Communion Of Dreams


This is not a drill:

An international team of scientists from the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is investigating mysterious signal spikes emitting from a 6.3-billion-year-old star in the constellation Hercules—95 light years away from Earth. The implications are extraordinary and point to the possibility of a civilization far more advanced than our own.

The unusual signal was originally detected on May 15, 2015, by the Russian Academy of Science-operated RATAN-600 radio telescope in Zelenchukskaya, Russia, but was kept secret from the international community. Interstellar space reporter Paul Gilster broke the story after the researchers quietly circulated a paper announcing the detection of “a strong signal in the direction of HD164595.”


Even if it is a signal directly beamed at us, it would require a Kardashev Type I civilization (about 200 years beyond where Earth is currently). If it is just beaming off in all directions, it’s another whole magnitude of power — about a Kardashev Type II.


Yeah, I’d say it warrants paying attention to.


Jim Downey

“Uh, he’s already got one, you see.”

Happy 25th Anniversary to the Hubble Space Telescope, which has rightly been called one of the most important scientific tools in human history. It has brought the cosmos closer to us, just as it has helped to drive home an understanding of precisely how far away those twinkling lights in the sky actually are … and connected to that, just how old our universe is:

The depth of Hubble’s data, however, has touched or rewritten nearly every area of astrophysics. Ever since the discovery of the expanding universe in the 1920s, astronomers had struggled with the rate of expansion and what it means. The so-called Hubble constant, the universal rate of expansion, was much in doubt, with two factions arguing very different conclusions from the data. The Hubble constant is also inversely proportional to the age of the universe, another key holy grail of science. One of the primary goals of Hubble was to measure the Hubble constant accurately, using a variety of distance indicators, and by the turn of the 21st century, this helped define a relatively accurate Hubble constant of 72±8 and an age of the universe, which the more recent European Planck satellite has refined further to 13.8±0.04 billion years.


It’s an amazing piece of technology.

But I can’t help remembering that even as amazing as it is, a few years ago it was revealed that it was considered so … obsolete … that US spy agencies had just given NASA two other surplus Hubble-type instruments they no longer wanted to bother to store. As I noted at the time:

…we’ve just found out that what we thought was at the limits of our technology is so obsolete that it can be handed off as so much surplus junk. And the implication is that while NASA is currently without the means to launch and service something like Hubble, that there are plenty other agencies within our government which are not so inconvenienced.


Which brings me around to the title of this blog post. Monty Python fans may recognize it from this scene in the Holy Grail:

Which I just happened to watch this week, and snickered over, remembering the news item about the HST from 2012. Though of course, in this case I hope that the National Reconnaissance Office wasn’t *quite* so taunting of NASA …


Jim Downey

Something else?
August 2, 2008, 8:28 am
Filed under: Bad Astronomy, Daily Kos, Mars, NASA, Phil Plait, Predictions, Press, Science, Space, Universe Today

You undoubtedly heard that the Phoenix Mars Lander this week confirmed the existence of water ice at the location of the lander. News, yes, but as others have noted, scientists have had little doubt that there was water ice on Mars for quite some time.

However . . .

. . . what if there’s something else going on that will be much more interesting news?

The White House is Briefed: Phoenix About to Announce “Potential For Life” on Mars

It would appear that the US President has been briefed by Phoenix scientists about the discovery of something more “provocative” than the discovery of water existing on the Martian surface. This news comes just as the Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer (TEGA) confirmed experimental evidence for the existence of water in the Mars regolith on Thursday. Whilst NASA scientists are not claiming that life once existed on the Red Planet’s surface, new data appears to indicate the “potential for life” more conclusively than the TEGA water results. Apparently these new results are being kept under wraps until further, more detailed analysis can be carried out, but we are assured that this announcement will be huge

So why is there all this secrecy? According to scientists in communication with Aviation Week & Space Technology, the next big discovery will need to be mulled over for a while before it is announced to the world. In fact, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory science team for the MECA wet-chemistry instrument that made these undisclosed findings were kept out of the July 31st news conference (confirming water) so additional analysis could be carried out, avoiding any questions that may have revealed their preliminary results. They have also made the decision to discuss the results with the Bush Administration’s Presidential Science Advisor’s office before a press conference between mid-August and early September.

And from the Aviation Week article:

White House Briefed On Potential For Mars Life

The White House has been alerted by NASA about plans to make an announcement soon on major new Phoenix lander discoveries concerning the “potential for life” on Mars, scientists tell Aviation Week & Space Technology.

Sources say the new data do not indicate the discovery of existing or past life on Mars. Rather the data relate to habitability–the “potential” for Mars to support life–at the Phoenix arctic landing site, sources say.

The data are much more complex than results related NASA’s July 31 announcement that Phoenix has confirmed the presence of water ice at the site.

