Friday, August 1, 2014

Starships, Dinosaurs, and Long-Distance Service for Mars

Some scientists think dinosaurs could have survived that asteroid impact. Others are taking another look at how big a starship needs to be, and NASA is taking bids on long-distance service to Mars.
  1. Long-Range Travel Plans
  2. Dinosaurs and an Asteroid: Really Bad Timing
  3. Long-Distance Telephone Service: for Mars
But first, a bit about the Beatitudes, Ulysses, and Dante's "Inferno."

What is — and is not — in the Beatitudes

The Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5, 6, and 7, is a sort of 'Christianity 101:' a look at what being a Christian means. There's with a shorter version in Luke 6:20-49. It boils down to 'love God, love your neighbor, everyone's your neighbor. (June 3, 2012)

My Lord started with the Beatitudes. (Matthew 5:312)

Depending on how you break them out, there are eight or nine Beatitudes — blessed are:
  1. The poor in spirit
  2. Those who mourn
  3. The meek
  4. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
  5. The merciful
  6. The pure in heart
  7. The peacemakers
  8. Those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake
    • You when men revile you and persecute you ... on God's account
    (From Matthew 5:3–12)
This is "...the heart of Jesus' preaching...." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1716-1724)

"Poor in spirit" doesn't mean "despondent," by the way, and I've been over that before. (September 1, 2013)

The Beatitudes do not include something like "blessed are the ignorant, for they shall judge others." That is wrong on several levels.

Sometimes we must decide whether another person's actions are good or bad. But we must trust God to judge the person. (Matthew 7:1-5; Catechism, 1861)

Ignorance is not a virtue. As a Catholic, I'm forcefully encouraged to understand Christ. Thanks to Herr Gutenberg's invention, I can learn from reading the Bible: which is also forcefully encouraged. (Catechism, 133)

Ulysses, Fraud, and Sin

I've run into the notion that Dante put Ulysses in the eighth circle of Hell because the hero in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey wanted to know too much. There's a bit of truth in the claim.

In an English translation of Dante's "Inferno," Canto 26 has Ulysses saying that he passed "the bound'ries not to be o'erstepp'd by man."

However, Malebolge, Dante's eighth circle of Hell, is not where curiosity is punished. It's where the narrator runs into panderers and seducers, then folks guilty of excessive flattery. Next come simonists, followed by those guilty of divination, grafters, hypocrites, and thieves.

Ulysses and Diomedes are in the category after that: deceivers, those who gave false or corrupted advice for personal gain. The last two parts of Dante's Malebolge is for scandalmongers and forgers.

Ulysses and Diomedes apparently wound up in the eighth circle's subdivision for fraudulent counselors because of their Trojan horse strategy.

Granted, Dante describes Ulysses' fatal shipwreck: long after the hero sailed past "the bound'ries not to be o'erstepp'd by man." But being curious is not punished in Dante's imagined Hell.

Given my culture's assumptions about science and religion, I'd better explain why seeking knowledge isn't a sin.

Seeking Knowledge

Expecting knowledge, or anything else, to take God's place would be daft: and against the rules. (Catechism, 2113)

But that doesn't make seeking knowledge bad. Studying this universe and developing new tools are part of being human. That's what we're supposed to do. (Catechism, 2292-2295)

We're made in the image of God, rational creatures whose job description includes stewardship of the physical world. (Genesis 1:27-28, Psalms 19:2; Wisdom 7:17; Catechism, 282-289, 341, 373, 17302375)

We can't take care of natural resources without understanding how this world works, and we need tools for most tasks. God could have designed us with a complete working knowledge of the universe already loaded into our brains: but that's not the way we are.

Getting back to Ulysses, his priorities were badly disordered: like putting his personal goal of seeking knowledge ahead of family responsibilities. Even so, I use part of Tennyson's "Ulysses" as my tagline on Google Plus:
"...this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought....

"...for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die....
("Ulysses," Tennyson (1833, published 1842))

(From NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) - ESA/Hubble Collaboration; used w/o permission.)

1. Long-Range Travel Plans

(From Adrian Mann, via, used w/o permission.)
("An artist's illustration depicts a future starship under construction in Earth orbit using a ring-type construction facility, which could provide hotel rooms for guests who wish to view the construction."
"Want to Colonize an Alien Planet? Send 40,000 People"
Mike Wall, (July 28, 2014 )

"If humanity ever wants to colonize a planet beyond the solar system, it's going to need a really big spaceship.

