Posts Tagged ‘space technology’


Published by Gregory Benford on May 6th, 2013

Starship Century, edited by Gregory Benford and James Benford, back cover




The Starship Century Symposium is the inaugural event at the new Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination at UC San Diego, Tuesday Wednesday, May 21–22, 2013 The program is located here:

The symposium celebrates the publication of the Benfords’ anthology, Starship Century. Jon Lomberg, the artist who collaborated extensively with Carl Sagan, has read the book and has this comment:

Starship Century is the definitive document of this moment in humanity’s long climb to the stars. Here you can find the physics, the astronomy, the engineering, and the vision that provides the surest guideposts to our future and destiny.

A number of luminaries will discuss a wide variety of starship–related topics derived from the book. The gathering features thinkers from a variety of disciplines including scientists, futurists, space advocates and science fiction writers. The program includes Freeman Dyson, Paul Davies, Robert Zubrin, Peter Schwartz, Geoffrey Landis, Ian Crawford, James Benford and John Cramer. Science fiction writers included are Neal Stephenson, Gregory Benford, Allen Steele, Joe Haldeman and David Brin. Other writers attending are Jerry Pournelle, Larry Niven and Vernor Vinge.

The book will be available for sale for the first time on Tuesday the 21st at a book signing immediately following the first day of the Symposium. Many of the authors in the anthology will be available for signing. Following the first day of the Symposium there will be a reception featuring an exhibition of Arthur C. Clarke artifacts in the Giesel Library of UCSD.

In addition to the speakers, there are panels. One, about the development of the Solar System, is ‘The Future of New Space’. Another is ‘Getting to the Target Stars,’ moderated by SETI celebrity Jill Tarter. The conclusion is a science fiction writers panel, ‘Envisioning the Starship Era,’ moderated by Gregory Benford and featuring Joe Haldeman, David Brin, Vernor Vinge and Jon Lomberg. At the conclusion of the Symposium there will be a book signing for other books of the authors present. There will also be a later book signing at Mysterious Galaxy bookstore a few miles from the University. It will feature Starship Century and the works of the other writers present.

The Symposium will be webcast and then archived. The webcast, which activates at the time of the event, is here:

The Benfords will donate the profits from sale of the book to interstellar research activities. They are currently working to establish a research committee that will award research contracts. The edition available at the symposium will be unique, a collectors item. The book will then go into general distribution in the summer. The Benfords recommend purchasing through a link that will soon appear on the Starship Century website:

This route is optimal because it maximizes the percentage profit, thus maximizing the money available for research. As we all know, research dollars have been greatly lacking in the interstellar area, which is one reason why the interstellar organizations such as Icarus Interstellar, Tau Zero and the Institute for Interstellar Studies are volunteer organizations. The Benfords are planning a second symposium to be held in London in the fall.


Published by Gregory Benford on January 23rd, 2013

Earth My answer to the 2013 Edge Question:


         One iconic image expresses our existential condition: the pale blue dot. That photograph of Earth the Voyager 1 spacecraft took in 1990 from 6 billion kilometers away told us how small we are. What worries me is that dot may be all we ever have, all we can command, for the indefinite future. Humanity could become like rats stuck on the skin of our spherical world, which would look more and more like a trap.

         Imagine: we’ve had our burgeoning history here and used up many resources…so what happens when they run out? Valuable things like metals, rare earths, fertilizers and the like are already running low.        

         Voyager has been operating for 35 years, 4 months and 4 days as of today (9 January 2013)—a huge return on the taxpayers’ investment. It is the first probe to leave the solar system and is the farthest man-made object from Earth. Voyager is now exploring the boundary between our little solar system and interstellar space.

         It can instruct us still, about our more pressing problems, as Sagan pointed out: “Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.”

         They fought over resources we could exhaust within the next century or two. Voyager’s perspective also suggests an answer: there’s a whole solar system out there. Sagan pondered that aspect, too: “There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet.”

         That is still true, but the vast solar system can help us. I worry that we will miss this opportunity.

         This century will doubtless see our population rise from its current 7 billion souls to 9 or 10 billion. Climate change will wrack economies and nations. The bulk of humanity has large economic ambitions that will strain our world to satisfy. With the USA imitating Europe in its evolution into an entitlement state, it will have less energy to maintain world order. Amid constant demands for more metals, energy, food and all the rest, it seems clear we can expect conflicts among those who would become “momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.”

         There are resources that can aid the bulk of humanity. With entrepreneurs now pulsing with energy, we have plausible horizons and solutions visible. SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corporation), founded by former PayPal entrepreneur Elon Musk, now delivers cargo to the International Space Station. SpaceX became the first private company to successfully launch and return a spacecraft from orbit on 8 December 2010, and Musk remarked on his larger agenda, the economic opening of space, “We need to figure out how to have the things we love, and not destroy the world.”

