Here is another great post from Centauri Dreams, written by Andreas Hein. Good stuff.
2089, 5th April: A blurry image rushes over screens around the world. The image of a coastline, waves crashing into it, inviting for a nice evening walk at dawn. Nobody would have paid special attention, if it were not for one curious feature: Two suns were mounted in the sky, two bright, hellish eyes. The first man-made object had reached another star system.
Is it plausible to assume that we could send a probe to another star within our century? One major challenge is the amount of resources needed for such a mission. [1, 2]. Ships proposed in the past were mostly mammoths, weighing ten-thousands of tons: the fusion-propelled Daedalus probe with 54,000 tonnes and recently the Project Icarus Ghost Ship with over 100,000 tonnes. All these concepts are based on the rocket principle, which means that they have to take their propellant with them to accelerate. This results in a very large ship.
Another problem with fusion propulsion in particular is the problem of scalability. Most fusion propulsion systems get more efficient when they are scaled up. There is also a critical lower threshold for how small you can go. These factors lead to large amounts of needed propellant and large engines, for which you need a large space infrastructure. A Solar System-wide economy is probably needed, as the Project Daedalus report argues .
Image: The Project Icarus Ghost Ship: A colossal fusion-propelled interstellar probe
However, there is a different avenue for interstellar travel: going small. If you go small, you need less energy for accelerating the probe and thus less resources. Pioneers of small interstellar missions are Freeman Dyson with his Astrochicken; a living, one kilogram probe, bio-engineered for the space environment . Robert Forward proposed the Starwisp probe in 1985 . A large, ultra-thin sail which rides on a beam of microwaves. Furthermore, Frank Tipler and Ray Kurzweil describe how nano-scale probes could be used for transporting human consciousness to the stars [6, 7].
At the Initiative for Interstellar Studies (I4IS), we wanted to have a fresh look at small interstellar probes, laser sail probes in particular. The last concepts in this area have been developed years ago. How did the situation change in recent years? Are there new, possibly disruptive concepts on the horizon? We think there are. The basic idea is to develop an interstellar mission by combining the following technologies:
- Laser sail propulsion: The spacecraft rides on a laser beam, which is captured by an extremely thin sail .
- Small spacecraft technology: Highly miniaturized spacecraft components which are used in CubeSat missions
- Distributed spacecraft: To spread out the payload of a larger spacecraft over several spacecraft, thus, reducing the laser power requirements [9, 10]. The individual spacecraft would then rendezvous at the target star system and collaborate to fulfill their mission objectives. For example, one probe is mainly responsible for communication with the Solar System, another responsible for planetary exploration via distributed sensor networks (smart dust) .
- Magnetic sails: A thin superconducting ring’s magnetic field deflects the hydrogen in the interstellar medium and decelerates the spacecraft .
- Solar power satellites: The laser system shall use space infrastructure which is likely to exist in the next 50 years. Solar power satellites would be temporarily leased to provide the laser system with power to propel the spacecraft.
- Communication systems with external power supply: A critical factor for small interstellar missions is power supply for the communication system. As small spacecraft cannot provide enough power for communicating over these vast distances. Thus, power has to be supplied externally, either by using laser or microwave power from the Solar System during the trip and solar radiation within the target star system .
Image: Size comparison between an interplanetary solar sail and the Project Icarus Ghost Ship. Interstellar sail-based spacecraft would be much larger. (Courtesy: Adrian Mann and Kelvin Long)
Bringing all these technologies together, it is possible to imagine a mission which could be realized with technologies which are feasible in the next 10 years and could be in place in the next 50 years: A set of solar power satellites are leased for a couple of years for the mission. A laser system with a huge aperture has been put into a suitable orbit to propel the interstellar, as well as future planetary missions. Thus, the infrastructure can be reused for multiple purposes. The interstellar probes are launched one-by-one.
After decades, the probes start to decelerate by magnetic sails. Each spacecraft charges its sails differently. The first spacecraft decelerates slower than the follow-up probes. Ideally, the spacecraft then arrive at the target star system at the same point in time. Then, the probes start exploring the star system autonomously. They reason about exploration strategies, exchange and share data. Once a suitable exploration target has been chosen, dedicated probes descend to the planetary surface, spreading dust-sized sensor networks onto the pristine land. The data from the network is collected by other spacecraft and transferred back to the spacecraft acting as a communication hub. The hub, powered by the light from extrasolar light sends back the data to us. The result could be the scenario described at the beginning of this article.
Image: Artist’s impression of a laser sail probe with a chip-sized payload. (Courtesy: Adrian Mann)
Of course, one of the caveats of such a mission is its complexity. The spacecraft would have to rendezvous precisely over interstellar distances. Furthermore, there are several challenges with laser sail systems, which have been frequently addressed in the literature, for example beam collimation and control. Nevertheless, such a mission architecture has many advantages compared to existing ones: It could be realized by a space infrastructure we could imagine to exist in the next 50 years. The failure of one or more spacecraft would not be catastrophic, as redundancy could easily be built in by launching two or more identical spacecraft.
