Monday, July 13, 2015

Galaxies, Black Holes, Supernova... PLUTO... and More Space!

From Mercury to Venus, Mars, Ceres, Pluto, and comets… It’s been an amazing year for space! 

Okay here's your Pluto reminder. Tomorrow is the AWESOME encounter day, when our little robot emissary -- New Horizons -- flashes past the Ninth Planet (of our youth).  Here's my recent posting about that -- and here's a graphical guide to the Pluto Flyby. Follow the coverage on NASA TV. Celebrate. Talk to kids about it. See if you can rouse your neighbors and co-workers to feel a flicker of pride and curiosity.

== Other News from Space! ==

Astronomers may have seriously over-estimated the number of smaller-fainter galaxies there were in the early days of the universe. The universe may be less crowded than we thought...

...but black holes more abundant: By detecting the highest-energy X-rays, which can penetrate through enshrouding gas and dust, the NuSTAR satellite has been able to detect super-massive (and very active) black holes in half a dozen galaxies, invisible to other wavelengths.  This suggests that such super-busy gobblers may be more common in the modern era than previously thought.  

What would happen if you met a black hole? “According to Samir Mathur. professor of physics at The Ohio State University, the recently proposed idea that black holes have “firewalls” that destroy all they touch is wrong. He believes that a black hole converts anything that touches it into a hologram — a near-perfect copy of itself that continues to exist just as before.  Mathur says if our world could be captured by a black hole, we wouldn’t even notice.”

Okaaay!  Very interesting.  Though of course the thing to be recorded would be your bloody mess, after being tidally squished, on your way to the holographic absorption layer.  Still, this is weirdly and wonderfully reminiscent of a scene from volume three of Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem.  Volume one is up for a Hugo Award, with my blurb on the cover; get it! Volume II, The Dark Forest will be out in August. But you won’t get to see vol.III – terrifically translated by Ken Liu – till late 2016.  I have, though!  Nyah nyah...

Now...zombie black hole: this massive black hole has awakened after 26 years of dormancy!
Zowee.  Type 1a supernovas are special.  They occur when a neutron star or white dwarf or giant star hauls enough mass from a neighbor to just barely hit the Chandrasekhar Limit where an in-collapse triggers the Big Kablooie (A technical term for use only by we licensed astrophysicists.)  This threshold effect meant that type 1a supernovae are all the same… and hence perfect “standard candles” for measuring distance… the Nobel winning work that refined not only the age of the universe, but the big news of accelerating expansion. (The reason we now believe in ‘dark energy.”)  

Only now… might type 1a supernovae NOT be all the same?  Might some of them be yanked over the Chandrasekhar Limit by an excess of Dark Matter? Yipe!  This could change a number of things. Oh, such times to live in.

Gobbling galaxies! Elliptical galaxy M87 may have swallowed an entire medium -sized galaxy over the last billion years.

==What's next for NASA? ==

A submarine to explore the seas of Titan -- the depths of Kraken Mare?

NASA has selected seven technology proposals for continued study under Phase II of the agency’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program. The selections are based on the potential to transform future aerospace missions, introduce new capabilities or significantly improve current approaches to building and operating aerospace systems. The selected proposals address a range of visionary concepts, including metallic lithium combustion for long-term robotics operations, submarines that explore the oceans of icy moons of the outer planets, and a swarm of tiny satellites that map gravity fields and characterize the properties of small moons and asteroids.

“This is an excellent group of NIAC studies,” said Jason Derleth, NIAC Program executive at NASA Headquarters. “From seeing into cave formations on the moon to a radically new kind of solar sail that uses solar wind instead of light, NIAC continues to push the bounds of current technology.” (I am proud to serve on NIAC's External Council of advisers.)

== Looking ahead ==

Details of the still-tentative plans for a Europa-Clipper mission to visit and study that fascinating Jovian moon.  I wish one of these articles would expand upon such a mission’s obvious secondary purpose, to be a general probe continuing our surveys of both the biggest planet and its other moons. Speak up, if you find information about those aspects and report it here, under comments!

Is Venus geologically active? Analyses of Venus Express observations have detected multiple hot spots on the planet. 

