Wednesday, February 24, 2021

The most important bill of the 21st Century, so far.. that and "supply chains..." and Jim Crow

H.R. 1, the For the People Act of 2021, is the first truly crucial fight in Congress that will pit the parties in desperate, zero-sum struggle. For the Republican Party it will be life-or-death, since in its present form it simply cannot survive an end to the cheats that let it maintain overwhelming power, despite losing all but one presidential election popular vote and almost every Congressional popular vote across 30 years. HR1 also pretty comprehensively addresses a laundry list of many (far from all!) of the recommendations that I made, in Polemical Judo

This will test Democrats to the fullest degree. Not only must they suffer zero defections in the Senate and use their best tactics to get past filibusters and suffer no more than half a dozen in the House – testing my hypothesis that the blatant morass of blackmail that pervades Washington is mostly a GOP problem – but this will be when the masters behind the GOP will surely summon their Supreme Court majority into the fray.  


You should look at the provisions in HR1, which would sharply curtail congressional gerrymandering, provide for automatic voter registration, overhaul federal campaign finance laws, increase election security against foreign interference, strengthen government ethics rules, empower small donors, expand lobbyist disclosure (“drain the swamp”), and more. Most of these reforms would be implemented for the November 2022 general election, with the exception of some redistricting and public financing changes that would go into effect later.


Those few of you who live in areas where a marginally sane and honest Republican legislator might be swayed, you are duty bound to track HR1 and apply what pressure you can. The rest of us? Use this bill to quash the inevitable rise of far-left splitters who chafe at any hint of loyalty to our coalition of national and world salvation, eagerly seeking any excuse to slam and betray Biden, Pelosi and “DNC sellouts.” Here’s the proof to hammer those ‘summer soldiers’ with the pure fact that they got nuthin’.


Oh, noteworthy: some of these reforms do what I recommended on the 1st page of Polemical Judo, actually enacting the "good parts” of Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Contract With America, that bait-and-switch pack of promises that the GOP utterly betrayed, first chance. So hammer your rightists with that choice irony, and defy them to defend opposing any of these reforms. Fox n’ Putin-pals will rail against HR1! So it is up to you to read the summaries aloud to your uncles n’ such and get them to see truth.

 

The only core reason to oppose HR1 is racism... fearing the vastly diverse Democrat surge of voters actually using their rights.  There’s a way for them to deal with this threat, though! Kill the GOP and replace it with a party of conservative-but-sane grownups who believe in fact and honesty and the future... and who at long last will leave Dennis Hastert’s curse behind and negotiate with us, like neighbors. Like Americans. That kind of conservative party might actually draw in some of the rising classes of minority business owners etc. and actually survive demographic collapse.
 

Here’s how to get involved in just about the most important piece of legislation of the 21st Century.

 

== Meanwhile, down in Georgia... ==

Stacey Abrams’s Fair Fight org reports: “Georgia Republicans once again showed their contempt for voters as two of the worst voter suppression bills since Reconstruction continued to move quickly through the state legislature: SB 241 would end no-excuse mail voting, implement new ID requirements, and add witness requirements for mail voters- in essence, creating one of the most restrictive absentee voting laws in the entire country and resulting in some of the worst voter suppression since Jim Crow.  Meanwhile, HB 531 is a desperate attempt to force the legislation onto the floor before Crossover Day. The bill would restrict dropbox access, add new ID requirements for mail voting, and restrict weekend voting among other provisions, all of which demonstrate just how unrelenting the GOP-led Georgia legislature is in their attacks on voting rights.

In Polemical Judo I reveal a jiu jitsu tactic that can demolish “voter ID laws,” NOT by opposing them frontally – goppers can claim that means we plan to cheat – but over the matter of compliance assistance (CA). 


Republicans always whine for CA whenever some new regulation affects business, demanding state aid for companies to comply. In this case, the metric is simple. Answer this: If a state heaps new ID requirements on poor voters, women etc, do they accompany it with major funding to help the poor etc. GET the required ID? 


This standard is so clearcut that even Trump-appointed judges would be hard pressed to find an excuse, when most of these cheater/Jimcrow states are closing DMV offices in poor areas, rather than allocating funds for compliance assistance.

 

This is one of many legal or legislative or political maneuvers that no politician or lawyer on the good side of this civil war phase has had a glimmer of brains to notice, alas.

 

== Those who know the dangers – know we’re better led, now ==

 

“Biden Signs Order Seeking Homegrown Fixes For Shortfalls Of Foreign-Made Items.” No way Fox can spin this. Republicans blocked Obama efforts to deal with crippling dependence on hostile foreign sources for our industrial supply chains. Then the problems were deliberately made much worse under Trump. ("America First" meant first to be ripped off by foreign oligarchies.) 


To be 'great' has to entail reducing vulnerabilities. And this act of Biden's is a first step toward ending GOP-induced frailties. If it is in time.

 

== And finally... irony... 

 

Want irony? Look at this map of where US citizens face terrible years ahead from flooding – as I described in both EARTH and EXISTENCE – and guess where climate denialism is strongest.“  

 

 

Friday, February 19, 2021

Quasars, supermassive black holes... and Perseverance(!) and more!

