Comments: Scared Of Adults

Well, I wouldn't stay up nights worrying about coronal mass ejections destroying the electrical infrastructure, but it does point up in an interesting way how idiotic is the idea of a manned mission to Mars.

Posted by Aaron Datesman at March 24, 2009 12:24 PM

I sometimes feel like I'm living through that fairy tale, the fisherman and his wife. Science has made us kings, but it can't make us wise.

Posted by Carl at March 24, 2009 12:26 PM

it does point up in an interesting way how idiotic is the idea of a manned mission to Mars

Well, no; it's a feasible engineering problem to shield a ship. Shielding the planet is a bit more difficult.

Posted by NomadUK at March 24, 2009 12:41 PM

And shielding a Martian base/colony is also doable, when one is starting from scratch. It's all that old Terran infrastructure that's the problem here.

Posted by NomadUK at March 24, 2009 12:43 PM

As I recall, Nomad, you wouldn't listen to Daestrom and gave Kirk a hard time-- so why should we listen to you?

Aaron D's point, I think, is that the Mars mission would cost an enormous amount of money and diversion of scientific talent which could be better directed on numerous far more pressing matters.

Posted by Jonathan Versen at March 24, 2009 01:41 PM

Would life be wiped out on the planet if we had a catastrophic event?

Maybe some people have found a way to escape the totality.

They're just not telling.

Posted by NeedlesslyAngry at March 24, 2009 02:11 PM

I've known about this for a while. They say that the one in the 1800's caused telegraph cables to catch on fire and such.

Non connected electronics can be protected easily, just be sure they aren't grounded, eg put them in a wood or cardboard box or something. Anything connected to the unprotected grid is slag, as is anyone too close to some 'tubes' from the outside. I think it is just one of those things like an earthquake or tsunami. Get caught in the wrong place and oh well. Earth happens to be that place.

This is why I always keep my sharpened stick close by. I'll be running naked in the forest before you even know what happened. I should be running western civilization a few days later.

Posted by tim at March 24, 2009 02:34 PM
I should be running western civilization a few days later.

Ok, I give -- does this thing make guns inop?

But, it's disappointing to hear that given a clean slate you'd run the new and improved western civilization with the tip of a sharp stick.

Makes me wanna make a knife with a knife.

Posted by NeedlesslyAngry at March 24, 2009 02:41 PM

Hey, I also read Inconstant Moon when I was about eleven. Fun times.

Posted by Cloud at March 24, 2009 02:41 PM

As I recall, Nomad, you wouldn't listen to Daestrom and gave Kirk a hard time-- so why should we listen to you?

That was an earlier, flawed model. There have been improvements since — the beginning.

Aaron D's point, I think, is that the Mars mission would cost an enormous amount of money and diversion of scientific talent which could be better directed on numerous far more pressing matters.

Well, maybe yes, maybe no. I'm pretty firmly in the camp that says that if we're at all interested in preserving the species (which, I'll grant you, often seems to me a dubious proposition), then we need to expand beyond this rock. Sooner or later, either a very big rock is going to hit us, or something else will go wrong, and that'll be the end of that. Anyone who doesn't believe in an afterlife should see that such an event will render the entirety of prior human existence meaningless. (And, no, don't start with the 'But the Universe will come to an end someday, and then what?' whinging; there may be ways around that, and it's billions of years out.)

The problem becomes one of resources. The resources required to establish mankind in space need to initially come from Earth, until a foothold is gained and independent mining can take place. Those resources are limited, and running out. Eventually, there won't be enough, and then we're quite probably stuck, and just marking time until the catastrophe hits.

Putting all of our eggs in one basket doesn't make any more sense when you're talking about planets than it does when you're talking about energy sources or investments, and arguably, in the long run, less.

Posted by NomadUK at March 24, 2009 03:23 PM

you wouldn't listen to Da[y]strom

And, anyway, that was 'The Ultimate Computer', different episode.

Posted by NomadUK at March 24, 2009 04:10 PM

THE ONLY people to have ever walked on the Moon are AMERICAN CITIZENS. I want to know why there ain't a Government Land Office and a peanut stand there with the Army and Airforce guarding OUR LUNAR INTERESTS, and a law that ANYBODY born anywhere on the Moon is an AMERICAN CITIZEN. There ought to be an EASY 66 trillion in land sales on the bright side alone.

Posted by Mike Meyer at March 24, 2009 05:29 PM

With current technology, there has never been enough resources on earth to reestablish earth life on another star.

The 'space race' was/is dick waving to impress the serfs, and get them to pay for 'star wars'. Otherwise you would be saving to open a pizza shop on the moon like Mike said.

