CCC: Space, the final frontier at 33C3

The Chaos Communication Congress is a 4-day hacker conference/gathering that takes place every year between Christmas and New Year Eve. Last week, the 33th edition, aka 33C3, took place on December 27-30 in Hamburg.

33C3
Entry of 33C3 at the Congress Centrum Hamburg, picture courtesy of Spiegel.

Several conference tracks are available during the four days, with various subjects ranging from technical talks about Security, Hardware, and Science to political talks about Art, Ethics, and Society. One category that has been growing the last few years is Space. Following the core values of the event: Hacking, Learning, and Sharing, hackers also aspire to hack space travel, learn about the hugeness of our cosmos, and wonder about the endless possibilities of the future of our species.

This year, all talks about Space took place on the evening of day 3. This post summarizes my thoughts about these talks.

An Elevator to the Moon (and back)

by Markus Landgraf

Why is it so hard to go to the Moon? The curse of Newtonian Mechanics and Tsiolkovsky’s Rocket Equation force us to build huge rockets to achieve any meaningful activity on the Moon. There are two strategies to hack the laws of celestial mechanics: making fuel on the Moon and using cables to climb out of the gravity well. Here we focus on the latter, which is the Moon version of the famous space elevator. The difference to an Earth elevator is - an elevator to the Moon’s surface is realistic with today’s materials. In the talk an introduction to the general problem is given and a starting point for a discussion is given that can easily lead to a sustainable access to the Moon if there is demand to do so.

Markus Landgraf works for ESA on space mission planning, and he shows us his vision of space elevators with current technology. He first makes the case for the scientific and economic interests that may leads us into building such a massive infrastructure. Using current structural/civil engineering knowledge and known polymer materials, he makes the case for a Moon elevator, that seems realistic from an engineering point of view.

Although I am very keen on the idea of sustainable and cheap space travel through space elevator, I still think it will take time to gather enough funds for such a massive project. And we are not even talking about an Earth space elevator. There needs to be either an economic interest in the Moon to mine resources (probably water, see NASA’s mission to mine water on the Moon). The other possibility is if more budget is given to space agencies, we might witness a new space race with the rise of the indian and chinese space programs. India having managed to put a probe around Mars, and China having landed a rover on the Moon and built a space station.

The Moon and European Space Exploration

by Jan Wörner

Since the early successes of moon missions in the Sixtie, mankind has moved on to the earth orbit and other deep space missions. But interest in the moon as a target has intensified recently as the strategies for future missions are evolving.

This was a great talk from a very charismatic speaker on why space needs to be explored and how ESA and european ideas of curiosity and exploration transcend geography and borders. The Moon is an important milestone in our journey to human space exploration and colonization.

Jan Wörner is in favor of international collaboration (beyond Europe) in space exploration, travel, and colonization. I like to think that space exploration will eventually unite all humans, as depicted in Star Trek, for the survival of the species.

Interplanetary Colonization

by Liz George and Peter Buschkamp

The long term survival of the human species requires that we become an interplanetary species. But we must answer two big questions: where are we going, and how do we get there? We explore what scientists know (and don’t know) about humanity’s potential future homes both inside and outside the solar system, and then we’ll dive into the technological challenges of (and potential solutions for) getting humans to and colonizing a new planet.

This is an interesting talk for non-technical space enthusiasts. It reviews some rocket propulsion methods that we could use to send humans to other planets and even other solar systems. It focuses on evaluating the possibility of interplanetary colonization with currently known technologies.

Although it did not discuss the settling part of colonization, so the talk could have been titled “interplanetary manned space travel”, but that sounds less catchy.

Lasers in the sky

by Peter Buschkamp

At 32C3 we shot lasers into space… now it’s lasers in space! We look at space- and airborne laser platforms and what practical uses people have come up with (hint: mostly more or less secret communication and military use). We’ll also recap the basic physics and boundaries and check if ‘pew pew pew’ is really gonna cut it (hint: mostly no). To close, we’ll have a look at laser based propulsion for space travel and other speculative applications off the beaten path.

Last year, at 32C3, Peter Buschkamp discussed how lasers were used in astronomy to correct for atmospheric effects and make precise ground observations of the sky possible. This year, he talked about lasers again, this time focussing on the use of lasers in space. Many applications are discussed among which are: laser propulsion, energy transmission, interferometry, and communication.

An upcoming mission, LISA, aims to deploy a giant laser interferometry in an orbit following the Earth around the Sun. Its goal is to detect gravitational waves.

Another interesting note about laser communication is that narrow-band blue-green lasers could allow direct communication between spacecrafts and submerged objects1.

Eavesdropping on the Dark Cosmos

by Simon Barke

Imagine, there is this huge data center but your user privileges allow you to access only 5% of the data. That is the exact same situation physicists face when trying to study the cosmos. 95% of our universe is made out of something that cannot be seen or touched. We generally call this unknown substance “dark matter” / “dark energy”. The recent discovery of gravitational waves gives us a handle on the dark cosmos. We can now listen to invisible events in our universe. But there may also be other methods to shed light on the dark side.

Simon Barke starts his talk by reminding us that we have yet to learn about 95% of the matter and energy that makes up our universe, aka dark energy and dark matter. These may or may not be energy or matter respectively, but from our current knowledge of physics we expect something to be there, because of:

It also reviews gravitational waves and how measuring them allows us to peak into these mysteries we have yet to solve. Some really cool waves measurements were converted to sound and makes us metaphorically listen to the warping of the space-time fabric.

The Universe is, Like, Seriously Huge

by Michael Büker

Astronomers struggle to accurately measure distances in the vastness of the known universe. Get an insight into the sophisticated techniques and dirty tricks of today’s astrophysics and cosmology. No physics background required, featuring lots of pretty space pictures.

Michael Büker makes a short review of how distances are measured in astronomy. Going from how we measure the distance between the Earth and the Moon, to the distance between clusters of galaxies. It puts things into perpective and shows how we manage to build a complex understanding of the Universe, by building layer upon layer, starting from simple geometry and observations.

Footnotes

  1. WRIGHT, L. W. E. (1983). Blue-green lasers for submarine communications. Naval Engineers Journal, 95(3), 173-177.