Posts Tagged ‘NASA’

The Euthanasia of the Elderly in Stephen Baxter’s ‘Titan’

July 18, 2017

A few days ago I put up a post about the nightmare, alternative future described by the British SF novelist Stephen Baxter in his novel, Titan. Baxter’s a writer of hard SF, a subgenre in which the fiction is nevertheless grounded in solid, known science fact, though often with an element of artistic license. Titan was written in 1995, and is partly set in the decaying America of the first decades of the 21st century. A militantly anti-science president, Maclachlan, has been elected with the support of the Ku Klux Klan and Christian fundamentalists. Maclachlan shuts down NASA for good after a shuttle disaster. The launch complexes are closed down. Those that aren’t demolished become simply tourist attractions, as do the agency’s headquarters and mission control. One of these, a museum to the Apollo moon landings, is altered so that it promotes instead the spiritual experiences many of the astronauts did have during their missions. Maclachlan also introduces legislation demanding that only the Aristotelian cosmology of Thomas Aquinas, with its crystal spheres, is taught in schools. What is left of the agency is given over to the USAF under the paranoid and nationalistic General Hartle, who is very much like the rogue American General Jack D. Ripper in Stanley Kubrick’s classic nuclear black comedy, Doctor Strangelove.

Against this, the agency attempts to launch one last, great space mission, a crewed voyage to Titan, where the Cassini probe has found evidence of active biological chemistry.

I commented in my post on the remarkable similarity between the policies of the fictional Maclachlan and Donald Trump. Maclachlan is fiercely nationalistic, and withdraws American peacekeepers from their stations around the globe, as well as pulling America out of NAFTA and the various other free trade agreements. America also pulls out of the World Bank and the IMF, and the UN is kicked out of New York. Like the real anti-Semites of the America Far Right, Maclachlan believes that the US is under ‘Israeli occupation’. Maclachlan also dismantles the country’s welfare programmes, especially those benefiting Blacks and other minorities, and starts building a wall with Mexico.

He also devises a policy to deal with America’s increasingly aging society: euthanasia chambers for the unwanted or neglected elderly. These are euphemistically called ‘Happy Booths’. There’s a very touching scene in which the last, fictitious surviving Apollo spaceman, Marcus White, is gassed to death in one of these chambers by a couple of nurses, who are every bit as malign as Nurse Ratchet in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. By this time, however, White is so confused with dementia, that he is lost in the delusion that he is back as a middle-aged man at NASA in his prime, suiting up and breathing the pure oxygen in preparation for another flight to the Moon.

This is interesting, as it completely turns on its head one of the truly despicable pieces of propaganda the Republicans were running ten years ago to make sure the American public didn’t get single-payer healthcare. Instead, we had Sarah Palin and the rest of the maniacs screaming that the introduction of single-payer healthcare, where all Americans would have free medical treatment financed by the state, would lead to ‘death panels’. Palin herself made a speech about how she didn’t want her children facing them. The idea was under a socialist system, medical care would be rationed. Those individuals deemed to be a waste of state money and resources, such as the elderly, would thus be humanely killed.

It was a disgusting piece of propaganda, based partly on the murder of the disabled in Nazi Germany. The Nazis were also pro-euthanasia, producing propaganda forms with titles such as I Don’t Want to Be Born. It was also based partly on the vile views of some of the founders of the Fabian Society, particularly H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, who were very much in favour of eugenics and the sterilization of the biologically unfit.

Unfortunately, many Americans were taken in by this bilge. There was a BBC report on the truly horrific state of American healthcare, in which a clinic offering free treatment in California immediately attracted 50,000 + prospective patients. These are the 20 per cent of Americans, who couldn’t afford their private healthcare before the introduction of Obamacare. The Beeb’s reported also attracted the attention of Republican supporters, who’d believed all the rubbish they’d been fed by Palin and her stormtroopers. One of these was an elderly man, who rushed up to the Beeb’s crew and shouted ‘Your healthcare system stinks!’ When they politely asked him how so, he looked confused, and began to mutter about ‘death panels’.

There are no death panels in Britain, or anywhere else with a socialized, or state-funded medical system. As for Germany, state financing of medical treatment for the workers was introduced by Bismarck in the 1870s, nearly fifty years before the Nazis seized power. There is a problem, where dying individuals may be refused treatment of expensive and/or experimental drugs or other procedures on the NHS because the costs far exceed any chance of success. This is very much a controversial issue, as we’ve seen the past week with the parents fighting to send their dying son over to America for treatment. However, there are no death panels.

The ‘Happy Booths’ described in the book are a piece of artistic invention by Baxter. Conventional Christian morality rejects euthanasia for the same reasons it has traditionally ruled out abortion, except in certain very restricted circumstances. This is because both judge that there are certain forms of human beings, such as the unborn and the disabled, who are held not to have the same rights to life. If it is permitted to kill the disabled and the unborn, it is argued, there is a danger that the same attitude will spread to other groups also considered inferior, like the Jews and other ‘untermenschen’ in Nazi Germany. And Baxter is aware of this, as elsewhere in the book he describes how the British relative of one of the astronauts, stricken by CJD or ‘Mad Cow Disease’, is going to a euthanasia clinic even though their parents consider it unchristian.

