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Fire in the sky

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“Space fireworks” (Uchuu-hanabi) lit the head of Japanese people this Sunday, glowing as bright as the moon. At least for a few moments, it is.

Part of an experiment to study the atmosphere conducted by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Hokkaido University and Kochi University of Technology, the three luminous orbs were composed of clouds of lithium vapor released into the ionosphere by a rocket. The red glow was caused by sunlight striking the lithium vapor clouds as they disperse. “In the first few seconds after each lithium release, the light should become as large and bright as the moon,” says team member Masayuki Yamamoto, a professor at Kochi University of Technology.

You can check some pictures on the official JAXA page, or on 2-channeru. As it is, unfortunately it wasn’t seen by everyone, because the weather was cloudy.

This experiment reminds of several episodes in ufology. For instance, there was the case of a chemical trail left by a rocket launch, believed by some to be the face of Jesus, but debunked by late ufologist James McDonald and which even made into the cover of Science. There countless instances where missile launches were mistaken for UFO cases. The case of Canary Islands is of notice, as much was made of it.

Outside ufology, this experiment also bring to mind the bizarre tests of nuclear weapons in space. Yes, you read that well, both Americans and Russians exploded nuclear devices in space. Though not very widely known, there’s an excellent documentary about these, with exclusive footage of the spectacular and dangerous shows: Nukes in Space: The Rainbow Bombs. You can watch one of the tests, Starfish Prime, here.

[news of the Japan test via Pink Tentacle]

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Fermi, what paradox?

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According to physicist Robert A. Freitas, Jr., There Is No Fermi Paradox:

Less than 10% of the Earth’s surface, 1% of the Moon, 0.1% of Mars, and 10-7% of Venus (total 5 x 107 km2) has been surveyed to 1- to 10-m visible resolution. This leaves 99.96% of Solar System surface area (1.3 x 1011 km2) unexamined for likely artifacts. Interplanetary spacecraft and ground-based telescopes have photographed portions of some planets and asteroids down to 20-km resolution, plus a few tracts on some outer planet moons to 1-10 km. Objects buried or submerged are undetectable with current instrumentation. Large artificial habitats in the asteroid belt (Papagiannis, 1978) would appear visually indistinguishable from natural objects, especially since the belt population itself is poorly cataloged. The assertion that a resident artifact would alert us to its presence is an unwarranted, unsupportable, and untenable assumption.

Very reasonable. In my humble opinion, assuming a galactic civilization would be noticed is not that unwarranted, unsupportable nor untenable, but it’s indeed necessary to remind just how limited our search for extraterrestrial intelligence has been so far.

We can only discard with some confidence civilizations of Type III. But there may still be some Type II civilizations out there, and possibly countless of Type I. We would still not be noticing them. The Fermi Paradox assumes at least one civilization should have evolved to Type III by now.

We are still Type 0! Nada!

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Colonizing the Universe – with nuclear bombs

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Of all the dreams of the golden years of the 20th century, in which flying cars would be be crossing the skies of technologic utopias, one of them actually had serious chances of becoming reality exactly as imagined in cheap sci-fi comics. Shortly after stepping on the Moon, we would be colonizing Mars, visiting Saturn and the satellites of Jupiter, all in gigantic spaceships hundreds of meters long, with thousands of tons and hundreds of astrounauts. Huge permanent colonies would be established in other planets and even Alpha Centauri would be at our reach.

It would all be possible through one project: Orion.

In a sort of poetic beauty, this project full of hopes for humankind was born on the mind of the first man to create the most destructive weapon ever conceived. Stanislaw Ulam, who along with Edward Teller created the key concept behind the hydrogen fusion bomb, had a few years earlier thought about using the power of nuclear explosions for a peaceful end. At the end of his life, he would consider the concept of nuclear pulse propulsion his greatest invention.

Since the beggining of the century, physicists had realized that the energies involved in nuclear reactions were many orders of magnitude greater than those in meager chemical reactions to which we are more used to, from a burning match to even TNT. And they spent the next decades trying to control it, first through nuclear reactors and then unleashing this power in an instant with the atom bomb.

On thinking about how to use this huge power to send humans to space, Ulam realized that it was not feasible to contain those explosions in chambers, like we do with our chemical rockets. His alternative concept for nuclear pulse propulsion was more feasible, and essentially very simple, though his original written note about it remains classified to this day.

Ulam proposed to simply detonate a small nuclear bomb at the rear of a vehicle and catch the blast with a simple and strong pusher plate, coupled to a shock aborption system to avoid having the whole vehicle tearing apart from the sudden acceleration. Repeat the process one or more times per second, and you would be going to the stars, pogo-stick style.

