Friday, August 21, 2015

Our best year in space yet!

This time we're looking outward... toward the vast, vast majority of all there is. And after decades of doldrums, it seems we truly are regaining some momentum in space exploration.  Have any of you been keeping track on a scorecard?

Hang on till the end, to read the news from NASA NIAC!

First... Citizen science. Nasa just launched a satellite to judge soil moisture. in order to calibrate it, Nasa needs lots of soil samples. So, they're inviting people to find out when the SMAP satellite is flying over their area, then collect a sample, weigh it, dry it, weigh it again, and report it.

Of course Pluto is still the biggest story. Data  and extraordinary images continue to stream in from the fabulously successful New Horizons mission. Of which we should all be very proud, a pinnacle in one of humanity's best years in space. 

(That is, unless you are one of these pathetic people who proclaim "it's all faked!"  In which case, why take on so many dazzlingly vivid accomplishments to fabricate? With that kind of special effects budget, you could, um, afford real space missions.)

But back to the show! Watch the video: Animated Flyover of PlutoThen remind yourself that this is Pluto.  Say that to yourself while watching the video. It is freaking PLUTO!

And you did this. As a taxpayer and citizen. If you are not thrilled, then you badly need to next watch THIS video! Especially the end. 

And now this coda: "In a coincidence of astronomical proportions, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has conducted the first flyby of Pluto on the 50th anniversary of the first flyby of Mars. NASA’s Mariner 4 probe became the first spacecraft to capture up-close images of another planet when it flew past Mars on July 14, 1965."

Wow, has it been that long since my teenage brain had to adjust to there being no canals (or princesses) on the Red Planet?  I am mollified knowing that New Horizons still has fuel in its tanks and they hope to send her past another Kuiper Belt object, a billion miles further into deep, deep space.

== Had enough Pluto? == 

Nope, there's more. Another Plutonian mountain range!   And cool info on Pluto’s lesser moons.  The much-anticipated “eclipse” study of Pluto’s dark side shows the sun’s halo around the planet, revealing thick and high haze that may come from crystalized hydrocarbons. And closeups in Tombaugh Regio show “flow” shapes that suggest semi-liquid activity - possibly by partly melted Nitrogen ices (!) within the last few tens of millions of years! Signs of geologic activity recently? On Pluto? Oy.

And now what you’ve been waiting for… a tentative map of Pluto proposed place names! And for Charon, too. 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! Help make em classics so the next mission...)

== And Meanwhile... ==

The Philae lander on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko bobbled and skipped into a shadowed spot, falling out of contact... till it woke up in June as the comet moved closer to the sun. But latest data suggests something, possibly a gas emission, may have moved it again. Philae’s antenna may have been obstructed, and one of its transmitters seems to have stopped working. Well well, some of you recall I predicted this.  The violence of the comet's close passage to the sun will do this.  I hope they got some more good data.  More on 67/P in our next space update.

See this marvelous 3D topography model of the nucleus of 67P.

Had enough yet? We're just getting started. Now see exaggerated vertical relief fly over of Ceres. Ceres is apparently producing a periodic haze over the Mysterious White Spot, suggesting active venting. Looks like it is turning out to be an icy fumarole.

And our spectacularly successful Cassini mission in the Saturn system is still pouring out results.  One of my top ten favorite photos of all time was taken by Cassini's little Huygens Probe whil landing on Titan, clearly showing what Cassini confirmed to be lakes and seas of ethane and methane, fed by rain and by rivers flowing into waxy shorelines. But I want more! So just today, NASA released stunning Cassini closeups of the beautifully ravaged moon, Dione.

And none of this is to mention earlier -- within the last year -- news from Mercury and Venus... and recalibrated Earth-sensing that proves Ted Cruz to be a liar... and a comet sweeping past Mars, caught in the act by our orbiting probes!  And the science from that serendipity is (I hear) amazing.

More from Curiosity and Opportunity, our faithful emissaries to the planet solely occupied by robots. (Can you believe those spectacular successes are almost afterthoughts, in this list?)  And more insights into weird Titan! 

And news of a possible NASA Europa probe that might use methods pioneered at NASA NIAC (where I serve on the external advisory board.) More on NIAC below.

== Look Homeward Angel ==

Want to watch something even cooler than all that? How about a video of the Moon transiting in front of the Earth?  And this is the lunar backside we are looking at! Another gift of the Discovr (Deep Space Climate Observatory) probe, described giddily by Phil Plait, who is just having way too much fun during by far our best year in space since the 1970s and possibly ever.

