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Photo via mitopoietico (Flickr / CC Licensed)

So, you are out one night and you see an object in the sky that you can’t quite explain. You have never seen anything quite like it in your life before. Could it be an alien spacecraft? Have you had a Close Encounter of the Third Kind?

An alien visitation would be a truly outstanding occurrence if it were validated scientifically. It would possibly rank as the greatest discovery ever since science began. For centuries however, astronomers, both professional and amateur, have been looking into the skies without ever finding good evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial beings. Given our knowledge of the Universe, this is not surprising. Although there are many billions of stars around us, the distances involved are stupendously large. The practical difficulties involved for alien spacecraft traveling to Earth beggar belief. This is not to say it is impossible; just very unlikely. When you see a strange light in the sky, you should not jump to the conclusion that you have seen a UFO. Other, more mundane explanations are possible in the majority of cases.

Here’s a quick guide to some strange lights in the night sky, and what they might be.

  • Steady moving lights, flashing each second, possibly green or red; sometimes very bright white lights.

It’s likely to be an aircraft. This is probably a trivial case as most people are aware of what planes look like at night. Near airports, planes can have very bright landing lights turned on that can drown out any flashing beacons.

  • Steady moving light with no flashing. Moving slowly. Seen after sunset or before sunrise. Can be very bright, but usually quite dim objects. May disappear almost instantaneously.

You may have seen an artificial satellite. There are hundreds of satellites in the sky, normally only visible in the night sky after sun-down, when the light is still shining on them. The sudden disappearance happens when it moves into the Earth’s shadow. If the light is very bright, it is likely that you have just seen the International Space Station, quite a common sight in our skies these days.

  • Orange flickering light, floating around 50 to 100 metres above the ground. May dim slowly after a few minutes.

You have possibly seen a Chinese Lantern, a small, inexpensive hot-air balloon made out of paper and wire. Chinese Lanterns have become very common around the country at celebrations, Halloween and New Year’s Eve.

  • Steady bright light. No apparent movement. May be close to horizon or visible in the southern sky. Much brighter than surrounding stars.

It’s possible you have seen Jupiter or Venus, two surprisingly bright planets at certain times of the year. After the Moon, these two objects are the brightest objects in the night sky.

  • A very bright point of light in the sky. It lasts momentarily, then disappears again. Object may move slowly. So bright you might even see it during the day.

You may have seen an Iridium Flare, essentially the reflection of a low-orbit Iridium satellite, originally used to provide satellite mobile communications. The reflections can be surprisingly bright.

  • Very bright green or red light in the sky, about 200 metres above ground. Appears to move slowly.

You may have seen an emergency flare. This is a very bright firework, shot up in the sky as a distress signal to nearby shipping. In Ireland, flares are often sent up during celebrations like the New Year.

  • Fast moving bright object. May travel a large distance across the sky in a split second. Possibly a greenish colour associated with the event.

You may have seen a fireball. This is a rocky object from space that has collided with the Earth’s atmosphere, heating up and exploding on impact. It may also be a satellite re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. Such an event is worth noting! You should make a note of your observation with the International Meteor Organisation.

  • Strange diffuse lights, illuminating clouds. Moving rapidly, possibly rhythmically. There may be more than one light in the sky.

You may have seen the effect of searchlights shining up on clouds. Local festivals and event organisers sometimes use searchlights to attract attention to their shows at night.

Other sightings may have arisen from light reflections, optical illusions or mistaken identity. It may be that the witnesses were very tired at the time or under the influence of drugs or medication, or they may have been the subject or originator of a deliberate hoax. The key thing is to always discount the more mundane answers before ever jumping to improbable conclusions.

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It’s beautiful

If you go out on a dark moonless night, you will immediately know what I mean. The Milky Way, stretching its jagged course across the heavens, is quite a sight to behold. The constellations, particularly the winter constellations, have an elegance and familiarity to them. The Moon is also an appealing object, with its ever changing phases and frequent conjunctions with other planets in the sky. Through a small telescope, planetary disks, galaxies, nebulae and open clusters come into view, often startling in their majesty.

