Thursday, October 20, 2022

Space tech updates

My friend Frank Drake passed, at age 92. We served together on the advisory external council of NASA's Innovative & Advanced Concepts program - (NIAC)... and corresponded for decades about SETI... the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligent civilizations. His famed "Drake Equation" was more of a tool for organizing conversations and discussions of SETI, rather than to actually determine anything. But in that purpose it served very well and won Frank deserved, longstanding fame and memory.

So many other accomplishments. Like working with Carl Sagan to concoct the Pioneer Plaque and Voyager Golden Record.  Then there's the science. Need to digest this while pondering a fine and transformative human.

A balmy moon: “Scientists have discovered shaded locations within pits on the Moon that always hover around a comfortable 63 °F (about 17 °C),”  reports SciTech Daily

While I am notorious in my intense dislike of the “Artemis” push to send US astronauts to shuffle footprints on a useless plain of poison dust, repeating a rite-of-passage we completed 50 years ago – (let other nations and zillionaire Apollo-wannabes race to get their Bar-Moonzvahs there!) I do support continuing NASA robotic studies of Luna, including both pockets of polar ice and these incredible cave pits, that might offer future habitats and the seeds for lunar cities. In fact, a quickie rover to explore one of these pits is funded by NASA’s Innovative & Advanced Concepts program – (NIAC). (I am on the advisory External Council.)

An out-of-this-world photo of the moon, as two astrophotographers, Andrew McCarthy and Connor Matherne collaborated to combine over 200,000 shots to create a single lunar image of resplendent color and detail.

== Lunar can be Loonie ==

Same general topic: An amazing truth-telling by former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver about the insanely wasteful “Space Launch System” or SLS. 

As a patriot, I hope the SLS launch finally goes well. And the 2nd and 3rd rockets we’ve paid for. But then be done with this incredible dinosaur.

 Garver: "I felt like the five years, and the $10 billion, was too much to begin with, and we wouldn't even make that. And if I had known it would be more like 12 years, and more than twice that much, I probably couldn't have even stood silently against the wall. But I don't know what else I was supposed to do. I still don't know to this day if my boss, Charlie, was in on the whole deal early or just dragged along. I really think that meeting with the senators was just probably to burn me, because I think Charlie was in on it, too. I thought it was silly because, you know, I didn't have a vote that was going to override the Senate. My issue is that the whole point of the space program is to align with the nation's goals. And so having a handful of senators earmark a rocket program to contractors that have already proven they weren't able to deliver was not right.”

== A better target for our ambitions ==

Wow, amid our justified pride over the Perseverance rover and her sidekick helicopter, let’s not forget that Curiosity has been there for 10 years(!) providing stunning mages – such as those here – along with heaps of science. And your civilization did this. Try a little confidence?

Speaking of Red Planet stuff… NASA and ESA spacecraft have created a water map of Mars. ESA’s Mars Express and NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have teamed up to collect data for the last decade, creating a global map of aqueous minerals (rocks that have been chemically altered by the action of water in the past). Because aqueous minerals still contain water molecules, this information, along with known locations of buried water-ice, will be essential to planning landing sites for human exploration of Mars.

So cool. My friend astronomer Leslie Young and her colleague brother were featured in this web feature about their mission to the Northern Australian outback with 12 sophisticated NASA telescopes. Exactly where calculations predicted Pluto could be seen passing in front of (occulting) a star. (None of the scopes could actually see Pluto.). If all went well, most of the them would measure dimming of the star as data about Pluto’s diameter and atmosphere… and just one scope might see that atmosphere suddenly flare brightly! Weather threatened and two scopes failed… but… but… well, have a look!

By coincidence, around 1965 I participated in grazing stellar occultations by the limb of the moon! All done analog by observers. We’d shout the star was "on!" and "Off!" while WWV recited time in the background, providing data to map polar mountains. Crude stuff! And I hear that it’s still (less crudely!) done today.

In trying to understand why Ceres’ misty exosphere contains ammonia, simulations find that the dwarf planet formed past Saturn and moved inward.

