Will We Stop at Mars?

by Paul Gilster on November 27, 2015

In the heady days of Apollo, Mars by 2000 looked entirely feasible. Now we’re talking about the 2030s for manned exploration, and even that target seems to keep receding. In the review that follows, Michael Michaud looks at Louis Friedman’s new book on human spaceflight, which advocates Mars landings but cedes more distant targets to robotics. So how do we reconcile ambitions for human expansion beyond Mars with political and economic constraints? A career diplomat whose service included postings as Counselor for Science, Technology and Environment at U.S. embassies in Paris and Tokyo, and Director of the State Department’s Office of Advanced Technology, Michael is also the author of Contact with Alien Civilizations (Copernicus, 2007). Here he places the debate over manned missions vs. robotics in context, and suggests a remedy for pessimism about an expansive future for Humankind.

by Michael A.G. Michaud


Many people in the space and astronomy communities will know of Louis Friedman, a tireless campaigner for planetary exploration and solar sailing. He was one of the co-founders of the Planetary Society in 1980, with Carl Sagan and Bruce Murray.

In his new book, entitled Human Spaceflight: From Mars to the Stars, Friedman states his argument up front: Humans will become a multi-planet species by going to Mars, but will never travel beyond that planet. Future humans will explore the rest of the universe vicariously through machines and virtual reality.

Friedman acknowledges that public interest in space exploration is still dominated by “human interest.” No one, he writes, is going to discontinue human spaceflight. Yet there is a conundrum. While giving up on manned missions to Mars is politically unacceptable, getting such a program approved and funded is not an achievable political step at this time. If another decade goes by without humans going farther in space, Friedman writes, public interest will likely decline and robotic and virtual exploration technologies will pass us by.

Friedman claims that going beyond Mars with humans is impossible not just physically for the foreseeable future but culturally forever. The long-range future of humankind, he declares, is to extend its presence in the universe virtually with robotic emissaries and artificial intelligence. This argument puts a permanent cap on human expansion, as if travel beyond Mars never will be possible.

Friedman sees having another world as a prudent step to prevent humankind being wiped out by a catastrophe. He argues that the danger of not sending humans to Mars is that we will become complacent. If that complacency overcomes making humankind a multi-planet species, we are doomed.

Friedman dismisses big ideas about exploiting planetary resources throughout the solar system and living everywhere to build civilizations and colonies on other worlds. He can’t see why or how we would do this, nor can he see waiting to do so. This illustrates an old split in the space interest community between those advocating space exploration and those supporting space utilization and eventual human expansion.

In his chapter entitled Stepping Stones to Mars, Friedman lists potential human spaceflight achievements with dates. An appendix presents a plan for a manned Mars mission in the 2040s. That first landing is to be followed later by missions establishing an infrastructure for human habitation, an effort that will take many decades.

Interstellar flight


This book’s subtitle is From Mars to the Stars. Yet Friedman dismisses interstellar travel by human beings as a subject of science fiction. People are too impatient, he writes, to wait for the necessary life-support developments. This contrasts with Carl Sagan’s 1966 comment that efficient interstellar spaceflight to the farthest reaches of our galaxy is a feasible objective for humanity.

Friedman argues that we have only one technology that might someday take our machines to the stars – light sailing. It may be another century before we have large enough laser power sources to drive small unmanned spacecraft over interstellar distances. The barrier of bigness will be overcome by the enablement of smallness.

Friedman suggests three interstellar precursor missions: the first launched in 2018 to the Kuiper Belt and onward to the heliopause; the second launched in 2025 to the solar gravity lens focus and on to 1,000 astronomical units; the third launched in 2040 to the Oort Cloud.

Virtual Reality

Friedman oversells virtual reality just as some others have oversold manned spaceflight. He acknowledges that we have yet to reach full cultural acceptance and satisfaction with the virtual world. Yet he seems to assume that such acceptance by the general population is inevitable.

Calling virtual reality human exploration may confuse many readers. Will we be content to watch all future exploration through robotic eyes?

There may be an unstated reason for preferring virtual reality over human presence. If future space exploration were entirely robotic, scientists would be in charge.

Cautions about Mars

Mars is far from ideal as a future home for humankind. The thin atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide. Temperatures are low. The surface is more exposed to radiation and meteorites than Earth. Yet Mars remains the best candidate for a second planetary home within our own solar system.

Like other schedules proposed by some space advocates, Friedman’s plan for missions to Mars may be too optimistic. Yet such optimism keeps goals alive and encourages others to get involved.

What seems wildly optimistic now may be possible over the longer term. In the 1950s, some scientists thought that sending humans to the Moon was impossible.

The failure of grand visions

Friedman is correct in stating the biggest problem of space policy: the merging of grand visions with political constraints. In 1988, President Reagan’s statement on space policy included the idea of expanding human activity beyond Earth and into the solar system, an endorsement long sought by some elements of the space interest community. President George H.W. Bush fleshed out this idea in 1989 with his Space Exploration Initiative, urging that the U.S. develop a permanent presence on the Moon and the landing of a human crew on Mars by 2019. These visions failed to win the financing that would make them feasible.

Frustration and Patience

It is understandable that long-time campaigners for further exploration and use of space get frustrated, in some cases foreseeing the end of such endeavors. We all want to see major hopeful events occur in our own lifetimes. Yet we share some responsibility to look beyond.

Writing off human expansion beyond Mars for all the humans who follow us is, despite Friedman’s claim, pessimistic. The remedy is a younger generation of advocates.

A Little History

Friedman states that the settlement of Mars is the rationale for human spaceflight. The leaders of the Planetary Society did not initially support that goal. In the organization’s early years, its chief spokespersons criticized NASA’s emphasis on human missions (particularly the Space Station), which they saw as robbing funds that should have gone into further robotic exploration.

Sagan and others later realized that the planetary exploration budget rose and fell with the rise and fall of manned spaceflight programs. When NASA funding was rising, space science prospered; when NASA funding declined, space science funding declined with it. After the cancellation of further Apollo missions, planetary science was hit hardest by budget cuts . This revived a debate as old as the space program, between advocates of manned spaceflight and those who believe that priority should be given to exploration by unmanned spacecraft.

Friedman wrote in a 1984 article in Aerospace America about extending human civilization to space, suggesting a lunar base, a manned expedition to Mars, or a prospecting journey to some asteroids undertaken by an international team.

By the mid-1980s, the Planetary Society was advocating a joint U.S. Soviet manned mission to Mars. Senator Spark Matsunaga of Hawaii introduced legislation to support this idea and published a book in 1986 entitled The Mars Project: Journeys beyond the Cold War. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev made overtures to the U.S. in 1987 and 1988 for a cooperative program eventually leading to a Mars landing.

Bruce Murray, reacting favorably to the 1989 Space Exploration Initiative, published an article in 1990 entitled Destination Mars—A Manifesto. Observing that the space frontier for the U.S. and the USSR had stagnated a few hundred miles up, Murray commented that neither the United States nor the Soviet Union is likely, by itself, to sustain the decades of effort necessary to reach Mars. Murray urged a joint U.S.-Soviet manned spaceflight program leading eventually to Mars.

This reviewer argued at the 1987 Case for Mars conference that relying on the Soviet Union during the Cold War made such a mission subject to political volatility. This turned out to be true. As Friedman reports, a brief flurry of interest by President Reagan and Gorbachev in a cooperative human mission to Mars disappeared quickly in the face of large global events such as the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

More recently, when the U.S. sought to punish Russia for invading Ukraine, Russian officials made public statements threatening the continuation of Russian transport of Americans to the International Space Station, even though the U.S. was paying for those flights.


Louis Friedman, Human Spaceflight: From Mars to the Stars, University of Arizona Press, 2015.

Louis D. Friedman, “New Era of Global Security: Reach for the Stars,” Aerospace America, August 1984, 4.

Michael A.G. Michaud, “Choosing partners for a manned mission to Mars,” Space Policy, February 1988, 12-18.

Chapter entitled “Scientists, Citizens, and Space” in Michael A.G. Michaud, Reaching for the High Frontier: The American Pro-Space Movement, 1972-1984, Praeger, 1986, 187-213.

Bruce Murray, “Destination Mars: A Manifesto,” Nature 345 (17 May 1990), 199-200.

Iosif Shklovskii and Carl Sagan, Intelligent Life in the Universe, Dell, 1966, 449.



A Cometary Solution for KIC 8462852?

by Paul Gilster on November 25, 2015

KIC 8462852 is back in the news. And despite a new paper dealing with the unusual star, I suspect it will be in the news for some time to come, for we’re a long way from finding out what is causing the unusual light curves the Planet Hunters group found in Kepler data. KIC 8462, you’ll recall, clearly showed something moving between us and the star, with options explored by Tabetha Boyajian, a Yale University postdoc, in a paper we examined here in October (see KIC 8462852: Cometary Origin of an Unusual Light Curve? and a series of follow-up articles).

To recap, we’re seeing a light curve around this F3-class star that doesn’t look anything like a planetary transit, but is much more suggestive of debris. Finding a debris disk around a star is not in itself unusual, since we’ve found many such around young stars, but KIC 8462 doesn’t appear to be a young star when looked at kinematically. In other words, it’s not moving the way we would expect from a star that has recently formed. Moreover, the star shows us none of the emissions at mid-infrared wavelengths we would expect from a young, dusty disk.

