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Saturday
Nov072015

SHOULD WE BUILD COLONIES IN SPACE BEFORE MARS?

Image from http://spacecolonization.wikia.com/wiki/O'Neill_Cylinder

Recent data sent by NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft is bad news for those who hope to someday open up Mars for human colonization.

We already knew that the Martian atmosphere is very thin (about 1% as dense as Earth’s at sea level). To make the Red Planet suitable for humans to live on we’ll have to drastically thicken the air and also heat it up. There were hopes that carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, could be freed from the soil and ice caps of Mars to produce a good atmosphere for trapping heat and feeding plants, which would then produce oxygen. It had been thought that much of Mars’ lost atmosphere had been absorbed into the soil, but the new MAVEN data (short for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) suggests that most of that ancient atmosphere vanished into space, stripped away by the solar wind and solar explosions after Mars’ magnetic field died about four billion years ago. It’s gone and can’t be retrieved. That might not affect plans to build domed or underground cities on Mars, but terraforming the whole planet will be a lot harder.

Terraforming Mars was never a short-term project anyway, and the biggest drawbacks to colonies there include gravity and distance. We still don’t know if regular exercise and other methods will mitigate the potential health problems of living in a low gravity environment. And trying to build up the population of Martian colonies will require a lot of very long trips—about nine months one-way as technology stands, but that’s when Earth and Mars are in the right alignment, which only happens every couple of years. That’s a slow process. If our goals are to protect a sampling of the human race from potential disasters on Earth, ease population pressures on Earth, and make use of resources and manufacturing advantages that space provides, we’ll want something quicker.

If we build manufacturing complexes on the Moon, we can make the materials and air to build free-floating colonies in space, possibly in orbit around Earth or the Moon, but more likely where the gravity of the two bodies balances out at the so-called Lagrange points. That doesn’t mean that colonists would live in zero gravity (although they could get to it when they wanted to do a little recreational flying perhaps). One of the popular concepts is a gigantic rotating space wheel like in the movie Elysium that would produce artificial gravity on its inner surface from its rotation. The best-known example is called a Stanford Torus. But my preference would be a miles-long cylinder that would produce a gravity effect by spinning along its long axis. Its inner surface would alternate bands of habitable space with long windows to let in sunlight. In the 1970’s Gerard O’Neill proposed cylinders 32 kilometers long that would provide almost 1300 square kilometers of living space for several million people. Maybe my preference has to do with my love for the Arthur C. Clarke classic Rendezvous With Rama.

These colonies would avoid the concerns about low gravity and be close—only a few days travel from Earth. Research funded by NASA in the ’70’s said that such things could be built with the technology of the time, but materials, knowledge, and tech developed since then would make the job even more feasible.

So while I’m all in favour of Mars exploration for the sake of knowledge, I think the human race would be better served by focusing our colonization plans on free-floating near-Earth colonies or the Moon for the near future. If you think I’m off-base, let me know. Maybe you just have more patience than I do.

The good news this past week? NASA will accept applications from Dec. 14, 2015 through mid-February 2016 for their next class of astronaut candidates. Applications will be accepted at:

http://www.usajobs.gov . It’s only for U.S. citizens (unfortunately) but you could end up working on the International Space Station, a couple of spacecraft being produced by commercial companies, or even NASA’s Orion deep-space exploration vehicle.

The final frontier…but you know all that.

Wednesday
Oct282015

WEATHER CONTROL--HOW MUCH DO WE REALLY WANT?

 

Science fiction writers are expected to predict future trends, but I think it’s also our job to show the implications of those developments. Sometimes that might be the main focus of the story (like the dangers of artificial intelligence), but it doesn’t have to be. Any story will be richer and more authentic if it shows different facets of a particular choice by society.

Take the weather, for example. An old saying declares “everybody talks about it but nobody does anything”. Of course, in stories set in the future it’s not unusual to have the weather controlled by advanced science, either planetwide or by enclosing the spaces where we live in giant domes. But I’ve rarely seen an author go into much depth about the advantages or disadvantages of weather control.

