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Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Tricky Ethics of Intergalactic Colonization


The Tricky Ethics of Intergalactic Colonization

Leif Podhajsky

Zheng He! Zheng He! Is there a better icon for interstellar voyaging?
Between 1405 and 1433, Zheng set out from China on massive naval expeditions that reached as far as Mecca and Mombasa, journeys with more than 300 vessels and 28,000 crew, excursions far bigger and longer than those of Columbus more than a half century later. Staggering in price, formidable in technical sophistication, unprecedented in level of national commitment—Zheng’s voyages remain the closest functional equivalent to the cost, effort, and risk required to travel into deep space. Trying to picture what settling other planets might entail? One place to look is 15th-century China.

Zheng was an unlikely candidate for a life of far-flung adventure. At the time of his birth, China was torn by war between the Yuan dynasty and surging Ming rebels. Zheng was born into a Muslim family in the remote Yunnan province, then a battleground between Yuan and Ming. When he was about 10, invading Ming forces captured him and slaughtered most of his family. The boy was castrated. Forced to serve the Ming crown prince, Zheng eventually became his confidant and trusted adviser. After the last Yuan emperor fled in 1368, Zheng became part of an elite group of eunuch adventurers and troubleshooters at the Ming court in Beijing.

The Ming government backed Zheng for decades. Seven times the emperor arrogantly overruled his accountants and summoned the vast amounts of material necessary to provision thousands of people on years-long voyages. Ultimately, Zheng took the Ming banner as far as West Africa and the Middle East. These areas were poorer than China, but they were thriving and productive. Alas, traveling to Africa to buy its iron, no matter how high the quality, would be like driving a hundred miles to pick up a gallon of exceptionally good milk—not a sensible use of time, money, or effort. In 1433, the voyages abruptly ceased; Ming bureaucrats had finally convinced the elite that they didn’t make economic sense.

Zheng He’s ship undertook one of mankind’s greatest explorations into the unknown. Chris Philpot

If we traveled to other worlds, could we avoid the Zheng He problem? Back in 1978, the Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman, a science fiction fan, playfully laid out the basic economics of interstellar trade. To justify the cost, Krugman pointed out, would-be starfarers must bring back something worth more than what they would have made by putting the same money in an interest-bearing account and staying on Earth. Going to distant planets, in other words, means fighting one of the greatest forces in human affairs: compound interest.
Today, the cheapest rockets available charge a little less than $1,000 to send 1 pound of material into low-earth orbit. Sending that pound to other planets, let alone the stars, would cost vastly more. To be sure, time and expense might be reduced by building space elevators and (should the laws of physics permit) taking advantage of handy wormholes. But the lesson of Zheng He remains: Exploration of distant lands will be a short-lived venture unless it yields something really, really valuable.

If future space voyagers decided to exploit a barren, lifeless planet, few would be upset. But such an endeavor is unlikely. As far as we know, a world without life would be a world without oxygen, a stable climate, or the possibility of growing food. Barring the discovery of some immensely valuable substance that doesn’t exist on Earth, there would be no reason to set up shop there, let alone despoil it. A world with functioning ecosystems would be more attractive. But if local species were valuable, it would be more sensible to carry back to Earth a snippet of their DNA than whole animals. The entire Alien series can be considered as a proof by negative example of this assertion.

The real jackpot, of course, would be finding a nonhuman civilization: a planetful of new ideas, techniques, and expression. Here the temptation to interact—that is, to intervene—would be enormous. China again provides an example. Travel costs today are low compared to those in the 15th century. West Africa, meanwhile, is still full of valuable resources, products, and land, so Chinese ships are again going to Africa. In the past decade, the nation has shipped in a million or more migrants. Buying and leasing swathes of land to grow food for export to the homeland, grabbing deals to extract minerals, locking up local water supplies—the newcomers have been throwing their weight around. Even though the Chinese have built many badly needed roads, bridges, and power plants, their moves have created a furor. “Landgrab!” cry African newspapers. Chinese workers have been attacked in Zambia, Cameroon, Niger, Sudan, and Angola.