Of course, the beauty of the universe is not limited to what is immediately visible to our eyes. Deep space objects, seen through the largest of telescopes, are candidates for some of the most beautiful things ever seen by human eyes. Who could not fail to be impressed by the wonderful Hubble photos of the Crab and Eagle nebulas, or the views of the outer planets and moons from space probes such as Voyager and Cassini? To see for yourself, each day NASA publishes it’s Astronomy Picture of the Day. Few images ever fail to impress.

It’s extreme.

Nothing can be taken for granted about space. Most of it is unimaginably cold, interspersed occasionally by blisteringly hot stars with coronal temperatures of millions of degrees. Almost everything is racing around at breakneck speed: barreling through space at velocities of hundreds or thousands of kilometers a second relative to us. That’s enough to cause quite an impact if we were to get in their way. All around us catastrophic convulsions are taking place, with vast explosions and unconscionably high energies. This is a Universe of supernovas, neutron stars, magnetars, pulsars and Gamma Ray Bursts – beams of high energy radiation that would eliminate all life on our planet in an instant were our Earth unfortunate enough to stray too close. Black holes exist that can compress the mass of whole stars into volumes a few kilometers wide, creating gravitational fields that nothing, not even light itself, can escape from.

This is the stuff of childhood fantasies. Superpowers. Forcefields. Instantaneous death. The destruction of worlds. It is no wonder that space features so prominently in the minds of the young.

It ignites our curiosity.

Astronomy confronts us with some of the biggest and most challenging problems about the nature of ourselves and the fabric of reality. As a science, it has lead the way in overturning ancient notions of how nature should behave. At one time we believed ourselves to be at the centre of the Universe, with all objects, including the Sun, revolving around the Earth. Astronomers through the ages slowly revealed a different truth. Our star and our home planet are among countless billions in a very ancient Universe. Everything we do ultimately only affects an infinitesimally small piece of real-estate in the cosmos. This discovery, while deeply humbling, is enlightening. It tells us that we will never know everything. Our quest for knowledge is unlimited. We are ants in a cathedral, and what a cathedral it is.

The study of the stars and planets has pushed out the frontiers of knowledge in every direction. It’s contribution to science and mathematics cannot be underestimated. Without astronomy, the modern world as we know it would not exist. Astronomy continues to confound us and guide us right to this day. Gigantic accelerators are busy smashing sub-atomic particles into smithereens to gain greater insights into the nature of matter because objects in space do not always behave the way our current scientific models expect them to. Astronomy has revolutionised our understanding of nature and it will continue to do so.

It tells us about our past.

When you look into space, at any star you care to mention, you are looking into history. You are not seeing the star as it is now, but as it was when the photons of light left its photosphere many years ago. If you can find the Andromeda Galaxy in the sky, you are getting a picture of how it looked two million years ago, long before humans ever roamed our planet. The largest telescopes can see back billions of years ago, to galaxies in their infancy, still in the process of being formed.

History is about ourselves, how we got here, why things are how they are. Astronomy opens history even further by explaining the origins of our planet, our sun, our galaxy – even providing insights into our Universe and how it all started some 13 odd billion years ago.

Astronomy is fascinating even when applied to our own modest human story. We have had an intense relationship with the stars and planets for thousands of years. It guided the ancient cycles of sowing and harvesting. It provided the raw material for belief systems, rituals and religions. It contributed to our language. It assisted with navigation and discovery. In living memory, we have witnessed men walking on the Moon and robot probes being flung out of the solar system – events likely to be celebrated for millennia to come. Our relationship with the stars has shaped the culture of today.

It’s our future.

Astronomy is important to our future, from the short term to the distant long term. Over the coming decades, private companies will take over much of the heavy lifting formerly associated with government agencies such as NASA and ESA. This will create new jobs and new wealth. Bigger telescopes and better equipment will provide insights into reality that will stretch our technological capabilities. Over the coming centuries perhaps we will explore and colonise deep space for ourselves, using technologies yet undreamt of. In the end, billions of years from now, our sun will expand, frying everything on this planet before diminishing in size itself, its fuel spent, its job done.

Perhaps there is a large asteroid or comet out there in space with our name on it. Perhaps our planet will eventually turn against us, forcing us to find a new home. Perhaps we will find a way to cross the enormous gulfs separating us from other stars in our galaxy. All of these possibilities lead us to the conclusion that the stars will feature prominently in the future of the human race.

Astronomy is available to all, from the small child with his toy rocketship, to the octogenarian peering through her telescope at a crater on the Moon. Few endeavours are so wide in scope, so rich in detail, or so marvelous in implication. I invite you to join in.

