Archives For space exploration

pluto approach

According to some people, Pluto never stopped being a planet. While there was acrimony when the new definition was approved by the IAU, after a while it seemed that people got used to the idea that maybe, certain planet-like objects shouldn’t be called planets after all. However, as we approach Pluto with the fastest spacecraft ever built to study worlds like it, the person in charge of the mission’s science, Alan Stern, insists that it’s a planet and those who defined it otherwise lack a persuasive argument to call it anything else. According to him, if we start applying IAU’s definition to current planets, none would qualify because they can’t clear out their orbits and all have various stellar bodies crossing paths with them or following in their orbital wake. Jupiter is not even a proper planet because it attracts so many comets, Neptune can’t be a planet thanks to the fact the Pluto crosses its orbit, and Earth has a cloud of asteroid debris following it. And if none of these spheres is a planet, then what exactly is? But the catch here is that Stern may be emphasizing the letter of the definition over its spirit to score a rhetorical buzz-worthy point.

While he correctly says that a definition that could leads to hundreds of planets in our little solar system alone shouldn’t bother us because science is science and we need to call things as they are, rather than change definitions solely for the sake of convenience and textbook publication, how he interprets the requirement to clear one’s orbit is suspect. There’s math involved in how one determines if a planet cleared its orbital neighborhood and what is meant by cleared, and it should be pointed out that Stern co-authored a paper that contributed greatly to this concept in the first place some 15 years ago. Nowhere does it state that a planet must have a pristine orbit because such a thing is physically impossible in most solar systems. Instead, the idea is that it’s the dominant body in its orbit, and has enough scattering power to send incoming bodies away, which isn’t a perfect definition and could cause some semantic headaches in certain cases, but hardly as absolutist as Stern makes it sound. And the IAU debate raises a valid point. If we call anything round and orbiting a star a planet, how many planets would we have? At what point is there a difference significant enough between planets to require us to rethink the definition?

For what it’s worth, Stern does have an answer to that. Despite raging and fuming about how it all went down at the IAU meetings, he doesn’t want to get rid of the term dwarf planet. But in his mind, that’s just another type of a planet along with numerous other classifications he offered in his paper trying to define any planet’s orbital dominance. He sees us categorizing planets much like we do stars, from dwarfs to hyper-giants based primarily on mass, and each world falling at a certain point along a planetary Hertzsprung-Russell diagram. So what if we identify Ceres and Eris along with a whole host of Kupier Belt Objects as planets as long as they orbit the sun and have enough mass to become round? So what if we end up with 3,000 planets? Isn’t that better than arbitrarily drawing a cutoff at a number we can easily memorize solely for the purposes of nomenclature in classrooms? As we see with extrasolar systems, planets are weird things in all sorts of erratic orbits, so perhaps, how we define what is and isn’t a planet should reflect that in our literature. Plus imagine how big and colorful our model solar systems would get…

porn starlet

PornHub has a grand vision, a vision of a man and a woman having sex on camera just as they reach the edge of space and feel the grasp of our planet’s gravity loosen for half an hour. It’s a vision that’s been proposed to the only company that may have been willing to do it in 2008 and was promptly shot down, but PornHub was undeterred and started a crowdfunding campaign to bring zero gravity porn to the horny masses. Considering the challenges of sex without the help of gravity would be extremely amusing to watch, and if humans want to live in space, we’ll need to learn how to have sex on a spacecraft, I have no doubt this vision will be brought to life. Just not for PornHub, and not right now. No one is sending passengers into suborbital space and it’s simply not practical for the first commercial passengers to be a porn crew since no one from the crew will want to invest time in blocking, timing, and the necessary rehearsals. Just getting a few tourists floating around the cabin at the Karman line is going to be difficult enough as it is.

Now, a few dozen flights in, when the mechanics of the flights are settled and the crews can get more ambitious with their missions, this idea can actually work. Of course the problem for even the most accomplished and capable porn star would be the difficulty of getting an erection after the redistribution of fluids in zero gravity, and trying to actually maintain a position for cinematic intercourse when the slightest push will send them bouncing around the cabin. And there a lots of questions about how the money shot would be executed as well as whether 30 minutes can be enough to get a decent video, or whether multiple flights would be required. Perhaps they’d be interested in hiring Zero G to wrap their heads around the necessary blocking and physical limitations. None of these challenges are insurmountable, mind you, and they could actually do science a solid and perform research that would never be funded otherwise.

