Examining the Aftermath of the Singularity

Future Brain

A trailer (see below) was recently released for an upcoming movie about the technological singularity – a hypothetical point when AI begins to vastly exceed human intelligence. Premiering in theaters in April, ‘Transcendence’ will portray what might occur during the early stages of the singularity. While technological advancements still have a way to go before this becomes reality, this movie will likely give us at least one example of what life might be like for our planet once the singularity occurs. Read More →

One with the Cosmos: NASA App Review

NASA_App_02

Photo courtesy of NASA via Geek.com

The human collective interest of the final frontier has never reached such high levels today. With news of a successful Mars landing to open applications and marketing campaigns to become astronauts,  we feel like space is inching its way towards the palm of our hands. It may sound a little bit hypothetical, but in this age of smartphones and portable technology, it is very literal. Read More →

NASA Hubble Finds New Neptune Moon

This composite Hubble Space Telescope picture shows the location of a newly discovered moon, designated S/2004 N 1, orbiting Neptune. The black and white image was taken in 2009 with Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 in visible light. Hubble took the color inset of Neptune on August 2009. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, M. Showalter/SETI Institute

This composite Hubble Space Telescope picture shows the location of a newly discovered moon, designated S/2004 N 1, orbiting Neptune. The black and white image was taken in 2009 with Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 in visible light. Hubble took the color inset of Neptune on August 2009.
Image Credit: NASA, ESA, M. Showalter/SETI Institute

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has discovered a new moon orbiting the distant blue-green planet Neptune, the 14th known to be circling the giant planet.

The moon, designated S/2004 N 1, is estimated to be no more than 12 miles across, making it the smallest known moon in the Neptunian system. It is so small and dim that it is roughly 100 million times fainter than the faintest star that can be seen with the naked eye. It even escaped detection by NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft, which flew past Neptune in 1989 and surveyed the planet’s system of moons and rings.

Mark Showalter of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., found the moon July 1, while studying the faint arcs, or segments of rings, around Neptune. “The moons and arcs orbit very quickly, so we had to devise a way to follow their motion in order to bring out the details of the system,” he said. “It’s the same reason a sports photographer tracks a running athlete — the athlete stays in focus, but the background blurs.”

The method involved tracking the movement of a white dot that appears over and over again in more than 150 archival Neptune photographs taken by Hubble from 2004 to 2009.

On a whim, Showalter looked far beyond the ring segments and noticed the white dot about 65,400 miles from Neptune, located between the orbits of the Neptunian moons Larissa and Proteus. The dot is S/2004 N 1. Showalter plotted a circular orbit for the moon, which completes one revolution around Neptune every 23 hours.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a cooperative project between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Md., conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy Inc., in Washington.

Source: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

A New Paradigm in Space Mission Controls

Image: NASA

Image: NASA

Images similar to the one above are what most of us think of when we hear mission control room. These rooms are typically used to control launch vehicles – a difficult task to be sure.  Nevertheless, the new classes of Epsilon launch vehicles (Japan) are designed to accept input from regular terrestrial communications services and may render these facilities a thing of the past. The first of these vehicles are slated to launch this summer.

Satellite up-link systems are still needed to communicate with Epsilon space craft however they are designed to respond to server commands issued by regular users on Earth. This means that individuals who launch objects into space can work with them using the same equipment they use every day.

This type of capability is a potentially huge advantage for private industries that launch low Earth orbit (LEO) objects, such as satellites. Most businesses have had to place total faith in the mission control agencies that construct physical parabolic reflector dishes in the past to accomplish this. These dishes are needed to maintain basic lines of communication with objects in space. The organizations that run these ground stations can be rather bureaucratic, however. Bureaucracy of course can make the process difficult…and expensive.

Image: Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)

Image: Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)

Epsilon missions on the other hand are designed to allow direct connections to the control software itself. This cuts out the middleman. Instead of having to contact an external organization that some change needs to be made, satellite operators can now do it alone. That’s a huge paradigm shift from the old way of doing things and the implications for future space efforts are fairly large.

