A topic about outer-space and everything in it, from little green men to big spirally galaxies

Elon Musk Wants to Make Humans a Multiplanetary Species, in Our Lifetime

Tech billionaire Elon Musk is a man who has set his sights on transforming our world, from his push towards a future of electric cars (through his company Tesla) and solar power, through to him taking the lead on 'corporate space vehicles' with SpaceX. And today, he set out perhaps the grandest vision of space exploration heard since John F. Kennedy issued his challenge for the U.S. to travel to the Moon before the 1960s had ended.

"What I really want to try and achieve here is to make Mars seem possible...Make it seem as though it's something we can do in our lifetimes, and that you can go.", he noted in his speech today at the 67th International Astronautical Congress, in Guadalajara, Mexico. He then went on to discuss the 'long-term technical challenges that need to be solved to support the creation of a permanent, self-sustaining human presence on Mars'. (His hour-long presentation is embedded below, as well as a shorter 'highlights' package created by The Verge.)

For me, as a child of the 1970s who - after viewing the amazing images of of the Viking probes - thought that we'd be traveling to the Red Planet before the next decade was done, Musk's vision is seductive. Maybe I will one day get to venture to Mars myself! On the other hand, the technical challenges are not trivial - from getting off this planet, to staying safe and sane on the journey there, and then landing and setting up a settlement.

But, when you consider the success of JFK's challenge, perhaps what Musk is doing here is exactly what is needed. Stop talking in increments, in absolute safety, and instead have a grand vision and set yourself a timeline to try and do the near-impossible.

What do you think of Musk's vision of space travel?

Below are some links to news coverage of the announcement:

And, for a view from a completely different angle, remember that m1k3y has covered Musk's plans previously in his Nightmares of the Future series right here on the Grail.

Kickstarter: Limited Edition Reproduction of the Records on the Voyager Space Probes

Voyager Record

Since their launch in 1977, the two Voyager space probes have toured our Solar System - providing some amazing, 'first look' images of the planets - and headed off into the 'great beyond': interstellar space. If any aliens out there ever intercepted the probes, they would discover that they have gold records attached to them, intended as messages from Earth to introduce ourselves and our (current) culture.

Added to the mission by a committee headed up by Carl Sagan (who was also behind the message plaques attached to the Pioneer probes, launched earlier in the decade), the records contain an assortment of music from multiple cultures and eras (including Beethoven, Chuck Berry, Senegalese percussion and Solomon Island panpipes) as well as many of the natural sounds of our planet. The record also features spoken greetings in 55 human languages (and one whale language) as well as one hundred images encoded in analog that depict who, and what, we are.

Whether aliens ever find the Voyager records is probably a question we'll never know the answer to. But humans can now access them via this Kickstarter that will produce a limited edition reproduction of the original:

An exquisitely-designed objet d'art, this limited edition Voyager Golden Record: 40th Anniversary Edition vinyl box set will only be available through this Kickstarter. It is the ultimate album package of the ultimate album package.

The cloth-covered box with gold foil inlay will house three, heavyweight translucent gold vinyl LPs protected by poly-lined paper sleeves. The LPs will contain all of the same magnificent music, greetings, and sounds as contained on the original Voyager Golden Record, nearly two hours of audio. Those records will slip into old style tip on, black ink and gold foil jackets. The audio will be complemented by a beautifully-designed hardbound book of captivating images from the original interstellar message, glorious photos of the planets returned to Earth from the Voyager probes, compelling essays, and ephemera from the project's history.

Each set will include a color, plastic digital download card with a code to access all of the audio in MP3 or FLAC format. A lithograph of the iconic Golden Record cover diagram, printed with gold metallic ink on archival paper, will complete the box set.

Head over to the project's Kickstarter page to learn more, including the various rewards on offer for backers.

Link: Voyager Golden Record: 40th Anniversary Edition

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Space Probe Found on Comet

Philae Lander Found on Asteroid

There's something otherworldly, if you'll pardon the unintended pun, about looking at a photo of an asteroid traveling through outer space which clearly shows manmade technology sitting on its rocky surface. A few days ago, the Rosetta probe orbiting Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko was able to image the Philae probe which landed on the comet in late 2014.

