Klaes on Avatar: Part Two

by Larry Klaes

We now wrap up Larry Klaes’ essay on Avatar (and Centauri Dreams’ coverage of the film) with a look at how and why humans will expand into the cosmos, with reflections on our society’s portrayal of aliens and of itself. How much does popular entertainment shape our conception of what we can and cannot do? Do we, as a species, have what it takes to journey out among the stars?

Before anyone wonders, I am hardly against nature and preserving our natural resources. What I am against is the naive view that our technological progress is all bad and destructive to us as a species. Most of our ancestors lived primarily natural lives until not that many centuries ago and while their lives may have been less cluttered and polluted in one sense, they also tended not to live as long due to a lack of modern medicines and other useful products of a technological civilization. Even Henry David Thoreau, whom many uphold as the naturalist who declared we should all go back to the wilderness, preferred a life balanced between nature and society (his cabin at Walden Pond was only a few miles from the center of Concord, Massachusetts, please note).

Technology in Balance

This attitude of extremes, which Avatar has only exacerbated, will only further reinforce the attitude that humanity has to dump all its civilized trappings and go live in the woods. This was the same “resolution” taken with the final episode of the recent television series Battlestar Galactica. Such a solution might work for a small group of people, but it would only spell disaster and genocide for most of the seven billion humans on Earth right now (and the many more billions that no doubt exist in 2154).

I think we are still rather young and stunned at all the rapid technological progress made in the last few centuries: Surprised and even frightened like a young child at the complexities of what we have created, along with the indiscretions that many youths display when given responsibilities for the first time. We need to learn to find a balance with our natural, biological selves and the technological aspects that are now an integral part of our lives. For many this is still too much to bear, causing them to wish for what they think were simpler and happier times, despite the fact that most civilized people are not familiar with natural living outside of an occasional camping trip.

I felt this article summed up the appeal of Avatar to audiences in 2010 who fear where society may be going in these current times and the desire for the safety and perceived simplicity of Mother Nature. This is why the Na’vi seem so appealing and heroic to us, despite the fact that they are not human and live in a world we could not inhabit without our various technologies. But ironically, as the very film has shown, these naturalist aliens are quite vulnerable to attacks from outside forces which are technologically superior to them.

Had the RDA really wanted to get that unobtanium at all costs (and who says they still won’t if their society becomes even more desperate for survival), they could have obliterated most of the life on Pandora by attaching rocket motors to some large planetoids which undoubtedly exist around Alpha Centauri A and dropped them all over the moon. They also could have aimed one of their starships (presumably unmanned) at Pandora at relativistic speed and kill most of the life there in one shot from the sheer amount of kinetic energy an impacting vessel moving at near light speed would cause (Pellegrino co-authored a novel titled The Killing Star with this very idea, only it was being done to us by an ETI).

Then the humans would just have to wait for the dust to settle and move in to mine their precious mineral. I doubt even Eywa, with all its connections that exceed the neurons in a human brain, could stop such an assault even if it knew what was coming, for none of its perfectly balanced natural elements seem prepared for any kind of major attack to its system such as a strike from space would be. As an interesting side note, it has been suggested that Gaia, the proposed being/system that is all life on Earth connected, evolved humans to deflect any impacts from comets or planetoids after the dinosaurs were unable to develop quickly enough to have their own space program that would have stopped the impact that wiped them out 65 million years ago.

I had to wonder if Eywa, defending itself as our human bodies use antibodies to defend against invading germs, might try to infect some humans with its organic matter so that when they returned to Earth, they would spread Eywa’s biological material to both stop the human threat and establish itself on our world at the same time. Eywa has “downloaded” the minds of several humans and no doubt has all the information to learn about us, including what our weaknesses are. I am sure it can be safely said that all life everywhere in the Cosmos is designed to survive at whatever cost, and who is to say the life on Pandora would not do what it has to do to survive, especially now that it knows there are both external threats and potential new habitats beyond its moon.

Save the Universe – Make Humans Stay Home?

My other concern from all this nature = good, technology = bad mindset is that the treatment of the Na’vi and Pandora at the hands of a corporate and militaristic humanity (Cameron didn’t promote much healing to the strong ideological divisions that have grown in the United States in past few decades with the broad strokes of the characters in his film) will give certain people and groups further reason to stop us from spreading our “evil” ways beyond Earth. As anyone with more than a bit of knowledge and awareness about the Universe realizes, things are not as bad or as simple as all that.

While I would not want to see our descendants “trashing” other worlds and stomping down on alien beings, it is not correct to think that this is how our children will necessarily behave once they start spreading into space, nor would even our most destructive tendencies even come close to bringing down the rest of existence in a Cosmos that is routinely producing exploding suns, radiation-spewing neutron stars, monster black holes, galactic jets, and whole galaxies that tear each other apart. The problem of this attitude is our perspective, which is still quite limited because we have only just begun to explore our celestial neighborhood. The vast majority of humanity still resides on Earth, and of them many keep their whole lives focused on this “pale blue dot”, which for them is all that matters.