If they put money into going to Mars, they are full of shit. If they put money into physics and computer science then we might have a chance.

Posted by tim at March 24, 2009 06:03 PM

I love how that NS article has a link to "Related editorial: We must heed the threat of solar storms."

Posted by RobWeaver at March 24, 2009 07:16 PM

Funny thing, after reading this today I was asked by my boss whether we could build a solar wind (coronal mass ejection, CME) detector. (Detectors are my scientific field.) We both thought it was an excellent joke!

Jonathan Versen is half right, I do have that opinion (I also think that all manned space flight is idiotic), but that wasn't my point. My point is that a manned Mars mission is ludicrous. NomadUK is technically correct but not in a useful way.

You could shield a Mars-bound ship, for instance by building a lead coffin with foot-thick walls for the astronauts to duck into when a storm strikes. However, there is no way to predict the occurrence of CMEs and no way to warn the ship's occupants that one is coming! (I learned this, by the way, from JPL scientists who came to speak to us when I briefly worked on the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter project.)

The Bush administration was big into the manned mission to Mars. Really that says it all.

Posted by Aaron Datesman at March 24, 2009 09:22 PM

Perhaps 2 countermagnetic fields each a half wave out of step with each other.

Posted by Mike Meyer at March 24, 2009 10:34 PM

Nice to see in the article's comments section several people celebrating the prospect of mass death--"thinning the herd", killing off the stupid and such.

God I love our society.

Posted by Mark at March 24, 2009 11:08 PM

The Bush administration was big into the manned mission to Mars. Really that says it all.

Well, lots of people have been and are interested in manned spaceflight; just because Bush is a fucking loon doesn't make the others wrong.

Regarding detection and alert of coronal mass ejections, well, it seems to me that we ought to be working on that (and near-Earth asteroid detection) regardless, and if it works for this planet, it'll work for a spacecraft or a colony.

If we don't, then we may well have the answer to the Fermi Paradox: advanced species go extinct because they can't be arsed.

Posted by NomadUK at March 25, 2009 04:37 AM

NomadUK -

You can argue manned space flight on the merits, I don't disagree. I happen to think it's a lousy idea and always has been. The manned mission to Mars is another thing. The basic idea is not feasible.

I agree about near-earth asteroid detection, and I'm aware of programs in that direction which could use more funding. It is possible to detect CMEs, especially from space, and there is currently a satellite filling that role which should be replaced. No argument from me.

Detection isn't the problem. (Two apologies first. 1. I'm off-topic. 2. I confused CMEs and solar flares initially, although they are related. The article reminded me of this issue relating to the Mars mission.) Notification is the problem. Even if they have shelter, the astronauts can't be told to hide there in time. You can read more about it here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_flare

Basic physics always wins in the end.

About the original topic, I agree that better engineering could address the threat to the electrical system from CMEs. That our collaborator in the high energy physics division asked us about this yesterday indicates that the DOE Office of Basic Energy Sciences is thinking about this issue, probably relating to the Smart Grid initiative (a dumb idea).

I prefer to spend my nights lying awake worrying about nuclear annihilation and global warming. If a CME wipes out our electrical grid, well, I'm taking my wife and moving in with Mike Meyer in WY.

Posted by Aaron Datesman at March 25, 2009 02:36 PM

Aaron Datesman: Dress warm!

Posted by Mike Meyer at March 25, 2009 04:11 PM

Frankly, most of the world is prepared for it. They're prepared for it by being poor and having learnt to make do with it. If a solar flare really causes China's grid to fail, it's just gonna be back to the farm and a way of life that's lasted thousands of years.

But boy oh boy, the developed world will then realize what an illusion it's been built on all these years...

Posted by En Ming Hee at March 26, 2009 12:51 AM

But boy oh boy, the developed world will then realize what an illusion it's been built on all these years...

I think S.M. Stirling wrote a series called "The Change" on that. But you could say the same thing for any level of civilization--from High Beyond cultures instantaneously crashing in A Fire Upon the Deep to the hypothetical of "what if everyone lost their language ability?"--we build on what we have, to the point where removing it would be catastrophic. This is true for any technology.

In any case, there are plenty of other things to worry about. A gamma ray burst could sterilize the planet and boil the oceans with absolutely no warning. The Large Hadron Collider could (but probably won't) trip a phase change which would generate a sphere of pure destruction traveling outward from Earth at the speed of light, encompassing the entire universe.

Like I said. Plently of other things to worry about.

Posted by grendelkhan at March 26, 2009 07:24 PM

grendelkhan: Like the rent and utilities.

Posted by Mike Meyer at March 26, 2009 11:34 PM