Misleading Headlines – Plunging Asteroid

One Story Two HeadlinesIn my ceaseless vigil to find my loyal audience misleading and amusing headlines I take a look at quite a few stories but I think this is a first for me. I’ve found a story in the Huffington Post and a story in the Inquisitr that are not only about the same subject but actually use the same graphic in their headline!

The two stories actually say pretty much the same thing and are fairly interesting to anyone who follows space news. The headlines; both in the Yahoo news aggregation and on the stories themselves, tell completely different stories.

The Inquisitr blares: Asteroid Hurtling To Earth: Could Lead To Human Extinction

Huffington says: Astronomers Think This Cosmic Rubble Pile May Show Us How To Avert An Asteroid Disaster

What’s interesting to me is the grasping headlines are in such stark contrast to the reasonably written stories. Anyway, take a look at both if you have time. It’s a good lesson in how much power the headline has over our perception of the story as a whole.

I’ll sum up in case you don’t have time. A large pile of rubble is heading towards the earth. It’s not a solid rock but a group of smaller pieces held together by both gravity and something called Van de Waals forces. It might prove quite simple to disrupt an asteroid conglomeration of this nature and doing so might teach us valuable lessons. If we can break up this relatively minor threat we are better equipped to understand how to do so in the future.

Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery Fantasy with a Libertarian Edge
Purchase The Broken Throne today!
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We Are Alone – So Far …

GalaxiesI just read an article about the nature of movies in regards to the special qualities of Earth that seem to attract so many invaders. It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek but there are some valid points. Why would an advanced alien civilization visit Earth?

The question I’m going to think about today is along the same line although from the opposite position. Why wouldn’t advanced aliens visit the Earth? Because that’s the real question if you believe the galaxy is teeming with technologically advanced civilizations. I’m one that finds it difficult to believe that such civilizations do not exist. The universe appears to be some 14 billion years old and current estimates have our galaxy clocking in at 13.6 billion years. There are some 200 billion stars in our galaxy and possibly a lot more. Recent evidence suggests that most stars form planets, that water is abundant in the universe., the buildings blocks of life are everywhere, and places where life might thrive seem common.

And yet, silence.

One common explanation is simply the massive distances involved. If the speed of light is the maximum then getting to our little world is no easy trick even for a race that’s been around millions of years. I find that explanation very appealing.

One of the main factor’s driving human exploration of space is simple curiosity. We want to know what’s out there and we particularly want to know if we are alone. What if the answer was an unequivocal no. What if there is microbial life on Mars, a thriving underwater community on Europa. What if life is, as I suspect, everywhere. What if almost every star system eventually allows for intelligent life? What if you know all about it? What if you are communications with tens of thousands of other species? Does this dim your curiosity? What interest is there in a young species just reaching out to the stars?

What if finding such a new species was common-place? What sort of regulations would you put in place around such a community. We certainly understand the idea of the Prime Directive of the Star Trek world. Don’t influence young races, don’t contaminate them. It’s a reasonable explanation.

Perhaps life is so abundant that such advanced races just don’t care until we get to a certain level of technology. We just have nothing to offer them.

I’m sure there are other explanations and any of them might or might not be true. There is just no way of knowing. The reality is that we have yet to have any credible contact with a species from another planet. Perhaps we are alone. Perhaps the aliens walk among us, studying or plotting. Perhaps they are out there keeping their hands off for the moment because of their own rules of conduct. Perhaps the distances are just too daunting.

Maybe someday we’ll learn the answers to these questions and that’s a good thing. We’re here, we’re striving to find more, to learn more, to explore our world, to understand the universe. What more is there to do?

I guess that’s my point. Don’t be daunted by the lack of information. Keep looking for more. Follow the facts, don’t be fooled by those theories you want to be true. It’s fun to speculate, to guess, but when it comes to reality, stick to the facts. I’d love the universe to be teeming with intelligent life but the evidence of such does not exist. Therefore I cannot argue that it does.

Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery Fantasy with a Libertarian Ideology
Purchase The Broken Throne today!
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A Glint of Light Equals Aliens … Why?

Mars speck of lightThere’s a news story making the rounds which I’ve been ignoring because I didn’t think I had anything interesting to add to the conversation. I’ve changed my mind.

About a week ago Curiosity took a picture on Mars in which there is a glint of light on the horizon. A picture taken a day later from the same position did not show the glint. There are a number of explanations as to what caused the glint but I’m not going to talk about the rational explanations. Nor am I going to spend much time talking about the theories that it represents aliens living underground on Mars who somehow caused the anomaly.

I want to talk about why anyone would think that a speck of a light in a picture taken on Mars might be evidence of alien life. Not whether or not the light is or isn’t such evidence, but why anyone would think that it was such proof.

Mars is a barren world with barely any atmosphere. We’ve landed any number of vessels on the planet itself and spaceships with high-resolution cameras are constantly orbiting Mars taking pictures. We first sent a robotic ship by Mars in 1965.

Earth bound telescopes have been trained on Mars since 1672 and have only gotten sharper in resolution and more available to amateurs. Radiation bombards the planet relentlessly. Water is likely present but only deep below the surface. There are no signs of a civilization on the surface, no signs of animals or plants, no chemical signatures indicating living creatures.

So why, why would anyone think that a glint of light in one picture is anything other than sunlight bouncing off a shiny rock? Or an illusion of photography? Anyone who has taken a picture with a camera on earth knows that light is a tricky fellow.

When you go to the store and a somethings inexplicably falls off a shelf nearby do you assume that it was Bigfoot lurking in the next aisle using telekinetic powers to alert you of an upcoming Supervolcanic eruption? Or do you shrug your shoulders and assume that something was perched precariously and a small vibration sent it to the ground?

What is the psychological makeup of someone who immediately leaps to the most unlikely explanation? What are they thinking? Are they thinking at all?

That’s my question. I don’t know that I have a good answer. I know that my mind always looks for the most logical explanation to any event and a thriving community of intelligent creatures living beneath the surface of Mars and pointing their flashy lights at the rover would never, ever, have crossed my mind when I saw that picture.

That being said, I think this sort of thinking is not unusual. Everyday I read about or actually experience someone who believes absolutely unlikely things in lieu of a very reasonable explanation.

I’m of the opinion that people largely believe what they want to believe over factual evidence. If a person wants there to be Martians then that person is going to grasp at every ridiculous explanation to believe Martians exist.

I ask you an important question: What would the world be like if people only believed what the evidenced suggested and threw out their preconceived notions?

It’s a world I dream about. It’s a world that I believe can exist. I’m certain people are capable of thinking rationally all the time. Of making decisions based on factual evidence.

I see a world like this in our future. When disease is eradicated, energy is abundant and cheap, the population static with food for all. Automated machines doing the work people don’t want to do. Free people living eternal lives dedicated to achievement.

The novels I write are about a Sword and Sorcery fantasy world but there are characters in that world seeking the same thing I’m seeking in this one. There are those that thwart them. You should read my books and maybe you’ll see that same world I see in my mind’s eye. That endless Utopia where humans stand astride the galaxy always striving to be better, ever better.

Do you want to live in that world?

Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery fantasy with a Libertarian Ideology
Current Release: The Broken Throne
Next Release: The Black Sphere


India’s $75 Million Mangalyaan Mission

India Mars missionThe other day I read in interesting article about a mission to Mars that you probably haven’t heard about and a few days later a friend of mine linked her blog to a Siemens seminar about manufacturing. An item in each of those links dovetailed into something that struck me.

The entire Mars mission is costing India the equivalent of $75 million dollars and a large part of this is because they have such a glut of incredibly intelligent young engineers that their starting salary is less than one-third of their counterparts in the United States. The team that designed the satellite has two people on it over the age of 31.

Meanwhile I read this quote from the Siemens article.

High-tech factories require a dependable supply of a well-trained, technically adept labor force. By one estimate, America will need over 120 million workers with advanced skills by 2020 – and may be on pace to prepare less than half of what’s required with adequate qualifications.

