Tatooine and the Three-Body Problem

I recently ran across a blog post that pointed out that Tatooine (the Star Wars planet of double-sunset fame) could never exist because of the problems inherent to the 3-body problem. Specifically, Kepler’s laws of planetary motion get all wonky when you are dealing with more than the two bodies: the planet and the sun. In fact, orbital patterns can start to look a little crazy, and yes, in situations like that, Tatooine would not survive long enough to even form, let alone be settled by sand people, Jedi, and various assorted scum and villainy.


Except that this doesn’t have to be the case. There are a variety of cases where a planetary orbit can be quite stable in a binary star system, provided it’s in the right place.


Yeah, that’s right, it’s all about orbital real estate. The sweet spots seem to be either very close to one of them, or very far away from both.

orbit_1star_stable1When the planet is much closer to one star than the other, the distant star does not have much gravitational influence on the planet’s orbit. It can orbit the smaller star in a nice circular orbit, almost as though the other star weren’t there at all. Well, it looks like a circular orbit from the point of view of the nearby star. From the point of view of the system’s center of gravity, it’s more akin to a spirograph. (And yes, I know that this dates me, but spirographs were cool!)

orbit_1star_stable2Here, instead of Tatooine’s double-sunset, you’ll have half the year with no night at all. Sure, one sun will set, just as the other one is coming up. I imagine that will be summer, regardless of the planet’s tilt, because overnight lows only come when there is night. It might make for an interesting place to live, but the seasons could be a little intense.

A more Earthlike (or at least Tatooine-like) experience will come if you can get far away from both stars. Put them together in the center of the system, spinning merrily around each other, and stay out in the suburbs where it’s cool and relatively steady.

orbit_2star_stable2Here, your orbit is stable, close to circular, and any seasons you have will be due to axial tilt, not varying proximity to the great fiery balls in the sky. Plus, you know… the infamous double-sunset.

But this isn’t just me jerking around with a gravity simulator. Nope, it’s backed up by actual observations. Now that we have a decade’s worth of observations from the Kepler satellite telescope, we have actually found a number of planets orbiting in binary systems.  So far, we have found at least five planets orbiting tight binaries, much like Tatooine.

So, don’t throw away your Star Wars travel plans. Tatooine is very likely out there somewhere, possibly in a galaxy very nearby.

Review: This Will Make You Smarter, edited by John Brockman

This is one of the annual Edge Question books, where the Edge website asks several prominent thinkers an interesting question. The result is a collection of short essays answering that question. Past questions have included “What do you believe but cannot prove?”, “ What have you changed your mind about?”, and my favorite so far, “What are you optimistic about?” The question that spawned this book was “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?”

Like most of these Edge books there were a few answers that were thinly veiled screeds against religion, but for the most part, the answers were pretty good. They included things like the Pareto Principle (aka the 80-20 rule), the idea of positive-sum games, that you can demonstrate danger but cannot demonstrate safety, that correlation is not causation, and black swan technologies. There are about 150 in all, and they give good food for thought.

My recommendation is to read this a little bit at a time, perhaps an answer or two each day. It takes a while, but it keeps the brain from getting numb.

Mars One and Death

marsplanetMars One is a project to start colonizing Mars funded by a reality TV show of the volunteers who go. It looks quite serious, and they seem to have a reasonable technical plan for getting four astronauts to the surface of Mars with enough supplies and equipment to survive for an indefinite period going forward. The plan would be for more volunteers to arrive at the rate of four every two years, but this is to add to the population, not to rotate them back out.

The front-loaded price tag looks to be in the neighborhood of $6 billion USD, which they are trying to raise privately. Part of me wants to vent in frustration that if only NASA and the US Congress had the balls to step and fund something like this, it would be a done deal, but that’s a rant for another time. Perhaps the biggest challenge Mars One faces is not the technical problems but the financial one of raising that much money before much of any television revenue materializes. I wish them luck.

headstoneMostly, though, I want to talk about death, because that’s where these guys are headed. They make no bones about it, but this is a one-way ticket. I don’t think that they’re going to perish en route or in their first week, but the very real fact is that these volunteers are going to die on Mars. There is no return-flight on the horizon. This is nothing all that new in human history. There have been plenty of cases where colonists sailed off to the wilderness, fully intent on never returning, but in today’s world of jet travel, we’ve gotten away from that thinking.

