Rees for the Stars

The first of two virtual conferences today was at the Royal Astronomical Society, by the Lord Rees of Ludlow, the society’s president from 1992 to 1994.

A brief introduction was given by executive director Philip Diamond, who announced that it was the last in their 2021-2 lecture series.

Rees is a former Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. He said that the college looked much the same three centuries ago as it does today. Newton’s legendary apple tree incident occurred when he was sent home during the 1665 plague outbreak. Sadly, none of the students put into lockdown during the COVID pandemic have had similar moments.

Rees proudly displayed his photograph of the lunar surface, autographed by seven astronauts who had been there. He noted how rapidly space exploration had progressed, from the launch of Sputnik in 1957, to dogs, then Yuri Gagarin, then the moon landing in 1969. Today only the elderly, such as his lordship, can actually remember watching the moon landing when it first happened. He and his contemporaries firmly expected to have conquered Mars within another twenty years. Alas we are still waiting.

Rees discussed the book The End of Astronauts which he co-authored with Donald Goldsmith. Artificial intelligence has become greatly more sophisticated with each decade since the time of the Apollo program. Miniaturised probes are already exploring much of the Solar System, especially Mars. Perseverance can navigate around rocks, whereas Curiosity needed to call back for instructions. The only downside is that the shear amount of time needed to travel to the outer planets often means that the probe’s technology is already obsolete by the time it arrives to start its survey. With each advance in artificial intelligence, the practical case for sending humans into space gets weaker. Robots can simply hibernate along the journey whereas humans need to sleep, eat and breathe. Also, fundamentally, they are disposable. NASA’s astronaut projects since Apollo have been limited to the International Space Station and the Hubble telescope. They are constrained by political pressure, especially since the Challenger disaster. Although this only represents a 2% overall failure rate, which would easily be acceptable in other fields, the public attitude towards NASA was damaged irreparably.

In a “terrifying” speech to a thousand GCSE students last month, Rees asked how many would actually endure the long journey to Mars. Only half would, but curiously all would be willing to send someone else away. One in particular was put off by the notion of a forty-minute delay in communications with Earth – a stark reminder of the change in expectations compared to the age of exploration by sea.

Rees believes that from now on state-funded scientific exploration of space is best accomplished by unmanned machines, while human journeys should be the preserve of prize-seekers in the private sector (where a greater level of risk is tolerated). He would support the efforts of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos over any more missions by NASA. He recalled that the former wishes “to die on Mars, but not on impact”, which could be plausible if he lives another fifty years. The term “space tourism” is highly misleading. This is a dangerous sport for intrepid exploration. Mass emigration to escape Earth’s problems should not be expected for there is simply nowhere habitable.

The professor then moved on to the possibility of life elsewhere. He said that settlers on Mars would be beyond the clutches of regulators on Earth, and that over time their progeny could diverge into a post-human species. Astronomers, he thought, have a special perspective – humans are not the pinnacle of evolution, for our sun has another six billion years to go. We could see a move from Darwinian evolution to secular intelligent design, so that by the time Earth dies the intelligent life on the planet will not resemble us at all. There is a debate among philosophers and neurologists as to whether AI can be truly self-aware. If machines were zombies then we wouldn’t value their experiences. The motives of the post-humans are, at this point, reserved for speculative fiction, though most expect that they would be expansionists. Even if life originated on Earth it need not remain a trivial feature of the cosmos – humans could found a galactic diaspora. Colonisation would take less time than has already elapsed since the Cambrian explosion.

The topic of life on other worlds has been hugely exciting for astronomers in the past twenty years. Nearly all stars are orbited by a retinue of planets. The first exoplanet was discovered in 1992, with several thousand more coming since. Planets are not observed directly, but detected by their effect on their stars. The brightness of a star is briefly dimmed when a planet moves in front of it. Kepler used this method to find several thousand stars with planets around them. The case study of TRAPPIST-1, discovered in 2000, shows a “miniature system”, the innermost planet having an orbit of one Terran day and the outermost an orbit of two weeks. Four of them are within a habitable zone that in principle could allow the existence of water, thus supporting life. It is frustrating that we cannot see planets directly, though in theory we could with a sufficiently large telescope. The European Extremely Large Telescope is planned to have a mirror thirty-nine metres wide. The James Webb Telescope is smaller but has the advantage of viewing infrared. The differing shades of blue on Earth could indicate the presence of oceans, continents and an atmosphere, while the time taken for each pattern to reoccur would indicate our rotation period.