This attitude has also led us to perceive our species as special in that all the Universe and any beings who are in charge of running things make humans their focal point. We are special of course in the sense that we are creatures of a certain level of intelligence and awareness about ourselves and our surroundings. However, if we place ourselves in a cosmic context, we are no more than subatomic particles on the widest scales of reality (I highly recommend the short film Powers of Ten to bring home just how vast and how small everything really is in relation to each other ). We can and could do great harm to our species and cause a fair deal of damage to our home planet, but in truth if we became extinct tomorrow Earth would heal itself and in a short time on geological scales there would hardly be any signs that we ever existed.

However, if we spread our species into space, we will be preserving at least some of us. Paradoxically, the very hostile nature of the Universe will also teach us a level of cooperation that we often feel we can take for granted on relatively safe and comfortable Earth. There are no guarantees that any other planet in the galaxy or beyond is attuned for our species in such a way that we could simply land there and start a colony without having to live in protected enclosures or wear sealed environmental suits, despite what Star Trek and similar series have often depicted. We may be able to terraform worlds that did not previously contain life, or we may find a way to coexist in enclosed technological societies on alien planets. Perhaps, rather than change other worlds, we will change our very selves to adapt to all sorts of environments, thus assuring our survival in many systems. Or a new intelligent species will be spawned by our civilization and head out into the galaxy instead, with its own motives and destinies.

To Boldy Go – But What About Wisely?

My next issue with Avatar is that they stuck with what so many other science fiction stories in novels, television, and film have done: The aliens who aren’t really so alien. The Na’vi are so similar to humans that Jake Sully could find himself attracted to both a female member of their species and find enough connections between his human self and the Na’vi to sincerely become one of them. This may have been terribly convenient both for our hero and for the comfort of our audience, but reality has a way of not conforming to human desires and perceptions.

As I have said before, similar environments may develop creatures with similar forms and behaviors, but there is no guarantee that any other world that can develop life will produce something that looks or acts like us. In fact we should probably take it as a given that any organisms we do encounter one day may be intelligent and aware, but they will not resemble humans or think and act quite as we do. This, and the fact that we live in a vast Cosmos with countless worlds, is among the reasons that our SETI efforts to date have yet to bear fruit.

I would like to see SF films that depict truly alien aliens, ones based on a degree of scientific reality that also do not interact or need to be “saved” by some humans. I think the aliens of Polish SF author Stanislaw Lem probably come close to at least the kind of ETI that really exist in our galaxy and all the others. Lem’s aliens have no need to conform to human standards or require rescuing by our species. While many stories for mass consumption feel obliged to have relatable characters and happy endings, Avatar being no exception here for certain, Lem’s works far better reflect reality in terms of how much we really do not know about the Universe and the many ambiguities that come from our ignorance.

Lem’s most famous work, Solaris, depicts an intelligence the size of a planet which none of the humans who attempt to study it can truly comprehend. There have been two film adaptations of Solaris so far, but while they succeed in their own certain ways, they also fell prey to the perceived needs of those who purchase the tickets and ended up being as much about the human characters as the alien Solaris and often more so. As Lem famously said in the novel:

“We don’t want to conquer space at all. We want to expand Earth endlessly. We don’t want other worlds; we want a mirror. We seek contact and will never achieve it. We are in the foolish position of a man striving for a goal he fears and doesn’t want. Man needs man!”

The ‘Conquest’ of the Stars

Now while I find it foolish to project current human values on the rest of the Cosmos in terms of what humans may or may not do to it, or whether we are its most important creation or not, and how these fears and limitations could keep us from expanding and growing beyond our celestial cradle, I am also concerned to a similar degree about the kind of thinking that dreams of “conquering” the stars without really weighing the consequences of such actions.

As I have stated before, we are a very young species. If you have ever seen the episode of Cosmos by Carl Sagan where he shows how much human civilization would occupy in space and time if the entire history of the Universe were compressed to one Earthly calendar year, then you know how short a time we have existed in measured against the entire 13.7 billion year history of existence (in the Cosmos segment all of human history occupies but the last ten seconds of the last day of the Cosmic Calendar year.

On the one hand it is wonderful to be living in an era when we have sent vessels into space and in some cases even out of our Sol system, though the latter are not true starships in the sense that they are aimed at any particular stars or that they would reach even Alpha Centauri in the next tens of thousands of years. We have found hundreds of alien planets with the promise of many more to follow, including worlds that could resemble our own in size and other attributes. While we have not yet found other intelligences nor do we have actual starships wending their way into the Milky Way, we are conducting practical searches for ETI and our plans for interstellar vehicles gain more ground on reality every day.

