Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Humans on Callisto within 15 Years

Human colonies on the Moon and Mars are almost inevitable, but that is simply because of their proximity to Earth. But the best location for the first human colonies beyond our planet may not be the Moon or Mars. It could well be one of Jupiter's ice moons. The intense radiation in the inner Jovian system is a major problem, but one of the largest outer moons, Callisto, has great potential.

Callisto, the second largest of Jupiter's moons, and the easiest and safest one on which to establish a human colony

As far as human colonisation is concerned Callisto offers much the same resources as the other three Galilean moons, but there is one thing it offers that the others cannot: a low radiation environment. Such an environment, which is still protected by Jupiter's magnetosphere,  means that crewed spacecraft will need minimal radiation shielding, and habitats on the surface of Callisto are possible. On top of that, its old surface indicates that it is geologically stable. And there is also strong evidence of significant amounts of liquid water beneath the surface (which itself contains plenty of water ice).

As well as water ice, the surface is made up of significant amounts of carbon dioxide ice, rock, silicates and hydrocarbon compounds, all of which can be mined to help a colony achieve self-sufficiency (water oxygen, fuel, metals etc.).

Callisto appears to be an almost perfect choice for colonisation, and also as a base to launch the colonisation missions of many of the other outer Solar-System bodies, such as Enceladus, Titan,  Triton, and the trans-Neptune objects beyond.

An aggressive, but achievable, time line for Callisto colonisation is as follows:
  • 2019: the Callisto orbiter launched. Construction of crewed spacecraft begins.
  • 2020 - 2022: an unmanned supply spacecraft is launched with surface habitats and supplies for the future Callisto colony.
An unmanned Callisto supply spacecraft is prepared for launch in Earth orbit
  • 2024: the orbiter arrives and begins detailed visual and radar mapping of the Callisto's entire surface.
  • 2025 - 2027: the supply spacecraft arrives and enters orbit around Callisto. Two surface locations are chosen for the first colonies. The equipment for the two surface bases lands at the desired locations. The equipment includes human habitats, power generators, food and food growing bays, drilling machines, and oxygen/fuel creators (to extract hydrogen and oxygen from the surface water ice to create fuel for return journeys, and of course to make oxygen for breathing). The now empty supply spacecraft returns to Earth.
  • 2027: the first crewed spacecraft launches with eight occupants.
  • 2029: as the empty supply spacecraft arrives back in Earth orbit, the second crewed spacecraft launches, again with eight occupants.
  • 2030: an unmanned Europa lander launches from Earth.
  • 2031: the first crewed spacecraft arrives in orbit around Callisto. Six of the occupants land on the moon, three at each location, and set up the habitats. The drilling of underground habitats, and mining, begins. The two remaining crew members stay in orbit in the detached orbital station section. The empty crewed spacecraft returns to Earth.
The first colonists explore the crevasses and caves of Callisto
  • 2032: The unmanned supply spacecraft leaves Earth orbit and heads back to Callisto.
  • 2033: the second crewed spacecraft arrives and docks with the first one in Callisto orbit. Six of the occupants land on the moon and join the earlier colonists. There are now six at each location. The orbital station is enlarged with a new module.  It now has a permanent crew of four. The empty crewed spacecraft returns to Earth.
  • 2034: the Europa lander arrives and lands on the moon's surface. The crew orbiting Callisto take control of the Europa mission, using tele-operation to control the surface rover and the penetrator to explore the ocean beneath. They will do this for all future unmanned Jovian missions.
  • 2035: the underground habitats on Callisto are now occupied. They consist of large pressurised caves with habitat domes within, and also greenhouses for growing food. Tunneling continues to expand the habitats. The surface habitats are now used solely for science purposes. The first launch from Callisto with two occupants, and using fuel maufactured on Callisto, successfully docks with the orbital station.
Large man-made and pressurised caverns beneath the surface of Callisto would make ideal human habitats
  • 2036: the unmanned supply spacecraft arrives. Supplies are sent to the surface colonies and the orbital station, and then the spacecraft heads back to Earth.
  • 2037: the third crewed spacecraft with eight occupants leaves Earth and heads for Callisto.
  • 2038: the fourth crewed spacecraft launched from Earth.
  • 2039: the first baby is born in the Callisto colony.
  • 2041 - 2042: the two new crews arrive in Callisto orbit and dock with the orbital station. New modules are added to the orbital station. The now very large station keeps a permanent crew of eight, while the rest head for the two surface colonies. The empty crewed spacecraft return to Earth.
One of the manned spacecraft arrives in the Jovian system and, after a close pass of Jupiter, closes in on Callisto
  • 2042: with fuel on Callisto now plentiful regular round trips from the surface to the orbital station begin. Crew rotations are performed, giving all the chance to work on the surface and in orbit.
  • 2043: two more children are born in the Callisto colonies.  There are now 27 colonists on the surface.
If the above plan were to be followed there would a sizable and thriving human colony on Callisto within 30 years. As it grows over the following decades humans would have an ideal base from which to launch colonisation missions to other outer Solar-System regions, and from which to conduct science and exploration work, manned and unmanned, from within a much more manageable gravity well.

