Mining Asteroids: Not At Those Overheads

Where shall we start diggin'?

In The Future™, when mankind is Sufficiently Advanced®, nations, companies and entrepreneurs will be shuttling huge cargo spaceships to and from the asteroid belt. Asteroid mining is going to be the first REAL gold rush, “thars gold in them thar rocks!” But not only gold, we’ll be able to consume asteroids of all their constituents; platinum, iridium and silicon (silicon?). Global economies will be flooded with a new-found wealth being fed by the new Solar System’s bounty. Times will be good, after all, this is The Future™.

Although asteroid mining looks good on paper, once you do a little bit of adding up, you suddenly realize it’s actually one hell of an undertaking. Looking at the economics of asteroid mining is especially daunting, and believe me, my co-author Greg Fish has done the number crunching.

When Greg and I started out researching our book, Astroeconomics: Making Money from the Vacuum of Space, we initially made the assumption that the key way to make vast wads of cash in space is from asteroid mining. This assumption was purely based on… well, an assumption. A quick glance on the various space advocacy websites will demonstrate just how accepted asteroid mining is as a future industry. After all, science fiction has been telling us this for years. Given a sufficiently advanced technology, we’ll be able to build a spaceship, with a mining platform, send it to the asteroid belt (obviously a very short distance), fill up the cargo hold with ore (or, if we are that advanced, refined precious metals) and be back on Earth by a week next Friday.

However, when we looked at the situation, we decided to focus on the economics of the beast (in all honesty, Greg did the calculations, I can barely balance my own books, let alone the books of an entire space-faring industry).

Naturally, we assume it’s going to be businesses (not governments) wanting to mine asteroids, and we assume mining/spaceflight technologies that could possibly be available within the next few decades (and no, we didn’t consider nanotech; I’m thinking rock-eating nanobots wont be available in stores for a long while yet). We also assumed these space mining companies will want to make a profit (we might be wrong). Unfortunately, asteroid mining doesn’t make an awful lot of sense from a business perspective. The risk is too high, the overheads are whopping, and the payback — while impressive — won’t pay the bills. And then there’s nasties like space pirates and industrial accidents to consider, adding to the ‘risk’ factor.

All in all, it’s not a very attractive business proposition to build a mining fleet and send it on an interplanetary joyride; most businesses would rather set up a mining installation in the middle of Antarctica. But we’re not pouring cold water on the whole venture either, we’ve worked out a few ways future businesses can actually turn asteroid mining into an industry.

So, today, Greg contributed a guest article to my “other” blog, Space Disco on Discovery Space. If you want to find out more about the ins and outs of asteroid economics, have a read of Mining Asteroids And Getting Rich (Or Not)

Enjoy!

About these ads

Why Is SETI Not An Interstellar Switchboard?

Monolith by highdarktemplar on DeviantArt.

"Monolith" by highdarktemplar on DeviantArt.

On reading an article in The Daily Galaxy today, I was interested by what the author had to say. In a nutshell, the article pointed out that it is a big mistake to believe we are the only intelligent life in the Milky Way.

Why is that?

The only reason given was that there are billions of stars, it is therefore foolish to think we are the only example of an advanced species. Unfortunately, there is no evidence to suggest that we aren’t the only intelligent life form in our galaxy. Just because there are hundreds of billions of stars possibly with billions of habitable planets does not constitute evidence that we’re not alone. That’s what science is all about, formulating a theory and then gathering the evidence. Simply saying, “There’s lots of stars, therefore there must be an intelligent species out there,” doesn’t cut it.

Dr Frank Drake toiled with this idea to eventually arrive at the famous Drake Equation, a concept I have never felt at ease with:

At first glance, we could say that the Drake equation really is nonsense (after all, how can any equation predict more than one intelligent civilization in our galaxy, when we only have experience of one: us), and that we are the only kids on the Milky Way block. — from If There’s an Alien Race Living on our Doorstep, Why Can’t We Hear Them?

How can you arrive at the conclusion that we are not the only intelligent life in the galaxy simply because there are a lot of stars?

Familiarity

What can we expect ET to look like?

What can we expect ET to look like?

