Sunday, December 7, 2014

Erik Wernquist's "Wanderers"

If, like me, you have a lot friends in your social networks who are into space exploration and futurism, then you might have already seen the wonderful short film by Erik Wernquist titled "Wanderers".  If not (or even if so) then you should definitely check out the video below:

Not only does the backing with words spoken by Carl Sagan provoke thoughts about what might happen next for humanity, but Wernquist's work in developing the scenes is incredible.  He took real imagery produced by spacecraft as well as scenes he developed himself and then overlaid CGI of people, spacecraft, and architecture to provide a mostly-accurate portrayal of where we might go in the not-too-distant future.  Wernquist breaks down the major scenes of the film on his website, telling the audience where the shots came from and why he was inspired to create them (as well as mentioning whether or not he was aiming for scientific accuracy or taking some artistic leeway to make the scenes better).  Below are my considerations of each of the major sections of the film.  The still images from the film come directly from Wernquist's website.  Some of his words accompanying each image are in italics (you should definitely check out the rest of what he has to say on his site).

The Open Road

"The opening shot is a montage showing a band of nomads walking westward across a valley somewhere in the north Middle East, just after sunset and around 10000 BC. In the emerging night sky, the planets are shining clearly. From the horizon in the lower right to the top left they are as follows: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn."

I've long been enamored with the motions of the stars and planets in our sky.  I can't actually recall when that love affair began, but, much as for many people, the movements of the heavens have long inspired me.  This is likely the same for many of us today as it was long ago.  Indeed, from our knowledge of mythologies and cultures of many ancient peoples, it seems like our distant predecessors developed their understandings of their place in the cosmos through their knowledge of the motions of the points of light in the sky.  It's fun to try to imagine what those early people felt and thought when they observed the skies at night.  Did they develop their mythologies, their gods and their stories, over generations of storytelling under the stars?  Did they wonder if the movements of the stars and planets were a force of power and control over the world they knew?  Did any of those early people wonder if those lights in the sky were signifiers of other worlds, where maybe other people or other beings were looking back at them and wondering the same?  Looking back to the intrigue and curiosity from which were born science and philosophy is a beautiful way to begin any consideration of where our species may be heading to next, as we continue taking baby-steps away from our little cosmic island.

Leaving Home

"Sometime in the future, a large spacecraft is taking off from Earths orbit, filled with passengers on a long journey to somewhere else in the Solar System. This may be the first large colony to permanently settle another world."

With the recent successful launch of the first Orion Spacecraft, we may feel assured that we're still on track for the earliest trips of humans to Mars and maybe even beyond within my lifetime.  I was one of those kids who was told "you could be the first person to walk on Mars", yet a couple of decades later we're still saying that to children.  I hope that one day, before long, we can tell our children "you could become one of the next people on Mars" or, even better, "you could be one of the first people to travel beyond the orbit of Mars.  Our little steps toward a space-faring future have seemed uncertain and randomly patterned, and, at times, it has seemed like every few steps forward cause us to take a couple of steps back.  Even if we're not progressing as fast as some of us would like or as well as many of us know we can, we are still progressing forward.  Maybe in my lifetime we will have gone to Mars.  Maybe in my lifetime thousands of people will have made the journey into orbit of the Earth or beyond.  And maybe in my lifetime we will have begun to colonize other worlds, planets and moons.  My longtime dreams of interstellar travel and exploration of our cosmic neighborhood may not happen while I'm still alive, but I think the next few decades will show that we're definitely on that path.

The Great Red Spot

"This is the view from a spacecraft in orbit around Jupiter, looking down at the huge anticyclonic storm known as the Great Red Spot.  This storm has been a permanent feature of Jupiter for over 300 years, when it was first discovered, and it is clearly visible through a telescope from Earth. The size of the storm as shown in this picture is large enough to swallow the Earth two times whole and then some, which gives an idea of how enormously huge Jupiter is.  The texture of the planet comes from a mosaic of photos from NASAs Voyager 1 flyby in 1979, assembled and processed by Bj√∂rn Jonsson..."