The elegance of this mission architecture is that all the infrastructure elements can also be used for other purposes. For example, a laser infrastructure could not only be used for an interstellar mission but interplanetary as well. Further applications include an asteroid defense system . The solar power satellites can be used for providing in-space infrastructure with power .
Image: Artist’s impression of a spacecraft swarm arriving at an exosolar system (Courtesy: Adrian Mann)
How about the feasibility of the individual technologies? Recent progress in various areas looks promising:
- The increased availability of highly sophisticated miniaturized commercial components: smart phones include many components which are needed for a space system, e.g. gyros for attitude determination, a communication system, and a microchip for data-handling. NASA has already flown a couple of “phone-sats”; Satellites which are based on a smart phone .
- Advances in distributed satellite networks: Although a single small satellite only has a limited capability, several satellites which cooperate can replace larger space systems. The concept of Federated Satellite Systems (FSS) is currently explored at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as well as at the Skolkovo Institute of Technology in Russia . Satellites communicate opportunistically and share data and computing capacity. It is basically a cloud computing environment in space.
- Increased viability of solar sail missions. A number of recent missions are based on solar sail technology, e.g. the Japanese IKAROS probe, LightSail-1 of the Planetary Society, and NASA’s Sunjammer probe.
- Greg Matloff recently proposed use of Graphene as a material for solar sails . With an areal density of a fraction of a gram and high thermal resistance, this material would be truly disruptive. Currently existing materials have a much higher areal density; a number crucial for measuring the performance of solar sails.
- Material sciences has also advanced to a degree where Graphene layers only a few atoms thick can be manufactured . Thus, manufacturing a solar sail based on extremely thin layers of Graphene is not as far away as it seems.
- Small satellites with a mass of only a few kilograms are increasingly proposed for interplanetary missions. NASA has recently announced the Interplanetary CubeSat Challenge, where teams are invited to develop CubeSat missions to the Moon and even deeper into space (NASA) . Coming advances will thus stretch the capability of CubeSats beyond Low-Earth Orbit.
- Recent proposals for solar power satellites focus on providing space infrastructure with power instead of Earth infrastructure [18, 19]. The reason is quite simple: Solar power satellites are not competitive to most Earth-based alternatives but they are in space. A recent NASA concept by John Mankins proposed the use of a highly modular tulip-shaped space power satellite, supplying geostationary communication satellites with power.
- Large space laser systems have been proposed for asteroid defense 
In order to explore various mission architectures and encourage participation by a larger group of people, I4IS has recently announced the Project Dragonfly Competition in the context of the Alpha Centauri Prize . We hope that with the help of this competition, we can find unprecedented mission architectures of truly disruptive capability. Once this goal is accomplished, we can concentrate our efforts on developing individual technologies and test them in near-term missions.
If this all works out, this might be the first time in history that there is a realistic possibility to explore a near-by star system within the 21st or early 22nd century with “modest” resources.
I remember when the original Project Icarus study came out in the 1970s and I was absolutely enthralled with it.
At last, interstellar exploration could be possible, not fantasy.
Then the Icarus came out a couple of years ago. The ship was more advanced, but the size doubled. How is that possible in this age of miniaturization?
I think it’s because people love the idea of Battlestar Galactica or U.S.S. Enterprise sized interstellar craft.
You gotta have powerful engines and weapons to cope with angry aliens, right?
Andrea Hein is being smart and paying respect to Robert Foward and Freeman Dyson by writing this study with up to date ideas which encompasses Cube Sat tech and other commercial space company technologies.
Paul Gilster posts:
In interstellar terms, a ‘fast’ mission is one that is measured in decades rather than millennia. Say for the sake of argument that we achieve this capability some time within the next 200 years. Can you imagine where we’ll be in terms of telescope technology by that time? It’s an intriguing question, because telescopes capable of not just imaging exoplanets but seeing them in great detail would allow us to choose our destinations wisely even while giving us voluminous data on the myriad worlds we choose not to visit. Will they also reduce our urge to make the trip?
Former NASA administrator Dan Goldin described the effects of a telescope something like this back in 1999 at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society. Although he didn’t have a specific telescope technology in mind, he was sure that by the mid-point of the 21st Century, we would be seeing exoplanets up close, an educational opportunity unlike any ever offered. Goldin’s classroom of this future era is one I’d like to visit, if his description is anywhere near the truth:
“When you look on the walls, you see a dozen maps detailing the features of Earth-like planets orbiting neighboring stars. Schoolchildren can study the geography, oceans, and continents of other planets and imagine their exotic environments, just as we studied the Earth and wondered about exotic sounding places like Banghok and Istanbul … or, in my case growing up in the Bronx, exotic far-away places like Brooklyn.”
Webster Cash, an astronomer whose Aragoscope concept recently won a Phase I award from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program (see ‘Aragoscope’ Offers High Resolution Optics in Space), has also been deeply involved in starshades, in which a large occulter works with a telescope-bearing spacecraft tens of thousands of kilometers away. With the occulter blocking light from the parent star, direct imaging of exoplanets down to Earth size and below becomes possible, allowing us to make spectroscopic analyses of their atmospheres. Pool data from fifty such systems using interferometry and spectacular close-up images may one day be possible.
