Just some thoughts:
I spent last week at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference just outside of Houston, Texas. With an annual attendance of around 2000, it’s the main conference for people who study the nature and history of the solar system. All day long, in four or five parallel sessions, the world’s community of planetary scientists, robotics engineers, and the like present their latest discoveries and hypotheses about all the strange worlds that we find near the Earth.
It served to remind me once again what a fantastic job I have. My main task, for the last week, was to listen to presentations about all the strange and surprising wonders that fill the solar system. To learn, discuss, meet with people who work on these things, and broaden and deepen my knowledge of the physical processes at work so I can better contribute to the development of technologies and missions to further explore and understand these strange worlds. Because that’s my job, after all: learn to do the things that enable space exploration. And boy, are those worlds strange enough to make exploring them irresistible. Continue reading
Searching for a partner-in-life is a lot like SETI, except there are a whole lot of Wow! signals.
In the first place, it’s a big universe, and there are a lot of stars out there. And it’s likely that somewhere in all that vastness, among or below those countless stars, there’s someone else who looks up at them rather like you do. So there’s hope. SETI is not a dead-end road.
But at the same time, it’s important to remember that the distances are large, and that you can expect it to take a long time to find anything. In fact, it’s difficult even to guess at how long it might be, because the factors that influence it are so variable. It could be quite a while, though, and so since we didn’t stumble across the United Federation of Planets in the first little while after we switched on the radio telescopes, there’s an important operating principle we must adopt: to accept that the search may take an indefinitely long time. We could bump into a Golden Record from Alpha Centauri next week, or we could still be looking a thousand years from now, even if we develop spectacular new technologies. It’s no reason to give up hope — as we said at the outset, it’s a big universe — but the realities of cosmic geography make the expected mean time to contact long. So we can’t depend on it.
For the forseeable future, we must accept that it’s just us here, no matter who may be just around the corner in the stellar neighborhood. We can’t hope that contact with aliens will happen soon, and give us the dose of perspective we need to get over our resource wars, our loyalty to man-made economic systems, our religious differences, or anything else we struggle with. This is our house, and it’s entirely up to us. We all live here, and nobody else is going to come save us, so we’d better get our lives in order and learn to get along. We can’t sit around waiting for the Vulcans to descend from the sky and say “You complete me.” We need to be able to live on our own in steady-state.
Which isn’t to say that we give up looking for companions in the cosmos. Continue reading
I spent much of my master’s degree at the Royal Military College of Canada working on ADS-B, a new system of air traffic surveillance. In particular, I was looking at how to detect aircraft transponder signals from orbit, what kind of satellite system would be needed to do that, and how to integrate that information into the air traffic management system. I’ve published on it before, but now my professor at RMC, Ron Vincent, has an article in Physics in Canada, which describes that work, particularly as an example of an effective student project that had real science and technology results. You can read it here.
The first episode of Western Worlds is available in mp3 format for download from CPSX. It features my interview with Dr. Gordon Osinski about impact craters, and a follow-up discussion on the topic with the Western Worlds panel of the week.