Monthly Archives: February, 2013

To Ply The Martian Way

From Centauri Dreams:

Existential risks, as discussed here yesterday, seem to be all around us, from the dangers of large impactors to technologies running out of control and super-volcanoes  that can cripple our civilization. We humans tend to defer thinking on large-scale risks while tightly focusing on personal risk. Even the recent events near Chelyabinsk, while highlighting the potential danger of falling objects, also produced a lot of fatalistic commentary, on the lines of ‘if it’s going to happen, there’s nothing we can do about it.’ Some media outlets did better than others with this.

Risk to individuals is understandably more vivid. When Apollo 8 left Earth orbit for the Moon in 1968, the sense of danger was palpable. After all, these astronauts were leaving an orbital regime that we were beginning to understand and were, by the hour, widening the distance between themselves and our planet. But even Apollo 8 operated within a sequenced framework of events. Through Mercury to Gemini and Apollo, we were building technologies one step at a time that all led to a common goal. No one denied the dangers faced by every crew that eventually went to the Moon, but technologies were being tested and refined as the missions continued.

Inspiration Mars is proposing something that on balance feels different. As described in yesterday’s news conference (see Millionaire plans to send couple to Mars in 2018. Is that realistic? for more), the mission would be a flyby, using a free return trajectory rather than braking into Martian orbit. The trip would last 501 days and would be undertaken by a man and a woman, probably a middle-aged married couple. Jonathan Clark, formerly of NASA and now chief medical officer for Inspiration Mars, addresses the question of risk head-on: “The real issue here is understanding the risk in an informed capacity – the crew would understand that, the team supporting them would understand that.” Multi-millionaire Dennis Tito, a one-time space tourist who heads up Inspiration Mars, says the mission will launch in 2018.


Image: A manned Mars flyby may just be doable. But is the 2018 date pushing us too hard? Image credit: NASA/JPL.

We’ll hear still more about all this when the results of a mission-feasibility study are presented next weekend at the 2013  IEEE Aerospace Conference in Montana. Given the questions raised by pushing a schedule this tightly, there will be much to consider. Do we have time to create a reliable spacecraft that can offer not only 600 cubic feet of living space but another 600 for cargo, presumably a SpaceX Dragon capsule mated to a Bigelow inflatable module? Are we ready to expose a crew to interplanetary radiation hazards without further experience with the needed shielding strategies? And what of the heat shield and its ability to protect the crew during high-speed re-entry at velocities in the range of 50,000 kilometers per hour?

For that matter, what about Falcon Heavy, the launch vehicle discussed in the feasibility analysis Inspiration Mars has produced for the conference? This is a rocket that has yet to fly.

No, this doesn’t feel much like Apollo 8. It really feels closer to the early days of aviation, when attention converged on crossing the Atlantic non-stop and pilots like Rene Fonck, Richard Byrd, Charles Nungesser and Charles Lindbergh queued up for the attempt. As with Inspiration Mars, these were privately funded attempts, in this case designed to win the Orteig Prize ($25,000), though for the pilots involved it was the accomplishment more than the paycheck that mattered. Given the problems of engine reliability at the time, it took a breakthrough technology — the Wright J-5C Whirlwind engine — to get Lindbergh and subsequent flights across.

Inspiration Mars is looking to sell media rights and sponsorships as part of the fund-raising package for the upcoming mission, which is already being heavily backed by Tito. I’m wondering if there is a breakthrough technology equivalent to the J-5C  to help this mission along, because everything I read about it makes it appear suicidal. The 2018 date is forced by a favorable alignment between Mars and the Earth that will not recur until 2031, so the haste is understandable. The idea is just the kind of daring, improbable stunt that fires the imagination and forces sudden changes in perspective, and of course I wish it well. But count me a serious skeptic on the question of whether this mission will be ready to fly on the appointed date.

And if it’s not? I like the realism in the concluding remarks of the feasibility study:

A manned Mars free-return mission is a useful precursor mission to other planned Mars missions. It will develop and demonstrate many critical technologies and capabilities needed for manned Mars orbit and landing missions. The technology and other capabilities needed for this mission are needed for any future manned Mars missions. Investments in pursuing this development now would not be wasted even if this mission were to miss its launch date.

Exactly so, and there would be much development in the interim. The study goes on:

Although the next opportunity after this mission wouldn’t be for about another 13 years, any subsequent manned Mars mission would benefit from the ECLSS [Environmental Control and Life Support System], TPS [Thermal Protection System], and other preparation done for this mission. In fact, often by developing technology early lessons are learned that can reduce overall program costs. Working on this mission will also be a means to train the skilled workforce needed for the future manned Mars missions.

These are all good reasons for proceeding, leaving the 2018 date as a high-risk, long-shot option. While Inspiration Mars talks to potential partners in the aerospace industry and moves ahead with an eye on adapting near-Earth technologies for the mission, a whiff of the old space race is in the air.  “If we don’t fly in 2018, the next low-hanging fruit is in ’31. We’d better have our crew trained to recognize other flags,” Tito is saying. “They’re going to be out there.”

In 1968, faced with a deadline within the decade, NASA had to make a decision on risk that was monumental — Dennis Tito reminded us at the news conference that Apollo 8 came only a year after the first test launch of the Saturn 5. Can 2018 become as tangible a deadline as 1970 was for a nation obsessed with a Moon landing before that year? If so, the technologies just might be ready, and someone is going to have to make a white-knuckle decision about the lives of two astronauts. If Inspiration Mars can get us to that point, that decision won’t come easy, but whoever makes it may want to keep the words of Seneca in mind: “It is not because things are difficult that we dare not venture. It is because we dare not venture that they are difficult.”

