Hey everyone. I’m in central Australia working on a seismic survey crew at the moment so my blogs will become a little less frequent, but luckily I still have (limited) internet connection so I can still post!
I just finished watching Europa Report, which was, overall, quite entertaining. Without giving away too much just yet, it’s a movie about the first human mission beyond the moon. A crew of 6 are sent to test whether life exists on the or under the icy surface of one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa.
A tale of human sacrifice, one of the more memorable quotes was “Compared to the breadth of knowledge yet to be known, what does your life actually matter?” I too have wondered this, and as a scientist I easily sympathise with the sentiment. I would gladly lay down my life for science, and often wonder what I would do and sacrifice in the face of overwhelming odds if I were chosen for a manned Mars mission (I think it’s likely Mars will happen before Europa!).
I definitely appreciated the cameo appearance of Neil deGrasse Tyson talking about a mission to Europa, even if not originally filmed for the movie.
Despite this moving quote and underlying theme, there were just far too many scientific flaws for me to ignore. I’m used to seeing unrealistic technology in sci-fi movies, but not blatant breaking of the laws of physics.
— SPOILER ALERT —
First, the crew were maintaining near instantaneous communication with their control centre on Earth for much of the mission. As far as several months into the journey, near Mars, there did not seem to be any delay in voice. Light takes as little as 4 minutes to travel from Earth to Mars (then 4 minutes back) and as much as 24 minutes. Even at the Moon the delay would be about 1 second either way. But that’s ok, maybe humanity in this near-future society has found a way to achieve faster than light communication.
Once the crew landed on Europa, I was looking forward to seeing the crew float around in the low gravity. Europa does have the mass of about 0.008 Earths after all, giving a gravity of 1.3 m/s/s, slightly lower than our own moon’s. Nope. They were stomping about and lugging equipment like they were being accelerated at a casual 9.8 m/s/s.
Speaking of landing on Europa, why did they need to send five crew members to the surface anyway? Why did they need to send anyone down? Surely the whole sample collection mission could have been done with robotics. But then if that’s the case, why send humans to Europa in the first place? The only benefit would be that humans could have a quicker response time to tweak the robotics and react to problems. But even that seems like an unduly large risk.
Last, the crew, especially the science team, spent way too much dialogue talking about how they were going to run tests or analysis on data they had just acquired (Which yielded ground breaking results in seconds. So much for data quality control!). Groan. People look at me strange when I start saying that in a lab!
Besides all that it was an enjoyable 90 minutes! But I wouldn’t watch it again. 7/10.
The title of this article might sound provocative and reminiscent of Interstellar, but it’s much simpler than that. Apparently.
Today I’m summarising the paper published in Acta Astronautica by Patrick Collins and Adriano Autino (full reference and link at end of article).
The authors argue for the development of an industry based around passenger space travel, arguing that is could be economically and socially very beneficial. It would create a use for half a century of technological development and sharply reducing the cost of space travel by creating economies of scale, making other activities in space cheaper and even profitable. The paper rather boldly finishes the abstract with the following statement:
“The paper discusses the scope for new employment, stimulating economic growth, reducing environmental damage, sustaining education particularly in the sciences, stimulating cultural growth, and preserving peace by eliminating any need for “resource wars”.”
Wow, all that just by creating a space tourism industry? Let’s back up for a moment.
The authors argue that if German rocket development continued as it had at the time of 1942 when they achieved first successful spaceflight, fully reusable sub-orbital passenger flights could have been feasible using reusable, piloted spaceplanes by 1950. Under this scenario, passenger travel services to and from low Earth Orbit would have been feasible by the 1960s. Instead, rocket development was primarily focused on producing thousands of long-range missiles during the cold war.
Because of this, launch vehicles were based on rockets, rather than passenger vehicles as aircraft had been. This focus meant that launch vehicles had safety and cost/passenger more aligned with missiles than passenger vehicles.
