Life as a Planetary Explorer

Life as a Planetary Explorer

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This episode is sponsored by ExpressVPN.  “Every dreamer knows that it is entirely  possible to be homesick for a place   you’ve never been to, perhaps more homesick  than for familiar ground.” - Judith Thurman   So, last month we began a look at surveying  habitable interstellar star systems, where   we first focused on the astronomy side of things,  looking for biosignatures or signs of good planets   from light years away with telescopes. A couple  weeks back we looked at the role of interstellar   probes, principally flyby probes that could get  to systems far quicker than a probe designed to   orbit a world. Today’s episode, looking at what  it would be like to be a planetary explorer,   is a direct sequel to that episode, so if  you haven’t seen it yet, you might want   to pause and go watch that episode first. As a quick recap though, in that episode we  

created a hypothetical example for illustrating  the process of how we might respond to a possible   techno-signature signal that we received from  the Epsilon Fornacis System in the year 2100 AD.   Epsilon Fornacis is a 12-billion year old binary  system 100 light years from Earth, in the Fornax   constellation of the southern hemisphere named  by astronomer Nicolas Louis de Lacaille in 1756.  We introduced 6 programs to pursue answers.  The first was a signal sent to the system,  

complete with our lexicon. The second was the  commission of a powerful telescope to indefinitely   watch the system, named Nicolas. The third was  an automated flyby probe, Louis, which passed   through Epsilon Fornacis a millenia later, in the  year 3100 AD, and detected an anomaly as well,   when passing by a Super Earth in orbit of  the primary star which is now designated   Louis Epsilon Fornacis, or the planet Lef. The fourth was the probe carrier Lacaille,   which arrived around Lef on January 1st, 4100 AD,  and began deploying a satellite grid to surveil   the planet. The fifth was the scout ship Firefly,  which also moves into orbit Lef a few days later  

and begins waking its crew from hibernation on  January 4th. The sixth is the armed colonial fleet   Musketeer, composed of three vessels, the Athos,  Porthos, and Aramis, which is already decelerating   into the system as our explorers awaken, and will  be only a few days of communication lag time away,   with that decreasing until Musketeer  arrives early in July of 4100 AD.  When we went to sleep in 2100 AD,  hibernation was still a very new process,   thoroughly tested on animals and simulations but  barely tested on people, especially those in good   health as most nations frowned on or even outlawed  healthy individuals letting themselves be frozen,   in an attempt to check if the process worked.  In this case it is a process of freezing   conducted after a lot of nanotechnology has been  introduced and the reality is that it is revival,   we were dead, and now we’re being thawed  and we’re not entirely surprised our memory   is rather hazy as we awaken, 2000 years later.  Every cell in our body requires repairing and   that includes our brain cells. We are also  being cured of a disease noteworthy principally   for being still fatal in the year 2100 AD but  expected to be cured fairly soon at that time,   and that turns out to be the case as we look it  up after seeing it on our own medical readouts. 

The Firefly’s on board library and wiki apparently  has been updating and is fully updated to the year   4000 AD. The medical database notes that  the disease was cured in 2122 and that the   entire crew of the space scout Firefly, except the  captain, had injected themselves with it in order   to qualify for legal hibernation freezing on short  notice, which had an exemption for those suffering   from a disease with high lethality rates and no  confirmed cure. Apparently, there was something   of a show trial about it in the 22nd century,  once the process had been proved reasonably safe,   and the captain, which is us, was exonerated  on the charge of conspiracy to infect others   and leading a mass suicide. Apparently there was  also a movie about it a few years after we left,   and we’re a bit surprised at the choice of actors,  particularly those playing ourselves in the movie. 

It is no rarity for pioneers and explorers  to have problems with the law back home,   but we’re rather glad we do not seem to, at the  moment anyway. We also happen to have already   had a different lethal ailment and its what  had gotten us into being an early volunteer   for the exoplanet exploratory service before  the Epsilon Fornacis matter had even begun,   when most of the volunteers for the handful of  scout missions planned, were scooped from the   small portion of the populace that was terminally  ill but otherwise qualified to explore. Given that   we had to leave behind our families and friends,  folks who were terminally ill were generally more   likely to volunteer for eternal exile anyway. Go  on ice and wake up centuries later when it can   be cured, and do some exploring too, that was  how we and most of our pre-anomaly peers felt. 

