Tuesday, 18 May 2010

The Residents of Phobos

I find Phobos, the larger of the two moons of Mars, one of the most intriguing natural satellites in the Solar-System. And so do the world’s space agencies, it seems.

At only around 22 kilometres in diameter it is very small as moons go, and its lack of an atmosphere makes it appear relatively uninteresting when compared to the large moons of the outer planets, such as Titan, Europa and Triton.

It is far from uninteresting.

The European Mars Express probe has recently made some close approaches to Phobos. As well as returning yet more stunning photos of the moon, the probe confirmed something that was first speculated in the 1950s – Phobos is not solid. It contains ‘voids’ beneath its surface, and some of them are very large. The potential uses for such concealed natural spaces are numerous, the most obvious being as research and surveillance facilities, and hanger bays.

I believe the voids have been in use, but they have now been abandoned.

Until very recently there was a very high failure rate for space probes bound for Mars and its moons, far higher than you would expect for such an apparently benign environment. Russia once attempted a landing on Phobos. The attempt failed. All missions to Phobos so far have failed.

In a year or two Russia will send its Phobos-Grunt lander down to the surface of Phobos to analyse the rocks and return samples to Earth. If that succeeds then we can be sure that the alien ‘presence’ that had been utilising the moon’s natural sub-surface facilities will have left. The only way we will find out more about them is to dig into the moon and explore the maze of caverns far below its surface. Such a mission should be given the highest of priorities as some evidence of the former residents of Phobos is highly likely to exist down there.

But I wonder: if they have indeed left, where did they go? And why were they there?

There seems to have been a huge resurgence of interest in the red planet and its moons over the last decade, and there is far more known or suspected about Phobos than the authorities admit. There has been no adequate explanation of the grooves on its surface, nor of the 'monolith'.

It is a most interesting place.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Messages to Aliens

The Arecibo MessageI’ve been taking another look at the Arecibo message recently. It is, so far, the only attempt by humans to send a message out into space with the sole intention of identifying ourselves, our biology and our location. Details of the actual message can be found here:

The Arecibo Message

Such attempts are increasingly considered unwise. The Arecibo message, despite its apparent simplicity, contains enough information for an extra-terrestrial civilisation to develop weapons and technology to subdue or destroy humans, whilst leaving our planet’s resources and atmosphere intact.

Professor Stephen Hawking has recently expressed his concerns regarding attempts to contact aliens, stating that if we were visited the outcome would be similar to when Columbus discovered North America:

Stephen Hawking warns over making contact with aliens

The Native Americans did not fair well after the arrival of the Europeans. Extra-terrestrial beings visiting Earth may condemn us to a similar fate or simply use up the planet’s resources (including humans themselves as slaves or food) and then move on.

We should do all that we can to remain hidden. We should work to limit the radio emissions from Earth to minimize the chance of being discovered. Fortunately this is happening almost ‘accidentally’ as we move to a completely digital communications network, and make more and more use of cable and satellite transmissions and less use of traditional broadcasting:

Earth Becoming Invisible to Aliens

There are plenty of scientists listening for signals that could originate from alien civilisations, but if the development of technology by our civilisation is typical, then there will only be about a 50 to 100 year window in which to detect strong unidirectional analogue radio signals, such as our ‘old-style’ televisions broadcasts, and after that the strength of the emissions will reduce dramatically, and become digital in nature. Such a window of time is miniscule, and the chances of a civilisation being at the same stage as us as far as technological development goes is almost zero. This, I believe, is why we appear to be ‘alone’ as far as radio transmissions are concerned.

Given the age of the universe almost all alien civilisation will be much older than ours. They will all have concealed their broadcasts (due to fears of discovery and invasion, amongst others). Any signals that are transmitted beyond their domains will be very weak and digital in nature. Even if we could detect those signals, without the right decoding algorithms (CODECS) we would be unable to decipher any of the information.

Unless a message is intended for discovery we are unlikely to detect one. Perhaps humans are the only civilisation foolish enough to send such a message? Let's hope we are not punished for our innocence and openness.

If you would like to know what a possible reply to the Arecibo message could contain I recommend reading this chilling short story I found at the Palace of Amino free science fiction website (make sure you have a stiff drink close at hand):

The Arecibo Response

The intended destination of the Arecibo message was the M13 star cluster, 25,000 light-years away meaning a response would not be expected from that location for at least 50,000 years (actually one will never arrive from there, as the M13 cluster will not be in that location when the message arrives). The above story has a reply being received towards the end of this century, meaning the recipient intercepted the message only 50 light-years away.

You never know who's going to be listening...