Saturday, January 9, 2010

Worlds Beyond, Once Again

The Pleiades
A belated welcome to the New Year and a new decade* - it's got to be an improvement on the last one.

Via Winch of Atomic Rockets, a first attempt at a statistical estimate of how common planetary systems like ours are. The answer: probably not rare, but not especially common either, with perhaps about 1 star in 7 having multiple giant planets in the outer system, the researchers' characterization of a system 'like ours.'

This estimate comes from microlensing, a technique aptly described as 'looking for planets you can't see around stars you can't see.' The method relies a flukish event, a star passing in front of a more distant star and, through gravitation lensing, allowing us to briefly register the presence of the distant star and any planets around it. The planets aren't really discovered in the traditional sense, only glimpsed, but with a galaxy full of stars, flukish revealing glimpses happen often enough to be treated statistically.

Which is pretty cool when you think about it.

But my text for the day, so to speak, is the generous interpretation of 'like ours'-ness. I remember back before 1995, when it was pretty much taken for granted that most planetary systems would be variations on a theme - about 5 to 15 major planets, most in nearly circular orbits, arranged as a few rocky inner planets, then a handful of gas giants, then some icy outer bodies.

The first extrasolar planets were found in 1993. They orbit a pulsar, a discovery so plain weird that both astronomy and science fiction mostly blinked and ignored it. We wanted real planets around real stars, not cinders left over from a supernova. Then came 51 Pegasi b, a planet that would have been been laughably unbelievable until it was discovered.

Of the 350 or so planetary systems now known, some 50 with more than one (known) planet, hardly any fit the solar template. This is not statistical evidence, because most were discovered using techniques (radial velocity and transits) that favor discovery of big planets close in to the parent star. But this is still a LOT of planetary systems that don't fit the expected mold.

The most surprising thing to me, besides the hot Jupiters, is the prevalence of eccentric orbits. Very few known extrasolar planets have orbits resembling Solar System planetary orbits. Nearly circular orbits are common enough, but mostly for close-in planets whose orbits have been tidally circularized.

One tantalizing hint, unrelated to the linked story, might suggest a pool of planetary systems more like ours. At the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia they have a nifty little graphing tool. Plot semi-major axis (i.e., average distance from parent star, in AU) against orbital eccentricity.

You'll see first of all that most planets discovered so far are within a few AU of the star, with a handful detected at dozens of AU. Their orbits also have a wide range in eccentricity. Now set the distance bounds at a minimum of 1 AU and maximum of 6 AU, excluding the close-in planets and a handful of remote ones. The (few) planets discovered between 4 and 6 AU, where giant planets form, tend to have less eccentric orbits than those inward of them, which got there by migrating.

Is this significant? I don't know, but these worlds are recent discoveries. More beyond!

* Cheerfully ignoring chronology pedants.

The image of the Pleiades, from Astronomy Picture of the Day, is irrelevant but gorgeous.

Related post: Last August I looked at exoplanet destruction.


Citizen Joe said...

This is probably a good point to talk about the Drake Equation too. Worlds like ours, i.e. habitable, can start being weeded out very quickly since galaxies have their own Goldilocks Zones just like stars do. Too far from the galactic center and there aren't enough heavy elements. Too close and you're fried with radiation. I think there's like six thousand light years wide GHZ in the Milky Way.

The eccentric orbit of those 'hot Jupiters' will actually throw smaller planets out of the orbit of their stars. So we also need relatively circular orbits.

Anonymous said...

The Drake Equation is flawed. It assumes that 'tool using intelligences' = 'high-tech radios and stuff'. But octopi, ravens, and the other primates make tools without ever feeling the need to build radios. And even if you do end up with a creative explosion of tool-use, it is entirely plausible for a genius-level species to live out its history at the stone-age level.


VonMalcolm said...

I am getting tired; I hope this comment makes some sense! I suppose this is as good a place as any in this blog to make this inquiry...

I am wondering what Rocketpunk Manifesto and its commenters thoughts are on what forms of Alien Sapience maybe possible/plausible. Perhaps this subject can be a future post.

I have been reading this blog to add a bit of realism to my Sci-Fi (I am not going for Adamantium Hard Sci-Fi; I am just trying to keep the Handwavium to a minimum.), and just as I want any potential space battles, orbital combat, colonization, etc. to be somewhat plausible, so do I want any alien species I come up with to be somewhat plausible as well.

Of course floating paisley spider aliens with ten eyes and twenty tentacles that speak via rude bodily functions are fun, but are they plausible? For instance, we have seen many kinds of squid-like aliens, but on Earth cephalopods had 500 million years to evolve to sapience, but instead they have been relegated to five years of fleeting animal life, and my guess is if given another 500 million years, sapience would still not come to them (water restricting the advantage of early tool use as well as dousing the possibility of fire).

What forms of life could reasonably (by our current understanding) achieve sapience on their own? What life forms could piggyback their way to sapience, and what life forms could be uplifted to sapience?

Aliens with Brow Ridges take a lot of heat for their lack of originality, but is insect, reptile, amphibian, bird, etc. sapience even possible? (insect-like too small, reptile-like too big, amphibian-like not upright, bird-like no hands, etc.) Perhaps if an alien's environment was truly alien that may lead to non-humanoid intelligences. What type of an environment would a .9/.8 or less Earth gravity build, or a 1.1/1.2 or more Earth gravity build? What types of sapience could rise in those environments. Add colder or warmer atmospheres, shorter or longer days and/or years, higher or lower abundance of various elements to the mix and what, if any, forms of sapience would rise?

Alternative biochemistries and/or extreme environments (neutron stars, etc.) are fun as well, but are they plausible? Are they plausible with a guiding hand?

FTL, Space Fighters, Stealth in Space are looked upon as Soft Sci-Fi, but is an alien that evolved out of a Jellyfish or a Plant any more hard? I am leaning towards convergent evolution: Dinosaurs had 160 million years to get their heads out of their a**es... didn't happen. Atomic Rockets says aliens won't look like Spock; I am not so sure: Leonard Nimoy just might be at the top of all of the Universe’s evolutionary trees. Of course God/Mother Nature can always throw a curve ball (pistol shrimp blow my mind). Thoughts Rick and Company?

Anonymous said...

Pretty much everything alive, including bacteria, is self-aware. That is, aware of itself as distinct from its environment.

Cephalopods make and use tools. So do the corvies (Ravens, magpies, crows), non-human primates, and several other animals. I don't know if anyone has done the work on cephalopods, but corvies and the non-human primates are known to have individual names. Dogs and cats can also figure out how some tools work and what they're for, and recognize names as well. Does that fit your definition of sapience?


Jim Baerg said...

This guy does a pretty good job in my opinion of coming up with plausible non-human intelligences.

One thing he likes doing a lot is speculating about worlds with more air, less gravity or both, thus allowing flying intelligent creatures.

VonMalcolm said...

To Anonymous: Wiki defines sapience in science fiction as: an essential human property that bestows "personhood" onto a non-human. It indicates that a computer, alien or other object (such as "The Luggage") will be treated as completely human character, with similar rights, capabilities and desires as any other human character.

I would define sapience as the will to EXPAND upon current knowledge/technology. For me sapience isn't the ability to make a tool, use a weapon, build a shelter, drive a car, use a computer, read Shakespeare, relay the General Theory of Relativity; many semi-intelligent knuckleheads can do these things (though those last two are hard for me!); full fledged sapience, by my definition, is the will to build a BETTER tool, weapon, shelter, car, or computer; the will to write your own (okay, maybe not better) novel; the desire to expand upon the rock of knowledge that humankind (or whatever-kind) has already established.

This maybe the critical difference between Homo neanderthalensis and Homo SAPIENS, the Neanderthals used tools, weapons, buried their dead, had larger brains and perhaps used language and decorated themselves with jewelry and body paint; but their technology was, by my understanding, fairly stagnant for thousands of years, while Homo sapiens was ever-expanding (thrusting spears versus throwing spears for example). Sentience: Apes. Sapience: Angels.

Until cephalopods, corvids, non-human primates, pets, etc. continuously expand upon their collective knowledge bases they will be sentient (self-aware) creatures and not sapient (passionately knowledge expanding) creatures by my definition IMO. Though there is no doubt these creatures can be very clever, the question I was trying to pose is HOW clever can they be? Squids building jet planes? Dogs (Pigs?) in space? Ravens on the moon? Aggressive Interstellar Insect Hordes? I remain extremely skeptical.

To Jim Baerg: I think I came across that website a year or two ago; thanks for the refresher; I will give it a closer look!

Anonymous said...

"Until cephalopods, corvids, non-human primates, pets, etc. continuously expand upon their collective knowledge bases"

They do. Chimp troops and corvids flocks, at least, have individual cultures and artifacts. Note also that by your definition Homo Sapiens was non-sapient for most of its history. Technological explosions are rare.

As for the rest of it, non-primate hyperintelliegence is just as (un)likely a development as primate hyperintelligence. We're not special, we're just specialized.