On the other hand we have been fed a steady diet of cultural claims that we are the special and sacred beings of the Universe, not only from our religion but from our UFO cults and science fiction too. According to our stories, every other creature in the Cosmos at the very least knows about us. Many want something from us, be it our planet or our “unique” properties or perhaps our bodies upon which to dine. And while our fictional human heroes do learn something as they trek the galaxy, it often turns out that the aliens they encounter were in greater need of our species whether they knew it or not despite having evolved in a totally alien world – though of course these “alien” planets often end up resembling Southern California.

The Starship and Human Destiny

Another trend that could have equally problematic consequences is the view that either humanity is alone in the galaxy in regards to highly intelligent beings, or that there are a few others around but they are so far away as to be inconsequential. This trend has wavered back and forth since the days of the ancient Greek philosophers who first conceived of the concept. Currently the idea of many others in the galaxy and beyond appears to be on the wane due ironically to the decades of searches for alien minds and planets already conducted and underway. There are those who feel that since the various SETI programs in existence since 1960 have not detected any signals of artificial extraterrestrial origin, then there must either be no one else or no one nearby. However, if most of these folks appreciated how sporadic and limited most SETI programs have been for most of the last half century and how little of the cosmic playing field these searches have examined, they would better understand that it is far too early to decide how crowded or empty our galaxy truly is.

As it is, certain groups take it as a given that we must send out our starships full of human crews to explore and colonize the galaxy, especially those worlds which may be like our Earth. I recently witnessed this attitude while watching a segment on NASA Television about searching for Earthlike planets. The narrator boldly declared that the destiny of finding a planet similar to ours beyond our Sol system was to one day colonize it. There was no mention of what might happen to the life forms that would presumably already be on a world like Earth or how any intelligences there might feel about suddenly having new neighbors who had no intention of leaving any time soon. I have also seen this same attitude elsewhere, such as with the Ultimate Project, a plan to send one million humans in a giant multigenerational star vessel to a nearby system with an Earthlike planet to colonize it. As for the question of what would happen if a society already occupied that world, the answer was that we should know if intelligent beings live on such a planet before the mission heads out and the Ultimate Project ship would be send to another Earthlike planet that did not seem to have any smart occupants.

In one sense this does not sound any less fraught with hazards than the RDA company in Avatar with its intentions to take what it needs from Pandora regardless of the natives’ wishes. It certainly smacks of a very young species that thinks it is entitled to whatever it needs wherever that might be. One has to wonder if there are other intelligences in a similar situation thinking the same thing about the galaxy. I wonder what might happen when those two species meet up?

Perhaps I am being overly concerned about a mindset and even a species that will not exist as it currently does in the coming centuries when we are ready to voyage into the galaxy. I have my doubts that the humans depicted in Avatar will still exist in quite the same way by the time we could send our children to Alpha Centauri. Future generations will be bemused at how Hollywood assumed their ancestors from the early Twenty-First Century could even presume that they could fly to the stars with their limited knowledge, lack of bodily and mental enhancements, and painfully obsolete technology.

A Realistic Interstellar Scenario

I must presume that when we do go to the stars, we will have been able to learn enough from the vicinity of Earth to know where to aim our ships and how to approach these new worlds, especially if they are occupied with living beings. Of course I am also presuming that such missions will be done for scientific purposes, when human society has already shown that many of their endeavors are done for political and financial purposes, the Apollo manned lunar missions being a prime example. In that sense, while Avatar is probably not an accurate depiction of humanity’s conquest of the galaxy, nor will we be able maintain some kind of Federation or Galactic Empire as so many science fiction stories contain due in large part to the ability to achieve faster than light (FTL) travel, our early interstellar missions may not be purely scientific in nature. After all, they will cost a lot of money and scientific institutions, especially those dedicated to astronomy and space exploration, are usually not the recipients of the lion’s share of funding.

Assuming human civilization does not collapse or find itself under an iron-fisted totalitarian rule that restricts space utilization, I do foresee the day when our species colonizes the Sol system. This will require a stable infrastructure and lots of funding, which will probably come from new industries that made an early hold on the vast wealth in resources space has to offer. Their customers will be as much if not more off Earth as on our planet. As in the days when Europeans realized there were whole new continents to exploit and start new lives on, our descendants will do the same with the Sol system, and while they may be different in certain ways from us, they may still maintain similar motives as living, intelligent beings. Among these traits will be a desire to exist in a way favorable to them.

This is where I see our first potential human explorers into the galaxy not being the noble and high-minded astronauts we are used to with our current space program, but members of groups that want to live out their lives away from the pressures of the bulk of human society. At first they will likely aim for the relatively easy targets such as the comets at the edge of the Sol system. But some of them will not be satisfied until they have left our system entirely so that our sun becomes just another star in the night sky. These are the folks who may attempt to venture to and colonize those other Earthlike worlds, even if it takes them many centuries to reach those planets. It is probable that no one will be able to regulate every pioneer heading off into the Milky Way.