It is true that the Milky Way contains billions of stars, of which a high percentage probably have exoplanets not dissimilar to Earth orbiting them. There’s every chance that a smaller percentage of those Earth-like terrestrial exoplanets have some kind of basic life form slivering around (or indeed swimming, flying, walking or ‘talking’). Also, there’s the chance that some of these exoplanets have nurtured something that we’d consider to be ‘intelligent.’

Now this is where things start to get a bit tricky.

There are massive international efforts under way to find any kind of extraterrestrial life. We’re toasting soil samples on Mars in the hope of finding the biological signature, and we’re using full-blown antennae scouring the skies for any organized signal from an intelligent alien species. However, whether we are looking for microbial life in the Solar System or something a little more sophisticated beyond, our search for extraterrestrial life is based on only one model: Earth.

It’s all very well saying that we should be looking for other possible forms of life, but if we have no experience of it, how do we know what to look for?

It’s a similar question to, “What is beyond a black hole’s event horizon?” We have no idea, because we cannot experience it, the physics of our Universe simply do not apply beyond an event horizon.

There are a lot of ideas, theories and conjecture but at the end of the day, we have to assume ET will have some trait we are familiar with.

When looking for intelligent extraterrestrials we make the assumption that these civilizations have progressed in a similar way to us, eventually transmitting radio signals (perhaps even laser beacons) to communicate on their home world, between planets with their own kind, or even reaching out into the cosmos, signalling their presence to other life forms capable of receiving interstellar signals.

We’ve been leaking radio signals into space for the last century and we are constantly communicating with our planetary probes. There’s every chance that if there’s an intelligent alien (with a radio receiver) within 100 light years, we may have already been detected. We are also being a bit more proactive these days, using programs such as Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) to make our presence known. (But what should we be saying?)

SETI, METI, SETA… SETT?

The Arecibo radio antenna, used by SETI

The Arecibo radio antenna, used by SETI

Unfortunately, apart from one isolated case, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has drawn up blanks, we don’t think we’ve heard anything in the cosmos that’s originated from an alien.

On this single null result, we could jump to the conclusion that there is no other form of ‘intelligent’ life in our galaxy. Say if the ‘Rare Earth‘ theory is correct, and we are indeed the only form of intelligent life in our galaxy? But there are other explanations. What if ET is signalling via another method? What if there is some interstellar mechanism that is hindering (or even blocking) the transmission of electromagnetic communications? All these questions are valid as there is no scientific evidence to support otherwise. It’s very quiet out there, a fact that is bugging scientists quite a bit, and this problem been dubbed the Fermi Paradox.

The Milky Way is very old, in fact, the oldest star in our galaxy has been burning for 13.2 billion years (compare that with the age of the Universe at 13.74 billion years); you’d logically think that something resembling an intelligent civilization would have popped into existence in that time. If they did, surely we’d have detected them by now, wouldn’t we?

Actually, this spawns yet another debate: Have ancient interstellar alien civilizations come and gone? Was there a frenzy of intelligent life popping up all over the galaxy in the billions of years that our Sun was a proto-star surrounded by a proto-planetary disk? If old alien intelligence has since become extinct, our few thousand years as an evolving civilization is a mere spark in universal time scales. Could it be that we’ll have to wait until we can actually visit interstellar destinations first-hand to do the SETI equivalent of an archaeological dig, looking for alien artefacts? Perhaps SETI should be changed to the Search for Extraterrestrial Artefacts (SETA), where we’d have to look for evidence of alien civilizations past.

Dyson Microcosm by justravelin on DeviantArt

"Dyson Microcosm" by justravelin on DeviantArt

There’s another factor to consider. What if an advanced extraterrestrial civilization simply isn’t transmitting? If this is the case, perhaps we should consider a Search for Extraterrestrial Technology (SETT). In this case we could look for alien megastructures, searching for the stuff of science fiction. These structures could include examples of Dyson Spheres, huge alien-made hollow spheres containing a star; a means to harvest all the stellar energy for a vastly advanced civilization.

These are all options, and we shouldn’t close any possibility, no matter how extreme they may be.

Conclusion

There’s a reason why we haven’t received a signal via SETI, but we have no idea about what it could be. We really could be alone in the Milky Way. But then again, there’s a huge number of reasons why we might not be receiving a message from an intelligent species.

