Pioneer cover

From the press release: From the moment he is handed a possibility of making the first alien contact, Saunders Maxwell decides he will do it, even if doing so takes him through hell and back.

Unfortunately, that is exactly where that journey takes him.

The vision that Zimmerman paints of vibrant human colonies on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and beyond, indomitably fighting the harsh lifeless environment of space to build new societies, captures perfectly the emerging space race we see today.

He also captures in Pioneer the heart of the human spirit, willing to push forward no matter the odds, no matter the cost. It is that spirit that will make the exploration of the heavens possible, forever, into the never-ending future.

Available everywhere for $3.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from the ebook publisher, ebookit.

Update of Kepler exoplanet catalog

Worlds without end: The Kepler science team has released an update of the space telescope’s exoplanet candidate list, adding 219 new exoplanet candidates.

NASA’s Kepler space telescope team has released a mission catalog of planet candidates that introduces 219 new planet candidates, 10 of which are near-Earth size and orbiting in their star’s habitable zone, which is the range of distance from a star where liquid water could pool on the surface of a rocky planet. This is the most comprehensive and detailed catalog release of candidate exoplanets, which are planets outside our solar system, from Kepler’s first four years of data. It’s also the final catalog from the spacecraft’s view of the patch of sky in the Cygnus constellation.

With the release of this catalog, derived from data publicly available on the NASA Exoplanet Archive, there are now 4,034 planet candidates identified by Kepler. Of which, 2,335 have been verified as exoplanets. Of roughly 50 near-Earth size habitable zone candidates detected by Kepler, more than 30 have been verified.

Additionally, results using Kepler data suggest two distinct size groupings of small planets. Both results have significant implications for the search for life. The final Kepler catalog will serve as the foundation for more study to determine the prevalence and demographics of planets in the galaxy, while the discovery of the two distinct planetary populations shows that about half the planets we know of in the galaxy either have no surface, or lie beneath a deep, crushing atmosphere – an environment unlikely to host life.

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I cannot thank the numerous people who so generously donated or subscribed to Behind the Black during this fund drive. The response was remarkable, and reflected the steady growth and popularity of the work I have been doing here for the past ten-plus years.

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  • Cotour

    Unrelated, but related:

    We are able to detect earth like planets billions of light years away, can someone explain to me how a billion dollar destroyer with the highest level of detection technology on it runs into a cargo ship?–abc-news-topstories.html

    I do not understand this at all.

  • Cotour: It appears from all evidence I have seen, that the U.S. Navy destroyer did not run into the cargo ship. The cargo ship rammed the destroyer, hitting the center of the destroyer’s side head-on with its bow. See the images here.

    The press here has been reporting this story very badly, hiding this basic fact.

  • Cotour: More information here. The evidence right now suggests that the cargo ship was on autopilot, with no one on its bridge, when the collision happened.

  • diane wilson

    The cargo ship also had its running lights and transponder turned off. The crew can’t explain why. The probability that this is an accident is (not approximately) zero.

    The only questionable aspect from the Navy side is why the destroyer didn’t take evasive action or, if there was not enough time for that, then shoot-to-kill. Possibly the rules of engagement were still overly “diplomatic.” That is something that can be fixed.

  • Cotour

    If the destroyer is unable to detect a multi thousand ton cargo ship chugging along on auto pilot then how would it be expected to detect an enemy with worse intent? This does not add up to me. There is much more to this story, and if there is not much more, then we are truly in deep biological waste.

    In my estimation any war ship should be constantly aware of who and what surrounds it at all times.

    Thanks to the Zman, I will review the pics.

  • Cotour

    They say that the ship is a Philippine flagged ship. If it were a Chinese flagged ship I might be thinking that it was hit with strategic South China Sea type Chinese thinking applied.

    Is Philippine flagged a synonym for Chinese flagged? But still, the destroyer should have had real time situational awareness 24/7, every day of the week.

    Accidents happen, but here? Does not add up for me.

  • Cotour

    Reminds me of this:

    A buddy of mine was on the Iowa when it blew up, he was suppose to be in the turret but was called to do another job somewhere else on the ship. I tell him that he is the luckiest man that I know (timing really is everything in life). Before the Navy was willing to admit that it was just an accident (they were screwing around “experimenting” with the number of bags in the breach) they were twisting and turning to assign blame everywhere else but with the leadership. No Captain wants to be hung with the responsibility for breaking the Navy’s ship and certainly no one wants the responsibility for the loss of 47 good men.

    This sounds similar to me.

  • Garry

    Long ago I was educated on shipboard operations, including a lot of time spent on bridges of Navy ships underway. I know that the equipment is much better than it was 30 years ago, but I’m sure that the basic systems are similar.

