How Do We Get from Here (Earth, 2012) to There (Dust, 2512)? Part III

Part I

Part II


In part I of the journey to Dust, humanity finally left the confines of Earth and planted its feet in alien soil.  In part II, we unlocked the power to travel across the stars.  In part III, the 23rd century, we will make the stars our home.  With the first steps in wormhole travel behind us, the human race can then do what it has dreamed of since the dawn of space travel – visit and live on all the worlds of our imagination.

The first extrasolar colonies will face challenges similar to those faced in the original settlement of any foreign land.  Yes, future colonies will have the benefits of modern medicine and technology to assist in their survival.  However, colonies will stay face issues with food supplies, habitats, disease, and environmental disasters that will threaten the safety of those early colonists.  Just as early American colonies collapsed so too will early extrasolar colonies.  Perhaps they’ll be wiped out by a parasitic infection.  Perhaps government bureaucracy will strangle the supply chain and the colony will collapse due to a lack of logistic support.  Perhaps the colony will be wiped out be a mega-storm the likes of which we’ve never seen on Earth.  The point is that lives will be lost and there will be plenty of people who think that this great adventure will not be worthwhile.  Just as today, the torch of exploration and colonization will be picked up by some wealthy, perhaps somewhat eccentric, enthusiasts ready to make a name for themselves by establishing a presence on another world.

While that first colony is struggling for survival, wormhole satellites will begin to arrive at other destinations in the galaxy.  The rate of expansion, while extremely slow at first, will quickly grow.  Within the first two decades of the 23rd century, humanity will gain access to another dozen solar systems.  Coupled with a burgeoning population in our native solar system, people will be eager to live on these new worlds.  People will want to leave behind the mundanity of Earth and Mars and leave for exciting frontiers.

At some point, when colonies become somewhat self-sufficient, those colonies will want autonomy.  It’s possible, probable even, that the autonomy will bring out the worst in humanity and blood will once again be shed in the name of independence.  Perhaps that’s too pessimistic and we will learn how to resolve difficult disputes without the violent revolution that has been a regular occurrence throughout history but I doubt it. Due to the pressures of a society with open communication, that conflict will be short-lived and a provisional government will be established, trade treaties will be put in place, and humanity will learn how to govern with a populace that lives light-years apart.  Thus, the First Republic of Earth will be established.

While governments evolve and people settle into their new environs, those responsible for exploration will continue to refine  their approach.  The initial beacons sent out into remote solar systems were powered by traditional propulsion.  This was to ensure safe arrival; no one wants to exit a wormhole into the middle of an asteroid field, Oort cloud, or in the path of an approaching comet.  Beacons will be placed in relatively dead regions of space, away from stars or planets which could draw in hazardous neighbors.

To speed up the rate of exploration, robotic explorers will be launched on blind jumps, travelling through wormholes that do not have a precisely calculated and calibrated exit points.  When a safe exit point is discovered, another beacon will be put in place.  Through this technique a huge interstellar highway will be constructed and journeying to other stars will be as commonplace as flying to another country.

How Do We Get from Here (Earth, 2012) to There (Dust, 2512)? Part II

Part I here.

Dust takes place on a colony of the same name established on a harsh, unforgiving world many light-years from Earth.  The single biggest hurdle that has to be overcome is how the heck do we get there?  For any story set against a backdrop of galactic exploration,  the author has to decide how the human race figures out how to travel beyond the bounds of the solar system.

There are three well-known mechanisms for this: generation ships, faster than light travel, or wormholes.  Generation ships are well within the realm of possibility but are not  conducive to my futuristic galactic Republic, so I’ll explore that topic another time.  Meanwhile the plausibility of faster-than-light travel took a blow this week, but at the moment, wormholes remain a theoretical possibility.  Do a search for wormhole experiments and you’ll find plenty of discussions on the  topic from all corners of the academic spectrum.  Currently, most of the conversation focuses on the theoretical aspects of the problem – that is is it possible to connect two different points in space-time and allow for quick transit between two points that are light-years apart?

Eventually, these discussions will move from the blackboard to the lab (which may already be happening).  Then at some point in the future, my guess here is the 22nd century, we will discover that scientific holy grail.  At that point, the frontier will be open for business.

