Another awesome interview with Level 60 Exoplanet Wizard Geoff Marcy, from Wired Science. He talks about how he’s leaving the Kepler planet hunt and joining the SETI team, which is pretty sweet. He goes on to describe how alien civilizations probably use lasers to communicate–highly directed beams of signals–and that we’ve been beaming lasers into space ourselves, ironically from the adaptive optics systems of large telescopes! It’s a cool read, check it out:
There’s also a cool interview with the outgoing SETI champion, Jill Tarter, who is stepping down from the leadership role to concentrate more on fundraising for SETI, which is good to hear. She cites last year’s shutdown of the Allen Telescope Array as a wakeup call–I’ll bet it was. As written about previously on here, they’re looking to do more crowdsourcing and other creative ways of securing the finances to continue their important work, and that’s a smart choice.
Last thing I’ll highlight is that last week the SpaceX Dragon capsule at last docked with the ISS. That’s a significant event in space exploration, purely because until now only Japan, NASA, Russia, and the ESO had sent spacecraft there–all large governmental organizations. This docking is a feat of engineering and it’s really cool that SpaceX has gotten that far along.
I’m guessing a lot of the readership is already aware of this video, but I’m going to post it anyway because this timelapse is just THAT badass. It’s shot from outer space (on the ISS) and shows some unbelievably spectacular views of the heavens in motion and earth spinning below them. To me, it really drives home the notion that we’re floating in space… a fact that we seldom take time to appreciate. Ultra-cool:
And, unlike a lot of awesome timelapse videos, the music is surprisingly tasteful! I can’t get enough of this one.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about the budget cuts facing NASA, and indeed they are deep, and correspondingly tragic. I’m sure the space crowd around here is already well versed, so we’ll skip the rehash.
But I do want to remind us all that there are ultra-sweet projects nearing fruition: budget cuts can’t stop Curiousity, which is well on its way to the red planet. The biggest, baddest rover that ever was! That thing is going to get new high scores, starting in August.
And, despite gobbling up all the money that could have been used for myriad enticing small projects, the James Webb Space Telescope will be built and launched. One could make a very strong case that this was the wrong decision, in light of the opportunity costs in scrapped missions the Webb consumed, but I say hey, what recent space project has done more to raise public interest in astronomy than Hubble? I mean, I’d put Hubble at #2 behind the Apollo missions in terms of ability to get people fired up and fascinated with the sky. Having a brand new, next generation eye up in space is going to create better images than ever before. Pretty pictures are important, to capture the imaginations of new generations.
In the end, it is sad that our national priorities are what they are–jeez, on MANY levels! As the SETI infographic highlighted, there is a massive disconnect between planning for an inevitable future (ie space exploration/research) versus how our money/resources get burned away at the altar of short-term profit (war profiteerism/exploitation of natural resources with disregard to the planet/etc)
Out of everything I’ve done on this website, that infographic brought way more people through the door than everything else combined. Even almost a year later there is a steady trickle of visitors every single day who come here to look at that. What does that say? I’d venture it says there’s a large group of people out there who agree that our destiny, as an evolving lifeform, lies beyond the shore of the cosmic ocean, here on Earth. And by extension, it means that our survival depends on knowing the Universe. How well can we explore it, exploit its treasures and avoid its dangers? The answer to our ultimate fate lies in how much effort we are willing to devote into these things.
What would it take to shift our societal priorities away from petty conflicts and toward the next horizon? There’s no way of saying. But Curiosity and James Webb are two powerful steps toward raising public awareness that hey, there is this giant thing called the Cosmos; it’s all around us and inconcievably more vast, richer, and filled with more splendor than Earth alone could ever hold. Seriously. We should go check that out. We should be part of that. To the people already abundantly aware of it, it’s easy to feel like maaaan, why aren’t we doing this already? Why did we cancel Apollo? Why haven’t we set foot on Mars yet? Why does our brain power go to work on Wall Street, instead of at JPL? Don’t they understand that we have places to GO?
