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Archive for the ‘Space’ Category

#1,393 – Oumuamua

Last year, when a star’s unusual dimming pattern couldn’t be explain by scientists, a new theory emerged.  The light was being blocked out by an alien mega-structure, one built by an advanced civilization in order to harness their sun’s energy.  And now this year, when a strange space rock entered our solar system that can neither be confirmed as an asteroid nor a comet, a new theory emerged.  From Harvard University no less.  The mysterious object was an alien spacecraft, a solar sail, sent off to the far reaches of the galaxy by a curious cosmologist on the other side of the cosmos.

Personally, I love these sci-fi infused theories.  Especially when they are put forth by serious scientists.  They prove that we’re actively working towards figuring out the mysteries of the universe and will consider any possibility.  No matter how remote it may seem.

As CNN puts it, “A mysterious cigar-shaped object spotted tumbling through our solar system last year may have been an alien spacecraft sent to investigate Earth, astronomers from Harvard University have suggested.

The object, nicknamed ‘Oumuamua, meaning ‘a messenger that reaches out from the distant past’ in Hawaiian, was discovered in October 2017 by the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope in Hawaii.

Since its discovery, scientists have been at odds to explain its unusual features and precise origins, with researchers first calling it a comet and then an asteroid before finally deeming it the first of its kind: a new class of ‘interstellar objects.’”

So, why is Oumuamua so unusual? Why is it that we suspect that it may have alien origins?

Well, for starters there’s the fact that it originated from outside our solar system.  Then you have to consider its unusual spin and trajectory and the fact that it sped up as it passed the sun.  This would imply that the object is being powered by solar radiation that would enable it to gain speed every time it passed a new star.  Now to be fair, comets also act in this same way but when a comet passes by a sun some of its ice melts away, propelling it forward and creating a tail.  This object had no such tail so that would seem to imply that it’s not a comet.  Or is it?

It’s certainly possible that it’s a new form of comet or asteroid.  Or something else entirely.  A new class of interstellar object that we just don’t understand yet because it’s the first of its kind.  Perhaps there are many more of these types of objects floating around in deep space.  Objects that we’ll be able to study more closely in the near future as our telescope technology advances further.

The unknown origin could also be easily explained away.  Debris from a distant planet that was wiped out by a star going supernova.  The fact that we can’t trace back its origin to a known position, due to the fact that the incident happened millions of years ago, with the sky shifting so much since then, (thanks to dark energy powering the expansion of the Universe), that it has become impossible to line up the trajectory accurately.  In the same way that you have trouble locating your blanket at the beach after drifting in the ocean.

But at the same time it is worth noting that the alien solar sail theory does have merit.  After all, this technology already exists right here on Earth thanks to the Breakthrough Starshot Initiative and other similar projects.  If sending out a probe powered by solar radiation is how we’ll explore the cosmos then wouldn’t it stand to reason that other advanced civilizations would do the same thing?

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Is a solar sail the Greatest Idea Ever?

 

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#1,392 – Space Elevator

If we’re ever going to become a space-faring Type 1 Civilization that spreads out across the cosmos then we’re going to need a cheap and efficient way to get materials into space.  A space elevator, long rumored as being theoretically possible, could be one way to achieve that goal.  However, we’ve never been able to create a material strong enough to do the job.  Until now that is.

As Futurism details:

“It takes a lot of energy to put stuff in space. That’s why one longtime futurist dream is a ‘space elevator’ — a long cable strung between a geostationary satellite and the Earth that astronauts could use like a dumbwaiter to haul stuff up into orbit.

The problem is that such a system would require an extraordinarily light, strong cable. Now, researchers from Beijing’s Tsinghua University say they’ve developed a carbon nanotube fiber so sturdy and lightweight that it could be used to build an actual space elevator.”

Hopefully this research continues and we do actually one day get a space elevator capable of lugging supplies into space.  And who knows, maybe one day even a passenger version with glass windows, like those found in some malls and hotels, that would allow us to take a sight-seeing ride all the way out into space! Then again, maybe that’s not such a great idea.  Elevator rides are already awkward enough as it is.  Could you imagine how uncomfortable a ride into outer space would be?!

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Is a Space Elevator the Greatest Idea Ever?