Everyone else on this mission was picked  quickly from expert volunteers who wanted   to go explore this possibly inhabited system,  but had never been off world explorers before.   With the exception of our XO, no one else but  us have even been off Earth before this mission.  Recovering from being frozen for 2000  years and having your partially thawed   body undergoing cellular reconstruction  is definitely a good time for reflection,   and you do not want to make any mission  critical decisions till you’re sure you’re   fully restored and you have your cabin door  locked and your message traffic silenced.   You’re getting messages from Musketeer Fleet,  whose crew did not hibernate and have been   fixated on this mission for 2000 years, offering  advice, suggestions, demands, and so forth. Your   last message to the admiral of Musketeer Fleet,  who had been asking, or honestly ordering you, to   wait to go down to Lef till they arrived mid-year,  was that the admiral didn’t pay your salary.  The admiral’s reply was to ask who we thought was  paying our salary right now. Which is a pretty  

good point. At the moment, we look like death  warmed over but our medical readouts say we’re   healing well and are now effectively an ageless  transhuman. We were getting a salary and we did   have some bank accounts and investments, but who  knows if those rolled with compound interest or   got eaten by some eventual change of government  or culture. We could be trillionaires or paupers,   and even our most recent update, a century old  from signal lag, could be critically out of date.  Someone has been making sure we get historical,  entertainment, and technological updates   and we have been getting correspondence. We just  haven’t read it yet, because there’s a lot of it.   Everyone knew about this mission for the last 2000  years and when it would arrive and tons of message   traffic came in just the last month, everything  from well wishers to those demanding you not   land on Lef, from kooks to government leaders,  and you’re not entirely certain which is which   and there’s a backlog of tens of thousands of  messages. Many seem to be groups asking you to  

give them a shoutout or even to put patches on  your uniforms with their logo, in exchange for   considerations. This planetary exploration  is brought to you by Jupiter Shipyards.  There’s that big mission waiting down below  on Lef with the now increasingly obvious signs   intelligent life has been here before us, but you  can’t really block out that while 2000 years ago,   and maybe a week of personal time ago, you were  shaking hands with the captains of the Musketeer   Fleet in orbit of Earth, drinking champagne and  posing for photographs with dignitaries of various   powerful nations, corporations, and groups, and  now you’re sitting there watching a giant desert   of planet rotate beneath you as your ship spins  around twice per minute to simulate gravity.   You’re not sure if any of those great nations and  groups remain. You’re not sure if everyone you   know is dead or not, because life extension  treatments were definitely becoming a thing   before this mission was even on the radar,  but you are betting two thousand years of   living has at least thinned their numbers down and  probably left them very unlike how you remembered.  

Your memory is still foggy but you think some of  your crewmates left spouses or children behind.  Our ship itself is pretty primitive and has  a number of systems that could be upgraded,   and mostly automatically, some indeed have been,  but many require your authorization to continue.   You can’t just say yes either, everyone knows  where you are and what you’re doing, and your   upgrade data could be telling the ship how to make  itself a big bomb, and you have twenty centuries   of spam, hacks, pranks, and well-intentioned  but bad suggestions to screen out.   This was anticipated as a possibility, but  original mission planning was all built around   colony and scout missions to systems within a  dozen light years of Earth, and only a dozen such   missions had been dispatched when the original  weird signal arrived at Earth late 2099 AD.  And it is now listed as the original signal  because another was received in 3200 AD,   apparently having been transmitted shortly after  the Louis Probe passed through. That probe reports   having been hit with what is interpreted  to have been a Radar ping and a Lidar scan   from Lef’s Moon, Aanwijzing, a rocky body about  half the mass of Earth’s own Moon. The Lacaille  

