A Mole of Bytes (updated, seven years later…) (aka How to record the Universe)

(original published on May 22, 2006 - [updates in square brackets])

Is computing rapidly turning itself into a hi-tech version of Howard Stern’s famous “Who Wants to be a Turkish Billionaire?” ?

My son asked me [seven years ago, so he was four] to explain what is a “Gigabyte”. I tried to describe the meaning of a little bit more than a billion tiny little things hidden in a PC. But then I stopped quickly: how was I going to clarify the meaning of having 40 of those “gigabytes” in my laptop’s hard drive alone [500 since 2011]? And 200 of them in my desktop computer [1,024 since 2013 - but I also have a 4TB external HDD]. And a thousand of them (a terabyte) in the latest high-spec PC [you can buy a 8TB internal HDD in 2013].

And at current growth rates, hard-disk capacity is increasing 10-fold every 5 years [note that the actual figures have turned up to be very near that rate]. It is perfectly clear then that by the time he’s 19 in 2021, we will have to cope with the impossibility of comprehending what we’ve got, and silly-sounding terms like petabytes (well, it sounds like 8-bit flatulence in Italian anyway).

From there onwards it’s going to be exabytes in 2035, zettabytes in 2050 and I’ll be turning 100 literally in yoda-yoda-land (yottabytes, some million billion billion bytes that will grace our computers in the middle of the 2060)

There is however no need for all this aggravation…let’s learn from Chemistry and dear old Avogadro Constant. So here’s my proposal:

1. Dig the Giga, Tera, Peta, Etcetc-bytes asap

2. Define a Mole of Bytes as 6.023×10ˆ23 of them

3. Resize the capacities now. Say, a 100 Gigabyte disk becomes a mere 166 femtoMole. To sport even 100 Terabytes of storage area, will only mean less than 200 picoMoles of Bytes.

This will surely give some renewed perspective to the whole business of visualizing trends in computing, and show that there is a long long way ahead before we can declare ourselves satisfied with our computational powers.

[for those with a mathematical disposition: 1 mole of bytes would contain more than 11.2 trillion blu-ray discs, corresponding (at 9h/disc) to 11.5 billion years of HDTV recording, the entire history of the universe. Alternatively, it would contain around 2 hours of HDTV recording from cameras spaced apart so that each of them would cover 10 square meters, or 110 square feet of the Earth's surface, oceans included. If the capacity increase rate is sustained, the first disks with a mole of bytes will be shipped around the year 2067]

 

First, Fastest, Tallest, Fat- and Cancer-Free, Money and Sex News

London, June 30 (MNN) – Breaking a new, safe, easy and fresh way forward for the blogosphere, Maurizio Morabito, the green, environmental author of the blog Omnologos, is revealing the tricks and secrets “to get some ink in the general audience media” and to help “put your release at the top of the search engines.

Beam Me Cold, Scotty

Fact: we already know how to teleport single ions of calcium and beryllium.

Fact: such “teleportation” means the transfer of quantum states between ion A and ion B, so that at the end of the transfer B becomes for all intents and purposes identical to what A was at the beginning of the transfer.

Fact: we already know how to make groups of atoms behave as one quantum entity, by cooling them very near absolute zero until they become a Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC).

Vision: all we need to make Star-Trek-like teleportation a reality then, it’s finding a way to cool a person into a BEC, transfer its quantum state into just the right BEC far away, and then heat this back as the teleported copy of the original person.

In the meanwhile, let’s wait for a few confirmatory experiments…

Epigenetics: The Next Big Thing in Science

Familiarize yourself with this word: Epigenetics

It basically says you’re not just the product of your genes. Or even of your genes and your environment

Your mother may have cuddled you early on out of trouble (on deep into it) for the rest of your life (as reported on The Economist  [subscription may be necessary])

Theoretically, your great-grandmother (or much less likely, great-grandfather) may have been exposed to something that slightly changed their cells’ environment, and you are now paying the consequences…even without any changes to your genes

But that is nothing compared to the possibilities that may open if epigenetics is well understood. We could soon get tumors switched off with a relatively simple cellular-level intervention, rather than cumbersome DNA modifications

And by simply changing a few chemicals in a just-fertilized human egg, we will be able to program a genius as the identical twin of a fool

Pixar’s Cars – a movie for automotive buffs (no spoiler)

Whatever certain engine-challenged critics have decided to report, the latest Pixar feature, Cars is no “dud”.

It is an engaging cartoon full of hidden jokes and with a storyline and complex meanings way beyond any Toy Story or Monsters Inc. divertissement

Cartoonist extraordinaire John Lasseter and friends have made a movie that does exactly what it says on the tin: everything in it is about cars, down to the buzzing flies (miniature trucks). The only biology appears to be in the form of plants, especially saguaros

It may therefore become a little boring if you happen…to hate cars and trucks.

Perhaps not “one for the missus”?

And how many children will understand half of the jokes, or even recognize an old-style Fiat Cinquecento?