But again, this is a little premature. (Make your own jokes, I refuse.) We need to get people into suborbital space reliably in the first place, and then to orbital hotels where they could shoot just about anything and everything they’d want. Don’t get me wrong PornHub, although I know your porn business is your own real concern in this, you’re actually helping humanity in the long run, and your efforts to shoot naked people putting things into their own or others’ bodies could one day help start a family on the Moon or Mars. And really, your only problem here is being five to ten years ahead of your time. Though maybe you can also make your pitch a little less obvious as to its commercial value and a put in some things regarding advancing human understanding of sex beyond our planet, really sell it as an experiment, get in depth interviews with some blow by blow, and thrust by thrust commentary, and really advertise them when you try this again in probably six years or so when we have this whole commercial suborbital flight figured out.

[ illustration: porn starlet Ariana Marie ]

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 ]

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?

skylon

This might seem a little odd, but think about it. Single stage to orbit, or SSTO, space flight is the holy grail of aerospace design right now. If you can fly a plane into space, you can easily reduce launch costs by a factor of ten and still build a profitable business. Not only would you make it a lot more tempting for companies and universities to exploit space, but you can also offer shorter commutes between far flung, attractive destinations, and take space tourism to the next level. A big problem with SSTO however, is that it’s been tried before with few positive results because physics tend to get in the way of a smooth ascent to orbit. If you need to drag tons of oxidizer to incredibly high altitudes, you may as well just use a rocket. If you try to gulp down the incoming air, you’ll be dealing with blistering heat that will be monstrously difficult to compress and use to provide thrust. But the brainchild of engineer Alan Bond, Reaction Engines, has recently shown that it has a solution to a viable hybrid engine for the SSTO craft it wants to build.

By cooling the super-heated air coming into the intakes at the speed of sound with liquid helium, the SABRE engine can ignite a rocket motor while traveling at supersonic speed. Now mind you, this was only a test and we’re still a few years away from an engine ready to go to market, but a technical audit by the ESA found no flaws with the design. So while Reaction Engines may seem like it’s pitching something out of a science fiction movie, its technical chops seem to be in order and it’s not hiding behind invocations of or trade secrets when faced with tough questions. This is why they’ve gotten several grants from the ESA to keep working on SABRE. However, the final tally for the Skylon spaceplane fleet is estimated at $14 billion, several orders of magnitude more than government grants being offered and out of reach for the vast majority of private investors. So far, the plan seems to be to solicit another $4 million or so in funding to finish SABRE to then license the engine to other manufacturers and use the proceeds to start building Skylons. It’s certainly an interesting idea, but who exactly would want to license an SSTO engine?

How about SpaceX? Right now, to advance its strategy of licensing SABRE, the company has a derivative design called the Scimitar and bills it as already being 50% funded by the EU to bring intercontinental travel at Mach 5 to the world at large. Now, this would certainly help big airlines make more profits by flying trans-oceanic routes more often in theory, but in practice, the really, really burdensome regulations against supersonic travel thanks to the kind of NIMBYism which played a major role in preventing the supersonic travel revolution predicted by many futirists, as well as the lead time to finish, test, and prove these planes in operation, Reaction Engines may as well forget about Skylon for the next several decades. If it wants to raise money and interest for a spaceplane, it should focus on creating a spaceplane and selling the Scimitar to militaries as the child of the successful SABRE. Yes, SpaceX is working on its Dragon capsule for sending humans to the ISS, and it has rockets capable of getting there, but if it can offer rocket launches to deliver larger spacecraft into orbit, ready for a Skylon to deliver the crew, it can build a major competitive advantage. An extra 20 or 30 tons of cargo capacity can help enable a less spartan mission beyond Earth orbit, and Dragon could be an emergency habitat in deep space.

We should no longer have just one launch stack for sending humans into space, but instead, we need to mix and match our technology for optimal results. Doing heavy lifting with rockets while the orbit is given to SSTO craft and inflatable space stations for staging, assembly, research, or all of the above, is probably our best way to steadily expand upward into space. So maybe Elon Musk should consider working with Reaction Engines in the near future. The investment wouldn’t be small and returns on it won’t be quick, but they’ll not only be an investment in furthering how far SpaceX can go and what it can do for its clients, but also an investment in the infrastructure of the dawning space tourism and exploration industry. And judging from many proposals for the future of NASA and space travel in general, he’s rather likely to find deep-pocketed and willing partners to make it all work. After all, sticking to space capsules and heavy lift rockets for almost everything would be a huge technological step back to doing what we know rather than using all our past skills to build something for the future. Why should we circle back now, especially when there’s promising technology to make it happen just waiting for people with a big vision and the resources to make it come together, especially at a profit when all is said and done?