But how soon will they die? Hopefully, they will a long time there, but conditions will be harsh, and simple activities will be fairly dangerous. I think there is a better than 50-50 chance that all four colonists would make it through the first two years. At that point, the next batch of colonists will arrive, and more construction will ensue for the next batch to arrive another two years into the future. However, if one of them dies before that second batch arrives, I worry that the project will falter. I’m sure they worry as well, and they seem to be doing everything they can to make those first two years as safe as possible with redundant systems.

Still, in the long run, there may be health problems associated with low gravity. Also, between the trip and years spent under Mars’ thin atmosphere, radiation will increase the risk of cancer. Furthermore, the limited food supply may cause other health issues. It seems reasonable to think that a colonist’s remaining life expectancy on Mars might be half of that on Earth. A fifty-year-old who thought he had another thirty years left to him might only get fifteen. A twenty-year-old hoping to last until eighty might be dead at fifty. But then, a seventy-year-old might only be trading away five years of life-expectancy.

So, is it worth it? Obviously that’s a question for each individual, and for the 80,000 or so who have already signed up, the answer appears to be yes. I suspect the selection criteria is going to aim for healthy people in their thirties to fifties. They have good life experience, and at that age, it seems less likely that their decision to go would be based on a youthful whim. Add another eight years of training, and we’re talking about sending people in their forties to sixties. They might only be trading away ten to twenty years.

For some, it would be worth it just to have the experience of living on Mars. I confess that if my life had gone another direction and left me without my wife, children, and other close friends, it would be seriously tempting. I’m a lifelong SF geek, and the idea of waking up every morning on another planet is serious wish-fulfillment territory. I might trade a decade of life for such an experience.

moonwalkingFor others, there might be a little lure for fame. Certainly with the reality TV show funding the ongoing operations, there will be a lot of fame back on Earth, but there is also the compelling allure of a place in the history books. They will be up there with Columbus and Neil Armstrong in the history books. Martian high schools will someday be named after them. Historians will perpetually debate the critical airlock decision of 2027. For some people, that is essentially their immortality, and an early death on the mortal plane is worth it.

But for some special few, I think they will want to do simply to push humanity into the heavens. They won’t care about Earth-side opinions. They won’t care if their name is spelled right in the history books. They’ll care that we got out there and someday, went even further. Hopefully, they’ll die decades from now when people are planning the tentative robotic exploration of some Earthlike exoplanets orbiting other stars. They will slip gently into the night, comforted by the knowledge that humanity won’t.

If I had my pick, these are the ones I would send up first.

Space Elevator Misconception

BasicElevatorYou’ve heard of space elevators, right? You know, it’s that cable that hangs down to Earth from geostationary orbit and stretches out another 35,786 kilometers past that to balance it all out. Down here on Earth, we’re experiencing one Earth gravity, 9.8 m/s2, aka “1 g”. And up at the center, in geostationary orbit, we’re weightless. And at the far end, we’re experiencing full Earth gravity again, only pointed outwards due to centripetal force, right?


I’ve seen this crop up in a few SF stories involving space elevators, and it seems so natural that I assumed they were correct. It makes sense, after all. The bottom is being pulled down at one Earth gravity. To balance out, the other end also has to be getting pulled up at one Earth gravity. It makes sense, but it’s wrong.

Why? The key is that Earth’s gravity is stronger at the surface than in the increasingly higher orbital altitudes. Somewhere in the back of your head, you’re starting to remember something called the Inverse Square Law, aren’t you? That’s right. Like many physical phenomena, their effects decreases with the square of the distance. If you’re twice as far away, you only feel one fourth the effect.

