Archives For space

pluto render

New Horizons is just weeks away from finally flying by the most controversial object in our solar system and giving us a true picture of what it looks like. We suspect that Pluto is Triton’s twin, since both are large trans-Neptunian objects, icy would-be planets that never quite got enough mass to dominate their orbits, and since they both come from a similar blend of raw materials, it makes sense they would be very similar. There’s already evidence of Triton-like cryovolcanism taking place on Pluto and some proposals even argue that they were sojourners until Neptune managed to capture one of them and trap it in its orbit until in a few billion years, its new moon will fall and burn up in its vast atmosphere. But Pluto is more than a flash point for debates for what constitutes a planet. Since it was predicted to exist and successfully discovered, it was an incredibly fertile ground for conspiracy theorists and sci-fi authors, giving us the legends of the mysterious Anunaki, who supposedly built eldritch temples on the Cydonian Plains of Mars and colonized the Earth millennia ago, and the sci-fi horror genre as we know it.

Out there, in deep space, yet close enough to reach without world-ships or warp drives was an unknown planet that could be home to anything. It was Nibiru, the now desolate home of once thriving, hyper-intelligent aliens who fled to look for a more suitable home closer to the Sun and settled on Mars until it too died, forcing them to finally relocate to Earth and build Atlantis. Until we realized that it was a world much too small and far too cold to sustain any complex life we’d imagine could survive without requiring exotic chemistry by inner solar system standards, it was also Yuggoth, home of the twisted and bizarre Mi-go, and in future iterations of the mythos, all sorts of other nefarious creatures that cared little for humanity. Not knowing what Pluto really was and what it looked like gave conspiracy theorists inspiration, and writers the cover of eerie plausibility. But now we know that if anything is living on Pluto, it’s colonies of a still hypothetical bacterium that breathes hydrogen and needs liquid methane or ethane the same way life as we know it needs water, and the stories no longer work, not for planets in our solar system.

But just because Pluto is an icy desert doesn’t mean it’s any less interesting. If it’s a geologically active ice world like Triton, its eruptions provide a glimpse into planetary chemistry which helps describe a vast swath of worlds across the universe. There are bound to be countless dwarfs a lot like it since we have two of them just in one solar system. Likewise, if it has water ice in any significant quantity, it could be an extremely useful world for future explorers about to depart on a trip to interstellar space. It could become the last chance to fix up and refuel your spaceships when you venture out, and the first stop for maintenance when you return many years later, as well as a critical node in an interstellar communications network. No matter how soon the New Horizons flyby will be over, we’re not going to be done with Pluto. Now that it’s about to give up some of its secrets, this is only the beginning of our new relationship with it, this time not as the potential origin of malevolence and darkness, but as a destination for science and exploration, and a potential gateway to the rest of the galaxy. Don’t worry Pluto, we’ll see you soon…

neurons

Back in the day, I argued that if we were going to get serious about space exploration, we also had to budget for large, luxury spacecraft rather than just capsules in which we would cram the brave men and women we’d be sending to other worlds with a pat on the back for agreeing to deal with the discomfort and damage to their bodies. Among the reasons listed were the basic physiological problems of spending many months in zero gravity, and mental health hazards of boredom and cabin fever. But now there’s another very important point to add to the list. If you spend too much time out of the Earth’s magnetosphere, you will become less competent at the elementary tasks of exploration. Curiosity, focus, determination, situational awareness, the very traits that make humans such good generalists on our own world, and which robots can handle within very limited contexts, which is why we’d want to aid them when exploring new planets, all will become severely diminished after long-term bombardment by cosmic rays.