Image: The basic occulter concept, with telescope trailing the occulter and using it to separate planet light from the light of the parent star. Credit: Webster Cash.
Have a look at Cash’s New Worlds pages at the University of Colorado for more. And imagine what we might do with the ability to look at an exoplanet through a view as close as a hundred kilometers, studying its oceans and continents, its weather systems, the patterns of its vegetation and, who knows, its city lights. Our one limitation would be the orbital inclination of the planet, which would prevent us from mapping every area on the surface, but given the benefits, this seems like a small issue. We would have achieved what Dan Goldin described.
Seth Shostak, whose ideas we looked at yesterday in the context of SETI and political will, has also recently written on what large — maybe I should say ‘extreme’ — telescopes can do for us. In Forget Space Travel: Build This Telescope, which ran in the Huffington Post, Shostak talks about a telescope that could map exoplanets with the same kind of detail you get with Google Earth. To study planets within 100 light years, the instrument would require capabilities that outstrip those of Cash’s cluster of interferometrically communicating space telescopes:
At 100 light-years, something the size of a Honda Accord — which I propose as a standard imaging test object — subtends an angle of a half-trillionth of a second of arc. In case that number doesn’t speak to you, it’s roughly the apparent size of a cell nucleus on Pluto, as viewed from Earth.
You will not be stunned to hear that resolving something that minuscule requires a telescope with a honking size. At ordinary optical wavelengths, “honking” works out to a mirror 100 million miles across. You could nicely fit a reflector that large between the orbits of Mercury and Mars. Big, yes, but it would permit you to examine exoplanets in incredible detail.
Or, of course, you can do what Shostak is really getting at, which is to use interferometry to pool data from thousands of small mirrors in space spread out over 100 million miles, an array of the sort we are already building for radio observations and learning how to improve for optical and infrared work on Earth. Shostak discusses a system like this, which again is conceivable within the time-frame we are talking about for developing an actual interstellar probe, as a way to vanquish what he calls ‘the tyranny of distance.’ And, he adds, ‘You can forget deep space probes.’
I doubt we would do that, however, because we can hope that among the many worlds such a space-based array would reveal to us would be some that fire our imaginations and demand much closer study. The impulse to send robotic if not human crews will doubtless be fired by many of the exotic scenes we will observe. I wouldn’t consider this mammoth space array our only way of interacting with the galaxy, then, but an indispensable adjunct to our expansion into it.
Of course Shostak takes the long, sensor derived view of exploring the Universe, his life’s work is radio telescopes.
Gilster is correct that interferometry will be an adjunct to sending robotic probes to distant interstellar worlds, you can’t make money by just gawking at places.
Or can you?
For about three hours on Wednesday, Voyager 1 had left the solar system — before a rewritten news release headline pulled it back in. Voyager 1, one of two spacecraft NASA launched in 1977 on a grand tour of the outer planets, is now nearly 11.5 billion miles from the Sun, speeding away at 38,000 miles per hour. In a paper accepted by the journal Geophysical Review Letters, William R. Webber of New Mexico State University and Frank B. McDonald of the University of Maryland reported that on Aug. 25 last year, the spacecraft observed a sudden change in the mix of cosmic rays hitting it.
Cosmic rays are high-speed charged particles, mostly protons. Voyager 1’s instruments recorded nearly a doubling of cosmic rays from outside the solar system, while the intensity of cosmic rays that had been trapped in the outer solar system dropped by 90 percent.
The American Geophysical Union, publisher of the journal, sent out the news Wednesday morning: “Voyager 1 has left the solar system.” NASA officials, surprised, countered with a contrary statement from Edward C. Stone, the Voyager project scientist. “It is the consensus of the Voyager science team that Voyager 1 has not yet left the solar system or reached interstellar space,” Dr. Stone said. He said that the critical indicator would be a change in the direction of the magnetic field, not cosmic rays, for marking the outermost boundary of the solar system. In their paper, Dr. Webber and Dr. McDonald (who died only six days after Voyager observed the shift in cosmic rays) did not claim that Voyager 1 was in interstellar space, but had entered a part of the solar system they called the “heliocliff.” The geophysical union then sent out another e-mail with the same article but a milder headline: “Voyager 1 has entered a new region of space.”
Eventually Voyager 1 will leave the Solar System and there will be no dispute about it.
In the meantime, mainstream science will learn and post about the outer edges of the Solar System as Voyager 1 creeps along at .00002 lightspeed ( 37,500 mph ) .
Of course there are those in mainstream media and science who believe that mankind will never leave the Solar System because they proclaim that spacecraft will never be built that go faster than that.
Already the Pluto probe New Horizon traveling at 54,500 mph is breaking Voyager’s speed record and will probably leave the Solar System before Voyager does!
I’m certain in 100 years star probes will be launched toward Alpha Centauri and Tau Ceti that reach appreciable percentages of lightspeed bypassing all of our old interplanetary probes and perhaps in several centuries, mankind’s interstellar colonies will be picking up these old probes to study them, like old time capsules!