A president dependent on the support of right-wing Christian fundamentalists would alienate a sizable part of his constituency if he did. What happens instead is that, through its hostility to state medicine and the welfare state, Republican politicians of Maclachlan’s type make it impossible for the poor, severely ill to support themselves. Hence Bernie Sanders’ chilling statistic that 50,000 Americans die each year because they cannot afford private medical treatment.

This is basically the same attitude of Tory party under David Cameron and Theresa May. They have extended the sanctions system and the Work Capability Tests to make it as difficult as possible for the unemployed and the disabled to quality for state support. The result of that has been that researchers at Oxford University found that in 2015 alone, 30,000 people died through the Tories’ austerity policies. And Mike over at Vox Political reported yesterday that, according to the Skwawkbox, there’s a nasty clause in Universal Credit, which means that the claimant has to find a job in two years, or they lose their benefit.

See: http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2017/07/17/uc-gives-disabled-people-just-two-years-to-find-a-job-or-lose-everything/

This is a right-wing ‘genocide of the disabled’, as Mike, Johnny Void, Stilloaks, Tom Pride and the Angry Yorkshireman have said on their blogs, and Jeffrey, one of the great commenters here, has said on this. But it’s carefully hidden. The victims aren’t actually killed, they’re simply left to die. And the few politicos, who dare to call it what it is, are denied their ability to sit in parliament.

On Friday Mike commented on a piece in the Disability News Service about Mr. Jared O’Mara, a disabled Lib Dem MP, who has called the Tories’ policies towards the disabled ‘eugenics’, and stated that they want disabled people to ‘suffer and die’. Mr. O’Mara is to be commended for the way he tried to tackle Iain Duncan Smith, the former head of the DWP and therefore the government’s chief minister responsible for implementing this policy. However, Mr. O’Mara finds it impossible to find anywhere in the House of Commons to sit during debates. There is insufficient seating for all 650 MPs, and there is no form available for disabled MPs to fill in stating that they have particular seating needs. As Mike says, this is all very suspicious.

http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2017/07/07/disabled-mp-accuses-tories-of-eugenics-is-that-why-they-wont-let-him-take-a-seat/

As a religious person, I can’t say I’m happy about the anti-religious stance of Titan. I went to a Christian college for my undergraduate degree, and some of the students were Creationists. I am not saying that their literalist reading of the creation story in Genesis is correct, but I have to say that they were, by and large, decent people. Those I met weren’t racists or political extremists, and I know that one or two were actually left-wing. I also can’t say that they were anti-science, outside of the very specific field of evolution. Moreover, since the election of Donald Trump there has been the emergence of a religious Left in America, something which couldn’t have been predicted when Baxter wrote the book back in the 1990s. One of the authors of the collection of articles attacking the Neo-Cons, Confronting the New Conservatism, pointed out that the Neo-Cons were not necessarily going to be politically dominant for ever. Kansas, and many of the other mid-western Republican states, had in the 1920s been centres of the Social Gospel movement, which combined Christianity and Socialism. It’s possible that as more Americans recognize how truly disgusting Trump and his party are, Christians over the other side of the Pond may return to it.

However, Trump and his administration are anti-science. The Republican party is strongly opposed to climate change, and so there has been a concerted attack on environmentalism since Trump took office. Legislation protecting America’s glorious natural heritage has been repealed, and federal scientists responsible for monitoring the environment have been effectively gagged. They may not publish any scientific papers supporting climate change, and the federal agency itself has been effectively gutted.

Titan also portrays a future suffering from global warming and catastrophic climate change, as do very many of the SF novels written during the same decade, such as Bruce Sterling’s Heavy Weather. So far Trump hasn’t wound up NASA, though I don’t doubt that the agency is still under considerable pressure to keep expenses under control. But the real harm is being done by Trump’s deliberate rejection of climate change to appease powerful donors from industry, particularly the Kochs in big oil. This denial of climate change, and that of the other world leaders, will lead to the deaths of millions worldwide. If it hasn’t already.

Donald Trump Predicted in Stephen Baxter’s 1995 Novel ‘Titan’

July 16, 2017

I’ve been making my way through Stephen Baxter’s SF novel, Titan, these last few weeks. Baxter’s a British SF writer, with degrees in maths and engineering. He applied to be an astronaut on the Anglo-Soviet mission to Mir in the 1980s, which went to Helen Sharman. He’s probably best known for his Xelee-sequence books. These are set in a universe dominated by the extremely advanced, but mysterious Xelee, who are engaged in a war across the entire universe with the Photino Birds, dark matter creatures determined to age and extinguish the universe of ordinary matter. He has also written other novels about a variety of parthenogenic humans, descended from a lost troop of Romans, a catastrophic flood in the Bronze Age, and the books The Long Earth and The Long War, about parallel worlds, with the late, great Terry Pratchett. His novel, Voyage, an alternative history in which NASA launches a final manned expedition to Mars, was adapted for Radio 4 by Audio Movies in the 1990s. He was also the scientific advisor for the 1990s BBC SF series, Invasion Earth, about aliens from the higher physical dimensions invading the planet.