I definitely feel that myself. But I also remind myself that it’s still less than one century since the theory of “island universes” became an accepted idea. It takes time to build concensus. It took eons for life to evolve from the sea to the land, and it will take perhaps a long time for humankind’s larger consciousness to grasp what the revelations of the last century in astronomy actually means for us all. I have to admit, I feel it does say something dark and disturbing about our society that we should develop fusion bombs well before fusion powerplants. But I keep hope that as James Webb lifts the veil from the great cosmic metropolis stretching to infinity in all directions, and as Curiousity digs to find martian secrets in our veritable backyard, it will open more eyes.
Open more eyes to the unavoidable truth that the Universe is beyond our vocabulary for Ancient, Boundless, and Beautiful. It has existed for longer than the word Epochs can articulate and it will continue unaffected when we are gone. An extension of our word for “nature,” the cosmos is equally stuffed to the brim with magnificence as it is with impartiality toward the folly of its minor tenants. The sooner we awaken to our own frailty and societally grok the rarity, the sacredness of life, the better our chances to gain that lucky opportunity to be part of this cosmos, to savor it and chronicle it.
To me, that’s the truth that Webb will awaken in more people. Curiosity is the other prong; doing. Being able to know what’s out there and prepare to go ourselves. That’s the part where the “homo” genus get to, you know, not become extict someday. But in order to get there, we need to prioritize it. We need the vision to see. Fortunately we’re going to get the most powerful set of eyeglasses yet, launching around 2018………
As Microcosmologist turns one, today is Johannes Kepler’s 440th Birthday. Happy 440th, ya old coot!
This week I saw a headline at Ars Technica (one of my favorite sites to read): “This week in Exoplanets” which added the subtitle “with a side dose of the rest of science”. I had to laugh at this.
I’m going to go out on a limb and venture that my readership is already well informed about the latest findings (go ahead and peruse the above link if not) so I’ll skip out on rehashing these latest news bytes. Indeed, one could run a whole blog solely devoted to chronicling the Kepler team’s findings.
What fascinates and delights me at this moment is standing back and observing the fact that this project is completely dominating the headlines. To the point where other very interesting scientific discoveries are taking a backseat to Kepler. It underscores the universal desire to know this cosmos around us. And the yearning to answer that nagging question ‘are we alone?’ (spoiler alert: we’re certainly not!) It’s a natural question to ask. But it’s an exceptional group of people who begin the undertaking to concretely find it and prove life exists, which is what we’re all talking about here.
So Kepler has found Earth-sized exoplanets, and exoplanets within the habitable zone of their star. It’s simply a matter of time before a world is located satisfying both of these criteria. As much as Kepler has grabbed the headlines, the project is still in the ‘warm-up’ phase, in the sense that if they need 3 transits to verify a planet, and the mission launched in 2009, next year will be the year in which they could start verifying planets with the exact size and position of Earth, orbiting around other stars. The best is yet to come!
I firmly believe they will find their Earth-twin. Probably tens or even hundreds of them. To me, this is a foregone conclusion, but one that will nevertheless be monumental when it’s announced. It’s a major stepping stone on the path to finding more life as-we-know-it. When I think about the cosmos, think about its vastness, it occurs to me that if there is a non-zero probability of life arising (and here we are), then in a universe as inconceivably expansive as ours, life MUST abound. It simply must. The realist in me doubts that I will live to see its existence scientifically verified, but as a nerd-type I deeply envy/revere the people who are conducting this search. Going a step further, as a human being, a self-aware consciousness, I know it is in our nature and our very destiny to seek connection with whomever else shares this universe with us. It is a quest upon which we are compelled to embark.
One thought that keeps reoccurring to me as the Kepler data gets dissected, is that our search is so ‘geocentric’. That is to say a lot of the analysis I read is focused purely upon the assumption that life can only arise on a goldilocks planet with Earth mass, Earth gravity, Earth atmosphere, and Earth chemistry. That’s a sensible and proper extension of the scientific though-process: we go with what we know. One thing I am very hopeful to see in my lifetime is the shattering of this geocentric view on life. Maybe even as early as this time next year when the Mars über-rover curiosity touches down on the red planet and kicks off its search for life there.