Jason Wright and the team at the Glimpsing Heat from Alien Technologies project at Penn State have taken a hard look at KIC 8462 and discussed it briefly in a recent paper (citations for both the Boyajian and Wright papers are at the end of this entry). It seems entirely reasonable to do what Wright did in referencing the fact that the light curve we see around the star is what we would expect to see if an advanced civilization were building something. That ‘something’ might be a project along the lines of a ‘Dyson swarm,’ in which huge collectors gather solar energy, or it could be a kind of structure beyond our current thinking.

We all know that the media reaction was swift, and we saw some outlets acting as if Wright had declared KIC 8462 an alien outpost. He had done no such thing, nor has he or the Penn State team ever suggested anything more than continuing investigation of this strange star. What seems to bother others, who have scoffed at the idea of extraterrestrial engineering, is that Wright and company have not explicitly ruled it out as a matter of course. The assumption there is that no other civilizations exist, and therefore we could not possibly be seeing one.

I come down on the side of keeping our options open and studying the data in front of us. We have a lot of work ahead to figure out what is causing a light curve so unusual that at least one of the objects briefly occulting this star caused a 22 percent dip in its flux. That implies a huge object, evidently transiting in company with many smaller ones. There seems to be no evidence that the objects are spherically symmetric. What’s going on around KIC 8462?

A new paper from Massimo Marengo (Iowa State) and colleagues looks at what Tabetha Boyajian identified as the most likely natural cause of the KIC 8462 light curves. All I have at this point is the JPL news release and a release from Iowa State — the paper has not yet appeared online — describing evidence for a swarm of comets as the culprit. The study, which has been accepted at Astrophysical Journal Letters relies on Spitzer data dating from 2015, five years later than the WISE data that found no signs of an infrared excess.


Image: This illustration shows a star behind a shattered comet. Is this the explanation for the unusual light curves found at KIC 8462852? Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

If there had been a collision between planets or asteroids in this system, it was possible that the WISE (Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer) data, taken in 2010, reflected conditions just before the collision occurred. Now, however, we can rule that out, because Spitzer, like WISE, finds no excess of infrared light from warm dust around KIC 8462. So the idea of planet or asteroid collisions seems even less likely. Marengo, according to the JPL document, falls back on the idea of a family of comets on an eccentric orbit. He’s also aware of just how odd KIC 8462 is:

“This is a very strange star,” [Marengo] said. “It reminds me of when we first discovered pulsars. They were emitting odd signals nobody had ever seen before, and the first one discovered was named LGM-1 after ‘Little Green Men… We may not know yet what’s going on around this star, but that’s what makes it so interesting.”

It would take a very large comet indeed to account for the drop in flux we’ve already seen, but a swarm of comets and fragments can’t be ruled out because we just don’t have enough data to make the call. I assume Marengo also gets into the fact that a nearby M-dwarf (less than 900 AU from KIC 8462, is a possible influence in disrupting the system. The comet explanation would be striking if confirmed because we have no other instances of transiting events like these, and we would have found these comets by just happening to see them at the right time in their presumably long and eccentric orbit around the star.


Image: Left: a deep, isolated, asymmetric event in the Kepler data for KIC 8462. The deepest portion of the event is a couple of days long, but the long “tails” extend for over 10 days. Right: a complex series of events. The deepest event extends below 0.8, off the bottom of the figure. After Figure 1 of Boyajian et al. (2015). Credit: Wright et al.

So, despite PR headlines like Strange Star Likely Swarmed by Comets, I think we have to take a more cautious view. We’re dealing with a curious star whose changes in flux we don’t yet understand, and we have candidate theories to explain them. We’re no more ready to declare comets the cause of KIC 8462’s anomalies than we are to confirm alien megastructures. At this point we should leave both natural and artificial causes in the mix and recognize how long it’s going to take to work out a viable solution through careful, unbiased analysis.

The Marengo paper is Marengo, Hulsebus and Willis, ”KIC 8462852: The Infrared Flux,” Astrophysical Journal Letters, Vol. 814, No. 1 (abstract). I write about it this morning only because it is getting so much media attention — more later when I can go through the actual paper. The Boyajian paper is Boyajian et al., “Planet Hunters X. KIC 8462852 – Where’s the flux?” submitted to Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (preprint). The Wright paper is Wright et al., “The Ĝ Search for Extraterrestrial Civilizations with Large Energy Supplies. IV. The Signatures and Information Content of Transiting Megastructures,” submitted to The Astrophysical Journal (preprint).



Huge Flares from a Tiny Star

by Paul Gilster on November 24, 2015

Just a few days ago we looked at evidence that Kepler-438b, thought in some circles to be a possibly habitable world, is likely kept out of that category by flare activity and coronal mass ejections from the parent star. These may well have stripped the planet’s atmosphere entirely (see A Kepler-438b Caveat – and a Digression). Now we have another important study, this one out of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, taking a deep look at the red dwarf TVLM 513–46546 and finding flare activity far stronger than anything our Sun produces.

Led by the CfA’s Peter Williams, the team behind this work used data from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), examining the star at a frequency of 95 GHz. Flares have never before been detected from a red dwarf at frequencies as high as this. Moreover, although TVLM 513 is just one-tenth as massive as Sol, the detected emissions are fully 10,000 times brighter than what our star produces. The four-hour observation window was short, which may be an indication that we’re looking at a star that is frequently active.

Now considered an M9 dwarf, TVLM 513 is about 35 light years away in the constellation Boötes. It is believed to be on the borderline between red and brown dwarfs, with a radius 0.11 that of the Sun, a temperature of 2500 K, and a rotation rate of a scant two hours (the Sun takes almost a month for a complete rotation). For a habitable planet to exist here — one with temperatures allowing liquid water on the surface — it would need to orbit at about 0.02 AU. That’s obviously a problem, as Williams explains in this CfA news release:

“It’s like living in Tornado Alley in the U.S. Your location puts you at greater risk of severe storms. A planet in the habitable zone of a star like this would be buffeted by storms much stronger than those generated by the Sun.”


Image: Artist’s impression of red dwarf star TVLM 513-46546. ALMA observations suggest that it has an amazingly powerful magnetic field (shown by the blue lines), potentially associated with a flurry of solar-flare-like eruptions. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF; Dana Berry / SkyWorks.

Another unusual aspect of TVLM 513 is its magnetic field. Data from the Very Large Array in New Mexico had previously shown a magnetic field several hundred times stronger than the Sun’s. The paper argues that the emissions observed in the ALMA data are the result of synchrotron emission — radiation generated by the acceleration of high-velocity charged particles through magnetic fields — associated with the small star’s magnetic activity.

We have a lot to learn about small stars, their magnetic fields and their flare processes, and even in this study, the paper offers a caveat:

… confident inferences based on the broadband radio spectrum of TVLM 513 are precluded because the ALMA observations were not obtained contemporaneously with observations at longer wavelengths, and TVLM 513’s radio luminosity, and possibly its radio spectral shape, are variable. Additional support from the Joint ALMA Observatory to allow simultaneous observations with other observatories would be highly valuable.

The authors add that while it has long been known that both stars and gas giant planets have magnetic fields, the mechanisms at work are different and it is unclear what kind of magnetic activity we should expect from objects of intermediate size. Learning more about magnetic processes in small stars should help us understand more about exoplanets and their magnetic activity. This first result at millimeter wavelengths thus points to the work ahead:

Modern radio telescopes are capable of achieving ∼µJy sensitivities at high frequencies (≿20 GHz), raising the possibility of probing the means by which particles are accelerated to MeV energies by objects with effective temperatures of ≾2500 K.

So we’re going to learn a lot more about small red dwarfs as we study whether or not such stars can host habitable planets. The argument against red dwarfs and astrobiology used to focus on tidal lock and the problems of atmospheric circulation, but we’re now wondering whether, particularly in young red dwarfs, flare activity may not be the key factor. If TVLM 513 is representative of a category of flare-spitting stars, the smallest red dwarfs may be hostile to life.

The paper is Williams et al., “The First Millimeter Detection of a Non-Accreting Ultracool Dwarf,” in press at The Astrophysical Journal (preprint).



The 3 Most Futuristic Talks at IAC 2015

by Paul Gilster on November 23, 2015

Justin Atchison’s name started appearing in these pages all the way back in 2007 when, in a post called Deep Space Propulsion via Magnetic Fields, I described his work at Cornell on micro-satellites the size of a single wafer of silicon. Working with Mason Peck, Justin did his graduate work on chip-scale spacecraft dynamics, solar sails and propulsion via the Lorentz force, ideas I’ve tracked ever since. He’s now an aerospace engineer at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, where he focuses on trajectory design and orbit determination for Earth and interplanetary spacecraft. As a 2015 NIAC fellow he is researching technologies that enable asteroid gravimetry during spacecraft flybys. In the entry that follows, Justin reports on his trip to Jerusalem for this fall’s International Astronautical Congress.

by Justin A. Atchison


Greetings. I’m Justin Atchison, an aerospace engineer at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. I’m proud to have previously had my graduate research included on Centauri Dreams (1,2, and 3). Now, I’m guest-writing an article about the three most futuristic talks I saw at the International Astronautical Congress in Jerusalem this past October. I was able to attend the conference thanks to a travel fellowship through the Future Space Leaders Foundation (FSLF). I’d strongly encourage any student or young-professional (under 35) to apply for this grant next year. It’s a fantastic opportunity to attend this premier conference and interact with a variety of international leaders and thinkers in the aerospace field. FSLF also hosts the Future Space Event on Capitol Hill each summer, which offers engagement with US Congress and aerospace executives on the latest and most relevant space-related subjects.