Discovr sits at the Lagrange Point a million miles closer to the sun, warning us of solar storms (a vital service) but also fulfilling a proposal by Al Gore (one of the century's most-under-rated figures, whose Senate bill freed the Internet for all) that we needed a monitoring station to give humanity a round the clock daylight view of our planet as it turns. Can you believe we did not have this? Until now.

== Solar Sails to Space ==

I’ve served on the board of advisers of the Planetary Society and have long urged others to put them on your list of orgs to join, in making a better world. (Each of us, whatever our opinions, should have membership at least a dozen orgs who - via the miracle of Proxy Activism - then go forth and save the world for us. A modern convenience. Look up the concept here.)  
One favorite of mine? The Planetary Society’s ongoing efforts to accomplish what should have been done at the very dawn of the Space Era, almost a lifetime ago… developing useful, reliable, deployable light sails (or “solar sails”) to send small craft cheaply across the community of planets. Except for one small Japanese deployment, this whole realm has been almost utterly ignored by the major agencies and powers, a blatant case of neglecting-the-obvious that starts to look awfully suspicious. Moreover, the TPS efforts have been plagued by one episode of bad luck after another… like two successive blowups of Russian launch vehicles.  As one of the members of my blogmunity - Paul451 - put it: “Solar sails really are cursed. I call aliens. This is clearly the forbidden technology which violates the terms of our quarantine."

Though now there's tentative good news on this roller-coaster ride... the jinx appears to have struck again. But still, after a series of setbacks and silences, LightSail deployed!

Now that the first stage of this mission is complete, the Planetary Society is preparing their next phase of LightSail, scheduled for 2016.  Partially funded through Kickstarter, this solar sail will be launched into a higher orbit, 450 miles above the surface of the Earth. "There the solar sails will both deploy and catch the sun's photon breeze, sailing on the high seas of the interplanetary vacuum." Sign on to The Planetary Society's kickstarter!

And while you are at it please sign this easy Planetary Society petition online, asking Congress not to (again) slash planetary exploration funding -- and to support a new mission to Europa. 

== Not resting on our laurels ==

Let's hope this is just the beginning. That Elon Musk's SpaceX and Virgin Galactic and others get their legs back under them and get Earth to Orbit far more efficient and reliable... the core element in doing ever-more thing, ever-better.

Meanwhile, Planetary Resources and its competitors… and the B612 Foundation... are pushing forward their endeavors to either harvest asteroids for resources or at least detect and divert dangerous ones. (Seems worthwhile -- just don't touch my asteroid.

And there’s talk of making an inflatable space elevator! (Only 35 years after I broached the idea, in SUNDIVER.  Well better late than never.  Try harder to keep up, guys.)

And NASA's Innovative and Advanced Concepts group (NIAC) has just released its 2015 Solicitation For Proposals for small seed grants to enable brilliant, ambitious innovators to try out some bold idea.  NIAC is the tip, the entry wedge, and if your concept satisfies the requirements, you might win real money to transform how we live/work/explore outer space. NIAC is especially interested in beefing up its portfolio in Biology, by the way. And women researchers are encouraged to look into the possibilities.  And Yoiu know all this because I sit on the external board.

It all adds up to a great year in space.  Greater even than the glory days of Apollo? I deem that to be arguable!  We are accomplishing so much more, with such spectacular competence that it's happening with the tiny slivers of funding our society allocates to horizons.

Beyond interplanetary? Icarus Interstellar is one of several nascent groups aiming at taking look-ahead activism to the next level… pushing now for humanity to become an interstellar civilization. Join  their Kickstarter campaign and become a Charter Member of Starship Congress 2015! I did, as did Vint Cerf! Also don't forget also Centauri Dreams.

Finally... getting back to why so few of us are celebrating this greatest year of humanity in space... here again is a link to my TED talk about why we are letting anger rule our lives, when there are so many reasons instead to feel rising confidence. 

We are a people who are doing all these wondrous things, exploring our solar system with pennies out of each citizen's pocket... and so many other signs of progress down here on Earth... yet, we are letting dogmatists and indignation junkies of both the right and the left hijack the discussion, spreading fear and only fear of the future.

We are doing all this, and so much more!  We are a mighty folk. A folk of legend who will be subject of songs, in times to come. Call the doom merchants what they are -- ankle weights around the feet of a pragmatic, problem-solving people. Problem-solvers who will go ahead and save the world, despite them.  

And go on to the stars.


Daniel Duffy said...

"We are a people who are doing all these wondrous things, exploring our solar system with pennies out of each citizen's pocket... and so many other signs of progress down here on Earth... yet, we are letting dogmatists and indignation junkies of both the right and the left hijack the discussion, spreading fear and only fear of the future."