    I’m very curious about this accident; it seems very improbable. If I remember the International Rules of the Road correctly, since the cargo ship was overtaking the Navy ship, the Navy ship had the duty to continue on its present course and speed, and the cargo ship had the duty to avoid the Navy ship.

    Even if that’s accurate, I can’t fathom that the Navy ship wasn’t aware of the presence of the cargo ship. Of course, things get more complicated when there are a lot of ships in the area, all on different courses. The transponder shouldn’t have been much of a factor; the Navy ship’s radar would have picked up and tracked a contact that large. Lack of running lights would make it harder for the lookouts to see, but assuming the weather was clear, they might have seen the ship block out the stars / any other lights in the area, giving them at least an idea of the direction to the cargo ship. Assuming no course or speed changes by either ship, a collision is always preceded by “Constant Bearing, Decreasing Range” (CBDR); the ship would have been in the same direction as it approached. When ships are particularly large,
    CBDR applies to some part of the ship, not necessarily when the lookouts are.

    These factors all speak to why collisions are so rare for Navy ships. along with well-trained professionals.

    Of course, there is always the possibility of having less than well-trained professionals on duty, or extremely odd conditions on the bridge that distracted the Officer of the Deck and his assistant, the Conning Officer.

    My best guess is that at least one of the ships made a last-minute course change, and that, as is almost always the case with catastrophic accidents, there was a cascade of errors that led to the collision; there’s a lot of redundancy in systems for avoiding collisions (including multiple people keeping track, multiple pieces of equipment, multiple methods of tracking ships, etc.)

    I imagine it will be some time before any information is released to the public.

  • Ted

    Self driving cars and now some company wants self piloting ships – yeah buddy. Something about this whole story stinks like bad fish in an unwashed galley. Where in blazes were of officers of the deck, the watch commander, the radar operators and the computers that are supposed to keep track of all of this?

    If a massive container ship can ‘sneak up’ on a destroyer I’d bet the Chinese Navy is taking notes right now. I love the Navy – my brother in law was on subs, my dad in the Coast Guard during WWII but something isn’t right here.

  • wayne

    A ships nation of registry or flag, really doesn’t indicate a whole lot, just on it’s face.

    The only factoid I can add:
    Wall Street Journal reports today (behind their paywall, so I won’t link to it) that we do have a specific bi-lateral agreement with Japan, regarding the operation of our Navy ships and any “thing” that might occur with them, or any actions by our sailors, “in the course of their official duties,” within Japanese waters.
    US Navy has jurisdiction over any investigation, although they have indicated they will “work closely with our Japanese partner’s.”

    Referencing Kepler–
    Have they scanned all the nearest stars, to us?

  • Wayne asked, “Have they scanned all the nearest stars, to us?”

    Thank you for bringing the discussion back to the post. What Kepler has to do with ship collisions at sea I do not know.

    Anyway, Kepler was never capable or intended to scan the entire sky looking at nearby stars. It was aimed at a very particular area in the sky, continually looking for transits of exoplanets across the faces of the stars in that field of view.

  • wayne

    Mr. Z.,
    Thank you.

    I’m going to have to review some video on the Kepler mission.

    I’m seeing there are some 53 stars within 17 light-years of us. (and a surprising (to me) number of systems with 2 & 3 stars)

    Here we go…
    “Kepler, a Planet Hunting Mission”
    von Kármán lecture 2009

  • wayne

    (Garry– great Naval factoids, btw.)

    Excuse my ignorance referencing Kepler (memory cells are all original-equipment)–I’m completely co-mingling 3 different space telescopes (and probably a 4th.)
    I could ask a bunch of dumb questions, but I’ll sort them out, and spare everyone.

    I am sorta wondering– what is the maximum distance out, Kepler is capable of scanning for exoplanets?

    Pivoting less tangentially than Ships, recommend this video:

    “The Hubble Space Telescope and the Visionaries Who Built It”
    Robert Zimmerman
    WGBH Forum TV

  • Wayne: The book was better. :)

  • Cotour

    “What Kepler has to do with ship collisions at sea I do not know.”


    We can detect in some detail an earth like planet billions of miles even light years away, and a destroyer that is specifically designed and built to detect other ships and other things flying at high speed on the same ocean, and a cargo ship mows it down and 7 lives are lost.

  • Cotour

    And here we go, It a “mystery” :

    Just like the Iowa the fingers of blame will be pointing, evidence will disappear, probably just a stupid accident. Maybe an inexperienced sailor at the con, maybe the officer that was supposed to be in charge was asleep? It happens, but high level peoples careers are on the line, people have died and a valuable asset is now out of commission. That is not popular in the pentagon.

    I wonder if the earth like planet can see all of this going on here on earth?

  • wayne

    don’t waste your valuable time, on the New York Times. They will say or do anything, to advance their twisted narrative.

