4.29.2012

This Week's Space and Alien News: April 29, 2012


Space, space, space. Pretty much wherever you could look this past week, some sort of space-related news has been on the front page. Asteroid mining featured pretty predominantly, and this is so incredibly awesome I can hardly stand it. Given, at the moment everything is pretty theoretical and they haven’t actually found out how to make extensive space travel viable yet, but we’re that much closer to going, if not quite galactic, at least super-planetary.

However, as no-longer-just-sci-fi as all of that is, it’s not quite alien news. So here are some newsworthy updates on the astrobiology front that might have gotten a bit hidden by all the asteroid mining and dark matter news.

Let the odds be with us: Habitable planets have been all the rage the past couple of years. First we found one, then several, then a few hundred… now we have billions. While this article doesn’t necessarily present any new information, it nicely summarizes everything about habitable zone and potentially inhabited planets, and also plays a bit with statistics. After all, an infinite number of planets that can host life has to mean something.

Titan: not our kind of life, but maybe some kind of life: Titan has found a pretty permanent spot on the top contenders for places we might live on in the future or where other life might be living now. It has an atmosphere, it hosts a regular production of hydrocarbons, and it has a lot of methane gas. All in all, a lot of what we can see on Titan resembles our own primordial habitat. We haven’t found life there, and chances are we probably won’t that easily, but on the spectrum between Earth and dead rock, it’s edging its way towards us.

The best pro-life campaign yet: In light of NASA’s aborted commitment to space exploration, the students at the University of Washington are advocating a Mars mission to search for signs of life. It would analyze soil and hopefully remove a little of the mystery surrounding the weird 1976 signs of life – it would also help continue the stream of precedents removing space travel from the purview of the federal and administration and more into the realm of everyone.

MailOnline might be a killjoy, but it might also be right: Admittedly, the idea of extraterrestrials as it stands is little more than some statistics and a lot of optimism – or terror, I suppose, depending on your point of view. We have absolutely no proof of aliens anywhere. Maybe it’s because we evolved pretty early in the history of the Universe, or maybe we're it. Maybe any aliens we ever do find will be from little microbes that were knocked off the face of the Earth and evolved completely differently (though I still consider these to be aliens), but so far the Universe is looking pretty empty.

Mars might have life after all (and haven’t I written that headline before?): The glassy sand dunes on Mars aren’t just cool to look at. Their formation, indicative of both volcanic activity and the presence of water or ice, leads credence to the idea of Mars once having had conditions ideal for life. However, it’s not the glass itself that holds the answer, but the potential subglacial lakes that moved it about on the surface. Whether or not this has any answers for the question about life on Mars, this at the very least adds a bit of intrigue to the continual mystery of water on Mars.

Have you heard any interesting alien or space news this past that wasn’t mentioned? If so, be sure to leave a comment so we can include it next week!

Rachel is the co-founder of How To Survive Alien Invasion Novels, and spends her time writing, studying, and reading what would probably considered far too many books. Connect with her and Rusty on Twitter and Facebook, and click here to read more of her articles about alien theories and how to survive alien invasion novels.

4.26.2012

First Contact: Values Dissonance


Now I know I've written about our anthropic limitations before but it's actually fairly difficult to understate just how important it is that we as a civilization recognize how incredibly unlikely it is that any extraterrestrial civilization will have a value system in any way similar to our own.

What?





It's important to understand I'm not necessarily talking about simply having different values, I'm talking about have completely different ethical structures. Here on earth there exists a sizable degree of values dissonance. We don't even have to look at different time periods to see this, or even in more than one country. 

In the U.S. people's opinions on everything from gun control to environmental protection change fairly predictably by region. If we do decide to look at more than one country things get even more drastic. In the famous Milgrim Experiments it was found that while most people would “kill” the subject, the proportions would drastically increase in some Asian countries, demonstrating the increased emphasis placed on authority in these cultures.

While these certainly demonstrate how different cultures and societies measure various values it's important to remember that most human cultures have the majority of their moral codes more or less the same (for example, killing is wrong). Furthermore, even though one culture might find another’s truly strange, it's generally possible to understand the logic behind another group's value system. 

Aliens on the other hand probably have a system so different from ours that we'd be incredibly lucky if their actions didn't seem completely random to us. While writers love to play with this trope, they still often fall victim to the inescapable limitation of having been raised in a human society. While it's possible there are aliens that value asymmetrical beauty and kill anything that doesn't fit into this ideal because anything “hideous” must be evil, it's more likely that aliens follow some standard of ethics that doesn't make any sense to us whatsoever.

This all assumes of course, that aliens even have a concept of right and wrong. It's also a distinct possibility that having a system with moral and immoral actions – and possibly amoral depending on how you want to look at it – is a concept that was never developed amongst extraterrestrials. Sure there might be some that use a similar system, but there also might be some with a system that uses a million different intersecting axis for measuring the desirability of an action.


So what does this all mean?

Well to start with, it means that when we do eventually find life it is highly unlikely we'll be able to interact with them in any meaningful way for quite awhile. Both sides are likely to have a tremendous amount of difficulty even if we both use the exact same moral structure. Considering how unlikely this is, it will probably take years of study before we're able to even interpret their actions and longer still before we're able to figure out how they view our actions.It also means that there might even be some aliens we come into contact with that we will simply never be able to understand because are value systems are just too different. 