SpaceX has recently presented its concept for a large and fully reusable interplanetary manned spacecraft. It's a highly impressive proposal, with a long term goal of having 100 or more passengers per trip. It would be an incredibly efficient and fast way of building a colony.

SpaceX's interplanetary spacecraft, which could eventually carry 100 passengers to colonies on Mars and the moon's of Jupiter. The image shows the spacecraft after landing on Enceladus, a moon of Saturn.

Although the initial target planet is Mars, SpaceX has said that the vehicle is suitable for use on the moons of the outer planets, too. With the extreme ambitions of organisations like SpaceX, a colony on Callisto is possible within the lifetimes of many who are reading this.  Let's hope more organisations, and some governments, rise to this challenge.

It is essential for our survival as a species.


Saturday, 1 April 2017

Saturn's Unnatural History


Saturn and it magnificent system of rings and moons is one of the most fascinating regions of the Solar-System. And it's fascinating not only because of its natural history, but because of its likely unnatural history, too.

In a previous article I wrote about the strong possibility that Saturn's two small and unusual moons, Atlas and Pan, could well be abandoned interstellar starships.

The most recent images of Pan, one of Saturn's unusual, and possibly artificial, moons

But there are two other objects in the ringed planet's system that are of extreme interest: the large Moon, Iapetus, and the tiny moon, Daphnis.

Iapetus

Iapetus is the third largest moon of Saturn.  There is much about the moon that is intriguing, but the most intriguing to me is the massive equatorial ridge that runs almost completely around its circumference. At around 20 kilometres wide and 13 high it is a truly monumental feature, especially for a moon only 1,492 kilometres in diameter.

Iapetus - the third largest moon of Saturn

Why is such a feature present, and how can it be exactly on the moon's equator?

The only plausible natural explanation given so far is that Iapetus once had its own ring system similar to its parent world. The rings, formed from the debris of a colliding smaller object, or from the breakup of Iapetus's own moon, rained down onto Iapetus's equator, eventually forming the ridge.

That is an interesting theory, but it does not explain why the ridge is not evenly distributed across the entire equator. Almost a quarter of the equator does not have the ridge. Falling ring debris would have been distributed over a long period of time, and very evenly.

The ridge (centre) that runs three quarters of the entire length of Iapetus' equator

The most likely unnatural possibility is that the ridge is actually a collapsed orbital ring. Tethered to the moon, such a structure would provide easy access to and from the surface, and would be quite an obvious facility for an advanced space-faring civilisation to construct.

An orbital ring, such as this one seen here around Earth, could have collapsed onto Iapetus creating the ridge

Abandoned for thousands of milennia, the structure would eventually decay and collapse, crashing to the surface along the equator of Iapetus. Once the collapse had begun it would progress rapidly, which would explain the unevenness of the ridge, both in its height and its distribution. A gap in the ridge, which we can clearly see, would be highly likely in this scenario.