Even if one was to ignore the potential political ramifications of a project like this, Epsilon launch vehicles might very well be safer than options that were previously available to commercial institutions. Additionally, mission control services are sometimes slow to react to satellite malfunctions. Because they are often contracted to watch over so many different systems, one might sometimes be overlooked by mistake (or simply ignored). Under this new paradigm, satellite owners could monitor their own property and as a result, could be expected to find problems before they escalate.

Educational opportunities shouldn’t be wasted along the way either. Regular terminals could be used to illustrate satellite controls to classrooms full of future engineers. Error handling algorithms would have to be employed to ensure that two commands weren’t executed at the same time. It’s easy to imagine that several people would try to get attention from a vehicle at once. Nonetheless, this type of thing could be amazing in courses dealing with physics, orbital mechanics, etc. Some individuals might even check out telemetry data simply because they find it fascinating. Communicating with a satellite for the first time can be exciting. Imagine being able to do so via your iPad or a mobile app.

Commercial ventures could make excellent use of these communications protocols as well. It wouldn’t be too difficult for a business venture to gain immediate control of the packages that they have launched into space. It’s not uncommon for organizations to put different piggyback modules on a single orbiting artificial satellite. If they were to do this with an Epsilon unit, each individual group could control its own module independently of one another. That would save a considerable amount of money when compared to the way things are currently done. It could also make space a great deal more accessible to private researchers who wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to send their experiments into space.

What do you think? Is this a positive advancement that should be further developed in the future, or are there issues that might arise by taking this communication out of the hands of mission control contractors?

The Sobering Reality of Orbital Weapons Platforms

Image Credit: LucasFilm/LucasArts

Image Credit: LucasFilm/LucasArts

Space warfare is quickly becoming a reality. Though people might often imagine that wars fought in space would be against some sort of extraterrestrial power, this might not be the case. It’s far more likely than human beings will someday war with one another. As with every other major venture, international law is involved with the development of space. Certain laws are in place to prevent countries from placing weapons of mass destruction into orbit.

Whether or not aggressive powers would actually abide by such laws is questionable. Researchers will have to find ways to defend against such threats. Believe it or not, there have already been patent applications for certain types of hypersonic orbital fighter jets. Craft like this would need some particularly unique engine designs. While nuclear power sounds like a good idea, the threat of fallout making it back into the Earth’s atmosphere is too great.

When orbital shipyards make construction of vessels in space possible, wings become completely foolish. In fact, spacecraft designed for combat would want to show as little surface area as possible. Giant cruisers might have become popular as a result of the magic of motion picture technology, but these designs are almost worthless if fighting an enemy in space.

Since there’s no reason to worry about lift in a practical vacuum, spherical designs are probably the most useful. Few film directors would want to show numerous balls floating around in space, but these designs would be the most practical. Engines would easily wrap around a sphere and propel the object in one direction or the other. Gravitational forces presented by other bodies in space could very well be used as slingshots to travel great distances without using too much fuel. Of course, they could also be considered hazards to avoid.

It’s likely that the first few confrontations in space would be rather awkward. Tacticians wouldn’t really know how to use their new weapons any better than naval officers used the Monitor and the Merrimac. Of course, for the time being any space weapons would be looked at as a deterrent rather than a full-fledged offensive device. Since the Cold War has long ended and military forces are focused on fighting small groups as opposed to nation states, the idea of deterrents has seemed to slip many people’s minds.

Peace is still a very real option. One might hope that humanity can avoid such conflicts. In fact, despite the idea that space warfare is inevitable, the exploration of space might very well help to prevent wars. Since resources are almost limitless in space, development and exploration could end many of the root causes of international conflicts. That would actually be better than having to prepare for an interstellar fight.

