Our Place in Space: An Immature Technosphere

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Our Place in Space: A to Z!  For this year’s A to Z Challenge, I’ll be taking you on a partly imaginative and highly optimistic tour of humanity’s future in outer space.  If you don’t know what the A to Z Challenge is, click here to learn more.  In today’s post, I is for…

AN IMMATURE TECHNOSPHERE

In a previous post, I told you about the DART Mission, our first real experiment to see if we can defend our planet from incoming asteroids.  I believe humanity has a tremendous responsibility to protect our planet, not only for our own benefit but for the benefit of the entire Earthly biosphere.  Incoming asteroids can do serious harm to Earth’s biosphere (just ask the dinosaurs).  But, of course, there are other threats to the biosphere that should concern us—more immediate and urgent threats, too.

The term “immature technosphere” is mainly associated with SETI research.  Imagine, if you will, a planet that is home to alien life.  Over cosmic timescales, we might expect this hypothetical alien planet to go through several phases of development.

Phase One: The Immature Biosphere
Life has begun!  The first microorganisms are swimming around in the planet’s water (or whatever liquid this planet has instead of water).  But biological activity produces biological waste, in one form or another, so as these early organisms multiply and spread, they may end up poisoning their own environment with their own waste products.

Phase Two: The Mature Biosphere
Life has found a way.  A variety of organism have now evolved, and the waste produced by one organism serves as fertilizer, food, or fuel for others.  A natural balance has been achieved.  Natural cycles have emerged.  Life not only survives but thrives!

Phase Three: The Immature Technosphere
Intelligent life has emerged, by which I mean life capable of creating and using technology.  But as these intelligent life forms begin using technology on a grander and grander scale, they may inadvertently disrupt the natural cycles and the natural balance of their world.  Life is threatened once again, this time by technological waste.

Phase Four: The Mature Technosphere
If intelligent life is truly intelligent, it will recognize the harm it is doing to its own environment and start inventing ways to undo that damage, or at least to keep the damage in check.  In time, perhaps a new balance will be achieved, with nature and technology working together in harmony.

Turning our attention back to Earth, I think it’s fair to say our planet is in the “immature technosphere” phase of development.  But an immature technosphere today implies that a mature technosphere may develop later on, and that gives me hope.

I keep saying that this “Our Place in Space” series is a highly optimistic view of humanity’s future.  Part of what I mean by that is that we will not leave Earth behind.  We will not make a new home for ourselves on the Moon or Mars or elsewhere after destroying our first home here on Earth.  I doubt that that would work anyway; any off-world colony we might establish would still be dependent on Earth for a long, long time to come.

I know a lot of people who see the state of the world and despair.  Things are bad right now, and some of the damage we are doing to our planet and to each other cannot be undone.  But a better future is still possible.  Humanity just needs a bit more time to mature.

Want to Learn More?

Earth in Human Hands by David Grinspoon is one of my all time favorite books.  It’s certainly my #1 favorite non-fiction book.  As an astrobiologist, Grinspoon has more knowledge and authority on scientific matters than I do, but his view of the future is much like the view I’ve been presenting in these A to Z Challenge posts.

So if you’re worried about the state of the world and you want to believe that a better and brighter future is still possible, I highly recommend picking up Grinspoon’s book.

Our Place in Space: The Aldrin Cycler

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Our Place in Space: A to Z!  For this year’s A to Z Challenge, I’ll be taking you on a partly imaginative and highly optimistic tour of humanity’s future in outer space.  If you don’t know what the A to Z Challenge is, click here to learn more.  In today’s post, A is for…

THE ALDRIN CYCLER

Even in the future, space travel will be expensive.  True, new technologies should make it less expensive than it is today, but there’s one problem that will never go away, no matter how advanced our technology gets: gravity.

Anywhere you want to go in space, you’re going to have to fight against gravity to get there: Earth’s gravity, the Sun’s gravity, the gravity of other planets and moons—at some point on your journey, you’re going to have to fight against any or all of these gravitational forces.  And fighting gravity uses up fuel.  Lots and lots and lots of fuel.

And yet, despite the unforgiving and unrelenting force of gravity, human civilization will eventually spread out across the Solar System.  I’m not going to tell you it will happen in the next twenty years.  I won’t tell you it will happen in the next century, even.  But someday, it will happen.  I’m sure of it!  And so today, I want to talk a little about what the future transportation infrastructure of the Solar System might be like.

