Tag Archives: Space

Mars

A publicist recently emailed me: 

We are inviting select science and technology related press to view an early screening of Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s MARS Season 2. The series premieres on November 12, however, we could email a screener to you then follow up with top interviews from the season. We’d just ask that you hold coverage until the week of Nov 7.

MARS is scripted, however, during each episodes, there are cut-aways to documentary style discussion by real scientists and thinkers who describe the reality of our endeavor to the red planet. The scripted aspect rigorously follows science and the latest in space travel technology.

Though I hadn’t heard of the show, I was flattered enough to accept this invitation. I have now watched both seasons, and today am allowed to give you my reactions. 

The branding by National Geographic, and the interleaving of fictional story with documentary interviews, both suggest a realistic story. Their “making of” episode also brags of realism. But while it is surely more realistic than most science fiction (alas, a low bar), it seemed to me substantially less realistic, and less entertaining, than the obvious comparison, the movie The Martian. The supposedly “rigorous” documentary parts don’t actually go into technical details (except in their extra “making of” episode); they just have big “Mars” names talking abstractly about emotional issues related to Mars colonization.  

As you might expect, the story contains way too many implausibly close calls. And others have pointed out technical inaccuracies. But let me focus on the economics.

First, they say near the end of the second season’s story that they have completed 22% of an orbiting mirror array, designed to melt the polar ice caps. From Wikipedia:

An estimated 120 MW-years of electrical energy would be required in order to produce mirrors large enough to vaporize the ice caps. … If all of this CO2 were put into the atmosphere, it would only double the current atmospheric pressure from 6 mbar to 12 mbar, amounting to about 1.2% of Earth’s mean sea level pressure. The amount of warming that could be produced today by putting even 100 mbar of CO2 into the atmosphere is small, roughly of order 10 K. (more)

From a recent NASA report:

There is not enough CO2 remaining on Mars to provide significant greenhouse warming were the gas to be put into the atmosphere; in addition, most of the COgas is not accessible and could not be readily mobilized. As a result, terraforming Mars is not possible using present-day technology. (more)

These mirrors are supposedly made on Mars out of materials dug up there, and then launched into orbit. Yet we only seem to see a few dozen people living on Mars, they’ve only been there ten years, and we never meet anyone actually working on making and launching mirrors. Yet such a project would be enormous, requiring vast resources and personnel. I can’t see how this small group could have fielded so many mirrors so fast, nor can I see the cost being worth such modest and slow increases in pressure and temperature, especially during the early colonization period.  

There is almost no discussion of the basic economics of this crazy expensive colonization effort. The first launches are paid for by an International Mars Science Foundation (IMSF), initially run by a very rich guy said to have put 90% of his wealth into it. Is this all charity, or does he get a return if things go well? Later we see mostly nations around a governing table, and public opinion seems very important, as if nations were paying, mainly to gain prestige. But the scale of all this seems huge compared to other things nations do together for prestige. 

The second season starts with the arrival on Mars of a for-profit firm, Lukrum, run by greedy men on Mars and Earth, while good-hearted women now run the IMSF on Mars and Earth. Lukrum consistently breaks agreements, grabs anything it can, takes unjustified risks with everyone’s lives, and otherwise acts badly. Yet, strangely, IMSF as a customer is the only plausible source of future revenue for Lukrum. So how do they expect to get a return on their huge investment if they treat their only possible customer badly? Apparently their plan is to just lobby the governments behind IMSF to have IMSF pay them off. As if lobbying was typically a great general investment strategy (it isn’t). 

Thus the entire second season is mostly a morality play on the evils of greedy firms. The documentary parts make it clear that this is to be taken as a lesson for today on global warming and the environment; for-profit firms are just not to be trusted and must be firmly under the control of scientists or governments who cannot possibly be lobbied by the for-profit firms. Scientists and governments can be trusted, unless they are influenced by for-profit firms. The only reason to include firms in any venture is if they’ve used their money to buy political power that you can’t ignore, or if a project needs more resources than dumb voters are willing to pay for. (Obviously, they think, the best solution is to nationalize everything, but often dumb voters won’t approve that either.)

All this in a story that brags about its scientific accuracy, and that breaks for interviews with “experts. But these are “experts” in Mars and environmental activism, not economics or political economy.  