We humans think of ourselves as impossibly complex organisms, but really we are nothing more than collections of microbes that have had long time scales to build up into spiffy configurations. If we find microbes in the soil of Mars, or deep underground in Martian caves or aquifers, or somewhere beneath the icy surfaces of Europa’s oceans, then it follows that given adequate timescales, these microbes can build up their own spiffy configurations in the form of Europa-pean super-intelligent dolphins or whales, or fox-like Martian creatures that exist in complex networks of subterranean caves. Consider the fact that the number of microbes which live inside your digestive tract is greater than the number of humans ever born. Intricate organisms grows from microbes, and the more extremeophiles that pop up, the wider the playing field grows.
Daydreaming of what must be out there, I imagine there must be species which exist in far heavier gravities than a human could withstand, species that dine on arsenic-seasoned dishes, and organisms that swim through seas of radiation which would kill us almost instantly. When asked whether he looked forward to the first contact with an alien lifeform, Stephen Hawking expressed his belief that the encounter would likely parallel the meeting of Christopher Columbus and the American Indians. You’d be hard-pressed to come up with a more formidable intellect than Stephan, but the alien Christopher Columbus parable only holds true if Earth had some uncommon resource or a hospitable environment. Perhaps it does; oxygen atmospheres and vast oceans of liquid water. But look at our own search: singlemindedly seeking Earth-twins. Aliens from a gas giant would be singlemindedly searching for a planet like our Jupiter. How common would it be, for other intelligences to arise whose environmental requirements are incompatible with our own? And perhaps a more fascinating question: what would we learn by communicating with them? Even if we could never physically meet in person, what would their cultures have created? What truths would they see in the universe we share?
Among the awe-inspiring discoveries ongoing in our lifetimes, the chronicling and cataloging of exoplanets is right up there at the top. The other prong of this search is the expansion of our science’s boundaries on where life can exist. That includes extremeophiles living in volcanos and deep sea trenches here on earth, as well as the planetary science missions underway and forthcoming. Both of these are metaphorical digging in our own backyard that will change the way we look at what we see through the mirrors of our greatest telescopes. As Kepler blows up the newspaper headlines, my mind floats out to the Curiosity rover, traveling fast and silent through the coldness of space, racing towards a higher plateau in our search to find the next door neighbors beyond the thin blue shell of Earth’s skies…
Today I was derpin’ around on the timelapse subreddit, and I found a link to this video. There’s a lot of badass timelapse out there, but wow, this compilation really has it all. I wanna do stuff like this…
So there we were, chillin on the SS Advanced Manoeuvres, drinking High Lifes and getting down with some funky jams, when off on the horizon this weird plane appears. I say to my buddies, Q: “is that a seaplane?” A: “why yes, it appears that it is.” The mystery plane comes in for a closer approach and yep, it’s a bright red seaplane with yella pontoons. Awesome! Then he comes in for yet another pass, this time REALLY close. After buzzing the boat, we watch this guy circle around the lake and ask “is he about to land that thing?” Spoiler alert: yes.
We’re anchored in a shallow part of the lake where most pleasurecraft tend to congregate due to the nice sandy lakebottom, along with maybe 5 or 6 other boats. The red seaplane touches down not too far away and pulls up alongside another vessel not far from ours. After debating it for a little while, we decide to go over and talk to the guy.
His name is Donny and we chat it up for maybe a good 10-20 minutes or so. He says the plane runs off of normal gasoline just like you’d get in any gas station, and tells a story about how he flew it all the way home from Florida once. That’s sort of extreme, considering that it probably qualifies as an ultralight aircraft, and I doubt the top speed is really all that fast. After a while, I can’t resist asking any longer; “so uhh… what would it take to get you to take me for a little spin on this baby? I can toss some gas money your way and I’ve got a sweet camera that can capture a video for youtube.”
