Archives For space exploration

pluto render

From the “space is amazing” files comes the new revelation that skies on Pluto aren’t dull gray, or almost transparent white, as drawn in so many hypothetical illustrations we’ve seen over the years, but an almost Earthly tint of blue. Although Pluto’s atmosphere is also nitrogen-rich, that bluish glow doesn’t come from the nitrogen particles scattering the sunlight like they do here on Earth, but from that nitrogen and methane being broken down by the Sun’s ultraviolet radiation and forming soot-like organic molecules called tholins. As they settle down to the surface below and create deposits, they not only give the atmosphere a blue hue, but give Pluto its brownish-red appearance, much like they color Titan’s atmosphere and Triton’s cryovolcanoes. Standing on one of the ice mountains looking out at Sputnik Planum, you might just see something not at all dissimilar from classic artists’ impressions of how Mars might look mid-terraformation.

And here’s another fascinating thing about Pluto’s skies and atmospheric chemistry. We know a few other dwarf planets in the Kupier Belt, like Sedna and Ixion, that are also very rich in tholins and would look reddish to the naked eye. If they get enough sunlight to scatter, they might also have blue skies, though probably significantly muted compared to what we see on Pluto due to the extreme distance between them and the Sun. Who would’ve ever thought that as we finally make our way to the outer reaches of our solar system, we’d find familiar skies created by alien chemistry which rains the building blocks of life onto the surfaces of worlds chilled to -440° F, or about as close to absolute zero as nature allows, orbiting in perpetual twilight? That’s by far the best thing about space exploration. You never know what amazing things you’ll find until you go and take a look for yourself because something is guaranteed to surprise you when you do.

update 10.09.2015: Whoops, it seems that when figuring out what Pluto’s sky would look like, I forgot just how little atmosphere it actually has. Because its pressure is so low and the nitrogen is so thin, you actually wouldn’t be able to see a blue sky, but a blue line on the horizon at dawn and dusk. The Bad Astronomer has the exact details of how long you could see Pluto’s blue sky in action, and sadly, it’s not for long. This also means that Sedna would have similar conditions and Ixion would lack the atmospheric gases to scatter light even if there is enough light that can be scattered into something visible to the naked eye. My apologies for the mistake. I try to keep this blog scientifically accurate to the best of my ability but I do make mistakes, especially when writing off the cuff, and this was one of those mistakes, hence the update to the post.

hazy mars

NASA’s recent big announcement, leaked before it was publicly made, is really quite interesting and offers the strongest evidence yet that Mars does have liquid water that might host life. Odd gullies and wet-looking streaks around the planet’s equator have been scrutinized for years, but after finally managing to get a spectroscope close enough to study them, the data confirms the tell tale signs of extremely salty liquid water, practically a brine, being responsible for these wet streaks on the Martian surface. No matter how they formed, their chemical signatures require a non-trivial amount of liquid to be present throughout the process, and this discovery means that something dynamic is happening under the surface where living things could be safe from a UV bombardment that has seemingly sterilized the surface. This means the next probe we send is going to be looking for alien microbes in Martian caves and will be planned and built post haste now that we know where to look and have the strongest indication yet of possible life, right?

Well, maybe not. One of the big catches is that while we now know there’s liquid water on Mars and that it has a visible effect on the surrounding environment, we don’t know in what form it is, and whether there are sub-surface aquifers or it’s a side-effect of another process. Without any direct signs of persistent water we don’t actually have a great indication for potential life. And as the water that does exist must be briny to avoid freezing solid right away, it’s full of alien salts, a few of which are actually extremely poisonous to life as we know it. Perchlorate has been found before in massive quantities and we know that whatever oceans Mars once had contained it, so while it may be possible that extremophile bacteria evolved to cope with it in the water and later on survived ever-increasing concentrations as the seas boiled, then froze away, it’s significantly lowering the number and variety of possible organisms we might find. And we can’t rule out the grim possibility that it completely snuffed out life because perchlorate salts break down organic compounds that would’ve been by far the most likely building blocks for Martian microbes.

