Fusion Rocket Engines, SETI and Science: Seriously

Clockwise from upper right, 'Towards thermonuclear rocket propulsion', Gerald W. Englert, Lewis Research Centre, US National Aeronautics and Space Administration, reprinted from 'New Scientist' (1963); Fusion Rocket Concepts, NASA Technical Memorandum (1971), Fusion reactions and matter–antimatter annihilation for space propulsion', Claude Deutsch, Naeem A. Tahir, Cambridge University Press (2006); ESA's Nuclear fusion space propulsion (2021).
Thermonuclear fusion rocket research, 1963-2021.

Nerd alert!

This week I used words like deuterium and magnetohydrodynamics.

And I may have gone into more detail that necessary about why we didn’t have fusion power generators in the 1960s.

A British company’s plans for test-firing a fusion rocket engine got my attention last week. I’d planned on writing about it then, but a dental procedure and household matters got in the way.

So I researched and made more notes over the weekend, and when my town’s power came back online late Monday afternoon: the notes weren’t there any more. That’s something I may talk about, sometime next week.

Anyway, I re-researched, got stuck and/or distracted a couple times — I’ll talk about tralphium and mindsets in a bit — and ended up with this post.

Which, as it turned out, included a bit about NASA’s interest in UAPs and the serious search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Sunshine, Energy and Mass: Fusion Basics

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Solar Dynamics Observatory's photo: a coronal mass ejection. (August 31, 2012) via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.
Our sun: a coronal mass ejection. (2012)

Hydrogen fusion happens naturally.

Two hydrogen nuclei combine, making one helium nucleus and a fair amount of energy. The helium nucleus is a tad lighter than the two hydrogen nuclei. The missing mass becomes the energy.

All you need to is a ball of hydrogen with a mass about 25,000 times Earth’s.

That’s the mass of a small red dwarf star. The (basically) same fusion reactions are happening in our star, the Sun.

But we didn’t know about these reactions until very roughly a century back.

Speculation about mass and energy being interchangeable goes back at least to the 18th and 19th centuries. That’s when folks like Newton, Swedenborg, Umov and De Preto wrote about particles, ether and kinetic energy.

Around 1900, a whole bunch of folks noticed a connection between the speed and mass of charged particles.

Einstein’s special theory of relativity (1905) sparked ongoing debates. One point was whether E = mc2 is anything more than a first approximation. As of 2009, that question still wasn’t settled. Or, rather, it had been: several times, with assorted answers.

In 1920, Eddington said maybe the Sun stays hot by fusing hydrogen into helium. That was in “The Internal Constitution of the Stars”. As it turns out, he was right.

In 1937, Oliphant smashed hydrogen nuclei together, producing helium nuclei and a whole lot of energy. Actually, he used 2H (deuterium, AKA heavy hydrogen) and got 3He (not-so-heavy helium).

Good news, we had proof that hydrogen fusion was a real thing.1

Rather unsettling news, the Cold War started about a decade later.

Thermonuclear Weapons, History and Ideas: Very Briefly

Hollywood Pictures, Cinergi Pictures, Edward R. Pressman Film Corporation; via IMDB.com: John Wagner, Carlos Ezquerra, Michael De Luca's 'Judge Dredd;' Diane Lane as Judge Hershey. Judge Hershey in 'Judge Dredd,' the first film version. (1995)The Cold War started in 1947. Or it had been in progress since 1917, or it started in 1945: but right now the Truman Doctrine seems to mark the preferred starting line.

I’ve talked about history, periodization and the 20th century’s global war before — along with a very quick look at why I think it may eventually be called the Colonial War.

“…Many Enlightenment-era folks thought going through something like the Thirty Years War again would be a bad idea. I think they were right.

“‘More of the same’ wasn’t an acceptable option.

“It’s just shy of 370 years since the Thirty Years War ended. I don’t know when we started using that name. Not exactly.

“Like I said, names change. Folks living 370 years after the end what we call World War II will almost certainly have another name for it. I don’t know what it’ll be.

“Maybe some will call the 1914-1945 conflict the Colonial War when 2315 rolls past.

“I’m not the first person to call it that. My father suggested the name, somewhere around 1970. His interests, habits and quirky mental processes were much like mine, so likely enough he’d run across the idea somewhere. Or its component pieces.