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#1,309 – Kilopower

Conspiracy theorists often ask: if the moon landing wasn’t faked and we really did land on the moon then why haven’t we gone back?  If it was so easy to get to, surely we would have gone back by now, if for no other reason than to say that we can.  Right?!  And yet…

The obvious answer is that NASA decided to focus its limited resources elsewhere.  Such as going to Mars instead.  And even though there was no evidence to support this claim it always seemed likely to come true.  It was the obvious next step in mankind’s on-going quest to become a multi-planetary species.  Even if we weren’t 100% sure.

Well, now we have our proof.  Because as it turns out, NASA really has been focusing on figuring out how to get to Mars and what to do once we get there.  For instance, last year it was reported that NASA wants to build a magnetic shield around the red planet in order to terraform our nearest stellar neighbor.

According to Wired UK, “The shield would allow Mars to slowly restore its atmosphere over the course of a few years. Once an atmosphere had built up, the greenhouse effect would take over and heat up the planet, potentially making it warm enough for liquid water to exist on its surface.”

Assuming that this plan would work opens up a Pandora’s box of subsequent questions.  Each more daunting than the last.  Starting with how we would power our operations there and our journeys back and forth.  The weight and cost of fuel being such that it is virtually impossible to transport.  Luckily, NASA has spent the last decade working out that problem as well.

As Engadget puts it, “Being able to generate power will be essential for long-term space travel. Powering a stay on Mars, for example, will require a lot of fuel, way more than we can pack onto a rocket. That’s why NASA, Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Department of Energy and a number of other groups have been working on a small, transportable nuclear reactor that can reliably generate power on the go. The reactor they’re developing is called Kilopower and earlier this year, they announced that they had conducted successful tests of the system…and reported that those tests went extremely well.”

See that, conspiracy theorists.  It’s all going to work out in the end.  Even if we did ake the Moon landing we’re about to go to Mars for real.

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Is Kilopower the Greatest Idea Ever?

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Thinking about the vastness of outer space is overwhelming.  Forget about stars.  No matter which direction you look, you’ll see trillions of galaxies.  Mapping all of it would be a daunting task even for our most advanced AI.

While we’re not yet at the point of mapping the entire Universe we are one step closer to mapping the entirety of the Milky Way though.  An impressive accomplishment in its own right.

As The Verge reports:

“This morning, the European Space Agency unveiled a new, highly detailed sky map of the Milky Way Galaxy that showcases the brightness and positions of nearly 1.7 billion stars. It’s the most comprehensive catalog of stars to date, and it includes precise details about many of the stars’ distances, movements, and colors as well. With the map’s release, astronomers are hoping to use this information to learn more about the structure of our galactic home and how it first formed billions of years ago.

The map came together with data from ESA’s Gaia spacecraft. Launched in 2013, the spacecraft sits nearly 1 million miles from Earth, and it’s continuously scanning the sky with two telescopes. To get a thorough view of the galaxy’s stars, the vehicle rotates once every six hours, mapping one big circle of the sky. The Gaia mission team also changes the position of the spacecraft’s axis, too, allowing the vehicle to cover the entire sky in two-month increments. By doing multiple scans of the full sky, ESA gets repeated measurements of the same stars again and again.”

Gaia just doesn’t help us map the stars though.  It’s also helped us map distant galaxies and smaller near Earth objects, such as the dangerous asteroids that could wipe us out.

In short, Gaia is doing important work, as we look to further our understanding of the Universe and ensure that we’re around long enough to figure out answers to all of our pending questions.  Queries ranging from ‘what is dark matter?’ to ‘are we alone in the Universe?’.  Questions that we’re no closer to answering at the moment.  Hopefully, this new detailed “Map of the Heavens” will bring us one step closer.

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Is the Book of the Heavens the Greatest Idea Ever?

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In a breakthrough that could have far-reaching implications for the future of space travel, scientists have managed to grow vegetables in Antarctica without using the sun or even soil.

As Nerdist puts it, “Scott Watney memorably managed to keep himself alive in The Martian by growing poop potatoes, but the first human to set foot on Mars likely won’t have to resort to such desperate measures to create a sustainable food source now that scientists in Antarctica have managed to grow vegetables without using any sunlight or soil.”

So how did they pull off this remarkable feat?

According to Popular Mechanics, “The experiment was conducted at Germany’s Neumayer Station III near the Antarctic coast. The station set up a greenhouse to grow several different types of plants with optimized lighting, a closed water system, and controlled carbon dioxide levels.