Thucydides said...

Aliens are, by definition, alien, and we would probably have a very difficult time recognizing alien beings or intelligences is/when we come across them.

The absoulute best aliens in fiction come from "Last and First Men", a pretty amazing piece at any time but actually written in the 1930. The Martians invade Earth (like they have anything better to do), but since Olaf Stapledon pictures Martians as being a collective species with individuals the size of a virus, the Martians find Earth to be a very pleasant place to settle and form huge masses of co-joined particles (they love to settle on flat surfaces) without ever once wondering why Earth seems to have so many flat surfaces compared to Mars...

Even the James Cameron movie "Avatar" has a hint of real SFnalness hidden behind the special effects and Pocahontas storyline; what if the groves of trees really were intelligent and capable of manipulating their environment? The number of linkages between trees and number of trees were at least an order of magnitude above the neurons and connections in a human brain, but on the other hand the latency of such a huge "brain" would be orders of magnitude slower. (Different sub species might be parts of different neural networks as well) The trees in the movie evolve in a very energy rich environment (looking at it realistically rather than as a James Cameron prop), being subject to sunlight, the primary's magnetic field, tidal stresses from the other moons and powerful radiation fields, so there is great advantage to evolving mechanisms to gather that energy, cope with and modify the environment.

There was even a piece in a recent Scientific American
Which suggests that planets created from older stars would have a higher proportion of Carbon, which would make for totally different chemestry and environmental conditions. Planets with graphite crusts and diamond cores, covered in oceans of tar.

Assuming the universe at large is mostly filled with weird and inhospitable places, advanced civilizations might end up being "hunter gatherers" on a cosmic scale, nomads dipping into cometary clouds for elements but otherwise settling in free space around stars to gather energy.

Even wilder speculation is really advanced civilizations look around, say "meh" and create pocket universes to their specifications, migrating right out of this universe altogether. That would certainly explain the Fermi paradox.

Rick said...

Boy did I open a big can of worms, with some help from commenters. There's a whole vast realm of discussion about what consciousness and intelligence are.

The original Drake equation, as I recall, was specifically about estimating the number of civilizations we could communicate with by means such as radio, requiring technical capabilities on both ends. For that purpose, nontechnological civilizations don't count.

As to what produces intelligence in a species, I think it has to do with nonspecialization, the 'niche of nichelessness.' Note that crows are notorious scavengers. Opportunism favors cognition as a survival tool.

One of the most fascinating observations I ever read is that while many large animals are faster, stronger, etc., than we are, very few can walk 20 miles, run 2 miles, swim a river, and climb a tree. In Darwin's Olympics we are pentathletes.

I suspect that some equivalent may be the rule among intelligent aliens, to use that term in the usual way without going too deeply into what it means. Look for species with an evolutionary background of surviving opportunistically in a range of environments, then a growing emphasis on cognition as a strategy.

There's an argument, which I'm inclined to, that intelligence in the human-like sense has to do with symbol manipulation. Language - information conveyed not just by tokens (sounds or gestures) but by formal relationships among them, i.e. grammar - is the most obvious and perhaps most basic example.

By comparison it is almost mundane to note Citizen Joe's point, that galaxies and perhaps larger regions of space have their own distinct habitable zones (for earthlike values of 'habitable').

Sabersonic said...

*whistles* To go from a blog entry about the rarity of Planetary Solar Systems like Sol to a discussion on the plausibility of intelligent alien life and what constitutes as sapience. If that's not a major derailment, then I don't know what is.

In my honest opinion, sapience as what we would constitute collectively as an intelligence remotely like our own in that it develops technology and industry sophisticated enough to broadcast signals into interstellar space, isn't as clear cut as the traditional definition of sentience and what much of media would tell us is the exact definition of human-esque intelligence. There might be multiple requirements to constitutes sapience that would ultimately lead to some form of civilization as we would understand it. These requirements may even be interlocked.

Now correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that such a list of requirements would include the following:

1) A heighten sense of awareness of the lifeform and its surrounding environment.

2) Mental capacity to create, and improve upon tools.

3) Abstract objectivity and interpretation of the environment at large (aka Art).

4) A rich and complex language system to convey information in either detail or abstract. Written language usually helps, but not required.

5) Forms of governance that applies to beyond the immediate family/clan.

6) Manipulate the environment to suit the lifeform's basic survival needs (AKA agriculture and architecture).

I'm pretty sure there are possibly more requirements, but currently my mind cannot think of any more. Any volunteers?

As for the blog entry at hand, well, I only have a question. I haven't exactly been keeping up with science news in terms of the increased sensitivity of optics and sensors and whatnots in discovering planets whose masses are slowly inching their way towards a very near Earth measurement. A 3x Earth mass at least. My question is when exactly would one expect a telescope/sensor/whatever system would be sensitive enough to detect an exo planet orbiting a distant star that is at best two times the mass of Earth?

- Sabersonic
Gmail Address

Citizen Joe said...

Sapience is simply our collected will accepting something as one of us. The reason that the definition is so difficult is that it is basically the whim of humans to determine what is and what is not sapient.

VonMalcolm said...

To Thucydides,
This is exactly my point: while a communally intelligent virus is interesting: Is it reasonably plausible? Just like this blog has argued against stealth technology and the space fighter, are there not arguments against (or for?) a communally intelligent virus (it seems like magi-biology to me). It seems like mechanical technology gets analyzed in Hard Sci-Fi while alien biology gets a free pass.

P.S. It's amazing to me how far ahead of their time some of these authors were, 1930: virtual reality: WOW!

To Anonymous,
I think having a pair of free hands with opposable thumbs gives the non-arboreal primate form a HUGE advantage in tool use and possible progression to greater technologies over creatures using fins, hooves, trunks, tentacles, talons (which corvids are inconveniently standing on when not flying), beaks, mouths, mandibles, claws, raptorial arms, etc. Corvids, again, maybe very clever (they are known to FOLLOW the sound of gunfire to get a free meal), perhaps even semi-sapient; but to evolve to the point of building cars, rockets and eventually space shuttles is a huge, HUGE leap; a leap I imagine most species, Earth or Alien, are not equipped to make (or at least the odds are stacked MUCH HIGHER against them), unless they start looking (over time) a lot more like us. Just my oh-so-humble, non-biologist, opinion!

Jean Remy said...

A couple of points I noticed in my reading here and wanted to clear.

A/ Neanderthal did NOT actually make and wear jewelry,. That is one of the most salient points that differentiates the two species. While beads and decorative items are always found at Homo Sapiens sites, none have ever been found in Neanderthal sites. They did not paint their caves, either. The other major difference is that for 100,000 years Neanderthal has never built a better tool than a simple flint axe. Sapiens came up with complex weapon systems, like spears and a "thrower" aid, maybe even bow and arrows. Sapiens fit the "make a better tool" definition of Sapience, Neanderthal does not. Does that mean they weren't spient

B/ There were some primitive mammalians back in the time of the dinosaurs. They did not simply pop into existence after the demise of the great sauropods, but evolved in parallel. To say then that dinosaurs had time to evolve intelligence and did not is to render them a disfavor. We'll never know if they could have evolved in that direction or not. Some of those opposed to the extinction event say the dinosaurs were on the way out already, however what we were really seeing was a reduction in size and an increase in social and "intelligent" behavior (perhaps) The big dinos were dying, though was it because the smaller, faster, smarter ones were driving them out like Sapiens did to Neanderthal? Evolution was favoring the small raptor types over the lumbering super-dinos. Might they have evolved some more or were they doomed? Impossible to know.

Anonymous said...

Aliens who are intelligent, technologically advanced, and politically organized into something larger than families/tribes/clans would need to use language, tools, and social constructs (at the very least), as varied and complex as humans'. The planet that they evolve on should be as stable and diverse as our own, for a comprable time as our own has been. Whether these aliens look like weirdly-distorted humanoids, or some mash-up of octopi and locusts, is irrevelent, so long as they can use language, think creatively, and make and use tools to bring this creative thought into being in the real world; plus, cooperate to build social organizations whose functions are greater than could be performed by individuals and which last longer that any individuals' association with that organization.


Citizen Joe said...

While a sapient virus collective seems impossible to me, a created 'uplift' retro-virus seems quite plausible. The idea would be to infect a population of 'apes' which would cause mutations in the direction desired by the progenitor species. Or even a progenitor species that has advanced to the point that they don't turn into energy beings but rather hijack hosts to their DNA code through this retro-virus system.

Jean Remy said...

I am not really certain you can splice "sapience" into the genetic code. The differences in DNA between apes and men are not vast, and they were probably even smaller between Neanderthal and Sapiens. I do not think intelligence is necessarily present in our DNA, like there isn't a code for "elephant trunk" in DNA. You can't splice the "trunk" gene into a chimp and get a chimp with a trunk. DNA is rather like a fractal formula, an underlying pattern that suggests the whole but does not define it, nor limits it.