There are a lot of nay-sayers out yonder decrying Tito’s idea as suicidal and a waste of money. But as recently as a couple of months ago questionnaires were sent out asking for volunteers to sign up for a one way trip to Mars (Mars One), even if there’s a better than even chance of dying at any moment of it.

The results were astounding.

Tito’s idea of sending an older married couple is nothing short of public opinion genius and if successful, could be the format of any future Mars colonization efforts.

Not to mention the technologies needed for the crossing.

Mars Flyby: Daring to Venture

America’s Not So Secret Flying Saucer


In September 2012, Michael Rhodes, a technician at the National Declassification Center (NDC) in College Park, Md., donned white cotton gloves, entered a climate-controlled room, and opened a cardboard file box. It was time for the report inside—”Project 1794 Final Development Summary Report 2 April—30 May 1956″—to become public. Rhodes’s job is to read such documents, catalog them, and make them available to historians, journalists, and the curious. The paper was crisp, like new. Rhodes began to read. He soon realized that the file box contained highly unusual material. “As I was processing the collection, I glimpsed this weird red flying-disc icon in the corners,” Rhodes says. Inside the box was a trove of oddities: cutaway schematics of disc-shaped aircraft, graphs showing drag and thrust performance at more than Mach 3, black-and-white photos of Frisbee shapes in supersonic wind tunnels. The icon was a flying saucer on a red arrow—the insignia of a little-known and strange sideshow in aeronautical design. Rhodes was leafing through the lost records of a U.S. military flying saucer program. A Canadian aviation firm began developing a disc-shaped aircraft for the U.S. military in the mid-1950s, and, though the details were secret, the project itself was not unknown. POPULAR MECHANICS mentioned the Air Force’s “vertical-rising, high-speed” craft in 1956 and published a photo in 1960. In the decades since the program was canceled in 1961, aviation buffs and UFO researchers have unearthed technical papers written near the end of America’s flying saucer experiment, but the document that originally convinced the government to invest in a military flying disc has languished in the NDC under the SECRET designation. This recently discovered report describes in previously unknown detail how aviation engineers tried to harness what were then cutting-edge aerodynamic concepts to make their improbable creation fly. Although Avro’s saucer never completed a successful flight, some of the most sophisticated aircraft flying today adopted many of the same technologies. In 2001, U.S. Air Force personnel cleared the document cache for public release, according to Neil Carmichael, director of the declassification review division at the NDC, which is run by the National Archives and Records Administration. But it took 11 years to crack open the boxes in College Park and glimpse the saucer secrets within—the staff is buried in a backlog of nearly 2 billion pages of declassified material, some of it dating to World War II. “These records probably have been classified since their creation,” Carmichael says. “It’s like somebody emptied out a filing cabinet, stuck it in a box, sealed it, and sent it off to the federal records center.” In pop culture, flying saucers are the ride of choice for extraterrestrials. What the newly released documents show is that they actually came from Ontario, Canada. That’s where a visionary aeronautical engineer at the now-defunct Avro Canada convinced his bosses to support the unlikely project. “During the Cold War the Army, Air Force, and Navy were experimenting with all sorts of things,” Carmichael says. As the NDC releases its declassified documents, “the records are going to tell the rest of those stories.” The most sensational of the disclosures so far—Project 1794.

The Canadian Avro Car hasn’t been secret for years, many TV documentaries have been broadcast about it on the Discovery and History Channels for well over a decade, perhaps longer.

But as the article states, the mainstream NASA Apollo and most recently the Orion (MPCV) capsules can trace their ancestry to the old saucer designs like the Avro Car. Believe it or not, the saucer designs have proved to shed interplanetary velocities in Earth’s atmosphere very efficiently.

Whether these were originally extraterrestrial or Nazi designs have yet to be proven.

Hat tip to the Daily Grail.

Habitability vs. Colonizability


Habitability is the measure of highest value in planet-hunting. But should it be?

Kepler and the other planet-finding missions have begun to bear fruit. We now know that most stars have planets, and that a surprising percentage will have Earth-sized worlds in their habitable zone–the region where things are not too hot and not too cold, where life can develop. Astronomers are justly fascinated by this region and what they can find there. We have the opportunity, in our lifetimes, to learn whether life exists outside our own solar system, and maybe even find out how common it is.

We have another opportunity, too–one less talked-about by astronomers but a common conversation among science fiction writers. For the first time in  history, we may be able to identify worlds we could move to and live on.

As we think about this second possibility, it’s important to bear in mind that habitability and colonizability are not the same thing. Nobody seems to be doing this; I can’t find any term but habitability used to describe the exoplanets we’re finding. Whether a planet is habitable according to the current definition of the term has nothing to do with whether humans could settle there. So, the term applies to places that are vitally important for study; but it doesn’t necessarily apply to places we might want to go.

Whether a planet is habitable according to the current definition of the term has nothing to do with whether humans could settle there.

To see the difference between habitability and colonizability, we can look at two very different planets: Gliese 581g and Alpha Centauri Bb. Neither of these is confirmed to exist, but we have enough data to be able to say a little about what they’re like if they do. Gliese 581g is a super-earth orbiting in the middle of its star’s habitable zone. This means liquid water could well form on its surface, which makes it a habitable world according to the current definition.