Cars is a movie that deserves to be seen several times. It will surely be declared a masterpiece in the decades to come, perhaps the herald of a new era of feature-long cartoons mostly aimed at an older segment of the audience than usual

How to run a successful political campaign

Recommendations For How to Run a Successful Political Campaign

As extracted from a lecture given at the British Interplanetary Society in London on June 29 by UK parliamentarian Lembit Oepik:

The main gist appeared to be (a) get yourself prepared, (b) learn how to communicate, and most important of all (c) do not act like a True Believer, treating with disdain anybody not yet married to the cause

  • Be an expert
  • Describe a danger or issue that people understand
  • Do it with a smile
  • Don’t involve yourself in other issues
  • Keep in mind the ultimate goal: be ready for when the danger materializes
  • Clarify from the start your assumptions, the barriers on the path to success, and what organization you are going to need
  • Politically, the main goal is establishing a Task Force to get the Government to take ownership of the problem.
  • Facts and responsibilities must be clearly established. “Take it to the top”, i.e. the Government itself
  • Prepare the Parliamentary debate beforehand
  • Question yourself: why would a Government care?
  • Write to your MP asking for something to be done
  • Understand the letter will be passed to a “researcher”. Write it so as to help the researcher find the necessary information
  • For the Media, prepare a handful of established pictures and stick to those, so you won’t have to describe the basics of your problem again and again
  • Get ready for a long wait for “next big push”, when the campaign runs out of steam

——————

Lembit Oepik has been the LibDem MP for Montgomeryshire in Wales since 1997

Officially, his lecture at the British Interplanetary Society in London on June 29 was on the cheerful topic of “We are all going to die

Self-styled profile provided at the lecture included age, Estonian parents escapees from Stalin, a birth in Northern Ireland (admittedly, not the wisest choice for emigrating a place to), a degree, a long-standing passion for Astronomy, and being a risk taker.

His grandfather was Ernst Julius Oepik, who did NEOs NEOs (Near Earth Objects, i.e. asteroids and comets flying close to our planet)work in the 1950s and 1960s, when it was particularly unfashionable.

Lembit Oepik wanted to get the UK government interested in NEOs.

He started by asking himself why would a Government care, so that they’d take seriously the threat of an asteroid smashing against our planet

Cynically, Governments won’t be interested in “extinction level events” wiping out most of humanity: if that were to be announced, all the Government would think of is that they will not lose next election.

It’s all different with relatively small impacts: a 300m-diameter asteroid could cause catastrophic effects on the economy or social cohesion, without killing billions of people. The Government would be left with the job of patching things up together again.

How to establish then a Campaign to defend ourselves against NEOs? Oepik and his team defined their Assumptions (date is early 1999)

1. A future impact is a certainty
2. It can definitely destroy civilization without wiping out humanity
3. We are taking care of lower risks already, incidents and disaster with far easier consequences
4. The threat from NEOs is not taken seriously
5. There is no sign of any Government working on this.

(Three interesting facts as an aside:
(i) If the Tunguska asteroid or comet of 1908 had hit a few hours later, say, just on top of Westminster Abbey (similar latitude), most of London would have been wiped out
(ii) A 15-km asteroid would be enough to kill up to 90% of humanity. That would leave alive a still sizable 600 millions of us)
(iii) Whatever solution we come up about the threat of NEOs, it may still not be enough. An asteroid zipping on the other side of the solar system that gets aimed at us as if straight from the Sun, would be invisible in the glare of the stellar light, and detected (if at all) when it’s way too late)

Then Oepik listed the Barriers:

1. Governments follow “fashion”
2. Governments think about elections, voters’ fears and anything that can hurt them
3. On a human timescale, hugely-disastrous NEO collisions against our planet are rare an event. If we would be living for 100,000 years, we would witness a couple of terrible impacts. We can only expect a Tunguska event every 100 years.
4. Space is not as fashionable nowadays as in 1969

The Campaign was then organized around:

a) Goal
b) Core Proposition
c) Timetable
d) Team
e) Political Strategy
f) Media Strategy

Goal: Create a NEO task force to investigate the threat and publish a Government report with recommendations for actions

Core proposition: Present the effort for tracking NEOs as an insurance policy (comes down to around 10€ per citizen). Computations were based on actuarial risks: insurance experts can calculate the short- and long-term costs of action and inaction, for countries and insurance companies. This is easy then to compare with impact devastation, and with other risks

Timetable: Relevant Ministerial Department contacted in March 99; Parliamentary debate in April 99; Task Force established in December 99; Report published in December 2000; Actions from 2001 onwards

(Actually, finding the right department has been a challenge in itself. Oepik run into a bit of luck as the long-standing Minister for DTI (Lord Sainsbury) was personally interested)

Political strategy: Make NEO threats a public talking point. Establish facts and responsibilities. And “Take it to the top”, i.e. the Government itself

It is also important to prepare the Parliamentary debate beforehand, making sure the Government spokesman on the floor is aware of what request is going to be submitted.

Media strategy: Elicit press interest. Scare tactics are Ok in this case as the upcoming disaster is a certainty. “Near misses” by NEOs must be publicized, along with the effects they would have had had they stricken our planet.

The aim is to balance the politicians’ neglect and the media’s sensationalism, sometimes destructive irony and sarcasm.

(Oepik saw himself described alternatively as the Savior, or the Destroyer of Planet Earth, when the asteroid sporting his grandfather’s name was mistakenly thought approaching our planet)

A handful of established pictures are very helpful, as after they are distributed through the popular press, they can easily be used in the future to recall the whole issue in the minds of the readers without having to explain the whole problem all over again.

(In another case of hard luck, a “miracle” happened in the midst of Oepik’s efforts, and 2 movies came out of Hollywood on the topic of NEO threats: “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon”, the latter with Bruce Willis. It became much easier to get the media interested)

Situation now: The Task Force was established without much of a problem, and included topmost scientists. As a positive sign of strength, Oepik himself did not have to be a member of it.

After a year, the Task Force came out with 14 recommendations. Only one of them has been implemented: the Government has pushed for NEO threats to be considered as facts, with regular coverage by the media.

Oepik is now waiting for the opportunity for “next big push”, something to get the remaining 13 recommendations back on top of the Government’s priorities.

He is also asking everybody interested in the issue to write to their own MP asking for all recommendations to be implemented asap

The evening ended with a Q&A session. Oepik re-asserted his conviction that scare tactics are in this case justified, as chances of dying because of an asteroid impact are superior to those winning the UK lottery. He wasn’t clear however on how he planned to differentiate his campaign from others also using scare tactics.

