Category Archives: science fact

PopSci: Lasers Could Send A Wafer-Thin Spaceship To A Star

Lasers and photon drives have been a staple of science-fiction for 150 years.

Now finally, laser-driven star probes are in the main-stream of science.

Lasers are now advanced enough to help launch interstellar space probes, researchers say.

Scientists calculate that a gram-sized laser-propelled space probe could reach more than 25 percent of the speed of light and arrive at the nearest star in about 20 years.

The Voyager 1 spacecraft launched in 1977 is finally leaving the solar system after 37 years of flight at a speed of roughly 38,000 miles per hour or less than 0.006 percent the speed of light. This suggests that with conventional propulsion technology, humanity will never reach even the nearest stars, says experimental cosmologist Philip Lubin at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Lubin and his colleagues suggest that, instead, lasers could accelerate small probes to relativistic — that is, near-light — speeds, reaching nearby stars in a human lifetime. “No other current technology offers a realistic path forward to relativistic flight at the moment,” Lubin says.

The problem with all thrusters that current spacecraft use for propulsion is that the propellant they carry with them and use for thrust has mass. Interstellar spacecraft require a lot of propellant, which makes them heavy, which requires more propellant, making them heavier, and so on.

Photon drives instead involve equipping spacecraft with mirrors and depending on distant light sources for propulsion. Solar sails rely on light from the sun, while laser sails count on powerful lasers.

Lubin acknowledges that photon drives are nothing new — in a letter to Galileo Galilei in 1610, Johannes Kepler wrote, “Given ships or sails adapted to the breezes of heaven, there will be those who will not shrink from even that vast expanse.” What is new, Lubin says, is that recent, poorly appreciated breakthroughs in laser technology suggest they can now accelerate spacecraft to relativistic speeds.

Breakthroughs in laser technology suggest they can now accelerate spacecraft to relativistic speeds.

The advance that Lubin’s approach depends on involves laser arrays. Instead of building one extremely powerful laser — a technologically challenging feat — researchers now can build phased arrays that are made of a large number of relatively modest laser amplifiers that can sync up to act like a single powerful laser. This strategy also eliminates the need for a single giant lens, replacing it with a phased array of smaller optics.

The researchers envision a phased array of currently existing kilowatt-scale ytterbium laser amplifiers that can scale up gradually, adding lasers over time. For instance, a current 1- to 3-kilowatt ytterbium laser amplifier is about the size of a textbook and weighs roughly 5 kilograms.

Eventually, the scientists calculate that a 50- to 70-gigawatt array that is 10 kilometers by 10 kilometers large in Earth orbit could propel a gram-sized wafer-like spacecraft with a 1-meter-wide sail to more than 25 percent of the speed of light after about 10 minutes of illumination, which could reach Mars in 30 minutes and Alpha Centauri in about 20 years. The researchers suggest this array could launch roughly 40,000 relativistic wafer-sized probes per year — each “wafersat” would be a complete miniature spacecraft, carrying cameras, communications, power and other systems.

The same array could propel a 100-ton spacecraft — about the mass of a fully loaded space shuttle, sans rockets — with a 8.5-kilometer-wide sail to about 0.2 percent of the speed of light after about 15 years of illumination. However, it would take about 2,200 years to reach Alpha Centauri at those speeds. Lubin suggests a larger array would make more sense for a human interstellar trip in the distant future, “but I personally do not see this as a priority until many robotic probes have established a need to do so.”

A major problem with this strategy is braking — the researchers currently have no way to slow down these laser-driven spacecraft enough for them to enter into orbit around the distant planets that they are dispatched to. The first missions that accelerate to relativistic speeds may have to simply fly by targets and beam back their data via lasers, Lubin notes.

Lubin notes there are many additional uses for such a laser array other than space exploration. For example, it could deflect asteroids away from Earth, or blast debris out of orbit to prevent it from threatening spacecraft, astronauts and satellites.

They are currently testing to show that small lasers can stop asteroids from spinning.

The researchers stress that they are not proposing to immediately build the largest system. They are currently testing small lasers on asteroid-like rock samples to show that such systems can stop asteroids from spinning, work that could help one day wrangle asteroids for exploration.

If lasers are the only practical route for interstellar travel, Lubin and his colleagues suggest that alien civilization may currently use lasers to help explore the cosmos. They suggest that SETI projects should look for telltale signs of such technology.

Lubin presented his latest work in a talk on January 25 at Harvard.

Lubin however fails to mention how the Military-Industrial-Complex invested billions and billions of dollars to make lasers into a combat grade weapon, which lasers of this type obviously are.

Which begs the question of “Will the government allow space probes of this type to be used?”

And who or whom would be allowed to construct them?

Original article

Crowlspace: Journey to Planet 9

For years “planet 9” referred to Pluto.

Unfortunately, Pluto has been downgraded to dwarf-planet status, (in-spite of the spectacular fly-by of New Horizons).

Now there is much speculation that Planet 9 is a cold gas giant, perhaps even a small brown dwarf.

In this article by Adam Crowl, he dishes on potential rocket systems that could get probes like New Horizons there in decades, not centuries:

Power, Distance and Time are inextricably linked in rocketry. When leaving the Earth’s surface this is not so obvious, since all the sound and fury happens for a few minutes, and silence descends once the rocket enters orbit, free-falling indefinitely, at least until drag brings it back down. For slow journeys to the Moon, Near Earth Asteroids, Mars, Venus etc. the coasting Hohmann Transfer orbits and similar low-energy orbits, are all typically “sudden impulse” trajectories, where the engines fire for a few minutes to put a spacecraft on a months long trajectory.