Centauri Bb, on the other hand, orbits very close to its star, and its surface temperature is likely high enough to render one half of it (it’s tidally locked to its sun, like our moon is to Earth) a magma sea. Alpha Centauri Bb is most definitely not habitable.

So Gliese 581g is habitable and Centauri Bb is not; but does this mean that 581g is more colonizable than Bb? Actually, no.

Because 581g is a super-earth, the gravity on its surface is going to be greater than Earth’s. Estimates vary, but the upper end of the range puts it at 1.7g. If you weigh 150 lbs on Earth, you’d weigh 255 lbs on 581g. This is with your current musculature; convert all your body fat to muscle and you might just be able to get around without having to use leg braces or a wheelchair. However, your cardiovascular system is going to be under a permanent strain on this world–and there’s no way to engineer your habitat to comfortably compensate.

On the other hand, Centauri Bb is about the same size as Earth. Its surface gravity is likely to be around the same. Since it’s tidally locked, half of its surface is indeed a lava hell–but the other hemisphere will be cooler, and potentially much cooler. I wouldn’t bet there’s any breathable atmosphere or open water there, but as a place to build sealed domes to live in, it’s not off the table.

Also consider that it’s easier to get stuff onto and off of the surface of Bb than the surface of a high-gravity super-earth. Add to that the very thick atmosphere that 581g is likely to have, and human subsistence on 581g–even if it’s a paradise for local life–is looking more and more awkward.

Doubtless 581g is a better candidate for life; but to me, Centauri Bb looks more colonizable.

A definition of colonizability

We’ve got a fairly good definition of what makes a planet habitable: stable temperatures suitable for the formation of liquid water. Is it possible to develop an equally satisfying (or more satisfying) definition of colonizability for a planet?

Yes–and here it is. Firstly, a colonizable world has to have an accessible surface. A super-earth with an incredibly thick atmosphere and a surface gravity of 3 or 4 gees just isn’t colonizable, however much life there may be on it.

Secondly, and more subtly, the right elements have to be accessible on the planet for it to be colonizable. This seems a bit puzzling at first, but what if Centauri Bb is the only planet in the Centauri system, and it has only trace elements of Nitrogen in its composition? It’s not going to matter how abundant everything else is. A planet like this–a star system like this–cannot support a colony of earthly life forms. Nitrogen is a critical component of biological life, at least our flavour of it.

In an article entitled “The Age of Substitutibility”, published in Science in 1978, H.E. Goeller and A.M. Weinberg proposed an artificial mineral they called Demandite. It comes in two forms. A molecule of industrial demandite would contain all the elements necessary for industrial manufacturing and construction, in the proportions that you’d get if you took, say, an average city and ground it up into a fine pulp. There’re about 20 elements in industrial demandite including carbon, iron, sodium, chlorine etc. Biological demandite, on the other hand, is made up almost entirely of just six elements: hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur. (If you ground up an entire ecosystem and looked at the proportions of these elements making it up, you could in fact find an existing molecule that has exactly the same proportions. It’s called cellulose.)

Thirdly, there must be a manageable flow of energy at the surface. The place can be hot or cold, but it has to be possible for us to move heat around. You can’t really do that at the surface of Venus, for instance; it’s 800 degrees everywhere on the ground so your air conditioning spends an insane amount of energy just overcoming this thermal inertia. Access to a gradient of temperature or energy is what makes physical work possible.

Obviously things like surface pressure, stellar intensity, distance from Earth etc. play big parts, but these are the main three factors that I can see. It should be instantly obvious that they have almost nothing to do with how far the planet is from its primary. There is no ‘colonizable zone’ similar to a ‘habitable zone’ around any given star. The judgment has to be made on a world by world basis.

Note that by this definition, Mars is marginally colonizable. Why? Not because of  its temperature or low air pressure, but because it’s very low in Nitrogen, at least at the surface. The combination of Mars and Ceres may make a colonizable unit, if Ceres has a good supply of Nitrogen in its makeup–and this idea of combo environments being colonizable complicates the picture. We’re unlikely to be able to detect an object the size of Ceres around Alpha Centauri, so long-distance elimination of a system as a candidate for colonizability is going to be difficult. Conversely, if we can detect the presence of all the elements necessary for life and industry on a roughly Earth-sized planet, regardless of whether it’s in its star’s habitable zone, we may have a candidate for colonizability.

The colonizability of an accessible planet with a good temperature gradient can be rated according to how well its composition matches the compositions of industrial and biological demandite. We can get very precise with this scale, and we probably should. It, and not habitability, is the true measure of which worlds we might wish to visit.

To sum up, I’m proposing that we add a second measure to the existing scale of habitability when studying exoplanets. The habitability of a planet actually says nothing about how attractive it might be for us to visit. Colonizability is the missing metric for judging the value of planets around other stars.

This raises the ethical question of at which point do we as a race change the environment of an alien world’s biology in order to suit our needs?

Do we engage in biological genicide to seed a planet with Earth-life, or do we adapt ourselves to suit the exoplanet’s environment?

Or do we move on to another planet that is more “colonizable” as Schroeder suggests and totally build a habitat from scratch?

A tale of two worlds: habitable, or colonizable? 

Hat tip to Centauri Dreams.

