Saturday, February 13, 2016

Space: so many milestones ahead!

Space is looking up. In that more eyes appear to be turing skyward in tentative optimism. A few days ago I participated in a pair of events in Los Angeles, hosted by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and NASA and Fox Studios. The morning event featured Ridley Scott, Adam Savage, Bill Nye, Andy Weir and scientists and screenwriters discussing how the film The Martian may be a harbinger of much more about bold exploration.  The smaller afternoon event, at UCLA put scientists and Hollywood myth-makers together in workshops.  Maybe we'll get more hopeful tales!

== What's Just Ahead...? ==

Following up on my popular essay in Nautilus on “2015: our best year in space, ever”… here's a brief rundown of the biggest spaceflight milestones to keep an eye out for in 2016, from a NASA probe's arrival at Jupiter to the highly anticipated maiden flight of SpaceX's huge new rocket.  

See a video preview of the Juno mission to Jupiter, which will arrive and get to work just about the same time that the Saturn Cassini mission winds up. Also this year... sending a probe to sample an asteroid and returning bits to Earth!  Elon launches Falcon Heavy. Earth-sensing satellites that will nail down the climate. 

2016 will see testing of future crewed vehicles, from SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, XCOR and Blue Origin. Europe's own version of the United States' Global Positioning System (GPS) should be operational by the end of the year. 

"Suborbital vehicles such as Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, XCOR Aerospace's Lynx rocket plane and Blue Origin's New Shepard system will be put through their paces, as will orbital craft such as Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser space plane, SpaceX's Dragon V2 capsule and Boeing's CST-100 Starliner capsule,” reports   And so on.  

2016 might (just maybe) be almost as great a year as 2015 was!

This year -end review of NASA accomplishments shows that even if we leave out the great accomplishments of European, Japanese, Chinese, Indian and other agencies -- and prodigiously impressive private ventures -- 2015 was by far our best ever at stepping forth into the cosmos. See this awesome visual timeline of space exploration, charting missions into our solar system -- from Pioneer to Mariner, Cassini to Galileo, Juno to New Horizons (created by Olaf Frohn). Scroll down to explore the entire graphic. 

How many planetary missions are currently out there exploring on our behalf... and where are they? So many that Emily Lakdawalla of The Planetary Society has made a timeline chart to track them.  She writes, "We are entering 2016 with 15 spacecraft probably actively returning science data from planets, moons, and smaller bodies in the solar system. (I say "probably" because I don't know for sure what the Chinese lunar spacecraft are doing.)"

Lakdawalla continues..."So what's the tally? Akatsuki is at Venus, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and two Chang'e missions at the Moon, two rovers and five orbiters are active at Mars, Dawn is at Ceres, Rosetta is at 67P (soon hopefully to do a soft landing), Cassini is at Saturn, and although New Horizons is far past Pluto, it'll be sending back new Pluto science data for most of the year, so I'm counting that as still doing science. Another two missions (Hayabusa2 and Juno) are in their cruise phase; Juno arrives at Jupiter in August. Two (ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter and OSIRIS-Rex) or three (if you count the Schiaparelli lander separately) will launch this year, with their science starting after 2016. The Voyagers and other heliophysics missions don't show up on this chart."

You are a member of a civilization that does this -- from pennies per citizen.  We are sending out feelers.  We are growing, at last. Wake up enough to be proud!

 And let it motivate you to make others believe, this coming year.

Believe that we are a mighty folk.  Who can.

== Looking back at Earth ==

Most apropos for this time of year? I have oft marveled that the greatest gift of the Apollo Program came not from the landings but from the earlier Apollo 8 mission, the first in which humans broke the bonds of Earth.  It happened in December of 1968 - twelve crazed and frenetic months that brought most Americans -- and most of the world -- to the brink of exhaustion and despair. Yes, great music washed over us in a veritable tsunami... as did tragedies, war, invasions, assassinations, riots, betrayals, and fed-up demands for transformation.

Only then, at the very end of that awful year, a final token arrived -- like a gleam of hope shining at the bottom of Pandora’s Box...when the Apollo 8 astronauts brought home that first perfect image of the Earth, floating as a blue marble in the vast desert of space. A picture that moved all but the most cynical hearts and changed forever our outlook towards this fragile oasis world.

Now that image has been surpassed in beauty (an we can hope – effectiveness.) Even more gorgeous in contrast — and almost the final space news of a spectacular year — is the composite image that NASA released on December 19, taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, as it passed about 83 miles above a lunar crater. Same theme, but a timely reminder.

== More space updates ==

See this: the recent SpaceX feat put to music by Incubus. 

Curiosity is the first spacecraft to study active sand dunes on another planet. Amazing images of the next milestone as our robot envoy climbs the slopes of immense Mount Sharp.  Be careful in there.