Titan is also about a last, crewed NASA mission. This time its put together by a team of astronauts, space scientists and ground control crew as the Agency’s last, great space expedition before it is closed down following a shuttle disaster. It’s set in what was then the near future – 2004 onwards – in America increasingly falling into right-wing extremism, irrationalism and Christian fundamentalism. The leading politician and subsequent president, is Xavier Maclachlan, a Texan with standing on an aggressively anti-science platform. Here’s the description of the man and his policies on pages 284-5.

Hadamard was in Washington during the inauguration of Xavier Maclachlan, after his wafer-thin win in the 2008 election.

Maclachlan called it a ‘liberation of the capital’.

Armed militia bands came in from Idaho and Arizona and Oklahoma and Montana, to fire off black-powder salutes to the nationalist-populist who promised to repeal all gun control laws. In the crowd, Hadamard saw a couple of Ku Klux Klan constumes, a sight he though had gone into an unholy past. Come to that, there was a rumour that a former Klan leader was being made ready to become a future White House chief of staff. And in his speech Maclachlan appealed to the people to end what he called the ‘Israeli occupation of Congress’…

And so on.

As soon as Maclachlan lifted his hand from the Bible, US peacekeeping troops in the Balkans and Africa started to board their planes to leave. Foreign aid stopped. The UN was being thrown out of New York, and there was a rumour that Maclachlan was planning some military adventure to take back the canal from Panama.

Army engineers – set in place during the handover from the last Administration – started to build a wall, two thousand miles of it, along the Mexican border, to exclude illegal immigrants. White it was being built, troops brought home from peacekeeping abroad were operating a shoot-to-kill policy.

There was chaos in the financial markets. Machlachlan had withdrawn the US from the North American Free Trade Treaty, from the World Trade Organisation, from GATT. Reviews of the country’s membership of the World Bank and the IMF had started – arms of an incipient world government, Maclachlan said, designed to let in the Russians. He had raised tariffs – ten per cent against Japan, fifty per cent against the Chinese – and world trade collapsed.

The Chinese, particularly, screamed. And so Maclachlan sent the Seventh Fleet to a new station just off the coast of Taiwan.

Meanwhile all the strategic arms treaties with Russia were torn up, as Maclachlan orderd his technicians to dig out the blueprints for Reagan’s old dream of SDI. In fact, Maclachlan wanted to go further. He was inviting ideas for what he called his ‘da Vinci brains trust’. The press was full of schemes for fantastic new weapons: smart remote sensors; dream mines that could shoot at passing traffic; smart armour that would use explosive tiles to deflect incoming projectiles; maybe even an electrical battlefield in which electricity-propelled shells would be zapped in by low-flying aircraft.

And back home, Machlachlan had cut off any remaining programs which benefited blacks and other minorities, and any funding that appeared to support abortion, which had been made illegal in any form.

Xavier Maclachlan was a busy man, and he was fulfilling his campaign promises.

Clearly, much of this is an extrapolation from the policies and attitudes of the Republican party and the American extreme Right in the 1980s and 1990s. Reagan had brought right-wing Christian fundamentalists into the Republican party, who had previously stood aloof from politics as part of a corrupt, fallen secular order. He had also begun to wind up government welfare programmes, particularly those aimed at benefiting minorities, such as Black Americans. Fears of an imminent apocalypse, social breakdown and Russian invasion, even after the collapse of Communism, had resulted in the emergence of the survivalist and then Militia movements, armed right-wing paramilitary groups. These had a bitter resentment of the federal government, which culminated in McViegh’s bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma. They also tended to be bitterly racist and anti-Semitic. They believed and still believe in stupid Nazi conspiracy theories that claim that the Jews are trying to destroy the White race through racial intermixing and that America is covertly controlled by the Jews through the ‘Zionist Occupation Government’, or ZOG. These groups and right-wing American fundamentalist organisations also believed that there was a secret, Illuminati conspiracy to create a one world Satanic superstate centred on the UN. Phyllis Schlafly, who was actually a Democrat, regularly denounced the UN as well as women’s rights. And one leading figure in the militias – I think it may have been Bo Gritz, who supposedly served as the model for ‘Rambo’ – stated that the way they would clear America’s international debt would be by minting a single coin with the legend ‘1 Trillion Dollars’. As for the Klan, there were a series of scandals in which senior Republican politicos were revealed as having links to or membership in the White racist terrorist group. The most notorious of these was David Duke in Louisiana, who is unfortunately still around and blaming the Jews for everything even today.

And political scientists and economists were predicting the rise of China and the other ‘tiger economies’, which would dominate the ‘Pacific Century’ even then.

Of course, there are things Baxter failed to predict, like 9/11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. He also takes the conventional view that the various free trade agreements and UN organisations, like the IMF and the World Bank, are nice, liberal, benefificial institutions, rather than the way corporate America imposes its own neoliberal policies on the rest of the world, particularly the developing nations.

Not that the Democrats have been much different. Counterpunch has reported that Obama was considering removing the ‘No first strike’ policy towards a nuclear confrontation, and Killary has been every bit as aggressive in her stance towards Russia and China as the Republicans, perhaps even more so.

As for the White extremist and racist groups supporting the new president, all that’s different is that the Klan has been largely replaced, or subsumed, into the internet-based Alt Right. But the hysterical fear of gun legislation, promoted and lavishly funded by the gun manufacturers and the NRA, against the desires of the majority of Americans, and even the NRA’s own rank and file membership, remains strong.