Of SETI, ET Cultural Contact and Spam

From Centauri Dreams:

What happens to us if our SETI efforts pay off? Numerous scenarios come to mind, all of them speculative, but the range of responses shown in Carl Sagan’s Contact may be something like the real outcome, with people of all descriptions reading into a distant message whatever they want to hear. Robert Lightfoot (South Georgia State College) decided to look at contact scenarios we know something more about, those that actually happened here on Earth. His presentation in Huntsville bore the title “Sorry, We Didn’t Mean to Break Your Culture.”

Known as ‘Sam’ to his friends, Lightfoot is a big, friendly man with an anthropologist’s eye for human nature. His talk made it clear that if we’re going to plan for a possible SETI reception, we should look at what happens when widely separated groups come into contact. Cultural diffusion can happen in two ways, the first being prompted by the exchange of material objects. In the SETI case, however, the non-material diffusion of ideas is the most likely outcome. Lightfoot refers to ‘objects of cultural destruction’ in both categories, noting the distorting effect these can have on a society as unexpected effects invariably appear.

Consider the introduction of Spam to the islands of the Pacific as a result of World War II. The level of obesity, cancer and diabetes soared as cultures that had relied largely on hunting, farming and fishing found themselves in the way of newfound supplies. Visitors to some of these islands still note with curiosity that Spam can be found on the menus of many restaurants. Today more than half of all Pacific islanders are obese, and one in four has diabetes. On the island nation of Tonga, fully 69 percent of the population is considered obese.

Lightfoot mentioned Tonga in his talk, but I drew the above figures from the World Diabetes Foundation. Can we relate the continuing health problems of the region to Spam? Surely it was one of the triggers, but we can also add that the large-scale industrialization of these islands didn’t begin until the 1970s. Imported food and the conversion of farmland to mining and other industries (Nauru is the classic example, with its land area almost entirely devoted to phosphate mining) meant a change in lifestyle that was sudden and has had enormous health consequences.

Objects of cultural destruction (OCDs) show their devastating effects around the globe. The Sami peoples of Finland had to deal with the introduction of snowmobiles, which you would have thought a blessing for these reindeer herders. But the result was the ability to collect far larger herds than ever before, which in turn has resulted in serious problems of over-grazing. Or consider nutmeg, once thought in Europe to be a cure for the plague, causing its value to soar higher than gold. Also considered an aphrodisiac, nutmeg led to violence against native growers in what is today Indonesia and played a role in the creation of the East India Company.

But because SETI’s effects are most likely going to be non-material, Lightfoot homed in on precedents like the ‘cargo cults’ of the Pacific that sprang up as some islanders tried to imitate what they had seen Westerners do, creating radios out of wood, building ‘runways’ and calling for supplies. In South Africa, a misunderstanding of missionary religious teachings led the Xhosa people to kill their cattle, even though their society was based on herding these animals. Waiting for a miracle after the killings, a hundred thousand people began to starve. Said Lightfoot:

Think about contact with an extraterrestrial civilization in this light. There will be new ideas galore, even the possibility of new objects — plants, animals, valuable jewels. Any or all of these could be destabilizing to our culture. And just as they may destabilize us, we may contaminate them.

I think the most powerful message of Lightfoot’s talk was that this kind of destabilization can come where you would least expect it, and have irrevocable results. Tobacco, once used as a part of ritual ceremonies in the cultures where it grew, has become an object of cultural and medical destruction in our far more affluent society. Even something as innocuous as a tulip once became the object of economic speculation so intense that it created an economic bubble in 17th Century Holland and an ensuing economic panic.

What to do? Lightfoot told the crowd to search history for the lessons it contains about cultures meeting for the first time. We need to see when and why things went wrong in hopes of avoiding similar situations. If contact with an extraterrestrial culture someday comes, we’ll need a multidisciplinary approach to identify the areas where trouble is most likely to occur. A successful SETI reception could be the beginning of a philosophical and scientific revolution, or it could be the herald of cultural decline as we try to re-position our thinking about the cosmos.

I don’t think the radio searches of SETI will produce anything; there’s a better chance that UFOs are ET spacecraft and eventually black ops corporations will reveal that they’ve been back engineering their hardware for years.

That being said, on the off chance that ET contact does happen, in any form, cultural cross contamination is bound to happen. Whether some cargo cults will form because of contact is moot, because in my opinion, that’s how the world’s religions were formed in the past.

Cultural Diffusion and SETI

The Eerie Silence and Machine Intelligences

From The Daily Galaxy:


The species that you and all other living human beings on this planet belong to is Homo sapiens. During a time of dramatic climate change 200,000 years ago,Homo sapiens (modern humans) evolved in Africa. Is the human species entering another evolutionary inflection point?

Paul Davies, a British-born theoretical physicist, cosmologist, astrobiologist and Director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science and Co-Director of the Cosmology Initiative at Arizona State University, says in his new book The Eerie Silence that any aliens exploring the universe will be AI-empowered machines. Not only are machines better able to endure extended exposure to the conditions of space, but they have the potential to develop intelligence far beyond the capacity of the human brain.”I think it very likely – in fact inevitable – that biological intelligence is only a transitory phenomenon, a fleeting phase in the evolution of the universe,” Davies writes. “If we ever encounter extraterrestrial intelligence, I believe it is overwhelmingly likely to be post-biological in nature.”

