Martian water: back on again

Paul Raven @ 05-08-2011

I’ve lost count of the number of times that the scientific consensus on whether or not there’s liquid-phase water on Mars has changed, and that’s just within the span of me blogging here at Futurismic (so, six years or thereabouts). But it looks like we just flipped back toward certainty, as images from NASA’s Mars Recon Orbiter show what may well be streams of salt-saturated water flowing down slopes during the Martian equivalent of summer:

More than a thousand dark trails were observed running down some slopes in Mars’s southern hemisphere during warm periods of the year, fading in the autumn.

There are more trails on the warmer, sun-facing parts of the planet, which would be consistent with water that flows in summer and freezes in winter.

Researchers from the University of Arizona said that salty water was the “best explanation” for the markings, which are between half a metre and five metres wide and run for hundreds of metres down some craters.

Although the images do not provide definitive proof of salt water on Mars, scientists claim that temperatures on the sun-facing areas of the planet’s surface would be too warm for frozen carbon dioxide and too cold for pure water.

Science being science, of course, this is merely well-informed speculation based on accumulated evidence, and the boffins are at pains to point out that more research and observation is required before anyone can talk in terms of true certainty.

So I’ll say it again: let’s just go there already.

Food as 5th-gen warfare vector

Paul Raven @ 09-06-2011

There’s a lot of things on which Thomas Barnett and I would disagree, but there’s no getting around the way he can see further ahead than most foreign policy wonks. Forget oil, and start worrying about food supply:

Everybody thinks that the future is going to see fights over energy, when it’s far more likely to be primarily over food. Think about it: The 19th century is the century of chemistry and that gets us chemical weapons in World War I. The 20th century is the century of physics and that gets us nuclear weapons in World War II. But the 21st century? That’s the century of biology, and that gets us biological weaponry and biological terror. My point: obsessing over nuclear terrorism is steering by our rearview mirror.

Which gets me to our Spanish friend over here: an actual E. coli outbreak in Europe, centered largely in Germany, kills upwards of two dozen while sickening hundreds more. The early fingers point at Spanish cucumbers, but that’s looking iffy on investigation. Truth is, we may never know, but once the accusation is levied, Spain’s vegetable and fruit export industry may never be the same, and to me, that’s an interesting pathway for what I expect Fifth-Generation Warfare (which focuses – by some experts’ definition – on the disruption of the enemy’s ability to “observe” in John Boyd’s OODA loop)  will be all about in the 21st century: biological terror to create economic dislocation and loss (along with the usual panics).

Not so sure about his “century of [x]” reasoning, and I’d argue that we’ve seen the “wars over energy” being played out in the Middle east over the last few decades (with, sadly, more to come, though I think we could be in the final act of that particular movie), but by highlighting food supply as an infrastructure that could (and will) be leaned on to highly disruptive effect, I think he’s pretty much spot on. Likewise with the idea of ideological factions piggy-backing on events that may simply be natural or emergent; why invest effort on complicated terror schemes when you can just claim random events for free?

However, I’m surprised that he misses (or maybe simply fails to mention) food’s close sibling, water, which is already becoming a critical resource in developing nations, and is the infrastructural elephant-in-the-room in The Artist Formerly Known As The First World. Seriously, talk to people who work in utility infrastructure; we’re going through way more water than is sustainable, and climate change is likely to exacerbate the problem by changing availability patterns at local levels (hi, Australia!). We’ve already got Alaskan towns looking to export their allotted water rights to the more thirsty corners of the world… and while there’s a possibility we could wean ourselves off our addiction to long-chain hydrocarbons (technically simple, but politically fraught), water is a fundamental need, and an issue that demands we either start thinking in global terms or face some sort of Mad-Max-esque descent into feudal squabblings over the echoing mouths of artesian wells..

Civilisation is a product of cognitive surplus… and if you’re constantly wondering where your next drink of water is coming from, you’re all out of cognitive surplus.

Space colonisation logistics

Paul Raven @ 22-02-2011

Man, space really is back on the menu all of a sudden – an odd reaction, perhaps, considering that the Shuttle has now flown its last. But then again, the commercial space sector is making positive noises, and perhaps the general global sense of gloominess is pushing us to think beyond the confines of Mudball the First…

Psychology aside, if you’re planning to move up and out, you need a battleplan. Over at Lightspeed Magazine, Nicholas Wethington sets out a basic sequence: [Moon -> Mars -> Asteroids -> “Icies”]. Personally I’d have suggested [Orbitals -> Lagrange -> Moon / Asteroids -> Mars -> Outer System], though the Moon does have the advantage of all that radiation-absorbing regolith lying around.