As Wernquist points out on his website, we now know that the Great Red Spot has slowly been shrinking, becoming more circular.  We don't know how long the Great Red Spot will persist, or even how long it has been a feature in the atmosphere of Jupiter, but we can say that it's at least older than about 350 years (since it was first observed in 1665 by Cassini).  It would be pretty awesome to be on a spacecraft in orbit of Jupiter (with great radiation shielding, of course!) and to have a chance to view a Jovian storm that's big enough to swallow our entire planet:

Enceladus Limb

"Shown here is a spacecraft floating through the amazing cryo geysers on the south pole of Saturn´s moon Enceladus."

The material spewing out of Enceladus' Tiger Stripes may be one of the best targets in our solar system for looking for extraterrestrial life.  That's because the water in these "geysers" may be derived from a subsurface ocean, which itself may harbor life.  The NASA Astrobiology Institute recently announced the funding of a research team led by my advisor, Alexis Templeton, here at the University of Colorado Boulder.  The work this team will be doing relates to the geochemistry of water-rock reactions and the living processes they sustain, specifically methanogenesis.  If a subsurface ocean exist on Enceladus, or on any other icy world in our solar system (like Europa!), then water-rock reactions at the interfaces of those oceans with the rocky mantles below may be the primary sources of substrates for alien biological metabolisms.  We'll likely have sent robotic orbiters and landers to worlds like Enceladus long before humans make those long voyages, but it's intriguing to think about the exploration of our solar system that those early explorers will be able to conduct.


"This shot shows a person floating just above the plane of the famous Rings of Saturn. The Rings themselves are seen here only as a mess of tumbling blocks of ice, as the camera is in the middle of them, but their full shape is hinted in the shadow they cast on the northern hemisphere of Saturn, far in the distance."

On my right arm and shoulder I have a large tribal tattoo filled with various symbols from ancient cultures as well as some symbols that I felt fit my personality.  One of these symbols is derived from a drawing made by Galileo Galilei after his first observations of Saturn in 1610:

Galileo's first views of Saturn were made with such a low-resolution telescope that he could not see the structure of the rings.  Instead, he saw an orb with what appeared to be smaller orbs attached to the sides.  Over the course of years, as he made better telescopes and spent more time observing Saturn, he eventually managed to determine that what he was seeing were the rings of Saturn.  

Mars Elevator

"This shot follows the cabin of a space elevator descending on a cable towards the northern parts of the Terra Cimmeria highlands on Mars. A large settlement, hinted as glowing lights in the dark, can be seen far below on the ground. One of Mars' two moons - Phobos - is seen above the cabin to the left of the cable in the beginning of the shot."

"A small side note: As far as I have understood it, the ideal place to attach a space elevator on Mars would not be where I have done it in this shot, but on the top of the volcano Pavonis Mons. With a peak reaching 14 kilometers above Mars's mean surface level, and location almost exactly at the equator it would be the perfect spot - as it would cut a few kilometers from the length of the cable. However, the area around that mountain did not look as neat, so for purely artistic reasons I chose the Terra Cimmeria highlands instead."

Building a space elevator on Earth will be difficult enough, let alone building one on Mars, however this is a very possible future.  Building and maintaining space elevators could give us a lot of advantage over using traditional chemical propulsion to launch our spacecraft.  Savings on fuel and cutting down on pollution would be major rewards.  Although the funding for a space elevator is currently out of the scope of where our governments choose to spend our resources, it is feasible that the first space elevators could be built in the coming century, if not the coming decades.

Cape Verde

"A group of people await the arrival of a few dirigibles at the edge of the Victoria Crater on Mars."

How cool is this?!  What an inspirational scene.  There are many of us who would love to step foot on Mars and explore the Red Planet in person, but to also have the chance to sail the skies of Mars in dirigibles would be awesome.  I've long wondered if climbing Martian volcanoes and valleys would become an adventure sport of the future, but maybe bungee jumping out of dirigibles on Mars is something we might have to look forward to as well.

Blue Sunset

"This shot shows a group of hikers on top of the eastern rim of "Gusey [sic] Crater", looking at the fantastic and truly unearthly spectacle of a sunset on Mars."

This scene, of people watching the sunset from Gusev Crater, reminds me of the twin-sunset scene from Star Wars: Episode IV.  That scene, as well as this one, are provoking since we've mostly all seen the sunset on our own planet before, so we can imagine what watching a sunset on a distant world may be like.  The differences in the atmospheres of worlds should cause different effects for the sun setting, such as what this still from Wernquist shows, yet the setting of the sun (or suns) is always something worth observing while letting our minds wander contemplatively.