Image: Justin in the IAC-2015 exhibition hall trying on a protective harness that minimizes radiation exposure to the pelvis bone, which is particularly sensitive to radiation due to its high bone marrow production.

So with that note of thanks and recommendation, I give you “The 3 Most Futuristic Talks at IAC 2015.”

1. An Approach for Terraforming Titan

Abbishek G., D. Kothia, R.A. Kulkarni, S. Chopra, and U. Guven, “Space Settlement on Saturn’s Moon: Titan,” International Astronautical Congress, Jerusalem, Israel, IAC-15-D4.1.5, 2015.

University of Petroleum and Energy Studies, India

The authors of this paper explore options for terraforming Titan in the distant future. Specifically, this means liberating oxygen and increasing the surface temperature.
In addition to having water-ice, Titan is a candidate for human settlement for a few compelling reasons:

  1. Abundant Water-Ice – Water is obviously critical for life and is a source of oxygen.
  2. Solar Wind Shielding – Saturn’s magnetosphere “contains” Titan for 95% of its orbit period and is relatively stable.
  3. Earth-like Geology – Observations of Titan show a relatively young, Earth-like surface with rivers, wind-generated dunes, and tectonic-induced mountains.
  4. Native Atmosphere – Titan’s atmosphere is nitrogen rich (95%) and shows strata similar to Earth (troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, and thermosphere). The atmospheric pressure on the surface is only 60% higher than that on Earth.

However, Titan presents challenges for habitation, namely a lack of breathable oxygen and the presence of extremely cold surface temperatures (90K). The authors suggest that the solution to these two challenges is a nuclear fission plant that can dissociate oxygen from water and produce greenhouse gases.

Generating Oxygen – The main idea is to use beta or gamma radiation to set up a radiolysis process that converts hydrogen and oxygen atoms into usable constituents, including O2. This requires an artificial radiation source and a means of liberating the hydrogen and oxygen atoms from the native cold ice. They suggest a nuclear fission plant as the source of the radiation, and a duoplasmatron as the means of liberating and exciting the H and O atoms. The duoplasmatron would accelerate a beam of argon ions, which would be aimed at the water-ice. The collisions cause sputtering, where the argon ions literally knock O and H atoms out of the ice. These atoms are then collected and radiated to generate usable O2.

Heating Up the Atmosphere – At about 9.5 AU from the Sun, Titan receives only ~1% as much solar energy as Earth. The goal for raising the temperature on Titan is to capture and retain that limited energy. The authors consider the generation of greenhouse gases as the solution. There are two options they suggest:

  1. If lightning is present on Titan, then the oxygen generated by the nuclear reactor can energetically react with the already-present nitrogen to produce nitrogen oxides, namely NO, NO2, N2O, and N2O2. Once these nitrogen oxides are able to raise the surface temperature by roughly 20 K, Titan’s methane lakes will begin to boil off, releasing gaseous methane as an additional greenhouse gas, and potentially raising the surface temperature to a habitable value.
  2. If lightning isn’t present, or if its generation of nitrogen oxides is too inefficient, one could boil the methane lakes directly using the previously mentioned nuclear reactor. In this setup, the reactor is simply increasing the amount of vapor in the already-present methane cycle (vaporization and condensation of methane). To cause the lakes to naturally vaporize, one needs to generate sufficient vapor to affect the global climate and raise the surface temperature by 20 K.

The authors don’t estimate the total time required for terraforming, the size of the nuclear plant required to start the process, or the maximum theoretical surface temperature achievable, but they nonetheless posit a potential path forward for planetary habitation…and that’s a meaningful contribution.


2. Eternal Memory

Guzman M., A. M. Hein, and C. Welch, “Eternal Memory: Long-Duration Storage Concepts for Space” International Astronautical Congress, Jerusalem, Israel, IAC-15-D4.1.3, 2015.

International Space University and Initiative for Interstellar Studies, France

How can present day humanity leave a message for distant future civilizations (human or alien)? This question first became an option with Carl Sagan’s famous Voyager Golden Record. The authors of this review paper evaluate the requirements and near term options available to store and interpret data for millions to billions of years in space. That’s a long enough timescale that you have to start to consider the lifetime of the sun (5 billion years) and the merging of the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies (long term dynamics may destabilize orbits in the solar system). There are a variety of current efforts, most of which are crowd-funded, including: The Helena Project, Lunar Mission Project, Time Capsule to Mars, KEO, The Rosetta Project, The Human Document Project, One Earth Message, and Moonspike.

The data storage mechanism has to survive radiation, micrometeoroids, extreme temperatures, vacuum, solar wind, and geologic processes (if landed on a planet or moon). In terms of locating the data, the authors consider just about every option: Earth orbit, the Moon, the planets, planetary moons, Lagrange points, asteroids and comets, escape trajectories, and even orbiting an M-star. The Moon appears to be a good candidate because it remains near enough to Earth for future civilizations to discover, yet distant enough to avoid too common access (it can’t be too accessible or it might be easily destroyed by malicious or careless humans). One of the proposed implementations is to bury data at the lunar north pole, where regolith can be a shield against micrometeoroid impacts.

There are a variety of near-term technologies available for this challenge, including three approaches that could likely survive the requisite millions to billions of years:

  1. Silica Glass Etching – “Silica is an attractive material for eternal memory concepts because it is stable against temperature, stable against chemicals, has established microfabrication methods, and has a high Young’s modulus and Knoop hardness.” In this implementation, femtosecond lasers are used to etch the glass and achieve CD-ROM like data densities. A laboratory test exposed a sample wafer to 1000°C heat for two hours with no damage.
  2. Tungsten Embedded in Silicon Nitride – A group in the Netherlands has developed and tested a process for patterning tungsten inside transparent, resilient silicon nitride. The resulting wafer can be read optically. The materials were selected for their high melting points, low coefficients of thermal expansion, and high fracture toughness. A sample QR code was generated and successfully tested at high temperatures, the result of which implied 106 year survivability.
  3. Generational Bacteria DNA – This approach uses DNA as a means of storing data (see Data Storage: The DNA Option). Although this may sound extreme, consider that bacterial DNA has already survived millions of years in Earth’s rather unstable environment. It is a demonstrated high-density, resilient means of storing data. In this implementation, we would write data into the genome of a particularly hardy strain of bacteria, and rely on its self-survival to protect our data for the future. This option presents the challenge that it requires the future civilization to have the capability to study the bacteria’s DNA and identify the human generated code.

As humans continue to send probes to unique places in the solar system, I hope that we’ll consider and incorporate these new technologies. Who knows–In a few million years, our “cave paintings” may be hanging in some intergalactic museum.


3. Carbon Nanotubes for Space Solar Power…(And Eventually Interplanetary Travel?)

Gadhadar R., P. Narayan, and I. Divyashree, “Carbon-Nanotube Based Space Solar Power (CASSP),” 4th Space Solar Power International Student and Young Professional Design Competition, Jerusalem, Israel, 2015.

NoPo Nanotechnologies Private Limited and Dhruva Space, India.

Single-Walled Carbon Nanotubes (SWCNT) have remarkable properties:

  1. Incredibly high strength-to-weight ratio (300x steel) [~50,000 kN m / kg]
  2. High electrical conductivity (higher than copper) [106-107 m/Ω]
  3. High thermal conductivity (higher than diamond) [3500 W/(m K)]
  4. High temperature stability (up to 2800°C in a vacuum)
  5. Tailorable semiconductive properties (based on nanotube diameter)
  6. Ability to sustain high voltage densities (1-2 V/µm)
  7. Ability to sustain high current densities (~109 A/cm2)
  8. High radiation resistance

These properties, specifically the strength-to-weight ratio, make them candidates for things like space elevators and momentum exchange tethers.

The authors of this paper posit a different application for SWCNT: space based solar power. This is the concept where an enormous array of solar cells is placed in orbit around Earth. Power is collected, and then beamed down to the surface at microwave frequencies for terrestrial use. The main idea is to collect solar power outside of Earth’s atmosphere, which attenuates something like 50-60% of the energy in solar spectra. The spacecraft has access to a higher energy density of solar light, which it then beams down to Earth at microwave frequencies, at which the atmosphere is transparent. A second advantage is that high orbiting satellites have much shorter local nights (eclipses) than someone on the Earth (there’s only up to about 75 minutes of darkness for geostationary orbit).

