Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Space Planes - Where Are They?

Space planes are hypersonic craft that can launch from a runway and reach and operate in space, and then return to land as a normal aircraft would. Such vehicles were first proposed many decades ago, and by now we should have a regular service in place, providing people and cargo with a rapid, economic, frequent and convenient method of getting into space. It should be a service that is considered normal, ordinary, and quite routine, just like the intercontinental flights that we take for granted right now.

Star-Raker: An early NASA/Rockwell space plane concept from the 1970s

But we are still decades away from such a service. Why is that?

The incredible lack of government support is the primary reason. Without the financial backing that only those organisations can provide, such immense projects have little hope of coming to fruition. It seems that, apart from a few small subsidies, private enterprise is left to fund such things. And they do remarkably well, all things considered.

Skylon, a British space plane concept, in flight

The most promising space plane right now is Skylon, in development by the British company, Reaction Engines. If funding is maintained, a full size version of the unique engine for the plane could be tested as soon as 2019, and actual unmanned test flights could begin in 2025. Although designed primarily as a means to deliver cargo to various orbits, Skylon can crucially be configured to carry a passenger module for 30 people. It would revolutionise how we get people off the planet, and it would be a major step forward in our ability to set up colonies away from Earth. This video shows how Skylon would operate.

Skylon docked to an orbiting station

Regular shuttle services serving the Moon, Mars and beyond could be set up with a station in Earth orbit, and Skylon space planes, based at many locations around the world, could be a very efficient means of getting equipment and personnel up to the station. Within a couple of decades we could have hundreds of people in space, travelling too and from working colonies on at least two other bodies in the Solar-System.

Such a scenario is highly achievable, and with just a little more support from governments. For example, for Skylon to be developed into a fully functioning system it would cost just over 7 billion British pounds. That is a small amount for a government, and the potential economic benefits would far exceed that.

The UK government has committed to renewing its Trident missile submarine nuclear deterrent, which would cost well over 100 billion pounds over its 40 year lifespan. It's incredible that such funds can be found for a system (as necessary as it may be) that is designed to threaten and cause immense mass destruction, but something that would cost a fraction of that, and something that would be a huge benefit economically and for the future of our species, is considered for nothing more that a paltry handout.

Dreadnought Class submarine, which will replace the UK's Vanguard Class submarines to become the country's new nuclear deterrent. Unfortunately such a system seems to be a necessity. But what if the vast cost of such a system could be put into a space plane service instead?

Of course, a space plane service to Earth orbit, while incredibly beneficial, should only be the start. A true space plane service would allow passengers to leave Earth and travel to another planet's surface in the same vehicle, with nothing more than a refueling stop on the way.  Such a space plane would need to be configured for interplanetary voyages that would take many months or years to complete. Only a few passengers could be on board, and they would need accommodation and supplies to sustain them. It is likely that at first only the richest or most important passengers would be able to use such a service. It would be the equivalent to luxury yachts we see today. This is no bad thing. Encouraging the very wealthiest individuals and organisations to pay for such a service is a good way to get the funds to continue development and expansion, which will ultimately result in the service (albeit a much less oppulent version of it) becoming available to the general population.

A luxury space plane about to dock with an Earth-orbiting station to prepare for its onward journey to the Moon. Artwork by Alex Brady.

For the interplanetary phase of a journey the space plane could dock with an interplanetary propulsion system that would take it to orbit around its destination. The propulsion system would then remain in orbit and be serviced and refueled ready for another journey. With many such propulsion systems in orbit around key destinations a truely comprehensive interplanetary travel service could be offered, for both passengers and cargo. Colonisation of the Solar-System could then proceed with relative ease.

Such a service would require massive investment by governments and private organisations, but it would still be a small fraction of the amount spent on defence and weaponry. Humans need to fight against their primal instincts that seem to lead us down such negative paths and see the extinction that we face as a species if we do not colonise the Solar-System and beyond.

We need to stop funding our own destruction and

fund expansion and survival beyond Earth instead

A passenger space plane capable of carry over a hundred people docks with an orbiting station. Such a space plane service is required if humans are to create significant colonies elsewhere in the Solar-System. Concept by Alex Brady.

An extensive space plane service to Earth orbit, and to the Moon, should be the first priority of major governments to kickstart the development of permanent human colonies away from Earth. There are people with the right vision, drive and skills alive right now that could build it. And it could be achieved within two decades with the right motivation and funding.

As a species we would be foolish indeed not to develop such a capability as soon as we have the means to do so.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Sanctuary Entrance Found on Mars

It's quite possible that NASA has found the entrance to an underground sanctuary on Mars.

In my earlier article, 'Where Did All The Martians Go?', I discussed the dramatic change in the climate of Mars, and the need for as many of its inhabitants as possible to evacuate the planet. But most would have had to stay. I wrote about the huge underground shelters that would be required: long term havens that would enable millions to survive for many generations until they too could be evacuated, or until the planet's atmosphere and environment recovered.

