Thursday, July 23, 2015

The New Space Race (and the Strange New Certainty about Aliens)

Maybe "Half-Billion miles from Earth" wasn't an error after all...

A lot of you probably saw this story, coming on the heels of a story circulating in April that scientists were "certain" of finding evidence of extraterrestrial civilizations by 2025. Now no less a luminary than Stephen Hawking (hawks again...) has been recruited for a new Super-SETI, one that promises results with all the gusto of a Silicon Valley startup:
LONDON: Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking and Russian-born billionaire Yuri Milner* on Monday announced an ambitious bid to combine vast computing capacity with the world's most powerful telescopes to intensify the so far fruitless search for extraterrestrial life. 
Hawking, who speaks using a computer-generated voice due to the effects of motor neuron disease, explained the reason for the $100 million project: "We are alive. We are intelligent. We must know." 
"The scope of our search will be unprecedented: a million nearby stars, the galactic center, the entire plane of the Milky Way and 100 nearby galaxies," Milner told a packed press conference at the Royal Society in London. 
Milner plans to back the program for at least 10 years although scientists agree it may take longer to find proof that alien life exists. 
Hawking said the new program should succeed because it has ample resources: access to time on major telescopes, a huge data capacity, and a long-term financial commitment that will not be withdrawn.
Those of us whose attention was piqued by the New Horizons mission's takeoff for Nibiru's neighborhood probably remembered this very strange story, yet another example of the many certain pronouncements made by scientists about aliens (do a search- scientists seem to be talking about them all the time these days), always with evidence they don't seem to want to share:

Alien beings just might be quite a bit larger than humans, or at least that is the conclusion drawn by one cosmologist working out of the University of Barcelona. According to his calculations, the average alien would not only be larger but, if given dimensions like a humanoid, would stand taller than the tallest man who ever lived. 
Huffington Post reported April 9 that Dr. Fergus Simpson noted in a new paper -- published at -- that most intelligent extraterrestrials would tip the scales at an average of 300 kilograms (661 pounds), or roughly the size of polar bears. But, Simpson postulated, if given human proportions, the same polar bear-sized aliens would stand taller than Robert Wadlow, the tallest man in recorded history, who stood just one inch shy of nine feet. 
And that would be most intelligent aliens. That would make human beings the runts of the Milky Way and perhaps the universe, if one adheres to the theory that there is abundant life in the cosmos and that, given the amount of possible habitable planets (by human standards), there is the occasional species that might rise to sentience.
Here's another bold, assertive statement about aliens, just up today:
A scientist responsible for finding signs of life on other planets has warned that human beings should probably think twice before making contact with aliens. 
Professor Matthew Bailes is based at Swinburne University in Melbourne - and is leading Australia's efforts to find signs of extra-terrestrial life. 
But he warned that making contact with aliens capable of transmitting powerful signals to Earth over tens of thousands of light years could lead humanity into disaster, because they're likely to be so much more advanced.
Surely aliens tens of thousands of light years away can't possibly harm us. I don't care what kind of warpdrive they have. Or are these aliens closer to home he's concerned about?

Either way, there are bold new plans to return to the Moon and put permanent bases there. A new working group has laid a strategy to return to space, this time for good:
Humans could return to the Moon in the next decade and live there a decade after, a new study claims. The announcement was made on the 46th anniversary of the Apollo 11 crew's first steps on the lunar surface. 
The study, performed by NexGen Space LLC and partly funded by NASA, concludes that the space agency could land humans on the Moon in the next five to seven years, build a permanent base 10 to 12 years after that, and do it all within the existing budget for human spaceflight. The way for NASA to do this is to adopt the same practice that it's using for resupplying the International Space Station (and will eventually use for crew transport) — public-private partnerships with companies like SpaceX, Orbital ATK, or the United Launch Alliance.
But hold on- read the fine print:
A number of obvious risks are addressed in the study. For one, the cost and risk of developing a lunar base is far beyond that what is considered acceptable for businesses looking for a return on their investment. The study also lays out strategies for how to respond to things like the loss of a launch vehicle, loss of lander vehicles, and even loss of crew.
And talk about buzzkill- the walking space buzzkill, Buzz Aldrin, shows up to splash some cold water in the face of serious space watchers. If ol' Buzz is involved, I'd advise you don't bet the farm on this particular venture:
Building a base on the moon would both prepare humans for the technical challenges of long-term space travel and teach them "how we would assemble a base on Mars," former astronaut Buzz Aldrin, one of the pioneers who made that historic journey for America in 1969, said during a press call on Monday. A return to the moon can be funded within NASA's existing budget, he said.
But maybe the new Cold War is at the center of this new Space Race, in much the same way the old Cold War was before. And this time there's a tangible motive- growing shortages of rare earth minerals, resources that China is flush with and not big on sharing. Scientists believe there are plenty to be found on the moon.

But how do we get there? We've seen a series of disasters in rocketry recently and America has no working rocket program to speak of. Well, here comes Captain Tomorrow with his wonder science!
A big part of the reason that it’s so expensive to send objects into space is that in order to get them there, we currently use messy, chemically-powered rockets that shed pieces all over the place on their way into orbit, and then smash themselves to bits on their way back down. A much more cost-effective (and elegant) solution would be a reusable single stage vehicle that goes up and comes right back down intact and ready to be refueled and reused. 
To accomplish that, a more efficient source of power is needed. Rockets that have to haul their own fuel and oxidizer just aren’t going to cut it. Escape Dynamics thinks it has a solution in the form of a spaceplane that can launch vertically and make it to orbit in one shot, and is powered entirely by microwaves beamed from the ground.
Oh, but wait- as with every scientific miracle headline, there's a huge caveat waiting in the fine print:
From the sound of things, this launch system isn’t intended for heavy lifting. The maximum payload that it’ll be taking into orbit is just 200 kg. And the development won’t be cheap, either. It’s estimated that it will require about a billion dollars to take the project from its current state to a prototype spaceplane in orbit.
Just remember, it's a big ol' Solar System. Estimates range between a light year and two light years. Unfathomably enormous. So while one hand has SuperSETI looking out for aliens dialing us up on the ol' Marconi wireless doodad, the hidden hand has an impressive probe out there scouring the dim outer regions of our own neighborhood for...what?

Maybe there's a very, very good reason these scientists are so confident about finding extraterrestrial intelligence- giants, yet!- within the next ten years. Maybe they'll be found right down the ol' cosmic block....

UPDATE: The new Space gold rush:

Silicon Valley venture capitalists are betting big, pouring $1.7 billion into space-related companies this year, according to CB Insights. Even if you exclude the $1 billion of that raised just by SpaceX, the market has still attracted almost twice as much money in 2015 as in the past three years combined. Planet Labs closed a $118 million round in April. 
Google, of course, is firmly in the mix. The Web giant shelled out $500 million last year for satellite maker Skybox Imaging, a venture-backed start-up whose technology can bolster products like search, maps and Google Earth. 
"There are going to be a number of companies built upon the back of all this fundamental technology," said Peter Hebert, co-founder of Lux Capital, a Silicon Valley venture firm that's investing heavily against that thesis. "This is a huge wave that's going to play out over decades."

*Hawking and Milner- hawk, falcon (Horus) and Milner=miller=green, grain (Osiris). What a coincidence!