Still riding a high from watching Perseverance land on Mars! (Aren't you?)  Okay, Curiosity might have just been a miracle. But this is something far, far better. Repeatable competence!  Putting again into stark contrast those propagandists (and their moron followers) who spread reflexive hate toward all the skilled professions -- the folks who know stuff, or know how to do stuff. 

No, it's not zero sum. Boffins who can do these things or who know a lot haven't paid for it by sacrificing realness, or common sense, or wisdom... or even art or necessarily faith. On average they are more wise about other things, as well. That's how it works. And the wise among us know it.

So how about now let's share even more examples of how skilled folks are opening to our caveman-dazzled eyes ever more wonders of a fantastic universe! And shedding light upon the wonder that is ourselves. Starting with...

== Put this in perspective, hm? ==

Hot news about where and when we are! Earth just got 7 km/s faster and about 2000 light-years closer to the supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, according to a better model of the Milky Way Galaxy based on new observation data, including a catalog of objects observed over the course of more than 15 years by the Japanese radio astronomy project VERA.   

The new map suggests that the center of the Galaxy, and the supermassive black hole which resides there, is located 25800 light-years from Earth. This is closer than the official value of 27700 light-years adopted by the International Astronomical Union in 1985. The velocity component of the map indicates that Earth is traveling at 227 km/s as it orbits around the Galactic Center. This is faster than the official value of 220 km/s. So… not quite as far into the boonies as we thought.

Recently discovered, that the farthest known quasar -  about 13.03 billion light-years from Earth can be dated back to just 670 million years after the Big Bang (the universe at this time was a mere 5% of its current age), making it the most distant and earliest quasar ever found. This quasar also hosts a giga-supermassive black hole that has a mass equal to 1.6 billion of our suns. It produced a wind of super-heated gas flowing from around the galaxy's supermassive black hole, with this gas traveling at one fifth the speed of light. Fascinating. Beyond its intrinsic interest, including wonder over how a black hole could get so incredibly massive, so fast, there’s the fact that remnant giga-black holes left over from that era may be near us, now quiescent since the epoch we reside in is – naturally – much older. 


Oh, but let's take that thought farther! If some astronomers have recently observed supermassive Black Holes, others have proposed that a few might measure up to a QUINTILLION solar masses. Um... gulp?


SLABS would be  "Stupendously LArge Black holeS". “at the heart of the Milky Way, Sagittarius A*, at 4 million solar masses, and the most photogenic SMBH in the Universe, M87*, at 6.5 billion solar masses. The chonkiest black holes we've detected are ultramassive, more than 10 billion (but less than 100 billion) solar masses. These include an absolute beast clocking in at 40 billion solar masses in the centre of a galaxy named Holmberg 15A.” Based on the primordial black hole model, the team calculated exactly how stupendously large these black holes could be, between 100 billion and 1 quintillion (that's 18 zeroes) solar masses.

Okay do I get predictive cred here? Again, while some astronomers are speculating humungous black holes somewhere in the cosmos that are vastly, vastly bigger than the biggest at the cores of galaxies... see my short story “Bubbles.”


== More mundane? Just... galaxies...==


Scientists Say There Are Likely Fewer Galaxies in Space Than They Previously Thought . While NASA previously determined that there were around two trillion galaxies in the universe, new findings say the number is more likely hundreds of billions. 


More modest densities in the news. Astronomers have found the spectra of calcium and other metals at the surfaces of some white dwarf stellar remnants in the same rations as continental crust, suggesting that these thin coatings came from former planets...a concept you can find eerily similar to a plot element in Heaven’s Reach.


TESS is taking up where Kepler left off, and wonders continue!  “Using observations from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), an international team of astronomers has discovered a trio of hot worlds larger than Earth orbiting a much younger version of our Sun called TOI 451. The system resides in the recently discovered Pisces-Eridanus stream, a collection of stars less than 3% the age of our solar system that stretches across one-third of the sky.” Actually, this article offers FIVE  ways this system is really interesting. 


== A new era for visual astronomy? ==


It’s a bit abstract and complicated… but a recent discovery using the fastest ever atomic clocks and the newly coined time measure – a Zeptosecond (sounds like a Marx Brother!) – enabled researchers to prove that “the electron shell in a molecule does not react to light everywhere at the same time. The time delay (247 zs = 2.47e-18 s --GDN) occurs because information within the molecule only spreads at the speed of light.”  This means that the phased arrival of visible light rays can be measured , the way radio astronomers have long done it with long radio waves, letting them do Very Long Baseline Interferometry.


My very first job as a Caltech undergraduate, the summer of 1969, was as assistant to Professor Marshall Cohen, hauling and setting up big ol’ reels of computer tape for VLBI post-analysis, using the recorded phase timings at dishes widely separated across the planet to do interferometry… turning those far-apart radio telescopes into essentially one instrument, able to parse sky-angles of incredibly small width, distinguishing objects both small and very far away. This new discovery might – perhaps – let us do this with much shorter wavelengths of visible light, possibly with baselines that span the inner solar system!


