Stephen Petranek: Your kids might live on Mars. Here’s how they’ll survive

May 12, 2017

It sounds like science fiction, but journalist Stephen Petranek considers it fact: within 20 years, humans will live on Mars. In this provocative talk, Petranek makes the case that humans will become a spacefaring species and describes in fascinating detail how we’ll make Mars our next home. “Humans will survive no matter what happens on Earth,” Petranek says. “We will never be the last of our kind.”

Elon Musk: ‘Chances are we’re all living in a simulation’

June 04, 2016


lon Musk wears many hats. He’s the co-founder of online payments behemoth PayPal, the founder of private space flight pioneers SpaceX, the chief executive of electronic car manufacturers Tesla, and the original doodler of utopian transport concept Hyperloop. He’s also outspoken about the dangers of AI research, the need for blue-sky thinking in technology, and his desire to colonise another planet.

So it’s no surprise that over the course of an interview at California’s Code conference, Musk revealed a number of things we didn’t know before. Here’s some of them.

He’s afraid we’re all in a simulation

Musk is no stranger to the work of philosopher Nick Bostrom, who has warned before that superintelligent AI might wipe out humanity. Musk cited that fear as a reason for investing in AI company DeepMind, before it was bought by Google. But now he’s introduced the world to another concept popularised by Bostrum: the simulation problem.

The problem is that if realistic simulations of the universe are possible, then there would very quickly be far more simulations of reality than actual reality. Without any reason to assume we’re in reality rather than a simulation, the chances of us randomly happening to be in the one option among billions that isn’t fake is billions to one.

“Forty years ago we had Pong – two rectangles and a dot. That’s where we were,” Musk explained. “Now 40 years later we have photorealistic, 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously and it’s getting better every year. And soon we’ll have virtual reality, we’ll have augmented reality.

“If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then the games will become indistinguishable from reality.”

And, Musk pointed out, if we aren’t in a simulation, the most likely reason for that isn’t that we are the first civilisation ever; instead, it’s that no civilisation has ever advanced far enough to simulate reality.

When Bostrum described the argument in 2003, he presented it as an unappealing trilemma: basically no civilisations last long enough to develop simulations, the civilisations that do develop simulations are so different from our own that they wouldn’t simulate us, or we are almost certainly in a simulation already.

Musk says he has had “so many simulation discussions it’s crazy”. Less philosophically minded people might wonder if it’s just the number of discussions that’s the crazy thing.

He wants to be King of Mars

SpaceX is on track to launch people to the Red Planet in 2024, Musk says. Mars is a long way away, though, so the people wouldn’t actually arrive until 2025.

Before then, the plan is “establishing cargo flights to Mars”, getting the first delivery there by 2018 in the company’s planned “Red Dragon” ships. A rocket every two years or so after that could provide a base for the people arriving in 2024 to survive.

No stranger to mild megalomania, Musk pondered what it would mean to be the head of the company shipping the first people to Mars, and decided he’d be in a position to decide the government of the planet. Although he felt that direct democracy would work best, he also declared himself “King of Mars”. You can vote for any leader you want, as long as it’s Elon.

Not every late car is Tesla’s fault

The Model X was famously delayed by a number years, and for many analysts, Tesla’s biggest roadblock ahead is scaling up from a niche manufacturer to a mainstream company. But Musk pointed out that not every delay to the Model X was something in Tesla’s control.

One shipment of carpets for the car boots, for instance, was caught up in a shoot-out on the Mexican border. “Border patrol wouldn’t give us the truck because it had bullet holes in it”, he said, adding that other delays came because of tsunamis, hailstorms, factories burning down, sinking ships and earthquakes. “One thing that makes a car very difficult is it’s an integrative product with thousands of components,” he added, and so delays tend to cascade. “Things move as fast as the least lucky and least competent supplier.”

Only one AI firm actually scares him

He won’t say which one (but we’re going to guess that it starts with G and rhymes with “we’re all going to die at the hands of super-intelligent robotsoogle”).

And only one tech company is a Tesla competitor

But this time it’s not Google. “They’re not a car company, so they’d potentially license to other companies. I wouldn’t say they’re a competitor.”

Apple, however? “That’ll be more direct,” he admitted. The Apple car is the worst-kept secret in Silicon Valley, and the company has even poached several Tesla engineers – something Musk has been rather dismissive of. And even now, he’s not particularly concerned, estimating that Apple won’t be able to make a lot of cars till around 2020. “Is that too late?”, he asked. We think we know his answer.

Musk is going to go to orbit

For someone so into spaceflight that he’s built his own rocket ships, it’s odd that Musk hasn’t been in to space himself. But he says it’s on his to-do list.

“I’ll probably go to orbit in four to five years,” he said. “Orbit is really different than space.”

So there you have it. Musk in space. But is space just a simulation?

Elon Musk: We need to leave Earth as soon as possible

October 18, 2015


In all the billions and billions of planets in our home galaxy, humanity happens to find itself on one perfectly suited for life.

Earth isn’t without its hazards though. The planet has seen five mass extinctions throughout its history, due to cataclysmic disasters like giant asteroids and massive volcanic eruptions.

Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk is worried about the next apocalypse.

He’s so concerned that he thinks we need to get off Earth and become a multi-planet species as quickly as possible, according to a post written by blogger Tim Urban called “How (and Why) SpaceX Will Colonize Mars.”

Musk’s reasoning is straightforward. Maybe by the time the next giant asteroid heads our way, we’ll have the technology to shield the planet or redirect the space rock. But if it’s something more catastrophic, like a nearby star exploding, we may all get vaporized. Musk says we can’t afford to wait around and find out.

