Tag Archives: NASA

Another Anomalous Object Found By Mars Rover Curiosity

From universetoday.com:

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: http://www.universetoday.com/99750/another-weird-shiny-thing-on-mars-2/#ixzz2KDl7cnhJ

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: http://www.universetoday.com/99750/another-weird-shiny-thing-on-mars-2/#ixzz2KDlMaR75

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: http://www.universetoday.com/99750/another-weird-shiny-thing-on-mars-2/#ixzz2KDlg7lPw

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.

Robot Rovers To Explore Asteroids and Moons

From kurzweilai.net:

Stanford researchers in collaboration with NASA JPL and MIT have designed a robotic platform that involves a mother spacecraft deploying one or several spiked, roughly spherical rovers to the Martian moon Phobos.

Measuring about half a meter wide, each rover would hop, tumble and bound across the cratered, lopsided moon, relaying information about its origins, as well as its soil and other surface materials.

Developed by Marco Pavone, an assistant professor in Stanford’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the Phobos Surveyor, a coffee-table-sized vehicle flanked by two umbrella-shaped solar panels, would orbit around Phobos throughout the mission. The researchers have already constructed a prototype.

The Surveyor would release only one hedgehog at a time. Together, the mothership and hedgehogs would work together to determine the hedgehog’s position and orientation. Using this information, they would map a trajectory, which the mother craft would then command the hedgehog to travel.

In turn, the spiky explorers would relay scientific measurements back to the Phobos Surveyor, which would forward the data to researchers on Earth. Based on their analysis of the data, the scientists would direct the mothership to the next hedgehog deployment site.

An entire mission would last two to three years. Just flying to Phobos would take the Surveyor about two years. Then the initial reconnaissance phase, during which the Surveyor would map the terrain, would last a few months. The mothership would release each of the five or six hedgehogs several days apart, allowing scientists enough time to decide where to release the next hedgehog.

For many decisions, Pavone’s system renders human control unnecessary. “It’s the next level of autonomy in space,” he said.

Moon clues

The synergy between the Phobos Surveyor and the hedgehogs would also be reflected in their sharing of scientific roles. The Surveyor would take large-scale measurements, while the hedgehogs would gather more detailed data. For example, the Surveyor might use a gamma ray or neutron detector to measure the concentration of various chemical elements and compounds on the surface, while the hedgehogs might use microscopes to measure the fine crevices and fissures lining the terrain.

Although scientists could use the platform to explore any of the solar system’s smaller members, including comets and asteroids, Pavone has designed it with the Martian moon Phobos in mind.

An analysis of Phobos’ soil composition could uncover clues about the moon’s origin. Scientists have yet to agree on whether Phobos is an asteroid captured by the gravity of Mars or a piece of Mars that an asteroid impact flung into orbit. This could have deep implications for our current understanding of the origin and evolution of the solar system, Pavone said.

To confirm Phobos’ origins, Pavone’s group plans to deploy most of the hybrids near Stickney Crater. Besides providing a gravity “sweet spot” where the mother craft can stably hover between Mars and Phobos, the crater also exposes the moon’s inner layers.

A human mission to Mars presents hefty challenges, mainly associated with the planet’s high gravity, which heightens the risk of crashing during takeoffs and landings. The large amounts of fuel needed to overcome Mars’ strong pull during takeoffs could also make missions prohibitively expensive.

But Phobos’ gravity is a thousand times weaker than on Mars. If Phobos did indeed originate from the red planet, scientists could study Mars without the dangers and costs associated with its high gravity simply by sending astronauts to Phobos. They could study the moon itself or use it as a base station to operate a robot located on Mars.  The moon could also serve as a site to test technologies for potential use in a human mission to the planet.

“It’s a piece of technology that’s needed before any more expensive type of exploration is considered,” Pavone said of the spacecraft-rover hybrid. “Before sampling we need to know where to land. We need to deploy rovers to acquire info about the surface.”

These probes could  be precursors to a sample return mission. A promising area to dig determined beforehand would cut down on cost and wear and tear.

But these rovers could be used on their own for private industry, such as Google Maps in order to give ( and sell ) accurate virtual reality tours to Millenials who wish to sit in their livingrooms and explore Mars safely.

A true pre-Singularity technology.

Acrobatic space rovers to explore moons and asteroids

Slow Galactic Colonization, Zoo Hypothesis and the Fermi Paradox

I couldn’t resist posting this today after reading it at Centauri Dreams. It’s extremely mainstream, by which the papers Paul Gilster discusses uses geological travel times for interstellar travel and the effects on the Fermi Paradox.

But he talks about the “zoo” hypothesis for our supposed lack of contact with ETIs ( no discussion of UFOs what-so-ever of course ) and I find that fascinating:

[…]

Many explanations for the Fermi paradox exist, but Hair and Hedman want to look at the possibility that starflight is so long and difficult that it takes vast amounts of time (measured in geologic epochs) to colonize on the galactic scale. Given that scenario, large voids within the colonized regions may still persist and remain uninhabited. If the Earth were located inside one of these voids we would not be aware of the extraterrestrial expansion. A second possibility is that starflight is so hard to achieve that other civilizations have simply not had time to reach us despite having, by some calculations, as much as 5 billion years to have done so (the latter figure comes from Charles Lineweaver, and I’ll have more to say about it in a moment).

Image: A detailed view of part of the disc of the spiral galaxy NGC 4565. Have technological civilizations had time enough to spread through an entire galaxy, and if so, would they be detectable? Credit: ESA/NASA.

The authors work with an algorithm that allows modeling of the expansion from the original star, running through iterations that allow emigration patterns to be analyzed in light of these prospects. It turns out that in 250 iterations, covering 250,000 years, a civilization most likely to emigrate will travel about 500 light years, for a rate of expansion that is approximately one-fourth of the maximum travel speed of one percent of the speed of light, the conservative figure chosen for this investigation. A civilization would spread through the galaxy in less than 50 million years.

These are striking numbers. Given five billion years to work with, the first civilization to develop starfaring capabilities could have colonized the Milky Way not one but 100 times. The idea that it takes billions of years to accomplish a galaxy-wide expansion fails the test of this modeling. Moreover, the idea of voids inside colonized space fails to explain the Fermi paradox as well:

…while interior voids exist at lower values of c initially, most large interior voids become colonized after long periods regardless of the cardinal value chosen, leaving behind only relatively small voids. In an examination of several 250 Kyr models with a wide range of parameters, the largest interior void encountered was roughly 30 light years in diameter. Since humans have been broadcasting radio since the early 20th century and actively listening to radio signals from space since 1960 (Time 1960), it is highly unlikely that the Earth is located in a void large enough to remain undiscovered to the present day. It follows that the second explanation of Fermi’s Paradox (Landis 1998) is not supported by the model presented.