For the record, as an economist let me say that a plausible reason to include for-profit firms on Mars, and elsewhere, is that they often have better incentives to actually satisfy customers. Yes, that’s a problem on Mars, because other than governments seeking prestige, there are not likely to be enough customers on Mars to satisfy anytime soon, as almost anything desired is much cheaper to make here on Earth. This includes not just exotic places to visit or move, but protection against human extinction.

Yes, things can go badly when corruptible governments subcontract to for-profit firms who lobby them. But that’s hardly a good general reason to dislike for-profit firms. Governments who can be corrupted by lobbying are also generally corruptible and inept in many other ways. Having such governments spend vast sums on prestige projects to impress ignorant voters and foreigners is not generally a good way to get useful stuff done. 

By the way, I’ve also watched the first season of The First, another TV series on Mars colonization. So far the show doesn’t seem much interested in Mars or its related politics, econ, or tech, compared to the personal relation dramas of its main characters. They have not at all explained why anyone is funding this Mars mission. I like its theme music though.

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Dragon Debris?

Apparently the causal path from simple dead matter to an expanding visible civilization is very unlikely. Almost everything that starts along this path is blocked by a great filter, which might be one extremely hard step, or many merely very hard steps. The most likely location of this great filter is that the origin of life is very very hard. Which is good news, because otherwise we’d have to worry at lot about our future, via what fraction of the overall huge filter still lies ahead of us. And if we ever find evidence of life in space that isn’t close to the causal path that led to us, that will be big bad news, and we’ll need to worry a lot more.

One of the more interesting future filter scenarios is a high difficulty of traveling between the stars. As we can easily see across the universe, we know that photons have few problems traveling very long distances. And since stars drift about at great speeds, we know that stars can also travel freely suffering little harm. But we still can’t be sure of the ease of travel for humans, or for the sort of things that our descendants might try to send between the stars. We have collected a few grains of interstellar dust, but still know little about them, and so don’t know how easy was their travel. We do know that most of the universe is made of dark matter and dark energy that we understand quite poorly. So perhaps “Here Be Dragons” lie in wait out there for our scale of interstellar travelers.

Many stars, like ours, are surrounded by a vast cloud of small icy objects. Every once in a while one of these objects falls into a rare orbit where it travels close to its star, and then it becomes a comet with a tail. Even more rarely, one should fall into an orbit that throws it out away from its star (almost always without doing much else to it). Such an object would then travel at the typical star speed between stars, and after billions of years it might perhaps pass near one other star; the chance of two such encounters is very low. And if the space between stars is as mild as it seems, it should arrive looking pretty much as it left.

Astronomers have been waiting for a while to see such an interstellar visitor, and were puzzled to have not yet seen one. They expected it to look like a comet, except traveling a lot faster than do most comets. Well within roughly a year of a new instrument that could see such things better, we’ve finally seen such a visitor in the last few months. It looked like what we expect in some ways. It is traveling at roughly the speed we’d expect, its size is unremarkable, and its color is roughly what we expect from ancient small space objects. But it is suspiciously weird in several other apparently-unrelated ways.

First, its orbit is weird. Its direction of origin is 6 degrees from sun’s motion vector; only one in 365 random directions are closer. And among the travel paths where we could have seen this object, only one in 100 such paths would have traveled closer to the sun than did this one (source: Turner). But one must apparently invoke very strange and unlikely hypotheses to believe these parameters were anything but random. For now, I won’t go there.

Second, the object itself is weird. It does not have a comet tail, and so has apparently lost most of its volatiles like water. If this is typical, it explains why we haven’t seen objects like this before. The object seems to be very elongated, much more than any other natural object we’ve ever seen in our solar system. And it is rotating very fast, so fast that it would fly apart if it were made out of the typical pile of lightly attached rubble. So at some point it experienced an event so dramatic as to melt away its volatiles, melt it into a solid object, stretch it to an extreme, and set it spinning at an extreme rate. After which it drifted for long enough to acquire the usual color of ancient space objects.

This raises the suspicion that it perhaps encountered a dangerous “dragon” between the starts. Making it “dragon debris.” If the timing of this event were random, we should see roughly one a year in the future, and with new better instruments coming online in a few years we should see them even faster. So within a decade we should learn if this first visitor is very unusual, or if we should worry a lot more about travel dangers between the stars.