Iapetus Ridge

"This scene simulates a shot taken in low orbit over Saturn's moon Iapetus, looking down at a string of domed settlements built along the mighty equatorial ridge that runs along a large part of the moon's circumference."

I imagine a settlement with such a view might be the "posh" and "pricey" homes of some future people.  Looking out of a large window and seeing Saturn set amongst a pitch back background with the speckles of stars would be pretty terrific.  I could imagine myself retiring to such a place, spending my "afternoons" listening to audiobooks while watching Saturn in all of its majesty.


"These shots show one of the many asteroids in the Main Asteroid Belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. A small fleet of spacecrafts are lined up and approaching a docking area seen as glowing lights in the "center" of the large rock. The dust surrounding the asteroid is the remains of an extensive excavation of its interior."

Science fiction authors and scientists alike have long thought of the benefits of using asteroids as structural devices for building spacecraft and settlements.  An asteroid could provide a stable structure to build on, could be mined for resources, and could provide protection from the radiation within the space environment.  


"This shot shows the inside of the asteroid from the previous scene. Just as I wrote about that scene, this is a highly speculative vision of an impressive piece of human engineering - a concept that science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson calls a "terraruim" in his novel "2312". It is also not unlike what Arthur C. Clarke described in his novel "Rendezvous with Rama"."

Admittedly, I have never read 2312 or Rendezvous with Rama, but this scene makes me want to read both.  I love the idea of building a colony within an asteroid.  If one could be built on such a scale as the one in this scene, then that colony and the asteroid that houses it could also be turned into a large spacecraft which could then travel out to the stars.  I can imagine a future where many exoduses of groups of humans within such asteroidal ships has caused our species to head out for the stars.  A large enough asteroid with the appropriate resources might sustain a large colony of people throughout thousands of generations.  Could such an asteroidal ship take humans out to planets and star systems many lightyears away?  What's interesting about such a thought is that there really could be asteroids or planets floating across interstellar space in our galaxy right now which are themselves home to some intelligent species that left their homeworld long ago, and maybe some such worlds are on paths that will bring them into our solar system's "backyard" sometime soon.  

Europa View

"This scene shows a group of people hiking across the icy plains of Jupiter's moon Europa. Jupiter itself as well as another moon - Io - is seen beyond the horizon."

I love Europa.  Not only does my research have direct relationship to the search for life on (and within) Europa, but that little icy world is so stunningly beautiful and so intriguing that I don't think we can help but want to explore it further.  I don't recall when I first saw pictures from the Voyager 2 spacecraft of the cracked icy surface Europa, but I do recall loving the use of Europa in 2010: The Year We Make Contact to develop the story (even if turning Jupiter into another star in our solar system would likely cause the destruction of our world, which I had no idea about when I was a kid):

Well, maybe the final message regarding Europa was a little sad:

I think many of completely intend to attempt some landings there!  We're even now considering the scientific objectives (and necessary instrumentation to achieve those objectives) that may be sought for from a Europa lander mission.  Though, before we send a lander, we will be doing our due diligence to everyone by sending an orbiter.  An orbiter mission that targets Europa could tell us so much more about the surface of that world (we only have about 10% high resolution coverage of Europa's surface thanks to the Galileo Spacecraft), including which locations are optimal for landing a spacecraft as well as for learning about the potential contact between Europa's subsurface ocean with the icy surface above.  Such an orbiter mission may come to us in the form of the Europa Clipper, a current spacecraft mission under development which may end up sending an orbiter to the Jovian system.  This spacecraft will be in an orbit of Jupiter that will also allow for tens of flybys of the Europa, giving us great coverage and instrumental analyses of the Europan surface (including some instruments that will allow us to probe the subsurface structure of that moon as well).  We may very soon see the Europa Clipper or a similar mission with Europa as a target on the launchpad.  A Europa lander should not be too long to follow afterward.  It may even be possible that a human mission to Europa will occur before I've grown completely grey in my beard.  The recent film Europa Report did a fantastic job of delivering a fairly realistic sci-fi horror about a human mission to Europa:

Although I really hope that the first human mission to Europa doesn't end so poorly for the people who travel there, I also would love if we discovered some large aquatic organisms living in the ice or in the ocean of Europa.  However, if live did ever originate and evolve on Europa, most of us who are considering what that life may be like and how it may thrive are pretty sure that such life would be something like the microbial life that dominates our world.  Although it is most likely that life never came to be on Europa (or anywhere else in our solar system besides Earth) and Europa may be a "dead world", it's still one of the more intriguing targets for astrobiological investigation of our solar system (ask me sometime what I think the number one target is.  Hint: it's not Europa, Mars, or Titan, in my opinion).

