The Stars are Close

July 20th, 2014

While out taking a night walk, when looking up at the night sky a thought hit me: There are an awful lot of stars that are really close to us. When you look up at the night sky you can see a great many stars very clearly – about 50 of them are within 20 light-years from Earth and visible to us. 20 light-years sounds like a lot, but it’s not. You can see these stars clearly – many are like our sun, just a little farther away. These stars look to us like our sun would once you move to the edge of our solar system and look back towards its center.

If you were to travel to one of those 50 stars within 20 light-years from Earth, imagine that there is a space highway to get you there. Down the road as you drive through space you can keep your destination in view for the entire drive. These stars are close; they are right there. They beckon, letting us know exactly where to point our space-cars as we drive.

And when you get out to 250 light-years from Earth – there are 260,000 stars surrounding us. Since the Milky Way Galaxy is 100,000 light years across, these 260,000 stars are spread over just 1/200th of the diameter of the galaxy. It’s dense with stars where we live – there are 260,000 of them scattered nearby and around us in all directions.

About one third of the stars visible with the naked eye lie within 250 light-years, even though this is only a tiny part of our galaxy. An individual star must be close for us to be able to see it with our unaided eyes. Most of the bright dots you see in the night sky are clusters of many, many stars that look to us like an individual star. So when you can see a true individual star, you know it is close.

There are a whole lot of stars incredibly close considering the overall size of our Milky Way Galaxy. And when compared to the space around us covering the nearest 100 galaxies – those 260,000 stars around us are practically on top of us. These stars are close.

Once the first true starship is operational – there are going to be a whole lot of places to visit. It really will be like Star Trek. It will take a lot of time and effort to venture around our sub-galactic neighborhood to check out those 260,0000 stars. How many of them will have orbiting planets with life on them, whether plants or animals? How many of these planets will have intelligent beings living there? One day humans will find out, and the explorers in the first starships will see these other worlds up close.

A Dazzling Green Ring of Stuff Around the Equator in Space

July 10th, 2014

For as short of time as we have been in space, it’s amazing how much stuff we have managed to put up there. Commenter Mitchz95 found this cool 3D graphic of tracked orbital objects. Use your mouse roller to zoom in and out. And hold the left button down to rotate the view of Earth. Not much around the Earth’s poles – but check out that dazzling green ring around the equator.

I wonder which of those green dots you are using to read this website, if any.

Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics

July 5th, 2014

A BTE commenter posted Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics on an earlier post that I wrote where I gave an estimated timeline for the development of humanoid robots. Asimov came up with these three laws all the way back in 1942. This was a guy thinking ahead of his time. The laws are:

1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2) A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

When the humanoid robot technology revolution comes, these laws seem a reasonable starting point for bounding robot behavior. But of course things will get complicated. In law #1 it says that robots should not let humans “come to harm”. At first you think of physical injury – but this could be expanded to all sorts of things.

If a robot stole your wallet, did you come to harm? If a robot hurts your feelings, did you come to harm? What if your significant other starts spending more time with his or her robot friend because they find the robot more attractive and interesting than you. Did the robot harm you then?

In the end, robots will have to deal with the messy world of human ethics, a thing that we are all immersed in our whole lives.