Science Saturday: Einstein’s Warp Proved + Starship Ideas Request + Human/Neanderthal Link + USA/China Mars Mission?

This week Science Saturday reports how Einstein was right, again. In addition this week brought the first hint that the US is considering teaming up with China to go to Mars, DARPA began looking for input on man’s first interstellar starship, and a common ancestor to humans and Neanderthals has been identified. All that plus a $25 computer, a cool nebula image and the VSS Enterprise took another step to space.


Probe proves Einstein’s theory of warped space-time

This week a team from Stanford University announced what they are calling an "epic result," having confirmed Albert Einstein’s theory that space is warped. NASA’s Gravity Probe B mission detected "a slight sag and an even slighter twist in space-time. This finding confirms aspects of Einstein’s general theory of gravity and relativity and predictions including black holes and an expanding universe. "Imagine the Earth as if it were immersed in honey. As the planet rotates, the honey around it would swirl, and it’s the same with space and time," explained Stanford’s Francis Everitt. The discovery is said to have long-term impact on the work of theoretical physics (and maybe creating Star Trek’s warp drive?). The NASA animation below shows how Gravity Probe B and its onboard gyroscope were used to prove Einstein’s theory.

NASA to partner with China for Mars mission?

Sending humans to Mars has been a dream for decades, but the resources required never seem to be there. The Obama administration recently re-prioritized NASA’s budget to skip the moon and focus on technology for faster vehicles to take us to Mars, but the goal is still a long way off. But what if we had some help? Testifying before congress this week, White House science advisor John Holdren said:

(What) the president has deemed worth discussing with the Chinese and others is that when the time comes for humans to visit Mars, it’s going to be an extremely expensive proposition and the question is whether it will really make sense — at the time that we’re ready to do that — to do it as one nation rather than to do it in concert.

No discussions regarding a possible US/China Mars mission have started by Holden noted:

…many of us, including the president, including myself, including (NASA Administrator Charles) Bolden, believe that it’s not too soon to have preliminary conversations about what involving China in that sort of cooperation might entail. If China is going to be, by 2030, the biggest economy in the world … it could certainly be to our benefit to share the costs of such an expensive venture with them and with others.

That makes sense. And of course why not also bring in Europe’s ESA and the Russians. Then we might truly be headed to Star Trek’s envisioned United Earth Space Probe Agency.

Will mans first trip to Mars include the Chinese? – Bringing a new meaning to "red planet"

DARPA seeking starship ideas

Earlier in the year we reported that The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) had launched the 100 Year Starship Study program, which is too look develop ideas "to make interstellar space travel practicable and feasible." And this week DARPA issued a "Request For Information" (RFI) to solicit ideas from the private sector, noting:

This RFI seeks to solicit ideas for an organization, business model and approach appropriate for a self-sustaining investment vehicle. The focus should be on flexible yet robust mechanisms by which an endowment can be created and sustained. The mechanism would be wholly devoid of government subsidy or control, and could address issues in the sciences, engineering, humanities, or the arts that may be encountered in the pursuit of achieving interstellar flight. Several attributes are of interest, specifically:

* Long-term survivability over a century-long time horizon
* Self-governance, independent of government participation or oversight
* Self-sustainment, independent of government funding
* Relevance for moving humanity toward the goal of interstellar travel, including related technological, biological, social, economic and other issues

Seems pretty straight forward. I wonder how many of the ideas will include something that looks like this…

DARPA is looking for input on a Starship

Common ancestor to Humans and Neanderthals identified

Ever been called a Neanderthal? Well maybe you were related to "Heidelberg Man," the fossil that scientists say was the last common ancestor of humans and Neanderthals. Previously the 400,000 year-old fossil was thought to represent a new species of human (Homo Cepanensis). However, scientists still aren’t sure when humans and Neanderthals split.

Heidelberg Man skull – a distant cousin of ours and Neanderthals

Image of the week: Lagoon nebula

The Lagoon nebula is a favorite of star watchers as it is visible with small telescopes and even binoculars. This week the Gemini Observatory shows off a spectacular image of this local stellar nursery.

