beyond synapses.

Have a look at locum’s calculation. It is most-telling. He ignores — 1 any chance of colonization, even via probes, 2- that “beacons” need not be limited to 50 LY, 3 - that we have searched at great sensitivity for spillover or unintentional leakage from advanced civs, 4- that several of his multiplier factors are non-orthogonal… the say the same thing… and so on.

Mind you, in fact I tend to think we ARE alone within that teensy-tiny 50 LY shell that he posits. In fact, I deem his 10% figures for those factors to be wildly optimistic for most of them.

Alf P. Steinbach said...

We won't have a chance of detecting others' signals until we look at other kinds of radiation than the impractical-for-interstellar electromagnetic. For example, neutrinos; they're not stopped by the odd little gas cloud or even planet. But we're not yet at the level of technology where we can detect such signalling, if it exists; it's only with the greatest effort that we can detect the barest tiniest 1 over a zillion orders of magnitude fraction of neutrinos passing through any area.

Another possibility is the not unreasonable assumption that any series of very unlikely happenings or non-happenings, going more or less in the same direction of thwarting one's efforts, are most likely the result of someone's intervention. Otherwise the combined improbabilities would make it just … too improbable. So for learning something about this one could communicate in very low cost purely local ways under the assumption that we're actively monitored, to some degree.

These two possibilities are not mutually exclusive.

Jumper said...

Actually it seems the meta-control systems of nervous systems are easier to model than the huge number of connections themselves. I'm sure the chemical layers are no more than a million neurotransmitters and hormones, and likely nowhere near that many, but I won't bet on that! ;>]

They need to be included, that's all. And glial cell responses, and any quantum contributions to the abstract network as well, yes.

At the model level, sooner or later we will have to plug the model into some actual or faux reality: what sense is there simulating adrenalin in the model if "escape from / victory over danger" is not also then simulated?

I got to thinking about how birds communicate when flying in flocks. They make calls, and they also use body language. I suspect one must include both kinds of "language" to analyze the nodes' activity in the flying flock.

Alex Tolley said...

@DB And it may be useful someday. But landing at poles wipes out every bit of the delta-V advantage you cite. And aerobraking is fine if you get the shell materials from space itself. Oh, BTW lots of asteroids have huge amounts of water. Throw a bag over them and let the sun "mine" it for you. Show me your plan for the lunar poles.

What I object to is the simplistic notion that because the delta-v to an asteroid is lower than the lunar poles, there is no point in lunar water mining. This is as idiotic as saying that all US manufacturing should be in China because labor is cheaper than in the US, or alternatively all manufacturing should be local because that has the least transport cost. Businesses do not operate that way.

Having said that, I think that water is going to be the most important bulk commodity in space and that the asteroids, especially Ceres) will be the main source, although in the short term, reusable F9H shipments from earth will be the main source. One huge advantage of water from asteroids is that cargo ships can use very efficient engines (e.g. ion, solar sails, electrothermal (c.f. Spacecoach) which reduces costs compared to carriers that must lift from a gravity well. Lunar water might use an electromagnetic launcher, but that incurs high upfront costs. I'm not buying aerobraking for earth return due to the possibility of hitting satellites. Safer to go slow and easy and spiral down to cis-lunar space. Abundant water is going to make space facilities like orbiting hotels feasible, as well as cheaper space travel. Water is easy to acquire, needs minimal processing and is valuable in space because of its location, not because it is valuable on Earth, like platinum..

Alex Tolley said...

There are indications of INTRACELLULAR COMPUTING within each Neuron. And information exchange between neurons and surrounding glia support cells. All of which could multiply the number of computational “elements” by several orders beyond synapses.

Countering that, the connectome of C. elegans has been simulated. I'm not buying "several orders" of magnitude increase in brain complexity. But even if we assume that, that is 10 doublings 2^10, so an extra 15 years of Moore's Law before that is achieved (assuming that is possible). Hardly a major problem for the underlying theory if it is correct.

Tony Fisk said...

No Alex.
I don't see that the difference between mining water from asteroids and the Lunar poles can be compared, in any way, to manufacturing being done in China or US. The former is an exercise in astrodynamics. The latter is a socio-political issue.

If you *can* demonstrate the socio-political issues between mining the Moon or asteroids, I say you have the beginnings of an interesting novel.

David Brin said...

Thing is that asteroids have WAY more than just water. True, water will be the first and easiest to get. Also, water may be most abundant at asteroids with the least available metals. Still an industrail capacity to choose and exploit asteroids will be able to solar refine everything from steel to platinum. Show me that on the Moon.