But would such a simple method actually work? The video below demonstrates the exotic concept just may be possible:

The experiments used common, chemical, high explosives though. Wouldn’t the pusher plate be pulverized if it caught any significant thrust from the nuclear explosions?

In 1954, an experiment proved that engineered objects could survive a nuclear fireball, where two graphite-covered steel spheres placed near the center of an explosion were later found at a distance, almost intact.

In 1958, a project was created to develop the concept. Project Orion was born. Contrary to almost everything in the history of the space race, all semed to conspire for Orion to succeed.

At around the same time, the military had already mastered the techniques to create small and resilient nuclear bombs, including some that could be fired from cannons. On Project Orion, the spaceship would be loaded with a few thousand small nuclear bombs, stored and deployed one at a time by a mechanical system based on those used on Coca-Cola bottling factories (!).

The explosions would not pulverize the pusher plate. In fact, they would only take a fraction of its thickness, and even that could be dealt with if the plate was first sprayed with an oil, in which case the plate itself would not lose any material in thousands of explosions.

The thrust would be huge. Even though it seems very wasteful at first, and it actually is, since you don’t need to contain the explosion it can be very powerful. It would work in the space vacuum too: the chemical explosives that first ignite the nuclear components turn into the propellant after the nuclear explosion.

Also, the huge thrust produced by the explosions could only mean one kind of vehicle: a hugely massive one. Contrary to the rockets we know, built for minimum possible mass, the more mass the Orion vehicles had the better, as they would translate the thrust into accelerations safe for the fragile human beings inside it.

Project Orion spaceships were designed based on submarines, not aircrafts. Being made of strong steel, their mass was always counted in thousands of tons. Such mass would also be useful as a shield for cosmic radiation, as well as the radiation produced by the constant nuclear explosions at the rear of the vehicle.

Suddenly, huge spaceships were not an issue, but an engineering solution.

The high efficiency of the nuclear pulse propulsion would also allow the vehicle to reach speeds almost impossible for chemical rockets, making round trips to Pluto and even close stars, at fractions of the speed of light, became plausible objectives. The Orion scientists actually made the calculations for such trips.

One by one, all the technical difficulties of the project were being solved, at least in the paper, and the military sponsors were willing to spend almost unlimited resources for it to become a reality. Which, ironically, ended up being one of the main reasons for its demise. Initiated in 1958, when the project was starting to reach maturity as a concrete idea, real world politics got to Orion.

Not everything was a comic book dream. Detonating nuclear bombs in the atmosphere, even small ones, inevitably generates radioactive fallout. Calculations suggested that, statistically, one Orion rocket launch could cause up to ten deaths by cancer provoked by the added radiation in the atmosphere.

The nuclear explosions would also generate electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) which would affect and probably destroy all electronic equipment on a huge area below the rocket, as well as nearby satellites in orbit.

That the military men were also enthusiastically dreaming of great nuclear battleships in space and showed a model of one such monster to John Kennedy also didn’t help. Kennedy had just been through the Cuban missile crisis, and a space race with nuclear battleships over our heads was the last thing we needed.

The Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963, prohibiting nuclear explosions in the atmosphere, effectively put an end to the project. It survived a few more years, being even supported by figures like Wernher von Braun, but NASA was already on its chemical rocket path to the Moon.

Even today, the nuclear pulse propulsion remains the best technology ever conceived for space travel. It’s not the only way to apply the power of the atom to travel in the skies, but it’s the only one that combines both high thrust and high specific impulse. Ionic and even other kinds of nuclear engines can generate high specific impulse, but only with a very small thrust. Our chemical rockets generate huge thrust, but with such bad performance that it’s impossible to escape Earth without multiple stages. With an Orion vehicle, a rocket could go from the ground to other planets with just a single stage.

It may seem paradoxical that nuclear bombs may mean both the end of our species through an Armageddon caused by intercontinental nuclear bombs, or the guarantee of our future through interplanetary nuclear spaceships.

But it just illustrates how science is just a way of gathering knowledge about the world. Technology is a way of applying this knowledge. But if and how we will apply it, is something for us to decide through other means, unfortunately not as clear cut.

Up until now, we didn’t explode ourselves, but we also didn’t take the leap that could get us “where no man has gone before”.

Above: excerpt from BBC’s “To Mars by A-Bomb“. The reference about project Orion is the book “Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship“, by George Dyson, son of Freeman Dyson.