This is the result of a recent study which exposed mice genetically engineered to have neurons that glow under the right conditions, to lab-generated cosmic rays. After the equivalent of a few months worth of exposure to particles like ionized titanium and oxygen, the mice became a lot less curious, mentally sluggish, and learned slower. The results were comparable to dementia patients, and under the microscope, the reason was readily apparent. Cosmic rays attacked an inordinate number of dendrites, which are the parts of a neuron exchanging neurotransmitters with its neighbors. Fewer connections meant less efficiency and accuracy in communication, so it resulted in what amounts to reduced competency across the board. This is another reason to hold off on planning grand Mars missions. Damaging the minds of astronauts, perhaps for the rest of their lives, is too high of a price to pay just to get a flag-panting moment…

See: Parihar, V. et. al. (2015). What happens to your brain on the way to Mars Science Adv, 1 (4) : 10.1126/sciadv.1400256

cape verde

Despite the constant political challenges and bean counting nihilism, human spaceflight is still a routine event and no matter how much some want to relegate space exploration to robots, any way we look at it, the domain of space travel is not a human or robot proposition, but will always need to be a partnership. Ultimately, monetary considerations be damned, we want to explore and discover. It’s what made us who we are today and we’ll do it even if we have to merge with machines to do it, even if those modifications are almost inhumanly extreme, as long as they’re within the realm of plausibility. But as long as human explorers’ bodies will have organic tissues there will always be the specter of medical emergencies and the need for treatments, surgeries in extreme environments, and dealing with damage from radiation. Right now, if an astronaut is in dire need of emergency treatment the plan is to evacuate him or her and perform whatever procedures are necessary on Earth. Beyond our planet’s orbit, this will not be an option.

Considering the current plans to send humans to asteroids, back to the Moon, and eventually, towards Mars, NASA has been hard at work soliciting ideas for how to do everything from robot surgery, harness ultrasonic devices to help with treatment and diagnosis, and extreme ways of approaching treatment of radiation sickness and long term effects of elevated exposure to both cosmic rays and mutagenic solar particles. This is great news not just for space exploration, but for humanity in general, because radically new approaches to medical treatments will let us live longer and healthier lives. With surgery being a last resort replaced by high tech scanners and ultrasonic devices, lasers, and genetically engineered viruses tested through the rigors of life in radioactive vacuum of space, and what surgeries are performed meant for minimum collateral damage and rapid healing, we could treat more issues, and use far fewer antibiotics.

Imagine a world in which superbugs evolve slower, people would live longer and healthier, and we can fix conditions currently treated by a constant dose of doctors gravely nodding and back pats for enduring them. And of course, since many of these treatments would be designed for maximum effect with minimal or even nonexistent infrastructure, we could deploy them to help developed nations. But hold on, you may ask, why not help developed nations first since that’s your goal along with just better medical technology? Because helping developed nations is not the kind of simple proposition it’s often portrayed to be. It’s become a sport to castigate those who spend their wealth on humanity’s distant future instead of its poorest members and it’s an extremely safe bet to do so. But the reality of the situation is that pouring billions of dollars into unstable regimes with no accountability and perverse incentives solves little. Designing for the rigors of space frees us from the political constraints and forces us to be more creative.

When we know no help will come, ever, not just late, there will be no infrastructure other than a spacecraft around us, and failure to meet the challenge is certain death, evolutionary, halfway, compromised designs are not an option. Being able to then package the successful fruits of all that hard work and ship them into even the most remote wilderness would be huge, a massive game changer that could help billions live a better life. As bizarre as it sounds, basic research, driven purely by the need to accomplish something that by definition has to be efficient, quick, and effective in practice, not beholden to profit margins, shareholders, or patent wars may be much cheaper and exactly what we need to finally capitalize on the bleeding edge research we find being nurtured in startup and university labs today. The space program provided the case for integrated electronics and countless materials that make our modern world what it is, and it can also provide the know-how to drastically improve our lives here on Earth and in space.