The entrance to one of those havens may now have been discovered.

Near the south pole of Mars: the possible entrance to a huge underground survival facility, capable of sustaining thousands, if not millions, of Martians as their climate failed and surface survival became impossible.

Found near the south pole of Mars by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the hole, hundreds of metres in diameter, is possibly one of the main entrances to a vast underground complex. It was probably used for vehicles, including aircraft and spacecraft.

And there are likely to be many more such entrances, large and small. One example can be found on the slopes of Pavonis Mons, an extinct shield volcano in the Tharsis region of Mars near the planet's equator. Shown below, the hole could have been intentionally created to allow Martians to utilise the lava tubes of the extinct volcano to access a network of underground sanctuaries. Its equatorial location would have been very useful for more economical launches of spacecraft.

Such holes can be naturally formed. This one is on Pavonis Mons, and is thought by some to be the collapsed roof of a lava tube. It could also have been intentionally constructed as an entrance to a massive shelter beneath the extinct volcano.

There has been no real evidence of unnatural surface activity on Mars, which suggests three possibilities: all of the inhabitants have now left, they are surviving solely by subterranean means, or they have all perished.

The first possibility is the most unlikely. The effort to evacuate millions of inhabitants from the surface of a planet would be a gargantuan undertaking for even the most advanced civilisation. While a huge number of Martians will indeed have left the planet, most would have had to remain. Even if evacuations continued for thousands of years, which is a possibility, the remaining population would have continued to renew as generation after generation were born. And most may have wished to remain, having physically and mentally adapted to their subterranean existence.

The second possibility of the inhabitants still surviving underground right now also seem very unlikely, at least in large numbers. There is no evidence of the emissions that would be observable if there was a massive population still living there, even underground. Of course, they could be withholding their emissions to prevent detection and living in a perfectly contained and self-sustaining biosphere, but this would be almost impossible to achieve to a level where no emissions at all were made.

A vast underground Martian city, home to possibly millions when war and climate change rendered the planet's surface uninhabitable. Could there still be millions of Martians living in such cities, undetectable within a perfectly contained biosphere?

Unfortunately the most likely possibility is that all the inhabitants left in the subterranean facilities eventually died. If the sanctuaries were designed well enough they could have survived for thousands of generations - a remarkable achievement. But many millions of years later the likelihood of the sanctuaries still functioning is minuscule. At best there may be a few hundred Martians still eking out an existence in the huge and now deserted underground cities. If so it must be a lonely and grim experience.

A cavernous space like this, clearly artificial, could be found beyond the sanctuary entrance. While the sanctuary is most likely uninhabited now, there could still be a small community of Martians living there. We need to take great care when we finally start to explore such places.

The discovery of the huge potential sanctuary entrance near the south pole of Mars reinforces the need for a substantial human colony to be established to enable its exploration. If there is indeed an abandoned network of vast underground cities on the planet we need to explore them as soon as possible.

The first colonists on Mars explore one of the entrances to an abandoned underground city

As well as the thrill of discovering the remains of a lost extraterrestrial civilisation (with the remote potential of encountering surviving members of that civilisation), we would have the opportunity to find out exactly what calamitous events happened millions of years ago which forced the planet's population to retreat underground.

Thrilling indeed...

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

The Evacuation of Venus

Venus may once have been teeming with life.

The planet, almost the same size and composition as Earth, had oceans and an Earth-like atmosphere for almost two billion years of its history. It's long days, which would have had the day side exposed to the sun for more than two months at a time, would actually have kept the planet cooler by increasing evaporation and rainfall, which would have shielded the land from the strong sunlight.

Venus more than a billion years ago, before climate change rendered the planet uninhabitable

There would have been ideal conditions for life to not only evolve, but thrive. And such conditions could well have lead to the evolution of an intelligent lifeform, and the development of an advanced technological civilisation.

And there appears to be some evidence for that. Studies of the detailed radar maps of the surface beneath the planet's dense shroud of cloud show what look like immense surface structures. They could well be the remains of cities, or the launch facilities that were abandoned after the last inhabitants evacuated their dying world.

There could be many reasons why Venus became uninhabitable. It could have been the result of the activity of the civilisation: war, excessive use of fossil fuels etc. (which if proven could be a very valuable lesson for our civilisation). But it is more likely to have been natural in nature. The sun has become significantly hotter over the last few billion years. This would eventually have evaporated away Venus's oceans, thickening its atmosphere and trapping more and more heat in what would have been a runaway greenhouse effect. It would have been an event that was unstoppable, even for an advanced civilisation. Fortunately such a civilisation would have been well aware of the looming crisis, and would have had thousands of years to prepare for its evacuation. This makes it highly likely that a significant number of inhabitants would have been able to leave and set up colonies elsewhere in the Solar-System, and even beyond.