If this happened it must have been a billion or more years ago as subsequent comet impacts have covered the remains of the ring in ice and debris hundreds of metres thick.

If evidence of a collapsed orbital ring is found beneath the ridge's ice it would provide strong support for the other potential evidence of ancient extra-terrestrial activity in Saturn's vicinity.

A mission to Iapetus is required, which must include an orbiter with ground-penetrating radar to map the remains of the orbital ring, and whatever else may be hidden beneath the equatorial ridge. And if the presence of the orbital ring is confirmed, a manned mission should be launched as soon as possible with the aim of setting up a long term colony on the ridge. Despite the long period of time that has passed since the ring collapsed there would still be plenty of artifacts present that could teach us a lot about the advanced culture that once thrived in the Saturnian system. And there may be clues as to the reason for their demise or departure.

A large human colony on the ridge, established after the collapsed orbital ring theory was proven correct.


Daphnis

Daphnis is one of Saturn's small inner moons with a diameter of just 8.6 kilometres. It orbits within a gap in Saturn's A ring, known as the Keeler gap. In fact, the main reason the gap remains clear of debris is largely because of this moon.

The best current image of Daphnis taken by NASA's Cassini orbiter

One thing Daphnis has in common with the other moons of interest, Atlas, Pan and Iapetus, is that it has an equatorial ridge. This ridge could well be the result of particles falling to the surface from the surrounding ring debris, but the fact that it is on the equator once again makes this highly unlikely. It is more likely to be dust gathering on the shape of the moon's structure, as in the case of Atlas and Pan. And just like Atlas and Pan, the shape of Daphnis suggests it is unnatural in origin.

Saturn's moon, Daphnis, nestled in the Keeler gap within the planet's A ring

The apparent abandonment of so much technology in Saturn's system suggests that the civilisation that developed it had to make a rapid exit (or suffered a catastrophic disaster). They did, however, have the time to place at least three of their vast spacecraft within or very near to Saturn's huge ring structure. Such a move would conceal them from discovery from anything observing from afar. The build up of dust and debris on their hulls has disguised their presence even further.

Daphnis deserves significant study.

The incredible Cassini mission will come to a spectacular finale towards the end of 2017. A new and even more ambitious mission to Saturn is now required. As I mentioned before it must include an Iapetus orbiter with radar capable of mapping objects beneath the icy surface, but it must also include rover missions with deep drilling capability.  There must also be probes to explore the moons within the ring system, with Atlas, Pan and Daphnis the priority. We need to know whether or not a manned archaeological expedition is required to study and exploit the ancient technology that may be present.

The exploration of any signs of extra-terrestrial technology within our Solar-System should be one of the top priorities of Earth's space agencies. Such exploration could result in the knowledge we require to preserve our species beyond the Earth's demise.

When you think about that, any concerns about the cost of such an undertaking pale into insignificance.


Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Subterranean Life on Planet Nine's Moons

The hypothetical planet nine is talked about a lot at the moment. And so it should be. A new and massive planet, currently lurking in the darkness at the far reaches of our Solar-System, is an intoxicating prospect. And it is likely to be confirmed as a reality over the next couple of years as more and more astronomers turn their telescopes to the area of space where it's most likely to be.

Planet Nine

Until it's found and observed closely its origin is unlikely to be known. But there is a strong possibility that it is a captured rogue planet. If it does turn out to be of interstellar origin then that would be very exciting indeed, for it could have brought with it a tantalising glimpse into the possibilities of life and even civilisations that formed hundreds or even thousands of light-years away.

The planet is expected to be a smaller version of Uranus or Neptune with a thick and deep atmosphere of mainly hydrogen. With a mass ten times that of Earth it would be just less that four times the diameter of our world. If so, there is little chance of life on its surface.

It could well be a different story on its moons.