The Human Experience is a Gestalt that cannot be reduced to a molecular key but is the sum of experience, not just our own and our parents but our species, an ancestral memory, if you will, that is not present as a molecular code in our very cells yet is as integral to our personalities as blue eyes and a hooked nose. I do not think Sapience is a trait that exists or does not. Sapience is a sum total of knowledge and awareness not just of the self but the species, a communal acceptance of belonging to one species with a common history and ancestry reaching back into the haze of prehistory. Sapience is not born in a singular instant, a moment of discovery that defines a hard boundary between sapience and non-sapience, but a vague gradient that emerges beyond the horizon of our understanding. In this definition, I'd offer it is impossible to define at what moment sapience arises because, by definition, it arises before we can record it, and therefore we can never know when it arose.

"How do you define pornography?" "I know it when I see it." Can this apply to sapience? As far as the Drake Equation (for what it's worth) then yes, that is the definition. If we can talk to them, then they are sapient. For any other definition of sapience, then no. If we can't talk to them, then we cannot know whether they are or not, and the question is unanswerable. For the purpose of SF, such a species is uninteresting: we cannot interact with it on a significant level. If we can, then I expect to see physiological and psychological similarities. By physiological I don't mean they'll be bipodal mammalian. They can be octopodal cephalopods. But we won't be talking to telepathic bacteria, and telepathic bacteria won't be talking to us.

Citizen Joe said...

We have a lot of junk in our DNA that doesn't do anything. If that is changed to some alien DNA, that part can express itself while our own expresses itself. Simple organisms many not have enough genes to hold a sapient programming though. Even if an 'uplift virus' changed creatures, they would only have the capacity to become sapient rather than the actual knowledge to be so. Is a clone with no education or experience in the world sapient? What about a newborn baby?

Anonymous said...

Introns, formerly thought of as junk DNA, actually serve several useful purposes. One of the main ones is to act as the punctuation or spacing in the language of DNA. Another is to act as a check on mutations.


Luke said...

VonMalcolm: We do not know if insect, bird, reptile, or whatever sapience is possible. We currently have only a sample size of one in the sapient species department.

For aliens in this universe, insect, bird, reptile, etc. sapience is just as implausible as aliens that look like humans with funny foreheads and pointy ears - birds, reptiles, and insects are earth life forms and it would be extremely implausible for other life bearing planets to follow the same lines of evolution to produce grasshoppers with funny foreheads.

Now, if you ask if sapient insects, birds, reptiles, and so on would be plausible if you set the clock back to 100 million BC and let it all run again up to the modern clock date, just changing the initial seed for the random number generator, then I would argue that it would be just as plausible that birds became sapient as mammals (maybe even a bit more plausible). Set the clock back to 220 million BC, and I would argue for sapient crurotarsians (essentially proto-crocodiles) being the most plausible. At 260 million BC, i would argue for sapient therapsids (and, in our time-line, this is exactly what happened, with a few unexpected detours along the way).

By your definition of sapience, I would argue that most humans are non-sapient!

Note that the two families of life on earth that most nearly rival the great apes in terms of overall intelligence are dinosaurs - the corvids and psitticines. It just took them about as long as it took the primates to go from lizard equivalent brains to creatures with complex, adaptive, tool using, highly social, signaling, abstract thinking brains. The parrots and crows also seem at least as well equipped to manipulate objects as non-human great apes.

Two conditions that come to mind that are likely requirements for sapience are a high energy budget and a social life style. Brains are energy intensive organs. If you do not bring in a lot of energy, you cannot afford to run a large and complex brain. In our world, two groups of land based animals have high energy budgets - birds and mammals. Both are warm blooded - to maintain a high body temperature requires a continual expenditure of energy which may well be the reason for their high energy budget to begin with (it also enables them to maintain a high energy lifestyle). A large reptile like a crocodile, Komodo monitor, reticulated python, or Galapagos tortoise simply does not bring in enough energy via its diet to run a human brain.

There is a lot of thought that social interactions drive the evolution of large brains. In particular, social competition. It helps to be able to figure out what other members of your own group are thinking, and then develop strategies to deceive them. It also helps to build up ally groups within your own group that help you to advance your interests. All of the highly intelligent animals of earth with the exception of the cephalopods are highly social, capable of forming alliances and complex hierarchies, keeping track of social goings-on, developing an at least rudimentary theory of the mind, and engaging in deception.

Luke said...

Oh, and regarding aquatic creatures developing technological civilizations, I encourage people not to fall into the trap of thinking that just because we did something one way, that it is the only way to do things. For example, it would be perfectly plausible for an alternate (pre)history species of long-lived social octopodes to tame Shewanella bacteria to reduce metals from ores, allowing the construction of metal tools. Or maybe they domesticate abalone-like gastropods which are selectively bred to secrete nacre in a controlled way to make structures and tools, rather than just shells.

Thucydides said...

The idea of intelligent collections of virus is sort of related to the idea of intelligent trees brought up in the AVATAR movie; that is, if you have enough connections, then self organization, self awareness and intelligence should follow.

This hypothesis is probably not correct, otherwise AT&T's phone switching network would have taken over the world in the late 1950's or so, and the proliferation of internet links only seems to flush out the least intelligent people (judging by the comments on some political blogs I read) rather than becoming self aware.

As far as intelligent life is concerned, once evolution has taken them from the limits of a planetary ecosystem into space there will be little incentive to go back. It is far easier to build O'Neill Island 3 colonies and skim 3He from the atmosphere of Uranus than it is to settle down on Mars and terraform the planet. In the millenia it would take to terraform Mars, the free space colonies will have multiplied to such an extent the Martians will have to fight for sunlight through the Dyson cloud. Geneering people and terrestrial life to live on unterraformed planets will probably not be very attractive either, after all, the Earth is a fairly high energy place compared to Mars (or any other possible habitat like Europa's oceans), and free space is even righer in energy and resources. Would you want you and your descendants to be living the lifestyle of tree sloths or Galapagos tortises?

Free space civilizations will also have an infinite number of habitats, since they can custom tailor their environments, ranging from close orbits of red dwarves to magitech arrays to harvest energy from the ergosphere of a black hole. Planetary science will be akin to stamp collecting in the future (even the near and mid future) once the advantages of free space civilization becomes apparent to all.

Jean Remy said...

I must respectfully rebuff the idea of freespace colonies over terraforming. If terraformation is possible, and you can recreate a stable ecosystem at all (an uncertain feat at best, I'm looking at you Biosphere 2) then these would be favored over free space colonies, simply because they are not tin cans in space with single points of failure.

Even if terraformation is not possible, planets have some nice defensive systems against catastrophic failure: atmospheres that burn up asteroids, and powerful magnetic fields that deflect high energy particles. A space station is at the mercy of a hull puncture or a radiation burst from a solar flare. Even with no atmosphere, both the hazrads can be avoided by buriying yourself under several mewters of regolith, or perhaps building the colony in the giant ocean protected by the thick ice cap for the qualifying bodies. There are more way to avoid cataclysmic failure of a habitat if it is deep in a gravity well and has a wide expanse and depth of land to work with than in a thin-skinned hab hurtling through not-quite-entirely-empty space.

And I don't see anything on the scale of a Dyson Sphere. Ever. There is no advantage to it over more restrained construction, and the materials and energy costs are beyond stupendous. I don't even think it likely there is enough raw matter in the solar system to create such a thing, even if you blew up every telluric body and exploited all the minerals at 100% efficiency. And that's just talking about the realistic Dyson Sphere concept, not the laughably impossible Star Trek portrayal of the thing, which just flat out defies the laws of physics (par for the course on that show: the laws of physics seem to look firmly away from the Enterprise.)

Thucydides said...

I must respectfully deflect your rebuff Jean.

Terraforming is megascale engineering with vast numbers of chaotic systems and non linear feedback loops, which would leave terraformers facing massive "system crashes" on a planetary scale. Even assuming they were able to plot things out well enough to overcome or at least minimize unstable feedback loops overwhelming the system, they would still need to manipulate energy on a (literally) planetary scale. The project would also have to run for at least a millenia, only a few societies like the Serenìsima Repùblica Vèneta (697 to 1797 AD) had a life span comperable to what the terraformers would need for a stable society while they complete their project.

Orbital constructs are drastically simplified in comparison, and can be built in a matter of months or years. Even totally non-recycling habitats like ISS can be scaled up for permanent habitation for years or decades assuming you are willing to pay the freight.

A much more likely scenario is we work in a stepwise manner towards self sufficiency, starting with recycling the air and water through biological systems (a hydroponic farm and fish tank), then getting more subtle and sophisticated as each engineering generation happens. The amount of energy and resources needed is orders of magnitude less than terraformers would need. At each stage you can also introduce more ecological loops, rather than contending with pre existing loops and conditions that the planet already has. This is essentially like living in an urban environment, where virtually everything is constructed and organized rather than living on a farm, where you are at the mercy of the environment (frost, rain, insects and weeds, for example).