Added 30Oct2018: The object is even more interesting: it started out at rest wrt galaxy, and seems to be paper thin.

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Imagine A Mars Boom

Most who think they like the future really just like where their favorite stories took place. As a result, much future talk focuses on space, even though prospects for much activity beyond Earth anytime foreseeable seem dim. Even so, consider the following hypothetical, with three key assumptions:

Mars boom: An extremely valuable material (anti-matter? glueballs? negative mass?) is found on Mars, justifying huge economic efforts to extract it, process it, and return it to Earth. Many orgs compete strongly against one another in all of these stages to profit from the Martian boom.

A few top workers: As robots just aren’t yet up to the task, a thousand humans must be sent to and housed on Mars. The cost of this is so great that all trips are one-way, at least for a while, and it is worth paying extra to get the very highest quality workers possible. So Martians are very impressive workers, and Mars is “where the action is” in terms of influencing the future. As slavery is rare on Earth, most all Mars workers must volunteer for the move.

Martians as aliens: Many, perhaps even most, people on Earth see those who live on Mars as aliens, for whom the usual moral rules do not apply – morality is to protect Earthlings only. Such Earth folks are less reluctant to enslave Martians. Martians undergo some changes to their body, and perhaps also to their brain, but when seen in films or tv, or when talked to via (20+min delayed) Skype, Martians act very human.

Okay, now my question for you is: Are most Martians slaves? Are they selected for and trained into being extremely docile and servile?

Slavery might let Martian orgs make Martians work harder, and thereby extract more profit from each worker. But an expectation of being enslaved should make it much harder to attract the very best human workers to volunteer. Many Earth governments may even not allow free Earthlings to volunteer to become enslaved Martians. So my best guess is that in this hypothetical, Martians are free workers, rich and high status celebrities followed and admired by most Earthlings.

I’ve created this Mars scenario as an allegory of my em scenario, because someone I respect recently told me they were persuaded by Bryan Caplan’s claim that ems would be very docile slaves. As with these hypothesized Martians, the em economy would produce enormous wealth and be where the action is, and it would result from competing orgs enticing a thousand or fewer of the most productive humans to volunteer for an expensive one-way trip to become ems. When viewed in virtual reality, or in android bodies, these ems would act very human. While some like Bryan see ems as worth little moral consideration, others disagree.

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Beware General Visible Prey

Charles Stross recently on possible future great filters:

So IO9 ran a piece by George Dvorsky on ways we could wreck the solar system. And then Anders Sandberg responded in depth on the subject of existential risks, asking what conceivable threats have big enough spatial reach to threaten an interplanetary or star-faring civilization. … The implication of an [future great filter] is that it doesn’t specifically work against life, it works against interplanetary colonization. … much as Kessler syndrome could effectively block all access to low Earth orbit as a side-effect of carelessly launching too much space junk. Here are some example scenarios: …

Simplistic warfare: … Today’s boringly old-hat chemical rockets, even in the absence of nuclear warheads, are formidably destructive weapons. … War, or other resource conflicts, within a polity capable of rapid interplanetary or even slow interstellar flight, is a horrible prospect.

Irreducible complexity: I take issue with one of Anders’ assumptions, which is that a multi-planet civilization is … not just … distributed, but it will almost by necessity have fairly self-sufficient habitats that could act as seeds for a new civilization if they survive. … I doubt that we could make a self-sufficient habitat that was capable of maintaining its infrastructure and perpetuating and refreshing its human culture with a population any smaller than high-single-digit millions. … Building robust self-sufficient off-world habitats … is vastly more expensive than building an off-world outpost and shipping rations there, as we do with Antarctica. …

Griefers: … All it takes is one civilization of alien ass-hat griefers who send out just one Von Neumann Probe programmed to replicate, build N-D lasers, and zap any planet showing signs of technological civilization, and the result is a galaxy sterile of interplanetary civilizations until the end of the stelliferous era. (more)

These are indeed scenarios of concern. But I find it hard to see how, by themselves, they could add up to a big future filter. Continue reading "Beware General Visible Prey" »

