The Moon Unit Proposal

moon unit

I propose that 384,400 km (238,855 miles), the average distance from the Earth to the Moon, be called a “moon unit.” Example: “The mileage of my car is over one moon unit.”

A Proposal: An Ice-Tunneling Lander to Explore Extraterrestrial Sub-Surface Oceans

We have found compelling evidence for the existence of several sub-surface oceans in various places in our solar system. The most well-known of these bodies of liquid water is under the ice crust of Europa, a moon of Jupiter, with others located elsewhere. These oceans are logical places to look for signs of past or present extraterrestrial life. However, we have yet to obtain a sample of any of these oceans for analysis. It is time for that to change, but not without taking precautions to avoid damaging any such life, should it exist.

Europa-moon

Europa (source: NASA)

What follows is my idea, freely available for anyone who wishes to use it, to safely obtain and analyze such samples. These ice-tunneling probes could be ejected from a larger lander, or simply dropped directly onto the surface from orbit. This would be far less expensive than any sort of manned interplanetary exploration. Exposure to vacuum and radiation, in space, would thoroughly sterilize the entire apparatus before it even lands, protecting anything which might be alive in the ocean underneath from contamination by organisms from Earth.

Tunneling LASSO Probe (Lander for Analysis of Sub-Surface Oceans)

In this cross-sectional diagram, the light blue area represents the ice crust of Europa, or another solar-system body like that moon. The ice-tunneling lander is shown in red, orange, black, yellow, and green. The dark blue area is the vertical tunnel created by the probe, shown shortly after tunneling begins. As the probe descends, the dome shown in gray caps the tunnel, and stays on the surface, having been previously stored, folded up, in the green section of the egg-shaped probe. The gray section is designed as a geodesic dome, with holes of adjustable size to allow heat to escape into space. An extendable, data-carrying tether connects the egg-shaped tunneling module to the surface dome. Solar-energy panels and radio transmitters and receivers stay at the surface, attached to the gray dome.  

The computers necessary to operate the entire probe are in the yellow section. The black section that extends outward, slightly, from the body of the tunneler would contain mechanisms to obtain samples of water for analysis. The orange section is where actual samples are stored and analyzed.

The red part of the tunneler is weighted, so that gravity forces it to stay at the bottom. It is designed to heat up enough to melt the ice underneath it, allowing the entire “egg” to descend, attached to its tether. Water above the tunneling probe re-freezes, sealing the tunnel so that potentially-damaging holes are not left in the ice crust of Europa. The heating units in the red section can be turned on and off as needed, to slow, hasten, or stop the probe’s descent through the crust.

Oceans in other places in the solar system might require certain adjustments to this design. For example, Ganymede, another moon of Jupiter, is far rockier than Europa. If this design were used on Ganymede, the tunneling probe would likely be stopped by sub-surface rocks. For this type of crust, the probe’s design could be modified to allow lateral movement of the tunneler, in order to go around rocks.

Ganymede_g1_true-edit1

Ganymede (source: NASA)

On Europa, Ganymede, and elsewhere, one limitation of this design is imposed by the maximum length of the tether. We would not want to go all the way down to the subsurface oceans with the earliest of these probes, though. A better strategy would be to only tunnel part-way into the crust at first, capturing liquid samples of water before refreezing of the ice. After all, this ice in the crust could have been part of the lower, liquid ocean at some point in the past, and it should be analyzed thoroughly before heat-tunneling any deeper. The decision to make the tether long enough to go all the way through the crust, into the subsurface ocean itself, is not one to make lightly. It would be best to study what we find in molten crust-samples, first, before tunneling all the way through the protective crusts of these oceans. 

Thoughts on Colonizing Space

OSIRIS_Mars_true_color

[Image found here.]

It is no secret than I am not a fan of our current president, Donald Trump. I’ve been watching him carefully, and have found exactly one point of agreement with the man: humans should colonize the planet Mars. The two of us differ, however, on the details. What follows is my set of reasons — not Trump’s — for supporting colonization of Mars.

First, we should not start with Mars. We should start, instead, by establishing a colony on Luna, our own planet’s moon. There are several reasons for this. First, as seen in this iconic 1969 photograph brought to us by NASA, we’ve been to the Moon before; it simply makes sense to start space-colonization efforts there.

apollo-flag2

At its furthest distance, the Moon is ~405,000 km away from Earth’s center, according to NASA. By contrast, at its closest approach to Earth in recent history, Mars was 55,758,006 km away from Earth. With the Moon less than 1% as far away as Mars at closest approach, Luna is the first logical place for an extraterrestrial colony. It need not be a large colony, but should at least be the size of a small town on Earth — say, 100 people or so. There are almost certainly problems we haven’t even discovered — yet — about establishing a sustainable reduced-gravity environment for human habitation; we already know about some of them, such as muscular atrophy and weakening of bones. Creating a lunar colony would demand of us that we solve these problems, before the much more challenging task of establishing a martian colony. (To find out more about such health hazards, this is a good place to start.) Once we have a few dozen people living on the Moon, we could then begin working in earnest on a martian colony, with better chances for success because of what we learned while colonizing the Moon. 

An excellent reason to spend the billions of dollars it would take to colonize Mars (after the Moon) is that it is one of the best investment opportunities of the 21st Century. Space exploration has a fantastic record of sparking the development of new technologies that can help people anywhere. For example, the personal computers we take for granted today would not be nearly as advanced as they are without the enormous amount of computer research which was part of the “space race” of the 1960s. The same thing can be said for your cell phone, and numerous other inventions and discoveries. Even without a major space-colonization effort underway, we already enjoy numerous health benefits as a result of the limited exploration of space we have already undertaken. Space exploration has an excellent track record for paying off, big, in the long run.

