Saturnine storms and the second space race

Paul Raven @ 07-07-2011

T’ain’t just us Earthlings experiencing erratic weather, y’know; check out this rather vast storm on Saturn, courtesy the Cassini probe. Audio is also available.

Storm on Saturn - image courtesy NASATomorrow, if all goes to plan, the Space Shuttle will launch for its very last mission before retirement (to fates as yet undecided – museum piece or rich man’s megabauble?) Cue inevitable soul-searching all over the place; here’s The Economist sounding the death knell for outer space.

It is quite conceivable that 36,000km will prove the limit of human ambition. It is equally conceivable that the fantasy-made-reality of human space flight will return to fantasy. It is likely that the Space Age is over.

Today’s space cadets will, no doubt, oppose that claim vigorously. They will, in particular, point to the private ventures of people like Elon Musk in America and Sir Richard Branson in Britain, who hope to make human space flight commercially viable. Indeed, the enterprise of such people might do just that. But the market seems small and vulnerable. One part, space tourism, is a luxury service that is, in any case, unlikely to go beyond low-Earth orbit at best (the cost of getting even as far as the moon would reduce the number of potential clients to a handful). The other source of revenue is ferrying astronauts to the benighted International Space Station (ISS), surely the biggest waste of money, at $100 billion and counting, that has ever been built in the name of science.

Well, space cadet is as space cadet does, right? Here’s a response from Paul Gilster at Centauri Dreams:

As commercial space efforts move forward, a broader defense of a human future in space has to take the long-term view. Given the dangers that beset our planet, from ecological issues to economic turmoil and the potential for war, can we frame a solution that offers a rational backup plan for humanity? Planetary self-defense also involves the need for the tools to alter the trajectory of any object with the potential to strike the Earth with deadly force, and that means expanding, not contracting, our space-borne assets. Such work is not purely technical. It also teaches the invaluable lesson of multi-generational responsibility and holds out the promise of frontiers. Such challenges have enriched our early history and provide us a clear path off our planet.

We’re also a curious species, and it’s hard to see us pulling back from the challenge of answering the crucial question of whether we are alone in the galaxy. There is a huge gap, asThe Economist points out, between where we stand with space technology today and where we fantasized being as we looked forward from the Apollo days. But a case can be made for steady and incremental research that gives us new propulsion options and broadens our knowledge of how life emerges even as it protects our future. A future that includes gradual expansion into space-based habitats and the exploitation of our system’s abundant resources is an alternative to The Economist’s vision, and it’s one the public needs to hear. The infrastructure that it would build will demand the tools and the skills to move ever deeper into our system and beyond.

An editorial piece at New Scientist is similarly – if cautiously – optimistic about a NASA renaissance rather than a recession; there’s certainly lots of can-do rhetoric from them, not to mention hungry competition from up-and-coming nations with cash to spend and ambitions to fulfil. But given that the new proposed NASA budget will axe projects like the James Webb orbital telescope – Hubble’s successor, basically – I’m not sure how much mileage there is in brave words and stoic chest-thumping. Hell, some folk are even wondering whether the Space Shuttle program itself wasn’t a massive and very costly mistake [beware irritating interstitial ad; via Chairman Bruce]:

The selection in 1972 of an ambitious and technologically challenging shuttle design resulted in the most complex machine ever built. Rather than lowering the costs of access to space and making it routine, the space shuttle turned out to be an experimental vehicle with multiple inherent risks, requiring extreme care and high costs to operate safely. Other, simpler designs were considered in 1971 in the run-up to President Nixon’s final decision; in retrospect, taking a more evolutionary approach by developing one of them instead would probably have been a better choice.

[…]

Today we are in danger of repeating that mistake, given Congressional and industry pressure to move rapidly to the development of a heavy lift launch vehicle without a clear sense of how that vehicle will be used.  Important factors in the decision to move forward with the shuttle were the desire to preserve Apollo-era NASA and contractor jobs, and the political impact of program approval on the 1972 presidential election. Similar pressures are influential today. If we learn anything from the space shuttle experience, it should be that making choices with multidecade consequences on such short-term considerations is poor public policy.