Paul SB said...

If you *can* demonstrate the socio-political issues between mining the Moon or asteroids, I say you have the beginnings of an interesting novel.

How about different international treaties for Luna and the many different asteroidal zones, and different nations and/or business interests getting into the action at different times. Think of how the New World was colonized. The Pope divided the world into 2 halves and gave one half to His most Catholic King of Spain and the other half to His most Christian King of Portugal. This gave those nations a 'pass' to go on a conquest spree. Because of the prevailing winds, Spain and Portugal ended up getting everything south of the 30˚ N line, though they had to send their treasure ships north into the Caribbean to catch the winds back home, making the Caribbean a great place for piratical activities. Lands north of the 30˚ line were more difficult to get to, so they went to the English, Dutch, French, etc. who showed up late to the world domination game.

So for your novel you just need to decide who gets first dibs on NEOs and the richer and/or closer resources and who gets stuck trying to build a Lunar tourism industry. Add some intrigue over technological developments, a cheesy romantic subplot ...

Jumper said...

"the possibility of hitting satellites"?
There's no landing on the moon with a plasma engine. Realistically.
How long would a perfect sphere of water ice last if it were in transit between Ceres and Earth? That is, if we select a sphere 10 meters in diameter, how long? It's pretty self-chilling when evaporated from a solid, better than nitrogen by far, for example. The obvious reason to do it would be no tanks required, just a plasma engine anchored deep.

Alfred Differ said...

The METI argument isn't something that inspires me to action, I'll admit. I don't disagree with the sense that we should talk about talking to them before doing it, but I can't get worked up over the risks yet. Absent that, I feel no urge to prevent my fellow humans from behaving stupidly (that way) when there are so many other stupid things we do I actually care to fix. 8)

Besides, our star went radio bright a while ago, so it should be pretty obvious something is going on. They shouldn't need a high SNR to become curious about a new ant nest.

What IS interesting is the C60. I remember learning the argument for the existence of the interstellar medium as a student. I remember having to correct to spectra using references along roughly the same line of sight and how much of a guessing game it was. Then the solid state cameras (visible and NIR) got commercialized and everyone was talking pictures of the stuff at the amateur level. Wow! I drool over a good image of the ISM and get excited over ones that show the shocks near star formation regions. So much had to be deduced earlier. Now I've got screen savers full of these images. 8)

Alfred Differ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alfred Differ said...

Regarding the Fermi Paradox, my suspicion is that there is a lot of stuff buried in the last parameter. During the Cold War, I thought of it as the self-immolation parameter. How long before we nuke ourselves? Afterward, though, I began to think of it as the evolution parameter. How long before something significant changes? It might be self-annihilation, it might be V Vinge's transcendence, or it might be our host's version of an ancient race deciding to pick up and move to the retirement community deep inside a tidal well. Considering how little we know of our own history and alternatives, I find it hard to fathom any way to estimate L in a wider universe for which we have no useful analogies. At best, we can use what we see to reverse the equation and put bounds on L.

If I had to guess, though, I'd estimate L as something relatively short. I think the singularity folks are onto something even if we don't transcend. We live faster with each cultural phase change and with a bit of tech I don't see why we can't keep that up a while. The faster we go, the more the universe appears to grind to a halt and in that limit, we might lose interest in it.

Tony Fisk said...

Alfred, my personal suspicions are focussed on factors relating to speciation.
It took over a billion years for life to discover sex, and start evolving multi-cellular organisms. That period of time suggests the process was hard. Maybe really hard. Did life on Earth happen to hit the Jackpot?
What if it takes 10 billion years on average? 100?

Paul, hmm. One can imagine some future Pope-Emperor granting corporate rights for asteroids, and giving lesser forms a consolation prize... with a deep gravity well.

Alex Tolley said...

I don't see that the difference between mining water from asteroids and the Lunar poles can be compared, in any way, to manufacturing being done in China or US. The former is an exercise in astrodynamics. The latter is a socio-political issue.
It is much more than that, and that is before any socio-politics.

Alfred Differ said...

@Tony: Could be. Sex is a decent strategy for dealing with 'specialized orthogonal genetic systems', right? Viral interlopers face rapidly changing locks. I'm not sure what the memetic equivalent would be, but if an analogous strategy exists, it will be on the much faster evolving memescape, I think.

Most of our ideas seem to reproduce asexually with transmission errors when we copy from each other and train our children. Learning to navigate a complex city intersection demonstrates this reproduction. I suppose the sexual version would be when we do mash-ups and our new-fangled tools are sure making that easier.

Paul SB said...