First though, we’ll need to work on stability and safety.  The first wormholes created will be highly unstable and disappear within seconds.  They will also require tremendous amounts of energy to generate and open.  It’ll take years of experimenting and practice before we can really harness this technology.

Highly technical depiction of the wormhole transit paradigm in Dust

Then there’s the problem of knowing where that wormhole will open up.  The model that I’ve established in Dust is fairly simple, satellites have been deployed throughout the galaxy and link together to form a transit network.  A wormhole can be created between any two points in that network.  The satellites are needed to keep a stable link so that we know with certainty where the wormhole will open up.

With a stable means of transit in place, now we can actually start sending things through the wormhole.  Because the loss of human life in making scientific progress is generally frowned upon, no government will approve the use of wormholes for human travel without extensive testing.  This means the first traveler through a wormhole will be a friendly, sacrificial robot.

The difficulty with beginning to use this transit system will be getting the satellites in place.  If the only way we could accurately predict the exit point of a wormhole is to physically put a satellite in that location, then it’s going to take some time to put that satellite in place through conventional means.  Right now, the closest exoplanets that we know of are roughly 10 light years away.  Even assuming we’ve advanced conventional propulsion to the point where you can travel at roughly half the speed of light or greater, it will still take 20 years to get the first beacon in place and then another ten years for the two satellites to link up.

So when the frontier finally opens, it won’t be a gold rush at first but rather the slow trickle of molasses as humanity works to put a safe and reliable network in place.  Once that network is in place, then the fun begins and humanity will establish its first outpost beyond the boundaries of our solar system.

That won’t be the last of the struggles though, because at some point, there will be an accident and lives will be lost.  When that happens, human transit will be suspended until a root cause to the problem is found and the entire system is made safer.   Those initial flights will be fraught  with risk and it will only be after the system has proven reliable that governments will grant average citizens the opportunity to travel to distant stars.

For more on how I approached building the fictional world of Dust, please see my guest  post on the book blog Alchemy of Scrawl.

The Rhetoric on the NASA Budget

This week, the White House unveiled its fiscal year 2013 budget request for NASA and as soon as that happened, the hand-wringing about NASA’s budget began. In order to decipher the conversation that surrounds the request and the debate to come, we need to briefly look at how NASA is currently constructed and the missions it supports.

NASA is composed of 10 centers, five involved in human spaceflight (Johnson, Kennedy, Stennis, Goddard, Marshall), five involved in research (JPL, Ames, Dryden, Glenn, Langley), NASA headquarters, and roughly half a dozen other facilities. Each center has a different function or specialty which support NASA’s missions of human space exploration, robotic space exploration, planetary sciences, Earth sciences, and aeronautics. In the map above, you can see that those centers are spread across the country. Geography is the first factor that drives the initial rhetoric regarding the budget.

The day after the budget was released, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) released a statement saying:

“I am pleased the President requested $830 million for Commercial Crew programs, which is America’s single most important near-term civil space project. But cutting the Technology budget while increasing the Earth Science budget – a function that doesn’t even belong in a space exploration agency – and continuing to shovel resources into the SLS money pit is a travesty.

“Any more of this kind of “leadership” and soon NASA’s entire budget will be consumed by JWST and the SLS, two things that won’t have made it off the launch pad ten years from now.”

So what’s behind this statement? Well, SpaceX and Blue Origin, two prominent commercial space partners, are both headquartered in California. In addition, two Mars’ robotics programs that are now at risk would be developed and run out of JPL and Ames, also in California.

Meanwhile, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) released this statement:

“As I told the Administrator during our meeting, I oppose these ill-considered cuts and I will do everything in my power to restore the Mars budget and to ensure American leadership in space exploration.”

Rare to see bi-partisan support of anything these days. Then, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX) chimed in with this reaction:

“Despite repeated assurances from NASA and White House officials that the SLS and Orion are ‘key elements of our future strategy for human space exploration’, vehicle development for the heavy lift SLS rocket and the Orion capsule is cut by hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Given that JSC is one of the centers that will most benefit from the development and operation of SLS, these comments should not come as a surprise. The bottom line for each of these representatives is that a reduction in funding to a NASA mission supported by their local centers means a potential loss of jobs at each of those centers. Again, less budget means fewer jobs. Fewer jobs means that constituents in the districts that they support will be out of work.

