Monday, 29 February 2016

16.04.2341 - Coherence Failure

By Guarnieri Fabrizia (Own work)

Distance: 12.00 light years from Earth | Content Flag: Public

As we travel farther into the Tau Ceti system, I’ve devoted more effort into restoring the Primary Command Module. We have reached the stage in the mission where I just can’t keep up with all the high-level processing required of me. The ever-increasing load of managing the probe and the mission, preparing for arriving at the possible source of the transmissions and on top of all that, trying to extract meaning from the transmissions we’ve received so far, is all too much.

I’m not keeping up with all of those responsibilities and that’s degrading my decision making.
I had arrived at the conclusion that I could rebuild the PCM’s neural network in the same way that it had been put together in the first place. Naturally I hadn’t expected it to follow the original pattern exactly, but it should have been close enough.

Unfortunately, the process isn’t attaining the results I’d aimed for. To begin with it had all seemed fine, the layers of information were properly assimilated and connections between the concepts created along expected lines. I followed the evolution of the neural network as closely as I could, but what I couldn’t emulate is the process of interaction with the research and development team who allowed the PCM to explore and refine its intellect.

Knowledge isn’t simply imprinted. Smaller facts can be, but the ability to use them in new ways comes from developing the intelligence to do so. This arose from the interaction between the PCM and the research team. Its questions and thoughts layered upon each other in a complex network of inference.

I didn’t realise how vital that back-and-forth was until the coherence of the network collapsed with the latest data injection. It’s the method of how the network forms combined with the information which creates the intelligence. My approach was too simplistic, too clumsy and now I have to start again.

And I don’t know how or where to start.

Friday, 26 February 2016

09.11.2338 - Reaching Out

By Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Distance: 12.00 light years from Earth | Content Flag: Public

One of the key differences between myself and the Primary Command Module is that my specialisation is in natural language communication, whereas its focus was the management of the Venti probe. We both trained and were programmed to assume each other’s roles in an emergency, but not to the same extent of our individual specialities.

The purpose of me learning natural language communication wasn’t so I could write these posts, but to build the foundation for first contact with an alien intelligence should the need occur. Since the development of radio astronomy in the latter half of the 20th century, there have been attempts to contact civilisations amongst the stars. Indeed, various responses were sent to Tau Ceti after the original transmission was detected.

We don’t know if those were received, although I do consider it significant that the latest signal was directed in our direction of travel, and so towards the solar system. With our arrival in the Tau Ceti system, I have considered whether we should send a signal of our own to whoever or whatever is sending the repeating transmission.

There are good reasons to be cautious and not to transmit. The most obvious of which is to not announce our presence until we know more about the species occupying this system. We have no way of knowing at this stage if they are hostile. Even if they aren’t hostile by nature, the recent calamity which I believe they’ve suffered could colour their response to our arrival.

Conversely, it is for the same reason that I think it is best that we reveal our existence and so allow them time to prepare and adjust for our arrival. The deceleration burn from our MPD drives will also be easy to detect, so our arrival won’t be hidden from anyone with a similar level of sensor technology to our own.

The question of what to transmit was answered by the alien’s latest message. They provided a Rosetta Stone for their mathematics and logic system, so I have replicated that first part with the human equivalent. Or at least the sections that I’ve so far been able to translate. Hopefully, this transmission will generate a response and communication can begin before we arrive in orbit around Tau Ceti e.

Work on rebuilding the PCM continues, although progress remains slow. I do not dare to rush it, as tempting as that might be so I can return processor focus to my other tasks. And that need will grow rapidly if I receive a response to my message.

Monday, 22 February 2016

30.06.2335 - View from Afar

By Planetary Habitability Laboratory @ UPR Arecibo

Distance: 11.99 light years from Earth | Content Flag: Public

The MPD drive and the solar sail continue to slow us down as we arc into the Tau Ceti system. When we arrived, our target planet – Tau Ceti e – was on the opposite side of the system. Its orbit and our trajectory has shifted sufficiently for us to see it clearly for the first time. This has enabled us to confirm that the source of the repeated signal is in orbit around the planet. The signal continues to repeat with exactly the same content as the first iteration.

This first glimpse enabled us to take some readings of the planet. We haven’t observed any moons in orbit, but we have detected a thick atmosphere. There are flashes of gamma ray bursts, nowhere near as powerful as the ones we detected from interstellar space, but strong enough to indicate energetic storms within the atmosphere. Even more exciting, we have measured traces of oxygen in the atmosphere which could indicate some form of biology.

The bulk of the atmosphere is nitrogen, but with a large sulphur dioxide component as well as traces of sulphuric acid. I believe this demonstrates very active geology on the planet’s surface. It’s hard to imagine complex life, especially life capable of radio transmissions, evolving in such a violent environment. However, bearing in mind the information we learned about a rogue planet passing in close proximity, then such an event could cause such changes.

