When we look at the night sky, we may see junk instead of stars.
- New research has found that the entire planet is covered by light pollution from space objects.
- Companies like SpaceX and Amazon plan to launch thousands of satellites into orbit this decade.
- Scientists fear this space traffic will impede their ability to stare into deep space.
In December, we reported on the imminent clean-up of space junk. With an estimated 129 million pieces of debris currently orbiting our atmosphere, one lucrative contract awarded by the European Space Agency will commence in 2025.
Four years is a long time, however, given the amount of junk we've allowed to float into space. It's not the only issue affecting the crowded ether. New research, published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: Letters, has found that astronomers can no longer find anywhere on Earth to view the night sky free of space junk and satellite pollution.
Although the first satellite was only launched in 1957, as of the beginning of this year, 3,372 are now in orbit, alongside the aforementioned debris—what the research team from Slovakia, Spain, and the United States term "space objects" for sake of brevity. These objects range in altitude from a few hundred to over 35,000 kilometers.
These objects pose an immediate threat to researchers by compromising astronomical data. Space debris and satellites often appear as streaks of varying lengths and brightness in ground-based telescopes. And the problem is going to get worse, says John Barentine of the International Dark-Sky Association.
"It's a bit of an eye-opener. As space gets more crowded, the magnitude of this effect will only be more, not less."
This handout image supplied by the European Space Agency (ESA), shows a view of The Palms, Dubai as the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft passes below, in an image taken by ESA astronaut Tim Peake from the International Space Station on April 10, 2016.Photo by Tim Peake / ESA/NASA via Getty Images
Plenty more is coming as the race for consumer travel heats up. SpaceX has already launched over 1,000 Starlink communication satellites as it builds a new global internet infrastructure. Last year, the FCC approved 3,236 Amazon satellites that will all be in orbit as part of the mega-constellation "Project Kuiper" by 2029. While these aren't the only companies in the race to a global internet, SpaceX alone aspires to launch 42,000 satellites into space.
On Earth, we might enjoy faster internet speeds, but in observatories, researchers are concerned. Currently, scientists plan their observations around the orbit schedule of known objects. In a few years, the researchers of this letter write, that might prove impossible. An exponential increase in satellites will likely guarantee streaks in every telescope across the globe.
Slovakian astronomer Miroslav Kocifaj, part of the team behind this new research, believes this logjam in space could create such an intense background glow that we'll no longer be able to gaze out into the farthest reaches of space.
His team points to the 1979 resolution of the International Astronomical Union, which stated observatories should only be built in regions where light pollution adds less than 10 percent more light than normal skyglow. While they point out that "natural skyglow" is a debatable term, they're also concerned that the ambitious plans of private companies will ensure that nowhere will come in under that number. As the team writes:
"These results imply that diffuse night sky brightness produced by artificial space objects directly illuminated by the Sun may well have reached nowadays, and perhaps exceeded, what is considered a sustainability 'red line' for ground based astronomical observatory sites."
Just at the moment when we're reaching further into the cosmos, we seem to be boxing ourselves in. For millennia, we've started into the night sky and dreamed about the stars. Soon, it seems those dreams will be aimed at the junk we've placed there.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
Introducing the Deep Space Food Challenge.
NASA has big plans for the coming decades. The agency's Artemis program has set its sights on returning to the Moon after an absence of nearly 50 years. Once there, the first woman and next man to walk the lunar surface will begin establishing a base camp, laying the foundation for the sustained exploration and economization of Earth's solar sibling. Then it's off to Mars.
But a journey to the ruddy planet, a distance of roughly 114 million miles, will require NASA to solve a myriad of logistical and engineering problems. Chief among them is the problem of food.
Although humans have maintained a continuous presence in space for 20 years aboard the International Space Station (ISS), food hasn't proven an issue as the station orbits a mere 220 miles above our terrestrial home. NASA and other space agencies can easily send astronauts care packages containing fresh fruit and veggies alongside shelf staples.