Alex, I was thinking more a UN treaty than some future bigwig, but you never know. Since we're just going hypothetical storyspace, you can go whichever way you best think will make whatever point you want to make, and keep a story entertaining.

Alfred, wouldn't a memetic equivalent of sexual reproduction be simple intergenerational transmission? After all, there is always a generation gap, and individuals within any one generation will have certain memes they got from their parents directly, subject to the random mutation processes of individual psychology and historical context. However, this doesn't get hybridization like 2n, does it?

Alfred Differ said...

@Paul SB: I suspect the thing that separates us from archaic humans is a sexual approach to meme reproduction. When we economize within our family groups, we pass memes along asexually with transmission errors. When we trade outside our family groups, we pass memes to another group that is unlikely to adopt them mostly intact. They will adapt them to fit their needs if they are useful.

I'm thinking (at the moment) of the way Christianity adapted to local traditions as it spread. Look at all the Cross varieties.

Sex makes good sense for scrambling the field against viral attackers, so for trade outside family groups to be analogous, I need an equivalent outsider meme that trade frustrates. I'd pick the princes and priests and their feudal control of us except they tend to adapt the trade rules rapidly to own the markets. That means they might fit as an STD, but I haven't thought the analogy through enough.

Duncan Cairncross said...

I really don't want to piss our host off - BUT

In the spirit of "contrary" Brin

David recently said effectively that as the nation that started all sorts of good stuff the USA has kind of suffered from this as other nations have been able to follow more effectively

Now we all know that the USA has led the way in democracy and such,

But everybody knows that the "Right wing" parties are better economically - except they are actually NOT (as David has shown us)

So I had a look at some dates

UK USA NZ Germany France
Franchise (men) 1884 1842 1852 1871 1792
Franchise – natives NA 1924 1867 NA NA
Franchise – women 1918 1920 1893 1919 1944

Rule of law
(not ruler’s whim) 1215 Already in place 1830 1799
Habeas Corpus 1679 Already in place 1830 1799
Public education 1870 1870 1877 1810 1833
Public health 1946 not yet 1938 1930 1945

(The "Already in place" in the USA and NZ is because that was in place with those settlers before the countries formed)

What else should I be using as a measure?
On these measures the USA does not seem to have been leading the pack

Jonathan S. said...

Paul SB, re: Niven's Law of Time Travel, if someone comes along and invents it again, the same thing happens - folks start screwing with history, things get fracked up, and finally someone decides the only way to fix it is to kill the guy that invented it and thus prevent its invention. It's a repeated sequence, with variations. Each time, the loop gets pinched off.

Of course, you can posit some form of "temporal resistance", if you will, like Fritz Lieber's Change War stories, such that history is difficult to change; this allows for potential temporal alteration without making Niven's Law unavoidable. Then again, there's the idea that you can't actually change history, just fragment timelines, a concept most recently explored in the 2009 movie Star Trek. (It's made explicit at one point that when Nero went back in time, he didn't "change history", he just started a new timeline that differed during the mission of the Saladin-class scout USS Kelvin.) But if you can change the past relatively easily, then time travel will never be invented.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Johnathon
The trouble is that time just keeps on going
So once the technology to make a time machine is in place if the society goes on long enough it will be invented

Once invented changes will be made (even if they are difficult) and the only stable change un-invents the time machine - but the society/race/species is still there and could invent it again later.
The only truly stable change removes the species

Lets say that there is a choke point to go through on nuclear weapons,
We have passed that particular point - but if there is a time machine then we would have to do it again and again
The Cuban missile crisis, the Russian almost response to a false alarm,

We would have to throw a six an infinite number of times without ever throwing a one

If a species develops interstellar travel and spreads out it becomes much less vulnerable to most disasters
But much more vulnerable to Niven's Law as each of the daughter cultures could invent time travel and destroy the common origins

Tony Fisk said...

Duncan, you might add abolition of slavery (again, not a leader):

UK: 1834 (full emancipation in 1838)
USA: 1863 (ratified by Congress 1865)
NZ: 1840 (persisted in some Maori tribes into 1860's)
Germany: 1945? (Never formally legalised, but practised in colonies and WWII)
France: 1794 (reintroduced by Napoleon in 1802, and renounced in 1815)
Australia: 1788 (Gov. Phillip was appalled by the slavery he witnessed while seconded to the Portuguese Navy and was determined it wouldn't take root in the New Holland convict colony. However, the result was mixed, and many instances of indentured labour of Pacific Islanders and Aboriginals can be found, even into the 20th century. Then again, I suspect examples can be found in any remote area needing manpower)

Against that, it might be argued that the US did take in immigrants and refugees fleeing oppression etc. that other countries did not.