Not long ago I wrote a blog about how last year China unleashed seven million college graduates onto the world.

It’s my opinion that the Automation Age is coming and if you want a good job you need to have technical skills. Robots will be doing the vast majority of menial jobs in the future.

If the United States cannot provide businesses with a workforce that can do the job, businesses will look elsewhere. That’s the bottom line.

I’m happy to see this incredible wealth of intelligence arising in China and India. I don’t think this has to be a dire threat to the United States. As the world becomes smarter so too will our lives become better. But let’s not kid ourselves; we must continue to produce a highly qualified and technically advanced workforce. If we do not we risk being left behind.

We can’t be complacent. We can’t lie to ourselves and say, well, those Asian and Indian kids might get good grades but they can’t plan, design, and manufacturer a robotic mission to Mars. Trust me, they can.

No matter your political party try to refrain from attacking scientists even when they don’t agree with your political agenda. Read a science article now and again. Download an astronomy app so when you see a bright object in the sky you can identify it.

You might not be able to tell a youngster to become a scientist but you sure can inspire them.

Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery fantasy with a Libertarian Ideology
Current Release: The Spear of the Hunt
Next Release: The Broken Throne

Psyche Mission – How Big is Big?

Psyche AsteroidI read an article the other day about how scientists would like to send a probe to an asteroid called Psyche (16 Psyche). The article itself focused on the fact that the asteroid is thought to be made up almost entirely of iron-nickel. It is irregularly shaped at 240x185x140 kilometers.

This was not a particularly “sexy” science article and didn’t attract the usual stream of trolls. A healthy number of the comments were from science geeks like myself. I’m not sure they would embrace the term geek, as do I.

Much of the talk centered around bringing Psyche into Earth orbit and mining the metal. One person mentioned the weight of Psyche 2.27x10E+19 (10 times 10 times 10, nineteen times) kilograms and how moving such a massive object would not be easy. Most people skipped right over this reality. I think because the number is really too large to fully comprehend.

I wanted to see if I could figure out the math and maybe get an idea in my mind how big is BIG. The NASA calculation is based on the influence that Psyche has on the orbit of objects around it but I hoped to figure out how much a roughly 200 kilometer sphere of iron would weigh. Math is not my strong suit so off to the Internet I went.

We need to be able to calculate the volume of a sphere and know the density of iron.

The volume of a sphere is calculated by this formula: 4/3*Pi*radius^3 (cubed).

Iron has a density of 7.87 grams per cubic centimeter.

So to get the volume comparable with the density we need to convert the roughly 200 kilometers into centimeters. Easily done. There are 100 centimeters in a meter and 1,000 meters in a kilometer so there are 100,000 centimeters in a kilometer. Multiply that by 200 and we get 20 million centimeters.

Our equation thus reads 4/3*Pi*20,000,000^3.

The next thing we need to know is that math isn’t always done left to right, it’s done by something called an Order of Operations. Some of you might remember Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally. The operator takes precedent over left to right.

  1. Parenthesis
  2. Exponential
  3.  Multiply and Divide
  4. Add and Subtract

The upshot of that is we take 20 million cubed first. Then go back and take 4/3*Pi and multiply the cubed result by that. The volume is 3.35103E+22.

From here is relative simple to multiply that result by the 7.87 grams per cubic centimeter density of iron and then convert grams into pounds for many in my audience. I ended up with a result of 5.81E+20 lbs or 2.64E+20 kilograms.

My numbers don’t match the official mass of Psyche likely because I roughly guessed the spherical size and based the entire weight on the density of iron. Both of these were estimates but the result I got is fairly close to the official mass and I think I’ve done my math right.

What’s the point of all this?

When it is noted that Psyche has a mass of about 2.27x10E+19 kilograms what we are really saying is that it weighs this much:

  • 22,700,000,000,000,000,000 kilograms
  • 50,044,933,515,967,200,000 pounds.