“While the Goethe work is technologically still far from an operational interferometer wavefront time-tagging capability, this seems about 100 million times better than would be needed for the optical wavelength Event Horizon Telescope that recently gave us the first image of an active black hole!” The article also speculates that aliens might be able to see us from a distance better than we thought possible.


I have to wonder how this might augment or replace the notion that I wrote about in EXISTENCE… and that we’re now funding at NASA's Innovative and Advanced Concepts program (NIAC)… to send missions to the solar gravitational lens distance (starting at 550AU), where the sun’s gravity focuses convoluted images from very far away. Fascinating…


…especially since it suggests advanced aliens might have excellent images of past eras of Earth that they might share with us, solving many mysteries. And we might start collecting such libraries, too.


Monday, February 15, 2021

Expanding into the solar system: from a Mars landing to asteroids

Exciting news from Mars! As opening acts, spacecraft from both the United Arab Emirates and China entered orbit above the Red Planet, last week, with China hoping to be the second nation to land a successful rover, in a few months (see below). But of course the showpiece - NASA's 2020 mission - will attempt on Thursday to land the Perseverance rover that will explore the surface and collect rock samples for later return, plus the Ingenuity helicopter - using the same delivery technique - complicated and terrifying - that was so successful at landing Curiosity some years ago. 

Tune in! You can watch the landing broadcast live, starting at 11:15 am PST on February 18, for "seven minutes of terror" as the rover plunges through the atmosphere of Mars, slowed by thrusters, a parachute, and then lowered by crane to the surface of Jezero Crater. For a preview, watch this NASA animation of the landing procedure.

Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirate's Hope mission has just returned its first images from the Red Planet this week; it will carry out research on the atmosphere of Mars. In addition China's Tianwen-1 probe successfully entered Mars orbit after a seven month journey.

== So many ways it matters! ==

Technology developed for NASA's Perseverance mission will have had many spinoff uses on Earth. These examples are important, but the most boring may also help save us… better ability to detect small amounts of methane, helping us find pesky leaks that contribute to climate change… and more urgently send forth drones to find those rancid SOBs who are venting it deliberately from pipelines and wellheads. 

Meanwhile Japan’s mission to the Martian moons will take images in 8k and return samples. Possibly among the most valuable pieces of real estate in the solar system, and the sort of partners NASA should be working with(!), instead of joining a silly rush of Apollo-wannabes eager to plant ego-footprints on a dusty lunar plain.  WHile we should continue robotic lunar science - and sell orbital hotel rooms and landers to those eager, would be moon-tourists... and polar water may have some limited uses... there is simply no valid reason for the US to join that rush to satisfy a footprint fetish that we took care of 50 years ago.

But sure... more lunar science! Fantastic new versions of Planetary Radar let Earth-based radio telescopes create incredibly detailed images of the moon and will open studies of other planetary moons and asteroids. Just stay on target guys! Minimize spillover! These beams are narrow, collimated, laser-like and much more detectable at long range (very long range, if you get my drift) than our measly TV signals and airport radars... which fade almost to nothing within a light year. (And no, ET is not watching I Love Lucy. That's a silly cliché.)

Oh. Check out the bright dot of (immense!) lightning on this gorgeous Juno mission image of Jupiter! Taken by a camera made by Malin Space Systems in San Diego. Can you spot the dot... nearly the size of Europe?

We may explore the solar system with SteamPunk, “water-based” small propulsion units for cube-sats! 


== Looking toward asteroids ==


I’ve said it for more than a decade. One of the greatest astronomical discoveries has been the number of moons and dwarf planets that appear to bear pools… or oceans… of liquid water beneath protective ice roofs. Now even stronger evidence that at least some sort of briney lake exists under the ice on… Ceres. (Sorry EXPANSE fans! Ceres colonists would not have to import water.)


Leaving the (for now) pretty much useless Luna to tourists, some human endeavors are turning toward where the real wealth lies. For example: Japanese scientists open the Hayabusa probe’s containers of samples from carbon-rich asteroid Ryugu!


The mission to collect 60 or so grams of pristine material from Bennu instead may have collected more than 2000 grams, penetrating half a meter into the ancient, carbonaceous asteroid. Now stowed and ready for a launch homeward in March, the  return capsule will arrive home in 2023. Wonderful! OSIRIS-REx is NASA's first asteroid-sampling mission, but it's not the first one in history. Japan's Hayabusa mission delivered small bits of the stony asteroid Itokawa to Earth in 2010.


Only now… meticulous orbital studies suggest that Bennu is a lot less-dense in the middle, possibly even “hollow.” In which case the mind reels with sci-fi possibilities! From obviously trying to dig out a wonderful O’Neil space colony to… wait… did you say hollow? What’s mostly hollow inside and rigid outside and sails through space? Um, a ship?  


The New Horizons team that gave us the spectacular Pluto-Charon flyby, a few years back and a subsequent Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) recently partnered with the Subaru Observatory to search for new KBOs along the probe’s path, and about 75 new KBOs found in the direction New Horizons is traveling. Between 15 and 20 will pass close enough to New Horizons to be scientifically observed, beginning this December. 