SETI may not be an interstellar switchboard, but the reasons for this are far from obvious. The theory that we are alone is just as valid as the theory that we are actually a part of a vast interstellar ecosystem. Until we have scientific evidence, we can’t say either way.

There’s a 2012 Doomsday Turkey in my Crop Circle

Wow, look at that title for some keyword stuffing! Stuffing… get it?

Phoenix? Turkey? They're both birds, so it's close enough (M & Y PORTSMOUTH)

Phoenix? Turkey? They're both birds, so it's close enough (M & Y PORTSMOUTH)

The Telegraph: bedrock of traditional journalism, pinnacle of UK news reporting– I’m sorry, I can’t finish that sentence, I’m too busy crying with laughter.

Seriously. I mean, seriously. Sure, everyone needs to remain competitive in this ultra-fast world of social media and transient online traffic, but there’s a lot to be said for keeping your integrity too. In this master stroke of continued patchy reporting from the UK’s Telegraph we have a serious ‘news’ report about a crop circle, that depicts the Phoenix flying from the ashes. Or is it a turkey?

What could this possibly mean? Oh yes, I might have guessed. Obviously it means the world is going to end on December 21st 2012. What a coincidence, those Mayan fellas have been saying the same thing all along. Now we have crop circles? And crop circle enthusiasts telling us it’s the end of the world? Holy crapcakes, doomsday really is coming. I’ve been such a fool.

The saving grace about this article is that it hasn’t been filed under ‘science’, unlike the “Mars Skull” hilarity a few weeks ago. But that’s the article’s only saving grace.

I’d understand if there was a little scepticism in the tone of the report, or perhaps a little light-hearted banter about aliens and their fetish for bending corn, but unfortunately this is an article that jumps to one huge conclusion:

Crop circles = Doomsday

It really is that simple. Reading signs in bent corn has been the fodder for doomsday theorists for as long as there have been doomsday theories and this report does nothing to challenge that. Is it really that hard to find a skeptic/scientist/logical thinker in Wiltshire these days?

I might be missing something here, but where’s the link between these crop circles and doomsday in 2012? That’s right, there isn’t one.

And I’m now certain that crop circle depicts a turkey

Source: Telegraph.co.uk (YES, I know! The sodding TELEGRAPH!)

Warp Drives and… Black Holes?

Could warp drives be a bad thing for Earth?

Why do all roads seem to lead to black holes? Man made black holes are supposedly going to be produced by the Large Hadron Collider, swallowing Earth (or, at least, a large fraction of Europe), so it seems only logical that something like a warp drive — a technology of the uber-future requiring uber-energies — would also generate a black hole, right?

Yes, we are talking about a vastly theoretical technology, but according to Italian researchers, the spaceship propulsion device popularized by Star Trek could have grave consequences for Planet Earth.

Over the past week, I’ve been deep inside the science behind faster-than-light-speed propulsion and time travel as a part of the Discovery Space Wide Angle: Surfing Spacetime, and I feel well versed in the astounding physics that could make warp speed a possibility in the future. All this started when interviewing one of the leading authorities on warp drive propulsion, Dr Richard Obousy, who is not only upbeat about the possibilities of the futuristic warpship, he’s done the math to prove that a sufficiently advanced civilization could “surf” on a spacetime wave.

However, there’s a catch. Well, two.

Firstly, we need to develop an understanding for dark energy. And second, we need a gargantuan energy source.

Dark energy is a cosmological theory that explains the continued expansion of the universe. This energy pervades all of the cosmos, explaining everything from the grouping of galactic clusters to the faster-than-light-speed inflationary period immediately after the Big Bang. There’s a lot of indirect observation of dark energy and its effects on spacetime. It’s out there, but it’s a tough proposition to think we might be able to harness it someday. But then again, we said that about electricity once, who knows what technological revolutions await us in the decades and centuries ahead.

Assuming we find a way of harnessing dark energy, how can we use it? This is where visionary physicists like Dr Obousy come in. Skipping over the superstring small-print of extra-dimensional theory, we basically need a huge amount of energy to manipulate the universal dark energy, thereby shrinking and expanding vanishingly small dimensions beyond our three dimensional universe.

