Monday, July 1, 2013

Exo-sex and Exo-texts! Faster (even) than a speeding bullet

We posted last week about the new planet-bearing star Gliese 667C, and speculation that there might be life on its planets.  We mused about life on the planets that orbit their star in 2 earth-months or less, but also about the implications of Gliese 667C being 'only' 22 light years away.  A commenter on our post noted that we were incorrect to talk of how long it would take to communicate with (much less actually go to) these potentially life-bearing planets.  Since light goes 300,000 Km per second, our printer doesn't have enough ink to print all the zeroes in the distance in kilometers that the star and its planets are away from us.  So we cast a somewhat skeptical eye on the life-is-possible, or even nearly inevitable, arguments from the space agencies and the media, and whether it makes sense to discuss such things in any kind of scientific way.

Our commenter said that NASA had a scheme to build a vehicle that could travel at about 3% of the speed of light (10,000 Km/second).  Wow!  If that's true, it beats a Maserati by a long shot, and as a space shot, gives one much to think about.  That's because as the commenter noted, it would take only a mere 730 years to get to the planets of interest.  So we thought we'd do a bit of musing on the subject of such a voyage.  But the prototype space vehicle is motivated by a series of aft-detonated nuclear explosions, a kind of explosive hyper-mega-flatulence that will need modification.  David's original recollection was that the estimated speed was 1/10th the speed of light (c), a trip that would require a mere 220 years, and we thought we could go with that speed, since by the time such a vehicle is actually implemented NASA's design (or one by, say, the EU or China) will surely be faster than current estimates.

Of course, such a voyage to the out beyond couldn't be a manned space shot to Gliese for several reasons.  First, all the communications issues we discussed in our previous Gliese-O-gram would be ten times slower from Earth to the vehicle than just trying to get in touch with Gliesers by electronic missals (rather than missiles!).  And, having a spaceship part-way there wouldn't add much to what we know about extraterrestrial life.  Of course, to get funding for this venture, NASA will promise that these planets have more on them than, say, Mars.  All sorts of conjuring will be done to convince us that we need to invest in first-hand visiting these new (perhaps) life-bearing orbs.

Going with a 220-year trip, makes it easier to relate this thrilling adventure to something familiar to us, America's Lewis and Clark expedition.  That trip into the then-unknown West took place in 1804, just about 220 years ago, and gives us a kind of human-scale comparison that's easy to think about.  For example, compare our current culture with that of Lewis and Clark's, because by the time NASA gets to Gliese planets the cultural gap between then and now will be, if anything, hugely greater.  Of course, during the intervening 220 years we'll surely have gone on to all sorts of other discoveries (real and claimed) -- and perhaps even received communication from intelligent life in some other, unexpected corner of the cosmos.

Lewis and Clark and their party carried almost two tons of
supplies—enough to see them through a 28-month journey
across 7,500 miles. But that's nothing...
Now, far be it for us to be cynical, but it can't just be some sort of long-lived trekking robot shot into space, making its way to the planets orbiting Gliese 667C.  No, only a manned space shot makes sense, because we will need face to face interactions with Gliesers (if they have faces), so we can visit, chat, and dine with them, really understanding their civilization and how they manage with 28-day years, as we tried to describe last week.  BUT, there are problems.

This cannot be a 'manned' space shot.  No, women will be required, or rather, men and women, to ensure that the space ship continues to be peopled.  220 years is about ten human generations, so the astronauts will have to reproduce in cycles until they've got enough boys and girls each generation to in turn reproduce; if they don't, what will arrive will be a tin casket with dried out corpses for the Gliesers to bury (they probably won't be able to cremate it, because it will have to be too fire-resistant to have survived the rigors of such a breathlessly rapid space voyage).

Exo-sex:  Lewis the Xth and Clark the Xth, and the need for exo birth control
We'll have to hope the astronauts will want to procreate, but the survival of the lineage and the success of their mission will depend on the successful flow, one might say, of their relevant substances.  That there may be 10 generations of inbreeding required, well, raises certain genetic health issues.  The inbreeding will have to be very close because the limited size of the capsule will require that the astronaut contingent keep within their Malthusian limits--that is, so there is enough food, water, and toilet paper for each generation for the whole 220 years.  There will have to be some restraint on hanky-panky.  Exo-condoms will do the trick, perhaps, along with proper population management.  Whether they're sensitive enough to be used rigorously is a technological question beyond our scope.

On GlieserTrek, the crew size will be limited of course, so there will be no question of extended maternity or paternity leave in the enroute generations.  Presumably, because this fact will be known in advance (at least to the initial generation), clear policies for shared parenting will need to be implemented.  It was easier for Lewis and Clark, both being men and in a time before same-sex adoptions were accepted practice.  And while their trip only lasted less than a generation and required no re-generation, they did meet many Indians on their trip west, but as far as we know there were no paternity issues.

But there are more serious problems than mere bedroom management.  Each generation will start life as mental blank slates.  They will have to be trained in the ways of life and space.

And daily life....
It's all well and good to speak of a fusion engine in our nearly sestercentennial vehicle, and its nuclear fuel may last forever.  But think of the food demands!  Think of the size of the refrigerator the crew will need:  no just keeping fresh by dragging a barrel in the cool waters behind the canoe.