“Maybe he noticed the probable motives behind both phases — merging an adjective and noun to get a new name….”
(“Marlowe’s ‘Dr. Faustus,’ Freedom, Censorship and Speculation” (September 10, 2022), Periodization and Impractical-But-Fun Speculation)

Anyway, a distinct ambivalence regarding the workers’ paradise is one reason that the first hydrogen fusion device was a bomb.

Another reason is that lighting off deuterium in one whacking great flash is one thing. Fusing deuterium and keeping it ‘burning’ is another.

And it’s not easy.2

Getting Back to Fusion Basics

Sarang's diagram of the proton–proton branch I chain reaction (September 4, 2016)Again: the simple, natural way to start hydrogen fusing into helium and energy is to pack about 25,000 times Earth’s mass of hydrogen into a star-size ball.

Then, thanks to gravity, the ball’s center gets hot and dense enough to push hydrogen nuclei together.

It’s simple and natural, but making stars is something we can’t do. Not yet, at any rate. And that’s another topic.

Make that fairly simple.

I mentioned 2H (deuterium, or heavy hydrogen) before, and how someone fused deuterium nuclei together to get 3He.

Scientists figure that deuterium fusion, where two deuterium nuclei fuse into a 3He (helium-3) nucleus, is one of two fusion reactions happening in our sun. Another is the proton-proton chain reaction.

Or, rather, others are proton-proton chain reactions: plural. There are three of the things. That diagram shows the one called branch I.

Now, about the last reaction on branch I: 3He + 3He yielding two 1H, one 4He, plus energy that’s not shown on that diagram. That reaction doesn’t make stuff around it radioactive.

It’d be great for a fusion power plant.

But there’s just one problem, Helium-3 won’t fuse unless it’s a plasma even hotter and denser than we need for fusing deuterium. So getting power from helium-3 reactions will wait until we work the bugs out of deuterium fusion reactors.3

Before talking about plasma and a fusion rocket engine that may be ready for testing next year, a few (for me) words about 1H (just plain hydrogen). 2H (deuterium), 3H (tritium), and 3He.

They’re all isotopes. And isotopes are — meh. I’ll quote a couple definitions.

Introduction to Isotopes“, Understanding Isotopes, A Step-by-Step Tutorial
Division of Information Technology, University of Maryland
“Isotopes are atoms of the same element with different numbers of neutrons but the same number of protons. For example, different isotopes of the element Carbon can have 6, 7, or 8 neutrons. The number of protons does not change.”

What is an Isotope?” (September 26, 2022)
MSU Alumni, Michigan State University
“Simply put, isotopes are different versions of elements—the same ones you’d find on the periodic table. The core, or nucleus, of each element holds protons and neutrons. Each element contains a fixed number of protons. But when you vary the number of neutrons, you create different isotopes of the same element.

“There are 118 elements on the periodic table. There are more than 3,000 isotopes that we know of and likely thousands more waiting to be discovered. At FRIB, home to the world’s most powerful isotope-making accelerator, scientists can create isotopes that have never been seen before, giving them the ability to look at research through a whole new lens.”

Tralphium?! — or — Gamow, “New Genesis”, God and Chesterton

NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope's image: the LEDA 48062 galaxy (the faint, sparse, amorphous galaxy on the right) in the constellation Perseus. The large, disk-like lenticular galaxy on the left is UGC 8603. Other, more distant galaxies litter the background.Another name for Helium-3, 3H, is helion. And yet another name for it is tralphium.

I spent more time than I maybe should have this week, learning where the word tralphium came from.

The earliest use of “tralphium” I could find was in a piece by by George Gamow: a lighthearted look at another scientist’s ideas about nucleosynthesis.

“…However, the key reaction would take place at a sufficient rate only if Carbon-12 had a very particular property…. Fred Hoyle predicted this property; Willy Fowler measured it and found it as predicted.

“Here is Gamow’s comment on Hoyle’s discovery:

“New Genesis”

“In the beginning God created radiation and ylem. And ylem was without shape or number, and the nucleons were rushing madly over the face of the deep.

“And God said: ‘Let there be mass two.’ And there was mass two. And God saw deuterium, and it was good.

“And God said: ‘let there be mass three.’ And there was mass three. And God saw tritium and tralphium [Gamow’s nickname for the helium isotope He-3], and they were good. And God continued to call number after number until He came to transuranium elements. But when He looked back on his work He found that it was not good. In the excitement of counting, He missed calling for mass five and so, naturally, no heavier elements could have been formed.

