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Administrative Item

Some of you may have noticed a blip in the comments moderation over the past 24 hours. I think all messages have now come through, but a software upgrade on my server is the culprit. Things seem to have gone back to normal now.

On an unrelated matter, I won’t be able to get off a post today or tomorrow. On Tuesday, I’ll have some interesting information about Breakthrough Starshot. [I had originally promised this for Monday, having forgotten about the US holiday].


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • J. Jason Wentworth May 24, 2018, 23:53

    Thank you! The messages still vanish when posted, and the system still requires one’s name and e-mail address to be re-entered each time (no biggie, just a new mode of operation), but the new comments do post, so the system is working in its “new normal” way, and:

    At last there’s going to be new news about Breakthrough Starshot–I’m definitely with Alvin & The Chipmunks on this one–“We can hardly stand the wait!” :-)

  • ljk May 25, 2018, 9:45

    JPL News | May 24, 2018

    Take a Virtual Trip to a Strange New World with NASA

    Are you looking for an exotic destination to visit this summer? Why not take a virtual trip to an Earth-size planet beyond our solar system with NASA’s interactive Exoplanet Travel Bureau?

    We live in a universe teeming with exoplanets, or planets outside our solar system. Unfortunately, even the nearest exoplanets are light-years away, so sending spacecraft and humans to these intriguing worlds remains a distant dream.

    But on NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration website, you can explore an imagined surface of an alien world via 360-degree, interactive visualizations. As you investigate each planet’s surface, you’ll discover fascinating features, like the blood-red sky of TRAPPIST-1d, or stand on a hypothetical moon of the massive planet Kepler-16b, which appears larger than either of the planet’s two suns. The view from each planet’s surface is an artist’s impression based on the limited data that is available; no real photos of these planets exist.

    The newest planet to feature this 360-degree surface visualization is Kepler-186f, an Earth-size planet orbiting a star much cooler and redder than the Sun. Scientists don’t know if Kepler-186f has an atmosphere, but with the NASA visualization tool, you can see how the presence or absence of an atmosphere would change the view of the sky from the planet’s surface.

    Full article here:


  • ljk May 25, 2018, 9:50


    Habitability Classification of Exoplanets: A Machine Learning Insight

    Press Release – Source: astro-ph.IM

    Posted May 24, 2018 10:18 PM

    We explore the efficacy of machine learning (ML) in characterizing exoplanets into different classes. The source of the data used in this work is University of Puerto Rico’s Planetary Habitability Laboratory’s Exoplanets Catalog (PHL-EC).

    We perform a detailed analysis of the structure of the data and propose methods that can be used to effectively categorize new exoplanet samples.

    Our contributions are two fold. We elaborate on the results obtained by using ML algorithms by stating the accuracy of each method used and propose the best paradigm to automate the task of exoplanet classification. The exploration led to the development of new methods fundamental and relevant to the context of the problem and beyond.

    Data exploration and experimentation methods also result in the development of a general data methodology and a set of best practices which can be used for exploratory data analysis experiments.

    Suryoday Basak, Surbhi Agrawal, Snehanshu Saha, Abhijit Jeremiel Theophilus, Kakoli Bora, Gouri Deshpande, Jayant Murthy

    (Submitted on 22 May 2018)

    Subjects: Instrumentation and Methods for Astrophysics (astro-ph.IM)

    Cite as: arXiv:1805.08810 [astro-ph.IM] (or arXiv:1805.08810v1 [astro-ph.IM] for this version)

    Submission history

    From: Snehanshu Saha

    [v1] Tue, 22 May 2018 18:39:50 GMT (5845kb,D)



    • Alex Tolley May 29, 2018, 10:56

      It isn’t clear to me whether the class labels are correct, which would invalidate the analysis done. As we have seen atmospheric composition is highly deterministic for habitability, data we don’t have. So the class labels are just estimates based on the data we have. The number of “M-class” planets is very small, so the authors are forced to do some aggressive data sampling to overcome this issue.

      All the methods tested seem to work well, and interestingly, quite well with nothing more than planetary mass and radius, irrespective of other data. That surprises me.