There are mitigating factors that can slow down what the authors call the ‘explosively exponential nature’ of expansion, in which a parent colony produces daughter colonies and the daughters continue to do the same ad infinitum. The paper’s model suggests that intense competition for new worlds can spring up in the expanding wavefront of colonization. At the same time, moving into interior voids to fill them with colonies slows the outward expansion. But even models set up to reduce competition between colonies present the same result: Fermi’s lunchtime calculations seem to be valid, and the fact that we do not see evidence of other civilizations suggests that this kind of galactic expansion has not yet taken place.

Temporal Dispersion into the Galaxy

I can’t discuss Hair and Hedman’s work without reference to Hair’s earlier paper on the expansion of extraterrestrial civilizations over time. Tom had sent me this one in 2011 and I worked it into the Centauri Dreams queue before getting sidetracked by preparations for the 100 Year Starship symposium in Orlando. If I had been on the ball, I would have run an analysis of Tom’s paper at the time, but the delay gives me the opportunity to consider the two papers together, which turns out to work because they are a natural fit.

For you can see that Hair’s spatial analysis goes hand in glove with the question of why an extraterrestrial intelligence might avoid making its presence known. Given that models of expansion point to a galaxy that can be colonized many times over before humans ever emerged on our planet, let’s take up a classic answer to the Fermi paradox, that the ‘zoo hypothesis’ is in effect, a policy of non-interference in local affairs for whatever reason. Initially compelling, the idea seems to break down under close examination, given that it only takes one civilization to act contrary to it.

But there is one plausible scenario that allows the zoo hypothesis to work: The influence of a particularly distinguished civilization. Call it the first civilization. What sort of temporal head start would this first civilization have over later arrivals?

Hair uses Monte Carlo simulations, drawing on the work of Charles Lineweaver and the latter’s estimate that planets began forming approximately 9.3 billion years ago. Using Earth as a model and assuming that life emerged here about 600 million years after formation, we get an estimate of 8.7 billion years ago for the appearance of the first life in the Milky Way. Factoring in how long it took for complex land-dwelling organisms to evolve (3.7 billion years), Lineweaver concludes that the conditions necessary to support intelligent life in the universe could have been present for at least 5.0 billion years. At some point in that 5 billion years, if other intelligent species exist, the first civilization arose. Hair’s modeling goes to work on how long this civilization would have had to itself before other intelligence emerged. The question thus has Fermi implications:

…even if this first grand civilization is long gone . . . could their initial legacy live on in the form of a passed down tradition? Beyond this, it does not even have to be the first civilization, but simply the first to spread its doctrine and control over a large volume of the galaxy. If just one civilization gained this hegemony in the distant past, it could form an unbroken chain of taboo against rapacious colonization in favour of non-interference in those civilizations that follow. The uniformity of motive concept previously mentioned would become moot in such a situation.

Thus the Zoo Hypothesis begins to look a bit more plausible if we have each subsequent civilization emerging into a galaxy monitored by a vastly more ancient predecessor who has established the basic rules for interaction between intelligent species. The details of Hair’s modeling are found in the paper, but the conclusions are startling, at least to me:

The time between the emergence of the first civilization within the Milky Way and all subsequent civilizations could be enormous. The Monte Carlo data show that even using a crowded galaxy scenario the first few inter-arrival times are similar in length to geologic epochs on Earth. Just what could a civilization do with a ten million, one hundred million, or half billion year head start (Kardashev 1964)? If, for example, civilizations uniformly arise within the Galactic Habitable Zone, then on these timescales the first civilization would be able to reach the solar system of the second civilization long before it evolved even travelling at a very modest fraction of light speed (Bracewell 1974, 1982; Freitas 1980). What impact would the arrival of the first civilization have on the future evolution of the second civilization? Would the second civilization even be allowed to evolve? Attempting to answer these questions leads to one of two basic conclusions, the first is that we are alone in the Galaxy and thus no one has passed this way, and the second is that we are not alone in the Galaxy and someone has passed this way and then deliberately left us alone.

The zoo hypothesis indeed. A galactic model of non-interference is a tough sell because of the assumed diversity between cultures emerging on a vast array of worlds over time. But Hair’s ‘modified zoo hypothesis’ has great appeal. It assumes that the oldest civilization in the galaxy has a 100 million year head start, allowing it to become hugely influential in monitoring or perhaps controlling emerging civilizations. We would thus be talking about the possibility of evolving similar cultural standards with regard to contact as civilizations follow the lead of this assumed first intelligence when expanding into the galaxy. It’s an answer to Fermi that holds out hope we are not alone, and I’ll count that as still another encouraging thought on the day the world didn’t end.

I have a problem with this simply because of the economics involved; what is the motivation for ETIs to expand into the Universe to begin with?

Like, are they like humans in the sense that we go because “it’s there?”

Or are there more practical impulses involved like “can we make money” on these endeavors?

A commentor to this particular post wrote that before we colonize ( if we ever do ) the Moon, Mars and other planets in this Solar System ( and perhaps the closer stars ) that it’ll be cheaper to shoot small probes with micro cameras to these places ( NASA is already proposing sending tele-operated probes to the Lunar surface instead of astronauts ) and sell virtual reality tours. Expanded versions of Google Earth and Google Mars!

In other words, it’s cheaper to build Universes that have Star Trek and upload your mind into it than actually building such things as star-ships!

Could this be an answer to the Fermi Paradox?

New Models of Galactic Expansion

Whither Martian Radiation?

From New Scientist:

You needn’t fry on Mars. Readings from NASA’s Curiosity rover suggest radiation levels on the Red Planet are about the same as those in low Earth orbit, where astronauts hang out for months on the International Space Station. A Mars visit would still be dangerous though, due to the years-long return trip.

Unlike Earth, Mars has no magnetosphere shielding it from solar and galactic radiation. But it does have a thin atmosphere, and readings from two of Curiosity’s instruments suggest this provides some protection.

“This is the first ever measurement of the radiation environment on any planet other than Earth,” Curiosity team member Don Hassler said at a press briefing on 15 November. “Astronauts can live in this environment.”

The rover’s weather station recorded evidence of what is known as a thermal tide on Mars. Sunlight heats the planet’s atmosphere on the side facing the sun, causing it to expand upwards and triggering a decrease in air pressure. But things chill quickly on the other side, so that the atmosphere deflates and becomes denser.

As Mars rotates, the bulge of heated air travels with the “day” side from east to west. Curiosity feels this effect as changes in air pressure over the course of a Martian day, rover scientist Claire Newman of Ashima Research in California said during the briefing.