If the warming of the sun was not enough, there is strong evidence that Venus has suffered high levels of volcanic activity, and on a global scale. In the past the planet has suffered periodic and massive resurfacing events by lava flows. The most recent could have been 500 million years ago. Such an event would destroy most of the evidence of a civilisation, and multiple such events would explain the transformation and thickening of the atmosphere. Combined with the warming of the sun, life on Venus was doomed.

One billion years ago: Venus is finally rendered uninhabitable by volcanic activity and the warming of the sun

Ultimately we may be better off looking for evidence of an ancient technological civilisation on Venus elsewhere in the Solar-System, and most likely in the asteroid belt (see my previous article: 'Pre-Human Technology in the Asteroid Belt'). An advanced civilisation with knowledge of its home planet's impending demise would certainly have tried to escape, and the asteroids would provide a relatively easy and abundant source of materials for habitat and spacecraft construction.

Having said that, we need to explore Venus in much more detail, especially on the surface, and below it. So far only the Russian Venera landers in the 1970s and 80s have successfully returned images and data from the surface of the planet, and they only survived the hellish conditions for a few hours.

Left: an image of the surface of Venus, taken by the Russian lander Venera 13. Right: the lander before launch

A rover is required, one that could survive for months or more. NASA's proposed landsailing rover is the most promising. With recent success in developing electronics that can function under the extreme pressure and heat on Venus's surface, such a mission is looking more and more likely to succeed. And that means it is much more likely to get the funding to go ahead. If it does, it could be launched in about ten years.

NASA's proposed landsailing rover, which would use Venus's dense atmosphere and strong winds to move it across the surface. It's expected that the rover would survive for about fifty days - a great improvement on the static Russian Venera probes that survived for a couple of hours at most.

Amazingly, there may still be life on Venus. The last remnants of the planet's once complex biosphere may be surviving in the clouds as dark streaks of microbial life. Russia and the U.S. are working on a mission that could prove such a theory, which will probably include a solar-powered aircraft that would target the dark streaks and analyse them.

We may discover that any life in the clouds of Venus is related to life on Earth, which would indicate a common ancestor. Perhaps the Venus evacuees migrated to Earth...

Venus is fascinating and brutally hostile place. There is so much to learn, and the confirmation of the existence of a civilisation that once lived there would be astounding. We need to get a sustainable mission down to the planet's surface as soon as possible. What we find could be invaluable and essential to the future of our species.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

Pre-Human Technology in the Asteroid Belt

I've discussed before the possibility of an advanced prehistoric technological civilisation existing on Earth. But due to geological activity any evidence of such a civilisation is likely to have been lost due to continental plate subduction and other processes. Evidence of a pre-human civilisation from hundreds of millions of years ago will be buried many kilometres deep, and even destroyed completely by the immense pressure and high temperature found at such a depth.

We need to look elsewhere.

An ancient advanced civilisation in Antarctica. Perhaps one of the few benefits of global warming will be to reveal evidence of such lost civilisations. Studying such civlisations could reveal the secrets as to how they left the Earth, and where they went.

If a civilisation had developed to a level high enough for space travel then the moon would be an obvious place to look for signs of its existence, but even there geological processes may have destroyed any evidence. Volcanic activity may well have been occurring on the moon as little as a hundred million years ago.

Fortunately there is another region in the Solar-System where such evidence, even from a billion years ago, could be preserved. Geological activity is almost completely absent there. That region is the asteroid belt.

Of course, asteroids are not completely free of erosionary forces. Impacts would destroy surface artifacts over time, but unlike on Earth the results of activities beneath the surface, such as mining or habitat construction, would be preserved almost indefinitely.

This makes objects in the asteroid belt the prime target for research into pre-human civilisations.

And already, the first purpose built asteroid mission has found what could well be evidence of extensive mining activity.


NASA's Dawn mission to the two largest asteroids, Vesta and Ceres, is the only significant asteroid belt mission so far. The probe is still in orbit around Ceres and will remain there indefinitely. The intriguing bright spots seen on Ceres could indeed be evidence of mining activity.

Evidence of extensive mining activity in the Occator crater on Ceres

There is also an unusual mountain, named Ahuna Mons, in another region of Ceres that could be a huge mound of excavated waste material, much like the slag heaps found near mines on Earth.

A mountain of excavated material on Ceres

Such discoveries on Ceres show that it must be explored in much more detail from the surface. A lander, rover, or even a manned mission is needed.

If one of the first asteroids to be orbited by a dedicated probe throws up such compelling evidence of a pre-human civilisation, it's highly likely that others will, too.

16 Psyche

Another very interesting body in the asteroid belt is 16 Psyche. The asteroid is unique in its composition - almost pure iron and nickel. Nothing else like it has been discovered in the Solar-System. It's possible that it once had an exterior of rock and ice, and that it was once a planet, and that that exterior was blasted away completely by an unfortunate set of collisions with other massive objects. But the likelihood of that is very small.

