The Mysterious Desert

How bright is our future? That depends greatly on how feasible is interstellar travel. And we don’t really know that, because we are still pretty ignorant about what lies between the stars. Oh it all looks pretty empty, but looks could be deceiving. If you look at a logarithmic map of the universe, the scales on which we seem the most ignorant (below 10Bly) are the three orders of magnitude between the furthest planets and the nearest stars. Now we see clues that unexpected and powerful things happen there:

Between May 2009 and May 2010, IceCube detected 32 billion cosmic-ray muons, with a median energy of about 20 TeV. These muons revealed, with extremely high statistical significance, a southern sky with some regions of excess cosmic rays (“hotspots”) and others with a deficit of cosmic rays (“cold” spots).

Over the past two years, a similar pattern has been seen over the northern skies by the Milagro observatory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and the Tibet Air Shower array in Yangbajain. … It’s a mystery because the hotspots must be produced within about 0.03 light years of Earth. Further out, galactic magnetic fields should deflect the particles so much that the hotspots would be smeared out across the sky. But no such sources are known to exist.

One of the hotspots seen by IceCube points in the direction of the Vela supernova remnant … almost 1000 light years away. Cosmic rays coming from such large distances should be constantly buffeted and deflected by galactic magnetic fields on route, and should thus have lost all directionality by the time they reach Earth. …

There could be a “tube” of magnetic field lines extending between the source and our solar system, funnelling the cosmic rays towards us. … [This] theory is highly speculative. … Others have proposed that … solar magnetic field lines cross and rearrange, converting magnetic energy to kinetic energy – could be accelerating local cosmic rays … creating the observed hotspots. … “That’s also crazy, but it is at least less crazy than other explanations.” (more)

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  • J. Andrew Rogers

    Bad link to the article. It appears to have been severely truncated.

  • nazgulnarsil

    I don’t see the problem. Sure meat bodies would have serious issues but hardening against radiation should be fairly simple for ems.

  • Gil

    Indubitably, it’s figure out true interstellar or the standard of living won’t get much higher than now. Unfortunately, there’s no obvious solution to this dilemma.

    • Karl Hallowell

      Even without expansion off of Earth there are several ways in which humanity could continue to improve its standard of living. First, longevity could be lengthened. Second, cost and effort of manufacture and construction could continue to decline, meaning we get more and do more for the same portion of wealth spent. Third, despite the large number of people on Earth, there’s still room for growth. For example, going to a large-scale arcology-style of urban development might result in greater population densities yet at the same time greater space per person due to better use of vertical space. So far it hasn’t done so, but that doesn’t mean we might not figure out a group of technologies that can make it work in a economical manner.

      Fourth, we can improve the education of the average human and eventually the intellectual capacity of humans collectively. All this can be done without moving a single person off the planet.

      Interplanetary development and trade (which includes development of asteroid resources and anything done in the Solar System sphere) probably will do as much as practical to improve the quality of life of people.

      On interstellar scales, you are after bigger aims than quality of life, such as star system-scale computing, interstellar colonization, survey of every large object in the galaxy, or search for and investigation of intelligent life throughout the Milky Way, maybe um, “endstate” development (construction of things that are intended to last to the heat death of the universe), just to name a few.

      Interstellar economics would be rather peculiar with information having a far transportation lower cost than physical materials and the relativistic communication delay affecting everything done at that scale.

  • Tim Tyler

    It seems as though the cost for the home planet could be high. The expenditure may face political resistance.

  • Mitchell Porter

    The most recent paper:

    Northern and southern hemisphere results combined on page 34.

    The best explanation I can think of, is that there are interstellar magnetic field structures, localized on the sub-light-year scale, which concentrate and canalize the flux of cosmic rays.

  • Joshua

    Unless you’re talking time frames in order of a thousands years, we have plenty of resource here in the solar system to sustain a massive level of growth. Terraforming Mars and Venus is going to be a damn sight easier then interstellar colonization, and we have plenty of material to make millions of man made habitats. I’d love to go to another star as much as the next nerd, but it isn’t a requirement for growth for many thousands of years.

    • Jess Riedel

      The ability to have sustained growth doesn’t seem like a good predictor of the propensity for colonization. Europe had lots of room and resources in the 1600’s when North American colonization began in earnest. The question is: are there people who want things that can only be found outside of the solar system, e.g. certain resources, adventure, glory, liberty, etc. “Room” is probably not high on the list.