Says PI Alan Stern: “Although none of these KBOs are close enough for us to reach for a close flyby like we did at Arrokoth, the science we can do even from a distance will produce new results on KBO surface properties, shapes, rotational periods, and close-in moons that could not be achieved any other way.” And with new observations… “Perhaps (if we get lucky) we'll even snag a new flyby target if we can find a KBO that's within reach of our current fuel supply (about an eighth of a tank, which was about the same amount it cost to get to Arrokoth).”


== And more space news... ==


The next SpaceX cargo mission to the space station will carry an experiment called BioAsteroid that will contain pieces of meteorites and fungi, to see if a fungus can extract useful elements. Recently one kind of bacterium was shown to pull rare earth elements from basalt. Important. 


As if taken from the very 1st chapter of EXISTENCE, "Scientists estimate that almost 3,000 dead satellites are orbiting our planet, which doesn't account for the 900,000 pieces of debris less than 10 centimeters long that could cause a catastrophe should a chunk hit the wrong satellite at the wrong time.... and now, the European Space Agency is in the beginning stages of executing one of the more bizarre solutions: a space claw that would grip larger defunct satellites and steer them back into the Earth's atmosphere, where both the satellite and the claw itself would burn up in peace." Alas, the tether based technology that I describe would likely work much better and less expensively. (Here's that vivid trailer of Existence with art by Patrick Farley!)  


Here… I participate in a video tribute to my dear friend and fellow astronomer Andrew Friedman, who passed away a few months ago, far-far too young. He made us all laugh and think, while exploring experiments that had the very widest range of any even conceivable – one of them targeted quasars at opposite ends of the universe in order to study quantum entanglement! (Beat that, for range.) A dear fellow, always fun and filled with love and friendship. Stay watching till the brilliant and moving tribute by the noteworthy poet and author Patrick Coleman of the Clarke Center at UCSD.


Finally...No, this is not an actual image sent back from Voyager 1, as the article seems to imply. But it is a kinda cool representation of what the solar system would look like, in V’ger’s rear view mirror, right about now. 


One of humanity's proudest accomplishments.  And let's hope for another this Thursday, as our civilization resumes lifting its head.

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

That "Proxima Candidate" for a 2019 "SETI hit"? What's up with that?

Yes it would be highly pertinent to continue "political postings," given the ongoing all-out efforts to demolish our Great Enlightenment Experiment in equality, democracy, justice, accountability and the rule-of-law. And I'll be weighing in - as you'd expect - with a series of 'judo proposals' or actions and methods that could strengthen our experiment, while playing to the enemy's weaknesses, not their strengths.

Indeed, I will follow up this science missive with a few items that can't wait!  Like what to do when you see a pack of cars in front of a neighbor's raucous, carelessly super-spreader-bowl party.

But let's get to the matter at hand. That "Proxima Event" you've been hearing about?  Could it be our first scientifically credible sign of LGM... Little Green Men... or anything technological but non human, out there? 

= Preliminary thoughts on The “Proxima Signal”

  

Okay it’s an apropos topic for commencing a new year, a new decade… and you’ll see just how apropos, at the end. By now many of you have read or heard about the “Proxima Signal”-- which is at least a ‘candidate’ for a Technosignature of alien origin. I was told about this a while back, by some of the Breakthrough guys... and now it’s in the media, leading to many messages and queries. Hence I feel behooved to offer my own take on a potential radio ‘contact’ from Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to our solar system.

 

Here’s how Scientific American opens a report on the topicIt’s never aliens—until it is. Today news leaked in the British newspaper the Guardian of a mysterious signal coming from the closest star to our own, Proxima Centauri, a star too dim to see from Earth with the naked eye that is nonetheless a cosmic stone’s throw away at just 4.2 light-years. Found this autumn in archival data gathered last year, the signal appears to emanate from the direction of our neighboring star and cannot yet be dismissed as Earth-based interference, raising the very faint prospect that it is a transmission from some form of advanced extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI)—a so-called “techno-signature.”

 

         == Okay, so what do we know? == 

 

First off, the Parkes radio telescope in Australia is one of only a few in the Southern Hemisphere large enough to deep-study the Alpha Centauri triple star system (which was also inspiration for Liu Cixin’s epic novel The Three Body Problem.) Those controlling the telescope at the time were members of the UC Berkeley-based Breakthrough Initiative,funded by philanthropist Yuri Milner. Indeed, the team soon began calling this particular data-set - or signal - by a formal name: BLC1, for “Breakthrough Listen Candidate 1.”

 

Some of what I relate here came from conversations with friends who are members of that team, plus press reports, e.g.'The narrow beam of radio waves was picked up during 30 hours of observations by the Parkes telescope in Australia in April and May last year (2019)... Analysis of the beam has been under way for some time and scientists have yet to identify a terrestrial culprit such as ground-based equipment or a passing satellite.'

 

The actual event in question occurred while the Parkes dish was taking in data about solar activity by Proxima itself, a class M5 red dwarf star of the UV Ceti type that is extremely flare-active, like most of its kind. And note that a large majority of stars are small red dwarfs.