“God was very much disappointed, and wanted first to contract the universe again, and to start all over from the beginning. But it would be much too simple. Thus, being almighty, God decided to correct His mistake in a most impossible way.

“And God said: ‘Let there be Hoyle.’ And there was Hoyle. And God looked at Hoyle… and told him to make heavy elements in any way he pleased.

“And Hoyle decided to make heavy elements in stars, and to spread them around by supernovae explosions. But in doing so he had to obtain the same abundance curve which would have resulted from nucleosynthesis in ylem, if God would not have forgotten to call for mass five.

“And so, with the help of God, Hoyle made heavy elements in this way, but it was so complicated that nowadays neither Hoyle, nor God, nor anybody else can figure out exactly how it was done.
(“New Genesis” (1946?) via Ideas of Cosmology, Center for History of Physics, a Division of the American Institute of Physics) (emphasis mine)

And now I’ve got another new-to-me word, “ylem”, which George Gamow, Ralph Alpher and others got from Middle English.

Ylem is the hypothetical stuff from which became everything in this universe: including scientific laws like the balance between gravitational and other forms of energy.

Probably, if current models of the first moments after the Big Bang are accurate.

Scientific laws, by the way, are what scientists have noticed and confirmed about the way stuff works.4

Those are rabbit holes I’ll leave for another day.

“His Gaze Spans All the Ages…”

NASA, ESA, CSA, I. Labbe (Swinburne University of Technology), R. Bezanson (University of Pittsburgh)'s image (processed by Alyssa Pagan (STScI)): detail of James Webb Space Telescope NIRCam's Abell 2744 ('Pandora's Cluster') image; a gravitational lens magnifying distant galaxies. (February 15, 2023)George Gamow’s “New Genesis”, on the other hand, warrants a bit more attention.

If I thought Gamow’s “New Genesis” was the scientist’s effort to launch a new religion, then I’d have problems with it.

For one thing, God being unable to figure out how nucleosynthesis works downplays God’s knowledge: putting it mildly.

“Immense is the wisdom of the LORD;
mighty in power, he sees all things.”
(Sirach 15:18)

“His gaze spans all the ages:
is there any limit to his saving action?
To him, nothing is small or insignificant,
and nothing too wonderful or hard for him.”
(Sirach 39:20)

“He searches out the abyss and penetrates the heart;
their secrets he understands.
For the Most High possesses all knowledge,
and sees from of old the things that are to come.”
(Sirach 42:18)

Repeating what I said earlier this month: God infinite. Eternal. All-powerful. Incomprehensible. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1, 202, 268-269)

God creates and sustains a (basically) good an ordered world. He is present to all creation, and continuously sustains it. (Catechism, 299-301, 385-412)

God is here and now in every here and now, but God is not ‘inside’ space and time. (Catechism, 205, 600, 645)

Basically, God is large and in charge. And, like Sirach said, “possesses all knowledge”.

I could rant and rave about Gamow’s “New Genesis”, ignoring its context. But I figure that makes considerably less than no sense.

Besides, I think G. K. Chesterton is right. Something that stops making sense when deprived of highfalutin solemnity — may not make sense when it is provided with properly pretentious pomposity. It just takes longer to notice the sense gap.

“…It is the test of a responsible religion or theory whether it can take examples from pots and pans and boots and butter-tubs. It is the test of a good philosophy whether you can defend it grotesquely. It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it….”
(“All Things Considered“, The Methuselahite, Spiritualism; G. K. Chesterton (1908) via Project Gutenberg of Australia)

And that brings me to magnetohydrodynamics. If I think of a “pots and pans” word for that mouthful, I’ll use it. But I’m not hopeful.

Plasma, Magnetohydrodynamics and My Research Roadblock

Edward Aspera Jr.'s Air Force photo: United States Air Force, VIRIN 040304-F-0000S-002 (and VIRIN 060822-F-1111A-001), lightning over Las Cruces, New Mexico. (March 4, 2004) via Wikipedia
Plasma in nature: Edward Aspera Jr.’s photo: lightning over Las Cruces, New Mexico. (March 4, 2004)

The point I’ve been staggering toward is that fusing hydrogen won’t happen unless the stuff is really hot and dense: in the state of matter scientists call “plasma”.