So how much energy is needed warp spacetime, allowing a futuristic spaceship to zip through space? “Some back of the envelope calculations I performed last year indicated approximately the mass energy contained within the planet Jupiter,” Richard told me.

This sounds like a lot of energy! However, there’s a trend, the rest mass energy of Jupiter is actually an improvement on previous warp drive calculations. “The very early warp drive calculations indicated that one would need more mass energy than was available within the entire universe… that’s TRILLIONS of Jupiters!

This improvement is down to recent developments in superstring theory and quantum dynamics. It would appear that the energy requirements for a warp drive improves with developments in physics. If this trend continues, we may find other energy saving ways to make a warpship a reality.

However, there are some practical issues putting the breaks on travelling at warp speed. Only recently, I reported on a study focusing on quantum fluctuations as the warp “bubble” (containing our warpship) blasts through the light speed barrier: the occupants could get roasted by Hawking Radiation.

Today, another problem has surfaced from the extreme warp equations: black holes (who would have guessed?). Italian physicist Stefano Finazzi of Italy’s International School for Advanced Studies has crunched the numbers and wondered about what would happen when the energy runs out. It’s all very well generating a Jupiter’s rest mass-worth of energy, but how will it be sustained by the warp drive? What will happen when all the energy is depleted?

Eventually the energy would run out. The [warp] bubble would rupture, with catastrophic effects. Inside the bubble the temperature would rise to about 1032 degrees Kelvin, destroying almost anything on the bubble.Eric Bland, Discovery News

It gets better, Finazzi also predicts a fair amount of doom outside the warp bubble, too. “We know that the warp drive will be destabilized,” he added. “But we do not know if it will in the end explode or collapse to a black hole.”

Don’t go running out of gas any where near Earth is all I say

Although these implications of doom and gloom should have given Jean Luc Picard a panic attack whenever he said “engage!” or “make it so Number One…”, we have to remind ourselves warp drive propulsion isn’t even close to being a reality. Dr Obousy and warp scientists before him are only just beginning to assemble a theoretical framework around the sci-fi notion of warping spacetime, so to already be predicting warp speed fail seems a little premature in my opinion.

In response to the Hawking Radiation problem, Dr Obousy pointed out that if we get to the point of generating vast quantities of energy, harnessing the spacetime warping power of dark energy, we should be able to at least have a stab at finding solutions to these potential warp drive problems.

Objections are good, but usually we find smart ways of circumventing problems. Humans are good at that,” he said.

I agree.

Solar Cycle Prediction: “None of Our Models Were Totally Correct”

nov4flare

Predicting space weather is not for the faint-hearted. Although the Sun appears to have a predictable and regular cycle of activity, the details are a lot more complex. So complex in fact, that the world’s greatest research institutions have to use the most powerful supercomputers on the planet to simulate the most basic of solar dynamics. Once we have a handle on how the Sun’s interior is driven, we can start making predictions about how the solar surface may look and act in the future. Space weather prediction requires a sophisticated understanding of the Sun, but even the best models are flawed.

Today, another solar cycle prediction has been released by the guys that brought us the “$2 trillion-worth of global damage if a solar storm hits us” valuation earlier this month. According to NOAA scientists sponsored by NASA, Solar Cycle 24 will peak in May 2013 with a below-average number of sunspots.

If our prediction is correct, Solar Cycle 24 will have a peak sunspot number of 90, the lowest of any cycle since 1928 when Solar Cycle 16 peaked at 78,” says Doug Biesecker of the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center.

Although this may be considered to be a “weak” solar maximum, the Sun still has the potential to generate some impressive flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs). Although I doubt we’ll see the record-breaking flares we saw in 2003 (pictured top), we might be hit by some impressive solar storms and auroral activity will certainly increase in Polar Regions. But just because the Sun will be more active, it doesn’t mean we will be struck by any big CMEs; space is a big place, we’d be (un)lucky to be staring directly down the solar flare barrel.