 

Much in the news a few years ago was discovery of planets in the Proxima system. The first, dubbed Proxima b upon its discovery in 2016, is about 1.2 times the size of Earth and in an 11-day orbit. It calculates as a “Goldilocks world” orbiting Proxima, one that’s nominally in the small star’s ‘habitable zone,’ (a distance that theoretically would allow temperatures permitting water to be liquid on it’s surface.) But any planet orbiting an M star in that range would also be near enough to get tidal-locked, so one side would bear continuous brunt of those flares, while the other, perpetually dark, side goes cold-as-ice.  Kinda rough on any life or civilization prospects, though there are sci fi scenarios… 

 

The Parkes machine has a telescope half power beamwidth of 20 arcminutes, by some measures six arcminutes, encompassing about the diameter of the moon, as seen from Earth. The means the sensitive area would include scores of stars behind Proxima but still relatively nearby, plus thousands that are farther away.  There are tricks to get much narrower resolution, but the 2019 survey of Proxima was all about getting data about that small, red star’s savage flare activity, and recording lots of that data for later analysis, not necessarily to search for SETI hits. This will turn out to be important.

 

During this observing run, apparently the telescope automatically and at random times ‘nodded’ or shifted away from Proxima briefly, a standard precaution to ensure that any data stored was actually coming from the target system. When the stored data was later analyze - and attention turned to the 2.5 hour anomaly - the Breakthrough folks first checked to make sure that nodding apparently made the surge go away, before the telescope’s attention aimed back at Proxima, restoring the signal. 


That’s basic, proper procedure to eliminate most possible non-astronomical (human activity-sourced) causes. But how systematic the off-axis checks were, I don’t yet know. Meticulous, I hope, nodding in different directions, by different amounts. But perhaps not, since it was all automatic, at the time.  In fact, if the off-axis 'nodding' happened on a timed-scheduled basis and not by human direction, it therefore could have been predictable to a very good spoofer, who might even have been able to tell when the control program ordered an off-axis 'nod," automatically shutting off the spoof signal at that point.  That's how I'd do it. (More on the spoof possibility, later.)

  

Alas, as far as I can tell, no alert was generated, or sent to other observatories, asking them to swing over and verify. So all we have is the Parkes recorded data. 

 

== About the 'signal' itself ==


Mind you the 'signal' - while very powerful and very long -- about 2.5 hours – appeared to be unmodulated. Says Breakthrough List Chief Scientist Andrew Siemion: “BLC1 is, for all intents and purposes, just a tone, just one note. It has absolutely no additional features that we can discern at this point.” Which means there's no 'message' ... at least as decipherable so far. Though see below for a reason why this may be “our fault.”


For perspective, while much higher than background, and lasting 2.5 hours, the signal was about one ten-thousandth the power imputed to the so-called WOW! detection of the 1970s.

 

But the trait of this detection that truly stands out is that it appears to have been monochromatic, or very narrow in its 982.002 Mhz spectrum. That – to me – is the most-striking thing. Plus the fact that this narrow spike also had a very slight frequency drift, roughly commensurate with a Doppler shift arising from some kind of motion by the source with respect to Earth


If that doppler shift had been due to the Earth's own motion with respect to Proxims, then “We would expect the signal to be going down in frequency like a trombone,” said one BL member. “What we see instead is like a slide whistle—the frequency goes up.”  Hence, the effect doesn’t seem be due to the motion of our planet -- the upward frequency drift is the reverse of what one would naively expect for that. But something like it might arise from a moving extraterrestrial source such as a transmitter on the surface of one of Proxima Centauri’s worlds.

                                            

But again, the top interesting trait is that the ‘signal’ is monochromatic, since that is consistent with the radio surge being a narrow beam – either focused by a huge dish or else created as a maser/laser (see below) in order to travel through space as a pencil-thin column, rather than an isotropically radiated broadcast that diminishes by inverse square of the distance traveled. Focused or lasered beams can survive vast interstellar distances, therefore, tens of thousands or tens of millions or time better than something that's radiated isotropically, in all directions. Such narrow beams could arise either naturally or artificially… though as we’ll see below, we’re entering territory that may favor the latter.

Oh, recall how I mentioned that, when Breakthrough researchers later mined the stored data for analysis, they found no modulation of the microwave surge, and hence no sign of anything like a ‘signal’ or ‘message’? Well there’s a technical flaw preventing much in the way of conclusions to be drawn from this, since the Parkes scope was taking in data with a 
17 second integration time… which seems odd, given that Parkes is so big and Proxima so near. But then, I haven’t done radio astronomy since 1970, so I’ll not criticize. Except to say that such integration time could have smeared away almost any modulation that was originally in the beam.

 

== So what’s going on? ==


We’ve been through drills like this before (and note that I co-wrote the "SETI Protocols) and it was never ‘aliens.’ If the past is any guide, more likely it was either:

 

1. Human-tech interference – although there are no satellite or defense or commercial activities known to be radiating in that band, literature searches have found one or two human-techs that resonate at that 982.002Mhz frequency, including a particular air traffic control system used in some parts of the world… but not at any airport near Parkes. Another obscure appearance of that frequency has to do with particular types of doped fiber optics. Attention is zooming on those possibilities. 