I was going to say that plasma is ionized gas, but — as usual — it’s not that simple:

“…Plasma is typically an electrically quasineutral medium of unbound positive and negative particles…. Plasma is distinct from the other states of matter. In particular, describing a low-density plasma as merely an ‘ionized gas’ is wrong and misleading, even though it is similar to the gas phase in that both assume no definite shape or volume….”
(Plasma (physics), Wikipedia)

Basically, as far as fusion reactions go, plasma is stuff that’s very hot, fairly dense, and conducts electricity.

Now, about electricity and magnetism. Where to start?

Science. Electromagnets. Levitating Light Bulbs!

JET/UKAEA's photo: inside their JET reactor.The electromagnetic force is one of the four fundamental forces of nature. The other three are gravity, weak interaction and strong interaction.

Fusion happens in stars because gravity compresses hydrogen and everything else, heating it, which sparks hydrogen fusion. It’s probably the simplest way to start a fusion reaction and keep it going.

But since we don’t have gravity generators and can’t make stars, we’re stuck with using electromagnetism.

And that gets me to magnetohydrodynamics.

It’s an eight-syllable name for a mathematical toolbox scientists use when they’re talking about fluids that conduct electricity. “Fluids” in this case includes plasma and liquid metals.

I could try diving into equations like ρmσ nσ, but that’s more math than I’m comfortable with. So I’ll over-simplify the situation something fierce.

We’ve known that electric currents and magnetic fields go together since 1820. Since then, we’ve used that knowledge to make everything from telegraphs to particle accelerators.

We’ve also made magnetic levitating toys and novelties, keeping little globes and light bulbs suspended in air.

So how come we can’t ‘suspend’ fusing plasma the same way?

We can, actually. But not for long.

One problem is that plasma that’s hot enough for fusion reactions is so hot that it’ll melt or vaporize anything that’s too close.

Hydrogen bombs work because the fusion reaction only has to last for a very short time.

I gather that the process is over in fractions of a microsecond.

We can start fusion reactions by squeezing little bits of hydrogen into a plasma ball. Or we can hold and squeeze plasma with magnetic fields.

Either way, the trick is getting more power out of the fusion reaction than it takes to start it and — in the case of magnetic containment systems — keep it going.5

Mindsets, Reasonable and Otherwise — or — Angst and Attitudes

Studio Foglio's Mr. Squibbs, used w/o permission.This is where I was going to talk about how thermonuclear weapons work, and how that applies to developing practical fusion power generators.

I researched the topic last week, and this week, and found a great deal of nothing much.

Even getting reliable information about what “very short” means in the context of the 1952 Ivy Mike test has been frustrating, putting it mildly.

I suspect that some of the echoing silence I found is due to concerns, real or imagined, regarding “national security”.

With my less than utter awe for the wisdom of my country’s powers that be, I could be mildly surprised that Enewetak Atoll6 is not officially a non-place that never existed.

I also suspect, based on the tone I perceived in many academic discussions of thermonuclear weapons, fusion research and related topics, that a great many scientists remain appalled at what we’ve learned.

There’s much to be said for realizing that ideas may lead to actions, that actions have consequences, and that ethics apply when we act.

Learning the Right Lessons: Eventually

Nagasaki City Office's photo, 'Memorial Service at the Ruins of Urakami Cathedral (November 23, 1945)' via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.I think many folks had horrifying wake-up calls following September of 1945.

These days, I read and hear more about the first (and so far only) use of nuclear weapons than other matters that became general knowledge: and that’s yet another topic. Topics, actually.

I’m arguably Lebensunwertes Leben, so I see the reality check we got when results of eugenics as a national policy went public as a significant post-war issue.7 Yet again more topics.

Good news — we started, at least in this country, looking at low-status humans as people rather than readily-available lab animals. I talked about that last month.

“…John Lantos, a pediatrician at University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine and expert in medical ethics, says the experiments were indicative of America’s post-war mindset. ‘Technology was good, we were the leaders, we were the good guys, so anything we did could not be bad,’ he says. It wasn’t until the ’70s, after the Tuskegee study, that Congress passed federal regulation requiring a specific kind of oversight.’…”
(“A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Radioactive Oatmeal Go Down“, Lorraine Boissoneault, Smithsonian Magazine (March 8, 2017))

Accepting that self-righteous cockiness can be embarrassing makes sense.

But I’d prefer seeing less of the “technology is bad, we are the bad guys” attitude. Maybe I’m being unfair.

