Tag: Space

The U.S. Military Wants to Build Space Lasers

Othman Mekhloufi | @othmanmekhloufi

The Pentagon has asked for $304 million in the 2020 budget to fund research and development for space-based lasers, neutral particle beams, and advanced missile defense. DefenseOne reported that two studies are currently being conducted by American defense officials regarding these space-based weapons. These two studies aim to develop a space-based weapon capable of disabling enemy ballistic missiles moments after launch.

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It is the Best of Times, it is the Worst of Times

“This illustration depicts NASA’s exoplanet hunter, the Kepler space telescope. The agency announced on Oct. 30, 2018, that Kepler has run out of fuel and is being retired within its current and safe orbit, away from Earth. Kepler leaves a legacy of more than 2,600 exoplanet discoveries.” Credits: NASA/Wendy Stenzel.

Craig Axford | United States

 We live in an age of discovery far beyond any other our species has experienced so far, yet we hardly seem to even notice. We live in an era of staggering loss, but we seem paralyzed by the immensity of the problem. Had Charles Dickens foreseen the early 21st century, he may very well have reconsidered his opening line in A Tale of Two Cities.

Over this past week, two news stories drove home the point that we’re living in an extraordinary time. The first broke on October 29th. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) announced the results of a report indicating that between 1970 and 2014, global wildlife populations had declined by a staggering 60%. Even if their estimates are off by half, a 30% decline over such a relatively brief period would still be alarming.

The second story, coming just one day after the first, was NASA’s announcement that its Kepler space telescope had run out of fuel and would no longer be continuing its stunningly successful search for exoplanets. NASA’s Kepler had discovered more than 2,600 planets orbiting other worlds during its lifetime, further dislocating humanity from its perceived place at the center of the universe. By revealing “that 20 to 50 percent of the stars visible in the night sky are likely to have small, possibly rocky, planets similar in size to Earth, and located within the habitable zone of their parent stars”, NASA’s Kepler seems to support those convinced that we are unlikely to be the only place in the universe where life has emerged.

The tension these two stories represent stirs something deep within me, and not just because they arrived within 24 hours of each other. Because of their coincidental relationship to my own personal arrival on this planet, they each, in their own way, reflect the seemingly conflicting currents of history that have become increasingly evident with age.

 I was born just one month before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the Moon. I also entered this world just a few months before the WWF’s baseline year of 1970. So the 60% decline in wildlife populations and the nearly 28,000% increase in the number of known planets discovered during my lifetime is jarring, to say the least.

 As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m not fond of adopting either optimism or pessimism as default outlooks. Going through life either perpetually cheerful or gloomy seems like avoiding confronting the world on its own terms, even if an often unconscious one. Even terrible news for us is good news for somebody. If you and bunch of your coworkers get laid off, odds are the company’s shareholders are happy. Even a corpse can be a reason to celebrate if you’re a bacteria or a vulture.

 I’m also not too keen on the way we often describe ourselves as a species. We tend to point to our impact upon the planet as though it was an indication either of genius or stupidity, leaving little room for the vast landscape of complexity and nuance that lies between these two extreme assessments. It’s just trade-offs all the way down.

As the Kepler telescope and all the other probes we’ve sent into space demonstrate, we aren’t idiots. That said, as the WWF study reminds us, scaling up our civilization to this point has also too often been an ad hoc operation that fails to consider all the possible consequences of our actions or quickly correct for them once those costs have become clear.

The progress paradox refers to a curious phenomenon that social scientists have documented over and over again: that there is often an inverse relationship between objective improvements in human well-being and people’s reported overall happiness. While those living in extreme poverty will report significant gains in personal life satisfaction following increases in income and access to resources, these gains don’t continue to follow a linear trajectory as income continues to grow. Instead, people’s happiness growth curve begins to flatten once their basic needs are satisfied. For many living in the wealthiest nations on the planet, they have even take a U-turn.