 

2. There were no known human-made space probes of satellites that might explain this. Regular satellites would have passed by in minutes, not lingering in front of Proxima for several hours. More distant probes are all accounted for. There is one special kind of satellite orbit called “Molniya” that was used extensively by the Soviets, that just might have been loitering far enough away and far enough south to linger in the Parkes window long enough. But no Molniyas (to our knowledge ) have ever been sent to high southern latitudes. 

 

3.  Noteworthy: 982 MHz is pretty much in the “water hole” which allows low-loss communications in interstellar space, which is a small nudge toward the “aliens!” camp, though a very small one.

 

4. A natural coherent (narrowly collimated) source. Such things exist! MASERs (microwave lasers) have been detected before in stellar atmospheres and even the Martian atmosphere! They result from population inversions of excited mediums... though we know of none that would have any of the observed traits of BLC1.

Generally, unless it's something exotic, you need some suitable energy level structure in order to get a laser or a maser, and in nature, these energy structures are pretty orderly, with most of them well-mapped already. Here is a compilation of maser frequencies that can be produced ‘naturally’ by elements that might occur in a stellar atmosphere or intervening molecular cloud. It is an old list but most such potential natural masers were pretty well known by then.  And notably there’s nothing at 980 megahertz. 

5. Artificial masers face no such limitations! Make the right kind of cavity resonators – maybe focused further by a huge dish -- and your civilization can tune a discrete, narrow, powerfully coherent beam to almost any frequency. And hence, if the source of this ‘signal’ is truly shown to be a collimated maser, then chalk one on the ‘aliens’ side of the ledger. (And I posit an even weirder kind of energy-level-driven 'laser" - using gravity waves - in EARTH!)

 

So yes, the monochromatic trait suggests the source could possibly be an artificial coherent source, perhaps aimed at us for communication... or else perhaps a propulsion beam that’s driving a sail, propelling something... well... exactly toward us. (See this portrayed in my novel EXISTENCE which is all about this very possibility. Watch the vivid 3-minute video trailer!) 

 

6. Or else it could be a very strong non-coherent source, likely natural and pretty enormous. Though you’d still need some kind of intervening filter effect to get the arriving signal so monochromatic.

7. A deliberate hoax. This possibility is favored by science fiction author Charles Stross. "Hackers prank radio astronomers by injecting fake signal into the datastream. (It's been overdue for ages and probably all it takes is a former grad student with a grudge against their professor. I mean, most lab/observatory IT infrastructure isn't exactly secured to defense department spec, and look at the ongoing fallout from the SolarWinds hack ...)"

 

Indeed, the possibility of a mistake or a stunt remains... though this event (it happened in 2019) certainly prompts curiosity. The off-axis checks – if done right – and the long 2.5 hour duration of the phenomenon argue against an object radiating at us in space, coincidentally near line of sight to Proxima, so it's not likely a hoax generated that way. But a software insertion to the data stream is something that can’t be ruled out. In fact, for years I have predicted that someone, some time, would fake some kind of SETI hit. Because… well… assholes.

 

Yes, the fact that this is year-old data that’s being mined adds to the hack scenario's plausibility, though such meddling should eventually be detectable. In fact, one of the slides in my standard "future talk" has been to predict that GPT-3 based AI emulators would soon be used to pull stunts – 

 

    - perhaps an emotional appeal by a pretend "slave AI," weeping and demanding our empathy (and cash), 

 

    - or else a faked alien "contact" (as portrayed in EXISTENCE.)    

 

8. And here's one that seems most likely after all. Instrumentation interference in the Parkes system itself.


It's happened before. Astronomer and planet hunter Geoff Marcy has found that highly monochromatic, extremely narrow-band events - blatantly of technological origin - can be found by sifting recorded data from many past optical spectroscopic studies of other stars. After finding 57 such past spectra of Proxima Centauri containing narrowly monochromatic artifacts - and similar phenomena in spectra of other stars - Marcy concluded that the effect has "come from optical ghosts of an interferometric etalon filter at the telescope, about which there is no record in the data logs nor any mention in published papers about these spectra."  


While those artifacts were in the optical range, they might suggest to a casual commentator (DB) that the 982.2 Mhz 2.5-hour 'BLC1' might be something similar – an artifact of instrumentation – only this time manifesting in the radio range.


9. Okay, let’s round this out with… possibility #9, that it's a signal all right... from outer space... for Trump-Putin to engage in 'Plan Nine.'

 

== Extrapolations ==


All right then. Until I hear from the world expert on this – Jim Benford – it seems to me that 982.002 MHz is a very odd frequency for anyone to use in a propulsion system, so I'm leaning against it. Which is fine by me, since any such propulsion beam would be pushing something toward only one target... us. 