Radiation shield

At the same time, the rover’s radiation monitor saw daily dips in charged particles that match the increases in air pressure that come with a denser atmosphere. “The atmosphere is acting as a shield to radiation,” Hassler said.

The scientists were not ready to put numbers to the daily radiation dose people would experience on Mars. But the overall levels are lower than those the spacecraft carrying Curiosity recorded during its interplanetary flight, and about what astronauts see on the ISS.

“It’s roughly what we were expecting,” astrobiologist Lewis Dartnell of University College London told New Scientist.

The biggest threat to Mars voyagers would be the cumulative radiation exposure during the long trip. NASA estimates that a return human mission to Mars would take three years. During that time astronauts might receive more than seven times the radiation dose they get during six months on the ISS.

Setting limits

Building up radiation exposure increases the risk of developing various cancers, so NASA has set limits on how much total radiation astronauts can experience over the course of their careers. Figuring out the exact risk on Mars is crucial to understanding the total dose a human mission would face and whether it is within safe limits, Hassler said.

Solar flares would also be a problem. On Earth these eruptions of charged particles from the sun are largely deflected by the magnetosphere. But Mars enjoys no such protection, and since Curiosity has yet to see a flare, it is unclear how much shielding the thin atmosphere would provide. ‘

Dartnell suggests that a base or colony on Mars could be built underground to avoid surface radiation. Or, with enough advance warning, astronauts could retreat to protective shelters during a flare. But is all that trouble worth it just to send humans where robots already thrive?

“An astronaut or geologist that’s trained in science that has a brain and a pair of hands and pair of eyes with a rock hammer can do a lot more on the surface on Mars before breakfast than a robot can do in weeks,” says Dartnell.

Well, I guess I stand corrected on my blog post yesterday about human destroying radiation on the Martian surface yesterday!

This is a good thing, if one is a supporter of human based spaceflight and colonization, but one must remember the financial cost of such an endeavor, despite of the discovery that the Martian atmosphere can turn away radiation to a manageable level.

But perhaps Elon Musk can get his initial wish of landing an automated green-house on Mars? That would would be a good test to see if organics can grow there with few harmful mutations?

Mars is safe from radiation – but the trip there isn’t

Of Bracewell Probes, Black Knights, VALIS and NASA’s Unmanned Machines

Bracewell Probe – “…is an interstellar probe theorized by Ronald Bracewell in 1960 that is sent to prospective nearby solar systems to study for life, or primitive civilizations.” ( https://dad2059.wordpress.com/2010/06/08/ancient-bracewell-probe-in-solar-system/)

Black Knight Satellite – “Forbidden History Website Link and Article:

https://forbiddenhistory.info/?q=node/57 

“Black Knight” Satellite

What is the “Black Knight” satellite? It is a mysterious satellite, of unknown origin, discovered in 1960 which shadowed Sputnik. It is believed to have been of extraterrestrial origin, and signaled back old radio waves from the 1920s and 1930s before it disappeared. In short wave patterns analyzed by astronomer Duncan Lunan, it revealed its origin as Epsilon Boötes (or the star system as it was 13,000 years ago).

In “Disneyland of the Gods”, by John Keel, he reports in depth on this satellite:

“In February 1960 the US detected an unknown object in polar orbit, a feat that neither they or the USSR had been able to accomplish. As if that wasn’t enough, it apparently was several sizes larger than anything either country would have been able to get off the ground.

And then, the oddness began. HAM operators began to receive strange coded messages. One person in particular said he managed to decode one of the transmissions, and it corresponded to a star chart. A star chart which would have been plotted from earth 13,000 years ago, and focused on the Epsilon Bostes star system.

On September 3, 1960, seven months after the satellite was first detected by radar, a tracking camera at Grumman Aircraft Corporation’s Long Island factory took a photograph of it. People on the ground had been occasionally seeing it for about two weeks at that point. Viewers would make it out as a red glowing object moving in an east-to-west orbit. Most satellites of the time, according to what little material I’ve been able to find on the black knight satellite, moved from west-to-east. It’s speed was also about three times normal. A committee was formed to examine it, but nothing more was ever made public.

Three years later, Gordon Cooper was launched into space for a 22 orbit mission. On his final orbit, he reported seeing a glowing green shape ahead of his capsule, and heading in his direction. It’s said that the Muchea tracking station, in Australia, which Cooper reported this too was also able to pick it up on radar traveling in an east-to-west orbit. This event was reported by NBC, but reporters were forbidden to ask Cooper about the event on his landing. The official explanation is that an electrical malfunction in the capsule had caused high levels of carbon dioxide, which induced hallucinations.[1]”

Now, I [webmaster] haven’t been able to find reports on this satellite from any news source, but given the recently discovered photos from Russian satellite footage and the stories regarding unknown objects that the early US astronauts saw, I’m inclined to believe this satellite existed. However, the question is its origin- was it a secret US military project, an artifact from earlier in history, or extraterrestrial? The evidence is insufficient to determine the answer.” (http://www.alienscientist.com/forum/showthread.php?2424-The-Black-Knight-Satellite-What-is-it-Where-did-it-come-from)

VALIS – “…is a 1981 science fiction novel by Philip K. Dick. The title is an acronym for Vast Active Living Intelligence System, Dick’s gnostic vision of one aspect ofGod.

[…]Horselover Fat believes his visions expose hidden facts about the reality of life on Earth, and a group of others join him in researching these matters. One of their theories is that there is some kind of alien space probe in orbit around Earth, and that it is aiding them in their quest. It also aided the United States in disclosing the Watergate scandal and the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974. There is a filmed account of an alternate universe Nixon, “Ferris Freemont” and his fall, engineered by a fictionalised Valis, which leads them to an estate owned by the Lamptons, popular musicians. Valis (the fictional film) contains obvious references to identical revelations to those that Horselover Fat has experienced. They decide the goal that they have been led toward is Sophia, who is two years old and the Messiah or incarnation of Holy Wisdom anticipated by some variants of Gnostic Christianity. She tells them that their conclusions are correct, but dies after a laser accident. Undeterred, Fat goes on a global search for the next incarnation of Sophia. Dick also offers a rationalist explanation of his apparent “theophany”, acknowledging that it might have been visual and auditory hallucinations from either schizophrenia or drug addiction sequelae.

……………

Now what does the above have to do with future NASA machines that will be tele-operated from the orbit of the Earth, Moon and a moon of Mars?

That the end product of the future NASA machines will be intelligent, whether they be pure robotic intelligences, uploaded minds or a combination of both.