For trips further afield – or faster journeys to the nearer planets – the acceleration time expands to a significant fraction of the total journey time. Ion-drives and solar-sails accelerate slowly for months on end, allowing missions like “Dawn” which has successfully orbited two Main Belt objects, Ceres and Vesta, all on one tank of propellant. Given more power an electrical propulsion system can propel vehicles to Mars in 2-3 months, Jupiter in a year and Saturn in under 2. Exactly how good the performance has to be is the subject of this post.

Firstly, an important concept is the Power-to-Mass ratio or specific power – units being kilowatts per kilogram (kW/kg). Any power source produces raw energy, which is then transformed into the work performed by the rocket jet. Between the two are several efficiency factors – the efficiency of converting raw heat into electricity, then electricity into jet-power, which includes the ionization efficiency, the nozzle efficiency, the magnetic field efficiency and so on. A solar array converts raw sunlight into electricity with an efficiency of between 20-25%, but advanced cells exist which might push this towards 40-50%.

Let’s assume a perfect power source and a perfect rocket engine. What’s the minimum performance required for a given mission? The basic minimum is:

Power/Mass is proportional to (S^2/T^3)

That is the Power-to-Mass ratio required is proportional to the displacement (distance) squared, and inversely proportional to the mission time cubed. For example, a 1 year mission to Jupiter requires 1,000 times the specific power of a 10 year mission.

The minimum acceleration case is when acceleration/deceleration is sustained over the whole mission time. When acceleration is constant, it means a maximum cruise speed (i.e. actual speed of vehicle) of 2 times the average speed (defined as total displacement divided by total mission time).

Another result, from a mathematical analysis I won’t go into here, is that the minimum specific power mission requires a cruise speed that is 1.5 times the average speed and an acceleration+deceleration time, t, that is 2/3 the total mission time T.

Remember that kinetic energy is 1/2.M.V^2, thus specific kinetic energy per unit mass is 1/2.V^2.

The power required – which is work done per unit time – is a trade off between acceleration time and mission time. Say the mission time is 10 years. If all the acceleration is done in 1 year, then the cruise speed required is 1/0.95 times the average speed, but power is proportional to the speed squared divided by the acceleration time: P = (1/2).V^2/t = (1/2).(1/0.95)^2/1 ~ 0.55, whereas in the case of constant acceleration, the average specific power is (1/2).(2)^2/10 = 0.2. For the case of minimum power it’s (1/2)*(3/2)^2/(2/3*10) = 0.16875 – just 84.375% the constant acceleration case and ~31% the 1 year thrust time.

So what does it take to get to Planet 9? If we use the distance of 700 AU to Planet 9, and a total trip time of 10 years, that means an average speed of 70 AU per year. To convert AU/yr to km/s, just multiply by 4.74 km/s, thus 331.8 km/s is needed. Cruise speed is then 497.7 km/s and the specific jet-power is 1.177 kW/kg, if we’re slowing down to go into orbit. Presently there are only conceptual designs for power sources that can achieve that sort of specific power. If we take 20 years to get there, the specific power is 0.147 kW/kg, which is a bit closer to possible.

Vapor Core Reactor Schematic

Space reactor designs typically boast a specific electrical power output of 50 W/kg to 100 W/kg. Gas-core nuclear reactors could go higher, putting out 2,000 – 500 W/kg, but our applied knowledge of gas-core reactors is limited. Designs exist, but no working prototypes have ever flown. In theory it would use uranium tetrafluoride (UF4) gas as the reacting core, which would run at ~4000 K or so and convert heat to electricity via a magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) generator. Huge radiators would be required and the overall efficiency of the power source would be ~22%. In fact there’s a theorem that any thermal power source in space has its highest specific power when the Carnot efficiency is just 25%, thanks to the need to minimise radiator area by maximising radiator temperature.

More exotic options would be the Fusion-Driven Rocket or a space-going stellarator or some such fusion reactor design with a high specific power. In that case it’d be operated more as a pure rocket than powering an electrical rocket. Of course there’s the old Orion option – the External Nuclear Pulse Rocket – but no one wants to put *potential* nuclear warheads into orbit, just yet.

– See more at:

Project Dragonfly Lives!

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 [3].

Icarus Ghost Ship

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 [4]. Robert Forward proposed the Starwisp probe in 1985 [5]. 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 [8].
  • 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) [11].
  • Magnetic sails: A thin superconducting ring’s magnetic field deflects the hydrogen in the interstellar medium and decelerates the spacecraft [12].
  • 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 [5].

Size Comparison

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.

Artistic impression

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 [20]. The solar power satellites can be used for providing in-space infrastructure with power [18].

spacecraft swarm

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 [13].
  • 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 [14]. 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 [15]. 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 [16]. 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) [17]. 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 [20]

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 [21]. 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.

Project Dragonfly: The case for small, laser-propelled, distributed probes

International Spacecraft To Hit Asteroid in 2022

From Huffington Post:

Aida Mission

Scientists in Europe and the United States are moving forward with plans to intentionally smash a spacecraft into a huge nearby asteroid in 2022 to see inside the space rock.

The ambitious European-led Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment mission, or AIDA, is slated to launch in 2019 to send two spacecraft — one built by scientists in the U.S, and the other by the European Space Agency — on a three-year voyage to the asteroid Didymos and its companion. Didymos has no chance of impacting the Earth, which makes it a great target for this kind of mission, scientists involved in the mission said in a presentation Tuesday (March 19) here at the 44th annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference.

Didymos is actually a binary asteroid system consisting of two separate space rocks bound together by gravity. The main asteroid is enormous, measuring 2,625 feet (800 meters) across. It is orbited by a smaller asteroid  about 490 feet (150 m).