It shows how long the attitudes held by the American right, and which led to the election of Donald Trump, have been around. Since his election, left-wing news sites such as The Young Turks, Secular Talk and the David Pakman Show have reported that Americans have become increasingly dissatisfied with Trump. Sixty per cent of the American public want him impeached. This dissatisfaction even extends to Republican voters.

Trump, however, in his racism, his isolationism, aggressive nationalism and hatred of the welfare state and women’s rights, is very much in line with the general political stance of post-Reaganite right-wing American politicians. Indeed, he’s so much a part of this political trend that, with caveats, his election – or rather, the election of someone like him – was predicted by Baxter over two decades ago.

No wonder an increasing number of young Americans are looking to progressive politicos like Bernie Sanders for leadership and the redemption of their country against a corrupt political elite and the military-industrial complex. And I fervently hope they win, and that humanity will continue to reach out to the cosmos in a spirit of genuine exploration and wonder, and not as another arena for warfare.

Conspiracy Theorist Alex Jones Claims NASA Operating Child Slave Labour Base on Mars

July 1, 2017

More madness from the very warped mind of Alex Jones. Jones is the head honcho behind the internet conspiracy theory show, Infowars, and its companion website, Prison Planet. Jones believes, or affects to believe, that the American government, the UN, the ‘globalists’, the elite and liberals, Socialists and feminists are engaged in dire and foul conspiracies against the world and its people, and particularly those in America.

Over the years he has claimed that the richest 1 per cent of American society and industry, or at least their menfolk, sacrifice children in Satanic rituals at their annual secret meetings in Bohemian Grove in California. The Twin Towers collapsed because of a conspiracy by the American government, and not because Saudi-backed terrorists hijacked and flew two planes into them. President Obama was going to use to the legislation permitting the establishment of refugee camps to house disaster victims to seize power and herd people into what were really concentration camps. Humanity and the world were under attack by evil extradimensional entities, who might be demons or simply alien intelligences. And Barack Obama was fully under their control. He was truly the Devil’s emissary, because, apparently, he looked demonic, smelt bad and flies were always hovering around him.

Ditto Hillary Clinton. She was also under Satanic influence. She was part of a vast, paedophile conspiracy supplying children to leading politicians from a pizza parlour in Boston. She was also some kind of robot or cyborg, because something metal fell out of her trouser leg when she had a fainting fit during her campaigning. When she momentarily had some kind of problem swallowing a glass of water, Jones seized on this as evidence that she was either demonically possessed, or carrying some kind of alien spawn, which was about to come bursting out of her like the xenomorphs in the Alien movies. She was herself also a participant, with Bill, in black magic ‘spirit eating’ orgies put on by a performance artist.

The UN, Socialists and feminists are all engaged in some weird plot to take over the world and enslave everybody in it, particularly White men. Gay and transgender rights activists are a ‘transhumanist UFO cult’ to create a new, genderless, form of humanity.

How much of this Jones actually believes is a moot point. His ex-wife was suing him for custody of their children, on the grounds that he was utterly made and it was damaging their kids to see their Dad ranting and raving in the TV studio he has at his home. Jones’ lawyers responded by stating that Jones didn’t believe any of it, and it was all ‘performance art’.

Recently Jones has also been forced to issue apologies to people he has libelled on his programme. Someone took his comments about the pizza parlour in Boston very seriously indeed, and walked into it waving a gun around in order to free the child captives in the basement. There weren’t any children kept prisoner there, in the basement or anywhere else. Fortunately, no-one was shot or hurt in this incident.

Then he was threatened with legal action from the Turkish owner of a Yoghurt factory, who had a deliberately policy of employing immigrants. Many of these were Middle Eastern. Jones claimed that this, entirely respectable businessman, who was another paedophile, and that his employees had been responsible for a series of rapes. The businessman wasn’t, and his employees were also innocent. After being threatened with a writ, Jones ended up making a statement that he was entirely mistaken about it all on air.

Now he’s done the same to NASA. On Thursday, Jones had on his programme Robert David Steele, a former Reform Party presidential candidate, who claims to have been a case officer with the CIA. Steele spun a yarn that NASA had been kidnapping children to send them on a 20 year journey to be used as slave labour on Mars. Oh yes, and they were also been frightened and then killed, so that their blood and bone marrow could be harvested for use by the elites. The children had to be terrified when they died as this would enrich it with adrenaline.

NASA responded by denying everything, and pointing out that they didn’t have any kind of child labour camp on the Red Planet.

See: http://www.news18.com/news/buzz/we-do-not-have-a-child-slave-colony-on-mars-nasa-1447965.html

This story is, of course, absolute nonsense. For a start, 20 years is far too long for a journey to Mars. Spacecraft have to go at a certain speed – escape velocity – to escape the Earth’s gravitational pull if they are to go anywhere else in the Solar system, whether it’s the Moon or the other planets. I think current plans for a Mars mission estimate that it would take about 2-3 years or so to get there. A long time, certainly, but not as long as 20.