Reference:

Klein, J. (2004). SPACE WARFARE: A MARITIME-INSPIRED SPACE STRATEGY Astropolitics, 2 (1), 33-61 DOI: 10.1080/14777620490444740

Maogoto, J., & Freeland, S. (2007). The Final Frontier: The Laws of Armed Conflict and Space Warfare SSRN Electronic Journal DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.1079376

Small Business Contributions to U.S. Space Exploration

NASA OSBP Associate Administrator Glenn Delgado in conversation at JSC Industry Day. Credit: NASA.

NASA OSBP Associate Administrator Glenn Delgado in conversation at JSC Industry Day. Credit: NASA.

MARS OSB_CS55_FINAL_LO=TAGGED

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Many of you have likely been following the progression of the Mars Rover Curiosity in recent weeks. I’ve personally developed an interest in the types of tests that are being done on the red planet during the mission. This interest led me to think about the types of test equipment that is being utilized not only for experiments, but to ensure the safety of astronauts in manned missions as well. As I began to research this area further, I discovered an entire segment of expert service providers that are utilized by NASA to develop these specialized systems. Many of them are smaller firms and they’re doing some pretty incredible work for the agency. In fact, I discovered that NASA does a great deal to support small businesses each year via the Office of Small Business Programs (@NASA_OSBP).

Case Study: G Systems, L.P.

Systems and equipment used by NASA and other aerospace organizations aren’t the kind that you can just buy off the shelf. A piece of equipment that is used in space is obviously subjected to vastly different conditions than those found on Earth. Each must be rigorously tested before ever leaving the ground. To meet this need, NASA and other organizations often contract with highly specialized service providers to develop the equipment needed for individual space missions – including appropriate testing equipment required to maintain mission integrity. One such provider in my own backyard is G Systems, a growing, Texas-based engineering firm.

Pressurization and Vent System. Credit: G Systems, L.P.

Pressurization and Vent System, G Systems, L.P.

Unlike most test equipment available on the market today, the systems that G Systems develops are actually customized, turnkey models. That means that they can be expected to work whenever they’re turned on – without fail. Proper operation and maintenance are huge concerns in the aerospace industry since individual launch windows are often very small and involve a great number of interoperable systems. Having stable equipment to work with is needed because proper operation in space is absolutely vital. This is an industry where a single bolt means the difference between life and death.

While most of you probably have never heard of the company, several of the most recent space projects have involved G Systems’ contributions. For instance, one of their recent projects involved the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV). Having delivered test systems for the new Orion exploration crew vehicle test facility at the Michoud Assembly plant, G Systems played a major role in ensuring that this project went off without a hitch. They shipped data acquisition devices that collect and record information concerning the crew module’s structural strength.

G Systems also provided Orion researchers with data distribution devices that collect video of the capsule in addition to audio recordings and parametric information. Because the equipment is necessary for pressure tests, it’s actually capable of independently pressurizing the cabin. In other words, it can use supplies of air and helium to alter the pressure inside of the Orion capsule automatically. Data distribution tools also include an operator control terminal so that an engineer can set these options remotely if desired.

Data Acquisition System. Image Credit: G Systems, L.P.

Data Acquisition System. Credit: G Systems, L.P.

While the Constellation program has been shelved (sadly), the Orion project remains active today. Structural tests on the capsule are extremely important, and firms such as G Systems have played a key role in the program’s success thus far. While I don’t always agree with the actions taken by NASA administrators, I love the fact that they tap into the amazing talent available at private firms today. In doing so, the agency is supporting small business – always a good thing. This is yet another reason I remain a vocal proponent of NASA today.