Tony Fisk said...

Re: Timelines. Neil Gaiman's Dr. Who short "Nothing O'Clock" describes a nasty adversary capable of infesting a timeline by repeatedly shuttling back and forth through a short time period. This can do unpleasant things to the velocity of money.
(The Timelords had to lock it away...)

Tony Fisk said...

(... The nasty adversary, that is. Not the money.)

Paul SB said...

Duncan, the institutions you bring up mostly cluster to within about half a century of each other in the countries you mention. It reminded me of what I wrote earlier about "ideas of the times" (something like the German term Zeitgeist) applied at the level of nations rather than individuals (and fitting the old Peer Polity Interaction model very well). If you add more European countries like Holland, Italy and Spain, you would see how these things cluster, but not so much in other regions of the world. Places that have been slower to adopt more democratic institutions seem to be places with higher population densities (or under the thumbs of such places) and/or in the planet's sunniest regions where high serotonin levels might be a factor in maintaining unequal power relationships. Of course, correlation does not equal causation, but it does raise questions worth exploring.

Alfred, I like where you are going with your meme to gene reproduction/transmission analogies. Polities create patriotism and religion to take mental control of their citizens, but in the pursuit of trade their people come in contact with other polities and their patriotism and religions, making a level of imperfect transmission and syncretism inevitable. Raymond Firth once said that whenever two populations meet they may or may not bleed, but they will most certainly breed. The memetic corollary would be that they will most certainly talk, argue, debate, and memes will spread and mutate. No cultural purity possible without isolation from the planet itself and thereby the whole rest of the human community. Keep thinking about it.

SteveO said...

Speaking as a metallurgical engineer with experience in mining...

"Show me that on the Moon."

What you have the possibility of on the Moon is ore concentration - gravity sorting, heat, whatever. On a non-dwarf planet asteroid, you might have a higher *average* concentration of something, but with a lack of concentration, it will just be dirt.

For example, aluminum is the most abundant metal in the Earth's crust, but you can't just pick up a pile of randomly selected rock and use it to make aluminum. You need an ore (bauxite) that is only created by weathering in a very specific environment (including limestone and clays, which themselves can only be present with water and gravity). Most asteroids are undifferentiated with respect to metals (unless they were part of some larger body at some point). CHON mining could be possible for space habitation (I don't know how to do that), but I believe those asteroids are very rare. Metallic asteroid/meteorites are also rare, and of, technically speaking, yucky composition for actual use. (Possible but very expensive to refine into something usable.)

One could envision some future way of extracting aluminum that didn't require concentration - nanotech I suppose - but we haven't figured out how to do that here yet. To me, the Moon seems to be a reasonable place to start mineral prospecting, not asteroids.

Jumper said...

Thanks for the hint at some interesting knowledge, SteveO!

I never knew this. Then again, when I worked in metallurgy I never touched aluminum, just iron and steels. And maybe a hunk of bronze a few times analyzing wearing surfaces.

Jumper said...

I'd guess planetary (not moon) surfaces. Unfortunately, Venus looks like it would have the best separations of elements, and I don't see it being mined any time soon. Vulcanism or tectonics seems a requirement, but H2O and time might suffice. David has mentioned he thought some concentrations likely in asteroids resulting from collisions of proto-planets early. Then it's a matter of finding the few. There are a lot of asteroids, however.

SteveO said...

Hey Jumper, I spent 5 years working at ALCOA, and had a couple of jobs in the copper mining industry before that. I consulted for one of the largest steel companies in the world (not in metallurgy, but I got an inside view of the biz).

Even steel needs iron ore concentration before it becomes sensible. And turning iron into steel in space - well you are going to use up all of your oxygen pretty quickly trying to feed the blast furnace beast. Not sure where you would even get limestone. Also, you would eat up your CHON asteroid for coke alone. There are some direct to steel production techniques, but, well, take a look: Still very resource intensive. Energy in space is easy, chemicals are the tough bit.

Alex Tolley said...

@Duncan - Americans are as self-delusional as any other culture. America is always best at everything (even f**king up).

@SteveO - the asteroids have plenty of very rich ores. Iron meteorites can be almost pure metal, no oxides to remove. Just apply heat. Apollo astronaut Harrison Schmitt proposed lunar mining for platinum by looking for asteroid impacts on the moon as rich sources. As DB says, asteroids that are more like comets (outer belt) just need added heat and a big bag to extract water. I think am insulated pipe with a hot tip is all that is needed. Punch into the surface a few meters, heat the tip and collect the low temperature steam. Filter out the contaminants with reverse osmosis or gentle fractional distillation and you have a pure water supply for propellant and life support. The reason I favor Ceres is that the water supply is enormous, the location is known and can therefore support a large installation with planned cargo shipments of water. Any carbon and nitrogen will also be valuable products for human space facilities to sustain themselves.