American astronaut Buzz Aldrin is, of course, most famous for being the second person to set foot on the Moon.  Aldrin is also a highly accomplished scientist and engineer.  In 1985, he did some math and discovered a very special orbital trajectory that would make traveling from Earth to Mars (and also from Mars back to Earth) far more fuel efficient.

The term “Aldrin cycler” refers to that very special orbital trajectory Aldrin discovered.  The term can also be used to describe a spacecraft traveling along that special orbital trajectory.  The initial investment to build an Aldrin cycler (the spacecraft, I mean) would be really high.  We’d probably want to build a rather large spacecraft for this, and once it’s built, maneuvering the thing into the proper trajectory would require a stupendous amount of fuel.

However, once we’ve done all that, the cycler will cycle back and forth between Earth and Mars, over and over again, pretty much forever.  Traveling to Mars would be a little like catching a train.

I was going to have the Aldrin cycler make a “choo-choo” sound, like I train, but then I realized that would be silly.  Things don’t make sounds in outer space.

Passengers would board the cycler as it flew past Earth; about five months later, they’d disembark and head down to the surface of Mars.  The cycler would then take a long journey (about twenty months) looping around the Sun before flying past Earth once more; then the “cycle” would begin again.

The trip from Earth up to the cycler would still require some amount of fuel.  So would the trip from the cycler down to the surface of Mars.   The cycler itself would also require a little bit of fuel for maneuvering thrusters; otherwise, over time, the ship could start to drift ever so slightly off course.

Obviously this is not a cost-free form of space travel, but I’m sure you can see how this could help keep the cost of space travel down.  And so I imagine in the distant future, the Aldrin cycler (or something very much like it) will be a key part of the Solar System’s infrastructure, just as trains are an important part of our modern day infrastructure here on Earth.

Want to Learn More?

Click here to see a short animation of the Aldrin cycler orbital trajectory, showing several cycles worth of Earth-to-Mars and Mars-to-Earth journeys.

I’d also recommend Buzz Aldrin’s book Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration, where Aldrin describes the Aldrin cycler (and other cool Mars related things) in more detail. Click here to see the book’s listing on Amazon.

A to Z Theme Reveal: Our Place in Space!

Hello, friends!  April is almost here, which means it’s almost time for the A to Z Challenge!  If you haven’t heard of the A to Z Challenge before, click here to learn more.  It’s a cool thing, with lots of blogs participating, covering all sorts of fun and interesting themes.  Here on Planet Pailly, the theme for this year’s A to Z Challenge will be:

OUR PLACE IN SPACE!!!

This will be a mostly imaginative tour of the future, with a little bit of actual, factual science mixed in.  We’ll see how future human colonists are faring on the Moon and Mars, we’ll visit scientific research stations in the outer Solar System, and perhaps we’ll witness humanity’s first tentative steps toward interstellar travel.  We’ll also check in on Earth and see how our home planet is doing.

I can also promise you that this will be an optimistic view of the future.  I am, and always have been, optimistic about the future of humanity.  People have told me before that my optimism is foolish and naive.  People have told me to “look at the direction things are going” and that I should “get ready for what’s coming.”  Maybe those people have a point, but when I talk about the future, I’m not quite as foolish and naive as I may seem.

I know the world is a scary place right now.  There’s a really nasty war going on.  There’s a pandemic going on (still).  Around the world, liberal democracies are under threat, and climate change is transitioning from being a theoretical concern to a very real and very immediate problem.  The gap between the rich and poor is growing wider, our population growth is unsustainable, et cetera, et cetera… I know.  Believe me, I know.  And yet despite all of that, I still have hope for our planet and our species.

Mother Earth (as pictured above) is right.  We can do better than this.  The first step is to believe in ourselves, to believe that a better and brighter future is still possible.  I admit that hope alone will not guarantee us a better or brighter future, but I also know from personal experience that hopelessness is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Those who still have hope still have a chance while those who give up hope have doomed themselves.  Let us not, as a species, give up hope in ourselves.

So in the coming month, I invite you to join me in imagining a future where kindness has prevailed, a future where we have not destroyed ourselves or our planet, and where we, as a species united in peace, have gone on to claim our rightful place in space.

Is There Life on Earth?

Hello, friends!

Let’s imagine some space aliens are cruising by our Solar System.  They turn their scanners on our planet and see… what?