People starting in a resource rich environment (such as an NEO) will have the ability to restock should things go wrong, and these experiments will be smaller in scale than terraforming and repeated by many more groups, creating a dense network of training, techniques and practices. This is the same reason that Windows is still the default computer operating system for PC's and computer networks; there are just so many more people who know how to use Windows in all kinds of environments and who write programs, create new hardware etc. The number of LINUX and Mac users just isn't enough to overcome this, regardless of how much better in theory these OS's are. English is the "universal" language of science and aviation for many of the same reasons.

As for why a Dyson cloud may eventually be formed, more people wanting to access more energy is the base reason. We evolved in a high energy environment, and the use of energy is a pretty good predictor of wealth, so high energy organisms seeking wealth is the driver for constant expansion of colonies until a Dyson cloud is formed.

The amount of matter required isn't actually that large, and the smallest Dyson cloud would consist of Statites hovering on the pressure of sunlight, with Wikipedia claiming:

"A statite deployed around our own sun would have to have an overall density of 0.78 grams per square meter of sail.[8] To illustrate the low mass of the required materials, consider that the total mass of a bubble of such material 1 AU in radius would be about 2.17 × 1020 kg, which is about the same mass as the asteroid Pallas.[14]"

So the lower boundary would be a series of soap bubble like constructs, while a more likely scenario is the gradual conversion of NEO's, asteroids, moons and eventually Mercury for colonies. Each individual construct is restrained, but collectively they provide energy and space for a massively diverse and wealthy series of cultures.

Jean Remy said...

Respectfully, I didn't even argue *for* terraforming, I merely stated "In the unlikely case it was even possible" and pointed at the failure of Biosphere 2 to indicate my doubts to the matter. The initial argument stated that even if terraforming were possible, orbitals would be the way to go. I objected to that point, and I then continued and added that a non-terraformed terrestrial had defense mechanisms against the harsh environment of space that an orbital habitat does not. The existence of an atmosphere (any kind of atmosphere) is a protection against micrometeorites, and the magnetic field that a planetoid with a rotating iron core can generate forms a natural shield against high-energy particle streams, a.k.a solar wind. The ability to bury the habitat under several meters of dirt is also nothing to scoff at. Space is dangerous, not because it is a simple vacuum, but because it is a not-quite empty vacuum. Between micrometeorites and ionizing radiation, there are many more hazards out in open space then there are on a planetary surface. We don't even have to worry about seismic activities on most of the other worlds, as few other bodies are still tectonically active.

As for the Dyson cloud, sure the sail material itself is low density, but I assume the habitats are not made of sail material. It seems to me a far greater expenditure of energy to maintain several thousand orbital habitats and their sails than the energy they would be collecting. Solar energy is really not that efficient, simply because radiation is a far less efficient way to convey energy than convection or conduction. A fission reactor (Not even mentioning fusion reactors since we don't know if they are usable as efficient energy sources yet) have a greater power output per unit of volume than a solar farm. What I am saying is that, if you want a high-energy civilization, there are ways of obtaining energy densities far greater than a Dyson cloud, with technology that exists *today*. It is unlikely that the energy obtainable by a Dyson cloud can outpace the engineering refinements to nuclear power sources, especially in terms of net energy gains, which is really what we're talking about anyways. The energy cost of building and maintaining a Dyson Cloud would absolutely chew up the gross energy gain even in the unlikely event that the gross energy gain can be superior to a few fission reactors, which once again I seriously doubt.

Luke said...

Jean: A planetary magnetic field is good for protecting assets in orbit, but all the stuff that is deflected by the magnetic field would be stopped by the 10 tons per square meter of air above us. The atmosphere even protects us against almost everything that is energetic enough to get through the magnetic field anyway. (Note that over the long term, planetary magnetic fields seem to be very useful to keep solar radiation from stripping away your hydrogen, allowing you to have water on your planet.)

This leads to a simple way to get protection equivalent to a planet against the space hazards you mentioned - radiation and micrometeors. Put a non-rotating shell around your habitat with about 1 ton/m^2 (all you really need for adequate radiation protection, although if you are paranoid you can put it up to 10 tons/m^2). The shield shell can just be slag and rubble compacted into a drum shape without much in the way of structural strength - just enough to support itself against whatever station-keeping or maneuvering thrusters the habitat uses.

For large habitats, the thickness of the lower support layer may need to be thicker than 1 ton/m^2 in order to keep centrifugal "gravity" from ripping the habitat apart. In this case, you can do away with the non-rotating outer shell altogether, at least as far as radiation protection is concerned. An outermost micrometeor protection layer (aerogel or Whipple shield or some such) may still be useful.

If you still want the protection of a magnetic field, a plasma magnet seems like a compact and efficient way of generating a large scale field in the solar wind to deflect solar storm radiation.


Rick said...

The choice of space habs versus surface colonies on non-earthlike planets seems a bit six of one, half a dozen of the other to me. You need to provide much of the same facilities and services in either place - pressure, biosphere, and so on, with robustness.

Some secondary factors go one way or the other. A dense atmosphere and surface liquids are nice for dumping waste heat. But if humans need near 1 g for health, any surface hab will have to be built as a carousel, a big design complication.

I'm somewhat skeptical that the correlation of energy usage to living standard can be generalized from the contrast of agrarian age to industrial civilizations.

Going in one direction, slash and burn agriculture must be pretty energy intensive. Going in the other direction, there must a law of diminishing returns for energy usage and resource consumption in general.

In fact there is familiar evidence for this. In post industrial societies rich people by and large do not engage in conspicuous consumption a la Thorstein Veblen. The current (or maybe recent) gilded age has used far less giltwork than the last one did. The post industrial rich display power and status in other ways, because mere lavish consumption is not as impressive as it was.

tkinias said...

Jean Remy wrote:

Neanderthal did NOT actually make and wear jewelry,. That is one of the most salient points that differentiates the two species. While beads and decorative items are always found at Homo Sapiens sites, none have ever been found in Neanderthal sites.

I would have agreed with you without hesitation as recently as a week ago. But that’s apparently not as clear as it once was: the BBC reports that a recent Procedings of the National Academy of Sciences article claims evidence for Neanderthal use of cosmetic makeup. The BBC quotes the author, João Zilhão of Bristol University, as saying claiming a “rock-solid” association between the artifacts in question (ochre-stained seashells) and Neanderthals.

Just food for thought...

BTW, I haven’t yet read the PNAS article, but I’m going to assume the BBC’s reporting of it is not too far off...

Jean Remy said...

I'm going to keep my previous opinion until more than one scientist at one conference who studied one site makes the claim before I change an opinion that seems shared by a vast majority of Paleontologists scouring France, which has some of the best sites for both.

I'm sure Dr Zilhao is a far smarter guy than I, but there is plenty of evidence for past extraordinary claims by one scientists to be proven wrong by the rest of their discipline. I generally contend that though the one scientist with the revolutionary idea can be right, it is an exception, not the rule. I will keep an open mind, and if he convinces enough others, I'll be convinced right along.

Rick said...

One other note of caution. The linguistics blog Language Log has caught the Beeb in some pretty careless reporting, sexing up stories (particularly those with 'animal language' overtones).

But if the find holds up, body adornment seems like a distinctively symbolic, 'human' activity.

Jean Remy said...

My feelings exactly. This has all the earmarks of claims "from the horse's mouth!" though the source is really thrice removed. It's amazing the amount of interference that gets in the way in each iteration. I do respect the BBC more than, say, The Discovery Channel, however. I am genuinely curious, but I'll wait a bit for the findings to percolate through scientific circles before I jump on it.

And definitely, thus far the use of symbolic decoration had been the hallmark of the difference between our Neanderthal cousins and our direct ancestors. To be proved there was overlap at some time would be rather fascinating and change some long held assumption.

"Wait and see," say the British.

Thucydides said...

Getting back to habs vs planets for a moment, the drivers to "go" are the economic imparatives to get low cost resources, access high energy to live in a high energy economy and (a point not mentioned earlier) a chance to settle with people of similar interests and backgrounds (or conversely get away from people who don't respect your religion/culture/creed etc.)

