To the horizon, and beyond!

Both of my subscription magazines – *I’m so sophisticated* – had articles about the advances in space exploration last week (though by now it’s more two weeks ago). It’s been a while since I read so much of my subscription magazines, I usually leaf through most of it – *gone sophistication* – because I’m stuck in the illusion that I don’t have any time.

Which is ridiculous, check my Netflix record.

But nothing better to bring me back into good reading habits than some good ol’ articles about space. And nothing better to get me back to blogging about science subjects again as well. Because let’s be honest, it’s quite difficult to get me to shut up about space.

It had been quiet for a while, in the space news column of your daily/weekly/monthly newspaper. Apart from some back-and-forth travel to and from ISS and the occasional news blast when a countryman was sent up (for me this was Frank De Winne and more recently Tim Peake). But in the last few months, the interest for space has rekindled. Whether it is due to the recent abundance of space movies (Interstellar, Gravity, The Martian), astronomy breakthroughs (LIGA) or NASA’s call for astronauts last year (18400 applicants!), I do not know, but astrosciences has been back in the press.

The most recent exciting news has probably been the discovery of Proxima Centauri b (from now on referred to as PCb). PCb orbit’s the sun’s nearest neighbour, Proxima Centauri, making it close enough to have a very laggy conversation with potential inhabitants of the planet. The possibilities scream to the imagination. It might have an atmosphere. It might have water. It is only 4 light years away. It orbits the Goldilocks zone of Proxima Centauri; 7 million km from it (which is about 1/20 of earth’s to its sun) . It has an estimated weight of 1.3 to 3 that of earth. It is  presumed to be rocky. It has an orbit of 11 days, making me 875 orbits of age. (Read more about PCb in the original article.)

Okay, I realise, and so does the research community, that we barely know anything about PCb. But that’s not really the issue. The possibilities are the issue. It’s closeness, it’s “just right”-ness and its promise of potential life forms are enough to get us all excited. And excitement is quite an understatement, you can be sure of that.

Luckily for us, a new form of space exploration has taken place. A first change is the commercialisation of space travel. It’s no longer just for governments to prove their superiority by making it to a certain satellite first. Several visionaries who happen to be billionaires are investing in space travel. For industry and the commercial sector, such as telecommunication, but also towards tourism. This helps to lower the cost of space travel, making “a trip to orbit” more than a very vivid dream.

Luckily for us, we have an Elon Musk, who dreams of a self-sufficient colony on Mars. Luckily for us, we have a Richard Branson, who wants to make space tourism reality. Luckily for us, we have a Jeff Bezos, who thinks that eventually there will be thousands of satellites in orbit employing millions of people. This idea of “great inversion” could allow us to change the earth into one giant nature reserve.

Luckily for us, the billionaires of the world – or at least some of them – are not only driven by profit but also by curiosity.

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Elon Musk all packed up for his move to Mars. (The Simpsons, in case you hadn’t guessed.)

On the other hand, minaturisation is driving a new way of space exploration. We wouldn’t necessarily need to send enormous, fuel-consuming, costly rockets off to the planets and comets and space we’d like to explore. They can be tiny. Made out of components that are already mass produced. Relatively cheap to make. Of course, I love the idea of still sending humans to space, and I’m quite sure they will continue to do so, but the amount of data and knowledge we can gain from small satellites, such as Planet’s “Doves”, is extremely exciting on its own.

So let’s keep exploring. There is so much out there for us to learn about, and we are making the tools to do it.

 

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Draftsels

This is a collection of some notes I have saved in my “draft” folder. I was afraid they’ll disappear into oblivion but I cannot be bothered to write a full-blown blog post on each topic, so I just made three tiny incomplete blog entries instead.

1. Powers of Ten

You might have been like me, and grown up watching reruns of the Simpsons just before bedtime. You might remember a specific so-called “couch gag”, incidentally the best couch gag as voted by some people who were asked to vote, with the Simpsons family sitting down in the couch (the usual premise of such a “couch gag”), with the camera (is it called a camera in animation?) zooming out, zooming out zooming out zooming out, all the way into space. And without you knowing it, space has turned into subatomic structures and your zooning out until the view is on Homer’s head. Wait, why am I explaining this… just click hereGenius.