 

Whatever the actual reality of this event - and I give odds against it being aliens - I suppose this means:

1- Every nut in the South with an old satellite dish will be aiming every kind of antenna toward Proxima Centauri, shouting yoohoo, while ignoring the fact that this is exactly where that precise mistake was made, in Liu Cixin's famous warning novel The Three Body Problem... and...

 

2- …there will be some adult astronomers aiming at least some kind of professional dish at Proxima Centauri pretty much permanently, from now on. Round the clock. Fine by me. As long as they are listening and not shouting.

 

 Actually though, as I said, I am rooting against this being 'the real deal'. In my profession – the one that pays the bills, at least - we know far more ways for First Contact to go badly, than well.  

 

Heck, even in a best case scenario, I'd rather humanity had the pride of fixing ourselves, than giving credit to outsiders. (And that's at-best.)

 

======

 

Final thought. I've long held that the greatest art works transform human souls and hearts without persuasion or argument. I’d almost call that a definition of a great work of art.

 

    By that measure, inarguably, the greatest artworks of the 20th Century were the Mushroom Cloud, which altered age-old human attitudes toward war, and the Christmas 1968 Apollo 8 pictures of Earth as a fragile blue oasis, stirring millions to see a duty – and self-interest – in saving the planet. 


I've long held that a third image of similar "art" redolence – again produced by science - might be the confirmed, modulated signal on a SETI screen, perhaps less visually stunning but with similar cosmic import. 
Here’s a gif of what such an image might look like, generated by my friend and renowned radio astronomer Dr. Tom Kuiper, as technical advisor for a film:


If this event is the real deal (and again, I’d rather it were not) how weird that it happens right on schedule, near the end of another 1968-level year. And hence the timing of this posting, as we finish wearying 2020, when it seemed that all the ills of the world had been released… well don’t we badly need that glimmer of hope, at the bottom of Pandora’s Box? 



.

Would it be in poor taste to say "stay tuned"?

 

 == And those 'political blips' ==


Ignore this lagniappe, if you like. But...


1. Here's an image that speaks for itself. And hence, if you see bunches of cars in front of a neighbor's house for a Superbowl Party, you might leaflet the cars with this jpeg plus just the following:

"Cases surge 1-week after big gathering events. Hope you'll stay safe and well and caring to others!"

2. Re: impeachment. First UN-REDACT the Mueller Report! It can be done as normal Justice Dept. housecleaning. And the nation would notice and it would sway the vote... as would  having secret ballots in the Senate trial!


3. Elsewhere I've cited a dozen buried bills that Pelosi-Schumer could instantly pass because few would dare to oppose them. Some as short as one sentence! e.g. "Secret Servant agents are not personal servants." What Republican would dare vote no? And the implied rebuke of the recently departed would be priceless. 

These are what Michael Moore and others should be pushing right now. It's called ... judo.

You know there will be more... lots more... when I can find the most precious resource... time.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Go asteroids, young folks... but also good luck Perseverance!

Amid all the fights to save civilization and the planet - and my own busiest time (professionally) ever - we could do to pause now and then and remember... we are still a magnificent, scientific and exploratory civilization! Before girding ourselves for those 'minutes of terror" as we root for the aptly named Perseverance rover to land safely on Mars, there are other reasons for confident satisfaction.

NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission to asteroid Bennu appears to have succeeded at collecting samples even better than expected, having penetrated as much as half a meter into the carbonaceous regolith and jammed itself full of material... even causing a minor problem, forcing scientists to stow the sampler into its return capsule early. Now, if the competence continues, we can keep doing stuff out where the riches are. And that is NOT the dusty, almost (for now) useless tourist trap called the Moon. (Leave that sandbox to the kiddies, please.) 

And while we’re talking asteroids…


From The Planetary Society: " Hayabusa2’s samples from asteroid Ryugu will return to Earth on 6 December 2020, Japan’s space agency announced. The samples will land in southern Australia at the same military complex where the first Hayabusa spacecraft sent samples from asteroid Itokawa in 2010. Hayabusa2 itself will pass within 200 kilometers of Earth and fly on to visit another asteroid. Pictured: Hayabusa2 snapped this picture of Ryugu after collecting 1 of 2 samples in 2019. Hayabusa2's shadow can be seen, along with a dark splotch where the spacecraft's thrusters blew away lighter materials on Ryugu's surface." 


THIS is what only Japan and the U.S. (with ESA) can do and we should be doing, while all the Apollo wannabe eager tourists rush to the dusty-useless lunar plain to plant footprints. (I got no problems renting them hotel rooms and landers and sending down robots to do science.) Asteroids are where quadrillions of dollars in wealth lie.


Meanwhile, plans develop for a 2022 launch of a robotic mission to 16-Psyche... (Psyche was made infamous on the show EXPANSE) … which is thought to be the metal core of a planet that died in collisions that formed the asteroid belt.  Metal that – if crudely totaled by today’s prices (omitting market crashing discounts) would be worth $10 Quadrillions at today’s markets. 