Hat tip to the Daily Grail.
From Centauri Dreams:
Tim Folger and Les Johnson (NASA MSFC) stood last summer in front of a nuclear rocket at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Johnson’s work in advanced propulsion concepts is well known to Centauri Dreams readers, but what he was talking to Folger about in an article for National Geographic was an older technology. NERVA, once conceived as part of the propulsion package that would send astronauts to Mars, had in its day the mantle of the next logical step beyond chemical propulsion. A snip from the story:
Johnson looks wistfully at the 40,000-pound engine in front of us… “If we’re going to send people to Mars, this should be considered again,” Johnson says. “You would only need half the propellant of a conventional rocket.” NASA is now designing a conventional rocket to replace the Saturn V, which was retired in 1973, not long after the last manned moon landing. It hasn’t decided where the new rocket will go. The NERVA project ended in 1973 too, without a flight test. Since then, during the space shuttle era, humans haven’t ventured more than 400 miles from Earth.
I’m looking forward to getting back to Huntsville and seeing Les, as well as a number of other friends in the interstellar community, at the 2nd Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop, coming up this February, where it may be that NERVA will have a place in the discussion of how we go about building a system-spanning civilization. You’ll want to give Folger’s article a look for comments not only from Les but Freeman Dyson and Andreas Tziolas (from the Icarus team), as well as Elon Musk, the 100 Year Starship’s Mae Jemison, and NASA’s Mason Peck.
Image: NERVA nuclear rocket being tested. (Smithsonian Institution Photo No. 75-13750).
In fact, there are a number of issues presented here that I’ll want to get back to later, but I can’t cover the rest of the story today. I’m all but out the door for a brief but intense period of Tau Zero work that will leave me no time to keep up regular posts here or even to moderate comments. More about this later, and more about Folger’s essay as well, and please bear with me through the temporary slowdown. Things should get back to normal by mid-day Thursday.
Speaking of NERVA, though, I’ll leave you with an interesting petition Gregory Benford alerted me to with regard to the development of nuclear thermal rockets, one that calls for an effort to:
Harness the full intellectual and industrial strength of our universities, national laboratories and private enterprise to rapidly develop and deploy a nuclear thermal rocket (NTR) adaptable to both manned and un-manned space missions. A NTR (which would only operate in outer space) will jump-start our manned space exploration program by reducing inner solar system flight times from months to weeks. This is not new technology; NTRs were tested in the 1960s (President Kennedy was a guest at one test). The physics and engineering are sound. In addition to inspiring young Americans to careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, a working NTR will herald a speedy and economical expansion of the human presence in the cosmos.
Going significantly beyond the Moon demands advances in propulsion of the kind that nuclear thermal rockets can deliver. Getting NERVA concepts out of mothballs and updating them with modern materials are necessary steps as we push out into the Solar System.
Going to Mars does require a serious upgrade to nuclear rocket technology, but somehow I don’t think the taxpaying public will go for funding research by the government, especially in this era of deficits and flat budgets.
This kind of research will probably be taken up by the private sector, perhaps with some seed money from the government, but only if there’s an economic need to exploit the resources of the Solar System, including planetary bodies like Mars.
It would be nice for such research like NERVA could be funded for the future of Mankind, but unfortunately that’s not how the world is set up now.
One can only hope.
From Centauri Dreams:
Stretch out your time horizons and interstellar travel gets a bit easier. If 4.3 light years seems too immense a distance to reach Alpha Centauri, we can wait about 28,000 years, when the distance between us will have closed to 3.2 light years. As it turns out, Alpha Centauri is moving in a galactic orbit far different from the Sun’s. As we weave through the Milky Way in coming millennia, we’re in the midst of a close pass from a stellar system that will never be this close again. A few million years ago Alpha Centauri would not have been visible to the naked eye.
The great galactic pinball machine is in constant motion. Epsilon Indi, a slightly orange star about an eighth as luminous as the Sun and orbited by a pair of brown dwarfs, is currently 11.8 light years out, but it’s moving 90 kilometers per second relative to the Sun. In about 17,000 years, it will close to 10.6 light years before beginning to recede. Project Ozma target Tau Ceti, now 11.9 light years from our system, has a highly eccentric galactic orbit that, on its current inbound leg, will take it to within the same 10.6 light years if we can wait the necessary 43,000 years.
And here’s an interesting one I almost forgot to list, though its close pass may be the most intriguing of all. Gliese 710 is currently 64 light years away in the constellation Serpens. We have to wait a bit on this one, but the orange star, now at magnitude 9.7, will in 1.4 million years move within 50,000 AU of the Sun. That puts it close enough that it should interact with the Oort Cloud, perhaps perturbing comets there or sending comets from its own cometary cloud into our system. In any case, what a close-in target for future interstellar explorers!