Here's a lovely infographic of our solar system's extraterrestrial oceans -- now believed to exist on Europa, Ganymede, Callisto, Enceladus, Titan, Mimas, Triton...

DARPA is already engineering the organisms that could terraform Mars -- genetically engineered extremophiles capable of surviving in the red planet's arid terrain. Will we see the onset of Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars/Green Mars scenario? 

In 2019, Russia intends to land a spacecraft, Luna-25, on the moon's polar region, rather than near the equator where all other landings have occurred.

Meanwhile... The Russian government doubts the U.S. moon landings? Actually, it’s not as lurid as that: “We are not contending that they did not fly [to the moon], and simply made a film about it. But all of these scientific — or perhaps cultural — artifacts are part of the legacy of humanity, and their disappearance without a trace is our common loss. An investigation will reveal what happened,” said the official demanding investigation of disappearance of some of the original 1969 footage.   Still, notice how this works at multiple levels.  As with Fox News in the US, all you have to do is imply in an arched way, and let your … “challenged”… viewers bay after rumors, all by themselves.   

Again, celebrate Bastille Day with New Horizons!  Say hello to Pluto!

Oppose the cynics!  Burnish your hopefulness and pride at being a member of a civilization that does cool stuff!

Then turn and be determined to used the same can-do spirit to solve problems down here too, and make a better world.


atomsmith said...

David, do you (or anyone else here) know of any live events that will be broadcast about the flyby?

Something like the Curiosity countdown from JPL, or the Huygens probe sending it's first images back.

David Brin said...

I thought SCI was covering it! I guess it's gonna be the NASA Channel. Remember, the data will come in SLOWLY! It will take weeks and months to get it all.

Tom Crowl said...

Regarding the issue of "mainstreaming more science"... I noted this from Science News:

Its paid subscription base has gone from a high of near 250,000 reached in the late 80's to a current low level of 94,000.

At the same time it receives more than a million "hits" a month to its website and its various articles.

HOWEVER, it receives no revenue from these visitors... and consequently is losing money every month and constantly looking for ways to economize.

IF those visitors could be charged EVEN ONE CENT to read an article of interest this landscape can change.

"in many cases, and as a result of the Internet's unique nature, the value is actually produced from a distributed network which extends beyond the boundaries of the entity which focuses that value into marketable form and derives the market's benefits."
- From:

A monied "like" button is NOT a nice feature which we might have someday... but rather is an essential necessity... and can be built now.

David Brin said...

Tom, I am still looking for a good venue for my micro-payments article.

Alfred Differ said...

One of the recent Pluto images shows it to be a little out-of-round. The dark region below the heart appears to be a large depression when it is on the limb. Has anyone else here seen that? Image artifact maybe?

Ioan said...

Apologies if this the wrong place to do this. I won't do this often, as I consider it spamming.

However, I found this article our host might be interested in for a future blog post. It deals with science fiction in Africa. Again, this will be my last post on this topic.

Perhaps there might be another way to send David such articles? It's rare that I run into them, so spamming won't be a problem.

David Brin said...

Ioan why on Earth would you apologize for linking this informal community to a blatantly interesting article in a topic area that's been raised here, before? You did nothing wrong at all and feel free to do that again, here, in exactly the same manner.

Alfred Differ said...

David's Treasure Seeker Cadre at work. 8)

Alex Tolley said...

DARPA is already engineering the organisms that could terraform Mars -- genetically engineered extremophiles capable of surviving in the red planet's arid terrain.

This appears to be a news release without any real substance. All Google hits are for circular iterations of the same story. It is really unclear what DARPA are claiming, and the idea that gene engineering organisms to terraform mars is very premature. We cannot do anything until we have confirmed Mars is lifeless.
Using gene engineered organisms for environmental repair seems hubristic unless they mean very basic repair, like oil or toxic waste destruction. They certainly cannot rebuild ecosystems by some magic engineering or organisms.

Paul SB said...

Alex, while I agree that it is dangerous to mess with ecosystems, and I would not suggest that genetic engineering is a cure-all, but perhaps if someone could increase the efficiency of carbon fixation in a woody plant it could help counter a major ecological problem. Ecological disasters of the past often resulted from ignorance of interconnections in nature, but we have a hell of a lot more ecologists today unraveling these mysteries. I would be loathe to abandon a potentially powerful technique so easily because of concerns about hubris, when all that is needed is some common-sense caution and testing under vigilant quarantine procedures. Of course, I'm a bit of a contrarian by nature.

