Friday, November 16, 2012

A Sudden Burgeoning into Space? Especially Amateur SETI!

The Exoplanet next door: Astronomers have discovered the lowest-mass planet yet orbiting a Sun-like star. But the even-more exciting news is that it orbits α Centauri B, a member of the stellar system that is our Solar System’s nearest neighbour. Although nearly identical to Earth in mass, the planet is much closer to its star than Mercury is to the Sun, meaning that it is likely a scorched and barren rock. Nevertheless, its astronomical proximity to Earth will undoubtedly stir dreams of interstellar exploration, particularly as astronomers search α Centauri for more hospitable worlds.

A brown dwarf or a failed star? Astronomers find a truly lonely planet: a "homeless" wandering exoplanet without a star.  The free-floating planet CFBDSIR J214947.2-040308.9 was discovered by the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Array.

BepiColumbo: The European Space Agency's new 'flying fridge' mission to Mercury will require a refrigerator and huge radiator on a van-sized spacecraft orbiting the mysterious planet closest to the sun.. (Recall the "refrigerator laser" in my novel Sundiver? The hardest of hard sci fi.) The mission is named after the great Italian space expert Bepi Columbo whom I met a couple of times.

Contemplating a New Date for the End of the Universe...Hank Campbell takes a fascinating look at the weird speedup/slowdown/speedup of (the current model of) the Universe. Consider this: Today's model has our Big Bang cosmos first (1) expanding superluminally hyperfast in so-called "inflation"... then (2) slowing down because of intense gravity (when things were closer together... then (3) speeding up again because of dark energy.   Will there come a point in "time" when we turn toward the fourth wall, give a cold stare at the audience of this funhouse simulation, and say to them: "You're kidding, right? Who writes this stuff?"

==SETI & the Fermi Paradox==

The asteroid belt in our solar system, located between Mars and Jupiter, is a region of millions of space rocks that sits near the “snow line,” which marks the border of a cold region where volatile material such as water ice is far enough from the sun to remain condensed and not a gas. When Jupiter formed just beyond the snow line, its powerful gravity prevented nearby material inside its orbit from coalescing and building planets.  Instead, Jupiter’s influence caused the material to collide and break apart. These fragmented rocks settled into an asteroid belt around the sun, but not a belt so huge that it would relentlessly bombard small, inner worlds. This combination is calculated to be rare, in perhaps just 4% of solar systems.  That rarity offers yet one more new, rather daunting candidate for the Fermi Paradox.  

An excellent and rather cogent overview article in Astrobiology Magazine summarized the current status of thinking about a difficult problem - how to detect "leakage" radio from nearby advanced civilizations.
A core focus of the article is progress that is slowing being made in designing and planning the billion dollar "Square Kilometer Array" -- a vast assortment of interferometry-linked dishes that will be set up primarily in South Africa, with other support arrays and Australia and South America.  It's worth reading on that basis, alone.  But the added implications for SETI (the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) also get a fairly detailed appraisal.

I find it fascinating that the entire baseline assumption is attempting to eavesdrop on leakage.  No talk of beacons or intentional attempts at communication.  (SETI zealots have given up on finding vast, blaring-eager "tutorial beacons" of the sort once optimistically promised by Sagan and Drake, it is happenstance leakage that they now speak of searching for.) The article does mention - in passing - the possibility of "wow"-type pings, but without going into detail -- e.g. that such pings might be deliberate, as advanced ETIS catalogue all the nearby worlds that have oxygen atmospheres and traces of life, then poke at them every century or so, as if to ask: "Is there anybody there yet?  How about now?"

(Demonstrating the staggering economic advantages of that scenario for deliberate contact was a key point of the Benford-cubed paper.   

It would have been nice if the article had mentioned the amateur alternative that satisfies most of these new ways of viewing the sky search. The SETI League's almost dormant Argus Project aimed to foster 5000 backyard-networked amateur ratio telescopes, allowing full-sky coverage to catch any future wow-pings.  Alas, Argus has faded away till there is just one fully functional  backyard station left.
In my opinion, a billionaire who wanted to trump Paul Allen would spend 10% as much as he did on the Allen Array, by funding the design and subsidized sale of a turn-key backyard Argus telescope kit. A couple of thousand of these, and we'd catch most transient major rafio phenomena, a tremendous boon to science... and a blow to all #$#! sneaky UFOs everywhere!

And now the amazing synchronicity-news.  While I was signing my new novel at Comicon -- a novel that includes mention of amateur sky searches -- a fellow stepped up to show me pictures of his baby... the only SETI-League Argus backyard radio telescope still functioning.  Retired engineer James Brown of Del Mar, CA, also known by his amateur radio call sign W6KYP.