And this is my final point: We cannot stop human migrations to other worlds unless our whole species becomes extinct – or worse, that we let our fears and ignorance keep us from doing so. I have the feeling that life has played out this game of moving to new places and encountering other beings since the very first time an organism appeared somewhere in the Universe. As has happened on Earth for the last four billion years, species have come and gone but life on this planet has remained, as robust and diverse as it probably ever has been.

This is why we need to explore the stars as a civilized society: With as much caution as we can, but knowing that some members of our kind may strike out blindly into the darkness, stirring up who knows what. We need to recognize and prepare for the fact that we are very small parts of an immense reality that has allowed us to exist for reasons that could be sheer luck or because others may recognize our youth and have kept us safe as if in a preserve. Or maybe because they just haven’t found us yet. I do know one thing: While it may be nice to be as connected as the Na’vi are to the rest of the life on their world and have all their needs taken care of, I do not want our species left vulnerable to the rest of the Universe, be it a comet threatening destruction, or an alien intelligence that wants our system, or the eventual end of Sol several billion years from now. I am pretty sure that Eywa does not have a space escape plan for the Na’vi, nor do the Na’vi seem ready on their own for such a change. We on the other hand are aware and have some of the foundations in place to make sure we are not stuck in one place with nowhere to go in case something happens, but we have to finish what we started.


Avatar: Film-making and Human Destiny

by Larry Klaes

Judging by the abundant reaction to Larry Klaes’ recent article on James Cameron’s Avatar — and by the continuing commentary in society at large — Larry seems to be vindicated when he says the film has become a focal point of discussion for many in the general public. Having engaged in the lively debate in these pages, Larry now wraps up our Avatar coverage with a look at the film’s message and its ramifications, along with comments on its use of science.

To some the new film Avatar may seem like just another science fiction action-adventure flick designed to show off some new special effects while raking in the money for Hollywood and giving audiences some feel-good messages in the process. In Avatar’s most essential sense, this is true. At their core, all films are about giving certain people jobs and making a profit through the entertainment of the masses.

However, there are deeper messages to be found in Avatar, some of which the makers of this film and its intended audience may not appreciate in full, nor their potential consequences that may reach far beyond a mere night at the movies. In fact, I would go so far to say that the overriding message in Avatar might even threaten the ultimate goals of groups like Tau Zero and Project Icarus if left unchallenged and unanswered.

Hollywood’s Reach

It may appear to be a bit much to assume that one film could influence the destiny of humanity, but Avatar has the advertising publicity befitting a film that cost approximately $237 million to make, along with its new filming and presentation techniques which have already established its status in cinematic history. In addition to all this, producer James Cameron says he plans to make two more Avatar films if this first one is financially successful, which it seems well on its way to becoming. Avatar’s presence in the public mind and in our popular culture is ensured for decades.

As I said in my previous article on Avatar, a fair percentage of the people who see this film will get their main ‘education’ on the various themes presented to them by Avatar itself. Now these same people may have seen the occasional news blurb on one of the subjects, but they probably tend not to read science books and periodicals about them. Sadly this is the state of many people in our society, even the otherwise educated ones. Avatar will be giving them one side of a complex theme that will one day become one version of reality for our descendants, a reality that is now taking shape in our present culture.

Before I become fully involved in the main focus of this piece, allow me to address a few more items about Avatar, thanks in part to the comments and information pointers on my previous Avatar articles in Centauri Dreams. Regarding earlier cinematic efforts that have plots and ideas similar to Avatar, I add to this list one animated feature titled Battle for Terra, which first appeared in Canada in 2007 and arrived (with relatively little fanfare) in the United States two years later.

Avatar in Cinematic Context

Battle for Terra involves the surviving remnants of the human race seeking a new home in the galaxy after they managed to destroy Earth and its neighboring colonies in a self-inflicted interplanetary war. They come across an alien world named Terra where the ranking native intelligence lives in peace and harmony with each other and the ecology of their planet. Some humans want to work out a mutual agreement with the natives to live among them, while the military elements want to skip past any diplomacy and simply take over the planet. The two main characters in Battle for Terra are a human male fighter pilot and native female whose cooperative efforts may hold the key to saving both species and the planet.

Perhaps it is true that there are only so many story plots in existence. Or perhaps it is also true that Hollywood has a rather limited repertoire of ideas when it comes to science fiction stories. There have also been claims that certain elements in Avatar come from a science fiction story written in 1957 by author Poul Anderson titled “Call Me Joe.” This story involves a physically handicapped human scientist who explores the planet Jupiter (as that world was envisioned at the time) by placing his mind in the body of a native creature not altogether different from the Na’vi in Avatar. Eventually the scientist abandons his human body and fully becomes the Jovian being.