Having the conversation center around the benefits of one aspect of NASA’s mission vs. another aspect of that mission will not advance the conversation very far. It causes internal strife in an organization that can’t afford to have that. Missions will always need to be appropriately vetted to ensure we are pursuing worthwhile scientific or technological goals. The reality is there are benefits to be gained from all aspects of the agency’s current missions. At this point, funding is being spread so thin across programs in a way that jeopardizes the long term success of several programs. To best accomplish NASA’s mission of exploring the solar system will require a combination of human and robotic exploration supported by satellite or telescopic observation. Each one of these areas of research provides different benefits. Someone who tells you we should only do one or the other of these things is likely not seeing the entire picture.

Satellite observation provides invaluable insight into the varied worlds around us. Satellites like Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter can help map a planet, identify where water once flowed, and point robotic exploration missions to areas of high value. They can peer far into the surface of these worlds giving us insights we would have otherwise never had.

Robotic missions can then go to the surface and help us understand the environment where humans will eventually tread. Robotic explorers can go where it is too dangerous to send humans. They can also explore for long periods without the need for refueling or replenishment. Eventually, those robotic explorers will fail and cease operation.

Enter the human explorer who can change a research target at a moment’s notice, conduct research and exploration without needing someone on Earth to command him or her to do so, and can repair instruments or rovers that break. In addition, as we explore the solar system, we learn more and more about ourselves. Space exploration tests the limits of human endurance and requires continued advances in so many areas.

To do human exploration, we need a US vehicle capable of reaching orbit, low Earth or otherwise. The commercial crew providers show promise but are by no means guaranteed success. As people are now finding out, the commercial providers face the same technological and budgetary challenges that NASA has faced for decades. Several are turning to NASA to provide tried and true expertise for operating their spacecraft. Just as it has always been, the future of human spaceflight will be a public-private partnership.

The real question shouldn’t be should we do robotics vs. human exploration or commercial vs. NASA, it should be are we as a country spending enough on scientific research and development. NASA’s total budget for 2012 is $17.7 billion. This represents .48% of the federal budget or less than half a cent from your tax dollar. This is the lowest percentage of the federal budget that NASA has received since 1960. Many people are under the mistaken impression that the NASA budget is comparable to the Department of Defense Budget. The DoD budget request for 2013 stands at $525 billion dollars or 30 times the NASA budget. By point of comparison, in NASA’s entire history from 1958 to 2012, the US has given NASA $543 billion dollars (non-adjusted) or $18 billion more than the DoD’s request for next year. Staggering.

At one point, I was a doubter of MPCV and SLS, believing the rhetoric that had spewed forth of it just being a pork program. That was before I talked to people hard at work on that program, people who are working as hard as they can to get this done as quickly and cheaply as possible, so that we can resume human exploration of the solar system. Without MPCV and SLS, NASA would not have any budget for human exploration and who knows if we would ever get that back. Now, MPCV is on track for a test flight in 2014 and SLS is slated for its first test in 2015 and a longer test flight in 2017. If funding is maintained, those dates will be here sooner than you think.

Couple that with the continued development of commercial crew services, which some companies are still on track to provide by 2016, and the US would have a fully operational human exploration program with access to low Earth orbit and beyond in 4-5 years. Robotic precursor missions would have already paved the way and suddenly, we would have the capability to do the things we’ve always dreamed.

Isn’t that worth paying for?

Quick addendum: I’m not trying to suggest that the government should give NASA whatever it wants unchecked. Accountability is absolutely needed and funds for research should also be used in other areas of scientific, technological, or medical research. I am suggesting we ought to consider our national priorities of where to invest taxpayer money and perhaps alter the balance of things.

How do we get from here (Earth, 2012) to there (Dust, 2512)? (Part I)

The challenge of setting any story in the future is establishing some reasonable progression of society and its technological capabilities.  Dust takes place some 500 years in the future, so I thought it would be fun to lay out a bit of a timeline of advancements needed and milestones achieved over that time.

Sometime this year or next, I expect the discovery of the first potentially habitable planet to be announced.  Exoplanet discoveries have steadily ramped up over the past year and that will only increase as more resources are devoted to deciphering data from research projects like the Kepler telescope.  The discovery of a habitable world will no doubt spark a small mention in the national conversation, but the stark reality is we will be limited in how much we will be able to learn about this world at this time.  So we will discover the world, we will no doubt listen to it and study its atmospheric composition, but beyond that there won’t be much more we can do.