A panorama taken by Curiosity Rover from atop a Martian dune, is enthralling in many ways, not least of which is the Dali-like surrealistic warping of the probe itself. 

 Cassini snapped Saturn’s moon Enceladus drift in front of the larger moon Tethys in near-perfect alignment.  See the gorgeous photos. Plus a great shot of the Hexagon at Saturn’s pole, and of Titan’s black, organic sand dunes.  Now known to contain a sub-surface ocean beneath an icy crust, the small moon is thought to possess the ingredients for life. Cassini had its last ever flyby of Enceladus on Dec 19.

NASA's New Horizons mission sends back images of icebergs on Pluto -- floating atop a sea of frozen nitrogen!

Important News.  The US Department of Energy is cautiously and carefully, for the first time in 30 years, again making Plutonium 238, the chief ingredient not of bombs, but of the best power systems for long range NASA interplanetary probes.

An ambitious future for human exploration of the solar system and beyond is explored in a new book by Louis Friedman, co-founder of The Planetary Society: Human Spaceflight: From Mars to the Stars

This should have made my list of spectacular space accomplishments in 2015.  Phil Plait waxes poetical and gushes about the way scientists have used tiny variations in ocean surface gravity to map in great detail the topography of mountains, chasms and spreading ridges along the ocean bottoms. 

And finally...

... the Hypersonic Nuclear Arms Race is on, as world powers develop boost-and-glide entry vehicles that can dodge and evade and accurately target sites across the globe.  The Cold War Era statesmen and Gorbachev gave us a breather but the doom foreseen at Trinity Site in 1945 still lurks.  We have to grow up. 

Oh, and while we're at it. The best way to build a Death Star... is to construct one out of an already-existing asteroid.

Let's keep it all in the open, boys 'n girls.  Play nice.  There's candy - and much-needed vitamin-science - for everyone.

== PS... ==

Not to jinx it... but could this be the 'fifteenth year' thing I referred to here


Martin Kloess said...

Enjoyed this thank you for this little escape

atomsmith said...

*cough cough*...LIGO?

sociotard said...

Remember how the Presidential race is also the Supreme Court race? The stakes just went up.

Jumper said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Dr Brin
Great post
But back to earth,

Your comment about the traditional family
I am part of one, I was brought up in one
And mine have been fine
But I'm not sure that they are that much better.

Sweden has something like 75% of kids being brought up outside "normal families"

Even here (NZ) it is now rare for somebody to introduce "my wife (or husband)" nowadays it is more likely to be "my partner" - even if they are married

A lot of marriages end in divorce which has a really bad effect on the kids

Maybe by trying to keep the traditional "family" we are pushing the wrong way

IMHO we should be looking at ensuring that whoever brings the kids up has the resources to do so

David Brin said...

Duncan, I think the greatest mistake of the 4th feminism was to downplay marriage more than the average woman wants to see it downplayed. Was marriage often a tool of oppression and limitation? Sure. But just look at the regular womens' magazines and you'll see a frantic obsession with finding some way to attract high quality suitors, to choose well among them, to get real commitment and to see that union last. Even in Sweden I will bet that is a very high set of desiderata. And the next feminism (#5?) will be distinct from #4 by actually turning its attention to that deep desire.

Still, it is good that societies try to make it so that a mother can prosper with kids in absence of a dutiful male, Sure. But to deny that the average woman feels a powerful drive to PREFER a stable and loving pair-partnership is overcompensation and is currently undermining the credibility of feminism itself.

Jumper said...

Good reading on the Court's recent ruling and attendant oddities and politics.

Paul SB said...

Thank you, Dr. Brin, for getting us the hell away from the poly-ticks for a little while!

On the subject of traditional families, I just happen to be watching a video called "Happy" which goes over some of the conclusions of the Positive Psychology paradigm. In one segment they interview people in Denmark, a country that has always been high on the happiness scale in recent decades (and next-door neighbor of Sweden, of course). They attribute much of their happiness to the fact that a large proportion of the country do not live in our traditional nuclear family groups, but cluster into larger communities that share both the work and the company. It sounds to me like what you see in small-scale, band level cultures (not tribes or chiefdoms) but in the context of a modern civilization. It gives you things to think about...

Robert said...

Rather interesting watching the two differing reactions to Scalia's death. The Republican leadership insists "the next president should select Scalia's replacement" (in one year). Meanwhile, Obama? Talks about Scalia, his interest in the Rule of Law, and how he will uphold his Constitutional Duty to, in time, select a Supreme Court Justice, and how he expects Congress to uphold its duty as well.

Obviously the Republicans are playing for time, hoping beyond hope for a Republican to start doing good and win the White House. That way they can keep a Conservative Majority in the Supreme Court. But this has shown everyone the truth early on: it's about the fucking Supreme Court. As in the Republican Leadership in Congress is willing to say "screw our Constitutional Duty, we don't want Obama to select three Justices. Only Reagan's allowed to do that!"