In any event, Cameron has learned his lesson in regards to credit from the events surrounding his 1984 film, The Terminator. After Cameron publicly stated that he got his ideas for The Terminator from two 1960s television stories by science fiction author Harlan Ellison, he was subsequently sued when the producer initially failed to give Ellison screen credit on the film. This time around, Cameron has declared that Avatar’s elements come from “every single science fiction book I read as a kid,” thus covering all his bases.

The Problem of Polyphemus

One staple of the science fiction genre where Cameron was clearly influenced from his youth in making Avatar is the giant planet and retinue of moons seen hovering in the sky of the world essential to the plot. While having such worlds hanging prominently in an alien sky is indeed a very cool thing to see, it does not necessarily follow that having such a sight would be necessarily safe for any living beings on the main moon, assuming they could even exist at all with such massive nearby celestial neighbors. The chances for such a place having major tectonic upheavals, numerous erupting volcanoes, and lakes of molten lava are quite high, taking Jupiter’s moon Io as a prime and real example.

Other hazards to be encountered from living on a moon so close to a Jovian type planet as Pandora does to Polyphemus would include major amounts of radiation from the Jovian world, assuming Polyphemus has radiation belts as big and as nasty as the ones surrounding Jupiter and Saturn in our Sol system do. The first probe to orbit Jupiter, appropriately named Galileo, was frequently affected by all the intense radiation it had to fly through on a regular basis, constantly going into safe mode at critical moments during its mission. Galileo might still be operating in Jovian orbit to this very day had it not been for all that collective radiation.

With Jupiter, you have to move all the way to the moon Callisto to get outside the range of that planet’s radiation belts, and by then Jupiter, while still being pretty impressive to look at in the heavens compared to, say, our Moon, is nowhere near as big as Polyphemus is in Pandora’s skies.

Another Pandoran space hazard to contemplate is a ring system. Now while Polyphemus did not appear to have such a collection of debris around its equator on the level of Saturn (now there’s another staple of science fiction visuals, a planet with rings) from the relatively brief and distant glimpses we were given, every Jovian type world in our Sol system has a system of rings, though some like Jupiter’s are faint and thin compared to Saturn’s. So assuming Polyphemus and many other such massive globes have some kind of flat plane of debris, then add in Pandora’s proximity to its mother world, there should be a fair number of debris hits from the rings.

Even if the moon’s atmosphere keeps out all but the largest objects, a world like Polyphemus will also attract many comets, planetoids, and meteoroids just as Jupiter does (the impressive breakup and smashup of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 into the Jovian atmosphere in 1994 is a prime case in point). It is hardly unreasonable to imagine that Pandora and its fellow moons have been struck by objects pulled in from deep space by Polyphemus’ massive bulk more than a few times in their history. Some of those impacting bodies were probably big enough to radically affect any past life on Pandora, just as the dinosaurs on Earth disappeared after a five-mile wide planetoid or comet hit our world 65 million years ago.

On Setting and Culture

I also have to wonder if massive, looming Polyphemus also does the Na’vi a disservice in terms of not only blocking much of the Pandoran sky from the natives with its apparent size but also the serious amounts of natural light pollution it spreads across the heavens of that moon and its neighbors. Observe how many stars are washed out on an otherwise clear night with a full phase Moon in Earth’s skies and now imagine our satellite replaced with a world that takes up half the heavens! I chalk this up as another reason why the Na’vi (or at least the Omaticaya tribe who our main human character interacts with the most) don’t seem terribly interested in astronomy, at least given the amounts we were shown of their culture in the film.

One could argue that they are alien beings who evolved on a different world, but considering how similar they seem to have developed otherwise to aboriginal humans on Earth, I find it odd that they would ignore what so many other cultures all across Earth for millennia have focused on with more intensity than our current artificially light polluted society. At the least one might think that the presence of a giant planet with a big “eye” (several times we saw a giant hurricane-style storm on Polyphemus very similar to the Great Red Spot on Jupiter) and at least three nearby big moons would have developed some kind of interest and/or worship among the Na’vi.

What this really says to me is that Polyphemus was put there (or Pandora put in its realm) to look really cool aesthetically to audiences and physics be darned with what that giant planet would really do to a moon so close to it. It would have been better for the logical existence of life on Pandora if that world had been made a separate Earth-type planet orbiting Alpha Centauri A. Besides, there do not seem to be any Jovian-type worlds in the real Alpha Centauri star system (astronomers have looked and they would have been found by now), but there is still a chance for much smaller planets around our nearest stellar neighbors. Otherwise, though, Pandora is a fantasy place existing strictly in the minds of its creators.