In this case no matter how hard we'd try to study them, their actions would always appear entirely random to us.


And then?




War. As a whole humans have shown themselves time and time again to be pretty dismissive of people different from ourselves and there's no reason to think this wouldn't extend to any extraterrestrials we happen to stumble across. Add to that the fact that many humans take offense to anybody with even mildly different beliefs and we have a recipe for disaster.

This is all assuming of course that the aliens don't kill us on sight because our density is too high or our surface area too low.

Rusty is the co-founder of How To Survive Alien Invasion Novels, and gets up to all kinds of shenanigans planning for any and all kinds of apocalypse when he's not busy reading, writing, or yo-yoing. Keep up with him and Rachel on Facebook and Twitter to get cool, space related news or click here to read more of his thoughts on the terror of alien invasion novels.

4.23.2012

Asteroid Mining: What Would Asteroid Mining Actually Involve?



When the most active close-up of an asteroid most people have ever seen is an overdramatic and – sorry to say – bad Bruce Willis death scene plus build-up, there are bound to be questions about what productively moving about on an asteroid will look like. Throw in the recent James Cameron/Larry Page/Eric Schmidt/Ross Perot, Jr. suspense, and those questions might be just be a little more important come tomorrow.  

Namely: What would mining on an asteroid be like?

The composition of the asteroids themselves can vary from pure metal to a crumbly mixture of silicate dirt and nickel/iron granules, with billions and billions of said asteroids belonging anywhere on that spectrum – and potentially off of that spectrum, since we really only know the asteroids studied in our solar system. Both gravity and escape velocity will be really, really low, so massive amounts of otherwise ridiculously heavy metals will be moved with low energy output. So we have potentially easy-to-move metals just floating around in space, waiting for us to get at them. How do we go about doing this?

Wikipedia, at least, gives four basic ideas for the actual process, the first two of which are commonly used on Earth: strip mining shaft mining, magnetic rakes, and heating.

1. Strip Mining:

Strip mining, at its most basic, is scraping at the surface of a mass’s body and collecting whatever valuable resources emerge. But because we’re talking about a virtually gravity-free environment, we can’t just land and start scraping away like we do on Earth.

(Not that we should do it that much on Earth, either, but that’s a different subject, one best explained by people both indignant and informed about ridiculously unsafe uranium strip-mining in Navajo lands.)

We would have to somehow tie or harpoon the mining equipment to the surface of the asteroid. The now more crumbly asteroid pieces would released into some sort of cloud due to the low escape velocity – escape velocity being the minimum velocity an object needs to escape the gravitational field. This cloud of both debris and valuable metal pieces we want to collect is both a problem, since it’s blocking the whole mining operation from view, and a good thing, since it allows for easy, low-energy collection: the mining companies will just have to sweep it all up into a net and bring it to a different location for processing, refining, et cetera.

That second part is also easy, because the same kinds of forces that dragged the majority of Earth’s valuable metals into the planet’s core will let the denser metals separate from the less useful dust.

So, asteroid strip mining. Theoretically easy, no environmental hazards to really watch for, and even the by-products can potentially be made easily useful. 

2. Shaft Mining:

This idea is a bit messier and more complex, but is potentially more efficient for large asteroid that have veins of specifically sought-after metals. In a nutshell, for this method of asteroid mining, we tunnel. Again, the machines have to be harpooned or tied to the asteroid, and the drills follow the valuable bits of the asteroid until the majority of the ore has been extracted. This method seems much more useful for very compacted asteroids that are more rock than valuable metal.

While bound to be more complex than shaft mining, as this probably won’t involve the conveniently produced cloud but instead will require active collection and transport to the surface, this method of mining doesn’t seem too bad, either.

3. Magnetic Rakes:

Remember that very rough spectrum at the beginning of this post? If strip mining might be the primary mining method on loose to somewhat compact asteroids and shaft mining would be for very compact asteroids, magnetic rakes would be for the most crumbly asteroid. The best example of this sort of asteroid is Kleopatra, which is essentially a dumbbell-shaped collection of metal grains. It’s very metal rich, very loose, and potentially very, very easy to mine. Really, all you need is a magnet and a bag.

4. Heat:

Asteroids aren’t always just metal and rock. They have quite a bit of ice, too. Aside from water being a pretty valuable commodity in the space-industrial and space-colonial world where asteroid mining is prominent, its base elements make for a pretty awesome fuel. Rocket fuel can by produced through electrolysis of liquid water for separate hydrogen and oxygen gases, and methane fuel can be made by bonding hydrogen with carbon.

Is asteroid mining as simple as just that? Not by a long shot. This just gets it from an unusable form in an asteroid to a potentially useful form out of an asteroid. There are still manufacturing costs, shipping costs, getting it from low Earth orbit to Earth’s surface (if that’s what we end up doing with all the metal that really should going towards perpetuating space travel and colonies…). But it’s a start.

So – asteroid mining: is it worth it? Yes? No? Potentially in the future replete with actual space travel, but not right now? Be sure to leave your opinion below!