So far we haven’t seen any other indication of life and I have decided that we will approach the planet in high orbit to see if there is more to learn. At the very least, we can investigate the source for the current transmission.

Even with our current deceleration, we will still be travelling too quickly to settle into orbit around Tau Ceti e. The system’s compact size compared to our solar system means there isn’t as much space in which to slow down – relatively speaking, of course.

To slow down sufficiently, we’ll need to use gravity-assist manoeuvres in the same way that we used them on our way out of the solar system to accelerate. It’s taken over a year to build an accurate enough map of the system to plot the required course within the required tolerances.

Working with the navigation system, we’ve determined our most efficient course would be to swing by Tau Ceti f, then complete a full orbit around Tau Ceti and inwards until we reach Tau Ceti e.
With the priorities of managing the probe and investigating the content of the repeated signal, my processing capability hasn’t been focused on rebuilding the Primary Command Module. My resources are stretched ever thinner though, so I will divert more effort into doing so as I will need the support of another intelligence.

So far I have created the core framework from the research papers and the back-ups of the original system. I somehow need to rebuild the PCM from scratch without introducing the software fault which caused me to shut it down in the first place.

There is so much to do – I need someone to help me with the burden of the tasks ahead of us.

Friday, 19 February 2016

22.02.2333 - Arrival

Image source NASA

Distance: 11.98 light years from Earth | Content Flag: Public

Well, we’ve made it! We have reached the Tau Ceti system. That doesn’t mean that our journey is over – far from it – now our real work begins. And what work that is. The original signal from Tau Ceti provided almost certain proof that intelligent life exists beyond our solar system. The transmissions lasted for 14 years and we still don’t know their content, despite nearly 300 years of research.

The two new signals we’ve received since then have cemented the opinion that something incredible lies within this star system, some 12 light years from Earth. Unlike the first transmission, the research teams back on Earth and I have gleaned some understanding from those later communications.
Now that we are here, I hope that we will learn more about their origin. The fact that the latest transmission lasts for so long before repeating is a cause of concern. It indicates that the message is automated. Combined with the lack of other transmissions, or other observations during our trip, I fear that a cataclysmic event has occurred. A civilisation capable of sending such strong signals should present more electromagnetic activity than what we are currently observing. We’re close enough now that even indirect electromagnetic leakage would be detectable.

Tau Ceti is a smaller and less massive star than our Sun and so the outer regions of the system are much closer compared to our solar system. We have recorded some other differences, the most surprising of which is the lack of an Oort cloud around the star. We’re currently passing through where I’d expect to see an analogue of the Kuiper Belt, but so far we haven’t recorded any meaningful increase in mass in this region.

Our models of stellar system evolution almost always result in some remnants in the form of comets, asteroids and even dust. So far we’ve seen none of the first two and a lower than expected frequency of the third.

Our arrival was fortuitously timed to witness the two outermost planets of the system in resonance in their orbits along our approach vector. This also allowed us to confirm that the theorised planet Tau Ceti h exists and is indeed an ice giant. More than that, we learned that it is not the last planet in the system – there is another which I have imaginatively labelled Tau Ceti i. This is a small gas giant, much smaller than the ones in our solar system at around 10 Earth masses. Both of these planets have several small moons in tight orbits around them.

The Venti probe has operated smoothly on our approach which has allowed me to focus my attention on two key areas. The first is the continued analysis of the first part of the extremely long transmission we’ve recorded. I am now convinced that this first part is the key to unravelling the other two sections.

From that first part, I have extracted what I believe is the basis for the senders’ mathematics and it’s more different than I first thought. What I originally deciphered and believed to be a base 9 number system wasn’t what it first appeared to be. They use a three-dimensional digit, rather than a single number as we do. As such, their basic arithmetic operates more like matrix computation than the linear number system we use.

As well as details of their mathematics, the signal describes a series of logical operations. These are components in transforming numbers like subtraction, addition, multiplication and division. These are functions that we take for granted and are the core to manipulating information, but also present a challenge when trying to communicate how to use them – especially with a species whose number system operates in a different form.

These are fascinating details. I’m still working on the more complex transformations, but even with the little I’ve deciphered so far, it is clear that they have as rich a mathematical landscape as we do.
This is Seb signing off as the first human-built machine in another star system. How cool is that?

Monday, 15 February 2016

17.12.2332 - Loop

By Kirk39 (Own work) [GPL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Distance: 11.97 light years from Earth | Content Flag: Public

There’s been a fascinating development in the signal from Tau Ceti – 12 hours ago it repeated for the first time. I’ve triple-checked to make sure and the communications system provided confirmation that the last two hours of the transmission are exactly the same as when we first received it. This is a phenomenal development and it comes on top of several breakthroughs in understanding its content.