On human exploration, I have to believe that at some point in the next 2 decades some man or woman will set foot on another world in our solar system.  Whether that person will be from the United States, Russia, China, Japan, Germany, Italy, India, South Korea or any other space-faring nation is ultimately irrelevant.  What really matters is that someone will do it.  That person may set foot on that world for the noble goal of exploration, due to an attempt to instill national pride, or in some misguided cold-war-style space race, but it will be done.

When that happens, I want to believe that the final hurdle will be overcome and that the floodgates for exploration will be open.  This is naive, of course.  At a minimum, I hope we have learned lessons from the incredible accomplishments of Apollo and hopefully, we will be there for more than just a brief visit.  Of course, the real gate-opener for exploration and ultimately colonization will be to find a way to make it profitable whether it’s through mining, scientific advancement, or some other unforeseen reason.  Make it profitable and companies will come.

While this exploration of the solar system will ultimately result in advances in medicine and medical technology due to the obstacles overcome in that exploration, medical advances will continue to advance due to terrestrial research.  Within the next couple of decades, the developed world will start to have access to life-extending medications.  Even without these medications, the world population will continue to increase and the ability of the planet to support the ever-growing population will continue to be stressed.  Could the world population ever become so large that humanity is forced to try and expand to another world?  Possibly, but it’s more likely that some section of society would collapse before a solution like that would be pursued.

Eventually though, assuming there are enough well-to-do private enthusiasts and/or government funding, enough money will be poured into developing space exploration technologies that the cost-to-orbit will be lowered, advanced propulsion capabilities will be delivered, and the technical challenges related to establishing a colony on another world will be overcome.  Then finally, whether through necessity or curiosity, humanity take out an insurance policy on the Earth and begin living on another world.

Given the current rate and commitment to exploration, 50 years is probably too ambitious a time frame for this to happen.  This is where you have to recognize that even if the United States doesn’t do this, then some other country will.  With any luck, it’ll be a cooperative effort.

Once a foothold is established on another world, we will then begin the task of reforming that world into something more hospitable for us and turning it into a long-term home for our people.  Currently, these technologies and approaches are only theoretical, but we have plenty of time to turn those theories into reality.

Up next, the 22nd century…

The Continued Evolution of Human Spaceflight Training

In my department, we have no less than a dozen different efforts designed to improve the quality of training provided to flight controllers, astronauts, and fellow instructors in preparation for human spaceflight missions to the International Space Station (ISS) and all of its supporting vehicles.  From creating new simulators that provide better on-orbit training capabilities to working with Harvard and UCLA to better prepare flight controllers for the stresses and fatigue of console work to implementing the use of Web 2.0 tools to improve how we communicate and collaborate, we constantly strive to find new ways to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the training we provide.

We’ve come a long way from the early days of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs when the astronaut corps was comprised of mostly test pilots who knew every facet of how their experimental vehicles operated.  Those astronauts were supported by hundreds of the best engineers on the planet who knew the ins and outs of every nut, bolt, circuit board, and vacuum tube that comprised those vehicles.  The astronauts were responsible for flipping every switch on those spacecraft; they controlled the horizontal and the vertical and everything in between.

With shuttle, we not only had pilots and commanders who knew every facet of the vehicle but we also had mission specialists and payload specialists who were responsible for their own specialized tasks.  Those tasks ranged from extra-vehicular activities (EVAs), space walks, to using the Shuttle and ISS robotic arms to perform ISS assembly tasks, to wide array of scientific experiments focusing on anything from materials science to studies of the human body.  Those crews, initially supported by teams of hundreds as in the early programs, eventually were supported by teams of dozens as we grew more adept at operating the shuttle.

With ISS, we faced different challenges.  In took some time for us to adjust to the ISS paradigm where the astronauts do not pilot the vehicle; the mission control team does.  With shuttle and the earlier vehicles the astronauts controlled just about everything and knew every inch of their spacecraft; that is almost an impossibility with the ISS.  The vehicle is too large and too complex for any one person or two people to control.  Now, mission control teams in Houston, Huntsville, Toulouse, Munich, Moscow, and Tsukuba, fly the vehicle on a day-to-day basis.  Those mission control teams control the orientation of the vehicle, change its attitude, maneuver the vehicle to avoid orbital debris, control ISS power, life support, computer systems, etc.