Doing It With (Magnetic) Mirrors

WikiHelper2134's illustration of a magnetic bottle formed by two magnetic mirrors. (June 3, 2013) via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.
A magnetic bottle formed by two magnetic mirrors. Illustration by WikiHelper2134.

There’s a whole mess of ways we could — in theory — keep a dense fusion-hot plasma in some sort of magnetic bottle.

With field-reversed configuration (FRC) systems, the plasma is in a “high-beta axisymmetric compact toroid”. Think of it as a smoke ring made from lightning. And that’s still another topic.

FRC systems use magnetic mirrors: electromagnets set up so that a plasma’s charged particles go whirling back and forth between them.

One of these things has been running off and on at Princeton for years. Scientists have been learning a lot from using it, but have yet to get a fusion reaction.

One of the problems is that “plasma stability” isn’t particularly stable.

There’s flute instability, explosive/ballooning instability, diocotron instability — basically, plasma wiggles. A lot.

And that’s why Aksa, Aggreko and Westinghouse didn’t start making fusion generators in the 1960s.8

Describing how hard it is to keep a fusion-hot plasma in place generally involves lots of acronyms and phrases like magnetoacoustic cyclotron instability.

I gather that it’s a bit like trying to run boiling water through pipes made of Jell-O.

That’s not an apt comparison, but it’s the best I came up with.


Pulsar Fusion's illustration: their Direct Fusion Drive (DFD) test vehicle. (2023)
Direct Fusion Drive (DFD) test vehicle. (2023)

World’s Largest Nuclear Fusion Rocket Engine Begins Construction
David Nield, ScienceAlert (July 14, 2023)

“Nuclear fusion propulsion technology has the potential to revolutionize space travel in terms of both speeds and fuel usage. The same kinds of reactions that power the Sun could halve travel times to Mars, or make a journey to Saturn and its moons take just two years rather than eight.

“It’s incredibly exciting, but not everyone is convinced this is going to work: the tech needs ultra-high temperatures and pressures to function.

“To help prove the viability of the technology, the largest ever fusion rocket engine is now being built by Pulsar Fusion in Bletchley, in the UK.

The chamber, some 8 meters (26 feet) long, is scheduled to start firing in 2027….”
(emphasis mine)

I agree that this is “incredibly exciting” news.

Particularly since, as far as I can tell, Pulsar Fusion’s prototype won’t just be the “largest ever fusion rocket engine”. It’ll be the first.

Granted, I may have missed news of an earlier prototype. But that seems unlikely.

A device that (1) keeps a fusion reaction going, (2) produces more power than it takes in, and (3) is a working rocket engine is front-page news. In the science-and-technology section, at any rate.

I didn’t find detailed descriptions of Pulsar Fusion’s prototype on their website. But I hadn’t expected to find that sort of information on what’s essentially a promotional site.

They did, however, say that they’re planning to have a prototype Direct Fusion Drive (DFD) ready for static testing next year, with orbital flight tests in 2027.

I’m guessing the processes will take a little longer. On the other hand, although this particular application is new and first-of-its-kind; it’s based on tech that’s been in development for decades.

And Pulsar Fusion gives numbers for their fusion rocket engine’s expected performance.

“The Direct Fusion Drive is a revolutionary steady state fusion propulsion concept, based on a compact fusion reactor. It will provide power of the order of units of MW, providing both thrust of the order of 10-101N with specific impulses between 103-105s and auxiliary power to the space system.”
(Fusion Propulsion | Pulsar Fusion)

About those numbers: 10-101N is thrust in Newtons; specific impulse is a measure of a rocket engine’s efficiency. I’m not sure why Pulsar Fusion’s unity symbols are a capital N and lower-case s. British usage, maybe.

At any rate, 10 to 101 newtons thrust is about 2.25 to 22.7 pounds. Which may not seem like much for an engine that size. But production models of this DFD would be used for deep space missions, where efficiency is more important high thrust.

Exhaust velocity for the Pulsar Fusion prototype should be 110 to 350 kilometers per second, or about 0.1167% the speed of light.

Which, again, doesn’t sound like much. Not compared to still-theoretical Z-pinch fusion engines, which may have exhaust velocities of around 4% speed of light.

But the Space Shuttle’s main engine exhaust velocity was around 4.4 kilometers per second.9 So I see Pulsar Fusion’s DFD as pretty impressive.