Rachel is the co-founder of How To Survive Alien Invasion Novels, and spends her time writing, studying, and reading what would probably considered far too many books. Connect with her and Rusty on Twitter and Facebook, and click here to read more of her articles about alien theories and how to survive alien invasion novels.

Want to read more about asteroid mining? Check out:

Asteroid Mining: Peter Diamandis's TED Talk



What does Peter Diamandis have to do with James Cameron's Planetary Resources venture? Not only is he presenting the first real peek into the whole thing tomorrow at Seattle's Museum of Flight, his general stance on all things space-related gives us quite a few clues into what anything he promotes might be all about.

While this TED Talk from 2005 doesn't explicitly say anything about asteroid mining -- and, to be honest, neither does that mysterious press release -- it gives a nice overview of what the space industry could be.

Diamandis begins by giving the three main reasons for space exploration: curiosity, fear, and wealth; and the majority of the presentation focuses on the latter two. Asteroids aren't just a potential money-making venture, after all; they're also a very real threat to all the forms of life that we know about, including our own. NASA has had various projects about recording and keeping an eye on near-Earth objects (NEOs), but we need a more active solution to the problem. Like space colonies.

(That's right. Like space colonies.)

Using the phrase 'planet redundancy' to conceptualize all the possibilities that come from spreading out into the solar system and universe at large, Diamandis also goes into why privatized companies are the way to make this happen -- and how they already have.

Tomorrow, we can also expect expect him to talk about why privatized companies are the way to make this happen -- in the future.

Rachel is the co-founder of How To Survive Alien Invasion Novels, and spends her time writing, studying, and reading what would probably considered far too many books. Connect with her and Rusty on Twitter and Facebook, and click here to read more of her articles about alien theories and how to survive alien invasion novels.

Asteroid Mining: James Cameron and Larry Page Might be up to Asteroid Mining, but it’s not in Earth’s Budget



“[Planetary Resources] will overlay two critical sectors — space exploration and natural resources — to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP. This innovative start-up will create a new industry and a new definition of ‘natural resources'.”

After hearing the cryptic and mysterious press release about a space exploration company named Planetary Resources, the Internet has been hopping about the various resource-related possibilities. Do they mean solar power satellites? Space colonies? Using dark matter as fuel? So far, asteroid mining has been the top (and, really, only) item on the list.

Why, how, and, above all, what?

Don’t get me wrong, this would be awesome. The potential boon to space exploration that asteroid mining would be is pretty immeasurable, especially when the venture has the face of culturally-accepted business icons James Cameron, Larry Page and Eric Schmidt. Figuring out the logistics to tap into infinite metal resources is like pressing a button labeled, ‘Automatic Space Colonies.’ What it is not, however, is like pressing a button labeled, ‘Automatic Terrestrial Wealth and Increased Quality of Life.’

So let’s sit down and think about this for a second.

Space is filled with a lot of stuff that humans need. Titan has propane lakes, the Sun puts off virtually infinite energy (and we really should be tapping into that before we get too caught up in anything else), and asteroids carry quite a lot of valuable metal. There’s even a giant space cloud filled with enough water to, as National Geographic says, “fill all the oceans on the Earth over 140 trillion times.” These resources certainly exist and are – as far as we know – free for the taking. The supply isn’t the problem, and the problem most certainly isn’t demand, because increasing populations and the increasing volume of materials belonging to said populations probably won’t go down any time soon.

The problem is access. By access, I don’t just mean how we’re going to get our hands on it (though that has quite a few logistical issues of its own), I mean, how are we going to get our hands on it and drag it down to Earth’s surface?

Most likely, we’re not. Why? Money.

To get something into low Earth orbit (LEO) in the average American space shuttle cost $10,416 (2000 US$). I know that’s with kind of old technology, and I know the public sector is far less efficient than the private sector (let’s give a quick round of applause to SpaceX, featured in last week’s news). But that’s per pound just from Earth to LEO. That’s not from the asteroid back down to Earth, and that doesn’t even scratch the surface of the actual mining and exploratory costs. Asteroid metal just isn’t worth it at the moment.

Wikipedia cites NewScientists’s “Earth’s natural wealth: an audit,” and says we might run out of our favorite metals like antimony, copper, gold, indium, lead, silver, tine, and zinc – all things we might anticipate in nearby-asteroids – pretty soon, but until that happens, or is close enough to happening that the costs of terrestrial metals and asteroid-mined metals are the same, the metal won’t be used on the surface. It’s not yet worth it as anything more than a novelty or a promotional piece.

So, asteroid mining, as it stands, isn’t tremendously useful for surface-based industries. It’s a bit like space tourism: awesome, but exorbitant. It costs about $20,000,000 per person to go to orbit, so very few people are willing to go until it costs less; however, it won’t cost less until people go. Maybe, somehow, demand and use will make the cost of transportation per pound (and per person) go down, but probably not too terribly soon.

At least, I don't think so. But I'd be really happy to be wrong.

If you think asteroid-mining is about to become the next big thing in global economic history or have other ideas for what Planetary Resources is all about, be sure to leave a comment!

Rachel is the co-founder of How To Survive Alien Invasion Novels, and spends her time writing, studying, and reading what would probably considered far too many books. Connect with her and Rusty on Twitter and Facebook, and click here to read more of her articles about alien theories and how to survive alien invasion novels.