Probe Carrier dispatched many probes there too,  though in truth it sent them all over the system,   but focus is on Lef and Aanwijzing for possible  clues for our hypothetical courageous explorers.   It isn’t lost on us that as the captain of  the Firefly, originally scouting mission #13,   slated for scouting Epsilon Indi’s  orange and brown dwarf binary system,   just 12 light years from Earth, that luck  is not something we should be relying on.   Not two thousand years in the future with  a crew we didn’t originally train with   for a mission that everyone now agrees is going  to involve some sort of contact with aliens.  So what about that crew? Well the default one was  all about asteroid surveyors and astrogeologists,   because that was quite a booming business in the  late 21st century with all those asteroid mines   opening up and folks contemplating how to build  bases and mines throughout the system, and as   outposts around other stars. Here though, we had  to throw together a team and that resulted in us,  

with a background in asteroid mining, our XO, who  ran freight and passengers to and from those mines   and served as security on those ships. Then  we have the others, a xenobiologist - which is   strictly theoretical at this point, a geologist,  an expert in cryptography and linguistics,   ship’s archivists, ship engineer, our shuttle  pilot who is also the ship assistant engineer,   and some other people whose specialties  don’t matter as they appear to have not   properly survived hibernation. Oh, and the ship’s  computer, which is a fairly intelligent AI though   not at fully-human intellect, parallel to  its sibling, the Lacaile Probe Carrier’s AI.  So the situation on hand is that we can loosely  pinpoint that there’s a scanner of some sort   on or near Lef’s Moon, and that down on  the surface, which is a thin-aired desert,   there is a weak signal coming from down  on the planet in the ULF band range.   Ultra-low frequency signals being noteworthy for  being able to penetrate even thick rock and dirt,   it is not too surprising that the only signal  emerging from the clearly dead world below would   be one able to pass through layers of sandstorm  buildup. The atmosphere is principally oxygen,  

nitrogen, and carbon dioxide, and Lacaille’s  analysis is that atmospheric pressure is now   down to 5% of Earth normal. This matches well  with estimates from both Telescope Nicolas   centuries back and Probe Louis’s flyby  analysis. This means the team will need   to wear spacesuits on the surface, though will be  able to extract oxygen and nitrogen from the air.  Lacaille’s more detailed analysis has  found no water and the world below   is parched worse than Arrakis. Analysis indicates  that eons ago, as Epsilon Fornacis’s primary star  

aged and grew brighter, the oceans boiled  away as the once cold superearth of Lef   slowly warmed. However the current tectonic  modeling is not producing anything reliable.   Probably the modeling of tectonics in the  late 21st century just wasn’t up to the task   of handling a superearth that formed when the  galaxy was much younger and is now boiling away.  You signed up for this mission though,  so you’re going to get it done,   but you are really wondering if you want to  be spending countless centuries leapfrogging   through time and space to survey worlds. Most  of which will be dead and boring planets.   Of course, when you think on it, a team  of a handful of you probably would need   several lifetimes to meaningfully explore  a planet even just to take ground samples,   something the Musketeer Fleet’s Admiral seems to  be making a point of in the communiques from them.  

Yours will be the first foot to step onto  this alien world and that is awesome,   yet at the same time, you’re not even sure you’re  getting paid, or that your crew is getting paid,   you’re not sure if your crew is really required  to follow your orders anymore, and you’re not sure   what you’d spend your money on anyway, or where. So as we drop down to the surface of a once living   world, we figure this at least means there  may be other ones out there with life on them,   not just rocky or icy balls of dead worlds.  But this one is dead, this one is hot enough   that we’ll be wearing cooling suits as we land in  what ground-penetrating radar indicates is a basin   now filled with sand 300 meters deep, above a  rock layer and where that signal is coming from.  