Finally, Oepik strongly recommended not getting oneself embroiled in other, even similar campaigns, so as not to lose focus

W.W.W. MOON? The Why, What and When of a Permanent Manned Lunar Colony

Presented at the Human Future and Space Symposium – 28 Apr 2004 – The British Interplanetary Society

(an edited version has been published in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, Vol. 58, No. 3/4 March/April 2005, pp 131-137)

The aim of this presentation is to define the basic reasons, means and timescale for the establishment of a permanent, manned lunar settlement. Going beyond a review of the vast existing literature on the subject, the underlying goal is a call into action (=launches) to all people and organisations involved and interested in the exploration and use of the Moon:
· the BIS
· the Planetary Society
· all Moon-related Societies (such as the Artemis Society)
· every single Lunar and Planetary scientist and
· for reasons that frankly should be obvious to everyone, also the Mars Society

Introduction

Structure

This work is structured into three main sections, plus introduction and conclusions:
· Why go to the Moon? What are the reasons for sending humans?
· What are the technologies needed? Where will the settlements be located?
· When will the human race go back to the Moon? And when can we expect a permanent lunar settlement to be established by?

Background

A few points of note to explain the main assumptions: first of all by "human settlement" it is intended a self-sustaining permanently-manned colony, inhabited not only by scientists and astronauts. In the sense of being opposed to the idea of a "lunar outpost", the structure must be as far as possible from the old concept of "habitable tin cans" ('a la International Space Station).
Furthermore, there have been centuries of Moon-based dreams, for the past five decades or so with some technological flavour [1]. Practically, we do have the Apollo missions, with an equivalent extra-vehicular activity of around 7dd field work at most (more like 3 days, mostly by non-scientists) [2]. Apart from that, and some Soviet missions, it has all been a matter of dreams. The present work aims instead to be all about being pragmatic in the extreme, keeping also in mind that there IS an obvious conflict-of-interest: as one of the Author's goals is to be a member of the lunar settlement; thus helping oneself while helping humanity make use of the Moon.

Issues and Obstacles

Pragmatism means starting from the obstacles between us and the permanent lunar settlement. Very briefly, where is the interest in a new lunar adventure? [3]:

· There is no shortage of grand plans on paper (for example a Lunar Hilton Hotel) and of good ideas about living on the moon, left to collect dust whilst new projects are sketched (thus lowering ever more the likelihood that any of them is put in practice.
· Whatever plan is put forward, it will have to cope with the fact that space flight has always served a political mixture of civilian and military purposes [3]. And when the Apollo lost its political rationale, it was fully cancelled [4]
· A recent example is the amount of duplicated efforts in the R&D for the ISS, or the sorry story behind the stored "GoreSat" having had the wrong sponsor at the wrong time
· At this point in time, there is no political "lunar constituency" [5]. Some quote "Been there, Done that": since Apollo has shown that we can achieve the goal of reaching the Moon, there is little reason to do it again
· Despite earlier ideas there is no strategic military importance in a Moon base [1]. And the scientific environment has not been united (as reported for example by Spudis [6] about the Clementine Mission, and in the obnoxious, baffling "Mars vs. Moon" saga)
· Finally, the attributes usually associated the Lunar environment include hostile, harsh, extreme and dead. As a consequence it is generally believed that it is "very difficult to set up a base there" [7]. In other words, the Moon IS seen as a single patch of rather uninteresting desolated land. It can be explained with the dominating grey hues from the Apollo surface TV transmissions, but still as we will see it is based on a misunderstimation of all the Moon can provide.

Challenges

The establishment of a Lunar colony will include challenges beyond the resolution of the issues listed above:

· Permanence implies a sustainable Lunar economy. But without practical experience the field of lunar economics can only remain in the theoretical space
· There is a non-zero chance that simply the return will be indefinitely postponed. What will that mean [8], and how can we minimise that risk?

Pragmatism on the other hand cannot mean keeping a negative outlook. Let's remember that whatever task we want to achieve, it is by all means much simpler than what presented at the time when President Kennedy promised to land a man on the moon and return him safely within the decade [9].


WhyWhat makes the Moon unique? What are the reasons to go back to our natural satellite, and why with humans? For some reason, those reasons are not actually obvious, despite countless books, articles, conferences in the past.

One could argue that if the reasons were that clear, somebody would have done it already.

Astronomy

There is something that really makes the Moon a unique place in the whole Universe: the Far Side, permanently shielded from Earth by hundreds of kilometres of rock. There is no other place anywhere else that combines radio silence from the cacophony of terrestrial transmission and access to atmosphere- and ionosphere-free skies in the absence of a magnetic field.
The lunar Far Side is thus one of the best places to investigate what is invisible to terrestrial astronomy, that is most of the EM spectrum [10][11]. One example is in the very-low frequency bands [12], where we literally have never collected any data at all.
An advantage of using the lunar surface over orbit-based telescopes is also the possibility of setting up large interferometers without having to develop extremely precise formation-flying controls.
Another example that has been suggested is neutrino astronomy, especially with energies between 1GeV and 10TeV, where the background noise is reduced on the Moon compared to the Earth, Whole-sun neutrino observation would be possible [13], a rather important activity given the somewhat still quite open-to-debate theories about the amounts and types of solar neutrinos.

