musical milliner

February 5, 2012

We Should Become Martians: Part II~ Regular guest blogger Claude Plymate concludes his thesis.

  Claude Plymate is the Telescope Engineer/Chief Observer at  Big Bear Solar Observatory in California, and is the  former chief  wrangler of the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory Arizona for many years. He is a regular contributor to Musical Milliner.

It is true that we currently do not have the technology to allow a human trip to Mars. Now that the shuttle has been retired (and rightfully so), the U.S. doesn’t even have a rocket that can get humans to low Earth orbit! Forty years ago, however, that was not the case. The Saturn-V rocket used for the Apollo lunar program could have been repurposed for a Mars mission. It would have taken more than a single launch of even the mighty Saturn-V for a Mars mission but it would have been feasible. Now that we finally retired the Space Shuttle, we are free to consider the next generation of boosters that will again be capable of taking us beyond Low
Earth Orbit (LEO).

NASA recently announced the Space Launch System (SLS). If funded, SLS will be a heavy lift vehicle derived from both Shuttle and Apollo-era technology. The SLS will initially have a payload capability to LEO of just over 1/2 that of the Saturn-V. The eventual plan is to continue to upgrade its lift capacity with larger strap-on boosters. This is expected to ultimately give it a payload to LEO of slightly greater than that of the Saturn-V. Unfortunately, the “evolved” boosters are scheduled to not be available before 2030.

SpaceX has proposed several very intriguing projects and has an amazing track record of following through on its claims by delivering working hardware. Its Falcon 9 rocket topped with their Dragon capsule has already flown and is scheduled to fly a resupply mission to the Space Station (ISS) soon. Falcon 9 (F-9) currently can only deliver about 1/2 of what the Space Shuttle could to orbit, good enough to get supplies and astronauts to and from the ISS but isn’t of a class necessary to do much more. SpaceX has, however, announced the Falcon Heavy. The Heavy is effectively three F-9 rockets strapped together! This simple evolution of the proven F-9 gives a projected launch payload of about 1 1/2 Shuttles! Now that’s beginning to get to the point that we can begin designing missions. But wait there’s more… SpaceX has proposed the eventual development of a Falcon X and derivative rockets dubbed the Falcon X Heavy & Falcon
XX (what SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk, has called the BFR for Big F@$#ing Rocket!). The Falcon XX would have a payload exceeding that of either the Saturn-V or SLS.

Below is a table comparing some current & proposed rocket payloads to LEO:

Rocket Chart

What I’m attempting to point out is that very capable Mars rockets are well within current technology and were even produced using 1960’s technology!

It’s an undeniable fact that a human mission to Mars would be expensive. I typically hear conservative estimates ranging somewhere in the ballpark of $150 Billion. Any way you look at it, that is a lot of money – roughly $500 for every US citizen. Keep in mind that any such program would be spread over at least 10 years which makes the cost per year around $15 Billion/yr. $15 billion is still a heap of money but less than the current annual NASA budget. (Don’t think, however, that I’m advocating dedicating the entire NASA budget to a Mars mission. NASA does a lot of other very important programs. I wouldn’t want to see the budgets for those other important programs get consumed.) It would seem that we either need to find ways of getting the costs down or increase the funding. Increasing budgets do not seem likelyin the current economic/political climate. If we want to go to Mars, we need to find a cheaper

Let’s examine why space flight tends to be so extremely expensive. One reason is that you much carry all of the fuel, hardware and resources for the return trip on the outward leg of the journey. Picture it this way; imagine if to fly from San Francisco to New York, the plane had to carry all it needed for the return flight – fuel, food, water, etc. The plane wouldn’t need to be just twice as large to carry it all; it would need to be MUCH larger. To carry the extra fuel and supplies, the plane would need to be built much stronger and heavier. This heavier plane would need larger engines to fly requiring yet more fuel which would require a bigger heavier plane… it becomes a vicious cycle. Costs quickly spiral out of control leading to the inevitable conclusion that transcontinental flight is simply not practical! We get around this by not carrying everything needed for the entire trip. Planes are refueled and restocked before their return flights. Estimates that I’ve seen indicate that somewhere around 90% of the cost of space missions are due to the penalty paid for the return trip. Think back to the iconic images showing the colossal Saturn-V sitting on the launch pad before heading off to the Moon. All that immense hardware was used up just to return three guys and some rocks sardined in that little
sedan-sized capsule!

