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Feb 24 2011

Our first tentative steps onto the shore of the ocean of space

There’s nothing that sparks my imagination with quite the ferocity that space does. And with good reason — in its vastness, we find out so much about ourselves and our origins. It is in space exploration — even if limited to launching more and better probes and building more and better telescopes — that we will find answers to the questions that philosophers have bandied about as purely intellectual exercises since we climbed down from the trees.

Over at BoingBoing, there’s a discussion about Titan’s chemical makeup and eventual fate entitled “A Tale of Two Planets”, where it is noted how similar Titan is to proposed models of Earth’s early history. The fact that complex organic molecules exist there indicates that life could very well already exist as well, or could even start up during the sun’s death throes, should the abiogenesis hypothesis prove true.

On a similar track, Universe Today does a plausibility check on whether sentient life could emerge on planets orbiting red giant stars within their Goldilocks zones, which is interesting considering how sci-fi likes to portray red-giant-based life — as old, wisened, enlightened civilizations given the long time frames they would have had to evolve. The major problem is the very short time frame that a red giant star would have to power a planet’s potential evolution from Titan-like, to Earth-like, so unless these civilizations moved to more distant planets in their solar systems as the sun started to grow, it seems rather unlikely. Red giants are stars in a very late phase of stellar evolution, and generally tend to grow as their fuel is spent and they start fusing heavier elements during their final stages. Knowing that life has taken 3.7 billion years to reach the stage it’s at now here on Earth, that gives us an idea of how quickly sentient life can arise, but the one data point we have doesn’t give us nearly enough information to know whether we’re quick studies or slow learners in that respect.

One thing is for sure, though — we humans are definitely making up for lost time. We recently managed to create and trap antihydrogen, which was a big enough deal. Now we’ve evidently discovered a way to directly detect black holes via the “twist” they give to light that barely escapes it. That means we might actually have a way of obtaining some small shred of information about a black hole outside of the inferential information we get from observing its surroundings. We could create “black hole detectors”, telescopes that are designed to look only for this twisted light and pinpoint where black holes are in our galaxy and beyond.

Another piece of technology with a lot of promise, which was up until recently only science fiction, is the solar sail. Japan’s leading the way in the creation and deployment of real-life solar sails, which turn out to have most of the properties hypothesized. With the ongoing miniaturization of technology, deep space probes will become more feasible, cheaper to produce and easier to use to obtain data about our universe. We will also be able to create probes designed to sit between us and the sun and give us an early warning system for potentially harmful solar flares.

Despite all this new information, amazing insight, and depth and breadth of acquired knowledge, there’s still room in humanity for ridiculous and patently unevidenced “just-so” stories, like that Betelgeuse will go supernova in 2012. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. If it does, we won’t see the results for another 600 years, though, because it’s 600 light-years away. And since it’s so far away, it certainly won’t destroy the Earth like the crazies seem to think. Nor will the mysterious tenth planet Nibiru crash into us, since there’s no such fucking thing. And besides, Pluto was correctly demoted, so that would make it the 9th planet, jerkwads. Never mind that there’s nothing at all special about the year 2012 anyway, except to a certain class of egocentrics that will probably plague mankind til the end of time.

Speaking of which, when will time end, anyway?

2 comments

  1. 1
    Mike Haubrich

    Just a thought, Jason. Could Betelguese have gone Supernova 599 years ago?

  2. 2
    Jason Thibeault

    I kinda hope so. Then, Orion’s left shoulder will get a bit brighter for a while, then go away. The Earth will remain intact. And the destruction will not have happened to coincide with the Mayan Long Count rollover, since that will happen next year, not 600 years ago. Of course, that won’t stop ‘em from drinking the kool-aid. :)

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