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Sunday, June 29, 2014

THE SEARCH FOR EXTRASOLAR PLANETS

What are the monumental challenges facing society?  If fusion can work cost-effectively, energy for humanity can be for millennia and longer secured.  Peace?  Well, science is one thing, but when Homo sapiens get involved, you can only wait for a time in the future when religious, political and a million other factors get sorted out for rational decision-making.  Same for global warming.  There are today too many competing interests.  So the only remaining epoch-making enterprise left is the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).

Mind you, I've tried.  I worked under Edward Teller on laser fusion at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.  Forty years later, laser fusion is  fizzling and ITER in France is becoming an expensive mess with hopes for commercialization maybe by 2050.

My Huffington Post articles began with a plea to "candidate" Barack Obama to consider a 10% solution for ultimate peace.  I posted several articles on the subject, and my The 10% Simple Solution to Peace was four years ago.  

Global warming?  I convened a workshop funded by the Environmental Protection Agency a quarter century ago to produce a plan for global warming remediation.  We submitted a $3 million proposal to the National Science Foundation, and was told to forget remediation for a decade until the atmospheric science work is completed.

SETI, or the interception of possible alien signals, might be beyond the ability of science today, so space application scientists have instead focused on Mission to Mars and detecting Earth-like planets around other stars.  My two-cents?  Forget Mars.  It is too far, too expensive and too dangerous.  Plus, what do we gain by going there?  Maybe a millennium or more, surely, but not now.  Too many other earthly problems of much higher priority.

I actually worked on Project Orion for NASA's Ames Research Center almost 40 years ago to design a telescope to detect extrasolar planets.  With input from Nobel Laureate Charles Townes, I proposed to NASA a Planetary Abstracting Trinterferometer to not only find that exoplanet, but determine the atmospheric composition...for a few million dollars.

Well, today, there are three competing telescopes to do this job (actually there is an even larger European version, but let me leave this one out at this time):
  • Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT):  smallest of three
    • Las Campanas Observatory in Chile at an elevation of 7810 feet.
    • Aperture diameter of 24.5 meters, with a collecting area of 358 square meters
    • Cost = $700 million
    • First sight = 2020
    • Will "see" objects 100 times fainter than the Hubble Space Telescope
    • IT IS UNDER CONSTRUCTION.

  • European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT):  largest
    • The top of Cerro Armazones in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile was just this month blown off to provide a foundation (this would just not happen in Hawaii, the third telescope in planning, below) at 9450 feet elevation.  
    • Aperture diameter of 39.3 meters, with a collecting area of 978 square meters.
    • Cost = $1.4 billion
    • First sight = 2022
    • Will soon begin construction.
  • Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT)
    • Proposed to be built at the top of Mauna Kea at 13,000 feet.  This site selected over the #2, Cerro Armazones.
    • Aperture diameter 30 meters, with a collecting area of 655 square meters.
    • Cost = at least $1 billion
    • First sight = 2021 (but the official approvals have not yet been all obtained)
Each telescope will not feature one giant mirror, but segments, and interestingly enough, both the E-ELT and TMT picked 1.44 meters.  However, there is no plan to make these segments interchangeable, and if they are built according to current design, won't be.  Which leads to the larger question:  WHY DO WE NEED ALL THREE?  We don't, but America has two competing huis (partnerships), each super powerful (click on those links above to get the details) and Europe felt compelled to jump in.  Internationally, Brazil is linking with the E-ELT, South Korea and Australia to GMT and China, India and Japan are backing TMT.  Yes, I'm from Hawaii, but TMT looks solid...except for one almost fatal flaw...they protest everything here.

Considering that the Iraq/Afghanistan Wars will cost the USA up to $6 trillion ($6,000 billion), why quibble about a mere few billion dollars.  In 1989 the Feds looked into a manned mission to Mars and estimated a cost of $500 billion.  However, more recently, Mars One estimated $6 billion to take four to Mars by 2023 and leave them there.  100,000 volunteered for this extravagant delusion.  That's the problem about space.  There are romantics...and there is the reality.  Mars One is a reality TV show out of the Netherlands, and I don't recognize one name in a basketful of team members and advisors.


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