Among other things, they’d notice that Earth’s landmasses are partially covered with a strange, green-colored substance.  Of course, you and I know what that green substance is.  It’s chlorophyll.  But would those extraterrestrial observers, who have no prior knowledge of our planet, be able to figure that out?  Even if they did, would they realize what chlorophyll is used for?  Maybe.  Probably not, though.

Which brings me to my all-time favorite scientific paper: “A search for life on Earth from the Galileo spacecraft,” by Carl Sagan et al.  I love this paper in part because it’s so clearly and concisely written, with jargon kept to a minimum.  Sagan was, after all, a talented science communicator.  But I also love this paper because its conclusions are so shocking, so eye-opening.

In 1990, NASA’s Galileo spacecraft turned all its high-tech instruments toward Earth and detected… not much, actually.  Galileo did pick up radio broadcasts emanating from the planet’s surface.  Aside from that, though, Galileo’s data offered highly suggestive (but also highly circumstantial) evidence on Earthly life.  The lesson: finding life on other planets is hard.  Even using our very best equipment, it was hard for NASA to detect signs of life right here on Earth!

At least that’s what I got out of reading Sagan’s Galileo experiment paper.  And based on various commentaries I’ve read or heard about this paper, that seems to be the lesson other people got out of it too.  So I was surprised to hear Sagan himself, approximately seven-and-a-half minutes into this interview, saying the exact opposite.

We’ve flown by some sixty worlds.  We claim that we haven’t found life anywhere, and that that is a significant result.  That is, that we would have found life had it been there.  But this has never been calibrated.  We’ve never flown by the Earth with a modern interplanetary spacecraft, all instruments on, and detected life here.  And so Galileo, because of this peculiar gravity assist VEEGA trajectory, permits us to do that.  And as I’ll describe tomorrow, we find life five or six different ways, including intelligent life.  And this then means that the negative results that we find elsewhere are, in fact, significant.

I’ve been puzzled by this for a while now, but I think I’ve finally figured out why Sagan would say this.  It’s politics.

On the one hand, scientists need to understand the challenges they’ll face (including the limitations of their own equipment) in searching for life on other worlds.  That really is, I think, the purpose of the Galileo experiment paper.  On the other hand, it would not do to say on public television, to cantankerous taxpayers and the listening ears of Congress, that NASA spends millions of dollars on space probes that are not even capable of detecting life right here on Earth.

Space exploration is expensive.  And like all expensive types of research, sooner or later the researchers involved have to learn how to play politics.

What Color are All the Planets?

Hello, friends!

So as you know, Earth is “the Blue Planet” and Mars is “the Red Planet.”  By my math, that leaves us with six other planets in our Solar System that don’t have color-related nicknames.  Today, I’d like to try and fix that.

Jupiter was the toughest.  He’s actually lots of different colors: red, grey, white, orange… and then the Juno mission recently showed us that Jupiter’s polar regions are blue!  Of course Jupiter is most famous for being red in that one specific spot, but even the Great Red Spot changes colors from time to time, fading from red to pink to white before turning red again.

Anyway, those are my picks for the color-related nicknames for all the planets.  Do you agree with my picks?  Disagree?  Let me know in the comments below!

Sciency Words: Aerobiology

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about those weird and wonderful words scientists like to use.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:

AEROBIOLOGY

You will find life pretty much anywhere you go on Earth.  Living things are in the water, on the land, and up in the air.

Aerobiology comes from three Greek words meaning “air,” “life,” and “the study of.”  So aerobiology is the study of airborne life, specifically airborne microbial life.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term was first introduced in the late 1930’s.

I have to confess I am totally new to aerobiology.  I only found out about this term yesterday, and I don’t want anything I say to misrepresent the field.  But based on what I have read, it sounds like aerobiologists are primarily concerned with protecting public health from the spread of pollen and other allergens, as well as the spread of airborne diseases.

However, aerobiologists also study airborne microbes that are not a direct threat to human health—and this is the part that connects to the outer space stuff I normally write about.  For decades now, aerobiologists have known that algae and other common microorganisms can fly up into Earth’s atmosphere and travel great distances on the wind.  And according to this 2001 paper, microorganisms can (and do) remain active—growing and reproducing—inside the water droplets found in clouds.  As the authors of that 2001 paper explain it, we should start thinking of clouds as microbial habitats.