[ illustration from Erik Wernquist’s Wanderers ]

supernova flare

FRBs just can’t seem to catch a break this month. First, they were an alien signal. Then just as quickly as they were attributed to aliens because the Daily Fail decided to get creative with two out of context words and no one seemed to bother to fact check them, the bursts were called a false signal caused by microwave interference. Not just any microwave interference mind you, but the kind in which you warm up leftovers according to a widely quoted story for which, again, reporters decided that reading the actual paper is for chumps. Popular Science seems to have been the only mainstream publication to actually read the whole thing and point out that no, it’s not open microwave doors creating FRBs, but an extraterrestrial source. While the bursts seen by Parkes and mislabeled as a potential alien communication may have been coming from the kind of interference generated by a prematurely open microwave door by the media are likely just interference from cell towers or another source emitting as the same frequency, there is a batch of FRBs that came to us from as far away as 3 billion light years.

Hold on though, how are some FRBs a case of mistaken identity and others are coming all the way from intergalactic space all from the same telescope? Well, the first study deliberately took what were thought to be 11 signals deserving extra attention and processed their distribution to see if they could find any patterns that would give us a clue as to their origins. Unlike you were told by just about everyone, it probably was not aliens, or even microwaves, since there was a string correlation between signal distribution and a constant we use to sync equipment placed across the world. What exactly emitted the signals we don’t know, but it’s likely fairly humdrum communications equipment. The second study tried to figure out if they could generate a fake signal with microwave ovens, which they could, and then used the data they collected to ferret out whether the FRBs they tracked matched these control perytons.

This is where the story gets interesting. After the second team found matches between the two in terms of frequency, CNET and most others called it a day and told the world that those goofy scientists think aliens were contacting them because they couldn’t wait for their nachos to warm up, adding their inability to fact check to their inability to read an entire paper. But when taking a close look at the distributions form their perytons and genuine FRBs, the researchers found key differences pointing to the bursts coming to us from deep space. Unlike the perytons, FRBs did not have predictable clustering when all candidate signals were included in the analysis, mostly did not line up with the position of the stars in our own galaxy, and one could not match any of their control signals to such an extent that it would be impossible to mistake it for a peryton. So this means that FRBs are indeed extragalactic signals from violent cosmic events and SURONs along with exotic events like neutron star collisions and quakes, are back on the table.

Now that we have the science sorted out, I’d like to turn back to the media for just a moment to humbly ask what the hell is wrong with those who take anything the Daily Mail says and rush to publish something, anything, no matter how poorly researched, distorted, or outright full of crap it happens to be as long as they can publish it quickly enough to ride the Google Trends waves to some extra views. Yes, the media was always awful at reporting science, but this is a rather remarkable low. As mentioned above, reporters who couldn’t be bothered to read whatever the paper they’re covering said made up some alien contact theories no one entertained, said that experiments to rule out human interference with results was in fact proof that the “aliens” were microwave ovens, and proceeded to cast scientists who were just trying to study an interesting phenomenon as the lab-coat wearing version of the Keystone Kops. Your readers deserve real news, written by people who know how to research stories. They deserve better than what you throw at them without a second thought as you rush to the next SEO-dictated topic.

See: E. Petroff, et. al. (2015). Identifying the source of perytons at the Parkes radio telescope arXiv: 1504.02165v1

icy void

Remember the anomalous Cold Spot, the bizarre, low temperature area spotted in the maps of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, or CMBR for short, the echo the Big Bang which gives us a very high level overview of the structure of our universe? Cosmologists bristled at an anomaly stretching some 1.8 billion light years and seemingly violating what we thought was a universal rule that our cosmos is isotropic and homogeneous, i.e. expanding similarly in every direction and with roughly the same density of galaxies from end to end. And so they analyzed the map using different means and some were able to rule it out as an artifact in the data. Still, the question of whether it was really there never went away because every time you figure out some way of erasing something from your data set because it seems weird, you haven’t gotten rid of it, and sure enough, it appeared yet again on Planck’s CMBR map and was now stuck for good. This left scientists with a dilemma. Why was there a cold spot so large and so cold?