With crew members freed from the majority of these vehicle control capabilities, that leaves them free to perform two things: science and maintenance.  Currently, ISS crews are expected to perform 35 hours per week of science experiments, ensuring that we are using this national laboratory for its intended purpose.  The majority of the rest of their time is spent taking care of themselves and the vehicle.

To take care of themselves, every crew member is expected to do at least two hours per day of exercise.  To ensure they stay sharp mentally, they are given plenty of resources and time to stay in touch with family members or to entertain themselves with their leisure activity of choice.

Beyond that, fixing the vehicle takes up the rest of their time.  One of the many things that I love about the original Star Wars trilogy is the spaceships, in particular the Millennium Falcon.  The Falcon isn’t some sleek, smooth, perfectly operating vehicle; it breaks.  The hyperdrive doesn’t work, it suffers burnouts, and various other problems as the ship attempts to lurch from planet to planet.  This is one thing the George Lucas got right.

We don't have hydrospanners yet, but I'm sure we will some day.

Filters get clogged.  Valves get stuck.  Software gets corrupted.  Electrical components short out.  When any of those things happen, the affected equipment needs to be fixed or replaced and while there are dozens of mission controllers on Earth who can tell the crew what to do; there are only six people in space who can actually do that work.  Every day, the ISS crew spends time fixing things with support from their mission control teams.

So instead of training pilots, we train repairmen and women and scientists.  We train them to live in a house, a house with the best customer support in the world, but not to fly a spaceship.  Mission control teams no longer just support the crew; they fly the vehicle.  We have to train accordingly.

With the right funding and a little luck, we on the NASA-side will resume training pilots to fly any of four or five different spacecraft to fly to ISS.  For now though, that pilot training is the responsibility of our Russian colleagues. Once those vehicles are in place, we will hopefully set our sites outward in the solar system.  Then our training challenges will multiply.

We will again have to shift our focus.  Astronauts will once again be in charge of the spacecraft.  Once the spacecraft gets far enough away from Earth, it will no longer be practical for the ground to control all aspects of the vehicle.  Once again we will have pilots, but with the long duration nature of missions, we will need more repairmen and women.  And in addition to those roles, there will of course be scientists ready to carry out our next steps of scientific discovery in the solar system.

For ISS, we already face challenges with having to train so much information that there is no way one person can retain it all.  To offset that, we are challenged to produce training materials that can be delivered to the crew members at the moment they need them.  Astronauts receive 2.5 years of training; flight controllers receive another 2.5.  All to operate a vehicle that we are able to communicate with instantly.

In the future, we won’t have that luxury.  But equipment will still break and the crew will need to fix it.  Astronauts will need to maintain their piloting skills even while on the surface of Mars or an asteroid. They will need to set up habitats, operate rovers, perform surface EVAs, etc.  It won’t be practical to train all of this prior to a mission.

Over the next decade, my organization is challenged with developing the means and methods of providing efficient and effective training to crews and mission controllers when and where they need it.  We will do this while still providing training to astronauts and mission controllers the operate and utilize the ISS.  To do this, we will use ISS as a test bed just as ISS will be used as a test bed for new technologies in propulsion and spacecraft equipment.

This is a challenge that I and many of my people are eager to tackle.

 

 

 

 

Misconceptions about the Future of Human Spaceflight

This week, someone stumbled across this blog while searching for an answer to this question: “will jaxa houston operation close after the last shuttle retirement?”

Two weeks ago, I read a comment on my favorite tech blog, Gizmodo, asking why NASA still needed an astronaut corps if the NASA human spaceflight program had been cancelled.

Before that, I was told about this exchange from a friend of mine:

Waitress – Where do you work?

Friend – JSC.

Waitress – Oh, you mean the credit union?

Friend – No, the space center.

Waitress – Oh, I thought that place had been shut down.

Sigh.

Everyone here recognizes we are not about to enter the golden age of NASA human spaceflight programs.  There’s even the depressing possibility that those days are long behind us and we will never again achieve the high points of the past.  The future right now is far from certain and there are a number of possibilities in the years ahead.

