Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

Posts Tagged ‘space exploration

Still Alone in the Universe

with 5 comments


Alas, yet another well intentioned and optimistic attempt has been made to search for alien civilizations. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for SETI (The search for alien technological civilizations) and am glad it gets done.  I just don’t think they are going to find anything, and am not surprised this latest search is a failure. Why? Some background first:

NASA has a satellite, the WISE satellite. Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer. It basically made a survey of the sky in infrared. It was a big deal. Many new discoveries, thousands of asteroids, numerous star clusters, and a whole wealth of data about the skies. Including information on millions of galaxies. Then scientists with private funding (our precious tax dollars saved for ever more drone strikes) computer sifted through this data to find 100,000 promising galactic candidates for further investigation. They then hand searched these galaxies, looking for galaxies with signs of widespread industrial civilization. How is that? Well, the idea being that aliens that colonized a galaxy would use starlight to power industry, and thus the galaxy in question would be shy on starlight, but long on infrared, the waste product of industrial processes. The results? Nada. None of the galaxies showed anything that was obviously unnatural. A few warrant further looking, but there was certainly no smoking gun.

What can we glean from this? On the first pass, a Star Trek or Star Wars galaxy is ruled out. Bad news on one level, we won’t be joining any Galactic Federation anytime soon, because it doesn’t exist. That’s not surprising, the aliens in these sorts of imagined galaxies are pretty much just people with funny costumes. While it would be fun and comforting to find out that’s what aliens are like, there’s simply no reason to think aliens would be anything like us. In fact essentially all SETI has been doing is steadily eroding the idea of a universe populated by anthropomorphic aliens. At this point, it’s looking pretty grim for the Star Trek galaxy.

So what’s left? Well, maybe our idea of how advanced alien civilizations would look needs some tweaking. Most, if not all,  of our ideas about SETI involve searching for aliens who are acting like us. Granted, how to imagine aliens who aren’t like us is a bit tricky. I suspect the goal shouldn’t be to decide what to look for and look for it, but try to look for anything that doesn’t have a good natural explanation. Granted that’s a pretty nebulous concept in and of itself, but it has the advantage of eliminating our own prejudices about what aliens will be doing. And yes, it’s also limited by the fact that our understanding of what is and isn’t natural in the Universe is also pretty nebulous at this stage. Still, it would be a start, and I hope at least some in the SETI community are looking into searching for the unexpected.

Lastly, and the point that seems to distress so many people, it’s possible that we are alone. We simply don’t know how likely it is for species like ours to come along and start building technological stuff. Maybe it’s so incredibly unlikely that it’s only happened once. People love to claim that the size of the Universe means there “has” to be others, but that’s simply an argument from big numbers. What are the chances that one grain of sand on Earth contains an exact miniature replica of a McDonalds® outlet down to the smallest detail? Saying, there’s trillions of grains of sand so one must contain a miniature McDonalds® because there are so many grains of sand, is an absurd argument.

In any event I hope SETI continues. Heck, I wish it was better funded, but it’s too easy an idea to ridicule and there’s no SETI lobby to speak of, and certainly no SETI industry, so it’s going to continue to be a privately funded search. I wish SETI all the luck in the world, I just don’t recommend making any bets on it succeeding any time soon.

Have a great weekend everyone.

(The above image was taken on Mars about a year ago by the Curiosity rover. As a NASA photograph, it is for most practical purposes, including inclusion in this blog, a public domain image. NASA does not in any way endorse Doug’s Darkworld. I used this image because, gee, Mars is sure looking like a barren lifeless rock. And because I still think its effing incredible that we have machines on Mars able to send pics like this. The blue sky means it’s sunset. On Mars the sky is normally scarlet or a bright orangeish-red colour. It turns rose at sunset and sunrise.)


Written by unitedcats

June 19, 2015 at 1:15 pm

What the Hell is That? (Number 6 in a series, if you want to guess, don’t read below the image.)

with 8 comments


Interesting, nu? I got a lot of guesses on Facebook. A new planet, water going down a  drain, a newly discovered galaxy, and my favourite: a cake mix gone horribly wrong. No, it’s not a cake mix gone horribly wrong. Many people did guess it was some sort of astronomy photo, and they were on track. The white things are indeed clouds, this is the surface of a planet photographed from space. Not Earth though, in fact six Earths could fit inside the hexagon. This is one of the gas giant planets, Saturn. It’s the clouds surrounding the North pole of Saturn. Note the hexagon shaped cloud, what’s up with that?

No one knows. It was first observed when Voyager went by Saturn in 1980 and 1981. No one had a clue then. In 2004, more than 20 years later, the hexagon was still there when the Cassini Probe arrived at Saturn. So it’s a persistent feature. And nothing else like it has been observed anywhere else in the Solar System. Scientists think the hexagon cloud formation is created by a jet stream whipping along at over 200 mph. The hexagon formation rotates with the planet, and its latitude doesn’t change either. Yes, a permanent, or at least remarkably stable, hexagon shaped torrent of wind whipping around Saturn’s pole. Cassini recently has been getting much better pictures of the hexagon lately as Saturn’s northern hemisphere has moved into sunlight, so scientists hope to begin to unravel the mystery soon.