    JBS segment from last night

  • Cotour

    This story is much less politically charged,, neither political party has much of a strategic interest here, other than it just plain looks bad and incompetent, so I will assume the NYT’s is reporting what they know. And what they know about this story is that “it is a mystery” now.

    I pay much more attention to the NYT’s when they are talking about politics, to just ignore them is to disregard a source of information that feeds the biased anti Republican / anti Trump minds of the public. Its not a waste of time, Democrats hold high what they write, they shape opinion in America, its best to know what they are up to.

  • Diane Wilson


    The answer you may not expect is that Kepler does not detect exoplanets. It tracks light from stars in one area of the sky, and reports light received. That’s it, basically. Back on the ground, computers look for variations in light level, per star, that might indicate a planet passing in front of the star. Three or more such events on an absolutely regular time interval indicate a “candidate” exoplanet. Verifying a candidate exoplanet requires a second source using other detection methods.

    I do wonder what another observer might see, a hundred light years away, looking back at us, using our current technology. Would they detect Earth? Has that answer changed yet from “no way” to “maybe”?

  • Cotour

    What is the likelihood that another civilization 100 light years away in the span of 14 billion years would be either at our technology level or ahead of us in technology within the same 100 year span?

    I would think that the answer would be, Zero.

  • Diane Wilson

    Cotour, it’s more a question of how good are our detection methods. Could we spot another Earth under those constraints? I’m inclined to think “no” but I could be wrong.

    What is clear is that our limited ability to detect exoplanets is definitely a constraint on our understanding of how solar systems form. For a long time, we could only detect gas giant planets orbiting very close to their parent star, with an orbital period of a few days. Once we got over the surprise of finding such planets (hey, we don’t have one of those!), and we found a lot of those giants in close orbit, some people thought that perhaps that was more typical of solar systems, and that our solar system was the anomaly. Our detection methods have improved, but I think there’s probably still an inherent bias in what we are able to detect.

    So what is the state of the art these days? Could we actually see an “Earth 2” if it’s out there?

  • Cotour

    My thinking on this subject goes to pure numbers first. The technology to detect another earth like body over the vastness of space I am certain (like all other technology) will be developed in time to where it was much more precise.

    I took your question as : What is the likelihood that two civilizations at the same level of technology, existing at the same relative time would be able to reliably detect each other, at the same time? Looking at the question from that perspective I would again have to say zero. (If that indeed is how you intended that question?)

    I don’t even know if that makes sense figuring in distance X’s the speed of light.

  • Edward

    A couple of years before the first exoplanets were discovered, I attended a colloquium and listened to a speaker talk of the different methods of detecting planet around other stars.

    Direct observation of a planet would be somewhat difficult and would be limited in distance. The more resolution you wanted of the planet, the larger the telescope would have to be. To see continents on a second Earth, for instance, would require two telescopes, whose signals were connected, separated by a distance of Earth’s orbit (or farther, if the planet were farther away). To get better resolution, you do not need more light, but a larger baseline for the interferometry.

    Another method, which is how they found the first batch of planets, is to record the Doppler changes in the light from a star. Red shifting suggests a planet travelling toward us, blue shifting suggests the planet travelling away. The problem with this method is that the determining the mass of the planet is dependent upon the angle of the plane of the orbit, relative to the direction from us to the star, but we cannot be sure of this angle. An advantage is that we can detect planets whose planes are pretty far from parallel with our direction of view. As long as we can measure an individual star’s Doppler shift, we can find planets pretty far away.

    Kepler’s method is to watch for planets that transit their stars. The disadvantage is that this only finds planets in which the Earth is within their orbital planes. As long as we can see enough photons from an individual star, we can find planets pretty far away, but the farther the star, the less likely a planet transits between its star and us.

    It seems to me that the talk mentioned a couple of other methods for finding exoplanets, but I can’t remember what they were.

  • LocalFluff

    Microlensing, the bending of spacetime by a star transiting the star that has an exoplanet, gives stupendously huge magnification. Just during the minutes or hours of transit and not to give any resolution, but a clear signal that there’s a star having a planet.

    An idea has been proposed to build a dedicated exoplanet imaging ground telescope. Huge optical ground telescopes coming up next, like E-ELT and TMT, use hexagonal image segments. This is a problem for direct exoplanet imaging because of the diffraction of light that all these edges cause. For this purpose they’d like to build a ring of a dozen or so round 8 meter mirrors. This gives maximum diameter with minimum diffraction.

    NASA’s grat telescopes series during the last decades have each been general purpose within different wavelengths. Now we see purpose built telescopes, like Kepler and Gaia, made to answer one single question more or less. Not all-in-one like Hubble.

