2.28.2013

February 28, 2013: This Week's Space and Alien News


SpaceX Mission 2/12: On March 1, SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft will be
making a return trip to the International Space Station. Their overall mission hasn’t changed: bringing up supplies for the astronauts and their experiments, and bring down samples and used equipment. It’s going to be filled up severely below capacity both ways (it’s made to handle 7,000 pounds of cargo), a load capacity which might just be used when the ISS meets its hypothetical deadline in a few years and will stop having people in it. Or maybe we’ll make repairs and keep using it (or maybe we’ll make something better). Either way, NASA has ten more missions to use SpaceX for yet.


A Lot of ‘Ifs’ for Aliens: If planets exist in the habitable zone of white dwarf stars. If there is alien life on these planets (probably newly possible due to the transformation of its local star). If these aliens will have a big enough impact on the atmosphere that we can see it from Earth. If we are equipped to study the multitudes of white dwarf stars for potential dimming. If that dimming actually reveals a solid planet. If scientists have the funding for an organized search. If all of these ‘ifs’ come true within the next ten years, we might just find evidence of extraterrestrials. As if all of these uncertainties and unlikelihoods are actually news.

Doing Something About Asteroids: ESA’s mission to analyze asteroids, AIDA, has received an unsurprising boost in support. This mission involves studying Didymos, which will be near – but not catastrophically near – Earth in 2022. The study involves crashing one of two spacecrafts into it, at which point the second craft will record how that crash changes the asteroid. This project is based off the hypothesis that asteroid can be deflected by hitting them with something relatively small at just the right angle and speed to change its trajectory to something safer. It’s hopefully a good idea – it has to be better than blowing it up with a nuke.

Doing Something About Asteroids, the Graffiti Sequel: And this idea might be even better than hitting an asteroid to make it stop hurtling towards Earth. For this plan, according astronomy and physics professor at Texas A&M Dave Hyland, we would just paint the side of any potential life-destroying asteroid. Because asteroids near sunlight have a dark and a light side, momentum-carrying photons might just have an impact on the asteroid’s movement. If we interfere with this with paint that reflects more or less light than normal, we could change the asteroid’s trajectory. With paint. There’s a rock, paper, scissors joke in there somewhere, there just has to be.  

The Water Worlds of Jupiter’s Moons: Space scientists seem to have a thing about planning missions for 2022 because, just like hitting Didymos, ESA and NASA plan on sending a radar to analyze Jupiters and it’s moons Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto in nine years. We think the icy moons might have water oceans, which is cool not only because it’s more water in our solar system (and this might bode well for a potential base there in however many hundreds or thousands of years it’ll take to get actual people in space again) but because water might mean aliens. Fishy aliens, no less. Also, the ESA is getting a bit punchy with its mission names: this one is JUICE.

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Rachel is the co-founder of How To Survive Alien Invasion Novels, and spends her time writing, studying, and reading what would probably be 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.

2.24.2013

Metalaw: Should We Stop Anthropomorphizing Aliens and Use the Anti-Golden Rule?


Science fiction with aliens tends to anthropomorphize, amoeba-ize, or monster-ize extraterrestrial characters. There are three fairly good reasons for this, and while they’re all understandable, they leave a big gaping hole for philosophical possibilities.

1. Aliens in books have to be within the realm of possibility for the books to sell well. Aliens with vague descriptions, inexplicable actions and motivations, and plot points hastily followed by exclamations of ‘but we have no idea what aliens are really like’ aren’t all that desirable in literature. So, if they’re intelligent beings, authors make them more or less like us -- just with different strengths, flaws, and cultures. If they’re monstrous enemies, they’re one-dimensional horrors –- and let’s face it, we do this with antagonists even if they’re human. If they’re not human or menacingly animalistic, we assign them to one of the other kingdoms of life categorization, usually either Bacteria or Plantae and so don’t have give them personality, thinking ability, or equal status.

2. We have absolutely no idea what alien life will be like. We only have ourselves, our plants and animals, and our microorganisms to go off of. Once humans actually come across aliens, we’ll have a bit more to base our story lines on (unless they’re microorganisms, which is the lamest level of alien awesomeness imaginable). But that’s not looking likely anytime soon, so we’re stuck (roughly) with what we know.

3. Science fiction almost never has the primary purpose of exploring alien neurology or psychology – at best, it’s an interesting sub-point. Sci-fi tends to promote capitalism (Heinlein), critique imperialism and militarism (War of the Worlds), or how people might react to alien invasions (too many to even name). Science fiction is a nerdy way to critiquing social mores, an interesting but anthropocentric motivation.

And, maybe because sci-fi is so anthropocentric, most of it contain undertones of the Golden Rule. ‘One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself’ might do pretty well for humanity (even though it can be ridiculously self-involved), but space-going and extraterrestrial-contacting protagonists rarely seem to get it right. In War of the Worlds, the narrator says that all the imperialistic humans are getting what they deserve, seeing as how death, destruction, and domination are exactly what they treated other native societies to.

This shows the negative of the Golden Rule, or the Silver Rule (‘One should not treat others in ways that one would not like to be treated’), more than the pure Rule, but the concept stands. (And I really hate the narrator for saying this, because he’s a moron.)

In Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, the rule is outright violated: nobody treats anyone else how they personally want to be treated and a lot of things go wrong as a result of that. And in many of Heinlein’s books, characters are given therapy and rehabilitation until they not only follow the golden rule but want to be treated the way social mores demand.

So the Golden Rule is pretty important, and science fiction, taken altogether, seems to create the maxim of ‘follow it or suffer and probably die.

Not so according to Andrew G. Haley and advocates of metalaw. Following the Golden Rule in relation to extraterrestrials is apparently the exact opposite of what we’re supposed to do.

And this is semi-justified in a pretty cool way. Haley, the world’s first ‘space lawyer’ created the term metalaw in 1956. It’s based on Immanuel Kant’s philosophical ideas, which are hard chunks of metaphysical tongue-twisters, but relies most heavily on his Categorical Imperative:

"Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."

This applied to aliens more specifically (as specifically as a universal law can get) created an inverse rule Haley called the Interstellar Golden Rule. Rather than ‘doing unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ every intelligent being in the universe should ‘do unto others as they would have you do unto them.’

Let’s think about this.

So – rather than treating aliens as humans should fairly be treated, we should treat aliens as aliens should fairly be treated.

>In many respects this isn’t a bad idea. For one exaggerated example, imagine that aliens and humans are merrily interacting on neutral ground, but then one human accuses one alien of some sort of criminal act (let’s say breaking and entering). In the United States, the accused have the right to face their accuser. But we can’t very well do this if the alien’s culture mandates a duel to the death the second an accused and an accuser meet face to face or else the accused suffers an immediate and crippling loss of honor. On the flip side, the human should hardly be expected to engage in mortal combat.

People could argue that the laws of the location take precedence, but that’s a sucky cop-out that dodges the actual question at hand. It also only applies (if even then) in matters of actual law.

Maybe an intelligent alien species has good justification for a seemingly barbaric social hierarchy. Maybe no other alien species with a legal system agrees with the idea that corporations are people. Maybe a powerful species of militaristic aliens think consequentialism is a ethical idea punishable by planet-wide genocide. We just don’t know.

In any case, Haley put his foot down on being so anthropocentric, and he gets bonus for that.

On the other hand, this smells terribly like moral relativism, which makes me take the majority of his bonus points away.

We should by no means go around judging hypothetical intelligent societies by our values, but at the same time we can’t just accept that their culture fits their circumstances best and leave it be.

For (yet another exaggerated) example, if we come across an intelligent alien society that tortures and kills half of their offspring for fun and no better reason – no limited resources, no tribute to gods/more powerful aliens, no biological demand, no nothing – we can hardly say ‘No, keep going. And, by the way, here’s a few of our own children who want to study abroad.’

By the same token, if an intelligent alien species comes to our planet, sees warfare, gang killings, or wide-spread child neglect, and can do something about it that doesn’t involve mind-control or extermination, I’d rather like for them to do it. Or at the very least I’d hope they communicate some sort of censure.

Some ethical codes are actually superior to others. It’d be nice, in the event of the mixing and mashing of multiple alien cultures, we could come to a nice, civil, and altogether superior amalgamation of everyone’s moral code. That notwithstanding, we can’t just issue a blanket statement that each society will independently evolve in the best way possible.

And neither the Golden Rule nor the Silver Rule are awesome when it comes to hypothetical extraterrestrials we can’t even begin to understand.

Want to spread the debate over extraterrestrial ethics a bit farther out? 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 be 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.

2.22.2013

February 22, 2013: This Week's Space and Alien News


The past week has had an unequal combination of cool news and potentially catastrophically bad news. NASA captured video of the safe asteroid DA14, but Russia got hit by a destructive space rock. Scientists have potentially find a way to propel space technology outside the bounds of the solar system, but Salmonella might just kill any astronauts who try to get there. Oh, and the moon is acting up again (it must have gotten jealous about all the attention on Mars).

DA14 The Movie:  With what is quite possibly the world’s worst FPS (at 0.003), NASA’s California-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory released a video of DA14’s journey past Earth. The recording is based off of radar as the asteroid was leaving Earth’s periphery at a distance of 74,000 to 195,000 miles away. While this might not be too impressive relative to the distance of far-away galaxies we’ve captured glimpses of, it gave us an impressive amount of detailed information. Not only does this data about the asteroid’s size, surface, and rotation teach us more about asteroids in general (they are an ever-present threat, after all), it might be important in the upcoming asteroid-mining boom.

A New Alteration to Science Books Everywhere?: The space section in science textbooks just keep giving us problems. This time, scientists at University of Michigan are arguing that the moon wasn’t formed from debris knocked off the Earth during a (dare I pun?) Earth-shattering collision. Signs of water – including hydroxyls  (one hydrogen, one oxygen) in volcanic rock and water ice being knocked into the air by the crashing LCROSS – pretty adamantly disprove that theory. Of course, this leaves us without a good theory to go on (and American science education just seems to hate that).

Space Keeps Finding New Ways to Kill Us: Or, rather, we keep discovering new methods of destruction that demonstrate just how human-unfriendly the final frontier really is. While humans tend to not do that well in space, and microgravity is a big part of that, microbes have no such limitations. Microbiologist Cheryl Nickerson is studying how well disease-causing organisms exist in microgravity, and the answer is ‘disturbingly well.’ Astronauts have to face the double whammy of having lowered immune systems in space and having pathogens like Salmonella be far more aggressive. The only good news is now that scientists know about the problem, they might be able to do something about it.

Space Rock Wake-Up Call: It will end up costing an ungodly amount in repairs, and over 1,000 people were injured. But, all in all, the space rock that hit Russia was a mild reminder of exactly how dangerous space objects can be. At the very least, it’s a sign that the world needs a much improved, and all-encompassing, monitoring system for incoming space rocks. Even that’s not enough – knowing that danger is imminent is only half the battle of preventing said danger and, as it stands, no country or space organization is equipped to do either. It’s a sobering thought, because nobody saw this thing coming.

Using Ion Propulsion to Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before: I don’t expect human exploration outside the solar system anytime soon, but it’s nice to know that scientists are slowly preparing for it. This newest technological improvement takes Hall thrusters, which use a fast-moving ion stream for movement, and gets rid of the tendency for the discharge channel walls to erode. This erosion has restricted this mode of transportation to ‘in the solar system,’ but we’ve hypothetically – and in this one aspect – moved beyond that restriction. 

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Rachel is the co-founder of How To Survive Alien Invasion Novels, and spends her time writing, studying, and reading what would probably be 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.

2.07.2013

February 6, 2013: Just Another Day on the International Space Station


As part of their daily update about goings-on on the ISS, Mission Control Houston presented a few of the scientific studies happening in orbit. Various observations about earthquakes and fishing patterns are underway, and there’re constant maintenance and inspections to make sure nothing goes wrong. There were also two particular scientific events of note yesterday. One, the Kibo robotic arm from Japan was used to inspect several experiments exposed to space. Two, an ongoing study called Matrishka involves measuring radiation dose types and amounts that astronauts are exposed to during long-term space missions. This last study is particularly important as the world moves – hopefully – toward long-term and long-reach space exploration.

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Rachel is the co-founder of How To Survive Alien Invasion Novels, and spends her time writing, studying, and reading what would probably be 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.

Trajectory of DA14


In the United States -- and pretty much everywhere except southern Asia -- the asteroid DA14 won't be that spectacular. It would be a visible dot in the sky, at least, except it'll be daytime in the Western hemisphere. So, to make up for that missed astronomical action, here's a short animation from NASA that shows DA14's trajectory near the Earth. If you play some dynamic music in the background before the asteroid's bounce-back action, you can almost see Bruce Willis on it.

The video demonstrates a few interesting points about how asteroid travel, especially how they move in relation to planets, but it's slightly less cool than the actual asteroid will be. Still, you have to take what you can get with asteroids -- and hope they don't give too much.


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 be 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.