Well, the answer to that is a distinct lack of galaxies which makes the Cold Spot about 20% less dense than the typical patch of the sky. This has of course given pop sci headline writers cover to call it The Great Void, a grandiose moniker which overstates the shortfalls in density for this area of the universe, and when billed as the answer to why The Cold Spot is so cold, oversells the effect it has on the background temperature in this patch of the sky. In fact, just 10% of the temperature drop can be linked back to the lack of density while the rest is still very much open to debate. To give credit where credit is due, virtually all iterations of this story did mention this somewhere along the line, but since it’s a fact that people usually read just the first half of most articles, I thought I’d put my disclaimers and conditionals in the top half of my post, rather than towards the bottom as the articles in question because my feeling is that a lot of people will be convinced that the Cold Spot mystery is solved when in fact, it actually deepened.

While you can find anything in the CMBR you want if you stare hard enough, seeing the spot in both the WMAP and Planck results shows that it’s a persistent feature, unlike Roger Penrose’s proposed echoes of past Big Bangs, a hypothesis he was never sufficiently able to explain, and evidence for which strongly depends on how you process the data. And while it’s not really the biggest structure in the known cosmos since that title belongs to a group of quasars more than twice as large if we get nitpicky, as much of the media claims, it’s still a really important feature. When combined with some other weird observations, it hints at something under the surface of our cosmological framework. If you take the so-called Dark Flow discovered several years ago, and add it to the Cold Spot, as well as galactic superclusters which challenge the cosmological principle, one of the odd but still plausible explanations that ties all of them together, is that our universe is being bumped by other universes, essentially giving us evidence of a multiverse we think should exist to explain inflation and making the Cold Spot a cosmological bruise.

Of course now the big question is how we can validate that hypothesis because we steer right into the horizon problem, which puts other universes out of our reach and any attempt to even create a census of what occupies the multiverse is fraught with problems for which we have no existing solutions. Frustratingly, if the colliding universe explanation is in fact the right one, we’ll have to hold off on giving out the Nobel Prize for it because it would remain just out of reach to our instruments, tantalizing us through anomalous patterns in the CMBR and mysterious flows hinting at bizarre mechanics just beneath the fabric of space and time we can observe, but not study in enough depth to come to a solid conclusion. Even a few years ago, we would’ve simply defaulted to Occam’s Razor and ruled what we’re seeing as artifacts from data processing, but the fact that the anomalies keep showing up pretty much rules out that explanation. Now some of our more exotic cosmological theories may well have to be put to the test.

See: Szapudi, et. al. (2015). Detection of a supervoid aligned with the cold spot of the cosmic microwave background MNRAS, 450 (1), 288-294 DOI: 10.1093/mnras/stv488

cosmic mesh

Dark matter is a substance that makes up nearly all mass in the universe, but decades after we discovered it, all we have are indirect measurements which show us that it’s there in very large amounts, forming galactic halos, but ultimately, little else. It doesn’t seem to interact with any of the stuff that makes stars, dust, and planets, it emits or reflects no radiation, and this utter lack of interesting properties we could study leads to much wailing and gnashing of teeth on physics blogs and forums, wondering if it even exists. But there might finally be a glimmer of light in the study of dark matter because there’s now evidence that it can interact with itself and matches at least one theoretical behavior. While that doesn’t sound like much, it’s actually a pretty big deal because it narrows down the possible culprits and shows that we can design some way to catch particles exhibiting this behavior to figure out this mystery once and for all. Hopefully.

Last year, a team of researchers was examining the Bullet Cluster, which is actually two galaxy clusters undergoing a series of violent collisions, to try and detect dark matter interactions and figure out to what, if anything other than gravity, dark matter responds. The observations were not exactly conclusive, but they didn’t completely rule out dark matter particles colliding, just set a bound in which they can be expected to collide. Armed with this data, the same team tried to catch a glimpse of interacting dark matter particles in a cluster of just four galaxies, Abell 3827, hoping to get more detail how their galactic halos behave during tidal stripping events. Despite sounding like something like something one galaxy does for another to keep things interesting and relieve a little stress, it’s actually when galaxies shed stars, gas, dust, and dark matter to larger galaxies which exert powerful tidal forces on them across millions of light years.

