If there’s one thing that decades of operating in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) has taught us, it is that space is full of hazards. In addition to solar flares and cosmic radiation, one of the greatest dangers comes from space debris. While the largest bits of junk (which measure more than 10 cm in diameter) are certainly a threat, the real concern is the more than 166 million objects that range in size from 1 mm to 1 cm in diameter.
Within the realm of physics, there are certain barriers that human beings have come to recognize. The most well-known is the speed of light, the maximum speed at which all conventional matter and all forms of information in the Universe can travel. This is a barrier that humanity may never be able to push past, mainly because doing so violate one of the most fundamental laws of physics – Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.
But what about the speed of sound? This is another barrier in physics, but one which humanity has been able to break (several times over in fact). And when it comes to breaking this barrier, scientists use what is known as a Mach Number to represent the flow boundary past the local speed of sound. In other words, pushing past the sound barrier is defined as Mach 1. So how fast do you have to be going to do that?
When we hear the term Mach 1 it is easy to assume it is the speed of sound through Earth’s atmosphere. However this term is more loaded than you might think. The truth is that a Mach Number is a ratio rather than an actual direct measurement of speed. And this ratio is due to the fact that the speed of sound varies from one location to the next, owing to differences in temperature and air density.
Mathematically, this can be defined as M = u/c, where M is the Mach number, u is the local flow velocity with respect to the boundaries (i.e. the speed of the object moving through the medium), and c is the speed of sound in that particular medium (i.e. local atmosphere, water, etc).
When the speed of sound is broken, this results in what is known as a “sonic boom”. This is the loud, cracking sound that is associated with the shock waves that are created by an object traveling faster than the local speed of sound. Examples range an aircraft breaking the sound barrier to miniature booms caused by bullets flying by, or the crack of a bullwhip.
Speed of Sound:
Basically, the speed of sound is the distance traveled in a certain amount of time by a sound wave as it propagates through an elastic medium. As already noted, this is not a universal value, but comes down to the composition of the medium and the conditions of that medium. When we talk of the speed of sound, we refer to the speed of sound in Earth’s atmosphere. But even that is subject to variation.
However, scientists tend to rely on the speed of sound as measured in dry air (i.e. low humidity) and at a temperature of 20 °C (68 °F) as the standard. Under these conditions, the local speed of sound is 343 meters per second (1,235 km/h; 767 mph) – or 1 kilometer in 2.91 s and 1 mile in 4.69 s.
As with most ratios, there are approximations and categories that are used to measure the speed of the object in relation to the sound barrier. This gives us the categories of subsonic, transonic, supersonic, and hypersonic. This categorization system is often used to classify aircraft or spacecraft, the minimum requirement being that most of the craft classified have the ability to approach or exceed the speed of sound.
For aircraft or any object that flies at a speed below the sound barrier, the classification of subsonic applies. This category includes most commuter jets and small commercial aircraft, though some exceptions have been noted (i.e. supersonic commercial jets like the Concorde).
Since these craft never meet or exceed the speed of sound, they will have a Mach number that is less than one and therefore expressed in decimal form – i.e. less than Mach 0.8 (273 m/s; 980 km/h; 609 mph). Typically, these aircraft are propeller-driven and tend to have high aspect-ratio (slender) wings and rounded features.
The designation of transonic applies to a condition of flight where a range of airflow velocities exist around and past the aircraft. These speeds are concurrently below, at, and above the speed of sound, ranging from Mach 0.8 to 1.2 (273-409 m/s; 980-1,470 km/h; 609-914 mph). Transonic aircraft nearly always have swept wings, causing the delay of drag-divergence, and are driven by jet engines.
The next category is supersonic aircraft. These are craft that can move beyond the compression of air that is the “sound barrier.” These craft generally have a Mach number of between 1 and 5 (410–1,702 m/s; 1,470–6,126 km/h; 915-3,806 mph). Aircraft designed to fly at supersonic speeds show large differences in their aerodynamic design because of the radical differences in the behavior of flows above Mach 1.
These include sharp edges, thin wing sections, and tail stabilizers (aka. fins) or canards (forewings) that are capable of adjusting. Craft that typically have this designation include modern fighter jets, spy planes (like the SR-71 Blackbird) and the aforementioned Concorde.
The last category is hypersonic, which applies to aircraft that can exceed the speed of Mach 5 and can achieve speeds as high as Mach 10 (1,702–3,403 m/s; 6,126–12,251 km/h; 3,806–7,680 mph). Very few aircraft can move at such speeds, and tend to be rocket-powered (like the X-15), scramjets (like the X-43, or HyperX), or spacecraft that are in the process of leaving Earth’s atmosphere.
Another example is objects entering the Earth’s atmosphere. These can take the form of spacecraft performing re-entry, or meteorites that have passed through and broken up in Earth’s atmosphere. For example, the meteor that entered the skies above the above the small town of Chelyabinsk, Russia, in February of 2013 was traveling at a speed of about 19.16 ± 0.15 km/s (68,436 – 69,516 km/h; 42,524 – 43,195 mph).
In other words, the meteorite was traveling between Mach 55 and 56 when it hit our atmosphere! Given its tremendous speed, when the meteor reached the skies above Chelyabinsk, it created a sonic boom so powerful that it caused extensive damage to thousand of building in six cities across the region. This damage, which included a lot of exploding windows, resulted in 1,500 people being injured.
So how fast is Mach One? The short answer is that it depends on where you are. But in general, it is a speed that exceeds about 1200 km/h or 750 mph. If you’re capable of going this fast, you will be breaking the sound barrier, and people for miles around will be hearing about it!
Now, let’s look and see what missions are planned for the outer planets of the Solar System, especially Uranus and Neptune. Oh, that’s so sad… there’s nothing.
It’s been decades since humanity had an up close look at Uranus and Neptune. For Uranus, it was Voyager 2, which swept through the system in 1986. We got just a few tantalizing photographs of the ice giant planet and it’s moons.
What’s going on there?
What are those strange features? Sorry, insufficient data.
And then Voyager 2 did the same, zipping past Neptune in 1989.
Check this out.
What’s going here on Triton? Wouldn’t you like to know more? Well, too bad! You can’t it’s done, that’s all you get.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we’ve studied all these other worlds. I’m glad we’ve had orbiters at Mercury, Venus, everything at Mars, Jupiter, and especially Saturn. We’ve seen Ceres and Vesta, and the Moon up close. We even got a flyby of Pluto and Charon.
It’s time to go back to Uranus and Neptune, this time to stay.
And I’m not the only one who feels this way.
Scientists at NASA recently published a report called the Ice Giant Mission Study, and it’s all about various missions that could be sent to explore Uranus, Neptune and their fascinating moons.
The team of scientists who worked on the study considered a range of potential missions to the ice giants, and in the end settled on four potential missions; three that could go to Uranus, and one headed for Neptune. Each of them would cost roughly $2 billion.
Uranus is closer, easier to get to, and the obvious first destination of a targeted mission. For Uranus, NASA considered three probes.