In a recent article published in the October 2018 issue of Science, researchers Carol Graham, Kate Laffan, and Sergio Pinto cite both the United States and China as strong examples of the progress paradox. “The United States has one of the wealthiest economies in the world,” the authors state, “yet life expectancy is falling owing to deaths driven by suicides and drug and alcohol overdose. This particularly affects Caucasians with less than a college education.”

In China, which “is perhaps the most successful example of rapid growth and poverty reduction in modern history,” with GDP increasing “fourfold between 1990 and 2005” and life expectancy during the same period skyrocketing by more than 6 years, life satisfaction none-the-less dropped significantly as the nation’s middle class ballooned and overall health improved. Graham, Lafan, and Pinto report that there too “suicide increased, reaching one of the highest rates in the world.”

In China’s case, however, it wasn’t those lacking an education but those with one that was “the unhappiest cohorts” surveyed. While they “benefited from the growing economy,” they also had to endure “long working hours and a lack of sleep and leisure time.”

It’s difficult to appreciate all the new planets being unveiled by instruments like the Kepler space telescope when our lives here on Earth don’t even allow us to get enough sleep. Furthermore, all our city lights are blocking out the stars that our ancestors previously enjoyed: stars that we can no longer see without first traveling great distances deep into the heart of one of the few remaining desolate landscapes large enough for us to escape the nearly omnipresent urban glow.

This rapid scaling up of our civilization without regard to its toll on the individual psyche is also happening without much regard to its toll on nature as a whole. Our inability to find the time to spend even just a few hours each week outside smelling the roses, let alone spending a leisurely weekend in the woods now and then, is directly connected to our failure to find the political will to protect the environment upon which all life, including our own, depends.

In his book On Trails, the Canadian author Robert Moor writes “We can travel at the speed of sound and transmit information at the speed of light, but deep human connection still cannot move faster than the comparatively lichenous rate at which trust can grow.” As with individual connections to one another, so it is with connections to our wider world. Slowing down enough to observe and build a relationship with the earth can only happen at a “lichenous rate”.

We cannot continue to pull ourselves out toward the stars and toward an ecological crash simultaneously. Sooner or later the lights will need to be dimmed not only for survival’s sake but so that our children can again see what it is we are reaching for. Reaching into the heavens can sustain our spirits and bring us the wisdom we need to carry on, but only if we take the time to look at what we’re finding there. Ultimately, even our loftiest achievements are still grounded here on Planet Earth.

Follow Craig on Twitter or read him at Medium.com

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India Seeks to Power the World with Lunar Helium-3

By Ryan Lau | @agorisms

In recent years, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has made tremendous progress. Among other things, they have developed cryogenic engines and had numerous successful rocket liftoffs.

In fact, just this year, ISRO broke a major record. In February, they sent 104 satellites into orbit with a single launch, shattering the previous high of 37. However, even this pales in comparison to the organization’s next big move.

With a new mission dubbed Chandrayaan-2, India is sending a rocket to the dark side of the Moon.

The Second Space Race

No country thus far has landed on the Moon’s south side, which in reality, is only dark half of the time. India, currently in a space race with China, hopes to become the first country to do so.

Currently, both countries seek a launch for the second half of 2018. It is not clear which will accomplish the feat first, though India hopes to launch in October.

A Hope for Helium-3

Once launched, Chandrayaan-2 will begin an even more essential segment of the mission: looking for mining potential on the Moon’s surface.

Due to solar wind, the Moon has a large quantity of the Helium-3 isotope on its surface. Unlike most element isotopes, Helium-3 is not radioactive and produces no nuclear waste. For this reason, scientists believe that it could incredibly useful for the future of nuclear fusion.

Currently, the moon is estimated to have about 1 million metric tons of Helium-3. Humans are capable of mining roughly one quarter of that amount, one scientist estimates.

Gerald Kulcinski, director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Fusion Technology Institute and former NASA Advisory Council member, states that this is still an astronomical value.

Kulcinski estimates that each ton of Helium-3 is worth roughly five billion US dollars. At this price, the total mined value of the Moon’s Helium-3 would be 1.25 quadrillion dollars, or 1,250 trillion.