Let’s study the possible alien Black Knight/VALIS Bracewell probe first:

Originally posted by Esoterica a member of ATS Post ID 292902 
Thread – http://www.abovetopsecret.com/forum/thread292902/pg1 

I was in a bookstore and was just flipping through a bargain book of weird happenings.  One entry, only a couple of paragraphs long, caught my interest because I had never heard of it before.

The basic blurb was that in 1957, an unknown satellite was detected shadowing the Sputnik I craft.  It was in a polar orbit, something that neither the Americans or Soviets were capable of at the time.  There was a statement that ham radio operaters pickd up radio transmissions that were “decoded” (whatever that means) as being a star map that indicated the craft originated from Epsilon Bootes 13,000 years before.  This object was dubbed “The Black Knight.”

Also in this blurb, there was mention that science fiction author Philip K. Dick believed that he was in contact with this object, which he wrote several novels about, and gave it various names (VALIS, Zebra). 

So obviously intrigued, I did some searching on ATS and found no mention of it.  Google had a few returns which indicated this story was first written about in John Keel’s “Disneyland of the Gods.”  The effort is hampered because there are several legit satellite projects codenamed “Black Knight.”

The information of Dick’s experiences and writings indicated he received visions, and seemed to interperet the experience and object in somewhat Christian religious terms, in addition to strange communications and diagrams he couldn’t interperet.  He eventually became paranoid Russian scientists were attempting to control the satellite.  A science fiction writer infamous for his heavy drug use eventually living out a sci-fi story… seems to me just as likely that it was just his lifestyle catching up to him than any ET communication.  But who knows.

In my searching, I also discovered a very close story from 1927, 30 years earlier.  It involves the phenomena of Long Delayed Echoes.  Essentially, these are radio transmissions that are reflected back, apparently from space, seconds to minutes after they are first sent.  There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it.  It could be atmospheric effects just making it appear as if the transmissions are coming from space, or it could ben an alien craft attempting to communicate with us.  Logically, it would send back transmissions it recieved from Earth because it could be almost positive that we could receive it.  Anyway, the story is that Norwegian scientists received strange radio “echoes” in 1927-28.  In the 1970’s Scottish astronomer Duncan Lunan interpereted the delayed transmission as a star map… of Epsilon Bootis.  Whether these are two instances of the same stragne transmissions, or one story is a retelling of the other is unknown to me.  It wouldn’t be the first time the same ideas were repackaged and attempted to be passed off as a “new” anomalous story.

Anyway, I made this thread just to get the story out there, and to ask if anybody has any additional information regarding it.  Below are links to everything pertinent I could find on the internet, and most are just retellings of the same story in different forms.

I have a theory; One billion years ago intelligent life and eventually civilization arose on the second planet of Epsilon Bootes. I have no idea what form these beings had, but they had the ability to manipulate their environment to the point where they built a highly technical civilization. They built space probes to explore their solar system and telescopes to spy upon the stars closest to them and out into the Universe.

Then they observed a small G2 star about 200 light-years from them and with eventually more powerful telescopes, they spied a small, green world dead center of the star’s habitable zone.

They studied and they studied. Their viewing apparatuses evolved to the point where they can see the surface of the green world. They studied the flora and fauna more as time went by. In the meantime however, their own star evolved. The star, which is a K-type, burns hotter and is prone to fierce magnetic storms and flares. And it was due for a slight expansion.

The beings on the second world knew their planet was going to be razed by the expansion and there was no safe haven close by. They had to move their civilization lock, stock and barrel to a safe distance. And the safest distance was out to the seventh world in their solar system. But the planet wasn’t suitable to their form of life. And it was too late to change the planet into one in which they could survive in their present form on it’s surface.

But it wasn’t too late to change themselves.

The change didn’t take long, being real close to a Technological Singularity, their civilization transformed itself into a cyborg/machine culture in which they uploaded their minds into indestructible materials. The original race perished, but their children survived and thrived on the seventh planet.

In the meanwhile, their studies of Sol 3 didn’t stop. By the time the original Epsilon Bootes 2 civilization evolved into the Epsilon Bootes 7 civilization, a creature arose on the green world that caught the collective eye of the Booteans.

And the creature showed the promise of the one trait the Booteans held in high esteem; Intelligence.

Knowing full well they dodged a major extinction event, the Booteans decided they needed to nurture possible intelligence wherever it is found in the Universe, for in their observations Intelligence seemed to be rare, despite the fact that life itself wasn’t.

And they couldn’t believe their incredible good luck in discovering a proto-intelligent species relatively close-by to their own solar system.

So they decide to construct an intelligent probe to send to the planet in order to “help” the creatures along on the evolutionary path to reach their full potential. The probe was outfitted with all kinds of communication devices which are electromagnetic, digital, radio, quantum and what could be described as “telepathic.”

The rest is history. The Bootean probe has been in the L2 zone of the Moon’s orbit for what I guess to be about 7 million years, a relatively short amount of time in the Universe scheme of things, the evolution of intelligent beings and their close proximity to each other in Time and Space.

Could the U.S. military have the probe in its possession and has been trying to access it’s memory for decades? Is the UFO phenomenon all mental hallucinations created by the Probe in order to get us ready to accept the existence of K1, 2 or 3 civilizations?

If we turn our telescopes to Epsilon Bootes, will we find a thriving post-Singularity culture there, or Ascension Fossils?

And will our own NASA probes eventually evolve into intelligent machines that explores our Solar System and nearby stars?

Maybe I’ll get my mind uploaded in a couple of decades and find out for myself!

Interplanetary Internet Communication and Robotics

From Kurzweilai.net:

NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) used an experimental version of interplanetary Internet in late October to control an educational rover from the International Space Station, NASA says.

The experiment used NASA’s Disruption Tolerant Networking (DTN) protocol to transmit messages and demonstrate technology that one day may enable Internet-like communications with space vehicles and support habitats or infrastructure on another planet.

Space station Expedition 33 commander Sunita Williams in late October used a NASA-developed laptop to remotely drive a small LEGO robot at the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany. The European-led experiment used NASA’s DTN to simulate a scenario in which an astronaut in a vehicle orbiting a planetary body controls a robotic rover on the planet’s surface.

“The demonstration showed the feasibility of using a new communications infrastructure to send commands to a surface robot from an orbiting spacecraft and receive images and data back from the robot,” said Badri Younes, deputy associate administrator for space communications and navigation at NASA Headquarters. “The experimental DTN we’ve tested from the space station may one day be used by humans on a spacecraft in orbit around Mars to operate robots on the surface, or from Earth using orbiting satellites as relay stations.”