In this paper, the authors describe an implementation of a solar power satellite that would use semiconducting SWCNT as the solar cells. Based on the authors’ analysis, it’s feasible to mature this TRL 4 technology to achieve a peak energy of 2 W/g at 10 cents per W. This is compared to current TRL 9 options that offer roughly 0.046 W/g at 250 dollar per W. The design is entirely developed from different forms of SWCNT, which are used to make a transparent substrate, a semiconducting layer, and a conducting base. The three-layered assembly would have a density of 230 g/m2, roughly a third of current technologies.

Additionally, the authors advocate for SWCNT based microwave transmitters, which could potentially be more efficient than traditional Klystron tubes and wouldn’t require active cooling.

As an added benefit, this type of SWCNT microwave source could potentially be used in the newly discussed (and certainly controversial) CANNAE drive. In the paper’s implementation, CANNAE propulsion would only be used for station-keeping…But it’s not hard to extrapolate and conceive of a solar powered, CANNAE-driven spacecraft for interplanetary exploration.

I have to admit, I’m a bit skeptical of the economics of space-based solar power concepts. But this paper is nonetheless exciting as it highlights the potential applications for this relatively new engineered material. I can’t wait to see how SWCNT are used in the coming decades and what new exploration technologies they’ll enable.



The Cereal Box

by Paul Gilster on November 20, 2015

“No matter how these issues are ultimately resolved, Centauri Dreams opts for the notion that even the back of a cereal box may contain its share of mysteries.” I wrote that line in 2005, and if it sounds cryptic, read on to discover its origins, ably described by Christopher Phoenix. I first encountered Christopher in an online discussion group made up of physicists and science fiction writers, where his knack for taking a topic apart always impressed me. A writer whose interest in interstellar flight is lifelong, he is currently turning his love of science fiction into a novel that, he tells me “incorporates some of the ideas we talk about on Centauri Dreams as a background setting.” Today’s essay examines the ideas of a physicist who dismissed the idea of interstellar flight entirely, while using a set of assumptions Christopher has come to challenge.

by Christopher Phoenix


“All this stuff about traveling around the universe in space suits — except for local exploration which I have not discussed — belongs back where it came from, on the cereal box.”

Over fifty years ago, physicist Edward Purcell penned the boldest dismissal of interstellar flight on record in his paper “Radioastronomy and Communication Through Space”. In that paper, Purcell uses the elementary laws of mechanics to refute the possibility of starflight in total. There are many people, of course, who share his belief that we will never reach the stars.

Keeping a firm grounding in the laws of physics is absolutely necessary when researching interstellar travel. A healthy skeptical attitude can help keep researchers honest with themselves. Certainly, not everything we imagine is possible. Nor can we hope to ever reach for the stars if we do not keep our feet firmly planted in reality.

However, sometimes such extreme skepticism deserves some healthy skepticism itself. Even though Purcell’s equations aren’t wrong, he didn’t prove that starflight belongs back on the cereal box. Instead, he defines the problem of interstellar travel in such a way that it seems to be insurmountable.

Radioastronomy and Communication Through Space


Before we begin, I want to quickly introduce Purcell and this paper. Edward M. Purcell made important contributions to physics and radioastronomy. He shared the 1952 Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) in liquids and solids. Later, Purcell was the first to detect radio emissions from neutral galactic hydrogen, the famous “21cm line”. Many important developments in radioastronomy resulted from his work.

“Radioastronomy and Communication Through Space” was the first paper in the Brookhaven Lecture Series. These lectures were meant to provide a meeting ground for all the scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory. In this paper, Purcell argued that traditional radio SETI, not interstellar travel, is our only way of learning about other planets in the galaxy.

Image: Edward Mills Purcell (1912–1997). Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Purcell builds to his conclusion in three sections. The first section discusses then-recent discoveries in radioastronomy. Purcell tells how astronomers mapped the galaxy by observing radio emissions from neutral galactic hydrogen (the 21cm line). He notes in particular that we gathered all this information by capturing an astonishingly tiny amount of radio energy from space. Over nine years, the total amount of radio energy captured by all 21cm observatories added up to less than one erg (10-7 J).

The paper then jumps from radioastronomy to more speculative topics. In the second section, Purcell takes on the idea of interstellar travel and runs some calculations on relativistic rockets. He concludes that interstellar flight is “preposterous”. In the final section of his paper, Purcell argues that radio messages can be sent between the stars for relatively little energy cost, while the energy required for interstellar travel is unobtainable.

I shall primarily discuss the second part of this paper, where Purcell argued against the possibility of interstellar travel.

“This is preposterous!”

From the start, Purcell considered fast interstellar travel as our only option. Purcell noted that relativity is not the obstacle to reaching another star within a single human lifetime. We cannot travel faster than light. However, if a we travel at speeds close to that of light, time dilation becomes an important factor, reducing the amount of time that passes for us on our trip. You will age much less than your friends back home if you travel to the stars at relativistic speeds.

This is perfectly correct, in my view, so far as it goes. Special relativity is reliable. The trouble is not, as we say, with the kinematics but with the energetics… Personally, I believe in special relativity. If it were not reliable, some very expensive machines around here would be in deep trouble.

The problem, Purcell says, is building a rocket capable of carrying out this mission. He develops this argument by examining a particular example flight.

Let us consider a trip to a place 12 light years away, and back. Because we don’t want to take many generations to do it, let us arbitrarily say we will go and come back in 28 years earth time. We will reach a top speed of 99% speed of light in the middle, and slow down and come back. The relativistic transformations show that we will come back in 28 years, only ten years older. This I really believe… Now let us look at the problem of designing a rocket to perform this mission.

So, Purcell has defined the problem in a certain way. The starship must fly to another star and return to Earth within a human lifetime. To do so, it will reach a top speed of 99% the speed of light (C) in the middle of the voyage. The craft is a rocket, and it must carry all its propellant from the beginning of the trip. It cannot refuel anywhere. To reach 99% C within a short amount of time, the rocket must maintain an acceleration of one g for most of the trip.

Having laid out the starting assumptions for our trip, Purcell uses the relativistic rocket equation to calculate the amount of propellant the rocket will require to complete the trip. Remember that rockets are momentum machines. They throw a certain mass of propellant out the back, and the reaction force pushes the rocket. When that propellant is all gone, only the payload remains and the rocket has reached its final speed.

A rocket engine’s performance is determined by its exhaust velocity (Vex). This is the velocity at which propellant leaves the engine as measured by the rocket. The higher the Vex, the more efficiently the rocket engine uses propellant. Engineers refer to rocket efficiency as specific impulse (Isp). A rocket’s specific impulse is determined by its exhaust velocity.

If you have a rocket of a certain Vex, and you want to accelerate it to a certain maximum velocity (Vmax), physics imposes a certain relationship between the initial and final mass of the rocket. Engineers call this ratio a rocket’s mass ratio. This relationship is shown by the rocket equation. Unfortunately, if our Vmax is much larger than our Vex, mass ratios increase exponentially. This is because the rocket must not only accelerate the payload, but also all the as-yet unused propellant. To go faster, you need more propellant, but you need more propellant to carry that propellant- and so on.

So, our next problem is choosing an engine. We want to travel close to the speed of light, so we need an engine with the highest exhaust velocity (and thus highest Isp) possible. Chemical rockets have much to low a Vex to do this- they would require an unimaginably large amount of reaction mass to approach the speed of light. We need a far more powerful engine.

One type of engine that could perform far better than chemical rockets is the nuclear fusion rocket. So, Purcell first proposes using idealized nuclear fusion propellant. In this case, the rocket’s initial mass must be a little over a billion times its final mass to reach 99% C. A ten ton payload will require a ten billion ton rocket at the start of the journey. This is simply too much mass!

We need something far more potent. Purcell turns to idealized matter-antimatter (M/AM) propellant. Again, we assume the fuel is utilized with perfect efficiency. Matter annihilates with antimatter, and the resulting energy is exhausted as massless electromagnetic radiation (gamma rays), giving us a Vex of C. We can’t beat that.


Image: VARIES (Vacuum to Antimatter Rocket Interstellar Explorer System) is a concept developed by Richard Obousy that would create its own antimatter enroute through the use of powerful lasers. Credit: Adrian Mann.

The situation is vastly improved by M/AM propellant. To reach 99% C, the rocket’s initial mass must be only 14 times its final mass. But we must also slow down at the destination, and slowing down requires just as much effort as accelerating in the first place. After that, we must turn the ship around and return to Earth.

So, during the course of our flight, the rocket shall undergo four accelerations. On the trip away from Earth, the rocket will accelerate to 99% C, and then decelerate back down to rest at the destination star. After turning around, it will accelerate back to 99% C on the trip home and then decelerate back down to rest at Earth. To do this, the rocket must start with an initial mass 40,000 times its final mass. To send a ten ton payload on this round trip will require a 400,000 ton rocket, consisting half of matter and half of antimatter.

The starship must accelerate at one g for most of the trip. At the outset of its journey, this rocket must radiate 1018 watts of radiant energy to accelerate its 400,000 tons of mass at one g. This is a little over the total power that the Earth receives from the sun. Only this energy is in gamma rays, which presents a shielding problem for any planet near the ship. In addition, once the rocket achieves relativistic velocities, cosmic dust and gas present a shielding problem for the ship itself. At these speeds, even tiny specks of matter will behave like pinpoint nuclear explosions, and individual protons will be transformed into deadly cosmic rays.