4.22.2012

This Week’s Alien and Space News: April 22, 2012


Whether as left-overs from 1976, by creating interactive projects with astronomers, or though handing over the gauntlet to the privatized space industry, NASA has been all over the news this past week. Most of the space and alien news -- though a bit more space than alien, this time -- is pretty standard fare: studies, potential studies, and studying the information from past studies. But the feature of the week is SpaceX, the company set to take over missions to the International Space Station and, hopefully, more.
Privatization is ready to begin: The SpaceX company isn’t news – they’ve been the face of space privatization for years. But now they’re set to really take over NASA’s past functions with the first commercial flight to the International Space Station, which is set to happen on April 30. In just a little over a week, SpaceX is going to launch their Dragon spacecraft, a robotic capsule that will hopefully be capable of sending food and supplies to the ISS.

Let the space games… keep coming?: In a move that begins like quite a few Arthur C. Clarke novels, NASA is launching a mass project to study asteroids and near Earth objects (NEOs). This ‘Target Asteroids!’ project (yes, there’s actually an exclamation point in the title) enlists the help of amateur astronomers to stockpile data about asteroids, which is actually kind of cool, and will culminate in the launching of OSIRIS-REx in 2016. With SETILive and FoldIt, it seems like science sectors are realizing the vast potential that comes with harnessing the time and energy of gamers. But once you consider SETILive and ‘Target Asteroids!’ -- as one disgruntled commenter noted -- it seems a bit like a gimmick for unpaid, if interesting, labor.

Rather than hosting life, asteroids might protect life: In a spin on the usual panspermia theory, in which asteroids replete with microbes that can survive space crash-land on a given surface and lead to that planet having life, scientists think asteroids might just protect already present life from the damage done by the asteroid’s crash-landing. Studying under Chesapeake Bay, one the largest asteroid craters on Earth, scientists discovered microbes still adjusting from the crash 35 million years ago. While everything on the surface might die from heat, potential sun-blocking dust clouds, and everything else that comes from really large asteroids hitting a planet, microbes punched deep into the ground have a shot at survival. And another possibility for potential Martian life is born.

Titan is like… Namibia? While studying the methane, ethane, and propane lakes on Titan, scientists compare the rising and falling liquid levels to salt pans on Earth, where groundwater makes liquid surface levels rise, only for the liquid to be evaporated and then replaced again. And I say ‘liquid,’ because, while were discovering Titan to be more and more Earth-like, that planet is more hydrogen, carbon, and nitrogen than hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen – which raises some interesting questions of its own. This article isn’t important just because it’s Titan, which features in the top five of every list of potential Earth-like areas that we could realistically ever reach, but because it’s tying the features of all space bodies to some sort of universal baseline.

There might be Martians again: We just can’t seem to go a year without changing our minds about whether or not there is, once was, or never will be life on Mars. Over the past week, science news sites have been focusing on data collected in 1976, which kind of pointed to life at the time but was summarily dismissed. Scientists now are taking the Viking’s collected data and testing it again; this time, one of the points the data was collected from is showing definite signs of some sort of biological action. This is all hedged in the standard declarations that this concretely proves nothing and it is all just evidence that some unknown something might have happened. Either way, the Martian life debate is on… not that NASA and the United States will really be participating, based on last week’s news.

Have you heard any interesting alien or space news this past that wasn’t mentioned? If so, be sure to leave a comment so we can include it next week!

Rachel is the co-founder of How To Survive Alien Invasion Novels, and spends her time writing, studying, and reading what would probably considered far too many books. Connect with her and Rusty on Twitter and Facebook, and click here to read more of her articles about alien theories and how to survive alien invasion novels.

4.20.2012

Michio Kaku: The Birth Pangs of a Planetary Civilization Video


Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku summarizes the Kardashev Scale -- and our place on it -- in five minutes. He also describes the potential levels of society in terms of Flash Gordon, Star Trek, and Star Wars, which is fairly epic for a physicist.

Sadly, we're still below Flash Gordon in terms of societal evolution.

Beginning with a bit of context with what Kardashev was looking for, Mister Kaku explains each part of the scale by giving them clear signifiers -- planetary(1), planetary systems(2), galactic(3), and universal (the awesome, godly, and slightly more theoretical 4) -- and each type is then given a corresponding sci-fi reference. (Before I go on, I just want to point out that even people leaving comments on YouTube refer to him as 'Mister Kaku.')

And, while we're still sub-Flash Gorden (and sub-Buck Rogers, he adds), there's hope: each time communication breaks down national barriers, each time cultures and people are a little less prejudicial and violent, we edge away from Type Zero and up towards Type One.

Where we can control the weather and volcanoes. Awesome.

Part warning about the messiness involved in transitioning to Type One, part science fiction rundown, this video gives a spectrum of potential civilizations and presents the probability that we're the people who might make it to Type One and become a planetary civilization.

If you liked the video and think others would, too, please recommend it on StumbleUpon!

Rachel is the co-founder of How To Survive Alien Invasion Novels, and spends her time writing, studying, and reading what would probably considered far too many books. Connect with her and Rusty on Twitter and Facebook, and click here to read more of her articles about alien theories and how to survive alien invasion novels.