The DTN architecture is a new communications technology that enables standardized communications similar to the Internet to function over long distances and through time delays associated with on-orbit or deep space spacecraft or robotic systems. The core of the DTN suite is the Bundle Protocol (BP), which is roughly equivalent to the Internet Protocol (IP) that serves as the core of the Internet on Earth.

While IP assumes a continuous end-to-end data path exists between the user and a remote space system, DTN accounts for disconnections and errors. In DTN, data move through the network “hop-by-hop.” While waiting for the next link to become connected, bundles are temporarily stored and then forwarded to the next node when the link becomes available.

NASA’s work on DTN is part of the agency’s Space Communication and Navigation (SCaN) Program. SCaN coordinates multiple space communications networks and network support functions to regulate, maintain and grow NASA’s space communications and navigation capabilities in support of the agency’s space missions.

This ties in with NASA’s future plans of putting a small space station at the L2 (EML-2) point in the Moon’s orbit so that robotic exploration of the lunar surface can take place.

Of course this depends if this method is cost effective or not and the taxpaying public ( in both the U.S. and the EU ) are willing to foot the bill.

Astronaut on ISS uses interplanetary Internet to control robot in Germany

Future Space Explorations will be Humans with Robots

From Wired.com:

[…]

Rumors are currently swirling that NASA may soon announce plans to send humans back to the moon and then, onward, to an asteroid and Mars. While this immediately invokes visions of moon bases and the first footsteps on Mars, the truth is likely to be very different.

Nowadays some scientists and engineers at NASA and other space agencies are taking a second look at historical exploration scenarios. In the past, robotic and human exploration have been seen as rivals, we either do one or the other. Some in the spaceflight community have said we can do everything with machines while others argued that exploration is a man’s job. But there’s another option. The still-nascent field of telerobotics, where humans operate robotic surrogates from afar, means that our next exploration efforts will be quite unlike anything seen before.

With ever-improving computing power and communication protocols, astronauts could float in a space station in orbit around the moon or Mars, donning exoskeleton controllers to teleoperate robots in real time. These probes would drive, fly, drill, dig, scoop, and gather material faster and with more precision than current probes controlled from Earth. The best part of humans, our powerful brains that can identify the perfect geologic rock sample and make decisions on the fly, would be combined with all the advantages of robots — their advanced cameras, suites of instruments, and bodies that aren’t prone to degenerative problems like blindness and bone loss after months of space travel. One day our mechanical proxies could even help humans visit places that would destroy our bodies, like the hellish surface of Venus or the frozen ocean of Europa.

“I don’t want to replace the humans in space with robots,” said NASA engineer Geoffrey Landis, who works with the Spirit and Opportunity rover science team and writes science fiction. “But I think it’s a good way to start. Because we do have robots and the robots are getting much better, while the humans are evolving much more slowly. Let’s not do humans or robots, lets work together.”

The future will be one where human cognition visits another planet via machine while our bodies remain high above it. Welcome to planetary exploration rebooted or, perhaps, de-booted.

NASA is an exploration agency but there are currently several competing ideas as to what their destination should be. A plan that started development in 2004, President Bush’s Constellation program, would have built an enormous new rocket and tons of new hardware to enable a moon base and future Mars mission. Constellation, sometimes referred to as “Apollo on steroids,” would have also incurred enormous costs. The Obama administration canceled the effort in 2010 and decided NASA should avoid the deep and potentially dangerous gravity wells of planets, focusing instead on zero-g points around the moon or an asteroid. But vestiges of the old Constellation program remain.

Congress was all for ditching the moon and Mars plans but decided to keep building the shiny new rocket (maintaining employment in many of their constituent districts). The Space Launch System, which is scheduled to be ready for human crews in 2019, will be the most powerful rocket ever built, capable of bringing astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit, where the space station sits, for the first time since the Apollo days.

This puts NASA in a conundrum. “Once you’re out there, then what do you do?” said astronomer Jack Burns from the University of Colorado. Within a decade, we may be able to get people in the vicinity of the moon but “there’s not enough money in the budget to build a human lander.”

Space funding is flat. NASA is not projected to get much more than its current $17.7 billion per year for the next five years. This makes efforts that don’t require human landings on other worlds much more attractive. Burns is part of the new wave of scientists and engineers that are re-thinking exploration. He helps run a consortium called the Lunar University Network for Astrophysics Research (LUNAR) that is looking at missions where astronauts teleoperate robots on the lunar far side to conduct scientific investigations.

Under such a project, NASA would use its big new rocket to get astronauts to the Earth-moon Lagrange 2 point, where gravitational forces from both bodies cancel out and allow a spaceship to sit tight without expending fuel. From here, a crew could stay in continuous contact with mission control on Earth while floating 40,000 miles above the far side of the moon, an area never explored by Apollo. Perhaps as early as next decade, three astronauts could visit L2 in NASA’s Orion spacecraft. It’s possible that there they would meet up with a deep-space habitat derived from leftover ISS parts that NASA is currently planning.

From their vantage high above the moon, the crew would release a flotilla of rovers and probes to the lunar surface and direct them to interesting geological areas, such as the South Pole Aitken Basin. As one of the largest and oldest impact basins in the solar system, Aitken would provide valuable information about the heavy asteroid shellacking our planet received during its earliest days. A human operator would drive the rover around and select several 4 billion-year-old rocks, corresponding to a time when the first single-celled life forms appearing on Earth. If the crew could return such rocks back to a lab, scientists might be able to figure out the origin story of terrestrial life.

Image: NASA and the LUNAR consortium’s K-10 Black rover, performing tests in a crater in Canada. Matt Deans

Another project that researchers envision would use a remote-controlled robot to roll out 33-foot-long sheets of thin plastic studded with metallic antennas. These structures would act as a giant radio antenna, listening to signals from the earliest stars and galaxies. Scientists currently have little information about the time between the smooth universe just after the Big Bang and a billion years later, when the cosmos was full of stars and galaxies. Earth’s radio frequencies are jammed up with noise from garage door openers, radio, TV signals, and other technology so the lunar far side provides a clean window to this early history of the universe.

In the summer of 2013, NASA will begin telerobotics field tests at Ames research campus in Mountain View, California. Astronauts aboard the ISS will control a robot named K-10 as it travels over the surface and deploys a roll of film antennas.

“The future will be one in which an astronaut leads a team of robots,” said Burns. “They will be pioneers for what is going to be the new way of exploring in space and other planetary bodies.”

This works into the Singularity scenario very well because robotic tele-operations will quickly evolve into mind-uploading.

I’m not really sure if that’s a good thing, but it will be more cost effective to change an organism to fit an alien environment than try to engineer an environment to fit an alien organism ( meaning human explorers or settlers ).

Time will tell.