mystery astronaut

As long time readers know, I’m a sucker for a good counter-intuitive think piece and pretty much every professional blogger knows that to start a big debate and draw a crowd, you need a view way out of left field once in a while to mix things up. But the really big catch for posts like these, especially in science and tech, is that they need to be based on sound criticism and have logical consistency and flow. This is why Morozov’s rebellion against TED was spot on while the attempt at a shot across the bow of human spaceflight programs by Srikanth Saripalli in Future Tense is basically a train wreck of an argument. Unlike Morozov, Saripalli isn’t willing or able to explore or engage with the issues he brings up, and his grasp of some very basic technological concepts comes off as shoddy at best. He even veers off into Singularity territory to argue for that future robotic probes will be smarter and uses transhumanism as an excuse to ground astronauts. The whole thing was so badly written that I was dead sure Saripalli must have been a journalist with exactly zero STEM credentials, but shockingly, he’s actually a robotics researcher at ASU.

Maybe he’s a terrific robotics person, but it certainly doesn’t get conveyed in his piece because much of it is spent on rehashing the very same claims from Kurzweil and his disciples that I have debated time and time again on this blog. From promises of digital immortality to artificial minds that can out-think all of humanity, Saripalli parrots it all with zero caveats or skepticism and then barrels right ahead to transhumanist effots in life extension to declare the future of our bodies to be very much uncertain, and thus reason enough to replace astronauts with robots. Then, after seemingly providing for cyborg space exploration he never returns to the topic again, wandering off to the current buzzword in bleeding edge robotics, evolving robot networks. Yes, they’re very awesome and their potential is mind-blowing. But put light years between them and you’re going to have to radically rethink how they could be deployed and used. Though you know what, we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Let’s come back to his sneaky misuse of transhumanism…

Given that the future of our bodies is uncertain, it makes more sense to send robots with intelligence to other planets and galaxies. Nature has built us a certain way—we are best-suited for our planet "Earth." Future space explorers will quickly realize that the human body is not the perfect machine for these environments. We will also want to explore other planets such as Venus and maybe even think about living on those planets. Rather than make those planets habitable, does it not make sense to purposefully evolve ourselves such that we are habitable in those worlds?

You know, this attitude is surprisingly common in Singularitarian and transhumanist circles, and there’s a widespread disdain for human spaceflight as simulations and beaming one’s mind in a laser beam across the universe in a hypothetical future are praised as the solutions to the issue of our biology’s limitations in space. The problem is that beaming yourself around the cosmos is not only biologically implausible, but the physics and orbital mechanics don’t work out either. So while it’s true that we actually should send cyborgs into space, something for which I argued in a few articles on Discovery News, we’re not going to send human minds to ready made bodies, or disembodied brains ala Project Kronos to wander through space. Even less desirable is trying to evolve to live on an alien world as if evolution can be directed on cue and we aren’t better off as the generalists we currently are. We want to upgrade our bodies to survive alien environments, but we don’t want to do it just so we get stuck on another planet all over again, which is what the question seems to propose. Ignoring this line of debate, Saripalli then lunges into robotics.

Several articles in popular press have argued that humans on the moon have produced far more scientific data than the robots on Mars. While this is true, the robots that have been used till now are not at all "autonomous" or "intelligent" in any sense. […] Indeed, we are very far from having autonomous robots on planetary missions, but such machines are being built in university labs every day. Robot Magellans (with scientific skills to boot) could be here long before colonists take off for Mars.

There are two problems with this train of thought. Powerful, intelligent robots are extremely hard to build when you’re going to send them to other planets because physics is the universe’s Buzz Killington when it comes to boldly going into the final frontier. It comes down primarily to weight and power placing some very harsh limitations on how smart our machines can be. I can think of ways to make them much smarter, hypothetically speaking, but all of them involve humans and a lunar or orbital base with giant clean rooms and heavily shielded supercomputers. And while I’m not a gambling man beyond playing with a few bucks in Vegas between shows or attractions, I’d be willing to bet that even the smarter machines we’ll build in the next half century will not totally eliminate the need for human guidance, strategy, and corrections. Our robots will be our trusted help and we’ll use them to do jobs we can’t, but they’ll in no way replace astronauts, just make a very tough job easier and allow us to cram even more science into a mission. But Saripalli plays dirty when it comes to astronauts, summoning politics to rid the space program of humans…

Contrary to popular belief, there never has been a groundswell of popular support from the general public for the space program. Even during the Apollo era, more people were against the space program than for it. Getting robots into space costs a lot less than humans and is safer —so we can keep the space program going without creating budgetary battles.