At first blush, it would be great for beach resorts who could guarantee uninterrupted suntanning and cruise lines who wouldn’t have to worry about high waves and seasick passengers (just food poisoning and norovirus). If your picnic or outdoor wedding was ruined by rain you’d only have yourself to blame for not checking the weather schedule (“That was your only job!” “No, I had to keep the groomsmen away from the booze too.”) There would be no more killer blizzards or crippling ice storms, no tornadoes or hurricanes. Heck, some expensive urban infrastructure like storm sewers, drainage ditches, and streets wide enough to hold ploughed snow might not even be needed. The expenses caused by seasonal weather (like heating and air conditioning) could be significantly reduced, or at least regularized.

With full weather control, the amount of sun and rain could be optimized for crops, so farming would be much more predictable and economically secure. Expensive irrigation methods might be unnecessary in some places, while in others only deliberate irrigation would be used under non-stop sunshine. Solar power would get a big boost (though wind generation would probably collapse).

It wouldn’t all be good—every major change has a cost. Lots more sunny beach weather would increase the rate of skin cancer, for instance (and kill the umbrella industry).

Because of the expense, weather control will most likely be applied according to crop needs rather than personal preferences and, if so, would be optimized for the most lucrative cash crops, like corn, soy, cotton, and rice. Lovers of fresh berries, tomatoes, and leafy green vegetables might be out of luck. That’s why it will be better to apply it region by region rather than planetwide. And since you can’t please everyone, it may never be practical to control the planet’s weather as a whole anyway.

So say we’ve got regional weather. If you love sunshine but your home territory is designated as a forestry zone, your tan will look a little pale and wet. Since seasons are inconvenient for both urban business and commercial farming, say goodbye to those cool, bug-free autumn days and crisp winter frosts. I have a feeling, too, that extreme swings of temperature would be discouraged, which would mean the end of bright Fall colours on the trees and seriously challenge the production of maple syrup. More seriously, if we channel all of the atmosphere’s moisture where we want it, everywhere else will suffer drought and eventually turn to desert. Long before that happens, our weather compartmentalization will have badly reduced the populations of most birds and animals by forcibly shrinking their ranges into specialized pockets with limited numbers of species. Imagine how it will mess up the instinct to migrate.

Plants like grasses that depend on the wind to spread their seeds will become much less diverse and therefore badly vulnerable to blights. The same thing might happen to nearly all plants as our specialized zones cause less dispersion of DNA and less variety (though our increased monopolization of crop production is doing a good job of that already).

On a purely aesthetic note, homogeneous and predictable weather could mean the end of much beauty: the glory of an approaching storm and the majesty of fierce lightning. Fewer clouds mean boring sunsets. Controlled rainfall could reduce the number of rainbows. And let’s not forget the way weather fuels our creativity. There might be no more songs about looking at clouds from both sides now, answers blowing in the wind, or dancers singin’ in the rain.

Control of our planet’s atmosphere may one day become a reality, but whether it will ultimately be a good or a bad thing is as unpredictable as…well, the weather.

Tuesday
Oct202015

LHC LOOKS FOR PARALLEL UNIVERSES

If you read about a super high-tech science facility smashing atomic particles together at fantastic speeds and you picture a growing black hole that devours the Earth (!)…you might be a science fiction writer. Either that or a B-movie addict. Or a protestor at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland.

In the coming weeks the LHC will do its best to produce some black holes, but they’re not mad scientists planning to destroy the world. Really. What they are hoping for is evidence of parallel universes. As in, universes that exist beyond the four dimensions we know (length, breadth, height, and time). New theories suggest that gravity may leak from our universe into other dimensions (and is the only thing that can travel between them) and the experiment at the LHC is looking for the proof. If microscopic black holes are produced/detected, they will be evidence of the existence of these parallel universes.

