An Interstellar Talk (and More) Online

by Paul Gilster on October 20, 2008

Few places on Earth please me more than the Scottish highlands, to the point that I used to daydream about moving to Inverness (this was before that city’s population explosion, back when it weighed in at a sedate 50,000 inhabitants). But I’ll take anywhere in Scotland, and when I realized I wouldn’t be able to make the International Astronautical Congress in Glasgow this time around, I found myself sinking into a multi-day funk. Fortunately all is not lost, as the IAC, organized this year by the British Interplanetary Society, has left a digital record behind.

The Web is second best to being there, to be sure, but it helps to be able to listen in on key talks. I’ll leave you to page through the images and video from the event, pleased to note that Kelvin Long’s highlight lecture Fusion, Antimatter & The Space Drive is available in its entirety. Interstellar advocate Long is a member of the BIS as well as an active player in the Tau Zero Foundation. If you can set aside 45 minutes or so, you’ll find him ranging through interstellar issues from the magnitude of the distances involved to the basic technologies that could eventually bridge them, with nods to futuristic concepts like antimatter rockets and space drives. Given the BIS’ involvement in the now legendary Project Daedalus, the first serious engineering study of a starship, Kelvin’s knowledgeable comments on that proposal are well worth hearing.

We’re clearly building toward a future in which all major conferences become available through streaming and archival video, even if at present such coverage can be spotty. The recent Division of Planetary Sciences meeting in Ithaca, NY is a case in point, with all talks made available by the American Astronomical Society via webstreaming. Those of us with limited travel budgets have never had a better opportunity to participate in distant conferences than we have through Web-enabled sessions like these. With DPS 2008 now ended, the presentations are being assembled in a permanent video archive to be hosted by the AAS — I’ll pass that link along as soon as it becomes available.

Because I hadn’t checked the DPS site recently, I had to be reminded of the AAS contribution by last week’s Carnival of Space, which offered pointers to the Martian Chronicles blog. Ryan Anderson, Briony Horgan and Melissa Rice, the writers behind Martian Chronicles, are graduate students at Cornell with a passion for Mars. Last week Ryan devoted his attention to sessions he attended at the DPS conference, walking readers through discussions ranging from exoplanets to the mysteries of Titan.

As you wait for the archived DPS sessions, you can page through the Martian Chronicles entries, starting with this one, to get an idea of the range of studies presented last week. This is handy stuff for deciding which presentations you might want to view when the webstream archives become available. Controversial points are sprinkled throughout:

Another talk suggested that the methane in Titan’s atmosphere could be created by reaction of heavier organic molecules with hydrogen, but it was shot down in the questions session by people pointing out that the heavier organic compounds form from methane in the first place, and that when the heavy compounds lose their hydrogen, it escapes to space, making it a decidedly one-way sort of reaction.

A third Titan talk took a look at the absorption of infrared light when it goes through liquid methane and suggested rather controversially that some of the “lakes”that people are seeing may only be a few millimeters deep! This spurred a discussion of how well one can tell the depth of a body of liquid just by looking at it. One of the audience members said that “I wouldn’t gauge the depth of Cayuga lake by how deep I can see” but the counterargument was that, in the infrared, lakes are much clearer than they are at visible wavelengths.

Ryan is quick to note the places of unusual interest, as for example David Charbonneau’s discussion of an exoplanet 1.7 times as large as Jupiter but with roughly the same mass, a planet whose density is something like balsa wood. I’ll queue that one for playing, along with other presentations covering the discoveries now being extracted from transiting planet observations. Both the IAC and DPS sessions as preserved by the Net take a bit of the sting out of not being able to attend in person and should serve as a reminder to all conference organizers of the need to build and maintain permanent archives.

tacitus October 20, 2008 at 13:49

I grew up in Glasgow and even though my roots were and still are more in Yorkshire (England) than Scotland I have fond memories of being on the doorstep of the Scottish Highlands when I was a kid.

Thanks for the links — I will have to find the find to watch a couple of the lectures.

In return, I would very much like to recommend a whole series of lectures from UC Berkeley of an Introduction to Astronomy survey (overview) course by Alex Filippenko from last year. Filippenko is a wonderful lecturer and spokesman for astronomy and keeps his audience thoroughly entertained with personal stories (like how his daughter got her middle names), bad jokes (yes, some are really bad), astronomy themed tee shirts (a different one every lecture), and so really cool demos. It is an introductory course, but even if you know a fair bit about the basics of astronomy, you will find much of interest — I did and I’ve been following the subject for 25 years or more.

There are 42 (his favorite number!) lectures in the course — all with video and audio available, and it’s easy to get hooked! Just note that the first lecture is mostly admin stuff for the students on the course, but once it gets going then there’s lots of cools stuff to get your teeth into.