History suggests that if anything of value is involved, contacts between distant societies are fraught. Think of Spain and the Aztecs. Cortés could have traded peacefully for Aztec gold and silver, but that would have involved the expense of ferrying over goods from Spain for barter. Conquest was more attractive (economically, if not morally), and greatly abetted by an epidemic of smallpox introduced to the Aztecs by the Spaniards. Stuck at the end of a trillion-mile supply chain, voyagers from Earth might be less likely to replicate the triumph of Cortés than the fates of Thomas Drummond and William Paterson. The two men were leaders of Scotland’s biggest mission to the Americas: the attempt to implant some 2,500 highlanders in Panama starting in 1698. A grandiose effort for a poor country, the expedition sucked up as much as half of the nation’s available investment capital. It was that rarest of events, an unmitigated disaster. The locals in Panama weren’t interested in trade. Unable to grow food in the unfamiliar ecosystem and beset by diseases they had no experience with, the Scots died by the hundreds. Drummond vanished; Paterson lost his wife. As the few survivors limped back to Edinburgh in 1700, Scotland’s economy collapsed, forcing it to merge with England.

Is interstellar travel too risky and economically irrational ever to happen? Turn again to Zheng He. His voyages were sponsored by the brutally ambitious emperor, who ignored his flunkies’ complaints about the cost. Key to most great leaps is at least one overconfident investor; in 15th-century Asia, the emperor played that role. Our society, vastly richer than early-modern China, has no lack of would-be successors. Look at the billionaires jumping into commercial spaceflight: Jeff Bezos with Blue Origin, Richard Branson with Virgin Galactic, Naveen Jain with Moon Express, Elon Musk with SpaceX. Eventually humankind will push into space no matter what the expected cost-benefit ratio. Those first adventurers will have one advantage over their early-modern predecessors. Future starfarers will know about Zheng, Cortés, Drummond, and Paterson. They will understand that the outbound voyage, no matter how complicated and expensive, is only the beginning.

Charles C. Mann (charlesmann.org) is the author of 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Kardashev Scale – Type I, II, III, IV & V Civilization

 From Quarks to Quasars

The Kardashev Scale – Type I, II, III, IV & V Civilization


Theorists assert that, as a civilization grows larger and becomes more advanced, its energy demands will increase rapidly due to its population growth and the energy requirements of its various machines. With this in mind, the Kardashev scale was developed as a way of measuring a civilization’s technological advancement based upon how much usable energy it has at its disposal.

Credit: Chris Cold
Credit: Chris Cold

The scale was originally designed in 1964 by the Russian astrophysicist,  Nikolai Kardashev (who was looking for signs of extraterrestrial life within cosmic signals). It has 3 base classes, each with an energy disposal level: Type I (10¹⁶W), Type II (10²⁶W), and Type III (10³⁶W). . Other astronomers have extended the scale to Type IV (10⁴⁶W) and Type V (the energy available to this kind of civilization would equal that of all energy available in not just our universe, but in all universes and in all time-lines). These additions consider both energy access as well as the amount of knowledge the civilizations have access to.
Firstly, it is important to note that the human race is not even on this scale yet. Since we still sustain our energy needs from dead plants and animals, here on Earth, we are a lowly Type 0 civilization (and we have a LONG way to go before being promoted to a type I civilization). The famous physicist Michio Kaku believes we will reach Type I in 100 – 200 years time. But what does each of these categories actually stand for in literal terms?

A Type I designation is a given to species who have been able to harness all the energy that is available from a neighboring star, gathering and storing it to meet the energy demands of a growing population. This means that we would need to boost our current energy production over 100,000 times to reach this status. However, being able to harness all Earth’s energy would also mean that we could have control over all natural forces. Human beings could control volcanoes, the weather, and even earthquakes! (At least, that is the idea.) These kinds of feats are hard to believe, but compared to the advances that may still be to come, these are just basic and primitive levels of control (it’s absolutely nothing compared to the capabilities of societies with higher rankings).

Image Credit: Slawek Wojtowicz
A Dyson Sphere (Credit: Slawek Wojtowicz)

The next step up – a Type II civilization – can harness the power of their entire star (not merely transforming starlight into energy, but controlling the star). Several methods for this have been proposed. The most popular of which is the hypothetical ‘Dyson Sphere.’ This device, if you want to call it that, would encompass every single inch of the star, gathering most (if not all) of its energy output and transferring it to a planet for later use. Alternatively, if fusion power (the mechanism that powers stars) had been mastered by the race, a reactor on a truly immense scale could be used to satisfy their needs. Nearby gas giants can be utilized for their hydrogen, slowly drained of life by an orbiting reactor.