Answer: yeah sure, go grab your camera. I could always use some extra gas money.
My buddy Cody rolls his eyes in some combination of astonishment and admonishment; “John… I can’t believe you.” All I can say is “aww man!”
So I hustle back to home base and retrieve the gear, hop on this seaplane and shoot this video (be sure to hit the 1080p HD!:)
Aww man is RIGHT.
Earlier this year I flew in a single engine Cessna and it was definitely way cooler than a commercial jet. Being able to see forward really changes the experience. Single engine planes are really a whole different world compared to airline travel. Flying in this ultralight seaplane was like the next level of coolness beyond that–you can easily look down on either side of you. For someone afraid of heights, this thing would probably be terrifying. Me, I do have somewhat of a fear of heights, but when I’m strapped in tight, as on an amusement ride, it doesn’t bother me. The whole thing was over before I knew it, finishing with an exceedingly smooth landing. I thought that touching down on the lake would feel rough, but no, it was actually softer than a large jet landing.
So yeah. That was really something else. I wasn’t paying too much attention to where the camera was pointed; pretty much just gawking at the world below and trying to take it all in. Donny and I both had headsets on, so we could chat while we were up there. Right after we took off, he’s like, “hey, do you mind if I put on some reggae while we fly?” And I was all, “oh man, this is the life.”
As mentioned before, a goal of mine is to start getting into timelapse photography. In the words of Carl, “Recently, we’ve waded a little way out, maybe ankle-deep, and the water seems inviting.”
I’ve done four different night-sky timelapses, each getting progressively better. I may yet post one of them, but I haven’t so far. I’ll lead off the timelapse posts with this short clip I compiled from around 300 photos of the clouds a couple weeks back. For those so interested, the exposure was 1/500th at f/8 with ISO100. This was actually done with the T2i that was briefly in my possession.
More imporantly, the exposures were about 15-20 seconds apart (I don’t recall precisely, but it was inside that range). You can see how fast the clouds move! I had no idea they shifted so quickly. For my next attempt, I did the exposures 6 seconds apart, and that showed the cloud movement much more fluidly. I’ll post that one later when I figure out why the rendering always seems to come out choppy. I’ve had some rendering issues with these…
Anyhow, here is my first, tentative step into the world of timelapse! It’s The Moment Of Genesis baby!… the instant when a once far-off dream makes its first step into being REAL. Gotta love the energy that comes off of a thing like that. Bodacious!
So recently I was contacted by the SETI team regarding a sequel to the infographic I had produced a couple months back. As many of you may know already, they’re trying a new way of keeping the Allen Telescope Array running: crowdsourcing. There’s a new website over at SETIstars.org where anyone can go and give funds specifically for the restarting of the ATA. It’s a savvy move in the age of kickstarter, microloans, and grassroots funding. And it’s pretty awesome to think that, well, if the people who should be paying for this won’t pay for it, fine, we’ll do it ourselves!
I hope the venture is a big success. It’d be reaffirming to see the citizenship of planet Earth as forward-thinking enough to collectively grok the profound implications that discovery of other intelligences would have. It would be invigorating to know that we realize this meaningfully enough that we, as single individuals, would band together to sustain this important work.
In the large scope of things, it’s not all that expensive either. Just for perspective: the 1st infographic so far has seen over 40,000 views (just the flickr version, nevermind the ones I cannot track). See the bottom of this new infographic to see how much 40,000 people would need to spend apiece to keep the ATA in action…
This week saw the successful launch of the penultimate mission in the United States Space Shuttle program. This is occasion to be proud of what we’ve achieved, maybe to be a bit sad that a triumphant tale is drawing to a close, and definitely to contemplate what’s next. I’ve been reading all sorts of articles from space-privitization apologists breathlessly talking about how the lack of a Space Shuttle is going to give private industry this huge incentive-boost to magically do all the work that NASA ever did, better, safer, and cheaper. I try hard to believe in that John & Paul doctrine of “it’s getting better all the time” but this is one area where skepticism takes over and I’m not so sure.