== Space Tech updates ==

This Ukrainian company has a new take on the old concept of a ‘hybrid rocket’ – in this case one in which the rocket’s very body provides the fuel, consuming itself.

It’s been shown to be possible to decelerate a very large, inflatable entry vehicle to enter Earth’s atmosphere and finally descend to land. The opposite direction – from the ground (or upper atmosphere) accelerating into orbit – is much harder. But is it impossible?  

After analyzing data gathered when NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft collected a sample from asteroid Bennu in October 2020, scientists have learned something astonishing: The spacecraft would have sunk into Bennu had it not fired its thrusters to back away immediately after it grabbed dust and rock from the asteroid’s surface.’ Loose” seems inadequate to describe the surface.

== Way farther out! ==

In this fantastic James Webb Space Telescope image, the Cartwheel Galaxy sports two rings — a bright inner ring and a surrounding, colorful ring. These two rings expand outwards from the center of the collision, like ripples in a pond after a stone is tossed into it. The galaxy is located about 500 million light years away. 

More galaxies than even Sagan envisioned“Our most detailed observations of the distant Universe, from the Hubble eXtreme Deep Field, gave us an estimate of 170 billion galaxies. A theoretical calculation from a few years ago — the first to account for galaxies too small, faint, and distant to be seen — put the estimate far higher: at 2 trillion. But even that estimate is too low. There ought to be at least 6 trillion, and perhaps more like 20 trillion, galaxies.

Woof. Somehow, billions-and-billions didn’t quite daunt me. Twenty Trillions does.

Astronomers believe this ‘super Earth’ could be an ‘ocean planet,’ a planet completely covered by a thick layer of water. TOI-1452 b is nearly 70% larger than Earth “and its density can only be explained if a large fraction of (its) mass is made up of volatiles such as water.” The surface of the earth is 70% water, but water makes up only 1% of the planet’s mass, scientists say. A computer simulation of conditions on TOI-1452 b revealed “water could make up as much as 30% of its mass,” NASA reports.

== And yeah… aliens ==

A cogent essay by astrophysicist Adam Frank on how ‘standards of evidence’ should apply to UAP/UFO investigations and those in the public who desperately clutch at any excuse to shout ‘aliens!’

I know concepts of the 'alien' as well as any entity on this planet. And while UFO fetishism tends to be dumb, I keep looking at the 'evidence’ with an open mind. Still, I offer a much better explanation here.

  "Avi Loeb, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, is planning an expedition to retrieve fragments of the meteor from the ocean floor. By analyzing the debris, he is hoping to determine the object's origins — even going so far as to make the extraordinary suggestion that it could be a technological object created by aliens."

 The notion of alien relics underwater is ancient. But very close to his description is a scene in my novel Existence.

Finally... Currently, Saturn is at its closest point to Earth.

LOTTA cool stuff.  Now go forth with confidence in a bold, smart, scientific civilization...

...and vote!  Get others to get off their duffs and defend that civilization from lobotomization.


duncan cairncross said...

Re Loose surface on Bennu

Very loose is good!
It means that explosive orbital change will be much more effective

Which is what we seem to see with the Dart impactor - the high speed impact had the explosive power of 3 tons of TNT and appears to have boosted a LOT of material off the surface which means that the asteroid's momentum change was much much greater than the momentum of the impactor

This is good news for when we need to change an asteroid's orbit

duncan cairncross said...

Some asteroids

We need to nudge some more to find out

However it does appear that most of the ones we have photos of look similar

It will be interesting to see

I suspect that we will find that most will be covered with a layer of loose stuff - once they have a layer of loose stuff then more loose stuff will be "captured" by low speed impacts rather than simply bouncing off

Even the solid Nickel/Iron ones would accumulate such a layer in the long term

It may well be that the only ones without that layer will be the ones that have "recently" had a large impact (as in the last few million years)

Unknown said...

I suspect that the number of Earthlike planets we find out there (by light-gathering arrays or, eventually perhaps, by actual visitation) are going to be eclipsed by the number of seriously weird planets that are marginally or technically habitable. A lot of old SF assumed that the galaxy is rife with Terra copies...with solar systems to match.


