Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Joy Rides and Robots are the Future of Space Travel

By Eve Harding

Human space exploration has its roots in war. The Saturn rocket used to propel Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon was based on the V2 rockets developed by Nazi Germany to pummel London during WWII. Furthermore, the space race was not a born out of a need to explore and expand human knowledge, but was more a technological showcase between the United States and Soviet Union during the cold war. However, we now live in more peaceful times. The cold war is over and it has been over forty years since a human being last walked on the Moon, and few scientists seriously believe we will be returning any time soon.

Manned space exploration
Manned space exploration is expensive, very expensive. NASA has a budget of over $17 billion a year, and the American Congress has agreed to fund the new Space Launch System (SLS), which is the most powerful rocket ever produced. While this is capable for the first time since the Apollo missions of sending humans beyond low-Earth orbit (where the International Space Station sits and where the Space Shuttle did all of its missions), this doesn't mean we will be sending humans back to the Moon or beyond anytime soon.

For the last forty years, manned space travel has involved relatively short hops into low Earth orbit, with the Space Shuttle, Russian Soyuz and European Ariane rockets used mainly for putting communication satellites into orbit. Of course, this has improved our technology dramatically. Without space travel, life would be very different on Earth, especially when it comes to communications and telecoms. Mobile phones, satellite TV and GPS are all technologies that are owed to the space race, and few of us could imagine life without a smart phone, sat nav and the other communication devices we have come to rely on. Furthermore, these telecom satellites have made long distance calls and global communication much cheaper and simpler, and have created a much smaller world. Because of these communication satellites, the internet has flourished, providing us with such things as Google Earth, something unconceivable forty years ago. However, as useful as telecom satellites and the big changes they have made to communications are, there has been very little space exploration by humans. In fact, since the last man walked on the moon in 1972, no human has left low Earth orbit, and it doesn't look like the future of space travel is going to involve humans doing much exploring at all.

Robot exploration
Setting foot on the Moon, Mars or other far off body, landing on the surface, and then returning home safely, costs far too much to be justifiable. However, that doesn't mean that space exploration is over. While sending humans to far off bodies such as the Moon or Mars is very expensive, sending robots is much, much cheaper. After all, robots don't need oxygen, food water and a comfortable temperature in order to survive. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, robots don't have to be brought home, and a one-way ticket to Mars is much cheaper and technologically easier to do than a return trip.

In addition, while human exploration is inspiring and romantic, it isn't that useful when it comes to scientific understanding. Advances in robotic technology means there are few things an astronaut can do in space that a robot can't. The Mars Curiosity Rover, for instance, is a complete laboratory that can sample, analyse, and study the rocks and soil of the Martian surface. Furthermore, with its array of cameras, you don't need human eyes on the surface to see the planet.

The stars and beyond
Even unmanned space exploration is still limited. While we can pretty much send a robot anywhere in the solar system, reaching to the stars is beyond our capabilities. The Voyager probes, for example, have been in space over 35 years, and yet are only just reaching the outer limits of our solar system. Travelling at 57,000 km/h, Voyager 1 is approximately 17 light hours from Earth, or put another way, in 35 years, Voyager 1 has travelled 0.2 light years. When you consider the nearest star, Alpha Proxima, is 4.2 light years way, it will be another 70,000 years before the satellite gets anywhere near.

However, travel to the stars is not beyond the realms of possible future technologies and is limited purely by propulsion. The problem is, the only method we have to propel a spacecraft at the moment is rocket power, and the big problem with that is how much fuel has to be carried for just a relatively short periods of propulsion (95% of Saturn 5 contained fuel, and 60% of this was burned in the first couple of minutes). However, if a propulsion system that is more economical is developed then travel to the stars within reasonable timescales, such as a couple of decades, is far more realistic, even considering the immense distance.

For example, the average family car has an acceleration force of 1 g. However, because of gravity, air pressure and friction, speed is limited on Earth. In space, none of these forces apply, so if an average family car could drive in space, it would keep on accelerating to immense speeds. In fact, if it had enough fuel, it would take less than three months for it to reach 50% of the speed of light, which would mean that Alpha Proxima was within reach within a decade of space flight (about the same amount of time as it currently tales a probe to reach Jupiter). Of course, no such propulsion system yet exists, but scientists believe they may not be that far away, which means in a few generations time, manmade robots could begin exploring planets in other solar systems, of which there are many, and return their signals within the lifetime of those that sent it.

Commercial space travel
Despite all this, humans will still have a place in the future of space travel, although it is going to be a much more local activity, and it probably won't be through large organisations such as NASA. Commercial space travel is now a reality. Projects such as Virgin Galactic are already preparing to take tourists into space. While these trips are sub orbital, the demand from rich celebrities and wealthy business people mean it won't be long before commercial enterprise starts to expand. Already, the cash strapped Russian Space Agency is preparing to take musical singer Sarah Brightman to the International Space Station, and more wealthy space tourists are bound to want to follow.

For the rest of us, space travel may seem like a dream. However, the same was said about the first jet airliners, but jumping on an airplane is something most people have done. While a visit to Mars, the Moon or planets beyond our solar system may never be a reality for us humans, in the future, a holiday in space may just become as common as flying abroad is today.