Wethington wisely points out that water is one of your main essentials, wherever you want to go. Fortunately, it turns out that there’s a whole lot more water out there than we initially thought:

The numbers get to be striking, as Hauke Hussmann and colleagues show in a 2006 paper in Icarus. Start with Galileo, the mission to Jupiter that brought home how much we needed to modify our view of the giant planet’s moons. Galileo discovered secondary induced magnetic fields in the vicinity of Europa, Callisto and Ganymede, offering strong observational evidence for subsurface oceans on all three. The fields are thought to be generated by ions contained in the liquid water layer underneath the icy outer shells. Europa has, of course, become a prime target for future study re astrobiology thanks to the prospect of water combined with a possibly thin ice layer.

The Hussmann paper goes on to calculate interior structure models for medium-sized icy bodies in the outer Solar System, assuming thermal equilibrium between radiogenic heat produced by the core and the loss of heat through the ice shell. Now we really start expanding the picture: The paper shows that subsurface oceans are feasible not just on the now obvious case of Europa, but also on Rhea, Titania, Oberon, Triton and Pluto. A case can also be made for the Trans-Neptunian Objects 2003 UB313 , Sedna and 2004 DW.

Add that to the asteroids and comets, and there’s plenty of options… though none of them are exactly convenient to us at first.

Once we’re out there grabbing iceballs and digging resources out of odd-shaped rocks, we’ll need to stay in touch with one another – how else are we gonna broker the sale of our freshly-mined metals? Luckily Google’s Vint Cerf is on the case, ignoring the more mundane issue of address space on the terrestrial intertubes in favour of thinking about an interPlanetary internet [via SlashDot]:

We recognized as far back as 1998 that the traditional Internet design had implicit in it the assumption that there was good connectivity, and relatively low latency, whereas in a space environment, when you are talking at interplanetary distances, you have speed-of-light delays and those can be minutes to days. We need this new Bundle Protocol to overcome the latencies and all the disconnects that occur in space, from celestial motion [and from] orbiting satellites.

The Bundle Protocols are running onboard the International Space Station. They are running in a number of locations around the United States in the NASA labs and in academic environments. There’s a thing called the Bundle Bone, which is like the IPv6 backbone, that is linking a lot of these research activities to one another.


So during 2011, our initiative is to “space qualify” the interplanetary protocols in order to standardize them and make them available to all the space-faring countries. If they chose to adopt them, then potentially every spacecraft launched from that time on will be interwoven from a communications point of view. But perhaps more important, when the spacecraft have finished their primary missions, if they are still functionally operable — they have power, computer, communications — they can become nodes in an interplanetary backbone. So what can happen over time, is that we can literally grow an interplanetary network that can support both man and robotic exploration.

Obsolete sats as network nodes… an encouragingly frugal solution. And talking of frugal, if you’re planning to be in the first wave of outward migrations, you might want to snap up some cheap kit. Two used Soviet space-suits, one (presumably) careful owner each

Wet moon would make a great launchpad

Paul Raven @ 22-10-2010

A new analysis of NASA data to be published today has something interesting and unexpected to say about the Moon [via MetaFilter]:

“It’s really wet,” said Anthony Colaprete, co-author of one of the Science papers and a space scientist at NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif. He and his colleagues estimate that 5.6% of the total mass of the targeted lunar crater’s soil consists of water ice. In other words, 2,200 pounds of moon dirt would yield a dozen gallons of water.

The presence of water doesn’t make it more likely that there ever was life on the moon, as the location studied is among the coldest in the solar system. But the large quantity boosts the case for a manned lunar base from which to launch other interplanetary adventures. Water is crucial because its components, hydrogen and oxygen, are key ingredients for rocket fuel. Oxygen can also be extracted from water to make breathable air.

I’ll bet there’s more than a few handfuls of far-sighted space-business types adding that data to their long-term planning dossiers. Orbitals first, lunar base second, and from there the solar system’s your oyster…

… or alternatively, the world’s super-rich can decamp to the water-rich Moon while the rest of us fight over the limited amount of it available to us down at this end of the gravity well. There’s at least one novel in that idea, I reckon.