Lagoon nebula (click to see super sized)

Video of the week: Alan Shepard Tribute

This week NASA celebrated the 50th anniversary of Mercury 7 and the first American in space, Alan Shepard.

Gadget of the week: $25 Raspberry Pi Computer

UK non-profit Raspberry Pi is trying to create a computer on a USB stick that costs under $25 and can be plugged into any LCD screen with an HDMI port. Add a keyboard and mouse and you have a functioning computer. The idea is to give the devices away to kids from lower-income homes who don’t have access to computers. Here is a video showing off the prototype.

Robot of the Week: OptoFidelity Angry Birds Bot

In another sign that it is time to welcome our robot overlords, Finnish tech company OptoFidelity shows off their Angry Birds playing robot and how it excels in a time-wasting activity which was previously the sole domain of humans.

Science Bits:

Another Enterprise milestone

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May 7, 2011 5:47 pm

that £15 computer is a good idea, but i guess youd have to buy a couple other bits to add to it which could bump the price up a bit, still a good idea though, id love to see it being demonstrated

Commodore Mike of the Terran Empire
May 7, 2011 6:12 pm

Hmm. Humans came here about 150,000 years ago from the Colonys. Lol.
Starships. Hmm. Enterprise anyone.
Warp Drive. Or Hyper Space. Kool.

Tony Todd's Tears
May 7, 2011 6:16 pm

This makes me want to cry

May 7, 2011 6:24 pm

They want the Chinese as partners….to go to Mars.
Start of the Aliiance….where’s my Brown Coat?

May 7, 2011 6:25 pm

A common ancestor to humans and Neanderthals has been identified? The problem with stories like these, especially from popular media outlets like MSNBC is that it’s always debunked months later with not story of an update or retraction from the media. Wishful thinking don’t make it so.

May 7, 2011 7:15 pm
Teaming with China on a space mission has about a 0% chance of happening so long as they remain a communist nation. The ITAR challenges alone are monumental. We don’t even let China launch U.S. satellites anymore (that’s how the whole ITAR (Int’l Trafficking in Arms Regulations) became such a huge issue in the 1990s, to the great detriment of the US satellite industry. The Republicans will never, not in a million years let such a scheme pass in Congress. Even if they do, the Chinese themselves are hugely unlikely to agree to the terms required. That is the main reason they are not part of the International Space Station project. All the other member nations of the ISS agree to share the technical data on all systems installed aboard and spacecraft visiting the ISS. (All the other countries had to agree for example, that Japan’s HTV was safe to allow to approach and dock at the Space Station.) China, whose space program is run entirely by its military, absolutely refuses to discuss technical details of their spacecraft. Their deliberately blowing up a satellite and leaving an enormous cloud of debris in Low Earth Orbit (which will be there as a hazard to navigation for years to come) has not won them any advocates in the west. And then there’s the issue that international cooperation has never, not once, proven to reduce costs or speed up timetables. The Space Station went from costing $24 billion (when Space Station Freedom was… Read more »
Allen Williams
May 7, 2011 7:21 pm

constitution class? nah I would go for the NX class personally. It not only looks cooler, but its smaller and would be easier to build.

May 7, 2011 7:59 pm

Thanks for that tribute to Alan Shephard! The first American in space and the first man to play golf on the Moon.

Think I’ll go watch “The Right Stuff” now. Great movie.

May 7, 2011 8:00 pm

This RFI seeks to solicit ideas for an organization, business model and approach appropriate for a self-sustaining investment vehicle. The focus should be on flexible yet robust mechanisms by which an endowment can be created and sustained. The mechanism would be wholly devoid of government subsidy or control, and could address issues in the sciences, engineering, humanities, or the arts that may be encountered in the pursuit of achieving interstellar flight. Several attributes are of interest, specifically:

* Long-term survivability over a century-long time horizon
* Self-governance, independent of government participation or oversight
* Self-sustainment, independent of government funding
* Relevance for moving humanity toward the goal of interstellar travel, including related technological, biological, social, economic and other issues


May 7, 2011 8:29 pm

It would be rather extraordinary to see the US and China work together and pool resources and money on such a massive scale for a Mars mission. I’d imagine this would be like eventual realistic world peace, where all nations become so dependent on each other to achieve their goals that they can’t survive apart, and conflict between any nations hurts the whole world. (not like that isn’t already the case, but to an extreme we haven’t seen yet)

May 7, 2011 9:52 pm

Thanks for reporting on the results of Gravity Probe-B, Anthony. I worked on GP-B spacecraft for 4 years.