You sound like comedian Louis CK, "Everything is amazing and nobody's happy"

Robert said...

I'm rather surprised at the stupidity of the "head" truther who claims Pluto's images were faked... because of the blurriness of an initial picture of Pluto taken from the same distance as his own photograph of Jupiter. He puzzled over how the image could be so pixelated when his showed clear detail.

What the moron failed to realize was he was taking a picture of something dozens (if not hundreds) of times larger in diameter than Pluto. It dawned on me in a matter of seconds, and I'm not that smart. (Mind you, I'm no idiot either, like this guy seemed to be.)

All it took was two things: a basic understanding of planet sizes, and logic. Both of which the truther lacks.

Rob H.

locumranch said...

I know that today's thread is technology related -- woohooo, go space & technology -- but I had to share one of the most astute & manipulative applications of game theory since Briar Rabbit convinced his adversaries to throw him back into his beloved briar patch. I am speaking, of course, of the Greek Crisis and Game Master Tsipras who managed to (1) reposition his progressivist anti-austerity party as the new face of greek conservativism, (2) convince the IMF to 'force' yet another unsecured loan on the most indebted nation in the EU, (3) force the EU to bear the brunt of immigrants who have invaded the EU through Greece and (4) dissolve his new 'conservative' government in so abrupt a fashion that future greek government accountability becomes impossible, leaving centralist EU federalists holding the (metaphorical) bag while leftist US-style socialists like Bernie Sanders demand balkanisation in a desperate 'last gasp' attempt to save european democracy from the rule of EU oligarchy. Expect step (5) in short order and thank god that we live in a society that makes all this possible.


Deuxglass said...

I must say as an American living in Paris that I am very proud of what the American soldiers did today in the Amsterdam to Paris train.

Tony Fisk said...

Until IAU decrees otherwise, I hereby dub the fuzzy areas on Charon 'Regio Yuggoth' (where there be fun guys).

Otherwise, I think the standard comment on seeing the first flyby photographs of Pluto was 'so when are we going back?'* Finding evidence of geological activity where none was expected (on Pluto *and* Ceres) is precisely what exploration is about. (Although I was a little disappointed not to see any filamentary strands joining Pluto and Charon**. Still, the imagination can fill in the gaps while there's still plenty of data to be returned.)

While this year has been great for planetary exploration, we are facing a few lean ones. Messenger has ended. Cassini will be ending soon and, while Juno is due to arrive at Jupiter next year, it's not expected to last that long in the radiation belts. By 2020, Mars will be the only place we have a sustained presence.

By way of consolation, there is still 'inner space', and I gather that Parks Victoria has just discovered an extensive coral/sponge reef in 100m just off Wilsons Promontory. (In keeping with previous remarks about geological activity, Bass Strait is *not* where I'd expect to find a coral reef)

*Bearing in mind that an orbit insertion mission would take ~ 40 years coasting to get there. Not sure what a large tank of xenon does to the figures.
**In case you're wondering, I'm referring to "Hothouse" where Aldiss describes a far future Earth that has become tidally locked with the Moon, and the two have become linked by the webs of vegetable creatures that are a cross between dirigibles and giant spiders.

Daniel Duffy said...

"And go on to the stars."

Found this fascinating video about how Mankind could colonize the entire galaxy and beyond in a relatively short (astronomically speaking) time using self replicating ships, frozen embryos and artificial wombs, frozen hibernation of adult crew, protective nurturing AI, and nuclear pulse spacecraft traveling 1% to 10% of - all very conceivable technologies:

Other methods are probaly not possible (FTL using warp drive or hyperspace) or practical (generation colony ships - as KSR pointed out in "Aurora", when things break down in the habitat biomes the nearest repair shop and spare parts depot is light years away).

But by using the simpler methods of frozen hibernation for the few adult crew, and/or AIs that would serve as nurturing parent analogs for those millions of frozen embryos gestated in artificial wombs upon arrival, we as a species could spread throughout the universe like a virus.

Paul451 said...

"What the moron failed to realize was he was taking a picture of something dozens (if not hundreds) of times larger in diameter than Pluto."

Also 7.5 times further from the sun, therefore about 1/60th as much sunlight per square metre, requiring a longer exposure which produces more noise in the image. (In addition to 1/60th the diameter, therefore 1/3500th the surface area, which means you blow up the images sixty times more, which also increases blurriness. As you noted.)

Also that the "high resolution" camera was 1024x1024, and the early images were taken with the lower resolution navigation camera.

Alex Tolley said...