So in this era of ever tightening budgets, how might we design an affordable human mission to Mars? What if we simply cut out all those massive costs accrued by the return flight? Now don’t be aghast. I’m not suggesting some suicide mission. Keep in mind, that my original justification for going to Mars was the eventual goal of colonization. Why not just start the process from the outset?

A one-way trip should be able to be carried out for around 10% the cost of a round trip mission – somewhere in the $15 billion ballpark range. In an era of $100 billion bailouts and Trillion dollar wars, this sounds like a bargain. Especially when put in the context of safeguarding against the potential extinction of humanity on this planet. I often hear economists say that the way out of our economic slump is to create jobs. What could be a more noble jobs creation plan than mobilizing our high tech industries and stimulating universities to develop technologies for our expansion into the solar system and the long-term safeguarding of our species? Add to this that historically every dollar invested in space has returned about $7 to the economy and you have a true win-win scenario. Perhaps what our economy really needs is an “Occupy Mars” movement.

The cost estimate above is admittedly rather simplistic and overly optimistic. Sustaining a Martian colony would require significantly more resources than a simple Apollo style “flats-and-footprints” out-and-back mission. They would need continued supplies, oxygen enriched atmosphere to breathe, water, pressurized habitats in which to live and work, greenhouses to grow food, spare parts and backup equipment and, of course, power. (A growing colony would need ever-growing sources of power.) Spreading these costs over the lifetime of the project still makes it comfortably affordable within existing budgets even if we assume it will end up costing
several times the overly simplistic estimate above.

Early settlers would have to be dependent on periodic resupply missions. I would envision that every couple of years when a launch window opens up, another ship would be scheduled to deliver more supplies, equipment and another batch of pilgrims. In this way, the initial base would naturally grow over time as infrastructure and population is added, evolving from base
to colony to settlement and eventually to society.

A high priority from the start would have to be placed on achieving self-sufficiency. Not only is it of economic interest for a Mars society to become self-reliant, it would be too risky to depend indefinitely on the Earth. It is inevitable that a supply mission will someday fail or changes to Earth bound economics, politics or public support might leave the new Martians on their own. For their own security, they would have to be able to take care of themselves as soon as possible.

Admittedly, this is an edgy high risk concept. Who could we find to sign up for such a dangerous mission, one that at very best would leave them with very little likelihood of ever returning t friends and family? Honestly, I think there would be no shortage of volunteers! Those that go would become legends. Their names would go down in history as the founders of a new world. I expect that humanity would be mesmerized by the daily drama. Each settler would become heroes on TWO worlds! Who wouldn’t dream of being part of such an historic project?

In light of the huge economic problems we’re currently in, when should such an epic project begin? My opinion is if not now then when? A one-way approach to Mars is affordable and starts down the path of making humanity a multi-planet society from its inception. I, therefore, suggest that our mantra be “Mars – one way to stay!”

(c)GosgGusMusic(ascap) 2012

May 21, 2010

Strani eventi II: Time Travel Discourse By Our Resident Astrophysicist, Claude Plymate

Wherein Claude discusses his own fuzzy physics and sets things right.

“Okay, how about I take a stab at pointing out just a couple of the problems with the concept of time travel myself? It is almost trivially easy to “prove” time travel cannot exist. Let’s try a simple thought experiment:

Imagine you are a researcher who has come up with a concept for a time machine and after much labor, you’re just about finished with your first test prototype. This prototype is only large enough to send something about the size of a shoe back in time precisely one day. You decide that the first test subject should use some inanimate object like an old shoe. Tomorrow the machine should be ready for its initial test run. To prepare, you go to your closet, find an old shoe and set it next to the machine. Suddenly an identical shoe slides out of the back of the yet unfinished device! Absolute proof that it’s going to work! You excitedly continue work on the final details.