Another thing to consider is that while Mars could well have large cave networks, giving several alien ecosystems a chance to hide from the windstorms and radiation on the surface, without a source of nutrients and neutral solvents, those organisms couldn’t survive. We don’t know if any of these nutrient sources exist, and whether anything underground could purify Martian brine of its toxic salts, which could prevent more complex life from evolving in what would have been an otherwise safe and stable environment. We would have to figure out what organisms could feed and reproduce in environments rich in the chemicals found on the red planet, and devise a way to explore Martian caves with restrictions imposed on us by the size and power of the robots we can actually launch and operate in mind. Digging to find an existing cave is out of the question, we’d have to find an entrance into one. Likewise, the robots we send would require a degree of independent thought most machines currently don’t have because they would have a very hard time communicating with mission control through the many tons of Martian rock and sand.

Compare the missions that would be required to find a microscopic extremophile colony cluster on Mars with the promise of missions to Europa and Enceladus with vast, warm, salty oceans a lot like ours and offering the chance for complex living things to evolve, and it seems that while looking for signs of life on the red planet would be interesting, the payoff isn’t that great. Again, this is not to rule out that there’s life on Mars, but given the abundance of chemicals we’re very confident are poisonous to every organism with even remotely recognizable chemistry, there is the chance that Mars is no longer a habitable world for anything we would readily identify as an unambiguously living thing. And that’s kind of sad to consider because for the last 200 years, a great deal of scientific literature fixated on Mars having advanced intelligent life which built vast canal systems for global irrigation and erected large cities much the same way we tend to do. If after all that hoping we find out that Mars is now a dead world, emotionally, that would hurt. But that’s science for you. Often times the reality isn’t what you wanted it to be, and with in the very long running hunt for life on red planet it seems that its past was rosier than its present…

blue planet

For just a moment, let’s pretend that we solve the controversial legal issues that surround how and if we’ll mine asteroids in the near future, and have managed to expand our way into space faring cyborgs with warp drives capable of shuttling us from solar system to solar system in an acceptable amount of time. Over thousand of years, we’d have visited countless planets in our post-scarcity futuristic pseudo-utopia, and those with the means might ask themselves what if it would be a good investment to buy an entire world. You know, much the same way people buy expensive houses and private islands today. How much would something like that run a tycoon in the far future? Obviously it would have to be some insane amount of galactic credits. Several asteroids we’d like to main are worth tens of trillions of dollars in today’s cash. Typical, smallish, rocky planets like ours are ten orders of magnitude larger or so, and with fewer easy to access resources due to their molten innards, they should cost tens of septillions of dollars, right?

Seems a little simplistic, don’t you think? Remember that when you’re out shopping for an alien planet, you’re already living in a post-scarcity world with 3D printers ready to create your cities, infrastructures, and anything else you need at a moment’s notice. And settling on other worlds would mean that you have to be extremely self-sufficient, needing nothing more than access to interstellar communication networks and able to easily live off the land with your portable power supplies which allowed you to cross the vast distances between solar systems. That means not that much mining is going to get done on your new world, and the lack of demand means lower prices. What good is a million tons of gold if no one wants it or needs it? And if no one needs it, no one should be charging you for it, especially when you’re just going to extract the little bit of resources you need as you need them on your own. With resource values now out of the price, what exactly would influence how much a planet is worth? What the previous owners left?

Well, it may just come down to the same three most important things in real estate prices back on our boring little home world: location, location, and location. How close is the planet you will buy to hubs of civilization? Can you invite people on vacations, or safaris in alien jungles, or get scientists to excavate the ruins of a long gone extraterrestrial civilization? Does your new world offer some sort of gateway to other star systems, the last place to refuel and patch up a ship in the next few months or years of travel? Are there pretty views of the Milky Way in the night sky, and magnificent oceans you can explore? Those are likely to be things by which a species that can travel to other worlds will judge how much a planet is worth, rather than the value of what’s there to be mined or otherwise extracted. Still, considering how many people there will be when we’re spread across the stars and how many of them will be doing something akin to a normal job today since all the machinery they will depend on won’t maintain itself, it’s likely that planets will be a super-luxury item for the future top 0.1% who own the rights and blueprints to all of the technology making space exploration on an interstellar scale possible as an investment…