Now, during tidal stripping, there’s a lag between matter being absorbed into a new galaxy and more matter coming in from the old galaxy because as clouds of dust and gas collide, they heat up, producing radiation, and create drag that pushes incoming material back. One inconclusive observation says it may have detected odd gamma ray flares that could be dark matter colliding during this phenomenon, but since no others have, some cosmologists concluded that it means that dark matter doesn’t interact with itself. But the team observing Abell 3827 found the tell tale signs of a significant lag in dark matter halos with a rate of interaction which fell neatly into their previous results. This means that dark matter particles are colliding, creating shockwaves and a detectable lag between absorbed and incoming clouds. In fact this lag can be up to 5,000 light years which isn’t much on a galactic scale, but definitely big enough that it’s unlikely to be just a fluke, or a random artifact in the data. Finally, we know something new about dark matter!

Of course we still don’t know what it really is, but we can now rule out a whole host of extremely exotic candidates which can’t interact with each other, and start designing detectors to seek out even more such events to confirm the observation and gather more data. With each new piece of information we tease out, we can eliminate more and more culprits until can actually design a way to capture dark matter itself. It may take decades more until we get to that point, but like a punishing, extremely difficult game can give you immense satisfaction when you finally manage to figure out the rules and advance, so can a profound and difficult to solve mystery like finding out what dark matter really is. Maybe it will be nothing groundbreaking in the end, and maybe it won’t change anything we think we know about the universe, but just the fact that we persisted, observed, experimented, theorized, and then observed some more to figure it out should make us a little more proud of our species in general for not giving up on a very difficult question.

See: Harvey, D., et al (2015). The nongravitational interactions of dark matter in colliding galaxy clusters Science, 347 (6229), 1462-1465 DOI: 10.1126/science.1261381

Massey, R., et al. (2015). The behavior of dark matter associated with bright cluster galaxies in the core of Abell 3827 MNRA, 449 (4), 3393-3406 DOI: 10.1093/mnras/stv467

[ illustration by AYM Creations / Ali Yaser ]

roving on mars

By now, we’ve all heard that Mars One is a basically a scam. Well, maybe not a scam by intent, because it seems like the people behind it really did want to do something amazing and start a genuine Martian colony, but got caught up in their own hubris and are now desperately trying to salvage whatever’s left of their original mission. They don’t want to admit defeat after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to figure out how to get to Mars, but the more they try to salvage their organization, they deeper of a hole they dig. But just because those of us who did not think this was going to work in any real capacity turned out to be right, we shouldn’t gleefully succumb to the pleasures of schadenfreude, because this failed experiment does have several important lessons for us to consider. Mars One was not going to succeed as a real colonization effort, but it was successful in starting a conversation about moving it from the world of sci-fi to real world implementations, and it showed us that people are really interested in the idea.

Certainly, we’re not going to get the majority of people in developed nations on board with a big space program dedicated to sending humans to other worlds. There are far too many would-be decision makers and politically influential blocs who are penny wise and pound asinine. They’re squirming when asked to approve $25 billion in space exploration, asking exactly who benefits, how many jobs will be created, the optics of debts, deficits, and poverty not being paid down for the sake of sending a robot to an alien environment, but will swiftly give trillions to banks whose business model is hard to distinguish from that of a professional poker player in Vegas. This is nothing new, in fact it’s been this way even when it was politically important to actually travel to other worlds, and it echoes today, when the pathologically self-absorbed decry Curiosity as an unforgivable waste of time, money, and resources because it can’t cure cancer and pay off the looming balance on their student loans. But they don’t need to decide our fate.