One of the articles that bothered me the most was a top-ranked story on Digg, contrasting the tale of the Apollo program with, of all things, two low-paid garbage men who got killed because of occupational hazards. I read the article trying to be as open-minded as possible, but when I reached the conclusion I felt a wave of outrage: “I’d rather see us prevent poor people from falling into garbage compactors than look at another pretty picture from the Moon.”
Okay, I’m going to tackle this on a few different levels.
One: why two garbagemen? Why not pick a trucker who got killed in a wreck, or the loss of innocent life in a plane crash due to poor saftey? Maybe the object was to purposefully select an undignified way of dying? It seems like an completely randomized circumstance of unfortunate death. An important thing to point out here is that right now, literally as you are reading this sentence, somewhere, someone is dying an undeserved and tragically preventable death. This. Very. Moment. Going on a quest to rid the world of this situation is equally ludicrous as trying to rid the world of heartbreak. It is intrinsically impossible to save all humankind from all humankind’s own foolishness, hubris, or simple bad luck. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t strive to build an international culture that places the highest value on the preciousness of human life, and protects it accordingly… we SHOULD! But I AM saying that the death of two garbagemen is an utterly irrelevant and misguided excuse to give up pursuing the highest scientific aspirations of our best and brightest!
Eisenhower famously said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.” The thrust of these words is that civilization has finite resources for to allocating. Bearing this in mind, space exploration should not be ruthlessly pursued at the expense of humane working conditions, and health care. But I do believe that space exploration should be ruthlessly pursued at the expense of so-called ‘defense’ budgets, tax breaks for wealthy citizens and corporations, and yes, maybe even a few other hard-to-pick good causes which would be hard to cut. Which brings us to why space exploration is truly that important…
Two: The essence of what he’s saying boils down to the classic “we need to solve our problems here first” arguement. The webcomic XKCD recently had a bitingly sharp ancedote hidden in a mouseover caption which would be relevant to reprint in large, obvious text here:
This is the inevitable and indeed the ONLY end result of the “solve-our-problems-here” line of thinking. In all of human history there has never been an era in which all cultures coexisted peacefully with abundant food and technological resources. Nor will such an era will ever arise in the future. In our timeline we have been fortunate thus far to have never encountered catastrophe on a global scale. In the future, we will. Whether it be a barrage of asteroids, avian flu, the collapse of our food supply, a small-scale exchange of ICBMs, or the plain old slow whittling of minor conflicts as our resource supplies dwindle fromoverpopulation; one way or another, we Earth dwellers will face our reckoning. Best case scenario: 500 million years from now the oceans evaporate as the sun swells to a red giant. That’s the best-case lifespan of Earth. Contrast that number with the 4.5 billion years of evolution it took for the current civilization to arise.
To make the leap to becoming a spacefaring race, we will need more ingenuity and tenacity than currently imaginable. We must develop interplanetary mining, terraforming, interstellar space travel, interspecies communication techology, inter-intelligence diplomacy expertise, inter-intelligence cultural contexts–possibly intergalactic space travel technology–before the secrets of the universe will reveal themselves. We will need to accomplish these feats elegantly and routinely, with an untold number of repetitions. Thinking small, thinking local is not how this will ever occur.
So let’s take a hard, honest, and clairvoyant look forward and see two possible futures for our descendants: one where Earth becomes the single-planet gravesite of humanity; OR one where we learn to master the aforementioned challenges and survive the apocalypse of our home planet. We can either start preparing ourselves to live on, or be complacent and leave our die offspring to die among intractibly difficult problems. Those are the choices, there is not a third option. Every decade we waste, slashing and debating the merits of the NASA budget, or trying to figure out how to make space tourism profitable is another decade squandered, in which we could have gained a better understanding of spaceflight’s effect on the human body, the psychological and supply difficulties of remote colonization, or the drastically different ecologies of foreign planets, even just here within our own solar system. We deulde ourselves to think that stalling on these scientific advances is inconsequential.