Starship Design

Thanks to the Pandorapedia and comments on my earlier Avatar articles in Centauri Dreams, I was able to learn quite a bit more about the starship seen briefly at the start of the film. It turns out I was correct that the ship, named the ISV Venture Star (you can see the name on its hull), appears to be based on a realistic starship design, as opposed to most science fiction starships which rely on hyperspace bypasses and magical crystals to channel their energy from. They do use instantaneous communication across the light years with quantum entanglement (we will see how that ever works out). The Avatar starship concept comes from an antimatter starship design by Charles Pellegrino and James Powell called a Valkyrie, which you can read a fair bit about here.

That’s refreshing, at least. It is ironic, though, that a ship which had so little screen time has been given so much realistic detail, more so than the Polyphemus system and the biology of Pandora if you really think about it (as of this writing, there is no entry on Pandora itself). Ignoring for one moment whether complex life could exist on Pandora at all given its situation as just described, note how similar the creatures and intelligent beings on that moon are to Earth life. The Pandoran life forms really weren’t all that imaginative. Maybe all Earth-type worlds evolve similar types of beings, but then why bother to have Avatar take place 4.3 light years from here, other than to make comments on human society without offending certain groups, of course.

Let’s Go Camping – Forever!

Although we never really see human civilization on Earth in the year 2154 as imagined in Avatar, we are told that the place has become rather rundown, with not much green left (shades of Silent Running), lots of skirmishes all over the globe (that is how our Marine hero, Jake Sully, ended up in a wheelchair), and most everything is run by a company (shades of Rollerball and Robocop) called the Resources Development Administration, or RDA (about as bland a corporate name as one can get). Crime rates have probably gone up (Jake Sully’s twin brother was murdered by a thief, which is why he was sent to Pandora to replace his scientist sibling) and resources have certainly dwindled, which is why the RDA has gone to all the bother and expense of traveling over 25 trillion miles across the Milky Way galaxy to set up a colony and research facility (but in fact more like a military base) on an alien moon to mine a mineral called unobtanium to supply energy for human society back on Earth.

In a previous Avatar article I discussed why it seems so foolish that a society which has space travel would need to go all the way to another solar system, even the nearest one, to mine resources just for civilization on Earth. There should be colonies on worlds in our Sol system, especially on various planetoids, which have their own societies and access to lots of untapped resources. Clearly the filmmakers wanted and needed some kind of conflict with beings roughly equal in intelligence to humans, and since they at least knew no other intelligences exist in our Sol system (no living native ones anyway), they looked into the galaxy, where there are still so many unknowns that one can still create their own mythos of living worlds and feel safe from most ridicule (Venus and Mars used to serve this role until the first few decades of the Space Age showed them to be hostile to complex organisms). Thus the need to go mining around Alpha Centauri in Avatar.

In contrast we have the alien moon Pandora, which, despite the fact that most of the life forms and even the air are dangerous and deadly to Earth natives, is perceived of as some kind of Garden of Eden to the human race of the Twenty-Second Century. Certainly in Avatar little time is wasted in making sure that we see the humans and their technology on Pandora as short-sighted at best and outright destructive at worst while the native beings on that moon – while being more hostile overall than in any jungle on Earth – are revealed to be in a harmonious and literal connection with each other.

We the audience are supposed to take this to mean that the Na’vi are not only the “good guys” but also good in general, even above the humans in a moral and spiritual sense. Granted it was the humans who “invaded” their world and brought motives and items with them that are not for the benefit of the Na’vi, despite the representative company boss’ retort that they tried to give the natives schools and roads but rejected all their overtures.

But the Na’vi people are not saints, they are mortal creatures just like the human species. The fact that so many of the Omaticaya are warriors (or are at least among the highest ranking social order of their people) implies that they battle with each other just as most aboriginal tribes on Earth did for ages. The Na’vi are not better or worse than the humans, they are just different and wonderfully adapted – to the world they evolved on.

This is one of the two main issues I have with the themes and depictions in Avatar. By making the Na’vi out to be better than humanity because they are so “natural” while our technological civilization has brought nothing but hardships and problems to Earth and now to Pandora, this reinforces the notion among those in our society who think all technology is evil and only by returning completely to nature can we be saved.

The conclusion of Larry’s essay will appear tomorrow.


Direct Spectrum of an Exoplanet

Astronomers have obtained a direct spectrum of the exoplanet HR 8799 c, about 130 light years from Earth, and if you watch your definitions, it’s possible to call this the first ‘direct spectrum’ of such a world. I throw in the qualifier because way back in 2004, astronomers using the ESO’s Very Large Telescope and the infrared instrument NACO obtained an image and a spectrum of a planet of about five Jupiter masses around a brown dwarf. The question then involved how the two objects formed — did they form together, like a stellar binary, or did the smaller object form out of the disk around the brown dwarf?