The first idea is a flyby mission, which will sweep past Uranus gathering as much science as it can. This is what Voyager 2 did, and more recently what NASA’s New Horizons did at Pluto. In addition, it would have a separate probe, like the Cassini and Galileo missions, that would detach and go into the atmosphere to sample the composition below the cloudtops. The mission would be heavy and require an Atlas V rocket with the same configuration that sent Curiosity to Mars. The flight time would take 10 years.
The main science goal of this mission would be to study the composition of Uranus. It would make some other measurements of the system as it passed through, but it would just be a glimpse. Better than Voyager, but nothing like Cassini’s decade plus observations of Saturn.
I like where this is going, but I’m going to hold out for something better.
The next idea is an orbiter. Now we’re talking! It would have all the same instruments as the flyby and the detachable probe. But because it would be an orbiter, it would require much more propellant. It would have triple the launch mass of the flyby mission, which means a heavier Atlas V rocket. And a slightly longer flight time; 12 years instead of 10 for the flyby.
Because it would remain at Uranus for at least 3 years, it would be able to do an extensive analysis of the planet and its rings and moons. But because of the atmospheric probe, it wouldn’t have enough mass for more instruments. It would have more time at Uranus, but not a much better set of tools to study it with.
Okay, let’s keep going. The next idea is an orbiter, but without the detachable probe. Instead, it’ll have the full suite of 15 scientific instruments, to study Uranus from every angle. We’re talking visible, doppler, infrared, ultraviolet, thermal, dust, and a fancy wide angle camera to give us those sweet planetary pictures we like to see.
Study Uranus? Yes please. But while we’re at it, let’s also sent a spacecraft to Neptune.
As part of the Ice Giants Study, the researchers looked at what kind of missions would be possible. In this case, they settled on a single recommended mission. A huge orbiter with an additional atmospheric probe. This mission would be almost twice as massive as the heaviest Uranus mission, so it would need a Delta IV Heavy rocket to even get out to Neptune.
As it approached Neptune, the mission would release an atmospheric probe to descend beneath the cloudtops and sample what’s down there. The orbiter would then spend an additional 2 years in the environment of Neptune, studying the planet and its moons and rings. It would give us a chance to see its fascinating moon Triton up close, which seems to be a captured Kuiper Belt Object.
Unfortunately there’s no perfect grand tour trajectory available to us any more, where a single spacecraft could visit all the large planets in the Solar System. Missions to Uranus and Neptune will have to be separate, however, if NASA’s Space Launch System gets going, it could carry probes for both destinations and launch them together.
The goal of these missions is the science. We want to understand the ice giants of the outer Solar System, which are quite different from both the inner terrestrial planets and the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn.
The gas giants are mostly hydrogen and helium, like the Sun. But the ice giants are 65% water and other ices made from methane and ammonia. But it’s not like they’re big blobs of water, or even frozen water. Because of their huge gravity, the ice giants crush this material with enormous pressure and temperature.
What happens when you crush water under this much pressure? It would all depend on the temperature and pressure. There could be different types of ice down there. At one level, it could be an electrically conductive soup of hydrogen and oxygen, and then further down, you might get crystallized oxygen with hydrogen ions running through it.
Hailstones made of diamond could form out of the carbon-rich methane and fall down through the layers of the planets, settling within a molten carbon core. What I’m saying is, it could be pretty strange down there.
We know that ice giants are common in the galaxy, in fact, they’ve made up the majority of the extrasolar planets discovered so far. By better understanding the ones we have right here in our own Solar System, we can get a sense of the distant extrasolar planets turning up. We’ll be better able to distinguish between the super earths and mini-neptunes.
Another big question is how these planets formed in the first place. In their current models, most planetary astronomers think these planets had very short time windows to form. They needed to have massive enough cores to scoop up all that material before the newly forming Sun’s solar wind blasted it all out into space. And yet, why are these kinds of planets so common in the Universe?
The NASA mission planners developed a total of 12 science objectives for these missions, focusing on the composition of the planets and their atmospheres. And if there’s time, they’d like to know about how heat moves around, their constellations of rings and moons. They’d especially like to investigate Neptune’s moons Triton, which looks like a captured Kuiper Belt Object, as it orbits in the reverse direction from all the other moons in the Solar System.
In terms of science, the two worlds are very similar. But because Neptune has Triton. If I had to choose, I’d go with a Neptune mission.
Are you excited? I’m excited. Here’s the bad news. According to NASA, the best launch windows for these missions would be 2029 or 2034. And that’s just the launch time, the flight time is an additional decade or more on top of that. In other words, the first photos from a Uranus flyby could happen in 2039 or 2035, while orbiters could arrive at either planet in the 2040s. I’m sure my future grandchildren will enjoy watching these missions arrive.
But then, we have to keep everything in perspective. NASA’s Cassini mission was under development in the 1980s. It didn’t launch until 1997, and it didn’t get to Saturn until 2004. It’s been almost 20 years since that launch, and almost 40 years since they started working on it.
I guess we need to be more patient. I can be patient.
If you’ve read enough of our articles, you know I’ve got an uneasy alliance with the Sun. Sure, it provides the energy we need for all life on Earth. But, it’s a great big ongoing thermonuclear reaction, and it’s right there! As soon as we get fusion, Sun, in like, 30 years or so, I tell you, we’ll be the ones laughing.
But to be honest, we still have so many questions about the Sun. For starters, we don’t fully understand the solar wind blasting out of the Sun. This constant wind of charged particles is constantly blowing out into space, but sometimes it’s stronger, and sometimes it’s weaker.
What are the factors that contribute to the solar wind? And as you know, these charged particles are not healthy for the human body, or for our precious electronics. In fact, the Sun occasionally releases enormous blasts that can damage our satellites and electrical grids.
How can we predict the intensity so that we can be better prepared for dangerous solar storms? Especially the Carrington-class events that might take down huge portions of our modern society.
Perhaps the biggest mystery with the Sun is the temperature of its corona. The surface of the Sun is hot, like 5,500 degrees Celsius. But if you rise up into the atmosphere of the Sun, into its corona, the temperature jumps beyond a million degrees.
The list of mysteries is long. And to start understanding what’s going on, we’ll need to get much much closer to the Sun.
Good news, NASA has a new mission in the works to do just that.
The mission is called the Parker Solar Probe. Actually, last week, it was called the Solar Probe Plus, but then NASA renamed it, and that reminded me to do a video on it.
It’s pretty normal for NASA to rename their spacecraft, usually after a dead astronomer/space scientist, like Kepler, Chandra, etc. This time, though, they renamed it for a legendary solar astronomer Eugene Parker, who developed much of our modern thinking on the Sun’s solar wind. Parker just turned 90 and this is the first time NASA has named it after someone living.
Anyway, back to the spacecraft.
The mission is due to launch in early August 2018 on a Delta IV Heavy, so we’re still more than a year away at this point. When it does, it’ll carry the spacecraft on a very unusual trajectory through the inner Solar System.