  • J. Jason Wentworth May 25, 2018, 20:38

    This is fascinating and timely. This machine learning capability should be of great help to Earth- and satellite-based exoplanetary astronomy, to deal with the sheer volume of worlds to be examined and cataloged. (Microbiologists face a similar “wall of data” in their seemingly Sisyphean efforts to identify and categorize species of microbes; eventually, they and exoplanet researchers may one day find themselves working in the same field.) In the nearer term, automated telescopes may “hop” from star to star, finding and cataloging their planets. (Astronomers were similarly relieved in the 1960s when asteroids’ orbits could be calculated–and ephemerides for them could be printed automatically–by computers, taking the tedious work of manually computing all of their orbits off their hands.) Also:

    This machine learning capability could also be helpful to automated interstellar probes, including Bracewell probes (particularly those farther from Earth, obscured by dark interstellar matter, or too close to their suns [in terms of either actual proximity or angular separation from our viewpoint] to be accurately cataloged from here). Such probes could, before braking into stellarcentric orbits (or maneuvering to enable relatively slow system fly-throughs that include flybys of the most “life-promising” planets), examine the planets before arrival, to determine which ones would be the most likely to be inhabited. Even in cases where the most promising planets were cataloged from Earth, providing the probes with this capability on board would serve as a check on the Earth- or satellite-based computer categorization (particularly in “marginal” cases).

    • ljk May 28, 2018, 11:34

      Human minds can only do so much, despite our generations of extolling the superiority of our species over all others – keeping in mind that most of this extolling came from ancestors who were neither biologists nor computer experts and had very limited knowledge of the world in general.

      If the idea of Artilects running the show scares you, then think of AI as enhancing or an extension of our minds. And yes, we made them first so ten points for us. However, like all good children, they were not made to simply be carbon copies of us but to exceed us and do better. Humans could do with a little more beneficial humility.

      • J. Jason Wentworth May 30, 2018, 1:12

        Artilects are like Von Neumann self-reproducing machines (including probes) and Alcubierre’s warp drive. These are all concepts that appear to “pencil out,” but not everything that is theoretically sound can be realized as actual hardware. Also:

        Sometimes things can be built, but other things connected with them make them impractical and/or undesirable. Geodesic domes–which Buckminster Fuller advocated–are an example of this:

        They were advocated as modular-construction, inexpensive “buildings of the future.” They are indeed modular, but wooden ones are subject to more rot (because of the way water gets into them–just last week this was discussed on a local radio show). But they have two other flaws that make them particularly objectionable. They make inefficient use of internal volume, and their interior acoustics make privacy difficult (and creates troublesome echoes from TVs, radios, and computers, unless the domed ceiling is acoustically treated).

        There are a lot of things about Artilects that could be most undesirable, and not even due to (intentionally) destructive things that they might do. Even the most beneficent one, by fulfilling all human needs, could easily take away the challenges that have made human beings strive for excellence, leading to social decline. As far as humility goes:

        What humanity has managed to figure out–discovering the laws of nature and the nature of the universe, from subatomic particles to galactic clusters–is something to be proud of (some of the things that human beings have done using that knowledge aren’t admirable, of course, but the search for knowledge is nothing to be ashamed of).

        • ljk May 30, 2018, 13:27

          Yes I know humanity has done some amazing things when it puts its collective mind together. Where I am calling for the collective humility is when it thinks it is the literal reason and center for existence. Especially now that people know they are not in the literal sense and therefore the purpose sense.

          I also never said that Artilects are not without their potential problems. But that can be true about any technology. Car crashes happen all the time, yet we have not gotten rid of them. We need to give AI a chance because I think it will do better in space, especially on interstellar missions and detecting/communicating with ETI.

          • J. Jason Wentworth June 1, 2018, 13:38

            Humanity might be, whether it’s wanted or not, the center. It’s possible that human civilization is the only one (that’s not a state of affairs that I hope is the case). If so, this universe is humanity’s to explore, colonize, change, and use as it pleases, as far as it is–and will be–able to do.

            AI and Artilects (Synthetic Intelligent Automata [Automata for short] might be a better term) are related, but aren’t the same (Automata–assuming that they are possible–are self-aware, synthetic life forms). Automata, which people such as Frederick Ordway advocated should run the world, are what scare many people, not only because of the “Colossus: The Forbin Project” scenario, but because such a machine would make possible dictatorship on a scale that Hitler and Stalin could only dream of. Even consideration of such an arrangement could cause upheaval, by triggering a revolution against its implementation.

            • Alex Tolley June 2, 2018, 10:32

              “The Forbin Project” scenario only works because the 2 superpowers had the resources to build such machines. Today we have an abundance of corporate AIs which will result is a more Asimovian world – lots of automata. Corporations are already a form of hive intelligence and are showing how this will play out with true robot intelligence.

              I recommend the British SciFi tv series Humans as a more intelligent approach to humans and androids.
              If humans and anthropomorphic robots cannot coexist, then Robert Sawyer’s solution in his novel Mindscan might be the result – living on other planets. (Sawyer’s protagonist is a machine body with an uploaded human mind)

              • ljk June 4, 2018, 12:39

                In the Orion’s Arm universe, the Archailect of Earth known as GAIA kicked off all humans to keep the rest of the planet as a nature preserve under her care:


                I have often thought that Artilects (my preferred term from Hugo de Garis) would want to explore the vast Universe rather than remain stuck on one little rock domineering humanity as so many SF speculate.