Whatever the case, the new work on HR 8799, also conducted with the VLT and NACO, takes us into interesting territory. Up until now, the way we’ve obtained a spectrum from an exoplanet has been to observe the planet moving directly behind its host star. The spectrum was then derived by comparing the light from the star before and after this event. That method relies, of course, on the orbital plane of the planet being aligned along our line of sight so that the ‘exoplanetary eclipse’ is observable from Earth, a significant limitation on our observations.

Direct observations like this one don’t rely on the planet’s orbital orientation, but they do count on remarkable adaptive optics for such ground-based work as astronomers tease out a planetary signal that is thousands of times dimmer than the star. The spectral information thus derived should offer clues to the planet’s formation and composition, according to Markus Janson, the lead author on the paper reporting the findings. Says Janson:

“The spectrum of a planet is like a fingerprint. It provides key information about the chemical elements in the planet’s atmosphere. With this information, we can better understand how the planet formed and, in the future, we might even be able to find tell-tale signs of the presence of life.”

The planetary system around HR 8799 is an intriguing one. The star is an A5-class about 1.5 times as massive as the Sun. Three planets are known here. HR 8799 b, c and d have estimated masses of 7, 10 and 10 Jupiter masses respectively, and separations of 68 AU, 38 AU and 24 AU. Moreover, we have evidence of a debris belt analogous to the Edgeworth/Kuiper belt outside of HR 8799 b, and a second debris belt similar to our own asteroid belt outside of HR 8799 d. The paper on this work refers to a ‘scaled-up version of our own Solar System,’ but it’s also a young one at an estimated 60 million years.

“Our target was the middle planet of the three, which is roughly ten times more massive than Jupiter and has a temperature of about 800 degrees Celsius,” says team member Carolina Bergfors. “After more than five hours of exposure time, we were able to tease out the planet’s spectrum from the host star’s much brighter light.”

Image: By studying a triple planetary system that resembles a scaled-up version of our own Sun’s family of planets, astronomers have been able to obtain the first direct spectrum of a planet around a star, thus bringing new insights into its formation and composition. The spectrum is that of a giant exoplanet, orbiting around the bright and very young star HR 8799, about 130 light-years away. This montage shows the image and the spectrum of the star and the planet as seen with the NACO adaptive optics instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope. As the host star is several thousand times brighter than the planet, this is a remarkable achievement at the border of what is technically possible. According to the scientists it is like trying to see what a candle is made of, by observing it from a distance of two kilometres when it’s next to a blindingly bright 300 Watt lamp. Despite the power of the VLT’s extraordinary adaptive optics system, the spectrum of the planet appears very faint, but still contains enough information for the astronomers to characterise the object. In the spectrum, several artefacts from the instrument are seen, such as internal reflections, or “ghosts”, and diffraction rings. Credit: ESO/M. Janson.

Yes, and it’s a spectrum that’s not in agreement with current theoretical models, a result that may be explained by a more detailed explanation of dust clouds in the atmosphere, or else a chemical composition different from what had been assumed. From the paper:

The results therefore imply that a more detailed treatment of dust in the models is necessary – or perhaps, that non-equilibrium chemistry is involved… Non-equilibrium models are worth to explore as they predict large differences in the spectrum as function of metallicity. Thus, a better understanding of the spectral behavior in this wavelength range might lead to a determination of whether or not the planet is metal-enhanced or not, and thereby provide further clues to its formation.

And this is interesting:

In the future, further observations with NACO can yield a spectrum also of HR 8799 b and maybe d, and yield a broader coverage of HR 8799 c by optimizing the observation procedure. This will provide the opportunity for comparative exoplanetology within a single system.

Advances in spectroscopy have obvious implications for astrobiology as we try to understand the atmospheres of distant planets and look, eventually, for chemical biomarkers. Thus the better we become at spatially resolving a planetary spectral signal from that of its star, the closer we are to reaching our long-term goal of identifying life elsewhere in the universe. The paper is Janson et al., “Spatially resolved spectroscopy of the exoplanet HR 8799 c,” in press at Astrophysical Journal Letters (available online).


Exoplanets: Mapping a Distant Blue Dot

Glints of light off oceans or ice caps would be useful indeed as we try to figure out what we’re seeing on a distant terrestrial world. One day we’ll have the kind of instrumentation that can make direct observations of a planet like this, separating its light from that of its star. A ‘terrestrial planet finder’ mission that finds sun glints in its data would have identified a planet that could be suitable for life, one with large areas of water or ice.

Drake Deming (NASA GSFC) specializes in recognizing features like this in his work as deputy principal investigator for the Extrasolar Planet Observations and Characterization (EPOCH) study, a part of the extended mission of the Deep Impact spacecraft. EPOCH has produced two new videos showing bright flashes produced by sunlight as the Earth is seen to rotate from a distance of about eleven million miles. The idea is to produce a view of the Earth that can be studied in the same way a future planet-hunter spacecraft would study an exoplanet.