What does that mean for our space elevator? It means that at its center, we are not balancing 1 g of gravity with 1 g of centripetal force. Rather, we’re balancing the decreased gravity from the distant Earth with an equivalent amount of centripetal force. How much gravity is there at that distance? Let’s do the math.

The formula for gravity at a distance is:

g = GM / r2

… where G is the gravitational constant, M is the mass of the body (i.e. Earth), and r is the radius of the orbit. The value of the product GM is known to high precision at 398,600.4418 km3/s2, and the geostationary orbit radius is 42,164km — 6300 of which are between the Earth’s center and surface. So at that altitude, the gravitational attraction of the earth is 0.224 m/s2, or a mere 2.28% of the gravity we experience on the surface of the Earth at the base of the space elevator.

But what does that say about the centripetal force we experience out at the far end? Well, centripetal acceleration is defined by the formula

a = w2 * r

…where w is the angular velocity in radians per second, and r is the radius of the circle we’re turning in. Since we’re still staying over the same point on earth, the angular velocity is (2 * pi) per day or roughly 0.0000729 radians per second, and our radius is about 77,950km, i.e. twice the geostationary altitude plus the radius of the Earth itself. And being swung around at that far-flung distance will net us a grand total centripetal acceleration of… 0.41 m/s2.

But we’re not quite done, because even though we’re being flung around, we’re still feeling some gravity pulling us back to the Earth. At that distance, it’s only 0.065 m/s2, but that does drop us down to 0.35 m/s2, or a mere 3.6% the surface gravity of the Earth.

You thought the Apollo astronauts looked bouncy on the Moon? They were over four and a half times heavier than they would be at the end of the elevator’s cable. It’s enough to keep things on the floor, but it’s not enough to feel very strongly.

BasicElevator_withForceArrowsThis also points out an interesting problem with balancing the elevator. After all, it’s that balance between the Earth pulling it down at the spin flinging it out that keeps it in place. But as we’ve seen, the bottom of the cable is being pulled down towards the Earth at 9.8 m/s2 while the other end is only being pulled out at a mere 0.35 m/s2. Thus, while the top and bottom halves of the cable may have the exact same mass, the bottom half is heavier. That is, it is being pulled upon with more force.

The solution to this was given when these space elevators were first proposed, and that was to put a ballast weight at the far end of the cable. If it’s massive enough, it does not even need to be at double the geostationary altitude. It could be closer to the Earth, but since it would still be above geostationary orbit, it would be pulling with all of its weight (its mass times its centripetal acceleration) outwards. Thus, you can still balance out the space elevator and keep it floating serenely in the sky.

Ahh, I hear you saying, but what if we just made the cable longer? After all, the further out the cable goes, the centripetal acceleration acting on it goes up. Maybe if we made it long enough so that the far end did experience one full g of centripetal acceleration, there would also be enough force from the mass of that longer cable to balance it out. Maybe there’s still hope for some kind of mirrored gravity at either end of the cable?

Unfortunately, no, it doesn’t work.

The root of the problem is that while gravity drops off with the square of the distance from the Earth, the centripetal acceleration builds linearly with the distance. To experience one gravity at the far end of the cable, being swung around us once per day, the cable would have to be 1.84 million kilometers long.

There are two problems with such a long cable. The first is that the orbit of the moon is only about 384,000 kilometers. While a space elevator on Mars would face a similar problem with the small moons there, it has been suggested that the moons are small enough that well-timed wave maneuvers (like plucking a taut wire) would allow the elevator there to dodge the moons. However, Earth’s moon is 156 times wider than the largest of Mars’ moons, and even if its slow-moving body could be dodged, it would be impossible to dodge its gravity which would take the math into even crazier areas.