It is weak, and we erect a wide reflective  tent over the top of our base site nearby,   as we set the machinery to excavate down at an  angle to reach the beacon, but by late January,   we already have some new information and  extrapolations. Over on that moon we have   found a simple receiver and transmitter buried in  a crater that pokes its nose up as our own probe   approaches and spreads solar panels to absorb  power for a time before it emits a powerful signal   with similar patterns on the front and rear of the  emission, presumably identifier or header data.  We do not approach further with drones, opting  to leave that for Musketeer. We’re expecting  

to find that the probe contains a large amount of  Palladium-107 and Silver-107 isotopes, the latter   being the beta-decay product of the former,  which has a half-life of 6.5 million years,   a very endurable if weak power generator.  Probe Carrier Lacaille’s infrared sensors   picked up a flower-shaped object floating  in a polar orbit around Lef at the edge of   its Hill sphere that had a hotspot. We believe  this is a telescope left there to monitor for   anything approaching Lef and then to scan and  transmit to the moon for louder re-broadcast.   It has solar panels as its flower petals and drone  camera imagery indicates micrometeor damage. It   seems likely this is the probe that scanned our  own probe, Louis, a thousand years back and that   while expanded to perform its job it was damaged. We believe it had been doing its job for  

millions of years, so it would seem both sad and  improbable that it would be broken by our arrival.   But it likely had been spending virtually all of  its time as a dense package, protected by its own   folded up power collectors and was only vulnerable  when it popped open to scan and transmit, and this   might have been the first time it did its job. By early February we have dug a tunnel down to   the beacon on Lef and removed the sand around  what we now believe was not the ruins of an alien   civilization, but rather, the ruins of a base of  other off-world explorers doing as we are doing.   The beacon is a simple device, powered by the  beta-decay of a large amount of palladium-107,   and on cracking it open we can easily estimate its  age at 10 million years, roughly when humanity’s   ancestors split from chimpanzees, indeed we can  get much more accurate, down to nearly a century.  

It is a bit harder to nail down the exact  date of the other beacon stored nearby   that it seems modeled from, but we can put  it at approximately 25 million years ago.  Here on Lef, a world 12 billions  year old, but gone desert long ago,   one wonders how many times aliens have visited  this world to unlock its secrets, only to find   the ruins of previous explorers. Lef appears to  have held intelligent life since before Earth even   existed and shows many geological epochs that are  a dead giveaway of massive artificial engineering,   but we don’t know that life originated  here either, maybe it came as colonists,   just like the folk’s from Musketeer, maybe  many times. Nor do we know what happened to   those first inhabitants or anyone who visited  after, indeed the world may have died and been   recolonized or terraformed multiple times,  not necessarily by the original civilization.   Maybe aliens from different homeworlds or  even long-lost colonists coming to check   on their homeworld, or coming from their  homeworld to check on a lost space colony?  In the decades to follow, we will learn far more,  though we ourselves will be back in hibernation,   after some change in crew and upgrades, courtesy  of Musketeer Fleet, whose colonists will be   continuing the investigation for centuries  to come, exploring the prior visitors relics,   and eventually colonizing the world using  technologies previous invented to terraform Venus.   We are instead headed to explore not another  planet, but rather, what we think might be a   deep space habitat, thousands of AU out from the  Epsilon Fornacis binary, the nearest of a large   number of dots on an ancient map of this region of  space, as we begin tracing this mystery of ancient   alien Planetary Explorers, and where they went,  which appears to be many worlds, hopefully all   as interesting as Lef was, or more, and where  we can get some answers to our questions. 

Including for us at least, the mystery of  why and how they did their job as explorers.  Okay, so a couple notes on realism. First,  it would seem pretty likely that your first   wave of scouts and colonists out to other  systems would get themselves passed en route   by upgraded spaceships, able to move far faster  than your first ships. Though that’s hard to say.  

For a context, when Columbus traveled to  Caribbean that first time in 1492, his ships   took about a month, and ships more or less still  took that timeframe for the trip for centuries.   It would be well into the 19th century before we  saw a big speed and cargo jump with steam ships,   with long range airflight coming in the 20th  century along with supersonics flight later in,   almost 5 centuries after. Half a millenia is a long time,   and our flight time to this system was four  times as long as that. We’ve gotten rather   used to accelerating technological development  but when it comes to traveling through space,   barring FTL – which I don’t think we will ever  get – there’s a ceiling on how fast you can go   and one that most depends on your power supply.  I don’t think our colony ships will tend to get   overrun by faster cousins born later, but mostly  because I expect we’ll rapidly get to the point of   marginal improvements and that a lot of times  we’ll be able to make those upgrades en route. 