So, we have a new prediction and the solar models have been modified accordingly, but it is hard to understand why such tight constraints are being put on the time of solar maximum peak (one month in 2013) and the number of sunspots expected (90, or thereabouts). Yes, sunspot activity is increasing, but we are still seeing high-latitude sunspots from the previous cycle (Solar Cycle 23) pop up every now and again. This is normal, an overlap in cycles do occur, yet it surprises me that any definitive figures are being placed on a solar maximum that may or may not peak four years from now.

Ah, I see, it's obvious Solar Cycle 24 will look like that... is it really? (NOAA/NASA)

Tenuous link: Are you really happy with that prediction? (NOAA/NASA)

We are able to look at the history of sunspot number and we can see the cycles wax and wane, and we can pick out a cycle that most resembles the one we are going through now, but that doesn’t mean that particular cycle will happen this time around. Statistically-speaking, there’s a higher chance of a similar-looking cycle from the past happening in this 24th cycle, but predictions based on this premise are iffy to say the least.

Also, solar models are far from being complete, and many aspects of the physics behind the Sun’s internal dynamics are a mystery. The Sun really is acting strange, which is fascinating for solar physicists.

It turns out that none of our models were totally correct,” says Dean Pesnell of the Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA’s lead representative on the panel. “The sun is behaving in an unexpected and very interesting way.”

Personally, I think we should concentrate less on predicting when or how the next solar maximum presents itself. Solar models are not going to suddenly predict the nature of the solar cycle any more than we can predict terrestrial weather systems more than a few days in advance.

Using the atmospheric weather analogy, we know the seasons cycle as the year goes on, but there is no way we can say with any degree of certainty when the hottest day of the year is going to be, or which week will yield the most rain.

The same goes for our Sun. It is vastly complex and chaotic, a system we are only just beginning to understand. We need more observatories and more solar missions with advanced optics and spectrometers (and therefore a huge injection of funding, something solar physicists have always struggled without). Even then, I strongly doubt we’ll be able to predict exactly when the peak of the solar cycle is going to occur.

That said, space weather prediction is a very important science, but long-term forecasts don’t seem to be working, why keep on releasing new forecasts when the old one was based on the same physics anyway? Predicting an inactive, active or mediocre solar maximum only seems to cause alarm (although it is a great means to keep solar physics in the headlines, which is no bad thing in my books).

I suppose if you make enough predictions, eventually one will be correct in four years time. Perhaps there will be a peak of 90 sunspots by May 2013, who knows?

If you’re blindfolded, spun around and armed with an infinite supply of darts, you’ll eventually hit the board. Hell, you’ll probably even hit the bullseye

Source: NASA, special thanks to Jamie Rich for bringing this subject to my attention!

Space or Pizza?

This is an unlikely comparison if I ever saw one. According to ex-NASA Administer Mike Griffin, the US spends more money on pizza in a year than it does on the US space agency. If you thought that was funny, the best has yet to come…

pizza_nasa

…polls have concluded that most US citizens believe NASA receives 24% of the annual $3 trillion federal budget. In actuality, NASA receives… wait for it… less than 1% ($18 billion).

Now stand up, and stop rolling around on the floor laughing hysterically. No wonder people get so pissed with NASA when they think 24% of the national annual budget is invested into the exploration of space! No guys, 1%. Is that really too much to pay for the advancement of science, exploration, technology and human ingenuity? Fancy donating few percent of your annual pizza budget to NASA?

What we do is huge, and we do it for chump change – less than the annual market for pizza,” Griffin said earlier in the week during a New York presentation to aerospace businessmen. The annual US market for pizza is $27 billion.

$27 billion? Wow.

I’ve always liked Griffin. He was a pretty strong leader of NASA and he’s a tireless manned space exploration advocate. He was also instrumental in the creation of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS), thus stimulating the private sector to start pushing into space, carrying out NASA contracts to the International Space Station.

When the NASA budget is being dwarfed by the annual sales of a product consisting of a doughy base and three toppings, I can’t help but think commercial space options are the way forward…

Source: AL.com

The Sun Has An Anti-Climax

The solar disk on May 11th: Is it? Are they? Not quite (SOHO)

The solar disk on May 11th: Is it? Are they? Not quite (SOHO)

Some recent solar articles are freaking out, proclaiming that the Sun is waiting to unleash it’s fury on the Earth (re: Warning: Sunspot cycle beginning to rise) or that it’s lowering its energy output, possibly kickstarting Maunder Minimum 2.0 (re: New Forecast Calls for Calmer Sun).

