Beseeching the Heavens
Terry H. Schwadron
Dec. 25, 2021
Even as we struggle with the basics here on Earth, it turns out that it is the heavens that are beckoning.
For a day, maybe that glittering set of possibilities from space and technology can be a diversion from covid, inflation, and whether Joe Biden actually is the president of the U.S.
No, it’s not the seasonal Magi this time. But through a variety of mismatched efforts, we’re still reaching out, either in pursuit of personal glory, the expectation of new business opportunities, international advantage, our understanding of the origins of life, or in hopes of reaching out to ET.
Apart from the well-publicized race among the world’s billionaires to establish space tourism as a new financial enterprise, we’re seeing the usual nations, including the United States, Russia and China, engaging in a new level of competition, joined this time by some new players like the United Arab Emirates and Iran.
We’re seeing new scientific probes being launched, renewed national commitments to space stations with promised exploratory trips to Mars, an effort by the Pentagon and universities to take more seriously the continuous discovery of unexplained UFO sightings, and the launch last year of a U.S. Space Force, apparently in recognition that militarization against the constant threats of war never exhaust the number of virtual hills to climb.
More generally, we can recognize a rekindled effort to jazz up space goals with all the tribal braggadocio that goes with the new Wild West Up Yonder.
Maybe there even are a few seeds of humility about recognizing that humans may not be the only or most advanced group out there.
A New Telescope
This morning, NASA scientists launched the largest and most complicated yet orbiting telescope. The James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled to leave Earth squashed into the nose cone of an Ariane 5 rocket only to leisurely unfurl over the next month en route to a permanent spot a million miles up.
That effort is getting special note because scientists involved are worried about the myriad practical systems that may go wrong in points of single failure for the $10 billion with cost overruns, 13,700 pound, 30-years-in-development mission. In the end, the worry about failure concerns whether there will be a second chance if there is a problem.
This telescope, which will sit in a fixed position relative to Earth on the opposite direction from the sun, will supplant much of what we’ve learned from the Hubble, launched 340 miles up in 1990, to look “backwards” towards the beginnings of the universe. The Webb telescope will use its massive mirrors and infrared technology to look further towards the oldest galaxies in the universe; the infrared abilities provide the ability to look beyond space dust clouds and other matter that have stopped the view from the Hubble, a 100 times more powerful than Hubble.
Of course, being that far away means the telescope will be on its own, beyond reach of repairs, thus giving rise to special astronomist nervousness.
Strangely, I don’t remember a months’ long holdup in money in the Senate over whether Sen. Joe Manchin thinks debt and inflation outpace the need to know more about our universe.
Life Not on Earth
Indeed, last month saw the issuance of a 614-page advisory report called the Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics 2020 (Astro2020) from a group assembled by the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The once-in-a decade vision for astronomy research insists that a top goal is to confirm whether life exists on an Earth-like planet beyond our solar system.
The proposal calls for a massive space observatory to be launched in the mid-2040s as the first of three “priority scientific areas” regarding where investments in astronomy should be made within the next decade. It also stressed investigation of the nature of black holes and neutron stars, and to improve our understanding of the early universe.
This would-be space observatory would essentially include yet more advanced telescopes to search even beyond the new James Webb reach for biosignatures on the 25 habitable zone exoplanets that have been deemed “Earth-like.”
Some of these planets are 10 billion times fainter than their star; at best, the new James Webb telescope will be limited to looking at planets much closer and evident to their star. For a mere $11 billion more in telescopes and the will to look, we might finally find a new home after we finish ruining this one.
The report does not mention whether corporations would bid on naming rights, or on whether we will need masks on a putative new planet, or, indeed, whether we need to carry our tribal human rights with us to a new planetary home.
But, yes, we can all agree that it would be good to know if a Great Escape is possible and how long it would take to get there.
Meanwhile, the Military
With Life as We Know It remaining Earth-based for the moment, what seems to matter most is 1) which billionaire becomes the best hope for space tourism, and 2) which nation grabs the most space territory and holds it through its military — in other words, extending Manifest Destiny to space.
We’re hearing a lot these days from the Chinese, who launched four space of a single week last month, hauling cargo into orbit for military communications, radar surveillance, and optical imaging. As with other military undertakings, China has been fairly close-mounthed about its intentions but contractors working with them say satellites launched are aimed at the Earth, not space. That could either help with urban planning and disaster prevention or serve strict military ends, of course.
That, of course, is why we now have our own Space Force — to watch the Space Forces of other countries.
Meanwhile, the surprise new space player is the United Arab Emirates, which suddenly has become a major investor in space. The UAE is pursuing a strategy that includes developing its own space capabilities and seeking both international and commercial partners. These have included launches on Japanese rockets to study the dark side of the moon and the Martian atmosphere; the UAE, which has an astronaut program, plans a visit to the asteroid belt in 2028, and is working with Israel on a moon mission. Not to be outdone, Iran’s new hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi, is also focusing attention on space as well as on the more Earth-bound development of nuclear and missile programs. Iran plans a series of satellite launches in the coming year as well as new launch vehicles and a new space launch facility in southern Iran — all of which we can be sure will be regarded in the context of a missile development program.
Who knows, maybe they will have universal health care on Planet Z.