Anyone notice the heart shape on Pluto's southern hemisphere? Funny that the Goddess of Love happens to be the hottest planet in the system, and a tiny planet that is cold as hell and named for the god of the underworld has a heart on its undershorts...

SteveO said...

Alfred: "The dark region below the heart appears to be a large depression when it is on the limb."

Sometimes having a big heart leads to depression... ;)

Wow, already some amazing pictures and the good ones and the science aren't even here yet!

Alex Tolley said...

@PSB - increasing the efficiency of carbon fixation is most likely to be used in farming first, where ecological issues are relatively unimportant. I'm not sure I would be comfortable about upgrading photosynthesis for all plants, or even a subset.

I'd be asking why DARPA even has an interest in this area of research. What is their motivation?

Alex Tolley said...

What might be the effect of increasing photosynthetic efficiency on woody plants, e.g. trees?

In temperate climates, the trees should grow faster, but they probably don't get larger that they ordinarily wood at maturity. There are other limits to tree growth that constrain size. So would this simply provide a short term fix for carbon fixation, unless we harvested and sequestered these trees?
In high latitudes, it might extend the growing season and therefore the range of such trees.

If photosynthesis is more efficient, is there any material increase in water uptake, or is this unimportant compared to transpiration? Faster growth will certainly increase uptake of nutrients. Will this reduce competition of other plants, or primarily constrain the growth of the tree?

Is it possible that increased photosynthetic efficiency would feedback in development and physiology by reducing leaf area, or the amount of chlorophyll in the leaves?

Obviously research is needed and we are close to being able to do the experiments in the lab, although trees would be a rather long term experiment compared to crops. It certainly isn't a slam-dunk that we can increase useful carbon sequestration in trees or shrubs by this method.

Paul SB said...

Alex, I agree that it isn't a slam dunk, and that increasing photosynthetic efficiency would not increase the amount of carbon sequestration all by itself. However, if it increases grow rates, then tress could be harvested for purposes that would not involve burning and releasing the carbon back into the atmosphere, then replacement trees could be grown and harvested more quickly,. This could have a net effect of drawing down atmospheric carbon in the long run. But the issues you raise about plants compensating by reducing leaf size or otherwise draw down the number of photosynthetic units and possible increased nutrient uptake are ideas that would need to be explored. Perhaps an engineering solution, artificial photosynthesis on the exterior of buildings, would do the trick. This idea came up in an intro botany class I had some years ago.

As to DARPA's motivation for terraforming Mars, I'm sure we could imagine all sorts of more-or-less looney conspiracy theories if we put our minds to it. More important, though, is the extent to which it would even be possible. Mars has 1/3rd the gravity of Earth, which means it would not be able to hold on to nearly as much atmosphere as our sphere. And without a magnetic field, much of what atmosphere we could potentially add to it would be blown away, anyway. I haven't read the Red Mars/Green Mars/Blue Mars books, so I have no idea how the author dealt with those issues.

Steve O,

Sometimes having a big heart leads to depression... ;)

Frequently. Maybe that's why Pluto lives way out on the frozen edge of the Solar System...

On a more serious note, I wish the news media would spend a little less time splitting hairs over the planet vs dwarf planet thing. It's a planet, it just happens to be a really little one, and there's bunches more kind of similar tiny planets out there to check out, too.

Jumper said...

Reading the fine print, I see that New Horizons will accumulate data much faster than it can download it to us, so results will trickle in over following weeks. I assume cool photos will come first, to quell the public.

Paul451 said...

Paul SB,
"And without a magnetic field, much of what atmosphere we could potentially add to it would be blown away, anyway."

The loss time is measured in millions of years. And, by definition, if you can build an entire atmosphere within, say, a thousand years, you can surely top it up half a percent every few thousand years.

[Aside: Strongly dislike the idea of terraforming Mars. Horrible waste of resources. I'm not defending the idea because I like it.]

"I see that New Horizons will accumulate data much faster than it can download it to us, so results will trickle in over following weeks. I assume cool photos will come first, to quell the public."