Mars One attracted tens of thousands of supporters because it promised something that jaded bean counters suffering either from the WIIFM disorder or the GE syndrome never could: hope for adventure. People have been working on a factory schedule for over a century and we don’t like it at all. We’ve been trying to break free of the rigid industrial structure almost since its very inception, and many of us are searching for a reprieve from the proverbial 9 to 5 to explore and broaden our horizons, just like our ancestors. What can be a better break from that daily, TPS report filled drudgery than a trip to another world, even if it is one way? Space exploration is an amazing way to channel the energies of those who always have a wandering eye, looking for a place to belong but never quite finding it, their potential wasted by our inability to direct it into a worthy, focused venture. Unfortunately, we don’t reward these pursuits enough to make it really worth many people’s while, which is why it’s so difficult to get more people to see the benefits of building new spacecraft and trying to create business models for space travel.

A sad reality I learned almost a year ago is that if you love space and want to be a part of it, it’s an expensive proposition, so much that after you finally start to cool down after a call from JPL, you have to really start weighing the benefits of a functional pay cut and dealing with the mood swings of a Congress filled with scientifically illiterate lawyers pandering to an electorate which convinced itself that you’re bilking them out of trillions to live the good life, against getting a shot at participating in something you’ve always dreamed of doing. Space exploration funded with a massive influx of private cash from the likes of Tito, Musk, or Bigelow, or outright crowdfunding, would attract more people and relieve the pressures of antagonistic overseers who have pretty much every possible incentive to punch down with you in their sights. Opening up the idea of a space program funded by enthusiasts big and small, and summoning popular support that just doesn’t get enough time in the media is something we should be actively pursuing.

Maybe we don’t use it for an overly ambitious colonization project by people who seemed way too sure of themselves and way too eager to protect their public image when they realized how many challenges they didn’t even know they had to cope with, maybe we use it for something a lot more mundane instead. Maybe we harness it for building experimental lunar outposts where we can develop the technology we need for Mars close to home. Maybe we use it to build small robotic swarms that can coordinate their actions to cover more territory, scouting for a planned human mission. Maybe we invest in the kind of medical and biological research we need to stay healthy while traveling between worlds. Or maybe we can pick and choose from all of that as an entire slate of space startups compete to create the most viable plans for concrete projects and combine them into entire missions. Mars One had a good idea, but it was too grand, with a very unrealistic timeline, and not enough know-how behind it. Why not scale this down to something more realistic and get more people involved in making things happen?

valles marineris

Despite the flimsy plans and questionable premise of the Mars One project, there are now tens of thousands of people who signed up to possibly die on another planet and only a few of them will be chosen for the reality show style mission. Which is still many years away from being ready in any way, shape or form. But as would-be colonists are preparing to leave Earth behind for an alien tundra, one of the big things going overlooked is their mental health, according to a post featured in The Guardian. No, no one’s implying that the applicants are not in their right mind to sign up for a once in a lifetime trip, literally, but that their psyche is in serious danger because a number of studies on human behavior in isolation, under scruitiny, and in confined spaces for a long period of time point to a very high probability of boredom, depression, and anxiety. And the last thing you want a space colonist to be is bored, depressed, and agitated. That’s when really, really bad things can happen and with no one to intervene, they can spiral out of control while a shocked audience powerlessly watches from up to 140 million miles away. This would make for an unforgettable night of TV, but it’s certainly wouldn’t make for a good mission to Mars.

As I recently argued, this is why we need spacious, almost luxury spacecraft if we want to really explore the solar system and beyond. We want our astronauts to be stimulated and have every possible comfort of home. The excitement of a mission to another planet would be powerful, but it’s only going to last so long until the monotony of a long trip takes over and all the experiments and chores turn into tedious tasks on a checklist. We need interplanetary internet with Netflix as well as games, the ability to leave messages to friends and loved ones on Earth at any time, the schedule should a lot for weekends, and the habitats should allow for both communal areas, and big private spaces to counter the feeling of being confined. Certainly this sounds like a wish list of a spoiled teenager rather than necessities for astronauts, but astronauts are humans too and we need to take care of their mental health while they’re doing things no human has ever done, and exploring places no human has ever been. Considering that they’re trying to build a city in an icy, poisonous, alien desert, is trying to give them a way to play Halo or surf the web really an unjustifiable luxury, especially if it will keep them from possibly developing a mental illness?