One of Planet Nine's ice moons

Such moons, preserved over the aeons by the deep cold of interstellar space, could well be a treasure trove of artifacts from hundreds of millions of years ago that point to the existence of intelligent life that evolved in a star system far from ours, and when the moon's parent world was in a stable position around its home star. If the civilisation was relatively primitive (no more advanced than ours) it would have ended when some catastrophic event, such as a close encounter with a passing star, dragged the parent world out of its home star system and banished it to the interstellar void.

But if, during such an event, a technologically advanced civilisation existed on one of those moons, it would surely have gone to great lengths to preserve its existence as long as possible. We may well find evidence of deep habitats, seed banks, and even knowledge banks or cultural archives.

The frozen surface of one of Panet Nine's moons. Could the artifacts of an extra-terrestrial civilisation from hundreds of light-years away be hidden beneath the surface?

But what if some remnant of that civilisation still survives, somehow utilising the decaying heat of the moon or parent planet's interior for energy? Rogue planets are not necessarily the lifeless worlds we usually imagine (see my earlier article on rogue planets).

Another intriguing idea is that a civilisation, aware of its decline towards extinction on its home world, colonised Planet Nine as it passed close by. Using the rogue planet as natural interstellar generation ship, the colonists would have planned for a voyage of hundreds of millions of years with an indeterminable destination. They would have also had to prepare for the possibility that no suitable star system would ever be reached.

To ensure survival such preparations would have to include a meticulously designed ecosystem, safely contained from the harsh interstellar void. This would most likely be beneath the ice of a moon with access to the ocean beneath. Such an ocean, seeded with life from the civilisation's home world, would be the most likely source of food, water and oxygen for the colony. And it could be a source that could indeed, with disciplined management, provide for a journey and time span of such magnitude.

There is great risk in embarking on such a journey. After tens of thousands of generations the colonists may well lose sight of their ultimate aim. Such a subterranean existence would change a civilisation from an outward looking and curious culture to a simpler and inward looking one focused more and more on nothing but its day to day existence. Devolution could occur, with physical and mental abilities simplifying over the generations to match the environment. Intelligence could dwindle, and physical dexterity could lessen. Technological systems, if self maintaining, could continue to function indefinitely, looking after the colonists who no longer comprehend the machines that keep them alive.

Ancient self-maintaining machinery that could support a subterranean ice moon colony for millions of years 

Such a colony could be thriving right now on one of the moons of Planet Nine, well adapted to their subterranean existence, and unaware of our existence and even that they are now part of our Solar-System. There may even be no knowledge or concept of the universe beyond their ice-shrouded domain. The colony would function in an eusocial manner, like a society of ants. It would be a collective of simpler minds working together, more by instinct than planning, to ensure survival.

Colonies like this could be intentional rather than evolutionary. A technologically advanced civilisation could engineer a version of its species to function in a eusocial manner and create colonies beneath the surface of numerous ice moons. The colonies would survive in the simplest manner possible, ready for higher intelligence levels to be reinstated, most likely by automated systems, when the time is right. At that time, upon entry into a star system with a suitable planet for the colony to live on, the automated systems would genetically modify the next generation to possess a high enough level of sentience and sapience so that it could be educated.

Automated systems re-engineering a new generation of intelligent colonists ready to be educated before travelling to their new home planet

Over the next few generations the advanced technological civilisation that created the colony millions of years before would be restored. Awareness of the universe beyond the ice would return, along with the curiosity and motivation necessary to leave the safety of its confines.

A colonisation spacecraft, maintained by automated systems for millions of years, is readied for launch as a viable star-system is reached

There could be a huge number of such subterranean, almost troglodytic, colonies, set up to allow species to survive for hundreds of millenia as rogue planets make their natural interstellar journeys.

We would need to be very careful if evidence of such a colony is discovered. Our appearance within their colony could devastate it. We should monitor it carefully, without disturbing the delicate balance that has kept it alive for so long. The way the colony functions, and the machinery to maintain it, could teach us a lot about survival.