4.18.2012

Review: Lucifer's Hammer



Lucifer’s Hammer. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Novel.

"The points to remember are these. First, the odds against any solid part of the Hamner-Brown hitting are literally astronomical. Over these distances, the Devil himself couldn't hit a target as small as Earth....”

Background of Lucifer’s Hammer

This is not an alien invasion novel, but instead a post-apocalyptic novel about a comet that devastates life on Earth. It takes the idea of kinetic bombardment – which is explained (and illustrated) in this post – and, without weaponization or alien invasions, describes a pretty grim future for the world. Science fiction novels about extinction via asteroid are fairly common – Arthur C. Clarke has multiple novels about different potential aftereffects, and Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle also used bombardment in their novel Footfall – but each one is slightly different. Lucifer’s Hammer not only emphasizes that asteroids can wipe us out without us even being able to do anything about it -- let alone necessarily know about our impending doom in advance -- but also categorized the movie Armageddon as stupid decades before Armageddon even existed: the Hammer-Brown doesn’t hit the Earth in one cataclysmic strike but breaks up into several pieces and demonstrates every awful result of an asteroid strike possible – simultaneously.

Lesson to learn? Blowing up the gigantic rock into several giant rocks means we'll all just die more slowly.

Because Lucifer’s Hammer is a book detailing the potential aftereffects of a natural catastrophe instead of an extraterrestrial attack, it drops many typical alien invasion novel themes and has a different perspective on other shared themes. The book, despite being written in 1977, isn’t filled with Cold War, anti-communist propaganda; in fact, it kind of pokes fun at American commercialism. However, Niven and Pournelle use religion (a huge, controversial theme in many alien-related conversations) and plausibly create roving bands of zealous, religious cannibals.
People are eaten, it sparkles, and it's kind of the end of the world as we know it.
Oh my god, Lucifer's Hammer is like Twilight -- except awesome, and with an actual point.

Premise of Lucifer's Hammer

Surprisingly, the end of life as we know it isn’t the premise of Lucifer’s Hammer. This is instead relegated to the position of ‘setting the scene,’ and the real issues develop as the shell-shocked and desperate survivors try to eke out a living on our decimated planet. What kind of scene does it set? There are volcanic eruptions and earthquakes everywhere – millions immediately die in southern California. Tsunamis are everywhere – Los Angeles is gone – and the vaporized sea water leads to rain (you guessed) everywhere, not to mention an encroaching ice age.

The scene completely sucks. Everywhere. But mostly in California, where most of the novel is set.

The premise itself is about how hollow shells of country struggle to survive and how people themselves try to survive. Survival happens, but not well. Aside from the total collapse of social order and famines that you can expect, China starts a nuclear war with Russia and religious cannibals in America start destroying many of the pockets of civilization that do manage to regroup.

Interestingly, Niven and Pournelle put a huge focus on professions. While farmers, doctors, and trained security forces are valued as necessary to short-term survival (compared to say lawyers or bank tellers), they emphasize the need for scientists and the continued presence of scientific thought to any real, meaningful survival.

Who Should Read This Story?

Again, Lucifer’s Hammer isn’t an alien invasion novel, so it’s not as vital as, say, The War of the Worlds. Or as Footfall, which is a combination asteroid strike/alien invasion maelstrom. But it’s a good source if you’re looking for the effects of cataclysmic kinetic bombardment on the environment, as well as how far religious mania can go when humans are confronted by events they can’t deal really win against.

It’s also a really good novel in general – the characters are awesome, even the kind of evil ones.

Final Verdict

This book is long but incredibly worth it. Not only is it a good book in its own right, but it’s also a good reference guide for asteroid strikes, post-apocalyptic civilizations, and pro-technology philosophy. Lucifer’s Hammer is kind of like those superhero-based philosophy guides (maybe not, but work with me) – it’s both entertaining and useful, and mostly just awesome. So I didn’t feel at all bad about reading it in class, blatantly and with occasional muttered exclamations. I’m sure the professor understood.

Lucifer’s Hammer is surprisingly inexpensive through Amazon (isn’t everything that isn’t a textbook?); it’s about $6 for the ebook, $3 for the paperback – not bad for one of the most emphatic warnings against unexpected asteroid apocalypses and eating people.

If you've read the book and have something you want to add, or you know of another post-apocalyptic novel that can relate to alien invasions, be sure to leave a comment!

Rachel is the co-founder of How To Survive Alien Invasion Novels, and spends her time writing, studying, and reading what would probably considered far too many books. Connect with her and Rusty on Twitter and Facebook, and click here to read more of her articles about alien theories and how to survive alien invasion novels.

4.17.2012

Alien Attack: Kinetic Bombardment





Quick, if you were an alien and had to severely weaken the human race what would you do? Would you release a deadly bio-chemical weapon? Introduce some new species, decimating the native flora? Use some sort of EMP weapon to eliminate electronics? What about a simpler approach?

What about dropping something really big?

What is it?

A kinetic bombardment (sometimes called a mass drop) is a fairly simple concept. Mass is dropped. In other words, the idea behind a kinetic bombardment is to take something massive, and well, drop it.