I’m pulling all this from Erik Anderson’s new book Vistas of Many Worlds, whose subtitle — ‘A Journey Through Space and Time’ — is a bit deceptive, for the book actually contains four journeys. The first takes us on a tour of ten stars within 20 light years of the Sun, with full-page artwork on every other page and finder charts that diagram the stars in each illustration. The second tour moves through time and traces the stars of an evolving Earth through text and images. Itinerary three is a montage of scenes from known exoplanets, while the fourth tour takes us through a sequence of young Earth-like worlds as they develop.
Anderson’s text is absorbing — he’s a good writer with a knack for hitting the right note — but the artwork steals the show on many of these pages, for he’s been meticulous at recreating the sky as it would appear from other star systems. It becomes easy to track the Sun against the background of alien constellations. Thus a spectacular view of the pulsar planet PSR B1257+12 C shows our Sun lost among the brighter stars Canopus and Spica, with Rigel and Betelgeuse also prominent. The gorgeous sky above an icy ocean on a planet circling Delta Pavonis shows the Sun between Alpha Centauri and Eta Cassiopeiae. Stellar motion over time and the perspectives thus created from worlds much like our own are a major theme of this book.
From Epsilon Eridani, as seen in the image below, the Sun is a bright orb seen through the protoplanetary disk at about the 4 o’clock position below the bright central star.
Image: The nearby orange dwarf star Epsilon Eridani reveals its circumstellar debris disks in this close-up perspective. Epsilon Eridani is only several hundred million years old and perhaps resembles the state of our own solar system during its early, formative years. Credit: Erik Anderson.
Vistas of Many Worlds assumes a basic background in astronomical concepts, but I think even younger readers will be caught up in the wonder of imagined scenes around planets we’re now discovering, which is why I’m buying a copy for my star-crazed grandson for Christmas. He’ll enjoy the movement through time as well as space. In one memorable scene, Anderson depicts a flock of ancient birds flying through a mountain pass 4.8 million years ago. At that time, the star Theta Columbae, today 720 light years away, was just seven light years out, outshining Venus and dominating the sunset skies of Anderson’s imagined landscape.
And what mysteries does the future hold? The end of the interglacial period is depicted in a scene Anderson sets 50,000 years from now, showing a futuristic observation station on the west coast of an ice-choked Canada. The frigid landscape and starfield above set the author speculating on how our descendants will see their options:
Will the inhabitants of a re-glaciating Earth seek refuge elsewhere? Alpha Centauri, our nearest celestial neighbor, has in all this time migrated out of the southern skies to the celestial equator, where it can be sighted from locations throughout the entire globe. It seems to beckon humanity to the stars.
And there, tagged by the star-finder chart and brightly shining on the facing image, is the Alpha Centauri system, now moving inexorably farther from our Sun but still a major marker in the night sky. Planet hunter Greg Laughlin has often commented on how satisfying it is that we have this intriguing stellar duo with accompanying red dwarf so relatively near to us as we begin the great exoplanet detection effort. We’re beginning to answer the question of planets around Alpha Centauri, though much work lies ahead. Perhaps some of that work will be accomplished by scientists who, in their younger years, were energized by the text and images of books like this one.
What I find facinating is a comment by a reader ( kzb ) of this post concerning the Fermi Paradox:
One frequently-seen explanation of the Fermi paradox is that interstellar travel is just too difficult: the distances are so great that no intelligent species has ever cracked the problem.
This article highlights an argument against this outlook. One scale-length towards the galactic centre, and the space density of stellar systems is 2.7 times what it is around here. Two scale lengths in and the density is 7.4 times greater. The scale-length of our galaxy is around only 2.1-3kpc according to recent literature.
Intelligent species that evolve in the inner galactic disk will not have the same problem that we have. Over galactic timescales, encounters between stellar systems within 1 light-year will not be uncommon.
I think you can see what I am saying, and I think this is one aspect of the FP discussion that is poorly represented currently.
And Erik Anderson’s response:
@ kzb: I give an overview of the Fermi Paradox on page 110 and I didn’t miss your point. It was definitely articulated by Edward Teller, whom I explicitly quote: “…as far as our Galaxy is concerned, we are living somewhere in the sticks, far removed from the metropolitan area of the Galactic center.”
Of course this precludes the explanations that there is no such thing as speedy interstellar travel ( be they anti-matter or warp drives ) and UFOs are really just mass hallucinations.
However Anderson’s book is novel in its’ treatment of interstellar exploration over vast timescales and that closer to the Galactic Center, possible advanced civilizations could have stellar cultures due to faster stellar movements and much shorter distances between stars. And I find that novel in an Olaf Stapledon kind of way!
That and the fact as we are discovering using the Kepler and HARP interstellar telescopes multiple star systems that have their own solar systems and many of them could have intelligent life lends credence to Mr. Anderson’s themes.
So I might treat myself to an early Christmas present by purchasing Anderson’s book!
From Technology Review:
Two high-profile entrepreneurs say they want to put a DNA sequencing machine on the surface of Mars in a bid to prove the existence of extraterrestrial life.
In what could become a race for the first extraterrestrial genome, researcher J. Craig Venter said Tuesday that his Maryland academic institute and his company, Synthetic Genomics, would develop a machine capable of sequencing and beaming back DNA data from the planet.