A tiny flash of light as a marker for life? It would hardly be proof, but such an event could be part of the constellation of confirming data involved in such a study. Deming has this to say on the subject:

“…these sun glints are important because, if we saw an extrasolar planet which had glints that popped up periodically, we would know that we were seeing lakes, oceans or other large bodies of liquid, such as water. And if we found large bodies of water on a distant planet, we would become much more optimistic about finding life.”

Image: A sun glint on Earth is captured (center of the black circle) in this image taken by NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft as it looked at the north pole. The reddish area is North America, and the glint is coming from a body of water in California. Credit: Don Lindler, Sigma Space Corporation/GSFC.

Encouraging to planet hunters is the fact that the intensity of some glints was marked. Richard K. Barry at GSFC is leading the research into sun glints from the EPOCH results and creating a catalog that will relate each glint to a particular location on Earth. It’s clear from the EPOCH returns that sun glints appeared not only over calm areas of ocean but also over some land masses, surely caused by large inland lakes.

The videos EPOCH has provided are made from a compilation of green, blue and near-infrared images taken every fifteen minutes on a single day. Infrared is useful because it provides sharp contrast between land and water, with vegetation showing up better in the infrared than in visible light. That’s a useful fact not only for characterizing planets with water or ice, but also for looking at land masses, as Nicolas Cowan (University of Washington) explains:

“As Earth spins, different surface features rotate in and out of view, causing the color of the blue dot to change slightly from one hour to the next… [W]hen a large expanse of bare land, like the Sahara Desert, rotates into view, Earth gets a bit redder because continents reflect near infrared light relatively well.”

With over 400 extrasolar planets now identified, we have to consider the possibility that we’ll be inundated with terrestrial planet candidates as our observing tools improve. Narrowing down the field to those most likely to hold life will involve investigations like these, working with data from which sun glints can be extracted and, potentially, a rudimentary mapping of an exoplanet’s features could be begun, one that would at least point to the existence of oceans and continents.


Solar Sails: State of the Art 2010

Centauri Dreams readers know that I’m a great supporter of solar sailing as a technology that has interstellar ramifications as well as immediate practical value right here in the Solar System. What’s particularly appealing about the solar sail is that we’ve already shaken out many of the problems and are ready to begin testing sails in space, which is why it’s so frustrating to see NASA and ESA locked in to budgetary constraints that keep that vital next step from happening. NanoSail-D is one cheap way we might fly a sail soon, and so is The Planetary Society’s LightSail project, but as with so many aspects of the space program, we seem to be well behind earlier optimistic schedules.

In that environment, though, it’s important to keep the goal in front of us and to continue the work on solar sail theory. In June of 2007, the 1st International Symposium on Solar Sailing took place at Herrsching at Lake Ammersee, Bavaria. The 2nd in this symposium series is now scheduled for July 20-22 of this year at New York City College of Technology (City Tech) of the City University of New York. The venue is home to solar sail experts Greg Matloff and Roman Kezerashvili.

The focus in New York will be recent advances in solar sailing technologies and near-term solar sail missions. Particular attention is focused on hardware, enabling technologies, concepts, designs, dynamics, navigation, control, modeling and mission applications and programs. For more information, check the ISSS 2010 site, where you can register online. For those interested in submitting papers, abstracts are due May 15. The proceedings will be published to add to the substantial solar sail literature that continues to refine the concept.

As to The Planetary Society’s plans, LightSail-1 is to have four triangular sails constructed of 32 square meters of mylar, a configuration that will be placed 800 kilometers above the Earth to test the practicality of using sunlight as a means of propulsion. The Society talks about a launch before the end of 2010, but much depends upon the choice of launch vehicle — LightSail-1 will be flying as a secondary payload on either an American or a Russian launch. Assuming success, the next LightSail will carry a larger payload, with a third sail intended to fly on a multi-year mission that will create an early-warning station for geomagnetic storms triggered by events on the Sun.

The Planetary Society calls solar sailing “…the only known technology that might carry out practical interstellar flight, helping pave our way to the stars.” Although the language is stirring, I’ll have to disagree with the word ‘practical’ in that sentence given the times involved in a solar sail mission to a nearby star, and I’m sure fusion advocates would argue that by the time we develop laser or microwave beaming methods to boost sails to faster speeds, we’ll likely have fusion options as well.

But who can argue with the excitement of funding a solar sail mission with public and private contributions, bypassing government bureaucracies to move the state of the art forward? Meanwhile, we also have to keep an eye on Japan, where work continues on the IKAROS Project, a solar sail / ion engine hybrid whose first mission may fly this year. IKAROS (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation of the Sun) will use thin film solar cells on the 20-meter sail membrane to power up its ion engines, with a second, larger sail envisioned that would one day target Jupiter and the Trojan asteroids. All told, 2010 looks to be a significant year for solar sail technologies.