The Didymos asteroid setup is an intriguing target for the AIDA mission because it will give scientists their first close look at a binary space rock system while also yielding new insights into ways to deflect dangerous asteroids that could pose an impact threat to the Earth. [Photos of Potentially Dangerous Asteroids]

“Binary systems are quite common,” said Andy Rivkin, a scientist at Johns Hopkins’ Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., working on the U.S. portion of AIDA project. “This will be our first rendezvous with a binary system.”

In 2022, the Didymos asteroids will be about 6.8 million miles (11 million km) from the Earth, during a close approach, which is why AIDA scientists have timed their mission for that year.

Rivkin and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins’ Applied Physics Laboratory are building DART (short for Double Asteroid Redirection Test), one of the two spacecraft making up the tag team AIDA mission. Like its acronym suggests, the DART probe crash directly into the smaller Didymos asteroid while travelling at 14,000 mph (22,530 km/h), creating a crater during an impact that will hopefully sending the space rock slightly off course, Rivkin said.

The European Space Agency is building the second AIDA spacecraft, which is called the Asteroid Impact Monitor (or AIM). AIM will observe the impact from a safe distance, and the probe’s data will be used with other data collected by telescopes on Earth to understand exactly what the impact did to the asteroid.

“AIM is the usual shoebox satellite,” ESA researcher Jens Biele,  who works on the AIM spacecraft, said. “It’s nothing very fancy.”

AIDA scientists hope their mission will push the smaller Didymos asteroid off course by only a few millimeters. The small space rock orbits the larger, primary Didymos asteroid once every 12 hours.

The goal, Rivkin said, is to use the DART impact as a testbed for the most basic method of asteroid deflection: a direct collision with a spacecraft.  If the mission is successful, it could have implications for how space agencies around the world learn how to deflect larger, more threatening asteroid that could pose a threat to Earth, he added.

At the moment, AIDA researchers are not sure of the exact composition of the Didymos asteroids. They could just be a loose conglomeration of rocks travelling together through the solar system, or made of much denser stuff.

But once DART impacts the asteroid, scientists will be able to measure how much the asteroid’s orbit is affected as well as classify its surface composition, Rivkin said. And by studying how debris floats outward from the impact site after the crash, researchers could also better prepare for the conditions astronauts may encounter during future manned missions to asteroids — such as NASA’s project to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025, he added.

The AIDA mission’s AIM space craft is expected to cost about 150 million euros (about $194 million), while the DART spacecraft is slated to cost about $150 million, mission officials said.

While the DART and AIDA missions are relatively inexpensive ( $150 and $194 million respectively ) private companies such as Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries don’t just plan on impacting asteroids, they plan on mining the crap out of them.

The question is whether these companies are willing to wait on the science to be obtained by these government probes in order to save them money on research.

Asteroid Deflection Mission AIDA Set To Crash Two Spacecraft Into Space Rock In 2022

Scott Corrales on “Pre-Adamic” Civilizations

From Inexplicata:


Pride comes before a fall. This seems to hold true, at least, for the explanations given in human myth and fiction for the collapse of all the civilizations that came before us: The urge to build a tower to reach heaven ended in the linguistic sundering and scattering of humankind; in some traditions, the gods became fearful of human prowess and initiative, and took pre-emptive measure to keep or species at bay, destroying their own creation by fire and flood. What more poignant ending than the destruction of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Númenor – his own version of Atlantis – as it is plunged into the sea by the Creator, who refashions the world in order to keep mortals from ever setting foot on the Undying Lands?

There was a time when students of history freely discussed “antediluvian” civilizations, or even “Pre-Adamic” ones. A Mexican textbook from the 1960s (Historia de Mexico: Etapas Precortesiana y Colonial) speaks freely of “Atlantis” as one of the serious theories concerning the arrival of humans to the Americas, stating the following on page 14: “ATLANTIS – Lovely and ancient in literature is the belief that men in the New World came from the Old One across a continent that stretched out in the Atlantic Ocean, and which was called Atlantis, according to the vague reports given to us by the philosopher Plato in the dialogues “Critias” and “Timaeus”. Atlantis served as a footbridge between both worlds, until it was destroyed by a cataclysm. Its remnants can be seen in the Azores, Madeira and Cape Verde, as well as the Antilles.”

We may well think the authors of the textbook irresponsible for placing the seed of pseudoscience into the minds of impressionable young students, but…might they have been closer to the mark that we care to admit? In May 2001, a series of underwater probes of the Caribbean Sea revealed to an astonished world the existence of what many considered to be the ruins of a sunken civilization at a depth of six hundred meters off Cuba’s Cape San Antonio. Covering an area of nearly twenty square kilometers of seabed, the city – dubbed “Mega” due to its size –consists of cube-shaped and pyramidal structures. Cuban geologist Manuel Iturralde believes that the ruins indeed belong to an antediluvian civilization, dating back to the 10th millennium B.C.E.

The extensive Cuban cave systems are also a source of wonder, such as Cave Number 1 on Youth Island (formerly Island of Pines). The cave dome, measuring some 25 meters in diameter (81 feet), has skylights that allow for illumination from the blazing Caribbean sun during the day and the moon by night. The complexity of its pictograms places them at the very apex of cave art, leading some to think of wiring diagrams. “Seen as a whole, the Central Motif (the main pictogram) suggests to the viewer the image of a star map, a representation of constellations, but it could also mean something completely different,” according to the antrhopologist Núñez Jiménez, writing in 1986. A possible star map on the domed ceiling of an ancient cave is enough to fuel more speculative television broadcasts about ancient astronauts…
Youth Island is relatively close to Cuba’s Guanacahibibes area, where sunken, dreaming Mega awaits further exploration. Could there be any connection between one and the other? Videotaped images of the undersea ruins were analyzed by the Centro de Arqueología Marina y Antropología de la Academia Cubana de Ciencias (Center for Marine Archaeology and Anthropology of the Cuban Academy of Sciences), which officially stated that “there was no simple and straightforward explanation for these structures,” yet unequivocally ascertaining they were man-made, rather than a natural phenomenon.