Wikipedia has a nice summary on the subject, and a more detailed article freely available is “Project Orion: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth“, with a long list of links and further references.

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Fermi believed in aliens? What a paradox!

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According to “Dr. SETI“, H. Paul Shuch, from the official SETI League, “physicist Enrico Fermi, said to be a firm believer in the existence of extra-terrestrials, was frustrated by the lack of firm evidence of their existence”. Wait a minute, Fermi actually believed in the existence of aliens?

That may sound preposterous given that his famous Paradox is one of the most referenced arguments advanced against the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations, but amazingly, it probably is true.

Fermi unfortunately passed away in 1954, shortly after he formulated his paradox. He didn’t publish the concept in written form, rather it was just an idea discussed by him with colleagues at lunch. That was then often quoted and referenced by others for decades afterwards. This probably explains why his original idea came to be so misunderstood.

It was only in 1985 that someone seems to have decided to actually document the origins of the paradox, and sadly, even this work is widely ignored. That’s the report from Los Alamos National Laboratory, “Where is Everybody?’: An Account of Fermi’s Question“, by scientist Eric M. Jones.

Jones interviewed those present at that historic lunch at Los Alamos in the summer of 1950. They were Emil Konopinski, Herbert York and Edward Teller, and he provided accounts of the conversation by all of them.

Interestingly, the paradox was related to the cartoon seen above. Konopinski wrote:

“I do have a fairly clear memory of how the discussion of extra-terrestrials got started while Enrico, Edward, Herb York, and I were walking to lunch at Fuller Lodge. When l joined the party, I found being discussed evidence about flying saucers. That immediately brought to my mind a cartoon I had recently seen in the New Yorker, explaining why public trash cans were disappearing from the streets of New York City. The New York papers were making a fuss about that. The cartoon showed what was evidently a flying saucer sitting in the background and, streaming toward it, ‘little green men’ (endowed with antennas) carrying the trash cans. More amusing was Fermi’s comment, that it was a very reasonable theory since it accounted for two separate phenomena: the reports of flying saucers as well as the disappearance of the trash cans.”

Edward Teller also recalled:

“I remember that Fermi explicitly raised the question, and I think he directed it at me, ‘Edward, what do you think? How probable is it that within the next ten years we shall have clear evidence of a material object moving faster than light?’ I remember that my answer vas ‘ 1 o-6.. Fermi said, ‘This is much too low. The probability is more like ten percent’ (the well known figure for a Fermi miracle.)

The discussion then went on to other topics, as they arrived at the luncheon table. It “had nothing to do with astronomy or with extraterrestrial beings. I think it was some down-to-earth topic. Then, in the middle of this conversation, Fermi came out with the quite unexpected question ‘Where is everybody?‘ … The result of his question was general laughter because of the strange fact that in spite of Fermi’s question coming from the clear blue, everybody around the table seemed to understand at once that he was talking about extraterrestrial life”, Teller wrote to Jones. “I do not believe that much came of this conversation, except perhaps a statement that the distances to the next location of living beings may be very great and that, indeed, as far as our galaxy is concerned, we are living somewhere in the sticks, far removed from the metropolitan area of the galactic center”, Teller added.

But York believes that Fermi was somewhat more expansive and “followed up with a series of calculations on the probability of earthlike planets, the probability of life given an earth, the probability of humans given life, the likely rise and duration of high technology, and so on. He concluded on the basis of such calculations that we ought to have been visited long ago and many times over. As I recall, he went on to conclude that the reason we hadn’t been visited might be that interstellar flight is impossible, or, if it is possible, always judged to be not worth the effort, or technological civilization doesn’t last long enough for it to happen.” York confessed to being hazy about these last remarks.

Note how York confirms that Fermi assumed extraterrestrial civilizations existed, only that their non-arrival must have meant something stops them on their way. That’s exactly the position taken by SETI scientists to this day.

Eric Jones’ report can be downloaded at the FAS website:
http://www.fas.org/sgp/othergov/doe/lanl/la-10311-ms.pdf

So?

It must be noted that in the 1950s, it had only been some years since more accurate estimations of the size and age of the Universe had been done. And Fermi’s paradox is essentially an argument of “scale and probablity”.

The Italian physicist famous for simple approaches to complex problems was the first to realize that those discoveries about our Universe had this deep implication. If there are indeed billions and billions of stars billions of years old, then even if the chances of intelligent life to emerge are extremely small, it must have happened numerous times. Not only that, it must also have had plenty of time to arrive not only here, but everywhere.