What would this much energy mean for a species? Well, nothing known to science could wipe out a Type II civilization. Take, for instance, if humans survived long enough to reach this status, and a moon sized object entered our solar system on a collision course with our little blue planet–we’d have the ability to vaporize it out of existence. Or if we had time, we could move our planet out of the way, completely dodging it. But let’s say we didn’t want to move Earth… are there any other options? Well yes, because we’d have the capability to move Jupiter, or another planet of our choice, into the way – pretty cool, right?

A Cyborg (Credit: Justin Lee)
A Cyborg (Credit: Justin Lee)

So we’ve gone from having control over a planet, to a star, which has resulted in us harboring enough “disposable” energy to essentially make our civilization immune to extinction. But now, onto Type III, where a species then becomes galactic traversers with knowledge of everything having to do with energy, resulting in them becoming a master race.  In terms of humans, hundreds of thousands of years of evolution – both biological and mechanical – may result in the inhabitants of this type III civilization being incredibly different from the human race as we know it. These may be cyborgs (or cybernetic organism, beings both biological and robotic), with the descendants of regular humans being a sub-species among the now-highly advanced society. These wholly biological humans would likely be seen as being disabled, inferior, or unevolved by their cybernetic counterparts.

At this stage, we would have developed colonies of robots that are capable of ‘self replication’; their population may increase into the millions as they spread out across the galaxy, colonizing star after star. And these being might build Dyson Spheres to encapsulate each one, creating a huge network that would carry energy back to the home planet. But stretching over the galaxy in such a manner would face several problems; namely, the species would be constrained by the laws of physics. Particularly, light-speed travel. That is, unless they develop a working warp drive, or use that immaculate energy cache to master wormhole teleportation (two things that remain theoretical for the time being), they can only get so far.

An artist rendering of such a civilization (Credit: Sid Meier's Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword)
An artist rendering of such a civilization (Credit: Sid Meier’s Civilization IV)

Kardashev believed a Type IV civilization was ‘too’ advanced and didn’t go beyond Type III on his scale. He thought that, surely, this would be the extent of any species’ ability. Many think so, but a few believe there is a further level that could be achieved. (I mean, surely there is a limit?) Type IV civilizations would almost be able to harness the energy content of the entire universe and with that, they could traverse the accelerating expansion of space (furthermore, advance races of these species may live inside supermassive black holes). To previous methods of generating energy, these kinds of feats are considered impossible. A Type IV civilization would need to tap into energy sources unknown to us using strange, or currently unknown, laws of physics.

Type V. 

Yes, Type V might just be the next possible advancement to such a civilization. Here beings would be like gods, having the knowledge to manipulate the universe as they please. Now, as I said, humans are a very, very long way from ever reaching anything like this. But it’s not to say that it cannot be achieved as long as we take care of Earth and each other. To do so, the first step is to preserve our tiny home, extinguish war, and continue to support scientific advances and discoveries.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Rocket Explosion Prompts Doubts about Commercial Spaceflight


Rocket Explosion Prompts Doubts about Commercial Spaceflight


This week’s fiery failure of Orbital Sciences’s Antares rocket has some wondering if the company has the right stuff to support NASA’s goal to outsource orbital flights 

An Antares rocket suffers a catastrophic anomaly shortly after launch.

The Orbital Sciences Corporation's Antares rocket suffers a catastrophic anomaly seconds after lifting off from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on October 28. 2014. The rocket and the uncrewed Cygnus spacecraft it carried were on a resupply mission to the International Space Station.
Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky
When, seconds after liftoff on October 28, an Antares rocket built by the Orbital Sciences Corp. fell back and exploded over its launch pad at a NASA facility in Wallops Island, Va., much more than its payload of small satellites and International Space Station cargo may have been lost.

The rocket did not carry a crew, and no one was injured, but damage to the surrounding launch infrastructure was significant. A cursory inspection revealed shattered windows, imploded doors and broken equipment around the launch pad that will require extensive repairs. How much damage has been dealt to Orbital Sciences’s reputation, and perhaps even NASA’s quest to outsource orbital flights, is less certain.