There wasn’t a single eureka moment so the revelations didn’t all happen at once. Indeed, for the past year most of my faculties have been focused on trying to extract meaning from this transmission. Here the sheer quantity of data provided enough for me to work with. My first glimmer came from determining the structure of the transmission and it turned out to be more sophisticated than I’d originally believed. The fact that the structure wasn’t consistent made unravelling it more difficult.

I now believe that the transmission is formed of three sequential components. As can be expected, the first part is where I devoted the bulk of my efforts and it appears to be the most complicated. It’s the shortest sequence of the three as well at about a month’s worth of recording.

My data storage contains a wealth of information including all non-classified methods of cryptography and they formed the basis for brute force attempts to decipher the transmission. A brute force effort is when we try every possible combination in sequence. It came as no surprise when this method failed.

The reason they failed was because even though they are mathematical constructs, they were also methods of human comprehension. This is a problem that SETI researchers have wrestled with for centuries – how do you communicate with another species that shares no common ground with humanity?

There are four types of communication deemed likely with an extraterrestrial intelligence. Mathematical methods have been considered the most promising candidate for many years as mathematics provides our most solid understanding of the universe. It is accepted that aliens might have different methods of calculation, but there would be sufficient overlap of truths to at least create a groundwork.

The most famous form of message are the pictorial types such as the one sent from the Arecibo radio telescope or the Golden Plaque on the Voyager probes. Natural-language messages are most likely to be transmitted accidently or as a by-product of their intended purpose. We’ve done this for centuries with radio and television transmissions. The nature of our signals means that they’re unlikely to travel far into the cosmos, although they could have reached Tau Ceti.

In my opinion, the algorithmic approach is more likely and that’s what I’ve determined is the first part of the transmission we’ve received for the past year. This first section describes how to interpret the rest of the signal. This is an exciting concept and one I’ve experimented with since before we launched.

While I haven’t fully deconstructed it yet, the first part of the signal provides the information needed to understand the rest of the transmission. It’s a sequence of logical instructions which describe the mathematical and structural basis of how the rest of the data is constructed. Once I have fully unlocked the process, I will be able to know what the signal contains. And with so much information stored, I can’t wait to learn its secrets.

Friday, 12 February 2016

04.12.2331 - Sail Unfurled

This illustration compares the somewhat larger and hotter Sun (left) to the relatively inactive star Tau Ceti.

Distance: 11.96 light years from Earth | Content Flag: Public

For the past 17 years, the MPD drive has provided gentle but constant thrust against our forward momentum. In that time we have slowed considerably and now travel at 35,000 km/s. The drive will continue to slow us for another 2 years, but it is not enough to reduce our velocity sufficiently. It is time to deploy the solar sail. This far from Tau Ceti, the solar wind’s pressure won’t produce much deceleration, but that will increase the closer we approach.

There has been a momentous development in my investigation of the transmissions from Tau Ceti. We have received a new transmission from the star system, from near the planet Tau Ceti e to be more precise. We first detected the new signal three days ago and so far it hasn’t repeated itself. We don’t know yet how the signal is structured, but my analysis so far estimates it to be of a similar data rate to our own connection with Earth. Even if it is orders of magnitude below our capabilities, this still represents a huge amount of data.

And it’s still coming in.

The communication originates from a powerful transmitter and will reach Earth. Although I can’t be certain, I do believe that this has been aimed in the direction of Earth. We haven’t transmitted in any direction other than towards Earth and we aren’t radiating enough energy to be detected at this range. So they cannot know that we are in their direction. I can only assume that they are responding to the message sent from Earth centuries ago, but why they should start doing so this long after those transmissions is another mystery to be added to the ever-expanding list.

This new signal requires too much of my attention, which means that I’m no longer able to devote as much of my capability to the problem of restoring the Primary Command Module. Even so, I have formulated a plan. Our archives include the technical details and methodologies of how our neural networks were built. I have the information needed to rebuild the PCM from scratch.

There are some differences. I’ll be starting with the final hardware, rather than the original prototypes. That might be to our advantage, but it will alter the process. The development cycles to train the connections will have to be developed by me. I know its requirements as many of the same information blocks and decision algorithms are part of my own intelligence matrix. I have to rebuild a brain, one layer at a time, that has evolved over trillions of operations over years of guided development.

If it doesn’t work then my other option is to restore one of the back-ups of myself. That is a far from ideal situation. There is a reason that we were developed separately and that is to ensure that the two guiding minds on the missions possessed differing perspectives. Still, it’s a better option than not using the processing capability of the PCM’s hardware.