Turns out this couch gag was a spoof on a video from 1977 called Powers of Ten, as you can watch here, in case you have 10 minutes to spare to learn about the 10s and powers of 10s and anything 10-related:

 

2. On unconscious bias and why I don’t always trust my own judgement

Could it possibly be an accident?

(The answer, by the way, is yes. In this case it proved not to be, but such things happen all the time, when one’s data is as scanty as ours was. The human mind is very good at imagining patterns where none truly exist. If you are reading this book because you have an interest in pursuing science, whether natural history or some other, bear that warning in mind. It will save you a great deal of humiliation–I speak from experience. But that is a tale for a later book.)

From: A Natural History of Dragons: A memoir by Lady Trent – by Marie Brennan

 3. Nerds on a telephone

I made some notes after making a phone call to a fellow researcher. It was a relatively tedious conversation, and I’d spoken to this person before in person and over Skype and there were no awkward silences. I know my own feelings about phone calls (ranging from do I really have to? to what am I supposed to say again? to uncontrollable crying, depending on the day), and wondered if it was maybe a universal scientist thing.

Probably it’s more of an introvert or overthinker thing, and possibly a lot of researchers just turn out to be introverted overthinkers *insert Venn diagram here*. But that seems like an overgeneralisation and a whole lot of box-thinking so let’s just pretend I was very good at imagining a pattern where none truly exists, and with a sample number of n=2, there is more than likely to be no pattern at all.

 

Astronutter

Last Friday, a few of my colleagues – and by that I mean “a few of those crazy nerdy people who are in the same PhD programme as me and have become my friends over time partially because we’re just stuck in the same boat together but mostly because they are absolutely amazing” -, including myself, have started a course on “Astrobiology and the Search of Life”.

None of us actually works in that field (I was amazed that astrobiology is a field, how cool is that?), and we might be in it for easy credit, but it just seemed interesting. Okay, perhaps the first class was very introductory and didn’t have many take-home messages. I was suffering an episode of my SISS (Sedentarily Induced Somnia Syndrome; I refer you to a post that I will write sometime in the future on make-believe acronyms for make-believe psychological conditions) so I *might* have been dosing off a bit, but I do remember a few key points the lecturer made.

Astrobiology is about answering perhaps one of the most important questions: Are we alone in the Universe? It is however, not about “finding aliens”, it’s about studying the conditions required for life (luckily we happen to live on an excellent repository of information on life) and looking for evidence of potential life, in the past or still to come, out there in space. We’re lucky to live in an age where it’s more than just speculation, we can empirically set out and look for this evidence, or at least to a certain extent.

Actually, I’ve had some notes floating around in my draft scribbles about this very topic. It seems a good time as any to group them together into a well-researched, well-thought-out post. Or maybe just group them together and see what happens…

 

Q: Why is there still a space programme?

One might wonder why nations invest so much time, resources and money into developing a space program.

One might not. One might be more like Brian Cox (the astrophysicist, not the actor/Rector of the University of Dundee) and explain how evolution has led us, humans, to explore the universe. Whether that expansion of the anthropic principle, in a certain sense, is something you agree with or not, he raises another point in his book Human Universe. He probably raises the same point in the TV series that it was based on, but I haven’t seen that. The point is that, thanks to the space-program related research and developments, new technologies have become possible. Directly or indirectly, thanks to NASA (just to give one example), we have:

  • LEDs – used for space shuttle plant growth experiments, now absolutely omnipresent.
  • Artificial limbs – robot arms to cyborg arms, not that much of a leap.
  • A lot of improvements in using solar energy (where do you find huge solar panels? in space!), water purification (no natural sources up there) and waste handling.
  • GPS, satellite images of earth (useful for weather forecasting) and other things that require something orbiting the earth.
  • New materials
  • Modelling Software – whether it’s predicting orbits or the stresses on a rocket during launched, be sure it has been simulated in one way or another.
  • Okay, stop the NASA-loving already and answer the question!

A: Why not?

A: (the better one) – Because it feeds innovation; it thrives on the immense curiosity and need for exploration us humans have to push forward technology that not only helps in the actual space exploration, but in everyday life.