Mars-faring astronauts, however, will not have it so easy. The time and distance required for the expedition will make regular resupply infeasible. Astronauts will need to bring all their food with them, alongside the means of producing that food, and keep those supplies within the volume constraints of the spacecraft.
It's a problem with no obvious solution. That's why NASA is challenging entrepreneurs, college students, hobbyist investors, and you, if you're up for it, to help them devise one.
The way to an astronaut's heart
An image showing the different challenges a viable space-food system solution must overcome.
In a paper written for The Journal of Nutrition, Grace Douglas, NASA's lead scientist for advanced food technology at Johnson Space Center in Houston, outlined the necessities for food technologies in long-term space exploration. The most critical being, of course, survival.
"In the history of humankind, explorers set off to see what was over the horizon, and literally millions did not return because of food and nutrition failures," Douglas and her co-authors wrote.
The difficulty is that the processes we rely on to cook meals on Earth—such as boiling water, hot surfaces, and food preparation—work as they do because they are bound to an environment with gravity, atmosphere, atmospheric pressure, and even certain microbes. Spaceflight replaces that environment with one of microgravity, scarce resources, cabin pressure fluctuation, and unmitigated radiation, each adding their own variable to the cooking calculus.
To date, space food preparation has been limited to adding water or heating pre-packaged foods. When supplemented with fresh produce from Earth, the system works fine. But as mentioned, such a system would be infeasible for the more than two-year roundtrip to Mars and back.
Douglas and her coauthors conclude that any viable solution must provide safe, stable, palatable, and reliable food, while also overcoming environmental constraints, using minimal resources, and producing minimal waste. It would also need to provide all the micro- and macronutrients a spacefaring astronaut needs.
That alone is a tall order, but there is another wrinkle engineers must consider: the astronauts' mental wellbeing. Douglas and her co-authors note that it's a "common misperception" that astronauts will eat anything to complete the mission. While astronauts are high-performing individuals, they still require moments to revitalize their wellbeing against the stress, workload, and isolation inherent in such a mission.
Delicious, nutritious meals can provide such moments of mental reprieve, but they also must have variety. Even the tastiest meal in the finest of restaurants would become a mental chore if eaten day-in, day-out for two whole years. Substitute that with a tasteless, yet nutrient-dense food paste in the vacuum of space, and even the highest performers will develop a case of cosmic cabin fever.
One tough space nut to crack
To meet these challenges, NASA is crowdsourcing solutions through its Deep Space Food Challenge. In collaboration with the Canadian Space Agency, NASA is offering a $500,000 prize purse for solutions that add some flavor to extended spaceflight.
"NASA has knowledge and capabilities in this area, but we know that technologies and ideas exist outside of the agency," Douglas told UPI in an interview. "Raising awareness will help us reach people in a variety of disciplines that may hold the key to developing these new technologies."
The agency hopes the winning technologies will also bolster food production on Earth. If a system can offer tasty meals with minimal resources in space, the reasoning goes, then it may be modified for deployment to disaster areas and food-insecure regions, as well. The challenge is open to all U.S. citizens and closes on July 30, 2021. Information on the Canadian Space Agency's challenge is available on its website.
If food isn't your forte but you've got engineering chops, you can still help NASA solve the many other engineering and logistical problems facing the future of space exploration. Through the NASA Solve initiative, the agency is seeking ideas for breaking lunar ice, shrinking payload sizes, and developing new means of energy distribution.
And even if engineering isn't for you, you can still call your Congressional representative to request they support NASA and restore funding from budget cuts. We can all play a small, yet important, role in the future of space exploration and the advancing of scientific knowledge.
"Deepfakes" and "cheap fakes" are becoming strikingly convincing — even ones generated on freely available apps.
- A writer named Magdalene Visaggio recently used FaceApp and Airbrush to generate convincing portraits of early U.S. presidents.