In summing up, Rees said that we understand evolution but not the origin of life. Evidence of civilisation on other planets might only exist for a short time, and not be synchronised with that on Earth. Life may not yet have evolved, or could have already been superseded by machines. If the search for extraterrestrial intelligence fails then we can be less cosmically modest, but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Following the presentation there remained a few minutes for questions and answers.

Does what you’ve said imply the end of astronauts as a profession?

I can’t predict more than fifty years ahead. We think human spaceflight should be left to private adventurers. Robots are better for state efforts.

Will there be a replacement for chemical rocket engines?

It’s certainly conceivable. Nuclear can provide low thrust for long periods. Ground lasers can push a small spacecraft by sail.

Will the first human on Mars inevitable contaminate the biosphere?

We have to be very careful, treat Mars like the Antarctic. Also, bringing organic material back could contaminate Earth.

Which planetary body has the best potential for life?

Looking under ice is obvious. Any evidence of life on other planets could help explain the origin of life on Earth. If life originated twice independently within the same star system it’s probably widespread.

What are the prospects for manufacturing probes in space to keep the technology up to date?

The Space Station has done some research and development. We would like to build a telescopes in space with an iterferometer. It should be a target for the 2068 centenary. Building solar panels in space would be good – you get ten times the power per square metre compared to the sunniest spot on Earth.

FURTHER READING

Careers Fair at Canham Turner

Though I stood in and around the Canham Turner building six days ago to catch a glimpse of Her Majesty’s emergence, this is my first major event inside the spacious lounge since the revision conference six months ago.

Representatives of thirty-nine organisations had set up stall with the hope of attracting Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics students to apply for job opportunities.

There was no buffet lunch this time, but nearly all of the stalls gave away small pieces of confectionary along with the usual branded pens and glossy leaflets.

I guess it beats Trick-or-Treating.

This being my first term, I am a long way off making a firm choice of career path, but events like these are useful for showing me what my options are. Having spent the last few years of my life and education pushing towards a chemistry degree, the late-stage switch to mathematics means that some recalibration is in order. Events such as this are helpful in devising a new strategy.

Meeting Michael Foale CBE

Do my teeth look okay?

During the eighteen months during which I have been a Wilberforce Student, I have met many notable figures. By last Christmas the college had hosted two MPs, an MEP, a baron and a bishop. Today, though, we had an astronaut.

Colin Michael Foale CBE PhD has experience of six shuttle missions, and holds the record for the most time spent in space by any UK citizen. Today he gave a presentation about his career path to being an astronaut. He originally believed that only pilots could have gone onto space missions, but instead found his way in as a scientist.

He attended Queens’ College, Cambridge, attaining a first class degree in Natural Sciences and later a doctorate in Laboratory Astrophysics.Twice he unsuccessfully applied to NASA. Dr Foale showed us footage of the Challenger disaster in 1986, when a shuttle blew up barely a minute after launch and killed all seven occupants. After the disaster, Foale told us, enthusiasm for space only grew. He told us that for his third application essay he abandoned talk of his lifelong dreams and instead focused on the difficulties that the administration then faced, particularly relating to the crash. He was accepted in 1987.

He may have fixed a space station, but can he master Power Point?

He may have fixed a space station, but can he master Power Point?