So which one is it? Is the Sun just biding its time, waiting for the perfect moment to fire a salvo of flares at us? Or will it remain quiet, well into Solar Cycle 24, impacting our planet like the Maunder Minimum did during the Little Ice Age from the 16th-19th century?

It’s funny actually, both the above articles are based on the same research, and yet two very different conclusions were drawn from the text.

On the one hand, the Sun is acting rather strange; it’s undergoing a sustained solar minimum, the longest period of low sunspot population for the best part of a century. On the other hand, when the Sun does get active, steadily growing to a peak in activity for the 2012-2013 predicted solar maximum, the resulting flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) could inflict $2 trillion in damages on global infrastructure (according to a recent study), leaving us to mop up the mess for a decade. It’s these two extremes that are causing such a stir, generating the attention-grabbing headlines.

However, I seriously doubt that we are facing another Little Ice Age and I am highly skeptical of the predictions that the 11 years of Cycle 24 are going to be overly violent. To be honest, we just don’t know. Considering we live so close to the Sun, we actually know very little about it; to even begin trying to predict what it’s going to do next remains problematic.

That said, once the Sun starts producing lost of sunspots, this means magnetic activity is on the rise and solar activity is increasing, so when I see sunspots rotate into view, I can’t help but be a little excited. Today, it happened, two active regions appeared on the disk of the Sun. Could this be the real start to the solar cycle?

mag163

Today’s image is a magnetic map of the sun. Two active regions are circled. Their polarity identifies them as members of new Solar Cycle 24, but they lack the dark cores required of true sunspots. So, in spite of these lively magnetic imprints, we must still say “the sun is blank–no sunspots.”SpaceWeather.com

No sunspots, another blank disk day and therefore low magnetic activity still.

How dull.

Sunday Opinion: Astroengine Gets Vaccinated

pin-up-nurse-white

NOTE: This post is a little light on the space science, but keep reading, you’ll see why I’m making such a big thing out of my trip to the doctors…

Yesterday was supposed to be a very productive blog-writing day, however, like all good plans, the day didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped.

For a start, I heard news about a wildfire on my doorstep (it started literally a few hundred metres from my house, and I was only alerted to this fact via Twitter – I wondered what all those helicopters were doing), which prompted me to run outside looking for an ominous smokestack, only to find I was an hour too late and the blaze had been put out by the superb LAFD.

Then I had to play babysitter to Astroengine.com’s server in the hope I was going to get hit by a flood of Digg traffic some… time… soon…

Then I had to let the rabbits out for a run. Barney felt the need to stick his head in the pool, so I decamped my office into the garden so I could make sure he didn’t decide to take a swim. Oh, there’s a lizard! She’s massive! Where’s my camera?

Then I had to run to the bank.

Oh yes, then I had to get to my appointment at the docs to have my tetanus vaccine booster.

Of all the things I hate in the world, syringes come a frightening third after slugs and tall buildings (don’t ask, just look up batophobia). However, these are phobias. If I start using logic and seriously consider all the scary stuff that could happen to me, I’d be most reluctant to become horribly sick and be responsible for infecting others with a nasty, preventable illness.

Hence the vaccine. And the achy arm.

I actually have a strange love for doctors surgeries, as soon as I walk through those doors, I hand all responsibility for my body to the specialists in white white and blue coats. If anything health-wise should happen, at least I have a team that can diagnose me and hopefully repair me. Yes, bad things happen in medical centres, but I’d much rather take my chances with highly professional individuals with years of training and a huge stack of qualifications, than leave things “to chance”.

So there I was sitting in the waiting room, trying to stay calm as I saw the nurse fill up the syringe with fluid from a tiny vial.

Naturally, I started chatting to try to distract myself from thinking too much about the jab. “Do you get many people not wanting to take vaccines?” I asked the nurse.

What do you mean?

Well, there’s this growing anti-vaccination movement I’ve read so much about,” I said, a little surprised she appeared to be genuinely surprised by the notion. “Some celebrities have taken it upon themselves to spread misinformation about the link between vaccines and the onset of autism in children.”