- "Deepfake" technology has improved drastically in recent years, and some countries are already experiencing how it can weaponized for political purposes.
- It's currently unknown whether it'll be possible to develop technology that can quickly and accurately determine whether a given video is real or fake.
After former U.S. President William Henry Harrison delivered his inaugural speech on March 4, 1841, he posed for a daguerreotype, the first widely available photographic technology. It became the first photo taken of a sitting American president.
As for the eight presidents before Harrison, history can see them only through artistic renderings. (The exception is a handful of surviving daguerreotypes of John Quincy Adams, taken after he left office. In his diary, Adams described them as "hideous" and "too true to the original.")
But a recent project offers a glimpse of what early presidents might've looked like if photographed through modern cameras. Using FaceApp and Airbrush, Magdalene Visaggio, author of books such as "Eternity Girl" and "Kim & Kim," generated a collection of convincing portraits of the nation's first presidents, from George Washington to Ulysses S. Grant.
Modern Presidents George Washington https://t.co/CURJQB0kap— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611952243.0
What might be surprising is that Visaggio was able to generate the images without a background in graphic design, using freely available tools. She wrote on Twitter:
"A lot of people think I'm a digital artist or whatever, so let me clarify how I work. Everything you see here is done in Faceapp+Airbrush on my phone. On the outside, each takes between 15-30 mins. Washington was a pretty simple one-and-done replacement."
Ulysses S Grant https://t.co/L1IGXLI3Vl— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611959480.0
"Other than that? I am not a visual artist in any sense, just a hobbyist using AI tools see what she can make. I'm actually a professional comics writer."
Did another pass at Lincoln. https://t.co/PdT4QVpMbn— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611973947.0
Of course, Visaggio isn't the first person to create deepfakes (or "cheap fakes") of politicians.
In 2017, many people got their first glimpse of the technology through a video depicting former President Barack Obama warning: "We're entering an era in which our enemies can make it look like anyone is saying anything at any point in time." The video quickly reveals itself to be fake, with comedian Jordan Peele speaking for the computer-generated Obama.
While deepfakes haven't yet caused significant chaos in the U.S., incidents in other nations may offer clues of what's to come.
The future of deepfakes
In 2018, Gabon's president Ali Bongo had been out of the country for months receiving medical treatment. After Bongo hadn't been seen in public for months, rumors began swirling about his condition. Some suggested Bongo might even be dead. In response, Bongo's administration released a video that seemed to show the president addressing the nation.
But the video is strange, appearing choppy and blurry in parts. After political opponents declared the video to be a deepfake, Gabon's military attempted an unsuccessful coup. What's striking about the story is that, to this day, experts in the field of deepfakes can't conclusively verify whether the video was real.
The uncertainty and confusion generated by deepfakes poses a "global problem," according to a 2020 report from The Brookings Institution. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Defense released some of the first tools able to successfully detect deepfake videos. The problem, however, is that deepfake technology keeps improving, meaning forensic approaches may forever be one step behind the most sophisticated forms of deepfakes.
As the 2020 report noted, even if the private sector or governments create technology to identify deepfakes, they will:
"...operate more slowly than the generation of these fakes, allowing false representations to dominate the media landscape for days or even weeks. "A lie can go halfway around the world before the truth can get its shoes on," warns David Doermann, the director of the Artificial Intelligence Institute at the University of Buffalo. And if defensive methods yield results short of certainty, as many will, technology companies will be hesitant to label the likely misrepresentations as fakes."
Max Planck Institute scientists crash into a computing wall there seems to be no way around.
- Artificial intelligence that's smarter than us could potentially solve problems beyond our grasp.
- AI that are self-learning can absorb whatever information they need from the internet, a Pandora's Box if ever there was one.
- The nature of computing itself prevents us from limiting the actions of a super-intelligent AI if it gets out of control.