So what does this have to do with outer space?  Well, if clouds on Earth can serve as a habitat for microorganisms, then maybe microorganisms could exist in the clouds of some other planet.

And by some other planet, I mean Venus.

And by maybe, I mean stay tuned for Monday’s post.

Science is Wrong About Everything

Hello, friends!  So one day when I was a little kid, I got into a huge argument with another kid in school.  I’d said something about how Earth is a sphere, like all the other planets.  The other kid told me (firstly) that Star Trek isn’t real and (secondly) that the earth is flat.

As evidence, the other kid told me to just look around.  It’s obvious that the world is flat.  If I needed more proof, I could look at a map.  More kids soon jumped into this argument.  They all agreed: the earth is flat, and also I’m a huge nerd for watching so much Star Trek.  I was outnumbered, and being outnumbered was further proof that I must be wrong.

I went home so mad that day.  How could those other kids be so stupid?  I was right.  Everybody else was wrong.  I’m tempted to turn this into a metaphor for Internet culture, but that’s not the point I want to make today.

Yes, when those other kids said the Earth is flat, they were wrong.  But when I said the Earth is a sphere, I was wrong too.  Less wrong, obviously.  But still, I was wrong.

Isaac Asimov’s essay “The Relativity of Wrong” is a brilliant summation of how science works.  It should be required reading for every human being (click here to read it).  As Asimov explains:

[…] when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong.  When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong.  But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.

As Asimov goes on to explain, there was a time, long ago, when educated people really did believe the world was flat, and they had good reasons for thinking it to be so.  But then discoveries were made.  New knowledge was learned, and people came to think of the world was a sphere.  Then more discoveries were made, and people started to think of the world as an oblate spheroid (round, but slightly bulgy at the equator).  And then still more discoveries were made, and even the oblate spheroid model turned out to be slightly inaccurate.

People (including people on the Internet) will gleefully point out that science has been wrong about stuff in the past; therefore, science could be wrong about stuff today—stuff like evolution, climate change, general relativity—also stuff like vaccinations and COVID-19.  When science is wrong so much, why pay attention to science at all?

Well, it’s true.  In absolutist (this-or-that-ist) terms, science is wrong.  Science is always wrong, about everything, all the time.  Science is full of educated guesses and close approximations of observed reality.  It’s not perfect.  It will never be perfect.  But with each new discovery, science is a little less wrong today than it was yesterday.  And you can trust science to keep being less and less wrong, even if it will never be 100% right.

And that process of constant refinement and improvement, that process of getting closer and closer to the truth—that’s something worth paying attention to, something worth taking seriously, don’t you think?

P.S.: I’ll concede that those kids in school were right about one thing.  I was, and still am, a huge Star Trek nerd.

Sciency Words: Syzygy

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at the definitions and etymologies of scientific terms.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about the word:

SYZYGY

We’ve all seen pictures like this, with all eight planets lined up in a row:

And sometimes, on extra special occasions, the planets really do line up like that, or at least they come very close to it.  When this happens, we call it a grand syzygy.

The word syzygy traces back to ancient Greek.  It originally meant “yoked together,” as in: “The farmer yoked together his oxen before plowing the field.”  According to my trusty dictionary of classical Greek, the word could also mean “pair” or “union.”

Some closely related words in Greek referred to balance, teamwork, sexy times, etc.  And our modern English words synergy and synchronized have similar etymologies.  Basically, what all these words have in common is a sense of people or things coming together, in one manner or another.

For modern astronomers, syzygy means three or more celestial bodies coming together to form a straight line.  The most commonly cited example of this is the alignment of the Sun, Earth, and Moon that occurs during either a new moon or full moon, as observed here on Earth.

But an alignment doesn’t have to be perfectly straight to be called a syzygy, especially when we’re dealing with more than three objects.  According to this article from The New York Times, a syzygy of the Sun, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn occured between March 25 and April 7, 1981.  The Sun and five planets came “within 2 degree of arc from a perfect straight line.”  Apparently that’s close enough.

But while that 1981 syzygy was pretty grand, it was not the grandest of grand syzygies.  The planets Mercury, Uranus, and Neptune were left out.  According to another article from The News York Times, a truly grand syzygy will happen on May 19, 2161, “[…] when eight planets (excluding Pluto) will be found within 69 degrees of each other […].”

So mark your calendars, friends!  You don’t want to miss the grand syzygy of 2161!