I heard about that,” she said, realizing what I was nervously talking about while staring at the needle in her hands. “But they are crazy, right? I mean, since when did they know anything about medicine?

As it turns out, the only complaint she’d heard from parents about the need to vaccinate their children is the cost, but even then there are options for financial help.

When I left the medical centre with a sore arm, I felt a little different than I had done in the past.

When getting my vaccinations in the UK, it was always a routine affair that required no thought, it was just one of those things you needed to function in society. It’s one of those things I had to do. Looking at my medical records, I received my first vaccine when I was a baby and throughout my life I’ve had regular shots (or as I call them “jabs” which my Mrs Astroengine finds highly amusing). I can quite safely say that I will never catch mumps, measles, rubella, hepatitis and a whole host of other nasties, because my immune system has been bolstered by a history of vaccinations.

Vaccines are highly successful, almost too successful.

Many life-threatening diseases have been wiped out by the widespread use of vaccines, leading to some misinformed individuals to believe vaccines are no longer needed (on the contrary). Then there’s the misplaced (and completely wrong) notion that vaccines are somehow linked with childhood autism. This is a topic that is as insane as it is bewildering, and what’s worse, Los Angeles has become a hothouse of stupid celebrities who think they have every right to be peddling their belief that parents should not vaccinate their kids.

Having seen Jenny McCarthy on the TV a LOT (no red carpet is safe from her Christian Diors), I’m quickly realising the media has a lot of sympathy for her views about the connection between autism and the MMR vaccine. Unfortunately, this makes her extremely vocal in my neck of the woods, and many of her anti-science remarks blend in with her celebritydom, so her message is very well polished, and very… reasonable. People listen to her, and when hubby Jim Carrey wades in with his crazy take of reality on the biggest blogging platforms, even more parents start to think twice about their choice to protect their children against deadly viruses.

If all of this is news to you I urge you to read up on it via Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy. Phil has been bringing this topic up a lot, and at first I wondered what all the fuss was about. Then I had conversations with neighbours and family and many of them are concerned about Jenny et al.’s views on the topic. Fortunately, they all have the common sense to talk to a medical professional before making any rash decisions about boycotting vaccines. Their concerns were laid to rest by the GPs, nurses and healthcare professionals who don’t have the celebrity soap box so many of the famous are using for their personal crusades. So we need more professionals and scientists like Phil who actually know what they are talking about.

Science is a collection of facts, not a collection of personal opinions and beliefs, a notion many people don’t seem to understand. And judging by the density of palm-readers and psychics in my neighbourhood, there’s a lot of people who choose belief of the paranormal over logic.

So, when I walked away from the medical centre, marvelling at the protective injection I had just received (a little bit proud about how I didn’t pass out at the sight of the needle), I felt sad for the kids out there whose parents deemed it necessary to listen to the idiocy spewing from the plumped lips of an ex-Playboy model. Those children could become ill due to negligence (it is parental negligence), and there are an increasing number of deaths associated with diseases that were once unheard of in modern society.

I don’t have children, but when I do, I’ll make sure I’d read up on all the scientific facts first, but they will certainly be vaccinated. For me, vaccines are imperative for “herd immunity” and essential for a healthy society. Individuals who are un-vaccinated could easily become carriers of deadly diseases. In my eyes, an un-vaccinated child could be viewed as a potential weapon. If they are immunized at an early age, their bodies have the ability to fight off contagious disease, preventing unnecessary suffering and, ultimately, improve the health of society as a whole.

Conclusion

So why did I bother to go off-piste and discuss my concern about antivaxxers?

We live in a revolutionary age for mankind. We are exploring space, we have unbelievable technology, we are processing data at a faster rate than ever before. We communicate globally. Medical technology is helping us live for longer than ever before. We are stronger and more intelligent. On paper, mankind is doing pretty well. Yes, there are massive issues challenging us (climate change, economic crises, disasters, overpopulation etc.), but never before have we been able to confront these problems so well. If we had infinite resources and a strong political direction, the Universe could be our oyster.