This blog entry was written to accompany my podcast for the September 5, 2010 broadcast of the 365 Days of Astronomy. The podcast can be listened to here.

One of the high points of my stay in Germany recently was a visit I made to Nördlingen on the border between the provinces of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg in southern Germany. It’s a beautiful place. It is enclosed by a defensive wall that dates back to the 14th Century – there are only three towns in Germany with this claim to fame. All the buildings are full of character. The town was the site of two battles during the Thirty Years War and were it not for the cars and the shops, you could easily imagine yourself in another time, another era.

But beautiful and all though the town is, this is not the reason I went there. It’s Nordlingen’s surroundings that interested me the most. The town is located in a region known as the Ries: a round, flat plain with an approximate diameter of around 23 km (15 miles).  This area is quite different to the surrounding countryside as the following scale model clearly indicates.

For many centuries, the prevailing idea about how this geological feature came to be was that it was an ancient volcanic caldera. The trouble was that much of the boulders and debris surrounding the  region were of non-volcanic origin. Many ideas were presented as to how this material got there, but it’s didn’t fully add up. The origins of the Ries remained controversial until fifty years ago.

Enter Eugene “Gene” Shoemaker. Gene was an astronomer and he had a few questions. When he looked at the Moon he saw a landscape quite different to the Earth. Everywhere on the Moon he saw craters. Big craters, small craters, enormous craters. Why then was the Earth practically devoid of them? Was it credible that the Moon could be subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous impacts while its larger sister, our planetary home, missed them all? He was convinced that the evidence for impact craters must exist on Earth, but where were they all? Gene had a good idea what kind of material would be created when a large object hit the Earth. It was just a matter of finding it.

Gene found the answer in Nordlingen. During a visit to the town in 1960 he became fascinated by the stones of St Georg’s Church in the centre of the town. He immediately realised that the church walls contained coesite, a material only created as a result of a massive meteorite impact. The rock had been mined locally from the Ries. This lead to a simple, stark conclusion. The Ries had been formed as a result of a gigantic meteor impact. “It was the first big impact crater on the Earth that we could prove was an impact crater, and that just changed the whole ballgame”, said Shoemaker.
Here is what we know. 15 million years ago, two large objects, one measuring up to 1km in diameter, crashed into southern Germany. The large object hit Nordlingen. Hitting the ground at a speed of 45,000 km per hour, it punched a hole 4km deep into Earth’s crust, vaporising on impact. The surrounding rocks were compressed to a quarter of their size by the impact and they responded with an explosion measuring 18,000 megatonnes of TNT, hundreds of times larger than the greatest nuclear bomb ever detonated on this planet. An enormous shock wave killed all living things for a hundred kilometers in every direction with devastating effects felt much further afield. A mushroom cloud 30km high was generated. Much of this cloud, composed of melted rock from deep within the crust, subsequently fell back to earth, covering the crater and the region around the Ries with a material known today as Suevite. The church of St Georg in Nordlingen is built from this material.
A massive amount of bedrock was ejected ballistically, forming rocks known as Bunte Breccia. The deepest rocks landed close to the impact zone while rocks close to the surface were hurled over great distances. Some limestone blocks have been found 70km from the crater while glassy rocks known as Moldavites have been discovered 400km away in the Czech Republic.
The 1km deep hole left by the impact became a lake and life returned to the Ries. Over time the lake itself became clogged with sediment and subsequent glaciations flattened out the region into the wide plain we see today.
A particularly good place to see the crater expanse is the Daniel, the steeple of the aforementioned St. Georg’s Church. From a height of 80 metres you can see in all directions the flat, fertile countryside with the hills forming the outer crater in the far distance.
A smaller meteorite simultaneously hit the region of Steinheim am Albuch, 40km away from Nordlingen. While the resulting crater was much smaller – just 3km in diameter – a distinct central uplift remains. Steinheim is a village well worth visiting. There is an excellent little museum in the hamlet of Sontheim im Stubenthal and plenty of well marked trails with wonderful views of the crater.
Addresses
Nordlingen:
Rieskrater Museum
Hintere Gerbergasse 3
86720 Nördlingen, Deutschland
09081 273822-0
Steinheim
Meteorkratermuseum
Hochfeldweg 5
89555 Steinheim, Deutschland

Next Sunday, September 5th, The 365 Days of Astronomy website will be broadcasting my second podcast.