TruePath said...

I never understood why the pork had to be given out for something as wasteful as SLS? We have so much need for engineers to build orbital telescopes, unmanned probes etc etc...why not just hand the pork out to those states but let them do something actually useful with it?

Don Gisselbeck said...

This surely has been considered, but how about parking a solar powered laser on the asteroid and using the thrust from vaporized rock.

David Brin said...

"I suspect that we will find that most will be covered with a layer of loose stuff - once they have a layer of loose stuff then more loose stuff will be "captured" by low speed impacts rather than simply bouncing off"

A lot of the rubble was always there but the ice etc holding it together earlier sublimated away e.g. comets. My doctoral thesis.

Darrell E said...


Spice was not necessary for FTL travel in the Dune universe. It merely made it safer to do. It allowed the navigators to "see" well enough to avoid paths that would end in disaster. Before spice-addled navigators ships apparently went missing with enough regularity that FTL was considered to be a rather dangerous endeavor.

I can't recall, but it may have also been that prior to the Butlerian Jihad that thinking machines did the navigating and FTL was safe. It may have just been a period between the Butlerian Jihad and the Spacing Guild in which FTL was dangerous, can't remember.

Darrell E said...

I'm sorry to hear of the passing of Frank Drake. By coincidence, yesterday at lunch I watched an episode of Closer to Truth that featured Frank. It was the episode "What Would Alien Intelligences Mean? | Episode 904.

Frank was one of the good ones that made a positive contribution to us all. I'll raise a toast to him this weekend.

David Brin said...

Further infor... The appearance of a dust tail from the DART-impacted Dimorphos asteroid is no surprise. Ejected dust will be blown into a tail by sunlight with also reflects off the dust. As in comets. Comets generally have TWIN tails... a second made of ions activated to shine not by sunlight but by the solar (ionic) wind. I've yet to see confirmation the 2nd tail in this case is of that kind. If so, it suggests the asteroid had volatiles beneath the surface rubble... exactly as I first described in my doctoral thesis.

Tony Fisk said...

@Don said:
"This surely has been considered, but how about parking a solar powered laser on the asteroid and using the thrust from vaporized rock."

Yes, it has

duncan cairncross said...

"This surely has been considered, but how about parking a solar powered laser on the asteroid and using the thrust from vaporized rock."

The BIG problem with that is that you have to first match velocity with the asteroid - which requires a LOT more delta V than simply intercepting it
And which "wastes" the momentum/energy from the delta V

If we want to alter its orbit launching atom bombs that detonate just as they impact the surface will give us a LOT more bang for the buck

Don Gisselbeck said...

Cool, thanks

Alfred Differ said...

Canopus, hmm? An A9 giant eight times the mass of Sol? Ugh. That star hasn't been around all that long. Complex life? Nah. Not unless it was imported.

So... the worms originate from somewhere else. Maybe their progenitor became them upon arriving there.


Re-acquiring something like a pulverized regolith layer after an impact takes a very long time. In the neighborhood of Jovian resonances, I'd be much more likely to believe our host's 'old surface' conclusion.

I suspect we will find a range of surface 'crunchiness' with the primary difference being how long ago the volatiles were baked out. I expect many of them are like eggs with a mostly hard, baked layer shielding a yummy surprise inside. 8)

duncan cairncross said...

I should have asked for this years ago

Dr Brin can I have a PDF of your doctorate - please

Tacitus said...

I use a version of the Pioneer Plaque in the cryptography/puzzle solving class I teach. Of course we are talkin' middle schoolers here so the, ahem, anatomically informative aspects of it have to be toned down....


scidata said...

I wonder how much time Frank Drake spent considering the Galactic Habitable Zone (GHZ).

The most convincing "nothing's out there" solutions to the Fermi Paradox are based on GHZ, time on the Main Sequence, and metallicity arguments. These factors dwarf (pardon the pun) FTL arguments when timescales beyond tens of millions of years are considered. Study of local space (ie the GHZ) and especially of the one system we can explore in great detail seems proper.

