Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Space: wonders from within our solar system - and beyond!

Soon I will be flying to DC for the annual orientation meeting of NASA's Innovative & Advanced Concepts program - (NIAC). Have a look at some of this year's seed grant award-fellowships to study possible technologies just this side of science fiction!

Of course last month's most exciting news was NASA's successful launch and deployment of the James Webb Space Telescope - the largest space telescope, which will help illuminate the mysteries of the cosmos! Here's amazing video of the observatory's separation from the Ariana 5 rocket in space. We are already getting the first images. 

This was the step that had me tense: the latching of the secondary mirror - and the unfurling of its tennis-court sized sunshield. The telescope has now reached its final destination at L2, a million miles from Earth. First public light - last week - was fabulous!

One thing I learned: in order to zero in on a target, the whole spacecraft rotates, but must keep the shield blocking any sunlight or Earthlight. That means Webb will not have much freedom to choose targets at-will, but rather will study distant vistas on an opportunity basis, during its yearly solar orbit. Unlike Hubble, it won't normally be available to swing around toward just any transient phenomena. In a given week, it will have a pretty narrow, ring-like array of possible targets to sample-study. Inside those rings, it will likely be magnificent! So next time there's some transient event out there, like an 'Oumuamua, don't go shouting 'give us the Webb view!' A good reason to keep Hubble.

And more.... NASA will further extend our vision of the cosmos with the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer, which will provide data on magnetars, supernovae and black holes. And NASA has an ambitious launch schedule for 2022.

LISA- Laser Interferometer Space Antenna - will be an ESA-led and NASA supported mission to deploy laser interferometer arrays into an orbit that follows Earth’s, bouncing beams across distances much larger than our planet. The Europeans have been working on the concept and testing it for decades. Now we may be ready soon to study gravity ripples vastly more sensitively than the already magnificent (and Kip Thorne-led) LIGO array.

Meanwhile, we have fantastic results from our Juno probe orbiting Jupiter and probing the storms down below even 500 km. Helping to illuminate our own weather patterns, these discoveries are simply amazing… almost as amazing as the spectacular competence of an enlightenment civilization that does such things… and the cosmic unlikeliness that citizens of this civilization simply shrug off or ignore such wonders.

And for the first time, a NASA spacecraft has 'touched the sun.' The Parker Space Probe, launched in 2018, first reached the sun's corona a few months back. The probe will approach the sun 24 times over its lifetime, sending back data about our sun... A good reason to revisit my first novel, Sundiver!

== Wonders beyond our solar system ==

We've long known that the planets of our own Solar System emit powerful radio waves as their magnetic fields interact with the solar wind, but radio signals from planets outside our solar system had yet to be picked up. Till now. “This discovery is an important step for radio astronomy and could potentially lead to the discovery of planets throughout the galaxy." Red Dwarf stars have much more powerful magnetic fields than the Sun's, and the exoplanets we've found orbiting them can be much closer than anything in the solar system; hence interaction might generate powerful radio emissions. This promises a powerful method added to the quiver of planet hunters.

Astronomers caught a 2020 supernova in the act way earlier than ever and the data will be powerfully revelatory. “This is a different situation, because we really know what’s going on and we actually see the death in real time.”

Observations of circumstellar material in close proximity to the star were made by Hubble just hours after the explosion, which, wow. The star shed this material during the past year, offering a unique perspective of the various stages that occur just prior to a supernova explosion.

A bright red dwarf system just 150 light years away has planets orbiting perpendicular to each other. Creepy. 

Intriguing... Scientists find dark matter “bridges” that may reveal the future of our galaxy. A new AI-generated map of dark matter shows previously undiscovered filamentary structures connecting galaxies.

Black hole star destroyers: When a star gets so close to a black hole that the tidal force results in material being stripped from the star… simulated eight ways vividly (!) in this video.

== And finally ==

The BBC did a 5 part history of Earth’s evolution and I am in this final episode: The Anthropocene. It’s very entertaining and lively and informative. Very well-edited! Glad to participate.

One of my colleagues is offering an onliner primer on black holes and how a small one might have… well… See “Tunguska Seminar 05” by Bill DeSmedt, author of Singularity and Dualism.