Why so interesting? (Honestly, any reader thinking that has likely long ago abandoned my blog of scientific and historical weirdness in search of blogs about “The Shove.”) The hexagon is interesting from a  number of perspectives. Scientists are interested in it because they can’t yet explain it. That’s kind of the whole point of science. Looking at stuff and figuring out why it is so. This hexagon is one of the big mysteries of the Solar System. It’s an example of no matter how much we know, we are always finding things no one expected or predicted. That’s one of the beauties of the scientific method, knowledge is never complete, and it always has to be modified or expanded in light of new discoveries. Kinda the opposite of most philosophies and religions, that for the most part start with a conclusion and then shoehorn new discoveries into it. That’s getting pretty ridiculous now considering some of these religions started in the Bronze Age. Science put man on the Moon, religion put man on a cross.

Philosophical concerns aside, study of Saturn’s hexagon could prove valuable insights about Earth. This is because the hexagon is a weather and climatic phenomena, and studying how weather and climate works on other planets can prove an interesting comparison to how it works on Earth. And of all the things scientists study, weather and climate are certainly near the top when it comes to practical application. When it comes right down to it, scientific investigation of any topic can yield valuable and practical insights about the world around us. That’s one of the silliest and destructive myths about scientists, that many of them study obscure stuff of no use to anyone. Scientists are studying reality, and everyone is connected to reality. How much more practical can it get?

Personally I just think space exploration is the shiznit. I loved exploring as a kid, and never outgrew it. Go somewhere one hasn’t been, see something one hasn’t seen before. And space exploration is the ultimate place to go and see stuff no one has seen before. “To boldly go where no man has gone before.”  Granted that’s questionable grammar and not exactly a feminist way of phrasing it, but fun none the less. And who knew Leonard Nimoy could play the guitar anyhow? OK, it’s been a long hard week and this is devolving into gibberish. Enough.

Have a great weekend everyone!

(The above image is Public Domain under US copyright law. Well, pretty much so, it’s a NASA image and can’t be used in such a way that indicates NASA supports or endorses the party that uses the image. NASA in no way, shape, or form supports or endorses Doug’s Darkworld. Only my miserable day job does that. On the plus side it keeps me in the right downbeat mood to keep blogging.)

Written by unitedcats

February 22, 2013 at 8:07 am

The Universe is so Ginormous, There Must be Other Life Out There!

with 9 comments


This argument that has been repeated endlessly since at least 1961. Anyone who has any interest in space exploration and science generally is so familiar with it that for all practical purposes it is a matter of faith. Even such luminaries as Neil Degrasse Tyson, famous astrophysicist and science communicator, has uttered a version of it, helpfully illustrated above. Myself, I get tired of hearing it repeated uncritically. And there’s no question, it is repeated uncritically by many people, most of whom have no idea where the argument originated, and are often vague as to what the idea really means. The original Drake Equation was about intelligent tool-using life such as humans, ET as it were. The above is about life in general. Let me restate the argument in a way that is easier to parse:

“Considering the vast size of the Universe, with at least 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars, statistically speaking, Earth cannot be the only planet where life evolved.”

That, in a nutshell, is the oft repeated sentiment that aliens must be out there somewhere. The problem I have with this argument is that it is neither scientific nor logical. There are other other problems with how Mr Tyson chose to word his argument above, but I degrasse. (You were warned about my sense of humor.)

The big flaw, in fact fatal flaw, in the argument is this. We don’t know how likely the formation of life is from natural ambient chemistry. We’ve never seen Abiogenesis in the wild, we’ve never achieved it in the lab. We have a lot of theories, and we know about the creation of self-replicating molecules, and we certainly haven’t come up with any good reason why DNA life couldn’t have evolved in some primordial soup. We know it happened once, because here we are. However, in any scientific, statistical, or logical sense, one data point is the equivalent of zero data points. If the creation of DNA life is unlikely enough, it may have only happened once. No matter how big the Universe is, there is also no end to how low the odds on an event occurring are.

The typing monkeys demonstrate this. How likely is it that a monkey sitting at a keyboard randomly hitting the keys will type Hamlet by chance? Essentially zero of course. However, if we convert all mass in the Universe into typing monkeys, typing for the lifetime of the Universe, how likely is it that one of them will type Hamlet by chance? Still, for all practical purposes, zero. Is the creation of life as likely as a monkey typing Hamlet by chance? No one knows. And until we have a definitive answer to this question, speculating about life elsewhere is just that, speculation. Note I’m not saying there isn’t other life out there, I’m just saying that the affirmation that there must be other life out there is wrong.

And when it comes to intelligent language using life such as ourselves, the situation gets worse. First, the odds clearly have dropped. Of the as many as 40 billion species that have evolved on Earth, only one has evolved tool-using, language, and intelligence. So humans may have been an unlikely fluke. Secondly, we don’t even know if our kind of intelligence is a good idea or not. Humans do seem to have some very self-destructive tendencies, and our species has only been around an eye-blink of time, maybe species such as ours quickly destroy themselves? Human intelligence may be an evolutionary dead end, until we find others like us that have been around awhile, or we last a  few million years, we simply can’t say.