Orbital Sciences is one of two companies NASA now relies on to fly supplies to the space station. Four previous Antares flights, including three to the station, had launched successfully, and five resupply flights remain in the company’s $1.9-billion NASA contract. Orbital Sciences’ stock price has fallen by some 15 percent in recent days and the rocket mishap potentially complicates its planned merger with another aerospace company, Alliant Techsystems. “This is a big problem for NASA,” says Roger Handberg, a space policy expert at the University of Central Florida. “They are now dependent on the commercial sector to lift payloads to the space station, and their own rocket, the Space Launch System, is at least three years out and is intended for other purposes. So what happens if Orbital Sciences can’t get its rockets fixed? Then what do you do?”

The space agency does have some options. NASA officials said the station’s crew was in no danger of running out of supplies for several months, and on Wednesday a Russian Soyuz rocket launched a resupply mission that docked with the station to deliver even more. SpaceX, the other company NASA uses to resupply the station, is slated to launch its fourth delivery in December and has eight more scheduled. Orbital Sciences’s next Antares launch, previously set for April, is likely to be delayed for several months.

According to John Logsdon, a space policy expert at The George Washington University, if Orbital cannot return its Antares rockets to flight in time to fulfill the remaining resupply missions in its contract, NASA could buy additional flights from Russia—or SpaceX, if the company proves to have sufficient “surge capacity.” In “extreme cases,” Logsdon says, NASA could even buy launches from the space agencies of Europe, India or Japan. “This just reinforces NASA’s good judgment in having two providers, both Orbital and SpaceX,” says Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry association. If Orbital was the only provider, there might be a six-month or even a year before a return to flight. But SpaceX looks ready and will probably launch [its next resupply mission] in early December, so this redundant system will work.”

This is not Orbital Sciences’s first high-profile launch failure. In 2009 a malfunction in the fairing separation of its Taurus XL rocket destroyed NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory satellite; in 2011 a similar problem doomed NASA’s Glory spacecraft. Even so, in the aftermath of the Antares failure a variety of NASA officials, congressional representatives and senators, and industry experts have issued statements in support of Orbital Sciences and the company’s ongoing service to the space agency.

The cause of this latest failure is not yet known but investigators will be closely examining the Antares rocket’s twin main engines as a possible culprit. Russia designed and built hundreds of the liquid-fueled engines in the late 1960s and early 1970s for a giant rocket to send cosmonauts to the moon but shelved them after NASA’s successful Apollo missions. An American company, Aerojet Rocketdyne, purchased many of the engines in the late 1990s, refurbishing them and offering them to private companies. Orbital Sciences bought 20, some of which were discarded after test-firings revealed flaws.

In a conference call with investors, Orbital Sciences’s CEO David Thompson said that if the Russian main engines were found to have contributed to the accident, the company could attempt to accelerate the estimated two-year development time for an already planned replacement engine.

The fact that Orbital Sciences chose to purchase the old Russian engines for Antares, Logsdon says, “is symptomatic of the fact that the United States has underinvested in its space program and failed to develop a modern propulsion engine.” The Atlas 5, a workhorse U.S. rocket, also uses Russian engines that, albeit newly manufactured, were designed in the 1960s. Another American rocket, the Delta 4, uses domestic-built engines designed in the early 2000s. These Delta 4 engines were the sole large liquid-fueled engines designed in the U.S. since the 1970s until the recent debut of SpaceX’s all-American engines, which the company designs and builds in-house.

The gap in U.S. engine development, Handberg says, was a product of wishful thinking in a post–cold war world. “We’re keeping Russian technologists working, building these things, but we’re not doing the same for ourselves. We can do better, obviously, since the Deltas are flying and SpaceX is building engines. We have the technology and the people, but we don’t seem to have much political will.”

According to Lori Garver, a former NASA deputy administrator who helped mastermind the agency’s outsourcing strategy, political support for more commercial space development is on the upswing, particularly as NASA ramps up its efforts to use private companies not only to transport cargo to the space station, but also crew. In September the agency revealed its selection of SpaceX as well as the aerospace giant Boeing to each ferry astronauts to the space station in coming years. “There are just so many people supporting commercial space now,” Garver says. “It’s really seen as the Russians versus American companies like Boeing and SpaceX. I don’t think there’s a single member of Congress who would vote for the Russians in that matchup.”