[ illustration by Tiago da Silva ]

space station concept

Not too long ago, Ars ran an article detailing proposals for modifying the proven and successful hardware built for Apollo for flyby missions to Venus and Mars.None of these plans are new by any means because they were actually made in the 1970s, when the lunar program was coming to an end and NASA’s big wigs wanted to show Congress and the American people how far their flagship spacecraft could go. Of course we know that nothing ever came form these plans, but in recent times, the Mars One idea, and the Inspiration Mars project, seem to be planned in much the same vein. Let’s use what we have, make the crew as comfortable as we can in an austere ship for about two years or so, and do some attention-grabbing missions to show we can do the kinds of things emerging space powers can only dream of attempting one day. As the sage and endlessly quotable Mark Twain once said, history might not repeat itself but it does rhyme and in the case of rushed, crewed flybys of other planets, the second go-around is likely to end like the first: we talk about it and nothing gets done because the ideas are just too rough and costly.

I have to say though, the notions of explorers cramped in tiny vessels braving the harshness of space in the name of our species’ progress have a romantic ring to them. But for the majority of the population, this is going to be something for someone else to do. If more people could work on space exploration and actually travel into space as a part of their job to clean up space junk, launch and repair scientific probes or spy satellites, and even go beyond to mine valuable parts of asteroids, allowing us to tap into the immense resources of the solar system, wouldn’t you see a lot more support for the space program? I’ve written more than I can count about the benefits of investing in space travel and exploration, from medical, to engineering, to energy generation, but the bottom line is that people have to see an immediate benefit to them from the program to pressure politicians to invest; a benefit like potential careers in space. For that to happen, we’re going to need to think beyond flybys and short excursions with long travel times. We’re going to need to think about launching interplanetary space stations with artificial gravity and a whole lot of creature comforts to help astronauts do their jobs and have fun as they’re traveling.

You could argue that we’d have no shortage of would-be explorers willing to travel to Pluto in a rusty, old, sardine can if given a chance, and you’d be right. But odds are, most of them will not be qualified to make that trip and the ones who do will face mental challenges for which we can’t really prepare them. Consider NASA’s latest astronaut class. Out of 1,500 applicants, only eight have been deemed worthy of living in a space station in LEO. What do you think will be the rate of selection for deep space travelers in spartan conditions for years on end with no hope of help from Earth in the event of emergency? We shouldn’t be focused on finding tougher people and billionaires who want to throw technology built for brief orbital travel into interplanetary space. It won’t help us in the long run. We should be focused on developing efficient and powerful means of propulsion, large, comfortable spacecraft, and setting up self-sufficient ready-to-go-anywhere ecosystems that will let us launch more people in space, keep them there longer with less risk to their muscles and bones, and enable them to do more and more jobs there.

Would the price tag be high? Absolutely. But the trade-off is that we could tell more than one in roughly a million people that they’re astronaut material and we have a job for them. Now, space travel would still be challenging, even with a lot of attention paid to the amenities, but it will make long term exploration missions more viable and generate more spin-offs we can apply right back on Earth while testing new generations of materials, medical devices, genetic engineering, and cyborg technologies for applications in space. We’ve been treating the Final Frontier as fodder for philosophy and romanticism for a little too long. We need to start seeing it as a business and an investment in new industries vying to make a real world difference, and old industries that will once again be needed to work as full capacity after they’re upgraded to meet the demands of a new space-faring age. As I said before, I can think of no nation that ever went bankrupt investing in science, technology, and education. But many have collapsed when they tried to cover for the shortfalls of their economy with bread, circuses, war, and zero-sum political brinkmanship…