The grand day finally arrived; your time machine is ready to go. You look down at the two identical shoes sitting there and realize that the initial test has to be successful since your shoe already appeared from the machine yesterday. Why, you think to yourself, do I need to send the old shoe through as my first test since I already know that test was successful. So, you decide instead to skip ahead to the second test – sending a live subject through. You take a lab rat from its cage and drop it into the machine.

Hold on, what just happened? Let’s think about this for a moment. You just substituted the rat for the shoe! Where did the shoe that appeared yesterday come from and where did the rat just disappear to? Did you just vaporize the rat? Did the shoe simply appear out of nothing?? Did the rat turn into a shoe??? These are causality paradoxes that obviously can never happen! (So far, this is really just a variation of the infamous “grandfather paradox”.)

Now imagine that you realize these paradoxical questions shortly before dropping the rat into the machine. You hesitate then put the rat back feeling that you MUST put the shoe through to avoid these irrational problems. There is still the problem of a shoe appearing yesterday out of nothingness but you think perhaps the Universe can handle a temporary anomaly such as this so long as it’s paid back in due time, in this case by dropping the shoe into the machine and erasing it from the future timeline. Yes, there seemed to exist two copies of the shoe – but only for one day.

But now you’re not sure which shoe is which! If you drop the wrong shoe into the machine, you’re created yet another paradox. The shoe that appeared yesterday could be the shoe that you put into the machine today. In this case, where and when was that shoe created? It would have popped into existence out of nothing for one day and then simply vanished from the Universe. Another interpretation is that the shoe is stuck in an infinite time loop – appearing out of the machine, being dropped into the machine, going back to appear out of the machine, etc. forever. Just one more paradox without a rational solution! You hesitate again wondering what you should do. You ponder the conundrum until you realize that it too late. It’s now more than a day since the shoe came tumbling out of your time machine. You stand there with a shoe that apparently just came into being out of nothing…

In this scenario the Universe just gained mass in the form of an old shoe. To our understanding, this cannot happen! We know there is a set amount of mass/energy in the Universe that came out of the Big Bang. That’s all we get – no more, no less. (Keep in mind that mass and energy are equated through the handy expression e=mc^2.) A shoe could only appear at the cost of some other mass/energy. Here, the shoe simply appeared. This just can’t happen; there really is no such thing as free lunch in this Universe. (And just in case you missed it, that was a clue.)”

Comment by Claude — May 21, 2010 @ 7:29 pm


May 10, 2010

Strani eventi: Physics of Precognition or Just Fuzzy Logic?

(At left, the Carina Nebula. Photo courtesy of

A few days ago, I had a metaphysical discussion with an old friend, Claude Plymate. Claude is an astronomer. A real astronomer who has spent his life massaging a very special observatory, the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope atop Kitt Peak outside of Tucson. Claude has cred. His wife, Teresa Bippert is also an amazing astrophysicist who does crazy things with optics at the University of Arizona- things I can’t begin to understand. Both attended undergraduate school with me. Just so you know:

“The McMath-Pierce solar telescope is the world’s largest solar telescope, and the world’s largest unobstructed-aperture optical telescope with a diameter of 1.6 meters. Permanent instruments include a dual grating spectrograph capable of extended wavelength coverage (0.3-12 microns), a 1-meter Fourier Transform Spectrometer for both solar and laboratory analysis, and a high-dispersion stellar spectrometer.

Important discoveries include: detection of water and isotopic helium on the Sun; solar emission lines at 12 microns; first measurement of Kilogauss magnetic fields outside sunspots and the very weak intra-network fields; first high resolution images at 1.6 and 10 microns; detection of a natural maser in the Martian atmosphere.” (  Smart folks, these friends of mine.

For me, our chat was a flashback to the days when a group of about eight to twelve of us undergrads sat around a large round table, drinking coffee and arguing and speculating over the Big Questions late into the night. We studied different disciplines, but among the many other things we had in common was one biggie: we were night owls. Students of astronomy & related sciences, writers and musicians. And there was the campus radio station in which we criss-crossed at various times.  People who were up awaiting  a celestial event, or the quiet in which to think, or the need to burn off energy from a rehearsal or performance. These were the people I loved most, and after all these years, know that I still do.