There have been a fair number of voices—Stephen Hawking among them—raised in warning that a super-intelligent artificial intelligence could one day turn on us and that we shouldn't be in such a hot, unquestioning hurry to develop true AI. Others say, naw, don't worry. Now a new white paper from scientists at the Center for Humans and Machines at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development presents a series of theoretical tests that confirm the threat: Due to the basic concepts underlying computing, we would be utterly unable to control a super-intelligent AI.
"We argue that total containment is, in principle, impossible, due to fundamental limits inherent to computing itself," write the paper's authors.
The white paper is published in the Journal of Artificial Intelligence Research.
Credit: @nt/Adobe Stock
"A super-intelligent machine that controls the world sounds like science fiction," says paper co-author Manuel Cebrian in a press release. "But there are already machines that perform certain important tasks independently without programmers fully understanding how they learned it. The question therefore arises whether this could at some point become uncontrollable and dangerous for humanity."
The lure of AI is clear. Its ability to "see" the patterns in data make it a promising agent for solving problems too complex for us to wrap our minds around. Could it cure cancer? Solve the climate crisis? The possibilities are nearly endless.
Connected to the internet, AI can grab whatever information it needs to achieve its task, and therein lies a big part of the danger. With access to every bit of human data—and responsible for its own education—who knows what lessons it would learn regardless of any ethical constraints built into its programming? Who knows what goals it would embrace and what it might do to achieve them?
Even assuming benevolence, there's danger. Suppose that an AI is confronted by an either/or choice akin to the Trolley Dilemma, maybe even on a grand scale: Might an AI decide to annihilate millions of people if it decided the remaining billions would stand a better chance of survival?
A pair of flawed options
Credit: Maxim_Kazmin/Adobe Stock
The most obvious way to keep a super intelligent AI from getting ahead of us is to limit its access to information by preventing it from connecting to the internet. The problem with limiting access to information, though, is that it would make any problem we assign the AI more difficult for it to solve. We would be weakening its problem-solving promise possibly to a point of uselessness.
The second approach that might be taken is to limit what a super-intelligent AI is capable of doing by programming into it certain boundaries. This might be akin to writer Isaac Asimov's Laws of Robotics, the first of which goes: "A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm."
Unfortunately, says the study, a series of logical tests reveal that it's impossible to create such limits. Any such a containment algorithm, it turns out, would be self-defeating.
Containment is impossible
Credit: UncleFredDesign/Adobe Stock
"If you break the problem down to basic rules from theoretical computer science, it turns out that an algorithm that would command an AI not to destroy the world could inadvertently halt its own operations. If this happened, you would not know whether the containment algorithm is still analyzing the threat, or whether it has stopped to contain the harmful AI. In effect, this makes the containment algorithm unusable."
The team investigated stacking containment algorithms, with each monitoring the behavior of the previous one, but eventually the same problem arises: The final check halts itself, rendering it unreliable.
The Planck researchers also concluded that a similar bit of logic makes it impossible for us to know when a self-learning computer's intelligence has come to exceed our own. Essentially, we're not smart enough to be able to develop tests for intelligence superior to ours.
"Machines take me by surprise with great frequency. This is largely because I do not do sufficient calculation to decide what to expect them to do." — Alan Turing
This means that it's entirely conceivable that an AI capable of self-learning may well quietly ascend to super-intelligence without our even knowing it — a scary reason all by itself to slow down our hurly-burley race to artificial intelligence.
In the end, we're left with a dangerous bargain to make or not make: Do we risk our safety in exchange for the possibility that AI will solve problems we can't?
A fairly old idea, but a really good one, is about to hit the store shelves.
- The idea of growing food from CO2 dates back to NASA 50 years ago.
- Two companies are bringing high-quality, CO2-derived protein to market.
- CO2-based foods provide an environmentally benign way of producing the protein we need to live.