Separately, Jonathan Rothberg, founder of Ion Torrent, a DNA sequencing company, is collaborating on an effort to equip his company’s “Personal Genome Machine” for a similar task.
“We want to make sure an Ion Torrent goes to Mars,” Rothberg told Technology Review.
Although neither team yet has a berth on Mars rocket, their plans reflect the belief that the simplest way to prove there is life on Mars is to send a DNA sequencing machine.
“There will be DNA life forms there,” Venter predicted Tuesday in New York, where he was speaking at the Wired Health Conference.
Venter said researchers working with him have already begun tests at a Mars-like site in the Mojave Desert. Their goal, he said, is to demonstrate a machine capable of autonomously isolating microbes from soil, sequencing their DNA, and then transmitting the information to a remote computer, as would be required on an unmanned Mars mission. (Hear his comments in this video, starting at 00:11:01.) Heather Kowalski, a spokeswoman for Venter, confirmed the existence of the project but said the prototype system was “not yet 100 percent robotic.”
Meanwhile, Rothberg’s Personal Genome Machine is being adapted for Martian conditions as part of a NASA-funded project at Harvard and MIT called SET-G, or “the search for extraterrestrial genomes.”
Christopher Carr, an MIT research scientist involved in the effort, says his lab is working to shrink Ion Torrent’s machine from 30 kilograms down to just three kilograms so that it can fit on a NASA rover. Other tests, already conducted, have determined how well the device can withstand the heavy radiation it would encounter on the way to Mars.
NASA, whose Curiosity rover landed on Mars in August, won’t send another rover mission to the planet before at least 2018 (see “The Mars Rover Curiosity Marks a Technological Triumph“), and there’s no guarantee a DNA sequencing device would go aboard. “The hard thing about getting to Mars is hitting the NASA specifications,” says George Church, a Harvard University researcher and a senior member of the SET-G team. “[Venter] isn’t ahead of anyone else.”
Venter has a great idea here, but it reminds me of a certain movie in which sequencing alien DNA wasn’t such a great plan.
A skydiver has made history by smashing the world record for the highest skydive after leaping from 128,097ft.
Daredevil Felix Baumgartner ascended to the edge of space in a pressurised capsule suspended beneath a giant helium balloon. He then jumped out, freefalling for four minutes and 19 seconds before opening his parachute.
The 43-year-old Austrian also broke the record for the highest manned balloon flight after riding with the capsule 24 miles above New Mexico.
He also achieved the fastest freefall after reaching a top speed of 834mph (1,342km/h) and broke the sound barrier, according to mission spokeswoman Sarah Anderson.
The speed – revealed at a news conference a few hours after the leap – was significantly higher than that given earlier by a spokeswoman, who had put his maximum speed as 706mph (1,136km/h).
A minor problem had developed as Baumgartner’s capsule ascended when a heater failed on his helmet faceplate, which meant his visor became fogged when he exhaled. However, it was not enough to stop him jumping.
In a nail-biting event watched live around the world, Baumgartner stepped to the edge of the capsule and saluted the camera, before saying: “Sometimes you have to go up really high to realise how small you are.”
The biggest risk Baumgartner faced was spinning out of control, which could have exerted enough G-forces to make him lose consciousness.
At one point he appeared to have become unstable, but he managed to get himself into a flat, controlled position for the rest of the skydive.
Temperatures of -68C (-90 Fahrenheit) could also have had unpredictable consequences if his suit had failed.
He had been due to jump from 120,000ft, but the balloon went higher than expected, to just under 128,000ft.
The previous record for the highest jump was held by Colonel Joe Kittinger, who jumped at an altitude of 102,800ft (31,333m) in 1960.
Bamgartner’s leap was watched by Baumgartner’s tearful mother Eva and by Col Kittinger, who co-ordinated the jump from mission control.
Col Kittinger told the man who went on to break his record for the highest jump: “Our guardian angel will take care of you.”
However, the Austrian was unable to break Col Kittinger’s record for the longest time spent in freefall. Baumgartner’s total of four minutes and 19 seconds fell 17 seconds short.
The reason for the shorter-than-expected freefall was not immediately clear, although live commentary during the leap suggested he opened his parachute at an altitude above the 5,000ft level that had been announced in advance.
The Red Bull Stratos mission was the second attempt for the skydiver. An initial bid last week was aborted at the last minute due to the wind.
Some folks dismiss this as a corporate shill act just to sell an “energy” drink that’s full of sugar and caffeine. And they’d only be partially correct.
The fact is that Baumgartner and Red Bull Stratos had to design the “spacesuit” from scratch, and with no help from NASA.
There is no doubt in my mind that private launch companies like Virgin Galactic, XCOR, Bigelow and probably even SpaceX will show interest in the modern design of the suit with it’s emergency egress capabilities.
Kudos to Felix and Red Bull!