Then there’s the logistics and engineering problems of getting people to Mars. You need rockets of a certain size and power. Furthermore, any colonists for Mars, whether free or not, would have to carry all their food, water and air with them. The spaceships will also have to be shielded against cosmic radiation and solar flares. These weren’t much of a problem when going to the Moon, because of the relatively short length of the journey – about a week. Even so, if a coronal mass ejection – a type of massive flare known as a sun storm – had occurred, it would have fried the Apollo astronauts. These are a real threat for those intrepid souls going on the lengthy journey to the Red Planet.

There are also other medical problems caused by the lack of gravity in space. As the astronauts’ bodies don’t have to fight against the pull of the Earth’s gravity, muscles shrink. They also go to the toilet more than they would on Earth, and so start to lose calcium, weakening their bones. Hence their health is monitored, and those crews staying in space for a long time, such as during the Skylab programme from 1973-5, have to devote a certain amount of time each day to doing their exercise.

As there is no ‘up’ or ‘down’ in zero gravity, and the fluid in your inner ear that tells you which is which also starts to float along with the rest of you, some astronauts suffer from ‘space sickness’, similar to the sea sickness some people feel travelling by ship.

There are also psychological hazards that may endanger the lives of the space travellers. I heard Dr Kevin Fong, who’s a specialist in space medicine, talking about them one year at the Cheltenham Festival of Science. Fong pointed out that the strange environment of space can also affect astronauts’ mental health. Several of them have reported hearing sounds, such as dogs barking and babies crying, while in orbit. They can also find themselves doing strange, irrational things, which can potentially kill them, before being snapped out of it. One astronaut aboard Mir described how he was asleep one night, before being suddenly awoken by a noise. He then found one of his fellow astronauts suited up, ready to take a spacewalk. But the poor fellow hadn’t connected the air hoses. It takes about seven hours or so to put on and inflate a spacesuit, so that it protects its wearer from the hard vacuum outside their craft. None of this had been done, and if the astronaut had walked through the airlock, he would have been killed. Fortunately, the other astronaut was able to wake his friends and colleagues, who woke up and managed to stop him.

These are the hazards facing the extremely healthy men and women, who manage to pass the rigorous testing and gruelling grueling training programmes. Hopefully, one day we’ll have learned enough to make space travel sufficiently safe so that families with children can venture into the Deep Black. But we very definitely aren’t anyway near that level now.

This is sheer bullsh*t, and it’s not hard to see where it’s ultimately coming from. Somewhere in there is the influence of Alternative 3. This was an April Fool’s Day joke, broadcast by ITV in 1975. It was a bogus edition of a fake science programme, ‘Science Report’, which claimed that the Earth was dying, and so the Americans and Russians had secretly shelved their differences in order to colonise Mars secretly. Leading scientists were disappearing as they took up their new lives on the Red Planet. Ordinary people, meanwhile, were also disappearing. They were being kidnapped, lobotomised and ‘de-sexed’ to turn them into slaves as ‘batch consignments’, serving their elite masters.

The programme was a hoax, but unfortunately many people were genuinely taken in and didn’t realise that it was a joke. There was also a tie-in novelisation, which until recently was unavailable in the US. This led to rumours that it was all true, and had been deliberately suppressed by Them.

The result has been that a number of other conspiracy theories about secret government space projects have grown up around it, or been inspired by it. This latest nonsense appears to be one of them.

I don’t know how many people actually believe Steele’s story. Possibly very few, the kind of people, who bought into the lurid revelations of Commander X and his tales about secret collaboration with aliens. Or the late Bill English and his rubbish about meeting the Zeta Reticulan ambassador, Omnipotent Highness Krill, at a military base.

I doubt very many people actually believe the story, but that hasn’t stopped Jones having an effect. During the American presidential elections, he gave very vocal support to Donald Trump, who was a guest on his programme several times. He has libelled various blameless individuals, such as the Turkish yoghourt manufacturer. It’s a mercy that his stories about paedophile gangs didn’t result in someone being shot at that pizza place. He also notoriously claimed that the Sandy Hook school shooting was all staged, and that the children and others, who were killed and injured were ‘crisis actors’. This has led to people approaching and accusing the kids’ grieving parents with these claims.

And anti-racist activists are worried about the links Jones and his show have with the racist Alt-Right. This includes his fellow presenter, Paul Joseph Watson, who has inveighed against the threat Islam and Muslim immigration supposedly poses to western civilisation.

Jones is a clown, and his ranting can be hilarious, but there’s a very serious, very dark side to his show. It’s almost the very definition of ‘fake news’, and it is having a pernicious effect on politics in the US, as more citizens are encouraged to fear the terrible, but entirely imaginary Others that mean to harm and enslave them. While, of course, supporting right-wing Libertarian policies, which will deny them proper, decent medicine, welfare support, housing, clean water and education.

NASA Suggests Life Could Exist on Saturn’s Moon Enceladus

April 18, 2017

And now for a bit of positive news. In this video from Seeker, the host discusses NASA’s announcement four days ago on 14th April 2017 that the Cassini probe had discovered traces of hydrogen above Saturn’s moon, Enceladus. Saturn’s moon is believed to have an ocean beneath its icy surface. The hydrogen is believed to have been produced by hydrothermal vents, like those at the bottom of Earth’s oceans, and have escaped through the ‘tiger stripes’, or cracks in the moon’s ice sheet. This could indicate that life is also present on Enceladus’ ocean floor, as the hydrothermal vents or ‘black smokers’ in Earth’s oceans are also the haven for life. The ecosystems that have developed there are based on methanogenesis, in which hydrogen is combined with carbon dioxide to produce energy. The process is believed to have been at the basis of the evolutionary tree of terrestrial life, and may even have been the origin of life on Earth. The presenter states that the probe has not discovered the other two chemicals necessary for the presence of life, sulphur and phosphorus, but these are believed to be present as well.