I got into the subject of precognition with Claude. Just like the old days. I told a story of an experience I had some years ago. I was on our sailboat, pre-kid era. We had dropped anchor and slept in Clipper Cove between Treasure Island and Yerba Buena Island, near where we berthed. In the early morning, I looked up at the Bay Bridge nearby, and pondered aloud to my spouse, “Do you see the ramp on the lower deck (eastbound) of the bridge by the bottom of the cantilever? It looks like one of those ramps kids use to launch their skateboards. Wouldn’t it be weird if a car drove up it and flipped into the Bay?”  The guy looked at me cock-eyed. He had learned by then that sometimes I say weird things that come true.

We had a lovely sail, tied up the boat and headed to the clubhouse to use the facilities. Walking up the dock, we heard sirens. Lots of sirens, and a Coast Guard helicopter zoomed over us to the south side of the bridge. We noticed traffic stopped on the lower deck.  We thought, “Oh shit. Bridge accident. Might as well go fix a drink and hang out until the thing is cleared.”  True, we were going back home into the City on the upper, western deck, but a serious accident will occasionally slow the whole structure.

In the clubhouse, actually “shack” was a more fitting description of the Treasure Island Yacht Club back then,  nobody was around. We turned on the television to see if there was information available.

Yes, there was.  A car had driven off  the little ramp, gone over the side of the bridge and into the Bay. There were fatalities. Spouse performed a double cock-eye at me. Meanwhile, I was trying to wrap my head around the big picture. Someone later asked me if I felt responsible. That never entered my mind.  Just absurd. I may practice certain spiritual rituals,  but overall I embrace empiricism. I have no explanation for this experience, or any of  the others. No way to prove or disprove. So I just let it be.

But Claude, being grounded in empiricism and the scientific method wrestles with these questions every day. Claude and I talked about my story and a few related matters, and this is what he wrote. It is used by Claude’s permission.

“I’d like to apologize from the start for the new-agey, pseudoscientific tone of this. Recently, I’ve been hearing about some experiments that appear to show test subjects responding stimuli a fraction of a second BEFORE receiving the stimulus! It is easy to ignore or discard such anomalous results as bad experimental technique or analysis. But what if the results are revealing a real effect? What if there is reproducible laboratory results showing people have some precognitive abilities? Is there any way we might concoct a reasonably conceivable physical explanation for such phenomena? Perhaps what some refer to as the “quantum foam” might provide some insight.

On the smallest scales, the so-called Planck length of around 10^-36 m (trust me, that’s REALLY small), space is expected to deviate from the smooth continuum we’re used to. The contour of space becomes rough or bumpy, changing randomly at each instant. This is where it gets its name quantum foam. In other words, our concept of position becomes fuzzy and even completely breaks down at the very smallest spatial scales. Presumably, time is equally distorted and fuzzy near its smallest divisions. The sizes of these deviations are randomly distributed but heavily weighted toward the smallest scale distortions. However, larger distortions in space/time must also occasionally occur. In this way, it is just conceivable that every once in a while some bit of information will pass from a moment in the future, into the present or even into the past! (Likewise, information from the past could find itself thrust into the future. This, however, would be of less interest and indistinguishable from the normal flow of time and causality.)

Such time/space distortions are happening continuously at every point in the Universe. Larger, even discernibly large, variations in time and/or space are statistically extraordinarily improbable but must occasionally happen. Now consider the brain – it’s made of a whole lot of neurons that are made of lots and lots of quanta. Every once in a while, some of these improbably events must happen in our brains. Could a brain neuron occasionally be triggered by an event that has yet to occur? If so, it would be expected that such occurrences would happen much more frequently for events from the very near future (small fractions of seconds) as apposed to from farther into the future. The ability to reacting to future events would clearly represent a strong survival advantage and would be very strongly selected for. Even if developing precognitive abilities were biologically expensive and/or quite difficult but just possible, evolution would demand that we developed the capability! Might it even be that evolution could have fine-tuned emotions to play the role of filtering out random noise while amplifying important signals? Perhaps this is why precognition tends to be associated with emotionally charged events”

(c) GoshGusMusic (ascap) 2010

For a better, very cool view of the Carina Nebula, check this link from Kitt Peak ‘s website:

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