The problem is that the Sun is actually a very difficult place to reach. In fact, it’s the hardest place to get to in the entire Solar System.
Remember that the Earth is traveling around the Sun at a velocity of 30 km/s. That’s almost three times the velocity it takes to get into orbit. That’s a lot of velocity.
In order to be able to get anywhere near the Sun, the probe needs to shed velocity. And in order to do this, it’s going to use gravitational slingshots with Venus. We’ve talked about gravitational slingshots in the past, and how you can use them to speed up a spacecraft, but you can actually do the reverse.
The Parker Solar Probe will fall down into Venus’ gravity well, and give orbital velocity to Venus. This will put it on a new trajectory which takes it closer to the Sun. It’ll do a total of 7 flybys in 7 years, each of which will tweak its trajectory and shed some of that orbital momentum.
You know, trying to explain orbital maneuvering is tough. I highly recommend that you try out Kerbal Space Program. I’ve learned more about orbital mechanics by playing that game for a few months than I have in almost 2 decades of space journalism. Go ahead, try to get to the Sun, I challenge you.
Anyway, with each Venus flyby, the Parker Solar Probe will get closer and closer to the Sun, well within the orbit of Mercury. Far closer than any spacecraft has ever gotten to the Sun. At its closest point, it’ll only be 5.9 million kilometers from the Sun. Just for comparison, the Earth orbits at an average distance of about 150 million kilometers. That’s close.
And over the course of its entire mission, the spacecraft is expected to make a total of 24 complete orbits of the Sun, analyzing that plasma ball from every angle.
The orbit is also highly elliptical, which means that it’s going really really fast at its closest point. Almost 725,000 km/h.
In order to withstand the intense temperatures of being this close to the Sun, NASA has engineered the Parker Solar Probe to shed heat. It’s equipped with an 11.5 cm-thick shield made of carbon-composite. For that short time it spends really close to the Sun, the spacecraft will keep the shield up, blocking that heat from reaching the rest of its instruments.
And it’s going to get hot. We’re talking about more than 1,300 degrees Celsius, which is about 475 times as much energy as a spacecraft receives here on Earth. In the outer Solar System, the problem is that there just isn’t enough energy to power solar panels. But where Parker is going, there’s just too much energy.
Now we’ve talked about the engineering difficulties of getting a spacecraft this close to the Sun, let’s talk about the science.
The biggest question astronomers are looking to solve is, how does the corona get so hot. The surface is 5,500 Celsius. As you get farther away from the Sun, you’d expect the temperature to go down. And it certainly does once you get as far as the orbit of the Earth.
But the Sun’s corona, or its outer atmosphere, extends millions of kilometers into space. You can see it during a solar eclipse as this faint glow around the Sun. Instead of dropping, the temperature rises to more than a million degrees.
What could be causing this? There are a couple of ideas. Plasma waves pushed off the Sun could bunch up and release their heat into the corona. You could also get the crisscrossing of magnetic field lines that create mini-flares within the corona, heating it up.
The second great mystery is the solar wind, the stream of charged protons and electrons coming from the Sun. Instead of a constant blowing wind, it can go faster or slower. And when the speed changes, the contents of the wind change too.
There’s the slow wind, that goes a mere 1.1 million km/h and seems to emanate from the Sun’s equatorial regions. And then the fast wind, which seems to be coming out of coronal holes, cooler parts in the Sun’s corona, and can be going at 2.7 million km/h.
Why does the solar wind speed change? Why does its consistency change?
The Parker Solar Probe is equipped with four major instruments, each of which will gather data from the Sun and its environment.
The FIELDS experiment will measure the electric and magnetic fields and waves around the Sun. We know that much of the Sun’s behavior is driven by the complex interaction between charged plasma in the Sun. In fact, many physicists agree that magnetohydrodynamics is easily one of the most complicated fields you can get into.
Integrated Science Investigation of the Sun, or ISOIS (which I suspect needs a renaming) will measure the charged particles streaming off the Sun, during regular solar activity and during dangerous solar storms. Can we get any warning before these events occur, giving astronauts more time to protect themselves?
Wide-field Imager for Solar PRobe or WISPR is its telescope and camera. It’s going to be taking close up, high resolution images of the Sun and its corona that will blow our collective minds… I hope. I mean, if it’s just a bunch of interesting data and no pretty pictures, it’s going to be hard to make cool videos showcasing the results of the mission. You hear me NASA, we want pictures and videos. And science, sure.
And then the Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons Investigation, or SWEAP, will measure type, velocity, temperature and density of particles around the Sun, to help us understand the environment around it.
One interesting side note, the spacecraft will be carrying a tiny chip on board with photos of Eugene Parker and a copy of his original 1958 paper explaining the Sun’s solar wind.
I know we’re still more than a year away from liftoff, and several years away before the science data starts pouring in. But you’ll be hearing more and more about this mission shortly, and I’m pretty excited about what it’s going to accomplish. So stay tuned, and once the science comes in, I’m sure you’ll hear plenty more about it.
You might think you’re reading an educational website, where I explain fascinating concepts in space and astronomy, but that’s not really what’s going on here.
What’s actually happening is that you’re tagging along as I learn more and more about new and cool things happening in the Universe. I dig into them like a badger hiding a cow carcass, and we all get to enjoy the cache of knowledge I uncover.
Okay, that analogy got a little weird. Anyway, my point is. Squirrel!
Fast radio bursts are the new cosmic whatzits confusing and baffling astronomers, and now we get to take a front seat and watch them move through all stages of process of discovery.
Stage 1: A strange new anomaly is discovered that doesn’t fit any current model of the cosmos. For example, strange Boyajian’s Star. You know, that star that probably doesn’t have an alien megastructure orbiting around it, but astronomers can’t rule that out just yet?
Stage 2: Astronomers struggle to find other examples of this thing. They pitch ideas for new missions and scientific instruments. No idea is too crazy, until it’s proven to be too crazy. Examples include dark matter, dark energy, and that idea that we’re living in a
Stage 3: Astronomers develop a model for the thing, find evidence that matches their predictions, and vast majority of the astronomical community comes to a consensus on what this thing is. Like quasars and gamma ray bursts. YouTuber’s make their videos. Textbooks are updated. Balance is restored.
Today we’re going to talk about Fast Radio Bursts. They just moved from Stage 1 to Stage 2. Let’s dig in.
Fast radio bursts, or FRBs, or “Furbys” were first detected in 2007 by the astronomer Duncan Lorimer from West Virginia University.
He was looking through an archive of pulsar observations. Pulsars, of course, are newly formed neutron stars, the remnants left over from supernova explosions. They spin rapidly, blasting out twin beams of radiation. Some can spin hundreds of times a second, so precisely you could set your watch to them.
In this data, Lorimer made a “that’s funny” observation, when he noticed one blast of radio waves that squealed for 5 milliseconds and then it was gone. It didn’t match any other observation or prediction of what should be out there, so astronomers set out to find more of them.