16-Psyche - possibly the most heavily mined object in the Solar-System

Another explanation must be found. It could well be that the rocky outer shell was intentionally removed, and if that's true it would probably be the most incredible evidence of mining that we could ever find. It's no surprise that NASA has recently announced it will be sending a probe to 16 Psyche, which will arrive in 2030.

If such a huge amount of material was mined it would be enough to construct thousand of starships and habitats, certainly enough to provide a refuge for millions for a civilisation that needs to evacuate its home world. 16 Psyche could be hiding the evidence of the ancient technological civilisation that lived on Earth hundreds of millions of years ago.

Humans explore one of the last surviving tunnels on 16 Psyche

The evidence of a civilisation that we may find in the asteroid belt may not have originated on Earth, of course. It could have been from Mars or even Venus, both of which seem to have suffered catastrophic climate changes. Such changes would have prompted any advanced civilisation on those worlds to do everything possible to preserve its species. It could have set up home on Earth (it could have formed one of the long extinct Earth-based civilisations), but at that time the Earth's atmosphere would probably have been unsuitable. What's more likely is that the species utilised the vast resources of the asteroid belt to construct interstellar starships (see my earlier article on the evacuation of Mars).

It's thrilling to think that when we do identify life-bearing planets around other stars (which I'm confident we'll do within the next few decades) the life we're observing may well have originated in our Solar-System.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Humans on Callisto within 15 Years

Human colonies on the Moon and Mars are almost inevitable, but that is simply because of their proximity to Earth. But the best location for the first human colonies beyond our planet may not be the Moon or Mars. It could well be one of Jupiter's ice moons. The intense radiation in the inner Jovian system is a major problem, but one of the largest outer moons, Callisto, has great potential.

Callisto, the second largest of Jupiter's moons, and the easiest and safest one on which to establish a human colony

As far as human colonisation is concerned Callisto offers much the same resources as the other three Galilean moons, but there is one thing it offers that the others cannot: a low radiation environment. Such an environment, which is still protected by Jupiter's magnetosphere,  means that crewed spacecraft will need minimal radiation shielding, and habitats on the surface of Callisto are possible. On top of that, its old surface indicates that it is geologically stable. And there is also strong evidence of significant amounts of liquid water beneath the surface (which itself contains plenty of water ice).

As well as water ice, the surface is made up of significant amounts of carbon dioxide ice, rock, silicates and hydrocarbon compounds, all of which can be mined to help a colony achieve self-sufficiency (water oxygen, fuel, metals etc.).

Callisto appears to be an almost perfect choice for colonisation, and also as a base to launch the colonisation missions of many of the other outer Solar-System bodies, such as Enceladus, Titan,  Triton, and the trans-Neptune objects beyond.

An aggressive, but achievable, time line for Callisto colonisation is as follows:
  • 2019: the Callisto orbiter launched. Construction of crewed spacecraft begins.
  • 2020 - 2022: an unmanned supply spacecraft is launched with surface habitats and supplies for the future Callisto colony.
An unmanned Callisto supply spacecraft is prepared for launch in Earth orbit
  • 2024: the orbiter arrives and begins detailed visual and radar mapping of the Callisto's entire surface.
  • 2025 - 2027: the supply spacecraft arrives and enters orbit around Callisto. Two surface locations are chosen for the first colonies. The equipment for the two surface bases lands at the desired locations. The equipment includes human habitats, power generators, food and food growing bays, drilling machines, and oxygen/fuel creators (to extract hydrogen and oxygen from the surface water ice to create fuel for return journeys, and of course to make oxygen for breathing). The now empty supply spacecraft returns to Earth.
  • 2027: the first crewed spacecraft launches with eight occupants.
  • 2029: as the empty supply spacecraft arrives back in Earth orbit, the second crewed spacecraft launches, again with eight occupants.
  • 2030: an unmanned Europa lander launches from Earth.
  • 2031: the first crewed spacecraft arrives in orbit around Callisto. Six of the occupants land on the moon, three at each location, and set up the habitats. The drilling of underground habitats, and mining, begins. The two remaining crew members stay in orbit in the detached orbital station section. The empty crewed spacecraft returns to Earth.
The first colonists explore the crevasses and caves of Callisto
  • 2032: The unmanned supply spacecraft leaves Earth orbit and heads back to Callisto.
  • 2033: the second crewed spacecraft arrives and docks with the first one in Callisto orbit. Six of the occupants land on the moon and join the earlier colonists. There are now six at each location. The orbital station is enlarged with a new module.  It now has a permanent crew of four. The empty crewed spacecraft returns to Earth.
  • 2034: the Europa lander arrives and lands on the moon's surface. The crew orbiting Callisto take control of the Europa mission, using tele-operation to control the surface rover and the penetrator to explore the ocean beneath. They will do this for all future unmanned Jovian missions.
  • 2035: the underground habitats on Callisto are now occupied. They consist of large pressurised caves with habitat domes within, and also greenhouses for growing food. Tunneling continues to expand the habitats. The surface habitats are now used solely for science purposes. The first launch from Callisto with two occupants, and using fuel maufactured on Callisto, successfully docks with the orbital station.
Large man-made and pressurised caverns beneath the surface of Callisto would make ideal human habitats
  • 2036: the unmanned supply spacecraft arrives. Supplies are sent to the surface colonies and the orbital station, and then the spacecraft heads back to Earth.
  • 2037: the third crewed spacecraft with eight occupants leaves Earth and heads for Callisto.
  • 2038: the fourth crewed spacecraft launched from Earth.
  • 2039: the first baby is born in the Callisto colony.
  • 2041 - 2042: the two new crews arrive in Callisto orbit and dock with the orbital station. New modules are added to the orbital station. The now very large station keeps a permanent crew of eight, while the rest head for the two surface colonies. The empty crewed spacecraft return to Earth.
One of the manned spacecraft arrives in the Jovian system and, after a close pass of Jupiter, closes in on Callisto
  • 2042: with fuel on Callisto now plentiful regular round trips from the surface to the orbital station begin. Crew rotations are performed, giving all the chance to work on the surface and in orbit.
  • 2043: two more children are born in the Callisto colonies.  There are now 27 colonists on the surface.
If the above plan were to be followed there would a sizable and thriving human colony on Callisto within 30 years. As it grows over the following decades humans would have an ideal base from which to launch colonisation missions to other outer Solar-System regions, and from which to conduct science and exploration work, manned and unmanned, from within a much more manageable gravity well.