Alex Tolley said...

@SteveO "Even steel needs iron ore concentration before it becomes sensible. And turning iron into steel in space - well you are going to use up all of your oxygen pretty quickly trying to feed the blast furnace beast. Not sure where you would even get limestone. Also, you would eat up your CHON asteroid for coke alone."

Iron ore concentration:
O2 for blast furnace - unneeded - use solar concentrators. Or solar PV for electric arc furnace. Vacuum is a good insulator.
Limestone - ? - depends on how pure the iron is as to whether this is needed.
CHON/coke - unneeded - see solar above.

I question how much steel will be needed in space. Most structures will be plastics as carbon from carbonaceous chondrite asteroids is available. Steel may be used for some applications, but in small scale, rather than bulk, such as sheet steel. Other carbon sources are CO2 of Mars and Venus. Atmosphere skimmers might be the mechanism to collect this gas and freeze it for transport.

Daniel Duffy said...

When you all talk about more "advanced" alien civilizations, you need to distinguish between those that are simply more powerful and those that are more sophisticated.

If we assume that such things as teleportation, anti-gravity, traveling faster than light, etc. will forever remain fantasies that require the breaking of physical reality then even a civilization 1 billion years older than ours would be far more powerful (as measured on the Kardeshev energy use scale) but would not be so sophisticated that we cold not understand it. For example, such a civilization may have fleets of massive nuclear pulse Orion style ships using huge amounts of energy, but this technology is something we could easily understand.

And if John Horgan is correct in his "End of Science" and the growth of scientific knowledge resembles an S-curve that flattens out after a period of rapid advancement, this is the more likely scenario.

Daniel Duffy said...

"America is always best at everything (even f**king up)."

Hey pal, nobody works as hard at f**king up than America!

To quote Winston Churchill: "You can always count on Americans to do the right thing - after they've tried everything else."

Paul SB said...

Daniel Duffy, if you go back to Thomas Kuhn, you'll see that John Horgan is only being short sighted. What looks like an S-curve on a relatively short time scale disappears over a much longer time scale. The advancement of knowledge looks more saltational, flattening out for what might seem like long periods until some major change causes a new renaissance. It sounds to me like the guy is suffering from the End of History fallacy. But if you think there is more to it, please explain.

for starters.

Alex Tolley said...

John Horgan on his "End of Science" thesis 20 years later.
Still unrepentant

I think he is wrong and that we are doing more than filling in the details, but we will probably know for sure in another 50 years. It sure doesn't feel that way in biology to me, even if physics has slowed down.

Alex Tolley said...

I suspect advanced civilizations won't be understandable for cultural reasons, rather than technological. Are we even understandable to our ancestors just a few generations ago? How about 40 generations? How much can we really understand an alien culture, even if we can communicate with it.

SteveO said...

Err Alex, metallurgy is a little bit more complicated than that...

Iron meteorites are very unsuitable for any modern use (meteorite iron swords would only be good in comparison to iron swords if that) - they are too high in spoiler elements, so heating them up will get you nothing more than brittle iron that is going to have some serious problems in vacuum. You have to refine the unwanted elements out, which takes quite a bit of work as well as raw materials, and you have to turn the iron into steel, which takes a LOT more work. The oxygen is part of the chemical reactions going on in the blast furnace - you are not using it just for its exothermic reaction. Same with coke - you won't end up with steel if you don't add carbon somehow. There are ways to make steel without a blast furnace, but they are very dependent on controlled inputs. I have no idea how to make steel in free fall either - everything we know about steel making requires gravity separation. Maybe a giant centrifuge on top of everything else? And that is just mild steel - you probably need austenitic stainless for space applications, so now you have to go find some alloying elements too.

There is no evidence that there is any ore on any asteroid, in fact as far as I know just the opposite. They are a big undifferentiated mass, with the exception of those that were part of a larger body at some point like c chrondrites or metallic meteorites. And those are very rare anyway.

You really really don't want plastic in a vacuum. With a few exceptions ( plastic is not suitable for applications in space. Even mild steel is not good. Aluminum is by far preferred for a variety of reasons. (Higher modulus than steel, low outgassing, no brittleness in cold.)