dsi space harvester

Despite several startups eager to set out into deep space and mine asteroids just like in a sci-fi movie but with fewer people and more robots, the sad fact is that extracting resources from the objects over our heads is technically illegal. No matter how much you’d like to and how much a few people insist, you cannot own land on the Moon, or Mars, or any other celestial body in any legitimate capacity. But as noted many times before on this blog, its virtually an inevitability that one day, this restriction in the Outer Space Treaty will fall and our extraterrestrial colonies won’t be shy about wanting to self-govern, although probably not as quickly as some people imagine that would happen. Realizing this, in a rare act of forward thinking, Congress has been working on an exemption allowing individuals and private companies to claim territory on asteroids and other worlds if they can legitimately travel there on their own: the Space Act of 2015. But sadly, while it sits in committee, there are legal scholars who doubt that it would actually work.

Here’s the big problem. One of the reasons why the treaty specified that no one could lay claim on extraterrestrial bodies has little to do with the egalitarian altruism nations felt towards space. It was actually a preemptive maneuver against military installations in orbit and beyond, which both the United States and the USSR were actively considering during the Cold War. They were basically trying to deny each other higher ground for massive nuclear launches that would open the door to movie-worthy scenarios like secretly launching a government to a lunar base, trying to fight a nuclear war on Earth, then allow the planet to recover before returning and rebuilding the nation. Allowing private entities to be exempt from this restriction raises the specter of some shady spies and military contractors doing clandestine preparations for an attack, or setting up the infrastructure for orbital and deep space force projection, so Russia and China will balk.

Without their public approval, there’s the legal argument that the United States is violating a key provision of the treaty, which also governs the rules for nuclear testing used for a saber-rattling exercise in just how much the superpowers and their proxies were committed to the strategy of mutually assured destruction. And you probably won’t be surprised to hear that was a lot, to the point of possibly building doomsday machines. Should the Outer Space Treaty’s future become in doubt, there’s a non-trivial chance that the Cold War will come roaring back, albeit it would be a three-way contest between the major space-faring global powers who haven’t much liked one another for generations now. Figuring out how to get everyone on board is crucial because we all now know that we simply cannot keep the treaty the way it is for humanity to actually start to colonize space, but that we also cannot just openly challenge the status quo without potentially dire geopolitical consequences waiting for us on the other side of that legal gauntlet.

Sadly, it seems that human space exploration began as a military affair and would run as such until the Moon landing, and will now begin to creep back into a military-driven mode as nations able to claim extraterrestrial territory and resources seek to enforce that claim with weapons at the ready, relying on intimidation and the same MAD tactics they have for the past 70 years as they expand into the solar system. But that said, there is the remote possibility that seeing how much there is for the taking, the U.S., Russia, and China will let greed win over pride and bitter memories, and make trade agreements to invest in each others’ space mining companies. This seems like a very optimistic scenario, I know, but this is pretty much the only way I see any sort of cooperation on amending the Outer Space Treaty happening in the foreseeable future. For a large enough sum of cash, even the most complicated frenemy relationship could find a way to peacefully avoid flash points. And we just might get our wish to expand into space just like most futurists half a century ago dreamed we finally would, as a very welcome byproduct…

[ illistration by DSI: Deep Space Industries ]

saturn and enceladus

We’ve known for a while that Saturn’s moon Enceladus should have a huge ocean under all the thick surface ice thanks to the plumes of water it regularly ejects into space. These jets couldn’t have come from melting ice because they were salty, the kind of salty only possible with ocean water being heated by active geology. Given the amount of work that went into analyzing them, yesterday’s official confirmation from NASA, which looked at the moon’s wobble and found clear and obvious signs of a global ocean, was actually kind of expected. Enceladus’ wobble is simply too significant for a world made entirely of ice and rock, and requires a massive volume of liquid water to explain. Locked under 19 to 25 miles of ice, this ocean is estimated to be 6 miles deep and has a volume of approximately 8 million cubic kilometers. It’s less than a hundredth of what we have there on Earth, but Enceladus is 25 times smaller, so relative it its size, that is a huge amount of liquid, salty, real estate for life to flourish. And not just life, but life as we know it.