SpaceX has recently presented its concept for a large and fully reusable interplanetary manned spacecraft. It's a highly impressive proposal, with a long term goal of having 100 or more passengers per trip. It would be an incredibly efficient and fast way of building a colony.

SpaceX's interplanetary spacecraft, which could eventually carry 100 passengers to colonies on Mars and the moon's of Jupiter. The image shows the spacecraft after landing on Enceladus, a moon of Saturn.

Although the initial target planet is Mars, SpaceX has said that the vehicle is suitable for use on the moons of the outer planets, too. With the extreme ambitions of organisations like SpaceX, a colony on Callisto is possible within the lifetimes of many who are reading this.  Let's hope more organisations, and some governments, rise to this challenge.

It is essential for our survival as a species.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Saturn's Unnatural History

Saturn and it magnificent system of rings and moons is one of the most fascinating regions of the Solar-System. And it's fascinating not only because of its natural history, but because of its likely unnatural history, too.

In a previous article I wrote about the strong possibility that Saturn's two small and unusual moons, Atlas and Pan, could well be abandoned interstellar starships.

The most recent images of Pan, one of Saturn's unusual, and possibly artificial, moons

But there are two other objects in the ringed planet's system that are of extreme interest: the large Moon, Iapetus, and the tiny moon, Daphnis.


Iapetus is the third largest moon of Saturn.  There is much about the moon that is intriguing, but the most intriguing to me is the massive equatorial ridge that runs almost completely around its circumference. At around 20 kilometres wide and 13 high it is a truly monumental feature, especially for a moon only 1,492 kilometres in diameter.

Iapetus - the third largest moon of Saturn

Why is such a feature present, and how can it be exactly on the moon's equator?

The only plausible natural explanation given so far is that Iapetus once had its own ring system similar to its parent world. The rings, formed from the debris of a colliding smaller object, or from the breakup of Iapetus's own moon, rained down onto Iapetus's equator, eventually forming the ridge.

That is an interesting theory, but it does not explain why the ridge is not evenly distributed across the entire equator. Almost a quarter of the equator does not have the ridge. Falling ring debris would have been distributed over a long period of time, and very evenly.

The ridge (centre) that runs three quarters of the entire length of Iapetus' equator

The most likely unnatural possibility is that the ridge is actually a collapsed orbital ring. Tethered to the moon, such a structure would provide easy access to and from the surface, and would be quite an obvious facility for an advanced space-faring civilisation to construct.

An orbital ring, such as this one seen here around Earth, could have collapsed onto Iapetus creating the ridge

Abandoned for thousands of milennia, the structure would eventually decay and collapse, crashing to the surface along the equator of Iapetus. Once the collapse had begun it would progress rapidly, which would explain the unevenness of the ridge, both in its height and its distribution. A gap in the ridge, which we can clearly see, would be highly likely in this scenario.

If this happened it must have been a billion or more years ago as subsequent comet impacts have covered the remains of the ring in ice and debris hundreds of metres thick.

If evidence of a collapsed orbital ring is found beneath the ridge's ice it would provide strong support for the other potential evidence of ancient extra-terrestrial activity in Saturn's vicinity.

A mission to Iapetus is required, which must include an orbiter with ground-penetrating radar to map the remains of the orbital ring, and whatever else may be hidden beneath the equatorial ridge. And if the presence of the orbital ring is confirmed, a manned mission should be launched as soon as possible with the aim of setting up a long term colony on the ridge. Despite the long period of time that has passed since the ring collapsed there would still be plenty of artifacts present that could teach us a lot about the advanced culture that once thrived in the Saturnian system. And there may be clues as to the reason for their demise or departure.