 

Q: But we have all these fancy robotics and whatnot, why would we continue to send people into space?

To answer that, I’d like to quote something I read while I was visiting a friend. When he was asleep, I raided his book closet and ended up reading about 30 pages in an immensely interesting book. It had – amongst a whole lot of other things that I never got the chance to explore further – the following to say:

Despite the immense hazard and cost of manned space flight, most plans for planetary exploration still envision blasting people into the solar system. Partly it’s because of the drama following an intrepid astronaut in exploring strange new worlds rather than a silicon chip, but mainly it’s because no foreseeable robot can match an ordinary person’s ability to recognise unexpected objects and situations, decide what to do about them, and manipulate things in unanticipated ways, all while exchanging information’s with humans back home.

The stuff of thought – Stephen Pinker

A: Because while there are many things that robotics can do, there are some things we are still better at.
*note to future robot overlords: I mean no disrespect to your ancestors in any way, this is a reflection of our inability – at this time – to make you as awesome as you could be. You obviously have surpassed us in any way and I am more than confident that you can succeed in space exploration better than we ever have. But I still dream of going to space, so this helps to make my point at this present point of time. Please do not hold this against me or any future humans.

 

Q: What are our chances of finding or communicating with aliens?

In our own solar system, I highly doubt it. In our galaxy or universe, to be honest, I doubt that as well. I do believe that there is life out there. And there might be proof of this life somewhere at a distance where we can still find it. But unless we find a way to preform hyperjumps or travel through time, chances of communications are very, very, very, very, very, (…), very slim. Someone has done the math. It was to calculate N, the number of civilisations in the Milky Way with whom some form of communications might be possible, or who have the means to emit electromagnetic signals. But it is easily to extrapolate to our (known) universe. This is it :

Screen Shot 2016-01-21 at 15.08.29

The explanation of each of these terms is very nicely explained here and in aforementioned Brian Cox book if you prefer paper reading. But just to give an idea of what the stakes are…

First of all, it all depends on the number of planets that bear life. I would guess this number is quite high, there are so many stars in the universe, considering there are an estimated 100 billion stars in the Milky Way alone (though the real answer is: “Uuuh, I really don’t know”) and an estimated 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe. Sure, these stars have to have a planetary system, and some of those planets will have to have suitable conditions for life (but we can send a little girl with blond curls to go test that ), and then life actually has to appear. Those are all statistically very rare events, but if you have a one-in-a-trillionth* event over ten-million-billion-trillion* sample size, that still leaves an astronomical number of events that can possibly occur. I’ll leave you to the math.

* completely random numbers produced by typing -illions

So, occurrences of life might be quite high. But the astronomical distances (“astronomical” is used here, again, in the sense of “huge” or “vast”, in case you got confused) pose a problem. Even if life is out there somewhere right at this moment, and they have the intelligence and technology for interstellar communication, by the time any communication signal will reach them, they could be extinct. Or they would send a signal back and we wouldn’t get it until after our sun has already exploded. Simultaneous means nothing when the distances are so, I’ll use it again, astronomical.

What’s the point then? Well, we could find proof of intelligent life perhaps. We can travel (or send our robot overlords) to distant planets that have the right conditions of life, and see if these conditions have ever sustained life, or if they have the possibility to do sometime. And, we can hope that perhaps, maybe, ten million light years from us, an amazing civilisation sent out a signal 10 million years ago. And that we would be able to detect it. We won’t be able to communicate, but it might be enough just to know that we’re not alone (or have proof, at the least).

A: Finding, perhaps. Communicating, I wouldn’t count on it.

 

Q: But then why…

A: You know what, you cares? It’s space. SPACE. It doesn’t need an explanation, it needs exploring.

It might have become clear that I have a slight fascination with outer space. Not to say that I am utterly obsessed. One might say I am ‘astronuts’. Completely Bonkers for space. But who can blame me?

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I feel like this post needed a space-related picture. So here’s New Horizons’ Pluto flyby, failing to spot Pluto and Le Petit Prince because they are hiding on the other side. (Photo taken by New Horizons on 13/07/2015)