From the Portalist: a worthy collection of science fiction novels, old and new, that explore deep space... including tales by Poul Anderson, Samuel Delaney, Ursula K. Le Guin, Nnedi Ororafor, Christopher Paolini... and my own Startide Rising.


David Brin said...

I was pleased that I've even forgotten the name of that mentally challenged weird guy who used to gnat-bug us. But dropping for a monthly visit to the swill bucket, I did spot a borderline taunt about some schools putting cameras in classrooms so parents can 'supervise." An apparent transparency horror story? Proof of Brin hypocrisy?

Bah, only an idiot doesn't know I am about RECIPROCAL transparency and accountability, not only in the flow of information but in correcting for inhomogeneities of POWER.

Yep. But then, I did use the "i-word."

Paradoctor said...

I was wondering: if Javelins so easily beat Russian tanks, then are we seeing the technological obsolescence of tanks in general? Or is it just Russian tanks? How much does a Javelin cost, compared to a tank?

Likewise, do cruise missiles make aircraft carriers sitting ducks?

In general, do small, fast, smart robotic weapons beat big, slow, powerful manned weapons? The robots are already beating humans in industry and space...

Alfred Differ said...

For tonights space wonder, I watched a couple of the recent Falcon launches and got to see my home turf go by in the stage 1 camera view of the ground.

Hey! I know those islands!

Pretty neat.

The Starlink flight followed a trajectory I used to argue for with my guys, though we would have started a bit further north off the California coast. We needed test flight options from non-standard ports, ya see.

There is an easy path to a high-inc orbit that heads SE along the coasts of North and South America, doesn't cross land until passing over Chile and part of Argentina, and then skips across the water all the way to Sri Lanka. If you aren't solidly in orbit by then, you've most likely fallen in the water far from anyone.

Ahem. One does overfly some very busy air-traffic corridors servicing our mega-cities, but not the cities themselves. Wave at the pretty planes way down there!

DP said...

So far we have found 5,000 exoplanets.

Only one of which, our own, shows signs of life let alone civilization.

It is time to accept the simplest answer to the Fermi Paradox that fits all known facts.

There is nobody else. We are alone, at least in our region of the galaxy which for the foreseeable future means we are alone in the universe.

Larry Hart said...

Heh. Emphasis mine, because they're singing my song.

It looks like "thug" is the word of the week for two weeks running now. Last week, Mitch McConnell and other Republican senators were calling Vladimir Putin a "thug." Now Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) are calling the democratically elected Volodymyr Zelenskyy a thug.

Greene was asked about her assessment in a town hall in Paulding County, about 20 miles northwest of Atlanta, and she said that it was an easy call. She also largely echoed Russian talking points and defended the war in Ukraine. She also was worried that the $14 billion of U.S. aid to Ukraine would fall in the hands of Nazis. If the audience had been more on the ball, somebody could have asked her: "What's wrong with giving money to Nazis?" It would have been interesting to get her response to that.

David Brin said...

There is a huge selection effect that by far most of the planets discovered by transit eclipse method orbit very close to their suns.

sociotard said...

not only in the flow of information but in correcting for inhomogeneities of POWER.

I thought science fiction authors were able to imagine issues from other perspectives? Do not Conservatives rail against inhomogeneities of power in education?

This is not hypocrisy. This is your philosophy of exposing the action of those who have power of us, as wielded by "the other side".

But your comment implies that you won't even look at this. A pity.

DP said...

Paradoctor, see this article on the end of the tank era, and the new tech that would restor the tank to its lead role on the battlefield:

"Will cheap anti-tank missiles mark the end of the Tank era? Raytheon and Lockheed Martin make the Javelin missile. The Javelin costs $178,000, including the launch system and missile and each replacement missile costs around $78,000. Tanks cost $1 million to $8 million each. Russian tanks are in the lower cost range of $1 million to $4 million."

P.S. The defeat of heavily armored French knights at Crecy and Agincourt was not just due to the English longbow. French arrogance and stupidity combined with bad terrain played a large part. History is repeating itself in Ukraine.