And if we’ve learned anything from life in general, it’s that expecting politicians to think further ahead than the next election is a doomed enterprise. For my money, I think space exploration still has a future, but – in the West at least, and particularly the US – that future will be increasingly dominated by private enterprise.

This is a nicely resonant topic for me, as it happens. I spent last weekend in London for the Science Fiction Foundation‘s Masterclass, and one of the topics we tackled was the representation of space exploration in contemporary science fiction texts. The inescapable conclusion (for me, at least) is that space sf is dominated by a sense of nostalgia, but also – especially in what you might refer to as “heartland” sf venues like Analog and Asimov’s, whose readership were around to be inspired by the hollow rhetoric of the Apollo program – there’s a void at its heart.

Old-school space advocates have a tendency to talk about space in terms of glory, accomplishment and a sort of noble and patriotic heroism, a taming of the wild rolling plains… indeed, that whole “final frontier” riff probably sounds even sweeter, after ten misguided years of failed attempts to plant the stars’n’bars on other more mundane frontiers – as far as we know, space has no uppity natives to object to your delivery of democracy and neoliberal corporatist economics, which gives it a blank-slate patina that you can’t get anywhere else.

But therein lies the problem, and – or so I suspect – the reason why the American Dream (Extraterrestrial Edition) has faltered: beyond that noble rhetoric, the Apollo program was an ambitious (and successful) pissing contest with Russia. All the other motivations and ideals were grafted on after the fact, and they’ve all fallen away like burned-out heat-shielding. America still wants to be doing stuff in space, but it doesn’t really know why; the narrative has collapsed, and that’s why there’s no money for it.

Meanwhile, out in the BRIC, growing economies are looking for trophies, boasting rights and… well, new frontiers. The torch wasn’t passed; it’s been snatched by the trailing pack, and it’ll be interesting to see what they do with it. I suspect it’ll turn out that pioneer bravery and Competent Persons will have their own renaissance, and turn out not to be something exclusively American in character after all… but ambition always comes at a price.

There’ll be more stories to tell about space, I feel sure. But I’ll bet my boots that an increasing proportion of ’em won’t be written in English. 🙂

 


Cassini flyby

Paul Raven @ 15-03-2011

I’m a bit on the busy side in mundane meatspace at the moment. I’m in the process of planning a house-move back to my home town, and there’s nothing so torturous or frustrating as the bureaucratic sides of the tenant-landlord relationship, even (or seemingly especially) when you’re the sort of tenant who looks after the place where you’re living (because you’re treated by default as if you’re going to be one of the other sort). Still, all will surely resolve in due time, and I’ll be back in the real city that contains the imaginary city that my own blog was named for…

But I digress. In lieu of me pontificating on something topical, here’s a slice of pure sensawunda in the form of a composite video of Saturnian flybys. What’s extra-awesome about this is that those images aren’t CGI or artist’s impressions based on distant data; these are actual real images. Taken by a fuggin’ spaceship we built. A spaceship that has flown past fuggin’ Saturn.

Barber’s Adagio probably helps, but if watching that doesn’t give you a bit of a lump in the throat or a burn in the tearduct, I’m pretty sure you’re not really human.


Nucleotides in Titan’s atmosphere?

Paul Raven @ 06-01-2011

I’m somewhat surprised that I haven’t seen this story all over the place. Perhaps everyone’s taking a while to get back up to speed after the holidays… or perhaps no one wants to get burned the same way they were by the last story about life chemistry that came out of NASA’s press department.

Nonetheless, complete with obligatory “maybe real life is stranger than science fiction after all OMGZ!!” closer, here’s NASA Science News talking about an experiment that demonstrates the possibility of basic life chemistry building blocks in the atmosphere of the Saturnian moon, Titan:

Hörst and her colleagues mixed up a brew of molecules (carbon monoxide(1), molecular nitrogen and methane) found in Titan’s atmosphere. Then they zapped the concoction with radio waves – a proxy for the sun’s radiation.