P.S.: And if you’re a Star Trek fan, you may recall that 2161 will be an auspicious year for another reason.  That’s the year when the United Federation of Planets will be founded—a political syzygy, one might say, occurring at the same time as an astronomical syzygy.

Sciency Words: Supermoon

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today’s Sciency Word is:

SUPERMOON

I was recently part of a comment thread over on Scott’s Sky Watch.  We were talking about the term supermoon, along with other weird moon names like wolf moon, blood moon, harvest moon, corndog moon, flower power moon, gingivitis moon… you get the idea.  After that, I thought a Sciency Words post on “supermoon” was in order.

The term supermoon was coined by American astrologer (repeat: astrologer, not astronomer) Richard Nolle.  The term first appeared in an article Nolle wrote in 1979 for Horoscope magazine.  To quote Nolle himself from this 2011 webpage article, the term supermoon describes:

[…] a new or full moon which occurs with the Moon at or near (within 90% of) its closest approach to Earth in a given orbit.  In short, Earth, Moon and Sun are in a line, with Moon in its nearest approach to Earth.

This particular alignment of the Sun, Moon, and Earth is also known as a syzygy-perigee.  Perigee means the point when as object orbiting Earth comes closest to Earth, and syzygy refers to the straight line alignment of three celestial objects.

A syzygy-perigee has a marginal effect on Earth’s tides, and if the Sun and Moon are on opposite sides of the Earth (as depicted in the highly technical diagram below), then the Moon will appear to be slightly larger and slightly brighter than normal in our night sky.  Astrologers would have more to say about supermoons, but from an astronomy perspective we’re pretty much done here.

Personally, I don’t really have a problem with the term supermoon.  When the full moon or new moon happens to be 90% closer to Earth than usual, that’s kind of neat.  Sure, the term started as an astrology thing, but there’s a long history of astrology concepts and terminology being borrowed by astronomers.  Supermoon is no different.

And supermoons do tend to get a lot of attention in the popular press.  I’ve had a lot of awesome conversations with people about the Moon and space and science in general that started because of a news report about the latest supermoon.  I think that’s great.  Anything that gets people to take an interest in science is a positive thing in my book.

On the other hand, a few of those conversations have ended with people asking me about their horoscopes, which is a bit disappointing.

Next time on Planet Pailly, please don’t hate anybody, not even the people who deserve it.

Sciency Words: The Yarkovsky Effect

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about those weird and wonderful words scientists use.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:

THE YARKOVSKY EFFECT

Have you ever tried to count all the stars in the night sky?  Well, that might be an easier job than finding and tracking all the asteroids that keep whizzing by our planet.  Part of the problem is due to something called the Yarkovsky Effect.

Ivan Yarkovsky was a Polish engineer working in Russia.  He was also a huge science enthusiast.  If Yarkovsky were alive today, I imagine he’d be writing a blog about all the cool sciency research he was doing in his free time.

But it was the late 19th/early 20th Century.  Blogging wasn’t an option, so instead Yarkovsky wrote pamphlets about science, which he circulated among his science enthusiast friends. And almost fifty years after Yarkovsky’s death, an Estonian astronomer by the name of Ernst Öpik would remember reading one of those pamphlets.

Imagine an asteroid orbiting the Sun.  Sunlight causes this asteroid’s surface to get hot.  Then, as the asteroid rotates, that heat energy radiates off into space.  Would this radiating heat produce any thrust?  Would there be enough thrust to push an asteroid off its orbital trajectory?

Öpik thought so, and in 1951 he wrote this paper introducing the idea to the broader scientific community.  Today’s Sciency Words post would probably have been about the “Öpik Effect,” except Ernst Öpik was kind enough to give credit to the obscure blogger pamphlet writer who originally came up with the concept.  Thus we have the Yarkovsky Effect.

And in 2003, radar observations of the asteroid 6489 Golevka confirmed that the Yarkovsky Effect is real!  The asteroid had wandered 15 km away from its original course!

Around the same time, a copy of Ivan Yarkovsky’s original pamphlet was found in Poland.  As described in this article, it seems Yarkovsky was working on the basis of some faulty premises and a few rather unscientific assumptions.  He more or less stumbled upon the right idea by accident (but let’s not dwell on that part of the story).

Next time on Planet Pailly, no one’s going to name a scientific theory after me, but maybe there’s another sciency honor I can aspire to.