No wonder most people just skipped over it. That number is so big it’s almost as if it doesn’t exist at all. We cannot imagine such a thing and yet Psyche is just a fairly large object in the asteroid belt. The biggest object in the asteroid belt is called Ceres and contains more fresh water than is found on earth.

What’s the point of all of this?

I suppose I’m suggesting that we stop and smell the density. Having a great idea, mining iron from Psyche, is a good thing; but don’t ignore obstacles because they are difficult to grasp. They are the most important thing to consider in any plan.

Think about how Big is Big and what difficulties it presents. Not just in mining an asteroid but in everything you do.

Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery fantasy with a Libertarian Ideology
Current Release: The Spear of the Hunt
Next Release: The Broken Throne

Privately Funded Mars Mission from Dennis Tito – Not so Private

Inspiration MarsNot that long ago a fellow by the name of Dennis Tito proposed a privately financed mission to send a pair of travelers to Mars and back. I was opposed to the project in principle because I prefer robotic missions to manned missions for a number of reason.

My opposition stopped short of saying he shouldn’t go ahead with the project. I felt that if Tito wanted to spend his own money or raise said money from Crowd Sourcing then it was his to spend. That the publicity of the mission might do some good.

Well, the truth comes out. Tito now admits without NASA technology and government money the mission will not go forward. He tries to shame the government into funding his mission and pretty much tries to shift any blame for the mission not taking place to a reluctance by the government to spend your tax dollars.

Tito claims that without the government money he will go ahead with another plan that will launch in 2021. I’m not holding my breath.

The reason I’m posting this update is for those who were greatly enthusiastic about the original story but will not have followed subsequent events closely. It’s a good lesson for all of us. When we hear grandiose schemes we are naturally excited. The idea of doing great things, of participating in such events, is very attractive. I’m not opposed to dreamers and those who support them.

That being said, I’m a pragmatist at heart. It’s great to dream big but it’s vital to work out the details.

A vast quantity of our tax dollars were wasted when President George W. Bush laid out a scheme for a manned mission to Mars and a Lunar Base that was completely unrealistic. At least in this case it’s Tito’s money, not mine.

It seems to me that one of the major problems that we face in the United States is not lack of dreamers, we have more of those than ever, but lack of practical doers. Everyone offers up amazing plans to fix everything and no one does any of the real work necessary to make them happen, or even takes the time to come up with a realistic plan of action. It’s enough merely to promulgate an idea. If that idea doesn’t come to fruition then it’s easy enough to blame someone else.

The next time you hear some amazing story from Tito, Elon Musk, your neighbor, your representative in Congress, or your favorite talking news head, well, take a few minutes to do some research and find out what it will take to make such a plan become reality.

Just a suggestion.

Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery fantasy with a Libertarian Ideology
Current Release: The Spear of the Hunt
Next Release: The Broken Throne

The International Space Station – Countdown to Bust

International Space StationWe are now seven years from the likely end of the International Space Station or ISS.

Good riddance, say I.

Not everyone is going to agree with me on this one and there are a lot of people out there hoping to extend the mission past 2020. There are many passionate people on both sides of this debate and I’m open to listening to other opinions. But as things stand, I think of the ISS as a colossal waste of time, effort, and money. That’s not even the worst of it. It’s sucked in so much money and effort that other NASA missions were scrubbed for lack of funding.

In addition to producing almost nothing in the way of useful information it has also prevented us from learning so many other things. Now, I’m sure people will look at the list of what I call “nothing” and tell me how wrong I am. I think that until we actually need to grow tomatoes in space it is not really worth studying growing tomatoes in space. The effect of radiation on people is well-known, it is deadly. Any space travel will require shielding from radiation. Zero gravity is dangerous for human organs and skeletal structure. How much testing of this do we need and what benefit does it give us?

When this thing was proposed it was promised as a laboratory, observatory, and factory in space. It was also planned to provide transportation, maintenance, and act as a staging base for possible future missions to the Moon, Mars and asteroids. It’s been at most a glorified lab.