Well, first we need to receive a post-mission ping, to know that the probe even survived the closest approach.

If so, it was transmitted three hours ago. About another hour or so until it arrives.

"Space," says the Guide, "is big."

Alex Tolley said...

@PSB - Always a good idea to research before trying. Artificial (and controllable) photosynthesis may well be teh way to go. But remember that algae are very productive and this might be a better way to do carbon fixation, if only via recycling biofuels. Either way, lots of potential. I prefer technology that is controllable, so that unexpected consequences can be dealt with.

DARPA projects are for military purposes - e.g. self driving cars, robots, etc. So what are they thinking with gene engineered organisms? Biowarfare? Are they talking about bioremediation or terraforming as cover? At the 100 year Starship conference last year Lubin was talking about massive DE-STAR lasers for beamed propulsion and asteroid deflection. However a recent post by James Benford suggested that the approach made little sense for beamed power. This made me wonder whether the project was more about the military use of space based lasers rather than civilian applications. You don't need a tinfoil hat to be suspicious. Autonomous robots are going to be used in the battlefield, probably long before they are used in the home. Star Trek TOS "A Taste of Armageddon" is a preview of where we may be headed.

Paul451 is correct about the stability of the terraformed Martian atmosphere. It would even last for thousands of years on the moon. In the Mars trilogy, the atmosphere gets thicker as the story progresses, although it was meant to be kept thin enough to preserve the ancient Mars on Olympus Mons. IIRC, a little engineering allowed humans to breathe the thinner atmosphere comfortably. I believe that KSR is no longer sanguine about Mars colonization.

David Brin said...

See the TRUTH about Pluto, by scrolling down at:

and playing the very very brief but revealing video...

Jonathan S. said...

Saw the comparison of that "heart" to Pluto the dog's head on Twitter this morning, and now it's the only thing I can see there. Which leads to the question - how much did Disney pay to have that product placement? :-)

Alfred Differ said...

I'll worry about the impact of artificial photosynthesis when we've managed to reproduce Momma Nature's version. I suspect that any easy alteration of her process that could outcompete her plants would have been found by chance long ago. If there is room for improvement, I suspect it involves niche plays that would have to be protected FROM her. That would be well within DoD interests since carbon fuel synthesis is something we have to think about for this next century. An Army in the field can't necessarily reproduce the Navy's solution for generation of electricity. Those big steam turbines and their fuel supply aren't all that mobile without an ocean to float upon.

DP said...

Dr. Brin, these are great achievements but you aren't thinking big enough or far enough ahead. How about this video on colonizing the galaxy even at only 1% of c:

Reminds me of how zebra mussels hitched rides on oceanic vessels to become an invasive species in alien lakes and rivers, or how viruses spread.

Acacia H. said...

We have confirmation: New Horizons successfully traveled through the Pluto System and is healthy and fully operational.

Now we need to send an orbiter to Pluto. Perhaps we could use a combination of slingshot past Jupiter and then an ion drive to slow the orbiter over time so it can actually enter into orbit? It would take many more years than it took to send New Horizons to Pluto... but is probably the most cost-effective method of sending an orbiter to that distant orb.

Rob H.

Acacia H. said...

RE: The military applications of improved photosynthesis.

This one is fairly obvious. While Congress may quibble about global warming, the U.S. military sees it as real... and a threat to national security. Reducing greenhouse gases and limiting or ending the melting of glaciers and ice caps (and ensuring the Arctic Ocean doesn't go completely ice-free) is a matter of protecting our borders, especially with Russia becoming increasingly hostile.

In addition, improving photosynthesis would allow biofuel algae to grow at a faster rate, accumulate more biomass for transformation into fuel, improve efficiency, and lower costs.

Military applications need not be lethal. It can be improvements in efficiency as well. Hell, think of robots that detect and disarm mines and IEDs - they wouldn't be a destructive threat... but would be a huge military benefit. And the development of treatments to prevent people from bleeding to death can help preserve the lives of soldiers without having a lethal application.

Rob H.

Alfred Differ said...

The other fairly obvious DoD use would be for permanent manned presence in space. Having a few oxygen generating critters that are a bit more rad-hard would be useful. We'd have to figure out a lot more about closing an environmental system, so exploration of other genomes for critters that manage the garbage and other behind-the-scenes tasks would be important.