The Resurgence of Paleoufology

The branch of UFO research which could rightly deserve the appellation of “paleoufology” constituted a controversial field of investigation during the 1970’s, when authors like Otto Binder (Unsolved Mysteries of the Past), Richard E. Mooney (Gods of Air and Darkness), and Erich Von Daniken (Chariots of the Gods?) wrote extensively on human/alien interaction at the dawn of recorded history and even earlier. Proof of the existence of “gods” or “ancient astronauts” could be found everywhere, and to judge by the conclusions found in the books of the time, it seemed that every major engineering project in antiquity had been “farmed out” to alien contractors! Paleoufology lost its appeal and languished in obscurity until the works of Zechariah Sitchin thrust it once again into prominence in the early 1990s, gaining further momentum with theAncient Aliens television program on the History Channel in the ‘00s. Clearly, there is still a great deal to learn about this aspect of the phenomenon.

Guatemalan researcher Oscar Rafael Padilla, an attorney and Ph.D who has dedicated 30 of his 51 years to the research of the UFO phenomenon is also the compiler of an extraordinary taxonomy of extraterrestrial creatures, composed by taking into consideration such characteristics as the existence–or lack of–hair, eye type, body shape and similarities to the human body, among others. One of the species portrayed in Clasificación Exobiológica de Entidades Extraterrestres (Exobiological Classification of Extraterrestrial Entities), is characterized by its large head and eyes in relation to the thinness of its body. The being has been classified as belonging to the family Homidia (due to its resemblance to humans), orderPrimates (due to its walking on two extremities), subclass Euteria(since they are allegedly placental mammals). Padilla also believes that this particular variety of non-human entity played a significant role in ancient times.

Dr. Padilla recalls a very curious stele that was on display in Guatemala’s Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology until its removal in 1990, when it was transferred to Japan for scientific study, according to his own research. The stele portrayed the figure of a being with enormous ears, three-fingered hands, elongated legs, no feet, and two strange filaments on its head which, in Padilla’s opinion, constitute “antennae”.

Scientists have dismissed Dr. Padilla’s allegedly alien as a colorful primitive depiction of an imaginary monster–very much like our own science-fiction beasts–and left the matter at that. But there is growing evidence throughout South America that ancient artisans depicted certain things we now know to be fact much too clearly.
Brazilian UFO researcher Jean Alencar has noted that the mythology of this country is replete with descriptions and statuettes of beings endowed with the power of flight. The legends of Brazilian natives, like those of other countries, detail experiences of gods or travelers from the sky who descended to earth when humans were little more that animals to instruct them in the arts of agriculture, astronomy, medicine, and other disciplines. Alencar points out one figure in particular, Bep-Kororoti, a space warrior worshipped by the tribes of the upper reaches of the Xingú River. Not unlike the heroes of India’sMahabharata, Bep-Kororoti possessed a flying vehicle capable of destroying anything in its path. His aspect terrified the primitive natives, until he stepped out of his “raiment” and revealed himself to be fair-skinned, handsome, and kind. He amused the natives with his “magic” until he grew restless for his land in the sky and returned there.

Pre-Humans and Non-Humans

The Sahara, a warm subtropical desert, occupies almost 3 million square miles. Its relative humidity can go as low as twenty percent and strong dry winds like the harmattan contribute to the evaporation. Such inhospitable conditions make survival an almost insuperable barrier for animals such as gazelles, antelope, jackals and the varieties of reptiles and insects that can be found there.

Yet humans have tenaciously clung to life in this environment, and appear to have done so far back in history when the climate wasn’t so harsh. These human cultures, now lost to us, nonetheless left behind a number of beautiful and disturbing drawings that have created controversy since their discovery.

Almost nine thousand years ago, one of these cultures flourished on Djebel Zenkekra in the Tassili-n-Ajjer Massif, a natural, fortress-shaped mountain formation that provided relief from the unforgiving desert sun during the day and shelter against the animals that roamed the Neolithic swamps which would later turn to desert.

The Tassili Culture, for want of a better name, bequeathed to posterity a collection of 4000 images, painted in a variety of colors unavailable to their counterparts in the Altamira and Lascaux Caves: using flints for brushes, dark reds, yellows, and even shades of green supplemented the basic reds and whites available to the prehistoric cave artists. Everyday life was their subject matter–the endless cycle of hunting, battle, and domestic life was captured in stone, along with a gallery of figures which stand out in stark contrast to humans in their workaday poses. While there are many such examples of cave art in other rock shelters and ledges throughout the upper reaches of the Sahara, the ones on Djebel Zenkekra hold a special fascination.

Discovered by the 19th century French explorer Henri Lhote, these figures were so unusual he dubbed them “Martians,” explaining “their contour is simple, inartistic, and with rounded heads; their only detail is the double oval at the figure’s centre, which evokes the image we currently have of Martians.”

Lhote’s round-headed denizens of the Red Planet were depicted by the primitive cave artists as wearing suits strongly reminiscent of those worn by our own astronauts on the Moon, down to the detail of the boots. Several hundred such drawings exist, scattered over many miles of desert: strange helmeted and antennaed figures, often floating in weightlessness as if the artist had been able to witness one of our modern spacewalks. Other images are of a technological bent, showing what could be taken as solar panels, space stations, floating spheres containing humanoid figures.
Unwilling to be caught up in the ancient astronaut craze, anthropologists have suggested that the Tassili “roundheads” are merely ceremonial dancers or priests wearing empty gourds over their heads. The problem with this rational approach is that the agricultural know-how and resources to grow pumpkins were nonexistent in North Africa at the time the Tassili drawings were created, and would probably not have been available for another thousand years.