Don’t confuse this with the “multi-worlds theory” of quantum mechanics from Hugh Everett in the 1950’s. That theory claims that slightly different universes are being spun off every moment because of all of the possibilities that can exist when a traveling particle comes to a fork in the road and goes both ways. (That idea has inspired lots of alternate history stories and TV shows like Sliders, but it’s not provable.) No, a researcher with the new LHC experiment describes the parallel universes they’re looking for as if our universe is a sheet of paper in a stack of many more sheets of paper.

Of course, I’m always looking for the science fiction take on stories like this. The giant Earth-gobbling black hole is one possibility (and worried enough people that they filed lawsuits to try to stop the Large Hadron Collider from being built). But the idea of micro-miniature black holes intrigues me too. Imagine a series of mysterious deaths in Geneva and their corpses are found to have microscopic tunnels like wormholes tunnelled through them! Of course one of the victims would have to be the lover of one of the experiment’s lead scientists—just to add extra emotional depth, don’t you know. Or maybe gravity goes weird and the city starts looking like the famous M.C. Escher lithograph “Relativity” (with no consistent up or down). What if the combination of the LHC’s magnetic field and the black holes pulls asteroids out of space into collision with Earth? (Some conspiracy theorists are apparently already claiming this.)

Parallel universes offer even more fodder for imagination. Maybe our own universe originally came from one of those. Or perhaps life originated there instead of here. Or perhaps we somehow go there when we die.

OK, OK…most of these are still sounding like B-movie ideas, but you have to admit that the thought of protons smashing together at 99.9% of the speed of light with energies of nearly 12 Tera electron volts does fire the imagination.

The likely reality? The LHC team will detect some things never seen before and add to our knowledge of the universe. The world won’t even hiccup. And that’s good too.

Thursday
Oct152015

THE MARTIAN IS A MODEL FOR SCIENCE MOVIES

Movie poster for The Martian from 20th Century Fox

 If you’ve read the bestselling SF novel The Martian by Marty Weir, you’ll know it’s not a stretch or an insult to describe it as MacGyver On Mars—the plot depends on stranded astronaut Mark Watney using every piece of available technology, biology, and chemistry in creative ways to help him survive the hostile Martian environment. Weir does it brilliantly, with just enough human touches to keep the reader fully invested in Watney’s survival in spite of numerous technical descriptions that some will find dry. Translating such a science-heavy story into glossy Hollywood entertainment for today’s average moviegoer would seem to be as daunting a challenge as surviving on Mars.

Congratulations to Ridley Scott & Co. for pulling it off with flying colours. I hope Hollywood will take the movie version of The Martian not only as proof that science movies can be successful but as a model for how to do them well.

When a ferocious sandstorm forces a crew of NASA astronauts to cut short their stay on Mars, Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) is injured and thought to be dead. The crew is forced to leave him behind and return to Earth. The next Mars mission can’t happen for another four years—Watney has enough food and water for a couple of months. His personal survival and any attempt by NASA to rescue him appear to be impossible. Both will require the utmost in human determination and ability to achieve.

In The Martian nearly every character is a scientist—Watney himself is a botanist as well as an astronaut—yet the movie shows that they can be every bit as committed, stubborn, inventive, defiant, funny, sweaty, and courageous as any spy, cop, or soldier. They’re not superhuman, instead they show the best qualities of real human beings and the astonishing things we can achieve. The story isn’t about great feats of daring and stamina (though there’s certainly some of that), but using human ingenuity to overcome seemingly insurmountable problems one step at a time. As the implacable universe throws up each new roadblock, Watney, or the NASA team trying to bring him home, uses brainpower to figure out a way around it.

The scientific explanations are necessarily brief but not absent. When a risky course of action is suggested, the pros and cons are explored honestly. The unpleasant realities of both physics and economics are given fair representation and, true to the book, The Martian escapes being propaganda for the USA by giving an important role to the Chinese space program. I’m deeply impressed by how Ridley Scott has crafted a slick and suspenseful Hollywood offering while keeping it so well balanced. Others have pointed out that it is a rare movie full of optimism. Sure, it has moments of carefully-crafted theatre, but it’s inspirational in a true sense and not just emotionally manipulative.