But the bigger problem goes back to that disparity between the two forces’ relationship to radius. While the gravitational acceleration acting on the bottom of the cable drops away rapidly as it rises from Earth’s surface, the acceleration acting on the far end of the cable as we back away from the end would only decrease linearly. So, while the mass of the “top half” of the cable would be only fifty times as massive (at a minimum), the force acting on it (the mass of each part times the centripetal acceleration acting on it) would be over a thousand times as great as the force of the lower half being pulled down to the Earth.

Even if it was made from a material cable of withstanding that much force, there is no way we could secure it to the surface of the Earth. It would be plucked from its docking station like an unwanted nose hair and flung into space like… well, like an unwanted nose hair.

So keep the solar system free of nasty million-kilometer cables, and don’t insist on 1 g of centripetal acceleration at the end of your space elevators.

Little Galileo

I bought my daughter a telescope for Christmas. It’s a 70mm refraction telescope with a 9x and 25x eyepieces. I confess I’d been hankering for something bigger, maybe in the 4-6 inch reflecting range, but they were much pricier, and all the reviews pointed to this as an excellent starter telescope. I also knew it was powerful enough to see Saturn’s rings.

So, we put it together, confirmed that the red-dot viewfinder was properly aligned, and waited for a clear night. And waited. And waited. That last week of December was pretty cloudy here in central Texas, but it did clear eventually, so we grabbed the telescope and headed out into the frigid night — well, at least as cold as it gets in this part of Texas, i.e. about 25F.

I had not done any preparation or research. I had no plan of observation. I had no star charts. Even the little star-map app on my phone was a bust since my phone is pretty poor at detecting its own orientation. But I figured we could just go out, point the telescope at some light in the night sky, and see what it was, a bit like those astronomers of the early 1600’s. Even with me living somewhat out in the country, they probably had much less light pollution than I did, but the quality of my optics were vastly better than theirs.

First of all, with 70mm of light-gathering aperture, the moon is way too bright to look at. Seriously. It wasn’t quite “do not look at moon with remaining eye, but I could see the moonlight blasting out of the eyepiece, illuminating dust particles. So, I gave up on any direct moon observations until we could add some kind of dark moonlight-filter to the setup.

Then I pointed it at some bright light about 20 degrees above the horizon. I used the viewfinder to line it up, then peered through the eyepiece only to find it empty. I looked through the viewfinder again to see that I was off target. I figured I must have bumped it, so I lined it up again, went to look, and damn, still nothing there. By the time I went to line it up again, I could actually see the thing moving. It was an airplane.

By this point, my nine-year-old daughter’s excitement is turning to impatience. It was literally — yes, literally — freezing out there, and all she had gotten for her troubles so far was to watch me play with her Christmas present.

I looked up at the sky, trying to find something interesting. I saw the constellation of Orion, and remembered something vague about how one of the stars in Orion’s belt was actually a nebula, or maybe a galaxy. Or was that in the sword hanging down from the belt? My daughter started pacing to stay warm.

A little bit up north from Orion, however, was a particularly bright light. I knew my compass directions well enough to know it wasn’t Polaris, so I figured there was a decent chance it was a planet. Given how far it was from the now-set sun, I knew it couldn’t be Mercury or Venus, and its color did not make me think of the red Martial soil at all. I didn’t think Uranus or Neptune could be seen with the naked eye, so I figured it was Jupiter or Saturn. Either one should make for an interesting peek.

So I pointed the telescope up, got down on the concrete of the driveway and peered through the viewfinder. I got the red-dot lined up on the bright light and took a look through the eyepiece.

For the first time, I was rewarded with not a blank field or some blinding moon. It wasn’t even a point anymore. It was a circle. It wasn’t a giant disk with swirling clouds and a big red dot, but it was clearly a circle. There were no rings, either, but this was clearly a planet, not some distant star.

I fine-tuned the position controls to center it, and handed it over to my daughter. “I think that’s Jupiter,” I told her.

Jupiter4moonsShe looked through it and waved her arms in excitement. I told her to be careful not to bump the telescope, and she calmed down and peered some more. Eventually she stood, looked back up at the point in the sky and asked, “What are those dots next to it?”

I looked up and only saw a scattering of other stars. “What dots?”