Here is the link:

http://webcast.berkeley.edu/course_details.php?seriesid=1906978460

ljk October 20, 2008 at 15:43

Paul, have you seen the 1983 film Local Hero:

http://www.scc.net/~heather/localhero.html

Administrator October 20, 2008 at 16:08

tacitus writes:

I would very much like to recommend a whole series of lectures from UC Berkeley of an Introduction to Astronomy survey (overview) course by Alex Filippenko from last year. Filippenko is a wonderful lecturer and spokesman for astronomy and keeps his audience thoroughly entertained with personal stories (like how his daughter got her middle names), bad jokes (yes, some are really bad), astronomy themed tee shirts (a different one every lecture), and so really cool demos.

This is just the kind of recommendation I was looking for. Thanks, Tacitus! So much good stuff is going up on the Web, with the chance to fill in background areas of our knowledge and keep up with some of the best minds in the business. Any other reader recommendations are welcome.

Administrator October 20, 2008 at 16:09

Larry asks about Local Hero, about which I can only say that it’s one of my absolute favorite films, and always welcome viewing for those times when I’ve been away from Scotland for too long.

Peter October 20, 2008 at 17:31

That was a stellar talk ;). There should be a link- or even the full transcript- on the first page of the TZF website. It covers all the basics- a great primer for all the newcomers to interstellar travel. However I maintain my position that the traditonal reaction mass concept (entailing solar, fission, fusion, and antimatter) will forever be impractical for interstellar missions (if someone wants to dispute this with me, you can take it up with me here- http://www.centauri-dreams.org/?p=2943#comments ), I would have liked it if he spent more time elaborating on FTL concepts.

Pete

Paul Titze October 20, 2008 at 20:41

Great talk by Kelvin. Key ideas that I got out of it:

- As far as practical interstellar flight is concerned, none of the propulsion methods that have been proposed so far (inlcuding antimatter) will do the job. As Kelvin mentions during question time regarding reliability of systems etc: “Get there quick” the longer you stay in space, the more chances there are for stuffups, there are no service stations enroute to Alpha Centauri, even maintenance robots need maintenance.

- Current physics won’t allow us to get there (practically), new physics is needed so start getting your physics textbooks out ;-) As outlined from BPP, key areas that need to be studied:

* Reducing the inertia of a spacecraft
* Increasing the velocity of a spacecraft beyond c (does special relativity apply to a “modified vacuum”? Can one change the interaction of matter with the quantum vacuum?)
* New energy production methods

- The gentleman from JPL and the lady asked relevant questions regarding public approval/relevance/involvment in interstellar flight:

It’s a question of survival, either get of this planet or perish. If World War III doesn’t finish us, overpopulation suffocate us or an asteroid kill us, lack of resources might. Getting to another Earth is an insurance policy for our long term survival so do it for your great great grand kids.

Cheers, Paul.

Adam October 20, 2008 at 20:42

Hi All

As another off-shoot of the Scottish Diaspora (my family roots are Westons and McKenzies) I’ve always wanted to go visit “the Old Country” – if only to see why so many of ‘us’ left for the inhospitable Antipodes. An old school friend, Simon MacKenzie, is back over there working as a news editor. After losing touch for over a decade an email from him arrived out of the blue, after he followed my Internet spoor.

Peter October 20, 2008 at 22:56

Hey, I’m steeped in Scottish and Irish ancestry me’self, mate. I’ve even relocated me’self to me home-roots- Cape Breton- in anticipation of th’ spaceport the’ pl’n in b’ld’n, th’r…

http://www.ctv.ca/servlet/ArticleNews/story/CTVNews/20080220/Cape_Breton_spaceport_080220?s_name=&no_ads=

That’s right, I’m here in y’r Cape’ Br;t’n, mate. OK, enough Scott-ishly talk.

If I get funding, I intend to setup a research institute in these parts- a spaceport would be complementary to a space propulsion research institute- and it’s a given that I’ll need all the help I can get.

drtke2000@yahoo.ca

Administrator October 22, 2008 at 10:25

Ah, Cape Breton! Add that to my list of favorite places. Good to see the Celtic roots kicking in here. My ancestry is half Scottish (the other half is German).

Kelvin Long October 27, 2008 at 17:14

With regards the comment made by Paul Titze I thank him for his kind words on my IAC highlight lecture. However, I am not sure how he deduced from my talk that “non of the propulsion methods proposed so far will do the job”. I did not say this in my talk neither is this my belief. Fusion, antimatter even solar sails offer great potential for deep precursor missions and even interstellar flight. Currentl physics certaintly will allow us to get there, we just have to develop the technology and then engineer the application. Thanks again.

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