Lastly there’s the science of it all. Again, bad news, SETI has come up with nothing so far. And despite Mr Tyson’s pronouncement above, SETI has covered a lot of territory at this point. If there are beings like us out there, no evidence of their existence has been found. Granted SETI has a lot of ground to cover still, and some excellent new ideas have been proposed recently, but at the very least the 1950s idea that the galaxy was teeming with intelligent aliens is now wishful thinking at best. Worse, we are starting to get a good picture of solar systems around other planets, and it turns out our solar system and Earth itself seem to be unusual. Again, a blow to the 1950s, Star Trek, and all that follows:

Picard: “We’ve entered the system Data, what do you see?”
Data: “Two hot Jupiters, and two giant super hot Earths.”
Picard: “Any sign of life?”
Data: “No Captain, another sterile system, like the previous 8,792.”
Picard: “If we don’t find life soon, even a slime mold, I’m going to snap.”
Data: “Sixteen other Star Fleet captains have been relieved of duty this year because they suffered psychological breakdowns due to boredom.”
Picard: “Worf, toss Data out the airlock.”

It kinda gets even worse if one steps back a bit further. What if DNA life isn’t really life? What if DNA was invented by real life for information storage, real life which we haven’t ever encountered? We’re just a  lab spill that didn’t get cleaned up? Or in the analogy above, we examine a cup of water from the ocean that a scuba diver dropped his watch into, will that watch teach us anything about the ecology and biology of life in the sea? Mr Tyson, and people who make this argument, are in essence saying they can use the cup of water to prove their theory about what is or isn’t in the rest of the ocean, but other people’s theories make no sense. Excuse me? The bottom line is we don’t know how life appeared on Earth, so speculation about what is out there is just that, speculation. Speculation is never certainty.

I rest my case.

(The above image was lifted from Facebook and falls into a category that’s probably years or decades behind the law. I’m claiming it as Fair Use, and am in no way making commercial use of the image, and will remove it instantly if the original copyright holder asks. Many of the other things Mr Tyson says are right on, so no one should take this as an attack on him. In fact the guy is pretty smart, and his statement above is a beautifully crafted edifice of false arguments, so I wonder if he did it deliberately wondering if someone would call him on it?)

Written by unitedcats

January 9, 2013 at 5:52 am

Stephan’s Quintet

with one comment

This is Stephan’s Quintet, a group of five galaxies. It was discovered in 1877 by French astronomer Édouard Stephan. Now a grouping of five galaxies in the sky is obviously pretty cool, but it’s cooler than that. Four of the five galaxies, the ones with the yellowish tint, are not just visually grouped together, they are actually grouped together. These four galaxies are the first compact galaxy group discovered, and they are the most studied compact galaxy  group.

This is of course what Stephan’s Quintet looked like 300 odd million years ago. The Earth was a different place then, but it would still have been strangely familiar if one was magically transferred there. The land was covered with trees and vegetation. Lots of ferns and seeding plants, but no grass or flowers. Bugs, insects even. Small lizard-like things, and lots of amphibians. I suppose I should say it would look familiar at a distance, up close the bugs and plants and lizard-like things would be odd. The only thing really familiar looking would be the ferns. And the sharks. Sharks have been with us a long time, when nature hits on a good idea, she sticks with it.

However, I digress. So what is meant by a compact galaxy group, and what is its significance? This is a group of galaxies that is so gravitationally bound with each other that they are basically in the process of combining. These galaxies have had a number of close encounters and partial collisions already. It may not look like much in the picture, but the various loops and swirls of stars resulting from these collisions give astronomers great insight into the structure of galaxies. And what science doesn’t know about the structure of galaxies dwarfs what they do know, so research will continue.

As for unscientific observations, imagine what the night sky must look like from a planet in the midst of these collisions. It would be like the Milky Way on steroids, there would be planets where the night sky was nothing but huge galaxies from horizon to horizon. It would be spectacular, and make our starry skies look drab in comparison. And especially considering some of these stars (and attendant planets) will have been flung into intergalactic space as a result of these collisions. People don’t realize that our view of the heavens is terribly obscured by dust seeing as we are deep inside a galaxy.  On the other hand, intelligent species on such planets would eventually be dismayed when they realized that travel to other star systems was going to be next to impossible. They would have  a great view, but very likely be isolated forever.

Humans at least have a shot at exploring nearby star systems. And that’s a topic for an upcoming post.

(The above image being a NASA image is being used legally. NASA does not endorse Doug’s Darkworld, and my use of their image in no way is meant to suggest that. Credit and copyright: Hubble Legacy Archive, ESA, NASA; Processing: Al Kelly I don’t think I need to explain why I chose an image of Stephan’s Quintet to illustrate a post about … Stephan’s Quintet. Oh, and even in dense clusters, stars are still very very far apart, so these galactic collisions will involve the actual collisions of very few stars.)