The most compelling "something's out there" pre-solutions are biological. Life does seem to be almost as automatic and natural as gravity or radiation. And evolution does seem to apply to everything everywhere. As does computation. (I say LIFE = COMPUTATION + EVOLUTION)

However, the most "fun" solutions involve alien psychology. Of course, that approaches angels on the head of a pin territory.

DP said...

It turns out that colonizing the universe is easy and fun.

How to Take Over the Universe (in Three Easy Steps)

1 - Disassemble about 50% of Mercury to make a Dyson Swarm to supply mind boggling amounts of energy
2 - Build self replicating probes (along with long term viable storage of human embryos)
3 - Launch self self replicating probes (and their frozen embryo passengers) not just to nearby stars but to nearby galaxies at the same time (It turns out that send a probe to a another galaxy is about as difficult as sending one to another star - it just takes longer)

Upon arrival, the probes and their unfrozen embryos create a new civilization upon arrival and repeat steps 1 to3 until the entire universe is filled with human civilizations.

The video is based on a paper "Eternity in six hours: Intergalactic spreading of intelligent life and sharpening the Fermi paradox" (Armstrong and Sandberg), with downer implications for the Fermi Paradox

The Fermi paradox is the discrepancy between the strong likelihood of alien intelligent life emerging (under a wide variety of assumptions) and the absence of any visible evidence for such emergence. In this paper, we extend the Fermi paradox to not only life in this galaxy, but to other galaxies as well. We do this by demonstrating that travelling between galaxies – indeed even launching a colonisation project for the entire reachable universe – is a relatively simple task for a star-spanning civilisation, requiring modest amounts of energy and resources. We start by demonstrating that humanity itself could likely accomplish such a colonisation project in the foreseeable future, should we want to. Given certain technological assumptions, such as improved automation, the task of constructing Dyson spheres, designing replicating probes, and launching them at distant galaxies, become quite feasible. We extensively analyse the dynamics of such a project, including issues of deceleration and collision with particles in space. Using similar methods, there are millions of galaxies that could have reached us by now. This results in a considerable sharpening of the Fermi paradox.

scidata said...

Watched first two episodes of Jonathan Nolan's adaptation of William Gibson's THE PERIPHERAL. Very good, but very dark. Sort of a red state Neuromancer.

Alfred Differ said...

I worked on the "inflatable vehicle to orbit" problem many years ago. I don't think it's impossible, but have decided it is impractical. These vehicles are huge and need ground infrastructure that makes blimp and airship support look easy.

What made more sense was using an airship as your first stage, but then SpaceX started landing their Falcons. Landing airships requires considerably more infrastructure and is even more weather sensitive. Look through airship history and you'll find most of them were lost due to weather and landing mishaps.

That left floating platforms that stay up their much like ports built in special locations. Maybe someday, but SpaceX and many other innovators changed the game when they showed re-use was within reach of current engineering and operational processes.

duncan cairncross said...


Re-Use has changed the game for access to orbit - to an extent that is only just beginning to become apparent

Re-fueling in orbit is going to massively change the whole game for everywhere else in the solar system

Larry Hart said...

Apropos nothing, the universe gave me one last summer day here in Chicago. If it wasn't 80 degrees, it was darned close, which doesn't sound like much for SoCal residents, but is pretty good for late October in northern Illinois.

For only the second time ever, I immersed myself in Lake Michigan in late October. It wasn't the pleasant swim that it was back in early September, but I didn't die of hypothermia either.

I'm grateful to the universe for one last such pleasant moment before my fellow Americans apparently--if the polls are accurate--will soon vote to end Social Security, women's health, and government of the people by the people for the people. Or at least vote for the party telling us that they will hold the world's economy hostage via the stupid debt ceiling unless those things are done away with.

But today was priceless.

David Brin said...

Tacitus cool. I'll mention the plaque in a talk tonight at my caltech 50th reunion.

DUncan remind me later?

DP I portray everything in that paper (and more) in EXISTENCE.

Alfred Differ said...


My friends from way back had an acronym for each of the game changers we knew had to happen for us to be members of a space faring civilization.