Purcell concludes that these calculations prove that interstellar flight is “preposterous”, in this solar system or any other.

Rigging the game

There isn’t anything wrong with Purcell’s calculations. The problem is that Purcell wants to take this one set of calculations and prove that any form of interstellar travel is impossible. This isn’t very fair, since the starting conditions he picked in his example lead to his pessimistic conclusions. Let’s examine these assumptions.

Purcell’s first assumption is we must travel at 99% C. Why must we travel so fast? Even to complete a trip to a nearby star within a human lifetime, you can travel slower than that. Purcell is committed to these extreme relativistic speeds in order to take advantage of time dilation and complete the round trip in a decade.

If we are willing to travel much slower, perhaps 10% C, or even 1% C, and let multiple generations of crew make the trip, the difficulties are greatly reduced. At slower speeds, propulsion requirements are far more reasonable, and deadly collisions with cosmic dust would be easier to defend against.

Of course, there are many very difficult challenges to solve before we can launch such a ship. The travelers must recycle all their air and water, grow their own food, and build a stable society able to last for centuries. Some form of artificial gravity must be provided to prevent muscle and bone loss in microgravity. The habitable sections of the ship must be shielded from cosmic rays. But none of these represent hard physical limits arising from the laws of mechanics and nothing else.

This is all assuming humans are making the trip. Slow travel is made even easier if humans do not make the trip, just as we have done with our current robotic exploration of the solar system.

The second assumption is the starship must return to Earth. Particularly if we must carry all the propellant we use from the outset, a round trip mission is far more difficult than a one-way trip. But why must the starship return to Earth? There are many interesting missions that do not require the spacecraft to return to Earth. A colonizing expedition does not have or even want to return. Neither does a robotic probe. A fly-by probe like Daedalus doesn’t even need to carry propellant to slow down at the destination.

Purcell’s third questionable assumption is an interstellar vehicle must carry all its energy and reaction mass on board from the start of the trip. Is this really true? Think about in-situ resource utilization. An interstellar expedition could mine propellant from planetoids encountered at the destination. We can use propulsion systems that use the resources present in space, like gravitational assists, solar sails, or even interstellar ramjets. Granted, gravitational assists and solar sails could not get you anywhere near relativistic speeds, but they could work for slower travel.


Image: A Bussard ramjet in flight, as imagined for ESA’s Innovative Technologies from Science Fiction project. Credit: ESA/Manchu.

If the natural resources of space are not sufficient, there are other options. Rockets carry all their energy and reaction mass from the start. Beam-rider propulsion systems are an alternative that leave heavy engines, energy sources, and propellant back home. One such craft is a photon sail pushed by a laser. Another is a spacecraft propelled by a stream of relativistic pellets, each transferring momentum to the craft. As a cursory read of Mallove and Matloff’s excellent book The Starflight Handbook shows, we are not limited to rockets only.

Ultimately, Purcell’s conclusion that all speculation about interstellar travel belongs back “on the cereal box” simply doesn’t hold air in the space vacuum.

SETI vs interstellar travel?

Purcell’s paper underscores an unfortunate split in the ranks of scientists. Many scientists interested in SETI maintain that interstellar flight is simply not feasible for any civilization. They argue that we don’t need to physically travel to other planetary systems in order to learn about the rest of the universe. We need only turn our radio telescopes to the sky and search for broadcasts from more advanced civilizations. If we find them, these advanced civilizations will hopefully tell us everything we want to know. We might even find that mature civilizations in space have formed a galactic community of communicating societies. Perhaps they might allow us to join the conversation once we demonstrate enough maturity to engage in interstellar radio communications. This an exciting possibility, if a bit idealistic, and SETI deserves our support.

However, it is important to realize it is not an either-or question. We can research interstellar travel and carry out SETI searches at the same time. Even if SETI searches find communicative aliens to talk to, that will not negate the usefulness of interstellar travel. We will still need interstellar flight to investigate the countless solar systems where such civilizations are not present, and starflight is absolutely necessary for interstellar migration. But it seems like some SETI supporters don’t see it that way.

Denying starflight has become a fundamental tenant of the SETI worldview. It speaks directly to the question of whether it might be dangerous to contact alien civilizations. Many SETI supporters claim that we don’t have to worry about this question. If we assume interstellar travel is impossible, no civilization in space can physically threaten another. As Purcell claims in his paper:

It [communicating with ETI] is a conversation which is, in the deepest sense, utterly benign. No one can threaten anyone else with objects. We have seen what it takes to send objects around, but one can send information for practically nothing. Here one has the ultimate in philosophical discourse – all you can do is exchange ideas, but you do that to your heart’s content.

In my opinion, this is the real reason why Purcell argues so vehemently against the possibility of interstellar flight. In order for communication with ETI to be completely safe, interstellar travel must be impossible for any civilization anywhere in the universe. Contact with ETI becomes more complicated if there is a possibility of encountering them or their technology physically. Of course, we can’t be entirely sure messages from ETI will be entirely harmless either, if they contain instructions or information that might pose a danger.

I suspect that Purcell’s pessimistic arguments against starflight were driven more by his desire to believe that discourse with aliens comes without risks than a genuine interest in the future of space travel. Whatever the disposition of aliens, we can’t allow our personal hopes and dislikes to bias our conclusions. While interstellar travel is very difficult, we can already conceive of ways that a sufficiently motivated civilization could reach the stars.



Directly Imaging a Young ‘Jupiter’

by Paul Gilster on November 19, 2015

Centauri Dreams continues to follow the fortunes of the Gemini Planet Imager with great interest, and I thank Horatio Trobinson for a recent note reminding me of the latest news from researchers at the Gemini South installation in Chile. The project organized as the Gemini Planet Imager Exoplanet Survey is a three-year effort designed to do not radial velocity or transit studies but actual imaging of young Jupiters and debris disks around nearby stars. Operating at near-infrared wavelengths, the GPI itself uses adaptive optics, a coronagraph, a calibration interferometer and an integral field spectrograph in its high-contrast imaging work.

Launched in late 2014, the GPIES survey has studied 160 targets out of a projected 600 in a series of observing runs, all the while battling unexpectedly bad weather in Chile. Despite all this, project leader Bruce Macintosh (Stanford University), the man behind the construction of GPI, has been able to announce the discovery of the young ‘Jupiter’ 51 Eridani b, working with researchers from almost forty institutions in North and South America. The discovery was confirmed by follow-up work with the W.M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea (Hawaii).


Image: Discovery image of 51 Eri b with the Gemini Planet Imager taken in the near-infrared light on December 18, 2014. The bright central star has been mostly removed by a hardware and software mask to enable the detection of the exoplanet one million times fainter. Credits: J. Rameau (UdeM) and C. Marois (NRC Herzberg).

This is a world with about twice the mass of Jupiter, and this news release from the Gemini Observatory is characterizing it as “the most Solar System-like planet ever directly imaged around another star.” The reasons are obvious: 51 Eridani b orbits at about 13 AU, putting it a bit past Saturn in our own Solar System. And although 51 Eridani b is some 100 light years away, Macintosh and colleagues have found a strong spectroscopic signature of methane.

“Many of the exoplanets astronomers have imaged before have atmospheres that look like very cool stars” says Macintosh. “This one looks like a planet.”

Indeed, and we have further evidence that this is a planet rather than a brown dwarf in chance alignment with the star in the form of a recent paper that analyzes the motion of 51 Eridani b and finds it consistent with a forty-year orbit. Moreover, we’re going to be learning a great deal more about this interesting object in years to come, as the paper explains:

Continued astrometric monitoring of 51 Eri b over the next few years should be sufficient to detect curvature in the orbit, further constraining the semimajor axis and inclination of the orbit, and placing the first constraints on the eccentricity. Absolute astrometric measurements of 51 Eri with GAIA (e.g., Perryman et al. 2014), in conjunction with monitoring of the relative astrometry of 51 Eri b, will enable a direct measurement of the mass of the planet. Combined with the well-constrained age of 51 Eri b, such a determination would provide insight into the evolutionary history of low-mass directly imaged extrasolar planets, and help distinguish between a hot-start or core accretion formation process for this planet.


Image: The Gemini Planet Imager utilizes an integral field spectrograph, an instrument capable of taking images at multiple wavelengths – or colors – of infrared light simultaneously, in order to search for young self-luminous planets around nearby stars. The left side of the animation shows the GPI images of the nearby star 51 Eridani in order of increasing wavelength from 1.5 to 1.8 microns. The images have been processed to suppress the light from 51 Eridani, revealing the exoplanet 51 Eridani b (indicated) which is approximately a million times fainter than the parent star. The bright regions to the left and right of the masked star are artifacts from the image processing algorithm, and can be distinguished from real astrophysical signals based on their brightness and position as a function of wavelength. The spectrum of 51 Eridani b, on the right side of the animation, shows how the brightness of the planet varies as a function of wavelength. If the atmosphere was entirely transmissive, the brightness would be approximately constant as a function of wavelength. This is not the case for 51 Eridani b, the atmosphere of which contains both water (H2O) and methane (CH4). Over the spectral range of this GPI dataset, water absorbs photons between 1.5 and 1.6 microns, and methane absorbs between 1.6 and 1.8 microns. This leads to a strong peak in the brightness of the exoplanet at 1.6 microns, the wavelength at which absorption by both water and methane is weakest. Credit: Robert De Rosa (UC Berkeley), Christian Marois (NRC Herzberg, University of Victoria).