Reference:

Archibald, R., & Finifter, D. (2003). Evaluating the NASA small business innovation research program: preliminary evidence of a trade-off between commercialization and basic research Research Policy, 32 (4), 605-619 DOI: 10.1016/S0048-7333(02)00046-X

Rapid Development of Orion Structural Test Systems. (2011). G Systems, L.P. Retrieved February 12, 2013, from goo.gl/7QW4p

Mansfield, C. L. (2013, January 14). NASA – National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NASA. Retrieved February 12, 2013, from goo.gl/zqjQK

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The Science of Choosing Space Pioneers

Image Credit: NASA Ames

Image Credit: NASA Ames

I often ask others if they would live in space or on another planet if given the opportunity. More often than not, the answer is in the affirmative. But what if you were given the chance and actually wanted to go, but were declined because you weren’t selected by a computer algorithm as one of the lucky space travelers? Or worse, what if you were declined because of your cultural background or because your genetic profile was deemed inappropriate?  What about those that do venture off to live in space or on other worlds…will they suffer the types of loneliness that individuals experience in major cities here on Earth today? These are the questions that I thought I’d delve into today.

Loneliness in Space

Overcrowding is a major concern in many parts of the world today. People often feel like they’re being shoved into boxes that they don’t really fit into. Since the early days of the Industrial Revolution, a great number of individuals have felt as if they are all alone in the world. Large cities don’t make for the best of neighbors. Even though other members of the human race surround people, they’re seldom able to make any genuine connections with those who live close by. This sort of a problem is only worsened by the prospect of space colonization.

The feeling of loneliness is usually portrayed as being experienced by those who are truly without anyone near them. However, individuals can actually become lonelier when other people that they don’t connect with show up within their circle of friends. Of course, in many cases, these people don’t even really have a circle of friends in the first place.

While one person adrift in space might be able to comfort him or herself with the idea that others are back home on planet Earth, ironically the same cannot always be said of someone who were to live in a colony habitat. If other people surrounded that same individual, he/she would probably end up experiencing increased feelings of loneliness — just as so many do in cities around the world today.

This is something that’s been observed by Earthbound psychologists for decades, but it would possibly worsen in orbital complexes and on colonized worlds. Sci-fi writers have long stressed the importance of choosing the right colonists for space missions based on genetic profiles. But it seems that culture and the ability to work together are actually more important indicators of who should go off together into the great unknown.

Un-natural Selection

Using some sort of computer algorithm to select candidates for space travel is probably the worst idea I can imagine. This is a common trope in many pieces of fiction, but engineers working on global cities might have actually found a better way to psychologically equip generations of space pioneers. They have suggested that those who are culturally similar to people they live with might very well make the best partners. Seems like common sense, right?

Source: NASA

Source: NASA

While this sounds reasonable, it opens up an entirely new thought process for those who are planning generational space missions. If colony ships are set out on extremely long voyages, people will want to be with those that they have bonded with or care about. Letting a community choose who they want to be with the same way that they always have on Earth might be the best idea.

Genetic selection might sound logical and some people have suggested that it could produce the best stock for other worlds. However, this is a throwback to the sort of eugenic thinking that predominated the early 20th century. It was a mistake here on Earth and the same holds true of space. If space colonies are ever actually going to solve population problems, they need to be able to function much like regular cities do today. By letting people live in space the same way that they always have on Earth, the average citizen is far more likely to adapt to others in an acceptable manner.

There are those who would say that this limits diversity, but in reality it doesn’t. Genetic selection programs and the like would actually seek to create a race of space colonists who are in some way similar to one another. This would limit diversity, and would also have the side-effect of making a civilization less resistant to disease or similar catastrophes. For instance, one colony of microbes could wipe out an entire colony if it were built in such a way. The same could be said of a generational space mission attempting to reach another star system.

Humanity has never been perfect. It is these imperfections that very well may help our species to survive in space in the future.