Written by unitedcats

March 28, 2012 at 2:22 pm

Science, the limits of human knowledge, atheism, and religion. Part I.

with one comment

Yes, this is the post where I explain everything. That was a joke. I explain almost everything in this post. Of course dogs are mammals, that was a joke too. OK, this is an extemporaneous post because I had a thought. And like all good bloggers, when I have  a thought, my second thought is, can I make a blog post about this thought? In this instance, the answer is yes. Because this thought is a thought that I want feedback on. Yes, gentle readers, I am using your brains to hone my thinking. Probably best not to even try and visualize that.

Moving right along, the above is an image of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field. This is an area of the sky about a tenth the diameter of the full Moon. Astronomers picked a spot with little dust or nearby stars to obscure the view. There actually aren’t too many spots like this in the sky, we really are stuck in a hazy section of a galaxy. It could be worse, though it could be a lot better. That’s the topic for a future post, but I digress. It took the Hubble nearly four months to take this image, it’s the “deepest” image ever taken, showing galaxies that existed about 13 billion years ago, just hundreds of millions of years after the Big Bang. If one tries to think about the time scales in this image, or the number of stars and planets involved, it’s more or less incomprehensible. At the time of most of the galaxies in this image, Earth and the Sun itself were just atoms scattered over a vast expanse of space, or in stars yet to spew them into space in supernovas. Earth wasn’t even a twinkle in the Universe’s eye when some of these galaxies in this image existed. Our galaxy itself, the Milky Way, didn’t even exist at the time of the furthest galaxies in this image.

So it’s safe to say that this is a data rich image. Astronomers will be studying it for decades. And building instruments to peer even more closely into the Universe, the Hubble II is in the works. And this is just one photograph, albeit a very special one. I could, if I wanted to, list vast numbers of other “data collections,” for want of a better word, that will keep scientists busy for decades. There’s still data being mined out of the Moon rocks and Russian probes to Venus decades ago. In fact it would be safe to say that the data  from the majority of space probes has yet to be fully analyzed. In a lot of cases new technology makes it possible to reanalyze old data, and all the while new data is being added at an increasing rate as newer probes get ever more sophisticated. In other words, despite their ever increasing understanding of the Universe, in a very real sense astronomers are losing ground in that the amount of data to be analyzed is ever growing larger.

And this is just one human field of scientific endeavour. Granted, it may be an extreme example of this, but the same thing is most definitely happening in other fields of inquiry. Museums around the world are filled with artifacts and biological samples that have yet to be analyzed. In fact new discoveries are made regularly by studying stuff in museum drawers. In physics, every time they build a bigger collider, they get results they didn’t expect. And have to build a bigger collider to understand them. New frontiers in archaeology and paleontology open all the time. Otzi is but one dead man, and new stuff is still being learned about him and his times decades after his discovery. Heck, a single finger bone in a cave in Asia recently revealed a hitherto completely unknown human-like species.

My point here, the first one at least, is that while human and scientific understanding of the Universe is growing every day, the body of unknown knowledge is keeping pace or even growing faster. Everywhere we look in the Universe around us, there appear to be layers of complexity that never end, new discoveries always reveal new unknowns.  Or in another way of looking at it, as the body of human knowledge grows, the boundary between what we know and don’t know gets larger! In other words, there will always be stuff for scientists to investigate, at this point it is clear that Victorian conceits about science understanding everything were childishly optimistic at best. The Universe is so  complicated and so vast on so many levels that it’s safe to say that humans in the foreseeable future won’t even come close to understanding it all.

In other words, the scientific understanding of the Universe is that we will never fully understand the Universe. It’s too large, it’s too complicated, and there are very finite limits to what humans can accomplish.  The Universe is greater, older, bigger, and more complex than humans can really grasp. And to me that’s just amazing. As J.B.S. Haldane put it: “My own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” No matter how much human’s understand, there will always be new mysteries and new frontiers to explore. At least in the foreseeable future.

What does this have to do with atheism, religion, and my as yet unmentioned blog post inspiring thought? That’s part II, coming tomorrow.

Part II is here: Science, the limits of human knowledge, atheism, and religion. Part II.

(The above image was taken by NASA and is being used legally within their guidelines. NASA does not endorse Doug’s Darkworld. Hell, NASA is likely completely unaware of Doug’s Darkworld. Probably for the best, they have better things to do.)

Written by unitedcats

February 27, 2012 at 5:14 am

Newt Gingrich Proposes Colonizing the Moon and Making it the 51st State, Say What?

with 8 comments

Newt Gingrich, possible Republican Presidential candidate,  has proposed colonizing the Moon by 2020 and making it the 51st state. Reaction has been mixed, but mostly ranging from critical to ridicule. It’s certainly an ambitious idea, especially talking about 13,000 colonists. Is this idea totally out of this world, or does Mr. Gingrich have a point?