Lewis and Clark were able to provision themselves along the way, til they could entirely restock with Columbia river salmon.   Our NASA-canoe will not be able to obtain sustenance along its 220-year path.  No casually dropping fishing lines over the side.  Perhaps they can figure out how to provision themselves with an on-board garden, which seems possible but tricky--220 years worth of soil?  How to keep it from getting exhausted?  Or how to carry enough water for hydroponic gardening?  And to keep nasty insects from eating the vital crops.  No, they'll have to eat some version of the delicacies that campers use (figure grabbed from the web).  Nor, unlike those pristine times out West, will our voyagers be just tossing trash out the window.  Surely even a Republican President would insist that recycling be de rigueuer on our voyage!

The clear practical need will be to obtain food for the return voyage from the Gliesers themelves.  One can only hope our intrepid descendant crew will not land with guns blazing but will arrive peacefully, in a bartering frame of mind, and that they'll have the kind of luck that the original Lewis and Clark enjoyed (for the most part, a few skirmishes aside).  Hopefully, the natives will be happy to provide food, that just as hopefully will be palatable, with the required vitamins and other nutrients, not too heavily salted (no MSG), and with appropriate serving sizes.  And hopefully, like native Americans, the Gliesers will eagerly accept colored beads.

Exo-texts:  Massively distant learning with a bang!
Assuming that each generation's parents' brains haven't been jellied by cosmic rays, they will certainly play a part in educating their offspring.  But surely NASA will be streaming updated materials like technical directions, that each new generation will have to absorb.  One has to recognize that educating 10 generations of Astrokids will be a challenge.  It might be worth bringing versions of lasting things like Shakespeare and calculus in book (well, e-book) form on this trek, but it will really demand distant learning for the new Lewises and Clarks to keep up with technology through the generations of their family voyages.

At the actual speed of light, Barnes and Noble can send out updated text and other educational material (not to mention porn, if the current adult generation requires it to be inspired to do what it takes even to make the next generation under their cramped, rather non-private conditions). Each new exo-text can stream 10 times faster than the spacecraft itself.  What a boon for the new online course industry that is soon going to put universities out of business! 

Of course, there will be problems.  Test-taking, to ensure that each generation's youngsters actually do their work and learn the requisite material (unlike current college students who are preoccupied with football and other serious matters), will be somewhat delayed.  Approximating, so we don't have to use higher math, the average exo-test will take about 10 years to arrive, and the answers 10 years to return to the professors (well, they'll be under-paid instructors) to grade, and another 10 years for the results to be communicated to the spacecraft.  By this time, the youngsters will have reached their own rutting age and their minds may no longer be on the fine points of astrophysics and control-panel management.

Of course, the closer they get to their landing time, the longer each such exo-text and exo-test cycle will be, even though they'll need more rapid turnaround to be properly prepared for the landing and First Encounter with the ETs.  Strangely, NASA will have been able to communicate by radio and TV with the Gliesers for many years while the craft is on its cruise, so it is not clear just what will be waiting for them. But one must hope that 220 year-old computer landing algorithms work with the venerably mature vehicle's systems.  This is not like abacuses which can, in fact, survive for centuries in working order.  No, it's a more daunting thought--I have enough trouble getting my own programs to run (not to mention floppy disks with no available disk drive), and they're not even ten years old, much less ten generations!

Lewis and Clark meet Chinooks on the Lower Columbia, 1805

Meanwhile, of course, back on Earth the culture will have had 220 years of change.  The home front will be much more different from what it was at launch time, than you and I are from the day Lewis and Clark shook President Jefferson's hand and hopped hopefully on horseback, heading for St Looie.  The countries that organized the Gliese expedition may have been nuked or no longer exist, or polluted into penury by Landing Day.  The Supreme Court may even have outlawed contact with heretical non-Christian aliens, as being even more likely to lead to sin than stem-cell cloning.

Communication by klunky electronic means may have become decades or more out of date, as people come to entertain themselves by holographic real-time 3D vicarious living (think of the possibilities!), and earthlings may find radio communication with an ancient spacecraft as boring as we'd find it to try to communicate with someone trekking the Rockies by sending a message by smoke signals or runner!

Well, it's time we abandoned this interesting exploration of space science and its exciting adventures, for which we may nonetheless be expected to pick up the bill in the form of taxpayer funding for the expedition.  Instead, we should start to think about something real, like, say feeding people here with adequate vitamins and portion sizes (and not too over-salted).

And as we said last time, perhaps we should leave all of this to Hollywood.  They have the money, and plenty of leftover grade B space suits.  Let them build the hyperspeed rocket, and leave the rest of us to our fantasies.


David Evans said...

I've done some more research and there seems to be a consensus that 1/10 of light speed should be achievable with fusion, though the details are unclear.

There is a paradox about such missions. The rate of technological change means that if we wait another 10 years before freezing the design, we may expect a more than 5% increase in top speed. The later design would therefore arrive before the earlier one, despite starting later. And there's also the possibility, sometime in those 220 years, of a breakthrough which would cut the journey time to a few decades. Any passengers on the Mark 1 ship would be justifiably peeved as the Mark 4 overhauled them halfway.

Ken Weiss said...

Hell, peeved isn't the word for it! A space race, by people from the same country? Or some young upstart generation challenging the venerable ones?

It's worse, and even more dispiriting than that! The newcomers will stay young!! As fast as they travel, they'll hardly have any birthdays before they get to their Contact point (because of relativistic time shrinkage). I mean, a few decades, with time shrinkage, will hardly give the Exo-nauts enough travel time to put away a meal, or even a beer, while waiting landing.

It's all too boggling even to contemplate. I don't know about you, but I'm (almost) ready to open my wallet to NASA and the EU space consortium, or to China, to make this hyper rocket!