“In the telescope,” she said. “There are dots next to Jupiter.”

So I sat down on the ground and looked in the eyepiece again. Sure enough, there were four dots around Jupiter, two on each side, evenly spaced. I realized I had noticed them before but dismissed them as some optical artifact between the telescope lenses and my contact lenses. The spacing and arrangement was just too regular to be anything else. Or maybe I’ve just seen too many lens flare effects in recent Sci-Fi movies.

But no matter how much I blinked, the dots did not go away. Eventually they started drifting up out of the view as the Earth rotated, so I used the fine-tuning controls to bring them back into view. They were still there. I angled my head one way and another, but no matter what I did, they remained persistently visible and kept themselves aligned the same way.

That’s when it hit me. These were not optical artifacts. These were the four big moons of Jupiter: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto.

“They’re moons,” I told her. “Those are four of Jupiter’s moons.”

“Jupiter has moons?” she asked incredulously.

“Yes,” I told her all proud of passing on this knowledge, but then I realized that she was the one who had spotted them, not me. I had dismissed them as tricks of the light, but she had noticed them and wanted to know what they were. “They’re the four biggest moons of Jupiter, and you just discovered them.

She looked back through the telescope again solemnly. “Moons… cool.”

GalileoSince then, we’ve talked about how Galileo first saw them through his telescope just over 400 years ago. We’ve gone looking since, and seen them with different spacing, including seeing only three, figuring that one was either in front of or behind Jupiter. I’m trying to explain to her how you can discern that these different observations allowed Galileo to discern that they were circling Jupiter. The theological and political implications of that in what was then still officially an Earth-centered universe will have to wait until she’s a little older.

It’s easy for us to think of those early astronomers like Galileo as epic figures, locked in a struggle against the stratified philosophies of the universe. Yet, at the heart of it, he was just a curious fellow who asked the same question my little girl just asked. “Just what are those dots next to Jupiter?”

Review: What if the Earth Had Two Moons? By Neil Comins

This is a collection of ten what-if scenarios for alternate earths in various solar systems. It includes the title scenario of Earth having two moons, how we would have gotten them, their effects on the Earth over time, and ultimately what’s going to happen to them. Other scenarios include the Earth as a moon, the Moon in a retrograde orbit, other planets in Earth’s orbit, Earth’s elsewhere in time, Earth’s elsewhere in the galaxy, and even what will happen to the Earth when the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies eventually collide.

The nice thing about this for me is that he explores the science behind a variety of fantastical other Earths. In other words, he’s done much of the homework for exotic SF locales. Most of the science is well-written and aimed at the educated layman. A few bits got boring for me, but by and large it was good stuff.

However, this was not a particularly good Kindle edition. The text and diagrams themselves were decent, but the final 15% was taken up by a useless index (i.e. it had no links back into the text) and a collection of footnote/endnotes with no context back to the earlier text. Some of this may be simple limitations of the format, but I would have liked to have seen them handle it differently. If the index was going to be that useless, it should have been removed, and if there was no way to handle the footnotes more elegantly, they should have been inlined parenthetically in the text.

So, I enjoyed the book immensely, but I wish I had bought the dead-tree edition instead.

The Jablowski Limit

Not all science/engineering is warp drives and robotics. Some of it’s not even as sexy as electronics. I’m talking about some of the low-level, apparently boring stuff like metallurgy, acoustics, heat flow, and fluid dynamics. These are all those invisible things that seem to magically flow forth from the lab in the back into the products in the front. There’s no glamor, no product launch, no telling the kids how it has impacted their lives. But some of it shows up in odd places.

Today I’m going to talk a little about ICEEs. Here in the states, an ICEE is a cold treat that’s basically flavored slush. It comes under many different brands, from Slurpee to Slushee to God-only-knowsee. It comes in a variety of flavors like cherry or raspberry as well as a few branded soda flavors including my favorite Coca-Cola. They’re great on a summer’s day, and I’ve probably suffered some kind of permanent damage from the cumulative effect of all the brain-freeze moments I’ve had from sucking these down too fast.