Let’s look at this logically. First off, is it legal? Can the USA legally colonize the Moon? Pause for laughter. The USA hasn’t given a  rat’s ass for decades about International Law, other than manipulating it for the USA’s benefit. So we can skip this step.

Is there any reason to go to the Moon? Well, there’s certainly sound scientific reasons to go to the Moon.  And ultimately science usually pays off, so while this may not be a good reason in and of itself, it would be a nice bonus. Secondly, there’s every reason to believe that all sorts of extremely rare and valuable metals can be found on the Moon, deposited by asteroid strikes. That’s a big plus. There’s potentially all sorts of industrial processes where the Moon’s vacuum and low gravity would be a big bonus. Lastly, and in some ways the most exciting way, the Moon is believed to have copious deposits of Helium 3. Perhaps as much as a million tons, rained down by millions of years of Solar Wind. What’s so cool abut Helium 3? It has fantastic promise as a fuel for nuclear fusion … 25 tons of Helium 3 could power the USA and the EU for a year. So yes, there’s sound reasons to colonize the Moon.

Is it feasible? Well, who knows. Water has been found in copious quantities on the Moon, and there are some lovely water filled (not literally of course) craters on one of the Moon’s poles in close proximity to mountain peaks that are always in sunlight. Water, which can be made into water and air, situated near continuous solar power. To put it mildly, sounds tailor made for a massively self sufficient colony. IE a colony that can provide its own air, water, and energy has a huge head start, and there’s no reason it couldn’t quickly start producing its own food as well. Yes, there are massive technological hurdles, but the concept sure seems viable. Technological hurdles didn’t stop us from sending men to the Moon in the first place.

Finally, how much will this cost? Well, using the same accounting firm that predicted the cost of the Iraq War, cost estimates for this run in the tens of billions of dollars. And if we use the same NASA accountants that predicted how cheap and economical the Space Shuttle was going to be, we can surely confirm these estimates. Yes, I’m being facetious, this would be an incredibly expensive undertaking. A hundred billion dollars a year, maybe more, for at least a decade.

Well, um, that’s what the War in Iraq cost us, and we don’t have diddly to show for it except war graves, an Iranian aligned Iraq, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, and a huge pile of debt. Yeah, that was a good investment. No, the Project for an American Moon would employ huge numbers of people, almost immediately provide profitable technological spin offs, and ultimately pay for itself many times over. Cost alone is no reason to  write this idea off, the only question is where would this money come from? It’s not like these are flush times, and it’s a safe bet that the 1% aren’t going to voluntarily cough up a trillion dollars.

Well, I have an idea. Take the money from the military. Wait, hear me out, don’t target that drone at my apartment building just yet. Yes, use money from the military budget, but, and it’s a big but, give the military a reason to be happy with this, make them an integral part of the project. I am proposing nothing less than the creation of another branch of the military, a US Space Force to be exact. Done right this could be a very inspiring thing. They could be tasked with defending all of Earth from space based threats, starting with rogue asteroids. And protecting the rights of all nations to travel in space and exploit space. To infinity and beyond!

Just trying to think outside the lines, because staying in the lines got us where we are now. Have a great weekend everyone!

(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law.  It’s not being used for profit, and, well, it’s all over the Internet. I don’t know the origin, it may actually have originally been Russian. If anyone knows I will properly attribute it. I was searching for a nice image to illustrate the US Space Force idea, stumbled on this, and decided it was too funny not to share. Look closely if you don’t get the joke at first glance. One final positive aspect to Newt’s Moon colony plan. He could be on the very first ship.)

Written by unitedcats

January 27, 2012 at 9:28 am

Nasa unveils Space Launch System vision … will American Astronauts go to asteroids and Mars?

with 2 comments

OK, NASA has announced that the USA will return to space. In a massive Federal Program the USA is going to build the biggest rocket ever built, carry enormous amounts of stuff into orbit, and allow the USA to send manned missions to Mars and asteroids. This breathtaking plan is called the Space Launch System. *blinks* We used to call our space programs things like Mercury and Apollo, now we have Space Launch System? Marketing considerations aside, this has to be a good thing, right?

Well, not really. A bit of context here. The SLS is being built by the same people who brought us the Space Shuttle. Despite the hype, the Space shuttle is possibly the biggest boondoggle in history. It’s like the DeLorean or the Concorde, it didn’t really make sense from the beginning. And unlike them, buckets of money and blood kept being thrown at it because of national pride. And I mean blood literally, the Space Shuttle killed  a passenger an average of every nine missions or so, it’s the most dangerous vehicle ever put into regular service.

So I’m not as optimistic about this as many might be. I’m all for the exploration of space, but right now, robotic exploration seems like the way to go. This SLS program is going to consume a lot of money, which very much means that numerous other probes won’t get funded. And we’re leaving launches into low Earth orbit up to the commercial sector. In other words, we’re putting all of our eggs into one basket again. This is never a good idea.

I also think something I’ve heard called Gigantomania is coming into play. America has almost an obsession with building the biggest and best of everything. Sometimes without any clear reason why, and often ignoring practical considerations or or downstream costs. There’s a tremendous psychological and cultural component to why giant boondoggles get built, I wonder if this played a part in this decision. Or is cynically being used to promote it.