The images were taken on 2 September by the OSIRIS narrow-angle camera as the orbiter came within 2.7 km of the surface and clearly show the main body of the lander, along with two of its three legs. The images also provide proof of Philae’s orientation, making it clear why establishing communications was so difficult following its landing on 12 November 2014.

Philae was last seen when it first touched down at Agilkia, bounced and then flew for another two hours before ending up at a location later named Abydos, on the comet’s smaller lobe. After three days, Philae's primary battery was exhausted and the lander went into hibernation, only to wake up again and communicate briefly with Rosetta in June and July 2015 as the comet came closer to the Sun and more power was available.

At 2.7 km, the resolution of the OSIRIS narrow-angle camera is about 5 cm/pixel, sufficient to reveal characteristic features of Philae’s 1 m-sized body and its legs, as seen in these definitive pictures.

The image comes at the 'last minute', as at the end of the month the Rosetta mission will also come to an end, with the orbiting probe itself descending to the comet's surface.

Now, can you imagine the excitement if, in one of these images, we saw non-human technology sitting on the comet's surface...

More information, and a high-res image, can be found at the European Space Agency website.

Researchers Announce Discovery of a Signal Coming from a Star in Hercules

Not aliens...but aliens

An international team of researchers has revealed the detection of “a strong signal" coming from the direction of a star in the constellation of Hercules (HD164595). The signal was picked up by the RATAN-600 radio telescope at the Special Astrophysical Observatory of the Russian Academy of Science.

As always, there are a number of possible mundane explanations for the 2.7cm wavelength 'transmission' - which was originally detected last year on May 15 - ranging from passing satellites through to micro-lensing of a background source. But it's still definitely worth looking for a repetition of the signal, and SETI researchers are no doubt cautiously excited.

No one is claiming that this is the work of an extraterrestrial civilization, but it is certainly worth further study. Working out the strength of the signal, the researchers say that if it came from an isotropic beacon, it would be of a power possible only for a Kardashev Type II civilization. If it were a narrow beam signal focused on our Solar System, it would be of a power available to a Kardashev Type I civilization. The possibility of noise of one form or another cannot be ruled out, and researchers in Paris led by Jean Schneider are considering the possible microlensing of a background source by HD164595. But the signal is provocative enough that the RATAN-600 researchers are calling for permanent monitoring of this target.

Signal detected coming from vicinity of HD 164595

HD 164595 is just under 100 light years from Earth, and an exoplanet (HD 164595 b) has previously been detected orbiting the star. As Paul Gilster notes at Centauri Dreams, the planet is "0.05 Jupiter mass with a period of 40 days, considered to be a warm Neptune on a circular orbit". But there could also be other, still undetected planets also orbiting HB 164595.

Geekwire science journalist Alan Boyle spoke with SETI researcher Douglas Vakoch about the announcement, and he confirmed that his team will be taking a look at HD 164595 as soon as possible, using the Boquete Optical SETI Observatory in Panama. Not only purely out of interest and excitement, but also because SETI protocols require it:

Standard SETI protocols call for confirmation of possible signals from a separate observatory. This helps ensure that the original signal didn’t arise from a technical glitch in the original observatory, and it helps rule out a hoax perpetuated by some enterprising graduate students targeting a SETI experiment.

In the past, plans for SETI follow-up observations have focused on confirmation of the original signal, seeking a repeat signal at the same frequency. That’s a critical step for confirmation – and we don’t yet have evidence that this sort of follow-up has happened for HD 164595.

In addition, we need to be alert to the possibility than if we do really find a signal from an advanced civilization, they are also transmitting at other frequencies than the one where we first detected them. That’s why it’s so important to prepare for follow-up SETI observations at both radio and optical frequencies, to be launched as soon as we detect a credible candidate signal at any frequency.

Be sure to read the full articles at both Centauri Dreams and GeekWire via the links below.