Could extraterrestrial visitors included the then-lush Tassili region among their forays in ancient human history? Dozens of books in an equal number of languages have provided circumstantial evidence of non-human intervention in earthly affairs. Biblical texts speak of the “sons of God” attracted by the “daughters of Men,” Mayan bas-reliefs depict what could be a space traveler, and so forth. But it is this forsaken complex of African drawings that provides a graphic illustration a similar nature.

In 1976, Spanish researchers Jorge Blaschke, Rafael Brancas and Julio Martínez reached the Tassili Massif to conduct a systematic study of the enigmatic cave drawings. In the course of their research, they were stunned to find a clear depiction of a helmeted and suited figure, linked by a tether to the interior of a large, spherical object, leading three human females toward it. Dr. Martínez noticed that the artist had taken great care in showing the women: one of them an adolescent, the other a mother carrying a child, and the third a visibly pregnant woman. Could this be representative of the genetic experiments which are allegedly still being conducted in our days by large-headed Greys.

The examples of cave art found in the Spanish caverns of Ojo Guareña and Altamira, and the French ones at Lascaux and Font de Gaume, have proven that our distant ancestors were able to represent what they saw with a clarity and simplicity that is stunning to twentieth century eyes. This skill extends to depictions of things that anthropologists and archaeologists often find troublesome: equally faithful representations of domed objects, some of them in threes, others with legs or antennae.

The small French village of Le Cabrerets lies next to the impressive Pech Merle Cavern–a colossal labyrinthine complex almost a mile long. Using a red pigment, Cro-Magnon artists depicted on one of its walls a being that would fall perfectly into Dr. Padilla’s taxonomy: it has an enormous bald head, an unusually pointed chin, no ears, and its eyes are represented as elongated slits which taper toward its temples. The straight lines crossing the figure appear to indicate that it was wounded or slain by caveman spears, while a drawing of a hat-shaped object appears floating over the creature’s head. Nor is Pech Merle an oddity: Twenty miles away, another cave, Cougnac, contains a similar representation of a wounded or slain creature. Lest we think that Cro-Magnon artists lacked a flair for depicting the human form, it should be noted that other French caves, such as Rouffignac, contain clearly recognizable human figures, including what seem to be mask-wearing humans. The Pech Merle and Cougnac “dead men” are clearly something else. Archaeologists tell us that these ancient images were drawn at the beginning of the Magdalenian Period–some twenty thousand years ago.

North America has also provided its share of enigmatic prehistoric drawings. A particularly impressive one can be found at Canyonlands National Park, in Utah. There, a duo of unusual creatures (remarkably similar to those depicted at Tassili) is engaged in strange activity: one of them appears to be pointing an item at the ground–a flashlight? Farther south, an artist of Mexico’s Tlatilco culture drew a perfect image of a little man who gives the impression of wearing boots and a square helmet.

When even steadfast UFO naysayers like Carl Sagan are willing to concede that alien visitations in the remote past cannot be dismissed out of hand, can we still believe that this evidence, which is there for anyone to see, is simply a misinterpretation of conventional events, seen from a primitive human perspective? Or can we lend credence to the ancient Sumerian and Babylonian stories of divine beings coming down to earth to teach humans the rudiments of civilization?




I love the Ancient Alien Theory, even though it’s heavily anthropomorphic and modern mythic.

I’m not saying it’s not possible however; there could have been nearby interstellar cultures who came by and spread their own culture among primitive hominids in order to preserve it, just as we intend.

But I think in the end, it becomes economically unviable to maintain interstellar colonies without going through a technological singularity and creating a more viable Universe in which to enter into without traveling Einsteinian space extensively and uneconomically.

Antediluviana: Chronicles of Worlds Before This One

Hat tip to The Anomalist.

No Terminators Here, It’s Old-Fashioned Human Killers


The Pentagon wants to make perfectly clear that every time one of its flying robots releases its lethal payload, it’s the result of a decision made by an accountable human being in a lawful chain of command. Human rights groups and nervous citizens fear that technological advances in autonomy will slowly lead to the day when robots make that critical decision for themselves. But according to a new policy directive issued by a top Pentagon official, there shall be no SkyNet, thank you very much.

Here’s what happened while you were preparing for Thanksgiving: Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter signed, on November 21, a series of instructions to “minimize the probability and consequences of failures” in autonomous or semi-autonomous armed robots “that could lead to unintended engagements,” starting at the design stage (.pdf, thanks to Translated from the bureaucrat, the Pentagon wants to make sure that there isn’t a circumstance when one of the military’s many Predators, Reapers, drone-like missiles or other deadly robots effectively automatizes the decision to harm a human being.

The hardware and software controlling a deadly robot needs to come equipped with “safeties, anti-tamper mechanisms, and information assurance.” The design has got to have proper “human-machine interfaces and controls.” And, above all, it has to operate “consistent with commander and operator intentions and, if unable to do so, terminate engagements or seek additional human operator input before continuing the engagement.” If not, the Pentagon isn’t going to buy it or use it.

It’s reasonable to worry that advancements in robot autonomy are going to slowly push flesh-and-blood troops out of the role of deciding who to kill. To be sure, military autonomous systems aren’t nearly there yet. No Predator, for instance, can fire its Hellfire missile without a human directing it. But the military is wading its toe into murkier ethical and operational waters: The Navy’s experimental X-47B prototype will soon be able to land on an aircraft carrier with the barest of human directions. That’s still a long way from deciding on its own to release its weapons. But this is how a very deadly slope can slip.