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Good Job Templeton

Whatever else the Templeton Foundation may have done wrong, they have done very right by funding the research behind two new papers, to appear in the Astrophysical Journal. The first paper reviews what evidence of aliens we should expect to see:

We motivate the \^G infrared search for extraterrestrial civilizations with large energy supplies. We discuss some philosophical difficulties of SETI, and how communication SETI circumvents them. We review “Dysonian SETI”, the search for artifacts of alien civilizations, and find that it is highly complementary to traditional communication SETI; the two together might succeed where either one, alone, has not. We discuss the argument of Hart (1975) that spacefaring life in the Milky Way should be either galaxy-spanning or non-existent, and examine a portion of his argument that we dub the “monocultural fallacy”. We discuss some rebuttals to Hart that invoke sustainability and predict long Galaxy colonization timescales. We find that the maximum Galaxy colonization timescale is actually much shorter than previous work has found (<109 yr), and that many “sustainability” counter-arguments to Hart’s thesis suffer from the monocultural fallacy. We extend Hart’s argument to alien energy supplies, and argue that detectably large energy supplies can plausibly be expected to exist because life has potential for exponential growth until checked by resource or other limitations, and intelligence implies the ability to overcome such limitations. As such, if Hart’s thesis is correct then searches for large alien civilizations in other galaxies may be fruitful; if it is incorrect, then searches for civilizations within the Milky Way are more likely to succeed than Hart argued. We review some past Dysonian SETI efforts, and discuss the promise of new mid-infrared surveys, such as that of WISE. (more)

The second paper describes a plan to look for some key evidence:

We describe the framework and strategy of the \^G infrared search for extraterrestrial civilizations with large energy supplies, which will use the wide-field infrared surveys of WISE and Spitzer to search for these civilizations’ waste heat. We develop a formalism for translating mid-infrared photometry into quantitative upper limits on extraterrestrial energy supplies. We discuss the likely sources of false positives, how dust can and will contaminate our search, and prospects for distinguishing dust from alien waste heat. We argue that galaxy-spanning civilizations may be easier to distinguish from natural sources than circumstellar civilizations (i.e., Dyson spheres), although Gaia will significantly improve our capability to identify the latter. We present a “zeroth order” null result of our search based on the WISE all-sky catalog: we show, for the first time, that Kardashev Type III civilizations (as Kardashev originally defined them) are very rare in the local universe. More sophisticated searches can extend our methodology to smaller waste heat luminosities, and potentially entirely rule out (or detect) both Kardashev Type III civilizations and new physics that allows for unlimited “free” energy generation. (more)

I’ll be quite surprised if they see anything, as I find hard to believe that, if they have existed nearby for a billion years, aliens wouldn’t already be plenty visible in their first result. But the issue is plenty important enough to look carefully anyway.

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Adam Ford & I on Great Filter

Adam Ford interviewed me again, this time on the Great Filter:

We have three main sources of info on existential risks (xrisks):

  1. Inside View Analysis – where we try to use our best theories to reason about particular causal processes.
  2. Earth Track Records – the empirical distribution of related events observed so far on Earth.
  3. The Great Filter – inferences from the fact that the universe looks dead everywhere but here.

These sources are roughly equally informative. #2 suggests xrisks are low, even if high enough to deserve much effort to prevent them. I’d say that most variations on #1 suggest the same. However, #3 suggests xrisks could be very high, which should encourage more xrisk-mitigation efforts.

Ironically most xrisk efforts (of which I’m aware) focus on AI-risk, which can’t explain the great filter. Most analysis efforts also focus on #1, less on #2, and almost none on #3.

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Factory+Files Future

The difficulty of practical interstellar travel is horrendously underestimated. … Known physics will never deposit living people on Earth-like planets around other stars. (more)

That was Donald Brownlee, who said something similar in our film. It occurs to me that skepticism about cryonics and interstellar travel have similar roots, and that understanding this is useful. So let me explain.

Imagine that one tried to take a rock, say this fossil:

Fossil

and put it somewhere on Earth so that it could be found in a million years. Or that one tried to throw this fossil rock so that it would pass close to a particular distant star in a million years. Few would claim that doing so is impossible. Most would accept that these are possible, even if we require that the rock (plus casing) remain largely unchanged, i.e., retain its shape and maybe even most of its embedded DNA snips.