I can’t talk about a movie like this without mentioning the special effects and they are terrific—eye-popping and authentic (OK, we wouldn’t hear rocket engines in space and the Hermes spacecraft wouldn’t have such big windows, but otherwise…). The Martian vistas are stunning, well worth the extra price of seeing them in 3D. The movie reportedly cost $108 million USD to make and it shows on the screen. Not all of that is Matt Damon’s salary, though he certainly earns his pay by giving Watney just the right amounts of stoicism and nerdiness to grab the audience and hold them—it could so easily have failed in the hands of another actor.

The Martian is a movie without any killing, martial arts, fleets of helicopters, contrived romance, explosions meant to destroy or terrorize, inane humour, super powers or supervillains. So it’s truly a breath of fresh air. I hope box office numbers will show Hollywood that there’s an appetite for this kind of movie and at least one director who knows how to make them.

Wednesday
Sep302015

MARS FEVER IS HEATING UP AGAIN

A scene from The Martian from 20th Century Fox

If you follow the news at all, you’ll have heard the big news from NASA this week:

They’ve confirmed evidence that liquid water sometimes flows on Mars.

The evidence relates to certain kinds of darks streaks that have been observed down mountainous slopes in a number of locations. The streaks appear to ebb and flow according to the Martian season. The NASA scientists are convinced that the streaks are flows of liquid water just beneath the surface which occur when the temperature rises above minus 23 Celsius. Obviously that’s a lot colder than the freezing point of fresh water, but this Martian water thaws and stays liquid at that temperature because its full of various perchlorate salts (the same principle as the ice melting stuff you might sprinkle on your driveway in the winter).

Why is it important? Because liquid water is considered to be a prime requirement to support life. Mind you, this Martian water is probably too salty to support life as we know it, but never count life out—it’s constantly surprising us. So this is the best evidence yet that there has been/is now/could someday be life on the Red Planet (take your pick).

We’re eager to know if Earth is the only home of life in the universe. And there are many reasons we might want to establish a permanent presence there—if we do, we’ll want to take some of our plants with us. A planet with the means to support life just might be coaxed into supporting our kind of life.

The timing of the NASA announcement happens to coincide with the release this week of the movie The Martian starring Matt Damon and based on the novel by Andy Weir. The story is about an astronaut accidentally left behind on a Mars mission who has to survive using only what he has on hand and a vast amount of ingenuity. The book was great—I hope the movie will be too. Once you go see it you’ll no doubt want to read about the nine real NASA technologies featured in the film.

Perhaps to capitalize on all this interest (and why shouldn’t they?) NASA has also begun a series of articles about NASA technologies that have been spun off for useful purposes here on Earth, and I’m not talking about Tang or Space Food Sticks. The developments include sensors that attach to plants and help farmers give their crops the optimal amount of water without wasting it, a radar water-detection system that was used to locate a huge reservoir in one of the world’s driest inhabited areas in northern Kenya, and an oxygen recovery system that’s used in refuge shelters for miners in the event they’re trapped underground.

A research paper from a NASA-led team published last month also got some attention by making a thorough scientific case for the use of cyanobacteria in efforts to colonize Mars. Different varieties of the bacteria could be used to pull nitrogen out of the air and into the soil where it would help plants to grow, mine desirable minerals from rocks, produce oxygen for us to breathe, create hydrogen fuels or biofuels, provide the basis for synthetic manufacturing compounds, and even feed the colonists. Terraforming Mars with bacteria might take a very long time, but it would be a whole lot easier and cheaper to transport there than the end products we’d use it to make.

To fully answer why we care about all of this, you’d have to answer why Mars has fascinated humans for thousands of years. It has, and will continue to do so.

Let’s be honest: we’re messing up Earth in a big hurry. We need somewhere else to go, for the sake of our home planet and for the sake of our descendants. Mars is relatively close and available. The Mars Express has begun to gather steam. Let’s hope it really gets rolling soon.