During his tenure Foale suffered catastrophes of his own. He gave a graphic account the time in 1997 when the Progress M-34 supply craft collided with the Mir station. Ordinarily the Progress ships used the Kurs radio telemetry system to facilitate its docking procedures. This was manufactured by the Kiev Radio Factory, and following the dissolution of the Soviet Union it fell under the jurisdiction of the independent Ukraine, whereas most other things relating to space flight were inherited by the Russian Federation. The Russian Federal Space Agency was at the time facing severe budget cutbacks due to economic troubles and resented having to pay its former constituent republic vast sums of money for the use of Kurs, and so wanted to examine the option of going without. This particular docking attempt was therefore done under the TORU system – meaning that the ship was controlled manually with a camera and two joysticks.

In his presentation, Dr Foale told us (with the aid of his own amateur footage) that the pilot had misjudged the angle of approach, with the result that M-34 damaged Mir‘s solar panels and punched a hole in the Spektr module. Foale was sent into the Soyuz escape craft with the expectation that Mir would be abandoned. He recalled the sensation of his ears popping as the interior began to de-pressurise. Instead they stayed on board to insert a hatch over Spektr’s entrance to seal of the other modules. This stemmed the air leak, but getting it into position required the uncoupling of several cables, with the result that the station lost power. It was also tumbling in space, its orbit having been disrupted by the collision. Foale used his scientific education to analyse the movement of the stars past his window, and from that worked out how to stabilise the station using Soyuz‘s rockets. Eventually power returned when Mir drifted back into sunlight.

Spektr damaged by the collision

Spektr damaged by the collision

We were also shown some of the comparatively mundane realities of living in space. Videos were shown of Foale exercising with bungee straps in lieu of gravity, and of drinking water from a floating sphere. The students also saw a fly-through tour of another space station, showing crew at work and internal walls lined with sacks of spare underwear.

When the presentation proper concluded, Dr Foale took questions from his audience. I asked him what he saw in the future of manned space travel, and he told me to look out for inflatable hotels arriving next year. He also said that things would really kick off when valuable materials could be mined from other planets.

After about ten minutes of questions and answers, the fire alarm went off. In contrast to the instant evacuations which that noise would normally trigger, staff went out to investigate before confirming that we had to leave. The presentation informally concluded in the car park, where Dr Foale took some more questions from passers-by and stopped for some group photographs. Following the all-clear, our guest went back indoors for an interview with BBC Radio Humberside. I and three other students followed him so that we could be interviewed as well.

That evening our visitor did another presentation, though for paying external guests rather than Wilberforce students. Throughout the day we also had a planetarium, lent to us by the University of Hull, set up in the atrium, and visiting pupils from other schools in the area.

A large black igloo-like structureDr Foale was accompanied in his visit by Chris Barber of the International Space School Educational Trust. He advised us that if ever we set up an organisation we should look for a more memorable name. He also remarked that the demolition of two of his former residences showed the degree to which Hull honoured his legacy.

FURTHER READING

Algae, the Green Death

A brown river, crossed by a log behind which the surface is wholly covered in algae.

Keyingham Drain is entirely green on some days.

The algal bloom is a problem in many lakes and rivers. In the wrong weather conditions, a body once teeming with life can quickly become an water graveyard if certain organisms cannot be controlled.

An algal bloom is a rapid increase in the population of algae in an aquatic system. There is no fixed benchmark for when an algal growth becomes a bloom – some say the concentration should be in the hundreds of cells per millilitre, some say it should be in the thousands. A bloom occurs when a body of shallow, slow-moving water has an excess of phosphorus and nitrogen nutrients, usually caused by fertiliser leakage or waste-water. This leads to green plants and algae growing at an increased rate at the expense of other organisms. In particular the algae can clump together to form a gelatinous blanket on the surface of the water, which blocks out the light of the sun. The then-permanent darkness means that the plants beneath the surface can no longer photosynthesise, with the inevitable result that they perish. Their corpses are devoured by decomposers. The sudden abundance of food allows these organisms to grow and multiply rapidly, and they consume the oxygen in the water which – in the absence of photosynthesising plants – cannot be replaced. Once the oxygen is exhausted the fish and aquatic insects within the water body die off and the internal ecosystem collapses. Beneath the garish top layer, the water is devoid of life.

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