Later considerations on this simple yet deep question only reinforced its strength. At a fraction of the speed of light, the whole Galaxy can be colonized in a few million years, without breaking any known laws of physics. The recent discovery of the omnipresence of planetary systems may be one of the most important discoveries of the recent decades — not long ago, many believed our solar system was a freak accident of nature –, and it also deepens the paradox.

You see, it only takes one single civilization to have taken the task to colonize the Galaxy for a few million years, and then everywhere you looked there would be signs of its presence. Only one among hundreds of billions of planets, in billions of years of history. No need for warp drives, interdimensional travel, nothing of science fiction. This possibility is a scientific fact, as far was we know. It’s a scientific fact more established now than it was in the 1950s when Fermi first proposed the idea.

Fact is, however, that we don’t see any clear evidence of aliens. Not on Earth, not anywhere we can look for in millions and billions of light-years around us.

Maybe UFOs are evidence of alien spaceships, but that hasn’t been conclusively proven for a single case in more than six decades. You cannot ask “where are the illegal aliens?” without being slightly insane because it’s very easy to find illegal immigrants. But you can ask “where are the (extraterrestrial) aliens?”. In fact, you may spend your whole life trying to find conclusive proof of their presence.

So, Fermi’s question is really a paradox, “an argument that apparently derives self-contradictory conclusions by valid deduction from acceptable premises”. That’s a paradox, and it remains one to this day.

It’s not an argument that “proves” we are alone. That’s just one possible answer, and it’s not satisfactory exactly because of the paradox main line of reasoning.

The Fermi Paradox shouldn’t be derided by the believers. Fermi was one himself. Though one who would promptly admit, and then be puzzled, by the lack of conclusive proof that we are not alone.

He would still be asking, to this day, “Where is everybody?“.

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Earthlights on Peru’s Earthquake?

Following the terrible natural disaster on Peru, which caused hundreds of casualties, some local news agencies are also speaking about reports from locals of flashes of light in the sky both before and after the event.

According to El Comercio from Peru,

“During the night … before and after the stron earthquake, neighbours from the districts of Miraflores, La Molina and Cercado de Lima assured having seen the sky light up because of an unexpected lightning in the middle of the night. Nevertheless, the National Hydrology and Meteorology told El Comercio that it didn’t detect any anomaly in Lima’s skies, and assured that this phenomenon could have been caused by the light of a beacon or some spinning panels that exist in the city”.

Over at MarcianitosVerdes, Luis Ruiz Noguez is receiving and collecting more reports from multiple witnesses who also claim to have seen the lights. Noguez prudently warns that before speculating if the incidents were indeed earthquake lights, the prosaic explanations must be ruled out first.

The video above, posted on Marcianitos, is allegedly of one of the incidents. It was suggested to Noguez, and has been also featured over at this blog, that suggests it’s triboluminescence.

I think the point of light that can be seen in the video along with the flash is from a conventional source (an emergency light), maybe it’s the same point of light that can be seen before the blackout. But the flash of light itself must have been indeed intense, and as there’s no sound along with it, and apparently the local institutions did not report any weather anomaly, it may possibly be the record of an earth light.

For those who don’t know about it, there’s a quick summary about earthlights on Wikipedia. In Spanish, MarcianitosVerdes have in-depth dossiers on the subjects — one of the reasons people looking for more info on Google ended up finding his excellent blog: Las luces de los terremotos.

Update: Marcianitos just posted another video:

Several flashes, including a big one around 40 seconds after the video starts, can be seen over the horizon. Noguez remarks once again that it must be verified if they weren’t explosions from the power transmission lines and transformers.

According to the reports the flashes were not accompanied by any sounds, and some say they originated in the sea. As we all know, light travels a lot faster and farther than sound, so explosions on one place could have been noticed as just lights from far away.

But at first glance, the flashes are so bright that one suspects that if they had conventional causes, then even if the sound was not heard, the causes would be quickly pointed to their origins, as the explosions themselves may have been quite significant, probably injuring or killing people.

There still seems to be much confusion, and the Peruvians need more urgent help and solidarity for their death and injured. Which also doesn’t mean we should ignore the possibility of so many records and reports of what may have been a poorly understood phenomenon associated with earthquakes.

We follow all the news with great interest and hope for the best. Check Marcianitos in Spanish for the latest updates.

UPDATE: Check the latest post on the subject, Earthquake lights or Electrical transformers? The answer seems to be electrical transformers, though there may still have been erthquake lights involved.

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