In the Yahoo article a proponent of continuing the ISS through 2028 says: We don’t know whether we should care, because the utilization [of the ISS] is really still in its early stages. The station hasn’t had a valid chance to demonstrate its research value.

He supposes that perhaps, maybe, in the next four or five years there might be a breakthrough to justify the cost of the thing.

Hasn’t had a chance? It’s been in continuous orbit for nearly thirteen years and currently the cost is about $150 billion and going up fast.

The price of this thing is shared between the US, Russia, Japan, Canada, and Europe (11 partners). Everyone else is backing out as fast as their obligations let them, or faster.

Meanwhile robotic missions continue apace exploring our solar system and giving us real and useful information. Robotic missions are far cheaper, last longer, produce more results, and do not risk the loss of life.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for exploration of space, of the mission of NASA, and of the long-term prospects of colonizing our solar system. I’m just firmly convinced that the best way to achieve those things is with long-term, robotic, exploration missions. I think we already know pretty much what we need to know about low-earth orbit.

Every tax dollar that goes into low-earth orbit exploration competes against private organizations attempting this sort of mission. NASA should be doing things that private industry cannot achieve.

Meanwhile the James Webb Telescope sits doing nothing. It’s total funding capped at $8 billion in no small part because of the ISS. I’m not saying the JWT wasn’t a badly managed project, I’m just saying let’s not pour another $100 billion into the ISS to keep it operational through 2028. Let’s not throw good money after bad.

If I had my way I’d bring back the current residents and shut the ISS down today.

I’d like to hear from those who disagree.

Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery fantasy with a Libertarian Twist
Current Release: The Sword of Water (a bargain at $149,999,999,997.01 less than the ISS)
Upcoming Release: The Spear of the Hunt

2018 Mission to Mars – Crazy or not?

MarsA fellow by the name of Dennis Tito is making news in my little corner of the space-geek world with a plan to send a manned mission to Mars. One of my favorite bloggers, Alan Boyle of Cosmic Blog, wrote up an interesting summation of events so far.

I’ve long been a proponent of robotic missions over manned missions for a variety of reasons that I don’t want to get into today. What I do want to discuss is the nature of this particular plan and whether it is sheer madness, a great idea, or something in-between.

The broad plan itself is simply to send two astronauts to Mars on a trip that would circle the red planet and return to earth in a total of 501 days. As Earth and Mars rotate around the sun there are only certain times when the round-trip can be accomplished so quickly. The next such alignment occurs in January of 2018. This means the technology has to be ready to launch at that time. Five years is a remarkably short period to make this happen.

The detailed plan is extremely sketchy but the basic technology is understood and certainly not impossible. They would have to use a rocket that is currently incomplete but scheduled to be finished by that time. A major stumbling block is the speed at which the returning vessel would enter Earth’s atmosphere. There are other pressing problems that currently have no solution but the entire concept is possible.

The funding for the operation is to come largely from donations and Tito’s own personal wealth.

Is the plan a worthwhile endeavor?

As I stated earlier, I’m of the fairly strong opinion that robotic exploration is the most useful method for finding out information from Mars, the moon, and other places within the solar system. Humans are just too frail and concerns about radiation exposure, food and water, waste disposal and other barriers make human space exploration a waste of time and money. We’ve already sent plenty of robots into orbit of Mars. Landed them on Mars. In this case we’d be spending billions of dollars to send two people on a round trip to Mars for no good scientific purpose.

So, at this point you probably think you’ve got my final conclusion all figured out. You’d be wrong.

If Tito wants to raise the money and make this a reality, I say go for it. It’s his money and his donor’s money. The astounding publicity of the event will certainly make millions of people as big a proponent of space exploration as am I. In the end it might create more money and science dedicated to robotic exploration.

Personally, I’d prefer that he use his considerable charisma and effort to help NASA fund missions that have been cancelled because of lack of funds. To that Tito might tell me to do what I want when I’ve made a few billion of my own, and he’d be right!