"The founding population of an interstellar colony should consist of 20,000 to 40,000 people, said Cameron Smith, an anthropologist at Portland State University in Oregon. Such a large group would possess a great deal of genetic and demographic diversity, giving the settlement the best chance of survival during the long space voyage and beyond, he explained.

" 'Do you want to just squeak by, with barely what you can get? Or do you want to go in good health?' Smith said on July 16 during a presentation with NASA's Future In-Space Operations (FISO) working group. 'I would suggest, go with something that gives you a good margin for the case of disaster.'..."
If or when folks head out, bound for another star, it won't be the first epic voyage to a new world. More than two dozen centuries back, at least one colony ship crossed a substantial fraction of the Pacific Ocean on its way to what we call Hawai'i.

As I've said before, humans travel. Some of us, anyway.

My guess is that some of us will be living on Mars long before construction starts on the first interstellar generation ship. For all I know, descendants of the first Martian settlers may be the ones building the ship.

I'm also reasonably certain that the first voyage to another star won't happen for quite a while. On the other hand, maybe physicists will develop a practical application of Alcubierre's equations faster than I expect, and I'll see the first warp ship. (May 24, 2013)

What may not be apparent from the artist's illustration is the scale of a ship carrying 40,000 folks.

A 1975 NASA design study discussed a self-sustaining habitat for 10,000 people. A community that size, including their agricultural areas, would fit in a torus a bit over a mile across. (October 31, 2011)

Four of those would hold Cameron Smith's 40,000-population colony.

My illustration shows those four habitat rings next to an earlier generation's of state-of-the-art transportation technology.

There'd be more to the generation ship, of course: industrial facilities, vehicles, spare parts, and — almost certainly the largest part of the ship — the propulsion system.

We're close to having the necessary technology now. We don't, I think, have a big enough economic system to handle a project on this scale. Not yet.

Population Genetics and Occupational Training

"...In the past, researchers have proposed that a few hundred people would be sufficient to establish a settlement on or near an alien planet. But [Cameron] Smith thought it was time to take another look.

" 'I wanted to revisit the issue,' he said. 'It had been quite a long time, and of course we now know more about population genetics from genomics.'

"For his study, which was published in April in the journal Acta Astronautica, Smith assumed an interstellar voyage lasting roughly 150 years. This time frame is consistent with that envisioned by researchers at Icarus Instellar, a nonprofit organization dedicated to pursuing travel to another star...."
(Mike Wall,
Cameron Smith has a point: this is a good time to review how many people it takes to make a healthy population. We've been learning a great deal about how genetics works in recent decades.

My guess is that trying to start a new civilization with just 40,000 folks is a low-end estimate.

The issue, I think, isn't physical health. We may have been down to around 10,000 people after the Toba eruption. Then again, maybe not. The last I checked, scientists are still debating what our Y-chromosome DNA is telling us.

I'm not sure that a community of 40,000 would include all the skills needed.

There was a time when members of an extended family knew every possible job, from gathering nuts and berries to weaving cloth. That was then, this is now. At one point, the Dictionary of Occupational Titles had more than 12,000 categories.

Granted, a high-tech society could probably get along without someone specifically trained as an athletic equipment custodian or baggage handler. But someone is going to have to know how to maintain and replace equipment; grow and harvest crops; and either navigate the ship, or give the autopilot sensible instructions.

Folks on a generation ship would want to be sure that at least one of their number was teaching a youngster how to get each of the more critical jobs done. There are limitations on how much useful experience we can pack into user's manuals and how-2 articles.

Should We Stay, or Should We Go?

Mike Wall's article doesn't address a basic question about finding or building homes away from Earth: Is starting a new civilization the right thing to do?

I don't see why not: but I'm descended from folks who left humanity's homeland a very long time ago, eventually spreading into Europe. My recent ancestors then decided, for a variety of reasons, to cross one of Earth's oceans and set up housekeeping in North America.

We've made mistakes along the way, some of them very costly. But I do not writhe in anguish at the thought that my ancestors didn't stay put.