A large human colony on the ridge, established after the collapsed orbital ring theory was proven correct.


Daphnis is one of Saturn's small inner moons with a diameter of just 8.6 kilometres. It orbits within a gap in Saturn's A ring, known as the Keeler gap. In fact, the main reason the gap remains clear of debris is largely because of this moon.

The best current image of Daphnis taken by NASA's Cassini orbiter

One thing Daphnis has in common with the other moons of interest, Atlas, Pan and Iapetus, is that it has an equatorial ridge. This ridge could well be the result of particles falling to the surface from the surrounding ring debris, but the fact that it is on the equator once again makes this highly unlikely. It is more likely to be dust gathering on the shape of the moon's structure, as in the case of Atlas and Pan. And just like Atlas and Pan, the shape of Daphnis suggests it is unnatural in origin.

Saturn's moon, Daphnis, nestled in the Keeler gap within the planet's A ring

The apparent abandonment of so much technology in Saturn's system suggests that the civilisation that developed it had to make a rapid exit (or suffered a catastrophic disaster). They did, however, have the time to place at least three of their vast spacecraft within or very near to Saturn's huge ring structure. Such a move would conceal them from discovery from anything observing from afar. The build up of dust and debris on their hulls has disguised their presence even further.

Daphnis deserves significant study.

The incredible Cassini mission will come to a spectacular finale towards the end of 2017. A new and even more ambitious mission to Saturn is now required. As I mentioned before it must include an Iapetus orbiter with radar capable of mapping objects beneath the icy surface, but it must also include rover missions with deep drilling capability.  There must also be probes to explore the moons within the ring system, with Atlas, Pan and Daphnis the priority. We need to know whether or not a manned archaeological expedition is required to study and exploit the ancient technology that may be present.

The exploration of any signs of extra-terrestrial technology within our Solar-System should be one of the top priorities of Earth's space agencies. Such exploration could result in the knowledge we require to preserve our species beyond the Earth's demise.

When you think about that, any concerns about the cost of such an undertaking pale into insignificance.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Subterranean Life on Planet Nine's Moons

The hypothetical planet nine is talked about a lot at the moment. And so it should be. A new and massive planet, currently lurking in the darkness at the far reaches of our Solar-System, is an intoxicating prospect. And it is likely to be confirmed as a reality over the next couple of years as more and more astronomers turn their telescopes to the area of space where it's most likely to be.

Planet Nine

Until it's found and observed closely its origin is unlikely to be known. But there is a strong possibility that it is a captured rogue planet. If it does turn out to be of interstellar origin then that would be very exciting indeed, for it could have brought with it a tantalising glimpse into the possibilities of life and even civilisations that formed hundreds or even thousands of light-years away.

The planet is expected to be a smaller version of Uranus or Neptune with a thick and deep atmosphere of mainly hydrogen. With a mass ten times that of Earth it would be just less that four times the diameter of our world. If so, there is little chance of life on its surface.

It could well be a different story on its moons.

One of Planet Nine's ice moons

Such moons, preserved over the aeons by the deep cold of interstellar space, could well be a treasure trove of artifacts from hundreds of millions of years ago that point to the existence of intelligent life that evolved in a star system far from ours, and when the moon's parent world was in a stable position around its home star. If the civilisation was relatively primitive (no more advanced than ours) it would have ended when some catastrophic event, such as a close encounter with a passing star, dragged the parent world out of its home star system and banished it to the interstellar void.

But if, during such an event, a technologically advanced civilisation existed on one of those moons, it would surely have gone to great lengths to preserve its existence as long as possible. We may well find evidence of deep habitats, seed banks, and even knowledge banks or cultural archives.

The frozen surface of one of Panet Nine's moons. Could the artifacts of an extra-terrestrial civilisation from hundreds of light-years away be hidden beneath the surface?

But what if some remnant of that civilisation still survives, somehow utilising the decaying heat of the moon or parent planet's interior for energy? Rogue planets are not necessarily the lifeless worlds we usually imagine (see my earlier article on rogue planets).

Another intriguing idea is that a civilisation, aware of its decline towards extinction on its home world, colonised Planet Nine as it passed close by. Using the rogue planet as natural interstellar generation ship, the colonists would have planned for a voyage of hundreds of millions of years with an indeterminable destination. They would have also had to prepare for the possibility that no suitable star system would ever be reached.

To ensure survival such preparations would have to include a meticulously designed ecosystem, safely contained from the harsh interstellar void. This would most likely be beneath the ice of a moon with access to the ocean beneath. Such an ocean, seeded with life from the civilisation's home world, would be the most likely source of food, water and oxygen for the colony. And it could be a source that could indeed, with disciplined management, provide for a journey and time span of such magnitude.