Of course, the best bet would be for Obama to select a candidate who is a Constitutional Purist... but who also is for social liberties. In short, he should go for a Libertarian Supreme Justice nominee. Doing so would force Republicans to either select a candidate that is pro-Marijuana, pro-Choice, and pro-Civil Rights... or spit in the eyes of libertarian voters by ignoring a candidate that upholds THEIR ideals. And that would not only cost Republicans the White House, but could cost them seats in the House and Senate as Libertarians turn against the corrupt House of Repugs.

Rob H.

David Brin said...

Rob good point. I expect Obama will pick someone who is eminently well- qualified. But due to these special circumstances he might also add criteria, like someone whose rejection would offend many. One thing that would help in this case is to violate one of the top rules of partisan Supreme Court Justice selection... to make it a young person who will last a long time. In this case, if the President chose an older jurist, the GOP might -- maybe -- obstruct less, knowing the appointment might be shorter term.

I happen to know a DC Court of Appeals justice who fits all these criteria.

Paul SB said...

I wonder what Robert Heinlein might have done differently with "Have Space Suit, Will Travel" if he had known about the icebergs. I imagine he would have concocted some ploy involving them.

Maybe Pluto can take on the role that Venus once played in science fiction, before we discovered that it is a lifeless blast furnace. Anyone care to rescue ice princesses on Pluto?

Actually, I would hope for something better. Space-suited dolphins exploring N2 seas?

LarryHart said...

re: Scalia

No doubt, President Obama could nominate the love child of Jesus and Ronald Reagan and the Republicans would not confirm. They're holding out for the elections as firmly as they would be demanding an up or down vote were this the last year of a Republican presidency. Then again, if the next president is named Trump, they may wish they had let the relatively-agreeable Obama have a turn.

What this may do is to make the Supreme Court into a more visible campaign issue than it would have been as a merely theoretical question. Democrats should run on it, not just the presidential candidates, but Senators as well. Ironically, that might be one more reason to vote for Hillary in the primaries--keeping Bernie Sanders in the Senate.

At the moment, it will be interesting to see how a four-to-four court handles the upcoming term. IIRC, a tie vote counts as upholding whichever lower court ruling was under review, so President Obama's EPA authority would have held up if that recent decision had ended in a tie.

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin:

I happen to know a DC Court of Appeals justice who fits all these criteria.

It must be fun to run in your circles. :)

But do they really get to be called "justices" at that level? I was under the impression that was only for members of the Supreme Court.

Jonathan Sills said...

"Anyone care to rescue ice princesses on Pluto?"

"Thank you, Mario, but your princess is in another iceberg!"

Paul SB said...

"Thank you, Mario, but your princess is in another iceberg!"

Was that a typo and it was intended to be ON another iceberg, or are we going with the frozen princess on a stick theme?

Jon S. said...

Have you forgotten already, Paul? Did Super Mario labor across NES and SNES alike in vain?

After all, a castle could easily be carved out of such an iceberg - although admittedly Bowser's habit of throwing fireballs might work against the theme here...

David Brin said...

JonS and Paul... let it go!

Get it? Ice castle and all?

Paul SB said...

Jon, I'm afraid I'm not up on Mario Bros., but I admit I did see Frozen, which was better than your average Disney, but it was still Disney (my son was not impressed, either). So I'll let this one go for now, but I'm still contemplating icebergs on Pluto. I don't suppose Penguins would be good candidates for uplift, would they? Cyberpenguins?

David Brin said...

CRYO penguins

Tony Fisk said...

For uplifted penguins, see Pingu!

Even more pertinent, there was an episode of Futurama that featured... uplifted penguins, on... Pluto!?

For a less light-hearted depiction, wasn't the Penguin a wannabe Plutocrat?
(I think I know where the door is...)

sociotard said...

Science and Piracy: A researcher in Russia has made more than 48 million journal articles - almost every single peer-reviewed paper every published - freely available online. And she's now refusing to shut the site down, despite a court injunction and a lawsuit from Elsevier, one of the world's biggest publishers.

Paul451 said...

Paul SB,
"Anyone care to rescue ice princesses on Pluto?"

Other people read that and get Mario, Disney and Pingu.


...I probably shouldn't read so much Oglaf.

Tom Crowl said...

This video below is about the algorithms our brains use to ride a bike... and how hard they are to change. Do these "patterns of mind" occur as well in our political thinking? I believe they do (especially in economics and the way we think about the technology of money... and this is why its so difficult for needed changes to take place.

The Backwards Brain Bicycle

Robert said...

