Tag Archives: astronomy

Join the starlink express

Ever since Elon Musk’s Space X has launched 60 starlink satellites, people have been talking about it. Some think it’s amazing and others think it’s the beginning of the end. Whatever your opinion is, it’s got you talking. It has everyone talking and that is priceless publicity. For free. 

What is starlink exactly?

What is this starlink business anyway? What is it good for? Musk’s goal is to supply everyone on the world with internet. He wants global coverage and with global coverage he means global coverage. From Time Square in New York to the local fata morgana in the Sahara Desert, you will be able to get online. Granted you have a operating phone or other device with internet access available. In 2015 numbers showed that 56,1% of the human population have access to the internet. That’s little over half the people. If you only look at the developed world, 81% of the population has access to the internet, this means, 1 in 5 people doesn’t. With these Space X satellites everyone should be able to log on.

In time that is because 60 satellites alone won’t do it. In total an impressive 12,000 starlink communication satellites are needed to reach that goal. Their operational orbit is 550 km, these first 60 started their climb into this orbit at 440 km since being launched with a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on May 23. It takes about 90 minutes for them to make one orbit. And despite the company’s initial claim that they won’t be that visible, the train of satellites have since been visible even to the naked eye, giving away an impressive show.

Satellite overload

Impressive or not, one may wonder if these satellites aren’t polluting the skies. Stars are hardly visible at some places in Europe due to light pollution, but the starlink train is a clear trail in the skies right now. They will get fainter once they reach their final orbit, but long exposure astronomy photographers have already complained about the trails the satellites make in their photo’s. Many worry that ground astronomy will get increasingly harder with these satellites up in the sky.

Hang on, aren’t their already many satellites orbiting the Earth? Indeed they are. Around 5,000 satellites are currently orbiting our world serving various purposes. Will these 60 really make a difference? You may think they won’t. But these 60 were already more visible than others, also because they are lines up like a train. They will scatter with time and be less visible that way as well. But these 60 are the first of 12,000. That’s more satellites than already are up there!

It is getting crowded

And Space X isn’t the only one launching high numbers of satellites. Cubesats or minisats are the future. Small satellites which are lighter and therefore cheaper not just to produce but also to launch. Which means more people and companies are able to launch their own satellites and Space X is by no means the only company who wants to provide World Wide Internet Access. Smaller companies like for instance Hiber have the same ambition and are already working on it, having launched several satellites already with for instance Space X.

It’s already crowded up there, it will get a whole lot more crowded really soon. For instance, ISRO (India Space Research Organisation) successfully launched 104 satellites by a single rocket on 15 February 2017. Only 3 of them were of Indian origine. And they weren’t all claiming to start an global internet revolution. This is also potential trouble for the International Space Station, orbiting the earth with an altitude between 330 km and 435 km . All these satellites in itself have to make sure they don’t collide with each other, one doesn’t want to think about what happens when they bump into the ISS.

What will the future hold?

Satellites do a lot of good things for us, they tell us where we are, give us access to the internet and they monitor the Earth. It’s all good data. But we may have to think about the price we are going to pay for that. Are we ruining the night skies? Are we making ground astronomy impossible? Do we really need all these things up there? Isn’t it possible to lower the amount of satellites and collect the data just a little bit slower? The starlink train didn’t just give free publicity to Elon Musk’s latest idea, it also gave us something to think about. We love technology. But maybe, there is a limit? Or do we want to pay the price and create a visible satellite ring around our planet?

I’m afraid there is no way back now and only time will tell how far we will really go. And if we indeed will be a better species because of it or become the polluters of the universe.

There’s a lot to say about ‘Oumuamua, that’s for sure.

The Harvard paper was criticized and perhaps it does show a lot of flaws and it may be weak. The fact that some people dared to even propose the possibility of something made by an extraterrestrial intelligence in the scientific community, has to be applauded.

We are at the point in history where we will find evidence of extraterrestrial life any time soon. It will happen in our lifetime. Even if it’s a tiny microbe or a fossil of that microbe, it will change the way we look at our universe. It will change our place in our universe. It will change everything. Maybe we all are secretly are afraid of the consequences of that. One day we will have to face them. The discovery of ‘Oumuamua however is not that day.

What do we know?

‘Oumuamua has been discovered in October 2017 and has since been the subject of speculations. It has been anything from alien spaceship to comet but fact is that we still haven’t got a clue. We do have a lot to say about it.

What we do know about this object is that it is the first interstellar object traveling through our solar system that we have been able to detect and follow. It’s estimated that several interstellar objects are travelling relatively close to the Earth but they are difficult to spot with current technology. Further we know that it’s cigar shaped, has a reddish, smooth surface and the latest observation estimated it to be between 100 and 400 meters long. It’s tumbling through space rather than smoothly rotating. It has also been accelerating while passing through our solar system.

This all made way for many speculations. At first it was classified as a comet but it lacked a trail of dust while passing our sun which a comet would have. Then it was classified as an asteroid. But that would not explain the acceleration ‘Oumuamua made while passing the sun. So, it was put back in the comet section. With the sun heating up the object it must have created gas after all and boosted its speed. Maybe we just didn’t see the trail.

Gone adrift

Due to the peculiar shape and the rather unusual tumbling, it was also quickly speculated that this object could be an alien spacecraft gone adrift. Also the smooth edges fueled this speculation and when it was also known that the object had accelerated, only added to this theory. It’s hard to say what ‘Oumuamua is really made of. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence but when we don’t even have ordinary evidence to confirm an ordinary claim, the roads to extraterrestrial explanation are wide open. And you can’t blame those who look into a solution of alien origin. 