Christian Marois (National Research Council of Canada) discusses the nature of the find:

“GPI is capable of dissecting the light of exoplanets in unprecedented detail so we can now characterize other worlds like never before. The planet is so faint and located so close to its star, that it is also the first directly imaged exoplanet to be fully consistent with Solar System-like planet formation models.”

As you would expect, 51 Eridani b is a young planet, young enough that the heat of its formation gives us a solid infrared signature, allowing its direct detection. In addition to being in an orbit that reminds us of the Solar System, the young world is probably the lowest-mass planet yet imaged, just as its atmospheric methane signature is the strongest yet detected. Given that the Gemini Planet Imager Exoplanet Survey is only a fraction of the way through its observing list, we can expect to find more planets in the target area within 300 light years of the Solar System.

The paper is Macintosh et al., “Discovery and spectroscopy of the young jovian planet 51 Eri b with the Gemini Planet Imager,” Science Vol. 350, No. 6256 (2 October 2015), pp. 64-67 (abstract). The follow-up paper is DeRosa et al., “Astrometric Confirmation and Preliminary Orbital Parameters of the Young Exoplanet 51 Eridani b with the Gemini Planet Imager,” accepted at The Astrophysical Journal Letters (preprint).



A Kepler-438b Caveat (and a Digression)

by Paul Gilster on November 18, 2015

Before we go interstellar, a digression with reference to yesterday’s post, which looked at how we manipulate image data to draw out the maximum amount of information. I had mentioned the image widely regarded as the first photograph, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s ‘View from the Window at Le Gras.’ Centauri Dreams regular William Alschuler pointed out that this image is in fact a classic example of what I’m talking about. For without serious manipulation, it’s impossible to make out what you’re seeing. Have a look at the original and compare it to the image in yesterday’s post, which has been processed to reveal the underlying scene.


Image: New official image of the first photograph in 2003, minus any manual retouching. Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s View from the Window at Le Gras. c. 1826. Gernsheim Collection Harry Ransom Center / University of Texas at Austin. Photo by J. Paul Getty Museum.

And here again is the processed image, a much richer experience.


The University of Texas offers this explanation of how the image was made:

“Niépce thought to capture this image using a light-sensitive material so that the light itself would “etch” the picture for him. In 1826, through a process of trial and error, he finally came upon the combination of bitumen of Judea (a form of asphalt) spread over a pewter plate. When he let this petroleum-based substance sit in a camera obscura for eight hours without interruption, the light gradually hardened the bitumen where it hit, thus creating a rudimentary photo. He “developed” this picture by washing away the unhardened bitumen with lavender water, revealing an image of the rooftops and trees visible from his studio window. Niépce had successfully made the world’s first photograph.”

As with many astronomical photographs, what the unassisted human eye would see is often the least interesting aspect of the story. While we always want to know what a person looking out a window would see, we learn a great deal more by subjecting images to a variety of filters.

Meanwhile, in the Rest of the Galaxy…

Habitable zone planets are a primary attraction of the exoplanet hunt, but so often a tight analysis shows that what we know of a world isn’t enough to confirm its habitable status. Kepler-438b is a case in point, a world that is likely rocky orbiting a red dwarf some 470 light years away in the constellation Lyra. The planet orbits the primary every 35.2 days, but writing in these pages last January, Andrew LePage estimated there was only a one in four chance that Kepler-438b is in the habitable zone, declaring it more likely to be a cooler version of Venus.

Now we have more evidence that a planet some in the media have called ‘Earth-like’ is in fact a wasteland, its chances of life devastated by hard radiation from the host star. Kepler-438 produces huge flares every few hundred days, each of them approximately ten times more powerful than anything we’ve ever recorded on the Sun. These ‘superflares’ are laden with energies of 1033 erg, although energies of 1036 erg have been observed.

But the flares are part of a larger problem for Kepler-438b. They are associated with coronal mass ejections (CMEs), a phenomenon likely to have stripped away the planet’s atmosphere entirely. In work to be published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, David Armstrong (University of Warwick, UK) and colleagues analyze conditions around the red dwarf. Armstrong explains in a University of Warwick news release:

“If the planet, Kepler-438b, has a magnetic field like the Earth, it may be shielded from some of the effects. However, if it does not, or the flares are strong enough, it could have lost its atmosphere, be irradiated by extra dangerous radiation and be a much harsher place for life to exist.”


Image: The planet Kepler-438b is shown here in front of its violent parent star. It is regularly irradiated by huge flares of radiation, which could render the planet uninhabitable. Here the planet’s atmosphere is shown being stripped away. Credit: Mark A Garlick / University of Warwick.

The relationship of flares and CMEs is complicated, as are the effects of a magnetic field. From the paper:

It is possible that CMEs occur on other stars that produce very energetic flares, which could have serious consequences for any close-in exoplanets without a magnetic field to deflect the influx of energetic charged particles. Since the habitable zone for M dwarfs is relatively close in to the star, any exoplanets could be expected to be partially or completely tidally locked. This would limit the intrinsic magnetic moments of the planet, meaning that any magnetosphere would likely be small. Khodachenko et al. (2007) found that for an M dwarf, the stellar wind combined with CMEs could push the magnetosphere of an Earth-like exoplanet in the habitable zone within its atmosphere, resulting in erosion of the atmosphere. Following on from this, Lammer et al. (2007) concluded that habitable exoplanets orbiting active M dwarfs would need to be larger and more massive than Earth, so that the planet could generate a stronger magnetic field and the increased gravitational pull would help prevent atmospheric loss.

A coronal mass ejection occurs when huge amounts of plasma are blown outward from the star, and the extensive flare activity on Kepler-438 makes CMEs that much more likely. With the atmosphere greatly compromised or stripped away entirely, the flares can do their work, bathing the surface in ultraviolet and X-ray radiation and a sleet of hard particles. For a time, Kepler-438b looked so intriguing from an astrobiological standpoint, especially with its small radius 1.1 the size of Earth’s, but it takes an optimistic assessment of the habitable zone indeed to include it in the first place, and it now appears that the chances for life here are remote.

The paper is Armstrong et al., “The Host Stars of Keplers Habitable Exoplanets: Superflares, Rotation and Activity,” accepted at MNRAS and available as a preprint.



Pluto and How We See It

by Paul Gilster on November 17, 2015

As I did after yesterday’s post, I occasionally get requests for pictures of objects in natural color, as opposed to significantly enhanced images (at various wavelengths) designed to tease out structure or detail. Here are Pluto and Charon as seen by New Horizons’ LORRI (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager), with color data supplied by the Ralph instrument. The images in this composite are from July 13 and 14 and according to JHU/APL, “…portray Pluto and Charon as an observer riding on the spacecraft would see them.”


For those interested, Jenna Garrett wrote a fine piece for WiReD last summer called What We’re Really Looking at When We Look at Pluto that goes into the instrumentation aboard New Horizons and discusses the philosophical issues separating what we see from what is really there. Let me quote briefly from this:

It’s not hard for a photographer to understand why you’d question actually seeing Pluto—the same question has nagged photographers since Nicéphore Niépce made View from the Window at Le Gras in 1826. A camera is a simple machine: A lens and a shutter that allows the passage of light, which hits the chemical emulsion of film or the pixels of a digital sensor. That intervening technology takes photons bouncing off an object and interpolates them into data. More technology turns that data into an image. And still more technology disseminates that image so you might see it.

I don’t want to get too far into philosophy, but just for fun, here’s the Niépce image.


Image: The first recorded photograph, taken from a window in his study by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. For more, visit this University of Texas site.

It’s always good to ask how images are processed, especially when dealing with data being returned from the edge of the Solar system through a number of instruments. New Horizons carries three imagers: The aforementioned LORRI and Ralph, along with Alice, an ultraviolet imaging spectrometer. Ralph has ten times the resolution of the human eye, but we use data as needed from the instrument packages to ferret out what scientists are looking for.

I also like this quote by Jon Lomberg, a deeply felt ratification of New Horizons from Garrett’s piece:

“You don’t really have to understand a lot about astronomy to know how difficult this is,” says Lomberg. “Getting it there, having it work for nine years and having it do exactly what they’re telling it to do. You just want to applaud. It makes everybody think Goddamn! that was a good thing to do!

I’m sure that most of the Centauri Dreams audience is with Jon on that sentiment. But let’s move on to further news about Pluto from the Division of Planetary Sciences meeting in Maryland. In analyzing the New Horizons data, we learn that Pluto’s upper atmosphere is a good deal more compact and significantly colder than we had thought based upon earlier models. Pluto’s atmosphere seems to escape more or less the same way that atmospheric gases do on Earth or Mars, rather than acting as we would expect from a cometary body. Here is the already famous image that showed us ‘blue skies’ (of a sort) on Pluto.