I applaud Tito’s spirit and wish him well. Although I would offer one major criticism. Don’t say The Right Stuff times ten ever again. Such a thing is impossible. Thank you for your courage and sacrifice Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper, and Deke Slayton.

Now, if only I could get a few million people to purchase my books maybe I could fund one of those cancelled missions!

Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery fantasy with a Libertarian Twist
Current Release: The Sword of Water
Next Release: The Spear of the Hunt

Space Exploration Man versus Robots

Space ExplorationOne of the major debates about space exploration is the idea of putting people in space versus the idea of focusing on robotic exploration. It’s an argument that brings out a lot of nerd rage and I aim to take it head-on today. I’m bracing for some backlash!

I’ll tell you my position up front and avoid any suspense. I’m not a proponent of manned exploration. I think money is better spent on robotic exploration.

Now let’s take a critical look at both types of exploration and their advantages and disadvantages. Oh, and for the politically correct crowd, when I reference manned versus unmanned I’m talking about people, men and women.

Manned Exploration

The biggest advantage of sending people into space involves their ability to react to an unknown situation in a way that a computer cannot, at least cannot yet. The argument runs that if something were to go wrong that people would be able to fix it on-the-fly as it were. My rational against this idea is that at the speed events are happening humans largely cannot react fast enough, the space shuttle disasters being examples of this. The counter-argument is Apollo 13 where men were able to find a solution to a problem and fix it. My argument against that would be that there never would have been a problem if men weren’t aboard Apollo 13 in the first place. The systems involved to transport people are more complex than those used to transport machines. Oxygen catches on fire. Robots don’t need oxygen.

The second big reason you hear to promote manned missions is that if we as a race are to eventually colonize the moon and Mars we must learn how to live in a deep-space environment. This is a reasonable argument but I think there is plenty of time to test those complications out after we send in the robots to explore and prepare the way for manned missions.

Unmanned Exploration

The advantages here are many. The cost of sending robots into space is far less than sending people. The complexity of sending robots is far less than for sending people. One of the major obstacles for sending people into space is that they must have food and water. The biggest job the shuttles to the Space Station have is sending up food and taking back waste. Believe it or not, human waste is a major problem in space.

Another huge advantage of sending robots is their durability. Rovers on the moon and Mars can operate for years in the open. While it is true men would be able to drive the rover far more quickly from place to place, they are heavily restricted by radiation concerns. Shielding is a major issue for a journey to Mars or an extended stay on the moon. Men must stay in shelters a great deal of the time and prolonged exposure to radiation is a major problem for which there are not really good solutions as of yet.

To my mind the entire International Space Station idea has been a terrible waste of time and resources for the United States and the world. It is locked in low earth orbit. The total cost of the ISS is calculated at $150 billion dollars which includes shuttle flights and components provided by other nations. For that $150 billion we’ve gotten exactly what? We’ve learned about how deep space affects the human body, something we don’t need to know if we only send robotic missions. I’m not sure what else we’ve learned? It’s a long article with many links and I’m sure a proponents of Manned Missions can fill me in!

Meanwhile our robotic exploration continues to provide actionable information about planetary bodies, meteors, the sun, and other useful things that will help us eventually exploit the solar system.

I’m not completely opposed to manned exploration, I just think our resources return much more value when spent on robotic exploration. Curiosity cost about $2.5 billion although operational costs will continue (at a far cheaper rate than the ISS) to rise. Opportunity continues to provide useful information eight years after it landed and the twin rovers (Spirit conked out) total cost to date is about $1 billion.

The manned moon missions, while certainly romantic, brought us back a bunch of rocks of little value. If we put people on Mars or establish a station on the moon what is our goal? Just to do it? That’s noble but I’m all about practical when it comes to spending my tax dollars. I’m a huge proponent of space exploration and I’d keep my support if manned missions to Mars continue apace, I’d just rather see all that money spent on robotic exploration. Robotic science is in its infancy and the ability of these tools to explore space, deep-sea, underground environments far exceeds those of men.

Don’t hesitate to tell me I’m an idiot in the comments!

Tom Liberman