It is, however, possible that Enceladus is too young for life to have evolved there yet. If life does exist on the moon, Cassini won’t be looking for it either. The probe was not designed to land on Saturn’s moons. Instead, it is scheduled to end its nearly 20 year mission by crashing into Saturn’s atmosphere, where it will be crushed by the immense pressures of the gas giant. This was to prevent it contaminating Enceladus or Saturn’s other moons by crashing on them. NASA is planning to send another probe to Saturn in the 2020s. This probe will also investigate Europa, which may be a better candidate for the presence of life. It not only also has an ocean, but is also older, at 4 billion years old, and so may have been around for enough time for life to evolve.

7 Earthlike Worlds Discovered Around Star Trappist-1

February 25, 2017

More awesome space news! This week, NASA announced that their Spitzer telescope had discovered a system of seven worlds orbiting the ultra-cool red dwarf star, Trappist-1. The star takes its name from the Belgian operated observatory, which found it. Astronomers from Liege university discovered two of these worlds. Three of these rocky worlds lie in the planet’s habitable zone, which means they could have life, and all of them have temperatures which would permit liquid water to exist. Because of the star’s small size and extremely cool temperature, they are closer to their star than Mercury is to the Sun. This video from the Kepler Telescope Channel also looks forward to the development of spacecraft that will be able to reach something like lightspeed, so that humanity may at some point in the future be able to expand into space. And at just 39 light years away, Trappist-1 and its worlds are a suitable nearby target for exploration. The scientists, who made the discovery, also say that the planets are so close together, that you’d be able to see all of them from the surface of one of the planets. They would loom larger than Earth’s Moon, and it would be possible to see even clouds and geological features on their surface.

Organic Material Found on Asteroid Ceres

February 25, 2017

This is fascinating, as Star Trek’s Mr Spock would put it. Scientists at NASA have found organic molecules on the surface of the asteroid, Ceres. They can’t tell at the moment what these molecules are, but they believe they’re similar to Kerisite, and came from within the planetoid, rather than being carried to it by a comet striking its surface.

This short video from D News discusses the recent finding, pointing out that this provides further evidence to support the possibility that life exists elsewhere in the universe.

Ceres is the largest of the asteroids, or minor planets, orbiting the Sun between Mars and Jupiter. Most of them are quite small, and have been rightly dubbed ‘flying mountains’. Ceres, however is about 500 miles in diameter.

There has been evidence before that the organic molecules forming the building blocks of life exist in the asteroid belt. These chemicals have been found in meteorites that have landed on Earth. However, with some of these the evidence has been extremely debatable. One of these meteors came down in Orgueoil in France. However, the organic molecules they found may have had a far more mundane origin, as the person, who’d discovered it had stored it in his fridge. I think it had got covered in butter, amongst other things.

I found another video on this discovery, which suggested that there may also be an internal ocean on Ceres, and that the organic molecules on its surface may indicate that it has life, even of only a very primitive kind, underneath in its oceans. This would be, in the words of Zaphod Beeblebrox, ‘amazingly amazing!’ if true. I suspect there isn’t such an ocean and no life there either, but we won’t know for sure until this is investigated further.

What Happened to the Orion Mooncraft?

January 3, 2017

In his novel Into the Everywhere, set in a future in which humanity has been given fifteen different worlds to colonise by the alien Jackaroo, Paul McAuley mentions a human space ship, the Orion, which has been made obsolete by the new spacecraft introduced by the aliens. It was clear that the Orion is a real spacecraft, but I was left wondering what it was, as I hadn’t heard it mentioned anywhere else. Looking through an old copy of Spaceflight, one of the two magazines published by the British Interplanetary Society, for November 2006, I found an article announcing the news that NASA had selected Lockheed Martin to build it, and that it was intended to take humans to the Moon. The article runs

Just as the last issue of Spaceflight went to press, NASA announced at the end of August that it had selected Lockheed Martin as the prime contractor to design, develop and build Orion, the new US crewed spacecraft.

Orion will be capable of transporting four people on lunar missions and later supporting crew transfers for flights to Mars missions. Orion will also be able to carry up to six crew to and from the International Space Station.

The first Orion launch with people onboard is planned for no later than 2014, and for a human Moon landing no later than 2020, but NASA and Lockheed will be working hard to bring the first crewed mission into Earth orbit forward to around 2012.

The contract with Lockheed Martin is the conclusion of a two-phase selection process. NASA began working with the two contractor teams, Northrop Grumman/Boeing and Lockheed Martin, in July 2005 to perform concept refinement, trade studies, analysis of requirements and preliminary design options.

Meanwhile, the $300 million first test flight of the Project Constellation Ares 1 booster will be made in April 2009. If this fails, another attempt will be made in October.

This first test will use four live Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Booster segments with an inert fifth upper segment and an Orion spacecraft “mass simulator”.