Getting to Earth orbit is very energy intensive, you are "halfway to anywhwere" in Robert Heinlein's famous formulation. Since there is a huge energy cost in getting to orbit, it becomes much more economical to find resources which do not require as much delta V to access (the Moon, NEO's, asteroids etc.)as boostig an equivalent amount from Earth. Costs limit the mass you boost to Earth orbit, or ensure what you do lift is as valuable as possible. Inflatable habitat bodies is one possibility, if you spend the extra 3.3 Km/s in delta V to get sheilding material from a NEO rather than the 11.2 Kps needed to boost it from Earth. Nuclear reactors are quite large and massive compared to mirrors, for the same mass as one nuclear reactor you could boost square kilometers of mirror material and generate far more electrical energy just using a thermal cycle. You also have the option to boost mirrors as supercargo, or on small dedicated spacecraft, or recycle thermal protective shrouds, while a nuclear reactor is pretty much the sole payload of a fairly large booster. Once again the economics and sheer potential of rapid expansion favours solar energy in space for habitats, "stationary" instalations like a space factory and even commercial spacecraft operating out to the Asteroid belts. (larger collectors and concentrators can be used to bypass that limit, I have even seen speculation about settling the Oort cloud and using vast mirrors the size of continents to collect solar energy)

The other advantage space colonization has over planetary colonization is you only "pay" the delta V "tax" once, while planetary colonists will need to boost to orbit, make another high delta V insertion burn, then decelerate to the planetary surface. For that amount of delta V you could put a lot more "stuff" into free flying colonies, including sheilding, multiple compartments and systems to deal with environmental hazards both within and without. Biosphere 2 is a good "how not to" example, but even its operation demonstrates some of the principles I am suggesting; when extra oxygen had to be pumped into the biosphere it was analogous to a space settlement taking a reserve of water and electrolizing it into Hydrogen and Oxygen, then intorducing the O2 into the ecosphere. Since ice is available in NEO's and other space objects, more ice can be retreived at a modest cost to the colony.

Now this scenario has lots of tropes which can be used in conjunction with other posts here at Rocketpunk Manifesto (gaining and controlling inexpensive resources like NEO's gives us both an economy and a rational for conflict).

Thucydides said...

WRT energy expenditures corresponding to wealth, I am not only referring to the energy expended by an individual (such as driving or cooking food), but also the energy embodied in the objects they own and use, and the activities they persue. Using this blog involves literally hundreds of computers, fiber optic cables, switching mechanisms and the electrical grid and generating facilities needed this stuff run, and our ability to access a small fraction of this at any time is a measure of how we use energy. Neolithic "slash and burn" agriculture was energetic in comparison to being a "hunter gatherer", and larger populations could be supported, implying that there was a greater amount of wealth measured in calories consumed.

Very generally speaking, consumption of energy is another way of measuring more and more complex social organizations. Classical Greeks lives a higher energy lifestyle than Macedonians and Thracians just to the north because they had complex social interactions both within the polis, between the city states and trade relations throughout the known classical world (importing grain from the Black sea coast, metals from throughout the Mediterranean etc.) Now much of the energy was human muscle power, but it was harnessed and employed for a multitude of puroposes.

Going a bit farther, this was also touched upon by Freeman Dyson in "Infinite in All Directions", where he points out that huge and complex projects tend to be overtaken by small, fast and inexpensive ones. The "Space Age" of our time was supplimented by the "computer age", few people can afford a rocket or the use of one while computers are available to a huge portion of the world's population. The delta V cost will ensure trips to a planet will always end up more expensive than free settlement in space.

Jean Remy said...

"Since there is a huge energy cost in getting to orbit, it becomes much more economical to find resources which do not require as much delta V to access (the Moon, NEO's, asteroids etc.)as boostig an equivalent amount from Earth."


We think the act of mining is cheap because mining on Earth is cheap. Mining on Earth is cheap because we've spent 200 years building up what I like to call Industrial Depth, layers upon layers of infrastructure that are interdependent and slowly evolved to their current state by a gradual process. In terms of energy, the total energy expenditure needed to extract a tonne of titanium from the soil is far greater than it appears. It has been a long road with a constant and accelerating energy expenditure. We make it look easy because the hard work has already been done, we're simply building upon what came before.

The energy expenditure to start from scratch on a world or worldlet with hostile conditions not previously encountered, using techniques never before attempted, will be beyond massive, it will be staggering. The only reason it would be possible *at all* is if the cost to orbit has fallen down to dirt cheap. After all, the initial mining equipment and infrastructure has to be shipped from Earth since there is NO preexisting infrastructure at all.

Let's say is costs 1 million dollars to boost 1 tonne into orbit. That's an order of magnitude less than it is today.

How many tonnes does a mine mass? We're talking heavy-duty industrial drilling tools, a habitat, crew. Let's say we are very efficient, we can do it in 10,000 tonnes. I'm willing to be generous. Total cost to boost the mine: 10 billion dollars.

Let's say we have a good efficiency and split propellant to ship with a 1:1 ratio (and the ship deploys into the mine on arrival so there's no waste.) Propellant has to be boosted: 10 billion dollars.

R&D to develop the mine? I can't even begin to guess. Generously I'm going to put it at the price to develop a modern aircraft carrier: 10 billion dollars.

Total initial investment: 30 billion dollars.

The cost of titanium fluctuates, but lately it has been valued at nearly $10,000 per tonne. Boosting 1 tonne of titanium to orbit would be then $1,010,000 dollars. I chose titanium because it is one of the most likely metal to be used in orbital construction: is has the tensile strength of steel and far lower density.

The mine cost 30 billion dollars to set up. Even if the cost of boosting the titanium from the mine becomes negligible, to be profitable the mine has to sell it cheaper than surface titanium. say 1,000,000 dollar. It's not much cheaper, but it is cheaper. The mine has to extract 30,000 tonnes of titanium to recover the initial investment. No one will invest that much money to save 1% off the sticker price. If you want to be a lot cheaper and sell it at $100,000 a tonne, you need to extract 300,000 tonnes, once again to recover the initial investment. The Ukraine, the fifth largest producer of titanium, put out 350,000 tonnes in 2003, so the asteroid mine has to extract as much titanium as a major producing nation does in one year to recover the initial investment.

More simply: It isn't a question of base cost, but proportional cost: the cost to build the mine will depend on the boosting cost since it has, well, to be boosted. It won't be boosted unless we can do it cheaply, and if we can do it cheaply it won't be needed.

Thucydides said...

Since an extraction facility in space will have a large set up cost, once again the push will be for the smallest, lightest and most "value added" equipment possible.

Asteroid miners will not be out in space suits with picks and shovels, but most probably enclosing portions of the rock in a bag and focusing solar energy with a mirror that is mostly foil to extract what they want or need. Even pure copper can be vapourized with a solar mirror about 30m in diameter, and this mirror is not optically perfect like a fighting mirror on a laser weapon either. Since they are already on the asteroid, they can burrow in for radiation protection, (probably using the mirror) and use some of the water and volatiles extracted to establish a habitat biosphere (even if it is leaky and inefficient) for far less time, effort and money. Ironically, the value added resources won't be titanium, but high mass stuff like water and nitrogen bearing compounds, which would be sensless to ship from Earth since the same launch can carry much more valuable men and finished equipment.

I am suggesting that the true driver of costs in the space environment is delta V, and most space development will be to go to wherever you need the least delta V to get to and from. These are the "cheap" boosts that you suggest are needed to get the space economy going.

The economy in space will then be further subdivided into "fast packets" for people willing to get there quickly, and slow boats for bulk cargo that slides to the destination in minimum energy orbits. You can ponder the irony of a VASMIR drive ship capable of reaching Mars in 39 days waiting on the arrival of a chunk of reaction mass ice that was launched a decade ago, but then again, we transport the raw material for jet fuel via tankers and barges as well.

Citizen Joe said...

Again I say that the reason for going into space can't be mining. There has to be something out there that we can't find here. Then all the mining and such is a means to an end rather than the end itself. We would mine asteroids for materials because we just can't get enough from earth and they are needed for the ultimate mission. R&D costs then get shuffled into the general fund and don't have to be profitable for the mining operation. It is called subsidizing.

I'm more interested in the physical limitation rather than the monetary costs. You certainly wouldn't send the whole refinery to each little asteroid hoping to hit the mother load. From terrestrial or orbital telescopes, we can tell quite a bit about various asteroids. Eventually probes will need to be sent out to confirm suspicions. Most asteroids are usable one way or another, even if it is just reaction mass. Due to the varying speeds of orbits, the mining platform map would be much closer to 2 dimensions. If you go too far in or out, you'll slip out of the orbital stream and be lost to space. So various mining platforms would orbit at various ranges through the asteroid belt. From them scanning and harvester probes would prospect the local area. Some would send back reaction mass (the ice balls). Some would impact for spectral analysis. Once an asteroid is confirmed viable, the crusher units would be sent to 'digest' the asteroid. Shuttles would then tow the rubble back to the processor. Small enough asteroids could be towed in whole.

I suspect that there is a HUGE amount of waste to get down to the valuable stuff. That could be part of the building materials for the processing station. Perhaps rocks get re-fused together to form an enormous shell. These can be abandoned when the mining platform finds a new area, or they can become fuel depots or emergency shelters. Therefor the waste from mining becomes the stepping stone for exploration.

One of the key concepts of space habitats is that virtually everything has to be recycled. If you can't do it inside your immediate habitat, you need to hang on to it and trade that waste for reprocessed materials at a habitat that can.

Native Jovian said...

The way I see it, we won't go into space to mine things -- we'll mine things in space because we want to go deeper into space. Jean Remy points out the costs of space-mining are higher than the costs of Earth-mining, which is true. What Thucydides is trying to point out is that, all other things being equal, it's cheaper to get raw materials from space than it is to get it from a planet.