Link: An Interesting SETI Candidate in Hercules (Centauri Dreams)

Link: They’re not saying it’s aliens, but signal traced to sunlike star sparks SETI interest (GeekWire)

Government Deception Operatives Conclusively Linked to the 'UFO Summer' of 1947

Roswell UFO Newspaper Headline

In his ongoing research to clarify the extent Cold War spy games influenced public perception of the UFO phenomenon, writer and former intelligence analyst James Carrion recently linked military deception planners to the UFO wave of 1947. His latest blog post cites declassified documents that conclusively demonstrate how a career intelligence officer, part of a high-level unit now known to have been specifically assembled to execute strategic deception operations, petitioned the FBI for assistance investigating flying saucers. Given the purpose of the unit, titled the Joint Security Control Special Section, and details of the documents quoted, Carrion concludes there would have been no other reason for the interaction with the Bureau than to actively promote a deception plan.

The post is well worth the time to absorb and digest. It contains several relevant points of interest, including key aspects of the career of Col. Carl Goldbranson. The colonel trained extensively in military deception and, according to author and historian Thaddeus Holt, engaged in deception activity during the 1940s and until the end of his career. Holt documented Goldbranson to be one of the most skilled deception planners in the Allied service in his 2004 book, The Deceivers: Allied Military Deception in the Second World War.

Carrion reports Col. Goldbranson to have been the senior member of the deception-tasked Joint Security Control Special Section at the time he was advising FBI personnel on incidents of flying disks. Carrion explained:

This July 21, 1947 FBI memo is extremely important. It unequivocally documents the connection between US strategic deception planners and early UFO events by relating how Colonel Carl Goldbranson petitioned FBI assistance in investigating UFO events. Goldbranson was a WW2 member of Joint Security Control and one of its principal deception planners.

Carrion continued:

The Special Section of JSC consisted of only seven individuals including Goldbranson who as a full bird Colonel would have been the senior member. So for those who question the importance of Goldbranson to this analysis, only one question need be answered. What are the odds that the senior member of the principal US organization and specific section charged with planning and implementing U.S. strategic deception is on record in FBI official memorandum, getting his hands dirty in the UFO controversy of 1947? Goldbranson had no reason to be involved unless he was actively promoting a deception plan.

For those unfamiliar with James Carrion's work, he focuses on the 1946-47 time frame. He cites declassified documents and related materials to present forensic historical analysis. Carrion proposes that a small group of U.S. intelligence personnel masterminded deception operations surrounding reported UFOs for a variety of purposes designed to create military advantages. Learn more in his free book, Anachronism, and keep an eye out for his forthcoming work, The Roswell Deception.

I've followed James Carrion's research rather closely, including summarizing some of it in my recently published book along with an interview he graciously provided. Some highlights of his work, in my opinion, include demonstrating the 'ghost rockets' saga conclusively involved aspects of deception; a discontinued classified operation, Project Seal, was misrepresented to be ongoing and consisting of developing an airborne weapon more powerful than the atomic bomb; and, now, Carrion shows deception planners were conclusively linked to the UFO summer of '47.

Critics of Carrion's work typically cite unrelated UFO cases or peripheral circumstances. Rarely do they directly address the material presented. Arguments are common that Uncle Sam couldn't be responsible for all reported UFO phenomena, in spite of the fact Carrion is simply sharing what he is learning about the specific 1946-47 era.

A primary point, as far as I'm concerned, is that Carrion's findings justify further research into the extent public perception of the UFO phenomenon was exploited at the time. It's clear that it happened - relevant questions revolve around how much, why, the specific instances and the consequences.

Jack Brewer is the author of The Greys Have Been Framed: Exploitation in the UFO Community. He blogs at The UFO Trail.

The Planet Next Door: Astronomers Find Earth-Like Planet Orbiting in the Habitable Zone of the Star Closest to Us

Artist's impression of the view from Proxima b

Well this is big news. In recent years there has been much excitement every time a new 'Earth-like' exoplanet has been discovered by astronomers (exoplanets are planets orbiting other stars). However, with many of those discoveries being very distant, making exact measurements difficult, there has been much speculation as to how Earth-like, and how habitable, those planets really are.