Lunar, Terrestrial and Solar studies

Obviously, a settlement on the Moon would also provide a great opportunity to understand more about the Moon itself. After all only a few acres have been explored in detail, so there is still plenty that needs to be studied. We miss information both about peculiarities (what is exactly the bright soil at "Reiner Gamma" made of?) and the overall conditions on the Moon (e.g., if the Moon's rocks have been formed in absence of water, what was/is the composition of volcanic gases [14]?). By having a lunar settlement, we can understand that and more, without having to bring rocks and samples back to Earth [15].
Those studies need not only have a local relevance. Apart from the Moon being as good a base as any for the discovery and tracking of Near-Earth Object, due to the amount of data collected during the 1960's the Moon is THE reference for planetary science [16] [17], a differentiated body with significant episodes of volcanism and plenty of crater types, where very little (if anything) is changing now.

There are even open Earth geology questions that can be better answered on our natural satellite. We do have a practical result in this field already. The post-Apollo mainstream lunar origin theory (an impact between proto-Earth and a Mars-sized body) does explain the excess iron in our own siderophile mantle [18].
One of the most interesting, relevant and important questions to ask on the Moon is, has Earth undergone recurring asteroidal/cometary "bombardments"? This has also biological consequences. Whilst traces are hard to find on our planet, the verdict should be well preserved in the lunar soil, starting with the impact crater frequency curve [19][20][21].
The same lunar soil's regolith contains also an at-least-billion-year-long record of the solar activity [22] [23] [24] that would help a lot in the understanding of the behaviour and evolution of our star. Just as well, buried regolith deposits are expected to preserve traces of the very young Sun [25]. Still, no need to stop there: the regolith of permanently shadowed craters at either Lunar pole may contain our best chance to read about the history of the Galaxy.

Exploration/exploitation of the Solar System

Thanks to its low surface gravity, the Moon can be considered a natural interplanetary spaceport. It is much less energy-consuming to go from there than from the Earth to any place in the Solar System (apart from terrestrial surface), including, paradoxically, to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) [26] [27].
The Moon can then become a source of materials for the exploration and exploitation of the Solar System [28], including the classical example of asteroidal mining.
Given its proximity to our planet, launch opportunities occur quite often, a matter of weeks compared to years to reach even NEO's: it appears then logical to test stuff such as landing gear and autonomic robotic exploration on the Moon instead of waiting months and months to get the right alignment just to launch towards another planetary body [29].
Economical to reach, economical to land onto and depart from, and with frequent launch windows, the Moon's main strategic scientific and technological value may indeed lie in where it is [30]: "near but not here".
As an example, the Moon is a much better place than Earth to bring back Martian dust and rocks in a Sample Return mission, as chances of contamination of the specimen by Earth living organisms would be dramatically reduced (just as the risk of any Martian life to roam unchecked our planet) [31].

Geopolitics of the Moon

But even if the Moon is indeed unique for certain undertakings, our only effective example of its exploration is the 1960's Space Race between the USA and the USSR, when the "why" was purely a matter of political prestige to be gained by one superpower over the other.
We all know that race was won by the Americans. Little more than twenty years later there was no USSR left at all. From our 2004 point of view it can be argued that the USA effectively sealed their commanding status over the rest of the world by achieving the Apollo 11 landing.
If that is true, the first nation to return to the Moon will then either keep or destroy a huge chunk of American prestige.
If the next moonwalker will NOT be an American, commentators will have enough to seriously start talking about, and people to seriously start believing into witnessing the "End of the Empire". Just like in 1969, it is obvious that the entire geopolitical situation on Earth will appear wholly different if, for example, a local Chinese crew were to welcome in 2030 the first NASA manned mission to the Moon since December 1972.
Curiously enough, the present stalled situation, with the American Lunar capability dismantled and the potentially Moon-bound Saturn V machines gathering rust in open-air museums for political reasons, strongly resembles the 1400's Imperial Chinese Navy, destroyed by the Emperor after having explored (and effectively subjugated) much of the Indian Ocean decades before the Portuguese [32].
We all know that "race" was won by the Europeans. Little more than three hundred years later there was no Chinese imperial dominance left at all.

Social significance

Those apparently heartless political calculi of national prestige are (also) based on the very tangible social impact of "adventurous" manned space flight (i.e. the one where the astronauts effectively do go somewhere apart from orbiting Earth).
No better evidence about it could come than from Buzz Aldrin's own words when being shown a recording of the TV broadcast of the first lunar landing: "We [Aldrin, Armstrong and Collins] missed the whole thing". Grown-up commentators became so emotional to literally have to wipe off their tears in front of the first examples of planetary-wide audiences. The USSR's Pravda couldn't help printing the news in its front page, however small. Space exploration with humans is an endeavour that fascinates and enthuses all of us. It brings hope and shows that it is possible to "do the impossible". Generations have been born already for whom the proverbially impossible "flying to the Moon" is a reality.

Those generations are as sophisticated as any, though. As shown by the cool reception of President Bush's space initiatives, it will be much harder to convince them to go back to the Moon without a very healthy dose of pragmatism.