But as with the antivax movement, anti-science and religious interference with science could undermine our very existence on this planet. Imagine a future where we have constructed a low-Earth orbit infrastructure, sending probes into deep space; we have quantum computing and fusion power. And yet a large portion of the “developed” world distrusts science at its core. Every year there’s a doomsday prophecy. Despite all the scientific evidence against, classrooms are teaching evolution along-side “intelligent design”. Some kids think the Universe is 6,000 years old, others know it is in fact 13.73 billion years old.

And then there’s the Jenny McCarthy’s of this world, spreading nonsense about why we should fear immunization. The media eats that stuff for breakfast, can you imagine what the media could be eating for dinner in a decade? The physical health of entire nations could be put in jeopardy. Who can advance mankind when borders are closed and our brightest minds are dying because of a pandemic caused by a mutated strain of a virus that should have been controlled decades ago?

Having fought a pitched battle with 2012 doomsday advocates for the last year, I’m seeing a pattern emerge. Anti-science is rocking the foundations of mankind, and if you don’t believe me, you need to spend some more time on the internet (a medium by which everyone has a voice, no matter how insane). For every science website, there’s ten websites with pseudo-science ramblings. Unfortunately, now that bigger entities are finding new and inventive ways to make money from people’s fear, I get the feeling we’ve seen nothing yet…

So, that was my big day of getting vaccinated. Interestingly, the most profound moment came at the medical centre as I was leaving with a Band Aid on my arm. The nurse who injected me, obviously thinking about what we were talking about in the waiting room said something very interesting. She asked me why people thought there was some elevated risk associated with vaccinations, after all, all medication carries some kind of “risk” (but the probability of anything bad happening is very, very small). As researched by my friend Greg Fish, these “toxins” don’t sound half as bad if you understand exactly what those scary-sounding ingredients actually are, and in what quantities they are administered.

Do these people have any idea how many toxins they breathe in every day?” the nurse asked as I walked out the door, referring to McCarthy and Carrey. Pointing at the traffic outside she added, “LA isn’t exactly known for it’s clean air!

Good point, I thought.

The Russian Rocket-Powered Lander. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

russian_spaceship_next

Let’s face it, Soyuz is getting old. It’s not that the spaceships themselves are getting rickety, there have been many incarnations, but the original Soyuz design was first conceived in 1966, so the Russian space agency (Roscosmos) is feeling it’s about time for a change. Soyuz has carried out the most manned missions into space out of any other space flight system (over 100 since the 1960s), so Russia has every right to be proud of its achievements.

So what system does Roscosmos want to replace Soyuz with? Perhaps a bigger version of Soyuz? Perhaps a revolutionary winged spaceplane? Nope. They are currently looking at plans for a Soyuz-esque capsule that will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere much like before. But due to political pressure (spawning the need to move Roscosmos’ operations out of Kazakhstan), engineers must find a way to land the return vehicle in a minuscule area. Measuring only 2×5 km (yes, that’s a tight 10 km2), the landing strip will be as unforgiving as the new method to land the descent vehicle.

There will be no parachutes and no wings; the new concept will use a rocket-powered landing system alone, creating the first ever rocket-powered Earth-lander. If you thought that was a rather extreme design specification, you might be surprised to hear that engineers want to start firing these landing thrusters when the descent module is only 600-800 metres from the ground
Continue reading

2012 Is Coming… And All I Got Was This Lousy Fridge Magnet

Screenshot from the Flash animation "The End of the World" by Fluid

Just when I was getting bored of the endless stream of 2012 doomsday hype (tripe), my interest was suddenly reinvigorated when I saw this advertisement:

2012 Calendar Magnet

$2.99 + shipping

Our calendar magnet is a real 2012 calendar. So you can have it on the refrigerator for 3 1/2 years! The calendar magnet is 4.25 inches wide and 5.5 inches long. It is also very clear and easy to read (looks better than the picture above, but is smaller). The shipping cost within the U.S. is $0.79 and for International orders $1.89.

No way. Oh yes. Yes, they did! The most well-known 2012 protagonist website is selling doomsday fridge magnets depicting an Earth plus comet barrelling towards it.

I had to triple-check, just in case this was the doomsday blogging equivalent to Punk’d. No, this is real: fridge magnets.
Continue reading