Over the last 10 years, astronomers have found about 25 more examples of Fast Radio Bursts. Each one only lasts a few milliseconds, and then fades away forever. A one time event that can appear anywhere in the sky and only last for a couple milliseconds and never repeats is not an astronomer’s favorite target of study.
Actually, one FRB has been found to repeat, maybe.
The question, of course, is “what are they?”. And the answer, right now is, “astronomers have no idea.”
In fact, until very recently, astronomers weren’t ever certain they were coming from space at all. We’re surrounded by radio signals all the time, so a terrestrial source of fast radio bursts seems totally logical.
Then they sifted through 1,000 terabytes of data and found just 3 fast radio bursts. Three.
Since MOST is farsighted and can’t perceive any radio signals closer than 10,000 km away, the signals had to be coming outside planet Earth. They were “extraterrestrial” in origin.
Right now, fast radio bursts are infuriating to astronomers. They don’t seem to match up with any other events we can see. They’re not the afterglow of a supernova, or tied in some way to gamma ray bursts.
In order to really figure out what’s going on, astronomers need new tools, and there’s a perfect instrument coming. Astronomers are building a new telescope called the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (or CHIME), which is under construction near the town of Penticton in my own British Columbia.
It looks like a bunch of snowboard halfpipes, and its job will be to search for hydrogen emission from distant galaxies. It’ll help us understand how the Universe was expanding between 7 and 11 billion years ago, and create a 3-dimensional map of the early cosmos.
In addition to this, it’s going to be able to detect hundreds of fast radio bursts, maybe even a dozen a day, finally giving astronomers vast pools of signals to study.
What are they? Astronomers have no idea. Seriously, if you’ve got a good suggestion, they’d be glad to hear it.
In these kinds of situations, astronomers generally assume they’re caused by exploding stars in some way. Young stars or old stars, or maybe stars colliding. But so far, none of the theoretical models match the observations.
Another idea is black holes, of course. Specifically, supermassive black holes at the hearts of distant galaxies. From time to time, a random star, planet, or blob of gas falls into the black hole. This matter piles upon the black hole’s event horizon, heats up, screams for a moment, and disappears without a trace. Not a full on quasar that shines for thousands of years, but a quick snack.
The next idea comes with the only repeating fast radio burst that’s ever been found. Astronomers looked through the data archive of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and found a signal that had repeated at least 10 times in a year, sometimes less than a minute apart.
Since the quick blast of radiation is repeating, this rules out a one-time collision between exotic objects like neutron stars. Instead, there could be a new class of magnetars (which are already a new class of neutron stars), that can release these occasional shrieks of radio.
Or maybe this repeating object is totally different from the single events that have been discovered so far.
Here’s my favorite idea. And honestly, the one that’s the least realistic. What I’m about to say is almost certainly not what’s going on. And yet, it can’t be ruled out, and that’s good enough for my fertile imagination.
Avi Loeb and Manasvi Lingam at Harvard University said the following about FRBs:
“Fast radio bursts are exceedingly bright given their short duration and origin at distances, and we haven’t identified a possible natural source with any confidence. An artificial origin is worth contemplating and checking.”
Artificial origin. So. Aliens. Nice.
Loeb and Lingam calculated how difficult it would be to send a signal that strong, that far across the Universe. They found that you’d need to build a solar array with twice the surface area of Earth to power the radio wave transmitter.
And what would you do with a transmission of radio or microwaves that strong? You’d use it to power a spacecraft, of course. What we’re seeing here on Earth is just the momentary flash as a propulsion beam sweeps past the Solar System like a lighthouse.
But in reality, this huge solar array would be firing out a constant beam of radiation that would propel a massive starship to tremendous speeds. Like the Breakthrough Starshot spacecraft, but for million tonne spaceships.
In other words, we could be witnessing alien transportation systems, pushing spacecraft with beams of energy to other worlds.
And I know that’s probably not what’s happening. It’s not aliens. It’s never aliens. But in my mind, that’s what I’m imagining.
So, kick back and enjoy the ride. Join us as we watch astronomers struggle to understand what fast radio bursts are. As they invalidate theories, and slowly unlock one of the most thrilling mysteries in modern astronomy. And as soon as they figure it out, I’ll let you know all about it.
What do you think? Which explanation for fast radio bursts seems the most logical to you? I’d love to hear your thoughts and wild speculation in the comments.
Ask me my favorite object in the Solar System, especially to see through a telescope, and my answer is always the same: Saturn.
Saturn is this crazy, ringed world, different than any other place we’ve ever seen. And in a small telescope, you can really see the ball of the planet, you can see its rings. It’s one thing to see a world like this from afar, a tiny jumping image in a telescope. To really appreciate and understand a place like Saturn, you’ve got to visit.
And thanks to NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, that’s just what we’ve been doing for the last 13 years. Take a good close look at this amazing ringed planet and its moons, and studying it from every angle.
Throughout this article, I’m going to regale you with the amazing discoveries made by Cassini at Saturn. What it taught us, and what new mysteries it uncovered.
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft was launched from Earth on October 15, 1997. Instead of taking the direct route, it made multiple flybys of Venus, a flyby of Earth and a flyby of Jupiter. Each one of these close encounters boosted Cassini’s velocity, allowing it to make the journey with less escape velocity from Earth.
It arrived at Saturn on July 1st, 2004 and began its science operations shortly after that. The primary mission lasted 4 years, and then NASA extended its mission two more times. The first ending in 2010, and the second due to end in 2017. But more on that later.
Before Cassini, we only had flybys of Saturn. NASA’s Pioneer 11, and Voyagers 1 and 2 both zipped past the planet and its moons, snapping pictures as they went.
But Cassini was here to stay. To orbit around and around the planet, taking photos, measuring magnetic fields, and studying chemicals.
For Saturn itself, Cassini was able to make regular observations of the planet as it passed through entire seasons. This allowed it to watch how the weather and atmospheric patterns changed over time. The spacecraft watched lightning storms dance through the cloudtops at night.
Two highlights. In 2010, Cassini watched a huge storm erupt in the planet’s northern hemisphere. This storm dug deep into Saturn’s lower atmosphere, dredging up ice from a layer 160 kilometers below and mixing it onto the surface. This was the first time that astronomers were able to directly study this water ice on Saturn, which is normally in a layer hidden from view.
The second highlight, of course, is the massive hexagonal storm churning away in Saturn’s northern pole. This storm was originally seen by Voyager, but Cassini brought its infrared and visible wavelength instruments to bear.
Why a hexagon? That’s still a little unclear, but it seems like when you rotate fluids of different speeds, you get multi-sided structures like this.
Cassini showed how the hexagonal storm has changed in color as Saturn moved through its seasons.
This is one of my favorite images sent back by Cassini. It’s the polar vortex at the heart of the hexagon. Just look at those swirling clouds.
Now, images of Saturn itself are great and all, but there was so much else for Cassini to discover in the region.