Image: Pluto’s haze layer shows its blue color in this picture taken by the New Horizons Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC). The high-altitude haze is thought to be similar in nature to that seen at Saturn’s moon Titan. The source of both hazes likely involves sunlight-initiated chemical reactions of nitrogen and methane, leading to relatively small, soot-like particles (called tholins) that grow as they settle toward the surface. This image was generated by software that combines information from blue, red and near-infrared images to replicate the color a human eye would perceive as closely as possible. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.

Here again we’re aiming at something close to what the human eye would perceive.

We also learned at DPS that Pluto’s moons are unlike anything we’re familiar with in the rest of the Solar System. Most inner moons in the Solar System (including ours) move in synchronous rotation, with one face always toward the planet. But the small moons of Pluto do nothing of the kind. Hydra rotates 89 times during a single circuit of Pluto, while the rest of the small moons rotate faster than we would expect as well. Have a look at the chart that Mark Showalter (SETI Institute) prepared for presentation at DPS.


Image: Spin periods for the range of Pluto’s moons. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

We may well be looking at chaotic spin rates — variable over time — and likely the result of the torque Charon exerts, which would keep the moons from settling into synchronicity. Showalter characterized these wobbling moons as ‘spinning tops,’ and it also appears that several of them may have been formed by merger, with two or more former moons coming together following the event that created Charon. That would make sense — surely there were a large number of objects after a massive impact, with the present system having consolidated from these. Here’s the slick video illustrating the motion of these moons that NASA has produced.

I love Showalter’s take on all this in a SETI Institute news release: “There’s clearly something fundamental about the dynamics of the system that we do not understand. We expected chaos, but this is pandemonium.”



Pluto’s Unexpected Complexities

by Paul Gilster on November 16, 2015

Keeping up with a site like this can be a daunting task, especially when intriguing papers can pop up at any time and announcements of new finds by our spacecraft come in clusters. But site maintenance itself can be tricky. Recently Centauri Dreams regular Tom Mazanec wrote in with a project to be added to the links on the home page and before long, with my encouragement, he had sent a number of solid suggestions on exoplanet projects both Earth- and space-based, most of which have now been added. My thanks to Tom and all those who have at various times caught a broken link or added a suggestion for new links or stories.

We begin the week looking at work discussed at the Division for Planetary Sciences meeting in Maryland, starting with the continuing bounty coming in from New Horizons. I always like to quote Alan Stern, because as principal investigator for New Horizons, he is not only its chief spokesman but the guiding force that saw this mission become a reality. And I think he’s absolutely on target when he points to how fulsome a discovery Pluto is turning out to be:

“It’s hard to imagine how rapidly our view of Pluto and its moons are evolving as new data stream in each week,” says Stern. “As the discoveries pour in from those data, Pluto is becoming a star of the solar system. Moreover, I’d wager that for most planetary scientists, any one or two of our latest major findings on one world would be considered astounding. To have them all is simply incredible.”


Image: Pluto and Charon are revealing themselves as worlds of profound complexity. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

All this with a flyby, leading me to wonder what we might find with a Pluto orbiter.

Think about Voyager. It opened our eyes to new worlds for this first time. It flew by Io and gave us active volcanoes. It flew by Triton and we saw weird ‘cantaloupe terrain’ and nitrogen geysers. All these stay fixed in my mind as I remember first learning about them. But what New Horizons is showing us ranges from bizarre moons to possible ice volcanoes, the huge satellite Charon in a system that is practically a binary ‘planet,’ and surface features that tell us about an active world that was once thought to be inert. Who thought Pluto/Charon would be this complex!

Wright Mons and Piccard Mons, as it turns out, each appear to have a hole at their summit, the signature of a volcano, but one expected to cough up water ice, nitrogen, ammonia or methane in a melted slurry rather than lava. We can’t push this too far, because on a world about which we have so much to learn, we may be in for yet another surprise. And Oliver White, a postdoctoral researcher at NASA Ames, points out another of the unknowns:

“If they are volcanic, then the summit depression would likely have formed via collapse as material is erupted from underneath. The strange hummocky texture of the mountain flanks may represent volcanic flows of some sort that have travelled down from the summit region and onto the plains beyond, but why they are hummocky, and what they are made of, we don’t yet know.”


Image: Scientists using New Horizons images of Pluto’s surface to make 3-D topographic maps have discovered that two of Pluto’s mountains, informally named Wright Mons and Piccard Mons, could possibly be ice volcanoes. The color is shown to depict changes in elevation, with blue indicating lower terrain and brown showing higher elevation; green terrains are at intermediate heights. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

As this JHU/APL news release makes clear, Pluto’s surface is also showing us far more textures than we might have expected. Why do we see so few small craters? Neither Pluto nor Charon give us many of these, casting doubt on the older model of Kuiper Belt objects formed by the accumulation of small objects. Now you can see why 2014 MU69 is beginning to loom so large. This KBO may be a pristine primordial planetesimal, the first ever to be explored. Assuming the New Horizons mission is extended, a flyby of 2014 MU69 will give us another look at a class of objects that may have been formed quickly and at close to their current size.

But we still have a lot of explaining to do re Pluto’s surface itself. Trying to determine the age of a surface is often a matter of counting the crater impacts to see what has accumulated over time (think of the relatively smooth surface of Europa, which indicates continuing resurfacing that obscures impacts). On Pluto, we do find surfaces that point to the earliest era of the Solar System four billion years ago, but we also see things like Sputnik Planum, whose smooth and impact-free terrain looks to have been formed within the past ten million years, an eyeblink in astronomical time.


Image: A slide from Oliver White’s presentation at DPS, showing crater densities on Pluto’s surface. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

Other terrains on Pluto look to be somewhere in between, with evidence of cratering extending back not nearly as far as the oldest areas. So is Sputnik Planum, which is on the left of Pluto’s heart-shaped feature, an anomaly, or a marker for a surface that has been geologically active for much of its history? We’re looking at evidence for how objects in the outer Solar System formed, again a splendid reason to back the extension of New Horizons to 2014 MU69.

More on Pluto/Charon and the findings discussed at the DPS meeting tomorrow.



Kelvin Long is chief editor of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society and the author of Deep Space Propulsion (Springer, 2011). A founder and first project leader of Project Icarus, the ongoing re-design of the Project Daedalus starship, Kelvin is also a co-founder of the non-profit Icarus Interstellar. He now serves as executive director of the Institute for Interstellar Studies, an organization whose mission (‘Scientia ad Sidera: Knowledge to the Stars’) he describes in the following essay.

by Kelvin F. Long


The Initiative for Interstellar Studies (i4is) is a not-for-profit foundational institute incorporated in the United Kingdom with the mandate to develop interstellar capabilities. We at the initiative just successfully passed our third anniversary since our founding. We began work in August 2012 and went live on the 12th September 2012. Shortly after, we ratified our purpose through our innovative logo, and our mission and vision statements. And today we are focused on the launch of our innovative new educational course titled ‘Starship Engineer’. We are piloting the first version of this in London during November, and we hope some of you will join us: http://i4is.org/news/starship_engineer


But first, it is worth just reminding the readers what we are really about. The mission of i4is is to foster and promote education, knowledge and technical capabilities which lead to designs, technologies or enterprise that will enable the construction and launch of interstellar spacecraft. The vision of i4is is to aspire towards an optimistic future for humans on Earth and in space. Our bold vision is to be an organisation that is central to catalysing the conditions in society over the next century to enable robotic and human exploration of the frontier beyond our Solar System and to other stars, as part of a long-term enduring strategy and towards a sustainable space-based economy. Our motto is “Scientia ad sidera” (knowledge to the stars) and our philosophy of approach is “Starships in our Lifetime”. In addition to this, we also spent weeks writing our own bespoke articles of association, which forms our effective constitution as a company limited by guarantee but not having a share capital – which means we are a not-for-profit entity. In addition, our team produced a ‘founding Declaration’ which sets out what we believe and are working towards. The full text of this can be read here: http://i4is.org/the-starship-log/foundations

So how far have we got in the constitution of the world’s first ever foundational institute dedicated to the goal of the stars? The Initiative for Interstellar Studies is led by a board of directors for which I serve as its Executive Director, supported by the Deputy Directors Rob Swinney and Andreas Hein. We are also supported by our international advisory committee which is chaired by Professor Gregory Matloff and deputy Professor Chris Welch. We have various committees, including a marketing committee and a finance committee, which ensures we are fiscally compliant and ethical? But our activity based committee’s number a few, and I shall give a brief synopsis of each in turn along with their achievements to date?


The Alpha Centauri Prize Committee has the purpose of rewarding success and incentivising progress in activities related to interstellar studies. So far the committee has given out several awards for University students associated with their thesis projects, or for internal members for work that they have done to assist our mission that goes above and beyond what is expected of them. We have received sponsorship from several external organisations to fund those awards. We seek to establish the Alpha Centauri Prize awards as the standard by which all of our progress is measured.