Ceres or Vesta we know are differentiated. As to whether they have ores, we'll probably have to go there or do remote prospecting. I don't include them in the class "asteroids" for purposes of mining discussions. But that is different than what people usually mean by "mining asteroids."

I have no direct knowledge of CHON mining - we don't do it here, so we can only theorize. I sure don't think your "pointy hot" method would work though, since carbonaceous chrondrites since they are sintered solid. (And if they weren't or if you broke them up, the gases would shoot out in every direction. Love to see a bagged C chrondrite though. Not sure how that would actually work. You would have to bag it, then reduce it to sand, then heat it I guess. Then you would have to figure some way to get all the goop stuck on the bag into something useful. I leave that one for the chemists out there...

The Moon is close enough for rescue missions and probably has differentiation so ore is a possibility. If you have a space-based population it *might* make sense to mine volatiles and maybe aluminum there. I don't see much sense in mining asteroids though, at least not so far.

David Brin said...

There is zero sign of ore differentiation on the moon. And "rescue missions" are as easily mounted from a lagrange station as anywhere. More so. Try reading MINING THE SKY... even in the 1980s is was obvious asteroidal materials are huge.

SteveO said...

I agree about the Moon (except for water) - that is just a more likely place for differentiation. There is zero sign of ore level differentiation on asteroids. (There is on planets of course.) If the Moon isn't differentiated, asteroids are even less likely to be so.

Mining the Sky was not written by a mining or metallurgical engineer. (Did you know that every mention of extraction in the book was in regards to hydrogen or water?) Or look at Planetary Resources. Let's just say that to a mining engineer, their notions of mining are...quaint. How many miners are on their leadership board? The presence of elements, even in large masses or higher-than-Earth proportions, is waaaaay different than being able to extract or use those elements. (I don't know enough about CHON to comment on that type of mining.)

I think Rosetta is showing that the big comet is undifferentiated on the inside, with surface concentration of organics due to sublimation. That is your area of expertise though. :)

Delta v might be about the same from LaGrange, but the time is not, and potentially the factor of concern there. The Moon is three days away from home. Ceres, for example, is much more complicated, involves launch windows, and takes a lot longer. Earth orbit crossing asteroids are in a similar situation and much further away in time than the Moon.

Jeez, I am sounding like such a downer. Let me also say that my long term fear is that we squander materials and energy here on Earth and then become unable to tap resources off of Earth and are stuck permanently. But I think we have to have a realistic and economical basis for exploration, and I know a bit about mining exploration and exploitation. I haven't heard anything that shows how asteroid mining would ever (ahem) get off the ground. Only if a large population is living in space does any sort of space mining make sense to me, and then only for CHON (*or CHO since I don't think nitrogen is around much*).

I *DO* think energy harvesting should be explored, and that in turn will build the foundation to understand if mining has an application.

Alfred Differ said...

The most eye opening experience I’ve had regarding mining in space occurred when an Australian mining consultant educated me and a few of our space geeks on the reality of the business.
1. Ore is a mineral that can be brought to market at a profit, so market prices matter.
2. Refinement is a VERY messy process. Current techniques rely upon gravity, air flow, heat sinks, and elbow room. Since many of these things aren’t available up there, we’d have to find replacements and that will cost us money. Ore bodies could become mere minerals due to a lack of knowledge.
3. Funding of exploratory efforts peaks out at a certain percentage of what the industry makes in a year. There is no way the industry will sink a large fraction of that in an undiversified portfolio that really isn’t a portfolio. Industry members compete with each other. While project partnerships do occur, they are correctly perceived as high risks if they chew up too much exploratory capital. In a nutshell, the industry is VERY aware of opportunity costs.

There are differentiated asteroids and many that concentrate minerals enough to be interesting, but without knowledge of refinement techniques in situ, they won’t become ore bodies. The exception to this involves water and the other volatiles frozen as ices out there. Those are highly concentrated and worth a fortune if brought back to cis-lunar space. The risk also appears to be moderately small. The hurdle, therefore, is that the project proposals cost too much money. Time cost of money kills industry participation in asteroid mining projects even for water. Until someone learns viable techniques to be used out there, they are just mineral bodies.

The Moon isn’t where we will learn asteroid mining techniques. Too much gravity and elbow room. The water at the pole might be worth something, though. I’ll believe it when people start flying satellites that can be refueled in orbit. Even birds with intentional hard points to support temporary attachments to refillable tugs would suffice.

Anonymous said...

Re Fermi:
There are two technologies that I think are the most likely inhibitors of galactic civilization and communication.