         The black expanses over our heads promise places where our industries can use resource extraction, zero-gravity manufacturing, better communications, perhaps even energy harvested in great solar farms and sent down to Earth.  Companies are already planning to do so–

Bigelow Aerospace (orbital hotels), Virgin Galactic (low Earth orbit tourism), Orbital Technologies (a commercial space station), and

Planetary Resource, whose goal is to develop a robotic asteroid mining industry.

         Barely visible now is an agenda we can carry out this century to avoid calamity, those rivers of blood, and anguished need. We know from history how to open new territory.

         Historically, coal and the railroad train enabled much of the industrial revolution. Both came from the underlying innovation of steam engines. Coal was the new wonder fuel, far better than wood though harder to extract, and it made continental scale economies possible. Synergistically, coal drove trains that in turn carried crops, crowds and much else.

         A similar synergy may operate to open the coming interplanetary economy, this time wedding nuclear rockets and robotics. These could operate together, robot teams carried by nuclear rockets to far places, and usually without humans, who would compromise efficiency. Mining and transport have enormously expanded the raw materials available to humanity, and the rocket/robot synergy could do so again.  As such fundamentals develop in space, other businesses can arise on this base, including robotic satellite repair/maintenance in high orbits, mining of helium 3 on the moon, and metal mining of asteroids. Finally, perhaps snagging comets for volatiles in the outer solar system will enable human habitats to emerge within hollowed-out asteroids, and on Mars and beyond.

         Nothing has slowed space development more than the high price of moving mass around the solar system. Using two stages to get into Low Earth Orbit may make substantial improvements, and beyond that the right answer may lie in nuclear rockets. These have been developed since the 1960s and could be improved still further. Lofting them into orbit “cold”—that is, before turning on the nuclear portion–may well erase the environmental issues. Fuel fluids can be flown up separately, for attachment to the actual rocket drive. Then the nuclear segment can heat the fuel to very high temperatures. Economically this seems the most promising way to develop interplanetary economics for the benefit of humanity.

         Such ideas have been tried out in the imaginative lab of science fiction, exploring how new technologies could work out in a future human context. Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2012 visionary novel, 2312, portrays such a solar system economy. Another 2013 anthology, Starship Century, has more chapter and verse on this.

          Sagan spoke often of how the view from space gave us perspective on our place in the cosmos. That started with Apollo 8’s 1968 swing around our moon and its backward look at the Earth. Many felt, looking at those photos, that future exploration of space should focus on ways to protect Earth and to extend human habitation beyond it. Sagan had the idea of turning Voyager to look back at ourselves, and tried to tell us to take the larger perspective in his Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.

         That first flowering into space set a tone we should embrace. In the end, history may resemble a zero-sum game ruled by resources. We can only win such a game by breaking out of its assumptions. A thousand years ago, societies were largely religious, and prayed to the skies for their salvation. We can seek our futures there now as well.


Published by Gregory Benford on September 18th, 2011

I envisioned computer viruses and wrote the first one, in 1969—but failed to see that they would become widespread.  Then, decades later, came Stuxnet.


Technologies don’t always evolve as we’d like. I learned this in 1969, and failed to catch the train I’d predicted would soon leave.

Further, I failed to see the levels of distrust that would arise in computer culture from malware generally. Certainly I did not think that seeds of mistrust could be blown by the winds of national rivalry through an internet that infiltrated every aspect of our lives. But then, it was 1968… ages ago.

At the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory I used ARPANet (Advanced Research Projects Administration) to send brief messages to colleagues in other labs, running over the big, central computers we all worshipped then. ARPANet’s emails had a pernicious problem: “bad code” that arose when researchers included (maybe accidentally) pieces of programming that threw things awry. Mostly I sent technical discussions to those at other labs. I worked on theoretical physics: solid state theory, plasma confinement for the fusion program, and some weapons work.

One day as I worked on a computation using the main computer, an idea struck: I could do so intentionally, making a program that deliberately copied itself. The biological analogy was obvious; evolution would favor such code, especially if it was designed to use clever methods of hiding itself and using others’ energy (computing time) to further its own genetic ends.

So… I wrote some simple code and sent it along in my next transmission on ARPANet. Just a few lines in Fortran told the computer to attach these lines to programs being transmitted to a certain terminal. Soon the code popped up in other programs, and started propagating. By the next day it was in a lot of otherwise unrelated code, and I called a halt to matters by sending a message alerting people to the offending lines.

Then I wrote a memo and made a point with the mavens of the Main Computer: this could be done with considerably more malevolent motivations. Viruses could move. Their reply: “Why would anyone do it, though?”