Planet Nine may turn out to be one of many captured interstellar objects in the outer Solar-System. Such objects would be a rich source of evidence about the environments around other stars, and could well contain the preserved remains of extra-terrestrial civilisations, and even the surviving descendants of such civilisations.

The discovery and exploration of such objects should be a priority. The knowledge we gain could transform our unstanding of the possibilities of life beyond the comforts of Earth.

It could even save our species.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Alien Civilisations: Closer Than Expected

With the recent discovery by the Kepler Telescope of over a thousand new exo-planets (planets orbiting other stars to our own) the chance of discovering evidence of an extra-terrestrial civilisation nearby seems more and more likely.

Kepler Telescope

Nine of those planets in particular are similar in size to Earth, and they are in the habitable zone, close enough to their parent star for liquid water to exist on their surfaces, but not so close that it will boil away.

Life could exist on any or all of them. And the closest habitable planet among them may only be 11 light-years away.

Of course, the chance of a nearby civilisation being detectable from Earth is still extremely small, and would rely on the civilisation being at a similar level of development to our own. If it's less developed there would be no electronic emissions to detect,and no industrial processes that would leave the the signature of pollution. And if it is far advanced then its means of communication and travel could well be unrecognisable, and its home planet's atmosphere long since cleansed of the damaging activity of earlier times.

Pollution generated by an extra-terrestrial civilisation would be detectable, and may be one of the best ways to determine if an exo-planet harbours intelligent life. Even if the civilisation is long extinct the atmosphere may still contain evidence that they once existed.

The only sure way to detect such civilisations would be to get close enough to observe them directly. If and when we do eventually have missions to other star systems I think the most likely evidence we are to find of an extra-terrestrial civilisation will be the artifacts and ruins of a species long extinct (and we are well on the way to becoming such 'evidence' if we continue to abuse our planet in the way we've been doing and if we continue to procrastinate about building off-world colonies).

I mentioned above that the closest habitable planet discovered by the Kepler Telescope may only be 11 light-years away, but there may be one even closer.

In early 2016 it was confirmed that an Earth-sized planet is orbiting Proxima Centauri, just 4.2 light-years from our Solar System. Called Proxima b, the planet is in the habitable zone where liquid water could exist in a stable form on the surface.

Proxima b

This is remarkable news, especially as it happens to orbit the closest star to our sun. If such a planet just happens to exist so close then the liklihood of others in nearby star systems rises quite considerably.

A new project, known as Breakthrough Starshot, was announced in 2016 with the aim of proving that a fleet of light sail spacecraft, powered by Earth-based lasers, could make the journey to the Alpha Centauri system, including a flyby of the potentially habitable planet Proxima b, in 25 to 30 years. With a potential launch date of 2036, and with the now active support of NASA, it is possible some of those reading this now would be able to see the results of such a mission.

Solar-sail spacecraft powered by lasers from Earth

There are issues with an Earth-like world orbiting a star like Proxima Centauri, though. The star is a red dwarf, not much larger than Jupiter, which means the planet needs to orbit very close to be in the habitable zone. In this case it is close enough that it completes its orbit, or year, in just over 11 days. Planets this close to their parent star are likely tidally locked, which means the same hemisphere always faces the star. This results in one hemisphere of the planet scorched in permanent sunlight, while the other is frozen in permanent night.

There is still hope for such a world. If the atmosphere is thick enough it should distribute some of the heat of the daylight side.  And if there are significant oceans they will moderate the temperature further. Such a tidally locked world may well be quite habitable for humans, at least on the terminator (the border between day and night).

A tidally locked planet, with a scorched desert on its star-facing side, and a frozen wasteland on the dark side. Only the land at the terminator of such planets may be habitable.

I find exo-planet research to be the most exciting area of astronomy. As the technology and techniques to perform it improve year on year we will, sooner rather than later, make some quite revelationary discoveries, including evidence of life on a world far removed from our own.

How amazing that is going to be is hard to describe.


Sunday, 1 January 2017

Modifying Humans For Life in Space

Does life need an atmosphere like Earth's?