@Daniel - nice video using the von Neumann replicator strategy but with humans along for the ride. But if this was so easy (colonizing galaxies with 1 bn years), it really highlights the Fermi question "Where are they?".

The strategy is reasonable, although it seems to assume that humans can live without the biological ecosystems of Earth. At the least we need to bring our microbiomes along with us, and I doubt that is possible without a lot more of Earth's ecosystems.

The underlying assumption is that Earth can even afford to send such a starships out. The assumption of economic growth (assumed by Dyson) that we will be rich enough by the middle centuries of this millennium may be false. I certainly think that Earth alone cannot sustain such growth with associated energy consumption and that we will need to be solar system wide in extent, which will include consumption. Since I'm not entirely sure humans will live off world, although I hope we do), this may mean machines becoming the producers and consumers in this economy, with humans as just a small part of the economy. I think Pohl/Kornbluth raised this idea of robot consumumers once, but I have never seen it explored in SF except in passing by Stross' "Accelerando". Technically Bron's "Kiln People" would fulfill a similar role. In practice, so would the robots in Asimov's "The Naked Sun" as rather than being just owned appliances, robots would require a huge economic support system that they would manage, rather than the few humans living on Solaria.

My view is that if you have AI that is smart enough to raise humans, then you have smart robots too, so why even bother with human embryo's with all the biological baggage and ethical issues they raise? Why not colonize the universe with machines instead, as they can operate on almost any world. They could green the universe where no life exists and carry our human initiated culture to the ends of the universe. That seems like a glorious adventure, even if we humans 1.0 will be left behind, as well as biological post humans that we evolve or engineer ourselves into.

Alex Tolley said...

Like Tony, I am concerned that we face long years of little planetary exploration, machine or human. I hope 2015 proves to be just a temporary peak that will be exceeded as other nations and private organizations extend our capabilities. I think that cheaper access to space plus miniaturization will allow a lot more to be accomplished in the coming decades.

And yes, solar sails seem to have been an unconscionably long time in gestating, I well recall Drexler's articles on solar sails back in the early 1980's making a lot of sense. I hope that the Planetary Society's 2016 Lightsail really inspires some new thinking and hardware development. This really is a potential game changer for low coast space exploration.

Jumper said...

Brain drain discovered
Back in inner space, science progresses. Existence of lymphatic system in the brain, long thought not to exist, is found. Students of neuro-biochemistry will be interested:

Jonathan S. said...

Daniel, while generation ships certainly have their flaws, they are currently a doable (albeit expensive) technology. Meanwhile, despite the enthusiasm for the concept in certain circles, we haven't figured out how to freeze humans without killing them yet.

"Conceivable" and "possible" aren't always the same thing...

David Brin said...

KS Robinson's novel AURORA both explores in detail... and ultimately disses... the concept of generation ships to the stars. Though he does seem to stack the deck in about a dozen ways. Then, in the end, saves his characters when Earth sends them a tech that... well... makes the whole argument moot.

Andy said...

Slightly off topic Dr. Brin but wanted to bring your attention to a worthy kickstarter cause that needs some help raising the remaining funds. Noninvasive whale research via use of drones to collect their "snot" for analysis!

Paul451 said...

Non-destructive whale research is all mucus and faeces. What must we look like?

Still, if they sing songs about us, that chorus would be #It could be worse, could be worse, could be worse#.

David Brin said...

Heh! Though that may be how the cold-flu that kills humanity started, in The Last Ship.

Robert said...

Dr. Brin, I thought you might enjoy this.

The Last Question by Isaac Asimov... in webcomic format.

Enjoy :)

Rob H.

David Brin said...

Some of the plot premises (if there is a plot) to the Asimov piece are silly… but the ultimate question is still… ultimate.

Duncan Cairncross said...

In the Asimov piece
The only real change in 60 years is the assumption of exponential growth in population although Asimov ducks the question after the galaxies are filled

One of the three "Truths" from my youth that are no longer true

Jumper said...

Black holes aren't mentioned.

TCB said...

It makes me happy to see the tallest mountains on Pluto named after Tenzing Norgay.

Alex Tolley said...

"The only real change in 60 years is the assumption of exponential growth in population"

If the increased expansion rate of the universe by dark energy is true, then this is a change that Asimov could not have anticipated. In addition, if the multiverse model is true, then the expansion might be possible into new universes. Actually when Asimov wrote that story, it assumed the universe would expand forever, even though there was an argument about whether this was the case or whether the oscillating universe was true.

David Brin said...

TCB though let's be generous and fair. Tenzing did have an assistant who provided the funding and equipment. And who was one of the most generous men of his day.

David Brin said...