Almost Being There: Why the Future of Space Exploration Is Not What You Think

Elon Musk Interview

From Wired Science:

When a man tells you about the time he planned to put a vegetable garden on Mars, you worry about his mental state. But if that same man has since launched multiple rockets that are actually capable of reaching Mars—sending them into orbit, Bond-style, from a tiny island in the Pacific—you need to find another diagnosis. That’s the thing about extreme entrepreneurialism: There’s a fine line between madness and genius, and you need a little bit of both to really change the world.
——–
All entrepreneurs have an aptitude for risk, but more important than that is their capacity for self-delusion. Indeed, psychological investigations have found that entrepreneurs aren’t more risk-tolerant than non-entrepreneurs. They just have an extraordinary ability to believe in their own visions, so much so that they think what they’re embarking on isn’t really that risky. They’re wrong, of course, but without the ability to be so wrong—to willfully ignore all those naysayers and all that evidence to the contrary—no one would possess the necessary audacity to start something radically new.

I have never met an entrepreneur who fits this model more than Elon Musk. All of the entrepreneurs I admire most—Musk, Jeff Bezos, Reed Hastings, Jack Dorsey, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and a few others—have sought not just to build great companies but to take on problems that really matter. Yet even in this class of universe-denters, Musk stands out. After cofounding a series of Internet companies, including PayPal, the South African transplant could simply have retired to enjoy his riches. Instead he decided to disrupt the most difficult-to-master industries in the world. At 41 he is reinventing the car with Tesla, which is building all-electric vehicles in a Detroit-scale factory. (Wired profiled this venture in issue 18.10.) He is transforming energy with SolarCity, a startup that leases solar-power systems to homeowners.

And he is leading the private space race with SpaceX, which is poised to replace the space shuttle and usher us into an interplanetary age. Since Musk founded the company in 2002, it has developed a series of next-generation rockets that can deliver payloads to space for a fraction of the price of legacy rockets. In 2010 SpaceX became the first private company to launch a spacecraft into orbit and bring it back; in 2012 it sent a craft to berth successfully with the International Space Station.

It’s no wonder the character of Tony Stark in Iron Man, played by Robert Downey Jr., was modeled on Musk: This is superhero-grade stuff. I sat down with him at Tesla’s Fremont, California, factory to discuss how cheaper and (eventually) reusable rockets might someday put humans on Mars.

Chris Anderson: You’re not a rocket scientist by training. You’re not a space engineer.

Elon Musk: That’s true. My background educationally is physics and economics, and I grew up in sort of an engineering environment—my father is an electromechanical engineer. And so there were lots of engineery things around me. When I asked for an explanation, I got the true explanation of how things work. I also did things like make model rockets, and in South Africa there were no premade rockets: I had to go to the chemist and get the ingredients for rocket fuel, mix it, put it in a pipe.

Anderson: But then you became an Internet entrepreneur.

Musk: I never had a job where I made anything physical. I cofounded two Internet software companies, Zip2 and PayPal. So it took me a few years to kind of learn rocket science, if you will.

Anderson: How were you drawn to space as your next venture?

Musk: In 2002, once it became clear that PayPal was going to get sold, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine, the entrepreneur Adeo Ressi, who was actually my college housemate. I’d been staying at his home for the weekend, and we were coming back on a rainy day, stuck in traffic on the Long Island Expressway. He was asking me what I would do after PayPal. And I said, well, I’d always been really interested in space, but I didn’t think there was anything I could do as an individual. But, I went on, it seemed clear that we would send people to Mars. Suddenly I began to wonder why it hadn’t happened already. Later I went to the NASA website so I could see the schedule of when we’re supposed to go. [Laughs.]

Anderson: And of course there was nothing.

Musk: At first I thought, jeez, maybe I’m just looking in the wrong place! Why was there no plan, no schedule? There was nothing. It seemed crazy.

Anderson: NASA doesn’t have the budget for that anymore.

Musk: Since 1989, when a study estimated that a manned mission would cost $500 billion, the subject has been toxic. Politicians didn’t want a high-priced federal program like that to be used as a political weapon against them.

Anderson: Their opponents would call it a boondoggle.

Musk: But the United States is a nation of explorers. America is the spirit of human exploration distilled.

Anderson: We all leaped into the unknown to get here.

Star Man

To put Elon Musk’s astronomical goals in perspective, here’s a look at some of his stellar achievements so far.—Victoria Tang

1983

At the age of 12, designs a videogame called Blast Star and sells it to a computer magazine for $500.

1995

After spending two days in a graduate physics program at Stanford, drops out to start Zip2, an online publishing platform for the media industry.

1999

Sells Zip2 to Compaq for $307 million.

2000

Forms PayPal by merging his new online-payments startup, X.com, with Max Levchin and Peter Thiel’s Confinity.

2001

Establishes the Musk Foundation to provide grants for renewable energy, space, and medical research as well as science and engineering education.

2002

PayPal goes public; its stock rises more than 54 percent on the first day of trading. Eight months later, eBay acquires PayPal for $1.5 billion. Musk founds SpaceX.

2004

Invests in Tesla Motors, a company that manufactures high-performance electric cars.

2006

Helps create SolarCity, which provides solar-power systems to some 33,000 buildings. Will serve as the company chair.

2008

NASA selects the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle and the reusable Dragon spacecraft to deliver cargo to the International Space Station after the space shuttles retire.

2010

Makes a cameo appearance in Iron Man 2. Director Jon Favreau cites Musk as an inspiration for Tony Stark.

2012

SpaceX’s Dragon becomes the first commercial spacecraft to berth with the ISS

———

Few people change the course of human history and less realize that witnessing that change is important. Mainstream science is slow to change and it takes a hard-headed individual to fight against it.

Musk is such an individual and it will be interesting to see him outsmart ignorant public and political forces to achieve his stated goal of making mankind a multi-planetary species.

It will be fun to watch!

Elon Musk’s Mission to Mars

Hat tip to Nasa Watch.

Artificial Life-Form Inventer Venter To Build Martian DNA Teleporter

From Technology Review:

Two high-profile entrepreneurs say they want to put a DNA sequencing machine on the surface of Mars in a bid to prove the existence of extraterrestrial life.

In what could become a race for the first extraterrestrial genome, researcher J. Craig Venter said Tuesday that his Maryland academic institute and his company, Synthetic Genomics, would develop a machine capable of sequencing and beaming back DNA data from the planet.

Separately, Jonathan Rothberg, founder of Ion Torrent, a DNA sequencing company, is collaborating on an effort to equip his company’s “Personal Genome Machine” for a similar task.

“We want to make sure an Ion Torrent goes to Mars,” Rothberg told Technology Review.