How cool it would be if we got thousands of such dishes operating.  Networked so anything they spotted was instantly checked, then reported to the professionals with the big dishes.  That the way this show ought to go.

=== A sudden burgeoning into space? ===

The spaceflight firm Excalibur Almaz estimates that it can sell about 30 seats between 2015 and 2025, for $150 million each, aboard moon-bound missions on a Salyut-class space station driven by electric hall-effect thrusters. CEO Art Dula (who also runs the Heinlein Trust) estimates it will take 24 to 30 months to refurbish the ex-Soviet spacecraft and space stations the company already owns.

Interesting and hopeful.  Stack this news alongside the recent achievements of Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Burt Rutan’s work with Virgin Galactic on suborbital tourisms, plus glimmers of excitement from tech-eager billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Paul Allen, who have projects of their own. Is all of this happening because the technologies are finally ripening?  Or because society is ready (at last) to shake off the doldrums of the Naughty Oughts?  Or...   should we notice the common denominator here?  The clue in this news article... $150 million a ticket?

Gee wiz.  It’s not for nothing that, in my new novel, I portray spaceflight as a playground for the uber rich.

But, we may at last be ready to embark on the equivalent of the great age of barnstorming aircraft development in the 1920s. If so, it will come about from a mix of government investment in meticulous process and detail—and the unleashing of private ambition.

==Space Snippets==

National Geographic online features a photo tour of coming manned space ventures, accompanied by commentary by NASA consultant David Brin.

A space elevator on the moon? LiftPort is pursuing initial steps of tethered towers and tether-climbing robots, with the long-term goal of placing an elevator on the moon by 2020.

Impressed with Curiosity?    Well let's recall that Spirit and Opportunity weren't shabby either.  Watch this cool video on how they got there.  (I was on the committee that chose their names from submissions from school kids.  very cool.)

Comet collisions every six seconds explains a long-standing stellar mystery.

Heh. Nifty. Yo-yos in space.

==Visualizing the Universe==

Planetfall: New Solar System Visions, by Michael Benson, is a stunning collection of interplanetary images.

Google has created a visualization of the 100,000 stars nearest to the solar system, based on actual astronomical data. You can zoom in all the way to the solar system to see how small Neptune's orbit is relative to the Oort Cloud, or zoom right out to see how puny 100,000 stars is in just our quarter of the Milky Way galaxy. Intended for Chrome.

Watching a particularly beautiful movie of the sun helps show how the lines between science and art can sometimes blur. This NASA Goddard movie of solar photosphere gradients might as well have been signed by Vincent Van God.

The latest of many "powers of ten" online graphics ... this one is way-cool.

Another source of gorgeous images: National Geographic's Space Atlas: Mapping the Universe and Beyond.  Okay then... signs of optimism and hope.  

Now let's build a civilization that's confident and science-friendly and eager and agile and ready to go out there!


LarryHart said...

Concerning the ARGUS project...

Any relation to the fictional project of that same name described in Arthur Clarke's "Imperial Earth", which involved sea-urchin-like arrays of antanne from an asteroid?

Anonymous said...

There's an extra parenthesis in the link to the Benford-cubed paper, breaking the link, and a missing parenthesis at the end of that paragraph, breaking all civilized customs.

David Brin said...

Anon thanks! Now it's posted down here. I don't have to bother fixin it above!

Tony Fisk said...

Will there come a point in "time" when we turn toward the fourth wall, give a cold stare at the audience of this funhouse simulation, and say to them: "You're kidding, right? Who writes this stuff? which point the undergraduate student diety exudes a quantum foam flecked sigh of relief and says, "Thank goodness. All the other simulated systems figured this out *ages* ago. This was the last one left. Can I switch off and go home now?"

David Brin said...

Tony... post of the day...

and now onward to gerrymandering!!!


Keith Cooper said...

Hi David - thanks for highlighting my article about SETI on the SKA! Although I wasn't able to include it in the Astrobiology Mag article, I have written about Argus before too, as well as the possibilities for amateur optical SETI searches:

Hope you find that of interest too! Cheers, Keith

Anonymous said...

New nearest free floating planet WISE 0855–0714 is a 3-10 Jupiter-mass object 7 light years away. The nearest free floating planet to the Solar System. Called a brown dwarf by its discoverer Kevin Luhman but its mass definitely puts it in the sub-brown dwarf or free floating planet range.

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