Buzz Cagney
May 7, 2011 10:48 pm

mmmmm raspberry pie. Delicious.

Very interesting stuff. Great reading for a quiet Sunday morning with a cup of coffee. Thanks.

May 7, 2011 10:50 pm

@5, there is no story in a retraction. If pygmies had become extinct their fossils would be getting served up as a link somewhere in the chain as well.

May 7, 2011 11:18 pm

Hate to say it, but think simple geometry for starship designs. Spheres, triangles. Think Borg. At anything near sublight speeds torsion and shear would rip apart anything even remotely resembling the good ship Enterprise…..

Harry Ballz
May 7, 2011 11:23 pm


I’m asking a sincere question…..why would “torsion and shear” be a factor in the vacuum of space?

May 8, 2011 12:08 am

Torsion and Shear are the two gods of the sublight spacetime continuum. They don’t play well with others.

May 8, 2011 12:48 am

“Previously the 400,000 fossil…”

Ahem, presumably Anthony is referring to a 400,000 year-old fossil.

jim Mower
May 8, 2011 4:27 am

@6. Thorny

Well reasoned arguments and it makes a lot of sense to suggest that a single nation pushing a mission forward can be successful. However, it also seems reasonable to suggest that missions like Apollo, when run by a single nation have invariably been tied up with politically informed, nationalist or military factors. The International Space Station project may not be representing all nations on earth but its a step in the right direction when compared to US and Chinese space programs that have military dimensions.

Although the terms of the RFI might seem idealistic or even unrealistic in today’s political climate, the very act of suggesting them is a good indication that there are those that believe that, although a Roddenberry-esque vision of a united planet could be considered naive, if you don’t ask (or aspire) then you don’t get.

Steve Johnson
May 8, 2011 6:39 am

“These are the voyages of the Self-Sustaining Investment Vehicle Enterprise…”

Just doesn’t sound right…

May 8, 2011 6:41 am

@14: If the ship had to make a course correction, you’d need thrusters pointing in different directions other than straight backwards. I would guess that the interaction between the the different forces would cause different amounts of pressure on different parts of the ship.

Or something. Clearly, as a graphic design student, I have a deep understanding of both structural engineering and rocketry. :)

May 8, 2011 6:47 am

#4 beat me to the punch. I wish I knew some Chinese curse words right about now.

May 8, 2011 6:49 am

So . . . by reversing the Earth’s rotation, the Earth will drag space-time with it in reverse, and Superman can save the day?

Robert H.
May 8, 2011 7:08 am

Vs. a $500 lap top, $700 tower, with a tonne of stupid accessories, I’ll buy it.

Max Loef
May 8, 2011 10:25 am

Anyone notice that…Self-Sustaining Investment Vehicle

can be shortend to…SSV…

SR-1 SSV Normandy anyone?:D

May 8, 2011 1:24 pm

Mars interior.

McCoy's Gall Bladder
May 8, 2011 2:44 pm

To quote McCoy, “Now wait just a darned minute…”

There are space vehicle designs.

The Zubrin tuna cans for instance. You launch one, land it on Mars, it begins to create its own oxygen, and then you launch the second one with a crew, they join the 2 together and they have a small habitat. Zubrin even has plans for an earth return vehicle.

there is an entire website devoted to debunking “FTL” called STL with rocket plans.

Plus: everyone’s favorite physicist, Micho Kaku insists that we drop asteroids and comets on Mars FIRST to
a: spin Mars & restart the core
b: warm the planet to release water vapor into the atmosphere
c: accelerate green house gases for UV protection

which means, the Moon is the best next step since you woudnt want to be the astronaut on Mars expecting the next comet delivery.