Cassini studied Saturn’s rings in great detail, confirming that they’re made up of ice particles, ranging in size as small a piece of dust to as large as a mountain. But the rings themselves are actually quite thin. Just 10 meters thick in some places. Not 10 kilometers, not 10 million kilometers, 10 meters, 30 feet.
The spacecraft helped scientists uncover the source of Saturn’s E-ring, which is made up of fresh icy particles blasting out of its moon Enceladus. More on that in a second too.
Here’s another one of my favorite images of the mission. You’re looking at strange structures in Saturn’s B-ring. Towering pillars of ring material that rise 3.5 kilometers above the surrounding area and cast long shadows. What is going on here?
They’re waves, generated in the rings and enhanced by nearby moons. They move and change over time in ways we’ve never been able to study anywhere else in the Solar System.
Cassini has showed us that Saturn’s rings are a much more dynamic place than we ever thought. Some moons are creating rings, other moons are absorbing or distorting them. The rings generate bizarre spoke patterns larger than Earth that come and go because of electrostatic charges.
Speaking of moons, I’m getting to the best part. What did Cassini find at Saturn’s moons?
Let’s start with Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Before Cassini, we only had a few low resolution images of this fascinating world. We knew Titan had a dense atmosphere, filled with nitrogen, but little else.
Cassini was carrying a special payload to assist with its exploration of Titan: the Huygens lander. This tiny probe detached from Cassini just before its arrival at Saturn, and parachuted through the cloudtops on January 14, 2005, analyzing all the way. Huygens returned images of its descent through the atmosphere, and even images of the freezing surface of Titan.
But Cassini’s own observations of Titan took the story even further. Instead of a cold, dead world, Cassini showed that it has active weather, as well as lakes, oceans and rivers of hydrocarbons. It has shifting dunes of pulverized rock hard water ice.
If there’s one place that needs exploring even further, it’s Titan. We should return with sailboats, submarines and rovers to better explore this amazing place.
We learned, without a shadow of a doubt, that Mimas absolutely looks like the Death Star. No question. But instead of a megalaser, this moon has a crater a third of its own size.
Cassini helped scientists understand why Saturn’s moon Iapetus has one light side and one dark side. The moon is tidally locked to Saturn, its dark side always leading the moon in orbit. It’s collecting debris from another Saturnian moon, Phoebe, like bugs hitting the windshield of a car.
Perhaps the most exciting discovery that Cassini made during its mission is the strange behavior of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. The spacecraft discovered that there are jets of water ice blasting out of the moon’s southern pole. An ocean of liquid water, heated up by tidal interactions with Saturn, is spewing out into space.
And as you know, wherever we find water on Earth, we find life. We thought that water in the icy outer Solar System would be hard to reach, but here it is, right at the surface, venting into space, and waiting for us to come back and investigate it further.
On September 15, 2017, the Cassini mission will end. How do we know it’s going to happen on this exact date? Because NASA is going to crash the spacecraft into Saturn, killing it dead.
That seems a little harsh, doesn’t it, especially for a spacecraft which has delivered so many amazing images to us over nearly two decades of space exploration? And as we’ve seen from NASA’s Opportunity rover, still going, 13 years longer than anticipated. Or the Voyagers, out in the depths of the void, helping us explore the boundary between the Solar System and interstellar space. These things are built to last.
The problem is that the Saturnian system contains some of the best environments for life in the Solar System. Saturn’s moon Enceladus, for example, has geysers of water blasting out into space.
Cassini spacecraft is covered in Earth-based bacteria and other microscopic organisms that hitched a ride to Saturn, and would be glad to take a nice hot Enceladian bath. All they need is liquid water and a few organic chemicals to get going, and Enceladus seems to have both.
NASA feels that it’s safer to end Cassini now, when they can still control it, than to wait until they lose communication or run out of propellant in the future. The chances that Cassini will actually crash into an icy moon and infect it with our Earth life are remote, but why take the risk?
For the last few months, Cassini has been taking a series of orbits to prepare itself for its final mission. Starting in April, it’ll actually cross inside the orbit of the rings, getting closer and closer to Saturn. And on September 15th, it’ll briefly become a meteor, flashing through the upper atmosphere of Saturn, gone forever.
Even in its final moments, Cassini is going to be sciencing as hard as it can. We’ll learn more about the density of consistency of the rings close to the planet. We’ll learn more about the planet’s upper atmosphere, storms and clouds with the closest possible photographs you can take.
And then it’ll all be over. The perfect finale to one of the most successful space missions in human history. A mission that revealed as many new mysteries about Saturn as it helped us answer. A mission that showed us not only a distant alien world, but our own planet in perspective in this vast Solar System. I can’t wait to go back.
How have the photos from Cassini impacted your love of astronomy? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.
Okay, so this article is Colonizing the Outer Solar System, and is actually part 2 of our team up with Fraser Cain of Universe Today, who looked at colonizing the inner solar system. You might want jump over there now and watch that part first, if you are coming in from having seen part 1, welcome, it is great having you here.
Without further ado let us get started. There is no official demarcation between the inner and outer solar system but for today we will be beginning the outer solar system at the Asteroid Belt.
The Asteroid Belt is always of interest to us for colonization. We have talked about mining them before if you want the details on that but for today I’ll just remind everyone that there are very rich in metals, including precious metals like gold and platinum, and that provides all the motivation we need to colonize them. We have a lot of places to cover so we won’t repeat the details on that today.
You cannot terraform asteroids the way you could Venus or Mars so that you could walk around on them like Earth, but in every respect they have a lot going for them as a candidate. They’ve got plenty for rock and metal for construction, they have lots of the basic organic elements, and they even have some water. They also get a decent amount of sunlight, less than Mars let alone Earth, but still enough for use as a power source and to grow plants.
But they don’t have much gravity, which – pardon the pun – has its ups and downs. There just isn’t much mass in the Belt. The entire thing has only a small fraction of the mass of our moon, and over half of that is in the four biggest asteroids, essentially dwarf planets in their own right. The remainder is scattered over millions of asteroids. Even the biggest, Ceres, is only about 1% of 1% of Earth’s mass, has a surface gravity of 3% Earth-normal, and an escape velocity low enough most model rockets could get into orbit. And again, it is the biggest, most you could get away from by jumping hard and if you dropped an object on one it might take a few minutes to land.
You can still terraform one though, by definition too. The gentleman who coined the term, science fiction author Jack Williamson, who also coined the term genetic engineering, used it for a smaller asteroid just a few kilometers across, so any definition of terraforming has to include tiny asteroids too.
Of course in that story it’s like a small planet because they had artificial gravity, we don’t, if we want to fake gravity without having mass we need to spin stuff around. So if we want to terraform an asteroid we need to hollow it out and fill it with air and spin it around.
Of course you do not actually hollow out the asteroid and spin it, asteroids are loose balls of gravel and most would fly apart given any noticeable spin. Instead you would hollow it out and set a cylinder spinning inside it. Sort of like how a good thermos has an outside container and inside one with a layer of vacuum in between, we would spin the inner cylinder.