That’s actually the real reason to get excited about going alien hunting on Enceladus. Normally, when talking about living things in the outer solar system, we need to start considering all sorts of exotic chemistry we don’t yet fully understand. This means finding life on say, Titan, could be a much more ambiguous endeavor and there will always be room to doubt what we discovered due to some quirk of the local environment. Enceladus, on the other hand, has oceans warmed by tidal churn, much like Europa, and with extremely strong hints of hydrothermal activity not at all dissimilar from the bottom of the oceans right here at home. The same chemistry that made life on Earth possible is more than likely taking place under the moon’s ice shell. When we start diving into its ocean, we could very well encounter organisms we’d instantly recognize as living beings; alien arthropods, worms, and plants converting volcanic gases into rich nutrients.

When next month’s close fly-by by Cassini happens, we will get much better close-up images of the ice shell, but I wouldn’t expect anything too groundbreaking. At this point, with the evidence at hand, we should start dusting off the plans to explore this frozen ocean, although melting the many miles of ice on Enceladus would be much, much harder than the alternative of finding the rifts in Europa’s ice sheets and scurrying to dive in. It would be a difficult mission because there are pretty much no shortcuts to the nuclear-powered drills and heaters required for Enceladus. Even trying to break up the ice with kinetic impacts from orbit wouldn’t really do much because at -292° F, the ice is more like rock than just frozen water, and the impactors would just bounce off after a glancing blow. So when the time finally comes to dive into the dark, hidden oceans of the outer solar system’s moons, expect Europa to be first on the list thanks to its proximity, and the dynamics of its ice sheets. After that, however, Enceladus is bound to be the next stop…

terraformed mars

Mars has been calling humans for centuries and with every year we seem more eager to come and set up the groundwork for a lasting presence, so much so, there’s someone very seriously thinking about making the planet its own nation state. But living on Mars is far easier said than done because it’s atmosphere is a ghostly shell, it’s cold, dry, and barren, its magnetic field will offer so little protection from cosmic radiation that its surface can even kill bacteria that happily live inside nuclear reactors, and there are serious question about whether its soil will grow food and plants necessary for long term survival. And that’s not to mention the challenges of getting there safely, and the astronauts’ mental health tens of millions of miles from home. Now, when we do solve the problem of actually getting there comfortably, intact, and quickly, we could deal with the problems of living in a frigid alien desert by building vast, complex, expensive habitats, and hope for the best. Or we could get really ambitious and turn Mars into a livable world.

Plans for terraforming Mars have been around in both science and science fiction for decades, calculated to take several hundred years, cost trillions, and start out by pumping a noxious mix of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere to build it up and melt the polar icecaps. The process should essentially allow for a similar runaway greenhouse effect as Venus’, but keeping Mars at very warm and comfortable temperatures for us. Solar panels the size of Texas hovering over a few strategic points near the poles to redirect sunlight and melt the ice faster, have also been a periodic part of the plan. After the planet starts to warm up, hearty algae can be planted to feed on the toxic gasses and start replacing them with oxygen, much like on primeval Earth on a fast forward setting. If everything goes well, some 125 years after we begin, trees could grow in the Martian soil to speed the process up even more and stabilize the oxygen levels for humans.

Of course, those very interested in terraforming Mars do not want to wait over a century before genetically engineered super trees create the first forests on their chosen planet. They’d like to speed things up a bit using nuclear weapons. That’s right, under one terraforming scenario that Elon Musk explained to Colbert a few night ago, the process of making Earth 2.0 starts with the apocalyptic nuclear bombardment of the Martian poles. Once you’ve basically converted much of the dry ice to vapor after 500 to 800 mushroom clouds finally dissipate, the hot steam could, in theory, start the runaway feedback loop that would puff up the atmosphere and trap enough sunlight to raise the planet’s average temperature to a toasty 15° C or 60° F, although there will be so much fallout that the plants needed to convert much of that to oxygen and nitrogen would have to wait at least a few centuries. And that’s the downside of this plan, really. It is a cheaper, easier way to start terraforming, but over the long term it would really slow things down.

