Friday, July 6, 2012

Mystery 450 light years away. Could it be stellar scale engineering?

Astronomers detected a rapid disappearance of a proto-planetary ring of dust around a young star 450 light years away called TYC 8241 2652. The enormous asteroid belt, or the ring of dust, was first detected in 1983. It's not particularly astonishing, we expect every planetary system to have started this way. We think that dust accretes into asteroids and then to proto-planetary objects and finally into planets. In our own system we have left overs from this dust in the form of the inner and outer asteroid belts. This process is (or was, until now) thought to take anywhere from hundreds of thousands to millions of years.

However, NASA reports that between 2008 and 2010 the dust belt around this young star 450 light years away from us had ... disappeared. Did it accrete into planets in two years? You would have been laughed out of any astronomical conference with such assertations until now.

                 Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

It seems that we are left with three options. 1.) The dust accreted into planets within a couple of years or even months. 2.) The star had somehow attracted its dust belt and swallowed it. 3.) We have witnessed stellar scale engineering or mining operations. While the third option is least likely and most sensational, it cannot be ruled out, because the other two options are not fully convincing either.

Considering the scale and age of our Galaxy, as well as the recent bountiful discoveries of extrasolar planetary objects, we must consider how alone are we. On one hand, life should be everywhere. On the other hand, we have no evidence of any life outside Earth. We are a very young civilization, just thousands of years old, if there are any other civilizations in the Milkyway Galaxy, they should all be much more advanced than we are, perhaps by millions of years, or even billions. If so, we should be seeing large scale mining projects, entire stellar asteroid belts disappearing in a short period of time... well, that's precisely what we had just witnessed. Take these contemplations with a grain of salt, but do consider them.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Settling Mars. Far fetched or sooner than you think?

Credit: Mars One - led by Bas Lansdorp, Arno Wielders, Bryan Versteeg, Suzanne Flinkenflögel 

You're probably one of the millions of humans that feel like space exploration has stagnated since the last Apollo landing on the Moon in 1972. That is false. There has been a lot of robotic exploration done, mostly by NASA, but also by ESA and JAXA, in the years following the Apollo program. Nevertheless, the vast majority of the world's population does not follow these missions, more so, they are not aware of their existence. This phenomenon has a simple explanation. Earth audiences want to see humans in space, not robots. When humans see an Astronaut in space, they can identify with that person and dream to go to space someday themselves. What better way to satisfy this craving than by sending a manned expedition to Mars?

There are currently a number of groups, involving experts from all fields of life, intent on landing humans on Mars sometime within the next 10 to 20 years. The people in these groups are not hopeless dreamers watching Star Trek reruns. Well, maybe they are, but they are also scientists, engineers, NASA Astronauts, professors and successful entrepreneurs. Some of these groups are: Mars Society, Mars Drive, 4Frontiers, The Mars Foundation, Mars One and others.

Why Mars? Because it's the most Earth-like extraterrestrial planet that we have access to. Because we can and we should become an interplanetary civilization. Mars is not ideal, otherwise we would have already built cities there. It's a freezing, dry place, with very low atmospheric pressure. However, when compared with other nearby celestial bodies, such as Venus and the Moon, all of a sudden Mars begins to look like the Garden of Eden. But this is not a lecture about Mars, because you know that you want to see humans on Mars anyway, otherwise you wouldn't even be reading this.

Instead, this is about Mars One, the latest group to offer its bold plan of settling Mars with first four humans as early as 2023. The settlement would grow by four more settlers every two years. By 2033 they expect to have a settlement population of 20 Martians. The plan was announced by Bas Lansdorp, a Dutch researcher who has appeared on TED Talks presenting his work on airborne energy generation, on May 31st, 2012. It has seen public endorsement and support from such global celebrities as Gerard ’t Hooft, a Noble Prize winner for physics and Paul Römer, creator of the reality tv phenomenon widely known as Big Brother.

Mars One intends to go on the cheap, at an estimated cost for the arrival of the first four settlers at just 6 billion USD. They plan to accomplish this by relying on existing product - building a modest base out of Dragon (Space X) modules and inflatable structures. They are also bypassing the most expensive component of any mission to Mars - the return trip. Mars One plans to deliver and settler people on Mars that would have no intentions, or ability, to go back to Earth. The volunteers will go to Mars to stay there. This is not a particularly novel idea, but their proposed mission architecture is far more modest and simple than similar studies by other groups. The funding for this mission will mostly be provided by making a reality tv out of every part of the mission, including the selection process of the volunteers, due to start in 2013, and their subsequent life on Mars in 2023 and beyond.

Because of the simplicity and modesty of the original base and the use of the existing technology provided by private corporations, such as SpaceX, this is quite realistic. It will definitely be a tremendous challenge, as many aspects of the mission are still unclear, it remains to be seen by how much. This much is clear - the obstacles are many, but human settlement of Mars is inevitable. Later this year Mars One plans to reveal more of their plans and progress in securing sponsorship. Till then, I wish them luck. After all, a human being with a shovel on the surface of Mars can do more geologic research, in a sense, than all the rovers combined have done so far.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Liquid water flowing on Mars!

Scientists have been hoping to find liquid water on Mars for over a century now. NASA landing probe Phoenix proved that there is frozen water on Mars. Now NASA scientists say that they have evidence for liquid flowing water on the surface of Mars today. This is nothing short of extraordinary.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has detected dark lines flowing down martian slopes. The likeliest explanation for this phenomenon is that they are salty water. Chances for extant extremophile life on Mars have risen dramatically. We might not have to look for fossils after all, but we may need to bring microscopes with us to see martian life forms. In any case, this is one of the greatest discoveries in space exploration of all time.

Image credit: NASA