Although neither team yet has a berth on Mars rocket, their plans reflect the belief that the simplest way to prove there is life on Mars is to send a DNA sequencing machine.

“There will be DNA life forms there,” Venter predicted Tuesday in New York, where he was speaking at the Wired Health Conference.

Venter said researchers working with him have already begun tests at a Mars-like site in the Mojave Desert. Their goal, he said, is to demonstrate a machine capable of autonomously isolating microbes from soil, sequencing their DNA, and then transmitting the information to a remote computer, as would be required on an unmanned Mars mission. (Hear his comments in this video, starting at 00:11:01.) Heather Kowalski, a spokeswoman for Venter, confirmed the existence of the project but said the prototype system was “not yet 100 percent robotic.”

Meanwhile, Rothberg’s Personal Genome Machine is being adapted for Martian conditions as part of a NASA-funded project at Harvard and MIT called SET-G, or “the search for extraterrestrial genomes.”

Christopher Carr, an MIT research scientist involved in the effort, says his lab is working to shrink Ion Torrent’s machine from 30 kilograms down to just three kilograms so that it can fit on a NASA rover. Other tests, already conducted, have determined how well the device can withstand the heavy radiation it would encounter on the way to Mars.

NASA, whose Curiosity rover landed on Mars in August, won’t send another rover mission to the planet before at least 2018 (see “The Mars Rover Curiosity Marks a Technological Triumph“), and there’s no guarantee a DNA sequencing device would go aboard. “The hard thing about getting to Mars is hitting the NASA specifications,” says George Church, a Harvard University researcher and a senior member of the SET-G team. “[Venter] isn’t ahead of anyone else.”

Venter has a great idea here, but it reminds me of a certain movie in which sequencing alien DNA wasn’t such a great plan.

Species !

Genome Hunters Go After Martian DNA

Interview: Lee Billings

From blogs.plos.org:

Like many geeks of the post-Sputnik generation, I grew up hoping that space travel would be common by the time I reached middle age. Weaned on a youthful diet of speculative fiction by the likes of Ray Bradbury and Arthur Clarke, raised on Star Trek and The Outer Limits, and thrilled by real-life hero Neil Armstrong’s “one small step” onto the gravelly surface of the Moon when I was in elementary school, it never occurred to me that humankind’s manifest destiny in the stars would be undone by changing political winds, disasters like the Challenger explosion, and a mountain of debt to pay for misguided military adventures like the War in Iraq.

It’s true that, in some ways, we’re living in a new golden age for space nerds. Bard Canning’s gorgeously enhanced footage of Curiosity’s descent to Mars — made instantly available by the global network we built instead of a Hilton on the Moon — certainly beats  grainy snippets beamed down from Tranquility Base. A newly discovered exoplanet that “may be capable of supporting life” seems tomake headlines every few months. Cassini’s ravishing closeups of Saturnregularly put the fever dreams of ILM’s animators to shame. But wasn’t I supposed to be “strolling on the deck of a starship” by now, as Paul Kantner’s acid-fueled hippie space epic Blows Against the Empire promised me when it was nominated for a Hugo award in 1971?

The problem, it turns out, isn’t just a loss of political will to finance manned space flight. Rocket science turns out to be rocket science — not easy, and constrained by some very real limitations dictated by material science, the physics of acceleration, and the unwieldy economics of interstellar propulsion. Until a real-life Zefram Cochrane comes along to invent a practical warp drive, I may not be sightseeing on any Class M planets anytime soon.

One of the best briefings on the state of the art of interstellar exploration is Lee Billings’ essay “Incredible Journey,” recently reprinted in a wonderful new anthology called The Best Science Writing Online 2012, edited by Scientific American’s Bora Zivkovic and Jennifer Ouellette. I’m very honored to have a piece in the anthology myself: my NeuroTribes interview with John Elder Robison, author of the bestselling memoir of growing up with autism, Look Me in The Eye, and other books. When SciAm’s editors suggested that each author in the book interview one of the other authors, I jumped at the chance to interview Billings about his gracefully written and informative article about the practical challenges of space flight. Billings is a freelance journalist who has written forNatureNew ScientistPopular Mechanics, and Seed. He lives outside New York City with his wife, Melissa.

[…]

Steve Silberman: Before we even get into the meat of your piece, I want to mention how impressed I was by the power and lyricism of your writing. Phrases like “the cosmos suddenly becomes less lonely” and “the easiest way the Daedalus volunteers found to fuel their starship was, in effect, the industrialization of the outer solar system” make vast and highly abstract concepts immediately comprehensible and visceral to lay readers. What made you want to become a science writer, and who are your role models for writing, in any genre?

Lee Billings: My attraction to science preceded my attraction to the act of writing, perhaps because, like every child, I was intensely curious about the world around me. Science, more so than any other source of knowledge I could find, seemed to change the world into something at once eminently understandable and endlessly mysterious.

I became interested in science writing, science journalism, at approximately the same time I realized I would make a poor scientist. I was midway through my college prerequisites, thinking I was on a path to a career in neuroscience. I’d been having a lot of trouble with the more quantitative courses — calculus, organic chemistry, and so on. Many of my friends would ace their assignments and tests after sleeping through lectures and rarely cracking a book. I would study hard, only to receive poor grades. Meanwhile I was breezing through courses in English, literature, history, and art. After a particularly fervent all-night cram-session for a final exam that I still almost flunked, I decided if I wasn’t destined to excel within science itself, perhaps I could instead try to make my mark by helping communicate the world-changing discoveries scientists were making. So I switched my academic emphasis from neuroscience to journalism, and became something of a camp follower, scavenging and trailing behind the gifted few at the front lines of research. I’ve never looked back, and have no regrets. The job never gets old: Rather than being at best a mediocre, hyper-specialized bench worker, being a science writer lets me parachute in to varied fields on a whim, and invariably the brilliant individuals I find upon landing are welcoming and happy to talk to me.

As for influences… I still have a long way to go, but if my writing ever comes to possess a fraction of Carl Sagan’s charisma and elegance, John McPhee’s structure and eye for detail, Richard Preston’s depth of focus and cinematic flair, Stanislaw Lem’s imagination and analytic insight, or Ray Bradbury’s lyrical beauty, I will be a happy man.

Ray Bradbury's "The Martian Chronicles"

Ray Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles”

Silberman: Several times a year now, we hear about the discovery of a new exoplanet in the “Goldilocks zone” that could “potentially support life.” For example, soon after he helped discover Gliese 581g, astronomer Steven Vogt sparked a storm of media hype by claiming that “the chances for life on this planet are 100 percent.” Even setting aside the fact that the excitement of discovering a planet in the habitable zone understandably seems to have gone to Vogt’s head at that press conference, why are such calculations of the probability of life harder to perform accurately than they seem?