In general, since Mars is already a radioactive desert, there isn’t much that nuclear fallout could do to it that the sun isn’t already doing on a daily basis on the surface. But the surface is not an issue here, it’s the soil underneath. Radioactive elements like cesium will leach into it, poisoning the plant life we’ll ultimately need to sustain. You can see a similar problem in the Bikini Atoll as nuclear tests have rendered growing food there dangerous when cesium-137 mimicked the role of potassium and was absorbed into the local flora. It would take massive remediation efforts to prepare Mars for its greening, something which would run up the budget significantly, or we can just wait for the century or two it would take for the soil to be safe enough for the algae. And for my money, no one is going to choose the far more expensive and resource-consuming process when just waiting would do the job. But that means that we paid for cheapening out on starting the greenhouse effect we needed with an additional century, in the best case scenario.

However, thinking about this game me an idea. We do know of a way to get the oomph of huge nukes and create the same kind of damage without any of the complicated weapons we’d have to somehow convince nuclear powers to give up after modifying complex treaties that are taken so seriously that violating them could open the way to turning Mad Max into a preview of much of our world’s future. Large kinetic missiles dropped from satellites could easily kick start a huge polar melt and our terraforming factories could immediately get to work on making sure that the feedback loop does begin by surgically adding extra greenhouse gasses when needed. And as the kinetic impactors would be just solid spikes of hardened alloys, manufacturing thousands of them should actually be orders of magnitude cheaper than getting nuclear warheads ready and secure enough to be launched into space. This way, we could get the benefit of a nuclear-scale bombardment for a tiny fraction of the price, none of the radiation, and none of the delays. The only things that would be left in the aftermath are craters that we’d help erode away.

So the process sounds good so far, once again. There’s just the small question of whether the hard work of terraforming the red planet will actually stick, which is still a matter of debate. You see, the problem is that Mars may be too small to hold on to a large, thick atmosphere like ours and its lack of volcanic activity and weak magnetic field would only make it worse. Technically, a planet capable of holding on at an adequate atmosphere for 10 billion years can be as small as just 5,690 km across while Mars is almost 6,800 km in diameter, so you’d think there’s a rather comfortable 12% margin above the minimum. But this is a spherical chicken in a vacuum figure which isn’t capturing the complexity of chemical reaction between the sun, surface, and air, and don’t take the solar wind into account. We could invest 250 years into creating a thick, luxurious atmosphere only to see it scoured away to barely breathable in less than twice that time as the planet’s weak magnetic field can’t protect it. We’d have to add 70,000 tons of gas to the Martian atmosphere every year to offset the loss. Hey, no one said terraforming a world will be easy.

Ultimately there will be many challenges to creating Earth 2.0 and the end product might never resemble our home world. Costs will mount, political and legal questions will have to be tackled, and the project could only be accomplished if every advanced economy works together to keep it moving along for longer than something close to two thirds of the nations we recognize today existed. It would be the biggest mega-engineering project ever undertaken, which is why it’s not going to happen in the foreseeable future to be blunt. But it seems that we understand much of the underlying science and have a good idea how to actually make it happen, so if money could one day cease to be a hindrance to this idea, or it suddenly became a top priority after a major catastrophe loomed on Earth and millions needed an escape route within a few hundred years, we may just turn Mars into our second home world with kinetic missiles and a greenhouse gas spewing network of factories. Should you ever be legally able to buy land on Mars, maybe you should shell out for a hundred acres. Your great-great-grandchildren might thank you…