There is great risk in embarking on such a journey. After tens of thousands of generations the colonists may well lose sight of their ultimate aim. Such a subterranean existence would change a civilisation from an outward looking and curious culture to a simpler and inward looking one focused more and more on nothing but its day to day existence. Devolution could occur, with physical and mental abilities simplifying over the generations to match the environment. Intelligence could dwindle, and physical dexterity could lessen. Technological systems, if self maintaining, could continue to function indefinitely, looking after the colonists who no longer comprehend the machines that keep them alive.

Ancient self-maintaining machinery that could support a subterranean ice moon colony for millions of years 

Such a colony could be thriving right now on one of the moons of Planet Nine, well adapted to their subterranean existence, and unaware of our existence and even that they are now part of our Solar-System. There may even be no knowledge or concept of the universe beyond their ice-shrouded domain. The colony would function in an eusocial manner, like a society of ants. It would be a collective of simpler minds working together, more by instinct than planning, to ensure survival.

Colonies like this could be intentional rather than evolutionary. A technologically advanced civilisation could engineer a version of its species to function in a eusocial manner and create colonies beneath the surface of numerous ice moons. The colonies would survive in the simplest manner possible, ready for higher intelligence levels to be reinstated, most likely by automated systems, when the time is right. At that time, upon entry into a star system with a suitable planet for the colony to live on, the automated systems would genetically modify the next generation to possess a high enough level of sentience and sapience so that it could be educated.

Automated systems re-engineering a new generation of intelligent colonists ready to be educated before travelling to their new home planet

Over the next few generations the advanced technological civilisation that created the colony millions of years before would be restored. Awareness of the universe beyond the ice would return, along with the curiosity and motivation necessary to leave the safety of its confines.

A colonisation spacecraft, maintained by automated systems for millions of years, is readied for launch as a viable star-system is reached

There could be a huge number of such subterranean, almost troglodytic, colonies, set up to allow species to survive for hundreds of millenia as rogue planets make their natural interstellar journeys.

We would need to be very careful if evidence of such a colony is discovered. Our appearance within their colony could devastate it. We should monitor it carefully, without disturbing the delicate balance that has kept it alive for so long. The way the colony functions, and the machinery to maintain it, could teach us a lot about survival.

Planet Nine may turn out to be one of many captured interstellar objects in the outer Solar-System. Such objects would be a rich source of evidence about the environments around other stars, and could well contain the preserved remains of extra-terrestrial civilisations, and even the surviving descendants of such civilisations.

The discovery and exploration of such objects should be a priority. The knowledge we gain could transform our unstanding of the possibilities of life beyond the comforts of Earth.

It could even save our species.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Alien Civilisations: Closer Than Expected

With the recent discovery by the Kepler Telescope of over a thousand new exo-planets (planets orbiting other stars to our own) the chance of discovering evidence of an extra-terrestrial civilisation nearby seems more and more likely.

Kepler Telescope

Nine of those planets in particular are similar in size to Earth, and they are in the habitable zone, close enough to their parent star for liquid water to exist on their surfaces, but not so close that it will boil away.

Life could exist on any or all of them. And the closest habitable planet among them may only be 11 light-years away.

Of course, the chance of a nearby civilisation being detectable from Earth is still extremely small, and would rely on the civilisation being at a similar level of development to our own. If it's less developed there would be no electronic emissions to detect,and no industrial processes that would leave the the signature of pollution. And if it is far advanced then its means of communication and travel could well be unrecognisable, and its home planet's atmosphere long since cleansed of the damaging activity of earlier times.

Pollution generated by an extra-terrestrial civilisation would be detectable, and may be one of the best ways to determine if an exo-planet harbours intelligent life. Even if the civilisation is long extinct the atmosphere may still contain evidence that they once existed.

The only sure way to detect such civilisations would be to get close enough to observe them directly. If and when we do eventually have missions to other star systems I think the most likely evidence we are to find of an extra-terrestrial civilisation will be the artifacts and ruins of a species long extinct (and we are well on the way to becoming such 'evidence' if we continue to abuse our planet in the way we've been doing and if we continue to procrastinate about building off-world colonies).

I mentioned above that the closest habitable planet discovered by the Kepler Telescope may only be 11 light-years away, but there may be one even closer.

In early 2016 it was confirmed that an Earth-sized planet is orbiting Proxima Centauri, just 4.2 light-years from our Solar System. Called Proxima b, the planet is in the habitable zone where liquid water could exist in a stable form on the surface.

Proxima b

This is remarkable news, especially as it happens to orbit the closest star to our sun. If such a planet just happens to exist so close then the liklihood of others in nearby star systems rises quite considerably.

A new project, known as Breakthrough Starshot, was announced in 2016 with the aim of proving that a fleet of light sail spacecraft, powered by Earth-based lasers, could make the journey to the Alpha Centauri system, including a flyby of the potentially habitable planet Proxima b, in 25 to 30 years. With a potential launch date of 2036, and with the now active support of NASA, it is possible some of those reading this now would be able to see the results of such a mission.