Comparing Princeton’s FRC System and Pulsar Fusion’s DFD

Pulsar Fusion's schematic: their Direct Fusion Drive (DFD). (2023)
Pulsar Fusion’s schematic diagram of their Direct Fusion Drive (DFD). (2023)
Christopher Galea, Stephanie Thomas, Michael Paluszek, Samuel Cohen's schematic: their Princeton Field-Reversed Configuration reactor concept. (2023) from Journal of Fusion Energy (2023) 42:4, via Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory.
Christopher Galea et al.’s schematic: their Princeton Field-Reversed Configuration reactor concept. (2023)

The Princeton Field-Reversed Configuration reactor concept looks a lot like Pulsar Fusion’s Direct Fusion Drive. Probably for the same reasons that Ford and Rolls Royce engines look alike. They’re using very similar tech to do pretty much the same thing.

I’m running short of time, again, so — that RMF antenna in the Pulsar Fusion schematic is a rotating magnetic field antenna: something that helps contain wiggling plasma.10


Frame from W. Lee Wilder's 'Killers From Space': Peter Graves surrounded by B movie space aliens. (1954)
Peter Graves and atomic invaders: “Killers From Space”. (1954)

The UFO reports piquing Nasa’s interest
For the first time ever, a team of Nasa scientists is taking unidentified anomalous phenomena seriously. But how will they sift out the incidents worthy of investigation?
Zaria Gorvett, Extraterrestrial life, BBC (July 26, 2023)

“It was just a normal day’s flying for Alex Dietrich – until it wasn’t. Streaking through the sky over the tranquil expanse of the Pacific Ocean near San Diego, the US Navy lieutenant commander was taking her F/A-18F Super Hornet fighter jet on a training mission with a colleague in another plane. Then came a voice through the crackle of the radio.

“It was an operations officer aboard the warship USS Princeton, asking them to investigate a suspicious object flitting around: on several occasions, it had been spotted 80,000ft (24.2km) high, before suddenly dropping close to the sea and apparently vanishing.

“When the two jets arrived at its last known location, close to the ocean’s surface, the water seemed almost to be boiling. Moments later Dietrich saw it: what seemed to be a whitish, oblong object around 40ft (12m) long, hovering just above the water — like a wingless capsule, which she described as resembling a Tic Tac. As they edged in closer, it was gone, accelerating off into the sky at what seemed an impossible speed, leaving a glassy expanse of regular sea behind….”

First things first.

My tax dollars are not being wasted on a pointless search for pop-eyed space aliens.

That 1954 B movie11 profoundly does not represent what NASA is investigating.

I’m not convinced that calling UAPs Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena, rather than Unidentified Aerial Phenomena, will keep journalists from trying a relaunch of the mid-20th-century flying saucer craze.

I talked about UAPs and a Bart Simpson balloon last month. You’ll find a link near the end of this post.

But I think the NASA Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena is a reasonable moniker, since right now we don’t know that all UAPs are, strictly speaking, aerial.

And my hat’s off to the BBC author, for writing a level-headed piece.

My own opinion about UFOs, UAPs and the IHTT (Incredible Hovering Tic Tac) is that folks have been seeing things we don’t immediately understand for a very long time.

Wondering what they are is more than just okay. It’s part of being human. We, most of us that is, are curious: we want to learn about what’s around us.

Trying to convince folks who have seen a giant hovering Tic Tac, ball lightning or whatever they’re experiencing is mass hysteria seems silly. So would immediately assuming that an invasion of the Incredible Tic Tac People is imminent.

Sifting through ‘that’s odd’ reports and investigating the ones that warrant closer looks?

Since I think that being curious and learning about this wonder-packed universe is part of being human, I see that as a good idea.

SETI, NASA, Technosignatures and a Flight of Fancy

NASA's illustration: 'Finding Signs of Intelligent Life', from 'Searching for Signs of Intelligent Life: Technosignatures', Pat Brennan, NASA's Exoplanet Exploration Program, Feature (July 11, 2023)
NASA: Often-discussed technosignatures. (2023)

Searching for Signs of Intelligent Life: Technosignatures
Pat Brennan, Feature, NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program (July 11, 2023)

“Our first confirmed proof of life beyond Earth might not involve biology at all. It’s possible that we might intercept communication through electromagnetic waves, like radio, or find telescopic evidence of epic engineering.