In his blog post, Urban gives us another way to think about it: Imagine Earth as a hard drive, and every species is a word document saved on that hard drive. The hard drive has already crashed five times (those five mass extinctions), and each time it loses a huge chunk of those documents (species going extinct). So you can think of the human species as an incredibly valuable document created on that hard drive:

Now—if you owned a hard drive with an extraordinarily important Excel doc on it, and you knew that the hard drive pretty reliably tended to crash every month or two, with the last crash happening five weeks ago—what’s the very obvious thing you’d do? You’d copy the document onto a second hard drive.

That’s exactly why Musk is so hell-bent on Mars — it could become humanity’s backup drive.

Musk doesn’t want to send a handful of colonists, either; he’d like to launch 1 million people to the red planet. If we want anything resembling the industry and infrastructure here on Earth, and ample genetic diversity, then we’ll need at least that many people to get things going. That’s the only way we’ll survive as a species on Mars, Musk reportedly told Urban.

Later this year, via his rocket company SpaceX, Musk plans to reveal a spacecraft designed to carry as many as 100 people at a time to the red planet.

NASA challenged designers to make a Martian home — one company created something incredible

October 17, 2015


In response to a NASA challenge, 3D design firm Fabulous designed the Sfero – a  burrowing robot that 3D prints homes on Mars. The Sfero will access the iron in the Martian soil and the permafrost that NASA believes is underground to create a dome-shaped habitat that Mark Watney could only dream of.

NASA Leading the Path to Mars

April 22, 2014


Artist’s Concept of a Solar Electric Propulsion System


Engineers and scientists around the country are working hard to develop the technologies astronauts will use to one day live and work on Mars, and safely return home and the Humans to Mars Summit this week is bringing together the best minds to share ideas about the path ahead.  NASA will be leading the charge.

Last week, our solar system put on quite a show.  An alignment of Earth, moon and sun, produced a rare and spectacular blood moon lunar eclipse.  In addition, Mars made its closest approach to Earth since 2007.  And even as Mars drew tantalizingly close to Earth, NASA is drawing nearer to our goal of a human mission to the Red Planet.  This week, April 22-24, NASA joins with the non-profit group, Explore Mars, and more than 1,500 leaders from government, academia, and business at the Humans to Mars (H2M) Summit 2014 at George Washington University to discuss the value, challenges and status of America’s path to Mars.

While NASA has been on a path to Mars for decades with our earlier Mars rovers and orbiters, a critical national policy statement in support of our strategy was made on April 15, 2010 during a visit by President Obama to Kennedy Space Center where he challenged the nation to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars in the 2030s.  Since then, NASA has been developing the capabilities to meet those goals through a bipartisan space exploration plan agreed to by the administration and Congress and embraced by the international space community.  While humans have been fascinated with Mars since the beginning of time, there are a number of very tangible reasons why we need to learn more about our closest planetary neighbor.  For one thing, Mars’ formation and evolution are comparable to Earth’s and we know that at one time Mars had conditions suitable for life.  What we learn about the Red Planet may tell us more about our own home planet’s history and future and help us answer a fundamental human question – does life exist beyond Earth?

While robotic explorers have studied Mars for more than 40 years, NASA’s path for the human exploration of Mars begins in low-Earth orbit aboard the International Space Station (ISS) our springboard to the exploration of deep space.  Astronauts aboard the ISS are helping us learn how to safely execute extended missions deeper into space.  We are guaranteed this unique orbiting outpost for at least another decade by the Administration’s commitment to extend the ISS until at least 2024.  This means an expanded market for private space companies, more groundbreaking research and science discovery in micro-gravity and opportunities to live, work and learn in space over longer periods of time.

Our next step is deep space, where NASA will send the first mission to capture and redirect an asteroid to orbit the moon.  Astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft will explore the asteroid in the 2020s, returning to Earth with samples. This experience in human spaceflight beyond low-Earth orbit will help NASA test new systems and capabilities – such as Solar Electric Propulsion – we’ll need to support a human mission to Mars.  Beginning in 2017, NASA’s powerful Space Launch System (SLS) rocket will enable these “proving ground” missions to test new capabilities.  Human missions to Mars will rely on Orion and an evolved version of SLS that will be the most powerful launch vehicle ever flown.

A fleet of robotic spacecraft and rovers already are on and around Mars, dramatically increasing our knowledge about the Red Planet and paving the way for future human explorers.  The Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover measured radiation on the way to Mars and is sending back radiation data from the surface.  This data will help us plan how to protect the astronauts who will explore Mars.  Future missions like the Mars 2020 rover, seeking the signs of past life, also will demonstrate new technologies that could help astronauts survive on Mars.

Engineers and scientists around the country are working hard to develop the technologies astronauts will use to one day live and work on Mars, and safely return home and the Humans to Mars Summit this week is bringing together the best minds to share ideas about the path ahead.  NASA will be leading the charge.

It is important to remember that NASA sent humans to the moon by setting a goal that seemed beyond our reach.   In that same spirit, we have made a human mission to Mars the centerpiece of our next big leap into the unknown.  The challenge is huge, but we are making real progress today as a radiation monitor on the Curiosity rover records the Martian radiation environment that our crews will experience; advanced entry, descent and landing technologies needed for landing on Mars are ready for entry speed testing high-above the waters of the Pacific Ocean in June; Orion is finishing preparation for a heat shield test in December; and flight hardware for the heavy lift rocket necessary for Mars missions begins manufacture in New Orleans.  The future of space exploration is bright, and we are counting on the support of Congress, the scientific community and the American people to help us realize our goals.