[ illustration by Marcel Labbé-Laurent ]

astronaut on mars

Astrobiologist Jacob Haqq-Misra likes to ask questions about our future in space. If you’ve been following this blog for a long time and the name seems familiar, it’s because you’ve read a take on a paper regarding the Fermi Paradox he co-authored. But this time, instead of looking at the dynamics of an alien civilization in the near future, he turned his eye towards ours by asking if it would be beneficial for astronauts we will one day send to Mars to create their own government and legally become extraterrestrial citizens from the start. At its heart, it’s not a really outlandish notion at all, and in fact, I’ve previously argued that it’s inevitable that deep space exploration is going to splinter humanity into independent, autonomous territories. Even further, unless we’ve been able to build warp drives to travel faster than light and abuse some quantum shenanigans to break the laws of physics and communicate instantaneously, colonists on far off worlds would eventually become not just different cultures and nations, but different species altogether.

However, the time scales for that are thousands to hundreds of thousands of years, while plans for an independent Mars advanced by Haqq-Misra are on the order of decades. And that’s very problematic because the first Martian colonies are not going to be self-sustaining. While they’re claiming their independence, they’re being bankrolled and logistically supported by Earth until a time when they can become fully self-sufficient. Obviously that’s the goal, to travel light and live off the land once you get there, but laying the basic infrastructure for making that happen in an alien wilderness where no terrestrial life can exist on its own requires a lot of initial buildup. And under three out of the five main provisions of what I’m calling the Haqq-Misra Mars Charter, the relationship between the colonists and Earth will be parasitic at best, violating international laws on similar matters, and ultimately restricting the colony’s growth and future prospects.

For example, under the charter, every piece of technology sent to Mars is now Martian property in perpetuity and cannot be taken back. What if this technology is software updated by a steady internet connection used for communication between the two worlds as NASA is planning? Will some Martian patent trolls start suing Earthly companies for not handing over the rights to their digital assets? Not only that, but if a Martian pays for this software, he or she is in violation of a trade prohibition between the planets. That’s right, no commerce would be allowed, and neither would input on scientific research that the Martians feel infringes on their right to run their world as they see fit. In other words, Earth is expected to shell out cash, send free technology, write a lot of free software stuck in legal limbo, and keep its opinions to itself. This does not sound like setting up a new civilization as much as it sounds like enabling a freeloader. Any even remotely plausible Martian colony will have to pay its own way in technology and research that should be traded with Earth on an open market. That’s the only way they’ll be independent quickly.

And of course there’s the provision that no human may lay claim on Martian territory. However, should the colonies lack a sufficiently strong armed forces, their ability to enforce this provision would be pretty much nonexistent. Sovereign territory takes force projection to stay that way so what this provision would be doing is creating an incentive for military buildup in space as soon as we set foot on Mars. Considering that the top three space powers which will be capable of a human landing on another world in the foreseeable future currently have strained relations, it is not something to take lightly. Runaway military buildup gave us space travel in the first place. It can change the world again just as quickly. And I can assure you that no nation in the world will be just fine with heavily armed extraterrestrial freeloaders with whom they can’t engage using a lot of resources these countries have to provide on a regular basis to keep them going. There’s not going to be a war for Martian independence that Haqq-Misra wants to avoid, but there may be one of Martian annexation. And probably a fairly short war at that when the troops land.

Now, all that said, after a century of colonies, terraforming attempts, and several generations of colonists who know Mars as their home, I can definitely see the planet turning independent. It’s going to have the self-sufficiency, economy, and culture to do so, and that culture isn’t going to be created ex nihlo, as Haqq-Misra is hoping to force by declaring astronauts Martians with the first step on alien soil. They will be speaking with Earth daily, many will identify with their nations of origin and their cultures, and it’s all going to take a long time to gel together into something a future researcher can call uniquely Martian. And what it will ultimately mean to be a Martian will be shaped by two-way interactions with those on Earth, not by forced isolation which could give megalomaniacs a chance to create a nation they could subjugate, or utopians a chance to build an alien commune with the consequences that would entail, while people who could help give a group of critics a means to be heard, are legally required to stay out of the way. But the bottom line is that we need to learn to thrive on Mars and spend a great deal of time there before even thinking of making it its own autonomous territory. It will happen, just not anytime soon.