The Educational Academy Committee is chaired by Rob Swinney and has the purpose of fostering educational abilities to conduct research relating to a broad set of subjects pertaining to interstellar studies, associated sciences and the arts. The committee has undergone much public outreach work, working with schools and universities, particularly across the UK.

The largest activity of this committee is in working with the International Space University in Strasbourg, and in particular with its Master’s Director Professor Chris Welch, who is a continued inspiration not just for the students but for all of us in his steadfast support of our ambitious efforts. Within this co-operative relationship, for which we have signed a Memorandum of Understanding, some of our projects have included “Autonomous Space Colony Construction” authored by Michio Hirai, which considered the manufacture of large structures in space; “Agriculture Design Trade-offs for Space Colony Feasibility”, authored by Erik Franks, which discussed farming methods in spaceflight; “Review of the Deceleration Options for a Robotic Interstellar Spacecraft Entering the System of Another Star”, authored by Wei Wang; “The Oculus Project: Solar Sailing to Discover Exoplanets at the Center of Our Galaxy”, authored by Piotr Murzionak, which looked at a gravitational lensing mission based on the ideas of the pioneer Claudio Maccone; “Jude: Solar Sailing A Low Mass Payload to Alpha Centauri-B”, authored by James Harpur, which considered an interstellar solar sail mission. The committee has also created a fun educational exam paper, which we call the ‘interstellar minimum’ – dare you have a go at it? http://i4is.org/the-starship-log/interstellar-minimum

Our biggest technical and educational accomplishment working with the International Space University has been the initiation and completion of a world ship project titled “Astra Planeta” and you can read a copy here: https://isulibrary.isunet.edu/opac/index.php?lvl=notice_display&id=9454].

This project was selected as one of the few team projects that the ISU runs each year and it involved over 20 Master’s students. The team also looked at the issues of creating a strategic and technological roadmap for a world ship. But the nice thing about this project, is that it also got supported by representatives from the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop and Icarus Interstellar – so it may be one of the first successful pan-interstellar community projects, and is perhaps a model for the future.

The Technical Research Committee is chaired by Andreas Hein and has the purpose of conducting innovative theoretical and experimental research and development across the broad spectrum of issues relating to interstellar studies, associated sciences and the arts.


The committee’s flagship initiative is Project Dragonfly, which seeks to develop laser-sail propulsion capabilities based on the original ideas of Robert Forward. In the summer, the team ran a Kickstarter award and successfully won over $10,000.

This helped to fund a university affiliated design competition, which included participating teams from Cairo University, Egypt; University of California Santa Barbara, USA; Technical University of Munich, Germany and CranSEDS which involved students from Cranfield University in the UK, Skoltech in Russia and UPS in France. The University of Munich team won the competition with their innovative sail design. The four reports submitted by these teams were highly comprehensive and had to adhere to detailed competition requirements. To celebrate the award, the space artist David A Hardy was commissioned to produce an inspirational piece of art work of the winning design. The Technical Committee is now working on a technology roadmap focussed around the laser-sail technologies and this includes the consideration of actual space missions for the near future.


Image: Schematic of the winning Project Dragonfly design.


Image: David A Hardy commissioned art work of the winning laser-sail design for project Dragonfly.

The committee is also chairing several projects and this has already led to several reports. This includes “Project Sentinel” authored by Sissi Enestam, which described research into emission signals from different potential advanced space transportation systems as a contribution to SETI; “Space Eternal Memory” authored by Melissa Guzman which described methods of preserving and storing information on long duration deep space missions; “Project BAIR: the Black Hole Augmented Interstellar Rocket”, authored by Andrew Alexander, which discussed a black hole engine that utilised the Hawking radiation effect; “Program to Characterise the Local Stellar Environment” authored by Shambo Bhattacharjee. The committee is also currently launching a project relating to von Neumann machines and the Universal Constructor Project. The vision is to enable small interstellar probes to have the capability to build space infrastructures autonomously.

The Sustainability & Research Committee is chaired by Professor Rachel Armstrong and has the purpose of seeking space-based technological solutions to solving problems on Earth and in space, human made or environmental, and improving the human condition and harmonising cultural relations. Through this committee we have begun a relationship with a team of architects and initiated discussions on innovative technologies for the future that we can bring to our metropolis. The committee has also instigated the exciting ‘Starship Cities’ programmes, which seeks to develop the technologies for our society that can truly prepare us for the world ship journeys of the future. This includes looking at living architecture technologies such as protocells, and the ability to utilise them as a form of programmable matter and as a mechanism to simulate biological computing. In the last year the committee also completed a project with the International Space University titled “Biological Life Support Systems for Future Spaceflight Missions” authored by Brian Ramos. The committee is also looking at an innovative experimental architectural platform, upon which many types of experiments could be conducted on an iterative learning basis.

The Business Enterprise Committee is chaired by myself and has the purpose of encouraging entrepreneurship and business innovation initiatives related to the objects. We are currently exploring models for nurturing start-ups and aiming to develop a facilitation scheme over the next year. In addition, the committee is also in discussions with various private inventors about bringing potential products to market to benefit the community. One new company for which we have helped to nurture to fruition is Nebula Sciences (www.nebulasciences.com). This is a company led by Sam Harrison, who also serves on our Enterprise Committee, and conducts high altitude balloon launches into the upper stratosphere. That company is now working with multiple aerospace and marketing ventures throughout the world. The same team earlier placed the i4is logo at 89,000 ft, which was a milestone achievement for us, and demonstrates we are not just talking about theoretical developments.


Image: The i4is Logo at 89,000 ft in the stratosphere

As of our three year anniversary, our team has published over 100 papers, reports, articles and essays, has given over 50 presentations, has produced nearly 100 external and internal blog articles, has held over 30 formal team meetings and around 100 informal team meetings, has been involved with over 50 other external organisations, has participated in over 40 different international events, and today has around 70 people directly involved in our activities in one form or another. We have had media articles in multiple international publications and have participated in online podcasts and radio shows. We have attended or presented at events across the globe, throughout the United Kingdom, Europe and the United States. As a part of our participating in the London World Science Fiction convention 2014, our team also built a 4 m tall monolith in what may be a world record (anyone?). Our packed out session at this exciting venue included talks from the world renowned science fiction authors Gregory Benford, Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds.


Image: Our Monolith displayed at Loncon3.

We have produced much of our own merchandise including t-shirts, post-cards and a calendar. One of our proudest and longest running achievement is the publication of our popular magazine Principium, and we are currently working on our twelfth issue. This is a popular publication for the community, and we always try to have an article on other organisations activities to help promote their work.


Image: Principium, the popular magazine of i4is.

We also have published our very own book “Beyond the Boundary” which had contributions from other 20 different authors associated with our subject [http://www.lulu.com/shop/http://www.lulu.com/shop/kelvin-long/beyond-the-boundary/hardcover/product-22028046.html]. And just to show that we are technologically minded, we have also developed our very own educational iPhone app. We have also been working with the inspirational artist and musician Alex Storer, and we are now on our fourth interstellar themed music album. This all proves we are engaging the both the arts and the sciences as we attempt to communicate the vision of interstellar travel. We have also recently just launched our own academic journal, Axiom, and we are now working on our second issue.


Image: Music albums, a journal and smartphone app of i4is.

So what about the future? Well, we are currently looking at facilities to host our Head Quarters and our team has visited many locations over the last couple of years and we are excited about the prospect of hosting interstellar events from such a facility. We are also working on another volume of the “Beyond the Boundary” book, as well as more issues of Principium and Axiom. We continue to attend events and this month we are attending Novacon, a science fiction convention held in Nottingham, UK, every year. Our team are busy working on papers for journals and various research projects from which we hope to see progress towards our goal made. We have also recently launched our supporting membership scheme (get in touch if you want to join) and we are planning to extend this in 2016. We are also keen to recruit more active volunteers to help out with our many activities.

One of the things I am personally keen to do in the future is to address how we can take this interstellar community onto the next level. That is, towards a path of constructive co-operation, resource sharing, and more focussed goal setting through inspirational leadership. One proposal I have made towards this, is the formation of an International Interstellar Committee, which would hold a bi-annual interstellar conference for which all of the community would help organise and participate in. Such a body would contain individual organisational membership, preserving their individual identifies and self-autonomy, whilst facilitating a global voice and finding synergies in strategies. It is my opinion, that such an entity may be needed if we are to find ways of harmonising relationships among different groups, but for all have their hearts set on the same goal.

Some still view our endeavours as premature, given the state of human space exploration to date. But I rather believe that now more than ever, there is the need for a visionary stretch goal to focus the energies of our fragmented civilisation. The vision of the stars gives us such promise, about the discovery of other worlds or new life forms. Its such an exciting journey to be a part of and it also has transformation potential for human civilisation, so that we can start to address the universe on its own terms, whether we live in a crowded galaxy, or if we are the only intelligent life out there. I for sure, would like to find out – so let’s build those starships in our lifetime, and go forth with less of our weaknesses and more of our strengths, as a unified people, embracing discovery and adventure as a primary goal. Personally, I can’t think of anything more fulfilling to dedicate one’s life too. At the Initiative for Interstellar Studies, we are making some progress towards that goal.