Slightly related, check out this video compilation of early rocket failures I’ve been itching for an excuse to share.
The mobile phone is used as an example of faster than predicted uptake of a new technology, and the argument seems to be that therefore space tourism and travel will take off faster than expected. But not all technology works like that (one only need look at the Segway for a technology that went in the opposite direction).
It is argued that even a small government investment into the personal spaceflight industry would yield high returns, and with investments of around 1% of what governments give to space agencies. This is “utterly negligible compared to the trillions that they have given to banks during 2008-9.”
“Starting from today, in order to achieve the scale of activity shown in Fig. 1 over the next 30 years, government funding [required is] equivalent to about 10% of space agencies’ budgets, or some € 2 billion per year… Thereafter most of the funding would come from private companies, just as airline and hotel companies finance their own growth today.” I’m always suspicious of anyone who says ‘It wouldn’t cost that much money to fund, and the benefits are huge!’ If that were the case, there must be good reasons governments aren’t doing this already. Sure there are vested interests, which is partly why it has taken so long for governments to get on board with renewable energy, but there must be some reason.
Cost estimates from several sources indicate that once the space travel industry grows to 1 million passengers/year (no small figure!) prices could fall to € 5000 for sub-orbital flights and € 20,000 for orbital flights. Much cheaper than it is now, to be sure, but I still wouldn’t be signing up for leisure trips at these prices. Sure, some will, but I wonder if it will still be the domain of millionaires who have a bit too much money on their hands. And if so, how will the industry grow to 1 million passengers/year?
Don’t get me wrong, this would all be great, and as the authors say, “orbiting hotels seem likely to create the first market for non-terrestrial materials like ice, water, oxygen and hydrogen…”, which, as an asteroid mining researcher, sounds pretty good to me. I’m just sceptical and playing devil’s advocate a little.
I’ll skip over the employment and economic growth sections to get to the areas I’m more familiar with. “Economic development in space… could contribute greatly… to solving world environmental problems.” This is proposed through a space-based solar power (SSP) supply (which would become much cheaper with lower space travel costs) and carbon-neutral space travel (utilising the SSP).
“The use of solar power satellites for reducing the severity of hurricanes… In the extreme case… SSP might even include a role in the stabilisation of climate.” I haven’t heard this form of geoengineering proposed for Earth (similar ideas are proposed to terraform Mars, see my article here), but it seems awfully reminiscent of spraying particulate matter into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight and other extreme geoengineering solutions to climate change for 2 reasons. One, we don’t know what the potential negative implications are, and two, these types of solutions should really be a last resort in case we can’t get our shit together and mitigate climate change by just reducing greenhouse gas emissions. I’ve heard it argued that having geoengineering solutions as a backup may make people and policy less motivated to act now to stop climate change.
There is something to be said for having more humans look at our planet from a new perspective. One of my favourite quotes is by astronaut Edgar Mitchell who said “From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’”
The authors also argue that having a space based economy would eventually mean that more of Earth’s industry would operate outside the biosphere. I’m not so convinced that there would be enough industry in the near term for that to make a difference, and surely an expanding space economy would equal an expanding ground-based economy.
Flying past education, more space travel means more young people fascinated by science, technology and engineering, yes of course… Culture benefits… Ah, world peace and preservation of human civilisation.
“The major source of social friction, including international friction, has surely always been unequal access to resources.” The argument is that if we expanded into space and tapped into the vast resources available there, we wouldn’t need to have ‘resource wars’ on Earth. I’m iffy about that. It’s a nice idea, and would most likely reduce wars, but even if everyone had equal access to resources, someone would want more than their equal share.
The final argument is that having a thriving space economy not just around Earth, but on the moon, on Mars and even beyond would reduce the chance that humanity is wiped out by a single catastrophic event. I agree with this completely, and this is what Elon Musk is working towards with his plans to colonise Mars. Given the vast potential future number of human lives, it would be selfish to not try to reduce existential risk. Neil Bowerman from the UK who I met recently in Melbourne is working on various forms of existential risk, and his website is worth looking at if you want to read more about that.