Firstly; virtual reality could very easily lead to millions of years of civilization being simulated by a fraction of the material resources available in our solar system and a few years worth of solar energy output. Why take centuries/millennia to visit strange new worlds when you can make a computer to randomly design trillions of worlds to explore full of hot alien chicks to have sexytimes with.

Secondly; omni-directional communication is so 20th century. Advanced communication technologies could be as simple as directed lasers or as complex as neutrino pulses. My money is on quantum entangled telecommunication. Even if it turns out to be limited to the speed of light, communication without infrastructure would be a highly tempting technology regardless of distance.


Alfred Differ said...

@PaulSB: I’ve been working on a book that examines what humans actually do divorced of all the cultural ideals we impose because I’m interested in opening the space frontier using techniques we already know. I’m working on the section that discusses how we organize without organizational plans of which people are aware, so it gets into meme reproduction and the black swans that show up with new memes. Writing this thing is taking me way outside my comfort zone, but I’ve seen too many years go by with the same starry-eyed people showing up at conventions with essentially the same unfundable projects to pitch. I used to have one of my own many years ago that our host was kind enough about to offer an indirect warning that I was in over my head. He was spot on, but it took me a few years and a couple of other projects to see it. Now I’m examining why I did that and what might have actually worked.

After being sucked in by a very seductive vision, I’ve begun to examine the role story telling plays and what we are actually doing. I was seven years old when we landed on the Moon, but my mind was already captured. I’ve been serving her ever since, but I’m at the limit of my knowledge. She demands more.

(I do regret missing our host's social models post. Rats. I'll just have to wait for it to come around on the guitar again.)

Alex Tolley said...

SteveO - even my rudimentary knowledge of metallurgy is aware of a few of the complexities. O2 is not going to be short in space, due to H2O. Carbon is problematic, but is not nearly as rare as you seem to imply. My sense is that new mining techniques will evolve if/when mining asteroids for metals becomes important.

Plastics are good in space - Bigelow's habs are all plastic hulled, primarily Kevlar and Mylar. Their Genesis scale test habs are still inflated in orbit, despite the conditions. Where those materials are made will depend on costs and difficulty. My guess is that Earth will remain the center of space material manufacturing for a long time to come, and the focus will be on reducing access costs to space. The miniaturization of hardware makes that approach attractive.

I am not a great proponent of asteroid mining for metals in the short term, as I see very little economic point of bringing materials back to Earth. When there is expansion into the solar system, that is another matter.

Plain old water seems to me the most desirable commodity to be gained from space, as it costs a lot to place it in orbit, and we need a lot of it. Where we get it from will depend on the economics and business opportunities. There doesn't even have to be a single source - asteroids for cheap stable supplies, Earth/Moon for high cost, emergency supplies.

As DB says, the moon does not look like it has differentiated, although we have hardly explored it. Asteroid impact sites will be the place to extract metals and other materials. Whether it makes sense is another matter.

Alfred's comment above strikes me as being a realistic assessment of the opportunities and issues to overcome.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi guys

As far as using asteroids is concerned I suspect that asking mining engineers is roughly equivalent to asking horse breeders how to develop a petrol engine

They are used to working in an oxygen atmosphere with gravity and all of their processes are built around those constraints and environment

Processing asteroid materials will become a whole new science, as will the engineering of using those materials

SteveO said...

Alex - "Plastics" are not good in space. A few (as I linked) are able to be used. I'll wait to see how Bigelow tests on orbit before I volunteer any time aboard! Not sure Vectran counts as a plastic anyway - it is more like fiberglass made from a polymer crystal as I understand it. It will be interesting to see how they handle moisture.

Mylar is just aluminum on PET. Pretty sure you don't want PET exposed to vacuum. I love the idea of inflatable habitation modules though.

Steel manufacture in space - I think you are underestimating how much it takes for production levels, and I just don't see it happening anytime soon. To have something you can use in vacuum, you need an austenitic stainless, which implies a whole lotta technology we don't even know is possible, plus a need for it. I would think aluminum would be far more likely, but it comes with its own challenges. Beryllium alloys are really great, except for that being toxic thing. Diamond - that is the ticket!

But what you are asking for is not evolution of techniques, but a wholesale phase change (see what I did there) of mining technology. It would be like expecting the Greeks to invent stainless steel straight from bronze smelting with no economic benefit from one to the other. There would have to be a really compelling reason to do that, and even for platinum or "rare" earths there isn't one. John Varley has a scenario that fits the bill (aliens occupy Earth, all those off world have to figure out how to survive). Still, I encourage the billionaires of the world to fund mining asteroids - maybe there is something we don't know that would make it possible, and if nothing else we learn something. But like Alfred, I find it highly unlikely. And like you I see no economic case for trying to bring anything back to Earth surface unless...maybe if there is a space elevator. All bets off in that case.