Before the year 2020, scientists are expected to launch intelligent space robots that will venture out to explore the universe for us.
“Robotic exploration probably will always be the trail blazer for human exploration of far space,” says Wolfgang Fink, physicist and researcher at Caltech. “We haven’t yet landed a human being on Mars but we have a robot there now. In that sense, it’s much easier to send a robotic explorer. When you can take the human out of the loop, that is becoming very exciting.”
As the growing global population continues to increase the burden on the Earth’s natural resources, senior curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Roger Launius, thinks that we’ll have to alter human biology to prepare to colonize space.
In the September issue of Endeavour, Launius takes a look at the historical debate surrounding human colonization of the solar system. Experiments have shown that certain life forms can survive in space. Recently, British scientists found that bacteria living on rocks taken from Britain’s Beer village were able to survive 553 days in space, on the exterior of the International Space Station (ISS). The microbes returned to Earth alive, proving they could withstand the harsh environment.
Humans, on the other hand, are unable to survive beyond about a minute and a half in space without significant technological assistance. Other than some quick trips to the moon and the ISS, astronauts haven’t spent too much time too far away from Earth. Scientists don’t know enough yet about the dangers of long-distance space travel on human biological systems. A one-way trip to Mars, for example, would take approximately six months. That means astronauts will be in deep space for more than a year with potentially life-threatening consequences.
Launius, who calls himself a cyborg for using medical equipment to enhance his own life, says the difficult question is knowing where to draw the line in transforming human biological systems to adapt to space. Credit: NASA/Brittany Green
“If it’s about exploration, we’re doing that very effectively with robots,” Launius said. “If it’s about humans going somewhere, then I think the only purpose for it is to get off this planet and become a multi-planetary species.”
Stephen Hawking agrees: “I believe that the long-term future of the human race must be in space,” Hawking told the Big Think website in August. “It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster on planet Earth in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand, or million. The human race shouldn’t have all its eggs in one basket, or on one planet.”
If humans are to colonize other planets, Launius said it could well require the “next state of human evolution” to create a separate human presence where families will live and die on that planet. In other words, it wouldn’t really be Homo sapien sapiens that would be living in the colonies, it could be cyborgs—a living organism with a mixture of organic and electromechanical parts—or in simpler terms, part human, part machine.
“There are cyborgs walking about us,” Launius said. “There are individuals who have been technologically enhanced with things such as pacemakers and cochlea ear implants that allow those people to have fuller lives. I would not be alive without technological advances.”
The possibility of using cyborgs for space travel has been the subject of research for at least half a century. A seminal  article published in 1960 by Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline titled “Cyborgs and Space” changed the debate, saying that there was a better alternative to recreating the Earth’s environment in space, the predominant thinking during that time. The two scientists compared that approach to “a fish taking a small quantity of water along with him to live on land.” They felt that humans should be willing to partially adapt to the environment to which they would be traveling.
“Altering man’s bodily functions to meet the requirements of extraterrestrial environments would be more logical than providing an earthly environment for him in space,” Clynes and Kline wrote.
“It does raise profound ethical, moral and perhaps even religious questions that haven’t been seriously addressed,” Launius said. “We have a ways to go before that happens.”
Some experts such as medical ethicist Grant Gillett believe that the danger is that we might end up producing a psychopath because we don’t quite understand the nature of cyborgs.
NASA, writes Lauris, still isn’t focusing much research on how to improve human biological systems for space exploration. Instead, its Human Research Program is focused on risk reduction: risks of fatigue, inadequate nutrition, health problems and radiation. While financial and ethical concerns may have held back cyborg research, Launius believes that society may have to engage in the cyborg debate again when space programs get closer to launching long-term deep space exploration missions.
“If our objective is to become space-faring people, it’s probably going to force you to reconsider how to reengineer humans,’ Launius said.
When one mentions merging humans with machines in the future, it is usually in the context of the Technological Singularity, not long range space exploration ( although as little as ten years ago, this was a serious proposal considered by NASA ).
Many have thought of the Eerie Silence over the decades, including futurists as George Dvorsky and John Smart, who propose that once man and machines merge, a super-intelligence will emerge and our civilization will disappear from the visible Universe.
Thus, another possible explanation for the Eerie Silence.
Hat tip to the Daily Grail.

Interstellar Travel and the Long View

From Centauri Dreams:


Building Structures That Last

A sense of that futurity pervaded our recent sessions at the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop in Huntsville. Several speakers alluded to instances in human history where people looked well beyond their own generation, a natural thought for a conference discussing technologies that might take decades if not centuries to achieve. We talked about a solar power project that might take 35 years, or perhaps 50 (much more about this in coming days).


The theme became explicit when educator and blogger Mike Mongo talked about getting interstellar issues across to the public, referring to vast projects like the pyramids and the great cathedrals of Europe. Cathedrals are a fascinating study in their own right, and it’s worth pausing on them as we ponder long-term notions. Although they’re often considered classic instances of people building for a remote future, some cathedrals were built surprisingly quickly. Anyone who has stood in awe at the magnificent lines of Chartres southwest of Paris is surprised to learn that it came together in less than 60 years (the main structure in a scant 26), though keep in mind that this was partly a reconstruction of an earlier structure that dated back to 1145.

Image: The great cathedral at Chartres.

With unstinting public support, such things could happen even with the engineering of the day, creating what historians now view as the high point of French Gothic art. Each cathedral, of course, tells its own tale. Salisbury Cathedral was completed except for its spire in 45 years. Other cathedrals took longer. Notre Dame in Paris was the work of a century, as was Lincoln Cathedral, while the record for cathedral construction surely belongs to Cologne, where the foundation stone was laid in 1248. By the time of the Reformation 300 years later, the roof was still unfinished, and later turmoil pushed the completion of the cathedral all the way into the 19th Century, with many stops and starts along the way.

