Space Race: Round the Moon in Recycled Rockets, Spotting Rogue Asteroids, Dodging Alien Malware

by David Solomonoff

Detail, Amazing Stories cover, Malcom H. Smith, 1948

Space.com reports “Space tourists may soon be able to pay their own way to the moon onboard old Russian spacecraft retrofitted by a company based in the British Isles.

“The spaceflight firm Excalibur Almaz estimates that it can sell about 30 seats between 2015 and 2025, for $150 million each, aboard moon-bound missions on a Salyut-class space station driven by electric hall-effect thrusters.

In another private spaceflight initiative, the nonprofit B612 Foundation announced a campaign to fund and launch a space telescope to hunt for potential killer asteroids — a campaign they portrayed as a cosmic civic improvement project.

Former NASA astronaut Ed Lu, the foundation’s chairman and CEO, estimated that hundreds of millions of dollars would have to be raised to fund the project, but said he was “confident we can do this.”

William S. Burroughs said that “language is a virus from outer space.” At io9, George Dvorsky speculates at another type of danger from space – malware from an ET civilization:

…We should probably be more than a little bit wary of receiving a signal from a civilization that’s radically more advanced than our own.

When we spoke to SETI-Berkeley’s Andrew Siemion, he admitted that SETI is aware of this particular risk, and that they’ve given the issue some thought. When we asked Siemion about the possibility of inadvertently receiving or downloading a virus, he stressed that the possibility is extraordinarily low, but not impossible.

“Our instruments are connected to computers, and like any computers, they can be reprogrammed,” he warned.

Like Siemion, Milan Cirkovic also believes that the risk of acquiring something nasty from an ETI is very real. But he’s a bit more worried. Alien invaders won’t attack us with their spaceships, he argues – instead, they’ll come in the form of pieces of information. And they may be capable of infiltrating and damaging or subverting our computing networks, in a manner that’s similar to the computer viruses we’re all too familiar with.

“If we discard anthropocentric malice, it seems that the most probable response is that they have evolved autonomously in a network of an advanced civilization – which may or may not persist to this day.” If this is the case, speculated Cirkovic, these extraterrestrial viruses would probably just replicate themselves and subvert our resources to further transmit themselves across the Galaxy. In other words, the virus may or may not be under the control of any extraterrestrial civilization – it could be an advanced AI that’s out of control and replicating itself by taking over the broadcast capabilities of each civilization it touches.

After the end of the Cold War it seemed like the Space Race was dead, replaced by a much more Earth-bound and risk-adverse attitude. Humanity’s first encounter with an ET could be the accidental introduction of a terrestrial biological virus into an alien biosphere via a contaminated unmanned probe – or even a human-generated computer virus. But the rewards always outweighed the risks – both in terms of knowledge and resources to be gained – and the self-actualization from taking on big challenges. The fact that space exploration is back in the news reflects a return to a heroic and transformative vision of humanity as much as it does technical accomplishment.

 

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