self-steeping tea

All right, look Newsweek, I get it. You need a catchy title for a throwaway article, ideally one you can tie into recent events bubbling up on search engines to get those sweet, sweet hits. And it’s understandable that once you start off with that headline, you don’t want to disappoint all those readers who came in to read about people who believe that a flyby of Pluto was just a part of a complicated conspiracy. But at the same time, two idiots who can’t even articulate what it is that was actually conspired and why, and seem to have no idea that there are two of them, aren’t a movement by even the most generous stretch of the imagination. No one except them believes that the New Horizons flyby didn’t happen and most of the people who comment on their videos do so to tell them how incredibly scientifically illiterate they are. For example, take this gem…

A man who goes by Crow Trippleseven questioned the initial Pluto images in a YouTube video last week… His argument: How is it that NASA’s images of Pluto, supposedly taken from a only few million miles away, are of poorer quality than those he took of Jupiter with his telescopic camera from 484 million miles away?

Well, let’s see, you have the lack of an adjustable focal length on the space probe to reduce the amount of moving parts and the fact that Jupiter has a diameter of 86,881 miles and comes as close as 365 million miles to us, while Pluto is 3 billion miles away at its closest and is just 1,473 miles across, or 8 times farther away, 58 times smaller, and fainter by a factor of thousands. So Crow expects a far smaller object, much farther away to be seen as clearly as the largest one in our solar system, gets schooled by countless people who actually realize this because they can do basic math and understand middle school optics, and his ignorance of basic science is proof of a conspiracy and comments calling him out on his imbecilic video are actually “death threats” in light of which he must keep his identity secret. But hold on, what is the actual conspiracy he’s trying to expose? Why is NASA staging a flyby of a would people are slightly curious about?

Maybe the truth is that NASA can’t do as much as we’ve been led to believe. It is a hard thing to know. Why does any government lie to its people? While there seems to be no simple answer, it seems to be the way of things. Governments lie and always have.

Ah, that clears it up. No, wait, no it doesn’t. He’s basically saying that he has no idea why there was a staged flyby of Pluto, what anyone had to gain form it, and what was the point of doing it in the first place, but dammit government lie and this must be a lie too. He’s just there to wake up the sheeple to the fact that there are conspiracies everywhere. His supposed counterpart in the movement of two dullards is just as clueless, basically just saying that he has no idea why a space agency would fake a mission but he knows they faked it. He also appears quite sure that the flouride in his local drinking water is poisonous and doesn’t understand that spacecraft can indeed propel themselves through a vacuum on top of re-tweeting pro-precious metal standard economic pamphlets based on what I’d like to call the peek-a-boo theory of economics, i.e. “if a currency isn’t backed by precious metal I can see and touch, it’s not real money.” So in short, he appears to be a somewhat bored rebel looking for a cause rather than for a clue.

However, this pair does teach us an important lesson. While some of us look to space to get an amazing little dose of inspiration and hopefully a glimpse of our future beyond humanity’s small, fragile blue cradle, others look to the heavens to find something else to complain about with the utmost confidence in their own genius, desperate to come across as incisive thinkers who have answers to life’s toughest questions and out-think the average person. These are people with a huge chip on their shoulders, people who want to be appreciated and admired for their feats of intelligence and insights, and whose eggshell-thin egos cannot process the fact that they more often than not end up coming across as the exact opposites of what they wanted to project. I’m sure they think of an article about them in Newsweek as long overdue recognition, while it really just let them humiliate themselves in public while calling them a movement to milk a few hits…

pluto on flyby

After finally getting a close look at Pluto and putting many decades of speculation to rest, there are three important things to keep in mind. First is that humans have now seen every world we once considered a planet in our solar system and have taken pictures and measurements that will give us decades of research to help us figure out where we came from and provide a basic foundation for figuring out if we are really alone in our tiny little corner of the cosmos. Second is that we need to keep thinking about how to properly define what a planet is, since Pluto shows pretty much all the signs of geologic activity we expected to find, and isn’t merely a rock which simply hangs around in space, absorbing the solar wind and asteroid impacts. And third, and in many ways very exemplary of how science can drive us to do odd but beautiful things, is that a container on New Horizons was carrying the ashes of the scientist who discovered Pluto, and in a way, the man who set the chain of events ending with this mission in motion, was there when the small world he spotted so many decades ago, was finally visited for the very first time.