To put that into perspective, this would be enough money to pay off the United States national debt roughly 60 times, or to give every human being in the world a lump sum of over $160,000.

Too Good to be True?

These figures, of course, do not take into account the mass expenses of bringing a quarter million tons of anything from the Moon to the Earth, which serves as a critical step to overcome before a great deal of mining can occur.

Moreover, knowledge of the uses of Helium-3 is currently limited. Much more research is necessary before the isotope can become a major source of energy.

If successfully mined in the future, this amount of Helium-3 has the potential to fuel the world for 200 to 500 years, and Rakesh Sharma, India’s lone spaceman who spent eight days on a Russian probe, wants to make it happen.

“I want India to show that we’re capable of utilizing space technology for the good of the people,” Sharma declared.

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America Needs To Let Go of Zero-Sum Thinking

By Craig Axford | United States

If only the world could be neatly divided between winners and losers, and complex issues reduced to arithmetic that can quickly be done on the back of a napkin. But, alas, our problems are rarely that simple, and not solvable with zero-sum thinking.

Zero-sum thinking is a theory that suggests that one person’s gain is another person’s loss. It is a pitiful philosophy that casts aside human collaboration and compassion. Zero-sum thinking implies a finite amount of resources in the world, and an antagonistic nature to social relations. In many ways, society has moved beyond this primitive way of thought.

Donald Trump, however, sees the planet in just those terms. He’s convinced millions of Americans that anyone who thinks global challenges can’t be addressed in 280 characters or less is needlessly complicating things in an effort to bamboozle everyone else. Through this purely additive and subtractive lens, immigrants are merely sucking scarce resources from the wallets of one group so that they can be added to their own. Likewise, trade is only beneficial when the words balance or surplus are attached to it. The presence of a trade deficit signals Americans are being taken advantage of, so government intervention in the form of tariffs is necessary to initiate an adjustment.

This zero-sum thinking is taken directly from the traditional playbook of nationalists and racists. If you don’t think so, it shouldn’t take more than a day or two on Twitter reading white nationalists’ responses to critics of the zero-tolerance policy Trump imposed at the US/Mexico border to convince you. One unapologetic white supremacist just kept stating over and over again in broken record fashion that my opposition to the policy necessarily meant I wanted to “displace white people,” or worse, “hated” them. By the time I finally blocked him it was clear he thought I was a traitor to my race.

In his mind, any decline in America’s white majority meant whites were losing. My suggestion that the only race we needed to worry about was the human race went nowhere. He, like too many others, had used zero-sum thinking to separate humanity into separate locks that only allowed boats to rise by drawing precious water away from others that needed it to keep their own floating high.

Astronauts consistently wax poetic when they speak of viewing our home from space. Sooner or later they all mention the profound change in perspective that they get from seeing the world without artificial lines. Our capacity for abstraction, like our fondness for forming strong group identities, casts a shadow over our minds. No other species has so far come up with the idea of creating so many obstacles to inhibit their own movement. Eventually, I’m convinced, we’ll see the wisdom of taking down our walls and opening up our checkpoints, but, it seems that day is somewhere beyond 2020.

For now, we must begin to reacquaint ourselves with ideas like reciprocity. Human relations are best when they are a game in which all the players are striving to make sure everyone wins rather than a scramble for scarce resources that can only be fully enjoyed by a precious few. There is no one on this planet that does not have something to share. There is no one from whom we cannot learn something we do not know. When that wisdom is shared, the one offering it does not lose it so that we might have it. It becomes the property of even more people than was the case before. Knowledge multiplies. The more it does so the more likely we are to find solutions that work to the benefit of everybody.

Seen in this light, the question we should be asking ourselves is not what those crossing into the United States seeking a better life for themselves and their children will cost us, but what they have to offer that we have not yet identified. Cultures only clash when minds are closed. They are better suited for blending. Contact creates richer more dynamic experiences for those willing to overcome their fear of the unknown. No culture will last forever no matter how fiercely we defend it, but culture itself will be around as long as people still walk the earth. It describes a process rather than a destination.