You wouldn’t have to work hard to hollow out an asteroid either, most aren’t big enough to have sufficient gravity and pressure to crush an empty beer can even at their center. So you can pull matter out from them very easily and shore up the sides with very thin metal walls or even ice. Or just have your cylinder set inside a second non-spinning outer skin or superstructure, like your washer or dryer.
You can then conduct your mining from the inside, shielded from space. You could ever pressurize that hollowed out area if your spinning living area was inside its own superstructure. No gravity, but warmth and air, and you could get away with just a little spin without tearing it apart, maybe enough for plants to grow to normally.
It should be noted that you can potentially colonize even the gas giants themselves, even though our focus today is mostly on their moons. That requires a lot more effort and technology then the sorts of colonies we are discussing today, Fraser and I decided to keep things near-future and fairly low tech, though he actually did an article on colonizing Jupiter itself last year that was my main source material back before got to talking and decided to do a video together.
Hydrogen is plentiful on Jupiter itself and floating refineries or ships that fly down to scoop it up might be quite useful, but again today we are more interested in its moons. The biggest problem with colonizing the moons of Jupiter is all the radiation the planet gives off.
Europa is best known as a place where the surface is covered with ice but beneath it is thought to be a vast subsurface ocean. It is the sixth largest moon coming right behind our own at number five and is one of the original four moons Galileo discovered back in 1610, almost two centuries before we even discovered Uranus, so it has always been a source of interest. However as we have discovered more planets and moons we have come to believe quite a few of them might also have subsurface oceans too.
Now what is neat about them is that water, liquid water, always leaves the door open to the possibility of life already existing there. We still know so little about how life originally evolved and what conditions permit that to occur that we cannot rule out places like Europa already having their own plants and animals swimming around under that ice.
They probably do not and obviously we wouldn’t want to colonize them, beyond research bases, if they did, but if they do not they become excellent places to colonize. You could have submarine cities in such places floating around in the sea or those buried in the surface ice layer, well shielded from radiation and debris. The water also geysers up to the surface in some places so you can start off near those, you don’t have to drill down through kilometers of ice on day one.
Water, and hydrogen, are also quite uncommon in the inner solar system so having access to a place like Europa where the escape velocity is only about a fifth of our own is quite handy for export. Now as we move on to talk about moons a lot it is important to note that when I say something has a fifth of the escape velocity of Earth that doesn’t mean it is fives time easier to get off of. Energy rises with the square of velocity so if you need to go five times faster you need to spend 5-squared or 25 times more energy, and even more if that place has tons of air creating friction and drag, atmospheres are hard to claw your way up through though they make landing easier too. But even ignoring air friction you can move 25 liters of water off of Europa for every liter you could export from Earth and even it is a very high in gravity compared to most moons and comets. Plus we probably don’t want to export lots of water, or anything else, off of Earth anyway.
We should start by noting two things. First, the Asteroid Belt is not the only place you find asteroids, Jupiter’s Trojan Asteroids are nearly as numerous, and every planet, including Earth, has an equivalent to Jupiter’s Trojan Asteroids at its own Lagrange Points with the Sun. Though just as Jupiter dwarfs all the other planets so to does its collection of Lagrangian objects. They can quite big too, the largest 624 Hektor, is 400 km across, and has a size and shape similar to Pennsylvania.
And as these asteroids are at stable Lagrange Points, they orbit with Jupiter but always ahead and behind it, making transit to and from Jupiter much easier and making good waypoints.
Before we go out any further in the solar system we should probably address how you get the energy to stay alive. Mars is already quite cold compared to Earth, and the Asteroids and Jupiter even more so, but with thick insulation and some mirrors to bounce light in you can do fairly decently. Indeed, sunlight out by Jupiter is already down to just 4% of what Earth gets, meaning at Jovian distances it is about 50 W/m²
That might not sound like much but it is actually almost a third of what average illumination is on Earth, when you factor in atmospheric reflection, cloudy days, nighttime, and higher, colder latitudes. It is also a good deal brighter than the inside of most well-lit buildings, and is enough for decently robust photosynthesis to grow food. Especially with supplemental light from mirrors or LED growth lamps.
But once you get out to Saturn and further that becomes increasingly impractical and a serious issue, because while food growth does not show up on your electric bill it is what we use virtually all our energy for. Closer in to the sun we can use solar panels for power and we do not need any power to grow food. As we get further out we cannot use solar and we need to heat or cold habitats and supply lighting for food, so we need a lot more power even as our main source dries up.
So what are our options? Well the first is simple, build bigger mirrors. A mirror can be quite large and paper thin after all. Alternatively we can build those mirrors far away, closer to the sun, and and either focus them on the place we want illuminated or send an energy beam, microwaves perhaps or lasers, out to the destination to supply energy.
We also have the option of using fission, if we can find enough Uranium or Thorium. There is not a lot of either in the solar system, in the area of about one part per billion, but that does amount to hundreds of trillions of tons, and it should only take a few thousand tons a year to supply Earth’s entire electric grid. So we would be looking at millions of years worth of energy supply.
Of course fusion is even better, particularly since hydrogen becomes much more abundant as you get further from the Sun. We do not have fusion yet, but it is a technology we can plan around probably having inside our lifetimes, and while uranium and thorium might be counted in parts per billion, hydrogen is more plentiful than every other element combines, especially once you get far from the Sun and Inner Solar System.
So it is much better power source, an effectively unlimited one except on time scales of billions and trillion of years. Still, if we do not have it, we still have other options. Bigger mirrors, beaming energy outwards from closer to the Sun, and classic fission of Uranium and Thorium. Access to fusion is not absolutely necessary but if you have it you can unlock the outer solar system because you have your energy supply, a cheap and abundant fuel supply, and much faster and cheaper spaceships.
Of course hydrogen, plain old vanilla hydrogen with one proton, like the sun uses for fusion, is harder to fuse than deuterium and may be a lot longer developing, we also have fusion using Helium-3 which has some advantages over hydrogen, so that is worth keeping in mind as well as we proceed outward.
Okay, let’s move on to Saturn, and again our focus is on its moons more than the planet itself. The biggest of those an the most interesting for colonization is Titan.
Titan is aptly named, this titanic moon contains more mass than than all of Saturn’s sixty or so other moons and by an entire order of magnitude at that. It is massive enough to hold an atmosphere, and one where the surface pressure is 45% higher than here on Earth. Even though Titan is much smaller than Earth, its atmosphere is about 20% more massive than our own. It’s almost all nitrogen too, even more than our own atmosphere, so while you would need a breather mask to supply oxygen and it is also super-cold, so you’d need a thick insulated suit, it doesn’t have to be a pressure suit like it would on Mars or almost anyplace else.
There’s no oxygen in the atmosphere, what little isn’t nitrogen is mostly methane and hydrogen, but there is plenty of oxygen in the ice on Titan which is quite abundant. So it has everything we need for life except energy and gravity. At 14% of earth normal it is probably too low for people to comfortably and safely adapt to, but we’ve already discussed ways of dealing with that. It is low enough that you could probably flap your arms and fly, if you had wing attached.