The new face of globalisation: outsourced childbearing and international water shipments

Paul Raven @ 13-07-2010

Globalisation is a highly politicised word, but I’m increasingly thinking of it as a phenomenon rather than a project (the same way I think about postmodernism, as it happens). In a nutshell, globalisation is the trend toward global movement of things: people, ideas, jobs, money, resources. It’s an economic phenomenon, sure, but it’s increasingly social as well – not social as in “social media” (though thet’s a part of it), but as in the ongoing corrosion of geography erasing a lot of old ideas about who we do business with, what we consider to be business, and why we do it.

Take outsourcing. It’s an established idea to take a job like coding PHP and giving it to someone in a poorer country so you (theoretically, at least) get the same results for less expenditure, but what about a “job” like carrying your baby to term [via MetaFilter]?

“In the U.S. a childless couple would have to spend anything up to $50,000,” Gautam Allahbadia, a fertility specialist who helped a Singaporean couple obtain a child through an Indian surrogate last year, told Reuters.

“In India, it’s done for $10,000-$12,000.”

Fertility clinics usually charge $2,000-$3,000 for the procedure while a surrogate is paid anything between $3,000 and $6,000, a fortune in a country with an annual per capita income of around $500.

But the practice is not without its critics in India with some calling it the “commoditisation of motherhood” and an exploitation of the poor by the rich.

“It’s true I’m doing this for money, but is it also not true that a childless couple is benefiting?” said Rituja, a surrogate mother in Mumbai, who declined to give her full name.

For the surrogates — usually lower middleclass housewives — money is the primary motivator.

For their clients it’s infertility or — some claim — educated working women turning to hired wombs to avoid a pregnancy affecting careers.

And how about natural resources? We’re used to the idea of scarce commodities being shipped around at scary prices, but as populations (and their footprints) increase, some resources that we think of as givens become valuable enough to justify the overheads of stuffing them in a tanker and floating them across the globe. Water, for instance [also via MetaFilter]:

Sitka, a small town located on Baranof Island off Alaska’s southeast coast, will sell the water to Alaska Resource Management for one penny per gallon. S2C and True Alaska Bottling, which has a contract for the rights to export 2.9 billion gallons (10.9 billion liters) per year from Sitka’s Blue Lake Reservoir, formed Alaska Resource Management LLC to facilitate bulk exportation.

The city will earn $US26 million per year if ARM exports its entire allocation, and more than $US90 million annually if the city can export its maximum water right of 9 billion gallons. That amount of water is enough to meet the annual domestic needs of a city of 500,000 using 50 gallons per person per day.

Nice idea, at least on paper… but it makes the erroneous assumption that one can just keep taking [x] amount of water from an area, swap it for money and not experience any problems. A friend of mine who works in water treatment and reclamation here in the UK is at pains to point out to anyone who’ll listen that water is shaping up to be the new oil: essential to everyone’s survival, increasingly scarce and expensive, and the sort of thing that people will go to war over…. not only in developing nations, but right here in the privileged West, too.

When I’m having an optimistic day, I find myself thinking that increasing awareness of the finite limits of resources (human labour and skills and time very much included) will gradually push us toward a closer form of global unity: a recognition that we’re all in the same boat, and that the boat only has so much in the way of provisions, and that between us we can sail it pretty much anywhere. Of course, that won’t happen unless we work together to overcome geopolitical and economic barriers… which is why on my less optimistic days the boat metaphor tends to end with a hull full of corpses.

Small-g globalisation isn’t a bad thing; as borders become permeable, it’s an inevitability, like a thermodynamics of things. But the project of Big-G Globalisation is a different thing entirely: it’s a crude, rough-handed and successful attempt to profiteer from restricting and manipulating that ineluctable movement of things, performed by those who already have sufficiently rarified levels of power to influence the flow. The phenomenon of globalisation should be encouraged, supported and monitored; I believe it’s essential to the long-term survival of humans as a species. The project of globalisation needs to be exposed, deconstructed and shut down; it’s an ethical black hole baited with conspicuous consumption and confirmation bias, and it’s killing millions for the benefit of hundreds.

*steps off of soapbox*

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