So skepticism about making people last a long time via cryonics, or about getting people to distant stars, is mainly about how people differ from rocks. People are fragile biological systems than slowly degrade with time, and that can be easily disrupted by environmental disturbances. Which justifies some doubt on if the human body can survive long difficult paths in space-time.

So why am I more hopeful? Because there are (at least) two ways to ensure that a certain kind of object exists at certain destination in space-time. One way is to have an object of that kind exist at a prior point in space-time, and then move it from that prior point to the destination. The other way is to build the desired object at the destination. That is, have a spec file that describes the object, and have a factory at the destination follow that spec file to create the object. One factory can make many objects, factories and files can be lighter and hardier than other objects, and you might even be able to make all the particular factories you need from one smaller hardier general factory. Thus it can be much easier to get one factory+files to a distant destination than to get many desired objects there.

Yes, today we don’t have factories that can make humans from a spec file. But if our society continues to grow in size and abilities, it should be able to do the next best thing: make an android emulation of a human from a spec file. And we should be able to make a spec file from a frozen brain plus a generic spec file.

If so, a frozen brain will serve as a temporary spec file, and we will be able to send many people to distant stars by sending just one hardy factory there, and then transmitting lots of spec files. The ability to encode a person in a spec file will make it far easier to send a person to a wide range of places and times in the universe.

See David Brin’s novel Existence for an elaboration on the throwing rocks with files theme.

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Cross Of The Moment Film

In 2002, Jacob Freydont-Attie made the ok movie String Theory (decent camera work & acting, good characters, some compelling interactions, & non-sensical physics mumbo-jumbo). He’s now working on a non-fiction film Cross of the Moment, “on the greater philosophical issues of life on Earth.” He just posted a 24 minute draft of the first of five parts, on the Fermi Question. He interviews myself and Donald Brownlee and Peter D.Ward, authors of the book Rare Earth. The other two were interviewed indoors, I was outdoors. It seems to me that indoors looks better.

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NASA Goddard Talk Monday

This Monday at 3:30p I talk on interstellar colonization at the Engineering Colloquim of NASA Goddard:

Attempts to model interstellar colonization may seem hopelessly compromised by uncertainties regarding the technologies and preferences of advanced civilizations. However, if light speed limits travel speeds and reliability limits travel distances, then a selection effect may eventually determine behavior at the colonization frontier. Making weak assumptions about colonization technology, I use this selection effect to predict colonists’ behavior, including which oases they colonize, how long they stay there, how many seeds they then launch, how fast and far those seeds fly, and how behavior changes with increasing congestion. This colonization model might explain some astrophysical puzzles, predicting lone oases like ours, amid large quiet regions with vast unused resources. (more here; here)

Added: Slides, Audio

I’m also talking on helping now vs. later at the DC Less Wrong Meetup Sunday (tomorrow), 3p in the courtyard of the National Portrait Gallery.

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Financing Starships

A science advisor to the not-entirely-realistic recent movie Gravity said:

Often a story worth telling can fall apart if there is a complete dedication to perfect science. The goal is to make everything seem grounded enough in the physical world that it seems real. So story trumps science every time. (more)

Even the science fiction that tries hardest for realism usually sacrifices it for a better story. It isn’t just that authors make accidental mistakes due to a lack of attention. Quite often, realism gets in the way of the story, because realism conflicts with our tastes in stories. That is, many features we want in stories (like good beating evil) are intrinsically unrealistic.

This is why I think it important to highlight story unrealism, especially the unrealism intrinsic to the stories said to be most realistic. Its not just gotchas to show off how much you know, or teach in the process. Its also to counter the popular illusion that stories are how-to manuals, there to teach us about reality in a fast and fun way.

Many have praised Charlie Stross’s novel Neptune’s Brood, released in July. I also enjoyed it. But economists such as Krugman and Tabarrok have praised its econ realism, and I haven’t found anyone criticizing that. So I guess such criticism is up to me (again). (I have thought about related issues before; see here, here.)

The following quotes give the setting of Neptune’s Brood. (Worry not; I give no spoilers.)
Continue reading "Financing Starships" »

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