It needs some source of energy though, and we discussed that. Obviously if you’ve got fusion you have all the hydrogen you need, but Titan is one of those places we would probably want to colonize early on if we could, it is something you need a lot of to terraform other places, and is also rich in a lot of the others things we want. So we often think of it as a low-tech colony since it is one we would want early on.
In an scenario like that it is very easy to imagine a lot of local transit between Titan and its smaller neighboring moons, which are more rocky and might be easier to dig fissile materials like Uranium and Thorium out of. You might have a dozen or so small outposts on neighboring moons mining fissile materials and other metals and a big central hub on Titan they delivered that too which also exported Nitrogen to other colonies in the solar system.
Moving back and forth between moons is pretty easy, especially since things landing on Titan can aerobrake quite easily, whereas Titan itself has a pretty strong gravity well and thick atmosphere to climb out of but is a good candidate for a space elevator, since it requires nothing more sophisticated than a Lunar Elevator on our own moon and has an abundant supply of the materials needed to make Zylon for instance, a material strong enough to make an elevator there and which we can mass manufacture right now.
Titan might be the largest and most useful of Saturn’s moons, but again it isn’t the only one and not all of the other are just rocks for mining. At last count it has over sixty and many of them quite large. One of those, Enceladus, Saturn’s sixth largest moon, is a lot like Jupiter’s Moon Europa, in that we believe it has a large and thick subsurface ocean. So just like Europa it is an interesting candidate for Colonization. So Titan might be the hub for Saturn but it wouldn’t be the only significant place to colonize.
While Saturn is best known for its amazing rings, they tend to be overlooked in colonization. Now those rings are almost all ice and in total mass about a quarter as much as Enceladus, which again is Saturn’s Sixth largest moon, which is itself not even a thousandth of the Mass of Titan.
In spite of that the rings are not a bad place to set up shop. Being mostly water, they are abundant in hydrogen for fusion fuel and have little mass individually makes them as easy to approach or leave as an asteroid. Just big icebergs in space really, and there are many moonlets in the rings that can be as large as half a kilometer across. So you can burrow down inside one for protection from radiation and impacts and possibly mine smaller ones for their ice to be brought to places where water is not abundant.
In total those rings, which are all frozen water, only mass about 2% of Earth’s oceans, and about as much as the entire Antarctic sheet. So it is a lot of fresh water that is very easy to access and move elsewhere, and ice mines in the rings of Saturn might be quite useful and make good homes. Living inside an iceball might not sound appealing but it is better than it sounds like and we will discuss that more when we reach the Kupier Belt.
But first we still have two more planets to look at, Uranus and Neptune.
Uranus, and Neptune, are sometimes known as Ice Giants instead of Gas Giants because it has a lot more water. It also has more ammonia and methane and all three get called ices in this context because they make up most of the solid matter when you get this far out in the solar system.
While Jupiter is over a thousand times the mass of Earth, Uranus weighs in at about 15 times the Earth and has only about double the escape velocity of Earth itself, the least of any of the gas giants, and it’s strange rotation, and its strange tilt contributes to it having much less wind than other giants. Additionally the gravity is just a little less than Earth’s in the atmosphere so we have the option for floating habitats again, though it would be a lot more like a submarine than a hot air balloon.
Like Venus, Uranus has very long days, at least in terms of places receiving continual sunlight, the poles get 42 years of perpetual sunlight then 42 of darkness. Sunlight being a relative term, the light is quite minimal especially inside the atmosphere. The low wind in many places makes it a good spot for gas extraction, such as Helium-3, and it’s a good planet to try to scoop gas from or even have permanent installations.
Now Uranus has a large collection of moons as well, useful and colonizable like the other moons we have looked at, but otherwise unremarkable beyond being named for characters from Shakespeare, rather than the more common mythological names. None have atmospheres though there is a possibility Oberon or Titania might have subsurface oceans.
Neptune makes for a brief entry, it is very similar to Uranus except it has the characteristically high winds of gas giants that Uranus’s skewed poles mitigate, meaning it has no advantages over Uranus and the disadvantages of high wind speeds everywhere and being even further from the Sun. It too has moons and one of them, Triton, is thought to have subsurface oceans as well. Triton also presumably has a good amount of nitrogen inside it since it often erupts geysers of nitrogen from its surface.
Triton is one of the largest moons in the solar system, coming in seventh just after our Moon, number 5, and Europa at number 6. Meaning that were it not a moon it would probably qualify as a Dwarf Planet and it is often thought Pluto might be an escaped moon Neptune. So Triton might be one that didn’t escape, or didn’t avoid getting captured. In fact there are an awful lot of bodies in this general size range and composition wandering about in the outer regions of our solar system as we get out into the Kuiper Belt.
The Kuiper Belt is one of those things that has a claim on the somewhat arbitrary and hazy boundary marking the edge of the Solar System. It extends from out past Neptune to beyond Pluto and contains a good deal more mass than the asteroid Belt. It is where a lot of our comets come from and while there is plenty of rocks out there they tend to be covered in ice. In other words it is like our asteroid belt only there’s more of it and the one thing the belt is not very abundant in, water and hydrogen in general, is quite abundant out there. So if you have a power source life fusion they can be easily terraformed and are just as attractive as a source of minerals as the various asteroids and moons closer in.
We mentioned the idea of living inside hollowed out asteroids earlier and you can use the same trick for comets. Indeed you could shape them to be much bigger if you like, since they would be hollow and ice isn’t hard to move and shape especially in zero gravity. Same trick as before, you place a spinning cylinder inside it. Not all the objects entirely ice and indeed your average comet is more a frozen ball of mud then ice with rocky cores. We think a lot of near Earth Asteroids are just leftover comets. So they are probably pretty good homes if you have fusion, lots of fuel and raw materials for both life and construction.
This is probably your cheapest interstellar spacecraft too, in terms of effort anyway. People often talk about re-directing comets to Mars to bring it air and water, but you can just as easily re-direct it out of the solar system entirely. Comets tend to have highly eccentric orbits, so if you capture one when it is near the Sun you can accelerate it then, actually benefiting from the Oberth Effect, and drive it out of the solar system into deep space. If you have a fusion power source to live inside one then you also have an interstellar spaceship drive, so you just carve yourself a small colony inside the comet and head out into deep space.
You’ve got supplies that will last you many centuries at least, even if it were home to tens of thousand of people, and while we think of smaller asteroids and comets as tiny, that’s just in comparison to planets. These things tend to be the size of mountain so there is plenty of living space and a kilometer of dirty ice between you and space makes a great shield against even the kinds of radiation and collisions you can experience at relativistic speeds.