Remember, too, that the cathedral builders lived at a time when the average lifespan was in the 30s. The 15-year old boy who started working on the foundation of a cathedral might have hoped to see its consecration but he surely knew the odds didn’t favor it. Humans are remarkably good at this kind of thing, even if the frenetic pace and short-term focus of our times makes us forget it. Robert Kennedy pointed out to me at the conference that the Dutch dike system has been maintained for over 500 years, and can actually be traced back as far as the 9th Century. The idea of technology-building across generations is hardly something new to our civilization.

The ‘long result’ context is an interesting one in which to place our interstellar thinking. Naturally we’d like to make things happen faster than the 4000-year plus journeys I talked about on Friday with worldships, though my guess is that as the species becomes truly spacefaring and begins to differentiate, we’ll see colonies aboard O’Neill-class cylinders holding thousands, many of the colonists being people who will spend less and less time on a planetary surface. At some point, it would be entirely natural to see one of these groups decide to head into the interstellar deep. They would be, after all, taking their world with them, a world that was already home.

Evolutionary Change in Space

Gerald Driggers is a retired engineer and current science fiction author who worked with Gerald O’Neill in the 1970s. I see him as worldship material because he has chosen for the last seventeen years to live on a boat, saying “It was the closest thing I could get to a space ship.” Driggers believes we can begin our interstellar work by getting humans to Mars, where they will be faced with many of the challenges that will attend much longer-term missions. We must, after all, build a system-wide infrastructure, mastering the complexities of power generation and resource extraction on entirely new scales, before we can truly hope to go interstellar.

And what happens to humans as they begin working in extreme environments? Evolution doesn’t stop when we leave the planet, as Freeman Dyson is so fond of pointing out. These are changes that should be beneficial, says Driggers. “Evolutionary steps toward becoming interstellar voyagers reduce the chances for human failures on these journeys. We’re going to change, and we will continue to change as we look toward longer voyages. The first humans to arrive around another star system probably won’t be like anybody in the audience today.” Responding to evolutionary change, Martians may make the best designers and builders of interstellar craft.


Image: Gerald Driggers discussing a near-term infrastructure that will one day support interstellar missions.

Get it right on Mars, in other words, and we get it right elsewhere and learn the basics of infrastructure building all the way to the Kuiper Belt, with active lunar settlements and plentiful activity among the asteroids. Along the way we adapt, we change. Driggers’ worst-case scenario has Martian settlements delayed until the mid-22nd Century, but he is hopeful that the date can be moved up and the infrastructure begun.

All of which brings me back to something Mike Mongo talked about. We are not going to the stars ourselves, but we can inspire and train people who will solve many of the technical problems going forward, just as they train the next generation. One of these generations will one day train the crew of the first human interstellar mission, or if we settle on robotics, the controllers who will manage our first probes. Placing ourselves in the context of the long result acknowledges our obligation to future generations as we begin putting foundation stones in place.

This is not the first time Paul Gilster and others have compared building interstellar ships and matching infrastructure to building pyramids and cathedrals. Both were long range projects in the human past that required multi-generational planning, money, political will and many generations of workers who never saw the end result.

Now, whether interstellar ships will be multi-generation, fast, slow or whatever in the end, they will result from human cultural biases and will be unique in this region of space.

In the end, they will be the result of many generations of human genius.

The Long Result

SETI and the Targeted Search For ET Civilizations


In what is its most targeted search to date, the SETI Institute has scanned 86 potentially habitable solar systems for signs of radio signals. Needless to say, the search came up short (otherwise the headline of this article would have been dramatically different), but the initiative is finally offering some quantitative data about the rate at which we can expect to find radio-emitting intelligent life on Earth-like planets — a rate that’s proving to be disturbingly low.

Indeed, by the end of its survey, SETI calculated that less than one-percent of all potentially habitable exoplanets are likely to host intelligent life. That means less than one in a million stars in the Milky Way currently host radio-emitting civilizations that we can detect.

A narrow-band search

The SETI researchers, a team that included Jill Tarter and scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, reached this conclusion after scanning 86 different stars using the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia. These stars were chosen because earlier Kepler data indicated they host potentially habitable planets — Earth-like planets that sit inside their sun’s habitable zone.

As for the radio bands searched, SETI looked for signals in the 1-2 GHz range, a band that’s used here on Earth for such things as cell phones and television transmissions. SETI also constrained the search to radio emissions less than 5Hz of the spectrum; nothing in nature is known to produce such narrow band signals.

Each of the 86 stars — the majority of which are more than 1,000 light-years away — were surveyed for five minutes. Because of the extreme distances involved, the only signals that could have been detected were ones that were intentionally aimed in our direction — which would be a deliberate effort by ETIs to signal their presence (what’s referred to as Active SETI, or METI (Messages to ETIs)).

“No signals of extraterrestrial origin were found.” noted the researchers in the study.”[I]n the simplest terms this result indicates that fewer than 1% of transiting exoplanet systems are radio loud in narrow-band emission between 1-2 GHz.”

Wanted: Alternative signatures

Despite the nul result, SETI remains hopeful for the future. Scanning potentially habitable solar systems is a fantastic idea, and it’s likely the first of many such targeted searches. At the same time, however, SETI will have to expand upon its list of candidate signatures.