Qeng-Ho habitats might be a useful vision to remember instead of monster escape movies. 8)

Paul SB said...

Here's a brief article on artificial photosynthesis from Science Daily.

I saw a few more just by searching /artificial photosynthesis/, though some were only really just splitting H2O by electrolysis but using novel new nano materials that can get up to 80% efficiency. That is still way better than Mommy Nature, which only gets about 4% with chlorophyll A & B, plus another couple percent with accessory pigments (carotene, xanthophyll, anthocyanin). Smart chemists can do things in decades that nature could not dream of in 3.8 billion years.

Alex Tolley said...

@PSB - I would be somewhat suspicious of a claim of 90% efficiency for artificial photosynthesis. I cannot read the full paper so I cannot comment further.
As solar PV is already at efficiencies of ~15%, and electrolysis is at ~50%, generating hydrogen as a feedstock is overall at ~7%, is better than plants. Theoretical efficiencies for PV is around ~70% IIRC, so plenty of room to improve. We would have to build a lot of machines to make much of a dent in carbon fixation, compared to living plants. Simply trapping solar energy and using the electrical power seems to be the more logical approach as it displaces carbon combustion.

Alex Tolley said...

@Robert - it isn't clear to me what the military advantage of biofuels is. It has political value as the US military is a major consumer of carbon f8uels and they won't want to be constrained from operations. It is conceivable that they are taking a very long term view, looking past peak oil.

@Alfred. There is a simpler way to go for O2 in space (if you really want crewed facilities, which isn't clear to me that that is the direction the DoD is headed). Use water as propellant for solar electric engines, and electrolyze some of that water for O2 for the crew (as well as using the water for consumption and bathing, with subsequent recovery for propulsion). Having run the numbers with my colleague, Brian McConnell, this approach is much more attractive than trying to create enclosed life support systems. Our monograph will be published this summer by Springer.

There is the question of whether the military even wants crewed space facilities at all. The X37B vehicle is controlled from the ground and can stay in space for long periods (years) without resupply. They are currently testing an advanced Hall Effect thruster to increase propulsion efficiency and presumably increase the time the vehicle can remain operational in space.

For civilian exploration of the solar system, if it makes sense to have the intelligence based locally, then a crewed vehicle in orbit using VR interfaced to robots on the surface is a good way to go. Hugely more efficient in terms of fuel, not to mention safer for the crew. For a Mars mission, putting a habitat on/in Deimos for radiation protection and possible propellant extraction, allows for good control of surface robots in a number of locations, improving the exploration capability.

Paul451 said...

"Now we need to send an orbiter to Pluto."

The outer "ice giants" are seen as a higher priority. They are nicely aligned this decade for a double mission (either flyby Uranus, then orbit Neptune, or a double probe mission dropping off an orbiter at each one.) However, even that looks like a much lower priority than Europa, and there's a big hunger for another mission to Titan to explore those lakes. And, of course, the big funding vacuum, Mars, is still demanding its regular $b sacrifice.

A Pluto orbiter is way down the list.

"Perhaps we could use a combination of slingshot past Jupiter and then an ion drive to slow the orbiter over time so it can actually enter into orbit?"

There are modern ion drives efficient enough to do a Pluto orbiter with a reasonable fuel mass-fraction and a reasonable flight-time. The problem is that we don't have a suitable power source that works beyond Jupiter. Solar is too inefficient beyond Jupiter. RTG's are too weak. And there are no fission reactors suitable for space, and those developed in the past were much too heavy for this requirement.

You could use solar ion drives to accelerate a probe into an eccentric orbit (so the boost phase is inside of Jupiter's orbit) with an aphelion out near Pluto (which means you only need a few 100m/s delta-v from a conventional chemical rocket to go into orbit), but the flight time is 45 years.

Alex Tolley said...

@paul451 - Solar PV without concentration is too weak, as you say. But what about using foil concentrator? O'Neill had suggested that for his outer system based colonies, but I don't know if this would be impractical for a spacecraft that is changing orientation.

Another option, sometime in the future, would be to beam power to the spacecraft, either by microwave or laser.

David Brin said...


siska said...
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