Now the Oort Cloud is much like the Kupier Belt but begins even further out and extends out probably an entire light year or more. We don’t have a firm idea of its exact dimensions or mass, but the current notion is that it has at least several Earth’s worth of mass, mostly in various icy bodies. These will be quite numerous, estimates usually assumes at least trillion icy bodies a kilometer across or bigger, and even more smaller ones. However the volume of space is so large that those kilometer wide bodies might each be a around a billion kilometers distant from neighbors, or about a light hour. So it is spread out quite thinly, and even the inner edge is about 10 light days away.
That means that from a practical standpoint there is no source of power out there, the sun is simply too diffuse for even massive collections of mirrors and solar panels to be of use. It also means light-speed messages home or to neighbors are quite delayed. So in terms of communication it is a lot more like pre-modern times in sparsely settled lands where talking with your nearest neighbors might require an hour long walk over to their farm, and any news from the big cities might take months to percolate out to you.
There’s probably uranium and thorium out there to be found, maybe a decent amount of it, so fission as a power source is not ruled out. If you have fusion instead though each of these kilometer wide icy bodies is like a giant tank of gasoline, and as with the Kupier Belt, ice makes a nice shield against impacts and radiation.
And while there might be trillions of kilometer wide chunks of ice out there, and many more smaller bodies, you would have quite a few larger ones too. There are almost certainly tons of planets in the Pluto size-range out these, and maybe even larger ones. Even after the Oort cloud you would still have a lot of these deep space rogue planets which could bridge the gap to another solar system’s Oort Cloud. So if you have fusion you have no shortage of energy, and could colonize trillions of these bodies. There probably is a decent amount of rock and metal out there too, but that could be your major import/export option shipping home ice and shipping out metals.
That’s the edge of the Solar System so that’s the end of this article. If you haven’t already read the other half, colonizing the inner Solar System, head on over now.
If you’ve seen at least one other episode of the Guide to Space, you know I’m obsessed about the Fermi Paradox. This idea that the Universe is big and old, and should be teeming with life. And yet, we have no evidence that it exists out there. We wonder, where are all the aliens?
Ah well, maybe we’re in a cosmic zoo, or maybe the Universe is just too big, or the laws of physics prevent any kind of meaningful travel or communications. Fine. I doubt it, but fine.
As we’ve demonstrated here in our own corner of the galaxy, it’s not our weak fleshy bodies that will be doing the hard work of exploring the Solar System, and eventually the galaxy, it’ll be the robots.
So a better question might be, where are all the robots? At the time that I’m writing this video, we’re in October of 2016. If you’re watching this on a video device years in the future, the robot uprising and apocalypse hasn’t happened yet.
The most sophisticated walking robots can barely lurch around and they’re laughably slow, 3D fabrication is an inefficient process, and our artificial intelligence devices are pretty dumb, barely able to understand when I ask for directions.
But even so, our robots have helped us explore the Solar System, and helped us see things with cameras that our fleshy meat eyeballs may never experience. Robots from Earth have orbited asteroids, visited comets, observed Mars from orbit and the ground, and even flown past Pluto.
In the coming decades, many new robotic missions will continue this era of exploration, maybe floating in the cloud tops of Venus, sailing the hydrocarbon seas of Titan, flying in the skies of Mars, or exploring the vast oceans under the ice of Europa.
It makes sense then, for us to eventually get around to sending a robotic spacecraft to another star. Based on our current technology, it’ll be incredibly complicated and expensive, but there’s nothing in the laws of physics that prevents it.
And if we’re going to send a robot to another star system, we might as well make it a factory, capable of creating another version of itself. Find an asteroid with all the raw materials to make more robot factories, and send them off to other stars, where they can make more copies, and so on, and so on.
What I’m describing is the concept of a von Neumann probe, named after the mathematician John von Neumann. He was investigating the implications of self-replicating robots in the 1940s, and imagined non-biological “Universal Assembler”, devices that could make copies of themselves.
Von Neumann didn’t apply the idea to spacecraft, but others like George “Spheres” Dyson understood that out in space, there was a nearly limitless amount of raw materials for spacecraft to build copies of themselves.
Even though the Milky Way measures 120,000 light-years across and contains 100 to 400 billion stars, self-replicating robot factories traveling at just 10% the speed of light could colonize the entire galaxy in about 10 million years. That’s the power of exponential exploration.
Think about it. All it takes is for a single clever alien engineer to craft a single robotic factory. That factory builds copies of itself which fly off to other stars. Once they get there, they build more copies of themselves, and so on and so on.
Seriously, in the 13.8 billion years that the Universe has been around, why didn’t a single alien engineer do this?
The cosmologist Frank Tipler concluded that this was such an obvious thing to do that he wrote a paper in the 1980s called “Extraterrestrial intelligent beings do not exist.” Carl Sagan found the argument troubling, proposed that aliens would be concerned with environmental collapse and would restrict the use of this kind of technology.
Why haven’t we received signals from extraterrestrials yet? Maybe because it’s inefficient. It’s much more efficient to send physical probes to communicate with other civilizations.
Remember 2001? I know it was a pretty complicated movie, but that was the point. The aliens let us know we’re not alone by sending their robotic spacecraft to our Solar System. That’s what those monoliths were for. Well, sort of. They were a message, they were a kind of encyclopedia, an evolutionary accelerator and doomsday device, all rolled up in one.
Still think it’s important to take your fleshy meat body to experience other worlds personally? No problem. Modify your von Neumann probes to be terraforming probes. Instead of merely building factories, they travel to other star systems, identify the planets that could be made habitable for humans, and then get to work.
We’ve written many articles about what could be done to terraform worlds here in the Solar System, and that work would mostly be done with robots anyway. Some robots could redirect asteroids and comets to supply raw materials, robotic shades to cool planets down, ground-based factories could change the atmosphere to something breathable.
You could even imagine robotic nurseries, carrying seeds and genetic material for plants and animals. They could get these planets livable, so that when our descendants arrive, the world is ready to go and fully habitable.
There’s a darker idea too, the concept of Berserker Probes. These were first put forth by the science fiction author Fred Saberhagen. Imagine aliens send an initial scouting robotic spacecraft to a star system to search for life, and any possible competition to the colonization of the galaxy.
If a potential competitor is found, the robotic spacecraft redirect a bunch of asteroids at the habitable planet to scour it free of life.
Then the terraforming robots move in and make the place livable for the aliens. And then the aliens move in, blissfully unaware of who used to live on the planet.
Maybe other aliens anticipating this threat, create their own police von Neumann probes, designed to seek out Berserkers and defend against them.
If you play video games, the best telling of this story is through the Mass Effect series, and their Reapers. Edge of Tomorrow was about defending Earth from terraforming robots.
Although I find the Fermi Paradox puzzling, I get that it’s probably hard for aliens to travel and communicate across the vast distances of space. But shouldn’t we at least see their robots?
Actually, based on what I just said, I’m think I’m okay if we never meet their robots.
Want to learn more about von Neumann probes? PBS Space Time just did a great video on it too. You should check it out.
In our last episode, we talked about what it’ll take to navigate across the Solar System. In this episode we scale things up and speculate how future civilizations will navigate to other stars and even other galaxies.