It’s all about two gigantic meteor craters in the heart of Europe. I talk about how they were created, what they look like today and how their discovery has changed the way we look at our planet. I will be backing up the podcast with pictures and further details here on this blog.

Please take a listen in and let me know what you think.

(Oh, and if you never heard my first podcast for 365DOA, you can find it here).

Carina Nebula (courtesy NASA). Click to enlarge

Does anyone recall the scene in the movie “Independence Day”, when Will Smith discovered an alien spacecraft that worked and behaved exactly like a modern fighter jet? Perhaps you remember the scene in Star Wars where aircraft marshallers, used internationally recognised signals to bring the rebel craft to a halt? Clichés dominate most blockbuster science-fiction. How many times have we seen cargo ramps, flashing lights, handheld heat sensors and all the other standard accoutrements of “alien” technology? How many times have aliens been depicted as immature humanoids with long arms, wide eyes and oversized heads? The recent movie Avatar*, portrays alien creatures so similar to us they would easily beat our close genetic cousins, the chimpanzees, into a distant second place. All of this indicates that we have very limited set of ideas of what aliens might really look like.

To understand what alien contact might resemble, it is worth considering the cargo cults that popped up in the more remote regions of the South Pacific during the 1940’s. American servicemen landed on the islands in order to create airfields to help in the war effort. The local tribespeople had never before encountered modern civilisation. They were thus hurled from the stone age to the 21st Century in a matter of moments. They had no language to describe guns, airplanes, bombs and helicopters, chocolate, radios or uniforms. Long after the airmen left, the natives would cut out clearings, set up mock landing strips out of wood and whatever material they could muster, in order to usher back the sky gods who provided them with all this weird and wonderful cargo.

It is likely therefore that no words in any language could properly describe a real alien visitation. We would be dealing with something beyond the limits of our imagination. A thousand assumptions about extraterrestrials would be blown away instantly. This would be especially the case if we were dealing with a civilization thousands, even millions, of years more advanced than us.

The likelihood of aliens looking anything like us is, in my opinion, vanishingly small. We humans are products of planet Earth: its dynamics, its chemical processes, its biology and its history. It’s important to realise this when considering the possible differences between Earth and an alien world. There would be differences in temperatures and temperature ranges, ages, rotational periods, revolutionary periods, planet sizes, atmospheric compositions, atmospheric pressures, solar strengths, orbital eccentricities, axial inclinations and wind speeds, to name but a few factors. Complicating this even further would be the biological systems on another living planet. Different lifeforms would compete remorselessly, creating a diversity of biological forms that would be perfectly matched to niches suitable to their home planet’s environment. Other elements such as the frequency of mass-extinctions or climate change events would also drive the eventual form of life on this planet.

The resulting differences might be enormous. Our alien counterparts could be kilometers wide or smaller than a mite. They might live their lives over a period of millennia or merely a few seconds.  The alien “mind” might be a single entity, or distributed across multiple independent units. Emotions might not exist. Language might not exist. Empathy might not exist. Consciousness might exist on a completely different level to our own. They might be receptive to a completely different part of the electromagnetic spectrum – infrared, ultraviolet or radio waves. Suffice to say that Star Trek, with it’s bumpy headed, American accented aliens, is not the template we should choose.

Of course there are people who believe that intelligent life would, by necessity, converge on the human form. Processes such as convergent evolution might drive creatures to behave and look similarly to creatures on our planet. Others would say that intelligent life could only possibly exist on a world almost identical to our own. These are possibilities certainly, but my feelings are that, in order to thrive, life does not require perfection, just sufficient conditions for survival. After that it’s anyone’s guess what the path of development might be.

So we are left with a real conundrum. There may not be intelligent aliens out there at all, but if there were and if they were capable of making their way across the vast distances between the stars to meet us, it may not be possible to relate to them in any practical way. If SETI ever discovers anomalous signals, or if they show up unannounced on our front door some day, we are in for quite a treat, but it’s unlikely we will understand them when they ask us to take them to our leader.

* To be fair to James Cameron, making his creatures humanoid was deliberate. Falling in love with a jellyfish like creature** does not, after all, make for great cinema.