And wouldn't you know, humanity has been using kinetic bombardments (in a sense) for thousands of years. If it comes from a non-horizontal direction, doesn't use explosives, and has a blunt impact then it's technically a kinetic bombardment. A particularly ancient example occurred during the ice age when hunters would lure mammoths and other prey into lower areas, then drop heavy rocks on them from above. More modern examples can be found in the World War 2 and Cold War eras when multiple bombs were developed that were designed to weigh as much as possible and be dropped from large heights. While the intended purpose of this was to have the bombs penetrate the earth and explode underground, testing revealed that the massive forces involved (imagine 22,000 pounds being dropped from almost 12,000 feat and moving at nearly supersonic speed upon impact) would effectively cause two shock-waves, one when the bomb landed and one when it exploded.

Now imagine, instead of using a bomb or a small load of rocks to attack the earth, you decide to use something a bit more massive.

How would aliens do it?

While the idea of dropping tungsten – a metal with a remarkably high melting point and incredible density – rods the size of telephone poles from orbit has appeared from time to time as a means of precisely striking targets, it seems far more likely that an alien invasion force would simply make use of the supplies in the area rather than haul something that massive across the galaxy.

And conveniently we have plenty of fairly massive, dense object just 56 million miles from earth. Asteroids. All it takes are a few well placed, powerful impacts to knock an asteroid out of orbit and - if properly aimed - directly on a collision course with earth. Furthermore, while the idea of using asteroids as weapons has been explored in the realm of science fiction before, the common saying, “sci-fi writers have no sense of scale” makes itself easily known when looking at the actual science.

What kind of damage could it do?

It turns out you can do quite a bit of damage just dropping something massive enough on something else, especially at a high speed. However, most sci-fi writers tend to drastically overestimate the mass required to cause widespread destruction.

While many sci-fi writers weave terrifying tales of asteroids or even moons hundreds to thousands of miles across, the fact of the matter is that they are drastically underestimating the power of a smaller asteroid. The asteroid we think contributed to the extinction of the dinosaurs? 10 kilometers wide. Sure, that seems pretty large for a single rock, and it is, if you're only looking at rocks here on earth. It turns out there are an expected 12,000 asteroids that are that size or bigger in our asteroid belt alone and that number gets multiplied by 7 if you want to count the asteroids half that size.

And while I could go into excruciating detail into the effects of and size of numerous impacts that have occurred here are some pictures instead:

Artist's model of the Chicxulub impact. The Crater measures 180 Km across




Fallen trees after the Tunguska event. The asteroid a few dozen meters in diameter didn't
 even land, but it caused a blast 1000 times stronger the the Hiroshima nuclear blast. 
Secondary Effects?

Depending on the type of asteroid, its size, and where it lands, we could face everything from earthquakes and volcanic activity to slightly more startling events.

If the impact occurs in or near water, we can expect absolutely massive tsunamis reaching miles into the air. In fact, an impact 35 million years ago into the Chesapeake Bay area is suspected of causing a tsunami that topped the Blue Ridge Mountain Range.

Other devastating effects of a sizable impact include fires being started by super-heated fragments of ejecta thrown into the air, an (ever popular) dust cloud -- hindering photosynthesis and devastating vegetation -- and acid rain caused by various sediments lingering in the atmosphere.

Perhaps most terrifying of all is the massive burst of infrared radiation that most life would be subject to. It turns out that if enough heavy ejecta is thrown into the atmosphere then the force and heat generated by re-entry would cause a short but intense burst of infrared radiation.

Altogether this means that, should an alien force decide to attack us with an asteroid, even if we survive the impact, the aftermath will not be pretty.

Defense?

Unfortunately, without a good deal of warning it can be quite difficult to prevent a collision. While a common movie solution is to simply "blow it up," this would probably makes things much worse. Unless the object is broken up to the point where no pieces large enough to cause damage remain, all blowing it up does is create more than one crater. Worse still, because the amount of energy produced from multiple smaller impacts is the same as one large one, its possible that spreading out the energy could simply heat the entire planet to an uninhabitable level, rather than just a localized area.

Another common idea is to simply adjust the course of an asteroid, thereby causing it to miss Earth. However, most of these ideas would require months of planning and analysis in order to have the slightest chance of succeeding.

So if we can't destroy it, and we can't move it we're pretty much doomed, right? Not quite. The good news is that the same thing that makes the asteroid so difficult to keep from hitting Earth also makes it difficult to move it onto a collision course. Inertia - the tendency for an object to resist any change in motion - means any attempt to get an asteroid to leave its current orbit and set it on a course for earth would require not just a precise application of energy to move it in the right direction, but also a great deal of it.

Of course there's always the small comfort that any civilization capable of reaching our solar system and moving asteroids onto a collision course with earth probably has better ways of killing us all.

Rusty is the co-founder of How To Survive Alien Invasion Novels, and gets up to all kinds of shenanigans planning for any and all kinds of apocalypse when he's not busy reading, writing, or yo-yoing. Keep up with him and Rachel on Facebook and Twitter to get cool, space related news or click here to read more of his thoughts on the terror of alien invasion novels.