P.P.S. Remember that even after the longbow and the invention of gunpowder cavalry remained a major part of the battlefield for centuries, right up to WWI.

Star_Dragon said...

No, not even Russian tanks, no, and sometimes. Good questions, most of which were asked and answered in the Cold War.
The fact that specialized weapons can destroy tanks has never made tanks not incredibly useful. The fact that specialized weapons are required makes whoever is operating them quite vulnerable to infantry and artillery(this is why combined arms are still a thing), unless it's mounted in another tank. The fact that they take time to bring to bear gives tanks quite a lot of room to maneuver, rolling around faster than most anti-tank weapons can be used while trying to chase them down. Improvements in anti-tank weaponry in the past, eclipsing armor advancements temporarily, caused some tank designs to focus on speed over armor protection, because speed still provides some protection, and even armor which is light for a tank can ignore not just small arms fire, but most autocannon fire and artillery fire as well.

Similarly, one needs more than a weapon capable of killing an aircraft carrier to kill it. To simplify the situation, you need to find the carrier and then move the weapon into range. The aircraft carried by the carrier are quite good at stopping both of those, to the point that the Soviets decided that they might need a baby carrier to carry their anti-aircraft-carrier missiles into range, by countering fighters with fighters.

Things which are small and fast can't have much armor while being small and fast, so they're terribly vulnerable, often even to small arms. It tends to already be standard operating procedure to protect things like tanks with an infantry screen and anti-aircraft systems, small and fast robotics adds to the list of things to watch for and shoot.

Robots in industry usually operate in tandem with humans who solve whatever problems come up that the robots don't know how to solve. Such problems also occur in space, but right now the only way to solve them is for Mission Control to give them instruction from Earth, which takes several minutes at best. As a result, even basic driving on Mars is slow, since the bots need to do a lot of stopping and waiting. It would be really helpful to have interplanetary astronauts, but that's almost completely impractical with just chemical rockets. Nuclear rockets, depending on design, could potentially get to Mars in weeks instead of many months.

DP said...

Has anyone else noted the significant decline in right-wing trolling on social media websites since Russia got cut off from the rest of the internet? Nothing I can quantify, but it just seems like there are fewer of them.

David Brin said...

One tech makes a difference whether the currently constituted US Navy is obsolete. That is beam defense weaponsthat can shoot down hypersonic missiles. There is no reason for our defender caste to tell us whether these techs are mature. If they are, then carriers might still be something other than sitting ducks.

Prediction, the next major investment will be in single or dual rider ATV type vehicles to accompany and protect tanks by guarding the periphery and clearing out missile-toting infantry. In fact I am surprised not to see it already.


I did not allow through the first message from 'sociotard" because I vaguely recalled he was an ass... and his postings this time were consistent with that. Still, I passed through his essential (idiotic) attempt at a point and replied to it.

I now recall that, though an ass, he is not the relentlessly vile fellow who caused our shift to moderation. And hence I allowed this one through.

He's still an ass. And I see no reason to waste time on him.

TheMadLibrarian said...

Last week our tame astrophysicist showed everyone at our weekly meeting who was interested the first half dozen pictures from the Webb telescope. They were awesome! I would, however, have to ask him about exoplanets discovered by transiting; I think many larger exoplanets are also found by how they make the star 'shimmy' as they orbit. Tt does make sense that to make a noticeable light dip by eclipsing a star, a planet would have to be a. large and b. close enough in to block that much light. The planet's ecliptic would also need to line up between the star and us to create the eclipse.

Larry Hart said...

Dr Brin:

I see no reason to waste time on him.

Making that comment more we find ourselves racing out of control toward the triplet possibilities of WWIII, resurgent COVID, and a Republican capture of the US (I don't know which to root for), I find myself ruefully thinking "I see no reason to waste time" on any number of things. Each moment might truly be my last, or my last as a free individual.

It's getting hard to think in terms of any kind of long-term plans, and certainly getting harder to defer gratification to a future which might not come.

David Brin said...

TML, yes the number of planets discovered by spectral detection of stellar doppler perturbations is rising. This is more difficult than transit, but allows discovery of scores of planets that do not happen to orbit through our line of sight to the star.