It has been proposed, for example, that SETI look for signs of Kardashev scale civilizations, and take a more Dysonian approach to their searches. Others have suggested that SETI look for laser pulses.

Indeed, the current strategy — that of looking for radio-emitting civilizations — is exceedingly limited. Even assuming we could detect signals from a radio-capable civilization within a radius of 1,000 light-years, the odds that it would be contemporaneous with us is mind-bogglingly low (the time it takes for radio signals to reach us notwithstanding).

And as we are discovering by virtue of our own technological development, the window of opportunity to detect a radio-transmitting civilization is quite short. Looking to the future, it’s more than reasonable to suggest that alternative signatures — whether they be transmitted deliberately or not — be considered.

This is something SETI is very aware of, and the researchers said so much in their paper:

Ultimately, experiments such as the one described here seek to firmly determine the number of other intelligent, communicative civilizations outside of Earth. However, in placing limits on the presence of intelligent life in the galaxy, we must very carefully qualify our limits with respect to the limitations of our experiment. In particular, we can offer no argument that an advanced, intelligent civilization necessarily produces narrow-band radio emission, either intentional or otherwise. Thus we are probing only a potential subset of such civilizations, where the size of the subset is difficult to estimate. The search for extraterrestrial intelligence is still in its infancy, and there is much parameter space left to explore.

The paper is set to appear in the Astrophysical Journal and can be found here.

I suppose this is the natural outreach of the Kepler planetary searches; to see if there are radio signals coming from some of these planets. But as Terence McKenna once said, “To search expectantly for a radio signal from an extraterrestrial source is probably as culture-bound a presumption as to search the galaxy for a good Italian restaurant.

Words of wisdom. I think it’s a mistake to believe that civilizations will use radio to broadcast out into the Universe. Convergent theories of evolution aside, it’s not a proven fact that other intelligences would follow the same evolutionary path as humans and thus invent similar communication techniques.

Of course, time will tell.

SETI Conducts First Ever Targeted Search For Intelligent Life On Earth-Like Planets

Hat tip to the Daily Grail.

Another Anomalous Object Found By Mars Rover Curiosity


Green lines point to a shiny protuberance on rock imaged by the Curiosity rover on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems. Image processing 2di7 & titanio44 on Flickr.

The Curiosity Mars rover has found some strange-looking little things on Mars – you’ve likely heard of the Mars ‘flower,’ the piece  of benign plastic from the rover itself, and other bright  flecks of granules in the Martian soil. Now the rover has imaged a small  metallic-looking protuberance on a rock. Visible in the image above (the green  lines point to it), the protuberance appears to have a high albedo and even  projects a shadow on the rock below. The image was taken with the right Mastcam  on Curiosity on Sol 173  — January 30, 2013 here on Earth — (see the original raw image here), and was pointed out to us  by Elisabetta Bonora, an image editing enthusiast from Italy.

“The corresponding image from the left Mastcam is not there,” said Bonora via  email, “which is a real shame because this would allow us to make an  anaglyph.”

Read more:

3-D anaglyph from the right and left Mastcam from Curiosity showing the metal-looking protuberance. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems. Anaglyph by

As Bonora pointed out, the protuberance seems different than the rock on  which it sits – it could be composed of material more resistant to erosion than  the rest and similar material could be within the rock, or it could be something  that is “grown” on the rock. However, it looks fairly smooth, and in fact it  is not covered by dust as is the case for metal surfaces that tend to clean  easily.

But “small” is the operative word here, as the little protuberance is  probably about 0.5 cm tall, or even smaller.

Read more:

A closeup of the shiny protuberance. Credit: NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems. Image editing by  2di7 & titanio44 on Flickr.

Panorama of the area, from Sol 173. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems. Image editing by

Whatever it is, the weird little shiny thing is interesting, and we hope to have  more details about it soon from one of the rover scientists.

Read more:

They made those cameras perhaps too well on Curiosity, eh?

It’s getting harder and harder for NASA to come up with the “optical illusion” explanation for all of these anomalies that Curiosity is finding.

Of course, even if a little critter happens to hop across Curiosity’s path and it snaps a quick shot off, will NASA publically announce it?

Another Weird Shiny Thing on Mars

Hat tip to the Daily Grail.

CIA Psychic Agent Ingo Swann Passes Away



Sources are reporting that CIA superstar psychic spy Ingo Swann, known as the father of America’s secret remote viewing program, has died.

Swann’s story of recruitment by a covert black ops group in the 1970s was the inspiration for author Gary S. Bekkum’s book “To the Moon and Back, With Love.”

According to one of Swann’s psychic students, former U.S. government spy Paul Smith, “At the time of his death, on February 1, 2013, Ingo was well along in the process of creating a new book featuring his marvelous art work.”

Smith writes:

Supported by the military and intelligence communities, Ingo worked through the program at SRI-International to not only explore the boundary conditions of remote viewing, the consciousness-based skill that he had discovered and developed, but he used it operationally to discover some of the secrets America’s erstwhile Cold War opponents were trying to hide.

Here is an excerpt from the book “To the Moon and Back, With Love” about Ingo Swann’s encounter with a mysterious black ops leader called Mr. Axelrod and otherworldly beings on the lunar surface.