Yes, it’s true that despite today’s near sacred status of the Apollo missions, people just wanted the government to beat those commie bastards and go home at the time you could turn on your TV and see humans walking on another world. This is what killed the lunar program and future plans for the launch stack, and arguably, what ails NASA to this day. However, you can’t argue that space probes don’t face the scorn of politicians when budgets are being decided since they pretty much loathe all science spending as wasteful, and despite singing praises to science and technology, much of the public doesn’t understand the people who do science or engineering in any way, shape, or form, and really don’t care to. Take quick a look at all the snide dismissals of Curiosity as a colossal waste of $2.5 billion and tell me with a straight face that you’re not going to get budgetary battles by sending robots instead of humans. Of course none of this can get in the way of Saripalli’s rosy view of a galaxy buzzing with our networked robotics along with a huge flop that makes me wonder if he actually understands distributed computing.

While NASA is interested in sending big missions with large robots to accomplish tasks, I believe future robots will be smaller, “distributed,” and much cheaper. To understand this, let us look at the current computing environment: We have moved from supercomputers to using distributed computing; from large monolithic data warehouses to saving data in the cloud; from using laptops to tablets and our smartphones.

All right, let’s stop right there for a minute. We did not go from large monolithic data warehouses to saving data in the cloud. We went from large monolithic data warehouses to even larger data warehouses that are basically a modern riff on mainframes. As explained before, the cloud isn’t magic, it’s just a huge set of hard drives in enormous buildings housing the modern equivalents of what mainframes were originally developed to do at a much higher level of complexity. To say that the cloud is different from a data warehouse is like saying that we moved from penicillin to antibiotics. Maybe he means something completely different than what came out, but since this isn’t a piece from a professional blogger trying to submit five articles a day, he probably wrote it, proofread it, and reviewed it multiple times before submitting it, and had plenty of chances to fix this sort of major error. Unfortunately, the continuation of his thought uses this factually incorrect assertion as the linchpin for his vision of robotic space exploration, which just makes it worse.

The future of space exploration is going to be the same—we will transition from large, heavy robots and satellites to “nanosats” and small, networked robots. We will use hundreds or thousands of cheap, small "sensor networks" that can be deployed on planetary bodies. These will form a self-organizing network that can quickly explore areas of interest and also organize themselves into larger machines that can mine metals or develop new vehicles for future exploration.

Let’s get something straight here, people at NASA are pretty damn smart. They prefer fairly big missions because they’re easier to power, easier to coordinate than many small ones, and can do more science when they reach their destinations. Thousands of tiny bots means very limited power supplies to instruments and many expensive pings between them. Factor in the distances involved in space travel and you’ll spend most of your time waiting to hear back from other bots, while a large, integrated system already got the job done. These are not things that will improve with new technology. There are hard limits on how small logic gates can be and how fast lasers and radio signals can travel, and changing these limits would require a different universe rather than a different manufacturing process or communication technique. It only really makes sense to distribute these robot networks across a single planetary body overseen by humans who had a number of modifications to their bodies to help deal with the alien environment. And there are reasons beyond efficiency for sending humans into space on a regular basis.

Humans are natural explorers, our minds are wired to wonder from birth. If we’re going to try and explore the universe, we need to do more than send our robotic proxies and stay on Earth. And as was mentioned a few times in the comments to Saripalli’s post, there’s a huge psychological effect of going into space. Seeing the entire Earth as a blue marble floating in the void makes a lot of astronauts extremely aware of just how mindlessly, ignorantly petty some 95% of the stuff that we bicker about with no end in sight, really is. We can’t expect to end political battles about things that seem huge to us here but mean nothing in the grand scheme of things when we take into account where and who we actually are just by flying politicians to space. But if we are more and more involved in space travel, we’ll get a much broader perspective. We’re one species, on one planet, wasting lifetimes arguing about magic sky people and their wishes for us, and on all sorts of petty spats about what is and isn’t ours on a tiny blue ball spinning in space. And when we finally let that sink in, maybe, we’ll devote a little more time to something far more important, like advancing ourselves. Sending robots to take our place in space only delays that.

[ illustration by Ian Wilding ]

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…