Billings: The question of habitability is a second-order consideration when it comes to Gliese 581g, and that fact in itself reveals where so much of this uncertainty comes from. As of right now, the most interesting thing about the “discovery” of Gliese 581g is that not everyone is convinced the planet actually exists. That’s basically because this particular detection is very much indirect — the planet’s existence is being inferred from periodic meter-per-second shifts in the position of its host star. The period of that shift corresponds to the planet’s orbit as it whips from one side of the star to the other; the meter-per-second magnitude of the shift places a lower limit on the planet’s mass, but can’t pin down the mass exactly. So that’s all this detection gives you — an orbit and a minimum mass. That’s not a lot to go on in determining what a planet’s environment might actually be like, is it?

Now, get up and walk around the room. You’re moving at about a meter per second. Imagine discerning that same rate of change in the motion of a million-kilometer-wide ball of plasma, a star many light-years away. Keep in mind this star’s surface is always moving, in pounding waves and swirling eddies, in rising and falling convection cells, in vast plasmatic prominences arcing above the surface, often at many kilometers per second. At any particular moment, all that stellar noise can swamp the faint planetary signal. Only by building up hundreds or thousands of careful measurements over time can you get that crucial periodicity that tells you what you’re seeing might be a planet. So the measurement is quite statistical in nature, and its interpretation can change based on the statistical assumptions being used. This is further complicated by the fact that planets are rarely singletons, so that any given stellar motion may be the product of many planets rather than one, requiring careful long-term study to tease apart each world’s contribution to the bulk signal. It’s also complicated by the instability of astronomical instruments, which must be kept carefully, constantly calibrated and stabilized lest they introduce spurious noise into the measurements. In the case of Gliese 581g, not everyone agrees on the putative planetary signal actually being caused by a planet, or even being real at all — the signal doesn’t seem to manifest equally in the handful of instruments purportedly capable of detecting it.

So it’s very difficult to just detect these things, and actually determining whether they are much like Earth is a task orders of magnitude more difficult still. Notice how I’m being anthropocentric here: “much like Earth.” Astrobiology has been derisively called a science without a subject. But, of course, it does have at least one subject: our own living planet and its containing solar system. We are forced to start from what we know, planting our feet in the familiar before we push out into the alien. That’s why we, as a species, are looking for other Earth-like planets — they probably offer us the best hope of recognizing anything we might consider alive. It’s not the strongest position to be in, but it’s the best we’ve got. Calculating the probability of life on an utterly alien world outside the solar system for which we know only the most basic information — its mass, its orbit, maybe its radius — is at this stage a very crude guess. The fact is, we still don’t know that much about how abiogenesis occurred on Earth, how life emerged from inanimate matter. There are very good physical, chemical, thermodynamic reasons to believe that life arose here because our planet was warm, wet, and rocky, but we really don’t yet know all the cogent occurrences that added up to build the Earth’s earliest organisms, let alone our modern living world. A warm, wet, rocky planet may be a necessary but not a sufficient condition for life as we know it to form and flourish.

Lee Billings with planet hunter Geoff Marcy

Lee Billings with planet hunter Geoff Marcy

This is really a chicken-and-egg problem: To know the limits of life in planetary systems, we need to find life beyond the Earth. To find life beyond Earth, it would be very helpful to know the limits of life in planetary systems. Several independent groups are trying to circumvent this problem by studying abiogenesis in the lab — trying to in effect create life, alien or otherwise, in a test tube. If they manage to replicate Earth life, the achievement could constrain just how life emerged on our own planet. If they somehow manage to make some single-celled organism that doesn’t use DNA, or that relies on silicon instead of carbon to build its body, or that prefers to swim in liquid ethane rather than liquid water, that gives us a hint that “Earth-style” biologies may only be one branch in a much larger and more diverse cosmic Tree of Life.

Silberman: Going deeper than the notion of the cosmos feeling “less lonely” – as well as the fact that we all grew up watching Star Trek and Star Wars and thinking that aliens are frickin’ cool (as long as they’re not the mama alien fromAlien) — why do you think people are so motivated to daydream about extraterrestrial life? What need in us do those dreams fulfill?

Billings: I don’t really think most people are necessarily motivated to daydream about just any sort of extraterrestrial life. It will probably take more than a microbe or a clam to excite most of our imaginations, even if that microbe happens to be on Venus or that clam happens to be on Mars.

I do think humans are motivated to daydream about extraterrestrial intelligence, and, to put a finer point on it, extraterrestrial “people.” They are motivated to dream about beings very much like them, things tantalizingly exotic but not so alien as to be totally incomprehensible and discomforting. Maybe those imagined beings have more appendages or sense organs, different body plans and surface coverings, but they typically possess qualities we recognize within ourselves: They are sentient, they have language, they use tools, they are curious explorers, they are biological, they are mortal — just like humans. Perhaps that’s a collective failure of imagination, because it’s certainly not very easy to envision intelligent aliens that are entirely divergent from our own anthropocentric preconceptions. Or perhaps it’s more diagnostic of the human need for context, affirmation, and familiarity. Why are people fascinated by their distorted reflections in funhouse mirrors? Maybe it’s because when they recognize their warped image, at a subconscious level that recognition reinforces their actual true appearance and identity.

More broadly, speculating about extraterrestrial intelligence is an extension of three timeless existential questions: What are we, where do we come from, and where are we going? The late physicist Philip Morrison considered SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, to be the “archaeology of the future,” because any galactic civilizations we could presently detect from our tiny planet would almost certainly be well more advanced than our own. It’s unlikely that we would ever receive a radio message from an alien civilization in the equivalent of our past Stone Age, and it’s unlikely Earth would ever be visited by a crewed starship that powered its voyage using engines fueled by coal or gasoline. Optimists consider this, and say that making contact with a superior alien civilization could augur a bright future for humanity, as it would suggest there are in fact solutions to be found for all the current seemingly intractable problems that threaten to destroy or diminish our species. It’s my opinion that most people think about aliens as a way of pondering our own spectrum of possible futures.

I’m inclined to believe some of the things Billings has to say in that it’s doubtful we’ll build anything like a starship in the near future and folks ( taxpayers ) just won’t fund those kinds of projects. Entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk, James Cameron and Peter Diamandis could in the future fund projects such as starprobes and starships – only if they prove profitable.

IMO it looks like stronger telescopes both on Earth and in space will be the only human built machines exploring the closer solar systems for any signs of life and extant civilizations because they can be economically constructed – and if they found anything interesting, the items are still a safe distance away.

Five Billion Years of Solitude: Lee Billings on the Science of Reaching the Stars