black hole accretion disk

Apologies for the sudden hiatus everyone. In the last several weeks, life has interfered with any possibility of writing and when there has been time for anything, it’s been occupied by Project X which actually does concern this blog and will be detailed in the future. But I’m finally back, and back with an astronomical bang, or FRBs to be exact. You see, recently astronomers have been puzzled by extremely energetic bursts that last for fractions of a second and vanish forever. It’s like a GRB, the birth cry of a newly born black hole, but it all happens in less than the blink of an eye rather than depending on the size of the cataclysm. These bursts are currently called FRBs and no one is really sure what they are, where they generally originate in the night sky, and how much energy they’re really emitting, repeating the original dilemma with GRBs when they were first discovered. Now we have our first theoretical contender called SURONs, or Supramassive Rotating Neutron Stars, the end result of supernovae that should have created black holes but didn’t, not yet at least. They’re essentially ticking black hole time bombs floating in space.

When our sun will die, it will slowly pulsate and cool into a white dwarf because its mass is below the Chandrashekhar limit, the point at which a star becomes too heavy not to collapse on itself as a supernova. There are some objects that challenge exactly where this limit comes into play, but it seems to be about 1.44 solar masses. Stars heavier than that produce iron in their cores during the last stages of their lives and the unique thing about iron is that fusing it produces no net energy output. Bascially, the strong nuclear force’s interactions with iron’s nucleons create a point of diminishing returns on the nuclear binding energy and the tightly wound nuclei of iron is the first element from which a nuclear reaction can’t extract anything worthwhile. No matter how much iron is being fused, there’s just not enough energy to keep its outer layers from collapsing inward and detonating as a supernova. This is when another important astronomical limit comes into play, the Tolman-Oppenheimer-Volkoff limit. (Yes, that Oppenheimer.) If a neutron star left after a supernova is about two solar masses, it will collapse on itself as a black hole.

Although "will" is kind of a strong word really, a better one would be "should." And this is exactly where the SURONs come into play. Neutron stars are made of degenerate matter, or particles in such a high density environment that the only thing keeping them from falling into each other is, well, each other. Compressing them any more shatters matter as we know it and creates chaotic maelstroms of energy that flow into each other. Degenerate matter at the core of neutron stars can be so hot and dense that it’s basically a weird quantum fluid with no viscosity already, so it’s not going to take all that much to turn it into a black hole. In fact, SURONs are just over the limit and the pressure of its outer layers should’ve triggered a collapse but the particles in their cores were given a brief reprieve. Stars spin and whatever momentum is left after their fiery death has to transfer to the pulsar left behind. Because the star was well over a million miles across and a typical pulsar is tens of miles across, that energy sends the little pulsar spinning wildly arouns its axis, sometimes as fast as 1,122 times per second. This releaves just enough pressure to keep the core from imploding and leave the SURON a neutron star spinning wildly through space.

But there’s a catch. SURONs have extremely strong magnetic fields and those fields will interact with the nebula left behind as will the interactions between its radioactive death beams and gas and dust. Over thousands of years, this will all put a brake on how quickly the neutron star spins which means that at a certain point, the pressure on its core will start building back up until the inevitable happens and the degenerate matter swallows itself and becomes a black hole. Since the SURONs is relatively puny, this collapse happens in a fraction of a second. Its fearsome and powerful magnetic fields will be severed from the just formed event horizon and re-connect very, very violently just outside of it, generating a potent and very short radio pulse. An FRB. This is a nice and tidy explanation because SURONs would be roughly the same size and the event would be pretty much uniform, almost like a Type Ia supernova used as a standard unit for measuring the rate of the universe’s expansion. We don’t know if these neutron stars ticking away into new black holes really do dot the sky and this is not the only possible explanation of FRBs, but it is a pretty good one and it seems quite solid. And that’s often as good as it gets in astronomy…

See: Falcke, H., Rezzolla, L. (2013). Fast radio bursts: the last sign of supramassive neutron stars. Astronomy & Astrophysics arXiv: 1307.1409v1