Humans or Robots

As quite often heard, humans ARE indeed costlier and riskier than robots. Environment control is easier in an automatic probe, there is no need to carry food not to recycle waste, etc. etc.
Still, in the history of Lunar exploration it would be hard to argue the unique advantages that humans bring to fieldwork [33] [34].
Take for a start Apollo 16: it was a mission conceived, designed and organised to collect volcanic rocks from an area consensually believed to be volcanic. It wasn't, but the astronauts were quickly able to focus themselves on collecting what was needed to understand the local soil [35]. Would it have been the same for a robot programmed specifically to investigate volcanic rocks?
Another example: the so-called KREEP rocks, unexpected, new and enigmatic collections of Rare-Earths [36]: would a rover (even as sophisticated as those in use in the XXI century) have been able to bring that back? Just as for Apollo 17's "orange soil", hardly a feature of any orbital mapping or automated lander's photograph.
Robots, of the kind feasible in the foreseeable future, can only do what they are programmed to do, so they will only examine and report according to their limited set of instructions…consider the Galileo space probe, designed to study Jupiter: as it passed by Earth in the early 1990's, it managed to get only hints of the existence of biological life (as gases in the atmosphere) and technological activity (as radiowave emissions).
Combine this with Mark Twain's musings: "there is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.". Years can be wasted (and important data remain uncollected) simply by building and sending robotic probes built around the wrong conjectures.
The only practical way to discover and understand something new (apart from chance) is by sending people [37].
We can generalise that people are needed where research would otherwise be prohibitively difficult [38]. And as the recent debate about repairing/upgrading the Hubble shows, humans are still too hard to substitute when there is the need for a complex upgrading or repair of instruments. From a Moon base, astronauts would be well placed to reach the new generation of telescopes built for one of the Sun-Earth Lagrange points [38]. Sure, their presence may degrade the natural lunar vacuum, but even with minimal precautions we have reasons to believe it will still be better than on Earth [39]. Finally, a Moon settlement is an alternative rest/rescue station from LEO operations [40].

Commercial Moon

Clearly the full-scale colonisation of the Moon may start and be much encouraged if feasible commercial reasons could be defined.
We have already mentioned the mining of materials for LEO and for solar system exploration: this could include the rather easy-to-extract lunar soil oxygen [41], ready to be sold to space transportation systems unwilling to carry it all from Earth surface. There has been much talk for years about extracting the exceedingly rare Helium-3 from the lunar soil as clean fuel for nuclear fusion reactors [42], but this may be classified as a non-reason as the first customers won't materialise for five or more decades.
Given the fascination astronautics has with the public, with the right kind of infrastructure in place there will undoubtedly be lunar movies, documentaries (e.g. IMAX's documentary about the ISS). And if costs for Earth launches and return trips will be lowered by a factor of 10 to a 100, tourists [43] will be able to start travelling to a Moon offering new kinds of sports, the chance of flying using one's own strength, and acrobatic shows featuring "impossible" feats. Furthermore, it will be in a low-g environment that would benefit all and especially those helped by hydrotherapy.
We do have an example of a one-g town built out of nowhere and quite good at self-sustainment at one-g, and it is called Las Vegas.
In the wake of plots of lunar land allegedly being sold on Earth, a market for memorabilia is expected, including moon dust, moon rocks, but also recovered items such as Apollo 16's forgotten film.

Legal environment

Short of transforming the Moon into some kind of frontier town, the settlement there by humans and the development of a lunar economy will need a legal framework agreed and understood by people and nations and companies alike. We will analyse this in next section. For the time being let's consider some legal reasons for going to the Moon.
In fact, many points about the legal conditions of all space activities need to be clarified, and historically those clarifications have come out from specific initiatives. For example the American effort at flying a satellite during the International Geophysical Year 1957 was sponsored by the government as a way of setting a precedent regarding over-flights [3] (and it worked). However trivial it may appear, there is an ongoing court case about the right by a certain company to claim ownership of the surface of asteroid Eros, and as such to be able to collect "parking fees" from NASA, that landed there one of its probes. Not to mention (at least for now) the Lunar Embassy, self-proclaimed owner of all planets and satellites apart from Earth, and the counterclaim by somebody asking for an "illumination fee" as sole owner of the Sun. Hardly stuff worth involving some Supreme Court somewhere, and yet the simple fact that all of this may even happen is the clearest sign that legal precedents and agreements need to be set.
And the longer they will not be, the less serious the whole idea of space travel will appear.

Issues

As yet nobody has been on the Moon for more than 30 years. All the reasons above have been somehow effectively nullified by counter-reasons. Among those, changing political climates especially in the United States (there is little if anything worth mentioning about other nations anyway). Bush Sr.'s space initiative was rapidly forgotten by the newly instated Clinton. And of course we are living in the shadow of Nixon's decision to concentrate on developing the Space Shuttle thereby making obsolete the successful Saturn V and shortening by several hundred thousand miles the range of manned space travel.
For years much has been done about humanity's fascination with (if not obsession about) finding life [44], thereby undermining all plans about returning to the Moon. Maybe it is only now that the idea that one needs not promote a single target for astronautics to expand: let's hope that NASA's exploration culture will not become a version of "All eggs in One Mars". On the side of lunar and planetary scientists there have been few examples of effective, politically aware and timely pressure on. At the time of the cancellation of Apollo 18 and 19, it can actually be argued that had the scientists lobbied Senators and Representatives early enough with the strength displayed when protesting against the decision, one or both those missions would have actually happened.
Or perhaps it was the Apollo era to be uniquely special. Within this interpretation, before and after Apollo the Moon [45] has simply been neglected because [46]:
- too close
- too easy
- too dead
- too "well-known"


WhatTechnical areas that will have to be dealt with to establish a permanent lunar settlement include travel and construction technologies, but also organisational, financial, legal and political aspects. Also, who do we expect will inhabit the Moon? And where will the settlement be built?
The following section analyses some of the issues involved: anyway, as the Apollo experience shows, what will actually happen will depend on circumstances simply unforeseeable (e.g. Saturn's S-1C's size being dictated by the make-up of the factory where it was going to be built [47]), including apparently insurmountable problems that will be solved when necessary.
As such, the minutiae of the technical details are not warranted the attention given instead to the overall outline of the what.