Oh joy. Yet another "we can't elect Sanders because of X"

Let it go. Hillary is not a strong candidate. She has massive flaws which the Republicans are gleefully rubbing their hands together over, and they do not want to run against Sanders who got nearly 2,000 votes IN THE REPUBLICAN NEW HAMPSHIRE PRIMARY as a write-in candidate.

Yes. Bernie Sanders is getting support from Republican Voters who would prefer him on the Republican ticket than any of their current candidates. These are ostrich Republicans who have pulled their heads out of the sand long enough to see "none of these Republicans are what we want."

If Sanders wins the Democratic nomination, these are the Republicans which will cross party lines and vote for Sanders... and who may look at Republicans in Congress who just do not support their views and end up voting for better candidates. Healthier candidates.

It's no longer a matter of "he can't win" or "he'll bring out so many anti-Socialist Republicans that we'll lose everything" - it's that he brings the Republicans to the ballet TO VOTE FOR HIM.

Hillary doesn't bring that. She brings derision, divisiveness, and anger. On both sides of the political spectrum.

So yes. This is about the Supreme Court. The death of Scalia has shown this to be so very very true. And Hillary is not the best candidate for the job. We need to retake the Senate... by drawing in tens of millions of new voters, young voters, energized voters. Hillary does not bring this energy. Sanders does.

Rob H., who is likely voting Libertarian in the general election in any event as Mass. will go for Zombie Kennedy if need be so feel free to ignore my suggestions as usual.

Paul SB said...

Tony, in my old gaming days you would not have been shown the door, you would have simply been charged a quarter and kept going. Enough puns like the Plutocrat and we would have had chips & soda money for next week (oh, and I still owe Brin a quarter, don't I?).

Tom, if you had posted that backwards bicycle video a week ago I would have shown it to my classes. It hits on some very important points in neurology, though without mentioning myelin or the cerebellum - things I could have quizzed the kids on while discussing it. Great stuff! However ... what that guy did was about muscle memory, which is much less plastic than what goes on in our cerebrum. You are right, though, that people get stuck in thinking ruts (myelinated neural pathways) that become very hard to change. This is exactly why I have very little patience with politics. Too often people who debate it have been listening to the same things over and over again, and no amount of rational argument will change their minds, because as soon as they are done talking to someone who thinks differently they go back to the Wall Street Journal or the Huffington Post. The ticks bite deep and they suck hard, draining so much blood our brain become anoxic. The frontal lobes shut down, leaving the limbic system running the show, and people start saying and doing things they will regret (I'm not going to name any names, or historical pseudonyms, even).

Paul451, I've never heard of Oglaf, so I googled it real quick, and at first glance it looks pretty perverse, but I fail to see the connection...

raito said...


After reviewing the NH primary rules, it seems that undeclared voters can vote, but must declare for a party. They can even sign a card at the polling place saying that they wish to return to undeclared status after the primary.

So I wouldn't get worked up about the write-in votes without knowing (and we shouldn't know) the actual affiliations of the write-in voters. It appears that party affiliation in NH is pretty fluid.

I sure don't like that if you vote in the primary, the default is to be registered as a member of that party.

As far as Pluto goes, there's no princesses there. Only Red Peri, and she probably left.

I didn't much care for Frozen. One sister who runs away from responsibility, and another who falls for the first goober who notices her. As a cautionary tale it's better, but clumsy (even though the target audience is unlikely to notice it as cautionary).

Paul SB said...

Raito, by the target audience, are you referring to the little girls, their parents, or both? :) :/ :(

Deuxglass said...

I hope we get more movies like “The Martian”. I am tired of movies that are just fantasy disguised as science fiction. Some can be fun but you really have to dumb down your intelligence and then some. I get much more joy out of a movie that makes me think rather than those with fake sword fights, fake gurus that sprout drivel for wisdom, ridiculously constructed spaceships and most of all scenarios where 10 minutes into the film you know who is the bad guy, who will get killed and who gets the girl in the end. In “The Marian” the characters were normal people (although smarter and control freaks as any good astronaut should be). There were no warrior women, no ninja-like characters, no one with special powers and no one with a “destiny” to fulfill because he was born to it.
We need more movies like “The Martian”.

Planetary defense should be at the top of priorities. I don’t know if it is still true but isn’t there a blind spot in detection from asteroids from sunward? A comet almost hit Mars recently. If it had impacted, it would have been very interesting and useful to be able to study the after effects. It certainly would have scared enough people into funding planetary defense in a big way.

David Brin said...



Dwight Williams said...

Good question about asteroid/comet detection. Has it already been answered elsewhere?

Dwight Williams said...

By the by, about extrasolar exploration milestones, we've got one coming up at ESA late in the summer this year. The GAIA team's going to be publishing a database early in September covering around 90 % of the visible sky.

Details here:

Anonymous said...

The plasticky, computer-renderish moonscape sort of ruins the "new blue marble".
Also, I don't think composites compare to single photos.