KIC 8462852

Storm, The Von Neumann-Machine (1993)

KIC 8462852, a star with a name a bookkeeper would come up with, has scientists baffled. Data sent back from the Kepler Space Telescope, specifically launched in 2009 to search for Earth-like planets orbiting other stars, was confusing. The star, nicknamed the WTF-star (“Where’s The Flux”…), exhibited strange light fluctuations, up to the point that even SETI got involved and started looking for radio emissions. They found none thus far by the way.

Several hypothesis have been brought to the table, from comet swarms, interstellar dust to asteroid fields. None were fully satisfactory. Apparently the scientific community had to work up the courage to finally propose a fringe possibility, alien activity. Perhaps a Dyson sphere, a device that encapsulates a star, and harvests most of its energy. Of course this would indicate an alien race so advanced that our best hope is that they never contact us.

When I was reading up on Dyson, I learned he also did some thought experiments on self replicating systems, something I first read about when The Game of Life (Conway) was featured in a school project. While as a concept, the 2-state 2-dimensional cellular automaton was simple enough, as a programming assignment it proved challenging (but fun). The idea of non-biological self replicating machines was first explored by Von Neumann, and the name Von Neumann machines is sometimes used as a general label. So if not a Dyson sphere messing with KICs light, then maybe a Von Neumann machine, activated millennia ago. And to spice things up, these machines can go rogue too (well, at least in science fiction).

Fringe: Moon Missions

fd72b6953ba0As suggested in the previous post, do we really get better at spotting fakes? With mainstream mass media slowly but surely losing its monopoly on information distribution (and subsequent opinion forming), the availability of quality independent news sources and more generally the unprecedented accessibility of information to any person on Earth (with an internet connection…), maybe we are becoming less gullible and more inclined to research and think for ourselves. As stated in the Welcome post, keeping an open mind is one of the leading ideas behind this blog. Even if that leads to the fringes of the internet.

When the Apollo 11 crew landed on the moon I was alive but too young to remember anything about it. I am sure though we watched the incredible images of Armstrong and Aldrin walking on the moon and to this day I am still fascinated with space-travel and the possibilities it may offer. Watching the footage again proved to be an interesting experience.

Strangely, the feat seemed even more impressive, almost to the point that suspension of disbelief was required, considering the technology used back then and the fact that man never went higher than about 300 miles after 1972 (the International Space Station is between 205 and 270 miles).

Let’s not get into the whole conspiracy thing or the technical minutiae of the matter, let’s look at the human factor. If you watch videos of the moon walks the astronauts give the distinct impression of being rather relaxed, sometimes joking or goofing around, jumping, stumbling and in later missions practically joyriding the buggy. Think about this for a moment.

You are in a hostile environment where only your suit protects you from extreme heat, cold, radiation and of course the vacuum of space. Or summarized, certain death. Any damage to your suit can be fatal. Will you fool around and have a good time? Sure, the astronauts were very courageous guys, they had the right stuff, but still.

With that in mind, view the Apollo 11 press conference. A successful heroic mission into uncharted territory, perhaps the most astounding human achievement in the history of mankind, possibly resembling a religious experience when looking upon the fragile blue planet, alone in the vast black void of space. And now, fortunately, safe and back on Earth!

You expect boundless enthusiasm, pride and joy. Instead Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins appear very nervous and tense, almost fearful, tightly on script and not happy at all. To the present day observer, the behavior shown in both instances (moonwalk and press conference) does not seem to match the occasion, in fact, amazingly, when switched it makes more sense. Remarkable, and one can (at least somewhat) understand how this feeds into all kinds of (conspiracy) theories.

Space Travel and the Van Allen Radiation Belt

The Van Allen Radiation Belts are often mentioned in space-travel related discussions on the internet. Two doughnut shaped rings of pure death surround the earth and make space travel impractical or impossible. The inner belt is situated from 400 to 6.000 miles above the earth, the outer one extends from 8.000 to 36.000 miles. The belts contain charged particles that loop around the Earth at high speeds. The deadliness varies but on the top end of the scale the particles have enough energy to penetrate 14mm of lead. It was actually Greek physicist Nicholas Constantine Christofilos who was one of the first to explore the possibility of trapping charged particles. He later was one of the driving forces behind Operation Argus (1958).

Operation ARGUS was the designation given to the three high-altitude nuclear test shots conducted by the United States in the South Atlantic Ocean from August 27 to September 10, 1958. The ARGUS shots were conducted to test the Christofilos theory, which argued that high-altitude nuclear detonations would create a radiation belt in the upper regions of the Earth’s atmosphere. It was theorized that the radiation belt would have military implications, including degradation of radio and radar transmissions, damage or destruction of the arming and fuzing mechanisms of ICBM warheads, and endangering the crews of orbiting space vehicles that might enter the belt.

So back then shooting nukes in the sky and trying to create a radiation or electron belt in the upper parts of the atmosphere was thought to be a pretty good idea, of tactical value in case of war, for example to disable enemy satellites. Of special interest is the location chosen for Argus, about a 1.000 miles southwest of Cape Town.article-0-1E3B10F600000578-257_634x208This is an area in range of the so called South Atlantic Anomaly, where the inner Van Allen belt is closest to Earth, as low as 125 miles from the surface. The borders and shape of this Bermuda Triangle of Space are not static, the anomaly is actually moving and expanding slowly. It is speculated that the weakening of the Earths geomagnetic field may be a contributing factor. Interesting to note: the ISS required extra shielding to be able to safely pass through the anomaly. About 200 satellites (2010) face the problem of passing through the Anomaly, some programmed to shut down sensitive equipment for the duration of the passage.

Nasa Engineer talks about the Van Allen Belts

Our understanding of the belts and their function is still developing. Recently it was discovered that the belts, interacting with the Earths plasma-sphere, function as a barrier to high speed electrons. So all things considered, it is probably something we do not want to mess with too much. Van Allen himself  responded to questions about the belt and the consequences for space-travel, and more specifically a FOX TV show that posed the NASA Moon Missions were a hoax:

“The radiation belts of the Earth do, indeed, pose important constraints on the safety of human space flight. The very energetic (tens to hundreds of MeV) protons in the inner radiation belt are the most dangerous and most difficult to shield against. Specifically, prolonged flights (i.e., ones of many months’ duration) of humans or other animals in orbits about the Earth must be conducted at altitudes less than about 250 miles in order to avoid significant radiation exposure.

A person in the cabin of a space shuttle in a circular equatorial orbit in the most intense region of the inner radiation belt, at an altitude of about 1000 miles, would be subjected to a fatal dosage of radiation in about one week.  However, the outbound and inbound trajectories of the Apollo spacecraft cut through the outer portions of the inner belt and because of their high speed spent only about 15 minutes in traversing the region and less than 2 hours in traversing the much less penetrating radiation in the outer radiation belt.

The resulting radiation exposure for the round trip was less than 1% of a fatal dosage – a very minor risk among the far greater other risks of such flights. I made such estimates in the early 1960s and so informed NASA engineers who were planning the Apollo flights. These estimates are still reliable. The recent Fox TV show, which I saw, is an ingenious and entertaining assemblage of nonsense. The claim that radiation exposure during the Apollo missions would have been fatal to the astronauts is only one example of such nonsense.”

So not fully understood and dangerous but also possibly instrumental in keeping Earth safe from deadly cosmic influences. Not recommended in case of a prolonged visit but also not a barrier that can not be passed. Otherwise we could not have gone to the Moon, right? And with 60´s technology to boot! But that is another topic, which I will leave for a later post.