It’s that sort of thing that worries Human Rights Watch, for instance. Last week, the organization, among the most influential non-governmental institutions in the world, issued a report warning that new developments in drone autonomy represented the demise of established “legal and non-legal checks on the killing of civilians.” Its solution: “prohibit the “development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons through an international legally binding instrument.”

Laudable impulse, wrong solution, writes Matthew Waxman. A former Defense Department official for detainee policy, Waxman and co-author Kenneth Anderson observe that technological advancements in robotic weapons autonomy is far from predictable, and the definition of “autonomy” is murky enough to make it unwise to tell the world that it has to curtail those advancements at an arbitrary point. Better, they write, for the U.S. to start an international conversation about how much autonomy on a killer robot is appropriate, so as to “embed evolving internal state standards into incrementally advancing automation.”

Waxman and Anderson should be pleased with Carter’s memo, since those standards are exactly what Carter wants the Pentagon to bake into its next drone arsenal. Before the Pentagon agrees to develop or buy new autonomous or somewhat autonomous weapons, a team of senior Pentagon officials and military officers will have to certify that the design itself “incorporates the necessary capabilities to allow commanders and operators to exercise appropriate levels of human judgment in the use of force.” The machines and their software need to provide reliability assurances and failsafes to make sure that’s how they work in practice, too. And anyone operating any such deadly robot needs sufficient certification in both the system they’re using and the rule of law. The phrase “appropriate levels of human judgment” is frequently repeated, to make sure everyone gets the idea. (Now for the lawyers to argue about the meaning of “appropriate.”)

So much for SkyNet. But Carter’s directive blesses the forward march of autonomy in most everything military robots do that can’t kill you. It “[d]oes not apply to autonomous or semi-autonomous cyberspace systems for cyberspace operations; unarmed, unmanned platforms; unguided munitions; munitions manually guided by the operator (e.g., laser- or wire-guided munitions); mines; or unexploded explosive ordnance,” Carter writes.

Oh happy – happy, joy – joy. The semi-intelligent machines still needs a human in the loop to kill you, but doesn’t need one to spy on you.

Oh well, Big Brother still needs a body to put in jail to make the expense of robots worth their while I suppose…

Pentagon: A Human Will Always Decide When a Robot Kills You

There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now…

The above title is a quote attributed to William Thomson, Lord Kelvin in the year 1900. But it is not what Thomson said. It really was said by Albert A. Michaelson, another great 19th Century physicist.

So what is the meaning of all this stuff? The fact that whenever a great scientist(s) proclaims that in our reality, there already has been all that has been discovered in Nature? That the self-same scientists are usually wrong when making such claims?

Yes to the above. And here in the early 21st Century, the more things change, the more they stay the same.:

Physicist Sean Carroll, speaking at James Randi’s “The Amazing Meeting”, tells how anomalous phenomenon simply can’t happen because the laws of physics are completely understood:

There are actually three points I try to hit here. The first is that the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood. There is an enormous amount that we don’t know about how the world works, but we actually do know the basic rules underlying atoms and their interactions — enough to rule out telekinesis, life after death, and so on. The second point is that those laws are dysteleological — they describe a universe without intrinsic meaning or purpose, just one that moves from moment to moment.

The third point — the important one, and the most subtle — is that the absence of meaning “out there in the universe” does not mean that people can’t live meaningful lives. Far from it. It simply means that whatever meaning our lives might have must be created by us, not given to us by the natural or supernatural world. There is one world that exists, but many ways to talk about; many stories we can imagine telling about that world and our place within it, without succumbing to the temptation to ignore the laws of nature. That’s the hard part of living life in a natural world, and we need to summon the courage to face up to the challenge.

There’s a lot of elements to like about the talk, and Sean Carroll is no doubt a smarter man than me, but the pre-emptive debunking of apparent anomalies in science (such as parapsychology and the evidence for the survival of consciousness) – in effect, saying that we need not even test these anomalies because the laws of physics are already understood and preclude them – left me thinking of another well-known scientist’s thoughts on the apparent completeness of science. Considering the alternative scientific viewpoints from the likes of physicist Henry Stapp, on theoretical explorations of the possibility of an afterlife, and Dean Radin’s recent work on conscious influence in the famous double-slit experiment, the famous (though possibly apocryphal) fin de siècle quote of Lord Kelvin immediately came to mind when contemplating Carroll’s pronouncements:

There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.

Within a few years, science was turned on its head by relativity, and followed by quantum mechanics. One can only wonder if current-day anomalies, such as those explored by parapsychologiests, might one-day lead to some similar revolution, this time involving consciousness or information as primary elements of the cosmos.

Although Greg is understandably mistaken about Lord Kelvin’s quote, he is spot on about Carroll’s proclamations and I am surprised that Carroll actually made such claims.

Well, maybe not. I guess it just shows the inherent uber-conversatism in science.

But in the general population, not so much.

I think we might be ready for a new physics that breaks Mankind out into the Universe and answers some of our questions about Consciousness, UFOs, ghosts and other paranormal activities.

The Laws of Physics Are Completely Understood

William Thomson, Lord Kelvin Quotes

As always, many hat tips to Greg Taylor’s Daily Grail.

Filmmaker Dan Mack’s Response to Lord Martin Rees

From Huffington Post:

Lord Martin Rees recently offered The Huffington Post his opinion about UFOs:

“No serious astronomer gives any credence to any of these stories … I think most astronomers would dismiss these. I dismiss them because if aliens had made the great effort to traverse interstellar distances to come here, they wouldn’t just meet a few well-known cranks, make a few circles in corn fields and go away again.”