** I know, I know. Galaxy Quest. Shhh!

Friday 10, 2020. Many people will wake up to the alarm clock, listen to the latest news as they get their breakfast ready, drive to work and put in a good 8 to 10 hours in either front of their computer, serving customers or in long, drawn out meetings. They will then drive home to their families, have dinner, get their kids ready for bed, surf the Net, and relax in front of the TV. Later on, a few brave souls may head down to the pub for a drink before they finally call it a day.

This is likely to be the most accurate prediction you can make about life ten years from now. In other words, 2020 will be pretty much the same as it is today*. If we look back to the turn of the Millennium, many of us had mobile phones, Internet access, TV dinners, recycling bins and telephone conferencing. The world is as it was then, with the addition of a few new gadgets, a better Internet experience, text messaging and wireless broadband. The world today is 2000 with more toys, in other words. Most change, when it comes to the inexorable rise of technology in our lifestyles, comes along slowly. When making predictions about everyday life in the next 10 years, it is imperative that we keep this glacially slow pace of technology adoption in mind. Many of the changes that will made the difference in ten year time are probably already around us in one form or another, but it will take most of the decade to make them widespread.

But life will not stay still, so here are my guesses as to the big changes over the next ten years.

-:-

Internet everywhere.

By 2020 most gadgets you will buy – TV’s, radios, music centres, cars, cameras, domestic appliances and many children’s toys – will be Internet enabled in one form or another. Bandwidth will have improved greatly and most content will be in the “cloud”, i.e. stored and managed remotely.  Connectivity will be wireless and largely invisible to the user. Most of the stuff we watch and listen to: videos, music, TV programmes, etc. will be downloaded digitally and instantaneously.

It’s likely that the Internet will also have changed. While it will more ubiquitous, it will also be more subtle. The central access point to the Internet – the web browser – will still be there, but there will be multiple other ways of interacting with the Net. The Internet will be centrally involved in feeding multiple different applications and devices, presenting information relevant to the experience expected from those technologies. Doing business on the Internet will not be as simple as getting a web-page together, as customers will expect information in a variety of different ways.

A new way to shop.

I think RFID – Radio Frequency ID tags – will come into their own in the next decade. Bar codes will disappear, to be replaced by tags that will identify themselves wirelessly at the checkout. With this, supermarkets will change dramatically. You simply pick what you want, put it into a trolley, pass a radio scanner and instantly collect the receipt. No more checkouts, no more queues. Just pick, pay and pack. This technology has been around for ages, but it remains expensive for widespread retail use. We should expect this barrier to be overcome in the next few years, resulting in a transformation of the shopping experience.

The rise and rise of Touch

One of the coolest technologies to gain prominence in the last decade has been touch sensitive surfaces. So far, the smartphone is the greatest beneficiary of this technology but we should expect it to expand rapidly beyond these bounds before the decade is out. The real benefit of touch technology is that it makes more use of limited or wasted “real estate” within any hardware product. With Touch, the keyboard becomes a writing or drawing pad, while enclosures begin to resemble skin (think of the applications for kids toys).

Electric cars

I expect that the next decade will be a big one for green technology generally and for electric cars in particular. There will be a noticeable transition from petrol to electricity, probably towards the end of the decade once the infrastructure becomes more commonplace. Some governments (Israel and Denmark, for example) have already committed funds to a suitable infrastructure, carbon credits already in force in many countries will make electric cars an increasingly attractive proposition and car manufacturers are beginning to roll out new electric cars. This could be the most noticeable achievement of the Teen decade.

Space travel

For some, this might be the lost decade for space travel. The Space Shuttles are to be moth-balled later this year and the world will need to wait five to seven years before NASA is ready to launch replacement craft. However more countries than the USA are capable of throwing large payloads into space, so progress will continue steadily throughout the next ten years with the Chinese and Indians joining the space race in earnest. An area to watch closely is private space travel. I don’t foresee mass transportation on private space vehicles this decade, but the 2020’s are a different story. It’s entirely feasible that people will routinely travel from London to Beijing in less than an hour aboard hypersonic jets skimming above the atmosphere. As for the Moon and Mars? We need a few decades more.

