A nice, tidy liftoff for Kepler, and like all night launches, well worth watching. The mission is generating a satisfying amount of attention in the press and a slew of news releases, from one of which which I’ll quote Geoff Marcy:
“In part, learning about other Earths — the frequency of them, the environment on them, the stability of the environment on other Earths, their habitability over the eons — is going to teach us about our own Earth, how fragile and special it might be. We learn a little bit about home, ironically, by studying the stars.”
And of course it’s hard to argue with that, although the focus for most of us will only be tangentially here and most emphatically there — just how many terrestrial worlds are out there, and how likely are the chances for their being in the habitable zone? Marcy gets preferential treatment here simply because, along with Paul Butler and a team of exoplanet hunters spread out over the globe, he has been involved in almost half of our exoplanet detections.
As we sit back to monitor Kepler’s progress, enjoy a bit of weekend reading with the latest Carnival of Space, offered through the good services of Emily Lakdawalla at the Planetary Society Blog. Be aware of the Society’s new Catalog of Exoplanets, designed for anyone with an interest in these matters from the rankest amateur to student and professional, and note the helpful animations, where you can see planets in orbit around their stars. It’s a user-friendly site that should do much to keep the planet hunt accessible to the public.
More reading for the weekend might include Charlie Stross’ 21st Century FAQ, wherein the futurist condenses the next ninety years into a few paragraphs guaranteed to cause controversy. As in this statement about space colonization:
Assuming we avoid a systemic collapse, there’ll probably be a moon base, by and by. Whether it’s American, Chinese, Indian, or Indonesian is anybody’s guess, and probably doesn’t matter as far as the 99.999% of the human species who will never get off the planet are concerned. There’ll probably be a Mars expedition too. But barring fundamental biomedical breakthroughs, or physics/engineering breakthroughs that play hell with the laws of physics as currently understood, canned monkeys aren’t going to Jupiter any time soon, never mind colonizing the universe. (See also Saturn’s Children for a somewhat snarky look at this.)
I see that Brian Wang has taken on Stross on his NextBigFuture site, Brian being a proponent of Orion technologies that scale up to massive spacecraft that could theoretically open up the outer Solar System to human exploration. Re Orion, John Hunt coincidentally passed along this video, the first of six available on YouTube on the subject, drawn from a BBC show called To Mars by A-Bomb. The first segment is below:
It’s bracing stuff, containing interviews with Ted Taylor and Freeman Dyson, among others, including Freeman’s son George, author of the indispensable Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship.
But I think, Orion or not, that Charlie should be taken seriously. He’s talking about the 21st Century, the start of which should remind us that while we’ve been able to do some remarkable robotic missions to places like Saturn, we’re a long way from expanding a manned human presence to another world, even the Moon. If you confine your time frame to this century alone, his position isn’t extreme.
Not that I necessarily agree. The further out we look, the murkier the shape of things, and I’m a long way from being convinced that breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and nanotechnology will not rule out launching some seriously interesting missions (unmanned) to destinations now thought unreachable, such as the outer Kuiper Belt or the Oort Cloud, within the next hundred years. In any case, I have little confidence in technological predictions that attempt to get too specific.
Here’s where I am on this: We should be working within a long-term horizon, mounting an effort to explore space with the understanding that our work will be passed along to future generations. I am relatively sure that we will, by whatever technology, eventually get humans to the stars, but I would be astonished if it happens in this century. That shouldn’t slow down the necessary work of exploring propulsion alternatives and analyzing planetary systems, because what we are after is to understand the universe better, and bit by bit to explore it. Whether achieving an interstellar capability is a matter of centuries or millennia, what counts is that we do what we can to contribute to that goal now.