Right now it's cheaper for us to just ship stuff into orbit. We aren't smelting asteroids to build the ISS; it's just not worth our while right now. But when we get enough traffic in space, it will be cheaper to do orbital manufacturing than to boost things into orbit ready-made. Jean Remy is absolutely correct in pointing out how expensive an orbital infrastructure will be. However, the point is that, eventually, that cost will be worth it. Certainly not in the near future, but someday it will be.

I imagine that our first orbital habitats will be made on Earth, shipped into orbit, and assembled there. Obviously, people need a place to live in space if they're going to work in space, and in space the only places to live are the ones you bring with you. So the first habs, necessarily, will be made on Earth. But once you have people up there, it becomes cheaper to have them do stuff while they're there -- and it doesn't become any cheaper to ship stuff to them!

If your space-workers have a hydroponic farm (and enough stockpiled food to tide them over 'til harvest time), then it's cheaper to ship them seeds and have them grow their own food than it is to ship them food and have them eat it. If they're going to be there long enough, it's cheaper to ship them materials to build a hydroponic farm than it is to ship them food. If you plan to have a permanent presence in space, then it's cheaper to make them self-sufficient than it is to just keep shipping them consumables. Eventually, this will apply to not only food, water, and air, but to tools, raw materials, and manufactured goods as well.

Rick said...

Thucydides writes: I am suggesting that the true driver of costs in the space environment is delta V

I'll argue that the true driver, at least for a good long time to come, is development cost. No doubt these can get bloated by essentially political factors, but that in itself is a consequence of high entry costs.

Virgin Galactic reports a projected development cost of $250, up from an original projected $100 million. They've spent $70 million so far, and are just hitting the expensive part. And in spite of the enormous cool factor this is for a very basic capability, and much of the basic development was done 50 years ago.

I would guess that the sort of space infrastructure we picture will have a development cost on order of $1 trillion, and would have to yield savings/earnings on order of $100 billion/year to someone on Earth to be justifiable by any conventional economic analysis.

That is a very demanding order.

Jean Remy said...

Well, being two orders of magnitude off I'd say my 10 billion dollar WAG is a teeny weensy bit off, huh? Then again I'm going to justify it by saying it was just the cost of developing the base, no the ships engines etc... but $1 trillion hrm... think of all the things we could do on Earth, like invade a small oil-producing country... oh wait.

Rick said...

My guess is also a pure WAG. And yes, there is an element of frustration in seeing sums on order of a trillion dollars squandered in various ways, when you think of all the cool stuff it would buy.

One other factor could play against the traditional assumptions about space versus Earth sources. What we actually want is not titanium or other raw materials, but finished hardware, much of it sophisticated and therefore expensive relative to mass.

Google is selling the unlocked version of its new Nexus One smartphone for $529, and its mass without battery is 100 grams, so they retail for not quite $5.3 million per ton. Even at current launch costs, a smartphone in orbit costs only 3x as much as one on the ground.

Which means that even if a new space industry got its raw materials for free, to compete with Earth competition it has to have production costs no more than 3x Earth's already established industry.

That's a tough competitive environment for a new industrial infrastructure operating in an entirely new environment.

Jean Remy said...

I was thinking about all this stuff whilst sitting on the toilet reading Jerome K Jerome, notable the passage in Three Men in a Boat where he talks about an ugly little faience dog being revered as a treasured artefact in the next century, and I got to thinking about all those 19th century Futurists and all their predictions which seem so quaint to us we can't help but smile at their naivete. Then I realized we pretty much view the Futurists from the 1950's in the same way: nuclear powered cars? Laughable.

If in a mere 60 years we've learned enough that the predictions of the Futurists then have become "zeerust" today, how long before the predictions on this very blog become subject of ridicule and sympathy directed at out naivete. Progress never seems to follow the lines we predicted. Sure, we don't have nuclear cars, but we also have powerful computers shoved in our pockets. We may not have fleets of military zepplins hovering threateningly over nations, but we have wings of strategic bombers armed with hydrogen bombs.

Ok, how far are we from the initial subject now? Hrm... from exoplanets to comparative futurism. Derailment accomplished!

Thucydides said...

I probably havn't been clear enough in what I see as the essential drivers in space economics. It is true that for the forseeable future, most finished products will be assembled in orbit or even launched straight from Earth, but it isn't the high end stuff that makes space industry or colonization possible, but the low end bulk stuff.

To go back slightly, Jean pointed out that to profitably mine titanium from orbit you'd have to equal the output of a major producing nation. My argument is that the titanium spaceships launched from Earth will be more profitable to their owners and operators if they can get bulk material like shielding or propellant from a source in free space. If if costs hundreds or thousands of dollars to boost to orbit, then the rational thing to do is spend that money on the high value stuff like the "$5.3 million per ton" smartphone rather than concrete or water.

Virgin Galactic will certainly see the logic when they get to "SpaceShip Three" and actually achieve orbit. They can boost with a full load of fuel to de-orbit, or they might want to find a way to carry many more paying customers if they don't have to carry the extra mass fo fuel, and refill the ship in orbit. If the cost to boost extra fuel is 11.2 Km/s, then there is no real benefit, but if fuel can be boosted from the Moon at only 2.4 Km/s, then refuelling in orbit becomes very competative.

Naturally, this would assume the market is big enough to support frequent flights and if Virgin is competing against other carriers, it might still make sense to pool resources and develop some sort of fuel depot; the first spaceport.

Jean Remy said...

There isn't a whole lot of difference I see between launching a ship that is half full of propellant and half full of passengers, and launching two ships, one full of propellant and one full of passengers. A fueling station would seem to require boosting even more than just the propellant. If Virgin Galactic builds a Space Hotel (in SPACE) then probably it will have fuel, at least for emergencies.

On the subject of ultra-high-grade electronics, I can definitely see orbital manufactures using micro-g techniques to build new phones. Ship up some bulk stuff at 1 million dollars a tonne, ship it back down in the form of cellphones at 5-10 million dollars a tonne. It's not a reason to go to Mars of Ceres, but a lively industrial district in LEO will make it easier to justify going there.

Jean Remy said...

Oh I misread Thucidides's post slightly there.

My earlier point still stands. Building an extraction and refinement station on the moon to process, and ship, fuel back to Earth will require such an enormous cost to develop and set up that before it becomes cheaper to ship fuel from the moon than the earth the price of shipping stuff up from the earth will have dropped to below that which makes it financially viable in the first place. Be it titanium or fuel, unless we are talking about stuff that can absolutely not be refined on Earth or Earth orbit, it will always be cheaper to boost from Earth than to set up the industrial setup necessary to produce it off Earth and then ship it back.

Shipping raw materials from Earth to Earth orbit will always be cheaper than building the infrastructure to produce and ship the same raw material form an asteroid half a billion kilometers away, or yes even the Moon. We'll build a fueling station on the Moon when we have had a permanent settlement of the Moon for a while, not to refuel a rich-boy-toy gallivanting in LEO.

Rick said...

Also, for activity in low orbit you don't need much fuel - the big fuel cost is getting up there in the first place.

And for nearly all purposes but deep space exploration itself, LEO is as far into space as most people need to go. (In fact, the current nascent tourist industry is based on the insight that you don't even need to reach LEO. People will pay for 5 minutes of zero g and a curved Earth against blackness.)

If we have regular and substantial deep space traffic, then it will be worth while to develop fuel supplies at the other end, which is then an opening to other extractive industries.

But my personal guess, worth what you paid, is that extractive industries will play a much smaller role in the space midfuture than they did in the rocketpunk tradition.

As to Jean's point on how laughably retro / zeerust this blog will sound in a few decades, I think he has derailed me into an upcoming blog post.

Jean Remy said...

Glad to be of service =D

Native Jovian said...

Jean, I don't see how you can claim that shipping from Earth is a priori cheaper than developing spaceborne industry. You say that by the time that you finish setting up the infrastructure, launch costs will have inevitably been reduced to such an extent that it'll still be cheaper to ship from Earth than it will be to use your newly set up space industry.

In short: why? What makes this the case? Assuming a reasonably mature Earth-to-orbit technology (which is a precondition to setting up any orbital industry in the first place; you can't afford to get the infrastructure into space otherwise), I see no reason why there would necessarily be such a dramatic drop in price during the, say, decade or so that setting up the infrastructure would take.

It may very well be the case that that happens. The first attempt at creating orbital industry may well fail -- so might the first several, for that matter. But I see no reason to believe that all attempts to create a spaceborne industry will inevitably fail as you claim, and you have offered neither reasoning nor evidence supporting that conclusion.

The advantage that spaceborne industry has over Earthbound industry is that it's cheaper to run; you don't have to pay that incredible Earth-to-orbit shipping cost. The disadvantage is that it requires a huge initial investment in order to set up the infrastructure, which must come from Earth by necessity. However, if there's enough of an orbital market (meaning if there's enough traffic in space), and your infrastructure is robust enough to last long enough (meaning you can get enough meaningful work out of it), then you can make your initial investment back.