But they are also the source of the saddest sound in the world: that moment when it will no longer rise up the straw. We’ve all heard it, that gurgling gasping sound, the very death rattle of joy. You can stir it. You can shake it. You can move the straw. But all this buys you is another two or three slurps before you hit again. You’re like that desperate doctor trying to shock the dying patient’s heart back to life, all to no avail.

What causes this? I don’t mean the particular acoustics of the sound. I mean, why can’t I keep sucking on that straw until the very last ounce of ICEE is in my mouth, freezing my brain? It’s not like it’s always the last twenty percent that remains inaccessible. Sometimes I get down to the final few sucks before losing this joy, while other times my happiness dies at birth with the cup over half full.

I figure it’s a combination of factors: the overall temperature of the mix, the ratio of ice to fluid, the viscosity of the fluid portion, the width of the straw, the atmospheric pressure, the height of the remaining stack vs. the length of the straw, and so on and so on. These factors together define a region in some multi-dimensional vector-space. Inside the region we are filled with that childhood joy, while outside we are left to the barren wasteland, cast out of our ICEE paradise.

But how is that boundary condition defined? This is where I return to that unglamorous science. Somewhere out there, I’ll bet some fluid dynamics scientist has done the research to answer this. I think of him as Dr. Jablowski. I doubt his PhD dissertation was titled “On the End of ICEE Joy”, but he did the same kind of research on the fluid dynamics of phase-transition liquids in suction pumps. He probably had in mind some kind of industrial coolant application, but there’s always the possibility that he was inspired by some disappointment in the cafeteria’s drink line.

The shame of it is, as back lab as such research would have been and with as much information out there as there is, I will probably never find that dissertation. What’s worse is that even my relatively high level of mathematic and scientific literacy will not be up to the challenge of the multi-variable differential equations necessary to understand his conclusions.  I will probably never shakes hands with Dr. Jablowski, or whatever his/her name is.

But I still appreciate that he has done the work. It probably influenced the design of the ICEE machine. His work probably keeps that slurry stirred at just the right temperature for optimum conditions. He may have advised them on the proper shape for the dispensing nozzle to maintain the surface tension around the flowing column.

So now, when I hear that saddest sound in the world, I acknowledge the work of this unheralded researcher. My friends and I now call this transition from joyful slurree to anguished gasps the Jablowski Limit.

I just hope he doesn’t mind that we made him Polish.

Neil Armstrong

Most of you probably know by now that Neil Armstrong died a few days ago. He was the first person to set foot on the moon, and he was in some ways made immortal by his words, “That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.”

I was not quite two when he landed, and I’m told I was awake and watching when it happened, but I have no memory of it. Certainly, though, I grew up in a world where man had walked on the moon, and the next steps beyond seemed imminent. But they never came.

I was going to write a rather sad piece about that lost opportunity, about how in some ways we’ve squandered the last forty years, but I did not want to disrespect those who have given their last measure of devotion to space exploration in that time. John Scalzi managed to walk that fine line better than I could have, so I’ll point you to his remarks.

However, I would like to add one more thing. Neil Armstrong was an engineer. Yes, he was a damned fine pilot, but he also had a degree in aeronautical engineering. He always said he was a nerd, and that all of his NASA accomplishments came from the efforts of other nerds like himself.

My father was one of those nerds, and electrical engineer. He was working at Collins Radio, and they got part of the contract for the Apollo communication system. The piece he designed did not actually go into space. In fact, it wasn’t even part of the groundside receiving system. Instead, it was one of the components that carried the signals between the groundside antennas and mission control.

It was a small part in a piece you might not consider terribly significant, but still, Neil Armstrong’s one small step arrived to the rest of us because my dad did his small part, just like so many others. While Neil provided the step, I think he understood that it was all those nerds who had provided the giant leap.