Maybe we will be lucky, and have abundant time to tackle these monumental feats. There is a distinctly real chance that maybe we won’t. All the eggs are in one basket. Is it worth squandering the legacy, the blood, and the sweat of every human who ever lived, to bet on hesitance, procrastination, laziness? Is it worth gambling our entire collective history?
Three: okay, let’s take a reckless step and just disregard the fact that our entire planet has an expiration date. Assuming humankind could miraculously have infinite tomorrows, there’s still ample reason to go into space: because it reveals the best within us.
What’s the greatest feat any human has ever done? Take a gallup poll: walking on the moon. What’s the most published image of all time? Answer: the “blue marble” image, which was the first full image of Earth taken from space. There’s greatness in them there skies. Untold treasures for explorers, answers for the curious, thills for the daredevils. It’s all out there, literally.
The quest to understand space is also the quest to understand the origins of life–as well the scarcity, diversity, preciousness, and potential fruits of life. These are the BIG questions. Should we stop asking these? Should we just give up and admit that because the answers are unknowable within the span of thousands of lifetimes that they are not meant for our kind to comprehend? Should we abandon the quest for intelligence?
Even if our species just never quite amasses the smarts needed to travel to the nearest star, even if we remain stuck here in our stellar oasis, surrounded by bigger, better civilzations who laugh at the smallness of our attempts, there is an inherent value in TRYING. Even if our brains are too limited to grok the interconnectedness of the cosmos, or the purpose of our collective Endeavour within it, there is inherent value in attempting.
The following video made the rounds a little while ago with the discussion of SETI; it holds relevance here too. If you haven’t watched it, it’s worth your time.
So it looks like the Allen Telescope Array (which I mentioned previously on here) is falling onto the chopping block in this era of fiscal “emergency.” To me, this sounds a lot like the recent battle to defund NPR or PBS, in that the money they need to continue is just . . . chump change in the grand scheme of finances. They’re $2.5 million short, and for that, they’ll need to stop taking data and shut down the telescope array. It deeply bums me out to think that such a low value is placed on the quest to find other intelligence in our universe. When compared with so many other things that gladly get millions or billions of dollars, it’s maddening to see SETI so marginalized. Do we really just not care?? Seriously??
And to put things into perspective, I’ve whipped up this handy infographic, comparing how $2.5 million compares to so many other things that we absolutely must have, and will not hesitate to pay for:
When I created this, I deliberately chose things that weren’t the most supreme. For example, I priced a Predator drone @ $4.5M, instead of a Stealth Bomber, which is a cool billion. The iPad sales dollars are probably much higher than I showed. And I showed the Citigroup portion of the bailout, instead of the full bailout ($300B). I also swapped the second and third to last entries in order to put the NASA budget immediately next to the DOD budget. Imagine what we would know about the universe if those two were swapped. (And maybe we could still lead the world by sheer power of inspiration.) It’s the stuff of pipe dreams!
Since the dawn of time, humans have looked up at the stars and wondered what they were, wondered what was out there. Now that we have the technology to actually look, and even a good idea where to look, thanks to the Kepler Space Telescope, it’s all the more maddening that it should fall under the axe, deemed unimportant, unworthy of those precious dollars. Sure, it’s true that there are innumerable causes out there which pull at our emotions and demand the attentions of our pragmatic sides. But what outcome has higher stakes than finding out we’re not alone in the cosmos? When that happens, human history will be split into two neat periods: before we knew about them, and after. BC will stand for before contact, and AD will be replaced by AC; after contact. Nothing else would transform our cultures, our politics, our religions, our folklores like knowing we’re not just a lone voice, but part of a galactic chorus. The most recent findings tell us that “within a thousand light-years of Earth,” there are “at least 30,000” habitable planets, and there are “at least 50 billion planets in the Milky Way” of which “at least 500 million” are in the habitable zone. The glorious Milky Way, with its wealth of diversity and abundance of worlds is right there waiting for us, if we could but pick up the receiver and listen.