First and foremost, NASA will be operating the International Space Station for at least the next ten years.  This means that, with any luck, there will be a NASA astronaut in space every day for the next ten years.  Not only will there be one, but there could be as many as three, while part of a larger crew of six or seven people.  Humans have lived in space aboard the space station for the past ten years and will continue to do so for the next ten years or more.

Twenty years of continuous human presence in space will be quite an achievement if we can pull it off.  We’ll definitely need a lot of luck in addition to the hard work, determination, and expertise of every astronaut, flight controller, or instructor.

For the next 3-4 years, the only ride to ISS will be aboard the Russian-built Soyuz spacecraft, a stalwart capsule that has been in service for 50+ years.  Once we hit 2015 or 2016, things look a little more unclear and different possibilities emerge.  Currently four U.S. companies, SpaceX, Sierra Nevada Corp., Blue Origin, and Boeing, are building possible crewed vehicles capable of launching into low Earth orbit and rendezvousing with the space station.  In addition to these companies, several others are also still developing potential crew vehicles.

Once one or two of those companies succeed, we will no longer be dependent on the Soyuz to get to orbit.  The successful commercial companies will secure government contracts that will require them to fly a couple of times per year to the space station. At that point, NASA will likely be the only customer in town, though it’s possible a company like Bigelow Aerospace will have the first commercial space station in orbit at that time.

If those companies do not succeed, NASA is developing its own vehicle, the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV).  The MPCV is a capsule that is intended to be able to go to ISS and beyond.

What people often miss is that many of the previous NASA human spaceflight vehicles were built by private contractors.  The Space Shuttle and Apollo capsules were built by private companies and turned over to NASA for operation.  The difference here would be in the operation of the vehicle.  These companies could operate the vehicles themselves or partner with NASA to do it, but either way, they would ultimately be coming to the space station and working with NASA to successfully complete missions.

Before the next vehicle becomes operational, my hope is that we will have settled on what our next human spaceflight goal will be.  The possibilities include a return to the Moon, a rendezvous with a near-Earth asteroid, or even a mission to one of Mars’ moons.  If we’re going to take advantage of the development of a new vehicle, either MPCV or otherwise, to go to another destination then we will need to start planning within the next couple of years.

In order for our future programs to be successful, we cannot approach these projects as a means to leave footprints on the ground.  We have to approach them to leave an infrastructure in place that will allow for continued expansion of commercial companies into the solar system.

In my opinion, the government will always need to be out in front, laying down the infrastructure that will allow commercial companies to be profitable.  If ISS didn’t exist, the only market for services would be for millionaire space tourists.  NASA is defraying the development costs of the commercial companies to encourage their participation.  Take that away and take ISS as a destination away and do all of these companies continue to make the progress they do?

I’m not sure of that.  I wouldn’t put it beyond one of the Über-rich space enthusiasts to try this without assistance, but their will be a lot of risk and the cost of failure will be very high.

Beyond the ISS, NASA will take the burden of doing the initial forays to an asteroid and learning what it’s like to live and work there before opening up the future markets for asteroid mining.  This is probably the next profitable endeavor in space beyond tourism.

All of that, though, is a pipe dream until a vehicle gets built.  So we will continue to work to use the ISS to the fullest of its capabilities, but my hope is that once we get a vehicle in place, then we will really take off (pun absolutely intended).

Hopefully the next time someone searches about the demise of human spaceflight, they’ll stumble across this and see that while the future is uncertain, there is reason for hope in the long run.  NASA will continue to send humans into space.  NASA will continue to operate the space station.  Someday, humans will live on other worlds in the Solar System and I firmly believe NASA will be a key part of it.  Of course I believe that,  I plan to push that direction as hard as I can.

What is the endgame in the search for Exoplanets?

Exoplanet illustration via Wired

One of the most interesting areas in Astronomy at the moment is the search for Extrasolar Planets, or Exoplanets.  These are planets that exist outside of the Solar System.  To date, 551 Exoplanets have been confirmed, with the possibility of over 1200 more recently announced by the NASA Kepler team.  Most exciting, a team of French Researchers announced yesterday that they have confirmed that the first exoplanet which could support life has been discovered.