I can understand the desire to be much more certain of their results before making an official announcement. Remember the debacle of the Martian Meteorite which purportedly contained evidence of fossilized bacteria? That debate is *still* going on, in large part because there are legitimate questions of how to understand the data. No one at NASA, or JPL, or anywhere else is going to want to overstate the results this time around.

So, is there life on Mars? Maybe. I’d guess likely, given all that we know about the planet. But it costs me nothing to make such a statement – scientists with reputations on the line are understandably going to be much more careful in making that case. So, let’s wait and see what the evidence shows.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to Daily Kos.)

The one thing you know.

There is one thing, absolutely, that you know – but most people don’t really believe it. That you are alive, and that you are going to die.

“Wait!” you say, “That’s two things!”

No, it’s not. Life and death are two aspects of the same thing. It is the fundamental duality of our nature. Now, the first part of that equation is generally accepted, but the second part is widely denied – hence the desire to split it into two separate items.

But it hasn’t always been like this. Most of human history, people have understood the connection – they were familiar and comfortable with death (even if it wasn’t to be desired). I’d even go so far as to say that much of the world today is still this way. It is really only in the last couple-three generations that those in the richer countries have lost a day-to-day connection with death.

Now, I lost my parents in my early adolescence, one to violence and the other to accident. I came to understand death, and mortality, just at the time when my world view was being shaped, just as I was developing the ability to understand the world in abstract terms. This made me different than most of my contemporaries, though more like how most humans have existed through history. Even through my crazy teen years I never once thought that I would live forever – I had no illusions that death could come suddenly and unexpectedly, and that it would eventually come no matter what I might try to do to postpone it. And while most people come to eventually accept death intellectually, I think that without experiencing it as part of your understanding of the world, you tend to never really internalize it. The more people live with death – whether because of growing up with it, or being immersed in it due to war or disaster – the more they tend to understand and accept it. In insulating ourselves, and our children, from the experience of real death, I think we have cheated ourselves of an understanding of it.

And those things we do not understand – in our gut – we fear. And too often, those things we fear, we deny.

OK, so what am I going on about, talking about death here on this nice, bright, pleasant (but a bit cold) Saturday morning?

This: Universe Today ran a piece a couple of days ago about a proposal by Jim McLane, a NASA engineer of over 20 years who now works for a private engineering firm, to do a one-person, one-way trip to Mars. From the article:

A return to the “get it done” attitude of the 1960’s and a goal of a manned landing within a short time frame, like Apollo, is the only way we’ll get to Mars, McLane believes. Additionally, a no-return, solo mission solves many of the problems currently facing a round-trip, multiple person crew.

“When we eliminate the need to launch off Mars, we remove the mission’s most daunting obstacle,” said McLane. And because of a small crew size, the spacecraft could be smaller and the need for consumables and supplies would be decreased, making the mission cheaper and less complicated.

While some might classify this as a suicide mission, McLane feels the concept is completely logical.

“There would be tremendous risk, yes,” said McLane, “but I don’t think that’s guaranteed any more than you would say climbing a mountain alone is a suicide mission. People do dangerous things all the time, and this would be something really unique, to go to Mars. I don’t think there would be any shortage of people willing to volunteer for the mission. Lindbergh was someone who was willing to risk everything because it was worth it. I don’t think it will be hard to find another Lindbergh to go to Mars. That will be the easiest part of this whole program.”

Now, some variation of this idea has been kicked around previously, even going back to the early days of thinking about getting someone to the Moon. McLane is to be credited with pushing the idea, but it isn’t really original. I’ve seen variations of the idea in SF as well.

Read the column. There is some fudging about whether or not this is really a suicide trip, or whether future tech would allow for the eventual return of the participant, or that this first person would be the initial colonist for an outpost.

But what I found particularly interesting – and insightful – were the attitudes displayed in the extensive comments (almost 200 at the time I am writing this). You only need to sample these to find out that a lot of people are saying that it would be just horrid to “condemn someone to die” for a pointless trip to Mars.

Folks, here’s a reminder: we’re all already condemned to die. Only the timing and manner of our death is unknown.

Plenty of people do things that they know will carry a high risk of death. Some do it for a thrill – there is a decided adrenalin rush in thinking you are going to die (and I think that this explains the popularity of both horror flicks and various games where ‘death’ is a possibility). But for those who understand death, they engage in these risks with an acceptance that while death may come to them, the goal is still worthy. They might be misguided, or misinformed, miscalculating either the amount of risk or the worthiness of the goal. But they are nonetheless making a choice that is not reflected out of fear or ignorance of death – rather, it is saying that they think that the possible timing and manner of their death is worth changing for the goal.

Because that is all you are actually doing when you take any kind of additional risk: saying, effectively, that you are willing to sacrifice some additional time living. You are *not* saying that you are willing to accept non-existence versus existence.  We are not “immortal unless killed” – we are going to die, sooner or later, in the fullness of time.  Get that in your head, and then deciding to do something like take a one-way ticket to Mars doesn’t seem so daunting.

Jim Downey

(Via MeFi.  Cross-posted to UTI.)