If nothing else, folks who pull up roots and head over the horizon every few generations may have ensured humanity's survival. Disasters like the Toba eruption could have wiped out all of us, if everyone stayed near their homeland.

Island-Hopping to the Stars?

(From Inductiveload, via Wiki Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

There aren't obvious 'best destinations' among our sun's neighbors, but some look promising.

Alpha Centauri's two suns are nearby. There might be a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri B, but that hasn't been confirmed.

Epsilon Eridani has two asteroid belts that might supply a colony's need for raw materials.

At least one of Tau Ceti's planets may be about the right temperature for our sort of life, but the smallest is at least two to six times as massive as Earth.

But even if there's life there, the gravity would be too high for human comfort.

For some reason, discussions of interstellar travel usually don't include what I think is a very likely scenario: island hopping.

Scientists are reasonably sure that long-period comets come from a reservoir of material left over from the Solar system's formation: the Oort cloud.

Most objects in the Oort cloud would be icy planetesimals. Each of these solid comets-in-waiting could supply folks with tons of water, ammonia, and methane: vital ingredients for a habitat's agricultural systems, and more susceptible to leakage than metal and rock.

In principle, a large and tech-savvy community might decide that life in a semi-mobile habitat was better than staying on or near Earth. Energy, rock, and metal, would be in short supply after they left the inner Solar system: but they'd have plenty of room.

After many generations, some of those folks might reach the Oort cloud's outer fringe - - - and keep heading out.

2. Dinosaurs and an Asteroid: Really Bad Timing

(From SPL/Science Photo Library, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("Could dinosaurs have survived if the asteroid that wiped them out hit the Earth a little earlier or a little later?"
(BBC News))
" 'Bad luck' ensured that asteroid impact wiped out dinosaurs"
Pallab Ghosh, BBC News (July 28, 2014)

"Dinosaurs were wiped out by an asteroid impact when they were at their most vulnerable, according to a new study.

"Dr Steve Brusatte, of Edinburgh University, said sea level rises and volcanic activity had made many species more susceptible to extinction.

"They might have survived if the asteroid had hit the Earth a few million years later or earlier, he said, calling it 'colossal bad luck'....

" ...'It was a perfect storm of events that occurred when dinosaurs were at their most vulnerable,' Dr Brusatte told BBC News....

"...There is evidence that some species of dinosaur were dying off shortly before an asteroid hit the Earth.

"One of the key questions was whether this gradual decline would have led to the extinction of these animals even if the asteroid had not hit...."
If the Chicxulub impact hadn't happened, these scientists say that dinosaurs would quite likely have survived.

As it is, the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event wiped out a remarkable number of Earth's species: from plankton and fish, to pterosaurs and non-avian dinosaurs.

Some species would probably have died out anyway. Sea levels were high, and volcanic activity were pushing the more delicate critters to extinction.

I think it's prudent to remember that, although quite a few species died out when that asteroid hit: many did not. Scorpions and cockroaches are still with us, and are far from endangered. My guess is that humanity will prove to be as durable as scorpions and cockroaches: and, for that matter, rats. (November 29, 2013)

Brains, Dinosaurs, and Crows

"...Dr Brusatte believes that had the asteroid hit the Earth a few million years earlier before the environmental pressures became worse or a few million years later, when the dinosaurs might have recovered, they would be roaming the Earth to this day.

" 'Five million years earlier dinosaur ecosystems were much stronger, they were more diverse, the base of the food chain was more robust and it was harder to knock out a lot of species,' he said.

" 'If they had a few million years more to recover their diversity they would have had a better chance of surviving the asteroid impact. Dinosaurs had been around for 160 million years, they had plenty of dips and troughs in their diversity but they always recovered.'

"It was the demise of the dinosaurs that enabled mammals including our own species to diversify and evolve.

"Dr Brusatte said that if it were it not for an asteroid hitting the Earth exactly when it did we would be living in a dinosaur dominated world.

" 'Except that we would not be here because mammals would not have had the opportunity to blossom and we would not be having this conversation!' he quipped.

"This intriguing idea raises the question as to how dinosaurs might have evolved.

"Could they have developed in the same way as mammals, becoming an advanced species similar to modern humans?

"I asked Dr Brusatte: 'Could dinosaur you and dinosaur me be having this conversation, instead?'