Gliese 581d, first discovered in 2007 with seven times the mass of Earth and roughly twice its size, has a carbon dioxide atmosphere.  This is the first of what could be millions of potentially habitable planets in the galaxy.

Consider that to date, the majority of planets discovered are large gas giants as big or bigger than Jupiter.  It makes sense that as we first look for planets in the cosmos, that we will find the largest of them.  Consider also that several of the popular techniques for detecting planets favor finding planets that have short orbital periods (Kepler has yet to confirm a planet with an orbit longer than 40 days).  As we refine our techniques for planet detection, we will find more and more smaller, Earth-like planets.

The question becomes, then what?

Once a planet is found, we can analyze the light produced as it passes through that planet’s atmosphere to get a rough idea of the gases that make up that atmosphere.  We can tell if a planet has a nitrogen rich atmosphere.  We can also tell how far a planet is from its sun and whether or not it resides in its system’s habitable zone, where a planet can potentially maintain water on its surface.

So in a decade, we’ll have potentially discovered hundreds of planets that could maintain life.  This is where things really start to get interesting.  Once we know a planet could support life, the question becomes is there intelligent life?  Is there a developed society?  On the fringe of things are a couple of researchers who believe we should be able to detect the evidence of asteroid mining.  This would be a sign of a fairly advanced civilization, especially considering we don’t yet have the capability to do that, though I would argue hat’s mainly because we don’t put the money into it.  Once Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos figure out how to reap the profits from asteroid mining, I have no doubt we’ll be there, but that’s another post for another time.

Of course, another possible method of determining if there’s a civilization there will be through just listening.  SETI has been using radio telescopes for years to try to listen for signals from alien worlds.  We have been unintentionally sending signals to space since the dawn of radio.  SETI has been listening for years to see if it could pick up the those signals from another world.  They scan the sky without much guidance as to where to look.  With the discovery of potential life-supporting exoplanets, you now have the ability to do a more guided search.

So, we can discover planets.  We can tell if those planets could support water and whether or not they have an atmosphere.  We have a small chance of being able to tell if there’s an advanced civilization there.  What do we do after we suspect there’s life in them there planets?  Do we just say ‘hey, that’s pretty neat’ and stop there.  I have a hard time seeing that.

I imagine the next step will be what I’ll call the Hawking debate: do we risk alerting a potentially far superior alien civilization to our existence and the risk that they would wipe us out or do we trust that they will be benevolent in their intentions once we send them the “we are here” broadcast.  I do imagine there will be real scientific debate about this, but I think the desire to push the boundaries and explore the universe will win out.

This is where a planet like Gliese 581d becomes really interesting.  Gliese 581d is a relatively scant 20 light years away.  A signal in that direction would only take 20 years to get there and 20 years back.  40 years is a lifetime, but it’s certainly a plausible length of time for an experiment of this magnitude.  Many experiments last for decades or more.  Something like this would be low-cost and low overhead; we would just need to remember to keep listening at the right time.  So we could try to let that civilization know we are here.

So what do we do after that?  Do we send a probe a la the Voyager spacecraft?  Right now, the fastest spacecraft in existence, Helios 2, travels along at a snail’s pace of ~150,000 mph, which doesn’t quite match the 670,616,629 mph that light travels at.  So, without some substantial breakthroughs in the speed of spacecraft, sending any type of probe to Gliese 581d will take a really, really, really, really long time.  My question is, if we know there’s a civilization in this system, is that the impetus needed to devote research dollars to develop new propulsion systems?  Or to go really out there, lead to more research into wormholes, a theoretical mode of travel fairly common in science fiction.

Of course, the ultimate dream would be to actually send someone there, but that’ll have to come after the invention of the wormhole generator and interstellar travel.  So, the best bet for this option may be cryogenically freezing yourself and see how far technology has progressed in about say 300 years.  Maybe then we’ll be able to get a firsthand glimpse of Gliese 581d.  Sure, other science fiction hypotheses exist such as a generation ship, which families would theoretically live in for hundreds of years and cross the cosmos and a more traditional rate of speed, but I’m fairly confident we’re a ways off from that technology, too.

So, we won’t be visiting the alien worlds that are being discovered any time soon, but contact would definitely not be out of the question.  The question there is, should we?