There is still an effect that this is much easier to detect when the planet is very close.

The recent re-visit here by a lesser-ass reminded me that our earlier compulsive rug-pooper was Ukrainian, I believe. Despite his having been very poorly-raised, I still hope he and all he loves remain safe and that his people will prevail.

matthew said...

I'd like to speak up to argue that sociotard has a right to be here and not be called a "lesser ass."

They are not overly transgressive in norms of polite conversation, do not make threats of violence, do not espouse fascism, and they have said interesting things in the past. Plus, I remember them from arguing with them here way back 20+ years ago, so they have earned a little respect for their seniority.

signed, another "lesser ass,"

Don Gisselbeck said...

One of my favorite time wastes is arguing with science deniers on the internet. Yes I know it is useless (so is watching explosions on YouTube). You will not be surprised to learn that they think everything you said here is based on fakes. I continue to be angered by their willingness to dismiss peer reviewed science with a hand wave.

David Brin said...

matthew is perfectly in the right to chide me for my language toward sociotard, even though HE came her, out of the blue, accusing me of hypocrisy for positions that he knew to be strawman caricatures of my transparency positions. I am justified... and rightfully chided. Both at once.

Alfred Differ said...

Sociotard isn't the first and won't be the last to fail to understand your transparency positions. You've documented them, but they take careful reading to grasp.

It's so much easier to think in terms of other beliefs... especially the one telling us to hide from authority. Yah. It's never worked beyond short term secrets from inept authority, but it's SO much easier to believe as it is consistent with instinct.

For me, grasping your transparency positions took two readings of your book and the interaction with you here. At first I was tempted to say they were 'nuanced', but lately I just stick with 'non-obvious.'

As for all of us commenting here, it's worth taking the time to read the book (a few times if needed) if only so we don't waste our host's time.

Ilithi Dragon said...

On the subject of tanks being obsolete (and aircraft carriers). As was noted by my fellow dragon above, the answer is most definitely: No, they are not obsolete.

Tanks alone are vulnerable to specialized anti-tank weapons.

This has always been the case, and is nothing new. The anti-tank weapons of today are more capable, but so are the tanks.

And, more importantly, so are all of the other assets in a proper combined arms force. Just as a lone tank is vulnerable to a Javelin operator, the Javelin operator is vulnerable to artillery, or air support, and can easily be rooted out or disrupted by infantry.

Javelin are a powerful tool for infantry against Tanks, but they are far from the death knell of the tank, or even the Main Battle Tank.

Carriers are not as vulnerable to current Gen hypersonic weapons as the media likes to make them out to be. Russias actual working hypersonic missile is just an old short-ranged ballistic missile from the 1980s, fitted with a new guidance system and adapted to be launched from a plane rather than a truck. It is hardly more capable than the older platform it was adapted from.

Likewise, China's "hypersonic glide" weapon is not the instant checkmate that China would love for us to believe it is. The weapon is more capable than a conventional ballistic missile, but hitting a moving carrier task force is not a simple matter, especially at any significant range. China has also, conspicuously, not demonstrated the precision capability of their weapon. As it is capable of fitting nuclear warheads, a precise strike isn't strictly necessary, but unless they want to kick off major nuclear retaliation, they have to stick with conventional ordnance that won't have any effect with a near miss.

Detection ranges of hypersonic weapons is also going to be at greater distances than subsonic, sea-skimming cruise missiles, because they have to fly at higher altitudes until terminal approach by the very nature of their hypersonic glide path. This means they'll crest the horizon further away, and actual response times of the target won't be that much lower than a sea skimming missile.

The US is behind the curve in the first generation of "we technically have hypersonic capability" missile systems (though the US had functional test platforms 20 years ago, and just didn't pursue them as full fledged weapons systems). We are developing actual, precise-strike hypersonic cruise missiles, however, and will have them soon(TM), which is something no other nation has the capability to do.

And, like the tank, a carrier alone is vulnerable to specialized weapons, but just like only an idiot (or the Russians) would send in tanks unsupported, no carrier should ever be out operating on its own. Combined arms operations are the answer to dedicated anti-tank weapons and dedicated anti-carrier weapons.