“While the search remains largely focused on non-technological life, NASA scientists also have begun to consider what technological traces of intelligent life — ‘technosignatures’ — might look like. They wouldn’t come from planets in our solar system, but rather far-flung exoplanets that we cannot see up close. Among the possibilities are laser or radio pulses, signs of artificial chemicals in the atmospheres of distant planets, or ‘Dyson spheres’ — massive structures built around stars to collect their energy….”

It’s late Friday afternoon as I write this, so I don’t have time to go on about technosignatures, extraterrestrial intelligence and making sense. Which may be a good thing.

Robert Macke's photo: Brother Guy Consolmagno (research astronomer, physicist, religious brother, director of the Vatican Observatory, and President of the Vatican Observatory Foundation) in his lab. (2014)If we have neighbors — people who are free-willed spirits with physical bodies, like us — I figure they’ll be people. It’s like this scientist said:

“…Frankly, if you think about it, any creatures on other planets, subject to the same laws of chemistry and physics as us, made of the same kinds of atoms, with an awareness and a will recognizably like ours would be at the very least our cousins in the cosmos. They would be so similar to us in all the essentials that I don’t think you’d even have the right to call them aliens.”
(“Brother Astronomer,” Chapter Three, Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? — Brother Guy Consolmagno (2000))

And I figure that “technosignatures” will, if we notice them, very probably be somewhere outside the Solar System.

But maybe they won’t. Neptune is farther from the Sun than Uranus, but it radiates 2.61 times as much energy as it gets from our star. Uranus only radiates 1.1 times as much.

The last I checked, we don’t know why Neptune is so (comparatively) much warmer.

Uranus is an oddball, too. It’s axis of rotation is tilted 97.77° to it’s orbit’s, compared to Earth’s 23.44° tilt. Odds are that early on in the Solar System’s formation, something about as massive as Earth hit Uranus, giving it a tilt that it’s retained to this day. But we’re not sure.12

Now, I think Neptune’s unexplained heat and the Uranian tilt have natural causes. Probably. It’s the least-unlikely condition.

But, since we don’t know why the poles of Uranus scan the inner Solar System every 42 years; and why something’s keeping Neptune’s interior warmer than we’d expect — I can’t rule out either or both as being the result of planet-scale engineering.

I think it’s very — extremely — unlikely that folks who aren’t human stopped by the Solar System and modified two outer planets. But possible? Maybe.

Here’s a good-enough-for-a-story scenario.

Wildly Improbable, But Not Impossible

Sky and Telescope's illustration: structure of a planet, a planet with a disk and a synestia, all of the same mass. (March 1, 2018)Researchers who weren’t human were curious about a collision that had happened in this planetary system’s third track out from the star.

All that was left of the two planets was a roughly doughnut-shaped mass of vaporized rock. Some researchers said it’d sort itself out as a planet with a ring system, others said it’d become a double planet, and still others didn’t care.

The ‘don’t care’ folks wanted to track developments on the system’s second planet.

So they all set up a self-maintaining power station for a data relay in the ninth-track planet’s core. (Neptune is the eighth planet out from the Sun, but Ceres and other asteroids/dwarf planets occupy the Solar System’s fifth orbital track.)

After tilting its rotation axis, the eighth-track planet made a reasonably stable platform for their instruments, which were placed on the planet’s poles. Then the researchers left.

The instrument platforms scanned the inner planets, sending data to the relay. The data relay collected, stored and transmitted data.

Time passed. The instrument platform’s alignment drifted a bit. But either the researchers’ descendants had lost interest in the system, or the misalignment wasn’t worth fixing.

The third track’s rock-vapor bagel sorted itself out into a mismatched double planet.

More time passed, and researchers who lived on the double planet’s larger member got curious about other worlds in their home system.

Unlikely? Yes. Very.

Impossible? I don’t thing so.

The usual links:

1 More than you need, or maybe want, to know about:

2 Fusion and historical context:

3 Recapping:

4 Tralphium!

5 Even more stuff you probably don’t need to know:

6 The more things change…

7 Horrifying wake-up calls:

8 More-or-less-well-cited background on:

9 Technology and numbers:

10 Two car manufacturers:

Formation of field-reversed configuration using an in-vessel odd-parity rotating magnetic field antenna in a linear device
Peiyun Shi, Baoming Ren, Jian Zheng, Xuan Sun; Review of Scientific Instruments, American Institute of Physics (October 2018) via PubMed Central (PMC)

11 Atomic angst and egg-tray eyes:

12 Three planets, a hypothetical doughnut and a serious science:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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