Which leads to two points, one of which is more or less self evident. This will be ever more money going to a small number of people. Very few of us are rocket scientists, and they won’t be building any space ports in a  city near you gentle reader, fifties sci fi stories to the contrary. This is not  a jobs program.  And worse, the pernicious influence of the military has to be recognized. Are there military uses for this? Yes, yes there are.

In other words, the SLS is a very expensive program that channels a lot of money to a very small number of people, its major beneficiaries are the military and the people profiting from it, and whether it works or not science loses since so many probes that could have leaned vastly more than this ever will, could have been funded. So, no matter what, the military and the rich gain, we pay for it, and if we’re really lucky we get to have a poster of some US astronaut on an asteroid or Mars holding a flag. This is going to be a very expensive poster.

Lastly, in some senses this might very well be overshadowed by other events. By any objective standard, the world is a mess right now. Right now I’d say the SLS’s chances of surviving the turmoil of the next few years are low. The US lost its mind on 9/11, and what we have sown in the first decade of this new century is bizarre. We’ve normalized endless war and infinite spending, historically this never ends well. A giant spaceship isn’t going to help.

And then throw in infinite breeding for ideological reasons, and we have the bleak topic of the next post.

(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law, it’s an historically important image and it’s not being used for profit. It’s the Space Shuttle Challenger blowing up. Half the damn fleet blew up,how is that not a fail? Humans can be blind to failures, another topic for the future I suppose.)

Written by unitedcats

September 15, 2011 at 8:20 pm


with 5 comments

Yes, it’s true, scientists have discovered two huge gamma ray emitting bubbles emerging from the Milky Way. The above image is what they look like … if the viewer is considerably outside the galaxy and can see gamma rays. People can’t see gamma rays, so the above image is “false colour” so to speak. I know some people get upset that so many NASA images are false colour, but when talking about colours that people can’t see, what’s the problem? What’s the deal with these bubbles? Well, no one knows. The current best guess is that they are the remnants of some sort of outburst  from the black hole at the centre of our Galaxy. There are other possibilities, and scientists will be exploring them eagerly. And while this is an exciting discovery in that it gives us new insight into our galaxy, it has no practical bearing on Earth. These bubbles don’t and can’t effect Earth in any way, my histrionic headline notwithstanding.

Yes, there’s a black hole in the centre of our galaxy. It has about as much mass as thirty million Suns. No, it’s not going to swallow the galaxy, any more than the planets are going to get sucked into our Sun. For the lay people, a black hole is a region of space with so much mass that light can’t escape its gravity. So while it can’t be seen directly, this is what a black hole would look like up close and personal:

Well, technically one can’t actually see the black hole, but the astute reader should be able to discern where it is in the above image. The black hole is so dense that it warps and bends light that gets near it. Note that every star in the picture has at least two images, and the entire sky can be seen near the black hole as light from every direction is bent around the black hole. I know, hard to grasp, the original image is here, maybe they explain it better. I’m pretty sure that being this close to a back hole would be fatal, the gravity would be so strong that normal matter would be ripped apart.

Speaking of dark objects in space, the Mars Express recently captured this image of Phobos:

Phobos is the innermost and largest of Mars’ two moons, the other being Deimos. It’s an irregularly shaped lump of ice and rock, averaging about  22 km (14 miles) in diameter, covered with about a meter of dust. It’s the darkest moon in the Solar System, and is believed to be a captured asteroid. It’s also doomed, its orbit is slowly decaying and in the next 50 million years it will be torn apart and crash into Mars. It’s going to be a pretty spectacular sight, and if I’m still around then, I’ll be sure to blog about it.

And while we’re on the topic of Phobos, since it’s not a topic I visit regularly, two minor misconceptions to clear up. Yes, there is indeed a monolith on Phobos:

It’s the bright object with a shadow in the middle right, it’s about the size of a building, whatever that means. One will sometimes actually hear alien aficionados claim that the monolith on Phobos must be artificial and should be visited, apparently confused by the fact that there was a monolith in 2001, a Space Odyssey. The monolith in the fictional movie was made by aliens, the monolith on Phobos is a rock. Yes, it is upon such slender threads that belief in aliens resides.

It gets worse. Both moons of Mars were discovered in 1877. In the 1726 book Gulliver’s Travels there is a description of Mars having two moon very similar to the moons that were discovered more than a century later. Again, some have claimed that this is proof that aliens have visited Earth, or even that the author, Jonathon Swift, may have come from Mars. No, it’s proof that Jonathon Swift was reasonably well read. Astronomers of his day were very much looking for symmetry and order in the Solar System. It was speculated that since Venus had no moons, Earth had one moon, and Jupiter had four moons … might not Mars have two moons? And if Mars had two moons, they would have had to be very small to avoid detection by the telescopes of the day. Which is more likely, that Swift’s fictional moons were based on contemporary astronomical speculation … or personal knowledge gained from alien spacefarers?