By this first harvest, the scientists had managed to grow 8 pounds of salad greens, 18 cucumbers, and 70 radishes, which is probably more radishes than anyone needs. The scientists hope that by May, the greenhouse will produce around 10 pounds of vegetables per week.”

Obviously, we still have a long to go before we can open up an all you can eat salad bar on Mars but this is a great first step.

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Is growing vegetables without sun or soil the Greatest Idea Ever?

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#1,252 – SEXTANT

This may be one of the most ingenious ideas I’ve ever heard of.  Making use of space itself to help us in our efforts to navigate through it.

As Futurism puts it, “NASA may have just improved our potential for deep space exploration by inventing a new type of autonomous space navigation. Known as Station Explorer for X-Ray Timing and Navigation Technology, or SEXTANT, the technology uses pulsars — rotating neutron stars that emit electromagnetic radiation — to determine the location of objects in space.

The way SEXTANT uses pulsars has been compared to how GPS navigation can provide drivers with positioning and accurate navigation using satellites orbiting around Earth. The pulsars SEXTANT uses are best observed in the X-ray spectrum, in which their beams of radiation essentially turn them into lighthouses.”

This work is especially important when you consider just how unlikely it is that we’ll be able to send manned probes to explore the outer reaches of the solar system and what lies beyond.  Instead, what we’ll have to do is send autonomous probes to do our exploring for us and now thanks to this SEXTANT system those probes will have lighthouses in place to guide them.  Secrets of the Universe here we come!

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Is the SEXTANT system the Greatest Idea Ever?

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#1,224 – Spaceworks 

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching Sci-Fi it’s that stasis i.e. hibernating is the only way to travel through space.  Which means that right now a bear is our best chance of making contact with an alien species.  And that’s probably not going to go over well.  Although, come to think of it, bears leading an alien invasion on another planet would probably make for a good movie.  The elevator pitch could be, “Sharknado in space!”  Quick! Somebody call Michael Bay!

All kidding aside, the issue of how to get humans to safely travel through space is a big one.  If we assume that the speed of light is really the limit to how fast we can travel then it’s highly unlikely that we’ll be able to travel to distant worlds within a human lifespan.  Maybe it’ll turn out that the speed of light isn’t really the limit.  Or maybe we’ll be able to invent a technology that can skirt past those limitations by bending space-time instead of traveling through it, like the Impossible EM Drive is hoping to do.  Or perhaps we’ll be able to take shortcuts through wormholes.  But in all likelihood, at least to start out, we’ll probably have to plod along slowly like we’re doing now.  The spaceship equivalent of a horse and buggy.  Which means that if we want to travel far we’re going to have to figure out a way to slow down the aging process.  Thankfully, Spaceworks has got us covered.

According to Futurism:

“Spaceworks, led by John A. Bradford, is proposing to use a method they refer to as ‘therapeutic hypothermia.’ The process involves cooling the body a little below the normal body temperature (37 C), to slow down heart rate and blood pressure. This process is already being used in the medical world. By bringing the body temperature of patients undergoing treatment for cardiac arrest or traumatic brain injuries down to 32 and 34 degrees Celsius, doctors have more time to address the issues.

The method normally allows patients to stay in stasis for about 2-4 days, but has worked for as long as two weeks. Spaceworks not only believes they can extend this for months, but also that they can create the technology needed to automate the process and apply it for deep-space missions.”

I love this idea and I love the fact that Spaceworks exists to work on it, as well as other initiatives geared towards space exploration.  As they state on their website, “SpaceWorks delivers advanced products and services to the space community. From hypersonic flight test systems and small spacecraft to aerospace software development and engineering services, SpaceWorks is focused on future flight and space exploration technologies.”

The kind of technologies that we’ll need if we’re ever going to explore the solar system, mine asteroids, terraform Mars, travel to habitable exoplanets, build lunar space stations, and unlock the secrets of the Universe.  Hopefully, their therapeutic hypothermia research will continue to advance and we’ll one day be able to fulfill our space manifest destiny.  Until then, I’ll be working on my bears in space screenplay.  Coming soon to a theater near you: Dare Bears – daring to go where no man has gone before!

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Is Spaceworks’ stasis breakthrough the Greatest Idea Ever?

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