Geno and Nano

I’m going to stick my head well inside my shell and opine that the next decade will not be the decade where we see designer babies,  gray goo or a clone slave underclass appear. There will be progress – lots and lots of progress – but regulatory issues and public pressure might significantly delay mainstream adoption. Where I do see progress is in medicine. I think that there are going to be some big breakthroughs in the treatment of neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. We should also see big advances in the growing and transplanting of replacement tissues from stem cells and some modest yet important improvements in cancer therapies.

The black swans

In 1960, few would have predicted that men would be walking on the Moon by the end of the decade. In 1990, mention of the Internet would have been met with blank stares from most people. It’s likely that, sometime during the next ten years, new inventions that none of us are thinking about will capture our imagination and dominate public discourse. Like any new technology, the hype will greatly exceed any immediate benefits, but whatever the effect, it is likely that we will be much more concerned about these in 2020 in the same way that Twitter and Facebook are today.

-:-

So, these are a sample of my predictions for the next decade. Will they come true? Well, at the very least, it will be fun to open up my Internet reader on Friday 10th 2020 and guffaw at my naive speculations from ten years before. What do you think? Am I missing something obvious that you believe will be huge in the next decade?

* Apocalyptic predictions not withstanding..

(Photo by SanFranAnnie)

This is the second posting in my 2019 time capsule series, where I consider how the questions of the present will be viewed in 10 years time or afterwards. Today, I’m going to focus on space, and some of the big questions that may well have convincing answers within the next decade.

Dark Matter

Dark matter in the observable UniverseWe look into the skies and we try to understand why the universe acts as it does. Unfortunately some of our biggest questions don’t have good answers. We resort to placeholders such as “dark matter” and “dark energy” to explain why galaxies spin the way they do, why the universe seems to be expanding at an accelerating rate, and other conundrums that make little sense to us with our conventional models of the world. With the switching on of the Large Hadron Collider, it it possible that answers may be found and that our understanding of the world will need to be rewritten within the next 10 to 20 years. What progress will we have made by 2019?

Extraterrestrial Life

ET DNAThe Earth is the only place we know of that contains life. Our planet is saturated with living organisms: from the deepest undersea valleys to the highest mountaintops; the rims of the hottest volcanoes to the frozen wastes of Antarctica. Life came into being only a few hundred million years after the Earth itself formed and somehow managed to survive the hellishness of our world’s early existence. Life is pretty rugged. And yet, we know of no other place: no planet, no moon, no comet or asteroid, where life is present. But there are hints. Methane, water and microfossils on Mars, ice volcanos on Europa and Enceladus. Who knows what we may find? Probes are being developed as we speak. Will we discover, as some think, that life is not just confined to one small planet, but is virtually everywhere?

Tomorrow: Technology.

singularity

Evidence has come to light over the past few decades that the ancestors of modern man spent, not a few years, but hundreds of millennia fashioning very primitive tools out of stone in the Olduvai Gorge in Kenya. Throughout that time almost no change in style took place. Sons and daughers simply learned the craft from their parents without, it seems, adding or enhancing the technology. Technological development had reached a plateau.

Now let’s move the clock forward to 200,000 years ago, to the beginning of anatomically modern humans. The tools had changed and social organisation had advanced to the point that humans were able to spread around the world, dominating and sometimes defeating those species that stood in our way. But nevertheless, the technologies throughout this time remained relatively primitive. For much of the last 200,000 years, people lived in small hunter-gatherer communities, surviving from day to day. No great works. No monuments. Despite our slow spread around the globe, change was severely limited by the scarcity of important resources such as food.

Then, only 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age, we discovered agriculture. Towns, cities, kings and queens came into existence. Professions and trades were born. Laws and religions developed. Writing was discovered and men went to war in large numbers. Great monuments grew out of the deserts and the jungles. But nevertheless, there was a lot we did not understand. We didn’t have the tools or technology to allow us to fly, or understand the universe, or even to cure the simplest of diseases. It was as if again we had reached a limit in terms of our understanding of the world.

Then along came Science. In the last 400 years, human beings have begun to systematically understand ourselves and our surroundings, to put aside our magical fantasies and to discover what really works. We learned how to put things together to make better things; how to take the properties of the physical realm to beam pictures and ideas around the world; how to put people into outer space; how to cure and prevent the worst afflictions such as Typhoid and Smallpox and how to lay waste an entire nation at the press of a button.  