One was CATS. Cheap Access to Space. We all had our ideas for what would bring that about and my team was no exception. While we occasionally rolled our eyes at each other, we also knew the track record of start-up's in our industry sector... meaning we knew what was really needed was an ensemble approach in finding solutions.

Well... a few teams have found ways to drastically reduce costs through re-use. SpaceX is the obvious one with sufficient funding backing them to get past these early years of people trying to fathom how to make use of the new capability. There are others with smaller vehicles and smaller supplies of capital that are finally getting some success at their re-use tests, but they don't have the financial moat Musk & friends put in place for SpaceX. We shall see how it all shakes out.

From CATS, we tried to coin other related terms. FATS, RATS, CHATS, etc. [Fast, responsive, or cheap HUMAN access], but right now I think our attention has to be on the supply of customers. There really AREN'T all that many launch customers right now. There are plenty of customers for operational systems in orbit that interact with ground-based markets, but it takes imagination and capital to put these systems up. StarLink is just one such system.

So maybe... PRofitable OPerations in Space? PROPS? Heh. I need something better than that. What I want is something that rolls off the tongue that works out as PROOFS or a similar term proving our point to hesitant investors.

DP said...

Rishi Sunak set to be UK’s next prime minister

And this means....?

P.S. Of course we can't ignore the historical irony of Britain's first Hindu PM. What would be more ironic? How about Britain falls apart and requires UN peacekeepers. India is a generous contributor to the Blue Helmets. So, Indian troops patrolling the streets of London?

Now that's ironic.

scidata said...

Anyone can be nostalgic about the past. The real trick is to be nostalgic about the future. That's the magic of science fiction.

David Brin said...

50th caltech reunion was fun... great food & music. Spent an hour with Kip Thorne.

Sorry to neglect y'all. But carry on.

scidata said...

Cool. I'd ask him about Clifford Will if I ever got that hour.

DP said...

Has Kip gotten his time machine to work yet?

Tim H. said...

Found @ "";

Off topic, but important, expletive shame it wasn't recorded on video.
Hoping the local Public Library will eventually have "Slouching Towards Utopia" available to loan eventually.

Tim H. said...

A thought I've seen elsewhere, "How much good could the tech necessary to live off-planet do for the drought-stricken here?", if successful, it would go a long way to helping people shrug off the less photogenic aspects of the owners, and life support is a bit of a big deal.

Der Oger said...

Tech news: BioNTech founders, Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci, believe that the mRNA vaccination process could be used to fight cancer as soon as 2030.

A.F. Rey said...

... and vote!

The K Chronicles has an, um, interesting cartoon on voting.

The meaning is rather obscure, but the message comes through very clearly. :)

Alfred Differ said...

Der Oger,

Makes sense.

I'd like to seem them tackle malaria sooner.
Influenza too.

Der Oger said...


I'd applaud that but I think they won't focus on malaria, there is less money in it - malaria predominantly rages in poor countries. Climate change could increase the pressure on the development of a mRNA vaccine, though.

BioNtech is a corporation, not a welfare organization, after all.

Influenza is a different beast. It mutates yearly, and AFAIK there is no benefit to "standard" vaccinations, economically or healthcare-wise. At least over here, anyone can get a influenza shot if desired.

Alfred Differ said...

Getting at malaria will likely require someone to put money into the effort instead of customer driven purchases. Private donors can move corporations by being or representing donors.

The trick to it would be a social reward for the corporation who did the deed. Would any of us applaud them in a meaningful way?


Influenza mutates rapidly at the edge where our vaccines currently identify them. There are deeper structures that do not change so fast. Imagine something that crippled the 'spring loaded' nature of the viral package delivery mechanism.

For influenza, there is also a path open that involves vaccinating hogs. We catch a small number of varieties from each other that eventually become 'annoyances', but the nasty ones spill over from hogs and birds.

The thing with influenza is it is a potential long-term money maker because it changes fast. I just got my third booster for Covid's corona virus variants... because it keeps changing. There is money to be made in an immunization subscription service.

Larry Hart said...

Alfred Differ:

There is money to be made in an immunization subscription service.

Trump Vaccines?

David Brin said...

Midweek political roundup posting