Citizen Joe said...

Right now the source of all wealth and power is Earth. So anything being done in space is going to be for Earth wealth and power. Thus the debate rambles on about whether its cheaper to lift into NEO or to build an infrastructure to use space resources.

However, once you get past Earth being the soul keeper of wealth and power, things change. Likewise when Earth doesn't have the object you want, things change.

Is it cheaper to build stuff on Earth, then lift it into space, then ship it all the way to the Enceladus base at Saturn? Or Does it then make sense to have orbital facilities? Can those facilities be at a third location (like Mars or the asteroid belt) or do they need to be at Earth or Saturn?

Jean Remy said...

The problem is that the initial mining infrastructure will have to be built and then shipped from Earth, and we will be talking about thousands of tonnes of infrastructure, which will require thousands of tonnes of propellant and fuel. Rick advances a number of one trillion dollars to even develop the technology to mine in space. I threw some quick calculations up, with an initial investment two orders of magnitude below that which Rick suggested, and came up with the amount of material that would have to be shipped back, not to mark a profit, but to come out even, on the initial investment, and came up with production numbers that equal that of a major producing nation. My initial best was 30 billion dollars and I arrived at 300,000 tonnes of material shipped back from Ceres to break even on the initial investment. At Rick's 1 trillion dollar initial investment you would need to ship back 10 million tonnes of materials to break even on the initial investment. This does not cover the maintenance costs or the costs of actual shipping.

This infrastructure will take decades to develop, test, produce, test again, install, test once more, all this before it actually ever produces anything. We're talking about entirely new technologies on scales never even attempted before. If it only takes 50 years from initial planning to full production, then it was a really quick development cycle. If in 50 years we haven't figured out to drop the price of orbit-boosting, then space is simply not going to be accessible by enough traffic to require millions of tonnes of materials to be boosted in orbit in the first place. In fact, even with a VERY healthy space industry, I don't see the need for 10 million tonnes of materials in orbit.

Which brings me to one last point: For those raw materials to even have a function in orbit at all, a complete manufacturing infrastructure will have to exist in orbit, from the smelting of the raw material all the way to end product manufacturing. ALL this has to be initially boosted into orbit as well! I don't think we realize the massive industrial complex we have here on Earth. We are entirely unaware of the incredible depth of our industrial infrastructure as we go to the car dealership and buy an SUV. From raw material to the finished product, how many raw material extraction facilities have been involved? How many refineries and smelters? How many small parts manufacturers? How many individual components go into the construction of that SUV? Because you don't need 10 million tonnes of raw material in orbit, you need the entire industrial might required to build the finished product from scrap. In orbit.

You've now boosted not just a mining complex, but smelters, refineries, many different specialized factories to produce anything from hull plating to electronics. That's several more thousand tonnes that have to be boosted, with several more billions of dollars of development and production cost to copy in orbit what we already do cheaply and efficiently in a far less dangerous environment.

In short: the cost to develop the entire industrial infrastructure (that already exists here) will far outweigh the difference in fuel costs for a long, long, long, long long long, long, long. Long. Time.

To be honest? The only way you'll see orbital mines and factories will be if we can cross the tremendous interstellar gaps and arrive at a virgin solar system that does not have an established planetbound industry. There, yes, it will be cheaper, since you have to build the industrial infrastructure from scratch anyway. But in this solar system? No. The Industrial Depth that was talking about is so vast that it can overcome anything so silly as the cost of fuel to go into orbit well before you copy-paste it on the Moon.

Rick said...

I pretty much tip toward Jean in this discussion. (Thanks for the term 'industrial depth!')

It isn't just sheer tonnage. In principle you might miniaturize the entire production infrastructure. But that lowers launch cost in inverse proportion to mass, while lowering development cost by much less.

Space development costs are mainly driven by labor, and it is very expensive labor - people who know how to design and build space technology.

Citizen Joe said...

I think that your economic policy is much like thrust theory whereby you can front end the whole thing and then coast or you can apply a little bit over a long time.

Specifically, you don't need to boost the whole infrastructure. You need to boost what you need to fabricate an infrastructure. We don't need a thousand tons per day processing plant boosted, we need something closer to a half ton per day facility. That facility would then make the materials needed for the larger facility. That one would make the larger one, etc. Bootstrapping up to the target volume.

One of the proposed Mars missions doesn't send remass and fuel with the astronauts, it sends a ship ahead, which then processes the available materials on Mars years in advance.

Native Jovian said...

I think we're talking about two different things, here. I agree that the idea of space mining is silly. When I'm talking about "orbital industry", I'm not talking about going from raw ore to finished ships entirely in space. I'm talking about more basic necessities: consumables, for the most part. It'd be hard to build space ships from scratch, but relatively easy to refuel them. Chewing up moon rock for remass or hijacking icy bodies like comets for their water (useful either as water itself or electrolyzed into hydrogen remass and oxygen to breathe) wouldn't require nearly as much infrastructure as an entire shipbuilding operation, but still account for most of the mass of interplanetary ships. Build your space ship on the ground, assemble it in orbit, fill remass, water, and oxygen from an orbital Texaco, and you save a bundle on shipping all that heavy stuff up from Earth and they turn a nice profit.

As for an actual orbital shipbuilding industry, I'm with Citizen Joe. I doubt such a thing would be economically viable until you've got population centers on other celestial bodies (Mars being the obvious choice, the asteroids for the cliche one, and the moon system of Jupiter or Saturn for a more "out there" option), whose distance from the established infrastructure on Earth may make local industry a profitable venture.

Jean Remy said...

CJ: while yes I agree any industrial effort in space has to start small and then get bigger, the problem is you still need to send up the factories to build the factories, and factories aren't any less complex to build than anything else. But even the simplest construction in space will require a lot of moolah and a lot of material boosted before it's viable. I just think that boosting stuff for Earth to orbit will always be cheaper than getting it on some other planet and bringing it to our orbit. Also in the above post I compared the costs of sending 10 million tonnes of raw ore into orbit as opposed to ten million tonnes of refined pre-assembled parts. since it is impossible to get 100% efficiency from raw ore tonnage to finished product tonnage, the discrepancy is far, far worse than I've hinted at. The only things we'll be manufacturing in orbit will be the stuff that cannot be manufactured anywhere *but* in orbit, ie: zero-g crystals and high purity vacuum-manufactured electronics. Titanium hull segments will be manufactured on Earth and boosted.

I'm not arguing against an assembly zone for space ships/habitats in orbit from premade parts built on Earth and boosted up a la ISS. I am arguing against mining raw ore from Ceres and sending it to Earth to manufacture ships from scratch in orbit.

Remass extraction on location to fuel your return is another matter entirely. It is far easier to collect basically water (Thar's water in dem hills!) than to build a full-blown industrial park and yes it's mass you won't have to boost into orbit. That makes sense. But it will be to fuel your return trip, you won't be sending a "surplus" back to Earth orbit to fuel the next trip out, either. The more mass you swing into a Hohmann orbit, the more remass you need to fling it with. I think you'd end up with an equation that quickly goes badly for that lone remass extractor. The plans I have seen talk about years of extraction for that station to produce enough remass to return the ship. To return the ship, plus enough remass for another trip you would need to triple the production. Say you need a hundred tonnes of remass to propel a hundred tonnes of ship. If the ship masses a hundred tones, then you need a hundred tonnes of remass. If you add a hundred tonnes of remass to that (for the re-return trip) you need another hundred tonnes of remass just to to propel the additional remass. I just don't think it too likely. Better to stockpile it on location for future missions and emergencies.

Jean Remy said...

I failed to push my reasoning all the way:

You triple production to send an empty ship around with fuel for the return trip. If you actually want to sell the excess in orbit you come up with an even worse case.

Your are on your comet, extracting water. Your ship masses a hundred tonnes, so you need a hundred tonnes to come back to Earth. You need to embark an extra hundred tonnes of fuel to come *back* to your comet, therefore you need *another* hundred tonnes of remass for that. so far it's 300 tonnes of remass and none to spare. So if you want to sell 100 tonnes of remass to the orbital Texaco, guess what? Yep, that means yet another one hundred tonnes of remass. So now we produced five hundred tonnes of remass, to sell one hundred tonnes of remass. I don't think there's an economist on this planet (or any other) that can look at this 5:1 ratio and go "oh yeah you can make money with that." I can't see that as being cheaper than boosting a hundred tonnes of remass from Earth. Ever. If orbital infrastructure we have it will be boosted and space-assembled, not space-manufactured from space-resources.

in space.

Low level mining to fuel the immediate needs of a far-flung outpost I've already argued for, as a matter of fact, but nothing can ever equal the massive industrial capacity of an entire living planet of 6 billion individuals with 200 years of development behind it.

Native Jovian said...