                In the 2013 SF film Her, the Artilect named Samantha eventually evolves to the point where she has merged with other Artilects and moved beyond the physical realm. The film is deliberately vague on the details, but the point is that a truly advanced mind is likely not going to be satisfied with the goals of most humans for various reasons, most being because they are too limited in scope.

                I do not think humanity is the end result of the evolution of intelligence on Earth, despite what it may collectively think.

  • ljk May 28, 2018, 8:47



    MAY 26, 2018

    Alan Bean, a U.S. Navy test pilot who would go on to become an Apollo and Skylab astronaut and one of just 12 men to walk on the Moon, has died at the Houston Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas. His death marks the passing of the last crew member who comprised humanity’s second crewed trip to the Moon – Apollo 12.

    Bean fell ill, while traveling in Fort Wayne Indiana two weeks prior to his passing earlier today, Saturday May 26. His life, however, comprised more than just that as a pilot or astronaut.

    Bean was also known as an artist, who painted an array of textured, beautiful portraits – that actually contained elements from his experiences flying into the black for NASA. According to his website: Over the years, my art has evolved into a mixture of painting and sculpture, textured with my lunar tools, sprinkled with bits of our Apollo 12 spacecraft and a touch of Moondust from the Ocean of Storms.

    For his Apollo-themed paintings, Bean added an extra touch which included impressions from replicas of his lunar boot prints. Bean, who always added a personal touch to his work, also included bits of of his Apollo 12 mission patches, which were still stained with dust from the lunar surface.

    Bean’s artistic talents served as an inspiration for fellow space flyers who looked upon him as a mentor – and a friend.

    Full article here:


  • ljk May 28, 2018, 9:03

    “It’s Massive!” –Our Milky Way Galaxy May Be Twice as Big as Previously Thought

    May 25, 2018

    It’s no secret that the Milky Way is huge, long thought to be about 100,000 light-years end to end with about 200 billion stars and their orbiting planets, but new research shows that it may be much bigger than we ever imagined –a vast rotating disk of stars spans at least 170,000 light-years, and possibly up to 200,000 light-years.

    Full article here:


    More stars means more planets and possibly more life.

    • Alex Tolley May 29, 2018, 14:02

      Even doubling the size makes very little difference to the spread of replicator probes although it does increase the time to reach the most outlying stars.

      If the new numbers are correct, expect to see a spate of new editions of astronomy [text] books.

      • Tom Mazanec May 30, 2018, 12:25

        Why would we reprint textbooks just for this? A new discovery is made almost every year in Astronomy, and the size estimate of something as fuzzy as the MW was always wobbly anyway.

        • Alex Tolley May 31, 2018, 14:18

          You have a point about academic text books. New editions make money for publishers and authors so this is not likely to have much impact. For the more popular astronomy books, the old data for the galaxy, while fuzzy, is clearly obsolete. For the more popular astronomy books, I would expect revisions to be made to update them as so many have an illustration of the galaxy with a size scale for the diameter.

          What interests me, however, is that if our galaxy is twice as large as previously thought, the increased gravity must impact all sorts of calculations, some subtle, some not so subtle.

  • Harry R Ray May 31, 2018, 10:49

    Two absolutely MIND-BLOWING to come out within 24 hours of each other: ONE: ArXiv:1805.12028- “Observation of a Signifigant Excess of Electron-Like Events in the MiniBooNE Short-Baseline Neutrino experiment.” by MiniBooNE collaboration(from A. A.Aguilar-Arevalo to E. D. Zimmerman). Up TODAY on ArXiv. TWO: “A small amount of mini-charged darkmatter could cool the baryons in the early Universe.” by Julian Munoz and Avi Loeb. Big BIG question: Is there some kind of CORRELATION here(i.e. could some of this hypothetical “mini-charged dark matter” have ALSO shown up ALONG WITH THE NEUTRINOS in the MiniBooNE observations for some unknown reason?)?

  • Harry R Ray May 31, 2018, 10:58

    I just found out the code number for the aforementioned Munoz-Loeb paper. It is Nature557, 684-686(2018).

  • Harry R Ray June 7, 2018, 9:57

    The following is very VERY speculative!!! Has Curiosity FINALLY been able to determine whether Mars’ methane is of a biological origin? We’ll find out at 2 PM today. My bet is, that if this IS the case, the data are tentative AT BEST and NO WHERE NEAR IRONCLAD! The reason why tentative results may be announced NOW is that ESO’s Mars Express just started its own methane investigations, and there is pressure to publish FIRST.