The idea of making food from little more than thin air— carbon dioxide, actually—is not a new one. NASA was tinkering with the idea in the 1960s as a means of growing food on future long missions. In recent years, as we've come to understand that Earth's resources—land and rainforests chief among them—are limited, interest in the concept has been renewed, with NASA doing new research and two companies racing to market with CO2-derived food products.
The basic idea
Credit: Big Think
The basic mechanism for deriving food from CO2 involves a fairly simple closed-loop system that executes a process over and over in a cyclical manner, producing edible matter along the way. In space, astronauts produce carbon dioxide when they breathe, which is then captured by microbes, which then convert it into a carbon-rich material. The astronauts eat the material, breathe out more CO2, and on and on. On Earth, the CO2 is captured from the atmosphere.
Drawing first breath
NASA's investigation into using CO2 for food production began with a 1966 report written by R. B. Jagow and R. S. Thomas and published by Ames Research Center. The nine-chapter report was called "The Closed Life-Support System." Each chapter contained a proposal for growing food on long missions.
Chapter 8, written by J. F. Foster and J. H. Litchfield of the Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio, proposed a system that utilized a hydrogen-fixing bacteria, Hydrogenomonas—NASA had been experimenting with the bacteria for several years at that point—and recycled CO2 in a compact, low-power, closed-loop system. The system would be able to produce edible cell matter in way that "should then be possible to maintain continuous cultures at high efficiencies for very long periods of time."
At the time, extended missions that would benefit from such a system were off in the future.
In 2019, and with its eye toward upcoming Mars missions, NASA returned to the idea, sponsoring the CO2 Conversion Challenge, "seeking novel ways to convert carbon dioxide into useful compounds." Phase 1 of the contest invited proposals for processes that could "convert carbon dioxide into glucose in order to eventually create sugar-based fuel, food, medicines, adhesives and other products."
Approaching the Finnish line
Credit: Solar Foods
We've written previously about Solar Foods, a company backed by the Finnish government who recently invested €4.3 million to help complete the company's €8.6 million commercialization of their nutrient-rich CO2-based protein powder, Solein. The company anticipates Solein will provide protein to some 400 million meals by 2025, and has so far developed 20 different food products from it.
In the air tonight
Another player, Air Protein, is based in California's Bay Area and is also bringing to market their own CO2 protein named after the company. The company describes it as a "nutrient-rich protein with the same amino acid profile as an animal protein and packed with crucial B vitamins, which are often deficient in a vegan diet."
The company recently secured $32 million in venture-capital funding.
Although Air Protein is actually flour—like Solein—the company is positioning Air Protein as offering "the first air-based meat," while Solein was announced first, and there's no public timetable yet for the arrival of Air Protein products on store shelves. In any event, non-animal "meats" are a hot market these days with the success of Beyond Burger and Impossible Foods cruelty-free meat substitutes.
Deforestation for palm oil
Credit: whitcomberd/Adobe Stock
Though Air Protein's promotional materials emphasize meat substitutes that will be derived from their flour, a TED Talk by company co-founder Lisa Dyson reveals another Air Protein product that could arguably have an even greater impact by potentially eliminating the need for palm oil and the deforestation it requires — their CO2 process can produce oils.
The company has already created a citrus-like oil that can be used for fragrances, flavoring, as a biodegradable cleaner, and "even as a jet fuel." Perhaps more excitingly, the company has made another oil that's similar to palm oil. Since palm trees are the crop most responsible for the decimation of the world's rain forests, an environmentally benign replacement for it would be a very big deal. Dyson also notes that their oils could substitute morally problematic coconut oil, whose harvesting has lately been reported to often involve the abuse of macaque monkeys.
Putting carbon dioxide to work
We know we have too much of the stuff, so finding a way of utilizing at least some CO2 to create foods and other products that reduce the need for destructive commercial practices is a solid win for humankind. Harkening back to its NASA origins, Dyson notes in her talk that Earth, too, is sort of a self-contained spaceship, albeit a big one. Finding new ways to productively reuse what it has to offer clearly benefits us all.