Eventually, the current crisis will pass, hopefully without bloodshed. Regardless, we already have a pretty good idea who the winners will ultimately be. Those individuals and societies that are open to new experiences and fully embrace the ideal of reciprocity will be the ones that gain the most. Those who recognize that every newcomer comes with a gift and do not cling excessively to a particular identity are the ones best positioned to enrich their own lives and the lives of others in return. It’s not that life isn’t a struggle. It is. But in the struggle to survive cooperation has consistently proven itself to be the best strategy. The wider the circle of cooperation the better. That’s how our species got this far.

Follow Craig on Twitter or read him on 71Republic.com

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Seeing The Solar System As an Ecosystem

By Craig Axford | United States



noun, plural: ecosystems

A system that includes all living organisms (biotic factors) in an area as well as its physical environment (abiotic factors) functioning together as a unit. Source: Biology-Online Dictionary

Some strange things have been found in our solar system recently. Late in 2017, a long cigar-shaped object flew in from interstellar space. According to NASA, scientists figured that something from outside the neighborhood would be paying us a visit sooner or later. They just thought it would likely be a comet instead of an asteroid.

Astronomers were also surprised by the odd elongated shape this particular visitor had. “Scientists have never seen an asteroid as elongated as 1I/2017 U1 in our solar system — not even half this elongated,” NASA’s page on the object states. 1I/2017 U1 is the alpha-numeric identifier assigned to the odd rock which paid us a quick visit and is now well on its way back into the darkness from which it came. It’s since been given the name of Oumuamua, the Polynesian word for “scout.”

 Since Oumuamua’s visit, some astronomers have announced that they have found an asteroid out near Jupiter that they think arrived from interstellar space not long after the solar system’s birth. With literally only a few dozen exceptions, all the known objects orbiting our sun follow counter-clockwise orbits. According to a May 2018 National Geographic article regarding the possible discovery, “of the more than 779,000 known asteroids, at least 95 drive against our solar system’s flow of traffic.” Of the fewer than 100 known objects orbiting clockwise, at least one — BZ509 — is now thought to owe its contrary motion to its immigration status.

. . .

In April, The American Institute of Physics reported that researchers had been able to create glycine, a necessary ingredient for life, by exposing the “basic molecules of methane, ammonia and carbon dioxide” to the conditions likely to be found in space. The online science news service ScienceDaily quotes the paper’s author Michael Huels as saying “You just need the right combination of ingredients. These molecules can combine, they can chemically react, under the right conditions, to form larger molecules which then give rise to the bigger biomolecules we see in cells like components of proteins, RNA or DNA, or phospholipids.”

That the basic building blocks for life on earth may have originated in outer space isn’t exactly a new idea. But with water spurting out of Jupiter’s moon Europa, the earth can no longer reasonably be considered the only place in the solar system where their delivery via a meteor, asteroid, or comet might have resulted in life.

  NASA, as well as other national and international space agencies, recognize missions to other worlds have the potential both to contaminate them with bacteria or other substances from the earth and to bring back materials that might impact our own biosphere. According to NASA’s Office of Planetary Protection, “In general, if the target body has the potential to provide clues about life or prebiotic chemical evolution, a spacecraft going there must meet a higher level of cleanliness, and some operating restrictions will be imposed.”


Implicit in our space policy, then, is the understanding that our relationship with the universe beyond our atmosphere is at least potentially a two-way street. Planetary protection isn’t just about protecting systems that may contain life from being negatively impacted by visitors from earth, but safeguarding earth from contamination our spacecraft or astronauts may bring back with them.

There are a number of parallels between our policy toward other bodies in our solar system and our own environmental policies here at home. America’s wilderness system is perhaps where these similarities are most explicit. Though it may at first seem a stretch, the Wilderness Act of 1964 and the Outer Space Treaty adopted three years later both contain a recognition of humanity’s capacity to cause harm. In each case, proactively limiting human impact by severely restricting human activity is central to preserving the resource the law is striving to protect.