I recalled the Dylan song: The pump don’t work, ‘cause the vandals took the handles…

I thought it inevitable that such ideas work themselves out in the larger world. I wrote a story, “The Scarred Man” to trace this out, choosing to think commercially: could someone make a buck out of this? I devised a “virus” that could be cured with a program called VACCINE. The story appeared in the May, 1970 issue of Venture magazine and mercifully dropped from sight.

I avoided “credit” for this idea for a long time, but gradually realized that it was inevitable, in fact fairly obvious. In the early 1970s it surfaced again at Livermore when a self-replicating program named Creeper infected ARPANET. It just printed on a user’s video screen, “I’m the creeper, catch me if you can!” Users quickly wrote the first antivirus program, Reaper, to erase Creeper. Various people reinvented this idea  into the 1980s,  when a virus named Elk Cloner infected early Apple computers. That got fixed quickly, but Microsoft software proved more vulnerable, and in 1986 a virus named Brain started booting up with the disk operating system, spread through floppy disks and stimulated the antivirus industry I had anticipated in 1970.

It is some solace, I suppose, that last year’s #2 seller software in virus protection was a neat little program named Vaccine. The basic idea came into different currency at the hands of the renowned British biologist Richard Dawkins, who invented the term “memes” to describe cultural notions that catch on and propagate through human cultural mechanisms. Ranging from pop songs you can’t get out of your head all the way up to the Catholic Church, memes express how cultural evolution can occur so quickly, as old memes give way to voracious new ones.

There was some money to be made from this virus idea, if remorselessly pursued, even back in the early 1970s. I thought about these, though my heart was not in it. Computer viruses are antisocial behavior I did not want to encourage.

Nowadays there are nasty scrub-everything viruses of robust ability and myriad malware variations: Trojan horses, chameleons (acts friendly, turns nasty), software bombs (self-detonating agents, destroying without cloning themselves), logic bombs (go off given specific cues), time bombs (keyed by clock time), replicators (“rabbits” clone until they fill all memory), worms (traveling through network computer systems, laying eggs). Some companies in the anti-viral business claim over 100 million dollars lost each year in the just USA due to viruses.

Viruses were not a legacy I wanted to claim. Inevitably somebody was going to invent computer viruses; the idea requires only a simple biological analogy. Once it escaped into the general culture, there was no way back. I didn’t want to make my life about that. The manufacturers of spray-paint cans probably feel the same way…

For example, our cities will get smart. They will be able to track us with cameras or with microwaves that read chips in our phones, computers or even embedded beneath our skin. The first commercial use of this will be to feed advertising to us. We’ll inevitably live in an arms race against intrusive eyes, much as we guard against computer viruses now.

Stuxnet, the software virus that invaded Iran’s nuclear facilities, apparently is the first virus that disrupts industrial processes. It mutates on a schedule to avoid erasure, interrogates computers it invades, and sends back data to its inventors. Stuxnet can reprogram the PLCs and hide its changes. This smart cyber-weapon has a worm’s ability to reprogram external programmable logic controllers, making it a refined malware, aimed at critical infrastructure. Commands in Stuxnet code increase the frequency of rotors in centrifuges at Iran’s Natanz enrichment plant so they fly apart. Yet much Stuxnet code is unremarkable, standard stuff without advanced cloaking techniques.

Still, this is a wholly new thing—smart viruses with a grudge. These are evolving, self-aware, self-educating, craftily doing their mission. Expect more to come. Countries hostile to the United States may launch malware attacks against U.S. facilities, using Stuxnet-like code to take down national power grids or other critical infrastructure.

Though seldom remarked upon, USA policy traditionally has been to lead in technology, while selling the last generation tech to others. Thus we can defeat our prior inventions, and sometimes we even deliberately installed defects we could exploit later.

Stuxnet looks like a kluge with inventive parts. It does not hide its payload well or cover its tracks. It will not take great effort to greatly improve such methods (say, with virtual machine-based obfuscation, novel techniques for anti-debugging, etc), whatever their targets. Once major players use such techniques in nation-state rivalries, surely these will leak into commerce, where the stakes are immense for all of us. If Stux-type, untraceable malware becomes a weapon of commerce, our increasingly global commerce will take on a nasty edge.

If living in space becomes common, such systems will demand levels of maintenance and control seldom used on Earth. The International Space Station, for example, spends most crew time keeping the place running. These can be corrupted with malware.

So can many systems to come, as our environment becomes “smart” and interacts with us. Increasing interconnections of all systems will make smart sabotage a compelling temptation. So will malware that elicits data from your life, or corrupts systems you already have, in hopes you’ll replace them.

Now think beyond these first stages. What secondary changes emerge from those? Seeds of mistrust and suspicion can travel far.

That’s the world we’ll live in, with fresh problems we can attack if we’ve thought them through.

How  should you prepare and respond? You can’t possibly anticipate all outcomes. The time to think about this is now, before the future arrives like an angry freight train.