But today (after a few embargo breaks last week), astronomers have announced the discovery of perhaps the ideal 'Earth-like' exoplanet candidate, orbiting the star Proxima Centauri (one of the three stars that make up the 'left pointer' of the 'Southern Cross' constellation):

There’s a new standard in town, and its name is Proxima b. This planet has just about everything we’d want in Earth 2.0: It’s just a speck bigger, with only about 30 percent more mass than Earth (or slightly higher, depending on its orbital geometry); it’s almost certainly a genuine rocky planet; and it orbits smack in its star’s habitable zone.

The best part, though, is that Proxima, the planet’s star, is right next door, just 4.3 light-years away (130 times closer than Kepler 186f), the single closest star to our sun. Astronomers across the globe are drooling. We’ll be able to take actual pictures of it, to search for clues of life, within a decade.

Let's be clear about why astronomers are so excited, by ticking the relevant boxes:

  • Very close to Earth size.
  • Orbiting in its star's 'habitable' zone (the 'Goldilocks' zone...not too hot, not too cold)
  • Orbiting the star closest to Earth

The 'actual pictures' the article above is describing would be from an Earth-based telescope - the European Extremely Large Telescope, currently under construction in Chile. But given the third point above - Proxima b is 'just' 4 light years away - and the fact that the Starshot project financed by Russian billlionaire Yuri Milner (as part of his 'Breakthrough Initiatives') was already aiming to send a space probe to Alpha Centauri in coming decades, there is the possibility we could have an actual robot visiting the planet within some readers' lifetimes. For continued updates on this idea, I recommend keeping an eye on the excellent Centauri Dreams website.

On a skeptical note, however, we should also remember that - for all our excitement about Earth-like planets beyond our Solar System - we actually have two very Earth-like planets right beside us. One, Mars, appears to be devoid of life, and would require significant engineering for humans to live there. The other, Venus - as this Discovery article notes - "would surely be hailed as the most Earthlike exoplanet known" if we found it orbiting another star:

It is just 5% smaller in radius and 15% smaller in mass. It is almost the exact same age as our planet, and gets its warmth from an identical star. The only thing that’s a bit off is that it orbits a bit closer to its star than Earth does, so it receives nearly twice as much radiation. On the other, it also reflects away a lot of that radiation. Its theoretical (equilibrium) temperature is just below freezing, so with a little natural greenhouse warming it would be quite an inviting place.

Instead, Venus is "a profound enigma". While all the variables tell us it should be a hospitable place for life (and at one time, scientists have found, it may well have been), in the present day it is "more like hell on almost-Earth".

Understanding why that is–why our planet went right while Venus went terribly wrong–is crucial for finding out whether habitable planets are common or rare throughout the universe.

So, while we should be genuinely excited about this new discovery, we should also be wary when reading headlines like this (otherwise excellent) piece at The Atlantic: "An Epochal Discovery: A Habitable Planet Orbits Our Neighboring Star". Proxima b is in the 'habitable zone'...but it remains to be seen whether it is actually habitable.

Links:

Questions Remain For "Aliens" 'Round Tabby's Star

Recently Jason T. Wright, the man who sparked a hurricane of clickbait headlines by suggesting KIC 8462852 would be an 'outstanding SETI target', gave a highly informative talk on artifact SETI, megastructures, and Tabby's Star.

Artifact SETI involves the search for artificial phenomena, like Dyson spheres and Niven rings, to narrow down targets for communication SETI to eavesdrop on extraterrestrials. The biggest clue for finding these artifacts is the waste heat given off during their creation and use. In addition to laying out the history of SETI in this vein, Jason tackles the problems with the megastructure hypothesis and why he's all but abandoned circumstellar explanations for something stranger.

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Tabby's Star: Is It Beginning To Look A Lot Like Aliens?

Image

The mystery surrounding Tabby's Star just ratched up another notch. Or down, considering the data outlined in Benjamin Montet and Joshua Simon's latest submission to the arXiv, "KIC 8462852 Faded Throughout The Kepler Mission". Everyone's favorite "megastructure" star continues to confound mainstream astronomers and the taboo of last resort, aliens, is still on the table.