The late UFO investigator Leonard Stringfield ( 1920 – 1994 ) looked mainly into UFO crashes, but had his own close crash experience near the end of WWII which probably prompted his interest in the subject and influenced the rest of his life:
[...]“I was shocked to see three teardrop-shaped objects from my starboard-side window,” Stringfield wrote. “They were brilliantly white, like burning magnesium, and closing in on a parallel course to our C-46. Suddenly our left engine feathered, and I was later to learn that the magnetic navigation-instrument needles went wild. As the C-46 lost altitude, with oil spurting from the troubled engine, the pilot sounded an alert; crew and passengers were told to prepare for a ditch! I do not recall my thoughts or actions during the next, horrifying moments, but my last glimpse of the three bogies placed them about 20 degrees above the level of our transport. Flying in the same, tight formation, they faded into a cloud bank. Instantly our craft’s engine revved up, and we picked up altitude and flew a steady course to land safely at Iwo Jima.”
Stringfield walked away from the event frightened about what he had seen, and later heard independent reports from other witnesses that caused him to take a more serious look at UFOs.
He created Civilian Research, Interplanetary Flying Objects (CRIFO) and published the monthly newsletter, ORBIT. The newsletter caught the media’s attention and soon his paid subscribers swelled to 2,500, becoming the world’s largest civilian UFO research group of its day.
Then on September 9, 1955, the Air Defense Command (ADC), Columbus, OH, called on him for cooperation in passing along current UFO reports. The Ground Observer Corps (GOC) in southwestern Ohio was asked to call Stringfield with UFO activity and he was asked to call the ADC to report the better sightings.
In 1957, Stringfield became the public relations adviser for the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP), a new civilian UFO reporting group operated by Donald Keyhoe – a position he held until 1972.
In the 1970s he began collecting witness accounts of crashed UFOs that included accounts of alien bodies. He went on to publish seven reports on this material until his death in 1994. He served as director of public relations and as a board member for MUFON. He was a regional director for the J. Allen Hynek Center for UFO Studies. He was an advisor to Grenada Prime Minister Sir Eric Gairy during efforts to establish a UFO research agency within the United Nations.
He published his first UFO book, “Inside Saucer Post 3-0 Blue” in 1957. Other books followed. His most famous, “Situation Red: The UFO Siege” was published in 1977 and subsequently translated into several languages. Later, he published seven reports on UFO Crash/Retrievals. The latest, “Status Report VII: Search for Proof in a Hall of Mirrors,” was published in February 1994.
In his private life, Stringfield worked for DuBois Chemicals, a division of Chemed Corporation, Cincinnati. He died on December 18, 1994, in his sleep one day after his 74th birthday after a long battle with lung cancer.
I often call modern ufology “ufoology” because all of the infighting of the various groups ( metallic ufo supporters, paranormal ufo and disclosure people ).
These folks will never see eye-to-eye and meetings are usually a Circus Vargus.
But Leornard represents a dying group of researchers that includes greats like Dr. James MacDonald, who actually performed meticulous recording, observations and scientific research. Going to Disclosure Conferences were not part of their repetoire.
I don’t know if MUFON is any better, but maybe some good use will come of it.
Hat tip to The Anomalist .
From the Washington Post:
The U.S. government’s secret space program has decided to give NASA two telescopes as big as, and even more powerful than, the Hubble Space Telescope.
Designed for surveillance, the telescopes from the National Reconnaissance Office were no longer needed for spy missions and can now be used to study the heavens.
They have 2.4-meter (7.9 feet) mirrors, just like the Hubble. They also have an additional feature that the civilian space telescopes lack: A maneuverable secondary mirror that makes it possible to obtain more focused images. These telescopes will have 100 times the field of view of the Hubble, according to David Spergel, a Princeton astrophysicist and co-chair of the National Academies advisory panel on astronomy and astrophysics.
The surprise announcement Monday is a reminder that NASA isn’t the only space enterprise in the government — and isn’t even the best funded. NASA official Michael Moore gave some hint of what a Hubble-class space telescope might do if used for national security:
“With a Hubble here you could see a dime sitting on top of the Washington Monument.”
NASA officials stressed that they do not have a program to launch even one telescope at the moment, and that at the very earliest, under reasonable budgets, it would be 2020 before one of the two gifted telescopes could be in order. Asked whether anyone at NASA was popping champagne, the agency’s head of science, John Grunsfeld, answered, “We never pop champagne here; our budgets are too tight.”
But this is definitely a game-changer for NASA’s space science program. The unexpected gift offers NASA an opportunity to resurrect a plan to launch a new telescope to study the mysterious “dark energy” that is causing the universe’s expansion to accelerate.
The scientific community had made the dark energy telescope its top priority in the latest “decadal survey” of goals in astronomy and astrophysics.
But the hoped-for telescope has been blocked by a lack of funding, in large part because of cost overruns on the James Webb Space Telescope, which is still being readied for a possible launch later this decade. A new space telescope could also serve as a kind of scout for the Webb, Spergel said.
“It would be a great discovery telescope for where Webb should look in addition to doing the work on dark energy,” Spergel said.