Such sweeping statements from well regarded scientists are endlessly frustrating to the UFO researcher. Particularly given that interest in UFOs actually drives some people to study astronomy! Unfortunately the idea that only kooks see UFOs is prevalent.

But because Lord Rees is a scientist, the correct answer is to provide him with scientific data that is directly relevant to his claim. I am aware of only three attempts to scientifically gauge what percentage of astronomers see UFOs. Two show that not only do astronomers see UFOs in America, but many are afraid to report their sightings because they fear professional and public ridicule. The final source indicates that astronomers see UFOs at a dramatically greater rate than the general population.

On August 6, 1952, Astronomer J. Allen Hynek offered the USAF’s Project Blue Book a “Special Report on Conferences with Astronomers on Unidentified Aerial Objects.”


Hynek interviewed some 45 astronomers on their experiences and opinions about UFOs during and following the meeting of the American Astronomical Society that June. Hynek provides some notes on each individual astronomer and their opinions. Here’s what some astronomers thought in 1952:

Astronomer Y (no sightings) said, “If I saw one, I wouldn’t say anything about it.”

Astronomer II (two sightings) “is willing to cooperate but does not wish to have notoriety,” Hynek reports.

Astronomer OO: (one sighting) was a new observer at the Harvard Meteor Station in New Mexico. He saw two lights moving in parallel that were too fast for a plane and too slow for a meteor. He had not reported his observation.

Hynek concluded: “Over 40 astronomers were interviewed of which five had made sightings of one sort or another. This is a higher percentage than among the populace at large. Perhaps this is to be expected, since astronomers do, after all, watch the skies.”

The next data point comes from 1977. Dr. Peter Sturrock made a questionnaire about UFO attitudes and experiences. Again the target was the members of the American Astronomical Society. The paper was eventually printed in 1994 in the Journal of Scientific Exploration, a peer-reviewed but decidedly non-mainstream publication.

Sturrock received 1,356 responses from 2,611 questionnaires. Sixty-two astronomers responded that they had observed something they could not explain which could be relevant to the UFO phenomenon. Eighteen of those witnesses said they had previously reported their sightings, and Sturrock notes that a 30% reporting rate is greater than what is assumed for the average population. Section 3.2 of the paper titled “Comparison of Witnesses and Non-Witnesses” contains a table showing that UFO witnessees were actually more likely to be night sky observers (professional or amateur) while non-witnesses are more likely to not even be observing the skies at all!


Sturrock also includes commentary from the astronomers, and again a sample is illuminating:

C1. “I object to being quizzed about this obvious nonsense. Unidentified = unobserved or factually unrecorded: modern mythology. Too much respectability given to it.”

C1O. “l find it tough to make a living as an astronomer these days. It would be professionally suicidal to devote significant time to UFOs. However, I am quite interested in your survey.”

C16. “Menzel and Condon have made further investigation unnecessary unless some really new phenomena are reported … There is no pattern to UFO reports except that they predominantly come from unreliable observers.”

I could add more, but I want folks to read Mack’s article.

Rees’ comments are not unusual for the conservative scientific community at large and in turn benefit the military-industrial-complex which runs the U.S. and most world governments. The MIC doesn’t want any release of technology that is derived(?) from supposed alien technology because it would destroy the present world order. They prefer a slow “leak” of tech in dribs and dabs which doesn’t rock the boat much. Apples Ipod and other Smart Phone technologies are relatively innocuous in that they are primarily for games and other entertainment that distracts the younger population from more important concerns.

Astronomers and UFOs: A Response to the Lord Martin Rees

Hat tip to the Daily Grail.

Are People the Biggest Challenge to Interstellar Travel?


The biggest challenge in mounting a space mission to another star may not be technology, but people, experts say.

Scientists, engineers, philosophers, psychologists andleaders in many other fields gathered in Houston last week for the 100 Year Starship Symposium, a meeting to discuss launching an interstellar voyage within 100 years.

“It seems like it would be so hard, and the biggest obstacle is ourselves. Once we get out of our way, once we commit to this, then it’s a done deal,” said former “Star Trek: The Next Generation” actor LeVar Burton, who is serving on the advisory committee of the 100 Year Starship project.

The initiative hopes to spur the development of new propulsion technologies, life support systems, starship and habitat designs, as well as myriad other necessaryinnovations, to send a vehicle beyond our solar system — where no manmade object has yet traveled — and to another star. As the closest stars to the sun are still light-years away, such a feat will be daunting. [How Interstellar Space Travel Works (Infographic)]

But Burton wasn’t the only one who said the most difficult part of interstellar spaceflight may be corralling public and governmental support, and getting the right thinkers to work together to attack the problem.

“I think the greatest challenges are going to be what the greatest challenges in anything are, and that’s the people piece,” said former NASA astronaut Mae Jemison, who was the first African-American woman to travel to space. Jemison is heading the new 100 Year Starship organization, which was founded with seedmoney from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

“The really exciting thing and the scary thing is I know I can’t do it by myself, but there are a lot of people who want to help,” Jemison added.

Interstellar spaceflight for humanity isn’t inevitable, she said — merely imperative.

“We could screw it up,” Jemison told “We could decide not to do it. But I can tell you what, if we don’t figure out how to do it, then we probably aren’t going to be around to worry about whether the sun turns into a red gas giant. Unless we find some focal aspiration that pushes us further, that helps us see ourselves as a species that we should be cooperating with, we’re going to be in trouble.”

Plus, if human beings can solve the challenges of interstellar spaceflight, in the process they will have solved many of the problems plaguing Earth today, experts said. For example, building a starship will require figuring out how to conserve and recycle resources, how to structure societies for the common well-being, and how to harness and use energy sustainably.