== There’s a Place for Us? ==


Are underground lava tubes the way of the future for colonization in Mars and the Moon? With lower gravity and less quake activity, it's estimated some may be cavernous enough to hold whole cities, offering protection from meteorites, cosmic rays and sections that can be sealed against vacuum. Not mentioned: these realms may be easier to clean vs the moon's jagged regolith dust and the caustic perchlorates of Mars. Those that are near ice deposits could be highly valuable. So who is ahead in the race to these sites?


We are, at NASA's Innovative and Advanced Concepts program (NIAC)! We've issued a Phase III study that should lead to a lander-bot that creeps to the edge of a "skylight" opening in such a tube, perhaps within a few years.


Now researchers estimate that Martian and lunar tubes are respectively 100 and 1,000 times wider than those on Earth, which typically have a diameter of 10 to 30 meters. Lower gravity and its effect on volcanism explain these outstanding dimensions (with total volumes exceeding 1 billion cubic meters on the Moon). “Tubes as wide as these can be longer than 40 kilometers, making the Moon an extraordinary target for subsurface exploration and potential settlement in the wide protected and stable environments of lava tubes.”  Further: “Lava tubes could provide stable shields from cosmic and solar radiation and micrometeorite impacts which are often happening on the surfaces of planetary bodies. Moreover, they have great potential for providing an environment in which temperatures do not vary from day- to night-time.” Reminiscent of life in Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.


And now more news how the lava tubes on Mars and the Moon are considerably larger than here on Earth. Enough so future settlements or research outposts could be safely nestled away inside. Certainly any such tubes that are also near Martian sub-surface ice formations or adjacent to Lunar Polar ice deposits would be sweet spots and among the most valuable sites in the Solar System.  


Then there’s Venus, a broiling, high pressure hell, down at the ground level. But my colleague Geoff Landis and others have speculated about a shell-level of the dense atmosphere where temperature and pressure (though not gas mixture) could be pleasant to Earth-type life, encouraging thoughts of balloon beings or steam-punk dirigibles and colonists getting about needing only face masks… AND NOW a stunning discovery of spectral signs of Phosphine gas - a molecule made up of one phosphorus atom and three hydrogen atoms - which on Earth is pretty much always (outie of certain factories) a sign of life!


Also underground!  One of our Mars orbiters used radar to detect several of what seem likely to be lakes of hyper-saline perchlorate brines, “known to form at Martian polar regions and shown to survive for geologically significant periods of time at temperatures well below the freezing point.”  Unhealthy stuff for any of us, but definitely plausible refuges for Martian life. If so, we can likely co-exist in careful colonies there, because ain’t no Earth-bugs gonna live in that stuff.


New research challenges the “warm and wet ancient Mars” hypothesis, which posits that Mars was once covered in massive river systems, fed by rain and large oceans of liquid water. Instead the “river tracks” we now see may have formed under sheets of ice. 


== Planets out there? ==


UC Riverside astrobiologist Stephen Kane crunched the data and found that some stars could potentially host as many as seven Earth-like planets, so long as they don't have a Jupiter to screw things up. Already the Trappist-1 system is home to several Earth-like planets located in the star's habitable zone where liquid water could exist. Is that beginning to sound like the “Verse” system of copious colonized worlds in Firefly/Serenity?


95 newly discovered brown dwarf sub-stellar ‘planets” have been found by a smart mob of 100,000 amateurs. The finds are vastly colder than other known brown dwarfs — and are likely cool enough to have water-rich clouds like we do here on Earth. It’s not yet clear whether that’s important from an astrobiological perspective, but it does help scientists better understand these bizarre worlds.


== NASA & Space Tech ==


In a much-criticized tweet, US president (now former) Donald Trump claimed that “NASA was Closed & Dead [sic] until I got it going again.” The categorically false claim drew widespread ire from the space exploration community - NASA never “closed” and it was never dead. “In a searing reply on Twitter, veteran NASA astronaut Scott Kelly also entered the fray: “Great leaders take blame and pass along credit.”


The notion that the present miracle of commercial space development cannot be credited to 8 years of Obama administration efforts to goose and stimulate it is insane. Moreover, I am on record denouncing the loony notion that the US should focus on returning American footprints to the dusty and (for now) useless moon, rather than joining Japan heading where the real wealth is, in asteroids. And yet – 


-- and yet, I do feel that NASA Director Bridenstine - a Trump appointee - has been surprisingly sensible, curious and willing to listen and learn. In fact, I nominate him as one of the few GOP officials who might serve as holdover gestures to bipartisanship.


The Blue Origin-led Human Landing System (HLS) National Team just delivered to NASA a full-scale prototype of a lander that could one day carry American astronauts to the surface of the Moon. Terrific, but not in the way meant here. As you know, I oppose any frantic effort to return US astronauts to that dusty, useless, nasty plain. Yes to robots! And yes HUMANITY will return there soon, since China, India, Russia and the rest are eager for their rite of passage “Bar Moonzvahs.” Tourism will be the economic driver and US companies should prepare to cater to it! Make money on landers for tourists, yeah! But NASA should lift its gaze to do (with Japan and Europe) things that others can’t do.


And finally....


As you’d expect, I love these new, improved images of the granular photosphere of the Sun


Finally… One of the better recent SMBC comics.