The Transposon

By Michael Akerib

The outbreak of the Manaus retrovirus was over and the government had lifted the emergency situation.

Rumors abounded that the virus had been developed in one of the military laboratories and that its release had the sole purpose of testing a vaccine. It did not quite make sense, as mass vaccinations are very expensive, even when done through tap water. Rumors, though, don’t have to make sense, do they?

The first deaths were those of passengers returning from holidays in exotic countries. Diagnosis had been difficult and, at the beginning, post-morten as patients rarely survived 48 hours.

Then there had been dead rats lying in the streets, then larger mammals – dogs, cats. Finally humans, but the death count was small – less than five percent of the population. Immunity – natural or acquired – had protected everyone else.

The epidemic had subsided by early winter and the country had gone back to its placid normality. Almost.

Werner Oberman, of the Zurich University Hospital, did not quite agree with this conclusion. In his opinion, the virus was lying dormant and undetectable in the body of its victims; in children particularly. In technical language, it was a transposon, He believed an intelligent mutation had occurred and that the choice of dormancy had been taken by the virus as a phase of its evolution. Evolution was the key word according to him as this transposon, he believed, was to lead the human species towards a new evolutionary pathway, perhaps a new species altogether, particularly if carriers of the virus reproduced faster than the rest of the population.

What the end result would be he was obviously unable to predict.

What Oberman had no way of knowing, was how stable was this DNA chain and how easily and rapidly the information it carried could be modified.

‘Immunity my eye,’ he told Rosie and James, his colleagues, at the cafeteria, stopping for a minute to eat the stuffed pancakes. ‘What the virus is doing is replacing some of the sequences of the DNA of the infected patients. Storing information there. Information that we should delete failing what it will spread by self-replication, and we will lack the means to contain it. We do not know what kind of mutants may result and what may be the ultimate result. We need to rapidly find a way of blocking these transcriptions.’

‘Werner is suffering from delusion,’ thought Rosie; and her thoughts immediately entered the Collective Memory and would, in time, be transformed into feelings or music and shared horizontally through the Transmission System. The System had evolved as ground-breaking progress was made in understanding neuronal structures and brain implants ensured brains worked more like memory cards.

The implants had a function which was originally believed to be purely auxiliary, but which was increasingly fine-tuned by the engineers at the Upper Cloud Center so as to better monitor, and above all optimize, the decision making process of the millions who had been lucky enough to have the newest versions of the implant.

Although Rosie still thought of it as the Transmission System, it had recently been renamed The Thoughtemplex by the new Chief Minister who had made it his top priority. It allowed everyone to share into the entire knowledge stream as it was formed and store it in the long-term memory. It was constantly vibrating as new ideas superimposed and piggybacked existing ones at a phenomenal speed, and the System evolved into a high-flux universe of its own. The Ministry’s paper made that very clear.

There had, of course, been critics of the system, claiming it led, sooner or later, to the abolishment of individual consciousness but they had neglected to take into account the fact that knowledge was ultimately transformed into feelings and music and allowed the entire population to live on the same rhythm.

Oberman seems to have neglected the mandatory embryo screening and DNA sequencing, she thought. What a gross mistake. He has obviously been unable to adapt to the world he had helped create. He had helped reason the opponents to the creation of the big DNA data bank. Staying in good health was more important than any element of privacy.

‘Failure of the kidney functions soon followed by cardiac arrest.’ Unusual for a teenager. Too many similar cases!!

Vincent was looking at the obituary statistics – his job at the Ministry of health – that the computer had processed. The computer had also suggested several possible treatments, but they had all failed.

Autopsy showed an unusual large number of astrocytes, the cells that make up the vast majority of the brain. He had never seen anything similar before – a new type of disease he was tempted to conclude.

Over the next weeks, an increasing number of teenagers died and the autopsies all showed the same proliferation of astrocytes. Sufficient, in any case, to lead to the conclusion that the health problems, and subsequent death, might well have a relation to this phenomenon. If the relationship was proven, a major problem would be finding a cure.

The government called it an emergency situation. Doctors and scientists were mobilized to understand the disease and identify a cure and the lights in the laboratories were never switched off. Public meetings were banned to prevent the possible spread of the disease through infection. An order for the entire population to stay at home was envisaged.

Although censorship on the Thoughtemplex was introduced, panic was spreading faster than the disease together with thoughts that the state was not doing enough to counter the epidemic. Here and there groups of citizens spontaneously met and agitated in the large squares of the country. Anxiety was felt at the top ranks of the state. The Chief Minister had to appear in public several times to dispel rumors of his death. Special decrees were issued whose content was nonsensical but the government felt that at least it showed their concern.

Economic repercussions were being felt – productivity, for one, was decreasing.

As the numbers of deaths increased, and as the doctors and scientists were unable to produce tangible results in their fight, the Chief Minister and his cabinet resigned.

The following morning the number of deaths dropped suddenly. Connection to the Thoughtemplex was impossible.

Oberman was wondering who was the creator of the virus and whether his sole aim had been to disable the Thoughttemplex. In a way he felt sorry for the end result. He had lost track of Rosie who had left the country when the disease had taken epidemic proportions. If the Thoughtemplex had been active he could have communicated with her – to tell her how right he had been.