Not always, it seems. Simple life can survive in the harshest of conditions. Can humans be engineered to survive in such conditions too? To find out we need to understand how simple life-forms manage it, and consider any existing evidence of life surviving in space.

Panspermia is the theory that life is spread through the universe by debris thrown into space by violent impacts. Some of that debris, containing hardy microbes similar perhaps to Earth's extremophiles, eventually lands on a suitable planet, and evolution begins. This theory becomes highly plausible when we consider that there are some Earth microbes that can indeed survive in the harsh environment of space. It seems that life that can survive a long exposure to deep space may well be extremely common.

Chroococcidiopsis: an extremophile with the potential to help terraform Mars

But could complex, and even intelligent, life be engineered to survive in the extreme conditions of space?

It certainly seems possible, and there is a complex creature on Earth that can survive in space, at least for while: Tardigrades. These tiny animals are found everywhere, from mountain tops to the depths of the oceans, and from the tropics to the Antarctic, and are the toughest multicellular organisms known. They have remarkable survival abilities. The can withstand temperatures from -272 Celsius to 150 Celsius, pressure up to six times that of the deepest oceans, exposure to radiation hundreds of times higher than the lethal dose for humans, and they can be frozen for decades and still live on and reproduce after thawing.

And they can survive in the vacuum of space, the only know animal with that ability.

A Tardigrade, the toughest known animal. It is almost impossible to kill.

Why did such a resilient creature evolve on our planet? Could it be used to engineer a more complex and possibly intelligent lifeform, or even to modify humans, to live in extreme environments?

I think so.

Alongside all the usual research that will enable humans to embark on interstellar colonisation (new propulsion systems, generation ship design, closed life support mechanisms etc.) research into how humans could be re-engineered to survive in harsher environments is also essential.

Perhaps on a generation ship there could be a genetically modified element to the crew that could look after the 'standard' humans that are forced to remain in their rotating Earth-like bubble at the centre of the ship. The modified crew would be able to survive for long periods in minimal gravity, and with a limited atmosphere. They would look after the ship and ensure that the standard humans are in good shape to land at the destination world. They would breed as the standard humans would, replenishing their numbers as the centuries of the voyage rolled by.

The genetic engineering could even extend beyond just the physical and tune psychology and intelligence to match the intended function of the modified human, rendering them almost perfectly adapted to their roles.


All of this would ideally be monitored and controlled by an immortal crew, another set of engineered humans that would oversee the whole voyage, and ensure the continuation of the thought and culture of the standard humans whose descendants would one day colonise the destination planet (see my earlier article 'Immortal Travellers').

As well as the scientific challenges to modifying humans in such a way, there are ethical challenges too. And the ethical challenges may end up becoming the hardest to overcome. But such challenges must be faced and surmounted if we are to have the greatest chance of surviving long enough to spread our species out amongst the stars.

Experimenting on human embryos and allowing them to grow to maturity to see the effects of genetic modification would be unacceptable, and also very time-consuming. Instead, sophisticated computer simulations need to be developed to give genetic scientists the ability to design such humans, and test them in virtual environments. Only when we are sure we have developed a new breed of human perfectly adapted, both physically and mentally, to the desired environment, should actual living versions be grown.

Computer programming languages already exist that can be used to add new 'features' to DNA. Such languages are in the early stages of development and use, but in the near future, when such languages are used in conjuction with a virtual simulations of the results, we will have the ability to design a perfectly adapted crew for deep space travel. With the constant improvements in computing power the systems required for this, and the software to run on them, such facilities may well be available in just a few decades.

A neanderthal family

Forty-thousand years ago there were four species of humans on Earth. For almost the Last 20,000 years our species, homo sapiens, has been the only one.

Perhaps that is about to change?

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Intelligent Machines are Watching Earth

Sending crewed missions to other stars is difficult and expensive. And relying on delicate and unpredictable elements such as biological lifeforms is more often than not going to lead to failure. It would be far better to send artificial 'life' - a synthetic intelligence - that could plan its own observations on arrival, making judgments based on what it finds. It would need none of the messy and error prone life support systems that biological life requires.