It’s hard to say what ‘Oumuamua really is. The Spitzer telescope has tried to follow it as long as was possible but in order to really investigate what “the first distant messenger” (what ‘Oumuamua roughly means in Hawaiian) really is. We know it’s interstellar as it travels so fast that it wasn’t caught in our own sun’s orbit. But in order to know more we needed more time. Therefore the object might be a highly debatable visitor forever but it has taught us to be on a look out for more of these visitors and study them more closely. We now know what we can roughly expect.

We don’t know

Fact is, we really don’t know what ‘Oumuamua is. It’s natural to stay within your own field. Astrophysicists will look at their knowledge and search for an explanation in what they know. But it’s not that strange to think out of the box either. The interstellar visitor doesn’t tick all the boxes we know. There are several things weird about it and we can’t say for certain what made the object accelerate. It made even researchers of the prestigious university of Harvard think of the unthinkable. What if this is an alien spaceship? Advanced technology can fail as well. It could have gone adrift. Maybe from a species long extinct for all we know. We don’t know how old the object is.

What I think ‘Oumuamua is? I have no idea. Do I want it to be an alien spacecraft? Of course I do, how exciting would that be? I want to believe. And it ticks a couple of boxes of that theory. But it also ticks some that would suggest that it doesn’t. It shows that we assume we know a lot about our universe but in reality we don’t. That’s what make these discoveries so exciting, it’s something new, unknown.

The Prime Directive in the 21st century

The Prime Directive forbids protagonists to interfere with the normal development of any life on any planet or celestial body, especially life that hasn’t been as fully developed like the visiting crew. Even though interfering could mean saving lives, then still one should not as it could disturb the development life on that planet would otherwise have. It’s not an easy rule to follow. But who is to say that a little interference that seems like a good idea at the time, will be a good idea for the future to come. In the universe of Star Trek personnel of Starfleet struggle on a regular basis with this rule as their job is not just to discover but also to protect.

This may be 24th century problems but we already deal with the very same concept today. We’re looking for life outside our planet and the chances are good that we will find it in our very own solar system. Mars is a good candidate. But so are Saturn’s moons Enceladus and Titan, Jupiter’s moons Europa, Callisto and Ganymede and the planet Venus. These are just a few examples. Life could hide in a dense atmosphere, hide in dusty rocks or lure underneath a thick layer of ice. Underneath that ice may be oceans that contain liquid water and is heated by the gravitational pull of their planet and other bigger moons in orbit.

Fascinating! We humans can’t go there ourselves yet, so we don’t run the risk that an astronaut will accidentally step on a life form and ruin the entire future ecosystem of that world. So why don’t we send our orbiters there, land on the surface and drill a hole into the ground and start exploring!? If only things were that easy. Technology however is getting more and more advanced so it will be possible to drill bigger holes in for instance Mars. A few millimeter won’t get us very far, even the most hopeful scientist will agree to that. To get to the oceans of for instance Europa, we will have to dig deeper, meaning we need to send a pretty large drill that may not weigh too much or else the project will get too costly and we need to have a camera attached to that drill so we will actually be able to see what’s out there. And of course a pretty mean transmitter that will be able to send all that data back to us.

The good news is, science is working on that and it all seems possible. Great! There’s no doubt a curious billionaire that will ‘borrow’ the missing money for development and doesn’t SpaceX have some qualified rockets available? So, what are we waiting for? Well, if there really is life out there, we don’t want to contaminate it with earthly germs.

First of all we don’t know what kind of life is out there. To keep to the Star Trek theme, it may be life, but not as we know it. If that’s the case, there is no knowing what will happen to the life form when it comes in contact with an earthly hitchhiking germ. We may cause mutilation and possibly extinction of that form of life. Humans have a horrible trackrecord of destroying and eliminating life on their own planet already, let’s try and not expand that in the universe so we may pretend to have a good name for the aliens.

Even if it’s a life form we recognise, exposing it to our life may still be a bad idea. The environment on say Titan is completely different than that from Earth. How would an earthly life form even react under such conditions? It’s unknown territory, we have no way of testing what will happen. Once we get drilling through the ice, there is no way back. Damage will be done. We will change something. It doesn’t even matter if it’s for the better or the worse.

So, we don’t send any germs to Callisto, got it! But this is a difficult thing to do. Where humans work, there are germs. We can do everything in our power to make sure the orbiter and the landing module and the drill get as sterile as possible on that rocket. Well, that rocket. That rocket can’t be expected to be completely sterile. It will soar through our atmosphere and yes, will only suffice as the transporter out of our atmosphere. The rocket will not reach the surface of Titan. But. Can we exclude that no contamination will be present on the actual lander? As much as we try, and the chance is incredibly small, I mean, really small, we can’t exclude any earthly germs landing on the surface, as any lander before will have high guarantees but not a full 100%. This isn’t a problem on lifeless worlds but it may be if there is. We just don’t know it yet.

Somehow Earth will become part of the United Federation of Planets and Earth will send out explorers into the universe so we will overcome this problem in the future. Whether this will mean humans will influence other life in the solar system and the universe for that matter, has yet to be seen. But who is to say that life on Earth hasn’t been pushed into the direction it has gone without help from outer space? Maybe life is meant to contaminate other worlds in order to thrive. There is only one way to find out. I’m confident that humans will confirm extraterrestrial life of any kind within 20 years from now. And it will change everything.