Even during this decade this progress has continued unabated. We have put probes on Mars, unravelled the human genome and spotted planets revolving around distant stars. You can store the entire contents of the Library of Congress in a few small boxes beside your desk. You can search for and find the information you need, from anywhere in the world, in mere seconds. Faster and faster and faster and faster. As if this progress were approaching an asymptote, a singularity.

It makes you wonder, where will all this progress lead to?

Will we reach a point where this seemingly exponential rise in technology will continue unabated, or will things level off as we reach the limits of our abilities, as yet undefined? Are we living through a short transition point between an early agricultural and an advanced technological civilisation? Will we reach a new plateau, and what might that plateau look like?

A few scenarios come to light, some bad, some good.

The gloomiest and yet more probable of scenarios suggests that our recent advances will end in tears, with humanity blowing itself apart or enacting such a huge price from the environment that the planet seeks revenge, taking us and a large section of our fellow travelling species into oblivion.

A less gloomy scenario suggests that, while not destroying our species, humanity is reset back to the dark ages, or into hunter gathering mode, perhaps to rise again in a few millennia, only to meet a similar eventual fate in due course. A periodic rise/ collapse cycle fluctuating in tune with future Ice Ages perhaps.

Or perhaps we will find some way to live sustainably, in concert with the planet, while not sacrificing our technological knowledge in the process. Could it be that we will look at technology in the same way as we look at door-knobs, napkins and salt-cellars nowadays: where there is little scope for development apart from the vagaries of modern fashions? In this scenario, generations will pass and fads will change, but the overall technology framework will remain roughly constant, just like those humanoids in the Olduvai Gorge so many years ago. 

Maybe indeed all this talk of technological progress is a mirage. Instead, the big events in human society: war, disease, over-population, ideology and catastrophe, drive technology over the longer term as opposed to the prevailing view that technology is in the driving seat.  Perhaps we are simply too close to events to note how technology will adapt to the human story over a span of thousands and hundreds of thousands of years. We think we are driven by technology, but perhaps it is only a blip in a much bigger picture in the development of our species.

In an alternative rendition of our future, we are on a course for unending techological advance. Perhaps our curiousity and propensity to keep innovating will know no bounds? Perhaps we will keep on bending, breaking and redefining the limits of the possible? Maybe, as some suggest, we will pass on our propensity for innovation into robots, nano-machines and newly created biological forms, thus maintaining the acceleration indefinitely? 

Is it not too wild to suggest that the end game in all this is a journey to the stars? It may be that we are on course to developing the capabilities needed to cross the multi-trillion kilometer gulfs between our Sun and its neighbours? So in this case, as we board the ships to the sky, the acceleration might come to a sudden halt, to be replaced thousands of years hence by a new burst of activity, followed by further intense cycles of innovation as future generations disperse, ever so steadily, across the galaxy.

Over the weekend, SpaceX managed to make history by being the first commercial company to put a payload into orbit around Earth. 

The Falcon 1 lifted off the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific on Sunday, lifting a 165 km dummy payload into an elliptical orbit around the planet. This is the fourth attempt after a number of high-profile failed launches. 

Although putting an object in space is no big deal nowadays, it’s still a big milestone because it heralds in a much more competitive, cheaper, efficient and fast-moving era in space exploitation.

The possibilities? Space tourism, space mining, zero-g manufacturing, and faster travel from one location to another on Earth. The downsides? More space junk and advertising.  When will the McDonald’s Golden Arches or a big Coke bottle grace our evening and morning skies, I wonder? Sooner than we might think, I expect. The day when billions of LEDs are implanted on the Moon, creating the largest dynamic TV display in history is on it’s way..

 

Comet 17P/Holmes

A new “star” has appeared in the night sky. Well, sort of. A few days ago, a relatively insignificant comet called Comet 17P/ Holmes suddenly erupted, creating the above eerie looking object in the sky, just beside the northern constellation of Perseus.

I saw the object through my small telescope a few nights ago, and it was truly unmissable. This comet “haz flavur” as they say ’round here.

To find it, try to locate the big irregular “W” in the northern sky (the constellation Cassiopeia). Then, try to find a very bright star relatively close-by (Capella). The object is about half-way between these two positions. You should be able to pick it up easily with a pair of binoculars, although, according to NASA, no equipment at all is needed: it’s clearly visible with the naked eye.

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