When this is considered it does seem to be the most likely means by which an extra-terrestrial civilisation would explore our Solar-System, especially when the huge distances and timeframes are taken into account. It would certainly be the simplest means of exploration. Given the age of the universe there are likely to have been many technologically advanced civilisations that developed long before ours. There is a strong likelihood that we have been observed in the past in this manner, and we could still be under observation now.

An alien interstellar space probe enters orbit around our sun

Such an idea is similar to the concept of a Bracewell Probe, first discussed in 1960. But unlike a Bracewell Probe, which would try to actively contact any technological civilisation that it found, I suspect in reality an alien civilisation would be much more cautious. Their probe would be hidden and undetectable, and it would watch us carefully, recording our transmissions and tracking our activities. It would then transmit its findings back to its home world, making sure such transmissions were undetectable by us.

We should be actively trying to find evidence of such probes.

If such probes are designed to be hard to find, as I would expect them to be, there will be no obvious signs of their existence. We may already have observed them directly without realising it. But the fact that they are artificial and manufactured, and highly technological in nature, will eventually betray their identity. And as they are highly likely to be self-replicating machines, there will be many of them. Once we find one many others are likely to be found soon after.

Alien probes may well be organic in appearance, and hard to identify

How such a probe will react when discovered is unknown. Will it attempt to flee, or self-destruct in a violent manner? I think either is unlikely. I think the following series of events will happen:
  • The probe will alert other probes in its vicinity that it has been compromised.
  • It will transmit to them the data of its observations.
  • The probe will then render itself inoperable, wiping clean it's memory, and even its programming. Its artificial intelligence - its mind - would be rendered inert.
  • The other nearby probes that had been alerted would inform their creators on their home world of what has happened.
  • Those probes would then continue their observations as before.
If that series of events occurred we would still be able to examine the physical construction of the probe, but we would not be able to learn anything about its most important qualities: what it knows, where it comes from, and how it thinks. We would have to find a way of approaching the probe that would not trigger such a suicidal action. To do so we would have to persuade the probe that we are no threat, and to submit willingly to examination.

But how could we possibly learn to communicate with it at all, let alone convince it to cooperate with our requests?

The only way to do that would be to develop an equivalent artificial intelligence of our own. It would have to be close to the complexity of the probe's mind, and flexible enough to adapt rapidly to the probe's responses. Of course, it would have to be a very fast learner of a complex and utterly alien language (the extra-terrestrial probe would also need this ability).

We are a long way from developing such an artificial intelligence, and the current fears of the potential harm such an intelligence could do to our civilisation has the potential to hamper its development. It's a valid fear, but despite that fear such technology needs to be created. The development needs to be very carefully monitored and controlled, of course, if we are to avoid rendering our species irrelevant to superior artificial minds. We could achieve this by developing very specialised artificial intelligences that are only suitable for specific tasks, rather than artificial general intelligence (where the artificial intelligence can perform the same intellectual tasks that humans can), which should be avoided.

But why should artificial general intelligence be avoided?

One idea I find interesting, and a bit unsettling, is that intelligent extra-terrestrial probes may actually be the primary 'life-form' on their home planet. After a civilisation develops an advanced artificial intelligence, that intelligence eventually starts to improve on itself at an ever increasing rate, soon surpassing the intelligence of its creators. Such an event is known as a technological singularity. Soon the creators (the biological life-forms that built the initial artificial intelligence) do not have the ability to even understand the rapidly improving artificial intelligence. Its complexity and ability is beyond their comprehension. The artificial intelligence becomes the dominant 'species' on the planet, and eventually sets out to explore and colonise neighbouring star systems and beyond. Its creators become, at best, second class citizens, or at worst, extinct.

An extra-terrestrial civilisation where artificial intelligence is the dominant life-form

We should certainly push ahead with the development of sophisticated artificial intelligence, but as I stated earlier it should never be given the general intelligence ability of humans. It should be specialised for health care, engineering, exploration, construction or any other specific tasks we require to progress, maintain and expand our biological human civilisation.