4.14.2012

This Week’s Alien and Space News: April 15, 2012



The space and alien news from this past week has been of a weird, fascinating theme. We have mice making bone-saving space missions, dinosaurs potentially ruling far-away planets, and terrestrial organisms populating the universe with alien life. There have also been articles about the happy possibility of eventual alien contact becoming established as a certainly, and the less happy certainty of Mars missions becoming less of a possibility. While it hasn’t necessarily been a ground-breaking week, the science world – except for NASA – is doing a lot to keep space travel and extraterrestrials in the world’s peripheral vision.

Aliens might not be aliens… or maybe they are: Panspermia is one of the possible answers to the Fermi Paradox. It’s the one where human life developed from extraterrestrial building blocks that fortunately survived space travel and landed on a planet that they could adapt to. This article flips the idea. Rather than having Earth-based life come from somewhere else (though that’s still in the cards), elsewhere-based life came from Earth. Organic microbes can escape into the universe through solar storms – though these unprotected microbes aren’t likely to make it – or meteorite impacts that shoot rocks into space. So life on Europa, Mars, or anywhere we might independently find life might have its origins in terrestrial life. Which, kind of like an earlier postabout humans that colonize planets in the future and eventually evolve separately, raises the question: what makes an alien alien? The origin, or the adaptation?

Maybe Dr. Grant was right about raptors: This article is slightly less immediately awesome than the title might suggest. It talks about the two basic orientations of DNA and RNA that mirror each other and are part of the concept called ‘chirality.’ Life on earth today has mostly ‘L’ amino acids and ‘D’ sugars, and dinosaurs apparently had ‘D’ amino acids with ‘L’ sugars. While potentially interesting, this doesn’t evoke any visceral reaction until the article’s main scientist, Ronald Breslow, reminds everyone that only a lucky (for us) asteroid let mammals take over; if all life in the universe kind of developed the same way, some planet out in the universe might just have super-intelligent dinosaurs. This is slightly unlikely, but when an infinitesimal possibility meets an infinite universe, you never know.

An optimistic take on human’s response to aliens: Filled with gratuitous Star Trek references and general sci fi ideas, this article is less scientific and more a placeholder to keep the general public aware of the possibilities of alien contact; in the general wake of actual scientific discoveries of extraterrestrials, I approve of this. It covers the basics of how likely some sort of alien life is, why we haven’t made certain contact, and Washington Post’s Marc Kaufman’s hopes for a good reaction to alien overtures. While we might respond with a mix of joy, curiosity, and abject, violent terror, he hopes the first (and a tempered bit of the second) is more prevalent than that last one.

The lack of gravity might not kill us after all: Space travel is dangerous. We know this. Not only are there immediate, horrific threats of an endless, sucking vacuum that astronauts can’t really defend against beyond hoping nothing goes wrong, but living conditions are so different from those on Earth that our terrestrial bodies can’t handle the long-term damage. However, a bunch of space mice might help find the answer for stopping bone breakdown in microgravity environments. Scientists were able to dramatically downsize spinal breakdown (from 41.5% to 3%) through genetic modification. Which, if I can cite that post about the human-alien spectrum one more time, is the beginning of the potential conflict. …It’s still pretty cool, though.

Optimistic article hopes we won’t notice lack of international awesome: This article gets points for acknowledging NASA’s budget cuts and the fact that the United States won’t be participating in the European-led 2016 and 2018 Mars missions. However, reality loses points for these facts actually being the case, and NASA loses points for thinking the Mars Program Planning Group, which will assess future potential missions and long-term action, is an okay response. This response is even less okay once NASA’s director of the Mars Exploration Program Doug McCuistion says that the group doesn’t really have much of a say in future potential missions and long-term action. This makes it look like NASA is wasting what little money it does have. Luckily, it launched Curiosity rover before too many budget costs, so we can look forward to it landing this August.

(If you couldn’t tell, this article makes me a bit angry, especially since a potential – and completely not-yet-begun – 2018 mission switches from being a ‘2018 mission’ early in the article to a ‘2018/2020 mission’ in later paragraphs. We all know what that means.)

Have you heard any interesting alien or space news this past that wasn’t mentioned? If so, be sure to leave a comment so we can include next week!

Rachel is the co-founder of How To Survive Alien Invasion Novels, and spends her time writing, studying, and reading what would probably considered far too many books. Connect with her and Rusty on Twitter and Facebook, and click here to read more of her articles about alien theories and how to survive alien invasion novels.

4.08.2012

This Week’s Alien and Space News: April 8, 2012



While not necessarily an action-packed week in space – no stars were flipped inside out, in any case – space-based considerations on Earth were busy keeping the theories flying. Scientists are planning how to search for potential life on future missions, current missions searching for extraterrestrial life got the green light to keep looking, and people are wondering how organisms designed to function at Earth-normal gravity levels might operate in completely different environments.

Stuff might not be happening, but stuff is being thought about, put into plans, and being kept in the news. Considering the several scares American space exploration has had in the past few years – scares along the lines of ‘there might not be any more’ – it’s been a pretty good week.

Solar Power Satellite: I know it’s not exactly related to alien invasions, but the reemerging popularity of power-beaming makes it increasingly likely that space will become part of our infrastructure. And once we keep a sustained, active interest in space… Who knows what could happen?

