Category: Science

Mars in the twenty-second century

Sometime soon, the first astronauts will set foot on Mars. Within our lifetimes, men and women will be living there full-time, and by the end of this century, the first children will be growing up on Mars. As much as possible, I’ve tried to be accurate about what life on Mars might someday be like. Human technology is always full of surprises—science fiction of the last century imagined flying cars, but instead we have computers in our pockets. Someday, all the dangers of Mars will be conquered. But for many, many years, life there will be extremely dangerous.

The Martian atmosphere, which is not only poisonous but colder than Antarctica and many times thinner than the top of Mount Everest, will always be a threat for colonists. In theory, environment suits might have air filters that could convert the carbon dioxide of the atmosphere into breathable oxygen. Unfortunately, it will be a long time before anything like these air filters will be practical enough for everyday use. For a long time to come, Martian colonists will be wearing bulky suits and carrying around oxygen tanks on their backs whenever they go out onto the surface. Someday, though, suit technology will reach the point where even children can wear them safely, and going out on the surface will be no more dangerous than riding in a car today.

Mars doesn’t have a molten core at its center, like Earth, and so doesn’t have a magnetic field. This means compasses won’t work on Mars, but much more importantly, it means solar radiation will be an ever-present danger. Earth’s magnetic field helps redirect charged particles from the Sun away from the surface, and our thicker atmosphere absorbs a lot of the particles that slip through. A person living on the surface of Mars would be exposed to at least ten times the average dose of radiation that a person living on Earth receives. Worse, solar flares and coronal mass ejections from the Sun, which go almost unnoticed on Earth, would be deadly for anyone living on Mars. The first colonies will probably be built underground to protect their inhabitants from radiation. Eventually super-strong transparent domes might cover entire cities, and an artificially-generated magnetic field might protect the entire planet from radiation.

Some of the greatest challenges, however, may be psychological. Panic disorder is a real condition, and anxiety will surely travel with us to Mars. Early colonies will be small and claustrophobic, and colonists there will be cut off from the rest of humanity by a gap of fifty million miles. But, like the millions of people on Earth today who suffer from anxiety attacks, humans on Mars will manage their fears and find ways go about their daily lives. We are a resourceful and adaptable species, and in the end we always find ways to expand what is possible, rather than letting ourselves be defined by our limitations.

Nobody knows yet who will be the first person to walk on Mars, or when that historic day will come. We don’t know exactly what life on Mars will be like. But we can imagine, and we can dream, and we can look forward to the day in the not-too-distant-future when we will watch those first steps on our televisions and cell phones.

And who knows? Maybe you will be that first person. Maybe you will be the one who steps out onto the dusty surface of our sister planet, looks up at the pale blue dot of Earth, and sends back those first words.

We made it.

from the after-after-word dept

SpaceX sticks the landing, again

Okay, so you can’t really see all that much in this video, except for a big white flash and then suddenly there’s a rocket ship sitting there on the landing pad. But holy crap this is cool. For the second time, SpaceX has landed a first-stage rocket on a boat in the middle of the ocean.

I don’t like to be too fanboyish, but it’s hard not to be when it comes to Elon Musk. Between SpaceX, Tesla, and stuff like the HyperLoop, the guy is larger-than-life in all the right ways. I remember reading about Edison and Tesla when I was a kid. I’ll bet if there are still anything resembling ‘books’ when my grandkids grow up, they’ll be reading about Elon Musk.

filed under robert-heinlein-would-be-proud

The Flying Spaghetti Monster is not an acceptable deity in the eyes the US District Court for Nebraska

When I first saw this mentioned over at Ars Technica, my reaction was, oh, hey, another conservative judge deciding that only Judeo-Christian religions are ‘real’. But after reading over the decision, I have to say, the guy has me persuaded.

This is not a question of theology: it is a matter of basic reading comprehension. The FSM Gospel is plainly a work of satire, meant to entertain while making a pointed political statement. To read it as religious doctrine would be little different from grounding a “religious exercise” on any other work of fiction. A prisoner could just as easily read the works of Vonnegut or Heinlein and claim it as his holy book, and demand accommodation of Bokononism or the Church of All Worlds…Of course, there are those who contend—and Cavanaugh is probably among them—that the Bible or the Koran are just as fictional as those books. It is not always an easy line to draw. But there must be a line beyond which a practice is not “religious” simply because a plaintiff labels it as such. The Court concludes that FSMism is on the far side of that line.

If I were to try to argue that I was a “Pastafarian” and entitled to religious protection for it, this argument would have me bowing my head and mumbling an apology for wasting the court’s time. Since I’m certainly aware that FSM is a satirical statement, I can’t claim to at the same time believe in it as a religion.

It’s funny that (if you accept the court’s argument) this puts the Flying Spaghetti Monster and Pastafarianism at a disadvantage to Judeo-Christian religions specifically because of the effectiveness of the parody. If the humor wasn’t quite so broad, it would be much easier to argue that it was ‘believable’. Though I suppose that getting equal protection as a religion is exactly the opposite of what the FSM was created to do–skewer the concept of (and protection of) established religion–and so its creators are probably not too unhappy about the plaintiff losing this case…

Also, it’s hard not to love a judicial opinion which quotes Vonnegut and Heinlein.

filed under equal-protection-from-his-noodly-appendage

Sending microprobes to Alpha Centauri

Apparently Stephen Hawking thinks that we can send interstellar micro-probes to Alpha Centauri. I’m not going to argue physics with the guy, but…wow. The probes themselves aside, we’d need a laser array that could generate 100 gigawatts of power for two minutes. An entire modern nuclear reactor generates 1-3 gigawatts. So you’d need to string together a few dozen of those, and have a way to transmit the power, and then focus the laser, and then hopefully not melting your face off in the process.

I’m all for interstellar exploration, and I suppose could be the most efficient way to get it started. Clearly nobody on the project is thinking that this is going to happen anytime soon, and probably just trying to get it done will generate lots of good technology. The most dangerous bit of it is probably how most sites, despite trying hard to communicate the scale of the proposed project, probably make it seem as if this is something on the scale of, say, the Space Shuttle, or Facebook.

The second most dangerous bit of it is how, if it ever does get built, Stephen Hawking will have the worlds most face-meltingest laser.

filed under revenge-on-grade-school-bullies

Blue Sunsets

So there are a million cool things about Mars, but one of the very coolest is that sunsets on Mars are blue. When the sun starts to set, the sky is a deep red, and the sky around the sun glows a pale blue.

The explanation has to do with wavelengths and dust particles and air density, but does it really matter?

Watch this video and just try to tell me you’re not inspired to write a novel about kids living on Mars who run away and get stranded during a massive solar flare. Except don’t, because that’s what I’m working on.

filed under mars-is-more-awesome-than-you-think