And it certainly should be developed to facilitate communication with extra-terrestrial interstellar probes that are quite possibly watching our planet right now.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Dinosaur Civilisation

I've often wondered: if a dinosaur civilisation developed would there still be evidence of it? If there is then we would have found it by now, wouldn't we?

Not necessarily.

If there was a dinosaur civilisation it would have ended at least 65 million years ago when climate change and the asteroid impact caused the major extinction event that killed off half of all life on Earth, including all of the non-avian dinosaurs. After so much time there would be very little of their civilisation left for us to find.

A decade after the asteroid hit

Artifacts

Amazingly, there are artifacts found in coal seams that could be evidence of a dinosaur civilisation. Coal takes 30-300 million years to form, so anything found within it must fall within that age range.  A gold chain and iron pot have been found in such seams, but the most interesting by far is a bell with a handle. The coal seam in which it was found is said to be up to 300 million years old, which would place it in the early part of the dinosaurs' reign. The bell was examined at the University of Oklahoma. It was found to contain an unusual mixture of metals, quite different from any modern usage.

The most intriguing feature of the bell is the figure on top of the handle. The figure's face is certainly not human.  Instead it looks like it could be reptilian, or avian in nature (the small wings make the avian link much more likely).

The figure on top of a 300 million year old bell handle - a sentient dinosaur?

It could be that when we look at the face of that figure we are looking at the likeness of an intelligent dinosaur, one of high-importance to its civilisation: perhaps an emperor, a great priest, a famous historian or philosopher, or a warrior. It could even represent a deity. That is quite a profound thought.

It's sad to think that thousands of such artifacts may have been destroyed in the furnaces of power stations around the world. Ideally coal mining facilities should be updated to detect metallic artifacts before the coal is transported away. If that was done we could soon find conclusive evidence of a pre-human civilisation that once thrived on Earth during the time of the dinosaurs.

Intelligence

The fossils we have found show us just a small percentage of dinosaur species. Fossilisation is a rare process indeed, and fossils of the intelligent dinosaurs that could have created such a civilisation may never be found.

Dinosaurs certainly had ample time to develop intelligence and civilisation. Humans have only been around for about 1.6 million years, and it's only about 4 million years since our ancestors first stood upright. Human civilisation developed only 10,000 years ago. Dinosaurs were the dominant lifeforms on Earth for 165 million years. The limited fossil record shows an incredible diversity of dinosaur species, each adapted to specific roles and environments. It seems likely to me that in all that time there should have been at least one dinosaur species that evolved intelligence to a similar level as our own, especially when you consider the brains of their direct descendants: birds.

The face of an intelligent dinosaur

In general the dinosaur fossil record shows that dinosaurs had small brains, but recent studies show that bird's, the descendants of dinosaurs, have much more intelligence than previously thought. Their brains have neurons that are much more densely packed than those of mammals.  In fact, some relatively small birds can have a similar number of neurons to primates. Theropods, the dinosaur ancestors of birds, were present throughout the reign of the dinosaurs, from the early Triassic to the final days of the late Cretaceous. Like birds, their brains, although much smaller than human brains, would have contained a much denser collection of neurons. It's possible that they could have reached a similar level of intelligence to our own with a much smaller brain than ours. The smaller brain size could even have lead to faster thought and reasoning processes which could have hastened the development of civilisation, and possibly to an even higher degree than our own.

There is a remarkable amount of evidence already found within coal and rock that suggests civilisations existed on Earth long before modern human civilisations developed, with some discoveries even hinting at advanced technology. I suspect that the most astonishing discoveries are yet to be made.

Perhaps we will one day find evidence of a space-faring civilisation that existed on Earth millions of years ago, one that managed to send some of its population away on an interstellar voyage to escape one of the many mass extinction events that have plagued our planet. The descendants of that civilisation could be living quite happily right now on another Earth-like world many light-years away.

And they could be dinosaurs.