You can’t ignore follow ups as  a factor in things like this,   for instance, you might have left Earth after a  bad breakup or divorce or estrangement. It's hard   to imagine even those who were dedicated to their  job abandoning a happy family and home life. The   reality is that not many people are going to be  jumping on board a ship to the edge of forever   if life is going great back home, and one of those  faster follow up ships that you might rendezvous   with might have that ex or estranged kid or parent  on board, deciding they wanted to mend fences. 

You are leapfrogging through time as much  as space, something we’ve seen explored   in classics like Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for  Dead novel, or Alastair Reynold’s House of Suns.   Should it turn out the galaxy is full of life,  or full of ruins of life, or full of aliens who   go out and colonize for a bit, then die off, then  there’s doubtlessly many chances for exploration   but the key notion is that you’re not just going  to land on some planet and poke into an archive   for a few days or even years. It’s a planet.  So to complete your xenoarchaeological mission   is going to be a process of centuries  and it requires a whole community.  

Your xenobiological mission, if life is still  extant, is going to take just as long. Millions   of species, millions of years of fossils,  possibly total alien functioning of life   that might not even have DNA or any real  parallel to our own cells and biochemistry.  So, you’re not personally going to  visit a world then another and another.  

Even a Gardener Ship style approach, to send  out ships that replicated along the way,   pausing at systems for refueling and resupply to  deposit a colony and move on to the next system,   can only let you visit multiple worlds as an  explorer if you’re sending clone duplicates.   Others will beat you to the  action and this will be true   even if we discovered a means of faster than  light, FTL, travel or communication. Because   the USS Enterprise doesn’t find a new planet  to explore every week, it stays at each planet   for decades just to brush the surface of that  exploration and other ships go to other worlds.  One possible exception might be if you were  yourself the uploaded mind serving as a von   Neumann probe, like Bob from Dennis E. Taylor’s  Bobiverse series. In that, the space probe with   its original human-copied mind – Bob – gets  to explore countless worlds with himself   and his copies and copies of copies, and they  have FTL communication to share information.  And that is one case where your probes  might be crewed by human level AI,   in this case uploaded human minds with  augmentation, because in theory at least,   the flyby probe racing by or destined to be  abandoned on some godforsaken rock ten thousand   light years from home can transmit its last  mental save state back with its mission data,   before running out of juice or blowing itself up,  as an alternative to either fate. Though maybe  

that probe goes dormant and waits millions  of years to speak to a follow up mission,   from home or from aliens, and truth be told  anyone coming from home millions of years later   is going to be pretty alien to you. Otherwise, the planetary explorer   probably gets one mission and one that is both  very long and probably very classically boring,   unless you’re a geologist or other specialization  that could find new wonders on each iteration of   countless barren planets. In that regard I really  don’t expect to have a shortage of volunteers,   it is an entirely new planet, but they are  effectively volunteers too because I can’t   see them getting meaningfully paid, except in  satisfied curiosity and prestige, which might be   valuable coin in post-scarcity civilizations. It's  a pretty good coin nowadays and in the past too.  Now before I spoil everyone’s dreams from  science fiction, of exploring new worlds and   civilizations, for boldly going where no man, or  uploaded mind, has gone before, that’s actually   one example where classic exploration might  happen. Next week we’ll be exploring deep space  

habitats, more as an extension of last week’s  episode on crawlonizing the galaxy than this   week’s story was, but it is likely we would find  far more abandoned deep space habs than planets,   and places like an O’Neill Cylinder  Habitat could be explored by a single team   in a short time, like with the classic novel  rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke.  We also need to contemplate how space really  gets colonized if you are using uploaded minds,   because you might be finding big computers with  vast numbers of virtual worlds inside them for   you to explore but which require you explore them  using the native architecture. You can go visit   the equivalent of Tolkien’s Middle Earth but you  get to do it on a sailing ship, not a spaceship,   and by foot and with pencil and paper as your  recorder, not a pocket supercomputer. So too,   if it turns out there is a multiverse and you  can travel around it, then you are pretty much   guaranteed to find countless Earth-like and  quasi-earth-like alien worlds to explore.  What’s really neat is, if we do find  an abandoned alien world to explore,   it might be one of thousands of layers of  civilizations stacked on top of each other   over billions of years, with millions of huge  orbital space habitats around it, each habitat   and each layer containing tons of classic items  of interests to explorers and archeologists,   but also with huge cyberspaces to explore. If  you thought a pyramid was an impressive tomb,  

