Today's "Planet Earth Report" --How Extraterrestrial Contact Will Change Us to NASA's Most Awesome Rocket Ever
December 7, 2017: Today's links to headline stories from around the world on the threats, opportunities, and dangers facing our fragile planet --along with an occasional dash of humor, popular culture, and an intriguing conspiracy theory or two. Today's coverage includes causes of the Los Angeles Fire, the jellyfish apocalypse, photo tour of the Silk Road, Jerusalem as "detonator," and human value in China.
THE THOMAS FIRE spread through the hills above Ventura, in the northern greater Los Angeles megalopolis, with the speed of a hurricane. Driven by 50 mph Santa Ana winds—bone-dry katabatic air moving at freeway speeds out of the Mojave desert—the fire transformed overnight from a 5,000-acre burn in a charming chaparral-lined canyon to an inferno the size of Orlando, Florida, that only stopped spreading because it reached the Pacific. Tens of thousands of people evacuated their homes in Ventura; 150 buildings burned and thousands more along the hillside and into downtown are threatened.
That isn’t the only part of Southern California on fire. The hills above Valencia, where Interstate 5 drops down out of the hills into the city, are burning. Same for a hillside of the San Gabriel Mountains, overlooking the San Fernando Valley. And the same, too, near the Mount Wilson Observatory, and on a hillside overlooking Interstate 405—the flames in view of the Getty Center and destroying homes in the rich-people neighborhoods of Bel-Air and Holmby Hills.
And it’s all horribly normal.
Suppose we woke up tomorrow to learn that extraterrestrial life had been discovered. What difference would that make? Set aside the extreme scenarios of popular fiction. The truth will probably be more mundane – not massive spaceships suddenly filling the sky but, instead, microorganisms found deep inside an ice-covered Moon, a non-random radio signal from a distant star system, or the ruins of a long-dead alien civilisation. What difference might those discoveries make? Would they strengthen or weaken our faith in God, or science, or humanity? Would they force us to re-evaluate the importance of our own lives, values and projects?
In academic philosophy today, an interest in extraterrestrial life is regarded with some suspicion. This is a historical anomaly. In Ancient Greece, Epicureans argued that every possible form of life must recur infinitely many times in an infinite universe. In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, as modern astronomy demonstrated that our Earth is just another planet and our Sun just another star, the default hypothesis among informed observers was that the Universe is filled with habitable planets and intelligent life. One principal argument for this ‘pluralism’ was philosophical or theological: God (or Nature) does nothing in vain, and therefore such a vast cosmos could not be home to only one small race of rational beings.
IN 2019, NASA will send a capsule called Orion on an elaborate 25-day trajectory. First, the Space Launch System, the most powerful rocket ever built, will blast it into the ether. Then the capsule will coast 245,131 miles away from Earth, loop-de-loop around the moon, and scream back into Earth’s atmosphere at 24,500 miles an hour. In the early 2020s, NASA plans to do the same thing again but with a crew—that mission will send humans farther into space than ever before. It’s one small step in a decades-spanning effort to send astronauts to explore asteroids, Mars, and beyond.
NASA gave photographer Vincent Fournier exclusive access to the testing and preparations for the mission, and our photographer spent 20 days at five facilities to capture how engineers build and test (and test, and test) the unprecedentedly large rocket and its human-carrying capsule. Engineers model everything from the orientation of rocket parts during transit to the way engine vibrations affect other components of the launch system.
They’re building teeny models of the rocket and sticking them in wind tunnels; enlarging the agency’s trusty barge Pegasus to ferry massive hunks of metal from NASA’s Michoud facility in Louisiana to Stennis Space Center in Mississippi and finally to Kennedy Space Center in Florida; and testing the fuel tanks by using hydraulic cylinders that apply millions of pounds of crushing forces to mimic launch and flight. “You know ‘measure twice, cut once’?” says Andy Schorr, a manager of the rocket’s payload integration at NASA. “We take that to a whole new level.” Here’s what goes on before the rocket goes up.
In a contentious world first, China plans to implement a social credit system (officially referred to as a Social Credit Score or SCS) by 2020. The idea first appeared in a document from the State Council of China published in June 2014. It is a technological advancement so shocking to modern-minded paradigms that many can do little but sit back in defeatist chagrin as science fiction shows us its darker side.
The SCS seems relatively simple. Every citizen in China, which now has numbers swelling to well over 1.3 billion, would be given a score that, as a matter of public record, is available for all to see. This citizen score comes from monitoring an individual’s social behavior — from their spending habits and how regularly they pay bills, to their social interactions — and it’ll become the basis of that person’s trustworthiness, which would also be publicly ranked.
This actually sounds worse than an Orwellian nightmare.
President Trump’s announcement on the status of the holy city may be perceived as a threat to sacred space—and could spark a crisis across the Middle East. A view of the Dome of the Rock, the Islamic shrine located in the Old City of Jerusalem Ammar Awad / Reuters
Even before reports suggested President Trump will declare that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and eventually move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, officials were predicting that the announcement would create chaos. By predetermining the final status of Jerusalem, Trump’s announcement would derail any hope for an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and spark violent protests across the Middle East.
Foreign leaders from across the Arab world have been warning the Trump administration of the potential for violence. King Abdullah II of Jordan, which has custodianship of Christian and Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, told U.S. lawmakers that the move could be exploited by terrorists to stoke anger in the region. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to cut diplomatic ties with Israel if the U.S. moves its embassy, and Saudi Arabia also condemned the plan. Saeb Erekat, the general secretary of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, said the move would “promote international anarchy and disrespect for global institutions and law.”
One of the more striking indications of contact with an Irukandji jellyfish is a sense of impending doom. The most common Irukandji, Carukia barnesi, are the size of a chickpea, and because they’re colorless, in the ocean they’re more or less invisible. The smaller ones might appear to you as the residue of a sneeze. The Irukandji’s translucent bell, shaped like a tiny boxing glove, trails four tentacles, delicate as cotton thread and about three feet long. The jellyfish’s sting doesn’t hurt overmuch. The pain is perhaps equivalent to a mild static zap from a metal doorknob—hardly even enough to make you want to suck your finger. The C. barnesi does not leave red welts, as other jellyfish do. You might miss the prick of its microscopic, stinging darts. You might think it’s just the start of sunburn.
Worst-case scenario: You’re dead by the following sunset. There are thought to be 25 species of Irukandji. One species, Malo kingi, is commonly known as “the king slayer.” After the initial sting comes a procession of ever more dreadful symptoms: back pain, agitation, the sensation of crawling skin, vomiting. The heart can become arrhythmic. Fluid may build up in and around the lungs. Patients “beg their doctors to kill them, just to get it over with,” the marine biologist Lisa-ann Gershwin told ABC Radio National in 2007.
Recently, while reading an XKCD comic about temperature preferences, the name “Turpan” caught my eye, which led me down an internet rabbit-hole that eventually led me to create this trip along the ancient Silk Road for you, using photographs, traveling from east to west. Starting in Xi’an, China, the route winds its way through parts of Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. I invite you to come along through the Gobi Desert, past the Flaming Mountains, the Singing Sands, the City of Screams, and other ancient and modern artifacts—and many spectacular vistas—along the main branches of this ancient trade route.
Tupopdan Peak, 20,033 feet (6,106 meters), also known as "Passu Cathedral," just north of Gulmit village in the Hunza Valley region of Pakistan, photographed on July 28, 2015. The picturesque valley was one of several important passes along the ancient Silk Road, situated between China's western Xinjiang region and Afghanistan's Wakhan Corridor.