Technology

Given the accumulated experience it may appear more likely to be NASA leading the way towards a return to the Moon. President Bush's plan described in December 2003 does indeed call for a manned mission after a series of robotic rovers. It remains to be seen if this plan will go the way of so many others: clearly there is still a difference between recurring, partisan calls to space and a grand vision outlined as a fight for national survival by a young, prematurely killed President. With NASA following orders more than leading consensus on space exploration, it will be a hard call for presidential staff changing every 4 or 8 years to maintain the same policy about space flight for many years in a row.
How about forgetting the politicians then? Private space travel [48] is likely to be somewhere in the middle of its infancy, with the famous X-Prize perhaps going to be won by 2005 or 2006. Some companies are already planning cargo flights to the Moon and appears ready for the undertaking as soon as the right number of clients is achieved: Transorbital's Trailblazer and Orbital Development's MoonCrash. Definitely primitive stuff compared to a 1969 human landing, but no doubt progress will be made quickly were a viable entrepreneurial case be made (or found…), for example in providing services to the lunar settlement, starting with a detailed lunar map.
Space travel aside, a lunar settlement will have necessarily to be tested at first as a terrestrial mock-up [49]. For the beginning it may be appealing to simply re-use ISS technology, with slight changes to accommodate a non-zero gravity environment. But the endeavour will be viable only by development of ISRU (In-Situ Resource Utilisation): in other words, transport the building machines, not the goods [50]. Several studies indicate that lunar regolith can be used for construction, apart from extracting basic materials such as oxygen and iron. Water for making lunar cement and other manufacturing purposes may come from polar craters if confirmed (and if reachable): otherwise there may be a case for a thorough investigation of available small-size, water-rich NEO's.
Surface and local transportation of goods and people may involve ballistic trajectories on the airless Moon, and/or building of regolith-resistant railroads. It is also not difficult to imagine way-stations on Lagrange points acting as transmitters for some kind of lunar GPS (low-orbiting satellites not being viable due to uneven mass concentrations Mascons near the lunar crust)
Other important details include telecommunications (likely of the photonic variety wherever possible); power generation and distribution, with polar or orbital solar generators perhaps as first tests of microwave energy transmission across vast distances before implementing that technology on Earth.

Inhabitants

Much has been made of the fact that of 12 moonwalkers so far, 11 were not scientists (and the only one has been effectively sent at the last available opportunity). Apart from the very beginning, it will be difficult to maintain such a disparity in favour of professional astronauts. Next to the scientists there will likely be other service personnel (again, not only astronauts), all of them likely in monthly or quarterly shifts. With the settlement becoming more suitable to human habitation, visionaries/entrepreneurs will then lead the way to tourists, explorers, TV crews, etc….and to dubious characters, including bounty hunters (why expect men on the Moon behave much better than on Earth?)

Organisation & Financing

If the settlement will not be almost entirely devoted to political considerations, it will be run by an international public/private consortium [51] among all those entities aiming at benefiting from using the Moon. There are several possible examples on Earth, such as having a "Lunar Port Authority" or even a Lunar Economic Development Area [52]. It has been proposed to finance the enterprise by issuing bonds, however in general creative and effective ideas in this field (short of getting the taxpayer foot the vast majority of the bill) are still in short supply.

Legal and Political structure

It has been argued that if Intelsat is the appropriate precedent, there are no additional legal problems for lunar profiting [53]. However, as said above there are several possible legal hurdles to pass, including the "land ownership titles" sold by the "Lunar Embassy" to around 40,000 clients.
However idiotic the situation may appear, only a small percentage of the 40,000 would be enough to warrant some huge legal headache to any Lunar Port Authority, unless the related treaties are amended according to common sense.
Other legal bounds make much more sense. It should be clear to everybody working on the Moon that the unique local environment should be left as much untouched as possible [54], at least for scientific reasons [55].
This is a rather difficult endeavour. Apart from conservation of the historical sites, the extremely tenuous atmosphere is easy to be disturbed. It was for example doubled in mass by the exhausts and leaks of the Apollo missions.
It should also not be dismissed the call for the "conservation of the regolith": after all it has taken billions of years to "create the regolith"…as such it shouldn't be simply considered raw material or disturbing garbage. Again, it is all going to mean a revision of the international laws and politics about the Moon. At last, we may even get a new Lunar Treaty [56].

As for the local decisional structure, the best example appears the flexibility of the Antarctic base [57]. Hopefully certain ideas about social engineering, like attempts at founding the "perfect community" on the Moon, will simply remain on paper (or rather isolated)

Physiological considerations

It has been computed [58] that on average a maximum 20% of time should be spent by humans outside the protection of a minimum 4 meters of regolith. This should not be difficult to achieve, and there is anyway a good deal experience on the physiological needs of people, thanks to the work on the ISS.
Debates flare at times on the effects on muscles and bones of low-g compared to the known issues after long exposure to zero-g: a continuative presence on the 1/6g Moon would answer many questions, with implications including the planning of human activity in the 1/3g of Mars.
Some consideration (again not wholly unrelated to a Mars trip) should be also given towards making the atmosphere of the base as dust-free as possible [59]

Location of the settlement

Everything considered, the initial location is likely to be polar or equatorial, the only areas where orbit access is every 2 hours [60]. Traverses between pre-delivered rest-stations (like in Antarctica) could be organised to explore more [61].
And while it is true that in general an equatorial base would be easier and safer to reach from Earth, on the other hand a polar location is preferable, as it means smaller temperature variations, and probably water, with half of the sky (maybe even the Sun) continuously visible [62] [63]

Underground Habitable Structures

A particularly interesting area of study concerns the establishment of inhabited structures several meters below ground level.
Those are ipso facto shielded from both cosmic rays and UV radiation. There is little cross-contamination with the surface. They are protected from impacts, and harder to sabotage. The bedrock is easily accessible, for example to anchor equipment. More lightweight materials can be used and construction much simplified. Plastics need not be protected from UV degradation. Finally, such a structure is repeatable in the establishment of colonies and outposts anywhere in the Solar System.
On the Moon, underground structures could be housed, at least initially, in one of the "lava tubes" [64][65], of which there are many [66], some hundreds of meters long and with 10 meters or more of roofing material. Given the relative size with similar features on Earth, it may even be expected whole huge cave-like "tubes" to be available somewhere on the Moon. Alternatively, there have been already investigations on melting-while-drilling techniques [67], or even excavation through detonation (given the absence of water in the rocks, it is expected that the roofs of artificial caves will not collapse as it would happen on Earth) [68].