No, it’s not a trick question. Have a great weekend everyone!

(The above images are all claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. They are not being used for profit, they are central to illustrating the post, and they are properly attributed. Gamma Ray Bubble image, Credit: NASA/GSFC. Black hole image, Credit & Copyright: Alain Riazuelo. Phobos image, Credit: G. Neukum (FU Berlin) et al., Mars Express, DLR, ESA; Acknowledgement: Peter Masek. Phobos monolith image, Credit: Mars Global Surveyor, NASA. Is there a point to this post. Yes. We are entering the greatest age of exploration ever, the exploration of the Universe around us! I mean, two of these images were taken by cameras orbiting Mars, something that would have been considered a pipe dream by many people in living memory. How cool is that?)


Written by unitedcats

December 16, 2010 at 9:39 pm

Ira’s Ghost, Another Space Mystery …

with 4 comments

Ever since my “Hanny’s Voorwerp” post I’ve had my eye open for more cosmic mysteries. There’s a fair number of them actually, I also covered the Axis of Evil and Dark Flow as well. And there’s many more to be found no doubt. The Universe is a big place, and the Hubble Telescope has only examined a tiny tiny amount of it in detail. Just like in any photography, long exposures are needed to take pictures of very faint objects, and some of the things Hubble has photographed are very far away dim objects indeed. Then when one realizes that visible light is just a tiny part of the picture, and, well, we will be finding new things in the Universe for decades or centuries to come. Yes, an age of exploration that will last for centuries at the very least, and forever if we start to venture forth among the stars. In fact we better venture forth to the stars or we face extinction according to Steven Hawking. Of course he previously warned us about the dangers of running into hostile aliens, so if I understand this right, according to Steven Hawking, we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t. I don’t like the sound of that at all.

Moving right along, Ira’s Ghost. (nebula IRAS 05437+2502) Imaged above, a refection nebula in the constellation Taurus. I’m not sure exactly how far away it is, but it is inside our galaxy. It’s a very small faint nebula, and only got photographed because it got lucky, there was some spare time on the Hubble  and this was  on the list of  “bonus” targets. A nebula means it’s a cloud of gas, and a reflection nebula means it is lit up by some external source of light. This is opposed to an emission nebula that is glowing of its own accord. It may look like thick gas too, but in actuality it’s not. The gas in a  typical nebula is about 100 to 10,000 particles per cubic centimetre. The Earth’s atmosphere contains 2.5 × 1019 particles per cubic centimetre. In other words we call it a gas, but for all practical purposes a nebula is just a slightly dirty vacuum. Granted brand new planetary nebulae have higher densities, but still nowhere near the density of gas in Earth’s atmosphere. Still this is the stuff from which stars were made, in fact every atom in our bodies was once part of nebula in space billions of years ago. Yes, we’ve all been galactic tourists so to speak. Maybe that’s behind our drive to explore space … we’re homesick on an atomic level.

So what’s the mystery? It’s just a pile of dust in space glowing by reflected light. There’s thousands of reflection nebula in the galaxy, why is this one mysterious? It’s mysterious because we don’t know what is illuminating this dust! The bright arc near the top is especially mysterious, there should be a bright star (or something!) nearby lighting it up … but there isn’t. Kinda like the situation with the aforementioned Hanny’s Voorwerp, though that’s a vastly larger object.

Fortunately scientists have a theory. They’re good that way, scientists are always coming up with a helpful theory. In this case scientists hypothesize that there was a massive star lighting up the nebula that somehow attained a high velocity and left the nebula. Brilliant. OK, I’m being unfair here for artistic licence. It is however both a singularly obvious theory … and one that poses as many questions as it answers. Theories like that are a good place to start, but not really bringing us any closer to a solution. Will scientists ever solve this mystery? Maybe. As astronomical mysteries go though, this one is kind of unimportant in the greater scheme of things. Solving it would likely require more Hubble time, and the Hubble is booked solid so to speak.

No real lessons or insight here. Just one of many examples that there’s all sorts of stuff out there that we don’t understand. And likely always will be, one of the things that gets me most excited about space exploration is that we are always finding things that no one ever dreamt of. One looks back at humanity’s SciFi  the truth of it is, it’s been pretty unimaginative when it comes right down to it. Simply humans projecting their own selves and viewpoints on the Universe. Like say a recently very popular movie involving smurfs on steroids. A Bat Durston if there ever was was.

(I believe the image above is Public Domain under all sorts of copyright laws as it it was put together by a variety of government agencies. And it’s not being used for profit or to endorse any product. Credit: ESA, Hubble, R. Sahai (JPL), NASA My next post is going to be about another space mystery, or very bad things in Afghanistan. Reader’s choice.)