Ligeia Mare

"In orbit around Saturn is the giant moon Titan. It is the second largest moon in the Solar System (after Jupiter's Ganymede), even larger than the planet Mercury, and is the only known moon with a dense atmosphere."

Flapping my wings as I soar hundreds of meters above hydrocarbon lakes on a hazy world orbiting Staurn?  Sign me up right now!   A few years ago I posted about David Grinspoon's band The House Band of the Universe.  My favorite tune they play is called Titan Haze.  It's a pretty awesome jam, which they play with a planetarium show that takes the audience on a visual tour of Titan as the band leads them in an auditory tour of their own wonderment at the what lies below the thick haze of Titan's atmosphere:

Verona Rupes

"On Uranus´ small moon Miranda lies a monumental cliff wall believed to be the tallest in the Solar System. It is called Verona Rupes. Observations are limited but it is certain that the cliffs rise at least 5 kilometers above the ground below. Maybe even twice as much. This extreme height combined with Miranda´s low gravity (0,018g) would make for a spectacular base-jump. After taking the leap from the top edge you could fall for at least 12 minutes and, with the help of a small rocket to brake your fall toward the bottom, end up landing safely on your feet. Miranda´s close orbit around giant Uranus also makes a magnificent huge cyan ball in the sky."

We really need to send Flagship missions to Uranus and Neptune.  There's so much that we don't know about both planets and the many moons that orbit them.  Features like Verona Rupes on Miranda are all the more reason to send new missions to these worlds.  I've been tandem skydiving three times and will likely soon get solo certified, with the possibility of getting into base jumping somewhere along the way.  It would be pretty awesome to become one of the first base jumpers to do so on other worlds in our solar system.  I think jumping off of a cliff life Verona Rupes, where the gravity is so light that terminal velocity would be minimal and where you could get over ten minutes of free fall would be freaking awesome! 


"This is one of the most awesome views I can imagine experiencing in the Solar System; floating in a light breeze above Saturn's cloud tops at night, looking up at the glorious swaths of the Rings in the sky, and witness how they wash the cloudscape with the light they reflect from the Sun. The ringshine."

This is where Wernquist decided to end the film, with a view in our solar system that he would look forward to.  It's hopeful to imagine a day when we've developed the technology to allow ourselves to live in simple environments established around or on other worlds where all we need is a warm jacket and a face plate to keep us alive.  Better yet, there are many of us who like to envision futures where we have terraformed worlds, maybe in our solar system or elsewhere, and have made such worlds a little more livable for the fragile lifeforms we really are.  

I don't know if I can point out a singular view from somewhere in our solar system that would be my favorite or at least more yearned for, but I definitely think one view in our solar system that I would love to see with my own eyes and have a moment for contemplation would be viewing our solar system from the edge, looking back toward our star from where we could no longer see our planets, and the Sun itself would only appear as the brightest star amongst an ocean of black speckled with lights, like phosphorescent organisms flashing on the surface of wave at night.  Such a view would probably make me long to be back home on the Earth and yet would put the world that I know so well into a greater context.  Our species is a curious one.  We long for understanding of our place in the cosmos.  Yet there are members of our species who struggle just to stay alive, who can barely consider the world outside their door as their stomachs ache in the pangs of hunger or who have no access to the education to show them that their world is so much bigger than what they have been shown.  As we continue to progress forward, dipping ourselves a little further into the cosmic ocean, little bits at a time, it's a worthy and necessary exercise to seek ways to improve the lives of all of the members of our group.  As Wanderers is set to the words of Carl Sagan, I thought I'd finish this post with one of my favorite videos from internetland.  Someone took Carl Sagan's words from Pale Blue Dot and mixed them with Pink Floyd's On the Turning Away as well as with various images and video clips that fit the lyrics and the words.  Enjoy: