Tuesday, 14 March 2017

New Mars Forums

Recently I've been busy reading and contributing on a large bunch of forums around the theme of travelling to and colonising Mars. They are under the umbrella of the Mars Society and some of them have threads and posts from knowledgeable people, experts in their fields. Others are crowded with enthusiasts (like me, I suppose) with lots of bright ideas. It's simple to register and get started.

New Mars Forums

What I wonder, though, is whether all that threading and debating will lead anywhere. Quite possibly the first settlements will be built on Mars within the next 20 or 30 years, and who are the decision-makers and leaders who will make it happen? Certainly you'd expect some members of the Mars Society to be involved, but there are many other parties with their eyes on Mars:

First of all, companies owned by billionaires, such as SpaceX and Blue Origin. And Mars One, if it can get funding.

The space agencies of nations such as 
- Europe
- Russia
- China
- India
- Dubai

Multinational corporations might get interested if there's profit to be made.

The United Nations could get involved if it thinks it needs to regulate and control the process.

My hope is that the idealism of ordinary people should not get sidelined. A forum such as the Mars Society could be a way for many 'little people' to get together and do something magnificent, like ensuring that Mars is free from Earth's domination from the start.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Short story in need of a better name

Very briefly... here's a post containing a short story I wrote a little while ago. It's about getting to Mars and how the people you journey with may be more of a problem than the technical challenges.

Going Red - a short story by John Peace

Once you've read it, I have a competition: suggest a better title for the story! The suggestion that's accepted gets a free copy of 'Called Out Of Darkness'.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Space Squids! Extremophile Algae!

NASA is doing some fascinating research on the ISS. 

One huge question that needs answering about long-term human space exploration, preferably before people set out on years-long or even life-long missions, is whether plants and mammals - especially humans - can reproduce and grow outside of Earth's comfortable gravitational field.

Did you know that NASA sent three brave squids to the ISS six years ago? I didn't. Read about it here!

As for all the other research topics, there's a whole directory of ideas and projects that NASA has undertaken listed here on NASA's site.

Finally, the research that started me down this rabbit track today is more Mars-related. In an effort to simulate conditions on the Red Planet's surface, experimenters used the ISS's 'Expose' facility to expose strains of tough, cold-loving algae to the vacuum and radiation of space to see how they would cope. Since Mars's atmosphere has only about 1% of the pressure of Earth's sea-level atmosphere, vacuum is getting fairly close to those conditions - perhaps close enough to draw some conclusions about how some genetically-modified organisms would fare if grown on Mars, out under the sky.

The thinking is broader than the implications for the colonisation of Mars. Scientists are also wondering what this algae can teach us about the possibilities of alien life - whether oxygen-breathing, high-pressure atmospheric life might not be the only way life goes.

It bears thinking about. Our Creator is so stunningly creative - perhaps he has sown life elsewhere that's utterly different in structure to what we know, and it would be amazing to discover and study it. Or perhaps he hasn't, and our ongoing failure to find extra-terrestrial life may tell us a tale that many aren't eager to hear.

Here's the research report on 'BioMex' .

And here's a more readable news article on it.

Location, Location, Location!

Here's NASA making up their minds about where to send their next rover. All the sites sound pretty interesting to explore.

NASA JPL: Potential Landing Sites

Plus - one large part of the Mars 2020 rover mission is to prepare for human habitation. 

In NASA-speak, the mission aims to fill a Strategic Knowledge Gap that would make human visits or colonisation that much less hazardous and unknown. 

For example, they could test out equipment to produce oxygen from the Martian atmosphere or the regolith, and study the atmospheric dust particles which - being so small and potentially abrasive, electrically charged and chemically active - could become a major headache for Marstronauts.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Radio Station from the Mars Society

Wait, I didn't know they set up a radio station on Mars already!

Nope. It's the Mars Society's podcast site, Red Planet Radio

Hey... what a great name!

They have some pretty good talks on all sorts of aspects of how Mars can be colonised. Right now I'm listening to Dr Robert Zubrin pick apart Elon Musk's plans for sending his huge colonisation ships to Mars to build a city there.

The Mars Society relaunched this free service just last month.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Local Map

For all those needing a map to guide them to this humble cafe, use this Google Mars link. We're situated on the west-facing slope of the large crater known as Mie, some distance to the east of the Viking II landing site. Do you think you can find us?

To give you more of a chance, use  this one. It calls itself 'Mars Global GIS Mapping Application' and is chock full of data features once you crack it.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

The New Space Race

Sooner or later, someone's going to kick some serious asteroid1. Within a decade or two, a commercial space venture is most likely going to start mining 'Near-Earth Objects' and will bring back increasing amounts of very high-value metals as well as extracting water-ice for life support and propulsion purposes. So who owns these asteroids? Is it 'Finders-Keepers?'

From http://www.wired.com/ - Is this what the future looks like?

Until recently, the main piece of International Law on this subject treats space similarly to Antarctica:

Outer space… is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means;2

This is an extract from The Outer Space Treaty, which came into force in 1967. It also says:

Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all States without discrimination of any kind…2

There are five other international treaties dealing with relations between space-faring states, but not all have been ratified by the major space powers. They were written in the era of Mercury, Soyuz and Apollo, when only the most powerful governments could hope to launch even two or three astronauts or cosmonauts into orbit. It doesn't actually talk about private business activities in space.

Attitudes to the use of space resources and the existing law seemed to vary all the way between outright capitalism to a more one-world feeling of sharing it all for the good of all humanity. It didn't really matter until now, because since 1972 and the last Apollo mission, the human race has been no further than low Earth orbit.

Now we're looking at a New Space Race, when a few billionaires such as Elon Musk and a growing number of aerospace corporations are determined to bring the cost of space access down low3, with some government assistance it should be said4, as well as a sudden rush of big investment money5, perhaps ushering in a new period of exploration and exploitation. Commercial space operations plan to lay claim to asteroids - and then it could be portions of the surface of Mars and the Moon. That could set a precedent: whoever gets there first and plants their corporate flag could start strip-mining these pristine worlds and set up their own feudal kingdom. So I was going to write that governments need to pay attention to this area before it all goes bad.

Remote camera photo from "Of Course I Still Love You" droneship
 of SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage landing. Credit: SpaceX

But of course the lawyers got there first.

The International Institute of Space Law was founded all the way back in 1960. Citing the recent legislation passed by Obama's government that deals with the economic rights of US citizens in space, the IISL says, in a position paper on Space Mining:

The Act determines in § 51303 that United States citizens engaged in commercial recovery of an asteroid resource or a space resource under this chapter “shall be entitled to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained, including to possess, own, transport, use and sell the asteroid resource or space resource obtained in accordance with applicable law, including the international obligations of the United States.6

That changes things not a little. Possessing an asteroid and selling it doesn't sound too much like the good old Outer Space Treaty. So what about the rest of the world? Will anyone object? And can they do anything about it?

Of course any nation is free to pass laws similar to this – it's in their own interests that the USA takes the lead – but is it just up to the other space-faring powers to follow suit or lose out on the bounty? And who will arbitrate between competing claims? Who owns ores that aren't located under any Earthly nation's territory? And will any policing force be on hand to maintain an approximation of law and order when business giants butt heads? It sounds more like the Wild West.

It sounds like a promising background for a new science fiction novel I'd like to write one day.

Stepping back a moment from questions of what-if, let's ask if there's any solid ground to build this new future that so recently used to be the realm of fiction and imagination. On what basis will laws be written? From whose ideology will the lawmakers be reading? Pragmatically, realistically, many would expect powerful business interests to have the strongest hand in building the fences and writing the rules of the New Space world. Will human life on other planets and in space become a corporate plutocracy? Or a playground for the ridiculously rich? Let us be at least slightly cynical about the we-love-SpaceX-and-Star-Trek feeling that everything will be shiny and nice when we're all living in space. Won't humans, left to themselves, just carry on doing what they've always done? Misery and degradation appear to be two of the main exports of the human race when we move outwards and settle in new lands.

So at the very least we need some laws to throttle back on the bad stuff and give the good stuff a chance. How will new laws be written and enforced?

Do we have any philosophical basis for deciding all this, other than a default sense of doing what seems to work at the time? See what a mess it's getting us into – ask slave children harvesting the cocoa beans in Ivory Coast if globalisation is working for them. Greed is also leading some to do what seems best in their own eyes, and large numbers of easily-exploited people are suffering – think of Qatar building its World Cup arenas on the trampled rights of guest workers who are just trying to provide for their families.7

Investors will follow the money. That's the altar at which they worship. Explorers will go because it's out there; scientists will follow the trail of their latest hypothesis, the next new discovery. Engineers want to build bigger and better toys for the rest of them.

As one who follows Jesus above all else, I think I've found a firm foundation for an ethical approach to this. If that statement generates a strong reaction of distaste in some readers, wait a moment and hold tight to your open-mindedness: much of the fragile stability, elusive justice and two-edged scientific progress we now benefit from was constructed from a worldview owing much to the wisdom of the Bible. To date, as far as I can tell, there's no ideology or way of thinking that's got a better track record. The scientific method itself was pieced together by thinkers, writers and scientists such as ibn al-Haytham, Roger Bacon, Galileo Galilei and Sir Isaac Newton, who mostly based their works on their strong belief that there is a personal, trustworthy Creator responsible for making the Universe the way it is.

Regrettably, many over the centuries have taken up the Bible (or other religious texts) and used its words for political or personal gain. Some people just seem to like making more rules for the rest of us. Even today there are claims that the Bible says this or that about the rightness or wrongness of space travel. For example, here is an online debate that includes a quote from Psalm 115 v6:

"The heaven, even the heavens, are the Lord’s: but the earth hath he given to the children of men." A clear distinction is set: Earth has been given to men, but the heavens have not.

The trouble is that the original writer was almost certainly not thinking about the possibility of living in space, because at that time, about 3000 years ago, the Jews had something like a three-tiered cosmology of an airy heaven (the atmosphere), with above that the starry heaven, and beyond that the highest heaven where God himself dwells; nobody at that time is recorded as proposing that anyone could live beyond the airy heaven. Very often the Hebrew words translated 'heaven' and 'the heavens' either mean the sky and clouds, or the place where God and the angels dwell, or a place so far away that it's obviously used as an exaggeration. A more even-handed reading of the Bible as a whole uncovers many references to God owning both Earth and heaven and appointing humankind as tenants and stewards of all of it. For a good discussion of this, see this page.

When I read Psalm 8, it's plain to see how the Creator set humankind as rulers over all of the creation, accountable to him. Even then, long before the telescope, the writer could be overcome with awe at the vast extent of the heavens above, and be humbly glad that God cares so much for our little race, amazed that he's given us such a huge mandate:

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?
You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet:
all flocks and herds, and the animals of the wild, the birds in the sky, and the fish in the sea,
all that swim the paths of the seas. (Psalm 8 v.3-8, New International Version)

In fact, if I was an marstronaut, travelling for five months through the great empty spaces, or sitting in a habitat in a desolate rust-coloured desert, Psalm 8 would probably be a favourite to read through.

What makes sense to me, and to the faith community of which I'm part, is this non-literalistic way of reading the Bible. It's not that the words aren't true – of course they are – it's more that you need to see the forest as well, not just the twigs and branches on each tree. The Bible helps us to interpret itself – so read the themes, look at verses in the context of the paragraphs, books, and canon in which they're set; listen to what the writers & readers would have understood, then draw principles, understand a little more of God's mind – then apply this to today's and tomorrow's world. And still try to get on with people who come to a different interpretation.

So there's a theme of stewardship, of governing the creation for the Creator who provided all things for us all.

Deuteronomy chapter 4 fascinates me: here is a people about to enter a new land, and Moses is laying out God's revolutionary culture of order, kindness and God-centredness – a culture that they have to construct and live out so that the other nations will watch and learn. In particular, over and over, they're told not to worship that which is not God:

And also carefully guard yourselves so that you don’t look up into the skies and see the sun and moon and stars, all the constellations of the skies, and be seduced into worshiping and serving them. God set them out for everybody’s benefit, everywhere. (Deuteronomy 4 v.19, The Message version)

Interesting, that last thought. Again, I'm pretty sure that Moses wasn't thinking of asteroid mining when he first said this, but it contributes to a simple principle: God made it all for everyone's benefit. The whole book – Deuteronomy as well as the Bible as a whole – is full of concern for the poor, the orphan, the widow, the stranger, who can be so easily marginalised or abused.

I'm not so naive to imagine that many space colonists are going to suddenly acknowledge that they are morally responsible to their Creator and will act accordingly. But some of those involved in policy-making and colony-building will discover, I hope, that a modernised 'theistic' worldview is the foundation they have been seeking on which to build new worlds. And for others, if they're pragmatic enough to seek a tried and tested ethic, and open-minded enough to reject the popular chorus that 'all problems are caused by religion so ditch all references to that kind of God', exploring the ancient wisdom of the monotheistic faiths will yield treasures more lasting than the kind you might find in a space rock.

So the fruits of creation are to be shared with all people. How would that work for asteroid mining companies? The same as it ought to work for all other businesses – fair play for all. Treat workers, suppliers and customers with dignity, as you would like to be treated. If a company does well, it can afford to be generous. How about setting up a voluntary system for channeling a percentage of the profits of outer space industries into proven, grass-roots development projects such as providing clean drinking water and eliminating malaria? Sounds like Bill and Melinda Gates already? Well, there are precedents.

And how to handle the rights and obligations of employers and employees when there are no unions, arbitrators or human rights watchers for fifty million miles? In my humble, very inexpert opinion it's probably of little use passing laws 'down here' and expecting everything to work out alright 'up there'. There has to be a consensus among the New Space corporations and space-faring nations that there are minimum standards of employment, and that transparency is a given.