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. ~ Section 2(c) of The Wilderness Act of 1964 (emphasis in bold added)

“State Parties to the Treaty shall pursue studies of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, and conduct exploration of them so as to avoid their harmful contamination and also adverse changes in the environment of the Earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter and, where necessary, shall adopt appropriate measures for this purpose. ~ Article IX of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 (emphasis in bold added)

It’s understandable that our definition of an ecosystem, to say nothing of a wilderness, has so far been limited to regions here on our own planet. The air we breathe and water we drink are certainly more immediate concerns than anything happening on a moon orbiting Jupiter or the proteins that might exist on an asteroid shooting like a bullet through our solar system.

But the boundaries of what constitutes an ecosystem or wilderness have always been fluid. They have also always involved more than a little human social construction. There is no part of the planet that is completely cut off from all the rest. There are no environmental processes going on on our planet that are operating in complete isolation.

Likewise, though Earth may be an island in a sea of space, it does not function free of influences or visitors arriving from that sea upon its shores. The mass extinction that took out the dinosaurs and facilitated the rise of mammals is a reminder those influences do not always arrive in the form of subtle gravitational tugs or water and glycine molecules raining relatively gently down from the heavens on small rocks.

Just as forces beyond our planet have and continue to shape the development of life here in ways we are only just beginning to truly understand, NASA and other space agencies clearly recognize we now have the capacity to shape life’s development out there. At some point, if we do not destroy ourselves first, it seems likely that we will undertake at least some limited colonization of our moon, Mars, and perhaps even a few large asteroids. What will words like “wilderness” mean in an environment where literally everything we do represents a departure from its original “pristine” condition?

In his book The Song of the Dodo, David Quammen reminds us that “Isolation plus time yields divergence.” Assuming they can at least briefly survive the harsh environments of their new home, the bacteria and other organisms that we either intentionally or unintentionally introduce to other worlds will attempt to adapt. If successful, speciation will have begun. What happens over the eons that follow is anybody’s guess.

Once this process gets underway we will be moving beyond the challenges to the conventional notions of our place in the universe that have been a regular feature of our culture over the past few centuries. As life takes hold and begins going its own way on other worlds we will be confronting our traditional definition of nature itself.

Historically natural has been synonymous with “not manmade” or without significant human interference. In my view, this definition has wrongly placed humanity outside of nature rather than within it. Space exploration and potential settlement will force us to answer some questions that we’ve largely avoided on Earth. Could an environment that has begun evolving on its own because of a change humans introduced ever be considered natural? What about wild? If not initially, given sufficient isolation and time might it eventually qualify as an ecosystem worthy of some degree of protection? If it shows the potential of becoming such a system, is that potential itself something worth protecting?

Island biogeography provides a model for the introduction of life to other worlds. Earth is dotted with examples of volcanic islands that emerged sterile from the sea: the Hawaiian Island chain, the Galapagos Islands, and Iceland to name just a few. Life on these islands was initially a product of the seeds, insects, birds, and other animals that were able to make their way to their remote shores on mats of debris or that blew in on the wind. As humans arrived rats, pigs, and other species came with them as intentional and unintentional introductions to these emergent island ecosystems.

Assuming martian soils aren’t hiding some simple lifeforms already, Mars is a sterile planetary island waiting for something to wash up on its shores. So is every other rocky environment that can humans can safely pay at least a short visit to. That so far glycine and other proteins arriving from space don’t appear to have gotten things started doesn’t preclude the possibility that a visit from us and our the microbiomes we support can’t do the trick.

Distance and time had, until the 20th century, made such an event a very remote possibility. But now life has begun launching itself on rafts into space, suddenly making the possibility that it will spread very real, the efforts of NASA’s Office of Planetary Protection notwithstanding. It makes no difference whether life gets going on Mars or elsewhere accidentally or intentionally. The first stirrings of life on Hawaii, the Galapagos Islands, and Iceland were accidental arrivals. The initial chemical stirrings of life on Earth may very well have occurred on an asteroid or comet that later paid us a random visit. Now, whether it means to or not, life on Earth may be poised to return the favor.

Featured Photo by Nate Rayfield on Unsplash