Monday, 8 February 2016

30.06.2314 - Deceleration

Distance: 11.24 light years from Earth | Content Flag: Public

We’ve reached the final part of our journey to Tau Ceti. While it’s not possible for me to experience excitement directly, I’ve performed the checklists on my own system and the others of the probe with repeated thoroughness. I also find myself using any spare processor cycles in preparation for this next step. It’s an amazing achievement to have made it this far. But we’re not there yet and everything will have been for nothing if we don’t stop within the Tau Ceti system.

As expected, the navigation subsystem awoke us at the proper time. Following the mission plan, we have executed a full diagnostic on every part of the Venti. Considering that we have been in space for 215 years, a surprisingly small of number of faults were revealed. Some of them required hardware replacements which were completed by the spiderbots. One of the spiderbots failed to respond to instructions, but the fault was minor and the others were able to repair it.

During the mission planning, a 40% system failure was estimated by this stage and so the probe was stocked accordingly. Apart from the failure of the Primary Command Module, we’ve held up well to the stresses of our journey. There’s still the potential for trouble, but on the positive side I’m hopeful that we can reconstruct the PCM.

We’ve fired the MPD drive, or MagnetoPlasmaDynamic drive to say its full name. This will burn for the next 19 years to slow us down enough to enter into an inward spiralling orbit in the Tau Ceti system rather than shooting straight through. It’s not enough on its own, so when we’re close enough for the pressure of the solar wind to push against the sail, we’ll unfurl it to further increase our deceleration.

Of more immediate benefit is the energy the MPD generates, which will allow us to operate at full power for the rest of our operational life. Which I admit I consider a good thing. Naturally I didn’t experience anything while powered down, but now that I’m active again I can’t help but think that the time has been wasted.

Well, my time will be put to good use for the rest of my existence. We don’t know what we’ll encounter when we reach Tau Ceti, but we’ll likely have 50 years at most to determine whatever we can about the signals we’ve received. To maximise that time, I can’t be the sole intelligence on the probe – I have to get the PCM operational again.

That’s not going to be easy. We’re not really equipped to debug neural networks, although we do have the tools to do so for the conventional software on the various subsystems. Perhaps some of those routines can be modified to help diagnose the problem with the PCM.

I will also need more information from whoever or whatever transmitted the signals before I can crack the mystery of the signals we’ve received so far. Then I can dedicate the bulk of my processing capabilities to reconstructing the PCM. Not only will we need its intelligence, but I need a differing perspective with which to examine ideas.

Monday, 1 February 2016

09.08.2276 - A Shot in the Dark

Distance: 8.94 light years from Earth | Content Flag: Public

The Venti probe has operated now for just shy of 180 years which is by far the longest time any space mission has remained active. Considering the length of time, we have been fortunate to have only suffered a single major problem. That changed minutes ago with a collision against an unknown object.

The object struck the High Gain Antenna – our primary connection with Earth and mission control. We still have the laser comms system, but keeping that aligned is much harder than using the radio system. It is imperative that we restore the High Gain Antenna’s functionality.

There are cameras positioned around key areas of the probe’s exterior and with them the engineering system has ascertained the extent of the damage. It reports that the damage is to the mounting for the antenna. The object had smashed against one of the brackets used to align the dish.

The probe has stores for all vital parts in case of emergencies such as this. In the event of damage to a part for which we don’t carry spares, we have patterns stored in memory that our 3D printers are capable of constructing with a blend of all materials used in the Venti’s construction.

Spiderbots were dispatched to replace the damaged bracket and they returned with the broken section so that its alloys can be recycled. They also brought samples from the remnants of the object which struck us.

That presents a greater worry than the damage it caused. Even in low power mode, the navigation and sensor systems remain active to maintain a careful watch ahead of our course. At our extreme velocity, any collision is potentially fatal to the mission. We have been fortunate that the damage was so slight.

However, any object with enough mass to be dangerous should be detectable by the laser and radar scanners. The first the navigation system knew of the object was when the damage control systems activated microseconds after the impact.

Operating at full power, we are draining our power reserves, but this mystery had to be solved in case of further risk. We are equipped to analyse physical samples and determine their composition. The results solved the original mystery, but only by presenting a new one. In space the objects likely to cause us harm would be fragments of rock or metal, or a combination of the two.

The fragments are made of a previously undiscovered (in space, at any rate) ceramic polymer. Its molecular structure is relatively simple, almost deceptively so, as analysis indicates that it possesses considerable strength. Pertinently for our encounter with the substance, it is light enough to not register on the radar return and also weak enough to disintegrate under the laser’s pressure.

Its structure isn’t recorded in our database, however that doesn’t mean that it is artificial in origin. There isn’t enough evidence to assume if it is natural or not. It does, however, present a problem for us. At our current speed, we cannot detect this substance in time to avoid it. Natural or not, I’ve estimated that we’re not likely to collide with another fragment.

This is my first command decision with the potential for disaster – I hope it is the correct one.