Montet and Simon discovered KIC 8462852, a.k.a. Tabby's Star, dimmed by 2.5% over the course of Kepler's mission to survey the heavens for alien planets. The data lends support to Bradley Schafer's conclusion [1] that Tabby's Star steadily dimmed from 1890 to 1989. What everyone and their telescope are getting excited about is the rate of dimming has been increasing according to the Kepler data.

If the rate of dimming increases, this could be the product of self-replicating machines or von Neumann devices tasked to build this putative alien megastructure. When I looked at Montet and Simon's graphs, I had an insight on how they could suggest the possibility of self-replicating machines or aliens. Rather than charting the curve of the dimming light, but the 'growth' of material or machines causing the dimming, the a graph would show a sigmoid curve. In biology, sigmoid curves illustrate population growth [2, 3] through three phases of transitional and exponential growth before reaching a plateau. In this context transitional growth may be the dust of "construction crews" tearing apart an object for raw materials, followed by exponential growth as another segment of the megastructure is created, before plateauing as the 'bots travel to the next planetary or cometary resource a mere handful of astronomical units away.

The prospect of aliens, despite my speculation, remains unfalsifiable for now. But Montet and Simon do a handy job outlining the unlikely natural explanations most sane scientists would embrace. Astronomers have observed polar star spots on F-type stars like KIC 8462852, but those F-type stars are cooler and smaller in contrast. Also polar spots can't explain the short-term dips previously observed by Tabetha Boyajian, et al.. Some of the proposed transit events under suspicion for the star's dimming are even less likely.

For an optically thick transiting object, the 2.5% transit depth indicates a minimum radius of 0.15R* (Boyajian et al. 2016 estimate a radius of 1.58 R☉ for KIC 8462852). If the transiting body is in a Keplerian orbit, the extremely slow ingress time and long transit duration place it at the implausibly large distance of ~10 PC, with a transit possibility of ~10-9.

Fingers are crossed that the Tabby's Star observing campaign with the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network, currently underway after the successful Kickstarter, will capture one of the mysterious long transits. Should the cause is a solid object, like a megastructure, then the dimming of KIC 8462852's light would be achromatic. On the other hand if the culprit is dust and/or gas, then the starlight would redden.

Maybe in a year we'll know for certain if the alien hypothesis is still worth consideration. Perhaps some science fiction-types will find inspiration around Tabby's Star for another big dumb object to fit the mystery. In either case, our interesting times are becoming more interesting by the moment.

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  1. KIC 8462852 Faded at an Average Rate of 0.165+-0.013 Magnitudes Per Century From 1890 To 1989 - https://arxiv.org/abs/1601.03256
  2. Populations - http://ibguides.com/biology/notes/popula...
  3. Explain the sigmoid population growth curve - http://ibbiology.wikifoundry.com/page/Ex...

Special Effects Legend Douglas Trumbull Talks About How He Has Created a System for Capturing UFOs

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

If you were to survey sci-fi geeks for a list of their favourite movies, there's a fairly good chance that somewhere near the top of that list you'd find Bladerunner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. So it's easy to understand the legendary status of Douglas Trumbull within sci-fi geekdom, given he helped design the visual effects on all three of those seminal films.

When Jacques Vallee ran a crowd-funding campaign last year to create a collector's edition of Wonders in the Sky, his book with Chris Aubeck about historical sightings of UFOs, I was surprised to learn that Trumbull was one of the backers of the project. As it turns out though, Trumbull has been interested in the UFO phenomenon for some time now (in retrospect, it's probably not that surprising, given two of the three films above are specifically about humans making contact with an alien intelligence).

In a video interview posted by Open Minds (embedded below), Trumbull describes his interest in 'scientific ufology', and how he thinks he could help the effort with his own skills and network, by designing a 'UFO capture' system he calls UFOTOG:

When I started making inroads into MUFON and the UFO community, I found that there were a number of very highly-placed and credible people, like Jacques Vallee, like air-traffic controllers, like doctors, like scientists, who took the whole thing very seriously - mixed in with a lot of people who were into auras, and spirituality, and other kinds of things that were more hearsay than science. And I didn't like that part of it, I've never liked the hearsay part of it, I didn't like people telling their stories, even though many of them are tremendously compelling and heartbreaking - abduction stories in particular. I said well, you can't prove any of that, there's no evidence, there's nothing to do.