The two new telescopes — which so far don’t even have names, other than Telescope One and Telescope Two — would be ready to go into space but for two hitches. First, they don’t have instruments. There are no cameras, spectrographs or other instruments that a space telescope typically needs. Second, they don’t have a program, a mission or a staff behind them. They’re just hardware.
“The hardware is a significant cost item and it’s a significant schedule item. The thing that takes the longest to build is the telescope,” Spergel said. He added, however, “A big cost of any mission is always just people. One of the reason that James Webb has cost so much is that when it takes longer to complete any piece of it, you keep paying the engineers working on it, and you have these big marching-army costs.”
NASA’s windfall takes the pain out of the planned demise of the Hubble, which has been repaired in orbit five times. NASA does not plan any more repair missions, and the Hubble will gradually lose the ability to maintain its position and focus. At some point NASA will de-orbit the Hubble and it will crash into the Pacific.
“Instead of losing a terrific telescope, you now have two telescopes even better to replace it with,” Spergel said.
Hmmph…makes you wonder what the NRO has so they can just give away their left-overs to NASA?
Not that NASA can do anything with them anyway…
Hat tip to NASA Watch.
The above is a direct quote from Billy Cox in a comment he made to another commenter in his blog he posted last Thursday concerning a posting he made about Anderson Cooper’s April 24th show on UFOs.
Now when it comes to UFOs and the mainstream media, no matter how good some amounts of physical evidence can be obtained around the incidents, disinformation and crack-pot debunking muddy up the waters so that nothing comes of the matter, confusing the issue:
Again, given the number of guests and the segment’s lack of focus, it was clear from the get-go that not a photon of light could’ve escaped from this sucking black hole. But it could have, because the producers actually had a hook to work with. And that’s what makes this strikeout especially regrettable.
Will one of you primates please just take a look at a couple of freakin’ leaves, please?/CREDIT: ppjg.me
Pennsylvanians were reporting a spike in UFO sightings in 2008, many emanating from the skies over Bucks County outside Philadelphia. It drew a little local media attention, the usual stuff, you know, with talking heads using the usual lame-o “out of this world” segues. And as these things usually go, nobody ever got to the bottom of it. So the flap stayed confined to local quarters.
Suddenly, from out of the blue, on April 24, Cooper resuscitated the mystery by inviting an eyewitness named Denise to tell national audiences about how she was awakened by her growling dog in the middle of the night to discover glowing lights above her house. The UFO(s) proceeded to sprinkle metallic-looking glitter on her tree, making her think “it was snowing in July.” Cooper then introduced Pennsylvania state Mutual UFO Network director John Ventre to talk about what happened to the tree.
Ventre said MUFON sent leaves from the affected tree to two different labs, both of which reported “high levels of magnesium and boron,” two to three times higher than controlled samples detected on neighboring trees. Furthermore, the leaves had produced anthocyanin, which Ventre accurately described as a plant’s natural defense from heat and radiation. But were those levels of anthocyanin excessive or unnatural? And what gives with the elevated magnesium and boron? This is the part where you bring in one of the lab analysts, right? Or a botanist, maybe?
Nope. Not on Anderson Cooper. This is the part where you immediately shift gears and bring in a couple of UFO abductees. Then you bring on the designated debunker, in this case Joe Nickell, to dismiss it all in a few short sentences. Nickell informed Denise she’d only seen Jupiter. “So Jupiter dumped stuff on my tree,” Denise wondered, “is that what you’re saying?” No, Nickell countered, “I expect the stuff on your tree was probably, you saw some sand or something in the light.” Bottom line: no additional chatter on the boron or the magnesium or the anthocyanin, because AC needed to get a psychic medium to talk about star families.
Cooper, whose CNN promo is all about “keeping them honest” and “accountability,” allowed Nickell to get away with unchallenged inaccuracies. Nickell attributed the 2006 Chicago O’Hare Airport incident to a “hole-punch cloud,” even though National Weather Service meteorologists confirmed the temperature at the incursion’s estimated altitude of 1,900 feet was 53 degrees. (Hole punch clouds need freezing temperatures to occur.) Nickell said the 1997 Phoenix Lights UFO was a misidentified military flare drop. That massive object was sighted traveling along a 200-mile southbound corridor by hundreds of eyewitnesses from 8:15 to 9:30 p.m.; the Air National Guard admitted to dropping flares at 10 p.m. along the Barry Goldwater Range near Luke AFB. Even former Arizona guv Fife Symington said the flare explanation was bogus. So it looks like Cooper’s daytime show is going the “Fair & Balanced/We Report You Decide” route.
Anyhow, the Bucks County leaf samples sounded interesting. Maybe someday another network will actually put MUFON’s investigation to the test.
I wonder if the samples from these trees were saved and technicians who tested the samples could be persuaded to come forward and post the results online in the ArX (?) academic peer review archives ?
At least the results could be retested if samples were saved and other papers could be written about so the hypotheses could be confirmed or rejected scientifically.
But I’m certain the old CIA tricks of media and skeptic debunking are the orders of the day still and no amount of physical trace evidence will ever be taken seriously.
To quote Billy Cox, “More. Always more…”.
Hat tip to The Daily Grail.