Jon S. said...

"TML, yes the number of planets discovered by spectral detection of stellar doppler perturbations is rising. This is more difficult than transit, but allows discovery of scores of planets that do not happen to orbit through our line of sight to the star.

There is still an effect that this is much easier to detect when the planet is very close."

It also tends to select for Jovian and trans-Jovian planetary masses. If you tried to map Sol system from several dozen lightyears away by gravitational perturbation, I'm not sure you'd find Earth. (Or the other terrestrial planets, for that matter.)

Larry Hart said...

During the war, the state television channels have delivered to Russians a picture of the conflict that is the polar opposite of what people see in the West: The Russians are the good guys, as they were when fighting Nazi Germany in World War II, bringing liberation to Ukrainian lands seized by neo-Nazis funded by the hegemonic West.

The same hegomonic West who defeated the Nazis in WWII? The war in which Soviet Russia was an ally of the hegomonic West?

It gets more farcical by the moment. Putin may actually have some justification in portraying a West dominated by the US Republican Party and similar right-wingers in Europe as Nazi-adjacent, but then those very same Republicans who proudly fly Nazi flags love Putin and hate the hegomonic West.

David Brin said...

Andrew yipe, Thanks. Damn autocorrect. Poul was the greatest storyteller I ever knew.

Alfred I have tried hard to find ways to distill or summarize my point about transparency and reciprocal accountability... and remain boggled by how hard it is! These are THE central innovations of the Periclean Enlightenment experiments, as described by Pericles himself, in the Funeral Oration.

People understand that it is essential that light shine upon their enemies. The irony is not that we all (somewhat hypocritically) want to evade light shining upon us. Yes, that is true. No, the problem is that there's a reflex to assume that any increase in ambient levels of light will be used to do harm.

Whaaaat? How... I mean how is it even possible to think that? I remain utterly boggled.

HOW can people shriek to BAN face recognition when:

1- the tech is utterly - and I mean utterly - inevitable.

2- It merely expands an existing human capability.

3- Driving it underground will restrict it ONLY to the very forces you fear would abuse it.

4- The very same anecdotes that are used to denounce current FR systems as flawed or racially biased... those reports and denunciations are evidence that keeping systems open for criticism IS EXACTLY WHAT WORKS!

5- No one looks at THEMSELVES as an example of the powerful values-conditioning performed by Hollywood for generations, promoting Suspicion of Authority as a central imperative. We all assume we invented it and we are surrounded by bleating sheep.

I don't get it. What is so utterly counter -intuitive about all that?

reason said...

I'm wondering if other people, understand the same thing. Did the Russian chiefs of staff tell those troops under pressure North of Kyiv - you're on your own - we are not planning to help you.

Alfred Differ said...

Beam defenses come in multiple forms all of which we’ve had a number of years to get to work building and testing. One doesn’t need details to know we are working on them. Just talk to a USN officer who plans to make a career of it. They won’t talk details, but you’ll get a sense of whether they care to get out ahead of the weapons to be used against them. I’ve never met one yet who didn’t.

There are also kinetic defenses for ship defense. They don’t have to deliver stuff to your address that goes boom. All they have to do is deliver a lot of stuff at relatively high speed. Some of those guns sing with a high pitch due to the rate they sling heavy metal down field.

There are also the LCS class ships. Smaller, faster, modular, and low radar profile with a very minimal crew. These ships are designed to operate closer to shore and possibly scoot by defenses that have to be mobilized. Because they are modular, it’s not always clear what they are up to when they drop by for a visit, so that complicates defense against them.


Carriers are like floating cities with airports and lots of things that go boom. They won’t really be obsolete no matter what adversaries do. They’ll change missions.

It’s really the ‘floating city’ aspect that makes them most potent… because it makes them flexible. Think ‘carrier’ instead of ‘aircraft carrier’ and you’ll see my point.

David Brin said...