What happened next didn’t make the scientists shout “it’s alive!” but it was intriguing.

[ There’s good reason to make science journalism accessible, but do we really need shitty little asides like that, NASA? This isn’t Sesame Street, for goodness’ sake… ]

A rich array of complex molecules emerged, including amino acids and nucleotides.

“Our experiment is the first proof that you can make the precursors for life up in an atmosphere, without any liquid water(2). This means life’s building blocks could form in the air and then rain down from the skies!”

[ The metal-head in me now really wants to use Slayer’s “Reign In Blood” as a voice-over bed for this article. Sing along at home! ]

“We didn’t start out to prove we could make ‘life’ in Titan’s skies,” explains Hörst. “We were trying to solve a mystery. The Cassini spacecraft detected large molecules(3) in Titan’s atmosphere, and we wanted to find out what they could be.”

In hopes of obtaining clues to the mystery molecules, Hörst used computer codes to search the lab results for matches to known molecular formulas. She decided, on a whim, to look for nucleotides and amino acids.

[…]

“We had about 5000 molecules containing the right stuff: carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen. We knew we had the elements for organic molecules, but we couldn’t tell how they were arranged. It’s kind of like legos – the more there are, the more possible structures can be made. And they can be put together in many different ways.”

Among the structures identified in the lab experiment so far are five nucleotides found in DNA and RNA, and two amino acids. But she says there could be more amino acids in the mix.

How could those molecules have gotten there? The ice geysers of Enceladus are a possible answer, apparently, though this is all strictly speculative stuff at this point.

Search-for-alien-life bonus material! Antarctica’s massive Lake Vostok may finally give up its secrets (presuming it has any, natch) now that a Russian team has come up with a way to sample the lake’s water without contaminating its effectively closed ecosystem with dirty surface-monkey germs. What mysterious things might we discover lurking miles beneath the ice? Whatever’s down there, it might give us some more clues to what’s going on on Enceladus…


Taking the air on the moons of Saturn

Paul Raven @ 26-11-2010

Sounds like something out of an Edwin Morgan* poem… but what are poems but dreams of possible truths, eh? From io9, suggestions based on Cassini probe data that Rhea, one Saturn’s many moons, might have a breathable oxygen-rich atmosphere:

It seems oxygen is far more abundant than we ever suspected, particularly on moons that seem to be completely frozen solid. We recently found evidence of oxygen on Jupiter’s moons Europa and Ganymede, and now this finding on Europa. In fact, because the region of space surrounding Saturn’s rings has an oxygen atmosphere, it’s thought even more of the icy moons within the gas giant’s magnetosphere likely have little atmospheres of their own.

According to new data from the Cassini probe, the moon’s thin atmosphere is kept up by the constant chemical decomposition of ice water on the surface of Rhea. It’s likely that Saturn’s fierce magnetosphere is continually irradiating this ice water, which is what helps to maintain the atmosphere. Researchers suspect a lot of Rhea’s oxygen isn’t actually free right now, but is instead trapped inside Rhea’s frozen oceans.

The last couple of years have seen the Rare Earth hypothesis take a number of serious body-blows, what with moons with atmospheres and oceans, and the sudden rash of exoplanet discoveries; I doubt I’m the only person here who isn’t too sad about that. 🙂

[ * Probably my favourite poet, and a trailbreaker in sf and concrete poetry right back in the Sputnik era, Edwin Morgan is already much missed. Rest in peace, sir. ]


Wish you were here? Cassini’s holiday snaps

Paul Raven @ 22-04-2009

We interrupt our regular blogging for some space-geek porn in the form of the latest images piped back from the Cassini probe during its exploration of the neighbourhood around Saturn.

The mountains of Iapetus, moon of Saturn - Cassini probe

Mimas, moon of Saturn - Cassini probe

They’re more than a little less dull than your coworker’s shots from Disneyland, aren’t they? [via Metafilter; images borrowed from linked article, please contact for take-down if required]


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