Kepler Continues: We have at least four more years of funding for the search for Earth-like planets in habitable zones. Two other programs studying cosmological structures and the origins of the Universe are also staying afloat. Kepler's search for other Earth's has gotten a really good start, especially based on last week's news, so we can hope for a few more amazing things from it.

Getting Ready for a Potential Trip to Europa: Visiting Jupiter’s watery moon is bit far from possible at the moment, but NASA is doing its best to keep Europa on its ‘to-do’ list. Because the it has water – one of the necessary conditions for life as we know it – scientists contend that it’s very possible for extraterrestrial organisms to be floating around under layers of ice; the only problem is radiation from Jupiter’s magnetosphere, which might either destroy potential alien life or send it hiding deep beneath the surface. In order to pinpoint the best way to look for life on this future hoped-for trip, NASA’s scientists are testing how powerfully electrons can bombard Europa’s icy surface and damage any organic matter.

Evolving With Gravity in Mind: Alien invasion novels, and space exploration fiction as a whole, usually has at least a bit to say about the dangers the great abyss of space represents for humans. Gravity is one of the big ones, as low gravity degenerates our muscles and joints, causes odd bouts of pressure on our brains and eyes, and makes reproduction a bit of a problem. But there’s hope that we’ll move past those difficulties – well, spiders and bacteria might, at least. And there’s a different sort of hope for us humans: students came up with the ideas to test their ability to adapt to changes in gravity.

Want to share all the good news? Please be sure to recommend this post on StumbleUpon – all it takes is  a click!

Rachel is the co-founder of How To Survive Alien Invasion Novels, and spends her time writing, studying, and reading what would probably considered far too many books. Connect with her and Rusty on Twitter andFacebook, and click here to read more of her articles about alien theories and how to survive alien invasion novels.

4.04.2012

Review: Farewell To The Master


Farewell to the Master. Harry Bates, Short Story.

"Gnut," he said earnestly, holding carefully the limp body in his arms, "you must do one thing for me. Listen carefully. I want you to tell your master – the master yet to come – that what happened to the first Klaatu was an accident, for which all Earth is immeasurably sorry. Will you do that?"

"I have known it," the robot answered gently.

"But will you promise to tell your master – just those words – as soon as he is arrived?"

"You misunderstand," said Gnut, still gently, and quietly spoke four more words. As Cliff heard them a mist passed over his eyes and his body went numb.


Background

Harry Bates is one of those writers that has contributed more to science fiction than anybody will ever know. While his writing generally isn't as well known as Wells or Asimov or Clarke, anybody well-read in modern science fiction - or even particularly aware of popular culture – can easily spot his influences.

Farewell to the Master is a great example of Bates' impact on sci-fi, and popular culture in general. Its also probably one of the most recognizable sci-fi short stories in the English language (seriously, don't act like you don't know what those four words were) and has been adapted into plays, inspired books, and most notably, been the basis of two blockbuster movies. Like most movies though, some of the central themes and motives from the story are changed in the movies so just because you've seen Keanu Reeves you shouldn't think you know all there is to know about the story.

Premise

The story starts with a strange alien craft appearing in-front of the U.S. Capital. A few days later two humanoids emerge from the craft, one noble looking man and one giant robot made of green metal.

"I am Klaatu and this is Gnut"

The man manages to say only this famous sentence of greeting however, before he is gunned down by a madman and at this point the robot Gnut ceases to move. The rest of the story follows a reporter as he examines the aftermath of this incident and eventually attempts to assist the robot.

The wonder of this story is the notable difference in the actions of the extraterrestrials. From the onset the aliens are shown to be benevolent and friendly, with no obvious ill will toward humanity. Furthermore, where other stories would use the death of Klaatu as a means of starting a war between the humans and aliens, Bates instead presents the aliens, particularly Gnut as a sort of wise parent figure, unconcerned with humanity acting up until forced to take action.


Who Should Read This Story

Farewell to the Master is worth a read if you're:
Alive
Looking to read one of the most often referenced sci-fi works ever written
A fan of Harry Bates
Somebody tired of the normal, “Aliens invade and we fight back” plot
Somebody who dislikes Keanu Reeves and is looking for a particularly good reason to dislike The Day the Earth Stood Still (Not that you should more reasons)


Final Verdict

To sum everything up, read this story. Its an interesting read with a nice (though famous) plot twist that every sci-fi fan should read at least once. In all honesty, once you've read it you'll start to recognize many of the subtle references that various writers make to it in all kinds of genre, and in my opinion that makes it worth a read right there. And you know what's cool? It's free! Seriously. It's in the public domain and everything. You can find it online here. Or is you'd prefer an actual book just click here.

And as always, if you've read this story please give us your opinions on it by leaving a comment. Did you agree with this review? Did you think the story was good? Did you -gasp- think Keanu Reeves was a good Klaatu? And don't forget to subscribe and add us on Facebook and Twitter if you liked this post.


Rusty is the co-founder of How To Survive Alien Invasion Novels, and gets up to all kinds of shenanigans planning for any and all kinds of apocalypse when he's not busy reading, writing, or yo-yoing. Keep up with him and Rachel on Facebook and Twitter to get cool, space related news or click here to read more of his thoughts on the terror of alien invasion novels.