McCoy's Gall Bladder
May 8, 2011 2:45 pm
McCoy's Gall Bladder
May 8, 2011 2:48 pm

One more rocket plan involves a “mother ship” assembled in space which carries a “lander”
The Mothership is designed to be spun for gravity and never lands on Mars itself. The Lander is just like a star trek shuttle for getting astronauts on and off mars and could be a simple light weight craft since the gravity is 1/3 earth’s.
You may remember “Red Planet” starring Val Kilmer had a similar ship design, but the concept dates back to the 80s and is compatible with Zubrin’s tuna cans concept. The tuna cans can be hard landed, while the humans come and go in the ultralight…

McCoy's Gall Bladder
May 8, 2011 2:49 pm
May 8, 2011 3:21 pm

Well, I’m working on the engines…

Details to follow…

May 8, 2011 4:05 pm

@15. The Enterprise still has mass, so physics dosen’t go away. If thrusters fire on the saucer section the structure needs to be sound enough to counter that reaction, or something breaks. The location of the impulse drive is such that it has the effect of pulling the secondary hull and warp drive when in use, again, the structure needs to be able to resist these forces. All moving the craft into space does is reduce/eliminare the need for aerodynamics. The craft still needs to be able to resist the forces created by sub light propulsion. I’m pointing out sub-light, because I’m assuming that warp drive dosen’t move the ship, but compresses space around it.

Tony Whitehead
May 8, 2011 5:02 pm

July, 2030.
The first US/Chinese manned mission lands on the moon. Before they do, they have to get clearance to land from Elon Musk and his SpaceX team.

One giant leap for governments, one small step for private business.

May 8, 2011 6:40 pm

They would definitely need a ‘cloud-based’ main computer – many individual computers could fail without data loss or serious degradation in performance. Plus the failed systems could be repaired and reinstated into the cloud to bring performance back up to spec. Redundancy is automatic in such a system. NOW we just have to deal with Propulsion, Shields, Life Support, Recycling, Food Production, Navigation, Education (for the generations born on the voyage), and for sure better have a pretty Counselor to solve all the personal/social issues.

May 8, 2011 7:50 pm

My only question about this $25 computer-on-USB that requires a TV with an HDMI port…do most underpriviledged kids have access to a TV with an HDMI port?

Bob Tompkins
May 8, 2011 9:08 pm

It always intrigues me to think about the sudden disappearance of Neanderthal Man about the time Cro-Magnon entered their sphere of influence. I always liked the theory that the Neanderthal was simply absorbed into the gene pool and that European man is an admixture of those genes.
Just sayin’….

May 8, 2011 9:31 pm

@24: Oh my sweet lord in heaven, YES. :)

May 9, 2011 2:38 am
May 9, 2011 2:56 am

Meteorite belt is the result of a planet destroyed by intergalactic war, with debris hitting earth (creating the moon), and wiping out life on mars.
Dinosaurs and all life was wiped from earth as well. The battle of angels and demons.

Earth was seeded by advanced beings, humans were created by advanced beings who mixed a small sample of their DNA with Neanderthals.

Humans designed to last approx 100yrs and with a limited brain function, cells designed to “self destruct/age” and allowed to use approx 10% of our brain function to prevent playing god.

God/advance being/race is our creator and we are his/her creation/children.

We seek our creator, beep beep.

May 9, 2011 9:02 am

With space being a vacuum a starship could be designed in any shape.. yes there are particles that could damage it, that is what the deflector dish is for… there is an explanation for everything!

May 9, 2011 12:50 pm

@39. Technically yes, it could be, as long as you consider that most of the force a starship needs to resist will be from internally produced sources, namely propulsion. The impulse drive of the Enterprise sits at the back of the saucer section, which means that if the connecting dorsal from the saucer to the secondary hull needs to be able to transfer all the load generated from that engine(s). That’s a whole lotta load for a fairly small chunk of the structure to resist!

May 10, 2011 7:30 am

@34, I’d say yes, many underpriviledged kids have nice tv’s cause their parents have pretty messed up financial decision making skills…