The parallels between Putin's mess in Ukraine and Stalin's in Finland (1939) are epic. Both tyrants eviscerated their officer corps of independent thinkers. Both encouraged sycophants to weave easy-victory fantasies for themBoth ran into buzz saws of agile partisan counter-tactics. Both finally resorted to brutal artillery pounding, after their own soldiers grew reluctant to push forward. Both proved that their vaunted -huge militaries were over-rate, drawing unwelcome attention from big neighbors.

Alfred Differ said...

Yah. Facial recognition software would benefit from MORE light the same way most software does. Bugs get found. Quality is improved. Test cases are enriched.

If we make that effort and run several competing platforms, we’d all benefit. It’s hard to believe, though. The real benefit is anti-repudiation defense, but few know what that is let alone its value.

My folks at work use two-factor authentication at a minimum for all system access. For the most sensitive stuff, it’s three factors. Part of the reasoning for this security is keeping people out who shouldn’t get in. The bigger part, though, is holding those of us who can get in responsible for the actions we take.

1. If the odds are low someone can crack in using my credentials, any claim I make that sounds like “I didn’t do that” has a low likelihood.
2. If one of the auth factors involves physical tokens or locations, the person to whom I would shift blame has to have physical control of something I should have reported as broken into or stolen. Some of those might capture evidence (logs) of a breach.

As long as logs are kept properly, multi-factor auth makes it challenging for me to lie successfully about my shenanigans.

THAT is worth a LOT to any organization… not just DoD. When your secrets can walk out the door without you being able to pin blame on someone, every employee is a possible pirate ready to loot your treasure.

I used to work in the financial sector and understand that the credit card companies ‘tax’ all transactions for our use of plastic convenience. It’s not a tiny tax either. Modern ETF’s and mutual funds with passive management often charge less. The credit card companies argue they can’t take the passive approach, but they are lying.

IF we had better anti-repudiation defenses, they could support a two-tier approach to their services. Lack of these defenses makes identity theft more costly and too damn common. Those costs are paid by the transaction ‘tax’ and the load these cases place on LE and Courts.

I get annoyed at times that I’m paying to cover costs of a crime they could mostly stop… with better transparency. It’s this grumbling that drove home my ‘rational’ reasons to support transparency. Irrational reasons to oppose are hard to beat, but they hit my wallet too.

David Brin said...

Weekend posting is up and I hope you will spread the word about the method to bypass gerrymandering!



GMT -5 8032 said...

Regarding tyrants and sycophants, I recommend watching THE DEATH OF STALIN. The GMT family votes in favor of this movie u…u…unanimously.

I’ve read several accounts of what happened in the Soviet Union before the Germans turned on them. Stalin refused to believe the intelligence and would have anyone presenting it punished. Then when the Germans attacked, he hid in his dacha.

Regarding your ideas about transparency, I think there is merit. But I worry about what happens when some poor schlub’s embarrassing story goes viral and the tens of thousands of hostile people fill up social media with attacks. Any of us could be that poor schlub. Also, as any litigator (or political attack hack) will tell you, it is not hard to take innocent facts and make them sound dastardly. Then let it go viral and you have an innocent person on the receiving end of a world of hurt. Do you have a means for preventing this result?

David Brin said...

GMT, the failure modes you describe are very real. They CAN be answered.

1 - by VALUES, as I said. MYOB and appreciation of eccentricity and underdogs... all are preached by Hollywood and incorporated in the values of most in our culture. Yes, there are older mob/posse/ lynching reflexes as seen in both neo nazis and cancel culture. Which brings us to:

2 - Arenas of truth and justice. We have some... science, markets, courts... but nothing that lets disproved memes die. See where I discuss thisFor a rather intense look at how "truth" is determined in science, democracy, courts and markets, see "Disputation Arenas: Harnessing Conflict and Competition." (

But again, I will seldom ever come back to a discussion thread after the "onward!"



eightonesix said...

There are many different types of defenses that can be used against beam weapons. One type is lasers. Lasers would be an easier defense to use because it doesn't need the weapon to enter the atmosphere and the beams can be detected and thus intercepted before they hit their targets. There are also laser shields that could defend against specific beam weapons instead of a whole area. Another type of defense is the high-powered microwave beam which would cause interference with any kind of electronics in order to disable any potential danger before it's too late.

Best Regards