There will also be a full five-segment SRB ground test firing in 2009 and a test of the Apollo Type launch escape system. A full Ares 1 flight test will be made in 2012, followed by a manned flight in 2014, or earlier if the development schedule permits. (p. 407).

orion-mooncraft

Lockheed Martin’s depiction of the Orion crew vehicle and lunar lander in Moon orbit.

I don’t recall hearing about the launch of this spacecraft on the news. Perhaps I wasn’t paying attention, or the news agencies didn’t think it worth reporting. But I doubt I missed it, and am certain that the construction of another rocket capable of taking humanity to the Moon and Mars would be guaranteed massive coverage around the world. It is, after all, nearly half a century since Neil Armstrong and co. stepped out onto the lunar regolith, and a possible mission to Mars is still very much in the news.

This looks very much like it was another NASA project that got cancelled due to budget cuts. Perhaps all the spending that was supposed to go to this got channelled by Obama on furthering the wars in the Middle East instead.

2017: The Year We Land on the Moon, according to Russian Rocket Pioneer

December 31, 2016

I was watching a talk on CD-Rom last night by Dr. Gerald K. O’Neill, one of the leading advocates of space colonisation. Way back in the 1970s, O’Neill suggested that humanity should colonise space by constructing special space habitats at the Lagrange points between the Moon and Earth. The L5 points are excellent sites for space colonies, as they’re the points at which the gravity from the Moon and Earth interact to form stable points. The space habitats he designed were solar powered cities, with areas of parkland, housing and manufacturing areas. The CD-Rom with these talks came with a book I bought nearly a decade ago by him, The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space (Burlington Ontario: Apogee Books 2000). However, for one reason or another I hadn’t got round to watching it. I think part of the problem may have been that the computer I may have been using at the time had an incompatible version of Windows.

Along with his other arguments about the ecological and economic benefits space colonisation would bring, and the technological and scientific methods, which would be used in the construction of these colonies, Dr. O’Neill also mentioned that, according to the Russian rocket pioneer, Konstantin Tsiolkovskii, it would be this New Year, 2017, when humanity would first break out from Earth and land on the Moon. O’Neill makes the point that instead, we got to the Moon 50 years early. He then goes on to predict that, despite cuts to NASA’s budget and the low priority given to funding science, and particularly to supporting the space programme for itself rather than those products which have spun off it, humanity will be colonising space in a centuries’ time. He even predicts that by that time, we may well be starting to send space colonies outside the solar system to colonise the neighbouring stars.

The video seems to date from around 1982, and I’m rather more pessimistic about humanity’s possible colonisation of space. There’s immense public interest in it, but it is expensive using the technology currently available. The costs aren’t prohibitively so. I went to a symposium at the British Interplanetary Society nearly a decade and a half ago, where one of the speakers pointed out that the cost of constructing an orbital hotel actually are the same as building a tower block here on Earth. And once the commercial exploitation of space begins in earnest, launch costs can be expected to fall as new ways and launch vehicles are developed to put people and objects into space more easily and cheaply. Indeed, one of the aerospace engineers talking at the Symposium also made the point that there were planes and vehicles planned in the 1940s and ’50s which would have had the ability to achieve orbit. So, far from humanity being 50 years ahead of schedule, by another set of standards we’re 60 or so years behind.

Still, I hope that with China now planning to send a probe to the far side of the Moon and its unstated intention eventually to send humans there, 2017 won’t be too far off Tsiolkovskii’s prediction. I’d like humanity to begin colonising the Moon as well as the Red Planet. At the moment, we’re just languishing, sending people to the International Space Station. It’s a great scientific achievement, but there’s so much more that needs to be done to open up the High Frontier properly.

The Young Turks on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Space Mission and Return to Earth

December 24, 2015

This is another great piece from The Young Turks. This time, unlike many of the other reports I’ve reblogged from them, covering such iniquitous events and individuals as Donald Trump and so on, it’s actually good news. This is their report on the launch of the private space rocket, Falcon 9, which successfully put a satellite into space. The rocket then returned to Earth, where it can be refuelled and used again on another mission.

Here’s the report:

The Turks’ anchor, Cenk Uygur, reports that this raises hopes that satellites can be put into space much more cheaply. Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of SpaceX, originally from South Africa, states that this is part of his ultimate goal to build a city on Mars. He also developed an idea for a rapid transit system in California, which he gave away for others to work on because he and his company didn’t have time to develop it themselves. Uygur makes a joke comparing him to Tony Stark, millionaire inventor and alter ego of Iron Man.

This is great news, as there have been a number of private companies since the 1990s that have been trying to develop low-cost, efficient ways of taking satellites and ultimately humans into space. There’s even a prize of about $100,000 called the X-Prize, offered to the first private spacecraft to do so. Or there was. The prize was based on the early aviation prizes, such as those awarded to great pioneering aviators like Louis Bleriot, Charles Lindbergh, ‘Wrong Way Corrigan’ and Amelia Earhart, or at least their fellows, and which greatly stimulated the development of aircraft technology. The hope behind all this is that one day, costs will be so low that a trip into space will be affordable to most people. At the moment, the only people, who can afford it are multi-millionaires and governments.