" 'It's possible!' he said. 'With evolution never say never. It is certainly possible that dinosaurs could have evolved intelligence.'

"Professor Simon Conway-Morris from the University of Cambridge agrees, but does not go quite as far as Dr Brusatte.

" 'As far as dinosaurs becoming intelligent is concerned the experiment has been done and we call them crows,' he told BBC News...."
(Pallab Ghosh, BBC News)
Professor Simon Conway-Morris may be right: crows may be as smart as a critter descended from dinosaurs can get.

I'm inclined to agree with Dr. Brusatte, though. Our brains are more than twice as massive as an entire crow. If crows were as massive as we are, they might be a great deal smarter. Or maybe not. I think we have a great deal to learn about how intelligence works, and that's another topic.

I'm certainly not going to claim that God had to wipe out the dinosaurs, because people have to look like us. Back in 1277, some tightly-wound academics said that God had to agree with Aristotle: which is when the Catholic Church stepped in. (February 23, 2014)

Speculation and Uncertainty

I enjoy playing 'what if,' and have wondered what might have happened if life on Earth had taken different directions. (July 18, 2014)

Maybe we'll meet neighbors who look a bit like the two-legged dinosaurs. I have no idea how likely that is, but can't see why it couldn't happen.

People shaped like alxasaurus might be the most 'humanoid' folks we ever meet, and that's yet another topic. (July 18, 2014)

I don't believe that we are alone in the universe: or that we will discover people whose ancestors developed on another world. Today, we do not know. (January 17, 2014)

God, the Universe, and Authority

I'm a Christian, so I believe that God is created everything, and is constantly maintaining the universe. (Catechism, 302)

However, I'm a Catholic, so I do not have believe that God is a middle-aged European man with white hair and a muscular build.

I am obliged to believe that the universe is God's creation, that it is changing, and that what we observe are secondary causes: creatures participating in creation, according to their nature. (Catechism, 301-308)

Some folks have, over the centuries, disapproved of God's reality. That, in my considered opinion, is crazy. (July 15, 2014)

I like living in a vast and ancient universe, surrounded by wonders. Even if I didn't, it wouldn't matter. The universe is God's creation: and as my father said, 'at a certain level of authority, argument becomes pointless.'

3. Long-Distance Telephone Service: for Mars

(From NASA, via Reuters, used w/o permission.)
("NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft passes above Mars' south pole in this artist's concept illustration handout released by NASA July 24, 2012."
NASA puts out call for satellite communication services – on Mars"
Irene Klotz, Reuters (July 23, 2014)

"In what may be the ultimate in long-distance telephone service, NASA on Wednesday put out a call for a commercially owned and operated satellite network on Mars.

"The U.S. space agency needs to keep in touch with its rovers, landers and orbiters that have been chipping away at studies and experiments to learn if the planet most like Earth in the solar system ever supported life...."
In a way, I miss the excitement of my youth, when spaceflight stopped being "Buck Rogers" fantasies.

On the other hand, I'm delighted that freight runs to a space station have become routine.

The International Space Station is a multinational government operation, but I'll be surprised if Bigelow Aerospace or other commercial outfits aren't setting up orbital research, manufacturing, and tourism stations within the next decade or so.

NASA's existing Mars communications system uses the Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance orbiters, launched in 2001 and 2005. The last I checked, the orbiters were still up and running: but they won't last forever.

Mars missions planned by the European Space Agency, India, Russia, the Netherlands, Finland, and NASA will need reliable communications. Upgrading service would be nice, as NASA points out:
"...One possible area for improvement is laser or optical communications. NASA successfully demonstrated laser communications technology in October 2013 with its Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) mission. LADEE made history using a pulsed laser beam to transmit data over 239,000 miles from the moon to Earth at a record-breaking download rate of 622 megabits-per-second (Mbps)...."
("NASA Seeks Proposals for Commercial Mars Data Relay Satellites"
NASA press release (July 23, 2014))
We're still at least five years from launching the Mars Piloted Orbital Station. The Orion Mars Mission's landing is set for around 2030. We'll probably have folks making Mars their home — eventually. But settling Mars will be much harder that many imagined, back when C. L. Moore wrote her Northwest Smith stories.

More posts, about why I'm okay with looking:

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Marian Apparition: Champion, Wisconsin

Background:Posts in this blog: In the news:

What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.