JR, your arguments only hold when you're only considering Earth. You're absolutely right that it doesn't make sense to start from Earth, go somewhere far away for raw materials (either shipbuilding materials or consumables), bring it back to Earth, and then sell it to Earthlings, when the Earthlings can make it all perfectly well on their own.

But what about people who aren't living on Earth?

Let's assume we have a permanent (or at least long-term) colony somewhere other than Earth. Even if it's as relatively close as the moon. Once you have people living on the moon permanently, for whatever reason (and you can bet that there will be people there for scientific reasons and "VISIT THE MOOOOOOON!" vacation packages if nothing else), then you already have an infrastructure in place to support a workforce. So once you have some people living there, it becomes easier to expand it to allow more people to live there. And hey, while they're living on the moon, why don't they chew up some moonrocks and sell it as propellant? They're already going to be chewing up moonrocks for their own needs; might as well make a little cash on the side too, right?

The point I'm making is that you're right in insisting that it's silly to go out into space just to ship stuff back to Earth. But the whole point of the conversation is that once we're headed out into space for other reasons -- any reason -- then industry will, eventually, follow. You don't go out into space to build industry; you build industry to support you as you go out into space.

Jean Remy said...

Absolutely. I said that about he-3 in another post I think, but basically we'll go to space for other reasons (SCIENCE!) and everywhere humans go, we build things. And then bash in people's heads in to take their things as well. And they'll build more things to bash back.

Ain't we a predictable bunch?

VonMalcolm said...

Strike one for cephalopod tool-weapon use/intelligence: The Blanket Octopus tears off arms of Portuguese Man O’ Wars (which they feed upon) to apparently use for offense or defense. (Though this species still has a long way to go before donning a spacesuit.)

Other interesting facts about this creature for those who maybe interested:

Females can be up to 100x larger and 40,000 times heavier than the males.

Males fill one of their tentacles with sperm, rip them off, then give to them the females who then use them to fertilize their eggs.

Blanket Octopi not use ink, instead unfurl a cape-like membrane to increase their apparent size.

(Wiki and Wiki link)

VonMalcolm said...

Terraforming vs. free space colonies: I think their needs to be a distinction made between space industry and space colonization. To colonize free space/build an Island Three habitat there would have to be some industry behind it to justify the expense. To colonize Mars, there only needs to be the will to explore scientifically and expand humankind throughout the solar system. Colonists there could live and expand their manmade environments while working towards terraforming their Martian environment. This could be done slowly, over time, no rush, no great export industry so long as they were basically self sufficient. Perhaps, eventually, they could even build their own space ships to bring in the necessary missing elements and compounds. This separation from Earth would of course lead the to the Martian uprising and Earth suppression, but I’ll let Red Faction take care of that discussion.

Additionally: Is there not a difference between a bare bones mining operation supported by a few torus rings and building Island Three space habitats 20 miles long? When you guys get into the math, logistics and the economics of space colonization I am WAY over my head, but an Island Three space habitat seems like a massive (50-100 year?) undertaking that could only take place after an initial solar system infrastructure was already in place, mass drivers were on Earth and a need or desire for 20 million people to be spinning in space. A major negative of an Island Three habitat is it would be all or nothing, no slow progression toward larger and larger populations and the industries they could sustain, indicating huge start up costs.

I would think this would be the advantage of terraforming, at least in terms of large scale non-earth human expansion: though it maybe a millennia or more undertaking it could take place in stages with populations living in isolated, yet ever expanding manmade environments as the planet was turned slowly from unlivable to semi-livable to livable. And no this may not be profitable for ‘Earthlings’, but perhaps would feasible so long as is was profitable unto ‘Martians’ themselves in their own separate economy. This also takes me back to sapient or let’s say ‘space faring intelligent’ life, just like we have legs instead of wheels because the intermediate steps towards evolving a wheel are probably not advantageous to an evolving life form, so to a life form just can’t jump to become sapient/space faring intelligent without taking the first useful baby steps as well as other useful technological steps along the way.

Jean Remy said...

"just like we have legs instead of wheels because the intermediate steps towards evolving a wheel are probably not advantageous to an evolving life form,"

You are assuming a wheel is "better" than legs there, which is patently incorrect. Legs of more flexible and versatile. I can climb steep rocky cliffs, I can climb trees, and I can swim with them. No wheel can do that. Wheels are simple, that is their only advantage. The Japanese, ever the robot-lovers, have found with Asimo and other walking robots that legs take a LOT of processing power to coordinate something we do naturally. And all they do is lumber awkwardly on flat surfaces, and sometimes up and down precisely measured stairs. As I said, I can run, climb, swim... pretty versatile, huh?

VonMalcolm said...

Hmmm. . . that's interesting; they would be a severe handicap in many (most?) situations; perhaps in a desert, tundra or rocky plains environment they would provide an advantage: traveling long distances in search of little food and water; this would also depend on what size/type creature would have them and how they were powered/utilized.

Rick said...

I seem to recall that some microscopic life forms actually have wheel or rotor structures, though not necessarily for locomotion. That said, wheels may be simple for us, but biological wheels would be tricky to evolve.

A curious historical fact about wheels: They were 'disinvented' in much of the Muslim world, to the point where artists' efforts to portray wheeled vehicles (even allowing for stylization) show that they didn't know how wheels work.

The reason is that the early Muslims took camels along, and introduced their use across a much larger area. Camels are very efficient pack animals for arid climates, but they are not draft animals. So as camels caught on, wagons fell out of use, and the obsolete technology of wheels was lost.

Rick said...

Forgot to add that VonMalcolm's point about 'bare bones' mining versus massive infrastructures is related to some of what Jean and I have been saying.

Developing a big space infrastructure for its own sake is circular. We will go into space for other reasons, then build whatever infrastructure the things we are doing call for.

In this regard, and from what we know now, Mars seems likely to be developed and perhaps ultimately settled long before the asteroid belt, mainly because Mars has more intrinsic interest.

The interest may be parochial, may even be based mainly on the historical accident that English speakers jumped to conclusions about the Italian word canali, but that is humans for you.

Luke said...

Rick: I believe the wheeled microscopic organisms you are referring to are rotifers. These tiny critters only appear to have wheels, the wheel motion is an optical illusion caused by a vortex of cilia beating in a circle.

The closest I am aware of for wheels in the natural world is a type of stomatopod "shrimp", which, if caught above the water level on the beach, can curl its whole body into a circle and roll back down the beach into the ocean. Even this lacks much of the properties of wheel motion and takes on many of the aspects of running motion because as the shrimp rolls, there is significant transfer from elastic potential energy to kinetic energy and back. Presumably this helps it overcome irregularities in the surface over which it rolls.

Jean Remy said...


I agree that our initial interest in Mars comes from Percival Lowell mistranslating from the Italian which caused him to "see" things that weren't there because he was projecting his wishes on blurry images. Rather than the proper "observe and draw theories" of good science he drew conclusions and strove to mold his observations to those conclusions.

However, Venus was of greater interest in early astronomy. Venus was the same size, and had clouds and obvious weather patterns. Then we realized that what lay hidden beneath the cloud banks was a hellish pressure-cooker that rained acid. Mars really is more of a consolation prize. Well that, and the fact Mars held liquid water in the distant past (and a large amount of ice water at its poles) and the distinct possibility Mars has seen primitive microbial life at some time, make Mars a good candidate in its own right. Plus it is the only major solid body within reach in a reasonable time frame, and it is one of the least outright hellishly hostile lump of rock in the solar system.

For all that our interest in Mars dates from a time we could imagine Martians, unlike Venus and other worlds it maintained a place in our vision of space exploration simply because it is survived as an interesting and feasible goal.

Rick said...

Venus figured prominently in Heinlein's Solar System, but Mars took much deeper roots in the popular culture. That may be a 'Murrican thing, or at least Anglosphere, since Wells did some heavy lifting.

I wasn't much surprised or concerned when Venus turned out to be hellish, but it was a real blow when Mariner 4 sent back such bleak moonlike images. It was sheer bad luck that it happened to image a mostly cratered area of Mars, instead of an area with cool features like canyons.

Ironic footnote being that the actual riverbeds on Mars have no connection whatsoever with any of the claimed canals.

Jim Baerg said...

Re: biological 'wheels':

The bacterial flagellum is driven by a rotary engine made up of protein (Mot complex), located at the flagellum's anchor point on the inner cell membrane.

Rick said...

Jim - That may be what I was thinking of.

Anonymous said...

Rick, Joe, Jean, et al...'Stuff' mined in space will be used (and shipped to), places that need it most; very probably some other colony or outpost. For example: Callesto Main Base needs a couple hundred tons of nickle-iron for a containment building for their planned powerplant...shipping that much heavy metal from Earth is prohibitive, but from Ceres...not so much. Callesto Main Base pays Ceres Minning Co-op in ice and volitiles thus allowing Ceres to expand its hyrdoponic farms to self-sufficency. Everbodies happy...except the companies on Earth that normally ship things to Ceres and Callesto...