P.O.L.E. Peak Of Light Eternal

The P.O.L.E. concept (Peak Of Light Eternal, poetic licence taken) combines the advantaged above in the establishment of an underground polar settlement.
Possible locations depend on a detailed mapping of the polar regions: for the time being they may be the rim of the Peary Crater, or the flanks of the Shackleton Crater at the lunar South Pole. An earlier version was described as a 5-mile-long structure, 3200ft wide and 1600ft tall [69].
With plenty of space available, P.O.L.E. inhabitants would live in large Earth-like caves illuminated as if in the full glare of the Sun. They would not have to continuously look at the Earth outside their windows, and would not experience as much "longing back home" (as for example some Apollo astronauts). They would not be reminded of the Moon "desolation": still, the Earth, the lunar surface, the far-side would be available at short distance.


WhenThe science of astronautical forecasting is very imprecise, with grand targets being notable mostly for their continuously postponed delivery targets (again, the only exception is Apollo). Using past timescales as guidance, there is all the chance that we are in for a very long wait. How can we speed things up?

Current Initiatives

The latest "American President" Plan includes an Orbiter in 2008 and a Lander in 2009 [70]. It should be noted that at least 5 years are expected between the decision and the landing, despite several orbiters and several landers having been sent toward the Moon already (and despite several rovers having landed or getting readied for a Mars landing). General consensus is to send robots to explore the surface, without people at least for another decade [71]. On the private front, Transorbital appears ready to go as soon as the financial situation is right, and others are claiming to be more or less near a launch.

Lessons from past estimates

But it is hard to believe in any published timescale of space exploration as for decades almost every estimate has been proven very wrong, starting from several American President space initiatives (including the Space Shuttle), all the way down to grand promises by folded companies (e.g. Luna Corp, Applied Space Resources).
Truth is that without the USSR there is no race [72], so aims are achieved too late and over budget…if they are achieved.

Infrastructure development

All in all, we can only expect (very) long timescales.
Even if a minimal infrastructure has to be thought-through and readied, there is no sign as yet of an effective long-term exploration planning. For example the Martian satellite Deimos is a neglected body despite its extremely easy accessibility [73] and the fact that Mars exploration and a manned Mars mission are generally considered much more interesting [74] for the public than anything the Moon can offer.
If the politically baffling, even naïve Mars First vs. Moon First debate will be considered a zero-sum game both goals will suffer, with the Lunar projects being most neglected.
And yet, consider also that Mars Society's brilliant efforts and high visibility have brought lots of attention but little practical return on their ultimate goal: there is no plan for a manned Mars trip for a long time to come.
How much more difficult a Lunar equivalent, as evident in the sadly sterile campaigning by moonwalkers Aldrin and Schmitt?

The above can only suggest an even slower implementation of any return-to-the-moon plan. We can reasonably assume that, in the absence of another version of the Space Race, either between nations or between corporations, there will not be any attempt at human landing, let alone at starting the construction of a lunar base before the end of next decade.

Timescale shortening

With forecasting after 2020 as true as meaningless, and too many reasons to go to the Moon to simply consider the whole situation hopeless, let's give a target for the establishment of a permanent manned settlement by 2069 as a tribute to Apollo 11.

Still, there is the possibility of accelerating things by carefully using the acquired experience. A good example is the Clementine mission, designed and built by a small team in 20 months instead of several years.
Even if carrying "sub-optimal" experiments [75], Clementine has shown what can be done when delivery time is key. In general, the less the effort in developing new technologies for new missions, the shorter the time-to-launch (compare to Clementine the years wasted in developing the never-flown X-33).
One may even argue that nothing will really happen as long as Astronautics remains the realm of untamed R&D, with every new mission breaking new grounds: it would be interesting to see if research engineers will prevail over scientists and entrepreneurs [76]. In the meanwhile we can acknowledge that the only means to reach the ISS is the rather old technology of the Soyuz.

Side-effects of long timescales

With long timescales expected, we have to consider how the situation will look different several decades into the future.
Robots will of course get better. Advancement in robotics and telerobotics could effectively nullify some of the "why" points, decreasing the chances to develop the human colonisation of outer space by removing some weight from the whole concept of manned space exploration.
From this point of view a push for having humans explore the Solar System as soon as possible, starting with the Moon, is of the outmost importance.

In any case, it is difficult to imagine any robot becoming better than a human in field studies and the investigation of the unknown.


ConclusionsSome open issues still need to be solved. What will be the economy of permanent settlements? How often do we want to use the Moon? (This would have consequences on the choice of expendable vs. reusable vehicles). What will be the security needs of a Lunar base? (a whole new subject to investigate)

Negatives considerations remain aplenty. Sarcastically, some have said that we should go to the Moon by stacking up all the papers written about how to go to the Moon: or perhaps, all future attempts will be buried by their own bibliography.
In the meanwhile humans are developing astronautical experience by working in the wrong place, disturbing zero-g experiments in LEO instead of exploring beyond Earth orbit [77]. The Space station is replicating the Shuttle in over-promising, over-running and under- (or even un-) delivering.

All more the reason to consider the "why" the most fundamental point about establishing a permanent manned colony on the Moon.
The "what" is anyway heavily subordinate to the "reasons". The "when" depends on our capability at making an effort to achieve our goals instead of developing technologies for their own sake.