Written by unitedcats

August 12, 2010 at 5:44 am

A Space Exploration First and SETI Ramblings

with 10 comments

This photograph is another historic first in space exploration. The big orange blob in the centre is a star, prosaically named 1RXS J160929.1-210524. It’s a k7 dwarf star which means it’s a little smaller and cooler than our Sun. It’s about 500 light years from Earth, so we are seeing this star as it was just a  few decades after the new world was discovered (well, rediscovered) by Columbus. In any event, here’s the historic part.  See that little orange dot at the upper left? That’s a planet orbiting 1RXS J. This is the first photograph ever taken of a planet orbiting another star using visible light from a  ground based telescope. This is something that in my youth was thought to be impossible, but science just keeps moving along. It’s not a terribly interesting planet, at least from any practical standpoint. It’s hotter than Jupiter, larger than Jupiter, and orbiting at a vastly greater distance from its sun than our Jupiter does. Its heat comes from the fact that it’s a new planet, maybe only some five million years old. Still, this is one cool photograph in my estimation, but I am a bit of a space exploration nerd.

In other space exploration news I’m still crunching slowly through the book on SETI I’m reading. And while our efforts to find aliens have come up snake eyes with every roll, it’s not quite as bad as it may seem. That’s because our efforts to locate alien civilizations are pretty much exclusively oriented towards looking for beacons. IE we are looking for aliens who have set up giant radio frequency transmission stations to announce to the galaxy that “here we are.” As any astute person can imagine, there’s a lot of assumptions underlaying our search. First we’re assuming aliens would use radio frequencies to attempt to communicate in. Second we’re assuming they would go to a lot of trouble to build such a transmission device, beaming  a powerful radio signal in all directions is no mean feat. So why are we looking for what admittedly seems like a long shot? Because it’s all we really have the technology to listen for right now. I am reminded of the story of Nasrudin and the lost key:

Once, a man found Mulla Nasruddin searching for something on the ground outside his house. On being asked, Nasruddin replied that he was looking for his key. The man also joined in the search and in due course asked Mulla: ”Where exactly did you drop it?” Mulla answered: ”In my house.” ”Then why are you looking here?” the man asked. ”The light is better out here,” replied Mulla.

Granted we may eventually find a beacon, but it’s probably not our best option. We could set up a radio receiver to carefully listen for things like military radars and carrier waves and other accidental alien made microwave noise from nearby stars. Alas a receiver that sensitive is a bit out of the SETI budget right now, so we’re stuck with optimistically listening for beacons.

Another tidbit I picked out from the book is that radar searches of the Lagrange points didn’t find any alien probes parked there. (I discussed Lagrange points in an earlier post.) Well, to be more accurate, they didn’t find anything bigger than a metre across. Well, who says an alien probe has to be bigger than a meter across? Aliens with advanced technology might be able to build a perfectly fine probe in a small package so to speak. So I still think more efforts should be made to search various Lagrange points in the Solar System. It’s just such a logical place to park a probe if one wanted to monitor the Solar System. Well, one logical place. It’s also been pointed out that something orbiting in the asteroid belt would be a good place to hide. (And no, the asteroid belt isn’t this seething mass of colliding boulders as is shown on so many incredibly lame sci fi shows and movies, snarl.) The point here is that a huge probe would look like a small asteroid, so for all we know we’ve already spotted alien probes in the solar system. We just haven’t recognized them yet.

Lastly, since this seems to have turned into a pure SETI post, I’ve decided that I’m even more convinced that aliens either don’t exist, are so rare they might as well not exist. My thinking here is that even in our first few decades of space exploration we have left very obvious signs of our presence on two bodies in the Solar System already, not to mention dozens or hundreds of defunct probes and space junk floating around in space. And some of this stuff is going to persist for a long time, the tracks made by the rovers on the Moon will be visible from orbit for hundreds of thousands of years. And the landers and such on the Moon will be around for millions of years. The stuff on Mars won’t last as long, but still, there will be obvious signs we were there for centuries at least. My point here is that in a  few short decades we have left a lot of debris around the Solar System. Well, if interstellar travel is at all feasible and there have been aliens visiting the Solar System, they’ve sure been careful not to leave anything behind. High resolution images of the surface of the Moon and Mars have been public for a long time, and lots of people have gone over these images with a fine tooth comb … and found buttkiss. That’s not to say we won’t find something some day, but if we really lived in a Star Trek or Star Wars type galaxy with aliens flitting all over the place in starships, shouldn’t there be more junk laying around?

I mean, one can go to the smallest remote island on Earth, and there will be human made debris washing up on the shore. Granted we haven’t looked on all the “shores” of the Solar system yet, but I’m more convinced all the time now that aliens fall into the same class as Bigfoot or Nessie, it’s getting awfully hard to explain the lack of empirical evidence. So one can safely go see the new Predators movie, knowing full well that the chances of actual hostile aliens showing up to use us for target practice is negligible.

Have a great weekend everyone.

(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit, is central to illustrating the post, and is most definitely a historically important image. Credit: M. van Kerkwijik / R. Jayawardhana / D. Lanfreniere / Aura / Gemini Observatory. Next week, more weird entertaining stuff and lesser known paranormal phenomena. The Bimini Road, Tatzelworms,  Ica Stones and all the rest.)

Written by unitedcats

July 2, 2010 at 8:00 am