    To resolve a distant exoplanet, one could use the Sun as a gravitational lens. It would be like using a mirror as large as the Sun. You could see city lights on an Earth pretty much anywhere in our quarter of the galaxy. It requires that the telescope is at least 550 AU away from the Sun (20 times the distance to Pluto), and radio frequences would be the most amplified. It must precisely line up with the Sun and the object observed and it cannot observe any other target. Transmitting big data across such distance is also a problem. As is the Sun’s corona, the disturbances of which though might be adapted for by using Solar probes. It would be a big long project, but a great step into interstellar space, making use of if already far far hither the stars.

    Observatories are advancing beyond mirrors and antennas. Gravity, gravity waves and neutrinos are beginning to open up almost parallel universes that reach even beyond the microwave background.

  • wayne

    thank you

    good stuff.
    This guy, has short video on 5 methods to detect/confirm exoplanets;

    “Radial velocity, transit, direct imaging, gravitational micro-lensing, and astrometry.”

    Cotour– we have been radiating electromagnetic signals, at fairly high power, since before WW-2. (Radio, TV, radar, UHF/VHF, etc.)
    Contrary to popular belief, alien worlds cannot watch the content of “I Love Lucy” transmissions, but they might be able to detect the carry waves.
    There are 50+ stars, within 17 light-years.

    U2 Chase into Russia — “Dark Skies” (NBC)

  • wayne

    (that should have been “carrier-waves.”)

    –Good stuff.

  • LocalFluff

    Wikipedia lists 14 methods to detect exoplanets, plus 4 yet speculative ones. This has been a favorite subject for many recent astronomers. “Transit timing” is interesting because it can detect planets that are too small or far out to pull their star significantly, but their pull on other planets that can detected, reveals them from transit to transit. Even if they are not in the same plane as the otherwise detected exoplanets. That’s one way to find the first exomoon. A moon like Io would be relatively easy to detect because its volcanism has a light signature. If not detected in a few years, one can start to conclude that large moons and volcanically active moons are rare. Exorings have been found and there are good models for how moons form out of rings, so there should be lots of exomoons out there. Something like double Jupiters seem to be rare, as expected.

  • Cotour

    17 light years’ divided by, lets say 12 billion years (we give 2 billion years for intelligent life to develop from the beginning of the universe), then divided by lets say 400 billion stars in an average galaxy (to say nothing of the 2 trillion galaxy’s that appear to exist at the present moment), divided the potential earth like planets, then divided by lets say 1 thousand years of civilization with high enough technology to transmit and / or detect another technology (and or destroy itself).

    If the question is. Can two different civilizations in the same galaxy (forget about another galaxy) detect each other? I would say that it would be very difficult. No? The probability must be infinitesimal.

    Those old I Love Lucy carrier waves pass another civilization in a relative second, and its more likely that if there is life of some sort it does not have any kind of technology to detect it. It would seem to me that the more likely scenario would be that the waves would pass by very base life forms that could care less.

  • Cotour

    Destroyer collision follow up:

    The freighter was on auto pilot, but what about the destroyer? As I understand it the destroyer is an Aegis class destroyer, it can “see” basically into space and half way around the globe and control weapons systems, and it was unaware that a 30K ton freighter was about to ram it and subsequently kill 7 men.

    I continue to scratcheth my head.

  • LocalFluff

    Once a civilization gets into space flight it will exist forever. No known natural phenomena can kill a multi star civilization. Forever and everywhere in the galaxy. Someone will sometime like colonization, and one once is enough. Once they start colonization they will become independent civilizations with different technology levels and cultures, because of the time lag in interstellar communication. Messages will be handled to archaeologists, just like we don’t heed the Pharaoh’s commands to us painted on his tomb walls.

    So I think that one thing we can know about other space travelers out there (if there are any at all) is that they will have great variation but likely all the same origin. The first to go will have since billions of years physically independent successors everywhere. Since stars mix in the galaxy two nearby stars might have been colonized a billion years apart and have very little in common in spite of common origin long ago. Some of them will be very dangerous to us, others we could learn from. All extremes should be expected out there since galactic coordination seems impossible.

    I suspect there are completely unknown categories of phenomena out there too. As mysterious as our subjective consciousness, for example. And intelligence is not the only magic that biology can engineer. The idea to communicate with “them” is ridiculous, but still, it would be stupid to not listen, who knows.

  • Cotour


    Interesting thoughts on the subject. Personally I believe that there are other life forms in the universe and so therefore there must be civilizations from the lowest to the unimaginably highest. But like you point out, we will read about them on some wall somewhere we are not likely to communicate with them.

  • Cotour

    I heard a retired admiral in an interview this morning and he was asked about the collision between the destroyer and the cargo ship. He sounded confident that both ships were at fault. The cargo ship seems to have just been on auto pilot in a crowded high traffic area and the destroyer apparently had no one awake at the wheel.

    He said that he expects the executive officer and his subordinates will be fired.

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