Solar-sail spacecraft powered by lasers from Earth

There are issues with an Earth-like world orbiting a star like Proxima Centauri, though. The star is a red dwarf, not much larger than Jupiter, which means the planet needs to orbit very close to be in the habitable zone. In this case it is close enough that it completes its orbit, or year, in just over 11 days. Planets this close to their parent star are likely tidally locked, which means the same hemisphere always faces the star. This results in one hemisphere of the planet scorched in permanent sunlight, while the other is frozen in permanent night.

There is still hope for such a world. If the atmosphere is thick enough it should distribute some of the heat of the daylight side.  And if there are significant oceans they will moderate the temperature further. Such a tidally locked world may well be quite habitable for humans, at least on the terminator (the border between day and night).

A tidally locked planet, with a scorched desert on its star-facing side, and a frozen wasteland on the dark side. Only the land at the terminator of such planets may be habitable.

I find exo-planet research to be the most exciting area of astronomy. As the technology and techniques to perform it improve year on year we will, sooner rather than later, make some quite revelationary discoveries, including evidence of life on a world far removed from our own.

How amazing that is going to be is hard to describe.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Modifying Humans For Life in Space

Does life need an atmosphere like Earth's?

Not always, it seems. Simple life can survive in the harshest of conditions. Can humans be engineered to survive in such conditions too? To find out we need to understand how simple life-forms manage it, and consider any existing evidence of life surviving in space.

Panspermia is the theory that life is spread through the universe by debris thrown into space by violent impacts. Some of that debris, containing hardy microbes similar perhaps to Earth's extremophiles, eventually lands on a suitable planet, and evolution begins. This theory becomes highly plausible when we consider that there are some Earth microbes that can indeed survive in the harsh environment of space. It seems that life that can survive a long exposure to deep space may well be extremely common.

Chroococcidiopsis: an extremophile with the potential to help terraform Mars

But could complex, and even intelligent, life be engineered to survive in the extreme conditions of space?

It certainly seems possible, and there is a complex creature on Earth that can survive in space, at least for while: Tardigrades. These tiny animals are found everywhere, from mountain tops to the depths of the oceans, and from the tropics to the Antarctic, and are the toughest multicellular organisms known. They have remarkable survival abilities. The can withstand temperatures from -272 Celsius to 150 Celsius, pressure up to six times that of the deepest oceans, exposure to radiation hundreds of times higher than the lethal dose for humans, and they can be frozen for decades and still live on and reproduce after thawing.

And they can survive in the vacuum of space, the only know animal with that ability.

A Tardigrade, the toughest known animal. It is almost impossible to kill.

Why did such a resilient creature evolve on our planet? Could it be used to engineer a more complex and possibly intelligent lifeform, or even to modify humans, to live in extreme environments?

I think so.

Alongside all the usual research that will enable humans to embark on interstellar colonisation (new propulsion systems, generation ship design, closed life support mechanisms etc.) research into how humans could be re-engineered to survive in harsher environments is also essential.

Perhaps on a generation ship there could be a genetically modified element to the crew that could look after the 'standard' humans that are forced to remain in their rotating Earth-like bubble at the centre of the ship. The modified crew would be able to survive for long periods in minimal gravity, and with a limited atmosphere. They would look after the ship and ensure that the standard humans are in good shape to land at the destination world. They would breed as the standard humans would, replenishing their numbers as the centuries of the voyage rolled by.

The genetic engineering could even extend beyond just the physical and tune psychology and intelligence to match the intended function of the modified human, rendering them almost perfectly adapted to their roles.

All of this would ideally be monitored and controlled by an immortal crew, another set of engineered humans that would oversee the whole voyage, and ensure the continuation of the thought and culture of the standard humans whose descendants would one day colonise the destination planet (see my earlier article 'Immortal Travellers').

As well as the scientific challenges to modifying humans in such a way, there are ethical challenges too. And the ethical challenges may end up becoming the hardest to overcome. But such challenges must be faced and surmounted if we are to have the greatest chance of surviving long enough to spread our species out amongst the stars.

Experimenting on human embryos and allowing them to grow to maturity to see the effects of genetic modification would be unacceptable, and also very time-consuming. Instead, sophisticated computer simulations need to be developed to give genetic scientists the ability to design such humans, and test them in virtual environments. Only when we are sure we have developed a new breed of human perfectly adapted, both physically and mentally, to the desired environment, should actual living versions be grown.

Computer programming languages already exist that can be used to add new 'features' to DNA. Such languages are in the early stages of development and use, but in the near future, when such languages are used in conjuction with a virtual simulations of the results, we will have the ability to design a perfectly adapted crew for deep space travel. With the constant improvements in computing power the systems required for this, and the software to run on them, such facilities may well be available in just a few decades.

A neanderthal family

Forty-thousand years ago there were four species of humans on Earth. For almost the Last 20,000 years our species, homo sapiens, has been the only one.

Perhaps that is about to change?