space

Leave no trace

After hoovering up as much data on Jupiter as it can, the Juno probe will ultimately destroy itself, plunging into the giant planet's atmosphere in February 2018. Why not just leave it alone and let it do its thing until it breaks down, like the Opportunity rover, which is still trucking around the surface of Mars 12 years after it landed? To preserve Europa. 

No one is claiming that there's life on Europa, but the chance is significant enough that NASA wants to avoid contaminating it with terran microbes. As a result, Juno's mission includes a self-destruct sequence that will prevent fragments from raining down on the Jovian moon. The fact that microbes from Earth are potentially hardy enough to survive being frozen across space for five years, then baked in Jupiter's radiation, is a testament to the fact that something could be alive under the crust of Europa's frozen sea. 

NASA has an Office of Planetary Protection ("all of the planets, all of the time") that presumably guides US policy on the preservation of other bodies in our solar system. This isn't intended as an insult, but their website looks like I might have designed in 1999.

I can only imagine what will happen when global capitalism drives the tendrils of exploration/exploitation beyond the moon, spearheaded by institutions with little interest in keeping Europa microbe-free if it requires paying for one more ounce of rocket fuel. 

Real is a thing that happens to you

Is our universe a vast simulation, the work of an intelligence beyond our comprehension? What at first sounds like the premise of a high concept work of science fiction is in fact a real theory proposed by some very clever thinkers. 

Philosopher Nick Bostrom, director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, postulates that we must live in one of three realities:

  • No technological civilization in the universe survives to the point where it achieves the ability to simulate reality (see the Fermi Paradox)
  • Technologically mature civilizations do not create simulations, whether for ethical reasons or some other limitation
  • Civilizations do create simulations, and the overwhelming likelihood is that humanity is living in one

Read more, and watch interviews with writer David Brin and others, at Space.com

Type 2 Civilization

This is getting some press: unusual fluctuations of radiation from the distant star KIC 8462852 are consistent with what might be seen from a Dyson Sphere, a hypothetical structure of the type that might be built by an alien Type 2 Civilization. Read about it in Universe Today. Have we discovered evidence of extra-terrestrial construction? The actual likelihood seems vanishingly remote... but still, awesome. KIC 8462852 is over 1,400 light years away, meaning that communication would require time spans greater than the duration of most human civilizations, much less human lifespan.

It's interesting to speculate what kind of changes we might see in humanity if we ended up with compelling, yet arguable evidence that we were not the only intelligent life in the universe. Particularly if we find ourselves out of communication range. Not alone... yet, inevitably, still alone.

The shimmering red presence

I saw a bumper sticker that neatly summarized the impulse to action on climate change: There is no planet B

Recently, though there's been a flicker of interest, spurred by the confluence of the discovery of liquid water on Mars, a fictional tale of a marooned astronaut, and the presence of Elon Musk, in the idea that we might someday flee to Mars, leaving behind the hoarder hellhole we've made of the Earth. 

How hard could it be to terraform Mars, if we really bent our will/money to the task? Before you answer, consider that the survival of our species (or at least, the survival of a technological society) might be at stake. Does that open up your wallets, humanity?

Wait, before you answer, consider this: Why Don't We Just Terraform Earth?

Get your red hot science fiction environments here!

How did I make it this far without knowing that there's a dwarf planet, Ceres, between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter? 

Well, there is, and in June, NASA's Dawn spacecraft did a flyby (it will perform a total of four, with the final one bringing it the closest, in January). Ceres looks barren and cratered as the surface of the moon. But...

There were odd white areas in the bottoms of some craters, which scientists now believe harbor "bubbles of atmosphere" sublimating off into space. Based on its density, we know Ceres contains water. Most of it is in the form of ice, but beneath the surface there may be liquid water, and the possibility of life. 

So there you go, anyone who's looking for the next exotic environment in which to set your next sci-fi tale: a delicate bubble of atmosphere cradled within a crater on an otherwise barren planet. Oh, and Ceres was the goddess of agriculture. I'm sure you can do something cool with that.