Another reason for us to colonize Mars (after the Moon, of course) is geopolitical. The most amazing thing about the 20th Century’s Cold War is that anyone survived it. Had the United States and the Soviet Union simply decided to “nuke it out,” no one would be alive to read this, nor would I be alive to write it. We (on both sides) survived only because the USA and the USSR found alternatives to direct warfare: proxy wars (such as the one in Vietnam), chess tournaments, the Olympics, and the space race. In today’s world, we need safe ways to work out our international disagreements, just as we did then. International competition to colonize space — a new, international “space race” — would be the perfect solution to many of today’s geopolitical problems, particular if it morphs, over the years, into the sort of international cooperation which gave us the International Space Station.

Finally, there is the best reason to establish space colonies, and that is to increase the longevity of our species, as well as other forms of life on Earth. Right now, all our “eggs” are in one “basket,” at the bottom of Earth’s gravity well, which is the deepest one in the solar system, of all bodies with a visible solid surface to stand on. A 10-kilometer-wide asteroid ended the age of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, and there will be more asteroid impacts in the future — we just don’t know when. We do know, however, that past and present human activity is causing significant environmental damage here, so we may not even need the “help” of an asteroid to wipe ourselves out. The point is, the Earth has problems. The Moon also has problems, as does the planet Mars — the two places are far from being paradises — but if people, along with our crops and animals, are located on Earth, the Moon, and Mars, we have “insurance” against a global disaster, in the form of interplanetary diversification. This would allow us to potentially repopulate the Earth, after the smoke clears, if Earth did suffer something like a major asteroid impact.

Since Moon landings ended in the 1970s, we’ve made many significant discoveries with space probes and telescopes. It’s time to start following them with manned missions, once again, that go far beyond low-Earth orbit. There’s a whole universe out there; the Moon and Mars could be our first “baby steps” to becoming a true spacefaring species.

[Later edit: Please see the first comment, below, for more material of interest added by one of my readers.]

Pluto and Charon, Adorning an Icosidodecahedron

 

icosidodeca

Images obtained by NASA’s New Horizons space probe. Geometrical rendering done using Stella 4d, available at http://www.software3d.com/Stella.php.

A Zome Torus, Before and After Adding Dodecahedra, As a Model for a Pulsar’s Accretion Disk and Radiation Jets

zome torus

I’ve been using Zometools, available at http://www.zometool.com, to build interesting geometrical shapes since long before I started this blog. I recently found this: a 2011 photograph of myself, holding a twisting Zome torus. While I don’t remember who was holding the camera, I do remember that the torus is made of adjacent parallelopipeds.

After building this torus, I imagined it as an accretion disk surrounding a neutron star — and now I am imagining it as a neutron star on the verge of gaining enough mass, from the accretion disk, to become a black hole. Such an object would emit intense jets of high-energy radiation in opposite directions, along the rotational axis of this neutron star. These jets of radiation are perpendicular to the plane in which the rotation takes place, and these two opposite directions are made visible in this manner, below, as two dodecahedra pointing out, on opposite sides of the torus — at least if my model is held at just the right angle, relative to the direction the camera is pointing, as shown below, to create an illusion of perpendicularity. The two photographs were taken on the same day. 

zome torus with dodecahedra 2011

In reality, of course, these jets of radiation would be much narrower than this photograph suggests, and the accretion disk would be flatter and wider. When one of the radiation jets from such neutron stars just happens to periodically point at us, often at thousands of times per second, we call such rapidly-rotating objects pulsars. Fortunately for us, there are no pulsars near Earth.

It would take an extremely long time for a black hole to form, from a neutron star, in this manner. This is because most of the incoming mass and energy (mostly mass, from the accretion disk) leaves this thermodynamic system as outgoing mass and energy (mostly energy, in the radiation jets), mass and energy being equivalent via the most famous formula in all of science: E = mc².

When We Build Our Dyson Sphere, Let’s Not Use Enneagonal Antiprisms

Before an undertaking as great as building a Dyson Sphere, it’s a good idea to plan ahead first. This rotating image shows what my plan for an enneagonal-antiprism-based Dyson Sphere looked like, at the hemisphere stage. At this point, the best I could hope for is was three-fold dihedral symmetry.

Augmented 9- Antiprism

I didn’t get what I was hoping for, but only ended up with plain old three-fold polar symmetry, once my Dyson Sphere plan got at far as it could go without the unit enneagonal antiprisms running into each other. Polyhedra-obsessives tend to also be symmetry-obsessives, and this just isn’t good enough for me.

Augmented 9- Antiprism complete

If we filled in the gaps by creating the convex hull of the above complex of enneagonal antiprisms, in order to capture all the sun’s energy (and make our Dyson Sphere harder to see from outside it), here’s what this would look like, in false color (the real thing would be black) — and the convex hull of this Dyson Sphere design, in my opinion, especially when colored by number of sides per face, really reveals how bad an idea it would be to build our Dyson sphere in this way.

Dyson Sphere Convex hull

We could find ourselves laughed out of the Galactic Alliance if we built such a low-order-of-symmetry Dyson Sphere — so, please, don’t do it. On the other hand, please also stay away from geodesic spheres or their duals, the polyhedra which resemble fullerenes, for we certainly don’t want our Dyson Sphere looking like all the rest of them. We need to find something better, before construction begins. Perhaps a snub dodecahedron? But, if we use a chiral polyhedron, how do we decide which enantiomer to use?

[All three images of my not-good-enough Dyson Sphere plan were created using Stella 4d, which you can get for yourself at this website.]