Perhaps the 100 Year Starship Symposium should partner up with the Build The Enterprise Project? They have a 100 year timeline also and I couldn’t think of a better marriage.

The biggest challenge to interstellar spaceflight? Us 

Sister Earths

Mainstream Manned vs. Robotic Spaceflight

The Apollo space missions to the Moon were the last Beyond Earth Orbit human explorations of Near space, the last being in 1972.

The main reasons being lack of public interest and funding, so any explorations beyond the Near Earth regions have been robotic due to their relative financial benefits and nobody worries much if a robot dies instead of a human being.

That issue might change in the future according to a paper written by Ian Crawford, a professor of planetary sciences at Birkbeck College (London):

…Out of necessity, all our missions to the outer system have been unmanned, but as we learn more about long-duration life-support and better propulsion systems, that may change. The question raised this past weekend in an essay in The Atlanticis whether it should.

Ian Crawford, a professor of planetary sciences at Birkbeck College (London) is the focus of the piece, which examines Crawford’s recent paper in Astronomy and Geophysics. It’s been easy to justify robotic exploration when we had no other choice, but Crawford believes not only that there is a place for humans in space, but that their presence is indispensable. All this at a time when even a return to the Moon seems beyond our budgets, and advanced robotics are thought by many in the space community to be the inevitable framework of all future exploration.

But not everyone agrees, even those close to our current robotic missions. Jared Keller, who wrote The Atlantic essay, dishes up a quote from Steve Squyres, who knows a bit about robotic exploration by virtue of his role as Principal Investigator for the Spirit and Opportunity rovers on Mars. Squyres points out that what a rover could do even on a perfect day on Mars would be the work of less than a minute for a trained astronaut. Crawford accepts the truth of this and goes on to question what robotic programming can accomplish:

“We may be able to make robots smarter, but they’ll never get to the point where they can make on the spot decisions in the field, where they can recognize things for being important even if you don’t expect them or anticipate them,” argues Crawford. “You can’t necessarily program a robot to recognize things out of the blue.”

Landing astronauts is something we’ve only done on the Moon, but the value of the experience is clear — we’ve had human decision-making at work on the surface, exploring six different sites (some of them with the lunar rover) and returning 382 kilograms of lunar material. The fact that we haven’t yet obtained samples from Mars doesn’t mean it’s impossible to do robotically, but a program of manned exploration clearly points to far more comprehensive surface study. Crawford points out that the diversity of returned samples is even more important on Mars, which is more geologically interesting than the Moon and offers a more complicated history.

Image: Apollo 15 carried out 18.5 hours of lunar extra-vehicular activity, the first of the “J missions,” where a greater emphasis was placed on scientific studies. The rover tracks and footprints around the area give an idea of the astronauts’ intense activity at the site. Credit: NASA.

Sending astronauts by necessity means returning a payload to Earth along with intelligently collected samples. From Crawford’s paper:

Robotic explorers, on the other hand, generally do not return (this is one reason why they are cheaper!) so nothing can come back with them. Even if robotic sample return missions are implemented, neither the quantity nor the diversity of these samples will be as high as would be achievable in the context of a human mission — again compare the 382 kg of samples (collected from  over 2000 discrete locations) returned by Apollo, with the 0.32 kg (collected from three locations) brought back by the Luna sample return missions.

It’s hard to top a yield like that with any forseeable robotic effort. Adds Crawford:

The Apollo sample  haul might also be compared with the ≤ 0.5 kg generally considered in the context  of future robotic Mars sample return missions… Note that this comparison is not intended in any way to downplay the scientific importance of robotic Mars sample return, which will in any case be essential before human missions can responsibly be sent to Mars, but merely to point out the step change in sample availability (both in quantity and diversity) that may be expected when and if human missions are sent to the planet.

Large sample returns have generated, at least in the case of the Apollo missions, huge amounts of refereed scientific papers, especially when compared to the publications growing out of robotic landings. Crawford argues that it is the quantity and diversity of sample returns that have fueled the publications, and points out that all of this has occurred because of a mere 12.5 days total contact time on the lunar surface (and the actual EVA time was only 3.4 days at that). Compare this to the 436 active days on the surface for the Lunokhods and 5162 days for the Mars Exploration Rovers. Moreover, the Apollo publication rate is still rising. Quoting the paper again:

The lesson seems clear: if at some future date a series of Apollo-like human missions return to the Moon and/or are sent on to Mars, and if these are funded (as they will be) for a complex range of socio-political reasons, scientists will get more for our money piggy-backing science on them than we will get by relying on dedicated autonomous robotic vehicles which will, in any case, become increasingly unaffordable.

Will the Global Exploration Strategy laid out by the world’s space agencies in 2007 point us to a future in which international cooperation takes us back to the Moon and on to Mars? If so, science should be a major beneficiary as we learn things about the origin of the Solar System and its evolution that we would not learn remotely as well by using robotic spacecraft. So goes Crawford’s argument, and it’s a bracing tonic for those of us who grew up assuming that space exploration meant sending humans to targets throughout our Solar System and beyond. That robotic probes should precede them seems inevitable, but we have not yet reached the level of artificial intelligence that will let robots supercede humans in space.

Currently in mainstream space activities, commercial companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, Sierra Nevada, etc., are taking the lead in the future exploration of Near Space and the Solar System vice any future explorations by NASA, inspite of what parochial politicians in certain states try to do in Congress.

Of course this precludes any gains made by secret black projects in the military-industrial-complex in the area of any secret space programs.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons politicians aren’t too worried about sending manned NASA missions back to the Moon?

Reasons for a Human Future in Space

Many thanks to Paul Gilster and his great site Centauri Dreams.


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