what about one a thousand time bigger containing  a billion crypts, each of which has a durable   power supply and virtual worlds inside it  that the crypt’s occupant made or cared for   or simply represented the world  they lived in during their life,   like a living interactive journal, kept going  at a snail’s pace for eons. Each of which could   be visited and explored, each possibly with their  own physical laws, and diverging as eons moved by.  So on the one hand, science fiction has probably  given us some false expectations for what life   as a planetary explorer would be like, but on  the other, it may be those false expectations   were not nearly grand and adventurous enough  compared to what awaits us on alien worlds. So in today’s episode I mentioned the  captain being afraid that being on   ice and a hundred light years from home might  mean any emails were unreliable, out of date,   containing false information, and potentially even  viruses or intentionally flawed upgrade designs   that could look like good improvements  but blow the ship up when activated.  

While at the same time the captain has to  worry about the crew’s every action getting   armchair quarterbacked back home and protecting  them from getting hacked or mined for data.  Cybersecurity is going to be just as important in  the future as it is today, where every site you   visit, video you watch, or message you send, gets  tracked & data mined unless you take active steps   to protect your data and privacy. The foundation  of that security is not letting anyone, including   your Internet Provider, spy on your websites then  sell that data to who knows who. Even when that’s   allegedly protected, that just means your data is  only as safe as their own cybersecurity measures   and big websites get hacking attempts non-stop,  and putting yourself into incognito mode   doesn’t help with that at all. But a VPN, or  Virtual Private Network, like ExpressVPN, does. 

The internet becomes more and more integrated into  our lives in more and more ways every day. More of   us work on it and do business and banking  on it than ever before, both from at home   and from riskier public wifi spots. Our kids  use it for entertainment and their schoolwork.   And that data is then there for advertisers to  target you with and for hackers to get their   hands on for nefarious use. Using ExpressVPN shuts  that down. It's easy to use, just download the app   on your phone or computer, tap one button, and  you’re protected! No one in your family is too   old—or too young—to figure out how to use  it, and unlike other VPNs, you won’t even   realize you have it on as ExpressVPN protects your  privacy without slowing your internet connection,   no matter how many users are in your household. Your data is encrypted so others can’t see it and  

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All right, that wraps us up for today and for  June, but we have a lot in store for July as   we open the month up on Thursday, July 7th with a  look at Deep Space Habitats, those built far from   any star to call their own. Then we’ll have our  mid-month Scifi Sunday episode, Primitive Aliens,   and the challenges of interacting with them,  on July 10th. Then we’ll continue our tale of   galactic colonization with a look at seeking to  escape to Extragalactic Sanctuaries on July 14th,   and we’ll see just how enormous a challenge  that can be and what almost incomprehensible   resources those hunting for you might have  at their fingertips. Then we’ll return to  

the Fermi Paradox to ask where all these enormous  habitats and megastructures we discuss on the show   might be and what their apparent  absence indicates about the Universe.   After that we’ll look at two of the  most mysterious things in our Universe,   Black Holes and Dark Matter, and if  dark matter might be black holes.  If you want alerts when those and other episodes  come out, don’t forget to subscribe to the channel   and hit the notifications bell. And if you  enjoyed today’s episode, and would like   help support future episodes, please visit our  website, Isaac, for ways to donate,   or become a show patron over at Patreon. Those  and other options, like our awesome social media   forums for discussing futuristic concepts,  can be found in the links in the description. 

Until next time, thanks for  watching, and have a great week!

2022-07-03 18:27

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