People tend to lament spending money on basic science, curiosity-driven research which is not going to be obviously responsible for creating new jobs or founding new companies, but simply asks what is and why it works that way. But notice how many people were fascinated to see an icy, remote world, and how impressed they were that a 3 billion mile flight was planned to within several thousand miles between spinning alien objects we couldn’t see as anything more than a few faint pixels with out most powerful telescopes. We may have chained ourselves to desks in gray offices, toiling away on reports no one wants to read under the buzz of florescent lights as we watch the clock for quitting time, but deep inside we’re still explorers and wanderers. That’s why no matter how dullards and politicians who pander to them try to bankrupt space travel and exploration, we’ll always find a way to go. The urge is always there. The challenge attracts way too many curious minds. Clyde Tombaugh found a way to visit the outer solar system. He may have not been alive for it, but still, where there was a will to explore, we found a way…

pop culture aliens

If you don’t remember Chandra Wickramasinghe, here’s a quick refresher. Back in the day, the scientist worked with Fred Hoyle, the brilliant astronomer whose really poorly supported notions about the origins of life inspired many a creationist, and led him and a few of his colleagues on a hunt for evidence of panspermia, the idea that life originated somewhere in deep space and as our planet was finally settling down after its turbulent infancy, it settled here and evolved into all the species we know, and numerous ones we don’t. On the face of it, it’s not an inherently bad, or even wrong idea. It has actually been around since Darwin started wondering about the very same questions, and despite being occasionally criticized, it’s still popular in astrobiology. There does appear to be plenty of interesting evidence in favor of at least some building blocks of life coming form space, especially from asteroids and comets. This is why finding complex organic structures in the carbon layer of 67P wasn’t a surprise at all. In fact it was widely expected.

Yet according to Wickramasinghe, it’s proof that comet 67P is actually teeming with life and the scientific community at large needs to step up and announce that we found aliens. Despite how generously he’s treated by The Guardian’s staff writer however, he’s not a top scientist and his claim to expertise in astrobiology comes from declaring pretty much every newsworthy event in any way related to viral and microbial life as undeniable proof of aliens. He’s done this with mad cow, polio outbreaks, SARS, AIDS, and one of his fans recently declared that Ebola could have come from outer space. His proof of all this? Pretty much none. What papers he published to at least clear up how he thought life actually got its start and how it can travel across billions upon billions of light years so easily were in a vanity journal which was basically mocked into shutting down after failing to include a single entry of real scientific merit, and are absolutely inane. Hey, personally, I’m a huge fan of the panspermia hypothesis myself, but even in my very generous approach to reviewing astrobiology papers, what Wickramasinghe produced was absurd.

But of course, as all cranks eventually do, Wickramasinghe cried conspiracy after his work was battered by other scientists, declaring that astrobiology was a discipline under assault from the conservative geocentric cabal made up of old scientists hell bent on shutting down research on possible alien life forms in the wild. This came as a surprise to the flourishing researchers who had been studying extremophiles, theoretical alien biochemistry, and discovering more proof of organic molecules and water floating in space. You see, astrobiology is doing great and keeps advancing every day. Wickramasinghe, on the other hand, is not doing well because he doesn’t actually conduct any rigorous scientific experiments while desperately aspiring to be the person who goes into the history books as the scientist who discovered alien life. His constant attempts to stay in the media spotlight with his out-of-left-field proclamations and conspiracy theories are the typical self-serving machinations of a vain elder past his prime jealous that someone else is going to do what he aspired to accomplish. Honestly, it’s a sad way to end one’s career, to just chase after those doing the real work with outlandish soundbites and wallowing in self-pity.