Government consultant Ingo Swann’s tale of covert extraterrestrial activity on the moon takes on a new twist, now that the CIA STAR GATE documents support many of his claims.

3 August 2006

( — This is the bizarre true tale of Ingo Swann’s psychic work for the U.S government, at various agencies including the CIA and the DIA (now substantiated by the CIA release of roughly two thirds of the existing STAR GATE documents) and his personal allegations of a mysterious black operation that first contacted him during the peak of CIA sponsored testing at the Stanford Research Institute.

If Ingo Swann is to be believed, and this coming from a man with top secret clearance that in his day briefed and trained officers from the U.S. Air Force, the Defense Intelligence Agency, INSCOM, and many others too numerous to mention, then there is some truth to the rumors of an otherworldly intelligence working behind the scenes here on Earth. Not only are they already here, according to Swann’s testimony from a rare out-of-print book, self-published in 1998, but they are building something on the far side of the moon.

And they are not friendly.

The truth is stranger than fiction, and this story is guaranteed to stretch the imagination right back into reality. For Ingo Swann, the turning point leading into the cloak and dagger world of deep black ops and weird requests for psychic surveillance of the moon and beyond began in early 1975. When Swann published his tale in 1998, most of the CIA and DIA classified documents from the secret STAR GATE program were still unavailable to the general public. As this story goes to press, in the summer of 2006, more than 80,000 pages of documents are close at hand here at STARstream Research, including the results of medical and psychological tests conducted on Mr. Swann as a result of his CIA sponsored testing while working with SRI: The Stanford Research Institute, in the 1970′s.


In the early 1970′s concerns began to float about the various intelligence agencies over a psychic war gap with the Soviet Union. Unknown to the general public, the Soviets were busy exploring fringe science: application of the dark shadow of the paranormal world for espionage.

Swann’s abilities had been tracked for some time, but they really attracted the powers that be in Langley with the recording of an apparent perturbation of delicate test equipment by Swann’s mental perception. In addition to disturbing the output of this sensitive instrument, Swann was able to produce a rough description of the device, which he had never seen previously.

In a letter dated June 27, 1972, Dr. Hal Puthoff of SRI wrote, “At the suggestion of Russell Targ I am writing you about an observation in the laboratory involving one Ingo Swann, a New York artist … An interesting side light of the experiment was that Ingo was able to describe rather well what the interior of the device looked like, apparently with some form of direct observation.” Although redacted, it is likely that the recipient of this letter was at the CIA. Apparently sponsorship of Dr. Puthoff’s interest in Swann’s mental interaction with the test equipment followed quickly.

Among the STAR GATE files is a Stanford Research Institute (SRI) Technical Memorandum dated 22 February, 1973, prepared by Dr. Hal Puthoff and Russell Targ, Contract Number 1471(S)73 and tagged by CIA/ORD # 1416-73:

“A program in biofield measurements was initiated in July, 1972 with a preliminary experiment with Mr. [Ingo] Swann. In this work using a shielded magnetometer, Mr. Swann apparently demonstrated an ability to increase and decrease at will the magnetic field within a superconducting magnetic shield. This experiment made use of an existing facility and we have confidence that Mr. Swann had no prior knowledge of either the apparatus or of our intended experiment.”

An August, 1972 memo to the Chief of TSD/BAB at the CIA notes that “[name redacted] and somebody named [redacted] from [CIA] Life Sciences are planning a trip to the West Coast on 11 August, when they will meet Ingo Swann and have a chance to watch him flex his sphincter … Life Sciences is planning on forming a coordinating committee to work on ESP and the data that is coming in …”

When we contacted the unnamed former officer from CIA Life Sciences, he confirmed the authenticity of the document, but denied any knowledge of Swann’s tale.

An undated draft memorandum from Deputy Director for Operations William Colby, addressed to the “Director of Central Intelligence,” reveals the clandestine nature of CIA involvement in research using human subjects:

“Recently, two individuals, Mr. Uri Geller and Mr. Ingo Swann, appear to have demonstrated certain of these abilities [paraphysical effects] under controlled laboratory conditions. The abilities of these individuals (unwitting of Agency [CIA] sponsorship) are being submitted to a serious scientific investigation, part of which is being supported by the above mentioned project.”

An anonymous source, working in the alternative energy and transportation industry recently commented, “Actually, they became interested in Swann when he RV’ed [psychically remote viewed] some of their well-hidden deep underground vaults, and the contents thereof. This was when they approached SRI because they were finally truly scared about the reality of RV [psychic remote viewing] as a tool in the hands of the Soviets.”

Based upon the available records in STAR GATE, no one seems to have seriously considered that all of these manifestations of the impossible were strong indications of interference in human affairs by higher intelligence with more powerful technologies at their disposal. Or did they? Swann’s account in his book suggests that someone lurking in the shadows was paying very close attention; someone whose reach included the often super-secret work done at SRI.

Arthur C. Clarke once said and I’m paraphrasing here, “Advanced extraterrestrial technology would be indistinguishable from magic.”

Now, I’m not sure Ingo Swann actually made mind contact with ETIs on the far side of the Moon or not and it certainly isn’t outside the realm of possibility.

My question is, “Why would an advanced civilization interfere with us in any meaningful way and what is it’s purpose?”

Even if they were interdimensional in nature, the same questions apply.

In the end, Ingo Swann had great influence on the U.S. Government via the work he did with the CIA and in the end proved there are pathways through other dimensions in which communications and observations are performed.

Just ask DARPA.