Review: Going Interstellar, by Johnson & McDevitt

This is a collection of short stories and essays edited by Les Johnson and Jack McDevitt:

I’ve reviewed other novels by McDevitt and enjoyed them quite a bit, so when this anthology came out, I was quick to buy it. Overall, it was pretty good, but its mixed nature made it inconsistent.

I enjoyed all the essays. They were full of facts, history, and a reasonable amount of hard science. They even had a few diagrams, so I’m glad I bought it in dead-tree edition rather than e-book. Mostly the essays dealt with various proposals for real interstellar spacecraft that would plod along at slower than the speed of light. While that can make for weak fiction, it’s actually possible by our current understanding of the universe. No magic physics is required.

The fiction was hit or miss for me. I did really enjoy one of the stories by McDevitt, and it truly did make me care about the main character, an AI computer that finally got a shot at the big game. A couple of others left me flat, and one truly disappointed me. It dealt with a multi-generation colony ship, and I found it lacking compared to my own novel of a similar colony ship. That’s not really fair to this story, of course, but that’s how it hit me.

So, if you want some info on real interstellar proposals, get this for the articles, and maybe check out the fiction.

Why Mars?

I confess I wrote most of this on Sunday several hours before the Curiosity lander either landed successfully on Mars or left an SUV-sized crater. [Update: Success!] Obviously I’m hoping for the former [YAY!], but why all this effort for Mars and not, for example, Venus or Jupiter?

First, let me lay out all those legitimate scientific reasons. Mars is much more like Earth than the other planets in our solar system, and studying Mars can tell us a few new things about the Earth, its climate, and its history. Also, Mars shows signs of having once had liquid water on its surface, and that means there is the possibility that Mars might have once harbored microbial life – and it still might. Finding another sample of life would teach us a lot about the possibilities of life and organic chemistry, even if it’s to teach us that Martian life came from Earth or vice versa.

So yeah, we go to Mars in hopes of learning things to help us on Earth. Yada, yada, yada. It’s all legitimate, and it can probably justify the price tag. But that’s not why I care.

Curiosity being lowered from its rocket packIn my lifetime, Mars has gone from being a light in the sky to being a place. As corny as it sounds, it has become the new frontier, that faraway land across the sea, and I feel a definite itch to go see it. What things could I see that no one has seen before? What could I build there? Who else would I meet on such an exciting journey? What mark would I leave on such a world?

Yeah, I know… it’s a lot of romantic claptrap, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real. I don’t know if it’s simply because I’m a lifelong SF geek, or if it’s some deep genetic wanderlust. Either way, it’s a tangible draw, and I find that it ranks high on the scale of things that fulfill my life.

Do I think I’m going? No. I admit I still hold out some hope that I might make it into orbit as a tourist someday, but that’s about it for me personally. However, I do hope to see a manned mission to Mars in my lifetime. It would be even better to see some kind of permanent settlement there, but I don’t see that as a realistic possibility in the next 40-50 years. I’m not saying I’d vote against it – far from it – but I don’t expect to see it.

In the long term, I’d like to think there will be a long term effort to colonize Mars and terraform it. That would teach us a lot about managing a climate – again, useful here on Earth. It would also give our species some survival insurance that the dinosaurs lacked. And finally, I think it would teach us a lot of we’ll need to know if we’re ever going to make the leap past our solar neighborhood.

Specifically, living on Mars would teach us how to keep people alive and healthy for long-duration space flight. It would teach us how to built shelter on inhospitable worlds using local materials. We would learn how to actually terraform instead of merely bandying about the notion that it should be possible. And we’ll also find out just how Earth-like we need to make a planet to successfully life there.

Who knows? Maybe we’ll find out that Mars just isn’t good enough to live on. Maybe it will be too cold. Maybe poor magnetic field will let us fry in solar radiation. Maybe its low gravity will cause us endless health problems. But maybe we can solve those issues.

But in the here and now, I’m looking forward to Curiosity’s mission and exploring Mars vicariously through it.

Curiosity sees its shadow on Mars.