Sooner or later there could be clusters of settlers on (say) Mars, each cluster with its own character and mix of peculiar characters. They will very soon feel like making their own rules, I imagine, or will strike out for full political independence from Earth as soon as it's practical. Maybe if they feel they've been downtrodden, they'll claim the planet, or parts of it, for themselves, and come into conflict with the 'Old World' powers. So from right now there must be a common mindset of peaceful coexistence and cooperation. See this article from The Guardian cheekily entitled 'How to Colonize Mars', which sketches some possible ways of doing that.

(postscript: I just found this detailed paper entitled 'A Pragmatic Approach to Sovereignty on Mars' by Sara Bruhns and Jacob Haqq-Misra of the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science. It seems I'm not the only one thinking on this topic - in fact they have a much better grasp of it all. - July 11th, 2016 - JP)

Image credit: Getty images / Huffington Post

Should there be private ownership on Mars? I don't see how there can be much development and prosperity without it. Yet it's a clean slate, and I think I speak for many when I express a hope that colonists can leave behind the excesses and tyrannies we see around us, the ugly disparities of wealth. We all carry the seeds of paradise and of poverty around in our pockets, and we can choose which type of seed we are going to sow.

The closest real-life example I've seen that informs me on how to live as a community on Mars is when I and my family were living on an island in the Indian Ocean among people whose descendants had survived there for centuries. Wherever we went, we could see that many people were actually related to each other in some way, or were friends, and they generally helped each other out as a natural part of living. They took each day unhurriedly, enjoying the land they lived in and the people they were with. We were made so welcome, generously so, even though many of the islanders had little to share with us and lived hard lives. I could romanticise their way of life very easily, but the overall sense of sharing a land and treating each other with respect will always stay with me. That's an ethos that I very much hope will take root wherever the human race goes next.

1: 'kick some asteroid': from the 2016 animated movie 'Ratchet and Clank', which this writer has not seen.

2: From 'Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies', http://www.unoosa.org/oosa/en/ourwork/spacelaw/treaties/outerspacetreaty.html

3: For SpaceX, see this Harvard Business School article: https://rctom.hbs.org/submission/spacex-low-cost-access-to-space/

And here's a comparison of SpaceX with the French aerospace giant ArianeSpace, their nearest competitor: http://www.businessinsider.com/spacex-biggest-competitor-2015-4

4: See, for example, a NASA report on why the US government should support the commercialisation of space: http://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/files/SupportingCommercialSpaceDevelopmentPart2.pdf

Other sources:

Space Law:

A brief history of the space launch industry and how SpaceX's plummeting prices are shaking up the world space business:

A quote from that Wikipedia article:

According to one Arianespace managing director, "'It's quite clear there's a very significant challenge coming from SpaceX,' he said. 'Therefore, things have to change … and the whole European industry is being restructured, consolidated, rationalised and streamlined.' "

Jean Botti, Chief technology officer for Airbus Group (which makes the Ariane 5) warned that "those who don't take Elon Musk seriously will have a lot to worry about"

Asteroid mining companies:

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Mars Rover Travel Video

I love this video - it's full of long, lingering gazes across the dunes and deserts of Mars. The place looks a lot like the Western Desert of Egypt, or parts of the Sinai, where I briefly visited when a student. The differences, though, are huge :- no breathable atmosphere, no wells or Bedouin tents, nothing growing. But still, it's a big chunk of territory waiting to be properly explored by people like you or me.

Whatever else you can say about NASA as an administration, I have to admire their scientists and engineers for Curiosity and for releasing so much data and images from its epic trek.

[edit... oops... I just noticed that the images are actually from the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, commemorating 9 years of their missions.]

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

The Rockoon... or ... Balloons to Orbit for real!

Some time ago I posted about JP Aerospace, a company with a great vision to construct massive airships that could reach the stratosphere and beyond, lifting spacecraft past most of the atmosphere fairly gently. The spacecraft would still have to accelerate to orbital velocity.

Well here's a company that appears to be much closer to having a workable business model and a road map of how to get it done. The only thing they need now is a more sensible name:-

Taken from the Bloostar introductory video at bloostar.com

Seriously, I think they have put a lot of great engineering into their designs. It looks like a three-stage craft, built in a torus shape. This shape, they explain, is efficient because it doesn't have to force its way up through the thickest part of the atmosphere, and on the way down it will be a simple way of shedding speed - the drag of a blunt body. 

They're aiming to launch from a ship, and eventually to reuse as much of the rockoon as possible. Yes, that's a real word - apparently there was some thought given to combining balloons and rockets in the late '40s until the '50s, before the military-industrial complex took over the Space Race in the '60s. Look up the all too brief Wikipedia article on Rockoons here. The paragraph about Van Allen's Rockoons, as reported in TIME magazine in 1959, is delightful.

But it's style, don't you think? Floating upwards to space is the way to go.