This is also possibly one of the few areas where private industry will genuinely be beneficial. Part of the problem developing cheap space travel is that at the moment, space exploration and transport in America is almost totally dominated by NASA. Many space scientists and enthusiasts are frustrated with the agency because it’s part of NASA’s charter that it should be active developing ways to broaden access to space. This goal, however, is very low down in it’s priorities, and there is a feeling that the agency is actively blocking progress in this area. I was at a symposium of space experts and fans at the British Interplanetary Society about a decade and a half ago, where this was discussed by one of the speakers. He believed people should be rightfully angry about it, and should right to the appropriate authorities. NASA is a public corporation, funded by the American taxpayer, and so the American public have a right to see their scientists find ways to get ordinary Americans into space. The various X-Prizes offered by a private foundation are private enterprise’s way of opening up the area to some competition in order to achieve this.

And with the successful return of the Falcon9 rocket, that aim just came a little bit closer.

Jodrell Bank and Amateur Radio Telescopes

December 18, 2015

BBC 4 a few weeks ago broadcast a documentary on the history of Jodrell Bank, Britain’s pioneering radio telescope. Bernard Lovell, its founder and director, had been one of the scientists working on the development of radar during the War, and the radio telescope was originally built using parts left over from the project that were due to be scrapped. In the early days it was very much an ad hoc operation. The size of the telescope’s dish has the radius it has because that was the distance between the van holding its key components in the early days to the edge of the field. The programme covered the history of the telescope from its very beginnings to today. It described how the telescope came into its own in the late 1950s and 1960s when it was the only instrument that could independently verify the first Soviet space missions and their conquest of space. This also caused additional pressure on Lovell, as there was official demand for him to monitor space missions in the USSR, which detracted from his real interest in exploring the heavens through the radio signals sent out into space from stars, nebulae and galaxies.

The Russians also liked and admired Lovell, so much so that on scientific trip to the Soviet Union, the Russians showed him some of their highly top secret space installations, and hinted that he would be very welcome if he left Britain and joined them. Obviously the great man did not take up the offer. Eventually such pressure proved so great that he was off work suffering from depression, and even considered leaving science altogether. Lovell was a Methodist, and to the surprise of his children, at this point in his career he considered joining the clergy. He didn’t, but went back to charting the heavens.

Other highlights of the telescope’s fifty-odd year history was the discovery, by Jocelyn Bell-Purnell, of pulsars. These are neutron stars, small, highly compact stars at the end of their lives, which broadcast a signal into space. The stars are small, about 40 miles or so in diameter, and spin quickly, so it appears that the signal is being sent in pulses. They’re also regular, so that in the first few days when they were discovered one of the theories about them was that they were a signal deliberately sent out into space from an extraterrestrial civilisation. After more pulsars were discovered in the following days, the scientists were able to give the true explanation of their origins.

Since its heyday, much larger telescopes and arrays have been built. Jodrell Bank nevertheless still remains important, contributing valuable research in this area of astronomy.

Indeed. I remember a few years ago an edition of one of the Beeb’s astronomy programmes in which Dara O’Brien and Brian May were up there. O’Brien is a failed mathematician, having dropped out of a university maths course, while May is a properly accredited astrophysicist. He had, it’s true, a twenty-odd year gap in his career, due to performing with Queen, but he finally handed his thesis in a few years ago. It was duly marked, and he passed. This obviously makes him one of the most rock ‘n’ roll scientists ever. I think in the programme they were supposed to be looking for signals from alien civilisations. They didn’t find any, which probably surprised no one, given that scientists have been looking, off and on, for radio signals from aliens since the days of Project OZMA in the late ’60s and 70s. Despite NASA’s optimistic prediction in 1995 that in five years they would be discovered, no has as yet.

Patrick Moore, one of the greatest science communicators and popularisers, always maintained that astronomy was still one of the very few areas of science where amateurs using modest equipment could make a real contribution. I doubt that there are very many ordinary people outside the big observatories, who have an active interest in radio telescopy. Nevertheless, it is possible to build your own radio telescopes. There’s a piece by Trevor Hill, who was a science teacher at Taunton School in Somerset, about how he built a an array of radio telescopes in the book, Small Astronomical Observatories, edited by Patrick Moore (London: Springer 1986). He did so as part of an attempt to get the pupils interested in astronomy. Naturally, he started off by building a normal, optical observatory for a telescope. He turned to radio astronomy at the suggestion of one of the pupils after the normal astronomy session had been cancelled due to rain. The pupil pointed out that radio waves travel through clouds, and so observation wouldn’t be stopped by bad weather. His article in the book describes the radio telescopes he built. This includes a set of Ham radio aerials set up in an array to receive radio waves from solar flares.

Taunton School Radio Telescope

Trevor Hill’s Solar Flare Radio Telescope at Taunton School

He also provides a schematic of the telescope’s construction. As you can see from the photo, even as a small-scale amateur project it’s still very large. Nevertheless, he states that it was very cheap. With the exception of the computer, it cost about £200 in 1995. Which means it’s almost possible for every man or woman to become their own radio astronomer. Obviously, this was before the boom ended, and Cameron got in to hit everyone with massive debt and advancing poverty.

Here’s Tim O’Brien, professor of astrophysics at Manchester University and the radio telescope’s associate director, talking about the telescope on the 70s anniversary of its establishment. It’s great to hear him say that it remains at the cutting edge of research, and may be so for the next fifty years.