I started asking those people, has anybody ever mounted a scientific endeavour, a privately funded scientific endeavour, to quantify what a UFO is made up of, and how fast does it go, and how high does it fly, and where does it come from, and is it changing state from plasma energy to aluminum or whatever? And the answer was no, no-one had ever done that. And I said, well, I'm going to make that my mission, because that sounds like fun to me, 'cause I'm a geek.

So that was the beginning of UFOTOG, to try and spend at least some part of my hobby time going down that path, like an amateur astronomer.

UFOTOG - the name is a contraction of 'UFO photography' - is a UFO video tracking and capture system that came about when Trumbull considered how his own skill-set could best be put to use in seeking answers to the UFO mystery: "I had access to these high-end cameras, access to engineers who build motion-control systems that we use for movies that could be adapted to tracking systems and things like that."

Interestingly, even with his legendary status, Trumbull soon discovered how heretical the idea of scientifically researching the UFO phenomenon can be. "That's when I started finding out that talking about science fiction is fine," he notes, while "talking about actually capturing UFOs is not fine...it's actually antagonistically greeted." Trumbull even tried pitching the idea to 'reality TV' producers, but "couldn't get any traction at all...and I've got a really good resume."

In the video, Trumbull also discusses his work on 2001, why he turned down Star Wars but worked on Close Encounters, and how he created a science fiction movie about UFOs as a cover for his effort to photograph UFOs - even designing the story "so that if we actually got real photography, we could put that into the movie and suddenly the movie would become non-fiction".

The Culture Next Door: Tabby's Star Remains Strange... And Unique

Image

Also known by its designation KIC 8462852, Tabby's Star continues to perplex astronomers and mainstream science bloggers.

News broke in September 2015 after citizen scientists noted the abrupt, non-periodic dimming of this distant F-type star. F-type stars are like our sun, but bigger and hotter. Hard line skeptics dismissed the phenomenon as comets, but evidence has yet to emerge supporting this hypothesis. Currently astronomers and cosmologists can't imagine how ~648,000 giant comets could coordinate their orbits to dim a star over the last hundred years.

Bradley Schaefer of Louisiana State University combed through Harvard's archive of astronomical plates from the last century, finding there's been a steady dimming of Tabby's Star. Faced with a deepening mystery Michael Hippke, self-proclaimed (and cringey) "gentleman scientist", and Vanderbilt University doctoral student Michael Lund earnestly tried, and failed, to disprove Schaefer's discovery. There's nothing wrong with the Kepler observatory that first imaged KIC 8462852, nor Harvard's plates, and Schafer's methodology is watertight.

Spicing up the story is Penn State's Jason Wright, suggesting the dimming's cause might be an alien megastructure like a Dyson swarm or sphere. The invocation of aliens by straightlaced scientists without outright dismissal by their peers means more money from ad impressions, and angry flame wars in comment sections around the web. Also aliens?

To puzzle out this anomaly, the only sensible course of action is to continue surveying the sky, and reviewing past data for other stars with similar characteristics. Should one be found, astronomers can study it, compare it, then begin narrowing down the suspects behind the strangeness 1,480 light years away from us.

This search might take longer than hoped. Daryll LaCourse, profligate Kepler data miner, announced to the internet how Tabby's Star is unique.

The Kepler spacecraft is now observing a series of new ecliptic fields (K2) and has accumulated observations of ~165,000 additional targets. Continued visual inspection of these public data has failed to recover an analog to KIC 8462852. Lack of such a detection suggests that the aperiodic dimming indeed represents a rare astrophysical phenomenon, regardless of the true root cause mechanism involved.

For now Homo sapiens should content themselves with Tabetha Boyajian's successful Kickstarter to continuously monitor her star, and see how deep the rabbit hole goes.

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