Reference:

Yusof, N., & van Loon, J. (2012). Engineering a Global City: The Case of Cyberjaya Space and Culture, 15 (4), 298-316 DOI: 10.1177/1206331212453676

Saaty, T., & Sagir, M. (2012). Global awareness, future city design and decision making Journal of Systems Science and Systems Engineering, 21 (3), 337-355 DOI: 10.1007/s11518-012-5196-z

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Positivism, Cosmism and Codes of Ethics in Space

Photo credit: © Henrik Jonsson/iStockphoto

Cosmism isn’t necessarily tied towards logical positivism. However, quite a few authors do connect the two. There are some very serious differences between the two philosophies, however. Logical positivists are usually focused on moral relativity and a simple view of ethics.

PDF Download: Positivism

Cosmism is somewhat silent on these issues, but one could definitely look at cosmism from an idealist point of view. Unlike logical positivism, Russian cosmism espouses a certain code of ethics. These ethics repeatedly reference the exploration of space. Since humanity has become more civil over time, a cosmist might argue that taking a leap into the stars would simply be the next logical development for mankind. Humans would be expected to become more peaceful in space.

The question of how to handle force and violence is always a complicated one. Modern societies have put a state monopoly on the use of force, but many people argue that peace-loving citizens should be able to defend themselves when the time comes. No amount of philosophical discussion can truly decide how futuristic societies will handle their criminals. Cosmism has an optimistic view on this, however. It seems to suggest that criminal behavior will be on the way out when people live in space colonies.

China’s New Lunar Goals

With the increased interest in space exploration due to the recent Mars mission, everyone seems to be looking up at the heavens. In fact, some researchers feel that humanity is entering into a new space race. Although China doesn’t seem to be fully funding all of its space projects, construction of a Chinese manned lunar facility is actually a major goal of that nation’s space program.

Environmentalists might also be interested in China’s extraterrestrial power generation plans. There has been a lot of talk about orbital power satellites in some circles. A network of facilities is supposed to be constructed in the near future that would beam electrical energy towards Earth to be used as a source of clean power. New energy sources are very important considering concerns over China’s emissions of greenhouse gases.

Chinese industrial developments have been prominently featured in many news stories recently. However, there are few places where politics haven’t shaped the reporting of such issues. There is a good chance that China won’t even be able to finish such illustrious projects, and they currently suffer from a lack of funding. Regardless of how one chooses to view such developments, it’s clear that all nations need to focus on the stars.

Image Credit: NASA Concept

Holistic Design Factors in Space Colonies

Assuming that we never achieve FTL travel, generational colony ships may become a necessary method used to traverse great distances. Inherent in the term generational, individuals will live their entire lives on these massive spaceships as will their descendants. In other words, these space ships will be the only home many generations of inhabitants will ever know. This of course means that the ships would have to be designed in the best way possible to ensure the survival of travelers. Inhabitants would need to feel at home. That’s definitely a big challenge, but new techniques being used to design oceangoing vessels today could provide a roadmap to achieve these difficult gains in the years ahead.

Holistic design seems to be a buzzword today, but taking this approach means that people are more likely to enjoy the surroundings that they’re in. The Earth’s growth was not the result of careful human engineering. While gardens might be planned, forests are not. It’s difficult for people to be truly random. However, they’ll need to at least simulate randomness in order to build a craft that was as holistic as the planet that people have already called home for so long.

Design optimization plans are already in place with the intent of increasing safety and cargo space, but habitability seems to be all but forgotten. In the future, this will have to change if people are going to be able to run their own space dwelling civilizations on interstellar missions.

Considering emerging conditions on Earth today, if you were given a chance to spend the rest of your life on one of these generational colonies, would you leave behind our planet forever in the name of human survival/exploration/discovery? What must-have features would the ship have to include if you were to go?

Reference:

Apostolos Papanikolaou (2010). Holistic ship design optimization Computer-Aided Design, 42 (11), 1028-1044 : 10.1016/j.cad.2009.07.002

Cooper RA (2008). Quality-of-life technology. A human-centered and holistic design. IEEE engineering in medicine and biology magazine : the quarterly magazine of the Engineering in Medicine & Biology Society, 27 (2), 10-1 PMID: 18472458

Image Credit: G4

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