As such it is important to prioritise lunar action over plans and studies: enough with optimal missions, big probes, complex new, perhaps too advanced technologies…

Just do it!

As it is hopefully going to happen thanks to initiatives such as the Artemis Society and SpaceFuture's space tourism plans.

Is that going to herald a cultural change in the public space industry as well [78]? Will all the people, societies, companies involved in Space be able to build public interest into a long-term solar system exploration plan, postpone if not outright stop public squabbling and get into the business of actually going to the Moon?

With robots able to do and humans able to explore, and years needed simply to wait for a launch window outside the Earth-Moon system, lunar astronautics may as well be a way of keeping astronautics going instead of waiting for uncertain Mars missions while wasting away making LEO orbits.

Perhaps one day this will finally start to happen: maybe an innocent will rise and people will say, in the words of Bridget O'Donnell, "she didn't know it couldn't be done, so she went ahead and did it"


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A Mole of Bytes

(aka the Dig-The-Gigabyte Campaign)

Is computing rapidly turning itself into a hi-tech version of Howard Stern’s famous “Who Wants to be a Turkish Billionaire?” ?

My son asked me yesterday to explain what is a “Gigabyte”. I tried to describe the meaning of a little bit more than a billion tiny little things hidden in a PC. But then I stopped quickly: how was I going to clarify the meaning of having forty of those “gigabytes” in my laptop’s hard drive alone? And 200 of them in my desktop computer. And a thousand of them (a terabyte) in the latest high-spec PC

And at current growth rates, hard-disk capacity is increasing 10-fold every 5 years. It is perfectly clear then that by the time he’s 19 in 2021, we will have to cope with the impossibility of comprehending what we’ve got, and silly-sounding terms like petabytes (well, it sounds like 8-bit flatulence in Italian anyway)

From there onwards it’s going to be exabytes in 2035, zettabytes in 2050 and I’ll be turning 100 literally in yoda-yoda-land (yottabytes, some million billion billion bytes that will grace our computers in the middle of the 2060)

There is however no need for all this aggravation…let’s learn from Chemistry and dear old Avogadro’s Number

So here’s my proposal:

1. Dig the Giga, Tera, Peta, Etcetc-bytes asap

2. Define a Mole of Bytes as 6.023x(10 to the power of 23) of them

3. Resize the capacities now. Say, a 100 Gigabyte disk becomes a mere 166 femtoMole. To sport even 100 Terabytes of storage area, will only mean less than 200 picoMoles of Bytes

This will surely give some renewed perspective to the whole business of visualizing trends in computing, and show that there is a long long way ahead before we can declare ourselves satisfied with our computational powers

UPDATE: there is now a blog dedicated to the “Mole of Bytes” idea. And some interesting thoughts from DARPA.

Grant Lotteries to Nurture Innovation

Wouldn't it make much more sense if scientific/development/other kinds of grants would be partially allocated via an open-to-everybody lottery?

I am talking about setting aside, say, 10% of the yearly budget and get it assigned on the basis of a lottery, instead than around policy guidelines

Such a lottery would be open to any applicant for whatever project, no matter how "logical" or "mainstream". I would only make restrictions against past winners that obviously mishandled the money

Why that? On the one hand, current "rational", "impersonal" committee-based decision-making processes can only encourage conformism.

And naturally so: if every decision must be carefully weighed and justified, committees will prefer to finance stuff that is well-accepted, and almost sure to show something in return for the expenditure

In other words, anything that is solidly within the limits of our collective knowledge.

Current grant application selections are also too biased in favour of those good at writing them, rather than good at conducting the research

One should finally not forget that a considerable percentage of the work financed, turns up to be a waste of time and money, either as it is a mere repeat of previous research/activity or simply a failure

Hopefully nobody in their right mind really believes that a Government's every expenditure is completely justified?

By setting up a Grant Lottery, we can recognize that an uncertain potential for discovery is better than a certain waste.

Otherwise, we will keep missing the possibility to courageously innovate beyond the boundaries of the tried-and-tested.

The Omnology Manifesto

Thanks to the coaching of fellow Ecademist Dave Kirby I have been inspired to find the definition of my take on knowledge, the universe and, yes, everything

Howard Bloom is the author of the Omnology Manifesto:

We are blessed with a richness of specializations, but cursed with a paucity of panoptic disciplines-categories of knowledge that concentrate on seeing the pattern that emerges when one views all the sciences at once. Hence we need a field dedicated to the panoramic, an academic base for the promiscuously curious, a discipline whose mandate is best summed up in a paraphrase of the poet Andrew Marvel: "Let us roll all our strength and all Our knowledge up into one ball, And tear our visions with rough strife Thorough the iron gates of life." Omnology is a science, but one dedicated to the biggest picture conceivable by the minds of its practitioners. Omnology will use every conceptual tool available-and some not yet invented but inventible-to leapfrog over disciplinary barriers, stitching together the patchwork quilt of science and all the rest that humans can yet know. If one omnologist is able to perceive the relationship between pop songs, ancient Egyptian graffiti, Shirley MacLaine's mysticism, neurobiology, and the origins of the cosmos, so be it. If another uses mathematics to probe traffic patterns, the behavior of insect colonies, and the manner in which galaxies cluster in swarms, wonderful. And if another uses introspection to uncover hidden passions and relate them to research in chemistry, anthropology, psychology, history, and the arts, she, too, has a treasured place on the wild frontiers of scientific truth-the terra incognita at the heartland of omnology. Let me close with the words of yet another poet, William Blake, on the ultimate goal of omnology: To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour.

Purists might object to the term's mixed etimology, but alas Cosmology and Ecumenology were already taken