I’ve been purposely pessimistic throughout this article, but I truly hope for all of the arguments for a space economy that I’ve mentioned come to fruition. It’s one of the reasons I am a space science researcher; it’s what drives me to work every day.
On the 13th of June 2010, in the Australian outback, the first successfully returned asteroid samples touched down. The Hayabusa 1 mission suffered major technical setbacks, yet many scientific insights were still able to be gleaned from the tiny fragments of the S-type asteroid 25143 Itokawa. The partnership between Australia and Japan for this mission yielded remarkable results and set a top example for future sample return missions. Already, Hayabusa 2 is en route to asteroid 1999 JU3 for another sample return mission, arriving in 2018 and back on Earth in December 2020.
Japan has of course asked Australia if they can land their samples in Australia again. Australia’s response has supposedly been one along the lines of ‘We’ll think about it!’ Given the vast potential for the future of scientific sample return and asteroid mining, it is astounding that Australia take such a passive stance to such a remarkable opportunity, yet is typical of Australia’s space policy of late. If Japan goes elsewhere to land their samples, that would likely be a disaster for future partnerships with Australia.
When the regular iron, nickel and platinum group metal shipments start landing in another country which then reaps the benefits to their transportation and infrastructure industries, perhaps Australia will realise its mistake.
One of the main arguments for not sending humans to Mars yet is the dangers of interplanetary radiation. Luckily the Earth’s magnetic field protects us and low orbit astronauts from solar radiation, but unfortunately en route to Mars we lose this natural protection.
Metal is not very good at protecting from radiation, so some engineers have suggested surrounding living quarters (or at least one emergency room for high intensity events) with water which is much more effective at blocking radiation. Dr Robert Zubrin has even proposed surrounding a room with a certain human waste product produced mid-flight that happens to contain a high percentage of water. Might as well use it if it’s there! With this level of shielding, the total radiation exposure is expected to be low enough that a 6 months journey would give you a lower increased risk of cancer than regularly smoking.
CERN scientists are producing an experimental magnetic shield technology utilising the same superconducting coils used in the Large Hadron Collider (click here for the full article on IFLS). The end effect would be to deflect incoming particles in a way similar to the Earth’s magnetic field. While this technology has some way to go before being placed on a spaceship, the existence of the above combination of technologies and techniques should by now be sufficient to put to rest at least this one fear of sending humans to Mars.
Hey everyone, just a quick post for today to summarise some stuff I’ve read that I thought was pretty cool.
Apparently the cost of travelling to the Moon can be reduced by a factor of around 10; down to $10 billion US from $100 billion US. Utilising water and hydrogen on the lunar surface as fuel, this can also significantly reduce the cost of travelling elsewhere in the Solar System. This of course flies in the face of Dr. Robert Zubrin’s claim that we don’t need to go back to the Moon to get to Mars. The study says that in 10 to 12 years, a four-person industrial base on the Moon could be built at a cost of $40 billion US. Of course, as the study admits, the fuel resources are not guaranteed, and some kind of exploration would have to be undertaken to prove their existence in quantities large enough to be worth extracting. Check out the summary article here or the report here. The report is a long read and I’m still working my way through it; I’ll put up my own summary when I’ve finished.
This article by Tanya Harrison explains how some of the cool surface features at Mars’ south pole formed, and tell you how YOU can help map Mars! Click here to check out the Zooniverse project that puts you in the scientists’ chair to pick surface features on imagery taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
So it turns out Pluto is red, and the reason is ‘tholins’. What are tholins? They’re basically complex organic molecules. Find out more about these and the implications here.
Finally, the B612 Foundation is worth looking into if you haven’t already heard of it. Simply put, they aim to enhance our capability to protect Earth from future asteroid impacts which can be potentially catastrophic for our civilisation through science, technology, advocacy and education.