Still, if there are ever metallurgical jobs on orbit, you will see my name in the list! ;-)

SteveO said...

Ha, Duncan your analogy and mine crossed in posting, my brother from another mother. :-D

Alex Tolley said...

@SteveO - Nasa is happy to use a Bigelow BEAM hab that is to be attached to the ISS for testing.
I am sure Mylar is used in layers to build spacesuits. IIRC, the outer layers are exposed to vacuum.

When the hydrogen economy was all the rage, it was thought platinum would be needed for the fuel cells. The amount needed was greater than all Earth's supplies, hence ideas for Moon and asteroid mining. Since then, fuel cells use less platinum, cheap substitutes have been found, and of course we no longer think the hydrogen economy is the way to go. So no need to mine asteroid/Moon platinum for Earth demand today or in the near future.

I don't see a huge demand for steel in space, just specialized components. It may well be that components are still best made on Earth and launched, as the cost will initially be much cheaper and no massive capital outlay needed. I think inflatable hulls make a lot of sense, especially when being launched from Earth. Check out the Bigelow technology, no one else is as advanced in this area as Bigelow.

David Brin said...

Paul... got the T shirt thanks. Gosh she is talented!

Now onward

SteveO said...

Yes, I have been looking forward to the next test. I want to see how it ages and deals with thermal cycling. They do take a layering approach (24 according to Wikipedia).

The one thing that could spur long-term investment to mine space is some need to go get "unobtainium" like running out of platinum or some other necessary element. Personally, I think we will be mining our old garbage heaps long before we are mining asteroids, for the very same economic reasons. "There may not be that much phosphorous in that stuff our ancestors threw away in the early 2000's, but it is a higher concentration than any ore left today!" (Said in 2050)

My steel discussion was in response to "just melt the iron meteorite" comment - a melted meteorite is not useful for much of anything. Makes a good door stop, I should think.

David Brin said...

Baloney. The asteroids WERE "differentiated" when the proto planets formed and was shattered. If you melt a metal chondrite asteroid and shape it into a hollow globe, you can deliver to Earth a year's worth of steel, a hundred years' gold and silver and a thousand years' platinum group elements... from ONE 'roid. Or better, use most of it in space!

Time for the next blog


Paul Smith said...

I remember when the moon was proposed as a source of titanium. Seems that some rock was 35% concentration. (I can't remember the exact numbers.) I can just see it now. A big reentry body of Titanium Oxide breaks up at altitude and Global Cooling becomes the problem. Best ship this as a metal.

DavidTC said...

Everyone seems to be misunderstanding how Niven's Law applies here.

It's all cute to think about someone going back to 'kill the inventor of time travel', but while that might happen a few times, time travel will still get developed later in any species that understand science. (Assuming it is possible, and can alter the past, but that's the premise here.)

The only stable timeline is one in which time travel is never invented, and the 'easiest' way to get such a timeline is to *not have any intelligent creatures*, ever. All it takes in is one person letting some sort of 'mammal-killing virus' loose in the Jurassic and, we get a timeline without any humans...tada, no time travel.

And, a billion years later, birds might develop intelligence instead...until they invent time travel, and some idiot bird goes into *their* past and kills them off. Etc, etc.

Niven's law actually solves the Fermi paradox perfectly: Life can still be 'likely' to evolve, and life still, inevitably, leads to intelligent life...but intelligent life, at least of the sort that can invent interstellar travel, will always eventually invent time travel, which eventually causes it to idiotically erase itself.

So even if they start to colonize the galaxy, eventually, retroactively, they won't.

And, hell, even if a few species manage to avoid this, they risk of some *other* species doing it to them. (The best way to avoid that is to *keep their head down*.)

Hey, ever wonder why the start of life on this planet seemed to take forever? Ever wonder why there are so many mass extension events in our past? Maybe because this is the tenth time intelligence developed on this planet, and the nine other times, terrorists sent back something designed to kill their ancestors or even all life.

DavidTC said...

In fact, time travel is the best 'Great Filter' there is, in that all other filter have to apply to every single intelligence *before* they send off a self-replicating probe, and it's hard to see how at least *one* intelligence didn't manage it billions of years ago.

But with time travel, a intelligence can send out self-replicating probes, survey the entire galaxy, meet everyone, including us...and, then, two million years from now, oops, they invent time travel, and now it turns out they now never existed. Well, that was pretty pointless.